Scat’s first Pathfinder mission was meant to be a very quick and simple one. He entered the brightly lit, over-sized chamber, alone and suited up as for a Prebos belt-walk. From inside his suit he could hear the roar of the extractor fans as they continuously re-circulated the chamber air. Above him, the furnace was ready to ignite, should the wormhole fail to maintain its positive pressure.
At the far end of the chamber stood the unopened and spinning disc of transparent liquid-like elements.
Ratti was conducting operations from the cabin built into the chamber, high up and to the left of the unopened hole.
‘As ever I will be, Carlo. Open her up.’
The outer-edges of the disc danced with light. Its inner surfaces shone like highly polished tubular chrome, turning in on itself in a smooth, continuous movement. As the eye opened up, the liquid-like elements appeared to increase in depth, becoming more three dimensional, like a camera lens. As it opened wider, the eye appeared to float, unthreateningly, inviting investigation.
Beyond the eye lay the surface of a planet, still referred to by its catalogue number, one of several orbiting the smaller of two stars, a typical binary system. He had been told of its precise location and distance from Runnymede but Scat couldn’t relate.
He was keeping his cool by focusing on the more tangible things. Between him and the hole lay his designated bugbot and a couple of drones; the bugbot fitted out with a range of sensors plus a PIKL and a neural disruptor. He understood these things, so he focused on them. It helped to stop his imagination from spinning out of control.
Previous drone surveys of the insertion area had recorded distant footage of several ambulatory life forms. They already knew that the planet was covered in a great many different forms of vegetation, some of it quite large; analogous to Earth’s bushes and trees, and that the air was breathable. Several drones had been pushed out into local orbit, storing data for transmission each time the eye opened. They had shown there to be several different climate zones.
Lynthax had chosen a temperate area, mid-way between the planet’s equator and its northern pole, for the site of its first human visit. Ground insertion was to be onto a secluded glade within a “wooded” area a little way up a hill slope, the other side of which was a large vegetation-covered plain. Despite the drone’s remote encounters with life forms, he was advised that the likelihood of his encountering any of it whilst he spent his planned 15 minutes on the surface was about the same as a summer’s walk through the Yellowstone National park. Scat couldn’t give that comment any context. He’d never been. In any case, he didn’t think anyone on Runnymede could offer any kind of re-assurances about what he might meet.
As he approached the wormhole, he glanced up at the marble-sized power source, mounted in a ring at the top of a tall rod to the right of the hole. It appeared to be spinning within the ring but without touching it. He pulled his eyes away: Dave had briefed the Pathfinders not to look directly at it and never to touch it. Over a couple of cool and crisp post-training beers the night before, the trainers had told stories of researchers freaking out, security guards refusing to clock on, electrical equipment being drained of power when in close proximity to it. Apparently, no one liked being near the thing.
‘Just don’t get close and don’t be drawn to it,’ he recalled Dave as saying.
But the urge to look at it again was strong so he checked the bugbot for a second time. He then knelt beside the drone to punch in his personal activation code, and willed the eye to open fully to allow him to step through it. Still, the spinning marble drew him in, and again he had to work hard to push it out of his mind. He stood, checked that his belted equipment was buttoned and strapped down, trying hard not to look at the marble out of the corner of his eye.
‘Any time you’re ready,’ Ratti said.
He could feel himself wavering, losing his concentration.
‘Damn it, Scat! Focus. Focus!’ he told himself, taking three steps through the hole.
The new world opened out around him. In an instant, air from the chamber side of the wormhole rushed past him and onto the bushes ahead. He swivelled around to get his bearings and to check how far he was from the tall vegetation behind him, feeling as vulnerable and as disoriented as a dog dumped at the roadside.
As expected, there was the wormhole, through which he could now see the chamber, and around the other side of it, perhaps 50 metres away, was a bank of thick foliage.
He fiddled nervously with his solida-graf and located the bugbot that had followed him through the hole. He took local control of it and set it to defensive, cranking it up to maximum sensitivity. He then turned back to the view he had seen from Runnymede.
He was standing in a glade of flower-like life on solid, dry ground. He knew he was in an area of rolling hills but couldn’t see further than 50 – 75 metres in any direction. The shallow valley was on his left, the vegetation canopy at eye level, sunlight dappling the undergrowth in dark and light patches that moved as the canopy swayed in the light wind. Ferns, bushes, and the larger bushes, which could pass for trees, if one overlooked the multiple trunks, rose up the hill towards him and covered most of the ground surrounding the glade. Through the “trees”, he could just about make out some rocky outcrops.
Directly above him the sky was blue but tinged with yellow closer to the ground.
On the other side, to his right, bushes, or trees, nestling in thicker undergrowth, obscured his view of the ground. As expected, the canopy climbed the hill as it rose to its summit.
‘No dallying, Scat. Sightseeing is for later on. Just run through the checks, get to the top of the rise, and come on back.’
‘Roger that. Just checking for Injuns, is all. Everything working to spec,’ he replied, looking down at his solida-graf. ‘Comms good… Bugbot at 100%… Ground firm… Air pressure at 98% Runnymede normal… Temperature and humidity as expected… Radiation normal… I’ll call the drones through and send them out to the 3 km markers.’
On Runnymede, the dark brown, oval-shaped drones woke up, drew power from their fuel cells, flipped open their rotor blades and lifted their man-sized bodies into the air. In seconds they were both through the hole, rising to an unfamiliar sky, relaying a stream of data back to Ratti and his assistants.
Scat look up through the vegetation.
‘I’ll start moving up to the skyline. It looks thicker at ground level than we thought. No paths or animal runs. I can’t see the second sun; the atmospheric refraction is too intense.’
He felt odd wearing a suit in near normal gravity and in an oxygen-normal atmosphere, but moving through the vegetation was cumbersome work so he was grateful for its air-conditioning. Occasionally he would look down at his solida-graf to check that it was still working. Of course it was. There were no immediate threats. It was quiet because it had nothing to say. He was just nervous.
After a few minutes of panting, he eventually reached the top of the hill, wishing he’d stayed a little fitter than he was. The trees still blocked his view, but he could see the wood thin out and the ground brighten up some 20 metres further on, just over the crest. To his left a tree rose from the ground, arched above him then plunged back into the ground on his right, sprouting flowers of red and leaves of all colours.
He pushed on, down a slight incline, then arrived at the wood’s edge to a view he could only describe to himself as stunning.
The sky above seemed huge and distant, and off to his left was the second sun, a faraway star as bright by day as Venus is by early morning when seen from Earth. The hillside slipped away to a wide expansive savannah, dotted with low bulbous trees, a sea of thick ferns of red, brown, green, yellow, and white flowers tinged with blue. The vastness of the plain gave him a sense of freedom that he hadn’t experienced since his trips across the Gap Plain on Trevon. It was as close to a National Geographic movie of the Rift Valley as he would ever see in his lifetime. He felt right at home.
‘What’s the matter, Scat? Your heart rate and blood pressure have become erratic.’
The question brought him back to mission.
‘Nothing. It’s just more beautiful than I expected. Visibility now out to around 20-30 km.’
‘Well, it was bound to be an improvement over Trevon, Scat. So, are you ready to breathe local air?’
‘OK, take it off.’
Runnymede had sampled the air and they knew it to be safe, but only to the limits of human understanding. As with all new environments, there were bound to be pathogens that had gone undetected, unfamiliar gases as well. Despite numerous tests on animals on Runnymede, the only true test would be for a man to take a deep lungful in situ, just as they had once done on Trevon, Constitution, G-eo, Runnymede and all the other human habited planets in the OR.
Scat took off his helmet and continued to breathe normally as instructed, whilst Ratti monitored his blood gases. The smell of sap, pollen and decaying vegetation, dung and damp, musty, fertile soil saturated the air. There was none of the usual closed habitat smells of solvents, ozone, plastics.
‘Seems good, Scat. Nothing of note from your end?’
‘No. Nothing. All’s good. The air smells of shit.’
Ratti didn’t reply immediately. Data from a drone was distracting him.
‘We have indications of a large moving mass, Scat. Off to your right. One of the drones is flying intercept. Do you see anything?’
‘No. I’ll move around and see what I can see.’
Scat turned to contour around the hillside, keeping the wood line to his right. More and more of the plain came into view. The colours of the ground ferns seemed to change in waves, back and forth, as they bowed and flickered in front of a gentle breeze. Then he saw them.
Around a kilometre away, and stretching from extreme left to extreme right horizons, were several tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of four legged life-forms whose mass formed a continuous slash of brown against the colourful ferns. They were walking slowly, 20 and 30 abreast, dipping their heads frequently in a manner that was repeated kilometre after kilometre along its length. He kept walking, hoping to see more from where the hill sloped away more sharply to the plain below.
His solida-graf began to bleep gently as it received data from the drone. Scat instructed it to throw up the images. As the close-up pulled into focus, he stopped dead in his tracks.
‘Do you see this, Carlo? Do you see this?’ he shouted excitedly.
‘Not yet, Scat. We’re moving the hole over the hill to get better reception. What do you see?’
‘A truly wonderful sight!’
‘What is it?’