Thursday, August 11, 2011

Land Leave 4

The short story Land Leave:

Traveling at nearly the speed of light is much like traveling at any other speed—except for the rainbow. James loved the rainbow effect. He looked toward the bow of the Eve and everything was red—shifted by the Doppler effect. As he turned his head, the colors of the ship became normal, and as he looked to the aft of the ship, they turned blue. The weird thing about moving at such speeds is that the light is physically swept behind the ship. James enjoyed the pleasant experience of seeing colors.

Bill felt a little differently. As much as he wanted to disappear into the emptiness of space, he also wanted to do it comfortably. The odd sensation of reaching out his hand and watching it stretch and bend with the fluctuations of the ship's speed was not in the pleasant category.

The intercom came on, it was the first mate, “we are now accelerating within working parameters, all integral crew are instructed to go about preparation for orbital dock at Io in one hour and twelve minutes. The captain has ordered all science crew and mission personnel for the Oort Cloud to report to prep. Ensigns Rojas and Tan you are also ordered to report.”

James turned to Bill, “we're needed. Maybe that weird-ass cube wasn't just part of some wacky simulation.”

Bill was getting tired of it, “maybe it was just a glitch. We were in a simulation. They probably need to know what possible difficulties they'll face.”

Conspiracies are much better. Lincoln was part of a cult, Bill Gates III was a time-traveler, and JFK's portrait in the white house hides a secret stash of Cuban cigars. I can tell you the JFK one is true, saw it myself.” Bill was walking a solid two steps ahead of James, the rambling had become almost unbearable.

In the Ready Room two science officers were already seated and talking excitedly. “Maybe it's just a lost drone from the Second Communist Empire,” a man with slicked back hair and a stocky build talked over the other three.

“There's no way, the gravitational distortion wasn't consistent with era technology. Besides they were more concentrated on Venusian mineral mining than trace elements from the Oort cloud,” countered a waif-like brunette. The two suddenly noticed Bill and James. “Are you the pilots? What did it look like, we have logs but the feed got scrambled coming out of the simulators. What was it?”

James whispered in Bill's ear, “told you.” Bill brushed it off; he heard footsteps coming down the hall. He turned, saw the first mate, and stood at attention. James did likewise; the captain was the lenient grandfatherly type, but the first mate was a stern man that quickly meted out punishment for inefficiencies. Clean was his middle name. Literally. His name was Benjamin Clean Sorensen. He had been offered his own ship many times but preferred working on the Eve. No ship in the AmU fleet traveled more extensively, and that is what Been Cleaning—his name behind his back—loved.

“At ease gentlemen. We don't have a huge amount of time. Prep on our retrieval ships will take a while and they have woefully inadequate maneuverability. These two scientists are Dr. Tomas Bacchi and Dr. Laura Kelvin; they have spearheaded this endeavor and can be considered commanding officers.” Sorensen looked at the two men, paused, and continued his debriefing, “as you may or may not have guessed, the simulation we ran was not actually that. The science vessel Hestia was investigating the cloud you saw in the sim. To get closer, the Hestia sent out a recon ship to navigate a path to the cube that you two found. In the process, about fifteen minutes before you started your run, the shields failed and at least three particles penetrated the life support systems. The two crew members were killed. The rest of the ship remained functional. A decision was made to operate the vehicle remotely. You two were not simulating anything, you were operating the recon vessel. Your work was commendable and the captain has ordered, for the sake of consistency and security risk, to keep you two as the science support staff.”

Bill was confused and a little disgusted. He had been sitting in the same seat as (theoretically) a dead guy, and navigating the dead guy's ship. And why not get a pilot, Bill and James had navigated the cloud because they had to not because they were the most qualified. “Sir, are you sure? Wouldn't the mission be better served by two fly-boys?”

“Under ideal circumstances yes, but it so happens that your records and the flying witnessed in the cloud have earned you two a promotion of sorts. And secondly this is classified information. To minimize leaks the number of personnel is being kept to almost nil. Got that? Everything said here is not to be discussed anywhere else.” Sorensen stared at the two of them as they nodded slowly. “Good. Now your mission will be to retrieve that cube. You will both be given a ret ship to pilot, and you will follow roughly the same course as in the sim. Once you reach the object, you are to acquire it and return it with minimal damage.”

Bill looked uneasily at James. James looked back knowingly. In the sim it seemed like a glitch, but now it was all too real. There was a gravitational distortion that had almost ended the sim in the room. If that field were as powerful as in the sim then the two of them could be in grave risk. James, for all his bravado, was worried. The things he had done were not nearly close to fatal, but this one could go south faster than a trip to Disneyverse Theme Park. Dr. Kelvin seemed to pick up on this, “I know that you got bumped when you tapped its event horizon, but there is reason to believe that if you gun it past that threshold, you will actually be pulled into an elongated orbit. It should easy from there.”

James spoke up immediately, “gun it? Like head straight for it? Pardon my rudimentary understanding of physics but wouldn't gunning it toward an object of that size lead us into a head on collision? Even what we felt in the 'simulation' was only a minor shift. I can't imagine it putting us in an elongated elliptical orbit under any circumstances.”

Dr. Bacchi stepped forward, “I'm sure you noticed that this 'cube' was not just ordinary space debris. This mission is classified because, as is known to the crew and all well-read people, we are exploring pre-solar objects in the Oort Cloud. That means that things found out here could very well date to before the sun was born. I'm of the mind that it is a lost human relic from one of the three eras of rocket travel. Dr. Kelvin is of a more optimistic mindset; this could be a relic from a time far past. It could hold clues, histories, vast stores of knowledge. As with any vast store of knowledge, there very well may be weapons contained in this Pandora's box. The Navy here is hoping that is so--”

Dr. Kelvin interrupted, “we however hope the opposite. And who knows, it may just be a cube. It could be pre-solar, and it could be junk. We need to find out.”

Sorensen was getting restless. He had a whole ship to attend to, this 'scientific' mission was just the first part of a twelve month tour of duty. These scientists acted like it was the world. Even if there was something contained in the cube it would take months, years even, to unlock its secrets. Sorensen had more pressing concerns, “it looks like you are all well acquainted, if you'll excuse me I have to prepare for our Io aid drop.” And with that he exited swiftly.

Dr. Kelvin nudged Dr. Bacchi hard in the ribs, “I told you to keep the weapons talk down. We still don't know if we can trust him.”

“Do you really think that a four and a half billion year old civilization would leave a weapon? No. They would leave remnants of their culture, anything they could preserve on a vessel. Besides, it's probably full of political dissidents that Stalenin II couldn't keep in Siberia,” Bill couldn't tell if Dr. Bacchi was serious; James choked back a laugh. Bacchi turned and smiled at him, “at least one of them has a sense of humor. What are your first names, we aren't military and want to know who we'll be working with.”

“I'm James Rojas and this is Bill Tan.” James smiled devilishly, then felt his split lip and winced. Bill extended his hand. Bacchi and Kelvin took it each in turn. “So, ret ships huh? How are we going to pilot those? Can't we just put them in the sim, and I control them from afar?”

“Sorry, that recon ship was a special case, there were about four billion dollars worth of equipment lost on that thing, not to mention two of the best pilots in the air-force,” Dr. Kelvin spoke firmly, the magnitude of the loss not registering in her voice. Then she spoke softly, “the ship you remotely piloted was destroyed for national security reasons. The Jovians have also sent out a team, and they are rumored to be following the Hestia.”

“Great. But that still doesn't answer the first question, how are we going to pilot these?” James was trying to sound cheerful and sarcastic but his worry was obvious.

“Carefully. And slowly. The path you first traced gave us enough data to get you within 140 kilometers of the object. In fact, it will get the Eve that close. The rest will be a very long mission to retrieve the cube.” Kelvin had obviously thought this through, “you will then be assisted by a fighter with a modified repulsor field for the next 120 kilometers, the last 7 kilometers will be up to you two.”

Bill felt uneasy. 7 kilometers in space was nothing, but at the speeds they would be going and the density of the cloud meant almost certain trouble.

“Wait, 7? That still leaves 13 kilometers to the target,” James nearly shouted.

“That gravitational fluctuation you felt didn't apply to just your ship. The cube has been observed to hold objects in a steady patterned orbit around it. Once you enter that field it is expected that you will be pulled into a non-colliding course with the object,” Kelvin's words held authority.

“So that's where we gun it? At 13 clicks out?” James was skeptical.

“Yes.” Bacchi was fiddling around in his files, “here's your mission briefing. And I want you to practice in the simulators before we hit the Jovian system. Your mission at Io's solar array begins in an hour.”

“Our mission?” Bill was confused, they hadn't been assigned anything near Jupiter.

“Yes, to practice maneuvering in the ret ships we want you to help retrieve the broken solar array. When we come into New Alexandria's dock, that will be your priority.”

“You better hit the sims, we don't have much time,” Kelvin had somehow walked them out the door and they were both standing in the hallway, a little bewildered. They looked at each other and started walking to the simulators.