Have you found a landing site yet, Mallory?" roared General Landings, gray hairs bristling. In the close confines of the ship's cockpit, the sound nearly blew my eardrums out.
I gritted my teeth and said, "Not yet sir. I'm scanning as we speak sir."
"Well get on with it!" He turned away and I shook my head. Jeez, that guy was irritating. We had been in space for nearly five years Earth time, but some new, strange technology that gave me a severe headache whenever I thought about it, made it possible to make the trip in little over a year. However long we had been out there, though, the general's ear-splitting commands were beginning to grate on my nerves. I flipped onto a different screen in my little navigation alcove. A high-res moving picture of the planet's surface danced around in front of me. The glare was hurting my eyes and I squinted.
"Jax," I called to the pilot. "Yeah." "Try HG-737," I said, giving the coordinates for a possible landing site. Sometimes it took multiple tries to get a good site, and I hoped this one would work or the general would have a few choice words to say. As Jax began the descent, General Landings leaned over my shoulder to look at the screens.
"Does this junk heap have any life?" he asked. The importance of the moment had made him talk in a civil tone and I was eager to keep it that way. I did some rapid typing and looked at the results, interested.
"This place has been dead since time began. Not a spark of life." The general sighed and rubbed his eyes. He snapped them open again and glared at the monitor.
"Didn't we send a probe here a couple years ago?" I asked.
"We did. And the stupid thing sent transmissions back saying this was a good place for making a colony. Probes," he growled, and added a few colorful adjectives.
"This place will work," I said, trying to keep the general in a good mood.
The ship slowly had started to shake. We were going through the atmosphere of planet AE-51 and I braced myself. This was the part of the flight where I usually evicted some of my stomach contents. The gentle rumbles gave way to a violent throttling that felt as if a couple of giants were playing ping-pong with our ship. My teeth began to vibrate in my mouth and I clamped them shut. I'm not getting paid enough for this, I thought. The shakings got worse and worse and I thought I saw my life flashing before my eyes. Somewhere far away I heard Jax flipping switches and cursing. I was sure I was going to have a few more white hairs after this ordeal. We got rattled harder and harder until we suddenly seemed to hover and then all movement stopped.
"We've landed," said Jax with a trace of smugness. I closed my eyes, gave a long relieved sigh, and released my seat belt.
"Good! Now let's get out there!" said the general, so loudly that he nearly knocked me off my feet. I opened the door to the cockpit and walked into the cabin. It consisted of a few chairs and a big red couch, a coffee maker, and an entertainment system. The two other men of our team were sitting there. They were twins, and I couldn't exactly remember why they had come on the trip.
"Bob, Ron, we've landed," I said. They both got up wordlessly. They did everything without expression, without emotion, and I couldn't remember the last time they talked. I often thought that they didn't even care if we landed or not. We strapped on helmets from the racks and, for no particular reason, stood in a line. General Landings strode briskly from the cockpit, snapped on a helmet and, with great relish, opened the main hatch.
None of us went out at first. We simply stood dumb in the cabin until Jax boldly walked out, her shoulders hunched. Following her lead, we all cautiously left the ship. I stared out the visor of my helmet. The flat ground was a dusty orange color with small pebbles scattered about. A small wind gusted around our legs, pulling up some sand and swirling it in the air. I looked around. On all sides were straight, empty spaces, not a single hill or bump. But it wasn't the depressing landscape that left me speechless. About fifty yards away, half-buried in the dirt of a dry, dead planet, was a space shuttle.
Bob reached it first; I think it was the first time I had seen him run. The rest of us approached it slowly, like it would jump up and attack us at any moment. I ran a gloved hand lightly up and down the rusty side. From the amount of wear I guessed the ship to be at least five hundred years old; but the model was very similar to a new version that had been made in America. Jax was examining the underside and I heard her gasp and swear over the speaker in my helmet.
"What is it?" I asked, running over to her. She wordlessly nodded to the metal. I looked. The ID number of the ship was USA 29845. The ship we had come in had the same ID. And two different ships never have the same numbers. I called over the rest of the team and we all silently crouched in front of the large black figures, like an ancient tribe worshiping some idol. Even the general was lost for words, his mouth opening and closing like a dying fish. Ron fiddled with some wires and the main hatch opened. We all looked at each other. Following Jax's example, I went into the ship first, with the team trailing behind me. The cabin looked exactly like ours, down to the coffee stain on the couch. Jax looked around.
"We could make our own episode of 'The Twilight Zone' with this," she said. No one laughed. I walked over to the computer tucked into the back of the room. Lying on its keyboard was a small scrap of fabric with a piece of plastic sewed to it. I picked it up and it almost fell apart in my fingers. The plastic was worn and cracked but I could still read "R. Mallory" engraved in it. I gave a start and unwittingly fingered the nametag on my chest. I dropped the old tag as if it was a black-widow spider. This isn't happening, I thought. This is all just a weird dream. A really weird dream. The ship's log was opened on the computer. Reluctantly, I began to read, my face slowly growing closer and closer to the screen.
"'Have you found a landing site yet, Mallory?' roared General Landings . . ."