by Scott G. Gier
Publication date: August 1995
Copyright © 1995 by Scott G. Gier
DEL REY DISCOVERY
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FIVE: On the Ground
Buccari moved into the lander bay and found Boatswain Jones, slickly burly in his silver pressure suit, floating at the EPL hatch.
"All strapped in. All injection units checking good," he told her.
"Let's hustle," Buccari said, "before they get claustrophobic."
She made final adjustments to her pressure suit and then dove into the open lander hatch. With practiced agility, she moved forward in the craft, pulling herself into the single pilot station. Positioned in the acceleration seat, she donned her helmet, connected harness and comm fittings, and commenced preflight checkout of the Endoatmospheric Planetary Lander-the apple.
"Compute! Systems status-initiate," she barked. "Pilot Buccari."
Ladder lights on the power console sequenced, and the EPL's control computer replied with a machine-generated voice: "Pilot Buccari. Control authorizations check. Pilot has command."
"Launch sequence," she ordered, adjusting to the snug cockpit.
"All systems checking good, sir," Jones reported from his station.
"Boats, with you onboard I'd be surprised if they didn't," Buccari acknowledged.
They ran through prestart and start checklists. The lander was in good order, and the injection systems displayed green lights. Buccari felt anxious for the marines stuffed into their penetrator casings-human artillery shells.
"Stand by to jettison EPL!" Buccari announced over the radio.
"Apple cleared to launch," Hudson responded. "Report clear. Rendezvous will be launch plus ninety-three. One orbit. Control set to button four. You copy?"
"Roger, launch plus ninety-three; button four. EPL retros in two minutes. Counting down." Buccari settled into the pilot's seat, anticipating the launch of the lander from the corvette, which was itself launched from a larger ship-a spawn from a spawn, each with diminishing purposes, powers, and ranges. But this was her vessel. She was pilot.
To starboard the bay doors yawned smoothly open. An overwhelming blackness crept through the widening aperture. Buccari cut the lights in the cockpit, cursing herself for waiting too long to start night vision adaptation. Red light bathed the cockpit, and a constellation of reflections fell back at her from the umbrella of the canopy. She palmed down the intensity. The white brilliance of genuine stars blossomed.
Vibration hummed through metal; the lander moved outboard to starboard, pushed by a spidery gantry crane, until it was clear of the confined EPL bay. Ahead were the first signs of sunrise, a perfect red-gold arc starkly defining the limb of the ebony planet, silhouetting it against the utter blackness of space. Buccari released the attachment fitting, fired a micropulse on the port maneuvering rockets to initiate a separation rate, and reported "Clear" back to Hudson. At precisely the correct moment she rolled the lander on its back and commenced retrofire, falling toward the dark predawn. The corvette, glinting in the rising sun, retreated on its orbital trajectory and disappeared into black infinity. The flowering sun-star, Rex-Kaliph, climbed rapidly over the limb of the planet-a harsh, glaring blossom of light.
During the helpless waiting and hard chopping turbulence of reentry Buccari considered her drop target. The granite-topped plateau chosen for the landing site was located in the interior of the largest of the planet's four continents. Curving around the plateau was a major river, providing excellent navigational references. A spectacular chain of mountains to the west was a concern; radar returns indicated peaks in excess of eight thousand meters-geological giants. The mountains were ominous, but radar returns also showed the expansive plateau to be hard and flat-an ideal landing site. Hudson had discovered the plateau and unromantically christened it "Landing Site Alpha." Everyone else called it Hudson's Plateau.
Turbulence dampened sharply, and Buccari noticed the EPL's external skin temperatures stabilizing. Reentry was almost complete.
"Flight profile," she demanded. The computer echoed her words, and an abstract presentation of the digital flight envelope, complete with altitude, heading, and attitude readouts, unfolded on the navigation display. The computer began aurally reporting the amount of air density buildup as a function of temperature and pressure altitude.
"Suspend," she ordered. Audio cues abruptly halted. Within minutes the aerodynamic flight symbol fluttered on and held steady, the atmosphere finally biting hard enough to make the lander an airplane.
"Reentry complete, Boats," she said. "Apple's flying." She disabled the autopilot.
"Aye, checking good," the boatswain replied. "Everyone's breathing."
After a wide turn to lose altitude Buccari initiated a course correction, lining the EPL up with the run-in trajectory, moving the sun dead astern. Inverted, she looked through the top of the canopy and made out physical features of the planet. Hudson's Plateau was somewhere dead ahead, invisible, still shrouded in sun-shattered haze. Satisfied with course and position, she rolled upright. The planet moved beneath her, the cloud deck thinning.
"All right, marines!" she broadcast on the intercom, her audience six human projectiles bound tightly into torpedolike shrouds. "Approaching zone. Ejection as briefed. Green light. Counting down ... four ... three ... two ... one. Bingo!"
The EPL shuddered. In less than a second six penetrators ripple-fired from the tail. Jones came up on the intercom: "Penetrators cleared. Ejection port closed. Nav track good. Fuel pressures in the green. Gun barrels hot. Checking good, sir."
Buccari returned the lander to computer control.
"Okay, Boats. Ignition in five seconds. Checking good, checking good." Buccari flattened against her seat and awaited the massive kick of the EPL's engines.
The penetrators streaked into the atmosphere, glowing brighter and whiter, spreading linearly, each canister containing a living soul with little to do but impotently count the eternal seconds. Below, unseen, the dawn's slanted light revealed a wide expanse of verdant prairie, softly mottled. The river, jade-colored in the morning sun and steeped in wispy fog, meandered with little purpose but with certain power. To the west snow-blanketed mountains, radiantly pink, reflected the morning sun, but the senses of the men in the streaking cones were aware only of their own mortal being-of pulse and respiration and sweat.
Shannon sometimes considered the lateral acceleration to be the worst part of the trip-as if he were going to lose his lunch. It lasted fifteen eternal seconds, the penetrators accelerating in the opposite trajectory of the hypermach lander, decelerating relative to the ground. He smelled the bitter residue of rocket fuel left behind after the spent motor had separated from the canister.
He was free-falling feetfirst in a pressurized titanium ablative coffin. Waiting. Waiting in endless anticipation for separation retrofire, which was truly the worst part of the trip. He checked disconnects for the third time, adjusted his helmet yet again, and listened to the rasp of his breathing through the forced-flow oxygen mask. Temperature increased rapidly. After another eternity he looked at his altimeter, still off the thirty-kilometer scale. He went through the checks again.
The altimeter finally registered. Shannon waited, ear canals working to keep up with the compression schedule. He yawned and moved his jaw, ears and sinuses popping again and again. Long minutes rattled by. The altimeter unwound with increasing speed; the retros would be firing soon. He straightened his spine and positioned his head squarely over his neck, shoulders rolled back. One last look at the altimeter. He closed his eyes tight!
Whooom! His whole being jarred as if some giant had taken a club and swung it straight up at his feet. His knees buckled, but the active retro-harness supported his back and torso; his spine ached at the base of his neck; his brain felt fuzzy, almost unconscious. The next one would be stronger. Fifteen seconds after the first jolt-Whooom!-another charge fired from the base of the cone, an explosive blast directed straight down at the planet, a cannon shot trying to propel his shell back into space. And ten seconds later, yet another. Whooom!
Shannon shook the fog from his stunned brain. His rate of descent was in the safety range. He reached down and pulled the separation release, trying to beat the automatic sequence, but the onboard processor was faster. He heard and felt the shrill rattle of his drogue shoot deploying overhead, and he prepared himself for another jolt, a very welcome one-the jolt of his parafoil filling with air.
As usual the benevolent and satisfying ka-thump flushed away Shannon's anxieties. With the parafoil deployed and stabilized, the bottom two-thirds of his penetrator slipped smoothly from his body, the reentry canister plummeting groundward. Dangling against the variegated backdrop of the planet below, Shannon could see his size-twelve boots encased in impact webbing, still attached to the control section around his belt. He cleared the webbing and stowed it. Scanning the target area, he picked up the loop of the river and adjusted his drift. On course, target in sight. Reaching up, Shannon slipped the quick-release fittings on the penetrator's aerodynamic top section; the shell structure oscillated in the slipstream. With the last fitting uncoupled, it slid smoothly along a tubular backpack railing until it was secured between his shoulders like the shell of a turtle.
Shannon checked his men. Something was wrong with number five-Private Chastain. Five was drifting noticeably downwind, falling out of the bearing line. At worst Chastain was already dead, suffocated or traumatically exposed by a pressure failure. At best he was simply unconscious, knocked out by bad positioning or a faulty harness during the retro-blasts.
Shannon keyed the transmit button on his control belt with a series of quick double pulses followed by a single pulse corresponding to his own position in the drop. After a short pause he was rewarded with a short double click-Petit-another short pause, and then three mike clicks-O'Toole-followed quickly by four-Tatum. A long, empty pause ensued-finally, six clicks in three quick pairs. Six was the squad leader, MacArthur. Number five, Chastain, was not in the game.
Shannon keyed his UHF: "Six, stick with five. Proceed to Alpha. Standard procedures. Copy?"
"Six copies," MacArthur's voice came back matter-of-factly.
Shannon swung around to reestablish contact with the landing site. A turbulent layer of clouds boiled up from behind the mountains to the west and south. Ragged pinnacles, their snow-covered granite tops easily reaching past his altitude. Shannon moved his gaze downward and observed the sinuous loop of the river delineating his target. He shook out his control shrouds and deployed his high-lift, high-drag secondary. Lieutenant Buccari had put them right on target-not bad for a Mach-twenty pass. Shannon estimated less than thirty minutes to touchdown. He checked his altimeter and, breaking regs, loosened his oxygen mask to sniff the rarefied atmosphere. A hint of sulfur? It was cold-colder than he had expected.
Shannon reviewed the preflight briefing. Hudson's Plateau was immense-fifty kilometers from the cliffs at the river's edge to the first line of jagged mountains. And high-over two thousand meters above sea level and over a thousand meters above the river valley. The great river encircled most of the plateau, and the mountains to the south and west encompassed the rest. As Shannon glided over the precipice marking the edge of the plateau, he detected banks of steam spewing from the cliffs. Fingers and spirals of vapor broke loose and sailed briefly in the wind before dissipating. Lakes dotted the granite plain, and a dragon's spine of rocky karsts tailed down from the awesome mountains. Ensign Hudson had described a central lake with three islands that was to mark their primary landing site on the plateau, and there it was, nestled against the spine.
The last five hundred meters of a drop were the most interesting. Topography that had been one-dimensional at five thousand meters pushed upward into view. Valleys and mountains, hills and cliffs, rifts and shadows reached out, providing perspective and depth. The pale granite of the high plateau rose to meet him. Shannon located his quick-release fittings one last time and tightened his helmet strap. Flat rocks streaked with crimson and gold lichen skimmed beneath his feet. He yanked on his risers, killing forward velocity and stalling the leading edge of his foil. He took four chopping steps and stopped-a stranger on a new world.
It was very cold.
MacArthur watched Chastain float away from the line of bearing. He locked down his turtle shell and shucked off his harness webbing. Chastain was drifting to the south and losing ground to the east. They were in for a hike. The other parafoils disappeared against the dark backdrop of the mountains.
As Chastain's foil spiraled mindlessly downward, MacArthur's scrutiny went to the innocent-appearing terrain. Treeless, rolling plains stretched northward, meeting the horizon in an indistinct haze. To the south the river curved toward them, its main watercourse spreading in interwoven braids across sand and gravel bars, the sun glinting dully from the many channels of the sinuous waterway. It was as if four or five rivers had collided together, converging and diverging around shoals and islands, unable to agree within which bank to flow.
Beyond the river to the south the ground climbed into ragged foothills and beyond that to distant, hoary mountains. Huge clouds roiled around the shoulders and heads of the massive peaks, and a thick layer of altocumulus poured through valleys rife with blue-green glaciers.
The rolling prairie land below, mottled brown and green, took on definition. The wind gathered strength and veered from the north. They were being blown closer to the river, but there was ample room; a spreading valley lay between them and the larger river. Two symmetrical peaks venting steam and smoke marked the head of the valley.
At seven hundred meters MacArthur looked down for another check. Something was peculiar-the brown and green pattern of the land slowly shifted; the ground itself was moving. He stared harder and, doubting his vision, saw animals in countless numbers. A vast herd of grazing animals covered the visible plain! Several herds, and probably herds of different animals. The masses directly below were a deep reddish-brown. Off to both sides and randomly in the distance he could see smaller groups, lighter-colored-golden, almost yellow in tint.
MacArthur verified the drift rate. With some maneuvering he could avoid falling into the herd; its ranks thinned toward the head of the valley, and the wind was bearing him away. Chastain, heavier and unguided, was falling into their midst. He should stay near Chastain, but Chastain could already be dead. Why get caught in a stampede?
But perhaps Chastain was only unconscious and needed first aid. Perhaps Chastain would suffocate in his oxygen mask. Maybe Chastain's parafoil would catch the strong surface wind and drag him around the countryside; it was windy enough to threaten both men with that prospect. MacArthur grabbed his assault rifle from its attachment point on his turtle pack, checked the magazine, and prepared for landing.
The descent, the illusion of holding gravity at bay, had lasted almost an hour, but the inevitable reality of the looming surface became evident. The animals took individual shapes, round-shouldered, big-headed, and short-horned with shaggy coats and thick legs-not unlike Earth buffalo. MacArthur watched Chastain's deadweight landing, practically on the backs of the large beasts. As when a helicopter landed in a wheat field or a rock was thrown into a still pond, the animals, sensing Chastain's arrival, recoiled in a pattern of expanding ripples, and the area around Chastain's point of impact cleared rapidly. Chunks of turf and dirt flew into the air, propelled by the bucking and kicking creatures. The nearer animals surged against their neighbors, and soon a circular area within three hundred meters of the fallen man's flapping parafoil was clear of the large beasts.
Chastain's inert form collapsed bonelessly onto the ground, face first and helmet bouncing. His parafoil dumped its load and collapsed, only to flutter erect with fitful gusts of air, tugging Chastain's large body across the dung-spotted terrain in slow jerks. MacArthur, still high in the air, maneuvered downwind, turned into the wind, and landed squarely in the middle of Chastain's luffing foil. Grabbing his own shrouds, MacArthur spilled air and released his quick disconnects. He noticed absently that the ground was soft, boglike, but dry and springy. Tundra! It was tundra or taiga plains, like the far north of Canada. Memory invoked the hiking and hunting experiences of his youth. It required effort to walk.
After bundling both foils and securing them with shroud lines, MacArthur struggled to clear Chastain from his rig. He lifted the marine's brawny shoulders from the dung-strewn ground-and dropped him! Slugs! Black, amorphous creatures as big as his thumb exploded from the heap of greenish-black dung on which Chastain had come to rest. A host of squirming vermin slithered from the disturbed manure. Most of the wiggling slugs burrowed industriously into the porous undergrowth, but dozens flowed over the prostrate marine. Fighting his repugnance and checking the ground under his own boots, MacArthur gingerly rolled the injured man over, pulled him onto some reasonably clear ground, and flicked off the slimy worms with his gloved hand. The dropping slugs disappeared immediately into the tundra.
Chastain was breathing but unconscious, nothing obviously broken. MacArthur disconnected him from his harness, allowing the massive pack to fall away. He rolled the big man over on the soft ground, slid open his visor, and released his oxygen mask. Chastain shuddered; his eyes flashed open. He was wall-eyed with panic; his mouth gaped, and he inhaled, only to exhale violently, throwing hands over his mouth and nose, jerking his head spasmodically back and forth.
"Can't breathe!" Chastain retched, exhaling words from empty lungs. "Can't bre-" Chastain's groping hands found his mask; he pulled it over his face, wild eyes narrowing to slits. He attempted to sit up, but a stab of pain shot through his body-he stiffened and fell supine, holding his mask to his face with both hands desperately, like a drowning man with a life preserver.
MacArthur reached to remove his own mask. No sooner had he broken the face seal than he was stricken with an acrid pungency, an odor beyond description and magnitude. Tears welled, and sharp pain penetrated nostrils and sinuses. He fell to a knee, trying to expel the painful sensation from his nose and lungs. Then he slammed his breathing apparatus back to his face and dared to breathe. Nausea surged through him. Fighting panic, he sucked in a lungful of oxygen.
MacArthur's breathing passages slowly cleared, but a sour, metallic taste clung to his palate. He looked at Chastain; both men were frightened. Their only communication alternative besides sign language was the radio. MacArthur broke regs and activated his transmitter.
"Air's no good. Big trouble, Jocko," MacArthur gasped, looking around, checking the slowly moving herd. The buffalo had calmed and were grazing on the spongy, dung-spotted turf. A few had moved closer, although none approached closer than two hundred meters. The motley red-brown beasts were massive, as tall at the shoulder as a man, with fur-shrouded fat humps similar to those of prehistoric mastodons or musk oxen. Mature animals carried a stubby but sharply hooked rack of black horn.
MacArthur stood erect and looked down at Chastain. The big man was pale and wide-eyed, still suffering from his dose of atmosphere. "Where you hurt, Jocko?" MacArthur asked.
Chastain closed his eyes, his breathing rapid. His hand activated his transmitter. "My back. Multiple retro-hit like a ton of bricks. Musta blacked out. What we going to do, Mac?"
MacArthur, still dizzy, tried to think. Their breathing systems would supply oxygen for two to four hours at the most, probably closer to two, considering the stress.
"Let's move. Can you walk?" he asked, fearing the worst.
"Don't know," Chastain responded. He tentatively rolled onto his knees. Between the two of them they were able to hoist Chastain erect, but only barely. Hunchbacked, listing heavily to his right side, Chastain staggered down the decline, struggling to lift his feet from the indentations caused by his ponderous weight.
MacArthur shouldered his pack and gathered the fluttering parafoils. An idea came to him. He removed his pack and attached it to Chastain's, arranging the turtle packs in tandem. He secured both parafoils to the assembled mass and gingerly redeployed the foils in the freshening wind. To the skittish dismay of the buffalo, the parafoils billowed open and jolted their load over the uneven terrain. Using harness webbing for a lanyard, MacArthur followed the wind-powered sled, breaking into a trot to keep pace. He quickly caught up with his crippled cohort.
"How you doing, Jocko?" MacArthur asked over the UHF as he pulled abreast, holding the jerking cargo back against the strong winds.
"Not sure I can, Mac," Chastain gasped, his sweaty face ashen.
"Yes, you can, Jocko. If I lose sight of you, I'll wait."
Chastain nodded, and MacArthur pulled ahead. Despite his words, MacArthur was worried. How could they escape what they could not see?
The terrain transformed as they descended. Crystalline escarpments spotted with livid lichen protruded from the taiga, the footing firmed, and the ground lost its sponginess. As MacArthur topped a small rise, he spotted a line of scraggly yellow-trunked trees. Beyond the trees the valley expanded and descended steeply into the haze. MacArthur knew the valley ended at the great river, but he also knew the lower they descended, the higher they eventually would have to climb.
"You'll see some trees in the distance, to the right. I'm heading for them. We'll check out the air when we get there. Keep it in gear, marine!" MacArthur exhorted Chastain over the radio, trying to reassure himself as well as to keep Chastain moving.
MacArthur clattered ahead, moving at a jerky lope, the hard shells of the turtle packs careening off the rocks. The wind abated, no longer carrying the urgent power evident on the higher terrain. MacArthur had to pull the equipment through swales and over gentle ridges. After an hour, sweat-soaked and exhausted, he gained the wind-bent trees he had seen from the top of the valley and sat heavily on one of the many quartz-veined boulders jumbling the area. He rested head and arms on trembling knees; a gnarled and twisted tree, its trunk rough and mustard-colored, its spiky needles green-gray, provided an oasis of cold shade.
It felt exquisite to rest, but survival fears held sway. Insulated by his helmet, MacArthur could hear only the pounding of his heart and the rasping of his lungs. He lifted his head and checked the thin stand of trees. Five paces distant a clear spring bubbled from a flower-shrouded seep, forming an energetic rivulet that meandered out of sight over granite steps. The sight of the water triggered a desperate thirst.
MacArthur fatalistically inhaled a full breath of oxygen and fingered the fitting on his mask. Loosening his helmet, he let the mask drop from his face. An insistent current of chilly air caressed his sweaty cheeks. He pulled off his helmet. His hearing was assaulted by the persistent symphony of nature, and a brittle breeze swept over his exposed neck and brow. Still holding his breath, he shivered.
Positioning his mask near his face, MacArthur partially exhaled and then cautiously sniffed the air. It smelled horrible: an offending stench of incredible magnitude-terrible odors, a bitter conglomeration of offal, carrion, sewage, and burning chemicals so persistent and penetrating that all senses were assailed and dulled. His body begged to collapse into some minimal essence, to sleep, to escape. His head ached. His eyes watered, but somehow he knew that it was not fatal. He could breathe; his lungs could process the atmosphere. He could breathe without the involuntary spasmodic rejection experienced in the landing zone. It was horrible, but it was air, and the prospect of running out of oxygen lost its urgency, if not its fear.
He looked down at the clear spring at his feet. Water, yes. It had to be. What did it matter that the air was breathable, if the water was undrinkable? Without water they would die, too. They were marooned.
Casting helmet and mask aside, MacArthur fell to his knees. He sniffed at the pulsing fluid, but smelled only the horrid air. He sipped at the water, trying merely to sample it, but thirst trampled caution, and he drank noisily of the sweet liquid.