"Look! Of course the Mach can cloak herself. She's the only ship this size in the fleet that can do it. But not how you're imagining it! " Lieutenant Zachary Hoyt threw his arms up in frustration at the woman following him. She was doing well, keeping up with his brisk pace as he trotted down the flight op command tower's main stairwell and out onto the Expedition Carrier ISS Starswift's flight deck.
Ahead, far across the expansive hangar were a row of triangular shaped starships, each a hundred meters in length nestled in their respective bays. Those vessels represented the backbone of the Kepler Scientific Expeditionary Fleet.
Zach's ship, the Machs Pride, second in the row, stood out from the others. Significantly longer, sharp and isosceles in design, she along with the Starswift, were the most technologically advanced starships ever commisioned in Earth's fleet.
The hangar was more busy than usual today. A frenetic swarm of robots, loaders and crew bustled about preparing for the forthcoming mission to explore the newly discovered planet in only a few hours time.
Lyria was a surreal exotic jewel located in the center of the equally curious Syoss system. Syoss, along with its young neighboring stars pierced bright blue through the center of a swirled multi hued cloud of interstellar gasses. The lacy tendrils of a massive nebula formed in the remanents of a recent supernova.
"Lorrie please. Can it wait till later?" Zach pleaded with Dr. Nightstarr. He didn't have time to explain for the third instance today to a clearly confused biologist how his starship worked.
"But some of the Lyrian wildlife have been clocked at speeds upwards of 300 kilometers an hour! At the cloaked speeds you're claiming, how will we keep up with them if they're migrating across continent?" Dr. Nightstarr repeated herself, trying to keep up with Zach as he marched quickly across the Starswifts massive Hangar.
Zack just nodded dismissively hoping she'd just get the message and go away already. As he crossed the flightdeck he could see at least a dozen of Vasquez's men in Bay 2 working beside the sleek looking Machs Pride. A utility droid was disengaging external power cables and loading up equipment into a waiting hover cart while its handler stood nearby operating the machines control remote.
"Good." He murmured. "Her main reactor's all fired up and ready. One less thing to worry about. "
Oblivious to Zachs annoyance the doctor persisted. "But Lieutenant! It's imperative we remain cloa-"
A claxon filled the starswifts hanger, cutting her off mid sentance. Zach was grateful for the alarm for once. The Logistics Support ship Gödel was returning from a quick flight out to one of the nearby comets. As the bahemoth inner airlock doors creeked open, flashing yellow hazard lights inside silhouetted the ship and the work men underneath her as they busily secured the launch and retrieval tow sled that would bring the vessel back to its berth.
"But we can't observe the wildlife uncloaked. We'll disturb them. I dont see why the ship can't just do it Lieutenant." She shouted, jogging after him. Making sure to be out of the way of a passing loader speeding in the direction of the incoming Gödel.
It was a problem Hoyt knew and understood well, but he kept his thoughts about it. All the drones onboard could in fact keep up with anything down there in Lyrias atmosphere. And, some of them could even cloak at various frequencies, mostly in terahertz and microwave ranges. But nothing on board could cloak in the ultraviolet range that the animals likely could also see in on the planet.
Except for the Mach of course, but she couldnt remain cloaked and do the sorta speeds needed at the same time. Unfortunately, it put Lorri and the Zoological team in a predicament. At any rate, it was a problem he could solve later. The Starswift's captain and XO would be here at any minute to inspect the Mach and the authorization for the mission hinged on that inspection.
Zach turned around again to face the doctor. "Look Lorri. I telling you for the last time! The Mach can't stay cloaked and go any faster. Not unless you want her to plummet from the sky like a rock when we exceed her drive's stability."
He felt silly claiming that a superluminal capable starship wasnt able to go faster than a few hundrered kilometers an hour. But in this circumstance it was the truth.
Lorri just gave a disbelieving blank stare for a few moments.
Shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot Zach looked back at her. From the expression in her eyes, he could tell that She honestly didn't actually understand. "Lorri we'll be able to get all the data your heart desires once we're down there. I promise. Dont worry. Now will you please get onboard to the science lab and get everything set for the inspection. Commander Lewyll will be here any minute and I got enough stress on me already." He said finally breaking the stareoff.
Dr. Nightstarr didnt budge. Zach gave an exasperated sigh, rubbed his forehead and scanned the bay. Victor, his engineer, was walking a convoluted path around assorted boxes and cables laying about toward them with some sort of tool he couldn't identify cradled in his arms. The soft blue glow from the Mach's exotic metamaterial hull casted long murky shadows in front of him as he approached.
"Ah Victor! Just in time! You all done checking the microwave attenuators?" Zach said smiling, trying to ignore the lingering biologist.
"Yeah, they're all calibrated. Shes ready to fly." The wirey engineer confirmed as he eyed doctor Nightstarr suspiciously.
"Great!" Zachs smile widened. "The good doctor here is having trouble understanding the Machs Pride cloaking limitations!" Zach wheeled around gesturing towards the biologist as she finally caught up to him.
"What?" The engineer scowled.
"She needs help understanding why we can't 'go fast' while cloaked. Aaaaand you're just the guy to explain it to her.... while the two of you walk back to her science lab." Lieutenant Hoyt said. His eyes tacitly begging him to go along with his desperate ploy.
Victor scrunched his face for a second perplexed and then relaxed once he understood the situation.
"She a moron? What kind of idiot works on a starship and doesnt understand basic cavity quantum electro dynamics!" Victor said well within Lorries earshot.
"What!?!" The biologist scoffed.
sigh "Fine. I'll explain it to you." Victor said as the two of them began walking towards the Machs Prides loading ramp." Do you understand what a Huygens metasurface is?"
"A what?" Dr. Nightstarr responded perplexed.
"You know EM discontinuities as resonating cavity mirrors..." Victor groaned in a faux shocked tone.
"What?" The biologist repeated.
"Idiot." Victor grumbled under his breath.
"What!" Lorrie glared back at the abrasive little man.
Zach watched the two of them walk off and grinned as the conversation faded into the thrum of all the other activity on the hangar deck. Victor is probably enjoying this. He loves talking down to people. He silently reassured himself wincing as he thought about how he just hoisted Lorrie onto the unsuspecting engineer.
Beyond the nearest science vessel bays a pair of lift doors opened at the base of the hangar control tower. Commander Lewyll of the Starswift emerged followed by his Executive Officer. Boy, did Victor ever have good timing.
Zach forced a confident smile and waved over to the two men. "Gentelmen. The Machs Pride is ready for your inspection. If you two could follow me please."
Captain Thomas stared back at himself as his beloved wife Samantha stood next to him smiling. He felt like he was looking at a stranger and that stranger seemed so much happier than he was.
An excited little girl ran up to him, a doll dragging behind her. 'Daddy! Rebecca and me are going outside to look at the butterflies!' She said gleefully pointing toward his patio door.
Samantha bent dow and hugged the little girl rocking her side to side lovingly. 'OkJenny! Make sure Rebecca has fun and sees allll the butterflies!' Samantha said referring to the little girls doll.
'Jenny you remember what the rules are?' The young lieutenant Thomas said smiling.
'I Know daddy! No leaving the backyard and don't bother Mr. Friedman our neighbor. He's grouchy!'
'Thats right! Have fun. Daddy loves you!' Thomas called out after her as she twirled around and ran towards the door, her pigtails bouncing behind her along with her doll, Rebecca.
'I hate that you're leaving for another four months.' Samantha said reaching down to gently hold his hand. The pain in her eyes evident as they began to glisten from tears welling up. 'It's straining our daughter and I dont think I can do it much longer either. She needs her dad....I need you here too.'
He held both her hands in his and consoled her as best he could. 'Sweetie....Samantha. It's important I go on this next tour. I'm this close to being promoted to captain. Imagine it. I'll have my own ship to command. ' he said beaming before the holographic recording faded away and was replaced by a view outside the Starswift of a creme colored gas giant in the outer Syoss system. The ship had parked just above the rings of the eigth planet out from the sun. In the distance, half in shadow, a quartet of the larger moons were making their way around the backside of the planet and into the alien sunlight.
Captain Thomas pursed his lips and blinked back a few tears. Samantha never understood. And, she convinced his Jenny to think something that wasn't true . He hadn't seen either in 15 years since Samantha filed for divorce. He missed them both terribly. Neither of them appreciated the responsibility he had to the fleet and his ship.
The tablet by his bed pinged, glowing in the starlit quarters, breaking him from his thoughts. Finally. Word from Commander Lewyll.
It only took him a few seconds reading before he saw what he had hoped.
I hereby order the ISS Maxwell to be attached to the Lyrian Expedition Fleet under the comnand of Lieutenant Hoyt of the ISS Machs Pride for the duration of planetside exploration and survey.
The Einstein is ordered and reassigned to leading outer system survey operations with the assistance of the logistics support ship ISS Gödel.
Captain Thomas and all ISS Maxwell crew are to assemble immediately on the hangar deck for a supplimental briefing.
Please review all attached files and packages.
-Senior Commander Lewyll**
Captain Thomas grinned. His appeal for the Lyrian expedition had been approved. His ship, the Maxwell- would replace the Einstein for the mission planetside. Not including him and the experience of the Maxwells senior crew was a mistake that he couldn't allow Commander Lewyll to commit. The expedition needed a seasoned crew such as the Maxwells. It was fortunate that Commander Lewyll had agreed with his wisdom.
Captain Crawford of the Einstein would understand the change of orders. He thought to himself. Besides the man wasn't suited for this sort of high stress work. He'd be much more comfortable with the Gödel in the outer system surveying the various gas giants and ice rings.
And with any luck, the precocious Lieutenant Hoyt would screw up giving Commander Lewyll no choice but to order command of the expedition over to him. It would be fitting.
This wouldn't go down like the last time when he was passed over on the initial expedition to Epsilon Eridani 10 years earlier. That slight alone had set back his career in unforgivable ways. Especially since the young captain of the Von Neumann ended up being promoted to a rear admiralty position. That position should have rightfully been his. He wouldn't let the same thing happen this time. Eridani was an economic boom for Earth. But this was beyond all that. He would get his share.
As Captain Thomas stepped into his uniform
the tablet that sat on the edge of his bed shone brightly as message after message came in with acknowledgements from his senior officers. He knew that they would all soon be down in Bay 3 awaiting him. He must be there before them. If there was anything his 40 years in the fleet had taught him was that good leadership and protocol dictated such things.
Reaching down to his dresser without looking he accidently grabbed his old wedding band and turned it in his fingers, old painful memories threatened to crop up again and he quickly set it back down before his groping found his rank insignia he was looking for and fastened it to his collar.
Pausing briefly as he left his quarters he admired the image he saw before him in the mirror. Things were looking up. If only Samantha and Jenny could see him now.
"Mother fucker! Really?" Hangar Chief Vasquez cursed loud enough to be heard all the way across the hangar deck from the Einstein's berth.
Zach looked out the open hatch on the upper command deck of the Mach just in time to watch the woman punch the air once in anger before stomping over to the nearest of her deck crew.
Giving a shrill whistle, she quickly got the workers attention. "Nope! Hey! Stop loading! The fuckers just reassigned the Einstein 6 hours before deployment. Son of a bitch! Now we have to re outfit the Maxwell for the mission." She growled waving around her tablet and pointing to its screen.
Vasquez's deck crew reacted in a mixture of anger and disbelief as they temporarily milled about on the ramp of the Einsteins open cargo hold.
"This is bullshit!" An older gray haired man with grease stains on his jumpsuit and a clip board in his hand protested as he came out from around one of the larger stacks of crates he had just unloaded inside the doors of the hold. A pair of worker bots rolled behind him carrying what looked like a small launchable flying research drone. Each had a side of the manta ray shaped drone held in their claw like pinchers.
One warbled a question toward the old man.
"No. Don't mount the LLD. We've got new orders now. " He motioned across the hangar at the Maxwell resting two bays down. "Its going in that one now. Come on follow me."
The robot gave Zach the impression it was producing a confused shrug in response and then the pair set off in tandam, following the man down the ramp. The long range sensor aircraft held aloft between them.
Lieutenant Hoyt scratched his head equally perplexed before his tablet lit up too with the same message Vasquez had just seen. "What the fuck!" He exclaimed as he read.
"Hey, Hoyt. What's all the commotion?" The Machs Prides Second Officer 'Tane' Taumata strolled up asking casually pointing towards the spectacle.
Kahurangi Taumata or 'Tane' as everyone called him was your typical Maori. 300 lbs, jovial and substantially strong. Zach first ran into Tane his first year at the fleet academy in Brisbane when a rival classmate picked the wrong time to attempt to bully him. The wrong time because Tane happened to be standing two meters away when the jerk swung the first punch and missed, instead hitting Tane in the back.
Zach had never seen anyone be picked up by the neck with one hand before. But apparently that was not much of a feat for the average Maori since Tane snatched him up like a raggedy old doll and shook him around until he nearly fainted. Tane got in trouble for that incident but Zach never forgot it and the two had been friends ever since. They got lucky to be both assigned to the Starswift Kepler Expedition. And the second Zach got his commission for the Machs Pride he didnt waste a second petitioning for Tane's appointment and promotion to be his second in command aboard the science vessel.
"Here. Look for yourself" Zach off handed the tablet into Tane's massive paws.
"Hooo!!! That Asshole." Tane whistled. Zach nodded in agreement.
"You know he pulled the same pompous stunt at Ross 128b." Tanes voice not doing much to mask his disdain for Captain Thomas.
"Yeah I heard about the rumors but never got any details. We were both in the academy back then. Hey. Let's go do a final on the Science Deck. Make sure everything is ready down there." Zach said as they both worked their way down a nearby stairwell that lead to the level below and entered the vessels brightly lit quarter deck.
Tane stopped just before the ships ceremonial bell and colors, pausing momentarily to wipe a smudge off the gold colored bell and then continued.
"Yeah. I got an ear full when I was stationed at the Enceladus Orbital Research Station out by Saturn one evening by my then commanding officer. Said a Captain Thomas was going to be doing TAD, temporary duty assignment, at the station and to stay as far away from him as possible. Proceeded to tell me about the Ross incident. "
Zach leaned his head in closer to Tane. He had been wanting to know more about Thomas' background since the day he was accosted by him after Vasquez's orientation briefing of the Starswift flight deck and hangar facilities weeks ago.
"So Thomas was commanding that old bucket the Rutherford and was part of the Bravo task force for the initial Ross128b survey. Mission was to explore the dark side of the planet. Alpha was tasked to the light side. Anyway, when he found out he drew the short straw with Bravo, he threw a fit and got his ship reassigned to Alpha. Had dreams of being the first to find extra terran life. Of course all they found on Ross was lichen and pools of slime." Tane laughed.
"And it wasnt even him who found the slime pools it was Nozawa and his team on the Compton. Bastard tried to take credit for it I heard." Zach added shaking his head.
"Yep! A year later tried pulling the same stunt with the Eridani Expedition. But he got shut down there. Turns out his Ross caper pissed off some admiral. Man will do anything to further his career. And, he sees an opportunity here with this mission." Tane said his eyes wide as his shook his head up and down emphatically.
"So...You were stationed at Enceladus? What was that like? I did shake down flights to Jupiter and did harvest runs to the graphene farms there. But I heard Enceladus was someplace you had to see with your own eyes to believe." Hoyt said changing the subject as they stepped into the central lift and headed down toward the onboard Science Labs.
A young boatswain was standing in the back of the lift her face buried in a tablet reviewing her list of tasks for the pre flight check. Zach recognized her as 1st PO Arisse. She worked on the sensor station housed one deck up from the bridge. He had chosen her for his ship specifically after reviewing her file during selection. She noticed the two officers, smiled and smartly saluted.
Tane returned the saluted absently, too engrossed with his story. "I was a Second on a exploratory submersible vessel there. Every day we'd piggy back down to the surface, our ship strapped to a carrier dropship from the orbiting facilities and explore the polar ocean."
The lift doors opened and they shifted sideways to let the young boatswain out onto the Main Deck before Tane continued. "Was a nightmare. No artificial gravity on those drop ships. You just plummet until the retro thrusters kick in three minutes later. Had an Ensign that chucked every time. The oceans there were treacherous. They had multiple thermal layers making navigation a guessing game. We went down nearly ten klicks before we saw the abyssal bottom on one of the trips. You dont want to test your luck in a Enceladan Trench. "
"No thanks with those drop ships" Zach commented as they rode down one more floor to the ships science labs on Deck 2.
"But the beauty of Enceladus though were the geysers." Tane said whistfully. "Y'see heavy underwater volcanism causes them. They burst through the moons icy crust and shoot up several hundred miles. Alot of it blows off and forms Saturns E Ring. The rest rains back down as snow. Half the time during entry we'd be in a blizzard. Snow flakes the size of tea coasters. Theres no resistance on the way down since theres no atmosphere, so the snow would fall at the same rate we were. They'd just hover there outside your viewport like in stop time. Real pretty."
The elevator opened up onto the Science Decks softly lit foyer. It was a plushly carpeted, well decorated lobbey facing a wall of large observation windows that viewed into the ships main science lab. Off to either side of the lift were corridors heading aft toward individuals offices for the ships science officers, conference rooms and heavy lifts down into the main launch bay and cargo hold. Dr. Nightstarr's bubbly voice could be heard chatting excitedly somewhere down one of the corridors behind them.
Tane and Hoyt made their way across the foyer towards the sliding doors of the central lab and entered the large room.
"Wow. Lorrie sure does know how to present the Machs science facilities to Commader Lewyll. " Zach remarked. Tane nodded in agreement.
In the center of the lab a holographic projection of one of the colossal Lyrian trees dominated the room. It rotated slowly, serenly casting off its light onto the surrounding benches and ergonomic designed, modern looking, work stations.
The trees themselves stood several kilometers high. At various levels of altitude ascending the trees, unique and different biomes formed. Each with their own plant and animal life. A few of the levels existed entirely shrouded in clouds and fog. Others near the top were conditioned for the high UV rays of the bright blue sunlight and thin air of Lyrias upper atmosphere. Near the bottom, below the clouds, the layers were speculated to be consistently wet and rainy habitats of thick and possibly dangerous undergrowth.
Scattered inbetween the workstations throughout the lab were other images of three dimensional holographic video footage from the earlier HALO drone recon of the planet. One in the corner was of what the science team had dubbed "The Lyrian Dragon." It hovered motionlessly in the air its wings spreadwide looking back at Zach.
"As you can see. A great deal of Lyrias ecosystems are arboreal and aviary from what we can tell. I made sure we've packed plenty of extra parts for the aerodrones in the bay below. Also, the Cantor has loaned us a pair of her old JDY-32's. Theyre not the fastest hover bikes. But we can use them like mules if we do ground excursions." Tane said as he inspected the giant tree up close, leaning down to get a closer look at its mongrove like root system.
"Sounds good. Im sure they'll come in handy. Tell captain Erickson we'll take good care of them. " Zach smiled.
He always liked hover bikes. They weren't so much bikes as personal or two man transports. Looked more like a larger hovering version of a wave runner.
The Machs Pride had four of the newer JDY-108 models in its bay. They were fast, but they didn't have as many compartments for storage as the older models did. They would be a definite bonus for the ground teams once they ventured down below the clouds to explore deeper into the Lyrian wilderness.
Erickson may have been a cranky old man relegated to captain the equally as old Cantor. But the loaning of the old 32's was a thoughtful gesture. Hed make sure to return the favor when he could.
Lining the side walls of the lab were several large monitor screens with various readouts and smaller personal work cubicles for some of the mid level technicians and scientists aboard.
"That one there is for Dr. Li, the young molecular biologist Dr. Nightstarr insisted be attached to the mission. " Tane said, pointing to the closest of the cubicles.
A few holographic trees, palms by the look of them, stood next to doorways on either side of the room that lead to other more specialized labs. A lone shadow could be seen moving about through a dimly lit doorway that lead to the starboard corridor of labs. A person was either working in one of the Computer or Astrographics Labs that were found through there.
The Biological/Analytica and Geological labs were through the port side set of doorways. They, conversely, glared harshly from the brightly lit labs therein.
A trio of lab technicians filtered out of the portside corridor and Tane quickly excused himself.
"Sir. I need to talk to these folks here. I'll go find Dr. Nighstarr and check in with her once I'm done and find out how everything went with the Commanders inspection." The big Maori said before taking his leave.
Zach watched his First Officer disappear out the lab with the technitions and then took the opportunity to head towards the forward viewports in the lab at the far end of the room. The viewports looked down into the launch bay and cargo hold. From there he could observe the final loading of supplies and equipment taking place without his presence being disruptive.
As he strode toward the viewport, a vase of fake flowers at one of the workstations caught his attention. 'Hmmm. Stargazer lilies. Fitting choice.' Zach thought to himself. That must be Dr. Nightstarrs station. The flowers fit her personality enough.
Zach stepped into the station to satisfy his curiosity and found a well worn journal sitting on the desk. Flipping it open he found it was filled with sketches and personal notes from Dr. Nightstarr. On one page, a rough sketch of the Machs Pride deck plans. On another a loosely drawn map of the science deck. Zach laughed. Leave it to Lorrie to draw herself a personal map of the ship she served on.
On another page there were some interesting comments about the Lyrian tide pools spotted by the earlier drone survey. Zach took a moment to read one of the passages.
The oceans of Lyria appear to be shallow and migratory. The low gravity coupled with the intense tides from her two moons cause these shallow seas to continuously roll across the surface around the topography of mountains and volcanoes. I estimate they travel a full rotation around Lyria once every 84 days. Never in the exact same location twice. Will request further study of this unique feature of the planet and investigate how this creates and impacts aquatic ecosystems of Lyria.
Sketch of Machs Pride Science Deck Pg. 32 -Dr. Nightstarr's Journal
Zach was about to read a second passage about arboreal riverine systems found in the large trees when his tablets shipwide intercom system beeped. The voice of Dave Holden the lowest ranked and without a doubt most incompetent crewer on board the Starswift let alone the Machs Pride squeaked through the speaker.
"Officer Taumata? Sir. Dr. Shazahd has arrived and requesting I take him to his stateroom..."
"Ok Holden....take him to his quarters then." Tane replied.
"I uh...don't know where it is." Holden squeaked back.
"He's in G Eight." Tane shot back briskly.
"...Sir?" Holdens voice came back confused.
One could hear the frustration in Tane's voice as he responded. "Holden, Dr. Shazahd's quarters are located at oh one tack sex four tack five tack L." Giving the ships precise internal coordates for the Dr's room using what was known in naval lexicon as a 'Bullseye.' On any bulkhead, in any ship of the fleet, they could be easily found written in bold lettering. There was no way he couldn't figure it out now.
01-64-5-L That sequence of numbers and letters told Holden that he needed to take the Dr. to Level 1. Hull frame number 64 corridor 5 (starboard side) and that the room was a living space.
"Uh....sir? Sex for?" Holden asked sheepishly after a pregnant pause. Zach snickered. Dave Holden clearly was not familiar to the peculiar accent Maori and other Kiwi's from New Zealand had.
"Damit Holden! Sex four! Sierra-India-X-ray! Sex!" Tane shouted back.
"Six?" Holden replied tentatively.
"YES!!" Three other voices shouted in unison over the channel at Dave.
"Yes sir." Holden managed before clicking off of the comm frequency.
"Idiot!" Victor chimed in on the intercom getting the last word.
The Scientific Expeditionary Fleet descended like a constellation of shimmering silvery white stars through the indigo skies of Lyrias upper atmosphere.
"How we looking out there?" Lieutenant Hoyt said as he brought up an external view of the fleet onto the Machs command dias holographic display. The image was being relayed to the fleet in real time by the now loitering HALO reconnaissance drone.
"The DeSitter is experiencing minor boundary destabilizations in its drive field. A slight computer hickup thats being sorted now. Captain Sokolov says it's almost resolved. " Tane replied over his shoulder back at Zach. The big man was busy interacting with a mini projection of the DeSitters captain at the rear of the command dias.
Zach surveyed his bridge and smiled at the frail Dr. Shazahd as he sat strapped into a chair near the command deck science station. The aging biologist intently stared wide eyed out the forward viewport holoscreen as the Machs pride penetrated into the first thin wispy layer of clouds in Lyrias upper atmosphere.
The view ahead transformed abrubtly. Far below, in a patchwork of white and grey, robust cumulus clouds blanketed the planets surface. Greenish blue islands of foliage sprouted here and there through the shroud. The islands the very tips of the kilometer high trees who's branches inigmatically ambled through the alien sky.
"Thats our target right there!" Lorrie said excitedly, standing behind Dr. Shazahds chair. Her arm shot past the Dr's. shoulder pointing to one of the larger tufts.
The Dr. managed to shake his head up and down in agreement.
"Sir. The Huygens is requesting to set up a plasma relay for comms. " The Comms/Data Fusion officer said.
"Agreed. Authorise them to do so and to hold station. Once established, confirm with Starswift that they are recieving data through the node at the proper rate." Hoyt commanded.
From the dorsal side of the Huygens, three high energy lasers lanced out and intersected a kilometer above the vessel. At the convergence of the beams the air started to burn brightly as the ionised plasma began to bloom into a fierce reddish yellow orb. A fourth beam, moments later, shot into the plasma bloom which then flared up briefly before a bright column of light erupted out of it and extended upward deep into space.
"Thats interesting" Dr Cheung commented from the back of the command bridge. He looked over at Zach with one eyebrow raised inquisitively. "Hows it work?" He questioned.
"Just standard proceedure in comms relays these days Sir." Tane offered in response.
"Ive never seen anything like it before." The astrophysicist replied as he stared at the scintillating orb trailing above the Huygens like an artifical star.
"That's because most civilians have never seen one before. No need for them in most commercial applications. Historically the ones that occasionally do spot them think they're seeing aliens or ufos. Can't blame them." Hoyt Interjected.
"As for how it works the Comms officer could explain it to you better. " Tane added glancing over at the comm station.
The officer nodded and then proceeded to explain to Cheung. "OAM signal amplification via Raman back scattering in the plasma node. Langmuir waves preserve signal fidelity. We can pump 20 terabytes a second through it."
"Thats.... astounding. " the astrophysicist exclaimed. "Is it dangerous?" He added as an afterthought.
"Not usually. The high levels of argon in Lyrias atmosphere convert some of the beam into soft x-rays. But thats only if you're standing real close to the business end of the emitter or bloom. If you get blasted there, youre spending a couple of days in the medlab getting deradiated and your DNA scanned for degredation. We have to be careful when we'll be using it lower in the atmosphere near the plant and wildlife." The officer explained.
"However, its a necessity. No other way to punch signals through those clouds down there. We'll be creating other ones like a network of tranciever hubs to keep our ships connected once were dispersed across the planet."
"Fascinating." Dr. Cheung remarked as he watched transfixed at the strange column of light.
"Contact!!!" The Navigational Officer shouted across the command bridge. "Unknown intermittent contact 15 klicks at 195 degrees. Black seven low! "
"Bring up a visual on my display ma'am." Hoyt wheeled around to view the imagery as it was brought up on the holographic projector behind him on the command dias. He studied the image closely, as Tane followed suit leaning closer to make to out any details. There was nothing there.
"Connie! What are you reading out there." Zach inquired tensly. Nervous sweat beginning to bead down the sides of his temples.
"Anomalous contact. 8 meters in length. Giving off cerenkov radiation. Definitely not natural." The navigational officer said. Her voice beginning to shake. "Its...strange. It's there, then its not. I've lost it. Sensors not detecting anything now. "
"Could it be some sort of reflection of our own signature?" Dr. Cheung asked.
"No sir. This is quantum based radar. It's detected something." Zack said. "I dont like this. Navigation. You let us know the second it returns. Until then, we continue on with the mission. "
"Comms." Tane said, getting the communications officers attention. She too was staring at the navigation radar screen a station over. "Notify the Starswift immediatly. If Commander Lewyll gives us any new orders regarding, we execute them. Until then, I concure. Continue mission as planned.
"Ai Sir." The comm officer acknowledged. "Sir. The Maxwell detected it too."
A small image of Captain Thomas flickered into existence next to Zach on the command dias. "Hoyt did the Mach just register that contact like we did?" The gaunt figure demanded.
"Yes we saw it too. It's gone whatever it was. We've notified Commander Lewyll. We continue on as assigned." Zach responded. He didnt like Thomas hailing them like he did visually through the holosystem.
"I recommend the fleet go to yellow alert...Sir. " The captain of the Maxwell offered. His tone like he was making a suggestion to a child.
Zach hated to admit it, but Captain Thomas was right. "Agreed. All ships go to yellow alert." Hoyt commanded to the fleet over the comm system.
The fleet left the Huygens logistical support ship and its trailing plasma node companion behind and plunged deeper into the atmosphere towards the largest of the tree tops several kilometers away.
"Tane order the DeSitter to check out the main trunk. See where it goes under the clouds. The Maxwell and the Mach will get a closer look at the terminal segment of that tree. I believe Dr. Nightstarr would like to collect some data on the upper atmospheric ecosystems of Lyrias forest canopy. " Zach said proceeding with the mission.
Lorrie Nightstar patted Dr. Shazahd on the shoulder encouragingly.
As they approached the tree it became apparent just how massive and expansive it really was. The island of foliage they had selected was larger than the Mach its self. The main shoots each measured 10 meters in diameter as they twisted and contorted towards the sky. Bright mottled beige and white bark speckled with dark brown knotts contrasted the green and blue feathers of leaves that spread fountain like from the tops of the limbs.
As they approached flocks of avian creatures of various sizes erupted from the massive tufts of leaves and scattered. Some diving deep into the clouds seeking shelter. The others flocking to neighboring limbs. The science team was already busy snapping imagery of the animals and busily chatting amongst themselves with speculation and observations.
Zach felt himself relax slightly as the mission unfolded like he had envisioned, and ordered the Maxwell closer to a large cluster of the trees flowers. His mind temporarily ignoring the worrysom mysterious contact only minutes ago.
The bouquet was a fifth the size of the Maxwells 125 meter length. That was 65 feet. Impressive considering the mass was composed of dozens of flowers each with a carolla spanning 8 to 10 feet across.
As the Maxwell approached, one of the pastel flowers rained a billow of bright yellow pollen from between its petals. Zach watched as the upper atmospher winds carried the pollen like a snow drift down and away from the tree.
"This species appears to be dioicious. This is a male. I'm betting its either unisexual with the receptive female flowers down further, protected from the harsh sun under the cloud layer or that the female trees are much shorter...well, relatively shorter considering." Lorrie said in a perky voice.
Dr. Shazahd agreed continuing on the conversation with the Science Team huddled next to him watching the view screen together.
"Sir! The contact is back same baring....12 klicks!" The navigational officers alarmed voice broke through the command deck.
Tane scrambled over to the Navigation station and peered over the officers shoulder at the display. "This thing is stalking us...playing cat and mouse. We should go to Red alert captain!" He yelled.
Just as Hoyt was about to order all stations in the fleet to red alert the object disappeared again.
"Sir. It's gone again. "
The screaching of the Sha'tal birds broke him out of his deep meditation. The birds weren't easily startled and only cried their alarm when something very unusual or dangerous was nearby, and almost never at this time of day.
He shuttered his nictitating membranes a few times to clear his eyes and crawled out of his hut into the steamy mist of the early morning.
From his ledge he could see the excited creatures flapping from limb to limb above him in the canopy. The bold colors of their plumage flashed in and out of the leaves as they darted about.
besides the birds he saw nothing out of the ordinary. His sagital crest flared briefly in annoyance. Whatever they were protesting was further above out of view.
What could the disturbance be he wondered. Perhaps the A'tiak were migrating back through this section of forest again. They often prayed on the smaller Sha'tal. Although, they weren't expected for at least four more moon cycles.
Stretching his arms out he extended his prehensile claws and began to scale his way up toward the commotion.
As he climbed he noticed his scales lacked their normal luster. Patches of dull grey had taken over, reminding him of just how much he missed his village and how long he had been out in the wilds on Fal'tak, the rite of passage all of his people must go on to ascend into the next stage of life as an enlightened elder. He had been away on his own for nearly a whole season on a quest to commune with the nature spirits and recieve their blessing of wisdom that would allow him to join the tribal council. He climbed further making his was through a patch of Ver'lial vines that draped down the meters distance from the next limb up. He noticed their small lavender colored ver'lim flowers had ripened, a small succulent red berry at the center of each. They were too delicious to leave to the birds to feast on. He must remember to collect those when he came back down he noted.
Light rain had arrived, and the coolness of the downpour soothed his drying skin. He paused for a few moments beside a forming rivulet of water streaming down the bark and lapped his tongue into it refreshing himself. Soon he continued on happily knowing that this particular rivulet would quickly become the usual afternoon stream that cascaded over the eaves of his hut and fill the pools below his home. He would enjoy lounging on the soft wet moss by the pools this evening once he returned. Perhaps bask under the waterfall for some time before heading inside to cook his meal.
Finally he reached the top of the canopy and stood up to his full height of 2.5 meters and pushed a leathery purple frond of a brom'lia plant out of the way so that he could better gaze upward. As he did so, he shook his neck to unfurled his external gills refreshing the oxygen in his blood, and peered up into the sky.
Through the haze and drizzle above he saw them. A bright silvery glow that travelled high overhead through the clouds shining as bright as the moons.
The gods! They had returned! Finally the dark ages were over!
His heart raced at the blessing and stared at the sight. The shining lights were just as the scriptures had said. Falling to his knees trembling, he reached out as if to embrace the glowing rays. The luminescent gods were accompanied by a beautiful angelic messenger. It glowed softly red as it faithfully travelled behind the glorious procession.
The shamans had proclaimed the gods would return one day. It had been thousands of years since they departed, leaving their demons to care for his people.
The demons had been cold, distant...inigmatic. On ocassion they would take one of his people only to mysteriously return them days later. Not one soul had ever retained memory of their time with the demons. Not even the shamans knew what they really did. Only that the gods had left them behind.
His trial of Fal'tak was over he suddenly realized. He had definitely ascended he reasoned, and was now worthy of joining the council as an elder. Perhaps the gods had returned even to sanction it!
He watched the gods soar towards the Sil'ban heights to the east, in the tallest of the home forest where they rested in the shelter of the thick clouds there. Even now, their heavenly glow shined through the shrouds and mesmeriesed him.
For a moment he struggled with what he should do next. He should race back to the village and herald the return to the council. But surely they too witnessed the return. No, he would trek to Sil'ban and greet the gods himself he decided. He must welcome them properly and serve as an emissary for his people. He now understood his fate.
A low hum, barely audible, filled the air. His flesh tingled perceptibly. A demon! One was near!
From the depths of the forest below, a sphere darker than any shadow of the night ascended discreetly. It hovered just beyond his perch causing him to shiver in its presence. And then, to his relief, it slowly slinked off in the direction of the gods.
Sketch of Machs Pride Deck Plan Pg. 15 -Dr. Nightstarr's Journal
Thank you for reading the sixth chapter of the Starswift series. It's the end of Act 1.
If you enjoyed this chapter and would like to read the prior ones they can be found by following the links below.
Please leave a comment with your thoughts. I always read and respond to each one.
Thank You again for reading. I hope it brought a few moments where you felt like you were in a different time and place away from the wear of daily life.
*Astronomy pictures provided by Pixabay. All artwork from Miss Nightstarr's journal are works of the author (@steemydave)