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.”
Gayle stood with a sigh and wiped at the rainwater running down her face. Miho and Carla stood a few meters away, at the top of a low rise. She walked carefully over to them and followed their gaze.
Low clouds hung over the valley, dropping a light rain and fogging the view after a few kilometers. Gayle could see the bank of a slow moving river, but its far shore was obscured. Some sort of low vegetation, each looking something like a giant stem topped by a large semitransparent mushroom-shaped leaf, formed a regular hexagonal grid along the bank. A hundred shades of green, yellow, and brown streaked the soil, forming psychedelic swirls of color.
Miho looked at her. “Look how regular the grid is. Are you sure there’s no intelligent life here?”
“If there was, they’d be buried hip deep in Madison’s damned probes by now.”
“I thought I saw something moving down there,” Carla said. “Maybe one of those big walking tree things that the probes—” Her voice dissolved in a fit of coughing.
“Yeah, just a scratchy throat.”
Miho said, “Me too.”
“Hmmm. Could it be an allergic reaction to something in the air?”
Carla pursed her lips. “Didn’t the med staff test air samples on everything from mice to human volunteers?”
Gayle felt a tingling in her nose, which quickly evolved into burning. “Aw hell. Must be something wrong with the oxygen accumulators.”
“I’m telling you, they’ve been tested.”
We’d better get back to the—”
Carla coughed again and this time came away with blood on her lips and nostrils. “What the hell?”
Miho wheezed and fell to the ground, coughing blood spatter onto the green soil.
Gayle knelt next to her. “Miho! Are you all right?” She didn’t respond, and her eyes were red rimmed and glassy. “Carla—” Gayle choked on the name, unable to get her lungs to expand with fresh air. She turned her head to Carla just in time to see her fall and lay motionless.
Gayle’s heart pounded, but her lungs couldn’t bring in oxygen for it to circulate. Her skin burned. She held her hands up and saw the skin was red and peeling. Desperate, she twisted her neck and gauged the distance to the shuttle. Her vision was blurred, the shuttle a distorted haze of gray. Just a few meters.
Warm sticky blood poured from her nose, dripping down the accumulator tubes, and an involuntary spasm of coughing shot pain through her burning chest. Each raindrop impacted her skin like fire. She scrambled to her feet and took a step toward the shuttle. Her leg moved sluggishly, landing short, and she tumbled over herself and splashed face first into the soft ground. Red rivulets stained the swirling greens and browns.
What the hell is happening to me?
She tried to stand again but couldn’t find the strength. Fire burned inside her chest, and her eyes stung as though the rainwater were acid. She managed to get on her hands and knees and started crawling toward the blur that must have been the shuttle.
She wheezed, struggling desperately for one more gulp of precious air, but no more came. Her eyes burned so badly now that she couldn’t bear to keep them open. She managed to force them open just far enough to realize that she couldn’t see anyway. Her arms gave way beneath her and she dropped to the ground again.
Trembling with fear and exhaustion, she clutched the dirt, pulling herself a centimeter at a time closer to the shuttle. She managed to grasp the twisted landing strut before the pain finally faded and darkness took her.
* * *
Kotori was the second person out of the shuttle. Geta, as commander of the survey team, had gone first. Kotori waited patiently while Geta said a few not-so-spontaneous words. No “one small step” speeches indeed, she thought with a wry smile.
She stepped through the hatch and squinted into the diffuse sunlight. Her eyes tried to dart everywhere at once, to take in the entire world in a single viewing. In her mind, it became a jumble of landforms—spongy green soil, gently rising hillside, muddy plain, rocky escarpment, green-blue bay.
“You going to stand there all day?”
Kotori turned, startled, and instinctively bowed her head to Jasmine. “Sorry.” The oxygen accumulator tubes vibrated in her nostrils when she talked.
“No prob, hon,” Jasmine said. “Just, scoot.” She laughed loudly and clapped Kotori on the shoulder.
Kotori stepped aside. She thought she was prepared for Kepler’s surface gravity, but her foot landed hard, falling short of its mark. She stumbled and steadied herself on the shuttle’s hull.
While the rest of the crew disembarked, she surveyed the landscape more carefully. A string of weathered rim mountains, hazy with distance, stood out against the striated upper cloud deck to the west. Closer, only a few kilometers distant, was a row of shallow hills, each topped with some sort of vegetation. Swirling streaks of green and brown covered the hillside.
Geta stood a few steps away near the front of the shuttle, her slight frame posed like a warrior surveying her conquered lands. Kotori wondered if that’s how the Americans thought of this expedition. More like desperate flight from a dying Earth, she thought, or perhaps forced relocation, but the Americans would surely frown on that way of looking at it. They were conquering heroes, not refugees.
Darshana approached Geta. “Tamiko and I should get the hydrolysis unit unpacked so we can refuel.”
Geta nodded. “Right. Jasmine and Kotori, go get the printer set up.” She pointed to a flat stretch of ground near the shuttle. “Over there should be good.”
“Perhaps the rocky ground near the escarpment would be better,” Kotori said. “That green soil probably holds living matter.”
“Too far. Besides, there’s plenty of soil for you to work with.”
“I’m with Tori,” Jasmine said. “Dunno how the extractor bots will deal with alien cells, and don’t wanna find out quite yet.”
Geta huffed. “Fine. Carry it farther. Just be careful; g is higher than you think. Don’t damage it.”
Jasmine ducked back inside the shuttle and Kotori followed. “Sure, don’t hurt the dang printer,” Jasmine said. “Don’t worry none about our backs.”
Kotori got a grip on her end of the printer and lifted with Jasmine. She grunted with exertion. “Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“Shoot, gravity’s higher’n this back in Alabama.”
Kotori raised an eyebrow, then realized that she was joking when her hearty laugh filled the shuttle. She grinned and followed Jasmine through the hatch. She stumbled and nearly dropped her end.
Kotori tried to decide whether Jasmine was being condescending or overly friendly. Americans were so difficult to read. She continued to stagger along with her end of the printer.
She reprimanded herself. Us versus them thinking wasn’t going to work here. That was the cause of so many of Earth’s problems, the reason they came here in the first place. To bring those same problems here . . . no. This was a new world, a world of women, and there was no place for testosterone-driven tribalism. Not here.
“Right here looks good,” Jasmine said. “Put it down in three, two, one, now.”
Kotori nodded and lowered the printer with Jasmine, feeling a twinge in her back from the weight.
“Is everyone in Japan so talkative?”
Kotori flushed. “Sorry. It’s just all so overwhelming.”
“What, leaving everyone on Earth behind, getting shot up with experimental hibernation genes, settling in on some alien planet? Hells yeah it’s overwhelming.” Jasmine grinned warmly. “But ya gotta open up a lil. It’s good for the soul.”
“Well, yes, all that. But also . . .”
“Ah, I get it. I can be a lil much.”
“Oh, no. Not just you.”
“Not exactly a ringing endorsement.”
Kotori sighed. “It’s just that Japan is a very homogeneous society. I’m not used to working with, uh, outsiders.”
“Y’all have a word for that, don’t you. Gaijin. Not a very nice word, from what I gather.”
Kotori ducked her head. “We need to build a better world here. One where words like that have no meaning.”
“Looks like we got us a dreamer here.” Jasmine’s laugh was good-natured. “We better get this baby purring. Ya know how to deploy the bots?”
“I’ve never worked with . . .”
“Ah, a science type, then.”
“Well let me show you how.” She came around and typed rapidly onto the printer’s flexiglass screen. Kotori tried to follow the blur of fingers with little success.
The afternoon wore on, with Kotori struggling to be more help than hindrance. Landing happened to fall a little before noon at this site, and Kepler’s rapid rotation brought sunset on much quicker than Kotori expected.
She looked up at the diffuse sunlight, now tinting the upper methane cloud deck a deep red. The life forms on the hillside, not technically plants even though they looked the part, stood out in dark silhouette against the illuminated striations of the methane clouds.
The limited samples the microprobes had returned to Pioneer had shown that a lot of Kepler’s life was methanogenic. In the planet’s low oxygen atmosphere, it was an adaptation that was likely advantageous for much of the biosphere. The big question was how the mechanism produced enough energy to support multicellular organisms. Energy shortfalls, unconventional nucleic acids, nitrogen deficiency, a million other biological quirks. Kotori smiled at the prospect of unraveling one mystery after another, piecing together the secrets of an entirely new form of biology.
“Hey dreamer. Ya with me?”
Jasmine’s voice jolted Kotori back to reality. She ducked her head. “Sorry.”
“Penny for your thoughts.”
Kotori took a moment to figure out what she meant. “Oh. It’s just, life is so different here. It’ll take lifetimes to figure it all out. I don’t even know where to start.”
“How would you start back home?”
“Much of what we learned back home won’t apply here,” Kotori said. “You physics types have it easy. The laws of physics don’t change. Planets orbit following the same rules they did in the Solar System.”
“But with biology, I can’t be sure of anything. It’s like having to rewrite all of the laws from scratch. It’s daunting.”
“Tell ya what. Alls I gotta do is get the calibration of this thing down. I think I can handle that by myself.” Jasmine’s smile lit the dusk. “Why don’t ya go grab something to eat.”
“I got this.”
Now that she thought of food, her stomach rumbled. How long had it been? “Thank you.” She bowed her head again and made her way to the shuttle, careful not to stumble in the twilight and unfamiliar gravity.
She pulled open the shuttle’s hatch and stepped inside, tripping over the rim of the hatchway. She wished for an airlock so she could remove her oxygen accumulator, but on a craft this small it would be impractical. She opened the floor panel over the storage space and scanned the stacks of food packets. She picked a dehydrated pack of zaru udon, opened it, and added some cold water. Her stomach grumbled again.
She collapsed into her seat, realizing that she was exhausted. She peeled the rest of the foil covering off her udon and stirred with her chopsticks. It looked wonderful, and her hunger took control of her. She picked up some noodles, dipped them in the container’s little well of rehydrated tsuyu sauce, and slurped them.
Kotori looked up from her noodles to see Tamiko Fujimori standing in the hatch. “Fujimori-san,” she said. She waved to the chair across the aisle. “Please, sit.”
“Arigato.” Tamiko picked a container of rice balls, opened it, and sat. “Itadakimasu.”
Kotori paused briefly for the mealtime tradition, then continued to slurp her noodles.
“O genki desu ka?”
“We should speak English.” Kotori bowed her head, embarrassed to have to say it. “It was decided long ago.”
“So Japanese is to go extinct, then? And you accept this?”
Kotori flushed. “Better the language than the people.”
“You really believe the Americans would have left us behind?” Tamiko’s voice was scornful.
“There were negotiations. Our leaders—”
“Were wrong. Our culture will be lost.” Tamiko thrust a rice ball into her mouth, taking her anger out on her meal.
“If our leaders had refused the American offer, if we’d been left on Earth. What then?”
“They would still have brought frozen Japanese embryos. Like the Australians, and Koreans, and others.”
“Perhaps,” Kotori said. “But who would have taught them our ways?”
Tamiko bowed her head, but her eyes were still angry. She attacked her dinner.
After a long while, Kotori said, “Where is Darshana?”
“Went with Geta to set up a meteorology station.”
Kotori nodded and slurped the last of her noodles.
“I talked with many of the other Japanese colonists,” Tamiko said in a hushed tone. “I sought out as many as I could during my hibernation wake cycles.”
Kotori dropped her chopsticks onto the plastic meal container. “Why?”
“A lot of us don’t like the way the Americans are running things.”
“We’re all equals here.”
“But whose culture are we adopting? Whose traditions?” Tamiko’s gaze hardened. “Do you really think there will be Golden Week on Kepler? Will our children celebrate Kodomo no Hi?”
“Perhaps we can share our—”
“You know what will happen. We’ll have Thanksgiving and Halloween and all the other American traditions. We can’t—”
A thump on the hatch interrupted, and Kotori spun to see who was coming.
“We can’t let our traditions die,” Tamiko whispered. “You need to decide if you’re with us.”
Geta stepped through the hatch, and Darshana followed. “Looks like a good spot,” Geta said. “I’m going to recommend we set up the colony here.”
Tamiko scoffed. “Every survey team leader will do the same.”
“Perhaps. But they’ll be wrong.”
“I hope Maddie agrees,” Darshana said. “I like it here.”
Kotori stared at her empty meal container. She suddenly found the landing site too much like Earth.
* * *
Madison’s back ached from too many hours in a zero-g slouch. She stretched, bumping her arms against the glass panes of the observation blister. She’d brought Pioneer into low orbit with its spin axis pointing through Kepler, giving her a phenomenal view of the planet below. Pale blue methane clouds striated with white streaks rolled beneath her, a vast featureless plane that forever masked the living surface below.
Her tab tumbled lazily next to her, a rumpled flexiglass rectangle the size of her palm. She grasped it from the air and snapped it into its rigid form. The flexiglass screen lit up, and she tapped an icon to open a real-time radar image of the planet from Pioneer’s instrument blister. Much of the southern hemisphere was dark ocean, while a supercontinent that put Pangaea to shame covered the northern half of the planet in color-coded topographical contours. An ancient crater valley stretched from near the equator into the northern middle latitudes, forming a shallow inland sea. Four green dots marked the landing sites that had reported in—two along the great arc of the crater sea, one on an island in the southern ocean, and one in the northern highlands. The remaining dot along the great arc remained stubbornly red.
“Hey Maddie, heads up.”
Madison turned in time to see Yareli toss a drinking bulb through the hatch. Recoil tipped her backward, and she had to grab the frame of the hatch to keep from tumbling. Madison laughed at her and almost missed catching the bulb.
Yareli gave her a frown of mock disapproval. “Any chance we can spin up soon?”
“I don’t want to waste the reaction mass,” Madison said. “With most of the crew on the surface, and the rest likely leaving soon, it’s hardly worth it.”
Besides, weightlessness was a luxury to be enjoyed while it lasted. Too soon she would have to join her crew on the surface, forever fighting the tug of gravity. No, she was going to enjoy zero-g while she could.
“Very soon, I hope,” Yareli said. “Any word from Gayle’s team yet?”
Madison shook her head. “I’m worried. She’s missed four overpasses now.”
“Any chance of getting someone to their site?”
“I don’t want to risk another team. We know so little. If they’d have waited, I could have positioned relay satellites. . . .”
“Ah! What about landing a probe at Gayle’s site?”
“Already printing the components for one. It’ll take a while, though.”
“Okay. So how about if you—”
“Yareli.” Madison sighed. “Look, I know you’re trying to help, but you’re not an engineer. We’re going to need your skill soon enough, when we’re ready to implant the frozen embryos and start the colony.”
Yareli nodded, but her eyes betrayed her hurt feelings. “Got ya. I’ll be in the lounge if you need me.” She pushed off the wall of the observation blister and drifted into the access tube. “Don’t let your coffee get cold.”
Madison looked at the forgotten bulb in her hand. She sucked a few milliliters of tepid coffee into her mouth and tapped the image on her tab.
She would have to decide on a site for the colony soon. She hadn’t seen anything from the survey teams to change her mind; somewhere along the great arc would be perfect. That wouldn’t make Olivia happy; she had insisted on landing on a secluded island in the southern hemisphere. But the great arc had so many things going for it—plenty of water for refueling, insulation from weather extremes, rim mountains to contain potential contamination. Yes, one of the crater sites would be perfect. But damn, would Olivia scream about it.
She was going to be a problem, that one. Madison had argued against making her a team commander, but political expediency had won out. There had been serious opposition to bringing the Indians and Japanese into the mix, even though it had been abundantly clear that there was no way the U.S. could put the mission together fast enough on its own.
Those were some rough years, when desperation drove NASA to allow all sorts of record-breaking stunts. Madison smiled at the memory of those grueling, improbable successes. Longest sustained EVA; longest duration in the station; largest EVA team; most cumulative time in space; and more. She had owned a lot of those records. Maybe still did. Her smile collapsed. Was anyone back there even able to keep track of such things anymore?
She drew a mouthful of coffee. Whatever happened back on Earth, whether they’d made it or not, she would never know. She had accepted that when she’d signed on as mission commander. That uncertainty made it all the more important that she succeed. No, there was no room for hotheads like Olivia, second-guessing every decision. Madison needed to get the colony established fast so they could start rebuilding the human race.
And her first priority was to select the optimal site. As soon as that was done and the colony established, she’d start sending shipments of frozen embryos. A lot of the crew would want to wait, she knew. There was a whole world to explore, enough scientific mysteries to keep generations busy. Science, discovery, exploration—all were noble goals, but secondary to preserving humanity. Every womb would be necessary.
Another sip of cold coffee reminded her how long she had been daydreaming. A quick glance at her tab showed no surface contacts coming up for a while. Enough time for a hot bulb, and maybe a bite to eat. She crumpled the tab and stuffed it into her pocket. A quick tug on the hatch frame sent her into the access tube. She pulled herself along the handholds, turned up one of the spokes. If Pioneer had been spinning, gravity would be increasing as she climbed.
She entered the main hab ring next to the hibernation modules. They were empty now, but just the sight of the place brought back memories of—how many years had it been? Long periods of hibernation torpor, induced by genes taken from some primate, punctuated by days of intense hunger. Those recovery periods—IV fluids, thick nutrient pastes, and rebuilding fat stores for the next long sleep—were all she knew of decades of elapsed time. Pioneer’s doctors still had no idea how much their bodies had aged during those decades, and finding out wasn’t going to be a priority for quite a while.
She pulled herself along the curved passage into the lounge module. With most of the crew on the surface, the place was unnaturally quiet. Yareli floated in a corner with a bulb and her tab. She looked up from her screen. “Figured you’d make your way here sooner or later.”
Madison waved her coffee bulb. “Needed a warm up.”
“Decide on a colony site yet?”
She blew a long breath. “I think I’m going to go with Geta’s site. It’s got everything we need, and it’s close to Gayle’s landing so we can send a search and rescue team out.”
“Good luck explaining that to Olivia.”
“That woman is going to be the death of me.”
“I knew she’d be a problem as soon as she opened her mouth.”
“Only reason she’s here is to placate the go-it-alone crowd.”
Yareli’s eyes widened. “You didn’t want her on the crew?”
Madison mentally kicked herself for spilling her feelings. Maintain your distance. “She’s a solid pilot, and she knows her way around fusors.”
“Nice nonanswer. Makes me wonder why I’m here. Keep the Hispanic voters in line?”
“You know it’s not like that.” She forced out another long breath. “You practically invented the modern method of embryo implantation. Without you, half the crew would have to be male. Our genetic diversity would be limited to whatever pairings we could manage.”
Yareli frowned. “Necessity, then.”
“Isn’t it why we’re all here?” Necessity, political expediency, and damn the psych profiles. Hibernation could keep them distant enough during the trip. After that . . . well, it was Madison’s problem now. “It’s better than being left behind.”
“I suppose.” Yareli smiled. “I’m just being overly sensitive.”
Madison snapped her tab into rigid form and checked the data stream. The first landing party would come back into contact range soon. She’d made her decision, no sense delaying the news. Man, was Olivia going to be pissed. “Emily is taking the heavy lift vehicle down soon. I’d like you to go down with her. Take a batch of frozen embryos.”
“You want me to begin already?”
“Soon. I want to get everything in place quickly.”
Yareli’s face brightened. “Ah. Hand Olivia a fait accompli.”
“Something like that.” Yumi and Vanya would be aboard too, leaving Madison alone on Pioneer. Blissful solitude.
“When are you going down?”
“I need to stay long enough to put up a synchronous communications satellite above the colony site.”
“How long will that take?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a week.”
“Okay. I guess I’d better get everything packed up.”
“Make sure you take a mixed sample of embryos. I don’t need accusations of favoritism.”
Copyright © 2021. Kepter's Laws, Part I by Jay Werkheiser