I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 34

A brief moment of respite

The simulation of nighttime on board the ship was as realistic as I remembered it when back on earth.

I was on my usual rounds after midnight, with the 2IC of security, Nancy Woolmer, who had been a NY detective until a better offer came along.

This ship.

Like me, she had little to keep her back home, her husband who had also been a detective, had been killed on the job, and that had been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Not blessed, or as she put it, cursed, with children, her parents had passed on, and any family left were not enough to keep her home.  This ship, she had said, would be her savior.

But she had the look of a person running away, and that, one day, would come back to bite her.  In the meantime, if we ever needed a detective, she was it.

“They’ve really got this night thing going, haven’t they.  You could almost imagine you’re in a leafy suburb out for a walk at night.”

“I doubt the streets would be as safe.”

The world we had left behind was in crisis, where there were deep divides between those in work and those who were not, and those with wealth and those without, and a bigger fight between countries over the space program.  It had started out with good intentions, but people being people, it didn’t stay that way.  

We had an international crew, but there was always the lingering doubt of what some people’s intentions were.  Out in space where everyone depended on everyone else, a small problem could become a big one very quickly.

“No, perhaps not.  But it’s good to hear the breeze rustling in the trees.”

Though the simulation lacked real trees, the projection on the passage walls of what either side of a street. With pavements, trees and houses, and for the night, the eerie glow of street lamps, was close enough.

The once around the perimeter passage on each deck took about two hours at a leisurely pace, considering there were ten decks.

I could have passed the job onto one of the watch officers, but it was about the only time I got to see the crew, those that were basically out of sight, keeping the ship running.  

I had set the lofty goal of meeting every one of the over 2,000 crew members within the first year, but a few months in, that was looking unlikely.

There was a sudden vibration emanating from the deck, followed by the sort of movement I would have associated with the ship coming off speed, like the jerk in a car when taking the foot off the accelerator.  The dampeners were designed to handle that and make increases and decreases in speed unnoticeable, but there was still an indication it had happened.

Ten seconds later my communicator vibrated.  I didn’t like the ring tone built-in, but it was more likely because most calls were bad news.

“What happened,” I asked, knowing it would be the duty officer of the watch

“Engineering are reporting a glitch, sir.”

There’s a word I hadn’t heard for a long time.  My father used to refer to anything that went wrong around the house as a glitch.

“Serious?”

“Don’t know, but you’re within a stone’s throw, so I thought you might want to pay them a visit.”

He was right, I was on that deck, and not far from the central control room.  The bridge must be tracking me, even though I’d asked them not to.  Standing orders dictated all officers and important personnel whereabouts were known at all times, I’d been told.

“I will.”

To Nancy, “You might want to continue on without me, and I’ll try to catch up later.”

She smiled.  “Tell them they should have bought the premium quality rubber bands.”

Previous conversations had highlighted a certain cynicism towards the fixtures and fittings, some of which were quite shoddy, which was disappointing but there was no doubt corners were cut in order to get the ship into service.

We all just hoped that cost-cutting didn’t extend to the main items, and if there were, it had been picked up in the trials.

As I stepped into the control room, a brightly lit room with banks of control panels and engineers sitting at them, there were a number of people huddled around one in particular, including the chief engineer.

The conversation was quite lively, and one voice stood out above the others, “… and had the builders rep actually listen to someone who knows what they’re talking about, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

It was the same voice I’d heard in the captain’s day room my first day aboard, pontificating, as the captain put it, over a list of problems he was having with the shipbuilders representative.

“We’re in this situation,” the Chief Engineer said, “because everything we have here is new, and some of it untried.  If you’re going to push boundaries, then sometimes there’s a problem.  Rather than complain, find a resolution.”

The group broke up, and the Chief saw me coming over.  He met me halfway.

“Half this new breed they’ve sent me and more teaches rather than hands-on, always on about the code or some such.  Good, maybe, for diagnostics, but not for problem-solving.  I suspect it’s tainted coolant, seems the original batch wasn’t cleaned out after the first run, and it’s overwhelmed the filters.  It’s down to the bowels I’m afraid, and we’ll be up and running before those nincompoops work out the real problem.”

“Good.  Just let the bridge know when you’re done.”

One last look at the nincompoops, and I headed back out to resume rounds.

© Charles Heath 2021

I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 33

Space is the ultimate getaway…

Our mission, to explore other galaxies and find, if there was, new life forms, was one that we knew might be a life long mission. It was one of the reasons I signed on; put simply there was nothing back on earth to keep me there.

Everyone had signed on, knowing that it was possible they might never return home, and, indeed, at the start of the voyage, that had been a distinct possibility.

We had not known about the upscaled propulsion, nor the weaponry the ship had, but that, I worked out in the end, was more deliberate on the part of space command. The less people back home who knew of our capabilities, the better.

Having got past the attack, and the discovery of a base on Oberon, one of Uranus’s moons, we were free to go back to our primary mission.

To be honest, I was happy we’d been told to resume our mission. There was a lot of items on the ship that needed fixing, modifying, or upgrading, and it would take time, that time it would take us to get to the first stopover on a long voyage.

And perhaps a little relieved that the Admiral had confirmed my appointment as Captain, not his first choice, but that given experience and time in space, I was certainly the most qualified.

There was something else he was going to say, you know when people stop short, and I though about asking him, but in the end, decided it couldn’t be anything that was a deal breaker.

That first day after leaving Uranus, I gave the speech that the former captain was going to give, and whether he wrote it or not, it seemed fitting, and poignant.

Ftom the outset, it was going to be a voyage measured in years, and it still would be, though not quite as long as first thought.

At the speed of light, it was a four year journey from our planet, to the next known earth like planet in the next galaxy, a planet named Proxima b.

By all accounts it was unliveable, but making observations from 4 and a half light years away was hardly what I would call a thorough review.

Perhaps closer up it might have more redeeming features. It might even support life. We’d find out when we got there.

In that, there was a debate about the true speed of this vessel, and over the ensuing weeks, the subject of a guessing game that all crew members could participate in went from a rumour to reality, except the engineers.

As we approached what might be Pluto’s orbit, it was a strange feeling being so far out from home, and I had expected to see more than just the inky darkness outside the ship, but any impression we might have assumed we would see from watching old Scy Fy episodes of interstellar travel was far from the reality.

In fact, there were times when it hardly felt like we were moving. There were times when it felt like just like being back on earth, except the city was within the confines of a very large ship with no roads out of town.

A holiday was a trip to the virtual reality centre, where it was possible to go anywhere or do anything without leaving your armchair. There were theatres, restaurants, sporting facilities, even a mall. There was a library, a school, and a group of crew representatives who were there to work on issues any member of the crew had.

I played squash and tennis and the occasional game of basketball, and the rest of the time, meetings, inspections, and the watch. My favourite was the night shift, not that there was any distinction between day and night, but one of the crews concerns was that lack of a boundary that designated days, so we instituted a version of day and night, and Engineering marvel at creating a world based on New York’s standard time.

All that took three months before everyone had settled into a routine.

Of course, it couldn’t last.

© Charles Heath 2021

I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 33

Space is the ultimate getaway…

Our mission, to explore other galaxies and find, if there was, new life forms, was one that we knew might be a life long mission. It was one of the reasons I signed on; put simply there was nothing back on earth to keep me there.

Everyone had signed on, knowing that it was possible they might never return home, and, indeed, at the start of the voyage, that had been a distinct possibility.

We had not known about the upscaled propulsion, nor the weaponry the ship had, but that, I worked out in the end, was more deliberate on the part of space command. The less people back home who knew of our capabilities, the better.

Having got past the attack, and the discovery of a base on Oberon, one of Uranus’s moons, we were free to go back to our primary mission.

To be honest, I was happy we’d been told to resume our mission. There was a lot of items on the ship that needed fixing, modifying, or upgrading, and it would take time, that time it would take us to get to the first stopover on a long voyage.

And perhaps a little relieved that the Admiral had confirmed my appointment as Captain, not his first choice, but that given experience and time in space, I was certainly the most qualified.

There was something else he was going to say, you know when people stop short, and I though about asking him, but in the end, decided it couldn’t be anything that was a deal breaker.

That first day after leaving Uranus, I gave the speech that the former captain was going to give, and whether he wrote it or not, it seemed fitting, and poignant.

Ftom the outset, it was going to be a voyage measured in years, and it still would be, though not quite as long as first thought.

At the speed of light, it was a four year journey from our planet, to the next known earth like planet in the next galaxy, a planet named Proxima b.

By all accounts it was unliveable, but making observations from 4 and a half light years away was hardly what I would call a thorough review.

Perhaps closer up it might have more redeeming features. It might even support life. We’d find out when we got there.

In that, there was a debate about the true speed of this vessel, and over the ensuing weeks, the subject of a guessing game that all crew members could participate in went from a rumour to reality, except the engineers.

As we approached what might be Pluto’s orbit, it was a strange feeling being so far out from home, and I had expected to see more than just the inky darkness outside the ship, but any impression we might have assumed we would see from watching old Scy Fy episodes of interstellar travel was far from the reality.

In fact, there were times when it hardly felt like we were moving. There were times when it felt like just like being back on earth, except the city was within the confines of a very large ship with no roads out of town.

A holiday was a trip to the virtual reality centre, where it was possible to go anywhere or do anything without leaving your armchair. There were theatres, restaurants, sporting facilities, even a mall. There was a library, a school, and a group of crew representatives who were there to work on issues any member of the crew had.

I played squash and tennis and the occasional game of basketball, and the rest of the time, meetings, inspections, and the watch. My favourite was the night shift, not that there was any distinction between day and night, but one of the crews concerns was that lack of a boundary that designated days, so we instituted a version of day and night, and Engineering marvel at creating a world based on New York’s standard time.

All that took three months before everyone had settled into a routine.

Of course, it couldn’t last.

© Charles Heath 2021

I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 32

What does it say when you can’t trust the man in charge?

The Admiral was looking tired, possibly the result of being woken, yet again, in the dead hours of the night.

Out in space, we should be keeping earth time, in fact, we probably were, but I didn’t think to check before calling.

The matter was urgent, or at least I thought it was.

I’d just relayed the events leading up to the attack and the result. For some odd reason I didn’t think he looked pleased.

“I sent two shuttles over and they’ve confirmed 11 fatalities and one escapee who transported to the larger ship moments before the attack. I told them to set a geosychronous orbit around the moon coronas until you work out what you want to do with them. Their systems have been encrypted, so they can’t be resurrected.”

“And the base?”

“We understand it’s beneath the surface of the moon, accessible only by transporter. Our physist says she knows where the plutonium is.”

“I take it there are people down there?”

“Skeleton staff. It’s a new base, recently built, but we don’t know its purpose.”

“Definitely not alien then?”

“Unless the criminal world has made the first contact before us, and if they have, it can’t be for the betterment of mankind.”

I was no expert but at that moment I got the distinct impression that the Admiral was hiding something, or had information that might be useful to us.

Until now I hadn’t had time to think about all the events leading up to this point in time, but somewhere in the back of my mind, it had been processing everything that had happened, to do with the ship and even before that.

And the question that leapt out was, why me?

What was the compelling reason to appoint me as first officer to this particular ship at this particular time? I had no doubt there were a hundred others equally or better qualified than I was, and yet, my name was pulled out of the hat, and I could remember distinctly the captain of the ship I’d been completing my training, as surprised as I was that I’d been selected.

Them, out of left field, a memory came back, one o had tried to bury very deep, of an incident no one could explain, let alone comprehend because it was as if it never happened. I had no proof, and there was no one else left alive to corroborate what I believed to be the facts.

Solar stress, it had been called. The psychiatrist who handled the debriefing told me it was nothing more than an over-active imagination, fuelled by overwork, sleep deprivation, and the deaths of my family members on an outpost on the moon when I’d been visiting them.

That diagnosis alone should have prevented my appointment, and yet here I was.

“Then it’s no longer your problem. We’ll take it from here. There’s a ship on its way. Your mission is to proceed as planned.”

“And the other ship that fled? I’m sure they’re no to going to just forgive and forget.”

“The chances are they will. Now they know you have superior firepower, and the speed to hunt them down, they will not be coming back for a second encounter. If you do come across them, you can deal with them as you wish, but that is not the priority. You have your orders.”

The screen went blank.

Yes, he was definitely hiding something.

© Charles Heath 2021

I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 32

What does it say when you can’t trust the man in charge?

The Admiral was looking tired, possibly the result of being woken, yet again, in the dead hours of the night.

Out in space, we should be keeping earth time, in fact, we probably were, but I didn’t think to check before calling.

The matter was urgent, or at least I thought it was.

I’d just relayed the events leading up to the attack and the result. For some odd reason I didn’t think he looked pleased.

“I sent two shuttles over and they’ve confirmed 11 fatalities and one escapee who transported to the larger ship moments before the attack. I told them to set a geosychronous orbit around the moon coronas until you work out what you want to do with them. Their systems have been encrypted, so they can’t be resurrected.”

“And the base?”

“We understand it’s beneath the surface of the moon, accessible only by transporter. Our physist says she knows where the plutonium is.”

“I take it there are people down there?”

“Skeleton staff. It’s a new base, recently built, but we don’t know its purpose.”

“Definitely not alien then?”

“Unless the criminal world has made the first contact before us, and if they have, it can’t be for the betterment of mankind.”

I was no expert but at that moment I got the distinct impression that the Admiral was hiding something, or had information that might be useful to us.

Until now I hadn’t had time to think about all the events leading up to this point in time, but somewhere in the back of my mind, it had been processing everything that had happened, to do with the ship and even before that.

And the question that leapt out was, why me?

What was the compelling reason to appoint me as first officer to this particular ship at this particular time? I had no doubt there were a hundred others equally or better qualified than I was, and yet, my name was pulled out of the hat, and I could remember distinctly the captain of the ship I’d been completing my training, as surprised as I was that I’d been selected.

Them, out of left field, a memory came back, one o had tried to bury very deep, of an incident no one could explain, let alone comprehend because it was as if it never happened. I had no proof, and there was no one else left alive to corroborate what I believed to be the facts.

Solar stress, it had been called. The psychiatrist who handled the debriefing told me it was nothing more than an over-active imagination, fuelled by overwork, sleep deprivation, and the deaths of my family members on an outpost on the moon when I’d been visiting them.

That diagnosis alone should have prevented my appointment, and yet here I was.

“Then it’s no longer your problem. We’ll take it from here. There’s a ship on its way. Your mission is to proceed as planned.”

“And the other ship that fled? I’m sure they’re no to going to just forgive and forget.”

“The chances are they will. Now they know you have superior firepower, and the speed to hunt them down, they will not be coming back for a second encounter. If you do come across them, you can deal with them as you wish, but that is not the priority. You have your orders.”

The screen went blank.

Yes, he was definitely hiding something.

© Charles Heath 2021

I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 31

A meeting with a nuclear scientist

Tara Benson was not my idea of a typical nuclear physist, but then I always had been a bad judge of matching occupations to personnel.

I had read her biography and service record, mainly the one paragraph summary, and it said she was one of the best in the world.

Criteria indeed for anyone on this ship apparently, though I didn’t regard myself as fitting into the category, but someone must have thought I had the potential.

On the way down I had a few moments to contemplate her ordeal, not only being taken prisoner, but of being transported back in the manner we had used, when it was a means I would not willingly use on myself.

It was why the first thought I had when I saw her was to apologise.

She was sitting in one of the special chairs that could analyse everything about you, what ailed you, what diseases you had, the state of your body.

When I had my first medical examination, the put me in an earlier model of that chair and it picked up the missing anatomical parts, the fact I once had several broken bones, that I was slightly anaemic, and the reason why I sometimes had bouts of indigestion.

They fixed all that, and a slight imperfection in my eyesight which I didn’t know about.

The doctor was looking at the monitor when I arrived.

“How is she?”

“Better than we expected. Other than being exposed to radiation for longer than prescribed, and which we can fix, she is in perfect health.”

“Mentally?”

“You can ask her yourself. I’m about to sign off on her going back to work, after a good night’s sleep.”

He spoke to her for a minute or so, then helped her up out of the chair.

“I assume you are the new captain,” she said when she saw me.

“Not by choice, but for the time being, yes.”

“I have a few questions, if I may?”

“Now?”

“If it’s possible”

There was a consultation room free, so I escorted her inside, and closed the door. It was odd, I thought, that she sat behind the desk.

I also felt like she was making a mental assessment of me, perhaps thinking that I was not what she might have considered Captain material. To a certain extent I may have once agreed with her, because everyone expected a captain to be much older and therefore wiser.

It was an analogy I’d heard before.

“Whose idea was it to transport me across to this vessel?”

I had expected that the means might be questionable, but in the moment, and considered along with the course of action I’d taken, it was the right decision.

“Mine. After discussion, of course, with the relevent experts. The risk was acceptable, proven by the fact you’re here now, and relatively unharmed.”

“It was a surprise, I’ll grant you that, and a first. From what I managed to overhear, the plutonium was sent down to their bunker to provide power to the facility, under the surface of the moon, and only accessible by transporter. Given the risks, it also surprised me they were so committed to using it.”

“Since most of that crew were escaped convicts from the Mars mining prison, any means would be acceptable.”

“Prisoners, not aliens?”

“Yes. The ship’s were old personnel transports, and the big ship, where you were being held, an old freighter.”

“The Orion.”

I knew it well, and surprised that I’d not recognised it. They had managed to disguise it well.

“A ship, I’m sure, you might be familiar with,” she added.

Perhaps my captains bland expression was not so bland.

“Ancient history,” I said, “from a time that I would rather leave in the past.”

There was a story, and not a pretty one, of a voyage not so long after commissioning, where systems failed and crew members died, all part of the experience in those early years in space. The quest for profits had outweighed the necessity for proper testing, and we had borne the brunt of the ‘test as you go’ mentality that had reigned before Space Command had taken over.

“You must tell me, one day.”

Her expression was one of curiosity, and not one to be mistaken for anything else.

“Is there anything else?”

“If you are considering retrieving the plutonium, let me know and I’ll be happy to help. I suspect the people on Venus would like to see it sooner rather than later.”

“You know where this base is?”

“Of course.”

“Good. I’ll let you know after I’ve spoken to the security people.”

© Charles Heath 2021

I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 30

Sometimes not knowing can be an advantage

“They’re hailing us,” the communications officer said, then turned expecting an order to open a channel.

“What’s the speakers tone?”

I got a blank look in return.

“Does he sound agitated, angry, arrogant…?

“Like a person of authority.”

Not much help in gauging their mood.

“OK, put him on the viewer.” I had one of the crew bring up the data we had on the vessel class.

It was once a personnel transport, one of a dozen that had been taken to the edge of space and dumped, if that was a word that could be used to describe what happened. They should have been destroyed, but another contractor took the cheap option, and abandoned them off Neptune.

The spokesman was dressed in the same suit as those I’d seen before, on the cargo ship, and in the Captains day room. Clearly he didn’t want to be identified.

“What can I do for you,” I asked, after waiting a minute or so after realising he was waiting for me to speak.

“Surrender your ship.”

Of course. They had three ships, we had one. A junior officer came over and gave me a sheet of paper. The names of the ship’s, how many life signs on each, and scans indicating possible weaponry.

Weapons needed power, and if they were anything like ours, they would need auxiliary power sources. No indication yet they intended to use any.

Life signs was interesting, six on each of the smaller ships, roughly half the crew when the ships were commercially used, and 34 for the larger vessel, including the nuclear scientist.

“Why would I do that?”

Number one’s expression was one of surprise, the Lt Colonel not so much.

“We have superior fire power, and will disable the ship if you don’t. That means taking out the life support. You can save your crew an ignominious death.”

No alien would use the word ‘ignominious’.

The two smaller ships were the closest, acting as guards for the bigger ship. I suspect they had the weapons, being smaller and more manoeuvrable.

I’d spoken to the Lt Colonel and the gunnery sergeant when he arrived on the bridge, and we agreed that the best action would be to target the bridges of the enemy vessels. After we retrieved the scientist.

“You do realise you’re targeting a research vessel, not a man of war.”

“Is that what they told you?”

“Define ‘they’.”

“Space command, that bunch on nincompoops who think the rest of the planets believes their lies.”

Well, that was the statement that proved they were not aliens, but working for one of the other countries no so happy with the deal that had been struck over space exploration. The Admiral could work out which one in his own time.

For the operation of removing our crew member, I had a direct line to the cargo bay where ? was setting up the parameters for the transport. All I had to do was keep the ship as steady as possible.

“Ready when you are,” his voice was in my ear.

“Now.”

Ten seconds later, “she’s aboard, safe.”

From the side, “There’s activity…”

“Gunnery sergeant, now,” I said.

The viewer cleared of my counterpart, and showed two explosions, where I would have said were the command centres of the two ships, and then the sudden movement of the larger ship, moving away, and at speed, to a point where it disappeared.

“Can we track that escaping ship?”

“We have sufficient information about it to send it back to HQ and let them deal with it. We achieved what we set out to do.”

The Lt Colonel was right, but it would be good to know where our enemy was.

A crew member said, “we can track it if you like, but it just jumped to high speed and out of scanner range.”

“Life signs?” I asked, looking at the two ships adrift, if that was possible. I didn’t like the idea of using force, and it was going to create a mountain of paperwork, and an investigation, but they were going to attack

“Eleven remaining on board, all deceased “

“Eleven?”

“One transported to the larger ship just before we attacked.”

Number one appeared beside me. “Do you think we should go over to the other ships and verify that the dead crew were the escaped prisoners.”

“For your report? Yes. Take a medical team, and the military.” The Lt Colonel looked over at the mention of the military. “You can arrange a squad,” I asked him.

“Yes sir.”

The third officer, Jacobs, like myself, crossing over from captaining cargo vessels, recently promoted to Second had been at his station for the duration, instead of resting, a man who wanted more experience. And spent as much time as he could on the bridge.

“Jacobs?”

“Sir.” He jumped up out of his seat, whether from fright or enthusiasm I wasn’t sure.

“You have the bridge. Try not to run into those ships out there.”

“Yes sir, I mean, no sir, no crashing sir.”

“I’ll be in medical if there’s any problems.”

© Charles Heath 2021

I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 29

Sometimes the easiest solution…

If I was to assume the recent visit by one of the so-called pirate ships as a benchmark for transporting a person between ships, then we’d have to get closer to the larger transport vessel where our crew member, logically, was being held.

The fact I was contemplating it was after the discussion with O’Mara, which, quite frankly, was like something out of a science fiction novel.

He’d started it with, “We have been working on a plan “

The same plan, I presumed, that the Lt Colonel had been referring to, only this time with more detail.

“You might not be aware that every member of this crew has a specific marker in their system that both enables us to track where they are, within a reasonable distance, and monitor their well-being.”

I was going to ask exactly what he meant by that, but amongst the reading material I’d been given before boarding, was a paper on the advances in medical science and how this related to space travel.

We all had a series of vaccinations, and I assumed one was to give us that specific marker. I suspect another was to give us nanites that would aid in our recovery as well as maintain our health in somewhat trying circumstances.

And, no, we’re were not meant to become super-soldiers, though work was being progressed on that too.

“It gives us the ability to track our people, and, yes, the two crew members’ life signs came back when we arrived here, and we are currently monitoring the scientist. That’s to say we know where she is, and that she had not been harmed.”

There was only one point about the plan that held any concern, we just didn’t transport people, not because we couldn’t, but because of the risk. Cargo was fine, but people were a little different. There had been testing, and it had worked, but then problems occurred, and it took only the slightest of issues during the transfer, for it to go wrong. After three accidental deaths, it was decided to ban it until the process could be more refined.

Of course, in line with everything else of this ship, the transporters were the latest versions with considerably upgraded hardware. The distance was still a problem, but getting a lock onto an individual was easier with the new markers provided to this crew.

We were, for all intents and purposes, guinea pigs for the new system, something else I didn’t know until now.

The question was, would she want to be transported? The fact the pirate ships were able to transport people with success was interesting given they would only have the old equipment, but they had an incentive to use it, it was a primary means for them to escape.

And that, too, had raised another issue, they had to have a marker, not necessarily the result of a vaccination, it could be a small device, and that could only be given to them by the guards, which meant it was likely the off-world prison authority was corrupt, not unheard of since it had been contracted out. It was just another paragraph in a report that was growing exponentially in size.

The Admiral was surprised to hear from me. I thought it best, in one of those cover your rear moments, to give him a heads up on what we were planning to do.

But to a more important matter I was sure he would be interested in hearing, “The trial for running at a much faster speed was a success, and that we are closer to travelling at the speed of light. But it seems we are not the first people to do so. It seems the people who stole the plutonium have the same capability.”

“The aliens?”

“No. Our scans of their ships and personnel show they are not. We believe the ships are older vessels discarded on the edge of space, refitted, and manned by escaped convicts from the Mars mining prison.” Saying it out loud didn’t quite sound the same as it had in my head.

“Or it is the result of a country that is not exactly playing by the rules that everyone agreed to for the exploration and exploitation of space.”

“So it was known we might run into some people who have another agenda?”

“Not in that direction, no.”

“Well, it seems they have a base on or under the surface of one of Uranus’s moons called Oberon. I suspect the plutonium is to fuel their base, which is far enough out of the mainstream that we might not have discovered it for years.”

“You then have to wonder why they told you about it?”

That answer was provided in a sudden and alarming manner.

“Bridge to Captain, we have three incoming vessels, and I think they are not here for a social visit.”

To the Admiral, “I have to go. Let’s hope the weapons we have are adequate.” I cut the call, saying, “Be there ASAP. Is the gunnery sergeant at her post?”

“Yes.”

“Then tell her she has permission to return fire if they attack.”

“Very good.”

I had considered why they hadn’t attacked when they had the chance earlier, but perhaps that visit was just to return the Captain’s body. If they were privy to information about our vessel, they might know of its capabilities, and not wish to engage. Of course, there was another reason, perhaps they were waiting until all three ships were free, and assume there was safety in numbers.

Whatever the reasons, we’d soon find out.

© Charles Heath 2021

I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 28

Space is not the high seas, is it?

I’m guessing no one ever wanted to think about criminals in space.

With the Chief Engineer working on the status and availability of our propulsion unit, and the status of the ship’s systems after the jump to a speed that was probably never considered at design time. All the heads of departments had reported back little or no damage other than crew blackouts. And, a systematic check of all crew by the medical staff showed no one had suffered any side effects. Well, none that were showing in the last hour or so.

That gave me some time to consider just how it might be possible for pirates to exist.

The cost was astronomical, to the point where many governments had pooled their resources to get where we were now, scraping at the edges of our so-called known galaxy. There were just too many zeros at the end of the numbers that simply represented the investment in the ship I was on.

But the thought of criminal activity, that wasn’t on the radar, well, not mine anyway.

As we progressed with new ships replacing the old, it was not hard to assume that someone with a lot of money and will could get their hands on an old ship or two, and find people who were willing to commit crimes, particularly if they were already at a penal colony under limited supervision.

Perhaps they had hoped to stay off the radar, but unfortunately ran into us, a ship that could move as fast as they could, and chase them down. Of course, that led to another thought, right at that moment, one that told me that it was not in their best interests to have us reporting their existence.

if what I thought to be true, was, then it would simply be a matter of destroying their ships and sending them back to Mars, but they still had a bargaining chip, our nuclear scientist. We had to rescue her first.

And I thought meeting aliens was going to be difficult.

It was time to have a chat with Lt Colonel Baxter about this ship’s capabilities, defense-wise, and rather than summon him to the bridge, I thought a low-key approach might be better.

He was expecting me.

“You’ve spoken to O’Mara?” O’Mara was the scanning specialist.

“I assume the previous captain had been briefed on the possibility we might run into pirates?”

It felt weird calling them pirates because most of history portrayed them as being on the high seas.

“It was mentioned in passing. We were never expected to run into any, but aside from that, there’s very little intelligence on them. We’re only just hearing about the breakout at the Mars mining outpost.”

“Sounds like bad luck. Of all the places in space we can go, we had to end up in the same sector. Have you spoken to your superiors back home?”

From what I had read on the trip to join ship, the military were on board for defense purposes, if we needed to be defended, otherwise our own security people would take care of any problems we encountered. We were not on a mission to seek out trouble, but explore, particularly galaxies beyond our own.

Our mission was not to get involved problems like pirates, labour disputes, or matters that were the providence of the so-called space police. The need for such an authority had only just been recognised, and being new, were still in the throes of getting ships and personnel, and a workable frame of reference.

“I have. Their preference is for us to stay on mission, and not engage, unless of course, we’re attacked.”

“At which point we can retaliate.”

“With full force and effect, yes, but only as a last resort. I recognize the need to rescue our crew member, but if it means compromise, perhaps it’s best not to engage. That being said, I believe O’Mara has a plan to rescue her without causing any problems.”

He could have mentioned that, but I suspect he didn’t want to come to me with something that might not work.

“Just the same, I would like you on the bridge while we’re within hailing distance of what O’Mara informs me, are pirate ships.”

“As you wish, sir.”

© Charles Heath 2021

I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 27

Now, about those aliens…

Of course the first action I took was to call on security to disperse people across all decks and departments to make sure no one boarded our ship unnoticed.

We needed to find a way of detecting such boardings without having to deploy people, a matter I’d bring up at the first departmental heads meeting.

If there was ever going to be a time for it.

“Mallory to the Captain, can we meet urgently?”

Mallory was one of the three men in the shuttle that brought me to the ship, and he was, if I remember rightly, one of the scientists, his field being scanners. Just the man to ask about detecting alien presences.

“Come up the the bridge. We’ll talk in the day room.”

I handed over the bridge to number one, and met Mallory at the elevator. He took a few moments to take in the bridge, the screen, now showing both Uranus, and several of its moons.

“Great view “

“Sometimes it’s better not knowing what’s out there,” I said.

His expression told me that comment might have been a little too flippant in the circumstances.

“Come this way.” I led him to the day room, opened the door and followed him in.

“I assume,” I said after waiting till the door was closed, “that it’s not a matter you wanted to share with the rest of the bridge.”

“That’s for you to determine. But it’s about the ship that was just here.”

“We believe it’s alien.”

“It’s not.”

OK. That was a revelation, but how could he tell the difference? My immediate guess, they had no previous alien profile to run it against.

“How so?”

“We have scanners, and we have scanners.”

Confusing to say the least, but I think I knew what he was trying to say. We had a military presence, but until I became captain, I didn’t realise we also had military hardware.

What else did we have?

“We have the ability to scan other vessels, and in certain circumstances, check for lifesigns inside. But we only had earth created ships to use as a subject for testing, simply because we know the compounds used in our vessel’s structure, including this one.”

“So anything made by us can be scanned?”

“Yes, and that ship just standing off us, we could scan it and what and who was inside, which means it’s not an alien vessel.”

That was perfectly good reasoning, except as far as I was aware, this ship was not completely earth technology.

“There might be only one way to create the outer skins and superstructure, in any ship.”

“That’s possible, yes. But we anticipated that we might eventually run into something we couldn’t penetrate until we could work out what the ship was made of and then work out how to penetrate it. That so called alien ship, we could see inside.”

“It could still be an alien ship. After all, I assume you adjusted the scanners to work through the material this ship is made of, and I doubt you’re going to argue the metal used was the result of an accidental discovery.”

He looked uncomfortable, and for a moment I thought he was going to try, but just sighed. “It’s possible, but unlikely.”

“OK then, does it fit the profile of any earth vessels?”

I knew of about 200 different types of ship out here in space, not all as well as some, and the computer recognition system had hundreds more variations, so if we ran into another ship, we could identify it.

“One or two, but it’s been modified. Also, there’s only six people on board, and from our scan, it seems all were recently in custody at a Mars penitentiary outpost. They were given a so called vaccination which put nanites in their system so they could be recognised if or when they decided to rebel.”

“Are they escaped prisoners?”

“Given the discussion I just had with security, that seems to be the case. But to verify those assumptions I got onto the Mars station, and it seems they are unaware of any missing prisoners or ships, but have sent someone over to check “

“Don’t they guard prisoners anymore?”

“They do, but with robots, and due to the remoteness, infrequent fly bys. They were coming up for one.”

“How infrequent?”

“I was told a few months, but I suspect it’s been longer. As for getting a ship, a well organised gang could have rescued some space junk and brought it back to life. It’s possible. And space still is a bit like the wild west.”

A recent problem, now that there was an ever increasing demand for travel and freight across our particular galaxy. Venus, Mars had galactic hotels, Saturn a space station and fly bys, and mining on various of the planets.

It was disappointing to realise our first contact wasn’t a first contact with a new world, just criminals expanding their horizons.

“Do they have weapons?”

“If we do, they do. We think the two smaller ships are modified troop carriers, the larger vessel, a freighter, but they have tinkered with the exterior to make people think they’re something or someone else.”

“They move pretty fast, much faster that anything we’ve got.”

“Except for this ship which may have surprised them, as well as some of us.”

“Anything else I need to know about?”

“About the other ships no. The military boys will want to join in the discussion of our next move. Something else you might want to know is that we were checking the logs and indemnified where those so called aliens came aboard, and to safely transport from one point to another, you need markers at each end.”

“And you found them?”

“In two places, and immediately removed so there will be no more unwanted boardings.”

“It raises the question…”

“A traitor on board? I don’t believe so, because they looked like they’d been installed as part of the decking. The traitors are back at the space station where the vessel was built.”

“OK. We’d better get everyone in the conference room and work out what we’re going to do next. Don’t go too far.”

© Charles Heath 2021