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Jack Heston

 

 

Fireball XL5

Ancient and Ageless

 

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 minutes."


"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.

 

Now Fireball 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 confirmed.

 

Venus' French 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."

 

"Well, that's up to the Guild. What we're interested in is survivors."

 

"Somehow I 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.

 

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 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 the starlight.

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 away.


"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 outdoors?"


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 predawn dimness.

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 range.


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 station's flank.


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, Colonel."


"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 to do."


"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 in amazement.

"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 fresh grass.


"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 data home."


"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 pet!"


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.

 

 

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