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A Hero’s Reward

by Terry J. Larson

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

“NSA Operations, this is Nav Com1 of Android Craft I reporting. According to our navigation officer Nav Com2, we are two and a half light-months, three light-days and four light-hours from home. Everything is going well. Sci Ob2 (Science Observer 2) reports the sighting of a mini-black hole only four million miles from our closest distance to it. Although we have experienced minute gee anomalies, it has not had measurable effects on our trajectory. We do expect some radio interference by radiation from the object, but apparently we are not suffering from it yet.

“A study by Nav Com1 shows that we are creating antimatter for fuel with an efficiency of almost 2 percent higher than than predicted for our trajectory. I now turn communication over to Commander John Nicholson.”

“This is John Nicholson speaking. I know this must be a shock for everyone listening, but I am a stowaway on this ship. I think I was temporarily insane when I sneaked aboard. I believe now that I am rational again and apologize with all my heart for my stupid action. I did it because I was upset that humans are forbidden to be crew members of spaceships on long missions. I now know that I was being self-centered. There is no excuse for my action.

“Because of my guilt feelings and my desire to fulfill scientific investigations, I have been tape recording an evaluation of the androids’ performances in executing their assignments. I am anxious to conduct any functions or studies that NSA considers worthwhile for the remainder of this mission. Again, I am grieved about my conduct. I won’t be surprised if I am never forgiven.”

* * *

Sci Ob1 and Sci Ob2 were working as a team for an elongated period for the first time of the mission. As they closed in on the point at which they were going to begin orbiting around Mystic, they trained most of their instruments on the mysterious atmosphere of the planet. John stood by, his scientific curiosity boiling.

To John, the seven plus years that it had taken to get to their destination seemed to have been much shorter because of his great interest in monitoring the performance of the androids and his observations and photographic coverage of a part of the universe never before so closely scrutinized. These activities had renewed his life and enhanced his appreciation for the cosmos.

Now that they were finally approaching Mystic, John had a sense of exhilaration that he had never experienced before. A new planet, one unlike ever studied before, was about to reveal its magnificence and mysteries. The presence of an atmosphere for a planet with a faraway sun was unique.

What could be the cause of this thin atmosphere, one with concentrated amounts of oxygen and hydrogen, the elements considered necessary for water and life? Not only was the necessary ingredients for life present but EESTI had now proven that indeed the planet did sustain intelligent life.

As if their coming was forbidden by the gods, a sudden burst of cosmic radiation struck the ship with a sudden fury, impregnating the thick walls of the craft. The enhancement was announced by Sp Aide1 (Special Aide 1): “Alert, alert, radiation hazard.”

John crouched down, covering his face in his arms. The others, too, had been trained to do the same. The alert lasted less than one minute. “All clear,” yelled Sp Aide1.

John stood up, feeling no different from before the alert. Looking around, he saw that the androids looked fine. Everyone was accounted for, other than Com Pilot1 (commander-pilot 1), who was piloting the spacecraft. Sp Aide2, programmed to check the pilot’s condition after any health hazard, was already on his way forward to check with the pilot.

Less than a half minute later, Sp Aide2 had run back to the others, yelling, “Com Pilot1 is not responding.”

John and some of the crew hurried to the cockpit. As soon as John got there, he knew that the android was unconscious, if that were the word for it. “Com Pilot1,” he yelled several times to no use. The android looked as if it were a statue, still and starry-eyed.

Mech2 approached the android and began making a series of electrical measurements. Finally, with a voice that almost sounded sympathetic, it said, “It’s no use, he has no electrical power left. It is terminated.”

John knew what that meant: although he might be repaired by robot techs back on earth, that could not occur on the ship. That meant they were down to one pilot. Not a good thing with more than seven years of piloting left, even though much of it was by autopilot.

The two Sp Aides gathered Com Pilot1 in their arms and took it aft to the storage room and strapped it to the wall in a standing position.

With Com Pilot2 now piloting, Galaxteer III began its orbit around Mystic. The science observers and special aides were concentrating on making atmospheric measurements while the navigation and communication androids were busy monitoring the planet for any signs of signals. In only a minute or two, positive results were attained.

The shallow atmosphere showed an adequate amount of nitrogen and oxygen for life. Amazingly, a thin layer of concentrated ozone at the top of it was dense enough to provide protection from unfavorable radiation. Pressures were high enough at the surface to allow human respiration.

Because of the shallow atmosphere, the vertical pressure gradient was extreme. John knew that with such an atmosphere violent storms must be prevalent. That most probably was the reason for the extensive cloudiness. His pulse quickened at hearing that the two Nav Coms detected radio transmissions.

John suddenly had a helpless feeling. If only he were in command. But with further reflections he was somewhat relieved not to be, knowing that a wrong decision about whether they should land or not could mean the difference between life or death. While thinking about this, he heard Com Pilot2 say with his metallic voice, “Prepare for landing.”

A slow retrograde orbit led to a steep descent, therefore, with minimal aerodynamic heating through the shallow atmosphere. Carefully monitoring radar echoes, they pulled out beneath the low deck of stratus clouds. As indicated by their radar, the land was amazingly flat. A minute later, the spacecraft was setting on the ground. Rain was pelting the portals with splashes that brought joy to John’s heart. This was something that he dreamed of. Looking out of one of the portals reminded him of countless dreams he had of landing on strange planets.

Sci Ob1 and Sci Ob2 were already training their instruments for surface measurements. Com Pilot2 gave a curt order for everyone except Sp Aide2 to prepare for preliminary exploration of the planet.

Evidently, the androids knew exactly what was expected of them, as they rushed and accumulated special equipment, helmets and body suits for their venture. John had learned early on the trip that there were several sets of suits and equipment, including oxygen masks, designed for humans. He managed to get adequately equipped just in time for their exit.

John felt exhilarated but not secure as he stepped out on the foreign terrain. Even though he had heard Nav Com2 give the all-clear sign after the navigator carefully scanned the immediate area with the on-board radar, John had an uncanny sense that aliens were nearby. His emotions flared as he began thinking that it might be fitting to be killed by aliens on this mysterious planet.

Looking around, he could see in vast distances in every direction, as the strange trees were sparse and there wasn’t a hill in sight. By now the rain had stopped. Besides the trees, small, sparse bushes of only a few species met his eye. The grass, green and thick, was a meter or so high. It appeared as if they could walk for kilometers without seeing anything different.

Com Pilot2 split the crew into two groups and told them to be back in the spacecraft in 30 minutes. As he saw the others pull out pistols after pushing a button which opened a pocket on their suits, he found his button and did the same. Now he felt safer. According to their earth-oriented compasses, one group of them headed north while the other headed south.

Suddenly, John saw a gigantic burst of flame and smoke burst from the surface some kilometers away. Thank goodness we weren’t any closer to it, he thought.

No sooner than when his pulse returned to normal after the scare, he heard what sounded like several shots ring out. John ducked without thinking, but the androids just stood and stared in the direction that they seemed to be coming from. One of the androids fell in a heap, its body parts clanging from the impact. “Get down, get down,” yelled John. “Someone is shooting at us.”

Without any questions, the androids obeyed. When the shots stopped a few seconds later, John shouted at them to head back to the spacecraft. “They’re probably reloading,” he added, thinking that this extra information was probably meaningless to them.

Running as fast as they could manage, they returned to the ship in less than ten minutes.

After they had boarded, John checked to see if anyone was missing. To his horror, he found that although only one was missing, it was Com Pilot2. Oh my God, I’m the only one left that can get us home, he realized. But would the others obey him? Could he give them commands that they could understand? He better find out and now was the time, before those aliens decided to blow them away.

“What are we waiting for?” he asked.

Nav Com1 answered, “For a command from Com Pilot1 or Com Pilot2, sir.”

“Neither one of them are here,” John answered. “I am now your commander, and you will do as I say.”

The androids stood and stared at him for a moment. Finally, Nav Com1 said, “Yes sir.”

“Prepare for takeoff,” John said in a voice meant to mimic Com Pilot2. He then radioed home in the same voice, informing that he was now assuming the pilot position of the spacecraft after getting permission to leave because of the attack.

As soon as they had successfully taken off and got on course, he thought to himself that at least they had established that intelligent life existed and furthermore that androids can be successful at crewing ships in outer space for years at a time.

* * *

It was now seven years since their landing on Mystic. Only hours away from landing at Edwards Air Force Base, John was talking on the radio to Melvin Hodgecross, a close college friend who was his personal lawyer and had been busy the last few weeks investigating what the government was likely to do about John’s lawlessness. “So what’s the story, Melvin. Am I going to be prosecuted or not?”

“Well, John, you know you broke some serious federal laws. In essence, you are not only a stowaway, but ironically you are a thief. By piloting the craft, whether you did it to save the craft or not, you stole it.”

“But if it weren’t for me, the ship couldn’t have been flown back from Mystic. I saved it and all those on board. Doesn’t that count for something?”

“Not technically, John. Look, your first offense of unlawful boarding of a spacecraft is bad enough. That can easily get you twenty years. Then your taking over the control of the craft without permission can can get you more than that.”

After a moment of silence John said, “It doesn’t look good for me then even with you as my lawyer.”

“I didn’t say that John. I just wanted to tell you what you could get under the law. Actually, thanks to one person, the president has been convinced to issue an order that you will not be tried for anything concerning your trip. Instead of a jail waiting for you there are record-breaking crowds.”

“Who... just who was it that was able to save me?”

“Your fiancee Mildred, my friend. You are one lucky guy.”

A lump immediately formed in John’s throat. And to think that I complained to her that she wasn’t assertive enough.

Copyright © 2010 by Terry J. Larson

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