It often started smoothly, but…
“Damn it, that’s the magnetic field from the planet,” Tomas Darquin reported, watching the monitors.
From the co-pilot’s seat, Terry Hale’s nod was almost entirely an involuntary action. The first shudder was just the start, and the brief jolt that ended it was a grand finale that sent hands in the back grasping for delicate equipment. Bodies and boxes alike were thrown against the harnesses in the zero-g.
“That strong?” Hale remarked as she worried over the instruments. “How badly is this going to affect us the rest of the trip?”
“No sign of damage to anything so far,” Darquin said, never lifting his eyes from the controls. “It might cause hell with communications, once we’re down there. As long as all our circuits got enough shielding, we should handle it okay.” With a practiced tap on the keypad, and a glance at the monitor, he added, “Looks like we’re still on course.”
Hale turned her gaze to the viewports, and the obscuring clouds they were descending toward. Her teeth remained tightly closed over her worries. It was something she was far too much practice in of late.
Darquin smirked. “Well, let’s see if I’m still instrument-rated on this thing….”
“Wonderful.” Far too much practice…
Neither pilot or co-pilot saw the glance Kim Matsumoto shared with Margaret Morgan just behind their seats. Helle Brannon was just struggling to keep both her aching head and rattling medkit in one piece.
“All part of the service… Okay, hold on, folks. This might be a bumpy ride for a few more seconds,” Darquin announced to the whole shuttle, and with an adjustment of the controls, the nose of the shuttle dipped down.
Hale tightened her harness before turning her attention again to the monitors. One held the scrolling data coming in from the recon probe Storm One had sent out. On another, using some of that data to flesh out the map, the navigation monitor was slowly drawing out a corridor of squares that spiraled downward.
The shuttle leaned to one side for a moment, before leveling out as dim grey light poured in from the viewports. Like a ferry tour guide, Darquin reported, “We have atmospheric insertion. We should have some visibility in… another 30 seconds.”
The viewports darken, dulled sunlight flickering.
Hale had hoped that with the closer they got, more information would be present, but from the sensors there might not have been colonization at all. Darquin reset a few of the monitors. “I think we’re getting a visual on the surface… lots of trees or something.”
“Or something. So long as they don’t talk.”
“Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinae,” Morgan muttered under her breath, a rare flash of humor.
“At this point, I’d settle for a clear landing spot with some good conversation. Green and mountains all over the place,” Darquin said.
Hale tapped one of the monitors, adjusting the display. “We should be picking up the site soon. Perhaps a landing area has been burnt for us.”
Darquin tweaked the monitor again, pulling up a schematic of the cloud cover. “20 seconds to touchdown… 15….”
For a moment there was a glimpse of the riot of green, then the nose of the shuttle tilted up as it approached what the monitors now showed as a gentle slope. Probably one of the few on the whole mountain range. The thrusters roared, cutting off all conversation.
Then the sound expanded to a rumble from underneath as the thrusters met the ground. Momentarily the shrill of the engine power dropping added a third layer of sound, and finally it all cut off, leaving a quiet filled with metal ticking and switches being flipped.
“Got it. Landing complete. All systems working fine,” Darquin said.
Hale tapped the line to Storm One, and the Phoenix that would be listening in. “We’re down and clear. Storm One, you can see us?”
“Affirm, Cap’n. You should be getting our telemetry feed.”
Hale and Darquin both checked the scanners and caught the Starfury’s signal. The magnetic field was indeed making things touchy, but at least nothing had failed as yet.
“Good. Hold for five minutes and then come down with us. I think we’ll need all hands.” As she spoke, Hale’s eyes fell on the thick growth that filtered into view as the dust cloud of their landing settled. She’d walked a lot of wild places in her time, but never anything quite so dense. She wasn’t sure which was more curious; to see virgin woods or that this place could have overgrown so much since abandonment.
“I half expect Indiana Jones to pop out of there,” Darquin said.
“Fine by me,” Kim quipped from the back, “So long as he’s left the usual chase behind.”
Darquin joined the rest in unbuckling his harness. “Yeah, I’ll sign up for that.” His attention turned to the readouts. “Radiation’s fairly normal out there. Good thing we got all the clouds and the green over us.”
“How about the air?”
“Lemme see… oxygen’s okay. Methane, CO 2, lots of greenhouse gases. Fhew… and dust. No wonder there are so many clouds out there.”
“Breathable?” Kim asked.
“For a little while, but we’re going to be breathing real heavy with all this mountain climbing ahead of us.”
Kim broke out the breathers and began handing them around. “Just in case,” she said, then in a quieter voice, added, “I don’t sense anything sentient out there. Such as I understand it, anyway. Lots of life, but….” she shrugged uncomfortably, glancing at the doctor. Helle was the only one in the shuttle she didn’t even halfway know about Kim’s telepathy, and being a Ranger wasn’t an immediate road into her trust.
Darquin accepted a breather and nodded toward the outside. “So where do we go from here?”
“Lets see what the binoculars and scanners can find,” Hale said. “But whatever way, I’m sure it’s uphill.”
Morgan cracked the hatch’s seal, and with the opening, damp, hot air rushed into the shuttle. Helle was out right behind her, taking a deep breath of “real” air, even if it was like a vapor bath on her face.
The tactical officer frowned at the wall of growth circling them. She was a station rat, born and bred, and would be the first to admit it. Weather rarely agreed with her, even in a temperate clime. Which this most definitely was not.
Darquin remained behind, checking the monitors. He stalled Kim a moment before she was about to follow Hale out to join the other two Rangers. “We’re getting something on the infrared…. Uh, Kim, maybe you should look at this.”
Kim stepped up beside him and frowned at the scanner. She traced her finger over the screen. “Looks like we’ve got a cavity in there. And maybe a power source, by that heat?”
Darquin pointed to dark spaces and bright patches on readout. “That definitely isn’t volcanic,” he said, confused. “Or else the heat will fill whatever this is like crazy, wouldn’t it?”
“Always a possibility, but I don’t know. It doesn’t look quite natural, but not different enough to say it’s impossible and must be artificial.”
“Doesn’t look like the ship crashed, anyway. Unless it’s in a canyon or something. But there’d be an impact trench or something at least.”
“Which we would have seen coming down,” Kim finished and looked outside. “Well, it’s a place to start looking.”
Hale poked her head in just as Kim was about to leave. “We’ve something to cut a path with?” she asked, thumbing back to the jungle undergrowth. If anyone had been here recently, there wasn’t a surface trail to be found.
“Something besides PPG’s?” Darquin asked, tongue in cheek.
Kim shook her head at him and turned to the small collection of boxes to start the hunt. Outside, having overheard Hale’s request, suddenly remembered the medkit she carried. From it, she produced a lasercutter. “Something like this, perhaps?”
Darquin smiled. “Well, it’s more compact than a machete, I’ll give you that.”
Moments later Kim found its industrial equivalent, and some extra power cells. Stepping out, she pressed both into Darquin’s hands. “Missing the romance? At least with two now, maybe we can get somewhere.”
“I guess I just passed the audition,” Darquin said, looking over the cutter.
Kim actually cracked a smile. “Break a leg.”
“Sure, point me to wherever President Clark is…”
Kim nudged him away from the Silencer’s hatch and closed it. When she turned back to face the group, Hale was waving everyone toward the edge of the jungle. Storm One was coming in to land.
DeVries eyed the Silencer’s landings spot with a careful eye, guiding the fighter by feel more than instruments. With its banks of Vernier jets for space maneuvering, the Thunderbolt Starfury possessed a passable V/STOL capability. It just wasn’t recommended. But then, Roland rarely did what someone else recommended. “Here we go,” he called into the comm. Whether to his partner or his plane, who knew. “Storm One to Silencer. Someone got a smoke grenade? I need the wind gauge.”
The Silencer’s crew watched as the fighter turned onto its final leg, spoilers deployed. The big fighter crabbed, DeVries pointing the nose into the wind and kicking the rudders in the opposite direction, to absorb airspeed. The others watched as Fallin’ Fury dropped, straightened… and screamed passed them, gear touched to ground. DeVries kept the nose high to aid braking. When the ship had slowed sufficiently, her pilot taxied her back to where the shuttle squatted, popping the hatches.
When the fighter had stopped, DeVries and T’rar exited.
“What,” Roland replied to the Narn’s gestures, “if you wouldn’t eat that Breen-stuff you like so much, your stomach wouldn’t get queasy. So quit blaming me.”
The Narn’s steady red gaze spoke volumes… none of which were appropriate for translation. Tossing his flight coveralls to the Human, T’rar moved to an access hatch and started removing their ground equipment and weapons.
DeVries stowed their coveralls and secured the hatches. Dropping to the ground, T’rar met him. The Narn was already kitted out. Roland accepted his gear… webbing harness with PPG, EF Marine Ka-Bar, pouches for ammo and so on. He slipped his folded pike into an empty pouch and accepted the rifle. Folding out the stock, he and T’rar jogged to where the Captain and others waited.
Copyright (c) Leslie McBride, Joe Medina, Alida Saxon and Smith Self. All rights reserved.