Chapter 11 (Second Draft)

“Alright everyone, I can’t wait anymore.  I called you all here so that we could conference on what the different teams have been able to come up with so far before we head down tomorrow.”

Kathryn was addressing the other eleven crew members in the conference room off of the bridge, the room where they’d spent so many hours staring at the wall sized screen on the way to Earth.

“There are so many questions Captain,” Keri Reed excitedly exclaimed.  “Before we got here the only thing on our mind was why Earth stopped transmitting to us without any warning, but now that we’re here we realize how much more there is to know about what happened to all of the space stations and outposts around the system.”

“Well our primary objective should help us answer all of the follow up questions we also have; what can you say so far?”

“Well we’ve been running continual scans of the surface since we arrived two weeks ago and there are a few things we can say,” Felix offered.  “There are no EM transmissions to or from the surface, and we can’t detect any large scale signalling going on surface to surface.  As you recall we had to boost to a higher orbit soon after our arrival to avoid all of the orbital debris in low orbit.  We also didn’t detect any activity from any of the spacecraft seem to be left intact down there either.”

“Anything left in orbit of interest?” Kathryn asked.

“Oh yes,” Keri answered, “I mean, from my perspective everything down there is of interest and worthy of study, but especially of interest is the massive space station which if I’ve read the limited archives we have correctly, is actually the station which the New Horizon originally launched from.  Apparently it was once part of a triad of orbital platforms, but only the largest one is still left intact.  I guess it had the most onboard fuel for its automated systems to keep it in orbit.  It’s deserted; we can’t detect any life onboard.  Oh, and by the way it’s dangerously close to re-entry, it won’t last another hundred years if nothing is done.  We’ll want to board it and resupply its fuel to prevent that from happening.”

“Wouldn’t that station have the archive data you’d want?” Kathryn asked.

“Negative,” Irvina answered.  “All electronic data storage systems will have degraded beyond recovery over that amount of time.  The New Horizon archives are so valuable to everyone because the physical backup can survive for millions of years.”

“But there’s got be physical evidence down on the surface,” Keri pressed, “things that could help you piece together the history of Earth before or after your departure.”

“Yes,” Irvina acknowledged, “that was our back up plan but pursuing the New Horizon archive was a much more practical pursuit to attempt first.  That’s why our government wasn’t in a rush to explore Earth since what we were looking for we were seeking somewhere else first.”

“I see.  So what about the other two stations?  What happened to them?” Kathryn asked.

“They went down…  You can see here,” Irvina pointed out as she brought an image up on the wall screen, “mid latitude on the African continent there’s a series of craters consistent with a large space station breaking up while de-orbiting and striking the ground in a linear series of impacts.  We could only find the one pattern on the planet though, the other must have come down in the ocean somewhere.”

“Understood,” Kathryn acknowledged.  “So what about all of the other settlements there were supposed to be elsewhere in the system?”

“No EM traffic, no signs of any kind of activity from the ones we can see through the ship’s telescopes from here,” Felix answered her.  “Of course we only take quick looks though, we’ve been primarily focused on Earth.”

“Obviously we’re, well…” Keri corrected herself with a slight giggle.  “I, am as anxious to investigate those outposts as much as Earth.”

“Understood Reed,” Kathryn acknowledged with a smile as she put her hand on the woman’s shoulder.  “But, on to the main event as they say.  What have we learned about Earth so far?”

“Interesting,” Elim said as he laughed a little at himself over the obviousness of his comment.  “The onboard telescope network is equipped with infra-red scanners which allow us to detect any living organism bigger than a human child.  The big news as you’ve all already heard is that there are indeed humans down there, or… at least whatever has become of Earth humans.  We’ve only found approximately half a million people across the planet.  Groups of a few hundred are scattered all across the planet in all of the habitable environments.  Most interesting though is that there are quite a few larger colonies which appear to be based around the few remaining water dams.”

“There are dams that have lasted this long?” Kathryn asked, nearly shocked.

“Well yes,” Elim answered.  “They didn’t build any more after fusion power was developed but there were still thousands of them already built when Earth went dark and there was no point in decommissioning them once they were already there.  They did a lot of environmental damage when they were built, but once the damage was done they provided basically free energy.  The nature of the structures required them to be so robust that in general they could structurally survive this long, so yeah, a few are still around even now.”

“Interesting.  But to what end?  Why do are they clustering around hydroelectric dams?” Kathryn asked.  “For power?  You said you didn’t detect any EM activity.”

“I said nothing large scale,” Felix corrected her.  “Powering small devices or machines left over from before, simple lighting… that sort of thing, all of that could be powered by the energy provided by the dams and wouldn’t show up on our scans.”

“Ok, so have you found any indications so far of what caused Earth civilization to collapse in the first place?  What happened?” Kathryn asked.

“No,” Francis admitted with some frustration.  “There is no indication of mass destruction consistent with a war or natural disaster, no indications of a close encounter between this system and another large stellar body or alien attack or harvesting operation… nothing.”

“Well it looks like we’ve done all we can from orbit,” Kathryn surmised.  “Unless there are any other suggestions, we need to plan the next phase.  We’re going down.”

“The station,” Teresa said somewhat distantly.

“What about it?” Kathryn asked.

“If we want an explanation for what happened to Earth,” she leaned over the table, “it might be a better place to look than the planet itself.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Well it’s been six hundred years, whatever indications or evidence there may be down there as to what happened, it’ll be badly degraded and tilled over by now.  Nature would reclaim settled areas alarmingly quickly.  While there is more likely to be evidence of some kind on the surface, if there is any information to be found on that station it would be easier to find.  It might be a more practical first step.”

“We didn’t bring any additional atmospheric cyclers with us,” Jaren reminded them, “just what we equipped New Horizon with.  You’d have to stay in environmental suits if you wanted to explore the station.”

“Yes… but it’s a good idea though,” Kathryn considered out loud.  “It already made sense to split into teams.  We’ll send one to the station, one to the planet, and leave a team here on the ship to coordinate our activities.  We’ll take one of the two shuttles and drop off the station team before heading down to the surface.  If the station team runs into trouble they can be assisted from the ship with the second shuttle.  Teresa I’d like you to lead the station team, along with Francis, Nadelle and Terey.  Jaren you stay on the ship and coordinate the mission with Xion, Parker, and Ana.”  Felix slumped and appeared severely disappointed.  Kathryn put her hand on his shoulder.  “Sorry Felix, you’ll get your chance.  The first sortie won’t be the last.  Irvina, I’ll need you with me to pilot the ship, as well as Reed and Deirdre.  Everyone understand?”

“Yes Captain,” Jaren answered.  “Now we just need to figure out where on the planet you want to land.”

“Right… where is the largest human settlement?” she asked, turning to the screen.

Felix looked it up on his large scroll and when he found it he put it up on the wall.  “Looks like there are about a dozen across the world of a similar size… but the largest population appears to be centred on a dam in the north east of the North American continent where a large mountain range gives way to prairie land.  Coordinates fifty-six north one minute, one-twenty-two west twelve minutes.

“Well, we have no idea how they’ll respond to us if we just drop in on them out of the blue sky.  Bring up an image of the area for me Felix.”  Her friend acquiesced and the image was displayed on the wall.  “Is this real time?” she asked.

“No we’re on the other side of the planet at the moment, and we’ve been continually changing our orbit to cover the whole planet once a week.  This image is as of five days ago.”

“Jaren you’ll want to drop us off near the station but once you do, take up a geostationary position over that settlement so that we can stay in contact.  The station will pass underneath you every hour and a half and should only be out of communications for an hour at a time.”

“If I may make a suggestion Captain,” Jaren offered.

“Of course,” she said with a smile.

“It appears that the original three stations were designed to fly in formation to be in line of sight comms with every point on the planet outside of the polar regions.  If the New Horizons and our second shuttle take up appropriate high orbit positons relative to the station, we can all stay in constant real time contact with each other.”

Kathryn considered the suggestion.  “Do you see any way that this would put the second shuttle at additional risk?”

“No more risk than it is already in being in orbit and docked with the New Horizon.”

“Alright, that’s a good suggestion, thank you.  We’ll go with Jaren’s suggestion.”

“The shuttle could be operated remotely but I’d be more comfortable if I sent Xion out in it.”

“That’s your prerogative, will you be alright with just three people left on the ship?”

“Oh yes, it’s a very automated ship and this will be a far safer place than anywhere anyone else is going.”

“Right.”  Kathryn walked over to the wall screen for a close look.  “It looks like the main settlement is several kilometers east of the dam itself.  If we approach from the west and land a few kilometers away to the north of the dam itself and to the west of the settlement we should be able to do so without notice.

“How do you plan to make contact?” Keri asked.

“Very carefully,” Kathryn said with a quirky look on her face.  “Look, we are going to have to make contact.  Those people are themselves the best resource we have for finding out what happened here.  They’ll probably be in possession of some sort of artifacts which might glean us some insights, or even be able to tell us exactly what happened through their oral history.  Make no mistake, we are going down there to make contact, I just don’t want to startle them with a flashy entrance like landing our alien spaceship in the middle of their town or something.  I intend to corner an individual or small group of people on the outskirts of their settlement and explain to them one on one who we are.  Hopefully they’ll be happy to introduce us peacefully to the others.”

“You’re making a lot of assumptions,” Jaren warned her, with a not terribly subtle note of concern for her safety in his voice.

“I know, but we’re in the taking risks business here.  It’s the safest risk we could take and it’s worth it.”

Jaren took a deep breath and nodded his acknowledgement, not so much that he agreed as much as granting that it was her choice to make.

“Alright, you all have your instructions.  Let’s get prepping for our respective missions then.”

 

“There are other… let’s say unsavourty options I didn’t want to suggest in front of the others,” Jaren told Kathryn.  They were in the long engineering corridor where the portals to the shuttles were among all of the engineering access point to the fuel pods.  It was their staging area while they were making final preparations for their descent.  “We could just capture one or a few of the people down there and interrogate them here on the ship, or… even just on the shuttle.  It would allow us to use their clothes to blend in and do some poking around before exposing ourselves.”

She pulled him aside from the others out of sight.  “I considered that.  But that carries risks of its own.  I don’t want our first point of contact to be an assault and abduction.”

“Frankly I agree, but I felt obligated to point out the option regardless.  Plus, I worry about you…” he said as he gingerly drew the tip of his index finger down her arm from her shoulder.  She found it so remarkably intimate without being sexual or possessive in any way.  He seemed to just crave even so simple and subtle a physical contact, and she reciprocated by taking his hand into both of hers and holding it to her face momentarily.  “I’m worries about your team as well of course, not to mention Irvina.  You know we’re close.  It’s dangerous out there.  I wish I was coming along.”

“I know,” she said as she released his hand.  “Don’t worry, we’ll be careful, all of us.  While I have you here though, there is something I was wondering about.  We won’t be able to get the Orbital One systems back online because all of the operating system data will have been corrupted beyond salvage over the centuries.  The systems themselves should still be pretty much intact though right?  Could you or your people maybe write a basic program which could allow us to start it up again?”

Jaren chuckled, and then took on an apologetic look when he saw that she didn’t take his reaction very well.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh at you.  It’s just that an operations system for a station of that size and complexity, even a rudimentary one would take a whole team working for months to be able to reverse engineer the system and figure out functioning code for it.”  Her question seemed to give him an idea though.  “But, since you ask…” he led her back to the others.  “Teresa, Parker, an idea of Ka- the Captain’s gave me one of my own.  I would bet that for something like the Orbital One station… well see, there’s no reason to think that the New Horizon physical archive was a new technology developed solely for that mission’s one massive archive.  It would make more sense that it was a technology already developed for any number of other applications.  In an entirely digital world, computer systems do inevitably fail and some sort of manual full rebuilding of systems and databases would be a required technology.”

“What are you suggesting?” Felix asked.

“I think there’s at least a reasonable chance that on a facility like Orbital One they would have stored somewhere a similar physical archive of at least the basic operating system.  Any number of things could go wrong and require them to reboot their systems entirely from scratch, and that’s exactly what they’d need to do so.  It wouldn’t require anywhere near the amount of data sheets as the New Horizon’s archives, it’s just an operating system as opposed to the total knowledge of the species.  If you can find them, which won’t be easy since there won’t be any kind of functioning map or directory you could use, plus you’ll have limited time, but if you could find such a backup we could re-load the operating system and start turning systems on again.”

“I have an idea…” Felix said as he pulled a medium scroll out of a pocket and unfurled it.  “I asked your people to send us regular updates of information we may find relevant as they unpack the archives back at Kobol.  They may have gotten around to the specs of the station.”  He poked around on it for several seconds and then his face brightened with a broad smile.  “Here,” he said as he turned to be beside Jaren so he could see the screen as well.   “Here it is, we’ve got it.”

“Excellent!  Good thinking asking for those updates Felix.”

“I have my moments,” he answered with a smile.

“So where does it say the backups are located?”

“Conveniently just beside the computer core itself along with all of the required reading and transfer equipment.”

“Well that will sure make things easier.”

“Presumably we can get the computer systems online using power supplied by one of the those anti-matter power sources you brought with you but that’ll only do so much for so long.  To really get the station going again we’ll have to restart the onboard fusion reactors which shouldn’t be any trouble for a man of your talents, but then we’d also need to resupply it with enough xenon for the ion engines to stabilize its orbit, assuming they still work.”

“One thing at a time Parker, you said it had a hundred years before that was a concern.  Our primary objective this mission is just to figure out what caused Earth’s collapse.  There’ll be plenty of opportunity to come back and do things like salvage Orbital One and explore the other outposts across the system.  Once there’s a clear path forward for that sort of thing, I believe the Koboli government will be more interested.  There could very well be novel technologies worth investigating on the outposts elsewhere in the system”

“Well it’s good to hear your people would be interested in something out here,” Kathryn teased with a tone bordering very nearly with sarcasm.

Jaren gave an acknowledging nod and raised eyebrow which suggested that he agreed with her frustration to some degree with his people’s somewhat dysfunctional views and priorities.

Kathryn put a consoling hand over his heart on his chest before smiling at him and letting her hand slide down and off of him.  She turned and floated towards the airlock.  “Everyone ready?” she asked.  Everyone acknowledged that they were and in response she called out: “well then all aboard!  This has been a long time coming!”

 

“Hold up,” Kathryn commanded.  “I want to make sure they’re okay before we move on.” 

The Koboli shuttle with Kathryn and and Teresa’s teams had docked without incident at the central hub of Orbital One.  At the very central axis of rotation the station had a docking port with which an approaching shuttle had to match the rotation of, and then hard lock onto.  When the station was fully operational and a hub of orbital traffic, those shuttles would then be moved around the side of the central hub out of the way to make room for another incoming shuttle, but those days were long gone. 

Unfortunately, there was a small shuttle blocking this main docking port, and their own shuttle had to dock at one of the outer ports designed for much larger ships.  Four long tines extend out from the central hub of orbital one like two pairs of giant pincers which provided enough room for a much larger trans-planetary ship to dock at all four of them at the same time.  Two of those were occupied by just such ship as well, but thankfully there were two which were open.  For the larger vessels, the tines as well as the docking points on the vessels were structurally reinforced to tolerate the ships being carried around in a subtle circle along with the station as it rotated.  It was a fairly tenuous grapple for such a high degree of torque, and without such structural reinforcements the ships were too likely to sheer off of the tines with the force.  Kathryn remarked that at some point all of the ships docked here would have to be evaluated to possibility of salvage, and in the back of her mind worried about the potential for conflict between their worlds over who had claim to any such salvaged ships.

Teresa’s team were wearing environmental suits provided by the Koboli, and they were equipped with cameras on the helmets which provided the feed which Kathryn’s team was watching as they pulled themselves along the long narrow corridor from the outer docking port to the central hub of Orbital One.  Kathryn remarked to herself how much the internal structure reminded her of the central engineering corridor on the New Horizon itself, and she wondered if there was anything to read into that.

“We have reached the central hub,” Teresa reported.

“This portal will have to be pressure locked.  It won’t open unless it detects atmosphere on this side of the door.”  He applied a battery pack to bulkhead beside the control panel and the touch panel lit up in response but there was nothing on it.  “Yup, no response at all.  Okay… well, there’s gotta be a manual override somewhere…”  He felt around the perimeter of the hatch until he found a heavy hinged hole in the wall.  “Now this override could be… overridden by the operations team inside if they were in there, but that shouldn’t be a problem.  He pulled the thick handle out of the wall, and turned it several rotations until the portal unlocked and popped ajar.  “Friends,” he said with a welcoming wave of his hand, “welcome to Orbital One.”

They entered onto what appeared to be a sort of arrivals and departures bay with airlocks on all sides of them marked with large numbers painted on them.  Identifying the correct way towards the rest of the station, they made their way along with hand and foot hold which were on every surface to allow movement about the space in the absence of gravity.  Their way was lit by the lights on their helmets, and all of them were quiet.  They all had the overwhelming sense of walking through a graveyard, a mixture of reverence and irrational fear.

Investigating the end of the arrival and departure bay, they found doorways to the four lifts which ran back and forth inside the struts connecting the central core to the habitat ring.

“Like the hatch into this area,” Felix said, “none of these door or lifts will work for us.  Even with power, with the operations programs so badly degraded they wouldn’t know how to operate.”

“Options?” Teresa asked.

“There’s got to be an emergency crawlspace… ah, over here,” he noted.  Francis used a similar manual override to the one that got them past the tine to open the way to a tubular pathway which was just large enough for them to make their way single file up the way along the ladder which went off into the abyss as far as their lights could make out.  “Feet first everyone, you’ll experience progressively increasing gravity until you get to the end so be careful.  Remember, if you damage your suit you’ll be in trouble.  There’s atmosphere here and you won’t die right away from vacuum, but the air is completely anoxic, no oxygen to speak of, so watch your step.”

One by one the team filed into the access tube and began climbing down to the habitat ring.  Halfway they felt a gravity level they felt they were used to and began to worry.  “Captain,” Teresa called out, “we’re nowhere near the bottom and we’re already feeling heavy.  Is the station rotating faster than it should be?” she asked.

“Jaren can you calculate the rotational gravity at the habitat ring.  Did we miss something that important?”

“Could be,” Jaren admitted.  “We never did run the calculations.  Give me a second.”  Jaren consulted his hand device.  “Hunh,” he uttered.  “One point nine eight four.  There’s nearly double gravity down there.”

“You hear that Teresa?” Kathryn asked.

“Yes…” Teresa answered reservedly.  “Is that safe?” she asked.

Jaren turned to Ana on the New Horizon’s bridge.  “In theory… it shouldn’t be a problem,” Ana suggested.  “It’ll be hell on them physically, but… it’s survivable.  It’ll tax their heart and circulatory system, but they’re all healthy.  We should limit their exposure just to be safe though.  I’d say no more than… two hours exposure at a time?  They could probably survive indefinitely in those conditions if they had to, but it would still be prudent to limit their exposure.”

“I agree,” Elim confirmed.  “We should work in two hour shifts.  Two of us should head back down and wait to switch off with you.”

“Well,” Teresa lamented.  “We can’t climb past each other in this tunnel, so Nadelle since you’re behind me follow me on up.  Francis and Reed you head back down to the central core and talk us through what we need to do.  We’ll switch up in a couple hours.”

Teresa and Nadelle continued climbing down as Francis and Reed headed back to the central core.  As Teresa and Nadelle continued on, the weight became increasingly oppressive.  Each step seemed to bring a new strain on their bodies, but eventually they reached the bottom and climbed off of the ladder and found themselves in a small room.

“Wow that’s heavy,” Nadelle commented.  “It’s almost hard to breathe, but… I think I feel okay.  How ‘bout you?”

“Well I don’t feel my heart exploding or anything,” Teresa said, “but it’s hard to stand up straight, hard to keep my head up.  Ugh, and these damn suits sure aren’t helping.”

Scanning the room with her helmet lights, Nadelle looked around the small room they found themselves in.  “Ah,” she said, pleased with herself at having found the door handle and pulling on the latch handle.  “Here we go.”

When they opened the door and stepped out, they tripped over something on the ground beneath them, and had to struggle considerably to stay on their feet in the extra gravity.  Pointing their lights down they saw that it was a half decomposed human skeleton.

“Oh my…” Teresa said as she touched her glove to the front of her helmet.

“Well that’s ominous,” Felix observed.  “What do you make of it Nadelle?”

“Hard to tell without further analysis, but I imagine it can’t decompose any further in this anoxic air.”  She pointed her helmet down the hallway one way and then down the other. both ways of the hallway.  “I can see one more down the hall this way,” she offered, “but that’s it for now.  I suggest we press on.  Answers to the bigger questions should shed light on the smaller mysteries.”

“I agree,” Jaren said from the ship.

“Me too.  Press on,” Kathryn ordered from the shuttle.  “I think we should head on down to the planet now that you’re safely aboard.”

“Alright, good luck.  We should be fine.  If we run into any trouble we’ve got Jaren’s other shuttle for back up.  Good luck Captain.”

“To you as well.”

 

Under Irvina’s direction, their shuttle disengaged from Orbital One and began its descent towards Earth.  Strapped into their chairs, Kathryn, Elim, and Deirdre all marvelled at the projections on the wall of the exterior.  The sight took their breath away as Irvina focused on piloting and navigation, the infinite starry expanse of space on one side, and the impossibly high definition view which only reality could provide of the Earth’s surface racing underneath them.  The ship tilted over to the appropriate angle of attack for the underside of the ship to directly confront the planet’s atmosphere with their direction of travel.  As the ship began atmospherically braking, the image on the surfaces about them broke up and flickered, left rendering only visual static as the imagers were disrupted by the plasma of the atmosphere which became super-heated as they punched through it and were slowed down as a result.

When the image returned it took their breath away.  Beneath them were the rich green plains and snow-capped mountains of Earth.  Irvina seemed either disinterested or too busy with her work, but the other three were free to be utterly captivated by the view.  It wasn’t their first time seeing a sight like this, but they were still far from being used to it, if they ever could be.  Beyond the sheer viscerality of the view, it was near mystical experience of getting ever closer to a place of myth and legend, a place some had begun to wonder if it had ever even existed only couple of short months ago.

As they got closer and closer they could see the mountain range they were descending upon in ever greater detail.

“Okay…” Irvina said.  “We’re coming up on the site you indicated.  It’s just on the other side of this mountain range.  As indicated I’ll put us down at the base of the last mountain five kilometers north of the dam.”

The shuttle required only a tiny fraction of its total thrust capacity to keep aloft and move across the surface of the planet.  At such low power it made hardly any sound at all though at full power it did make quite a lot of noise.  The crew watched as the ship hovered over the spot of their final touchdown, and slowly descended down, blowing down and away the knee high green tinged yellow grasses beneath them at a steady rate, rhythmically accentuated by additional pulsing of energy.

The ship touched down on its metal legs which bent at their joints to accommodate the weight.  Irvina powered down the engines and set all of the ship’s systems on standby.  “Welcome to Earth,” she said as she looked at them with a bit of a smirk, fully understanding the gravity of her words on the others.

 

“Jaren?” Irvina asked the communications system.  “Is the triangle in position?”

“Negative.  Beta Team is still working their way towards the computer core on Orbital One but they should be there soon.  Until they get the station’s comms up and running I sent Xion in the other shuttle to dock on the station as a life boat in the meantime. Until then we’ll keep New Horizon in geostationary position to maintain contact with your team and check in with Beta team whenever we have comms.”

“Understood.  Well Captain Barnes, it’s your mission now, what’s our next move.”

“We move out.  Everyone grab your gear.  Irvina please open the door.”

The other woman nodded and waved her hand over her control panel.  A vertical slice of the interior of the shuttle fell away from the top on its hinge at its bottom, revealing the view of the exterior which had previously been projected onto the slice of wall which had fallen away.  It formed extended into a ramp all the way to the ground after doubling in length with a projection extending from its interior.  The air rushed in, and Kathryn stepped to the doorway and took a deep breath through her nose, savouring the fresh scent of air.

“Careful Captain,” Jaren warned.”  I know you’re excited, but there’s a thousand ways you could get into trouble on an alien world.  I know its Earth but don’t lose sight of the fact that for us it really is just that, alien.  It may feel to you like a long lost home, but… you still need to expect the unexpected.”

“Your concern is noted and appreciated Jaren,” Kathryn said with a smirk.  “We will proceed with all due caution.”

Cautiously she stepped down the ramp with the others following behind her.  She paused at the bottom of the ramp and hesitated for a brieftly with the weight of the moment.  She closed her eyes for a brief moment as she set her first foot on Earth.  Earth, she mused to herself.  She knew the word meant both the planet and the material on its surface and as she brought her other foot to the ground she momentarily relished the two senses of Earths she was standing on. 

Overcome with emotion her eyes welled up with tears as she looked back at the others and stepped out of the way to give the others room to disembark as well.  After Irvina stepped off a little too casually for Kathryn’s taste, Terey hopped off of the last bit of ramp and enthusiastically planted both feet into the ground with a wide grin towards Kathryn.  Deirdre disembarked last with an expression on her face which revealed her to be experiencing something akin to a religious experience.

“We’ve got a bit of a walk people,” Kathryn said after wiping the wetness away from her eyes.  “We can take a moment here, but I’m eager to get moving.  We have limited daylight and we’ll need to walk back here before its dark.”

Before long they were on their way.  When the space allowed them they walked in a line, but when the terrain narrowed they fell into a line.  Terey marvelled at the birds which flew overhead while Kathryn ran her fingers through the long grass.

A couple kilometers along, they were contacted by Jaren again.  “The station has come into range on a pass underneath us,” he reported, “I’m opening the channels.”

All four of the surface expedition team members were wearing devices called PANEs they’d found on New Horizons.  They were like eyeglasses except they were outfitted with cameras and microphones and were synched with their scrolls.  Instead of corrective lenses, they held screens in front of their eyes which could either be perfectly transparent, augment their vision in any number of ways, or fully immerse them in displaying video in stereo vision.  They could hear Jaren and the station team speaking to them through the tiny speakers in the ear piece part of the device.  “We’ve passed several other bodies along the way,” Teresa reported, “but we have arrived at the computer core area and Jaren was right.  There is a storage compartment adjacent to it with the physical backup memory sheets.  It’ll take some time, but with Francis directing us we should be able to power up the system with a Koboli power core and feed all of the sheets into the reader.  Then it should just be a matter of booting up the main system compuer core.  After that we should be able to get a communications network up.”

“How long have you been under that double gravity?” Terey asked.

“Just over an hour.” Nadelle reported.

“How do you feel?”

“Oh, you know… we’re actually starting to get used to it.  I mean it’s still awful, but we’re managing.  You think that maybe going back and forth could be more stressful on the body than going back and for to limit our exposure as we’d planned?”

Irvina piped up.  “There’s a chance that there may be reserve thruster fuel enough to slow down the rotational speed once you get the computers up and running.”

“Yes, but we can’t count on that,” Jaren pointed out, and Irvina shrugged.

“Where is the power core you brought with you?” Kathryn asked.

“Still in the shuttle,” Francis answered from just outside the shuttle down in the central hub.

“Francis you and Reed grab the power cell and… wait, Jaren where will they have to install that core?”

“Hold on,” Jaren requested.  The four stood on the surface looking around at each other waiting.  “Down in the central hub actually, not far from where they are now.”

“Right.  Francis and Reed go to the station’s main power bus.  Install the energy core but feed it only to the computer core and communications systems for now, we don’t want to drain it too quickly by feeding the all of the station’s systems at the same time.  Once you’ve restored power to the computer system Teresa and Nadelle can start feeding the sheets into the machine and you can head to the core to replace them, finish feeding the sheets, set up the comms relay, and then head back to the core section.  That way you each just get the two high gravity shifts and don’t have to go back and forth.  You should be able to access whatever you need to from down in the core section or have Jaren access remotely.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Teresa offered.

“Once you’re both back to the centre we can evaluate further salvage option for the station and see if we can find any useful data in the sheets beyond just the basic operating system.”

Everyone in all three places acknowledged their understanding of the plan and everyone continued on their way.  A few kilometers further along the team came to a place where the wooded area of the mountains gave way to a more of an open meadow, and they held up before moving out into the more exposed area.