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The Beast Makers

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Space walking was possibly the most magnificent part of Major Don West's job. As a boy, he had dreamed that he could fly on numerous occasions. Those dreams never left him and were probably what led him to join the Space Corps and become a pilot. Even so, most of his time was spent sitting behind a control panel, gripping the stick and flipping switches, even still under the effects of artificial gravity. Hardly flying, but after all, men weren't born with wings; they had to build their own.

But out here, with his weight gone from him and only the thin layers of his spacesuit between him and the vacuum, with the stars all around him and a blue-green planet looming above his head, he was able to fly. As best as he was able around the oxygen tank on his back, he gave a stretch and a sigh of contentment.

"Now, this is what I was born for," he said to himself, quietly, around a dreamy grin.

"What was that, Don?" The voice of Professor John Robinson intruded on Don's reveries, sounding in his earpiece.

"Nothing," Don responded, almost quick enough to make it sound as if he had been caught doing something wrong. "Just taking in the sights. You should see it out here, John."

"I still can, you know," John said, "there's still enough time for us to switch places."

"Aww, no," said Don, nearly before the Professor had stopped speaking, "no, no, no. No way, Professor, this one is my flight. I'm the qualified test pilot, remember. And you're checked out on the controls of the Jupiter Two enough to make a solo landing, by now. Besides, I haven't gotten to make an atmospheric jump since we left Earth." As if John was about to change his mind, Don turned his attention back to the small pile of equipment that was waiting for him in the open airlock hatch. He began to struggle into the over-sized, hard-shelled backpack and arm extensions that made up the new system he was going to test.

"I still say you're a madman," the prim baritone voice of Doctor Smith sounded in his ear next. "To leave the relative safety of a ship in orbit to go jumping, willy-nilly, into an alien atmosphere as if you're leaping off a high dive. Absolutely preposterous!"

"Don't knock it till you tried it, Doc," Don said, snapping the last of the equipment into place.

"I think not, Major. I prefer not to be incinerated over an alien planet."

"You don't know what you're missing," Don replied. "Final system check is all green, John. I'm ready to go. Just give the word."

"All right, Don," John's voice sounded again, "I want you to play this one by the book. No pushing the envelope, this time. If there's more than a five percent error in your course, I want you to kick in the emergency thrusters and abort."

"You got it. Anything else?" Don picked up the last piece of equipment, an over-sized shield of titanium that had been fashioned into the shape of a glider with a curious bubble on the top of it.

"Nope, that about covers it. Contact the Jupiter once you've left radio blackout."

"Roger that. I'll see you all in an orbit or two," Don said, giving a gentle push with his feet and leaving the surface of the Jupiter. "Over and out."

As soon as he had cleared the circular space ship, he turned his attention to the set of controls on his left arm. A small display showed his trajectory and speed. He pulled the titanium glider up under his legs and kneeled on it just inside the bubble. Settling his helmet just against the innermost wall and digging his toes into the surface of the glider, he hit the control on his arm that let loose the first of two tanks of fuel in the backpack. He began to feel a slight pull of gravity as he watched the Jupiter Two overtake him in orbit. Soon, he was falling toward the planet

A few moments later, just as the pre-programmed deceleration burst ended, he felt the first lurch of the glider hitting the atmosphere. Almost instantly, the temperature began to rise and Don could see the rarified gasses beginning to erupt into flame outside his titanium bubble. There was little for him to do now but hang on and enjoy the ride.

The flames outside gathered and he watched the streams of plasma dance their way past him in reds and blues and greens. This was the most exciting part of an atmospheric dive, when you surrender yourself to physics and let Sir Isaac Newton run the show. There was nothing between Don and oblivion but mankind's understanding of gravity and a tiny bubble of titanium.

He realized that a bead of sweat was beginning to crawl around on his neck between his skin and his spacesuit and that his breath was starting to quicken. He forced his breath to calm and checked the temperature gauge again. It was slightly warmer than had been projected, but still well within Don's assigned margin of safety.

Outside, the fiery cacophony began to fade away. Don began to catch glimpses of the land below him, rushing past and away behind him almost faster than he could see it. A red range of mountains, surrounded by white clouds loomed up before him and danced past, revealing a vast ocean of deep blue beyond, reflecting a great yellow orb that was the planet's sun.

A quick check of the temperature told Don that things had cooled down enough for him to emerge from his titanium cocoon. With one hand, he reached up behind him and pushed forward on the edge of the sectioned bubble until it was collapsed into a small niche in the glider's surface. With his feet still firmly planted where they had been, Don stretched out his legs, pushing himself forward on the glider until he was laying down atop it, belly down, and gripping a set of dual control sticks. After a quick glance at his readouts to check speed, altitude, pressure, and temperature, and satisfied that all were well within acceptable limits, he pulled back on the control sticks. On the wings of the glider, two flaps swung down below him, catching the thin air and giving the glider another lurch. The glider's angle of decent changed and Don began to fall somewhat more vertically. The ocean didn't fly by him quite so quickly any more.

A shrill indicator began to sound in his ear, telling him that he had emerged from radio blackout. He flipped a switch on his controls to silence it, but hesitated before opening his radio frequency back to the Jupiter. He wanted to savor the moment by himself before having to report in. With nothing but the wind around him, with no engines whirring away, and with nothing between him and the open air, this was flying in its purest form. This was what he had dreamed of as a boy.

But, enough self-indulgence. If he didn't contact the Jupiter soon, John was liable to bring the ship down after him before Don had had a chance to test the planet's environment or find a suitable landing site. Don didn't begrudge John his worry. In point of fact, he was flattered and honored that the older man thought of Don as a part of his family and thought enough of him to tell him so.

"Major West to Jupiter Two, do you read me?"

"This is the Jupiter Two," John's voice replied only a moment later. Don figured that the professor had been hovering over the radio for some time now. "What's your status, Don?"

"Everything's a-okay so far," Don reported, "the glider came through the insertion with no problem at all. I've got full control, now. I'm still over the ocean, but I should be coming up on the eastern continent any minute. What's you're pleasure; northern or equatorial latitudes?"

"Let's keep it in the mid-range, for now," John replied, "a landing there will conserve the ship's fuel since we won't have to make any course corrections."

"And here I was looking forward to taking this baby for a real spin," said Don.

"This isn't a joyride, Major West," John said, pitching his voice a little lower in admonishment.

"Spoil sport," Don mumbled.

"What was that? I didn't copy."

"Nothing, Professor. I copy. Mid-latitudes it is."

A large landmass began to approach and Don finally got a more visual sense of how high he was, once again. Below, a thin layer of clouds drifted past. Beneath that, Don could see more land features as they came into his view; a river, a forest, foothills and a small mountain range. A rolling grassland came into view a few minutes later and Don figured that such a wide open space would be an ideal landing zone for Professor Robinson's first solo landing of the Jupiter. As soon as it was beneath him, Don pulled the glider into a clockwise spiral and began a more controlled decent.

After a few minutes of spiraling downward, Don and the glider passed the cloud layer and he could see the features of the ground far more clearly. The grassland had something of a faint reddish tint to it, making Don wonder, very briefly, what was in the planet's soil. A twinkle of reflected sunlight caught his eye and he spotted a river flowing off to the east. Looking about some more, he saw a forested area to the south. And far in the distance behind him, he could see another red mountain range that he had passed over as he cleared the boundary between the ocean and the continent. This would be a nice, picturesque change of pace to all the barren, rocky landscapes they had been met with on so many other worlds.

"I think I might have found us a good landing zone," he reported in, "I'll put down and run a final environmental check. Do you have me on the scope?"

"Affirmative," John replied, "go ahead and set down. We'll begin making calculations to land nearby."

"Roger that."

Don pitched the glider forward, bringing it once again into a dive. The ground began to rush toward him. A moment later and a sensor on his altimeter began to sound. He leveled off once more and brought the glider around to face the direction he had come. Slowly, he guided it down. At the last moment, he pulled the nose of the glider up. With a lurch, the back edge of the glider hit the ground first, kicking up dust in its wake. Another lurch and the front was down, skidding on its belly across the grasslands. It went for nearly a quarter mile before coming to rest amid a cloud of dust and sand.

Don allowed himself a few moments to catch his breath. His body protested the sudden presence of full gravity once again and Don very nearly had to roll off the top of the glider. He lay amid the long grasses for a few minutes, facing the sky as the dust around him settled and breathing deeply of what was left in his oxygen tank. As soon as he was reasonably sure his voice was steady enough, he opened his radio frequency again.

"Jupiter Two, this is West. I've landed just fine down here."

"You sound a little flushed, Don," came the voice of John's wife, Maureen, tinged with a bit of worry, "are you all right?" Leave it to the intrepid space mom to see through his efforts to disguise fatigue.

"Yeah, I'm fine, Maureen," Don replied, "just a little tired. I'm feeling the gravity a bit, at the moment." He tapped a few controls on the display on his arms and read its results. "Well, the gravity down here is a whole, whopping one-point-oh-five gees," he said jokingly, "no wonder I'm feeling so heavy!"

"What's your oxygen look like?" John asked.

"Right where it should be," said Don, "but the readouts down here say the air is breathable. Oxygen mix is almost Earth-normal. No dangerous airborne microbes. Temperatures are good. I gotta tell ya', I'm itching to get this helmet off."

"I don't see why not," said John, "just make sure you keep in radio contact."

"Roger that."

With some effort, Don lifted his head off the ground and unlocked the seal at his neck holding on his helmet. He slid it off his head and set it aside before allowing his head to loll back and look at the sky. He took a few deep breaths of air, smelling a tang of something citrus-like on the wind. With one hand, he gathered a bit of the long grasses surrounding him and held it to his nose.

"Oh, that smells sweet. Kinda like oranges. C'mon down here, Jupiter. It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood."

Hours later, after the Jupiter Two had landed safely and relayed their position to Don, the pilot finally trudged his way into the rapidly forming camp of the Robinson family. The Robot was dutifully scanning the surrounding terrain and John was already fiddling with the force field generator not far from the ship's entrance and spotted Don as he approached, dragging his feet like lead weights. John abandoned what he was doing at once and went out to meet the younger man at the perimeter of the camp.

Don had left behind the glider and the hard-shelled backpack that contained the remains of his oxygen tank, thrusters, and the second, unused, tank of fuel he'd had for an emergency abort. Still, he looked as if every step was a struggle and that he might collapse at any moment.

"You look like the dog's lunch," said John, worriedly offering Don a shoulder. It did little to calm his fears when Don took the assistance without argument.

"Nothing a good night's sleep won't fix," Don replied, "I'm not used to making those jumps any more. It's been too long."

"Negative, Major West," the Robot intoned as they approached, "you are dehydrated and anemic."

"Traitor," Don directed at the Robot, half in jest.

"Anemic?" John asked as he settled Don on the ramp to the ship's entrance. "Didn't you eat before the jump?"

"No way! I made my first jump during training on a full stomach. Spent the entire time down trying not to puke and the twenty minutes after landing at Cape Canaveral up-chucking my brains out. After that, it's been an empty stomach every time."

"Well, you better get something into it before you fall over. I'll go tell Maureen."

As John went inside the Jupiter, Don let himself relax somewhat. He put one foot up on the ramp, leaving the other to dangle over the side, and leaned against the outside wall at the edge of the hatch. He was just about to close his eyes and give them a break from the glare of the mid-day sun when Judy came running out of the hatch. The sight of the Jupiter's only eligible bachelorette energized him, slightly, and he pushed himself up into a more attentive posture. The sight of the tall glass of water in her hand helped, too.

"Don, there you are!" she exclaimed, lighting on the ramp next to him. She handed him the glass of water. "Dad said you needed this."

"Thanks," he said, taking it and drinking deeply, nearly running through the whole glass without taking a breath.

"You look exhausted."

"Long day at the office," he said with a wink.

"So, how was it?"

"Ah, Judy, it was fantastic! There's nothing like entering fire in the dark and coming out on the other side of it in the light. And then, I got to fly like a bird afterward. That feeling... it's why I became a pilot."

"Well, I don't know about the part when you go through the fire, but the rest of it sounds incredible."

Lightly, Don reached over and put his hand on top of hers. "I've only found one thing more incredible."

A couple of snickers drifted to them in the silence that followed immediately after. Judy's head whipped around and she looked back toward the doorframe to find Will and Penny lurking almost out of sight.

"Oh, you horrible little snoops!" Judy exclaimed, jumping to her feet, her face reddening.

Don's face reddened as well, but he couldn't help but laugh at the whole thing. The budding romance between the Robinson's bright and beautiful eldest daughter and the Jupiter Two's hot-shot pilot had been the worst-kept secret at Alpha Control before their takeoff from Earth and out in space it was considered all but a done deal. Don had long ago resigned himself to the fact that they were hardly ever able to get some time alone together. But Judy still clung to an almost territorial desire for privacy every once in a while and her two younger siblings seemed to revel in poking and prodding her from time to time.

"C'mon out, you two," said Don, "no one likes eaves-droppers."

"Or little brothers and sisters," Judy mumbled, crossing her arms over her chest.

"So, did the glider work okay, Don?" Will asked as he clomped down the ramp.

"Absolutely textbook, the whole way down. I think we can count on being able to use it for planetary scouting all the time."

"Gliding down instead of thrustering down," Will said in amazement, "it'll sure save us a whole lot of fuel in the long run."

"Mom sent me up to get you," said Penny, "she says she's making something 'almost edible' from some of the last of our store of hydroponic garden vegetables."

"That sounds great," said Don, slowly getting to his feet, "I think I could eat an elephant."

"Do they have those on this planet?" Penny asked, jokingly.

"I guess we'll just have to find out," Don replied in kind.

Noting that he seemed to sway slightly on his feet as he went up the ramp, Judy hovered close, then latched herself on to Don's side, snaking an arm around his waist. He put an arm around her shoulder and leaned on her just a hair more than he would have admitted to. John passed them as they went into the ship, heading back outside again. He cast his eldest a knowing look and a slight nod of approval.

"Here, Will, Penny, why don't you help me get some of this equipment set up," John said before the two younger Robinson siblings could follow Don and Judy inside to pester them some more.

"Kay," they both answered, almost in unison, then went trailing off after their father.

Judy led Don inside and to the lower deck of the Jupiter where the crew quarters and the galley were located. Maureen was there, stirring at something in a pot over the modest stove and turned to greet them just as Don was dropping into the nearest seat at the table.

"Welcome back, Don," she said.

"Thanks, Maureen," he said, giving the air an appreciative sniff, "you have no idea how good that smells right now."

"Probably about twice a good as it would smell if you had eaten at all yet, today," said Maureen with a hint of scolding in her voice, "I don't know how you managed to slip past my Radar at breakfast time, let alone lunch, too. I do wish you would take better care of yourself. Oh, Judy could you help me with this?"

"Sure," Judy said, rushing over.

"Honestly, Don," Maureen continued her tirade, "John's noticed it, too. He was just mentioning it to me. You eat strange things at odd hours. You don't get enough sleep. And in the meantime, you're doing the work of three men." She handed a dish to Judy to take to the table. The younger Robinson obliged and turned back to the table, but stopped short.

"Not to mention, jump into atmospheres from orbit," Maureen went on, "and that's no small feat for a person, test pilot or otherwise."

"Mother," Judy said in a hushed voice, putting a hand on Maureen's arm to get her attention, then indicating the table. Her mother looked to it and there saw Don, head in the crook of one folded arm on the table, sleeping soundly. "Should we wake him?"

"Oh, no, let's let him sleep a bit," Maureen answered, "why don't you go outside and help your father."

Judy nodded and climbed the ladder back up to the flight deck. Meanwhile, Maureen got a blanket out of a cabinet and quietly went over to where Don was sleeping at the galley table and put it around his shoulders. A little bit of concern wafted through her and, as lightly as she could, she checked him for a fever. She found none, though, and concluded that Don was simply exhausted. After that, she went back over to the meal she had been preparing and put it into the food preservation unit. Lunch would have to wait.