/// move down to just before second mission///
"So the sulfur is way down in both the air and water, the acidity is nearing neutral and the dome is holding up just fine." Trebore M'hel summed up the report.
"The free oxygen is still low." S'dow pointed out.
"The seeds sprouted, propagated and spread." Xaero reiterated. It had been a marvelous couple of splits on Beltova///. She'd spread seeds of air pollinated plants from both Mars and Blue with near wild abandon, then they'd jumped a century and set up the first permanent habitat. And Trev, the real Trev had been there, and there had even been occasional opportunities for privacy. "As the oxygen level increases, we will add to the complexity of the ecosystem. At this point we really need to have a permanent presence there to constantly upgrade and adapt. We need to consider if we want to go any further forward, or if this is the time when we start colonizing."
She pulled up the aerial view again. The central farm dome was a kstride in diameter, the plants showing green even from the air. Even the outside had a sparse cover of tough plants.
The pattern of tiny domes showed the clusters of homes, the pattern of the tunnels twenty strides underground. They could move a thousand families in right now . . . to a "now" nearly nineteen million years in the future.
Doctor S'dow stood, then. "All right, we'll do one more trip, just a small jump ahead of this," he pointed at the aerial view of the underground and domed city. "And then start moving people in the new, larger ships." He nodded politely to General S'ank. "That will free up the Dzi to finally go and collect Metini L'azlod just after he ejected from the Dzi. Or, more correctly, we'll calculate how to arrive just after the Dzi departed that time." He shrugged. "After all, it doesn't matter how long we wait. It will just be a split or so for L'azlod."
Agent Monroe wiggled her toes and felt the gel squishing around.
"This gel is just gross." Vera said. "Bad enough in the shoes and gloves but my personal parts don't deserve this."
"It's incompressible, so it'll keep pressure on all the, umm, irregularly shaped parts so they don't get hematomas. That's blood blisters," Rex added helpfully.
"And," Vera continued, "I don't know about this glued on horse harness, either."
"It's a brilliant design, actually." Rex assured her. "Wiggle your shoulders around, the soft rubber part gives and stretches as needed, so we can have nice big clear helmets. Good visibility."
Chanel had been sending out regular reports to the DHS office. Her immediate superior had been quite business like about the whole thing, but the two times she'd phoned, she'd caught quite a few sniggers in the background. No doubt the other agents and the office staff were treating it all like a joke.
Well, they were 'warping out' in an hour, so it would all be over soon. They walked out of the suiting room, a screened area in front of the half bath at the rear of the hanger, and squished across to the plane. Perhaps she'd let herself go on her next report, and play up the amusing aspects of the assignment. Really no point in getting grim. Unless Rex freaked out when his warp drive failed. She almost felt sorry for the silly schmuck. The plane was just flat ugly now, covered with patchwork squares of black solar cells. They had covered up everything except the ID number and the "Starshine" on the tail, the wistful name Rex has come up with.
She sat down in front of her terminal, cringing at the wet diaper feel of the gel. Gross was totally insufficient to describe the sensation. Damn near obscene.
Hondo and Steve had been suited up and at their stations for hours. Now they started the engines, warming them while the rest of the crew suited up and came aboard.
Rex bounced in, no doubt enjoying the gel under latex. "No changes to our course, Astrogator?"
"None Captain." She'd played with his equations as if they were believable, and calculated the jump needed to get them close to Alpha Centauri where it was right now – which was four and a half years further along its orbit around the center of the galaxy from where they could actually see it from Earth.
Maybe if she hadn't taken so much astronomy when she was in college she wouldn't have ended up here. The laughing stock of the Bureau. Or she could have taken her law degree into private practice, instead of going into law enforcement.
Russ closed the hatch and dogged it down solidly. She worried a bit about the air. He'd changed the aircraft's air circulation system. It no longer scooped up and compressed the air outside, and all the little holes in the windows had been sealed.
After a final round of checks, the plane pulled out of the hanger and taxied for take off. Chanel fought down an impulse to shiver. After all, they were just going to fly around for a couple of hours max, until Rex admitted his warp drive wasn't going to work, and then they could land and get rid of these hideous suits.
"Ladies and Gentlemen." Rex stood at the front of the main cabin. "On this auspicious occasion I thought I'd say a few meaningful words. What we do today will carry mankind into a future undreamt of, as we reach out and grasp the newest frontier." He paused and frowned.
Forget the rest did you, Rex? Chanel thought uncharitably.
"Erm, as a precaution, crew, don your helmets."
Chanel reached reluctantly for hers. Checked that the regulator on the front was working, and lowered it into place. Clamped it.
Rex sat down at his console, ran his eyes down the warp program one last time and clicked the execute program button.
Something grabbed her insides and twisted, and then she was falling, the plane was falling. She cast a despairing glance out the window to see how close to the ground they were . . . and the huge sun and the black sky . . . and as the plane rotated slightly . . . there was the big 'W' of Cassiopeia . . . with an extra leg and a bright star that was the Sun.
"Well!" Rex was plastered to the window nearest him. "I think we're a bit closer to that star than we were planning, don't you think, Chanel?"
Chanel gulped and looked again. "Yes." she heard the quaver in her voice and couldn't do a thing about it. "I need to, um, to, umm."
"Calculate where we should go next?" Rex prompted.
"I've got some long exposures on the digitals." Mark said. "Correcting to the movement of the stars, there's something right over, well, wherever it's got to. Rex, can we stabilize the plane, err, space ship?"
"I'm on it." Steve called from the front. "The gyros in the cargo space are running, we should be gradually stopping the spin."
Getting a mental grip on her stomach, Chanel turned and looked at Mark's picture. "There's a big streak right there in Andromeda." She turned back to Rex's program. "That is the direction, but I have no idea as to the distance, umm, is the spin stopped? All right, this is how to orient your field. Maybe just a small charge, what was the voltage you used for that Lunar Scenario?"
"Gottcha. We'll just sneak up on this baby and . . . " A gut twisting wrench. "See what it looks like now."
"It looks like two little marbles, a double planet, or maybe a smaller one that is a lot nearer than the other." Mark's newest photo flashed up on her screen and enlarged.
"Weather patterns. OHMYGHODITSGOTWEATHERPATTERNS!" She fought to get her voice back under control. "It's blue, its got water."
"That's the one to the, umm, left." Mark said. "Here's the other."
Also blue with swirling white clouds. She ran a quick geometric problem. "Rex assuming those planets are roughly the size of Earth, this should get us halfway there."
He tapped her figures in and the gut wrench twist hit again.
She swallowed bile and stiffened her diaphragm. She was not going to barf. Not.
She could see the browns of land, edges of continents peeking out from the clouds. More geometry, adding in the effects of the last jump. She sent the figures to Rex.
This time the wrench was too much. Teeth clamped on an acid mouthful, she tore at the clips holding on the helmet.
"It's okay!" Russ yelled, "cabin pressure is holding steady." He shoved a marvelously huge and fluffy towel in her face as she heaved out her guts.
She wasn't the only one. Nobody said much of anything for a short unpleasant interlude. Her stomach spasmed, but then registered that there was in fact a down direction.
She found a clean corner of the towel to wipe her mouth with, and looked out the window. "Oh my god, how close are we?"
"We're getting radar returns that say we're at sixty-five miles." Hondo called back. "I think this counts as being in the atmosphere. We're real slow, too. Rising, in case you're interested. Rex, if that thing of yours can drop us about fifty miles, we can just fly down and take a look."
"Urg. Um, fifty miles coming up." Rex had his own helmet off and fluffy towel in hand.
Wrench. Her stomach quivered. She looked out. Brown yellow and ocher ground gave way to deep navy seas. Was there a touch of green in the ocean? They curved around and headed inland. She could see tall mountains ahead. Far below them, of course, but snow topped and jagged looking.
"Hey! There's free oxygen." Billy Ray chimed in from behind her. "Nitrogen and CO2. Methane, lots of water vapor, of course."
Russ hustled around collecting towels and spraying something. "Can you tell how much of each there is? Partial pressures?"
"Man, we're so high there isn't a whole lot of pressure, period."
"But there's nothing really bad out there, right?" Rex asked.
"Hmm, Some sulfur and nitrous oxides . . . call it bad air pollution. Not poisonous as such, but possibly not breathable. Can we go lower? I want to get some partial pressures."
"No problemo." Hondo called back. "We're not even using fuel, at the moment, just gliding on down. According to the radar those mountains crest about a mile and a half above the coastal plain, and half that over the big plateau beyond."
"Green! I see some real green!" Vera called. "Look over there."
"There" was beyond the mountains, out in the middle of the plateau. A blotch of grassy green that snaked outward and eastward. A flash of sunlight reflecting from something.
"Is there anything on the radio?" Rex asked. "I suppose we should have checked before entering the atmosphere . . . "
Steve finished searching, "Nothing."
"Let's go further east, then maybe circle back to that green." Rex shifted uneasily, "Umm, Hondo, the engines do work, don't they?"
"Well, I suppose I could try them." The old man allowed. He threw some switches, and the left engine moaned and coughed and finally roared to life. The second took even longer. "Lost all the fuel in the lines, most likely." Hondo said. "No problemo." He cut the throttles back, but kept the engines idling.
Their glide took them past the edge of the plateau, and over lowland plains with rivers snaking and looping across barren ground.
"Turn south, er, right. Is that south?" Rex asked. "I want to see where those green streaks come off the plateau."
"Right there, I'd say." Hondo nudged up the throttles and leveled out their flight.
The scenery, muddy brown streams pouring off the edge of the grey and brown plateau in torrents and waterfalls turned abruptly green, with grassy verges and trees. The plains below were green as well.
"Those look like palm trees." Chanel said. "Well, some of them."
"I think we need a low level pass over that big patch of green on the plateau." Rex said. "I don't understand why the plants are concentrated like this."
Hondo advanced the throttles again, at brought them up over the rim and toward the mountains.
The green spread, and then abruptly disappeared.
"What's that? Back there, circle, Hondo. I saw something, just before we left the greenery."
The plane banked, giving them an excellent view of the green swath, centered around a large glass dome. A regular pattern of smaller flashes through the foliage gave hints of more.
"Terraforming." Billy Ray shouted. "Someone has brought in plants from an evolved world, and planted them here. They're spreading out gradually, and mostly downstream."
Rex nodded. "Maybe from the twin planet?" He looked away from the window to peer toward the front of the plane. "So, Hondo. How do you feel about landing?"
"Great, so long as I can do it upstream on the rocks and dirt, where I won't worry about locating one of those little domes with a wheel."
"Whatever looks best to you, preferably within a day's walk of that dome."
After some circling, and low passes. Hondo set them down gently as a snowflake on solid rock in sight of the greenness.
"All right, let's go!" Rex jumped up, and hit his head on the ceiling. "Ouch. Low gravity. What do you think?"
"I think," Vera said. "that you are right. But you aren't going anywhere until Billy and Russ have checked out the atmosphere, and in case you haven't noticed it's been ten hours and all we've done is barf. Cleanup and a light meal and, yes Rex, fruity Gatorade."
That got a snicker, and after a longing gaze at the green, Rex acquiesced.
"Pressure's about half earth sea level." Billy reported. "And, umm, oxygen is about a quarter of what we need. We can't live out there. But there's nothing actually poisonous. We just need extra O2."
Russ dug into one of his equipment trunks and pulled out some gas masks, "Don't need these . . . Ah, here we go." He pulled out a handful of plastic tubes. "We'll just all stick these up our noses for some extra oxygen. We can get out of these disgusting . . . things we're wearing."
Vera handed Chanel a glass of something red and she sipped it carefully. Her stomach raised no further protests, so she drained it, and grabbed a sandwich as Vera swung by with a tray. And took her turn in the privacy of the head to get out of the hideous space suit.
"Okay, can we go now?" Rex was practically bouncing with impatience, although he did grab some carrot sticks from the circulating tray, and some peanuts. "Hey, you even brought pecans for me to crack!"
"Anything to keep you occupied, Rex." Vera winced as he cracked a pecan with his bare hands and started prying it apart.
"Busy and fed." He dropped a handful into his pocket. "Can't beat pecans."
"Try this on, Rex. Bottle of oxygen in a back pack, and put this loop of tubing over your head . . . "
"And the two t-joint looking thingies up my nostrils, jeeze, Russ, my aunt had emphysema, I used to fill her portable oxy from the big tank in the garage for her."
As soon as they were all loaded up, they opened the improvised airlock at the back ramp.
"Whoa, what's this?" Russ exclaimed.
"Well," Rex beamed at the vehicle. "It used to be a golf cart. I've umm, improved it quite a lot. Dog the hatch. " He punched a button, and with a hiss the pressure dropped and the ramp lowered.
The golf cart wasn't big enough to carry eight, but in the low gravity they bounded along easily and quickly abandoned their plan to swap off riders and walkers. They covered the two miles to the start of the greenery in fifteen minutes. They all opted to walk from there, as it looked like it got brushy quickly.
"It's crab grass." Vera knelt down, puzzled, digging up a clump and examining the roots. She pulled a plastic bag out of her nearly empty backpack.
"Maybe you should wait and pick up samples on the way back, so you don't have to carry them both ways, all day." Rex suggested.
She scowled at him. "I'll only pick up a few, in case we get run off by Bug Eyed Monsters."
Chanel studied the plants as they walked. There was a fern, and there was a slightly different kind of grass, and when they got to the low brush, those looked like palmettos. A few were different – it was nearly a relief to find something that looked alien.
"Huh," Vera crouched over one of the alien plants. "Looks like a cycad, except . . . well, I've seen fossils . . . "
"How about that one over there?" Rex picked up a little stone and tossed it at the deep purple plant. One of the longer stems, with a fluted flower on the end, bent in the wind just right to 'catch' the pebble in the flower. The impact whipped the stem back, and then it swung back forward and threw the stone.
They all stared as the stone rolled to a stop short of Rex's boot.
"I don't think that's an agave." Vera said, picking up another rock and letting fly.
The plant caught it and threw it. Not right back at them, this time.
"Oh. Kay." Rex bounced on his toes. "We have definitely found an Alien Life Form. How do we communicate with it? Can we tell it we're friendly, or is it too late, already?"