Authors: Jim Laughter
Book 4 of the
Galactic Axia Adventure Series
Cover background photo: NASA, ESA, and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
An imprint of AWOC.COM Publishing
P.O. Box 2819
Denton, TX 76202
© 2014 by Jim Laughter
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. All characters and concepts of Galactic Axia are the property of the author and may not be used in any other work by any other author without written permission by AWOC.COM Publishing and Jim Laughter.
ISBN: 978-1-62016-101-2 Ebook
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. –
John 15:13 KJV
A multicolored explosion of lightning erupted across the underside of the passing cloud bank while its thunder battered the small watch post clinging to the shale of the ridge. Equipment rattled and dust rose out of unseen crevasses as the second and third waves of sound buffeted the glorified shack and the two men safely tucked inside.
Kyle didn’t even look up from his magazine while the vibrations from the thunder caused his coffee cup to perform a dangerous dance toward the edge of the table. Just as it reached the tipping point, Kyle neatly snagged it with his left hand while his right hand flipped another page of the dog-eared hunting magazine he was reading.
“It would take a ground-splitting seismic disturbance to rattle you when you’ve got your nose in one of those hunting rags,” his partner Seth snapped.
“You’re just jealous.” Kyle flipped another page of the latest specifications for a new rifle scope he wanted to add to his collection.
“What could I be jealous of?” Seth half shouted as yet another blast of light and sound hammered the tiny structure.
It was still dark outside from the nasty thunderhead scrapping over the ridge. Much to Seth’s consternation, Kyle remained unperturbed by the atmospheric assault. In truth, all was part of the interaction between two longstanding friends. Neither of them cared for the lightning storm, especially this close to the giant bowl of wire mesh nearby. It was just that they chose to react in opposite ways to bleed off the constant tension that came with their duty assignment.
Finishing the article, Kyle stowed the magazine away in a drawer and took a sip of his now cold coffee. Checking the monitor on his computer, he noted the weather disturbance was now heading south away from both their lookout and the bowl-shaped valley spread out below their viewpoint.
Before Seth could again ask Kyle what he had to be jealous of, the phone next to him rang. With practiced ease, Kyle snatched the receiver off its cradle.
“Overlook-15,” he said into the instrument while studiously ignoring his partner and writing down information. Seth turned away and tried to hide his frustration by checking their equipment for damage from the passing storm.
He knew from experience that it was most likely fully functional. Such storms happened frequently at this latitude. Seth also knew that all of the equipment was designed to withstand such abuse. As expected, the self-diagnostics showed their part of the grid was still functioning within design specifications. There had been some minor changes but current and voltage readings were still acceptable.
Sighing his relief, Seth noted the changes. Using one of the control panels narrowed the area most likely to need checking. Again, it was nothing really out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, it would mean the two of them would have to do some repair work after today’s big test was over. At least for now everything was within tolerance for today’s run. Seth anticipated Kyle’s next question.
“Control wants to know how it looks,” Kyle said, looking up from his notes.
“Tell them we’re still green.” Seth logged his readings into the control logbook.
“We’re good to go,” Kyle said into the instrument and then hung it back on its cradle. “Now how bad is it really?” he asked Seth seriously after he was off the communications line.
“Sections L-34 and L-35 act like they might have taken a hit with that last storm,” Seth answered evenly. “Still within specs, but we’ll have to go check them out after today’s big show is over. Knowing control, they’ll be all over us before the grid is even cool again.”
“What’s the big hurry? There won’t be another run until day after tomorrow. We can fix it in the morning when it’s cooler and we’re less likely to get hit by a storm.”
“Sounds good to me,” Seth had to agree. “But we don’t get a vote on the matter.” Repairing the wiring of the grid while wearing an insulated suit was no fun, especially in the late afternoon tropical heat.
Still, the pay is good,
And having any job these days is an accomplishment
. “Now, what’s this talk about me being jealous?” he said, refocusing his ire on his friend Kyle.
Dr. Byrral Garret, senior scientist at the Maranar General Service Radio Observatory called the meeting of his research staff together. He read from his notes. “Because manned interstellar travel is not feasible, and because no evidence has established beyond doubt that Maranar has been visited by interstellar travelers despite persistent reports of Unidentified Flying Vehicles, the search for extra-planetary intelligence outside our star system must at present be carried out with radio telescopes. Such telescopes could detect radio signals transmitted by intelligent beings on distant planets.”
Garret paused and looked over the top of his reading glasses at the specialists assembled in the briefing room. They had long awaited the completion of the new radio observatory, and now the day had finally arrived. A select few from among the hundreds of scientists and workers assigned to the project, they all held the unshakable belief they were not alone in the universe. The scientist looked down at his notes and continued the lecture.
“The central problem with this approach is deciding which stars to listen to and at what frequencies. In a landmark paper in
magazine, Doctors Ofous Dreim and Gorni Tuppli suggested a frequency of 1,420 megacycles, corresponding to a wavelength of 21 centimeters as a universally recognizable communication channel. That frequency is emitted when an electron reverses its spin in an atom of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. The very abundance of hydrogen, however, may make this channel too noisy, and thus other supposedly fundamental frequencies might be used.” Again, Garret paused to assess whether his staff was grasping the subject. One glance assured him that he need not worry.
“Once a frequency is chosen, nearby stars like our own would be logical early targets,” he continued. “The first attempt at radio communication with extra-planetary intelligence was made by Drank Yraki at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. This pioneering attempt, known as Project See, focused on the stars within ten light cycles at a frequency of 1,420 megacycles.”
“How many other attempts have been made since then?” a young man in front asked.
“Since then at least eight searches for extra-planetary intelligence have been carried out around the globe,” Dr. Garret replied, “all of limited duration, and all concentrating on a few stars similar to our own, usually at 1,420 megacycles frequency. One program begun at Northern University Observatory used an eighty-four foot radio telescope to scan about eight percent of the sky. Originally employing a multi-channel spectrum analyzer that simultaneously scanned two-hundred channels, the university’s system was upgraded to five-hundred and four channels six years later. Another two-pronged program was called the
Microwave Recording Project.
It involves a study of about one-hundred stars by a scientific team with headquarters at Southern Research Center, and a whole-sky survey conducted by another team centered at the Equatorial Laboratory. Another search, privately funded by the Planetary Association, is known as the Multi-Channel Extra-Planetary Review. It uses a radio telescope near the Northern Meridian to scan the entire northern sky twice a year for possible incoming signals.”
The speaker paused when he saw a hand go up. “What are the differences between searching and actual communications with extra-planetary beings?” “Search programs may be distinguished from communication with an extra-planetary intelligence, which implies actual two-way communication rather than simply listening, and which requires the formulation of a mutually understandable language for discourse.” Another hand caught his attention.
“Beyond the few of us here,” a woman asked, “what is the general reaction among the rest of the scientific community?”
“The seriousness with which scientists take the possibility of life in the universe,” the speaker said, “may be gathered from the appeal of science award winner Ryle Dayson that no signals be intentionally sent to other stars for fear of an invasion or a loss of human values when contact is made with a superior intelligence. For more than half a century, however, radio, video, and radar signals have been traveling away from Maranar at the speed of light, announcing our presence to the universe.”
Dr. Garret paused again, and seeing no hands, decided to wrap up his lecture. “On the chance that another civilization might encounter them, early unmanned research probes each bear an engraved plaque with a message from Maranar. Later craft carried an elaborately recorded message of words and music. All such craft after completing their photographic fly-by of planets within our own star system are vectored toward interstellar space.”
“Has there been any response to any of these efforts?” one older man asked.
“None that we’re aware of,” Garret answered. “That’s why we’re so hopeful about the new radio telescope. We feel that with its broader capabilities and larger antenna size, our chances will improve considerably.”
“What plans are in place if we do get an answer?” someone asked.
“Several, depending on what type of response we get,” the speaker replied. “But one that I am free to disclose at this time.”
Seated at the table of his small patroller, the Axia watcher tried to compose his report. His vessel was hidden on the back side of one of three moons where the primitive radar of the people on the primary planet below could not possibly spot it. The few unmanned probes they’d sent up had been launched toward the largest of the moons. A sensor sweep of them revealed they were also ill equipped to spot the camouflaged patroller.
Pulling out the old manual keyboard he preferred over his voice command computer, the trooper was overcome with writer’s block. He stared at the machine, struggling to say with enthusiasm that nothing pertinent had happened on the closed planet below. He had already noted the construction of the new radio antenna, and he gleaned from news reports that it would not be operational for another six weeks or so. If it followed the usual pattern of previous government projects, the large antenna array would probably run as much as two months late. An inspiration hit him so he bent to his task. Fingers flying over the keys, the trooper entertained visions of becoming a fiction writer while he pounded away at yet another boring report.
To the few VIP visitors sitting in the observation lounge overlooking the main control center, the scene below appeared to be a form of organized chaos. But amid the hustle of various subordinates, the three senior members of the development team sat in a pool of calm going over their checklists together. Being nominally in charge, Dr. Garret read down his master ‘go-no-go’ list.
“How are the power generators?”
“Online and within specs,” co-leader Dr. Spenser answered.
“Is the alignment of the receiver completed?”
“On the money,” Dr. Oren, their third member replied.
“What about the system recorders?”
“Operations finished the final diagnostics an hour ago,” Spenser answered.
“What frequency do you want to run first?” Oren asked.
“1,420 megacycles,” Garret answered. “The research team hypothesized that it would give us the best likely return signal because of the abundance of hydrogen.”
“But we already know hydrogen exists on that planet,” Spenser objected. “Why confirm something we already know?”
“If anything, to verify that our signal sweep is correct,” Garret said. “Then we can go on to other more exotic analysis.” As second member of their leadership team, Spenser seemed satisfied with the reasoning.
“My checklist is clear,” Oren announced. Although junior to the other two members, they all agreed that Oren would act as an unofficial skeptic to help counterbalance his superiors. “How about you two?” Both answered in the affirmative.
“Well gentlemen,” Garret said, “it’s time we reveal our project to the press.” The three broke up and went to their various stations to gather their notes.
Outside the control complex, their project patiently waited like only an inanimate object can. To the casual observer, the antenna array would look like the cross between the seating area of a large stadium and the giant metallic web of a spider. Stretching across a small hollow in the hills, the antenna was over eight hundred feet from rim to rim and one hundred and twenty seven feet deep at its center.
Construction of the giant radio antenna had been a long and frustrating effort over the last three years. Fraught with frequent transportation and supply problems, the contractors had managed to come in ahead of schedule and under budget, something unusual in joint projects between private and government groups. But that wasn’t the only problem they had to overcome.
Months of research had been devoted to finding the best geographical location for the facility on the surface of Maranar. Unfortunately, that location happened to be in one of the tropical zones with its attendant weather phenomena. The design had to be adjusted to handle the resultant weather extremes, including monsoon-like thunderstorms on a regular basis. To his credit, the main construction foreman took this challenge in stride in spite of naysayers in government offices.
The surface of the small valley had been carefully contoured to a predetermined shape and then covered with reinforced concrete to prevent shifting. Each concentric ring of the antenna was then covered with highly reflective material to augment any incoming signals. Netting was stretched over this to help prevent debris from landing on the array and distorting the reflective surface of the dish. Suspended above this were the signal collectors, each positioned so they could be used individually or in combination to aim the antenna effectively toward anything of interest in the sky. The end result was a stable parabolic reflector capable of capturing and refining any signal, passive or otherwise, passing through their solar system.
The countdown clock in the control room reached zero and power was applied. The grid hummed fully to life. As soon as it reached stability, the array technicians tuned it to a frequency of 1,420 megacycles. The harmonics startled nearby birds into flight. Fortunately, none blundered into the netting covering the antenna bowl and thus threatening today’s test run. Among those assigned to watch for such problems, Kyle and Seth breathed sighs of relief.
Outside the perimeter of the site, a small group of supporters started chanting as soon as they heard the equipment. Many of their placards extolled the effort and urged the equipment be used in attempting to contact intelligent life beyond the stars. Security personnel were amused by the antics of the group, several of whom were dressed in fanciful costumes of fictitious extra-planetary beings.
Off to one side, two people were also walking back and forth protesting against the new facility. One carried a sign protesting the use of government funding that could better serve his own special interest. The other protester’s sign was catchier, saying in bold print
SPACE ALIENS ARE AFTER OUR WOMEN.
A few camera operators from Maranar’s news services were shooting file photos and video footage of the event. Since their protest was part of the record, the two activists increased their antics for the benefit of the cameras.
The pressroom had been set up in what was usually the cafeteria. The plans to have the press meet in the small spectator room overlooking the main operations area were scrapped at the last minute. Only an hour ago, the tables were cleared out of the cafeteria to convert it into a temporary pressroom to handle the larger crowd.
Reporters munched on assorted pastries and sipped coffee while they waited for the briefing to begin. Headline-grabbing news had been somewhat scarce lately so there were more news services present for an event that would usually only be a back page story. Among the usual staff-science reporters were many big name media reporters; people who generally only covered the sensational stories. Their lack of experience with the sciences would be augmented later by using file reports from various science editors.
The general hubbub quieted when several scientists in their traditional white lab coats left the operations area and approached the platform and podium temporarily set up against one wall. The senior scientist, Garret, an older man with silver streaking his temples, stepped to the podium while his colleagues gathered behind him. The turnout of press and media was far more than they had expected. Glancing at the gathering, Garret was pleased to see that their last minute estimate of room for the press had been accurate.
Garret shuffled his notes on the microphone-decked podium while he waited for the media people to get themselves arranged. The room quieted and the whirl of numerous cameras told him that his audience was finally ready. Looking up into the camera lenses and outstretched microphones, Garret opened with the newly prepared statement he had written only that morning.
“As of 8:43 this morning local time, the Maranar General Service Radio Observatory became operational,” Garret announced evenly. Polite applause pattered around the room. “After initial tests with signals from an orbiting satellite, the Radio Observatory will begin the electronic mapping of planets within our own star system. With the information gained, we will be better able to plan manned and unmanned space missions for the future.”
Garret paused when he noticed several hands rise. With a nod toward an older reporter he had seen before at earlier progress briefings, Garret opened the floor for questions.
“What were the final reports concerning the project’s budget?” the reporter asked. “I did note that it was finished ahead of schedule.” The last comment brought some appreciative reactions from newcomers to the briefing.
“It is true that the project finished ahead of schedule,” Garret replied. “In fact, it was completed over six weeks early. As for the budget, I am happy to report that we were also eight percent under budget. The surplus will be returned to the various contributors, both public and private, that helped make this dream a reality.”
There was total silence while everyone absorbed this unexpected good news. Then someone in the back started clapping and soon the room was filled with applause. When it died back down, the scientist continued taking questions.
Another familiar reporter raised his hand. “At what frequency will you be operating?”
“To start out, we’ll be conducting our tests using the frequency of 1,420 megacycles,” Garret began. “This corresponds to the frequency that is emitted when an electron reverses its spin in an atom of hydrogen. After that, the antenna will be employing a multi-channel spectrum analyzer that can simultaneously scan 131,072 channels or frequency ranges. Later, the system will be upgraded to 8.4 million channels as funds permit.”
One of the new faces, a media reporter, hesitantly raised her hand. “What about using the antenna to search for and communicate with extra-planetary intelligence?” The room hushed while everyone listened to hear the response of the senior scientist. Garret found himself amused by the question. Considering the number of reporters here who did not normally cover the fields of science, the question was certain to come up.
“While the radio antenna array is quite capable of receiving any signal,” Garret answered patiently, “its designed purpose is to explore the nearby planets and stars via electromagnetic mapping. There are no plans to use the array to search for that which is based in fiction and rumor.”
“But what about reports of Unidentified Flying Vehicles?” she persisted. Garret smiled.
“In all the years such reports have been investigated by the Department of Air Vehicles, not one has been substantiated. Without exception, all such sightings have been attributed to hallucinations, over-active imagination, or gases released by decaying vegetation in local swamps.”
Affirmative murmuring greeted the scientist’s response. The reporter started to raise her hand again but thought better of it and stopped. Another regular science reporter took this opening to raise his hand. “How will this mapping aide the upcoming manned missions?”
Garret smiled again. “After initial testing, the array will be used to thoroughly map Maranar’s three moons. As soon as we determine the gravitational fields and electrometric spectrum of each moon, we will be better able to plot the course necessary to complete a thorough fly-by of each on future moon missions. Since the launch and flight parameters for the upcoming launch are already known and adjusted for, what we learn with the radio telescope will not affect their plans.”
“Then it’s true that the proposed launch next month is on?” another reporter asked excitedly. Garret realized he had inadvertently slipped.
“It’s true that a manned mission is proposed for next month,” he said, trying desperately to recover. “But any statement confirming the mission is pure conjecture at this time.”
The room buzzed while the reporters considered the implications of his reply. While Garret listened to the comments flying back and forth among the covey of reporters, he found himself now hoping the press conference would end soon.
The stack of reports requiring attention leaned toward the Lady-of-the-Fleet like a vengeful taskmaster. She reached over and carefully tried to stabilize the threatening pile. For two days now, she had been personally reviewing all of the reports from the watcher and picket ships in her sector of space. So far, of the hundred or more reports she had read, only three touched on information that had caused her over a week of sleepless nights.
With the stack safely stabilized, Trooper-Third Diane Zubbe refocused her attention on the open report in front of her. Three pages into it she found another reference pertaining to her search. Marking the section, she stacked the report with the other three she had found so far. Her eyes bleary from hours of reading, she took another report off the tall stack and opened it.
A knock at her office door caused her to look up. The smiling face of a fellow trooper-third stared back at her. “Trying to go blind reading all of these reports in one day?” Tim Errel asked, stepping into the small office.
Diane leaned back in her chair and returned the smile. “No. I’m just trying to get a grasp on something that’s been bugging me.”
Tim thumbed through the small stack of reports. “So this is what’s been stealing my lady’s attention.” Tim swung Diane’s chair around to face her directly. She looked into his deep brown eyes and kissed him on the nose. He kissed her forehead in return and drew back to admire her.
“Now, you know I have to finish this or I won’t be able to think of anything else,” she said, continuing to smile.
“I know. That is why I’ve come to help.”
“But it’s not even your shift,” she said, looking at the clock. “This is supposed to be your time to relax.”
“So I decided to relax by helping you,” he said. He pulled an extra chair over to her desk. “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be with, so what is it you’re so desperately looking for?”
“I have a nagging sense that there’s some sort of pattern to these random Red-tail sightings we’ve had lately,” Diane answered. She showed him the sections she had marked in the four reports. He took each report in turn and read the parts she had highlighted.
“I don’t see any pattern here,” he said when he finished the last one. “Exactly what do you suspect?”
“Although each incident is different, there’s one common denominator,” Diane answered, taking the reports back. She flipped open each report and pointed to brief passages in each section. “In each case, the Red-tail ship was in high speed flight and only crossed the farthest edge of the sensors of the Axia ship that encountered it.”
“So you found your pattern,” he said, looking at the material.
“That’s where you’re wrong. I believe there’s a second pattern, but I just can’t put my finger on it.”
“Maybe between us, we can find enough evidence to figure out what that mysterious pattern is,” he said, reaching for part of the pile. “Hand me a stack.”
With a final smile at her fiancé, Troopers-Third Diane Zubbe and Tim Errel again began to read the reports together.
“Long range sensors clear,” Qualat reported from his station.
“Any more word on those reported Red-tails?” Captain Leatha Mordon asked the trooper at the comm.
“Just that initial warning,” he answered. “Nothing else on any of the non-standard frequencies either.”
“Pilot, take us around that asteroid field and approach our target planet,” the captain ordered. “Use the mass of the planet to mask our detectably.”
“Yes ma’am,” Trooper Delmar Eagleman replied from the pilot seat. He carefully adjusted the controls to comply. Suddenly a shudder ran through the ship.
“Report!” Leatha barked.
“Apparent malfunction in the primary green box,” Mila reported from the engineering station. “Available power falling off. Switching to secondary unit.”
“Acknowledged,” Leatha replied tersely. “Pilot, compensate. Navigation, plot our shortest route to the nearest cruiser. Comm, put out a coded messa....”
“Red-tail attack ship on our port side!” Qualat shouted from the sensor station. “Incoming fire!” he added just as a heat ray grazed the ship, rocking it.
“Return fire!” Leatha ordered.
The trooper at weapons tried to comply. “Weapons inoperative!” he cried anxiously.
“Already on it!” Delmar snapped.
“Second Red-tail on the starboard flank!” Qualat reported.
“Torps restored. Manual only!” weapons reported.
“Give it your best shot!” Leatha ordered.
“Secondary power falling off!”
“Repulsion field and shield failing!”
“Pilot, get us out of here!” Leatha barked. Two more heat rays bracketed the ship as it twisted and turned.
Space around the patroller exploded in a brilliant flash of light. “Scratch one Red-tail!” Qualat reported. “Second one evaded and in pursuit!”
“Bag him, Ean!” Leatha ordered. The ship lurched as another torp fired.
“Power continuing to fall off. Tying both supplies together.”
“How long will it give us?” Leatha asked. Delmar dodged another volley of fire from their Red-tail attacker.
“Hard to say,” answered the disheartening trooper at engineering. “We’re coming apart back here!”
“Do your best,” Leatha encouraged.
“Got ‘em!” reported the weapons operator. The ship lurched again. Almost immediately, it yawed sickeningly.
“How goes it, pilot?” Leatha asked.
“Not good,” Delmar answered. “Controls are behaving erratically.”
Are we clear?” Leatha asked the trooper on the sensor panel.
“All clear for now, Captain, but more will be on their way soon enough.”
The captain considered their options. “Everyone suit up!” Since he was in a critical station, the pilot was already suited as a matter of course. “Maintain battle stations. Reduce everything else to minimal power.”
“No hot coffee tonight,” quipped the trooper struggling with the engineering panel which was lit up like a poorly wired winter solstice holiday tree. It showed very little news that wasn’t bad or worse.
“Pilot, it’s your ship,” Leatha stated, transferring tactical command while she slipped into her pressure suit and went to help with engineering. “Try to set us down in one piece somewhere.”
“Thanks a lot,” the pilot said through pursed lips. He had been expecting the command as soon as they were clear of the battle. It allowed the captain, now with little else to do, to help where she could make a difference. The lights flickered, dimmed, and then remained lit with minimal brightness.
Delmar scanned the surrounding space on his heads-up display. The barren planetoid where they’d been heading was within easy reach. He nursed his controls to vector them on a safe approach. Behind him he could hear the rest of the crew frantically working to keep the ship together as metal groaned, snapped, and popped under the strain of his maneuvering. The inertial dampeners were failing, causing the stress of the gravitational field of the planetoid to pull on the already-damaged mainframe of the ship. Delmar mentally balanced their safety against preserving the ship somehow. No matter how he figured it, their situation looked bleak.
This mission reminded Delmar of the training cruise he had just returned from where he’d spent a month onboard a two-man trainer with Trooper-First Ace Vmac mapping planetoids and other obscure objects out on the rim of the Axia. He remembered speaking to his friend, Ert, the Horicon computer about how boring the mission was and how it seemed like such a waste of time, and that Ert had told him that there must be a purpose in the mundane mission even if it wasn’t readily clear. How many times had Ace ordered him to land the trainer on lifeless planetoids? And how many crash landing and enemy attack drills had Ace put him through? He shivered at the thought of Ace flipping an emergency proximity klaxon simulating the presence of a Red-tail invader. He always did it at times when Delmar was relaxed or feeling cocky about being in command of his own ship.
Delmar remembered his conversation with Ian Cahill, a civilian space trader he’d met in the pilot lounge on the Axia’s home planet Shalimar, and how Ian had told him about his encounter with a Red-tail while on a simple cargo run. “Life can sneak up on you, kid,” Ian had said. “One minute you’re the king of the universe and the next you’re dinner on a Red-tail table. So you just better have a few tricks up your sleeve and be ready for anything to happen because sooner or later, it will.”
And now here he was faced with a similar situation, only this time he had the lives of a half-dozen other people riding on his ability to get them out of a serious situation.
What would Ace or Ian do?
Delmar thought about the new Optiveil cloaking device that Ian had installed on his ship, the
. “It’s a miracle of engineering,” Ian told him. “You can hide a whole planet behind it. It will turn the tide in our fight with the Red-tails. You just wait and see.”
I’d give the rest of my pay from now on for that invisibility shield to hide behind,
. But even if I had it, I don’t have the power to use it.
The view out the front of the damaged patroller was not a heartening sight. The surface of the airless planetoid was anything but smooth. Jagged crags jutted toward the inky blackness of space, interspersed by deep, forbidding chasms. Only occasionally was the sweating pilot able to see small spots suitable to land the damaged ship.
This hunk of rock reminds me of that Unseen One forsaken moon Ace forced me to ditch on just before we reached Shalimar
, Delmar thought.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say this is the same place.
The trooper behind him spoke into his ear. “The second green box just failed,” he said ominously. “Readings give us only about another forty-five seconds of full power.”
“Thanks for the good news,” Delmar countered through the open faceplate of his pressure suit. He hated wearing the thing because it both itched and smelled, but the alternative was worse. He was thinking it couldn’t get much worse when a klaxon blared and the hull lost atmospheric integrity. The last of their oxygen blasted out cracks opening on the hull, and the faceplate of every suit snapped shut to protect the wearer.
Delmar cut the throttle to conserve what little power he had at his disposal. Using momentum to roll the ship hard to the left, he barely cleared a rock outcropping that appeared to be grasping for the floundering craft. Directly ahead he spied a small clear area on a narrow ledge part way down in a dark canyon. He knew he didn’t have enough power to clear the apex of the rock face.
This is gonna be bad!
“Twenty seconds of power remaining,” the trooper behind him stated anxiously. Delmar only nodded. He tried desperately to maneuver the ship toward the ledge. A sudden shudder rippled through the ship when they brushed against the canyon wall. The sound of tearing metal screamed from the rear of the ship. Delmar reached to brush beads of sweat from his eyes and found the faceplate blocking his way. Mumbling under his breath, he blinked furiously and managed to clear his vision.
The narrow ledge loomed in front of him, but it now looked even more dangerous than when he’d first seen it. “Five seconds of power left!” the trooper called. Delmar heard Leatha order the other crewmembers to brace for impact.
This is gonna be bad
, thought Delmar again while fighting to keep the ship on an even keel above the narrow shelf.
The controls began to shake and became unresponsive. Power levels fell off sharply and he felt the throttle shiver. Delmar thought about the rest of the crew that were depending on him for their lives. “Unseen One,” he prayed under his breath, “don’t let me kill all of these people. Not now. Not when we’re ready to graduate.”
What would Ace or Ian do?
Delmar thought again.
Probably something unexpected or crazy. Maybe both.
Mustering all of his courage in a last desperate effort, Delmar chopped the throttle completely and let the ship freefall vertically toward the ledge. At the last possible second, he shoved the throttle again to full and felt the last surge of power cushion their fall just as the skids slammed into the rugged and uneven rock. One of the landing skids tore away from the ship and Delmar watched it hurdle over the edge of the ledge into the abyss below. As the ship settled the last half-foot, they could all hear the shriek and groan of tortured metal. With a final crunch, the mainframe of the ship twisted at the bulkheads and stopped moving and lay at a dangerous angle on the rock ledge, never to fly again. No one dared to move. The slightest motion might send the disabled ship over the edge of the rock ledge into the bottomless pit yawning up at them.
Perched as they were on the rocky cliff, the crew was in real danger of toppling into the cavernous darkness below. Although they had destroyed two enemy vessels, Delmar knew the Red-tails hunted in packs, so there would be others arriving soon. Staying put left them exposed to the marauding Red-tail ships sure to be hunting them. The chances of escape were equally dismal.
This isn’t fair
, Delmar thought.
But who ever said space is fair? Space is indifferent, even to the best that human effort can provide
. Only the Unseen One could help them now. Someone began to pray. Another began to cry. Everyone was thankful to be alive.
An eerie silence enveloped the half dozen people onboard the dead ship. A battery-powered emergency light flickered in the darkness, bathing the interior of the ship with an eerie red glow. His task completed, Delmar turned with everyone else aboard to face the captain of the ship.
More than aware of the lives dependent on her, Captain Leatha Mordon mentally reviewed their predicament. The crashed patroller rested just barely balanced on a ledge hardly larger than the ship itself. A shear wall fronted them on one side and a fatal drop awaited them outside the airlock on the other. Another means of escaping the ship would have to be found—soon. The atmosphere of the planet would not sustain human life, and there was only a 7-day air supply in their pressure suits. She knew the fleet would send rescue vessels soon in answer to their distress call but for the time being, they were on their own.
The young captain came to a decision. Considering all angles, she knew a distress signal had been sent and that the emergency transponder beacon was active, but they could not stay in the ship. And even though survival on the surface was risky, there was only one possible plan of action.
Just as Leatha was about to issue orders to cut a hole in the roof of the ship with a blaster, the airlock opened, flooding the interior of the patroller with white light. A trooper-first in his utility uniform stepped through the hatch.
“All right, clear out and assemble in the classroom,” he ordered, surveying his trainees. They looked momentarily stunned while they mentally changed from one reality to another. In shock, they started to file out past their instructor. He held back the young pilot for a moment.
When they were alone, he spoke to the trainee. “Nice landing, Mr. Eagleman,” Trooper-First Berlon said with a smile. “I’ve never seen that trick used before.”
Delmar was still shaken from his harrowing experience. “I borrowed the idea from how the mail carrier flitters back home come in to land,” he stammered. “Besides, it was the craziest thing I could think of at the time.” The instructor clapped him on the shoulder and they walked out through the hatch of the simulator.
Later in the classroom, the trainees removed and serviced their pressure suits and then sat down to watch the record of their training flight. The viewscreen lit up to show the computer-generated flight of the simulator. They all cringed as heat rays from two Red-tail ships bracketed the ship.
The picture paused and T-1 Berlon spoke from his stool beside the screen. “Can anybody tell us how this situation developed in the first place?”
The student that had acted as captain raised her hand. The instructor nodded toward her. “It came about because I didn’t heed the warning we received earlier about suspected Red-tail activity.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Berlon remarked. “You had no hard evidence to base your decision on. You made your choice based on a gut instinct. That was good.”
“But it got us caught in a trap,” she answered disgustedly.
“To tell you truthfully, there was no way to avoid that trap,” the instructor replied with a grin. “I programmed the scenario that way.”
When he saw the sense of betrayal mirrored on their faces, he continued. “There is always the possibility that you’ll face a situation that you can’t get out of. It’s a chance we all take as troopers, so it’s very possible that you could die in space. For those of you that will command a ship, you may face the loss of your entire crew, but you can’t let that stand in the way of making hard decisions. With this in mind, I want you to face the unexpected while you’re still here in training. I haven’t lost a student yet to sloppy flying or bad decisions, and I don’t intend to start now.”
He watched understanding draw itself on their features. Leatha still didn’t look convinced, so the instructor continued. “Your overall performance was quite commendable, Leatha,” Berlon stated. “The way you handled your ship and available resources shows a good instinct for command decisions. In fact,” he added with a smile, “I had to activate a few new wrinkles to keep you from escaping the scenario altogether.”
He pointed at the viewscreen and added, “Choosing to put down on the planetoid rather than being stranded in space was a good choice.”
“I just felt like the crew would stand a better chance against the Red-tails that were sure to follow if they were on the surface,” Leatha answered. “Floating in space makes you a sitting duck.”