We were two light-years past Sigma, one of the original systems in the Confederacy. I hadnít seen so much black emptiness since my father took me on a tour of the McKiber Ring. That was twenty years ago, but the sight of such sheer void still made my bowels tremble with a kind of primitive terror. It isnít only nature that abhors a vacuum.
Then Alpha Lucilli came into view. She was as big and beautiful as ever, a gigantic ball of molten white light. Even the shipís captain, a morose, overweight man who had looked like he was driving a bus down a twentieth-century turnpike instead of meandering among the constellations, looked up from the control panel and, for a few seconds at least, was touched by starshine.
After that I was too busy getting my gear together to notice what was happening outside the ship. It was almost a quarter century since the Department of Exterior had made a tour of Alpha-II. The Civil War, of course, precluded one.
The war was the biggest thing to happen to my generation. It was over before I reached my tenth birthday, but that only meant it had become ripe for mythologizing. The protagonists, especially Marshall Wright, were all heroes, even demigods, to kids my age. We read graphics about them, swapped holocards and dressed up in the antiquated uniforms they had worn.
I only realized just how much the war was romanticized when I was assigned to the Division of Colonial Affairs. All those childhood tales of blood and thunder were undone by the long hours I put in researching the Alpha system at the departmental library. It was only then, at the age of thirty, that the great heroes of the war were cut down to the size of power-hungry politicians, not unlike the ones who currently administered affairs on Earth.
I stowed my gear in a space sled and said goodbye to the cranky driver, reminding him that in another six months heíd be home-free on a thirty-year pension. He grunted something in reply and opened the spacelock where my vehicle was waiting. The mother ship was an old tank, a relic of the late 2000s, but the sled was almost brand new. That didnít mean it was any match for the new military models, but it was a far cry from the lumbering wrecks DOCA used to have in their fleet. It could go from zero to S-of-L in 2.3 minutes - not bad for a company car.
My assignment was a routine inspection of Alpha-II. That meant putting myself in orbit and taking readings for a couple days. The sled did all the work - geo-scans, infra-reds, the usual stuff. I was supposed to swoop down occasionally and take a look around for signs of seismic activity. But, for the most part, I functioned as a kind of stupider version of the sled itself, guiding it into orbit where it could do its thing. Like most inspectors, half my gear consisted of books - Westerns in my case - to pass the time while the sled ingested data. It wasnít a bad job, if you liked space. Besides, I had scored well on the Senior Inspectorís exam and could look forward to a desk job in a couple years. I planned to retire at fifty and buy that chicken farm every city boy dreams of owning.
While the sled was automatically fixing on a polar orbit, I took out a spec sheet and reviewed the planetís vital statistics: Circumference: (pole to pole) 25,282 miles. Orbit: elliptical, regular. Day length: 24.2 hours. Atmosphere: oxygen, nitrogen and argon in almost the exact same ratio as earth. Lush at the equator, mild in the temperate zones. Not a bad place to spend your vacation if it werenít a weekís traveling time from Times Square. Alpha-II had been, in fact, a popular resort with the space set before the war, a kind of galactic Riviera. That was before fares dropped to a level the riff-raff could afford and the new, faster ships came along. Your average blue-collar type didnít have a month to kill partying his way to Alpha Lucilli on caviar and Muscadet sur lie. Nor could he afford to pay what it used to cost to travel in one of those big blimps that ferried the well-to-do back and forth across the galaxy. Some of those ships had ballrooms complete with thirty-piece orchestras.
But that was all before my time. Once space travel became common, the idle rich lost their taste for interstellar jaunts. Instead they built their own private resorts closer to home, on Mars, for instance. It wasnít the same as basking beneath a Lucillan sky, sipping something cool from the hands of an oppressed Alphanian. But it was a good deal more convenient - just an hourís flight, once the turbos were developed. And they could relax beneath their big plastic bubbles on the red planet secure in the knowledge that no off-duty sanitation man and his noisy children would disturb their privacy.
I was one of the few people I knew who had been to Alpha-II. I must have been eight or nine at the time, right after the war. Ordinarily our class of people - Dad was a civil servant too - couldnít afford the time or cash to travel beyond the edges of our solar system. But a combination of assignment and a long-overdue vacation gave the old man the idea of packing the family into a space bus and ferrying us to a Lucillan beach while he and some military personnel assessed the damage done there by the war.
But no sooner did we arrive and start unpacking our bathing suits than the counters started detecting an unsafe level of radiation. Until then everyone had believed there would be no residual effects from the new weapons. We had to be the lucky ones, to find out otherwise. So, it was pack up the bathing gear and head back to Cape Cod, our usual summer haunt. To this day I donít think my mother has forgiven my father for dragging her halfway across the heavens, only to have us packing again as soon as we arrived. We kids pretended to be as disappointed as she was, but I didnít mind a bit. It was like having two vacations in one. Besides, I was the only kid in my school who had been even remotely near Alpha Lucilli.
What a lark, I thought, as the sled locked onto polar orbit. Twenty thousand C-dollars plus inconvenience pay, a pension at forty-five, and the whole sky to roam in at n-times the speed of light. Dad called it "feather-bedding" (a word he picked up from a twentieth-century history course he took). In his day men earned their keep - spent two or even three years in space at a stretch just to get from one end of the quadrant to another. And there was no inconvenience pay. You considered it an honor and a privilege just to serve the New Worlds Confederacy.
Sometimes I did feel a little guilty about my good fortune - like when we were just breaking free of our home systemís gravitational field at the start of this trip. I looked back and saw six of our seven planets hung like earrings on either side of the sun. Earth shone with an icy blue sparkle, Mars amber-like and Venus a foggy gray. The big red eye of Jupiter seemed to watch us warily as the captain cut on the turbos. The inner planets seemed tinier than the moons of Jupiter.
But, I considered, I did try to give a dayís work for a dayís pay, unlike some of the guys and gals I worked with. Some of them spent more time cooping behind a belt of asteroids than they did doing the survey work we were paid for. There had even been a scandal involving an assistant department head and one of the mates on a resupply ship rendezvous on Pluto, if you can believe it. I, for one, could not until I saw the evidence on the holoviz.
The sledís engine fired its retros and banked into a smooth ellipse around the planet. I checked my read-out near the arctic region, which was obscured by a heavy cloud cover. Temperature range at surface was 5-to-15 below. I rounded the pole and headed south. Soon the temperature was above freezing, then grew temperate and finally became downright balmy. There she was: Alpha-II, jewel of the Lucillan system. I could almost see the individual palm trees - imported, of course, from earth. Natural vegetation had consisted mostly of a tough - and not very pretty - bush resembling a stunted rubber tree. That species was probably rare now, crowded out by breadfruit and hickories, wild orchid and Kentucky bluegrass, all transplants. Why is it earth folk canít manage without reproducing their home planet down to the most minute detail? Iíve heard of planets in the Sigmian system where theyíve imported entire towns from New England and Japan just to make the colonists feel more at home. It makes you wonder why they didnít just stay there in the first place.
It was nice to see the war hadnít permanently devastated the equatorial region. There were bald spots here and there, but nothing like the big blotches of defoliated territory on my old survey map. Much of it looked just the way I remembered it: blue and green and white, with a tropical storm brewing at about ten degrees south latitude. From the looks of things so far, the radiation damage seemed to have pretty much worn off. In another five or ten years those gorgeous beaches would be crawling with honeymooners again.
The comeback looked so good, in fact, I decided to ask Central Command for permission to land and take a look around. If it was really true that Alpha-II was substantially de-radiated, the Confederacy would want to know. Low-level radiation was presumed to last anywhere from twenty-five to fifty years―not the "clean" kind we have now but the kind generated by old-fashioned devices they used in the war. If it could be shown that most life-threatening radiation had dissipated, the Department might want to advance its timetable for re-colonizing Alpha-II as well as the other planets in the Lucillan system.
I tapped out a message and kicked back with a Western to wait for a reply. I thought about texting home to let my girlfriend know I had arrived safely. But until I got a reply from Central I wouldnít know what I would be up to for the next few days, or when I actually would be home again. So I decided to sit tight until my orders came through.
The Western was a bit far-fetched. The bad guy was a magician who had an Indian princess holed up in a cave somewhere in Nevada. He kept her in a glass case and sustained her on fumes of silver nitrate. To get enough silver nitrate he had to resort to nefarious deeds like claim-jumping and bank robbery. His nemesis, the sheriff, also had an interest in this captive princess - she had once been his fiancee.
Needless to say, there was plenty of gun-play. I once saw a genuine Colt 45, just like the ones the characters in this graphic were using on each other. It seemed as primitive as a prehistoric flint tool.
Finally the reply from Central arrived: "Permission granted. Advise hyper-atmospheric fly-by first. Do not land if radiation count exceeds M.A. [Maximum Advisable]. Good luck. Expect message after touch-down."
I tapped out an acknowledgement and stowed the magician and his captive princess for the trip home. I was going to land on Alpha-II! I couldnít have been more excited if someone had just given me a new 452 with twin fusion superchargers.
My counters picked up nothing nasty in the atmosphere, so I tapped a landing program into the sledís auto and sat back to enjoy the trip down. At thirty thousand feet I switched to manual and began cruising the equatorial region for a likely landing spot. It was hard to pick just one of those gorgeous green patches, knowing that I wouldnít have time to explore more than a couple. I decided on one of the larger islands about the size of one of the bigger islands in the Caribbean. That storm I had spotted earlier was kicking up a fuss about a thousand miles to the east. I didnít want to spend my time on Alpha-II sitting out a hurricane, especially on one of the smaller islands. Besides, I figured a big island like this one would be a microcosm of the entire tropical zone.
Before landing I took a low-level tour: mountainous in the center, the highest peaks looking to be about two thousand feet. Beaches on the northern and western shores. The remains of a city to the southeast. Something about all this seemed very familiar. I looked at my survey map and, sure enough, there was the island I had picked: New Jamaica.
I swooped low and skimmed the treetops along the northern shore, looking for a stretch of beach to land on. I soon found one and set the sled down as gently as an egg in a birdís nest. I checked my readouts again, found everything normal - or close to - and blew back the hatch for a breath of Alphanian air.
Thereís something about that first whiff of honest-to-God atmosphere, however extra-terrestrial, that makes even a hardened spacedog sigh. After weeks of breathing recycled gases, that first suck of real air is like a draught of champagne, like a kiss after a long separation. Itís like coming home, even when youíre many light-years from Earth.
For the first two or three minutes I just sat and inhaled, not even bothering to undo my space gear. When my lungs were finally sated I detached myself from the sled and climbed, on very wobbly legs, down onto terra firma.
That was when I got my second big pleasure on Alpha-II: sound. You have no idea what itís like to hear nothing but electronic buzzes for days on end, the only alternative being to hear nothing at all if you put on headphones - not even the sound of your own breathing. And then, like a miracle, to have your ears caressed by blue-green waves lapping at a white sandy beach!
Thereís many an old spacedog would like you to believe he couldnít care less if heís strapped to a graviton in interstellar space or taking PH readings on a Sigmian lake. But donít let him fool you. Iíve seen the crustiest thirty-year men, so close to their pension they can smell it at night, sit down and bawl like babies when they set foot on a piece of the galaxy that even remotely resembles Indiana. I once saw a Swiss navigator kneel down and kiss the frosty rocks on Sirius-IV.