Read Darkover: First Contact Online

Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (2 page)

CHAPTER ONE
The landing gear was almost the least of their worries; but it made a serious problem in getting in and out. The great starship lay tilted at a forty-five degree angle with the exit ladders and chutes coming nowhere near the ground, and the doors going nowhere. All the damage hadn’t been assessed yet—not nearly—but they estimated that roughly half the crew’s quarters and three-fourths of the passenger sections were uninhabitable.
Already half a dozen small rough shelters, as well as the tentlike field hospital, had been hastily thrown up in the great clearing. They’d been made, mostly out of plastic sheeting and logs from the resinous local trees, which had been cut with buzz-saws and timbering equipment from the supply materials for the colonists. All this had taken place over Captain Leicester’s serious protests; he had yielded only to a technicality. His orders were absolute when the ship was in space; on a planet the Colony Expedition Force was in charge.
The fact that it wasn’t the
right
planet was a technicality that no one had felt able to tackle . . . yet.
It was, reflected Rafael MacAran as he stood on the low peak above the crashed spaceship, a beautiful planet. That is, what they could see of it, which wasn’t all that much. The gravity was a little less than Earth’s, and the oxygen content a little higher, which itself meant a certain feeling of well-being and euphoria for anyone born and brought up on Earth. No one reared on Earth in the twenty-first century, like Rafael MacAran, had ever smelled such sweet and resinous air, or seen faraway hills through such a clean bright morning.
The hills and the distant mountains rose around them in an apparently endless panorama, fold beyond fold, gradually losing color with distance, turning first dim green, then dimmer blue, and finally to dimmest violet and purple. The great sun was deep red, the color of spilt blood; and that morning they had seen the four moons, like great multicolored jewels, hanging off the horns of the distant mountains.
MacAran set his pack down, pulled out the transit and began to set up its tripod legs. He bent to adjust the instrument, wiping sweat from his forehead. God, how hot it seemed after the brutal ice-cold of last night and the sudden snow that had swept from the mountain-range so swiftly they had barely had time to take shelter! And now the snow lay in melting runnels as he pulled off his nylon parka and mopped his brow.
He straightened up, looking around for convenient horizons. He already knew, thanks to the new-model altimeter which could compensate for different gravity strengths, that they were about a thousand feet above sea level—or what would be sea level if there were any seas on this planet which they couldn’t yet be sure of. In the stress and dangers of the crash-landing no one except the Third Officer had gotten a clear look at the planet from space, and she had died twenty minutes after impact while they were still digging bodies out of the wreckage of the bridge.
They knew that there were three planets in this system: one an oversized, frozen-methane giant, the other a small barren rock, more moon than planet except for its solitary orbit, and this one. They knew that this one was what Earth Expeditionary Forces called a Class M planet—roughly Earth-type and probably habitable. And now they knew they were on it. That was just about all they knew about it, except what they had discovered in the last seventy-two hours. The red sun, the four moons, the extremes of temperature, the mountains all had been discovered in the frantic intervals of digging out and identifying the dead, setting up a hasty field hospital and drafting every able-bodied person to care for the injured, bury the dead, and set up hasty shelters while the ship was still inhabitable.
Rafael MacAran started pulling his surveying instruments from his pack but he didn’t attend to them. He had needed this brief interval alone more than he had realized; a little time to recover from the repeated and terrible shocks of the last few hours—the crash, and a concussion which would have put him into a hospital on crowded, medically-hypersensitive Earth. Here the medical officer, harried from worse injuries, tested his reflexes briefly, handed him some headache pills and went on to the seriously hurt and the dying. His head still felt like an oversized toothache although the visual blurring had cleared up after the first night’s sleep. The next day he had been drafted, with all the other able-bodied men not on the medical staff or the engineering crews in the ship, to dig mass graves for the dead. And then there had been the mind-shaking shock of finding Jenny among them.
Jenny. He had envisioned her safe and well, too busy at her own job to hunt him up and reassure him. Then among the mangled dead, the unmistakable silver-bright hair of his only sister. There hadn’t even been time for tears. There were too many dead. He did the only thing he could do. He reported to Camilla Del Rey, deputizing for Captain Leicester on the identity detail, that the name of Jenny MacAran should be transferred from the lists of unlocated survivors to the list of definitely identified dead.
Camilla’s only comment had been a terse, quiet “Thank you, MacAran.” There was no time for sympathy, no time for mourning or even humane expressions of kindness. And yet Jenny had been Camilla’s close friend, she’d really loved that damned Del Rey girl like a sister—just why, Rafael had never known, but Jenny had, and there must have been some reason. He realized somewhere below the surface, that he had hoped Camilla would shed for Jenny the tears he could not manage to weep. Someone ought to cry for Jenny, and he couldn’t. Not yet.
He turned his eyes on his instruments again. If they had known their definite latitude on the planet it would have been easier, but the height of the sun above the horizon would give them some rough idea.
Below him in a great bowl of land at least five miles across filled with low brushwood and scrubby trees, the crashed spaceship lay. Rafael, looking at it from this distance, felt a strange sinking feeling. Captain Leicester was supposed to be working with the crew to assess the damage and estimate the time needed to make repairs. Rafael knew nothing about the workings of starships—his own field was geology. But it didn’t look to him as if that ship was ever going anywhere again.
Then he turned off the thought. That was for the engineering crews to say. They knew, and he didn’t. He’d seen some near-miracles done by engineering these days. At worst this would be an uncomfortable interval of a few days or a couple of weeks, then they’d be on their way again, and a new habitable planet would be charted on the Expeditionary Forces starmaps for colonization. This one, despite the brutal cold at night, looked extremely habitable. Maybe they’d even get to share some of the finder’s fees, which would go to improve the Coronis Colony where they’d be by then.
And they’d all have something to talk about when they were Old Settlers in the Coronis Colony, fifty or sixty years from now.
But if the ship never did get off the ground again. . . .
Impossible. This wasn’t a charted planet, okayed for colonizing, and already opened up. The Coronis Colony—Phi Coronis Delta—was already the site of a flourishing mining settlement. There was a functioning spaceport and a crew of engineers and technicians had been working there for ten years preparing the planet for settlement and studying its ecology. You couldn’t set down, raw and unhelped by technology, on a completely unknown world. It couldn’t be done.
Anyway, that was somebody else’s job and he’d better do his own now. He made all the observations he could, noted them in his pocket notebook, and packed up the tripod starting down the hill again. He moved easily across the rock-strewn slope through the tough underbrush and trees carrying his pack effortlessly in the light gravity. It was cleaner and easier than a hike on Earth, and he cast a longing eye at the distant mountains. Maybe if their stay stretched out more than a few days, he could be spared to take a brief climb into them. Rock samples and some geological notations should be worth something to Earth Expeditionary and it would be a lot better than a climbing trip on Earth, where every National Park from Yellowstone to Himalaya was choked with jet-brought tourists three hundred days of the year.
He supposed it was only fair to give everyone a chance at the mountains, and certainly the slidewalks and lifts installed to the top of Mount Rainier and Everest and Mount Whitney had made it easier for old women and children to get up there and have a chance to see the scenery. But still, MacAran thought longingly, to climb an actual wild mountain—one with no slidewalks and not even a single chairlift! He’d climbed on Earth, but you felt silly struggling up a rock cliff when teenagers were soaring past you in chairlifts on their effortless way to the top and giggling at the anachronist who wanted to do it the hard way!
Some of the nearer slopes were blackened with the scars of old forest fires, and he estimated that the clearing where the ship lay was second-growth from some such fire a few years before. Lucky the ship’s fire-prevention systems had prevented any fire on impact—otherwise if anyone had escaped alive, it might have been quite literally from a frying pan into a raging forest fire. They’d have to be careful in the woods. Earth people had lost their old woodcraft habits and might not be aware anymore of what forest fires could do. He made a mental note of it for his report.
As he re-entered the area of the crash, his brief euphoria vanished. Inside the field hospital, through the semi-transparent plastic of the shelter material, he could see rows and rows of unconscious or semiconscious bodies. A group of men were trimming branches from tree trunks and another small group was raising a dymaxion dome—the kind, based on triangular bracings, which could be built in half a day. He began to wonder what the report of the Engineering crew had been. He could see a crew of machinists crawling around on the crumpled bracings of the starship, but it didn’t look as if much had been accomplished. In fact, it didn’t look hopeful for getting away very soon.
As he passed the hospital, a young man in a stained and crumpled Medic uniform came out and called.
“Rafe! The Mate said report to the First Dome as soon as you get back—there’s a meeting there and they want you. I’m going over there myself for a Medic report—I’m the most senior man they can spare.” He moved slowly beside MacAran. He was slight and small, with light-brown hair and a small curly brown beard, and he looked weary, as if he had had no sleep. MacAran asked hesitatingly, “How are things going in the hospital?”
“Well, no more deaths since midnight, and we’ve taken four more people off critical. There evidently wasn’t a leak in the atomics after all—that girl from Comm checked out with no radiation burns; the vomiting was evidently just a bad blow in the solar plexus. Thank God for small favors—if the atomics had sprung a leak, we’d probably all be dead, and another planet contaminated.”
“Yeah, the M-AM drives have saved a lot of lives,” MacAran said. “You look awfully tired, Ewen—have you had any sleep at all?”
Ewen Ross shook his head. “No, but the Old Man’s been generous with wakers, and I’m still racing my motors. About midafternoon I’m probably going to crash and I won’t wake up for three days, but until then I’m holding on.” He hesitated, looked shyly at his friend and said, “I heard about Jenny, Rafe. Tough luck. So many of the girls back in that area made it out, I was sure she was okay.”
“So was I.” MacAran drew a deep breath and felt the clean air like a great weight on his chest. “I haven’t seen Heather—is she—”
“Heather’s okay; they drafted her for nursing duty. Not a scratch on her. I understand after this meeting they’re going to post completed lists of the dead, the wounded and the survivors. What were you doing, anyway? Del Rey told me you’d been sent out, but I didn’t know what for.”
“Preliminary surveying,” MacAran said. “We have no idea of our latitude, no idea of the planet’s size or mass, no idea about climate or seasons or what have you. But I’ve established that we can’t be too far off the equator, and—well, I’ll be making the report inside. Do we go right in?”
“Yeah, in the First Dome.” Half unconsciously, Ewen had spoken the words with capital letters, and MacAran thought how human a trait it was to establish location and orientation at once. Three days they had been here and already this first shelter was the First Dome, and the field shelter for the wounded was the Hospital.
There were no seats inside the plastic dome, but some canvas groundsheets and empty supply boxes had been set around and someone had brought a folding chair down for Captain Leicester. Next to him, Camilla Del Rey sat on a box with a lapboard and notebook on her knees; a tall, slender, dark-haired girl with a long, jagged cut across her cheek, mended with plastic clips. She was wrapped in the warm fatigue uniform of a crewmember, but she had shucked the heavy parka-like top and wore only a thin, clinging cotton shirt beneath it. MacAran shifted his eyes from her, quickly—
damn it, what was she up to, sitting around in what amounted to her underwear in front of half the crew! At a time like this it wasn’t decent
. . . then, looking at the girl’s drawn and wounded face, he absolved her. She was hot—it
was
hot in here now—and she was, after all, on duty, and had a right to be comfortable.
If anyone’s out of line it’s me, eyeing a girl like this at a time like this
. . . .
Stress. That’s all it is. There are too damn many things it’s not safe to remember or think about. . . .
Captain Leicester raised his grey head.
He looks like death,
MacAran thought,
probably he hasn’t slept since the crash either.
He asked the Del Ray girl, “Is that everyone?”
“I think so.”
The Captain said, “Ladies, gentlemen. We won’t waste time on formalities, and for the duration of this emergency the protocols of etiquette are suspended. Since my recording officer is in the hospital, Officer Del Rey has kindly agreed to act as communications recorder for this meeting. First of all; I have called you together, a representative from every group, so that each of you can speak to your crews with authority about what is happening and we can minimize the growth of rumors and uninformed gossip about our position. And anywhere that more than twenty-five people are gathered, as I remember from my Pensacola days, rumors and gossip start up. So let’s get your information here, and not rely on what somebody told someone else’s best friend a few hours ago and what somebody else heard in the mess room—all right? Engineering: let’s begin with you. What’s the situation with the drives?”

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