The soldiers left the shuttle and hurried over to the crashed spaceship, their shapes blurred in the drifting rain fog, and the footprints they left in the red mud were soon hammered away by the downpour.
Felicia sat in the door opening on the shuttle, her rifle up and ready. On the seat inside Xander was waiting, fidgeting with his wristband strap. She could see his freckled face through the visor, his bright blue eyes darting over the scenery.
She looked outside again. The light on this planet was a sickly orange one, the light of an old and weak sun. There was some kind of atmosphere, and some kind of vegetation, but that was it. The water that fell from the swirly skies wasn’t drinkable, and the air was polluted with gasses that human lungs couldn’t handle. The planet had been considered for terraforming, but so far those plans were only words in a document.
“All clear” they heard Matsuko, normally the frontliner on team 3, say over the comm. Team 1 was on prim duty but due to their decimated numbers, team 3 had to fill up the spots on some missions.
Felicia shoved her butt off the shuttle floor and slid down on the ground, to let Xander pass. He climbed out from the shuttle too, and turned around to get his equipment. As always, she was surprised how tall he was when he got close; his slender frame and delicate features in addition to his unobtrusive and calm demeanor made him seem smaller to her than he was.
He hadn’t been on the Ignis for more than a few months, but despite his shyness, or perhaps thanks to it, people onboard had taken a liking for him. After Dieter’s death, he had been a great support to Felicia in particular. It may have begun with her being way to drunk to consider how smart it was to spill your innermost feelings to someone you known for three weeks, but fortunately it had ended in friendship instead of a one night stand and an awkward week after.
Xander pulled out a portable yet obscenely heavy battery from the shuttle, struggling to shift hands when the weight demanded so on their way to the shipwreck. The soldiers had spread out around it, and Felicia took place close to the fuselage, her back at the disfigured and blackened metal. The rain left dirty tracks on her visor, despite the clear sight-mod.
It wasn’t likely anything would happen, but nevertheless, she kept scanning the surroundings, switching from infrared to normal, regularly using her sonar as well. Occasionally, she glanced at Xander, who was done plugging the battery into the emergency port and now was working on kicking the systems back online.
“Wow”, Xander said as the panel lit up and he got access. “This ship is older than I thought.”
“Well, for a starter, it runs on code that hasn’t been used in ages… “ He paused and wrote a few more commands. “And the last entry is five years old.”
“Five years? But the report said a trader had seen it crash last month?”
“It could’ve been hit by something”, she suggested, “kicking it out of orbit and making it crash. If it was stuck up there since… it was abandoned, or whatever happened.”
When saying that, she realized that they might find five year old corpses inside the ship. She was no newbody, she had been a soldier for seven years, but there was something about dead bodies that had been lying about for a while that unnerved her.
Xander informed captain Avril over the comm that the locks were open, and she soon arrived with two of the soldiers, Santo and Morgan.
“There’s something weird about this”, Xander said to the captain as Santo and Morgan started working on the hatch, that had to be opened manually. “This ship might have been in orbit for as long as five years before it crashed.”
“Five years?” said the captain with obvious disbelief. “What the hell?”
Xander shrugged and showed her the data.
“Have you found the ship log?”
“I have to use the bridge computers to do that, this panel isn’t connected to the main network.”
The captain sighed impatiently. “Well, I guess that still goes faster than finding the damned black box…”
Santo and Morgan had managed to release the hatch, and lifted the thing down on the ground.
“Alright”, said captain Avril and made sure it went on the comm as well. “I, Santo and Morgan are going inside. The rest of you stay put, eyes open. Xander, you wait for my word before you join us in there.”
Felicia raised her hand in a salute to show the captain she got it, and Xander nodded. The other soldiers confirmed the orders on the comm. Captain Avril waited for the two soldiers to climb inside before she readied her weapon and followed.
Felicia glanced at Xander, who was fidgeting again. “You look a little pale.”
He let out a short and awkward laughter. “You mean paler than usual?”
“Even the freckles are fading”, she smiled.
His complete lack of pigment other than the freckles was a frequent source of jokes among the crew, only outshined by his tendency to blush at nothing and everything.
“Not that I blame you”, she added. “This ship is getting creepier by the minute.”
“Yeah… If it has been in orbit around this planet until now, it would have showed up on some radar, don’t you think?”
“Well, if it was a Union ship it would have been tracked down and saved or at least salvaged. But if it was from some of the smaller trading companies, who knows.” Felicia shrugged. “Maybe they didn’t think it was worth going back for it. Besides, it’s a little small to be a cargo ship.”
Xander looked along the ship’s dented sides. “It could still hold valuable goods.”
After a while, captain Avril came back to the doorway and told Xander to follow her inside.
“A heads up though. There are dead crew members all over the place, and they look freeze dried. It seems to have happened before the crash, so… they are a little chipped.”
She paused, and eyed Xander critically. “You’re not going to throw up, are you private? You’re cleaning your helmet yourself if you do.”
Xander took a deep breath, glancing at Felicia. “I’ll do my best not to, captain.”
“Good.” The captain went inside again.
Felicia gave Xander a thumbs up to encourage him, and got a nervous smile in return before the technician climbed into the shipwreck.
The rain ceased while Xander was working with the ship computers, and the captain and the two soldiers searched the ship for anything of value to the Union. The sky didn’t clear however, and that smudged orange hue was making Felicia uneasy. Around them were rocks covered in alien lichen, pools of mud and murky water, here and there clusters of strange fungi. She kept switching between infrared, sonar and zoom, but there was no life here except these cold, slimy organisms.
When the dying sun began to set, and soaked the landscape in a sooty red light, Xander’s work was finally at an end. He had restored most of the ship logs, and Santo and Morgan had found the black box to bring back to Union authorities. Captain Avril had only skimmed through the most recent entries in the logs, but so far the mystery behind the crashed spaceship and the death of its crew was unsolved.
“Alright people, that’s all we can do here. Gather at the shuttle and we’ll wrap this up.”
As they were all seated in the shuttle again, connected to the air system since they couldn’t take their helmets off before sanitation, Morgan described the bodies to the others with Santo making occasional remarks.
“If you didn’t find anything that indicated a hull break, someone must have vented it from the inside”, Felicia said as they started to discuss the reasons to the ship’s unfortunate fate.
“It’s hard to accidentally vent a spaceship though”, Santo pointed out, his distinct eyebrows furrowing.
“My guess is someone grew tired of life”, Keith pondered, his dark, boyish face pulled into parody expertise. “Not to mention their crewmates, may they rest in pieces.”
“Someone could have hacked the system to kill them”, Morgan suggested as he demonstratively turned his grey eyes away from Keith and to Felicia instead.
“True.” Felicia couldn’t hide her amused smile though. She knew Morgan disapproved of Keith’s sometimes insensitive sense of humor,
“What do you think, cap?” Keith looked at the captain.
Captain Avril briefly looked up from them from her datapad. “I see no point in discussing the maybe’s and what if’s until the black box has been opened”, she said, and turned her attention to the tablet again.
Santo and Keith exchanged looks, Keith in particular making a wide-eyed head wiggle.
“I saw that, private”, the captain said, without looking up.
Felicia grinned at Keith who instantly put on a neutral face, and for a moment, everything felt as usual. One moment, then her gaze fell on Matsuko and the sting of loss hit her again. She looked away quickly. Matsuko was only filling up the spot, she shouldn’t have to deal with Felicia’s dejected looks.
Instead, she focused on Xander.
“You did good today, digs. No puking, no fainting.”
He smiled that awkward smile and blushed a little behind the visor. “For the record, I never fainted on a mission.”
She patted him on the knee with feigned sympathy. “Oh there will be plenty of chances, don’t worry.”
Felicia laughed. This time, the good feeling stayed.