The Admiral travels to see Doom Cloud
Human doctors readily admitted they had learned little about the wonders of delfinian medical science. About all they could add scientifically was that the few delfinians saved from Doom Cloud’s ravages on Delfinia had been at least as young as Eddy. Humans hadn’t noticed that the photos sent by Cecric clearly showed the delfinians had died of old age, mainly because humans didn’t know what an old delfinian looked like.
Lack of delfinian medical knowledge did not stop the human doctors from ordering the entire crew to spend a full day in their own hospital ward. The mere fact that everyone on both cruisers had white hair was given as reason enough to keep them under close medical observation during twenty-four hours of bed rest.
Shortly after docking and being admitted to sick bay, Shawn told Eddy how proud of him they all were, “You went deep into that ugly monster cloud and brought back sensor readings that are already helpful to fleet attack plans,” he said. “If we had more time, our scientific teams would surely be able to find a way to stop Doom Cloud with the information you brought back.”
Eddy was torn by the praise. He felt good finding a new family of friends on the fleet and a deep sadness for the three fighter pilots who had been lost. Admiral Castro entered the doorway as Shawn was attempting to explain they had not died in vain and that no one could possibly have known that the Doom Cloud caused death by old age.
The Admiral was an elderly man who had moved to Earth’s moon when he retired as the top admiral of nation Pacifica, the namesake of their new home on planet Pacifica. He had made the move to be closer to the excitement of Lunarian scientific progress and space travels. It had not entered his mind that he would soon leave retirement and become admiral of humanity’s most powerful space fleet on a break-away colony so far from Earth that the entire Milky Way Galaxy appeared to be no more than a dim star, to those who knew where to look.
The Admiral’s long career had been devoted to a balancing act between maintaining the independence of nation Pacifica and avoiding war with the much larger United States of Earth, which continuously contrived international tensions and emergencies with the obvious plan of absorbing Pacifica and its natural resources. The Admiral’s diplomatic and military brilliance was well-known and respected, yet it was his understanding and outright love of humanity that was the true source of his power. Admiral Castro did not appropriate authority with tricky politics or intimidation. Rather, people freely followed his suggestions because he earned their respect with hard work, friendship and total honesty.
The Admiral listened to Shawn and Eddy’s conversation as he waited at the door. He marveled at how closely their feelings about the loss of three healthy young pilots matched his own. When he walked into the room, he placed a hand on each of their shoulders and faced them squarely. “I’m on my way to see that terrible Doom Cloud face-to-face,” he said solemnly. “I’ll be taking a survey ship and two light cruisers. The survey ship is being outfitted with some extra Delfinian gizmos right now and should be ready tomorrow morning.”
“Don’t do it, Admiral,” Eddy shouted, jumping to his feet. "Don't do it!" he repeated. “You don’t know how terrible it is. You are too old. It will kill you.”
The Admiral looked into Eddy’s earnest eyes, then at his white hair. “I’m as upset about losing three great fighter pilots as you are,” he said. “How can I be a good admiral if I don’t even know what that monster looks like close-up?”
“Eddy is right, Admiral,” Shawn said, “when Doom Cloud finished with him, he was older than you are. We figure the other pilots died of old age before they had a chance to turn back. The only reason Eddy made it is that he is so young. Look at us, it turned all of our hair white.”
The Admiral chuckled. “My hair is already white,” he said, “and I saw pictures of what it did to Eddy. I watched the delfinian doctors heal him, too, on a video link.”
“Admiral, sir, if you saw that, you must know it would age you right to your grave. How old are you, anyway?” Eddy asked.
“There you go! No way can you stand it,” Eddy said, pushing his face almost into the Admiral’s nose.
Shawn pulled Eddy back and grinned at the Admiral, “Maybe he’s made a plan we haven’t heard about yet, Eddy. Like, for example, where did you get the two extra cruisers?”
“They aren’t extra.” The Admiral said with a smile. “I’m taking yours and Sequoia’s. The survey ship and one fighter are being outfitted with a test crew protection gizmo right now. When the survey ship has gathered its data, we will immediatly return the sensor logs here. I will carry a copy of the information by ship back to planet Pacifica and a communication torpedo will be sent from there to nation Pacifica on earth.”
Suddenly it was Shawn’s turn to become exasperated and pushy with Admiral Castro. “Sir, please excuse me. I am the captain of one of those cruisers. Walker hasn’t relieved me of my command, and I’m not letting you use it to get yourself killed on a crazy mission that somebody younger could do. I’m sure Sequoia will agree with me.”
“You are saying the same thing I was,” Eddy interjected.
The Admiral looked at the two of them in mock dismay, “It sounds to me that you two don’t believe in old admiral like me has enough sense to keep alive and ready for the next battle.” His eyes were twinkling, he was obviously enjoying himself. “I’m proud of Fleet Commander Walker and I hope he’ll take over my job some day. Even so, I’m the only Admiral we have right now and I plan on surviving. The delfinians are installing two experimental crew shields, one is for me. Don’t worry, I will be behind the battle line on the survey ship with one of the cruisers on guard.”
“If you’re going, I’m going,” Shawn said.
“Me, too,” Eddy said, “I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”
“Eddy,” the Admiral said, “your fighter is the only one here right now. It is the one being outfitted with a crew shield, but I’m not sending you back into that Doom Cloud.”
“Oh yes you are. I’m the best fighter pilot you have, right here, anyway.” Doom Cloud’s horrible powers suddenly crowded into his memory. He was thinking perhaps he might have spoken a little hastily. “What’s a crew shield?” Eddy asked quietly.
The Admiral saw doubt blanch Eddy’s face white.
Eddy saw him see it and felt his face and neck turn embarrassingly red.
Admiral Castro responded in a soft voice, “Eddy, though you don’t have to do this, I’ll explain the crew shield to you anyway. It’s an interesting experiment. You probably didn’t see it because you were buried in that nutrient bath, the Delfinians have very advanced technology and have succeeded in making micro joy generators that create small, nonexplosive fields of power. I cannot tell you how they accomplished this so quickly. But however they did it, an experimental crew shield will be installed in the fighter before we leave here tomorrow.”
“I did see that light, Admiral." Eddy said. "The warm joy glow was moving all over me, even inside my eyes. It was almost exactly like the sparkling glow that moved my hands on the controls when I blasted out of Doom Cloud.” He grinned and added, “The first time.”
“If you accept this mission, you won’t be going in again like that. This time we have a survey ship with all its instruments to do the main work. We need a volunteer to dive to the bottom of the hole burned out by the fleet and launch a specially equipped instrument probe. A squadron of fighters without crew protection shields will accompany you and guard against surprise attacks. All you need to do is launch the instrument probe.”
The Admiral’s planning was cut short by a doctor entering the room, “Sir,” she addressed the Admiral using her most stern doctor’s voice, “this crew needs rest and the medical staff needs to examine them.” The doctor wouldn’t listen to any objections and marched Shawn and Eddy off to separate examination rooms. The doctors insisted that medical prudence demanded they spend at least one night in the hospital for observation even though they appeared in perfect health. Even admirals obey doctor's orders.
Eddy awoke early the next morning slightly confused by the white curtain surrounding him. Quickly remembering he was in a hospital bed he pulled the curtain aside and saw other beds with privacy curtains still drawn. The clock on his bedside table said ten minutes before six. His clothes were washed and stacked neatly on a chair next to his bed. Dressing quickly, he tossed the hospital gown on the bed and headed for the flight deck to look out the windows.
He could see Delfinian vessels through the side window, they were quite close. Two were recharging battle fleet ships that must have returned while he slept. A brilliant, transparent blue beam glowed between the ships being recharged and the huge delfinian ship. Pacifica’s sun was a bright and close star just beginning to show the roundness of a far distant sun. He turned to walk across the flight deck and look out the other side and was surprised to see the Admiral sleeping in the navigator’s chair. Eddy stooped and picked up a light blanket that had fallen to the floor as the admiral slept.
The Admiral awoke, even though Eddy covered him gently. “Good morning,” he said. “And thanks for the blanket.” He folded it and placed it in a locker behind the chair. “Now we better get busy.”
The next few hours were a whirlwind of activity. The Admiral wanted to leave for Doom Cloud as soon as possible. Eddy found himself running errands and relaying the Admiral’s instructions. He ate his breakfast hurrying along the main passageway to the flight deck where he could radio for a shuttle to carry everyone to their ships. The two cruisers and the survey ship engaged deep space drives as soon as the crews had all returned to their individual spaceships and Admiral Castro was safely seated under the delfinian crew protection device installed for him on the survey ship.
Eddy stood at his favorite spot slightly behind and to the side of Shawn, with one hand on the back of the pilot’s chair. He watched their progress on the instruments as well as through the forward windows, never tiring of the vast expanses or the colorful arcing rainbow impacts of their spaceship as it pierced invisible spacetime warps.
“Have you memorized the plan?” Shawn asked.
“Yep,” Eddy replied, “I dive down to the bottom of the fleet’s focused joy beams, burn a little hole with my joy beam and launch an instrument probe down the hole. Sounds easy enough especially with twenty-eight fighters backing me up.”
“Don’t let the fighters make you overconfident about this,” Shawn admonished sternly. “They are only going a little over halfway into the hole burned open by the fleet. The other pilots don’t have crew protection devices, which, by the way, have never been tested inside Doom Cloud.”
“I know,” Eddy said in a more humble tone. “I’ll never forget the power that hit me in there, it felt like a pile of super cold bricks.”
“We will arrive soon,” Shawn said. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? Nobody would look down on you for letting another pilot take your place. Your skills are growing rapidly under all this pressure yet it still might be wise to send someone a little older, like me for example, to take the plunge.”
“No, I can do it, even if I am scared to death of Doom Cloud. I’ve already been in there and have some idea about what to look out for. In this case, being older with more experience is not an advantage. I'm definitely going, especially if you are the alternate pilot.”
“Okay. I’ll dive in and let you out going fast so you can coast and save your power for later. Sequoia will stay behind to guard the Admiral and the fighters will follow you down halfway. You fly a holding pattern near the bottom and pick up the last weak signals from the probe while relaying them back to the survey ship. When the probe shuts down, you blast out of there pronto.”
Eddy licked his lips nervously and glanced at Shawn, “I keep reminding myself I’d just as soon die here trying to stop that thing as die back home on planet Pacifica. The idea seems to make less and less sense the closer we get, and my doubts get stronger. Is that the way it is for everybody?”
“Don’t feel alone, Eddy. We're all scared. I’m scared even by the thought of diving into that thing again even just a little way to let you out. Everybody is scared of that awful monster. The worst part for me is not knowing what it is or why it does what it does.” Shawn gripped Eddy’s arm and squeezed. “You should go have a quick meal and then prepare your ship for launch. We are close now and this operation is set up to run like clockwork.”
Eddy went to the galley and ate a light lunch that tasted like dry sawdust. He watched the clock tick slow seconds that somehow raced toward departure time. When the time to leave arrived he strode purposefully to his fighter. Forcing a brave smile he waved to the technical crew as the fighter hatch sealed around him. He listened to the generator warm up and watched the systems check on the computer. He and his ship were ready.
The fighter bay door opened and he could see out the side of the ship into the depths of space. A red light above the bay door switched to yellow and warned him that the time to launch was close. A slight quivering turbulence told him they had entered the great hole burned into Doom Cloud by the fleet’s combined weapons. Now he saw Doom Cloud out the side door instead of stars. The exit light turned green and Eddy gently touched forward power.
Eddy’s slow dream instantly changed to lightning fast reality, he was free of the cruiser and hurtling into the nightmarish chasm he’d seen once before. A quick visual check told him he remembered correctly; the golden bars of light were once again holding back a perfect funnel shaped hole that pierced deep into the cloud. Unending cascades of cloud remnants evaporated as they poured inward between the joy beams.
Turning his ship toward the bottom of the burned out chasm made it appear to come toward him rather than he toward it. His speed was driving him deep and there was little time before he would once again meet Doom Cloud at the bottom, something he would never have repeated unless there was no choice. He turned on the joy power crew-protection field and hoped it would work.
When the instruments buzzed an alert indicating only seconds remained until he plunged into the cloud itself, he turned on his joy beam and fired it into the very bottom of the rapidly narrowing pit. His weapon burned a deep tunnel straight ahead of him. The nightmare of being inside Doom Cloud flooded his mind as the mission light flashed from yellow to red. Reflexes, survival instinct, and training took over. He released the probe with one hand. With the other, he flipped the fighter in a cartwheel turn that aimed him outward. He kicked for full power with his foot. The ship slowed in suspended time, hanging and blowing the full power of its joy generators straight down the hole.
The time it took to slow and then reverse his direction was brief yet Doom Cloud seemed personally determined to pull him in and finish him off. Just as panic began welling in his gut, Eddy rocketed out of the bottom of the pit toward the fighters on guard high above.
Eddy brought the fighter to a full stop and forced himself to calmly watch the gauge indicating the probe was still sending data as soon as he was within relative safety near the bottom of the cone burned open by the main fleet. He gradually turned up the relay power and passed along the strongest possible signal for the survey ship as the probe signal weakened.
The instant the probe signal shut down, Eddy hit the power and accelerated upward to join the other fighters. He was stunned to see a long line of Fleet weapons suddenly disappear. The probe must have enraged Doom Cloud to unleash a terrible attack on the fleet!
Fighters swooped in and blasted the towering sidewalls as they crushed inward, filling the chasm. A section of the sidewall hundreds of kilometers high curled over them in a falling wave that caught them all beneath it. The sleek open-space fighters circled tighter and tighter in a shrinking hollow, they were trapped by Doom Cloud like bats in a slowly collapsing cave.
Eddy turned on the radio microphone, “Use your joy generator exhaust like Walker’s saw blade formation, we know the exhaust doesn’t have much range but it’s stronger than big ship weapons up close and if every fighter does it at once the effect might be bigger than we expect.”
The fighters charged upward with weapons on full power. At the last moment they all did a cartwheel turn cut back as Eddy had done at the bottom and turned on full power. The combined exhaust of twenty-nine fighters at full power burned a big enough hole to buy a little time. Everyone was impressed and felt slightly relieved by their combined impact.
“The fleet is afraid to fire in here now, they might hit us because they can’t see where we are.” The squadron leader said over the radio. “We can’t hold this thing back much longer,” the squadron leader continued, her voice eerily calm.
Eddy felt the skin on the back of his neck crawl. “You’re right,” he responded, thinking fast. “Let’s blast it with our exhaust again, except this time I’ll keep going. If the crew protection device works and I make it out the top, the fleet will know where you are and burn a hole down to you.”
The fighters formed a group and streaked upward, Eddy watched the fighters around him flip over and blast their exhaust into the collapsing avalanche as he passed by. Then he was inside inky blackness holding his breath and wondering how long he had before the coldness clamped down and finished him off. Survival instinct gulped for the breath his fear had blocked just as he broke free. The battle fleet’s instruments spotted him instantly and swung their weapons to surround him with joy beams, liberating the fighters from the cloud cover almost immediately.
Eddy turned wearily toward the cruiser and its welcoming landing bay. Though the protection device had kept him alive he still felt the sagging weight that had hit him before. He wondered how many times he could do this as he banked into the landing area and parked. Time was critical and he had chosen Sequoia’s ship, closest of the two cruisers and still guarding the Admiral. Eddy sat in his fighter and watched the atmospheric pressure rise. Sequoia and the technical flight maintenance crew burst through the inner landing bay door at the same moment that Eddy opened the hatch.
Sequoia turned to the crew and gave orders like he was the Admiral. “Get this man out of here and into a safe seat! We start for the hospital ship as soon as you push the button telling me he is strapped in. Hurry!” Sequoia dashed out of the landing bay toward the flight deck. The ship technicians supported Eddy as he walked weakly to his seat. He didn’t feel quite as old after this trip but he was exhausted and simply watched as one of the crew strapped him into a recliner and the other turned the all-clear signal on. Eddy was sound asleep so fast he didn’t have a chance to enjoy the ship’s engagement with timespace.
continue to Chapter 14