This is how far I got before I realized that the idea in my head wouldn’t fit in a short story.
Despite the altitude, it was too hot to sleep. Jor lay on his back and stared up at the stars. The captain had told him what would happen to the sky as they traveled, and while Jor had believed him it was a different thing altogether to see it for himself.
Topstar was no longer directly overhead. It was a little off-kilter, revolving drunkenly around the place in the sky it used to hold. The sun, too, was behaving strangely, dipping and rising as if a year passed every day.
The captain was moving carefully in the unseasonal darkness, stepping over the loose rocks that covered the slope. He crouched down next to Jor. “Drink some water, son,” he said, offering a tin cup. Jor took it and drank greedily.
“Thank you, sir.” He returned the cup.
The captain nodded and stood. “Be ready to march in an hour,” he said.
“Yes, sir.” Jor scrambled to his feet, his hand on his hat to keep it from blowing off. “Have you informed the naturalists, sir?”
The captain smiled and put his hand on Jor’s shoulder. “I thought I’d let you do that.”
Jor managed not to flinch from the contact. The farther out they got, the more familiar the captain became with his men. Jor managed a nervous smile. “Yes, sir.”
Jor watched the captain move on to the next soldier and gathered himself for the coming confrontation. Somehow dealing with the naturalists had become his job. They were like children, demanding yet ignorant of the smallest hazards of the wilderness.
The canvas tent that dominated the center of the plateau shifted and strained at the moorings that held it in place. Uncousciously Jor rubbed at the welt on his arm where a rope had whipped across his skin while he and the others had erected the damn thing.
The tent was bad enough, but Jor reserved his hatred for the scientific instrument which lay inside. He stepped through one set of flaps and then another to reach the still air within. The naturalists huddled around the apparatus, talking quietly. Even though their voices were civil, Jor knew they were arguing. It seemed to Jor that was all they ever did.
The “instrument”, the subject of Jor’s ire, towered over the three figures huddled around its base. Whoever had designed the instrument was clearly not worried about having to carry it. The four legs of the pyramid were heavy iron pipe, with solid spikes to drive into the earth to anchor the frame. From the peak of the frame a weight was suspended from a cable, hanging almost to the ground. The pointed end of the weight swung inside a circle of dominoes. As time passed it would knock over a new tile, progressing slowly around the ring.
“Excuse me, sirs,” Jor said.
They stood and pretended like they hadn’t heard him come in. The old one with the beard sighed heavily. “Hello, Jor,” he said.
“Time to strike the instrument. Captain’s orders.”
The youngest naturalist, barely older than Jor, said, “Please tell the captain we need just a little more time.”
Jor shook his head. “I’m sorry, Professor Hod. Captain wants to move by, um… spring. So we have light.”
“Please. Tell your captain that this is an unprecedented opportunity to calibrate our measurements. We’ve never been so far out and still able to see the sky. A little more time here will make the rest of the expedition much more worthwhile.”
Jor tried to look sympathetic. “Captain’s orders,” he said.
The bearded old guy, Professor Timkin, spoke up. “The captain does not understand science.”
“Are you asking me to explain it to him, sir?”
Timkin laughed. They were friends when the naturalists wanted something. “Fair engouh, Sergeant. But this really is important.”
“You said you would need 50 hours. It has been 60.”
“We thought that would be enough. But some of our measurements are unexpected.”
“It’s the altitude,” Hod said.
“I think not,” Timkin said. To Jor he said, “We need more time. Important measurements, you have to make many times.”
The third naturalist spoke at last. “It’s pointless,” she said. She looked at Jor with unsettling intensity, her black eyebrows pulled down over her eyes. “This one is powerless.” She turned her gaze on old Timkin. “And the instrument is limited. We’d best bank what little goodwill we have for when things get difficult.”
Jor was surprised to find an ally in Professor Rej. He was powerless, after all, and was happy to have that recognzed. Unfortunately Rej had already squandered her goodwill, both with the soldiers and, Jor suspected, with her colleagues. The naturalist just didn’t seem interested in what people thought of her.
“Two more hours,” Hod said. “Jor, you can tell him.”
Jor thought he caught Rej rolling her eyes and almost smiled. “I’m sorry, sirs. We will begin striking the instrument in ten minutes. If you can convince the captain before then, I will be happy to not carry it for a little longer.”
A couple of notes:
Originally the three naturalists were all men, but I decided to skew the story a bit toward the old adventurous science fiction, with the obligatory female and inevitable repercussions (some of them not-so-old school). I’m picturing hostile natives, continuously worsening conditions (constant horizontal hot rain), lots of soldiers dying, equipment abandoned, and a collapse of discipline that leaves the female singularly threatened. Meanwhile, the commander is going slowly mad, driven by dreams of conquering the south pole. He’s not turning back for any reason.
I am particularly happy with Jor calling morning ‘spring’. I kept the names short, thinking that might reflect a culture with a low population. I think of the names I came up with, however, ‘Hod’ is the only one I like. Rej I like, but in English there’s no simple unambiguous spelling. It’s a soft j; in Czech it would be Redž.