by Mark Bonica
|Table of Contents|
Dr. James Driscoll, a specialist in extremophiles, departs on the spaceship Demeter for an interstellar terraforming mission. The ship crashes wide of its target on the barren planet RO-5, and Driscoll is the sole survivor.
In the months that follow, Driscoll learns that he is not alone, for the goddess Demeter has a daughter, Persephone. The two are marooned on the planet they now call “Rogue,” and their spiral through time, space and Persephone’s programming leads them to the discovery of their ultimate purpose.
4: FPP Year 843
She hadn’t seen the ship drop out of FTL mode. It had entered the system while her little piece of Rogue faced inward to the sun. She was able to estimate the exact arrival time a few hours later and had been updating her estimates ever since. She hadn’t been certain at first that it was him. But she hoped. The rover had already been recalled and was navigating home through the desert.
* * *
“I still don’t understand why you want to return to this godforsaken rock, Dr. Driscoll.” Vijay Anwani smiled as he posed this question for what seemed to Driscoll the hundredth or maybe thousandth time.
In fact, it was perhaps only the third time that Anwani had asked him. Driscoll recognized that the other times were only posed in his head as he slept at night, as he ate ship’s rations, as he walked the few feet of open space on the ship, and as he waited to see the familiar stars that had once formed constellations that represented prisons, punishment, and a longing for home so strong that all he could think about was leaving.
“You’re young, Vijay. I hope you never have to understand.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just... what a horrible planet. Look, there’s our landing zone — the place your ship went down — on the screen now.” The holographic display in front of them showed most of the northern hemisphere, the scarred reds and browns and yellows. Cloud formations whisping like cotton balls full of discarded eye shadow and mineral oil.
“Computer says a beautiful day on Rogue — only two tornadoes within five hundred kilometers of our landing site, daytime temperature at the surface ninety degrees Celsius — nighttime estimated to be eight degrees. I guess it’s too late to turn back?”
“Yeah, I think so.” It was too late a long time ago, Jim thought as he watched the curved surface turning beneath them. “Computer, run a full spectral analysis as soon as it is feasible. Scan for sulfur hexafluoride, parts per million, especially in the vicinity of landing site Alpha One.”
“Scan was completed seventeen minutes ago,” came the sterile voice in response. “Sulfur hexafluoride concentration around landing site Alpha One is estimated at 20 parts per million. Concentration rapidly dissipates from this area to a level of less than one part per million within five kilometers.”
“Twenty parts per million? That’s amazing, Dr. Driscoll!” Vijay was sitting straight up in his seat. Driscoll felt his grin extend across his face and his eyes widen. Then the nagging thought returned: If only Persephone could have shared this, too.
“There are three other areas with concentrations higher than that in the following areas,” the computer continued. The image of Rogue suddenly zoomed in so that the two men were looking at just a portion of the zone that contained landing site Alpha One. Four red points appeared on the image, with concentric red circles around each. They formed a nearly straight line of bull’s-eyes running from west to southeast.
“What’s the distance between these points? That’s my site, isn’t it?” asked Driscoll, leaning forward in his seat, pointing to the westernmost point. For a moment his thoughts were drawn from the impending landing. He had insisted upon being awake for it this time. Not that he would be able to help Vijay or the computer in any way if something were to go wrong again. He just didn’t want to be asleep when it happened. But this was a miracle.
“The site you are indicating is landing site Alpha One, Dr. Driscoll. The distance between landing site one and the center of the second point of concentration is approximately 400 kilometers.
“The distance between the center of the second and third sites is approximately 200 kilometers. The distance between the third and fourth sites is approximately 170 kilometers.
“As you can see the dissipation patterns enlarge as the points move farther south, with the dissipation patterns of points three and four actually merging.”
The patterns of these last two entranced Driscoll; they indicated an almost continuous zone of high gas production. Their merged round forms looked like cells in mitosis.
“It’s spreading, Driscoll! I can’t believe it! From your old site, that crap is spreading!” The young man reached across the space between them and slapped him on the shoulder.
Jim Driscoll continued to smile. “Computer, this pattern doesn’t follow the wind patterns from the Demeter observations, does it?” he asked.
“No. The Demeter’s observations indicate a jet stream here...” A series of translucent blue arrows appeared to run in a series that curved northeast from the set of red circles that ringed landing point Alpha One.
“Then how the hell are they spreading?” asked Driscoll, suddenly frowning.
“It is not certain that the cause of these points of concentration is the microbes that you introduced to the surface, though corollary gases — carbon dioxide and carbon tetrafluoride — are also present and greatly increase the likelihood of this being the case. As for the vector, I am uncertain what might have transported these microbes.”
“A mystery. Excellent! This will be great for the team to find out when we wake them up.” Vijay slapped his shoulder again. “I am beginning to see the romance of this planet that you talked about. Despite the tornadoes.”
* * *
As the craft had bucked and fought its way to the planet’s surface, Driscoll had felt a lump forming in his heart that kept sliding down to his stomach, then returning back to his heart again by way of his lungs so that he hadn’t known from moment to moment if he was going to throw up, suffocate, or have an aneurysm.
Eventually he had thrown up, and even after that was cleaned up he could smell the scent of vomit over the scent of two men trapped in two small rooms for three months together. The smell was suddenly overwhelming, and he had the sense that he might throw up again as he put on his class-three protective suit.
“No vomiting in there — or you’ll really be wishing you hadn’t eaten breakfast,” said Vijay as he sealed the airlock behind him. Now that they were on planet, and at landing site Alpha One, Vijay’s mission was to bring the rest of the team out of deep sleep.
The team would set up some additional expandos to supplement the Demeter’s capacity once Driscoll ascertained the damage it had suffered during his absence. The plan seemed so simple and sterile as he stepped out of the airlock and back onto the planet’s surface.
The moment the external door opened, the winds rushed greedily in and tried their best to rip him from his feet. His safety harness was hitched to the interior wall and he was glad of it as he tried to regain his balance.
Clumsily he made his way down the extended ladder, releasing the safety wire from the airlock after having clipped it on to the rover. The Demeter was approximately two kilometers from where the FPPS Lewis had set down.
Driscoll stood and looked out to the two familiar hills he had named Little Round Top and Salisbury because of a book and a song he remembered something of. There was a dust storm coming from the west. It was billowing and rolling and brown, and it formed a wall that reached all the way to heaven. He sat down hard into the vehicle and headed off.
When he came over the ridgeline that concealed the Demeter from the worst batterings that Rogue could hurl at her, he stopped and gazed down upon her broken form. She was a scout-class ship, nothing unusual. The Lewis was roughly the same, though a newer, slightly larger model meant to carry more equipment. Demeter’s nose was crushed where she had collided with the boulder he had named Goliath. Nothing had changed. He felt hackles rising on the back of his neck and he fought back the urge to run back to the Lewis.
The ground between him and the ship was so familiar that each rock and outcropping triggered memories that he had forgotten for years. Then he was standing in front of her again. She was a windowless creature, her gray exterior heat-resistant skin meant for deep space and atmospheric flight.
He touched her still-extended airlock ladder, wrapping his fingers around the fourth rung. His palm and fingers wrapped around them. And he sank to his knees on the hard rock and dust. It was some time before he stood up. His face was wet inside the helmet, and though the interior recirculation of his suit was rapidly consuming the tears he had shed, they left salt trails on his cheeks, and they itched.
He realized as he put his right foot on the bottom rung of the ladder that his entire body was trembling. As he checked his grip and brought up his left foot, he heard a noise behind him. He turned to see an unmanned rover approaching. It was his rover. Or rather, it was the rover he had used while he had been marooned here.
As he watched, it casually approached and parked beneath the belly of Demeter. A power coupling slid silently from the ship. The rover’s mechanical arm carefully reached up and grasped the black cable, guiding the coupling to its receptacle.
Jim stood silently for a moment. Then he rushed up the ladder. The airlock door slid open to reveal an empty chamber. The answers were inside.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Bonica