Excerpt from Preparing The Ground

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We'd found a twin to Earth.

There was no measurement we took from space that said, "Humans can't walk around in their shirtsleeves," but we had no intention of landing. That was for an expedition with more resources. Like, say, a trained Guardian to be the first actual guinea pig to breathe the atmosphere. We were just surveyors. Then we saw our dreams of the big bonus go up in smoke.

Jayden broke the bad news, "I'm sorry guys, but I'm seeing large scale cultivation."

You don't have to see individual structures from orbit to get the clue it's inhabited. Cultivated fields don't look like uncultivated grasslands, even from orbit. Night side, get a couple hundred torches for a town of ten thousand or so, and you can see a town from orbit. City folks - of which I'm one - mostly have no idea how sensitive human eyes are to light. I looked it up later. In a dark room, humans can see light equivalent to striking a match 200 miles away. Remember, also, that there aren't many natural sources of light on a planet. There's bioluminescence, auroras, lightning, natural fires, and whatever artificial sources there may be. Looking down from space, the whole night side of a planet is the equivalent of that dark room.

Once we focused the cameras on the surface and zoomed in, it didn't take but maybe half an hour to confirm sentient habitation. They were bipedal, anthropoid, and looked human in the best images we could capture from the edge of space. Earth was still coming to terms with the fact we were descended from an Imperial ship that crashed or landed (we weren't certain which) roughly fifty thousand years ago in what is now Eastern Turkey, but there had been at least two periods in the history of the Imperial home instance alone when large numbers of people piled into any ship they could find and took off for the unknown because it was likely to be better than what they left behind. A few millennia ago, there'd been a revolution in the Empire that overthrew it and continued to tear things up so bad that the population plummeted by a factor of 3000 before the survivors of the old Imperial government reasserted themselves. And before the Empire, there'd been another great diaspora brought on by military conquest. The Empire was used to re-integrating lost colonies; it wasn't uncommon for explorers to find them.

But for us, it meant no super-sized bonus from discovering an empty planet suitable for colonization. The Empire's thinking was manifestly clear - even uninhabited parts of an inhabited world belonged to the people of that world. In some circumstances, other planets in the system as well. On Earth, the Empire had bought uninhabited islands from the legal owners in order to house their bases.

"Let's see what they have to trade," said Dulles.

"I don't think that's a good idea," said Jayden, "We're not equipped to deal with anything there may be in the atmosphere. Allergens, bacteria, viruses - any number of things could be deadly to us. Let the Empire make first contact. They can bring ships with multiple airlocks, isolation wards, and operant healers."

"Let's get a closer look! At least see if they're human or only humanoid!" Nobody argued - there wasn't any reason to argue with a closer look. "Mister Smith," he addressed Jayden, "How close do we need to be to determine if they're human?"

"Can't tell absolutely without a genetic makeup. But to make a preliminary judgment by appearance, the cameras could certainly tell us at two miles or so."

"Major Kyle, take us down to ten thousand feet. Minimal noise, please." Unlike the space shuttles we looked like, Imperial ships were whisper quiet. We weren't at the mercy of atmospheric braking, so we could be as quiet as we wanted. Actually, the translation overlays were metric, but 3000 meters was close enough.
"One zero thousand, minimal noise, roger." The pilot's response was deadpan, "Where do you want us?"

"Bring us in from the west end of this peninsula." The peninsula in question was a western projection from towards the northerly end of continent two. Think Cornwall, that finger of southernmost Britain that points west towards the New World, attached instead to the continental mainland a little further north. It was late afternoon in the area, so I had to admit that it was a pretty good choice, even if it was "John Full-up" making it. We could hide in the setting sun, and as quiet as we were, nobody should see us.

It took close to half an hour to actually perform the maneuver. If you don't mind scattering sonic booms everywhere, an Imperial ship can get down from orbit in just a couple minutes, but we were trying to sneak in and not be noticed. Major Kyle did a wonderful job, bringing us down over the ocean to the west, then bringing us towards land at about ten percent under the local speed of sound, slowing as we approached landfall. There was a fair-sized town on the southern side of the peninsula, maybe thirty kilometers up from the tip, with what looked like a castle right out of Earth's history. Oh, there were little curlicues of difference, but the basic idea was defending a particular point and projecting power on the territory around it. Given a certain range of technological capability, the idea of a castle made so much sense it was practically inevitable. It was surprisingly small, too. I'll bet that an anthropologist could have told all kinds of things about the inhabitants and their environment from the construction of the castle and the town, but none of us had that training.

As we approached the town, Jayden announced, "They're human. I'm as certain as I can be without running a gene scan." He brought up pictures of the inhabitants. The ones who hadn't been disfigured by something or another wouldn't have looked out of the ordinary on the streets of Southern California. Or many other places on Earth. Well, except for the fact that most of them were emaciated wretches. Most of them were lighter-skinned than me, although a lot more weathered. We didn't have a definite scale to judge by, but they looked shorter than most people I knew. Then I realized I was being an idiot, and had the computer superimpose a scale, and was proven right. Most of them were under a hundred seventy centimeters - roughly five feet seven. Their clothes had a very rough look to them, and animal hides were a large proportion of what they wore. Streets were dirt, or, to be technically accurate, mostly mud. It looked like most people lived in tiny one room thatch or plain, unpainted wood dwellings, probably with dirt floors. You could see that the doors were ill-fitting, and I saw no glass in any windows. Indeed, there weren't many windows, and I'd hate to try and do anything constructive inside one of those buildings. I didn't realize it until later, but I wasn't seeing chimneys, either.

"Okay, I think we can take it as given that these people don't have anything worth trading for," I said.

Then everyone on the ground turned to face us, almost all at once. Looking back now, I see how eerie that was in my mind's eye, but at that moment, it felt both right and normal. "No point in hiding, they've seen us," I remember Mr. Dulles saying. In retrospect, that ranks at the top of dumbest things I've ever heard him say, and that is saying something, but just then it seemed reasonable and rational. Major Kyle set us down just outside of town, and popped the hatch. After seventy-odd hours in a tin can, we didn't exactly smell of roses, but an odor you have to smell to understand immediately assaulted our sense of smell. We ignored it as John Dulles led us all out the hatch. Fool that I was, I followed him.

Copyright 2016 Dan Melson. All RIghts Reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on June 27, 2022 7:00 AM.

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