Read Darkover: First Contact Online

Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (3 page)

The Chief Engineer—his name was Patrick, but MacAran didn’t know him personally—stood up. He was a lanky gaunt man who resembled the folk hero Lincoln. “Bad,” he said laconically. “I’m not saying they can’t be fixed, but the whole drive room is a shambles. Give us a week to sort it out, and we can estimate how long it will take to fix the drives. Once the mess is cleared away, I’d say—three weeks to a month. But I’d hate to have my year’s salary depend on how close I came inside that estimate.”
Leicester said, “But it
can
be fixed? It’s not hopelessly wrecked?”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Patrick said. “Hell, it better
not
be! We may need to prospect for fuels, but with the big converter that’s no problem, any kind of hydrocarbon will do—even cellulose. That’s for energy-conversion in the life-support system, of course; the drive itself works on anti-matter implosions.” He became more technical, but before MacAran got too hopelessly lost, Leicester stopped him.
“Save it, Chief. The important thing is, you’re saying
it can be fixed
, preliminary estimated time three to six weeks. Officer Del Rey, what’s the status on the bridge?”
“Mechanics are in there now, Captain, they’re using cutting torches to get out the crumpled metal. The computer console is a mess, but the main banks are all right, and so is the library system.”
“What’s the worst damage there?”
“We’ll need new seats and straps all through the bridge cabin—the mechanics can handle that. And of course we’ll have to re-program our destination from the new location, but once we find out exactly where we are, that should be simple enough from the Navigation systems.”
“Then there’s nothing hopeless there either?”
“It’s honestly too early to say, Captain, but I shouldn’t think so. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I haven’t given up yet.”
Captain Leicester said, “Well, just now things look about as bad as they can; I suspect we’re all tending to look on the grim side. Maybe that’s good; anything better than the worst will be a pleasant surprise. Where’s Dr. Di Asturien? Medic?”
Ewen Ross stood up. “The Chief didn’t feel he could leave, sir; he’s got a crew working to salvage all remaining medical supplies. He sent me. There have been no more deaths and all the dead are buried. So far there is no sign of any unusual illness of unknown origin, but we are still checking air and soil samples, and will continue to do so, for the purpose of classifying known and unknown bacteria. Also—”
“Go on.”
“The Chief wants orders issued about using only the assigned latrine areas, Captain. He pointed out that we’re carrying all sorts of bacteria in our own bodies which might damage the local flora and fauna, and we can manage to disinfect the latrine areas fairly thoroughly—but we should take precautions against infecting outside areas.”
“A good point,” Leicester said. “Ask someone to have the orders posted, Del Rey. And put a security man to make sure everybody knows where the latrines are, and uses them. No taking a leak in the woods just because you’re there and there aren’t any anti-littering laws.”
Camilla Del Rey said, “Suggestion, Captain. Ask the cooks to do the same with the garbage, for a while, anyhow.”
“Disinfect it? Good point. Lovat, what’s the status on the food synthesizer?”
“Accessible and working, sir, at least temporarily. It might not be a bad idea, though, to check indigenous food supplies and make sure we
can
eat the local fruits and roots if we have to. If it goes on the blink—and it was never intended to run for long periods in planetary gravities—it will be too late to start testing the local vegetation
then.”
Judith Lovat, a small, sturdily built woman in her late thirties with the green emblem of Life-support systems on her smock, glanced toward the door of the dome. “The planet seems to be widely forested; there should be something we can eat, with the oxygen-nitrogen system of this air. Chlorophyll and photosynthesis seem to be pretty much the same on all M-type planets and the end product is usually some form of carbohydrate with amino acids.”
“I’m going to put a botanist right on it,” Captain Leicester said, “which brings me to you, MacAran. Did you get any useful information from the hilltop?”
MacAran stood up. He said, “I would have gotten more if we’d landed in the plains—assuming there are any on this planet—but I did get a few things. First, we’re about a thousand feet above sea level here, and definitely in the Northern hemisphere, but not too many degrees of latitude off the equator, considering that the Sun runs high in the sky. We seem to be in the foothills of an enormous mountain range, and the mountains are old enough to be forested—that is, no active apparent volcanoes in sight, and no mountains which look like the result of volcanic activity within the last few millennia. It’s not a young planet.”
“Signs of life?” Leicester asked.
“Birds in plenty. Small animals, perhaps mammals but I’m not sure. More kinds of trees than I knew how to identify. A good many of them were a kind of conifer, but there seemed to be hardwoods too, of a kind, and some bushes with various seeds and things. A botanist could tell you a lot more. No signs of any kind of artifact, however, no signs that anything has ever been cultivated or touched. As far as I can tell, the planet’s untouched by human—or any other—hands. But of course we may be in the middle of the equivalent of the Siberian steppes or the Gobi desert—way, way off the beaten track.”
He paused, then said, “About twenty miles due east of here, there’s a prominent mountain peak—you can’t miss it—from which we could take sightings, and get some rough estimate of the planet’s mass, even without elaborate instruments. We might also sight for rivers, plains, water supply, or any signs of civilization.”
Camilla Del Roy said, “From space there was no sign of life.”
Moray, the heavy swarthy man who was the official representative of Earth Expeditionary, and in charge of the Colonists, said quietly, “Don’t you mean no signs of a technological civilization, Officer? Remember, until a scant four centuries ago, a starship approaching Earth could not have seen any signs of intelligent life there, either?”
Captain Leicester said curtly, “Even if there is some form of pre-technological civilization, that is equivalent to no civilization at all, and whatever form of life there may be here, sapient or not, is not of any consequences to our purpose. They could give us no help in repairing our ship, and provided we are careful not to contaminate their ecosystems, there is no reason to approach them and create culture shock.”
“I agree with your last statement,” Moray said slowly, “but I would like to raise one question you have not yet mentioned, Captain. Permission?”
Leicester grunted, “First thing I said was that we’re suspending protocol for the duration—go ahead.”
“What’s being done to check this planet out for habitability, in the event the drives
can’t
be repaired, and we’re stuck here?”
MacAran felt a moment of shock which stopped him cold, then a small surge of relief. Someone had said it. Someone else was thinking about it. He hadn’t had to be the one to bring it up.
But on Captain Leicester’s face the shock had not gone away; it had frozen into a stiff cold anger. “There’s very little chance of that.”
Moray got heavily to his feet. “Yes. I heard what your crew was saying, but I’m not entirely convinced. I think that we should start, at once, to take inventory of what we have, and what is here, in the event that we are marooned here permanently.”
“Impossible,” Captain Leicester said harshly. “Are you trying to say you know more than my crew about the condition of our ship, Mr. Moray?”
“No. I don’t know a damn thing about starships, don’t know as I particularly want to. But I know
wreckage
when I see it. I know a good third of your crew is dead, including some important technicians. I heard officer Del Rey say that she thought—she only
thought
—that the navigational computer could be fixed, and I do know that nobody can navigate a M-AM drive in interstellar space without a computer. We’ve got to take it into account that this ship may not be going
anywhere
. And in that case, we won’t be going anywhere either. Unless we’ve got some boy genius who can build an interstellar communications satellite in the next five years with the local raw materials and the handful of people we have here, and send a message back to Earth, or to the Alpha Centauri or Coronis colonies to come and fetch their little lost sheep.”
Camilla Del Rey said in a low voice, “Just what are you trying to do, Mr. Moray? Demoralize us further? Frighten us?”
“No. I’m trying to be realistic.”
Leicester said, making a noble effort to control the fury that congested his face, “I think you’re out of order, Mr. Moray. Our first order of business is to repair the ship, and for that purpose it may be necessary to draft every man,
including
the passengers from your Colonists group. We cannot spare large groups of men for remote contingencies,” he added emphatically, “so if that was a request, consider it denied. Is there any other business?”
Moray did not sit down. “What happens then if six weeks from now we discover that you
can’t
fix your ship? Or six months?”
Leicester drew a deep breath. MacAran could see the desperate weariness in his face and his effort not to betray it. “I suggest we cross that bridge if, and when, we see it in the distance, Mr. Moray. There is a very old proverb that says, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. I don’t believe that a delay of six weeks will make all that difference in resigning ourselves to hopelessness and death. As for me, I intend to live, and to take this ship home again, and anyone who starts defeatist talk will have to reckon with me. Do I make myself clear?”
Moray was evidently not satisfied; but something, perhaps only the Captain’s will, kept him quiet. He lowered himself into his seat, still scowling.
Leicester pulled Camilla’s lapboard toward him. “Is there anything else? Very well. I believe that will be all, ladies and gentlemen. Lists of survivors and wounded, and their condition, will be posted tonight. Yes, Father Valentine?”
“Sir, I have been requested to say a Requiem Mass for the dead, at the site of the mass graves. Since the Protestant chaplain was killed in the crash, I would like to offer my services to anyone, of any faith, who can use them for anything whatsoever.”
Captain Leicester’s face softened as he looked at the young priest, his arm in a sling and one side of his face heavily bandaged. He said, “Hold your service by all means, Father. I suggest dawn tomorrow. Find someone who can work on erecting a suitable memorial here; some day, maybe a few hundred years from now, this planet may be colonized, and they should know. We’ll have time for that, I imagine.”
“Thank you, Captain. Will you excuse me? I must go back to the hospital.”
“Yes, Father, go ahead. Anyone who wants to get back now is excused—unless there are any questions? Very well.” Leicester leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes briefly. “MacAran and Dr. Lovat, will you stay a minute, please?”
MacAran came forward slowly, surprised beyond words; he had never spoken to the Captain before, and had not realized that Leicester knew him even by sight. What could he want? The others were leaving the dome, one by one; Ewen touched his shoulder briefly and whispered, “Heather and I will be at the Requiem Mass, Rafe. I’ve got to go. Come around to the hospital and let me check that concussion. Peace, Rafe; see you later,” before he slipped away.
Captain Leicester had slumped in his chair, and he looked exhausted and old, but he straightened slightly as Judith Lovat and MacAran approached him. He said, “MacAran, your profile said you’ve had some mountain experience. What’s your professional specialty?”
“Geology. Its true, I’ve spent a good deal of time in the mountains.”
“Then I’m putting you in charge of a brief survey expedition. Go climb that mountain, if you can get up it, and take your sights from the peak, estimate the planet’s mass, and so forth. Is there a meteorologist or weather specialist in the colonist group?”
“I suppose so, sir. Mr. Moray would know for sure.”
“He probably would, and it might be a good idea for me to make a point of asking him,” Leicester said. He was so weary he was almost mumbling. “If we can estimate what the weather in the next few weeks is likely to do, we can decide how best to provide shelter and so forth for the people. Also, any information about period of rotation, and so forth, might be worth something to Earth Expeditionary. And—Dr. Lovat—locate a zoologist and a botanist, preferably from the colonists, and send them along with MacAran. Just in case the food synthesizers break down. They can make tests and take samples.”
Judith said. “May I suggest a bacteriologist too, if there’s one available?”
“Good idea. Don’t let repair crews go short, but take what you need, MacAran. Anyone else you want to take along?”
“A medical technician, or at least a medical nurse,” MacAran requested, “in case somebody falls down a crevasse or gets chewed up by the local equivalent of
Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“Or picks up some ghastly local bug,” Judith said. “I ought to have thought of that.”
“Okay, then, if the Medic chief can spare anybody,” Leicester agreed. “One more thing. First Officer Del Rey is going with you.”
“May I ask what for?” MacAran said, slightly startled. “Not that she isn’t welcome, though it might be a rough trek for a lady. This isn’t Earth and those mountains haven’t any chairlifts!”
Camilla’s voice was low and slightly husky. He wondered if it was grief and shock, or whether that was her natural tone. She said, “Captain, MacAran evidently doesn’t know the worst of it. How much do you know about the crash and its cause, then?”
He shrugged. “Rumors and the usual gossip. All I know is that the alarm bells began to ring, I got to a safety area—so-called,” he added, bitterly, remembering Jenny’s mangled body, “and the next thing I knew I was being dragged out of the cabin and hauled down a ladder. Period.”

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