[19:21] It was one thing to have gotten the go-ahead to land – and quite another to do so. The maneouvre itself was a piece of cake, descent fully automated, though in theory half of them had to be able to pitch in if a component failed, but landing was still the least of their problems.
It was Samanta who was most concerned, once more briefing them on the quarantine procedures. "This goes both ways," she commented. "Human beings, like all animals, are inherently filthy. We've all gone through quarantine procedures back home before even getting onto the shuttle, but even a single missed bacteria could have since flourished and the ecosystem here might not be able to handle it."
[19:29] Jason raised his hand, old habit that wasn't really required in this setting, but tradition, and all. "Just to make sure I remember right, even items sealed inside quarantine should be as clean as possible, right? I mean, not just take a shower... which some of us could really use..." He grinned, a touch of boyish humor showing through. "But anything we're going to take with us needs to be given a thorough run through both a standard cleaning and the sonic shower?"
[19:37] "Exactly," Samanta exhaled, bringing one hand up to run fingers through her hair. "Meanwhile, remember we've got some of the most potent antibiotics and antivirals with us that ESA could arrange for us, let's hope we don't need to use them. This place looks suspiciously like home, which from a quarantine perspective is a bad thing. Stay safe out there. If you notice you've cut your suit or otherwise come into contact with unfiltered air, don't panic, head back to this capsule and have someone supervise you for a few days to ensure you're healthy."
[19:39] Puncturing the quarantine monologue came a remark from Greg: "And this is where you shut up and hold onto something, I don't trust the guidance system to give us a soft landing."
[19:45] Jason's eyeroll was nearly audible. The automated guidance system was tested and retested and triple-tested beyond that, but that didn't matter to Greg. Of course, two of those landings had been labeled as 'bone-crushing' with one of them rated 'organ-jellifying', but the last one had been well within the acceleration tolerances. Of fighter pilots ejecting at supersonic speeds during a high-G pull out maneuver. Jason's arm wrapped around the nearest handbar and held on tight.
That... had actually been remarkably tolerable – on the order of a very mild car crash. Maybe the time of night made the laser distance readings particularly accurate, something something – Samanta could only guess. Regardless, Greg gave it a go: "System check – we're on stable ground, to exactly no one's surprise, given we're on a desert plateau... anyone want to name this desolate wasteland?"
[19:55] Jason glanced out the window athe darkened night desert, unable to make out any features beyond 'it's dark'. Rubbing his now-aching neck which may need checked for whiplash, he finally forwarded the first words that entered his mind. "Pioneer Plateau?"
[20:01] "...eh, it works," Greg acknowledged, before anyone could much protest the naming. "Any volunteers for the external capsule integrity check?" He might as well have asked 'Any volunteers for first to set foot on an alien planet?', because the two things were exactly equivalent, and any associated chores paled in comparison.
[20:06] "Any sign of life on the scans?"
[20:15] "Infrared?" Greg echoed, swerving to tinker with the consoles.
Samanta had still been holding onto the same handle she'd grasped during the final moments of the descent and now peeled herself out of the stance to leer over Greg's shoulder with curiosity. A pale, basic view of the outside world glowed on a screen.
[20:16] "Eh. Maybe the one or other rodent-sized creature," Greg tapped against a few slightly brighter flecks. "Otherwise we're good for solitude for the time being." He slid out of the chair, gesturing to Samanta to keep an eye on it if she wished. "I'm confident you can handle it," he grinned at Jason as he shuffled across to the suits. It would take a while to get into them, but at least with it being night out they didn't have to worry about the desert heat. The capsule itself would be warm from the descent, but it should be bearable as long as they didn't try to hug it.
[21:02] "I'd like to be on the away party, just for security, but..." He looked around at those that would have all the reason to want to be first. "...I'll volunteer to stay on the ship, though, if you'll promise to call for help as SOON as something weird happens."
[21:17] "I'm staying," Samanta commented, inwardly engrossed in familiarising herself with the sensors. She hadn't played with them yet, but they were broadly similar to the ones on their orbital ship, both in theory and, as she was now finding, in practise. "But I promise I'll get back to bossing you around once everything checks out as functional." A sigh to equal parts fondness and exasperation. "For now, get out and put on some photogenic smiles. You know you want to."
[21:38] "All right, all right!" He put up his hands in surrender, grinning at her. "Always do what the lady orders!" He immediately went to decon and to suit up for the EVA.
[21:51] The suits are deliberately light-weight. Given the highly Earth-like atmosphere of the planet they're visiting, with the only appreciable difference being measurably (but not staggeringly) higher oxygen levels, the comparable pressure and temperature, it really is only a quarantine suit – although more fashionable than the bright neon yellow standard issue ones used back home, and considerably more comfortable in the long term.
[22:12] Suiting up didn't take long... longer than it should have, of course, with the restored gravity meaning he had to maneuver through things he previously had merely floated through. The stubbed toe was courtesy of a lovely door jam, by the way, though Jason had managed to bite off a string of swear words before they emerged to contaminate the air. Unlike the scientific instruments the others were likely to carry, Jason had quietly secreted a rail pistol in one oversized pocket, carefully cleaned and decontaminated. He didn't need to annoy the science geeks, after all, with the larger rifle. Slugs slung by electromagnetism, now pocket miniaturized! He also carried a few tools to do his part of confirming the exterior was secure and intact. He finally entered the airlock and waited for the others who would join him outside.
[23:00] Judging by the gesture that follows, Greg apparently thinks he should arm himself with a flashlight instead – he's holding one out for Jason to take. Then he's running his hands over his own suit as though to make sure by tactile contact that it's flawless. A deep breath, born of some reflex – then he's closed the airlock behind them. Click. "If I didn't know better, I could swear each one of Samanta's quarantine talks are making Andromeda Strain increasingly likely," Greg jokes. There's no venom in the quip. "If I come down with the plague, I'm blaming her." Then, after a pause: "Ready to breathe outside air?"
[05:23@bnc] Jason's grin was broad. "Oh, you know how it is. Murphy's Law will be in full force, I'm sure. Want to place a side bet on who gets sick first?" He chuckled outright, adding an immediate retraction, "No, don't do that. That'd guarantee it'd be me. And I'm not in the mood to end up a lab specimin that you all experiment on." He pantomimed hands on cage bars, then raked an imaginary cup along the mentally chilled steel.
[21:42] There was an urge to ponder potential symptoms out loud, to speculate about Jason swelling to awkward proportions – really, hadn't that happened to some of the poor saps who first got AIDS? Maybe it was an urban myth. Regardless, it wasn't professional to continue down the path of their morbid humour.
Well. Maybe not quite that far, at least. "Don't worry, we'll give you morphine before we cut you up," Greg promised. Then he tapped two fingers at the lever for the atmosphere exchange, a brief warning, but leisurely enough for Jason to get comfortable with the idea.
A firm motion that drew the curt lever down followed, then the press of a confirmation switch. Given the atmospheres inside and outside were almost identical, the strong safety measures preventing an accidental trigger of the mechanism were likely pointless, but this was, while not quite a standard issue airlock, a sufficiently standard issue airlock that usability had not been a major concern. The inner atmosphere was drawn out with a hiss, the pressure dropping enough to, had they not been in suits that dampened the effect somewhat, make their ears pop.
[21:43] And then the outer atmosphere swept in; they would soon find out first hand if their scientific data had correctly pegged the atmosphere as breathable and free of toxic fumes.
It was a negligible risk. It wasn't right to worry about it, really. But at least for Greg, it seemed real enough that he felt his adrenaline spike worse than during the last metres of the descent.
And then he breathed – easily, through the filters. Inhale. Exhale. "Well, that's one point for science," he quipped. "How are you holding up, buddy?"
[20:33] Jason exhaled hard, then sucked in a deep breath, suddenly realizing he'd been holding his breath. "Um, holding up all right. Glad my eyeballs are still intact and all." He managed a few more breaths before it steadied back to an even cadence. "...you know, talking about that Andromeda Strain stuff RIGHT before we stepped into the foreign air really was kinda mean." He grinned and nudged him lightly with one fist.
[22:50] "Hey, pathogens take time. We won't know until much later whether I was being mean or prophetic," he joked. Then he was at the door, decoupling it from its frame, pushing it out into the alien atmosphere. 'An alien atmosphere not quite alien enough,' he reminded himself, even as he slid a ladder out of the door until it nuzzled the arid ground.
[23:22] "Not as encouraging as you might think it is." Still, he slid out the door and then stepped down the ladder until his foot sank into the sandy loam. All the words he'd been planning to say that sounded oh so deep and inspirational promptly fled from recall, hiding in the darkened recesses and slipping behind mental doors with sturdy locks. He frantically searched for something that wasn't a corny repeat of 'One small step for a man...', and he desperately didn't want his first words on an alien planet to really be 'feels like I just stuck my foot in a litterbox'. After several long beats, he finally said, rather awkwardly, "Imagination, meet reality. Let's discover something, Greg." He lifted his handheld infrared scanner and swept the immediate area. The plants still exhuded an aura of warmth, remnants of a day passed into night. "No signs of warm-blooded animals within range, either, so we're probably mostly safe."
[23:47] Light spilled into the immediate vicinity of their vessel, scattering onto what was a landscape of baked, flat desert, decorated with scattered rocks and a few pools of sand nuzzling up to them, most only a few centimetres high inasmuch as they were present at all. The few hardy shrubs looked impossibly lonely – and impossibly familiar.
[23:48] Greg's flashlight speared through the remaining empty darkness, dimly sweeping a wide arc as though he was concerned there might be more than baked mudflats awaiting them. Then he slid down the ladder. "Let's not," he added, though there was humour in his tone.
The vessel had extruded a video camera well before they had set foot outside – it tracked them as they moved, guided partly by automation, partly by Samanta's own curiosities. It didn't matter if it was a live feed or not – with the round-trip time to Earth what it was, they wouldn't be hearing cheers until more than an hour had passed. Such glories would have to wait.
"Can you tell us anything about the plants, Samanta?" Greg asked, even as he dislodged his curiosity from one and began inspecting the hull of their vessel from a safe distance of a metre, sweeping the light across it slowly to inspect it for any fractures or dents.
"Nothing I'm confident to assert in this light. My expedition's in the morning hours for a reason," Samanta observed over their communications link-up – it was crisp, as though she were right beside them.
[23:55] Jason's own flashlight finally winked on, and he began a systematic inspection of the relevant exterior components. When he got three-fourths of the way around, he paused, inhaling sharply; a panel had worked loose during descent and the unexpected friction of entry had rendered it charred and blackened. That it had retained enough to even stay on the lander was a testament to the hammer-grade
reliability standard the entire project had espoused. He briefly sent mental thanks to the technicians that had over-engineered this craft as he keyed his comm. "Samanta, could you mark down panel L-34 as damaged during descent? Looks like it covered electrical junction box 3." He nudged the panel aside enough to examine the interior. "Surface damage only, the j-box is still intact."
[00:18] There was silence for a moment. Then, Samanta said: "Got it." A pause, then: "Can we get back off this rock with that damage?"
[00:30@bnc] He paused for a long moment, contemplating it carefully. "...yeah, I'd think so. Maybe one of the science guys would know for sure, but report it to ESA either way. They'll know for sure."
[23:47] There was silence for a while, unnaturally absolute, Samanta's breathing simply filtered out of the audio for a perfect flatline. Then: "Can you get some good pictures of the damage?"
[00:01] "Hold on..." He fished in his pockets until he found the portable video camera. "I'm setting it to channel 3... you should see it now." He held the camera up and began a slow pan around the damage, including moving the panel aside for a better view inside the damaged compartment. His voice softened a touch from the business at hand, "Hey, we'll get off this rock, Samanta, no problem."
[00:58] Any sigh Samanta might have uttered was lost to the audio filter, making her feelings about the remark less transparent than they otherwise would be. Given her monotonic warnings in the past days before their descent, it was easy enough to imagine that her only real worry if they didn't manage to launch were their air filters and rations – everything between them and potentially crippling pathogens.
Of course, there was a chance that her microbial analysis in the coming days would temper her fears, if it revealed that the evolution of this world was incompatible enough to grant her educated reason to believe that it wouldn't affect their own chemistry if given a chance.
But out loud, she simply said, in the almost disaffected, absent-minded tone that came with multi-tasking: "I'm sure we can repair it." A pause – then, with greater engagement: "Good sweep. Can you shine the flashlight in at an angle and get a closer image of the connectors? Don't burn your fingers." It was redundant advice – after all, Jason had previously handled the panel fine.
[01:14] Jason began juggling multiple items, the flashlight and camera and now the panel that he was jiggling aside so that the other two could see better past it. The wobbly image on the screen likely attested to his attempts, punctuated by a few 'hmmms' and 'ahas'. Finally he said, "How's it look?"
[01:35] "My unschooled eye suggests it's probably all right," Samanta reasoned after another pause, her tone suggesting she'd put more thought into the observation than the flippant wording would otherwise imply. "We're checking manuals in here and investigating what spare parts this baby's equipped with, but even with the slow round-trip, I think you'll get an authoritative answer from ESA." Now there was a trace of humour in her voice, suggesting that maybe her worries did not run too deep. Finally: "Thanks for the visual record, Jason. That should be enough. How's the hull temperature feel? You seem to be handling it fine."
[01:47@bnc] "It cooled off quickly," he observed. "I mean, we've been landed for a bit... do you remember that study where they dropped a steak from low earth orbit to see if it cooked during descent? When it hit, it was charred on the outside and still frozen in the middle."
[02:05@bnc] He paused for a longer moment. "Of course, this isn't a steak, it's a specially heat-resistant panel designed for this. Maybe it was damaged during takeoff?" He cast his mind over the entire length of their trip... it had been long with lots of external checks, so the odds of it being missed for the entire time was almost nil. "And everything else checks out all right. Are you guys ready to get science-ing?"
[22:53] Greg – at this point having finished his sweep and hovering beside Jason – resisted the urge to point out that no one had ever cast down a steak from low Earth orbit, even if it was a popular theory practise exercise, and there had been at least one celebrity thirty years back who had nearly gone through with it, there had never been an actual meteorite steak. "Got any particular night time sciencing in mind?" he asked instead.
[18:49] "Oh no," Jason declared. "You're not pinning ME with the science side of this. That's what you all are good at." He grinned again. "I'll take my IR scanner and my night vision goggles and look for creepy crawly things that might bite. Want to come along?" He motioned circularly around the capsule, indicating that he was not going to range overly far afield from their lifeblood.
[18:56] Greg seemed to consider the prospect as though battling his curiosity in favour of another night in the fragment of Earth they'd brought with themselves – but it wasn't likely he was going to be able to catch any sleep, no matter how fleeting and shallow. "Samanta?"
"Fine," she said. "Explore if you have to, but do it on foot. The rover stays. Stay in comm contact."
[19:08] Jason hadn't even thought of the rover, but sighed anyway as though disappointed. "But the rover was so much *fun* to drive back on earth!" At least he didn't use that faux huff that he occasionally pulled out. The led light played across his face, a ghostly, gaunt pall that certainly didn't help him look young. The avid look for life and movement made up for the transformation, showing him seriously looking for both security and scientific interest.