Ooh, a couple notable occurrences in this chapter!
First, Cass very nearly spoils her line of immortality, like Neil Armstrong’s famous (infamous?) gaffe.
Second, it’s the first time in these books that Daniela appears in-person. Oh, she’s been mentioned, but only in passing. You finally get to meet her, now, and find a bit more about her.
Did you know you can now get all five of the current Cassidy Chronicles novels in a single volume? Yup, Adam went and put them all together. And he added a novelette, The Martian Gambit, about the TFS Nike and what happened under Captain Rene Mikall, a story you can’t get anywhere else. And it’s all just $9.99 for the ebook! Go ahead, check it out. And if you want to put some artwork of Yours Truly up on your walls, click the other button and see what’s out there!
Five hours later, the Enterprise was orbiting Tau Ceti f, having crossed the rest of the system uneventfully. Sanzari and Leard had persuaded Alley to allow them to test the spinal laser on targets of opportunity along their route. That meant there were now three fewer large asteroids, and a great number more small asteroids, cluttering the system.
Sanzari was gleeful.
Alley and Stewart were pleased; it was good to know that their only offensive weapon actually functioned.
Lorelei Stewart, the engineer responsible for babying the laser and its associated systems, was thrilled. It was one thing to run simulations, check circuits, test relays; it was another entirely to feel the laser come alive, humming with anticipation, and successfully discharge, not just once, or twice, but three times.
Now, though, playtime was over, and it was the Science division’s turn. After much debate, Alley had allowed that she would allow a shuttle to land on the surface. Truth be told, though, her arguments against it were purely pro forma, as she was nearly as excited to make some history.
That had been the one dimension of the debate which got heated: personnel. Eventually, the team was determined:
Commander Kiri Stewart, commanding.
Lieutenant Commander Aiyana Cassidy, Science officer. Lieutenant Zihal, who’d lost the coin flip, would continue to take readings from the ship.
Ensign Dave Willerman, assistant science officer.
Crewmembers Paige Colwell, Jack Reeves and Kevin Ware, assisting and providing security.
The daVinci would be piloted by Justina Garcia, with Brianna Garcia acting as Engineer’s Mate and Daniela Garcia, who was rated as both Coxswain’s Mate and Engineer’s Mate, along as supernumerary and reserve.
The mission was going to be strictly time-limited. No more than two hours on the surface, even though their skinsuits were rated for up to six hours exposure to vacuum. If they’d had it, Alley would have forced them all to wear Arctic weather gear on top of their skinsuits, a shortfall she intended to fix before the next mission.
“And no heroes!” she added forcefully. “I’m talking to you, Commander Cassidy. No. Heroes. Everyone comes back!”
“Aye, Captain,” said Cass, boarding the daVinci.
“XO, keep that gung-ho redhead in check,” Alley said as the others trooped onto the shuttle. “I know she means well, but –”
“Meaning well gets people killed. I’m on it, Captain.”
Alley put a hand on Stewart’s arm. “Seriously, Kiri. Bring them home safe.”
“On my honor, Alley.” With that, she pulled away and, checking a final time, boarded the shuttle. The hatch clanged shut, and Alley retreated from the bay before it was evacuated.
“Secure for liftoff,” said Brianna “Batgirl” Garcia over the comms. “Two minutes.”
“You heard the EM,” said Stewart. “Harnesses on, helmets dogged down, suit systems working. You can parasite off the shuttle’s air and power, but safety first.”
A ragged chorus of, “Aye-aye, XO,” rose as everyone worked to comply, some with more skill than others. “Commander, having troubles?”
“No, thank you XO,” said Cass, though she very evidently was not as skilled as she might have wanted to be.
“It’s not rocket science, Commander,” Kiri teased.
“Very funny, XO,” grumbled Cass.
“Hold on to your hats,” said Batgirl over the comms. “We’re being told that we can expect hundred KPH winds on the way to the surface.”
“Is that going to be safe?” asked Colwell over the open frequency.
“It’s nothing we can’t handle,” Batgirl assured them. “She might go by the handle ‘Junkyard’, but Justina’s as good a CM as we’ve got.”
“Hey! What am I, chopped liver?” demanded Daniela, though at least it wasn’t over the comms.
“There’s a reason you have the handle Double Dip, sis,” answered Batgirl. “And it’s not because of the summer you spent at the ice cream shop.”
“Put a cork in it,” said Junkyard. “Five seconds.”
The liftoff seemed surprising gentle to Cass, who had usually traveled from Earth in Wolves, not from space, and thus had become accustomed to a more vigorous departure to break into orbit. Coming from orbit down to a planet, it seemed, was a different matter entirely.
“We’re going to hit atmosphere shortly,” said Batgirl from the flight deck, after what seemed to be a ridiculously short time. “Last chance to strap in. It’s going to get bumpy.”
She wasn’t kidding. Almost before she stopped talking the shuttle began to shake and vibrate.
“Increasing power to inertial damper,” said Batgirl, and the vibrations diminished.
“Getting some good crosswind,” said Junkyard from her seat beside her. Double Dip was sitting behind them, working the radar/lidar system.
“Altitude twenty kliks,” she said. “Clear of terrain.”
Cass, meanwhile, was dying to see the surface, so asked, “I’m going to turn on the screens back here for a surface view, alright?” to Batgirl. Before the EM could respond with, “Yes, Commander,” she’d tapped the internal systems with her ‘plant and given the passengers a bird’s eye view of the approaching planet.
“Looks cold,” said Reeves, gazing at the snow- and ice-covered surface.
“Only because it is,” answered Willerman. “But snow and ice is a good thing.”
“It means there’s water, and where there’s water, there could be life.”
“Though it’s pretty unlikely,” said Cass. “We’re on the ragged edge of the habitable zone here, and this is pretty much high noon. All the life we know needs liquid water to survive.”
“Oh,” was all that Reeves could say.
“Don’t worry. We’ll know soon enough.”
The next few minutes were thrillingly boring; the anticipation had them all on edge, but the Wolf was steady on course under Junkyard’s control. Cass strained to make out any hint of color, but all she could discern were blacks, whites, and shades of grey.
At last the daVinci touched down. While Junkyard and Batgirl verified the solidity of their landing, Cass and Willerman took more detailed readings on the atmosphere, passing the information to Stewart.
“Listen up people,” she said. “The temperature outside is a balmy minus 106 Celsius. Winds are out of the northeast at 23 KPH, with gusts up to 40 KPH. Surface gravity is 0.89g, which puts it about twenty percent over what you’re used to aboard ship, but below Earth normal. Be careful, your feet aren’t going to behave the way you expect them to.”
She checked her notes before continuing.
“The surface is composed of rock and a mix of ices: water, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and ammonia. Your feet are insulated, but don’t stand in one place too long. You’ll melt the ground under your feet, enough to get slippery, and then you’re going to fall on your ass. These suits are tough, and there is atmosphere out there, but you’re not going to appreciate a tear in the material. Plus, I’ll have to send you back to the shuttle, and then the rest of us are going to have to do your job, which is going to stress us out. So keep moving! Anything I miss, Commander?”
Cass shook her head, said, “No, XO, that’s the high points. Atmo is breathable, but nobody exposes themselves to it. Okay. Let’s do this.” She moved to the hatch.
“daVinci is secure. Flight deck is sealed. Vents are open to exterior, so if you don’t have your helmet dogged, start holding your breath,” said Batgirl. “You’re cleared for egress.”
“Wish I had something profound to say,” Cass muttered to herself. Alley had granted her the privilege of being the first onto the ground, but she’d been so involved in the planning and execution of the mission she’d completely forgotten about the historicity of it all. She had a few seconds, at least.
The hatch chunked, then smoothly opened. The suit, noting the drop in temperature, automatically compensated, and Cass took a deep breath. She stepped to the coaming, looked down to assure herself of the footing, then took her history-making step…
Which nearly turned into a disaster. The snow, or ice, under her foot crumbled as she applied her weight, but didn’t compact evenly. She felt her foot sliding sideways, and only just managed to grab the side of the hatch before falling over.
“Oh, shit,” she said, gasping.
“What was that, Commander?” asked Stewart, a laugh in her voice. Apparently she was on the open comms.
“I said, people have imagined this moment for centuries, and I am only the next dreamer in a long line of dreamers.”
“Huh. Sounded a lot shorter before. You okay?”
“I’m fine. Everyone, watch your step. The ground is tricky.” She cleared the hatch, and stood to one side, shifting her feet occasionally, to give the others a hand down. Most accepted, though Ware chose to drop down with both feet. In a very few moments, the science team was all on the surface and starting to do their jobs.
The actual exploration was anticlimactic. Their readings from orbit and from the descent were accurate, and the samples they took confirmed the composition of the surface layers. They didn’t spend much time talking on the surface, taking the XO”s warning, and Cass’s example, to heart and concentrating on their footing. On the other hand, for all that conversation suffered, nobody else slipped.
It was nowhere near the two hour limit when everyone was back aboard daVinci, mentally exhausted and feeling cold, despite the suits.
“Cassidy? Are you satisfied with the data collected?”
“Satisfied, XO? We’re bringing back enough information to keep a university busy for five years, plus samples. No, I’m not satisfied, but I think we have enough for now.” She smiled.
“Now I just want to get back to my quarters and have some hot cocoa.”
“Not a coffee drinker?” said Stewart, sitting next to her as Double Dip closed the hatch.
“Never have been. Though Kendra did turn me on to this stuff, it’s like coffee, but made from ground cacao beans. Think cocoa without the sugar or milk.”
“Doesn’t sound that great,” admitted Stewart. “Coffee, cream and sugar for me. Lorelei takes it black.”
“Secure for liftoff,” said Double Dip.
“I thought Batgirl was the EM?” asked Cass.
“The Garcia triplets make their own arrangements,” Stewart answered. “Daniela – Double Dip – is rated as both CM and EM, so she spells both of the other two.”
“That makes –”
Cass’s words were cut off by Junkyard. “We’ve got a front coming in with heavy winds, so we’re going to see just how quickly we can get out of the soup. Five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One.” When she would have said zero the noise of the engine rose suddenly to a roar, and her passengers were pushed into their seats with the full 4g’s that came with the maximum 200g’s acceleration the Wolves were capable of.
“I guess Junkyard wants you to get your cocoa,” grunted Stewart as the atmosphere whistled past.
“I – really – wasn’t – in that much – of a – hurry!”