Jill donned a protective suit and bounded out of the scout ship and raced towards the cliff. She reached out to grab one of the rocks, but it rolled away as if the rock was attempting to avoid her hand. However, she had been cautioned not to attribute purpose and intelligence to strange phenomena. Jill grabbed a few rocks by putting one hand ahead of the rocks line of roll, and deposited them in the pockets of her suit. She looked up and saw that part of the cliff face had moved forward and was looming above her. An avalanche of small rocks tumbled down from it, some hitting her. She raced back to the ship. The cliff kept pace with her, pelting her with a rock shower. Jill's heart pounded and her eyes blurred. She knew that, eventually, either the rocks would puncture her space suit, or she would be covered by the stones, and she would die.
he exploration crews were in the glassed-in common room of the astro-carrier Aurora, unhappily surveying their assignments on the wall monitor. The omnipresent mission statement was posted there also: "Because galactic life forms have not sought us out nor communicated with us, we boldly go in search of the varying structures sentient life might take."
Since arrival at the cluster, the astronauts had been readying their two-man 150-foot scout ships, but none seemed pleased with their assignments. Bearing a general resemblance to each other, all, both male and female, were tall, lean, and beige-complexioned. The crews wore the usual in-ship attire, cargo shorts and black knit tops, wired for temperature control.
"Look at this, the space larva got the best berth on his first assignment -- Joe Herdon will fly with Lucky Bill Collins," noticed one of the astropilots.
"How soon do I emerge as a space butterfly from being a pupa-il" asked Joe. Silly pun, but they seem a nice bunch, he thought. Joe considered himself enthusiastically confident, softened by a sense of humor.
"With Lucky Bill, probably never. But your chances of staying alive are improved. Teamed with any other pilot, the death rate for scientists is pretty high. They dont have his luck." As if to emphasize his point, the pilot fondled his neck-chain, stroking the synthetic fur of a suspended rabbit's foot.
"You trying to scare me We got all those dire warnings in graduate school, but it didn't stop anybody. I guess, since we spent our entire lives wanting to go into space and competed hard to get education, we must really be a foolish lot," said Joe.
"Modesty doesn't become you," replied another astropilot. "I know you think you're smart. We're all very smart or we wouldn't be here. Pilots survive mainly because we expect the illogical and unforeseen. We've had ten years of study in quantum physics and applications of the uncertainty principle. We generally retire after 20 missions, before we burn out and think all is routine. That is, if we live that long. The more diligent and intelligent you are, the more you depend on a logical frame of reference and sometimes there isn't one out here."
A particularly worried-looking pilot added, "Yeah, a cartographer died on our last exploratory. He landed on a planet where the solidity of the ground was a mirage. When he went for a stroll on the virtual plain, he stepped off an actual cliff and fell to his death on the invisible rocks fifty feet below."
"Then my life depends on being careful combined with a run of old-fashioned luck. I'll accept that. Why am I better off with Bill Collins?" asked Joe.
"Let me tell you about your predecessor under Lucky Bill. Jill Chang picked up some rocks on a planet of Andromeda 457 and it turned out that the rocks' mother or team leader or rock face, or whatever the relationship, was ambulatory and angry. Bill, watching on the internal monitor, noticed her initial trouble in bagging the rocks. He figured out that the rocks were heat sensitive, and were avoiding her space suit, the source of heat. He opened all the ship's vents and directed the heat outside. Fortunately Chang was close to the ship by then. The rock face retreated and Chang scooted into the ship. Luck and creative brains, I call it."
"But why do you call him Lucky You must all have some of that, or you wouldn't be here and alive."
"Bill Collins is called Lucky because he has survived twenty-five missions and looks forward to more." The speaker adjusted his heirloom baseball cap to the proper slant. "Bill is not really different from us, only he has carried it to an extreme. We all knew what we wanted since we were children, even if it killed us, but Bill did us one better. As a child, he groomed himself to look the part of the invincible space hero on the tri-Ds. He permanently dyed the roots of his hair heroic blond and had the coding in his genes altered to make him become extra tall, light skinned and muscular. His eyes were made penetrating ice-blue. He practiced walking in front of a mirror to get the fluid swagger effect. He even tries to sound like his speech was written by a hack writer."
"At least his appearance makes him stand out. I never knew why the all tri-D heroes are made to look like a throwback to the Vikings since we're all genetically dark haired, brown eyed and beige skinned by now," said Joe.
The assignment officer was briefing Bill Collins in back of the room. "The scientific staff has discovered a solar system in the Virgo cluster with a sol-type star. It has an array of planets ranging in temperature from hot to freezing, from methane gas giants to two with dense molten iron cores. Even those with acceptable climates look dangerous. You will take initial readings while still in your scout ship, but not land."
Having seen on the monitor that he was to be the mentor of exobiologist Joe Herdon on this run, Bill protested loudly so that all might overhear.
"Why me You think that, after Chang's stupidity, I'd get a rest from baby-sitting enthusiastic novices. I want to stay alive. I've observed Joe Herdon, as I do all teammates assigned to me. This stoop-shouldered space worm promises to be worse than usual. He may look as if he should be cautious, but he radiates enthusiasm. He could be dangerous in an unknown situation."
Joe, overhearing as he was meant to, straightened up and tried to look serious and unhappy.
"You did fine, last time. You brought Jill Chang back, rocks and all. The research team believes the rocks are a very primitive form of silicon-based proto-life, and so are extremely important," said the assignment officer.
Next day, Joe looked up to see Bill Collins ambling into his quarters. His appearance certainly was unmistakable. Bill approached his new partner with his best-fixed smile.
"First trip you must learn about our culture and rituals."
"OK, I'm anxious to learn." Joe, having been congratulated by all for drawing Lucky Bill as partner, was determined to follow him in everything. Bill started with the first ritual, the Terrible Warning of the Night Before to the Tenderfoot, always given by pilots to new crew members. "I know you are delirious to have achieved your ambition to be actually out in the vast beauty of unexplored space," he said, in his Space Hero style. "If you are lucky, you'll survive your initial enthusiasm. Luck to us on a landing means something is what it appears to be and obeys the terran rules, at least for today. Most of the phenomena you'll run into won't accommodate. Quite often, cause and effect change places. Worst of all, the dangerous life forms can't be spotted with ordinary Earth logic.
"About one out of five scientific personnel last the full ten-year term. They either quit because they cannot take uncertainty or get horribly and unexpectedly killed," Bill continued, determined to fully perform the Terrible Warning Ritual. "If you're really lucky, you'll retire from space before your string runs out. Then you'll write the definitive article on music vibrated by the energy vortex creatures of Andromeda 9867, let's say, and adapt to a cloistered life of teaching."
"I know all this, at least in theory," said Joe. "I got all that yesterday from everyone. But you are putting me on about cause and effect, aren't you"
"Not really," said Bill. "On Andromeda 468, one of our scout ships landed and observed themselves taking off. They spent most of their stay forcing themselves to explore in areas that would lead to stuff they had already found collected in the ship. They weren't too frightened when threatened by a huge black slavering something that really wasn't there as yet because they knew they all would leave unscathed. Negative curvature of space-time, you know. It was terribly mind-boggling for them. A crew member of Hopi Indian descent said that all of this made perfect sense to him. The frame of his native language is non-temporal."
Bill led the way to the commissary. "Enough said. Let's move on to the Second Ritual. We all do this for our Last Supper." Lucky Bill kissed the cook amid the hydroponic vegetables growing in the garden room. He then slapped the male sous-chef on the back as the chef hovered over the Waldos placing greens on a row of salad plates. Neither seemed surprised.
Bill asked, "Will there be any changes in next month's menu?" There would be none, the chef assured him.
"This ritual dates from the time of the early astronauts, and was said to ensure a return to eat the meals." They may have told me about the dangers in graduate school, but they sure missed the superstitions, Joe thought.
They walked back along the passageway lined with the quarters of crewmembers. Bill went from room to room, paying up his debts to the other pilots. Joe noticed that there was a general settling up among the pilots going out the next day. "Like all astropilots," Bill explained, grinning, "when questioned, I would admit that this is foolishness."
Joe entered the scout ship gingerly. He jumped when Bill Collins snapped at him, "You can't do that!"
"What? Did I bump into something? Did I wreck something? What shouldn't I do?" asked Joe.
The astropilot was about to begin his mental countdown for takeoff. "Not really, but you must walk into the ship without touching anything. You then rap three times on the instrument panel in quick succession as I did."
"Of course this is pretentious and moronic. I suppose the custom originally had a function under unknown conditions. Now, it is supposed to bring good fortune or at least bring us back. Nobody really believes it but on the other hand everybody believes it doesn't hurt. Those that get back report that they did it. We don't know about the poor souls who didn't make it."
Joe rapped three times on the instrument panel. He was determined to obey each instruction, no matter how functionless it seemed to him.
he trip into the solar system was uneventful. For several weeks, they flew over each of the planets in the system, taking automatic readings of the geologic and climatic features. "The guys on the ship know their business," said Bill. "Our readings confirm that both the second and fourth planets have a super dense iron core," he continued, in his Famed Astropilot personna. "But they are stranger than they expected. So far, monopoles have only existed in physicists' research papers, but here we have two single-pole planets, each positive. The strong repulsive force between the planets is balanced by their attraction to each other due to their gravitational fields, fixing their relative position.
"But that is not the weirdest part of it," continued Bill. "In addition to revolving around their sun, the two monopole planets rotate, and also are moons of the third planet."
Joe peered at the screen. "Since the second and fourth planets repel each other, I bet these two planets are always on opposite sides of the center planet."
As the scout ship approached the second planet, most of the instruments went crazy, the readouts flashing in a wild inconclusive dance. Attempts to access the computer returned gibberish. Noting the unaccustomed sight of Bill's worried face, Joe asked what was happening.
"It's impossible, but we are rapidly being drawn into the second monopole planet. The instrument shielding doesn't seem to be effective with this much magnetic flux. The planet's electromagnetic field is so strong that it has magnetized all the instruments on the space ship that have steel or titanium components, making readings on most of the instruments useless. The communicator produces static and the computer is having a nervous breakdown."
Bill's luck held. With all the affected instrumentation still fluctuating wildly, Bill strained to manually maneuver the scout ship into a controlled landing on the center planet by using the gravitational field of the monopole planet as a slingshot.
As the ship entered the atmosphere of the planet, Joe stared at the few instruments that had readings that could be trusted. "Amazing!" said Joe. "The readings show approximate Earth-like conditions including a breathable oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. Is it possible How could we be so lucky?" He was beginning to believe that Bill had the power to order events. They might even survive.
With Bill's skill in seat-of-the-pants piloting, they landed flat on one of the few areas of comparatively bare ground.
"Good, the clearing is large enough," said Bill. "We should be able to take off from this position."
Bill activated the short exterior camera arms on both sides of the ship. The assembly slid on tracks the length of the hull to check for damage and to capture the surrounding landscape. "We are not quite so lucky," said Bill. "The camera shows that in landing we tore a five-foot hole in the rear hull by scraping against the outcropping of rock to our left. The damage must be fixed from outside. Right now, the ship's interior is accessible to whatever unknown and unknowable monsters the planet has generated. We haven't felt the hole because the automatic air curtain conserves the ship's heat while in an atmosphere. When we leave the planet, the air barrier will implode in the vacuum of space and we will lose all interior oxygen. After we reprogram the instruments, I will go outside to fix the hole."
With the ship at rest, Joe began the long process of returning the instrumentation to working order. However, the communicator remained hopelessly awry. The exterior monitor revealed that their 150-foot long shiny titanium cylindrical ship was very visible against the tall red trees and with indigo-blue lakes. The fern-trees, similar in shape to those on Earth during the Pleistocene era, formed a canopy blotting out the sky. In the distance, mountains were covered with the black lava patches of previous eruptions. Because of the two orbiting satellite planets, each now at opposite horizons, moon rise could be seen in the east and moon set in the west at the same time. As far as the eye could see, between the trees, on ground that was covered with blue lichen, two-foot orange ovoids were piled in high mounds, with silver-scaled snakelike creatures curled around each hill. Each protecting snake, when extended, would have been five feet wide and about 60 feet long. The soporific snakes ignored the ship completely. Fortunately, the landing had even managed to avoid crushing any of the snakes.
"My guess," said Joe, "is that the mounds contain their eggs. Probably the protecting creatures are a form of reptiles and are keeping the eggs warm. I know that on Earth most really large snakes have live births, but still, these snakes could be female and may have created the mounds specifically for this cold climate."
Joe's pale face glowed as he orated on his favorite topic, comparative biology. "Some smaller snakes on Earth incubate their young this way," Joe pleaded. "Can't we remain a while We have time. The incubation period on Earth for snake eggs can be as long as two months. I know we weren't supposed to land, but we're here. Let's see if these silver snakes have evolved intelligence."
The pilot finally spoke the criticism of Joe's frequently repeated views. "What you eggheads don't realize is that just because you rate intelligence highly, it does not mean that it has survival value over the entire universe. Here, with probably no effective opposition, the snakes, if that is what they are, evolved by getting bigger. Brute strength is always without scruples, we've found. We learned the hard way not to disturb an unfamiliar ecology with our powerful weapons unless our lives are threatened.
"And some snakes on Earth, like pythons and anacondas, are almost as big as those here," continued Bill, in lecture mode. "They have hinged jaws, and valves on their breathing tubes, so that they can breathe while swallowing alive six-foot animals like us. We might lie in their stomachs until digested. See, I am not a complete ignoramus.
"I know, at the moment, they look like a bunch of sleeping snakes. But remember, our ship is open. The first priority is to repair it. Since I don't know the magnetic effect on us when one planet is the sky above us and the opposing pole planet is out of sight, the sooner we get out of here, the better." Lucky Bill definitely wanted to leave before his luck ran out.
Joe looked disappointed. After all, it was his professional function to discover alien life. "But, eventually, the Aurora will send someone to find us even if the ship can't be repaired or we can't get the communicator to work. After all, this is first contact with what looks like a carbon-based species."
"Yes, a rescue ship will eventually be sent to retrieve us but will take time. Worse, they might run into the problems of the orbiting planets and not do as well as we did."
Bill put on a protective suit, took some mending materials and climbed outside. Absorbed in painting the adhesive on the edges of the gaping hole preparatory to putting a titanium patch on the ship, Bill glanced up and saw a leathery wall slithering towards him, extending the full length of the ship. It was high enough that it blocked out all visibility of the surrounding territory. The snake must have been 100 feet long and seven feet high. The skin was an iridescent mosaic of silver and blue scales. On Earth, this probably would be the male, Bill thought. The elaborate coloration would be for the purpose of making the male snake attractive to its smaller silver female counterparts. But here, who knows?
The snake opened the tunnel of its mouth. A row of teeth, which looked like giant curved nails, fringed both the upper and lower jaws. Bill recalled that as a child he hated snakes, even little garter snakes.
Bill did not usually feel fear or disabling panic. Physical threats caused an adrenaline charge that effectively speeded up his reaction time. The ability to sardonically distance himself from a life-threatening situation, which had served him well in the past, was still intact. The thought came to him that he did not know the prayer before a meal when one is the meal.
Just ahead of the snake, Bill rushed inside the space ship through the hole. Since he had not finished the repair, there was no barrier against the snake.
Although in a hurry, Bill did not touch the walls and rapped three times on the instrument panel.
Joe looked worried. "I hope you aren't going to kill it."
"No, I'm not, for good reason but not yours. Unfortunately, the snake looks as if it would be impervious to any weapons on the ship designed to fire without making a major disturbance to the environment."
The two explorers watched as the snake flicked its tongue over the body of the ship until it was lying alongside the ship, completely covering the hole. It wound its body around the ship. The snake erected its spurs, two claw-like projections. Joe, watching on the internal monitor, was barely breathing. "Just like the snakes on Earth. The spurs are the last remnants of prehistoric hind limbs."
The snake moved backward and forwards until it found the gap in the hull. Part of the snake emerged into the hole, plugging it adequately. "What is he doing?" asked Bill.
"He's copulating with the ship," was the conclusion of the exobiologist. "Unfortunately for this snake, the glue you just applied makes it a permanent attachment to our hull. However, it could be worse. Sometimes on Earth, two large snakes sometimes compete for the same female, entwining their bodies around her. They can stay that way for two to four weeks."
"That would indeed be a sight to see," said Bill, grinning for the first time in memory. "The instruments tell us that we can lift both the ship and the attached snake."
The pilot, knowing the important thing about good luck was to recognize it and take advantage of it, said "OK. Prepare for takeoff." And they did.
Lucky Bill had finished his twenty-sixth mission. And they were taking back a frozen specimen of what would prove to be the first carbon-based alien life form man had discovered.