Per Ardua Ad Astra
Chapter 23: Alpha Centauri
Copyright© 2013 by normist
Forty-five minutes later there was a clunk that was more felt than heard. Charles turned to Susan and asked, "What was that?" Others of the bridge crew were looking nervous.
Susan looked at me, so I replied. "That was the drive avoiding a body in the Oort Cloud. Do you remember, Charles, the feral planetoid we didn't hit in the Enterprise half way to Epsilon Eridani?"
"Yes. This bump was almost as much as that."
"I think that you would find, Charles, that if we stopped, we had passed a fair sized planetoid. Anything less and we probably wouldn't even feel it."
"Thank goodness," replied Charles, "that had me worried for a moment."
Just then, our Chief Engineer, Derek Paulsy, rushed onto the bridge, "What was that?"
With a calmness that he hadn't shown a minute before, our Duty Engineer, John Munro told him, "That was something in the Oort Cloud we just passed."
There were no more surprises until we slowed to a sub-light speed three days later. We found ourselves at about a hundred Astronomical Units from the two stars, Alpha Centauri A and B. The third, much dimmer star, Proxima Centauri, is about 13,000 Au from the other two, and could be seen as a dim red spot. One large rocky planet was known to orbit about B, but so closely that any life on it would be impossible.
We proceeded to adopt our planet-finding procedure by looking for the plane of the system and moving off to one side or the other. Looking at the system, we moved across it. Any bodies in the system show up as minute 'D' shapes which move against the distant background of stars. Twenty minutes later after moving across the system we had tagged three planets that we thought orbited Alpha Centauri A, two orbiting B and eight more that we thought might be orbiting the pair. There was no obvious trace of an asteroid or cometary belt. It looked as though between the pair, the two stars had swept the system fairly clear.
We designated these planets: Aa to Ac, Ba and Bb, and A-Bd to A-Bk. We were too close to the two main stars to see if there were any planets attached to Proxima Centauri, but we could always explore that star later. The next step we decided on was to take a quick look from the outside of the system in. We started with planet A-Bk.
This planet was a small gas giant with rings and two small moons. Planet A-Bj was a slightly larger gas giant with rings and three medium-sized moons. The next three planets were similar but larger with more moons. Then came two large ring-less gas giants. Planet A-Bd was smaller and icy.
There was a large gap to the next planet, Ac, which proved to be very disappointing. It was small, cold, and had no atmosphere.
Then we hit pay dirt. Planet Ab was verdant, temperate with an oxygen-rich atmosphere and with about forty percent of the surface covered with water. We were closing for a closer look when Chief Petty Officer Phyllis Hollis on the Science position called out, "I think you'd better slow down. The radiation is rather high."
"Helm, stop," ordered Susan.
"Is it natural?" I asked.
"No. I don't think so. It has all the earmarks of a catastrophic nuclear incident. It would have killed most advanced kinds of life. That's a very high level of radiation," said Phyllis.
"How high?" I asked.
"I would guess you'd last days on the surface, rather than weeks."
"What would be a safe height?" asked Susan.
"I'd want to remain above the atmosphere, in case it's hot too. Say, above a hundred thousand feet. I'll carry on monitoring the radiation level."
"Right. Helm, descend to one hundred and twenty thousand feet."
"Hollis, If the radiation rises to too great a level, tell the helm to increase altitude. Got that, helm.
"Aye-aye." they replied in unison.
"Helm. Descend slowly along the coastline."
Most eyes were on the screens showing outputs of downward pointing cameras zoomed out to their maximum focal length. There was something slightly strange about the vegetation. It was as though the plant life had exploded into as many possible variations as it could. Unfortunately the greenery below covered up any signs of advanced life. Not that we were expecting any with the radiation present.
Lieutenant Thomas Long spoke, "wouldn't a desert environment be more likely to display any human remains? I mean the remains of anything civilized."
"Did anyone see any desert on the approach?" asked Susan.
"I thought I did, on the far side of this continent," said Thomas.
"Helm, come ninety degrees to starboard," ordered Susan.
"Aye-aye, Ma'am," replied the helm.
The ground remained a lush green as we traveled inland. However, after about five hundred miles, it started to thin out a bit. There was what looked suspiciously like the line of a road,
However, it was all but obscured by the sand. Eventually, we spotted a rectangular lump near the line and we slowed to examine it more closely.
"That was a building," said Phyllis. "I'm almost sure it was."
"Helm," said Susan, "keep on, but slow if you see anything of interest."
"Aye-aye Ma'am." replied the helm.
About a hundred miles further along, what might be a city skyline started to appear. As we got to about five miles from the city, there was a bend in the road at a turn off leading to one building standing alongside a number of ruins. The total impression of the group was that of a college campus. The lone standing building looked as though it could have been some assembly hall or even a library.
"How safe is it, Phyllis?" asked Susan.
"It should be safe enough for two or three hours. I've got some film badge dosimeters here. How many people will be in the landing party?"