The Final Frontier
"Warning, energy flow failure," was all that the dash screen said. Zack pounded his ship's control consoles and frantically pushed any buttons he could lay his claw on. His android companion sat idly in the copilot seat watching Zack try to restart the engine.
"Come on you old piece of junk, work! Tas, can you do something instead of just staring at me?"
"Negative, this type of failure is irreparable despite your incessant attempts to restart the engine," replied Tas apathetically, "It is most likely fatigue failure occurred while we were traveling faster-than-light resulting in a fuel leak somewhere. Notice how the fuel gauge is indicating zero."
Zack peeked at the old needle gauge, recognized the hopelessness of the situation, and calmed down.
"Well what do you suppose we should do now? All we've got is some backup electrical power. And we already made it into the planet's solar system, but we can't crash land onto P4X288, that planet doesn't support life and my spacesuit needs the ship to recharge!"
"Well, according to the ship's computer, Planet P4X289 is a class L-2 planet: it has a suitable atmosphere for you to survive in. Some possibly dangerous primitive life forms, but it should be fine if we just stay in the ship. It's the next planet right after P4X288, if we just slightly adjust our inertial trajectory with the emergency thrusters we can safely crash land there."
Both of them overlooked the fact that the computer's information on the planet was last updated over ten thousand Earth years ago.
Zack was only here to excavate the planet designated as P4X288. He was an archaeologist, though still green behind the ears. He had heard rumors of P4X288 being a world that an ancient advanced civilization once dwelled on before being wiped out by some calamity. Ambitious and eager for fame and fortune, he set out as soon as he could after buying an old spaceship that a recent college graduate like Zack could barely afford. His rich father, hoping he would give up his foolish dreams of digging up old civilizations, let him borrow Tas, a very advanced android, to keep Zack safe on his "silly expedition" but otherwise refused to pay for anything else.
"Alright, make it so. You fire the thrusters. Damn used ship dealer, I should've gotten a mechanic to look at the ship before I bought it. Oh well, my dad will probably realize I've gone missing after being gone for a couple dozen microns and send help. I guess we can hunker down until then. Hey wait, let me try something real quick," Zack said. In his moment of clarity, he reached up and pressed a blue button overhead between the two pilot seats.
"Hello, thank you for using OnGal, the premiere emergency starship assistance service! Please hold while we link you with a representative," the female speaker voice cheerily said. A few moments passed and Tas finished altering the ship's trajectory. The voice started up again, "I'm sorry, you are not currently in range of any sub-space galactic network server. A radio distress call has been sent, but be aware that it may take several macrons for lightspeed waves to reach the nearest server. Thank you for using OnGal."
Zack, being a recent college graduate, was stunned. He had grown up in a galaxy where a sub-space connection was available everywhere and quickly realized that even his atophone had no signal. Now he realized he should have planned better instead of being rushed to haste by wanderlust. Now he was stuck deep in uncharted space.
A few Earth hours later, the rusty ship, which would've looked like debris if not for the small hum of light from the front window, approached P4X289. Its blue radiance was quite a contrast to the never-ending darkness that Zack had grown accustomed to seeing while the ship drifted. As the ship drifted closer, Zack and Tas both noticed some odd lights on the surface. Before either of them could say anything, flames engulfed the forward window as the ship entered the atmosphere. The flames quickly dispersed as the ship entered the troposphere. Then Tas pressed a few buttons and wings extended from the port and starboard sides of the small spaceship. Tas kept on the controls while Zack watched him glide the craft down with the precision only an android could possess. Zack noticed several unnatural strips of paved road along the barren land below. Tas pointed the ship towards what seemed like an extra wide strip of road.
"Tas, I don't think the life forms here are as primitive as the computer says," Zack said with a clear look of confusion on his face.
"The computer's information is incredibly outdated, perhaps some pirates or merchants put an outpost here? In either case, we have nothing of value aside from myself so I doubt we're in any danger from pirates," Tas calmly replied. He continued, "That strip of land looks like it could have been used to land antique spacecraft not equipped with takeoff thrusters. That makes my guess lean toward pirates, but I can't be sure. In either case, take this universal translator your father gave me to give to you just incase something like this happened."
Zack took the microchip and stuck it into his ear where it promptly connected to his brain, and then he said, "Well I suppose we'll find out who's down there soon enough."
Needless to say, Tas landed the ship onto the concrete strip safely. The two got out and Tas's hypothesis was correct: there was a giant crack in the fuel tank. Naturally, all the fuel was gone. After putting the engine cover back on, Zack realized something.
"Why isn't anyone here? There's literally nothing but a small shack over there!" Zack said while pointing a claw, "I'm gonna go see if there's anyone inside."
Tas followed him and they went inside the tiny building. Inside, there was only a table with a computer on top of it.
"This appears to be some sort of network interface, let me try to interface with it," Tas said. He put one of his metallic fingers into the ethernet port. At first it seemed like it wouldn't fit, but his finger liquefied into the socket. After a few moments, he said, "Hold on, this computer network uses a primitive two switch language consisting solely of zeros and ones. I'm trying to translate what I can..."
About half an hour passed before Tas started relaying information to him. Suffice to say, Zack was not happy with what Tas told him. There were no pirates or merchants. There were only slightly intelligent primates with a hive-mind structure: most of these primates were drones that went to work in the morning until dusk for the benefit of their superiors. Those who tried to evolve beyond this rat race were often shunned or became the rulers, leaders, and controllers they so despised.
Now with a worried look on his face, Zack snapped, "We have to get out of here Tas, if they find us they'll surely dissect me and tear you apart!"
"I concur. These humans discovered nuclear energy out of the desire to destroy each other. Their primitive nature aside, they have nuclear energy and I can use that to convert into fuel for our ship. A little aluminum and I can weld the fuel tank for a temporary seal. We just need a little bit of plutonium to get to a galaxy with subspace connection."
"And just how are we supposed to get some plutonium without them discovering us?"
"My hologram projectors ca-"
Right as he finished talking, there was a loud thud outside. They both ran outside to see what happened.
Josh was flying a solo cross-country trip in his little Piper Cherokee from San Bernardino in California to Rapid City in South Dakota to visit Mt. Rushmore. The sun was almost ready to descend under the mountains ahead. This was his first flight so far from home; he had never even left California on his previous cross-country flights. He had over planned everything since he didn't want to screw up as a somewhat new private pilot. But sometimes one forgets the little details, especially when one's been sitting in a small cramped space for more than three hours. At first, the plane's tachometer decreased a little, so little that Josh didn't notice it. But soon the engine became rough and he panicked.
Seconds later the engine just quit and the only sound left was that of the propeller windmilling.
He ran through his engine failure checklist and said it out loud, almost as if he was imagining his old flight instructor was in the right seat. "Airspeed to best glide, sixty-five knots set, Fuel set to both, throttle open, mixture rich, magnetos set to both!" The propeller stayed silent.
Josh keyed the radio and tried his best to calmly articulate, "Mayday mayday mayday, Cherokee one echo sierra declaring an emergency, I have engine failure!"
There was a short moment of horrifying silence until a response was heard, "Cherokee one echo sierra, Salt Lake Center, verify you have an engine failure and squawk 7700."
Josh set the transponder to beacon code 7700 and replied, "Affirmative, Cherokee one echo sierra has engine failure, request directions to nearest airport!"
More terrifying silence passed before the cool professional voice came on the radio again, "Cherokee one echo sierra, roger, the nearest airport is Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport, excuse the funny name, it's nine miles to your northwest, identifier is four-eight uniform. You're starting to descend below radar coverage, be advised there are no services at Green River. I think they may have just put a computer there though. In any case, if you can't call us back and confirm you're alive, we'll send search and rescue tomorrow morning."
"Roger, one echo sierra," was all Josh could say.
"Cherokee one echo sierra, radar contact lost. Switch to Green River advisory frequency one two two point seven and good luck."
"One two two point seven, Cherokee one echo sierra. Thanks for the help."
It was only when Josh was on his final approach checklist that he realized he had missed something: carburetor heat on. He had only flown in fuel-injected planes before which didn't use carburetors, so he had completely forgotten about it. But it was too late then, the engine had seized for too long and there wasn't enough exhaust heat to melt the carburetor ice so he continued his forced descent for Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport.
Zack and Tas came out to find an airplane on the runway. On its side was painted 'N351ES.' A young man hopped out of the plane grumbling to himself and started inspecting it.
"Uh oh, looks like we've got company," Zack whispered, "Hide!" The two extraterrestrials hid behind the shack and listened.
The man was complaining to nobody in particular, "Goddamn, who the hell leaves a plane parked right on a runway? What kind of airplane is that anyway, never seen anything like it! Bah, at least I crash landed in one piece and my plane looks fine." He checked his cell phone and continued complaining, "Boy, that controller wasn't kidding when he said there was no service here. No reception, nobody, nothing. Just some dirty looking shack. Hmph, I need to take a whiz."
He started walking towards the shack. For some odd reason of privacy, he felt it would be more private to go behind the shack. He turned around the edge and he nearly went in his pants.
The man's eyes went wide. He fell on his rear and screamed, "Holy crap it's a raptor! And a freaking robot! What the hell is going on here?!"
Zack and Tas had no choice but to subdue him. They tried to cover his mouth to get him to stop screaming for help despite the fact that there was no one else for miles.
Eventually Josh got tired of struggling and calmed down. He took a closer look at Zack and saw he did indeed look very much like a raptor, except he stood upright with his back nearly straight like a human. He was wearing a loose blue shirt that had symbols on it, which Josh couldn't recognize, under an unzipped light brown short-sleeved jacket which was flapping back from the light wind. Khaki cargo pants with a hole in the back for his tail and a hat the same color as his jacket completed his outfit, along with a pair of black boots. He was mostly tan colored, with several dark brown stripes along his arms and tail, but his pants covered all of his legs so Josh couldn't see them. His hat had a drawcord that was taut around his snout and hid most of his white, spiky hair.
Then Josh's eyes moved toward Tas. He was wearing plain black clothes that covered most of his artificial skin. He looked eerily human except his fake skin was extremely pale and his head was elongated, almost apelike.
Zack noticed Josh had calmed down and was staring at them. "Relax, we're not going to harm you or eat you or anything. Look, me and my android crash landed onto your planet, we need some plutonium to get out, can you give us some?"
It was a good thing Josh loved dinosaurs when he was a kid otherwise he may have just fainted when Zack spoke using the universal translator. Recollecting his thoughts, Josh managed to stutter out, "Uhh, I don't have any plutonium, umm, I think you can only get that from a, uhh, nuclear reactor."
"Oh I see. So Tas, what are we going to do now? This one human can't do us any harm, so let's let him be. But how are we going to get some plutonium if they keep it in nuclear reactors?"
Tas responded, "Well, as I was going to say before I was interrupted, I can use my hologram projectors to take on the form of a human, perhaps I can take the form of someone who works in a reactor and harvest some incognito."
"That sounds like a plan, but how are we supposed to get to a nuclear reactor with no transportation? There seems to be nothing but desert and mountains in sight."
"I believe I can help with that!" Zack and Tas both shot their gaze at Josh, who was still sitting on the ground, as he continued speaking, "I figured out on my way down that the engine in my plane didn't fail, it shut down from carburetor icing! It still works, the ice should've melted already. I can take you to the nearest nuclear reactor and help you!"
"What guarantee do we have that you won't turn us in once we get there?" Zack questioned.
The human closed his eyes and took a moment to breath in. When he opened them again, he said, "Take me with you. Take me away from this world. I've always dreamed of a bigger universe out there. The people here are closed-minded, I want to see what's out there. Please, take me with you! You need to leave before morning anyway, they're sending a search and rescue team for me tomorrow morning and they'll find you and capture you without my help!"
Zack and Tas pondered for a bit. Josh's logic was sound, so they agreed. But still cautious, Tas told Zack to stay in their antique starship since he couldn't be seen anyway. Tas activated his hologram projector and took the form of an old scientist, complete with a white lab coat.
Josh got up from the ground and actually stood an inch taller than Zack. He moved towards him and said, "Alright, it's agreed! I'll take Tas here to the nearest nuclear facility and he'll fetch some plutonium and we'll come back here before sunrise and you'll take me away from this world. My name's Josh, by the way!"
"Zack, it's a pleasure! Now go, we don't have much time to waste," Zack replied.
Josh and Tas went inside the Piper Cherokee and Josh started it up. The first ignition failed, but a shot of primer made the second ignition attempt force the engine to life. Zack sat on the edge of one of the intra-atmosphere wings on his starship and watched the little airplane fly off into dimming sky. He took off his hat as the sun fully set and went inside his ship and laid down on the rear seat after taking off his jacket. Then he tucked his tail around his body and covered himself with his jacket before he let the warm embrace of sleep take him.
Light filtered in rays through the disabled ship's windows and heated enough of Zack's soft scaly skin to cause him to stir. His eyes suddenly shot wide open as he realized the sun was rising and there was a light buzzing sound outside.
"Oh dear, I hope that's them and not that search team Josh was talking about. They should've been back before dawn," Zack muttered. He peered outside and saw only one familiar looking aircraft approaching and sighed in relief.
The plane landed without incident and Josh came out first with a panicked expression.
"Zack, go prep your ship for takeoff! Tas, hurry up and seal the fuel tank! They caught Tas stealing plutonium but we managed to sneak away under the cover of night and I shut off my transponder and lights, but they have fighter jets out looking for us now! They must think we're terrorists or something! Hurry it up Tas!"
Without another word, Zack ran into the driver's seat and went through the startup checklist. Josh took a seat in the rear while Tas jumped out of the Cherokee and morphed his hand into a buzz saw and clipped off a large chunk of Josh's plane. He opened the engine cover and stuck the slab of aluminum onto the crack in the fuel tank and used his other, still human-looking, hand and pointed a finger at the slab. Flames jutted out of the finger and the aluminum melted into the cracks. He used another finger to shoot ice onto the seal and the aluminum hardened instantly. Then he put his pinky finger into the fuel tank cap and glowing green liquid came flowing out into the tank. There was a rumble in the air as Tas tightened the cap.
"They're here! Go, we've got to go now!" Josh yelled.
Tas hopped into the copilot's seat as another rumble passed overhead and said, "We've got enough fuel to get to the edge of the Andromeda Galaxy. Standby while I manually calculate an appropriate jump path."
Again, the raptor rued how trashy his ship was. An on-board path computer would've been rather useful, he thought. "Alright, all systems are green, I'm going to get us into the air first buckle up everyone!" Zack said.
The engines glowed blue once more and the starship started to rise. It rose a few feet above the ground before the parked Cherokee exploded and knocked the spaceship several feet higher. More explosions occurred all over the ground and the rumbling in the air increased.
"I knew I should've bought a shield generator!" Zack said as he pointed the ship upward. He saw a missile was headed straight for them right as Tas finished pressing buttons. The slow physical interface was another reason the raptor regretted not taking a loan for a better spaceship with neural commands.
"Path calculation complete, ready for faster-than-lig-"
Zack didn't let Tas finish his sentence and pounded on a flashing green button. The incoming missile was gone and replaced with zooming stars from all directions.
Zack never did manage to dig up any lost civilization on Mars. As a matter of fact, he never again left the safe confines of well traveled light speed routes, let alone find fame and fortune as an archaeologist. But he did find those things as the discoverer of a new semi-intelligent alien species. Using the information Tas downloaded with Josh's personal experiences, Zack wrote several books on homo sapiens and the planet Earth that made him more money than his father ever made as an intergalactic lawyer. Josh also shared in Zack's wealth and the two became best of friends despite what Zack often describes as having "crude and unmannered behavior often laced with questionable intelligence, although at the very least he is eager to learn."