Chapter 1: The Beach
That aroma, that particular spicy waft—she caught it again now, on the afternoon breeze—like black pepper, but somehow a hint of soft warmth, a tropical-fruit essence ... alien. It was just ... alien. Even on a world as Earthlike, as human-colony perfect, as Appogia, there would always be that otherness, like a shadow under the landscape, a whisper below her limit of hearing. She was an intruder on this planet. She was the alien.
On the coastal plain to the south below, only a few hundred meters inland from the foredunes and the surf beyond, stood Pod 2, a full kilometer in length, a box-framed self-enclosed city of seven thousand people. By some miracle, the flight crew had set her down intact, despite the onboard computers having gone completely haywire. Even now the computers defied reboot: communications were offline. What had become of the other pods from Amari Star? No one yet knew.
SSC Lieutenant Commander Enoki Kinen, age 36, erstwhile Chief Medical Officer of the Amari Star and now de facto Commander of Pod 2, stood on a high hill above the coastal plain on this northern landmass of unknown extent. A week had passed since the mother ship's disastrous malfunction, the mad scrambles to get to a pod, any pod, to launch away from the chaos and horror that was destroying the mothership and everyone in it, then the desperate descent, without computer controls, the flight crew bring her into atmosphere on manual attitude pulsors, the sight of a vast expanse of ocean, then a hint of land, and the miracle of bringing Pod 2 laterally across the sea, almost skimming the waves, and at last touching dry ground, unbroken. Yes, that had been a miracle, that escape and landing. But even that miracle could not erase the disaster itself.
Up the hill now, through that growth of weird alien bushes with pink leaves, came Dr. Joanam Sprike, a wiry old figure in the same dark-blue SSC jumpsuit that Kinen and all the sgip's personnel (half the castaway population) wore. Sprike's white hair blew wildly in the breeze up from the plain. He made his way to the crest, grinning as he always did, whether the news was good or bad.
He said, "Sloan passed away this morning. Then a couple hours ago, I moved the last three out of triage, to Jang's physical therapy unit."
"Your initial estimate was perfect, then," said Kinen. "The hundred and thirty-two you said would live, lived. The fifty-six you said would die, died."
Sprike's grin, as usual was unnerving in the circumstances. "You say that as if I pushed the results to meet my prognoses, Doctor."
Kinen's face remained neutral. "I would not accuse you of that, Doctor."
Sprike nodded. "You can't help but notice it, though. Nor can I. I'd have given my left hand to save any one of them. You know how it is."
"Actually I don't," she said. "I've never lost a patient."
"People keep telling me that."
Sprike was silent, grinning .. or was he squinting in the falling sun? The breeze fell, then kicked up stronger. The surf below hissed on the beach.
Kinen added, "I've been blessed never to take a patient near death. I pity you the triage duty."
"It was mine to do. I did it. It's that simple."
She wrinkled her mouth, then said, "Thank you, Doctor."
"Yes ma'am." He turned to regard the pod, the little crowds around it, the piles of equipment and supplies still being sorted.
Kinen said, "I pray that somewhere on this planet, the other pods are doing exactly what we're doing: taking stock, regrouping, getting ready for ... well, to contact each other."
"Pray," said Sprike. "Blessed." He turned his squinty grin back on her. "Are you religious, Doctor?"
An embarrassed smile escaped her control. "No. Habit of speech."
He said, "I'm an Anabaptist, myself. I was raised into it, of course. But because I've never known anything else ..." He shrugged. "It just seems to make sense."
"I'm not familiar with the creed," Kinen admitted.
He shrugged again, and looked down to the beach again. "Any luck with Vondro?"
Her mouth tightened. "Not yet. He's being ... resisty."
"We need those flyers."
"I know." By Pod 2's port bow stood the two surviving long-distance flyers: a sleek recon craft, and a big-waisted transport. The pod's six other standard long-distance flyers had been lost or irreparably damaged in the mothership disaster.
"Now I'm free of triage," said Sprike, "I volunteer for a foot recon. A few dozen others are clamoring to go with, and the supplies are at hand."
"I've arranged two jeep recon missions already. They leave tonight after council. The supplies are for them."
"I'm not counting the supplies for them. And if my group is on foot, I can go where the jeeps can't go." He looked northeast. "That mountain, for example. Nice place for a comm relay, a telescope ..."
She took a breath. "Can you write it up? Present it to council tonight?"
For a moment the two regarded the scene below. At this distance, the castaways looked like ants.
"Fifty-six dead," she said.
He looked up at her. "Yes ... but that's the last. From here on out, we'll be fine."
She said, "You don't know that."