Capt. Poppy Spector carefully guided her craft toward shore, focusing on finding any kind of shelter from the building storm.
After so long adrift, finally nearing solid ground left her shifting between joy and panic. Her legs and arms, the muscles atrophied from disuse, trembled in anticipation.
The ship’s hull scraped against the sandy shore, shuttering to a precarious stop. Waves urged on by buffering winds, rocked the ship. Usually counterbalanced by stabilizing ballast, the pitching nauseated Poppy. The seasickness, an unsettling adjustment, was a warning that this new harbor could be dangerous.
The ship’s mechanical systems maintained basic life-support, but after surviving the last storm, were hit and miss when taking outside measurements. Poppy took a chance that the air outside was safe to breathe. The blue skies and green flora suggested the atmosphere was mainly oxygen, she prayed that also translated into edible plants.
She tried to uncouple her safety harness, but her mutinous hands worked against her. Finally free of her constraints, Poppy struggled to disembark, crawling over the side of the craft and toppling onto the wet sand, her chest heaving with exertion. She took measured gulps of air, careful not to hyperventilate. She didn’t need to pass out in the scorching sun.
The fresh air seemed to revitalize her. Testing the strength of her exhausted limbs, Poppy slowly rolled over, the pushed up on her hands and knees. She stayed on the beach, kneeling in the warm sand for several minutes. When her breath came easier, and the pains in her joints and muscles relented, with her hand pressed against the ship’s fuselage, Poppy attempted to stand on her own for the first time in months.
The storm was almost on her now. Ankle deep in the soft sand at the water’s edge, she stripped off her uniform jacket and tossed it into the open cabin hatch. Gripping the outside cargo latch, Poppy unfastened the lid, exposing an array of specimen cups and bags, and testing instruments.
Wading out into the bay, Poppy scooped up a cup of water and slogged back to her ship. While she waited for the testing results from the ship’s ICP Mass Spectrometer, Poppy rummaged through the cargo bay, looking for any food she missed. She knew not to simply test the water herself. That was how she lost Lt. Denison on Crios.
Denison didn’t wait to find out if the water and flora were safe for consumption. The crew buried him beneath a cairn of native stones. Two crews succumbed to the elements on Pontus after the scanners failed to pick up what turned out to be dangerous life forms. Another two crew died after exposure to unknown pathogens on Boreas.
She was the sole surviving member of the discovery team. If this planet couldn’t sustain human life, she would die here. Stranded light years away from home on an alien world.
The machine beeped, startling Poppy out of her reminiscence. She read the results, the slumped to the ground, her head in her hands. Liquid salt. The acidic saline level of the ocean was high enough that if she were to stay in the water, she would eventually dissolve.
A storm was brewing along the horizon. She expected the rain to be as caustic as the ocean, and wondered if drowning in the briny sea would be more painful, but quicker than being showered in the corrosive. Should she climb back into her ship, and wait to starve? She could turn off all life-support and simply suffocate in the closed cockpit.
As the first drops of rain fell a short distance from shore, hissing as they hit open water, Poppy heard what sounded like excited voices calling to her. Attributing the auditory hallucinations to her long days of solitude, Poppy ignored the noise until hands gripped her shoulders, pulling her to her feet.
“Damn, woman! Are you deaf?”
Carried from the beach by a band of creatures dressed in what looked like old-style hazmat suits, Poppy didn’t struggle, too stunned to process what was happening.
Unceremoniously dropped on the dirt floor of a man-made grotto, Poppy sat mouth agape, as each of the rescue crew pulled back their protective head gear to reveal human faces.
“Once the storm passes, you and Pryor head out to the ship to scavenge anything of use.”
The man speaking gave more orders to his team, then turned to Poppy.
“Capt. Spector,” he said, saluting her, “we’ve been expecting you.”