The Road to the Stars – Chapter Seven

The discovery of Lemnos was probably the most immediately impactful encounter of the entire first mission of the Enterprise. Why? Well, it’s simple: money.

Yup. I know, you’d think with the money Cass and I inherited we wouldn’t need need additional funding, but no. There’s never enough money, at least it never seems to be sufficient (though we’ve never even come close to running out). And the elements we discovered were and are vital in terms of building more starships.

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Chapter Seven

“Captain, Engineer Anderson has asked to speak with you,” were the first words out of Stewart’s mouth when Alley returned to the bridge. She sighed.

“I’ll comm her from my ready room. Other than that, are we ready for shift change?”

“Aye, ma’am. Ensign Gnad has the watch tonight.” She nodded over her shoulder at the stocky officer, chatting with the crewmembers at the helm station.

“Brian’s second watch shift, isn’t it?”

“Aye, ma’am.”

“When did they get so young?”

“Ma’am?”

“Never mind. Let me find out what Anderson wants, then I’ll check back.” Once in her ready room, she said, “Minna, get me Engineer Anderson.”

“She’s awaiting your comm, Captain.” The AI’s voice cut off.

“Anderson here.”

“You asked to speak with me, Dellin. What’s going on?”

“Did you approve Lt. Zihal’s insanity, or is it her own idea?”

“I’m guessing she came to you with her proposal.”

“Captain, she’s crazy! She wants to bring the Enterprise into the atmosphere of a planet that’s got four times the pull of Earth!”

“Can we do it?”

“Can we…Captain, you can’t be serious!”

“I told her to run the idea by you, Dellin. I didn’t expect her to ask to drop into atmosphere, but I didn’t tell her not to. So, as I said, can we do it?”

There was fulminating silence from the comm before Anderson spoke. “We can do it. Briefly. Within very limited parameters.”

“Thank you. Now, without calling one of the ship’s officers, one of your peers, insane, can you tell me what the problems are and why you’re so offended by the idea?”

“I’m not offended, ma’am. Just –” She stopped and took a breath. “Captain, when the ship was redesigned, it was done in a way that took away most of our ability to do atmospheric penetration. The nacelles and pylons are simply not aerodynamic at all; wind shear could snap them right off.”

“How realistic is that?”

“Well, it’s possible.”

“Let’s back up. What would you be comfortable with? I didn’t have the impression that we needed to be in atmosphere, just a lower orbit. Can we do that?”

“As long as we stay out of atmosphere, we have the power to maintain just about any orbit.”

“Then, Dellin, what I suggest is that you turn the actual calculations over to your watchstander, give them something to do other than try not to fall asleep looking at the readings, and be ready in the morning.”

“Aye, Captain.”

That much resolved, Alley returned to the bridge. Shifts ran nine hours, allowing an hour of overlap to ensure the smoothest possible transition. As a result, not only were Zihal and Willerman at Science, but Charles Wilt, the next shift’s watchstander, was with them.

“Lieutenant, gentlemen. Preparing for shift change?”

“Yes, Captain. Just reviewing the scans that Mr. Wilt should concentrate on overnight.” Zihal paused, then more diffidently said, “Did you talk to the Chief Engineer?”

“Yes, I did.” Alley subtly walked away from the other two, Zihal following. “She’s going to have some numbers finalized for us overnight.” Dropping her voice, she asked, “Did you really ask her if we could bring the Enterprise into atmosphere?”

“Not that specifically, Captain,” said Zihal with a trace of nervousness. “I did ask how deep into the atmosphere we could go, if we had to, but it was more a curiosity, not a plan or anything.”

“You might want to be a little more explicit in your questions next time, Lieutenant.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“In any case, you’ll have your opportunity in the morning. I assume you’re going to sit in with the Commander?”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“And Willerman? Is he going to go off-shift, or stay on with Wilt?”

“I think Dave’s going to give it a couple more hours then turn in. He’s not back until second watch tomorrow.”

“Excellent. I expect you to get some sleep, Lieutenant. It’s all well and good to be excited and involved, but if you don’t get enough sleep your judgement will be thrown off. I know, I’ve been there.”

“Yes, Captain. I’ll be done shortly.”

“That goes for you too, XO. I appreciate you pulling an extra watch today, but don’t make a habit of it. The junior officers need to get experience too.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Goodnight.”

Alley tried to be the first day watch officer to the bridge, and usually succeeded, but something about spending a full night in orbit around an exoplanet had spurred the rest of the day watch into rousing early and she found herself next-to-last, though still five minutes before her official start. In fact, the only one missing was…

Cass nearly ran out of the lift, carrying a closed mug.

“I was just about to ask,” said Alley. “Late night, Commander?”

“No, Captain, just didn’t sleep well. Not sure why.” She took a sip from the mug, gave a small sigh of pleasure, and moved to her station.

“Where do we stand?” she asked Zihal, already hard at work.

“You’ve read my logs from yesterday?” When Cass nodded, Zihal continued. “I really want a closer look at the PGM concentrations, and the probes just won’t cut it. Engineer Anderson confirmed that we can hold a lower orbit, as long as we’re out of the atmosphere. I need to find out if she means totally out, or if just out of the troposphere will suffice.”

“Do we have a depth on the troposphere?”

“It’s fairly shallow, only six kilometers.”

“And the atmosphere itself?”

“Seven hundred twenty kilometers.”

“That’s pretty hefty.”

“Simple thermodynamics. The planet masses more than Earth so there’s more atmosphere, but it’s also warmer. That not only keeps the atmosphere in an expanded condition but makes for a denser troposphere.”

Cass was nodding along. “Have you reached out to Engineer Anderson yet this morning?”

“Not yet. That’s next on my list.”

“I’ll let you be about it then.”

After all the drama, the actual descent and orbit was uneventful, as Alley had hoped, and more than half expected. She knew, from her dealings with the engineers aboard the submarines she’d served on, that they were pessimistic by nature of the profession. She also knew that her Enterprise had been rather overengineered for the expected stressors, as one of Kendra’s mottoes seemed to be, “If two is good, three is better!” when it came to equipment. Where a NI-built sub might have a safety factor of 25 percent, or doubly-redundant systems, Enterprise would have 50 percent and triply-redundant.

The readings from the surface, and even slightly below, were encouraging. They confirmed the data from the previous day and added details, which Zihal and Cass presented to the command staff mid-morning.

“Captain, XO, essentially what we’re looking at here is a treasure-house planet,” said Cass. “It’s not particularly suited to surface habitation, but orbital habitats are certainly possible, with limited surface time for direct operations. I believe that Dawn mentioned some potential solutions yesterday?”

“Exoskeletons and dive suits,” Alley said. “Yes.”

“Whatever we need to do though, we should. I’m going to strongly recommend that to Kendra when we get home. This planet, especially in conjunction with Niflheim, could go a long way to solving a bunch of problems.”

“I agree, Commander. Lieutenant.”

“Yes, Captain?”

“This is your planet to name. Did you pick one out?”

“Yes, Captain. Originally, I was thinking of Muspelheim since Cass went Norse with Niflheim. But it’s not really hot enough to justify it, and the PGM find puts a different spin on my thinking, so I’ve chosen Lemnos, the home of Haephaestus.”

Cass was nodding agreement, while Stewart asked, “Who?”

“The metalsmith of the Greek gods,” explained Zihal.

“Very appropriate,” agreed Alley. “Minna, official log. By order of Jennifer Martinez, Captain of TFS Enterprise, at the recommendation of Lieutenant Dawn Zihal, the planet known to astronomers as Tau Ceti e is hereby designated Lemnos.”

“Logged, Captain. An excellent choice, Lieutenant.”

“And now, ladies, we have to decide where to next. There are two more planets in the system, correct?”

“Yes, Captain, Tau Ceti g and h, both closer in to the star, both roughly double the mass of Earth. Not really super-Earths, more Earth plus.”

“Any particular reason to choose one over the other?”

“Other than convenience, no, Captain. Currently g is closer to us, on this side of the star, but they are both roughly equivalent. They orbit very close to Tau Ceti.”

“How close?”

“Nineteen million kilometers for g, thirty-six million for h.”

“That’s getting close!” exclaimed Stewart. “I mean, Wolf c was closer, but that’s a red dwarf star. This one looks like it’s more like the Sun.”

“It is, same spectral family, but Tau Ceti only throws about 55 percent of the energy the Sun does. To answer your question, yes, it’s getting close. Closer than Mercury, actually, so I don’t have high hopes for either planet. I expect them both to be similar to Mercury in composition. No landings; no atmosphere to protect us, and far too warm for people to survive for any length of time.”

“Ball of twine surveys again?” said Zihal.

“That’s what I think,” agreed Cass. “Official recommendation, Captain. Low-orbit survey of Tau Ceti g, followed by the same for Tau Ceti h.”

“Captain?” said Sanzari. She didn’t usually speak at these meeting, mostly devoted to the scientific mission, but since she was an integral part of the command structure she felt obligated to appear. This was in contrast to the Chief Engineer, who avoided the meetings whenever possible, despite her position in the hierarchy.

“Yes, Commander?” said Alley.

“Captain, after the planetary surveys, I would like to give my crews an opportunity for more practice with the laser.”

“I think we can arrange that. There are certainly enough rocks. Anything in particular you want to work on?”

“Ms. Stewart’s idea of changing the output of the collimator has given us some ability to change our aim outside of pointing the ship at the target, say, 15 degrees in any direction. But it’s still a skill, and skills require practice.”

“How long do you think you’ll require?”

“No more than a couple hours, Captain. Possibly less, but even if they’re doing well I’d like to get them as many opportunities as possible while we have them. We can’t exactly practice on the Belt back home.”

Alley agreed. “I don’t think the Guild would appreciate it. Very well, two hours, after the survey. XO, during the tactical maneuvers give the conn to the Commander, make it as realistic as possible.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

“Then let’s get moving. I know we’re ahead of schedule, but if we can wrap up the planned mission objectives early, we can examine possibilities for the rest of the duration.”

“Like what, Captain?” asked Zihal.

“Checking other systems? Returning to a system we’ve already explored? Heading home early? I’ll throw it open to discussion, after Tactical finishes making small rocks out of big ones. Dismissed.”

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