Journey to a Dead Star

Chapter 8

The Polaris, having perfectly performed a retro burn to put it in orbit above Luna, slowly maneuvered into position to match it’s position to that of the Einstein. Still over fifty miles away from the Einstein, Steve called his cadets to the control deck. As they slowly drifted closer to the research vessel, Steve pointed out the ship through the viewport. All three cadets stared through the port with their mouths agape. Even at this distance, the Einstein was huge. Her fuselage was roughly the same shape as the Polaris, but it was massively bigger. Rows of viewports could be seen along the fuselage and several observation domes were located around the hull in front of and trailing the pair of rather long deltoid wings. At the tip of each wing was an atomic rocket motor encased in a pointed nacelle which housed the fuel and reactant. The main rocket motor at the rear of the fuselage was actually two complete units with auxiliary chemical maneuvering rockets located near the intersection of the fission units. The Einstein’s tail section was comprised of a tall vertical stabilizer capped by a horizontal stabilizer to form a “T” shape. It was obvious to Tom, Astro and Alfie that the Einstein was not designed for vertical descent.

“Captain,”, asked Tom, “The Einstein lands like a glider, but where? We’ve never seen her at the Academy, or anywhere else, for that matter.”

Steve, not diverting his stare from the huge craft, answered, “No, and you probably never will. There is only one landing field prepared for her and she has never even been there!” Turning to his cadet unit, Steve continued, “You see fellas, Einstein was born of Space. She is a child of the Wide, High and Deep and will live her life without making planetfall. She is too massive to safely land or blast off from a planet with any substantial gravity. She was built in Titan orbit under the watchful eye of Dr. Grayson and her xeno team. Her wings and control surfaces are present for an emergency only. There is one area designated for her to touch down and that is in the western desert area of the Sahara. If she ever had to land, I’m afraid that she would be too damaged to soar again.”

As the Polaris drifted closer to the Einstein, Strong directed his crew back to their stations. After correcting the drift several times, the Polaris assumed station keeping one half mile above the great ship. “Strong to radar deck”, came from the console speaker beside Alfie.

“Alfie here, Captain.”

“Alfie, train your ventral camera on the area just behind the cockpit windshield of the Einstein.”

“Yes, Sir. Will do.”

“Do you see the red and white target in the center?”

“Yes, Sir.”, answered Alfie, easily making out the area.

“Okay Alfie, I want you to aim the particle beam modulator on that target and keep it there. It we need a drift correction, let Tom know, understood?”

“Yes Sir. We’re locked on now”

“Good work, cadet. Strong out.”

Steve adjusted the communications console to activate the modulator. This type of communication was as secure as possible, because the particle beam was a thin stream of sub atomic structures that could be manipulated with voice, telemetry and video data and decoded by a receiver on the Einstein. Similarly, the Einstein was sending it’s communications back to the Polaris by the same type of transmitter. This scheme provided perfect security, because the only way for the messages to be intercepted, would be to interrupt the thin stream and this would disrupt the reception of data from the intended receiver. Should this happen, the receiver would signal interruption and the transmitter would shut down.

“Polaris to Einstein. Captain Strong with a com check.”

A familiar face appeared on the vid screen. Dr. Joan Dale, in uniform, sent a very un military salute back to the young captain. Chuckling, she said, “Welcome to Luna orbit, Captain.”

“Joan! Uh... I mean, Lieutenant Dale, I didn’t know that you were coming along on this mission!”

The blond scientist looked on both sides of her to see if anyone was watching. Not seeing anyone, she approached the camera closely in an effort to increase the intimacy of the conversation. “I wouldn’t miss this one for anything, Steve. After we enter hyperspace, I’ll give you my reasons.”

“Okay, ‘nuf said.”, mused Steve. “By the way, how long before you will be ready to break orbit?’

Joan looked at her clip board and scanned the notes. “Actually, we could leave tomorrow, but we need to do some final tests and we are also waiting for Mr. Taylor, who will be here in about seventy two hours. That should barely give you time to get your hyper drive unit installed and tested.”

Steve looked at his own notes and said, “You’re right, Joan. The unit will arrive in about two hours and the crews will be working around the clock to get us fitted. It doesn’t look like we’ll have much time for socialization, does it?”

Looking coyly at the camera, Joan said teasingly, “Sorry spaceman, but when this mission is completed, I want to take you to a new restaurant overlooking Vallis Nanedi on Mars. They serve a European Cod that is out of this solar system!”

Steve, not wanting to share the moment, looked around the cabin to make sure none of his cadets were present. Seeing none, he lowered his head and peered from under his brow. “You’ve got a date, Space Lady.”, was his low pitched response.

“Ooow, now there’s the Guardsman I’ve been searching for!”, purred the blond. Then, breaking from her character, she looked to her right and nodded to someone off camera. Looking back to the communicator, she stated, “Yes, Captain, everything seems to be in order. Captain Takao will be contacting you shortly. Dale out and clear.”

Steve, realizing that Joan had been interrupted by someone close at hand, closed his end of the transmission with proper protocol as well. He then sat down to re think the last few minutes and started making plans for dinner on Mars.

Alfie sat at his station staring at the now blank screen. He hadn’t realized that Steve’s conversation was to be so personal and he had piped it to all decks of the ship. Tom and Astro were on the power deck looking at each other in silence. Suddenly Astro burst out laughing. “Man did you see that!? Who would have thought that Steve and the good doctor had co mingling magnetic fields?”

Tom, embarrassed by having witnessed a personal moment of his superior, felt that he had violated a friendship. “Astro, don’t say anything to anyone about this. It could affect Steve’s interaction with the unit and certainly would make him uncomfortable. You wouldn’t want someone walking in on you at such a moment, would you?”

Astro, now red faced, held his stomach and ribs. “Okay, okay. My lips are sealed. But, I’ve got to tell you, Spaceboy, this is one item that I won’t need Alfie to tutor me into remembering!”

A large tender approached the Polaris and moored itself to the cruiser’s tail fins. Within minutes, a half dozen space boats and workers in propelled space suits burst forth from the hold of the tender. Slowly, the crews extracted the hyperdrive unit from the bowls of the auxiliary vessel and gently guided it to the aft section of the Polaris. The hyper drive unit was of skeletal structure and attached to the Polaris on the bottom of the fins. The framework surrounded two magnetic containment compartments that straddled the Polaris atomic exhaust ports. This arrangement allowed the ship to use it’s normal propulsion system in near planet space. The hyperdrive was only used when the crew was sure that there would not be a space-time interaction with nearby planetary objects. The one major disadvantage to the hyperdrive was that if it was necessary to land on a planetoid, the unit would have to be disengaged and left in orbit. Removing the drive was a quick procedure, but it would take a cruiser’s crew about five days to re attach and test the drive before it would once again be operational.

Alfie and Astro watched the busy crews from their view port near the reactor room. As each long shoreman carried out a procedure, he would report in with Astro, who would check off the item on his log. The installation was an around the clock operation and Alfie would relieve Astro at regular intervals.

After almost three days of work, the installation was almost complete. Tom and Captain Strong were checking and re checking the routing for the ships in atomic drive. At the point where the ships were to switch to hyperdrive, there were no further navigation markers. “Steve, how do we know where we are going after we enter hyper drive?”, asked Tom.

“Okay, Tom. Here’s the plan. Before we enter hyper drive, the Polaris and Einstein will take a final bearing. The Einstein will enter hyperdrive first and we will follow them just a few seconds later. Einstein will remain at half speed until we catch up with her and re establish communications. Both ships will gradually increase speed until we reach maximum. We will cruise as her shadow at a one mile distance off her flank. All weapons will be armed and ready for action. While in hyperdrive, you will relieve Alfie when necessary. We want all scanners at maximum range and sensitivity throughout the mission. There will be no stand down until we reach Spaceport back home.”

Tom raised his eyebrows and drew his lips together. “Whew, this is going to be a lot of work, Steve. Maybe we should have taken on a full relief crew?!”

“Sorry, Tom. You know that we have to keep as few people involved as possible. Besides, if you knew the full details of this little jaunt, you would feel better about being one of the few.”

“When are we going to know more about the mission, Steve?”

“Well, you will pick up bits and pieces during the mission, but it will be up to the Solar Counsel and Mr. Taylor to determine when you will be told the entire story.”

The control deck cadet decided that it wouldn’t be wise to press the matter. Steve would only give out information that was necessary. “I’m going up to check on Alfie, Sir.”

Steve nodded and Tom disappeared through the hatch. Alfie, didn’t even notice Tom enter the cabin. Aside from being the most studious cadet at the Academy, Alfie Higgins rarely drew demerits from any officer, his personal integrity demanded that he carry out his orders without regard to his personal comfort. Sometimes his involvement with duty was interpreted as a flaw by his fellow cadets and he was often the butt of jokes and pranks from his peers. More often than not, Alfie would prevail by use of his intellect.

“Alfie!”, exclaimed Tom, “What is going on?”

Not taking his eye off of the series of monitors, Alfie pointed to the unit showing the readout from the port forward radar. “What do you see there, Tom?”

Tom careful looked over the updated screen and, not noticing anything unusual, said, “Nothing, Alfie. Am I supposed to see something?”

The small figure rose from the chair and removed a pair of space binoculars that had been hanging around his neck. Handing them to Tom, he pointed out of the port side viewport and said, “Look there, Tom. At about two o’clock. Tell me what you see.”

Tom put the binoculars up to his eyes and trained them in the direction indicated. Studying the area for a while he finally said, “Sorry Alfie, I don’t see anything there either.”

Alfie grabbed the optics and scanned the region. “Well, it’s not there now, but I have to report that there was an ...... anomaly in that area just a few seconds ago. I didn’t catch it on any of the electronic scans, but when I did a three sixty optical scan I noticed, what I can only call a displacement in the background stars. It was almost like looking through a glass of water or a really cheap lens.”

“Do you think it could have been a miniature gravity lens?”, asked Tom.

“Tom, I thought you would have been beyond Astro’s level on this! By it’s very nature, a gravity lens couldn’t exist on such a small scale. Besides, the star images were not ‘bent’ around the area, they just ‘shifted positions slightly and then returned where they belonged. I checked the radar and scanners as well as their recordings and they show nothing unusual.”

At this point Tom wasn’t sure if Alfie had spent too much time on duty or if he had seen a genuine phenomenon. He told Alfie that he would file a report with Steve and recommend that it be transmitted to the Einstein for evaluation. Alfie finally assured Tom that he was not hallucinating and Tom returned to the control deck to give his report.

Steve, unaware of any record of a similar incident, relayed the information to the science officer of the Einstein and thought that would be the end of the incident. In less than five minutes the communications console emanated a shriek from the priority message receiver and the image of Dr. Dale, Professor Grayson and Mr. Taylor glowed in the cabin.

“Captain Strong.”, said Mr. Taylor in a very even toned voice. “We are very concerned about the report that you have filed. You and your crew are to maintain vigilance for this type of phenomena and report it’s detection and position immediately. The Einstein’s crew will take similar measures. Can you comply?”

Steve, almost rocking back on his heels at the question, replied, “Yes Sir. It will be done immediately, sir.”

He looked into Joan’s eyes to see if he could glean a hint of explanation. He only saw a worried, perhaps scared friend.
End Chapter 8 -

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Copyright 1998 by Jack McKirgan II