Sorry for posting two stories on the same day. If you read this one, there’s the beginning of a new story after – and then that poem. It’s springtime here, and writing always feels good when the trees and flowers are returning to the light. But then – the lawnmower comes back into my life…
[Paul Simon \\ St Judy’s Comet]
Using Agamemnon’s large Schmidt camera, Ripley watched Hyperion’s Langston Field slowly expand as she entered the Sun’s outermost layer, the photosphere, and then in the next instant she was gone. Now his old ship, and his wife, were heading deep into the Sun to reach the Alderson Jump Point that exited at Mintaka, on Orion’s belt, and then into the eye of the storm. Within minutes Hyperion would be into the chromosphere, and Ripley found it hard to watch his wife step into the unknown. Judy had been doing her best to remain calm and he’d kept her busy reading everything from Nimitz and Halsey to the ancient Battle of the Salamis Straits, and he’d hoped the additional historical perspective would help steel her nerves – but he wouldn’t be there to see the results and he felt bereft. Now, watching her ship disappear within the Sun, she was, after more than two years together, beyond his reach – and he felt more than terrible without her.
He tried to shake off the bad feelings he’d had the last few days, that the Hyperion Battle Group was being set up and moving into a trap. But why? Why would Fleet, and Admiral Stanton, sacrifice so many ships and crew in a deliberate strategic blunder? He remembered reading accounts of Pearl Harbor that implied Roosevelt knew the attack was coming on the Seventh of December, 1941, but that he let it happen anyway – because Roosevelt knew such a devastating loss was the only thing that would break an evenly divided Congress and allow for the rapid industrial mobilization the United States would need to confront the Axis powers. Was something similar at work now? Was Stanton willing to sacrifice a medium-sized strike group to convince a divided Senate to support a more substantial war effort around a distant star?
Personally, he doubted such treachery was possible. Stanton wasn’t an evil man and he knew that from experience.
So…why was he still having these feelings?
“Admiral?” Commander Brennan said over the intercom.
“Balin and her team are not finished calibrating the Maser, and won’t be for a few more hours. We can continue to orbit Mercury, bit we’ll delay our jump by 30 hours.”
“Have the tankers finished the transfer?”
“Very well. Send my compliments to the skipper of the Valdez and thank him for the assist. Advise Norfolk that Balin and her team are still working on the weapon and that they will be transiting to Castor with us. When our refueling apparatus is stowed, sound the acceleration warning and let’s get the Field up; I want to make our Jump as soon as possible, and I want Stavridis right behind us.”
“And the Constellation?”
Ripley paused and looked at the tactical display. The Enterprise Battle Group wouldn’t finish tanking for another few hours, and he didn’t want to arrive at Castor completely defenseless, but that too had been Stanton’s decision. Stanton assumed the Tall Whites would know the exact moment Agamemnon emerged from Alpha Geminorum Ca, and that they’d be looking for signs of both capability and intentions, but if Agamemnon came in naked that might be a more provocative sign of weakness…?
“Constellation and the Enterprise Group are to Jump as soon as their refueling operations are wrapped up, and disperse them in line formation as soon as they’re clear. Have ‘em come through at short intervals.”
“Roger that. Sending.”
His screen brightened and when Balin’s aggrieved expression appeared that said it all. “Captain! “ she screeched. “Am I to understand that we are being Shanghaied?”
“That’s a fact, Ms Balin,” he said with a bright smile, and then he killed his display. “Gordon, was that mean of me?”
“I don’t know how to answer that, Admiral. If you’d like, I could take care of her calls in the future.”
Ripley smiled at the thought. “I guess that’s a possibility,” he sighed, knowing it wasn’t.
The shrill, hooting Master Alarm sounded throughout the ship, and then all shipboard lighting went to low-power-red. Brennan armed the reactors and began spinning up thrust paks – and only then did the countdown timer begin.
“Acceleration stations in 120 seconds,” the computer-generated female voice said. “Heavy acceleration in 115 seconds. Standby for heavy acceleration…”
Ripley sighed as he reclined his G-couch, then he set his screens ‘just so’ as he settled into the squishy gel – and he was pretty certain he could hear Balin’s hysterical screeching all the way from the weapons bay – and that made him very happy indeed.
And Gordon grinned too.
As Agamemnon entered the Sun’s photosphere, Ripley checked the ship’s Langston Field monitors, noting only minor temperature fluctuations and a very slight inflation. All probes and sensors had been retracted inside the Field, so in effect Brennan was flying the ship blind now, relying on the central inertial navigation system to maintain their heading to Alpha Geminorum Ca’s Alderson Point.
“Time to jump?” he asked Gordon.
“Four minutes thirty seconds, Admiral.”
“You need two minutes to power-down, don’t you?”
“Yes Admiral. I have already begun to power down unnecessary sub-routines.” It remained one of the last unsolved problems of space travel utilizing Alderson Jump Points, but computers and synthetics like Gordon simply did not come out of a Jump in stable working condition. Computers were incapable of performing even the simplest computations for several minutes after a Jump, and synthetics making Jumps before the effect was well understood came out in what could only be described as a psychotic state, and throughout the ship computers were being put into standby mode, while every synthetic onboard would power down at two minutes prior to the scheduled Jump.
Which meant that Brennan and her bridge crew would handle the ship during the Jump – without computer assistance. The Navy had only Jumped to Alpha Geminorum Ca only once before, and this had been performed by an unmanned scout ship to verify that the Alderson Point did in fact lead to Castor’s third component star, or Ca. The probe had popped out of the star and performed one orbit, scanning for any unusual signals before it returned to Sol.
But now, this meant that Agamemnon would be the first ship to explore the Ca system in detail.
Because the fourth planet in the Ca system supposedly had a university up and running – operated by the so-called Tall Whites – and Thomas Standing Bull, one of his midshipman on Hyperion’s last mission, was – again, supposedly – going to meet them at this university.
So in truth, this wasn’t a simple mission of exploration; it was also a “second contact” mission, and as such the Navy had expected that all kinds of diplomatic personnel would be included in the ship’s company – yet almost the exact opposite had happened. The State Department had tasked just one person, and she was a junior staffer at that, to accompany Ripley and his ground team when the ship arrived at Alpha Geminorum Ca+4.
“Powering down in ten seconds, Admiral,” Gordon said lightly.
“See you on the other side,” Denton said carefully, then he switched his COMMs circuit over to monitor both the bridge and CIC, or the Combat Information Center. “CIC, bridge here,” he said over the link, “get the Field down and our probes out after we emerge and clear the threshold. I want to know who else is in-system as soon as possible.”
“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Ainsley replied. “At 4 Gs we should reach probe threshold approximately twenty minutes after the Jump.” Which meant that any probes or antennas deployed before reaching the threshold would simply be burned away as they raised through the ship’s protective Langston Field and into Ca’s photosphere. Conversely, radiation from Alpha Geminorum Ca would theoretically mask their appearance for more several Sol standard hours, providing a window of opportunity for Agamemnon and Stavridis to snoop around the new system without detection – assuming, of course, that the Tall Whites were deploying a similar scanning technology to their own.
Then one by one his screens went dark as the ship’s computers began logging out and shutting down, and soon all they had to go on was an ancient clock mounted directly over the main bridge screen. Now he watched the second hand circle the face, once again dreading the moment when the ship Jumped…
Then the red bridge lighting flickered for a moment.
Followed by the crushing headache and extreme nausea that followed a successful Jump, just before the terrifying moments of spatial disorientation hit.
Then…red lights changed to white. Then he heard the sound of someone trying to vomit at high Gs, then the gargling sounds of that person not being able to breathe as their airway was inundated with bile and stomach acid. Then: Brennan calling out: “Medical, to the bridge, Code 1!”
But there was next to nothing that could be done at this point in their egress. At 4+ Gs no one could move enough to get a suction probe inserted a patient’s airway, and no synthetics had come out of Safe Mode yet. And if Brennan cut acceleration to allow medical personnel to get to the bridge, the ship’s Field would soon be overwhelmed by intense solar radiation. Right now, the Field was dealing with all the energy absorbed during Solar ingress as well as their current egress from Alpha Geminorum Ca, and now that countdown timer was literally winding down to zero. Within a half hour – more like 27 minutes – the Field would be overwhelmed and then fail, ending the mission, and all their lives, in a blinding flash.
The gargling noises stopped long before a med-tech could make it to the bridge on one of their G-carts, and by then it was of course too late. Ripley shook his head, though he decided not to bother Brennan right now. She had her hands full and didn’t need any interruptions.
Ten minutes later Gordon opened his eyes and looked around.
“Are we still inside the Castor Group?” he asked.
“Yes,” Ripley said, “but it looks like we were in the chromosphere a lot deeper than expected. We should exit the photosphere in 17 minutes, and I think maybe we’ll be at the probe threshold in 10 minutes.”
“We will be close to Field’s limits, will we not, Admiral?”
“Yup. We’ll be cutting it pretty close.”
“There is a med tech working on one of the midshipmen, Admiral.”
“Can you see who was injured?”
“No, sir, but Lars Jansen’s biometrics are no longer registering on MedCom central.”
“Goddamnit to Hell,” Ripley growled just under his breath.
“Admiral? If his death happened less than ten minutes ago, perhaps we could attempt a download.”
Ripley didn’t know if the boy’s parents had filed any religious exceptions concerning the process, but he looked at the clock again and realized that time was suddenly of the essence again. This was, he realized, a Command decision so he looked at Gordon on his screen. “Go ahead. Do it.”
Gordon commanded thin metal probes embedded with Jansen’s G-couch into position, then he hit the ‘Execute’ button – and then every thought, every memory, and every feeling that Lars Jansen had ever experienced began downloading into a MemComm registry. The entire process was a race against time now, as once brain death occurred it was literally just a matter of minutes before all that information was either lost or scrambled into uselessness.
Ripley had always thought the entire process was pointless, until he’d seen AI regenerations running Elon Musk’s re-creation, then he’d become a true believer. How long, Musk had wondered in that presentation, before we could integrate these regenerations into synthetic humans – into simulations like Gordon? There were, of course, rumors that Musk was alive and well in the Hall of Mirrors, in Musk City on Mars, but so far all those rumors remained unsubstantiated, but if they were true had Musk achiever practical immortality?
Ripley watched the second hand racing around the clock face, wondering what the outcome would be.
“Process complete, Admiral,” Gordon said. “An updated registry is now being created, and should be operational within six hours.”
“Yes, Admiral. Midshipman Jansen created a complete registry soon after he boarded Agamemnon. This latest download will be compared to the original, and you should be able to address Lars at that time.”
Ripley swallowed hard and tried to look away, until all 4Gs of the ship’s bone-crushing acceleration reminded his G-couch to assert complete control over his movements.
The new 48 inch Schmidt camera poked up through the Langston Field and imaged Alpha Geminorum Ca+4 several times, while sensitive ELINT receivers began analyzing the radio spectrum around the planet…
And it was soon apparent there was a large military engagement underway on that planet. Ships in orbit were taking particle beam fire from weapons on the planet’s surface, and after careful analysis CIC reported that there were currently a minimum of five horseshoe shaped ships there, and that they appeared to be the same type of ship Ripley had encountered on the first Hyperion mission. And now here they were, in orbit around the fourth planet, and that at least one of these five ships had been seriously damaged by unknown forces on the planet’s surface.
Agamemnon had begun a mandatory one hour period of zero-G five minutes ago, coasting along in order to let the Stavridis catch up to them as soon as she emerged from Alpha Geminorum Ca’s photosphere.
“COMMs?” Ripley barked.
“Fire off a message to those ships in orbit, advise them of our presence in the system and ask if we might be of any assistance.”
“Yes now, Goddamnit!” he snarled. “How long will it take for them to receive the transmission, COMMs?”
“Approximately forty minutes, sir.”
“Right. Advise when you are in contact with Stavridis.”
“Admiral, CIC here. We’re picking up ion trails that, well, that are probably made by inbound Company ships, sir. Definitely more than one ship, Admiral, and it looks like they are no longer in orbit.”
“They are not in orbit, Admiral. They are either on the planet’s surface or they’ve left the system, but that’s doubtful, sir.”
“There’s only one pair of dissipating ion trails, Admiral, and those horseshoe-shaped ships must have some kind of FTL drive, Admiral. They haven’t left any markers anywhere around the system, so they must’ve jumped directly into orbit…”
“And then run into a shit storm,” Ripley sighed.
“Automatic identifier marker received from Stavridis, Admiral,” COMMs advised. “They have exited the photosphere.”
“Establish two-way contact as soon as you can, COMMs.”
“WEPs? Is Balin there?”
“Here, Captain,” she said as her hideously contorted face came onscreen.
“How long until that weapon is operational, Ma’am.”
“We are ready to test fire the unit now, Captain.”
“We’re not going to test fire that thing,” Ripley sighed. “I don’t want to give away too much information yet, but, well, are you sure it will work when I give the order?”
She nodded. “As long as we have nominal reactor output, I see no reason why the weapon will not fire, Captain.”
“Okay. Get your people ready for heavy acceleration. It looks like we might be going in with our guns blazing.”
“Guns, Captain? Surely you…”
He cut off her audio feed before he said something truly offensive to that infernal woman, then he looked up at Gordon. “I need food. Something solid for a change, and no salads, and for God’s sake – and no TVP.”
“Yes, Admiral. Hot cocoa, as well?”
“No. Something stronger. Better make mine a coffee. Half-caff.”
A medical team was removing Lars Jansen’s body from the bridge, and Brennan was almost in tears as she watched the boy’s body disappear inside the black PVC body bag. She looked across the bridge at Denton and shook her head, then turned slowly and went back to her station – and Ripley could see she was taking this one hard. Well, the truth of the matter was you never really got used to losing anyone, but losing a Middie always seemed to hurt a little more. He was not looking forward to reading the autopsy results, nor to writing up the Action Report that all such deaths required.
“Astronomy? Let me know when you have more detailed imagery of the planet.”
“Aye, sir,” came the audio reply.
“Get me a visual on Stavridis, would you?” As this required imaging in the direction of the star, heavy Calcium channel blocking filters were put in place, then the Schmidt camera poked up through the Field again – and Stavridis’s huge, glowing Langston Field appeared onscreen. Ripley saw the extreme perimeter of their field had a red tinge, which was normal so close to a star, but also splotches of yellow and green, and that was anything but normal. Then again, Stavridis was a smaller ship so her Langston Field presented a smaller surface area to radiate excess energy, yet their smaller Field had to absorb and dissipate the same energy load that Agamemnon’s Field had inside the star, hence the more dangerous colors in her Field. It was worth watching for now, but the faster both ships moved away from the star, the better…
“Admiral, we’ve finished processing images of the planet and can see more indications of a military engagement between the ships in orbit and unknown forces on the planet’s surface.”
“Right. You’d better get the camera centered on the planet and keep it there for now. Let me know when you have a live feed set up.”
“Bridge? ETA Stavridis?”
“Fifteen minutes, Admiral. We have COMMs now.”
“Right. Astro? See any likely hydrogen sources anywhere yet?”
“Yessir. Two moons orbiting the fifth planet; the larger may have enough Hydrogen in the atmosphere for a ram scoop.”
“Excellent. Good work!”
Gordon slid a plate onto his chart table and Ripley smiled. A black bean burger with avocado and sliced habanero…his favorite! He looked up and smiled his approval. “Did Carson make this?”
“God love her!” he said as he launched into his burger. He switched his primary screen to catch the live feed coming from the fourth planet, and with basic image enhancers he could just make out laser cannon fire coming up from the planet’s surface – but then he saw another blue-green stream of light leave the surface – and this fire was directed at his ship. “Bridge? Is that incoming fire?”
“Altering course, but it will take a half hour to reach us, sir. Should we return fire, Admiral?”
“No, no, that would be pointless at our current range – but make sure Stavridis has the plot.”
“Admiral?” Brennan said. “One of the horseshoes is powering up and leaving orbit.”
“See if you can work out their course.”
“They’re taking fire, sir. From a built up area near the planet’s equator.”
“With what, Bridge?”
“Tracks indicate both lasers and kinetic missiles,” one of the radar operators on the Bridge replied. “Confirmed multiple missile launches and now recording at least two low-yield nuclear detonations in the last hour, based on debris clouds and decay rates. The horseshoes are simply powering away from the missiles, Admiral.”
“Very little from the horseshoes, sir. The missiles appear to be a typical Cascade class SRB using a conventional ion drive during terminal guidance.”
“So, that’s a goddamn Company weapon,” Ripley muttered to himself. “How the hell did they get wind of our operation?”
“Admiral, the horseshoe leaving orbit is now on an intercept course, heading our way. Appears to be a fusion powered drive, sir, and not an FTL drive, but there’s only a modest heat bloom aft. And it looks like their delta-v is already significant, sir. They’ll easily outrun the Cascades.”
“You said they’re on an intercept course with us, Ensign? Mind telling me the details?”
“Sorry, sir. If current acceleration holds, they will arrive in 70 hours.”
“And what is their delta-v, Ensign?”
“Sorry, sir. Currently 3.7 Gs…but they are continuing to accelerate, Admiral. Now at 4Gs and continuing to accelerate.”
“Admiral?” Brennan interrupted, “should we maintain our current position, or move to intercept?”
Ripley had been asking himself the same question for a few minutes. They could stay here and burn up precious time, or move in their direction, knowing that would force them to make a massive mid-course correction. But how much power did their ships have, and how much fuel did they carry? In order to return to the fourth planet now, that ship would need to burn prodigious amounts of hydrogen in order to stop its forward velocity, but then it would have to burn even more to stop and then turn around and resume acceleration back to the planet…
“Commander Brennan, would the second planet allow the three of us to make a slingshot orbital correction, setting up a return trajectory to the fourth planet?”
“Working,” Brennan sighed as she started plugging-in numbers and vectors. “We could, and quite easily, Admiral. The horseshoe would need to make two mid-course burns, but they’d need to make the first within about six hours. Doing so would allow us to travel in formation with the horseshoe after our orbital burn.”
“Bridge, set your heading for the second planet; COMMs, pass on our course and heading to Stavridis, tell them to line-up in tight formation. And CIC, leave a buoy here with a sit-rep and advise the Commander of the Enterprise Battle Group to head for the fourth planet as soon as they emerge and group up. Engineering, report on our reactors and our current fuel state in fifteen minutes. Bridge, alter course now and set our speed at 1.0 G.”
“We need to see if they react to our course change, Mister. WEPs, run through firing exercises while we’re at 1G. COMMs, advise Stavridis to get in very tight, and they are to start fire control and damage control exercises immediately.”
“Astro here, Admiral. A particle beam weapon from the planet’s surface has struck a second horseshoe, sir, it appears to be damaged and is now retreating to a higher orbit.”
“Astro, are you picking up any signs of shielding on those ships, anything like our Langston Field?”
“No, sir. No EM emissions at all, and nothing in the visible spectrum.”
“Are they returning fire?”
“Nothing that we can detect, Admiral.”
Ripley shook his head. Either these were simply not warships and the Tall Whites did not possess shield technology, or they didn’t want to reveal their technology – yet. But…almost three years ago they’d followed the Hyperion Group after their attack on Covenant, when they departed Beta Auriga 4 after the new black hole formed. And they’d been back there while David was in close pursuit, so how could they have done that without shielding? Did their spacecraft’s material act as a shield, or did they have some other defense? But if so, why had one of their ships just been damaged from a missile coming up from the planet’s surface?
“Admiral? COMMs. We have contact with their lead ship. And Admiral, I think it’s Thomas Standing Bull, and he sounds very upset…”
(c)2023 adrian leverkühn | abw | fiction, every last word…
[Yes \\ Close To The Edge]