Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ark Ship - Part Two

The first part of the mission was to survey the landing site. The colonists fanned out across the rocky promontory and used their geological scanners to get a picture of the area. Mike Harris had been given the assignment to survey a small plateau to the southeast of the ship. His scanner's compass had found the magnetic north pole of this new planet, so he knew which direction to walk. He found that despite the low gravity, he was quickly out of breath, and as he examined his readings, he noticed that the oxygen level on this planet was somewhat lower than the oxygen on the ship, and his scanner also measured a lower air pressure than the ship's life support systems.

Mike found the plateau and used his scanner to take pictures, samples, and readings of the surface and the air. It was a fairly uninteresting piece of scenery, but to Mike, it was a breathtaking new world. The ground was a dusky red color, and the low gravity meant that with every footstep, he kicked up a fine haze of maroon dust that shimmered around him as he walked and coated his skin. He was looking for the kinds of soil nutrients that would be needed if the colonists were to be successful in creating a sustainable crop cycle on this new planet. If soil conditions made it impossible to do direct implantation of Earth crops, the colonists had brought along some chemical substitutes that might do the job. The botanical teams would be coming around later to examine the local plant life and determine what if any uses the colonists might make of it.

To Mike's eyes, it looked like implantation would be difficult, but not impossible. He had to get his report back to the Colony Coordinator immediately.

Communicator Sutton had been trying to get through to the White House to deliver the news of the ark ship's landing. The Project was supposed to have access to the President to report any developments, but it had been quite a while since they'd tried to communicate with Washington. Unfortunately, today, the White House communications staff had no idea what he was talking about.

Finally, he got through to Liaison Henry Markey, the President's advisor in charge of keeping in touch with the Project.

“Henry, good god, man, you need to brief your people about this thing. I had to wrangle my way through four levels of staff before I got to you.”

“I know, George, I know, but with the Russia situation heating up, there's just a lot going on here, and I can't be everywhere at once.”

“Well, look, please deliver this message to the President. The Amerigo has landed. Big day for America and all that.”

“Wow. That is big news. I'll get it to Gibson right away.”

Defense Secretary Evan Thacker walked in to the Oval Office. He was carrying a pad on which a large red message was flashing repeatedly.

“Sir, it's the Russians. I swear, if they keep this up -”

“What, Evan? If they keep this up, what?” President Gibson had begun to regret choosing Evan as his Defense Secretary, but it had been a grand gesture to the Party to give the job to his main rival for the primary nomination. Evan had always had a hot head, and Gibson shuddered to think what the Secretary might do if he were in charge instead of Gibson.

Evan threw down the message pad and pointed at it.

“See? This is a communique from our spy on board one of the Russian ships.”

The President looked at the pad. Evan was right – the Russians were behaving very badly. Of course, they had elections coming up, and the Communists were looking stronger than ever, so the hard line nationalist government had to scare the populace into voting for them, lest the imperialist Americans threaten their sovereignty. Gibson sighed. The more politics changed...

The President's intercom beeped and his secretary notified him that Liaison Markey wanted to see him.

“Right, tell him to wait a minute – I'm in with Thacker.”

Each of the colonists would be sleeping in their own pod, which would eventually be converted to create more permanent living quarters. The pods had been designed for this purpose, and, though cramped, were equipped with necessities such as beds, tables, chairs, and sanitary waste disposal and food and water recycling facilities. The colonists had also been able to bring a limited quantity of personal items down from the orbiting ark with which to make their landing pods more like home. The ark ship itself would eventually be disassembled in orbit and brought down piece by piece in cargo shuttles to be converted into buildings and equipment for the colony.

Colony Coordinator Susan Macintosh had set up a temporary command center outside of her landing pod. Susan had received survey reports from most of her teams, and she wasn't exactly happy about what she was seeing. The landing site's soil PH was alkaline, which limited what Earth plants would grow here, and the sunlight, though oddly bright, was almost too weak for adequate photosynthesis. However, there were signs of nitrogen and other nutrients in the dusky red soil, so there was hope. The botanical teams reported that the local flora was, while not poisonous, of a scrubby variety with little nutritive value whose primary purpose seemed to be providing the planet with its limited oxygen supply. The ship's climatologists had insisted to Susan that this was the best spot for establishing the first colony, with a weather pattern that they described as “temperate semi-arid desert,” whatever that meant. Essentially, they told her, it doesn't rain much, and local flora is thin on the ground, but the temperature range is reasonable from summer to winter. The presence of the river nearby had also been a bonus. The planet had no real oceans to speak of - much of the equatorial region was desert – but the far northern and southern latitudes each had a system of shallow rivers and lakes fed by a limited rain cycle and snow melt from the tall mountains.

With the chemicals and equipment on board the ship, she thought, the colony should be able to create a very basic crop cycle, focusing on vegetables and grains that thrive in desert and semi-arid conditions. The colony's diet would be limited, but adequate. The establishment of greenhouses to grow those plants that wouldn't be directly implantable would further augment the colony's diet.

Her quantum computer beeped – she had a message from Earth. She looked at the display terminal. America salutes its heroes, eh? She imagined that the President would probably give a big speech, that there would be parades, and all of those things she'd seen in the old newsreels.

Mike Harris arrived at her command center and presented his report. Just like the others, it indicated that taming this planet would be a challenge.

“Look at this, Mike.” She pointed to the quantum computer.

“America salutes its heroes,” Mike read. “Huh. Well, that's nice. I imagine there'll be parades and whatnot, like -”

Susan finished his thought. “- you see in those old newsreels.”

Susan had taken Mike under her wing early, because he had shown a precocious intellect and a keen interest in the mission. They had developed a kind of mother-son bond, especially after Mike's own mother had succumbed to the same kind of crushing depression that had claimed dozens of the crew over the centuries. Some people, when they realized that they were going to live their entire lives on the ark ship, and die there, without ever setting foot outside of it, couldn't cope with that knowledge, went catatonic, and eventually either took their own lives or literally starved to death, unable to find the will to eat. It had been a persistent problem, one that at times had even threatened the viability of the mission.

Susan and Mike looked at the message from the distant planet.