by Josh Roseman
Wen slumped against a crystal formation and stared up at the dark sky, lit only by greenish-gold auroras. Sweat ran down into her eyes and made her clothes cling in uncomfortable places. She wanted to sit down, wanted to take off the pack for a few minutes, but the last time she’d done that, her feet had ached even worse for the respite.
No. Better to stay standing.
She caught her breath before taking a measured swallow from the canteen that hung at her side. Gulping the water would be a mistake; in this state, she’d just throw up. Staying calm, that was the key.
One more swallow, though she ached to drain the whole thing, and then back onto its clip.
Wen’s borrowed comm pinged. Four hours to sunrise. Four hours until the witchlight above her head gave way to the burning white orb that would blast her with heat and radiation until she was nothing but a memory.
Four hours to live.
She shoved the comm back into her pocket, stood up straight, and started to run again.
Well, jog, anyway.
It was the best she could do.
The rich kids had chartered an interplanetary liner for their high school graduation party. Wen had been invited because she was friends with someone who was friends with someone whose father owned a big chunk of one of the moons. She knew no one liked her — no one ever really liked the fat kids, not even the other fat kids — but she’d be leaving in a few weeks anyway, to one of the top universities in the system. Why not at least try to have a little fun?
And Bess had insisted. Bess, her friend, who had begged Missy Hallen to let Wen come along.
Bess had also insisted Wen have a few drinks — they were out of orbit, and the rules didn’t apply. “Come on, Wen! Lighten up!”
Wen hadn’t liked whatever Bess had pressed into her hand, and she’d soon begged off and stumbled down the corridor to the little medical bay.
When the collision alarms had sounded, Wen had managed to strap herself in despite a blinding headache and a growing urge to vomit.
Then the ship had crashed, and when Wen came to, she’d stumbled along the tilted corridor until she’d seen the damage.
The ship had been ripped in half, and the other part of it was on fire, maybe half a kilometer away.
Between her and that blaze was a field of bodies.
Her hand went to her mouth and she stumbled backward, trying not to scream.
Wen heard a noise — one that didn’t sound like her body crushing tiny crystals under her feet — and immediately dropped to her knees. She stifled a groan, then lowered herself flat. The second planet, Sidqiel, was home to all sorts of dangerous wildlife, and though Wen had a blaster — part of the liner’s emergency supplies — she had no way to know what was coming.
So she calmed herself. She tried to breathe more quietly.
And she listened, clutching the blaster in her left hand, waiting for whatever was out there, wasting what little time she had left.
Wen had screwed up her courage and tried to go out among the bodies strewn across the debris field. She’d taken a scanner from the medical bay, hoping she could find someone still alive, someone who could help her.
After seeing the third mangled corpse, though, she’d given up on that and returned to the ship. She found some painkillers in the broken-open pharmacy locker and took one; the headache fled in abject terror, which allowed her to think clearly.
“Where am I?”
Well, that one was easy enough. Wen reached for her comm—
No. She reached for her pocket, but her comm was gone.
She found it in the corner of the medical bay, screen shattered, unwilling to even turn on. “Well, that’s brilliant.” Wen’s voice was scratchy in her ears — had she screamed as the ship had crash-landed? She didn’t remember.
Wen had to shove open the door of the next compartment — people were often surprised how strong she was, but then, it took a lot of muscle to move all that body around. At least, that’s what she told people. Once she’d managed to open the door, she found more bodies: a popular girl named Laka and her boyfriend Akito. Their clothes were strewn around the room — apparently Laka had made good on her promise to bed Akito before graduation — but as Wen knelt to check and see if they were alive — they weren’t — she found Laka’s comm, undamaged, sticking out of a jacket pocket. No signal, but at least it was working. Small favors.
She moved on to the next compartment.
Tiny scaled creatures no bigger than Wen’s hand slithered past, through the crystal debris, clearly fleeing something. Wen risked a peek above the patch of crystalline bushes that hid her, but saw nothing.
Then a noise, high-pitched and horribly discordant, drove her to the dirt again. She looked up, but saw nothing. So she climbed to her feet, checked her comm, and started to jog again.
And was nearly mauled by huge, heavily-scaled serpent that had been hiding in a hollow in the ground. It rammed into her backpack, knocking her flat on her face. She spat a mouthful of crystal pebbles and got to her knees once more. The serpent was staring at her, tensed, ready to attack again.
Wen looked into its huge blue eyes. It blinked, and she blinked. She guessed it wasn’t used to its prey getting up again.
Holding its eyes with hers, Wen slowly brought up the blaster until it was pointed at the serpent.
Then, without warning, it attacked.
At this distance, she didn’t even have to aim. One shot from the blaster blew its head clean off. The rest of the body knocked her to the hard ground yet again, her head thumping hard against the top of the backpack, but the thing was clearly dead.
She shoved the remains of the serpent to one side, stood up again, and got moving.
Wen made her way through the ship, waving Laka’s comm in slow arcs, trying to get a signal. She had no idea where the ship had crashed; the impact had flattened everything for half a kilometer, and although she had seen stars when she’d gone outside–
Stars. Stars, just barely peeking through the clouds and the auroras.
Wen found the nearest emergency door and opened it, then jumped down onto the hard ground. Her knees and ankles let her know just how bad an idea that had been, but she didn’t care; she activated the comm and pointed its visual pickup at the star-speckled sky.
It pinged a couple of seconds later.
Wen read its screen and swallowed hard.
Sidqiel. They’d crashed on Sidqiel.
She was as good as dead.
Wen checked the comm: only a kilometer to go before she reached the old substation. Though she was dripping with sweat and aching in ways she never knew her body could ache, she picked up her pace, trying to move faster, trying to get to safety before the sun’s radiation blasted her like she’d blasted the serpent.
Soon enough, she burst free from the crystal forest and into a clearing. In the distance, she saw the dark, blocky shape of the substation.
And right in front of her, the ground stopped short, falling away into a chasm.
Wen tried to stop, but lost her footing and fell hard on her ass. She struggled to her feet and tried to slow her breathing. She stared into the chasm. It was farther across than she could ever dream of jumping. It stretched to her left and her right, with no end in sight.
“Well, this is just great,” Wen said. “Now what?”
Wen searched every compartment of what was left of the ship until, in a cabinet behind the rear galley, she found the emergency transmitter. Heavily insulated against just about anything, from impact to explosion, from deep-water pressures to the vacuum of space, she knew she could use it to call for help.
Not that anyone could make it to Sidqiel in seven hours, which was all the time she had left before sunrise, according to Laka’s comm. At least she could tell someone what had happened.
The unit was easy enough that even a lacrosse star could use it. Wen was about six times smarter than any of them — or, at least, she told herself that every time one said something about her size. She swallowed hard — she’d wished they’d stop making fun of her, but she’d never wished them dead — and jammed her thumb on the activator.
The box powered up quickly, a small screen unfolding from the top. Wen keyed it to transmit, then spoke into the audio pickup.
“This is Gwendolyn Yee Irons from Montgomery City, Hemingway Province. My ship crashed. Is anyone reading this?”
Nothing for several long seconds. She tried again.
“Can anyone hear me? This is Gwendolyn Yee Irons from Montgomery City–”
“Miss Irons, this is Sergeant Salzman at Orbital Station 3. Do you read?”
“I read you!” Wen felt tears prickle her eyes and a lump form in her throat. She forced it down. “Sergeant, the ship I was on… it crashed on Sidqiel. I couldn’t find any other survivors.”
Another interminable silence. Then Salzman spoke again. “We’ve triangulated your signal. You only have about seven hours until local dawn. Can you get out of the sun?”
“I can stay in the ship—”
“No,” he said, cutting her off. “Without shields, without power, you’ll cook in there.”
“Then what am I supposed to do? I’m not stupid, Sergeant; you can’t get here for almost ten hours.”
“Please remain calm, Miss Irons.”
“Remain calm?” She kicked the transmitter, but that only hurt her foot. The unit remained unperturbed. “I’m going to die down here, and you want me to remain calm?”
“Stand by? Stand by for what?”
No one answered.
Wen dropped to the floor, back against the wall, and let herself cry. She was going to die, alone, among the bodies of her classmates and… well, they weren’t friends, but they were still people. Of all of them, why had only she survived?
“Miss Irons, are you there?”
Wen wiped her face with the back of her hand and struggled to her feet. “What do you want?”
“Miss Irons, there’s an old research substation about thirty-five kilometers from your position, bearing one-six-three. Can you get there in seven hours?”
Wen did the math in her head, then burst out laughing. It was either that or start crying again.
“Miss Irons? What is it?”
Still laughing in little hiccups, Wen found the button that activated the unit’s visual pickup. “Look at me, Sergeant. Do you think I can make it even five kilometers? And on those crystal plains out there, I’ll be on my ass half the time!”
A pause. “Miss Irons, it’s either run or die. We’re launching a rescue ship right now, but if you don’t get to that substation, there won’t be anything for us to find except your body.”
Wen took a couple of deep breaths, then stared at the pickup. “I’m going to die out there.”
“You will not die,” Salzman snapped. “Do you understand me?”
“Sure, yeah, whatever you say.”
“It’s your choice. Which would you rather do: sit there and die, or fight for a chance to live?”
Wen used her blaster to blow apart the base of a huge crystal formation at the edge of the forest. It was just luck that the towering pillar didn’t fall on her, that it fell toward the chasm.
But it wasn’t long enough. Not even for her to make a jump if she got a running start. “Damn it,” she growled, sitting on the fallen crystal and staring at the chasm. “Damn it! Damn it all!”
She was going to die.
She said it out loud: “I’m going to die.”
She got to her feet and stood at the edge of the chasm. “I’m going to die!” she screamed.
Then she looked down. The gold-green witchlight of the aurora wasn’t bright enough to see the bottom — for a moment, Wen considered jumping in; whatever was down there, it was probably nice and sharp and would probably kill her pretty damn efficiently when she landed on it.
The aurora pulsed brighter, which she’d seen happen on occasion during her flight from the ship, and she got a good, long look at the far wall of the chasm. Nothing but crystal boulders and, below that, darker rocks. Rocks as far as her eyes could see.
No. That wasn’t right. Wen pulled the flashlight out of her pack and turned it to its highest setting. The chasm was about seven meters across, and the beam just managed to pick out hollows in the rocks.
“Caves,” Wen whispered. Then, a cry of delight: “Caves!”
“All right,” Wen said after a long, quiet moment. “All right. I’ll try. I’ll try to get to the damn substation.”
“Good. We’ll send the rescue ship there first. Just get to the subterranean levels and see if you can get emergency power working. Even without it, you should survive until we get there; the ship will extend a shield over the entire area.”
“All right,” Wen said one more time. “Let me give you my comm frequency.” She read off a string of numbers. “Do you have it?”
Salzman repeated the numbers to her, and she confirmed them. “Miss Irons,” he said, his voice gentle, “it’s not going to be an easy trip. Not even for someone in perfect health. But it’s the only way you’re going to survive. No matter what happens, just keep going. Can you do that for me?”
Wen made a nasty sound with her mouth. “Don’t patronize me, and don’t try to be my friend. Just get the damn ship here.”
Another one of those pauses. “Very well,” Salzman said finally. “Are there any emergency supplies? They should be near this transmitter.”
“Hang on.” Wen rooted through several more cabinets until she found three large backpacks, each one clearly marked IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. “Got ‘em.”
“Good. Put one on.”
Wen struggled into the straps. “This thing weighs a ton!”
“Bring it with you anyway.”
“But I won’t be able to run even without it—”
“It has water, rations, flashlights, and tools. What if something goes wrong with our rescue ship and you have to stay in the substation longer than a few hours? You’ll want the supplies then, Miss Irons.”
“Fine, fine, I’ll carry it.”
Salzman explained to her how to activate the water canister and reminded her to drink when she needed it. Then he said, “Be careful, Miss Irons. Move quickly, but not recklessly.”
“I figured that part out.” She grinned. “And my name’s Wen.”
“Wen,” Salzman said. “Wen, leave the transmitter running, and as soon as you get to the substation, put your comm on full broadcast mode. We’ll come get you. I promise.”
“We will. Salzman out.”
Wen stared at the transmitter, then turned and made her way out of the ship. Her comm directed her to 163, and she began to walk, setting the device as she went, until finally its little screen showed her destination and the time she had until the sun fried her.
Then she started to run.
Wen breathed a silent thanks to Sergeant Salzman and his insistence on her taking the emergency supply pack when she’d left the ship. It had included a thick spool of microfilament attached to a heavy support belt, and although Wen had never climbed anything except the occasional flight of stairs, she buckled the belt around her waist and tied a loop around the base of another crystal formation. She circled the pillar and knotted the line so many times that, by the time she was done, she had a clump of microfilament half the size of her comm.
Then it was time to climb.
Which, Wen realized, she had no idea how to do.
“Okay,” Wen said. “Okay, I can do this. I can figure this out.”
Truthfully, there wasn’t much to figure out. Wen looped the microfilament around her thighs to form a sort of harness; dim memories of adventure movies that she knew were probably wrong, but it was better than nothing. She cut off the sleeves of her shirt with a utility knife and wrapped them around her hands. Then she sat on the edge of the chasm and tried to descend.
Tried. Her hammering heart had other ideas.
“No,” she said, her voice too quiet to echo off the chasm’s far wall. “I can do this.” As if to add its own form of encouragement, the comm in Wen’s backpack pinged.
“One more hour. Now or never.”
Wen played out a meter of filament, grabbed it tightly with both hands, and slid off the edge.
The first hour of Wen’s flight from the ship had been the worst; pain jolted her legs, her knees, her hips, her spine, everything. Her body bounced in unpleasant ways, and even though she’d worn comfortable shoes on the graduation trip, her feet protested every step. And the damn backpack straps kept digging into her shoulders, its weight like a small child on her back.
But every time she wanted to stop, she just slowed to a walk and checked the comm. Every time she checked the comm, sunrise was a little bit closer… and so was the substation.
“I… can do… this,” Wen panted as she jogged. “I… can… do… this!”
And every time she felt she was about to pass out from exhaustion, she put one foot in front of the other, repeating the four-word mantra in her head when she could no longer spare the breath to speak.
I can do this.
I can do this.
I can do this.
Wen hung over the edge, suspended, heart hammering in her chest. She had never thought she could be so scared, but then, she’d never dangled by a nearly-invisible thread over what looked like a bottomless chasm. The microfilament was taut in her hands, and she gripped it tightly, not wanting to move.
The comm pinged again. Had five minutes really passed while she was hanging here?
“Damn it!” she said, ignoring the shaking of her voice. “I can do this!”
Wen slowly moved one hand from the microfilament line to the spool at her waist and gently turned the controller until, centimeter by centimeter, she started to descend.
“Well,” she said, surprised she could her herself over the hammering of her heart, “this isn’t so bad.” She turned the controller again and started dropping a little faster. She had to find a cave — a deep one, deep enough that she could hide in the thermal cocoon that was part of the pack’s emergency gear — and she had to find one soon.
But she wasn’t going to do it this way.
Wen unhooked the flashlight from her pack and set it to the widest possible beam, and then activated the spool again. As she moved, she swept the light back and forth across the dark rocks until she found a promising shadow.
Wen pocketed the flashlight and, holding the line with both hands, swung her weight gently until her feet were against the uneven wall of the chasm. “I ran more than thirty kilometers to get here,” she whispered to herself. “I can damn well walk to that cave!”
It took a few minutes to figure out exactly how long the line had to be to walk horizontally to the cave, but Wen still had twenty minutes to spare when she finally reached it. She wondered how deep she was, and if she’d be protected enough — the reel at her waist didn’t have a readout of how far she’d gone — but she didn’t have time to look deeper. No, this was it. This cave or nothing.
Wen managed to swing into the cave opening and sprawl flat on the rocky floor, keeping herself from being pulled back out again. Slowly, one hand clutching a small stalagmite, Wen played the flashlight’s beam over the cave’s walls, floor, and ceiling. Stalactites, more stalagmites, a damp and acrid odor that was probably Sidqiel’s water supply — poisonous to humans, naturally — and, to Wen’s immense relief, nothing waiting to eat her. And the cave was at least ten meters deep.
The comm pinged again. Fifteen minutes. “This is it,” Wen said. She took the utility knife from her pocket and cut through the makeshift harness. Then she carefully removed the belt while holding onto the end of the microfilament, tied the two ends together, and buckled the belt to the stalagmite.
Wen shrugged off the backpack and, by the white glow of the flashlight, unpacked the thermal cocoon. According to the tag, it was rated to keep the average human alive in temperatures ranging from minus-twenty-five to plus-one-twenty-five. Wen tried to remember just how hot it got on the surface of Sidqiel during the day.
The silvery material of the cocoon crinkled as Wen climbed into it. She tried to pull the backpack in after her, just in case, but it wouldn’t fit. “Damn.”
After a moment’s thought, Wen packed as many supplies in there with herself as she could, and drank the last of her water. Then she recorded a message on the comm and set it to broadcast mode.
Finally, Wen swallowed two sleeping tablets from the backpack’s medical kit, sealed herself inside the cocoon, and waited for dawn to come. The pills took effect quickly. Wen’s last thought before her eyes closed was that, if the cocoon didn’t save her life, at least she’d die in her sleep.
Wen maneuvered the hoverchair across the stage, accepting her diploma from the headmaster. She shook his hand and gave him a tight smile, but she didn’t really feel like smiling. She didn’t even wait for the end of the ceremony; her parents helped her get into their car, and only half an hour later she was back in the hospital, hooked up to the machines that were slowly but surely repairing her body.
Wen’s mother kissed her forehead, her hand smoothing over what wispy hair remained on Wen’s head. “I’m so proud of you, love,” she said. Her round, dark eyes filled with tears. “So proud.”
The doctor came in then, and Wen’s parents excused themselves. “How are you feeling?”
“Alive,” she said.
“Better than dead.”
Wen didn’t dignify that with a reply. Doctor Morn had been saying that ever since Wen had met him. In truth, she was lucky to get as far as him; the rescue ship had had quite a bit of difficulty getting to Wen’s cave, and she’d been exposed to heat and radiation that, despite the thermal cocoon, had nearly killed her.
Doctor Morn lifted Wen’s gown to check the radiation burns on her stomach and chest. She closed her eyes; she didn’t need to see the way her flesh hung oddly on her frame. The sickness that came with radiation poisoning had forced the doctor to remove large chunks of diseased skin. A graft was healing on her forehead and reconstructive surgery had fixed her nose, but they weren’t ready to do the rest of her body yet.
“You’re doing well, Wen,” the doctor said. “We should be able to cover the scars with more grafts, and I’m hopeful that, with enough drug therapy, you won’t need any more organ replacements.” She already had a new liver and pancreas, cloned from her mother’s because there weren’t enough healthy cells to get them from her own. “Do you have any questions?”
Wen shook her head. The doctor replaced the gown and covered Wen with a light blanket. After he was gone, her parents sat with her for a few minutes.
Sergeant Salzman waited until they were gone to come see her. He was young — only twenty-five — which had surprised Wen when she’d met him in person. He pulled a chair to her bedside and took her small hand in his large, dark ones, staring at her with intense, deep-set brown eyes. “You did it.”
She turned to him. “I did it.”
He always said that to her, and she always said that to him. When they’d first met, Wen had been fiercely shy, especially under his attentive stare — “I was there when they brought you aboard,” he’d said; “I helped save you.” — but now they’d become friends and Salzman spent at least half his off-shifts with Wen, playing games or just talking.
And on those moments when the guilt came, when Wen broke down in sobs and asked him why she’d been the only one to survive, Salzman — his first name was Shael — held her hand and passed her tissue after tissue.
Today, though, was a good day. Today, Wen smiled at Shael. Today, Shael smiled back.
Today, Wen was alive.
About the Author
Josh Roseman (not the trombonist; the other one) lives in Georgia and makes internets for a living. He has been published in — among others — Asimov’s, Escape Pod, and The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine. His short fiction has been collected in the books The Clockwork Russian and Boss Fight, and his novel After the Apocalypse was released in 2017. When not writing, he mostly complains that he’s not writing. Find him online at roseplusman.com (which, sadly, has not been updated in quite some time) or Twitter @listener42.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.