The Dark Beyond the Stars

A Novel

Frank M. Robinson

Orb Books

1
 
The only thing I remembered was that I had seen extraordinary sights on the morning of the day I died.
I had gone in with the crew of the Lander at 0600, just as the system’s sun began to cast a delicate lavender haze over the valley floor. I was the last one down the ladder, snagging a boot on the bottom rung so I had to make a desperate lunge to keep from sprawling on the planet’s surface below. Nobody seemed to notice, but the stress indicators inside my helmet whirred and a dizzying series of readouts whizzed by in my heads-up display, stopped, then scrolled past again.
Pulse rate up, respiration up, body secretions up
There was a flicker in the smooth sequence of numbers where a tiny circuit had burned out, and I swore to myself. I had inspected the electrical harness and the helmet display on board ship and I knew somebody else on the team must have checked it again after me.
It shouldn’t have happened.
I took a firmer grip on my small hand ax, readjusted the position of the sample bag on my equipment belt, then turned to watch as the rest of the exploration team climbed into the Rover. I was looking directly into the sun and had to shield my eyes against the glare. The visor polarizer wasn’t working, either. I wondered if it ever had, then realized it must have been the first thing I had checked, if for no other reason than that it was the easiest. I couldn’t have missed it.
I glanced around again and promptly forgot about it, caught up in the overwhelming beauty of the planet.
Dunes stretched for half a dozen kilometers down to a shallow canyon and its dry creekbed while pink hills huddled under a peach-colored sky. Porous reddish rocks were half hidden in the drifted sand—sand!—and I kicked at one of the rocks with my flex-boot, grinning proudly at the little puff of dust I raised. On impulse, I laboriously scratched an H next to the rock.
Instant immortality. At least until the next windstorm.
On the far side of the canyon a shield volcano jutted up a good ten kilometers, the scarp at its base within easy reach of the ancient riverbed. We would take samples from the creekbed and scarp, record the terrain, and then…
I grinned. We would do all of that but we would also gawk, scuff our boots in the dust, and take only half as many readings as we should. There were no seasoned explorers on board—there were too few opportunities for exploration.
I glanced again at the figures in the Rover and waved, unable to wipe the smile from my face. The first planet I had ever walked upon, the first rock I had ever kicked, the first sunrise I had ever watched, the first clouds I had ever seen…
The stress readouts flickered again. My pulse rate was edging higher, as well as my secretions…the inside of my helmet was rosy with warning lights. Well, what had I expected? I was lucky that sweating was all I was doing. Besides, the suit weighed; the planet had a gravity of 0.8, while on board ship there was none at all outside the gymnasium.
There was a crackle in my headset. I waddled to the Rover and climbed in, still staring openmouthed at the volcano and the shadows along its base. I shifted on the metal seat so I could see the Lander and the dark silhouette stretching away from its broad footpads toward the cratered horizon. The planet was ideal, the fourth solid-surface planet out from the primary, the last one before the two gas giants. An atmosphere with a pressure of 47 millibars, primarily carbon dioxide laced with argon and traces of water vapor and oxygen. An average surface temperature of 210 Kelvin…
The Rover jolted to a stop at the bottom of the creekbed. I turned around, startled. Either the Rover had made better time than I thought or I had been too absorbed in gaping at the landscape.
Once more my headset crackled. I cocked my head and tried again to make sense of the words but couldn’t. One member of the team hoisted himself out, took a few steps, stretched, then trudged back for his sample bag. The sunlight glinted off his visor, turning it into a golden mirror speckled with worn spots through which I could glimpse the vague outlines of a face. I couldn’t make out who it was.
Another burst of crackling. I frowned and hit the side of my helmet with my gloved right hand, then leaned forward and tapped the crewman in front of me. He swiveled around but the sun gilded his visor as well and I never saw his face. He watched in silence as I pointed at my headset, then shrugged and climbed out to join his companion.
They weren’t going to return to the Lander just because I couldn’t communicate with them—not with an entire planet out there to explore. The driver started the Rover and once again we bounced along the creekbed heading for the nearby scarp, leaving behind two team members to survey the flatlands.
I stared at the scenery, fascinated. It was the standard landscape for an iron-core planet of this size and surface temperature and at this distance from its primary—a mixture of rocks, sand, stony outcroppings, dry riverbeds, endless dunes, innumerable craters, and gigantic volcanoes. Almost everything reflected various shades of iron oxide, though an occasional streak of yellow was undoubtedly sulfur. The landscape had color and form and texture—everything I had expected and more.
I wondered what the others would think if they saw me smiling, and I inspected the landscape with a more scientific eye. There were distinct signs of weathering, the results of a thin atmosphere and millions of years. We had been warned that the planet was still geologically active, that there was plate motion and—
And what?
There was no life, there had been no signature of it from space, I remembered that from the briefing.
I felt the first quivers of uneasiness. I couldn’t recall the rest of the briefing, who had given it or who else had been present or what else had been said. I worried for a moment, then put it out of my mind. The grade was becoming steeper. I concentrated on gripping the safety bar across my lap as the Rover climbed out of the creekbed and jostled over the rocks toward the scarp three hundred meters away.
A few minutes later we stopped at the edge of a debris fan running along the bottom of a small landslide. I climbed out, clutching my ax and sample bag. I tried again to talk to somebody but there was only the irritating crackle in my headset. I had a sudden urge to throw a rock at the driver and his companion, now fifty meters in front of me, just so they would turn around and I could see who they were.
Another twinge of worry. I didn’t know their names, I couldn’t recall their faces…
Fifty meters of climbing over rocks and the exertion started to bother me—my life-support systems weren’t handling it very well at all. My helmet was fogging up and I could hear the faint sluffing of the internal vacuum pump. By now we should have learned to keep the suits in better repair…
The rise was sharper than it looked and the boulders were getting larger—we had to thread our way between them instead of stepping over. At the foot of the scarp my headset crackled once again. I looked over at the figures inspecting the cliff face. This time, their helmets were in shadow. The smaller of the two pointed up at a light-colored sedimentary layer and waved at me.
I caught my breath. It wouldn’t be easy, not with my sample bag and the weight of my suit. And I was afraid. You never fell on board ship, nor did anything ever fall on top of you. But it would be an all-too-real possibility climbing up the side of the cliff.
The face of the scarp was badly fractured; there were dozens of minor outcroppings and chimneys in the reddish rock. My boots were flexible enough for toeholds and I had a length of rope, a safety harness, and a rack with plenty of protection—chocks and hex nuts and small, serrated expansion cams that I could wedge in cracks to hold the rope.
And maybe in that pale sedimentary layer I would find what we were all looking for—the faint, fragile outlines of something that had been there before us, something that had once called this planet home and to which the endless wastes of sand and rock were more commonplace than beautiful.
I turned again to glance at the landscape behind me, the rolling dunes we had crossed, the craters in the distance, the spidery network of dry riverbeds and gullies—all of it bathed in the brilliant light from the system sun.
It was a perfect day for heroes.
* * *
Half an hour later, I was more than sixty meters up, clinging to the flaws in the cliff’s rocky face. I could see the Lander from that height, and the range of mountains behind it, no longer hidden by the low dunes. I looked down at the other figures hugging the face of the scarp. Twenty meters below me was my belay man, and another ten below him, the third member of my team. I knew both of them were watching me intently, though once again the reflection of the sun hid their faces from view. At times the primary painted them in shining gold. The next moment it revealed them as tiny, fragile figures draped in dirty expanses of what used to be dazzling white permacloth, streaks of green verdigris dappling the metal fittings of their antique suits.
I thought I remembered the name of the smaller of the two but it had slipped from my memory as easily as somebody erasing a writing slate. I felt another surge of panic, then forced my attention back to the rock face in front of me.
I had seen image pix of the different strata formed by layers of ocean bed and sediment that had buckled upward into sharp-ridged mountains, the result of colliding continental plates. The crumpled sheets of rock before me didn’t look much like the pix, but this was the first time I had seen geologic reality.
I finished recording a three-meter strip of the surface, hooked the image camera on my harness, and pushed back with my legs to swing at the crumbling rock with my ax. I remember thinking that I just might be the one—
I wasn’t expecting it at all.
There was a slight shimmer to the landscape and the scarp trembled. The rope sagged as two of the chocks slipped out of the suddenly shattered rock. I swung in toward the cliff, scrabbling for a handhold, terrified that I might be hit by something falling from above.
Before I could find a grip, the last of the chocks jerked out of the rocky face and I plummeted through the thin air, screaming into my helmet. A moment later, I was swinging from the harness around my chest and the rope tied to my belay man. I twisted slowly, just beyond reach of the stony surface. I was facing upward and I could see the other figures on the scarp looking down at me, each holding on to the rock with one hand and the rope with the other.
Suddenly, just above my suit, the rope unraveled like a piece of worn string as it rubbed against a sharp finger of stone. I fell once more, bouncing off ridges that exploded in small rock slides, desperately grabbing at the surface of the cliff that flashed past me.
I struck a boulder at the bottom, then slid to the ground, stunned, my left arm pinned beneath me. I was afraid to move, afraid to take a breath. I lay on my side looking at the field of orange boulders spread across the plain below. They looked as if somebody had painted fuzzy gray streaks on them; then I realized it was because the curved plastic of my helmet was covered with fracture lines. I was suddenly aware of my shallow breathing, the faint noise of the suit’s pump and a high-pitched hissing sound.
I was losing air fast through the cracks in my helmet.
I couldn’t believe that I had fallen, that the day was going to end like this. I moved slightly, uncomfortable because the rough weave of my ventilating garment was rubbing against my skin. The sweat that coated my body was starting to dry and I felt chilled.
My head was clearer now, the shock fading. My arm had started to throb and when I took a deep breath, I gasped—it felt as if my rib cage had been crushed. My feet were warm and wet and I was afraid the tubing had broken in my innerweave. Or worse, that my urine bag had ruptured and I was lying in my own piss.
Then I felt the slickness around my chest and waist. I was bleeding and the blood was collecting in my boots.
I pleaded into my headset for help. Once again it crackled and once again I couldn’t understand what was being said. I began to shiver. It would soon be 210 Kelvin on the inside as well as on the outside and I would be frozen stiff in minutes. Even if I weren’t, I wouldn’t last very long trying to breathe 47 millibars of CO2 and rare gases.
I didn’t realize I was crying until I felt the tears freezing on my eyelids. I ignored the pain in my arm and chest and shifted so I could see the landscape beyond the field of boulders.
It was a beautiful morning on a not particularly important planet circling an obscure G-class star and I was bleeding to death.
Unfair.
 
Copyright © 1991 by Frank M. Robinson