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A FIRE UPON THE DEEP (Chapter One)
The coldsleep itself was dreamless. Three days ago they had been getting ready to leave, and now they were here. Little Jefri complained about missing all the action, but Johanna Olsndot was glad she'd been asleep; she had known some of the grownups on the other ship.
Now Johanna drifted between the racks of sleepers. Waste heat from the coolers made the darkness infernally hot. Scabby gray mold grew on the walls. The coldsleep boxes were tightly packed, with narrow float spaces every tenth row. There were places where only Jefri could reach. Three hundred and nine children lay there, all the kids except herself and her brother Jefri.
The sleep boxes were light-duty hospital models. Given proper ventilation and maintenance, they would have been good for a hundred years, but.... Johanna wiped her face and looked at a box's readout. Like most of the ones on the inside rows, this was in bad shape. For twenty days it had kept the boy inside safely suspended, and would probably kill him if he stayed one day more. The box's cooling vents were clean, but she vac'd them again--more a prayer for good luck than effective maintenance.
Mother and Dad were not to blame, though Johanna suspected that they blamed themselves. The escape had been put together with the materials at hand, at the last minute, when the experiment turned wicked. The High Lab staff had done what they could to save their children and protect against still greater disaster. And even so, things might have worked out if--
"Johanna! Daddy says there's no more time. He says to finish what you're doing an' come up here." Jefri had stuck his head down through the hatch to shout to her.
"Okay!" She shouldn't be down here anyway; there was nothing more she could do to help her friends.
Tami and Giske and Magda...oh, please be safe. Johanna pulled herself through the floatway, almost bumped into Jefri coming from the other direction. He grabbed her hand and hung close as they drifted toward the hatch. These last two days he hadn't cried, but he'd lost much of the independence of the last year. Now his eyes were wide. "We're coming down near the North Pole, by all those islands and ice."
In the cabin beyond the hatch, their parents were strapping themselves in. Trader Arne Olsndot looked up at her and grinned. "Hi, kiddo. Have a seat. We'll be on the ground in less than an hour." Johanna smiled back, almost caught by his enthusiasm. Ignore the jumble of equipment, the odors of twenty days' confinement. Daddy looked as dashing as any adventure poster. The light from the display windows glittered off the seams of his pressure suit. He was just in from outside.
Jefri pushed across the cabin, pulling Johanna behind him. He strapped into the webbing between her and their mother. Sjana Olsndot checked his restraints, then Johanna's. "This will be interesting, Jefri. You will learn something."
"Yes, all about ice." He was holding Mom's hand now.
Mom smiled. "Not today. I'm talking about the landing. This won't be like an agrav or a ballistic." The agrav was dead. Dad had just detached their shell from the cargo carrier. They could never have landed the whole thing on one torch.
Dad did something with the hodgepodge of controls he had softwired to his dataset. Their bodies settled into the webbing. Around them the cargo shell creaked, and the girder support for the sleep boxes groaned and popped. Something rattled and banged as it "fell" the length of the shell. Johanna guessed they were pulling about one gravity.
Jefri's gaze went from the outside display to his mother's face and then back. "What is it like then?" He sounded curious, but there was a little tremor in his voice. Johanna almost smiled; Jefri knew he was being diverted, and was trying to play along.
"This will be pure rocket descent, powered almost all the way. See on the middle window? That camera is looking straight down. You can actually see that we're slowing down." You could, too. Johanna guessed they weren't more than a couple of hundred kilometers up. Arne Olsndot was using the rocket glued to the back end of the cargo shell to kill all their orbital velocity. There weren't any other options. They had abandoned the cargo carrier, with its agrav and ultradrive. It had brought them far, but its control automation was failing. Some hundreds of kilometers behind them, it coasted dead along their orbit.
All they had left was the cargo shell. No wings, no agrav, no aero shielding. The shell was a hundred-tonne carton of eggs balanced on one hot torch.
Mom wasn't describing it quite that way to Jefri, though what she said was the truth. Somehow she had Jefri seeming to forget the danger. Sjana Olsndot had been a pop writer-archaeologist at Straumli Realm, before they moved to the High Lab.
Dad cut the jet, and they were in free fall again. Johanna felt a wave of nausea; ordinarily she never got space sick, but this was different. The image of land and sea in the downward window slowly grew. There were only a few scattered clouds. The coastline was an indefinite recursion of islands and straits and inlets. Dark green spread along the coast and up the valleys, shading to black and gray in the mountains. There was snow--and probably Jefri's ice--scattered in arcs and patches. It was all so beautiful...and they were falling straight into it!
She heard metallic banging on the cargo shell as the trim jets tipped their craft around, aligning the main jet downwards. The right-hand window showed the ground now. The torch lit again, at something like one gravity. The edge of the display darkened in a burnout halo. "Wow," said Jefri. "It's like an elevator, down and down and down and..." One hundred kilometers down, slow enough that aero forces wouldn't tear them apart.
Sjana Olsndot was right; it was a novel way to descend from orbit, not a preferred method under any normal circumstances.
It was certainly not intended in the original escape plans. They were to meet with the High Lab's frigate--and all the adults who could escape from the High Lab. And of course, that rendezvous was to be in space, an easy transfer. But the frigate was gone now, and they were on their own. Her eyes turned unwillingly to the stretch of hull beyond her parents. There was the familiar discoloration. It looked like gray fungus...growing out of the clean hull ceramic. Her parents didn't talk about it much even now, except to shoo Jefri away from it. But Johanna had overheard them once, when they thought she and her brother were at the far end of the shell. Dad's voice almost crying with anger. "All this for nothing!" he said softly. "We made a monster, and ran, and now we're lost at the Bottom." And Mom's voice even softer: "For the thousandth time, Arne, not for nothing. We have the kids." She waved at the roughness that spread across the wall. "And given the dreams...the directions we had...I think this was the best we could hope for. Somehow we are carrying the answer to all the evil we started." Then Jefri had bounced loudly across the hold, proclaiming his imminent entrance, and his parents had shut up. Johanna hadn't quite had the courage to ask them about it. There had been strange things at the High Lab, and toward the end, some quietly scary things; even people who were not quite the same.
Minutes passed. They were deep in the atmosphere now. The hull buzzed with the force of the air stream--or turbulence from the jet? But things were steady enough that Jefri was beginning to get restless. Much of the down-looking view was burned out by airglow around the torch. The rest was clearer and more detailed than anything they had seen from orbit. Johanna wondered how often a new-visited world had been landed upon with less reconnaissance than this. They had no telescopic cameras, and no ferrets.
Physically, the planet was near the human ideal--wonderful good luck after all the bad.
It was heaven compared to the airless rocks of the system that had been the prime rendezvous.
On the other hand, there was intelligent life here: From orbit, they could see roads and towns. But there was no evidence of technic civilization; there was no sign of aircraft or radio or intense power sources.
They were coming down in a thinly populated corner of the continent. With luck there would be no one to see their landing among the green valleys and the black and white peaks--and Arne Olsndot could fly the torch right to ground without fear of hurting much more than forest and grass.
The coastal islands slid past the side camera's view. Jefri shouted, pointing. It was gone now, but she had seen it too: on one of the islands an irregular polygon of walls and shadow. It reminded her of castles from the Age of Princesses on Nyjora.
She could see individual trees now, their shadows long in slanting sunlight. The roar of the torch was as loud as anything she had ever heard; they were deep in atmosphere, and they weren't moving away from the sound.
"...things get tricky," Dad shouted. "And no programs to make things right.... Where to, Love?"
Mom looked back and forth between the display windows. As far as Johanna knew, they couldn't move the cameras or assign new ones. "...that hill, above the timberline, but...think I saw a pack of animals running away from the blast on...west side."
"Yeah," shouted Jefri, "wolves." Johanna had only had a quick glimpse of moving specks.
They were in full hover now, maybe a thousand meters above the hilltops. The noise was painful, unending; further talk was impossible. They drifted slowly across the landscape, partly to reconnoiter, partly to stay out of the plume of superheated air that rose about them.
The land was more rolling than craggy, and the "grass" looked mossy. Still Arne Olsndot hesitated. The main torch was designed for velocity matching after interstellar jumps; they could hang like this for a good while. But when they did touch down, they'd better have it right. She'd heard her parents talking that one over--when Jefri was working with the coldsleep boxes and out of earshot. If there was too much water in the soil, the backsplash would be a steam cannon, punching right through the shell. Landing in trees would have some dubious pluses, maybe giving them a little cushioning and a standoff from the splash. But now they were going for direct contact. At least they could see where they were landing.
Three hundred meters. Dad dragged the torch tip through the ground cover. The soft landscape exploded. A second later their boat rocked in the column of steam. The down-looking camera died. They didn't back off, and after a moment the battering eased; the torch had burned through whatever water table or permafrost lay below them. The cabin air grew steadily hotter.
Olsndot brought them slowly down through it, using the side cameras and the sound of the backsplash as his guides. He cut the torch. There was a scary half-second fall, then the sound of the rendezvous pylons hitting ground. They steadied, then one side groaned, giving way a little.
Silence, except for heat pinging around the hull. Dad looked at their ad hoc pressure gauge. He grinned at Mom. "No breach. I bet I could even take this baby up again!"
A FIRE UPON THE DEEP Copyright © 1992 by Vernor Vinge