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Authors: Eric Kotani,John Maddox Roberts

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Delta Pavonis

BOOK: Delta Pavonis
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Table of Contents

DELTA PAVONIS

by

ERIC KOTANI AND JOHN MADDOX ROBERTS

Have we got a planet for you. And don't worry: nothing native to Delta Pavonis is likely to hurt you; humans are too alien to be tasty. At least that's what they said during orientation. Dierdre Jamail isn't quite sure she believes them -- she's never believed an authority figure in her young life. That's why she's been assigned to Delta Pavonis, in fact, rather than to some more promising planet: Delta P. is the absolute least desirable exploration point in the entire galaxy. But Dierdre's always been lucky -- and she's about to make the find of the century -- and run into some serious authority figures.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 1990 by Eric Kotani and John Maddox Roberts

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

260 Fifth Avenue

New York, N.Y. 10001

ISBN: 0-671-72020-1

eISBN: 978-1-62579-226-6

Cover art by Peter Scanlon

First printing, October 1990

Distributed by

SIMON & SCHUSTER

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York N Y 10020

Printed in the United States of America

For Eleanor Wood, Stephanie Hall, Maritha Pottenger, Lee Anne Willson, Blake Powers, and Doranna and Jim Shiner.

ONE

The planetside base was an untidy sprawl of ugly, functional buildings made of extruded foam. Out of respect for the local environment they had been tinted in mottled patterns of gray and green, but it didn't help much. At the southern edge of the base, a score of scoutcraft idled their engines noisily. On a mountain plateau half a kilometer north of the base, ships from the orbiting republics landed, discharged their personnel and supplies, and took off, loaded with specimens and material, with returning scientists, explorers and students.

In a quiet corridor of the administration building, Dierdre waited nervously. The gravity didn't help. No matter how many thousands of hours of "weight" a spacer experienced during acceleration and deceleration, or during training in centrifuge chambers, the real thing felt different. Somehow, the body knew.

It was late afternoon by local time. She had arrived early that morning, the first time she had set foot on any planet. Even the best of holographic training hadn't prepared her for the new sensations: the far horizons, the vast volumes of space at hand, the incredible variety of smells, most of them organic, that changed from one moment to the next as the wind shifted. The wind itself was a new experience. She would have been enthralled by it all, had it not been for the anticipation of this interview. One slipup and she could be on the next ship back to orbit, and all the years she had spent learning her skills would be wasted.

"Dierdre Jamail?" She looked up and saw a young man, perhaps two or three years older than herself. He wore a Survey uniform and had that ineradicable grad student look about him.

"That's me."

"Personnel Director Merchant will see you now."

That sounded bad. She had always been taught that when people went by titles terminal decadence was setting in. She followed the man to an office that was little more than an air bubble in the foam. The sign on the door said, "Personnel Director Esmerelda da S. Merchant." Dierdre filed it away for future use. The director wanted people to know that she had been born a da Sousa, a member of one of the founding families. That kind of vanity could always provide a useful handle.

The woman who looked up as she entered had features as sharp as a machete. She smiled, but it looked as if she had found it an unfamiliar expression. She wore the olive-drab Survey coverall, with the addition of several pieces of antique jewelry.

"Dierdre Jamail?" the woman queried.

Who else would it be? Dierdre thought, since the director had sent her flunky specifically for Dierdre. Somehow, she knew that this was not the time for a sarcastic answer.

"Reporting as ordered, Director." She put on her best superior-pleasing look: respectful, attentive and eager.

The woman wasn't buying it. "Your resume is about as marginal as they get without being an outright condemnation. Let's see," she took on the abstracted look of someone scanning an eye-implant readout, "frequent absences from class, even more frequent disciplinary problems. You once broke your biology professors jaw."'

"That was Schlucter. He wouldn't keep his hands off me. I had a perfect right to deck him."

"It doesn't seem to have taught him anything," the director said. "An aggrieved husband killed him in a duel last year."

"Good riddance."

"Nonetheless, assault on a professor is a black mark. So is larceny. It seems you and some sorority friends stole a ship and took it to Avalon."

"But we'd have missed the party if we'd waited for a regular transport!"

"Oddly enough, the laws don't specify that impatience to attend a party constitutes justification for theft. Especially when the vehicle in question is a heavily-armed military craft. You're lucky Avalon's autosecurity systems didn't cut you to scrap."

Dierdre snorted. "Anyone who can't outsmart an outdated system like that deserves to get killed. Anyway, they got the ship back."

"A good thing they did. It only cost you ten days in the Avalon lockup, which in turn meant you had to repeat a planetary navigation class."

Dierdre was becoming very uncomfortable. "Look, it's my grades that should count. Aren't they good enough?" She desperately wanted a planetside assignment. She was certain that another year of schooling on probation would drive her insane.

"They're not bad, considering your record of absenteeism. Still, the work we do down here requires tight discipline and close cooperation. Teamwork doesn't seem to be your forte."

"I'm sure I could fit in if there was a reason for it. It's just that all the drills and regulations seemed so senseless in the classroom!"

The director looked at her coldly. "You'd be surprised. Most often, if you can't cut it in training, you can't cut it in the field, either." She was silent for a few minutes, pondering something while Dierdre struggled not to do anything foolish, like scream or go into attack mode.

"All right," the director said at last, "I'm going to give you a chance. Just one. Screw up and you'll probably be in orbit for another five years."

Dierdre felt relief pouring over her like a zero-g shower. This called for some false humility. "Thank you, Director. I promise not to disappoint you. I truly appreciate this chance."

"Tell me that when you come back alive. I'm cutting your orders for the Suleiman Archipelago."

Dierdre tried to picture it from what she remembered of her planetary geography. She didn't want to reach for her handset and she had never been able to afford one of the eye-implants that could project directly into the optic nerve. She could remember the continents and major islands, of course, and the largest rivers, but so many other features were being discovered, named, and mapped every year that she couldn't keep up with them all.

"Don't be embarrassed if you've never heard of it. It's our most remote exploration so far. The first-in teams got all the cushy, temperate-zone assignments. You latecomers are stuck with the arctic and tropical jobs. It's a string of islands off the southeast coast of Atropos. Between the archipelago and the mainland is the Iliad Sea. Got it located now?"

She nodded as the picture formed in her mind. Atropos was one of the larger islands, not quite impressive enough for continental status. It was well within the tropical belt, where the average daily temperatures at sea level ran almost forty degrees Centigrade, ninety-something in the old Fahrenheit system, with humidity to match. Flora and fauna could be anything, but always abundant.

"The Survey Chief for that area," Merchant went on, "is Derek Kuroda. His base is at Cape Troy, on the mainland. Do you accept the assignment?"

"Yes!" Dierdre said, desperately. If she'd turned it down, there would be no other chance. The tropics were said to be rough, but she feared the arctic more. She hated cold.

"Good. Did you bring your gear down?" Dierdre nodded. "No need to delay, then. Get your stuff and report to Mission HQ. It's down by the scoutcraft base. Take this." She tore a flimsy readout sheet from her desk and handed it to the younger woman. "This has your orders and specs. You'll get a uniform issue and a briefing and you'll be assigned transportation. Eat while you have the chance. It's a long flight."

"Thank you, Director. I don't know. . . ."

"Good luck," Merchant said, abruptly.

Dierdre took that for dismissal and left. Jubilantly, she ran from the building and picked up her gear where she had left it on the stabilized dirt walkway in front. She squatted, slipped her arms through the straps of her backpack, stood, hoisted her duffel bag to one shoulder, and set off for the sounds of the scoutcraft. The muscles in her thighs protested, but she knew she would have to get used to it. She had trained most of her life for work in a planetary environment.

Besides the noise, the scoutcraft base was distinguished by a sharp chemical reek. Having been raised in the artificial environment of the spacegoing republics, the smell was homey to Dierdre. It was the complex of organic smells from the nearby forest that seemed alien.

All around her, people bustled importantly. Most of them wore the olive Survey uniform, making her self-conscious of her red and yellow clothes. Most of the uniforms bore the patches and insignia of various expeditions.

Before she had walked for five minutes, sweat began streaming down her scalp. She checked her wrist set. It read twenty-three degrees Centigrade, with low humidity. These, she knew, were virtually idyllic conditions in the high latitudes of a temperate zone. What would the tropics be like?

Flatbed cargo shuttles purred along between the buildings. Some of them were, absurdly, still labeled "Sigma Pavonis Expedition." When the expedition had left the Sol system, nobody in the Island World administration had noticed that the star had been mislabeled back in the twentieth century in the popularly used table of the nearest stars, with a typesetter mistaking the lower-case Greek letter sigma for delta. The mistake had been perpetuated in the catalogues for all the ensuing decades. After the expedition had been well under way, an astronomer had pointed out to the Avalonian chief administrator that they were headed for what was actually Delta Pavonis. Only the name of the star in the catalogue was in error and the coordinates, spectral type, parallax, and identification number listed therein were for Delta Pavonis. Also, since more up-to-date references had been used in astrogation, there had actually been little risk of the expedition's mistakenly heading for the real Sigma Pavonis. Still, there once was a fellow named Columbus who thought he had reached India. . . .

The thought amused Dierdre while she looked over the scenery, but nobody stopped to offer her a ride. Maybe, she thought, it was their way of displaying disdain for a newcomer. The veterans had, or at least affected, a swagger that said they were used to gravity and wind. There was no way she could even attempt a swagger carrying her load, but she made a note to practice it when she could be sure nobody was looking.

Mission HQ was another ugly building of extruded foam, but weather shelters of any sort were still a novelty to Dierdre, so she found them fascinating.

They had a quality of
insideness
that was indescribable. It was almost as strange as being outside. All her life, she had been in enclosed spaces, although she was rarely aware of it. Even when working on the surface of an asteroid or outside a ship, a spacer was still enclosed inside a spacesuit. At least she seemed to be adjusting well. Some first-time arrivals came down with severe agoraphobia.

The building had a number of entrances, but she found one labeled New Arrivals and went in. A man sitting behind a desk, feet propped up and watching something on a small holoset, looked at her and smiled.

"Just off the shuttle, eh?" He seemed friendly, even in stating the obvious.

"Yes. I was told to report here. Something about uniform issue and briefing."

"If you'll let me see your orders, I'll try to help." He scanned the sheet, then frowned slightly. "All the way over on Atropos? How'd you draw an assignment like that?" He looked slightly embarrassed, "Not meaning to pry, of course."

This wasn't looking good. "I think it had something to do with all the demerits, back at the Academy."

"I guess that could do it. Derek Kuroda's expedition, huh? He's a good explorer, even if . . . well, never mind. You see this yellow line on the floor?" He pointed at one of a dozen lines of varying color. "Just follow the line. It loops around an area of hangars and maintenance facilities—those look sort of like ship bays back home—and you'll come to a wing full of classrooms and supply rooms. It's confusing, but you'll find a lot of that around here. Apparently, we've been living in space for so long that we sort of lost the knack for laying out flat-ground facilities. Uniform issue is the next door on the right after the dispensary. They'll direct you to your next station from there."

She retrieved her orders. "Thank you." After a few more pleasantries, she began to follow the line. The building was huge and, as the man had suggested, badly planned, with wings and facilities added on as necessity dictated. She tried to remember what she knew of Derek Kuroda. What everybody knew, of course, was that he had made the original discovery of the Rhea Objects, the alien power packs that had made the Great Leap Outward possible. After that stupendous event, he had faded from public view. She vaguely remembered him addressing a few classes back at the Academy. So he was in exploration these days? And he had been sent to the most remote and undesirable part of the planet? That sounded ominous, especially since she was bound there herself.

Uniform issue turned out to be a long, low-ceilinged room manned by a single technician, a fit-looking young man who appeared to be out of place in such a job. When he came from behind his counter, he was limping heavily. His left leg was in an inflatable cast from ankle to hip.

"Let's see," he said, scanning her orders, "you need some tropical-weight clothes. Do you have boots?"

"I was told it was a good idea to get them on Avalon, so I did." She displayed her feet, well-shod in boots guaranteed by the salesman to be ideal for all weathers and terrains. They had been ungodly expensive, but explorers she had spoken with at the Academy had been unanimous in advising that durable footwear was an absolute necessity when working planetside.

"Good move. This thing here," he slapped the big machine that took up much of the room, "does fine with clothes, but it can't make boots worth a damn. They fall apart after about ten days. Maintenance is always going to send somebody over to fix this thing, but I'll believe it when I see it. Step on inside and let it get your measurements."

She stepped into a boothlike niche lined with low-intensity lasers. The invisible beams of the instruments took a set of remorselessly accurate measurements. "Did you get that injury on an expedition?" The machine told her to hold her arms out and she complied.

"Yeah, like a damn fool. We were checking out some cliffs in that big southeastern bay in Takachiho. Believe me, no matter how much training you've had up there, it takes a lot of experience to judge when you're too high to jump. Misjudge and you end up in a job like this for a few months."

BOOK: Delta Pavonis
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