The space transport USSF COLLINS is 7 months into its 10-month return flight to Earth. Lieutenant Colonel Randy Coc and his copilot Major Ann Feinstein are performing routine sanity checks. Feinstein feverishly pushes on her console. “There’s a variance with the navigation.”
“How did that happen? Not now, what’s the level?”
“By protocol we should go to .9 c for a fix.”
“Please confirm variance.”
Feinstein makes taps on her console.
“Acknowledged, decelerating to .9 c.”
An automated voice calmly warns, “Brace for deceleration.” Moments later there is the sensation of gravity changes.
A circular viewscreen changes from black to a dot in the center then the dot expands to a star field.
“EPISLON ERIDANI” appears on both consoles.
Lieutenant Colonel Coc, subdued, tells Feinstein, “You know what to do Ann.”
Feinstein smiles, “Already started Randy. Who should make the announcement to the passengers?”
“No need, I’m sure the botanists will be here in a minute.”
In the living quarters, Dr. Donald Driscoll remarks, “Does this mean we’re home?”
Syed, the 11-year old son of Dr. Guy Auergarten, answers, “Dr. Driscoll, that’s impossible we won’t be home for 3 months.”
“Maybe they found a way to increase our speed.”
“There is no way.”
Syed’s mother and spouse of Dr. Augergarten, Dr. May Detal, interrupts. “Syed, there is no sense speculating. We’ll ask the pilots.”
Dr. Auergarten agrees. “That’s right we’re going to the command section. June, you and Syed check on the specimens.”
Syed and his 15-year old sister stay behind as their parents and Dr. Driscoll exit the section.
The doctors enter the command section. Lieutenant Colonel Randy Coc meets them.
Dr. Guy Augergarten asks, “What is happening Randy?”
“We had a variance in our navigation system. We had to go below c to recalibrate.”
Dr. Driscoll asks, “What on Earth does that mean?”
“We’re off course. We’re working on getting us back on course.”
“How long before we’re back on course, and how much time did we lose?”
“We’re calculating that now. It will take a couple of hours to get us back on course. We should have lost no more than 8 hours.”
Dr. Guy Augergarten asks, “Is there anything we can do to help?”
“Thanks for the offer Guy, but Ann and I will have us on our way soon.”
The doctors make their way towards the exit.
Ann checks another part of her console. “I’m getting a T-ping.”
Randy rushes to Ann, “You sure?”
“Yes, and it’s a live one.”
Guy stops at the exit, “What’s a T-ping?”
Randy explains, “The tag they put in your chest, it gives out a ping. It means someone is alive out here, or at least was.”
Dr. Driscoll declares, “That’s absurd. Obviously, your instruments are wrong.”
“Until we have conclusive proof the instruments are wrong, we have to proceed to check it out.”
“Waste time on a wild goose chase. Guy as head of the mission you should tell them to ignore it.”
Randy says, “The regulations are clear. There is no choice. An order not to investigate is unlawful.”
Dr. Driscoll, with sarcasm, “Would it be too much trouble to ask how long this will take?”
“It will take a while to sort this out. We’ll let you know when we get a fix on things.”
May says, “Let’s let Randy and Ann do their job. There are things we should be doing in the meantime.”
May leads Guy and Dr. Driscoll out of the section.
It takes Lieutenant Colonel Coc and Major Feinstein almost an hour to find the source and calculate a course.
Lieutenant Colonel Coc meets the doctors in the greenhouse section.
“We found the T-ping’s source and have plotted a course. It will take us 52 hours to get there.”
Dr. Driscoll coldly says, “Two more days off course to chase a ghost signal.”
“It’s not a ghost. It’s a signal generated by a beating heart. The signal is from the second planet from the star. The star is Epsilon Eridani. Right now, the signal we’re getting is 43 days old.”
Guy asks, “A single person?”
“At least one person. It’s too far out to tell if it’s more than one. We won’t know if there’s more than one until we get close to the planet. To try to divine an exact number will be a waste of time for an academic exercise.”
Dr. Driscoll sarcastically says, “I appreciate your minimalist interest in saving time.”
“Thank you, doctor. Doctors.”
The crew and passengers of the USSF COLLINS prepare to land on the planet. The crew concluded there is only one person on the planet. As they go into the final descent Feinstein notices what could be a landing marker. It appears as a hand dug pattern of diamonds inside squares. Coc and Feinstein had decided wait to meet the person rather than engage in speculations.
The USSF COLLINS lands on the marker. Coc and Feinstein make a visual sweep of the area outside the ship. The screen also shows atmospheric data. The land is semi-arid.
Coc and Feinstein see a figure approaching the ship. Coc zooms in on the figure. It’s a man dressed in a class A uniform and carrying a pennant.
Coc speaks over the intercom, “We have safely landed. It seems the person we’re searching for is approaching the ship. Ann and I are going to make contact stay on board until we return.”
Coc and Feinstein exit the ship. The man is at parade rest. He snaps to attention and salutes as Coc and Feinstein approach.
“Sir, Sergeant Paul Naka, outpost NCOIC, awaiting orders.”
Lieutenant Colonel Coc glances at Naka’s Senior Member insignia.
“Sir, Colonel Stanislaw Smik promoted me to sergeant when he assigned me this post.”
Lieutenant Colonel Coc returns a sloppy salute.
“At ease sergeant.”
Naka is emaciated and has boils and legions on his face and hands.
“Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Naka snaps to attention and rachets the pennant pole. A tripod snaps out the bottom of the pennant.
Naka puts down the pennant. Coc and Feinstein escort Naka to the USSF COLLINS. Coc rethinks his words.
“I meant let’s get you examined.”
Feinstein asks, “Were you assigned to the USSF BLUFORD?”
“Yes ma’am. Ma’am did the BLUFORD make it back?”
“Yes, it did.”
“I’m glad ma’am. The BLUFORD was in bad shape when it took off. I was afraid since there had been no relief the BLUFORD didn’t make it.”
They enter the ante section.
Coc and Feinstein get a standard scan. Feinstein directs Naka to a medical chamber.
The chamber has a transparent cylinder with a chair. Naka sits inside the chamber. A calming voice instructs him to take deep breaths. Jets of different colored smoke fill the chamber.
Coc and Feinstein read Naka’s medical report. He has some bacterial infections that aren’t contagious unless touched. He is also malnourished. The calming voice tells Naka his visible abnormalities should be gone within 12 hours. The voice adds, “It is recommended you eat more nutritious food.”
During the meal Syed asks, “What does the symbol in the center of your stripes mean?”
“It’s my specialty. I’m an LMT, a Light Maintenance Technician.”
Dr. Driscoll, quips, “A janitor.”
“Yes doctor, that is the slang name for it.”
After the meal Coc sends Naka back to the “outpost” ostensibly to organize the items at the outpost. He asks June and Syed to help Naka.
Coc explains the situation.
Since our communications only travel at c we have to make all decisions here. Paul Naka claims he was a member of the USSF BLUFORD. He claims the craft’s commander, then Colonel, now Major General, Stanislaw Smik created an outpost on this planet, promoted Naka to sergeant and put him in charge of the outpost. The USS BLUFORD suffered multiple systems malfunctions. It landed on a planet in the Epsilon Eridani system. That is apparently the planet we’re on now. The crew discarded all unnecessary items. They stripped the items of their chips. Repurposing the chips enabled the crew to kludgy repairs to some of the malfunctioning systems. There was one death on the BLUFORD. Neither I nor Ann know the name of the dead crew member.
Feinstein interrupts, “It’s obvious Paul was the ‘dead’ crewmember.”
Accepted, but the point is we can’t verify Naka’s story. This puts us in an ambiguous area. If we take him at his word he is assigned here until his relief comes. We aren’t obligated to take him back with us.
Dr. May Detal, “You’re not suggesting we leave him here?”
Dr. Driscoll, “May, we should not dismiss that option out of hand. We don’t know the circumstances that caused him to be left behind. He may be dangerous.”
Feinstein, “We can’t leave him here because we can’t prove he’s not dangerous.”
Coc, “There was a good chance the BLUFORD wouldn’t make it back. Maybe Naka ran away because he was afraid to get back on it.”
Dr. Driscoll, “Maybe general Smik decided Naka would endanger the craft.”
May, “Speculation is meaningless.”
June helps Naka move a heavy storage container. Syed is fiddling with some smaller items. June notices some etchings on the box.
“Did you make this art?”
“Actually, it’s map. Well sort of a map.”
They put the container down next to some other containers.
“You see this is where we are. You see the flag. This is a cave where I found food.”
“Yes, some plants or fungus. Anyway, it didn’t kill me. I would have starved to death without it.”
“How long did the rations they give you last?”
“They didn’t give me food. They figured there was enough vegetation to live on. This is a seasonal place. When it gets cold the outside plants die. Maybe I could have planned it better. You and your family would have been a great help.”
A light stick goes on. Syed exclaims, “I did it!” He runs to June and Naka.
“I got the good sections of three chips together to make it work.”
“That’s great! I sure could’ve used that. Do you want to tell your parents?”
“Ok go, but be careful. You don’t want to drop it after all.”
Naka watches Syed as he runs to the COLLINS.
Inside the COLLINS the adults discuss Naka’s fate.
Coc, “General Smik received the Space Medal of Honor for this mission.”
Feinstein, “Maybe they gave it to the wrong person.”
Coc, “Guy, as leader of the expedition it’s your decision.”
Dr. Driscoll, “You also have your children to think about.”
Syed rushes in. “Mom, Dad, I fixed it.”
“I got the good sections of three chips together to make it work.”
May, “That very good. Where is June?”
“She’s with Naka at the outpost.”
Dr. Driscoll, “A new variation on sending the kid out for ice cream?”
Guy, “Syed, you stay here.”
Guy runs to the outpost. The others are running behind him when Guy reaches the outpost. Guy enters a makeshift enclosure. Guy’s entrance interrupts June and Naka who were busy organizing the items.
“Dr. Auergarten, is something wrong? Syed was so happy about getting the stick to work I thought he would want to share his accomplishment with you. We watched him until he entered the COLLINS.”
June interjects, “We did.”
“I’ve never seen a dangerous predator here.”
Guy asks, “Was Syed any trouble.”
“No, no, not at all. He was a great help. That light stick is a good example.”
“I see, I’ll send him back then.”
“Very good. Maybe June should go and come back with him. That way you won’t have to worry about him being adventurous.”
“That’s a good idea. Come on June.”
Guy leaves the enclosure. He marches past the others and makes a bee line to the COLLINS. Guy is annoyed at Dr. Driscoll and angry with himself. June and Syed leave the COLLINS to help Naka.
Guy tells the adults, “He was abandoned once. We are not going to abandon him again. As leader of the expedition I will not tolerate any more unfounded innuendos about Paul.”
The Flight Home
The botanists collected some of plant and fungus samples from the planet. The items at the outpost were worth less than the area they would take up on the COLLINS. Dr. Augergarten and Lieutenant Colonel Coc agreed to fill a meter cube storage box with personal effects of the BLUFORD crew. They also took all the record tabs they could find. Coc knew the tabs may contain evidence for the inevitable hearing.
The flight to Earth was uneventful. The two officers reviewed the record tabs as time allowed. The tabs had only some background images of Sergeant Naka. There was nothing to indicate he was a danger to the ship or crew. Major Feinstein took Sergeant Naka under her wing. Naka was a slow learner but industrious. The appearance of the COLLINS interior improved markedly. He lessened the workload of Coc and Feinstein. He also helped the botanists with their work.
Lieutenant Colonel Coc was ambivalent about the message he sent when the COLLINS speed went to c-. The message had the good news that Sergeant Naka is alive and coming home. The news also implicates the crew of the USSF BLUFORD in numerous court martial offenses. The most heralded crew in Space Force history will be disgraced. Lieutenant Colonel Coc knew he would have to give testimony that will embarrass his beloved United States Space Force.
When the COLLINS landed there was a small crowd of spectators on hand. Major Feinstein remembered watching videos of earlier space launches and landings that had huge crowds of spectators.
When they entered the terminal Naka’s mother and father were there to greet him. After a long group hug the three of them exited the terminal. Lieutenant Colonel Coc and Major Feinstein were whisked away to a conference room for debriefing.
Major General Stanislaw Smik gives testimony before a board of three and four-star generals.
…Considering the condition of the BLUFORD the best chance of returning the craft home was to dispense with anything that wasn’t useful. We striped out the power cells of frivolous items. As per my original report these power cells, through expert engineering by the crew, enabled us to get enough of the malfunctioning systems to work to return to Earth. Unlike the officers on the BLUFORD, Naka didn’t have the knowledge or expertise to aid in our emergency return to Earth.
A lieutenant general asks, “Why did you report sergeant Naka dead in the original report?”
“His chances of survival appeared negligible. A rescue mission, no doubt, would have been considered not cost effective. It seemed best for Naka’s family they believed he died in the mishap.”
A general asks, “Leaving him to die on a barren planet seemed the best option to you?”
“It seemed the only option to me. The chances of the rest of us also appeared negligible.”
A civilian clothes clad Paul Naka, his parents, and their representative watch the proceeding live on a video screen. The screen shows a large image of Major General Smik and inset images of the board members.
The representative taps an electronic pad whenever he feels a statement is useful. Paul sits with a sullen look. Paul’s father repeatedly clinches his fists. Paul’s mother paces the floor and breathes heavily.
The next day the board released its finding:
Regulations are ambiguous on how to address circumstances such as those that faced the crew of the USSF BLUFORD. As such it is the finding that Major General Stanislaw S. Smik acted in what he believed proper in the circumstances. Filing an accurate report of the events, as Major General Smik explained in his testimony, would not have been in the best interest of the United States Space Force. An accurate report would have served only a detrimental purpose for all concerned. In view of these findings it is recommended no disciplinary or admonishment action be taken against Major General Smik, or any other member of the crew serving on the USSF BLUFORD on mission ISE-157.
The USSF promoted Paul Naka to Technical Sergeant. At a medal ceremony with Lieutenant Colonel Coc and Major Feinstein he is awarded the Space Force Cross, the second highest military award. Lieutenant Colonel Coc and Major Feinstein are awarded the Distinguished Space Flight Cross.
After the ceremony the three of them speak to each other.
Lieutenant Colonel Coc, “They are going to name the outpost after you.”
“Thank you for the recommendation, sir.”
Major Feinstein, “They are considering naming Epsilon Eridani 2 after you.”
“It’s a nice gesture, but I doubt that’s going to happen, Ma’am. I’m out-processing tomorrow.”
Major Feinstein, “You decided not to stay.”
“Ma’am, reading between the lines the board decided I was worthless. No medal or name can change that. I’m going to try to find someplace where they think I’m worth something.”
Lieutenant Colonel Coc, “Sergeant, it was the Space Force’s mistake, not yours. Someplace is going to be lucky.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Paul Naka joins his parents.
© 2020 Robert Sacchi