Ricardo Nansen was floating weightless, looking out a viewscreen, when the alarm shrilled and the words followed. He never tired of this sight. As the ship orbited into morning and the sun rose red from a peacock band along the edge of the planet, blue-and-white marbled beauty drove night backward across the great globe. He could almost have been at Earth. But the sun was Epsilon Eridani, there was no moon, and here Sol shone only after dark, a second-magnitude star in Serpens Caput. That fact turned splendor into a miracle.
The call snatched him from it. He took off, arrowing along a corridor. Captain Gascoyne’s voice rang from every intercom: “Pilot Nansen, prepare to scramble.”
“On my way, sir,” he replied. “Who’s in trouble?”
“Airman Shaughnessy. Wrecked. And that was the only flyer currently operating.”
Mike Shaughnessy! shocked through Nansen. The man was his best friend in the crew.
This shouldn't have happened. Aircraft, like spaceboats, had been tested for reliability, over and over, under the harshest available stresses, before the expedition set forth. Thus far they had come handily through everything they met. And Shaughnessy had simply been on his way back to Main Base after delivering supplies to a team of biologists on an offshore island.
At least he lived. Nearly eleven light-years from home, any human life became boundlessly precious.
Second Engineer Dufour waited at the launch bay of Nansen’s craft of help him make ready. Ordinarily that wasn’t needful, but urgency ruled today. While she got him dressed and otherwise outfitted, he kept his attention on the intercom screen at the site. His briefing snapped out at him, verbal, pictorial, mathematical.
Information was scant. Shaughnessy had radioed a report of sudden, total engine failure. He didn’t think he could glide to a landing and was going to bail out. Minisatellite relays carried his message to the ship. When he swung above his horizon, her optics found him at the wreckage. Evidently he’d guided his motorchute to chase the crashing flyer. His communications were dead, though, even the transceiver built into this backpack. He seemed unhurt, but who could tell? Certain it was that his tanked air would shortly give out.
To make matters worse, a hurricane raged along the sea-coast west of him. To wait in orbit till the window for an approach from the east opened would squander time. Besides, weather along that flight path had its own nasty spots. This atmosphere was not Earth’s. Steep axial tilt and rapid rotation increased the treacherousness. Meteorologist Hrodny was still struggling to develop adequate computer programs. Crewfolk argued about whether to recommend naming the planet Satan or Loki.
“We have a course for you that should skirt the big storm,” Gascoyne said. “Do you accept it?”
“Yes, of course,” Nanasen answered.
“Good luck,” Dufour whispered. “Bonne chance, mon bel ami.” She kissed him, quickly. He cycled through the airlocks.
As he harnessed himself before the control panel, the boat told him, “All systems checked and operative. Launch at will.”
Nansen grinned. “¡Ay, la sensación del poderío absorluto!” Beneath tautness and concern, exhilaration thrilled. The mission wasn’t crazily reckless, but it challenged him. He touched the go pad.
Acceleration pushed him back in his seat, gently at first, then hard. Aft, the ship receded for sight. Forward, the globe swelled until it was not ahead, it was below, the circle of it bisecting his universe.
The drive cut off. Slanting steeply downward, the boat pierced atmosphere. A thin wail grew into thunder, the view turned into fire, he lost contact with the ship. The force on him became brutal. He could have taken an easier route, but he was in a hurry.
Slowing, the boat won free of radio blackout. Vision cleared. weight grew normal. Wings captured lift. His hands ordered the airjet to start. He flew.
An ocean gleamed below. Broad patched of weed and scum mottled its azure. A darker wall rose over the rim, higher and higher, crowned with alabaster cloud.
“Damn!” he muttered. “The hurricane. It’s not supposed to be dead ahead.”
The ship had passed under his horizon and couldn’t help. His own instruments probed. Unpredictably, incredibly fast, the tempest had veered.
“Advise returning to orbit,” said the boat.
Nansen studied the map unrolling in a screen. We can’t simply fly around, he agreed. The boat was too awkward in the air for such a maneuver. Normally it dipped into the stratosphere and released a proper aircraft when an exploration party wanted one. The two made rendezvous at that height when the time came to return. Someday we’ll have boats that can perform as well in atmosphere as in space. But today—
“No,” he decided. “We’ll push straight through.”
“Is that wise?” The synthetic voice remained as calm as always. Once in a while you had to remind yourself that there was no awareness behind the panel, no true mind, only a lot sophisticated hardware and software.
“Aborting and trying again would take too long,” Nansen said—needlessly, since command lay with him. “We have enough momentum to transect the fringe at this altitude, if we move with the wind.” Unless we hit something unknown to pilots on Earth. Into Your hands, God—“Go!” His fingers pounced on the controls. The boat surged.
Far downward, he glimpsed monstrous waves on a sea gone white. A skirling deepened to a cannonade. The hull shuddered. Darkness and fury engulfed him. Rain hammered like bullets. The boat dropped, battled upward again, pitched and yawed. He did not now pilot it. With manifold sensors, multiple flexibilities, computer nodes throughout, and a nuclear power plant, it flew itself. His was the will that drove it onward.
They burst forth into clear day. The violence diminished. Nansen gusted a breath and sank back. His ears rang. Sweat dripped off his skin and reeked in his nostrils. Flesh ached where the forces had slammed him against his harness. But what a ride it had been!
The storm fell behind, the air quieted. He flew over a continent. Sandy wasteland, stony hills, gullies carved by rain, and talus slopes spalled by frost stretched dun toward distant mountains. Here and there, sun-flash off a lake or a river gave bleak relief. Soon the map showed he was where he wanted to be. “Land according to plan,” he said. The order was scarcely necessary, except as a sound of triumph.
Don’t stop to celebrate, he thought. Not yet.
The site had been chosen from space, the nearest spot that looked safe without being close enough to endanger Shaughnessy should something go wrong. The boat slewed into vertical alignment, landing jacks extended, dust whirled up, impact thudded. The hull began to tilt. The jack on that side lengthened itself to compensate, and the boat stood stable.
Nansen unharnessed and squirmed his way downward, aft, to the vehicle bay. He could have walked the rest of the distance, but Shaughnessy might need carrying. For a few minutes he was busy donning his equipment. He already wore the gloves, boots, and hooded coverall that protected him from ultraviolet. He slipped on his backpack, with its air tank and other gear, snugged goggles and breathmask over his face, opened the inner lock valve, and pushed the little groundrover through. The chamber expanded to accommodate them, barely. The valve closed. Nansen’s fingers directed the outer valve to move aside. A certain amount of interior air was lost in the local atmosphere. He gave the rover a shove to send it trundling down the ramp that had deployed. On the ground, he climbed to the control seat and drove.
Strange, he though, as often before, how half-familiar the scene was. The Solar System, where he had trained, held more foreignness than this, from red-brown Martian deserts under pale-red skies to the grandeur of Saturn’s rings. Here he weighed about the same as on Earth, the horizon was about as far off, a sun that looked much like Sol stood in a blue heaven, the breeze was just comfortably warm, sand gritted under wheels and dust eddied lazily over their tracks. But the oxygen-poor air would choke him, and everywhere around stretched barrenness.
The thought was equally old in him: Well, why should we ever have expected more? Life on Earth took three billion years to venture from the seas to the land. our giant Moon, a cosmic freak, may well have hastened that by the tides it raised. Give this life here a few more geological ages. Yes, of course it was disappointing not to find woods and flowers and big, fine animals. But we knew the odds were against it. Meanwhile, what a dragon’s hoard of scientific treasure we’re winning.
Steering by inertial compass, he topped a ridge and saw the fallen aircraft. Although it had dug itself half a meter into gravel, the composite body showed small damage. Impact had doubtless smashed most things inside. Nansen’s gaze strained Shaughnessy—
Yes, there tiny across a kilometer but on this feet! Nansen’s heart sprang. The rover rumbled downhill.
Shaughnessy staggered to meet him. Nansen stopped and dismounted. They felt into one another’s arms.
“Are you all right?” Nansen gasped.
“Barely, barely. It’s foul my air has gotten. Let me hook up.” Shaughnessy plugged into the large tank on the vehicle.
Weight penalty or no, Nansen thought, backpack units ought to include recyclers, the same as on spacesuits. Yet who could have foreseen? Every interstellar expedition was a leap into mystery. Oh, yes, you could send robots ahead, as had been done at first, but the you’d wait too long for less news than humans would bring.
“Ah-h-h!” Shaughnessy sighed. “Like the breeze off a clover meadow. Or so it feels by our modest standards here-abouts. My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, my sister thanks you, my brother thanks you, and I thank you.”
The crew seldom spoke kinfolk. When they returned home, the crossing would take a few days of their time—and a quarter century would have passed of Earth. You didn’t want to dwell on what time might have done meanwhile. Nansen forgave the tactlessness. He was too glad that his friend lived.
Anxiety: “Are you well otherwise, Mike?”
“I am. I did take a tumble on landing, which split my transceiver apart. We need a design more robust. Otherwise just bruises, not like my poor flyer. I’m afraid my fellow airmen will have fewer missions in future, Rico, for I’ll be claiming my share of them.”
“They’ll get enough other work to keep them out of mischief. So will you.” The groundside teams were turning up more surprises than they could handle. All extra help would be jubilantly welcomed. “Have you any idea what caused this?”
“I have a guess, after prowling and poking. I recorded it, in case I didn’t survive, but indeed I’d rather speak it in person over a mug of beer.”
“I can supply the person. The beer will have to wait.” A tingle went along Nansen’s spine. “What was it?”
“To my eye, the airscoop had corroded. You may recall, earlier I deposited chemosamplers at the Devil’s Playground hot springs. Sure, the material of the flyer is supposed to be inert, but that’s a hellish environment. My guess is that microscopic life is invading the land, and some kind of germ somehow catalyzed a reaction, maybe with the fullerene component. Let the scientists find out. The biochemistry here is so crazily different from ours.”
“¿Qué es?” Nansen exclaimed. Alarm stabbed him. “Do you mean…our ship—”
Shaughnessy laughed, rather shakily, and clapped him on the back. “Not to worry, I do believe. Otherwise the whole gang of us would be dead. Those bugs must be confined to that area. Anyhow, exposure to space would doubtless kill them. We’ve lost an aircraft, but we may be about to make a great discovery.”
Discovery is what we came here for.
“If you’re fit to travel, let’s get back to the ship,” Nansen proposed.
“I am, if you go easy on the boost,” Shaughnessy said. “Especially with that beer waiting!”
Copyright © 1998 by The Trigonier Trust