0053: Splitting Up

With What Strange Eyes? #26

“It is strange,” The large man answered gravely, “Not knowing at all what to expect. Having no way to begin to know. I cannot say that I like it.”

Now that Captain Carter was on land, the other members of the expedition felt free to step off the gangplank as well. Mere seconds after Clifford left the metal ramp behind, it began to draw itself up again, no doubt at Ed’s command. 

They all walked forward slowly, fanning outward from the space lift, their eyes still taking in the constant visual novelties of this strange new world. Lamont stooped down to examine the soil that was making such loud cracking and popping sounds when a member of the party took a step. It was white, dry, sand-like. In the handful of earth that he scooped up were scattered half a dozen nearly spherical objects, varying shades of dull pink and roughly the size of pearls. Experimentally, Lamont squeezed one between his fingertips. It gave way like a thin crab shell, hollow inside.

Taking a place near Carter, Rex O’Neil grinned. “This place doesn’t look half-bad, does it, sir?” In the planet’s light, his carrot-colored hair looked blood red.

“I’ve seen worse,” Francis agreed. He lifted his wrist close to his mouth, drawing the thick sleeve of his jacket back to expose his radio chronometer. Pinching a button on the side, he spoke into its tiny receiver. “Captain Carter to Westward. What does the weather look like from there?”

The response came from Chief Santana. Her voice was tinny, her tone businesslike. “Clear at the moment, captain. There’s a cloud to the north of you that is reading as heavy with radioactivity. It could pose a threat in about three hours.”

“We’ll be back at the elevator in two hours, then,” The captain responded. “Carter out.”

He lowered his arm and turned to look at the rest of the expedition party. “I recommend that we split into two or three groups to cover more ground. In 90 minutes, stop and begin making your way back here. If you run into any kind of trouble, use your radio.”

There was a chorus of acknowledgements. Rosemary pointed a finger toward some purple shapes that looked like rocky outcroppings in the distance. “I’ve my eye on those foothills,” She said. “Coming along, Rex?”

“You bet!” Rex exclaimed, trotting to her side as she began to stride at a fast clip toward what Lamont reckoned was the southwest, assuming the sun was rising in the east.

“There’s a patch that looks like it might be heavy in vegetation around the other side of the lift,” Theresa said. “I’ll see if I can collect some samples.”

“I’ll come with you,” Offered Clifford. The chemist smiled and immediately broke into a jog, and Ashton scrambled to keep pace as they disappeared around the side of the vehicle. 

Francis looked at Rico, who was pursing his lips, his eyes narrowly scanning the horizon. Taking notice of the questioning glance, the security specialist said: “I would prefer to stay with you, sir.”

“Very well,” The captain said, without enthusiasm. “Let’s go west and see what we see.”

He began taking long strides away from the lift, with Rico lumbering a few paces behind him, his eyes darting nervously in the direction of Rex and Rosemary’s steadily receding outlines.

“Something troubles you?” Lamont asked, catching up with him.

“It is strange,” The large man answered gravely, “Not knowing at all what to expect. Having no way to begin to know. I cannot say that I like it.”

“Carter doesn’t seem concerned,” The newspaperman observed. He nodded toward the captain, who was confidently striding over the edge of the patch of ground that had been cleared by the anchor’s arrival. “He may as well be strolling to the corner market.”

Next: The Knockers