Courtesy Hunt for Alien Earths
This Terribleminds Fairy Tales Remixed challenge is right up my alley, and when the d20 rolled up “hard sci-fi”, it felt like Christmas all over again.
The planet was desolate, inhospitable, and far from any civilization. Which meant it was pretty much perfect.
Christopher Prince bent near one of the rovers deployed at the start of his expedition, cleaning off its sensors and re-calibrating its terrain-following mechanisms. A small chime inside his helmet brought his attention to the oxygen indicator on his wrist. He still wasn’t sure why the helmet didn’t include a heads-up display like fighter pilots got in the Space Force, but he was in the Survey Corps and they often had to make do with cast-offs from the other military divisions.
He made his way back to the launch, the conical craft sitting on spindly legs on the vast, open plain dominating the planet’s northern hemisphere. The samples of soil, minerals, and water in his pouches rattled slightly as he ascended the ladder into the cabin. He strapped in and keyed the comm.
“Rapunzel, I’m ready for the beacon.”
Like clockwork, the indicator appeared on his display. He fired the launch’s ion rocket, burning most of his fuel to achieve exit velocity. There was plenty on the ship, of course, as it wasn’t made for atmospheric entry, and thus didn’t need as much of the argon that fed its thrusters. Once in orbit, Rapunzel’s beacon guided him in, and it took only a few rotations and nudges with the launch’s reaction control systems to line him up for docking.
He pulled himself out of the launch and into the airlock, happy to feel fresh (albeit recycled) air on his face when his helmet came off.
“What did you find, Lieutenant?”
Rapunzel’s voice was just as welcome as the air. He silently thanked the designers who’d settled on the female vocal set.
“There’s water down there, Rapunzel. I think it’s arctic run-off and I’m not sure what’s in it.”
“Water is an excellent sign. Do you think the atmospheric inadequacies can be addressed?”
“If there’s water, we can create clouds. Clouds can be seeded. I think there’s a good chance.”
Conversations with Rapunzel rarely involved anything other than his planetary findings. Her role was more analysis and communication than it was companionship. Still, she was a good opponent in games, loaded with multiple critiques and viewpoints on literature, and recently started forming her own opinions. Scuttlebutt was that another ship-board AI, Cinderella, had started showing more evidence of self-awareness, asking questions about identity and purpose. This made some of the brass nervous, but when Rapunzel brought up those subjects, Prince felt perfectly comfortable.
He sent the encryption information packet back to headquarters, got updated information on enemy fleet movements, and took some intelligence reports to his bunk with him. While the Survey Corps rarely saw any sort of combat, it was good to stay current on the situation, and relations with the Colonial Congress had never been more strained. Piracy and sabotage were rampant, and as he looked over the list of missing vessels, he assured himself that, this far from the colonies, nobody would bother messing with him.
The next day, he was back down on the surface, taking more samples and recalibrating a rover, this time on the southern hemisphere. Instead of water, he found flecks in the soils samples that weren’t minerals. They seemed to be dessicated biological matter, fossilized perhaps. He wouldn’t be sure until he got back into orbit, however, but he was excited as he returned to the launch.
“Rapunzel, I’m ready for the beacon.”
He activated the launch’s external camera once he was in orbit, lining up to dock. He blinked at the display, and then turned a dial to zoom in on the ship’s registration number.
It was not the Rapunzel. It was the Dame Goethel, reported lost near pirate territory. As he watched, a close-quarter weapon turret swung in his direction.
Prince didn’t wait for demands. While he wasn’t a high-ranking military officer, as a member of the Survey Corps, he knew his way back to the Empire’s innermost territories; in his case, he knew safe routes to Earth. He kicked his main drive on and began evasive maneuvers. The launch was small and hard to hit, but even so, the Goethel‘s turret hit him three times, the second slug knocking out his camera before the third sent him in a spin. He didn’t immediately hit the planet’s atmosphere, so as far as he knew, he was tumbling off into open space.
His reaction control fuel was nearly gone by the time he got the spin under control, and his guidance systems had failed, shorted out by wiring knocked loose in his escape. He checked his oxygen levels – not great – and debated activating his distress beacon. It was likely the pirates would be listening for it. They could follow his rough trajectory, but space was a big place. He’d probably run out of air before they found him.
He was blind, alone, and dying.
He recorded a log, encrypted it, and hid it within the launch’s data drive. The transmitter was working, but with only the small porthole in the hatch, lining up a tight-band transmission would be nearly impossible. Still, he had to try. He was using tiny bursts to find the right star when a survey vessel swung into view.
He wasn’t close enough to read its name. A chill went through his body, either from fear or from life support failing.
“Chris? Are you all right?”
He smiled. There was no way the AI on the Goethel knew his name, and even so, it wouldn’t sound so concerned.
“Yes, Rapunzel, I’m okay.”
“Good. I detect your launch is heavily damaged. Do you need me to walk you through repairing the docking alignment?”
Together they fixed the launch just enough to get him docked. He stumbled out of the launch into the airlock, and collapsed on the deck.
“Let’s go home, Rapunzel.”
“Of course, Lieutenant.”
“And on the way, you can tell me how you found me.”
“I’d be happy to.”