Journey to a Dead Star

Chapter 7

Capt Strong Captain Steve Strong settled in the command chair and contemplated the barrage of questions that he would soon face. He had faced many dangers and problems during his command career, but the solutions to those incidents were made in split seconds. This was different. He would have to filter the information that he could allow his crew to know about. Under other circumstances he would have worried more, but the fact is that this would be a long mission and he and his crew would be more or less isolated after they left lunar orbit. If he made a mistake, such as giving up more information than was necessary, it would be doubtful that there would be any serious implications.

The hatch opened and the trio of cadets reported in. They appeared to be less rigid in their demeanor now that they had changed into their jumpsuits. Astro could not release eye contact from his captain. Steve knew that he would have to begin the conversation. “Boys... before we start, I want you to know that we must have the Polaris ready to launch in less than three hours. Okay?”

“Yes, Sir”, said Tom. Alfie and Astro nodded.

“Great, fellas. For the duration of the mission, we will be as informal as possible. Just don’t get sloppy, do or say something inappropriate in front of other personnel.” Leaning back in the chair, he placed one arm between the chair back and his head, giving his neck a measure of support. “Okay, shoot!”

Astro blurted, “Steve, why are we going on this trip? With Roger in the Med Center, I would think that we would be exempted from flight duty!”

Rotating his chair in Astro’s direction, Steve bit his upper lip while assembling his words. “Astro, the fact that Roger is wounded is exactly why you were assigned to this mission. The Solar Counsel is trying to keep as few people involved as possible. There are more consequences than you can imagine riding on the success of this mission. Since the Polaris Unit was the target of one of the known perpetrators in the sabotage attempt, Commander Walters decided not to bring other eyes and voices into the circle of knowledge.” Looking now at Cadet Higgins, “Except for you, Alfie. You should feel honored because you were chosen from among hundreds of candidates to replace Roger.”

Alfie, usually at ease while accepting praise, suddenly became self conscious and looked to the deck and shuffled his feet like a pre teen who had just received a kiss from a little girl. “Thank you sir.”, was all that he could mutter.

Tom jumped in. “Steve, if we are going to escort the Einstein, shouldn’t we carry additional armament?

Steve smiled broadly and swung his free hand in a wide arc. “Tom, the Polaris is our ship. We know her best and she responds well when we ask her to do what seems to be impossible. Sure, I’d like to have two or three additional six inchers aboard. In fact, I’d like to have a twin six inch blaster mounted in an omni directional turret. But, it isn’t going to happen! We just don’t have time for the modifications. The Einstein will be repaired in short order and we don’t want to have her waiting for her escort to be fitted. Remember, she has been in lunar orbit for a number of weeks getting her hyperdrive fitted. When we arrive, we will be getting one installed as well. By the time our unit is fitted and tested, Einstein should be ready to break from orbit and begin the mission. Time is of great importance, guys.”

Astro’s brow was wrinkled in thought. “Captain, what is this secret material that we are looking for?”

“I’m going to be honest with you, men.”, said the young officer, “I don’ know! Dr. Dale gave me a briefing last night while you fellows were being debriefed. I can tell you that this material, if we can find it, will do MORE than revolutionize man’s future in space. For security reasons, Dr. Dale has forbidden any documentation of this material other than encoded orders and procedures on board the Einstein. Only Captain Takao can decode these documents and they are protected in such a way that any attempted violation of the contents of the orders would result in lethal force being used against any would be saboteur.”

Astro jumped to his feet and spun around on the balls of his feet. “Captain! If this mission succeeds, there will be a whole new type of rocket motors coming along, won’t there?”

“Sorry Astro, I can’t say anything else.”

Alfie chimed in. “Captain Strong, if the Einstein’s crew is as in the dark as we are about this new material, how are they going to know if they found it?”

“Well Alfie, there will be three persons aboard the Einstein who have personal knowledge about the material. As far as detecting it, all samplers, collectors, sniffers, analyzers and probes are pre calibrated to it’s properties. The gauges and readouts on the instruments are marked to depict it’s presence.”

“But Captain, if we already know about this material, it should be common knowledge by now... shouldn’t it?, asked Alfie.

Steve thought for a moment, then spoke, “Well, let’s put it this way. We, and I mean a very select group when I say we, know of the existence of this material, but we haven’t discovered it yet.”

Looking perplexed, Alfie scratched his head just above the right ear, then held the forefinger straight up as if he had just made a great discovery of his own. “Sir, how can we know about a substance if we haven’t encountered it? Is this mission based on a hypothetical discovery?”

“Sorry Alfie. I just can’t give you any more of a clarification.

Tom, taking a cue from experience and observation, stood up and said, “Thanks for filling us in Captain. Perhaps we can continue later.”

Tom herded his unit mates toward the hatch and gave an appreciative nod to his captain. He then leaned back inside the cabin and asked, “Sir, will we be able to find out about Roger’s condition while we are on the mission?”

“Sorry, Tom. You will not have any communications with anyone after we raise ship from the spaceport. We will only communicate with the Einstein by unidirectional low energy particle beam transmissions. No radio traffic will be allowed for the duration of the mission.”

“Yes Sir. Thank you.”, he responded dejectedly.

“Tom!”, shouted Strong.

“Sir?”

Run to the nearest com post and call the med center to get an update on Roger. Don’t take long... we’re raising ship shortly.”, he said.

Tom smiled and saluted giving a sharp “Yes Sir!”, in response.

Steve swiveled his chair around to the console and stared blankly at the controls. He thought to himself, “Besides, I want to know about Roger too.”

Tom returned to the Polaris on a dead run within minutes. There hadn’t been any vehicles cruising the vicinity of the launch pad and it was a half mile distance to the nearest com post near a slidewalk. Jogging up to the ladder leading up to the hatch on the silvery ship’s fin, Tom took a few seconds to admire his vessel. The Polaris’ classic cigar shape terminated with four sturdy fins designed with pneumatically extendable legs which retracted after landing, but are individually controllable to maintain the ship’s perpendicular attitude on irregular landing sites. The ship’s fuselage sports a pair of auxiliary wings that begin about fifteen percent of the distance of the ship’s length from the nose and terminate shortly above the fins. The Polaris, being a new generation atomic powered cruiser, has the most advanced multitube fission rocket motor system yet to be designed. Her armament was substantial for a cruiser and was controlled by the latest electronic targeting computer. With all of her beauty, Tom knew that it took a good crew to make it all work. As he looked out to the horizon with it’s rows of ships arrayed like giant fence posts, Tom was sure that the crew of each ship was as proud as he was. Even so, he still felt that there was something special about the Polaris. He did not know that there were others, in high positions, who felt the same way.

Upon entering the power deck level, Tom saw Astro making last minute adjustments and checks to the systems. “Hey, big boy, is everything about ready?”

Astro turned around and tried to look indignant. “Well it’s about time you decided to join us in our labors, Laddy buck!”

Tom approached Astro and broke out into a smile. “Roger has been transported to the Academy infirmary! It looks like he’s past the worst part of the treatment.”

Astro gave a huge exhale of relief and asked, “Is he going to be able to rejoin us soon?”

“I don’t know, Astro. He is still in a coma, but the docs say that this is normal and even helpful to his recovery. It may be several weeks before they know anything for certain or, for that matter, before they bring him out of sleep.”

“Well, he’s going to miss one heck of a mission!” Trying to be flippant, the Venus born cadet added, “It’ll serve him right to let that little geek Alfie take his place.”

Tom grinned and told Astro that he was going to spread the good news to Alfie and Captain Strong. Astro gave him one last admonition as he climbed toward the radar deck. “By the way, pretty boy, you might try doing some work as you crawl around this bucket!”

Alfie and Captain Strong were both grateful for the update on Roger’s condition. While Steve looked over his navigation charts, he came to the realization that his entire crew’s morale was now quite good. He was grateful for that because high spirits are a necessity on long missions like the one on which they were about to embark.

Klaxons sounded throughout the ship as Tom asked each deck to check in. All indicators showed that the ship was buttoned up tightly and all systems were operating properly. The steadily building thrum of cooling pumps could be felt through the acceleration chair. Tom knew his ship so well, that he didn’t have to ask when the pumps were at operating pressures, but it was procedure. “Full pump pressure, Astro?”. “Check, Tom”, crackled the reply through the console’s speaker.

“Radar, scanners and cameras operational, Alfie?”

“Check, Tom.”

“Captain, we are ready to blast off.” Stated Tom as he double checked all controls.

“Very well, Tom. We have clearance. It’s all yours.”, emanated Steve’s voice.

“Astro, feed reactant, D 9 level. Stand by to raise ship.... five...four... three... two... one... Zero!”

As Astro increased the flow of reactant into the powerful engines, the Polaris came to life with a roar and flame that would be the envy of the fiercest dragon of lore. The great ship shuddered and shook as it’s own power became greater than that of the Earth’s gravity. Slowly, at first, the great silver ship rose from the launch pad as the flames of the exhaust ate away at the treated surface of the launch facility. Within just a few seconds the crew was being pressed tightly into their acceleration chairs as the ship curved through the lower layer of the atmosphere. Keeping a watch on his consoles, Tom glanced through his viewport and saw the sky change from azure blue to pink and then to violet.

“How’s the course, Alfie?”, Tom inquired.

“Perfect, Tom. Our trajectory should have us in freefall before we cross over New Chicago. About two more minutes.”

“Good. Keep an eye on the scanners for traffic. There are a lot of ships running around between Earth and Luna.”

“Check, Tom.”

A couple of minutes later, the powerful motors shut down and Tom looked out of his viewport again. The sky was pitch black and the familiar stars became as beacons. He would never get used to this part of space travel. The starkness of space had a beauty and allure that could not be appreciated by anyone who had not ventured into it. Each time he experienced a launch and the transition from being planet bound to free flying, he realized the significance of being called by the title of “spaceman”.


End Chapter 7 -

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Copyright 1998 by Jack McKirgan II
Image copyright Geo. W. Proctor 7/2/98