On his way back to the crash site of his ship, Forne notices an unexpected radio signal.




Rescue Capsule

Forne frantically flailed with his arms as he was pulled down. In front of his face plate, he could see a black-brown, soggy mesh of roots. The clearing turned out to be a lake completely covered with a thick layer of floating plants. Within moments, his arms and legs were caught in the web of roots, rendering him more and more immobile the more he fought to break free. Eventually, he simply ran out of strength to go on and hung there, gasping for air. The entanglement slowly reduced its grip as he hung there limply. When he came back to his senses, he could move enough to reach his knife and cut the web of roots and parachute strings he had wrapped himself up in.

'At least, I can't drown,' he thought, angry at himeself, in the safety of his suit. Before he set out for the shore, he checked the inertial mapper again. After making sure he was going for the right shore, he made towards it. It was a slow process. His suit would keep him close to the surface where the mess of the plants was worst. It took him a while to figure out the best way to make progress. When he reached solid ground almost one hour later, he felt more tired than ever before in his life. His suit was a mess of brown roots and dirty water that even the dirt repellent coating seemed to be unable to cope with.

Once more, he flipped through the list of drugs in his suit and selected something that would restore his strength, ignoring the pitiful whining of the med kit about poisoning himself. The effect set in quickly and he pushed himself on his feet again. 'Okay. At least I'm on the right side of the lake. Lucky again. Ha! It will take me days to get around that damn cliff!' He wondered if he should try to climb. There were climbing aids installed in his wrist bands and the boots but he had no anchors, no karabiners and only a small length of rope. There was always the risk that part of the wall would come loose and there was no partner to secure him. On the other paw, he didn't know if it was possible to walk around it at all and if the other side would be easier to climb. If there was another option, he didn't see it. Wishing for a jet-pack, he turned towards the jungle and started to force himself through the thick tangle of plants.

Years ago, he had spent a couple of weeks in a summer camp erected in the jungle of Vascion. At that time, the plants and wildlife had seemed enormous and chaotic to him. But that "jungle" was more like a park compared to what he had in front of himself, now. Just like the lake, the whole mess seemed to have been created for the sole purpose to slow him down. But there was no time to loose! The battle in orbit wouldn't last forever. If he couldn't get in contact with anyone soon, he'd be stranded on this world. He didn't want to think what might happen if the Haul noticed his distress signal.

He stopped dead when his map started to flash in bright orange. His sensors had picked up something they couldn't classify. For now, it was just a big blob, the sensors didn't know how strong the signal might be, how far away it was. Forne wondered what to do. The planet was not inhabited by anyone who could send radio signals. He had no idea if the thing had detected him already. When the strength of the signal didn't change, he decided to stress his luck. He had to move a couple of meters until he got a reliable triangulation. Whatever it was, it didn't move much.

'If you're not one of us,' Forne stared at the new dot on his display, 'what are you? Maybe another sentient race that will help us beat the Haul? Ha! Yeah, right!' He licked over the details switch in his helmet but he couldn't tell more from the raw data which the suit projected in front of his face. Whatever it was, it was sending a steady sine wave over a couple of frequencies plus something which looked like a data stream. Without a protocol analyzer, it was just a jumble of lines on his display, too regular to be natural.

'Now what?' The chances that anything in his ship had survived the impact had been slim to begin with. Without any other option, returning in the hope that he might find something, had seemed the only way to go. Whatever he had stumbled upon gave him an unwanted choice. 'Get burned by trying to have a look or by crawling away?'

Two hours later, Forne only wished for a machete or at least a tireless arm to swing the simple club he had cut from branch to ease his progress. It probably helped more to keep his frustration in check than to allow him to move faster. The blood red capsule appeared ahead of him where his sensors had expected it. It hadn't moved the whole time nor had its signals changed in any way. As far he could tell.

Out from under a plant with thick leaves, he used every passive sensor of his suit on the unknown object. It had a powerful energy source and it was radiating signals on several bands. There were no visible weapon mounts and his sensors couldn't penetrate the shell. When nothing happened, he carefully circled it, always trying to stay out of sight and behind any cover he could find. The strange symbols on the side finally confirmed his suspicion that this wasn't some ancient artifact from an advanced civilization that would grant him three wishes. 'Haul! Damn!'

He wondered what it was. It didn't look like it could fly. There were no exhausts or wings or flaps. It also didn't seem to be damaged, so it couldn't have crashed down with a lot of force. The broken branches above it told him that it must have landed here only a short time ago but he simply couldn't understand how. 'Maybe a low flying ship dropped it?' If that was true, then that left little options for what it could be. 'A bomb or a sensor. Since it's Haul, maybe both.'

Forne restrained his urge to bolt. If that bomb was the same type that had wiped out Pantero, he couldn't have possibly outran the blast, not even if he could run at light speed. 'Those bastards!' he swore. 'Can't even let an innocent, uninhabited jungle world live! Damn you!' His paw reached for the tool pack. 'Time to throw a wrench in the hydraulics.' As he approached the device, he realized that he might be more lucky than he thought possible. 'When I sabotage it, someone might come looking! I might get off this god-forsaken place after all and spoil their plans!' A grin spread over his face. 'Now if that's not ironic. Don't forget to keep an ear prepped in case it's a sensor which has already yelled about my presence!' He walked around the egg, looking for any kind of access. Since he was looking for something small, he walked around several times before turning his attention to the big circular porthole high above his head. After that, it was a matter of moments to notice the outline of an airlock around it.

The past experience with the vicious Haul had made him careful. With a branch from a nearby plant, a mirror and some duct tape, he created a makeshift periscope to be able to peek through the porthole without any danger to receive unwanted holes in his suit or himself. The inside of the device was covered in the same blood red as the outside. 'What did I expect from those murderers?' he thought with his teeth clenched.

It was hard work to get a good view of every corner with his suit, the helmet and his wobbly grip of the mirror. The inside was surprisingly spacious and empty. 'Maybe it's not a bomb after all?' He took the mirror down and changed the angle to be able to see the floor inside better. There was something inside, but it took him a while to piece the details together to a larger picture. 'It's a Haul!' With new fear, he stared at the motionless body. At first, he thought that some kind of white skeleton had been attached to the backside of the beast. 'Bones! That's bones! The flesh had been burned away!' The shock of realization made his mirror hit the capsule's hull with a clink.

Forne froze in panic.

Only when the Haul inside didn't move, he slowly relaxed again. 'Probably dead. Probably killed by one of his "friends" for the fun of it. Ha! Suits him right.' He put the mirror down and pulled his pistol, flipped the safety off. 'Maybe I should shoot him in the head just once or twice, just to be sure?' After taking cover, he pressed his glove on the symbols next to the airlock, his two hearts racing, ready for anything.

He just wasn't ready for what happened: Nothing.

He pressed the rectangle again. No reaction. He tried the surface above and below, nothing. With a groan, he moved to the other side, but the capsule refused to open. 'Damn! Open, you stupid thing, will you?' Cursing, he worked his way around the outer rim of the airlock, without any success. Even when he touched the areas above which were only within reach with the help of a stick, the airlock stayed shut.

Forne took a deep breath and considered kicking the damn thing a few times. He resorted to walking away a few steps and looking for any sign of an opening mechanism. 'Maybe it's a coffin?' He shook the idea from his head. 'There must be a way to get inside!' The symbols next to the door didn't reveal their meaning, no matter how hard he stared at them. Since it was his only option left, he started to move his paw over the door itself.

When he touched the area right below the porthole, the door moved inwards and then vanished to the left so quickly that he found himself completely exposed to any danger from the inside before he could jump for cover. Quickly, He brought his pistol up, aiming for the creature lying on the only bed in the capsule. The rest of the vehicle was as dead as the Haul. No monitors with scrolling texts, moving curves or a cross hair centered on his head.

'Okay, he didn't move till now, he's dead,' Forne decided one minute later and climbed the two steps up which the receding door had revealed. They were too high for him, especially inside of a cumbersome space suit. Even at close inspection, the Haul didn't seem more alive.

The body was much larger than a Rabit, muscular, covered with a short, dark-brown fur. In its face, it had large patches that looked like the pads Forne had on the inside of his palm. Sharp teeth glinted out between the lips of a long, warg-like snout[1]. The paws were huge and ended in thick, clumsy fingers. It wore a uniform and boots. If liquids had been dripping out of his wounds, they had stopped a long time ago, leaving dry blobs on the floor. Even if these creatures were the deadly enemies of his race, Forne felt a pang of pity. «The universe is such a big place and you have to kill everyone. Why? Why? I just don't get it.»

1: A warg looks a lot like a dog or a wolf

The corpse didn't answer. With a sigh, Forne put his pistol away and turned towards the walls. 'There must be some kind of radio ... there has to be!' The compartments opened to his push. The contents told him that this must be some kind of rescue capsule. 'But how did it get down here? There is no sign of exhausts or reentry scars ...'

The sudden call for help made him jump out of his fur, crash into the wall, stumble out of the capsule and drop onto the forest ground with a surprised cry on his lips.


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