Brandon was looking at the Milky Way. Through his perma-glas canopy, he could see it trailing across the black velvet of space like a white bridal veil. Below his SC9B scout-ship stretched the red dust deserts of Sirius Three illuminated by the thin light of two ice moons. He looked at the Milky Way.
He looked at it as a man looks at a flickering fireplace and thinks of other things. He thought of the sun, 52 trillion miles away, a pinpoint of light lost in the dazzle of the Milky Way--the Earth a speck of dust in orbit just as this planet was to its master, Sirius.
Nine light years away. Of course, thirteen years had passed on Earth since they had left, because the trip took four years by RT--relative time. But even four years is a long time to be shut up in Astro One with five other men, especially when one of them was the imperious Colonel Towers.
“A quantum jump--that’s the way to beat the Reds,” the colonel had said a thousand times. His well-worn expression had nothing to do with quantum mechanics--the actual change in atomic configuration due to the application of sufficient energy. Rather, it was a slang expression referring to a major advance in inter-planetary travel due to a maximum scientific and technological effort.
“Let ‘em have Mars and Venus,” the colonel would say--”Let ‘em have the whole damn Solar System! We’ll make a quantum jump--leap-frog ahead of ‘em. We’ll be the first men to set foot on a planet of another solar system.”
Four years had gone by in the ship; thirteen years on Earth. Four years of Colonel Towers. Military discipline grew more strict each day. Space does funny things to some men. The “we’ll be the first men” had turned into, “I’ll be the first man.”
But it was Captain Brandon who drew the assignment of scouting Sirius Three for a suitable landing place for Astro, of sampling its atmosphere and observing meteorological conditions. Even as Brandon climbed into the scout-ship, Towers had cautioned him.
“Remember, your assignment is to locate a firm landing site with ample protection from the elements. Under no circumstances are you to land yourself. Is that clearly understood?”
Brandon nodded, was launched and now was cruising one hundred thousand feet above the alien planet.
Brandon tilted the ship up on one wing and glanced down at the brick-red expanse of desert. Tiny red mists marked dust storms. Certainly this was no place to set down the full weight of Astro nor to protect the crew and equipment from abrasive dust.
He righted the ship. Far on the horizon was a bank of atmospheric clouds. Perhaps conditions were more promising there. He shoved the power setting to 90 per cent.
A fire warning indicator light blinked on. Instantly Brandon’s eyes were on the instrument panel. The tailpipe temperature seemed all right. It could be a false indication. He eased back on the power setting. Maybe the light would go out. But it didn’t. Instead he felt a surging rumble deep in the bowels of the ship. Luminous needles danced and a second red light flashed on.
He snapped the vidio switch and depressed the mike button.
“Astro One, this is Brandon. Over.”
A steady crackling sound filled his earphones; a grid of light and shadow fluttered on the screen. A thought entered his mind. Maybe he had put too much planet curvature between Astro and himself.
“Astro One, this is Brandon. Come in, please.”
A series of muffled explosions rocked the ship. He chopped the power back all the way and listened intently.
“May Day! May Day! Astro, this is Brandon. May Day!”
A faint voice sputtered in his ear, the face of Reinhardt, the radioman appeared before him. “Brandon, this is Astro One. What is your position? Over.”
Brandon’s voice sounded strange and distant as he talked to his oxygen mask. “Heading--one-eight-zero. Approximately six hundred miles from you. Altitude one hundred thousand feet.”
“What is the nature of your trouble, Brandon?”
Before Brandon could answer, the face of Colonel Towers appeared beside the radioman’s.
“Brandon, what’re you trying to pull?”
“Engine trouble, sir. Losing altitude fast.”
“Do you know the nature of the trouble?”
“Negative. Might have thrown a compressor blade. Got a fire indication, then a compressor surge. Chopped off the power.”
Towers frowned. “Why didn’t you use straight rocket power?”
“Never mind now. You may have encountered oxygen or hydrogen-rich atmosphere--melted your compressor blades. Try an air start on straight rocket. I want that ship back, Brandon. Repeat, I want that ship back!”
“I may be able to ride it down. Get it on the deck intact.”
“Try an air start, Brandon.” Towers leaned forward, his eyes fixed on Brandon. “I don’t want you to set foot on that planet, get me?”
But there wasn’t time to try anything. The cabin was filling with fumes. Brandon looked down. A fringe of blue flame crept along between the floor and the bottom of the pilot’s capsule. A cold ache filled the cavity of his stomach.
“Too late. I’m on fire! Capsuling out. Repeat, capsuling out.”
The colonel’s glaring face flicked off as Brandon pushed the pre-ejection lever into the lock position severing all connections between the ship and the pilot’s capsule. Brandon had a strange, detached feeling as he pushed the ejection button.
There was an explosion and the pilot’s capsule shot up like a wet bar of soap squeezed out of a giant’s hand.
The ship turned into a torch and sank beneath him. Brandon closed his eyes for a moment.
When he opened them he was staring at the Milky Way, then the desert as he tumbled over and over. He talked to the Milky Way.
“Ten seconds. Should wait at least ten seconds before releasing the drogue chute so I’ll clear the ship.” Then he spoke to the desert. “And maybe another ten to give the capsule time to slow down.”
He counted then pulled the chute release. Nylon streamed out behind him and snapped open with a tremendous jar. A moment later, bundles of metal ribbons floated out and billowed into a giant umbrella. The last thing he remembered was the taste of blood on his lips.
When Brandon opened his eyes he was staring at the silvery disks of the twin moons. They were high in the sky, obscuring the center of the Milky Way. Funny he should be lying on his back looking at the sky, he thought. Then he remembered.
The capsule was on its back and Brandon was still strapped securely to the seat. His whole body ached. Tendons had been pulled, muscles strained from the force of the ejection. His oxygen mask was still in place, but his helmet hung partly loose. He adjusted it automatically, then unbuckled the seat straps. He took a deep breath. Under the oxygen mask, he was aware of dried blood clotted in his nostrils, caked around the corners of his lips.
With an effort he sat up on the seat back and looked through the perma-glas. A tangle of cords stretched out to the nylon of the main chute draped over a dust dune. Beyond it he could see the gleaming metal ribbons of the drogue chute.
Ahead of him, behind some low hills, he could see a dull red glow. The ship, he thought. Astro may already be hovering over it.
He dragged the survival kit from behind the seat and pulled out some rations, a first-aid kit, finally a tele-talkie. Raising the antenna, he plugged in the mike cord from his mask and held down the “talk” key with his thumb.
“Astro One, this is Brandon. Come in.”
As he talked a picture flickered on the screen. It was the radio room on Astro One. Colonel Towers was pacing back and forth in front of the radioman.
“Shall I keep trying to raise him?” he heard Reinhardt ask.
“Damn fool stunt,” Towers sputtered. “Know what I think? I think he went down deliberately. Just to be the first human being to walk the ground of a planet of another solar system.”
“Astro, this is Brandon. Come in please.”
Towers continued to pace and talk. “He did it to spite me.”
“But we can’t raise him sir,” the radio operator said. “Maybe he didn’t get out of it alive.”
“Colonel Towers, can’t you hear me?” Brandon yelled into his oxygen mask.
“He got out all right,” the colonel said. “He’s just stalling to make it look good.”
“We aren’t going to give up the search are we, sir?” asked the radioman.
“It would serve his soul right.” The colonel stopped pacing and faced the radioman. “Keep trying to raise him, Reinhardt. I’m going to bring us down to forty thousand feet and search the area where he went down. Helluva waste of rocket fuel tooling around in the atmosphere,” he muttered, disappearing through a bulkhead door.
“Wait! Colonel Towers!” Brandon called. But he knew it was no use. Obviously he could pick up Astro but they could neither see nor hear him.
“Captain Brandon, this is Astro calling. Over.” The radioman repeated the phrase a dozen times and each time Brandon acknowledged, swore and acknowledged again. Finally, in desperation, he switched off the tele-talkie.
He snapped open the back of the unit and studied the maze of transistors, resistors, and capacitators. If there was something wrong it was subtle, like a burned out resistor or a shorted condenser. Whatever it was, it was beyond emergency repair. He dropped the tele-talkie behind the seat and examined the gauge on his oxygen tank. There was enough to last the night but not much more.
He sat down in the capsule to think. The first thing they’d locate is the burning ship, he decided. Then they would probably start searching in ever-widening circles. But would they see him in the faint light of the ice moons?
He looked back at the nylon chute again. Another thought ran through his mind. Suppose they don’t spot me in the dark. When the sun--Sirius, I mean--comes up, there’s a good chance they’ll spot the parachute and search for him.
He slid the canopy open and looked down at the red soil of Sirius Three. He hesitated for a moment, then swung his feet over the side and dropped to the ground.
“At least I’ll have that satisfaction,” he said, grinning under his oxygen mask.
Very much aware of gravity after years of weightlessness, he walked to the canopy of the chute and spread it out on the flat ground in a full circle. It billowed in the wind. He searched around, found some glassy black rocks and anchored down the chute.
Then he looked at the orange glow that marked the funeral pyre of the ship. He had a decision to make; stay here with the capsule or head for the fire.
Couldn’t be more than a thousand yards away, he decided. Charging a walk-around oxygen bottle, he transferred his oxygen hose to it. He snapped the survival kit to his belt and picked up the tele-talkie.
The ship was more than a thousand yards away. The first mile was across flat desert. He picked his way cautiously, his boots churning up clouds of powdery dust. He remembered the Russian reports of the weird and deadly creatures they had encountered in the Martian deserts.
But aside from a few gray patches of brush there seemed to be no sign of life. After all, he thought, the Earth held no life for the better part of its existence. And Towers had selected this planet because it bore relatively the same relationship to the brighter, hotter Sirius as did the Earth to the sun. While farther away it should have approximately the same conditions as did the Earth. And it had seas, not as large as on Earth, but seas, nevertheless.
Yet there was a fallacy in the argument. Presumably all of the stars in the outer arms of the Milky Way and their planets were about the same age. With similar conditions as the Earth, life must have been born and walked out of the seas of Sirius Three just as it did on Earth.
Something scurried into a wisp of brush, as if to bear out Brandon’s realization. He froze, his eyes on the brush, his hand reaching for his hydro-static shock pistol. He could hear nothing but the wind hollowing his ears. He stood for a long moment, then cautiously skirted the brush, and continued on toward the burning ship. There was an odd clicking sound and he stopped. It sounded again. Brandon realized he was perspiring despite the chill of the desert night. Again he moved on, the sound fading in the distance behind him.