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Denizens: 22 - Touchdown

...Cal smiled back, and entered the code. Slowly, the heavy door swung open, and the four astronauts looked out on the first alien civilization ever seen by man...

The first space ship to exceed the speed of light is severly damaged in a landing attempt on an alien sea. Skipper Cal and his much-travelled crew are about to take mankind's biggest-ever step...

Brian William Neal has an abundent supply of the story-teller's greatest gift - the ability to make you long to read on when you reach the end of each chapter.

To read earlier episodes of his thrilling and mighty sci-fi novel please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

“Mach twenty-five, Cal! She’s going in too fast!”

Cal wrestled with the controls of the ship, trying to lose speed by bouncing it off the edge of the atmosphere like a pebble skipping over the surface of a pond. He had switched to manual control to enable him to actually fly the ship; now, he registered Bill’s warning, but there was little he could do about it.

His task was, to some extent, made easier by the spherical shape of the Hermes, which gave it the properties of a bouncing ball. Had their craft had more angles and corners, they might have been in serious trouble.

Of course, thought Cal as he struggled with the ship, attempting what was, after the one time in the space shuttle, only his second re-entry, we might very well still be. The outside hull temperature registered two thousand degrees Celsius, and Cal had to be content with losing only a little velocity each time the ship met the thicker air.

Gradually, however, they began to slow, and finally he was able to take the ship lower, and enter the atmosphere proper. Then, their speed dropped rapidly, finally falling to sub-sonic, and Cal was able to deploy the short stubby wings that slid out of recessed slots in the hull.

Immediately, the ship began to handle like an aircraft, and Cal knew the worst was over. Now he was doing something he was trained for, something he had done since he was ten years old, when he had taken the controls of the ancient Tiger Moth crop-duster his father had owned. Then he had discovered the joy of flight, soaring free in the clear Illinois skies above their farm, and he had known what he wanted to be.

Now, he was in charge. He was a pilot, and he called the shots.

The ship descended rapidly through the upper atmosphere, and Cal felt the controls responding more positively as the air around them thickened. A roaring sound began to make itself heard, filling their ears and increasing in volume the lower they went. When Karen asked, somewhat alarmed, what it was, Cal laughed.

“It’s air, baby,” he shouted over the noise. “We’ve been in space so long, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to fly in atmosphere.” Grinning, he gave his attention to the ship’s progress, his hands light but firm on the controls as he watched the view screens.

At five thousand feet they broke through the cloud cover and saw the city almost directly ahead of their flight path. It appeared to be at least the size of a large earth city, perhaps even bigger, and Cal began to look for a suitable landing place. Beside him, Bill was giving a running commentary as Cal banked the ship away from the city and out over the ocean.

“Man oh man,” enthused the engineer. “Look at this place! Looks like a futuristic version of New York! Look, there’s Manhattan, and Long Island, off there to the east.”

Cal continued the banking curve, and they all stared at the fabulous alien sight below. Tall, thin spires, each of them appearing to be many hundreds of feet high, reached up into the clear air above the city, each one a thin needle piercing the sky. For an instant, Cal was reminded of another needle, this one in the Arizona desert, thousands of years and millions of miles away. Firmly, he pushed the thought aside.

Aloud, he said, “Jonathan was right. We’re going to have to put down on the water. I’ll get us as close to the city as I can, but not so close as to present a threat to the locals. The last thing we want is for them to come out with guns blazing, or whatever. Let them come to us, but in their own good time.”
The others agreed, and Cal flew lower, away from the city and out to sea. They dipped lower still, until the water was flashing by, seemingly just meters beneath the hull. Cal applied full flaps, and called to Bill to cut the main engines. Secured in their seats by their harnesses, they braced themselves as the ship dropped like a stone on to the flat calm surface of the alien sea.

With a crash that shook them all, the Hermes struck the top of the sea mount that had lain hidden just below the surface of the calm, blue ocean. The impact set the ship spinning, but the friction of the water soon settled them down. When the ship had come to rest, Cal released his harness, leapt out of his seat and crossed the bridge to where Karen was helping Jonathan with his wheelchair. Together they helped the crippled physicist into his motorized transport, while Bill began assessing the damage sustained by the ship.

After only a few minutes, he reported his findings to the others. “We’ve got good news and bad news, pilgrims,” he said, in his usual laid-back manner. “The good news is, we’re not in any immediate danger. The ship is buoyant, and will continue to be for some little time yet. The bad news is, eventually, we are going to sink, and nothing is going to stop that.”

Karen stared at him, aghast. “Are you sure?” she asked.

Bill smiled wryly at her. “Unfortunately, darlin’, I’m afraid I am.” To them all, he continued. “The impact has sheared off one of the engine mounts, and badly damaged the others. Of all the places we could have hit, that was the worst. There’s a hole in the ship roughly the size of Cleveland, and to say we are taking on a bit of water is like saying a drop or two goes over Niagara from time to time.” He looked at them bleakly, all humor gone. “We will stay afloat for about four hours, but you better believe it, this tub is going down.

Cal thought for a moment, then asked, “Is there a possibility of salvage? How much water are we in? What’s the bottom like?”

Bill shook his head. “More bad news, boss. Although we’re only a few miles from the shore, we seem to be outside the continental shelf, if they even have such things here. The bottom slopes very steeply under us and keeps going, all the way out of range of our sensors. I think we are in very deep, and I don’t just mean the crap.”

Cal thought desperately. If the water was as deep as Bill said it was, they might never recover the ship if it sank. It could keep rolling down the undersea slope to who knew what depth of water. To be out of range of the ship’s sensors, allowing for the fact they were having to work through water, meant that it had to be…He did a rough calculation, and was appalled at the answer. He glanced across at Jonathan; the Englishman was sitting in his chair, and nodded at Cal’s look.

“Yes, Cal,” he said. “I’ve done the sums, too. If the slope of the bottom remains constant, the water out there has to be over fifty thousand feet deep, and not very far out, either. One or two miles, at most.”

For a few moments, they all sat quietly, digesting this news. Then Cal drew a rough triangle on the slate before him. They were about six miles off shore now. Say the slope continued out to about ten miles, then fifty thousand feet was also about ten miles, then that meant…He stared at the crude sketch. The slope was unbelievable, about forty-five degrees. There would be nothing to stop the ship from rolling all the way to the bottom, and who knew how deep that might be?

Erasing the slate, he glanced at the others. “I don’t need to tell you that this is bad news. I also don’t need to say that we don’t have a choice, because we don’t.” No one spoke, and Cal took a deep breath and stood up. “All right, we’d better get the hell out of here before she goes. Bill, give me a hand to get as much of our stores and equipment as we can over to the hatchway on the lower deck. Karen, start clearing out the medical supplies from sick bay. Then we’ll get three of the zodiacs inflated and into the water, and start loading them.” He moved behind the Englishman’s chair. “Jonathan, I know you’ve said that the atmosphere can support life. Do you have any more detail on that?”

Jonathan nodded. “Yes, Cal. It’s remarkably earth like. Gravity point eight of earth’s, so we’ll probably feel quite light on our feet, and air temperature thirty degrees Celsius. Why that is so, this far from the sun, I have yet to determine. There is a very high oxygen content, over twenty-five percent; it may make us feel a little light-headed until we get used to it, but shouldn’t do us any harm.” He frowned at his instruments. “There is also a rather strange lack of greenhouse gases or toxins in the air that I confess I am at a loss to explain.”

Cal and Karen maneuvered his chair on to the hydraulic ramp next to the stairwell, and Karen said, “Well, that’s good, isn’t it?”

Jonathan chewed his lip, frowning. “Well, yes, I suppose it is, from an ecological point of view. But the society that produced that city must have a very high level of technology, higher even than earth’s. And any technological civilization as we understand it will produce toxic by-products from its manufacturing processes; eventually, they will find their way into the atmosphere.” He paused, and looked at them. “I’m wondering where they’ve gone.”

Cal shrugged. “Well, that’s all very interesting, professor, but right now I’m more concerned with getting off this bucket before she deep-sixes. We can leave the Greenpeace puzzle until later. Let’s move, people.”


*
They gathered on the third level down from the bridge, one deck above the slowly flooding engine room. Bill had begun collecting supplies, and they all pitched in and helped. They collected anything they thought they might need, and loaded it into the zodiacs, which were equipped with portable water-jet engines.

Soon they had tents, and supplies of dried food, but as Jonathan pointed out,
“If we can’t eat the local food, we’re pretty much done for anyway, so there’s not much point in filling up the boats with too much of ours.” Instead, they concentrated on survival gear, such as they had; weapons, ammunition, clothing, tools and other equipment necessary for survival in a hostile environment.

Despite Jonathan’s assurances that the atmosphere outside the ship was earth like, or even better than earth’s, it was still with some trepidation that Cal broke the seal on the hatch and prepared to punch in the series of numbers that would open it. As he hesitated, Jonathan broke the tension, in his usual calm way.

“Only one slightly larger step for mankind, Colonel,” he said with a smile. “And you’ve got more than two thousand years on Neil Armstrong.”

Cal smiled back, and entered the code. Slowly, the heavy door swung open, and the four astronauts looked out on the first alien civilization ever seen by man.


***


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