The intricate blue and white marble of Greenshoot loomed large in the forward screen, with Jack at the controls and Hugo now watching screens intently from the minilab. The Beluga’s trajectory cut steeply into the planet’s atmosphere, and in seconds the outline of a few lonely islands came into view, greyish green in a deep blue sea. The ship headed east, into the setting sun, towards a landmass whose shore stretched left and right to the horizon. Cutting into the continent was a large river, the ribbon of sparkling water snaking its way inland for perhaps 50 kilometers until it finally disappeared among some hazy hills. Their landing area came into view, on the south side of the river’s estuary.
Descending slowly, the texture of trees eventually resolved, bristling over the gentle slopes, coming all the way down to the shore. The base was cut from this vast forest. Two landing circles, the smaller being the Beluga’s target; a grid of roads; an airstrip which ran east-west; and an array of low buildings with clean white sides and flat, dark-grey solar-panelled roofs.
The ship continued smoothly on its programmed trajectory, finally dropping vertically until its eighteen pads rested securely on the concrete. Eighteen contact lights showed on Jack’s console.
From the height of the crew deck, they cold just see over the tree-tops to the rest of the sprawling spaceport.
“This is Barney speaking at Starbase Control. Welcome to Greenshoot.”
No fancy titles here, Jack thought, just a guy called Barney. This really was a remote destination; no ship had landed here for over a year.
Over the river to the north lay the colony’s main settlement, a human habitat spread over a south-facing hillside. It must have been two or three kilometers in length, made up mostly of an uncountable number of perfectly regular, stacked grey cubes. A few silver pipes rose vertically and topped out the structure. From one, a puff of steam rose into the darkening blue sky.
A white, boxy vehicle came along a taxiway towards the Beluga. A man waved through a side window and made radio contact.
“This is Barney in Shuttle A. I will be transporting two crew to Starbase debriefing."
"Not right now", Jack replied, putting off the hours of admin for another day.
"Very well Captain. I will be transporting a total of four crew and passengers to the habitat. Err ... with their light luggage."
"Make that five to transport. We picked someone up on the way."
The transition to P36 gravity, almost as strong as earth’s, left Jack pinned down to his seat like a beached whale. Hugo seemed to be faring better and came over to the microphone.
“Hi there, this is co-pilot Hugo Metz. We have five people on board, some may require assistance since we only have a micro-gravity field on this ship. Plus there are four cargo crates for your ground team and we’re opening the bay for you.”
“I’ll be OK Hugo”, Jack said. “Just give me a moment. Go check on Irwin and Daff, they’re not used to the rigors of spaceflight and they‘re probably struggling. Make sure they‘re packed, I’m not allowing access to this ship while we’re docked. See how Moby‘s doing. He could show an adverse reaction.”
Another vehicle approached, this one towing a gantry just high enough for exit direct from the crew deck; others followed and were soon attached to the Beluga's cargo, fluid, and galley exits. Jack rushed through the shutdown sequence and popped the small inner and outer hatches to the right of his seat. Within seconds warm, humid air wafted up into the cockpit, along with the noises of manic civilization, men shouting, metal clanging, motors whirring.
Jack looked dizzily in full gravity down the ladder into the galley, where already Hugo was ushering Daff, Moby and Irwin out of the Beluga. The final few steps of this journey seemed the hardest of all, as he gritted his teeth, and gripped hard on the gantry rails, just managing to maintain his dignity. It was a moment to savour though, bathed in the brilliant daylight, the breeze carrying in the smell of the sea.
A long-haired, disheveled young man walked along the gantry platform and stepped into the ship.
“Yes Sir. I’ll take your bags for you Sir, from the Captain’s cabin ?”
“Yeah that’ll be great. I‘m Jack by the way, Jack Buffalo. It’s good to be here, Barney. Looks like a fine place to live. You know I’ve seen a few places that, well, didn’t quite live up to expectations, but this looks just beautiful. It’s pristine. And that smell, that takes me back a few years.”
“What smell is that ?”, Barney asked anxiously.
“Fresh air ! The ocean. It reminds me of childhood adventures. Happy days.”
“Only the one bag Sir ?”
“Yep. While I’m working the ship is my home. But I’d like to take a look at your habitat, just for a few days.”