Raising Caine – Snippet 13

Chapter Twenty-One

Bioband’s valland; GJ 1248 One (“Adumbratus”)

Karam Tsaami was in the pilot’s seat of the delta-shaped lander and was not at all happy. He hadn’t been since the slightly smaller, but more versatile and rugged Euro model had been stricken from the legation’s inventory just hours before their departure from Sigma Draconis Two. Two small maintenance glitches and sub par thrust measurements resulted in the mission planners going to the second vehicle on the roster. The TOCIO-manufactured Embra-Mitsu lander was capacious, but also more lightly built and, if push came to shove, simply didn’t have the thrust-to-mass ratio of the EU model, despite its responsiveness.

Karam’s displeasure was increased when the Slaasriithi prohibited the legation’s Wolfe-class corvette from serving as the lander, citing its paucity of passenger couches. Karam had argued the milspec advantages of the craft’s speed, agility, toughness, and systems redundancy. Yiithrii’ah’aash had patiently heard him out and then explained that the humans had to land in their own craft and only one, if possible. So the Embra-Mitsu would suffice. The career pilot had muttered imprecations and suspicions about the Slaasriithi just finding a convenient excuse to keep them from landing in a warship. Caine observed that this might be true but, given the nasty surprise that Joe Buckley had dealt to everyone’s easy confidence in the safety of the mission, Yiithrii’ah’aash certainly had the right to err to the side of caution. Tsaami’s dark grumblings did not cease, but they did subside.

Karam put his hand on the hard-dock release lever, and called out, “I need a vocal confirm that you are strapped in. All the green lights on my board are not good enough.”

A confirming chorus came from the passenger compartment. The three other persons in the cockpit — copilot Qin Lijuan, planetologist Hirano Mizuki, and Riordan, whose ostensible job was security overwatch of flight operations — murmured their own assent.

Karam pulled the handle; he preferred manual controls for some functions. “Okay, everyone, we’ve got some odd descent telemetry on this ride, so be prepared for a few sharper-than-average turns. Here we go.” He puffed the attitude control thrusters to put the nose down and in line with the trajectory guidons and waypoint boxes painted on his HUD visor. The world beneath them rose into view — and revealed itself to be a world like no human had ever seen before.

* * *

Riordan stared at the faintly ovate planet. Scientists and planetologists had speculated that such worlds would — indeed, must — exist. Its primary, a red dwarf labeled GJ 1248, was just thirty-nine million kilometers away. Consequently, the planet was not only face-locked to the star, but had been structurally deformed by it.

Qin Lijuan’s eyes were wide. “Is it slightly egg-shaped?”

Hirano Mizuki nodded. “The inner pole, the part of the planet always closest to the star, was constantly stretched in that direction throughout its formation.”

“Which is one of the two things that makes landing here so challenging.” Karam was fussing with his instruments, particularly his navigational sensors. “I’ve never had to put down on a world which isn’t functionally a sphere. Orbit tracks are messed up. The relationship between altitude and gravity are skewed.”

Qin Lijuan was studying the instruments carefully. “Because in a sphere, a constant orbital altitude means constant distance from the center of gravity.”

“Right. But here, not so much.”

“Would a polar orbit be better? If you remain consistently over the meridian, you will be able to follow a roughly circular orbit with roughly consistent gravity.”

Karam nodded. “That’s what I’m shooting for. But it’s easier said than done, lacking a full planetary survey and nav charts. The Slaasriithi relayed the relevant astrophysical data, but the software on this barge doesn’t have a preset template for a non-spherical planet.”

Riordan glanced at Karam. “So you’re running the nav numbers in real-time?”

“No other way, Captain. Couldn’t run a simulation since I didn’t have the time to write a custom subroutine. So we’ll still need some adjustments on the way in. You ready to help with that, Lieutenant Qin?”

Her hands rested confidently, lightly upon the controls. Qin Lijuan didn’t even bother to nod; she simply glanced at him.

Karam rolled the shuttle, boosted so that its approach to the planet became oblique. Riordan watched as GJ 1248 A’s sun-blasted surface swam across to the right hand side of the cockpit windows, sinking as it went.

Qin’s left eyebrow raised. “We’re going down there? Without hard suits?”

Hirano Mizuki’s answering smile was almost invisible. “We won’t need anything more than filter masks.”

Qin’s other eyebrow rose to join the first. “How is that possible?” She tracked a raging, twister-pocked dust storm as it scoured its way across the ochre flatlands over which they were passing. “The temperature down there must be over two hundred degrees centigrade.”

Hirano nodded. “More, in places.”

Riordan glimpsed the terminator, the line marking the border where the perpetually sun-scorched side of the planet gave way to its perpetually lightless hemisphere, and noted that it was peculiarly smudged: not at all like the hard, crisp demarcation that he had seen while orbiting comparably featureless moons and planets. Is that a lifezone lying along the terminator?”

Karam nodded. “Yeah. Yiithrii’ah’aash briefed me on this for a grand total of two minutes while you were sleeping off the gas. The Slaasriithi call this kind of world a meridiate. A face-locked world that is large enough to retain both an atmosphere and some water can develop what they call a bioband that follows the terminator’s meridian.”

The bioband was only a few hundred kilometers wide, and the sunward margin of it still showed no sign of water or plant-life. But whereas the far wastes of the sunward face were flat and uniform in both color and reflectivity, the margins where it abutted the bioband shaded into darker patches. There were also more geological irregularities along that fringe. Glacial deformations resembling dried finger lakes, hillocks and successive ridgelines paralleled the edge of the zone that human planetologists that speculatively labeled the “life-belt.” The ridges became higher and more frequent as they receded toward the more shadowed center of the zone.

“Terminal moraines,” Hirano commented.

Caine nodded, watching them accumulate and stacking into a washboard collection of faint, meridian-following ribs. “The limits of a glacial advance?”

Hirano nodded. “Yes. We can’t see the darkside glacier yet — most of it will be well-shadowed — but it won’t be a perfectly stable formation. Stellar flares and libration will change the temperatures in the bioband. With those changes will come glacial advances and retreats. And every time the glacier retreats, it will leave behind one of those.” She gestured down at one of the ridges paralleling the further, darker reaches of the bioband.

Riordan watched Karam align the shuttle to follow the same meridian-riding track of the terminal moraine. “Assuming that there is any periodicity to temperature change, there should be some spot where the glacier is most likely to halt, right?”

“Yes,” Hirano confirmed with an eager nod. “That moraine should be the highest, being a compound of multiple terminal deposits. It would logically function as a kind of sunside ‘wall,’ according to some of the planetological predictions.”

Karam glanced at Hirano Mizuki. “I’m not unfamiliar with planetology, given my job, but I’ve never even heard of speculations about a world like this — uh, ‘meridiate.'”