The shuttle aero-braked as soon as it hit the atmosphere of Adheek causing the lander to start vibrating. They increased until Brian Evans was hard pressed to keep the contents of his stomach in. The terrible whining began and increased quickly, piercing his headset, and an acrid odor of spilled oil filled the cabin. His nausea was barely manageable.
“Just a few more minutes,” Brian repeated in his head, clenching his teeth and fidgeting with his pilot bracelet. He was a tall, wiry man in his mid-twenties, fair-skinned, with brown eyes and dark hair. For the thousandth time since he had left Earth, Brian wondered why he had abandoned that familiar ground for another world sixty light-years away.
Emily Cattlin and Willfried Bauer, his fellow students on the flight, seemed barely better, their pale face betraying their rising nausea. With her green eyes and red hair, Emily radiated so much energy that everyone, including Brian, felt drawn to her. But today, her face bordered on gray, and a straining tendon on her neck showed what she was going through just to keep her head up. Willfried, blue-eyed and powerfully built, was more withdrawn and cautious, usually showing few emotions. But now, he closed his eyes tightly and gripped his seat, his knuckles white.
On the other side of the cabin sat the three station members, who commuted regularly between the planet and the station, non-plussed by the present shaky landing.
“It won’t be long now,” said Althal, the pilot, from her seat. Her calm voice in the headset covered the external noises for an instant, so it took a moment for Brian to understand the strange words. Suddenly, the lander pierced the cloud cover, and the surface of Adheek appeared. As its speed decreased, the shuttle extended its metal wings on both sides to gain more bearing. With that, the shaking decreased a little and allowed them some respite.
The windows remained dimmed. Brian could not see the ground clearly.
“Adheek midday sun is too bright, wait a moment,” said Althal apologetically.
The lander turned slowly in a large curve, and the windows became transparent. Brian gasped, taken aback by the redness below. The lander flew above a vast vermillion plain, bordered by high amber mountains on one side and small hills on the other. Two bright-blue rivers flowed from the largest summits, crossing the vast landscape with red-and-green fields between them. He couldn’t pick out any details. A heat haze blurred the ground.
The lander made a last turn, and the massive city of Certan appeared, pierced by the two rivers, its squat buildings glowing in the sun with a dark-red tinge.
So, this is where we’ll learn to fly, thought Brian bleakly. If we ever find spaceships.
“Heat wave, brace yourself,” shouted Althal, and the lander lurched again with intense vibrations. There were frequent air pockets now, and Brian felt the security harness close on him. The small craft seemed close to disintegrating. With a click, the ejection cartridges engaged under their seats. Brian watched Althal’s hand in morbid fascination, her fingers accelerating over the controls to guide the shuttle through the unseen turbulence. She was everywhere, modifying 3D switches, adjusting courses. The hands blurred, changing shape to cover better all controls. After an eternity, Althal called: “Four, three, two, one, and touchdown.”
The lander rolled quietly on the runaway after the initial heavy bump of landing. The three crewmembers started muttering. Brian picked out only a few words from the low, accented voices. “… Isn’t improving… whatever they say officially… climate destabilization is still worsening at times…” There had been an environmental advisor from Adheek back on Earth, and he had mostly complained about how Earth had screwed its climate over the last centuries, where his own planet had managed not to. Maybe he had overstated Adheek’s superiority in this area. Brian glanced at Emily. She nodded silently, sharing his conclusions. They had all prepared so intensely for this moment that they could read each other’s faces easily now.
Althal got up and opened the exit hatch. Heat engulfed the vehicle, crushing everyone. She lowered the ladder, which extended with an electric groan. After a few minutes, the three crewmembers took their luggage, said goodbyes – delivered in their strong accent – and went down the ladder to the runway and the small building that housed the spaceport. Emily followed them, eager as always: after a year of preparation and a month of space travel, they were only a few kilometers away from the Federation Starpilot Academy. Her smile was infectious and contaminated Brian, who followed.
The gravity hit him instantly, feeling heavier, which it actually was by 5 percent. The oxygen was also lower, and the students from Earth had followed an intensive physical training to live in these conditions. Adapted to her environment, Althal—a shapely brunette a head smaller than the students, with a strong athletic build—had needed no such preparation. Even the skin of Althal and the station crewmembers had evolved in harmony with the conditions, with a green complexion, that, Brian knew, came from a recessive trait related to Adheek soil. Brian felt the midday sun on his head burning him. Last on board, Willfried got up and stretched, controlling his breath quietly for half a minute before he moved to join them.
Althal smiled at the bottom of the ladder, not a drop of sweat on her perfectly neat white uniform. “Good landing, I’d say. Sorry for the heat wave. It happens in summer. Welcome to my home!” She turned to show them the looming mountains and the tree line at the other end of the runway in a grand gesture. “I believe that only your ambassador and his staff have preceded you here from your planet. On behalf of the Pilot Corporation, I am glad to welcome you.” Then she added with a bright smile, “These are the official words from Kilet Namek, the guild master! He would be cross with me if I did not welcome you properly. Come with me; let’s go to the surface car that will transfer you to the academy.” With that, she turned and moved briskly toward the spaceport.
The small building, a single floor, with an array of antennas on the roof, was dwarfed by the huge warehouse attached to it. The edges were slightly blurred by the heat, and they recognized in Old Federation the characters for “Adheek” painted on it. A few ground vehicles were neatly parked in rows on the side, including the huge cranes that were used to load cargo and set up the shuttles on top of the atmospheric launcher. No one else was outside. For that matter, there was no wind, no chatter of birds or animals, and no noise at all on the tarmac.
“It’s a small spaceport. We cannot afford more with our climate. Ah. Nerm is over there.” She pointed to a dark and heavy ground transport, which waited fifty meters away under the shade of a small shelter. Its driver was old and tired-looking, in a dark-green uniform with “Nerm” written in Old Federation on his badge of office. As soon as he saw them, he got out and helped them cram their luggage in the back compartment. They were quick to get in the air-conditioned atmosphere and leave the heat.
“Mind if I ride with you?” Without waiting for an answer, Althal sat in the front with the driver and turned to ask, “Will there be other students from your world?”
“Three other students will follow in the next shuttle,” answered Emily simply.
“That will make eight of you on our planet, with your ambassador,” completed Nerm.
“Among two billion of us. Not a bad ratio,” laughed Althal. “Don’t be scared; most planets in the sector don’t have many more travelers on them than Adheek.” She smiled at that, to an inner private joke he couldn’t understand Brian thought. The car took off and flew a meter above the uneven ground. It moved toward the city with little noise, as it used a hydrogen cell and an electrical engine to run the rotors.
“Captain?” asked Emily.
“Please, call me Althal. A simple shuttle pilot isn’t entitled to such an impressive designation,” answered Althal. “If, in on your planet you prefer to use titles, you should use ‘pilot’ instead.”
“Althal, do you know where the ambassador is?” Emily’s voice was strong yet Brian, knowing her well, detected the small trace of anxiety. Privately, he admitted he would have liked to see the ambassador on the tarmac.
“Yes. I had a message from him when we landed. He sends his apologies. With the landing schedule uncertain in summer, he left this morning for a Merchant meeting in Telem, a coastal city located two hundred kilometers southwest from here. He asked me to convey his apologies and to invite you for a dinner in three days when he returns. All details will be waiting for you at the academy.”
They quickly left the spaceport, and Brian concentrated on the surroundings sights: a solar farm, a plantation with exotic ruby trees and red-green crops, more marron concrete buildings. Brian started to see the similarities between them: a trapezoid shape, large concrete walls, small apertures on three sides and wide windows on what had to be the north side, large solar panels everywhere. Here and there, he saw decaying plants abandoned and dismantled. There were very few cars similar to the one they rode in, but there were many larger ones, crowded with passengers.
No birds flew in the empty sky. A few large animals rested under the shade of the huge iron trees. Brian was fascinated by them. They moved like large monkeys, using big forearms and large tails to walk straight. Their small heads showed the same green complexion with Adheekens. But, it also shared something of Earth’s gorillas.
Nerm recited the different places they could see as they flew over red clay and deserted avenues. “This is the worst hour of the day. Everybody is inside, resting or working on quiet, reflective tasks. They will move out later today. Now we reach the South Boulevard.”
Althal commented quickly. “This is the most recently built part of the city. Most efficient in terms of environmental impact but far less fun in terms of architecture.”
All three visitors were soon lost in the new names and places of the strange city.
“We are crossing the Ourim market, initially dedicated to the trading of coffee but now a major trading place between Guilds. It dates back to ancient times, maybe the old civilization,” said Nerm pointing at a large dome in the distance.
“Actually, we really don’t know how old it is. Everything, or close to everything, can be purchased here,” added Althal again. “But you may have to fetch it from the other side of the planet. Here, transport is limited to the strict minimum. And you will soon cross farm areas that support this part of the city.
“There is another dome inside the one you can see with heat insulation. Wind is diverted to the basement and there’s cold water under the building, which together refresh the whole structure.”
They reached progressively older parts of the city as they traveled. “You see the steel and glass replacing the concrete? And the wider, sunnier, hotter avenues?” asked Althal. They nodded in unison. The signs of reconversion were prominent, with cranes everywhere in a visible rebuilding effort. “We are reaching the Federation Quarter. This is the oldest part of the city.”
Suddenly, the academy appeared in front of them in the middle of an immense plaza. The three distinctive spires that were displayed on the academy’s emblem loomed over a large, isolated two-story metal building. The third tower was partially ruined, a large crater disturbing its foundation. All three shot toward the sky far above the surrounding houses. Enormous windows faced the sun, clearly dating from a cooler age. Vines had covered the walls and left cracks and wrinkles so deeply set that the recent plaster could not erase them. Lasers mounted on the walls tracked the car while it crossed the plaza, stopping in front of the entrance.
On the front porch, a tall old man in a green uniform waited for them. They immediately recognized the perfectly serene figure, the square jawline and the hard eyes, as Headmaster Reinkel am Pol, the dean.
“Welcome to all of you, and thank you, Nerm, for your service to the academy,” the teacher said quietly. He turned to enter the main hall and beckoned them to follow him. “Don’t linger in the heat. We have a lot to do to get you settled.” He radiated a strong and imposing presence, yet his voice was cold and unemotional. Nerm left with the car and Althal, so the three newcomers had no choice but to follow the headmaster into the antique building.