Read Darkover: First Contact Online

Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (4 page)

“Well, then, here it is. We don’t know where we are. We don’t know what sun this is. We don’t know even approximately what star cluster we’re in. We were thrown off course by a gravitational storm—that’s the layman’s term, I won’t bother explaining what causes it. We lost our orientation equipment with the first shock, and we had to locate the nearest star-system with a potentially habitable planet, and get down in a hurry. So I’ve got to take some astronomical sightings, if I can, and locate some known stars—I can do that with spectroscopic readings. From there I may be able to triangulate our position in the Galactic Arm, and do at least part of the computer re-programming from the planet’s surface. It is easier to take astronomical observations at an altitude where the air is thinner. Even if I don’t get to the mountain’s peak, every additional thousand feet of altitude will give me a better chance for accurate readings.” The girl looked serious and grave, and he sensed that she was holding fear at bay with her deliberately didactic and professional manner. “So if you can have me along on your expedition, I’m strong and fit, and I’m not afraid of a long hard march. I’d send my assistant, but he has burns over thirty percent of his body surface and even if he recovers—and it’s not certain he will—he won’t be going anywhere for a long, long time. There’s no one else who knows as much about navigation and Galactic Geography as I do, I’m afraid, so I’d trust my own readings more than anyone else’s.”
MacAran shrugged. He was no male chauvinist, and if the girl thought she could handle the expedition’s long marches, she could probably do it. “Okay,” he said, “it’s up to you. We’ll need rations for four days minimum, and if your equipment is heavy, you’d better arrange to have someone else carry it; everybody else will have his own scientific paraphernalia.” He looked at the thin shirt clinging damply to her upper body and added, a little harshly, “Dress warmly enough, damn it; you’ll get pneumonia.”
She looked startled, confused, then suddenly angry; her eyes snapped at him, but MacAran had already forgotten her. He said to the Captain, “When do you want us to start? Tomorrow?”
“No, too many of us haven’t had enough sleep,” said Leicester, dragging himself up again from what looked like a painful doze. “Look who’s talking—and half my crew are in the same shape. I’m going to order everybody but half a dozen watchmen to sleep tonight. Tomorrow, except for basic work crews, we’ll dismiss everyone for the memorial services for the dead; and there’s a lot of inventorying to do, and salvage work. Start—oh, two, three days from now. Any preference about a medical officer?”
“May I have Ewen Ross if the chief can spare him?”
“It’s okay by me,” Leicester said, and sagged again, evidently for a split second asleep where he sat. MacAran said a soft, “Thank you, sir,” and turned away. Camilla Del Rey laid a hand, a feather’s touch, on his arm.
“Don’t you dare judge him,” she said in a low, furious voice, “he’s been on his feet since two days before the crash on a steady diet of wakers, and he’s too old for that! I’m going to see he gets twenty-four hours straight sleep if I have to shut down the whole camp!”
Leicester pulled himself up again. “—wasn’t asleep,” he said firmly. “Anything else, MacAran, Lovat?”
MacAran said a respectful, “No, sir,” and slipped quietly away, leaving the Captain to his rest, his First Officer standing over him like—the image touched his mind in shock—a fiercely maternal tiger over her cub.
Or over the old lion?
And why did he care anyhow?
CHAPTER TWO
Too much of the passenger section was either flooded with fire-prevention foam, or oil-slick and dangerous; for that reason, Captain Leicester had given orders that all members of the expedition to the mountain were to be issued surface uniforms, the warm, weatherproof garments meant for spaceship personnel to wear on visiting the surface of an alien planet. They had been told to be ready just after sunrise, and they were ready, shouldering their rucksacks of rations, scientific equipment, makeshift campout gear. MacAran stood waiting for Camilla Del Rey, who was giving final instructions to a crewman from the bridge.
“These times for sunrise and sunset are as exact as we can get them, and you have exact azimuth readings for the direction of sunrise. We may have to estimate noon. But every night, at sunset, shine the strongest light in the ship in this direction, and leave it on for exactly ten minutes. That way we can run a line of direction to where we’re going, and establish due east and west. You already know about the noon angle readings.”
She turned and saw MacAran standing behind her. She said, with composure, “Am I keeping you waiting? I’m sorry, but you must understand the necessity for accurate readings.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” MacAran said, “and why ask me? You outrank everybody in this party, don’t you, ma’am?”
She lifted her delicate eyebrows at him. “Oh, is
that
what’s worrying you? As a matter of fact, no. Only on the bridge. Captain Leicester put
you
in charge of this party, and believe me, I’m quite content with that. I probably know as much about mountaineering as you do about celestial navigation—if as much. I grew up in the Alpha colony, and you know what the deserts are like there.”
MacAran felt considerably relieved—and perversely annoyed. This woman was just too damned perceptive! Oh, yes, it would minimize tensions if he didn’t have to ask her as a superior officer to pass along any orders—or suggestions—about the trip. But the fact remained that somehow she’d managed to mike him feel officious, blundering and like a damn fool.
“Well,” he said, “any time you’re ready. We’ve got a good long way to go, over some fairly rough ground. So let’s get this show on the road.”
He moved away toward where the rest of the group stood gathered, mentally taking stock. Ewen Ross was carrying a good part of Camilla Del Roy’s astronomical equipment, since, as he admitted, his medical kit was only a light weight. Heather Stuart, wrapped like the others in surface uniform, was talking to him in low tones, and MacAran thought wryly that it must be love, when your girl got up at this unholy hour to see you off. Dr. Judith Lovat, short and sturdy, had an assortment of small sample cases buckled together over her shoulder. He did not know the other two who were waiting in uniform, and before they moved off, he walked around to face them.
“We’ve seen each other in the recreation rooms, but I don’t think I know you. You are—”
The first man, a tall, hawk-nosed, swarthy man in his middle thirties, said, “Marco Zabal. Xenobotanist. I’m coming at Dr. Lovat’s request. I’m used to mountains. I grew up in the Basque country, and I’ve been on expeditions to the Himalayas.”
“Glad to have you.” MacAran shook his hand. It would help to have someone else along who knew mountains. “And you?”
“Lewis MacLeod. Zoologist, veterinary specialist.”
“Crew member or colonist?”
“Colonist.” MacLeod grinned briefly. He was small, fat and fair-skinned. “And before you ask, no, no formal mountaineering experience—but I grew up in the Scottish Highlands, and even in this day and age, you still have to walk a good ways to get anywhere, and there’s more vertical country around than horizontal.”
MacAran said, “Well, that’s a help. And now that we’re all together—Ewen, kiss your girl goodbye and let’s get moving.”
Heather laughed softly, turning and putting back the hood of the uniform—she was a small girl, slight and delicately made, and she looked even smaller in some larger woman’s uniform—“Come off it, Rafe. I’m going with you. I’m a graduate microbiologist, and I’m here to collect samples for the Medic Chief.”
“But—” MacAran frowned in confusion. He could understand why Camilla had to come—she was better qualified for the job than any man. And Dr. Lovat, perhaps, understandably felt concerned. He said, “I asked for men on this trip. It’s some mighty rough ground.” He looked at Ewen for support, but the younger man only laughed.
“Do I have to read you the Terran Bill of Rights?
No law shall be made or formulated abridging the rights of any human being to equal work regardless of racial origin, religion or sex—

“Oh, damn it, don’t you spout Article Four at me,” MacAran muttered. “If Heather wants to wear out her shoe leather and you want to let her, who am I to argue the point?” He still suspected Ewen of arranging it. Hell of a way to start a trip! And here he’d been, despite the serious purpose of this mission, excited about actually having a chance to climb an unexplored mountain—only to discover that he had to drag along, not only a female crew member—who at least looked hardy and in good training—but Dr. Lovat, who might not be old but certainly wasn’t as young and vigorous as he could have wished, and the delicate-looking Heather. He said, “Well, let’s get going,” and hoped he didn’t sound as glum as he felt.
He lined them up, leading the way, placing Dr. Lovat and Heather immediately behind him with Ewen so that he would know if the pace he set was too hard for them, Camilla next with MacLeod, and the mountain-trained Zabal to bring up the rear. As they moved away from the ship and through the small clutter of roughly-made buildings and shelters, the great red sun began to lift above the line of faraway hills, like an enormous, inflamed, bloodshot eye. Fog lay thick in the bowl of land where the ship lay, but as they began to climb up out of the valley it thinned and shredded, and in spite of himself, MacAran’s spirits began to lift. It was, after all, no small thing to be leading a party of exploration, perhaps the only party of exploration for hundreds of years, on a wholly new planet.
They walked in silence; there was plenty to see. As they reached the lip of the valley, MacAran paused and waited for them to come up with him.
“I have very little experience with alien planets,” he said. “But don’t blunder into any strange underbrush, look where you step, and I hope I don’t have to warn you not to drink the water or eat anything until Dr. Lovat has given it her personal okay. You two are the specialists—” he indicated Zabal and MacLeod, “anything to add to that?”
“Just general caution,” MacLeod said. “For all we know this planet could be alive with poisonous snakes and reptiles, but our surface uniforms will protect us against most dangers we can’t see. I have a handgun for use in extreme emergencies—if a dinosaur or huge carnivore comes along and rushes us—but in general it would be better to run away than shoot. Remember this is preliminary observation, and don’t get carried away in classifying and sampling—the next team that comes here can do that.”
“If there is a next team,” Camilla murmured. She had spoken under her breath, but Rafael heard her and gave her a sharp look. All he said was, “Everybody, take a compass reading for the peak, and be sure to mark every time we move off that reading because of rough ground. We can see the peak from here; once we get further into the foothills we may not be able to see anything but the next hilltop, or the trees.”
At first it was easy, pleasant walking, up gentle slopes between tall, deeply rooted coniferous trunks, surprisingly small in diameter for their height, with long blue-green needles on their narrow branches. Except for the dimness of the red sun, they might have been in a forest preserve on Earth. Now and again Marco Zabal fell out of line briefly to inspect some tree or leaf or root pattern; and once a small animal scooted away in the woods. Lewis MacLeod watched it regretfully and said to Dr. Lovat, “One thing—there are furred mammals here. Probably marsupials, but I’m not sure.”
The woman said, “I thought you were going to take specimens.”
“I will, on the way back. I’ve no way to keep live specimens on the way, how would I know what to feed them? But if you’re worried about food supply, I should say that so far every mammal on any planet, without exception, has proved to be edible and wholesome. Some aren’t very tasty, but milk-secreting animals are all evidently alike in body chemistry.”
Judith Lovat noted that the fat little zoologist was puffing with effort, but she said nothing. She could understand perfectly well the fascination of being the first to see and classify the wildlife of a completely strange planet, a job usually left to highly specialized First Landing teams, and she supposed MacAran wouldn’t have accepted him for the trip unless he was physically capable of it.
The same thought was on Ewen Ross’ mind as he walked beside Heather, neither of them wasting their breath in talk. He thought, Rafe isn’t setting a very hard pace, but just the same I’m not too sure how the women will take it. When MacAran called a halt, a little more than an hour after they had set out, he left the girl and moved over to MacAran’s side.
“Tell me, Rafe, how high is this peak?”
“No way of telling, as far off as I saw it, but I’d estimate eighteen-twenty thousand feet.”
Ewen asked, “Think the women can handle it?”
“Camilla will have to; she’s got to take astronomical observations. Zabal and I can help her if we have to, and the rest of you can stay further down on the slopes if you can’t make it.”
“I can make it,” Ewen said. “Remember, the oxygen content of this air is higher than Earth’s; anoxia won’t set in quite so low.” He looked around the group of men and women, seated and resting, except for Heather Stuart, who was digging out a soil sample and putting it into one of her tubes. And Lewis MacLeod had flung himself down full length and was breathing hard, eyes closed. Ewen looked at him with some disquiet, his trained eyes spotting what even Judith Lovat had not seen, but he did not speak. He couldn’t order the man sent back at this distance—not alone, in any case.
It seemed to the young doctor that MacAran was following his thoughts when the other man said abruptly, “Doesn’t this seem almost too easy, too good? There has to be a catch to this planet
somewhere.
It’s too much like a picnic in a forest preserve.”
Ewen thought,
some picnic, with fifty-odd dead and over a hundred hurt in the crash,
but he didn’t say it, remembering Rafe had lost his sister. “Why not, Rafe? Is there some law that says an unexplored planet
has
to be dangerous? Maybe we’re just so conditioned to a life on Earth without risks that we’re afraid to step one inch outside our nice, safe technology.” He smiled. “Haven’t I heard you bitching because on Earth you said that all the mountains, and even the ski slopes, were so smoothed out there wasn’t any sense of personal conquest? Not that I’d know—I never went in for danger sports.”

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