©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Eleven - Triple Crown Landing
Joe Kittinger’s feline tail twitched in agitation, all that could be seen of him from the maintenance panel he had crawled into. The shuttle pilots had all been decanted hours ago, having had their mixed reactions to waking up transformed into anthropomorphic hybrids and subsequent sessions with Dr. Fernando. Once they had been poked, prodded, scanned, counseled, clothed, fingerprinted and fed, they had been released into the wilds of the ship’s corridors with a good bill of health.
Dr. Kate had encouraged them all to lean upon one another as close associates, but then stressed the importance of their skills in preparation to fulfill their mission to Bellerophon. As soon as they were ready, they were to start preparing the shuttles for work.
Mounted externally just above Arion-1’s engine pods were the Percheron-class personnel shuttle planes, Secretariat and Omaha, and mounted below were the Clydesdale-class cargo shuttle trucks, Sir Barton and War Admiral, all named after Triple-Crown horse race winners. Personnel entrance to these four winged shuttles from the interstellar ship were through airlock hatches in each of their bellies, although the trucks could also be accessed through external cargo doors along the port side of each.
“Hey, Morris, are you in there?” called a voice from the Secretariat’s internal hatch.
“I told you to stop calling me that – Cheeto!” Kittinger backed out of the access panel and the orange domestic cat looked crossly at the cheetah who grinned back at him from the hatch. Despite his good health, Joe Kittinger’s eyes had heterochromia, which made his left eye yellow and his right eye green; this did not affect his keen eyesight, but it made his expression even more dour when he narrowed them in agitation as they were now.
Henry Clifton grinned at the new nickname that his partner had given him in retaliation for the moniker he had put upon the orange striped feline, but he was not about to give Kittinger the satisfaction of knowing that he did not care much for it either. The two pilots had worked together for years and their verbal sparring was near constant; that each were now hybrid feline types only served to give them more to needle one another with.
“What do you want?” Kittinger asked, wiping his paws on a grease rag he pulled from a pocket of his overall shorts.
“Have you tried the touch screen controls of your plane yet?”
Kittinger made a face. “Yeah, tried, but I haven’t gotten the hang of operating them with these fingers. My claws retract, but the thicker finger pads don’t make good contact unless I press harder on the screen.”
“I’ve run into the same problem,” Clifton remarked, “but my claws are only semi-retractable, so I have nails clacking the screen while trying to press firmly. My fingers are also a little shorter than they used to be, but my legs are longer due to my digit-grade ankles. Operating the foot controls will be tricky, especially if we hit any severe weather.”
“I had to adjust my seat further back because of that, but it also puts me farther from the control panel. I also keep getting a pinch in my tail from the seat back; our planes weren’t designed to be flown by animals!”
“Touch screens weren’t designed for us either. I miss my human hands.” The cheetah rubbed at the black cry-lines in his facial fur as if he could see smudges of soot at the edge of his vision.
“Arion,” the orange cat said aloud, turning to replace the access panel over the duct he had just been inside.
“Yes, Mr. Kittinger?”
“Can you reprogram all of our control screens to accept a lighter touch with our new finger pads?”
“I can, but it will take approximately one and a half hours to reprogram every touch screen control throughout Arion-1, your shuttles and all personnel tablets. It appears this will be a recurring issue for more than just yourselves.”
“How long will it take to reprogram just the shuttles for now?” the cheetah asked. “These vehicles are our priority right now and we can’t afford a mis-touch on the screens while in flight.”
“I am now writing the new code. It will take approximately seventeen minutes to push down new commands to all four shuttles, Mr. Clifton.”
“I have informed the Captain of your request, but I do not see a problem.”
“He’s probably having the same issues using touch screens.”
“Captain Robeson has approved your request. Implementing firmware update. You may experience control fluctuations until it has been completed.”
Clifton nodded in satisfaction toward Kittinger. “I’ll let the fluff-bunnies know what he’s doing so they will understand if something drops out on them.”
“Go ahead. I still have mechanical systems to check out that will require hands-on inspection without the need of touch screens. Arion may have maintained the bigger ship during our sleepy time, but Secretariat has been sitting idle for over seventy-five years. I want to make sure nothing developed a fluid or pressure leak during that time.”
The Omaha pilot waved and pulled himself through the zero-gee connecting hatchway, his spotted tail trailing along in the air behind him. He turned at the connecting corridor, and using wall-mounted hand rails, the cheetah followed the curved passageway until he came to a printed sign beside another airlock hatch denoting Shuttle Truck 1.
Pulling himself into it, Henry Clifton approached the open portal of War Admiral. “Sean?” he called out, looking up toward the cockpit.
“I’m in the cargo bay,” responded a distant voice.
When Clifton passed through another internal pressure door, he emerged into a spacious compartment, although it was hardly empty. Several cargo shipping containers were lined up side by side, bow to stern. These held the first batch of equipment to be off-loaded down to the surface. Each of the large containers on this load held modular perimeter fencing that would cordon off a six hundred forty acre site area as protection against local indigenous creatures that might be attracted to the commotion and work initiated by the intrusion of humanity. This would be erected before anything else was built on-site.
Floating beside a container tie-down was the silhouette of a creature that made Clifton momentarily pause, stirring his predatory instincts. Although of different breeds, both Sean and Dana Barringer had been transformed into rabbit hybrids. The male half of the married couple was an American Fuzzy Lop, and the tan and white buck seemed almost comical dressed in one of Arion’s minimalist garments.
“Hey, Cliff,” Sean called out when he saw the feline pilot cross in front of an area work light. “What do you think about this new life of ours?”
The cheetah suppressed his instincts and smiled at the rabbit. “I haven’t gotten used to it yet,” he confessed, resisting the urge to lick his lips. “There are times when my animal wants to take control.”
“I know exactly what you mean, especially when I look at Dana in her bib overalls.” Sean grinned widely and waggled his eyebrows. “We’ve never really talked about having children before, but now the prospect seems natural.”
“Are we going to be overrun by baby bunnies?”
Sean laughed. “Not yet, but maybe once we’re settled in dirtside.”
“Listen, I wanted to alert you to some software changes Arion’s making to the shuttle controls. The touch screens aren’t very responsive to our new finger pads, so he’s reworking some of the code to make them more sensitive. It won’t take long, but he said some of the controls might fluctuate until they’ve been pushed down and installed.”
The rabbit nodded as he shook one of the equipment lockdown arms on a container to make sure it was firmly in place. “I’m glad to hear it,” he murmured. “I can barely use my tablet right now.”
“He’s going to update those too, along with all touch screens on board, but he said it would take time to get them all. The shuttles are first, though, since they’re the mission priority.”
“Great, thanks for letting me know. I’ll pass the word along to Dana. Captain Robeson wants us airborne by 1600, especially you or Joe.”
Clifton looked surprised. “Why the rush?”
“He wants Dr. Kate to make the historic first step on the new world and get the preliminaries out of the way so we can start decanting the rest of the crew and get them down to the surface. There’s not enough room on Arion-1 for everyone to loiter, so we’re to start offloading personnel and equipment as soon as we can get out the gate.”
“In that case, I’d better get back to Omaha and finish prepping my plane for passengers.”
“See you on the ground.”
Joe Kittinger handled the controls of Secretariat with skillful precision despite the reconfiguration of his new limbs and digits. Arion’s adjustments to the touch controls had improved the cat’s mood, and taking the shuttle plane out away from the interstellar ship for a practice run had given him the confidence he needed to pilot the small vessel. In personal waking time, it had only been a week since he had last piloted the plane when it had been delivered to the El-Five station, but this was his first experience since transformation.
After re-docking at the shuttle’s berth, all Furs but the rabbit pilots boarded the plane. Designed for no more than one pilot and twelve passengers, there were still seats left empty with only six personnel occupying them. Everyone belted into their acceleration couch seats, and once the orange feline had sealed the floor hatch, he double-checked their harnesses and then floated into the cockpit without a word.
He picked up a modified headset clipped beneath the control panel and slipped a thin band around the back of his head. The earpiece had been moved to a thin arm so that it could be positioned up inside his ear, now located higher on his head than where it had been for a human pilot. He adjusted the boom microphone at his lips and then began his pre-flight checklist.
After several moments, he tapped a control with a finger pad and spoke. “Arion-1, this is Secretariat. On board for transport to the surface are personnel Robeson, Ruston, Kazama, Andresen, Fernando and Clifton. We are ready for departure.”
“You are monitored for release, Secretariat,” the SI responded. “Sir Barton and War Admiral will follow you down in fifteen and thirty minute departures respectively.”
“Aye to that. Releasing docking clamps.”
Now that the landing site had been chosen, Arion-1 was parked in geosynchronous orbit at an altitude of two hundred seventy miles above the crater. Using small attitude jets, Kittinger maneuvered the shuttle plane away from the bulk of the larger ship and then gently fell behind its aft end. Painted bright blue so that the plane could be seen and recognized from a distance, Secretariat turned slowly to readjust its attitude with the sunlight momentarily reflecting its colored surface across the other shuttles.
Positioned on the opposite lower side of the vessel from Secretariat, Dana Barringer awaited her turn in Sir Barton to detach and follow it down; her husband Sean gave a farewell salute to the departing plane through the cockpit window of War Admiral.
Once sufficient space had been put between the plane and her mother ship, Kittinger dropped her tail toward the marbled world below at a gentle angle of descent and lowered their orbital speed.
“Just sit back and relax, folks,” Kittinger’s voice came over the cabin intercom. “Flight time to our landing site will be approximately two hours, ten minutes.”
“Can’t we go faster?” Dr. Fernando asked.
Engineer Andresen laughed aloud, but it was pilot Henry Clifton who answered the skunk’s question. “Yes, we can go a lot faster, but we’d end up making another nice crater in the rainforest. For me, I would rather we took our time so we can make a good landing that we can launch away from again.”
Fernando swallowed and looked at the cheetah. “I see your point,” he said. “Slower is safer.”
Captain Robeson adjusted his tail in the seat as much as he could to make it as comfortable as possible, and then rested his hands on his belly. “Like any long flight, it’s best to just relax and enjoy the ride.”
Kate held up her tablet. “I always bring along something to read,” she stated.
“I didn’t think of that,” muttered the skunk, at a loss of what to do with his time. His seat was near the starboard side of the plane, so he rested his chin on his fist and peered out a window at the clouds far below. The movement was imperceptible, but he could see that they were getting closer ever so slowly.
The atmosphere of the planet was thickening the farther they dropped, and although the weather over their intended site appeared to be calm, the shuttle plane buffeted through tropical thermal waves and wind currents rising up from the surface. Turbulence shook the passenger compartment enough that Dr. Kazama chirped in sudden pain when his nimble little teeth bit his tongue. Following that, he kept his dental work firmly clamped shut.
Much of the ride down from the edge of space resembled a free-falling express elevator with friction causing their windows to glow vibrant orange, but once they had reached the intended altitude, the flight smoothed out, the view cleared and the plane caught the wind in its wings to slice through the air at a greatly reduced speed.
Kittinger piloted the small craft in a gentle arc across the alien sky, reporting quietly through his microphone to the SI monitoring their progress, and as they dropped further in altitude, he made banking s-curves in the sky to decrease their airspeed further.
Several of his furmen passengers had their noses up to the windows when a break in the seemingly never-ending forest below revealed a light-colored circle. As the pilot continued to make maneuvers to slow their decent, that circle increased in size.
Aside from the craters of Earth’s moon, Will Andresen had never seen an impact crater beyond pictures he had seen of the small one near Winslow, Arizona. That one was just shy of being a mile across, yet Arion had said that this scar on the surface of Bellerophon measured close to twenty-five miles across with ridge rock so high that that some of its peaks were snow-covered even now in the relative spring-like weather conditions. The engineer felt amazed at the sight below them.
Eventually, Secretariat had thrown off enough post-orbital velocity that Kittinger started coming in directly toward the crater. The passengers could no longer see the target through the windows with it ahead of them, but the skunk was suddenly concerned.
“We’re in a plane and coming in for a landing,” he exclaimed. “Has Arion already built us a runway?”
“Nope,” Clifton answered. “Our shuttles are all equipped with VTOL, so we can drop straight down without needing a runway.”
Fernando stared at the feline pilot. “VTOL?”
“Vertical Take Off and Landing. Some planes have used the technology for many decades. It’s more efficient and requires less fuel to use a runway, but until we can make one of our own, the VTOL is our best way to get on and off the planet.”
“Heads up, folks,” Kittinger said over the intercom. “We’re coming in over the crater lake and we’ll be on the ground in about three minutes. Deploying landing gear now.”
Noses went back to the windows and they could all see water passing below them. They had dropped farther than they had anticipated just in the past few minutes and they were now below the tops of the ridge rock. Then suddenly, the water gave away to a pale green and yellow ground cover and even that passed by much slower.
VTOL rocket engines roared loudly and drowned out all other sounds as the space plane slowed to hover, and then it dropped to the ground with the barest of bumps.
The sudden din of the engines died suddenly and then it became almost too quiet while all ears compensated for the lack of noise.
“Welcome to Bellerophon, lady and gents. For better or worse, we’re home.”
Dr. Kate remained in her seat at the announcement, but the others released their harnesses to get up and mill around the passenger compartment. Clifton went straight to the compact restroom at the rear of the plane and others stretched their limbs under the natural gravity of the new world. They were slightly heavier here than on Earth, but the difference was barely noticeable and they would all acclimate in time.
The orange domestic cat opened the cockpit door and looked out at his companions, simply leaning on the door frame and letting his tail swish lazily behind him.
“There will be a twenty minute delay before we can open the hatch,” he informed the small group. “The VTOL rockets superheated the ground beneath us, so we’ll need to let that dissipate before we touch ground.”
“Did it set the ground cover on fire?” Dr. Kazama wanted to know.
“No, whatever it is out there seems to be fire resistant. Once the air cools, I’ll open the environmental package to analyze the atmosphere before we actually breathe the stuff.”
“The BR549 report stated that it was breathable,” Fernando said, retaking his seat to look out the window.
“Yes, and that’s been over a hundred years ago by now,” Robeson remarked. “We’ve got to be able to breathe it since we can’t go back to Earth, but first we want to make sure that nothing has changed and that we can.”
“Rock and a hard place,” Andresen grumbled, crossing his lupine arms.
“As I said, for better or worse…”
The time passed excruciatingly slow for the ground to cool, and then even more time for the environmental analysis. Joe and Henry compared changing information on their personal tablets, and finally Kittinger cleared his throat for attention.
“Okay folks, Arion has a report for us.” All eyes went to their pilot as the SI’s voice emanated from his tablet.
“Local conditions are as follows. Surface air composition: 77% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, .93% argon, 1% water vapor and 1.07% of miscellaneous trace gases. From all indications, it should be fully breathable for humankind.”
“Or furmankind,” Andresen added.
“The current temperature is 71°F. Pressure 30.15 inches. Dew point 37°F. Humidity 29%. Wind is 3 mph and you have mostly sunny skies.”
“The chemicals are right for breathing, but what about other things in the air?” Fernando asked.
Dr. Kazama looked at the skunk. “We were all inoculated with the vaccines developed from samples brought back by BR549, but there’s no way to know what kind of other bacteria, viruses or potential pathogens it missed that we might face. Facing such barriers will become a common way of life for us here on Belle from now on.”
“I am satisfied with the report, but does anyone else have any concerns before we open the hatch?” Kate looked around from person to person, but no one else spoke up. Even the counselor seemed ready to get outdoors despite his voiced concern.
When the lioness received no opposition, she turned to the pilot. “If you please, Mr. Kittinger. Open our portal to another world.” The orange cat grinned back at her metaphor.
A moment later, new air and new scents flowed into the cabin through the side hatch. Kittinger tapped a touch plate and a ramp extended out from the belly of his plane to the ground below, and then he stepped aside to allow her first egress.
Everyone else crowded around the door to watch as she padded down to the end of the ramp. There she stopped and crouched down to look at the vegetation growing evenly across the entire floor of the crater. It was completely alien to anything on Earth, but her first impression was of Asian kudzu by the way it was spread across the ground. This native ivy also resembled ferns, but instead of reaching up to the sky, these grew horizontally across the ground.
The oval-shaped leaves were dark green with extremely tiny yellow flowers growing along their veins, and although they did not resemble anything that had ever been seen upon the Earth, they were recognizable as growing plant life. She reached out tentatively and stroked the leafy material. It was slightly coarse to the touch, but simultaneously soft enough it would not cause any abrasions from walking on them. Swishing her tail behind her, Kate stood back up and then stepped out off of the ramp.
Her weight pressed her foot down onto the ground cover, but only by inches. She had been secretly afraid that the actual crater floor might have been a foot or more beneath the covering plants, presenting the danger of twisting an ankle when she fell, but she also remembered the ramp she had stood on had not compressed it much either.
When she took several steps out away from the walkway, she idly remembered that she was barefoot, having had no shoes for her newly shaped feet; she could only hope there was nothing analogous to briars or stickers along the ground.
Dr. Kate looked out across the terrain, and from ground level, she could not tell that she was actually inside a crater. From her point of view, it just appeared as if she were fully surrounded by a range of mountains as her immediate horizon in all directions.
She took a good lungful of air and her body processed it without a cough, sneeze or sniffle. She smiled and turned back to look up at the others waiting in anticipation, almost all of them now out on the ramp. The lioness gave them a feline thumbs-up and her associates returned with an abbreviated smattering of applause.
“My friends,” she said, struggling to say something profound at this historic event, “Mankind is no longer bound to one planet amongst the thousands and more out among the stars. We have never seen any indication that there are other intelligences like our own, and even if we are alone out here, we have now spread across the sky to live on two worlds. Bellerophon is our new home, and whether or not you believe in the guidance of God or some other force, we have made it here safely. Earth will live on in our memories, but to our children, that other place will become nothing more than the stories of legend. Welcome to Belle, and as Mr. Kittinger said it earlier, Welcome Home.”
“Amen,” Robeson said beneath his breath.
Everyone paused for just a moment after Kate’s words, and then they all walked down the ramp to set their own feet upon the new world. They could never go back, but that had never been their intention, and even if their forms had been altered from the human standard, they were alive and in full control of their mental faculties. Now that they had arrived, they had a mission to fulfill.
A familiar hum approached from the direction of the lake, and they all turned in unison when Arion’s lander rover came to rest a few feet from the ramp. The six-wheeled vehicle was half the size of a family car, although it contained no seats, with scientific equipment packages mounted on all sides. From a control module on its front, Arion looked out at them through stereoscopic lenses mounted on a boom extension.
“I have finished an initial analysis of the crater lake,” said the SI’s familiar voice, “and the water should be safe for human consumption. There does not seem to be any marine life in the water beyond tiny creatures analogous to krill and some various water vegetation, but no harmful microbiology that I could detect.”
Andresen stretched out on all fours, the lupine engineer looking all the world like a large dog that had just woken from a nap. “If we want to do any fishing,” he said, “we’ll have to stock it with our own fish.”
Leading the small group toward the lake with her hands upon her hips, Kate said. “We have plenty of fish embryos for that very reason. We just didn’t want to stock them until we knew how much they would have to compete for food and air by native life.”
“That can still be the case,” Arion remarked, his rover rolling along beside them. “The indigenous life conditions could change for nocturnal situations, so I will continue to monitor the lake throughout the night.”
“I wonder if our fish will see the native krill as a food source,” Andresen mused when something flitted past his nose. “They’ll need to eat something.”
“There’s insects flitting about,” Kate remarked, “or at least something that might be insects.”
“They are analogous to insects,” Arion confirmed. “I have examined forty-two distinctly separate species so far.”
“Any of them venomous?” Andresen asked with a frown.
“Unknown at this time.”
Robeson approached the water and knelt beside it. The lake was still with barely any ripples from the light breeze that blew across the crater valley. “This may be safe to drink,” the feline captain remarked, “but it’s not running water. We can use it to irrigate our crops and swim in it on hot days, but personally I wouldn’t drink from it. It would be my suggestion to locate our town near one of the flowing rivers that feed into it, either from mountain springs or snow runoff. Running water has always been cleaner than anything stagnant in a lake, and I’m betting that applies to this world too.”
“That’s a very good point,” Andresen said. He looked around at the others and then settled his gaze upon Kate. “I would go with his recommendation.”
The lioness nodded. “I would have to agree with that assessment. The perimeter fence will go up first and we’ll include a river for our water supply, and then we can survey out the exact place inside where we can start building.”
“What about the Belle Stars?” Fernando asked, swishing his large fluffy tail. “Can we get the fence up before any of those come calling?”
“Those were seen at Site One,” Clifton reminded him.
“I have identified none of those creatures here in the Site Two crater. However,” Arion paused for dramatic effect, “there have been several varieties of flying creatures analogous to birds that gathered at the lake earlier, some feeding on the insects, but your landing frightened them away.”
“I’m glad to know about the birds!” Kazama reacted with enthusiasm. “Birding is one of my hobbies and I hope they return.”
“Any idea what this is?” Andresen asked.
At the shore, the ground cover gave away to a mix of wet sand and gravel rock. Floating near the edge of the still water were several objects that looked like pale green grapefruit and of a similar size. The red wolf reached out and managed to grab one without getting his feet wet. It came up out of the water with a single root strand trailing beneath it.
“You might want to leave that alone,” Clifton cautioned.
Ignoring him, the wolf said, “It’s surprisingly light, and it’s soft and pliable. It feels almost like…” Andresen’s voice trailed off and a smile crept across his lips as he hefted it up.
“What does it feel like?” Robeson prompted.
The wolf embellished groping the balloon-like plant and grinned. “It feels like my late wife’s bosom!”
Kate snorted aloud and everyone else either sputtered or stared at him incredulously. Before the wolf could make another joke, his expression changed to one of surprise. His free hand went to the back of his head and then he dropped the soft globe back into the water.
“What happened?” Clifton asked.
Andresen glanced back down at the object he had dropped before he looked at the others. “I felt a… tingling at the base of my skull.”
Dr. Kazama approached him. “Did it sting your hand?” he asked. “It could be something akin to a jellyfish. It had a root or spine beneath it.”
Andresen shook his head. “No, I never even touched that part of it, only its body. All jokes aside, it felt just as I described it, but after a moment, I felt that tingling.”
Kazama examined the wolf’s hands for any kind of rash or abrasions, but he saw nothing out of the ordinary. “Did it hurt?”
“I didn’t even feel it in my hands, only at the back of my head, but no, it didn’t hurt. It just surprised me.”
The doctor moved behind him and gently parted the wolf’s fur to examine the back of his neck, but nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. There was no rash, no reddening of the skin or other irritations. He then stepped around and peered into the engineer’s eyes, but they also appeared to be clear.
The wolf returned his gaze. “There… there was something else,” he muttered after a moment.
“What?” Kate asked.
“You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Probably,” Robeson remarked with a smile, “but try us.”
“I didn’t feel it for long, since I dropped it in surprise, but along with the tingling, it was almost as if I could sense the way you all were feeling about my joke, but in my head. It was almost tangible.”
Kazama blinked and looked at him sharply. “It made you telepathic?”
“I dunno. I could almost feel what you were feeling,” said the wolf. “It wasn’t in words and I wasn’t reading anyone’s thoughts, but it was more a feeling than anything else. Wouldn’t that be empathy?”
“Okay, this bears closer examination,” Robeson said. He approached the water near the floating orbs and looked at them. He could not tell which one the wolf had picked up, so he chose one at random and fished it out of the water.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Clifton said in alarm, but the cougar already had it in his hands.
Everyone was focused on Robeson as he hefted the round plant, feeling the weight in his hands. Repeating what Andresen had done, he massaged it a little to get a feel for the object, but then his expression changed.
He blinked rapidly several times and moved a hand to the back of his head just as the wolf had done. He swallowed and then put both hands around the fleshy plant again.
“Someone is feeling amusement, watching me grope this thing,” he said without looking at anyone, “and someone else is aghast at putting myself in potential danger by handling an unknown plant. Although I can guess, I don’t know specifically which impression belongs to whom.” He reached out tentatively toward the dangling root and tapped it with hesitation, but it did not sting as he might have expected. He grabbed it between his thumb and forefinger, but it was just a root, nothing more.
The cougar held the round plant for another minute before he placed it back in the water. He wiped his hands on his shorts and then looked at the small group.
“That was weird,” he said.
“Wasn’t it, though?” Andresen remarked.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t go fondling the native flora and fauna until we know more about them,” Kittinger said. He looked over at Kate and gestured to the other ground cover. “Did you feel anything when you were handling that stuff?”
“No,” she answered with a shake of her head. “It’s just a weed, an ivy of some kind.”
A distant roar came from the sky and each of the Furs looked up to locate the source. A glint of sunlight from a reflective surface identified Sir Barton approaching from the southwest. A bright orange, Clydesdale-class shuttle truck came in quickly, but rotated its engines seventy-five yards above the ground to hover before it slowed to a heavy landing denoting the weight of its cargo; it sank through the thin layer of ground cover to rest upon the solid earth beneath about fifty yards from Secretariat. Its atmospheric engines shut down and the whine slowed. They could all see the cottontail rabbit pilot’s silhouette inside the cockpit as Dana Barringer shut down her systems while awaiting the ground beneath the vehicle to cool.
The water plant forgotten, most of the landing party rubbed their faces at the dust the landing had stirred up, but the experienced Clifton had knowingly turned away when the plane landed. He was the first to recover and began walking across the ground cover toward the new arrival, leaving the others at the lake shore. He stopped when his foot pads felt the warmth of the heated plants. He crouched down to examine them, and even though they were still fairly hot to the touch, they were only slightly discolored. The heat was slowly dissipating and the original color returning to the vegetation; he thought it was remarkable stuff.
He looked up when the truck’s forward cargo hatch began to swing up on thick hydraulic arms. Dana’s statuesque form was standing beside the door frame just inside and she gave a silent wave when she saw the other pilot. Once the massive door had fully opened, she tapped another control to open the adjacent door aft. A set of ramps extended out from the belly of the plane toward the ground.
Arion’s lander moved out across the crater floor away from the shuttles and the other Furs waved from a distance, but most of the group walked out toward the lake shore, some of them down on all fours. Captain Robeson did not join them, but instead approached Sir Barton and walked up the ramp toward the rabbit once he could cross the cooling vegetation.
“You aren’t taking a moment to enjoy the new land?” the cougar asked with a smile. He felt it difficult not to stare at the pleasant curves filling out the top of her overalls, as well as the cottony puff tail behind her. Unlike Kate, whose chest had reduced in size with the transformation, Dana’s was just as eye-catching as it had always been.
The predominantly brown rabbit shook her head, oblivious to his interest, her tall ears waving with the action. “This fresh air tastes nice and I’m glad to see sunshine again, but our first priority is the perimeter fence for our protection.” She waved a hand at two ground-based dump trucks locked to the deck with sturdy cables. “You can help me get these offloaded and then Sean will be down shortly with a load of shipping containers with the fencing. Secured in the beds of both of these trucks are crates with the military base tents we’ll set up for our tent-city to live in until we get actual structures put up, so someone may wish to unload those first. My next delivery will bring the earthmovers to build a runway so we won’t have to waste time waiting for the ground to cool between landings.”
“Once Doctors Kazama and Fernando can get more of us decanted and counseled, we’ll send personnel down to begin work on that fence. Arion is now out with his rover, marking where it will go to enclose six hundred and forty acres.”
“Why that amount?”
“It’s one square mile, a good round number, but it can be expanded later as the town grows.”
The felines helped the pilot unshackle the cables to release the trucks, and once they were free, Clifton and Robeson climbed into the hefty vehicles. One by one, the trucks started up and then rolled out of the shuttle bay down the ramps to the ground. After they had driven out a short distance from the plane, they parked and shut them down for now.
Inside Sir Barton, Dana was already stowing the cable tie-downs, but she would not be launching back to orbit just yet. There was no one else on board Arion-1 right now and she would need assistance transferring the earthmovers and other work trucks from the interstellar ship into her shuttle.
When everything was secure and readied for a return flight, Dana joined Clifton and Robeson, and the three of them walked out toward the lake to join the others. Conversations had fallen to a lull, and standing beside the still water, the whole area was eerily silent. Even the sky was clear of clouds but for a few wisps far to the southwest.
“Just think,” Fernando said in a quiet voice as if he was afraid to break the silence, “This is what a new planet is like. No teeming masses or the hustle and bustle of humanity, no traffic noises, no voices raised in alarm or discontent. It’s quiet. It’s fresh. It’s all new.”
He closed his eyes and listened. His companions were also quiet, all soaking in the peaceful solitude, but then the illusion was shattered by the deep roar of War Admiral’s atmospheric engines as Sean Barringer rocketed across the crater valley.
The small group watched for minutes until the red shuttle truck dropped in to land a few yards away from Sir Barton, and the whine of the engines had barely wound down before the bay doors began to open.
Will Andresen picked up a quarter-sized pebble from the sand and then flipped it horizontally across the lake. Its shape was wrong, however, and plunked into the water instead of skipping across as the wolf had intended. He waited and watched to see if he had disturbed anything beneath the water, but nothing surfaced to look back at him.
Dr. Kate began walking back toward the new arrival and the others followed. By the time they got to the shuttle truck, the lop-eared rabbit was already at work. Two large boom arms unfolded from tracks in the upper cargo chamber and the first of several shipping containers moved out on large rollers toward the bay door after its lock-down cables released. Sean stood at the controls and glanced over at the furmen approaching the ramp.
“You may wish to step back,” he cautioned them “I’m experienced moving cargo, but I would prefer you not be beneath the containers as they come out.” As recommended, the small crowd moved away from the ramps toward the ship’s nose.
The robotic boom arms grasped lift points on the first container that had rolled out of its bay, and when Sean noted indicators that the load was balanced, he picked it up and swung it out over the ground. The shipping container was set down gently on top of the vegetation just beyond the ramps and then the clamps released, depositing the first immobile object on the surface of the planet.
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