Planet of Freedom
Chapter Four - Preparations and Take-off
"Very well, we all go," John said, "And since we have kept everything at optimum levels, no more than three days should be needed to prepare for takeoff." Johnís voice took on a determined edge. "We leave everything that is of no importance and we donít worry about dismantling anything weíve built outside; weíll be back."
Suddenly all of their tiny companions started squeaking in great agitation, flapping their shimmering wings. Nine flutter-dragons launched themselves simultaneously from the Robotís frame and landed on their humansí shoulders. Long tails wrapped around necks almost in a chokehold.
It was very clear to Maureen that the tiny lizards had no intention of being separated from their adopted companions. "I believe that our friends are expressing their opinions as well," she said with a laugh. "Now all we have to do is figure out a way to make the trip comfortable for them."
"What if we build a botanical garden for them. In the cargo bay. Something more permanent than the small arboretum that we built to help them through the winter months," Penny suggested.
The lizards began to settle down, tails loosening from around necks and the squeaking changing to a soft crooning. "We could use or duplicate some of the hydroponics equipment and bring in more of their natural vegetation," Penny continued, thinking anxiously that separation from her tiny friends would be almost too hard to bear. Her dad still had not said anything. "I could do most of the work if someone could help me move things."
Her dad looked thoughtfully at her and then smiled. "I agree that we canít leave the flutter-dragons here," he said. "Theyíre more than pets. You head the committee to make a habitat for them, but make sure itís built in a place that wonít interfere with the use of any of our equipment. And call on any of us to help you." Penny was ecstatic. Although pretty sure of her dadís feelings about the little creatures, she had felt a bit of the same panic that her four had felt.
"Thanks, Dad," she cried happily and then rushed to the stairwell heading down to the cargo bay. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy squeaked merrily and fluttered behind her like a rainbow trailing in her wake.
Surveying the cargo bay, Penny shook her head. It would be hard to find a niche in the crowded room to establish a permanent habitat for nine lizards. Pacing around the outer perimeter of the bay, she picked and discarded several sites before deciding on a suitable one. It was far away from the cargo lock and the large vehicles, such as the chariot and the atmospheric explorer. It was also near the stairwell and the elevator. Singing softly to herself, Penny began moving things around to clear a larger space. Her foursome sat on one of the rungs of the ladder and crooned happily.
"Youíre a big help," she told them with a laugh. They just cocked their heads and squeaked at her. Lucy flew over and landed on her shoulder as she sketched out a rough draft of the new arboretum. Happily, Penny continued working until Silverado came down to get her for dinner.
John watched his youngest daughter bounce to the stairwell and smiled at her exuberance. He wished he had that kind of exuberance. "Maureen, enlist anyone you need to stock food supplies. Iím afraid itís back to a total regimen of replicated cuisine," John said with a sigh. "Don, Iíll need your help later to begin checking the flight systems. Will, I need you to work with me on the hyperdrive coordinates."
"And the pregnant woman will help where ever she might be needed," Judy added with a smile, watching everyone head off to do their respective tasks.
"Judy, you can help me over here at the control panel because you, my dear, are going to continue your pilotís training by helping with a bit of pre-flight preparations," Don told her.
John glanced quickly at the couple and then turned his attention back to the navigational computer. "Will, I noticed that you didnít pull up the chart for Wereeshen, but I assume that since everything on the disk came from their archives, there has to be an identifier here somewhere that will give us a clue. Would you work with the robot and see if you can find anything that will tell us the planetís location? We need to make a quick visit and do some research on the Graxod."
As Penny, Will and Don put the finishing touches on the arboretum, all of the little lizards crooned and squeaked happily. Flitting amongst the small trees, bushes and other plants and flowers, the tiny creatures made themselves at home. They had been avidly watching their humans build their habitat for the past two days, chirping encouragingly as each new plant was brought in. Containers of nectar were placed strategically among the foliage.
Penny laughed as all nine of the flutter-dragons settled on the same branch, which began to sag ominously. Squeaking, several of them flew to other branches and then stared intently at the humans, their golden eyes shining. To Penny, is seemed as though a kaleidoscope had broken open on this small section of the cargo bay, spilling brightly colored crystals all over. She knew that this would be a refuge not only for their companions, but for themselves as well. This section of greenery was a veritable paradise in a sea of plain metallic gray.
"Bravo, Penny, very well done. Iím proud of you," her father announced from behind her. Penny started, not having heard him come down. Silverado swooped over to his shoulder and made himself comfortable, curling his long tail around Johnís neck, crooning softly. "Yes, you spoiled baby, it is wonderful."
He looked all around the flutter-dragon habitat and smiled. "Everyone has worked so hard, but it will pay off. We should be able to launch tomorrow by midday. I was sent down to let you gardeners know that our last planet-bound dinner is ready."
Judy looked at her silver space suit in disgust. "Mother, what am I going to do?"
Maureen shook her head in sympathy. "I suppose, dear, you will have to continue to look lovely attired in altered polyester. I really donít know."
"How about one of mine or your dadís. Our suits are bigger," Don suggested. He was standing in the doorway looking on in amusement. Jimmy Doolittle was sitting on his shoulder, squeaking merrily.
Sighing, Judy looked at her mother, who only rolled her eyes. "Don, yours and Dadís suits are taller, not wider, especially from the waist down," she retorted. "And if you are trying to be helpful, youíre not succeeding very well." Aurora squeaked tersely from her shoulder and then flew out of the room. Jimmy followed.
"Sorry, didnít mean to start something." Don backed out of the room and up against the Robot. HE was holding what appeared to be one of the flight suits.
"Judy West, try this on," he said evenly.
Penny peered out from behind the robot. "We worked together on this, Judy. Robot was able to cut the material and help Will and I put it together."
With an exclamation of delight, Judy slipped it on and smiled broadly. It was a bit large around her stomach, but the way the baby was growing, that was a good thing. "Oh, thank you, Penny, Robot. Itís wonderful!"
"It will not pass Alpha Control standards, but does afford some protection during space flight," the Robot said evenly.
"Do you think this is the worldís first maternity spacesuit?" Judy asked with a straight face.
Don burst out laughing and then gathered his wife in his arms. "My dear, never was a maternity spacesuit so marvelous looking. Must be the model wearing it." Judy giggled with pleasure. She felt Mark kicking happily as well. Jimmy and Aurora flew back into the cabin, spinning in a tight aerial dance around the couple.
"Will, how is it going?" John asked his son, who had been trying to find a location for the Wereeshen library for much of the past two days. Wishing he had not been so busy, John sat down next to his son and checked the data already compiled.
"The Robot thinks these figures could be locator signatures, but itís a long shot," Will explained. "I sure wish I had called up that star chart."
"Donít worry about it, son. You did a fine job getting what you did." John put his hand on his sonís shoulder to reassure him. Gazing carefully at the figures, John called up the galactic schematic and keyed in the numbers Will and the robot had found on the disk. He grunted in satisfaction. "That would put it near the galactic core. Logical."
Turning to Will, he asked, "Son, you got there at night. What was the night sky like?"
"Well, they didnít need street lights, thatís for sure. I donít think Iíve ever seen so many stars in my life," Will said fervently and then his eyes widened in understanding.
"Eureka," John said under his breath. He added the coordinates into the navigational computer.
"John, if you are as sure about this invasion as you seem to be, then why not go directly to Earth," Don protested testily as he approached the pair. "Why this wild goose chase?"
"In answer to your question, let me throw out a bit of military history, Don," John began to explain. "During World War II, Hitler ordered an invasion of Russia. A great deal of men and weapons were sent to do the job; the Russians should have been overwhelmed, but they werenít. Why? Partly because Hitler and his staff had not done their research. They didnít check out the fact that the Russian winters were brutal on men and machines not used to it or that the Russian people themselves were tough, tough enough to stand up to the might of the German Wehrmacht."
"Like you said, John, that was history," Don retorted hotly. "This is now. Will had his encounter with the Graxod almost eight months ago. We canít waste time looking at books or disks in a library. Enough time has been wasted already. We need to get to Earth."
John mentally winced at the reference to the lost months. He looked up at Don, hoping for understanding, but knowing what was causing the pilotís anxiety. "Don, what do we do? Waltz to Earth and tell the president, ĎMr. President, Earth is going to be invaded by a race called the Graxod. We donít know anything about them, but they think humans are vermin.í" John stood up, irritation flaming quickly at his son-in-lawís obtuseness. They glared at one another for a moment, before John took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down.
"Let me continue, Don," he said in an even tone of voice. "On the flip side, the reason the Persian Gulf War was a success is due to the fact that time had been taken to learn about the psyche of the people involved and the land where the battles were going to be fought. They learned the Iraqisí strengths and weaknesses. Schwarzkopf did his homework; they ran the invaders out of Kuwait. He accomplished everything he was allowed to do, and he did it quickly and with a minimum of bloodshed."
"My theories may be putting the people I love the most into great danger. I want to know what Iím throwing you all into. I hope like hell Iím wrong, but if Iím right, I want some kind of knowledge of what can be done against these Graxod. I want some ammunition." As he spoke, he continued to hope that Don would understand, knowing as well as Don the length of time the detour might add onto the trip to Earth. Hyperjumps were not instantaneous and there were many between Karturm and Earth.
Don glared at John for a few more minutes without comment, and then suddenly his features softened and he just looked weary. "John, Iím not thinking clearly on this. Iím sorry, youíre right. I just worry that we wonít make it back in time after getting the warning to Earth or.... I donít know."
"Youíre worried that the baby will be born in the middle of a battle. Don, Iím not unmindful of that. Heaven knows, I am very much aware of the possibility," John said softly. Silverado and Jimmy chirped soothingly from the top of the Robotís plexi-glass dome. John hadnít even been aware of their presence. The lizards looked from John to Don, their eyes bright in agitation.
Don sighed. "How much more time do you think the trip to the library will take?"
"The jump itself will take several days, maybe just shy of a week. But once there, weíll pull up other star charts. We wonít be backtracking, weíll take the most direct route to Earth from Wereeshen," he assured his friend.
"Sure, John. Sorry I snapped at you," Don said. "And Iím sorry, Will, that you were in on this, too," he said, looking at the boy, who had been staring at the two men.
"Iím just sorry that I didnít do this earlier," John said sadly.
"You know whatís so ironic about this?" Don asked sardonically.
"This is one time I wish Smith would come back, so we could use the cube to go to the library, do the research and then go and warn them back on Earth."
John looked at Don in shock, but realized how tough that statement had been for his proud son-in-law to make. He just nodded. "Yes, that thought had crossed my mind, too."
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