Tension eased away as the spaceship settled down on its metallic haunches and they savored a safe planetfall.
Ekstrohm fingered loose the cinches of his deceleration couch. He sighed. An exploration camp would mean things would be simpler for him. He could hide his problem from the others more easily. Trying to keep secret what he did alone at night was very difficult under the close conditions on board a ship in space.
Ryan hefted his bulk up and supported it on one elbow. He rubbed his eyes sleepily with one huge paw. "Ekstrohm, Nogol, you guys okay?"
"Nothing wrong with me that couldn't be cured," Nogol said. He didn't say what would cure him; he had been explaining all during the trip what he needed to make him feel like himself. His small black eyes darted inside the olive oval of his face.
"Ekstrohm?" Ryan insisted.
"Well, let's take a ground-level look at the country around here."
The facsiport rolled open on the landscape. A range of bluffs hugged the horizon, the color of decaying moss. Above them, the sky was the black of space, or the almost equal black of the winter sky above Minneapolis, seen against neon-lit snow. That cold, empty sky was full of fire and light. It seemed almost a magnification of the Galaxy itself, of the Milky Way, blown up by some master photographer.
This fiery swath was actually only a belt of minor planets, almost like the asteroid belt in the original Solar System. These planets were much bigger, nearly all capable of holding an atmosphere. But to the infuriation of scientists, for no known reason not all of them did. This would be the fifth mapping expedition to the planetoids of Yancy-6 in three generations. They lay months away from the nearest Earth star by jump drive, and no one knew what they were good for, although it was felt that they would probably be good for something if it could only be discovered—much like the continent of Antarctica in ancient history.
"How can a planet with so many neighbors be so lonely?" Ryan asked. He was the captain, so he could ask questions like that.
"Some can be lonely in a crowd," Nogol said elaborately.
"What will we need outside, Ryan?" Ekstrohm asked.
"No helmets," the captain answered. "We can breathe out there, all right. It just won't be easy. This old world lost all of its helium and trace gases long ago. Nitrogen and oxygen are about it."
"Ryan, look over there," Nogol said. "Animals. Ringing the ship. Think they're intelligent, maybe hostile?"
"I think they're dead," Ekstrohm interjected quietly. "I get no readings from them at all. Sonic, electronic, galvanic—all blank. According to these needles, they're stone dead."
"Ekstrohm, you and I will have a look," Ryan said. "You hold down the fort, Nogol. Take it easy."
"Easy," Nogol confirmed. "I heard a story once about a rookie who got excited when the captain stepped outside and he couldn't get an encephalographic reading on him. Me, I know the mind of an officer works in a strange and unfathomable manner."
"I'm not worried about you mis-reading the dials, Nogol, just about a lug like you reading them at all....