Journey to a Dead Star

Chapter 5

Tom and Astro were drifting in sleep as lazily as a renegade asteroid. The excitement, tension, emotion and labors of the previous day had been physically telling on the normally staid and stalwart lads. Having returned from the Atom City Med Center in the wee hours of the morning, they had literally collapsed in their bunks without benefit of undressing or retirement hygiene requirements. The bunkroom door burst open and the lights switched on. An all too familiar high pitched, yet gravely, voice pried them from sleep with an announcement. “Gentlemen! Gentlemen! May I have your attention? Your new unit mate has arrived!”

Not bothering to open his eyes, Astro moaned loudly, “Oh jeeeeze! Say it isn’t so!”

The short, bespeckled figure of Alfie Higgins came into focus as Tom forced his eyelids apart. “Alfie... You’re our new astrogator?”

“Yes, I am Tom.”, he said matter of factly. “But, please believe me, I feel badly for Roger’s injury. And I’m sure that he will be back in the unit as soon as he is able. I didn’t ask for reassignment because I knew you and Astro would resent anyone sent to take Roger’s place.”

Tom smiled and put his hand on Alfie’s head, mussing up his hair. “Hey Alfie, I’d as soon have you guiding us around as anybody. Besides, if we have any lax time, maybe you can give Astro some additional help in astrophysics. You and I both know he could use it!”

“Aw, blow it out your jets!”, was the Venusian’s only retort. He knew they were both right and the didn’t have the strength to mount a sustained offense. “Alfie, why don’t you leave us alone until Oh Nine Hundred.

“I’m afraid that that would be difficult to do since it is already thirteen hundred hours!”

Tom and Astro jumped to their feet, almost in a panic. “By the rings of Saturn, we’ll be on report!”, shouted Tom.

“Relax fellas, we are all off of the duty roster until further notice.”, stated the diminutive cadet. “No classes, no duty except as required by orders through Captain Strong.”. Then dropping a large duffel on the floor, Alfie said, “Here are your class A uniforms. They were sent to us in a jet taxi by a Lieutenant Kolvek. Roger’s belongings are in there also.”

Suddenly, the boys realized that they looked almost like the bums of Spaceman’s Row in Venusport. “I hope we didn’t look this bad when we were with Commander Walters!”, said Tom.

Astro, unconcerned, noted, “I think he had bigger things to think about last night, Tom. Don’t worry about it.”

As Cadet Alfie “The Brain” Higgins stowed his gear in his new quarters, Tom and Astro showered and shaved, removing layers of soil, perspiration and tears. Now, totally refreshed, the friends finished primping and sat with Alfie and tried to engage in small talk with the youngster. Alfie, though not more than an adolescent, was a keen observer of the human condition. Playing the game, he avoided the attempts to get him to expose his level of involvement in the new mission. Finally, he sat up straight and said, “Gentlemen, it appears that you have something that you want to say and cannot express it. Let me assist.”. Walking to the window overlooking the parade grounds, Alfie gazed beyond the green former pasture to the low mountains in the distance. Not moving from his position, he began reciting the previous day’s events in infinite detail. When he came to the part about the would be academy intruder, Tom and Astro were amazed that he knew about the interrogation and even about Commander Walters’ admonition about secrecy. Alfie turned around and saw the stunned look on his new unit mates’ faces and suddenly he felt somewhat embarrassed about his monologue.

Tom spoke first. “Alfie! How did you...”

Not waiting for a complete question, Alfie, now wearing a worried smile, said “Hey guys, I was awakened at oh five hundred and taken to a three hour briefing. Commander Walters came in at the end of the session and swore me to secrecy upon my honor as a cadet and... here I am!”

“Did they tell you anything about our mission?”, quizzed Astro.

Lowering his voice, Alfie said, “Not directly, but I do know that there are some very ‘interesting’ things going on around here. Dr. Dale has been unavailable for over a week. She usually is grateful for my input into advanced astrophysics, but I haven’t received any answers to my messages in as many days. I did see her on the balcony of her office. She was with several other people, including one fellow that had a very odd appearance. He looked almost foreign in a way, but not foreign in the sense that he was from another part of the earth. He was just different.”

“Is that all?, queried Astro.

“No. I also saw a bill of lading for a ship called the Einstein.

“So?”, stated Astro, “What’s so special about that? There are bills of lading for a hundred ships around here at any one moment.”

Alfie looked directly at the big Venusian and without blinking said, “How many ships do you know have supplies on board for over a hundred man crew with enough provisions for two or three months and the requirement for a hyper drive fitting?”

Astro looked at Tom and shrugged his shoulders.

Alfie continued. “Also, the Einstein is a brand new exploration ship with laboratories, metallurgy shops, machine shops, thirty space boats and the latest electronic equipment.” Alfie’s eyes grew wide as he held his arms as far apart as he could stretch them. “She’s HUGE too!”

Astro, feeling a bit undignified, replied, “Yeah? I’ll bet thirty credits that she wouldn’t win a beauty contest running against the Polaris

Tom spoke up. “Okay Alfie. What connection do you think Dr. Dale has to the ‘Einstein’?”

“Nothing that I can be certain of, but I just have a feeling that all of this business with Roger, the saboteur, Dr. Dale and the Einstein is related. We’ll probably find out soon. We have another briefing with Captain Strong at oh sixteen hundred. Say, are you guys hungry? I haven’t had a thing to eat all morning.”

Just then Tom and Astro realized that it had been over twenty four hours since they had snacked with Inspector Kolvek. Astro jumped to his feet and grabbed his abdomen. “So that’s what hunger feels like! Sheesh.. I thought I was going to have to report to the infirmary!”

The three cadets grabbed their caps and left the dormitory in search of the mess hall. Tom thought that by this time there would only be leftovers available, but he was sure that Astro wouldn’t have any complaints.

The small craft approached at a drift, not wanting to attract any undue attention. Orbiting stations above Luna are rife with all manner of traffic. Ships on deep space missions have their hyperdrives fitted or removed as necessary, cargo’s are transferred between ships or transported to Luna Base, refueling and maintenance tenders patiently jockey for position like bees around a hive.

The huge shape of the Einstein, the Solar Guard’s premier research and exploration vessel, filled the cockpit view of the occupants in the tiny space boat. “Mr. Imus, are you certain that this device will achieve the desired effect?”, asked the figure strapped into the back seat of the boat.

“It’s in the bag, Coffee!”, chuckled the burly pilot of the craft.

“My name is ‘Koftek’! Please address me as such.”, was the passenger’s stern reply.

Sneering behind his space helmet, Kurt Imus said, “Yeah yeah! Don’t be so sensitive Coffee! Just make sure that you have my pay handy after I complete my end of the deal! You’re just an observer, so just sit back and shut up!”

Imus turned on the rear seat camera to see if he got a reaction from his passenger. “Humph! This pointy eared bag of space gas isn’t as tough as he lets on.”, thought Imus as he touched the control to the tiny gasket that corrected his drift toward the Einstein.

“My man on Venus says that this little package is just right for the job, I’m going to stick it to the starboard wing nacelle. It should create enough blast to wreck the motor and push the wing root enough to fracture the hull. I don’t think your people will have to worry about this ship leaving for deep space for at least a year.”, roared Imus.

“Mr. Imus, are you sure that this device is operating properly? I am not familiar with your technology, but if these two indicators are chronometers, then I am perplexed as to why the sequence is so close.”, stated Koftek.

The pilot, suddenly panicked, unstrapped his harness, unlatched the canopy bubble and threw it open in almost one motion. Twisting around, he reached into the back seat and grabbed the small box. Glancing quickly at the chronograph, Imus realized that that the seconds that were left on the down counting clock would not give him time to either disarm the device or safely avoid the explosion.

Though still over a hundred yards from the Einstein’s starboard wing, Imus stood up in the cockpit of the boat and threw the box as hard as he could. Having forgotten that he was unstrapped, Newton’s laws of motion went into action and Imus found himself drifting helplessly away from the boat. The last thing he saw was Coffee’s look of bewilderment. He closed his eyes as he realized that he had set the detonator on Earth time and he had set the countdown timer by the rented boat’s chronograph, which he had not checked for calibration.

A bright, white flash silently appeared over Luna Base as the bomb detonated. Aboard the Einstein alarms screamed at the ships pain. Automatic pressure doors closed as the ship went into self preservation mode. Captain Hiroshi Takao, a twenty year veteran of the Solar Guards, calmly directed crews to needed assignments and began assessing the damage reports.

An enlisted Guardsman in a red jumpsuit handed the report from engineering to his captain and awaited orders. Looking over the listings, Hiroshi initialed the page and slammed the pen down on it’s magnetic pad. “I swear by the sword of my ancestors that this atrocity will not go unanswered. Sergeant, I want a secure connection to Solar Guard headquarters... NOW!”

The noncom hurried to the communications console and requested immediate clearance to Solar Guard Headquarters. Shortly, Commander Walters’ image appeared on the view screen and Captain Takao informed him of the situation in lunar orbit. Walters listened intently and turned ashen when Hiroshi informed him that the incident was not accidental, but as the result of a bomb.

“Captain, you know how sensitive this situation is. I want you and all of your senior officers to meet with me in my office at Oh Seven Thirty. The time has come for us to accelerate our initial plans. I will dispatch an investigation team from Luna immediately. I am glad to see that your ship is buttoned up and that no one was injured. Walters out and clear.”

Hiroshi turned to his duty officer and said, “I’m going to my quarters for some sleep. Assemble all damage reports and have them ready for me. Inform all senior deck officers to assemble on the bridge at oh three thirty. I want a shuttle to Earth to be here at oh four hundred.”

The officer saluted his captain and began his preparations. Captain Takao placed his arms behind himself and grasped his left wrist with his right hand and walked silently through the hatch to his wardroom. He looked at the beautiful katana sword mounted to the bulkhead above his bunk and contemplated the moment. In the times of his ancestors, he would have felt such remorse that he would have used the sword to commit seppuku, to offer his life in atonement for failure to protect his ship. He contemplated the changes over the centuries and smiled as he realized that he was glad that he would be around to find out the reasons for the attack... and who was behind it.


End Chapter 5 -

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Copyright 1998 by Jack McKirgan II