Submitted Date 09/17/2022

Laurie awoke overheated, sweating, her head pounding, not remembering where she was or what had happened to bring her here. Then her awareness returned, she remembered, and she moaned.

An accident. Decompression in orbit. Emergency evacuation. Pod ride to the surface of an unknown planet.

There was a period of frantic activity followed by a rush of noise and shaking and then an uncertain period of silence and darkness.

Laurie found herself waking up; her first reflection was that she was alive. Her arm throbbed and her head pounded, but she was alive. The chutes must have deployed and the processors must be running because she was alive.

She lay there on the pod bunk for a while, eyes closed, gathering strength, and then a strange noise wandered into her consciousness. After some moments, her clearing but still somewhat compromised mind identified the scraping, as something, most likely a tree branch, being blown by the wind against the side of the pod.

It happened again, more strongly, and she relaxed. Yep. That's a tree branch.

A moment passed and then she had another thought: Tree branch? There can't be any trees here.

As she raised her head to turn and look out of the pod's windows, there was another sound, this one unmistakable, one that her brain immediately and positively identified, one that could not be denied. Knock knock knock.

Three knocks on the door of the pod.

And then again: Knock, knock, knock.

Another pause, and then a shouting human voice, masculine, perhaps 30, located just outside the pod door. "Hey, is anybody in there?"

This absurdity sparked sufficient adrenaline in her body to permit her to slowly unfasten the harness that held her down, sit up, and swing her body to a sitting position. After this effort, she had enough strength left to croak "Yeah! Just a minute." It was the kind of thing you would yell to the deliveryman while you hurriedly throw on jeans and a shirt to answer the door. As she steadied herself to stand, she wondered if she would open the hatch and the FedEx man would thrust out a clipboard for her to sign to receive a package from Nordstrom's.

Laurie slid forward on the bunk until her feet touched the floor; she allowed her weight to come on them and was surprised to find that her legs were able to support it and she stood, somewhat wobbly, but by holding on first to the rails of the bunk and then the handholds that jutted here and there from the walls of the pod, she made her way to the hatch and the controls to open it that were mounted there beside it.

She peered through the porthole in the door and saw a man standing on the other side. Thirty something, military haircut, and clean-shaven, he wore a zippered jumpsuit of a type she had never seen before but which appeared to be perfectly ordinary cloth, perhaps sturdy cotton or gaberdine. Above the breast pocket, there was a patch, red letters against a yellow background, that simply said SLM.

The door controls had indicators for conditions outside, but Laurie ignored them. She twisted the arming mechanism, waited for the few seconds that it took for the door's unlock cycle to finish, and then stood back slightly as the door slid open.

As the pressure between the inside and outside equalized, a bit of thin fog formed in the pod, but through it, she could see the man and he could see him. The two of them appraised each other for a few seconds, each shocked and disbelieving to see the other, and then they both spoke at once: "Who are you?"

Then both of them smiled at the absurdity, and the man spoke. "I'm Roger Milson, I'm an employee of Stirling Link Meklin." He pointed at the patch above his pocket. "I'm an engineer. Are you all right?"

"I'm Laurie Jones, I'm a captain in the—" Laurie got that far before she noticed the animal that was standing behind the clean-cut young man at some distance, watching the both of them. It was about the size of a large dog, or a small pony, but it was not a dog and it was not a pony. It stood on three muscular legs, arranged in tripod style. Each leg was possessed of two knees that bent in opposite directions, and each was held slightly bent. The legs joined in a round protuberance, and from that, three small-diameter torsos rose in parallel fashion, like the trunks of small trees, and then they joined in another round protuberance that was held a little higher than the height of a human head. "What the hell is that?"

Roger glanced backward and then chuckled. "That's Clancy. Clancy is what we call a Stooly." He noticed that Laurie was wobbling suddenly, and he reached out, grasping her arms, and then she largely collapsed against him, and he allowed her weight to transfer to himself. "Whoa, there!" Laurie didn't lose consciousness, but she closed her eyes while a wave of dizziness washed over her as Roger supported her.

Holding her, Roger turned and made a series of strange sounds, clicks and whistles punctuated by high grunts and what sounded like the human voice imitating radio static. The Stooly twitched and embarked on a series of strange but somehow smoothly graceful three-legged steps towards a spot not far from where it, or he, or she or whatever it was, had been standing. The creature's weight came on two of its three legs and the third one, now no longer occupied, began to very efficiently dig in the dry gray soil of the featureless plain on which the ship had crashed. After a few moments, the leg reached into the hole it had made and pulled out an oddly shaped box, Holding it, the creature loped over on two legs to where the moment of dizziness was passing and Laurie was regaining her strength.




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