H m hoover lost star, p.1

H.M. Hoover - Lost Star, page 1

 

H.M. Hoover - Lost Star
 


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H.M. Hoover - Lost Star


  Prologue

  Long ago, when their star aged and burned so that the ninth planet withered and its seas grew hot, the people fled their world. The network of Counters told them when and where and how, and their orbiting ships streamed out into the dark space. Their bright star, forgotten, swelled upon itself and began to shed its fiery mass into the stellar winds.

  On other worlds, where life went on, the dying star was seen. Some had evolved enough to grunt at it in wonder, others sang to celebrate its beauty, some made up myths of supernatural happenings, and a few, a very few, analyzed its nuclear reactions. All were ignorant of its doomed planets.

  The Counters calculated and scattered the ships, the life containers, as our wind scatters maple keys, and like those winged seeds, only a small number remained viable until new suns gave them world and water and time. One Counter found a favorable world and a form of continuity for the life its own ship contained. That was long before Earth's people found and named that same world Balthor.

  There was something dreadful out there in the dark; she was sure of that. Just as sure as she had been at the age of four, when something terrible lurked beneath her bed and she knew that if she put a toe over the edge, it would grab her foot. At four, she would lie rigid with fear until sleep freed her. Now she was fifteen and alone in the night of another world; sleep would not come, and she was trapped not by her imagination but by the wreckage of her aircar.

  She had gone to Limai spaceport to pick up a load of supplies—a routine trip. On the way home a storm had overtaken her freight-laden craft. Tornado winds lifted her to heights no sane pilot would attempt, spun her across the sky, and left her to drop through dark clouds where lightning lurked and struck this small interloper as it fell.

  All electrical equipment, all computerized instruments went dead. She fought with the few manual controls to right the craft, to pull it up, and suddenly saw row on row of mountains jutting up below. Hailstones racketed against the windows. When the crash came, it was in rain so dense she could not see. The craft belly-landed, skimming over treetops like a stone skipped across waves. The last thing she heard was the banshee scream of branches against the metal hull.

  It was night when she woke, surprised to find herself alive. Her body was slumped in the pilot's seat behind the safety mesh; her head lolled painfully to the side. There was the salty taste of blood in her mouth, and her lips and tongue felt swollen, as if she had bitten them or smashed against something. She was so disoriented and it was so dark that it took her some time to make sure she wasn't badly hurt. She had no idea where she was, and she was frightened.

  Wanting to get out, without thinking what might be out there, she freed herself from the mesh. The hatch wouldn't open, either by button or by manual trip-bar. There was a hole somewhere; she could feel a draft. A hole meant insects could get in. At the thought her ankles began to itch; her neck felt as if something with many tiny legs were marching under her hair. She scratched vigorously and found no insects and no bites. How silly, her common sense reminded her, to narrowly miss death and then worry about insects. She took a deep breath to relax and leaned back against the seat. Thoughtless panic would never do.

  The rain stopped. Through the window she could see trees, black against a jagged dark horizon. Insects sang. From the distance came a rhythmic tock-tock sound. There were birdlike trills, high-pitched squeaks, soft songlike ululations, the small footsteps of forest creatures going about their business. The air smelled of wet humus and of plants crushed by her wreck.

  The clouds were blowing away, and the stars seemed a reassuring link with home. She wasn't aware when the silence began; she only noticed when, one by one, the sounds outside ceased. When the last insect stopped singing, the trees sighed in a sudden wind. For no reason she shivered, and goose bumps rose on her arms. Something was out there.

  A heavy branch snapped. There was a loud snifl, then a second, clearer and more distinct, as if a head had turned in her direction. Twigs cracked and broke against a moving bulk or bulks. Grass rustled. The wreckage shuddered slightly, as if touched against its will.

  Lian curled down in her seat to get below window level. If it could hunt in the dark, it had night vision. She could not see it—but it could see her. She had been told by experts that the carnivores of Balthor could not feed on foreign protein; it made them very ill. Now she wondered, Had the carnivores been told?

  Something heavy stepped onto the wing, stood there, ponderously walked forward, paused, and then began to try to force open the windows. Lian bit her lip to keep from crying out, and slid down into the space between the pilot's seat and the control panel. The floor was wet and gritty; broken wires jabbed her. For a moment she worried that the wires might be hot, then forgot about it as the wreck abruptly tilted; a heavy body lurched against the pilot's dome and fell to the ground with a cry.

  As if in anger, the thing pounded on the wing until all the metal warbled. Plastic fragments from the dome rained on her head. There was a second drumming, less vigorous, and weird moaning sounds. The wreckage gave a final bounce and was still.

  She was afraid to move. Her knees ached from crouching in this awkward nook; a sharp fragment was poking her thigh. She rested her forehead against the seat and was aware of being very tired. She thought of her own bed; it seemed the most desirable thing in the world.

  Home was somewhere out there in the darkness of this nearly empty planet, on a high, bleak plateau beneath seven large white domes. Inside each dome enormous telescopes silently wheeled and turned, staring up at the stars, observing, recording, evaluating the formation and evolution of this unknown portion of the universe. And all to satisfy the infinite curiosity of humans.

  Lian knew that while the two astrophysicists who were her parents could comfortably envision the creation and death of the Milky Way, they would probably not notice her failure to show up for dinner. Which might be just as well; no sense worrying them. The computer would have followed her flight as long as power lasted in her ship. The observatory's orbiting satellite would have tracked her the rest of the way. They would find her in the morning.

  A night creature gave a tentative call. Another answered. Insects began to sing, hesitantly at first, then with renewed confidence. The danger had gone.

  Very quietly Lian pulled herself up onto the seat and brushed herself off. This was not the best of beds, but it would do. She had almost drifted off to sleep when from the distance came a long, mournful cry. The night chorus paused to listen and be reassured, then resumed louder than before.

  But the cry echoed in Lian's mind and banished sleep. It was as if she had heard herself cry out with an old fear of being lost and alone. In a sense, she thought, she had been ever since she was eight and left Earth with her parents. The fears had been buried, as feelings usually were, but they were still with her here in the dark.

  She had never admitted that to herself before, how lonely she had been as a child among adults . . . adults who were well meaning and correct, but bored by a child and preoccupied with their own work and passions.

  Because of the nomadic nature of her parents' profession, they had had the choice of leaving her in school on Earth and possibly never seeing her again, or taking her with them to space colonies, to other worlds, to always remote outposts. Her playmates had been few and far between. Her teachers were computers, but she had had access to any advanced education she chose. She had chosen astronomy; at least some of the astron-

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  omy teachers were human, members of her parents' staff. She liked the subject and studied hard and well. There were few distractions.

  When she was fourteen, her first simple paper was published, "Spectrographic Analysis of the Titaniu
m Composition of A-62.83-3.3 as a Feasible Ore Source." At fifteen a comet bore her name. Less than a month before, she had proudly become the youngest salaried member of the observatory staff. Her parents were pleased. Not so all the staff. Some muttered "nepotism"; others watched this slender, dark-haired girl pass them in the hall, so intent, so serious, and asked her if she was happy, as if they thought she wasn't. It had bothered her before. Now, as she thought about them, their opinions seemed unimportant.

  It was a very long night. Several times she dozed off, and then her dreams would revive those last few conscious seconds before the crash, and she would jerk awake, heart pounding. An hour before dawn the adrenalin was exhausted and she went limp in dreamless sleep.

  A herd of nalas woke her as they grazed around the wreck. Like green-and-white-striped goats, they bleated out comments on the morning. The sun was almost up. That cheered her; help would be here soon. She pressed the emergency beacon button. It was still dead.

  Sitting up, she saw that her aircar had slid off the canopy of trees, slewed left, and plowed halfway across a meadow. The skid marks were a wavering brown scar against the green.

  Movement caught her eye. In the furrow behind her a flock of blue-crested bidernecks swooped down on a hapless lizard. They swarmed up from a skeleton, these avian piranhas, to circle and light upon the tailfin of the aircar. The scent of something trapped inside excited them to chirps and screeches. Not yet birds but no longer reptiles, bidernecks were scavengers and very good at their job.

  Lian turned to watch them. At her first move they framed the window like gargoyles. She shrank back

  against the seat. Beady-eyed, clinging with claw-tipped wings, they were six inches high and black. With their horse heads and long teeth, they appeared to be constantly smiling a terrible smile.

  There was a scratching noise behind her. A bider-neck was trying to force its way through a crack in the window. She poked at it. The biderneck promptly bit her finger. But even as it did so, an expression of revulsion came over the creature. It scrambled back, chittering frantically, wiping its teeth on the pane, on other bidernecks, on anything it could. It made spitting sounds, as if it had tasted something disgusting. There was a flurry of sniffing and chitters, and the flock abruptly took wing.

  She couldn't stand being trapped in here a minute longer. If the hatch would not open, maybe the dome would. She got up on the seat. It was too cramped for her to stand erect, so she pushed from a stooped position, first with both hands, then with her shoulders. The dome creaked but would not release.

  The effort did, however, produce a sharp headache. When she touched the side of her face where the worst pain was, she discovered a lump and tenderness. "A black eye," she said, and went back to shoving and wincing.

  Boinkf The seat beneath her feet rocked left. She grabbed at the ceiling to keep from falling. The hatch had sprung open, ramp down, its weight tilting the entire wreck.

  Lian stepped out onto the wing and looked around. To be outdoors at the Mount Balthor Observatory was to see a world of mountaintops and sky, bare rock and snow, clouds and wind. Sometimes it had seemed to her that Balthor was as desolate as the stars. Limai spaceport hardly counted. It was like all terminals, shabby and impersonal, full of aliens en route to other places. But this mountain valley with encircling wooded hills, sweet grass, animals, and gentle breeze had the coziness of Earth.

  Well, perhaps not quite, she thought, remembering 14

  the creature who had terrified her the night before, and wondering where it was at the moment, and what it was.

  She sat down on the crumpled tail section. It was cold and wet with dew, and she slid to the ground. Rainwater trapped in a wing hollow reminded her she was both thirsty and hungry. Her last meal had been yesterday's lunch. She cupped some water in her hand, took a sip, and spit it out. It tasted of dust, metallic residue, and a bitterness she couldn't define. A green birdlike creature, attracted by the flash of water, landed beside her, bent down to drink, and also spit. It looked up at her and cocked its head questioningly.

  "I'm waiting to be rescued," she told it, and then winced as her lip pulled in speech. The bird did not seem sympathetic and quickly flew off. The nala herd wandered away down the clearing, and she was alone again.

  It was perhaps ten o'clock in the morning when the hum of a motor became audible between bird songs. The hills created an echo; it was impossible to tell from which direction the sound came. As she turned, the sun mirror-flashed off something in the west. She squinted to see. Some sort of alien craft was approaching.

  The strange craft circled and recircled the clearing, blowing the grass flat with its jets, whipping leaves and dust high in the air. Lian turned her back and closed her eyes against debris. She heard rather than saw the craft set down. There was a hissing sigh as the motor shut off. A hatch spring sang out. Brushing her hair back from her face, she turned and saw a man running toward her, a stranger.

  He was tall, brown skinned, and gaunt. His curly white hair gleamed in the sun, but he appeared younger than her father. He was dressed in tan clothes and work boots, and tools jangled from his belt.

  "Are you all right?" he called. His accent was cultured and of Earth. Now that she could see him clearly, she relaxed somewhat. His face was kind if not handsome, his expression a mixture of concern and puzzlement. "Should you be walking about? You look rather pale." As he came up to her, he reached out and gently but firmly touched her chin and turned her bruised face to the light. "Is that very painful?" he asked, frankly studying her.

  "It's fine," she said, wondering who he was. "I'm always pale. It comes from studying at night and sleeping days." She took a step back. "I'm very glad to see you. Who are you?"

  "A reasonable question," the man said and smiled. "Jeffrey Farr." He nodded toward his aircraft. "As

  you probably guessed by the flags, we're here on a field trip."

  Lian had not noticed the insignia. It was painted on the open hatch and identified the craft as belonging to the "Balthor Archaeological Research Expedition, Interstellar Geographic Society and Central Pacific University, Joint Sponsors. Dr. J. Farr, Comm."

  "What are archaeologists doing on Balthor? I thought this was a Class Five planet. There's no civilization—is there?"

  "No more," the man agreed, "but there was once. We don't know yet if it was native or if the planet served as a colony for another world, but habitations do exist. Now, if you will forgive my curiosity, who are you?"

  She stared at him. "Lian Webster, of course. Who were you searching for?"

  He suppressed a smile. "No one—living."

  Lian felt herself blush with confusion. "You didn't know I was here?"

  "No," the man said. "I was site-hunting. I saw the sun glinting off your aircraft, wondered what it was, and flew over to check. Are you alone?"

  "Yes—I crashed last night—"

  "Good Lord! Lian Webster, where are you from?"

  "Mount Balthor Observatory."

  "That's a thousand miles away at least! How did you end up here? We must call them at once." His obvious concern was somehow very comforting.

  She told him and then looked down at her white pants and jacket. They were dirt-stained and spotted with blood from her split lip. "Do I look very terrible? Will they be upset when they see me on the screen?"

  "I imagine they're upset already, but your appearance won't be an added shock. There's no screen on my craft. Just a radio."

  It took almost five minutes to get the observatory to respond to their call. When someone finally answered, it was Max, one of the maintenance crew. He seemed surprised to hear she was not in Limai. "We

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  thought the storm grounded you," he said. "It's still raining there, and we've got heavy snow a mile below us."

  Lian didn't really care about his weather report. "Can I speak with either of my parents?"

  "Sorry. They're both in the big dome. They've got the no-admittance, no-calls rule in effe
ct."

  "This is an emergency, Max. You can interrupt."

  "Look—uh—give me your channel code," he said, and then, to her extreme irritation, went off the air with, "I'll get back to you."

  Nobody even noticed I was missing, she thought, but said aloud, "He's going to call back," which was unnecessary since Dr. Farr had heard the entire conversation.

  "Yes." His tone was noncommittal, and he was staring off into space as if distracted by another thought. "Your parents are—" he started to say and then took a deep breath and changed his mind. "Are you hungry?"

  "I'm starving," she said honestly. "I haven't eaten since lunchtime yesterday. And I'm very thirsty!"

  "Good. I've just the thing."

  As he rummaged about in a container under the bolted-in pilot's seat, she looked the craft over. "What kind of vehicle is this? I never saw one like it."

  "Tolat truck. Great design, isn't it? It's a bit functional—but they don't need seats—here we go!" He handed her several food boxes.

  Over the fruit drink and chocolate protein bars she told him the details of her adventure. He listened with Ms eyes, so closely that his own fleeting expressions registered any changes in her face. She sat on the open hatch, he cross-legged on the ground, totally at ease.

  "It pounded on the wing?" he said. "In rage or pain?"

  "I don't know—I was too scared to tell."

  He nodded. "I would have been too." He looked over at her aircar and shook his head in wonder. "You're one fine pilot, Lian Webster!"

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  "I'm one lucky pilot," she said, and he grinned at

  her.

  "That animal of yours bothers me a little," he said. "There aren't supposed to be dangerous animals of that size around here. According to the experts. I never trust experts in things like that." He stood up. "There's really no point waiting here. Your people can pick you up at our base far more conveniently than here."

  "What about my aircar? It doesn't look like much now, but it's very expensive equipment."

  "We'll call the wrecker at Limai. They can come pick it up with a magnetic hoist." He walked over to the wreck. "Do you want to salvage the supplies?"

 
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