Star Tower [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Joe Vadalma
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Their Tower to the Stars was a Spaceship! Star Tower is the enthralling hard science story of the first manned starship, how it came into being and what happens on its long journey. John Huck, a bitter veteran of an exploitative war fought for control of the solar system, returns to the earth ghetto where he was born to discover his parents murdered by Earth's repressive government. Seeking revenge, he joins an underground revolution, but is betrayed, arrested and sentenced to die. Then he is offered an out: Join a group of other prisoner volunteers on the risky first trip to the stars and back! Successful return means a pardon. But, taken aboard a vessel so enormous many mistake it for a space station, John and the other prisoners learn they have been shanghaied onto a one-way trip. There can be no return. They will be lucky to live long enough to survive the long, long trip. This is the beginning of the story of the voyage of the ship they christened, "Star Tower." What John can not dream is that the hazards and disasters they will encounter along the way will force him to rise to become a leader and will also change both the nature and the goal of their voyage completely.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, Published: 2005
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2005
CHAPTER 1. THE DANCE OF THE PLANETS
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Commissioner Adams' hand trembled as he laid down his attaché case. He hated Ben Hura's somber office. It was daunting, like the man who occupied it, making him aware of the overwhelming power wielded from this room. The entire solar system, billions of people scattered over mind-boggling distances, was ruled from here. Adams squirmed uneasily in the hard-as-a-rock chair reserved for official visitors. He crossed his legs and chastised himself for feeling intimidated. After all, as Commissioner of System Relations, responsible for administering diplomatic policy, his own political power almost matched the man before him. He was especially nervous because he brought news with far reaching consequences for mankind. To Adams, the cathedral ceiling, darkly draped walls and sparse furnishing gave the room an atmosphere of impending doom. Above Hura's mahogany desk was an enormous flag, three balls on a triangle--the top ball represented earth, the left, the colonized planets and moons, the right, the space habitats.
He wondered what reaction his bad news would have on the dictator. Ben Hura's appetite for power was insatiable, his rise to power meteoric, first a rising delegate to the World Assembly, then a power broker on the Planetary Council and finally his election as Secretary General of the Solar System Federation. To save the world from anarchy, as Secretary General, he declared a state of emergency, dismissed the Federation Council and took on dictatorial powers, bulling the World Assembly into passing harsh laws to save the earth from pollution and overcrowding, broadening the space program to send people to the space colonies and exploiting the planets and moons. After forty years in office, at the age of ninety, still vigorous and feisty, his ambitions soared to further heights. Nevertheless, for the present the news that Adams now brought would halt additional projects.
As Adams waited for Hura to finish his vidphone conversation, his eyes alighted on a fascinating object, an electromagnetic model of the solar system. Every major object was represented, the sun, the planets, their major moons, space stations and space habitats, known comets and asteroids. Each miniature counterpart held in orbit magnetically and orbiting the sun or a planet on a time scale of one minute to thirty earth days. The planets and comets swung around the central sun in sweeping circles and ellipses. Moons and other small bodies buzzed along in intricate spirals, performing a fascinating hypnotic dance. The inner planets moved swiftly; Mercury whizzed around the central light in two and half minutes, the outer planets in majestic arcs. Jupiter and Saturn with their rings and moons were especially intriguing. This representation indicated another side of the ruthless politician, his obsession with the human expansion into space. At times Ben Hura would ignore his guests to contemplate the motions of the orrery. Although this object de art was enormous, it resided in a corner where normally it would not distract visitors. However, since Hura paced in front of his wonderful toy, Adams fell under its spell.
When Hura finished his vidphone conversation, he turned to Adams. "Well, what did this illegal space council have to say to my ultimatum? Have they agreed to stop complaining about import taxes? Or are they still furious about the export tax? Perhaps they have some new grievance."
Adams cleared his throat. "They treated me coldly, Ben. I was kept waiting hours before they deigned to see me. They granted me a half an hour to state your position."
"They were miffed that I didn't come myself. They've become so arrogant that they think that I should treat each piece of space debris as a sovereign nation. But, go on. What was their response to my refusal to cave in?"
"They gave me a longer list of demands. And as you surmised, they threatened to stop trade with earth if we didn't comply." Adams brought out a vid-chip. "This is their statement." He placed the vid-chip into an HVR. A three-dimensional image of a tall gray-haired woman appeared in the room. Adams recognized her as Marsha Woodwock, governor of Mars and chairperson of the rebellious space committee. The image said, "The time has come when the oppression of your tyrannical government has become so intolerable that the planets and space habitats are forced to dissolve our political connections with earth and declare ourselves free and independent entities.
"To quote the Declaration of Independence of that ancient land, the United States of America, when it broke off from its mother country of England, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident ... '" She recited the second paragraph of the named document and went on to repeat the complaints against Ben Hura's government and their demands for change. "If these demands are not met by the fourth day of July in the standard year of two thousand eighty one, the Confederation of Colony Planets and Space Habitats, by the authority of the people of these planets, moons, asteroids and habitats, solemnly absolve all political connection with the government of earth. And should the government of earth reject this declaration and attempt to impose its will upon us by force, a state of war will exist between us. As duly elected representative of the people of the Confederation of Planets and Space Habitats, I, Marsha Woodwock, declare this a true and binding statement."
The image disappeared. Hura opened his mouth and closed it as though too offended to speak. He hissed through clenched teeth, "This is outrageous. Those idiots not only want to be independent, but are willing to go to war to achieve it? They forget how powerful Earth is, the enormous resources at our disposal, our enormous population. What madness." As he turned towards Adams, the sun in his orrery cast planetary silhouettes across his scowling face. "Well, if it's war they want, the first place we'll bomb is the domes of Mars City. We'll see what Governor Woodwock thinks of that." Due to the movements of the orrey, Earth's shadow eclipsed Mars upon his cheek.
"Woodwock suggested that their space fleet was superior to and more advanced than ours, that their technology was ahead of ours."
"What nonsense. Well, we'll teach these rebels a lesson. We've expended too much on the space frontier to loosen the strings now. We need the resources they supply. Our overcrowded world demands it."
Adams' gaze fell on the tiny pebble of Earth in the model. It slowed at its perigee as though it also had to support a microscopic population too numerous for its size. Being an advisor to this opinionated ruler was as precarious as walking a tight rope. One had to correct false opinions without seeming critical. "Perhaps vigorous enforcement of birth control laws would be a better solution to our problems."
Hura gave Adams a withering stare. "At times you have the mentality of an ape. The political fallout would horrendous if I tried to enforce those laws. When you tell people not to have babies, you're fooling with a basic instinct, not to mention what has been pounded into the sheep by tradition. Population control laws are unenforceable. We have enough problems with insane terrorists and revolutionaries now. Besides, I want to go down in history as the man who pushed the space frontier to the limit, not as the man who sterilized millions. Let my successors worry about overpopulation. Which reminds me, how goes Project Tower?"
Adams flushed. That damn model must have hypnotized me to make such a blunder, he thought. I should know Ben Hura's shrewdness well enough. Adams recalled how on a platform of reducing hunger, destructive climatic changes, devastating pollution, crime and violence, wars, inflation and depression, Hura maneuvered the world's politicians and major corporations into creating a world government with him at its helm. During his years in office he held at bay much suffering, destruction and chaos, mainly by exploiting space. He also called for harsh measures, which seemed only prudent at the time. He was given powers to suppress dissent, complete control of the media, elimination of national armies, and a world police force under his control. His government was allowed to perform summary trials in secret for people suspected of political crimes.
The most costly remedy, however, was to pour enormous resources into space colonization. Space habitats were built in the Kuiper belt, moon bases were expanded, and Mars was terraformed. Thousands of colonists were sent to these places to labor in the harsh conditions of space. It was ironic that they and their children were rebelling against the ruler who caused them to be what they were.
Adams was jarred from his contemplation of Ben Hura's career. "Stop your woolgathering Commissioner. I asked you a question. How fairs Project Tower?"
Adams composed his face into an expression of complete attention. "Just reviewing some history ... of the project, of course. It's going well, except that security is difficult to maintain for an undertaking of that magnitude."
"Well secrecy shouldn't be necessary much longer. And if we succeed, the rewards will be immense."
"I don't understand. Why is Project Tower so important?"
"You dunderhead," Hura roared. "If colonizing the solar system will make my name live in history, how much more the successful completion of Tower will add to my prestige." His shadow loomed over the solar system. The glare of the miniature sun distorted his face into something inhuman. It was no use talking to Hura once that expression came over him. Unnerved, Adams got up to leave the room. Before he eased out of the door, he glanced at the orrey for a moment. Even the Kuiper belt was represented by minute bits of metal. He wondered whether Hura would be pleased if a scale model of the Tower project were added to the artifact.
* * * *
CHAPTER 2. WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS
The War between the Planets as it was eventually to be called in the history books dragged on for six long years. At its start Ben Hura's propaganda machine predicted that it would be over in six months. The Federation had enormous resources of men, material and wealth and a vast armada of space vehicles that were hastily converted for use in warfare. Besides, earth was surrounded by artificial satellites armed to the teeth--an impenetrable shell of detection and destruction--like the quills of a porcupine.
This bubble of overconfidence was burst a month after hostilities were declared. The Rebels, as the media referred to them, destroyed Tranquillity Base on the moon at a time when a quarter of earth's space fleet was on the moon being retrofitted for use in combat. The tide turned against the home world. Almost every battle went against them. The Confederacy's space technology was more advanced, it had better intelligence and above all, it had more knowledge about the environment where the majority of the fighting took place--space.
During the war, only one city on Earth was struck by a missile and obliterated. Three million noncombatants lost their lives in that blast immediately; another six million were seriously wounded, suffering a lingering death from radiation burns and other wounds. The major battles of the war, however, took place millions of miles away in the depths of space. Nonetheless, the war's effect on earth was devastating economically. As hostilities dragged on, already scarce resources were eaten up by the voracious god of war. Antiwar riots and protests bloomed on every continent like wild flowers. A worldwide general strike lasted several weeks. The war became more and more unpopular among the general population.
* * * *
Space is big and empty. Anyone who has never left the kindly atmosphere of earth has no concept of how big and how empty. Only someone who has cruised that long lonely pathway between the planets has any idea how the endless night can drive a person mad with boredom, the silent black velvet sea that goes on and on forever. Just after leaving near earth space, he or she peers out a porthole to gaze at the beautiful blue globe streaked in white and brown. But each day even the lovely blue and white ball grows dimmer and smaller as the ship speeds to its distant destination. Only the ancient mariners sailing the open seas were as alone and cut off from everything dear as the space voyager.
A military spaceship cruised at two hundred thousand kilometers per hour. To traverse from earth orbit to Mars took anywhere from six to seventeen months of monotony. The ship seems suspended in a void, a stasis of dark infinity. Nothing except the occasional course correction lets a space marine know the ship is moving. No scenery glides by; no gravity weighs him or her down.
For people in the space service, the war meant months, even years, in a metal can cramped in close, crowded quarters with their fellows, all who smell bad. When they arrive at their target, their ship orbits the planet, moon, asteroid or space habitat. Floating above it, they perform their mission as lethal laser light wracks the ship and heat seeking missiles are hurled at them. If they are lucky and survive the enemy's defenses, they have a return trip of months yet to endure. It was no wonder that members of the space service had a reputation for bitterness and belligerence.
* * * *
It was the sixth year of the war that was supposed to be over in six months. The Federation space cruiser Nightingale orbited Mars. Her mission was to locate and bomb hidden underground factories. Her war-weary crew had seen action in many parts of the solar system; the Nightingale had been one of the first of earth's fleet to experience combat. After years in space, patriotism had long perished among the crew; they fought only to save their skins. Their one hope was to survive until the Confederation and the Federation decided that peace and compromise was a better alternative than victory. At this juncture of the war, the only motivation was kill or be killed. The chances of sudden death drew closer moment by moment.
Inside the warship's cramped navigation and fire control bay, the fire control officer, Lieutenant JG John Huck, and his assistant, Chief Petty Officer Thothmes Belshazzer, whom everyone called Bel, peered through virtual reality monitors attached to their helmets to scan the area around the ship--a thousand kilometers in every direction. Huck concentrated intently as he rotated detection gear with his power glove and twisted his thick mustache--unofficial badge of a combat space officer--between the fingers of his other hand. Around him, the hum of electronic gear, machine noises and small beeps from his computer sounded an off-key melody as he tracked a tiny object somewhere in the immense black volumes of space surrounding the ship. He commanded his computer, "Map, with grid lines." A rotating three-dimensional map of the hundred kilometer sphere that contained the Nightingale popped into view. It replaced the true vision of utter blackness surrounding the ship. Grid lines were in blue and a red spaceship symbol showed the enemy's position, a white icon their own. The red jumped ten gradients on the grid; the white jumped five.
Huck nudged his comrade. "Flip views to what I'm seeing. A reb ship's tracking us. If the pilot's any good, in a few minutes our ass will be grass. Can we waste him before he reaches our orbit?"
He waited while Belshazzer entered the data into the computer. He knew that the chief petty officer, older and a veteran of many missions, would be cautious and not jump to conclusions. Finally Bel drawled, "Like as not, that reb is going do a tricky maneuver before he draws a bead on us. That's why he's playing it close to the belt. He doesn't want to get caught with his pants down. Yet he's anxious for a quick kill if we're fat, dumb and happy."
"Hmm ... I'll wait until he's in a stable orbit. No sense in wasting a missile. I'll signal the captain that we're being tracked and to be ready to take evasive action." Huck warned the pilot what was going on.
The captain's voice sounded from the PA. "Red alert. A reb fighter's on our tail. Strap in. We'll be doing fancy maneuvers. No time to don spacesuits. Just stay in your couches and hope to hell he doesn't score a hit."
Orbital maneuvers are tricky. If the pilot changes speed, the spaceship also changes orbits. Wherever you were in the solar system, some object whether it be a planet, moon, asteroid or the sun itself had you in its gravity grip. It was as though the ship were attached by an invisible elastic string to whatever large body was closest to it. Like now. The Nightingale whirled around Mars over a hundred kilometers ahead of the Confederate ship. If the reb simply increased his speed, his vehicle would be forced into a higher orbit. The only way for the reb to catch up to the Nightingale is to do a DDU--duck down and up again. In other words, he would slow down to achieve a lower orbit. From this position he would fire his booster rockets to simultaneously bring him back to their orbit and close. Good space jockeys could do this maneuver with precision without using computers. Those who failed ended up in a wrong orbit or even ahead of the enemy's position with a missile heading toward their rear ends. Another problem with this maneuver was that it wasted precious fuel. This aspect probably did not worry the reb since he was on home territory.
Because the pilot of the Nightingale knew the reb was heading toward their orbit, he fired breaking rockets to fall to a lower orbit allowing the reb to pass over their heads. For the Nightingale fuel consumption was critical; if their allotment of fuel got used up, they were a sitting duck unable to either speed up or brake, forever locked in one orbit until they were boarded or destroyed.
A sudden commotion around the communications console distracted Huck from his monitor. He flipped up the VR viewer. Three of the crew were clapping each other on the back, talking excitedly and pointing at an incoming message on the comm officer's screen. The comm officer slipped off his headset and yelled, "Hey guys, stop whatever you're doing. Frig the space corps, fuck this ship, frig everything. The war's over." With a grin a kilometer wide, he relayed the following message to everyone's monitor.
UNCLASSIFIED. PRIORITY: URGENT
PEACE NEGOTIATIONS WITH REBELS INITIATED. IMMEDIATE CEASE FIRE. DO NOT ENGAGE ENEMY SHIPS. REPEAT: CEASE FIRE IN EFFECT. DO NOT ENGAGE ENEMY SHIPS. ALL SHIPS WITHIN A RADIUS OF ONE MILLION MILES OF LUNA RETURN AT ONCE. ALL OTHER COMMANDS WAIT FOR ORDERS.
BY ORDER OF ADMIRAL MAKADO
COPERNICUS BASE, LUNA
A postscript was added by the communications officer at the other end.
YOU ARE FIRED GENTLEMEN.
The Nightingale's comm officer hollered out, "It's the real thing. No trick, no joke. It came over a secured channel. We're really at peace."
Huck shouted back. "Sounds real enough. But I wouldn't celebrate just yet. That reb assault ship's still breathing down our throats. He might not know about the cease fire. Look, check with the captain. If he okays it, hail the reb."
While the comm officer contacted the captain, Huck continued to track the reb. As he had figured, the bogy headed to a lower orbit. Meanwhile, sudden acceleration caused by their own pilot firing retros pressed him back into his couch. The white icon also headed to a lower orbit. Moments later, Huck let out a stream of curses. The reb was cannier than he thought. He did not blast himself into the higher orbit that the Nightingale had previously occupied. Instead he had place himself in the orbit they were now in and was less than a kilometer to their rear.
A message from the captain flashed before Huck's eyes. It said, "HOLD ALL FIRE. REPEAT. DO NOT FIRE AT REB FIGHTER."
Huck buzzed the comm officer. "Has the reb replied to your hail?"
"No. It's an open hail, so either his receiver's dead or he's ignoring it."
"That puts us between a rock and a hard place, doesn't it?" Huck whispered to Belshazzer. Even to his own ears his voice sounded strained and ironic. "If the reb attacks before I fire at him, we wind up dead. If I fire first or maybe even if he misses and I fire second, I'm disobeying a direct order."
He hailed the pilot again. "Can we achieve escape velocity and make a run for it?"
"Too late for that. Look," Bel's voice, croaked in his other ear. The red icon moved into a slightly higher orbit in perfect position to blast the white icon to oblivion.
"Bel, watch him good now." Huck twisted his mustache and grimaced.
The comm officer yelled, "Nuts. The damn pirate. He hears me, but he's not answering. He probably knows about the cease fire but will go after us anyway. He's got nothing to lose. And plenty to gain from our salvage."
Huck was jolted when the captain fired maneuvering rockets in an effort at evasion. It probably would not do any good. A heat seeker would find them easily at the range the reb was at now. He was pinned to his seat, unable to move for several seconds.
"I've got a lock on the reb," Huck cried into the internal comm system.
"Okay, fire at will ... and don't miss," shouted the captain into Huck's ear.
A few seconds went by in which they all held their breath. If their missile hit the reb, that would be the end of the contest. If the reb fired first or their missile missed its target, the chances were that they would be obliterated when the reb's torpedo blew their ship apart.
Belshazzer, who had ignored everything except his virtual reality scanner, called over, "We got him. Not a moment too soon."
A cheer went up by all hands. They were safe. Not only that, the war was over. Suddenly a loud explosion came from the aft section, their ship went into a tumble and an ear-piercing scream came through Huck's headset.
"Quick. Space suits," the captain cried.
Huck fought the tug of the gravity induced by the end-over-end rotation cursing as he struggled into the unwieldy costume. He wondered what had happened. By the time he fastened his helmet, the pilot had the ship under control. With null-G reinstated he and two other men propelled themselves towards the stern. Precious moments passed while everyone in the chart room suited up and the captain evacuated the air. His hand trembled as he typed the code to open the hatch to the aft compartments. Beyond it people were dying.
The scene of horror in the engine room turned Huck's stomach. Something the size of a baseball had torn through the port bulkhead, smashed an equipment bay and exited through a gaping metal hole in the starboard bulkhead with explosive force.
As Huck surveyed the awful scene, the name of each of the dead tolled through his mind as though the grim reaper was calling the roll. Sam Jahnsan, Al Dredger and Alice Wolfe--Alice with that thick brown hair that floated around her face in free fall and that pert upturned nose, who always had a smile and a pleasant word for everyone--all asphyxiated with blood bubbling from their mouths and still strapped in their seats. Snake and Georgia floated near the ceiling. They had somehow gotten their legs into suits before their lungs had burst, but the rest of the outfit hung limp with the arms dangling, their limbs twisted into contortionist positions so that they seemed like marionettes thrown carelessly into a corner. Jacques Flemier's stiff, gray body hung halfway through the jagged hole where the out rushing air had flung him. Frozen blood and gore floated around the room like hellish snow.
Although the war had hardened Huck to such unspeakable obscenities, he broke down and sobbed tears of rage and guilt. It had been a chunk of the reb spaceship that he had just blown up that caused this hideous, senseless destruction and loss of life.