I still don’t know how Alley was so calm!
I know, naval professional, thirteen years in submarines, blah blah blah. But when you emerge from warp into a new system and almost splatter yourself across a million kilometers of space!
Frankly, I would have lost it.
I suppose in her own way she did. How? Well, I can’t tell you that, can I? No, of course not! You’ll just have to read and find out!
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Lalande 21185 was a disappointing red dwarf. There was a single super-Earth, at three times the mass of the Earth. Unfortunately, it was only ten million kilometers from the star, and completed a “year” in just ten days.
“It’s a semi-molten ball of rock,” was Cass’s expert assessment shortly after arriving in-system. They spent several hours, gathering data and mapping the system properly, but it was more an exercise for the various divisions secondary staff. At one point, Commander Stewart was overseeing all junior watchstanders: Dave Willerman at Science, Jeff Sebesta at Engineering, Christina Manco at Tactical, Joel Hamby at Helm, and Chris Greenstein sitting in at Astrogation. The fact that they all performed to standard, and then some, was a tribute to the rigorous training they had endured in the weeks, now months, since commissioning.
Still, it was a relief to set course for Tau Ceti, and not simply because it was the final scheduled stop before heading home.
The engineers were excited, as the 22 light year voyage would be the single longest high-warp leg they had yet attempted.
The astrogation division, which was essentially Seabolt and Greenstein, were looking forward to seeing how accurate their charts could become.
Tactical, and Minerva, were looking forward to the system, as there was a debris disk which they were hoping would yield opportunities to test the spinal laser. They’d been under strict orders not to test it while in the Solar System, to conceal its capabilities from the Union.
The science division, especially, was eager to get to Tau Ceti, as there were four confirmed planets, and a possible fifth, the biggest haul in the local group and the best chance for finding an even vaguely Earth-like planet.
Thus it was that, after thirty hours at high warp, they dropped into normal space again, five light-hours from the star. Immediately alarms sounded.
“What’s going on?” demanded Alley.
“We’re in the debris belt!” shouted Cass.
“Shields holding, defensive emitters standing by,” added Sanzari.
“Find us a way out of this!” ordered Stewart.
“Scanning!” replied Cass.
“Helm set speed to station-keeping. Don’t run into anything we don’t have to,” Stewart said.
“Station-keeping, aye!” said Kay, slowing them to a bare meter per second.
“Minerva, shut off that noise!” yelled Alley.
The din ceased. “That’s better. Thanks.”
“Not at all, Captain.”
“Working, Captain. The debris field is thicker than we expected, but it looks like we entered near the underside of the disc. I recommend a course of South 45, West 30, no more than one-quarter sublight. That should clear us fairly quickly.”
“Helm, you heard her. South 45, West 30, one-quarter sublight.”
“South 45, West 30, one-quarter sublight, aye. Set.”
“Sanzari, stay alert. Minerva, you too.”
“Aye, XO,” said Sanzari.
“How else, Commander Stewart?” asked Minerva.
“Sensors at maximum, XO,” said Cass.
“I don’t think the Admiral would appreciate dents,” added Alley.
“Or scratches to the paint job,” continued Stewart.
“I’ll bet she’d make us buff it out ourselves.”
“No, XO, you’re wrong,” said Cass, who had overheard them. “I’d be the first one she has out there.”
“That’s true,” agreed Alley. “Position?”
“Almost clear,” reported Cass. “Thirty seconds.”
“Once we’re clear, XO, set course for the first planet on our list, half sublight, and no dents. Which is that, Cassidy?”
“Tau Ceti f,” she answered.
“Clear debris, set course for Tau Ceti f, no dents, aye.”
“Cassidy, Zihal, could I have a word with you? In my ready room if you please.” Alley made her way off the bridge, Cass following closely, Zihal waiting for her replacement. When Willerman showed up, she quickly briefed him, then hurried over. At the door, she buzzed for entry. When the door slid aside and she stepped in, she saw Alley sitting at her desk and Cass, unusually, rigidly at attention. Zihal snapped into position as well.
“Lieutenant Zihal reporting as ordered, Captain.”
She received a bare nod in acknowledgement. The two science officers were kept standing for the galaxy’s longest forty-five seconds before Alley deigned to look up at them.
“What the hell just happened?” she started in a low, intense voice. “Did you see the size of the rocks we were dodging? We come winging into a system, fat and happy, and nearly end up with a piece of space debris the size of a Wolf through the goddess-blessed window on the bridge! If not for Mr. Kay’s talents, there wouldn’t be anyone to write to our next of kin because we’d all be so many corpsicles!” Her voice had gotten slightly louder during her harangue, but she was still far from yelling. “Commander Cassidy? Would you care to explain?”
“Ma’am. No excuse, ma’am.”
“I’m not asking for an excuse. I want an explanation.” As if a circuit had been tripped, the anger abruptly left her voice and she seemed to deflate. “Sit down, Cass, Dawn, and tell me what happened. How did we miss it?”
“It’s my fault,” started Cass, but Alley stopped her again.
“I don’t care whose fault it is. Fault is stupid, anyways. Assigning blame is just another way of not taking responsibility. So, one more time. What happened?”
“I think we got comfortable, Captain.”
“Okay, I’ll let you have that. But what does it mean?”
“The other systems we’ve entered have all had planets, but no serious debris disk,” said Zihal. “I’ve been thinking about this. Centauri, Wolf, Lalande, they’re all older stars, about the same age as Sol. Tau Ceti is much younger, only a billion years or so.”
“Assume I skipped that day in astrophysics,” said Alley.
“Older stars have cleaner systems, for lack of a better word. There’s been more time for the planets to gather up the leftover bits, either by running into them or giving them a slingshot out.”
“I’m with you.”
“In younger systems, that hasn’t had a chance to happen yet.”
“So there’s more junk. But you knew that, right? You knew about the debris field?”
Cass picked up the conversation. “Yes, but it’s too faint to be seen from Earth, and too dispersed to have any pronounced gravitational effects. Plus, like I said, we got comfortable. We’d entered three systems –”
“Four,” corrected Zihal. “Proxima and Alpha are far enough apart to be two systems.”
“Four systems,” continued Cass, accepting the revision. “And we’d had no problems when we’d entered. We, I, knew that there were planets in this system, and I am really, really eager to get to exploring them. We, I, figured that five light-hours would be far enough out to avoid the disc and get into the planets quickly. I was wrong.”
Alley nodded. “So how do we keep this from happening again?”
“Generally speaking, Captain, most orbital objects like planets and asteroids are on, or near, a plane,” said Zihal. “If we approach from either above or below the plane, it shouldn’t matter how close in we drop out of warp.”
“Or we could just drop out of warp farther out and come in on sublight,” offered Cass. “Either will work.”
“I’ll want an evaluation from you both. Advantages, disadvantages, to both ideas. And don’t limit yourselves to these; if you think up something else, check it out. But do not ask Minerva for help. She can check your calculations, but that’s it. Understand?”
“Aye, Captain,” said both, deflated. Alley could see them mentally waving goodbye to their observation time in the system and relented.
“On the way home,” she amended. “You have until we dock to turn in a preliminary report. I want a final recommendation no later than three days after our return.”
“Aye, Captain!” they said, with much more enthusiasm.
“That’s settled, then. So let’s go see what we came all this way to check out. Cass, why Tau Ceti f?” Alley led them back out onto the bridge, still talking.
“Tau Ceti f is a super-Earth, at the far edge of the habitable zone for the star, about 1.33 AU. Willerman, do we have a mass reading on e yet?”
“Yes, Commander. 3.42 times the mass of Earth.”
Zihal hurried back to their station, while Cass continued to talk.
“That’s pretty good sized. What we’re hoping is that it’s also dense enough to have a heavy atmosphere, but not so dense as to have killer gravity.”
“Cass, the radius is 12,483 kilometers, give or take,” said Zihal.
“That’s just a bit less than double the radius of the Earth,” Cass said, thinking aloud. “That will yield…Minerva, calculate gravity for e.”
“Surface gravity for the planet Tau Ceti f should be approximately 8.75 meters per second per second, or 0.9g.”
“Wait,” said Alley. “How can it be bigger than Earth yet have less gravity?”
“Density,” answered Cass, checking the readings. “The density for Earth is 5520 kilograms per cubic meter; this world is only 2507 kilos per cubic meter. So even though its volume is nearly eight times that of Earth, the density is less than half.”
“And when you throw in the distance from the center, given the reduced density, you end up with the situation we have here,” added Zihal.
“How do you explain the difference?” asked Alley.
“There has to be more ice than rock in the composition,” theorized Cass. “That would tend to drive down the temperature as well as the density. But it might mean there’s something breathable. It depends on the kind of ice, whether that’s water ice, solid ammonia, nitrogen, carbon dioxide…”
“I’m starting to get readings of an atmosphere,” said Willerman. “Pressure is approximately Earth normal, but it’s cold.”
“How cold is cold?”
“About a hundred below zero Celsius,” he answered.
“That means water ice, frozen ammonia, carbon dioxide, and Sulphur dioxide,” added Cass. “They’re all solids at that temperature, and water ice is nearly as hard as rock. Should be stable, relatively, except for the impacts.”
“What impacts would those be?” said Stewart.
“From the debris disc. These planets have to get pummeled.”
“Not exactly a garden spot,” said Stewart.
“I’m getting readings on composition. Lots of Nitrogen, Oxygen, some trace elements.”
“Breathable?” asked Alley, getting caught up.
“Possibly. It depends on the traces,” replied Cass. “We’ll know more when we get closer.”
“Helm, time to arrival?”
“At current speed, one day,” answered Kay.
“Sanzari, Cassidy. Can we safely cut time off that? Can we avoid going bump in the night?”
“Yes, Captain,” Sanzari said. “I’ve been checking the projected route. We’re clear.”
“Now that we’re in-system, our sensors are going to perform better. There won’t be a repeat of the system entry.”
“I’ll hold you to that. Helm, increase speed to full sublight.”
“Full sublight, aye,” Kay repeated back.
“I’m reluctant to go to warp in this system,” Alley said to the unasked question on her XO’s face. “At least until it’s charted fully.”
“I had a thought about that,” said Stewart. “It’s long-range planning, but we should really start seeding each system with satellites for positioning and communications. We can carry them in the shuttle bay.”
“That’s on the Admiral’s wish list,” said Alley. “But good job thinking of it yourself. I think that she’d appreciate someone else taking the reins on that particular job, so congratulations.”
“Your job until you can’t,” said Alley. “I’ll tell Kendra how excited you are at the idea.”
“Yes, Captain,” said Stewart dubiously, not at all sure how she got pulled into the responsibility.