Bill sat in Helon’s office waiting for news that the communications department had picked up the Earth Orbiters’ signals. They had to wait until the Stinson was close enough to use the short-range communication system. It had been almost seven years and they still had not been able to fix the interstellar communication equipment that was destroyed by the fire set in the NAV/COM room.
Bill said, “What are we going to do if the people on Earth will not help us? People do not forget easily, and there’s bound to be animosity towards us for leaving them behind.” Bill had worried about the way they left Earth years ago, and never felt right about it since.
“I understand your concern, Bill, and without long-range communications, it is impossible to know where we stand, or if HOPE is still around. If they are still around, there may be a chance that they can get us the supplies and repairs we need to get going again without too much trouble. If not, it’s going to be a rough road. The orbiters have been recording satellite news transmissions ever since we left; we should be able to get a flavor of how our leaving was perceived. Once we establish communications with the orbiters, we will be able to use them to contact the Legacy, and possibly HOPE. A lot can happen in thirty years and we need to establish communications with the Earth Orbiters.”
The general’s PIC beeped to life. “Go ahead.”
“General, we are not picking up the orbiter’s signals. They should be in range by now, sir. We should have been able to detect them over an hour ago.”
“Bring the ship to a stop. Have all the department heads report to my office.” The general clicked off his PIC and gently tossed it on the table.
“I was afraid of this, Bill.” Pax sat with his hands intertwined, resting on the desk; Bill noticed the knuckles turning white from the pressure mounting inside his friend. “We had always assumed that Earth may destroy the orbiters out of anger for us leaving, but we also never anticipated that we would be turning back. I’m afraid that HOPE may be no longer, too. This is not good news.”
Bill got up to sit in his usual corner chair as the department heads began to filter into the general’s office; Major Kepford was the last to enter.
The general stood up and started to pace the small office. “As you have probably heard, we are unable to pick up the Earth Orbiters’ signals. I’ve ordered the ship to a stop. We need to formulate a plan on how to approach Earth.”
Major Galvin said, “Do we know if the orbiters are destroyed, or just not functioning? Is our short-range communication system operating properly? ”
Major Dillon, the head of the communications department answered, “Our short-range communication system is operating perfectly. The system has been checked and rechecked. Whether the orbiters were destroyed or not, I believe they were. One or two orbiters malfunctioning maybe, but all three is hard to believe.”
“What about contacting HOPE directly on Earth?” said Major Kepford. “Have we tried that?”
Major Dillon scratched the stubble on his jaw. “We currently have only tried receiving signals from Earth and the orbiters. We haven’t transmitted due to fear that Earth would detect the signal.”
Major Werke said, “What if there is no one left alive on Earth? Our scientists told us that the earth would be uninhabitable about ten years after we left. Over thirty years have passed; is it even possible anyone is alive on Earth to hear us?” Some of the department heads nodded in agreement with Major Werke’s comment. “We should just go get what we need. How is Earth going to stop us?”
Major Dillon started talking before Major Werke could get his next sentence out. “There is no telling what technology advances have happened on Earth. As you said, it has been over thirty years; they could have found a way to reverse the damage to the planet. This also means they could have developed weapons that are far superior to ours, and we could end up being target practice for them. I think going in without knowing is too risky.”
The general stopped pacing for a second and turned to the officers sitting in the room. “I agree with Major Dillon. I’m not going to risk the safety of this crew and this ship by going in blind.”
The head of the flight department looked up from his PIC. “What if we sent a scout ship into Earth’s orbit?” Colonel Maud’s suggestion got a few raised eyebrows. “It could check out the situation and determine if it was safe for us to move in. The scouts have short-range communication capabilities, and it would be able to send us a secure transmission.”
“How close to Earth would we have to get for a scout to make it there and back?” said the general.
“No further than Earth’s moon.” Colonel Maud was punching away on his PIC, likely running the numbers to verify. “The scout could make it to Earth, complete a few orbits, even land if need be, and still make it back. It would be close, though, if it had to land.” The colonel raised his eyebrow and shook his head. “The scouts weren’t designed for long space travel. They were meant to travel from the Stinson while it was in orbit around Batavia, go to the planet’s surface, and then return.”
“And what if the people on Earth attacked the scout?” said Major Dillon. “The scouts have limited defenses; it would be a suicide mission.”
Colonel Maud said, “Yes, but at least we wouldn’t be risking the entire ship. The scout would need two, three crew members tops. Plus, it would give us time to formulate a plan before they knew where we were.”
General Helon started pacing again, seeming to ponder the idea for a minute. “This could work. Who do we have that could, and would, fly the mission?”
“General, hear me out.” Maud leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. “I believe Captain Steele would be perfect. He was put into cryogenic freezing, but it was never proven that he was the saboteur. I think-”
Major Werke’s sturdy voice overpowered Maud. “We found evidence in his quarters linking him to the sabotage attacks!”
Bill had been quiet for the entire meeting. He had always felt Captain Steele was innocent, but understood why General Helon decided to place him into cryogenic freezing for the rest of the trip. “It is always possible someone planted the evidence there, maybe his roommate, even. In addition, Captain Steele passed all lie detecting tests. There’s no solid proof he was involved at all.”
“How much more proof do you want?” said Major Werke. “After Captain Steele was placed into hibernation all sabotage attacks ended!”
“That proves nothing, Major Werke,” said Bill, realizing he was half out of his seat.
General Helon stepped in. “Gentlemen, at ease. I’m fine with sending Captain Steele. Who will be the second crew member?”
Major Galvin cleared his throat. “General, it would be wise to send someone from the navigation department; someone who also has experience piloting.”
“You have someone in mind?”
“Yes, General, myself. I have more experience than any other navigation officer on board this ship. I have also flown hundreds of hours in the simulators with Captain Steele; I know his piloting well. If this mission does run into trouble, he will need the best WEP/NAV person to help get him out. I can also keep an eye on him if he decides to do something rash.”
“Very well, Major Galvin.” General Helon sat back down at his desk.
Bill noticed Major Werke looking at him in disgust. They had disagreed on the innocence of Captain Steele over the last seven years. Bill knew that Werke was not happy with the choice of Captain Steele piloting the scout.
“General, I would like to send one of my men to help keep Captain Steele in line,” said Werke. “One of my men, Master Sergeant Rollins, has had some piloting time and could help share the load as well.”
“Very well, Major Werke. The scout team will be Major Galvin, Captain Steele, and Master Sergeant Rollins; Galvin will be in command.”
“There’s one potential problem.” The office’s attention shifted focus over to Major Dillon as he spoke. “If we bring the ship within the range needed, it is possible that Earth could detect us.”
Major Galvin said, “If we plotted a course that kept the moon between us and Earth, the moon would hide us on our way in. We could then use the moon as a barrier once we stop.”
“If we held up behind the moon,” Bill wasn’t an expert on communications, but he had to ask the obvious, “it would hide us from Earth; but wouldn’t it also prevent us from receiving the transmissions sent from the scout?”
“It just might work,” said Major Dillon, as he sat back in his seat. “We could send a small probe out to the far surface of the moon. It would be able to pick up the transmissions sent from the scout and bounce them up to us. The probe is small enough that Earth shouldn’t be able to detect it. The probes weren’t designed for that, but it shouldn’t be hard to reprogram the probes to accomplish this task.”
The general stood up and pushed his chair in. “Gentlemen, we have to make this work. Colonel Withers, bring Captain Steele out of hibernation; have security standing by. I want to talk to him once he is up. Gentlemen, that is all.”