The image of Captain Hiroshi Takao was shining from the monitor in front of Steve Strong. Hiroshi had graduated from Space Academy two years ahead of Steve and was an honor student. In fact, he had been chosen as Cadet of the Year when Steve was a freshman. Steve smiled as he remembered those grueling days as an Earthworm. Many were the times he had thought about dropping out of the Academy, but he was often inspired by Cadet Takao’s humanity in a time when the other upper classman reveled in making the plebe’s life miserable. Hiroshi would dress down an Earthworm when it was necessary. It was part of the Guard training to allow the upper classman to keep the youngsters in line and educated in the ways of the Solar Guard. The new Cadets would learn protocol, code and discipline and the senior students learned how to handle command structure and dealing with varied personalities.
Takao’s striped sleeve commanded respect from all other cadets, particularly the freshmen. Any reprimand from Cadet Takao was deserved, but the chewing out was always followed by an inspirational and instructional briefing on the reason behind the confrontation. Any cadet whom Takao caught making a mistake, somehow felt better about himself after receiving his demerits.
“Steve! Good to see you again, old friend!”, greeted Hiroshi.
Grinning at the monitor, Steve responded, “After that asteroid incident five years ago, it’s good to see you in one piece, Hiro!”
Hiroshi tapped his rib cage and said, “See I’m good as new! Besides, it would take more that a pair of rocks to put me out of commission. Sorry I wasn’t able to get together with you at the briefing in Commander Walter’s office, but it was very orderly and things were moving fast and everyone was pretty grim, including myself.”
“No problem, Hiro. Believe me, I understand.”, Steve said. “By the way, how do you rate commanding that overgrown barge?
Now laughing, Hiroshi looked toward the Einstein’s cockpit. “You mean this little dinghy? I’ll tell you what I’ll do. We’ve got about four hours until we break orbit. I’ll send a jet boat over to pick you up and I’ll give you the cook’s tour.”
“Sounds good to me, Hiro. I’ll see you in a few minutes. Strong out and clear” The monitor went blank and Steve, called Tom to the control bridge.
“Yes Sir?”, asked Tom.
“Tom, I’ll be leaving the ship for about an hour and a half. You have the command until I return.”
Going to the Einstein, Sir?”, asked Tom.
“Yes, at the personal invitation of Captain Takao. Go ahead and repressurize the boat deck. I won’t be suiting up for this jaunt.”
“Aye aye, sir. We’ll see you back soon.”
Steve climbed down to the boat deck and waited for the space boat to enter and the deck to repressurize after the airlock closed. The pilot opened the bubble and assisted Steve aboard and checked his seat harness before closing the cockpit canopy. Pressing a code on the jet boat’s console, the chamber again repressurized and the outer hatch opened. A small touch of the thruster and the small vessel exited the Polaris. Steve got a sudden shiver as the tiny boat reminded him of the enormity of the ship that they were approaching. “Care to give it a once over, Captain?”, asked the pilot.
“Sure, Lieutenant. Let’s take a look at this ship of yours.”
The small craft approached the Einstein from the stern, slowly gliding over the aluminum colored fins and hull. From a distance, the skin looked very smooth, but at close range the hundreds of sensors, probes, antennae and camera lenses were very apparent. Some areas of the skin were bristling with all manner of antenna arrays which covered the entire radio spectrum. As they cruised up to the trailing edge of the wing section, a large number of view ports indicating several deck levels were glowing brightly on the side of the ship opposite of the sun. The waist of the ship was ringed with a large number of observation bubbles, some of which were filled with automated photo and telescopic gear and some with men making visual readings. The huge wings were massive enough to house supplies as well as fuel stores. Near the wing root were a large number of airlock hatches which served as individual jet boat landing bays. As the tour advanced over the cockpit area, the sheer size of the Einstein was accentuated. The stepped cockpit roof was glazed completely and the entire control deck was visible. Steve marveled at the multiple control stations for each function of the ship. Silently scooting back behind the trailing edge of the port wing, the boat pilot instructed control to open his landing bay and within a minute the boat’s canopy popped open in a completely pressurized berth. A team of enlisted Guards immediately brought a debarkation ladder and service carts to the little ship. Thanking his pilot for the ride, Steve made his way to the bay hatch.
“Welcome aboard, Sir.”, was the greeting Steve received at the hatch. A young man in a blue jumpsuit gave a short salute as Steve stepped over the threshold seal. “Captain Takao is waiting for you in his stateroom. Please follow me, Sir.”
Steve nodded and followed the lieutenant down a central corridor passing compartments marked as laboratories, shops, research library, horticulture and even zoological study areas. Upon arrival at the Captain’s stateroom, the young officer tapped gently on the hatch. A familiar voice called, “Enter.” The lieutenant and Steve entered the room and the young man announced, “Sir, presenting Captain Strong of the Polaris”, Sir!”
“Thank you, lieutenant Dismissed”, responded Hiroshi. The hatch closed leaving the two ship’s captains alone.
Extending his hand, Steve grasped that of Takao’s. “Glad to be aboard, Hiro! What a ship you have!”
Hiroshi, quickly pumping Steve’s arm said, “Glad you like her, Steve. I was lucky to get her command. Did you get to see much of her?”
“I got a good tour from your junior officers, Hiro. I’m impressed! Why haven’t we heard of the details of this ship? This is a true break from the traditional means of exploration that we have done in the past.”
Being somewhat elusive, Takao, gestured to a short legged table on the floor of the roomy cabin. The table was set with a ceramic tea service and had several pillows strewn around it. “Strong San, would you do me the honor of joining me for tea?”
“Takao San, it is I who would be honored.”
The two men bowed to each other as Steve and Hiroshi celebrated one of the remaining traditions handed down through Hiroshi’s heritage. Seating themselves at the table, Hiroshi, ever the good host, poured a small cup of tea which Steve sipped and bowed his approval. Hiroshi soon followed him in enjoying the fresh brew.
Steve glanced around the well appointed cabin and noticed the long katana sword in it’s gleaming black wooden scabbard mounted on a traditional black enameled rack above Hiroshi’s bunk. “I see that you still carry Mitsu with you, Hiro.”
Grinning, Hiroshi said, “Oh, yes, Steve. She has been with me since my father gave her to me the day I left home for the Academy. Mitsu and I are inseparable!”
Steve rubbed his chin as he looked past his friend. Dredging up memories from the distant past, Steve said, “As I recall, the stories at the Academy include one about you reporting for training on your first day. The word was that some upperclassman inspected your locker and found the sword. He instructed you to get rid of it because it was not Guard issued equipment and earthworms were not allowed to have personal property on the grounds. As I recall, you not only resisted, but when he tried to take it from you, you started to draw Mitsu from her scabbard.”
Hiroshi began laughing so hard that he was bouncing on the pillow. “Oh, yes! You should have seen his eyes when that polished blade was flashing light at him! I though I was going to have the shortest stint at the Academy on record!”
“How was the incident resolved?, asked Steve.
“Well, the guy left the bunk room on the double and returned a few minutes later with the provost marshal and six armed guards. The next thing I know, I’m in the detention area waiting for counsel. A few hours later, I am in Commander French’s office at the top of The Tower explaining my actions.”
Looking in the distance, Hiroshi took a sip of tea and remembered. “The Ol’ Man was a stickler for protocol, but he also knew his history. He understood my heritage and appreciated the fact that the sword represented my family’s military background for more than thirty generations. He gave me special dispensation but warned me not to draw Mitsu except in celebration or defense of the Alliance.”
Raising his teacup toward the sword, Hiroshi offered, “Here is to Commander French, may he rest well.”
Steve raised his cup and joined in the toast.
Hiroshi began laughing again and his face flushed as he tried to calm himself down. Steve, not understanding what brought about this new round of hysteria, had to wait until the chuckling abated.
“Steve, do you know who that upperclassman was?”
“I haven’t a clue”, said Steve
Starting to laugh again, Hiroshi managed to force out, “It was Bull Wellington!”
All preparations on the bridge of the Einstein came to a halt as the deck crew listened at the door of the stateroom as the two men inside howled uncontrollably.
On board the Polaris, Tom, Astro and Alfie were each busy with the last minute preparations to break orbit. Astro entered the control deck, wiping his hands on a towel. “Take a look out of the port, pretty boy.”, urged Astro. A space tug was slowly arcing away from the Polaris as it passed by the cruiser.
“Is that the last crew leaving?”, asked Tom.
“Yeah.... everything is connected and checked out, Tom. We can break orbit at any time.”. Looking around the cabin, Astro seemed abnormally fidgety. “ Has Brainboy seen any more goblins?”
“No, nothing to report, Astro.”, said Tom. “Actually, I wouldn’t give his report too much weight, but it sure rang somebody’s bell on the Einstein. I have a feeling that Mr. Taylor is holding all of the cards. Did you notice that whenever there is a big decision being made, he is always present?”
“Oh, yeah!”, said Astro. “That guy gives me the willies! His manner... his dress... his involvement in this mission... everything about him seems so out of place!”
“Well,”, said Tom, “We have our orders and we can’t be judgmental. If the Solar Council trusts him, I don’t think we should second guess them.”
Tom and Astro continued tossing around their own theories of Mr. Taylor and his origin. Suddenly, Alfie’s voice crackled over the intercom. “Tom, a space boat has just emerged from the Einstein. Captain Strong is asking for clearance to dock.”
“Okay, Alfie. Tell him that we have the coffee on and the air pressure off!”
A few minutes later, Steve Strong entered the control deck. “I hope you boys were doing productive work in my absence.”, he said jokingly.
Tom rose from the command chair and offered it to his captain. “Not yet, Tom. The Einstein will be doing a final course alignment for breaking orbit in less than an hour. I want the Polaris to be absolutely parallel to her throughout the maneuver. You boys grab a snack and rehydrate. There won’t be time for any of that for at least three hours after we break orbit.”
“Okay, Steve. Do you want some rations as well?”, asked Astro.
“No, Thanks. I dined aboard the Einstein. Now let’s get ready to make for deep space.”
Tom and Astro left the cabin and grabbed some food and drink stores and took them to the radar bridge. Alfie was grateful for the break, but even while eating, he wouldn’t take his eyes off of the scanners. He had the eerie feeling that someone or something was stalking this mission.
End Chapter - 9
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