Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 15

Chapter 15.

“No, Maddox, Tav, no one but me and the Sergeant gets armed.”

“But Xaaaaaander –”

“No but Xander, Maddox. You don’t even know how to handle a gun yet, and I don’t think that Tav or Francisco do either.”

The other boys glared at him and Campbell, but finally the glares turned to pouts. “Well… okay. You’re right.”

“Good listening, kids,” Campbell said. “Guns are not toys. We’ve got several from the cargo, so if and when I think you boys are ready, all of us can, and will, be armed when we go out. But for now, Xander’s the only one who’s convinced me I can trust him with something that might put a hole in me if he plays with it wrong.”

“But we all want to go out!” Francisco said.

Xander shook his head. “Francisco, I know you do. But we haven’t got a clue as to what might be waiting out there, and until we do have an idea, we’re not taking anyone else out. Now, you guys can do something, and that’s digging out that temporary shelter and making sure it’s in good condition before we bring it outside and set it up.”

Maddox looked at him with just a bit of resentment and then shrugged it off. “Okay, bro. We’ll do that. Anything else?”

“Check inventory on food,” Campbell said, “and then start checking readiness on the construction equipment we brought with us. I know we chose the motors we did to minimize damage to the cargo, but I want you boys to make sure we didn’t do any real damage to them before we actually try to make use of them.”

“Got it, Sergeant,” Tavana said.

“All right. Let’s take a look at our new home, then.”

The Sergeant went first, stepping into the airlock and opening the outer door; that was no surprise. Xander hadn’t even tried to argue otherwise – it would make no sense for the less-experienced mechanical engineer to stick his head out on an unknown world rather than the soldier with a couple decades of knocking around colony worlds and dealing with whatever they could throw at him.

That didn’t stop Xander from feeling a little jealous.

Sergeant Campbell stepped down and mostly out of sight, then gestured for Xander to follow. Xander opened the inner lock and stepped in, closing the door behind him.

It was the smell that struck Xander first. There was a lingering smell of burning packing fluff and alcohol, but dominating everything was a sharp, sweet freshness, something that he couldn’t describe precisely, but that shouted outdoors! in an unmistakable, joyous way. Faint hints of other smells – heated metal from the LS-88 as she cooled down, spicy scents of flowers, and a grassy smell that he thought must be from whatever they’d landed on. He stepped to the outer lock and took a deep breath.

“Yeah, that’s something you wait for after every trip,” Campbell said from just below him. “First breath of real air. Especially after you’ve been in a tin can like this one.”

For a few moments, Xander couldn’t answer. He was taking in the panorama before him. He’d seen the landing site from the air, but that had been a quick glance, through a camera’s eye. Now they were down on the ground, and he was seeing everything himself.

They were sitting in a small clearing – scarcely two or three times as wide as LS-88 was long – bordered by towering growths crowned with what looked like delicate green sprays of fine hair, but were probably tough, slender strands. Interspersed with these were other treelike things with spiral green sheets that were definitely leaves, and huge columns rearing dozens of meters into the air. He could hear faint noises in the distance – piercing calls, sounds like chiming, answering chimes or screeches – and saw brightly-colored somethings darting in and out of the forest canopy. Nearer, tall growths with banded joints grew side by side with swaying grass-like things that almost had to be plants, and sparkling-winged somethings dancing among them. The sound of running water chuckled somewhere on the other side of LS88.

Campbell’s chuckle broke into his reverie finally. “It sure is pretty, I’ll say that for it.”

Xander looked down, to see the Sergeant standing on the last rung of the ladder; he had not yet stepped down. Campbell grinned up at him. “You want to take the first step, son?”

A huge rush of gratitude roared through him, and he felt an incredibly stupid grin spreading across his face. But… “I… of course I would, sir, but shouldn’t you…?” It was hard to say, but it was the right thing to say; without Campbell, they’d never have gotten here.

Samuel Campbell shook his head, but returned the grin. “Can’t say it’s not a major temptation, Xander; even with all the exploring we’ve done, you could get all the people who’ve been the first to step foot on another world into one auditorium, and it wouldn’t be all that full even after two hundred years. But,” his grin broadened, “I’d already be in that auditorium, son, and you wouldn’t.”

Xander felt a momentary sting of tears. “I don’t think I can say thank you enough, sir.”

“The way you’re smilin’ says it all, Xander. Now take that first step.”

He climbed part-way down, then measured the way his legs felt. “I think it might be more like a jump and fall.”

“Be careful. We’ve flattened stuff nearby, but any farther and who knows what you’ll hit.”

Xander gave a tiny jump and let go, passing the Sergeant by inches. The impact felt like he was landing with a couple other people on his back, after all that time weightless, but somehow he stayed on his two feet, not falling, and slowly rose. “And that’s one tiny leap for mankind,” he said. “Welcome to Emerald!”

“Well, nothing’s leapt out of the grass to kill us yet. Good sign.”

“Did you expect something to?”

“Nah, not really. Something more than thirty meters long made of metal drops screaming out of the air and lands in your field? Anything halfway sane’s running as far as it can go until it’s sure nothing more’s going to happen. Predators don’t survive by attacking things they don’t know, anyway. Main danger on planets like this for newbies like us? Dangers that look harmless until we touch them, kick them, sniff them, or eat them. Or walk past ’em – had a trooper get killed once when we walked past what looked like just any other hole in the rock and something jumped out and whacked him.”

Xander looked around with more caution and suspicion at the waving grass, brush, or whatever-it-was, and realized that stuff that grew almost a meter tall could hide a lot of things.

Campbell nodded. “That is the look you need, son. Until we’re familiar with this place, we haven’t got the faintest idea of what could kill us. There’s risks we really can’t avoid – if the equivalent of the grass is lethal, we’re pretty much hosed. But even there I wouldn’t yank up a stalk and stick it in my mouth to whistle with until we’re damn sure it’s not filled with strychnine or something.”

“What now, Sergeant?”

Campbell surveyed the area. “I want to walk a perimeter around the LS-88, then – if everything looks kosher – we’ll get out one of the excavators.”

“Why – oh. You want to make a real perimeter.”

“You got it, son. First rule of safety – clear out any possible threats and establish a secure camp. Sure, we can stay inside LS-88, and that’s pretty much a damn fortress, but we really need to get used to staying here. And that’s not happening if we use the ship as an excuse to keep from acting like colonists. You were all going to be colonists, well, here’s your chance.”

Xander followed Campbell, who was proceeding up towards the nose of LS-88 with careful, measured steps, surveying everything as he went along. “Well, we were planning on arriving at an already established colony.”

“Can’t give you one of those, though.” Campbell stopped, touched a point underneath LS-88‘s front cabin. “Hmm. There’s the problem child.”

Xander looked, seeing a blackened streak. “What is it?”

“Don’t know for sure. Some small flaw, probably minor damage from the accident. It affected the TPS deployment just a tiny bit and almost led to burn-through. So I wouldn’t want to try another landing with her.” Campbell grinned and patted the lander. “But she did her job long enough.”

Xander repressed a shudder. He hadn’t realized they’d come that close to being a flaming wreck. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Would you?”

That stopped him. He considered a moment. “I guess not. No point in it.”

“Exactly. If it’d holed-through, we’d all have been dead in seconds. No point in worrying anyone with it.” They rounded the nose. “Well, now, isn’t that a pretty sight?”

Stretching away from them, starting perhaps fifteen meters from LS-88, was a sparkling sheet of pristine blue water, rippling slightly from wind and the tumbling waters of the stream feeding the little lake. “Do you think that’s fresh water?”

“I’d bet on it, though the lake itself might be brackish. The stream’s almost certainly fresh water.”

Without warning, something leapt from the water, far out in the lake, and came down with a splash; Xander had a momentary impression of a slender body trailing more fins than he might have expected. “Wow!”

“Wow indeed. That beast was more than a meter long, easy. Maybe twice that, hard to tell at this distance. Looks like we can expect to do some fishing if we’re lucky.”

“If we can eat it.”

“Well, that will be the question, yes. But we know from Earth and other planets that there’s some basic rules we can follow that make it safer. Like not eating the innards of animals in general, until we’ve had a chance to test ’em.” Campbell surveyed the area. “Let’s keep going, but right now I’m inclined to stay right here. Looks about as good a spot as we could hope for.”

“We don’t need an excavator to clear an area for the shelter, do we?”

“Technically… no. Practically speaking, I would strongly recommend it. What if the local grasses can poke holes in your shelter?”

“Well, we did clear out some areas right around the jets when you landed.”

“So we did. But I also avoid camping right underneath nuclear jets, on basic principle alone.”

Xander laughed, but he had to agree that there was something unsettling about the idea of sitting directly beneath a high-powered jet engine. He squatted down and looked carefully at the soil. Near the edges, he could see some shield-shaped things scuttling about. “I see beetles or something.”

“Careful.” With practiced ease, Campbell bent over and impaled one on a needle-fine spike from his ShapeTool. “Hm. Not exactly anything we know – no surprise. Crustacean of some sort, exoskeleton and all. Mandibles look like they could nip through flesh, anyway, don’t know about cloth. Might be plant-eaters, though. Don’t show any response to one of their fellows’ deaths – not that I expected them to, or we’d have seen swarms all over the place after the landing.” He scraped the thing off against LS-88, then wiped off the Shapetool. “But where there’s one thing like that, there’s probably ten thousand species ranging from harmless to very nasty. And – whoops! Will you look at that?”

“That” was one of the plant-things, which had been exhibiting what Xander had thought were brilliant red flowers composed of many hairlike petals, like asters. But as they approached and the Sergeant’s boot landed near – or perhaps touching – the stem, the “flowers” suddenly withdrew into a bulge on the stem. “What is it?”

“Dunno. Could be a plant, still – seen some on various planets that move. Mimosa’s one on Earth – touch it and it folds up fast. But it looked more like an animal movement to me. Interesting.”

They had reached the tail section, and could look up the stream to where it disappeared into the forest; low hills were visible in the distance. He saw Campbell frown and shake his head.

“What is it?”

“Those hills. I know we haven’t seen but a fraction of the planet yet, but near as I can tell there isn’t a mountain on this planet worthy of the name. Most of ’em wouldn’t even qualify as hills. I think the highest peak I saw might just barely clear three hundred meters. Most habitable worlds have pretty active tectonics, so you get plenty of mountains somewhere on the planet. Never seen a habitable world without decent mountain ranges. It’s a puzzle.”

Then he shook himself. “Well, anyway, the cargo bay door’s here, and clear. Looks like we can get to work! Get inside and let’s get started!”

Xander glanced at the hills himself, but he had to admit he didn’t really understand what was bothering the Sergeant. But first things first. “Coming in, Maddox, Tav,” he said, seeing in his omni that it had switched to the proper channels. “We’re gonna get one of the excavators working!”