I sprint across the frozen ground. Sucking in a lungful of icy air, I chance a glance to the east. The Prytagorian sun is fast disappearing below the jagged horizon.
‘I see the cave!’ Henderson calls from behind me, ‘we’re nearly there!’
On we run, bursting through the cavemouth just as the sunlight fades. Henderson turns and drags the scorched segment of fuselage operating as our makeshift door across the opening. When darkness falls on Prytagor-U the temperature plummets to lethal lows almost instantly. We need all the protection from the night we can get.
‘We cut that too fine,’ Henderson gasps, as he switches on a lamp. ‘What were you doing in the wreckage for so long?’
I sit against the warm cave wall before I answer. ‘I was looking for food, I found some more ration packs.’
Henderson doesn’t thank me for it. He walks over to our tired water purifier, the only reason we’re still alive. He removes the canister and reaches for a couple of mess tins. A few glugs of filtered water into each and he’s crossing the cave towards me.
‘There’s something wrong with the purifier. It’s kicking out less to drink every time I run it.’ He hands me a tin and I gulp down the water eagerly. Thanks to whatever geothermal processes are occurring behind the cave’s walls, the water is at least a little bit warm.
‘What the hell are we going to do?’ Henderson asks, as he squats against a flat portion of cave wall. ‘Soon we’ll have salvaged everything we can from the ship and then it’s only a matter of time until we’re out of food.’
I don’t respond but the planet seems to; the night winds begin to howl outside. Every night since we crash-landed there’s been a fierce gale, the likes of which would probably be called a once in a generation storm back on Earth.
‘And what kind of stupid name is Prytagor-U for a planet anyway?’ Henderson exclaims, no doubt angered by the rising winds.
‘It’s more of a designation than a name,’ I answer, glad to be off the subject of the ship and what remains of it. ‘Some Colonist Project scientist probably came up with it.’
‘Well I’m a scientist and I say we should have landed on a different planet in the Prytagorian System. Anything but this frozen hell.’
It’s a long time before either of us says anything more, the hopelessness of our situation weighing heavy in the air.
‘We need to talk about the crash,’ Henderson says, breaking the silence.
I shake my head. ‘There’s nothing to talk about.’
‘Yes,’ Henderson says, ‘there is. Thirty-five people are dead, not to mention all the embryos. We need to talk about it.’
‘We need to eat and then get some rest.’
‘What’s the last thing you remember?’ Henderson asks.
‘What’s the last thing you remember before the crash?’
‘I don’t know, being in orbit. Landing prep. My memory is fuzzy.’
‘Liar,’ Henderson growls. Outside the winds surge and our fuselage-door starts to rattle against the cavemouth. ‘The only reason you can’t remember is because you refuse to let yourself.’
Hearing the truth aloud forces the memories to come rushing back. ‘I remember sitting at the controls,’ I say, somehow unable to stop myself from speaking. ‘I remember entering the planet’s atmosphere. But the ice storm, the alarms. Thruster three, it failed. I couldn’t stabilise the ship …’
I realise Henderson is kneeling beside me now, holding my hand. ‘Why couldn’t you stabilise the ship?’
‘Don’t make me say it.’
The wind outside is screaming bloody murder, but somehow Henderson’s voice cuts through. ‘Let it out, Clarissa.’
Despite my guilt, I do. ‘When I came out of cryosleep and we entered the Prytagorian System, my cryosickness, it didn’t go away like everyone else’s.’
‘And who did you tell?’
‘No one,’ I whimper, a tear running down my face, ‘not even the captain. Not even you.’
‘I’m the pilot, landing the ship was my one and only job. I didn’t want to admit I was sick and let the crew down. I – I’m so sorry, Charlie.’
Suddenly, the wind outside dies. ‘Where are we?’ Henderson asks, looking to the cavemouth and then back to me.
I stare at him blankly. ‘What?’
‘The crash killed everyone except for me and you. We can breathe this alien air without suits, and we don’t have a scratch on us. It doesn’t make any sense, so where are we?’
‘Prytagor-U’ I answer.
‘Don’t hide behind anagrams, Clarissa. Where are we?’
I’ve never been good at word games but deep down I already know the answer. ‘Purgatory.’
The fuselage door falls and the cavemouth is open. But it’s not an ice planet’s hostile vista that greets me, it’s a leaf-green expanse bathed in golden sunlight. I see the tree swing I used to play on when I was a little girl.
‘We all forgive you,’ Henderson says softly. ‘Even without cryosickness there was nothing any pilot could have done in that storm with a failed thruster. It’s time to forgive yourself as well. It’s time to stop punishing yourself in this place and move on.’
My pain and guilt fading away, I stand. Then I walk with Henderson into the light.