Two survive a crash, each with a choice to make.
|Jad let his scant ration of water seep into the corners of his mouth and encouraged it to slip under his tongue, loosening it from the thickening saliva that glued it in place. The air on this planet was just barely breathable, which was fortunate since the crash had damaged the hold with their environment suits. But it was dry as a bone. Each breath of air, salty and astringent, seemed to crystallize as it encountered the moisture in his air passages. They had limited water and little hope of rescue if he didn’t find a way to repair the distress beacon. Jad let his mouthful of water trickle slowly down his throat and felt each drop bring renewed life to its dehydrated tissues. He swore they’d mummify if they stayed here much longer.
He brought a ration of water in a metal cup over to Bentzer. Jad held the cup to his lips, aiding him in taking his full mouthful. Bentzer had survived the crash too, perhaps because he was tightly chained in the brig.
“Why bother keeping me alive?” Bentzer asked. “I committed a capital crime. They’re just going to kill me when we get there”. Bentzer looked around at the arid landscape and added “If we get there”.
“It’s not my job to be anyone’s executioner,” Jad replied. “I just run transport, I don’t hand out verdicts or sentences. If I can get this beacon set up, we can get a distress signal out and maybe get off this barren rock before it kills us.”
Bentzer watched as Jad tried to screw the supports into the beacon’s transmitter holding the tools in his wrong hand, struggling to keep it steady with his knees, while trying to keep the sling holding his broken arm from sliding down and getting in the way. It would have been comical, if Bentzer had no conscience at all, but for a criminal he had a fairly well-developed conscience and so felt a tiny bit guilty about having declined to help Jad.
“If you take off these restraints, I could help you,” Bentzer offered.
“Or you could just run off," Jad said cynically.
“And go where?” Bentzer asked. “If I run, I’ll be dead in a few hours from the heat and lack of water. You, on the other hand, will have all the water to yourself. You might even get that beacon set up before you die of thirst.”
Jad thought about what Bentzer had said. The truth was that they would both likely die out here in this desert, their dry bones being ground up by the sand and the wind until they were part of it, blowing across this desolate planet for eternity. What did he have to lose?
“I can’t let you escape,” Jad said as he unlocked the shackles that bound his prisoner’s hands and wrists. “It’s my job to deliver you alive to the tribunal. I took an oath. I will have to use force to stop you”.
Bentzer rubbed his wrists and ankles. It felt good to be free. He had made up his mind. He was a dead man for sure, either way. But he didn’t have to take this young man with him. In a way, he respected his dedication to duty, his code of honor, his determination to stand by his oath. Bentzer knew the rules and broke them anyway. He had stolen food, taking more rations than he was allotted, claiming a dependent that he did not have. The fact that he gave those food rations to the mother next door whose children were going hungry would make no difference. Obtaining regulated and controlled resources under false pretences was punishable by death. He had no regrets.
Bentzer stood, taking a moment to stretch his legs. Jad watched him, unsure of his decision to free him. Relief washed over him when Bentzer said “Let’s get this set up then so we can get rescued”.
With Bentzer’s strong arms and two good hands, they had the beacon set up and functional fairly quickly. The sun was still blazing down on them. Jad wondered how long days were on this planet. It seemed they had been watching the sun cross the sky for a very long time and still it lingered over the horizon. Jad checked his canister. The level was getting very low, nevertheless he meted out another mouthful of water for each of them as they rested in the shade of their disabled ship.
“You’d better put the chains back on me now,” said Bentzer. Jad stared at him in disbelief. Was he really offering to be shackled once again or was this a trick? As if he could read Jads mind, his prisoner added “No, I am not planning something, don’t worry. This is my deserved punishment, and I am resigned to it. You’ve been an honorable and kind jailer, I have no wish to see you get into trouble over someone like me”.
It was at that very moment that they heard a whirring overhead. It grew louder and then became deafening as a ship appeared and landed nearby. A rescue party disembarked and approached the two men crouched under the twisted hull of the prison transport ship.
Jad made a sudden decision. He leapt to his feet and rushed to meet their rescuers.
“I am Ensign Kenrick Jad of the Prisoner Transportation Service,” he told them. “And this is my new recruit, Private Bentzer. We were on our way to a training seminar when we crashed on this lifeless rock, and oh boy, are we glad to see you.”
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