(7) Up Close and Personal

The Mora Campaign (259-1119)

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259-1119 : Gorram / Mora / Spinward Marches

    Midnight passes, and the party on the orbiting HMS Third Eye continues.  Knowing that alcohol can be a preliminary to reproductive behaviors, Sagan remains watching with interest.  Vonish Kehnaan drinks, but not heavily -- it's not a habit he ever picked up.  Likewise Teri Cralla is drinking lightly, but enjoying everyone else's behavior and learning a lot about the Imperium.
    Eventually William Avon and Alice Waterford leave together.  Sagan watches them with interest.
    Akim Gavrolovitch and Mich Saginaw just keep drinking...
    Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead was on watch on the bridge, and so joins the party late.
    Finally the party winds down...

    Breakfast is excellent as usual.  Immediately following, Marquis Marcus Crestworthy chairs the meeting of the scientific staff.
    Unfortunately there are as many plans as there are staff:

    It's a typical University of Mora expedition, clearly.  These students have taken to heart the principle of coming up with their own ideas rather than bowing to academic superiors.
    The Marquis notes that the planned time on site is between one and three months.  The mission plan needs to take into account this, and the limited shipboard resources -- although there's a scientist on another ship that might be persuaded to help...
    Eric, the zoologist who wants to study the forests, points out that two months is approximately a "year" here.  The planet will pass through lowest cold through hottest during this period.  That would make a study of the forest area particularly valuable.

    Marquis Marc considers using the gcarrier as a second base vehicle -- it has a duration of 20 days.  He doesn't want to mix genders in such a confined space.  Of course it doesn't have the camouflage and survey capabilities of the starships, but it is a good working scientific platform.

    Marc proposes combining the projects.  One project would be as follows: an initial survey of the two sites, followed by a grid search of the whole planet.  That will combine a zoological and anthropological survey with mapping activities.  Perhaps this could be accomplished using the hiver ship.  That leaves the Third Eye and her gcarrier to do the rest of the work.
    All the work will be based from self-contained vehicles.  While it should be possible to survive in the natural environment, the extremes of climate make it much better to be in a controlled environment.  Of course the seas will have a moderating effect over the coastal regions.
    The other problem here is that there is an intelligent race here that doesn't know of off-planet life, and one of the goals is to avoid contact with that race.  So floating above their village in a big box would contradict that.  Bob, the anthropologist who wants to compare sites, objects strongly to parking the ship over a village -- he says it's far too likely to be detected.  As Marc points out, they don't know what the natives use for perception.  Also, while they can camouflage the ship, they can't hide the shadow (not with this ship, anyway).  So Kuno anthropologist withdraws his proposal, despite the Baron suggesting they try it and see what happens -- "After all, what's the worst that can happen?" asks the Baron.
    The Marquis suggests that their surveys should be carried out at night whenever possible.  At this stage, Gorram does indeed have a full night, as both suns are almost in line.

    The Marquis sets the mission's research plan.
    The two scientists who want to survey will try to do this with the hiver ship.  Marquis Marc will contact Sagan to see if sie's willing to allow the Extraordinary Circumstances to be used.
    Baron Bridgehead and the other scientists should talk to the Engineer and see if parking over any spot can be reasonably not detected.
    In the meantime they will drop several probes: one in the rain forest, one in the location of the original reported landing.  There'll also be three relay probes in orbit to maintain communication.
    They will get to work, and meet again tomorrow morning to discuss any developments.

    Avon launches the three probes into orbit.  Jenny helps out with the missile loading -- the launcher isn't designed for combat, so it requires manual loading of each probe.

    While the Extraordinary Circumstances downloads the navigational data they need to correct their astrogational failure, Robert takes the opportunity to observe where it's going and how it's stored -- more clues about the hiver computer systems.

    Sagan is in one of the staterooms.  Marc calls and asks hir to meet in the aft lounge.
    "Sagan, these are Bob and Sam," says the Marquis.  "They are here studying the planet.  We are wondering if you and your ship would join us in a scientific survey."
    "That is agreeable," the hiver replies, "But I thought this world was under restricted access."
    "You would temporarily be joining our survey mission and would therefore have permission from the government to be here."
    "I understand.  Very well."
    "Now in order for this to work appropriately, Bob and Sam would need to join you and your crew on your ship."
    "Should be room, yes.  Quarters will be cramped."
    "We wish to understand some of your sensor capabilities, to be sure it can meet their needs."
    "This vessel is a hiver explorer craft.  Surveys are its primary function."
    The Marquis adds, "If necessary to add sensor equipment, I'm sure our technicians can work it out."
    "If your people can supply the hardware specifications, we can certainly integrate the systems," Sagan assures him
    Bob and Sam seem happy to cope with what's there, and are satisfied that the Extraordinary Circumstances will be more than adequate.
    "Do you need to transfer some of your equipment or personnel temporarily to this ship?" Marquis Marc asks Sagan.
    "Not unless you can foresee some great need.  This vessel has sufficient room."  Sie pauses.  "Preferably, if it is agreeable, I will stay aboard your vessel, and my crew will perform their operations with your personnel."
    This suggestion is agreeable to all.

    Bob and Sam, with all their gear, transfer to the Extraordinary Circumstances.  Sagan makes sure hir crew is briefed and everything is ready for the new mission.

    Eventually Akim emerges from his sleep, asking for coffee.  He has a solid hangover, caused (he says) by the length of time since his last binge (the time on the hiver ship).
    Vonish puts together some very odd but excessively strong coffee.  It's not quite what many of the crew would expect, but it's definitely good Engineer-level coffee.  Strong stuff indeed.
    Coffee is good.  A shower is good.  Apparently it will be a good day for Akim.

    The Marquis contacts Akim and tells him that his host has accepted a survey mission, and will be busy doing that for several months.  He offers Akim a stateroom aboard the Third Eye -- certainly he'd have more space here than on the Extraordinary Circumstances.  Akim accepts.


Key to Terrain
Ocean Mountainous Hills or Foothills
Heavy vegetation Rough or broken Plain or Desert
Scale: 1 hex = 675 km
Icecaps are likely to be highly seasonal and are not shown.
Locations A and B are the possible native settlements.
Location C is the reported landing site of the free trader Donsharid that generated the rumor which led the Marquis here.  It is the position of the first probe.
Location D is the position of the second (failed) probe

    Avon launches the two sensors.  One is sent to location C, the original landing site; the other to a forest location on an island near the equator (location D).
    The probe to location C proceeds according to plan.
    The other probe is not so straightforward.  Its trajectory was correct, but when it reached an altitude of 700m all contact was lost.  Avon tries hard to pick it back up again, but can't regain communication.  Robert Morris manages to get a location on it, but that's all -- it keeps broadcasting an attempt to set up protocol, but clearly it's not receiving properly.  It is down on the night side -- it'll be night for quite some time there.  The temperature at that location would be around 10C.

    The Marquis assigns an away team to recover the probe with the gcarrier.  Neither Misha or Teri can pilot a gravcraft, but Akim volunteers to fly it.  The fourth member of the team will be Vonish -- he's as qualified as Akim as a gcarrier pilot, and can serve as backup.  The party will be fully armed -- Teri in full Imperial battledress with an FGMP-15; Misha with his usual weapons; Akim has his sword and sniper rifle (in one padded case) transferred from the Extraordinary Circumstances.
    Akim is a little taken aback by Teri's gear: "Isn't that overkill, ma'am?"
    "Depends what you're killing," she says.

    Akim launches the gcarrier from the Third Eye and descends safely into the atmosphere.

    The flight to treetop level is uneventful.  There's a lot more than just the probe here.  The abundant vegetation runs to a height of around 20 - 25 m to the canopy top.  They were expecting something a bit taller in this gravity.
    There is some background light, but the probe was designed to be hard to see.  They fire up the radar.

    The probe is on the ground underneath the canopy.  The trees are rather spiky, with thick branches.  The path of the probe shows as broken branches through the vegetation.
    Unfortunately, the probe is not alone.  There are three large animals moving around near it.
    The creatures appear to be rather like a large hippo, but much more rounded and around 45 tons.  The probe is getting smashed as they kick it around.  Clearly it's quite visible -- the optical transmitter - receiver system is not working.
    The beasts are making a lot of noise.  Fortunately they seem to be the only creatures in the area.

    Back on the Third Eye, Robert establishes communication with the probe by relaying through the gcarrier.
    The probe is moving.  It's being batted around by the creatures around it.

    There's some room to maneuver through the vegetation canopy; if Akim's willing to break small tree limbs and so on, he should be able to bring the gcarrier through safely.  Of course they could use the laser to cut a way through, but that hardly seems necessary.
    If they're going to recover the probe, they'll need to do it now.  Akim takes the gcarrier down through the canopy towards the probe.  He doesn't want to get too close to these beasts, though.

    There's a loud thump as Akim flies the gcarrier into a tree, about 15m up from the ground.
    This gets the creatures' attention -- they move towards them.  Akim holds position, observing.  A switch from IR to image intensifier makes the image less fuzzy.  The zoologists on the ships are really excited as more details are resolved.  The creatures are four legged, and including the tail are around 10m long; they're about 4m tall at the peak of the back.
    One of them takes a leap at the stationary gcarrier.  Now that they have a close-up view, they can see it has impressive claws.
    Akim tries to dodge the gcarrier out of the way, but he's too slow.  The beast -- 45 tons of animal against about 70 tons for the loaded gravcraft -- hits the gcarrier hard.  The craft is slammed sideways.
    This is way beyond Akim's skill.  The gcarrier slams into another tree, and then another... the limbs are hard and resilient, and make for quite solid impacts.  Akim takes the craft straight up, bouncing off tree limbs and smashing into trunks on the way.  The creatures take more swings as the craft flies out of reach -- another connects, helping the gcarrier up through the canopy.

    Robert has maintained connection with the probe throughout, but it's losing power fast.

    The gcarrier has apparently not been holed -- they are not losing pressure to the thin atmosphere.  Akim takes them up to 150m.
    The craft has been damaged.  The forward lifter is not responding properly, and it takes a while to compensate for the gcarrier's nose down attitude.  They contemplate an emergency landing.
    "If the land animals are so aggressive, and mean, and large," says Akim, "I don't think we want to float in water."
    "I would agree," Vonish says, "I'd much rather be back aboard the Third Eye."

    Vonish reports their situation to the ship.  "We have encountered some of the local fauna and it won, so we decided we'd like to come home now.  While we can."
    "We're damaged," adds Akim, "And I'm trying to find out whether it's easier for you to come to us, or us to come to you.  I'll take it to orbit and then you come get us."

    While he knows that it's possible to get better lift with a nose up attitude, he doesn't really have the skill to play with aerolift.  Akim asks everyone to move to the back of the craft to help with the trim.
    It doesn't help enough.  He can gain some altitude, but only slowly.  The nose keeps dropping, and the front lifter is clearly failing.
    Vonish calls the ship, "We seem to be experiencing further technical difficulties now.  We would appreciate it if you'd come rescue us now.  Thank you."

    The ships in orbit need to be separated.  The Extraordinary Circumstances retracts their umbilical, but it doesn't detach cleanly and the mating mechanism is damaged.  The ships are clear now, though, and the Third Eye can go after the away team.
    Mich taps into the gcarrier's systems and runs a diagnostic.  The front lifter has failed, and it's causing other problems -- it's draining power.

    It's going to take several hours for the Third Eye to arrive.  Akim decides that they'd better land now before things get worse.  Knowing what's in the woods, he'd rather they try something new.  He wants to land in water.
    Mich talks Vonish through opening a maintenance panel and isolating the front lifter systems.  That stops the power drain.
    The gcarrier is still hard to handle, but at least the handling is consistent now. It could possibly climb with an expert pilot, but Akim feels it's much safer for him to land rather than try to attain orbit.
    He polls the team, "Vonish, Misha, Teri: woods or water?"
    Vonish votes for water, Teri votes for as far inland as possible.
    Akim checks the terrain -- it's rather flat, but there is some higher land further in.  They'll have to go at least 50 km to find anything higher than this land around the coast.  With a current altitude of just 70m, that'll be hard going.

    It's harder going than even Akim anticipated.  He figures they will be forced to land within a couple of kilometers.  If there's a clearing in sight, that'll be the place.  If not, well... he doesn't have much of a choice.
    He picks a spot that looks like a bit of clearing around a kilometer inland from here.  That's where they'll land.

    Meanwhile, back on the Third Eye, Mich oversees preparation for the recovery of the gcarrier.  There's nothing that can be done outside the ship during the atmospheric descent, of course, but everything can be made ready inside.

    Akim manages to nurse the gcarrier to the clearing.  The area is free of trees apparently because it's open water.  There's no way to tell how deep it is, and no time to check.  He lands.

    The landing is not good.  Fortunately the inertial compensators are working.  The gcarrier  dives into the water nose down and stays there.  The front is under water, but at least the aft end is above water.  The front is not on the bottom, so it must be fairly deep -- anything that comes out to them will have to swim.  They should be able to open the rear hatch safely.
    Radio communication is operational.  As for external sensors, they're not functioning well, and there's nothing at the back anyway.  The only real way to tell what's out there is to open the hatch.  The air is thin (but readily breathable), and it's around 10 degrees.  Teri is in her battledress, of course, and there are emergency vacc suits on board.
    While they could all remain inside, Akim wants someone to keep watch outside in case something big comes after them.  Teri and Vonish enter the airlock and open the hatch.  Vonish decides the emergency vacc suit is far too cumbersome, and settles for some of the emergency gear on board -- ponchos and suchlike; with his recon and survival skills, the ship's cook is proving to be a surprisingly useful member of the away team.

    Vonish cycles the lock and keys the outer hatch.  The iris valve opens, and he and Teri look out on the native Gorram night, the first visitors to be outside on the planet since the Donsharid incident.
    It's oddly quiet.  It's dark.  Water laps gently at the side of the gcarrier.  The air is humid, and a gentle wind carries the faint smells of decaying vegetable matter.  Slight graunching noises reverberate in the craft's hull as it moves in the water.