Chapter 4: Planet Impossible
Angela watched the monitor in the mess
room. The bizarre, patchwork surface of the massive planet stretched out below
the orbit of the wounded Collins. She
crushed her tube of coffee to activate the heating elements and took a long
sip. It was hot, bitter, and strong. Delicious. With effort, she turned her
attention back to her crew. They were all strapped in to seats at the mess
table. It was time to talk about options. Angela refused to even consider the
fact that they might not have any.
“Maazin?” she said.
Maazin sighed. His eyes were tired. “Minus the time to get back through the wormhole and make it at least as far as Jupiter station, we have three, maybe four days of life support.”
Angela nodded. That was better than she’d feared. “How long to fix the engines?”
“Maybe five days,” said Maazin. “Best case.”
That wasn’t better than she’d feared.
“That math doesn’t work, mate,” Dominic pointed out.
Maazin shrugged. “I’m trying to repair the most advanced piece of technology ever created with duct tape and chewing gum. Five days is a miracle.”
Kim frowned. “We don’t have chewing gum.”
Maazin shrugged. “You see my problem.”
“Angela,” Kim said, “we have to understand what we saw down there. We—”
“We have to find a way to stay alive,” said Angela. “And make it back home.”
“But … there were pyramids down there!” said Kim.
Angela permitted herself the lapse in discipline of scowling at Kim. Of course there were goddamn pyramids down there. There was also a goddamn hole in the side of her ship, and a crew that, by and large, liked to breathe air.
Dominic rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Maybe it was … you know. A trick of the shadows. Like the way people used to think there was a face on Mars.”
“Oh come on—” Jack began.
“What’s your idea?” Dominic shot back.
Jack’s brow crinkled as he thought. “Maybe … maybe whoever built those things here also built the pyramids on earth.”
Dominic rolled his eyes. “Ancient astronauts? Seriously? Those are pseudoscience theories put forth by crazy people.”
“I just put it forth!” said Jack.
“I rest my case,” said Dominic.
“Stop it!” Angela snapped. “Both of you. That’s an order.” She turned to Maazin. “Now how do we get more life support?”
“We wouldn’t need more life support on the planet,” Kim interjected quickly. “Commander, Dominic and I aren’t any help up here.”
“And if some of us take a lander….” Dominic added. His eyes were bright.
“That gives us another day or two of life support,” Maazin said. “At least. It might be enough to keep us alive until we can repair this wreck.”
“We can still fulfill our mission,” said Kim. “We can solve the mystery. The artifacts, the gate … where they come from…!”
“And learn about that … impossible planet,” said Dominic. He smiled. “Maybe we can find all the missing mass as well.”
“Please, Angela,” said Kim. “I need … we need answers.”
“The main antenna array is damaged,” said Maazin. He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “It’ll be difficult to communicate.”
“What’s the best case scenario?” Angela asked.
“Difficult is the best case,” said Maazin.
“The antenna on the lander should be enough to compensate,” said Kim. She looked at Maazin. “Uh, right?”
“As long as you stay with the lander,” said Maazin. “I doubt we’ll be able to pinpoint your personal comms. Not unless we’re almost right overhead.
“So we stay close to the lander,” said Dominic.
Angela felt herself frowning.
“We’ve come so far,” said Kim. Angela was surprised. Her eyes were wide; Kim was almost pleading. That wasn’t like her. “We escaped certain death by luck, by … by a miracle. It has to mean something.”
Angela shook her head. “Nothing has to mean anything.”
“Then let’s make it mean something. After all this….” Kim took a deep breath. “We all need to matter. Don’t you think?”
“If we all stay here, our mission fails,” said Jack. Angela found herself nodding. She’d been thinking the same thing.
“If we all stay here,” said Maazin, “we all die. We fail twice.”
That, Angela thought, pretty much decides the question. She hesitated a second, doing the calculations in her head. The safety of her crew, after all, was paramount. Were there any other options? It didn’t seem like there were. She sure as hell couldn’t see another, anyway.
“Okay,” Angela said at last. “Nick and Kim, we’re taking the Armstrong down to the surface.”
“Angela,” said Jack, “I don’t know this ship a tenth as well as you do. Heck, you practically designed the thing.”
“O’Brien—” Angela began.
“And with all due respect,” said Jack, “you’ve not a tenth the pilot I am.”
Angela closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. Insubordinate son of a bitch. In that moment, Angela found herself hating Jack for arguing. The fact that he was right only made it worse. The simple fact was, together, she and Maazin had the best chance of repairing the Collins. The others couldn’t do what they could; they would just be in the damn way. Even Jack. It was killing her, but she knew the right answer.
“Okay,” Angela said at last. “You three. Maazin and I make repairs.” She looked up and forced a smile. “So. Where first? Nexus or pyramids?”
Jack, Kim, and Dominic answered together, in unison. “Pyramids!”
# # #
Jack’s fingers brushed the controls, and the Armstrong leveled off at fourteen kilometers. Dominic and Kim were strapped in to seats at the two instrument clusters behind him. Below, a golden desert stretched out as far as they could see, at least at that altitude, even with instruments. Wind stirred the sands of a gently sloping sea of dunes.
“I’m reading a few signs that might be life,” said Dominic. “Maybe 400 kilometers aft.”
“Should I swing back and take a look?” said Jack.
“Not worth it,” said Dominic. “An oasis, most likely. I’m finding a few of them. Let’s check the next climate zone. That’s where we’ll find the pyramids.”
“It’s just past those mountains ahead,” said Kim. “They’re like a … a border. Dominic, can you read the energy flow?”
“Yes,” he said. “It follows the mountains. But my readings are strange … distorted, I suppose.”
“Mine, too,” said Kim. “Can you compensate somehow?”
“Trying,” said Dominic. “Of course, it would help if I had any idea what I was compensating for, mind.”
The mountain range stretched across the horizon, as far as Jack could see, even from their cruising altitude. This climate zone must be practically the size of an entire continent back on Earth. If those mountains stretched from one end to the other…. He whistled. “That must be one long mountain range.”
He pushed down on the throttle, sending more thrust through the mains, and the Armstrong leapt forward.
Moments later, they were crossing the great, snowcapped rock of the mountains. And then, suddenly, lush jungle stretched out before them. The thick canopy, a thousand shades of green and brown, was broken only occasionally by shimmering lakes and the winding, silver strips of rivers.
Jack could hear Kim adjusting her instruments. “This zone is just as large as the other,” she said. “All jungle, surrounded by mountains. It’s about 18 million square kilometers total — about the size of South America.”
“Damn,” said Jack.
A monitor on Jack’s dash showed the aft view. Desert, a sudden and severe cut of seemingly impassable mountains, and then jungle. Jack whistled again and shook his head. “Okay,” he said, “now that’s just weird.”
Angela’s voice crackled over the comm. “There’s a clearing less than a klick away from the structures. You’re heading almost right for it. Maybe that’s a landing site?”
“I’ve got it,” said Jack. “Yeah, that could work.”
Angela hesitated. “I don’t know, Jack. It’s pretty damn small for a landing. It’s barely even a target.”
Jack checked his instruments. It was small, but…. Okay, yeah. That would be tight all right. That made it a challenge. He grinned. “I can hit it.”
Jack could hear Dominic turning his seat. “Are you sure? That’s—”
“I can hit it.” Jack looked over his shoulder and grinned. “See? That’s why you need a real pilot.”
“He has a point.” Jack heard the smile in Kim’s voice. He looked back at her and winked.
“Perhaps,” said Dominic. Jack heard a very British scowl in his voice. “Of course, we don’t really need him coming back, though, do we? That one red control there? That’s the auto return. If the pilot’s incapacitated, and I’m not suggesting anything’s going to happen, mind, but if it does, we just activate that and cheers! Straight back to the Collins, and Bob’s your uncle.”
“It’s idiot proof.” Jack acknowledged. “You should be fine. I’m taking us down.”
Jack turned the lander slightly and started the descent.
And then, suddenly, the ship buckled and reeled.
“What the sodding—!” The Armstrong lurched again, and Dominic didn’t finish.
Jack scanned his screens frantically. “We hit something!”
The safety straps strained to hold them as the Armstrong tumbled. Jack heard the sickening crunch of bending metal and then the booms of twin explosions. He caught an acrid scent in the air; something was burning. Where the hell were the fire retardants? Jack fought the controls, struggling to regain control.
Alarm clarions screamed. The lander tumbled wildly.
Jack tasted something warm and coppery in his mouth. He must have bitten his own tongue or the inside of his cheek. Whatever it was hurt like three kinds of hell. He focused on his training, making himself ignore the pain. He wrestled with the controls. “Shut that damn noise off!”
“I’m trying!” said Kim.
The ship rose slightly. Jack let out a breath. The starboard thruster array was working, anyway. Maybe. He forced himself to relax, to concentrate. “What the hell did we hit?”
“There’s nothing there!” said Dominic.
Angela’s voice came over the comm. “What’s happening? Armstrong, come in!”
Jack rebooted the control panel, sacrificing a precious second. No good. He cycled through the redundancies. Dammit, something’s gotta work here….
The lander was sinking again, cockpit first. He had to level off, and fast. The mains weren’t responding.
Roll was offline; he wasn’t sure about pitch or yaw. The scopes were useless and he didn’t have time for diagnostics. He had no idea what was working, what was online, what was damaged, and what had been torn away utterly.
That didn’t leave much to work with.
He had to fly by feel. His fingers raced across the controls.
Gradually, the lander stopped spinning. The prow began to rise.
And then, he heard another crash, the sound of metal tearing, and the deafening boom of another explosion.
The Armstrong seemed to bounce, tumbling violently.
“Okay,” said Jack, “we definitely hit something.”
“Some kind of energy—!” said Kim.
“I can’t read anything!” said Dominic.
Angela’s voice was frantic. “Armstrong! What’s happening?”
Jack slammed his fists on the control panel. Nothing was responding. He looked up and saw flashes of green filling the forward window, spinning, growing closer. “We’re going down.”
But then, the landers hit the … something and bounced again, sending waves of energy, like violent ripples in the very air itself, in all directions. The ship hurled skyward.
“Or not,” said Jack.
Something hit him in the back of the head, something small but heavy. The world turned black, and Jack had to fight to stay conscious. If he let himself pass out, they were all dead. He fought down a wave of nausea.
The lander was tumbling down again. Thrusters weren’t going to be enough. Jack needed the mains. If he could just reroute and bring them online, they might have a chance….
One status light blinked briefly from red to yellow. Jack nodded once. Okay, that’d have to do.
The ship spun again, and for a split second, Jack saw blue sky. When the ship tumbled around again, he was ready. He opened the throttle all the way.
With a great roar, the mains fired. It wasn’t enough. The Armstrong slowed, but it was still dropping.
Jack’s eyes flashed across his screens, looking for any way he might be able to jury-rig some kind of bypass to rout more power.
His heart pounded. His palms were wet but he didn’t dare take his hands off he controls, even for the split second he’d need to wipe them on his flight suit.
“Look!” The voice was Kim’s. Jack tilted his head and felt his eyes widen.
Through the cockpit window, Jack saw the waves of energy again, this time from the other side. The mains must have been powerful enough to burn through that … whatever that was, that bubble of energy. Now, the ripples were flowing, resealing the puncture. And then, the motion in the sky was still again. If there had been anything there, it was invisible again.
The mains were still firing. The Armstrong slowed its descent at last, and then started slowly back skyward. In less than a second, before Jack could react, they collided with the energy field again, this time from below. The alarm clarions shrieked again — more damage.
Maybe he could turn the mains, and burn back through?
No, no way. If he did that, he’d launch them straight into the ground like a bullet.
Jack’s fingers flew, reducing power to the mains. The Armstrong was falling again. He turned his attention to his instruments. Every light flashed red. He still had no idea what, if anything, was working. When knowledge and training failed, raw instinct honed over years of hard-won experience would have to do. He made a best guess, touched his controls, and felt the lander right itself. More or less.
He raised his eyes back to the windshield. He needed a landmark, anything. There. Ahead, he spotted the clearing. Angela was right; it was damn small. It would have been a difficult target under the best of circumstances. These were hardly the best of circumstances, but Jack couldn’t spot any likelier options. He pressed more tightly on the pad that controlled the port thrusters. The Armstrong keeled, a clockwise spin. He heard metal strain and tear. He eased off and tapped the starboard thrusters to compensate.
They were still going down, and fast. But there were heading in the right direction. More or less. That was good, because Jack was going to need everything else the thrusters could give him to soften the landing.
The Armstrong scraped the canopy of trees.
They were still coming down way too fast.
Jack slammed down on the retros and descent thrusters, all of them. Something, apparently, had worked, at least partly, because their descent slowed, if only marginally. The ship lurched, dropped, and was down. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a landing, but it wasn’t quite a crash, either. And they were alive, all of them. Jack closed his eyes and slumped his head on the control panel.
“Can I open my eyes?” said Kim. “Are we dead?”
“I don’t think so,” Dominic muttered. “This can’t be Heaven. See? Jack’s here.”
Jack took a deep breath and forced himself to let it out slowly, without a sigh. He didn’t open his eyes. The single most heroic moment of a lifetime, and there was Dominic, ready with a sucker punch to the gut. Damned if he’d let the limey son of a bitch know it had hit home.
“And by the way, I hurt my … everything,” Dominic added. “Severely, thank you very much.” Jack shrugged. Well, that was something, anyway.
Through the comm, Angela was practically shouting. “Armstrong! Come in! For God’s sake, what’s happening?”
Jack hit the comm control. “Collins, we’re alive,” Jack said. “We’re accessing the damage.” He released the comm mic and turned back to Dominic and Kim. “See? The clearing. Told you I could hit it. Let’s see your fancy auto return do that.”
# # #
The metal thing that had fallen from the sky belched black smoke.
A creature watched from the shadows of the jungle canopy with cold, reptilian eyes. He was Sharrganaugh of the Skareiki and he crept closer, ignoring the instinct that commanded him to flee. He sniffed. The stench was sharp and unpleasant — and utterly new. Where could so much metal — such a fortune — have come from?
Sharrganaugh fought down his fear and watched for another moment. He thought about drawing closer. Perhaps he could learn some thing. Perhaps he could seize a hunk of that metal for his own.
No, no. Sharrganaugh knew his duty. He blinked again, and then turned and ran back to the deep jungle, his long tail raised for balance, moving with inhuman speed. He needed to report.
The metal thing wasn’t moving. It would still be there when he returned with reinforcements.
General Skarnarak himself would want to know about this. Perhaps he would remember and reward Sharrganaugh, the humble warrior who brought the news.
# # #
Dominic checked his instruments again, just to be sure. “The atmosphere is breathable. We just need to … go slowly. It’s a lot richer than we’re accustomed to. Move carefully, and take shallow breaths.”
Angela’s voice came over the comm. “Check the damage.”
“Like we hadn’t thought of that,” Jack muttered.
“What’s that?” said Angela. “I didn’t copy.”
“We’re on it,” Kim said quickly.
Jack hit the control that lowered the ramp. Kim and Dominic started down. Kim was the first to step off and onto the soil of the alien world. She turned back, and Dominic saw her grinning. “That’s one small step for a woman….”
“…one giant leap onto Planet bloody Impossible,” Dominic finished.
“Not really one for the history books is it?” said Jack.
Dominic gave Kim a pat on the shoulder. “We can tell them you said something better later. Human spirit, quest for knowledge, all that rubbish. We’ll make all poetical.”
He took a deep breath. The air was rich and heavy, like breathing through a wet flannel blanket, but it made him feel simultaneously light-headed and almost superhuman. The scents were strange and intense, a medley of rich loam, growth, and decay. It was hot, and the sky was shockingly, almost achingly blue.
Dominic took another step. The ground squished; the black mud was wet under his boot. Thick jungle surrounded them on all sides. Behind them, Dominic could make out, barely, the distant, gray peaks of the great mountains that separated them from the dry vastness of the great desert beyond. Ahead, the gently sloping hills were covered with the deep green patchwork of more jungle. In the distance, he heard sounds that might have been the noise of animals bolting, or might have been an especially aggressive wind in the trees. Dominic shook his head. He didn’t have enough experience with the outdoors to know the difference.
Kim raised her wristband, activated the holographic display, and started scanning. While she waited for results, Dominic turned his attention back to the lander. The Armstrong wasn’t a pretty sight. The landing gear had been shorn away, along with a great deal of the hull.
“What’s the situation?” Angela asked. Her voice from the wristband speakers was faint. The signal wasn’t the best.
“This vegetation,” Kim began, “it’s consistent with Earth—!”
“I’m talking about the Armstrong, Specialist Chang,” said Angela.
“It’s bad,” said Dominic. “I’m seeing multiple hull breaches. Too many for us to patch. The port side maneuvering thrusters are gone completely.”
“Jack, do you have mains?” Angela’s voice crackled with digital noise. The signal wasn’t close to optimal.
“Hang on one,” said Jack. Dominic saw him working his controls and then peering through the cockpit window. “You guys clear?”
Dominic hit his comm stud. “All clear.”
# # #
Sharrganaugh, the creature that had been watching, returned, bringing his commanding officer and three more warriors. They moved silently, without speaking, and they stayed hidden, crouching in the shadows under the trees. The creature and his commanding officer both raised the thin tubes of brass telescopes and studied the scene before them.
Two pale figures had emerged from the smoking metal. They appeared to be human, although of course no humans had been seen this far from the gate in the Fallen City, not in many years, anyway. A third human could be seen inside the metal hulk. It was doing something with its hands.
And then, the creatures leapt in sudden fright as, with a great and fearsome BOOM, the metal thing belched fire from the great cones at its back. The trees behind the thing exploded into flames.
The creatures darted quickly and silently back, deeper into the shadows of the dense jungle.
# # #
“We have mains,” Kim said wryly. She didn’t need the comm to hear Jack swearing as he worked the controls frantically. After a long moment, the engines stopped. In the distance, a few of the trees still burned.
“You can throttle those back a little, Ace,” said Dominic. “For God’s sake, man, we just needed a little test, not escape velocity.”
“The regulators are offline,” said Jack.
Angela’s voice crackled over the comm. “Then be careful! You’ll cause an overload and blow the thing up!”
“And then we’d be out a perfectly good wreck,” said Jack.
Kim met Dominic’s gaze. He shrugged and managed a smile. Kim didn’t find it especially reassuring. “It’s not going matter, is it?” said Dominic. “Not even Maazin could fix this mess.”
Maazin’s voice came over the comm. “As much as I hate to admit that, it appears he’s right.”
“We’ll have to pick you up in the Aldrin,” said Angela.
“Forget it,” said Jack. “You won’t be able to get down. The Buzz’ll just hit that same … energy thing.”
“Kim,” said Angela, “can you turn it off? Like the energy bubble over the wormhole gate. If you broadcast a signal—”
Kim chewed her lower lip for a second as she thought. Then she shook her head. “There’s nothing to broadcast to. Even if the same code worked again. There’s no sign of technology.”
Jack came down the ramp and joined them. “Then we need to find some technology.”
“The nexus?” asked Angela.
Dominic looked at Kim. She shrugged. Dominic raised his wristband. “The energy flows that border the climate zones could be generating the … whatever it is we hit. Those readings were weird, too. If so, it’s logical to assume that the nexus point is probably where it’s generated. That means technology.”
“You call that logic?” asked Jack.
“It’s not that great a stretch, is it?” said Dominic. “But if you disagree, what do you have?”
“You’re the scientist,” said Jack.
“Right, and you’re the bloody pilot that just crashed us!”
“Which means,” Kim said quickly, “if there’s a way to turn the energy bubble off, it’s at that nexus. I mean, that’s as good a guess as any, right?”
Dominic turned slowly back to her. “Better than no guess at all,” he said.
Jack turned to the horizon. Kim followed his gaze. The jungle was thick. They couldn’t see far. Jack nodded. “Okay. So. We have to get to the nexus.”
# # #
In the Collins, Maazin looked at Angela and shrugged. “That’s probably the only way we can get you home,” said Angela. “It’s a long shot—”
Jack’s voice came over the comm. “I’ll take that over ‘no shot’ any day.”
“It should only take a couple of days to get there,” said Dominic. “We’re not that far away. Not with the rover.”
Angela didn’t answer. She frowned as she turned her eyes to the gauge that showed the Collins’s dwindling life support. The needle was dropping slowly to red. The precious seconds were already ticking away.
Maazin leaned closer to the mike. “One problem.”
“One?” came Jack’s reply. Angela smiled in spite of herself. She must be getting punchy.
“Another problem,” Maazin corrected himself. “We’ll only be able to communicate with you when we’re right overhead.”
“Don’t worry,” said Dominic. “We’ll be listening every orbit.”
“Hurry,” said Angela. “You’ve only got five days.” She set a timer on her wristband. The countdown had begun.
“We’re on our way.” Kim’s voice sounded surprisingly confident.
“Good luck,” said Angela. “Collins out.”
Maazin put a hand on her shoulder. “C’mon.” He smiled. “Mission Commander. Let’s start with the power relays to life support. We’ve still got a space ship to fix.”