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ABOUT THE CHAPLAIN



Well, sometimes you get catastrophic failures. Youre working off a propulsion system that can get crosswise of a planets magnetic field in a hurry if things go out of kilter back among the rectifiers and sorkin felkers in the mome-divider, and the most common type of failure produces a high-speed fireball that disintegrates before it hits the ground.

There was a scandal about that; some clown approved an engine design that was cheaper, easier on fuel, and, it turned out, an almost certain time bomb. It produced a mass display over the southwestern United States that theyre still talking about. They claimed later theyd gotten the bugs out of it with a few modifications, but once, driving up the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut in the middle of the night, I actually saw one go up like that brilliant and green as hell, from the copper in the hull alloy burning in contact with the air. I think theyd better put out another set of modifications.

But every so often you just hit a snag, so to speak, and thats what happened to us. So, instead of working to keep you aloft at a controlled speed, the energy gets trapped inside the system and things start to soften and drip, and it gets pretty warm in the cabin.

Ravashan grunted and began hitting switches. Hanig turned up the cabin coolers and began clearing his side of the instrument board. I picked up the communicator and yelled to Selmon to hurry up and get the after bulkhead hatch shut and never mind trying to get to the engine-compartment controls. He was searing his hands on the hatch coaming; how did he expect to work the engines? With potholders? A big gob of stuff came roaring and spitting out from the blazing light beyond the hatch before he got it shut, and I put out the standard distress call.

Its all drilled into us the entire procedure. Except for Ravashan, who had a choice between killing the engines or trying to get enough ergs out of them to land this beast, none of us had any optional moves. Unless it was the chaplain. He was staring directly back into my eyes in horror, and he was dealing with the fact that the half-molten transformer array that had come in from the engine room had hit him in the lower belly as he sat there. But none of us had the option of helping him.

I reported five men and one reconnaissance coracle with critical engine trouble over the U.S. Eastern Seaboard; took one glance at the engine temperature repeaters and added a note about no expectation of recovering control; gave the altitude, present course and speed, one crewman injured, no detectable local traffic; saw that Ravashan was heading us for the one black area in the seaboards endless swath of light; reported that we were attempting to set down in a suggested emergency ditching area and gave its code name; and kissed my ass good-bye.

Selmon finished beating at the hatch clamps and threw himself into his chair, blowing blindly on his hands while he stared out forward over Ravashans shoulder. I reached over and fastened his crash straps for him, and cranked our two chairs into the three-quarter angle prescribed in the hard-landing procedures manual. He and I were the two spectators. The chaplain was moaning down at his lap, which was fountaining little popping globules of flame and swirls of soot for an instant before he got to the chair-arm toggle that released his fire extinguisher, and then he was wrapped in a pressure-foamed cocoon of yellowish white gel. He looked like a monster, writhing against his straps in there.

Selmon and I watched Ravashan and Eikmo perform. I had always thought they were pretty good, for mustang officers. But I had never seen them work for their lives before. They danced fingertip ballets on their controls Ravashan slapped Hanigs hand away from a switch at one point, never missed a beat himself, and then grabbed the copilots wrist and guided it back to the same switch an instant later and I knew we were going to live through it.

Even with the smoke and stink, the alarm hooter, and the wild yawing of the coracle, I had time to regret it for a moment. When youre young and you suddenly have that big block of time ahead of you to fill, drastic solutions have a certain appeal. But thats a transitory feeling that only occurs in the rational part of your mind; the animal wants to live.

Then you start worrying about being hurt in some serious way. Theres only so much your survival kit can do for you. Unfortunately, from what we knew of the local culture, that was as much as their medicine could do, too. They knew how to prevent sepsis, set bones, and bypass damaged organs. And they knew immunology and antibiosis. That about summed it up. They couldnt regenerate destroyed organs and all they could do for motor nerve damage a lacerated spinal cord, say was to make you comfortable as much as possible.

But that was all fantasy anyway. It was a worry your mind gave you to help you ignore the possibility of outright death; it was an attempt to comfort yourself.

And then I remembered that one of us really was crippled.

It made no difference what I was thinking. Ravashan was setting us down almost as gently as a babys kiss, sideslipping in over a bunch of scrub pines, using the cushion of some thick brush to take more of the speed off, and then down into some sort of body of shallow water hemmed in by bushes. We skipped once, snapping and drumming inside, bottomed on the mud with brown water and bits of vegetation and a smashed turtle foaming back over the viewport, swirled around in concentric spirals that threw up one last big sheet of liquid mud, and came to a crumpled stop with the radar altimeter still going ka-blip ka-blip ka-blip until Hanig Eikmo sighed and shut it down. The crew compartment had passed its crashworthiness test as advertised. Well, gentlemen, Ravashan said in what I thought at the time was a pretty good American accent, welcome to your new home.

What you want in that kind of situation is speed.

Ditching areas are preselected and coded for what we call min-time: a computer-calculated optimum average of the length of time it should take for a critical-sized team of locals to get to the impact site. Critical size is defined in numbers three and weight; one law-enforcement person, which is anyone in any uniform, equals three civilians. You have to assume a group of three will be able to contact reinforcements while making enough trouble to distract you, unless you act fast.

And there were other factors. There was a lot of air traffic in the area, even though the Friendship and Dulles patterns barely existed yet and even what they were then calling Idlewild was almost brand-new. They had a pretty comprehensive air traffic control system, most of it radarized, and there was military air at Atlantic City, and at Floyd Bennett and Mitchell on Long Island. I dont think McGuire AFB existed yet.

It wasnt like it would be a few years later, when the SAC and NORAD systems got into full bloom, but it was good enough; theyd seen us, for sure. They nearly always see us our radar search receivers tell us that but all the systems have to be designed for tracking airbreathing aircraft or ballistic missiles, and our maneuvering styles slip us off and on their screens in ways they cant really read. Still, this time it was a question of how far down theyd been able to follow us before ground return scrambled up their scopes, and how soon theyd get a search organized if they came to a decision that this time it might be worth it.

Anyway, min-time was short. We melted hell out of the controls, vaporized our charts and data storage, carved off peripheral structures and undermined the hull with lasers set at emergency overload, and tossed the guns into the bog when they got too hot to hold. They went off like small depth bombs, shattering from thermal shock as they hit the cold water.

All of that was in the procedures manual, too, and it worked like a charm. Four of us stood on some sort of clay dike overlooking a cranberry bog, with nothing but our iron rations, our survival kits, fatigue coveralls, and sweat on our faces. The guns were scattered chunks of crystal, aluminum hydroxide and copper sulfate. The pressure hull was twenty feet down, already full of silt. The stars shone on unruffled water and four wet, muddy men full of adrenaline and ignorance.

Atop the dike, the chaplain lay wordlessly on his back. Trying to fathom his injuries, we had peeled off the gel and dropped it in the water to dissolve. Ravashan had given him some tablets of painkiller not too many and cut away some of his half-melted coverall below the waist. But a lot of it had amalgamated into his muscle and sinew. I remember his feet jerked constantly and his heels drummed against the ground.

I stared into Ravashans face. Ravashan looked back at me, at Selmon, and at Eikmo. Ill take him with me, he said.

I saw the look cross Selmons and Eikmos faces. How far and how long would even Ditlo Ravashan carry a dead weight?

But now we didnt have to.

The chaplain lay there, his lips moving. His name was Inava Joro, and he was about my fathers age. He had done his job all during the long hours and days of our flight, keeping our heads straight, doing his best to moderate the tensions that build up among aggressive, apprehensive, finely honed young men locked up elbow to elbow in a barrel swirling toward unfriendly shores. You cant assign a woman, or even four women, to our kind of crew. Thats been tried, and it turns into a zoo. And then a madhouse. So they put a little something in the food, and they do a chaplain to be a sort of umpire: a neutral party among the crew; someone who speaks and listens, and is never one of you.

I couldnt hear what he might be saying to himself. Ravashan said: Well, Navigator? We were running out of min-time.

I glanced up at the stars for the last time in my official capacity. A thing thats hard for locals to understand is that the constellations are composed of stars which are, generally, so far away that with a few distortions it tends to look almost the same but wrong from almost any planet we or the Methane-Breathers know about. When youre in flight, of course, you get the tachyon inversion effects beyond C velocity, so constellations are of purely academic interest to a navigator until he gets near dirt. But I knew enough to jerk my thumb over my shoulder. Thats west, I said, and we all said Good luck to each other in our native language and dispersed, each mumbling something to the chaplain as we turned our backs. Ravashan was squatted down to pick him up.

The procedures were fixed and conditioned into us. A crew must destroy what it can of its vessel and conceal the rest. Complete destruction depends on making a certain, cross-connection in the engines, and that had been forestalled, but wed done well enough. Then, after concealment, you take no artifacts with you but your rations and your survival kit, which are designed to look the way youd expect packaged local stuff to look. On our mission, the food said Nestles and Bordens on the wrappers, and the survival kit was a blue and white box that said Johnson & Johnson, although there wasnt any fine print and none of them were duplicates of what youd see in a store. And then you scatter, and make every attempt to never be seen with another member of your race again.

Ravashan put the chaplain over his shoulder and moved off eastward. The chaplains head lolled. Then he raised it briefly, and moved one arm as if he were waving.

Eikmo, Selmon, and I fanned out, the angles of our separate paths diverging, the whole nighted continent ahead of us. I moved generally westward, and after a while I couldnt hear anyone else. I heard forest noises I assumed were normal, and I heard my breathing.

You go on your own. For one thing, if the locals get on to you, youre going to be interrogated and maybe vivisected. That would put a crimp in any plans you might have for remaining in charge of your life. You can probably pass for a slightly off-brand local if youre alone; get together in a bunch, and it draws attention to little peculiarities that were going disregarded. So its common sense, and its in the service oath, too.

Theres the catalyst phenomenon. In the Recon Service youre usually dealing with locals who are right on the brink of going off-planet. Theres a good possibility you might give them technology they can replicate. Suppose some bright local figures out the principles behind one of the artifacts he drags out of your knowledge. Maybe he has some ideas of his own to add to what he learns. Then he comes up with some unique development your own people never thought of. That kind of thing can land right between your eyes, or, if they start building ships that will go faster than C, right up your familys whatsis.

By and large, it would make more sense if the services issued plain instructions to commit suicide in some way that disintegrated everything, and when you think about it, they come as close to that as they can. But if they made it an order, who would sign for it? Whod contract-up the recon jobs? So they brief us well, drill us in the procedures, and, no doubt, hope very hard for whatever it is youd hope for if you were in charge of the big picture.

And of course theres always your hope that youll outlive the situation that someday, when the papers are being signed in United Nations Plaza or Red Square or that big plot of ground in Peking, or whatever well, Peking would be awkward if you didnt have the epicanthic fold around your eyes, which most of us dont anyway, thered suddenly be these two or three individuals in the surrounding crowd whod push forward and start speaking in tongues.

But this is not a realistic hope. We dont exactly gather in new planets every year; it hasnt happened in my lifetime, and at the turn into the 1950s it seemed to me these particular people were being damned slow about qualifying.

Moon rockets dont count. Thats all chemical stuff; its like firing yourself out of a cannon. The circus crowd applauds, but its just a piece of entertainment. Of course, Neil Armstrong and his cohorts are much braver men than I am. They have to be, to chance it in those getups. But none of us not even poor, lonely Selmon, who actually knew something about what goes on inside a starfaring engine is going to try to help with that.

I guess it was different in the old days here, when what you had was some finder crew stumbling into a place that was still hundreds of generations away from being ripe. Its against procedure and its not something youll find recognized in the official histories, but everybody knows a certain amount of hanky-panky goes on under those circumstances. The only people wholl be finders are the kind of people whod rub themselves raw against the rules and constraints of civilization. Thats why they can fly without destinations, hoping to turn up useful planets before they trip on a black hole or their toilets go into reverse. The bounty for finding a likely world is enough to suit most independent lifestyles, but sometimes there just has to be a temptation to stay and do magic for the savages.

Well, what the hell, it must be fun, being a god, and it isnt going to do a lot of harm to run off a few simple tricks for the admiring multitude in some simple corner of the world. Might even kick em a few steps up the ladder, though its amazing how self-perpetuating ignorance is. Sowing a few judicious hints at that stage might even be all to the good, if its done discreetly. But if I read the local books correctly, some of those early boys got a little out of hand. I think they attracted the fuzz and got dragged away to a reward they hadnt counted on. And its different now; these people really are on the brink, and if I screwed things up at this critical point, youd find my name in the books, and featured where my family and my familys friends could find it offhand. There wouldnt be much point in my going home by that route.

So we went our separate ways. I followed the dike at first, keeping my footing as best I could in the starlight. The dike and the bog terrain petered out into rising ground that was loose underfoot and difficult walking. This country was sand with a thin top layer of rotting needles and leaves. Nothing tall or sturdy could grow in it. I was constantly pulling my coveralls through underbrush and getting smeared with sap from trash pines. I wasnt sure what it was or what it might be doing to me; it smelled corrosive and felt as though it might never come off. Eventually I turned onto a crude road, keeping my eyes out for lights, listening for voices and motor noises. All I heard were insects, and I saw nothing.

The road was narrow two ruts and a weedy strip between them. Underbrush encroached on it. It was better than the woods for forward progress, and the soil was so loose I couldnt be backtracked, so I stayed on it and didnt try to check whether I was really still headed west. I was still numb. Not much time ago, Id been an ultracivilized man cruising airily over the patchwork lights and distorted broadcast voices of promising but unpolished folk. Now I tripped over things in the dark and wanted my mommy. I practiced my American. I said into the dark: Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.


THE RATIONALE* | Hard Landing | NOTE ON DOTHAN STABLITS