Excerpt - Sylvan Thrive
Sylvan Thrive, book 8 of the Thrive Space Colony Adventures.
Fresh world, first colony!
Sass Collier and Thrive escort a colony expedition to the gorgeous Earth-like planet Sylvan.
Woefully underfunded, understaffed, and under-equipped, they’re establishing the first new human planet in a century. The expedition leader’s motto is Fail Fast.
And they’re doing a bang-up job of it!
But is the problem lovely forested Sylvan? Or sabotage?
Rejoin the motley crew of Thrive for another space opera romp across the sorry stars of the refugee diaspora on the wing and prayer plan!
“Button up for landing, chief!” Captain Sass Collier shared a smile with her gorgeous partner Clay Rocha, as the cargo door between them began to close. He’d generously agreed to step in to captain Sardine, freeing Zan to accompany his people for their historic first landing on planet Sylvan.
The high occupancy shuttle’s real name was Hopeful Thrive. The ship wasn’t designed to found colonies, merely lug as many people as possible to orbit, or from orbit to landing. But the great terraforming crew ships that founded Earth’s far-flung refugee colonies, 120 years ago, were named for wonderful extinct species. Thrive Spaceways didn’t have one of those brave 30,000-passenger ships.
They had a sardine can named Hopeful, max occupancy 1,000. But it had a three-hour time limit at that crowding. Today it carried 300 packed in abject misery.
Minus the forty she’d just transferred to her venerable ship Thrive One for first landing. These riders, mostly Denali-born hunters, perched in their pressure suits along the edge of the catwalk and down the stairs into the hold, feet dangling. A triumphant party atmosphere prevailed.
Sass turned to the two engineers at the console. “Try not to rely on the temporary help, chief.”
“I think Cope and I can manage,” Darren Markley agreed with a grin. He was her ship’s engineer for this voyage, a veteran of Thrive’s long journey to the planet Sanctuary. That was five years ago — time flew.
“Now I’m your gofer?” John Copeland returned wryly. President of Thrive Spaceways, Cope naturally served as his husband Ben Acosta’s chief engineer on Merchant Thrive when he traveled. But Ben didn’t need an engineer to cool his heels in orbit. While the colony founders needed all the expertise they could get.
“Glad you’re with me,” Sass assured him, pressing his pressure-suited shoulder in passing. Like everyone else in the hold, they wore their helmets racked on their shoulders. The captain preferred maximum paranoia for this first landing. “Is there a guest engineer equivalent of admiral? Let lowly chief Markley handle the ship while you contemplate fleet technical strategy?”
“There you go,” Cope encouraged. “Gotta say, cap, these guys’ rowdiness may rub off on me.”
Sass nodded, and raised her voice to the crowded catwalk. “Clear me a space! I gotta get to the bridge!” The usual dogleg staircase was paved with lounging bodies.
The landing party erupted in cheers and applause. They pointed to the top of the ladder forward, buried behind a maze of delicate equipment, stacked in crates of vivid Denali hardwood. Sass countered by pointing directly ahead of her, where the floor was kept clear for trapdoor access.
“Move!” Sass then took a running jump and flicked her gravity generator to sail up to the catwalk. She tucked in her feet as she cleared the railing, hunters ducking from her path. She flicked her gravity back to 1 g and took the bulkhead with her shoulder to hoots and cheers. She sketched a bow and a wave, then marched to the bridge, toeing the occasional rump that strayed too far into her path.
Cope was right. This landing team was in high spirits, and it was indeed contagious. She reached the bridge as psyched as they were. She hit the pressure door seal and racked her helmet behind the gunner’s seat. “You’re in my chair, Zan. Move.”
The Denali hunter looked around at her astonished. Though he hadn’t hunted on Denali for two decades, since he left his homeworld. He’d been working for Sass or Cope’s Spaceways ever since. “Really?”
“If you can captain Sardine, I don’t see why not.” Sass waited for his rump to sluggishly shift to the pilot’s seat, so she could take the gunner’s station. “Sylvan’s your planet, not mine.”
“Planet to be,” Zan quibbled. “Proposed planet.”
Sass furrowed her brow at him in amusement. Zan didn’t talk much. Reservations and caution were out of character. “I can pilot us in if you want.”
“Yes!” Zan zipped back to the gunner’s seat with gusto.
“OK…” Sass settled in the pilot’s seat and commed Ben. His ship was a near-clone of hers, minus eight decades of wear and tear. “Merchant, Thrive Actual. My timer says insertion in ten minutes. Is this also to your liking?”
Sass fancied she heard Ben yawn on his own bridge. “Sure. Go ahead. You bring my husband back to me. Zan you can leave behind. Good luck. Merchant out.”
Sass chuckled. She let Zan carry out the first mate spiel, confirming all pressure doors pressurized and bodies got where they were going. The hold was not a secure location for passengers, so he ordered the catwalk riders to seal their helmets and hang on.
When he was done, Sass cocked an eyebrow at him. “Are you going to explain why you don’t want to take us down?”
“Cool. Be that way.” She brought up her flight plan and confirmed he mirrored it as copilot. “Sylvan, here we come in 10, 9, 8.” True to Mahina form, she didn’t complete the countdown aloud — that added unnecessary stress. The timer finished, and her programmed navigation took over, smoothly parting ways with Merchant and Sardine.
Unlike the lightweight moons of Pono, Sylvan took some time on approach, owing to its 0.9-odd gravity. Somewhat larger than Earth, the planet’s lower gravity presumably promised a lower metal content.
The gorgeous planet sure did look like Earth, though, at least during one of the great Ice Ages. Of 180 degrees of latitude, only 60 of them showed between Sylvan’s immense frozen ice caps. That still left about half the planet thawed, most days. Snowfall was common in its narrow temperate zone tucked below the glaciers. That’s where they headed today. Having struggled with brutal heat for the past century on the Denali north pole, the colonists fancied a cold season.
The oceans — the thawed part anyway — shone vivid blue, the continents mostly a deep dark green, all swathed in white cotton candy clouds. Of all the planets found since humanity stepped off the homeworld, Sylvan was the prize, the jewel, an Earth-like planet at last. Not that they’d be able to breathe the air. Its oxygen content was too high, along with a few pesky trace ingredients.
First planet in Sass’s life with too much oxygen!
They’d studied the place from orbit for a couple days. Ben and Cope urged the founding cabal to study longer. But their observations from orbit corroborated the good news the wildcatters brought back when they discovered Sylvan. For further details, they needed to get down there.
Tarana, leader of the Denali expedition, had a motto: Fail fast!
Sass understood the logic: take risks and learn in a hurry. Her people couldn’t wait to escape Sardine. And all too soon, Spaceways would require them to unload, so the ships could fly away to cart other immigrants. The longer the Denali had on the surface to establish their beachhead before Ben and Sass needed to abandon them, the better.
Still, the captain wished Tarana would phrase it differently.
Her ship began to bite into the atmosphere, trailing hot streamers behind them. The sky began to lighten from the black of space to darkest blue, then brightening cobalt. Sass’s heart exulted to see blue sky above for the first time since childhood.
Like Earth, the atmosphere thickened. The streamers turned into a fireball pouring from her bow as her ship air-braked to shed the enormous orbital velocity. They dipped across the terminator, a flaming meteor in the night with no one to see.
Sass rested her fingers on her controls and kept a wary eye out. Thrive was rocking and bobbing in turbulence like a wild thing. But nothing exceeded the limits of her inertial dampeners yet.
“Cyclone,” Zan warned her.
She calmly veered around it — they were now low enough to pass through instead of over the storm. “That came up fast.” She’d checked the weather on her last orbital pass, of course, and plotted her course around a different hurricane.
“Another!” Zan called out.
Sass veered again. The two storms in such close proximity had a towering thunderstorm system trapped between them. That passage got rather bouncy. Kassidy Yang, recording the landing for posterity and current income, lamented that a lightning bolt zapped one of the cameras. The chief engineers promised to fix it some other time.
And in another moment, they were out, flying into sunrise. Then a snowstorm at this altitude, then back into sun. For the next cloud, they were low enough to catch streaming water. That wasn’t a big deal for the Denali contingent. It rained daily in their steamy jungles. But no rain had ever fallen on Mahina.
And they were out, far lower. In fact, a little lower than Sass preferred with all the mountains ringing the proposed first city. She pulled up and finished bleeding off speed on manual. Then she arced in, spiraling down to Sylvan One, an imaginary spot on a map and a gleam in Tarana’s eye.
This landscape was stunning. The edge of the ice pack shone brilliant white and blue behind purple snowcapped mountains, peaking above dark green and red forests. She wheeled over a vast melt lake in glacier turquoise which deepened to azure and midnight blue. She banked over the rolling forested hills and returned to the lake to follow an exiting ribbon of river.
Odd that this river, so broad and deep and clear, had no banks. She considered asking, but surely the Denali geologists knew their stuff.
And there it was! Their founding city-to-be looked a lot like all the other woods for the moment, perhaps a bit short, but her way marker was clear. She brought Thrive to hover 100 meters above.
“Now I insist you do the honors,” she told Zan. “But use the weakest beam you can to start.” She flipped the all-hands comms on. “People! We have arrived, and are about to begin clearing our first spaceport! Because we can’t land on a tree. Captain out.”
Zan studied the lay of the land, to the extent they could see it. The sonic returns were uncertain on the topography. Sass pursed her lips and let him think it through. His people’s planet, after all.
Apparently he came to the wrong conclusion. He targeted the highest tree in the target zone. Then he shot at its base with 10% power on the main asteroid-killing plasma gun. Sass’s jaw dropped.
Humans couldn’t breathe Sylvan’s air. The high oxygen level could cause brain damage. But oh, it made for an exuberant fire! The 40-meter tree practically exploded into flames nearly reaching her ship. The captain shot the younger captain a dirty look and shifted Thrive 20 meters up and 100 meters east from the bonfire, upwind from its spume of smoke.
As the neighboring trees also exploded into fire, she shifted Thrive to wait over the river. “My guns from now on, Zan.”
“I said minimum fire,” she groused. “Why didn’t you use the small laser?”
Sass shook her head in disbelief. A Mahinan, she might expect to start a forest fire by accident. But a Denali? They lived in a rain forest! They even mined minerals by burning their bizarre trees to glass. Hunters burned forest every day, the only way to keep a path open. “You fly the shuttle for defense. Get going the minute we land, before I offload the riders. But rego hell, Zan, don’t set any more trees ablaze!”
As the conflagration spread, Darren and Cope called with a plan. They could use the grav grapples to collect water from the river and dump it to wet a perimeter around the wildfire. Failing that, at least they could cool the ground already burnt. Cope called her a dumbass once or twice. Sass silently congratulated herself for not blaming her copilot. As captain, she was responsible for Captain Zan’s stupidity, too.
The Denali wisely decamped to the shuttle while Sass and the engineers doused the blaze.
An hour later, she set Thrive down on a boggy bit of charcoal. She gazed around, enraptured.
She hadn’t expected to fall in love. Sylvan was Earth, pristine and new.
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