Journey to a Dead Star

Chapter 16

During the next three hours, the space boats returned from their missions. One by one the tiny craft entered their home bays. One ship, painted yellow with a red nose, did a high speed pass between the two ships while rolling around it’s axis.

“Hey!”, shouted Astro, “That guy just did a victory roll! He must have found something special!”

“It could be so.”, said Steve. “But, we’ll have to wait for the reports to come in before we know for sure.”

After another forty five minutes, an alarm sounded on the communications console. Steve turned on the transmitter as Captain Takao’s image came through the system.

“May I help you, Captain?”

Hiroshi’s usually jovial manner was absent and his jaw was askew, as if he were trying not to answer a humiliating question.

“Yes, Captain Strong. Unfortunately, we do need help. One of our boats, Number Twenty Seven, is missing and it will be another hour before we can get one of ours refueled to search for her.”

“How much air does the crew have, Hiroshi?”

“Probably about twenty minutes on their suits and another half hour in reserves on the boat.” And then he added, “If none of the supplies have been damaged.”

Tom and Astro leaped to their feet and simultaneously offered to mount a search and relief effort. Steve considered the problem and decided that both boys would go in separate boats. “Suit up boys! Take plenty of spare air supplies and use the auxiliary lamps on your helmets.”

“Yes, Sir!”, said Tom as he broke into a fast stride heading for the ladder to the boat deck.

Astro was right behind him, but paused to point at the monitor. “Captain, ask Captain Takao for the coordinates to the survey site and pipe them to us on the boat deck.”

“I heard the cadet, Steve. We’re linking it to you now.”

“Got it, Captain. Don’t worry, If there’s any way it can be done, I know that the boys will succeed, Hiroshi.”

“I hope so, Steve. Those are good men and they have families waiting for them.”

Steve relayed the coordinates to Tom and Astro, who were packing air bottles into their boats. After quickly suiting up, both cadets attached the bulky lighting systems to their helmets. Before closing the face plates on the helmets, Tom leaned close to Astro and said, “We don’t have the flood lights and strobes that those survey boats have. It’s going to be dark, except for the headlamps on the boats. I’ll lead with my lights on. Follow close with your lights off so I won’t be blinded.”

“Gottcha, pretty boy! I’ll be right on your six o’clock. Just don’t fly me into that rock with you!”

Their suits pressurized and strapped tightly to the seats, Tom pressed the switch that Repressurized the boat deck. The hatch opened and Tom and Astro swiftly maneuvered the small boats out into the void. As soon as Tom was sure that Astro had lined up on him, he started increasing speed until both boats were streaking at full throttle on a tangent with the planet that would take them to the missing craft and her crew.

Tom closed in on the surface of the planet using only his instruments for reference. Astro could only see the blue hot exhaust and the red and green navigation lights to align himself with Tom’s ship. This was a true test of a unit’s cohesiveness... blindly flying on the faith in your fellow unit mate.

As the rescuers approached the programmed landing site, Tom braked his ship to a reasonable cruising speed and then switched on his headlamps. A wide swath of light pierced the darkness illuminating ugly formations of metallic rock and slag for a short distance ahead of the ship.

Tom suddenly spotted a dim point of light in the distance. He rocked the ship from side to side, signaling Astro that he had made a discovery. Astro pulled along Tom’s starboard side and switched on his headlamps for greater coverage. As they approached the light source, the strobes and floodlamps of the survey vessel became more distinct. Tom circled the site looking for a suitable landing area. Finding relatively flat area about one hundred yards from Einstein‘27, Tom and Astro gently settled on the surface. Without wasting any precious seconds, both cadets leaped from the cockpits, taking advantage of the very light gravity. Hitting the surface on a run, the cadets opened the cargo bay doors and removed several canisters of air and ran in the direction of the lights. Astro forgot to turn his helmet lamps on and when he turned away from the cargo hatch he had no reference for his vision. Immediately caught in the grip of vertigo, he slumped to the surface while fighting the disorientation. He then realized what the problem was and switched on the lights. As he recovered, he looked up and could see Tom bounding across the jagged surface about fifty yards ahead of him. He scrambled to his feet, slung the supplies across his back and, using very long strides, made way toward the survey ship at high speed.

Tom arrived at the scene and was disheartened to see three spacesuits lying near the space boat. He immediately grabbed the nearest spaceman and rolled him over to gain access to the air supply coupling. Tom saw the suit condition indicator and spun on a green bottle of oxygen to the connector and opened the valve fully. Astro arrived and began the same procedure on the second suited figure. Tom ran up to Astro and placed his helmet against the Venusian’s and shouted, “Don’t bother with the nitrogen. Give him straight Oh two at full volume and vent the internal gas. These suits are full of almost pure carbon dioxide.”

Astro nodded and quickly attached the oxygen canister. Tom went to the last victim and quickly started feeding the life giving gas into the suit. Tom and Astro checked the indicators and determined that it would be several minutes before the spacemen would have near normal oxygen levels in their bodies. “At least they are breathing!”, Tom thought. He watched the color come back into one of the crewman’s face and realized that this was the NCO who had faced off with Astro in the boat bay just a few days earlier.

Astro completed his check of the other crewmen and strode up to Tom. He jammed his bubble tightly against Tom’s and shouted, “Man, that was close! These guys are sure lucky!”

The din that was filling Astro’s helmet was barely audible in Tom’s ears. Not being able to use their radios for communications made sonic transmission by coupling the helmets the only means of passing a message, other than writing.

Tom pointed to the survey ship then shouted, “Let’s take a look!”.

Astro nodded and the cadets began an inspection of the small craft. It was resting on it’s port side, which showed signs of damage by contact with the surface. The canopy bubble was missing and not visible in the immediate area. Tom glanced in the cockpit and saw that the explosive bolts had been actuated and surmised that the pilot had blown the canopy off for emergency evacuation. Tom pointed to a large crease and crumpled area on the bow of the ship. It was obvious that the steering jets were damaged from impact, but the entire area did not have any visible traces of the soil or minerals from the planet imbedded in it. He pulled out a small camera and took a couple of photos of the area before returning to the recovering crew.

The pilot and one of the crewmen were starting to stir, but were not conscious enough to help themselves. The last crewman was still inanimate. Tom motioned to Astro to pick up one of the men and then he pointed toward the Polaris’ space boats. In the low gravity, carrying another person was easy, but maintaining balance could be tricky and a fall at a fast gait could be Cadet Astro disastrous. Astro decided to carry two of the men, one under each arm. He decided that walking slower would more than offset the time required to return for the last man. Before lifting the men, he switched on their helmet lamps to provide additional lighting for the short journey. As soon as the cadets returned to their space boats, they checked the survivors’ air supplies and re-regulated them for a more normal mixture. Astro placed his crewmen in the cargo bay of his boat and Tom did likewise with his man. Tom secured his seat harness and flashed his headlamps to let Astro know that he was ready to leave. A short time later, Astro followed with the same signal and Tom nudged his tiny boat off of the surface and waited for Astro to form up behind him. Finally Astro, dead astern of Tom, flashed his lamps and Tom began accelerating toward a rendezvous with the Einstein.

The man in a red jumpsuit lay still on Einstein’s sick bay gurney. Tom, Astro and Doctor Mannheim hovered around him like ladies in waiting. Astro was particularly disturbed by all of the medical equipment that was attached to the man. The other two crewmen had partially recovered and had been whisked away for debriefing before Tom and Astro could ask any questions of their own.

“Doctor?”, asked Tom, “Will the Chief recover?”

“I’m sure he will be just fine, Cadet. He’s lucky in that you boys were available! Other than a broken clavicle and a lot of bruises, I don’t believe that there was any other major damage. His Lavage was negative and other than short term oxygen deprivation, he appears to be in relatively good condition.”

The NCO started to groan and his head began moving from side to side as consciousness returned to him. Doctor Mannheim ministered to him for a while and explained to him about his injuries. After making sure that the Chief was lucid, he administered a pain medication and allowed Tom and Astro to pay a short visit.

“You!”, exclaimed the NCO. “It was you who pulled me out of that wreck?” Astro, happy to see that the Chief was going to be okay, smiled and answered, “Yeah, It was me... and Tom.”

Tom came over to the bed and asked, “How are you doing, Chief?”

Trying to move his right arm, but not being able to do so, the Chief patted himself down with his left hand. “Well, except for this busted right wing, I guess I’m spaceworthy!”

Astro chuckled and said, “Doc says that when that medication wears off, you’ll feel like you’ve been dragged through the asteroid belt behind a tramp cargo ship.”

Tom became serious and asked, “Chief, do you know what happened?” “Raise my head, would you kid?”

Tom pressed the button that raised the NCO’s head to a comfortable level.

“Honestly boys, I don’t know what happened. We were on our landing approach and about fifty feet from the surface when... it was like we hit an invisible wall! I remember Lieutenant Kraft shouting through the intercom that he had no control and he popped the canopy. Everything was spinning and we hit the surface pretty hard. I was out cold for a while and the next thing I knew, Randy Thomas was shaking me and shouting at me through his helmet. He pulled me up and took me over to the ship. Lieutenant Kraft’s legs were pinned under the console and we worked on getting him out as best we could. I couldn’t use my right arm and it took a while to pry him out. After we got him out, we checked our signal rocket flares. Randy’s and mine were busted and the ship’s was buried in the rubble. Lieutenant Kraft’s was operational and Randy pointed it into space and fired it off. It must have malfunctioned, because about fifty feet up, it veered at a right angle and buried itself in a hillside. That was the darndest thing... it was almost like it bounced off of a wall too!”

“Boys, it’s time to let the Chief rest.”, said Doctor Mannheim.

As the cadets started to leave, the NCO tugged at Astro’s sleeve and raised his left hand in an open manner. “The name is Ladd, Chief Donald Ladd. Thanks for getting me off of that rock.”

Astro clasped the man’s hand and said, “Glad to be able to help Chief.”

The cadets continued their withdrawal from the sick bay and Chief Ladd shouted, “That rust bucket of a ship is still not very pretty.... but she’s got a great crew!”
End Chapter - 16

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Copyright 1998 by Jack McKirgan II
Image copyrighted by Geo. W. Proctor 8/27/98