Colonial Authority: Chapter 1 – The Caverns

Author’s introduction: I began writing Colonial Authority on June 6, 2007. At the time I was out of work. It was a rough period for my family, but I had a severance package and a little money set aside. No one starved. Other than looking for work, I had a lot of time on my hands, which felt like an incredible gift for the writer inside of me and, of course, my latest muse.

As if often the case, the story started out to be something other than it eventually became. I wanted to write a birthday story dedicated to a friend, Cristina (no ‘h”). Like the main character in this story she is a front vocalist for a rock band and she is Italian. But, then, the story grew and it evolved into two novels.

I wrote this at night, days off or in my spare time during the summer and continuing well into the fall of 2007. After I found a job, I was barely getting by as a car salesperson. The creative process kept me relatively sane as my family burned through my severance and savings. Eventually the car dealership downsized before going out of business. It was one of the first casualties of the major economic downturn that some have since called the Great Recession. By then, I had a lead on another job that I would work until just before writing the first draft of Fried Windows, my first novel with my present publisher, Pandamoon.

In 2012, I published The Attributes, of which this is one part, on Amazon for Kindle only. It has since been modified here and there but it was not professionally edited. I’ve gone through it as a revision and am offering it here in installments as a sample of my science fiction storytelling. As such, it is much more akin to what I was writing when I composed The Wolfcat Chronicles, which will begin with the first episode published in Early 2018. The Attributes serves as a kind of capstone for all my fantasy and sci-fi plot threads, though it does not spoil any of the many stories that lead into this strange world. It takes place in a distant future. The Earth has been abandoned in lieu of new worlds, the colonies on other planets in the solar system and now into another star system. Pravda is the first world to be chosen for the full terraforming treatment.

Enjoy it. And please, let me know what you think.

E

***

Silicon beads swirling in the wind tore at the thick shielding on the hover pod’s hull. Ave waited, hoping for a lull in the wind, knowing it was unlikely. The present storm had gone on for more than three and a half local months.

“Are we ready to go?” Chess asked as he looked at the others, receiving nods. He deployed the Puma, waiting for the control panel light’s confirmation of surface contact. Once completed, he pointed to the door. “Okay guys, this is not a drill.”

“Ready, Chief.” Ave positioned himself as close to the door as possible.

“We have a minute – max for egress. Once outside we board the Puma as quickly as possible. Suits and respirators at all times, even inside the Puma.”

“Understood, Let’s do this!”

“Apparently, the mission’s importance trumps safety considerations.”

“Our suits aren’t made to stand up to this crap,” Timmel said, but receiving no immediate feedback, he looked to Ave, pointing to the side of his helmet directly over his ear.

“Can you hear me?” Ave asked.

Timmel shrugged.

Ave reached for the controls mounted on Timmel’s pressure suit, flicking back the reset switch cover on the wrist and activated the button. “Can you hear me, now?”

“Five by,” Timmel responded. “I was saying these suits aren’t made for this storm.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.” Ave turned his back on the engineer. “Damned Enviros,” he muttered.

“Hey,” Timmel complained. “So, I suck at electronics.”

“Cut it,” Chess ordered. He forced the hatch release down and armed it. “Ave and I have done this drill a hundred times. Follow our lead.”

“Understood.” Timmel acknowledged as he and Ave gripped the wall handles.

“Give me a countdown.”

“On my mark.” Ave glanced at his chronometer, commencing. “And that’s five, four, three, two…”

“Blow!” Chess shouted.

Once outside the pod, both he and Ave threw their shoulders into the hatch, keeping it from closing until Timmel stepped through and immediately suffered the storm’s abrasive violence. Struggling to attach a safety tether to the outer hull of the pod, the gale forced him to step back a few paces. He hooked another tether onto the hatch door and fastened the other end to the pod’s hull, effectively holding it open so the others could release it. Then turning he aimed a high-pressure discharge gun in the Puma’s direction, shooting another line with a magnetic latch on its end.

“Okay, Chess. We have a temp rope guide.”

Remotely, Chess commanded the Puma’s magnetic arm to acquire and anchor the safety line while Timmel assisted Ave in keeping the door open. They waited for Chess to step through the hatch, the last of the crew to make it outside.

“Okay!” Timmel severed the taut tether and the hatch’s hydraulics took over, continuing to close. “Go, go, go!”

As Chess and Ave scrambled away from the hatch, each of them grasped the safety line that Timmel had anchored to the Puma. First one and then the other climbed through the vehicle’s door and maneuvered around inside, Timmel taking one of the back seats, while Ave reached back through the pilot’s hatch and helping Chess climb inside.

“Good job, Timmel,” Chess said as he and Ave settled into the swivel, bucket-style seats and closed the hatch behind him, sealing the Puma’s cabin.

“Not bad for a damned Enviro, hey?” Timmel directed to Ave, patting the co-pilot’s helmet.

“I guess I deserved that,” Ave allowed.

“Apology accepted.”

“The bitch is buttoned-up. Purge all the sand,” Chess directed.

“Already on it, Chief.” Timmel leaned forward, reaching past Ave to press the button on the environmental panel, creating a few seconds delay while he strapped in.

“Stiff breeze out there.” Ave finished strapping in, and braced for the five seconds of extreme suction.

Chess chuckled. “At this morning’s briefing, they promised me this is one of the calmer days of the past month. They claim the initial seeding of the upper atmosphere has begun to calm the winds.”

“You couldn’t prove it by me,” Timmel commented. “That’s the strongest wind I’ve ever felt. I’m not so sure this rock qualifies as Earth like.”

“A hundred seventeen knots,” Chess read from the Puma’s anemometer, “Gusts to one twenty-five … excuse me, one-forty.”

“It’s getting worse. We have to find cover for the Puma, rock outcroppings or a cave that’s out of this wind,” Timmel explained.

“Understood.” Chess clicked a magnetic release switch as the Puma’s tethers dropped away from its hull. “The real question is whether there will be a pod to return to.”

Ave growled in the background. “What? Did you misunderstand the meaning of the word suicide that was stamped on top of mission on our orders?”

“Guess I didn’t see that, not that it matters much. They need to know whether the caverns that the droids discovered can be made into temporary shelters for colonists,” Chess explained.

“The first hundred are already on their way,” Timmel revealed. “Arrival early next spring with more to follow. They stay on one of the platforms until they have a place ready for them down here.”

“Are they nuts?” Ave protested.

“Do they have a choice?” Chess asked. “This is the next best thing we’ve got to Mother Earth. Terraforming this bitch is the only answer.”

“That will be problematic,” Timmel stated. “Despite today’s weather, this environment is workable, though. It’s just going to take a few years to complete the process.”

“On Earth storms didn’t linger for months or have this kind of punch,” Ave offered.

“Earth’s mature. This planet is about two and a half billion years younger.”

“So it’s a baby throwing an extended tantrum.” Ave swiveled his seat to make eye contact with the environmental engineer.

“Not a bad analogy. Pravda needs some maturing. There’s still a lot of volcanic activity and poisonous gasses released into the atmosphere. The initial colonists will have to live in caverns.” Timmel indicated a direction that seemed the same light brown as every other direction. “Our internal navigation is fixed on the last known coordinates of the droids. The caverns they reported finding seem the most promising yet.”

“So, this is the promised land?” Ave visually searched the horizon for any indication of daylight, and then returned his attentions to the instruments.

“That’s what they say.” Timmel chuckled. “Apart from the uber intensity of the sandstorms, this is really a lot like Earth.”

“It looks nothing like the travel brochure,” Ave joked.

“When the terraforming is completed Pravda will resemble the more arid regions of Earth. Longer-range, say in about eighty or so years, we’ll be irrigating and harvesting vegetation grown in the local soil. There’ll be cities without domes connected by rail and highways. Millions of people will relocate here to relieve the population pressure from the other colonies. All of that begins with us. We’re here to determine whether there is ample subsurface water in the caverns. We know there are aquifers. Our readings indicate the presence of at least three on this continent, but we need confirmation of an ample fresh water source to establish our first colony.”

“How in the hell are we supposed to do any of that while working in this soup?”

“That’s definitely the challenge. Visibility is zero,” Timmel confirmed.

“My point exactly. And we’re here to conduct a survey? How do we do that, by Braille?”

“Breaker, Team One, Team Two leader here,” the radio squawked.

“Team One here, on ground and moving. How ya lookin’ Lyle?”

“Lookin’ for you Chess. Where you at?”

“The positioning satellite tells me I’m a klick to your east.”

“Okay. Where’d you say my east was again?”

“There’s a strong magnetic field, Lyle. It screws-up instruments. Recalibrate your handhelds. Then lock in on our beacon.”

After a few moments, Lyle responded, “Okay, there you are. Uh, Chess how are we supposed accomplish anything? This is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

“We establish shelter and a camp in the caverns, just like they told us. Let the Enviros do their thing and await further instructions.”

“And hope this is as bad as it gets?”

“It’s worse when there are rain clouds that mingle with the sand. It’s like being pelted with wet concrete at a hundred knots,” Timmel pointed out.

“Well, that’s something to look forward to.”

“It’s not that bad,” Jove, the Team Two Enviro allowed.

“Well, don’t I feel all better, now?” Ave reacted with sarcasm.

“Lose it,” Chess warned. “This is what we do, Ave.”

“Mars was a kitten compared to this!” Lyle said. “Oh, shit! I just lost a thruster.”

“Cycle the power and purge it,” Chess suggested. “Your intake is clogged.”

Following a few moments of silence, Lyle reported, “Back online. Nice trick, Chess.”

“I’ve been down here in it a few times.”

“I served my penance on Titan. Methane ice storms there. Can’t say it was better or worse. Hell is hell as far as I can tell.”

“Sorry, I resurrected any of those memories,” Chess said.

“I’m over it, sort of – just never thawed out since.”

“There are mountains three klicks to the east of me. It looks like you’re closer, Lyle.”

“Got ‘em on the range finder,” Lyle said. “Gotta go around a ridge line, though. You’ll probably get there quicker.”

“I see the ridgeline on radar. You see the pass?”

“Yeah, we’re on it.”

“Droids found caverns. I don’t know how that happened. It looks like nothing but a wall of rock ahead.”

“They claim there’s a notch in there somewhere,” Lyle said.

“Yeah, well when we find it, we fabricate an airlock at the cavern’s entrance and we’re golden. That’s the official plan, minus all the unforeseen stuff, of course.”

“Yeah, they never seem to figure in enough time for all the ‘everything else’.”

“Turn East South-east,” Ave said. “I got a beacon.”

“No kidding,” Lyle said. “There is it. “Thanks for the help, guys.”

“I don’t know how much more abuse the Puma can take,” Ave complained. “The skin’s wearing bad.”

“Without this Puma your suit would last about twenty minutes,” Timmel said.

“Thanks for the safety tip,” Ave groused. “I’ll keep that in mind if we breakdown.”

“The local atmosphere is about ten percent oxygen but there’s a cocktail of poisons that would kill us in four to five minutes— rather painfully, I might add,” Jove stated.

“So, once the suit goes, I’m not far behind,” Ave said. “Gotcha. Just, I don’t recall reading that in the travel brochure, either.”

Chess used the Puma’s filtered radar to isolate the Doppler effect of the fast-moving sand from the stationary formations of the mountains ahead. “Okay, there’s the notch and I have an echo behind it, an alcove, kind of narrow, but I think the Puma will make it in.”

“There’s good news,” Lyle said.

“We’re almost there,” Chess said. “Are you still dawdling, Lyle?”

“I’m blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other. I hate navigating by radar alone, especially on the ground. Anything smaller than a hundred-pound boulder is invisible.”

“Good news, we detect caverns behind the notch.”

“Tracking on you, Chess. Show me the way.”

“When we get there, Ave and Dar can set up camp, while Jove and I explore the caverns,” Timmel said.

“Who died and made you boss?” Ave asked.

“Once we stop, Timmel’s in charge,” Chess explained. “All orders come from him or up top.”

“Great, just great.”

“If there is any wind shear near those mountains it may be swirling and worse than what we are experiencing out here in the open,” Dar said.

“Now you tell me,” Ave groused.

“Hey, it’s worth a shot,” Lyle said.

“I think so,” Chess agreed.

 

The alcove proved to be a relative haven, greatly diminishing winds, which was welcomed as Chess parked the Puma as close to the mountain as possible.

“Do we wait for Lyle and the others?” Timmel asked.

“Right behind you,” Lyle said over the coms link as his Puma loped into the alcove, settled on its legs and parked beside Chess and the others. Jointly they directed the others to offload the sealed cases containing sensors and other delicate instruments as well as the airlock kit that would be necessary for them to accomplish their mission.

Team one was Ave and Dar who established artificial lighting inside the threshold of the cavern. Team two was Chess and Lyle who began assembling an airlock and air purification system. Timmel and Jove took a portable sampler, data recorder and flashlights as they descended into the network of caverns. From the readings, they confirmed previous reports from the droids that deeper into the caverns the air quality improved dramatically.

When everything was unpacked Chess and Lyle deployed a communication mast, anchoring it to the rocks just outside the cavern. Lyle searched for a satellite link to relay the signal via a particle beam to the orbiting platform.

“There you are,” Chess said as Timmel and Jove reappeared from the lower chambers of the cavern. “How’s the air down there?”

“Better, not breathable, but it is better the lower we go into the caverns.”

“Is that normal?”

“It’s unusual,” Timmel admitted. “Jove and I have a couple of working theories. At least it confirms the telemetry the droids relayed before the wind and sand destroyed them. We found the redundant archive and downloaded the memory into our data recorders. We also accessed the recorders they positioned and retrieved the data to present.”

“Are they still functional?” Lyle asked.

“Their batteries are low. We tried to restart the internal reactors, but apparently, they depleted their duel cells. The reactors are cold.”

“So, the answer’s no,” Chess said.

“Yeah, we’d have to recharge the fuel cells and maybe repack the reactors with new rods. It’d be a minor overhaul, if we had the equipment.”

“How far have you explored?”

“Four-hundred meters down. It’s odd. The caverns seem dry and not all that cold,” Jove responded.

“A dry heat source?” Chess suggested.

“Nothing we’ve found, And, so far there’s no water,” Timmel said.

“Any indication of life?”

“None,” Timmel said. “Of course, we haven’t expected to find any, except maybe something microbial, single cells…of course we haven’t done much testing in the oceans yet. At a similar point in Earth’s development, life on the land might have been difficult to find.”

“Earth had more water, right?” Ave stated as he joined the others.

“Yes, still does,” Timmel answered. “But like Pravda, most of it is in the oceans. There’s some water locked up in polar ice caps here. The tidal effects of the two moons help create weather patterns like what we’ve just experienced, more violent than anything we’ve seen in any extra-terrestrial ecosystem.  We’re all learning at this point.”

“What if we don’t figure it out,” Ave said.

“We don’t have a choice,” Timmel responded.

“What?” Ave asked in response to Chess’ silent, visual chastisement.

“We’ve also discovered peroxide in some rock formations,” Jove said.

“Where would that come from?” Chess asked.

“We don’t know yet, but if there is some reactive process in the planet’s chemistry, it could explain why there’s more oxygen in the air as you descend into the caverns,” Jove said. “And the oxygen in the atmosphere despite the lack of vegetation.”

“It’s a significant discovery, then?” Dar asked.

“Our assumptions about this planet have been in error,” Jove said. “Actually, many times over our theories have needed adjustment.”

“Data transfer complete,” Timmel announced.

“Mine too.” Jove began disconnecting his portable equipment.

“Time to seal and pressurize the airlock,” Chess announced.

“I’ll break open the mess packs,” Ave offered.

“Dar, go ahead and unpack the sleepers.”

“I’m tired enough that it could be continued on the next two men.”

“Getting this suit off is my present priority. I’ve needed to scratch an itch for the last hour.” Ave revealed.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

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About ElgonWilliamsAuthor

Professional author and publicist with Pandamoon Publishing. Author of Fried Windows. The Wolfcat Chronicles, Becoming Thuperman, The Attributes and One Over X. Currently live in Orlando, 3 adult children, divorced.
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