Chapter 2 :: Dancing with Tholions
The navigator piped up, “Mercury coming into Eloptic range.”
The planet was now visible on the forward Visograph. Lieutenant Commander McLeod asked wryly, “She sure is a lovely ball of burned rock, eh?”
First Mate Ayers commanded, “All stations update and keep a sharp eye out.”
McLeod’s Æthervox sensors detected something unusual in orbit. It could have been a meteor burning across the upper atmosphere, but a closer observation determined it was an Æther vessel. McLeod reported, “Mr. Ayers, there appears to be a vessel in orbit.”
“Nationality?” Ayers solicited.
One moment, sir.” McLeod compared the vessel’s configuration with his analysis engine and hit upon a match. “The vessel matches Tholion Specifications.”
Ayers acknowledged and gave the command. “Aye. Boatswain; sound general quarters, call the Commodore to the Bridge. Can’t be too careful.”
Commodore Maxby had just opened up the latest penny dreadful he was able to smuggle onboard when the claxon sounded. He instinctively headed directly to the bridge only to have Fairlane seize the novelette from his hand before the pneumatic lift door closed. Maxby arrived on the bridge as the main viewer was focusing in on the Tholion craft.
“Commodore, a Tholion, Nova class, cruiser is in orbit around Mercury. It seems to be in an polar orbit circling just above the twilight zone. We have detected no damage to the vessel and it shows no sign of noticing us. I have not attempted communication in compliance with the Tholion treaty.”
“Very good, Ayers.”
“I suspect their odd orbital inclination is intended for close study of the Mercurial world river area,” added McLeod.
“I think your suspicions are unwarranted, McLeod. There is nothing there that would interest a Tholion. My hunch is that a polar orbit at a tangent to the sun is standard for Tholion craft so that their ship never has to pass into the shadow of the planet.” Maxby grinned and added, “I hear they are dreadful thermophilics.”
The navigator interrupted, “What orbit should I initiate, sir?”
Maxby stated, “According to the treaty, we are supposed to ignore any contact with each other as if the other party was not present. In keeping with that, establish a standard orbit, helmsman.”
“Aye, sir, initiating standard orbital maneuver.” The helmsman turned the ship’s wheels to bank the Dauntless into a standard equatorial orbit and then set the braking lever to 4% to slow the ship.
Ayers and McLeod made quiet conversation over near the Æthervox console as the Dauntless completed its orbital insertion maneuver. Ayers requested the Captain to attend McLeod and himself at the console. “Sir, as you know, little information exists about Tholion technology.”
Maxby gave a knowing nod.
“With our intercepting orbits, we could control our orbital speed to a point where we could come very close to the Tholion vessel on several orbits.”
“Go on,” Maxby murmured.
“The proximity and direction would allow us to get detailed scans of their ship by using our forward navigational sensors. They know and we know that these sensors must be on all the time. The Tholions would not detect any unnecessary scans. We would not be in violation of the treaty, but we could still get comprehensive scans of their ship.”
Maxby stroked his bearded chin and queried, “How often will we pass the Tholion ship?”
McLeod depressed some keys on the console and recited, “About once every 80 minutes.”
“How close will we come?” asked Ayers.
“Within 35 miles,” declared McLeod. “Even closer if we drop a little altitude.”
“That should be close enough to read the serial numbers off their engines,” Maxby proclaimed. He returned to his chair and ordered, “Helm, match orbital speed to the figures provided from the science station. McLeod, scan for any signs of a Tholion landing party. Blackpool, alert the Marines on the Tommy deck just in case. Wælrave, monitor frequencies for Tholion communications and trace any transmission back to the source. Ayers, brief our landing party on the current situation. I don’t believe the Tholions would dare to venture to the cold side where the landing party will be gathering their Core samples, but forewarned is forearmed.”
The geological survey party departed in the Rio Grande to collect ice cores on the cold side. The party included a reinforced squad of marines commanded by Sergeant Rook dressed in cold planet gear and armed to the teeth as insurance.
Within minutes, McLeod and Wælrave detected a Tholion presence near the Mercurial hot pole. McLeod quipped, “As hot as they are, they stood out like a Klinkon at a Vulkan shrine.”
Sensors had to be recalibrated to better distinguish the delta between the furnace-like ambient temperatures and the searing heat of the Tholion life forms, but before the first interception, the crew had detected not only a landing party and shuttle but the beginnings of a permanent outpost. Maxby had read that the Tholions had been interested in the hot side of Mercury, but reports had theorized that Mercury to the Tholions would be much like Antarctica is to humans.
“Pay special attention to passive scans of the Tholion outpost,” Ayers commanded. “I want to know what they’re up to down there.”
Maxby speculated aloud, “Mercury does have a wealth of minerals. British industrialists have been after them for years, but the Environmental conditions make it too expensive when compared to prospecting in the belt.”
McLeod had a team working on the forward navigational sensors adapting them for more precise detection. It was hoped that the penetrating scans could provide details of the interior. The sensors were ready a mere three minutes before the Tholion ship passed in front of the forward sensors.
“On this first pass, I’d like to concentrate the scans on learning as much as you can about their means of propulsion,” Maxby commanded.
The armory officer offered, “Aren’t we more interested in their weapons and defenses, sir?”
Maxby corrected the lieutenant commander, “Neither weapons or defenses will save you without the ability to maneuver. Pin the prey’s wings and the game is yours. I would like you to go over the scans with engineering to devise a way to disable the craft.”
The first sensor pass went as planned. The Tholion ship spent a full three seconds in the sensor field and as close as twelve leagues. The raw sensor data was distributed to several teams for analysis and recording. Maxby gave the teams an hour before he wanted a preliminary report.
The conference room just off the bridge filled quickly as the deadline approached. McLeod organized the meeting and made sure everything was in place before Maxby entered.
“Well, what can you tell me about the Tholion ship, Mr. McLeod?”
“Sir, the ship itself is composed of layers of carbon ceramic and metallic crystals. The interior of the ship registers a blistering 800 degrees. There are 66 life forms aboard, radiating temperatures around 500 degrees. The ship is divided into decks, and it seems that their main engineering is located at the ship’s posterior.”
McLeod gestured to Chief Winston. The engineering chief rose and continued, “The Tholions are currently using a magnetic means for maneuvering in orbit. Their main drive was not discernable by the penetrating scans, but the magnetic sensors revealed a helical ætheromagnetic signature leading me to believe they are using a rotating subætheric torque drive similar to the Ferenchi. Considering the space allocated to drives, I would surmise that their drives are significantly more efficient than the Ferenchi.”
“Thank you, Chief.”
McLeod pointed to Farrell. The armory officer stood and stated, “The Tholion hull is very strong and highly resistant to heat-based attacks. I’m afraid our Blaiser cannon and phlogisten torpedoes would have minimal effect. Not enough is known about their propulsion to suggest a method of disabling their engines.” He looked agitated by the fact he had to award tactical superiority to the Tholions.
Lastly, Dr. Tandekar rose and reported, “This is the first scan ever to record any life processes of a Tholion, and I’ll have to admit they are baffling. To my scans, the Tholion body is comprised on individual crystals linked both electrically and magnetically in a cloud of energized gas. There are no individual organs as we know them, no biological processes but plenty of high temperature energy processes. I can only guess that the Tholions feed on some type of energy plasma and move their collections of parts through magnetic manipulation of some molten medium. If you are looking for a weapon to use against them, I would suggest a stream of water. Water would not only short out their internal electrical processes, but the reduction in temperature, I believe, would prove fatal. I detected no water vapor in their entire environment, water could be highly dangerous to them”
Maxby paused, seemingly absorbing all the information. “Our next sensor interception is in twelve minutes. I would like to know more about the interior of the Tholion ship: life support, weaponry and power plant. I will see you again for a second briefing one hour after we pass. That is all.”
The conference room emptied in a flash as all the participants had changes to make to their sensors.