KSK

First Flight (Chapter 104 - Shoulders to the Wheel)

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Thanks! Glad you're still enjoying it and thanks for dropping by to comment.

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I always enjoy good sci-fi. Original stuff about the Kerm... well maybe not quite when compared to Avatar's Eden or whatever it was. Now you've just got to resolve a moral dilemma whose only solution seems to be more violence than the obvious unethical solution (-;

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"Good sci-fi" - I'll definitely take that. Thanks!

And yes - resolving, or at least pointing the way to resolution of, the Kerm crisis - is going to be a major plot line in part 4. Part 3 has about five chapters left to go, including the finale.

Interesting you should mention Avatar because some of my earlier ideas for the Kerm ended up being a bit too close to Pandora's tree network and had to be re-thought a bit. Although Planet (as in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri) was a more direct inspiration.

Edited by KSK

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OK, this chapter was originally going to cover two events in the story but the second one ended up swamping the first. So much so that I'm going to split it into two, post the first part now and the second part later on this week once it's done.

It's a little short but - the next chapter is up.

Cheers.

KSK.

Halfway Point

Cut, don't crush.

Enely peered at his notebook, lips moving soundlessly as he read over his handwritten instructions again. Six grey packs full of loose, damp earth stood in a neat row by his feet, each divided into six chambers by thin wooden tubes driven into the soil. Beside them, a knife, a soft round-headed brush and a shallow bowl of cinnamon-scented, watery green paste were arranged on a square of canvas, next to a heap of small dark grey drawstring bags. He wedged his notebook under the bowl, picked up the knife and grasped the Kerm branch between finger and trembling thumb.

Only take cuttings from the first two rings of branches. Cut straight across, below a leaf node.

Enely stared fixedly at his hands, willing them to stop shaking. Then, cautiously, he placed his knife against the branch and pressed. The blade slid easily through the thin bark and tender green wood, leaving him holding a slender shoot tipped with small, furry green leaves. For a moment he cradled it in his hands, like a new father presented with his first kerblet, then pushed it gently into the first pack of earth.

Paint the branch stump with a thin coat of leaf paste. Place bag over the end and tie. Do not allow bag to touch the paste.

The stump greedily soaked up the paste, turning the exposed, creamy-white wood a delicate shade of green, thickly speckled with darker fragments of leaf mash. Enely examined it curiously, peering at the ring of darker green just under the bark. He picked up one of the grey bags and, turning away from the Kerm, shook it vigorously, dislodging a thin cloud of charcoal dust. Slipping the bag over the branch stump, he pulled the drawstring tight, knotted it and stepped back to inspect his work.

Well I think that looks right. It had better be - nowhere near enough spare branches to try this again. Best take the next one from the opposite side.

Taking the second cutting took rather less time than taking the first and by the time he'd tied down the straps on the second pack, Enely had settled into a steady routine of slicing, painting and bagging. He flexed his fingers, working the tension out of his cramped knuckles, then picked up his knife and went back to work.

Five finished packs later, the Kerm sapling appeared to be suffering from a peculiarly regular fungus, with dark swellings extending from each of its lower branches. Enely pressed his brush against the raw end of the last branch, squeezing out every last trace of leaf paste from its splayed bristles. He scraped out the bowl, chasing down the last few fragments of leaf and painted them over a bare patch of wood. He fumbled the last grey bag into place, pushed the final cutting into its pack and stood up, digging his thumbs into the small of his back.

Each of the five kerbals silently watching him work stepped forward and hoisted a pack onto their shoulders. Enely picked up his own pack and looked at them.

"Does everybody know where they're going?"

“We do, Keeper."

Enely knelt down and stretched his arms out towards his companions in the traditional gesture of benediction. “Then go, my friends. And may all our saplings flourish." He climbed to his feet and watched his companions spread out through the village, each heading in his or her own direction. He shrugged his pack into a more comfortable place on his shoulders and set off.

The village had grown in the months since landing, although the need to ship most of the raw materials over from the Wakiran mainland had made for slow progress. Nevertheless, neat stone and slate buildings were gradually replacing the original, temporary, shelters which, one by one, were being dismantled and used for spare parts. Newly marked out fields stretched out in all directions, carpeted in quick growing clover. Eventually, Enely knew, the fields would be protected from the salt winds by a barrier of sturdy dwarf pines, although right now, the planned windbreak was only visible from the village if you had a pair of binoculars and a good idea of where to look.

Green and white pennants snapped in the breeze, each emblazoned with a stylised Kerm tree growing out a ring of thirty-six stars. Groups of kerbals bustled about, setting up awnings and bunting or heaving trestle tables and benches into place. One awning had been converted into an outdoor kitchen which was already occupied by a large knot of kerbals dressed in traditional leather aprons and hard at work wrapping mounds of tubers in metal foil, chopping vegetables into large flat-bottomed pots and preparing deep trays of layered pastry, dried fruit and wrinkled, sliced apples.

One of the cooks waved his spoon threateningly at a pair of young kerbals who'd strayed suspiciously close to one of the trays. Enely smiled as a pair of apples sailed through the air and were neatly caught by the two would-be plunderers.

On the outskirts of the village a gang of kerbals stood around a long rectangular pit, watching a truck cautiously backing up to it. No sooner had it stopped when two of the kerbals, both wearing heavy boots and gloves, scrambled onto the back trailer and began shovelling out smoking black sand. The others gathered round and started scraping the hot volcanic ash into the pit. One of them waved at Enely as he walked past.

“Not as good as desert sand but it'll make a sathy enough fire pit! You going to lend us a hand, Keeper?"

Enely grinned and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “I won' be much use with only a trowel," he said, “but get me a shovel and I'll be right back after the planting."

The marker post and bright red water bucket stood out clearly against the dark, gritty soil. Enely knelt down and scraped out a rough bowl with his trowel, carefully filling it with earth from his pack.

Cut end down.

He pushed the Kerm cutting into the soft soil, probing gently for the harder packed ground beneath. Mentally crossing his fingers, he pulled out the cutting, sprinkled two handfuls of soil into the hole it left behind and replaced it. Carefully, he tamped down the earth around the cutting, then poured the water all around it. Finally, he took a slim wooden tube out of his pack, slipped it over the Kerm and drove it firmly into the damp soil.

One down, five more to go.

Enely picked up the empty bucket and set off for the next marker post.

Edited by KSK

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A good indication that a new chapter will be posted is when I stop checking for new chapters on a daily basis - as soon as I slack for a few days ... :D

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:D Better not keep you waiting for the next one then...

Craters

Tinny music rattled around the Rockomax Mission Control room as Nelton watched the bouncing, swaying figures on the main screen with an equal mix of amusement and exasperation. The irritatingly chirpy blend of drums and synthesisers faded briefly, spiked to a loud and sudden peak and then cut out. One of the figures struck a dramatic, if cramped, one-handed pose, his other hand still firmly clamped around the frame of his acceleration couch.

"Yeahhh! Flyin' to the Mün - and poppin' some moves!"

Nelton rolled her eyes. "Copy that, Pioneer. Be advised; Guidance and FD concur that your slang is approximately 6.53 years out of date."

"So just about ready to come back round again, Flight," grinned Kerke. "We're not behind the times - we're leadin' the times!"

"The good commander begs to differ," said Seanan. He panned his hand-held camera round and zoomed in on a very familiar face. The slap of palm on forehead echoed through the capsule.

"Guys - what in the first Kerm is... correction, how in the first Kerm did you..."

"Personal effects, Flight," said Barrie happily. "No weight limits breached and there's nothing like a mascot for luck. So what better mascot than..."

Seanan recognised his cue. The image on Nelton's screen zoomed back to reveal a small bobble-head doll attached to the main control panel by a patch of fabric. It seemed to be shaking it's head at Kerke's pose.

"Commander Kerbiman - "Kerb" - Kerman! Hero of Duna!"

Nelton groaned. "I've got a commander who's six years behind the times, a scientist who believes in lucky mascots.."

"For sound psychological reasons, Flight, " said Barrie blandly.

Nelton ignored the interruption. "Do I want to know what my landing module pilot has in store for us?"

Seanan's eyes flicked to the cardboard tube stashed under Barrie's couch. "Nothing to report, Flight, " he said equably. "One boring, by-the-book kerbonaut here."

"Well thank the Kerm for small mercies," muttered Nelton. "Okay you lot, the book is telling me that we've got a platform alignment check to make and an MOI burn to set up, not to mention a set of environmental system checks to run. Back in your seats team - playtime is over."

Kerke swung himself onto his couch and reached for his waist restraints. "Copy that, Flight," he said crisply. He glanced sideways at Barrie, who was strapping herself in at the navigation station. "All crew secured, cancelling thermal control roll...now."

---------

"Okay, Flight, give me a check on the SME gimbal settings please."

"Plus point five zero pitch by minus point one eight yaw, Pioneer."

Seanan scanned his instruments. "Confirmed. Thanks, Flight."

Kerke flipped over a page on his flight plan. "And we abort on red-line chamber overpressure, black-line underpressure, excess tank delta-P or sustained off-nominal pressure drop in either tank. Proceed with engine shutdown and mode-2 abort at MOI plus fifteen, course corrections to follow on instructions at periapsis plus two hours."

"Down cold, Pioneer. Nerves kicking in?"

Kerke stared at the engine control panel. "That's affirmative, Flight. We're a long way from home right now."

"We got you out there, we'll get you back, Pioneer. Two minutes to loss of signal."

"It's pitch black out there, Kerke," Barrie offered quietly. "And it went black at the right time. We're driving straight down the road."

Seanan swallowed hard and turned his head towards the window. He sensed the vast dark bulk beneath them, a looming presence against the star-studded depths, blocking out the reassuring light from Kerbol.

Shadow of the Mün - we're in the shadow of the Mün...

Mission Control interrupted his thoughts. "Thirty seconds to loss of signal. All systems Go, Pioneer. Good luck."

"See you on the other side, Flight."

Kerke held up a hand, fingers outstretched, eyes fixed on the flight clock, counting down the seconds on his fingers. Just as he clenched his fist, the radio crackled, static hissing loudly from the speaker. He breathed a muted sigh of relief, clicked off the radio and sat up a little straighter from his couch.

"Straight down the road indeed. Lets get to it."

Seanan checked and rechecked his instruments, fingers gripping the edge of the control panel tightly. Burn program loaded, SAS in AUTO, tank pressures nominal. Across the capsule he heard Barrie murmuring to herself, checking off the items on her own memorised checklist. He glanced at a set of indicator lights. Valve controllers and gimbal motors drawing power.

“Platform reference set for MOI. Attitude is green, autopilot is good." Barrie's voice rang across the capsule, making Seanan jump. He unpeeled his fingers from the control panel, doing his best to hide the tremor in his voice.

"SME is Go, guys. Engineering station strapped in for burn."

"Navigation strapped in."

Kerke nodded. "Four minutes to ignition. Proceed at 60 seconds, Seanan."

The seconds crawled past. A blue light began to flash on Seanan's panel and unhesitatingly, he leaned forward and pushed a single button. All three kerbonauts watched the flight clock intently; Kerke uncaging the manual ignition button, hand hovering over it as they waited.

“Ten seconds."

“Five...four...three...two..."

“One."

The service module engine lit, pushing Seanan back onto and then firmly into, his couch. "Uhh - getting some transients here. Going to secondary.... no hold that, we're good. Pressures coming up...okay coming up nicely now."

"Delta-P?" asked Kerke sharply.

"Spiked for a second but balancing," said Seanan. "Chamber pressure back between the lines and holding."

Kerke nodded tersely, eyes focused on his instruments. Grey light spilled through the capsule window, throwing unseen shadows across his chest. Beside him, Seanan and Barrie were breathing heavily, unaccustomed to their sudden weight after over three days in free-fall.

"Chamber pressure... holding. Propellant levels are good."

Kerke reached for the engine shutdown button. “Thirty seconds to go. Twenty..."

The service module engine roared silently in the vacuum.

“Three...two...one..."

“Shutdown!"

Barrie's fingers raced over her computer keyboard. “Delta-v is low but we have an orbit! One-eleven by three-five-five!"

"And thank the Kerm for that." Seanan mopped his forehead with his flight suit sleeve. "Thought we were in trouble there for a minute."

Barrie shook her head. "One hundred and eleven kilometres away after travelling over four hundred thousand kilometres to get here. I thought Pioneer 1 was cutting it close but...Kerm, the trajectory team are on their game today."

Kerke grimaced. "Apoapsis is high. Not surprising after that burn but we'll need to compensate at circularisation."

"Shouldn't be a problem," said Barrie, “We've got the fuel for it. I can compute a correction burn if you like but I imagine Mission Control will want to run the numbers themselves. All the important burns are farside on this flight. Works for me - we get a chance to fix any screw-ups before Nelton gets to see them."

"Not until Foxham have had a chance to look at that engine we don't," said Kerke heavily. “I didn't like that start-up at all. This was supposed to be our sightseeing orbit anyway, so lets use it for that." He took hold of the attitude controls and eased Pioneer 3 into a slow roll.

-------------

Seanan tipped his head to one side, blinking at the streaks of grey sliding past the capsule window. He moved a little closer, trying to ignore the reflected lights from the instrument panel, peering through the window rather than at it. Then suddenly, perspective twisted and, like seeing the hidden image in an optical illusion for the first time, he found himself looking down at a landscape unlike anything on Kerbin.

"Oh sweet..."

"Craters upon craters upon craters..." Barrie whispered in awe.

"And then some more craters on top of those," said Kerke, "Can't see what else those speckles would be."

"Boulders?" suggested Seanan.

"Kerm - I hope not. Rocks that we can see from orbit are not what we need anywhere near the landing site."

"Hard to tell with the sunlight at this angle," Barrie noted. She squinted out of the window. "Is it just me or are you guys seeing colours down there?"

"Just looks grey to me," said Seanan. "Well, lots of different greys."

"No - I see them too," said Kerke, "Very faint tans and golds and pale pinks. Near the horizon and around the crater edges mainly."

Seanan knocked on the window. "These are pretty thick - they're probably just distorting the view."

Kerke shook his head. "Too subtle for that. Maybe something to do with contrast - I don't know. Kinda pretty though."

The whirring fans and muted gurgles from the depths of the life support systems provided a reassuringly homely backdrop to the stark vista of greys, black and washed out, translucent pastels unrolling beneath them. The three kerbonauts watched the Munar landscape drift past, each of them lost in his or her own thoughts. Occasionally, out of ingrained habit, Kerke scanned the advisory panels in front of the commander's station for warning lights before turning back to the window.

Seanan stirred. "Still not seeing any gold or tan out there," he said quietly, "but I am getting some blue."

A sliver of azure light crested the horizon, swelling rapidly into a gleaming blue hemisphere, streaked and whorled with iridescent white. Reluctantly, Kerke dragged his gaze away and switched on the radio. The crackling static shook Seanan out of his contemplation. He tapped a rapt Barrie on the shoulder on the way back to his couch, managing a credible impersonation of Nelton's clipped tones.

"Playtime's over."

Broken fragments of words surfaced from the static as Pioneer 3 soared out from the Munar farside. Barrie frowned. "Getting a lot of noise still on high gain one. Switching antennas." She reached forward and clicked a switch on her panel.

"F...ght to...eer 3. Co...in Pione... Fli... to Pioneer 3. Come in Pioneer."

"Pioneer 3, Flight. Receiving you loud and clear on high gain two."

Nelton's reply was drowned out by the storm of cheers in the background. The kerbonauts winced at the heavy thud from the speaker, followed by a muffled voice shouting over the noise.

"Copy that, Pioneer - good to have you back."

Kerke grinned. "Good to be on the noisy side of the Mun again, Flight." The grin disappeared. "Please be advised that MOI was off-nominal, we're seeing a three-five-five apoapsis - requesting update for circularisation."

“Say again, Pioneer?"

“We had a hard SME start, Flight. Recovered before we could switch to secondary valves but still gave us an under-burn."

"Understood, Pioneer. Propulsion are on it. Flight dynamics are waiting for the tracking data but we'll get a circularisation update to you once they have a good trajectory fix. Suggest you start the landmark tracking on this orbit whilst we work this, and we'll set up for circularisation on orbit 3."

"Sounds good, Flight. Can't say we were paying much attention to the timings on that last orbit but the major craters all seemed to be in the right place."

"You don't want to see the expression on the boss's face right now, Pioneer," Nelton said dryly. "On a different note, CapSys is on-loop and ready with a troubleshooting procedure for high-gain one. Please switch to loop B and stand by."

--------

"Two minutes to loss of signal. Propulsion have got Barkton on the line, working the under-burn with them. Don't worry guys - we'll have an answer for you on the next orbit."

"We know you will," Kerke answered, "Thanks, Flight."

He received a grunt in reply. "Thirty seconds. See you on the next pass, Pioneer."

The radio fuzzed into static. Kerke stared at it for a moment before clicking it off. He looked up at the ripping, tearing noise from across the capsule. Silently, Barrie held up her Kerb Kerman mascot before stowing it under her seat. Kerke opened his mouth to speak but thought better of it.

"They'll work something out," said Seanan quietly.

"Oh, we'll get home," said Kerke. "One of those valve sets should still be good and if they're not, we've got the lander lifeboat drill."

"Not what we had in mind for it though," said Seanan.

"No," Kerke agreed. He shook himself. "Right - if this is gonna be our last orbit, lets make it a good one. Least we can save the next team some camera time. Barrie, give me an attitude check. Seanan - unstow that camera again and get yourself to a window."

-------------

"Say again, Flight?"

"We want you to split the circularisation burn into two. Guidance is standing by with the burn numbers and TKI updates for the next four orbits. You'll fire each half on a different valve set - if both sets are green then the rest of the flight is a Go. One stuck set and we'll bring you home on the next orbit. Two stuck sets and we'll bring you home in the lander lifeboat.

"Mode five if we get a stuck-on?"

“That's affirmative, Pioneer. Better get that lander warmed up and checked out."

"On it, Flight." Seanan pushed away from the window and, with a deft assist from his couch frame, swung down into the equipment storage bay. Bracing himself against a nearby handhold, he took hold of the hatch lever. "Unsealing hatch!"

The lever pivoted smoothly - far more smoothly than Seanan was expecting - and the locking bolts withdrew with a heavy clunk and a brief whoosh of equalising air pressures.

"Cabin pressure holding, Seanan. Go ahead."

Seanan lifted the hatch out of the way and poked his head cautiously through the opening. "Woah - better take this feet first. Don't want to kick anything important, squirming around down there." He tucked himself into a ball and slowly spun over in a half somersault, grinning as he extended his legs and slowed his rotation almost to a halt. Gotta conserve that angular momentum! He eased himself forward through the hatchway and then down into another world.

"Okay - I'm in. I see what the Pioneer 2 gang were talking about now - that orientation shift is weird. Those hose clips were a good idea too - wouldn't fancy having them flapping around me."

Seanan shuffled his feet firmly into their restraining straps on the lander floor. Then he bent down and plugged his suit umbilical into its socket. "Okay - ready for my hat and gloves. How's that pressure looking?"

"Holding, Seanan. Catch."

A spacesuit helmet fell slowly towards him through the hatch. Seanan caught it, checked that both gloves were inside and placed it by his feet. A shadow passed over his head, followed by the soft clank of the hatch settling against its stops. First things first. He clicked his microphone on.

"Pioneer 3 to Barrie. Requesting comms check."

"I hear you, Pioneer. How do you read, Flight?"

"Loud and clear, Barrie, Pioneer. Copying no movement on your cabin pressure."

Seanan checked the circuit breaker panel before cautiously flipping a series of switches. Section by section, the instrument panel came to life, indicator lamps lighting up, dials swinging over and electroluminescent panels glowing soft green. He flipped a second set of switches, pausing occasionally to study his checklist. "Okay. Drawing power from main buses. Lander batteries full and trickle charging. Evaporators look good. Bringing up the guidance systems."

The computer screen - a duplicate of Barrie's screen up in the crew module - and the keyboard beneath it, both lit up. Seanan tapped out a sequence of commands, watching a row of indicator lights flicker and then settle. "Guidance data transferred from CSM systems. Give me an attitude read please, Barrie." He listened to the string of numbers coming over his headset then tapped a key. "Transfer confirmed and saved. How are we doing for time?"

"Fine" said Kerke, leaning down through the now open hatchway. "RCS checks are scrubbed unless we get the good word from Nelton; environmental and life-support we'll either pick up after circularisation 1 or catch during the lander separation prep. Time to get that hatch back in place."

"On my way." Seanan extricated himself from the lander systems and carefully kicked off for the open hatchway. Emerging into the capsule, he wrestled the hatch into place and heaved the locking lever closed. "Ready for pressure test!"

Kerke reached over to Seanan's side of the instrument panel and flipped a toggle switch. Over his head, two fans started up, blowing a cool, slightly rubbery smelling breeze into the capsule. "Cabin overpressure at 5%...10%...and holding at 15%." He flipped the switch back and the fans fell silent, as Seanan scrambled into his couch beside him. "Okay, Flight - are you seeing this?"

"We are, Pioneer. If the pressure holds, CapSys advises to vent before loss of signal."

"Understood, Flight. Burn program for circularisation 1 is loaded, readbacks confirmed for circularisation 2 and TKI updates." Kerke paused. "Looks like we're on the plan, Flight - please pass along our thanks to everyone for sweating the details."

"Copy that, Pioneer - we'd do it all again. CapSys tells me that the cabin pressure is holding but wants to keep an eye on it for a bit longer yet."

--------------

Pioneer 3 sailed silently over the near side of the Mün, the paired spacecraft gleaming in Kerbol's full, unfiltered glare. The geometric simplicity of the capsule and service module contrasted starkly with the boxy, cobbled-together appearance of the Mün lander it was joined to. Four plumes of vapour jetted out from around the join, freezing instantly into sparkling motes that swiftly dissipated in the vacuum. Minutes later, the spacecraft slipped around the curve of the Mün and disappeared.

Alone above the Munar craters, the spacecraft edged into position. Its main engine fired, slowing it fractionally, lowering its orbit. Coded bursts of radio waves flashed across the void as the spacecraft swung around the near side of the Mün, its crew momentarily back in touch with their home planet. Then, once again, it slipped into the shadow of the Mün and disappeared.

Inside the capsule, the crew were silent, strapped stiffly to their couches, eyes fixed on their instruments. A blue light flashed; a green finger pushed a button in response. Exactly fifty-four seconds seconds later flames vented from the spacecraft thrusters and then precisely six seconds after that, valves snapped open allowing volatile liquids to mix and erupt in a fiery torrent. The spacecraft slowed again and the torrent ceased; its end as swift and certain as its beginning.

------------

“It was beautiful, Flight!" Barrie's exultant voice echoed over the speakers. “Seanan pushes the button, the RCS fires for ullage and then - wham - SPS, full thrust, right on schedule, no mess, no stress!"

Nelton decided not to mention the copious amounts of both mess and stress in the Mission Control back rooms. “Copy that, Barrie. We see you at undock attitude - please confirm."

“Confirmed, Flight. The away team are in the lander, we have a good seal on both hatches, RCS and life support systems are Go."

“And comms,"said Kerke cheerfully. “Don't forget the comms."

“And comms," agreed Barrie. “Ship to ship link confirmed, Flight."

“Thank you, Barrie. Lander confirms Go. Propulsion copies, Guidance and FD confirm. Pioneer - you are Go for undocking."

Barrie leaned forward and uncaged a button on the instrument panel. One that was conspicuously set as far away as possible from the other controls. She rested her thumb against it, took a deep breath and pushed. Latches rattled under her feet, accompanied by a flashing orange light on the console. A gentle thud rocked the capsule, the light flickered and then glowed a solid, reassuring green.

“Barrie, Flight. Undock confirmed." She peered out of the rendezvous window above the instrument panel. “Looking good...landing legs deployed!"

“Pioneer, Flight. Spacecraft handling is nominal. Moving to station-keeping distance and standing by for rendezvous radar tests."

One and a half orbits later, Seanan lifted his eyes from the radar display and stared at the inky blackness outside the lander window. Behind him, he knew, Barrie was following them at a safe distance in the capsule and service module. Under his back, a lonely, cratered landscape slid past unseen and far away on the other side of the Mün, Mission Control - and everything else that he had ever known - waited for them. For now it was just himself and Kerke. Two kerbals staring wide-eyed at the rest of the universe from inside their tiny, fragile landing craft.

“How did we ever get out here," he murmured. Kerke turned to look at him.

“You too, huh?"

Seanan nodded slowly. “Yeah." He tapped his chest. “Pillars preserve me; I was a plumber. Joined the KIS because building rocket engines looked like fun. Never figured I would end up building actual capsules, never mind watching kerbals fly them into outer space." He gestured over his shoulder. “And now here's me this close to the actual damn Mün!"

“And it's about to get a lot closer," said Kerke quietly. “If it makes any difference, Seanan, I was a pilot before I joined Rockomax. Flew a lot of planes in a lot of places but right now?" He shook his head. “Yeah, I know exactly how you feel."

Kerke glanced at the mission timer, then down at the navball. “Spacecraft alignment confirmed. Go, for descent orbit insertion."

“Radar is tracking. You're looking good from here, guys. Good luck."

“Thanks, Barrie. Throttle mode zero. SAS in AUTO. Proceeding at sixty seconds."

“Twenty seconds. Tank pressures nominal, standing by for ullage burn."

“Seven...six...five...RCS firing...three...two...one..."

The descent engine fired.

As soon as it shut down, Seanan turned to the computer and punched in a burn status request. The two kerbonauts sighed with relief at the numbers that flashed up on the screen. Kerke keyed his microphone.

“Okay, Barrie. We're seeing a delta-V of 28.4 metres per second with a new periapsis of 18.5 kilometres. Residuals minimal."

“Radar concurs with the delta-V, Kerke. I'll follow you down and firm up the trajectory numbers."

Seanan was busy at his keyboard. “Okay, ditching the CSM data. Landing radar attitude entered and saved. Phasing burn program entered and saved."

Kerke glanced at his sleeve checklist. “Got the CSM altitude matching and circularisation data here. We'll load them in on the second pass once we've dropped the descent stage. Don't want to get our burns mixed up. Okay, let's see what we can see."

Seanan felt the rattle of thruster fire through the hull. The stars slid past, replaced by the cratered Munar surface. The thrusters rattled again as Kerke checked their spin. He stared at the pockmarked surface below, hunting for the first landmark on their list.

“Got them! The Gateway Craters - and right on schedule. Okay, looking for Mount Kelvey - should be coming into view in a couple of minutes."

Up in the crew capsule, Barrie crossed off the landmarks on her checklist as Seanan read them out. She grinned at the increasingly excited voices from the lander.

“Kerm but we're picking up some speed now!"

“Would you look at those dark speckles round the crater rims Those have got to be rocks - look at the size of those things!"

“Looks like plenty of space between them though. We could set down there if we had to."

“Don't think we packed enough snacks for a surface stay. Oh wow - Bill's Rille sure looks different from down here. Like someone took an axe to the side of the Mün!"

“Woaaaaahhh. What the...!"

“It's fine - it's fine! Just the radar test - computer's got us. Too high to get a ground return but tracking looks good. Okay, landing radar to OFF. Hey, Barrie - any news from Mission Control?"

“Fourteen minutes to acquisition, Kerke. Don't worry - I'll make sure you're patched in."

---------------

Nelton frowned as she caught herself tapping her fingers on the edge of her console. Again. The main screen was still showed the two spacecraft orbiting the Mun together; a status plot which was nearly half an orbit out of date. Station-keeping would be acceptable. Better that than...no, don't go there.

“We're getting something, Flight! Broken but definitely telemetry, transmitting on Barrie's frequency!"

“...to Foxh...Co...in Foxham..."

“Flight, Barrie. Reading you loud and clear - what is Pioneer's status?"

Nelton swore she could hear the kerbonaut's grin over the air to ground loop.

“Oh, they're doing just fine, Flight. Switching to three-way now."

“I got it, Kerke, I got it! Site 2, fat as you like! Kerm - look at those ones - better warn Four not to come in short!"

Nelton watched a ripple of smiles breaking out around Mission Control at the unbridled enthusiasm in Seanan's voice, although the flight dynamics team looked at each other uneasily. Lemgan caught her eye mouthing "rocks?" at her. She leaned forward and tapped her headset.

“Flight, Pioneer. How's the Mün look from down there?"

“Extraordinary, Flight! Beats the view from orbit all hollow - you can practically count the boulders down there!"

“About that, Pioneer. What's your assessment of the landing sites?"

Kerke spoke up. “Site 1 was clear in the middle, Flight but we saw a lot of ejecta on the approach. Can't say for certain till we get a look at the camera footage but my eyeball estimate is that the trajectory team could drop an ellipse down there and keep it away from the major craters. Right now, I'd give it a cautious Go. Site 2 looks like a scrub - thereÃ's a major boulder field in the middle that we didn't pick up from orbit and I don't remember seeing from the Muna maps. The geology team would love us for it on a future landing but I do not recommend it as a site for Pioneer 4."

“That's a decision then," said Nelton. “Thank you, Pioneer."

“We could do a timed overflight on the next orbit, Flight - try and get some better data for the trajectory team?"

“It's good thought but no, Pioneer," said Nelton. “Your priority will be setting up and executing the phasing burn."

“Understood, Flight."

Until the lander passed out of radio contact again, the Pioneer crew treated their flight control team to a non-stop running commentary from the Mün, Kerke's drier, more precisely composed observations interspersing with Seanan's enthusiastic rapid-fire chatter and Barrie's occasional questions. At the flight director's console, Nelton relaxed minutely for the first time since the arrival at the Mün. Once she pointed out that the air to ground loop was being recorded for later analysis, the controllers crammed around the trajectory and science consoles relaxed slightly as well.

As the flight clock ticked away the minutes to reacquisition of signal, the Lander team gathered around their console, rustling flight plans and the smell of stale coffee betraying tense controllers, alert for the first sign of telemetry from the static on their screens. Numbers flickered on their screens, amidst a clutter of fragmented characters.

“Picking up telemetry noise, Flight! Waiting for...and we got them, Flight! Fuel levels consistent with a good burn."

“Copy that, Flight!" said Kerke. “This descent engine is a landing machine. Throttling, guidance... all right on target. We're gonna be flying high on this orbit!"

“The engineers will be glad to hear it, Pioneer," replied Nelton. “Flight dynamics have the backup numbers for your altitude matching burn if you're ready for them?"

“Ready and waiting, Flight," said Kerke. “But if they built the ascent engine the same way they built the machine underneath it, then I don't think we're going to need them!"

“Let's hope so," said Nelton. “This is the final test, team. Pull this one off and we've got a landing mission."

As Pioneer 3 plunged towards the Mün for the third time, one thought ran through hundreds of minds.

Would the ascent engine fire?

It ran through the minds of the engineers who had designed and built the engine. It ran through the minds of the flight controllers tasked with watching over it. Most especially, it ran through the minds of the lone kerbonaut in orbit around the Mün and her two crewmates standing right on top of it. Seanan took a deep breath.

“Burn programs loaded."

Kerke scanned his navball. “Thirty seconds. Attitude good, correct end pointing towards space."

Barrie didn't bother to reply. The corner of Seanan's mouth twitched briefly as he braced himself as best he could against his foot restraints. Kerke reached forward, hands racing over the controls.

"Ascent engine armed! Abort stage... and ignition! Ascent engine firing!"

“Smooth separation and a steady start," Seanan called out. “Mine's a coffee, Barrie... we'll see you soon!"

---------------

"You guys got your hats on?" Barrie checked the air hoses connecting her suit to the bulky life support pack strapped to her back. "What did they call this thing again?"

Seanan locked his helmet onto the collar ring of his own suit and checked his gloves. "The EMU," he said. "Short for Extravehicular Mobility Unit."

"Sounds like some kind of a bird," said Barrie, her voice tinny through the suit radio. "You would think they could come up with something snappier." She pressed a switch on the control box attached to her chest. The backpack started up with a faint gurgle and a stream of cool air blew across the inside of her helmet. "Seems to be working though." She glanced at Kerke and Seanan. "All set?"

"All set," Seanan said.

Kerke nodded. "Depressurising."

Insulated from the cabin noise inside her suit, Barrie watched the pressure gauge drop silently to zero. She reached up and twisted the hatch locking bar, grunting with effort. "Mobility unit my foot." She heaved the hatch open and, checking her tether, pushed her head out of the capsule. Seanan and Kerke watched nervously as she pulled the rest of her body through the opening but her life support backpack slipped out without catching on anything. They heard a sudden intake of breath over the radio and then Barrie's carefully matter-of-fact voice.

"Okay, Flight. I'm clear of the hatch. The suit gloves are pretty stiff under vacuum but I can still grip the hand-holds."

"I've got the tether, Flight," said Seanan. "Ready for second-eyes duty."

"Copy that, Pioneer."

Seanan settled himself half-way out of the capsule, holding tightly onto the hatch rim with one hand and onto Barrie's tether with the other. "Tether looks good, Barrie. Ready when you are."

Barrie clambered slowly along the capsule, paused for a moment as she felt for the next foothold, then edged onto the service module. She tucked her fingers under a recess on its curved metal skin and pulled. The access panel dutifully popped open and Barrie reached inside. "Okay, Flight, I have the sat. What next?

"It should activate automatically, Pioneer. Check for a green light on the base."

"Got it, Flight. You picking up a signal."

"Loud and clear, Pioneer."

Barrie carefully lifted the small spherical device clear of its compartment, being careful not to snag any of its four stub antennas. "Deploying." Grinning inside her helmet, she tossed the satellite away with a gentle underarm throw and watched it tumble slowly away into space.

“Good work, Pioneer. That and the ascent module should let the tracking team get the mascons pinned down before the next flight. How about a couple of holiday pictures to finish the EVA?"

Seanan blinked. Did she really just...sounds like she's been spending too much time with Gene or Jeb. He ducked back inside the capsule. “One moment, Flight."

Kerke regarded the rectangular shape on Seanan's couch with amusement and clicked his suit radio over to the crew's private channel.“Is that what it looks like?"

“If it looks like a roll of painted cloth held straight with a pair of old car aerials," said Seanan, “then, yes it is. Fiddly too - good thing I opened it before suiting up." He passed the makeshift signboard through the hatch to Barrie, before climbing back out himself.

“Up a bit, Barrie, get it pointing over your left shoulder. Bit more. Perfect!" Seanan hastily switched over to the air to ground loop. “Okay, Flight. Here goes with the exterior camera. Let me know if its out of focus."

Nelton froze in her seat. A couple of the flight controllers chuckled briefly then fell silent, drinking in the view.

The cratered grey Munar horizon filled the right hand side of the main screen. In the centre, a spacesuited figure stood boldly atop Pioneer 3's service module, its mirrored visor gleaming in the sunlight. It appeared to be holding a road sign, arrow pointed over it's shoulder directly at the shining blue and white marble in the background, writing clearly visible to everyone in Mission Control:

Quote
Kerbin

385,000 km

Nelton stared entranced at the screen. “I should yell at you lot for this but somehow...somehow that just sums up the whole program." She cleared her throat. “I almost hate to say this guys but we've only got thirty minutes before loss of signal. Time to come inside."

The spacecraft circled the Mün for the last time. The boxy remains of the landing craft separated from its mothership with a spurt of ice crystals and drifted away on the barest puff of gas. Thrusters fired, aligning the capsule and its service module along some unseen arrow. They fired again, a longer burst this time, urging sluggish fluids into position. Then, at the appointed moment, the main engine burst into life for the last time, hurling the spacecraft and its crew away from the Mün and onto the long path home.

---------------

Barkton Mission Control was packed with, and surrounded by, anxious kerbals listening to the flight updates from Foxham. Geneney sat bolt upright at the flight director’s console, jaw clenched, hands crushing the armrests of his chair. Jeb paced back and forth behind him

“Control to Pioneer 3. Come in Pioneer 3..."

“Control to Pioneer 3. Come in Pioneer 3..."

“Pioneer 3, Control. Reading you loud and clear, standing by for drogues!"

Distant cheering crackled over the speaker, together with snatches of voice chatter from the rescue boats. Geneney's grip relaxed a fraction. Come on, come on, come on.

“Recovery 1, Control. We see them! We see the capsule!"

“This is Recovery 2. We got all three chutes! Repeat, three chutes deployed!"

Geneney sagged into his chair, a broad smile lighting up his face as the room around him erupted. Jeb squeezed his friend's shoulder briefly, then turned and walked away, picking his way through the exultant crowds. He took a key out of his pocket, unlocked a small door in the corner of the room and slipped through, locking it again behind him. The old iron steps rang underfoot as Jeb climbed up onto the roof. He walked over to the rail and leaned against it, staring out to sea.

Three flights. Three flights that had tested the mettle of spacecraft, crew and Mission Control - and not found them wanting.

It was time.

Pioneer 4 was going to the Mün.

Edited by KSK

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Oh, hell yeah!

Grinning too hard for a coherent comment, but that flag? That is just perfect.

Yes. Exactly.

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I think it's fair to say that "Kerbals going to the Mun" has more or less been done to death, but that chapter was something special. Certainly, it's going to be a very hard act to follow. :)

As a completely random aside, today I learned that the word "homely" means very different things depending on which side of the Atlantic you live on. :confused:

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As a completely random aside, today I learned that the word "homely" means very different things depending on which side of the Atlantic you live on. :confused:

Phew - that could have been a lot worse! For all the Americans out there - I was using 'homely' in its British sense. :)

Sorry for the late reply folks but frankly I was knocked over by that last set of comments and not to mention a couple of wonderful off-thread comments. I'll spare you the blushes but you know who you are! Absolutely delighted that Pioneer 3 struck such a chord - we've got a little way to go and a couple of plot arcs to tie off before Pioneer 4 - but that is a chapter that I've been looking forward to writing for a very long time...

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Phew - that could have been a lot worse! For all the Americans out there - I was using 'homely' in its British sense. :)

Actually, they're both he same root definition, just applied differently. 'Homely' means 'common' or 'familiar'; applied to a place it ends up meaning 'comfortable' or 'homelike', whereas applied to a person's appearance it means 'average' or 'unexceptional'.

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Wow! Okay, that was a good read, and every bit what I was hoping for with the first manned Mun orbit. Glad to see that your Kerbals haven't lost their touch of amusement in the cold black of space.

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A Moho class booster and capsule unless I miss my guess. :)

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Thanks Madrias!

Next chapter is up.

If you cut us...

"So which treaty is current?" The voice betrayed the faintest edge of impatience.

"The latter of the two, Mr President." This voice held more than a faint edge of frustration. "Although I'd very much like to find which committee drafted it."And stuff their collected heads into a gronnek warren. "Frankly sir, it's a mess. Parts of it refer back to the older treaty and the rest is filled with the kind of ornately obfuscatory wordsmithery that I would fail a student for using, let alone anyone experienced enough to be let loose on an internationally binding accord."

"A genuine Wakiran classic then," somebody murmured.

"Quite. And they are taking full advantage of it."

"Their radar post. Surely that is prohibited under either treaty?"

"Their "maritime traffic monitoring station" is not. Their "purely precautionary and defensive installation" doesn't appear to be either. Naturally we strongly disagree with both descriptions."

"They're running patrols for Kerm's sake!"

"Training exercises only, dear fellow. As you must understand, it behooves them to maintain complete and current charts of such a potentially hazardous stretch of water."

The President sighed. "How long can they keep up this... stalling?"

"Long enough, Mr President. Their Kerm is young - too young to have Knitted. Given another month however..."

"And we are certain it can be moved?"

"As certain as our botanists can be, sir but the longer we leave it, the higher the risk of permanent damage."

Another voice spoke up. "And we're certain that we need the blighted archipelago?"

"Regrettably, yes. The recent heatwave has pushed both Spierka and Forseti to the brink of Kerm saturation. With some sacrifices we can absorb the latest burst of Seeds but after that we have no choice but to look further afield. The archipelago is a stop-gap at best but a necessary one."

"And the cold storage option?" someone said quietly.

The President's voice chopped through the sudden buzz of conversation. "No. Our Kerm have the same rights to life as any other. We do not bury them alive."

"In which case, Mr President, it behooves us to move quickly before we endanger their Kerm as well."

"Agreed. We will continue to seek a diplomatic solution but in the absence of any tangible progress at the next negotiation round... I trust I make myself clear?"

"Quite clear, Mr President."

-----------

Duna. The Red Planet.

A wandering star that had drawn kerbal eyes skyward ever since they had thought to look beyond their Kerm; their efforts to predict and then understand it’s path across the sky the underpinning behind some of their greatest scientific achievements.

The historical record was replete with astronomical works, the very earliest ones dating back to the First Age of Prosperity and only recognisable by their diagrams and charts. The accompanying texts tended to be written in obscure notations and more often than not were simply lost. Even then, scientific historians pointed out, they showed a comparatively sophisticated understanding, suggesting that still earlier records were destroyed in the turmoil of the Age of Madness.

Through the earliest telescopes, Duna appeared as a blurred reddish-orange disc which exhibited only limited phases, unlike the Mün. As their instruments improved, kerbal astronomers observed dark and light regions of Duna's surface. They watched them change over time and deduced the length of Duna's day, which was found to be a little longer than Kerbin's. The white regions at Duna's poles were also seen to change, although over the course of a season rather than a day. Popularly supposed to be made of ice, the Duna polar caps were the cause of much, largely unverified, speculation on Dunan weather and whether water might be found elsewhere on the surface.

The pressing navigational needs of the Age of Sail drove new waves of enquiry into astronomy and turned telescope manufacture from a pastime and curiosity into an industry. Progress was rapid and was matched by an equally rapid growth in the number and quality of astronomical observations. Duna's position in the sky was pinpointed with unparalleled precision, steadily more detailed maps were made of its surface and, like Kerbin, it was found to have a mun, which was named Ike.

As the Age of Sail waxed into the Second Age of Prosperity, the burgeoning sciences of photometry, and then spectroscopy, provided kerbal astronomers with their first temperature measurements of Duna's surface and skies and their first glimpses into the makeup of those skies. Ever more sophisticated observational and mathematical techniques placed an upper limit on the thickness of Duna's atmosphere, established that it contained significant quantities of carbon dioxide and suggested that on the whole, Duna was a smooth world, free of large surface irregularities.

Further progress would have to wait for an extraordinary leap into the unknown and the pioneering achievements of three teams of kerbals. And like the Age of Sail before it, the astronomical accomplishments of the new Age would be driven as much by dire need as by scientific curiosity.

------------

Lodan studied the printout intently. “These are confirmed?"

Jernie nodded. “Averaged radio occultation data from the Hope 3 and Hope 4 orbiters over the last twelve orbits. We'll continue to refine them of course but I wouldn't expect any significant changes."

“Not as thick as we were hoping for from the scattering studies," said Dunney soberly, “Fifteen percent atmospheric pressure was optimistic I'll grant you but even ten to eleven percent would make things much more convenient. Six percent is going to require pressure suits."

“Kerbinside observations are always going to be limited," said Jernie. She rubbed her eyes. “And as best we can tell, we should just edge over the Geofler limit on the lower plains."

Lodan made a note on his pad. “I'll speak to Erlin at the Berelgan," he said. “I doubt that six percent is survivable for Kerm but I'm certainly no expert. Building Kerm sized shelters is going to present some logistical challenges though."

Dunney snorted. “A nice problem to have," he said. “Whilst I confess to having no good idea how fast Kerm grow, if we even get to the point where we need to worry about building them a bigger greenhouse, I'd say we were doing well."

“Indeed," said Lodan. “Which reminds me - do the spectroscopy team have any more information for us?"

“They're still trying to quantify the nitrogen content," replied Jernie. She shrugged. “Nitrogen is always a pain to work with. We're seeing carbon dioxide, nitrogen, argon mainly. Traces of water and oxygen but nothing you could breathe. The mass spec data from the landers will give us a better picture."

Dunney bent down and retrieved a long tube from under the table. “Speaking of which." He carefully extracted a roll of glossy paper. “A hand if you would, please, Jernie."

Jernie jumped to her feet and helped Dunney unroll the paper and pin it to the wall. Lodan stared at the black and white picture, noting the pair of thin, red ellipses drawn over it. Dunney picked up a pointer, unfolded it, and to Lodan's inward amusement, tucked a thumb into his belt and began to lecture them.

“This is the initial, low-resolution composite map of Duna, generated from the wide angle cameras aboard the Hope 3 and Hope 4 orbiters - you'll notice that it has a slightly motttled appearance for that reason. Cylindrical projection of course, so the polar regions are grossly distorted, but we're not immediately interested in them in any case."

Dunney cleared his throat. “The orbiters are also equipped with high-resolution cameras and the survey team will be assembling an improved map over the next few weeks, which they'll use to select the final landing sites. However, based on the images obtained to date, we have tentatively identified two possibilities that may be of interest."

The pointer jabbed at one of the red ellipses. “The first site - here - shows features akin to a large river delta here on Kerbin. This will need to be confirmed on the high-resolution images and even if verified, is unlikely to be due to currently flowing surface water. In fact, we believe the features are more likely to be created by surface erosion due to fluidised particulates."

Dunney gave them a lopsided grin. “Of course, we cannot entirely rule out an alternative hypothesis which is that we're looking at an ancient watercourse, ideally with sub-surface ice deposits still present. We propose this landing site as a means to test that hypothesis but more prosaically because it's a large flat region of Duna that ought to be comparatively straightforward to land on." He pointed at the second ellipse. “Giving the flight planners a bit of practice before asking them to put a lander down at Site 2."

Lodan leaned forward. "Presumably without hitting those mountains," he said. “Well, those hills anyway."

Dunney nodded. “They're higher than they look but yes, that's the idea. We're thinking that the hills would provide shelter from the prevailing winds and ideally we'll find a nice cliff face somewhere that the colonists can burrow into. Better yet would be another stream bed nearby but I rather imagine that would be setting our hopes too high."

Lodan drummed his fingers on the table thoughtfully. “Agreed," he said at last. “Unless the high resolution studies find somewhere better, Site 1 is our main objective If we do manage to set down there on the first attempt, then we try for Site 2 as well."

Dunney folded up his pointer. “Thank you, Director."

--------------

Silently, Hope 3 split into two, its flattened, discoidal base drifting slowly away from its spindly, angular upper body. Tiny rockets fired around the rim of the base section, nudging it onto an intercept course with the snow-capped, dusty orange sphere waiting far below. The body section pivoted to follow, onboard cameras tracking the disc as it fell, surrogate eyes of silicon and glass for the anxious kerbals watching from so many millions of kilometres away.

The rockets fired again, making fine adjustments to the disc's trajectory and orientation. Light minutes away from Kerbin, the final moments of its long voyage would be over before its controllers could react, let alone respond.

Trails of glowing gas streamed away from the descending spacecraft, its blunt, saucer shaped front end glowing red, then yellow, then white hot, as it tore through the thin Dunan air. Instruments buried within its shell sensed the steadily building forces. By itself the resultant information was a meaningless stream of electronic pulses. Combined with other bits of data hard-wired into the spacecraft's computer memory, it provided the vital measuring rule against which its descent could be gauged.

Two strings of numbers were compared many hundreds of times per second and for a fleeting moment they matched. A threshold was crossed, triggering new sets of instructions. Explosive bolts fired, blasting the upper aeroshell section away from the plummeting craft. Seconds later parachutes deployed, hauling it free from the still glowing heatshield, which tumbled away out of sight.

Two more numbers slid into alignment. Four articulated metal legs unfolded from the spacecraft body. Rupturing gas cartridges slammed knife blades through restraining tethers and cut the parachutes free. Clusters of rocket engines fired, bleeding off excess speed whilst invisible beams of radio waves probed the surface below. The spacecraft dipped to one side, floated sideways and then steadied.

A final pair of numbers crossed their preprogrammed thresholds. The rocket engines shut down, the exhaust from each engine barely enough to stir the dust from the waiting planet’s surface. Four legs kissed the ground; honeycomb padded feet crumpled under the load and brought the spacecraft to a standstill. Antennas unfolded and tilted skywards, automatically seeking a pair of invisible stars through the dusty Dunan sky, one high and swift-moving, the other low and fixed, a bright blue speck hidden by Kerbol's dim disc.

-----------

“Picking up a carrier signal. Something made it down in one piece anyway. Waiting for post-landing self test."

Muted applause rippled through the crowded Deep Space Operations Centre. The Hope 3 team sat up a little straighter at their consoles. Behind them, dozens of Probodyne staff had crammed themselves into the room, their eyes fixed on a large, static filled screen set into the far wall. Lodan and Dunney stood silently in the middle of the crowd, their eyes fixed on the flight control teams.

The screen sputtered into life:

Quote

Probodyne OCTO v. 1.05.

Vehicle designation: Hope 3-L

KCOM......OK

BIOS......OK

MEM1......OK

MEM2......OK

>Loading surface operation modules...

SOM_chksum......OK

>Starting PLST sequence...

CBatt.......95%

PV-A......DEP

PV-B......DEP

PCON......OK

B1......IN

B2......IN

System reports scrolled rapidly up the screen. The muted buzz of background conversation swelled, groups of engineers clenching their fists in suppressed triumph as, block by block, Hope 3's systems came online.

Quote

XRFS_con......OK

XRFS_pow......OK

XRFS_dat......OK

XRPS_con......OK

XRPS_pow......OK

XRPS_dat......OK

>System set.

>

The room erupted. Ignoring the cheering kerbals behind her, Jernie walked over to one of the consoles and conferred briefly with the controller perched in front of it. The controller nodded and typed in a single, brief command on his keyboard.

Quote

>starting contingency sample

ARM_MODE......SCRAPE

ARM_YAW......0

XRFS_MODE......R-SCAN

>starting sample arm

>starting XRFS

A set of locking pins shot free, glinting as they sailed through the air and thudded into the coarse ochre dirt. Hope 3's sample arm unlimbered, joints flexing briefly, almost organically, before unfolding straight out. The scoop tip lowered, dipping into the soil and scooping out a shallow scrape. The arm slowly curled up and back, transferring its precious contents to the waiting instrument bay for preliminary x-ray analysis. Slowly, painstakingly, the detector crystals rotated, gathering the scattered radiation from the sieved sand grains; counting their constituent elements and transmitting the count back to Kerbin.

At the Deep Space Operations Centre, the main screen displayed a blinking cursor at the foot of a bewildering list of checked-off commands and system status reports. The science team, and a handful of off-duty engineers stood around in small groups, conferring quietly amongst themselves. In the centre of the room, Dunney shifted his weight from foot to foot, eyes flicking from consoles to main screen and back again. Lodan stood beside him, face locked in an expressionless mask.

The screen flickered and went blank. Dunney held his breath as four new lines of text appeared.

Quote

XRFS report

Mode: R-SCAN

Result type: Bulk Element Count (non-quantitative)

Element list: C, O, Na, Mg, Al, Si, P, S, Cl, K, Ca, Ti, Cr, Fe, Mn

Dunney blew out his cheeks. “Phosphorus and potassium," he said quietly. “with a handful of other elements that I'm almost positive are good secondary nutrients. Throw in that nitrogen and carbon dioxide atmosphere and think our good colleagues at the Berelgan are going to find this very interesting indeed." He cocked his head at Lodan's slow nod, listening to the excited babble from the consoles. “I'd want the rest of the mineralogy results before calling it but I'd wager that kerbals could grow crops on Duna if they absolutely had to. I think your scouting party has just found what you were looking for, Director."

---------------

The radar station gates hung open, the surrounding walls heavily pockmarked and chipped. Here and there, twisted steel reinforcements showed through jagged scars of shattered concrete. Six heavy, zipped up canvas bags lay in a row by one of the gateposts.

Armed guards stood watch over a group of bloody and bruised kerbals, their torn, sand-encrusted uniforms barely recognisable; tight faces and restlessly searching eyes matched by equally grim vigilance from the guards. One of them risked a quick glance to the side, tensing himself to run. A clubbing blow between the shoulder blades sent him sprawling into the sand.

“Put a lid on that, soldier!" An older looking guard, with a stripe on her uniform collar, stepped forward and helped the fallen kerbal to his feet. “We are not barbarians and we will treat non-combatants with respect. These kerbals are to be escorted to the harbour and they and their kermol compatriots are to be given safe passage back to Wakira." She surveyed the sullen Wakirans neutrally. “If they run, we will make no attempt to detain them. However, I would remind everyone that as of now, this island is part of the Forseti-Spierkan Confederacy. Our legal code include some...excessive penalties for acts of trespass or malicious damage and I do not recommend that anyone here incriminate themselves in such a manner. Now form up!"

Down at the village, Enely squatted by one of his Kerm saplings. Gently he tugged at one of the glossy green leaves, stretching it out between finger and thumb, watching as it curled back into its cluster. Woodenly he climbed to his feet.

“The soil is damp enough for this one too," he said tonelessly.

In the middle of the village, where the tallest sapling had once stood, an enormous pit had been excavated; its edges bizarrely scalloped where long roots or other fibres had been eased from the soil. Thirty seven saplings stood in a row behind him, each replanted in a disproportionately sized canvas planter. The planter for the thirty-seventh and tallest sapling was almost grotesquely large but even so, the soil around its stem was broached in numerous places by root tips and thin, pale fibres emerging from the dense tangle beneath the surface.

A pair of heavy duty trucks were parked nearby, one hitched to a wide, flat-bed trailer.

The villagers stood in silent rows. Some of the younger kerbals still wore stunned expressions; the elders watched their Forseti guards expressionlessly or stared inscrutably out to sea. Even the kerblets were silent, holding tightly onto their parent's hands.

One of the guards nodded at Enely and gestured at his companions. Eight heavy-set kerbals stepped forward, each taking hold of a rope handle around the top of the largest planter. One of them swore as they wrestled the unwieldy mass over to one of the waiting trucks and heaved it onto the tail lift.

Hydraulics whined under the load. Another team of kerbals scrambled onto the back of the truck and dragged the planter onto the truck bed. Smaller teams of four picked up the smaller planters and hauled them across to the lift. None of the villagers made any attempt to help.

As soon as the last sapling had been safely secured, the Forseti captain gestured at the flat bed trailer. “First two rows - up you go. Quickly now."

One of the younger guards standing by the pit scuffed at the ground with his boot, uncovering a streak of white material. Curious, he knelt down, prodding at the pale, oddly textured fibre with his finger only to snatch it back at the sight of a thin pinkish fluid leaking from one end. Hastily, he stood up, shivering as he kicked soil back over the exposed fragment of fibre.

Behind him the truck engines rumbled into life, carrying the Kerm saplings, and the first group of villagers, towards the harbour.

Edited by KSK

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Well, by the sound of it, we have metal feet on Duna. This just got even more exciting

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[quote name='Madrias']Well, by the sound of it, we have metal feet on Duna. This just got even more exciting[/QUOTE]

Yup! First kerbal-made object on another planet. At some point that fact will dawn on the Probodyne team but for now they're a bit occupied with the science. :)

[COLOR="silver"][SIZE=1]- - - Updated - - -[/SIZE][/COLOR]

[quote name='KerbMav']It always works ... :wink:

Thanks![/QUOTE]

:D You're welcome! I have a family gathering this weekend (my little nephew is being christened) so I probably won't have a lot of time for writing, but I'm hoping to get the next chapter out by next weekend.

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I admit, I was a little surprised; I didn't think any of the programs had reached the level of being able to send out interplanetary probes (let alone ones capable of soft landing and chemical analysis), or anything at all beyond Kerbin's SOI. Doesn't seem to match up with what we're seeing elsewhere (mostly in the manned, er, kerbaled program). But I suppose they have rather compelling reasons to want an answer to some questions sooner rather than later.

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The Viking program was launched soon after the Apollo program ended, and the probes were roughly as sophisticated as the ones here. I think he has the right timing here, seeing as all of kerbalkind is on the clock.

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