Months after their departure from Earth, the struggling colonists have barely established a precarious hold on their new planet Belle Terre. Fierce cyclones, storms, landslides, and flash floods make survival a never-ending challenge. While Captain James T. Kirk and the Starship Enterprise patrol the sector, on guard against predatory aliens and greedy space pirates, Chekov, Uhura, and Sulu stay behind to assist the hapless settlers in their desperate battle to put down roots in the turbulent soil of an angry planet.
But the struggling colonists are intensely proud and not inclined to take orders from their Starfleet guardians. Chekov and the others find their ingenuity and diplomatic skills tested to their limits to save a people who don’t seem to want their help.
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Without benefit of an antigrav, the crate tipped gracelessly over the lip of the shuttle's hatch and fell free. Chekov leaned to the extent of his safety cable and watched the container tumble toward the ocean of airborne dust below, wondering how much chance they had of it landing anywhere near the drop target. The high-pitched shriek of its sonic beacon was swallowed up so quickly by the howl of Llano Verde's winds that he suspected if it went too far astray, it would never be found again.
Behind him, Plottel's voice, muffled by a filtration mask already several wearings too old, intoned blandly, "...and three and two and one..."
The crate's parachute ripped into existence with a whhuf! Chekov could imagine but couldn't actually hear over the roar of the dust storm outside. Fluorescent orange billowed into violent bloom, snapping the crate out of reach of the maelstrom only briefly before relaxing back into its descent. Almost immediately, wind tipped the parachute sideways and began dragging the crate sharply lateral of its original drop path. Storm-blown dust and sand swarmed the crate, the lines, the 'chute like famished ants. Once the air sealed behind the drop, Chekov couldn't even tell where the supplies had torn their way through. Swallowed by this wounded and angry planet, just like the sonic beacon. Just like everything else.
"Heads up, C.C."
Kevin Baldwin didn't have to give a jerk on Chekov's safety line to get his attention, but he did it anyway. The sudden assault on Chekov's balance while hovering ten klicks above Belle Terre's surface launched his heart up into his throat. He grabbed at the sides of the hatch with both hands, but clenched his teeth before gasping aloud. That instinct let him preserve at least a modicum of dignity. Backing calmly away from the opening, he tried hard to ignore Baldwin's laughter as he disconnected the lifeline and shouldered out of its harness.
The hatch rolled shut with a grinding squeal that made Chekov's teeth hurt. Dust in the mechanism, sliding between the parts. Dust in everything -- the air, the floor, his hair, his clothes. When Reddy, the shuttle's pilot, had promised they'd be above the ceiling of the dust storms, Chekov had assumed that meant they'd be flying in clear air. Instead, it meant Reddy kept the shuttle just high enough to avoid clogging the intakes on the atmospheric engines; Chekov, Baldwin, and Plottel could stand in the open hatch under the protection of goggles and filtration masks, but didn't have to wear the kevlar bodysuits required by stormgoers on the surface. Not much of a trade-off, considering he'd still have to buy a new set of clothes the minute he set foot in Eau Claire. Or, at least, he would if he wanted Uhura to be seen with him in public.
Swiping uselessly at the front of his trousers, Chekov finally settled for patting himself down to dislodge the uppermost layers of grime. "I never thought I'd hear myself say this." He stepped sideways out of his own dust cloud. "But there's too much olivium on this planet."
Plottel and Baldwin shucked their breath masks before the light above the hatch had even cycled from red to green. "Maybe." Plottel didn't smile as he crossed the cargo shuttle's deck to dig a battered canteen out of a locker. "But if it weren't for all that olivium, Starfleet wouldn't have stuck around, and we'd be deprived of the pleasure of your company on this little flight."
Chekov watched him fill his mouth with water, rinse and spit into a disposal pan, then pass the canteen on to Baldwin. "And if Starfleet weren't here, there'd be no one in-system with rations to spare for your emergency supply drops."
"If Starfleet weren't here -- " Baldwin discharged a mouthful of water at Chekov's feet, creating an anemic slurry of mud, dust, and olivium. " -- we wouldn't be in this mess to begin with."
Chekov nodded once, lips pursed, then went back to beating the planet out of his clothes.
This was an exchange they'd had, in various permutations, at least twenty times since the cargo shuttle kicked off from the orbital platform above Belle Terre. Chekov had given up pointing out that, while Starfleet's actions might have directly led to the gamma-ray burst that most everyone called the Burn, it was only because of Starfleet that the planet still existed at all. Allowing the Burn had actually been the best in a very short list of options. While it all but defoliated most of a hemisphere, the colonists had been ferried out of harm's way. When house-sized segments of Belle Terre's largest satellite slammed into the face of her smallest continent, there was no one there to kill, no homesteads to lay waste. The combined Starfleet and colony ships, led by the Enterprise, had salvaged half a planet and an entire colony from otherwise certain destruction.
And the colonists had yet to forgive them.
From the moment they left Earth's gravity well, the Belle Terre colonists had bristled with fierce independence. They made their own rules, picked their own battles, all but spat upon Starfleet's offers of help and personnel -- even when that help saved them from the numerous disasters that had plagued the expedition practically from the word go. Even now, when extended dust storms threatened the small continent of Llano Verde with starvation, the Enterprise's sacrifice of its own rations to assemble relief supply drops was accepted with palpable resentment. The fledgling colony had nothing to spare for its own members, but the Enterprise's continued humanitarian support was interpreted as an implied criticism of Belle Terre's ability to take care of itself.
This flight to the surface was no different. The volume of olivium dust laced through Llano Verde's soil after the Quake Moon impacts made transporter travel there impossible, and Captain Kirk had issued a moratorium on Starfleet personnel hitching free rides on civilian-operated shuttles. Which put Chekov in a bit of a bind. He'd been left on the orbital platform three weeks ago when the Enterprise set out to patrol for pirate traffic, keep an eye out for the Kauld -- aliens who had attacked the expedition -- and search for the missing vessel Rattlesnake. Chekov was officially cut loose, on leave, grounded. Sometime in the next two or three months, the light courier City of Pittsburgh was due at Belle Terre to pick up Chekov, John Kyle, and two other Enterprise crewmen for reassignment to the newly commissioned science vessel Reliant. Until City of Pittsburgh arrived, Chekov, Kyle, and the others were expected to rest, relax, and comport themselves in a manner that wouldn't aggravate the Belle Terrans any more than was inevitable. In general, this translated into long stretches of profound boredom as far away from the colonists as possible. Chekov spent the time trying to get used to seeing himself with executive officer's bars on his shoulder and answering to the title "lieutenant commander." He hadn't felt so small and ill suited to a uniform since being named Enterprise's chief of security two years before.
Which was why he was once again violating Kirk's prohibition to join Sulu and Uhura for dinner in Eau Claire, the continental capital of Llano Verde. The two had been stationed there with Montgomery Scott and Janice Rand for several weeks, cut off from chatty communiques by Gamma Night and olivium-contaminated dust, not to mention swamped with work and colonial frustrations. Long months away from shipping out to his new assignment, Chekov was lonely, insecure, and painfully bored. Part of him feared he'd never make the kind of lifelong friends on the Reliant that he had on the Enterprise; another part half-hoped their reunions would somehow prove him too indispensable to let go. He would be allowed to serve under Kirk on board the Enterprise forever.
In reality, he knew all he would get out of the trip was a good dinner and a few precious hours of socializing before he returned to his restless and unrelaxed days on the orbital platform.
Chekov had made an end run around Kirk's moratorium by refusing to be shuttled surfaceward like so much cargo. He knew about the weekly runs to airdrop emergency supplies across Llano Verde. Showing up in the bay just before Orbital Shuttle Six kicked off, he offered to help the civilian laborers pitch the crates toward their assigned drop points in exchange for a shuttle ride down to Eau Claire. It wasn't just a chance to "pay" for passage, it was also a chance to be useful, sweat off some of his frustrations, and leave a positive impression on the colonials. Or so he'd thought. Vijay Reddy, the pilot, suggested that Chekov leave the heavy lifting to the laborers and ride up front with him. Not about to be coddled out of honestly paying his way, Chekov insisted on remaining in back to work alongside Baldwin and Plottel. Since neither of the laborers objected, Chekov assumed they were perfectly happy to have an extra set of hands.
By an hour into the flight, he'd figured out where he really stood. When he wasn't dragging a crate -- without help -- forward from the cargo hold, he was supposed to either lend his back to shoving the crates through the airlock, or sit out of the way on one of the armless benches welded into the bulkhead. His comments weren't welcome, and neither was his presence. They spoke to him only when forced to, and made no effort to censor their bitterness toward Starfleet when they talked between themselves. For his own part, Chekov swallowed most of the angry comments that sprang to mind. Another hour or so and they'd be on the surface. He would part ways with them in Eau Claire, and contemplate Kirk's wisdom in recognizing from the outset that the colonists needed as much physical and emotional space as Starfleet could give them.
A little communications panel high on the bulkhead chirruped with incongruous cheer. Unlike communicators or even crystal-based radios, intercom systems based on hardwire connections still functioned perfectly despite all the olivium radiation Belle Terre could throw out. The wall speaker, however, buzzed from the weight of the dust coating its tympanum. "Dave, how many crates have we got left back there?"
Plottel touched the container on which he sat as though silently acknowledging it in his count, then craned his neck to check the deck behind him. "Three up front, another twelve in the hold."
"And who's scheduled to get most of them?"
Baldwin set down the canteen and reached out to steady the cargo manifest dangling near the hatch door, squinting at its dust-fuzzed display panel. "Four go to Desert Station. Everyone else gets two or three."
"Okay." Reddy paused, caught up in some piloting duty, and Chekov felt the subliminal shift in mass that meant they'd changed heading without slowing down. "Hold out one from the Desert Station drop. They'll have to make do with three."
"Sedlak isn't gonna like us changing the manifest like that," Baldwin warned.
Invoking the continental governor's name injected a startling level of annoyance into Reddy's voice. "Sedlak isn't here. We've got an extra drop on the list for the northeast side of Bull's Eye -- a group of herders who got stranded by the storm."
"What the hell were they doing out on a day like this?" But Plottel was already scrubbing at his goggles to clear them, getting set for another round of labor.
"They went out three days ago, before the dust got so bad. The ranch they're attached to didn't get word down to Eau Claire until yesterday, and the spaceport wasn't able to punch through the dust to the orbital platform until just now. Otherwise, we could've just put additional shipments aboard." The speaker snapped, nearly drowning out Reddy's grumbling sigh. "Now we're going to have to shortchange somebody. It might as well be Desert Station."
Ironically, if a Starfleet officer had made the same suggestion, there would have followed ten minutes of defensive resistance before any action could occur. As it was, Baldwin and Plottel started untangling their safety harnesses while Chekov was still stealing a single swallow of water from Baldwin's abandoned canteen.
"Is there any way to contact Eau Claire?" Chekov asked as he scooped his own harness up off the filthy deck. He'd given Uhura the original arrival time, and didn't want to leave her pacing the spaceport, wondering what had become of him.
"Don't worry about Eau Claire -- they're used to this." Plottel was either trying to reassure him, or head off any fretting before it began. "The spaceport won't even consider us late until we're three hours past our scheduled ETA."
Chekov repressed a sigh. "It wasn't the spaceport I was worried about," he said, but without much expectation of being listened to. "Is there any way to contact anyone on the planet?"
"'Fraid not," Baldwin said, wrenching the hatch open on the sea of roiling dust outside. "Nothing gets through that dust out there, not unless it's falling through." His grin was wide enough to see around the edge of his dust mask as he gestured toward the open door. "Feel free to take the message down yourself, C.C., if you want to. We won't try to stop you."
And they might even help me on my way, Chekov thought, remembering Baldwin's previous push. He reached for the nearest lifeline and clipped it on a little more quickly than dignity allowed. Even the howl of Belle Terre's dust storm wasn't loud enough to drown out the resulting shout of mocking laughter.
"Uhura to Sulu. Come in, Sulu."
Uhura had said the phrase so often over the past five weeks that by now the words slid out of her mouth without the slightest effort -- or attention -- on her part. She pressed the correct transmission key on her experimental communications panel, paused for the appropriate time afterward to allow a reply to come through, but no longer really listened for an answer to her call because no answer had ever come. "Auditory feedback fatigue" had been the official term for it back at Starfleet Academy. Out here, on the nebulous fringes of known space, people just called it communications burnout. It was a condition most often seen in the crew of disabled ships who spent so long listening for an answer to their distress calls that they missed hearing it when it actually came.
"Uhura to Sulu. Come in, Sulu."
Uhura had recognized the syndrome in herself about two weeks ago and been horrified. Her entire career in Starfleet was based on her ability to listen. She knew she had a keener ear than many other communications officers, and she prided herself on her ability to thread out a signal buried in electromagnetic noise, or hear the barest scratch of a message through the resounding silence of subspace. Finding herself adrift in a numb haze of not listening, not even sure how many hours she had spent repeating the same six words without paying attention to them, had shaken her professional confidence right down to the bone. Could something as simple as futility really overcome all those years of training and experience?
"Uhura to Sulu." She fiddled with the gain on the transmitter to keep herself alert, watching the transmission histogram on her monitor spike into alarmed red then fade back to green as the computer compensated for the adjustment she'd made. The reception histogram, which was supposed to display the frequencies of Sulu's response to her hail, remained a dull, flat-lined gray, just as it had since the first day she started hailing him.
A burst of irritation momentarily clawed a hole through Uhura's boredom. There was absolutely no reason this experimental communications system shouldn't be working. The pall of olivium-contaminated dust that hung over the island subcontinent of Llano Verde during its long, dry winter was known to attenuate every known kind of subspace and electromagnetic transmission. But the dust had created a dense surface layer in the planet's stratified troposphere, permanently trapped beneath cleaner and colder air above it. The knife-sharp boundary between those air masses should have been able to amplify and reflect back any signal that managed to reach it -- every computer model and Starfleet expert Uhura had consulted agreed on that. So while Janice Rand worked on augmenting the city's short-range communications using olivium's natural crystal resonance, Uhura had designed a long-distance communications system that relied simply on punching a strong signal up to the top of the dust layer and letting nature take care of the rest. All she had to do -- in theory -- was calibrate the system by noting which electromagnetic frequencies created the best reflections at different points on the subcontinent. With computers varying her output signal nanosecond by nanosecond as she spoke, and a special receiver carried in the experimental shuttle Scotty had designed and Sulu was test-flying around Llano Verde, the whole project should have taken about two days to complete.
"Uhura to Sulu. Come in, Sulu."
"Commander Sulu's flight plan said he was going all the way to Mudlump today, down on the south coast," a familiar voice said from right behind her. "Could he really answer you from there even if he heard you?"
Uhura sighed and turned to face the stoop-shouldered man behind her. His green-hazel eyes were puffy, his thinning reddish hair badly needed a trim, and his colony uniform was rumpled and coffee-stained. He looked exactly like what he was: not a rugged settler, but one of Belle Terre's too few and too overworked technical experts, hired on long-term contracts to help the colony through its initial growing pains. Despite her own tribulations, Uhura managed to summon up a sympathetic smile. No one could fault the colony's initial strategic plan for not taking a planetary catastrophe like the Burn into account, but it didn't make life easier for continental government employees like Chief Technical Officer Neil Bartels.
"The transmitter I sent with him is automatically programed to reply on whatever frequency it just received." She accepted the steaming mug he held out for her, grateful for the bracing combination of Belle Terre spices and artificial caffeine concentrate. After several weeks of conferring over technical specifications and borrowing circuit-testing equipment, they'd fallen into the habit of sharing a cup of afternoon tea before the last and dullest stretch of the day. Uhura privately suspected that Bartels would have been even happier to spend his break discussing his numerous technical problems with Montgomery Scott, but the chief engineer had spent the last few weeks out at the spaceport as Sulu ran his shuttle through its paces. "Any reply from it should get bounced and amplified by the atmospheric boundary layer exactly the same way mine did on the way to him. That means it will arrive right back here."
Bartels lifted an eyebrow at her over his steaming mug of tea. "Even if his Bean is jumping really fast at the time?"
It was a measure of Uhura's stress level that the nickname the irreverent Llano Verde colonists had given Sulu and Scotty's antigravity vertical flight vessel could no longer spark even a flicker of amusement. "That's why I'm using a range of simulcast frequencies," she said, rubbing at the frown lines that seemed to have engraved themselves permanently into her forehead. "I tried to stuff in as much bandwidth as the system could handle without getting any negative interference on the carrier wave. I'm not sure it's really enough to compensate for Sulu's movement over an extended broadcast, but if he lets me reply every so often -- "
"Assuming he ever hears you."
Uhura winced. The disadvantage of chatting with fellow technical specialists was their clear-eyed grasp of the crux of a problem. She knew exactly how to extrapolate reflectance angles to all parts of the subcontinent once she had a minimum set of established values, and she'd even figured out how to correct the system for daily meteorological variation of the boundary layer. But she still had no answer for the fundamental question of why Sulu had never, not even once, heard any of her experimental hails.
"Have you talked to the weather people lately?" she asked. It wasn't an attempt to change the subject, although Bartels's puzzled look told her he hadn't followed her train of thought. Llano Verde had gotten its name from its previously lush semitropical climate. At some point, those Burn-disrupted rains were going to return, washing the olivium dust out of the atmosphere for a while and making the need for Uhura and Rand's new communications systems much less urgent. "When are they predicting the dust season will end?"
The technical officer sighed and drained the rest of his tea. "Depends on who you ask," he said. "The computer modelers think we'll get spring monsoons in the next month or two, but the hydrologists keep saying they don't have the field data to support it." He ran a hand along the top of her console, brushing off dust and shaking his head ruefully. "I'm not sure how rumors spread so fast through the Outland without any real communications system, but I've already got half the continent begging me for flood-control dams while the other half is yelling for irrigation channels."
Uhura's tea suddenly tasted acrid on her tongue, as if her taste buds had just noticed how foreign those native spices were. She swallowed the last of it with difficulty. "I'm sorry. I know I should have had this system up and running for you weeks ago -- "
"Hey." Bartels reached out to pat her arm in a half-gentle, half-awkward way that struck Uhura as oddly familiar. It took her a moment to realize that it was the same inept manner in which Chief Engineer Scott dealt with the human aspects of his job. "I wasn't blaming you, Commander. We weren't the ones who called up Starfleet and demanded an overnight fix for Llano Verde's transportation and communications systems. Governor Sedlak tried to tell Pardonnet that even Starfleet technology couldn't solve the mess the Quake Moon made of this continent, but he just wouldn't listen. And no one else has made any more progress than you -- "
Uhura shook her head in disagreement. "Mr. Scott and Commander Sulu have the latest version of the Bean running almost full-time. All they have to do now is work out a navigation system that doesn't depend on making constant contact with the orbital platform -- "
"Just like all you have to do is find the right frequency to bounce off that dust layer. It's like they say in the Outland -- you've got to swallow a whole lot of dust before there's room in your throat for any water."
Uhura smiled at the colony technical officer, appreciative of both his support and the unique way he had phrased it. "I've never heard that saying before."
Bartels snorted. "That's because you don't have Outlanders tracking radioactive dirt into your office two or three times a day to tell you exactly how they think you should be doing your job." He swept up the empty mugs with a clatter, as if the mere thought of his constituents had flogged him back to work. "Come to think of it, don't bother to get that system of yours working any time soon," he advised her as he left. "I hate to think how many more irate citizens I'd hear from if they could just pick up a comm and call their complaints in."
When he first felt the deck jolt beneath him, Chekov was struggling to back his way out of the cargo hold while towing five hundred kilos of malfunctioning grav-sled. It strained to keep its belly even ten centimeters above the decking, and every irregularity reached up to trip it, knocking it off course and killing its momentum. He'd cursed and kicked his way through moving a dozen other crates in exactly the same way. While his patience decreased with every repetition of the battle, he wasn't about to complain. So when the deck thumped against the soles of his feet and made him stumble, Chekov wrote it off to the grav-sled bottoming out yet again, or Plottel and Baldwin indelicately rolling one of the crates in the forward compartment.
Then his sense of balance attenuated in a moment of free fall, and the liberated grav-sled slewed sideways like a drunken bear. Whatever official safety procedures he'd once learned for handling grav-sleds flashed out of existence as he danced aside to avoid being crushed against the remaining crates in the hold. When full weight returned an instant later, Chekov was already halfway up one of the access ladders with his feet pulled up out of the way. The sled slammed back down to the deck, and the wall of crates it had bumbled against teetered but refused to fall.
Plottel and Baldwin were nowhere to be seen in the forward hold. The hatch to the outside whistled dolefully, adding more dust to the mosaic already filling the shuttle floor. A flash of what he at first took to be ochre landscape rolled into view through the opening, followed by an equally dismal patch of khaki sky. Chekov hadn't thought they were close enough to the surface to see beneath the pervasive clouds. Then he realized it wasn't ground he saw but the eerily sharp demarcation between the "clear" airspace of safe shuttle passage and the roil of Llano Verde's dust storm. There was something odd about the orientation of that boundary, something that clashed with Chekov's own internal sense of balance. Either the edge of the dust storm had become vertical rather than horizontal, he thought, or Reddy was turning the shuttle in a banking turn so tight that centrifugal force had overcome the usual pull of gravity.
Keying the airlock closed on the jarring view, Chekov went forward to look for the rest of the crew in the cockpit.
"I tell you, there was nobody." Plottel's filtration mask hung from one hand while he combed the fingers of the other through his dust-caked hair. "We should have been right on top of them, and I couldn't see a soul."
Nodding in terse reassurance, Reddy waved everyone away from the back of his seat as he made delicate adjustments to the board. "Give me a minute to see if I can get back to our original coordinates."
Chekov leaned between Plottel and Baldwin, stealing a glance at the controls, then up at the viewscreen. It looked as if the shuttle was making a tight circle around their drop coordinates, but he could see that Reddy was actually keeping his helm at dead center. He wondered if they'd gotten caught up in some freakish dust-storm squall. "What's going on?"
Plottel cuffed Baldwin across the top of his head. "Nobody's dead." But his own voice was too angry, his eyes too frightened to carry much conviction.
"What happened?" Chekov asked again, a bit more sternly this time.
No sharp comments about meddling Starfleet officers now. Reddy leaned aside slightly to open up Chekov's view of the panel, his hands never ceasing their rapid play on the controls. "The coordinates for those stranded herders put us inside the Bull's Eye crater, not on the outside rim like I thought. Most of the crater interior is water. I didn't want to waste the drop by putting the cargo in the lake..." His voice trailed off, and the shuttle gave another convulsive buck.
"So you went below the dust to get a visual on the ground?" Chekov asked incredulously.
"Yes." Reddy never took his eyes off the viewscreen. Chekov wasn't sure why, since dust now skated across it in waves so sheer and fast, they might have been plunging through a sea of gauzy curtains. He couldn't believe the pilot had really thought they'd have a chance of seeing people on the ground in this mess. "There was a clearing in the dust. I thought it looked big enough -- "
" -- for us to fly in and out of," Chekov finished. "But it wasn't."
"No," Reddy admitted. "And now we have to find it again."
Chekov frowned and helped himself to the copilot's chair, trying to make sense of the readings flickering across that side of the control panel. The altitude sensor put them at five thousand meters up, while the ground detector insisted they were within skimming distance of the surface. One velocity indicator had them flying at a steady two hundred kilometers an hour, while its backup flashed the warning for stalling speed. Chekov glanced across at Reddy, his frown deepening.
"Olivium contamination," the pilot said before he could ask. "Bull's Eye is one of the Quake Moon's impact craters. Radiation levels are a thousand times greater there than on the rest of the planet."
Chekov heard Baldwin snort from behind his seat. "Yeah, that nuclear stuff will only kill you. It's the subspace crap that messes up the instruments."
"So the only way to relocate your clearing is by dead reckoning?" Chekov glanced up at the forward screen, set to full transparency now that external visual sensors were rendered useless by the olivium. It didn't make much difference. "We need to pull above the ceiling of the storm."
"What we need is to make sure those lost herders get their supplies!" Plottel fisted one hand on the back of Reddy's chair. "They're counting on us to keep them alive!"
Chekov unleashed all his frustration with the colonists in a single fierce glare. "We need to pull up! A downed shuttle and crew of dead people won't help those herders, or anyone else on this planet."
Chekov shot a startled look at Reddy. "What?"
The pilot's dark face was stiff with restrained panic. "We can't pull up. We're losing thrust."
Swallowing the sour taste of dread in his mouth, Chekov stretched in front of Reddy to punch at the blast controls for the atmospheric engines. The gut-sinking surge in acceleration that should have followed the thruster fire never came. Instead, coarse juddering slammed through the shuttle's frame, and Chekov's adrenaline spiked along with the temperature gauge before he could slap off the engines.
"The intakes are clogged." He searched the console for some encouraging reading with growing alarm. All he saw was olivium-sparked incoherence. "Can we recalibrate our sensors?"
Reddy forced a quick reboot through the main shuttle computer, then shook his head stiffly. He looked almost too tense to breathe.
Chekov dug behind himself for the seat restraint, settling back to belt in. "We have to slow our descent." He didn't even turn to look back at Plottel and Baldwin. "Get back and strap down."
"Using what?" Baldwin wanted to know. He sounded near to tears.
Plottel made a calming little noise, and Chekov heard him tug the other man toward the cockpit doorway. "We've got the safety harnesses," Plottel said evenly. "Come on, Kev."
They passed out of hearing, and just that quickly out of Chekov's thoughts. The faint spasm of guilt following his silent dismissal didn't last long -- his years in Starfleet had taught him not to tangle up
his concentration with things outside his control. That meant Plottel and Baldwin, Sulu and Uhura, any chance of a career on board the still-distant Reliant --
Wind caromed against the shuttle with a sound like wild banshees. Chekov gripped the edge of the console, his stomach lurching up into his throat. "Inertial dampers are failing." It wasn't a guess.
"Everything's failing." Reddy fought to bring their nose up, might have been succeeding, all his efforts drowned in the pounding of wind and sand. "No attitude thrusters, no antigrav backup -- "
Of course not. Not on a shuttle this battered by countless trips down through the dust storms of Belle Terre. Chekov tried again to boot up the sensor displays on the copilot's console, blowing a glitter of accumulated dust off the controls and wishing cargo shuttles had anything resembling a survivable glide ratio. The front windshield writhed with sun-stained browns and reds. Hints of horizon, flashes of what might be water. Not sure what inspired his sudden urgent certainty, Chekov reached over to grab Reddy's sleeve. "Raise shields."
The pilot spared him a single sideways glance. "We're not a starship. The only thing these shields are good for -- "
"Raise shields!" Instinct, faster than thought. Without waiting for Reddy's understanding, he pushed the shield generator to maximum. They'd been falling stern-first, dragged down by the weight of engines and emergency supplies. Now their rear kicked upward, hard enough to throw them both forward into the dual panel, fast enough to make the shuttle echo with the groan of metal fatigue.
With an abruptness that made his gut clench, the shuttle broke clear of the dust and hurtled into shockingly transparent air. Chekov didn't have time to wonder if this was the same clearing that had first lured Reddy to the surface, because their trajectory was taking them straight down into it. And at the bottom, far too close, he saw the glitter of raw, reflected sunlight. His instincts had been right -- they were only seconds away from contact with the surface.
Dust-swarmed inertial dampers struggled against the violent shifts in mass, but couldn't entirely save them from the impact. It came with a weird sluggishness, as if the ground had somehow oozed around their shields instead of crashing into them. Then silvery curtains of water geysered up over the windshield, and all view of this world was drowned.
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