I answered the two policemen in the affirmative and listened carefully. Alice, my copilot, was missing. She had apparently gone out for a short hike at another resort, in the mountains, and never returned. Search and rescue was looking for her.
A shiver ran down my spine as I thought of my beautiful blond shipmate out in this planet's teaming primitive wilderness, lost and alone. The dinosaurs, I'd read, could be as vicious and instinctual as alligators back on old Earth. The planet was no place for unescorted travel and she'd apparently done just that. It scared the hell out of me.
I rushed back to the ship on my air cycle and got some of my own survival gear then headed out to the resort she had disappeared from. There were erupting volcanoes in the far blue-green distance and steep, newly created geologically, peaks of black and gray beautifully capped with snow and ice, rising to dizzy heights in every direction as I passed range after range. Why she had chosen such an out of the way place for a three day layover was beyond me. I was worried, scared, mad, and cold. I had the throttle opened wide and my body tucked behind the tiny windscreen flying over the conifers in the cool mountain air and it was getting colder as it tore at my recreational clothing, speeding further into the deeply forested highland interior. As the minutes passed, I couldn't keep Alice or her loveliness out of my mind and reminisced on how we had gotten to this backwater dangerous planet, recalling her cute forceful voice and strong words during landing.
"John! Trim aft boosters eight and six," Alice shouted, her voice echoing throughout the carbon fiber walls of the pilot's chamber.
We could hear the dense atmosphere howling against the outer hull of metal-composite. It sounded like a hurricane outside at the speed the ship was coming through the dense atmosphere on approach to this young planet. But it was more in the nature of a gas-giant's wind, almost as if our broad rocket was flowing through Saturn's upper cloud layers. And as a freighter isn't exactly aerodynamic, they do make a heck of a racket plowing though thick oxygenated air. The noise would, however, subside soon enough as we decelerated.
I pulled way back on the throttles Alice's specified, those fiery boosters of the fourteen main grav-engines dropping their thrusts with dramatic results and with some creative stick, handled by my co-pilot, the ship's noisy vibrations smoothed considerably.
"That's it," I said, more to myself than to my lovely ship's companion keeping a careful eye on the descent rate and trim while she dutifully maneuvered the ship.
"Four Ninety-two," Alice called out the vastly decrease in speed every twelve seconds, out of habit. She was doing her job and mine, for the most part, for practice. "Four Eighty! Four Sixty-Eight.--Opening Air brakes."
The ship protested in a howl again and the spacecraft shuddered like a flimsy airplane hitting the runway of some earth-environed airport. Our bodies strained forward against the thick kevlar safety restraints.
I cut thrust on all but two of the engines. We were letting the ship's hull slow us like a parachute as we watched the readouts on the ship's needs and soon enough it was less noisy.
After a few minutes, Alice broke the silence in our much quieted pilot's chamber, speaking this time instead of shouting: "One eighty! One sixty-eight!"
The ship was essentially falling through the sky though the shape of the fuselage made it a somewhat controlled glide.
"Landing gear deployed," I said, in support.
"Activating ground hover," Alice communicated. The huge space craft's tons of structure reacted as if it were suddenly sitting calmly on a permacrete airfield when the air brakes retracted and the landing engines kicked in far above the distant criss-crossed runways of the field. We had now slowed to less than a seventy kilometers per hour.
"Deactivating main engines," I said, locking back the silver throttles while punching keys and flipping incidental switches. "All red," I said, gazing at the panel. The distant humming of the grav-drive subsided.
"Okay," Alice commented, looking at an overhead monitor, "There's Port Angeles--such as it is..."
I followed her gaze. The airfield sat off to one side of the growing city. There were enormous buildings that had to be the main hangers and various smaller ones under construction. Large and not so large craft were docked hap-hazardly around the field in what appeared to be a chaos of ship, port and machinery.
"A little on the primitive side, I'd say," I replied.
Besides the seeming disarray of the docking, large trees and plant life infiltrated the space port everywhere, which normally isn't tolerated inside the boundaries of a landing field, especially near taxi ways. It was, of course, a newly settled planet we knew from the latest reports and though it was both Alice and my first experience there, we both came to the same conclusions.
"Y-e-a-h," she agreed, drawing out the word.
I glanced at her sitting straight-backed in her black pilot's chair looking up at the monitors, her beautiful chin-line raised gracefully to the multiple screens, her deep set blue eyes flickering quickly from one system read-out to the next, adjusting her guidance as needed. I couldn't help but be enamored by her. She's is gorgeous, I thought. You must be the loveliest thing I've ever been around and certainly the best rookie co-'p' I've ever had, I thought to myself. And--she was driven, as well as independent, determined to advance quickly to full pilot status.
Alice had a perfect Scandinavian face with rosy cheeks and dramatically arched eyebrows that gave her a serious Viking look though still extremely feminine. Long golden hair fell as if it were a shower of silk strands across her broad beautiful shoulders and athletic back. However, one's eyes couldn't help but be drawn to the rest of her figure. Those long shapely legs wrapped in the skin tight flight suit were curled beneath the beautiful wedge of her hips and with the cross-your-chest safety harness exaggerating her already dramatically sculpted charms, even more than was normal, the restraints pushed and spread her body to a point of intolerable obviousness, for me. I don't know if I'd ever witnessed such a perfect being as her before and after three months of being almost completely alone with Alice, except during ports of call, shuttling freight from planet to planet, it was still difficult not to stare.
I'd seriously tried to convince myself that maybe she was someone I actually wanted to know better, but so far hadn't made a move, keeping our relationship strictly professional. Looking back, I don't know why. Perhaps it was nothing more than bachelorhood and ego and wanting to work unencumbered to get rich before I was thirty-six.
"Argon--Angeles-Control," the field's air controller hailed to us again after initial contact. "You are cleared for docking at berth sixty-seven. Confirm, please."
"Understood," Alice replied. "Berth sixty-seven."
I leaned back in my flight chair. "It's all yours," I relinquished, letting Alice take over the landing sequence while I merely kept watch.
She had felt uncomfortable, at first, when I asked her to do these manual landings, yet after six planet falls she was getting as good at it as I was and I had been doing them for years.
Just over the berth we got a frantic call from the control tower. "Control to Argon: Hold position, Argon! I say again, hold your position!" It was highly unusual for them to interrupt the last few meters of landing for a craft our size.
"Argon holding, Control," Alice replied, making some quick adjustments. The ship halted in mid-air like an elevator coming to a stop. I rotated the microphone closer to my mouth.
"Argon, Control. What's going on?" I asked. We were only forty meters off the permacrete.
"Watch your monitors. We have a few indigenous residents migrating beneath you."
A glance at the ventral landing monitors quickly showed what appeared to be enormous Hadrosaurs approaching the ship. They didn't look the same as Earth's imagined renditions but they were similar in many ways. We heard a distant bang as one of the bigger ones bumped its head. It was a whole herd of them, maybe a hundred or so. They were big, and elegant and magnificent animals and seemingly unafraid of the ship in it's silent magnetic landing mode, meters above their heads. We waited in awe holding over the field as they passed beneath us.
"I've never seen dinosaurs before," said Alice, straining even more against her safety harness to get a better look, testing the form fitting seams of her purple flight suit, .
"I have, once before," I announced, again dragging my eyes away from that stressed clothing and back to the monitors. "Two years ago on Mallidor. It's in a Jurassic stage, too."
"How cute," she said, continuing to moon over the young ones on screen and making me smile, as she sounded like a little girl. "They're so-o-o beautiful," Alice added.
I agreed, though my agreement wasn't necessarily aimed at the beauty of the dinos, while I was stared at her. I discarded my thoughts of her smile and figure, trying to get beyond her physique as the tower calmly came back over our com sets.
"Control to Argon. You are now clear to land."
"Argon here. Thank you, Control," Alice informed them.
I watched her movements as she efficiently threw a couple of switches and maneuvered Argon down to a slightly jolted landing. The stoppage transferred the shock to our flight chairs and I noticed how her body bounced. You can't imagine how wonderfully distracting she could be.
"Nice landing," I said.
We stood on the solid permacrete field, in the humid shade of the ship, with the acrid scent and ticking sounds of the cooling grav' engines lingering in the air as the unloading crew of one arrived. Twenty or so antiquated robotic sleds, followed dutifully behind his lead vehicle. How primitive can you get, I thought. No air lifts? The smoky internal combustion engined machines rattled away behind him with tines extending like huge dinner forks eager to get at the meal.
I was standing down-wind from Alice as her long golden hair feathered softly against my shoulder and neck in the warm breeze. I took a step forward away from the maddening touch to address the unloading crew-chief, but he beat me to the punch.
"Welcome to the Western Rim of the Cruize-Nebula, Argon. How'd you like our little zoo display?" asked the crew-chief as he jumped off his field sled. A sewn-on tag announced his name as, 'Gil.'
"Quite the scene," I said. "Kind of unusual to have them on the airfield, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it is. Sorry about that, Captain. It is and it isn't, actually. Seems the genius who chose this spot for the space port didn't realize it was on a migration path for a whole lot of dinosaurs. We're lucky they weren't the meat eaters. Those suckers are scary. They all are, really. We've put up fencing but they just tear it out."
"Yeah! They're about twice the size of earth's old dinosaurs and very powerful. We're going to do it better and more permanent, next time, I'm told. It's a primitive, dangerous place, even in the settled areas. Anything can happen around here. And the plant growth, as you may have gathered," he said, glancing around the infield, "is phenomenal. We can get a thirty meter tree in two weeks, in these coastal areas, if we don't stay up on the denuding. Keeping the local flora off the field is a constant problem. Trees are worse than weeds on this planet."
Alice and I nodded, our heads bouncing like the dolls in some people's cars with understanding.
"Well," he continued, "Let's see what your cargo consists of," he said, extending a hand toward my co-pilot.
Alice immediately handed him the various electronic manifests, then, turned to open the thirty meter wide clam-shell of the main cargo-bay, exposing her heart shaped swaying rump as she left. I watched Gil stare as Alice strode to the controls and started the mechanism, the sharp out-hissing of our air-conditioned atmosphere breaking the breezy monotony of the air field's distant noise. Gil's eyes left Alice and glanced my way with a smirk, but quickly looked down at the manifests, shaking his head side to side. I had to agree with what was obviously a, 'Wow!' assessment.
Alice and I didn't usually see the sights together when we hit landfall. Alone with another person for weeks at a time can get on your nerves no matter who they were, so we said our goodbyes till three days hence. The ship was unloaded and we weren't scheduled for any maintenance. Hopefully we'd have nice separate holidays.
I asked around for a quality hotel slash resort and got mixed answers so I rode into the city on my big airbike.
There were the usual bright casinos and other activities in the port town but after reading a few brochures I opted for a cowboy ranch a hundred kilometers outside the city limits which, of course, was more like a single's dude ranch.
I went right to my bungalow, changed into trunks and went for a swim in the big blue-laned pool. I did a bunch of laps then lay out in the warm genuine sunshine and hot breezy air for a while watching pretty women walk past my sunglasses. I ate some dinner afterwards and did a little gambling, too. Buying a news bulletin and a paper back book in the gift shop, I retired for the night with a bottle of aged local whiskey which turned out to be damn fine tasting stuff and drank a little too much. I read for a couple of hours, switched through a bunch of channels on the tv then turned out the lights.
I slept late. It was eleven a.m. while I was eating breakfast in the dinning room, slightly hung over, when I was approached by the two local policemen.
What now? I wondered. That was when they told me Alice was
Enormous trees bordered the low lying resort in the heart of the new world's mountain peaks, hiding the low buildings on my approach. I overshot and had to do a steep banked turn through the crisp mountain air to get back to it at the speed I had been traveling.
"This is Sergeant Zail, Captain. He knows who you are. He's in charge of the search and rescue," a police officer introduced us.
"Sergeant Zail," I said, shaking his hand. "What can I do to help? I've got an airbike and my own survival gear."
Unlike other search and rescue I'd encountered in my military days, he was more than willing to tell me what was going on and how I might help. He glanced back at the printed paths on a map, laid out on a makeshift table, and showed where Alice might have taken a wrong turn, the possible places she may have gotten lost, and/or, as he explained, "...been confronted," saying that the wildlife had no fear of man so she may have been attacked or taken somewhere for feeding on, later. It was a gruesome thought but not so unusual on this planet, apparently. Damn! I swore to myself. The thought of Alice dead or dying in the talons of a vicious reptile filled me with horror, anger and a new desperation to find her.
I got on my aircycle with the communications device Zail had given me and followed the paths to the other searchers, still looking fervently for some sign of Alice. I stayed put with them for most of the afternoon till maybe six P.M., until I saw something across the wide cloudless valley on the distant peaks that didn't seem quite right. I pulled out my field glasses and had a look. There was something going on over there on one of the pinnacled ridges.
I hesitated then decided to act on my own and ran back to where I had left the airbike and jumped on. Opening up the throttle I headed for the distant ridge line. The wind tore at my clothes again and whistled past the bike's aero structure as I huddled beneath the small fairing at the unsafe speed. It didn't take long to get there, thank goodness.
As I slowed nearing the ridge, I could see a couple of huge reptilian creatures circling over one of the pinnacles. Closer now, I saw a human being, a woman, sitting on the bone-strewn, flat topped tip of stone with her back to me. A small torn backpack lay next to her straightened out arm holding her upright . Several dead creatures, nearby in a nest of leaves and tree branches, were bloody looking and immobile. Obviously chicks. The large hugely wingspanned creatures above must have been the parents and this person, whom I now had no doubt was Alice, had been brought here for food. They hadn't counted on her fighting back as well as she had, though, and somehow, miraculously, she had survived the night and most of this day on the cool windswept pinnacle with primitive animals trying to rip her apart. I was amazed at her resilience.
"Alice!" I screamed as loud as I could.
She spun on her bare buttocks, recognizing me without expression and empty eyes. Slowly, she limped to a standing bent over position while holding desperately to a sizable tree limb she used as a crutch. She gazed back at me in anticipation, now, as she realized help was close at hand. Most of her clothes had been pecked at and ripped away. I could see bloody streams from numerous wounds all over her body, mostly on her shoulders and head and one, in the right forearm, looked especially bad.
I moved to within meters of the pinnacle and immediately noticed the putrid smell of the rotting remains fouling the air, mostly from picked over bones and skin that were lying everywhere.
I called to Alice as she stood helpless on the edge of the pinnacle, leaning on that bloodied piece of tree limb.
"Do not jump towards me, Alice," I commanded. "I'm coming to you. Move back from the edge, yes, like that, good girl." She did as I told her. I could see how exhausted and hurt she really was; naked, torn and dehydrated, she seemed nearly dead with fatigue. She looked up and I followed her gaze. One of the adults was diving at us and she cried out, "Get down!" as I tried moving the aircycle to protect my co-pilot, yet, Alice swung at the animal anyway as it neared the vehicle. The scary reptile came within inches of strafing us with its yellow claws, screeching as it passed. Alice missed striking it, unfortunately, and the centrifugal force of the limb spun her to the ground even as it flew from her weakened grip, tumbling with a distant sound of wood as it cracked over the edge.
She lay twisted and breathing hard in a heap of bruises, bloody wounds and heavy sobbings that shook her shoulders with pitiful tears. I quickly set the bike centimeters above the rock and jumped to pick her up off the smelly stone, cradling her in my arms, keeping a careful watch for the threatening dives of the adults. That's how they attacked, I surmised, by surprise and snapping at their intended prey with their long toothed beaks.
I carefully sat Alice on the saddle of the airbike but she whimpered in pain, anyway. I quickly collected her pack from the ground and threw the straps over one of my handlebars. I released the pack off my back and stuffed it into the fairing space as I jumped on, putting her arms around my waist and telling her to, "Hold on tight."
Before getting off that pinnacle, I grabbed the survival pistol from its holster on my backpack's belt loop and kept it ready, off safety, set on maximum and in-hand in case of another attack.
Slowly maneuvering the bike, I crept off the pinnacle staying close to the rock faces where the flying reptiles couldn't comfortably get near enough with their huge wingspans to do us harm. I had no idea how fast they could fly so I played it safe and descended the side of the tall mountain with plenty of caution, then, moved into the trees heading for help at the mountain resort. Thinking the tall forest would offer up protection, I flowed through them like it was a slalom course. But I wasn't a kilometer into the upper canopy, thinking we were safe, when one of the adults fluttered down in between some trees like a huge wall and began threatening us with horrid, deafening screams, snapping at the two of us with its four meter long beak.
I took aim and blasted the center of its body to a stinking
smoking hole and watched as it crumpled to the forest floor far
The city hospital was cool and quiet at three a.m.. I stared at Alice's calm feminine face as I put another blanket on top of the one already covering her long limbs. I thought of the importance of having Alice in my life. Not because she was beautiful, but because she was a person, a human being I had grown to value and appreciate and had some semblance of need for. She was a friend--and a companion. I almost moved to kiss her forehead but didn't want to wake her. She was sleeping like a child.
I walked to the private room's window and looked out over the gleaming lit-up city of Port Angeles. It had been 19 days since we had landed Argon on this primitive planet. Most of which time, after the rescue, we had spent side by side talking about each other's history as she healed. I had abandoned the strictly professional stance I had before held to as I got to know all about her and she of me. We actually enjoyed each other's company and were looking forward to getting out of there. Alice was emotionally and physically recovered from her experience, so the doctors claimed, and they assured us both, she would be released today.
There were no scars, no broken bones, no bruising and basically she was only here for final tests. She looked as perfect as she ever had and I thanked God for the doctors, the machines, the medicines and that she was still around.
I didn't know what lay ahead for the two of us, if anything, but I knew I didn't want her to leave my ship, as all other co-pilots had, to find a command or finance their own private freighter. I wasn't really sure how I felt about her. I just didn't want her to go.
I needed coffee and turned to get some when a voice called out; "John, will you be back soon?"
"Try and stop me," I said, with a grin.