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West to East

by Jay Lake

I wasn’t looking forward to dying lost and unremarked. Another day on Kesri-Sequoia II, thank you very much.

“Good morning, sir,” said Ensign Mallory from her navcomms station at the nose of our disabled landing boat.  She was a small, dark-skinned woman with no hair—I’d never asked if that was cultural or genetic. “Prevailing winds down to just under four hundred knots as of dawn.”

“Enough with the weather.” I coughed the night’s allergies loose. Alien biospheres might not be infectious, but alien proteins still carried a hell of a kick as far as my mucus membranes were concerned. I had good English lungs, which is to say, a near-permanent sinus infection under any kind of respiratory stress. And we’d given up on full air recycling weeks ago in the name of power management—with the quantum transfer chamber damaged in our uncontrolled final descent, all we had were backup fuel cells. Not nearly enough to power onboard systems, let alone our booster engines. The emergency stores were full of all kinds of interesting but worthless items like water purifiers, spools of buckywire, and inflatable tents.

Useless. All of our tech was useless. Prospero’s landing boat smelled like mold. Our deck was at a seven-degree angle. We’d been trapped down here so 
long I swear one of my legs was shortening to compensate.

Mallory glanced back at the display. “I’m sure you know best, sir.”

#

Just under four hundred knots pretty much counted as doldrums on the surface of Kesri-Sequoia II. Since the crash we’d regularly clocked wind gusts well in excess of nine hundred knots. Outside the well-shielded hull of the landing boat Ensign Mallory and I would have been stripped to the bone in minutes. Which was too bad. Kesri-Sequoia II didn’t seem to be otherwise inimical to human life. Acceptable nitrogen-oxygen balance, decent partial pressure, within human-normal temperature ranges—a bit muggy perhaps. Nothing especially toxic or caustic out there.

It was the superrotating atmosphere that made things a bitch.

There was life here though, plenty of it—turbulent environments beget niches, niches beget species radiation, species radiation begets a robust biosphere. Just not our kind of life, not anything humans could meaningfully interact with. Kesri-Sequoia’s dryland surface was dominated by giant sessiles that were rocky and solid with lacy air holes for snaring microbiota from the tumbling winds. They were a kilometer long, two hundred meters tall, less than two meters wide at the base, narrowing as they rose. The sessiles were oriented like shark fins into the airflow. Mallory called them land-reefs. We could see four from our windscreen, lightning often playing between them as the winds scaled up and down. Approaching one expecting communication would be like trying to talk to Ayers Rock.

Then there were ribbon-eels—ten meters of razor-thin color flowing by on the wind like a kootchie dancer’s prop. And spit-tides that crawled across the scoured landscape, huge mats of loosely-differentiated proteins leaching nutrients from the necrophages that lurked in the surface cracks.

All surface life on Kesri-Sequoia II moved west to east. Nothing fought the winds. Nothing made me or Ensign Mallory want to get out and say, “Hello.” Nothing could help us get the landing boat back to orbit and the safety of Prospero. The atmosphere was so electrically messy we couldn’t even transmit our final logs and survey data to the crew waiting helplessly high above.

#

I stared out the crazed crystal-lattice of the forward portside viewport. I figured when something much larger than a pea hit it that was the end for us. Once the wind got inside the boat, we’d finally be dead.

A ribbon-eel soared by in the distance. The animal glittered like an oil slick as it undulated. “How strong do you figure those things are?” I asked Ensign Mallory. “They look like they’re made of tissue.”

She glanced at the exterior telemetry displays, seeing my eel with the landing boat’s electronic eyes. “I ran some simulations last week.”

“And?”

Mallory sighed wistfully. “I’d love to dissect one. Those things’ muscle fibers must have a torsional strength superior to spider silk. Otherwise they would shred in the turbulence.”

Her comment about spiders made me think of airborne hatchlings on Earth, each floating on their little length of thread. “I wonder if we could use some of those damned things as sails. If we could get the boat off the ground and pointed into the wind, we might be able to climb high enough on deadstick to at least get off a message to Prospero.”

They couldn’t send the other landing boat, prosaically named “B” to our “A,” after us. Not unless they wanted to condemn another crew. And our first touchdown had been so violent that even if we somehow found a way to power the engines there was no way we’d survive to the end of a second flight.

But getting our last words out had a certain appeal.

“How are you going to catch a ribbon-eel, sir? It’s not like we can step outside and go fishing.”

“Fishing…” I went back to the landing boat’s stores locker next to the tiny galley at the rear of the three-meter long main cabin. Standard inventory included four spools of long-chain fullerene—buckywire, or more accurately, carbon nanotube whiskers grown to arbitrary macroscale lengths. In our case a rated minimum of a hundred meters per spool. Thatwould be fishing line that tested out to a few hundred tons. “What do you figure ribbon-eels eat?” I asked over my shoulder as I grabbed the four spools.

#

We only had one local food available to us—the mold from the air ducts. Ensign Mallory scraped out a few cubic centimeters’ worth. It sat in the kneepad of our lone hardsuit like so much gray flour.

“This stuff won’t stick to anything, sir,” she said. Mallory’s voice was almost a whine. Surely she wasn’t losing her spirit now that we had something to focus on?

I considered the powdery mess. “Syrup packets from the galley. A little bit of cornstarch. We’re there.”

“How are you going to get it outside?”

“We’re going to build a little windlock on the inside of the busted viewport up front. Bind this stuff as a paste onto the buckywire, spool it out, and snag us a ribbon-eel.”

Buckybondo is weird stuff—it munges the electron shells of organic molecules. That’s the only way to stick fullerene-based materials to anything else. But you can glue your fingers to the bulkhead with it, literally bonding your flesh with the plastoceramics so that only an arc welder or a bone saw will cut you free. I wouldn’t let Mallory touch the stuff. We only needed a few drops in the mold paste to stick it to the buckywire. I figured I’d just suffer the risks myself. One of the burdens of command.

#

Two hours later I was paying out line through the windlock. The wind carried it away past my screen, out of my sight. I figured we’d significantly reduced the service life of the viewport by drilling the hole, but what else were Ensign Mallory and I going to do with the rest of our short lives?

“Slow it down, sir,” Mallory said. She monitored the sensors for ribbon-eels. “The wind is taking your bait too close to a land-reef.”

I thumbed the electrostatic brake on the buckywire reel. The line stopped extending. The buckywire made an eerie clatter against our hull as it vibrated in the wind.

“Ribbon-eel approaching.” She paused. “It seems to have noticed the bait. Draw your line back a little sir.”

I reeled the buckywire in, moving the bait closer to the landing boat for a moment.

“Damn,” hissed Mallory. “Missed it. Next time, sir, don’t go against the wind.”

“Roger that.” I’d only done what she said.

Ten minutes later we caught one. It came shooting up out of the west, grabbed the bait on the fly, and yanked the buckywire reel out of my hand. I lunged toward the damaged viewport, fetching up against our jerry-rigged windlock and nearly breaking my fingers. “Oh, crap!”

“We got it, sir. Can you reel our eel in?”

The wind pressure from the captive ribbon-eel made the viewport creak but the buckywire reel engaged and slowly retracted the line. The nose of the landing boat rocked with the drag from our airborne captive. I glanced at Mallory’s screen where the ribbon-eel could be seen thrashing as we tugged it against the wind.

I felt vaguely guilty. I figured I’d worry about the ethics of this once I was dead.

#

“Now what, sir?”

The nose of the landing boat kept rocking. We were flying the ribbon-eel like a flag. Its drag bumped our vehicle to the starboard. “This isn’t enough,” I said. “We’ll need at least one more.”

“We’ve got three more spools.”

I imagined four ribbon-eels, great, colored pennants dragging us into the air. We’d be out of control. “What if I hooked a second wire into the other end of the eel? We could even steer. Like a parasail.”

Ensign Mallory shook her head. “You’ll never survive out there, sir.”

“There’s always the hardsuit.”

“It’s not rated for these conditions.”

I shrugged. “Neither are we, and we’re still here.” Terrible logic, but I was down to emotional appeals, even to myself. “Let’s hook up the hardsuit to another reel so you have a chance of getting me back. Then I’ll go out and hook up the ass end of that eel. If I don’t make it back in, you fly the landing boat up to the middle atmosphere. Get above the storms, tellProspero what happened to us.”

“You can’t even walk out there, sir.”

“We’ll see.”

#

We passed all three of the other reels out of the windlock. I suited up, took a tube of buckybondo and a pair of electrostatic grippies and forced myself into the landing boat’s tiny airlock.

“Ready when you are, Ensign.”

“Good luck, sir.”

I could feel the air pumps throbbing through the feet of the hardsuit. We’d decided to drop the pressure in the lock before opening to the outside—we’d already commingled atmospheres, not to mention breaching the viewport, but there didn’t seem any point in inviting in a whole new airlock-full of allergens and contaminants. I set an ultrabungee on one of the hardware cleats inside the lock chamber then clipped the other end to the equipment belt of my hardsuit.
The outer hatch slid open. I stepped out and became the first human to set foot on the surface of Kesri-Sequoia II. Immediately thereafter I became the first human to loose his footing on the surface of Kesri-Sequoia II as the wind took me airborne.

Thank God for the ultrabungee, I thought as I sailed upward. I might make it back down to the surface. Then I remembered the buckywire connecting the ribbon-eel to our landing boat. If I sailed across it that stuff could slice my leg off like a scalpel. I grabbed the ultrabungee and spun myself, looking for the ribbon-eel.

I forgot my panic in the glory of the view.

From this altitude, perhaps two hundred meters up at the end of the ultrabungee, I could see our four neighboring land-reefs and a dozen more beyond. The ground was rippled like beach sand just beneath the lip of the tide. Clouds boiled above and around me, the planet’s hurried energy given form. Everything below had a grayish-yellow cast as the dim light of Kesri-Sequoia filtered through the superrotating atmospheric layers, but the view themselves took my breath away.

We’d never seen the sky properly from inside the lander. The racing clouds were evanescent, glowing with lavenders and pastel greens, the lightning arcing among them like the arguments of old lovers. Streaming between the banks were smears of brick-red, deep violet, azure blue, and a dozen more colors for which I had no name. These were the airborne microbiota on which the land-reefs fed and that the ribbon-eels chased. It was like being inside a Van Gogh painting, the swirling bursts of colors brought to life.

I hung on to the ultrabungee and stared, bouncing in the sky like a yo-yo gone berserk.

“…sir…air…”

Mallory’s voice was a faint echo. She was unable to punch a clear signal even the few hundred meters to my suit radio. We should have rigged a wireline with the ultrabungee, I realized. Using the hardsuit’s enhanced exomusculature to fight the wind, I pulled myself down the ultrabungee hand over hand. I watched the ribbon-eel carefully to avoid crossing its buckywire tether.

#

By the time I reached the nose of the landing boat the wind buffeting was giving me a terrible headache. I felt as if I waded in a racing tide. The spell of the sky’s beauty had worn off. At least this close to the ship I could hear Ensign Mallory over the radio. More or less.

“Feed down…’en meters…lock…”

“Do not copy,” I said. I bent down with one of the electrostatic grippies and picked up a buckywire end. I pulled it to my chest and secured it to my suit with buckybondo. Now I wouldn’t immediately blow away again. I grabbed another buckywire with my grippy. “Reel the eel in close, I want to see its tail.”

“Copy…eel…’ail…”

The ribbon-eel loomed closer to me. I was able to study it objectively. The creature was about ten meters long, lemon-colored with pale green spots along the side. Perhaps a meter tall, it had the same narrow vertical cross-section that the land-reefs boasted. I couldn’t see any eyes, but there was a large, gummy mouth into which the buckywire vanished. Hopefully the buckybondo was helping it hold somewhere deep in the eel’s gut. The animal thrashed against the line but I couldn’t tell if that was the wind or an effort at struggle.

Now it was my turn to torture the ribbon-eel in person. I needed to hook the buckywire somewhere near the tail. Straining against my own buckywire with the ultrabungee whipping behind me, I reached for the green fringe along the bottom of the ribbon-eel.

It was like catching a noodle on the boil. Possible but difficult. Once I grabbed the damned thing I had to engage all the hardsuit’s enhancements to hang on without either losing my grip or the ribbon-eel. I locked the hardsuit’s systems and stood there sweating inside the shell. The ribbon-eel whipped above me like a banner, tugging at my hand.

I’d run out of hands. One hand on the grippy of buckywire. One hand on the fringe of the ribbon-eel. How the hell was I going to handle the buckybondo? I couldn’t just open the faceplate and grab it in my teeth.

“Release the brakes,” I yelled into the suit radio. “Let all the reels run loose.”

“…’oger…”

The ribbon-eel shot into the sky with me still hanging on to it. I rocked myself against my right hand grabbing the fringe, trying to throw my left hand with grippy of buckywire up the side of the ribbon-eel. My feet kicked as I scrambled for purchase along the flank.

After a couple of moments, I was atop the ribbon-eel, riding it like a maintenance sled as I faced the tapering tail. With the ribbon-eel’s body pressed between my knees I was able to free my right hand from the fringe.  I worked the buckybondo out of my utility pocket and into my hand, globbed a big patch onto the flank, then used the grippy to plunge the free end of the buckywire into the mess.

I jumped away from the ribbon-eel and let the wind take me on my ultrabungee and my buckywire. “Reel me in, Mallory!” I screamed.

#

I couldn’t figure out how to get back in the airlock with the buckywire on my chest. I couldn’t figure that it mattered that much either. The ribbon-eel was already dragging the lander across the rippled surface. Mallory reeled me down to the nose of the boat where I stood straddling the cracked viewport. I buckybondoed my boots to the heat shield just below the port, then buckybondoed the last reel of buckywire to my chest next to the other one. Finally I used the two grippies to grab and control the lines leading to the ribbon-eel.

Once I evened the lengths of the lines and got the ribbon-eel across the wind the landing boat began to scoot nose-first along the landscape with a purpose. I figured I could work the ribbon-eel like a kite as we rose to and tack us far enough into the wind for our airfoil to bite.

“Sir,” said Mallory, her voice unexpectedly clear in the hardsuit’s radio. “You’re going to die out there.”

“You’re going to die in there,” I said. “Let’s get high enough up to tellProspero what happened. That’s all we need do.”

I stood on the nose and flew us up above the boiling, multi-colored clouds where Ensign Mallory could report to our mother ship about what fate had befallen us. There seemed no reason not to stay in the high, clear air, surfing the beauty of the skies behind our ribbon-eel until something tore free, so I did that thing and smiled.

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