“It’s a good thing this is a secure line, joker,” snorted his central nav. “You’d get docked again if Millsap heard you.”
“Yeah, my family would miss that paychit, for sure. Jelly, there is nothing down here but fringe trees. And more fringe trees.” He leaned to peer out the window at the view below. Suddenly a face flashed up at him, then disappeared.
“Jelly! Jeebus! Turn me around! I saw someone!” Chase grabbed the control, but it was still on autopilot for standard mapping. “Jelly! Release me! I’ve got to go back there!”
Jellis’s voice sounded guarded as he replied, “Chase, you know there’s no intelligent life here. We’ve got to keep on schedule or we’ll never get this mapping done in time. There’s nothing to—”
“Jellie, I saw it! I saw a face! There’s someone down there!”
“Chase!” His nav – and best friend on this sorry rock – shouted into the comm. Chase flinched and shut up. “Chase, there’s no intelligent life here! Do you hear me?”
Chase shook his head and punched the emergency override. He hadn’t flown solo since he’s arrived, but he’s been flying for years before he joined the Corps.
“What are you doing, man? Get back online and return to standard. Chase, I’m telling you,” Jelly’s voice dropped to a whisper. But that wasn’t what caught Chase’s attention. It was the quaver of fear he’d never heard from Jelly before that sent a chill down his back. “Chase, you need to turn around. Noone else knows your offline yet. Please, man. There. Is. No. Intelligent. Life. Here.”
Chase gnawed his lip, thinking while he slowed the pod and swung lower toward the point he was sure he had seen something—someone—looking up at him. He understood that Jelly was warning him. He didn’t understand why. If there was someone here, they needed to know, right? He had to find out.
“Jelly, relax. So they dock another chit. My whole family is already set for life with the pay I’ve made so far.”
“Jeebus, Chase. A paychit will be the least of your problems if you don’t get that pod back online pronto. Please, man. Please…”
Chase heard the quaver again in Jelly’s voice. He didn’t understand what was going on here, but he did understand that. He thought quickly. How could he find this place again, so he could come back and take a closer look without Jelly—or anyone—breathing down his back? He flipped a couple of switches on the pod control.
“Relax, Jelly. I had to take the pod offline for a moment because I thought I had an engine problem. It’s fine, but put this one in for a mech check when I get back. Coming back online now.”
Chase flicked the buttons to fire the engines, and the pod dropped its used fuel reservoir onto the canopy below. As the nav system re-engaged, he looked at the swirl of black residue covering a cluster of trees. “X marks the spot,” he muttered as the pod returned to the mapping lanes.
“What was that, buddy?” Jelly asked in a more normal voice, if not quite back to his usual joking self.
“Oh, nothing,” Chase replied. “Just thinking about maps.” And how to get hold of a free pod.
July word count: