Journey to a Dead Star

Chapter 12

The two bright red rocket boats jockeyed for position in the Einstein’s landing bays. The boats’ passengers, three seasoned cadets and captain of the Polaris were feeling renewed enthusiasm for the mission as the possibility of exploring a new vessel became a reality. After being cleared for docking, the boats immediately entered their respective bays and the attentive crews began servicing the craft as soon as the bays were repressurized.

The big Venusian worked his way out of the cramped cockpit and climbed out by way of the service ladder provided by the deck crew. Shouting over his shoulder as he headed for the hatch, Astro called back to Tom, “Man, this is service! Hey, Tom! We should get ourselves a group of redsuits to follow us around on the Polaris!”

The deck crew’s NCO, a man of obvious experience, ambled over to Astro, blocking his passage. “Sonny, that garbage scow you call a spaceship doesn’t rate a fine crew like mine.”

Astro’s face turned so red that Tom thought he was going nova. Astro clenched his hands into hard fists and he got down into the warrant officer’s face. “What did you just call the finest ship in the fleet?”

The noncom, a full foot shorter than Astro, didn’t blink. Tom could tell by his coolness that this was a veteran of many campaigns and that he wouldn’t be intimidated with an atomic cannon jammed under his nose.

“I didn’t say anything about the finest ship in the fleet. You’re standing on the deck of the finest ship in the fleet! I was talking about that greasy excuse for a vessel that’s hanging off our bow.”

Astro, knowing that he couldn’t lash out without ending up at the captain’s mast for a hearing, tried to match wits with the crew chief. “Well, Chief High and Mighty, you should be grateful that we are around. Are you familiar with the guard dogs patrolling the perimeter of the Space Infantry bases?”

The shorter man crossed his arms and lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em. What about them?”

Astro puffed up his chest and proudly stated, “You see, we provide a service to you. We watch and protect your flanks so you can get a good night’s sleep. Just like those dogs watch over the Space Infantry.”

The red suited man looked Astro directly in the eye then he looked at his gathered deck crew and said, “Do you see what we’ve got for an escort fellas? It just proves what I’ve always said. The Infantry always gets first choice!”

Everybody in the bay, including Tom broke into laughter as Astro stood with his mouth agape. Tom decided that this would be the proper time to direct his friend out of the bay. The laughter continued even while Tom closed the hatch behind them. Astro was still in shock at the ease at which he had been handed his own ego.

“Cheer up, buddy”, said Tom, “You just entered a contest of wits and you were unarmed!”

“Some pal you are! Don’t you think I could have taken him?”

“Astro, that guy had twenty four years of service behind him. He’s seen, heard and told every inside joke that is floating around Guard bases. He is hard as plutonium and justly proud of his ship. I don’t think it would have been a good idea to swing at him mentally or physically.”

The pair of cadets met Alfie and Captain Strong amidships and they proceeded toward the control deck and bridge of the Einstein. Alfie noticed that Astro didn’t seem too happy and he proceeded to pummel the big man with questions... like a pesky puppy nipping at his trousers. Tom pulled Alfie aside and told him that this wouldn’t be a good time to be inquisitive.

As the quartet arrived on the control deck, Joan Dale’s bright face greeted them. “Hello Captain. Hello boys. Welcome to the Einstein.” Looking directly at Alfie, she suddenly became apologetic. “Cadet Higgins, I’m sorry that I was not available for the few weeks before we left the academy. There was so much going on in preparation for this mission that I had to postpone my classes and I just did not have the time to address your research papers.”

Alfie, feeling uneasy at the special attention in front of his friends, lowered his head and muttered, “That’s all right, Doctor. I understand now.”

Joan turned her head around and her stylish blond hair flitted around in a slow motion in the Einstein’s slightly reduced gravity. Her eyes made contact with the handsome young ship’s captain. Trying to remain as professional as possible, she informed Steve that he was requested to attend a briefing in cabin 237 at eighteen hundred hours. Steve acknowledged the meeting and told the boys to feel free to explore the ship while he met with Captain Takao. The boys agreed and started snooping around the bridge area. A young officer approached the group and introduced himself.

“Gentlemen, I am Lieutenant Bocook. I’ll be glad to escort you around the ship if you wish.”

Tom looked at his friends and, not picking up a sign, told the officer that they would just as well like to look over his ship on their own.

The young man admonished them. “You have access to any cabin on any deck that has a crew manning it. However, you may not enter the Captain’s ward room or the Ambassador’s suite. Ambassador Taylor’s cabin is off limits even in a critical emergency. Is that clear?”

“Sir, yes sir.”, came the reply in three part harmony.

The boys began their exploration of the Einstein by jumping from one area to another like small children in a toy store. Every time something new or special was spotted by one of the cadets, the others immediately joined in to examine the find. Eventually they became more systematic and beginning with the bridge, they slowly worked their way to the rear of the great ship. The crewmen in charge of a particular section were eager to explain the function of each section and the instrumentation and controls involved with it’s function. Amidships on deck two, the cadets passed the cabins for the officers and guests. As the trio passed cabin 237, Tom noticed the placard on the door. It read, “Dale, Joan, Ph.D.”

Astro started making adolescent gestures as he choked trying to maintain the silence of the corridor. Alfie turned red and stuck out his lower lip as he marched toward the rear of the ship. Tom threw up his hands and mouthed something indecipherable and finally pointed toward Alfie’s exodus route and waved Astro in that direction. As soon as they cleared the cabin section, they found themselves in a large area that housed no less than eight observation bubbles around the perimeter of the ship. Tom motioned the other cadets into an unmanned bubble and touched the door control which closed a hatch behind them.

Astro’s voice boomed in the relatively small volume of the observatory blister, “Man! Now I know what high level briefings are about!”

Alfie, now extremely agitated, stepped up on the observation platform’s gimbal unit. It put Alfie’s eyes at the same level as Astro’s. “You take that back, you big bag of space gas!”

Tom had never seen Cadet Higgins in this state before. Rather than intercede, he decided to allow his friends to work out their problems on their own.

“Hold on there, partner!”, Astro exclaimed, “Why are you getting into such a snit?”

Alfie, suddenly finding himself on the defense, said, “I just don’t like what you’re inferring! Doctor Dale is a professional astrophysicist and I’m sure that her invitation to Captain Strong reflects her professionalism.”

Astro put on a sheepish grin and looked over at Tom. “By the rings of Saturn, I do believe that Alfie boy has a crush on the good doctor!”

Immediately, Alfie spat out, “I do not!” He then stepped down and turned toward the hatch, hiding his emotions from his mates.

Tom decided to jump in. “Hey, relax guys! Look, we all know that Doctor Dale and Steve have a certain affinity toward each other. It’s natural and to be expected. We should all feel good for them. Heaven knows that an officer in the Solar Guard doesn’t have much of a social life anyway. If Steve and Doctor Dale can steal a little time for each other, so much the better.”

Tom glared at Astro and said, “Look at big oaf! You’re acting like a prep school boy looking at an anatomy spool for the first time!”

Astro smirked and raised his left hand in a gesture of surrender. “Okay, okay! Maybe I did overreact. I just never thought I would see Doctor Dale so.... aggressive!”

Tom stepped over to Alfie, who looked like a very dejected child. He placed his finger under Alfie’s chin and raised the youngster’s eyes to meet his. “Alfie, don’t feel badly. Look, we’ve all had crushes on teachers or other ladies whom we respect. It’s just that sometimes we confuse the special attention that we are given for something more than it really is. When the reality of the situation hits us, we are devastated. But you know what?”

Alfie shook his head.

“We get over it and move on. It’s all part of growing up, Alfie.” Tom cupped his hand behind Alfie’s head and then mussed the young man’s hair affectionately. “One day I’ll tell you about a cafeteria matron in Venusport that Astro went space ape over just because she used to serve him double helpings in the chow line.”

Astro stood up straight and started waving frantically behind Alfie’s back. Tom, pretending that he didn’t see, continued, “Alfie, did you know that it just may be possible to trip over your own tongue?”

Alfie, looking perplexed, started to ask Tom to explain. Astro jumped in, “Ahem... I don’t think we need to bore Alfie with inane tales.” He then looked at Alfie and said, “I’m sorry tough guy. I guess that I was a little out of line.” He then extended his hand to the young man. “Friends?”

Alfie looked at the enormous hand and then at the big Venusian’s face. The look of apology was genuine. Alfie accepted the offer and tried to clasp Astro’s hand only to find his entire hand and wrist engulfed by the big man’s grasp.

The observation dome’s hatch opened and the three cadets exited. Looking around the area Tom marveled at the mass of scientific instruments that were stationed at each of the eight positions. As they identified each instrument, they discussed it’s possible use during the mission. They were particularly impressed with the automated positions and wondered about the scientists who were controlling the sensors.

They decided to continue back toward the power/engineering section. As they strolled along the corridor, Astro glanced over to Alfie and said, “I’m sure glad that you accepted my apology, bitty buddy.”

Alfie asked, “Why is that?”

“Well, Alfie boy, I don’t think I would have stood a chance in a physical altercation!”

Alfie, incredulous, could only muster, “Huh?”

Astro, not breaking his stride and looking straight ahead asked, “Did you ever see a bumblebee chase a bull?”

The bespeckled youngster grinned widely as he realized that he had gained the respect of the huge man. He felt good about himself for the first time in many months.
End Chapter - 12

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Copyright 1998 by Jack McKirgan II