by Michael Bard and Quentin 'Cubist' Long
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8 9 A
Ignoring Jubatus' music, I stayed on course in a circular pattern
gaining altitude. Unlike the archaic space shuttle in its most
recent rebuild, Babylon was a true spaceplane. It took off like a plane, flew in the
atmosphere like a plane, and gained aerodynamic lift like a plane.
Accordingly, it was most fuel-efficient to travel in a large diameter
circular path with a steady rate of climb to take maximum advantage
of the lift characteristics of the body. In fact the angle of
climb varied directly with the air pressure to take maximum advantage
of the greater lift in the thicker air. Of course, there were
"Andrew, approaching Mach 1 in 3... 2... 1..." I spoke into the radio. Suddenly, an eerie silence filled the craft. "Don't worry Mr. Jubatus, our roar is all behind us now -- we've passed well beyond the sound barrier." All that could be heard was the crackle of static, and the thud and rumble of Babylon in local air turbulence. The physics of aerodynamics has a certain mathematical elegance, and is extremely dependent on the pressure and velocity of the air one is moving through. The only discontinuity in the functions is the switch from subsonic to supersonic, but below and above that point the properties follow a continuous curve.
I would have said more, but the radio interrupted: "Er, Sue?"
"What's NASA doing now Andrew?"
"It's not NASA -- Drew's still on the line with them. Remember that relay satellite you were going to look at in two days?"
"Yes. I take it something's wrong?"
"It just went completely offline. They'd like you to get at it today. Can you..?"
It was the work of a moment to calculate the satellite's current position -- having already been scheduled to visit that particular wounded bird, we had its orbital parameters stored in Babylon's onboard systems -- and determine the cost, in time and fuel and oxygen, of complying with this request. "They're going to pay the usual penalties?"
"Double that if you do it now."
"I estimate it'll take 1.3% of the orbital reserve. O2 won't be a problem. Run an update through the computers down there and send it up, will you?"
"Gotcha, Sue. And we just got word from Drew: NASA's going to launch in 1 minute."
I switched circuits and cut off Jube's music. "Did you catch that, Mr. Jubatus?"
"Enough of it. Flight plan only has one relevant item, servicing that Euro-Asia Telecom relay on the 17th. So the EATers want you to handle it now, huh?"
"Correct. You will get to see... excuse me a minute." I switched back to ground control. "Andrew, I register Mach 3 on schedule. Preparing switch to ramjet."
"Switching in 3... 2... 1... now." With a sharp motion I switched two toggles on opposite sides of the cockpit to their second setting. Babylon jerked, and then leapt forward, pushing me back into my seat. Babylon uses four different engines -- a conventional turbojet for low-speed, low-altitude flight; a ramjet for high speeds (Mach 3 to 7); a scramjet for Mach 7 to 12; and a liquid-fuel rocket for trans-atmospheric operations. The three jet modes are good at different atmospheric speeds as each requires a different range of intake velocities, hence yields different exhaust velocities. A ram only works above Mach 1, and a scram only above Mach 5. "Switch to ramjet successful."
I switched back to Jube's circuit. "We just switched to the ramjet. As you inferred, Euro-Asia Telecom has a bad satellite that I was scheduled to look at on Sunday but I'm going to go over it before we reach Brin. You'll get to see space up close and personal."
"Does this kind of thing happen often?"
"Too often. We're cheaper than putting a new one up, and time and e-mail viruses wait for no man."
"And since you're neither male nor human, that makes you the best techie for the job, right?"
Our velocity reached Mach 4. Our position might actually be changing more quickly than the cheetah's mood. Speaking of which, it occurred to me exactly which emotions he had not been displaying whilst seated here in Babylon... "Mr. Jubatus, I couldn't help but notice that you seem a bit disappointed. May I ask why?"
I could hear the rueful smile on his face as he responded: "Nothing, really. It's just... it's pretty stupid. I mean, I grew up with Apollo, right? Big rockets -- Saturn Fives and all. So for liftoff, I kind of expected more, well, fury and fireworks, you know?"
The dial clicked to Mach five. Well, if my companion wanted a bit of fear and terror, I could oblige him. "Unfortunately Mr. Jubatus, a Saturn Five is not what one might call fuel efficient, nor safe. I've managed to avoid strapping bombs to my ass, not counting the space shuttle of course." Sometimes I'm still not sure how I survived my one trip up in that. Roomy, yes; safe, no."
He honored my remark with one polite laugh. "Heh. Like I said, I was just being stupid."
"I'm still not sure if those first stellar travelers were brave, or merely insane. You have to admire them though." The dial clicked to Mach six. "Actually, Mr. Jubatus, I might just be able to provide you with some fury and fireworks."
"Yes. While it's true that Babylon only carries 5.2% the hydrogen of a Saturn, that is quite enough to provide for a big bang." And the dial clicked to Mach seven, right on time, and I switched back to ground control, leaving Jubatus in the circuit but only able to listen -- and only I able to hear his voice. "Andrew, switching to scramjet in 3... 2... 1... Now."
A slight nudge of the foot pedals changed the dynamic envelope of air pressures around the scramjet intake just enough to prevent it from running. A red light flashed as an alarm buzzed and the faint roar of Babylon's engines faded to silence. "Bloody scramjet didn't catch." A scramjet is very sensitive to the flow patterns of the air stream. Babylon had always been a bit finicky; it was due to the design of the intake, a problem fixed in Agamemnon, and I'd eventually worked out the optimum velocity and orientation of Babylon to make sure that the flow pattern was within acceptable parameters. And knowing that, it was just as easy to make sure that the flow pattern was almost within acceptable parameters. "I apologize Mr. Jubatus, Babylon has always been rather fussy at this stage."
Andrew's voice came over my headset: "We're recalculating fuel expenditures and rendezvous information based on the most economical solution. You have permission. By the way, NASA has launched."
"Acknowledged, Andrew. Entering dive." I switched so that only Jube could hear my voice. "It seems that today is your lucky day." I pushed the stick and pumped the pedals to put Babylon into a steep dive/spin. "You know that all that's needful would be a slight adjustment in our trajectory," a quick jerk of the controls caused Babylon to jump, "and we'd be heading right towards the Blind Pig." In truth, we couldn't get within a thousand kilometers of the place -- it was almost on the opposite side of the globe. "I've calculated the energy release of an object, of Babylon's mass with the corresponding amount of liquid hydrogen and oxygen of course, that would occur with an impact at Mach 12. It's actually quite impressive."
"Yeah, but the Pentagon might get cranky if you do that inside the US."
"You think the Air Force would attempt an intercept? At our velocity, and with appropriate evasive movement, their probability of success would be about .03 percent." I put a wry tone into my voice. "Since we're both dangers to humanity, that would certainly eliminate both of us with the cost of only a few tens of millions of lives."
"I vote you aim for the Pacific Ocean," he said. He didn't sound any more agitated, but noise from his life support gear indicated that his air circulation pump had shifted into high gear. "We'll be just as dead, but with a hell of a lot less collateral damage."
"That's ignoring atmospheric effects of course. There wouldn't be a nuclear winter, but certainly short term agricultural disruption." I switched my voice circuit back to ground, cutting Jube out. "On maximal success path for scram start. Will retry in 15 seconds." A quick switch back to Jube. "I'm tried Mr. Jubatus. Tired of life, tired of the fear. I can't go on."
"For God's sake, Carter -- don't do it!" I spared the cheetah a glance; his eyes were wide, and I believe his face would have been white with terror if he were human.
And my voice back so that only ground control could hear it. "Restart in 3... 2... 1..." and with a roar that vibrated through my bones, the scramjet came to life and I pulled Babylon sharply upward in a 6-G curve that made my sight dim. "Scramjet active... resuming climb." And then an increase in thrust to a steady 3 Gs for almost a minute.
Back to Jube: "I trust that was satisfactory, Mr. Jubatus?"
It had been far too long since I had last done this.
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
The upward acceleration took me by surprise. I'd more than half-believed
that the dryad truly wanted to collect hypersonic dirt samples! But of course, it had all
been some kind of show for my 'benefit'.
She played me -- again -- damnit! She hadn't really intended to auger into the ground, she was just... testing me? Maybe. I don't know. Hell, I probably can't know what goes on inside that hyperintelligent skull of hers... That wasn't a productive train of thought, so I squelched it. Ditto my rage at having been manipulated. You thought she'd treat you any different than she does anyone else, Jube? Yeah, right. Which was all fine and dandy, but it didn't even touch the $64,000 question: What could I do to bring Carter back within arm's reach of sanity? Well, she was susceptible to emotions, which suggested that her subconscious mind was the way to go. She's an absolute control freak, been that way for years. Hmm... I bet she's not immune to being manipulated herself, just a matter of figuring out which buttons to push. Okay, she's gotta be in control, gotta be one-up all the time... A few minutes' cogitation later, I had what I hoped was a decent battle plan.
Unfortunately, implementing it now wasn't such a great idea, so I killed time by seeing how stars looked at different levels of upshift -- you know, the doppler thing -- without the atmosphere filtering out most wavelengths. Time passed...
"And now we shut the engines down," Carter said.
Why bother to announce it? Did Carter think I'd forgotten the flight plan? "Right," I replied. "Keeps fuel consumption down, and Babylon's engines don't like extended periods of constant boost."
And when she killed the thrust -- remember me talking about 'weird spells' in the centrifuge? Yeah. 'One more time', as the saying goes. And the sensation... closest thing I'd ever felt was seasickness. Not pleasant. Derksen had offered to mix me a Dramamine-analog for my body chemistry. Now I wished I'd taken him up on it...
The dryad noticed my distress. "Are you alright, Mr. Jubatus?"
"Yeah. Gimme a second." Freefall -- microgravity -- call it what you want, it was hitting me a little harder than I'd expected. "I'll just have to get used to zero gee." Shouldn't be hard; I'd long since gotten used to the 1/6 G I live at normally, and the weaker accelerations that come with higher tempos.
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"No... not until you solve gravity, at least."
It wasn't likely that any slowpoke could've noticed her momentary glare, but I knew I'd hit a nerve, if not which one. "Which is likely to be 'never'. Unless, of course, you're willing to reconsider your refusal to cooperate with my investigations."
What's crawled up her butt -- waitasec, this is the perfect opening! And it was, too, for my plan to rub her nose in her own fallibility. I shrugged. "Why should I? If you want to waste your time on a wild goose chase, fine. Just don't expect me to help you along."
"You're a chronomorph! How can studying your SCABS-granted abilities not result in greater understanding of space-time!?"
"You're assuming I actually do manipulate Time. What makes you think it's not just me adjusting my metabolic speed up or down, fiddling with how I perceive the passage of time?"
"Your heart rate did not increase in the Vomit Comet, and the only rational explanation for this is if you have several years' intense experience with reduced gravity fields. If you do manipulate Time, you must necessarily also be manipulating gravity as well. QED."
I shook my head. "Experience I got, but you're wrong about the cause. It's perception, not Time-tweaking. Under one G, it takes one second for an object to fall 16 feet; when I'm at my default tempo of six, it looks like that object takes six seconds to fall 16 feet, so I perceive gravity as being weaker."
She fumed. "And what of that visual 'aura' that surrounds you when you upshift or downshift?"
"What aura?" I asked, shrugging again. "Never seen it myself, and if Derksen has, he's not talking. How do I know this aura even exists? Assuming you're telling the truth, I say it's just a weird biological effect, courtesy of SCABS."
"So it's just a coincidence that all of the aura's observed behavior is consistent with the hypothesis that you do manipulate Time," the dryad stated, laying on plenty of sarcasm.
"You got it -- and I'd like to see you prove otherwise."
"I shall. But right now, I'd much rather see you explain your anomalous aerodynamic properties as anything but a consequence of Time-manipulation. Your body's drag coefficient, as determined from observations made during the latest battle against Greenpeace, is approximately two orders of magnitude less than one would expect from the shape and texture of your physical form. Absent Time-manipulation, exactly how do you account for your lack of drag?"
I spent a few tens of upshifted seconds thinking before I replied, "Again, I only got your word that this is something real -- but if it is, it's just a consequence of me being furry. I got zillions of tiny little hairs on my body, airflow creates a shockwave at the point of each hair, and the drag is reduced thanks to destructive interference between these shockwaves."
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
I clenched my fists, forced my anger down, and remembered the
Mayor of Terminus' sign: 'Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.'
Though I couldn't upshift, I was a sentient individual, one of
the few that seemed to be left anymore, and I would not let my
emotions control me. I remembered a case years ago, a furred bat
SCAB that was capable of flight. His ability to fly was unexplainable
to others, and he was one of the few who wanted to understand
why. In his own words, he 'didn't want to suddenly fall out of
the sky and splat all over somebody's car'. Tests and measurements
revealed that he was manipulating pockets of air pressure around
him, layers of density that resulted in an almost 10 atmospheres
of pressure along his wings, and a significantly higher air flow
over his wings. It seemed that there was a projected force field
around him that compressed air just in front of his wings and
let the resulting high pressure decay to normal values behind
him, creating two tear-dropped shaped pockets of variably-dense
air (behind his wings) on either side of his body, such that the
average air pressure all around him was equal to the local air
pressure. Metabolic studies suggested that his level of energy
consumption during flight was far greater than could be accounted
for by the biological expenditures of his muscle movement alone,
and the final belief was that he was projecting so-called 'cosmic
strings' -- focussed conical cracks in space/time -- from either
side of his body. There were some applications of this within
quantum physics, and some unexplained minor variances that suggested
an indirect effect on the local gravitational field, but all was
otherwise still within the mathematics of quantum theory. The
detailed pressure/flow measurements yielded a model of the effect
of 'fur' on airflow, and studies of small animals in wind tunnels
had extended the model to a general equation.
Or, in other words, Jubatus was full of it.
"That's the most preposterous pack of nonsense I've ever heard an allegedly-intelligent being propound!"
He remained silent as I started on the mathematical description of what was the truth, and I let myself go and considered why he was spouting utter impossibilities. Could it be that he believed what he was saying? Could it be that although he affected space/time, he himself believed that it was a purely metabolic effect?
By rights, he ought to have yielded to the force of my superior logic and reasoning... but, of course, he did not. His only reply was an intensely smug, "And you can prove that, can you?"
One of the problems with higher mathematics is that if one doesn't deal with it on a regular basis, without pen, electronic pad, and help, one really can't understand what it means. Given: Jubatus refuses to help. Stated reason: His ability is wholly biological/metabolic, and thus not relevant to the problem of solving gravity. Conclusion: Jubatus will help once he understands that he is manipulating space/time. If that truly is what he is doing.
Question: Was my desire for a key to solve the problem of gravity influencing my observational neutrality? I had to admit that that could be possible. Oddly, it was even possible that my belief that he was manipulating space/time could influence him so that he was influencing space/time, depending on how far one took Heisenberg...
I had no solution to either riddle. But, I also had no other leads on how to solve the problem. Therefore, I would continue working from the premise that Jubatus was manipulating space/time until evidence forced me to reconsider that premise. And, if getting him to accept that premise would convince him to help me, it followed that convincing him of its truth was a priority. And, to convince him, I needed to create at least some friendly respect instead of the current antagonism; his romantic notion of space travel could provide a 'handle' by which he might be maneuvered into the proper frame of mind.
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
I let her spew hyperdense math for a while. When she paused
for breath, I dialed up my Smugness: "And of course you can prove that, right?" There it was: Would Carter shrug it off and go
about her business, or would my challenge prove irresistible to
her? Based on what I already knew of the dryad, I was betting
on the latter. "Like I said, studying me won't help you learn
anything you're interested in. And you've got lots of more important things to
do, not so?"
She was silent for a long time before replying: "If proof you require, than proof you shall have."
"In the mean time, would you care to take the wheel, Mr. Jubatus?"
'Take the wheel'? Where the hell did that come from? She can't mean -- "You really want to trust a pilot with a 73% chance of killing Babylon?"
"We're not re-entering, Mr. Jubatus. In fact, we are currently outside the atmosphere. As I recall, you had no simulator runs in which airless maneuvers resulted in any sort of harm. Is my memory accurate?"
Oh God. "Well... yeah, but..." -- and visions of flameouts danced in my head. I can't. Doesn't matter what I want, or how bad I want it, I simply cannot put Babylon at risk like this. I just can't -- "We're all clear, right?"
"Yes. For the next twenty-seven minutes, the only orbital hazards worth our concern are those we'd have to deliberately, knowingly steer towards."
Sometimes I can be a very weak person... "What the hell." I swallowed (useless gesture, leftover reflex from my human days), took a deep breath, gingerly reached out to touch the controls. The hull did not rupture. I made damn sure my side of the dashboard was set to Maintenance mode, and tested the attitude control joysticks. California neglected to slide into the Pacific Ocean. I brought my controls online. The Sun failed to go nova.
I let myself relax. Just a little. "Can I..." Another swallow. "How much delta-vee is safe?" In other words, 'how much thrust can the newbie apply without interfering with the mission?'
The dryad knew what I meant; no surprise, given that she'd invited me to steer. "A maximum of five kilometers per second."
"Thanks." This wasn't a joyride; all I wanted to do was give her however-many meters' worth of forward thrust, followed by the same in reverse. Maybe we'd dock a couple seconds earlier than otherwise. I put my fingers around the joystick and then --
-- the lights went out.
At least Carter wasn't fazed. "No need for profanity, Mr. Jubatus. Unfortunately, minor equipment failures such as this are far from unknown; perhaps you can assist us in fixing some of them while you're here. Now, let me see..." Within a minute and a half, the lights came back on again.
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
-- the cockpit lights died.
What? Emergency red lights lit up on my panel. Life support was largely mechanical, so a complete electrical failure didn't pose any threat. Still, it was odd. "No need for profanity, Mr. Jubatus. Unfortunately, minor equipment failures such as this are far from unknown..." but such a complete failure had never occurred in Babylon before. Think. "...perhaps you can assist me in fixing some of them while you're here. Now, let me see..."
Think. The first thing to check when any system failed was to see if anything had changed within the environment. The external environment hadn't changed, and the problem had originated when Jubatus had tried to initiate thrust. That suggested a short in his board. I flicked the appropriate switches and locked Jubatus out of the command net.
"Sue, we read a failure in control systems 5, 8, and 12. Everything all right up there?"
"Mr. Jubatus was about to perform a thrust test to familiarize himself with the actual controls. I'm looking into it now. We're in no immediate danger, and the auxiliaries are live on my board."
"We confirm down here Sue. How is Mr. Acinonyx holding up?"
"I haven't heard any complaints so far." I pulled up a core dump of the pre-failure control code traffic. Hmm, it occurred just before Jubatus initiated any thrust.
"The computer here suggests a short in the copilot board. Thoughts?"
"Dump here shows it failed just as Mr. Jubatus attempted to exert control. That supports the thesis." Still, a complete failure? "I'm leaving his board locked out and attempting a restart. Got our position and orbit logged?"
I typed in the command override. "Ready to re-initialize in 3... 2..."
"...1." I flicked the toggle and the system lights came back on, including those around Jubatus, with the exception of those actually on his board. "Beginning system diagnostic."
"Gotcha, Sue. Data coming through clean."
"Acknowledged." It was all looking good. "Checksums appear to be fine, looks like a localized problem."
"Computer here supports that hypothesis."
"Acknowledged. Sending data dump when you're ready to receive."
I entered the numeric code and sent a dump of all the internal activity since launch. "Sending. I'll set up a realtime update just before I begin to match orbit with the bird -- just in case. Have Brin warm up the scooter."
"We'll pass the message on. Control confirms you're still good for the repair. You know, Sue, you really should wait until we tell you you can go."
"I'll keep that in mind. I'd better get back to Mr. Jubatus -- I'll call if anything changes."
"Got that Sue."
I switched Jubatus back into the circuit. "Sorry about that, it seems to be a localized burnout in your control panel. I'll run a full diagnostic after we dock. I guess for now you'll have to watch."
"Fine by me," he said, his relief plainly evident.
I laughed. The highest proficiency rating we'd ever seen with a newbie, and he was still terrified of rendering Babylon a smoking pile of wreckage! What I knew of his psychology suggested he'd take the con if he had to, and for now that would have to suffice. "If there's time I'll take you out on the scooter."
"Thanks. I wonder... how many of your guests realize why something that looks like an oversized hat rack with a rocket engine up its ass is called a 'scooter'?"
"More than you might have expected. Being the space cadets we are, we've all read too much Heinlein in our misspent youth."
"'Too much Heinlein'? Impossible! Uncle Bodie would be so ashamed of you. Say... if we do take a ride on your scooter... can I drive?" he asked, diffidently and with apparent sincerity.
I arched an eyebrow in his direction. "I'm surprised that you'd want to try."
"It's a pure-vacuum craft," he explained. "Not like Babylon. Speaking of which, what happened? How'd I fuck up?"
"Mr. Jubatus, you didn't do anything wrong. Best bet is that it was a short in your board, that's why it's shut down now. You may have been the incident's proximate cause, but that was merely a coincidence for which you neither can nor should be held responsible. With 190,000 components, something almost always fails."
He emitted one derisive snort and said, "'Coincidence'. In my book, that's an implicit admission you're clueless about why something happened."
Which was true enough, but -- "Don't worry so much. Normally I'd spin her around so you could see the Earth, but that'll have to wait until we rendezvous with the satellite. Just in case."
"In case of what, precisely?"
"There was a gyroscope in Agamemnon, but there wasn't room in Babylon for one of useful size. Some of the penny-pinchers on the board tried to take it out, but the rest of us insisted. It just felt right."
"How so? I thought attitude jets were better all around -- why bother with gyros?"
"For one thing, the relevant physical laws provide for no fundamental upper limit on how much energy a gyroscope may store. And for another... if you review your Heinlein and Clarke, you'll find that gyros are traditional for spacecraft. "
Mr. Jubatus was silent for a short time before continuing, "So the dreamers won out over the bean-counters."
"That's right. Too many dreamers, but that seems to be what's needed these days. Did you know that NASA at one point had plans for a 5000 person base on the moon by the early 1970s?"
"Yeah. Always wondered if that'd helped inspire Space: 1999..."
I winced. After that we talked for a while, and I began pointing out the stars to him. Alpha and Proxima Centauri, Jupiter, Mars... I had forgotten where I was and relaxed when a beep brought me back to reality. "Sorry Mr. Jubatus, 30 seconds to deceleration burn. It'll be a 1.5s burst at .13G. Just keep your hands in your lap and let a woman do the driving."
"A woman? Where?" he asked, looking about comically. "Nobody told me this was a co-ed flight!"
Smiling, I switched Jubatus out of the voice circuit -- he could hear, but anything he spoke would not be transmitted -- and spoke aloud to Easter Island. "Control, are you reading me?"
"Loud and clear, Sue."
"On board systems recommend deceleration burn of 1.51 seconds duration at .1331G with nozzles 6 and 8, followed by a .5 s .1 G burst from 12 and then a .1 G burst 15 seconds later from 9. Countdown at 19 seconds."
"We match your onboard systems."
"Sending full system dump now, followed by live feed." I pushed the button. Ideally, we should probably run a continuous data channel, but the board feared competitors would use the data, and given our bandwidth, 512-bit encryption was the strongest we could afford for realtime use.
"Preparing for burn in 11 seconds."
"Our countdown matches yours."
"Acknowledged. 9 seconds." I prepared for manual control in case the computer failed -- my SCABS had made my reactions fast enough that it was always a dead heat, but as long as the burn occurred at all it wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, to minimize fuel wastage, the slight time dilation effect of our orbital velocity necessitated that the burn be run from up here, rather than by remote control from Easter Island. "5 seconds." I double-checked the program that would first decelerate Babylon, and then rotate her around so that her canopy was facing downward towards the Earth. "3... 2... 1..."
Both the computer and I initiated the burn and I felt it go according to plan, the slight force pulling me tight against my seat belts. Another button and nozzle 12 then ignited for an instant and Babylon began a slow clockwise rotation.
"Enjoying the view, Mr. Jubatus?" I asked, as the blue radiance of the Earth spilled into the cockpit as we created our own dawn. "Halting rotation in 3... 2... 1..." and I pushed another button and nozzle 9 burst into an action and then stopped, letting the Earth hang over us. "I read all good here Control, do you confirm?"
"All in the green, Sue. You are go for EVA."
"Acknowledged." I switched Mr. Jubatus' circuit back to live. He hadn't responded, so I repeated my question: "Are you enjoying the view, Mr. Jubatus?"
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Looking out the window was... utterly amazing. The lack of atmosphere
went a long way towards making up for my shitty vision. So many
stars, so clear... If everything after this point was a bust,
what I was looking at now just might make the whole thing worthwhile.
I drank it all in through my second-rate eyes...
Then the Earth drifted into view. It was... no. Forget it, I'm not even going to try to describe how I felt, seeing that big blue marble for the very first time. Let's just say, now I know why some of NASA's boys and girls get religion up here.
And I'd been fool enough to think that seeing stars justified the trip...
It couldn't last, of course. I squelched my irritation when the dryad butted in: "How do you like the view, Mr. Jubatus?"
"It'll do..." Then I realized we had company, as indicted by the proximity radar and confirmed visually: A satellite, about 30 yards away, which sure looked like the one pictured in Sunday's flight plan. "That's the broken birdie, huh?"
"Yes. Indeed it is."
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
Once upon a time, I loved EVA. I used to consider the suit around
me annoying and bulky. I remember Angelo screaming at me when
I removed a glove to work on a particularly fine and finicky subassembly.
The wrist gasket prevented any atmosphere loss, and my 'hull'
-- my vegetative equivalent to human skin -- was tough enough
to withstand a mere 30 seconds' exposure to vacuum. Once... and
now? I overrode the monitors and increased the internal suit pressure
to 1.5 atmospheres so that I could feel it. The suit is on, the suit is on...
With practiced motions I released the umbilical and made sure it moved freely. Then I manually unlocked the hatch and pushed it open, my physical contact with the airlock floor allowing me to hear the slight hiss of the hydraulics. Undoing the straps that held me in my seat I slowly began pulling myself out of Babylon's womb and into the vast, hungry emptiness beyond... "Radio check control."
"We read you loud and clear Sue. Monitors show your heart rate up 20%."
Drat. It seemed that in my mental distress, I'd neglected to override that monitor with false data. "I guess I'm nervous about more system failures."
"Roger that. Can't say that I blame you."
"Pulling out repair kit now."
We went on in like fashion, automatic description and automatic acknowledgement. Space, the final frontier -- our last best hope -- and now it scared the shit out of me. My normally smooth reflexes left me and the case of circuit boards got stuck and I had to work it out. Control asked and I suggested launch had dislodged it. Finally it moved. A final check of the suit jets, a movement of the case to my center of mass, hands moving me to my debarkation point, and then a carefully pictured course and a precise push-off until I was slowly moving, relative to the satellite and Babylon of course, and floating free except for the umbilical. I could feel a tingling in my limbs and realized that I was breathing much too fast and forced myself to breathe at a more normal rate. They reported my heart rate up another 20% and I reassured them and tried to force calm over myself. But it's so very empty and so very hostile... Don't think about it. I am safe, cocooned in a mature technology. With the engines off Babylon can't explode, it can't happen again. Suit radar counted down the distance to the satellite and I made a slight correction with suit jets. I hated doing that, hadn't had to in years, but ever since Angelo I had needed a slight correction every time. Nothing I could do about that now. The satellite began to occlude the blue Earth below me and I prepared for contact, my breath loud in my ears. Slowly, breathe slowly, don't let them know, stay in control, stay in control... Contact. Easter Island transmitted the code to disable the satellite onboard systems, and I pulled myself around to the access hatch, our similar masses ensuring that the satellite rotated also. There was the control panel; I braced my legs around an antenna, pulled out the screwdriver, and began removing the panel. My mass wasn't a factor, as I only needed to brace against the torsional and pressure forces of the satellite on the screwdriver. Locks kept the screws connected to the panel, even when they were no longer holding on to the satellite and soon the panel was loose. Once I would have just moved the panel aside, knowing that I would position it such that it wouldn't drift away, but now I followed procedure and linked it to my suit via a plastic cable. Then it was time to start pulling the suspect boards and testing to find the fault. The first board was good, so was the sec-
"Carter? Something about Antarctica doesn't look right to me. Any chance of getting a better angle on it?"
It took me a second to recognize Jubatus' voice. Carefully I looked up to observe the pale sliver which marked Antarctica's position on the edge of the Earth's disc, and watched the reflected glare grow to cover almost the entire continent. "I'm afraid not; we've neither the fuel nor the time to assume an orbit that would grant us a clearer line of sight. And before you ask, yes you are seeing something peculiar, but nobody has been able to identify it. Whatever it is, it could be a holographic camouflage field, except that it covers the whole of Antarctica, and no one can figure out how to create such a field on that scale. It appeared in 2006 and anything that penetrates it is never heard from again. Mobile sensor devices have been sent in, but no radio signals come out. As for physical data-connections, all cables sever themselves when the slightest backward force is applied to them, and no data ever passes through them. We still haven't been able to determine what established the field; all we know is that it has been continuously active without disruption since 2006. The consensus of opinion up here is that it's the work of an inanimorph."
The Antarctican Force Field: With a good view you could see clouds part around it, storms never quite touched it. It had disrupted weather patterns, just not in any way that made sense. Nobody knew, and without the aid of another inanimorph, we were never likely to find out. A decade ago a US executive decision was made to not touch it anymore, to minimize the chance of waking anything up. One of the few actions of the US government that I actually agreed with. "By the way, all information related to the existence of that thing is classified by your government, and comes under the terms of the non-disclosure agreement. If I have a chance to take you out on the scooter, I'll try to get you a better view."
His line remained silent.
Pulling the third board revealed a burnt section from a blown trace, and that likely was the problem. Passing this information on to Easter Island I pulled out the replacement third board in the case and slid it in. A power up check read fine, and I began reattaching the access panel. What had gotten it was probably an interaction between a flare and the Earth's magnetic field, but there was no way to be sure until it had been examined. Once everything was closed up, I pushed myself back towards the shuttle and signaled Babylon to begin reeling in the umbilical. Through practice my motion was slightly faster than the rate of reel and there was never any tension on the cord. By the time the satellite began correcting its orientation, I was far enough away for the movement of the antenna not to be a problem.
The case went back into its slot easily, and with great relief I pulled myself back into my seat and belted myself in, finally feeling my breathing begin to relax. Closing the hatch, I checked the displays and spoke to Jubatus: "All done here. ETA at Brin 12 minutes, prepare for .11G burn for 2.1 seconds."
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
So an inanimorph had put up some sort of force field over Antarctica?
I mean, the whole bloody continent? At least that explained the mystery that'd drawn my attention:
The shoreline looked perfectly smooth, which I knew it damn well
wasn't. Even with an edge-on view, there ought to have been some visible indication of irregularity!
Inanimorphs... Hell with it. Who cares if Earth's ass-end is off limits, I got the whole rest of the planet to enjoy. There's Madagascar, and Australia, and New Zealand, and, isn't that speck Hokkaido? Japan, anyway. And -- wait a sec --
"What's that, Carter?"
"Right there," I said, pointing to a hot spot whose brightness was fading even as I watched. "Looks like it's in northern China. Pretty damned bright, since it can be seen from up here in the daylight. What is it?"
She looked for only a moment. "Nuclear explosion. It's the third one this year."
She said it so matter-of-factly, as though she were describing some thousand-year-dead historical event... "You're kidding, right?"
"No, I'm quite serious. It happens once every few months, and has done so since before I first became an astronaut. Some of my colleagues have a permanent betting pool on when the next one will go off..."
She went on, and I wasn't listening. I couldn't -- not when my heart was pounding like a jackhammer in my ears, and it felt like thick plates of Lexan were accreting around my brain, putting me one step removed from Reality. 'Once every few months', she says. Call it one every 60 to 90 days. There'd be less fallout if it's an airburst than if it's a ground-pounder. The radiation'll play hell with the local ecosystem regardless. Wonder what the blast products are doing to the greenhouse effect...
Her voice derailed my runaway train of thought, brought me back to the here and now: "What do you suggest?"
I blinked. "Suggest for what?"
"I think you just said, 'Somebody's got to do something about this.' Very well -- what do you suggest?"
"What the hell are you asking me for? I only just got here; you're the one who's had years and years to grapple with the question!" Sigh. Better change the subject... Fortunately, my suit's air-scrubber was working as designed -- it'd already slurped about 98% of my scent-pheromones out of my breathing mix -- so stifling my outrage was trivially easy. "Never mind. Not my department anyway. We got 12 clock-minutes, and that's plenty long enough for me to catch up on my sleep. Good night..."
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
'Catch up on my sleep'? Given that we'd boarded Babylon scarcely an hour before, Mr. Jubatus' remark had seemed absurd at first blush. However, after thinking over what he'd said of his sleeping habits during our journey to Easter Island -- had that been only a fortnight ago? -- the absurdity dissipated. He'd been up throughout the entire flight, and that, for him, was the equivalent of slightly over two solid days' wakefulness for anyone who lived by a normal circadian rhythm... I found it necessary to turn off his channel; the piteous sounds he emitted whilst he slept were far too effective a distraction for the good of my piloting. Fortunately, he regained consciousness before we docked, as he'd implied he would.
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
First thought to cross my mind when I woke up: What the hell is a pearl bracelet doing in low Earth orbit? Then my brain caught up with my eyeballs: It was Brin Station, my home away from home-away-from-home for the next week, and
rather than being inches long a few feet away, it was hundreds
of meters across and kilometers distant...
The dryad took us in closer. Brin just kept on getting bigger-- no surprise, that, since each 'pearl' in the 'necklace' was an external fuel tank from one or another Space Shuttle mission. New structural details caught my eye every couple of seconds. The inhabited part was a slow-spinning clump of tanks in the middle; sticking out along the axis of rotation on either side were two strings of tanks connected end-to-end like sausage links. As we closed in, random shapes resolved themselves to various station accessories, solar panels and heat exchangers and suchlike. I could make out an occasional sun-bright point of light -- maybe a scooter? hard to say -- moving around... There, that dark circle was where Babylon would dock.
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
The cheetah greedily absorbed every detail as Babylon approached Brin, entered the docking facility, and ultimately stopped moving.
A few seconds later, the residual vibrations of contact with the
dock dissipated below the threshold of perceptibility.
"We've arrived, Mr. Jubatus."
"Good," he replied. "I've enjoyed as much of the trip up as I can stand. All I need for my day to be complete is my luggage ending up at the ISS."
I very nearly began to explain how and why that scenario was logistically impossible, but that I saw his not-at-all-perturbed face. Ah. It was a joke. Very well, play along -- "That's unlikely to have occurred. But if it had, momentum considerations dictate that we would necessarily have received a correspondingly mis-routed package of equal mass from them. What you'd then be expected to do with a 25-kilogram box of condoms is your own affair, presumably."
Abruptly, I realized what I had just said; cursed my lack of control; and waited for Jube's inevitable scathing rejoinder. But he surprised me yet again: "25 kilos," he said thoughtfully. "Even at a buck-fifty apiece, a man could make some serious money off of guys who can use 'em."
This time, I was grateful for that part of my brain which wouldn't let me abandon an unsolved puzzle. It took charge and inquired, "Which set doesn't include you? Dr. Derksen's notes don't mention any sort of deficit in sexual performance -- you really have no use for such things yourself?"
He looked at me, and his smile was sad, almost wistful. "Nope. I, ah, the equipment is fully functional, alright, but... Let's just say it's not my brand." And suddenly the smile was gone, and the cheetah all business once more. "Time's a-wasting. Docking protocol says the first thing we do is put Babylon into standby mode, right?"
"Yes -- yes indeed. I'm afraid the short in your board puts rather a crimp in your ability to fulfill your nominal duties, but that's not your fault. So..."
Before long, Babylon was properly mothballed and we were free to enter Brin Station. My copilot had quite gotten over his earlier attack of spacesickness; indeed, as we moved along the short tube that connected the dock to the station proper, he bounced giddily between (what were, in my reference frame) the tube's floor and ceiling, seemingly making the entire structure ring at each point of contact! And his 'thumps' were every bit as rhythmical as one of his drum solos for the Strikebreakers -- what could he be thinking of? There was no conceivable reason for this behavior, even ignoring the fact that there were far more efficient ways to get down the tube!
"May I ask what you're doing, Mr. Jubatus?"
He might have replied, but my remark was apparently a pre-arranged cue. Several Brin crewmen appeared as if from nowhere, singing in time with the cheetah's percussive impacts:
"Makes the pedants cringe.
"Hear them moan and whinge!
"(When) You're in free-fall
"(You) Feel (no) gravity.
I winced, but refused to comment verbally. Any sacrifice to make Jubatus feel comfortable, to lower his guard, to allow me to convince him of the truth.
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