Cold, salty water lapped against his face instantly reviving him. Eyes wide open he quickly surmised that he was still in his fighter, and it was rapidly filling with ocean water. Outside a driving rainstorm bounced his broken starfighter back and forth on churning waves. Hank could barely move his right leg without feeling a jolt of pain. He used his left arm to punch the safety harness open and free himself from the ejection seat. The water level was up to his chin as he fished around for the canopy release lever. He pulled off his broken helmet and was greeted by a warm flow of blood-stained water.
Trying to ignore his head injury, his freezing fingers eventually found the canopy release lever and cracked open the frame. More water flooded inside the fighter, pushing it down below the surface. Hank didn’t have time to take an extra breath before being submerged. He stood on the seat with his good leg and pushed the canopy open enough to slither out and swim to the surface.
His wrecked starfighter quickly sank into the mire and was lost to the dark depths. Gasping for breath in a downpour filled his mouth with fresh water and caused him to choke for air as he tried to stay afloat by treading water. His good leg was weakened as he bobbed in the ocean. The cold water and shock from the crash made him slow to realize that his right foot was probably broken. This hampered his ability to tread water. After nearly sinking again, he remembered to activate the floatation device around his neck, and that helped keep his head above the water.
The immediate danger of sinking allayed, he touched his forehead and discovered a sizeable gash. The rain was washing it clean, but it was still bleeding pretty good and he tasted the blood mixed with sea water. He knew there was a small first aid kit in his leg pocket. Fumbling to find the right pocket he carefully brought the kit above the water level to open it. The backs of his hands were burned from a cockpit fire. Thankfully his fingers were not. He opened the zippered pouch and pulled out a roll of gauze. Tucking the pouch inside his flight suit zipper, he pulled out the gauze and wrapped it tightly around his head like a bandanna.
It still hurt, but not nearly as much as his foot. He tried not to use his right leg as he bobbed in the rough waves. Near as he could recall, he was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Drexel was a water world with only enough land to fit into one tiny continent if it were all squished together. There were lots of sandbars and islands sprinkled across the vast, global ocean, but they were few and far between. He was a cosmic mote of dust floating in the blue with virtually no chance of being found or rescued.
The longer he floated the warmer his core became. The water was heated by tropical lava flows from deep, underwater volcanoes. If the storm ever cleared, the sun would be his next enemy in his fight to survive. For now, his burned hands were somewhat soothed by the water.
Dark, swirling clouds high overhead reminded him that he was smack dab in the middle of a tropical cyclone. The aerial battle from which he was shot down was not visible to him now. He wondered if his compatriots had got the Red Ace or if they too had been dispatched by his superior fighter. He had a gut feeling that Devon and Katya would surely prevail over the dreaded Votainion pilot. After all, the enemy fighter was pretty shot up before he managed to get Hank. All of that meant nothing to him now. His only concern was how long he could stay alive in order to be rescued.
Downed pilots were taught how to survive water landings and they were all decent swimmers, but there was a tacit understanding that it would be nearly impossible to find them in the vastness of the ocean. There was an emergency beacon on his suit that transmitted his location and health status, but on Drexel, they didn’t have the network of satellites that existed on Federation home worlds to listen for his signal. The signal shot up to orbit and was lost to any form of reception. A searching fighter would have to pass directly over him to pick it up.
After what seemed to him like hours the storm slowly moved past him, and the waves reduced to the point where he could see the horizon for the first time. Daylight broke free as the storm raged on into the distance. The hot sun began to cook him as he floated helplessly in the water. He had plenty of time to think, alone with the vastness of the ocean. All he could really think about was how he’d never live long enough to experience love or to make any kind of difference in the universe. He was only twenty-six years old and Drexel had been his first combat assignment out of flight training. Now he was going to die a casualty of the war with no real combat record. Unless you counted that he was another victim of the Red Ace. A sad statistic if ever there was one.
A school of tiny fish surrounded him. They swam chaotically, running into each other and jumping out of the water periodically. Stupid little fish, he thought. He was much too big of a catch to be a meal for them. They were all no bigger than his little finger and didn’t seemed that interested in him. Where they had come from so fast, he had no idea. The water began to churn and then bubble around him as the tiny fish went from excited to frenetic.
Something very large brushed past his broken foot and he screamed out in pain. A whale-like fish broke the surface, its giant mouth agape, swallowing up the tiny fish. Hank waved his arms and tried to get away from the beast before getting swallowed up along with the other fish. The whale fish slammed back into the water and seconds later surfaced with another huge mouth full of fish. It clearly wasn’t after him, just the school of smaller fish that it had driven to the surface in order to feed on.
Hank did his best to swim away from the feeding frenzy, eventually wearing himself out. He floated there adrift, watching the whale feed. Eventually the waves died down and became flat and he was alone again on the vast expanse of water.
The sun beat down on him with oppressive heat. He slipped in and out of consciousness as the water slowly moved him along the equatorial current of the planet. At one point he woke up with a start as his broken foot dragged past something below. The pain was sharp, and he feared that something was eating him from under the water. Splashing about with his arms and kicking with his good leg pushed him against a sandbar. Startled by the possibility of making it to land of any sort, he crawled along the fine sand up onto the beach. It wasn’t even an island, just a very low stretch of sand about twice as long as he was tall.
Thankful to not be bobbing in the water, he laid on the hot sand and covered his face with an arm. His head was throbbing, and his ankle felt like it was ready to separate from his foot. He looked down at it, expecting a gruesome sight and was greeted with his booted foot. It looked fine. Except that it was turned around in a way that feet didn’t normally turn. He started feeling queasy immediately. Rolling over on his side he emptied his stomach onto the beach. The acidic bile sizzled on the hot sand. The smell turned his stomach even more, but he had nothing left to purge. Rolling over on his other side he tried to pull himself away from the mess.
Unable to drag himself in the soft sand he soon gave up and watched the water lapping against the shore of the sandbar. Closing his eyes, he started to wonder how a sandbar could exist in the middle of an ocean. Strange thoughts in which he imagined that he was actually on the back of a very large sea creature entered his languid mind. He opened his eyes again and tried to lift his head high enough to scan the horizon.
There, off in the distance was a shape. It wavered back and forth like light on the surface of water. It was an island! He wasn’t far from it either. All he had to do was somehow drag himself there. His tired, dehydrated body however, was incapable of moving an inch. Maybe he could wait until dark and he’d have more strength. Yes, he must rest up and try again later.
A strange sound echoed in his ears and something fluttered past the sun above his head, barely detectable with his eyes still shut. The sounds became louder and he started feeling something pecking at his body. Pinching and prodding him. More screeching sounds finally forced him to open his eyes.
Dozens of sea birds were swooping around him, trying to pick the flesh from his bones. He waved his arms and screamed with a hoarse throat. The birds flew off but lingered nearby. His arms fell to the sand and he let out an exhausted sigh.
The birds returned to peck at his body. He was powerless to stop them now. His fevered brain unable to formulate a plan to save him when he couldn’t even lift his arms. The thought that this could be the end drifted through his mind. He didn’t want to die alone on a sandbar in the middle of an ocean on some far off, alien world. He wanted to live. So desperately wanted to live.
* * *
Katya opened her eyes and sat up in her bunk. Her body was dripping with sweat and her sheets were soaked. Gasping for breath she quickly came to terms with where she was. Alone in her thatch hut on Drexel. She wasn’t dying on a sandbar in the middle of the ocean. It was another of those damn dreams again, in which her guilty mind had struggled to deal with the death of one of her pilots. Hank had been shot down by the Red Ace months ago. He was never coming back, and he didn’t survive the crash.
But her brain could not properly process Hank’s death. Every time she allowed herself to accept his passing, the dream returned. Like a recurring nightmare, he always survived the crash and met his fate in some other cruel manner. One time he had been eaten by a blood thirsty shark-like fish, another he had drowned by not getting out of his fighter before it dragged him screaming into the depths.
Death by dehydration on a sandbar was a new one. She hadn’t had that horrific version yet. The time on her chronometer read 0400 hours. It was another two hours before she had to be awake. She got up and paced around her room trying to calm herself down enough to get back to sleep. Pulling off her tank top and putting on a fresh one after toweling down was always the first step. She even had a second set of bed sheets handy to swap out the wet ones, so frequent were the nightmares.
Laying back down she tried to figure out a way to stop the dreams from coming back. There had to be some reason she was fixating on Hank’s death and not all the other pilots who had died on that day or even since then. She’s lost close to a dozen pilots under command since Devon had left. Damn her for putting me in charge like this, she thought. That’s when she realized that it probably wasn’t Hank’s death in particular that she was struggling with. It could be that his innocence and naivety was representative of all the pilots who had been killed in combat since she took over the squadron. If that were the case, she would be in for many more nights like this, possibly for the rest of her life. Many millions of people had died during the war which had raged on now without a clear end in sight for nearly twenty years. There was no reason to believe it would end soon.
Was this the so called, burden of command? Because if it was, I’m not cut out for it. I’d have to resign as squadron commander just to get my life back. Just to be able to sleep through the night again. Hopefully.
Later that day she went to the Comms hut and had the kid there patch her into the starship where Devon was stationed. It was impossible to get instant communication with a starship in deep space, so she had to settle for making a recording. She told the kid to take a break and then composed her message before the tiny camera.
It took a week to hear back from Commander Devon Ardel. In that week, Hank had died another five times in her dreams. When she got the reply, she was just returning from a mission in which thankfully, nobody had died. Tossing her helmet to her crew chief she ran across the tarmac to the Comm shack. The kid handed her a data pad with the reply on it. There wasn’t a video message. Just a text one. What the hell, Devon? You too damn busy for a personal reply? This is my private hell here!
She punched up the message and sat down in a chair to read it. She needn’t have bothered sitting. It was short.
“Welcome to command. – Devon”