Authors: Lee Ecker
OF THE MANHATTAN
The Return of the Manhattan
© 2013 by Lee Ecker.
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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
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ISBN: 978-1-4917-0277-2 (sc)
ISBN: 978-1-4917-0279-6 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-4917-0278-9 (ebk)
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013914678
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Lieutenant Commander David Ashton was dimly aware of the beauty of the bright spring day as he leisurely strolled toward the White House gate along Pennsylvania Avenue. He arrived a couple hours earlier and spent his time in solitude wandering aimlessly, blissfully unaware of bystanders and tourists alike who stopped and stared, gawking at his tall, slim, handsome appearance in the immaculate dress blue uniform of the Space Command. Half of his mind was mentally alert keeping himself on track, ever watching for something out of place, but the other half was miles away. He thrived on excitement, and this was definitely different and could well be a new adventure. His life was far from normal, always in the midst of dramatic adventure even on what he now considered a routine voyage in space, but that was the reason he joined the Space Command several years earlier. He hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep thinking about those unusual orders since his arrival back on Earth. As he and his family stepped off the shuttle craft taking him from his ship, the Centaur II which was now in orbit, to his home port at the Norfolk Naval Air Station, he had been handed a sealed envelope by a military courier. The young ensign checked his identification and got his signature on the transferal receipt and left. Inside, he found brief orders:
Lieutenant Commander David S. Ashton:
Report to the White House at 0930 hours, May 7, 2572. Speak to no one concerning these orders.
Present sealed envelope to guard at the gate.
Signed: President Hugh Gardiner
David was the youngest executive officer in Space Command rising rapidly to serve as third in command aboard the Centaur II on a mission to Mars supporting geologists in search of uranium and other rare minerals. Five years earlier, he met his wife, Marie, an astronaut trainee while aboard another vehicle traveling through and mapping remote planets within the solar system working with NASA preparing astronauts for the rigors of space travel. After three years of marriage, their daughter, Laura, was born while in orbit over Mars.
He couldn’t discuss this morning’s adventure with Marie, nor tell her where he would be today. Fortunately, Marie was on duty shuttling to and from orbit delivering their precious cargo of uranium, and would remain on duty until the mission was complete. After the cargo was delivered, she would be off with him expecting extended shore leave. She understood and supported him when he often worked on confidential matters involving other crew members, and the tables were turned when he needed to support her with her duties aboard the shuttle. She wanted some time off with her family, but David wasn’t certain that was in the cards considering his new orders.
At precisely 0930 hours, he handed the envelope to the guard and presented his Identification. The guard broke the seal, read the instructions and motioned David through the security scanners before he was guided toward the Oval Office. He had never been inside the presidential mansion before, and couldn’t help gawking at the historic memorabilia and artwork hung on the walls, nestled in and around nooks and crannies along the corridors as he was escorted toward a small conference room where he found an old friend. Admiral Thomas White was a large man who was military all the way, but made an exception in David’s case. Before David could offer a salute, the admiral stretched out his arms and hugged him, “David, it’s been a long time. It’s good to see you. How’s it been going?” Admiral White had been David’s first commander, and they had lots of fond memories to share.
“I’m enjoying every minute especially since I met my wife. At the moment, I’m speechless; I hardly know what to say. It’s so good to see you sir! What’s up?”
“Hold on, have patience.” He laughed wholeheartedly, “I’m really not at liberty to say. The President will be with us shortly and explain everything.” He changed the subject abruptly, “I heard you and your wife have a baby girl.”
“A real doll. She’s almost two and has us wrapped around her little finger.”
“And how’s Gladys? As I recall, she was the most beautiful red headed gal I ever saw.”
David hesitated, “She’s great! She really bloomed after Laura was born. She goes by her middle name, Marie. I had to stop and think for a minute when you called her Gladys.”
“I remember. We’ll have to get together one of…”
He broke off as one of President Gardiner’s aides entered speaking courteously, but without any pleasantries. “Gentlemen, the President is ready. Follow me please?”
They stood at attention as the president walked around his desk and extending his hand in greeting. “At ease gentlemen, Glad to see you. David, congratulations on the birth of your daughter.”
“Thanks sir.” He held his curiosity, waiting for the president to get down to business.
The president shifted his attention to the Admiral, “How’s it going with you Tom?”
“Great! All my affairs are in order.”
“Good, because it’s a go. Congress has approved. Please sit and get comfortable. David, Tom has been in on this from the get-go. He will command a space expedition that reaches way out beyond the solar system, and he wants you as his executive officer. I’d like to say you would leave tomorrow, as the timing is critical, but we won’t be ready to embark for several months. I know you just returned from a voyage, but Tom will allow ample time to relax with your family. Are you interested?”
His eyes glowed and his heart raced with the excitement and anticipation, “Yes Sir! I would be proud to serve with Admiral White. How long will we be gone?”
“I honestly don’t know! Experts on my staff say ten to fifteen years or more.”
“Sir, I don’t know how Marie will take it, but my answer is yes! That’s what I’ve trained for all my life.”
“Good. That’s what we thought. And if I’m any judge of human nature, Marie will back you one hundred per cent.” He opened a file drawer from an unlocked safe behind him and handed each man a thick package. “You can look through these at your leisure, but treat the information as Top Secret. You will need to divulge part of it with volunteers before they accept their assignments, and those parts you can share are clearly indicated. Gentlemen, I’m giving you the authority and Congress has authorized the funds to procure whatever is required to take the largest battle cruiser available, stripped of all unnecessary military hardware, to a small planet we have designated O-2113 and return with her hangar bay and all available decks filled to the gills with crude oil.
We, every nation on Earth, have depleted our oil reserves. The situation is critical and our economy will soon be at a complete standstill unless we find a way to replenish our supply. As you are aware, many plastics and synthetic products we depend on have their roots in oil and other fossil fuels. We substitute other materials for most of those applications, but our transportation industry and other energy dependent industries, are based on the electro-magnetic propulsion units which absolutely will not operate without key ingredients found only in natural crude oil. The world would probably end up in a major depression in which I see no way out.
We sent a group of geologists with drilling equipment in a smaller craft nearly ten years ago. Our hopes rest on the assumption that they have found oil and will have it ready for shipment upon your arrival. Of course we cannot confirm either their arrival or success because of the distance involved. The planet is over one hundred light years away, so any radio signals would take at least that long to reach us. If you fail to find them, or fail in your mission in any other way, we are doomed!”
Gladys Marie Ashton had several scheduled days of work ahead of her and was slightly surprised to see her commanding officer enter the cockpit as she made her final preflight inspections prior to departing the Centaur II. “Marie, I want to say, and please pass this on to David. As far as I’m concerned, both of you are the best. You have made my job so much easier. I would have preferred to throw a party for you, but my orders and yours call for immediate action.” He hesitated as Marie tried to assimilate what he was saying. “This will be your last shuttle. You have new orders. There should be a replacement pilot waiting for you when you land. God speed!”
She hugged him, said goodbye and returned to her tasks. It seemed strange and Marie didn’t know what to make of it. It didn’t matter at the moment; she needed to place her full concentration on her current mission of reentry.
Marie looked more like a beauty contestant than an astronaut except for her uniform of the Space Command. Her flaming, flowing red hair was flamboyant in style, but cut according to Space Command regulations barely reaching her shoulders. In spite of her red hair, her golden complexion had never been pale, and she looked like she just spent the last few days on a beach in the tropics. She was well aware her beauty, but there was no one aboard the shuttle she could impress even if that was what she wanted. She was a bit conceited, but her outlook had changed since her marriage and motherhood, and the competitive edge of her personality was reserved for doing her job with precision and professionalism. The return from orbit had become routine, but remained hazardous. Her craft could become an instant fireball, if she entered the atmosphere improperly at a velocity too high to control with her available engine power. Shuttle aircraft were constructed of newer heat resistant alloys and relied on force field heat shields rather than costly ceramic tiles, but they had to reduce their initial velocity and rely on a slower descent completely controlled by their aircraft engines and onboard computers, which had to operate at peak performance during re-entry.
The shuttle aircraft in use were sleek but utilitarian. Her shuttle was little more than an elaborate cockpit with powerful engines capable of lifting much larger objects into orbit, or re-entry with soft landings at unprepared landing sites on the surface of any planet. The shuttles were highly maneuverable craft capable of carrying a few persons, but much more useful when docked with a variety of passenger or cargo compartments. Each shuttle was equipped with energy shields which deflected space debris and provided a cocoon of safety from hostile missiles or midair collisions. The shields had their limits and could only be used as heat protection during periods of high energy usage such as re-entry, or attaining orbit while lifting heavy loads. Even at best they could not develop enough power to protect against the latest Laser weapons systems of most starfighters. Weight was critical and the last step before departing the starship was always a weight check, which was accurate enough to detect a stowaway or extra unauthorized cargo. If the weight was too high based on the available engine power of the shuttle, someone had made a critical error, and the cargo had to be unloaded and reprocessed.
Her re-entry and landing were uneventful as Marie eased the craft on to the landing pad without a noticeable bump. Marie worked at every landing as though the cargo was the most precious or she transported the highest level VIP. Today, there was even someone to watch as her replacement pilot stood waiting for her. She turned everything over to him and punched her mother’s home address into her pcom (personal communicator) requesting a vehicle to take her from the uranium processing plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to her mother’s home in Springfield, Virginia. Her mother was pleased to care for Laura while Marie’s last minute flight duties were satisfied, as she hadn’t even seen Laura prior to one week earlier, and was just becoming acquainted. Laura assumed David would be there as he had been off duty during the last week.
Today, she didn’t have long to wait and she had the entire car to herself, which lifted off and was underway as she settled into her seat. David didn’t answer nor did she get the busy tone when she used her pcom to call him. “That’s odd,” she thought, “He never shuts the thing off. I wonder if something’s wrong. She wasn’t too concerned, but felt a strange sense of foreboding.”
She punched in the code for her mother who answered calmly, “Hello Marie!”
“Hi, Mom. I’m on my way home. Is David with you?”
“No… He hasn’t been here all day. He left early saying he had business or something. What’s wrong? Why are you coming home?” Her mother was one of those women who never stopped talking and seldom listened for an answer even when she asked a question. She was always cheerful in an upbeat sort of way.
She would have kept talking but Marie interrupted, “Mom… Something’s wrong. David is never out of touch. Even when on vacation, he leaves his pcom on. It’s not like him.”
“Maybe the battery gave out. Mercy sakes, I remember one time when Dad couldn’t be reached for hours. He probably… .”
“Mom… . You know those batteries never give out. They always give lots of warning.”
“Well, maybe he’s in an important meeting and can’t be disturbed. I bet if you give him a few minutes, you’ll reach him.”
“You’re probably right and I was supposed to be on duty all day. How’s Laura? Tell her Mommy can’t wait to see her and I’ll be there soon.”
“She’s jabbering up a storm pretending she’s an astronaut. She thinks of little else. I took her to the park to play today, and all she wanted was a toy airplane. I don’t think she knows what a doll is.”
“That’s all she’s ever known. Maybe when we get settled in a house of our own, she will learn what being a girl is all about.” Marie giggled, “Although I don’t remember ever playing with dolls.”
“Well, you did, if only when the boys across the street weren’t around. You know what they are up to these days? Remember Tom, the little blond boy; he owns and operates a little hardware store here in town, and Mike. Well, he doesn’t do much of anything. If only you would have settled down and married one of them, maybe I would see you more often. But you were never satisfied with normal life; you had to have the perfect career. I think you were selfish. Always gallivanting somewhere round the universe, I swear. I never should have let your father talk me into not having any more babies after your birth. Now with father gone and all, I get so lonesome when you’re out on one of your voyages you know.”
“Mom, we’ve been through this before. Make the most of your time with your granddaughter. One of these days, Laura will be grown up and away from home on her own too. You know I was already in Space Command before I married David. Yes that was what I wanted, and if that was being selfish, that’s who I am. Anyway, I should be home in about fifteen minutes. I’m going to try and get hold of David again.”
“Okay. Even if you don’t, he will be back before long I’m sure. He can’t stay away from his daughter very long.”