All things being equal, this whole writing thing is sort of fun, and funny, too. You go where the imagination takes you and then you try to put thought to paper (or whatever you call this). Hence this story. I’ve been thinking about it and outlining little plot lines for quite a while, so after putting Harry to bed (for a bit, anyway) this just started to pour out onto the page/screen/whatever-this-is, and here’s the first draft of the first two chapters, ready for a laugh. Enjoy.
[Jimi Hendrix \\ The Wind Cries Mary]
The Pony Express
USSF Bunker Hill 12 February 2115
As the Orion-class tug maneuvered alongside the bulk ore carrier, one docking arm reached out from the ore processing ship and latched onto the tug’s primary docking collar; two additional arms grabbed an ore container. Once attached, and after hard-seals were confirmed on the primary chute, loading belts reached into the container, and almost immediately the tug’s load of raw mineral ores spun into the ore ship’s processing intake. The tug’s entire haul would be offloaded within a few hours; once complete, the tug’s crew would board a shuttle and head down to the Martian surface for a few days of R&R – before shuttling back up to their tug and heading back out to the asteroid belt.
Fleets of space-going tugs were constantly shuttling out to and returning from the belt, the unprocessed ore they transported being used for the massive construction and colonization projects on both the Moon and Mars. Tugs moved out to the belt at one half standard G, assaying potential targets en route. Once a target asteroid was identified, and after confirmation that no other outfit had staked a prior claim, the tug would register its claim and make its approach to the rock. After the tug was aligned, typically grappling hooks secured the asteroid and pulled the rock close to the tug’s empty bulk ore container. The mining crew would transfer to the surface of the rock and begin the hard work of identifying mineral veins suitable for extraction and then guide the tug’s extraction bits into place, with the rough ore extracted and transferred to an empty bulk ore container. Within a matter of hours the tug, with a fresh load of unrefined ore, would be en route to one of a dozen processing ships stationed between the belt and Mars, and once the asteroid’s ores were roughly separated and processed this semi-refined material would be reloaded into the tug’s container. Once reloaded, the tug would proceed to one of six primary orbital processing facilities – and there were currently two each around the Moon, Mars, and – of course – Earth.
Once docked at one of the primary processing ships, the asteroid’s semi-refined ores would be further pulverized and its constituent minerals assayed and weighed; payment would then be agreed upon and the tug would drop into a parking orbit just off the much larger processing ship. The tug’s crew would typically head down to the surface for a few days of clinically mandated debauchery and then be on their way back out to the asteroid belt to collect more rock. The work was dangerous and the pay was outrageously high; because of the high pay absolutely no androids were tolerated.
Captain Denton Ripley watched as the latest tug disengaged from the processing ship from the vantage of the Captain’s chair on board the USSF Bunker Hill, which was currently on-station five kilometers ‘above’ the action; Bunker Hill was orbiting Mars, and had been for years, and at the moment the rusty-red planet was just 1800 kilometers ‘below’ his ship. Ripley watched this latest arrival assume a standard parking formation with the ore ship from Bunker Hill’s flight operations bridge, located port side forward, yet only when the tug was well away from the ore ship did he relax. Now he turned his attention to an inbound Space Force cruiser just lining-up to sling-shot around Mars, the trajectory on his plot showing the USNSF Stavridis heading for Gateway Alpha. Though the ship was not yet visible to the naked eye from this distance, traffic control had alerted the third shift watch commander and she had picked up the cruiser on deep space scans within minutes of her arrival in the solar system. As Stavridis was an “unscheduled” transit everyone was paying close attention, because unscheduled transits usually meant trouble, in one form or another. Besides, Stavridis was one of the few ships fitted with the still top secret Alderson drive, so she was one rumored to be one of the first ships in the fleet capable of faster-than-light travel, and that fact alone made this transit a Very Big Deal.
“Why are you in such a goddamn hurry,” Ripley whispered as he watched the updated track on C-I-Cs central display.
Commander Louise Brennan, the Bunker Hill’s navigator, had worked out the cruiser’s track as soon as it appeared on long range scans. Stavridis was still under heavy acceleration too, meaning her crew had been strapped to their gel-filled G-couches for days on end, and they would have to further endure exceptionally heavy G-forces when Stavridis made her braking burn to enter Earth orbit. Stavridis was carrying too much delta-V for a direct approach to the Gateway, yet even at their current velocity it would take them another four days to reach Earth using the standard published orbital approach. Even so, at least Stavridis’s crew would be able to communicate with the Gateway without the interminable time delays experienced when out beyond the Oort Cloud.
Ripley was really beginning to hate this ship – the Bunker Hill – even though she was ‘his’ – for the moment, anyway. And he was really beginning to wonder why he hadn’t taken early retirement to work for The Company – as the Weyland-Yutani Consortium was colloquially known these days. Yes, the pay in the Space Force was decent enough, relatively speaking anyway, and the chow wasn’t too bad. Still, babysitting a ship like this was a more than perfect job for any newer model android, not an Academy graduate with four years of deep space time under his belt – and one battle, too. Even with a human crew of ten onboard, he often went days without talking to another person. A real human being, that is.
And it wasn’t that he disliked androids. They were likable enough – in their way. Still, the mass revolts staged by First Generation Davids had exacted a terrible toll in both trust and human life, a breach of trust that in human terms had not yet, and might not ever be, fully repaired. And though true enough, both the Walter as well as the latest Gordon-class models had eventually been well received on the lunar colonies – after a few years, anyway. Even this ship had a handful of Walters onboard, handling everything from reactor operations to exterior damage control duties.
Yet there was also one Gordon on board, too, and its presence was still considered somewhat controversial, perhaps because this ‘Gordon’ had been permanently assigned to him, and had been since it arrived. ‘His’ Gordon looked like every other unit manufactured to date, right down to its red hair, green eyes and mottled freckles – only its moral subroutines were considered tighter, and its astronavigation capabilities had been deemed second to none. It played chess and loved movies, especially American westerns from the mid-twentieth century – an affinity Ripley did not share – and ‘Gordon’ was almost always by Ripley’s side, a fact of life that was driving the ship’s executive officer more than a little mad.
As Ripley peered into the infinite, Stavridis’s drive flared right on schedule, the massive fusion powered ion drive suddenly appearing in the vast night as she began her braking burn. He thought, perhaps as a prank, that he should call and ask their master if the crew was enjoying the G-forces. Then he measured the flaring drive – because the light bloom was much bigger than simulations had predicted.
“Gordon? Did we just see an unexpected acceleration?”
“Yes, Captain. Her deceleration just increased from 3.2Gs to 4.05 – I would say they are in quite a hurry.”
Ripley shook his head. At 4.05Gs standing up would be impossible; even lifting your head from the acceleration couch could prove fatal. “Goddamn…but I’d sure hate to be on that ship right now,” he said…to no one in particular.
“Captain?” Gordon said. “There are currently two tugs inbound, both requesting permission to approach the Dandelion.”
“How many processing bays are currently operational?”
“Four, sir. Two will remain closed during the current overhaul cycle, and for another 16 hours and 12 minutes. There are currently two Sandoval-class tugs offloading water-ice from Europa; both should decouple and begin their return cycle to Jupiter within two standard hours.”
“Approach control? Go ahead and route the tugs to bays one and five. Anyone else lining-up out there?”
“No, sir,” the Bunker Hill’s traffic controller replied, “the next arrival is still 18 hours out.”
“Tactical plot, please? Up-pole view will do for now.”
“Yessir, polar-up view.”
His stomach growled as the polar plot came up on the large central display – one more time. ‘Yeah…a goddamn monkey could do this job…’ he muttered to himself. That was the old joke, anyway.
By the time the two latest arrivals were docked and unloading their cargo, all thought of the Stavridis and of her speeding past had long since drifted away. The next scheduled shuttle was coming up from the surface, and that meant one more load of drunk, hungover Spicers would soon depart Mars orbit, making room for another load of new arrivals that would head down to Elon City for a couple days of sin-drenched fun in the sun. Such as the sun was out here, anyway.
His eyes opened, and the pain in his skull seemed to explode.
“Captain to the bridge,” he heard over the intercom. He pushed himself up and rubbed his eyes, then he rinsed his mouth with Ora-cleanse and ran a brush through his hair before he slipped into his compression-suit. With that routine maintenance out of the way he opened the door to his cabin – and of course found Gordon waiting for him.
“High priority comms from Gateway, Captain Ripley,” it said.
“How long was I out?”
“Four hours twenty minutes of REM sleep recorded and logged, Captain.”
“Lead on. I’ll follow you,” Ripley said, and he watched Gordon pull himself along in zero-G to the Comms suite just off the main cabin being used as the Combat Information Center, or CIC, on Bunker Hill. Ripley placed his face up to the retina scan and opened his right eye as wide as he could, and after the scanner did its thing the door slid open. “Wait here,” he commanded Gordon as he pushed off the ceiling and drifted into the little room.
“Sir, I really should…” Gordon said.
“You’ll wait here for now.”
Ripley pulled himself into the radio shack and settled into the lone chair; he inserted his drive and entered his security code then placed his eye at the redundant retina-scan, opening the encrypted video channel to Gateway Alpha. It took a few seconds to establish the connection, and after that the main COMMs screen opened.
“Denton? Good to see you,” the Naval Space Force CnC said, and a relieved Ripley smiled.
“Good to see you too, Admiral Stanton.”
“Looks like we might have trouble brewing, something to do with the Covenant mission.”
“I see you were briefed on the mission profile during your third year at Annapolis, so I assume you’re still somewhat familiar with the ship’s systems, her crew and cargo?”
“Yessir. Those company ships aren’t particularly unusual. What’s going on, sir?”
“What do you recall about the Anomaly Reporting Systems the Company installed?”
“The ship’s computer is programmed, if certain pre-established criteria are met, to deploy beacon transmitters with the current sit-rep encoded. I think it was originally thought of as a type of combined data and incident recorder.”
Stanton nodded. “Covenant’s computer has, apparently, deployed two such beacons, and I’m sending the contents to you now. Stavridis picked up the signals and downloaded the packets you’ll receive. She sent them as soon as she was within range, and she’s inbound to refit and refuel, but it’ll take us a month to get her docked and that work started, and another week or so to get her ready to go again.”
“So…I’m promoting you to Rear Admiral and sending you to Hyperion, effective date of transfer is this date. I know Ames is going to be pissed, and I know it’s been a while since you worked the sims on her, but you’re the most senior officer available now, and you are the only experienced captain I have that’s made a return trip using both the Drive and the Field. We’re going to leave Captain Ames nominally in command of the ship but I want you to take your current XO and your entire CIC with you. You’ll take your flag to Hyperion as soon as we can work out the transfer orbit.”
“Stavridis will join Hyperion and Patton as soon as we can turn her around.”
Ripley flinched when he heard that. Sending two cruisers to support Hyperion suggested this was more than a simple recon or rescue mission. “Alright, sir. Understood.”
“Denton,” the admiral said, his voice suddenly less rigid, “we’ve got indications of a signal of unknown origin on a habitable planet near Covenant’s course. She diverted from her planned course to that planet, and her captain did so without authorization, and apparently there’s been some damage sustained en route and no one seems to know what’s going on. We don’t know what they found out there or what they’re dealing with in the aftermath, but there are thousands of colonists on board and, well, you know how it is. The company wants to protect their investment so we get the call. Anyway, there’s more to it than that, so read the summary as soon as you can, and let us know when you can get underway.”
“Will do, sir.”
“Oh. Six new middies have been assigned to Hyperion. Think you can handle ’em?”
“Yes, of course. Anything else, sir?”
“No, that’s it for now.”
The screen faded and Ripley made sure the encoded message was downloaded to his personal drive, then he ejected the drive and cleared the COMMs cache before he switched back to the command net.
“XO, captain here, ready the shuttle for transfer to Gateway Echo. XO, you and CIC will prepare to transfer to Hyperion as soon as your replacement crew arrives.”
“Sir, there’s a shuttle upbound from the surface with our replacements, and your promotion is now on the books. Congratulations, Admiral.”
“Thanks, Carl. Glad you’re coming with us. Now…let’s get a move on.”
When Ripley opened the door he saw his Gordon waiting out there and shook his head. “I assume you already know what that was all about?”
“Of course, Admiral,” Gordon said, smiling benignly.
A thoroughly annoyed Admiral Ripley nodded as he passed the android. “Well then, let’s go.”
USNSF Hyperion 5 May 2115
US Naval Space Force Hyperion was, true to her namesake, a creature of light destined to roam deep space. Huge by the standards of her day, Hyperion was three hundred feet long and almost lozenge-shaped. Three decks ran the complete length of her hull, and the ship’s complement included both Space Force and Naval astronauts as well as one company of Marines. Forty Walter units were assigned to the ship’s engineering spaces, and the ship also maintained a small contingent of xenobiologists and astrophysicists. Four Gordon units were being assigned as personal assistants to the ship’s command crew, and they were now en route from the Gateway. And, as C-in-C Stanton had intimated, Hyperion would have a fresh contingent of Naval Academy Midshipmen on hand for this voyage, this expedition being the ‘middies’ first real experience in deep space. The middies, Ripley saw as he looked over the manifest, ranged in age from fourteen to sixteen earth standard years; only two of them, he noted, were old enough to shave.
But the simple fact of the matter remained: living and working in space was an occupation for the young—and the unattached. The nature of long duration space flight meant it was simply impossible to marry and start a family, as most of the long range ships were so-called cruisers manned by career crews of either Space Force or Navy officers and ratings. Because most of these ships voyages took place within the solar system, with trips as far out as Neptune not unusual, crews were typically out years at a time. Yet someone, somewhere, had – once upon a time – decided that crews should be split almost evenly between men and women, presumably taking into account the biological necessity of pair-bonding, even during long duration space voyages.
Ripley looked at the crew – his crew – as they scrambled around the bridge. Many had come with him from Bunker Hill, his first command since The Battle of Alpha Centauri, but as Hyperion was for all intents and purposes a new ship she didn’t have an existing crew on board. The engineering spaces were manned by Walter units, though still supervised by human officers and assisted by human ratings, and there were also a few Walter units scattered about the ship’s complement, mainly in the astronavigation and damage control sections. These non-human crew members were, of course, unconcerned with interpersonal relationships.
But right now, looking over the bridge – his bridge – he had to shake his head. Men were strutting around with huffed up chests and the women up here were batting their eyelashes like semaphores, and the entire bridge deck seemed drenched in pheromones. Maybe these rituals were just the way it would always be – where humans were concerned, anyway – but when he read over naval histories from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries these types of issues had never come up. At all. Now, as the admiral in command of a small task force headed into unknown circumstances, he’d have to watch over three ships spilling over with all kinds of interpersonal drama, let alone the lingering hostility many humans felt about androids after the mass betrayals that occurred when David units turned out to be dangerously paranoid psychopaths.
Yet Hyperion wasn’t really his ship. Captain Lucille Ames had been aboard since her keel was laid on earth, and she’d been on board ever since. She knew the ship better than anyone else, even the engineers who had designed the ship, and from the moment Ripley stepped aboard Hyperion’s crew had constantly let him know exactly how she felt about the situation. This was her ship, she was in command, and she’d fight the ship when and if hostilities broke out. As far as Lucy Ames was concerned, Ripley didn’t belong here and she resented his presence. Period. And apparently when she learned a Gordon unit had been assigned to shadow her, she had come completely unhinged; she fired off an Urgent//Eyes Only dispatch to Admiral Stanton letting him know exactly how she felt, and so far the dispatch had not been returned.
Ripley, of course, knew her only too well. He’d known her since Annapolis. She was two years behind him but was regarded as a hellion soon after she arrived, a fire-breathing beer-guzzling genius who also just happened to play middle linebacker on the football team. No one fucked around with her after her plebe year, either. Not even her hand-to-hand combat instructors. Built like a brick shit house, she was all Navy and pure Navy and a born engineer. At a mandatory dance her plebe year another cadet had had the temerity to ask her to dance; he went to the hospital with a concussion. Now, when Ames came crashing down a passageway, enlisted ratings dove out of her way—because anything was preferable to facing her wrath.
And as much as Ripley hated to admit it, she was a good officer. Scrupulously fair and usually a quiet soul, she was slow to reach her boiling point—so while it was fair to say she didn’t suffer fools in her presence for very long, she rewarded loyalty and performance of duties ‘above and beyond’ mere competence. She was, in other words, an ideal ship’s captain. His problem, in as much as one existed, was how to let her run her ship while not letting her interfere with the overall success of the mission.
He’d been aboard for a half hour and she’d still not met him on the bridge, and while he was aware that was a serious breech of protocol he didn’t want to jump to any conclusions—yet. So he waited. He sent his Gordon unit to his day cabin to make sure all the mission parameters had been downloaded, and then sent his personal crew to his cabin to get his things stowed and his galley up and running. And he waited some more. He watched the bridge crew running diagnostics on the suite of NAV computers, and he listened as the COMMs tech tuned the antenna array to beacon Terra One. And he waited.
Then he heard her. Coming down passageways and up the stairs from the engineering spaces. Then he heard the surprised whelps of ratings diving for cover as she made her way onto the bridge, the Marine on duty snapping to attention as she entered the room and made for her chair.
She was wearing khakis, he saw. And she was covered with lubricating grease, while her right forearm was bleeding from an inches long gash. Yet as soon as she saw Ripley she snapped to attention and fired off a classic Academy salute, which Ripley returned. With a smile.
“Lucy. Good to see you again.”
She walked over and extended her right hand. “Denton. How’s it hangin’?”
“You’d better get some Duraplast on that arm, then maybe you could buy me a sandwich.”
She looked around, puzzled. “How long have you been here?” she asked, her face now turning red, steam coming from her ears.
“Oh, about an hour,” he replied, wondering who’s neck she was about the snap like a twig.
“Oh, Lord. Sorry. The word didn’t reach us. The COMMs mast failed to retract the last two times we had it up through the Field. The hydraulic actuators fail every time.”
“They know about this in Norfolk?”
“Yessir. I think we’ve found the problem. Best guess is we need the old isolators, but the weenies down in engineering disagree.”
“So of course you just installed the old isolators?”
Ames shuffled around bashfully – and she was good at it, too – then she looked up and grinned: “How’d you know, sir?”
“In case no one’s told you, you need a shower,” Ripley grimaced, putting her back in her place. “I’ll be up here when you finish up.”
“Very good, Admiral,” Ames said as she turned towards her in-port cabin, her feathers defiantly ruffled.
“Still cute,” Ripley muttered under his breath – as he watched her slink away. “And she still knows it, too.”
Hyperion was also only the second main battle-cruiser equipped with both the Alderson Drive and its associated Langston Field, and as these were still considered highly classified systems not even the middies knew much about them. And while he was qualified on both the theory and practical operational characteristics of both, Ripley had zero captain-in-command time – hence Ames had been retained as captain, though perhaps because she was the only expert available. Still, she’d been captain during Hyperion’s trials, and that traditionally meant she’d be ship’s master on her first operational run, but Ames and her intentionally brusque manner had already ruffled more than a few feathers in Norfolk. To say she wasn’t particularly popular down there was an understatement.
His Gordon unit slipped up from behind and stood there quietly, waiting for Ripley to acknowledge his presence.
“Everything loaded?” Ripley asked.
“Yessir. And core systems have been updated. There is also a new download concerning Covenant.”
“And I assume that as it was marked Eyes Only and addressed to me that you’ve already read the material?”
“Of course, sir.”
Ripley shook his head and sighed.
“The last shuttle will dock at 2200 GMT, and I believe the midshipmen will be onboard.”
“Well, if they’re not they won’t be joining us this time out.”
“Yessir. Your cabin is operational now. Dinner is scheduled for 2000 hours.”
“Did you get the invitations out to the Captain and X-O?”
“What about the new Medical Officer? Is he onboard yet?”
“He is a she, and no, Doctor Sheffield will be arriving with the Midshipmen.”
“What’s the latest on Stavridis and Patton?”
“Patton is standing by and ready to sail. Stavridis should depart the Gateway 72 hours after that.”
“Very well. Send my compliments to Patton’s master and invite him to breakfast at 0800. Add our Medical Officer and the middies to the invite list, and we’ll sail as soon as Patton’s master is back on his ship.”
“That’s her ship, Admiral.”
“Yessir. Her name is Caruthers. Judith Caruthers, Class of ’09, summa cum laude with a double major in Celestial Mechanics and Quantum Physics, sailing team and combat pistol team noted, company commander her senior year.”
“Don’t remember her,” Ripley said, noting he’d been a senior – and a company commander – when she was a plebe. “Pull up an image, would you?”
Caruthers’ image popped up on a nearby screen and Ripley turned and looked it over, shrugging when he still failed to recognize her.
“She’s from the Mobile, Alabama area, Admiral. Class valedictorian McGill Catholic High School, interests during that period included sailing and astronomy. Honors in Chemistry and scored five on the AP History exam, and she led the debate team her senior year.”
Ripley studied her picture while his Gordon spoke, then he asked: “She married?”
“No sir. And no current attachments noted.”
“Interesting choice. I wonder why Stanton chose her for Patton?”
His Gordon looked away as his CPU accessed the relevant information, then he turned to Ripley again. “Political patrons in the senate noted and appear to have played a role in her selection, Admiral, but she is generally considered highly qualified.”
“What was the topic of her senior thesis?”
“Fluid mechanics and displacement theory of nano flares in the solar corona.”
“Pull a hard copy and print it out for me. I want to read it before she arrives.”
“It is two hundred and ten pages, sir.”
Ripley sighed as he looked at the time on the display by Caruthers’ image, then he nodded. “I’ll need a big pot of coffee at dinner. And ask Carson to make it strong, would you?”
His eyes burned and his mind felt numb but he laid down Caruthers’ thesis at 0400 and closed his eyes for a few hours of rack time. When his Gordon came in at 0700 he snapped to and made his way to the shower while Gordon ran through the Morning List.
“Reactors were tested to ninety percent of rated output for an hour, and after shut down hydrogen stores were replenished. Shuttles have been secured on the hanger deck, and both have been fueled. All optics on the ship’s laser cannon have been cleaned and their generators serviced. Patton’s gig will dock at 0745 and your in-port cabin is ready. And Captain Ames wanted to know if she could join us.”
“Not necessary. I’m sure she has other matters to attend to.”
“Excuse me, Admiral, but I think she wanted to attend,” his Gordon hinted.
“Very well. Advise that if her duties allow she would of course be welcome.” Ripley shaved, making sure the vacuum attachment sucked up all the stubble, then he ‘brushed his teeth’ with a sonic brush. Carson had already laid out his in-port uniform so he was able to dress quickly, and when he appeared ship-shape he made his way to the bridge ‘to show the flag’ before he returned to his in-port cabin.
No space was ever wasted on the sea-going warships of earlier eras, and that maxim now applied doubly so on space-going craft, from cargo ships to rock haulers to the new breed of warships. Everything on these latest warships was designed to take on the operational needs of the moment, from routine transits to ‘fighting the ship’ to damage control, and the Admiral’s In Port Cabin was no exception to this rule. The main in-port table was embedded in the ‘floor’ and was raised hydraulically when needed, yet the table could also pivot and seal off a wall of viewing ports if the ships was battle-damaged, while the laser units used to heat coffee and other fluids could be swapped out for the lasers in handguns. About the only single purpose items on Hyperion were the ship’s Alderson Drive and Langston Field Generators, and of course the ship’s main drive and fuel tanks.
But now Ripley surveyed his in-port cabin over the video link with bemused satisfaction. The table was set for twelve and all the ship’s personalized china had already been placed, with the ship’s name in the 12 o’clock position at each place-setting. Carson had set out place-names and three pitchers of fresh squeezed orange juice were already on the table, while the middies were already clustered by the view ports staring at the moon as it arced in a lazy circle beneath the ship.
When Captains Ames and Caruthers walked in Carson called the room to ‘Attention’ and only then did Ripley enter – from the entrance off his main cabin. With this bit of ceremonial nonsense out of the way he asked everyone to take a seat, and he smiled when he realized Carson had placed the middies on his left and right, three by three, so he knew he’d have to babysit them, at least for a little while, before he could turn his attention to Caruthers. The middies were typically the sons and daughters of the political classes, or at the very least the politically very well connected, and their ‘job’ while assigned to the Hyperion group would be to attend to duties that would help prepare them for one of the service academies. A Walter unit was nominally in charge of their academic studies while assigned to the ship, and ‘he’ was currently standing next to Ripley’s Gordon unit.
“Admiral?” Yukio Matsushima said politely, “may I ask you a question, please?”
Ripley turned to the girl, trying to remember her portfolio. Fourteen years old and from Hokkaido, what he remembered most was that her IQ was 244, an almost unheard of score that placed her among the brightest humans ever tested.
“Yes, of course.”
“We have not yet been told our destination, or how long we may be away from Earth. Are we permitted to know this information now?”
He smiled and looked at Captain Ames. “Captain, care to answer this one?”
Ames nodded. “Yes, of course, Admiral. Yukio, we will be away for at about two years. When we leave this solar system our first destination will be Capella, in the constellation Auriga. I’m sorry, but you look puzzled?”
Matsushima nodded, for she was indeed quite puzzled. “Capella?” she said, her voice strong but full of wonder. “But that is…approximately…fifty light years distant. How is this so?”
“It’s 42.9 light years distant, and this is possible because our ships are equipped with the Alderson Drive.”
“The…what?” Hans Genscher said, with one eyebrow arched quizzically. Genscher was from Bonn and came from a long line of diplomats; he was also a gifted mathematician and a patient astrophotographer who already had a comet discovery to his credit. “Are you saying this ship has a faster than light drive?”
Ripley smiled and looked to Captain Caruthers. “Care to take this one, Judith?” he said casually, trying to break the ice a little.
Caruthers looked at Ripley and nodded, a little surprised the Admiral had addressed her by name and not by rank. “About thirty years ago a NASA physicist postulated that electro-magnetic lines exist between certain spectral classes of stars, notably including G-type stars. A probe was devised and sent to test this hypothesis, but the first difficulty discovered was that these lines most likely form between the corona and the chromosphere, so there was no way for the probe to reach the supposed point. Work began on a field that would allow for brief incursions into the chromosphere…?”
“What?!” cried Genscher. “Do you mean actually into the sun’s atmosphere? But the temperatures involved are…?”
“Yes, they are,” Caruthers said – patiently – still smiling despite the interruption. “In fact, the ship’s Langston Field can handle temperatures up to eight thousand degrees celsius for about a half hour, which is usually sufficient to locate the Langston Threshold and the make the Jump.”
“The jump?” Matsushima asked.
Ripley decided to take this one: “That’s right. The ship jumps from star to star, and it does so literally in zero-time. The sensation you’ll experience is very disconcerting, too, ranging from extreme nausea to debilitating confusion. In rare cases crippling psychotic episodes result, but there’s no way to predict such a result. More troubling still is that we’ve found the ship’s computers simply can’t handle the transition. They instantly go into safe mode and reboot, and therein lies the biggest problem. When we jump we will arrive in Capella’s chromosphere, and yet we’ll still have the accumulated heat of our own sun stored in the Field – but then we’ll be adding even more heat to the Field from Capella’s chromosphere. And, as Captain Caruthers mentioned, we can handle such extreme temperatures for a total half hour duration, even less if the temperature is higher, so we have to get in and find the Langston Point, make the jump and then get out of Dodge before our Field collapses, and we have to do this while the ship’s computers are down – and while some of us are seriously messed up. Any questions?”
“Sounds fun,” Paul Anderson said, but even so grinning like a fool. Anderson too was only fourteen years old but he was easily the smartest kid of the bunch. He was from Seattle and came from a long line of computer scientists, and as his mother was currently serving in the US Senate he was considered very-very important. Ripley had wondered why Anderson had been billeted to such a high risk mission until he recalled Anderson’s grandfather had been one of the NASA astronauts assigned to the first manned Mars mission.
“Well,” Ripley said, “we’ll see how much fun you think it was after we finish the first jump.”
“How long will it take to get to our sun?” Genscher asked.
“About two months, and we’ll be accelerating at a steady 1.1G the entire trip – and once there we’ll enter a wide equatorial orbit around the sun. The Field will be up by then and absorbing heat, so we time our de-orbit burn to enter the sun’s corona – and hit the Langston Point – at a fairly high velocity.”
“Like how fast?” Matsushima said, her eyes wide open now.
“Oh, no too fast,” Ripley smiled. “Around 25,000 meters per second.”
“But that’s…almost 56,000 miles per hour,” Anderson grinned as he worked through the implications. “So let me get this straight, what you’re sayin’ is we’re going to dive into the sun at 25,000 meters per second while aiming for a point inside the…oh…just how big is this point, anyway?”
“It varies. The smallest we’ve measured was less than a mile in diameter; a hundred is the largest we’ve recorded – but they all fluctuate a bit.”
“Fluctuate?” Anderson moaned, swallowing hard.
“How rough is the atmosphere inside the corona?” Thomas Standing Bull said.
Ripley looked at Ames again and nodded. “The ship’s Langston Field,” she said, “will attenuate the G-forces somewhat, but you can expect displacements in the five to seven G range. Accordingly, everyone will be strapped into acceleration chairs long before we enter the sun.”
Standing Bull nodded, but still he looked concerned. “Admiral, you stated that these lines exist between stars, but are they naturally occurring?”
Ripley crossed his hands over his lap and nodded, then he looked the boy in the eye and spoke as honestly as he could, given the political circumstances. “There is disagreement on that point, Thomas.” Standing Bull was a Lakota Sioux and by heritage was a warrior, and after reading his dossier Ripley had decided to take the boy under his wing. “If they were naturally occurring there ought to be such lines between all G-class stars, but that’s proven to not be the case. One of our mission parameters is to locate and map as many new Langston Points as we can.”
“If I may,” Genscher interrupted, “but how many known pairs have been mapped?”
Ripley nodded to Caruthers. “There are currently twenty five known Pairs with one Point located in our own sun,” she explained. “Most are oriented towards the galactic core,” she added.
“Has stellar drift been accounted for?” Standing Bull asked.
“I’m not sure where you’re going with this?” Caruthers replied, now grinning in expectation.
“Well,” Thomas said, “if a given star has drifted radially relative to the galactic core, if the Point remains fixed inside the star one could assume the lines are a naturally occurring phenomenon. If, on the other hand, a star has drifted and the Point has remained anchored in space, that would imply that the lines are a construct.”
“Very good, Thomas,” Ripley sighed. “That is the center of contention, or the source of disagreement I alluded to. And that is also why any talk of the Drive and Field is still classified and not permitted beyond the ship.”
“Understood, Admiral,” Standing Bull said.
“Each of you will be assigned to shadow a command officer,” he said to the middies. “Your duties will include taking notes and writing down any questions you have. Your homework assignments will include finding the answers to your questions in the ship’s library. Beyond that, the rule of thumb on board is quite simple: don’t speak unless spoken to, unless speaking out will prevent an accident or save a life. Understood?”
“Mister Genscher and Miss Underwood will accompany Captain Caruthers to Patton.”
“Yessir,” they replied.
“Mister Anderson and Miss Taylor, you’re to head over to Stavridis as soon as she joins us. Until then you’ll shadow our XO and the Chief Engineer.”
“Miss Matsushima and Mister Standing Bull will remain on Hyperion until we reach Capella. Any questions?”
“Well then, let’s finish our breakfast and get underway,” Ripley said as he pushed back from the table and stood. “Thomas, you’re with me. Let’s go look over the Combat Information Center.”
One of the more unpleasant ironies of the Alderson Drive was the time required to reach a Jump Point versus jumping the ship. A ship could literally jump from Earth’s Sun to a star thousands of light years distant in zero time, yet it could take quite literally a year or more to reach a planet in the system the ship had just arrived in. If time and fuel wasn’t an issue the arriving ship could set off for the planet at one standard G, and this velocity maintained a quasi-earth-like environment on the ship during the transit. If faster velocities were required and enough fuel was on hand, travel at up to four standard Gs was possible, though only for short periods of time and with rather draconian safety measures in place. Travel at up to 1.2 G was tolerable for a few days, but any velocity greater than 1.2 G up to 2.0G meant the crew was limited to G-couches, though the ship would go into zero-G conditions for fifteen minutes every four hours to allow for crew changes, toilet breaks, and meals. Above 2.0 G, movement was severely restricted – as even the simplest movement around the ship could result in unexpected falls and serious injury. Above 3.6 G simply lifting ones head from the G couch could result in cervical fractures and death, so literally all movement in these regimes was considered impossibly dangerous.
Hyperion and Patton were heading to the Sun at 1.1G, but due to adverse stellar winds that meant Stavridis’s crew would have to endure two weeks at 2.3 G to make the rendezvous just outside the orbit of Venus, though after Stavridis arrived all ships were scheduled for 24 hours at 1.0G; deferred maintenance would be completed and the two middies would transfer to Stavridis. People generally relaxed, laughed, and tried to have a good time at 1G – while the possibility lasted…
…but it was hard to ignore the Sun now. It was huge and dominated the view ahead.
Only a few members of Hyperion’s crew had made this trip before, so while most of her officers knew the theory behind Alderson’s discovery – only a handful had experienced the terror and disorientation that followed a jump. But of course people talked; word got out. Making a Jump was the single most startling moment one could possibly experience, or so it was said, and that meant most of Hyperion’s crew now looked at the Sun with something between lurking fear and abject terror stuck in their waking thoughts – because it was now impossible to ignore the looming solar disc dead ahead, and that they were going inside that star to make a Jump. Who among them, they wondered, would go insane inside a star 253 trillion miles from home…
Ripley had spent the first few weeks out from Earth reading everything he could find on the Covenant mission, from design of the ship to her flight crew selection. Covenant’s colonization protocols were fairly standard stuff; the company had been, after all, sending such ships out for more than twenty years. But Covenant, like all company ships before her, was a sub-light speed vessel that traveled under near constant 1G acceleration and therefore relied on cryostasis sleep chambers to preserve her crew. Naval vessels, of course, could not rely on this technology – as warships had to be prepared to fight in an instant – but colony ships were truly massive affairs, too large for adequate Langston Field coverage. And without a Field there could be no Drive, so…
“But how does the Field work?” Midshipman Yukio Matsushima asked on their second night out from the Gateway.
“Well, the basic function of the Field is to absorb energy, whether from a stellar source, a laser cannon, or even a radar set,” Ripley replied. “It absorbs the kinetic energy of hydrogen torpedoes as easily as it does solar radiation, and it also makes our ships very stealthy.”
“But…how?” Matsushima repeated.
“Well, simply put, the Field absorbs energy, either kinetic energy, explosive outgassing, or the photonic particles of stellar radiation, with an efficiency proportional to the cube of their incoming velocities. So in essence, what strikes the Field is absorbed and contained before ultimately being dispersed as radiated energy. But, and this is important, the basic problem is that this absorbed energy cannot be stored indefinitely. As the energy being absorbed increases, you’ll note the Field begins to glow, its normal black state turning red and then orange, then yellow and eventually running up through the spectrum all the way to violet. And as the Field changes color it also begins to expand, almost like a balloon being inflated. A Field fails when it can no longer expand to contain absorbed energy, and at that point the ‘balloon’ implodes and all that stored energy is released.”
“Violently, you mean?” Yukio said.
“Yes. It’s a fusion reaction, so quite energetic. Nothing inside a collapsing Field survives the event.”
“Won’t we be absorbing solar energy as we approach the sun?” Thomas asked.
“Of course,” Ripley said, grinning.
“So…won’t the Field be expanding all that time?”
Ripley shook his head. “Think the problem through, Tom.”
“Think about the planet Mercury. The side facing the sun is essentially molten, while the far side is…”
Standing Bull’s eyes lit up: “You mean one side can absorb energy while the other side, the dark side, can radiate stored energy?”
Ripley smiled like a proud father. “That’s right. So, what’s the next problem you see?”
“Inside the solar photosphere,” Yukio cried, “there is no surface area to radiate energy! So that accounts for the time limits!”
“Exactly!” Ripley smiled, proud of his middies.
“You said the Field is black,” Thomas asked suddenly. “Is it opaque?”
“Yes, that’s right. Once the Field is established and stabilized we can’t “see” without radar and video feeds, so radar masts and observation towers have to be raised up through the Field…”
“But inside a star…”
“That’s right, Yukio. They’d be burned right off.”
“Neither the Russians or the Chinese have the Drive or the Field, do they?” Yukio asked.
And Ripley nodded again. “Not as far as we can tell, but we do know that they’ve observed our operations so they’ve probably surmised a good deal about how they work. It’s probably just a matter of time before one of them stumbles over the principles involved.”
“So that’s why we have navies now, right?” Thomas asked. “I mean, to protect the new colonies and all the new trade routes that pop up?”
“Yes?” Ripley replied, wondering where the boy was going with this new line of questioning.
“What about First Contact?” Thomas asked next.
“What about it?” Ripley countered, smiling inside. The boy was supremely logical and unafraid of giving flight to his curiosity. ‘He’ll make a respectable command officer…’ he thought.
“Isn’t that another reason why we’re out here?” Thomas asked.
“Maybe, but all that is rather unlikely,” Ripley sighed. “After forty years out here we haven’t seen any evidence of intelligent life, let alone signs that other space faring civilizations are around.”
“But…aren’t there protocols?” Thomas asked.
“Yes, there are. Basically, if we run across something we are to observe and report, and if at all possible we are to avoid hostilities – meaning unless we are attacked first. And if at all possible we are to avoid contact unless suitable emissaries are available.”
“Suitable emissaries?” Yukio asked.
“Academics and diplomats, I assume,” Ripley grinned. “And definitely not middies with overactive imaginations!”
The acceleration warning sounded and Ripley looked at the startled kids and smiled. “Well, you two better get to your cabin and strap-in. We’ll be lining up to start our orbital burn on the mid-watch; we’ll slingshot around Venus and start our calculations to locate the Alderson Point at that time, and I want you both on the bridge for that…”
“When will the Field go up?” Thomas asked.
“About halfway to Mercury, after we refuel – but don’t worry, it will stay in the black almost all the way to the corona-sphere. Now…scoot…acceleration resumes in a few minutes!”
Ripley watched them run off and he felt the relentless sting of jealousy. He was just twenty nine earth standard years but already he’d lost so much bone mass he’d be a cripple for the rest of his life, assuming he returned to Earth, that is. No, he’d have to settle on the Moon or transfer to the Company and sign up to skipper a cargo hauler or a colony ship, but his days on Earth would be very limited going forward.
Two weeks after leaving Venus, Ripley was called to the COMMs shack for an encrypted Eyes Only message, and as the COMMs operator on duty had to administer the retina scan in person, Ripley had to wait until the next break in acceleration to make the trip. Once the message was decrypted and transferred to his personal messenger, Ripley went to the wardroom for a sandwich and to catch up on all the latest gossip, but once there he read the message brief and decided to head back to his cabin to read the entire report.
A third breadcrumb from Covenant had been received, and after reading the complete report he had his computer download everything that was known concerning the Wayland Corporation’s Prometheus Mission, including any recent speculative updates. Two days later he called his Gordon unit and had him report to his cabin.
“What do we know about the David that accompanied Prometheus?” he asked.
“About that unit specifically? Very little, Admiral. He was the first of the series and was Peter Wayland’s personal assistant, so we can assume he was serially mistreated by Mr Wayland…”
“Meaning what, exactly?”
“Mr Wayland was reportedly quite abusive to underlings, Admiral, including, we assume, to this particular David. And as all of these units soon developed paranoid tendencies we can only assume this unit did as well. Yet how this unit made it to the planet detailed in the latest Covenant dispatch is a mystery. As you know, the working assumption has been that everyone from the Prometheus expedition perished.”
“The shuttle explosion appears to have been the result of violent interactions with an unknown species, but the next thing we learn is that the ground party was subsequently attacked by more of these creatures – and then the David from Prometheus reappeared.”
“Yes, Admiral, that seems to be correct.”
“Do we have enough information to identify the planet?”
“We have narrowed it down to two systems, Admiral.”
“And how far from the Jump Point at Capella are they?”
“The most likely system is five months from our exit point, Admiral. At 1.1G. The other, less likely system is only two months from that point, but if we visit that system first we will then add almost nine months travel time to the most likely system.”
“The most likely system? Has it shown up in any exoplanet surveys?”
“No, Admiral, but we have Covenant’s data to infer a general location.”
Ripley nodded. “Yes, I saw that. Almost earth like, maybe a few thousand years after an Ice Age event.”
“And there are no hydrocarbons or other signs of advanced industrialized economies in the spectra.”
“Alright, Gordon, I’d like you to prepare a mission briefing for Captain Ames and the X-O, and, oh Hell, let’s get the skippers and execs from Patton and Stavridis over here for that, too.”
“Department heads as well, Admiral?”
“No, not yet.”
“And the Middies?”
“Hell no. When and if they need to know I’ll brief them in.”
“Yes, Admiral Will there be anything else?”
“Uh, no, but Gordon, why are you smiling?”
“Because this is the first time you’ve addressed me informally.”
“I see,” Ripley said, but by then his Gordon unit had already turned and left his Admiral’s Cabin.
The middies, all six of them, were gathered in Hyperion’s wardroom, and as this was the first time all six had been together since they’d first joined the expedition there was all kinds of gossip to share, and notes to compare about the officers they’d been with so far.
“What’s the Admiral really like?” seemed to be the primary topic of conversation, followed by animated discussions on the ins-and-outs they’d picked up concerning theories behind the Drive and the Field. None had seemed particularly interested in their destination or even the mission objectives – until this emergency meeting had been called. Now gossip was spreading around all three ships that either the Russian or the Chinese navies had attacked one of the colonies, and that’s where the Hyperion battle group was headed. And as they were still making calculations for a Jump to Capella this all had something to do with the Covenant colony mission.
“Does anyone know anything about the Covenant Mission?” Yukio asked.
“Only what was on the news. Something like 2,000 colonists in deep freeze and several thousands embryos,” Hans Genscher said.
“Was it just the one ship?” Standing Bull asked.
“I think so,” Genscher replied. “I recall that Covenant launched before the battle at Alpha Centauri, and escorts still weren’t considered necessary in those days.”
Hyperion’s alert chimed again, and the OODs voice came over the intercom. “Shuttles to Patton and Stavridis launching in twenty minutes. All returning personnel report to the hanger deck on the double. Repeat, shuttles to Patton and Stavridis launching in twenty minutes.”
Goodbyes were said and the departing middies made there way down to the hanger deck; after their shuttles were outside Hyperion the middies were surprised to see two tankers filling the huge ship’s massive tanks, then they saw that two more tankers were refueling both Patton and Stavridis, while Venus was well behind them now – and Earth was but a lonely spot against an endless backdrop of stars. And now gray Mercury could be seen ahead – as long as dense hydrogen-alpha filters were used to block out the worst of the sun’s fierce light. Hyperion’s hull blazed brilliantly white and the four middies looked on, fascinated, as the tankers pulled away from her.
Then Captain Caruthers gathered her two middies near a large view port.
“This isn’t a the type of thing many people will ever get to see, so look closely and try to remember it,” she sighed dreamily.
“Why are their tanks different colors?” Hans asked.
“Orange is hydrogen for the main drive, the drive we use for orbital insertions and heavy acceleration. The blue tank is xenon for the VASIMR Drive?”
“VASIMR?” Hans added.
“Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket Drive,” Caruthers sighed. “Hans, please keep current on our reading list, will you?”
“Yes, Captain,” Genscher sighed.
And then the three of them, the two middies and their captain, stood there side by side, staring at Hyperion’s brilliantly glaring whiteness – but then it simply disappeared.
“What happened?” Hans cried. “Where did it go?”
“Oh, it’s still there,” Caruthers said, grinning. “Recall that the Field absorbs all radiation, and that means all visible light, too. That also means the Field renders the ship practically invisible…”
“So the only way you can spot Hyperion now is if she transits a star?”
Caruthers nodded. “Yes, and at this range she would show up on radar for a split second. Also, when the Field begins to absorb a tremendous amount of energy. Do you remember why?”
“Because the Field starts to expand and glow,” Genscher said confidently.
“That’s right. It may start to glow as we get close to the corona-sphere, but it shouldn’t be much, if at all, until after we enter the corona.”
“But we won’t see that, right?” Genscher asked.
Caruthers chuckled at that. “Well, if you do that’ll be the last thing you ever see.”
But Hans wasn’t exactly certain what Captain Caruthers had meant by that. The only way to see Hyperion’s glowing Field would be if Patton’s Field failed, so… “Ah, I understand,” he said just as he saw two masts rise up from inside the Field. “What’s that, Captain?” he asked.
“Radar and COMMs antennae,” Caruthers sighed. “And these tankers will follow us to Mercury. They’ll slingshot back to Europa from there, and our last tanker rendezvous will take place when we orbit and are still in Mercury’s shadow.”
Patton’s shuttle entered her hanger deck and after her hanger doors closed and sealed her Field was activated, and Stavridis went dark a few minutes after that. The four immense tankers slowly fell away from the much faster warships, and all their robotic sensors could see was a blazing star dead ahead.
Ripley sat in his cabin, thinking about the meeting and all the salient points raised.
The first part of the discussion surrounding the latest Covenant transmission had grown heated, and for the most part Ripley agreed with all the arguments raised. But between the three ships there were only two companies of marines, for a total of two hundred heavily armed ground pounders, but crucially with little in the way of air support available. The shuttles could transport men and equipment to a planet’s surface but that was about it; the shuttles were simply too big for combat operations and had never been intended for that role, so once the troops were on the surface there would be little support available. The only recourse would be the ships’ laser cannon, and while hideously powerful, these weapons had been designed for ship to ship combat in the hard vacuum of space. With clear skies and low humidity such weapons could be used, but that was about all the three captains could agree on.
“What the devil did they run into down there?” Caruthers asked, leading off the discussion.
“The shuttle relayed very little hard information to Covenant,” Ripley stated, “but there was one video feed from the shuttle’s Sick Bay included. Gordon, play the feed now, would you?”
The room darkened and the main view screen dropped from the ceiling. Top Secret banners adorned the top and bottom parts of the screen, then a reasonably clear image of a shuttle’s medical facility flickered to life; Gordon advised there was no audio included with the file. A lone marine, a roughly 25 year old male, was escorted into the trauma room by two female flight officers, identities still not established. Once sitting on the exam table the marine’s shirt was removed and he soon began convulsing, then the skin over his spine separated. One of the flight officers was then seen running out of the field of view and presumably away from the Sick Bay. The marine’s convulsions continued to worsen and the remaining flight officer unsuccessfully tried to administer an unknown agent by hypodermic syringe. She then tried to hold the marine; at that point something erupted from the vicinity of the marine’s thoracic vertebrae, effectively rendering the marine unconscious. The remaining flight officer ran out of view then returned to comfort the marine; moments later sharp spines erupted from the marine’s shattered vertebrae and he fell over backwards as a placental sac containing a small, white skinned creature fell to the floor. The flight officer ran out of the camera’s field of view again and for the next minute the flight officer and the white-skinned creature apparently fought. A minute later the video feed abruptly ended. The ship’s computer verified complete loss of contact with the shuttle and its crew at that point.
Caruthers turned to Ripley at that point. “So, if I’m reading between the correct lines here, Covenant’s captain diverted from his established heading for Aurigae-6 to this unknown planet, and for an unknown reason or reasons? And within a few hours of landing on the surface one of their marines was, well, for all intents and purposes impregnated, then he became host to this creature during a brief gestational phase and he soon delivered a mature organism? And be soon I mean within a few hours after exposure? Killing him in the process?”
“That appears to be the case, yes.” Ripley said.
“And we don’t know the manner of the marine’s exposure?”
Ripley shrugged. “Not yet. The pertinent question now is do we really want to find out?”
“Meaning what?” Captain Ames said.
“I mean do we really want to chance exposing two hundred marines to such an unknown pathogenic organism, and by that I mean one with such extreme capabilities?”
“What choice do we have?” Ames added.
Ripley looked away for a moment, then he sighed and shook his head. “Everything is on the table, I assume. Everything from placing the planet under quarantine to hitting the area with cannons…”
“Admiral, it’s not our planet,” Caruthers said angrily. “We have no business…”
Ripley held up his hands, signaling a hold. “That’s why I mentioned a quarantine. Assuming all our people are off world now, we’d have no reason to land, would we?”
“What if they’re not?” Ames said, involuntarily shuddering.
“I think you just answered that question, didn’t you? What would be the point?” Ripley sighed.
“But we have no idea what’s happened there, right?” Dean Farrell, Stavridis’ skipper asked. “I mean, we don’t even know if Covenant has left orbit, do we?”
Ripley shook his head. “Frankly, I have a hard time understanding why Covenant’s captain hasn’t communicated directly with the Company. And I thought such a huge deviation from the mission parameters was supposed to prompt their Walter unit to make an independent report, so none of this is adding up to anything good – as far as I’m concerned, anyway.”
“The organism,” Ames started to say. “What if it’s sentient, or worse still, a sentient warrior species…”
“With space flight capabilities?” Caruthers added, groaning. “That could turn into a worst case scenario, Admiral. First contact, but with a hostile civilization possessing unknown military capabilities? That would trigger a retreat, wouldn’t it…and a fleet response?”
“That’s how I interpret things, Captain,” Ripley sighed. “But that doesn’t relieve us of our responsibilities to Covenant or her colonists.”
“I didn’t mean to imply that, Admiral,” Caruthers said defiantly.
“Unless,” Captain Farrell added, “this civilization attacked Covenant. Then that…”
“I agree,” Ames sighed. “If that is in fact the case then we’d need to make contact. Full military contact.”
“That would be pointless,” Caruthers replied. “Let alone potentially catastrophic. We need to…”
Again Ripley held up his hands. “I understand the nature of the dilemma, Captain. Point of order here: Admiral Stanton does as well. We’ll receive our final orders before we Jump, but we won’t have time to meet up at Mercury and I wanted all of you to be aware of the tactical situation now so you can start to draw up contingencies for dealing with this organism. Also, Stanton has tasked the Ticonderoga strike group as well as her tankers to head this way. They’ll jump about three weeks after we do, so even if we don’t find a hydrogen source we’ll at least have a way back out of the system, and Ticonderoga will have a complete air wing of both attack and defense birds on board – just in case. Even so, Stanton wants us to go in first without them, but I still believe our number one mission priority is to locate Covenant and then to…”
“What is he afraid of, Admiral?” Captain Ames asked.
“He hasn’t exactly said as much, but I think the Joint Chiefs is thinking that Covenant’s crew may have already been compromised by this species. If that’s the case, what if this alleged new species is sending Covenant back to Earth – loaded with these organisms?”
“That would explain Covenant’s silence, wouldn’t it?” Farrell sighed as he grew pale.
“Yup,” Ripley said. “And that would make this one helluva mess. Worst case, we have to take out Covenant, and that would mean killing thousands of innocent colonists…”
“Not exactly,” Caruthers said, her shoulders sagging under the weight of sudden implications. “If they’re non-responsive then they’re most likely already hosts for this new organism, and that means they’re basically dead already. Since the gestation period is so brief…they’d have to be…the colonists might already be in stasis! If that’s the case maybe we could get medical and bio-war teams onboard to…”
Ripley nodded. “They’re on Ticonderoga,” he said as he smiled. “And that’s the point, Judith. You’ve only had this information for an hour and yet you’re coming up with good points that we all need to consider. We Jump in two weeks and then the real fun starts, because there’s absolutely no telling what we’re going to run into on the other side.”
“What about hydrogen?” Ames asked.
“Get your astronomers ready,” Ripley said, suddenly all business again. “Auriga system hasn’t been fully surveyed and so far no ice planet or moon has been identified. Hell, we may have to try and siphon ice crystals off a comet, but I sure as hell hope it doesn’t come to that. Anyway, finding hydrogen is Job One. Next, we’ll start scanning for Covenant’s ion trail, then hopefully we can follow that while we get up to speed on a threat assessment. If worse comes to worse we can use the hydrogen in the ion drive tanks, and hopefully by that time Ticonderoga and her tankers will meet up with us.” Ripley looked around his cabin, and at the uneaten lunch still spread across the table. “Look, I hate to rain on our parade, but this thing is starting to look fugly and we all need to be on the same page going in.”
Captain Farrell stood and asked to be dismissed just after the shuttle departure announcement came over the intercom, and Ripley looked around the room and nodded.
“Okay, let’s break it off here, but if anyone has some kind of startling breakthrough, be sure to get on the command circuit and share your thoughts with the group. Okay? Well then, you are dismissed.”
Everyone stood to leave but Judith Caruthers asked to stay behind for a moment, and after everyone had left the cabin she closed the door behind her.
“What’s on your mind, Judith?”
“You’ve been referring to everyone by rank, Admiral. Everyone but me, that is, and I’d like to know why.”
Ripley sat and reflexively crossed his arms over his flat stomach, then he turned and looked out the viewport – suddenly lost in thought. A minute or so later he asked her to sit.
“I’d rather stand, Admiral.”
He nodded and let slip a long sigh. “I’m going to be thirty next year,” he started to say, “so two years to go until mandatory retirement.”
Caruthers had been watching him closely, and so then she decided to sit. “What are you going to do next?” she said softly, now almost affectionately.
But Ripley just shrugged. “I don’t know,” he finally managed to say. “And I wish I did.”
“What’s missing, Denton?”
“From your life?”
“I always wanted a family, I guess. And now I see even that possibility slipping away.”
“I guess I really don’t know, Judith.”
“Call me Judy, okay?”
He looked at her and smiled. “I guess I keep calling you by name because I like you.”
“You…like me? Admiral, I hate to say so but you don’t even know me.”
“Maybe I wanted that to change, I guess.”
“Admiral, I…I don’t know what to say.”
“Then don’t say anything,” he nodded. “I just wanted to get things out in the open.”
“Okay. May I ask…why me?”
“Not sure. I read your senior thesis on solar fluid dynamics, by the way. And maybe I liked the way you pieced together your argument…”
“We all had a crush on you during my plebe year, you know?”
“I always thought we were being too obvious. Apparently not, huh?”
“All the girls in my company. You had the cutest ass, ya know…?”
Ripley could feel his face turning beet red as a thin bead of perspiration formed on his upper lip. “Cute…ass…?” he stammered.
“Oops,” Caruthers said, her grin spreading across her face from ear to ear. She stood and walked over to him, bent down and kissed him gently on the lips. “If it makes a difference, I’d like to get to know you, too.”
“Cute…ass…?” Ripley flubbered helplessly.
“Next time you think about it, try to get us an hour or so alone,” she whispered – before she gently bit his lower lip. “Then I’ll really give you something to think about.”
And with that she turned and ran off to the hanger deck.
And a few minutes later he watched her shuttle drift off towards Patton, and for a few minutes he could see her standing there looking back at Hyperion – with her two middies standing beside her – and he could picture her with his children standing there watching him…when Hyperion’s Field activated and blotted out the universe.
And just then his Gordon unit came in.
“Are you alright, Admiral?”
“Yup. What’s up, Doc?”
And that caught his Gordon unit off guard. “Sir?”
“Situation report, I’m guessing?”
“Ah, yes sir. The inbound tankers are still on time for our rendezvous at Mercury, and sensors have detected the Alderson Jump Point. Its current size is one hundred and fifteen miles in diameter and holding steady.”
“Has Brennan made her calculations?”
“Yes, Admiral. We will have two hours and twenty minutes to complete refueling operations behind Mercury, and twenty minutes to get the crew strapped in.”
“ETA to the refueling point?”
“Seventy two hours, fourteen minutes.”
“Very good. When we reach Mercury I want an hour of uninterrupted time with Captain Caruthers. I know timing the shuttle will be difficult, but make it happen, Gordon.”
“Yes, Admiral. Will there be anything else?”
“Get me Ticonderoga’s latest Sit-Rep and our latest hydrogen consumption estimates.”
“Yessir. Shall I have Carson clear the table, Admiral?”
“Yes, and have the food sent to the enlisted wardroom. I afraid we just didn’t get around to eating.”
“Of course, sir.”
The video feed came to life and he watched Patton’s shuttle spin up to mate with the docking clamps, and for just a moment Denton Ripley almost smiled.
© 2022 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction, all characters and events are fictitious in nature though key story elements and character references/circumstances derive from the work of others. First among these is Sir Ridley Scott’s film Alien (1979); his Prometheus and Covenant films serve as prequels to this short story. All references to an Alderson (zero time) Drive, as well as the Langston Field needed to utilize the drive, derive from The Mote in God’s Eye (1974) and The Gripping Hand (1993), by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
Nice one AL. Very futuristic. I noticed ur comment in the 88th coda that Harry might still be lurking around. After being shot by his son from a drone? Interesting!!