Marooned on a desolate planet, joining forces with the enemy is their only hope for escape.
Maya Pandita spent years preparing for an expedition to the Deadlands. But her dreams of unearthing ancient artifacts are shattered when her shuttle is buried by a violent sandstorm, and her team is abducted by the scaled inhabitants of the planet. Maya and her companions must try to outwit their blue captor and call for help before they die in the toxic atmosphere.
Vittaran has a problem in his claws. Along with treasures from the ruins, he
has retrieved three smooth-skinned foreigners. They will die if he leaves them
in the desert. Yet the puny creatures have little value as slaves, except
perhaps for the impudent woman who claims to be their leader. He plans to keep
her. Her knowledge of the ancient texts will be an asset if she can survive the
long trek to his house.
attack by marauders forces Maya and the Blue leader into a wary alliance. They
must work together to thwart the bandits and reunite their company. Can Maya
convince Sa Vittaran to help her team? If she fails, they are doomed to a short
unpleasant life on the desolate, war-torn planet.
Chapter 1. Sandstorm in the Deadlands
The sandstorm whirled out of the desert and plowed into the shuttle.
Red grit rattled on the windshield. Maya flinched. Surely the transparent screen wouldn’t shatter? The prospect of a delay annoyed her more than the storm. Her team was ready to land and explore the ruins, remnants of an ancient civilization destroyed millennia ago in a nuclear catastrophe. She glanced at the tablet embedded in her armrest. Their instruments had detected the walls of a city under the sand, and she had pinpointed a landing site in the center of a large complex. But, they had overshot the outlined walls and were shifting further away.
The shuttle bucked in the violent gusts.
“Helmets on,” Jack yelled, struggling to control the shuttle’s erratic path. “I’m taking her down.”
The four surveyors had discarded their headgear in the climate-controlled cabin. Now, they hurried to fasten their helmets, or more accurately, head masks with built-in goggles. They wore military-issue suits, provided by the Terran Space Authority for exploring dangerous environments like the Deadlands. Its heat and acrid atmosphere made the Deadlands unfit for life, but the high radiation levels posed the severest hazard. Their suits even had boosters to facilitate walking and lifting in the planet’s high gravity.
Rocked by the powerful winds, the shuttle lurched to starboard. The floor tilted. A cascade of rust-red sand blocked their view. The external monitors darkened under the onslaught of sand particles.
Abruptly, screens blanked.
The air recycler coughed to a halt.
Lights flickered out.
Maya froze in a flash of panic. Her first mission, the first she had led, might be her last. She fingered the bridge of the nose filters under her mask. If the air scrubber failed, she would need the filters to block the grit and toxic atmosphere. Her team must also be realizing their deadly peril. For the most part, they were handling the shock well.
In the co-pilot’s seat, Hong gasped. She glanced over her shoulder at Maya, dismay written in her eyes, although the mask muffled her face.
Seated next to Maya, their tech expert, Felix, cursed as he jabbed his fingers on his tablet.
A beep announced the switch to emergency power. Spots of orange light illuminated the cabin. In the eerie silence, Maya surveyed her companions with a new clarity. The dim orange glow highlighted their goggles and special suits, giving them an alien appearance. The insulated suits were colored and patterned with scales to mimic the native inhabitants in case her team was spotted from the borders of the Deadlands. She had recruited her assistant, Hong Dinh, on Terra. Hong’s role was to make digital records of the ancient artifacts, and she had basic medical training in case of any accidents. Felix McCree was their tech expert, a genius with any type of machine, from electronic devices to mechanical engines. Lastly, Maya focused on Jack. Major Jarvi had been assigned by the Terran Space Authority as their pilot and expert on inhospitable environments. He would know what to do in this emergency.
“Jack?” she prompted.
“Felix, check the instruments,” he ordered, tapping the control panel. “Hong, call the station.” Their support staff, Lieutenants Kit Rangi and Ross Wu of the Security Division, were based in the orbiting station.
His eyes fixed on the screens, Felix played his fingers over the keys.
Grabbing the mike, Hong called, “Mayday, mayday. Come in Big Bird.” After repeating the call for the third time, she swiveled to face Jack. “There’s no answer.”
He directed his laser beam at the windshield. The light reflected on a dull red surface with tiny glints of crystalline particles. “The shuttle’s buried under the sand. A thick layer. Too thick, I’d guess, for our radio transmissions to penetrate to the surface.” Twisting to look back at Felix, he asked, “What’s the damage?”
“Bad. We’ve lost power. Engine’s jammed. Sensors indicate silica particles everywhere.”
Pinpointing a critical factor, Maya asked, “How much oxygen do we have?”
Felix punched the pad and groaned. “Enough for about three hours. Possibly longer if we don’t exert ourselves.”
“Or less if the tank’s been holed,” Jack warned. “The oxygen was intended for our trips to the space station and not for consumption on the ground.”
“Won’t Kit and Ross send a shuttle to search for us?” Hong asked.
Maya said, “I’d signaled them the landing site we’d selected. But, the storm blew us way off course. They won’t know where to look.”
“I saw mountains in the distance,” Jack volunteered, “just before the sand hit the screen. The shuttle might have landed near the border of the Deadlands.” The explosion creating the Deadlands had carved out a basin rimmed with high cliffs and mountains.
She shook her head. “It doesn’t help. We’ve no way to signal the station and they could take days to locate us. We’ll have to manage alone.” Shooting a glance at Jack, she said, “Any suggestions? You’re our expert on hazardous sites.”
“Okay.” Jack exhaled a slow breath. “Here’s my suggestion. We wait one or two hours. If we still can’t make contact, we’ll try to tunnel to the surface.”
“Can we unload the digger?” Hong asked.
“Won’t work,” Jack said flatly. “We’ve nowhere to dump the sand except inside the cabin.”
Swiveling to tap Maya’s arm, Felix said, “It’s your decision. You’re the boss.”
Weighed down by the responsibility for their lives, she nodded. “Okay, we’ll wait one hour.”
Every ten minutes, Hong sent the distress signal.
After trying for the fifth time to restart the engines without success, Jack said, “I reckon the intake’s clogged with sand.”
Felix unscrewed the base of the control panel and began to test the wiring.
While they waited, Maya checked the storage lockers and made an inventory of their supplies. They had food concentrates and water to last five days, lasers, and miscellaneous detectors for the expedition. The bulldozer and sand blower were in the cargo hold. They had brought everything needed to excavate the underground ruins and explore the ancient site, including ropes for climbing into subterranean rooms. According to the scientists from Eden who fielded the earlier expedition, the underground levels of the buildings might be intact. But, they had expected to use the shuttle as their base, with its controlled temperature, filtered air, and generator to power the excavation tools. At this point, they must abandon the mission and concentrate on escaping the shuttle and calling the space station for help.
Anger and frustration swelled inside her. They were trapped. Buried under the radioactive sands and low on oxygen. What a stupid way to end her first mission!