Expeditionary ForceBy Alice C. Aldridge
Page 1 of 23
This story is respectfully dedicated to that special breed of
women who go in harm's way to save the lives and promote the well-being
people suffering from the effects of disasters, natural and manmade, no
their nationality, religion, or political persuasion.|
The rock had been tumbling through the void for several million
years. Not a particularly impressive geological specimen, it was
an aggregation of sub-planetary debris and ice that was relatively
small as asteroid wannabes went, hardly big enough to register as even
a minor blip on most planetary defenses. It was also the survivor
of numerous close encounters with comets, dying stars, and rogue moons
of various sizes and shapes, which
had shaped its orbit over the millennia. A trajectory that put it
on a collision course with the planet Chiron . . . where its long, dark
Chiron was a quiet, pastoral planet, lacking valuable resources in
the way of metals, crystals, heavy elements or anything else that would
make it a desirable location for people wishing to exploit a new world
and make their fortunes. Its soil was mostly sandy loam, with
barely enough elements in it to nourish basic grasslands. Even
the scenery was bland and uninteresting, lacking the soaring mountains,
tumbling waterfalls, and exotic plant and animal life that typically
attracted tourists and developers. It was simply a modest planet
with shallow semi-tropical seas, mildly rolling hills and dales, and a
somewhat retarded ecology that hadn't advanced much past the clams and
mussels stage. In other words, the ideal location for settlers
and their families who didn't want to wrestle with a raw, untamed
wilderness before building a peaceful home for themselves. Or at
least that's the way things were for the first ten years or so of the
The Chiron impactor was determined by scientists who studied the
aftermath of the disaster to have been approximately ten kilometers in
diameter. Screaming into Chiron's atmosphere at forty times the
speed of sound, it gouged out a crater almost 240 kilometers in
diameter as it smashed into
the planet with the force of a billion tons of TNT.
Fortunately, it did not directly impact any of the colony's sparsely
planetary devastation was so horrendous that it hardly mattered.
As the tumbling ball of rock and ice blazed through Chiron's atmosphere, there was an enormous fan of light streaming behind it. It slammed into the sea, blasted water outward in a mile-high tsunami that emptied the shallow ocean basin where the impactor hit, then fragmented the planet's crust, causing magma from the center of the planet to surge upwards. A vast fireball of atomized rock and sand funneled into the atmosphere and began to spread worldwide, driven by hurricane force winds.
Even though Chiron lacked vast woodlands and large tracts of wild
vegetation to feed planet wide forest fires, the blast wave of the
impact along with the molten debris raining from the sky in the
aftermath the meteor strike caused most of the early deaths. The
impactor hit the dayside of the planet, right at planet dawn while
large numbers of colonists were still sound asleep in their beds.
Every living thing within five thousand kilometers of that impact zone
was atomized by liquefied rock on a ballistic trajectory that was
carried by the initial blast wave or else suffocated in the cloud of
toxic sulfur and carbonized material flung through the atmosphere on
However, many of the settlers who chose to live on Chiron came from
the upper echelons of the Federation political, scientific and military
elite. Galactic events of the past decade, along with wide-spread
corruption in high places had been the chief reason that many of them
had chosen this
unimportant, off-the-beaten-path world to retreat to, determined to
out their lives and raise their families in peace. Though they
that their voluntary withdrawal from Federation power games would allow
them to live peacefully and undisturbed, they did not trust the
and ambitious superiors that they had fled from would leave them alone.
Besides the usual orbiting weather and communications systems, the
colonists had invested in a state-of-the-art satellite defense to
scramble the guidance controls of any missile launched at them.
However, it proved absolutely useless against the brute force of the
meteor's impact. That same
caution also led many of them to build homes that were virtual
with secret rooms, hidden tunnels, and other types of shelters to
their families from blast effects, gas, or other types of planet-wide
destruction. Thus, several hundred men, women and children took
heed of their early
warning systems and fled to their safe havens in the aftermath of the
meteor's impact. However, thousands more, who did not share
their neighbors' paranoia, died in their sleep.
Even those colonists who thought that they had prepared for the worst found themselves taken by surprise by the devastation wrought by that single meteor strike, as their flyers and shuttlecraft hurtled through the air in the grip of hypercane winds of over 300 kph. Though the settlers were not dependent on Chiron's weather for their food supply, the damage to the planetary ecosystem, with acid rain, year round subfreezing temperatures, and severe atmospheric pollution, would have resulted in a mass exodus as soon as it was safe for ships to lift off. However, geologic sensors planted by a preliminary exploration team revealed that the meteor had actually broken through the crust of the planet, resulting in a tectonic instability would shake their world apart in a matter of days. They had no choice but to evacuate as soon as possible . . . if they could.
The EMP burst caused by that initial impact fried the electronics of
most of their sensor and communications equipment, causing brief
confusion about the cause of the disaster. Some believed they
were under attack by hostile aliens . . . or their onetime political
allies. Even the
signaling devices with shielded circuitry suffered malfunctions,
in erratic fashion, leaving the survivors to wonder if anyone was aware
of their plight and if so, what would they . . . what could they do about this
world and its survivors' dire situation?
* * *
Liberator was just returning from another one of Blake's
numerous "fact-finding" missions as Ambassador-at-Large, or Ambassador
Extra Large as Vila sometimes referred to him, when they received the
distorted and erratic disaster signal from a group of Chiron's
survivors. The message was very weak, making it very difficult
for Blake and his crew to decipher it.
". . . FALL repeat SKY FALL . . . planetary disaster . . .
. . tidal waves . . . hurricanes . . . volcanic activity. Cause .
. unknown . . . alien attack . . . mass drivers . . . thousands dead .
. send help . . . ships destroyed initial impact . . . SEND HELP."
+Message repeats+ Zen intoned, its computer voder almost seeming to
take on the note of dire distress from the message they just received.
+Shall I replay the signal and attempt to clarify the missing portions?+
"Don't bother, Zen," Avon answered snidely, "I'm sure that our
Fearless Leader has heard more than enough to send us charging right
into the middle of that catastrophe."
Blake's expression held a combination of irritation and disbelief,
"And what do you think we should do, Avon? Ignore the distress call
completely? Pretend we never heard it? Go on our merry way ignoring
these people's trouble . . . and don't get involved?"
Avon gave what in a more emotional man might have been called a
'rueful sigh.' In his case, it simply indicated that he was
submitting to the will of the majority - under protest. He could
already tell by Tarrant and Dayna's concerned expressions that those
two young hotheads were champing
at the bit to follow Blake into whatever planetary hell might await
He was only too aware of Cally's compassionate nature, which left only
Vila and his new friend Soolin to join their voices with his in a plea
for some small degree of restraint, before charging headlong into space
what kind of disaster.
"I was merely clinging to the faint hope that you might actually
demonstrate a modicum of common sense in this situation, or at the very
least, exercise some degree of caution in approaching the planet.
After all, they admitted themselves that their planet might be under
alien attack, with mass drivers, no less. A technology that
advanced could smash though Liberator's shields without a
At the piloting station, Tarrant's hands danced their elegant
pattern across the controls as he laid in a stealth course that would
take them into Chiron's system without drawing the attention of
possible attackers. "He's
right, Blake. We should take the necessary precautions to avoid
ships, but I've already programmed an evasive approach into Zen's
computer. We can make a quick pass through the system without
detected and then orbit the planet if there's no sign of hostile
"That's presuming that the space around Chiron itself is safe,"
Soolin spoke up from where she had been seated on one of the flight
deck couches, maintaining her usual low-key watchful presence.
Dayna glanced up from where she'd been kneeling under the plasma
bolt station, adjusting its controls to augment their power.
"What do you mean by
that? How could the space around Chiron not be safe?"
"A planet wide disaster could be caused by any number of things,
solar flares, rogue comets, maybe even a miniature black hole passing
through. Any one of which could cause this ship - and us -
Avon muttered to himself, "At last, a woman after my own heart," while Blake tugged thoughtfully at his lower lip before speaking in a determined voice, "Zen, can your long range sensors scan the area around Chiron for possible anomalies that would endanger this ship?"
He caught the intensely suspicious look from Avon's piercing dark
eyes and amended his question, "Or its crew? If so, please
commence scan and report your findings."
+Working.+ the voice intoned.
As the lights on Zen's fascia plate flickered and danced, Tarrant
joined Dayna at the plasma bolt station while Avon turned his attention
to his ongoing efforts to upgrade their sensors and shielding, and thus
chances of survival, despite Blake's foolhardy attempts to drop in on
trouble spot in the galaxy.
During Zen's scan, Vila, having escaped the onerous task of helping
Cally to resupply the Med Center, came sauntering onto the flight deck
and plopped down beside Soolin.
"What's happening?" he chirped, then listened with growing dismay as
the blonde gunslinger described the distress call that they had
Hoping to preserve his skin as always, he spoke up in a querulous
tone, "If anyone was asking me, which of course no one is, I'd say that
the smartest thing we could do would be steer Zen as far away from that
planet as was possible . . . and still remain in the same galaxy."
"No one's asking you," Blake and Avon echoed simultaneously,
exchanging bemused and suspicious glances, then Blake spoke up sharply,
"Well, Zen? What's your report?"
+There is a large amount of cometary debris in close approach to the
system's primary, though it does not have sufficient mass or energy
levels to present difficulties to our shielding. However, the
second planet from the sun is currently showing major disturbances in
its atmosphere and geosphere due to cometary debris impact. That
should present no problems to this ship or crew unless we should choose
to orbit the planet.+
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