Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 13

Part II: Emerald

Chapter 13.

“Listen up, people. We are about to attempt a landing on a planet no one has ever landed on before. That means we’re going in cold, no survey, no beacons, nothing. With the way we lost most of our instruments, we can’t even do much of a once-over from orbit, basically just get a glimpse of the land that’s not cloud-covered and pick the best-looking landing spots.”

The huge curve of Emerald cut across the forward port, softened by the presence of atmosphere, white and green and brown. “Tavana, is the Nebula Drive retracting?”

The French-Polynesian boy nodded. “The dust is going into the containers we set up for it, yes. The gas, however – we will lose most of it.”

“No biggie. It’s done its job.”

It had taken a day or two to deploy the Nebula Drive dusty-plasma sail, and several more days to use the controlled nebula to get them into orbit around Emerald. Other than being slow, however, the Drive had performed flawlessly, something that had made the trip something of a mini-vacation. They weren’t worrying about improvised coils or wondering where they were going, and Emerald had always been there, reassuring them that they weren’t just drifting through empty space any more. Just hope that’s not a false promise.

Getting the dust – programmable nanotech motes descended from the original designs by the European Union for the famous Odin – was important. No telling when we might need a bunch of nanodust, even simple stuff like that. And we sure ain’t making it ourselves.

“Right. Francisco, Maddox, I want you two to go through the cargo area from all the way at the back to the front, and secure anything that might be loose. If you find something, like a big piece of machinery, that you don’t think you can secure right, mark it in your omnis.”

He pushed himself over to where he’d hung his EVA suit. “I got myself one more job, but it’s a quickie.”

“What is it, sir?” asked Xander.

“You can help, actually. While I’m getting suited up and checking out all telltales, go get me those SC 178s, would you?”


Campbell snorted at himself. You think these kids live and breathe acronyms and designations? “Those things I called commsats for idiots. In the crate marked ICS-GIS-S-C-178. Crate that size probably holds ten of them. Just drag the crate up – remember that –”

“I know, Sergeant, it’s still just as massy even if it’s weightless, don’t crush myself or anyone else by getting cocky with it.”

“That’s sounding almost cocky, kid. Just be careful.”

By the time he was satisfied that the suit was operating perfectly, Xander had arrived with the crate. “Now what, sir?”

“Now I basically dump these things out the airlock. Once they go into vacuum they wake right up. I can give ’em the update on the diameter of the planet and things like that from my Omni. Then they’ll use their built-in micro-ion drives to work their way into a reasonable-coverage set of orbits over time, and deploy their solar recharge sails which they can also use for a little boost. Once on-station, the sails reconfigure to standard power-gathering panels. Guaranteed to last at least seventy-five years on-station.”

“What will we get out of them, with what we don’t have in infrastructure?”

“Don’t sell these things short. They’ve got a lot of standard commo packages, software update services, and more importantly great GIS/GPS capability, which will come in handy if we end up having to navigate around this globe. Good remote storage servers, and – not least – they can use their power to send distress pings out regularly. Not very often, but there’s ten of them.”

“Distress pings?” Xander looked skeptical, and Campbell couldn’t blame him. “That’s a ten-year delay on reception, Sergeant, if we’re looking at Orado.”

“If it’s Orado, yeah,” Campbell agreed, opening the lock and cramming the crate inside; he would just barely be able to fit in with it. “But no one on Orado would notice it, anyway, unless they had a radio telescope pointed in this direction for no particular reason. No, this is just in case anyone comes looking. It wouldn’t take much brainpower to say “hey, here’s a star right near where the disaster happened, maybe survivors went there”, after all. And if we have constant distress beacons, they might be readable from billions of miles away by a search vessel.”

He clambered in and made sure all of him was clear of the hatch. “All right, close her up and put us in vacuum.”

Pressure dropped swiftly, and once it hit less than one millibar – less than a thousandth of Earth-normal atmospheric pressure – he saw activation signals coming up on his omni. “There you are,” he muttered. Opening the crate, he could see each of the SC-178s with its two indicator lights – one for drives, one for electronics – glowing a comforting green. “What do you know, ten for ten. Will miracles never cease.”

A few minutes sufficed to update the satellites with their meager store of information, and then – as he’d told Xander he would – he simply opened the outer hatch and started throwing the soccer-ball sized spheres with their strangely seamed sides out the airlock. Once clear, the greenish-painted satellites opened two small hatches and began preparing for orbital modification; Campbell couldn’t help but grin faintly, because every time he saw an SC-178 deploy it looked like they’d suddenly grown little circular wings or flappy round ears, at least before the solar panels started to deploy; the lines and indicator LEDs gave the rest of the sphere a vaguely cheerful face between those ears. Then he shook his head, closed the exterior door, and waited for the airlock to repressurize.

“Mostly secure, Sergeant!” Maddox said as he re-entered the cabin. “We marked a few things that we couldn’t be sure of.”

“Outstanding. Xander, you come with me. Tavana, make sure all ten of our little satellites get clear of our position. Francisco, Maddox – use the head and then get yourselves strapped in.” He accessed Maddox’ and Francisco’s omnis; there were five questionable areas marked, all of them – as he had expected – associated with the larger pieces of machinery. He and Xander got all of those tended to.

“So now I guess I’d better strap in too?” Xander asked.

“Not yet, son. Now the two of us go front-to-back, inch by inch, and make damn sure there isn’t a single loose object, not so much as a bolt. We’re about to do re-entry at orbital velocity, and anything not strapped down could kill someone.”

Xander nodded, and the two men began a careful survey of the large cargo hold. Sure enough, they found several loose objects that had been hidden behind or under others, including one TechTool that Samuel Campbell had been sure would turn up in exactly this situation. “Tav, found your missing tool. Locking it into a crate back here for now.”

Merci, Sergeant! I was worried about it not being found.”

“No more than I was. How’re those satellites doing?”

“All have cleared our immediate vicinity; there is nothing within several kilometers now.”

“Good. Then get to your own couch and strap in; we’re just about ready to go.”

Campbell settled himself behind the controls, made sure the restraining harness was secure. Then he checked telemetry on all the others. “Tav, you’re a little loose. So are you, Francisco. Strap in. This ain’t going to be a picnic, and when we land at first we’ll all think we’re in hell, because we aren’t used to weight any more. But we’re going to land, at last, on solid ground.”

All four of his passengers gave a cheer at that, and he grinned back before turning his attention to the controls. “All right, now. You can read, or play your Jewelbug, or whatever, but keep it quiet and do not distract me. I have to do this on manual, and that’s dangerous as hell.”

That was something of an exaggeration, he admitted to himself, but he really didn’t want to be disturbed. Yeah, he’d done quite a few hands-on de-orbits in his time, but every one was a little different, and even after a couple centuries of space travel, the friction of re-entry was still one of the things that could kill a spaceship faster than you could say “oops”.

And, of course, every other time he’d either had expert help, or at least a serious survey, to help him out. This time… this time, it was all seat-of-the-pants and gut instinct.

First he tested the manual reconfiguration. With the automatics out, they’d had to use two of the five omnis to provide processing power to direct the metamaterial that made up a large portion of the shuttle’s exterior. The hookups all still worked, fortunately, otherwise he didn’t know how he’d be able to land this thing; its default shape wasn’t all that different from the “brick airplane” first made famous by the American Space Shuttle back in the 20th century, which meant that it was great for re-entry and absolutely abominable for anything else, like actually flying, let alone landing on anything that wasn’t a gargantuan salt flat or immense tailored runway.

But the reconfiguration did work. It was slower than the original systems would have been, but it did the job, and he was pretty sure he could handle the rough moments while it was between modes. “All configurations check out. Starting first de-orbit burn.”

He was doing a series of burns to slowly lower the altitude until he started getting evidence of atmosphere. He wasn’t sure of the scale height for Emerald, and even if he was, their altitude wasn’t absolutely precisely known, and just how high or low he’d have to be before noticeable drag set in would also depend on a lot of other factors, ranging from just how much atmosphere Emerald had to how active Emerald’s sun had been lately.

It was after the third burn that he felt an infinitesimal quiver. That’s got it. “We are about to start re-entry,” he announced. “Stay calm; this will be rough.”

There wasn’t much way to avoid some battering, at pretty nasty levels, on a re-entry. And here, he was having to wing it. On the positive side, if you get the angle wrong, you’ll not have too much time to worry about it.

The vibration grew, became a faint singing hum, getting louder, louder, dropping in pitch while rising in volume. LS-88 was starting to shake slightly now. “We are in the soup. Starting to see heating. Boys, we are about to do a good job at emulating a meteor.” Or of being a meteor.

The shuttle was shuddering now, violent shakes as pressure of deceleration mounted inexorably, crushing down onto Campbell like a load of wet sand slithering down out of a dumptruck. He heard Francisco whimper. “Only… about four G’s,” Campbell managed to say, trying to make it sound casual. “Just a few seconds, kids… keep calm… breathe slow and deep.”

The forward viewport was black, closed against the heat, but Campbell could see the telltales, temperature climbing. There was one spot that heat was going up faster than anywhere else. He stared at that indication, willing it to slow down, to hold out.

Then the rise did slow down. He glanced at the others, saw that a similar slowdown was starting. Slowly, the massive weight lifted from him, and the temperature telltales began to drop rather than climb. Made it! God-damn but we made it through the re-entry!

The forward port showed a gleam and then lit up as the Thermal Protection System retracted, showing blue-black sky above and fluffy clouds far below, green ocean dotted with islands. “Reconfiguring for supersonic flight in three… two… one…”

The manual transition was a pain in the rear. For a few seconds he almost bobbled it, the LS-88 swaying dangerously through the air like a drunk trying to drive home on icy roads. But he finally got it under control, and now the much more streamlined aircraft screamed its way through the sky with nuclear jets driving it forward.

“All right, people, we are now flying, not falling, and not drifting in space. That heaviness you feel is real honest gravity, and we’ll have to get used to it again. But believe me, I’m damn glad to feel it.”

“This world has worse gravity than Earth!” Tavana said. “Will it be dangerous?”

While his limbs were trying to present the same argument as Francisco, his trained reflexes told him something else. “Hate to tell you, son, but if anything it’s a little lighter on the gravity here. I’ve been to a dozen worlds, maybe more; believe me, I know what high gravity feels like.”

“Where are we going to land, sir?”

“Spotted a couple candidates on our orbits, and figured our re-entry to… yep, that should be it ahead.”

A large island was coming into view; it took several minutes at their supersonic speed to draw near enough to appreciate its size. “An island?” Maddox asked. “Why not a continent?”

“Well, son, we can always move somewhere else if we want. But an island will tend to have a more limited population, especially of hostile predators, since any predator has to rely only on what’s on the island; he can’t trot off to the mainland and get himself food like we’d order takeout, after all. And this island’s plenty big enough for four people.”

He was puzzled by the lack of real mountains; from orbit he had seen things that looked, visually, like mountain ranges, but now that he was closer he didn’t think any of the peaks he had seen topped three hundred meters, and that was really rare. No plate tectonics? Something wearing them down fast?

Still, everything was reasonably promising. The way LS-88 was responding, the atmosphere was similar to Earth’s in density at this altitude, anyway. Shame there wasn’t any atmospheric sensor functioning so he could tell if the chemistry was like Earth’s. If LS-88‘s jets had been powered by chemical fuel, like old-style airplanes, he’d have had his answer already; without oxygen they’d have stalled instantly. But this baby used nuclear jets, driving the turbines through sheer nuclear heat. No answers there.

One thing at a time, he reminded himself. First they had to get down.

He triggered the second transition, slowing to subsonic speed, watching flight conditions narrowly. No rain, skies are clear, winds aren’t terribly strong. Hard to tell direction right now. When I get closer, the trees and such will give me an indication, as will wave movement.

LS-88 swept in over the shore of the island, and he began a leisurely survey of his selected target. The island was about seventy kilometers long by thirty-five wide, a ridge of low hills or tiny mountains running down the center from each end and meeting in the middle. The middle ridge extended to the shoreline on each side, and bowed outward in the center of the island, where clear water showed.

He took LS-88 on a high inspection. A circular area in the center, a lot of water in a ring around a central island. Caldera or impact crater, I’m guessing. But that was only a guess. If a couple centuries of space exploration had taught the human race anything, it was that alien worlds were full of surprises, even the ones without anything living on them, and any assumptions you made might get shattered at any moment.

Still, the important thing was that it looked big enough to support them, and there was a larger landmass, maybe a continent, not all that far away if they wanted to move. The question now was, where to land?

“Okay, crew, I’m thinking we want to be pretty close to the shore; fishing and such will be a good way of catching food.”

“Sounds reasonable to me, Sergeant,” Xander said.

“Look for a river,” Francisco said unexpectedly. When they glanced at him, he smiled – a pained smile still, with the pressure of gravity weighing on him, but a smile. “My mama was reading a book to me about old civilizations and said all of them started near rivers.”

A genuine contribution. Not that I wasn’t thinking along those lines myself, but it’ll be good for Francisco to know he was right. “Very good. We’ll want fresh water to drink, and streams are good for fishing too. If it’s big enough, might even be useful for moving stuff on.”

From the high vantage point, it wasn’t hard to spot streams. One looked particularly prominent, gathering several tributary creeks into a respectable flow. Elevation difference isn’t very large, so we’re not going to get too many whitewater rapids or anything. Without a discontinuity like a small cascade, though, tides might make it brackish quite a ways up. Solar tides only; moons aren’t big enough to worry about that way. So, about half the tides we see on Earth. Dunno what the slightly different gravity and such will mean for that.

The large stream also had a somewhat clear region near it, standing out from the surrounding forest, surrounding a small lake maybe half a kilometer across; the stream went into the lake and went out the other side to the sea.

“Got our landing spot picked out, boys.” He flashed it onto their retinals. “Look good?”

There was a chorus of enthusiastic yeses; of course, a lot of that was just the excitement of actually landing; they’d probably have agreed to anything that looked halfway decent.

“All right, descending to five hundred meters. Hold on; I’m about to convert us to VTOL.”

“VTOL?” repeated Francisco.

“Vertical Takeoff and Landing; basically means we can land and take off straight up and down, which lets me put her down on any space she’ll fit, instead of needing a runway. Now pipe down, everyone, this is gonna be tricky.”

It was tricky. The slower-than-design conversion induced turbulence and threw off the aerodynamics drastically. LS-88 almost tumbled, spun once completely around the ship’s central axis as Campbell fought to regain control. He heard a frightened curse from Tavana, a gasp from Xander, and a squeak of fear from Francisco; Maddox was silent, but his hands were gripping the armrests so tightly that his knuckles were white.

But in a few moments the ship steadied, and Campbell began to breathe easier. “We’re okay now, kids. Just hold on a few more minutes.”

He dipped the nose once more, circled his chosen landing spot. He could see somethings flying away from the area. Well, now I know there’s life beyond plants here. Probably a good thing. And the air looks clear. The green color’s from the seawater, somehow. Maybe, just maybe, this is a livable place.

Now came the trickiest part of all. He had no operating radar, no spotters, just 3-D images he’d recorded and that his omni was now overlaying on what he could see through the forward port, showing its best calculation of his current height above the target ground. He let the ship drop to what he guessed was thirty meters, and then reduced his descent to the most exquisitely slow progress he could manage, measured in centimeters per second. Slowly, very slowly, the trees rose up, the horizon began to vanish, the waving grasses gradually became visible at the lower edge of the forward port.

LS-88 vibrated slightly in an unexpected wind, but he didn’t let her sway more than a few centimeters. Now he could see dust and debris flying, and knew he had to be close. Keep it slow, keep it steady, no need to hurry. Slow as you can get it –

The thud of the forward strut striking something transmitted itself throughout the cabin, and was followed almost instantly by smaller thumps from the side struts landing. Tense, Sergeant Campbell started stepping the power down. Moment of truth; I find out if what I landed us on is solid and stable, or if I’ve chosen a pile of quicksand.

But as the vibrations of the engines diminished, LS-88 remained immobile, steady as solid stone, and finally the whine of the turbines faded to nothing. A wide smile spreading across his face, Campbell spun his chair to face the others.

“Gentlemen, we have landed.”