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Expeditionary Force

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 3 of 23


Pausing in his private office to check for some records he'd requested from the Port Master, Travis was surprised to see the red flash of an urgent message on the comm center.  Wondering who could be so desperate to contact him, he triggered the recall and was startled to see the stern and haggard features of former Fleet Warden and onetime Federation President Samore.  Almost instinctively he came to attention and barely caught himself before saluting.

There was momentary awkward silence as Travis wracked his brain wondering how to address the old man, but before he could speak, Samore's raspy whisper addressed him, "I'm vastly relieved to find you in port, Captain, rather than out on a trading run.  I need your help . . . urgently."

Travis rubbed a hand across his face trying to hide his unease, "I'm sorry, Fleet Warden, but all our ships are in drydock for refit, while we update our records.  You'll have to find someone else."

"There is no one else, Space Commander.  Besides, it's not your ships that I need, but your audacity and command skills . . . for a rescue mission."

"What sort of rescue mission?" Travis asked reluctantly.

"My granddaughter and her family are settlers in a little backwater community on the planet Chiron."  The old man hesitated for a long moment and then blurted, "Sixteen hours ago Chiron experienced a level IV cometary impact."

Travis stared at him for a long moment.  He'd always believed that Samore had no family, nothing except his duty to the Fleet and his loyalty to the Federation.  Finding out that the old man wasn't just a father . . . but a grandfather was almost more than he could take in.

Trying to soften the harsh note in his voice, Travis spoke bluntly, "The sheer force of a level IV hit would have eradicated almost all life immediately, with whatever wasn't obliterated in the initial impact being consumed in planet-wide wildfires or dying from poisonous gases released in the atmosphere.  I'm sorry for your loss . . . sir, but I don't see why you're calling."

"They're alive," Samore erupted, his haggard face reddening with the intensity of his emotion.  "In a doomsday bunker, a mile below the planet's surface.  She managed to get the children into the lift just after the impact and reach the airlock before secondary tremors caused the shaft to collapse.  The bunker has its own climate control and air recycling system, with a virtually indestructible power core and enough food and water supplies to last six months."

"Then why do you need my skills so urgently?" Travis demanded, irked at Samore's attitude.  "Just let them cool their heels for a couple of weeks until the blast effects subside and the winds die down. They should be snug enough in their hidey-hole."

A younger man pushed next to Samore so he appeared onscreen.  His face was bland and unremarkable except for the fierce resolve in his storm-gray eyes.

"You don't understand," he said in strained voice.  "I'm a communications specialist and I helped design our planet's satellite monitoring systems.  When my wife alerted us about the impact, I was able to download the most recent atmospheric and seismic scans.  It's not just hurricanes, tidal waves and wildfires that are the danger.  The comet's impact was so great it cracked the mantle of the planet, causing continents and oceans to shift.  Volcanos are erupting where there weren't even mountain ranges before.  That bunker may have been built to survive a major planetary attack, but even duranium can't withstand this kind of seismic disruption.  Maddie isn't sure how much longer the power core will last or if the bunker walls will hold up under current conditions."

"Maddie?" Travis raised his brow in curiosity.

"Madelaine, my granddaughter," Samore admitted.  "And this is her husband, Mark Carlyle.  He was on Sanctuary to recruit a new physician/surgeon for the colony, when he got her distress call."

Carlyle's expression was strained as he pleaded, " Maddie's grandfather says that you're the only one with 'balls enough' to rescue my family from this holocaust."

"Otherwise defined as being too stupid to recognize trouble when it bites you on the ass," Travis said in a sour tone.  "Besides it'll take more than 'balls' to reach that bunker, unless the Fleet Warden thinks I can burrow through rock and molten lava with my bare hands."

"There are specialized craft designed for work in an underground environment . . . along with people who are experts in that field."

"Who are likely located half a galaxy away, doing metallurgy scans for some megacorp.  It would take you weeks to get access to that kind of vehicle and its crew . . . if you could even persuade them to take the risk.  I'm sorry, sir . . ." 

Travis started to end the message, unwilling to waste any more time, but Samore leaned forward, his face suffused with an inhuman resolve, "Meet us at docking bay 13," he rasped.  "In half an hour, Space Commander" and cut off the connection before Travis could make any more protests about the impossibility of his request.

 * * *

After a hurried scan of the data feeds and against his better judgment, Travis found himself hurrying to Docking Bay 13, but when he arrived, he thought that Samore must have made a mistake.  The area held the industrial section of the docks, where all the tankers, terraformers, long-range recon ships, and construction carriers were docked, repaired and refitted.  While there was heavy-duty mining equipment located there, most of it was on long-term lease.  Besides he didn't see anything that looked remotely suitable for the kind of operation that Samore was proposing.

Then as he approached the end of the docks, he spotted an odd looking craft undergoing a final inspection by the maintenance crew.  It had the sleek lines and hydrodynamic qualities of an undersea vessel but it was resting on the combination of sturdy wheels and heavy duty treads that looked like they could navigate over rough terrain, up unstable rock slides, and even across small crevices.  Even more intriguing were the twin barrels that jutted from the front of the craft, one of which appeared to be the advanced Xenon 21 laser cannon which, according to recent scuttlebutt, had just been purchased by the Federation for their elite troops.  The other device was totally unfamiliar to him .

Surprisingly, the front of the vessel had a name rather than just an identification code painted in gold and red fiery letters.  The name was . . . Loge.  Travis's brow drew down in curiosity at that unfamiliar word.  Ever since he'd become an Enclave captain, he'd seen ships bearing the names of various historic and mythologic beings rather than the ID codes used by the Federation Fleet but that wasn't one he recognized.  He gazed around, trying to locate Samore, wondering if he might be in the wrong part of the docks, then abruptly spotted the Fleet Warden's once robust figure slumped in an anti-grav mobility chair, with Carlyle beside him, fidgeting as he watched the final inspection.

With growing unease, he approached the seemingly invincible one-time Commander of the Galactic Eighth Fleet who met his awkward gaze with his usual implacable expression.

"Good to see you face to face, Space Commander, rather than by vidscreen.  You're looking well."

"I wish I could say the same, sir," Travis answered bluntly.  "What happened?'

"Age and gravity catching up with me, I'm afraid."

"He has Colson's syndrome," Carlyle answered equally bluntly.  "A degenerative nerve and muscle disease.  That's why we contacted you, otherwise the two of us would have been the ones to accompany Dr. Hertzog's team." 

"Who the hell is Dr. Hertzog?"

As if in answer to his question, a stern-faced woman wearing an engineer's coverall strode over.  Her flashing green eyes were framed by a mass of dark brown hair that curled sweatily across her flushed features and there was an impatient expression on her face.

"Citizen Samore, we got the final okay from the inspection crew that our Subterranean Exploration Vehicle arrived in serviceable condition.  We need to get the power cells in place and the geologic soundings updated, then we'll be ready for loading once the transport vessel arrives.  You can notify your people that we should arrive on Chiron within the week and begin our underground mapping survey shortly afterwards."

"Then you haven't spoken with Dr. Sinclair yet?"

"Derek? No, he left about a half hour ago.  There was a call from the Port Master's office, something about our destination status . . . or some other minor annoyance."

"I'm afraid that it's more than just a minor annoyance, Dr. Hertzog.  Approximately sixteen hours ago, Chiron suffered a cometary impact of catastrophic proportions.  I'm afraid that the planetary committee that hired you to do the geologic survey no longer exists."

The woman's intense expression was horrified, "Oh no, you can't mean that.  Derek and I went into hock up to our eyebrows to bring the Loge to this backwater section of the galaxy . . . and now you're telling me that the mission's been cancelled?"

"Weren't you listening, woman?" Travis snarled.  Forget the freakin' mission! Chiron was hit by a level IV cometary impact.  Hundreds maybe even thousands of people have lost their lives . . . and all you can think about is your expenses?"

She turned on him in a savage fury, "Designing and building this ship has been our life for the past fifteen years.  We mortgaged our futures to the hilt in order to create an advanced craft for subterranean exploration and now because of some unforeseen disaster, we'll likely lose it to our creditors.  Forgive me if I shed a few tears for myself . . . as well as the people of Chiron."


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