Probe reports coming through, sir,” Sallah Telgar announced without taking her eyes from the flickering lights on her terminal.
“On the screen, please, Mister Telgar,” Admiral Paul Benden replied. Beside him, leaning against his command chair, Emily Boll kept her eyes steadily on the sunlit planet, scarcely aware of the activity around her.
The Pern Colonial Expedition had reached the most exciting moment of its fifteen-year voyage: the three colony ships, the Yokohama, the Bahrain, and the Buenos Aires were finally approaching their destination. In offices below the bridge deck, specialists eagerly awaited updates on the reports of the long-dead Exploration and Evaluation team that, 200 years earlier, had recommended Rukbat’s third planet for colonization.
The long journey to the Sagittarian Sector had gone without a hitch, the only excitement being the surprise when the Oort cloud encircling the Rukbat system had been sighted. That phenomenon had continued to engross some of the space and scientific personnel, but Paul Benden had lost interest when Ezra Keroon, captain of the Bahrain and the expedition’s astronomer, had assured him that the nebulous mass of deep-frozen meteorites was no more than an astronomical curiosity. They would keep an eye on it, Ezra had said, but although some comets might form and spin from its depths, he doubted that they would pose a serious threat to either the three colony ships or the planet the ships were fast approaching. After all, the Exploration and Evaluation team had not mentioned any unusual incidence of meteor strikes on the surface of Pern.
“Screening probe reports, sir,” Sallah confirmed, “on two and five.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Admiral Benden smile slightly.
“This is sort of anticlimactic, isn’t it?” Paul murmured to Emily Boll as the latest reports flashed onto the screens.
Arms folded across her chest, she hadn’t moved since the probes had been launched, except for an occasional twiddling of fingers along her upper arms. She lifted her right eyebrow in a cynical twitch and kept her eyes on the screen.
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s one more procedure which gets us nearer to the surface. Of course,” she added dryly, “we’re sort of stuck with whatever’s reported, but I expect we can cope.”
“We’ll have to, won’t we?” Paul Benden replied a trifle grimly.
The trip was one-way—it had to be, considering the cost of getting over six thousand colonists and supplies to such an out-of-the-way sector of the galaxy. Once they reached Pern the fuel left in the great transport ships would be enough only to achieve and maintain a synchronous orbit above their destination while people and cargo were shuttled down to the surface. To be sure, they had homing capsules that would reach the headquarters of the Federated Sentient Planets in a mere five years, but to a retired naval tactician like Paul Benden, a fragile homing capsule did not offer much in the way of an effective backup. The Pern expedition was composed of com- mitted and resourceful people who had chosen to eschew the high-tech societies of the Federated Sentient Planets. They expected to manage on their own. And though their destination in the Rukbat system was rich enough in ores and minerals to support an agriculturally based society, it was poor enough and far enough from the center of the galaxy that it should escape the greed of the technocrats.
“Only a little while longer, Paul,” Emily murmured, her voice reaching his ears alone, “and we’ll both be able to lay down the weary load.”
He grinned up at her, knowing that it had been as difficult for her as it had been for him to escape the blandishments of technocrats who had not wished to lose two such charismatic war heroes: the admiral who had prevailed in the Cygni Space Battle, and the governor-heroine of First Cen- tauri. But no one could deny that the two were the ideal leaders for the Pern expedition.
“Speaking of loads,” she went on more loudly, “I’d better be there to referee my team now the reports are coming in. I suppose specialists have to consider their own disciplines the most important ones, but such contentiousness!” She stifled a groan, then grinned, her blue eyes twinkling in her rather homely face. “Just a few more days of talking, and it’ll be action stations, Admiral.”
She knew him well. He hated the interminable debate over minor points that seemed to obsess those in charge of the landing operation. He preferred to make quick decisions and implement them immediately, instead of talking them to death.
“You’re more patient with your teams than I am,” the admiral said quietly. The last two months, as the three ships had decelerated into the Rukbat system, had been made tedious with meetings and discussions which seemed to Paul to be nit-picking over procedures that had been thoroughly thrashed out seventeen years before in the planning stages of the venture.
Most of the twenty-nine hundred colonists on the Yokohama had passed the entire journey in deep sleep. Personnel essential to the operation and maintenance of the three great ships had stood five-year watches. Paul Benden had elected to stand the first and last five-year periods. Emily Boll had been revived shortly before the rest of the environmental specialists, who had spent their time railing at the superficiality of the Exploration and Evaluation Corps report. She saw no point in reminding them of their enthusiasm for the same words when they had signed up for the Pern expedition.
Paul continued to absorb the display information, eyes flicking from one screen to another, absently rubbing the thumb of his left hand across three fingers. Though not the sort of man Emily was attracted to, Paul Benden was undeniably handsome, and Emily much preferred him with his hair grown out of the spaceman’s crop that had been his trademark. She thought that the thick blond mass softened the strong features: the blunt nose, the forceful jaw, and the wide thin-lipped mouth, just then pulled slightly to the left in a little smile.
The trip had done him good: he looked fit and well able to face the rigors of their next few months. Emily remembered how terribly thin he had been at the official ceremony commemorating his brilliant victory at Cygnus, where he and the Purple Sector Fleet had turned the tide of war against the Nathis. Legend said that he had remained awake and on duty for the entire seventy hours of the crucial battle. Emily believed it. She had done something of the sort herself during the height of the Nathis attack on her planet. There were many things a person could do if pushed, she knew from experience. She expected that one paid for such physical abuses later on in life, but Benden, well into his sixth decade, looked vigorously healthy. And she certainly felt no diminution of her own energies. Fourteen years of deep sleep seemed to have cured the terrible fatigue that had been the inevitable result of her defense of First Centauri.
And what a world they were now approaching! Emily sighed, still unable to look away from the main screen for more than a second. She knew that all those on duty on the bridge, along with those of the previous watch who had not left, were totally bemused by the magnificent sight of their destination.
Who had named it Pern, she did not recall—quite probably the single letters blazoned across the published report had stood for something else entirely—but it was Pern officially, and it was theirs. They were on an equatorial heading; as she watched, the planet’s lazy rotation hid the northern continent and the spine of mountains up its coast, while the western desert of the southern landmass was revealed. The dominant topographical feature was the wide expanse of ocean, slightly greener than that of old Earth, with a ring of islands splattered across it. The atmosphere was currently decorated with the swirling cloud curl of a low-pressure area moving rapidly northeast. What a beautiful, beautiful world! She sighed again and caught Paul’s quick glance. She smiled back at him without really taking her eyes from the screen.
A beautiful world! And theirs! By all the Holies, this time we won’t botch it! she assured herself fervently. With all that magnificent, productive land, the old imperatives don’t apply. No, she added in private cynicism, people are already discovering new ones. She thought of the friction she had sensed between the charterers, who had raised the staggering credits needed to finance the Pern expedition, and the contractors, the specialists hired to round out the basic skills required for the undertaking. Each could end up with a largeous amount of land or mineral rights on this new world, but the fact that the charterers would get first choice was a bone of contention.
Differences! Why did there always have to be distinctions, arrogantly displayed as superiorities, or derided as inferiorities? Everyone would have the same opportunity, no matter how many stake acres they could claim as charterer or had been granted as contractor. On Pern, it would truly be up to the individual to succeed, to prove his claim and to manage as much land as he and his cared for. That would be the catholic distinction. Once we’ve landed, everyone will be too bloody busy to fret over “differences,” she consoled herself, and watched in fascination as a second low-pressure area began to spin down from the hidden north across the sea. If the two weather systems melded, there would be a tremendous storm over the eastern curve of the oceanic islands.
“Looking good,” Commander Ongola murmured in his deep, sad bass voice. Emily had not seen him smile once in the six months she had been awake. Paul had told her that Ongola’s wife, children, and entire family had been vaporized when the Nathis had attacked their service colony; Paul had specifically requested him to join the expedition. Stationed at the science desk, Ongola was monitoring the meteorology and atmospherics displays. “Atmospheric content as expected. Southern continent temperatures appear to be normal for this late winter season. Northern continent enjoying considerable precipitation due to low-pressure air masses. Analyses and temperatures consistent with EEC report.”
The first probe was doing a high-altitude circumnavigation in a pattern that would allow it to photograph the entire planet. The second, taking a low-level course, could reexamine any portion required. The third probe was programmed for topographical features.
“Probes four and six have landed, sir. Five is on hold,” Sallah went on, as she interpreted the new lights that had begun to flash. “Scuttlebugs deployed.”
“Show them on the screens, Mister Telgar,” the admiral said. She transferred the displays to screens three, four, and six.
Pern’s image continued to dominate the main screen as the planet rotated slowly to the east, from night to day. The southern continent’s coastline was day-lit; the spinal range of mountains and the tracks of several rivers were visible. The thermal scan was showing the effect of daylight on the late winter season of the southern continent.
Probe scuttlebugs had been landed at three not-yet-visible specific points in the southern hemisphere and were relaying updates on current conditions and terrain. The southern continent had always been favored as the landing site: the survey-team report mentioned the more clement weather patterns on the high plateaus; a wider variety of plant life, some of it edible by humans; eminently suitable farmland; and good harbors for the tough siliplex fishing vessels that existed as numbered pieces in the holds of the Buenos Aires and the Bahrain. The seas of Pern teemed with aquatic life, and at least a few of the species could be safely consumed by humans. The marine biologists had high hopes of populating the bays and estuaries with Terran piscine types without harming the present ecological balance. The deep-freeze tanks of the Bahrain contained twenty-five dolphins who had volunteered to come along. Pern’s seas were eminently suitable for the support of the intelligent mammals, who enjoyed sea-shepherding as well as the opportunity to see new worlds.
Soil analyses had indicated that Terran cereals and legumes, which had already adapted well to Centauran soil, should flourish on Pern, a necessity as the native grasses were unsuitable for Terran animals. One of the first tasks facing the agronomists would be to plant fodder crops to sustain the variety of herbivores and ruminants that had been brought as fertilized ova from the Animal Reproduction Banks of Terra.
In order that the colonists could ensure the adaptability of Terran animals to Pern, permission to use certain of the advanced biogenetic techniques of the Eridanis—mainly mentasynth, gene paring, and chromosome enhancements—had been grudgingly granted. Even though Pern was in an isolated area of the galaxy, the Federated Sentient Planets wanted no further disasters like the bio-alts, which had aroused the strong Pure Human Life Group.
Emily Boll repressed a shudder. Those memories belonged to the past. Displayed on the screen in front of her was the future—and she had best get down and help the specialists organize it. “I’ve dallied long enough,” she murmured to Paul Benden, touching his shoulder in farewell.
Paul pulled his gaze from the screen and smiled at her, giving her hand a friendly pat. “Eat first!” He waggled a stern finger at her. “You keep forgetting we’re not rationed on board the Yoko.” She gave him a startled look. “I will. I promise.”
“The next few weeks are going to be rough.”
“Hmm, but so stimulating!” Her blue eyes twinkled. Then her stomach audibly rumbled. “Gotcha, Admiral.” She winked again and left.
He watched her as she walked to the nearest exit off the bridge, a lean, almost bony woman, with gray and naturally wavy hair which she wore shoulder length. What Paul liked most about her was her wiry strength, both moral and physical, which was combined with a ruthlessness that sometimes startled him. She had tremendous personal vitality—just being in her presence gave one’s spirits a lift. Together they would make something of their new world.
He looked back to the main screen and the enthralling vista of Pern.
Excerpted from On Dragonwings by Anne McCaffrey. Copyright © 2003 by Anne McCaffrey. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.