"There it goes again, polishing the same goddamn handrail." He sat in the pilot seat with his back to the helm. The maintenance robot scrubbed fixtures near the doorway to the bridge. "Day in and day out, disinfecting this and scouring that. It's probably why the air in here is so stuffy and dry. Know what I mean, Jacquelyn?"
Jacquelyn scrutinized the navigation chart from the co-pilot seat. "If you're that bored, Corbin, you can help me figure out how you got us so far off course", she replied, without looking up. A notebook and several academic journals were piled on the console next to her.
"Always straight to the point," he said, looking her over. "Hand me the chart and I'll take a look." Corbin took a sip from his coffee mug, slopping some on the floor next to his foot. The maintenance bot scurried toward the mess and reached for it, then seemed to second guess and withdraw, going back and forth over and over. "Do you see this?"
"Focus!" Jacquelyn slid the chart over to Corbin and returned to the console. "What are we doing out here, anyway?" She asked. "It looks like the highway is just barely within long range sensor distance."
"We're only a couple hours off course," he replied, "nothing more than a rounding error."
"A couple of hours? I have things to do at the station. Plus I need sleep before my next hop to the symposium. You can't just go gallivanting off the well-lit path and into the forest when you see something shiny."
"Gallivanting? Is that what they teach linguistic undergrads these days?" By now the robot had given up and was looking intently at Corbin. He sneered for a moment before moving his foot, giving the robot clearance to clean.
"Look", he began, "just think of this as a quick sight-seeing detour. We can be explorers!"
The console in front of Jacquelyn lit up and beeped. She turned to Corbin.
"Oh my, what could that be?" he said with feigned surprise. "Is it a notification that we're within 1,000 Astronomical Units of a planetary system?"
Jacquelyn rolled her eyes. "Let me guess, Corbin, you think we should drop out of FTL and have a look?"
Corbin returned a smile.
"Alright, one hour."
"It'll be fun!" he reassured her. "Can you scan the planets while I recheck the manifest? Just hit that blue button. According to intergalactic law, if you discover something cool you get to name it!"
Corbin left the room before Jacquelyn could ask about the legal definition of something cool.
"What's he up to?" she asked out loud. The robot turned to her and paused. "I was being rhetorical".
She returned to the console and pressed the blue button.
"How's the scan going?" Corbin asked, accompanied by a fresh cup of coffee. The robot looked at his fresh cup, then his previous cup still sitting on the console. "I see we're moving."
Jacquelyn copied data to her notebook from the screen. "Come here come here, look at this. Nitrogen, Oxygen, and trace levels of CO2. The fourth planet is habitable! I hope you don't mind but I'm taking us in for a closer look."
"See, aren't you glad I brought us out here?"
Corbin and Jacquelyn looked at each other. "What the hell was that?" she asked as alarms went off.
The robot paused for a moment then relayed some information to the crew. "HULL BREACH DETECTED, COMMS AND LIFE SUPPORT DAMAGED, EMERGENCY MODE ACTIVATED." The robot ran out the door, dropping a coffee mug to the floor.
"Shit, shit, shit" Corbin said, returning to his seat to get more details. He tapped a few buttons and read the display.
"What's it say?" She asked.
"There's a hull breach, probably a meteor. The robot just switched into some sort of emergency mode and is repairing it."
"Well, what are we supposed to do?" Jacquelyn asked.
Jacquelyn was trying to make sense of the console when Corbin reentered the bridge. "Any news?" she asked.
"Well", he began, "the robot patched up the hole. Normally there would be an enter and exit wound, but the meteor must have lost momentum when it busted through the radio equipment. After that the rock bounced around and took out the backup O2 tanks. The radio was probably an easy fix but the robot ripped it apart to get to the hull. Now it'll probably take months of reading manuals and gutting equipment to rebuild it."
He continued, "Other than that thrusters are fine, nav is fine, and we have a months worth of food. We just can't leave this solar system and we can't tell anyone about it. Cryostasis is fine, too. Look, I know most people are afraid of Cryo, but with a reduced metabolism, and all the solar we're getting, we could survive for a year or two. By then someone might come and find us."
Jacquelyn shook her head. "There's no way you're putting me on ice. Besides, there are hundreds of thousands of systems out here. Nobody would ever find us. Not even if they sent a whole fleet of ships."
"And what would you have us do?" Corbin asked.
"We land," She replied.
Corbin shook his head. "No way. Too many unknowns. And I've never technically landed on a planet before."
"You said it yourself," She replied, "the ship can still fly. I continued scanning the planet while you were away and it looks promising. Gravity is 90% of what we're used to. The surface is habitable day and night."
"So," he began, "we land, and I work on fixing the radio? There's no guarantee I can pull it off. Is there even any water down there?"
"Vegetation?" he asked.
"You're gonna have to play farmer girl, ya know. Huh… It just might work. What did you name it?"
Jacquelyn looked down at her notebook. "Elpizia."
"Well," he continued, "once we reach the, uh, Elpizian surface, this ship will never fly again."
Jacquelyn awoke first. Being vertical with a safety belt tight across her chest was an uncomfortable departure from private quarters. At least the feeling of non-synthesized gravity felt nice. She looked over at Corbin: He didn't look injured and would certainly benefit from the rest. She removed her harness and examined the bridge.
Charts, tablets, and books were scattered everywhere. Dried coffee smudged the cracked window. She instinctively piled her books back on the console before checking out the rest of the ship.
The robot was in the mess hall cleaning food from a ruptured container. "Robot, don't throw any of that away, we'll need it." The robot looked up at her and belted out an "AFFIRMATIVE". She continued down the corridor.
She turned the corner to look in the rec room and let out a gasp. The once-organized room full of exercise equipment featured a gaping hole of twisted metal. Torn materials from the hull bent this way and that. Outside the ship was a sandy desert scattered with red rock and recently-split boulders, intermingled with chunks of fuselage and dumbbells. Dry but breathable air filled her nostrils.
Jacquelyn sifted through Corbin's storage lockers until she found a pair of binoculars with a compass. She approached the breach and looked down: The ground was just a hop away.
Once outside she climbed one of the ship's wings. From the top of the ship she scanned the horizon, taking note of what she saw.
Jacquelyn returned from her reconnaissance mission. Corbin listed damaged tools and equipment on a tablet. The robot assessed the massive mess while holding a tiny trash bag.
"It looks like we're on the edge of a giant desert." she reported. "North of here, maybe ten kilometers, I could just barely make out what looks like a forest and a river, covered in a thick fog. We can probably grow food up there, maybe build a shelter."
"A shelter?" he replied. "All our equipment is here, the electronics and tools, and it's too heavy to drag, even for the robot. If it's as foggy as you say it is then we won't get much sunlight. Speaking of which, I'll have to rig a solar panel for the robot, otherwise it won't be very useful."
"Yeah, but we can't grow food in the desert. Fruits and vegetables need dirt and water to grow. Plus, farming takes hours of work every day and that's one hell of a hike."
"Shit. If we're gonna stay alive you have to grow food. And if we're gonna get outta here I need to fix the radio."
"Let's try this," she said. "I'll work in the forest and you work on the ship. We have enough food to hold us over until something grows. Once you upgrade the robot we can build a farm. Then the robot can do the heavy lifting."
Corbin considered the situation. "We can send the robot back and forth whenever someone needs it. It'll be like sharing custody of a kid!"
The robot turned to look at Corbin.
Jacquelyn finished weaving a large, thick leaf into place between two upright logs. It took a week of hard work but they were able to build a hut. Corbin cut down trees from the forest. The robot, with solar panels resembling a dog cone, hauled wood and held logs while they were tied together with vines and patched with mud. The hut was big enough to hold Jacquelyn and the tools she needed to farm with. After the robot relocated a mattress from the ship it was almost cozy.
The robot tilled the ground and gathered water. Jacquelyn taught it to pour just enough to neither parch nor drown the crop. The robot was tireless, hauling water back and forth between the river, the hut, and the ship.
After that Corbin constantly worked on radio repair. Jacquelyn, on the other hand, soon had several hours of downtime each day. She wandered deeper into the forest, hunting for native sources of food to supplement their existing supply. There was a looming risk that the crops wouldn't mature by the time they ran out.
On a particularly sunny day—one where the fog recoiled more than usual—Jacquelyn ventured much deeper into the forest than before. It was there that she discovered a small purple-furred creature hunched over by the river. It had two arms, two legs, two bushy ears, and a small bushy tail. The creature was only as tall as Jacquelyn's thigh. She considered running back to get Corbin, but by the time they returned it would surely be gone.
Jacquelyn pulled her notebook from her bag and took notes as the creature sipped water from the river. She crept closer, looking for claws or sharp teeth, but years of conditioning from the presence of stuffed animals left her feeling safe. As she drew near she noticed the creature was bleeding from a wound in its side. Jacquelyn exchanged her notebook for a freeze-dried apple she had in her bag and crouched down.
"Hey there, are you hurt? Want some food?" The creature turned to face Jacquelyn, stood upright on its hind legs, and screeched. It backed away but fell down and grasped its wound. Jacquelyn regained her composure and approached it, making the same noises one uses to sooth a child. It must have realized Jacquelyn wasn't about to pounce and sniffed the fruit. The creature reached out, grabbed the apple, and took a bite. Then another. Soon the apple was gone.
Jacquelyn helped clean the creature up. The two of them spent the afternoon together in the forest, with Jacquelyn slowly winning its trust and taking notes along the way. The creature seemed intelligent so she tried to communicate. Jacquelyn pulled out another apple and showed it to the creature. She ate it and said "Food". She walked around, looking under leaves and rocks, pulling down tree branches and examining stems, each time repeating "Food?"
The creature took off running down a path. "Wait!" It ran on all fours and Jacquelyn only managed to keep up because it was wounded. They arrived at a small grove. The creature approached a bush, reached inside, and pulled out something small and black. It handed the walnut-sized item to Jacquelyn. The creature procured another one, bit it, and sucked juice from it. Jacquelyn punctured hers with a fingernail and gently tapped it with her tongue.
It was sour, but edible. She turned back to the creature. "Food?"
"Fff… Foo" the creature replied.
"How are the repairs going?" Jacquelyn asked as she walked beneath the makeshift lean-to and entered the rec-room-turned-laboratory. She held a basket of fruit and vegetables; half familiar, half alien. A small, purple creature followed behind her.
"Finally!" Corbin replied, getting up from the floor where he tinkered with a machine. He wore an undershirt and a pair of shorts, with grease stains on his arms. The robot stood in the corner, meticulously winding copper wire around a plastic cylinder. "I see you brought your, uh, friend with you again. How's that working out?" He reached into the basket and grabbed a handful of strawberries.
"Her name is 'SooSee', Corbin. SooSee the BeeDoo. Just think Susie the bear. You should know that by now." Upon hearing her name, SooSee looked up at Jacquelyn and smiled. Jacquelyn placed her basket on a bench and SooSee did the same.
"It's going quite well, actually. I've been teaching them a language based on our mutual phonetics. It's fascinating watching them communicate and learn. They even invented a few words on their own."
"Well, I'm glad to see you're having fun," he replied, "but please don't get too distracted. I do enjoy the occasional meal, you know." He popped several strawberries into his mouth.
SooSee gestured toward her basket. "Foo Daa KaaBaa" she said in her high-pitched voice.
"She says Food for Corbin. Don't you feel special? We even have a word for your name. I'm YaaKaa. YaaKaa, SooSee, KaaBaa EeeTaa Foo." Jacquelyn chuckled; when she spoke in front of the BeeDoos it was serious, but in front of Corbin, it must sound silly.
Corbin gulped and smiled. "You know, it's always nice when you come by. And not just because you feed me. I never thought I'd say this, but it's pretty lonely out here. I suppose, since you have a whole village of friends, you get to be a little more social."
"Well, you know, you could come visit the farm more often. Actually, you could help me teach the nearby BeeDoo village, maybe show them how to build tools or something."
"Yeah, I should come visit you more often. I suppose a little R&R wouldn't kill me. Anyway, the radio should be ready in a few weeks. The only catch is that the antenna needs to transmit from somewhere high. The mountain to the north past your farm should do the trick."
Corbin groped around the basket for a radish while avoiding the dark, Elpizian berries.
"Why don't you try the native fruit?" Jacquelyn asked. "They grow much quicker than ours. I think they're heartier, too. In fact, I haven't eaten a strawberry in weeks, I've been saving them for you."
"Aww, that's sweet of you. I just wish the skin wasn't so nasty."
She reached into the basket and grabbed an Elpizian berry. "Well, you don't eat the skin." SooSee, who had been nibbling berries from her basket, looked up at them. Jacquelyn brought the berry to her lips, bit through the skin, and sucked. "Here, you try." She pressed the berry against his lips. His eyes met hers and he obliged.
"Not bad, but I still think strawberries are better." He produced one from the basket and brought it to her lips.
Jacquelyn finished the berry and turned to SooSee. "SooSee, gaa HooMee". SooSee stood up, smiled, and left the ship.
Corbin chuckled. "I think I'm starting to learn your language." He turned to the robot. "Robot, finish winding the coil outside while you charge in the sunlight."
"BATTERY LEVELS NOMINAL."
"Get outta here!", Corbin demanded.
The robot took the equipment outside.
"Thanks again for coming to the village" Jacquelyn said to Corbin as they walked through the forest. "You're going to have so much fun." The robot followed behind them.
"Ya know, I must be used to the desert. It's so cold and damp up here." Corbin swatted at an insect. "Also, I don't have to deal with bugs." A small, black creature crossed their paths and ran up the side of a tree. "Whoa, is that a space squirrel?"
"We call them KeeSoo. They're actually a menace to the BeeDoos. They usually avoid us but sometimes they'll bite a young BeeDoo. They've been terrorizing our farm, too, and killed some fruit plants. I was hoping you could teach the BeeDoos how to build live traps? That way they could release the KeeSoo's outside the village."
"Live traps? It would be a lot easier to teach them how to make weapons."
"Corbin! I don't want to teach them how to kill. Let's teach our new friends how to play nicely with others. Anyway, here we are, this next clearing is the BeeDoo village. Be careful around the holes, you don't want to collapse one of their homes."
The thick forest vegetation gave way to foot-stomped dirt. The canopy above was thinner and allowed sunlight to trickle in. Dozens of holes filled the clearing, each about half a meter in diameter and led to tunnels that curved underground. Jacquelyn led Corbin to the middle of the clearing while avoiding the holes.
"Where are you friends at?" Corbin asked.
"Shh… Listen." She replied.
Corbin leaned in. He looked down at the holes, seeming to find the source of the noise. He crouched down and approached a nearby tunnel. "That's kinda creepy." The sound was from dozens of BeeDoos whispering underground.
"No it's not. It's a beautiful neighborhood full of happy families."
"If you say so…" He replied, "When does class start? We're not actually going down into these tunnels, are we?"
"Don't be silly. I'll let them know we're here." Jacquelyn held her hands up to her mouth and yelled, "SooSee!"
A few BeeDoos stuck their heads out from the tunnels. One of them bounced up to Jacquelyn and gave a loud "YaaKaa". Dozens of BeeDoos emerged from the tunnels and clamored into the clearing.
Corbin looked uneasy. "Hey, warn me next time you do that."
The BeeDoos approached their fascinating new visitors and gathered at a short distance. Some of the younger BeeDoos snuck up to the robot, tapped it lightly on the foot, and scurried away back to their families. The robot stared at their muddy paws.
Jacquelyn smiled. "I'll tell them that today we're going to have two lessons. I'll have half go with you so you can teach them how to use tools. They're quick learners but you have to start from the very beginning. It's like they never tried to learn anything before I got here."
"What kind of tools should I teach them to make?" he asked.
"Well, maybe you can teach them everything it would take to build their own shelter. SooSee was interested in the farm hut. Also, think of ways to gently fix their KeeSoo problem."
"I'll see what I can do." he replied.
Jacquelyn stomped up to the ship one morning. The robot sat in the sunlight with its solar panels extended. Jacquelyn had never seen it sitting before. It's batteries must be dead.
"Corbin! Where are you?"
Corbin stuck his head out from his makeshift lab. "You're just in time. The radio is ready." He looked Jacquelyn over. "What's wrong?"
Corbin stepped aside as Jacquelyn entered the lab. A box assembled from mismatched metal sat on top of a sled. Some of the metal was painted, other pieces were corrugated or made from grille. A large piece had "Wayfarer" painted on it and suspiciously resembled the ship's hull. The only exposed electronics was a socket and a switch with two options scratched next to it: "Off" and "Go Home".
Next to the box was a pile of interlocking tubes resembling an adult-sized building set. Insulated wire ran from one tube to another, terminating with a plug destined to mate with the box.
"I think you know what's wrong." she said. "You promised you wouldn't teach the BeeDoos to be mean!"
Corbin raised an eyebrow for a moment, an expression he soon traded for a smirk. "Oh, the space squirrels. Look, I tried to build a trap, really I did. At first I tried to build a cage but it's just not possible with twigs. Then I tried getting a few of them to help me dig a hole for the squirrels to fall in but they thought I was building a home. Finally, one of the aliens thought it was bring your kid to work day and their baby got bit by a squirrel. At that point I just had it. I sharpened the closest stick I could find and taught the aliens to stand up for themselves."
Jacquelyn scowled. "Wanna know how I found out? A BeeDoo from another tribe came by this morning. One of my students went into his tunnel and came back with a spear and chased the poor thing off. I asked him what he had. He called it a 'KaaBaa SeeTaa'. A Corbin Stick!"
Corbin raised both eyebrows this time. Jacquelyn couldn't tell if he was disgusted or proud that the first Elpizian weapon was named after him.
"Look, I'm sorry, but I just wanted them to defend themselves. Besides, you've been spending way too much time with them. They're not important. They're just a hobby to keep you busy while I do the real work. You see this thing here?" Corbin tapped the box with his foot. "This is our ticket home. All we have to do is climb that mountain to the northeast, raise the antenna, and flick the switch. One week later and we'll be sipping Mai Tais on a rescue ship."
"Thanks, really, but don't you get it?" Jacquelyn argued. "The BeeDoos are smart. We're talking about early stages of society here. As soon as I found them they began learning from us. Not just the language, not just your weapons, everything. Our interactions with each other, how mean you are to the robot, they even know that you despise them."
Corbin slammed his fist on the console. "I'm sick and tired of hearing about the BeeDoos! Congratulations: Once you get back you're gonna publish a few papers and go on a book tour. I bet you already picked out a title and wrote it down in that damn notebook you take everywhere. And I'm sure that after we're rescued you're gonna get a research team and fly back to this horrible planet. And why wouldn't you? Without these aliens, you're nothing more than a pretty campus face."
Jacquelyn opened her mouth to reply, but nothing came out.
Corbin grabbed the sled harness. "I'm finishing this myself. Right now. I have enough food here to hold me over until we're rescued. Go play with your little friends and don't bother me until a ship arrives."
Corbin left the ship and headed north toward the mountain.
Jacquelyn laid on her mattress in the hut. A few days had come and gone since Corbin left for the mountain.
The words he left her with still stung. Was he right? Getting published and making a name for herself was important. Who wouldn't want that? But she also didn't want the BeeDoos devolving into a society of war. Corbin had called her useless. But, the very fact that she could communicate with the BeeDoos proved that he was wrong.
Corbin would've activated the beacon and made it home that same evening. There wasn't anything left to do now but wait. "Might as well go tell SooSee goodbye".
Jacquelyn opened the door and stepped outside. The robot stood perfectly still about a meter away from her. "Hell no!" she shouted. "You scared the shit out of me!" Disturbed by the noise, two nesting KeeSoos leapt from their hiding place on the robot. "How long have you been out here?"
"Did Corbin send you? Did he run out of food? Well, you can tell him to go ration himself." The robot continued to look at Jacquelyn, trying to determine a command.
"Let me try something else. Robot, did Corbin send you to get food?"
"Robot, did Corbin realize how much of an ass he was being? Never mind. Well, you can come with me, the BeeDoos like you."
Jacquelyn walked into the forest with the robot. Before long a small purple creature ran out in front of her.
"SooSee!" Jacquelyn began, crouching down for a hug, before being interrupted. "KaaBaa… Bee… HooMee" meaning Corbin big home, something that didn't make sense to Jacquelyn. Each time they met for class some new words were traded to describe the happenings of Elpizia, but it would take months until a conversation-worthy vocabulary was ready. Jacquelyn was confident they were smart enough to evolve the language after she left.
Maybe SooSee was trying to say that Corbin was at his ship, which was pretty big compared to a BeeDoo home. Jacquelyn turned to the robot. "Robot, is Corbin at the ship?"
Jacquelyn turned back to SooSee and asked where Corbin was, "Voo KaaBaa".
SooSee ran toward the mountain.
The three of them arrived at the base of the mountain. Hundreds of holes, similar to the ones in the BeeDoo village, dotted the landscape. Unlike the village homes these holes were either eroded by wind, caved in, or overgrown with weeds.
Jacquelyn's eyes followed the gradual slope to the top where it leveled out and revealed that the mountain was a dormant volcano.
Jacquelyn stepped around the holes and approached the mountain. SooSee, on the other hand, fell behind, peering into holes and looking around every step of the way. Jacquelyn waited for SooSee to catch up.
She asked SooSee what was wrong and received a cryptic Elpizian response: giant fire bird. Jacquelyn looked up at the sky and around the mountain but didn't see any birds or nests or fires. She pressed on, lacking the words to investigate further.
They passed a small cave while climbing. It looked shallow and empty to Jacquelyn but SooSee spent several moments inspecting every corner before rejoining the group. Once SooSee inspected a second cave Jacquelyn began to worry about timing.
The three of them reached the summit several inspections later. The rim of the now-dormant volcano had a diameter of about one kilometer. Craggy boulders circled the rim. A lake formed in the center, not much higher than the ground outside.
On the opposite side of the rim a giant slab of rock had collapsed and formed a ledge. It was the most likely place Corbin would have set up the radio so she began walking along the rim toward it.
Once they reached the ledge they discovered the radio and unprepared antenna. Jacquelyn cupped her hands to her mouth. "Corbin! Where are you?" SooSee turned to her and shrieked, startling Jacquelyn, who hadn't seen SooSee upset since their first encounter months ago.
SooSee followed her shriek with "KeeToo" for quiet. Before Jacquelyn could ask why she noticed something at the base of the mountain.
Corbin's body lay face-down.
Jacquelyn covered her mouth and gasped. SooSee looked down and saw the body as well. She purred a soft "KaaBaa" and clutched Jacquelyn's leg.
Jacquelyn followed the robots gaze along the rim. Three BeeDoos ran toward them. Their fur was darker than the ones from the village. She realized why the robot called them a threat.
Each one of them carried a Corbin Stick.
"Run!" she shouted, and the three of them retreated to the side of the mountain where they had come from.
They hid in one of the many caves. Their journey to find Corbin had consumed much of the day and dawn was approaching.
Jacquelyn went over the events from the day. Corbin was dead, the radio wasn't broadcasting, and a group of angry BeeDoos were chasing them with spears.
Jacquelyn asked SooSee if the BeeDoos with the Corbin Sticks were friends, "KaaBaa SeeTaa BeeDoo FeeDoo?"
SooSee replied "Naa". Jacquelyn fumbled with her crude language and asked why they had attacked. All SooSee replied with was giant fire bird. Jacquelyn asked how they learned to make and use Corbin Sticks. SooSee said "BaaTaa", meaning to barter. Did the BeeDoos exchange their new technology with a competing tribe?
"Robot", Jacquelyn asked, "how much battery do you have left?"
"THIRTY SIX PERCENT".
Jacquelyn tried to form a plan. They needed to assemble the antenna and activate the radio, all without getting caught. The other tribe was probably defending their homes. Jacquelyn buried her head in her hands and groaned.
She thought about Corbin again. Was his fall an accident or did the tribe attack him? She hated him after what he said, yet she couldn't help but feel remorse upon finding his body.
SooSee watched Jacquelyn and stood up. "YaaKaa maa FeeDoo". Jacquelyn smiled and was about to return the sentiment but before she could SooSee ran outside.
Jacquelyn heard SooSee running and shrieking down the mountain. She approached the entrance but didn't risk sticking her head outside. "SooSee, no…" Shifting pebbles and a dozen tiny feet could be heard giving chase.
Jacquelyn wanted to run out and save SooSee but there was nothing she could do. SooSee could run much faster than Jacquelyn, especially once SooSee reached the forest.
"Alright, robot, if we can make some weapons of our own, our chances of survival increases." Jacquelyn said. "Do you have a light?"
The robot activated a light. Jacquelyn looked around the cave. Pebbles lined the corners. The stone floor was worn to a polish. She scoured every corner but couldn't find anything useful. A stick would be hard to find, too, and they didn't have time to return to the forest.
"GIANT FIRE BIRD."
"What?" The robot turned to the wall, bringing the light with it. An ancient mural adorned the cave wall. Many small figures stood in a group at the bottom. She took a step back to consider the entire piece. The figures stood around what resembled an erupting volcano. A giant bird made of fire emerged from the top.
The figures formed two groups. One group remained by the volcano. The other group retreated into the forest.
"I think this is a religious site." Jacquelyn said, mostly for herself. "They must've killed Corbin for sacrilege and now they're after us." She examined the groups again. "Maybe the two tribes are enemies. But then why would our tribe trade weapons with them?"
"Alright, robot, weapons or not we must finish the radio. Do you know how to assemble it?"
Jacquelyn looked outside. There wasn't a BeeDoo in sight. She and the robot climbed back to the summit, watching out for more BeeDoos as they went.
Back at the ledge the radio remained undisturbed. This tribe of BeeDoos were less curious than Jacquelyn's. "Robot, how much battery do you have left?"
"Robot, assemble the radio. Quickly." The robot picked up two antenna segments, locked them into place, and held them in the air. It picked up a third segment, stuck it into the bottom, and lifted it higher. There were a few dozen segments in total.
A spear bounced off the robot and fell off the ledge. Jacquelyn traced the spear to its source: three more enemy BeeDoos appeared farther down the rim, Corbin Sticks held high. "Robot, keep assembling the radio. Power it on once it's ready."
Jacquelyn searched for a weapon. She picked up a fist sized stone and threw it at a BeeDoo. It connected and the small creature stumbled. Another BeeDoo took advantage of Jacquelyn's lowered guard and tossed a spear, striking her shoulder. The tip tore through skin and quickly dislodged, leaving a bloody wound in its wake.
"You little shit!" she shouted, covering her shoulder with her free hand. Another spear flew by and missed. She ducked behind a nearby boulder and risked a glance at the robot. It was almost done. She looked again at the approaching BeeDoos and ducked back behind the boulder as a third spear flew by. She looked out again and noticed they were unarmed.
She realized three unarmed teddy bears were attacking her.
With newfound perspective she grabbed another stone, jumped out from behind the boulder, gave a scream, and charged. They froze. She chucked the stone and it struck a BeeDoo forehead. It tumbled down the slope. The other two scrambled away. Jacquelyn's gaze followed the tumbling BeeDoo.
The BeeDoo body came to a rest at the bottom of the mountain, at the foot of dozens of dark-furred BeeDoos, each brandishing a spear of their own. They looked from their fallen comrade to Jacquelyn. Then they charged.
Jacquelyn turned back to the robot. It slotted the final antenna segment together, attached it to the base of the radio, and flicked the switch. A light on the transmitter blinked to life.
"Protect the radio!" she shouted.
The robot grabbed the radio and antenna, as if to move it closer to the boulder. "BATTERY LEVEL CRITICAL," it stated partway through, freezing in what resembled a defensive bear hug.
Jacquelyn ran across the rim, back to where they first arrived. The BeeDoos were faster on all fours and in the jungle, but she could out-pace them while they climbed up the mountain. With each step she winced from the throbbing pain in her shoulder.
Jacquelyn reached the other side of the rim and came to a halt. Another group of a few dozen armed BeeDoos approached from below. She was surrounded. She looked toward the statuesque robot. Did she have time to take a different route? Could she hide in another cave until morning?
"YaaKaa!" came a shout from the new group. She looked down again. It was SooSee and the friendly BeeDoo tribe. She made her way down to them as fast as she could and warned them of the approaching tribe. She explained that they had to leave immediately and that the enemy tribe would arrive soon.
She started for the jungle but realized she was alone. She turned back to her BeeDoo friends. "BeeDoo HooMee?" SooSee came forward and told Jacquelyn that the mountain of the giant fire bird was their home, and they were here to take it back.
"Naa…" Jacquelyn began, hoping to talk them out of it, but the others charged up the hill. She looked closer at the BeeDoos. Their spears were more advanced, with tips made of sharpened flint, tails of bird feathers, with each piece tied together by what must be KeeSoo sinew.
Jacquelyn tried to figure out what was happening. Did the BeeDoos teach their enemy to build inferior weapons in exchange for food? Did they intentionally trick their enemies into overestimating their chances of victory?
Were the BeeDoos practicing war tactics?
Jacquelyn tried some more to talk SooSee into staying, but SooSee kept looking back at her tribe. Finally, SooSee thanked Jacquelyn for the gifts, and ran off to join the others in war.
"SooSee, what did we teach you?"
"Sir, are you sure?" the cadet risked. "The homing beacon is a dozen kilometers farther north."
The captain eyed his cadet with the look a tenured professor reserves for inept freshmen. "Yes, we're going to land next to the crash. We detected the distress beacon a few days ago, which means they transmitted a week ago. Even as we speak they're most likely eating emergency rations from the safety of their ship."
The navy ship descended into the desert. The cadet eyed a plume of smoke rising near the landing zone. He assumed it was smoldering wreckage but as they drew closer he noticed it was from outside the crash.
Landing legs extended as the ship touched down on the soft desert. Sand blew away from the thrusters and died down as the engines came to a stop. The cargo doors opened and a ramp extended. The cadet emerged from the ship and approached the wreckage.
He stepped beneath a makeshift awning outside the ship and peered into the breach. Inside he saw a workshop cobbled from sacrificed ship parts. An ember popped around the side of the ship and caught his attention. He walked around the ship to where he found a woman sitting next to a campfire.
He approached her. She was balling up notebook pages and throwing them in the fire. A bloody bandage wrapped her shoulder. "Ma'am, I'm with the intergalactic navy. We detected your distress beacon a week ago and came to investigate. Do you speak Common?"
She turned to him and smiled. "Yes, among other languages."
"Are there any other survivors with you?"
"No", she said, motioning toward a sled and a pile of recently buried sand. "The only other person who came with me died in the crash." She pitched the final notebook remnants into the fire.
The cadet eyed the ship. "Looks pretty busted. Do you have any cargo worth salvaging?"
She stood up and eyed the ship. "Nothing. The cargo holds are empty." The robot emerged from the ship and examined the cadet. "I have a maintenance robot who has become rather sentimental, if you've got the room that is."
The cadet looked at the robot. It was damaged and covered in scratches, probably from the crash. "Yeah, we have plenty of space."
They made their way back to the navy ship. "Say," the cadet said, looking across the endless desert to the south and pausing on a wall of fog to the north. "Is there anything interesting on this planet? We can't seem to penetrate that mist with our sensors."
Jacquelyn looked north, past the fog, past her farm, and into the heart of the forest.
"There's nothing here but sand and death."