If you’ve still not read The Mote In God’s Eye…well geepers, I sure wish you would. Even if you’re not exactly a SciFi buff I think you’ll find it a real hoot. FWIW, if there’s one book I wish had been made into a movie, it’s this one.
[Holst \\ The Planets \\ Venus]
Into The Fire
USNSF Hyperion 31 August 2115
With solar headwinds much stronger than anticipated it had taken the Hyperion battle fleet a week longer than expected to reach their orbital insertion point to achieve an elliptical orbit around Mercury, and as the inbound tankers from Europa were struggling to make headway against the very same conditions, they were already three Terran days off the established schedule.
“Admiral to the COMMs shack,” Ripley heard over the intercom, and he knew there wasn’t much doubt what Stanton might have in mind. Would he really send them in without tanking up first?
He sat up in bed, waking Judith Caruthers in the process, and made his way to the head as she rolled out of the sack and darted into the shower. He looked at her as she stepped under the spray and realized he was now totally smitten, if not already deeply in love with her. And now, finally, everyone on all three ships had some truly salacious gossip to spread—that also just happened to be true. Well, most of it, anyway.
He threw on his khakis and made his way to the bridge for a quick sit-rep, then he walked through CIC to the communications compartment, stopping for the first retina scan outside the blast door before stepping into the frigid air of the heavily air conditioned room. One more retina scan then insert his drive and wait for the encryption algorithms to do their thing, then he sat at the lone desk and began reading through Stanton’s latest dispatch.
First on the list: Hyperion and her group would remain in orbit until refueled. A fifth tanker was also en route, the USNSF Woodrow Wilson, and she would be accompanied by three DEs, very small destroyer escorts, and those three would NOT orbit but proceed directly to the Alderson Point – and right then and there Ripley had to stop and reread that first part of the dispatch again. So, Stanton was sending an unarmed tanker through the Point as his opening move? What the…?
With that digested he read on: Patton would transit a half hour after Wilson, Stavridis a half hour after that, so the heavily armed Hyperion transiting last, after another half hour. The new, larger battle group would then establish a course for the Beta Auriga system, their most likely destination Beta Auriga 4. The Ticonderoga Strike Group would transit three Terran days after Hyperion and follow the same course.
Ripley was stunned. Why such a major show of force for what was, essentially, a rescue mission? And why not send the most heavily armed ship through first?
A brief video message from Admiral Stanton was attached, the video file just a few minutes long, and he hoped to find an answer to that question in there.
“Denton, we’ve just received and decrypted a fourth ‘breadcrumb’ from Covenant, and it’s not good. The ship’s Walter unit apparently did not return from the surface, and that takes us to the heart of the matter. Once the remaining flight officer was brought up from the planet’s surface, and once the crew was returned to cryo-sleep, a David unit logged into the system.” Stanton looked pale as he spoke those words, full of anguish even as he spoke, and Ripley found he was barely breathing. A David unit? One had actually survived the purges?
Stanton continued: “The ship’s computer accepted the login and allowed this David full access to the ship’s systems, and that opens up a whole new can of worms as it appears this David was Peter Weyland’s personal unit. In case you aren’t up to speed on all that, Weyland and this same David were on the Prometheus mission – and do, please, let that sink in for a moment, would you? The full Security Council has met and gone over the possibilities, and while none appear to have a good outcome we’ll leave final Covenant’s final disposition to you and Admiral Adams on Ticonderoga.
“As you’ll see in the attached imagery, Covenant found evidence that a fairly sophisticated civilization was clustered in one small settlement above a fjord quite near their shuttle’s landing site. Between the settlement and the landing site you will also take note of the horseshoe shaped structure, which appears to be a crash site. Presumably the Marine who was compromised was attacked and fell ill in that region. But what crashed there is a subject of some controversy within the council, but our preliminary assessment is that this may be a spacecraft. I’ll repeat ‘may be’ – because this is now the primary focus of the Hyperion group’s mission. We need to know as much as we can about this ship and the settlement – and its inhabitants – yet without jeopardizing members of Ticonderoga’s ground assault team.
“With that in mind there will be no change to our established First Contact policies and procedures. If hostilities appear imminent but preventable you are to back-off and assess the situation while communicating directly with Norfolk.
“And Denton, there’s one last thing you should be aware off. It appears the Company knows about their David being onboard Covenant, as they are, apparently, mounting an expedition of their own. As you know, Hyperion was built in their yards so of course you understand they have the design and manufacturing expertise to fabricate all the key components necessary to build both the Drive and the Field. About all I can tell you with any certainty is that, depending on how long you’re out there, one of their ships may show up unannounced. This could be a real problem as the Council has reliable evidence that their David has already been in contact with the company. If that’s true, if that is indeed the case, there’s absolutely no telling what the Company’s real purpose and intentions will be if they show up.
“I’ve sent most of this information to Admiral Adams, but we’re learning more by the hour down here. If we learn anything new before you Jump, I’ll get word right out to you. If not? Well, good luck to you, and we’ll see you when you get back. Stanton, out.”
The screen went black after that last warning, then Ripley was prompted to insert his drive key to download all the relevant files to his personal drive, but even as that last task was completed he sat there in the cold air – while a sudden sweat began rolling down the back of his neck.
Hyperion and her escorts were in an elongated orbit around Mercury, the main purpose being to extend the amount of time all three ships could remain in Mercury’s shadow. Ripley had been spending most of his time on the bridge, and he’d watched the first tankers make burns for their slingshot back out to Europa. Hyperion’s powerful search radars had already picked up the Ticonderoga strike group as well as the Wilson and her escorts, and Hyperion’s inbound tankers were already deep into their own deceleration burns so everyone on duty on the bridge felt like they were choreographing some kind of cosmic ballet. Indeed, not even the Battle at Alpha Centauri had commanded such a large naval response and that incident, Ripley thought, was probably what was behind the Council’s current thinking.
The Company had sent their first large colony ship, the Testament, to Alpha Centauri almost thirty years ago, almost as soon as the first ion drive was perfected. Accelerating at a constant 1.0G, the theory stated, would result in velocities approaching ninety nine percent of light speed; with those velocities travel time would become practical, at least with the latest so-called hyper sleep chambers. Testament got underway just as similar colony ships from Russia, China, and India departed Earth, yet unbeknownst to the Company the Russians and the Chinese departed with military escorts. Upon arrival the Russians and the Chinese imposed a blockade, preventing both the Indian’s and the Company’s ships from entering the lone system – even though that system had not one but two habitable worlds. By the time word reached Earth the USNSF had developed the Drive and the Field, as well as particle beams and laser cannon that neither the now quite old Russian and the Chinese ships possessed. The battle around Epsilon Centauri was a rout, but when Russian forces on the planet fired on the Theodore Roosevelt the battle took on a new, more malicious tenor. The Roosevelt’s cannons had ignited the atmosphere and turned a quarter of the planet into molten slag, instantly killing thirty thousand colonists; within weeks word of this calamity reached Earth and a Fourth World War had just barely been averted.
But Denton Ripley had been the Roosevelt’s Fire Control Officer – and so he was the officer in charge of the battle-cruiser’s laser cannon during the bombardment. Though exonerated by the Court of Inquiry that followed, people stared at Ripley wherever he went on Earth and it hadn’t taken long before he found himself baby sitting ore tugs shuttling rocks to processing ships from the asteroid belt. A more contemptible fate he could not have imagined.
But now Ripley understood why he’d been chosen for this mission. If Covenant’s complement of colonists had indeed been compromised by some sort of unknown organism, the colony ship would have to be destroyed – and once again he’d wear the mark of the murderous assassin. And if the Company sent some kind of ship to intervene? Then what? Take out that ship, too?
And now he knew why Stanton had sent Alice Adams to take over the Ticonderoga strike force.
‘How appropriate,’ Ripley sighed. Top of her class at Annapolis, Adams had been the Roosevelt’s X-O, the ship’s executive officer, and she’d given the order to open fire on the colony so by the time the Court of Inquiry was finished with them she’d been just as tarnished as he. And they’d avoided each other ever since.
Which had been a completely unintended consequence, but a most painful one even so.
For they had been, and for quite some time, impassioned lovers.
In fact, Judith Caruthers was the first woman he’d been with since, and she represented only his second time at bat. There’d just never been time.
‘And how long have I been telling myself that?’ he sighed.
At least Judy knew all there was to know about Alpha Centauri, so at least there were no evasions necessary. ‘Not surprising, really,’ he sighed, trying to run from those memories once again, and failing – again. ‘Hell, everyone on Earth knows me. And Alice.’
‘And if I take out a Company ship I’ll never find decent employment with them,” he thought, his thoughts turning darker by the minute. ‘Not that I’d want to. Not unless that’s all there is…’
Which left what, exactly? Armstrong City on the Moon or Musk City on Mars? Or he could sign up to join a colony ship – as a colonist! Or maybe he could scrape together enough money to buy shares in a tug and start hauling rocks from the Belt. Wouldn’t that be – what?…ironic?
He stared at the plot noting times: their first inbound tanker due in nineteen hours, the second in twenty two. The Woodrow Wilson on a high speed course to hit the Alderson Point in twenty six hours, so Patton a half hour after that, then Stavridis and Hyperion at half hour intervals.
And what would be waiting for them on the other side, when they came streaking out of Capella?
An alien armada? Or absolutely nothing at all? Or would the Company somehow get there first and rendezvous with Covenant? And if that happened, then what?
He’d gone over all the obvious possibilities with Captain Ames, and she’d been running fire control exercises and damage control drills ever since. Both Patton and Stavridis were running them around the clock as well, even while Caruthers was getting Patton ready to tank and finish preparations to make the Jump behind Wilson and her escorts.
What had he missed? What else could he do to prepare?
But wasn’t that Ames’s job now? She was the captain, the real captain of this ship. He’d been captain of the Bunker Hill, little more than a traffic control node, and here he was – the acting Admiral of a fleet battle group!
‘Oh well,’ he sighed as he stood to make his way back to his cabin, ‘at least I met Judy.’ Yet Gordon was waiting…patiently…behind his chair, and he still found that a little unnerving.
“Call a Captain’s meeting, would you, Gordon?”
“Of course, Admiral.”
“And I’d like you to attend, please. We may have need of your insight today.”
“I understand, sir.”
‘Do you really?’ Ripley wondered. Had curiosity and empathy really been hard-wired into these latest units? ‘Well, we shall see,’ he muttered as he started down the main passageway.
And Judy was indeed still waiting for him in his cabin, still smiling, still happy, and that filled him with a little rush of happiness…
“Any new developments?” she asked.
And he nodded. “Yup.”
“Did you call a meeting?”
“We have time for a little more sack time?” she grinned.
“You know…I think we do.” He smiled into her eyes and it was now utterly impossible not to love her.
The Woodrow Wilson and her escorts streaked past Hyperion at 70 percent of light speed, covering the remaining distance to the sun in just under four minutes; Patton was on her final extended elliptical orbit slowly building velocity, and twenty six minutes later Ripley watched as Patton streaked by, her main drive flaring brightly as she passed. Patton would take almost ten minutes to reach the jump point from here but already his pulse was hammering in his chest, and he was surprised by the pride flowing through his veins when he thought of Captain Caruthers – Judy – at Patton’s helm.
Mercury was currently just under 30 million miles from the Sun’s outermost layer, the corona, and Hyperion’s astronavigator, Commander Louise Brennan, was tracking Patton’s approach while simultaneously calling out their own increasing velocity…
“Passing three point two gees, Captain,” Brennan called out from her acceleration couch as Ripley looked at their plot. Hyperion had just made their first burn at the ship’s orbital apogee, and once recaptured by the Sun’s gravity Hyperion’s drives would flare to one hundred and five percent of their rated power – then the ship would dive for the solar corona at forty-one percent of light speed – and they’d pass Mercury exactly one half hour after Stavridis. Despite her age, Brennan was still the best astro-gator in the service, and even Ames was impressed.
Once the inertial reference system was sequenced the mission clocks were reset and the countdown timer activated, and at that point both of the ship’s radar masts and the main COMMs tower were retracted inside the Field. A huge central display showed a map of the the solar disc and the current location of the Alderson Point – and most importantly Hyperion’s plot along the intercept – and Ripley’s eyes darted between the plot and the countdown timer…
If all had gone according to plan, Patton had already exited Capella and Stavridis was probably still just inside the distant star and about to break out of the corona.
“What a fucked up way to make a living,” someone behind him said…
And Ripley just had to smile. Ninety million miles from home and diving into the Sun.
What could possibly go wrong?
© 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.
[Rolling Stones \\ 2000 Light Years From Home]