©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Ten - A Whole New World
“Orbital insertion successfully accomplished.”
“Thank you, Arion.”
“Considering that this arrow was shot out of its bow from Earth orbit, traveled across the vastness of interstellar space and landed in the center of the target nearly fifty-one light years down range, that was some accurate shooting!”
Dr. Kate and Capt. Robeson looked over at Will Andresen, both with amused expressions on their feline faces at his metaphors. The three Furs of the command team were free floating in the Bridge compartment of the vessel. There were no actual windows in the spherical room, but the planet below was reflected across multiple screens.
Since awakening, they had come in straight from out-system, so their first view of Bellerophon was of its night side with the planet between them and 51 Pegasi. Its silhouette occluded the stars and it was eerie to be looking down upon a world without lights of any kind across its surface. There were no cities, no metropolitan areas nor other signs of civilizations at all – not even a lonely bonfire, but lightning flashes in high-altitude clouds were visible at the far curve of the globe. The planets’ two small moons were always together and hovered over the world in thin crescents.
From their vantage point in orbit, however, the day-night terminator of sunlight approached and they could just begin to see surface details. The captain studied a data screen for a moment.
“Arion, please alert me when we have completed three orbits to ascertain stability and to compare current data with those from the BR549 survey. Then we can begin scanning the surface for potential landing sites.”
“Aye, Captain,” the SI responded.
As the terminator slid beneath them, it was amazing just how Earth-like this new world was, even if the continents and seas were in different configurations. The planet was a marbled blue globe of green and brown land masses with white puffs and swirls of clouds across the atmosphere.
According to the previous appraisal, there were six continents; two large ones connected by a narrow land bridge of mountains, three smaller land masses and one beneath the northern polar ice cap. Of the larger continents, one was relatively oblong near the equator with a jagged coast on the east end and a large crescent-shaped gulf on the west. At its southern end to the east, the land bridge stretched in a general southeasterly direction with ocean waters lapping at a high range of mountains on both sides. This band connected to an even larger continent located in the southern hemisphere that had no specific geometric shape; its coastlines meandered to all points on the compass.
One of the smaller continents located on the opposite side of the planet was so far south that it almost connected with the thick polar ice cap. The other two continents were located in the northern hemisphere and spaced so far apart that they were almost difficult to see together at the same time even from orbit. Scattered across the rest of the world’s oceans were numerous island chains, most of them in tropical regions only moderately removed from the equator.
Hours later, Arion was ready to make his report to the two leonine leaders still on the Bridge. “Three orbits around Bellerophon have been completed, Captain Robeson. Onboard clocks and calendars have been recalibrated to reflect a planetary rotation of twenty-seven hours, three minutes, fifteen seconds with an eighteen degree axial tilt. All personnel tablets and techwatches have been adjusted to match.”
“It’s a good thing we don’t use mechanical watches anymore,” Kate remarked. “Digital is so much easier to reconfigure for time zones that don’t match Earth.”
“Agreed,” said Robeson. “Okay, Arion, what have you found?”
“Scans indicate massive continental shelves submerged beneath the seas with the mountain tops poking through as numerous island chains. However, there are several areas where my scanners are unable to penetrate to the depths of the oceans from orbit. There are six primary continents – three major and three minor. Generic continental designations were recorded by BR549, but mission parameters allow for personnel to choose actual names for them as desired.”
One of the Bridge screens displayed an equatorial land mass; Latitude and Longitude gridlines were overlaid across the image, adjusted for the planet’s greater circumference. “Continent One is generally barren, consisting of rocky flatlands, low hills, weathered mesas, deep valleys and several meteoric impact craters for good measure.”
“Meteorite impacts?” Captain Robeson repeated with a concerned look at Dr. Kate.
“Yes sir, but comparisons to the BR549 survey shows them all, so none of these impacts were formed within the past one hundred thirty-two years. It is not unreasonable to assume that they originated from this system’s asteroid belt.”
“Of course. Is there any life on Continent One?”
“Vegetation only, so far as my initial scans from orbit can determine, and those areas are primarily along the northern and southern coasts. Geological patterns suggest very little rainfall across the majority of the continent. Only a closer study of the land mass would reveal other lifeforms; it is beyond my capabilities from this altitude.”
“Understood. What about that land bridge?”
“Twenty-three hundred miles in estimated length consisting of weathered peaks averaging 14,000-16,000 feet elevation. They are close-packed and it is unlikely there will be traversable valleys between them.”
“Mother Nature put up a fence to separate two disobedient continents,” Kate murmured.
“What about that southern land mass?” Another image appeared on the screen.
“Continent Two has an abundance of rainforests and areas of grasslands with multiple rivers. The areas not covered by these are mostly marshlands or rocky hills near some parts of the coasts.” The image magnified, closer in. “There are two inland seas located together near the southern coast, but are not connected to the ocean waters. I would suspect that these are probable fresh water lakes as both are surrounded on three sides by snow-capped mountains that likely feed into them.”
“Inland seas,” the cougar repeated. The two of them were just as large as the Great Lakes of Earth, but could only be compared to them if the ones back home were mostly surrounded by mountains.
The screen was divided into quadrants with individual photos displayed in separate images. “Four meteoric impacts have been detected on this continent as well, all made after the BR549 survey.”
“They’re recent? That’s worrisome.”
“Two of them impacted separately within the forested regions, one near the edge of a grassland, and one right on a coastal shore.”
“Hmm, okay. What about the smaller continents?”
“Continent Three is located in the northern hemisphere on the other side of Bellerophon, comparable in size to Australia and contains a mix of mountains, forests and grasslands.”
“Any animals there?”
“Unknown at this time.”
“What about meteorite impact sites.”
“None that I can detect on that land mass.”
Kate arched her back and felt a satisfying crack relieve some tension. “Good to know it hasn’t been a target.”
“This is true, Dr. Kate, but impact sites are always random. Just because there are none now does not protect against future events.”
“Nice, I’m feeling better about this world with every passing moment.”
Robeson smiled at her sarcasm, but Arion did not respond to it. “Okay, continue.”
The next image of land appeared on the screen as a giant crescent claw with multiple talons. “Continent Four is also in the northern hemisphere. Although it is in a temperate zone and there are freshwater lakes, there appears to be little vegetation.”
“Any theories about that?”
“There are active geothermal regions on this continent, but not enough to account for the low vegetation of the entire land mass, although the planet’s largest meteorite impact crater is located just off-center in the middle of its mainland. Once the colony site is selected and work begins on the town, I can devote some of my processing time to send probes to different areas on the planet to investigate them in greater detail. If a human presence is required for closer inspection, the shuttle planes and shuttle trucks can be utilized for that purpose when they are not otherwise in use.”
“True, that. Continue.”
“Continent Five is near the south polar ice cap, but does not actually connect with it.”
Kate looked at the picture that came up. “Is there a continent beneath the polar ice?”
“Negative, it is one ice mass and there is no land shelf beneath it. It is floating on the water – comparable to the north polar ice on Earth, although greater in area. This polar site is one of the regions where my sensors are unable to penetrate the depths of the sea. It is quite deep beneath that ice on all sides. The continental shelf beneath Continent Five drops off sharply just south of its coast. Despite its proximity to the pole, the northern sections are flourishing in vegetation among rocky hills. There are no impact sites on Five.”
“And this brings us to the final continent,” Robeson remarked.
“Continent Six sits beneath the north polar cap and is entirely covered in glacial snow and ice. The land mass is roughly pentagonal in shape and is surrounded by rough seas. No other distinguishing features from initial scans.”
Arion activated all ten of the Bridge screens. Close up views of each continent were on six of them, with four island chains filling the others. “There are over seven thousand individual islands of various sizes worldwide. Environmental conditions are as varied as the mainland continents.”
Captain Robeson turned to Dr. Kate and swept a furred hand to gesture at the monitors. “As the mission project director, it will be your decision to choose our home site. Take your pick.”
Kate frowned and swished her tail. “This decision will affect all of humanity on Belle, so I don’t want to make it lightly. Arion, I will need your help researching all of the variables necessary to make a choice. This may take a while.”
“I am at your disposal, Dr. Kate.”
“While you two are driving this task,” Robeson said, pushing off from the bulkhead to float toward the door, “I am going to take a shower.”
“You mean you aren’t going to lick yourself clean like a cat?” Kate asked with sudden impish glee.
The captain narrowed his eyes at her. “That is not a habit I plan to start today,” he growled in amusement. Before she could add anything, he slipped through the door and was gone. The lioness looked over at the SI’s image on a screen with a smile and nodded toward him.
“Alright, let’s get started.”
“Okay, we have it narrowed down to three sites,” Kate told her companions several hours later. All five of the Furs were gathered in the galley near a wall screen where they had been taking their meals, although at the moment they only had a few appropriate snacks and drinks that the SI had provided for their meeting.
With everyone focused on the screen, one of the land masses was displayed for them. “These sites are in the southern hemisphere on what the BR549 survey designated as Continent Two. For those of us who grew up in the northern hemisphere of Earth, directions will seem reversed since water flows primarily south to north toward the equator instead of the other way around. If we use a standard hand-held compass, the red end will still point toward the north magnetic pole, so we will always need to remember that the opposite end of the needle will point toward our nearest magnetic pole.”
Kate paused to lap at a wide-mouth cup of coffee. “For various reasons, I have ruled out the other continents for our initial colonization, although Continent Three may be ideal for later settlement when our population increases over time.”
A blinking red dot appeared in one place, a blue dot in another, with a yellow dot marking the third. The project director leveled a claw toward the red dot. “Site One could be considered to be in this continent’s Great Plains with several thousand square miles of prairie grasslands. There are numerous freshwater lakes fed from rivers with their headwaters originating at a pair of inland seas to the south.”
“What is that blemish on the east side of the plains?” Dr. Kazama asked. “It almost looks like a huge meteorite crater.”
“That is exactly what it is,” Kate replied. “Arion conjectures that it hit sometime within the past sixty years. If you look closer, you may notice that the surrounding area of nearly a hundred miles out looks tarnished, as if the grasslands were fire-bombed and the region has had a tough time recuperating in the years since. It’s probable that the meteorite came in super-hot and contained some elements in its core that damaged the local ecosystem. It’s unknown if that contagion is still spreading or is now fading, but the grasslands are so large that the western edge of the Great Plains appears to be relatively untouched. Site One could be set up in the region to the west away from the impact site, although there are three other such craters across the continent, though not as large.”
“What about Site Two?” Fernando asked. “Is it any better?”
Arion adjusted the screen and the land filled up the view with endless stretches of dark green. “Outside of the Great Plains, a massive rainforest about fills in the rest of the continent,” Kate explained. Our first thought was that we would need to clear-cut the area we would need for our town within the rainforest.”
“That would be a massive undertaking,” Andresen growled, “and it might be months before we had enough space cleared out just to move all of our personnel, supplies and equipment to the surface! We can’t decant everyone and then keep them up here on the ship while only a few work on that project.”
“All correct,” Kate replied with a nod, “but nature itself has provided an alternative to clear cutting.”
“Two of the other meteorites impacted in the rainforest, each about eight hundred miles from one another.” The screen split to display a pair of images that pockmarked the forest where meteorites had struck. The blue site dot was in the center of one and the yellow dot marked the other. “These are similar craters approximately 25-30 miles across, where each caused a great upheaval of land that pushed the ridge rock so high that some are now snow-capped. The forest was blasted outward from shock waves beyond each crater in all directions for many miles.”
“Why would these be considered for colony sites?” Kazama asked, looking back at the lioness.
Kate smiled at him. “Instead of clear cutting the rainforest, the meteorites have done this for us. I had Arion launch a reconnaissance rover down to each of the craters on this continent. As suspected, the soil samples analyzed from Site One is inert and dead from whatever contaminated it by the meteorite. We would have to seed the soil from other locations to make it viable. However, inside the craters of Sites Two and Three, the soil is as fertile as any I have ever seen, although I’m neither botanist nor microbiologist. It is my opinion that we could probably set up our colony site and subsequent town within either of these craters. There is plenty of room to expand and the potential exists to grow our own crops even if local flora is not edible – and that’s something else we will look into as well.”
Robeson studied the images carefully. “Of these two sites, is either one better than the other?”
“Yes, but only marginally. Due to the regional rainfall that makes a rainforest flourish, the floor of each crater is carpeted in some type of uniform ground cover, and each crater also has a large freshwater lake near its center that would serve to sustain us. Site Two also has several small rivers running from the snow-capped ridge rock down the slopes into the crater to provide extra freshwater into its lake. Site Three has but one of these runoff rivers, although local rainfall seems to have kept its lake well supplied. Both sites are practically ideal for colonization, and if we have need of natural building materials, we can reap them from the forested areas laid over outside the craters.”
“These are some amazing discoveries,” Fernando mused, clearly impressed. “Is there anything else we should know about these sites?”
Kate grinned widely and tapped a clawtip on the table. “Yes, I’m glad you asked! Arion’s reconnaissance rovers also released drones to look over the area while the ground investigation was underway. The drones sent back these images from Site Three!”
The display screen changed and each of the furmen gasped collectively. Crawling across the green and yellow leaves of the ground cover were twenty or more creatures of varying sizes that somewhat resembled large starfish with a rounded lobe on top. These did not appear to be aquatic creatures, however, but looked relatively mammalian. Each body was covered in a short nap of fur in mottled colors of black, gray, white and tan and all five limbs appeared to be legs of some kind, each tipped with a hard thorny cap that could possibly be used for digging. A pair of coal-black, stereoscopic eyes peered out high on the center of the lobe, but its mouth could be seen beneath the legs, silently ingesting clumps of soft ground cover. They did not appear to be harmful, but there was only so much they could tell from the images of a small flying drone.
“How big are these critters?” Andresen asked. “I can’t tell the scale from these pictures.”
“The average size can be comparable to a large family dog,” Arion’s voice reported.
“Oh my…” Robeson muttered when he noticed a pair of the starfish… star-things?… in the background. One had mounted itself behind another, undulated against it for a moment, and then slid back to the ground.
“Mating in motion seems to be universal across the stars,” Andresen remarked with a chuckle.
Then a different individual seemed to rise up on the tips of its legs and they could see the lower mouth making some sound-related motions, perhaps braying or barking, although the image was silent since the drones were not equipped with microphones. Each of the animals turned to look up at the camera, all having noticed the flying intruder. They appeared to be in a state of alarm, but none of them did anything more than stare at the drone that looked back at them. After a moment, the flying observer retreated to a safer distance in case the things became too agitated with its proximity. Watching from a higher altitude, the star-things relaxed and soon returned to grazing.
“Beyond identifying micro-organisms in the soil, this is the first sign of animal life we have seen,” Kate remarked cheerfully.
“How about we call them Belle Stars?” Fernando suggested.
Andresen looked puzzled. “Why would you name them after an outlaw of the Old West?”
The skunk chuckled. “Actually, I had forgotten about her. I was referring to their star-shapes belonging to the planet we call Belle.”
The group was silent for a moment until Robeson shrugged his shoulders. “That sounds reasonable to me, but the usual practice is for the discoverer to have naming rights.” He looked over at the lioness. “What do you want call them?”
Kate blinked and then twitched an ear. “Arion made the discovery, not I.”
“I waive all naming rights for any discoveries made on Bellerophon,” announced the synthetic voice. “I defer to Dr. Kate for this one.”
The group all looked amused. They all knew that Arion would likely discover more about this new world than anyone else in the crew, but he seemed to have no issue with his human – or furman – companions taking the glory.
The lioness stretched out her forearms across the table, but had to fight the urge to dig her claws into it. “Since I have nothing better to suggest, I will go with Antony’s recommendation. We’ll call them Belle Stars.”
“Noted for the records,” Arion reported.
The scene on the wall screen changed back to a satellite image of Continent Two with three site markers still blinking in place. The group of furman colonists fell silent for several long moments, but Dr. Kazama pointed up at the picture. “Arion,” he said, “please highlight each of the meteor impact sites.” A green circle appeared around each crater and the otter nodded. “I just noticed – take a look at the pattern.”
“They’re all in a line,” Andresen remarked. “I’m guessing they all fell about the same time.”
“They were either lined up as the gravity well caught several strays and pulled them in,” Kazama conjectured, “ or it was one meteorite that broke up when it entered the atmosphere.”
“If they were all fragments of the same rock,” Kate replied, “wouldn’t all of the sites have been contaminated like Site One? So far, that’s the only one with a contagion on its local environment. The other sites are healthy and thriving.”
“Even the fourth one that hit right on the edge of the coast hasn’t killed off everything in its vicinity,” Robeson added.
Kazama sat back in his seat. “I dunno,” he muttered, digging at a morsel of food between his teeth with a claw tip. “It just seems too much of a coincidence that they all fell like points on a line diagram if they had come in at different times.”
“If this is a concern,” Arion said from the screen, “I can set the rovers still at each site to do an analysis on the apparent age of each impact.”
Kazama shook his head. “No, it’s not a concern – just a curiosity. We probably shouldn’t use your resources for something that trivial. If you wish to recall your rovers, it’s something we can look into months or years down the road, For now, we’ll need to focus on our mission to build the town. Arion-2 may not get here for a few years, but it will probably take us that long to set up everything we have planned.”
“As you wish.”
“Do we need those rovers elsewhere?” Fernando asked. “If not, we can just leave them there and Arion can use them to study the area later without having to send them back.”
“I don’t see a need to redeploy them to another site unless something else comes to our attention,” the lioness answered. “Arion, unless they are needed elsewhere, can you use them as a remote monitoring station right where they are now?”
“Affirmative, Dr. Kate.”
“Okay, that’s settled.”
Captain Robeson looked over at the director. “So, have you made the choice for us?”
The lioness straightened up in her chair and folded her hands over one another on top of the table. “It is my recommendation that we build our initial colony location at Site Two,” she said after taking a quick look back up at the screen. “However, I would like to put it to a vote between the five of us if someone might prefer a different location. There are one hundred… uh, ninety-eight of us – who will be totally alone on this world for the next five years, but the others are all still asleep for now. By the time they all awaken, we should have our plans ready to put into motion. I don’t mind making the choice, but I want each of you to have a say in it. So, does anyone wish to suggest one of the other sites? All views can be discussed, pro and con.”
One by one, each of the Furs held up fingers to indicate their choice. It was unanimous without debate or further discussion. Their colony would be set up on Continent Two, Site Two.
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