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5: Land

"What did you do? What did you do?"

Mikhail opened his eyes to dark chaos. He lay in a painful sprawl in a well of darkness, a slit of light cutting through the black some two meters above him. An animal—an exotic bird or monkey or something—was screaming somewhere close at hand, its cry reminiscent of his Nyanya's accusing shouts.

But it was more than just the echoing call. The memory of his childhood nursery pressed so strongly into his waking consciousness, that he could only smell baby powder, sour milk and the flowering lilac. He could almost feel the wool rug under him, and the slats of his bed over him, shielding him from justice.

What did you do?

"That was a long time ago." He needed the sound of his adult voice to shake himself free of the memory. "Where am I now? Am I still on my ship?"

The light flickered, as if a cloud had passed by, and the sense of being pressed down by his memories faded. Awareness of an ocean thundering close at hand, breaking against a shore, seeped in. The air was hot, damp and heavy with the smell of salt, torn earth, bruised green foliage, and fresh blood.

He explored his small grave-like prison and discovered only one wall was earth. He was in the bridge lift which was half-filled with dirt. How did he get into the lift? He remembered the jump, the startling blue that enveloped the Svoboda—but then there he lost the thread of memory.

The earthen wall was the foot of a mountain wedged into the lift, preventing the door from closing. Nor was the wall just packed mud—it was a tangle of broken branches, wet leaves, and sharp edges of torn metal. Part of the bridge must have sheered open in the impact, allowing in a mountain of debris. He was lucky to be alive.

Cause and effect started to creep in. He sat closest to the lift. If he was alone in this dark womb, then the rest of his bridge crew was dead. Hard on that realization, he remembered that there been a fight in the red pit and then an airlock malfunction.

Oh god, Turk.

Turk was sturdier than he was, but Mikhail knew that Turk could be hurt, could be broken. Fear condensed into a solid cold knot in his stomach. Had anyone survived? Was he all alone?

He fought the impulse to claw at the dirt. He couldn't move the mountain with his bare hands. More likely, he'd cut himself. He needed power tools and help. He fumbled until he found the service box, flipped open the access panel. The lift's diagnostic tests had been tripped, the amber display flashing "Danger. Door ajar. Air seal unable to activate." Using that dim light, he could make out the maintenance hatch overhead. He reached up, undid the latches and popped the hatch. The lights on the emergency release handles of the lift doors above him formed a string of red pearls, gleaming softly in the shaft of darkness. After an awkward jump and scramble, he climbed through the hatch and up the inset ladder to the hanger level.

The blast doors stood open, filling the hanger with brilliance and the presence of the sea. Mikhail blinked back tears and shielded his eyes as he walked toward the door. The world beyond was pure dazzling light. Wind, hot, humid and stinking of salt and a billion things—living and dead—blasted through the doorway, a press of white noise.

Part of his crew gathered at the open door, standing silent and numb, gazing at the ocean with bewildered stares.

Lieutenant Commander Dimitri Kutuzov noticed him and saluted out of reflex. Blood trickled down Kutuzov's cheek from a scalp wound. "Captain?"

"Are you hurt?" Mikhail asked. Kutuzov might be his new second-in-command if Mikhail lost his entire bridge crew in the crash.

"It's nothing, sir. You know how head wounds bleed like you've been laid open."

Mikhail opened an equipment locker, found welding goggles and a saws-all. "Find some more goggles, Kutuzov." They were going to need sunscreen in addition to eye protection against the glare, but that could wait until they rescued any surviving crewmembers off the dirt-filled bridge.

The glare filtered away, Mikhail looked out onto endless blue. It stretched out as an infinite plain of shifting water, all the blues of the universe, seething with restless energy.

"What is it?" One of the Reds asked. Its eyes had adapted already to the glare.

"It's an ocean." Ensign Sergei Inozemtsev said. "A large body of salt water."

"Salt?" The Red wrinkled its nose.

Gripping the rail beside the hatch, Mikhail cautiously leaned out to study the water directly below. Dead fish rolled against the side of the ship with the surf. Like the fish of Volya they were mostly silver which would act as camouflage in open water. A few were brightly colored, perhaps to hide among bright coral, or were poisonous in nature. They'd landed in surprisingly shallow water. He must have been unconscious for a while—the sand had already settled and he could see straight down to the ocean floor through crystal blue water. Multi-colored coral fanned in the invisible currents. He scanned them, wondering how deadly they were, and picked out a large, dark form hiding in a crevice.

"No one goes in the water." He studied the two Reds, trying to dredge up names for them. "Coffee and Rabbit, right?" He got a nod from them. "Secure weapons. Rabbit will be with me, and Coffee will guard this door."

"What about Commander Turk?" Rabbit asked, obviously reluctant to take orders from anyone.

"Until he turns up, you're taking orders from me." Mikhail shoved away the hurt. "Keep an eye out for predators."

"Predators?" Rabbit repeated the word as if unsure of what he meant.

"Hostiles." Mikhail scanned the gathered crew. Anyone working with the Reds needed to be large enough to be respected. Mikhail picked the largest of the men in the hanger. "Inozemtsev, brief the Reds on types of predators that can be found on planets."

"Me?" Inozemtsev said with surprise.

"You were raised landside, right?" Mikhail got a nod from the big man. "I want the Reds aware that life here, as small as a sea urchin, can kill."

"The Reds will be shooting at everything that moves," Inozemtsev murmured.

"That might not be a bad idea," Mikhail said.

"What if some of these creatures are intelligent? What if they're friendly?" Inozemtsev asked.

"Then they'd quickly learn we're not." Mikhail snapped.

Kutuzov returned with the goggles.

"Popov, Ulanova, take the goggles and come with me," Mikhail ordered. "Kutuzov, gather a team and do a sweep through the ship, starting with the lower levels. If we have flooding, we need to get everyone well above water line—this might be low tide."

"Low tide, sir?" Kutuzov asked.

"The water might rise several meters in the next few hours."

Kutuzov's eyes widened and he threw a frightened glance at the water lapping against the ship. "Yes, sir."

"See if the infirmary is above water," Mikhail continued. Should he brace Kutuzov for his possible field promotion? No. Wait and see if anyone survived on the bridge. "If the infirmary is under water, the emergency evac in the Tigertail will be the backup infirmary."

"Yes—Yes, sir." Kutuzov managed a salute.

Mikhail leaned out, caught hold of the service ladder and scrambled up to the top of the Svoboda.

They were in worse trouble than he thought. True, they were in shallow water, plowing through a half kilometer of reef to bury their nose in sand, but they weren't out of the ocean. The sandbar was approximately a kilometer wide and perhaps two kilometers long. From his vantage point, he could see the whole of it. It offered no shelter, no fresh water, and no resources other than pink coral sand.

Mikhail picked his way to the bridge.

They'd plowed nose-first into the sandbar, burying them deep into the pink sand. The bridge was above the water-level, but torn open, leaving behind a jagged, empty half-shell. They must have lost the bridge when they struck the floating landmass, which had been green with jungle. That was the only way to account for the black dirt and broken branches which filled the back two meters of the bridge.

In a glance he could see that he'd lost his entire bridge crew along with most of his control panels. Grief and distress solidified in his stomach with such force that he nearly vomited. He swallowed down hard on the urge and turned away from the sight.

A large bright colored bird trashed in the wreckage, one of its wings broken. It opened its long hooked beak and screamed, "Whatdidyoudo? Whatdidyoudo?"

Mikhail pressed his hands to his temples, trying to get control of himself. Focus, Misha, focus.

His bridge crew wasn't a priority anymore. He had to assess damage to the ship, deal with the wounded, and start repairs. And he should promote Kutuzov to acting second-in-command.

"Captain, this world is—wrong." Rabbit said.


"There's no horizon." Rabbit pointed out over the water. "And look." He swept his hand upwards to a dark splotch at the eighty degree point in the sky overhead. "That's a landmass. We're inside a sphere, a very large one."

Mikhail stopped to truly look.

Floating land masses, like one they had hit, dotted the sky. One plowed through the clouds, roiling the white into a gray. Lightning flickered in the tight knot of polarized air, like a storm inside a bottle. That island was a wedge of stone, perspective obscuring its topside. An island farther in the distance, though, showed a crown of thick green. He would only see the top of the island if it was traveling up a curve.

Mikhail turned in a circle.

The wind had been blowing steadily from one direction, coming across the water. If this was home, he would want to call it West—with the nose of his ship pointing East—but he wasn't sure that name would apply in this place. Wind tended to follow the rotation of the planet. Was the same true in this place? Was the shell of the sphere rotating? Space stations rotated to maintain artificial gravity.

Mikhail wondered if it was an artifact or some weird accident of nature. The only difference, for him and his crew, would come if the owners of the artifact acted on their arrival.

* * *

After the blasting heat of the sun, the dark of the hanger was a relief. They had both the blast doors open and the constant breeze scoured out the heat.

The hanger was filled with chaos as his crew had shaken off their shock and were now reacting. He found his Chief engineering officer, Yeygeny Tseytlin, swearing heatedly at a heavy-duty pump with fire hoses leading down the lift shaft.

"How's the ship?" Mikhail asked.

"Alpha Red flooded and only half of the replacements got out alive. I'm trying to get the water pumped out now, but there's debris clogging the intake valves on the pumps."

Alpha Red was Turk's last reported position.

"Turk?" Mikhail asked.

Sorrow filled Tseytlin's eyes and he put a hand to Mikhail's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Captain. He's not on the ship. I don't know where we lost him—but he's gone."

Mikhail had been bracing himself for that answer but it still hurt. He nodded his understanding, not trusting his voice.

"Where should I store the bodies once I get the deck drained?" Tseytlin asked.

They had a handful of morgue slots but not enough to take a quarter of the Red detachment. Normally they did all burials at space. There was no long term storage for dead on ship. In this heat, it would only be a matter of a few hours before they would start to smell—and worse—attract predators and parasites. Burying them in the sandbar would only trap the toxin of the rotting bodies next to the ship.

"We're going have to bury the dead at sea," Mikhail said.

"At sea? You mean throw them in the water?" Tseytlin said.

"They're dead, we're not. But we will be if we don't make our survival top priority. We can't keep the dead anywhere near the ship, not in this heat. Understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"Put someone else—if you have someone else—onto this detail. I need you to make sure that the water recycling system hasn't been compromised. If it has, it's your priority above all other things."


"Water is like air, Tseytlin. Without it, we'll die."

"I think I've heard that before." This from a man that could tell you down to the seconds how long any amount of air could keep a human alive. Tseytlin had been raised on short-hull freighters, where none of the stops were more than a day apart. In the "world" he grew up in, even if something went wrong with the water recycling system, it would never be life threatening.

Only a few of his crew had been raised landside. Worse, none had experienced true wilderness. Never had to live off the land. Never known thirst . . .

 . . .he was so thirsty . . .

Nyanya Nastya had left that morning. Or more accurately, she had left the night before, while Mikhail and Turk slept. The day had been full of unhappy surprises: stiff new clothes, harder classes, and a strict new housekeeper that didn't sleep in the dyetskaya with them. Six-year-old Mihkail had managed all day to be a big boy and not cry, but late at night, thirsty and yet too scared to leave his bed, he started to cry.

Mihkail's biggest problem was that he thought too much. He pondered things until he knew the best and worst that could happen in every situation. Only the best rarely happened, so he was usually disappointed, and he was often surprised that there were worse options available—ones he didn't know about—like discovering at the age of four that certain fast moving objects can amputate a finger, and that while such things could be corrected, they were stunningly painful.

He suspected that there were no urody lurking in the shadows of his bedroom suite, but one could never be sure. His crying woke three-year-old Turk, who came padding out of his cubby, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.

"Why are you crying?" Turk asked grouchily.

He was really crying because Nyanya Nastya was gone. He knew that she left because Turk finally mastered potty training and dressing himself, but he suspected that Turk didn't know that. Mikhail had sabotaged Turk's progress to delay her leaving, at least until they started punishing Turk harshly. He wasn't sure why she had to leave. He loved her dearly. She had said that she loved him, but she lied often about things she thought would upset him. And why would his father let her leave? That was the most upsetting question of all. So many times, a possible answer to similar questions was that his father didn't love him. His father made it clear that Turk wasn't his son, but his treatment of Mikhail was not that much different. Certainly it didn't match Nyanya Nastya's shower of hugs and kisses.

Turk stood beside Mikhail's bed, waiting for Mikhail to explain why he was crying. He was stoic as well as patient and truthful; while Turk had been silent all day, he'd gone all furry.

"Do you love me, Turk?"

Turk nodded, but added. "You cry too much."

Mikhail tested the limits of Turk's love. "Get me a drink of water."

Turk never thought as much as he did. He went into the bathroom without considering what the darkness might hold. He came back, carefully carrying a cup in both hands. "Here."

Mikhail drank the water and then pulled Turk into bed with him. Turk felt like a cyber teddy, warm and soft, but better—a cyber teddy couldn't fetch water, fight urody, or really, truly love him.

As he drifted to sleep, feeling safe, Turk started to purr.

"Captain?" Someone said close to hand, and the memory flitted away.

Mikhail pressed a hand to his forehead. For a few minutes, the memory was solid and real as the broken ship beneath his feet. He'd thought of that night before, but never with such clarity. The print on Turk's nightshirt. The blue of the cup. The taste of the water. Was he suffering from some kind of head trauma or just going mad?

Unfortunately, either was just as likely.

"Captain?" Tseytlin repeated. Mikhail recognized his voice this time. "After checking the water recycling system, what should I focus on?"

He blinked to clear the memory from his vision. A mark of how rattled Tseytlin was he seemed unaware Mikhail had phased out. Mikhail had a good crew, but he just landed them in a situation that probably was beyond their ability to cope with. He had to keep himself in control. He forced himself to consider Tseytlin's question.

Water tight was a minimal concern since the ship was compartmentalized and airtight. Even with the damage to the bridge and the breach in Alpha Red, the rest of the ship wasn't in danger of flooding even in the worst of storms. Luckily they had landed in shallow water, so it was unlikely they would sink.

"With the bridge gone, we're defenseless," Mikhail said. "We need to get the guns online."

"Is this a nefrim controlled world?" Tseytlin asked.

He glanced out the open hanger door to the bright shimmering blue, so far innocent of anything more menacing than sharks. "That is yet to be seen. We should assume it is. Maintain covert protocol. Radio silence. Minimal energy output."

Tseytlin nodded slowly. "It will take some time, but we can modify the Tigertail's weapon control to handle the Svoboda's guns."


"Captain?" Rabbit had been trailing behind him, apparently obeying the last order given to him until given new ones.

Mikhail frowned at him and realized that Rabbit was looking across the hanger. He followed the direction of the little Red's gaze. There was a tall Red that Mikhail had never seen before limping toward them, licking blood from its lips. It was one of the replacements from Paradise.

Mikhail stepped backwards, wishing he had a weapon. While he trusted the Reds that been part of the crew for several missions, these replacements were loose cannons. "What is it?"

"I'm top cat." The Red said.

So the Reds had spent the time determining who was next in command with Turk's disappearance.

"What's your name?"


Mikhail hardened his gaze on the Red. It was difficult to intimidate someone you knew could tear off your arm and beat you with it. After growing up with Turk, Mikhail was fully aware of how strong a Red at any age was compared to a normal human. Still, the crèche-raised had to be dealt with from a position of apparent power. "What is your name?"

The Red blinked as if surprised by the request, and hesitated, thinking it through before offering up his handle. "Butcher."

"Butcher." Mikhail repeated, digging in hooks in the Red's attention. "How much do you know about planets? Ever been out of the city on Paradise?"


"Can you swim?"

"What is swim?"

Mikhail sighed and dropped his gaze. Oh Turk, Turk, Turk—I need you here, alive and well. "Do you know how to do duty rosters?"

"Yes, sir. I have ten dead, three wounded, leaving me twenty-seven fit for combat. I have set up three shifts of nine Reds each and assigned commanders for each shift."

"Good." Mikhail nodded. At least the new top cat was more than a set of finely tuned muscles. "Butcher, if an unidentified boat approaches, I need the Reds to hold fire until ordered."

"You said that you wanted natives to know we're unfriendly," Butcher said. Mikhail's orders to Inozemtsev had filtered through to the Reds then. "Why the change?"

"There might be other spaceships that crashed here," Mikhail said. "If the humans survived, they might use boats to travel around on. You know what a boat is?"

Butcher put his hands together to form a prow of a boat with his fingertips. "It's a thing that floats on water."

"Just because they're humans doesn't necessarily mean that they're friendly. Consider them as possible hostiles." Gods, how smart was this Red? Mikhail wouldn't have had to explain himself to Turk. "But do not fire on them unless ordered. Do you understand?"

"I understand." Butcher rumbled. "Show your teeth but don't attack."

* * *

Mikhail managed not to feel for hours, keeping it all blocked out as he climbed through his darkened, half-flooded ship. Finally he couldn't hold it off any longer. He retreated to his cabin to lock his service pistol into his safe. Using a marker, he wrote "Bad Misha Bad" and drew Turk's cat face scowling at him. He felt no need to turn his pistol on himself. No. Not yet. He could feel it coming, like the sun setting on the horizon; his ability to cope was fleeing. Dark despair would set in as inevitable as night, and this time, Turk wouldn't be there to save him from himself.

He leaned against the wall and covered the cat picture with his palm. "Good God, Turk, what am I going to do?"

"You go on," Turk would say, as if it was so simple and easy. He always envied Turk of that strength and had always leaned heavily on it.

He wanted to believe Turk was still alive, but the facts weighed too heavily. The airlock had opened while the Svodoba was still two or three kilometers off the water. Even if Turk survived the fall, he'd be hurt and out in open water teeming with predators. There would be no safe place to rest or hide.

"I'll try to be strong, Turk. The last thing my people need is me falling apart. I'll try to make you proud."

* * *

The next ship morning, they gathered under the constant noon sun for the mass funeral. They tested one of the body bags the shift before—made sure that it would float. It made him uneasy to launch his people out not into space but this seething living water. Space felt safe, its vast emptiness protected his dead from being disturbed until God chose to gather them up. It seemed like a betrayal, setting the dead adrift, helpless to countless forces that would disturb them. But there was nothing that could be done. They couldn't afford the bodies polluting the waters near the ship.

He read his memorial speech and then the names of the dead. Turk's name was on the list, but he couldn't bring himself to say it aloud. One by one, they pushed off the bags, letting the current take their dead. The sky was perfect blue, the sand a delicate pink, and the water crystalline. The black bags remained visible for hours, slowly drifting away. Helpless.

Afterwards he gathered up all the vodka in his cabin and shared the bottles out to the crew. They needed a drunk Captain no more than they needed a dead one.

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