FLIGHT OF THE
After all was said and done in Earth orbit, I bid the big blue bauble that bred me farewell and decided to tour its less fortunate family members. From Mercury to Pluto, it would be an interplanetary road trip vacation. I thought it would help to first learn all I could about the more extended regions of home before setting off in search of unfamiliar realms.
My first stop was the innermost planet, a really hot rock. I consulted the data from the “road atlas” software on my workstation. I thought I might embellish this whole affair a bit, a habit I had still retained from high school notebook days. I began to dictate a verbal travelogue for the CPU, to amuse myself and give the trip some atmosphere.
Atmosphere. Cute. I like that!
After rattling off the little planet’s stats, I went on in my best tour guide nuance. “Those bare bones statistics, of course, leave out all the really fascinating things about this ugly little moonlike planet nearest Sol.”
I digress here briefly. For those not familiar with the space sciences, Sol is the proper name of our sun, which is a yellow-white G2 star, a medium sized, moderately hot (by stellar standards!) star. The name Sol is, I believe, from the word solitary, so chosen because ours is a single star system. It is terribly unimaginative, since there are plenty of single star systems out there. I guess astronomers have a lot on their minds.
I droned on for the benefit of the wire-thin boom microphone of my headset, babbling about the daytime temperature of 500 degrees, nights cooling off to 200 below zero, days that lasted 1,416 hours and how Mercury's eccentric orbit allows its rotational speed to be overtaken by its orbital speed, allowing one to watch the sun come to halt in the sky and then track backwards before resuming its normal path. I was in time for this event so I went low enough over the scorched, pocked surface to see it with my own eyes. It would have been better on a nice beach with a margarita. “Next time bring the cameras, folks... and a lot of sunblock!”
Onward we go. Next stop, Venus.
I remembered that old Abbot and Costello movie. But, unfortunately, the Starhawk’s ground penetrating tomographic scanners detected no underground caverns filled with lonely women. Darn. The meteorological sensors, though, had a field day with the dense atmosphere.
Dante could not have written more vivid physical description of Hell than the surface of Venus. Light winds swirled carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid about a rock-strewn, forbidding surface. Temperatures were in excess of 500 degrees.
The scanners also came across the old Russian Venera 9 lander. Or rather, what was left of it. 3-D rendering of the surface scan data showed little more than a pile of corroded metal. After chewing the probe up with its enormous atmospheric pressure, the planet had slowly digested it with its caustic air. Boring. “Moving right along...”
The third planet. Been there, done that.
“Aah, Mars. Planet of mystery. Did it hold life? Ever? Water, perhaps, too?” I knew I had to land here. Mars had held me spellbound ever since I first saw the movie version of War of the Worlds. Reading The Martian Chronicles later increased my fascination, despite that novel's almost mystic portrait of the place.
Flying would be different here. Mars did not have much atmosphere, barely enough to support the wings. I suspected that I would have to resort to the reaction control system to fine-tune my approach. I was correct. Even well below the two hundred thousand foot level, there was no feedback from the control surfaces. That ruled out any automatic flight systems switch from control thrusters. Finally, as I dropped below one hundred thousand, the elevons responded slowly to the thin air.
Outside the windscreen was a cloudless coral sky looking down upon a rusty, rugged landscape littered with rocks. I selected a comparatively clear patch of ground, on the Utopia Planitia, for my landing. And on the way down, I overflew another first visitor from Earth, this one in somewhat better condition than its Venusian comrade.
The scanners painted a nice picture of Viking 1. The surveillance cameras captured some good shots of it. It looked pitiful and lonely on that vast, bleak plain.
I leveled my already deliberate descent, and eyed the altitude display on the HUD. Green digits ticked off and assured me I would not belly flop onto the Martian soil. I gently decreased my speed to the point where the wings would begin to lose lift. Bleed thrust would automatically be routed to the lift jets when needed. All was going well. I grinned to my amateur myself, quite pleased, and allowed my attention to wander a bit. Loose red soil dusted my view of the rocky plain as I brought the ship down within walking distance of the probe. Then, proximity alarms bleeped. I was suddenly descending too quickly.
Situational awareness, stupid! I jerked up on the lift quadrant and overcontroled. The ship wallowed a moment before I smoothed out and managed a decent touchdown. The computer digitally scolded me for my lapse. All manner of messages and warnings were flaunted at me on the displays. Fortunately, there was no one about to witness my clumsiness. After all, it was my first landing. Any landing you can walk away from is a good one.
I reflected on that for a moment. My conscience scolded me too. For running away. From things like embarrassment. True, I was never the most talented and graceful individual. Never the best when it came to physical tasks or handling machinery. And I had never been much of an athlete. I had hated Physical Education class because I knew that I would never match up to those around me.
But now, despite that horrendous landing, I felt fine. No witnesses, no failure? Bullshit! I knew better. Still, it was nice to have an entire planet to myself. No one was looking over my shoulder and deriding me. Still, running away never accomplished much. Or did it? Debate could rage on that.
I shook these feelings off and re-immersed myself in this new life I had found. I extricated myself from the seat's straps and headed below and aft to my stateroom to find a pressure suit. Familiarizing me with it and instructing me how to don it and regulate the air supply took a little more of the ship's time. All went well and I breathed regularly when I sealed the appropriately black helmet. Sandrake had patterned the suit after the specs and drawings I had made years before. It was rather sinister, all black, and the helmet had a hawk’s head configuration. It was probably good that there was no life on Mars. They would have thought of me as some horrible invader! There was a suitably ironic thought! Suitably? Enough with the puns, Josh! The suit also incorporated personal armor and integrated weapons with sensors built into the helmet. I wondered why I had lavished as much attention on its appearance as its capabilities. What was trying to do, make myself into some ferocious gargoyle to frighten away my demons?
Enough with the introspection on Utopia Planitia. I found Mars bleak and arid and…I don't know. I guess my sudden doubts were poisoning my inquisitiveness and inherent wonder. Still, I found that vast, empty coral sky a marvel in its strangeness. The rolling, rock-strewn crimson plain still invoked awe. So many rocks…
Here I stood upon another planet, an enigmatic world that had beguiled my fellow Earthmen for hundreds of years. Like an archaeologist amid ancient ruin, I could not think, only witness and wonder.
Viking looked intact, though very dirty. Dust storms had indeed given it a scoured patina. The helmet camera and sensors did a close up examination of it for later reference back on the ship. Then, I plodded about, kicking the occasional volcanic rock in a spray of red dust. I picked a particularly large one and sat down, suddenly unable to do more.
It was the ultimate feeling of loneliness. And I know what I’m talking about. One man, one planet. It almost made me sad. Mars was terra firma, boasting even greater geographical wonders than Earth. But so totally lifeless.
“There’s nothing here but rocks.” I mumbled to myself. Then I felt I had to further exclaim that brilliant observation. “THERE’S NOTHING HERE BUT… ROCKS!! HAVE YOU EVER SEEN SO MANY ROCKS IN YOUR LIFE, JOSH?!”
I lost track of how long I sat there after my outburst. The sunset finally caught my attention. It was the most breathtaking I had ever beheld. Sheer lines of pale color shrunk down to retreating rings on the rocky horizon with startling rapidity. A spectacular display for an empty world, neon lights blinking to a vacant realm. I called the ship, needing some music to salute the moment.
“Select… Don Henley. Album, Building the Perfect Beast. Single selection, Sunset Grill.”
The music eased my mood, as it usually did.
Would a Martian sunset be as beautiful if no one was here to watch it? Had this poor planet put on its finery just for me? Or was it trying tell me something, from one enigma to another? Telling me not to waste my merits on a solitary existence. Not to spend a life brandishing my craft and talent to empty rooms or vast, boundless space. Not to become a lonely world drifting unnoticed in a community of others.
And the sunset reminded me of Jennifer. Damn. Too many other sunsets came back to me, with her wrapped up in my arms on the hood of the TransAm. Too many good endings to the day, now lost forever. Too many nights beguiling her with my stargazing and how I could tell one star from another. How the black robe of the night sky sparkled with the diamonds of stellar creation, rivaled only by the light in her eyes. Now she was married to a jock who had a tractor dealership. No stock market crash was as steep as my falling spirits.
Dammit, I have not come here to be gloomy! Time to unass this place! Or as we say in back in the Bayou State, allon!
I had had enough of depression. Damn my reflections for spoiling the moment! The tour of the system would have to be abbreviated. I tromped back to the ship, told it to take us into orbit and took a good hot shower.
My abbreviated tour became a swift flyby of the remaining planets and asteroids. I orbited most just long enough to gather a little extra data. This was accomplished in less than three days. Then it was time to turn my attention outward.
The cosmological files contained all the latest data on stars with possible planets circling them. Initially I considered these systems to be my waypoints. But of the twenty-nine planets confirmed thus far, only twelve lay in the appropriate zone for retaining liquid water, and thus support life similar to ours. Unfortunately, all twelve were gas giants like Jupiter.
Wait a minute… I scrolled through several more pages of data. There's nothing in the files about the Tyreyth! Where's their planet?
Sandrake had vaguely alluded to its location in our conversation. Why did he not want me to know where it was? Was he hiding something? Was it part of whatever experiment he seemed to running by this whole affair? There was nothing in the files about the Kai Numan's home system either. Nor were any other civilized worlds noted that either race might have contacted.
Oh, well. Maybe that would only take all the fun out of it!
So, where should I look for very own piece of global real estate? Should I try the other systems where planets had been detected by we humans? Or strike out on my own? I noted that all the planets found thus far had been found relatively close to Earth, within 150 light years. I decided to look beyond that. The stars gleamed outside the windscreen. Which way?
All I ask is a tall ship... and star to steer her by.
I tried a list of known stars from Alpha Centauri all the way out to Deneb. Star nomenclature could alternately fascinating and confusing. That fact that most had at least two names made me wonder again about my race’s preoccupation with trivial details. Ho hum.
Some stars just had numbers or alphanumeric combinations. I stopped on one of these. 89 Tauri was a minor member of the Pleiades Cluster. I clicked on its icon and its image expanded before me, its details filling in around it. It looked promising, same spectral type and color as Sol.
“Surface temperature 10,800 Fahrenheit…” I read aloud to thin air. “Looking good… companions, possible!” That meant it might have planets.
“Now, where is she?” 416 light years distant, I saw, at plus 21°, 10' to the ecliptic, right 37° from my present position. The star tracker camera locked onto it and it came up live on the screen in full magnification and magnificence. A beacon in the darkness. Good enough place to start.
Now came the transition to superluminal flight. I dove head first into all the theoretical physics about exceeding the speed of light. I had enjoyed science and still avidly read Popular Science and Discover, attempting to broaden my dullard mind. I was always more of an operator mentality. I wanted to exploit high technology, rather than fill my brain with its “reasons why things worked this way”. Poor attitude. I mentally slapped myself in the face and called up some basic physics that I had either forgotten or ignored.
I brought up all references to the speed of light. I won't bore you, gentle reader, with all those essays. But among those entries, I found the following highlights:
* The speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s (meters per second) or 186,282 miles per second.
*The speed of light has the same value, in all directions and in all inertial reference frames (a postulate of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity). It is one of the four fundamental constants of physics.
*There is a limit to which any material particle can be accelerated. That limit is C (the speed of light).
Most discouraging, but then, I was reading Earth physics. Delving deeper into the scientific files in the CPUs, I found something called spatial inversion propulsion. The key, it seemed, was harnessing gravity and converting it into controllable energy. A bit more reading convinced me the concept was sound and simple. Back home, our best minds were still attempting to define gravity in other than theoretical terms. And here I was in a ship could use that universal force of nature with the same ease that we use electricity.
Within the ship of course were gravity generators and they were not unlike common electrical generators. The materials used in their construction were much more dense and exotic in their properties. The starship's field coils were scaled up versions of these units. What they did was to create a singularity; an extremely powerful pinpoint gravity field, that contracted the fabric of space in front of the ship and expanded to the rear, creating the propulsive effect. No one enforced the light speed limit laws of terrestrial physics in this environment. There was also a second gravity field within this to keep the ship from being destroyed by its own propulsion system. The drive field was a perfect sphere. The configuration of the ship generated an asymmetric response that had to be compensated for by the computer. Simply stated, if the software failed in superluminal flight, you would cease to exist.
Cool. Let's give it a shot.
There was another important factor in faster than light travel. The ship reminded me to plot a safe course that would not intersect any celestial objects or come in proximity to other intense gravity fields. That required a bit of time, charting a course with several waypoints. It would have taken me longer to sort out the three-dimensional spatial coordinates had I not again asked the computer for help.
Course laid in. Now, for the power required both to generate the gravity fields and propel the ship. The engines used matter/antimatter reactions rather than fusion reactions for this stage of flight. The magnetically stabilized stainless steel containment vessel in the aft section contained anti-deuterium. Once introduced into the engine reaction chambers and appropriated by the plasma induction lines, I could join Chuck Yeager in the “It Can’t Be Done” hall of fame!
Simple procedure. The flight control system verified the navigation CPU's course, verified magnetic containment and lack of restriction in the induction lines. It brought it's superluminal operations program on line, checked for errors and then asked me, "DO YOU WISH TO EXECUTE SUPERLUMINAL FLIGHT PROCEDURES?"
"VERY WELL. PLEASE PRESS 'EXECUTE' ON THROTTLE QUADRANT AT ANY TIME."
The CPUs ran all their checklists again in milliseconds and then opened the magnetic restrictors to facilitate anti-deuterium flow and reported "A/M FLOW POSITIVE." A mad vortex sprang into existence, swelling up from behind the ship. The event horizon of the drive field was forming back there. The light of the stars stretched to infinity and then dissolved into liquid neon chaos. The drive field acted not unlike the belly muscles of a snake, layers of gravitational energy undulating continuously, pulling the ship along. And that was it. No noise, not even a hum from aft. Several indications changed on the displays as software as fast as the ship itself took over. The Nav display updated my plot in a three dimensional mode. Velocity was given in the lower right hand corner. The legend was MPSD, miles per solar day. Five hundred billion and climbing.
I caught myself humming the theme from Speed Racer as the ship shaped icon steadily put the Sol system further behind it.
I just sat there for about an hour. Awed. Scared. Curious. Finally, the ship, now my new best friend, got my attention with musical tone. It reminded me that it had assumed complete control of the flight. It said it would warn me if anything problems occurred and suggested I go below and get something to eat.
Good grief! That was what was wrong with me! I was starved. When had I eaten last? I charged off to the well-stocked galley, afraid it might disappear before I got there.
A large pizza, a pitcher of beer and breadsticks sent me into temporary oblivion right there at the table. Apparently, I had not slept in awhile either.
Save for the triumphant fanfare in my head, my arrival at 89 Tauri was uneventful.
I awoke to some pleasant Celtic music over the speakers and a blinking icon on the galley monitor. The ship reminded me politely that we were five minutes from arrival. My mouth was drier than North Africa and my muscles felt like they were made out of clay. I gotta cut down!
I scrambled up to the cockpit, ignoring the pain in my neck caused by my awkward sprawl on the leather seat cushions. The transition from superluminal flight was simply a reverse of the previous procedure. Distortion refocused into familiar points of light. My arrival at the edge of the system gave time and room to assess things at a safe distance, lest something unexpected show up. Perhaps I was overcautious. I did the scans manually, selected each different mode personally and scrutinized the data carefully before committing it to the files.
The first positive signs were almost laughable in their seeming insignificance. The fourth planet, at a slightly greater distance from the star than Earth was from Sol, showed promise. It was slightly smaller than Earth as well. Spectroscopic readings of the thin shell of atmosphere revealed a slightly high methane content. I puzzled over this at first. Volcanic activity? There were no obvious visual indications or any detectable seismic tremors. Geothermal vents? Nothing on infrared indicated that either. Then an amusing thought occurred to me. I asked the computer to elaborate on natural methane sources. It told me about animal flatulence. There was life! Large mammalian life emitting large farts!
I spun my seat around in a circle, laughing at the sillier aspects of life. What a way to find it!
Long-range images from the CMOS cameras and spectroscopic data confirmed it. The planet seemed to be in slightly paler shades of blue and green. Cloud cover was moderate and the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere was also confirmed.
Time to get down to business. I observed a projected layout of the system and plotted asteroids, moons and gravity fields from the other planets. The worlds shown included a ringed Saturn-like world, one with much more intrinsic color and higher temperature. My course reflected all these inputs. And at about half sublight speed, I had more time to look around. Thus far, there were no signs of advanced civilization. No artificial signals in the electromagnetic spectrum and no obvious orbiting artificial objects over the fourth planet or any other.
Time to go in.
The Starhawk's speed rapidly placed me into an approach to parking orbit and the planet grew steadily in the left portion of my windscreen. Time to apply the brakes. I reduced thrust to idle. Rather than just throttle back the engines, this also adjusted the magnetic fields regulating the drive plasma. It confined the remaining ionized gas of the thermonuclear reactions within the burn chambers. I then selected “decelerate” on the autoflight panel, which redirected bleed thrust to the forward vents. The alpha/mach meter showed velocity falling away. I aimed the ship's nose just to the right of the blue sphere, a course that would take me just within the planet’s million-kilometer gravity influence. Once there at the proper speed, the planet itself would gently pull me in.
The continents were larger than those back home, the oceans smaller, and the icecaps bigger. A slightly cooler climate overall was indicated. Overall humidity was lower as well. It sounded pleasant after a lifetime in the subtropical summers of the Mississippi delta. I selected a medium sized landmass, one that straddled the planet's equator. It was a rather ugly continent, sort of lopsided. Two long peninsulas extended from its southeastern shore and another jutted out at its easternmost tip. That one and the southernmost one both appeared to be the vestiges of vanished land bridges to the much larger continent to the east. Not unlike Alaska and Siberia. At its northernmost point a pair large islands flanked a large bay. The west coast was mostly unbroken and devoid of significant geographical features. I decided to set down on the eastern coast, on the southern shore of the middle peninsula. It seemed nice enough from orbit.
The cameras showed a minimum of large animals in the area during a quick recon pass. I spotted a herd of grazers in the pale grass. They were deer-sized creatures, though with lighter pelts, smaller ears and no antlers. There were about twenty of them, calmly nibbling. Not far from them, I found a lone, pale yellow rodent with the typical bare tail, gnawing on something. There seemed to be few predators in the area.
I selected “decelerate” again. My velocity dropped sharply as the planet pulled me down. Atmospheric interface was no different than an Earth re-entry. The difference in altitude at the first 0.05 G reading was negligible. Orange and pink streaks of ionized air wrapped around the ship. The fiery show filled the cockpit with an eerie light as she plunged downward belly first. Mars’ atmosphere had been nothing compared to this. It was a nerve-racking experience for a first-timer, even though the Starhawk did not buck and rattle like older Earth space vehicles. I held the seat armrests in a death grip, praying I had not done something wrong.
Finally, the ship came out of it and fell smoothly into the stratosphere. The rudder and elevons relieved the reaction control thrusters when the flight control system detected lift. I maintained a shallow angle of descent, nudging the yoke to the left and tapping my left rudder pedal. The ship circled downward slowly, allowing the sensors and scanners to image my landing site clearly. Mild bluffs, sand dunes and grass dominated the landscape above the low, sandy coastline. There were crooked, odd-looking trees with large leaves and squat bushes that grew in neat little spheres of green. Amongst these were driftwood and wild arrays of gray and white birds.
These images expanded in my own unaided sight as I descended. I finally settled on a grassy, flat stretch of ground only two hundred yards from the water's edge as my landing site. The entire vicinity was not unlike the coastal plains that I knew. Already, I was looking for things familiar.
Sand billowed up outside the windscreen as I engaged the lift thrusters, hovered a moment and then eased downward until sensors in the landing gear registered contact with the ground. These same sensors showed the main gear’s soft, low-pressure tires had only sunk about an inch in the sandy surface. I was down.
Shutdown procedure. The dust settled outside as the roar of the engines abated and died. I was about to be the first Earth human to set foot on another habitable planet.
I did not venture out immediately. I continued to scan the area and compile sensor data, first on the composition of the air outside and the climate:
BREAKDOWN OF ATMOSPHERIC GASES (PROPORTIONS BY VOLUME):
NITROGEN - 76%
OXYGEN - 23%
ARGON - 0.8 %
CARBON DIOXIDE - 0.04%
OTHER GASES (INCLUDING HELIUM, HYDROGEN, ETC.) - 0.07%
* * *
WATER VAPOR: 3.8% by volume
* * *
MEAN ATMOSPHERIC PRESSURE: 950 mb
(NOTE: ATMOSPHERE DENSITY SLIGHTLY BELOW EARTH STANDARD)
* * *
DETECTED PARTICULATE MATTER IN SUSPENSION INCLUDES:
The atmosphere’s lower oxygen density was a concern. It meant I might get winded quicker from any exertion. It would be like being in the mountains back on Earth. It also meant the higher elevations here, even as high as say the Colorado Rockies, might well be uninhabitable.
I wanted more detailed data before exposing my skin and lungs to this alien environment. The ship responded with more detailed breakdowns from the scientific instrumentation package. Microscopic examinations of air and soil samples naturally found bacteria. Comparisons with known Earth organisms revealed nothing harmful. Still, the computers probed. The medical software exposed the alien bacteria to human tissue in simulation. The task took up most of the CPUs’ capacity briefly but they reported no adverse effects were noted. It advised me to expose myself to the planet's air while still aboard the ship for final confirmation. That way, I was somewhat safer. The ship could revive me where I stood should I react to the air.
Here goes! I took my seat in the cockpit and opened an external vent. The first thing I noticed was the vaguely familiar scent. Less pungent than what I was used to back home but definitely...outdoorsy. A whiff of salt, perhaps. An almost...oniony aroma.
The ship asked me to go aft to the sick bay and let myself be scanned. I felt fine but did so anyway. Walking aft from the cockpit, I passed through the ops compartment, then a short passageway into the sick bay. It was little more than an examination room with a more comfortable table. I hopped up onto the table and the magnetic resonance imager looked me over. No adverse reactions thus far. The software pronounced me healthy and cleared me for a jaunt outside.
I dressed appropriately. Despite the balmy appearance of things outside, it was cool, as I had suspected. Meteorological data showed the following:
BAROMETRIC PRESSURE: 899.1 millibars
WINDSPEED: 15 knots
CLOUD COVER: 5
CLOUD TYPE: ALTO-CUMULUS
I had already changed out of my jeans and t-shirt and donned standard shipboard long underwear. It was studded with sensors that told the CPUs how I was feeling. It was comfortable enough. My tennis shoes had been discarded in favor of cushioned, waterproof black hiking boots. I had added a snug black flight suit over the long underwear. In the pockets of this suit I had a Swiss army knife, a lighter, my favorite Bali-Song folding knife, aspirin and a Mini-Maglite flashlight. I pulled on my flight jacket as well, to hold off the chilly wind
Lastly, I added a paramilitary type assault vest. Its multitude of pouches carried gear and supplies too large for my pockets. It was black just like the suit. I donned a headset radio and carried a palm display to connect me with the ship at all times. And, just in case, I took both a sidearm and a rifle from the armory.
I can hear the protests of the great, unsullied suburban liberal masses out there. They are wondering why I am all dressed up and carrying a weapon for this first venture onto another world. Yes, I concede my ship detected no advanced civilizations. To you, that means no hostility, just a serene paradise, a pristine planet where you can romp about naked. Yeah, right. Remember the methane from the animal flatulence? Would any of you like to take a walk across Africa in a pair of bicycle shorts and a Michael Jordan jersey, amid lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, rhinos and crocodiles? My intentions were peaceful enough but I had no desire to bitten, poisoned, mauled or ingested on my first day out.
My weapons were not .38 revolvers or bolt-action Remingtons. The sidearm, the Mark 1 Personal Defensive Weapon appeared to be carved out of a solid metal plank. A titanium sleeve encased the barrel and extended down in front of the trigger guard. This held both the cooling coils and the active beam targeter and rangefinder in front. The powerpack capacitor was in the rear. The optical resonator chamber was directly above the butt and trigger assembly. The butt held a one hundred shot fuel magazine. The carbine-length rifle had been originally designated the High Energy Assault Weapon. I had later shortened that to AW-96, for Assault Weapon of 1996; the year I had finalized the design. It was a scaled up version of the pistol and incorporated a grenade launcher.
I did not pause at the boarding stairs, either for personal drama or uncertainty. I found myself charging down the metal treads. The sea breeze rushing up to meet me, a sweet welcome from a new Mother Nature. My little voice was singing to me in the back of my head, advising caution. I had been moving much too fast of late. My boots touched the sandy soil and I trotted out from beneath the shadow of the starship into crisp sunlight under a sharp blue sky.
Visually, I might as well have been standing on the shores of Dauphin Island, Alabama, less the souvenir shops and fast food joints. The sound of the waves was familiar, as was the swish of the wind through the tall beach grass sprouting from the sand dunes. Perhaps I had indeed found paradise. I needed to look around to be sure.
I trod the alien ground lightly, fearing a fatal surprise whose warning signs I could not recognize. Anxiety caused an unpleasant itch in my cranium. As I moved, I noticed a scattering of pebbles and smooth rocks on the sand and among the grasses. It seemed odd for a seashore where were no fresh water streams or rivers might have deposited such stones here. Perhaps a river had changed its course once, as the Mississippi had back home. Then one of the pebbles suddenly grew legs and walked away. I almost jumped back before it dawned upon me. It was a crab of some sort. It had a neat, dun-colored oval body that, with legs folded beneath it, looked just like a stone. Sure enough, as I watched, two curious eyestalks popped up and examined me for a moment. Then the spindly but perfectly jointed legs carried the alien crustacean rapidly across the sand. I had to laugh. And a hearty 'hello' to you too, my little friend! I wonder if you're edible. What to call it? Pebble crab!
Overhead, red crested sea birds flew their aerobatics for the pure joy of it. Their cries were higher pitched than similar birds back home. They flew faster, almost with insect like rapidity. It seemed their graceful antics were infecting me as well. I felt great, full of energy and stamina. Clear air perhaps?
The local insects were a mere buzz and blur. I had not gotten a good look at any of them yet. On the plus side, none of them had taken a bite out of me yet. A planet without flies and mosquitoes? That would be nice!
The sea looming past the sand drew me to its edge as it had always done. I topped a dune and my heart nearly jumped into my throat at what I saw. My first impression was that the dark mass on the beach was part of a boat or ship. Then, I sighed. It was a log, a weathered carcass of a fallen tree. Granted, it was huge. It stretched at least twenty yards out into the water. I walked up to it and examined it closely. It was tide worn but otherwise not unusual. It seemed solid enough so I crawled up onto it, using it as a natural wharf to walk out beyond the beach. The water was perfectly clear, with little debris and no mud. That meant no large rivers nearby. Life abounded though. The gelatinous, spineless creatures I saw first, jellyfish, basically, were more beautifully flowing then such animals back home. Mollusks on the bottom sported more elaborate shells. Further out, small fish jumped easily high enough to land in a boat. There was one I noticed close by whose short, stocky build resembled a miniature tuna. Others nearer the log were more slender.
The headset radio bleeped in my ear. The ship had continued to scan and analyze as I explored. I consulted the palm display I had clipped to my vest.
"DATA COMPILATION ON SEAWATER COMPLETE. WOULD YOU LIKE TO REVIEW IT?"
"Yes, please." I squatted there on the log, getting closer to the water. I anticipated an 'all clear' from the CPUs. Sure enough, the water’s composition was normal. It had a lower salt content and some higher concentrations of metallic elements but nothing harmful. I reached down to the rippling transparent surface. It was disappointing. The water had a slimy feel to it. It did not roll off the tanned skin of my bare hand as quickly as seawater did back home. Even so, it seemed to invigorate my hand and I splashed a bit, playfully. The slender fish were not amused. They converged upon my hand voraciously. I withdrew it just in time to see their tiny but effective teeth bared at me. I reminded myself that the local food chain was likely to be more vicious than I was used to. One of the mini-barracudas continued to circle and slap the water impatiently with its long mouth.
Once again, my awe overcame my ability just before sunset. I was still there on that beach where I had set up a makeshift camp. I had no intention of roughing it. It was just somewhere to observe the night.
The pale sun sank into the sea with far less grandeur than Earth or even Mars. The sky's colors, indeed most pigments on this world, were all subdued, pastel shades. I still felt wired. That was unusual for me. I found myself not wanting to just sit in my lawn chair and note the ways of the night here. Then, I realized why. The lower gravity. The same reason the birds and bugs flew faster, the seashells grew fancier, the jellyfish were more sweeping. My body was reacting to being lighter and stronger on this new world. It was as if I was suddenly recast in an advanced alloy. The thought excited me further. Might I be a superhero here?
Yeah, right! Remember the less dense atmosphere? And hero to what? An empty world. Typical. I folded up camp and went back to the ship for the night.
Graywater was a nautical term for water for galley, laundry and mop use. It was the only type of liquid that could legally be discharged overboard from boats and platforms where I had used to work. It was also a fitting portraiture of the sky of 89 Tauri-4 the next morning. Even paradise experienced bad weather. Still clad in my t-shirt and boxer briefs, I watched from the cockpit as torrential curtains of precipitation cut visibility down to about ten yards. All the meteorological instruments were going, collecting data, but, hell, rainwater was rainwater, it seemed. The thirsty soil seemed to...
A mild tone from somewhere on the console interrupted my fuzzy reflections. I did not fret over it greatly. The warning sounds in the cockpit grew steadily more insistent if a problem intensified. Thus, this pleasant musical note was a friendly reminder. A blaring klaxon meant deep shit. I yawned and traced the source of the signal to the ship’s Ops layout display. Yellow caution icons blinked on the landing gear. I guessed why. I had patterned the Starhawk’s rough-field landing gear after those on military aircraft. As an addition, each assembly had their own terrain sensors that could detect seismic shifts. They had taken notice of the effect the weather was having on the sandy soil beneath the ship. My perch, it seemed, was becoming rather unstable.
Still drowsy, I squinted into the deluge outside, scratching my beard. The ground was sand but seemed quite firmly anchored by the thick grasses. Enough to withstand the rain at least...
Hey, Stupid! How close are you to the ocean?!
My little voice was quite clear in its remonstration of me. Due to my less than perfect touchdown maneuver, the windscreen was pointed away from the beach. A second warning tone came, loud and shrill. I leaned forward and looked down. I was parked in water! I checked the meteorological data. Sure enough, the storm had come from seaward, forcing the water along with it. The digital anemometer recorded steady Force 9 winds for the past five hours. Images of ten to fifteen foot seas rolling into shore all that time filled my head. Had the computers figured when high tide was? Yep, it was right about now.
Time to go, lest we become a part of the landscape rather than just visitor. Still in my underwear, I commenced the start-up sequence. This would be fun. Here I was, a green pilot trying to takeoff in fifty mile per hour tail winds. I debated whether I should let the computer handle it but I held that option as a last resort. I had to learn sometime.
Power came up. I strapped myself in, amazed that the ship had not even shuddered in the tempest. Which was why I had slept through it. I might have to turn into the worst of it, catching a crosswind while in hover. Or maybe not. I had plenty of room to build up to transition velocity with the wind at my back. There was one encouraging note. The ragged shreds of low altitude scud clouds told me this was a maritime low-pressure system. That meant less likelihood of sudden wind shear bashing me about, as in super cells over land.
I decided on a takeoff into the wind. I needed the practice. The ship lurched as I redirected bleed thrust. A gust of wind snaked up under my port wing, threw the ship off trim and tried to bury the other wingtip in the sand. I jerked the control yoke left, too hard. It had the desired effect though. The reaction control thrusters dipped the port wing, almost burying it. I swung the nose into the wind with enough power and left roll to defeat the force of it. Then I nudged the yoke back to starboard, to stop my maneuver before I went to an embarrassing flat spin at an altitude of only ten feet. I was nose on into the gale now and saw the waves roaring in from the gray expanse before me. The rain had let up but the wind did not abate in the least. I opened the throttles, creeping forward toward where the beach had once been the day before. The sea had devoured the big log. Endless ranks of white-crested giants marched relentlessly in from the sea.
I gradually increased speed and ascent angle, punching upward through the thick nimbus clouds, unconcerned about other traffic in the skies. At twenty thousand feet, I broke into the clear, banked right and gazed back down. An ugly pancake of cloud met my eyes. Humps of bigger cells protruded upward and further ruined any hint of symmetry about it. It was not a hurricane. Merely an intense low pressure area as I had concluded. The weather display showed it moving west to east with a trough in the planet's jet stream. Reality obtruded into my explorations. I searched out a new landing site.
My unexpected jaunt took me further inland. Hills blanketed with forests and interlaced with rivers and streams appeared. The weather cleared about a hundred miles north of the coast. To my satisfaction, I found a broad, lush valley with enough level terrain for a landing.
Another herd of grazers bolted and ran beneath me, spooked at the noise of my passage. They were quite graceful, much more so than whitetail deer. I could not decide if they were more like antelopes or gazelles. I forgot about them a moment later. The computer’s blaring warning sound of possible danger electrified me. It dispelled the last of my awe with my new situation in life. I reacted as I had in my reveries, with the Star Wars soundtrack booming in my headphones back home. I immediately consulted the center display. It had switched automatically to Tactical. Scanners had found a metallic object ahead down in the valley, bearing zero-one-nine from planetary north. It read as a definite artificial shape, a rounded triangle configuration with twin tail fins. An aircraft! Where had it come from? Sensors also registered heat, magnetic emissions consistent with a containment field and active scanning beams at low power.
My first reaction was to turn away quickly rather than close the distance. Their scanning beams were not approaching detection values. They probably had not seen me yet. I circled them from a discrete distance, continuing to look them over. I raised my defensive shields and cut power to lessen my signature.
Apparently, that was not enough. Their scanner beams suddenly intensified and narrowed. Right at me! Well, two can play that game.
Their scans seemed to be search mode only, not weapon guidance. I returned the favor and directed my search scanners at them. I got more data instantly. The other ship was alongside a river. It was a lifting body type. No wings, just an airfoil shaped hull and the two control fins aft. No obvious weapon mounts broke its clean profile.
I decided to close the distance. No point in running now. Numbers clicked off on the display and soon the other ship was coming into view. Nearby, a lone figure gazed up at me and waved. He appeared to be alone.
I did the obvious thing. I landed, as best as I could, and disembarked. This time I left my weapons behind but instructed the ship to keep a close watch on the situation.
The man from the other ship met me about halfway. He was still alone. Some of the things about him, his clothing style, the hue of his skin, reminded me of Sandrake. He appeared much younger, though, closer to my own age. His expression showed no fear when he looked at me. Just curiosity. When his eyes lay upon the Starhawk, he evinced puzzlement.
"Earth?" he questioned, in nearly perfect English. Far better than Sandrake's.
"How'd you know? And how do you speak English?"
"My mentor put me on the path to studying less advanced worlds. I did my…thesis on your world."
Cool. "Would your mentor be a man named Sandrake?"
The Tyreyth laughed heartily. "By all the stars, he did it! I can't believe it! Yes, Sandrake was my teacher. An idealistic soul, I'm afraid, but a determined one." He thought for a moment and then tentatively offered me his right hand. "I believe this is your custom. A handshake? I am Padagama."
"Josh LaSalle. You can call me Josh."
"Josh. A pleasure to meet.” He looked up at the Starhawk. "Your ship bears unmistakable Earth-style design. But I would guess that Sandrake... 'manufactured' it, yes?"
"You could say that. Conjured it out of thin air would be another way to say it."
Padagama looked puzzled again. " 'Out of thin air' ? How... that is an Earth...colloquialism, isn’t it?”
"Something like that."
"Forgive me. Your particular language, English, is very difficult to grasp at times."
"You're doing fine by me."
"Thank you. Well, no doubt you’re wondering why I am here. Rest assured, I have no claim to this world if it is your wish to colonize. I am an explorer. Inspired by my mentor. It is a happy coincidence that we both landed here."
I did not really believe in coincidence today. But I realized this was a good time to learn more about just what I had gotten myself into. Padagama seemed much more open than Sandrake. He definitely had better communication skills. It was time to learn more about the Tyreyth, the whole unvarnished truth.
That night, some pleasant smelling branches and limbs from a fallen tree fueled a comforting campfire. And there I finally got the whole story. Padagama was definitely more outgoing than his mentor. But his manner suggested that he was holding something back. I dismissed that feeling temporarily as he spoke.
Twenty years earlier, when the casualties were finally counted after the Tyreyth-Kai Numan conflict, his civilization had been shaken to its very core. The final tally in space and on all the continents was 2,876,987,000 souls. One third of the population. Entire nation-states had ceased to exist. Whole cultures had vanished without a trace. In Paddy's words, it was as if a great silence fell over the whole planet. Then the rebuilding, the wailing and the wondering began again, albeit at a much reduced pace.
Other stories circulated too, in magazines and newspapers. His people read about last minute decisions, heroic efforts and fortunate events that had swayed the decisive battle of the war. The stories were of the Battle of Tyroc Kadar, an uninhabited moon of the Tyreyth home world, Tyruus. That victory had been a hair's breadth from a defeat and the nearness of it frightened people even more.
These revelations had heavily influenced frightened politicians. With typically myopic political vision, they passed the Non-Intervention Act or the Isolation Law. Designed to aid the reconstruction of Tyruus, it diverted funds from space exploration, supralight propulsion advances and developing relations with other worlds. Further, it decreed that no Tyreyth citizen, government or business entity could in any way direct any indigenous resources to interests outside their solar system nor have any business relationship with any undesignated alien. Violating this law meant immediate deportation and revocation of citizenship.
“I have already violated the spirit of law by being here.” He leaned back in the lounge chair I had brought out from the ship. “Section 2 forbids private exploration and research. But I can claim protection under Article 3 since I am a student, have no assets, other than my poorly equipped ship. And I intend to bring nothing back with me."
"Can never go home again."
So, he really was an idealist. But Padagama? What was he? An explorer who can't legally explore? I scratched my beard and pressed on. "So, why are you out here?"
He shrugged implausibly, an indifferent expression on his face. "Just looking around really." Mundane details of his excursion filled the next few minutes.
I wanted answers and he was beating around the bush. I had to ease my nagging suspicions. The speed and precision of everything that had happened to me made me wonder if somebody was playing me for a fool in a very complex game. Who could tell what these advanced races could do and the motivation behind it?
I knew a nearly foolproof method for getting to the bottom of things. It was a survival technique I had acquired for both social situations and workplace scenarios. I would sit back and listen quietly. And I would add one more element to this strategy. I stood up. "Padagama... would you like a drink?"
"A drink?” He suddenly looked like a lost child in the woods. “Oh... an alcoholic one, I assume?"
"Yes, it's sort of a tradition among my people in social gatherings between men who’ve just become acquainted."
"I have never been a heavy consumer of such drinks.” He procrastinated. “But, yes, I will join you."
“Okay, good. Be back in a second.” I wondered how naïve he really was as I trod the alien soil back to the ship. Could I actually make this work? I had always been a really lousy entertainer. I went to the well-stocked liquor cabinet in the galley. Can’t very well explore the galaxy dry, now can you? I grabbed a bottle of... what? What was appropriate for the occasion? Ah, what the hell! I grabbed the fifth of Jack Daniels and two shot glasses emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag.
"Interesting design." he commented on the glasses upon my return.
"One of the last symbols of vanished nation.” I said, opening the bottle. “Mine."
"Your country was destroyed?" He was intrigued.
"In a manner of speaking. I'll tell you all about it." I poured the whiskey. "Another tradition. It's called a toast."
His expression grew confounded again as he struggled with the intricacies of English.
"You raise your glass and drink to... whatever.” I explained. “Kind of a salute."
"I see." He seemed a bit wary.
"I'll make it." Mmmm. Humph, why the hell not? "To the Confederate States of America. May she rise again one day.” I clinked my glass against his.
After four shots of whiskey, Paddy nodded and burped. "Alright! I will come clean, as you say!"
Good! I was one behind him and feeling no pain. He swaying in the chair, eyes alight, bubbling with enthusiasm.
"Sandrake was an inspiration to me. He... appealed to the romantic in me. Something I have tried to suppress since I became bonded."
"Bonded?" That sounds domestic!
"Yes, to Cananopia, my...uh, wife! That's the word!"
"Oh!" The plot thickens. He had not struck me as being a family man.
"But that streak runs deep in me. I get it from my father. Rebellious. Yes. Anyhow, I never liked the idea of isolationism. It struck me as... cowardly. Yes, we had suffered great losses but we were still around to talk about it. Sandrake, he inspired me. So, when he left and I received his message detailing his intentions... I thought to follow him. Maybe help out..."
"Tag along, huh? Maybe express your own idealism?"
"Exactly, my friend!" He swayed a bit too much. "Ooh! This... whiskey is... potent."
"Excellent social oil.” I muttered too loudly. “Smoothes things sometimes." I looked at the smoke-brown bottle with the black label and thought it remarkably out of place here. Maybe I would leave it behind. Let some future explorer find it. Maybe even a legitimate mission from Earth who had no clue as to who I was. I could just see their faces. That was funny! I had another shot, refilled his glass and pressed on. "What about the... manufacturing device Sandrake had?"
"Mmm! The objective generation manufacturer!"
"Yeah, that's it. That thing."
" A great thing, my friend. Developed by one of my other professors, who was very close to Sandrake. He quit the university and prepared to start a business to market it. Then, he had some... well, bad luck. But I think the traditional industrialists were behind it. They feared it. Anyway, he went in on the deal with Sandrake in case he was able to establish good contact with new worlds. Then, the system could be marketed there to... finance further explorations."
"So... in addition to being idealistic... Sandrake is an interstellar trade relations expert."
"Exactly! He used to lecture some of us about... just... that, my friend!"
Ah!! Now, I get it! Nothing can support idealism like a good dose of capitalism!
This universe was suddenly very familiar and it felt good.
"Let me ask you this." I caught myself leaning forward, whiskey sloshing in the glass. "A technical question. If he could just... make all these objects, and make parts for...bigger things, why not just make the big things in one finished product?"
"That was the next step in the system's evolution," Padagama leaned forward too, his face serious, "to eliminate the robotic assembler and assemble components as they were being made. Unfortunately," He shrugged, "even our computers lacked the capability to do that. So that step awaited the advancement of processors."
"It's always some damned thing, ain't it?"
Padagama leaned back precariously. "Ah, Josh. I feel fine. You have mellowed me with your whiskey but you have not told me your story."
"About how I came to be here? Boy, what boring-ass tale that could be."
"No, no! I can guess that part. Sandrake said he would seek out a quiet dreamer with a plan. You obviously fit the description on your world. No, tell me about your… Confederate States of America. What became of it?"
I sighed. "Pretty much the same thing that happened to your professor with the... manufacturer. Industrialists have great power over governments. A hundred forty years ago, they perceived my people and their culture as a threat to their profits. They seized upon the issue of slavery to inflame public opinion against us, while, in actuality, they themselves had no love for the enslaved people. Matter of fact, they profited from the slave trade all the while. My country had no extensive industry to support the war effort and politics prevented other nations from intervening on our behalf. So, we were conquered, crushed, humiliated and assimilated."
"Yet, you remain faithful to your cause."
"Not as much as I should. But maybe one day..."
“Stay your course, my friend.” His voice was trailing off. “As I have.”
Maybe I would take the Starhawk back home after some time and do something about that. But no. It took more than advanced technology to erase a century and a half of misconceptions, ignorance and warped political ideology. Maybe instead I would found a new Confederacy on a new world, one that remained faithful to the Declaration of Independence and the original intents of the Constitution. I slugged down another shot and saw that Padagama had passed out.
“Good idea. Sweet dreams.” I do not remember my head hitting the cushion.
* * *
After a week on 89 Tauri-4, Paddy and I had become fast friends and I felt like a homebody. So one crisp morning, I looked out over the land and said to myself, What the hell...
When Padagama emerged from his ship on that Saturday morning (Yes, I have brought Earth standard measurements of time here with me. By the CPU's reckoning, it was approximately May 15 here.) I was bringing down a nice straight tree with diamond-bladed cordless electric chain saw from the ship's tool bay.
As he watched in amazement, he being a true city boy, an academic and spacer, I proceeded to fashion a log cabin. That was not as hard a task for one man as it once might have been. The Starhawk's tool inventory, as I designed it, included a lift tractor, a one man or remote control hover rig utilizing powerful ducted fans that easily lofted the logs and was able to lower them into position neat as you please. By the end of the day, I had a forty-by-thirty square structure just needed the right interior decorating.
That took a bit more time. Cutting logs into two-by-fours and into planks to serve as furniture and paneling was not easy with hand tools and portable table saws. Paddy learned some rudimentary woodworking in the process and was an eager hand.
"If you have your ship, and all it's amenities, to live in, why build this primitive hovel?" he asked that evening by our now-traditional campfire and slug of whiskey.
"Earthmen are just that, Paddy. Men of the earth. We like solid ground under our feet
sometimes. Besides, this is just a camp. Someplace to come back to. A base of operations, as it were."
"Ach. I see. Someplace to have roots and remind you of simple aspects.”
“Are you going need a better landing area?" he inquired suddenly.
I frowned. “It never hurts.”
"Allow me, then.” He got up. “In return for your hospitality."
He went back to his ship, selected the relative flat stretch of ground nearby and fired his weapons through the trees. Instant parking apron and more lumber.
After a month, with him showing no signs of moving on, I decided that our little world needed some more permanent infrastructure, if for no other reason than to serve as evidence that we were here. So, I started laying out a town site. This consisted mostly of leveling roadways and footpaths with the tractor, surveying sites for the store, the bank and the post office and putting up street signs.
“Stop?” My alien companion looked puzzled at the octagonal red sign.
“Well, you know. In case I’m walking from this direction and you’re walking from that. This way… we won’t run into each other.”
His face just wrinkled up worse. “Where would I be coming from?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the bank.”
“There is nothing there. And what is a ‘bank’?”
I could have given an explanation from numerous angles but decided not to. “Forget it.”
Padagama and I had also gotten into a competition of sorts. We were each trying to see who could come up with a recipe and cooking method more unusual than the other's. Being single, I had been left with little choice than to become a decent chef back home, lest I kill myself on pizza and burritos. And every decent concoction I knew I had brought along. That's not to say that they were perfectly suited to the local wildlife and plants but I managed. At the “picnic grounds” in our “park”, I had already barbequed one of the gazelle-like grazers after marinating the portions of meat in a combination of Worcestershire, garlic and onion, Tabasco, a little oil and some lime juice. Paddy had delved back into his memories of dorm life at the university and come up with a grilled fish dish. The fish, a rather ugly creature with a blunt head and a dorsal fin that ran the length of its dark green body, we caught in a nearby river. Its flesh, though nearly as green as its skin, was unremarkable in taste. That is until Paddy applied some pungent sauce. It was like curry with mustard and garlic. It was pretty damned good, even I’m fairly certain it permanently altered my voice on the way down. I had also gone through plain old biscuits and pancakes, which seemed to amaze him. And he had turned out something like a cross between bread and angel food cake coated with a sticky sweet syrup. Once you got past the sugar, the syrup had distinct tang, which I took a liking to, even though it tended to pucker my tongue after a few servings. It went well over cinnamon rolls too and I briefly entertained visions of a commercial empire back home built on a new breakfast treat.
Tonight, though, I had a killer planned that would cinch the competition for me. South Louisiana seafood gumbo. I had already researched the local aquatic life to the point that I was confident of a decent outcome. While there were no oysters to be found, I had gone back to the beach and found some shrimp-like crustaceans, which had a stronger though not unpleasant taste. In addition, I caught several large pebble crabs and brought some green onion hot sausage from the galley. Paddy observed me curiously as combined flour and oil to make a roux and chopped up yellow onions, green onions, bell peppers and garlic. The aromas from the onion and garlic finally drove him back, coughing.
"No doubt, your planet is uninhabitable for my kind! How can you breathe that? It's ...
I held up a clove of garlic. "Yes, this little plant has great powers, my friend. Can't cook without it. It's also an antibiotic and keeps vampires away."
I explained the legend.
"I can believe it!"
The gumbo was coming along nicely as the sun trickled down through the trees on its way behind the mountains, the aroma getting just right as the crustaceans and the sausage mingled in the dark brown broth. The rice was cooking too, something Paddy seemed familiar with.
“Different shape but we have something similar.” He nodded at the pot.
Then, there was loud whistle from out of nowhere. We both reacted. I dropped my spoon into the pot, spun around in the direction of the noise... but it seemed to coming from above. I saw Paddy realize the same thing and dive for cover. I did the same, my hand seeming to act independently in pulling the Mark 1 from my holster.
There was a splat from somewhere nearby and then silence. No explosive bang or roar. I smelled something like... a burned something-or-other. A kind of pungent, metallic scent. I had my headset in my pocket and could hear it making noise. I pulled it out, donned it, pulled out the display and got the data from the ship.
... OBJECT JUST LANDED, FROM INTERFACE TRAJECTORY, BEARING
TWO-SEVEN-ZERO, NOW AT BEARING ZERO-EIGHT-ONE, DISTANCE SIX YARDS. NO HOSTILE EMISSIONS DETECTED. NO DANGEROUS SUBSTANCES DETECTED.
OBJECT TEMPERATURE STILL BEYOND TACTILE TOLERANCE FROM RE-ENTRY HEATING.
OBJECT IS HOLLOW AND CONTAINS ELECTRONIC APPARATUS AND
REACTION PRODUCTS WITHIN. APPARENTLY SELF-GUIDED AND SELF-PROPELLED.
Another ship? I looked up but did not see anything approaching the size of either the
Starhawk or Paddy's ship.
My alien friend poked up his head, his eyes wide.
"You okay?" I called.
"Yeah. Okay." He looked around. "What was it? A meteorite?"
"No. My readings say a ship of some kind."
"A ship?" He looked around again. "Where?"
I pointed to the east. "Six yards thataway."
He looked confused for a moment and then converted my Earth distance to Tyreyth standard. His look of confusion got worse for a moment and then it melted away. "Achh. Come see this."
Now, I was confused. But I followed him through the trees to where the burnt smell was stronger. My eyes widened. There, sitting on the splattered ground, amid scorched grass and leaves was a metallic sphere about the size of a softball. Paddy was looking at it with a lopsided grin.
"What is it?"
He searched for the right words. "Message ball."
"A re-entry vehicle from a supralight courier drone."
"Oh. An overnight letter."
"Never mind. But who knows our address? How did someone know to send it here?"
"You're assuming it was sent to us to begin with. More than likely, it went off course and dropped the ball here so someone might ID it and forward it. Still... the drone should have realized this was an uninhabited planet..."
"How do you read the message?"
"Well, you just touch it."
It seemed to be cooling itself off rapidly so I reached out and put my right index finger against it. The fine-machined metal skin was still a bit warm. The ball reacted just as Paddy had said and a cone of light sprang up from a lens atop it.
The image was a holographic projection. Transparent and fuzzy enough to be unreal but plainly, it was Jennifer. I am quite sure that my jaw hung slack as if it was broken from my skull. My eyes bulged as if in response to some terrible loss of atmosphere.
"Hello, my gentleman." I had not heard that in long time. She looked strange. Her clothes seemed dingy and her beautiful face reflected some terrible burden. Whaaat the hell… "I wish I knew where you were and if this will ever reach you. But wherever you are, you need to come home. Something's happened while you've been gone." There was a long pause. "The Kai Numan have invaded the Earth."
* * *
It was a horrifying story to listen to, especially coming from her lips. The woman I loved, narrating the destruction of the civilization that I came from.
It had started innocuously enough. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, shepherd of America's deep space probes, first noticed something amiss. Telemetry signals from the Mars Polar Orbiter and Deep Space One were being interfered with in a manner never before recorded. It was not cosmic rays or solar wind. One theory believed it was another carrier wave bleeding over onto the probes' frequency, in a weird machine language code. A tape of the signal went to Johnson Space Center to be analyzed by the big Cray supercomputer there. But before the results came in, telemetry with a HEAO satellite between Mars and the asteroid belt was abruptly cut off. Simultaneously, the Very Large Array out in New Mexico began picking up signals similar to the ones recorded at JPL. Only these signals were clearly generated, not random noise. Then, the horror had started.
Without warning, every communication satellite, commercial and military, winked out. Televisions across the globe showed only static. Then, Space Command's massive missile detection radars had picked up the gargantuan Kai Numan warships in orbit. Other air defense radars showed incoming craft. The confusion really began in America when Civil Defense initiated the Emergency Alert System.
Massive air strikes by waves of craft unstoppable with missiles and gunfire first targeted military installations worldwide. Then, alien troops began appearing in cities and towns, advancing and killing with a brutality greater than any invading army in history.
All previously functioning governments dissolved. There was no more organized defense. Little if any civilian infrastructure remained to support people. Refugees huddled together in ruins. Or forests. Or mountains.
"There’s about a hundred of us camped out in Fort Jackson. We felt safer since they still raid town sometimes. We have some guns and a garden. But we don't think we have very long before they come back to finish what they started. Sandrake said you could help us.” Her was expression was ripping at my soul, even through the fuzzy recording “For God's sake, Josh... come home!” she implored me with a sob. “Please?"
* * *
When the message ended, I found myself sitting on the cold ground. My mind was blank. What is the sound of a silent psyche? For me it was a steady whisper in my skull, like thoughts fleeing on the outbound wind.
Despite all I had been through recently, Jennifer’s message was too much to comprehend. Earth should have been sitting quietly back there, safe, warm and waiting for me to come home. Invasions from outer space were supposed to be fodder for Sunday morning movies on the Sci-Fi Channel. But suddenly, one omnipresent tragedy had eclipsed my mother planet’s economic issues, social problems and petty squabbles.
When I shook myself out of my astonishment, that was it for me. I was over with. Without a word to Paddy, I marched straight back to the Starhawk. The powerful comfort of the Starhawk.
Paddy was alongside me quickly. "I take it you are leaving."
"You take it right, my friend. It’s been a pleasure."
"Josh, I must tell you. The Kai Numan do not do these things lightly. Your ship is powerful, yes, but they will likely have an entire fleet occupation force in place."
"You think that matters?" Strong words for man who fled his home, I realized.
He considered that. "Practically, yes. But I can see that you are beyond practical considerations."
I stopped and looked at him, unsure of what to say. Or ask.
"My people are just emotional as yours. Many of my countrymen threw themselves at the Kai Numan for little gain before we triumphed. Two billion people died and that was a great emotional scar on my world. It is why we are how we are now." He looked at the sky a moment. "You know I cannot go with you. I for one would like to return home one day, unlike Sandrake."
“Can you put me in contact with him?”
“I can give you his message code and receiver frequency. Whether or not you will reach him, however, is another matter.”
“It’s worth a try. He can’t be far from Earth if he went back and found out what had happened.”
“True.” His gaze went skyward again, as if weighing the consequences of what he was considering. "But I can help you in other ways too. Sandrake left out any data on the Kai Numan from your computers, yes?"
"Details are still government-privileged, by law. My leaders remain paranoid. I... however possess some data you can use. But you did not get it from me and you must not ask where I got it. Agreed? Okay?"
“Very well. I shall retire to my ship and begin the download.” He turned abruptly and started walking off. I did likewise. Then, I heard his voice again.
“Good luck, my friend.”
“Thanks. You too.”
Within the hour, the Starhawk was snugly wrapped in her drive field and cruising superluminal. And to keep a tight grip on my emotions, I was immersed in Paddy’s data.
I started examining these new aliens from a people perspective. What were they really like? Physiologically, the Kai Numan differed from humans much more than the Tyreyth did. The structural differences were not striking but they were quite obvious. The Kai Numan's forehead and brows bulged slightly, creating a sharp ridge above the eyes. Their eye sockets were larger, giving them a gaunt appearance. The hairline began slightly further back but their hair varied in color much as human hair did.
There appeared to be no distinct racial groups. Their skin color varied widely, with often dramatic differences on individuals. The majority of the warriors had skin that went from dark, fiery orange to completely black at points. These points were rough patches such as elbows, knuckles and some spots that did not correspond to humans.
Among the warriors, tattoos and elaborate beards seemed de rigueur, mainly to enhance their faces to fiercer expressions. On some, the markings followed natural lines so subtly that the inking could only be noticed on close examination.
In terms of bodily strength and stamina, the Kai Numan were comparable to the average human. Some of the warriors were in prime physical condition, muscles bulging under taut skin. Others seemed ordinary, puny or even overweight.
Their war machines were tremendously innovative but not exotic. They were strong and practical. Huge, thickly armored dreadnoughts with their own digital brains carried the forces to their objective. These warships were so overwhelmingly powerful and so technologically sophisticated that they operated autonomously, without escorting fleets. They suppressed defenses with intelligent guided weapons rather than massive plasma cannons. Stealthy lifting-body landing craft delivered swift wing-in-ground effect surface transports that combined the functions of tanks and bombers. Troops were linked to artificial intelligence at their command base and protected by personal energy shields. Yet despite all this bellicose magnificence, intelligence reports and technical evaluations from the Tyreyth had found the weak points of their war fighting systems.
And that data was stored in my CPU. I copied the information to the Tactical Situation Study file and instructed the software to chew on it for a while.
What it boiled down to, as in any war man had yet fought, was not the physical and mental superiority of the invaders as a whole. Rather, it was differences in culture and social habits, advantages in technology and, as always, greed and tyranny versus life and liberty. All this meant that the human race, Homo sapiens, the people of Earth, had more than a fighting chance.
I received no reply to my signal from Sandrake. Who knew where he was? Hiding? Captured? Dead? I had no intention of waiting to find out at any rate. I brought the ship out of star drive beyond the orbit of Pluto for some cautious initial reconnaissance. Receivers and sensors were alert, listening and sniffing.
I crept into the Oort Cloud first and located several comets to hide behind should the need arise. Their ionized tails would cover me nicely. It was only an hour later that I was forced to resort to this. I found the first Kai Numan warship.
The sight of it on long range optical scanning sent a ripple of fear through me. It was huge and surprisingly quiet for something whose power output could rival a small star. The smooth lines of its broad hull were interrupted by several large rounded projections that could have been anything and two massive towers top and bottom. The Starhawk’s sensors and threat receivers picked up a wide range of emissions from the massive ship. Apparently, it was not too concerned if anyone knew it was here.
Data came up on the tactical situation display from the updated Recognition Files:
TAK KAI class
Displacement: 650,000 tons, full load; 175,000,000-m3 spatial field
Dimensions: 4,908(OA) x 1,009 ft. x 345ft.
Construction: materials roughly correspond to depleted uranium, titanium and stainless steel.
Powerplant: one (1) toroidial fusion reactor with vectored magnetoplasmadynamic drives; output 500,000,000 megajoules; incorporates matter/anti-matter star drive
Performance: 1400+ FTL
Complement: 1,000 officers and enlisted; 7,000 troops
Embarked craft: 75 aerobody landing craft, each carrying two PARWIG armored fighting vehicles
Fixed weapon mounts: twelve (12) high energy weapons mounts. Estimated output totals 18,000 megawatts
Expendable weapons: fifty (50) reloadable launch cells. 1,000 artificial intelligence directed cruise missiles with various guidance options; Warhead sizes up to 200 kilotons
Defenses: electromagnetic/gravitic defense fields, 400,000 megawatt peak temporal load output.
Now for comparison, my suddenly dinky little dreamboat here had one-sixth the power output. A joule is the amount of work done by one watt of energy and a megajoule is roughly equivalent to one stick of dynamite in these applications. And I had nine hundred seventy fewer missiles and seventeen thousand seven hundred and fifty fewer megawatts of laser power. All of which made me really want to haul ass back to 89 Tauri-4, kick back in my cabin and forget I ever saw this place. And there were how many of these monsters lurking about? I queried my CPUs:
Standard fleet occupation force composition: 150 Tak Kai-class battlecarriers
Maybe this was not such a good idea. Fortunately, the Starhawk’s shields’ interference pattern was still soaking up those active scan beams without generating a readable return. The comet’s tail helped too. Then, I got a reminder from the Tactical Situation Study program. It had a simple question for me:
WOULD YOU LIKE TO VIEW TACTICAL SOLUTIONS TO SUCESSFULLY ENGAGING A TAK KAI-CLASS WARSHIP, SIR?
“Such things exist?”
CERTAINLY, SIR. DISPLAYING NOW.
I was fascinated as I read the detailed intelligence and tactical analysis. It seemed the chink in the battlecarrier’s armor was just that. A structural flaw at the stern. Tyreyth intelligence showed images of several of these ample monsters in their death throes. Each had broken open at a point just forward of their fantail. This damage showed no burns or impact holes in the vicinity to account for it. The evaluation was that an undiagnosed asymmetric error in the drive field wrenched this area every time the ship went into star drive. This induced metal fatigue that led to a fast fracture during combat loads. It was recommended that an attacker concentrate his firepower on this section, loss of which would break the continuity of the shield pattern. Enough kinetic bleed energy from high order of detonation impacts, leaking through the shielding, might accomplish this. Then, the rest of the ship would be open for attack
But there were other things to check out first. Signals intercept receivers had locked onto the Kai Numan’s interfleet newsdata system. It showed footage from Earth.
My heart grabbed my lungs and squeezed them as I gaped at the screen. There were Kai Numan soldiers patrolling a street in Las Vegas. Broken neon tubes littered the pavement in front of a still-glittery pyramid. Video poker and slot machines were piled up as barricades. Near the feet of one warrior was a half-skeletal body still clad in a sparkly, skimpy outfit. Other images flashed by. Grinning warriors posed with the Statue of Liberty’s torch. It was being hoisted up onto a flat bed trailer like some trophy. Another warrior held a human skull that wore a British-style Kevlar helmet. Burnt bodies surrounded a farmhouse that looked European in design. The giant Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooked Rio de Janeiro was broken in two.
A horrible feeling of despair welled up within me and I momentarily wondered why. The images I had seen thus far were of things I had never seen or touched. Why should their loss affect me?
Then I found what looked like a video documentary. The computer translated the alien gibberish with a suitably deep and forbidding voice.
Apparently, the only data available on their new objective was nearly a century old. An unmanned scout probe, one of the first long range test vehicles equipped with advanced superluminal propulsion, had generated the report. It had done so just prior to what they called “The Great Expansion”.
The video images were fuzzy. The data gathered was limited due to the fact that the probe’s reconnaissance capabilities were relatively austere. That had been in the early days of the twentieth century, when humans had only just begun to build aircraft.
More footage featured an assemblage of military and government officers called the Advisory Body for Bretsatla. Bretsatla literally translated into “breathing room”. That was eerie. The aliens glibly discussed the planned exploitation of Earth, referring to my planet coldly as a body in Economic Zone 7, Prosperity Sphere 2.
Shit! Sounds familiar.
There had been one dissenting voice. A grizzled, dark individual was waggling a finger at his fellows. Called Citiac Lor, he was a senior staff officer and had repeatedly cited the age of the data and the evident war-like nature of Earth’s inhabitants. But the others officers claimed there was no hard evidence for an advanced technological society. They had voted him down.
Their extensive invasion plan data was chilling. Their detailed charts of Earth’s entire mass had been generated by ground penetrating radar. Mineral deposits were located with great precision. They had charted all major population centers and staged their Blitzkrieg-style landings near them for quick neutralization of resistance. They had compiled extensive agricultural data and had the oceans mapped out for total exploitation.
And apparently, all these operations were proceeding on schedule. The face of my world had already been forever altered.
The cold facts overwhelmed me. I just sat there, eyes closed. I can’t remember for how long. For some reason I remember thinking of my pet ferret, who had died the previous year. Had his simple grave in the backyard been defiled by these bloody plunderers? Stress no doubt deducted a few years off my lifespan in those moments.
So what could I do? How could I penetrate the fleet occupation force? How could I remove those sons of bitches from my world forever?
I realized I was trembling. It suddenly did not matter that I had never stood on the Statue of Liberty’s observation deck. Nor pulled a slot machine handle in a casino. I was inexorably linked to those places. The people who had died there were just as human as me. My fist crashed down on the chair’s armrest.
Finally, I composed myself and sat back with the Tactical Situation Study and pondered.
Paddy had been right. There was no simple way to penetrate the defensive screen of the Kai Numan force. It was a vast network. Security zones started at the asteroid belt and the number of battlecarriers doubled in each of the four concentric zones around the Earth. Thousands of ancillary craft patrolled each zone, their surveillance sensor suites linked continuously to their carrier. Together, they saturated nearly every square inch of space in the zones with some sort of detecting energy. Electromagnetic, photonic, gravitic. Beyond the zones was no better. Tyreyth intelligence told of hypersensitive seekers coupled to ultra-fast computers that monitored every energy pulse in the system. They could detect a ship by the disturbance it made in the solar wind. Simply sifting its energy output from normal background radiation was within their capabilities as well. I was suddenly tempted to get closer to my escorting comet.
There was still no indication that the first battlecarrier had detected me. It was evidently the force’s outlying picket ship and continued its silent patrol of the system rim. The CPUs projected it would be no threat as the range to it opened steadily.
My penetration options were few and frightening. So far the best bet seemed to be a burst. This meant engaging the star drive just long enough to reach Earth. The problem was the time frame involved. If the drive were engaged at a velocity safe enough to avoid collision with enemy ships or errant asteroids, it would give the Kai Numan’s gravitic sensors time to detect my drive field. If the maneuver was attempted at a speed high enough to foil detection, there was a high risk of collision with an object that the Starhawk’s sensors might miss. Several days of careful observation would lessen but not eliminate the risk. It was impossible to scan the system without being detected. The observations would have to be made passively, in the same manner that the Kai Numan kept lookout beyond their zones.
There was still a disturbing error factor. Even with one hundred hours of careful recon taken into account, the CPUs gave a twenty percent probability of collision with an unpowered object missed in observations. The numbers went up to thirty percent for small Kai Numan craft that flitted randomly about the system.
The only other penetration option meant moving in slowly on reaction drive. The risk of being detected steadily climbed as the distance to Earth decreased.
Maybe that’s it. Creep in closer, giving the sensors time to look and try the burst closer in! I asked the CPUs what they thought of that.
ESTIMATED POINT WHERE SENSOR COVERAGE WILL REACH DETECTION VALUES DOES NOT COINCIDE WITH SIGNIFICANT REDUCTION IN RISK FACTOR.
“In English, please!”
There was no reply.
“I mean can you simplify that?” It still did not do well with sarcasm.
BURST RISK FACTOR REDUCTION:
UNPOWERED OBJECT- 17 %
POWERED OBJECT- 25 %
“I’ll take that!”
Whoa, hold it, Flash! My voice of reason had returned. This is a no shitter! This is combat, life or death. Who do you think you are, Jack Ryan? Dirk Pitt? This ain’t no bestseller here!!
Well, what were the options? Could I really just big out and leave everyone I knew to his or her certain fate? Could I live with myself afterward? Maybe I could wait until the Kai Numan were done or at least until they relaxed their guard. Would they ever? Would they settle into a mind-numbing occupation after resistance was neutralized? I consulted the Tyreyth intel again.
Again what I read was alarming. The Kai Numan exploitation phase was usually short. But its methods would likely leave the planet uninhabitable. There would be fallout and toxic dust from massive fission mining operations. This would have the same effect as an exchange of nuclear warheads. The infrastructure of cities and towns would simply be ripped out and recycled for other uses. The resulting increase in disease would be catastrophic by itself. Subsea mining would poison the oceans, resulting in a vast increase of acidity in the sea and precipitation.
So far, it seemed that the worst-case scenarios of every political and social philosophy were coming true. Perhaps I should have let things go just to prove a point. No, lives were more important than anyone’s viewpoints. I had to do something even if I died trying. What was one more death anyway? How many had already died?
The thought of trying to rescue a few souls to start over back on 89 Tauri-4 crossed my mind. But trying to start a new civilization would likely be tougher than rebuilding an old one.
What the hell!
* * *
I found myself holding my breath at times. I don’t know why. Too many old submarine movies I guess.
Every nonessential system was shutdown and I was coasting in at half the speed of light. Any faster and time dilation would put me at a disadvantage.
Drawing on the Tyreyth experience, my tactics were innovative. At the moment I was in the magnetic “wake” of Saturn, camouflaging myself in the eddies of solar wind caused by the massive planet. I had used the same method at Uranus and Neptune as well. While there had been no way to hide my initial acceleration, it would take time for the invaders to dispatch alert craft to check out any contact. As long as I kept moving, I stood a chance.
Or maybe not! They were coming! Sensors showed three small craft, identified as strike fighters. A three-view image came up in a window on the display. They looked stealthy and swift, broad-winged warplanes painted a baleful shade of gray.
They passed by me! Whew! Then I realized where they were going. They were headed for my initial point of acceleration, where I had shown up briefly on their sensors. I had long since cleared that datum point and was safe for now.
Another problem cropped up. There was a rather large gap between the edge of Saturn’s magnetic influence and the next body, or bodies, in the system that could hide me. Jupiter was currently on the other side of the Sun. I would have to try to reach the asteroid belt undetected. Pulling that off would be no piece of cake. The first security zone started there. The estimated coverage of the Kai Numan sensors were not quite as dense as the next three zones. Now might be the time.
The CPUs would have to do most of the work. I just had to select a particular course and speed.
BEST COURSE FOR LOW OBSERVABLE INGRESS: HYPERBOLIC TRAJECTORY ABOVE THE ECLIPTIC
That made sense. The Sun’s gravity concentrated most objects in its equatorial plane. I was much less likely to encounter any objects above the planets’ orbits. I accepted the recommendation.
“Wait! Where can I hide once I get there? Shit!” I cursed myself, consulted the system overview and found an asteroid just beyond the orbit of the Moon.
If I get through this alive… Well, here goes nothing!
The drive engaged and the stars melted into gravitic distortion. It was like being in a waterfall that was flowing backwards. Then it was over.
Nothing pounced on the ship. The void outside was not filled with fire-spitting warships. I still held my breath for several tense moments, listening for warning tones. None came. It worked! I had successfully penetrated the massive Kai Numan fleet occupation force. And I felt very much alone and afraid for my sanity. I was surrounded! No one had seen me yet but I was still a lone Christian in a coliseum full of lions. My precise trajectory had placed the asteroid was close by. I crept over toward it on minimal thrust. Once dangerously close and able to blend in with in, I gave instructions to the autoflight program to keep the ship steady at that altitude.
Then I began more detailed observations. The words of all the men in all those factual accounts of combat that I had read rang true in my mind. War was hours of sheer boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. Stark terror was even worse if you were alone. And I was.
After long minutes spent confirming the Kai Numan force composition, I took a deep breath and found myself praying. It was time to zoom in on Satsuma Grove. Grim images of what I might see filled my mind. What I did see horrified me even worse. The optical scan flickered and flashed. Sensors detected heavy energy discharges and explosions, centered on a huge armored vehicle… at Fort Jackson!
There was a battle going on! Like a live wire in my soul, it was. A high voltage charge of fear, excitement, and anger. The Kai Numan had not only assaulted my world, they were attacking my hometown! The woman I had loved was somewhere in the midst of that hell! Was she still alive? Why the hell was I waiting around to find out?
There had been times in my life when a situation so intensely aroused both my emotions and my mental processes that I dove into it without any thought. Doubt, curiosity, reason all seemed to flee from me and I reacted, a pure stimulus response. So it happened now.