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Pioneers

World's Third E-Book—Published On the Web in 1997 For Digital Download

an Empire of Time SF novel

by John Argo


 Preface   Chapter 1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9   10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19   20   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28   29   30   31   32   33   34   35   36   37   38   39   40   41   42 


Heartbreaker

1. New World—Year 3301

The crash landing on N60A jarred Paul Menard's teeth and mauled him around in his web seat. It wasnít his spouse Liciaís flying nearby in the pilot seat, but the thousand-year sleep from which the ship and the last six surviving humans had just awakened. Would computer programs written a millennium ago work? The ancient code had been written on a dying Earth, choking in clouds—like a new gas giant, on a smaller scale, but just as toxic and deadly—by programmers and engineers who were by now long dust and forgotten.

Far from the now lost Earth, the last six human pioneers were making their hard landings on the alien world that was mankindís last and only hope for survival. At the moment, smashed around in a blur so that his teeth rattled and his eyes dimmed, Menardís only thought was of surviving through the next few seconds.

Then they could worry about their fresh, sweet, green new home with its flowing rivers and blue skies, its oxygen-rich winds and tiny birds unlike the giant, evolved raptors terrorizing ancient Earthís high cloud deck.

For the moment, the game was just survival—from second to second.

And Paul Menard wasnít sure if he was about to die, or step outside into a wonderful new world that had been promised by enticing radio messages from the advanced civilization of N60A, an Earth-like planet orbiting a yellow sun much like old Sol.

In the other cockpit seat, Paul's spouse Licia screamed once, briefly, as she lost control of the craft she had piloted down from orbit.

The lifeboat bounced and scraped wildly across alien grasslands.

For minutes that seemed like hours, Paul faced the terrifying vision of his own imminent death as the boat yawed right and left, smashing through trees at the beginning of a forest.

Everything was a blur as the big boat rocked up and down, slamming against rocks and trees on its final trip through a forest and down into a canyon

Paul closed his eyes and prepared for the final slam into death.

But the boat came to a sickening stop amid boulders and trees.

In the eerie silence, Paul opened his eyes. He was grateful for the heavy-duty web straps that had held him down and probably saved his life. The cabin was filled with a fine gray haze through which the panels of instruments and scattered green, red, and amber lights were difficult to see.

Through the blood dripping from his nose, Paul smelled smoke. He'd deal with that in a moment. The lights were going out around him. The control panels were going dark one after another as he anxiously reached out to feel his spouse's pulse. In the oppressive silence, Licia's petite body lay in the pilot chair. Her head lay turned to one side from the shock of impact. The air recirculator system was out, and the air was still and suffocating as in a tomb. He feared the worst, but was relieved to feel a strong pulse. "Licia!"

Paul smelled a thickening smoke and recognized the boat truly was on fire—his other worst nightmare.

He undid his straps and jumped from his seat. Raising his arms to the ceiling, he slammed his palms one by one down the line against the double row of square red plaques that should activate the ship's fire-fighting controls—no response. This lifeboat was on fire, and it could no longer protect itself or its precious cargo: the entire recorded history, and one third of the survivors, of the human race.

He and Licia were 25 light years from home after a thousand year sleep, during which Earth and all its remaining people had perished. There was no way back. Licia had piloted well during the descent from the orbiting mother ship, headed for a mirror-bright lake. The plan was to touch down on the lake surface, braking, and then come to a gentle rest against its muddy shores. A sudden loss of power had put an end to that plan, and forced them down among the uneven green hills.

"Come on!" he yelled, shaking Licia. The lights were going out around him. The control panels one by one went dark. An acrid taste of smoke was in his mouth. It stung his nose despite the rag he held there to staunch the bleeding. The dead viewing screens all around were dark and blind. The corridor behind was getting cloudy. "The whole circus will go up at any second! If that doesn't get us, we'll die of smoke inhalation."

While she rose unsteadily, he ran down the corridor through roiling smoke and, putting his back to the wall, kicked the escape hatch open. The smoke's muddy, yellowish color suggested toxic insulation burning. It was an electrical fire for now; at any moment it could flash through and ignite the whole craft.

"The library!" Licia yelled, coughing, as she stumbled down the corridor lugging bulky emergency equipment with many trailing straps. Both he and she wore loose fitting gray jumpsuits; no time to even recover their bubble helmets! Licia dropped an armload of dark military-looking satchels and waved a hand before her eyes and nose. Then she pulled the blue canvas weapons bag from its wall holder and tossed it out of the boat. "The library!"

"Can't save it!" he yelled. He could barely see her as he reached for her. He had a last glimpse of the interior—a hundred foot ship that could have made a comfortable home. It had a complete library of now-dead Earth's knowledge—the stuff needed to start a new civilization without having to repeat the first 5,000 years or more. Thank God there was redundancy—the other two lifeboats had libraries, as did the mother ship, which was scheduled to orbit the planet for thousands of years. Where were the other two lifeboats? Hopefully the other two pioneer pairs were making a better landfall.

Paul jumped the bone-jarring ten feet down along the lifeboat's featureless sides. Gravity seemed about right. Paul felt his breath squeezed out as his knees slammed against his chest. Stunned and aching, he turned to help Licia, but she had already jumped free, holding backpacks with flailing straps in each arm. "Quick!" they both yelled at the same time.

Paul picked up the weapons satchel even as Licia rose from her stumble. She tossed one of the packs, he caught it, and they both ran.

Man and spouse struggled uphill through thick underbrush, burdened by heavy packs.

Their breathing was ragged and desperate, but in a way glad because they were alive—the last hope of an Earth now forever barren of human life. A warm yellow sun pierced the immense, oxygen-rich sky. Two moons, one silver and the other white, formed wan crescents on the horizon. If they could just get over the—.

The wreckage of their lifeboat glinted at the foot of the hill in the edge of a seemingly endless green-brown forest full of life. The ship began to make loud banging sounds. Some of that was ammunition going off. Some of it was fuel tanks rupturing. Thick black smoke poured like liquid from the open hatch and from the broken exhausts under the stubby wings.

Survive, a thing said inside Paul, conquer. He thought of his mentor SheuXe, and nodded grimly. This world was going to be theirs, no matter what the cost. In Licia's tired eyes and mussy hair he read the same determination. After a thousand-year sleep, they had got here and it was a lovely world, not at all the coal-black hell of freezing ammonia storms or worse they might have feared. Mysteries, though: seen from orbit, random campfires, ruins. Not the wonderful galaxy-spanning civilization that had advertised itself across the light-years. Instead, ruins.

From the top of the hill, they would search for the other two lifeboats; the other two men and two women; the rest of the human race.

A four-winged bird rested in a headwind high up.

Two figures scrambled up the alien hillside: Paul anxious to reach the top and holding Licia's hand; she stumbling as he pulled her along.

Then the lifeboat exploded. Its skin tore, and a cloud roiled up hundreds of feet. The blast knocked Paul and Licia flat on the hilltop, deafening them. He threw himself over her as thousands of tiny shards rained down for a full minute. If a big piece hit one of them, it would be all over. He closed his eyes, feeling her wiry strength and feminine softness under him, loving her; and yet he still felt that tiny bit of resentment. She was, after all, and would always be, Alicia Krings. A thousand years ago, he had stolen her from the house of her father, automatically imposing a death sentence on the elder Krings. In the close Aerie quarters, they'd had to live in oppressive proximity with each other. Krings knew he was doomed. Paul was gripped with a deathly resolution to explode from the cramped Aerie, and escape into open space. The last flight out from Earth could not come soon enough. As the pieces of the boat rained down, he thought of Krings, dead now 1,000 years, and wondered if he and Licia would share the same fate in the next few seconds.

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Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.