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Castaway Resolution: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Monday, December 2, 2019 22:45 EST

 


 

    Raijin lay before her, a perfect sphere of polished silver and glass cradled in a setting like an egg cup, every feature of airlock, impulse jets, Trapdoor coils, and all others meticulously set as flush with the surface of the sphere as possible. At her approach, the circular airlock door swung open, and she could feel her omni establishing full link connections, readying the little ship for launch. I wonder if —

    “I’m here, I’m here!” came a somewhat breathless voice behind Sue.

    The sight of the cheerful face under too-curly-to-restrain hair made Sue smile with relief. “So you were here. Thanks, Orado!”

    “It was the obvious next step,” the station replied.

    Sue extended her hand; the other took it. “Dr. Pearce, I’m glad you were able to make it. Orado’s briefed you?”

    “Well, summarized, yes,” Dr. Carolyn Pearce said. “I can’t really believe it myself. Do we have any idea what happened to â“”

    “None. That’s why we’re heading out.” She noted the black case — a far more advanced version of the legendary “black bag” of traveling physicians — and nodded. “That’s all you need?”

    “Without holding us up much, yes.” Dr. Pearce clambered into Raijin with practiced ease; she’d been one of the physicians of Orado Station for twelve years, much longer than Sue had been here. Sue could hear the harness snapping shut around the doctor even as Sue got into the pilot’s seat. “Raijin, prepare for launch immediately.”

    The spherical perfection of Raijin was the key to its unique performance. It, and all the other “Lightning” rescue and courier vehicles were designed to allow the most carefully controlled Trapdoor jumps possible. A normal Trapdoor vessel had to take roughly thirty seconds for a minimum jump, and had what amounted to a startup and cooldown time that was short but variable. However, “variable” when dealing with something moving at roughly seventy times the speed of light meant that you might end up ten million kilometers to either side of your ostensible target with only a total startup/cooldown variation of one second.

    But Raijin could boast a maximum variation in endpoint location of less than one hundred thousand kilometers, a hundred times better than standard commercial drives and ten times better than even tuned Trapdoor drives on more standard craft. Moreover, its minimum jump time had been reduced to about one second, meaning that it could manage jumps of twenty million kilometers with good accuracy. The perfect sphere simplified the field interactions immensely, making it possible to approach the theoretical minimum responsive times of the Trapdoor Drive.

    With three separate propulsion systems – a built-in fusion reactor to drive a nuclear rocket, the Trapdoor Drive, or an extremely large-volume Nebula Drive – Raijin and its siblings could carry messages from point to point, or more importantly rescue people, at speeds far in excess of any conventional drive ship, if the job could be done by no more than three people.

    “Orado Station, this is Raijin. We are prepared for launch. Check our flight path.”

    “Flight path is clear. Launching now.”

    The bottom literally dropped out of the “egg-cup” in which Raijin sat, and the spherical ship shot outward. The launch bay was located on the edge of the rotating ring of Orado Station, and thus the centripetal force which had kept her sitting solidly on that surface was gone, releasing Raijin to follow the commands of Newton for a few minutes before she would end up sneering at him and Einstein both.

    “Wheee!” she heard from Dr. Pearce’s seat, and despite the gravity of the situation Sue chuckled. It was a rather fun way to launch.

    “Glad you like it, Doc. Some of my passengers have been less than thrilled with that process.”

    “I’ll bet they hate roller-coasters, too. How long to Outward Initiative?”

    “Depends on how good I am today.”

    According to the data, Outward Initiative had been at one billion, two hundred and fifty-three million, five hundred thousand kilometers from Orado Station at time. . . mark. Fortunately, the huge ship hadn’t entered “hot” — going at high relative speed — or it would have taken a long time to adjust her speed to match. The relative speed was about five kilometers a second, well within Raijin‘s twenty kps delta-vee from its nuclear jet. That also wasn’t fast enough to matter much at Trapdoor speeds, so she discounted it for the most part.

    That’s just under a one-minute jump.

    The key to real performance here, however, depended on the pilot. Even the best AIs yet made could not match human gut instinct on the final instantaneous adjustments to the field just before jump. Some liked to claim this was proof of some ineffable human superiority, a sense beyond the material; Sue thought it simply showed that current AIs didn’t quite know how to integrate everything from the tactile feedback on the controls, the sound and vibrations transmitted through the ship, the miniscule variations in the system readouts, and simultaneously apply it to the external conditions that were fed to a modern pilot through their retinals and haptic simulation links that could make the pilot very nearly be a part of the ship.

    “Well, here goes. Orado Station, Raijin preparing for in-system Trapdoor jump, estimated time fifty-nine point seven seconds.”

    “Confirmed, Raijin. Jump when ready.”

    She grasped the controls, both physically and mentally, concentrated on the feel of the ship. Nice balance. Resonance sounds almost perfect. Very slight beat coming from coil seven. . . about five point seven hertz.

    She nudged the jump parameters just a hair. . . and activated.

    A faint green sparkle shimmered and Orado Station — and the stars themselves — disappeared. Raijin was now hurtling through a lightless void, the Trapdoor Space. The only light that existed there was from Raijin itself, but its perfectly spherical exterior had no angle or vantage to project light upon itself, nor to provide a view, so the screens were darker than the waters of distant Europa’s oceans, a perfect blackness that made ebony and pitch seem bright.

    “You said fifty-nine seconds?”

    “Turned out to be fifty-nine point six nine seven seconds by the jump command. The exact full time of transition varies slightly.”

    “You changed it?”

    “A bit. Felt right. If my instincts are still good; been a long time since I had to try this.” She felt the usual tension rising. “We’re about to find out. Here it comes. Jump completion in three, two, one â“”

    The stars sprang into existence again — and in the first screen, to the lower left, something that was not a star, something large enough to show signs of structure.

    Sue let out a completely unprofessional whoop of triumph. I can see it without magnification! We’ve got to be less than six thousand kilometers away!

    “Outward Initiative,” she said into the radio, “This is Lieutenant Susan Fisher, pilot of Raijin, S&R out of Orado Station.”

    “From Orado?” came the same voice that had given the Mayday. “Thank God! Raijin, do you have any medical personnel on board?”

    “Outward Initiative, this is Dr. Carolyn Pearce,” her passenger said. “I am a fully qualified physician, frontier, traditional, and nanomedical.”

    The relief in the voice was palpable. “Wonderful. This is Masashi Toriyama, acting captain of Outward Initiative.”

    “We’re on our way, Captain,” she said, checking vectors and activating Raijin‘s nuclear rocket. Acceleration shoved them both back in their seats. “We’ll be matching with you within an hour.

    “Now that we’re close enough to talk — can you tell us what happened?”

    “Something I’ve never seen before — nor heard of. We were cruising along on Trapdoor just as smooth as you like, and suddenly the field stability alert starts screaming. We followed the book, authorized an emergency stop, but the field oscillations were so out of control that it took us thirty seconds just to damp them enough to do the shutdown.”

    “Jesus,” Sue heard herself say. “Oscillations? You’re saying that the Trapdoor Field is what did that to you?”

    “Oscillation depths were increasing so fast that if we’d been a second or two slower in reacting it might have bit straight through into the main hull,” Toriyama said. “As it was. . . well, you saw. Took five chunks out of the hab ring, compromised the integrity of the ring itself — part of what took us so long to get here was that we had to repair the ring well enough to keep it rotating.”

    The hab ring — as its name implied — was where most people lived; it rotated, providing effective gravity for the crew and passengers. But that meant. . . “How many people. . .”

    “. . . did we lose?” Captain Toriyama’s voice was grim. “Fewer than we might have, I suppose. We happened to be in an emergency drill at the time, so everyone except a skeleton crew was in the lifeboats already. No one was killed in the living quarters, but we lost six lifeboats out of the hundred twenty on board. Wasn’t the worst of it, though, the bad luck was just starting. We lost all three of our ships’ doctors — two were on the lifeboats and the third. . . well, she was too close because she’d gotten a call that someone was sick on one of the boats and the captain gave her permission to go tend to them.”

    “That was a violation of â“”

    “Lieutenant, I’m fully aware of that. So was he. But routine . . . routine kills, whenever routine stops. You know that. We’d had twenty-odd of these drills and everything had gone just fine.”

    Sue shook her head, but she couldn’t argue with Toriyama, either. There wasn’t an organization in the world that didn’t start to relax when nothing broke the routine and everything kept working fine. It was the price you paid for working with humans. “Never mind, Captain. Go on.” Raijin vibrated to minor thrusts, as the automatic systems adjusted their vector to match more closely with Outward Initiative.

    “Well, like I said, we lost six lifeboats and all three doctors. Total of sixty-two people, mostly colonists.” Sue’s omni informed her that this was out of a complement — passengers and crew — of one thousand, one hundred, and fifty-seven. “That was bad enough, especially since it included Chief Master Sergeant Campbell, our head of security and navigation and piloting backup. But it wasn’t long after we got shut down and started trying to fix the vital damage that people started getting sick.”

    “Sick?” Sue repeated. A disease at the same time?

    “Good God,” Dr. Pearce said. “Trapdoor intersection radiation pulse, yes?”

    “I’m impressed,” Captain Toriyama said. “Took us a while to figure that one out.”

    “I was present at the cleanup for an accidental ground activation of a drive.”

    The thought of even a small Trapdoor drive being activated at ground level made Sue shudder. “So where the field was cutting off those chunks, it was also causing big radiation bursts.”

    “Exactly.”

    “Were the lifeboats taken intact or . . . not?” asked Dr. Pearce.

    “Thinking of survivors? Let me check.” There was a pause. “It looks like LS-88, LS-5, and LS-42 disappeared in a single piece. The others were. . . cut apart, one way or another. I don’t know if they actually stayed intact when they. . . fell across the field.”

    “You have recordings?”

    “Some, but they’ll need some cleanup, at the least. The Trapdoor radiation pulses damaged things severely. The lifeboats themselves are heavily shielded, but the hab ring is light and relies on ship systems to keep them protected from radiation when we’re traveling in interplanetary mode; of course, there’s normally no radiation in Trapdoor space except what we bring with us.”

    “How many people were affected by the radiation sickness?”

    “Two hundred thirteen — most of the skeleton crew, unfortunately, plus a lot of passengers whose shuttles were near the intersections; despite the shuttle shielding a lot of people got hit hard. We lost fourteen — one of them the Captain, which is why I’m acting captain now. About half of the others recovered fairly well, but we’ve had to improvise nanostasis for the rest; I’m hoping Dr. Pearce can help out there.”

    “I am sure I can. If you’ve kept them alive this long, they’ll make it. Anyone else?”

    “Unfortunately, yes. We had to repair and re-balance the hab ring so we could rotate and give most people some gravity again, and then we had to replace Trapdoor coils and balance the field. . . well, there were injuries, both among the remaining crew and the passengers.” His voice dropped to a confidential tone. “We’ve also got several Bemmies on board, and that hasn’t helped matters.”

    Sue let out a long breath. The genetically engineered amphibious version of the aliens discovered on Europa were viewed by many with a combination of suspicion, concern, and sympathy. There had been several very well publicized breakdowns of the early generations, and many people didn’t like being around them — with “didn’t like” ranging from mild discomfort to raging anti-alien sentiment or plain old-fashioned phobia, since — by human standards — they could be pretty scary, like a combination of a vampire squid and a slug weighing up to three hundred kilograms.

    Add that kind of xenophobia to the panic on board a vessel limping into port after an inexplicable accident. . . “Have there been any. . . incidents?”

    “None yet, but I’m real glad we’re here now. The Bemmies’ pod didn’t get away unhurt, though; one of their younger children was on board one of the lost lifeboats.”

    “What? Why weren’t they all on the same boat?”

    “Harratrer followed procedure; he went to the nearest lifeboat, as the emergency rules dictate, rather than making his way four lifeboats farther down.”

    So in addition to all this, there’s a bereaved family of Bemmies. Never dealt with that before.

    Outward Initiative now loomed up hugely, the great ring arching above and below as they approached almost perfectly aligned with the immense ship’s main spindle-shaped body. “All right, Captain, I’m going to have to pause and pay attention as we dock. We’ve got towing vessels en route, and Dr. Pearce will tend to your injured. Once I’m on board, my job — our job — will be to figure out what happened.” She grasped the controls and looked somberly at the shredded remains of the hab ring. Because if this can happen once. . . it could happen again.


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