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Denizens: 21 - Planetfall

...Their laughter was a happy sound, out there in the lonely reaches of deep space. They were more alone and further from home than any explorers had ever been in the entire history of human endeavor. They did have, however, one distinct advantage. They were also heading homeward faster than anyone ever had before....

But the laughter fades when the crew of the Hermes realise the cost of breaking through the speed-of-light barrier.

Brian William Neal's magnificent sci-fi novel heaps wonder upon wonder. To read earlier chapters of this great story please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

*

Part 4 - Worlds of Wonder


"Take me to your leader.” sci-fi chestnut

Deep space
February, 2034 (relative)

“Here it comes!”

Cal’s voice sounded in their suit radios as the Hermes approached light speed for the second time. Belatedly, they had decided to wear their environment suits this time through the light barrier, something they had neglected to do the previous time. The hull of the ship had again become transparent, and it was while Karen was looking at a distant nebula, clearly visible through the hull, that the crossover had occurred. There was the same flash of light, the same hiatus, then they were into the silvery whiteness of hyperspace.

Cal and Bill, working with Jonathan’s calculations, had programmed the ship’s engines to run exactly as they had before, to cut out and fire forward thrusters after exactly twenty-one minutes and seventeen point five seconds. Also as before, the mysterious shapes were back, although they did not seem as interested as they were the last time, and no contact was made.

After the prescribed time had elapsed, the forward thrusters fired and the ship had reduced speed and emerged into normal space again. The four sat looking at the stars for a moment, then Cal turned in his seat and spoke to the others.

“O.K., moment of truth. Professor, find out where we are, pronto.” Jonathan set to his task, with Karen assisting, and Cal turned back to Bill. “As soon as we find out our position, we turn this baby over and start deceleration. At one and a quarter gees it’ll take as long to slow down as it did to get to light speed, so we’ve got a long trip ahead of us.”

Presently, Jonathan reported his and Karen’s findings to Cal. “We’ve determined where we are. Call it expert spacemanship, or call it blind luck, but we are very near where we first went to light speed, approximately point eight of a light year from earth.”

While Bill whooped and hugged Karen and Jonathan, Cal sat and stared out through the view screen at the way ahead. “Son of a bitch, it worked. We’ve found the way to the stars, to other systems.”

They were all silent for a moment, then Jonathan spoke up.

“Course for earth is plotted and laid in, Cal.”

“Engines, Bill?”

“All systems go, skipper,” replied the engineer. “Firing attitude thrusters now.” There was a moment of reduced gravity, and then the ship slowly turned over with a gently tumbling motion that tugged at their stomachs, leaving them all feeling like they had just completed a somersault. Then, as gravity returned, Bill spoke again.

“On course, Cal. Decelerating at one point two five gees and heading ass-first for home.”

Their laughter was a happy sound, out there in the lonely reaches of deep space. They were more alone and further from home than any explorers had ever been in the entire history of human endeavor. They did have, however, one distinct advantage. They were also heading homeward faster than anyone ever had before.

*

Ten months later, when they were twenty million miles past the orbit of Jupiter, Jonathan touched the entry pad outside Cal’s quarters. They were both off duty; Bill and Karen were on the bridge, monitoring the ship’s progress. Cal helped Jonathan lock his chair into position, and the English astrophysicist came straight to the point.

“I didn’t want to say anything to the others until I had spoken to you first, Cal, but we seem to have something of a problem.”

Cal raised his eyebrows inquiringly, and Jonathan went on. “As you are aware, the next orbit we encounter on the inward leg should be that of the planet Mars, and that between here and there lies the asteroid belt. I have been monitoring the radio, hoping to pick up a transmission from the mining fleet, but so far there has been nothing.”

Cal smiled. “Well, it would have been nice to hear a friendly voice after all this time, but I wouldn’t call it a problem. We’re still a fair distance away, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing something soon. If not, I guess we can wait until we get back to earth.”

Jonathan regarded him sadly, then looked away. “That’s the problem, I’m afraid,” he said. “I fear we will not find the same earth we left almost two years ago.”

Cal looked at him, puzzled. “What do you mean, not the same earth? I thought we agreed there would be no appreciable temporal shift. You said we should arrive having lost only a month or so.”

Jonathan nodded. “Under other, theoretical circumstances, that would be so. But, if you recall, that scenario was for a vessel traveling at the speed of light. As I was always careful to tell you, no one knew what would happen when we exceeded light speed.” He paused, then said, “I’m afraid we now have the answer to that particular puzzle.” Again, Jonathan hesitated uncomfortably, then went on.
“I have been scanning space ever since we entered our solar system. After passing the orbit of Jupiter, we should have encountered at least some asteroids; so far, I have been unable to discover a single one. I have, instead, found something else that confirms that we are not in our own time.”

Cal felt goose bumps tickle the back of his neck, and a chill ran through him as the Englishman continued.

“We are approaching a planet, approximately mid-way between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. It is slightly smaller than earth, and no, it is not Mars. I believe it to be the tenth planet of our system, the one that has often been theorized about, and which I further believe was destroyed in some way, thereby creating the asteroids. It is earth like, with an oxygen atmosphere, and looks to be capable of supporting life.” Jonathan looked down at his hands, then back up at Cal. “This planet has been theorized about, as I said, for some time. Exactly when it was destroyed, no one can say for sure; a few thousand years ago, or a few million, who knows? But one thing is certain: I fear we shall find a very different civilization on earth than the one we left. If, in fact, we find anything at all.”

*

The massive globe filled the view screens, immense from just one thousand miles away. At first glance, it resembled the earth; blue oceans, white clouds and darker land masses. However, Jonathan soon pointed out several differences.

“For one thing, both polar caps are land masses. On earth, only Antarctica is like this. Our North Polar region is an ice cap, constantly shifting, which is why we have an actual North Pole and a magnetic. You might also have noticed the sun. It is much smaller out here than at home, and there will consequently be less heat from it. Either the inhabitants of this world have found an alternative source of heat, or they don’t require as much as we do.”

The others all tried to speak at once, and finally it was Karen who said, “Inhabitants? You mean there’re..…people down there?”

Jonathan nodded. “I’ve been picking up signs of life for some time now. Intelligent life. It’s inhabited, all right.”

They had approached the planet from the sunlit side, and now Cal began to guide the ship around to the darker half. If there was life, civilized life, they might be able to see lights from orbit. They crossed the terminator, the line that separates night from day, and moved into darkness, keeping the planet between them and the distant sun. But because of heavy cloud cover, nothing could be seen of the surface; after an hour or so, Cal turned away from the screens and spoke to the others.

“Well, it looks to me like we’ve got a decision to make. The existence of this planet pretty much confirms Jonathan’s theory that we’re in a time well before our own. What we have to decide is, do we carry on to earth, or do we risk a landing here, and hope to find a civilization we can be accepted into?”

There was silence on the bridge for a few minutes, then Karen said, “Are we sure there’s no way to get back to our own time?” Her voice reflected the desperation they all felt, as the possibility that they had lost their home forever became a likelihood. “Can’t we just…I don’t know, maybe go past light speed again, or something?”

Jonathan smiled sadly at her. “I’m afraid that won’t do any good, Karen,” he said. “Remember, we’ve been all through this. Time travel, at least the way we’ve done it, is a one-way street. If we go past light speed again, we’ll just go further into the past. I’m afraid travel into the future is really not possible.”

They were quiet again for a moment, then Bill said, “Well, if that’s the case, why not do both? Why not go to earth, if only to satisfy ourselves that nobody’s home? Then, if we still want to, we can come back here.”

They looked at each other, seeking opinions, and Cal said, “That’s the best suggestion I’ve heard so far. Anyone got a better idea?”

Karen drew hard on her cigarette and blew a cloud of odorless smoke before answering. “Sure, I guess. If we don’t like what we find, then as Bill says, we can always come back here.”

Cal nodded, and looked at the Englishman, who was sitting and watching the view screen. An expression of apprehension passed over his thin, ascetic features, and he drew a deep breath. “Yes, of course. We must at least look at the earth, if only because it was our home. But I am certain we will return here. I feel that some kind of destiny awaits us here, on this world.”

He would not be drawn further, and said no more. Then he and the others gave their attention to their duties, and prepared for the journey to their home world. To earth.

*

Fifteen days later, the Hermes was in earth orbit, one thousand miles above the equator. They had accelerated again, then slowed their speed with the forward thrusters, and had completed their journey at the more comfortable deceleration of one gee. Now, as the ship passed over the familiar land masses, each of the team felt a sense of loss that was too acute to be described. This was their home, and yet it was, in a way, as alien a world as the one they had just left, out beyond Mars. There were no visible signs of life on the planet, and Cal took the ship over vast areas of land and sea as Jonathan attempted to determine just when in time they had arrived.

There were no lights visible on the night side of the planet and all attempts at radio contact had been met with silence. Finally, the others were forced to concede that Jonathan was right; they had arrived in a time well before their own, and the technological era had not yet begun.

Exactly how far in the past they had gone was not known, nor did there seem to be any way, short of landing, to find out. There were no artificial satellites in orbit, and no pollution from industry. Jonathan’s best calculations, arrived at by taking star sightings, put them at somewhere around the birth of Christ, or perhaps a little earlier. The best guideline they could find was the Great Wall of China, one of the few man-made objects visible from orbit. Jonathan gave them the benefit of his knowledge on the subject.

“The Great Wall was constructed more than two hundred years before the birth of Our Lord,” he said, as they watched the slowly turning planet on the screens. “The fact that it is there tells us that it cannot be any earlier than about 220 BC, and it may in fact be much later. But how much, I’m afraid I cannot say.”

They stayed in orbit around their home world for several days, putting off the inevitable, but finally they had to admit that there was nothing for them there. With heavy hearts, and with a collective feeling of gloom pervading the ship, they moved out of orbit and set a course for the tenth planet once again. It was the only other place in the solar system that offered them the possibility of living in a civilization approaching their own. If that turned out not to be the case, then they resolved to return to earth again, and somehow make a life there.

When they were once again in orbit around the fifth planet from the sun, they studied it painstakingly, putting off the inevitable for as long as possible. They mapped large sections of the land masses, and when a section of the cloud cover briefly cleared on the night side, they saw the lights of a large city below.

The four astronauts, orphaned and homeless, watched in poignant fascination as the lights drifted in and out of the cloud cover. Although it was an alien city, nevertheless the sight of a modern civilization gave them new heart. The airways were strangely silent, with no radio emissions of any kind, but seeing irrefutable evidence of civilized life lifted their spirits immensely. They had been alone for so long, and now they were alone no more; that knowledge went a long way towards assuaging the grief they felt over the loss of their home.

The day after they sighted the city, Cal called a meeting on the bridge. The four had taken to making their observations separately, preferring to spend their off duty time alone. Consequently, they were seldom together in one place. When they were all settled, Cal said, “I think it’s time we decided what we want to do.”

No one spoke, and Cal went on. “Our supplies, while substantial, won’t last indefinitely, and we’re going to have to go down to the surface sooner or later. The people who sent us on this joy-ride didn’t anticipate us having to make planet fall, so they didn’t give us a shuttle of any kind. Consequently, if we do land, we’re going to have to do it in the Hermes. Personally speaking, I don’t think we have a choice, and I also think it might as well be sooner as later. I’d appreciate your views.”

Bill was the first to reply. He sprawled in his seat and said, “Hell, I’ve been ready to go ever since we got here. I’ve been wondering what was taking you guys so long to make up your minds.”

Cal nodded; such a response was exactly what he had expected from the laid-back engineer. “Karen?” he said, directing his attention towards the English doctor, who was puffing on the inevitable cigarette. She ground it out before replying.

“I suppose we’re all in the same boat, so to speak. There’s nothing on earth for us now, not unless we want to live in caves, or something. At least down there,” she nodded towards the view screens, “there is some kind of technological society. I agree with Cal; we don’t have a choice, and we might as well go now.”

The three turned to Jonathan, who was staring at the screens. After a moment, he swung his chair around to face them.

“For most of my life I’ve wondered about life on other worlds. I never expected to find it in our own system, and certainly not under such circumstances as these.” He paused for a moment, then continued.

“I cannot help but feel we are being directed by a higher power. I call it God; you obviously will have your own opinions. Whatever you believe, I feel we have not seen the last of our home world. The earth may yet figure in this drama in which we find ourselves reluctant players.”

He drew a deep breath and glanced once more at the screens. “But, as for the present, of course you are right, all of you. We must go. We have no choice. And we must go now.”

Cal sat back in his seat. “OK, I guess that makes it unanimous. Jonathan, start calculating a trajectory for a window to take us near that large city we saw. Everyone else, get ready to make a landing. We are going down.”

Bill gave him a wry smile. “Are you sure you know how to land this crate, boss? I know it’s capable of flying in atmosphere, but only as a last resort. Hell, it was even constructed in space. It’s never been done before. How are we going to land it?”

Jonathan looked up from his computer. “If I may, Cal?” he asked. Cal nodded, and Jonathan went on. “The only way, as I see it, will be to make a landing on water, near the city, which is, fortunately, on the coast. The ship will float well enough, and we might be able to have it towed to a berth. But I must echo Bill’s concern. Will you be able to pilot the ship in atmosphere?”

Cal shrugged with pretended nonchalance. “No problem. This is a flying craft, I’m a pilot. How hard can it be?”

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