I ran a little over, at 1059 words, including the title.
Shuttle DownCaptain Lee paced the bridge of the Starship Endurance, her face grim. “They’re three hours overdue.” Captain Lee snapped shut her silent communicator as she made the decision. “Stephanovich, you’re in charge here. I’m taking the launch and 20 troopers for a search. Pettra, you’re my second in command.”
The First Lieutenant straightened from his post and dared to argue. “Captain, I would very much like to lead the rescue party. Lt. Carpenter is my friend.”
“All the more reason you stay here. I sent them down, I fetch them back.” There was no room for sentiment in a rescue.
The decision made, Captain Lee moved quickly. Troopers, armed and briefed, filed into the shuttle, strapped down, and prepared for launch. Lee and Pettra took their places as pilot and co-pilot and ran through the pre-launch protocols. Lee punched the com button.
“Shuttle Venture to SS Endurance. Prepared to launch.” The shuttle shot out of the launch bay, and Captain Lee took the controls in her assured grip.
The shuttle coasted smoothly to a landing next to a smaller vessel, the Pequod. The Endurance’s auxiliary shuttle appeared undamaged, with no sign of forced entry. Lee made one more futile attempt to raise Lieutenant Carpenter on the com. Dead or alive, she wasn’t communicating.
“We’re going in.” Captain Lee checked her weapons and strode to the hatch.
The small shuttle remained quiet as they approached, Captain Lee on point. She laid her palm on the sensor, and the shuttle door swooshed open. The craft was empty.
Fanning out around the shuttles, the troops scanned for any hint where the crew had gone. A moment later, a shout went up, and a trooper pointed to a line of footprints, leading neatly away from the shuttle before vanishing in a scuffed area.
Lee and Pettra studied the prints, circling wider to search for the trail outside the mess. A few paces out, Lee stopped, putting up a hand to prevent Pettra from stepping forward. Both officers stared at the gargantuan print that stood out clearly from the mess. It was all too definitely not human.
“Holy horned toads,” Pettra breathed. “I never saw anything that big.” Both officers looked up quickly, scanning the surrounding landscape. Something large lurked out there, and they felt the hairs on the backs of their necks rise.
“Do we follow, Captain?” Lt. Pettra asked quietly, so that none of the troops could hear.
“We have to,” Lee answered as quietly. “Full alert, and follow me,” she ordered more loudly. “Weapons to stun.”
Twenty yards further on, they found the red-shirted crewman flung into the rocks, his neck broken. Another milling mess of footprints revealed that the crew had somehow broken loose and scattered, pursued by several of the large-footed creatures. Lee hesitated, unsure for the moment how to proceed.
A burst of weapon-fire and shouting made the decision easy. At least some of her crew were fighting for their lives nearby. No commands were necessary. She waved the troops into line, and they moved off in the direction of the battle, scrambling up out of the gully to cut a corner and approach from above.
Minutes later, Lee and Pettra peered over a line of rocks. Lt. Carpenter and her remaining crew had dug in behind a large boulder partway up the slope, and were firing at a half dozen large, lizard-like aliens, who seemed to be more irritated than injured by the blasters. Lee issued a series of rapid orders, and her troops opened fire into the aliens, which appeared to be both unarmed and impervious to the spacers' weapons.
Alert to the reinforcements, Carpenter issued her own orders, and her crew began an orderly retreat up the hill toward the captain. Several of the women were limping, and one man was being half-carried by two others. The aliens may not have weapons, but they had clearly taken a toll.
The aliens began to charge the hill, seeing their prey escaping. “Set weapons to kill!” Captain Lee shouted, hoping that would at least slow the creatures. “Pettra! Return to the shuttles with Ensign Fion, and get both opened and ready for take-off! Carpenter,” she continued issuing orders as the original landing party topped the hill, “move them on and get them aboard. Retrieve your fallen. As soon as your shuttle is full, take off. That’s an order!” She barked the final command, seeing the Lieutenant hesitate.
At her tone, Carpenter stiffened and saluted. “Yes, ma’am! Pequod crew! At the double. Jones, can you walk?” The injured man who had been half carried nodded, shook his head, and nodded again. “Right. Smith and Rodriguez, carry him. Drag him if you have to. Move!”
Captain Lee had already turned back to the battle. Two troopers had holstered their weapons and worked to loosen a large boulder that stood on the very brink of the hill. Lee instantly saw what they were doing.
“You, you, and you.” She tapped three troopers. “Help them.”
Minutes later, the boulder crashed down the hill toward the aliens, who scattered. Two of the giant creatures were knocked flying.
Captain Lee didn’t stay to find out if they were dead. “Retreat to the shuttles!” The spacers scrambled down the slope, Lee bringing up the rear. As soon as they hit the bottom of the gully, they picked up the pace to a near sprint, overtaking the slower party of injured spacers. Troopers swept their injured shipmates up, more than half-carrying any who lagged, and streamed into the shuttles.
The larger shuttle had taken off, and the lead alien was gaining on Captain Lee when she leapt through the door of Pequod, slammed down the control to seal the hatch, and Ensign Fion hit the motors. Lee struggled against the motion of the craft to reach the co-pilot’s seat, saw at a glance why they were not rising more quickly, and reached for the heavy blaster controls.
Finally she’d found something that affected the aliens. The monster clinging to the nose of the shuttle fell, a massive hole in its chest. Lee punched the com unit.
“Pequod to Endurance. Prepare to receive shuttles. Venture to enter first. Prepare sick bay for injured.”
“Casualties?” Came Stephanovich’s calm question.
“Minor injuries, I think. The red shirt is dead, as usual. Endurance brings home her own.”
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015