The Portal's Gift
When Earth joins forces with the friendly Teneran aliens to gain access to their hyperspace drive, Josh is the first human to copilot with a Teneran commander. They're assigned to the Marco Polo, a Terran ship designed to explore outside the solar system. With Paris, the enigmatic Teneran, at the controls, they explore distant worlds.
Not until a blinding sandstorm maroons Josh and Paris on a desolate planet does Josh realize the implications of the Teneran drive. He finds himself unaccountably attracted to the tall, taciturn alien whose ability to control the hyperspace drive has made Josh the most famous astronaut on earth. Until now, Josh has been staunchly heterosexual. Now he wonders if his travels through the portals of space will change his life forever.
"Are we clear to land?" The captain did not glance away from the controls of the landing craft.
"Clear," Paris said. "There is level ground near those hills in the distance."
Josh had already targeted the hills. Since their first hyperspace jump together the year before, he and Paris were on the same frequency, needing few words to complete their missions. Sometimes Josh swore he could hear his Teneran copilot's thoughts, which came in handy as they jumped across vast distances with the aid of the Teneran star drive installed in the Marco Polo.
The Marco Polo was the first earth ship to receive the drive and Josh the first human pilot chosen to team with a Teneran. For a year, they had explored planets in distant regions of the galaxy, a dream Josh thought would remain a fantasy until the Tenerans arrived on earth with the news that they were long lost cousins of the human race.
"No sign of life," Josh said, mostly to himself. The two-person lander skimmed over a rocky landscape. No apparent vegetation. The dark rocks looked volcanic, probably ejected eons ago by the row of hills lining the horizon. "Notify the Marco that we'll land and collect samples. First near those hills and then we'll try another location."
The Marco Polo, a research vessel in high orbit around this unnamed planet, held a crew of only ten but its labs and computers could analyze any substance they discovered.
"Yes, sir." Paris's long, black-nailed fingers hovered over the array of instruments.
Josh stared at the graceful movements of those hands that looked so delicate but were many times stronger than his own. At his console, Paris looked as if he were playing an instrument. Maybe a harp.
Josh told himself to focus. As they approached a cone-shaped hill, he checked his own instruments and aimed for an area empty of boulders.
"Right there," he said. "We should get good geologic readings from that volcano, if that's what it is, and those dark spots might be foliage."
Josh harbored a not so secret desire to discover a planet that sustained life beyond the few microbes they had discovered so far. That had been on the first planet they visited after the Marco began its research missions with the Teneran drive.
Paris studied the controls, his long face impassive. When he said nothing, Josh sighed, knowing the silence meant Paris didn't agree, and he was probably right. It wasn't likely. Always, they searched for signs of life, but after exploring six planets, all in different sectors of the galaxy, they had come up as empty as had the first humans on Mars.
Josh was sure the Tenerans had encountered inhabited planets. They had referenced space travel going back centuries, but so far had revealed nothing of what they might have learned of other civilizations. He never asked Paris directly. That would be a breach of their friendship, and the Tenerans offered only polite silence to the inquiries the brass had made.
Near the cone-shaped hill that resembled volcanic rock, Josh brought the lander down on what turned out to be thick sand. As Paris relayed their intentions to the Marco, Josh shut down the lander, unbuckled himself, and moved to the rear to check his pressure suit. Half an hour later, they had completed the safety checks on their suits and supply packs, a process Josh always found tedious. He wanted to get out there.
When at last the door opened and the unknown planet waited for him to place the first human foot upon it, the familiar rush rumbled in his chest, the excitement of the unknown and the hope they would discover something incredible.
As captain, Josh exited first. When he stepped onto the surface of the planet, it was almost as big a rush as the jump itself. He took a few steps away from the door, waited for Paris to exit and the door to close. He turned in a circle, taking in the rocky hills, the empty land, distant mountains smudged blue.
Paris's voice came over the comm device they shared.
"The temperature is three hundred twenty Kelvin, Captain."
Hot enough to fry their brains, but their pressure suits would keep them comfortable. "Copy," Josh said. "Spread out and collect samples."
Paris walked away, his tall frame bent toward the ground. Josh concentrated on collecting rock and soil samples and placing them in the special containers in the pack he carried. Josh had moved a few hundred yards from the ship when a sudden gust of wind nearly knocked him flat. The comm crackled. "A storm, Captain, approaching fast. Return to the lander."
Josh turned and spotted a dark brown funnel cloud moving toward them. "Damn." Where had it come from? That thing was huge and moving faster than any earth storm.
Paris approached from behind the lander. "Josh, hurry!" The Teneran sounded tense. Since he rarely used his voice to express emotion, his tone set off Josh's internal alarm. He tried to run, but tripped over a rock embedded in sand, and fell flat. The impact of his helmet against another rock stunned him. He lay still, trying to catch his breath. Before he could regain his feet, the dust engulfed him.
Everything went dark. Josh struggled to rise. Something pulled at him. Paris. His long arms, stronger than any humans', dragged him through dust so thick he couldn't even see the Teneran.
"Get to the lander!" Josh said. Inside, they'd be safe.
"Can't take off," Paris said, still dragging him toward the hill. "A cave ahead. We can make it."
Somehow, they did, stumbling through hot swirling sand, buffeted by fierce wind, with Paris dragging on Josh's arms, they found the cave in the hillside and crawled inside. The interior was cooler and dark, the floor sandy, the walls solid volcanic rock.
Josh lay on his back beside Paris and looked around. They were panting. The cave was only thirty feet deep and half as wide, a tunnel of rock with no useful features to help them survive.
Paris sat up. "Are you injured?"
Josh hauled himself up and leaned against the nearest rock wall. "I'm fine. What are you doing?" The Teneran had risen and was checking the fastenings on his suit and helmet.
"I must return to the lander and retrieve our survival gear. This storm may not be short-lived."
"Damn!" Josh slammed his gloved fist against the sand. His fault. They had not brought their survival packs for what he thought would be a short, sample-gathering excursion in clear weather. Each survival pack weighed more than a hundred pounds. Heavy to carry if it wasn't necessary, but it contained everything they needed for an emergency: food, extra water, portable stove, tents, medical supplies, everything. They had left the lander with only water, extra oxygen tanks, and space for their samples.
"I'll come with you." Josh rose.
The cave swirled around him in a sickening spiral motion, and he sat down abruptly.
Paris knelt beside him, peering into his face.
Behind two helmets, he looked even more alien. "You are injured, Captain. You must stay here. The lander is near. I'll return with the supplies."