by Jack Heston
"Klastor Prime,'' Steve Zodiac announced as the long, bright horizon, cut with
the terminator of night, stabilised before Fireball's nose. "Landfall in sixteen
"You should have the target location on your scope, Steve," Matt called through
from the Main Body science section. "Beacon is loud and clear."
"Marked and locked in," Steve returned as he watched the navigation graphic
sliding by on his console screen and trimmed the starship about several degrees.
"Stand by for re-entry, Robert."
"Stand by for re-entry," the service robot replied evenly.
Klastor Prime was an Earth-grade world, second in the orbit of the G-2 sun Delta
Pavonis, and separate from normal routes. It had been a watering hole for outlaw
traffic but since the cooling of the war against the Pirates it had been used as
an unmanned waystation by the giant Mining Guild for its deep-sky express
freighters on their way back to the heart of the Empire from the raw frontier
beyond Beta Carinae.
Lightyears distant, Fireball XL-5 had received the distress beacon of the Guild
freighter Lysander, and turned to lie in for the waystage world. The
hypertransition was just two hours flight time but the signal had been
travelling days on the civil emergency band.
swung low over the night side of a blue and stormy world, where great cloud
wreaths boiled over the equator. Lysander had crashed, nothing was surer, and
the remote sensors located a source of metals and residual electromagnetic
radiation in the south temperate zone. "Retros," Steve said quietly and Robert
voice came to Steve a moment later. "I have the crash site on deep-visual. She's
a mess, Steve. Nothing worth salvaging at a guess."
up to the Guild. What we're interested in is survivors."
doubt..." Venus replied in a whisper as she studied her screen. It was not easy
for a doctor to give up on a patient but the bare facts were not promising.
later the sleek starship swept through a dim, star-strewn sky over a range of
ancient peaks that let into a vast river valley: an estuary delta that fanned
over more than five hundred square miles before at last draining across salt
marshes to a sea whose tides rose to the tug of three moons. Those slim
crescents hung above the sea and their spring tide thrust into the marshes as
breakers that crashed over sand banks in the starlight.
Ten minutes later the sleek starship swept through a dim, star-strewn sky over a
range of ancient peaks that let into a vast river valley: an estuary delta that
fanned over more than five hundred square miles before at last draining across
salt marshes to a sea whose tides rose to the tug of three moons. Those slim
crescents hung above the sea and their just-turned combined spring tide thrust
into the marshes as breakers that crashed over the coast's outer sandbanks in
Ten miles from the sea, Fireball's floodlights picked out a tangled shape of
spars and plates, engines canted on pylons at ruined angles, and a long scar
crossed the valley, uprooted, burned trees testimony to the meteoric plunge of a
doomed ship. They overflew the area in a shallow arc and Steve warned softly on
the loop: "I'm setting her down." Flame plumed from Fireball's belly to scour
the earth as her landing struts extended, and she sank slowly to earth some
miles from the wreck. The struts probed into the soft ground under her great
weight and the billowing flame cut off, the wind carrying the exhaust gasses
"Atmosphere is A-Okay breathable," the elder scientist observed. "No suits
needed, pressure is 1002 millibars and steady. Sun should be up in an hour."
In the cockpit, Steve left the ship's systems to Robert's tireless monitoring,
rose and stretched. "Fine. Okay, who feels like a little stroll in the great
Ten minutes later Steve, Matt and Venus rose from the Fireball Junior's upper
hatch on their jetmobiles to skim the rich meadowland under the light of the
stars of the middle sky. Fireball stood behind them in a wreath of steam that
rose from the burned ground under her, her landing lights glaring through it.
They had the locator signal of the fused metals and surviving black-box beacon
of the freighter on their instruments, and they moved in single file through the
The cries of strange birds floated over the distant marshes and they heard the
mournful bellow of some great beast far away. Klastor Prime was an ancient
world, a world on which, here and there, evolution seemed to have stood still.
The past lingered amongst the great trees and meandering rivers.
Three miles from Fireball they crossed the water-filled scar of the ship's crash
trail. A cargo module bigger than Fireball laid half-buried in mud, its rear end
split wide and disgorged of a sea of rough, red-brown ore. Five hundred tons of
pure bauxite. A quarter mile further on they found another, virtually intact but
for the mass of fused Estonium alloy that pooled around it. What became of the
other modules they could not tell, none were apparent; they had probably
overshot and landed in the sea after the tethers snapped and the multisectional
ship careened like a bursting shell in the high atmosphere.
The Tractor lay half-immersed in sucking mud that had been dried and cracked by
her furnace-temperature skin. She was gutted, her starboard engine pylon bare,
everything aft of the cockpit a flame-twisted welter of spars and fused
subsystems. The lifepods were still in place and a hole had been bored
completely through the ship in the region of her reactor.
"Radiation hazard?" Steve asked as they hovered a half-mile out, and he eyed the
ship by vision-intensifier on the jetmobile scanner.
"Nominal," Matt replied. "The reactor closed down neatly on automatic and
despite the loss of superstructure I'm reading safe levels."
"Okay, we're going in." Steve led them on in the starlight, and the silver glow
of the last moon now grazing the spray from the surf-line some miles away, and
soon they stood by their machines at the side of the doomed starship. She was
cold and dead and the wind drifted through her hull, setting loose members
jangling quietly, a counterpoint to the faint concussion of breakers.
They went through her carefully, Venus and Steve the forward section, Matt the
rear. They found no living thing within, no sign of habitation, her interior had
been torn out by explosive decompression, and the fires of re-entry had scoured
what remained. The once-proud ship was a shell. When they regrouped outside the
east was a silver-blue wash that outlined high mountains far away inland, and
Matt reported his instruments had collected traces from the engineering section.
"An asteroid collision, I'd be sayin' at a guess." Matt nodded, polishing his
glasses. "That hole seems to indicate an entry on the portside, exit to
starboard. High velocity impact, it crumpled those bimetal plates like they were
card. And there's a residue of ferric oxides within the ship that seem to be of
meteoric origin. Why the avoidance system didn't alert them that they were going
to collide with a spatial body is a question for the board of inquiry, but
that's my initial opinion."
"No survivors," Venus said softly, brushing a lock of blonde hair back from her
eyes as the breeze of the sea freshened over the dunes. "What a tragic loss."
"Yes," Steve returned softly, glancing up across the hull to the blown-in
windows and flame-gutted hatches, the engine stub probing accusingly from the
upturned flank with jagged metal and torn stanchions. "But even today it
happens. There's nothing new in it. For all our ingenuity humankind cannot
create total safety."
In the Twenty-Second Century there were hundreds of charted wrecks in the sky,
and perhaps more that were lost, ghost ships and derelicts, the tangible remains
of the first hundred years of deep star exploration: coloniser ships, warships,
traders and pirates. The ways of the world — Old Earth — had been imprinted on
the galaxy, its needs, tastes, memories, dreams, and indeed its prejudices and
hates. Humanity had expanded its horizon but populated it all with the familiar,
and only in the breakaway colonies were truly new cultures thriving. And though
more than fifty worlds, their extraplanetary affairs and outposts, now owed
allegiance to Earth, and took their Imperial rule from Unity City, the galaxy
was a wide open place. Humans lived in sometimes uneasy peace with many alien
cultures, and the deep ranging Patrol ships were the backbone of Earth's ability
to either forestall or deal with trouble.
The sun was rising. The spine of the ranges stood starkly against paling stars,
cloud wisps touched with the first rays and reflected in still marsh pools. The
tide was retreating as the last crescent set, and Steve, Venus and Matt mounted
their jetmobiles to drift back across the lush lands.
But as they went they became aware of an odd feeling in the air, a sense that
something was not right. They could see Fireball's floodlights a couple of miles
away and Steve brought them to a halt atop an earth bank, holding up one hand
for them to touch down. He flicked switches and saw by infrared scanning that a
great assemblage of creatures was stirring to life across the marsh, their huge
bodies glowing on the screen before him.
The sun touched the mountain tops and snow shone brilliantly, flooding the
valley with a soft, yellow radiance. Steve took his eyes from the screen and
stepped down from the bike, folding his arms to watch as, one by one, details
emerged from the gloom. Venus and Matt appeared at his side and he slipped an
arm about the girl as a sound came to their ears, a long, drawn-out moan that
swelled into a bellow and trailed off, falling a few notes. Distant, it was
repeated closer at hand as the great beasts called to one another across their
homeland. The humans watched in silence, peered into the fading twilight to find
the megafauna that made the earth tremble softly as they stirred from their
rest. Soon dozens called in unison, great voices that thundered a chorus to the
dawn, hushed the birds to quiet, yet seemed as much a part of the earth as the
sea that broke at their backs.
Now they could see them clearly. They must have been fifty, sixty feet long,
bodies big as houses, tails stretching behind and necks before, bearing their
small heads aloft. They were Saurians, and they shook themselves awake with the
sun, hearts pumping hot blood and nerves reacting. They lifted their heads up
into the veil of gold-pink clouds to bellow to the coming sun, yet somehow it
was a sad cry, a cry of tiredness, of soul-weary existence, and it caught at the
hearts of the humans.
"They seem so sad," Venus said slowly. "But ... I don't see any predators.''
"That's why," Matt said gently, a hand at her arm. "The mountains form a
switchback to east and south, to the north there's a desert that's virtually
uncrossable, to the west, the sea. This whole great river delta in its broad
valley constitutes a natural microcosm. There must be a least one predator or
scavenger to prevent stagnation of the gene pool, but that pressure is clearly
light. If they are the only creatures in their niche here then they are
genetically content and have no reason to evolve. They live in a kind of limbo.
I'd say they haven't changed in many millions of years."
"Perhaps it's because they're the oldest creatures in the universe that they're
so sad," Venus murmured. "They must live for centuries, millennia."
"But they're not." Matt smiled, adjusting his glasses. "No, the Landcrays of
Halcyon are much older. They can live twenty thousand years and haven't changed
as a species in at least as long as these fellows, if not longer. But they're
not sad creatures, they have evolved stably as herbivores and they eat
exclusively one single plant, the great golden reed." As he spoke, Matt produced
a data-analyser from a pouch at his equipment belt and knelt to pass it across
the soil, the grass and the trees. "Hmm...I'd say the process of leaching has
drained nutrients from this place, kinds the river is obviously not bringing
down any more. There are all the phosphates and nitrates needed for
photosynthesis but the various species here are not synthesising all the
nutrients that the megafauna really need." He glanced back toward the sea, now
appearing from the twilight. "I wonder..."
"What?" Steve asked, eyes narrowing. "Can something be done for them."
"Maybe. I was thinking perhaps the great reed would transplant here."
"From planet to planet. That can be dangerous. The applicability studies..."
"Oh, I've done them before. Since both are alpha-worlds, provided the seed cases
are sterilised of bacteria there should be few problems. So long as the species
is compatible with the overall biosphere."
"Oh, Steve, let's try," Venus asked, as the sun began to corona the mountain
Steve thought a moment. "We return the data for the Guild to Lysander's
destination, the Miramar Colony... Two days. Three to Halcyon, another four back
here. I think nine days should be enough to see to the tests and transplant
procedures. Which means —" He swung aboard his jetmobile. "— That we have work
to do. Mount up, let's go!"
Heads swayed on long necks to watch the starship kick free of the meadowland,
clods of mud clinging to her landing struts cleared away with scalding steam
before withdrawal, and the main engine roared as the vertical rocket cut out.
Fireball XL-5 raced through the sky into the glare of the rising sun, leaving
nought but her echoes to bounce between the barrier cliffs, and a strange
stirring, deep in the ancient creatures, that something that had not happened in
an aeon was abruptly very close.
The Mining Guild ran a vast operation on Miramar, extracting iron, copper and
nickel by the megaton. Two cities had sprung up, clustered about the freighter
terminals, but the real centre was in orbit, the Admin. station rolling about
the equator at five hundred miles fixed apogee. Fireball was dwarfed by the
bulk-carriers that lay in space by the platform, each a thousand times bigger
than the Lysander, and the Patrol ship slipped into a docking bay in the
Steve kept it short with the Guild's Colony Governor, one Geraldo Marquant,
accepting a glass of wine in his office as he explained their findings,
presenting the Governor with a datachip report. From the long windows they could
see the planet's horizon, and Steve thought of what they proposed to do. Their
request to carry out scientific work on alien biology had been granted by Space
City and they were officially en route for Halcyon as soon as their obligations
to the Guild were dispatched.
"To lose a vessel is always a tragedy," the Governor said heavily, though Steve
could tell there as less than absolute sincerity behind the words. "The crew's
family will be recompensed, of course, the Guild looks after its own."
"Like the Space Patrol, sir," Steve added courteously.
"Just so. Two vast institutions which together provide for the wellbeing of the
federated worlds." Marquant was dressed in rich robes, one of the colonial
styles, Steve knew he was from Alhambra on Novo Venitzi, and they celebrated the
more colourful periods of Earth's history. The Governor snapped the datachip
into the viewer on his desk and a screen lit with digital images taken from the
Jetmobile cameras. With the statistics on the ship in hand, his computer rapidly
assembled a wireframe model of the craft in its present condition, synthesised
surface detail to fill in the model, and the Guildsman considered it with a
practiced eye. "Yes, I concur with your assessment, Colonel. Given the distance
to Klastor Prime, it's barely worthwhile salvaging the hull. I think it'll have
to wait until we have a ship in the region on, shall we say, more profitable
duties...? Please don't think me insensitive."
"Not at all, Governor." Steve kept his face a blank. "As I said, we detected no
human remains whatsoever, and I believe it's an old saying on Novo Venitzi that
only a fool gives pennies to the dead."
Marquant raised his glass with a brittle smile. "You know your colonies,
"It's required knowledge."
"A wise precaution." He seemed to shrug faintly. "It was a cruel world when
first settled, and it bred a certain pragmatism in its peoples." With a wave of
his hand he cancelled the display. "We'll have engineers visit her shortly to
sanitize her power core. That's an alpha-grade world, we wouldn't want to
contaminate it... I must say, Klastor is a rather attractive planet. Amiable
temperature range, plenty of water, oxygen-rich atmosphere. Perhaps we should
consider using it as more than a datum point." He seemed to be probing, and
Steve suddenly suspected he had monitored Fireball's subspace traffic with Space
City. His profit-oriented mind would be wondering what the connection might be
between their datum-world, Halcyon and the Patrol.
Steve betrayed nothing by so much as the quirk of an eyebrow and realised as he
did so that he was protecting the saurians. They would make a fine protein
reserve for 'rational exploitation' to feed colonists or pioneers manning some
base, and that was the antithesis of what they were trying to do.
Marquant took the hint. He was a politician and if his subtle bate was left
dangling in the water, he had the courtesy — or the discretion — to reel it in.
"Well, Colonel, thank you for responding to our freighter's distress. I'll
signal Space City with a brief report, and commendation of your actions."
"Hardly necessary, sir," Steve said with a polite smile, finishing his wine.
"Never the less, a job well done..." The Governor gestured to the ornate doors
of his chamber and a droid appeared soundlessly to escort the Patrolman out.
"Enjoy your stay at Miramar Station," he finished smoothly.
In the waiting room beyond the palatial levels of the station, Steve met Venus
and Matt in a service lounge. He slid in by the woman and accepted a drink, to
unwind as he often needed to after encounters with self-styled royalty. After a
few minutes he saw the gleam in the others' eyes, and nodded. "Off to Halcyon,"
he murmured. "Stretch your legs while you can, we've a long way to go and a lot
"Let it be successful," Venus added, almost an incantation to fortune.
An hour later Steve backed Fireball from the bay and turned her nose for space,
fired up the main engine and lifted them out of orbit. "Laying in for II Alpha
Aurigae," he called back. "Hang on, here we go." Shaking with wonderful power,
Fireball surged away toward relativistic velocity, going to tachyon propulsion
and through the light barrier into hyperflight. "Three days to Halcyon. We'll be
back on Klastor Prime in a week."
Fireball dropped through a bronze and red sky, settling to a gentle hillside
that overlooked a calm and mighty sea, clouds suspended in a sky of living
yellow, an endless field of long grass melding with the stands of hardy reeds
that sprouted along the shore and the banks of river pools. It was the aptly
named Halcyon, II Alpha Aurigae, the beautiful golden world orbiting Capella.
That sun was setting before the starship's shining nose as Steve, Matt and Venus
stepped down and breathed the good air, the wind rippling the grasses in waves
and the sea a brassy glitter filling the horizon.
"Quentorus halcyonii," Matt mused softly, sweeping the hillside with long
lenses. "The great golden reed. Richest source of all trace elements in the
galaxy. It's been transplanted before once or twice and seems to take well." He
pointed down the hill. "There we are. On the tidal flats. It's hardy, grows
anywhere really, but we need the germination cases, not the finished plant, and
the most vigorous colonisation occurs near fast-flowing water. Some of these
thickets must be millennia old."
They unloaded the jetmobiles and hitched up the hoverplatform on which rode the
stasis containers in which the seeds would be carried across space, and rode
down toward the coast. Here the evening tide rolled onto a shoaling bottom and
sent foam scurrying up toward the stands of reeds in hissing surges. Some reeds
were as thick as great bamboo and fifteen feet tall, their feathered heads
nodding in the breeze as Capella set over a shining trail of light.
"We won't have long to wait," Matt said, eyeing the planet's single moon, close
to zenith and just past full." The reeds germinate over the days of full moon on
the ebb of the tide. That's how they've reclaimed this great flat."
"Look," Venus exclaimed, pointing up the beach to where the reeds were parting
and a creature the size of a small horse stepped out into the last rays of the
day, a crustacean without doubt, its carapace a burnished saffron, it's back
mottled with red-brown, ten legs carrying it and twin claws drawn in against its
chest. It eyed them with interest, bright eyes swivelling toward them before it
set to work on the reeds, the tender young ones only a few feet tall. Before
long there were dozens of Landcrays nipping off reeds with their huge claws and
gnawing at them with almost delicate mandibles. There was no slightest hint of
aggression; the crays were mild, benevolent and peaceful.
"It'll be starting soon," Matt said as he pulled on a jacket from his jetmobile
pack, the last light of Capella fading over the sea. The others were similarly
rugged against the cold as night set in, and they watched the reed beds closely.
Instruments were ready and they stood by their bikes on the damp sand to wait
for that moment when nature would move.
Sealed environmental suits were needed to prevent the transport of unscreened
material, and they pulled them on over their uniforms to stand ready with
backpack-mounted collectors, long suction tubes in their hands.
Perhaps an hour after sunset, it began. The great, feathered fronds of the reeds
were heavy with seed and, almost imperceptibly, a fine, soft rain began to fall
from them, the cycle of the night wind reversing to blow from the land catching
the spores and taking them in eddies and spirals toward the stars, Some would
find their way inland, some might float in the sky for years, but some would
take root right here and reclaim another few inches from the sea. Storms would
rip them away but the tread of nature was heavy and unconcerned.
With impellers whirring, Steve, Matt and Venus probed into the rain, the seeds
taken in and filtered, locked into the canisters at their backs where they were
immediately sterilised with ultraviolet light and frozen with cryogen. They
worked silently, and moved with soft tread in the world of the armoured Lancrays,
one eye on the beasts, though they felt they were in no danger.
In another hour they had filled the canisters yet the fine rain continued
unabated and before their eyes the shoots of new reeds emerged from the bitter,
salt-rich shore. They grew at astonishing speed, almost like bamboo, and the
Landcrays left them alone, picking only shoots some weeks old. They had learned
to protect their livelihood.
In the light of the stars they headed back to Fireball, the sled towed behind
Steve's jetmobile, and they sterilised themselves and the equipment in the harsh
ultraviolet radiation that could be generated in the main airlock.
Decontamination procedures were often crucial to avoid the random mingling of
organisms that were never meant to cohabit.
Later, Steve reclined in a chair by an instrument bank as Matt and Venus worked
with microscopes and handling tools to pronounce the seeds fit for
transplantation, and at last Matt sat back with a smile. "All clear, my friends.
They're clean and I think they'll take without any problems. The studies are
complete, I've computer-simulated the cascade effects of introducing an exomorph
to the Klastor Prime environment, and, given the anticipated grazing pressure of
the Saurians, the rates seem to balance. We'll need to monitor the situation, of
course, but I think it'll be fine."
Venus rose with a bright smile. "Let's hope so!"
Swinging out of his seat, Steve rubbed his hands together. "Well, let's put it
to the test. Launch stations!"
Saurian eyes watched a speck of light circling over the valley in the last glow
of sunset. The timing had to be right for the reeds to grow by morning and XL-5
dropped into the estuary valley as the sad, ancient beasts settled for the
night. The roar of engines sent heads twitching and a few warning cries were
heard, like the lowing of vast cattle, but they retreated into their
complacency, eyes closed and necks wrapped across their backs, almost like a
bird's beneath its wing. Their breathing carried quietly as night creatures came
out to forage.
The moons were strung loosely up from the mountains early in Klastor Prime's
ten-hour night when Steve, Venus and Matt set to work along the estuary and the
coastal dunes, around the sluggish lakes and amongst the great trees. Unfrozen,
the seeds were ejected from the collector units and fell in their soft,
insidious rain, seized the moist earth and struck. Within an hour new shoots
were thrusting all across the valley and the Earthmen could stand back and watch
"That's all we can do," Steve said as he switched off his ejector unit. "If
you're right, Matt, the golden reed will provide what they need most."
"It's a theory," Matt nodded secretively. "But one I'm pleased with."
Through the night the reeds jostled with existing growth and formed windrows
along free shorelines where brackish water retarded other plants, and by the
time the moons were setting the reeds were five feet tall. With bated breath the
Earthmen waited in the subtly changed valley, the equipment all repacked and
aboard the ship, and as the sun rose in its distant glory the first lowing of
the Saurians drifted across the delta.
At first it was a far-off wisp of sound but soon there was an urgency to the
cries as more beasts shook themselves and roused, and they saw several striding
from the lakes to investigate the new growths. The creatures knew something had
happened and they were not very sure of the strange thickets that fringed the
shores. One of the great beasts spied the astronauts on the meadow above the
lake and he approached without fear; they did not know what a stranger was, so
long had they lived in balanced seclusion.
The earth trembling under him, the giant strode from the lake, water cascading
from his bronzed scales, and his head swayed thirty feet above them. Steve
stepped back, a hand at his gun butt and his eyes on Venus as she took out a
knife and bent to cut a sheaf of reeds. Matt caught Steve's eye and shook his
head faintly, a small smile in place. They stood quite still as Venus went
forward with careful tread. The dinosaur mewled thinly and his fellows took an
interest, crossed the lake, making rushing waves of muddy water, to amble out
behind him and watch as the small human came to a halt and stretched the bundle
of reeds up toward the monolithic creature.
"Come on," Venus said softly. "It's for you." There was nothing even remotely
cute about the reptile yet it embodied an almost total innocence. For a long
moment they stood, human and dinosaur, before the great head began to fall on
the thick neck, and Steve gripped his gun tightly. There was nothing to fear but
he believed in taking no chances.
With a delicacy Steve would not have believed, the saurian took the reeds from
her hand. The jaws closed twelve inches from her fingers and lifted the reeds up
into the morning sky where they were chewed against the cheek like a horse with
"Well, I'll be..." Steve relaxed slowly and Matt tapped the side of his nose.
"Never underestimate the female of the species," he whispered as Venus cut
another bundle of reeds and the huge creature took them again. "We'll leave some
remote sensors to keep an eye on their progress," Matt added, polishing his
glasses, "but I think they're going to be fine."
All along the shores the creatures were attacking the reeds as if they had
awakened to a new life; they could never eat them all and in a few days the
reproduction of the reed would balance their consumption and ensure a permanent
supply. "All told, I think this experiment has been a success. We can leave a
satellite in parking orbit to monitor the progress of the ecosystem and beam the
"Perhaps too successful." Steve laughed as he watched Venus cutting a third
bundle. "Let's get back to Earth before Venus decides to keep this lad as a
When Fireball turned for the far stars she left behind a new world within a
world; a land of sea and mountain, marsh and river, of bird and feeding giant.
But now there grew a reed that translated despondence into purpose, and the
Saurians of Klastor Prime were reborn.
The Ancient Ones were whole again.
JACK HESTON'S CAPTAIN SCARLET STORIES
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