The Ragged Astronauts by Bob Shaw

Part I
Shadow at Noon

Chapter 1

It had become obvious to Toller Maraquine and some others watching on the ground that the airship was heading into danger, but — incredibly — its captain appeared not to notice.

“What does the fool think he’s doing?” Toller said, speaking aloud although there was nobody within earshot. He shaded his eyes from the sun to harden his perception of what was happening. The background was a familiar one to anybody who lived in those longitudes of Land — flawless indigo sea, a sky of pale blue feathered with white, and the misty vastness of the sister world, Overland, hanging motionless near the zenith, its disk crossed again and again by swathes of cloud. In spite of the foreday glare a number of stars were visible, including the nine brightest which made up the constellation of the Tree.

Against that backdrop the airship was drifting in on a light sea breeze, the commander conserving power crystals. The vessel was heading directly towards the shore, its blue-and-grey envelope foreshortened to a circle, a tiny visual echo of Overland. It was making steady progress, but what its captain had apparently failed to appreciate was that the onshore breeze in which he was travelling was very shallow, with a depth of not more than three-hundred feet. Above it and moving in the opposite direction was a westerly wind streaming down from the Haffanger Plateau.

Toller could trace the flow and counterflow of air with precision because the columns of vapour from the pikon reduction pans along the shore were drifting inland only a short distance before rising and being wafted back out to sea. Among those man-made bands of mist were ribbons of cloud from the roof of the plateau — therein lay the danger to the airship.

Toller took from his pocket the stubby telescope he had carried since childhood and used it to scan the cloud layers. As he had half expected, he was able within seconds to pick out several blurry specks of blue and magenta suspended in the matrix of white vapour. A casual observer might have failed to notice them at all, or have dismissed the vague motes as an optical effect, but Toller’s sense of alarm grew more intense. The fact that he had been able to spot some ptertha so quickly meant that the entire cloud must be heavily seeded with them, invisibly bearing hundreds of the creatures towards the airship.

“Use a sunwriter,” he bellowed with the full power of his lungs. “Tell the fool to veer off, or go up or down, or…”

Rendered incoherent by urgency, Toller looked all about him as he tried to decide on a course of action. The only people visible among the rectangular pans and fuel bins were semi-naked stokers and rakers. It appeared that all of the overseers and clerks were inside the wide-eaved buildings of the station proper, escaping the day’s increasing heat. The low structures were of traditional Kolcorronian design — orange and yellow brick laid in complex diamond patterns, dressed with red sand-stone at all corners and edges — and had something of the look of snakes drowsing in the intense sunlight. Toller could not even see any officials at the narrow vertical windows. Pressing a hand to his sword to hold it steady, he ran towards the supervisors’ building.

Toller was unusually tall and muscular for a member of one of the philosophy orders, and workers tending the pikon pans hastily moved aside to avoid impeding his progress. Just as he was reaching the single-storey building a junior recorder, Comdac Gurra, emerged from it carrying a sunwriter. On seeing Toller bearing down on him, Gurra flinched and made as if to hand the instrument over. Toller waved it away.

“You do it,” he said impatiently, covering up the fact that he would have been too slow at stringing the words of a message together. “You’ve got the thing in your hands — what are you waiting for?”

“I’m sorry, Toller.” Gurra aimed the sunwriter at the approaching airship and the glass slats inside it clacked as he began to operate the trigger.

Toller hopped from one foot to the other as he watched for some evidence that the pilot was receiving and heeding the beamed warning. The ship drifted onwards, blind and serene. Toller raised his telescope and concentrated his gaze on the blue-painted gondola, noting with some surprise that it bore the plume-and-sword symbol which proclaimed the vessel to be a royal messenger. What possible reason could the King have for communicating with one of the Lord Philosopher’s most remote experimental stations?

After what seemed an age, his enhanced vision enabled him to discern hurried movements behind the ship’s foredeck rails. A few seconds later there were puffs of grey smoke along.the gondola’s left side, indicating that its lateral drive tubes were being fired. The airship’s envelope rippled and the whole assemblage tilted as the craft slewed to the right. It was rapidly shedding height during the manoeuvre, but by then it was actually grazing the cloud, being lost to view now and again as it was engulfed by vaporous tendrils. A wail of terror, fine-drawn by distance and flowing air, reached the hushed watchers along the shore, causing some of the men to shift uneasily.

Toller guessed that somebody on board the airship had encountered a ptertha and he felt a thrill of dread. It was a fate which had overtaken him many times in bad dreams. The essence of the nightmare was not in visions of dying, but in the sense of utter hopelessness, the futility of trying to resist once a ptertha had come within its killing radius. Faced by assassins or ferocious animals, a man could — no matter how overwhelming the odds — go down fighting and in that way aspire to a strange reconciliation with death, but when the livid globes came questing and quivering, there was nothing that could be done.

“What’s going on here?” The speaker was Vorndal Sisstt, chief of the station, who had appeared in the main entrance of the supervisors’ building. He was middle-aged, with a round balding head and the severely upright posture of a man who was self conscious about being below average in height. His neat sun-tanned features bore an expression of mingled annoyance and apprehension.

Toller pointed at the descending airship. “Some idiot has travelled all this distance to commit suicide.”

“Have we sent a warning?”

“Yes, but I think it was too late,” Toller said. “There were ptertha all round the ship a minute ago.”

“This is terrible,” Sisstt quavered, pressing the back of a hand to his forehead. “I’ll give word for the screens to be hoisted.”

“There’s no need — the cloud base isn’t getting any lower and the globes won’t come at us across open ground in broad daylight.”

“I’m not going to take the risk. Who knows what the…?” Sisstt broke off and glared up at Toller, grateful for a safe outlet for his emotions. “Exactly when did you become empowered to make executive decisions here? In what I believe to be my station? Has Lord Glo elevated you without informing me?”

“Nobody needs elevation where you’re concerned,” Toller said, reacting badly to the chiefs sarcasm, his gaze fixed on the airship which was now dipping towards the shore.

Sisstt’s jaw sagged and his eyes narrowed as he tried to decide whether the comment had referred to his physical stature or abilities. “That was insolence,” he accused. “Insolence and insubordination, and I’m going to see that certain people get to hear about it.”

“Don’t bleat,” Toller said, turning away.

He ran down the shallow slope of the beach to where a group of workers had gathered to assist in the landing. The ship’s multiple anchors trailed through the surf and up on to the sand, raking dark lines in the white surface. Men grabbed at the ropes and added their weight to counter the craft’s skittish attempts to rise on vagrant breezes. Toller could see the captain leaning over the forward rail of the gondola, directing operations. There appeared to be some kind of commotion going on amidships, with several crewmen struggling among themselves. It was possible that somebody who had been unlucky enough to get too close to a ptertha had gone berserk, as occasionally happened, and was being forcibly subdued by his shipmates.

Toller went forward, caught a dripping rope and kept tension on it to help guide the airship to the tethering stakes which lined the shore. At last the gondola’s keel crunched into the sand and yellow-shirted men vaulted over the side to secure it. The brush with danger had evidently rattled them. They were swearing fiercely as they pushed the pikon workers aside, using unnecessary force, and began tying the ship down. Toller could appreciate their feelings, and he smiled sympathetically as he offered his line to an approaching airman, a bottle-shouldered man with silt-coloured skin.

“What are you grinning at, dung-eater?” the man growled, reaching for the rope.

Toller withdrew the rope and in the same movement threw it into a loop and snapped it tight around the airman’s thumb. “Apologise for that!”

“What the…!” The airman made as if to hurl Toller aside with his free arm and his eyes widened as he made the discovery that he was not dealing with a typical science technician. He turned his head to summon help from other airmen, but Toller diverted him by jerking the rope tighter.

“This is between you and me,” Toller said quietly, using the power of his upper arms to increase the strain on the line. “Are you going to apologise, or would you like your thumb to wear on a necklet?”

“You’re going to be sorry for.…“The airman’s voice faded and he sagged, white-faced and gasping, as a joint in his thumb made a clearly audible popping sound. “I apologise. Let me go! I apologise.”

“That’s better,” Toller said, releasing the rope. “Now we can all be friends together.”

He smiled in mock geniality, giving no hint of the dismay he could feel gathering inside him. It had happened yet again! The sensible response to a ritual insult was to ignore it or reply in kind, but his temper had taken control of his body on the instant, reducing him to the level of a primitive creature governed by reflex. He had made no conscious decision to clash with the airman, and yet would have been prepared to maim him had the apology not been forthcoming. And what made matters worse was the knowledge that he was unable to back down, that the trivial incident might still escalate into something very dangerous for all concerned.

Friends,” the airman breathed, clutching his injured hand to his stomach, his face contorted with pain and hatred. “As soon as I can hold a sword again I’ll…”

He left the threat unfinished as a bearded man in the heavily embroidered jupon of an aircaptain strode towards him. The captain, who was about forty, was breathing noisily and the saffron material of his jupon had damp brown stains below his armpits.

“What’s the matter with you, Kaprin?” he said, staring angrily at the airman.

Kaprin’s eyes gave one baleful flicker in Toller’s direction, then he lowered his head. “I snared my hand in a line, sir. Dislocated my thumb, sir.”

“Work twice as hard with the other hand,” the captain said, dismissing the airman with a wave and turning to face Toller. “I’m Aircaptain Hlawnvert. You’re not Sisstt. Where is Sisstt?”

“There.” Toller pointed at the station chief, who was uncertainly advancing down the slope of the shore, the hem of his grey robe gathered clear of the rock pools.

“So that’s the maniac who’s responsible.”

“Responsible for what?” Toller said, frowning.

“For blinding me with smoke from those accursed stewpots.” Hlawnvert’s voice was charged with anger and contempt as he swung his gaze to encompass the array of pikon pans and the columns of vapour they were releasing into the sky. “I’ve been told they’re actually trying to make power crystals here. Is that true, or is it just a joke?”

Toller, barely clear of one potentially disastrous scrape, was nonetheless affronted by Hlawnvert’s tone. It was the principal regret of his life that he had been born into a philosophy family instead of the military caste, and he spent much of his time reviling his lot, but he disliked outsiders doing the same. He eyed the captain coolly for a few seconds, extending the pause until it was just short of open disrespect, then spoke as though addressing a child.

“Nobody can make crystals,” he said. “They can only be grown — if the solution is pure enough.”

“Then what’s the point of all this?”

“There are good pikon deposits in this area. We are extracting it from the soil and trying to find a way to refine it until it’s pure enough to produce a reaction.”

“A waste of time,” Hlawnvert said with casual assurance, dismissing the subject as he turned away to confront Vorndal Sisstt.

“Good foreday, Captain,” Sisstt said. “I’m so glad you have landed safely. I’ve given orders for our ptertha screens to be run out immediately.”

Hlawnvert shook his head. “There’s no need for them. Besides, you have already done the damage.”

“I…” Sisstt’s blue eyes shuttled anxiously. “I don’t understand you, Captain.”

“The stinking fumes and fog you’re spewing into the sky disguised the natural cloud. There are going to be deaths among my crew — and I deem you to be personally responsible.”

“But…” Sisstt glanced in indignation at the receding line of cliffs from which, for a distance of many miles, streamer after streamer of cloud could be seen snaking out towards the sea. “But that kind of cloud is a general feature of this coast. I fail to see how you can blame me for…”

“Silence!” Hlawnvert dropped one hand to his sword, stepped forward and drove the flat of his other hand against Sisstt’s chest, sending the station chief sprawling on his back, legs wide apart. “Are you questioning my competence? Are you saying I was careless?”

“Of course not.” Sisstt scrambled to his feet and brushed sand from his robes. “Forgive me, Captain. Now that you bring the matter to my attention, I can see that the vapour from our pans could be a hazard to airmen in certain circumstances.”

“You should set up warning beacons.”

“I’ll see that it’s done at once,” Sisstt said. “We should have thought of it ourselves long ago.”

Toller could feel a tingling warmth in his face as he viewed the scene. Captain Hlawnvert was a big man, as was normal for one of a military background, but he was also soft and burdened with fat, and even someone of Sisstt’s size could have vanquished him with the aid of speed and hate-hardened muscles. In addition, Hlawnvert had been criminally incompetent in his handling of the airship, a fact he was trying to obscure with his bluster, so going against him could have been justified before a tribunal. But none of that mattered to Sisstt. In keeping with his own nature the station chief was fawning over the hand which abused him. Later he would excuse his cowardice with jokes and try to compensate for it by mistreating his most junior subordinates.