Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 5

Here is yet another installment of my unfinished novel, "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars," a fictionalized biography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, the starship Captain who made the first contact with extraterrestrials in the 28th century (some 2.5 centuries before the time of "The Termite Queen"). I already posted the Prologue to that book, as well as Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. In keeping with my method of alternate flash-backs and flash-forwards, Chapter 5 chronologically follows Chapter 3.  Robbie had just learned from his holier-than-thou Assignment Officer that he had been selected to fill in for the Captain of the Mars ship the Red Planet, who had suffered a concussion while playing darts, much to Robbie's amusement.


Chapter 5: The Captain Takes Command of the Red Planet

(23 July 2766, aboard the Red Planet)
There was nothing unusual about a voyage to Mars in the year 2766; Earthers had been sprinting among the planets of the inner solar system for over a century.  The current space program had been established about the same time that the Proposition for the Creation of a Pan-Terrestrial Government was formulated; the movers of the time had correctly believed that an All-Earth Space Project would help heal social discords.  Another forty years had passed before the Earth Unification Charter had been ratified by two-thirds of the era’s political entities and still another forty before the final hold-out, the Union of Ind, had signed on, but all during that time progress in space had proceeded at a steady pace.  Advancements in plasma/ion technology had reduced the duration of interplanetary voyages to a matter of months rather than years, and the Asteroid Belt was now routinely mined for metallic ores.
       A colony had been established on Mars in the year 2660 – a controversial issue at the time of its founding, since the economy of mid-27th century Earth was much shakier than it would be a hundred years later and Earth had no population surplus.  A decision had been reached early on that the environment of the Red Planet should be altered as little as possible.  Therefore, even though the existence of the Mars Colony depended on extracting water from the subsurface ice layer, the Martian lithosphere had never been exploited for minerals.
Thus, the settlement’s only practical function was to serve as a research base and a contact and supply point for the asteroid mining operations and the occasional exploration of the outer solar system.  In fact, the Colony had contributed significantly to certain scientific and technical advancements, especially in the areas of soil-free agriculture, low-grav biomedical research, electromagnetic field generation, and the techniques of living comfortably on minimal resources in a hostile environment.  The biodomes, protected by lead shielding and particle deflectors, could sustain only about 1200 residents, but by now whole generations had been born and had died in the Colony.  It had become a symbol of humanity’s rise from its 24th century nadir, and to abandon the Colony after such a long and successful record was simply unthinkable.  Human natives of Mars called themselves Humartians; they were an independent and proud lot, with their own delegation of representatives in Earth’s Global Council.  As a matter of fact, in the year 2766, the President of Earth was a Humartian.
*          *          *
On 23 July Robbin Nikalishin boarded a Lunar shuttle as a passenger for the first time since the beginning of his sentence, duly arriving at the Launch Facility at Luna Base, from which all Mars missions departed.  There, he boarded the Red Planet; it was a moment of great emotion for him, for he had never believed that he would ever command a ship again, even on a one-time substitute status.
       Robbie decided to call a crew-muster.  Unsure what reaction he might evoke, he stood for a few moments allowing his glance to pass slowly over the assemblage, careful to engage the eyes of every member of the 40-person crew.  He saw pretty much what he had expected:  Some faces were grim (undoubtedly they belonged to those who would have agreed with Maj. Nwinn that he shouldn’t even be allowed to walk an Admiral’s dog) – some looked neutral or even bored (the jaded long-termers whom nothing could faze) – and then there were the ones who were so awed by the presence of the legendary Hero of the Darter Disaster that they could hardly keep their mouths closed.
        At last Robbie stood back a little, hoping his demeanor expressed confidence and reassurance.  “At ease, gentlemen and ladies.  I’m Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, in case some of you didn’t know the identity of your substitute commander.  I want to state right off that I’m fully aware that I’m an interloper, and I have no intention of attempting to undercut your regular commander, Capt. Emil Kastens, or to meddle with any of the systems or routines he has instituted on this ship.  I’m happy to be able to report that Capt. Kastens is on the mend and undoubtedly will be fully recovered by the time the Red Planet flies its next mission.  Now, my style likely won’t be like his – I can say that without even knowing what his style is … ”  And he thought with an internal chuckle, I might put somebody’s eye out playing darts, but I certainly hope I’d never get a concussion doing it.  “… but I will do my damnedest to make sure my tenure aboard your ship is tolerable.
       "Our sister ship and flagship for this run is the Vigilance from Delta Squadron, under the command of Capt. Magda Markova.  We’re set to rendezvous with the Martian Chronicle in about 25 days – it’s coming two-thirds of the way – whereupon we’ll transship our cargo.  The Vigilance is loaded with food and medical supplies, while our vessel is carrying envirosystem components and parts for a new drilling rig – nothing hazardous.  Then we’ll turn around and chase Earth back across the solar system for some 75 days.  The trajectory will take us within 80,000 klicks of Venus, so we’ll get a pretty good view of that planet.
       “We also have 28 passengers aboard, mostly Humartians returning from visits to Earth, along with some scientists and technical assignees.  Let’s all work to make sure they take only pleasant memories away from their voyage aboard the Red Planet!
       “I want to thank all of you for your faithful service to Flight Command and I want you to know that I’ll need your cooperation and unfailing hard work if this voyage is to go smoothly.  If you have any problems or questions during the trip, my door will always be open whether I’m on or off duty, but my guess is that I’ll have more questions for you than you will for me.  Thanks again for making a newcomer feel welcome.  I’d like the Senior Officers to stop by the Command Office after the conclusion of this muster.  Dismissed!”
       Nobody had questioned him and nobody had complained.  However, the Senior Officers might be a knottier problem.  Robbie stood behind Capt. Kastens’ desk as the eight of them filed in – the Second and Third Officers, the First Pilot, the Ops Chief, the Com Officer, the Chief Engineer, the Security Chief, the Medical Officer.  “Gentlemen and ladies, be seated, please.  I have a little problem:  I’ve studied the crew manifest, but I haven’t put names to faces yet.  Please oblige me by identifying yourselves.”
       They went around the circle.  Robbie scrutinized each face, trying to label it hostile, neutral/resigned, or favorable.  To his relief, he couldn’t discern much hostility, so he decided a candid approach was in order.  “Certainly you’re all aware of what happened aboard the Solar Wind during my last command of that ship.  As you might imagine, I’m as surprised to find myself here as you must be; I expected to be consigned to Lunar shuttles for the whole year of my sentence and maybe even after that.  But apparently I’ve done enough right during the last three months to glean a little redemption for myself.  However that is, I hope you can set aside any conflicted feelings you may have and remember that we have a job to do, and that I have flown a few ships before that last mission without causing any problems worse than getting sick from a bad gall bladder.”  Robbie let himself chuckle, and then he decided, What the hell, make a real joke …  “And, fortunately, for this mission there’s nobody on board with a rank higher than my own, so I won’t have to punch anybody out.”
       A tiny giggle escaped the Com Officer; who was female and quite young.  Rather nice-looking, too, Robbie noted.  He always seemed to be attracted to Com Officers.  But that was neither here nor there; he made a point of never initiating intimacy with a subordinate while he was in command.  And he took the giggle as a favorable sign; he was cracking their rather embarrassed deferential rigidity.
       “Ens. Purify, I believe you were accorded Second Honors for flying skills at your Wings ceremony three years ago.”
       The Pilot’s mouth fell open.  “Yes, sir.  If I may say, sir, how could you possibly remember that?”
       "I didn’t.  I looked up all of your records before I left Earth just so I could impress you with the depth of my knowledge,” said Robbie, with a big grin.
       Everyone was chuckling now, and Robbie continued, “I’m always interested in the Pilot when I assume command of a ship – not only because I started out in that capacity, but because he or she is the person a Captain depends on most to keep the ship out of tight situations.  And I mean to depend on you more than usual, Ens. Purify, because … I’m not going to hide it from you people … my ship, the Solar Wind, was ST-70 Union Class and I’ve never set foot in an ST-90 before this day.  I realize that two days’ worth of study and sims isn’t going to make me an expert in the differences.  So if I should issue a command that misses the mark, I want to be corrected – I don’t want you, Ens. Purify, or you, Cmdr. Cheddle, or any of the rest of you, to stand on protocol.  The first duty of all of us is to get these passengers and this cargo safely to the transshipment point and then to get ourselves back to Earth – and the privileges of rank be damned.  Are we in agreement on that point?”
       To a person they said, “Yes, sir, Capt. Nikalishin!” and Cmdr. Cheddle, the Second Officer, added, “We’re looking forward to serving with you, sir.  You can rely on us all.”
       “Thanks so much for your understanding.  Now, if somebody could show me where I’m supposed to bed down, I’ll stow my gear and then come see if my Bridge is as fancy as it looks from the specs.”
       The Captain still had it in him – the Senior Officers were his, heart and soul.  If certain members of the Board of Command are expecting me to fail in this endeavor, Robbin Nikalishin thought, they don’t know me nearly as well as they think they do.
Coming next!
Chapter 6: Crises and Decisions

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