In Verdant Pioneers, second in the Verdant series, the residents of the city-satellite Verdant—recently escaped from the environmental disaster caused by the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera on Earth—are trying to make it on their own in deep space, seeking sources for supplies, and possibly even a habitable planet to resettle on if Earth proves unwilling or unable to allow them to return.
In this excerpt, geologist Brooke Adams hurries to return to the freighter Makalu, on a prospecting mission near the Gliese system, with a find that she knows will astound her colleagues… and the world.
“Brooke, I need a sitrep.” Roy Grand paused over the com in the main bay, just forward of the shuttle bays. Most of the rest of the crew, including Bob and Arnold, but not including Val and Nick, were crowded around him, looking at each other nervously. “I have you as twenty minutes from hitting your emergency supply. Where are you?”
“I know,” came Brooke’s voice over the com, “and I’m coming as fast as I can! But this rock is very brittle, and I absolutely don’t want to break it! My ETA—” there was a significant pause at her end, before she finished, “—is close.”
Arnold tapped Roy on the shoulder. “I’ll suit up, in case she needs help.” With that, he pushed off for the shuttle bays.
Bob also floated nearby, saying to no one in particular, “Why can’t she tell us what she found? If it’s so important that she couldn’t take a break, and we couldn’t go back out after our break—I mean, if it’s hazardous or something, why’s she bringing it in?”
“Hey,” Roy said, “You’ve been right here, just like me. I don’t know any more about it than you do.” He seemed to consider the question, though, and spoke into the com: “Brooke, can you confirm that whatever you’ve got isn’t hazardous?”
“It’s not hazardous,” Brooke responded instantly. “But, I repeat, you do not want me to break this!”
“I also don’t want you to asphyxiate!” Roy protested. “Best speed back in here, rock-hound! Leave the rock if you have to!”
“Not gonna happen, boss. Just hold the door for me!”
The crew exchanged glances again. Brooke had been as vague as she had been adamant that she would stay out and chisel away at the chunk of asteroid she’d found, beyond the point at which standard procedure demanded she come in for a midday break. She had also told Roy it was important to keep Bob and Arnold from going back out, but not why. Roy had reluctantly agreed, partially because of Brook’s reputation as one of Verdant’s best geologists, partially because she’d insisted she only needed an extra hour or so to finish, and partially because of the difficulty of sending Bob or Arnold back out in another monkey shuttle to assist her—the ungainly shuttles were more often too much of a hazard to each other to risk using in close quarters.
But when Brooke had exceeded her estimate by two additional hours, then started back so slowly that it threatened to drain her life support system before she could make it back, Roy had come to realize that they might pay dearly for his decision to let her stay and work.
“Captain.” Everybody turned to see Val floating into the bay, and allowing Calvin to catch her. “I scanned the asteroid fragment she’s got. It’s multiple layers of unremarkable ores, with trace readings of various elements, including complex carbons. Nothing radioactive, toxic or otherwise dangerous.” She shrugged. “I have no idea what the big deal is.”
“And she won’t tell us,” Roy muttered. “This had better be good.”
It was a painfully drawn-out twelve minutes later when Brooke’s com opened up. “I just switched to emergency air supply. I must have been more active than I thought… or more excited.”
“Brooke,” Roy said, “I want you to drop the rock and get in here. Arnie’ll retrieve it once you’re clear—”
“No! I’m taking it straight to cargo!” Brooke replied. “Once it’s down, I’ll hop off the shuttle, and you pressurize the bay.”
Roy’s jaw clenched and shifted… he was clearly unhappy about the suggestion. But eventually, he switched to the intercom. “Arnie, when you’re suited up, get to cargo. Brooke’ll drop off the rock and get out of the shuttle, you’ll help her in, then you bring in the shuttle. Understand?”
Roy nodded at Bob. “Cargo.” The both of them pushed off and headed for the main cargo section, the others getting out of their way, then following behind them. When they reached the cargo bay hatch, Bob activated the monitor screens as Roy glanced inside through the inner hatch port, to make sure the bay was ready.
“I see her,” Bob announced, and everyone looked at the monitor screen. In fact, what they saw was the edges of the monkey shuttle, the rest of it mostly obscured by the rock it was pushing along ahead of it. Brooke, between the rock and the shuttle, could not be seen at all. She was approaching the ship, but very slowly.
“Open the bay,” Roy ordered.
Bob pointed out, “It’s not fully depressurized—”
“Open,” Roy repeated, and without further protest, Bob triggered the outer hatch.
When the outer doors were open enough that Roy could see the shuttle and the rock through the inner hatch port, he swore. They seemed to be barely moving. Roy swung over to the com and slapped at it. “Christ almighty, woman, will you get your ass in here!”
“Shut up! I’m almost there!”
Roy’s nostrils flared, but he said nothing more.
Finally, they could see Brooke in the shuttle’s cockpit as she eased the asteroid into the bay. Momentarily, they saw Arnold drift into view, coming up beside Brooke as she guided the rock in. She continued to work slowly and deliberately, and driving Roy crazy as she ignored her low air reserves.
All at once, the rock was in place, the monkey shuttle began backing out of the bay, and they could see Brooke struggling out of the harness. When she was clear, Arnold gave her a push back into the bay, then began to strap himself into the shuttle.
As soon as Brooke was clear of the outer doors, Roy shouted, “Close hatch and emergency pressurize!” Bob worked the controls, while Roy watched through the hatch port, and the others looked on. Even now, when Brooke could have allowed herself to go limp and rest, she was busy collecting straps to secure the rock. “Relax! Leave it!” Roy shouted through the glass, but Brooke ignored him.
Finally, the green light over the door snapped on, and Roy wrested the hatch open and launched himself inside. Brooke saw him coming, and put out her arms as if making sure he wouldn’t collide with the asteroid fragment. Roy ignored her efforts, and grabbed at her helmet locks. In seconds, he had her helmet off; and as soon as it was clear, Brooke took a deep breath, and her eyes went wide. “Oh, my God! That air was going stale!”
“No shit,” Roy snapped as he tossed her helmet behind him. “Now, you better have a damned good reason for this, to keep me from grounding you for the rest of your life—”
“Yeah,” Bob said as he floated in behind everyone else. “What the hell’s so special about this rock?”
“Oh, it’s special, all right,” Brooke said, taking deep, cleansing breaths as she started to undo her suit. “But before I show you,” she went on as Roy began to help her out of the torso, “let’s wait until Arnold gets here. He deserves to see this, too.”
“See… what?” Calvin asked, staring at the rock in confusion.
Brooke smiled widely and replied, “Something beautiful.”
When Arnold had the monkey shuttle back in the bay, and the bay pressurized, the inner hatch opened, and Bob floated inside. Arnold had just taken off his helmet, and Bob practically wrestled him out of his suit. “She won’t show us anything until you’re there!” he explained as he helped Arnold shuck his gear. Then the two of them floated back to the cargo bay as fast as they could manage it.
By the time they got there, Nick had also arrived from the pilot’s station, making it the entire crew complement in the bay. As soon as Roy saw the other geologists arrive, he said to Brooke: “Now… give.”
Brooke had been standing by the asteroid, keeping everyone from touching it, but allowing them to look as closely as they wanted. So far, no one had noticed anything unusual about the rock. She had retrieved a flashlight from a toolbox, and she turned it on at that point. “Henri,” she addressed the engineer, who happened to be standing closest to the bay control panel, “would you kill the bay lights please?”
The engineer regarded her suspiciously, and Arnold said, “What is this, ghost stories?”
Brooke considered his words. “Interesting way of putting it,” she said, and nodded at Henri again. At Roy’s confirming nod, the engineer shut off the lights. At that moment, the flashlight was the only thing providing light to the bay, and Brooke held it up so that it illuminated her head from below her chin. “Ooooooooo,” she teased. Then, she started to move, floating above the asteroid.
“Yeah, I know it seems theatrical, but this is about the only way I can show you what I saw. I almost missed it, myself, when I cracked the asteroid open… I had to get just the right angle of light on it to see it in shadow.”
“Shadow?” Calvin repeated. “What are we talking about, an impression? I didn’t see anything.”
“Right,” Brooke nodded, as she moved close to the asteroid, peering down the edge of the upright face carefully. “That’s what I’m saying… it’s so shallow as to be almost invisible.” She began to cast the flashlight beam along the upright edge, trying different directions and angles. “Even now, when I know what I’m looking for, I can’t really see it. But at the right angle, it’ll come out…” She paused, looked at the rock, then at the others. “Tell you what: Why don’t you all float up to the top of the bay, there (she waved her flashlight in that direction), and wait for me to find it.”
The crew looked up at the ceiling foolishly for a moment, then at Roy. Roy simply shrugged, and pushed off for the ceiling. Moments later, so did the rest of them. And in the meantime, Brooke went back to work studying the asteroid.
“Once I saw it,” she continued as she played the flashlight about, “I wasn’t surprised at the composition of the rest of the asteroid. Its makeup suggests part of the crust of a planet, all right. Whoever guessed that it was probably blown out of its system by some major event, a collision or something, I think they were ri—aha. Gotcha.”
She looked upward at her audience. “Everybody ready?”
Roy held out his hands, and said, “Go ahead.”
Brooke turned back to the rock, shining the flashlight against one side, low enough that none of the light touched the upward edge. Slowly, she raised the light, allowing it to shine the barest amount of light across the edge, like a sunrise slowly illuminating a plain. At first, nothing happened… most of it was still in shadow. Then Brooke found the right glancing angle, which revealed the long, thin sliver of one shadow, with numerous shorter, thinner slivers fanning out from the long shadow in various directions.
It took about a second… then the crew gave out a simultaneous gasp of shock. There was no questioning, and no debate. What they could see, cast by Brooke’s flashlight beam in the dark of the cargo bay, was undoubtedly the thin but clear impression of a giant, fern-like leaf.
“I never thought I’d see this day,” Bob mused, with a wide, childlike smile across his face. “I mean, not in my lifetime did I think we’d ever find irrefutable signs of complex life on other planets.”
“Heck,” Arnold added, “I never thought we’d see it, period! I mean, even if there was life out there, I was sure we’d never, ever find any of it.”
“Why not?” Nick asked, pausing just before biting into a sandwich. “Did you think we’re not smart enough to get out there and find it?”
“It’s not that,” Brooke interjected, and she and Arnold shared knowing looks. Brooke had discussed matters like this with Arnold in the past, and knew his opinion on the subject. “It’s the likelihood that we’d manage to find signs of life, when it was around to be found. You see, the universe is billions of years old, and stars and planets have come and gone during that time. Some of them may have harbored life… and others may in the future. But sooner or later, those planets die, those stars go cold, and any life on them will die, too. That leaves a finite window in which to find that life… perhaps on the order of a few million years, out of billions.
“Now, Man has only been around for a few hundred thousand years, and has been searching for signs of life off Earth for only a few centuries. We’ve actually been out here for only a year. Chances are, we’re too late to discover millions of examples of life in the universe… and when we are no more, we will miss discovering millions more.”
“Right,” Arnold said, hooking a thumb in the direction of the cargo bay, and the asteroid. “We obviously missed discovering the planet where that life originated, perhaps by millions of years. That’s a piece of a dead planet in there… whatever shattered it like that would be classified an extinction-level event. Even if it managed to survive whatever did that to it, there’s little-to-no chance any life that was on it at the time survived.”
“Certainly no higher forms of life, at least,” Calvin added. “But plant life can be very hardy. There’s a good chance, I think, that there might still be similar vegetation on the remnant of that planet.” He looked significantly at the others. “If any of it is still there.”
Roy looked at Calvin. “Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”
Nick seemed to catch Calvin’s drift, and his eyes lit up. “We’ve got enough fuel and supplies to last us for at least two weeks, maybe three if we want to stay out.”
“And do what?” Roy asked. “Are you telling me you want to go find what’s left of that planet… of that star system? How are we supposed to do that?”
Calvin turned to Val, who thought about it a moment. “We may be able to reverse-compute the trajectory of the asteroid field, before it was captured by Gliese, and backtrack along those lines to see where it came from. Then we can translate along that course, to see what we can find.”
She looked to Nellie, who nodded in agreement. “True, there’s no reason we can’t. In fact, we can limit the number of exploratory translations further by sending the probe ahead to scout around. But what, exactly, do you hope to find?”
“Okay,” Brooke said, putting her hands out to virtually encompass her vision to them. “We follow the trail to see if we can find the planetary remnant. Maybe we’ll luck out and find signs of whatever life evolved there after the cataclysm. Earth had at least one extinction-level event, and we evolved from that. Who knows what we may find?”
“And even if we don’t find higher life,” Bob added, “and personally, I doubt we will, for the same reasons Brooke described—a planet that was fertile enough to grow plants on, even a remnant, must have been similar to Earth in makeup, and may provide a great many of the ores and elements we’ve been out here looking for. And a cataclysmic event may have turned it inside out, to the extent that many of the elements that are usually buried deep underground may be exposed to the surface, and easier to reach.”
Val and Arnold nodded. “I think,” Val said, looking at Roy, “that the last point is a good enough reason to go. It may be the best chance we have to find an Earth-like planet, and the elements Verdant needs to survive.”
“Still sounds like a crap-shoot to me,” Roy said. When the others started to protest, he held up his hand. “Hey, we’re talking about trying to back-trace an asteroid field, whose course may have been altered by a close pass to any celestial object… we don’t know how long it’s traveled, so we have no way of knowing how far to go… and we don’t know if there’s even a planet left where it came from! If someone here doesn’t think that’s a crap shoot… remind me to play craps with you sometime.”
If Roy expected to see understanding, agreeable faces… he didn’t get them. In fact, everyone in the crew deck looked back at him in silent disbelief. Roy looked at each of them in turn, and realized he didn’t have an ally in the entire group. Presently, he sighed. “Well… I suppose it wouldn’t kill us to try.”
“Yes!” Brooke shouted, and intentionally sent herself into a tight barrel roll of celebration. The others also cheered and danced in the micro-gravity, until Roy put out his hands for attention.
“Need I remind you,” he said, “that the decision isn’t mine to make? We have to get an authorization from CnC, or we’re not going anywhere.” Everyone got quiet at that, a few of them visibly upset at the possibility that they might not get the chance to go. Brooke seemed most upset of all, and considering it had been her discovery and her suggestion to follow the back-trail, that was very understandable. Roy took note of that, too, as he considered their next move.
“Obviously, the thing we do next is to notify Verdant, include a recording of our findings, and ask for instructions. We’ll also include the ship’s recordings of this conversation, so CnC knows our thinking on this.” Roy turned to the scientists of the group. “Brooke, better arrange for an image to send back with the probe… that should help sell them on it.”
Brooke smiled. “So… you want to go, too?”
Roy shrugged. “How could I not? Hey, I’d love to go down in history as Captain of the first Earth vessel to find life on another planet!” He suddenly leveled a finger at Brooke. “Which means you’d better find it, young lady, or incur my wrath!” He waved at them all. “Now, get going! Get your image, and collect your data! Nellie, prepare the probe to return to Verdant.”
As the scientists floated off, Roy called Nick and the engineers together. “Boys, let’s confirm our operating capacity, so we know how long we can stay out. We’re including that in the probe’s recording. Go!”
“Ceo, I have a signal… it’s from an unscheduled probe.”
Julian and Reya, who had been conferring in the corner, turned when they heard the communications tech’s announcement. Julian frowned, and asked, “Whose probe is it, Pani?”
The girl at communications checked her board, and replied, “It’s the Makalu, sir. The probe…” She paused, as she listened to her monitor and studied her readouts. “They’re sending two messages, sir… one is standard voice, the other looks like a lot of data.”
“Data?” Reya repeated. She looked at Julian. “Did they find something?”
Before Julian could respond, Pani advised them, “The probe just translated back, after it finished transmitting.”
Julian nodded at Pani, then looked at Reya. “Only one way to find out,” he said finally. “Pani, play the voice message.” The tech worked over her board, and CnC went quiet as everyone listened to the message on the room speakers.
“Verdant, this is Captain Grand on the Makalu. We’ve made a significant find here, and require instruction as to how to proceed. I won’t go into details here, but our findings, and a recording of our own conversations about it, are included with the probe transmission. Please go over the material, and send a response by probe when you’re ready. We will hold station until then. Our suggestion is to review the image data first. We think you’ll be… impressed. Makalu, out.”
Pani confirmed, “That’s all of the voice transmission, sir.”
“All right,” Julian said. “Send the data recordings to the center console, please.”
Julian and Reya moved to the center console, and Julian called up the data files on the control board. He found the image files, and opened them in the display column.
Upon seeing the very first image, his jaw went slack. Reya’s mouth also fell open, and around them, those who immediately saw the image in the column gasped in shock. CnC went completely silent as everyone who hadn’t looked at first, responded to everyone else’s reactions and looked up, too.
Reya was the first to speak. “Qué va. Qué-mother-fucking-va.”
“Probe is back, Captain,” Nellie advised Roy.
“Okay,” Roy nodded, and turned to everyone else. “Regardless of their decision, we won’t be going anywhere right away… except maybe back to Verdant, I suppose. So, as of now, field work is done for today. Rock-hounds, go and get your gear properly stowed. Then, we knock off for the day.”
As Brooke, Arnold and Bob floated off, Calvin turned to Roy. “Captain, if Verdant tells us to come back, would you really do it?”
“Yes, I would,” Roy said, and gave him a stern look. “We’re out here to do a job, at Verdant’s suffrage… they are our home base. You don’t do anything to tick off home base. If they decide that someone else can do the job better—or that no one should do the job at all—that’s their decision to make, and we’ll abide by it.” He placed a hand on Calvin’s shoulder. “Besides, we’ve already made history just by being here and finding this. I’m not greedy.”
Calvin nodded thoughtfully, and headed off. Roy watched him go, then decided to help the scientists stow their equipment, especially Brooke, who had been forced to abandon her monkey shuttle, and her suit, on unusually short notice, after pushing them to their limits. He pushed off for the shuttle bay, where he expected to find Brooke at work.
He came upon her before he got there. She was hovering in place on the side of the corridor, in the approaching-fetal-position that was common for people at rest in microgravity. She didn’t seem to notice he’d come up behind her, or she was paying no attention to him, so he reached out and touched her shoulder. “Brooke?”
Brooke turned and looked at Roy, and he clearly saw a smear of wetness on her cheek. He knew it for what it was: Tears had no place to “run” in microgravity, and usually built up until they were wiped away. “What’s wrong?”
Brooke smiled bravely and wiped at her face again. “I was just thinking: I wish Anise had been here to see this… to share this with me.”
“She’ll find out soon enough,” Roy told her softly.
Verdant Pioneers is available at my website.