By L.L. Hill
A POROUS GREY ROCK SKIPPED off of the flat-topped black-streaked ochre boulder and over the volcanic vents. As it wafted through the rising plumes, excited particles glittered in the light of the third moon.
Mazor emitted a purring growl and rubbed its striped head into Rejan’s gloved hand. Rejan dropped a second skipping stone to scratch behind Mazor’s ears.
“I see your point,” said a subdued Baethon.
“All we have to do is crush enough material to mold around the reed lattice, weave some ropes and a basket, and connect them together. Then we calculate the best ascent time, and liftoff.” Rejan squinted at the third moon, and wondered what searching thoughts their commander might have for their welfare from the Mazthurian advanced landing base thereon.
“Do we have a guarantee that they are looking?
“Of course not.” Rejan was annoyed with Baethon’s crash-induced pessimism.
“Archimedes said it first?”
“Kind of. An object wholly or partially immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced. On Mazthur, that fluid would be the gaseous atmosphere. Or any lighter than air travel.” Rejan looked down at the drool dripping from the orphaned Mazor’s nose.
“Well, should we be expending energy on something that is not a guaranteed success?” Resentful eyes gleaming behind the visor defied Rejan to lose his temper.
“Our only guarantee is death if we do nothing,” said Rejan as Mazor growled its reflected dislike.
“Isn’t another propulsive force required to provide lift?” Baethon whined.
“No. Lighter than air machines are as old as kites. Let’s get working on this. All we need is something that the Commander will notice so that he will send a second lander.” Rejan walked away followed by Mazor.
When Baethon returned to the emergency cabin rather than follow him, Rejan was relieved. Since the crash just half a day ago, Baethon’s cheerfulness had disappeared into a quaking morass of doubt and recrimination. Perhaps if the radio had not been so thoroughly smashed, he might have been more optimistic.
Odd Mazthurian magnetic anomalies that reflected radar contacts from place to place, dancing targets around in shifting mirages, had been the impetus of exploration as well as the cause of its failure. Now, unless they could rise above the volcanic terrain, the Commander might opt not to risk the second lander and crew.
While he ground rocks of pumice like stone to powder on a natural mortar-like rock, he wondered what decision he would make in the Commander’s place. It was hard to know what emotions and motivations sheltered behind the craggy wrinkles of the revered leader. Rejan would have been happy to have had some of those skin crease scars of space travel. Perhaps the Commander had been a thin-faced, slender cadet kilometers ago.
A fine powder pile was now as high as his waist. Two reed lattice orbs, one half the size of the other, were anchored nearby. Rejan had begun the self-rescue project by collecting them from the banks of a marshy river near the crash site. Originally his plan had been to set a fire visible from the third moon.
However, the low oxygen content of the dense air caused the reeds to burn in a low smoky smudge that succeeded only in driving Mazor from its den. Baethon had run screaming when the kitten emerged crying and mewling. Black circles framed amber on the young creature’s rump, a match to the wary and hopeful eyes that lay on the other end of the yellow ochre and black striped body.
Rejan had fed the kitten, close to his height in length, with a mix of dried milk, water and crackers. After eating, the baby had prowled around sniffing the charred remains of its mother next to the crashed lander. Mazor had raised its head and spread its great fangs in a final yowl of anguish. Rejan had approached to caress Mazor with words and ear scratching.
Performing for an audience of two, Rejan then prepared to fly a kite, for which he had plaited reed ropes. The journal paper, reluctantly provided by Baethon, had cracked in the heat from vents after Rejan’s effort to set the kite aloft by jumping off of a small scarp. Rejan had sat down to rethink his options as Baethon tittered on the communication link.
Wanting a meal break before molding the reed shells, the largest of which had a diameter twice his height, Rejan got up and dusted himself off while Mazor gamboled around. They thumped over to the cabin’s exterior door where Rejan reached a gloved hand out to flick the wheel. He stumbled back when it held fast.
He tried again with both hands. It was locked from the inside. Baethon was peering out of a tiny port hole at him.
“Open it!” demanded Rejan, pointing and knowing that he could not be heard.
Baethon held up a sign. You are a danger to yourselves and others, and must be kept separate. Section 10-a, Explorers’ Regulations.
Fists clenched, Rejan glared at his jury and judge before he walked away. Mazor paced beside him, tail lashing. Baethon had created a division that could get them both killed. It was easier to read about how stress became panic in explorers than deal with it.
Not far from his powder pile, Rejan had a stash set aside for a crisis scenario like fire. He shifted the gold rocks from the startlingly blue storage container and opened it. Mazor sniffed with eager curiosity as Rejan fed wrapped bars into the dry silver mouth of a suit zipper before closing it. Wriggling inside his suit, he maneuvered an arm so that he could reach the interior zipper and open it.
Brown, blue and green, the desiccated bars tasted like salted cardboard. Mazor licked one that Rejan opened, but the feline refused to eat it. They were guaranteed to contain all essential vitamins and minerals but their sugar content was so low that Rejan had always thought that they were a meal designed to inspire depression. As Baethon had other options, his behavior must have a different cause, Rejan decided.
On the yellow horizon of Mazthur, the third moon was sitting in a blue haze. A final product had to be made.
Never able to sit when work was to be done, Rejan rose and set to work to tote water from the river marsh to mix with powder in his mortar. His once-white-suit now blended well with the yellow Mazthur surface. He and Mazor made a single shape, trudging to and fro.
“To the twinkle of a little star
In deep dark space so far ...”
Mazor growled to accompany Rejan’s ballad.
It was easy to forget that his life might depend on the success of this endeavor. Rejan found that he really enjoyed the feel through his gloves of the wet clay molding into a sphere. And none were there to complain about his odd voice since he had turned the communication link with Baethon off.
“... Till all the stories have been told
About people brave and bold ...”
Mazor mock-sprayed a boulder and yowled. Rejan looked at the kitten and wondered if it knew that it would be left behind. More than just a specimen, Mazor was a unique feline type of mammal. Adapted to life in a low oxygen content environment with major volcanic activity, it was predator as well as prey.
The first moon was high above as Rejan applied final patches to the clay ball. Six eyelets had been molded from reinforced reed in which to tie the harness basket ropes. Even without kiln drying, it was a solid yet feather-light hollow. As he gently placed a bag of rocks inside as an anchor, he wished that there was time and material to decorate the orb.
With a rake made from lander parts, Rejan pulled steaming rocks from a hot spring and laid them in a hollow to be covered by a reed mat. Excited by his urgency, Mazor leapt and mewed, nearly rolling the sphere prematurely onto a volcanic vent as Rejan maneuvered it over his hot rock kiln.
Steam curled upward as the second moon rose.
Baethon was a dark shadow in a round window of the shelter. Rejan rolled the orb, checking to see that the moisture was drying out of the shell and wondering as he did what else Baethon could be planning. It had always been hard to tell what went on behind the sweaty moon face of Baethon.
Rather than worrying, he rolled the clay balloon away to rake cold rocks out and hot rocks into his kiln. Just the tap from a glove tip could shift the ball now even with an anchor inside. It had changed from a dark to a light gold color.
“No, stand back, stay,” Rejan called to the anxious kitten as it reached out to bat at the strange object. Odd that the alien creature understood his request he thought.
The second moon was nearly overhead when Rejan decided that the craft was as dry as it was going to be.
Mazor growled as Rejan rolled the clay vessel away from the kiln for the last time. The shadow in the shelter window jerked spasmodically and Rejan considered checking on Baethon before concluding that their safety lay with his efforts.
Six ropes lay prepared to support the harness basket. Rejan carefully threaded a rope through a set of double eyelets and tied it off. Mazor rubbed against the backs of his legs. Another rope was tied on.
Looking inside at his glove prints, now dried into the clay shell, Rejan pulled out the rock sack, leaving it balanced in the mouth of the ball as he grasped the lines. Now was not the time to have his full-of-hot-air project float off. He laid the anchor on the ends of the lines.
The sphere gently bounced, then floated, held by his tethers. Beside it, Mazor sprinted in circles and then pounced on a creature in a hole.
“Good Mazor, well done!” called Rejan.
To the sound of scrunching, he methodically attached three of the remaining lines to the lip of the ball and then fixed five of them to his harness. Without extra hands, it was an awkward task, but Rejan was glad not to share it with Baethon. Sabotage at this time would be near fatal.
So he belayed the sixth line around his waist after anchoring it to a boulder and stepped into the harness. Mazor yowled from a boulder, its tail thrashing.
As the third moon was rising Rejan tentatively let more anchor rope out. He floated his height off of the surface. Ideally, another person could have helped to steer the balloon over the lighter gas of the vents. Mazor jumped and bounded on the rocks.
Light from the open shelter door blinked. Baethon was not likely to be coming out harboring thoughts of help. Rejan let loose more anchor and continued to gently float up. Rejan did not want to go quite so early to a third moon that was not yet quite high enough.
Then Baethon was tugging on the anchor rope and pulling him back. The balloon began to spiral down in ragged jerks.
Rejan glared down at the pristine suit and let go of the anchor rope. He floated up and away, over the volcanic field and rose some more. He looked back. Baethon was running, arms waving, back to the cabin with Mazor bounding in pursuit. With one pat from its paw, Mazor knocked Baethon to the yellow soil from which he scrambled up and ran again. There must be universal cat and mouse genes thought Rejan.
L.L. Hill is a science fiction writer, a poet, and a photographer. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her stories have been published in the “Third Flatiron Anthologies,” “Thirteen O'Clock Press,” and other places.