The Present – ESS Endeavour
Captain Bell strode onto the bridge. According to the most recent status report that he’d received, they should be arriving in the asteroid field by now.
“We’re just decelerating Captain. The asteroid field is just ahead.”
“How close can we get to it?”
“Not much closer than we are now Captain, not with the size of this ship.”
“Have you raised the planes?”
“We’ve got Ensign McDermott on the line, but we’ve had no response from Millwood. The Ensign says she’s been unable to communicate with him since she got here.”
“I hope we’re not too late.”
“The main question is how do we get him on board Sir?”
“We could manoeuvre the ship at the right angle and then fire off the grappler to tractor his plane in manually.”
“Yes, but we’re too far away Sir. As I said we can’t get any closer to the asteroids.”
Bell strode over to the central command table and picked up a communication handset.
“Hornet, this is the Captain.”
“Hornet here Sir,” came McDermott’s voice.
“I want you to grapple the CAG’s plane and see if you can drag him out of the asteroid field.”
“Captain, that’s pretty risky, I’m not going to have much control over his movement. I don’t want to accidentally track him right into the path of a rock.”
“I understand the danger Ensign. Do you think you can do it?”
There was silence on the line for a moment. “I think I can do it Sir.”
“Then go ahead and carry out the plan Ensign. We can bring him aboard once he’s clear of the rocks but only you can get him out of there.”
Sarah McDermott was glad to be wearing gloves. Her hands were so sweaty that she’d barely be able to handle the stick without gloves. She took a deep breath and prepared to fire her grappling rig. Once her plane was in position she moved her finger over to the launch control. She hesitated a moment and hit the radio button.
“CAG, I don’t know if you can hear me, but I’m gonna try to drag you home to safety. If this doesn’t work then I’m sorry, but for what it’s worth – we’ll probably go down together. It’s been an honour serving under you Badger.”
She moved her finger back to the launch control and pressed it. The display on the HUD indicated that the grappler had successfully fired and latched on to Millwood’s plane. That was the easy part.
“Okay, here goes insanity.”
She eased the throttle forward – ever so slowly. After a moment the grappling line went taught and her forward momentum slowed slightly. She pushed the thrust a tiny bit more and the two planes moved together. She knew that any stop in motion would not be instantaneous for Millwood. Inertia would continue to move his plane forward until the grappling line held it in.
She spotted a few rocks ahead. That would likely mean trouble. She pulled back on the thrust and allowed her plan to come to a stop. This was going to be a journey of baby steps. Millwood’s plane continued to sail forward underneath her. She saw it through her cockpit. Sarah held her breath and it edged closer than she had hoped toward the rocks. “Don’t touch, don’t touch,” she willed verbally.
The plane appeared no more than a metre away when the grappling line finally went taught again, stopping its motion and pulling it back.
Sarah let out her lungful of air. “That was too close for comfort CAG. We’re gonna take forever here.”
The surface of Xinju
“Nothing but static,” Laura Banks said, raising the radio handset above her head. She was about to let it fly across the clearing, but thought better of it at the last second. She’d been trying to raise the shuttle for twenty minutes. She turned around to see how Gardner was doing.
The soldier was lying on the ground clutching his belly. His skin was pale and he appeared to be sweating with a slight fever. Spearwood was standing to the side – looking sympathetically at the young man. Toledo was crouched on the ground trying to offer comfort and support.
“How’s it looking Professor?” Laura asked. None of them were medics, but between a geologist, a botanist and a zoologist there must be enough knowledge to figure something out.
“I really don’t know Laura.”
Laura was a little surprised, but not offended at the older man calling her by her first name. Until now in all their dealings he’d been very formal and proper.
“The general rule for first aid back on earth is that land-based bites and stings are treated by applying ice, whereas sea-based are treated with hot water.”
“This creature was clearly on the land.”
“Yes, and if we are to assume that things work the same on this planet, then we could apply ice, but we don’t have any.”
“Once the shuttle arrives we can find something cold in the medical supplies. I don’t understand why I can’t reach them.”
“Maybe something happened to the shuttle,” offered Spearwood. “It might have gone down shortly after dropping us off.”
“Let’s try and be a bit more positive than that,” Laura chastised. “Perhaps you could find a plant-based remedy for the poison.”
“It’s possible, but we can’t know what plants would be helpful.”
“Well, grab a few different samples and start rubbing them on the Private’s arm.”
“Assuming that the plants I try are not toxic themselves I suppose it can’t hurt.”
The botanist walked off to gather some things. Laura sighed. She didn’t want the kid to die on her watch.
There was an atmosphere of nervous anticipation on the bridge. Bell watched on the monitor as Ensign McDermott made painfully slow progress, towing her leader out of danger.
“If She pulls this off I’m going to have to offer her a medal or a promotion,” Bell said to Lin.
The commander smiled at him. “She is a meticulous and careful pilot.”
“They’ve come so far, but the danger is as real now as when they started. If that plane hits a rock too quickly now it will all have been for nothing.”
The Endeavour had been in position now for some time. All they needed was for the planes to be clear.
“You’re doing a fantastic job Hornet.”
The work continued for another five minutes when suddenly Bell saw the two planes fly clear and accelerate – through the front window.
The entire bridge crew cheered and applauded. Lin smiled brighter and wider than Bell had ever seen her do before.
“Ensign McDermott – you are a true master in the cockpit. Well done!”
“Thankyou Captain. I just hope it wasn’t futile.”
Bell flicked a switch on the comm. to raise the deck crew in the hanger.
“This is the Captain. Colonel Millwood’s plane is now free of the asteroids. Fire the grappler when ready and bring our lost bird home.”