First there was the cold, then close on its heels the aching of pins and needles through his limbs.
Where? He groped after the elusive thought, struggling with ideas as sluggish as bubbles in molasses.
Hayes, uhnnn... Samuels Mason. Privateer. ID GRMC1067... uh... 488, running the class five miner TMC 172 Aspiration. Why was it so difficult to think?
The answer was there, it was just beyond reach...
There was a cool touch on his arm and a slight sting and a throbbing. A warmth suffused his arm. For a time he lay twitching, as helpless as a baby.
He opened his eyes to a glaring light and pink floaters spinning. He blinked several times, hard, and his vision cleared. His quarters, with the lights dim and comfortable, the pseudowooden panelling glowing warmly, the globular gunmetal shape of a hovering servo grasping a cup in one manipulator.
It was a few minutes more before Hayes was capable of sitting up to drink. The AI was familiar with the dehydrating effects coma had on the body and its mechanical extension had prepared water laced with a glucose supplement. Hayes took it gratefully.
"Murphy! I hate coma!" grated Hayes. Still, the discomfort of waking was still preferable to the long days of insystem travel. Strange that to travel from planet to planet took longer than a stretch from one sun to another.
The water helped.
"Samuel, you are recovered?"
"Uh-huh. Thanks, Pan. We there yet?"
"What?" Hayes looked up in surprise. "Why?"
"Remote surveys on the second planet have been completed and pilot intervention is required."
Hayes sat upright. Autonomous units rarely required human assistance. When they did, it was for a damn good reason.
"Okay, what's going on?"
"The primary survey reported a planet orbiting at a mean distance of 160.37 million kilometers. The equatorial diameter is 11,412 kilometers. Polar diameter is 11,386. Mass estimated at 4.9837x10^24 kilograms. Atmosphere consists mainly of nitrogen, 76 percent, and oxygen 23 percent. The remaining percentage consists of various noble gases, water vapour, and carbon dioxide."
It had taken a few seconds to percolate through Hayes' skull. Now it hit him, but still it took a second for his brain to engage the gears to his jaws.
"Th... That's earth norm."
"Not exactly. There is a fluc..."
"Burn it!" Hayes exploded. "It's close enough!" He swung out of the bunk and lurched to his feet, cursing as he wove unsteadily. "Pan, put the data up on the screen in here."
On the other side of the room the mirror above the old wooden desktop turned mat black and graphics and text filled the space. Hayes wobbled over and dropped into the chair to begin reading.
"...Average pressure an estimated 915 millibars. Temperature 15 degrees. A well-developed atmosphere, ozone layer... ionosphere... This isn't happening."
The information continued to scroll through the screen as Hayes flopped back in the chair and stared in disbelief.
In the five centuries after mankind had left his motherworld he had ranged far and wide across his galactic arm. Probes and huge exploration ships had stretched thousands of light years in all directions, on journeys that had taken decades. On charts the bubble that indicated the settled, civilized areas of human space was hundreds of light years in radius and still infinitesimal against the area that represented explored space.
In all that time, in spite of all the expenditure of effort and resources, no planet capable of supporting humans without artificial support had been discovered. There were the terraforming projects: very expensive and time consuming and artificial. Mars was a garden paradise, catering only to the obscenely affluent, but it was simply an imitation, another earth, with imported terran flora and fauna.
Here, before Hayes' eyes, was a world that would require little - if any - work. The brilliant blue, green, brown, and white promised a world abundant in water, with seas and sunsets and wind and rain... all the natural phenomena Hayes had only ever seen simulated in a habitat. And the greens...
He spent hours at the screens watching the world, studying the surface through every instrument at his disposal. Those green patterns and the amounts of nitrogen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could only mean life. Prolific life in the form of plants, perhaps some lower animals too. Unless some terran seedship he didn't know about had visited here, it was alien life. Pure and exotic.
Aside from intense natural atmospheric discharges, there were no electrical emanations of any kind that he could detect, nor any sign of city lights or aerial activity. There was nothing in orbit that might pass for any kind of spacecraft so there was no unknown colony there, no civilisations.
Uncharted and unclaimed and uninhabited. It was his fortune, something he'd never dared to even dream. Seen from space a sunrise takes on a glory all of its own, the dark shield burning like a crescent of fire-gold as the sun rose from beyond the curve of the horizon. Its three moons arrayed in stately rings, like necklaces, the two smaller satellites on a much closer orbit than their larger companion. A gem. An oasis in a desert.
It was his future.
"Hayes, when you strike it lucky, you don't kludge around!" For this he could name his price. He'd have companies throwing themselves at his feet for the rights to the claim. A bit of careful playing and he'd be set for life.
It couldn't be that easy. There had to be a drawback somewhere: perhaps severe tectonic activity or solar flares, probably new kinds of bacteria that would prove inimical. If so, selling out would be the best way. A corporation had the wherewithal to cope with such things. However if, on the other hand, it was clean, perhaps he could develop it himself, lease the land out to companies. In the long run that would work out to be far more lucrative. The place wouldn't be worth much as far as mining went: it was far cheaper to hunt rocks. But as a resort, a toy-town, it had definite possibilities.
Could he do that?
Again he turned his eyes to the glowing gem on the screen. It pained him to look on such a thing, a thing of beauty, and picture it as a tourist trap. Hell, people would pay a fortune just to live in an orbital overlooking a world like this. What would this picture look like with the glitter of hundreds of tincans swinging around the planet?
The rim of fire around the planet was spreading, washing across oceans and continents until a crescent glowed blue-green with white clouds swirling in patterns dictated by coriolis force.
Hayes breathed out in reverence as he watched the day spreading across the planet. Softly he murmured, "I dub thee Illuminatus."
"Registered," the AI said.
Days later and more details were visible. Without the main telescope the AI was restricted, but still the database had collated large amounts of data with just the limited low resolution optical, gravitational, and electromagnetic sensors available. Like Terra, the planet was mostly water: 62 percent water to 38 percent land. Most of that land went into one huge continent stretching across two hemispheres. Aside from that there were two polar land masses as well as numerous islands scattered about the vast ocean.
The continent was impressive, Hayes concluded. Covering over 70 million square kilometers, an area far greater than any one continent on Terra. Its westernmost seaboard was gentle land climbing to a formidable mountain range forming the backbone running the length of the landmass.
But compared with the crater on the eastern seaboard they were inconsequential.
Hayes whistled as he watched the graphic the computer traced on the screen. "That must've been one mother of a bang when that one hit."
It was ancient, incredibly so, and distorted by tectonic drift, but it was still recognisable. Two thousand kilometers across it was still roughly circular except where the ocean took a semi-circular bite out of it. The crater wall had deteriorated. On the landward side it was now white-capped mountain ranges, ranks of huge mountains that joined with the chain running down the centre of the continent. Even part of the rim that had been breached by the ocean survived as an arc of islands separated by narrow channels. The crater floor was landscaped with rolling plains. Doubtless the asteroid had fused vast expanses of the ground to glass when it had struck, however natural process had prevailed and now there was plant life, showing green and gold. The glittering threads of rivers twisted their way to the sea and Hayes could just make out the lighter wash where they discharged sediment.
Murphy, how he wished for the high power optics! He'd have been able to count the trees in a forest. As the situation stood, he could either make do with these low-quality pictures, or get closer...
Was it possible?
The AI hemmed and hawed for a while, reminding Hayes that if the module grounded it would have to wait for the mainship to arrive before it could lift again.
"I know," he shrugged. "But why sit in orbit doing nothing when I might as well be down there looking around. Even if I have to do it in a hardsuit."
"The planet is an unknown. There could be dangers..."
Hayes snorted. "Can you name anything down there that'd have a hope of penetrating a collapsium hull?"
That got it. The computer hesitated a second, then confessed, "Nothing that would have a greater than a five and a half million chance of happening. Also there would be a problem in maintaining communications with the mainship. There is a choice between radio contact or launching a relay satellite."
"Go with the sat," Hayes said. "Do we have a power sat on board?"
"No. The only units in the bays are three Boeing NJVC MK6 communication relays."
They would have been useful for a little extra power, but no matter. Hayes ran a demographic program for a forecast if he continued to consume fuel at the current rate and spent a minute studying the results. No problem. A smooth landing would leave more than ample mass in the containment fields for life-support and other basic functions.
The final approach he would make at a shallow angle; still more savings on fuel. That would enable the module to make several orbits of Illuminatus, altitude decaying all the time, during which the cameras could take more detailed survey pictures.
He pondered over a landing zone.
In the electronic web of the VR interface he spun a three dimensional simulation of Illuminatus in full colour and floated above it. From forty-thousand kilometers the land was shades of green, the white-capped mountains looking like paper crumpled, then spread out again. A twitch of an eye and the planet spun beneath him, thousands of kilometers of sea and islands blurring past. The coastline appeared as a streak of white clouds on the horizon then was below him. Another twitch and it slowed to a crawl. Hayes flicked a sequence of command signals, as fluent as a virtuoso on a lightboard, and the eastern seaboard began to drift beneath him.
The land was mind-bogglingly huge! He'd never been on anything larger than a planetoid that he could circumnavigate in a standard day... on foot. Here there were plains that would take weeks to cross. Or mountains ten kilometers high.
The crater drifted into view.
An area small enough to be covered by drones. A varied topology and - hopefully - biology. Again, why not?
Hayes wondered what the seaside was like.
High above the blue-white curve of the planet the ship's engines fired, nudging the module from its orbit. Sunlight glared from white surfaces as the vehicle rolled, turning its belly to the planet. The window was open. The command module began its descent.
From the cocoon of the VR interface Hayes monitored the entry. There was little he could do, the AI was quite capable of controlling the ship and could respond far faster than he could. The Aspiration's AI had a vast battery of sensors feeding it information. There was a database larger than the libraries of earth it could use to cross-reference the data, then cables of laser light transmitted its reactions. All done in the time a Human was deciding something was wrong. With one of the neural networks a human could match a computer for reaction time, but not for the accuracy. There was a far greater chance of the jellyware making a mistake than the hardware.
So Hayes watched as the planet spun around him, inverting until he hung over it. This was realtime, the cameras on full resolution. Off to the sides green displays flickered, denoting altitude, speed relative to the planet, angle of attack, and various beads showing the condition of ship's systems.
Then more indicators flashed to life as the ship skimmed the outer exosphere at Mach 27.
All cameras were rolling, probing the planet in the visible spectrum, infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray. As the module eased into a descent angle at -45 degrees latitude the AI set aside a block of memory for sorting and storing the influx of information. What it was especially interested in was the landing zone.
Illuminatus sped by beneath as the ship's speed decreased.
On the horizon a brilliant smear of white appeared, resolving into a swirling cloud formation covering a swatch of the western seaboard. The cameras could pick up flashes of lightning among the thunderheads. Scans of the terrain below went to shit.
Minutes later and it was past them, but the AI had gathered enough to confirm the landing zone.
A hundred kilometers up. Braking. The ship shuddering as it began to enter atmosphere proper. Stubby flanges unfolded from the flanks of the ship and twisted, disrupting the airflow around the superheated hull.
Speed was sliced to Mach 15.
The sea was below them. Sub-tropical waters stretched away blue and serene. Reefs - or something analogous to them - became obvious as they interfered with currents around the islands and atolls. If there was coral, Hayes knew, there was at the very least life beyond plants. By the looks of the reefs they were big enough, old enough, that something considerably more complex should have evolved.
Still there was no sign of any electrical activity. No lights beyond natural fires and volcanic vents.
Hours later and again the continent was creeping up over the horizon to the east. This time the sharp edge of darkness was spreading across the face of the land.
Mach 10 as the module crossed the dark ranges down the heart of the continent.
At ten kilometers there was air enough to generate a thin whine around the stubby fins of the module and send wisps of superheated vapour curling away as the ship bellied in.
Aeronautically speaking, the Aspiration was a brick. A very heavy brick. The stubby control surfaces were for directional control, with no hope of keeping the vehicle aloft. As the crater wall approached they came into play, slewing the ship into an S-shaped approach. Velocity dropped on every turn, as did altitude.
Now there was a cushion of white hot air washing against the module's underside. Streams of fire fled back from the stubby wings as the final mountain passed and it was above the crater rim, the terrain hidden by bank upon bank of clouds, glowing silver in the light of the three moons. In the distance lightning flickered.
Louvered slots opened in the module's underbelly: ramjets venting short bursts of high-velocity superheated air. The ship levelled, banked, describing a slow spiral down to five, then two kilometers. Hayes was transfixed, the first wisps of cirrus clouds flashing past, turned to phosphorescent glory by the moonlight. A... bird. He'd seen some of them once in a rechab: colourful feathered things fluttering around the lightcore and fouling the airplant.
"Two minutes to wing deployment," the AI informed him.
Barely above Mach 2, the ship levelled and lined itself up, then flared. The entire vessel shuddered, superdense metal booming as the airflow buffeted it, wrenching at the control surfaces. Air brakes sprang from the hull and the plasma retros fired a controlled burst. Numerics in the pilot's display flickered madly as the vehicle gained altitude, slowing to the point of a stall.
The AI timed it as only a machine can. With faultless precision the parafoil exploded and unfolded from its pod on the dorsal ridge. Like a vast jellyfish the transparent canopy snapped into shape with a boom to drown the thunder as the slipstream caught it. The two and a half square kilometers of monomolecular compressed Singlex that composed the parafoil was pulled taut, but in no danger of tearing despite the thousands of tonnes it was supporting.
Now it had wings. Almost silently, with an occasional jet of fire from a thruster, the module dipped and spiraled down into the grey cotton of the thunderheads.
The video screens were blotted out by the clouds, displaying only swirling mists and droplets of moisture punctuated by a flash as lightning rippled through a cloud. The entire ship trembled slightly as it ran through severe turbulence. The external broad-band monitors - IF, UV, etc - were hindered, periodically dissolving into white-out as electrical discharges crackled around them.
Silently the Aspiration's command module flashed across a breach in the clouds, the ground below clear for a split second, then plunged into the cloud banks again.
Hayes' watched the green bar of the artificial horizon tilt then level off again as the ship's inertial navigation system homed in on the designated landing zone. Altitude continued to drop, below 5,000, the airspeed at just over 700 klicks.
They dropped out from the low cloud cover and the Starlite cameras flicked in. Flat plains were passing below the ship. Once they crossed what looked like a long line of forest. Growing along a river? Hayes looked around with fascination, seeing as if the bulk of the ship wasn't there. The plains seemed to stretch off to the horizon, to merge with the dark wall of mountains supporting the roof of clouds.
Long minutes passed in silence.
When it came, the AI's voice startled him, saying, "Landing may be rough."
The altimeter was counting down, the final couple of hundred feet flashing by too quickly. Speed was 267 klicks. Altitude into two digits...
Shallow gullies flashed by, then an impact that rattled his teeth and pounded him against the restraint web. Anti-inertial systems fluctuated under the strain. Cameras went dark. Hull and structural supports boomed and screamed. At the rear of the craft struts integral to the ship's docking facilities were bent and crumpled as it hit stern-first, gouging a huge rut through the alien earth.
The sound of wind and rain in grass was joined by the ticking and groaning of cooling metal.
A thermal lance glared like a miniature sun, throwing dancing shadows and sparks as the servos swarmed over the damaged section of inner hull, cutting wreckage apart. Other units carted the scrap away.
Hayes blinked away the afterimages and shook his head, sending the beam of his lamp bobbing around the crawlspace. Not good. The collapsium section of the hull had held well, but in this section of the stern, standard titanium/collapsium composite structural supports inside the hull had failed. It would take a while to replace them. There was other damage, mostly minimal: here a cracked coolant pipe, a strap breaking and sending a piece of equipment careening and smashing a console. The parafoil was being salvaged, ready for recycling.
The crawlways riddled the ship behind the walls, under the floors, in the ceilings. They were close, cramped, and dark. Hayes hated them. He swore as a servo scuttled past him, clattering along the wall on its six legs. He hated these damned places and his mild claustrophobia - unusual in a spacer - didn't make it easier, but he made a point of eyeballing things himself.
He paused to open an inspection panel, spending a few seconds to trace the optical connection inside, then pulled a cable from his wrist Nexus and jacked it into a port. The holographic display glowed to life above the Nexus and Hayes' fingers played across the lists of files, selecting a diagnostics program. Circuit after circuit was tested by the wrist unit, all coming up green.
While the program ran, Hayes leaned back and sighed. Wedged into a stuffy tube while a whole planet waited outside...
The intercomm indicator on the Nexus flashed on. "Yes, Samuel?"
"Are the tests done yet?"
"The medical systems are examining samples as fast as possible. I have dispatched a pair of remote servos to collect samples from remote areas. So far no inimical bacteria have been found, however at least another day of testing is required to be reasonably certain a human can survive without protection. The longer the testing period the better."
"Preliminary soil analysis reveals an abundance of silicates, also large quantities of lead, gold, silver, zinc, copper, mercury, and tin. There are low trace readings of iron, nickel. Rare earth elements..."
"Hold it," Hayes raised a hand to interrupt. "That's not a representative sampling, is it."
"That is just in this area."
"Well, get some more servos out to take more samples. There're two geoprobes on board: use them and get back to me with the results." The diagnostics had come up clean. He unjacked the plug and closed the inspection panel. "Now, what I'm interested in is if I can live out there."
The AI hesitated. It was designed to protect its operator and it was old enough that it had had experience with a wide sampling of humans. That experience told it they would often take risks a machine would deem unnecessary. At the moment it was seventy-three percent certain a human could survive unaided. A human might decide to risk it, therefore...
This day the view in the holorals was real. Hayes tended his plants with panoramas of seemingly endless plains around him. The grasses were golden, blending to a slight purple where they met the sky. Patterns of light changed as wind riffled through the stalks. He spread some more nutrient on the plant beds and turned the sprinkler system on low. The transparent display cases housing the plants filled with mist.
Was that what those distant cloud-topped mountains would be like? Massive peaks enshrouded in mists?
Murphy, but he longed to be out there. Fifteen years he'd spent in this ship, but suddenly it seemed close. A new world and it was just beyond those walls. The holorals weren't the same thing at all.
Out of idle interest he called up a window in one of the holorals, listing the data coming in. Some of it was beyond his ken. Molecular biology, complex organic chemistry. The AI was recording EVERYTHING.
Hayes shook his head and went across to open a storage cabinet. The small package he pulled out was of genuine tooled leather, the tiny blades and trimmers inside shiny, razor sharp. He spread it out on the biograss beside him as he set himself down tailor-fashion, selected a pair of tiny clippers and began trimming the delicate branches and needles away.
"Hmmm?" He didn't look up from his work.
"A servo has caught a local animal. It's being brought back to the module now."
Now he looked up. "What is it? What kind?"
"A small herbivore. Quadruped. Perhaps analogous to an terran rabbit."
An archive picture appeared on a holoral. A small furry creature with long pointed ears and big hind legs. It hopped around the screen, looking harmless. Beside it the AI showed a computer reconstruction of the Illuminatus equivalent: round ears like furry radar dishes, bulbous black eyes, black nose, and long whiskers. It ran, didn't hop.
When the servo scurried back to a service lock it was carrying a limp bundle with a laser burn through the base of its skull. More servos met it to seal the prize into a cannister and cart the package into the heart of the ship.
Hayes leaned against the transparent plex isolating the sterile medical bay watching the multiple lenses and manipulators of surgical servos hovering over the small carcass on the table. Already there were more probes and sensors stuck onto and into it than any human patient would warrant. When the scalpels came out he watched for a second, then grimaced and turned away. "Christo! People used to EAT that?"
He walked back to the elevator and leaned against the back wall, watching the door close: "Main deck." The lift moved smoothly. "Pan, how are the tests going?"
The AIs voice came back as unperturbed as ever. "The creature is a female, warm-blooded and marsupial-"
"A mammal of the order Marsupialia. The young are ejected from the womb before they are completely developed and complete their term in an external pouch. On Terra these include kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots, opossums, and wombats. Found principally in the Australian region and South and central America."
"Warm-blooded and marsupial with a rapid, carbon-based metabolism. Blood temperature is approximately twenty-seven degrees with a probable pressure of about 30/20. Amino acid groups have been broken down into -"
"Hey! Just a second!" The elevator stopped, the doors opening and Hayes exiting. "Look, I just want to know, can I live out there?"
The hesitation was so slight Hayes never noticed. "So far tissue biopsies have detected no inimical bacteria. However, there are proportionally large amounts of lead and potassium in the animal's system. Ingesting native fauna or water would prove hazardous or fatal in the long term."
Hayes entered the living area where his pruning tools were still spread out on the floor. He knelt to pack them back into their places and rolled the kit up. The plants were beautiful, organic masterpieces of life, but still the terrariums were poor mockeries of the verdant excesses outside. Standing before a holoral he could see the wind in the grasses, he could see the clouds and mountains, all as clear as if they were just beyond a window. But it wasn't even that satisfying.
He stared into the holoral for a while longer, tapping his hand indecisively against his leg, then spun on his heel and made for the lift.
Metal decking grids rang under his feet when he stepped from the lift, drowning the hum as the door closed. Low intensity worklamps powered up as he entered, illuminating a room with cargo doors running off to bays and the heavy seals of the dorsal access hatch. Normally used when docking with a habitat or another ship, it was now dogged tight.
The walls were white chitite, battered but clean, convoluted with the molded doors of lockers and storage bins with their bright legends and warning logos. Hayes pressed his right wrist against a locker, the imbedded chip popping the door. There was an assortment of equipment inside, from packs to work lights, including four suits: a fairly recent model red-shelled hardsuit and three softsuits: two of those Kisuki-Ford models over fifty years old, their green pectoral armour and smartseal fabric scarred. The last was an Altair Fabrications softsuit, barely three years old, gleaming white. Hayes checked the diagnostic, then unplugged it from the support systems.
As light as an off-the-rack standard suit, highly flexible, it was his suit of preference for areas too restricting for a hardsuit. It had damned effective life-support and recycling facilities, chameleon capabilities, and best of all the Flexlink outer layer was impact armour: for all intensive purposes puncture proof.
Hayes separated the suit into its components, then stripped off his boots, pants, underwear, and nexus, leaving his tunic, and pulled the suit's lower half on. There was an uncomfortable moment as the catheters lodged themselves in place. The inside lining inflated to hug his legs. The boots with their near indestructable high-grip soles bonded with the leggings, the seam almost imperceptible. As with the leggings, the padded jacket's lining adjusted itself to fit.
Hayes picked a set of gauntlets off their rack and stuffed them into a pocket. There was no point in trying to ignore an AI: If they wanted to talk they'd generate a subroutine to keep trying until they got your attention. You'd go mad before they got bored.
"You are intending to leave the ship?"
"That is not wise. There are still tests to be completed. I do not have the facilities to be entirely-"
"Pan, you have the specs for this suit."
"What are the chances of bacteria penetrating if it's sealed?"
"Close to zero."
"Fine. Sas. Then I'm going out. No more debate... that's an order."
Hayes grunted and pulled a helmet from its charging sockets. He pressed the TEST stud and the status beads glowed green. Power cells full, respirator cycling perfectly, software diagnostics reading 100%.
From another locker he withdrew a canteen and ratcakes, packing the canteen into its place in his suit and the concentrates into an empty pouch. He hesitated over the emergency flares, then shrugged, grabbed a handful of thermal flares and seismic charges and stuffed them into the suit's dispenser.
He sealed the locker, then pondered for a second and crossed the room to another bin. His Personal Ident Chip unlocked it. The thing they'd found, the pseudo-rabbit... pabbit? had over-developed eyes and ears. It had powerful legs for running. It burrowed. That meant there was something it had evolved to flee and hide from.
And perhaps there were things that didn't make these little pabbits their exclusive diet.
The universe was a dangerous place, a place it was not wise to journey in unless prepared. Asides from nature, there was always the human factor. Privateers and Jumpers lurked in the outermost regions of human habitation and on the fringes of the space lanes. Skirmishes between systems and habitats did happen. A century ago the Aspiration had been involved in a minor war, the old miner being commandeered and fitted with missile, railgun, and plasma cannon pods to blockade a stretchpoint. She had one kill - an old heavy carrier retrofitted to transport batteries of thermonuke pulse-bombs.
Those old railguns were still there: seven pods on the mainship still harboured the turrets with their coiled gravitic accelerators. They were used for destroying any rocks that may wander too close to mining installations, also for persuading privateers to keep their distance.
Risk didn't only travel outside the habitats. There were places, especially the refineries and Markets, where only the incredibly brave or foolish went without some form of life assurance. Hayes preferred the type with a barrel or blade.
The locker was filled with a clutter of weaponry collected by Hayes and previous ships owners, from Bowies to old chemical firearms to more recent plasma sprayers. Most of them were antipersonnel: effective against humans but of little effect against a vital bulkhead or life-support equipment. They were all in mint condition, the servos breaking them down to clean regularly.
He wanted something lightweight, with enough punch to stop anything that might have a chance of doing him some damage, even in the skinsuit. Something that also made an impressive bang. He choose an electrothermochemical handgun with an explosive load. Big, angular, and black, the tribarreled weapon was psychologically reassuring, but the water cylinder needed replacing, as did the battery. It took a while to hunt down the replacements, but when installed they worked perfectly.
Clipped to his belt the weight of the weapon was a reassurance.
Through its multitude of eyes and other sensors the AI watched Hayes prepping the suit. Through suit monitors it saw his elevated pulse and blood pressure, his accelerated breathing. In its own way, the machine too felt concern, part of it compelled to persuade him to stop and wait, but countermanded by Hayes' order. Again it scanned the ship's perimeter with every local sensor available, then it switched to the drones and servos, sections of its personality monitoring over twenty eyes scuttling through the grass or skimming the plains nearby.
Pabbits dived for their burrows as the shadow of an aerial passed overhead. Large herbivores stopped grazing and stared at a servo from bulbous eyes, but nowhere did it detect anything that would warrant overriding Hayes' order for noninterference.
Still it 'felt' anxiety. Submolecular gateways rippled in indecision, the arrays favouring overriding Hayes' order losing out. It needed more data before it could sway the balance. There were discrepancies in the final aerial images, so the machine allocated more processing time to analysing these. If there was something there, it would find it.
The decontamination spray smelt like pine needles and sea air and tingled as it touched the skin then dried almost instantly. The light in the battered whiteness of the main lock increased to an uncomfortable level, then faded back to normal intensity.
Hayes blinked, rubbed his eyes and pulled the faceplate down. With a hiss it sealed and double-locked. Pressure in the lock dropped and the suit expanded as the atmosphere was evacuated, pumped back into the ship. For a second the lock was in hard vacuum, then the pressure returned as air was pumped back in, air from the outside.
Atmosphere inside and out equalized. Warning legends lit up and strobes flashed. Locking bolts rotated and withdrew. The seals on the door cracked and the massive hatch slid out, then sideways.
Helmet polarisors came on as sunlight flooded into the dock. It wasn't the raw, searing stuff of near-stellar space, unfiltered light that could blind eyes and sear skin tissues. This light was slightly harsher than the illumination in the Aspiration; maybe moderately uncomfortable to human eyes, but not terminal.
Hayes stepped out of the lock: cautiously. The ramp and docking umbilicals that would be available at a habitat weren't there and the hatch opened onto the port side of the hull, high up, so it was a long way down. Cautiously he was picking his way across exposed conduits and connections, then he froze, eyes widening in awe.
The horizon was endless, greens and dusty golds and hazy purples, the sky... it was nothing like the depth of space, nothing like the sharp pinpoints of the stars as seen from a cold rock: a boundless blue emptiness that captured the eye and drew it in, deeper and deeper.
Hayes swayed and caught at a flex pipe to steady himself. A glance down and he swallowed. Beyond the docking clamps was the platform of the external lift and beyond that the hull dropped away, straight down.
He couldn't count the times he'd stepped out of this very lock when going EVA, but this was so different, so impossibly different. Of course he wasn't afraid of heights: no deep spacer was. He could hang from a belt clamp over a five hundred meter deep cargo hold without a qualm, but this wasn't normal. Perhaps it was the wind, winding its way around the grounded ship and upsetting his sense of balance.
Anyway, he kept a hand on the control box as the lift platform swung out, then began crawling down the sheer face of the white hull, now marked with carbon-scoring. The module's ID - TMC-172 - stencilled in black letters three times Hayes' height passed behind him, his shadow becoming invisible against the dark surface then reappearing against the white collapsium skin.
Despite the parafoil the ship had struck hard. It lay in the remains of a hill shattered when a vessel massing more than it did impacted and tore the top off. That rubble now lay banked up around the ship, covering perhaps two meters of the lower hull; more towards the stern. It was onto this mess of torn loam, sod, and boulders that Hayes dropped.
And promptly landed on his ass.
"Samuel?" The AI's voice sounded in his ears. "Your biomonitors show..."
"I'm fine," he spat, sitting up and slapping a palm disgustedly down on the dirt. "Just slipped."
Of all the possible drawbacks he'd been expecting, walking wasn't one of them. It was the combination of near full gravity and the treacherous footing; his life of smooth decks in habitats and ships and micro-gravity on rocks hadn't prepared him for this. It took him a while to clamber across the loose rubble lying around the Aspiration and he nearly twisted his ankle more than once as an unstable rock rolled underfoot. A small servo scuttled to the top of a knoll to watch him as he clambered out of the rut the ship had left.
The grasses around the landing site were burned, charring a great black, lopsided streak across the countryside. The rains on the night of the drop were a blessing, otherwise the wildfire would have raced across the grasses, wiping the slate clean. Every time Hayes' boot touched it raised a puff of dark soot. It reminded him of the obsidian ash found on some larger asteroids, but this stuff, instead of slowly drifting back to the surface, was wafted away. Stolen by the wind.
He was still occasionally stumbling over tussocks of grass and an odd, low-lying type of bush over-endowed with long creeping branches that seemed intent on tripping him.
It was on a broad, windswept hilltop that Hayes stopped to survey his world, his breath hissing in his helmet. The Aspiration was behind him, now only the top of the hull and a few sensor array stacks visible above the gullies and hills. Far, far away to the west the hazy purple-blue-grey of the mountains merged with low, dark clouds. Other points of the compass bore hills and grass and long stretches of greenery sprawled across the skyline. He dialed up the magnification in his helmet and the greenery resolved into banks of bushes and larger plants. Trees, Hayes guessed.
Slowly he sank down into a crouch, arms resting on knees. So much, so big.
"And it's all mine!" he grinned.
"Forget it, Pan," Hayes replied then tapped the sequence on the Nexus to disable the communicator.
For several minutes he watched the clouds drifting slowly across the landscape, the wind rippling across the grasses, then he raised hands to twist the seals on his helmet. The faintest of hisses sounded as the visor swung up. The air outside was cool, a sharp shock against his skin. There were smells and scents, damp coolness, a rich tang. He reached down to pluck a single leaf from a plant and held it up to his nose, crushing it between his fingers: almost a pine-scent, like his bonsai.
Standing, he popped the seals again, turning the neck ring to lift the whole helmet off and clip it to his belt. The wind caught at his close-cropped blonde hair like a live thing.
On his wrist the Nexus' comm light blinked on and on, unheeded.
It was perhaps three kilometers before the servo dogging Hayes' footsteps began to falter. It was a localised repair robot, not really designed for long distance travel across this type of terrain. With the Aspiration out of sight it had reached the limits of its effective range.
It hesitated once with a delicate metallic leg poised, then turned and began scuttling back along its tracks.
So, what now?
By now acquainted with the uneven ground Hayes was able to let his thoughts drift off on tangents. With a warm sun and cool air it was pleasant. Strange how perspectives change... in space it was a star, on a planet it was a sun, the sun.
He could get used to this, he mused. Well, why not? He could take this time as a vacation. The years it would take to rebuild the Aspiration he could use as a vacation, explore this world at his leisure. Perhaps try skiing, or surfing, hang gliding. He'd tried the latter once before, in a habitat, but here, with the unlimited skies, it would be very different: Huge monomolecular wings and foamed framework and you could soar forever.
He resettled the helmet in the crook of his arm.
And he'd have to get a beacon installed somewhere. His claim marker. He could even start construction on a fission plant downside. That'd give him a reliable power source so he could begin work on a power plant for repressurising the module's containment unit.
But before then there was so much more to explore. He'd break a surface rover out of stowage to get a little further afield. There were some pictures taken on the descent that looked interesting. Some of those big rivers for instance...
Speaking of which...
There was a glittering about a kilometer ahead that caught his eye. The optics in the helmet resolved it into water; perhaps a small lake. Hmm...
He lifted the helmet off and angled his route in that direction.
The ground changed as he approached. The grasses thinned, turning to clay and gravel. Cracks ran across the terrain like fissures in fractured glass: some shallow, others meters deep. Those he could he jumped across, others he had to skirt around. Erosion, he guessed, water running through here. It must be a seasonal thing, dry now.
It was water that had caught his eye: a small lake of grey water with few stunted plants growing around it. Rivulets trickled down from converging gullies and cracks. Those would be from the rain the previous night. Steep banks led down to the lake in several places where the water had dug away the surrounding soil.
There was something else:
Along the edge of the lake was a strip of land with parallel ruts in it. Animal tracks? They didn't look like it. Hayes jumped across a small ravine and cautiously made his way along the rim of a steep eroded bank, almost a small cliff, to get a better look. He crouched down and touched his nexus:
"Pan, what do those tracks look like?"
"They resemble vehicle tracks," the AI replied. "Or possibly animal trails. An exact statement is impossible without more information..." There was a pause: then, "Samuel, a servo has detected objects in your vicinity, moving towards you."
"Visual range is extreme. Enhancing: Objects are vehicles..."
But he had already seen the shadow, spinning and clambering to his feet.
Gaping jaws and amber eyes locked on him. Light glittering from metal, a scrabble of feet launched it forward, a long blade raised and gleaming like copper. The piercing scream that hit his eardrums like an icepick. Automatically his hand darted to his holster.
The clay beneath his feet crumbled away.
He yelled, his arms windmilled for balance as he teetered on the crumbling brink of the cliff. The blade hovering over him hesitated and he stared into eyes that widened as they met his, then he went over backwards, the world spinning, his helmet flying. His suit went rigid as steel as he hit stone and clay and slid, dropped again, his head striking rock once, then again. The sun flared in his head then the world faded...
A shower of small stones, dirt, and dust spilled down over the white suit as he slid to a halt. His gun clattered down and splashed into the water. Slowly the dust settled over the motionless heap at the foot of the cliff.
End Godsend part 2