Live Worlds

Dustin came around when Len threw a fist-sized chunk of wreckage at this chest. The escape pod was in rough shape. Some of the coolant tanks had ruptured and caught fire. Dustin unstrapped himself from his crash couch and activated the Halon system. There were gaping holes in the hull; given the fire he’d just put out, that told him there was oxygen in the atmosphere, wherever this was. In the meantime, Len was getting louder.

A crumpled hull piece had come down on his legs and pinned him in place. He was spitting obscenities at Dustin through gritted teeth. After a couple of failed attempts, Dustin was able to heave the panel away, revealing two crushed legs that looked more like logs gone to rot from moisture and termites. Len turned as white as his thick Santa Claus beard and passed out. Probably for the better. Dustin sprayed some basic antiseptic over the wounds and patched the suit to maintain a separate atmosphere. There was oxygen here, but that didn’t mean the air was breathable.

Now to find the damn beacon.

Dustin climbed up out of the wreckage and surveyed the area. In his experience, there were two types of worlds: live ones and dead ones. Microbes didn’t count; microbial worlds were dead, you could tell by looking. But once a world was post-microbial, the megafauna took over in a hurry. This was definitely a live world.

The pod had apparently broken up over a vast yellow forest that stretched from one horizon to the other like a fitted sheet. Small fires formed a dotted line across the landscape for miles. The beacon could be damn near anywhere.

Dustin set out in the direction of the fires, hoping against hope to find the beacon. He moved quickly through the tall grasses that huddled together in tight clumps stretching 30 feet into the air. He was as quiet as he could be, not wanting to catch the attention of some curious carnivore. He walked for hours and the sun never seemed to move. Tidally locked, perhaps.

He came across bits of wreckage at intervals—thrusters, an airlock that had held its seal, something smoldering that might have been a fuel pump. His heart soared with anticipation when he came across a cluster of antennas, but the beacon was nowhere to be found. Eventually he turned around, figuring Len would need to further attention. He double checked each bit of wreckage on the return trip; still no luck.

“Hey, Len,” he called out when he was within short-range. No response. Must still be passed out. Dustin approached the bulk of the escape pod. Was it sitting at a different angle than it had been earlier? It must be; the ground was all trampled down around the pod now. He walked around to the backside. A trail of blood led from the pod into the dense foliage. A tattered boot sat in the open.

Dustin had gotten a good look at Len’s legs; he hadn’t walked off on his own. Something dragged him away.

The tall grass behind him began to sway, though there wasn’t a trace of wind.

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