Finl woke to the familiar sounds of the star ship. He allowed himself a moment to feel the faint vibrations, the quiet hums, and the occasional beeps that were the ship’s life signs. He had spent the better part of his life on star ships. In some ways he was more at home in space than at home. Which was why he had never taken a mate, or sired children.
That he was awake meant the Zbing Nautry had transitioned back into normal space. He opened one eye and focused it on the flow of information scrolling by on the virtual display in front of him. The ship was gathering data on the approaching star system faster than any Krael mind could absorb. But the ship knew that, and fed Finl only what he needed to know.
He opened his other two eyes and turned their eye stalks enough to focus them on his passengers while keeping the third one on the flow of incoming information. Absol’s eyes were still closed, but Brass’s were open.
“You good?” Finl asked.
The biologist nodded his outer eye stalks. A humorous gesture. Finl liked Brass. They had gone to the same University, he a year ahead of Brass, and had struck up a friendship that remained to this day.
Absol opened an eye. “As be this one, sirs.” His voice was slurred and he used the formal mode. The three of them had been on two previous missions together. The sociologist always had a more difficult time with the transition than did the others.
He got the other two eyes open, and switched to the informal mode. “Are we where we’re supposed to be?”
Finl turned his full attention to the data feed. They were approaching the Greevar system at a thirty degree angle to the planetary plane. The ship shuddered against the friction of stellar dust and solar wind, trading velocity for heat; already they were down to 80% light speed. Many hours had passed relative to the system they were approaching, but for them only a few minutes thanks to the effects of time dilation. The ship shuddered again as it deployed solar sails and initiated the braking maneuvers that would slow them further, bringing them into the planetary plane and the third planet’s orbit.
They knew almost nothing about Greevar 3. Some years ago, a deep space probe had passed within twenty light years, close enough to determine that the system contained at least one goldilocks planet, and possibly two more. Spectrographic analysis of the third planet revealed conditions conducive to the development of life. It also revealed what might be signs of early industrial activity, which would imply an emerging technological civilization. Planets were common; planets capable of supporting life were not, and planets supporting intelligent life were exceedingly rare.
Normally the probe would have change course to investigate, but it had suffered damage from micro-meteors during its long journey, and was no longer able to alter its course. Twenty light years was not close enough to gather any more information, but the information it sent back was sufficiently tantalizing to justify an exploratory expedition.
“Commander?” said Absol.
“What? Oh, yes, where we should be. We are where we should be, and all systems appear to be — “
He was interrupted by the screech of an alarm. High-pitched. Loud. Intentionally irritating.
“Report,” Finl said.
“A vessel has transitioned out of tac-space behind us,” the ship said.
Brass emitted a screech of his own. “I thought we lost them when we jumped.”
“Apparently not,” Finl said. He studied the readings, and did not like what he saw. It was only a frigate, but it had more than enough fire power to destroy the Zbing Nautry, which was neither armed nor armored. They were explorers, not warriors.
“Can we outrun it?” Absol said. “Or jump again? Or hide in an asteroid belt?” His voice was pitched an octave higher than usual.
“Ship,” said Finl, “what are our options for escape or evasion?”
“No options for escape or evasion are available at the present time.”
“Can we reach the third planet before the Frix ship overtakes us?”
“To do so we would have to approach at an angle and velocity that would make it impossible to establish orbit.”
Finl thought for a moment. “Ship, plot and execute the most direct path to Greevar 3. We’ll use the escape pod as we loop around the planet.” Hopefully they could launch the pod while planet was between them and the Frix warship. With good fortune the Frix would not realize they had escaped.
He turned to the two scientists. “Gather only what you need. I’ll take care of food, hydrates and the portable shelter. And get into your exosuits.” What little analysis of Greevar 3’s atmosphere the probe had been able to do had suggested that its atmosphere would be toxic to them.
“But what are we going to do?” Absol wailed. “How will we establish a base without the ship? How will we get off the planet?”
Finl considered the sociologist for a moment, recalling salient facts from his psych profile, as well as their past experience together. He chose the formal mode of address.
“Absol Teloostra Vehan. The Zbing Nautry even now transmits the appropriate distress signal. Those who are our superiors will initiated a rescue effort. In the now-time, we will transfer ourselves to the surface of Greevar 3, where we will establish an observation post, thus enabling ourselves to carry on our mission. Is there an objection you wish to raise to this plan?”
Absol swallowed. “No commander. I am good.”
“As am I, commander,” said Brass.
Finl went back to informal mode. “Then let’s get it done.”
Brass wiggled his outer eye stalks. Absol smiled thinly and nodded his head, which made his eye stalks bob back and forth.
Finl sighed. Triads had proven to be the most effective and stable teams for long-term missions like theirs, but only as long as all three legs of the triad remained intact; only as long as they remained a psychic unit. This crisis has been averted. His triad was stable. For now.
The Zbing Nautry looped around the second planet, then the system’s sun, then the second planet again, each time throwing off speed and adjusting its course. When the Zbing Nautry swung free of the second planet’s gravity well for its final approach to the third planet, Finl was dismayed to see that the Frix ship had closed to within firing range.
The ship said, “The frigate has fired a single missile.”
Finl grimaced. “Confident bastard.”
“Can we evade it?” Brass asked.
Neither Brass nor Absol had been in combat before. But Finl had. “No. It’s a smart missile.”
Slowly and inexorably, the missile crawled toward them, seeming to take forever to finally catch up with them. The ship bucked hard, throwing the crew against unforgiving safety straps. Alarms went off. Air whistled out a hull breach somewhere.
“Ship, seal the breach.”
“The repair bots are offline,” the ship announced with its usual aplomb.
Finl threw off his harness and kicked away from the command chair. They had only seconds. He sailed past Brass to the back wall of the cabin.
“Ship, open pod.”
An area of the wall softened and reformed as a circular opening.
“Let’s go,” he said to the scientists. Absol was already at his side, and he shoved the frightened man into the pod. He looked back. Brass was still in his seat, slumped, not moving. The safety harness had held. His neck had not.
“My heart is weary and broken, old friend,” he said. “Forgive me for failing you in your time of greatest need.” It wasn’t the first time he had lost men in combat. But Brass was a civilian, utterly dependent on Finl’s knowledge and skill to keep him alive. Finl had failed him.
He pulled himself through the hatch and into the escape pod. Absol was already strapped in.
“Dead.” Finl strapped himself in, not looking at Absol. “You have the Eye?”
“Brass had it.”
“What?” Finl released his harness. “We can’t leave without it.” The Eye of Crasis was their best hope for survival. From the pod’s hatch, he scanned the room. The small, oblong device lay on the deck behind Brass’s seat.
Another explosion rocked the ship, throwing him back into the pod. A sound of rushing air filled the cabin and he felt himself being pulled toward the hatch. The ship closed it and jettisoned the pod.
* * *
As the escape pod streaked across the planet’ sky, Absol was still hopeful that they could land undetected, set up a camouflaged base, and carry out their mission. The parachute opened as expected, but the pod’s AI failed to adjust for the planet’s lighter atmosphere, with the result that the chute didn’t slow the pod down enough. It hit the ground hard, throwing Absol forward against the harness and then snapping him back. Finl, too, was thrown against the hull with a sickening thud. He slumped against the harness. Blue blood ran down the side of his head and dripped off his chin.
Absol was scared. The Zbing Nautry was gone. Brass was dead. Finl was injured, maybe dying. And he was stranded on a hostile planet with an unbreathable atmosphere. He wanted to shake Finl until he woke up so he could tell him what to do, but that would only make things worse.
“Sir,” he said to himself out loud. “It is needful for you to brace yourself and assume command of the mission until such time as the commander is able to do so.”
Addressing himself in formal mode helped him bring his emotions under control. He checked to make sure Finl was still alive, and strapped a breather on him. When he pushed the hatch part way open, air forced its way out of the tiny capsule with a whistling whoosh, startling him. It quickly abated as the pressure inside the escape pod equalized with the pressure outside. The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Greevar 3 was lower than on Krael. He checked his air mask again, even though he had done this three times before daring to open the hatch. He pushed the hatch the rest of the way open and pulled himself part way through.
Absol had been on alien planets before, so he didn’t expect it to look anything like Krael. It didn’t. Nor did it look like any other of the several worlds he had visited. The pod had sunk a fair way into a dense, green ground cover. Spindly tree-like plants surrounded him, densely branched, towering to heights he would not have thought possible until he remember that this planet was relatively small and had only three quarters the gravity Krael had.
And the colors! Greens and browns everywhere, with occasional flashes of reds, blues and yellows. Nothing like the grays and silver-blues he was used to. He wished he could smell the scents, but his air mask filtered them out.
The forest was mostly silent, except for the occasional creaking sound. It could be the branches of the tree-like plants rubbing together. Or some kind of wild life. A piercing trill made him jump. Surely that was an animal. He picked out other sounds as well that could easily be animals. He gripped the edge of the hatch. There were no weapons in the pod. Observer teams didn’t carry weapons. The last thing they needed was to start a war with the indigenous peoples.
“Be you steady, sir,” he said to himself.
Protocol called for the team to scout the area for a suitable location for an observation post. They had with them the equipment necessary to make such a post; an enclosed structure with a breathable atmosphere. It would adjust its shape and color to camouflage itself so as to be nearly undetectable from a distance. But scouting seemed out of the question now, what with the triad broken and Finl injured.
He climbed the rest of the way out of the pod and jumped to the ground. It was spongy, and at first he thought he was going to sink deep into it. But his feet sank only a few inches. Looking up, he saw the path of destruction the escape pod had made as it crashed through the trees. And beyond the trees, he could see sky. He gasped.
The survey reports had suggested that the sky would appear blue from the ground. But he wasn’t prepared for how bright the blue was. And nary a cloud to be seen. By the gods, the view of the heavens at night must be spectacular. Of course it might not be like this everywhere on the planet, and it might not be like this all the time even here. Still, it was a glorious thought to have such uninhibited visual access to the stars.
A new sound found its way into his awareness, a sound he realized had been there for a while, gradually becoming louder. It was a clacking sound with a rhythmic beat. That made it mechanical. The survey had indicated the likely presence of an intelligent species in the early stages of technological development, which was what had brought them here in the first place. Apparently the locals had detected the escape pod’s meteoric flight through the atmosphere and were coming to investigate.
Absol knew what he had to do. The highest priority was to ensure that no advanced technologies fell into the hands of a civilization that wasn’t yet ready for them, and the Krael had long ago put into place protocols and safeguards for just this situation. It had never occurred to Absol that he might actually have to execute those protocols some day.
He climbed back into the pod and dragged Finl’s limp body out and as far away as he could before he collapsed from exhaustion. He was gasping, making the exosuit work hard to provide him with enough air. The approaching machines were nearer now, the sound of engines louder, clearer. He flinched when something roared past overhead, loud enough to hurt. He couldn’t see it through the dense foliage of the trees, but it was fast. Some kind of flyer he guessed. The sound receded and then became louder again as it came around for another pass. They knew where he was.
He went back to the pod, initiated it’s self-destruct mechanism, and ran. He reached Finl’s body and kept running. The forest around him lit up brilliant white light, illuminating everything with blinding clarity: rough barked tree trunks, bright red berries on spindly bushes, the forest floor carpeted in velvet-like green ground cover.
The boom of the blast caught up with him, lifted him off the ground, and threw him against a tree trunk. Pain shot through his shoulder. A thought crossed his mind as he sank in unconsciousness: “I hope they don’t take my breather off.”