The airlock was quite cramped with the Exec, Colin Archer, Jody and I crammed inside, but I was glad enough that nobody was being left out – especially because I didn’t want to be the one waiting behind – even if Melissa was staying back in the shuttle for now.
Lieutenant Archer hit one of the control buttons on the wall. There was a hissing sound and I felt a noticeable pressure building in my ears. After a moment, Archer turned to Exec and actually saluted, which in the tight quarters made that he was step closer to Jody, to avoid putting his elbow through the wall. “External pressure has equalized, sir. I do not see any need to equalize atmospheric composition with the outside.”
“By no means, Lieutenant. Let’s take a look outside.”
So Archer opened up the external door, and I could feel the planet’s breeze blowing in, smelling exotic but fresh. I wasn’t quite sure if I could really feel the increased oxygen content, or if I was imagining that part.
The sun was at a high angle from behind the shuttle, so that the shadow stretched for about a meter and a half in front of the door. The sun was just a trace bluer than the sun of Earth was, and I wondered if that spectral difference was what made the sky seem slightly greenish and the shadows a kind of a muddy brown.
“I think that we’ve been noticed,” Archer said, pointing out the door. “If I’m right, he’s making tracks for the center of the base.”
I opened my mouth to ask why he was calling the city a ‘base’, but decided that arguing over terminology wasn’t going to get us anywhere – especially not for me, if I was arguing with a superior officer without being on very firm ground.
“Let’s get outside and get a better look,” Jody suggested.
“One thing first,” Exec said. “Achernar looks to be powerfully strong at this orbital distance and inclination, and the ultraviolet levels must be fearsome. Lieutenant, did you prepare us protection?”
“Yes, sir,” Archer said, swinging his pack around to root through it. “I have the polarized sun goggles here, and the most powerful sunblock cream that we could engineer.” So we applied the blocker cream over every bit of exposed skin, and put on the big goggles – actually they were more like eye masks that covered huge bands of our faces. Then Exec finally let us go out and take a look around.
“I don’t see any sign of natives,” I pointed out to Colin. “Which way did you see one going?”
“Over there, where the – the hedge fence, if that’s what it is, lets the path through.” I had already seen the three meter tall wall of what might be plant life with orangeish leaves, and when Colin pointed I could see that there was indeed a narrow one lane street on an intersecting course. Where the lane and the fence met, the lane apparently won – well, it wouldn’t have made sense for the fence to continue unbroken, but there could be some sort of a gate, and I didn’t see one from here.
“Just what direction was the settlement?” Jody asked. I looked around, not seeing any structures at all, but Archer checked a display on a pocket computer and pointed confidently in the direction of the fence. Well, that made sense – we probably wouldn’t have been able to see the city on the horizon, with that in the way. From what I’d seen of the buildings on the way in, none of them were very high, though the skyline might have been distinctive if it wasn’t covered up.
“What else did you see?” Exec asked Archer. “What did the native look like?”
I stepped further out in the bright blue sunlight as Archer collected his thoughts, wondering if Exec would reprimand me for taking the initiative. As I moved away from the Gaia’s Hope, one relatively small structure came into view, possibly a farmhouse, between this pasture and a cultivated field.
“It was only a quick glimpse, and my eyes hadn’t acclimated to the brightness,” Archer admitted finally. “Humanoid in general outline, and I’m not sure of how many legs – he was riding in some kind of a vehicle, not one with large wheels like a bicycle – maybe more like an old-fashioned Segway. Two upper limbs, with – with more than five long fingers on each, or maybe they weren’t quite like fingers. I didn’t get much of a look at its face.”
To be continued…