Writing in Public, Story #4 (Novella), Chapter 4
The planet Hope would be going to was called Planet 1849, which the military promptly nicknamed Forty-Niner. The planet did have an official name, but humans could not pronounce it, so Forty-Niner it was. Hope listened to a recording the aliens pronouncing the name. It sounded like a combination between a hiss and a burp. She couldn’t produce that without being impolite.
From space, the planet looked like a glop of purple paint an artist had forgotten to clean up. Graul had told the landing party before they departed that the planet was on a twenty hour day. Hope’s brains were going to be thoroughly scrambled by the time she got back. Maybe this trip wouldn’t be long.
But ghosties never behaved.
The shuttle ride down to the planet took six hours—two longer than normal. This allowed time for the computer to adjust the gravity gradually so everyone could acclimate. Hope sprawled out on one of the drop beds in the back to let the gravity flow over her and maybe not hurt her lower back so much. At first, she didn’t notice anything and slept through the gravity changes. Then the heavy gravity came in softly at first, wrapping itself around Hope and then working into her muscles. It was like being covered in wet sand and trying to move forward.
She listened to Jian snore—really, officers snored?—as she tried to doze off. Brooks went on the computer to play a game for a little while, judging by the dings, then went to bed, too. She must have gone to sleep, because she woke when the shuttle’s air pressure changed as it equalized to the outside. Jian was combing out her hair, and Brooks had just emerged from the bathroom, a nub of shaving cream behind one ear.
Hope’s hair must be a mess. She rummaged in her bag for a brush. Bending over was hard. Getting back up was harder. Brushing her hair…the hairbrush was like a ten pound weight she was trying to lift to her head. Her arm was shaking. It was only brushing her hair!
“Let me help, Hope.” Jian came over, taking the brush.
“I hate this,” Hope said. She was appalled that she wanted to cry, over a hairbrush.
“It wouldn’t be this bad if we’d had time for the training.”
Jian spent a lot of time brushing out Hope’s hair, reminding her of long ago, when her mother had done that. Before ghosts. It hadn’t been too long after that Hope started seeing ghosts like her father. She’d seen the dismay in her mother’s eyes, and never again had her mother touched her.
“It doesn’t bother you?” Hope asked.
“What bothers me?”
“Ghosts?” Hope said lamely.
“If it bothered me, I wouldn’t have volunteered.”
Jian had just finished putting Hope;s hair into a French braid when the pilot announced that they would be landing soon. Jian and Brooks returned to their seat. Hope dragged herself to the window. In spite of how tired the gravity was already making her, she wanted a first look at the new planet.
It was early morning out, with the sun just poking its head above the horizon. No clouds at all. Purple-red sand rushed past below. A desert. Not like the ones she always saw on streaming, with those perfect, graceful sand dunes. This was flat sand.
As the shuttle banked, the strangest thing she had seen came into view. A twin line of metal barrels cut across the sand, stretching as far as she could see.
Jian peered over her shoulder. “That’s a road.”
A dust cloud kicked up on the barrel road up ahead, trailing by an old-style jeep. There were two people in the front seat of the jeep, but the shuttle was too high up to tell much more. The barrel road curved around, headed past a stand of rectangular canvas tents. Nearby, a giant triangular shaped stone poked up out of the ground like a finger. A GALCOM shuttle was parked near the stone, a canvas awning over the entrance to keep the sun off. A pair of collapsible chairs sat out in front.
The shuttle slowed, coming to a stop in mid-air, then descended. It was about three hundred yards from the tent. The landing gear thumped as it touched the ground.
“We’re clear,” called one of the pilots.
Brooks came over to Hope’s seat. “How you doing, Shrimp Woman?”
“Oh, yeah,” Hope said. “Heavy gravity is a very special thing.”
“If you need to stop and sit, just do it,” Jian said. “It was awful when I fist started training with the Marines. They’re hardcore. I was trying to keep up with them, and then my legs said, ‘Nope, I’m done.’ I went right on my butt and couldn’t get up again.”
“It’s easy to overdo it,” Brooks added. “Your body will make you pay for it.”
“And we’ll be watching you,” Jian said. “The Marines knew what was going to happen to me and let it happen.”
“That’s not fair,” Hope said.
“It was so that I would recognize when I needed to stop. But it was hard to tell the first few times until I’d gone too far. Better in training than down here.”
Hope gave Brooks the evil eye. “Would you have done that to me?”
He raised his hands in horror. “No. I’m not that stupid.”
The door controls thumped, and then light spilled in as the door opened. Along with came the heavy heat already starting into the day and the worst stink. There must be a latrine somewhere nearby that was festering in the heat.
The pilot came to the cockpit door. “Ma’am, someone’s already approaching.”
Jian returned to her seat. “Might as well stay put. Let them do the work.”
A knock on the outside of the shuttle announced the arrival of their visitor.
“Permission to come aboard,” called a woman’s voice.
A familiar woman’s voice. It had been months, but…
“Permission granted,” Jian called.
Mel Hagen stuck her head inside the doorway. She was dressed in a CTU, gone to purple red with the sand color, and a Boonie hat with a floppy brim. Her long blond hair was pulled back in a pony tail. She must be using an electronic sun blocker, because she had no tan despite having been here for a while.
Both Jian and Brooks were staring at Hope, who was trying to hide.
“What’s wrong?” Brooks asked.
Jian glanced at Mel, then grinned. “So you’re the skipper’s wife.”
Brooks eyes went very wide.
“He doesn’t know you’re down here, ma’am,” Jian said. “All we got from GALCOM was the request. There was someone else assigned to this mission.”
Mel pulled herself up into the shuttle, making it look easy. It was a big step up.
“Their ship was struck by a meteor, and they had to put into port for repairs,” she said. “I was on my way back from one and nearby, so we were diverted here. Probably better anyway. Neil’s pretty inflexible. He wouldn’t have understood what the problem was.”
“What is the problem?” Jian asked. “We did not get much information from Admiral Terzian.”
“Does it have to do with the ghost?” Hope asked.
“Yes, it does,” Mel said. “The locals think that the scientists called the meteorite with the ghost to the planet.”