The Road to the Stars – Chapter Six

And here we are, continuing our tour of Tau Ceti, and Dawn Zihal got to make the big discovery this time. Of course, she then went and proved she really had no idea how to deal with anyone outside of the science department.

When I heard about the reaction the Engineer had to Zihal’s suggestion, I was afraid the next words were going to be, “And then Zihal ended up in sickbay with broken ribs.” I mean, seriously!

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Chapter Six

“Entering orbit around Tau Ceti e,” said Chastain, at Helm this shift.

“Very good. Lt. Zihal to the bridge,” said Stewart. They had been in-system for a full day, and were in the middle of the second watch. Most of the primary crew were off-duty, which she was enjoying, Kiri had to admit. Life can take you pretty strange places, she thought, watching the planet slide into view on the screen.

That reminded her.

“Minna, is the bridge screen active, or is that a live view?”

“That is the live view, Commander. We are approaching the planet in an inverted aspect.”

“Right. So, window, not screen.”

“Correct, Commander.”

“Pity it’s such a dump.”


“Ignore that, Minna. Just a comment.”

It was a dump. She could tell that there was an atmosphere of some sort by the faint haze around the horizon, but the ground was mottled greys, browns, and blacks. It was a big planet, roughly the same size as Niflheim, but far closer to the star, half an AU distant.

Her musings were interrupted by the arrival of Zihal and Willerman on the bridge.

“Lieutenant, we have arrived. Do your thing.”

Zihal grinned. Cass had promised her the lead on investigating Tau Ceti e, and she was going to make the most of it.

“Aye, Commander. Willerman, start scanning for atmospheric composition. I’ll get on density and magnetic field.”

“Yes, Lieutenant.” The two scientists bent to work as the planet passed by.

“Lieutenant, I have an atmosphere. Thin, and hot. Mostly nitrogen, with some simple hydrocarbons.”


“Not enough to matter. Traces only.”

“That fits with what I’ve found.”

“What have you found?” said Alley, exiting the lift.

“Captain!” Zihal exclaimed.

“Oh, back to work, Lieutenant. I’m here because I’m curious, not because I’m taking over. It’s still your conn, XO,” she added.

“Aye, Captain.”

“I was just saying that the atmosphere is what I’d expect from a planet like this. It’s large, 3.93 masses of Earth, but not as large as Niflheim, only 9982 kilometers radius. Gravity is commensurate with the mass, 3.71g, so this planet is rocky, like Earth, or Venus.”

“That’s fairly high g, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, Captain. We’re not landing on this one, at least not for any length of time.”

Alley was shaking her head. “If all we’re doing is a symbolic step, then we’re not doing it. I won’t risk our only on-board Wolf and crew on a pointless mission.”

“Aye, Captain,” said Zihal flatly.

“You still get to name it, Dawn,” said Alley.

Her voice was the only part that didn’t say, Good. “Aye, Captain.”

“What else do we know so far?” Alley didn’t head to her command chair, choosing instead to stand at the science station.

“Willerman is doing the atmospheric analysis, while I work on the body of the planet. Give us a few minutes, and I’ll be able to tell you more.”

“Take your time.”

“Honestly, ma’am, I don’t think that it will take particularly long to…hold on, ma’am.” Zihal turned back to her instruments.

“Dave,” she said, “Can you check this for me?” She sent readings and coordinates over to his board.

“Sure. I mean, yes, Lieutenant,” he corrected, remembering Martinez’s presence. Then he forgot about her again as he started analyzing.

“That can’t be right,” he said.

“I wouldn’t think so,” agreed Zihal. “But are you getting what I did?”

“High concentration of PGM elements?”

“That’s what I got,” agreed Zihal.

“What’s a PGM element?” asked Stewart.

“PGM stands for platinum group metals, a half-dozen elements with similar chemical properties. They usually occur together if they occur at all. They’re extremely rare on Earth, and even when they’re found they’re not particularly abundant. Typical PGM ores run ten grams of PGM per ton.”

“That doesn’t sound like much.”

“For comparison, ma’am, silver is found at a rate of 8.5 kilograms per ton.”


“What are these metals, Lieutenant?” asked Alley.

“Platinum, obviously, ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, and iridium.”

Alley and Stewart looked at each other. They were both fully aware of the other projects that Kendra and Cass were undertaking, on behalf of the UE, and why.

“Very interesting, Lieutenant,” Alley said instead. “Carry on. Commander, if I can have a moment?”

“Certainly. Ms. Morgan, you have the conn.” Jess got up from her Engineering position and took Stewart’s seat, with some trepidation.

As soon as the XO had cleared the door, and it had slid shut behind her, Alley was talking.

“That’s, what, four of the elements that the Union receives under the Accords? Five?”

“Five. Everything but ruthenium,” answered Stewart, after checking her ‘plant.


“And Zihal was talking about high percentages. I wonder what that means?”

“Good question. If it’s 20 grams per ton, well, I don’t know if it’s worth hauling twelve light years from Earth, but if we’re going to terraform Niflheim, then it could be worthwhile.” Alley’s face was thoughtful.

“In any case, I think that we’ve paid for the trip.”

“Not that Kendra’s pinching credits, but yes. Let’s see what else she’s dug up.”

“So to speak.”

Realizing what she said, Alley stood with a groan and returned to the bridge. Morgan looked to Stewart to be relieved, half out of the chair, but the XO simply waved her back into the seat. “Not yet, Ms. Morgan. I’ll let you know when I relieve you.”

“Aye-aye, ma’am.”

“Lieutenant, do you have a better idea what sort of yield you’re looking at for the PGM?”

“Yes, Captain. Our best readings so far are indicating a concentration of one kilogram per ton, with variation of perhaps 20 percent, plus or minus.”

“One kilogram per ton? Are you certain of that number?”

“As certain as I can be without a direct sample, yes, Captain. I realize that doesn’t sound like much, but there are other factors to consider.”

Alley, who realized just how stunning the numbers were, motioned for her to continue.

“On Earth, PGM are often found in gold, copper, or nickel deposits. It’s not clear if that will consistently hold true here, but so far that’s what I’m picking up.”

“Gold? Silver? By the goddess…”

“Recovery will be tricky, given the high g’s, but we can probably roboticize much of it. Use mechanical exoskeletons to help any of our people who draw the duty on the surface; they’ll need something, maybe like old-fashioned diving suits? The surface temperature is seriously warm, though not immediately hazardous.”

“How warm?”

“About 70 Celsius. There’s an atmosphere, mostly nitrogen and nitric oxides, a little water vapor, though not much, and other trace elements. The planet’s massive enough to retain atmospheric helium, but not hydrogen. That’s partly due to the heat. The atmosphere’s thick enough to distribute the thermal radiation from the sun more evenly, so there isn’t a hot side/cold side, and the lack of CO2 means we don’t have a Venus situation and runaway greenhouse effect. Orbital period is 168 Earth days, and it completes a rotation every 29 hours.”

“How does that compare to Niflheim?”

“Longer rotation, shorter orbital period. A year for Niflheim is 522 Earth days, rotation is 17 hours.”

“Good work, Lieutenant. Is there any way to firm up those readings? Can we send down a probe?”

“I’d have to ask Commander Cassidy, ma’am. I know that we have probes, but I don’t think they were designed for landings, just orbital surveys.”

Willerman spoke up. “If we put one into a low orbit, we would get more detailed readings.”

“But not as detailed as the ones we can get using the ship’s sensors,” said Zihal. “The probes just don’t pack as much instrumentation as we do; they can’t.”

“Then what if we brought the ship closer?”

Zihal looked to Alley. “Captain?”

“I’m not thrilled with the idea, I have to admit,” said Alley. “Check with the Engineer – Anderson, not one of her subordinates – and find out what she’s comfortable with. We’ve already put more stress on the pylons than I think she was prepared to happen. But whatever she recommends, I’ll back.” She checked her ‘plant.

“I’m going to check back in in five hours, before the change of watch. That’s how long you have to work up a plan.”

“Aye, Captain!” Zihal turned eagerly back to her station.

“XO, I’ll see you at twenty-three.”

“Aye, ma’am. Morgan, I have the conn.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said the relieved engineer, and vacated the seat.

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