by Jay Werkheiser
The heat shield separated from the shuttle and dropped clear. Gayle nosed down hard and switched the scramjets on. Her stomach dropped, giving her one last taste of the exhilarating feeling of freefall, and the gray horizon rose around her. The scramjets, now free of the heat shielding, began to thrust against the shuttle’s descent.
“Are you trying to kill us?” Anju said from behind her.
“Leave the flying to me, Doc. I’ll get you down fast.”
“I prefer alive.”
I prefer first, Gayle thought. Five survey teams, five members each, most of Pioneer’s crew, were screaming in from orbit simultaneously. Mission Commander Madison Taylor had insisted they delete the timestamps on their telemetry after they land, some egalitarian bullshit about the new world having no first founder to idolize.
Eff that noise. When their descendants wrote the book on the colonization of Kepler, they’d have a whole chapter on Gayle Donner’s first words.
Madison would be a barely remembered footnote. Damn that woman, anyway. If she’d had her way, they would still be up there analyzing probe data. Like they had somewhere else to go if the data turned out bad. Marginally habitable or not, Kepler was humanity’s one shot at survival.
“Aren’t you coming in a little hot?” Randi said from the copilot’s seat.
“I got this.”
But the tropospheric cloud deck was rising fast, and she still wasn’t over land. Gayle grudgingly nosed up and activated the radar HUD. The curved coastline appeared as a green line on her windshield, with elevation contours rising toward rim mountains in the distance. A red dot marked her intended landing site.
She checked elapsed mission time and cursed. Geta’s team had drawn a landing zone with an easy approach, further north along the crater rim with clear weather. She was probably on final approach by now. Gayle checked the altimeter and cursed again.
She was a little too high and a little too fast for it, but she cut the scramjets and rigged for the final descent. The shuttle dropped precipitously, punching her stomach up into her mouth. She flipped on the fans and ignored the complaints from her team.
The shuttle flashed through the cloud deck, and Gayle suddenly found herself facing a rapidly approaching river valley surrounded by rim mountains. Rainwater streaked the windshield. She reflexively yanked up on the yoke, and the shuttle shuddered and groaned.
“Jeez,” Anju said. “Take it easy.”
“You’re gonna stall.” Randi’s voice overlapped Anju’s.
Moments later, red indicators flashed. Fans two and four were out. “Goddamn it,” Gayle said.
Randi was on the radio. “Pioneer, do you read? We have—”
“They’re already over the horizon,” Gayle said. “Just get those fans going.”
“Working on restart.”
Gayle fought the yoke, struggling to get the shuttle somewhere close to level. The HUD showed ground impact was imminent. “Brace for a hard landing.”
“Oxygen accumulators on,” Randi said.
Gayle caught motion in her peripheral vision. Her mind filled in the blanks, the crew positioning the devices on their noses. Someone’s hands clapped an accumulator onto the bridge of her nose, stinging her eyes, and slid the breathing tubes into her nostrils.
The shuttle jolted, and Gayle’s harness slammed into her chest. Stressed metal creaked then silenced, leaving nothing but the patter of rain on the outer hull and the hum of the air circulators. All four fan indicators flashed red.
The three passengers grumbled acknowledgement.
“Damage report?” No response. “Randi?” She looked to her copilot and found her slumped in her seat, harness unbuckled. “Damn it. Doc?”
“Randi’s not. I’m going out to assess the damage. Carla, Miho, you’re with me.”
She opened her harness and stood on legs made wobbly by years of alternating hibernation and spin gravity. Miho popped the hatch and stood aside, leaving that crucial first step to Gayle. She grinned despite everything. Here goes!
She stepped down onto the spongy wet ground. Rain patted her on the head. Next to her, the starboard landing strut was twisted out of shape.
“Goddamn it.” Not exactly the first words she had mentally prepared. Ah well, the history books could be fixed later. She moved to inspect the damage more closely, and the others piled out behind her.
“Whoa, take a look at this,” Carla said.
“You find more damage?”
“No. It’s just . . . beautiful.”
“Just take a look.” READ MORE
by Adam-Troy Castro
Illustration by Kurt Huggins
Before I bothered traveling for six months to see it for myself, Sunfire had been described to me in glowing terms as a palace in the sky.
Phrases like that immediately trigger my alarms. I begin to suspect that someone’s trying to sell me something.
This particular little word-image came to me courtesy of one of the brokers I employ to triage the requests for my services. He’s one of the more repellent people I deal with, down to odor, appropriate enough for a guy who makes his living by helping connect people with contract killers; you won’t find many drawn to the work who qualify as charming. But it’s still a useful service. He spares me the jobs that would strike me as too dirty and many of those where I would be set up to fail.
Blowing smoke through the gap in his teeth, he offered the “palace” description with a smirk, one he meant me to see, sharing his position that the description was both literally true and the pretty summary that hid an uglier truth.
I didn’t ask the man to share the joke. I’d had enough exposures to his idea of humor. I did ask him if he was certain that the job would be worth my time. He said yes. Smirking.
Negotiating through him, I got agreement to a substantial kill fee in case I decided not to follow through, packed my assistant Justin and myself into a bluegel crypt for our months in transit, and emerged from hibernation in orbit around a planet known as Vireczin, so pretty and blue from orbit that I could not wait until a view from ground level gave me an excuse to hate it.
And yes, now that I’d ridden the elevator down to the planetary surface, I had to agree.
Sunfire was both one of the most beautiful structures in the Universe, and one of the most philosophically disgusting.
It was the only human construct in Vireczin’s northern hemisphere, and one of only two on the entire planet, the other an equally ridiculous palace many thousands of kilometers to its south. The two homes and their respective lands shared the planet between them, populated only by the two landowners and their respective support staffs, a vast population of thousands dedicated to supporting the whims of only two.
Beyond that, this solar system boasted no other civilization. No other cities, no other states, jut these two exercises in overwrought ego, planted in opposite hemispheres.
The wealth required to obtain control of an entire solar system, construct an entire Earth-sized planet in the Goldilocks zone, engineer its ecosystem to the most minute specifications, establish defenses that prevented any of known space’s peoples from coming in and just taking it all for themselves, and then—just as superfluous frosting—to construct this pair of outrageous palaces to inhabit was obscene: more than the collected income of some entire civilizations. And especially pointless, as both of the rich people involved chose to live on only a few square kilometers of it. It was the very definition of wretched excess for its own sake, nauseating even to someone like myself who had spent her career dealing with humanity’s most wretched.
Sunfire, the northern estate, sat atop what looked like an unsupported disk, floating two thousand meters above the verdant greenery of a rainforest to rival the mythical, long-vanished Amazon. As we circled the disk in our skimmer, I could make out rolling hills, gardens, a zoo, a community of smaller structures, and Sunfire itself, a palace with crystal spires stabbing upward as if intent on threatening the heavens. Each of the main structure’s competing towers had a mirrored surface studded with facets that resembled jewels, and beneath the tropical sun cast colorful reflected sunlight into the surrounding skies. Raging waterfalls plunged from four compass points along the periphery of the disk, to capture basins set within the forest canopy far below. Rainbows inevitably glowed around the clouds of mist.
To the naked eye, all of this did indeed appear to float without support, a feat that could be achieved given the level of technology the mistress of this palace could afford. Even so, I suspected trickery, and so I made a point of ordering my pilot Justin to circle at a distance, until I could produce an explanation for the illusion. For long minutes I could not arrive at one. Then it occurred to me to wonder just what fed those four waterfalls, and I got it. The estate rested on five transparent pylons, including one thick one at the center that was always in shadow, and four more slender that stood obscured within those waterfalls. What waters forever pumped up the central pipe forever left via those four tumbling waterfalls to forever collect in a subterranean cistern that forever fed the intake; no more impressive than any perpetual fountain, really, except by being larger.
The wealthy build many monuments to themselves. The corollary, that they crave these monuments, is all an impartial observer needs to resist what they want, awe.
I hated them all as much as I depended on them for my livelihood, and so I was pleased to uncover the artifice beneath the illusion. “Just who do they think they’re impressing?”
My assistant Justin turned to look at me. He was young and he was brilliant and he was happy for the work after escaping the hellhole world he’d come from, and I had never slept with him and never would, despite the knowledge that he would have liked to and that I would have enjoyed it as well. He said, “I don’t think they’re impressing anybody. I think they’re just making themselves feel better.”
“Than however they can’t help feeling.”
I glanced at him. “Please tell me what you’re talking about.”
“Look, it’s just a feeling. My father once told me a legend from old Earth, of a man of extensive and undeserved inherited wealth who tried to accomplish great things, but failed at everything he attempted. He went into business and after a couple of decades had to dissolve his enterprises to avoid poverty. He went into politics and was destroyed by scandal. He married women but twice managed to turn their love into hate. Ultimately he retreated to a vast estate, more palatial and stuffed with treasures than any man should need; and though it brought him no happiness, succeeded at last at utterly controlling some part of his map, and spared him the requirement to get along with other people. In the end he died alone, longing for one of the playthings of his youth.” He gestured at the floating monument to ego. “Being the master of all you survey spares you from ever having to survey anything else. It’s also a virtual guarantee of loneliness.” READ MORE