West of the Sun
Chapter 1

Public Domain

Morning was flowing over the red-green planet. “What do we know?” The delicate brown face of Dorothy Leeds kindled with questions. “Summarize it.”

Edmund Spearman achieved casualness. “Diameter and mass a trifle more than Earth’s, larger orbit around a larger sun. A year of 458 days, twenty-six hours each. Moderate seasonal changes, axial tilt less than Earth’s, orbit less elliptical. See the smallness of the north polar ice cap? The equatorial region--much too hot; the rest is subtropical to temperate. We should go down (if we do) near the 50th parallel--north, I’d say. Too much desert in the southern hemisphere. Might be hot winds, sandstorms.”

“The red-green is vegetation?” Dr. Christopher Wright teetered on long legs before the screen, a classroom mannerism unchanged by eleven years in the wilderness of space. He pinched and pulled the skin on his Adam’s apple, his hawk’s-beak, small-chinned head jutting forward with an awkwardness not aggressive but intent. Paul Mason thought: You love him or hate him. In either case he’s never quite grotesque. Wright’s too-soft voice insisted: “It is, of course?”

“It has to be, Doc,” Spearman said, and rubbed his bluish cheeks, looking older than his thirty-two years. Already he showed frontal baldness, deeply bracketed mouth corners. On Spearman’s big shoulders was the burden of the ship. Watching him now, Paul Mason was troubled by a familiar thought: Captain Jensen should not have died... “It has to be. The instruments show oxygen in Earth proportion, or somewhat richer, plus nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The camera gives us tree shadows in these latest photographs with the stronger lens. The air may make us oxygen-happy--if we go down ... Well, Dorothy--two continents, two oceans, both smaller than the Atlantic, connected narrowly at north and south polar regions. Dozens of lakes bigger than the Caspian. The proportion of land to water surface works out nearly the same as on Earth. No mountains to match the Himalayas, but some pretty high ranges. Unlimited forest, prairie, desert.” He closed bloodshot eyes, pressing the lids. Paul Mason thought: _I should never try to paint Ed. The portrait would always come out as Hercules Frustrated, and he wouldn’t care for it... _ Spearman said, “Even most of the tallest mountains look smooth--old. If there were glaciers it was a long time ago.”

“Geologically a quiet phase,” Sears Oliphant remarked. “As Earth looked in the Jurassic and may look again.” Born fifty years ago in Tel Aviv, brought up in London, Rio, and New York because his parents were medical trouble shooters for the Federation, and possessed of a doctorate in biology (more exactly, taxonomy) from Johns Hopkins, Sears Oliphant claimed that his original Polish name could not have been spelled with the aid of two dictionaries and a crowbar. His fat face blinked at Dorothy with little kind eyes. “I forget, sugar--you weren’t around in the Jurassic, were you?”

“Maybe.” Her slow smile was for Paul. “As a very early mammal.”

Wright said, “No artifacts ... At first it looked like Venus.” His crinkled asymmetrical face probed at them with a wistful half smile like a child’s. “May we call this planet Lucifer, son of the morning? And if we land and found a city (or am I being ridiculous?)--let it be Jensen City, in honor of a more-than-solar myth.”

Shading closed lids, Spearman said with harshness, “Myth?”

“Why, Ed, yes--like all remembered heroes who continue in the love of others, a love that magnifies. How else would you have it?”

“But”--Ann Bryan was high-voiced, troubled--”Lucifer----”

“My dear, Lucifer was an angel. Devils and angels have a way of turning out to be the same organism. I noticed that first when I was a damned interne. I noticed it again when I switched to anthropology. I even noticed it on a space ship with the five persons I love best ... No artifacts, huh?”

Dorothy said, “You haven’t seen these latest pictures, Doc.”

“Something?” Wright hurried over, gray eyes wide and sparkling. “I’d quit hoping.” Ann joined him, quick-motioned in her slimness, too taut. Wright slipped an elderly arm around her. “Parallel lines, in jungle? Ah ... Now, why none in the open ground?”

Spearman suggested: “We could take more shots. But...”

Paul Mason broke the darkening silence. “But what, Ed?”

“We’re falling, some. I could move us out into a self-sustaining orbit by using more of the reaction mass. We have none to waste. Jensen’s death eleven years ago----” Spearman shook his gaunt but heavy head. “Thirty pre-calculated accelerations--and the rest periods they allowed us were insufficient, I think. You remember what wrecks we were when it was finished; that’s why I tried to allow more time in deceleration.” His brassy voice slowed, fetching out words with care: “The last acceleration, as you know, was not pre-calculated. Jensen was already dead (must have been heart) when his hand took us out of automatic, made another acceleration that damn near flattened us----”

“Still here though.” Sears Oliphant chuckled and patted his middle. “We made it, didn’t we, boy?” It sounded a little forced.

“In deceleration I had to allow for the big step Jensen never meant; more of the mass was used to correct a deflection. Same allowance must be made in returning, not to mention the biggest drain of all--getting out of gravity here, a problem not present at the spaceport. Oh, it’s planned for--she’s built to do it, even from a heavier planet than this. But after she’s done it the margin for return will be--narrower than I care to think.”

Dorothy, small and soft, leaned back in Paul’s arms. Her even voice was for everyone in the control room: “Nevertheless we’ll go down.”

Spearman gazed across at her without apparent comprehension. He went on, deliberate, harassed: “Here’s a thing I never told you. In that accidental acceleration the ship did not respond normally: the deflection happened then, and it may have been due to a defect in the building of Argo, a fault in the tail jets. At the time, it was all I could do to reach Jensen before I blacked out--I still don’t know how I ever managed it. Later I tried to think there could be no defect. The forward jets took care of us nicely in deceleration. Until we start braking, we can’t know. Indicators say everything’s all right down there. Instruments can lie. Lord, they’ve sweated out atomic motors since before 1960, almost a century now--and we’re still kids playing with grown-up toys.”

Sears smiled into plump hands. “So I must be sure to pack my microscope in one of the lifeboats--hey?”

“You’re for landing, then.”

Sears nodded. Ann Bryan thrust thin ivory fingers into her loose black hair. “I couldn’t take another eleven years.” She attempted a smile. “Tell me, somebody--tell me there’ll be music on Lucifer--a way to make new strings for my violin before I forget everything...”

Dorothy said, “Land.” Gently, as one might say time for lunch. And she added: “We’ll find strings, Nan.”

“Land, of course,” said Christopher Wright, preoccupied; his long finger tapped on the photograph; his lips went on moving silently, carrying through some private meditation. “Land. Give protoplasm a chance.”

“Land,” Paul Mason said. _Did anyone suppose the First Interstellar would just turn around and go home? We’re here, aren’t we... ?_

Through hours when spoken words were few, inner words riotous, Lucifer turned an evening face. A morning descent might have been pleasanter in human terms, but the calculator, churning its mathematical brew, said the time was now.

Paul Mason squirmed into his pilot’s seat. It was good, he thought, that they could at least meet the challenge of the unexplored with adequate bodies. Wright was dryly indestructible; Ed Spearman a gaunt monolith; the plumpness of Sears Oliphant had nothing flabby. The women were in the warm vigor of a youth that had never known illness. As for his own body, Paul felt for it now a twinge of amused admiration, as if he were seeing an animated statue by an artist better than himself: slender, tough, nothing too much, built for endurance and speed--it would serve. Spearman was already talking in the earphones: “Close lock. Retract shield.” Paul responded from ingrained training. Beyond the window that would give him forward vision in the (impossible) event he had to fly the lifeboat, the heavens opened. Withdrawal of the shield into the belly of the mother ship Argo was a dream motion within a wider dream. Dorothy and Wright were strapped in the two seats behind him: half of Argo’s human treasure was here. “Go over what you do if you have to drive off. Over.”

“Lever for release. No action till wing-lock indicator is green. No jet unless to correct position. In atmosphere handle as glider, jet only in emergency. Over.” After all, Paul considered, he had had a thousand hours of atmospheric flying, and two years’ drill on these boats. Ed could worry less and save wind. Beautiful mechanisms in their own right, Model L-46, lying eleven years secret but alert in the streamlined blisters, powered by charlesite to avoid the ponderous shielding still necessary for atomic motors--and charlesite, perfected only thirty years ago in 2026, was obedient stuff. In space, the boats were small rocket ships; in atmosphere, gliders or low-speed jet planes. While Argo had been in the long ordeal of building, Paul had been shot from gleaming tubes like this into the atmosphere of Earth, the blind depth at the spaceport, the desolate thin air of Mars. Spearman said, “Turning in five minutes.”

In the port lifeboat Ann and Sears would be waiting, but that lock would be open, for Ed must be in the control room. If they had to abandon ship (ridiculous!) Ed’s boat would be many moments behind.

The stars moved. “Paul--check straps. Over.”

Paul glanced behind him. “All set. Over.”

The forward jets spoke once, and softly. Spearman said, “Out of orbit. We start braking sooner than you think. Then we’ll know...”

There is more of this chapter...
The source of this story is SciFi-Stories

To read the complete story you need to be logged in:
Log In or
Register for a Free account (Why register?)

Get No-Registration Temporary Access*

* Allows you 3 stories to read in 24 hours.