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Grand Central Arena: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Monday, November 23, 2009 23:14 EST



    There were six other people seated at the table. That at least gave her a simple starting point for this meeting. With the AISages still all down, kinesthetic environment emulation still offline, and the wireless communication reducing them to something only slightly more advanced than early 21st century texting, they were meeting in the "conference room" aboard Holy Grail, a claustrophobically low, rectangular room which normally served as the dining room and kitchen.

    There was a shellshocked sameness in all the faces looking at her, despite the physical differences between people like Gabrielle, Steve, and Marc. Despite her attempts to be calm, controlled, and optimistic, Ariane was sure they saw the same thing in her. They could hardly help seeing it, given what she knew she was hiding. But action always made her feel better, and now that they were all here…

    "Let's start with our own status, people." She was surprised by the cheerfully matter-of-fact tone she heard in her own voice. It didn't reflect at all what she felt. "Gabrielle, I see we're missing one crewmember. What's Laila's status?"

    Dr. Wolfe shook her blonde head. "Not good at all," the soft Southern voice responded. "She was hardwired and nanoconnected at the time of transition to multiple monitoring data streams, and near as I can tell had three resident AISage systems running simultaneously. In some ways, she was closer to pushing the exotropian envelope than anyone else here, even Tom." She nodded in Dr. Cussler's direction; the nanowizard winced in sympathy.

    "All of us… well, almost all of us… know what kind of difficulties we've run into accessing headware and other systems without artificial intelligences to assist, but Laila Canning… the poor girl was running on a level most of us never really think about. I'm not sure but what half her regular thinking got piped through enhanced channels. Lordy, she had systems buried in there to optimize even the unconscious operations like breathing, metabolic rate, blood flow, specifically for her work. That damn near killed her, too; I had to get Tom's help to figure out how to reset the defaults and lock the nanonetwork down so it wasn't trying to optimize based on no reliable input."

    A part of Ariane – a very mean-spirited part that she wished would go away – still felt a nasty little vindication at this sort of thing. "Is she in danger?"

    "Not right now, at least not physically. But I've managed to get almost nothing out of her. She'll eat, sometimes, not much, but she hasn't managed two comprehensible words in the day since we came… here." She shrugged. "I guess I wouldn't count her out, but she ain't likely to be doing much for a while. I have her internal nanos keeping her in a sedated state."

    "And the rest of us?"

    The little blonde doctor gave a rueful smile. "Holding up so far, but not all so well. Laila may be the only one of us not functioning, but several of us are using our medical nanos to keep us on an even footing."

    Thomas Cussler grunted agreement, and she saw both Dr. Sandrisson and Steve nod. "You too?" she asked Gabrielle.

    "Me too, I'm afraid. You just don't know what it's like."

    "And thank all the gods that may be for that." Sandrisson said, sincerely. "After the rest of us went over the records, it was clear that in the moments after … transition, there were exactly two people who were reasonably functional on board Holy Grail, and of those two only one had the skill and training necessary to gain control of the ship and stop her in time." He bowed across the table. "I said I would owe you another and far more detailed apology. Were it not for you – and for your reluctance to become integrated with electronic enhancements and assistants – we would all be dead now, Captain."

    Ariane waved that off, feeling very uncomfortable. "Apology is accepted, but let's not make it sound like foresight. I got really lucky … if you call it luck for all the rest of us to get partly crippled. And what is this 'Captain' business?"

    The others glanced at each other; Sandrisson spoke. "It simply… seems appropriate. You were in fact technically the captain of this vessel, you acted correctly in crisis when none of the rest of us could, and are currently the most functional member of the crew – with the exception of course of Dr. DuQuesne. And as the rest of us can claim the exalted title of 'Doctor', it seems only just that you have one of your own… Captain."

    You mean, by formalizing it you drop the whole thing on my shoulders. Ariane repressed a sigh. They were right. And besides the reasons Simon had given, all the rest of them had jobs to do at all times; who else was going to act as the go-between, peacemaker, and maybe decision-maker? All right, Captain Austin, let's get to it then. "Dr. Sandrisson, I suppose we might as well move on to you. Can we just reactivate the Sandrisson Drive and go home? As I recall, we invert the field generation sequence or something of that nature."

    She knew as soon as she asked the question what the answer was; Sandrisson's face seemed to harden slightly. "That is… a generally true statement, although simplistic. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Even if I were to drain the entirety of our battery power I cannot reach anything near the power levels needed to activate the transition. It takes several days' worth of our main fusion generator's maximum output to recharge the superconducting coils which permit the field to be created at all."

    "So how long until we can get the fusion plant back online, Dr. DuQuesne?" she asked.

    "Immediately or never," the massive, black-haired, black-eyed engineer replied. The sardonic smile with which he made the pronouncement sent an unpleasant chill down her back.

    "What do you mean by that?" Steve demanded. "That doesn't make any sense."

    "It makes just exactly as much sense as everything else in this damned place," DuQuesne answered shortly. "I've gone over every single component of the system – and there are one hell of a lot of them, let me assure you. I don't need an AISage to do the work, though it would be goddamn easier if I could get one. Everything in the plant checks out perfectly. The confinement field's perfect, the trigger sequence engages on cue, fuel's just as it should be, but when I kick in the start sequence nothing happens. No," he said, holding up his hand, "let me rephrase that. A lot of things happen, but not what should be happening. The fuel goes in, ignition sequence triggers, and… it doesn't ignite. No fusion."

    "That's impossible," Sandrisson said. "If the entire sequence goes properly, you have to get fusion. You must not be getting to the right temperature and pressure."

    DuQuesne gave Sandrisson a sour look. "Do not try to tell me my business, Doctor Sandrisson. You're a hotshot in the far-out theory department – you and your AIs – but there isn't a damn thing you or anyone else can teach me about power plants. I've been designing, building, and maintaining them, from fusion up through singularity, for 40 years, and I've done some of it by my pure lonesome, not a single second-guessing artificial intelligence in the loop." The timeframe startled Ariane slightly; she hadn't realized DuQuesne was that old, but with modern anti-aging treatments it was very hard to guess whether someone was 30 or 130.

    DuQuesne continued. "I know exactly what I'm saying. I get fusion temperature and pressure, and exactly nothing happens. The stuff goes to plasma, but no fusion, no radiation, nothing." He shrugged. "You're right, it's impossible. But that's what's happening." DuQuesne looked over to Ariane. "That's also why you had to go to the chemicals for that emergency stop; the fusion pellets kicked out right on cue for the nuclear pulse, but didn't detonate."

    The others were still staring at DuQuesne as though they thought he might be losing it. Ariane didn't, and that scared her a lot more than the thought of DuQuesne being insane. "So when you said 'immediately or never'…"

    "… I was saying that unless whatever's causing this goes away, or I figure out how to counter it, our main generators are dead. And so's the fusion-pulse rocket."

    "So at the moment we have only whatever's in the storage coils. What's our functional estimate of time?"

    "That I can give you, Captain. Assuming we don't have to fire up the coilgun drive and that I stop wasting energy trying to run a fusion reactor that doesn't want to play, we can keep Holy Grail going for about two months – sixty-two days, actually. You might shave a day or so off that if we do other high-demand operations, and two or three days if you're running the ion-electric drives a lot. But, basically, a couple months."

    That was a relief. Two months was at least comfortably in the future, compared to the few days she had thought might be the real answer. "Thank you, Doctor." She looked over to Steve. "What about automation and AIs?"

    Steve opened his mouth, glanced at DuQuesne, and suddenly gave a rueful grin. "I guess I have the same story as you do," he said; the big power engineer acknowledged that with a small smile. "I've got basic automation online for all systems, but when I say basic, I mean basic. We're back at least 200 years in terms of data processing – maybe not sheer volume of DP resources, but in complexity. Neither Tom nor I have been able to get a single AI to boot. Not even the pretty stupid ones used for basic monitoring automation. And that is, as we just said about the fusion plant, impossible. The hardware hasn't changed, the software simply can't have all glitched exactly the same way – and a full structural comparison shows no sign of significant damage or changes anywhere in the code or in the associational development matrices, anyway." He shrugged, looking frustrated. "So… they don't work, and there's no reason for it, so … they might start working tomorrow, but you'd better not plan on anything working."

    That might be a major problem. "Dr. Cussler?"

    Thomas Cussler still had that half-dead look about him, even his very dark skin seeming to have an ash-gray undertone, but brought himself back with an effort. "Yes, Captain?"

    "Does this mean that our matter rendering is down too?"

    A tiny bit of animation seemed to return; a ghost of a smile flickered about Cussler's previously flat-line mouth. "Actually… no. Normally, of course, a matter-rendering installation like the AIWish series incorporates a sophisticated AI to interpret the desires of the user, create and modify designs on the fly, and so on.

    "However, the safety restrictive interlocks were removed, which allows direct external control as well as eliminating the restrictions on what designs are allowable. The standard matter-record templates are still accessible with a little tweaking. Between myself, Dr. Edlund, and Dr. Fransceschetti we have been able to make a manual or remote interface that will allow us to direct the replication operations from templates. What we cannot do," he continued, now at least sounding normal, "is create new operational templates easily. Anything currently in the database is usable, but given the complexity of any real-world object it will be a very long and arduous process to be able to add in new design files for such things."

    "Are the templates we have adequate for keeping us all fed, clothed, and any machinery maintained?"

    "Oh, quite. I suppose that after a while the menu may become a bit boring – there are only a few hundred standard food templates installed – but if we can maintain power and provide the appropriate base materials to the renderer, we should be all right."

    "Good news there, at least. Thank you, Dr. Cussler." She moved her gaze to Carl Edlund. "Carl, what about the drives?"

    "Well, Cap," the control engineer answered, "You just about tapped us out on the big chemical burn. I think you might have another KPS in that, but no more.

    "The ion-electric thrusters are fine, and we can run them for quite a while on the reaction mass available. Certainly more than enough to go anywhere we want to in this oversized planetarium. The mass-beam drive's lost one of the four coilgun mounts, but there's nothing for us to use as drive mass there, and we don't have the power to waste anyway." He grinned suddenly. "But I could rig one of them as a mass cannon if there's miniature space pirates around."

    The joke was very weak, but she smiled anyway. "I guess we come to the real questions. What happened, where in the name of God are we, and what do we do next?"

    Six pairs of eyes focused on Dr. Simon Sandrisson, whose elegant front was being severely tested by his obvious desire to disappear into the furniture. He took a breath and looked pleadingly at Ariane, but she had nothing to offer.

    "I… I really wish I had an answer for that. I have gone over the records of the Drive activation very carefully, from the time we began to build the field to the moment we stopped ourselves from hitting the walls of this place. The records after transition are, of course, very spotty, but as far as I can tell, the Drive did exactly what I designed it to do. How we ended up in this … giant room, I have no idea."

    "Dr. Sandrisson." DuQuesne's voice was firm but not confrontational. "As my limited understanding of the theory puts it, the basic effect of the Sandrisson Drive is supposed to be to place the ship into another space which is isomorphic with our own, but in which distance – for lack of a better term – is effectively shorter, so that by moving a short distance in that space and then exiting, you have effectively moved a much greater distance in ours, correct?"

    Sandrisson nodded. "It's rather more complicated than that, but that is a reasonable general description."

    "Then isn't it possible that this is that other space?"

    Sandrisson seemed about to reply, but stopped, leaving his mouth hanging open for a few seconds. Finally he sat slowly back in his seat. "Well… there is not, in fact, any reason that it cannot be, I suppose."

    "Maybe that's why fusion doesn't work!" Carl Edlund said. "Natural law is different."

    "Please." Sandrisson looked pained. "While it is in fact possible for natural law to vary drastically in different, well, universes, such changes in natural law are exceedingly unlikely to have, how shall I put it, such neat and simple consequences. Something that changed the very way in which subatomic particles interact would almost certainly have drastic effects everywhere else."

    "He's right," DuQuesne said. "We're not talking about just finding out your tinder's damp and the fire won't light, we're talking about finding out that suddenly gasoline won't burn even in a pure oxygen atmosphere with thermite for a match. That implies a whole slew of things that we're just not seeing."

    "And it doesn't explain the AIs," the tenor voice of Steve Franceschetti put in. "The computers work, the data storage and retrieval works, the AIs should work. Our own minds still work. So what's going on?"

    "I don't think we're going to answer that right away." Ariane said. "Let me tell you what I know.

    "With some help from Carl and Steve, I've been doing a careful survey of this place we're in. The rest of you had other things to work on. I've made some… interesting observations.

    "First, we are not quite the only things in here besides that mockup of our solar system. There's a lot of little fragments of debris drifting around, and not confined by… well, whatever method's keeping that model solar system running. My guess is that it's what's left of the three probes that didn't come back."

    Dr. Sandrisson suddenly looked enlightened. "Of course. They were on a vector and going at a speed such that they hit the wall, or possibly one of those spheres, before triggering inversion back to our space."

    "Right. So that's evidence, I think, that all of our probes passed through this space. Which means that if we can find some way to get those coils recharged, we should be able to go home."

    The relief of that statement – even with all the other potentially insurmountable challenges associated with it – was palpable throughout the room. "Next, the model of the solar system. It appears to show every body in the solar system, down to a certain size. I'm not quite sure, but the actual cutoff seems to be on bodies with a surface gravity below about a quarter of a meter per second. Is that significant, Dr. Sandrisson?"

    "It may very well be. Let me check something." He got the distracted look of someone digging through electronic archives with no assistance. "Calculating… Now, that's very interesting."

    "Expand on that, Doctor?"

    "The Kanzaki-Locke effect, as one might expect of any spacetime-related effect, is affected by the precise conditions of local spacetime. The field can't be made accurately and reliably stable in gravity wells that deform the local shape of space too much, and the point at which you could theoretically compensate for it is around that very point – 248.097 centimeters per second squared for the local gravitational acceleration. So this model shows all of the bodies which you want to be some distance from, with their relative sizes showing their potential to interfere with transition. I'm not sure why one would construct such a model, but there does seem to be logic behind it."

    "Does that mean that the Sandrisson Drive itself can interfere with either gravity or other Sandrisson Drives?"

    "Not with gravity – at least, not to any significant extent. No antigravity fields here, I'm afraid," the white-haired scientist said with a laugh. "With each other, yes, at distances dependent on the size of the coils and the transition mass and size – possibly hundreds or thousands of kilometers. The coils actually resonate and cause interference, so you couldn't safely activate such a drive if you were within range of another vessel, even if the other vessel was shut down."

    That has some… interesting implications for later designs, if we get out of this, she mused. "Thanks. Anyway, I also noted that there are four detectable anomalies in the surrounding wall. Three of them are large circular areas, slightly depressed – no more than a meter depth, across something that's close to a hundred kilometers across – and set regularly around the, well, let's call it equator, of the room, coplanar with the ecliptic of our little solar system.

    "The fourth anomaly, however, is very different. It's a small… shelf, projection, whatever, no more than a few kilometers long, at the very apex or nadir of this place (depending on what we're considering up or down). We don't have any sensor remote probes, but what little detail I can get suggests there might be more… something there. Unless anyone has any better ideas, I intend to take Holy Grail in that direction."

    A quick glance around the table showed agreement. "After all," Carl added, "it's not like we have anywhere else to go. This place is clearly artificial, and one hell of a bit of work even by our standards; none of our orbital colonies are anywhere near this size. There's got to be something running that solar-system clockwork, and that means power, and power's all we need to get home."

    "My thoughts exactly." She couldn't repress a very fond smile at Carl, who'd guided her to victory – with an occasional loss – in the racing circuit for years now. "Anything else?"

    The faces around the table showed less shock and more hope, and at least a little direction now. When they shook their heads and stirred, she felt a little better. We're still in a lot of trouble, but maybe the worst is over.

    "Then let's get back to work. Steve, if we can at least get some simple environmental projections…?"

    "Lighten the feel inside the ship. Got it."

    "That won't consume too much power, will it, Dr. Duquesne?"

    "Not as long as most of it is done by tweaking our inputs."

    "Got it."

    She let the others go, then looked around the darkened room; it lit again at her hesitation.

    If only I could turn on the lights outsidethat easily.

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