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Expeditionary Force

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 1 of 23

This story is respectfully dedicated to that special breed of men and women who go in harm's way to save the lives and promote the well-being of people suffering from the effects of disasters, natural and manmade, no matter their nationality, religion, or political persuasion.


EXPEDITIONARY FORCE

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 journey ended.

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 colony's history.

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 inhabited townships.

Unfortunately, the 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 hurricane winds.

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 live out their lives and raise their families in peace.  Though they hoped that their voluntary withdrawal from Federation power games would allow them to live peacefully and undisturbed, they did not trust the ruthless 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 fortresses, with secret rooms, hidden tunnels, and other types of shelters to protect 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, operating 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 . . . explosions . . . 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 them.  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 only knew 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 second thought."

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 enemy ships, but I've already programmed an evasive approach into Zen's flight computer.  We can make a quick pass through the system without being detected and then orbit the planet if there's no sign of hostile activity."

"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 - serious problems."

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 improve his chances of survival, despite Blake's foolhardy attempts to drop in on every 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 received earlier.

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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