Landing, Party of Two (Part I)

The first thing I noticed when we landed on EG2 was the gravity. It was brutal, even in a powered hardshell. Three point one g is a hard pull. I felt it yanking on the skin of my cheeks, and my eyelids dragged when I blinked. The suit’s compression layer was doing a good job keeping blood flowing to my brain, but I could feel my heart pumping hard, and I was glad I’d been training in the heavy room on Hebridea for the last five weeks.

Michao looked like a jowly old draftrat. Somehow it made him harder to hate—a little less disgustingly good-looking. He grinned at me, perfect teeth making a strange contrast with his distorted face. “You could be a ‘before’ model for Regenis Skin Lifts, Soliera,” he said.

Sure didn’t take him long to burn up that little bit of goodwill. “You’re not so hologenic yourself at the moment. Should we get moving? We’re on the clock for rendezvous.” His expression soured, and I groaned inwardly. Captain Piet Michao never liked being reminded of anything by an inferior. Kiss the coula above you, kick the one below; might as well be his motto.

“Load up, Soliera. I want all those samplers in order. And double-check the roster before we start trekking. I don’t want to backtrack because you left a spectro behind.” Right. Like I was the one who’d cacked up the equipment list. I think he’d actually convinced himself that I was responsible for forgetting the crystallograph when we left Hebridea. That’s me, Ribekka Soliera: tech sergeant, algorithmic cartographer, convenient blame-weasel.

I kept my thoughts to myself like a good grunt, threw a sloppy salute, and hopped to checking the packs, even though I’d already done it before we’d dropped. It’s not like we could just skip back to the orbiting Haestion if we’d missed something, but Michao wouldn’t miss a chance to berate me, regardless.

While I worked, he popped the hatch, and I heard the hiss of equalizing atmospheres through my earphones. He stepped outside, leaving me to lug both packs down the ramp. Blame-weasel and draftrat, apparently. Once I had everything in order, I followed him out. He was standing a few meters away, looking around. “Ugly, isn’t it?” he said.

“Pretty stark.” I set his pack next to his feet gently, so the gravity wouldn’t crush anything, and tromped around setting up the weather station and atmospheric samplers that we’d leave with the lander. Seraphin was already analyzing the little bit of data that my exo’s sensors were picking up, and she kept up a continuous scroll of information as I worked: N2 72.51%, O2 15.34%, CO2 6.97%, H20 3.44%, CH4 1.62%, CO 0.06%, H2S 0.04%, traces 0.02%, ambient T 41 °C, bari 356 kPa… I knew she’d be working on updating our local charts too, from whatever the lander cameras had picked up on the way down. Sure enough, after a minute she popped up an overlay with likely routes called out in orange. “Thanks, Sera,” I said. Of course, Ribekka scrolled across my vision in reply.

“Are you seriously thanking your P-cog? It’s a damn AI, Soliera, it doesn’t give a weasel’s ear if you’re grateful or not. Don’t hear me grovelling to Canter for taking dictations.” Michao was stomping around waiting for me to finish up, not doing a thing himself. “What was that purple stuff we came through on the way down? Some of it’s stuck on the lander.” Sure enough, stringy goo was streaking the side panels and fouled up in the struts. He scooped some into a sample tube. “Look, I think it’s organic! Must be some kind of aerial ecosystem.” He gazed up at the violet drifts a few klicks above our heads. “Damn. This is all splattered, no way to tell what kind of body forms we’re looking at. We’d need a balloon or a copter to get up there and study them…” He kicked at the dirt, throwing a few pebbles in a sharp arc. “Nothing much to see down here. What else is on the map?”

I pointed roughly west. “The lander scanned some color variation that direction that might be vegetation. It’s four klicks. Should be a short trek if the footing isn’t too bad.”

“Fine. Move your coula, Sergeant. And toss me a copy of that chart.” I relayed the order to Sera, and Michao set off at a trot, taking short fast strides in the high g like he was running up a steep hill. I shut the lander hatch and followed behind.

#

We ran in silence for a while, making slower progress than I’d hoped. The ground was sandy and our boots tended to sink in, which robbed a lot of power out of our strides. My cells were dropping a little faster than I’d anticipated too, with the extra demand on the servo joints. It looked like they’d hold out long enough, but I sure didn’t want to bog down in five kilonewtons of dead hardshell. A slow death, waiting for the air cycler to run down.

Yellowish mist blanketed the ground. It seethed like a living thing, wrapping tendrils around our arms and legs. Visibility was low, a klick or two at most. It had been much easier to see from above. But after a half hour we spotted some darker smudges sticking up out of the pale dirt, and slowed to take a look.

“Are those plants?” I asked, pointing.

Michao sneered. “Plants are Terran. This is a xenoecology. The genealogy will be different, and you can’t blindly assign categories. At best they’ll be plantoids, filling a similar phototrophic niche.”

He just loved correcting me. I rolled my eyes at his back. “So sorry. Are those plantoids, then?”

“Maybe. Let’s go see.” We walked over closer, and I could make out some more details. A whole field of spiky things grew rooted in the sand, each a few meters from its neighbor, continuing off out of sight. There were two kinds I could see. One was like a branchy cactus with a thick central stalk and spearlike tips. Most of those were as high as my waist, but a few of the stalks reached up three or four meters. The others looked more like a cushion, round and squat, with fuzzy tendrils sticking out the top and waving slowly, though the air was still. Their surfaces were shiny, waxy-looking and purplish, a lot like the color of the cloud goo. They sure looked like plants to me.

“That color must be an efficient absorbent for the sunlight here,” said Michao, squatting down to examine one of the cushions. He pulled his baton from the holster on his leg and gave it a gentle prod. The tendrils retracted in a flash, pulling inside the body. “Fast reactions, probably a response to environmental hazards, maybe predation. Likely some kind of animal analogue to be found in the area, though no immediate signs,” he said in a low voice. He moved over to a spiny cactus and poked that too. “Outer flesh is pliant.” He pushed it a little harder. “But the structure is rigid and resists bending.” I figured he was dictating notes to Canter, and wandered off to explore.

I looked down just in time to catch myself before I went tumbling into a pit. It was funnel- shaped, a circle five meters across, with sandy slopes leading down to the center. A slide of sand trickled down where my foot had disturbed the edge, and I backed up a pace with haste. “Watch out over here,” I called. “There’s some kind of sinkhole.” I picked up a rock and tossed it in, curious. It hit the side and slid right down to the center. When it reached the bottom, it disappeared in a flash of motion. A moment later I jumped when the rock shot back out, spinning half a meter over my head. “Captain! You’ll want to see this!”

He came over to join me. “What is it, Soliera?” I crouched down and motioned for him to do the same. “Watch this,” I said, then tossed in another rock. This time I got a better look at the thing in the hole. It was a beaky mouth with three jaws in a triangular pattern. I only saw it for a moment, but Sera replayed it for me and I watched it flash out of the sand to bite, then spit the rock back out again with the flick of a fleshy tongue.

“There’s an animal analogue for you,” I said. “I almost fell in. Thing looks like it could take off a leg.”

“Better watch our step. Good find. I’m going to blow the boots off those crusters in Applied Biotics when I submit my paper…” Of course he was thinking about his Academy application. He’d hardly talked about anything else the whole slog out here.

I got up again, skirted the pit and walked a little further west, dictating notes on the topography to Sera. After a minute or two I came to a sandstone outcrop with a cliff that climbed out of the sand about ten meters overhead, crisscrossed with ledges and pocked with little dark holes. Some of the holes had feelers sticking out, waving in the air like the cushion cactuses, but finer, with longer hairs. More tall spike cactuses jutted out of the sand around the rocks.

Michao was following behind me. “Look up there,” he said. Some kind of spongy mat covered the top ledge. It pulsed slowly with a bright orange color. “I think I can climb up the other side. I’m going to scrape a sample.” I thought that was a stupid idea, but he was my super, so I kept my mouth shut. He went over to the cliff base and walked around, found a spot he liked and started clambering up on all fours. The feelers retracted into their holes when he got too close to them.

He made it to the top all right, and crept along the ledge, moving cautiously. When he was within arm’s length of the orange thing, he reached out with his baton and gave it a careful prod. It didn’t react, and he edged a little closer. He grabbed a sharp trowel from his pack and opened up a preservation tube, taking a moment to pick his target, then plunged the trowel into the side of a lump.

The reaction was instantaneous—I had to have Sera replay it from my headcam later to see what happened. As soon as he pierced the skin, the lump exploded in his face, blowing out in a plume of yellow gas and orange slime. The force of the blast caught him full in the chest, and threw him right off the ledge.

Michao plummeted ten meters, falling absurdly fast, and landed square on the pointed stalk of a cactus, skewering himself through the back with a strangled scream of pain.