Copyright 2017, Steven M. Moore
Not all the colonists awoke. Cryosleep had a risk that compounded over time, and almost two centuries is a long time. Adriana Cisternino-Cho had to decide whether to eliminate her husband’s name. James Cho had died in transit.
The exobiologist threw herself into her work as soon as she recovered in the huge ship that was in orbit. She didn’t want to think of the bodies that were spaced and sent to burn up in the new planet’s atmosphere. Others needed to visit the psychologists. She’d stopped going after two sessions. Nothing was going to bring Jimmy back.
The starship Vasco da Gama, the sixth colony ship a dying Earth had launched, had been assembled in LEO. It used standard technology developed over two centuries of exploring Earth’s solar system augmented in scale to match the size of the ship. The AI had kept watch over its cargo of a fifty-member landing crew and thousands of frozen embryos. They had parked the ship in orbit around the fifth planet of another system.
Only thirty-three of the skeleton crew had survived. Tests showed all the embryos were probably OK.
Dyads and triads had formed among the survivors who had lost their significant others. Adriana wasn’t interested. It seemed that only yesterday Jimmy and she said their goodbyes and entered their cryochambers. You knew the risks, girl. That doesn’t make it any more bearable!
Although the tests showed all the embryos were probably OK, she wondered about their future. If the planet wasn’t a feasible home for a colony, everyone would die, unless there was some possibility of reprovisioning the starship. Hundreds of more years in cryo? I’d rather die!
Two exobiologists were in the first shuttle party to zoom in on the planet, more of a survey crew that checked out five possible sites in more detail. They had done all the surveying and probing they could do from orbit.
“More land area than Earth confirmed. Mild climates are commensurate with axis tilt, but polar regions are stable. Oxygen levels in agreement with normal photosynthesis of local vegetation, which is abundant. Omnivore herds are plentiful in interior plains of continents.”
The AI summarized their findings ad infinitum. Adriana almost dozed. After it finished, Scot Cobb, their temporary leader, said, “Any comments? Adriana? Don?”
“We saw herds but no predators,” said Don Chang.
“That’s an oddity,” Adriana said in agreement. “There has to be some mechanism to control their numbers.”
“Food shortages?” said Scot. “When those strange grasslands are wasted, maybe the herds die off.”
“A possibility,” said Adriana. Why am I so agreeable? She didn’t buy Scot’s conjecture. I must be tired.
“There might be some lemming phenomenon,” said Don. “It will be interesting to study.”
“Will we be able to eat anything on the planet’s surface?” said Roberto McLane, an exogeologist.
“Let’s hear the AI’s ranking of the landing sites and see if we agree with it.,” said Scot.
After some discussion, they agreed with the AI’s first choice of a site about ten degrees north of the equator on a rolling coastal plain where a low chain of mountains separated them from the vast grasslands in the center of the continent.
A landing party was formed and a second shuttle trip was made. Adriana was the only exobiologist among the seven.
They spent five days surveying the area and feeding data to the AI. On day six, Scot made the decision to land most of the remaining colonists, leaving only him and three others on the ship with the AI. A new star colony was born.
They named the site Snug Harbor because it faced a huge bay with a narrow entrance that reminded people of Earth. Of course, about two-thirds of the survivors were from Mars, but the Red Planet had no oceans, so they were indifferent except for some who had developed a high opinion of some special sites on the home planet.
Adriana imagined the place to be similar to some South Sea islands with its blue waters, gentle waves, sparkling beach, and warm climate. No swimming was allowed, though. That was Adriana’s call. Someone would have to determine what kind of life existed under those gentle waves. That was a task for later.
They needed weeks to prepare the site. In the interim, Scot and others would decide how much of the ship’s cargo to unload and when. The AI could make orbital adjustments forever, but eventually it would be a colonist too. At that point the huge ship would become an empty and cannibalized skeleton that would orbit the planet for years, but the orbit would eventually decay.
Adriana dreaded that day. The Vasco da Gama was their only connection to home. But she never returned to the starship.
They also voted on a name for the planet. Although it had more land area than Earth, all recognized that the sea would be very much a part of their lives for some time, so most names proposed were related to oceans in some way. They finally settled on Ariel, whose grandfather had been Poseidon. Adriana had liked Xi Yuanyuan, but people shot that down as being too long.
While Scot had agreed with Adriana that no one should go swimming just yet, they all would relax at the end of a hard day’s work and wade in the shallows. Sometimes bonfires on the beach were set and some colonist would break out musical instruments they’d brought on the journey. That helped her mood. Jimmy had loved music as much as she had.
Ariel’s days turned into artificially defined months and years, the months were one-tenth of Ariel’s orbit time, which determined its year, about two hundred and ninety of the planet’s days. Adriana lost track of the time, though, and was busy cataloguing local flora and fauna and helping the medical personnel set up the huge sheds where the embryos would be brought to term in groups of twenty.
She was bolting down an incubation tank when Scot came to see her. “People are wondering when they can swim. We haven’t seen anything threatening in the bay.”
“That would correlate well with the general lack of predators. We still don’t understand that, not that we’ve spent too much time analyzing it.” She thought a moment. “I might be the only one to have scuba diving experience. We have the equipment. I guess I should explore a bit.”
Scot smiled. “You took the words right out of my mouth. How are you doing by the way? People are a bit worried. Others who lost loved ones to the cryo seem better adjusted. You seem distant all the time.”
“I miss Jimmy, that’s all. Maybe others move on faster, but I bet the pain is still there.”
Scot nodded. “I suppose so.” He started to leave but then turned. “I’m not sure I’m OK with having you dive alone. Let’s talk it up and see if anyone else has diving experience. It wouldn’t be a bad skill to have here either. Maybe you should offer a course.”
She smiled. “That can be arranged. But after our losses, can we really afford to lose any more. Everyone in cryo had backups as far as their multiple skill sets are concerned, but the cryo deaths were random. We don’t have any drive techs left, for example. I suppose someone could learn it from what’s stored in the AI’s memory, but we’d have been in a crunch if this planet hadn’t worked out.”
He frowned. “We still don’t know if it will work out. I’m not completely cannibalizing Vasco da Gama until we do.”
Adriana had often pondered how coincidental it was that Ariel’s DNA scheme was similar to Earth’s. There was a difference in one building block, but processing made what was available locally edible to humans. That didn’t stop them from planting Earth crops. The next step would be to bring to term embryos and fertilized eggs corresponding to Earth livestock. She smiled. We will all become farmers!
The DNA might be similar, but evolution was important too. Why were there no predators for the beasts in the strange herds in the interior? What strange creatures might be in Ariel’s oceans? There was a whole exobiological sphere to explore. The full exploration would be the job of their descendants.
These thoughts ran through her head as she headed out into the bay on the rubber dinghy, its rugged motor having an easy time with the gentle waves. This place is a great one to go sailing. She had suggested that before, but Scot had torpedoed the idea. He wanted to know what was underneath before people started sailing around the bay.
Paula Lyons was with her, a computer specialist who had some diving experience. She would be Adriana’s backup. Adriana considered herself lucky. Going down alone would have been challenging, almost claustrophobiv.
They were about equidistant from the beach and the mouth of the bay when Adriana cut the motor and anchored.
“Are you ready?” she said to Paula.
“Not as much as you, but I’ll have your back.”
They went backwards into the water and sank below the waves.
The waters were teeming with life, from water plants to multicolored fish unlike anything found on Earth. They dove deeper. Paula saw the debris field first and pointed. Adriana nodded. It was more familiar than the underwater flora and fauna—large chunks of metal as if some jet liner from Ariel had crashed into the bay. They seemed to radiate from an epicenter, so Adriana swam towards that. Paula followed.
They soon spotted the sunken metal dome. The roof of something? The upended soup plate of Poseidon? She gestured for Paula to follow.
On the beach side of the dome there was a huge rent. Adriana halted a minute and checked their time. She had enough to take a peek. She gestured for Paula to hover outside and entered the structure.
It was a tomb. She found ET skeletons in what looked like a control room and the rest of the structure. Large, humanoid skeletons with three fingers and thumb and four toes. Different rib count. Her exobiologist’s eye took it all in.
She checked her time. They had to surface.
“I never imagined first contact to be like this,” Scot said after Adriana made her report in the community tent. Paula and she had made several more dives. “So a bunch of ETs crashed on Ariel before us. Earth would love to hear that.”
“At least the UFO nuts would,” said Dan with a growl. Everyone laughed.
“I’m not sure that affects our decision,” said Adriana. “I’d say people can swim and sail in and on the bay as they see fit. I just don’t want the remains in that ship disturbed.”
“Hallowed ground?” said Scot.
“Certainly from the scientific point of view,” said Paula. “You’ll have to admit it’s exciting.”
“Do they seem more advanced than we are?” said another member of the colony.
“The ship doesn’t look like a colony ship. There were twenty-three in the crew. Not enough for a viable colony.”
“Sounds more like a scout,” said Scot.
“Which means ETs might come looking for their buddies,” said Dan. “Any way to date the crash?”
Adriana shrugged. “I have no idea. It doesn’t look like an ancient wreck on Earth, that’s for sure. Maybe we’ll have a better idea if we bring a few skeletons to the surface.”
“I’m more interested in the propulsion system,” said one of the engineers. “If it was a scout, they know how to move about the cosmos a lot faster than we do.”
“There’s another issue,” said Dan, looking around the tent. “Were there any survivors? If so, where are they now?”
The result of the remaining discussion was to add many more tasks to everyone’s workload.
One task added to Adriana’s list was supervising the study of the ETs’ crash site. She trained three additional divers as a prelude; they represented five different disciplines. Progress was slow but without setbacks. The engineers remained stumped when it came to the ship’s propulsion system, though. “I’m ready to say they flew powered by magic,” said one. “But the magic might be in those banks and banks of electronics.”
The best estimate for the ETs’ crash was five to ten Ariel years ago, an incredible coincidence if it was correct. Adriana put several decades on the error bars, though, but that didn’t change how coincidental the occurrences seemed to be. The colonists still believed the ET ship was some kind of scout, so either it came from within that solar system or they had propulsion systems far more advance than the colony ship’s. The AI scoured its recent sensor records but saw no sign of intelligent life anywhere in the solar system, but Scot set up protocols for the AI’s continued background surveillance of the planets in the system with both radar and optical sensors.
One task defined before the discovery of the ET ship was to use newly assembled helicopters to survey their big continent. There were four choppers, each capable of carrying four colonists and a small cargo, but that task was strung out over many of Ariel’s months because other tasks had higher priority. That changed a bit when Dan and three others spotted smoke in a small valley midway across the continent.
They were soon flying over a small village.
“Could we have missed it from orbit?” Dan said to his pilot.
“You mean, are they locals?” Dan nodded. “They could be survivors from the ship in the bay. I don’t think the AI’s survey would have missed this. Its sensors have one-meter resolution from orbit.”
“I wanted to hear someone else say that,” said Dan. “Let’s confer with Scot about what to do.”
The decision was made to ignore the small hamlet for the time being but to keep their eyes open for other settlements. The chance that the ET survivors had founded the village would increase if they didn’t find any others.
It took seven of Ariel’s years for the ETs to find them.
A small child was the first to spot the lone rider. His scream of joy caught the attention of his surrogate mother. Otherwise everyone would have thought the child just had a vivid imagination.
Adriana queried their adult witness. “Was the rider humanoid?” Yes. “What was the steed like?” Like one of the herd animals from the interior plains. “Did the rider match the dimension of the ETs’ skeletons?” A shrug. “Did he look threatening?” Too far away. “Why was little Sean so happy to see the rider?” Cowboy stories. And so on.
Scot and others listened to the interrogation. When it finished, a heated discussion ensued. Everyone was curious about the rider, but again it was decided to ignore the lone rider for the time being. They were all involved in the harvest, a necessary chore to keep the colony going. The only consequence was to augment the minimal security patrols around the colony.
“We might be making a mistake,” Adriana said to Scot after the meeting.
He eyed her. “In what way?”
“I’d rather have these people, ETs or natives, as friends, not enemies. The children are at a vulnerable age, and we don’t have enough adults to protect them in a serious confrontation.”
“That village had seven dwellings,” said Scot. “That jibes with its being the home for survivors from your ET ship. We outnumber them, not the other way around.” He thought a moment. “But you’re right. I’d rather be friends with them. You and others should think about how to make that happen. It’s lucky we haven’t cannibalized our ship to the point that we can’t train weapons on that village. I’ll move it into stationary orbit over the site for precaution.”
Adriana looked shocked. “That’s not being very friendly!”
“I said it’s precautionary. Until someone comes up with something else, I’m taking no chances. Our children aren’t the only vulnerable ones.”
Three months later, there were three riders. They came closer and then turned to ride away. The colony’s sentries took pictures. Scot and others were still studying them when Adriana came ashore with the artifact.
“Looks like a projector of some kind,” said Scot. He handed it to one of the technicians. “Figure it out. High priority. We might have visitors soon. I want to know more about them. The AI gives a 93% confidence level that the riders are survivors from that ET ship.”
“There are few more of those,” said Adriana. “They are in a storage cabinet.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask, are there spacesuits? It’s hard for me to imagine a ship without them.”
She smiled. “We’re not sure it’s a ship. There’s no propulsion system we can see. The engineers are batting around another theory.”
“And why wasn’t I told?”
She shrugged. “It’s just a wild theory.”
Scot studied Adriana. “Well? Out with it.”
“They think it might be a time machine.”
“What? That’s impossible! A vehicle traveling through time? Have they been drinking too much of that vodka we’re producing?”
“Not that I know of. I said it’s just a theory, but so far it matches all available evidence. There are no airlocks, just a cargo door, so that ship isn’t a starship or a submarine. It’s just a shell.”
“But if it’s a scout, how does it get back?”
“The engineers say that they might retrieve it from the future. As I said, it’s just a shell, a probe. Being underwater might have made the retrieval impossible.”
“But why venture back into the past?”
“Maybe their future is untenable? The planet is dying or something? Or it’s just scientific curiosity. We’ve said that conditions here correspond to a young planet. It wouldn’t be a young planet in the future.”
“How many people know about this theory?”
“Not many. It’s a bit farfetched, I’ll admit. But like all theories, if enough evidence accumulates, we’ll have to accept it.”
“OK. But keep quiet about it for now. Let’s see what that projector has in it.”
The engineers couldn’t figure out how to make the projectors work. They managed to break two of them.
Two years passed before the next sighting. The bay curved around to where a high promontory jutted out into the sea. Adriana had just surfaced and spotted them above the cliffs where waves were breaking. About a two dozen riders were lined up, looking farther out over the ocean, searching the horizon. What are they looking for?
She then saw the air shimmer as if a large fog bank had suddenly been created from some strange atmospheric anomaly. An immense version of the underwater vehicle materialized with a sonic boom so loud that several of the colony’s beams fell. She wondered if she’d become deaf.
The huge ship floated and slowly disappeared inland, losing altitude. The small crowd of ETs waved at it and followed.
When she arrived on shore, Scot ran to meet her. “What the hell just happened?”
His voice seemed muted and distant. But I can hear him!
“Maybe it’s the ark from the future?”
“What’s that mean?”
“Whether they’re from the future or elsewhere, we’re going to have to share this world. We have made first contact, Scot.”
The Midas Bomb (2nd ed). If you are waiting to get started on the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series,” this first book in the series about the crime-fighting duo’s first case, is on sale at Smashwords until March 1 for $0.99, a 67% discount from the original price—in all ebook formats, including .mobi (Kindle): use the Smashwords coupon code PV57D. Of course, it’s also available on Amazon as a .mobi ebook or print book (the ebook isn’t for sale there, though). All books in this series are complete and independent stories, and you can read them in any order. #7, Gaia and the Goliaths, will be out soon.
In libris libertas!