Air whined past like the slice of a razor blade. Part of Rita September acknowledged that danger among all the rest and duly waited for pain to register in her left ear, where the earphone of her headset had slipped off - something to add to the hits she took as her craft shuddered and crunched in the waves of wind - and she grit her teeth that bit harder, wondering what kind of hearing damage she might get.
She didn't dare let go of the controls enough to put her helmet to rights and thus get the headset back in place - crash-landing outside a controlled environment was a first. The helmet was the literal last resort.
So she'd get to it soon.
First, the fight with the winds.
The edge of her vision had her building the shreds of a plan for after the last resort. The Retrieval pilot's ship stayed there, almost steadily. Enough to know they'd probably land ... crash together. The plan was: Helmet on, get on the ground in one piece. Breathe. Get knife, check rifle.
"Something to look forward to," she said, mostly to impress herself with being able to get her jaw to unclench enough that she could whisper the words to no one.
Smoke and dust led September to where the Retrieval pilot had landed. More smoke than her own ship was letting out? Maybe not. She'd call it blacker, though. Maybe that meant she had made the better landing. The terrain was awful, though, from what she could see in the moonlight and the glow of the burning ship - hilly, rising into sharp rock ridges - and both of them had pulled off good piloting to land their ships in close enough to one piece to be alive.
Knife in her belt, she climbed closer to the downed ship. Heart hammering, she regretted the weapon, and still knew she would unsheathe it as soon as she was close enough. They'd shot at each other, among the stars. Being low-tech about it down here wouldn't stop her from having to deal with a Retrieval Movement fanatic, and wouldn't stop their paranoia about her.
It was a beautiful ship. One wing torn off and billowing smoke rear-starboard, it still had the look of motion in its intact lines.
September hit mostly flat ground. The pilot had spotted a pretty good open area, even if they had ended up shearing off too much of their ship on a rock ridge.
She was open about approaching the cockpit. Two figures sat slumped inside. She had a feeling that it was what it looked like, instead of, say, a trap with makeshift dummies. Instinct had treated her well throughout her life, and she followed it with a strange lack of fear.
Adrenaline. The crash landing alone should have her shaking - but the danger remained, really. It wasn't over until the enemy was neutralised.
She stopped halfway to the ship. She could see a lot better inside it now.
One occupant was already dead - clearly too much blood loss to have made it. The other one had a hand on their shoulder. Possibly dead too, with the grip down to rigor mortis ... no, that took a few hours. If that were a body, it probably would have gone slack already. They were alive and holding on to their companion.
September turned a little to look behind her. Grey in the sky where there had been dark blue - dawn approaching.
She took her knife from its sheath as she continued her approach. Alive meant trouble. Potential trouble. Almost certain trouble...
The light up ahead was getting better too, though - the fire rising higher, smoke even darker. More danger. And she was jogging towards it, not walking.
The pilot was the one still alive. A fraction of movement as she approached, the helmeted head tipping to keep her in sight. The arm not holding the other occupant of the ship moved, but September didn't fear a ranged weapon from the pilot. She doubted they'd do much with it in their condition.
Light glinted on the door frame as it popped - that did make her pause. Then it fell open. The pilot yelled something indistinctly. Their hand was visible, empty, slack as the other one was tight on their dead companion's shoulder. It made a gesture that meant nothing.
September swung up to tower above the pilot in their seat, and read:
MY NAME IS:
The corpse's name, she saw with a flick of her eyes, had been Casey.
"Get me out?" She could hear the pilot clearly now, down to the hesitation. "Or go, leave, just..."
September cut her free of her harness. The Retrieval woman's hands were on her, holding on, hesitant only in pain instead of animosity. Heavy. Each grip was something September approve of, each slip made her want to toss the woman away. Adrenaline was taking its toll now that her plan was gone, and she didn't really know what she was going to do.
The pilot limped them away from the ship. Khandi. That was what Khandi was doing now - she thought she was taking the lead. September was letting that happen.
They should be fighting right now. She shouldn't even be on this planet! She should be letting this Retrieval woman die here, as she so badly wanted to, like all the rest of her army!
Khandi was warm in the cut of the wind. And whimpering with tears. September could hear it even through the buzzing in her ears.
They could hear the ship cracking behind them, feel building heat on their backs. September aimed them towards the closest ridge that looked dense. If the thing blew, then she'd prioritise protection over distance.
"You win," she said, though. "You're on the ground. Here, in the place that swallowed so many people. Ready to fill your company's promises and look for them? All the gold or oil or whatever you people think is down here?"
Khandi just did her best to walk faster, pulling until September picked up speed. It wasn't the best victory - someone dead beside you. Both of them going to, or coming from a place with name tags ... strategy meeting? Negotiations?
Something started to whine behind them - metal under stress. They made it behind the ridge and kept going as well they could, though the ground was now steeper.
And the sun came up.
The land in front of them was green and misty, and stretched to the horizon. It scared and comforted September, country girl that she was. People died in empty places like this, she knew that, but it was almost familiar. She'd looked out of her home's windows as a child to see the sunrise turn banks of mist grey and blue and white, to starkly show up the pale undersides of certain trees leaves, to be golden.
"Maybe you win," Khandi said. "There's nothing here ... It just looks like ... Some of the people should have been able to build something? But oh, my God, there is nothing. How will I even look for them?"
That last thing - that attitude was what made her the enemy.
It made her weight welcome, too, all of a sudden. At least September had shot her for a real reason. At least, when Khandi faltered, she remembered the bond that she was supposed to hold to, and hoped that she would be able to. That was something to respect.
September had failed her own bond by crashing here - she was supposed to help keep this airspace clear and this people-swallowing planet out of reach. Keeping Khandi alive barely counted as going against the tenets of September's army, compared the fact that her feet were on solid ground. This was the last thing September had ever wanted, all along.
Now it was what she had.
They would look together. September knew that. They'd look for survivors and hope for people who'd thrived. They would try to find food and shelter, and they would live here where she had sworn no living people would come again.
Her oath was broken. Khandi's was fulfilled. If that was the one bond that remained... If that was the only goal available...
Then September was definitely the better pilot, damn it.
Even if, she knew, Khandi had won this battle.
"My ship is still in one piece, mostly. We can rest there. First aid."
Khandi nodded in agreement. They were halfway there when there was the muted sound of an explosion - implosion? - from Khandi's ship. She said a few words, among which featured 'Casey', and September gave her arm a pat at the end.
"I won't stop you looking for what's out here," she said softly. "I'll help you. If we die, we die."
Khandi said, "Good company, if we do." Not convincingly. September still wished she could ask if she'd like wine or beer, just for making the attempt.
There were noises – beyond the sound of the wind, beyond their laboured breathing... Rocks? She thought it was small rocks, at least, falling down the hillside. Not a landslide.
It probably meant something was moving above them, knocking down stones.
She tried to speed up and realised that she had already made sure their pace was as fast as it could be. Khandi tried, her limping steps turning so exaggerated it could have been comical, but couldn’t manage anything more. Still, they made it to the ship with no incident. One door wouldn't close. They'd have to live with it.
When they finally took their helmets off to face each other, sitting like pilot and co-pilot, the wind soughed softly around the rocks. A bird sang, breaking a silence that had run deeper than their voices could do something about.
All right. A sign of higher life. It was another reason to go look for all the travellers and settlers that had been taken by this planet. Was her side right, or Khandi's? Maybe it would be good to settle the debate.
But for now, forget the lies and truths both sides of the fight had told. The two of them rested in the cockpit and the space just behind it, eating and drinking sparingly of September's rations. They could break everything later. They could build something, too, perhaps.
She couldn't hear any more rocks falling. And when Khandi said that she was still in too much pain to sleep, the pain killers yet to kick in, September took her at her word and let her take first watch. She reclined her seat as much as she could and slept.
Not for nearly long enough.
"Hey ... what's your name, anyway? Hey. We have ... help."
September opened her eyes to a hand held to her cheek, extremely disconcertingly. When last had that kind of thing happened? Khandi's face was right above hers, and ... she was tired and a mess, but she was smiling. September almost glared in confusion, and Khandi put a hand to her other cheek too.
"Do not get upset," she said firmly. "Stay as calm as you can - I already think that's very, very calm." Her smiled grew brighter. "And then take a look around in here, and just outside the ship."
September tapped one of the hands holding her still, then nodded sharply as the grip loosened. She sat up carefully.
Maybe there weren't birds here after all. Or maybe there were birds and these ... goats. Something like goats.
Those were the ones closest to the ship, anyway, and inside it. Khandi had let one big one settle in her chair. And the strange thing was, it was placidly watching them, and a smaller, fluffier, clearly younger goat-thing nub its way around the ship, as much as it could. A mother animal letting its baby play around between strangers, in a strange environment - that just didn't happen. Even with tame animals, that didn't happen.
And there were different animals further back. Things like apes. And she'd swear that the big ones at the back of the strange crowd were just donkeys, like something transplanted from her childhood memories. Had the settlers here ever brought along donkeys? They'd definitely brought some beasts of burden. She remembered mention of camels.
"Just as calm as I thought," Khandi whispered.
"My name's Rita," she whispered back. It didn't really seem like the time to stand on protocol anymore.
"I'm a city girl, but I've watched nature documentaries. This is as strange as I think it is, right?"
"It's basically impossible."
"Well, what are alien planets for?"
The goats in the ship perked up their ears, both at once. They jumped out, and two others came in - with apes on their backs. And the apes went straight for Khandi, and the places she was hurt, and they patted her hand as they looked at them.
"All kinds of weird shit," Rita said in a belated answer, "like I was afraid of."
Not just like that. She'd always been a fan of the theory about hard-to-detect poison gases. But she sat and watched the animals come to inspect them, and she couldn't call herself happy about it.
"If the animals are like this with us," Khandi said, gently scratching an ape-thing behind the overly-pointed ears, "then surely they were like this with the other humans who came here."
"If the animals are like this, what the hell are the humans like?" Rita swallowed hard. "What are we going to end up like?"
She thought she already had an idea of what Khandi would do. A Retrieval woman - if she'd been ready to land here at all, she'd be a lot more ready than any sensible person to accept whatever the planet could throw at her. And if it welcomed her like this ... like a trap...
Rita started as a new animal came in - and a goat jumped out, as if there was a balance to be maintained. The new one was like a strangely furry bird, and it perched on the arm of her seat as soon as the goat was far enough away. The way it looked at her was the same kind of too-intelligent as the rest of the animals' way of inspecting them and the ship.
There was something tied to one of its legs.
They'd go, of course. Rita had already set herself on a course.
She didn't trust this place, though. She'd based the last seven years of her career on that. And if circumstances required it, then even if Khandi did still trust whatever they found here ... she'd break her free from it, too.