… continued from Fire in the Dark
They found the shuttle in bad shape. They had seen from across the lagoon that it was no longer sitting level in the shallow water, and now they could see the reason why. One of the landing struts canted at an angle implying significant damage to the undercarriage, and another had snapped off completely. The hull appeared battered where tree limbs had struck it during the storm, and a spiderweb of cracks glazed the cockpit window. The airlock door hung open, the interior dark beyond.
Anna’s heart sank when she saw the extent of the damage. She had entertained hopes of repairing the shuttle enough to fly it closer to the space elevator, if not actually back into orbit, but at first glance this now appeared beyond her available resources. Without a proper shipyard, or at least Aniara’s maintenance facilities, the shuttle would likely never fly again. She itched to get inside and see in what state the interior remained.
That would have to wait, however. A hundred-fifty meters away lay the beach, and just up from the tideline the remains of their camp. From here Anna could see downed trees and scattered foliage strewn across the sand, though most of the trees on the atoll remained standing. She and Laxmi dipped their makeshift oars back into the water and paddled.
The nose of the raft crunched into the sand, and quickly they jumped out, pulled it up a little higher, and rushed over to the campsite. The high winds had carried away almost everything to indicate their presence, barring a blackened pit, nearly obscured by windblown sand and leaves, where they had sat around a fire just a few nights previous. Laxmi looked to the tree line and cupped her hands around her mouth.
She ran to the trees and shouted again. Anna followed her and put a hand to her arm.
“Not too loudly. We don’t know if anyone else is still here.”
“Anna, if the others left someone here, they saw us arrive.”
“Yes, and if Jaci’s here, he saw us, too. This islet’s pretty small, so unless he swam over to another one, he’s nearby. Or not here at all.”
“He could be in the shuttle.”
Anna looked back out to the water, and the tilted form of the ruined shuttle just off the beach. The open airlock beckoned.
“You’re right. If he survived the storm, and if he was able to swim at all, that’s the most logical place for him to have gone.”
They pushed off in the raft once more and made the short paddle over to the shuttle. The outer airlock door opened inward, into the airlock chamber itself, with the lower rim about half a meter above the waterline. The foot ladder still extended downward from the airlock, but it too, like the landing gear, had suffered in the storm. It bent back under the hull of the shuttle itself, nearly useless. From the raft, it was an easy hop up into the airlock. For a swimmer in the water it would have been somewhat more difficult.
Inside, the airlock chamber was strewn with blown sand and leaves, so it was evident to Anna that the outer door had been open during the storm. That was not surprising, as she knew Jaci had been on the beach when the storm arrived. Of more concern, the inner door was also open, swung into the darkened crew chamber beyond. Whatever use their protocol had been for keeping the interior uncontaminated, it was of no more use now.
She stepped through the inner door. The cabin lighting failed to illuminate automatically as it should have, which worried her. Laxmi followed her in and gave her a worried look. In the dim light from the open door, they could see sandy footprints littering the floor, but no blown sand, no leaves or twigs.
“Jaci survived the storm.”
“How do you know that?”
Anna pointed at the floor.
“No detritus, just footprints. The inner door was closed during the high winds, the way we left it. But someone was in here afterwards. Someone opened that door.”
“I don’t think so. Not impossible, but more likely someone who knew how to operate the door opened it. But… they were in here. Look at these prints. Someone tracked a lot of sand and dirt around, and whoever they were, I don’t think they wore shoes. See this?”
Anna pointed again, this time at a smudged footprint, but one with three wide-splayed toes evident, and a sharp heel, or perhaps another toe pointing backward. Laxmi knelt by the print, examining it more closely.
“This looks like the print of a large bird. Our cave-dwellers?”
“Or their descendants. I don’t think anyone has been in that cave before us in a long time.”
“So are we sure they didn’t open the door?”
“Yes.” Anna pointed at another print. “That’s from a boot. A boot on a human foot. Either Jaci opened the door for them, or he was in here when they arrived.”
They retrieved their headlamps and switched them on, shining the beams around the darkened chamber. Lockers and storage compartment doors lay open, their contents in some cases pulled out and strewn across the floor, but the hatch to the cockpit was closed. Laxmi turned to Anna.
Anna moved to the hatch without speaking. The electronic switch did not function, but the hand crank turned easily enough. She pulled the hatch open and stepped through.
“They were in here, too.”
The sandy footprints continued into the cockpit. At least one of the visitors had stood upon the pilot’s chair, and the material was torn where a sharp claw had punctured it. Other than this, though, there was no evident damage to the room or its equipment, beyond the cracked and glazed windows they had seen from outside. The visitors were curious, but they were not vandals.
Anna tried a number of switches on the control console, but nothing she did made a difference. She could not get the equipment to power up. The shuttle’s battery banks should have had enough reserve to keep the craft going for at least a few weeks, and the solar panels should then have been sufficient to keep the batteries topped up indefinitely, so long as they were careful in their power consumption. Anna doubted the batteries were drained. She turned back to the crew compartment.
She moved to the rear bulkhead of the compartment and knelt down by a closed maintenance hatch. The hatch had no obvious handles, but was instead held closed by thumbscrews in its four corners. Likely that was what allowed it to escape the attentions of the alien visitors. Anna twisted the four screws and quickly had the panel off and set aside. Beyond lay a dark corridor, just a little wider than Anna herself, extending twenty meters back toward the rear of the shuttle. The corridor was lined with conduits and pipes, neatly organized and labeled for their purposes.
Anna lay on her belly and crawled into the corridor. The narrow space hemmed her in on all sides, but it was familiar and she knew every conduit. The engineers who designed and built the shuttle had done so in a shipyard facility in Earth orbit, in microgravity, and they had assumed that any need for access would similarly be in microgravity. Handholds extended at regular intervals, designed for pulling oneself along the corridor while floating free. In the planet’s gravity, however, Anna crawled laboriously over the conduits and handholds on the downward-facing wall.
About halfway down the corridor’s length, dark openings led to other access corridors extending up, down, and to either side. Anna twisted over and shined her light into the crawlspace extending upwards, toward the shuttle’s topside. Other than being vertical, the shaft was no different from the main corridor. Anna pulled herself into a crouch in the six-way junction, then began climbing the handholds upwards. Sometimes it seemed she’d done nothing but climb things since arriving on this planet, and the gravity was no more forgiving than when they had arrived.
Hand over hand, hand and foot, Anna climbed. The holds had not been designed for feet, but they were plenty strong and extended enough for at least a decent toehold. Fifteen meters up, Anna reached the end of the shaft, where another access hatch led to the batteries themselves, and beside that lay the main circuit breaker panel, enclosed behind a clear perspex shield. Sure enough, the main disconnect lay in the off position, as did all of the dozen subordinate circuit breakers, but it did not appear to have been tripped by an electrical surge. That was not what got her immediate attention, however.
There was a folded piece of paper stuck in amongst the breaker switches, behind the perspex.
Anna quickly unlatched the perspex cover. With one hand she retrieved and unfolded the paper. In neat handwriting, the first line stood out.
… continued with Notes in the Dark
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