Journey to a Dead Star

Chapter 15

Tom busied himself by keeping the Polaris in perfect alignment with the Einstein as the huge research vessel maneuvered into position to begin the survey of 1474Z Ursa Minor One. From a distance of over four thousand miles, the ovoid rock seemed insignificant, yet Tom had come to realize that in space, nothing is ever as it seems. Tom thought about some of his previous experiences over the last three years and realized that every planet, moon, asteroid and bit of debris seemed to have it’s own character. Sometimes that character was a facade hiding a totally different core. Misjudging the real character of a planet or a person could be deadly to yourself or someone who trusts in you.

The data from the communications link suddenly formed an image on the monitor on Tom’s console. “Einstein to Polaris.”, spoke the visualization of Captain Takao.

Looking over Tom’s shoulder, Steve Strong leaned down into the camera view and pushed the transmitter switch. “Polaris here, Captain.”

“Captain Strong, we are now in position to commence phase one of the operation. Are you in position?”

Steve replied, “Affirmative, Captain. All preparations are complete.”

“Very good, Captain. Phase one begins in exactly three minutes. Takao out and clear.”

Steve pushed the intercom switch. “Alfie and Astro, you might want to watch this through the viewports.”

Astro hurriedly scampered up to the radar deck and joined Alfie for a good view of the Einstein and One.

Although it was difficult to see from the Polaris’ position, the ring of what were apparently vents around Einstein’s fuselage, just ahead of the wings, changed contours slightly as the door on each of the vents opened and transformed the utility opening into a space torpedo tube. Astro backed away for the port slightly and exclaimed, “Geez, Alfie! Look at that! How did we miss that on our tour?”

Alfie, not diverting his gaze, stated, “My guess is that there was a double interior bulkhead in that section. It’s very clever, really. Any guest aboard the Einstein would be oblivious to any weaponry aboard. I’ll bet that there are shops...”

Alfie’s explanation was cut short as the entire front section of the Einstein was suddenly illuminated by the simultaneous eruption of glaring white light as streamers of flame and glowing gasses streaked away from the great ship. Twenty four rocketsof no more than fifteen feet in length were released in the salvo. Each of the torpedoes consisted of two sections. The rear section contained propellant and a signal rocket that would be released if Compound X is discovered. The front section contained guidance controls, chemical sensors and a very low powered telemetry transmitter that would communicate with the rear section. The nose cone was specially hardened to allow itself to be buried in the surface for a distance of several feet. At a distance of two hundred feet above the surface, the two halves of the rocket would separate and small rockets at the front of the rear section would brake that section for a low energy impact with the surface.

Even at this distance from the planet, the glowing exhausts of the torpedoes could be seen beginning to arc around the dark surface as each probe sought out it’s intended target area. Tom was reminded of an ancient graphic concept of electrons scurrying around the nucleus of an atom. He thought about the beauty of the moment.

Alfie tightened up the visual scan of One until little more than the planet was visible on the monitor. After fifteen minutes of waiting, a bright flash could be seen arcing from the far side of the planet. Soon a second and a third flare were seen above the surface. In all, seven of the two dozen probes had signaled that traces of Compound X had been sensed.

The open monitor link to the Einstein’s bridge became a window looking upon a mass of people holding a gala celebration. Cheers and shouts of congratulations, handshakes and hugs were exchanged as euphoria overtook the crew. Two figures visible on the screen did not join in the celebration, but it was obvious that one of them would like to have joined in the mayhem. Captain Takao stood in front of the command chair with his hands on his hips while displaying a wide grin. This was Hiroshi’s moment of triumph but decorum insisted that he refrain from openly displaying his exuberance. The image of Mr. Taylor was that of a sphinx. He displayed no gratification from the discoveries, nor was he moved by the emotional outburst of the Einstein’s crew. Tom and Steve studied the images and both men wondered about the enigma that was Mr. Taylor.

A short time later, Joan Dale’s face was beaming from the televiewer on Polaris’ command deck. Steve was receiving an update on the initial reports. “Captain, Mr. Taylor and I concur that even with the high percentage of areas that show the presence of Compound X, since the probes are highly localized, we feel that the actual presence is even higher.”

Steve asked, “Doctor, are you ready to proceed with Phase Two of the operation?”

“Yes, Captain. We should be ready in about four hours.” Then leaning into the camera slightly, “Steve, the boat pilots are champing at the bit to land and take core samples, but Captain Takao wants us to maneuver closer to One for safety reasons.”

“I agree, Joan. We are too far out to turn loose the space boats without radio communication. Besides, with the possibility of being observed or engaged, I would not want to leave our crews unprotected by distance.”

“Very good, Steve. Have your crew prepare to follow us in.”

“I can almost taste that Cod dinner now!”, exclaimed Steve.

“Hold that appetite for about ten more weeks, Captain! Dale out and clear.”

Steve switched the intercom on and told his crew to begin preparations for following the Einstein into close orbit around One.

“Radar deck, check.”, said Alfie.

“Control Deck, check.”, said Tom.

“Pumps, dumps, sumps, tubes, lubes and a Venusian boob at the ready, Captain.”, was Astro’s reply.

Not having heard this version of a power deck check before, Steve started giggling as he acknowledged the check ins.

“Okay cadets, keep everything tight. We have to follow the Einstein through some tricky maneuvering.”

Tom didn’t have any trouble following the huge ship until they approached within five hundred miles of the planetoid. By then, the tidal pulls of the planet, the star and the imbedded material in the dust cloud made perfect tracking very difficult. It was almost like trying to dance on a floor covered in ball bearings. The combination of talents from the three cadets proved to be more than a match for the compound gravities surrounding the Polaris.

The image of Einstein’s navigator, Lieutenant Max Blackburn, appeared above Tom’s control panel. “Tom, we’re going to assume a position directly above One’s largest crater at fifty four degrees seventeen minutes north, one hundred and twenty-one degrees thirty six minutes west on the planet’s new cartography.”

“Okay, Max. We’ll be right above you.”

The beryllium steel hulled ships reflected the pinpoints of the surrounding stars as they silently entered their positions above the rugged gray rock. Slowly and precisely, the great machines slowed to a complete stop.

Tom wished that they could use a high energy searchlight to illuminate the surface of the planet. Except for the use of the image intensifiers, it was impossible to get a direct view of the world that they floated above. He really did want to look at this strange planet, but he resigned himself to his duty.

“All decks, this is Captain Strong. The Einstein is about to engage in Phase Two of the operation. Astro joined Alfie at the big bubble with Steve and Tom watched from the control deck viewport.

Light suddenly poured from thirty open hatches at the wing roots of the Einstein. One by one, small, three man space boats departed from each opening. This was the beginning of an incredibly complex and dangerous part of the mission. The boats were painted in many colors, each one determined by it’s crew as a means of providing esprit as well as for identification. Each of the tiny ships was programmed to follow a specific course to it’s landing site. Because of the dark conditions around this star, the boats were illuminated with several strobe lights and a series of flood lamps around the hull that would provide light of the surroundings at the survey sites. In case of emergency, the boat and each crewman was provided with a rocket flare that would be easily observed by another crew or by one of the large ships. The flare would change colors in a repetitive sequence that would identify it’s crew and landing position. All of the boats had seismic and core sampling drills aboard and a trained crew to operate them. As each ship arrived at it’s pre determined site, the crew set up the equipment and began drilling. While the cores, were being taken, the pilot and another crewman would collect surface samples and photograph the site and it’s vicinity using high-powered strobe lights.

Tom watched the emerging jewel like boats as they sparkled their way toward the planet. Secretly, he wished that he was on one of those boats, not so much for the change in routine, but for the adventure of exploring a new world. Tom’s blood lust had always been the need to discover. Had he been born four hundred years earlier, he probably would have signed on to a wind driven ship bound for Africa or Antarctica.

As the hours passed, the Polaris crew sat around on the radar deck, speculating about the success of the mission. Steve told the boys of some of the earlier missions that he had been on. Alfie, in particular, was inspired by the deeds of Steve and his unit mates during his stint as a cadet. One adventure had almost taken a tragic turn.... Steve and his unit mates were challenged to a climbing contest from the floor of the deepest section of Valles Marineris on Mars. Their protagonists, the unit mates from the scout ship Vanguard, had stopped about two thirds of the way up the wall to investigate some runes and artifacts that they had found when a small meteorite crashed into the rusty canyon nearby. The impact caused a Mars slide of rubble which trapped the Vanguard s crew on a small ledge that offered no escape route. Steve and his unit mates rappelled back down the canyon to their space boat and rigged three harnesses from their ropes. Steve showed great skill in maneuvering the space boat into position below an overhanging mass of loose rock and soil that could have spelled doom to the rescuer as well as to the helpless cadets. All three cadets were flown to the safety of the canyon floor. While the six boys were nervously chattering with each other about the predicament they had just been in, the escarpment over the rescue site crumbled and drew millions of tons of choking red dust and rocks miles down the face of the cliff.

“Is that when you earned your Solar Medal, Steve?”, asked Astro.

Blushing, Steve responded, “Yes. And so did Addy Garcia and Sam Jones. Bless Sam.”

Alfie started to ask about Steve’s last remark, but Tom waved him off. He would tell Alfie about Sam Jones’ relationship and sacrifice for the Solar Guard at a private time.

“Well,”, Steve slapped his knees and rose from the chair. “Let’s check in with the Einstein. The first reports should be coming in soon.”

As Steve climbed down through the bulkhead toward the control deck, Astro bid his leave to check on the engines. This was the time for Alfie to be told about Steve’s unit history. Tom thought about the magnificent piloting that Steve did in the rescue mission and he remembered how effortlessly it seemed that the ambulance pilot had carried out his mission taking Roger to the med center. That pilot had probably carried out similar missions many times before and had never been recognized for his skills and daring. Tom made a mental note to officially request a commendation for the pilot and to personally thank him and his crew for their service.
End Chapter - 15

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Copyright 1998 by Jack McKirgan II