Not quite the end, one more to go.
[Miles From Nowhere \\ Cat Stevens]
If you don’t want to boil as well—Better start the dance
USNSF Halsey 11 September 2115
Lost in darkness, Ripley felt the little ship tumbling and spinning – and for a moment he wondered why the Field had collapsed – and death had come – so soon.
‘But no, I’m not dead yet…’ he told himself as he struggled to regain himself.
“Emergency power, NOW!” he shouted – and seconds later the bridge was bathed in pale blue light.
“Inertial dampers to standby, reaction control jets to auto!” he added as he watched terrified crew members trying to get oriented to their shattered surroundings, now trying to keep his voice calm. “Engineering? You on comms?”
“Get the primaries online as soon as you can, and see if you can get the ion drives to standby.”
“Brennan?” he said as his eyes swept the bridge.
“Up here,” she said, and when he look up, he indeed saw she was plastered to the ceiling. “My harness failed,” she added – with deep pain etched on her face.
He nodded. “Medical to bridge,” he said on the intercom. “Lieutenant Bergeron?”
“Here sir,” the ship’s captain said.
“Where’s your XO?”
“I don’t know, Admiral.”
He shook his head and sighed. “Okay, skipper, time to get your act together; go get all your damage control parties organized and then get down to engineering. I want power and I want it now!”
“Aye, sir,” Bergeron nodded, pulling herself down the tumbling main corridor.
White lights popped on and all bridge instrumentation rebooted and he nodded approval. “At least someone in engineering is doing their job!” he muttered. “NAV, work out our position as fast as you can, and we need to know what happened to Beta Capella 4…”
Someone had managed to raise the blast covers after the Field failed and now metal panels slid back inside their recesses within the ship’s hull – and in an instant everyone on the bridge could see what they were up against. Beta Capella 4, the entire planet, was a pulverized jumble of tumbling fragments spinning in space, the planet’s molten core cooling in the hard vacuum of space. Ripley looked at the remnants and thought it appeared the planet had broken into five or six major fragments – but then Capella rolled into view and Ripley’s stomach lurched…
The star was visibly spinning now – yet a huge plume of coronal matter was being funneled towards the incipient black hole forming around the magnetar…
“Comms, see if you can raise anyone on the net. Astro, get a work up on the gravity well forming beyond Capella, and get me an estimate on how much force we’ll need to escape the force.”
Two Walters in blue Medical coveralls pulled their way onto the tumbling bridge and began looking after Brennan, and a moment later Lieutenant Bergeron pulled herself in behind them. “Most of the damage is confined fuel tank support struts, Admiral. One xenon tank ruptured and we’ve jettisoned the remnants. The XO is in engineering trying to get the reaction control jets back online.”
“Hyperion to Ticonderoga,” he heard over the fleet comms net, do you need assistance?”
Admiral Adams keyed her mic and Ripley could here alarms in the background – and real fear in her voice: “We have a major fire on the flight deck, abandoning all non-essential personnel to the life pods…”
“Lieutenant, set a course for Ticonderoga and let’s start that way,” Ripley barked. “And COMMs, get me a sit rep on the tankers.” He switched channels and called Chen over on Hyperion. “Commander Chen, Ripley here. How’s our ship?”
“Admiral! You made it! Well, the Field held no problem, but we went on a pretty wild ride. We have a lot of fractures and lacerations in Sick bay, but that’s about it.”
“Understood, same here. Light off a beacon and we’ll try to home in on you. Ripley to Patton, you on the net?”
“Here, Admiral,” Caruthers said – and Denton sighed in too obvious relief. “We’re operational with the same types of injuries in Sick Bay.”
“Stavridis here, Admiral. Captain Farrell is in Sick Bay.”
“So, am I speaking to Commander Torshavn?”
“Yes, Admiral,” Katerina Torshavn replied. “Our reaction control jets are offline, working to restore.”
“Same on Halsey. We’ll head for Ticonderoga as soon as we’re able. Patton, you still have a visual on Covenant – or the Company ship?”
“Yes, Admiral, they’re still docked, no apparent change in status – but Covenant appears to have sustained major damage to her structure, and her solar array is almost gone.”
Ripley sighed. “Understood. Patton and Stavridis, resume course to intercept Covenant. As soon as I’m back on Hyperion we’ll follow.”
Ripley turned to Brennan as the Walter-medics strapped her to a gurney, and he released his harness straps and floated free of his G-couch and pushed over to the gurney. She was still in tears, still in pain, so he ran his fingers through her hair then took her hand. “You want to transfer with me back to the ship?”
She nodded. “Yes, Admiral.”
“Okay.” He looked up at the medics and nodded. “See it you can stabilize her for transfer.”
They nodded and left the bridge, just as the navigator finished up her work on the scale of the event horizon forming around the magnetar.
“Admiral, we’ve got to put as much distance between the fleet and that event horizon as we can, and we better do it real fast.”
Ripley looked at the navigator and saw the concern in his eyes, so he pushed off the ceiling and went to his station. “Show me,” Ripley said.
There was an up-polar plot of the Capella system on his main display, with Capella in the center of the display and the nascent black hole in the left margin of the screen… “There are the old orbits of the inner planets,” Ensign Jake Moore said, pointing at the three concentric rings surrounding Capella. “The planets are gone, and I do mean gone, sir…as in without a trace. And here’s where Beta Capella 4’s orbit used to be, but note the new lines, here,” Moore said, pointing at the lines of a rapidly decaying orbit. “She’s deflecting inward now, and I doubt she’ll make it even halfway around Capella before she gets pulled inside the horizon.”
“How much force would it take to do that?”
“Four times ten to the eighth, Admiral. But that number is increasing almost exponentially, and by the minute.”
“Do our ships even have enough power to pull away from that?”
“Personally, Admiral, the numbers don’t look real good. That’s why I said what I said. The sooner we try to get away the better.”
“Well, there’s no way we can pull away from that much force, so the only thing left is to…”
“Yes, Admiral. We’ll have to accelerate towards the black hole then use Capella to slingshot away the gravity well.”
“Pull up a new chart, Ensign. Plot it out and do the math.”
“Castor…” Ripley sighed, lost in thought. “That star is about 50 light years from home, right?”
“Presently 50.9, Admiral.”
“There’s got to be a tram-line between Capella and Castor…” he sighed.
“We’d never make it that far into Capella, Admiral.”
Ripley grinned as sudden thoughts came wild and fast. “Uh-huh, but let’s assume the current tram line continues to migrate through Capella…towards the magnetar.”
“Got it, Admiral! I’ll see if I can find it, then plot the latest position of the Jump Point, sir.”
“Let’s see…” Ripley continued, still mulling over the problem, “we’d need to make a burn to enter Capella’s orbit, but we’d also have to take into account her decaying mass, right…?”
“Yessir, but the Jump Point will probably migrate through the star even faster now.”
“Right, so we make our burn to orbit Capella out here, but we’d have to shoot the gap between Capella and the developing event horizon, too…”
“So the limiting variable is our velocity. As in, how much will we need to hit the Jump Point while maintaining enough inertia to get past the gravity well…”
“Okay, sir, on it…”
Ripley patted the Ensign on the shoulder then went over to the helm. “Status on the reaction control jets?”
“Loading the reserve nitrogen now, Admiral,” Bergeron said. “Woodrow Wilson reports ready for refueling ops.”
He went to COMMs next and called Patton on the encrypted tactical channel.
“Still no change in status on Covenant, Admiral,” Caruthers said when she got on the channel.
“Understood. Uh, Judy, pull up your charts and work out the vectors needed to accelerate towards Capella.”
“Yup, better do it now. Assume we can locate a tram line between Capella and Castor, and work up an orbital burn to get between Capella and the event horizon around the magnetar with enough velocity to escape the gravity well and hit a moving Jump Point.” He was trying to spell out the problem without scaring the crap out of anyone who happened to be listening on the net, while hoping she was reading between the lines as he went.
“What about Covenant and the Company ship?”
“Not now, okay?”
“Get back to me when you have the plot and your fuel requirements.”
“Right. You want me to pass this on to Stavridis?”
“Up to you. She’s close enough to you to slave off your NAV system, right?”
“Okay, yeah, understood.”
He switched over to fleet comms and called Ticonderoga and explained the problem to Admiral Adams on an encrypted channel. “Denton, I doubt we can save the ship,” she added. “Fires are spreading towards both engineering spaces, and once it gets there…”
“Understood. I’d say at this point we might be better off setting the ship’s self destruct charge, just in case someone decides they want to come back and look over the wreckage.”
“Concur,” Adams said. “Hyperion is picking up our escape pods now. How long will it take for you to get here?”
“A couple of hours, at least that’s our best guess right now. Our RCJs are still inoperative.”
“Understood. Also, we still have the entire air wing onboard. Any thoughts?”
Ripley shook his head. “That’s an awful lot of hardware to write off,” he said plainly, his voice a matter-of-fact appraisal despite their increasingly dire situation. “We could leave ‘em with the Wilson, try to return later…but no, wait, that won’t work…uh, wait a second, we’re missing something big here. What about opening the ship to vacuum, putting the fires out that way? Put a skeleton crew back on board to work the con and engineering? You think there’s enough structural integrity left to make a Jump?”
“Should be,” Adams said hopefully. “But I don’t think we’ll know with any certainty until we actually do it.”
“Seems like our best option with the time we’ve got available.”
“Okay. We’ll proceed with that. Try to get here as soon as you can.”
“Admiral?” Halsey’s navigator piped in. “We think we’ve nailed down the location of a Jump Point within Alpha Geminorum Ca.”
“So…what’s the issue with Geminorum A and Geminorum Ab? Too hot?”
“Yes, Admiral. Alpha Geminorum A is an A-class star and well over the line. Alpha Geminorum Ab is about 8600 Kelvin and still beyond Field limits, but Alpha Geminorum Ca measures out at 3820 Kelvin, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s just about perfect.”
“Meaning what, Ensign Jeffers?”
“There aren’t any jump points in A or B, sir, but lo and behold there is one in Ca? That’s pretty clear evidence these points were deliberately placed, Admiral.”
“Okay, write it up – and sign your name. If Norfolk approves, it’ll be your discovery.”
“Did you plot out our approach?”
“Yessir, and because the magnetar is generating such a strong magnetic field we won’t need a secondary mid-course burn until we’re well into Capella’s orbit. But Admiral, current calculations hold only as long as the material streaming from Capella to the Magnetar doesn’t move unpredictably. Transiting that material would impede our velocity vector…”
“Assuming we survived the encounter, you mean?”
“Alright, Ensign. Send your data to all vessels in the fleet and work up estimates of fuel requirements and see if the tankers have enough on hand to fuel all our ships.”
Ripley flipped comms to ship to ship and called Patton again.
“Yes, Admiral?” Judy said, a little too playfully.
“Get your best navigator on the problem we’re sending out now. Patton and Stavridis will have to tank while we are inbound to Capella.”
“Anything new with Covenant?”
“Both ships are cold now, Admiral. No IR signatures at all, like both ships are open to space.”
“So…either there was a fight or someone on the Company ship knows how to play dead? Is that how you read it?”
“Yes, and breaking off the intercept now means we’ll never know for sure,” Caruthers said.
“Well, the Company ship’s Field is down. We could fire off a salvo of torpedoes, but assuming we launched then turned and departed for the Jump Point…well, if they’re playing dead we’d be halfway to Capella before impact – so we couldn’t do a damn thing about it if they got their Field up and pulled away. Unless one of us stays behind, Admiral.”
It took Ripley no time to answer that one: “I’m not sacrificing a fully manned ship…”
“It would only mean delaying departure until impact, Admiral.”
“With that magnetar growing more powerful by the minute? Are you serious? Besides, even if they are playing dead, but the time they power up their Field to stop the torpedoes it’ll be too late for them to make it out of the gravity well. No matter what, Judy, both of those ships are going to be captured by the expanding gravity threshold unless they depart within the next five hours. And the same holds true for Patton and Stavridis, if you don’t mind me being a little too blunt…?”
“Okay, let’s play Devil’s Advocate. Suppose they have a Plan B? Suppose they have an unknown-to-us back door out of the system?”
“Then it’s a race to see who makes it back to Sol system first, isn’t it? If we make it first we wait near the exit to Sol’s Jump Point, and we take ‘em out there when they’re in Jump shock. If they make it back first…? Well then, hopefully we make it back into the inner system soon enough to either pursue and destroy or we send out a general alert and let Norfolk deal with them.”
“Request permissions to remain behind with a skeleton crew and…”
“Look Admiral, I hate to disagree with you, but if that ship is transporting a contagion or some kind of organism that could get somehow get loose on Earth…”
“The odds are you’ll be killed, along with Covenant and that Company ship. I recommend you target that ship and launch as soon as you can, then turn for the Jump Point.”
“Is that a direct order, Admiral?”
“You heard me, Captain.”
“Aye, sir. Patton out.”
He sighed and stared into the nothingness of their decision, not at all sure he’d done the right thing.
“Ticonderoga, this is Hyperion Actual,” Ripley said as soon as he was strapped into his G-couch on Hyperion’s bridge.
“Ticon Actual,” Admiral Adams replied. “Go head.”
“Got a status update for me?”
“Taking on fuel now. How’s Captain Brennan?”
“She’s in Sick Bay; they’re wrapping her up, she busted a couple of ribs when she hit the ceiling.”
“Good. I assume she’ll be back on the bridge?”
“Yes, and Captain Ames will be up here observing. She made good progress while we were on Halsey.”
“Good to hear. We have all non-essential personnel spread out between the other ships and we’ll be ready for the burn, but be advised Wilson states her fuel state is very low now. She may be able to refuel one, maybe two more ships, then her tanks are dry.”
“Understood. I’ve got the two small tankers headed out to intercept Patton and Stavridis.”
“Did they launch on Covenant?”
Ripley sighed and turned away from the screen for a moment, hopefully not giving too much away. “After what Covenant’s Walter relayed about the organism, I don’t think we have any other viable choice.”
“Well, you know the Company is going to raise hell about losing such a huge investment…”
“Let alone three thousand people,” Ripley added cautiously, shuddering at the fate of the people onboard Covenant.
“Of course.” She signed off and Ripley changed back to Patton’s frequency, and her XO came on.
“Admiral?” Commander Thomas Jung said, and Ripley looked around, trying to spot Judy somewhere on the bridge.
“Where’s your CO?” he asked.
“She’s in her cabin, Admiral. Can I assist you?”
“Did you get the updated plot from the tankers?”
“Yessir, and the course is laid in. ETA nine hours to rendezvous.”
“Okay,” Ripley sighed. “Keep me updated.”
“Yessir. Should I have the captain call you?” Jung said with an ugly smirk.
“Only if something comes up,” Ripley replied with his patented withering stare before he signed off. ‘So,’ he thought, ‘everyone in the fleet knows. And it’s become a laughing matter.’ Which only made what had to happen next all the more troublesome.
So it was time; he turned to Hyperion’s XO, Commander Chen, and all he said was: “Launch Shuttle Two.”
Chen looked away for a moment, hesitating, then she nodded. “Launching Shuttle Two, Admiral.”
‘Maybe all they’ll do is court martial me,’ he sighed.
© 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.