*Follows Gateway and Surface
Falling from an aircraft and experiencing flight the way only a liar can feels nothing like falling from a planet. Or in this case a moon, Samuel reminds himself. The landscape here doesn't vary and the dark skies make it hard to gauge how high up he actually is. His head hurts, an infection-inspired vertigo, and that his eyes constantly readjust from his inclination to stare up at Saturn and down at Iapetus make the very act of focus - visual or mental - almost impossible. But he can't help it. This facade of flying is too addicting.
"Jesus fuck," Vasquez mutters as he loses his balance. The impact doesn't hurt much - the gravity here is roughly two or three percent of Earth's - but the complicated act of landing properly makes him feel like an albatross.
"Ah, shit," Estevez screams in frustration as he undertakes the same clumsy action.
Roarke can't help but smile, knowing that Estevez and Vasquez are from the same part of the United States and react similarly to almost every situation. The group - five survivors from an initial squad of 13 - has been walking/flying for about 70 miles. It was determined a short time ago that whatever is jamming their transmissions to the orbiter is not coming from Gateway. Instead, it seems to be coming from the moon. Though Roarke swears she can occasionally see the Capricorn orbiter in the sky - a perception shared by none of the others - she knows that the odds of the crew spotting five lonely spots on the surface of Iapetus are slim to none... and closer to none.
"Sipalia," Roarke calls out over the comm-set, "the men are tired."
Sipalia responds with a grunt. The labored breathing Roarke hears lets her know that Sipalia is well-aware of the team's exhaustion. They've been fighting all day - perhaps more than a day - and though the light gravity allows the team to move quite rapidly, the frustration of not being able to move efficiently is taking its fair toll.
"Oxygen check," Sipalia orders. Though Roarke had led the team for much of the operation, Sipalia re-assumed his proper authority upon leaving the station. They hadn't been accosted by the Things since abandoning McDaniels in the airlock and the thought of sleeping is quite attractive.
Everyone reports in at least 60%. Good news, thinks Sipalia, and he begins mentally to put a sleep schedule together. Then he realizes only three reports came in.
"Nduom?" Sipalia repeats in that command voice that leaders who prefer subtle approaches hate to use.
The zenith of the flight arc provides a wonderful view of the equatorial ridge. It is a strange natural formation that spans nearly the entire waistline of the moon. The skyline screams of being man-made - or intelligently-designed, as it were - but he knows that's impossible. The entire moon would have to be an artifact, were that the case. Thoughts struggle to form pedestrian theories as a pressure suit slams into the ground. The memory of a paratrooper's poeticism from the early 21st century begins to sing in imaginative choir.
"Give us wings... and we'll still fall."
"Nduom!" Sipalia's yell fails to snap Nduom out of whatever trance he's in and Sipalia watches as the pressure suit smacks a rock, then rolls over limp. "Estevez." It is a simple order and even without being able to see Sipalia's command expression, Estevez reacts immediately and bounds over to Nduom's unmoving suit.
"Hang on, brother," Estevez radios out, "I'm coming." The anxiety in the medic's voice betrays his knowledge that if, in fact, Nduom needs medical attention, he's not getting any out here.
"Anybody see what happened?" Sipalia asks the others. Some shake their heads, then respond "no" once they remember that the pressure helmet hides any such body language. "Well, that's just fucking great."
"How far do you think we are from the ridge?"
Sipalia turns to Roarke instinctively. Even without being able to discern a woman's voice, he knows that she's the only one who would ask such a pragmatic question in such a dicked-up circumstance. He holds his thumb toward Gateway, estimating their distance traveled, then turns around and compares it to the base of the ridge. "We're over half-way," he answers.
Roarke fails to transmit it, but Sipalia imagines a small sigh of relief. The ridge is their last hope of making contact with the orbiter - or so they think - and the orbiter is their only chance of survival.
Samuel can tell his body is being rolled over into a supine position, but he can't tell by whom... or by what. His thoughts continue to enjoy the meanderings of flight, finding an imaginary permanence over a random peak of a random mountain. Iapetus, he muses, is only about one-tenth as beautiful as Earth's own moon. Somewhere in the back of his mind there's a laugh at such an arbitrary and subjective conclusion.
His eyes finally recognize Estevez' face through the half-reflection of a gold-lined faceplate. The medic is talking to him and though the receivers are inches from his ears, Samuel has no idea what is being said. Instead, his thoughts begin to accelerate, concocting mathematical formulas that have no basis in logic.
65 miles to the ridge. Just over 100 klicks. 15 klicks up the designated peak. Just over 9 miles. 189 total integers that don't create a sum but add together anyway. The acceleration of gravity here is .223 meters per second squared and indefinite flight can be achieved with a jump creating just over a half-kilometer per second force. The orbiter should still be tending to Gateway's satellites, which are geo-synchronous, which technically allows a rendezvous with a well-aimed push. 60% oxygen is an ample supply. 40% carbon dioxide might be enough to plant a tree. Landing in a tree should be easier than landing on a rock one can barely see. I just want to fly.
Samuel knows he was scratched by one of the Things. He couldn't figure out if it were a claw or a tail that got him... maybe even a tooth or a fang... but it didn't draw a lot of blood so he had kept his mouth shut. He watches Estevez stand and can tell the medic's posture is dour. The Things are poisonous.
Estevez double-checks the vital read on the suit before he calls Sipalia. "He's dying."
Sipalia is confused, but doesn't harp on it. "From what?" There's nothing out here.
"I don't know."
"Can we carry him?"
"Sure, but without opening the suit there's not a damned thing I can do."
Roarke's radio keys and Sipalia prepares himself to counteract her typical "no man left behind" argument. Instead, she merely offers a suggestion. "Transfer his oxygen to the others."
Each man can hear her tears. The Icy Bitch finally melts under Saturn's rings of ice.
Nduom lies still on the moon's landscape. Left with ten per cent oxygen - the others hoping that his wound will kill him before the asphyxiation - his mind once again returns to flight. He briefly considers this to be an out-of-body experience, but discounts the consideration when he fails to see his body. Only stars in one direction and a large, ringed planet in the other. There is no wind, no gale to ride, but the flight is as spectacular as any he's ever taken.
He smiles as another pressure suit approaches. Perhaps one of his friends - probably Roarke - is refusing to let him die alone. It towers above him, though Nduom knows that he is flying above it. How odd that ground and sky can each be touched but out of reach at the same time. There is cheerful laughter as he sees that there are wings on his new companion. An angel to take him home.
200 billion stars means 200 billion chances for life. There is alien life here, of which I am one. One killed me. And one returns me to zero.
It is a horrible mathematical interpretation, but as he is carried away from the surface, he knows that the formula is sound. Breaking free of atmosphere, he spies the peaks that his friends head toward. Somehow, they will survive.
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