The two silvery ships had increased speed slowly in order to maintain the closed communications link. For seven days they were at a constant one and one half G thrust and had closed the distance to the ancient solar system of 1474Z Ursa Minor. After shutting down the engines. the ships maneuvered into a reversed position to provide a braking burn of two Gs that would last for another five days. It had been agreed by the Captains and Mr. Taylor that the best approach would be from above the system’s ecliptic, allowing the ships to avoid most of the dust and debris that had been cast off of the star while in it’s death throes.
Alfie was very uncomfortable in the prolonged state of deceleration. Every muscle on his slight frame ached from working twice as hard to accomplish even the slightest task. There were times when he thought of asking for help from his shipmates, but he endured this phase of the mission without complaint. He busied himself by working with the astrogators on the Einstein in establishing axial and ecliptic references for this solar system. Alfie knew that this information would be valuable to any crews returning to this long dead clump of matter.
As they neared the star, every scanner and photo instrument on both vessels constantly mapped and cataloged bodies imbedded in the dust. A total of five major planetoids were discovered. By their very origin, the space around and orbit path of each planet was nearly clear of other debris. The planets had long since consumed these materials in their formation. Einstein’s spectrographs established that the planets were devoid of most light elements. In fact there were few light elements other than interstellar hydrogen in any quantities at all.
Tom busied himself keeping the Polaris in perfect attitude with the Einstein. Captain Takao slowly adjusted his retro burn so that the Einstein would come to a dead stop in a high orbit above 1474Z Ursa Minor One, the newly named innermost planetoid in this strange solar system. This minor planet was hardly as big as Earth’s moon. It’s pockmarked surface was very rugged because there had been no erosive forces other than meteor impacts since it’s formation. It suddenly dawned on Tom that one reason that this world seemed so strange to him was the lack of a bright sun to illuminate the surface. He had been to Sol’s asteroid belt and beyond several times and there had always been at least a faint amount of light to provide a contrast to any object’s appearance. Here the only light came from the dim stars in the void. Only the glow of the ship’s navigation, strobes and interior lights provided any reference to visual navigation. Tom was scanning the surface of One with an image intensified stereo viewer when an aberration occurred in his line of sight. It was like looking at a textbook through the surface of a bowl of water and a sudden ripple in the water displaced the image for a second. At first Tom thought he was suffering an illusion caused by the constant work demands of the mission.
“Tom!”, came Alfie’s voice over the intercom. “Yes, Alfie.”
“Did you see it?”, Alfie asked excitedly.
“Yes, I saw it, Alfie. I’m glad you were monitoring because I thought I was seeing things that weren’t there! I’ve got to notify Captain Strong.”
A gentle tone emanated from a tiny speaker located above Steve Strong’s bunk. Steve woke from a deep sleep and automatically reached for the intercom switch. Pressing the button, he asked, “Yes? What is it?”
Tom, not sure if this interruption in his captain’s rest was warranted, said, “Captain, Alfie and I have just witnessed something that you may be interested in.”
“What’s that, Tom?”
“Alfie says that it is the same type of apparition that he saw just before we left Luna. Kind of like a ripple in the background of a visual observation.”
Steve sat upright and shouted, “I’ll be right there. Keep watching for it to happen again.”
“Aye, Captain. Corbett out.”
Steve, winded from a combination of the sudden awakening and the increased gravity of deceleration, arrived on the control deck with a worried look on his face. He received a complete briefing from Tom in person and from Alfie on the intercom. He decided that he should contact the Einstein immediately and asked Alfie to make sure of the emitter’s link up.
Steve opened the transmitter and called. “Einstein, this is Polaris. Request communication Code Seven Alpha.”
A few seconds later Captain Takao’s and Mr. Taylor’s images appeared on the monitor. The Einstein’s captain spoke first. “Captain Strong, we are aware of a phenomenon in visual observation of the planet’s surface. It that what you wish to report on?”
“Yes, Captain. We have attempted to continue tracking it, but it’s been impossible. It happens too fast to get a course fix on it.”
Hiroshi looked at Mr. Taylor and then back to the camera. “Captain Strong, Mr. Taylor and I have conferred and we feel that we are too deeply committed to this mission to change plans now. If we are involved in any kind of ....incident, we’ll have to deal with it at that time.”
Mr. Taylor leaned in toward the camera and said, “Captain, I suggest that you do not implement any defensive measures at this time. We have great concern about the phenomenon, but we are not sure if there is any intent to interfere in our mission.”
“I understand, Mr. Taylor.”, Steve replied. “We will continue our observations and report any additional contacts. Strong out and clear.”
The monitor blanked and Steve, working hard against the additional induced gravity, sank back into his acceleration chair. Digging into his tunic pocket for his pipe, Steve secretly wished he were back on Earth so that he could puff the aromatic mixture of Venusian herbs that he kept in his locker. Nonetheless, he placed the stem of the pipe into his mouth and drew softly for any remaining flavors. It seemed to Steve that he always thought out problems more rapidly when he used his pipe as a mental pointer and deciphering tool.
“Captain?” Tom was understandably concerned about Steve’s actions.
“You seem to know something about this event. I’m sorry, but I have to ask.” Tom hesitated for a second and then asked, “Are we being followed?”
Steve hesitated for a moment and then decided that it was time to allow his crew have additional information.
“Tom, have Astro and yourself on the radar deck in five minutes. Set guidance controls for operation from there.”
A few moments later the four crewmen assembled on the radar deck. It had been such a long time between relief’s that Alfie was glad to have the company. Astro was the last to enter the deck and he bounded through the hatch as if there had been no increase in G forces. “What’s up, Chief?”, questioned the young Venusian.
Steve looked at each of his charges and took a deep breath. “Astro, Alfie and Tom have just observed another of the odd apparitions that distorted their view of the planetary surface. The sighting has been confirmed by the Einstein. The time has come to let you know that were are concerned about this event because, we believe that it is caused by an entity or entities that are interested in our mission here. It is possible that they do not want us to complete the survey and they may, in fact, attempt to interfere. In just a few hours we will enter into a stationary orbit above One and begin the main exploration of this system. Mr. Taylor believes that no attempt to interfere will be made until we finish the survey.”
Astro jumped in. “So, what should we do? Just sit around and wait for something to happen?”
Steve continued. “Well, that’s about all we can do without permission from Mr. Taylor. He has the final say.”
“Tom can knock the wings off of a European aero slug, Steve. Why not let him take a crack at this thing?”, asked Astro.
Steve held up his hand in a blocking gesture. “No! We are not here to provoke an incident against someone or something that we know nothing about. Those six inch cannons remain cool unless Mr. Taylor gives the okay. What I do want you to do is to keep the engines at idle after we reach orbit, ready for immediate action. Then I want you to stay here with Alfie and keep a sharp eye on all of the monitors. Tom and I will remain on the control deck working in tandem. If the motors need servicing, I’ll take care of them. It’s more important that you stay here so that you and Alfie can keep each other alert.”
“Sir, what do we do when the Einstein begin her operations?”, asked Alfie.
“We will keep our station as we have been. You boys are in for a treat when they begin.”, Steve said. “You are not going to believe how fast phase one of the survey will happen!”
“Steve,”, Tom asked, “Just what are the phases of the survey?”
“Well, the first thing is that the Einstein will send a large number of probes to the planet surface. If the probe senses traces of Compound X, it will sent a streamer rocket from the surface which will produce a harmless, bright flash that the Einstein’s sensors will detect. Using this method, we can maintain radio silence.”
“The second phase is to send crews to the sites and take surface and core samples to determine how much of Compound X is present”
“The last part is to bring the best samples back to the Einstein for assay to find out if it is feasible to mine enough of the material to make it worthwhile to return. The Solar Alliance has a great deal of time, money and lives invested in this project. They must believe that it is our best interests to pursue this mission”
Alfie asked, “Sir, is this compound an energy source?”
Steve thought for a moment. “No, Alfie. I don’t know all of the details about it’s use, but Dr. Dale tells me that it makes the production and control of huge quantities of energy possible. It’s use will make our atomic rocket engines as obsolete as trying to use oars to paddle across an ocean.”
“Hmmp!”, snorted Astro. “I think Mr. Taylor has put some pretty odd ideas on the table! Unless there is a big lode of uranium deposits, there’s not enough junk in those rocks to make me believe that my rockets will be obsolete!”
Alfie, fighting the gravity, jumped to his feet. “You’re so hard headed! Look at what our hyperdrives do! We can accelerate beyond light speed in just a few hours. Sure, we have to use an atomic reactor to supply power to the magnetic coils, but what if there were a way to produce a drive wave that didn’t need that clumsy reactor?”
Astro suddenly felt defensive and he could only make a wave off motion toward the youngster. “Aw... it’ll never happen, Alfie boy!”
Alfie was about to dictate an advanced astrophysics lesson when Steve interrupted. “Okay fellows. We don’t have time for a debate about the use of a material that we know nothing about. We do have to return to our stations and get ready for station keeping. In just a few hours we will see the Einstein in action.
Aboard the Einstein, preparations for the great experiment were already complete.
End Chapter - 14
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