Read an Excerpt
By Joe Haldeman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Joe Haldeman
All rights reserved.
Jacque Lefavre's first world was to be the second planet out from Groombridge 1618. It wasn't an especially promising place; the planets accompanying small stars rarely pan out. They wouldn't have wasted an experienced team on it.
Tania Jeeves was helping Jacque adjust his suit's biometric readout. "Ten to one it's just a rock. A hot rock or a cold one, well see."
The five of them were standing around the Colorado Springs ready room, having a last cup of coffee while putting their suits through final checks. They would be living in the suits for the next eight days.
"You don't think well find anything interesting, then?" Carol Wachal said. "Just an expensive training exercise?"
"Well, it's always interesting. No two are alike, not even the rocks."
"But you don't think we'll find any life?" Jacque said.
Tania shrugged and snapped shut the lid of the readout box. "I wouldn't expect a Howard Johnson s. Maybe fossils, maybe some tough species like the Martian nodules."
A door at the other end of the room opened and a technician looked in. "Ten minutes," he said. "Right after the next incoming." The door led to the staging area, where their suits would be sterilized. Once clean, they would go on to the vacuum chamber that held the LMT crystal.
"Time to zip up," Tania said. She pulled the tunic up over her head and tossed it into a locker. The others did the same.
Jacque noticed that Ch'ing discreetly avoided looking directly at his female teammates. Jacque himself lacked that particular grace, but at least had the politeness to examine each woman with equal interest. Carol returned his stare and added a deadpan wink.
All five were in excellent physical condition and attractive in spite of their hairlessness and rather overdeveloped muscles. Tania had faint stretch marks from having given birth six times on three different planets, and hairline cosmetic surgery scars under each breast. But they were marks of her profession and didn't detract from her beauty.
Out of reflex vanity, Jacque stood in such a way that the women couldn't see his back. It looked as if someone had kept score on it—with an axe. Twelve years before, he had been chased down an alley and pinned to the ground by four men while a fifth tried to find his kidneys with a straight razor. This was evidently done for amusement, as they already had his wallet. He and his father moved back to Europe as soon as he got out of the hospital.
The suit, or "general-purpose exploration module," was a roughly man-shaped machine that could keep a hardy person alive for as long as a month in the middle of a blast furnace or swaddled in liquid hydrogen. Inside it, one could stomp through a hurricane without being blown over, walk the ocean floor without being crushed, or pick up a kitten without hurting it.
It had several tools that weren't obviously weapons. With them and with the help of the suits strength- amplification circuitry, one could: make a pretzel out of a steel bar; reduce a city to rubble; run around the equator of a small world in a week. But it took you five minutes of contortions to scratch your nose, and certain other parts of the anatomy were simply inaccessible.
You learned to live with it.
The suits were damned expensive and rather difficult to operate. Simpler attire was available for worlds where the conditions were known ahead of time. But it was profitable to outfit a planet's first Tamer team this way, since the only alternative was to send an unmanned probe ahead first. And the biggest expense in any Levant-Meyer Translation was energy, which was the same whether you were transporting a fully outfitted team or a small probe. Or a rusty beer can, for that matter.
Someone who was body-modest or squeamish could never learn to get along with a GPEM suit. You became too intimately a part of it; it recycled everything. Fortunately, those who got past all the tests and training to finally become Tamers couldn't possibly be squeamish. And modesty was unlikely to be a strong force in their character.
Fitting yourself into the rigid suit was an operation similar to what a medieval knight had to go through to get into his armor. From a waist-high platform you lowered yourself into the bottom half. While your arms are still free, you hooked up the abdominal and femoral sensors and relief channels. Then a crane lowered the top half of the suit over you while you held your arms up, so that they slid easily into the suit's arms. (Which was the reason for the difficulty in scratching your nose. There was just enough room inside the suit to twist and turn and manage to get one hand free without dislocating your shoulder. But it took time and determination.) An automatic locking mechanism sealed the top half to the bottom. With your tongue and chin you turned on the suit's radio and optical circuits ... and you were ready to go.
Jacque clicked on his radio. "I've never been in one of these things for a week," he said. "It must get pretty ripe after a few days."
"Some people, yes," Tania said. "It's all in your head."
That's right, Jacque thought, my nose is in my head. He experimented with the image amplifier, tonguing it from infrared to ultraviolet and back. It didn't make much difference in the indirectly lit room; the pastel colors just washed out and came back.
"Well," Ch'ing said. "Shall we —"
The door swung open and four suited figures came into the room, moving easily in their tonne-weight suits. Just returned from God-knows-where, their suits had a coating of pale blue dust. A thrill moved up Jacques back and set his scalp prickling, a feeling he had subdued for the past six years, knowing that not one candidate in twenty actually made Tamer 1.
He was going off the earth. Even if it turned out to be just an airless slab of cold granite, it was a place that no human had ever seen before.
"Let's go." They followed Tania into the sterilizing room, a cubicle with mirrors for walls, floor, and ceiling. Every half meter there was a slender ultraviolet-to-gamma tube. "Keep well spread apart. At least a meter between your outstretched arm and the next person."
The reflections of the five people bounced back and forth, multiplying them into a vast army that stretched to the horizon in every direction. The door sealed and a pump throbbed somewhere, sucking air out of the chamber.
"Turn off your eyes." The feeling of being in the middle of a huge crowd was replaced by claustrophobia: sealed inside a roomy coffin. Jesus, Jacque thought, how long could you stay sane if your opticals failed?
"Okay." They turned their eyes back on and followed her to the LMT chamber. Two technicians on the other side of a window watched them file in. The light from the window was the only light in the room, but it was adequate to show them the way to the crystal. "Four minutes, ten seconds."
The crystal was a glass gray circle, 120 centimeters in diameter. Tania stepped just over the edge of it.
"Carol, you can be on the bottom with me. Ch'ing and Vivian next, then Jacque on top." Here any similarity between the GPEM suits and old-style armor vanished. Tania and Carol stood face to face in the middle of the circle while the next two climbed up to stand on their shoulders. Then Jacque clambered over all of them to be King of the Mountain. The gyroscopic stabilizers that ringed their suits' waists kept the fragile pyramid from collapsing.
A glowing yellow cylinder of translucent plastic slid down over them. This was just a guide to keep them inside the LMT field; they were safe so long as they stayed a couple of centimeters from the plastic. Anything not inside the field when the current pulse came would simply be left behind. It didn't have to be an arm or a leg; just a little piece of the suit would be more than enough.
"Ninety seconds." Nobody said anything. "Thirty seconds."
"Hot or cold?" Vivian said. "Any bets?"
"Bet you a dollar it'll be just like Earth," Carol said. "But you'll have to give me a thousand to one. Ten thousand."
"Yeah," Jacque said. "Biosphere must be thin as an eggshe—"
Biospheres: Classroom 2041
SCENE: Classroom in an exclusive, old-fashioned private school in upstate New York. Drowsy hot day in late spring, airco broken.
CAST OF CHARACTERS: TEACHER is William J. Gilbert, M.A., this form's instructor in the physical sciences. He is annoyed at the class's lack of attention but thinks he has hit upon a device that will liven things up. JACQUE LEFAVRE did not do the previous nights homework and doesn't know a biosphere from a bowling ball. Two days before, he has officially dropped the terminal "S" from his name (because he was tired of being called "zhocks") and, instead of taking notes, he is practicing his new signature. Assorted STUDENTS and one FLY.
Sitting on the desk—trying not to seem stiff.
I think that the text's explanation of the biosphere is rather obscure.
Gets off the desk, stiffly.
Do you agree, Mary?
Yes, sir. But I think I understood it.
Whispers to THIRD STUDENT:
Jesus, what a brown-nose.
Did you have something to say, Ronald?
No, sir. Just that I think I understood it, too.
Class reacts predictably.
You have no idea how happy that makes me.
Reaches in drawer and brings out a navel orange.
Perhaps a demonstration will make it equally clear to everybody.
Produces pocket knife and opens it with a flourish.
How many people have had calculus and analytic geometry?
Only three hands go up as he carefully cuts through the skin and rind, making a circle around the middle of the orange.
Very well, then. I won't call this a locus.
He twists and worries at the orange until he has three pieces: the fruit and two hemispheres. He sets the fruit aside.
These two halves of the skin and rind will be our biosphere model.
He puts the two hemispheres together.
Imagine, if you will, that there is a tiny star in the center of this sphere.
He sets down one half and points to the inside of the other with a pencil
Since the star is in the center, any point on this rind is going to be the same distance from the star. Thus, every point on the rind will get the same amount of energy from' the star, and will be at the same temperature.
Taps the outside.
Likewise with the skin. Same distance all around, same temperature. A little cooler than the inside.
Inverse square law.
Very good, Stan. But please don't interrupt.
A FLY has entered the room and is buzzing very loudly, trying to escape through the windowscreen, The TEACHER glances at it for a moment, then continues.
We will say that the temperature of the inside of the rind is a hundred degrees Centigrade, the boiling point of water. The outside skin is where the temperature is zero degrees, the freezing point.
Now, Mary. Will you tell the class what that means?
It means that the only place in the system where you can have liquid water is the volume that corresponds to the rind of the orange.
Very good. What else?
After a moment:
Everywhere else you'll just have steam and ice?
Looks at the FLY again but decides not to go after it.
That's true, but its not exactly what I'm looking for. Anybody else? Mark?
Puts down hand.
Where there's no liquid water, you can't have life as we know it. Because carbon-based life ... needs water ...
—as a more-or-less universal solvent, that's right. And that's why we call it the biosphere. Bios is Greek for life, and only in this sphere can life exist. Amy?
But last year in Biology Miz Harkness said that a biosphere was all the air and water and ... ground on Earth, where plants and animals can live.
A word can have more than one meaning.
The FLY stops buzzing and JACQUE looks over at it. JACQUE has been trying to look inconspicuous, but it's difficult because he's the largest one in the room, and the vagaries of the alphabet have put him in the front row.
Jacque? Could I have your attention?
JACQUE has lived in America for eleven years and has no trace of a French accent. When he returns to Switzerland in nine months, with a slowly healing back, he will have lost forever the musical Lausanne accent that surrounded him as a child, and will speak his native tongue like an educated foreigner.
Bearing in mind what Mary and Mark just said, tell me: which would have the larger biosphere, our sun, or a hot blue star like Rigel?
Absolutely not! The lesson last night used Rigel as an example. Didn't you study it?
Uh ... sir ... we had a ... voltage fluctuation last night and I couldn't get the book to work.
Shakes his head
I wish I had a dollar for every time ...
Rhythmically slapping his palm with a ruler.
Your assignment for tonight, then, Jacque, will be to write a four-page paper about the biosphere. In it you will explain why one is more likely to find a hospitable planet going around a hot star than around a relatively cool one.
And you will read it for the class tomorrow. And answer questions.
The voltage fluctuation story is true. Even at this age, JACQUE knows more about physics and astronomy than the TEACHER does. William Gilbert's M.A. was in Music Education. When he reads his paper tomorrow, JACQUE will point out that by the TEACHER's definition, the Earth is not within the Sun's biosphere [since if Earth were airless; the temperature on the surface could exceed the boiling point of water, as it does on the moon], and therefore cannot support life. He will also remark that the extent of Rigel's biosphere is meaningless, since young blue stars don't form planets. Thus he will make a powerful enemy, not for the first time or the last, and would be destined to flunk the course if the alley rendezvous were not to cut short his semester.CHAPTER 2
Like some improbable circus act, the Tamer team suddenly appeared less than a meter above the surface of Groombridge 1618s second planet. They fell abruptly, and found that the planet did indeed have liquid water. More to the point, liquid mud.
"Merde!" Jacque fell the farthest and so sank the deepest, up to his shoulders.
"Hold it," Tania ordered. "Nobody move for a second. See whether we keep sinking, whether it's like quicksand."
"I don't think it is," Jacque said. "Think my feet are on solid ground."
"Try to walk, then."
"No problem." Walking, Jacque made a gelatinous sucking sound, and the black mud swirled viscously behind him. "Uh, heading toward that bush. Or whatever it is."
The planet, which they would simply call Groombridge, was within its star's biosphere and obviously had a primitive form of plant life. Not green, though. Jacque was headed for an organism that did have a recognizable stalk and drooping fleshy plates that might be called leaves. But it was the color of a corpse.
Groombridge 1618 hung high in the sky, easily four times as big as the sun is from earth, but looking unwell. It was a dull orange color, mottled with black spots and etched with fine swirls of yellow faculae. Its brightness was tempered by the dense low fog, and one could look directly at it without squinting.
The pale yellow fog limited their visibility to some 70 meters; half again that far in the infrared. At the extreme limit they could barely make out what might have been the edge of a forest. Or at least a group of largish plants.
"It's a ... a good planet." There was a trace of wonder in Tania's voice. She wasn't looking at the dreary landscape, but at the information that appeared projected in ghost images onto her viewplate:
TEMPERATURE 27.67° METHANE 0.004
PRESSURE 0.894% SULFUR OXIDES 10E-7
CARBON MONOXIDE 10E-7
NITROGEN OXIDES. 10E-8
HYDROGEN SULFIDE 10E-8
WATER VAPOR 0.051
CARBON DIOXIDE 0.047
Excerpted from Mindbridge by Joe Haldeman. Copyright © 1978 Joe Haldeman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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