LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
The bridge of the Meriwether Lewis was relatively quiet. The new geosynchronous satellite was in place and operating as designed, but the planet was still silent. There had been no answer to numerous hails on the standard and emergency frequencies, and even rotating to all other bands, the only response from Bonestell was the typical planetary static generated by its magnetosphere. If there had been any survivors from the Ferdinand Magellan, they were either unwilling or unable to respond. There seemed to be nothing remotely manmade on the planet indicating that anyone had survived the previous voyage.
Captain Katherine Adrienne pursed her lips and turned to the First Officer floating beside her. “Upon failure to generate a response from the previous vessel or the colony that was intended for the surface, we are to proceed as planned, Commander.”
“Aye, Captain,” replied the officer automatically in a heavily accented voice. He turned to a man belted in at the communications console and put a light hand on his shoulder. “Send a message burst to Earth, informing them of the time, our position, flight logs and operational status.”
“Aye, sir,” the com officer responded, his fingers already flying over his controls.
Commander Cairn looked back at the red-haired captain and leaned toward her to speak in a quiet voice. “We're in a similar time-window as the Magellan was when she was last heard from,” he told her. “There was no sign of trouble from her last report.”
She nodded, resting a hand on a counter to keep her position steady. “Everything appears routine,” she said in a voice intended to carry across the small bridge of the vessel, “but I want everyone vigilant during this landing. If any of you see, hear or detect anything even remotely out of the ordinary, I want it reported.”
“Message sent, sir,” the com officer announced.
“Very good, Mac,” the commander replied. “Please inform our passengers that we are beginning preparations to drop out of orbit. Everyone should already be secure, but you never know when a civilian thinks he can make it to the head and back right when he should be in his landing harness.”
“Aye, sir, right away.” There was a moment of quiet before Mac nodded to himself and spoke quietly into his tiny boom microphone. “Mr. Avonaco reports all are in their harnesses and ready.”
“Thank you,” the captain responded. She glanced at her wrist watch and then looked over at her navigator. “Time until orbital drop?” she asked.
“Six minutes, forty-seven seconds, ma'am.”
Jon looked over at Kristen seated next to him and saw the excited expression on her face. She was looking forward to cataloging an entire world of new botanical wonders – or at least those in the immediate vicinity of their colony. When he looked at Jenni in the row in front of them, he saw a different mood. The leopard nurse had never enjoyed flying, and although the small troop compartment where they were awaiting the landing had no windows to the outside, Jenni had her eyes tightly shut.
“You know that closing your eyes during landing only makes the sensations more intense,” Raine said from the seat beside her.
“No, it doesn't,” Jenni retorted, keeping her eyes closed. “I don't have to see the room jumping all around when we hit turbulence!”
“Suit yourself,” the cheetah replied. “Too bad we don't have our spice tea for this trip, but one of the ship's crew told me earlier that it won't take us as long to drop from orbit here as it did from the space station.”
“There's no air traffic to coordinate, so we can drop in on an optimal trajectory that will take us right where we need to go. It should only take around an hour.”
“That's nice. Keep talking to me… I need the distraction.”
Raine smiled at her, even though she couldn't see it through closed lids. “Sure, Jen. What would you like to know?”
Without even thinking first, she asked, “Did you ever leave the Institute for anything after you became a Fur?”
“I'm assuming you aren't including our trek through the woods or the trip down to New Mexico for our flight up to Sebra,” he replied dryly.
“Smart aleck,” she said with a smile, opening one eye slightly to peer at him. “No, I don't count those.”
He gave her a cheesy grin with a chuckle, but then shook his head. “Not counting those, I've been stuck at the Institute for my entire existence as a Fur. There were others who got to leave on good-will tours to help bolster human-furman relations, but I didn't get to go.”
“Who did?” she asked, closing her eye again.
Raine mused a moment and said, “Avon, naturally, though he was only gone a couple weeks, but Henry was gone for almost a year.”
“Henry Parker, a mountain lion from the class before mine. He didn't come back from that tour either… got himself shot playing around with an engaged woman.” Jon growled low from the row behind them, but Raine didn't appear to notice. “Still, he got to spend a good deal of time out away from the Institute interacting with people. I think he succeeded with his intent to foster good will about Furs.”
Although Raine seemed oblivious to the noises Jon was making behind them, Jenni knew he had overheard the cheetah's remarks and was sure the cougar was having dark thoughts on how Henry went about spreading that good will. She was about to change the subject when the intercom system crackled to life.
“Attention all hands – attention all hands – We have green lights across the board for descent into the Bonestellan atmosphere. We'll be passing through rough weather approximately two hundred kilometers to the southwest of the target, but conditions over the landing site are fair. Prepare for deorbit. Touchdown should occur in approximately fifty-seven minutes.”
Jenni knew the roller coaster ride was about to begin and she suddenly dug into one of the pockets of her furman shorts, remembering the dimenhydrinate tablets she'd stashed in there. She'd always had difficulty swallowing pills without something to drink, but she managed to swallow the motion-sickness medication in her attempt to get it down before the turbulence could begin, completely missing the small water bottle provided in the seat pouch in front of her.
She settled back in her seat and grabbed the arms of the wide troop seat she was in, closing her eyes tightly. She heard Raine chuckle softly beside her and then listened to snippets of excited or dreaded comments issued by the others in the small compartment.
Kristen looked over at Jon with a wide grin and slipped her hand over his on the seat arms between them. He glanced at her and then moved his hand out from under hers, but instead of withdrawing it completely, he wrapped his larger hand paw around hers and then held it up. “Ready?” he asked quietly.
“Ready,” she whispered back. Neither of them had anyone to go back to on Earth, so Bonestell was now to be their home; despite all they had experienced since joining the AHCP, they were both looking forward to this new life.
On the bridge of the Meriwether Lewis, Captain Adrienne pulled herself down into her command seat at the back of the small room and buckled herself into a heavy duty harness. Commander Cairn was already in his and looking back at her expectantly.
“Deorbit to commence in forty seconds, ma'am,” he said.
“Execute at zero,” she responded.
Adrienne looked around at her small bridge crew and saw the professionalism in every action they made, every control they operated and ever indicator and readout they watched. They had made many planetary landings together, but this time the uncertainty of the disaster that had befallen a sister ship was clearly on all their minds. She had already reminded them once to be on the lookout for anything unusual and knew she wouldn't have to repeat herself.
“Deorbit in twenty seconds.”
The captain looked out the forward windows at the blue and white marble turning quietly below them. From space, it was remarkably Earth-like, though the familiar pattern of continents was something else altogether. At the moment, there was nothing but clouds and seas in view beyond the terminator between night and day, but she had already familiarized herself with numerous orbital photos that had been provided to her. The new satellite they had deployed was in operation and would monitor the progress of the Lewis as it came into range near the targeted landing site. Should anything happen to the vessel on its decent, the satellite was programmed to transmit a report back to Earth with as much information on the incident as it was able to gather.
“Deorbit,” Cairn announced.
“Executing deorbit,” the helmsman replied. Without a perceptible feel of motion, the planet below hove closer into view through the windows. Little by little, swirling clouds over the blue seas grew nearer, but after only a few moments, the large vessel entered the upper atmosphere. This time there was a shudder all through the ship as the air outside thickened, and then the spatial shields surrounding the Lewis took on an orange hue in friction between the collision of atmosphere and the shields.
Commander Cairn polarized the glassteel windows as the orange brightened considerably toward blinding white. The room dimmed, but most eyes on the bridge were locked completely upon the readings of their stations.
A deafening roar permeated all through the vessel, making conversation impossible, and limbs felt heavier as the planet's gravity counteracted the weightlessness of space.
The troop compartment bucked as the ship around them was buffeted by turbulence, moving rapidly through the thickening atmosphere. The inertial dampers absorbed most of the shock as the ship descended, but the ride was still rough by anyone's standards.
Cheryl held onto the arms of her seat tightly, comparing the sensation to the mechanical bulls she had ridden in country bars back home. She would have to hold on for longer than the required eight seconds to best this bull ride.
The ship lurched forward through a pocket of dead air and then seemed to slam through more walls of atmosphere, eliciting yips, yelps and mews from a number of the passengers. This was a harder ride than any of them had experienced on the space plane, no doubt due to the much larger, winged colony ship they were in now.
The turmoil seemed to last forever, but then the calm came so suddenly that there were many who thought they had crossed over seamlessly into something beyond death. The roar disappeared, the flight of the giant plane smoothed out and the air pressure in the cabin changed ever so slightly.
Cheryl looked around with wide eyes, wondering if there was something else about to happen, but then she laughed aloud in relief at the realization that they had made it down through the upper atmosphere and were now on powered flight across an alien sky.
“Any sign of the original site marker beacon?” Captain Adrienne asked. “The signal could be weak after all this time.”
“Nothing, ma'am,” reported the communications officer. “There are no clicks, bleeps, sweeps or even the creeps,” he added, quoting from an old vid he favored.
“Oh, I'm getting the creeps alright,” muttered Cairn. “Even the landing probes that examined the planet before the Magellan ever came out here should still be giving off some kind of signal.”
“Nothing, sir. The place is absolutely quiet, save but for natural planetary background static.”
“Are the flight recorders operational?” the captain asked.
“Aye, ma'am. All settings, readouts and conversations have been recorded since we entered standard orbit.”
“If there's the slightest trouble, send the whole caboodle in a concentrated message burst to the geo satellite for immediate relay to Earth.”
“Already keyed in, ma'am.”
“Very good.” She looked out the forward windows, but could see only a blue sky with a tinge of green. “Change the angle of video panel to lower forward view. Let's see what's below.”
The same tiny circuitry embedded in the glassteel forward windows that had polarized them earlier switched over to video signals received from cameras mounted flush with the underside of the giant space plane. They were still several thousand feet above sea level and traveling at a high velocity, but the helmsman was burning off speed through a subtle zigzag pattern across the skies.
“Land ho…” Commander Cairn said quietly when the first continental coast slowly slipped into view beneath the clouds still below them. The far horizon looked a little odd since the planet's circumference was greater than the Earth's, but it was a familiar enough sight that spirits were high.
“Any anomalies?” Adrienne asked.
“Nothing to report,” Cairn said after checking his console readings. “This is almost textbook.”
“Don't be too complacent,” warned the captain. “I want everything closely monitored all the way to the ground.”
The helmsman slowed their descent ever further as they passed over the coast, now flying over land. “Current altitude is thirty-seven thousand feet at nine hundred sixty-six kilometers per hour,” he reported.
“Time of arrival?”
“Forty-three minutes, ma'am.”
There were no windows in the troop compartment, neither was there a simple video screen for the Furs to watch as the vessel came in for a landing. They were simply locked up tight within a small room designed to hold no more than fifty colonists. Although the seats were wide enough even for Avon's bulk, they were not the most comfortable that money could buy, intended only for temporary usage. The addition of planetary gravity with their descent also served to acknowledge just how thin the seat padding was beneath them.
“I am so ready to be on the ground,” Aaron grumbled. He looked over his shoulder at his snoring cousin and marveled at how Gerard could be asleep at a time like this. The brown bears were seated near the aft end of the compartment, and although they had been at odds with one another since departing Earth, they continued to hang around together out of familiar habit.
The ship shuddered momentarily in a minor updraft, causing Dara beside him to grasp for the arm of the seat. She clutched Aaron's hand instead, but he merely gave her a smile, letting her feel the security she needed in the grip.
Up closer to the front, poor Jenni was panting from the motion sickness her medication was trying to fight off. It could only help just so much, but she was doing her best to maintain her equilibrium. Raine lightly fanned her with a magazine he'd taken from the chief medical officer's desk before they'd made it to their seats.
For most of the Furs, the flight now felt little different than commercial air travel traveling across North America. The dull roar of wind outside the fuselage was constant and the turbulence seemed to have smoothed out. With the roller coaster atmospheric conditions behind them, some relaxed to wait out the flight as well as they could.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Katherine Adrienne, your captain for this flight. On behalf of Meriwether Lewis Airlines, your official transportation of the Terran Colony Coalition and the Anthro Human Colonization Program, I'd like to thank you for joining us on this trip across our small section of the Milky Way galaxy. We are on final approach to the Second Chance landing site, but we request that you remain seated with your harness firmly fastened until we are safely upon the ground. Our estimated time of arrival is approximately ten minutes. Our thrusters will heat up the air around the ship upon landing, rendering the surface unsafe for approximately thirty minutes, so you may use that cool-down time to prepare yourselves to face an alien world under a new sun. We have timed our descent to land at exactly oh-seven-hundred hours, native local time. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Bonestell!”
Kristen grinned at Jon, hardly able to sit still in her seat, keeping her hand in his. After several long moments of waiting, they could all feel the ship slowing as the roar and whine of atmospheric engines reduced speed. Without windows or even a video screen to witness the actual landing, there were more than a few frustrated Furs, all impatient to see their new world.
This was what they had trained for. This was the reason they had allowed others to painfully shape and twist their bodies into something more than human. They were to be explorers and this was a new world that had waited for them. Although it had been examined scientifically via satellites and probes, the world would finally be touched by the hand of man. That hand may have been genetically modified to increase its survival upon an alien world, but it was still a representative of the human race from Earth. There were other such planets that had been touched thusly, but for the terrestrial sphere labeled Bonestell, this was its virgin moment.
The feeling of motion had slowed, but now that the vessel was closer to the ground the wind buffeted the ship with its passing. Even though they could not see the external terrain passing by, they could discern the movement as surely as if they had been riding in a car with only their eyes closed.
The ship turned and banked, throwing off more speed and more than a few guts were wrenched to the side. Despite modern medicine and her own will power, Jenni could take the motion no longer and quickly hefted the air sickness bag she'd held in her hands up to her muzzle. She retched into the container and tried her best not to pass out in the process.
It was then that the ship ceased to function like a large airplane. The surface area of its massive wings had provided lift to coast down into the atmosphere over the world, but elements of its starship design took over and powerful thrusters slowed the vessel further to hold it aloft. Then the bottom fell out and the Meriwether Lewis dropped like an express elevator with a deafening roar.
Jon's eyes flew open wide, mirroring the surprised expression of others in the compartment, and they all fully expected to hit the ground hard. The feeling was deceptive, however. The ship touched down upon the ground with only a soft bump and then the deafening roar of the thrusters vanished unexpectedly as if they had all gone suddenly deaf.
No one dared move or hardly even breathe for several moments, but then the captain's cheery voice came across the intercom.
“Touchdown, ladies and gentlemen. We have safely arrived on Bonestell!”
Kevin looked over at the fennec fox seated beside him and he exchanged excited grins with Erin. As if on cue at having the same thought, both of them let out a loud cheer.
Others quickly added their voices to the raucous sentiment, but Jenni did nothing more than rest her head back upon the back of her seat with her eyes closed and her bag clenched shut in her hands.
“Thank You, God,” she murmured quietly.
Raine turned to her with a big smile, but when he saw her weakened state, he pulled out a bottle of water from the seat pocket in front of him and splashed a little of it onto his hands. He patted her furry face with a light touch and she opened her eyes to look at him.
“We made it!” he said exuberantly. “You won't have to do any more flying for at least another five years! Isn't that great?”
“Huzzah…” she whispered.
Promptly upon landing, a message was relayed through the new satellite and sent back to Earth reporting on their successful landing. No sign of wreckage debris or a previous human presence from the Ferdinand Magellan had been detected, but there had been no trouble at all for the Meriwether Lewis during her decent.
Impatient Furs were now gathered in the forward cargo bay near the external airlock. The compartment was predominantly filled up by several large rectangular containers on wheels that were chained to the deck, but there was some room near the crew hatch for them all to stand in anticipation of disembarking.
The half hour of waiting for the ground and surrounding air to cool down seemed to last forever. They still had not seen the outside world and were ready to breathe fresh air again; the shipboard atmosphere was scrubbed, recycled and even a little stale.
Captain Adrienne, Commander Cairn and Hiamovi Avonaco stood near a monitor over the hatch controls, the rest of the Furs crowding up behind them trying in vain to see what they were looking at.
The red-haired captain and her first officer exchanged a few comments and then Adrienne looked up over her shoulder at Avon. “The heat in the air from the landing thrusters has dissipated,” she told the large grizzly bear. “External sensor readings are comparable with previous reports from lander probes. The atmosphere here is comprised of seventy-seven percent nitrogen, twenty percent oxygen, point ninety-two percent argon, one percent water vapor and one point oh-six percent of other trace gases. Our current morning temperature is seventy-eight degrees Fahrenheit with forty percent humidity. The barometric pressure is thirty-point-oh-two inches and there is a southwest wind breezing in at five miles per hour. Mr. Avonaco, I do believe this is your stop.”
Someone behind them cheered again, but the captain held up a white-gloved hand for silence. “Okay, folks, listen up,” she said in a voice to carry, “We have a little protocol to follow for a first landing. Mr. Avonaco will be the first to step out onto Bonestellan soil and he has a small ceremony to perform. Once done, I will join him on the surface to officiate his promotion. After the appropriate document has been signed by thumbprint by the two of us, everyone else will then be allowed outside.”
“Several light-years from Earth and we still have to bother with documentation!” Norman called out from somewhere near the back of the group. His frustrated comment garnered chuckles, causing the captain to give the grizzly an amused smile.
She turned to her first officer and nodded. “If you please, Commander.”
“Aye, ma'am,” he responded officiously. He turned to the control panel and tapped out the commands to cycle the pressurized airlock. It took another precious few moments before a green light lit up on the console, and then he depressed a large black plunger button. There was a soft hiss and then rubberized seals around the thick door deflated as a hard series of clunks could be heard within.
The airlock hatch then slid aside on well-lubricated tracks and a lamp flickered to life within the closet-sized room beyond. Cairn stepped inside the pressure chamber and then with a flourish, made a big production of pressing an identical plunger button on another console. Three clunks later, the small chamber was flooded with natural light. Although its origins were completely alien in nature, an aroma very much like spearmint wafted in through the opening.
Commander Cairn walked back inside and looked up at the grizzly. “Your turn, Mr. Avonaco,” he said with a smile.
Avon turned and looked at the expectant faces of the Furs behind them. He gave them a confident smile and then walked out through the airlock into the sun. Before stepping off the ramp that had extended down to the ground below, he shielded his eyes for a moment to let them get used to the brightness, enjoying the feeling of warm sunlight upon his fur.
He glanced around and remembered words from their training. 'Grass is grass, trees are trees, and flowers are flowers, no matter their origin.' Indeed, the bulk of the Meriwether Lewis rested in a wide open field of what could be related to tall grass or some kind of prairie wheat that stirred in a light breeze, and not far away were trees reaching up to the sky. Behind the trees were rocky, snow-capped mountains. The scene could have been lifted directly from any number of places on the Earth.
The Ursis Fur smiled inwardly when he realized that he had stepped out onto the ramp holding his breath. He let it out slowly and then quietly filled his lungs with fresh new air. The minty aroma was the first he detected, but then he closed his eyes and sifted through the scents his enhanced olfactory senses had pulled in. There were too many scents to register at the moment, but although there were some that were completely new to him, others seemed eerily familiar.
Someone cleared her throat behind him and he blinked several times as if coming out of a daze. He walked down the ramp, slipped off his furman sandals, and then hesitated only a moment before stepping out into the waist-high prairie wheat-grass. His heavy bulk only sank into the ground a fraction of an inch and he could feel the grass and soil around his bare feet. Satisfied that it would hold his weight, he boldly took ten steps out away from the ship and stopped.
Without looking back at his companions, he pulled a small plastic box from a pocket of his dark green vest. Inside was a small amount of soil he had dug up from the rich earth of the Adirondacks on a world now far away. He knelt down among the grasses, and then with his claws, he pulled back some of the ground cover to expose dark native soil beneath. Something wriggled briefly in the sunlight but then disappeared swiftly into the roots and dirt before he could get a good look at it.
He opened his container and then reverently poured the soil from Earth into the hole. He pocketed the plastic box and then with his claws, Avon gently stirred the soils together and cleared his throat.
“The land of our old home mixes with the soil of the new in prosperity and harmony. May the seeds of life thrive in healthy abundance, and may this mother world welcome us with open arms for her new children.”
From another pocket, he pulled out a solitary acorn and then pushed it down into the mixed dirt of two worlds with a finger. He covered it over and then patted the ground gently before getting back up onto his feet.
Avon turned and faced the waiting crowd still within the ship with a wide grin. He retraced his steps back to the ramp and held out a hand toward Captain Adrienne. The red-haired woman walked down toward him, impressed with his personal ceremony. She had officiated first day landings on several worlds and each colony captain had some sort of speech or gesture to make upon stepping out of the vessel.
She carried a PBJ in one hand and reached out to take Avon's massive hand paw in her other as her boots stepped out onto the ground. “Mr. Avonaco,” she said in a loud, clear voice, “as an official representative of the Terran Colonization Coalition, I hereby promote you to the rank of Captain. As of this date and time, you will assume all duties and responsibilities as the commander of Second Chance, a colony outpost of the planet Earth. Congratulations, Captain Avonaco.”
“Thank you, ma'am,” the large grizzly replied with emotion in his voice. “I assume command on behalf of the planet Bonestell.”
Adrienne released his hand and then held up her PBJ. She opened the clamshell device and tapped out instructions that opened up an official document. She pulled off one glove and then applied her thumbprint to a box on the biometric screen, and then handed it over to Avon to apply his unique furman print to another.
Once the thumbprint signatures were saved, she closed the Personal Business Juxtapositioner and looked up at the bear.
“It is now official, my friend,” she said. “We have landed about three quarters of a mile from your colony site, but this is now your post.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Avon turned back to the impatient Furs still awaiting their turn to disembark. “My friends,” he said in a confident voice, “we have journeyed far and have come safely. It is our hope that one day others will travel here from Earth to begin lives that will help ease the overcrowding burden of humanity. We have years ahead of us before this can happen and today begins our mission. Let's get started. We have a lot to do on this, our First Day!”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.