THE ASTEROID PIRATES
"Now listen up people!" barked Chief Parsons. "When the Antares sets down I want this crew to snap to and secure her. Any questions?" From the tone of the Chiefs voice, woe be the person that asked a question.
"Five thousand feet Commander." said Rusty Morgan, on board the Antares.
"Extent the landing jacks and switch the controls to my station," ordered Commander Dan Comet.
"Aye aye Sir."
Gripping the controls and flipping the switches in rapid sequence, Comet watched the rear view screen and, with practiced motions, slowed the Antares descent while aligning her to the landing pad below.
"What are you looking at Phillips?" snapped Chief Parsons.
"Chief, there she is now!" Looking skyward, all that could be seen was the glint of sunlight from the Antares hull.
"You people are in for a treat. Now, you'll see a real pilot land a Rocket Patrol Cruiser without so much as a jolt when she sets down. I'll even bet that the Commander himself is at the controls!" said the Chief with a touch of pride in his voice.
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As if to answer the Chief, the landing struts could be seen extending and the roar of the rockets changed as the Antares slowed her descent. When the cruiser reached five hundred feet she had slowed till she looked like she was floating. Closer and slower she descended till the landing struts touched the center of the landing pad. True to the Chief's words, the ship did not even sway when the engines were shut down.
"Secure the ship, Rusty."
"Aye, aye Sir. Commander! Looks like we have a welcoming party outside."
Switching the view screen to side view, Commander Comet's eyebrows raised a bit as he saw the group of enlisted men heading toward the Antares. Normally, the only ground crew to greet a ship were that ship's maintenance crew. "Sparks!"
"Contact Ground Control and ask what is going on with the ground crew?"
A few moments later, the radio operator informed the Commander that he was to report to the Commanding Officer ASAP. Narrowing his eye briefly, Comet told Sparks to acknowledge the order. Unbuckling his safety harness, he got up and headed toward the main hatch. It seemed to take an eternity for the telltale to turn from red to amber and finally green. The hatch opened with a slight hiss of outside air entering.
As the hatch opened fully, Chief Parson was standing there with a salute and a very big smile. "Welcome back Commander!" beamed the Chief.
"Chief, good to see you again. Still playing that long distance chess game with ... hmmm .... Chief Shelton?"
"Aye Sir, that I am. Looks like I'll have him in check in three moves!"
"Good for you Chief. "
"Commander, you are to report to the CO. I have a ground car at your disposal, Sir."
"You driving Chief?" Comet said with a hint of a smile.
At first, the Chief looked shocked; then a big smile came over his face. "The Commander is pulling my leg, Sir. You know what happened last time I drove." Both men chuckled. "Petty Officer Richards will be your driver, Sir."
The journey went quietly. The Rocket Patrol's main base was always busy. Ships were landing and launching all the time. The road to the CO's Office went past the commercial spaceport. Sitting on a launching pad was a new liner! She was a real beauty! Before the Commander could really get a good look at her, they had arrived at Administration.
"I'm getting too old for this sort of thing," Admiral Ryerson said to his aide. "Comet is going to have a fit when he finds out about ..." The thought was interrupted by the intercom announcing that Commander Comet had arrived. "Send him in, Lieutenant".
"Aye, Sir" answered the Lieutenant. He pressed the button that opened the doors to the Admiral's office and stepped out, as Comet walked in.
Snapping to attention in front of the Admiral's desk, he said "Commander Comet, reporting as ordered, Sir!"
Normally, the Admiral would let the Commander stand at ease - but not this time. Instead, he reached to the controls on the left side of his desk and snapped a switch. The door locked with a sharp click!
"At ease, Commander. What I am going to tell you is known only by the Head of Special Operations. I don't need to remind you that whatever is said here does not leave this office."
"Of course, Sir." said Commander Comet.
"Take a seat Commander, this is going to take a while."
"There is something going on out in the Asteroid Belt, Dan, and we don't who and what we are dealing with."
"Sir?" asked Commander Comet. "I'm not aware of any trouble in the Belt."
Snapping a switch on his desk, Admiral Ryerson leaned back in his chair and gestured toward the side wall. Silently, a section of the wall slid aside to reveal a large televisor screen. "This was taken by a passenger on the space liner Yankee Clipper."
Looking at the screen, Comet saw what looked like a standard home movie of someone's vacation. Turning to ask why he was watching this, he stopped short as he saw a look of sadness and anger wash over Ryerson's face.
Turning back toward the screen, he watched as the passengers of the liner enjoyed their journey into space. These cruises were becoming very popular with those who could afford them. Passenger liners left Earth and made a stop at one of the Rocket Patrol space stations for final inspection of the ship for the deep space journey. It was a matter of pride that every ship that had been inspected always had a safe journey. The only ships that did not undergo these inspections were asteroid miners or private ships heading toward the Martian colony or beyond.
Everything was as you would expect from a movie of people having fun when suddenly the camera shook and the passengers looked around in fear. There were jumbled images as the camera was rushed and moved rapidly about till it finally came to rest looking out one of the view ports.
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Sitting on the edge of his seat, Commander Comet watched as three small ships attacked the liner. What really made the Commander take notice was the fact that these small ships were coordinating their weapon fire! It was as if there was only one ship as the weapons hit the same spot at the same time!
He remembered, from science course in the Academy, the theory of what would happen if your could combine the fire of multi-ray cannons on one spot. The result would be not the sum of the beams but the square of the beams! If these criminals could do the impossible then ... Commander Comet's thoughts were interrupted when the televisor screen went white. The movie was over.
"The liner was boarded and the passengers were robbed and these ... these PIRATES." The Admiral paused. "Opened the cargo hatches and took what they wanted." "That was bad enough but ... a few of the passengers tried to stop them and ...they ray blasted three of the passengers. They were lucky to survive."
"Why are you showing this to me, Admiral? Surely the Rocket Patrol has sent a squadron to secure the area and hunt these criminals down."
"Always right to the point, Dan," said Reyerson. "Normally that would be the course of action but ..."
"But, Sir..." Comet started to say.
"Blast it, Dan! The Patrol has been ordered to lay off by the Solar League!"
"I don't understand, Sir?" said Comet. "Why would the Solar League order the Patrol to stand down when the safety of the space lanes is in jeopardy?"
With a great sigh, Reyerson said "The Solar League does not want to stop the flow of goods and tourists. If news of this ever leaked out, trade would stop and ... there are powerful political forces that want all space travel to stop and they are looking for any reason to terminate space travel."
"I still don't understand, Admiral? Why, since the Patrol is not working on this case, am I here?"
Admiral Ryerson gave Commander Comet a stare and said "You are going to find these pirates and set things right Commander. That is why you're here!"
© 2002 John Dunaj
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All text, illustrations, photographs and design are © 2001-2002 Dan Thompson, except where otherwise noted.