Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright (c) 2018, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part LXXVII: Landing Day
Continued from the previous excerpt
12 Fourthmonth 566JR
28 June 2363CE
The ships had arrived over two hundred hours ago.
Ralph Vatelius wasn't really a Science Officer, but he was smarter than the average Ship's Doctor, and his Shipfolk Family was made up of smart people and at least one actual genius, all of whom had seen a lot of worlds. They added up to a more-than-adequate xenology team.
The robot probes were smart too, for their kind; descended in principle from the Sexton Probes, developed by a frustrated NASA engineer who had been personally recruited by Kurt Vetter in the years before the Escape. Thirty had been dropped around the planet, transmitting their findings to an automated orbiter, equipped with a Marsten Device to send those data back to the corporation which had launched the robot ship. It had been more than a Monticellan decade, but twenty-three of the probes were still functioning, as was the orbiter.
The good news was, the planet was well within the habitable zone - the atmosphere had a little more oxygen than Terra, gravity was between that and Monticello, average surface temperature some five degrees centigrade above Terran-latitude equivalents. Proportions of land and water were in the same neighborhood; there were eight continents, the largest reaching from the tropics to the north pole, whose ice cap was small. Another five subcontinents were scattered between, and plenty of islands. The oceans were close enough in their makeup to Terra's, and were as full of life as the rest of the planet. Hlossh expressed eagerness to swim in them, and add their flavors to his sea-tourist guidebook. Neither water, plants nor soil, according to the probes, were obviously poisonous to Common Life.
The bad news was the weather. Monsoon was the rule rather than the exception, and typhoons struck with alarming regularity year-round. The year was short, too, shorter even than Monticello's, so it was almost always storm season. The axial tilt was nearly thirty degrees, adding to the meteorological extremes; like Hornbeck, there were opportunities for legendary surfing, for those well-enough armored to survive it. There were three moons, too small to have much tidal effect, except at conjunction, about five times a year. Days were about 21 hours long. Danforthers were unlikely to freeze to death, but they might drown or be crushed by landslides or falling trees.
More bad news was what else might kill the colonists: the wildlife. One of the thirty probes had been smashed, only minutes after landing, by something that looked, and was sized, like a cross between an elephant and an allosaurus. Another, ten days after landing, had, probably by its warmth, attracted a swarm of snakelike things, at least two meters long, each with a pair of crablike pincers behind the head. They didn't attack, but smothered the device in their numbers. The last few images sent before that probe failed seemed to be of a serpentine orgy.
Victor Bunn declined the honor of being first to set foot on the world he claimed leadership of. That instead went to Holly Cates, whose Marine Corps training included that of the peacetime Exploration and Colonization Service. She wore her power-armor, fully armed, and was followed by a half-dozen of Aurora's sensor-spheres, watching her back.
She was also followed by Hlossh and Grbblb, the latter in his own armor, the former in a more ordinary environment suit; and likewise attired, Ralph Vatelius and his wife, Delilah Howell. All carried many sensors, and specimen containers. Four and Five Boats, Aurora's largest shuttles, had been set up as base camp and laboratory.
Aurora sent more probes of her own, as she had at Ude. She had a nearly complete surface map recorded in just a dozen orbits, from 400 kilometers altitude. There was no evidence of civilization or construction, no campfires or roads or boats or huts - no people. Her probes encountered and cataloged many forms of animal and plant life. Three of her probes were lost in flight, to what might as well be called pterosaurids, though these wore a trunk-tentacle-thing in the front of their heads like the "allosant" which had destroyed the first robot probe. The "pterofants" had a wingspan of up to four meters, and were observed diving on sea life... and on land animals. A colonist on foot and alone had best be armed, and keep his head swiveling.
But Victor Bunn's "constitution" for the "republic" of Danforth did not include a right to arms....
Haldred needed to be prepared for her last flight.
Her weapons, the pulse-lasers and missile racks and point-defense pods, were dismounted and stowed inside, so they would not be burned away. As part of her purchase price, she had been refit for landing before departing Terra - heat shield, landing legs, aerodynamic control surfaces; those last would pop out when necessary, after the heat of entry. The legs were designed to be deployed only once; there was no way to retract them.
The use of fusion torches within an atmosphere was generally considered a war crime or act of terrorism. On Danforth IV, there were no people to lay such a charge. Centuries ago, the Founders' Fleet had used torches to Escape Terra, but only after reaching an altitude of twenty kilometers or more. Those ships had been secretly built. Other ships of the time - mining asteroids, claiming the other worlds of Sol System, operated by Vetter Aerospace, Mitchell Co., and other secret members of the Long View Foundation - had never before displayed the true power of a torch, to enemy - Terran - eyes. The enemy governments had nothing which could pursue.
The torch had evolved, as had the fusion reactors which powered it. Even by the standards of the time of the Escape, torches burned clean, with little more than background radiation; they were far cleaner now. Haldred, naturally, had not been refit with the new Helium-3 reactors, but the old hydrogen models she carried would suffice to serve her new world and nation for decades.
Her landing site was a hill, less than a mountain, with a river a mere kilometer from the peak. Deep radar and even the Marsten Detector had been used to see beneath the hill, to judge its stability. Over millions of years the river had swept flat a plain beneath the hill, on which to expand the first settlement - though flooding would be a constant threat. The hill was chosen to stay above it. Danner, finally spending more time with Bunn as necessary preparation for Landing, mentioned Robert E. Lee and his engineering works along the Mississippi River. Bunn had never heard of him.
The river basin would be rich farming land, and was bordered by dense forest, to provide lumber for construction. Bunn seemed uncomfortable at these concepts, and Danner suspected he was also an environmentalist - a subset of Authority Derangement Syndrome. What did he think was going to happen on a virgin world?
Images of the recommended landing site were shown to Victor Bunn, who complained, "It is not flat! How can you land the ship in such a place?"
To which Solomon Danner replied, "It'll be flat when she gets there."
It was obvious that Bunn had no idea what Danner meant.
Thunder rolled through the skies of Danforth IV.
Some of the creatures looked up. Some of them saw a shaft of lightning... but it was unnaturally straight and constant. The animals were not people, they could not think or reason... but they could fear. They ran.
Solomon Danner wondered if Terra's dinosaurs had tried to run from Chicxulub, sixty-five million years before. Alran oral legends said some tried to run on Oskran, two thousand Terran years ago, but found nowhere to run to, as the Fire fell across their entire world. Fortunately Haldred would be making a much smaller crater. Not that even a Marine in Mobile Infantry power-armor would survive at less than half a kilometer's distance.
Haldred had but a single torch, and a quartet of OMS rockets. Ships of similar design had been landed this way before... not always successfully. Aurora would be recording from dozens of angles, in many spectra, with detailed telemetry. That information would be released freely on the Net, to improve the odds for those who followed, on this world or others.
Gormann's crew had been evacuated, and only he and Sarah Heusner remained aboard... with the thousand suspended colonists. Haldred's shuttles and lifeboats had been launched, to reduce mass for landing - if something went wrong during this part, lifeboats weren't going to be much help. Aurora had them all under remote control, and they clustered near her.
One of them carried Victor Bunn, watching several angles of the landing in holoconference with Danner on Aurora's bridge. "Captain," the "president" asked, "...how exactly is this landing supposed to take place?"
Danner closed his eyes and counted to three, in Eyani. "Mister Bunn, it is entirely too late to be asking. The ship is committed."
"But... if it uses its rockets... the environment will be ruined!"
"Mister Bunn, the ship's fuel has been minimized to reduce mass, and the heat shield can only be used once. There is no way to safely abort this landing. All of which has been explained, in great detail, in the briefings we transmitted at every fueling stop, and delivered to you again, live, during the last two hundred hours since our arrival. Briefings which you specifically requested, Mister Bunn."
"No... no! Get Captain Gormann on this... this thing! At once! We have to stop this, we have to find another way!"
"Mister Bunn, I am not about to interrupt a fellow captain during the most difficult maneuver any ship can perform. I repeat, the ship is committed to landing. There is no stopping now."
"No! Tell Gormann to abort the landing! We'll take the colonists down by shuttles, it can't be this way!"
Danner turned to face Bunn's hologram, and he could no longer conceal his contempt. "What of the ship becoming the center of your settlement? Your power source, shops, medical facilities?"
"We'll... we'll take the ship apart and bring it down in pieces, in the shuttles...!"
"Mister Bunn, that plan is, in every way, cost-prohibitive to the point of absurdity."
"Then... then you must destroy the ship! With your ship's guns!" Which would cause at least as much environmental damage, but Bunn evidently hadn't considered that, probably imagining Haldred would be magically vaporized.
Danner would have displayed shock, if he hadn't half-expected such sociopathy. "Your own followers?" he asked calmly. "A thousand innocent people? A member of my own crew?"
"Do it!" Bunn nearly screamed. "I order you!"
"I don't take orders from you, Mister Bunn." Danner made the ancient throat-cutting gesture, and Aurora closed the channel. He turned his attention to the live feed from Haldred's bridge, and her pilot, his ship-sister.
Sarah Heusner had all four hands full, and both feet too.
Since agreeing to pilot Haldred for landing, she had been spending some of the Transits aboard the cryoliner, along with Hlossh and Grbblb, customizing the ship's controls. Her feet rested on throttles for the fusion torch and its flanking orbital-maneuvering rockets. Her "fands", the foot/hands of her middle limbs, directed the reaction-control jets, while her true-hands darted from one switch or knob or keyboard to another.
The winds of Danforth IV seemed to change speed and direction with every hundred meters of altitude, and Haldred was still falling at more than a kilometer per second. How the cursed hells can a ship this big bounce around so much? she wondered.
Eyes glued to her instruments, she could spare no attention for Johann Gormann. That man's skin was turning white. He knew he would already have lost control of the ship. He couldn't keep up with the changes, the winds and densities slamming the ship in one direction after another.
Sarah Heusner could. She could dance. Today her dance partner massed twelve thousand tons and was shaped like a beer can, but by Chuck Yeager, by "Winkle" Brown, by Hanna Reitsch, by Rachel Marsten, by Nora Gaines, by Hr'Gen and by Odin and by all the gods of all the races of all the worlds SHE COULD DANCE!
Haldred, like nearly all ships her size, had been built in orbit, and had never until this moment known the touch of an atmosphere. She was not designed for this... but Sarah Heusner was at the ship's controls. The twelve-kiloton beer can obeyed.
Surely, computers were doing a lot of the work, but even Aurora herself would have been challenged under these conditions. Computers - except possibly Aurora - could not feel their way down through an atmosphere like a thinking organic person could. A computer might have made a safe landing, but it might not have been within a dozen kilometers of the target site... or even a hundred.
As Haldred passed through the hypersonic region, Sarah called out, "Shield!" She had to shout, even into her headset, to be heard over the rattling and groaning of the ship's hull. Gormann threw switches and three dozen metric tons of cermet composite were blown off Haldred's hull in sections. That was valuable material, even used, and expeditions would be sent to recover it later. Aurora's probes followed them down, recording their landing sites.
Now the ship was a little lighter, a little cleaner. Now she was dropping through Mach 3... Mach 2.... At a bit less than Mach 1, Sarah called, "Fins!" Gormann threw more switches and the control fins deployed, biting into the sky. Her fands shifted from the controls of the RCS jets to those of the atmospheric fins - which had been installed during Haldred's refit at Terra and only tested once before, in vacuum.
The winds had blown Haldred off course, but Sarah had simulated the possibility. Thrust from the OMS rockets, gimballed just so, combined with the ongoing braking force from the torch... one fand darting back to the RCS stick for a moment, rolling the ship slightly to give the fins a better grip on the air....
The sonic boom would have shattered every window for a dozen klicks, if there had been any windows on the planet. Flying creatures tumbled from the sky, stunned. Trees swayed, soil jumped. Sarah could not see the landing site directly - but her sister Aurora could, from as many angles as were wanted. Sarah's augmented-reality goggles saw through the hull, past the blinding fusion flare, to the soft green hilltop where Haldred would rest forever.
She throttled up the torch.
Haldred slowed, from the speed of a rifle bullet, to a pistol bullet, to a hurled stone. The hilltop burned beneath her, and came apart, trees and grass and earth and stone flashing to vapor and ash and glass. Debris flew, making small craters of its own even on the opposite bank of the river, a kilometer away.
Sarah shouted, "LEGS!" Gormann threw switches again, and the dozen legs extended from Haldred's flaming stern. Aurora, seeing through the mess like an arc-welder through his filter-mask, showed Sarah the shape of the shattering ground where the hilltop had been.
All six limbs working, Sarah touched this control, feathered that throttle, leaned on the other fin. Haldred's legs touched the melting surface, sank into the glass and lava. Easing off the throttles, Haldred came to a stop, creaking and pinging. Haldred's computer, and Aurora in concert, quickly adjusted the legs for a perfect level. When the liquified soil and rock resolidified, in a few minutes, there would be no moving Haldred without explosives.
Outside was a cloud of dust and smoke and steam hundreds of meters wide and tall, but Sarah, through Aurora, could see clearly. She had missed her triangulated target... by two hundred thirty-seven centimeters.
Smiling like a Human, fangs out, she took off her AR goggles and began unbuckling from her acceleration couch.
Aloud she said: "Navigator... pilot... dancer!"
Continued in the next excerpt....