705015:216 - We've landed in a grotto, near the center of Hochebene's Altiplano, but closer to the Towers of God than not. On one side of the grotto is the only run of clear water for some thirty kilometers, and I've noted with Sanders that this could be a problem as all native fauna encountered thus far follow the same biologies as we. Immediately upon landing, Sanders ordered Tellweiller, Nash, and Galen to construct a blind. We are now a boulder, one among several, that slid into the grotto when we lowered a rumbler to cover our landing.
Nash estimates two standard hours before sunrise.
Early estimates indicated Aguirra was three and a half to four billion years old. Now, with readings coming in about the deep core and mantle, we place it closer to five. Gravity is one-point-one standard and the atmosphere is quite like Earth's only sweeter due to a higher O3 content. There is also a free floating enzyme, essentially carbolic anhydrase, which explains some of the evolutioniary adaptations on the planet. Everything we've observed is based on the nitrocarbon cycle -- everything we've recorded from space and robotics shows up as a variation on some earth fauna -- and the carbolic anhydrase probably helps redaction and reduction in the O3 rich atmosphere when a stressing agent is introduced.
Due to the atmosphere there is a perpetual slight pink tint in the sky, much like before an intense electrical storm back home. This area, Hochebene's Altiplano to the Towers of God, is a paragneiss formed we're not sure how long ago by glaciation. It is difficult to estimate because the atmosphere mediates the planetary temperature such that weathering is neither gradual nor minimal -- Hopkin's Bioclimatic Law doesn't seem to apply. There are seasons in the temperate zones but without the fluctuations of four true seasons. Summer temperature extremes range from -19°C to 33°C. Winter temperatures also vary by about twenty degrees, from -25°C to 5°C. These temperatures are for our current location, 43°N, 8000m altitude, and, as I've mentioned earlier, shrouded to the west by the Towers of God.
To our immediate east is the rock wall we worked hard to resemble, the rise of the grotto, then the expanse of the high plain for several kilometers. Although comprised principally of paragneiss and granite with only slight eruptions of soil, a hardy tundral grass grows in clumps all around. Our guess is the grass serves to anchor what little soil there is in place. There are wind storms -- one is due in another hour -- when Astarte 217 rises over the altiplano and begins churning this high, thin air with the thicker, deep valley air far below.
These grasses are richly verdant, their tops a slight yellow as if gently burned. Galen collected some samples when the blind was completed and says the yellowing is a pollen. Thus we learn immediately that these verdant clusters aren't true grasses and that there is some pollenizing agent, perhaps only the wind, which is at work. If the robotics sent into these highlands hadn't met such abrupt and catastrophic ends, we might know more about Aguirra's highland life, at least in this area.
There is still a carpet of snow, albeit thin and frayed in some areas, stretching a kilometer from the entrance to the altiplano to the Towers of God even though this continent is now in high summer. The snow, Nash says, is due to the altitude and rarified atmosphere. Even with the carpet of white, this is a desert, with cold, dry steppes leading to the Towers.
In contrast to earth flora, there appears to be no treeline. While there are no trees on the altiplano, there are five here in the grotto ranging from two to two-fifty meters in height. They appear something like succulent scotch pines, kind of chubby Christmas trees. They have no root systems and, according to Galen, all five trees are extensions of the same growth and are more like vines than trees, growing like Sequoias in the northern California forests. If they are vines, it explains their limbs being naked on one side and holding fast against the grotto's walls. They're being succulents so close to a clear water supply indicates that the water might be seasonal.
There are several similar although much smaller trees, these resembling elms and birch although Galen's report might show different, growing to our west and in the runoff fissures of the Towers. From there these trees grow up to the crowns of the Towers, becoming deeper and denser with altitude, giving the appearance of twin green-haired giants out in the distance. Based on this and other evidence Galen claims these are not true "trees." If Galen's contention about the succulents is accurate, there are but one or two of these "trees" sending their shoots, binding and girding like some giant's phylacteries, up the Towers.
The most noticeable feature of the landscape, the one we all knew would be most breath-taking, are the Towers themselves. We are eight kilometers above sea level and the Towers rise another eight above us. They are the largest vertical features on all of Aguirra, even and symmetrical in every geologic detail, with their expansive flat plained plateau heads, each five-point-five kilometers in diameter, separated by zero-point-five kilometers horizontal and a four kilometer drop. There are a few passes down the Towers, more like torrents than actual passes in their slope and grain, and various hanging, piedmont, and steppe glaciers coming down the Towers' sides. The best climb, if one were necessary, seems to be along a bergschrund on the immediate faces of each.
Tellweiller has no explanation for the Towers' formation, although it is obvious from their age they were formed in the prebiologic days of the planet.
Although I am not a religious man, standing at their feet and hearing the winds, it is not difficult to imagine the whispers the ancient Greeks heard about Mt. Olympus. I can understand why these features were named the Towers of God.
705015:323 - The winds are fierce now that Astarte 217's rays are directly on this moraine. Instruments indicate speeds in excess of one-hundred kilometers per hour and the sudden inversion is creating torrential rains which are creating waterfalls down the faces of the Towers and flooding this gorge.
These rains reminds me, in some ways, of New Orleans, where Robin and I lived briefly while she attended Loyola. In high summer it rains every hour, suddenly, violently, then stops after ten minutes. There are no clouds in the sky, then they gather up, release their hold and go away.
As the clouds gathered Sanders ordered the caster to ground. At the time it was flying over the run off fissures on the Alpha Tower. It continued transmitting and, thanks to the floor and angle, we witnessed incredible rains and winds clearing the skies and scrubbing the canopy. The only difference here is the color.
Despite the rain and wind, we can see Astarte 217 rising far to the east on that edge of the altiplano. It is peering over the precipice at us like some Indian scouting the fort. The clouds are higher over the plain than the precipice's edge and this gives 217 a green crown. Nash says this is common here but uncommon on earth. Nash. Never-late-for-dinner Nash. Of all on this mission, he's the only one who grumbles when I sit next to him for meals. No one else seems to mind my being a lefty.
God it is glorious here.
705015:500 - Wind and rain have stopped. They lasted about one and a half standard hours, about point-seven-one dechours on this planet, and Nash says we can expect something similar at dusk and dawn every day.
Sanders sent up some more casters to scout along with the first when the storm broke. They are coursing through the far away valley and are sending back holos of the several species inhabiting Aguirra.
Closer to our blind but still some distance down the altiplano Aguirran insects are busy. Their buzzing and clicking reminds me of apiaries and formicariums back home. Typical to robotic and remote sensing, the true aromas of this country weren't captured in their entirety, or were captured with the typical burnt-metal tinge which all such equipment imparts. Considering the waxing and waning humidity, there is no smell of decay, detritus, humus, or their like. Whatever moisture lands is quickly recaptured and, as noted previously, behaves more like some kind of planetary scrubbing action than rejuvenating rain. I've noticed, at the leading edge of each storm recorded, there is a smell similar to a good late spring rain in a forest. The smells of the flora are highlighted and accented, hitting one high in the nose not unlike a pleasantly bitter coffee.
The Aguirran insects disturb me. More correctly, it is their mammalian eyes which disturb me, eyes you're more accustomed to seeing on your dog or cat, eyes which you can believe have some hint of intelligence behind them. Galen further noted that the clearly arboreal species have blue eyes. "Same as you, Banks," he said.
"Why is that, do you think?"
"Adaptive biology, I guess. A blue iris in this atmosphere could cause less ocular distortion over distance. I wouldn't be surprised if everything living eight-k and up's eyes were blue."
Nothing else lives this far off the planetary floor.
Sanders brought me another message from Robin's attorneys today. There are advantages and disadvantages to being in a jumpship. This message, received as quickly as possible, is still months too late for me to respond. It appears I won't be allowed to see Jeremy.
Again, there is nothing here which hasn't been reported before.
715015:030 - The alarms woke us, although there seemed to be no reason. The casters were called back and found nothing, which our shipboard instruments confirmed.
The casters also indicate thermals on the steppes and higher on the Towers, although the vegetation is too dense for the casters to gather much information due to their altitude.
Sanders is staying up to perform a redundancy on the grid and has ordered the rest of us to sleep.
715015:430 - The alarms woke me again. It is time to be about my duties, anyway. Only Galen and I still slept. A moment after the alarms sounded, Sanders called me to observation.
There was another message for me, this one from Jeremy. How an eleven-year old boy could manage to get a message off and properly through channels onto the Net and out to this sector of the Ring ...
Still, he was always a clever child, far brighter than either Robin or I.
He cried through the transmission. He begged me to come home.
Sanders, god bless him, left me to scan the transmission alone. This, even though every message delivered shipside is reviewed by him, SOP. The only exception are those registered "Private" which the net delivers sealed to a ship's commander for dispatch. These the crew members may open first but only in the captain's presence. Normally it is enough to open it there. I've never had a commander ask to read their contents. Jeremy could not have known.
I had just finished Jeremy's transmission when Sanders came hurrying over to me, swiveled two externals and opened some viewers, pointing wildly to the screens and ports. "This is it. This is what the alarms are about."
Twelve bipeds stood twenty meters from our blind. In appearance, they can only be described as Satan in a snowsuit.
All are male, all stand from one-point-seven-five meters to two-point-one-five meters tall, their mass varies from one-hundred kilos to one-thirty kilos. Their bodies are built low with a powerful, blocky musculature and legs slightly more than one-third their height. Their torso starts with a broad, rounded abdomen -- either these creatures eat well or are starving. I won't know until I can autopsy one -- and progresses into a broad, massive thorax, with shoulders, chest, and back so well muscled they appear padded like football players. Their arms are equally powerful, ending in hands with two fingers and an opposing thumb.
All have elongated faces, long, prehensile ears emanating from slightly above the middle of each side of the skull, two large, vertebrate eyes -- blue. If these creatures are here by evolutionary chance Galen is right -- which protrude slightly from the skull, and two horns rising from midway between the eyes and the ears.
Their coat is shaggy white hair, although some have elements of brown, gray, red, blonde, and cream. The only black on their bodies being their hands, their horns, their noses, and their feet.
Robotics showed some bipedal fauna, but merely evolutionary adaptations for food gathering.
Detailed analysis and holos will be transmitted later.
They are staring at us.