So, anyway, we were off like a bride’s pajamas to Olmec III, which is what the Exploration Force had named this planet whose colony had a fifteen year case of mike fright. Once such a course is programmed, the crew has the option of hibernating or gutting it out wide awake. Personally, I didn’t like the idea of Deep Sleep during wartime. Neither did anybody else.
After interminable busy-work projects, virtual reality games, and weight room workouts, Olmec III had gone from an abstract concept to a set of coordinates to a place on the chart to a tiny speck we could actually see in the distance. We began to get busy again.
One of our many problems was the fact that the Thalasso’s humidity control went out about that time. Don tactfully brought it to our attention by asking, “Cal, is it okay if I open a window?” Though I tested every component of the system, I couldn’t seem to find the glitch. Everything checked out fine. That didn’t keep us from sweltering, or keep beads of water from forming all over everything in the ship. I was one popular guy.
This went on for days, with everybody working in their underwear and invoking curses against the company that made the humidifier, the Quadrant, and Senior Engineer Kelly, not necessarily in that order. I was taking a break, reading one of those electronic books that were popular then, where the story would evolve differently every time you read it. I looked up, and Beth was standing there glaring at me under her eyebrows and seething with rage.
“I have had it! Do you hear me? I have sweated through every item of apparel I own! I have stuck to every surface I have touched on the inside of this ship! Every gauge and meter in the sick bay is fogged up on the inside and cannot be read!” She began to peel off her underwear one item at a time and hurl it at my feet. “I am hot! I am tired because I cannot sleep! Nobody can sleep! And until you figure out what the son-of-a-bitching problem is, you do not have time to read! You do not have time to take a break! Do you hear me?” By this time, she was standing there stark naked, all four feet eight inches of her, with her hands on her hips and a glower that would melt copper on her gnome-like face.
Everybody quickly gathered around, laughing and applauding. Don said, “That’s right, Goddammit! We’ve had it with you, Kelly!” He peeled off his underwear and hurled it at my feet too, so of course Morris had to join in, and then Vanessa, and pretty soon Cal and I added our unmentionables to the growing pile at my feet, and by this time we were all naked and laughing so hard we could barely breathe with all that humidity.
So I redoubled my efforts, but still didn’t get anywhere for several more days. Meanwhile, everybody went around bare-assed as a kind of protest, with Don frequently singing, “I’m in the mood for nude, simply because I’m naked . . . Funny, but when I’m naked, I’m in the mood for nude . . .” He had a database of old songs and was always singing these wicked parodies of them. Needless to say, Don was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known, but it never seemed like he was trying to be funny; comedy just flowed out of him.
Anyway, the problem with the humidifier turned out to be two problems: a broken wire inside some insulation where you couldn’t see it, and a hiccup in the diagnostic software that kept us from discovering it in the usual ways. By the time that was fixed, Olmec III was looming pretty large on the screen before us. I had seen some laservid images of New Earth taken before humanity had really gotten a grip on it, and this planet had the same majestic beauty. It rolled slowly through the blackness of space; swirling white cloud banks, great expanses of blue sea, greens and browns of the land masses rotating by until they filled out whole field of vision.
We may have been a trifle put out to be sent away from the battle for Tavic just when we thought we were needed most, but by this time I think we all realized that we were about to embark on a totally unique experience. We were about to see a world that only a few human beings had ever beheld; maybe no living human had seen it. And, we were about to solve a mystery that had hung in the air like smoke for over fifteen years. I think it’s fair to say that we each felt the same hot squirm of excitement in our bellies while we took to our landing stations.
By this time, we had decreased out speed considerably, but sheets of fire still played over our viewscreen as we entered the atmosphere. The first time you penetrated the atmosphere of an unfamiliar planet, it was traditional to make some tasteless jokes about losing your virginity, and naturally we did. But there was an excited tension beneath the joking that I, as a veteran spaceman, had not felt for many years. This was something we really were doing for the first time in our lives. I hate to admit it, but seeing that virgin world hurtling toward us, I began to feel something akin to reverence.
We were 80,000 feet up, then 60,000, then 40,000, and as we slowed to a crawl by our standards the topography below was still an ever-changing, multi-colored blur of shapes and textures. “Steady, people,” said Cal. We were all strapped in tight but you can’t help it, you brace yourself anyway. About 150 lengths from the colony’s coordinates, the retros went on and it was as though the Thalasso had hit the side of a planet. Anything that wasn’t fastened down on the ship went flying forward. We were suddenly doing Standard Approach Speed (600 lengths per hour) and we could make out huge lakes, endless forests, meadows of purple grass, glittering rivers, clouds of flying things scattering before us, rolling foothills and towering rock mountains, like black unholy cathedrals ranging around the green woods below.
If I sound a little overwhelmed, that’s the way I felt. I guess none of us had ever seen anything so beautiful in our lives. I found myself thanking God that I’d lived to see this day.
Little did I know.
Cal and Vanessa decided on a long, flat meadow for our touchdown. The meadow was just over the hill from the colony site, and they figured it would be a low-stress hike. Cal burned us into that meadow with an easy perfection, as though he’d made that particular landing at least once a day for years. Considering that he was licensed to fly over fifty different kinds of air and spacecraft, I guess that was to be expected. Morris and I still looked at each other, shaking our heads in admiration.
Now came the hard part. You can imagine how tempting it would be to just throw open a hatch, lower the plank steps, and walk barefoot in the grass with the sun on your face. After six months shipside, the desire to do just that was an actual physical ache in every one of us. But there were procedures to be followed, and they were there for good reasons.
First, Morris’ exterior sensors had to analyze the air, not only to see if it was fit to breathe, but also to learn if it carried any harmful spores or pollen to which we might react badly. Beth’s medical knowledge would be needed for that as well. And although a life-heat scanner could detect no sizable life-forms in the meadow or the surrounding woods, Cal was required by Quadrant policy to set up a Dannerhaus Square around the ship until we were reasonably sure the area was secure. Plus, Vanessa had to check and re-check her maps of the colony’s layout which Mission Control had down-loaded to the Thalasso. We didn’t want to wander around in the wilderness and get seriously lost on Quadrant time.
I helped Don take the position of this sun relative to the horizon line, so we’d know this sphere’s time of day (0917 hours — don’t ask why I remember that) and be able to confirm our exact location. It seemed like a month, but by 1030 hours or thereabouts planet time, we were ready to exit the vessel.
Don drew the short straw and had to stay with the ship. But when we opened that hatch, it seemed like the grossest cruelty to make any one of us stay. The moist air that flowed into the Thalasso was a rare wine. It was the smell of the meadow, and the flowers on the hillside, and the great dusky trees that ringed us all around.
Don stepped out into the meadow with us and helped us all with our packs. In addition to rations for two days and medical supplies, we each carried a sidearm and an SSR assault rifle with extra ammunition. Beth carried some specialized medical gear which was tricky to balance with her pack, so I was helping her with it.
“So, Kelly,” she said, “I won’t know how to act, not having to trip over your greasy tools every time I take a step.”
“You don’t know how to act under any circumstances,” I said, but she was no longer with me. She pointed with amazed delight, and when I followed her gesture, there was Morris, completely absorbed in examining the underside of a log.
“Morris, dear,” she said sweetly, “whatever are you doing?”
Morris was not even a little embarrassed. In fact, he was trembling with excitement and trying to make notes by talking into his field jacket computer while balancing his pack. “I was noticing how similar the insectivora are here to the specimens I saw on Old Earth,” he said. “There’s a creature here like a centipede, and some pseudo-ants.”
“Morris — do I have your attention?” asked Beth, in her best school-teacher voice. “Good. Now get your head out from under that rock this minute! You have just landed in a goddam paradise, and you’re looking under rocks for pseudo-ants? I am so worried about you, Morris.” He just grinned and shook his head, still making notes.
“You guys might wanna look around for some pseudo-nightclubs while you’re out there,” said Don.
“I think this is gonna be more like your basic wilderness experience, Don, but we’ll see what we can do,” said Cal. As usual, he was ready to go before the rest of us.
The Dannerhaus Square was still up, but of course you could hardly see it in full sunlight. If it had been night, it would have appeared to be a corral made up of glowing blue tubes — one which nothing short of an ion missile could penetrate. It was really just a linked series of laser-driven antimatter force fields. There are much better protective devices nowadays, but then the Square seemed like a major military miracle.
Cal had us take up defensive positions around the perimeter of the Thalasso. Once everyone was in place, he had Don shut down the Square. We waited. A warm breeze moved across the land, and all the trees, the bushes, the tall grass, all of it undulated like some interconnected living thing.
Don had established a weak contact with Mission Control, and was broadcasting all our communications with each other, and the images from our helmetcams. Also, Don had five monitors on the Thalasso with which he could keep tabs on every one of us. We each ran down a check list, on the air, of all our field gear and its working condition. While monitoring all this, Call was keeping a wary eye on the woods and the hillside.
When all of us had finished, Don confirmed that Mission Control was receiving audio and video. Cal gave him the standard orders about maintaining contact and exercising appropriate caution. “All right, don’t bunch up as we go up the hill,” he told us. “Let’s move out.”
As we carefully picked out way up the hillside, I heard the crackling of the Dannerhaus Square coming up again around the Thalasso.
A flight of little yellow bird-things broke cover and scattered, mewing, to the four winds. I looked around, but the only thing that could have spooked them was us. Despite our precautions, you have to remember that we had no reason to believe we were in the slightest danger. I was so alive to our surroundings that I kept getting distracted by the damndest things. There were these lavender and gold flowers practically carpeting the hillside; brightly colored insects buzzing around everywhere but minding their own business; cute little furry creatures that would watch us from the trees as we passed, then chatter like hell once we had gone by. It was such an unbelievable day, I guess we all had a hard time imagining that there could be anything wrong for miles around.
We topped that hill, then had to walk down into a little ravine in order to climb the larger hill beyond it. The trees got so thick that the sun could penetrate only in shafts. It got quieter.
“Course, Lieutenant Gold?” Cal had spoken barely above a whisper, but we all heard him in our helmetcoms.
“We’re on course, Captain. I show the settlement to be in a little valley just over the top of that next rise,” said Vanessa.
“If they were still alive, they would’ve been here to meet us,” offered Morris in his soft voice. Some large flying creature broke cover up ahead with a raucous cry.
I said, “Yeah, they would have seen us land, or heard us anyway.”
“Maybe they’re all out hoeing the rutabagas, or something,” said Beth.
Our nervous giggles were interrupted by Cal. “We’re on the air, people,” he warned. No fun on Quadrant time, with Mission Control listening.
We crunched up the side of the larger hill. Inside my field jacket, I could feel the sweat begin to run down my sides. Here, in the shadows of these giant trees, it was easier to be wary, to take our situation seriously. Something slithered away into the leaf litter to my right and I swung the SSR in that direction instantly. My heart was hammering a little too much and I told myself to calm down, but it wasn’t just nerves.
We had spent over six months inside a ship with less than 2,000 square feet of living space. And even though there was a workout area where you could go for a virtual reality jog through any kind of landscape you might want, there’s a major difference between walking or running on a machine and walking on real dirt and leaves, stepping over rocks, and breathing unprocessed air at an altitude you’re not used to. I didn’t have to ask; I knew we were all feeling it.
As we approached the crown of the hill, we saw something we hadn’t seen before: tree stumps, areas where brush had been cleared away by human hands, and then something that sent an electric thrill right through me — a fence.
We were pretty well fanned out as we approached this clearing, and Cal motioned us to go in at a crouch, more slowly than before, with our SSRs in the imminent combat position. Tough we we were all trying to be, I had to stifle a smirk to see Beth walking at a crouch with her assault rifle against her hip. The damned thing was bigger than she was.
By this time, we were level with the clearing, and could see the compound beyond. The outer fence was split-rail. With the concertina razor-wire looped all over the top, this fence was about seven feet high and looked as though it had been there for a long, long, time. Spaced evenly around the inside of the fence was a series of steel poles, each as big around as a man’s leg. The poles supported huge Sunray lamps on swivel necks. Each lamp was trained downwards on the fence.
Within was a big log building and several prefab outbuildings. There was an area that was staked out like a vegetable garden, and, just beyond that, an enclosure holding some strange, long-necked herd animals. They shied away as we approached.
Beyond all this was a gentle slope, leading down into the valley below. There were some big vehicles — tree-mowers, bulldozers, and cranes — resting at crazy angles down there. I could also see what appeared to be the ruins of a number of buildings. Everything, including the heavy machinery, seemed sort of overgrown, rusty, abandoned. The compound before us was the only area that looked like it might still be inhabited.
Cal said quietly, “Are you getting all this, Warrant Officer?” Don’s high velvety voice came back, calm and unhurried. “Affirmative, Captain.”
Vanessa said, “This looks like a fortress, Captain.”
“Or a P.O.W. camp,” muttered Beth. “Where is everybody?”
By this time, we had lowered our rifles, though we still held them at the ready. Cal just about deafened us by shouting, “Hello! Anybody here?”
A faint echo of Cal’s bellow played around the valley for a little while, as we frantically turned down the volume in our helmetcoms. I always say a pathetic excuse is better than none, so I usually cite our preoccupation with volume adjustment as the reason why we got caught with our pants down around our ankles just then.
“Hands up! Get ’em up!! Now! Now!” It was a new voice, and it boomed through the quiet woods like a treefall. Most of us half-swiveled toward the voice, glancing at Cal for a cue. Cal had an expression of disbelief mingled with profound embarrassment on his face, but, by God, he was raising his hands and that was good enough for me. My hands went up, and I guess everybody else’s did at about the same time.
“What do you want here?” said the voice. I made out the barrel of a high-caliber automatic rifle sticking out from between a large boulder and the trunk of a tree. I couldn’t figure out how he’d gotten himself into position there, about thirty feet behind us and directly in the path we’d taken up the hillside, but I did understand why Cal had raised his hands. Whoever it was had that rifle pointed right at his upper body.
“Vickers, John C., Captain of the Quadrant Ship Thalasso, Sector Four –”
“I know you’re Quadrant, I saw the ship, What do you want?” I was scanning the surrounding woods, but his was the only gun I saw. I hadn’t yet had a clear look at him.
Cal didn’t answer right away. He was listening to Don over our helmetcoms, saying, “Stall him for about another minute, Captain. I’m locking onto his coordinates.” What he meant was that the computer was triangulating his position based on ours and on the transmissions of our individual videocams. I don’t know about anybody else, but I felt some better just knowing that once Don locked him down, he could be very efficiently killed from the Thalasso before he could move a muscle.
“We’re investigating a request for assistance broadcast from here . . . some time ago,” sad Cal, finally.
“Broadcast from here when some of you were in grade school,” said the voice, in an accent I couldn’t quite make out. “Go on.”
“That’s all. Your turn,” said Cal, more smoothly than he probably felt.
Don’s voice spoke in our ears. “I’ve got him, Cal. If you want me to take him out, just say the word ‘rutabaga.'” That Don. What a card.
“So you’re a kind of — rescue party?” The voice rasped with scorn.
Cal said, “That’s right. And you?”
Slowly, the man with the automatic rifle stood up, lowering his weapon. “Well, that’s lovely. Lovely. Except I’m afraid you’re a trifle late.”
He was a big man with eyes that could glare a hole right through you, even at that distance. His face was nut-brown and hard as a diamond. The clothing he wore was exactly the color of the tree bark he stood next to; it crossed my mind that it must be made from the same stuff and not by any factory. He held his shaggy head high and looked at us with undisguised disdain. Though his black hair and beard were streaked with gray and white, he gave an impression of the limber strength of a much younger man.
Cal was slowly lowering his hands. “Your name?”
“I’m Dr. Gordon,” he said, as though addressing his freshman class at the university. I still couldn’t figure that accent, but the voice it colored was deep and rich.
Don was right on top of it. “Charlemagne Gordon, Ph.D,” he murmured into our helmetcoms. “Doctorate degrees in advanced hydroponics and psychology. Age thirty-six at the time of the colony’s founding. Married to Kathryn Baca, Ph.D., no children. He was elected to the colony’s Leadership Council.”
“Okay, Dr. Gordon,” said Cal, visibly trying to control his fury at being taken by surprise with Mission Control watching and listening. “I can understand your nervousness at a bunch of people showing up with guns all of a sudden.” Gordon just gave a barely audible snort; he didn’t seem like the nervous type. “But we’re all on the same side here,” continued Cal. “I’m going to have to ask you to put the weapon down and take two steps back.”
Gordon looked at him like an old lion would look at the young upstart he was about to have for lunch. He slung the rifle over his shoulder, and walked around the boulder toward us. He stopped about five paces from Cal, looking him up and down.
By this time Cal seemed to be feeling a little more in control of the situation and his anger had turned to a professional, stony dislike. “Okay, Dr. Gordon. Where are the other colonists?” No answer. “Has the colony been moved, or what?”
“It’s ‘or what’,” Gordon said. “There’s no colony.”
The first thing that ran through my mind was that maybe he’d gone nuts, and I guess I wasn’t the only one. I heard Don’s voice murmur, “Brain rabbits, brain rabbits.” I had to interest myself in my boots so Gordon wouldn’t see me trying to stifle a smirk.
Cal had waited, but Gordon offered nothing further. “Dr. Gordon, I’m not the most patient man God ever made,” said Cal in a tight voice.
“I’ve been alone on this planet for twelve years,” said Gordon. “The others are dead.” In his voice, there was no sadness, or anger, or pity.
“Mission Control, did you copy that?” Cal had almost whispered, but the reply came back at once, flat and lifeless: “Affirmative; stand by, QAK71.”
I think we were all prepared for the colonists to be dead. After all, fifteen years is a long time in the wilderness, cut off from humanity. But somehow, the thought of one man — just one– surviving alone all those hours, all those days, in solitary confinement with a whole planet to wander, maybe hoping with every sunup that somebody would rescue him — it seemed too awful even to consider. Gordon, who looked tough and capable enough for anything, was the least pitiable man I’d ever laid eyes on. But I pitied him then, and as I caught Vanessa’s eye, and then Morris’, I knew they felt it too.
Mission Control had said something, and I’d missed it. But Cal was nodding. He said, “Dr. Gordon, are you saying the colony lost one hundred and nineteen people in three years?”
Gordon barked a bitter laugh. “We lost over forty the first night.”
Mission Control was saying, ” . . . for any contact with Russ forces, over.”
“Was it the Russ?” Cal asked. Gordon looked blank. “The rebels, Dr. Gordon.” This apparently shed no light. “Okay. Who killed those colonists?” demanded Cal.
Gordon positively glowered. He stared hard at Cal, and at each of us. Finally, he said. “The Quadrant.”
* * * * *
Entry from the journal of Sergeant Teodor Vuksov:
Conditions continue to deteriorate.
I have never seen the morale of the troops at a lower ebb. The fall of Tavic seems to have sounded the death knell for all of us. Nearly everyone knows at least one soldier who was stationed there. Though we maintain a strict silence on the air, we are monitoring the Quadrant frequencies and some of the more remote laservid stations for news reports. So far, there is no word of any survivors.
We expected no less from the Quadrant. If we are captured, we all know our lives are forfeit. We are determined to fight to the last — as did, I am sure, our brothers and sisters at Tavic.
I am not privy to the counsels of General Aleksandr and his staff, but I hear rumors. It is said that we are not just fleeing aimlessly through the stars, that we have a fixed destination which will become a new homeland for our people. I desperately hope that this is true, yet in my heart I can scarcely believe that such a place exists beyond the Quadrant’s reach.
Meanwhile, our soldiers need any encouragement, any scrap of good news, however feeble its foundation. If the rumors are true, I wish we could all know of it.
The sick bay is full. They have begun putting the new cases along the corridor walls, with only a blanket to comfort them. There is almost no food left. How can a man regain his strength with a weak broth, or nothing at all, to eat? I myself grow more weary every day. This must end soon, or our cause will die with us.