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Grand Central Arena: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Sunday, November 22, 2009 21:02 EST



    "Why exactly did we design this experimental ship to be like a giant coffin?"

    Steve Franceschetti gave her a grave look. "To save on the costs of burial later, of course," he said in a faux-Transylvanian accent, dark eyes twinkling.

    "Oh, ha-ha," Ariane said. "These low ceilings just give me the creeps." She sighed. "Never mind, I know it has something to do with the energy requirements of the drive getting ridiculous as the ship gets larger." She grinned as she saw Steve – and, via electronic avatar, Simon Sandrisson – wince at her oversimplification. "And the fact that we had to shoehorn in our biologist at the last minute."

    Sorry about that. Laila Canning's virtual voice said.

    No problem. You know, I haven't the faintest idea what a shoehorn is or why it's used to mean "squeeze stuff in".

    Three AISages – Mentor, Darwin (belonging to Laila Canning), and Carl's Shaina – immediately produced images, descriptions, and linguistic detail. "Ow! Ow! Too many at once! Thanks very much, but we're getting close enough to the activation point that I'd better concentrate on the matter at hand. After all, that's the main reason I'm here."

    All systems operational. Onboard AI fully functional. Backups show green. All personnel in prime condition. Nanosupport operational in all personnel, Mentor informed her as she leaned back in the pilot's position. Projecting probabilities of injury in case of top four risk scenarios.

    The probability graphs showed minimal chances for any crewmembers; this wasn't surprising, given that one of the top four scenarios involved impacting with a random bit of space debris upon exiting after transition – something extremely improbable and still most likely to cause no injury. One thing did niggle at her perceptions, though. "Mentor, why are DuQuesne and Wolfe less likely to be injured than the rest of the crew?"

    The deeply-resonant pseudo-voice replied, Because examination of the returns of their bio-status monitors reveals, after careful analysis, a 99.78% probability that both of them are augmented to military specifications rather than merely high-risk protection and enhancement.

    That was a bit of a surprise. Not perhaps in Gabrielle's case, because she knew that Gabrielle had served as medical oversight in a couple of the nasty semi-political flareups across the Solar System, but why would a power engineer-conceptualizer like DuQuesne… She shrugged. It wasn't her business. The important thing is that the estimated risks – outside of the Unknowns that dominated the actual transition – were well below the acceptable limit determined by the experimental protocols. The greatest risk remained, simply put, the Unknown that had caused three of the probes not to emerge at all.

    According to the test schedule, the Holy Grail would activate the Sandrisson Drive at a range of twenty million kilometers from Kanzaki-Three. This was more than far enough to make it essentially certain that, even if this attempt proved to be just as random in its emergent location as the prior probes, there was essentially no likelihood of impact with anything. If things went anything like they were expected to, of course, no matter which direction Holy Grail went, they'd end up far outside the solar system.

    Like most vessels with the luxury of advance course planning, Holy Grail was using a simple mass-beam drive which permitted constant (low) acceleration and deceleration along her course. With hundreds of mass-beam accelerators distributed throughout the system, it was easy to get the "smart" nanoparticles accelerated to either provide any direct vector upon impact, or to arrive and come to relative rest (via appropriate use of sunlight) for later use at any point out to about the orbit of Neptune without making any special arrangements outside of scheduling. To use captured mass from the beam required, of course, that Holy Grail have a method to accelerate it, which was provided by the coilgun design that was a part of the mass-beam supports – in essence, the mass-beam magnetic capture field was reversed and used to throw away the mass it had captured. The fusion reactors provided the energy for the acceleration, and backup power was held in multiple superconductor-ring batteries.

    For the higher-speed maneuvers which – everyone hoped – would not be needed, Holy Grail incorporated a fusion pulse rocket and even some backup chemical rockets. Despite many decades of work, none of the more speculative drive systems – space-imbalance or bias drives, negative matter-based asymmetry, selective radiation differential methods, and so on – had ever been developed to anything workable. In the end analysis, you were still either throwing stuff at high speed out the back, or having someone hit you with a firehose to push you along.

    She checked the staus of all the drive systems, which naturally showed all green; if anything was wrong, she'd already have been notified – and probably the difficulty would have been corrected before her sluggish brain had finished realizing there was an issue. Even though nominally she was the commander of the mission, everything was being handled by the AIs. The status reports, the verifications of authorization, course clearance, flight projected course and duration, all were being exchanged and finalized by entities that existed purely as data structures in a dual-mode semi-quantum computational network. Mentor, as befitted his status as the most highly-capable AISage and as the one assigned to her, would actually handle the flight of the vessel unless something unforeseen happened.

    She distracted herself from contemplating her essential uselessness by checking on her fellow crewmembers. Steve and his AIsage Allerdyne were practically merged into a single individual, overseeing the entire condition of the Holy Grail. Dr. Sandrisson and his own AI companion were focused – unsurprisingly – on the experimental drive coils. She gave a virtual nod as Sandrisson acknowledged her attention with a smile and wave, and then continued her crew check.

    Gabrielle Wolfe caught her wandering scrutiny. Hey there. You feeling about as bored as I am right now? The gentle Southern accent was conveyed perfectly by the silent voice.

    Maybe not really bored, but useless.

    I'm just hoping we both are useless. Because if we need a medical doctor, something just went terribly wrong. Gabrielle's electronic avatar smiled, identical to the delicately-built blonde in real life. Too bad your job doesn't allow you to be furiously busy in idleness, like Laila.

    Ariane saw what Gabrielle meant. Laila Canning had made tremendous use of the limited space she'd been given, and revealed in the process the single-minded focus that had made her a biologist as respected in her field as Sandrisson was in physics. Canning was mentally integrated with all eight sets of crew biological monitors, twenty sets of monitors on her array of experimental animals, with no less than three AISages boosting her perceptual and comprehension capabilities to the point that she must be intimately aware of, and able to comprehend and analyze, each and every life sign of all the experimental animals and the human beings on board Holy Grail.

    Dr. DuQuesne's avatar nodded to her as she directed her attention to that area of the vessel. She didn't, however, see any sign of his AISage Isaac, and there appeared to be almost no connectivity surrounding DuQuesne outside of direct observation. Not watching the systems, Doctor?

    The massively built, dark-haired, dark eyed scientist-engineer shook his head. No point at this stage. I have checked them, I know they are ready. Fusion reactors all at full, backup batteries fully charged, surge demand storage for Dr. Sandrisson's drive all ready. I would rather watch this historic event myself, without electronic intermediaries or enhancements. Although, a glint of humor showed on the almost olive-skinned face, you will note I am not separating myself from perceptual assistance. Perhaps I am already as soft as I feared.

    Or just prudent. I may also prefer to do things myself, but you'll note that my control and piloting systems are not just physical joysticks and displays.

    Carl Edlund had of course given her straight physical interfaces, as they'd discussed, but the mind-interface control system, assisted by Mentor, cut out the physical reaction time. Only the time necessary for her to process critical data would delay reactions. As a racing pilot she had been allowed only minimal nanoenhancement, but for this mission she'd accepted considerable upgrading. She wasn't bothered by simple upgrades – making you faster, tougher, stronger, easier to heal, all that kind of thing wasn't a problem. It was just things that touched the brain – the center of one's self – that got her nervous.

    The enhancements she had now meant that even with the physical controls she could perceive, process, and react appropriately to a threat in less than 75 milliseconds. Without physical controls, her reaction time was a tenth that – and that assumed complex reaction time, rather than a simple reaction to a simple unambiguous stimulus.

    Of course, that was still slower than a glacier's flow when compared to the sub-microsecond, sometimes nanosecond, response time of a good AI control system. And if events involved moving at high speeds, a few milliseconds might mean hundreds of meters, or even thousands, crossed in the time it took her to react. She admitted to herself that her hope to be actually needed was a purely selfish one, and not a particularly bright impulse either. Anything that took out all the automatics would probably kill them all.

    All her musing had taken some time. The timing countdown was dropping drastically. "This is Commander Ariane Austin," she said, using for the first time the title she'd been accorded as the ultimate backup pilot for the mission. "We're almost to the activation point. I can see by the telltales you're all ready, but in the interests of tradition and verification, all hands, please report readiness in order."

    "System oversight, ready!"

    "Sandrisson Drive, ready. For proof or mockery we shall see in a moment."

    "Medical all ready. You can all rest easy."

    "Power systems all secure." DuQuesne's calm baritone said.

    Dr. Laila Canning's distracted voice answered next. "Experimental analysis and monitoring fully online. Please do not distract us." The us gave Ariane a slight case of the creeps.

    "Hey, you tell me if the controls are working." Carl Edlund said cheerfully. "Me, I'm strapped in and integrated, my job's pretty much done. Let's go!"

    "Nanomaintenence is online… everywhere." Tom Cussler said. Holy Grail's nanomaintenance and replication expert had integrated himself with the systems nearly as much as Laila Canning had with her experiments. "If it gets broke, I'll fix it. Just don't break anything."

    "Definitely not in the game plan." Ariane assured him. "One minute to activation."

    She reached out and grasped the manual controls. Contrary to her prior statement to DuQuesne, she decided it was best to cut out the direct connects. If they worked, all the other systems probably did too. The manual controls and standard displays used old-fashioned electro-optical methods which were completely separate from the main integrated controls. If she was really going to be needed, these were the controls she'd need.

    Thirty seconds. She could almost feel Sandrisson's anticipation, a bleed-through from his focus. He was, she realized, far more nervous about this than he let on. She smiled. You're still a genius, you know.

    I hope so. But I'd much rather it get proved than my have to argue the point after failure.

    Don't worry. I'm the spare wheel. It'll go just fine.

    The avatar-face was very contrite. And as I said, I will owe you a much more involved and detailed apology, if your unique skills do, in fact, turn out to be necessary. I really did not mean any offense. You do know that?

    I do, she answered; to her surprise, she found it was true. Sandrisson had been trying to explain the entire situation to her – partly, she suspected, out of the need to convince himself once more that he was right – and it must have been very frustrating for him. And I know I'm weird.

    But still charming and skilled.

    Are you flirting with me, Doctor? She was even more surprised by the anticipation that welled up in her at the thought.

    It is possible. The simulated green eyes took on a devilish sparkle.

    She grinned widely. Let's take this up again… maybe in a few minutes. Ten seconds left.


    Hey you two! None of that! Steve's simulated voice said.

    You're just jealous.

    The wizardlike Allerdyne avatar and Steve's avatar simultaneously demonstrated the maturity of AI and human intellects by sticking out their virtual tongues.

    Five seconds. Sandrisson coils charging.

    The field strength built swiftly, symmetrically. If Sandrisson was correct, the Drive would basically enclose the Holy Grail in a deformation of space-time somewhat similar to a high gravitational field – but instead of squashing them down to nothing, would cause them to be catapulted into the parallel related spacetime represented by the Kanzaki-Locke context parameter matrix.

    If he was correct.

    Two seconds.

    One second.


    In the sudden silent blackness, Ariane heard Dr. Sandrisson scream.

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