Sacrifice

"Come on baby. Wake up."
The voice was soft, feminine, rising in a void that had once held his thoughts.  Even in the darkness he could feel the urgency in her tone, feel it tug at him as if her voice had a string tied to his soul and she was pulling on it. Sensation drifted in from the edges.
Smoke… the taste of it… bitter, acrid with chemicals that didn't belong in his mouth, singed its way through his air passages to fill his lungs. Hard, round dirt clung in tiny flecks to his skin and rolled in around the crevasses in his body as if it were molding itself to him, dirt that slid dry and smooth between his fingers when he clenched them like bits of plastic. Pieces of it pushed away from his lips when he breathed only to roll back again when he inhaled. The trickle of something warm leaked down his face, following a slick path that was crinkled and dry at the edges. He could feel the edges crack and splinter when he winced. Riding atop all of it was the strong sense of being not just hurt, but broken. Consciousness came back slow, crawling up from the bottom like a swimmer struggling for salvation in the shimmering light of a distant surface.
Simon groaned.
The effort sent a dizzying pain lancing through his chest and stomach, so tight and taut that the sound barely made it past his lips. Electricity arced behind him, the sizzling crackle of it unmistakable.
"Simon, please. Wake up."
The need to answer the plea washed over him, reaching through the throbbing haze and the stupefying emptiness to pull at him. He tried to rise, but the strength wasn’t in him. He settled for cracking one eye open.
The landscape was black and barren, swept by drifting smoke.  Everything came slow, drifted in like lazy clouds in light air, thought, memory, reason, everything but the pain.
He shifted and groaned again with the effort.  The round black dirt rolled in around his body.
Simon!”
“I’m here babe.” He breathed
“Thank God! Are you alright?”
The question slid through his mind, lingering before it made any real impression. He considered it for a moment while he let his thoughts drift along neuron paths to extremities and back again. Mentally he surveyed the areas of pain, the aches and stiffening muscles.
“Well” he finally said. “I guess that depends on what alright means. If it means am I alive, then I am. If it means I’m just fine and dandy, then I’m not. Take your pick.”
His one open eye gazed upon a copper sky. Thin dark clouds drew charcoal lines against the backdrop. Near the edge of his vision, bleak rocky spires clawed their way towards the heavens as if they too wanted to escape the hellish landscape.
“You ok Samantha?”
Silence greeted him.
“Babe?”
“Yes, for now. Power is dropping fast. It won’t be long before life support is gone.”
The words stirred him. He pushed himself upward and fought the urge to both grunt and moan as every muscle in his body screamed at the effort. He willed himself upward as much as carried himself there, and for the first time, felt the cold. It rippled across his face in bitter, artic waves that threatened to freeze blood still oozing from the cuts and scrapes on his body. He struggled upright, turned and sat, flopping back because he had nothing left. His breath spilled out in front of him in thick white pools that hung for a moment like soft clouds before slipping away. Simon wondered if he’d found that special place between fantasy and reality, that anecdotal place where a cold day in hell was actually possible.
His clothes were ripped, torn in a dozen places as if he’d been tossed into a blender, chopped, diced and kicked out the other side. Shards of his blue jumpsuit hung out at crazy angles, threads swaying in the cold air. Raw, red flesh pulsed beneath most of the openings. He stared at the wounds, feeling dull and stupid. Scores of icy fingers crawled through the rents in his clothes. Another slid across the stubbly brown hair on his scalp and seeped down the nape of his neck. The round, slippery dirt had acted as an insulator, closing in around him and preserving at least some heat. Now it was gone. Simon stifled a shudder as his body reacted to the sudden cold.
Amber light flickered against the black sand, drawing his eyes to a mangled heap of broken metal and frayed wiring half buried in the ground nearly fifty feet away. Here and there yellow tongues of fire licked hungrily up through the twisted mass, flames that belched black smoke and curled around metal as if feeding on it. He stared, trying to piece it all together. Something had gone horribly wrong with the landing, with the same process he’d repeated a thousand times on a thousand different worlds - the shaking jar of atmospheric penetration, the wild sensation of that long, rough slide out of heaven with her voice cool, calm, ticking off parameters and bearings, burn times and distances in that sweet, soft drawl she defended so vigorously, the sense of her beside him.
And now, she wasn’t. He stared at the wreckage. The lines of the miner were not even recognizable. The thing had never been pretty, but rather a harsh amalgam of angular metal studded with antennas and graced with a grudging nod to aerodynamics. Even so, everything was gone. He could have been looking at a slag heap as it was being melted. Angle iron jutted up in odd directions along what had been its spine, interspersed with torn shards of blackened metal that rose between them like the giant scales of a sleeping dragon.  The sight of an engine baffle, shiny, unscathed, and squatting atop the smoldering remains only compounded the confusion. It simply didn’t go there. In the jigsaw puzzle of what was left, the thought crossed his mind that God had a sense of humor.
He remembered parts, the sudden shudder that seemed wrong, the alarms blaring and Samantha’s voice running damage control. The memory stopped there as if it had stumbled over a cliff, the emptiness past it as black and unforgiving as the smooth round grains of alien dirt slip-sliding around him.
“What happened?” The question sounded stupid the moment he spoke the words, but he knew she’d understand. The link was like that between them, a mental connection that sometimes made words anti-climatic.
Her voice slid through his mind, cool and confident. “We hit something. What I don’t know. This place is too remote for space junk. A small meteorite maybe, I don’t know,  but that much I DO know. We either hit it, or it hit us.”
He felt himself swaying as she talked, and had to fight an overpowering urge to sleep. The words slipped in with the rest of the sensory overload and he drifted, his mind easing back towards the welcoming darkness, pushed there by a bizarre tangle of images - a field of daisies stretching out under an impossibly blue sky, warm soft breezes drifting through his hair and across his face, a brindle dog running, going nowhere but running just the same, paws kicking up dust from a quiet country road.
“Simon?”
Her voice shattered the peace and he groaned.
“I need you to stay awake. You’ve lost a lot of blood and it’s cold out there. Don’t sleep Simon. If you do you’ll never wake up. I don’t want to spend my last hours watching you freeze to death on this blasted rock.”
He fought the emptiness and took a deep breath of the frigid air. Cold surged through his chest.
“SIMON!”
 “Yeah, I’m here.” He said. A slow frown slid across his face. Something crinkled along his cheek and he raised a hand to brush at it. Dried blood flaked away.
“Why is it I can hear you?”
“The earpiece, it must still be in. I wasn’t sure until you answered. You were thrown clear when the seams split. Another few seconds and you would have been wrapped up in it when it rolled. For once, I guess it was a good thing that you weren’t strapped in. You would probably be dead if you had been.”
He reached up, fumbling with trembling fingers, and found the slick bit of metal and plastic still embedded in his ear.  The cool round dirt slid around his hand when he dropped it.
”Give me a minute babe. I’ll be there.”
Her voice floated back.
“Don’t bother. The few sensors that are left tell me we’re going to need help. Somewhere along the way the aft end of the ship melded with the bow. You’d need a torch to cut your way back in here. Unless one just happened to land out there with you, I’d say that’s not going to happen.”
He raised his head, and gazed at the wreckage. Torn sheets of metal were scattered across the ground, bright and gleaming in the orange light of a strange sun. A fork from the galley lay a few feet away, tines bent. Farther on occasional pieces of clothing dotted the landscape, other debris, most of it unrecognizable. He pushed himself straighter and peered across the black landscape. Bright objects speckled the dark sand as far back as he could see, trailing along a narrow swath that must have been their entry path. It was obvious the damage had been done before they hit. Something had brought them down, and down hard.
His eyes swept the debris field, from the smoking hulk of the miner back as far as he could see. There was little he could identify, much less anything that looked particularly useful – except for the odd piece of clothing. He was already stiffening from the cold. The jumpsuit wasn’t designed for this kind of weather, even when it was intact. The places where it was ripped and torn made it worse, breaking the light barrier between skin and air and leaving him exposed.  He shivered. The involuntary motion rippled through muscles already stiff and sore.
His breath poured out in front of him in visible puffs of steam. “Yeah, I guess we’re out of luck on that front, but I’m not going to leave you in there. I’ll find a way.”
“There is a way.” She said. “There’s an aid station, about ten clicks north of here. You can make it in a couple of hours if you get going.”
Simon worked the conversion in his mind – a bit over six miles.  Samantha had often poked fun at him for clinging to the archaic measuring system he had been taught as a child.  He had enjoyed the teasing in an odd way, often instigating it by looking up with a puzzled frown to ask what the equivalent would be in miles or feet even though he could easily work the math.
The laugh that slid out of his chest was dry and pained. “Get going? I take it my biometrics are dead? I’m not even sure I can walk.”
A long hiss of static followed his words.
“You have to Simon.” She said. Her voice carried a tone of finality. “It’s the only way. “
He sighed, stifling a groan as he bent one knee to test its mobility. “Give me a few, ok? I’ll be up in a minute. I’ll find a way in.”
“No. You have to get to the aid station. There’s no way in here. I’ve probed about every path I can think of. This place is like a prison. Much of the superstructure crumbled and rolled when we hit. What didn’t roll, burst open. There are beams slicing through the hull, and jagged metal everywhere. What is missing is a path outside. I’ve looked everywhere.”
It wasn’t what she said that annoyed him as much as it was the sudden helplessness of the situation. “Is that what I’m supposed to do? Leave you in there while I traipse across this hellhole to an aid station? Give me a break Samantha.”
‘Yes.” She said. “That’s what you’re supposed to do. Why is it you can trust me on a mine shaft and not here? We’re fighting time, Simon. We don’t have time to fight each other.”
He ignored her, and pushed himself upward. Years of working rock in harsh environments had sculpted his body, layering on slabs of dense muscle that sometimes made him seem as wide as he was tall. He didn’t carry the rippling physique of a body builder, but rather looked as if he had been carved from a boulder by an artist who took less time with detail than simply forming a shape.
His joints creaked and popped like rifle shots in the dense quiet as he rose. It took everything he had in him not to groan as he stretched out the kinks in muscles that wept in agony. Cold settled in when he stood, chilling him deep. Scores of tiny goose bumps raced along exposed skin.
The view wasn’t much different standing than it had been sitting. Off to one side, the black sand drifted off into the distance to meet the burnt orange of the horizon, rising and falling like oily waves painted on a canvass of rust and decay. To the other side, the star this world called its sun blazed in a copper sky. The spires rose in that direction, sweeping across behind the wreckage of the ship likes dark fingers reaching for the heavens. He studied them, working back through the little he knew of geologic processes. Something had carved them from the earth – wind maybe, scouring the loose dirt away bit by bit over the ages until the harder rock was left standing. Still it didn’t seem enough to him, not for the literal forest of thin black obelisks.
His breath formed frosty, white clouds in front of him. He shivered again, and pulled his arms close, folding them across his chest to conserve heat.
He tried a step and nearly fell, feet slipping on black sand that rolled under him rather than supported him. The sudden jar of catching himself sent a fresh wave of pain racing along shattered nerves. Simon gritted his teeth and tried another, gingerly this time, trying to gauge the rolling sensation against his sense of balance. He slipped again but caught himself easier this time, quicker. The next step slid as much as it pushed and he found himself able to move along with a slow, shuffling gait that left him feeling like he was walking on ice. One step after another slid beneath his feet while his eyes remained locked on the steaming hulk of what had been his ship. His ship; his home; his life was now Samantha’s prison.
“Where are you going?”  Her voice jolted him, breaking the hissing slide of his feet in a sudden burst of static and sound.
“I think you have the wrong word there babe. I’m not going. I’m coming.” He breathed through teeth gritted against the cold to keep them from chattering. “There’s no way I’m leaving you in there.”
The sound of frustration in her voice was clear. “Simon! NO! I told you already there is no way in here. You have to get to the aid station and get help.”
“I will.” He said. “Just let me take a look. There’s no reason to wander off when there could be an opening that you don’t know about. You said yourself; all of the sensors aren’t working. You’re blind in there. I can see perfectly out here. It’s simple babe. I’m coming, and if I can get you out, I will.”
“Then let me lay it on the line for you.” She said flatly. “The rotational period here is 16 hours, that means in about four hours the sun you see out there will set. An hour later the temperature will be 20 degrees colder. Half way through the night the thermometer will have plummeted another 100 degrees. You can make it to the aid station in a couple of hours at most. Another hour or two and help will be here. If you waste any time, I mean any, you will die. I will die. Is that what you want Simon?”
“Couple of hours huh?” He murmured, feet still shuffling towards the wreck. It was close now and already he could see an opening that looked promising. “Plenty of time to take you with me then isn’t there? Besides, why don’t you just radio them?”
Static buzzed in his ear. 
“The radio is shot. The frequency we’re talking on is all I have left and it’s not one anyone else is likely to be listening to. I’m telling you Simon, there is no other way.“
He stopped, frowning. “Babe, what you’re saying makes no sense. Aid stations are aid stations, not rescue stations. It could take days before anyone comes.”
“Not here. I plot every station and all the associated data any time we come in a place like this. I knew before we even got here where things were. Do you think we hit in this spot by accident? With an aid station only ten kilometers away that HAS people in it? If I’d had a little more control, you’d have woken up next to it. This is as close as I could get us before we hit.”
She paused, her voice drifting off and fading.
Simon glanced up at the wreck. “Babe?”
The silence that followed sent a bolt of fear racing through him.
“Samantha?”
“I’m here. Another circuit just shorted out. I had to shut it down.”
“You ok? You sound weak.”
He could hear the sigh above the static. “I’m ok. I just need you to get to the aid station and get some help out here.”
“I’ll go.” He promised. “Just give me 5 minutes. Let me poke around a little and make sure there’s no way in. I don’t want to leave you here if there’s a chance.”
“Besides,” He said in a wry tone. “We both know Johnston wouldn’t leave you out here.”
She hissed in frustration. “Damn it Simon. Alright, fine, you know what? There is a big difference between you and Johnston. Want to know what it is?”
He ignored the taunt, eyes fastened on a ruptured seam that had split wide on impact.  The opening looked wide enough to accommodate him, and deep. Shadows clung to the back.
“I’ll tell you. Johnston wouldn’t kill me over some stupid insecurity involving another man. He would listen to me because he would know I knew what I was talking about. You are killing me Simon, with every step you take and the only reason you’re taking them is because you can’t stand him. God, I wish he was here. At least I would have a chance. ”
The words stopped him like a slap across his face. A wild blend of emotions boiled inside him, anger, resentment, jealousy and hurt. He stared at the shattered remains of the ship, both wanting her and wanting away from her in the same instant. For one long moment it seemed everything in the past year came crashing down, a collage of disjointed memories of her voice, her laughter, the way her presence had filled him, and perhaps, saved him. Something imploded in his chest, leaving an emptiness he wasn’t sure anything would ever fill as if the sheer weight of her words had carved a hole straight through him.
“That was… cold.” He said.
“It’s the truth Simon. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but if you take one more step in this direction, you will be without doubt, the biggest. ”
Static crackled in his ear.
“Sometimes, I wish I’d never met you.”
 He stood as if planted in the ground, feet locked in place, ignoring the icy air that slipped across his face, and struggling to keep his voice even. 
“It’s not quite the truth, Samantha. Every step brings me closer to you, closer to knowing you’re safe, closer to getting you out of there.  It really has nothing to do with him. But if you want me to go for help, I will. I’ll go to the aid station. I’ll get help. I’ll bring them back to get you.”
He faltered, but caught himself. “But once I do, once you’re safe, I think it’s time you found another ride. I don’t want you on my ship any more.”
He turned stiffly, and made his way towards what looked like the upper piece of mining suit lying amidst the debris, pulled it up and shook the dirt free. The material was impermeable, designed to trap body heat and block out atmospheres. It, like him, was torn and shredded. He draped it over his back and pulled it around his chest anyway, wrapping it like a cloak as tight as he could. The sense of warmth was immediate.
“Which way?” He asked, keeping his voice emotionless.
“North.”
He took a deep breath. “Do you mind telling me which way that is? “
“Sun on your left Simon, keep it there. I’ll monitor you from here.”
“How much power do you have?”
“Enough.”