Europa Escape PT. 3 - SciFi Short Story

in science •  9 months ago 

This story is a continuation of Part 1 located at:
https://steemit.com/science/@stellarlibrarian/europa-escape-pt-1-scifi-short-story
And part 2 located at:
https://steemit.com/science/@stellarlibrarian/europa-escape-pt-2-scifi-short-story

Don't get half the story. This will be here when you finish.

Europa Escape - Continued


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Red lights flicker on the screen; a warning about the mask's outer shell, an external temperature caution, a notice on her reduced heart rate, and an unknown proximity alert. Alex slowly opens her eyes, groaning as she starts to sit up.

"What the..."

"Alex, my dear, welcome back to the land of the living. I thought I lost you out here. I am afraid I have lost connection with the Facility 3281's primary systems."

"Facility what?" Alex groans, blinking absently before seeing the crack down the outside of her mask.

"3281, little Miss, you know, the Europa Research Facility Sphere?"

"My mask! Oh no! The crack is so big! Ahh! I don't wanna die. I'm too young to die! Where am I? What happened? How did—"

"Alex, Alex, Alex my dear, please do relax or you will make that low heart rate reading flip."

"It's too late!" The reading has risen drastically in the last few seconds.

"Please listen, you are very much alive, and no, your mask is not completely compromised, but I do ask that you be more careful before letting a rock slam into your face."

It takes Alex a moment before she remembers the expanding fault. "Oh, yeah..." she mumbles, starting to feel the water around to find that there is no resistance.

"You were knocked out on the second impact I'm afraid; nothing is broken, but your suit is mildly weakened in your lower spinal region. You have only been out for 3 hours." Alex gags when she hears that. "The current then pulled you down about 1451.82 feet before I lost connection, and then we tumbled approximately 1536.43 feet after that into this chamber."

"Wait, what?! Are you telling me we are half of a mile down?!"

"No, I am telling you that we are 2990.25 feet below the solid crust, which is in fact 350.25 feet more than a half a mile."

"Gee, thanks." Alex slowly sits up, moving her limbs one by one to see if anything is broken. To her relief, nothing is bad beyond a mild head ache. With a sigh of relief, she gets onto her feet to look around. Straight ahead, she sees the other side of the chamber which is easily 50 feet away. She pauses and holds her breath as she glances down. Squeaking, she jumps back, staring down a giant orange pit pluming with boiling water bubbles. She looks left and right to see that the ledge continues in either direction around the perimeter of the cavern. Carefully, she starts moving left, to see if she can find a way out. "Do you know how much this suit can take?" Alex asks cautiously.

"Approximately one million, two hundred nineteen thousand, five hundred and twenty pounds per square inch."

Her eyes widen in amusement as she continues to walk around the circle. "That's a lot more than what the manual said."

"This suit is extreme grade, made for these exact circumstances. It is also capable of withstanding up to 2/3rds of Jupiter's atmosophere if need be." Alex blinks incomprehendingly. "There are microwires within the suit made of..."

"I get it," she scoffs, "It's strong."

"You're welcome," Sampson interrupts.

"But..." she pauses for effect—whatever that does for an AI, "I mean more like how many more hits can this take?"

"I wouldn't recommend any more impacts, especially with the state of the suit's facial and rear integrity. I would advise finding the route in which you came down to get back up," Sampson says with his normal, 'this is the fact, and I'm a British guy' attitude.

"You do realize I would have to climb all of that altitude, and that I have no food in this suit." Alex mutters, thinking about the water and waste system the suit includes. A few more seconds into the thought, she shudders.

Cautiously, she feels her waist for her utilities. Luckily, all her canisters and tools are still in place. She grabs a small water canister and takes a water sample before she makes her way down the narrowing cliff. The walkway narrows further as she works around, until her toes are about an inch over the edge. Bubbling water rushes past her with muffled gurgles. Alex finds herself holding her breath again and looking straight, trying to distract herself from the situation.

"What is this suit's function?" Alex asks faintly through clenched teeth.

"For underwater, space, and aerodynamic ventures of course. It was created about 5 years ago..."

"Shut up," Alex blurts, gasping as one of her feet falls free from the crumbling stone. She shifts her weight and looks upward, ready to start praying to end all of this. But, she is still here, and not that desperate. "I don't think I'm going to make this... I need to try something else. Is this suit installed with gliding capabilities?"

"Why of course it is, Miss Alex, may I ask what you have in mind?"

Stones crumble down from the footing, threatening to drop her.

"Prepare the wingsuit function. Deploy." The suit clicks under her arms and between her legs, releasing heavy duty nylon from its compartments. Her legs become restricted as the fin extends. She pulls her right foot in, moving it over to another mildly stable part of the ledge.

Rocks crumble.

Her footing slips. Water bubbles rush up around Alex to engulf her as the extra weight of the tools pull her down. She screames and flails, her arms and legs shaking as much as the suit can allow. The feeling of pressure builds around her. The dropping feeling in her gut subsides. She opens her eyes, and for a moment she looks into a shiny, clear crystal glimmering in the rock face. Staring back at her, she can see her confused reflection on the surface. She reaches out with awe.

It drops away as suddenly as it appears, and she soars. Screaming turns to adrenaline fueled amazement as the feeling of lifting overcomes her. The bubbles under her arms fill with the boiling hot gas which lifts her upwards. She looks up for a moment to see the ceiling rushing at her. More bubbles shoot in from a large crack above. As soon as she gets close, the current shifts to shove her into another cavern. Everything blacks out—nothing exists but the red temperature reading flashing in her visor among the other blurry icons. Muffled bursting of bubbles is all she can hear among her staggered breathing. The push under her body shoves harder as the diameter of the passage grows narrower. It soon becomes too tight; her metal-tipped gloves clank against the edge until they catch. Her arm is shoved down, losing all gas in that flap. She screeches as her body tilts down and hits the wall again. The icon of her suit's upper back turns orange like the lower half. She pushes off, losing altitude rapidly before the bubbles finally equalize and push back against her.

"AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" she screams while up and up and up she goes.

"Connection restored."

"Ahhhhhhhhhhhh" she continues, losing steam. "Ahhhhhaaaaaaa..." She stops, finding herself waiting for the next impact. Her body remains tight with anxiety until suddenly she is thrown the wrong direction from the current. She slams down onto her face in a tunnel, while the bubbles flow past into narrow cracks above.

"Damn it, where is she?" a fuzzy male voice demands.

"I got her! She is on the map again. Directly north from us. Wow, look at her suit's readings. I'm bringing the shuttle in."

"I got her too. Damn, how did she get that far?"

The radio chatter is a relief to her. She happily groans as she starts to move her body again.

"Alex?! What happened? Are you okay? " Martha calls out. Her voice fades in and out, but is audible nonetheless.

"Yes, I'm alive. Thank goodness I'm alive," Alex mutters. Slowly, she pushes herself over onto her back.

"No kidding! We are coming to your area with the pod. Don't let whatever happened happen again."

Alex opens her mouth to respond but can't find the words. Hundreds of thousands of little yellow specks float around her. Stuck in wonder, she gets up to see each of them dancing and spinning around in every direction. Their collective bright yellow glow illuminates every little stone or speck of sand that it can brighten. Alex reaches up to find that the specks shift away from her moving hand. Slowly, they float in the direction of the bubbling current, but they seem to just swirl back away at some point. They did it all so precisely that it looks like there is an invisible wall. She swishes her hand around, feeling the resistance of the current as she pushes it away. As she leans to the other side of the invisible wall, she finds that the temperature of the water elevates to over 200 degrees, while the other side is much milder.

"Wow..." she mutters in awe. "They're beautiful." She pulls out her glass cylinder and opens it up. "Come here little guys, I only want to trap and take you away from your home." As she gets the cylinder close, they quickly swirl away, but when she stops moving they inch back in. After a few moments, a few of the little specks float into the canister. As carefully as possible, she brings around the cap to seal it. The container screws tight at the last moment, which then allows Alex to relax. She glances around the opposite direction from the current to see nothing but yellow. Sighing, she gets onto her hands and knees. Slime globs out around her hands. She jolts back up.

"Yuck!" she exclaims. Little vines of slimy goo pull out from around her hands. She stops moving to stare as they ooze off and float back onto the ground. Alex glances over to see that this stuff was also not near the area where she first landed. "Huh."

"Alex, do you copy?" Jason's voice comes in clear as day. "We have almost arrived at your location. See if you can find a way to the surface."

Alex looks over to the small map to see that her depth reading is 30 feet below solid rock level.

"Yes, I copy you loud and clear. Hold the shuttle pod in the area and come check this out," Alex replies. She collects another sample of the goo and vines before walking with her hands out down the rocky, slimy cavern. Yellow specks clear when Alex reaches the mouth of the cave, and she gasps when she sees the wide-open plane of solid green vines surrounding small vents of warm water. Temperature readings here are 152.38 degrees, a warm enough temperate to not clear out these time-evolved species. Water ripples above the vents as the heated water warms the surrounding area. Floating, glowing vines sway in the moving current, blocking her view of the other side of the room. Curiously, Alex deactivates her flashlight. Shimmering yellow light glimmers from the sides of the vines. In awe, Alex approaches one of the vines and runs her fingers along it.

Something dark pushes a vine aside, but when she turns to look, it pulls away. Alex reaches up the vine to grab a sample for a collection cylinder, then starts to walk in the direction of the dark movement. The vines thicken as she goes deeper into the warm cave, but when she looks up, the overhanging stones with the ocean beyond are clear to see. A little, shiny speck above the stone is noticeably moving over her position. Alex smiles to see that her ride is getting close.

The deeper she goes, the more difficult it becomes not to disturb them. When she gets too close, the vine easily breaks loose to rise up. The boyant goo-like vine floats into the open ocean above. A yellow speck emerges from the vines around her to swim in circles. Alex smiles at the sight and watches before it slowly moves forward. After a few more steps, she pushes away a few vines to see a larger, floating yellow orb. The mysterious orb is about the size of a grape, the largest she has seen yet. Compared to the tiny specks, it is a Sun in relation to the Moon. She stops in her tracks, feeling herself tense in alarm. The orb swerves around, mimicking the motions of the yellow speck that spins closer to it. Alex remains still, and watches as the yellow speck starts to dance around the orb.

The vines jump away when a large, dark fish-like creature breaks through to suck the speck into its mouth.

Alex screams and stumbles back, falling onto her butt over a vent fissure. The dark fish turns to show its rounded body with the yellow orb attached to the top with some kind of tendril. It takes a moment to appraise her, but then turns and disappears into the vines ahead.

"Sampson, this is all recorded, right?" Alex asks as she gets back to her feet.

"Of course, madam, this entire mission has been cataloged and processed."

Alex nods and looks back up to see the pod coming into view. "Boy am I glad to see you guys," Alex says over the radio.

"Yeah, and it's good to see you too," Martha responds, as clearly as it gets.

"Come up here and replace that suit. I can't have you going around with that much damage," Jason calls out. "Also, uh..."

"Go on, you can say something nice every once in a while," Martha teases.

"Great job, you know, surviving. All of the paperwork about your loss would have been excruciating."

Alex rolls her eyes and starts swimming upward. Swimming is a bit more painful than it was before. She looks down to see that her wingsuit is still deployed, which adds a lot of drag.

"Retract the wingsuit," she orders Sampson. Her suit starts wurring as the fins pull up. With each stroke forward, it gets noticeably easier and faster, but her mild discomfort still remains.

"Wing suit?" Jason asks over the radio.

"You'll see later," Alex says, reaching the open door. After closing it behind her, the cabin starts to pressurize and fill with air. Martha gives her a giant hug.

"We never thought we would see you again. If this place is anything, even with our equipment, it's unpredictable. Hopefully all these readings will give us better prediction abilities," Martha says as she opens up the supply closet.

Carefully, Alex starts to remove her gloves, mask, and utility watch. Her first breath of the humid cabin air is different, but refreshing. She can't help but wince when water dripping from the ceiling hits her nose.

"Now Jason, if you don't mind." Martha gestures towards Jason, who is watching them impatiently. He shrugs and then turns around. "Best hurry, dear. He wants to go exploring."

Alex smiles and pulls off the wet-tech suit. As she removes it and exposes her smooth skin, Martha gasps upon the sight.

"Oh goodness! I'm sure if you don't feel that now, you will later." She leans down to inspect Alex's lower back better, which is starting to develope into a deep purple bruise.

"That looks nasty." Alex says contorting herself to get a look. Pain jolts up her back, quickly making her look forward. She leans back down to finish pulling off the suit then grabs the one Martha offers her. No different than the last, she pulls it up and around the contours of her body, which is fitted perfectly to her.

"This is your last suit, hun. Do try not to dent it, or yourself for that matter."

Alex tightens the suit firmly in place with the final zipper, then finally puts on her remaining gear. "I should also replace this mask. It's a good thing it's standard issue, isn't it?" Alex says, grabbing the second-to-last mask in the cabinet. After she finishes getting dressed, she shoves her other suit and mask into the cabinet. Martha watches and shakes her head.

"I would hate to see your bedroom."

"Am I good to look now?" Jason asks with a sigh.

Martha nods, walking up to the door. "All secured; suits sealed, but attitudes needing adjusting."

"Oh ha ha. I'll be sure to get around to that," Jason responds, depressurizing the cabin with a few taps of the screen. "Now if we are done babysitting, we should get out there and explore this brand new moon."

Alex rolls her eyes to the insult, but doesn't say anything. The cabin quickly refills with water, followed by the entrance of the pod reopening.

"I found more life," Alex says as she swims out of the pod first. She turns around to the other two who are now leaving. Gesturing to the ground where a large, yellow glowing fissure is, she says, "Right in there. You will love to see this." Martha and Jason start swimming down, leaving Alex to herself. She takes a moment to compose herself after feeling Jason's resentment. What's his deal anyway? I almost died. Reluctantly, she takes a few more deep breaths before dipping down after them.

"Wow! All these plants are emitting their own bioluminescence. Fascinating. I wonder what evolutionary use this has to them," Martha says in awe over the radio.

"This is rather... interesting," Jason admits. Martha and Jason's flashlights expose their positions in the vine field as Alex returns to the area, but this time Alex goes to the opposite side from which she came. "I got a small current going up from this hot water stream, is this where you came up?" Jason asks, half intrigued.

"Yeah," Alex starts as she lands in between two hot water vents next to one of the tall spires. She glances around it, seeing if there are any more areas heated by mild water vents. "When I found myself underground, I used my wingsuit to get enough lift to bring me up." Jason doesn't respond, but Alex is okay with that.

Alex notices a few other cracks in the ground ahead. Upon closer inspection she finds that they are warm water vents that are parallel to each other. When she looks past other vines around her, she notices there are other vents shaped and pointing the same direction. Alex's gaze follows the vents cracks down the face of the ground. Pushing all the vines away as she moves, she realizes that the ground starts to dip back under ground into a large cavity. She moves onwards. The number of yellow specks concentrate, dancing and swirling around in small groups. Nearby one of the swirling groups is another glowing yellow orb. Nervously, she avoids it, not wanting to disturb its natural order. Poor little glowing specks though.

The walls start to narrow, but the concentration of vines growing around her only gets thicker. The vines that she breaks quickly float to the ceiling before flopping over, up, and out of the cavern. Between her flashlight and the concentrated groups of specks, the brightness in the cave becomes intolerable. Turning her flashlight off didn't change a thing. Her mask tints two notches darker to make it more comfortable for her eyes.

After carefully walking a few meters deeper into the warm cave system, she notices that there are a lot fewer yellow specks compared to orbs. As she moves into another chamber, she notices more of these orbs floating about around small groups of specks. The large yellow lights linger near masses of shadows among the vines and walls. In the center of this next chamber, she notices one of these orbs floating in the middle of a small opening in the vines. The orb is clearly too far from the vines to give the creature any cover, but they have evolved to be so black that it just looks like just another shadow in the light's wake. From where she peeks through, she can see a shadow from the creature's body against the vines behind it. Not too fool proof after all. Alex jolts back into the vines when orb suddenly thrashes away. The creature's maw widens to flash bright white, bone like teeth. They close around a speck that began to dance near the orb. Alex pulls away, trudging on deeper into the cavern. Every step she takes, though, she can't help but feel that she's being stalked.

The cavern opens drastically as she passes through one last bundle of vines. This new room is darker and colder than the previous, which explains the lack of foliage. Instead, smaller grass-like vines line tiny fissures on the ground. She looks up from the tiny plants and notices at least a hundred floating orbs lining the walls and lazily floating through the water. These are dimmer than the ones she saw earlier, but very much alive. Alex freezes, staring up at the dim orbs.

Alex actives her flashlight, revealing the stubby, bony bodies of five of the creatures, their shiny black eyes staring back into the light. The matte black bodies are just visible enough for her to see that they remind her of a piranha; a teardrop body with one tail fin and one large pectoral fin on each side. Its body is made up of tight skin around what looks like rounded bone, like a deflated balloon around a stocky skeleton. But Alex's eyes quickly move to something more alarming. Behind all the orbs, a massive one of the creatures lies dormant. It is so large it takes up about half of the entire cavern. Alex gulps as she examines its giant, angular teeth—like bones, jutting from its large lips. Behind the teeth, enormous, circular black eyes stare out absently. Two other flashlights join hers to glare upon the massive creature and all the smaller ones standing by.

"What the fu—"

"Fudge," Martha finishes for Jason.

Both of them are staring at the massive fish... no, not fish; this is something completely different. It's the mix between a shark and a piranha, except the shark had drunk too many growth hormones and the piranha had a tooth implant that it thought would make it more intimidating. To Alex, that was accurate.

"Let's get out of here before we disturb it," Alex whispers over the radio, as if that made a difference.

"Yeah, it's best we don't bother it," Martha says, grabbing Alex's arm and backing away.

Jason just stands there in awe. "That thing is amazing. Wow, this is wonderful! I have never seen anything so menacing in my life. I wonder what evolutionary necessities made it have to grow so big, and have teeth so large?"

Martha reaches out to Jason who is still just standing there. Upon contact, Jason swipes her arm away and swims forward into the cavern. The floating yellow orbs closest to the entrance intensify, making Alex gulp.
"You're waking them, Jason, get over here." Alex steps forward to try and grab him, but he is just too far in.

She looks past Jason and around the cavern to see a few more of the orbs start to intensify in color. The orbs' lights illuminate the dark walls around them, displaying a large crevasse on the other side of the room. Beyond it, they can see the blackness of open ocean. Alex and Martha step back into the vines for cover, but Martha bumps into something solid. She looks back and screams when she sees the two black eyes of one of the smaller fish staring at her behind the bright ball of light. In a panic, she jumps to the side, squishing against the wall. The fish just floats there for a moment before slowly entering the chamber with Jason. Alex gets down, watching as the creature swims around Jason to get in between him and the larger creature.

"Wow, they seem to be waking up to protect the larger one. I wonder if it's hibernating, or nursing maybe. Hmm, maybe it's the mother." Jason says taking a slow step forward, but as he approaches, the fish bares its teeth and jerks toward him. Half the other orbs in the room thrust forward as well, then stop before Jason takes another step. He puts his hands up and steps back. "Alright, alright, I can take a hint." Reluctantly, he takes a step backward. As he starts to retreat, the other fish slowly back off and become more neutral. The yellow orbs stay bright as he leaves the room, then they return to their original positions.

"Let's not do that again," Martha says, still trying to compose herself from the scare. Alex nods and starts navigating back through the vines. She is saddened when she sees the half-torn vines where they'd been damaged by the team's movement. Sticking to the same path, at least she didn't kill any more.

"Is that enough exploring for today?" Alex asks, eager to get back to test her samples.

"That's all for now," Martha responds with fake cheer. "Right Jason?"

Jason doesn't answer as he hangs back at the rear.

Returning to the pod and docking back with the sphere takes a quick hour. On the way back, Alex is fascinated with the glowing yellow specks that swirl around inside her container. As she walks off the docked pod under "normal" gravity and air, the extent of the bruising on her back becomes painfully obvious. Her lower back aches deeply, making every step agonizing, especially when she lifts her legs.

She brings the samples to the lab, where she sticks them head-first into the input feeder. A nozzle then enters the canister to transfer the contents into a different, more manageable container. Martha eagerly takes stock of these samples, and then gets straight to work running different experiments. Jason separates from them, heading off to the lower workout room for whatever it is he does there.

Alex achingly takes a seat at the microscope stand, followed by Martha comes over and wraps an arm around her shoulder.

"These samples are better than what Jason and I had combined, you did amazing out there." Alex smiles up at her, then flinches to the pain of rotating her body. Martha's smile fades as she remembers the injury, so she turns around and goes to the medical cabinet for some treatment cream. "I'm going to apply this to your back, and you're going to go get some rest, alright? Pull off the suit."

Alex nods and carefully removes the wet-tech suit. Without the support that it offered, her back becomes even more painful.

"Damn, this sucks," Alex groans in a rather whining tone. She tries to turn around so see can see herself, but the pain that shoots through her body keeps her forward.
"Don't move," Martha says, walking over. Alex looks under her arm to see the deep purple and brown bruise. She groans with the irregular movement, also noticing that the bruise has grown even darker than earlier. "Damn girl, you really got hit. It's no wonder you were out for so long."

Alex remembers what Sampson told her. Wow, I was really out for three hours? "You both must have thought I was gone," she says, flinching as Martha applies some cream to her back. The pain quickly fades as the fast-acting numbing agent goes to work.

"Well I found myself searching every nook and cranny of your last known location, but all I found were new dead-end caves and boiling holes. I imagine that when that cavity opened, the pressure of the water getting sucked in pulled you down. It's a wonder you didn't get crushed when it sealed."

Alex looks straight ahead, her hands rubbing up and down her cold exposed arms. "It's amazing I'm here right now," she says absently. The click of the cream cap pulls her out of the daze.

"Let's get you to your room." Alex rocks her body around to test for pain, but she finds that the aching from before didn't come back.

"Wow, that stuff does the trick!" she exclaims as she hops down. But when she hits the ground, a fresh jolt of pain shoots through her. "Ugh!" She falls to her knees, her wet hair swinging into her face. "Ouch." She brushes it away, then gets back up.

"Don't get too excited," Martha warns, a little too late.

"Thanks," Alex says in a fake-annoyed tone. She grabs her wetsuit to cover herself, which is comfortingly warmed to her body temperature. They leave the laboratory and head to the central ladders. "Have you eaten since this morning?" Alex asks, remembering her bodily needs.

"I only got to enjoy the suit's fluids, so no," Martha responds.

With a little skip in their step, they climb to the third floor dining area, where prepared foods are stored. Alex grabs the bag labeled 'lasagna with vegetables,' while Martha picks a 'hamburger with onion rings.' Each of them then grabs a water syringe and squirt a half cup of water into the bag's input hole before placing it into the microwave. Once the electronic beeper goes off, the smell of red sauce and meat lingers in the air, making both their mouths water. They open their bags to hot steam and freshly hydrated meals, prepared just for this mission. With ravenous intent, they both scarf down their meal, remembering how glorious food can taste after a long day of work and braving the unknown.

When they finish, they slip the leftovers into the trash recycler and then make their way down to the recreation area. Facing out to the window to the great ocean beyond, Jason is standing in his wetsuit, which is still soaked around the neck.

"Shouldn't you both be working?" he asks in a mild tone, but with a menacing edge. Alex and Martha stop and study him. Jason turns around and sighs. "We are going to go back and investigate those creatures," he states bluntly. Martha steps forward her fists clenching.

"With all due respect, sir, we are here to explore, not disturb. We have affected them enough and have no right to go in there and mess with anything."

"With all due respect, Lieutenant, those are the first creatures that we have found outside of Earth, and it is our responsibility to go and get one for testing purposes. It's not like they will care."

Martha straightens her back but falls silent, her eye contact resolute.

"Are you suggesting we kill one for testing proposes?" Alex blurts, walking up beside Martha. After all the snide comments and blatantly rude behavior, Alex feels herself snap easier than she thought she was capable of.
"You need to stay out of this. The grownups are talking," Jason retorts. Alex beings shaking with fury.

"Jason, you have no right to talk to her like that." Martha blurts, her tone rising. "She is a member of this mission just like you and me," She steps in front of Alex, her clenched hand loosening to tell her to stay still.

Jason straightens his back and sticks his finger at her. "No, she is a child, one that has been holding this mission back ever since she stepped into this facility. She has gone out of line by separating herself from us, held us up by being late, and nearly got herself killed by being so weak she couldn't fight a little current. Yes, we were swimming in that current all the way back to the outlet of the cave, Alex, and we made it easily. Not to mention Martha should be working right now, but here she is babysitting you to your bedroom because your back is a little hurt..."

Alex's mouth drops open, aghast, taken aback by the blunt opinion; her eyes tear up.

"We are going to do more tests to learn more about those creatures whether either of you to want or not." He starts stomping toward the exit.

"No, we are not, we will not touch them in their habitat," Martha says. "I would be more than happy to capture a naturally dead one, but not one living with its family, much less touch the mother of them all. Jason Simmons, I will not have any part in harming another species' home, or their occupants."

Jason stomps by, leaving from the door in which they entered. Alex and Martha just stand there, attempting to process what just happened.

Alex sniffles as her emotions overrun her thoughts, catching Martha's attention. "Oh no no no, sweetheart." She kneels and pulls Alex into a hug, careful to avoid her bruised area. Quietly, Alex starts to sob into Martha's shoulder, deeply hurt by Jason's words. He had been her hero for so long, all to find out he can't trust her because of her age?

"Please don't take what he said personally. He is just under a lot of pressure to get information because of tomorrow's report."
"T-that's no excuse..." Alex sobs through her sniffles.

Martha blinks as a tears well up in her own eyes. "No, no it's not, but he isn't a man you can take seriously with stuff like this."

"Stuff like what? Dealing with a child?"

"No," Martha starts earnestly, "listen, what you did out there was beyond expectation, above anything any of us expected from you. You are the reason this mission has and will be a success. You brought back more than enough information and proof that what we are doing here, with you and this facility, is worth everything you and I have put in." She pulls back and wipes away the tears that well up around her eyes. "You are supposed to be here and have done perfectly. Understood?" She looks Alex in her watery, shiny blue eyes to smile. "You got this."

Alex blinks away her tears, sniffling and wiping her nose as she starts to relax.

Martha leans forward and kisses her forehead, then let's go and steps back. "Now go get some shut eye before you help me in the lab. I got some documentation to get through."

Alex nods again, then turns around. She looks down at the gloves on her hands to see some mucus from her wet nose. In times like this, she remembers how easy it is to be a child, how easy it is to cry. Slowly, she gets back into her room and takes off her equipment, then climbs into her bunk without bothering to put on new clothes. Tears threaten to break through again as she thinks of her mom. It feels like such a long time ago, when she was there to see her off to school. Before she left forever. "Never hold back those tears. You're a big girl, but you are also human," her mom told her after the first day of elementary school. "Or you will never move forward."

And so, Alex cries, letting out the tears for all the teasing she'd received for jumping through her classes, letting out the tears for her mom while she was losing to her unseen bronchial cancer, and letting out the pressure of being the youngest person to ever leave the planet Earth. Soon her tears dried, her mucus cleared, and she quickly nodded off to sleep.

Alex wakes as the bed rocks.

"Huh? What was that?" She reaches down in a morning daze for her utility watch. Yikes, 0300, this is obscenely early. She figures she managed to get maybe 6 hours of sleep. No wonder I feel as grumpy as Jason. Her face itches with dry tears, but she scratches it absently as she gets up and grabs her wet-tech suit. As she moves, she remembers the bruise on her back, again aching dully, but not hurting enough to prevent her from moving. As she slips back into her suit, the extra support provides some comfort to the affected areas. The gloves slip on as normal, connecting to the utility watch; another day set to begin. She looks down to see her personal suit-mask, the one she left behind before, so she straps it around her back with her small case of tools. How did I wake up so early? She looks back at her watch to see the absurd time again. As she turns, the door to her room flies open to reveal a breathless Martha standing there.

"Jason.... Oh gosh, he went alone," she manages.

"No..." Alex whispers, running out past her. She looks out the window to see the main pod rushing past at full speed, down in the direction of the cave. "What do we do? Is there anything we can do?" Alex asks, her heart starting to catch up. "Sampson One, what's the status of the other ships?"

The computer beeps around her, acknowledging the question. The moment continues, pulling longer than normal. "All three single pods are offline. They will not respond to pings, nor can my systems find any reported problems prior to shut down."

"Damn," Alex exclaims, pulling in a deep breath and then running out into the ladder room. She grabs the ladder rails and plants her feet, then begins sliding down. "How long until reconnection with Earth?"

Above her, Martha follows, but not in the firefighter going down a fire pole fashion. Her boots clunk against the floor a few moments later.

"Communication range or Conveyance Portal range?" Sampson asks from the speakers closest to her.

"Uh," Alex thinks about her intentions. Is she going to report Jason for reckless behavior? Or what? "What is the first one to occur?"

"Standard communications are due to reconnect in 8 hours; the Conveyance Portal link is estimated to be strong enough for reconnection around 1800."

Alex sighs and nods.

They're in this alone...

End of Part 3

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