This started out as a writing prompt on Reddit (www.reddit.com/r/writingprompts), a favorite lunchtime activity of mine. An image prompt from a few days ago was in the side bar, a fantastic piece by @notpill, artist Giuliano Bròcani. You can see it in his portfolio.
Our orbital insertion was a death sentence, and we’d known it for days.
We’d marched toward it, helpless to stop it, physics and circumstance flanking us like the burliest of thugs. All of our optics had been trained on Procyon’s single, hopefully habitable planet since we’d collapsed our Alcubierre bubble two weeks ago. At first, it’d been a shining jewel in the distance. As we’d gotten closer, everything had gone to hell.
Death turned his head toward us, and fixed upon us his cold regard.
“Jesus, it seesusitseesusitseesus..” Goldman’s hysterics trailed off into a whimper, paralytic fear lancing through his brain. Richter sat next to him, in the pilot’s chair, impassive. I couldn’t decide if I was happy or worried that nothing scared that man.
We had no idea what we were looking at. It was massive, the largest life form any of us had ever conceived, short of God himself. Long, sleek, terrible, it was standing on the planet. There was no other way to describe it. You and I, as mere oxygen breathers, must stand on the surface of a planet, or in a floating tin can in the empty void of space. This.. stood on the planet. It appeared to be feeding.
The massive head turned away from us, and looked back down to the planet’s surface. A superearth, it was twice the diameter of our homeworld. Estimated 1.2G compared to Earth normal, oxygen and nitrogen rich atmosphere, according to all the spectrography we could manage. A shiny blue ball of oh god we’re so fucked.
I clamped down on the fear. I had no other choice. A thousand scenarios played out in my mind, and in none of them did we survive to make it to the surface.
Goldman snapped and began scrabbling to unlock his harness.
“Ican’tIcan’tIcan’tnononoIcan’t..” His breathing was ragged and heavy, he’d hyperventilate any second. Panic gripped him like a toddler with new puppy. He squirmed, he mewled, but it wasn’t letting him go. Without preamble, Richter looked over, judged, and snapped a straight arm jab at Goldman’s jaw. In any other circumstance, Goldman would have fallen like a sack of potatoes. In zero-g, the impact rippled through his body and set of a short, awkward set round of herky, jerky bounces in his harness.
“We should sedate him. Right now, he’s more dangerous to us than anything out there.” Richter’s tone was tight, controlled. He was scared, no doubt, but his grip on it was like graphite nanomesh.
“Jooooooooones!” My agreement summoned our ship surgeon from his seat, about forty feet up the gangway. I heard him unbuckle, the handle above his workstation rang as his wedding ring slapped it, the short outrush of air as he kipped his body clear and threw himself toward the cockpit.
“What happened?” He instinctively checked Goldman’s pulse, pulled a flashlight from his coverall pocket and checked his eyes. “He’s unconscious.” Eyeing the growing swelling along Goldman’s jaw, he glanced at Richter and did the math. Richter ignored him, his eyes fixed on the inevitable.
“Pull him out, sedate him, secure him.”
“Where? The only things that lock on this ship are fire bulkheads and.. oh.”
“I know, just do it.” I slid into Goldman’s chair. I may be ‘merely’ mission commander, but I was qualified for every seat on the ship. I glanced at Richter, and realized that even in his fear, he was looking for a way out. “Talk to me, Richter, what are you seeing?”
He was silent for a few moments, as he organized the frenzy of his thoughts into coherent speech. “Space faring organism. Should be impossible, but it’s right there, eating that planet. Like a macro-scale tardigrade. Armored against the negative pressure, there’s nothing we have even on Earth that will punch through that skin. Whatever it’s made of is dense enough and strong enough to casually punch through the crust of that planet and dig into the mantle. Look what’s going on there.”
It wasn’t hard to follow what he meant. The.. leviathan, for lack of a better term, wasn’t so much as standing on the world, as assaulting it. Each leg glowed with a fiery heat, as if it was siphoning off energy from the planet’s internal heat. At the same time, it was slamming its head into the oceans, the processes at work obvious yet unfathomable, as millions of gallons of seawater, and everything in it, pulsed down the biggest gullet we’d ever laid eyes on. The next things up the food chain from this monstrosity were maybe stars, and hopefully black holes. My mind couldn’t handle the concept of any lifeforms in between.
And we were coasting towards it at a breezy 350,000 kilometers per hour.
“We need to start braking for orbit insertion soon.”
“You want to STOP?” In the back of my mind, I knew it was the only answer, but I couldn’t get there on my own right now.
“We don’t have the fuel to do much else. It’s orbit and die quick, or miss, fly off into nothing, and die slow.”
“And now I understand why you’re single.”
He snorted. “Can you and Jones handle the sequence? I want to go aft and take stock, figure out options.” There was a set to his jaw that he gets when he’s gnawing on a problem.
“Yeah, go. I’ll start the prep.”
“Captain.. Irene. This is going to be difficult.” He looked at me, his blue eyes punching through the authority, the rank, and found me, the person, the scared little girl inside me that wanted to call her Dad and ask for advice. But, he was light years away, and I was abruptly glad to have this man with me.
“I know. I’m glad you’re here.” He nodded and left, catapulting himself up the gateway gracelessly. He always made zero-g look like hand to hand combat.
I started the braking sequence preparations. I ran checks on the power bus as I brought two sections of it online. I imagined I could feel the massive circuit breakers settling into place, somewhere amidship. My console warbled as it reported boot sequences for the spool controllers, the superconductor spools, and the feed arrays. The checklist for this process was pretty short, compared to some of the bullshit that went on around the ship. Somewhere, deep within NASA, was a technical writer who thought he was Machiavelli. You could always spot the processes he wrote. Hell, he probably had a written process for manual operation of his toilet.
Jones came coasting to a stop next to me, ‘landing’ on the back of Richter’s pilot seat.
“He’s in airlock 2, stuffed full of morphine. If he wakes up, he’ll be too dopey to do anything, except maybe realize he shit himself.” His gaze involuntarily, or perhaps inevitably, drifted to the planet.
“As long as you’re here, double check this list.” I pushed my binder at him. Giving him something to do would take his mind off the leviathan.
“What are we doing?”
“Braking for orbital insertion.”
“Oh.” He started down the list, checking results against my console without realizing the implications. After a few minutes, he leaned over Richter’s console and performed a few independent checks. “Green board, you’re good to deploy.”
“Thank you, beginning spool deployment process.” I spoke to the flight recorder as much as I spoke to him. I keyed in the commands to my console and narrated as I went. “Spool motors powered, sending break pulse.” The first rule with the spools was to shake them a bit, to make sure nothing had frozen in place during the long run from Sol. “Break pulse complete, minor resistance detected on spool B, looks clear. Feed guides are coming up…. and in place. Starting unspool, 1/8th speed.”
The vibration of the large spools rotating on either side of the ship could be felt clearly anywhere. Richter would know exactly what was going on, wherever he was. I wanted to send Jones back to check on him, but habit and training demanded a second set of eyes on the system monitors while I worked. Outside, hydraulic arms had extended, resembling something of a fishing rod, seemingly feeding a fine cable no thicker than a quarter of my pinky finger out into space.
Jones flipped the monitor back and forth between the visual feeds, eyeballing the feed guides. “Running smooth, no hitches.”
“Increasing unspool to 1/2 max. Initiating hoop field.” I keyed the power sequence, lining up a low level charge, initiated from the line anchor on the hull. The spool reacted as it energized, emitting a low magnetic field that pushed at the cable, giving it a semi-rigid shape as I fed more length to it. From a distance, it’d look like the biggest set of Mickey Mouse ears imaginable.
“Looking good, A and B deploying as expected.” Jones glanced up the gangway at some noise. “Go for ramp up.”
“Increasing to full deployment speed.” At max diameter, the spools would form twin superloops, each 4 kilometers in diameter. Once fully energized and correctly polarized, they represented up to .1g of constant deceleration against the solar wind. Even at the speed the spools were rotating, it would still take the better part of an hour to fully deploy. So we waited.
Richter came over the intercom shortly after we stopped the spools. “How’s it looking?”
“Spools deployed and holding a low level charge, we can start braking at anytime.”
“I’m sending you the insertion plot now.” Jones had settled into Richter’s seat, and keyed his console over to navigation.
“I see it,” Jones replied. “Bringing it up now.”
“Is Jones in my seat?”
“Leave it.” I started doing the math. “This plot sends us right at that thing, Richter.”
“Yeah, it does.”
“You wanna tell me what you have in mind?”
“No, no I don’t.”
The airlock alarm saved him from my chastisement. “Shit, Goldman.” The hull readout showed that the external door controls had been activated, a precursor to depressurization.
“I’ll handle it,” Richter said, keying off the comm before I could argue. I looked at Jones. He looked at me. Neither of us wanted to be Goldman right now, in any way, shape, or form. We had our own fears to manage. Part of me knew I should interfere, should see to it myself. Part of me knew Richter was the only person for the job.
The airlock alarm silenced, probably as Richter powered down the door from the internal panel. After a few minutes, he came back on the comm. “Mischief managed. Give me a few minutes.”
“Is he ok?”
“No. He’s gibbering. Whatever Jones gave him, it isn’t keeping him down. Can you handle the braking sequence without me?”
“Yeah, I’ll start lining up the charge sequence now.” I nodded at Jones, who started flipping through the binder for the sequence.
“Ok, warn me before you start so I don’t smash my grape.”
How he found the energy for jokes was beyond me. “Will do.”
I hit the comm, flipping channels for the Engineering section. “Ox! Standby for superloop charge sequence.”
“Standing by, I knew you’d be calling.” Ogden was the reactor engineer we’d woke up for the deceleration leg, his backup, Chase, was still en somnolence.
“Starting the run up, sequence E42a.”
“Confirmed, go for run up.” Jones and I began the process, Ox keying in confirmations to each command set. The reactor core ramped up energy output, feeding a bank of supercapacitors at the base of the magsail loops. We monitored and chirped each bank’s charge completion.
“Jones, get out of my seat.” Richter came sailing down the gangway.
“Still at the airlock. I put his helmet on and fudged his mix, he’s got just enough O2 to stay unconscious.”
I could see Jones doing the math on the O2 mix and the morphine he’d administered. “I’ll monitor his suit vitals from my station.” With that, he bounced himself out of the cockpit and left Richter to his primary duty.
Richter was running over my work, checking, double checking, the man was a machine. “Ready to begin braking.”
His sequence was pretty simple, we’d dropped to sublight right in the target window, our course micro-adjusted by the navigation AI over a period of weeks. The first few pulses would orient us into a more precise insertion vector, and then we’d initiate a long steady deceleration that would slip us into orbit without fanfare. Simple, elegant, efficient.
“Sounding stations.” I hit the button to alert the few crew members that were awake to brace for maneuvering. A few seconds later, the comm squawked as they sounded off readiness. “Hit it.”
Richter took a breath, and counted off. “In 3.. 2.. 1..” His thumb hit the button on the side of the ‘throttle’, the manual charge control for the superloops, sending the first of three pulses in the sequence through kilometers of superconducting, directionally solidified graphene. Outside, aurora sprang into being on either side, blooming forth from the solar plasma stringing the immense magnetic fields. The ship shuddered and shifted to side, pulling me against my harness. Richter’s eyes were locked on his console, watching readouts and timers.
“Again, in 3.. 2.. 1..” Pulse. Slew.
“Fifteen seconds.. ” He waited. “And 3.. 2.. 1.. ” Pulse. Slew. He watched the orientation change as the navigation sensors caught up with the physics. “On target, ready to begin deceleration.”
I hit the squawk. “All hands, prepare for .09g constant.” Readiness reports came in, as expected it. “Go for decel.”
Ricther throttled up the superloops, putting a steady charge into the kilometers of superconductor. A light but constant force began pressing me against my harness straps. Seconds later, the leviathan’s head whipped up, our glow clearly visible to him as the light of our blooming aurora reached him.
Something whipped past the cockpit. “What the hell was that?” I scrambled to get a camera oriented on it. Richter was silent.
Jones yelled from his station. “Captain! I’ve lost telemetry on Goldman!”
I looked over at Richter. His eyes were fixed on the leviathan. I got the camera aligned, and my heart leaped into my throat. It was a suit. One of our suits. It wasn’t empty.
“You put him outside.”
“He wanted to die. He said as much. He begged.” His expression was blank. Carefully blank. Behind his eyes, I saw his guilt, his shame.
“Why is he glowing?” Light spilled from Goldman’s helmet, unusually bright.
“What have you done?” The only things on the ship that glowed like that were the high density radioisotope generators, self-contained thermoelectric reactors, their radioactive payload stored behind specially doped glass that glowed when it absorbed radiation, a passive warning to anyone working near or handling one.
“Gave us a fighting chance.”
I looked from him to Goldman while he explained.
Deep down, I knew he’d made a hard call, but maybe the right one. I’d have the next few days, at least, to consider the implications. I sank into my chair and watched Goldman drift away.
I woke with a start, Jones’s hand on my shoulder. “Sorry to wake you, Captain. Ox.. would like to speak with you. Sooner is better, he’s furious.”
I shook my head to clear the sleepiness. I glanced up at the overhead displays, realizing after a moment the cockpit was backwards. Richter had rotated the consoles, the bridge being near the rear of the ship, was now ‘up’, as far as the rest of the ship was concerned. I unbuckled and stood, stretching the kinks out of my back. It was no surprise that I’d dozed off in my chair. The first sense of gravity we’d felt in weeks, the stress of the past few days.. sleep had been a rarity.
My chair. Goldman’s chair. I looked up again, wondering if I could see him. “What’s wrong with Ox?”
“Richter took an antimatter pod from stores.”
All sleepiness fled, all restfulness lost. Adrenalin came with realization, and my mind raced with possibilities. “Fuck. Goldman.”
“Exactly.” Richter had stuffed Goldman’s suit full of the only potential weapon we had on board.
I thought about it. The anti-matter pod needed a power source. “And an RTG.”
“The Cherenkov radiation. The glow. He took one of the new RTGs, too. To power the anti-matter containment unit. He didn’t mention the antimatter to me. He said he was using the light or the radiation of the RTG as a distraction.” A radioisotope generator was a constant steady heat source, coupled to a set of cooling fins. In between, a dense mesh of aerogel and metal components turned the steady heat into several hundred watts of direct current. Enough to maintain the magnetic shielding on the single gram of antimatter in the pod: 180 terajoules of potential energy.
“Oh. Well, shit.” Jones was a medical doctor and xenobiologist, I don’t think he grasped the full import, he just knew anti-matter was the most dangerous thing humans had ever invented.
It became all too clear, now. I knew now that Richter had done the absolute right thing, but at what cost? “Alright, I’m up, is there anything in the galley?”
“Yeah, I’ll grab you some coffee and warm something up.”
“Thanks.” I checked the console, all readouts nominal, navigation locked on Procyon Prime, our relative speed slowly decreasing. I’d slept for four hours. It felt like a week. I checked my chrono, and keyed Goldman’s console to sync to it. I took a calming breath, and stepped off the lip into the gangway. At .09G, I merely had to wait for the ship to catch up with me. I dragged a hand down the wall and grabbed the lip of the hatchway into engineering, kicking my feet lightly and tensing my stomach muscles to swing in cleanly. I flexed my knees as I landed, absorbing much of my scant kinetic energy and stepping gracefully into a screaming match.
“Enough. Ox, put the wrench down.” I spoke with the weight of my Command, which had nothing to do with the volume of my voice. I’d be forty in three months. I’d learned a long time ago how to direct people, to cut through anger, rage, insubordination, stupid, very stupid. The right tone. Just enough inflection.
Ox was having none of it. “He’s put us all at risk, and he knows it. You know it. We’re never going home.” Ogden Weathers was a sizable man, just inside the upper limit for what was accepted for astronauts. A combination of caloric limits and bunk engineering made space life sometimes uncomfortable for a man like Ox.
“Ox. The wrench.” He turned on me and pointed the spanner at my face, as if to emphasize whatever he was about to say next. I took the wrench before he could speak, and reversed my grip in a spin, and jammed it into his solar plexus. Being at the other end of the physical spectrum, it was easy for them to forget my combat record, that my rank was Marine, not Navy. I put the spanner back into the toolbox while he caught his breath. “I’m going to say this once. We’re a crew. That lasts as long as we don’t turn on each other. We’re in the shit up to our necks right now. Richter made the right call. Goldman lost it and put us at risk. I’m not happy about. Richter’s not happy about it. Frankly, the only person happy about anything right now is Goldman.” I crouched down next to him, putting my anger right in his face. “Now, I’m going to go get some coffee, because I haven’t had any in weeks, and I’m a little cranky when I first wake up. Then, I’m going to yell at Richter for a while. Is that ok with you?”
Ox sucked wind in response.
I thumbed my comm. “Jones, I need another pilot.” I took a breath, let it go. “Richter, please join me in the galley.”
I spent the better part of the morning tearing into Richter. He took it like a champ. He knew why I had to, I knew why I had to, but at the end of it all, there were immutable facts, all lined up in a pretty row that said Richter did the right thing. He’d laid out our course, plotted Goldman’s trajectory, and launched him like an arrow to where the Leviathan would be. Our braking track would drop us into orbit on the other side of Procyon Alpha, and give us about an hour before contact was a certainty. With any luck, the critter would be crippled are departed after a sizable antimatter reaction.
But, Ox was half right. It had put our chance of a return trip home at serious risk. Losing Goldman had cost us a pilot, and a chemical engineer. Between him and Ox, they were jointly responsible for life support maintenance. We’d need to thaw one of the passengers to fill the pilot and maintenance billet. One hundred and forty eight somnolents, riding in refrigerated psuedo-comas: the crew and science team we were supposed to drop on Procyon Prime, then return to Earth for another batch, a fresh crew, plus supplies.
We’d launched with four anti-matter pods. The first was consumed leaving Sol, the trigger for a complex set of reactions that powered the impossible Alcubierre warp bubble that slid us under the radar of general relativity as we careened across space. One would take us back home. And two spares, because that’s how NASA operates. Each represented an entire year’s worth of preparation, the entire output of both lunar solar bands, plus one of the three Helium-3 fusion reactors. Billions of taxpayer dollars, stuffed into Goldman’s pants like a sweaty C-note. If I make it home alive, that’s the first story I’m telling when the beer starts. But, now that we were one gram short, we’d be stranded in deep space if our jump for home wasn’t perfectly aligned.
Five of us now huddled in the little galley, taking our turns at the food prep machine. The day has been tense, Ox and Richter at odds. We’d woken up Anders, Goldman’s backup. He wasn’t terribly happy with Richter either, but he was a little more understanding than Ox. We sat around the little table, watching the monitor patched into the forward video feed.
“It knows we’re coming, it stops to look at us periodically. At this distance, our aurora would only barely be visible, if at all.”
Anders had taken the news with considerable aplomb. Goldman’s loss shook him a little, they’d been friends since the Air Force Academy, all the way through SSTO training and flying orbital interdiction over the Maldives during the blockades of the Indo-China space program.
“It’s larger, too.” Richter picked at his soyloaf with a fork. He made a face at it that accurately summed up how I felt about everything, at the moment.
Jones stepped closer to the monitor to get a better look. “You think so?”
“Yeah, the girth of its midsection has expanded. I’d estimate a mass increase of about one-third.” He waved his fork at the monitor. “I took measurements against the circumference of the planet. The increase in width compared to when we first saw it accounts for a land mass the size of Texas, to a depth of fifty feet.” His demeanor was.. cold. I couldn’t imagine what he was holding in.
“That’s crazy.” Anders gawped at the screen.
“I think we’re a little far outside what even a bunch of astronauts can call normal. The tail on that thing is long enough, I’ve started calling it Jormungand.”
Ox snorted.Jormungand was an old Norse legend, a massive serpent that encircled the world. It had its roots in the original Germanic tribes of Earth, sharing the same origin of the serpents featured into other major religions. He was the Norse explanation for earthquakes, and figured largely in their world-ending tale of Ragnarok.
We ate in silence for a while a growing pile of soypaks littering the table.
“Richter.” Anders sat back and exhaled. “I have to ask. Tell me about Goldman.”
Tension expanded to consume the small space. Richter looked at Anders, and let his eyes trail back to the monitor. He looked at me, glanced at Ox. Ox was trying to crush Richter’s brain with the force of his gaze, alone.
“I saw it when I knocked him out, the look in his eyes. The fear. I’ve seen fear like that before. I knew it wouldn’t end well.” He dropped his fork and flicked the soypak across the table. “I left home and joined the Air Force because of fear like that. I’ve always wanted to fly spaceships, to get as far from that kind of fear as I could. My dad had come home one day, already drunk, freshly unemployed. Ma had gotten the phone call from the neighbor, her husband worked at the same factory. She sat in the kitchen, couldn’t speak. She just looked at me and fought the fear.” He paused, pursed his lips. “The fear won. As soon as his car hit the driveway, she lost. She went upstairs, got his pistol, shot herself. Twice. She was working on a third go when I got to her, but didn’t have the strength.” He looked up at Ox. For half a second, I saw him crack. His voice hitched a bit. “When I saw Goldman trying to get out of his chair, when he looked at me, it was like I was nine again. I knew what was coming.”
Anders sat back, crossed his arms. He couldn’t look at Richter. I couldn’t either. I’d never heard this from him, seen a side of him that was personal, emotional.
“When I went back to stores, I’d already thought about the anti-matter pod. It’s the only thing we’ve never weaponized, because it’s just too dangerous. I was trying to figure out how to deliver one when Goldman tried to open the airlock. When I got there, I overrode the door controls and disabled the alarms. When I went in, he was gibbering. The only thing he could… voice.. was his desire to get out. He wasn’t coherent.”
“That could have been the morphine,” Jones added.
“The morphine is why he could barely hold himself together. His motor control was shit. But his eyes.. I’ll carry that with me until I die. Just like my mother. But it isn’t right to stop someone that wants to die that bad. It just isn’t.” Richter stood up slowly. Ox looked down and away, hiding eyes that I knew were full. Richter dropped a hand on Ox’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I know you were close.” He bounced on a heel and propelled himself to the gangway. “I’m going to start pre-drop checks on the payload.”
I looked up, wiping the tears from my own eyes.
“Why?” My heart felt like my dinner looked, a cold lump of soymeat in a little plastic tub, trillions of miles from anything warm, real, and safe.
“If the antimatter hits, whether it kills that thing or not, we need to do what we came to do. Do we let the sleepers die? We don’t have stores to keep them in coldsleep for more than another few weeks. The only chance they have of living is executing the drop as planned.”
“That thing is going to kill us. You can see what it’s doing to that planet. Once we hit orbit, we’re as good as dead. It’s waiting for us. It’s watching us.” I couldn’t believe how scared I was. That I’d come to this.
Anders broke it wide open, bless his heart. He’s got a little bit of Louisiana drawl that sneaks out sometimes. “Well, if’n we’re already dead, there ain’t no sense in being on our best behavior, is there?” He raised his water pouch at Richter in mock salute, downed it like it was whiskey, provided you could get whiskey in a vac-pack. I suspected he might actually have some.
Ox stood, his eyes red, his anguish palpable. He took a slow step toward Richter, and I tensed. Richter brought his chin up, but didn’t move. The pain they now shared, I’d never witnessed such between two men. Not in combat, not in training, where we broke men as a matter of routine. This was more. It was in that moment I realized that Ox had loved Goldman. How had I never caught on to that?
Ox stepped past him to the gangway, “C’mon, let’s get this done.”
The reefer bay is designed for 200 sleepers. Currently, it contains one hundred and forty seven somnolents, each resting comfortably at a balmy 11.4 degrees centigrade. Twenty five bays in two rows, each bay a stack of two pods. Every one contains a volunteer, eminently qualified within their particular field of expertise, plus as many as two others. Each of them signed a stack of documents upon volunteering, long prior to acceptance, stating that they understood this mission was probably one way, and a significant set of risk factors existed that precluded them ever waking from cold sleep.
‘Good morning, time to die!’ is pretty much the worst Monday scenario I could imagine, and I really didn’t feel like sharing the coffee.
It was slow going, with only five of us awake, but we’d decided not to wake anyone else, as the risks didn’t outweigh the effort. We had no idea how people would handle it, and we really just couldn’t cope with the notion of another Goldman. I pushed my thoughts away from him, my throat threatening to lock up again.
Ox and Jones had started at one end, Richter and I on the other. Anders was on the bridge, playing nanny to Jormungand.
“Pod 52, Jacobson,” I told my comm. Anders released the mesh lock, and Richter and I began basic checks as the nanomesh hammock relaxed and lowered Stu Jacobson into view. Each sleeper was cocooned in high grade nanomesh, clad in a skintight bodysuit of similar material, itself lined with sensors. Over the course of the journey, the mesh would flex and ripple, tightening and relaxing where it held the body, applying pressure to simulate gravity and limited motion. For an extended sleep period like this one, the skinsuit would augment the process with minor electrical charges, stimulating muscles lightly to keep muscle atrophy to a minimum. Until you got used to it, standing in the reefer bay was disconcerting as hell, like a spider’s lair with shelves. It was the twitching that always got me.
I knew Stu vaguely from orientation and flight training. He was a hydrogeologist, with a secondary function in microbiology. I inspected and plucked at his suit in a few places. “Skinsuit is intact, no tears or bunching.” I wiggled the sensor connection at the base of his left heel. “Sensor connection is solid.”
“Confirmed, good data.” I looked up at Richter, who was inspecting Jacobson’s medcomm, a small interface on the right rear of his skull. It accepted a small fiber optic cable, and a slender pair of tubes that interfaced with the circulatory system. Into it, fed a slow, light, oxygenated feed of saline, drugs and nutrients. Out came a stream of waste. While in coldsleep, the body’s natural processes were necessarily retarded, heart rate and other metabolic processes dropped very, very low. Hair even stopped growing. It also staved off the bone loss that was so common after extended periods in zero-g. The system monitored the contents of waste output for abnormalities, and adjusted input or sounded alarms accordingly.
It helped not to think that this technology had been perfected by the prison systems.
The fiber optics were standard neuralware interfaces, keeping tabs on brain function. There wasn’t much to look for, really, no one dreamed in coldsleep. I didn’t use my jack often, traditional amongst Marines. Air Force and Navy trained heavily on them, and Army limited their use to equipment operators and drivers. By equipment operators, I mean tank drivers and exosuits squads. All grunts got jacks, but like the Marines, they only used them as needed for training, otherwise mostly by medics for pain damping. A brain that was accustomed to heavy computer interface was a liability, if captured in combat. Wetware that had adapted to that kind of interaction gave up information too easily. A good interrogator could work from home in his pajamas.
Neither the Air Force or Navy risked their operators to combat anymore; all of them were berthed in orbit, less than 100 milliseconds away at any given time. The advent of magnetic tethers, the same technology that drove the superloops, had changed the nature of warfare forever. Naval control satellites could hover on station at altitudes of only a few hundred miles. Tank drivers, bomber pilots, ship gunners, you name it. If it could be controlled remotely, it was. Grunts and armored exosuit operators handled the details. By treaty, weapon platforms were prohibited in orbit. No mention had ever been made about troops, though.
“Slight inflammation around the jack,” Richter noted. “Within expected limits.” Richter and Anders were both heavy interface users, expected of astrogators. Complex orbital plots that used to take days to determine could be managed in minutes, a necessity for in-system piloting and interstellar navigation. A complicated conversation takes place between the ship and the pilot when preparing an Alcubierre push, a language I’d failed to grok in flight school. The kind of brain required to earn a pilot’s billet on a ship, exosolar or not, had put pilots back into the rock star category. Due to their value and the cost of their training, it was a federal crime to strike a pilot on or about the face or head. Because of this, many pilots washed out of the program, mostly because they couldn’t pass the psych profile. No one likes the guy in the bar that you can’t hit back when he starts shit. When, not if, always when.
Anders: “Pod 52, waveforms are normal, nothing out of whack on his vitals. Chem signatures on his output are all within the envelope. Cleared.”
I nodded. “Lock him up. Next.” Richter pulled his hands clear and thumbed the actuator, watching the nanomesh closely as it drew Jacobson back into its creepy embrace.
It took us the better part of six hours to check everyone, without a single fault to show for the effort. The hardest part about it was standing at a bit of a cant, maintaining balance on a flat surface with a soft but steady pull to one side. The reefer bay wasn’t designed like the active use areas, which were gimbled to always put ‘down’ and ‘up’ relative to acceleration or deceleration. The superloop transport ship designs meant no more flipping ships around to point your ass at your destination for braking maneuvers, or cumbersome aerobrakes. The superloops behaved much like traditional sails as long as you had a star to provide wind, or a magnetosphere to push or pull against.
“Alright, everyone, R&R, four hours. Grab two kcal before you sleep, minimum. We’ll run drop bay equipment exercise at 0300, Ox, that’s you and Anders, Richter you’ll be on watch. Jones, you’re down for eight. Orbital asset deployment drill is at 1200. Anders, I’ll come relieve you in a moment.”
No one argued.
Anders and Richter were both plugged in when I entered the bridge, fresh from a full sleep cycle. We were still days away from Procyon Prime, with much to do. We’d finished up drilling on the orbital asset deployments before I’d cycled out to log some rack time.
“I figure we can drop each of them here, here, or here. We’re plenty close enough for their panels to deploy and power up, they can unreel their tethers immediately and begin braking. The g-tolerance on the panel arms is more than sufficient. We give them each a series of pre-programmed maneuvers to settle into the orbits they’re supposed to be in anyway. They’ll arrive late, but they’ll get there.”
Richter nodded. “The math looks good.” His eyes unfocused a bit as he chatted with the navigation hub, his expression flat. Anders glanced up at me as I entered, but quickly went back to the nav display as Richter pushed and prodded at his plots.”This is very good. From here,” he pointed at the first point on the plot, “they’ll settle in about two months late. Here, six weeks, and here, 28 days.”
I bounced over, peeked around Anders’s shoulder. “What is this?”
“The support sats. Anders wants to drop them early so they arrive late, so Jormungand doesn’t destroy them, intentionally, or otherwise. They’re much lighter than we are, even with the smaller tether, they’ll brake much faster and come in behind us. If the drop is successful, and we get the team to the surface intact, it’ll increase their odds of surviving dramatically, provided the biosphere is intact.” Richter glanced at the monitor. “Or the atmosphere.”
Jormungand wasn’t sleeping, but it appeared to be resting. Its two forward.. arms, were still anchored in the crust, its tail splayed out behind it, moving lightly and slowly. It had a mane, for lack of a better term, some kind of thick material that waved and shimmered like a waving banner.”What kind of impact is it having on the planet, anchored like that? Plate tectonics? Damage to the biosphere? Hell, rotation speed? Is it exerting force or drag on the crust?”
Anders rubbed the stubble on his jaw, his skin irritated from the fresh growth after so long asleep. “Hard to tell just from looking. Undoubtedly, there’s damage occurring, but all we can do is speculate. A couple more days and we’ll be close enough to get good imaging and more reliable sensor returns. Infrared shows that most of the ocean around the southern anchor there,” he pointed, “is about eighty to ninety degrees warmer than normal. It’s flooding the atmosphere with superheated moisture, there’s a lightning storm cycle that starts every few hours. I can’t even guess at how much energy is being unleashed, doesn’t phase Jormungand at all. We can assess rotation pretty easily, see if he’s mucked up the day/night cycle at all, but since all we had were estimates before, we’ll never know for sure.”
“Does he still look at us?”
“Yes.” I shivered involuntarily.
Anders’ idea to deploy the support satellites early, so they’d arrive some time after landing, was well considered. If we some how manage to survive the insertion, and launch the drop pods successfully, the support sats would provide GPS, comm relays, and data storage to the ground teams. Delaying the satellites would ensure that they’d settle into orbit correctly, provided Jormungand was out of the picture. If we didn’t survive, no loss.
“Have you accounted for the early change in mass on our breaking plot?”
“Yes, if we maintain current power levels, we’ll tick up to just under 0.1g constant. We can brake harder if you want more time, but we’ll need a wider plot to hit the right windows for a good drop.”
“How long until Goldman.. arrives?”
“Seventy-four and change.”
“Where’s Ox and Jones?”
“Running checks on the pod deployment racks. Ox ran a couple of waldos down the skin, found a micrometeorite score that might bind up one of the doors. Jones is due to cycle out in thirty, Ox in four-thirty.”
“Alright. Transfer the conn, rotate out and get some rack time, you look like shit. How long have you been plugged in?”
“A while. I’m going.” He logged off the console, and slowly unplugged his jack, blinking rapidly to clear his vision as the visual overlays and data feeds fled from his mind.
“We need to wake pilots for the drop, soon.” I pulled up the sleeper manifest to start selecting candidates.
Richter paused in the gangway. “I think later is better than sooner. Not everyone has Anders ability to bite their thumb at the universe.”
Anders chuckled. “That’s my superpower.”
I thumbed on my comm and announced the conn rotation. “Ox, what’s your status?”
“Just a moment, Captain, he’s calibrating a cutter,” Jones replied.
I glanced at Anders and twitched my head at his monitor. He turned and pulled up the status from the waldos, the semi-autonomous drones we use to assess various ship systems. Two were active, one in the aft-most drop bay, the other outside on the skin of the ship. Inside, I could see Ox jacked into a videoscope, tools in hand as he worked on laser cutter. Outside, I could see the score he was concerned about, a runnel dragged across the seam between the door and the hull. Opening the door would likely rip the skin and render the bay unsound, unable to seal perfectly against the vacuum. I surmised that Ox’s plan was to sever the weld as neatly as possible, open the door and service both elements. That’d mean an EVA under light gravity. Not impossible, just irritating, low risk, but more risk than I wanted right now.
Do we fix the seam against the notion that Jormungand dies or departs when Goldman’s antimatter surprise arrives, to make the trip home with the ship intact? Or proceed under the assumption that we’re landing with the science team?
Optimism seemed better than the alternatives.
“Anders, go suit up and prepare to relieve Jones, please.”
I dropped into the EVA staging room the next morning, fresh from the head.
“How much longer on the pre-breathe?”
Ox looked down at his chrono, and held up ten fingers. He was hanging out in the airlock in shorts and a tee, a small facemask and skinny feed tube leading to the O2 tank cradled in his lap.
“Alright, let’s get you dressed.”
He slid to his feet with no more force required than flexing his leg muscles. He was a ruggedly handsome man, square jaw, solid build of corded muscle, with a few interesting scars. I wonder how I’d never really noticed before. I wondered why I was suddenly noticing more now that I’d realized we were playing on the same team. Funny, how the brain works, wanting what it can’t have.
Our heavy pressure suits all hung outside the airlock, each a custom fit, complex combination of hydrogen-doped graphite nanomesh, coverall, and sensor suite. I pulled his off the rack and opened up the back seam, pooling the mesh at his feet so he could step into it. He’d be unable to use his hands easily while he pre-breathed pure oxygen, a required process to outgas nitrogen from the body. In the event of a pressure suit failure, nitrogen bubbles would form in the bloodstream, just like divers in the ocean surfacing too fast. I was on oxygen as well, but I’d grabbed a harness for my bottle to keep my hands free.
I knew he was still grieving Goldman, and I had no idea what to do about it except keep him busy.
The heavy pressure suit is a pretty interesting garment, a close cousin to the sleeper pods. He settled his feet in place, and I pulled it up his large frame, closing the first junction just over the small of his back, letting it rest on his hips. I stepped around to his front and took his O2 bottle, letting him shrug into the arms and settle it onto his shoulders.
In zero-g, we’d have started a diaper. The lack of nerve endings in the bladder and bowels made it impossible to know how full you were, we were all trained to hit the head every few hours to keep backfires to a minimum. Now that we were in light gravity, things were a little closer to normal. Besides, if he shit in his suit, it was his problem, not ours. All suits were custom fit, and his big ass certainly wasn’t going to fit in mine.
I handed his bottle back. “Good to go?”
He nodded, his eyes a little distant. I got to work, stepping behind him again. There are six pressure junctures on the back of the suit, running up the spine from hip to neck. I set and sealed each of these, then closed the neck joining, which hung about the shoulders like a very loose collar.
“All clamped, shake it.”
Ox shook his shoulders to settle the suit into place, drawing himself to full height. I assessed the suit for any catching or bunching.
“Looks good, sit tight.” I grabbed his belt unit from the rack and attached the center point to the waiting post on the lowest pressure plate. I circled around front and clipped it closed. On either side of the buckle, small cables wrapped in flexible sheathing waited to be connected to the suit’s primary power junctions. I attached these, wiggled them to check the seating.
“How much time?”
He held up three fingers. I thumbed my comm. “Jones, Ox is suited to stage one, start telemetry checks and pre-charge.”
“Yes, ma’am, starting now.”
I started laying out the rest of Ox’s kit, helmet first, as it was next. All of our helmets were customized, and Ox’s was no exception. He’d painted the faceplate to resemble a grinning skull, a shining mirrored visor over what would have otherwise been empty skull sockets. I frowned at it, in our situation, and shook my head, taking an anti-fog wipe to the inside of the visor. I watched the pressure suit do pre-charge checks while I waited.
Jones was sending the suit commands via the controller in the belt unit, the suit pushing low voltage through various segments of the suit and causing it to constrict and tighten against Ox’s body, taking pressure and resistance measurements as it worked its way up from feet to the neck flange.
Ox’s comm warbled, his timer running out. He took a long drag off the O2 bottle and lifted the small facemask from his face. I handed him his helmet, trading for the bottle and mask. He lifted it over his head, and lowered that macabre rictus over his otherwise somber face, pausing briefly to settle the helmet’s fiber optic feed into his medcomm jack before snapping the base of the helmet into the neck ring. I removed the mask from the feed tube, and plugged the feed tube into the back of the helmet.
Jones over the comm: “Helmet seated, medcomm is coming online, starting sensor checks… and there’s the O2 feed. Suit pressure rising… rising.. OK, Ox, you’re good to go.”
Ox released the breath he’d been holding, and returned to breathing normally. He turned toward the rack to fetch his PLUS pack, Primary Life/Utility Support unit that contained his main battery unit, water and oxygen rebreather. His suit would vent any remaining nitrogen.
“Jones, go for stage two power up.” Ox’s voice through his helmet was calm, steady, but raw. I could tell he was still hurting, but he was all game face, today.
“Starting now.” Jones initiated the startup sequence, drawing on the belt’s battery to apply power to the nanomesh across Ox’s shoulders and broad chest. It began to twitch and tighten, the pattern jumping around like a small spastic kitten was lose under the coverall. Maybe a ferret. Within seconds, the mesh drew skintight, no loose hangings to rub, catch, or otherwise encumber him. This process completed at the finger tips, the most perfect fitting gloves man could possibly make. Despite the apparent lightness, the hydrogen doping in the nanomesh was a very effective radiation shield, with the coverall layer doing a good job of thermal management even when unpowered.
I held his O2 bottle up and away as he slid it behind him and shrugged into the harness. Older NASA suits had combined all of this together, but there were cases where we wanted pressure suits without an EVA kit, using nothing more than a belt pack and a small rebreather unit. He took a few minutes to set and adjust his harness for comfort, something I couldn’t help with. He flexed his arms, wiggled his fingers.
“Good to go, ready for PLUS transfer.”
I clipped the power and data feeds from his PLUS unit into receptacles on the neck ring, situated where they couldn’t catch or bind as Ox moved. The entire suit design was such that it progressed with increasing complexity and capability that any particular mission required.
Jones: “PLUS online.” I watched a small array of status indicators indicate chatter with the suit, synchronize, check, check again, and then one by one, go green.
I knocked on Ox’s helmet. “O2 switch on three.”
I pulled the breather hoses, one for each side of the helmet, and attached the unused port first, the internal sphincter opening up after I snapped the hose into place. This was the O2 feed, a slight positive pressure coming up from the rebreather. I detached the small O2 tank from the other receptacle, and connected the exhaust tube, balancing out the breather system.
Jones: “O2 transfer complete, green board.”
Ox: “Go ahead and start pressure checks.” He was stepping into his mag boots, attaching the dorsal power feeds on his calves, permitting his suit draw from the boots small power packs in an emergency.
Jones: “Yup, starting now. Pressurizing to plus point 2 atmospheres.”
I watched Ox work his jaw to pop his ears.
Jones: “Holding.. holding.. holding.. and good. Normalizing.”
Ox pulled on work sleeves, a heavier overlay for his hands and arms, the left arm fitted with a wristcomp and display guard: standard kit for EVA toolwork. I pulled the welder’s apron from the tool closet, flipped it at him in a slow arc. He plucked it from the air adroitly, fully at home in a heavy pressure suit. He clipped the top to his harness and let the rest hang, then kicked each leg in a practiced motion, the light magnetic tabs on the back snapping to each other. The apron was designed to be removed in a hurry, in the event of toxic or combustible contamination, the farthest thing from a strip tease one could imagine, but roughly similar in mechanics. His cutter and tools were already outside, mounted to one of the waiting waldos.
I stepped back as Ox did a few stretches, working each limb through full range of motion, limbering up while letting the suit check itself for faults.
Ox: “Stage 4, ready. Entering airlock.”
Jones: “Roger, you’re good to go.”
I thumbed my comm, “I’m suiting up now for ready watch. Start the final pressure checks and cycle him out, Richter’s probably taking a nap out there by now.”
Richter’s voice, sonorous and mellow, came over the comm almost immediately. “You people suit up like virgins trying to fuck. A damn lot of talk, some fumbling around, and finally, some action. At least, it sounds like one of you finished.”
Fucking Anders. I could hear his howling laughter from the bridge. I saluted the camera in the corner of the suit room. He started coughing.
Richter waited outside, standing on the skin of the ship with a small collection of personal items. He reached into the toolpouch hanging from his belt and drew forth a golf ball, settling into one of the knurled divets of a rivet, almost perfectly sized, as fate would have it. He lined up his driver, and looked off at Jormungand as if aiming for him.
I waited in the air lock on ready standby, strapped into an MMU. Video feeds from both of the waldos were projected inside my visor, with control of one of them slaved to my suit’s wristcomp if I wanted to look around. Jones was monitoring suit vitals for all of us from his station.
Ox settled in over the errant welds. The micrometeorite that had scored the ship’s skin had been perhaps the size of an acorn, maybe a little smaller, but moving at an incredible speed. It had struck the ship a glancing blow, but the friction of its strike had annealed the metals together as it crossed the surface of the cargo bay door and the ship’s hull. He placed the laser cutter against the skin, unfolding the four stabilizer legs to support it, then activating the magnetic anchors to hold it in place. Richter moved opposite him, and settled a videoscope into place. He dialed it in to get a magnified view of the area, filling the video frame with the scar, the video stream relayed to nearby suit systems. Each astronaut’s visor showed a complex multi-spectrum image which would allow them to observe not only the physical changes during cutting, but monitor for heat transfer to the skin in unexpected manners.
“Anders, I’m ready to start cutting. Verify decompression of cargo bay?”
“Verified, null pressure in bay 2, all pressure doors dogged. Green board.”
“Ready to start cutting. Richter?” Every time they spoke to each other, I got a little more tense. The two of them outside made me twitchy, I fully expected Ox to punt Richter into the deep at any moment.
Richter checked his left boot anchor for grip, the magnetic clamps holding firm. He freed his right boot and settled into a more comfortable stance before re-engaging it. “Good to go. Check your clamps.”
Ox glanced at the power readout in his helmet, showing damped flow to both anchors, a sign that each field was locked in contact. He shook his feet in his boots to verify. “All set.”
“Alright, let’s skin this cat.” Richter’s collection of metaphors and aphorisms was wide and eclectic.
“Your pillow talk must be amazing.” Normally Richter would have a ready quip, but I could hear his hesitation over the comm. He didn’t want to rub salt in the fresh wound in Ox’s psyche, and let it pass with a grunt.
Ox engaged the cutter’s integral videoscope and began aligning the cutter. In zero-g, he’d have gone for a clean, right down the middle cut. Under light deceleration, he needed to shift the cut a little bit, to balance the cohesive properties of the metals against the simulated gravity. The score was only maybe an inch across, but just deep enough to be a cause for concern. Anywhere else on the hull and it would have been a trivial issue, owing to the multi-layer composite design that maintained hull integrity.
The outer layers were metal, with the underlayers composed of various materials offering comprehensive radiation shielding, more vital than oxygen for the long haul through interstellar space. Solar radiation was one problem, but once you broke heliopause, the varieties of cosmic radiation were such that they could punch the nucleus right out of high-grade metals. Supernovae, for example, emitted a very heavy positive ion, of sufficient mass and speed to strike the hull hard enough to initiate fission. At a very small scale, of course, but it was the root cause that necessitated the routine hull inspections that had found this particular scoring. Material sciences had advanced much in the past century, but NASA operated on a fundamental, unofficial motto: “Check it twice, and when in doubt, have a backup.”
Ox judged the alignment by eye, and settled his hand on the control grip. He exhaled lightly and passed his thumb over the firing stud, a solid state ‘switch’, sensitive to pressure instead of an on/off contact, sending a test pulse to the cutter. A series of femtosecond pulses began separating the mushed alloys within the scar. Ox paused to observe the separation, evaluating the expected heat bloom as the melted material clung to itself, coming apart like a zipper before rapidly cooling as the cold skin and the vacuum of space ate the radiated heat, unequal partners in entropy. Satisfied with his settings and aim, he continued, applying more pressure for a longer series of bursts, making quick work of the cutting without incurring further damage. Neat and precise.
Like most things aboard ship, it had taken longer to suit up and prepare for the work than the actual work had taken. It was a running joke that most tasks were rated in the number of checklists required, not the hours worked. One engineer cum comedian back in Houston had done the math and distributed a very authentic looking pay scale worksheet to the NASA intranet. It broke various pay grades down, with checklist-completion counts as the basis for pay and merit advancements.
Ox leaned back and gave Richter room to inspect the work.
“Looks good. No shearing, clean separation. Shouldn’t impact door operation at all. Nice work.”
“Moving.” Ox released the magclamps on the cutter and unlocked his boots, dialing their power down to walking grip levels. He lifted the cutter slowly, and stepped off the bay door’s surface. Richter unclamped the videoscope and moved clear of the door as well, reseating the scope on the hull proper. He adjusted the angle and refocused on the cut, elevating the assembly to get a good view. My waldo was perched on the skin of the door itself, while Anders controlled the other, parked about ten meters away, offering a wider angle of the proceedings.
Richter: “Anders, we’re clear, shake the door.”
Anders pulsed the door motors to send vibrations through the assembly and initialize baseline readings for the door’s sensors, monitoring power usage and strain, the first line of detection that any of the mechanisms had locked up or otherwise slipped into a non-nominal state over the course of the voyage. Ox and Richter were both watching the videoscope’s feed for material spray and other surprises.
“Ox? Your call.”
Ox stepped a little closer and hunkered down near the seam. He reached over and dialed up the magnification on the videoscope. As magnification increased, sensitivity on the controls decreased accordingly, letting Ox pan the video across the cut smoothly. He took a minute to inspect the length of his work, humming to himself as he worked. I was getting antsy with the waiting. I flipped my video displays around to various views, checking on Anders in the cockpit, as well. He was air drumming on the console, probably playing neu-rock in the background. I wasn’t the only one with nervous energy.
“I don’t see any potential for ablation or tearing, let’s open it. Go ahead, Anders.”
“Arrrr, opening door,” Anders drawled, injecting a little space pirate into our day. It annoyed Richter when he did it, which is probably why he did it. The first rule of pilot school: Never let your annoyances show. Most pilots were some form of adrenaline junkie, but the psych evals required them to keep a tight lid on it, so they got their kicks where they could, and it usually meant screwing with each other. In the weeks between leaving the lunar shipyards and clearing the bowshock to enter the interstellar medium, Anders had anonymously crafted a series of little origami tricorn hats out of mylar, and hidden them in and about Richter’s work and sleep spaces. He’d somehow managed to slip one into Richter’s coldsleep berth, Richter had woken up with it plastered to his cheek, but Anders had escaped blame because he’d gone to sleep first. I still haven’t figured out how he pulled it off.
I was a little disappointed that whatever retribution Richter had planned might never come to pass.
The bay door cycled open as expected, no catches, no tearing. Once it cycled open fully, Ox knelt down to inspect the scoring to the hull. “This is pretty clean, I don’t think we’ll need to service this at all.”
Richter was clambering out onto the open door to check the other half. “What’s the tolerance on your cut? A millimeter?”
“Thereabouts. Hey Anders, can you send me the door specs?” Anders mumbled an affirmative. A listing of details became available on Ox’s wristcomp, weight, dimensions, tolerances, and inspection history.
Richter’s tone was ice. “If you’re eating in my chair, so help me, Jormungand will be the smallest of your worries.”
“Anders, can you give me an overlay, too?” Ox’s display morphed as Anders fed him the data, his helmet’s camera and sensors feeding data back to the ship’s systems, the ship in turn rendering an augmented reality overlay of the bay and door specifications and systems into his field of vision. The longer he focused on anything, the more information about it the ship would spool out for him. It automatically flagged the slight burring of his cut as anomalous, but offered no warnings. He looked up at the door, and waited on measurements and analysis. “Yeah, this will be fine. Let’s cycle the door a few times to be sure, but this won’t be an issue unless the door decides that warping will be a good idea, at which point, we’ll have other problems to worry about.”
Richter nodded, a mostly futile gesture in a suit helmet. “Moving.” He moved back toward the ship proper, leaving his perch on the open door.
I thumbed my comm. “Ox, as long as you’re out there, do a quick seal inspection before you button it up.”
We were all crowded into the bridge. Richter sat in his seat, Anders sat in mine. Jones and I had the support seats, Ox had planted himself over the gangway, feet dangling down. Goldman was T minus 4 minutes to contact. We had every forward optic dialed in and tracking, at this distance we had a great composite image running on the displays. We didn’t have enough parallax on the cameras to produce a true threedy, but the image we got was pretty clear, none the less.
Jormungand was watching Goldman come in, his head moving side to side, but clearly fixed on the moving point.
“What do you think the spectral range on those eyes are?”
“No telling. He was tracking us half an AU before we lit up the magsails, and he’s eyeballing less than two square meters of mass floating at him at a pretty high rate of speed. It’s a safe bet he’s picking up on various forms of radiation, but the RTG has really good shielding, it shouldn’t leak at all, so maybe he’s sensitive to the EM field coming off the antimatter pod.”
“What if the antimatter doesn’t blow?” Jones was the only one of us who’d never seen combat, or been through so much as boot camp, advancing through NASA as a civilian surgeon.
“How do you know?”
“Because I rigged it.” Richter flicked his eyes at Jones, that sidewise glance you’d get from a parent when you’re being stupid.
Jones rolled his eyes. “That’s not very comforting.”
“You want comfort, call your daddy. You want things to do what they do when they get where they get, you call me.”
Me: “Do you think it will hurt him?”
“I hope so. I’m more worried about any effects it may have on the atmosphere, and if things will be settled down by the time we’re ready to drop.”
Anders: “You think it’ll ignite?”
Ox made a face. “Doubt it. It’s about 185, maybe 190 terajoules, not even half a megaton, if you think about it. Radiation belts may form, could be a problem for the support sats.”
I turned my chair towards Ox. “What kind of radiation?”
Ox: “Well, it’s safe to say that the RTG will be atomized in the explosion, so there’s a dozen pellets of very high quality Americium-241 being scattered about, so alpha and gamma with a half life of 400 years. In the grand scheme of things, probably not a huge deal. I think we can expect to see the planet’s magnetic field pretty clearly, though, once the initial blast subsides. The aurora will probably last the better part of a day.”
Jones: “How big will the explosion be?”
Ox: “About three, maybe four times Hiroshima, not even a quarter that of Starfish.”
Ox: “Nuke test back in the mid-20th. The Air Force detonated a nuke, exoatmospheric, about a megaton and a half, at an altitude above 200 miles, out over the Pacific garbage patch, long before it was even a thing. Jormungand’s head is at least that far across by itself.”
Anders: “Megaton and half is what, 4 petajoules?”
Richter: “Closer to six.”
Anders made a face, somewhere between impressed and speculative.
Jones: “I don’t get it, how big is that?”
Ox: “It’s about 10-12 times the energy we expended in the A-push that shoved us across our corner of the galaxy from Sol.”
Richter: “I’ve been thinking about Jormungand’s locomotive ability. How does he move around? He can’t just jump from planet to planet like a squirrel.”
Me: “He’s got to have some other form of movement. Do you think his eating the planet is a refueling effort of some kind?”
Jones: “At the sheer scale of that creature, all bets are off, when it comes to biology. Bodies like ours simply couldn’t function at that scale.”
Me: “Why not?”
Jones: “The nervous system doesn’t scale, for starters. Human neurotransmitters move a signal through the body, top speed of maybe 200 miles per hour. It’d take an hour for a locomotive signal to leave his head, maybe a day to reach the tip of his tail. He’s got to have internal systems that behave more like our ship systems, maybe some type of metallic axon that conducts information at a much faster rate. I wouldn’t be surprised if his brain is tucked somewhere in the middle of his body, purely for the sake of efficiency. Maybe even a network of multiple brains, as we think of them. Any similarities to familiar morphology start and end there, probably.”
Richter nodded. This had been on his mind for days, now. I knew he and Jones had been quietly speculating on this topic. “Two eyes mean a basis for parallax, so it can see in three dimensions and measure distance. Over a hundred miles between sensors is a decent amount of distance, and each eye is at least a couple of miles wide. That’s bigger than any single radio telescope on Earth or Luna, and we’re listening to stars halfway across the universe with those. Jormungand is a citizen of the galaxy, in every sense of the word. I won’t be shocked if he says ‘Fuck you, humans, I’m out,’ and folds space, then goes home to his wife and kids.” Richter’s console warbled. “90 seconds.” Tension filled the room as fast as he could say it.
Jones broke the looming silence. “Lord, in this moment, I know we’re far from home, but I hope you’re watching over us. I know we haven’t talked in a while, and you know I don’t ask for much, but find a place in your kingdom for our friend, Mark Goldman. He was a good man, a shepherd and caretaker of many lives, including mine, and the world is a darker place without him.”
Ox’s face was cut with grief. I could see Richter fighting it. I wasn’t a believer, most of us weren’t. That Jones was didn’t really surprise me, but I didn’t stop him, knowing Ox needed the closure.
Jormungand brought his head low to inspect the relative space dust that was Goldman, head slightly to the side. I realized then that Jormungand had a blind spot the size of Germany.
“I am the Resurrection and I am the Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die forever.”
I reached out to Ox and took his hand. Point 1 gee is barely enough to handle his tears.
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last, he will stand upon the Earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up, and in my body, I shall see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend, and not a stranger.”
“15 seconds.” Richter’s voice was thick.
“For none of us has life in himself, and none becomes his own master when he dies. For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.”
Richter caressed a button on his console, a preprogrammed macro that sent control commands to the transceiver tucked into Goldman’s suit with the RTG and anti-matter pod, passing the emergency override that shutdown the magnetic shielding on the gram of anti-matter hidden within it. In zero gravity, the anti-matter was now floating free in vacuum, a disaster wanting to happen. The macro finished, and opened the pod’s containment panel, flooding the compartment with nitrogen and carbon dioxide, exhaled moisture and sweat. “Amen.”
Goldman’s pyre had blinded Jormungand in one eye, the matter-antimatter annihilation producing a shockwave almost 20 kilometers in diameter. He wasn’t dead, but he’d detached from the planet and had pulled away. His relative speed still matched, however, and he floated along a mere 30,000 kilometers from the surface. He was moving very slowly, an inky black hole against the backdrop of stars, but one thing was certain: his remaining eye was fixed on us. As predicted, the blast had lit aurorae across the planet, the vibrant magnetic field briefly lit up like Christmas. We had detected brief surges in alpha and gamma radiation, but nothing significant at this distance, and all indicators suggested the worst of it would dissipate within the next few hours.
“Play it again, cut it to quarter speed.”
Anders paused the video and tracked it back seventy four seconds to the beginning.
Richter and I both leaned in. The explosion was still instantaneous, a mere pixel of non-shadow blossoming into brilliant white fury, a sphere of annihilation big enough to consume Manhattan whole. In a very brief space of time, Jormungand recoiled, freeing all four anchors from the planets surface, each appendage coiling about the otherwise serpentine body to protect itself.
“The nervous system in that beast is like nothing we’ve ever seen. The reaction time is incredibly fast.” Jones was enraptured, a dozen biologies forming in his mind and shredding themselves as impossible just as quickly.
“How much energy do you think it expended in that motion? The sheer mass of those appendages, to move that distance, at that speed, and suddenly stop just as fast..” Anders trailed off, the math falling to tatters in his head.
Anders tracked it back and started over.
“Get ready to freeze it.”
Anders froze the video, tracked back half a second.
“Zoom in on the eye.”
“Enhance.” Anders looked at Richter. Richter looked at Anders. “Sorry. I’ve always wanted to say that.” Anders exhaled his derision sharply.
A portion of Jormungand’s head was missing, one light punched out. Around it, there was a small explosion of matter, contents under pressure blossoming from the creature’s head. It was dark against the backdrop of space, most of what we could see was shimmer, as whatever matter being expelled became caught between the light of Procyon and the reflected light from the planet. I think I saw what Richter was looking for. I looked at the time index on the video. “Start tracking forward, frame by frame.” Anders tapped the console, a few frames a second. We watched in horrifically slow motion as bits of Jormungand sprayed into space. Three full seconds later, it stopped. “There. Look at the time index. Three seconds from explosion to seal.”
“Jesus, that’s as fast as any of our pressure bulkheads, from detection of puncture and atmosphere loss to slam.”
We sat in quiet contemplation for a bit. I looked at the clocks, a set of three on the wall: current ship time, and relative time to the next two mission sets. The first was our orbital insertion, sixty hours to go, the second was our orbital exit and acceleration to return to Sol, 144 hours later.
“Alright, so we know we can hurt him, and so does he. Either way, let’s get to work. We have a lot to do in the next few days.” I’d relieved Ox after the explosion. “I’ll take the next bridge watch. Jones, you and Anders are waking the drop pilots. Now that Jormungand has pulled back, I’m going to train the forward optics on the planet and we’re just not going to mention him unless we absolutely have to, I don’t see any sense in loading them up with this kind of stress right away.”
“Irene, I don’t think that’s going to work.” Richter and those fucking eyes.
“Look at us. We’re all on edge, Ox is a wreck, Goldman is gone. There’s too much to hide. We can’t do it.”
I hated this man at least a dozen times a day, he was so consistently right.
“What do you suggest?”
“We’ve got two drop pods, and three pilots, counting you. Jones is rated for a co-pilot seat, so is Ox. I say we take the pods down and give Jormungand the other two grams.”
I cut Richter off as soon as he said it, and adjusted the shift load so I could grab some downtime to consider what he’d said. Arguing with the man was a pointless exercise in frustration, he saw everything six moves out. I wished I’d stayed and argued, but until I’d had time to consider it. I stripped down and stepped into the shower, sealing the door behind me. I started the shower’s cycle and leaned back against the wall as tiny jets of warm water sprayed down. Like the other active use areas, the living quarters and showers were gimbaled to mimic the effects of gravity whenever we were under thrust conditions. In zero-g, the shower would spray from the ‘top’, with a forced airflow moving it downward across the body to an re-circulator intake in the ‘bottom’. I dug my fingers into my shoulders, searching for the knots of tension that had been plaguing me.
We were caught between hard maths of life and death.
If we stopped braking and started accelerating, it’d take us weeks to turn and get sufficient velocity for an A-push back to Sol, followed by more weeks in cold sleep. It wasn’t viable because we didn’t have the stores of drugs required to keep the sleepers under, and we definitely didn’t have the life support to handle more than a dozen people awake at once. Even running shifts, moving people in and out of cold sleep, we still didn’t have the resources. We’d die gasping before we ran out of food.
Suppose we maintained our braking loop and successfully dropped the pods, taking up our orbital station as planned. Jormungand remained to contend with, only now we’d poked the space badger with the biggest spoon known to mankind. The hope had been that the anti-matter explosion would kill it outright, or cause it to flee. Truly, a few seconds later on the detonation and we might have gotten that wish, but with a raft of completely different problems. We’d still be forced to land on a planet potentially destabilized by a massive corpse, its galactic-scale ass flapping in the solar wind.
I could see where Richter was going with this. Our braking loop would take us around the planet, likely out of Jormungand’s sight for a brief period. We’d be braking against the planet’s magnetosphere at that point, shedding a lot of speed to meet the safety envelope of the drop ships. Completing the orbit with the expectation of meeting Jormungand head-on was what Richter had in mind. Could we drop the science team and leave? If we managed to get clear, would that be leaving them to die if Jormungand destroyed the planet, or at the very least, the biosphere? Worse, could he simply follow us home?
Everything we knew about this alien defied our understandings of xenobiology. It survived in the vacuum of space. It eats planets. Was it intelligent? Could it communicate? There had to be more. What evolutionary path, what cosmic biosphere produced such a thing? How did it move through space? What was its lifespan?
The implications of not returning home were just as daunting. From A-push to drop, it was a nineteen week haul back to Sol, plus more time in sub-light transit and braking, depending on where we came out. It would be at least a month before they determined we were overdue. Would they send a probe? Another ship? Anders had a boy, the spitting image of himself, down to the big ears, big grin and freckles. Jones was married, his wife had e-mailed him to let him know he was going to be a father just before we’d pushed for Procyon. I had no children of my own, as I’d married the Corps instead. Most of my peers were men, and those who weren’t, most had scars on their pelvis from childbirth. My scars were all knife wounds and burns, near-miss gunshots and callouses.
And then, Ox and Goldman. How had I missed that relationship right under my nose? Ox had been married at one point. I’d never asked the details of his divorce, it was none of my business, even as mission commander. And Goldman hadn’t even been on my radar, in any sense of the word. They’d both been stationed on Luna for a while, working at the shipyards or the launch facilities. I’d selected Ox and Chase for my engineering team for their reactor and systems expertise, both of them working at the fusion generation plants on the ‘Dark Side’ of the moon. Goldman had been a life support engineer for that entire facility, both of them supporting the mining drone launches out to the asteroid belts.
The science team was in for a three year mission, and they’d understood the risks of that particular challenge when they signed up to be considered. Many of them didn’t have ties to keep them at home, in fact some of them had more reason to leave than stay, some political, some financial, some just tired of Earth. An interesting bunch of misfits, but if there’s anyone you’d want to be with on an uninhabited alien worlds, it’s with someone who wants to be there just as much as you. There were a few married couples in the batch, but otherwise, everyone ready to drop was already committed to possibly never going home.
What few options we had were constrained by physics and life support, ultimately a math problem of a few certain deaths versus the possible death of billions.
I shut the water off and cried.
I slept like a baby. By baby, I mean I woke up to cry periodically and I wanted my parents or a bottle. I don’t think babies get whiskey, though. My mind wouldn’t settle, it raced with nervous energy, faced with the kind of decision every commander fears, hard numbers of life and death. I slithered out of my hammock and slipped into a coverall, an easy, practiced motion after so long aboard ship.
Richter was in the galley, Anders would be coming off watch as I relieved him. Jones and Ox should be prepping the support satellites for deployment.
“I hate you when you’re right.”
He looked up at me as I bounced for the coffee maker. He was tired. I can’t imagine any of us were sleeping well. Except Anders. For all his jocularity, I’m pretty sure he’s numb in all the wrong places. “Yeah, I know. I’ve done the math, there’s no other options. We can’t risk going home, and the odds of us completing an orbit, braking or slingshot, are incalculable. Either we drop with the ground teams, or we die with them. Whatever we choose, it’s us likely dying instead of leading that thing back to Earth, and those are easy numbers.” He was praying to squeezebag of hot tea, hands wrapped around the thermal coozie, probably something herbal to settle him down before some rack time.
“So let’s talk about the problems with the drop.”
“I was wondering when you’d get to that. We have basically have to from orbit to atmosphere while hidden from view by the planet. That could mean some fast, steep entry angles. If we miss, we run the risk of being seen on the way down, or worse, landing in the middle of the chaos where he’s been chewing up the planet.”
“If he doesn’t move, and we don’t adjust our track, two point four times accepted pod tolerances.”
“How close to design tolerances?”
“One point three.”
“So we need additional braking prior to hitting the atmosphere.”
“Can we scavenge maneuvering thrusters and cobble them onto the pods?”
“That’s a tricky operation, I don’t think we have the time it would take to guarantee that it’d work. I’m thinking simpler.”
“How much simpler?”
“A couple kilometers of tether.”
“Drag on the planet’s magnetosphere?” He wanted to repurpose the super conducting loops from our magnetic sails. The science was easy, proven.
“Basically. We can prep the pods anytime by mounting a spare anchor on each, that’s relatively easy welding that Ox and I can do in tandem, once we’re on final approach, we stop braking and discharge the loops. EVA to pull the hull anchors out, drag them back to the drop pods, we don’t even need to reel them in, at that point. Probably better to leave them out and loose, and maybe release the spools to provide more drag.”
“What about the accumulated electrical energy? It’ll heat the loop material to the point of uselessness before long.”
Richter grinned. “Shunt it into the plasma shield projectors.” Each pod sported a pair of coil housings, designed to project a magnetosphere around each end of the pod during decent. Similar in functional concept to our magnetic sails, it was designed to produce controllable drag in two ways. The first was against the planet’s own vibrant magnetosphere, but given the size of the fields, this isn’t really significant at the speeds and flight durations we’re talking about. At best, magnetic drag allowed for some orientation control and spin recovery up to a certain point. Once we started hitting atmosphere is where it got exciting, as we would be injecting a relatively low temperature, magnetized plasma into the projected dipolar fields.
This would interact with the atmosphere, picking up neutral particles and forming a wide, vaguely hemispherical aerobrake and heat shield, putting all the friction of our entry a dozen meters away from the skin of the pod.
I thought about it for a second. “You’re fucking insane.” Increasing power to the projection coils would mean a larger dipolar field, greater plasma capacity, and much higher drag.
“Drag is drag. If it gets us to the surface in one piece, is it really that crazy? As long as we keep the additional voltage from overloading the coils, we can push a much larger heat shield with a higher drag coefficient. Ox can probably calculate the tether length on a napkin, we can spool in any excess length and just cut the loops to spec, at that point. We’ve got shielded conductor in stores, there’s three different points we can tap in to the power bus with standard power connectors, seven if we’re not concerned with hull integrity. We’re just trading kinetic energy for drag.”
“That’s not one for one, though, and at some point in the drop we start losing even more efficiency.”
“Rough guess, the break even point is around point nine times design tolerance. It’ll be bumpy, but I think that’s acceptable risk. With any luck, we can run a longer plasma injection cycle and have a pretty effective heat shield.”
The mission plan had given us days in orbit to make good determinations for landing sites and safe pod drops. We were basically doing a combat drop, an assault on an alien world with two warheads, each tipped with a proto-colony of nerds.
“Alright, let’s get Ox and Anders to weigh in on it.”
“What about Jones?”
“What about him?”
“He’s going to need to copilot.”
“We have two pilots and three rated copilots, what’s wrong with that equation that Jones needs to be in a chair?”
He looked away, drew a deep breath, and let it go: resolve. “I’m not going.”
I almost went over the table at him. I almost spilled my coffee. “The fuck you’re not.”
“What if the ship misses? What if he moves? If something goes wrong, we lose the potential cover provided by the explosion. He may just come looking for us on the ground.”
“You’re not going on some suicide mission.”
He stared me down, but I wasn’t giving him this. I thumbed my comm, “Ox? What’s your status?”
“Finalizing the support sats for release. We’re almost finished, what’s up?”
“How much overhead is there in a drop pod’s magnetosphere emitter, with regard to overpowering on the coils?”
Ox was silent for a few moments. “You’re worried about the entry angle and want to push a wider field for additional braking.”
“Same as anything else around here, we spec for the ideal and design for double to triple tolerances to give us room to breathe when the unanticipated occurs. The power bus will probably give you more trouble than the emitters, and that’s going to be heat dissipation. Where are you going to get the power from?”
Richter looked at me. I looked at him and shrugged, looking pointedly at his comm. He thumbed his comm, “I want to scavenge the magsail super conductors and introduce them to one of the aft power couplers as an electrodynamic tether.” He released his comm and we both waited.
Ox’s response came echoing down the gangway.
Richter thumbed his comm again, “So you think it’s a bad idea.”
“Send Anders down to finish up with Jones. I declare Thunderdome.”
I laughed out loud, the first real laugh I’d come up with in days. After a few moments, I lost it completely, all of my stress and angst pouring out of me in soul shaking mirth. Damn, this is exactly what I needed. Richter glared at me, I shrugged it off. “You brought this on yourself. I hope you did your homework. I’m going to relieve Anders, good luck.”
Thunderdome was a time honored NASA tradition, adopted in the early 21st, predicated on the notion that there could be no inflexible points of view, that ultimately, the better science would win any argument. Based on an old movie from the last 20th, the concept was simple: Two ideas enter, one idea leaves.
I sat on the bridge, watching the readouts and Jormungand, pondering drop scenarios while they duked it out in the engineering section. I wasn’t strong enough in power system architectures or superconductor tether physics to argue with either of them on this particular topic. Anders was off shift and normally would be exercising, but he was parked in the gangway outside engineering with a couple of soypaks and a tablet, taking notes and occasionally looking up figures to throw into the conversation.
I watched Jormungand for a while. He was mostly still, his mane moving in the solar wind, undulating in time with the slight movements of his tail. Anders had been watching this dance and taking readings earlier, Jormungand was maintaining a stable position a scant few thousand miles above the surface, moving with the planet it its orbit but otherwise letting it spin below him, holding a position where we were clearly visible to him. He wasn’t thrusting at all, just moving his massive weight around a bit.
It occurred to me that we were too heavy. It didn’t matter what braking scenario or clever hack those two came up with for the drop pods, we’d never be able to release them safely without completing most of a full aerobraking orbit, something we were assiduously trying to avoid. I started running the math myself, as orbital mechanics were certainly in my wheel house. I started running scenarios that had us powering down the superloops, adding navigation adjustments that had us skimming the atmosphere to trade speed for heat.
If we dismantled the loops to cobble them onto the drop pods, we’d overshoot the planet or probably collide with Jormungand.
Braking harder was possible but brought more risk: We’d increase our auroral profile dramatically, which might change how Jormungand regarded us. Would he react at all? Would he break orbit and come for us? I ran the math again, but it was our only option. We needed to start braking at close to double our current profile, and soon, to get down to a speed that let us drop the pods after the planet occluded Jormungand’s view of us, and before we swept around to re-enter his frame. It would leave us with a speed that was still risky for the drop pods, and pretty much obviated the argument occurring on the other end of the ship. We’d have to brake against the magnetosphere, too. To exercise both options for a safe drop without completing an orbit, we needed to shed more mass than I felt was possible.
I thumbed my comm: “We’re too heavy.” The conversation murmuring down the gangway stopped. I checked the rolling duty roster, Jones would be up again in another half hour, Anders would be down and Richter would be coming off shift. I hit the comm again: “Cannibalizing the superloops isn’t viable unless we can shed close to a third of our weight, otherwise we can’t afford to power them down. Anders, get up here.”
The conversation started up again. Anders popped into the bridge, dropping into Richter’s seat. “Ma’am?”
“Jones will be up in a bit. Get life support in the drop pods fired up, and start heating them for occupation, please. We’re going to move the sleepers in as soon as they’re warm enough.” He logged into Richter’s console and started working while I talked. “Start thinking about what we can jettison to cut weight, and recalculate the braking plot for at least .15G in 5% mass stages, down to 60%. Maybe run a second track for .2 just to see what it looks like.” He nodded, pulled a fiber optic cable from his coverall and cocked his head to the side, fingers seeking his jack. He reached down to plug into Richter’s console, found a fiber optic already waiting in the socket. He glanced at me to see if I was paying attention. I shook my head at him but said nothing. He pocketed Richter’s cable anyway. “Are they still at it?”
“Kinda. They dropped the tether argument when you interrupted but were talking about critical systems when I left.”
“Good. How long until the pods are warm?”
“About an hour.”
“Ok. Wrap up those plots and leave one in the hopper for me, I want it on an active recalculation based on current mass, using our current deceleration plot as the tattletale. Once those are set, go ahead and hit the sack.”
“Aren’t you due for rack time as well?”
“No, Richter is off next. I adjusted the schedule so him and Ox are in sequence, I don’t want them spending more time barking at each other than necessary.”
“We could wake someone up to take some of the load.”
“I thought about that, I’m still thinking about that. Maybe Eggers or Watts. I’ll discuss it with Jones in a bit. Whatever happens, keep an eye on Richter.”
“You don’t think he’ll do something to Ox, do you?”
“No, but his hero complex is mashing up with his guilt, he wants to stay behind while we drop.”
“Can’t make this shit up. I’m gonna put Ox in your co-pilot seat, and I’m going to drop with Jones and Richter. Whatever happens, I need you to double check Richter’s work, quietly as you can. I fully expect him to pull a fast one when it’s time to go.”
I pulled up the ship’s system status display. On a boat like ours, there aren’t many systems or components that could be categorized as ‘non-essential.’ At this point, it was a matter of identifying possibilities, and deciding what was on-board that didn’t factor into any of them. The good news is that our ships modular design meant we could drop some interesting things if we really needed to. I paged through the master manifest, looking at locations and weights through the ship’s overall bill of materials.
The first thing on my list were the Alcubierre toroids, fore and aft. By themselves, they accounted for roughly ten percent of our mass. The forward ring would go easily enough, but under deceleration, we’d need to rotate the ship to jettison the other, a maneuver we couldn’t do with the mag sails deployed. Otherwise, inertia would keep it in place even if we detached it. A number of options were possible, but almost all required an EVA. Was it worth the risk? I put it in the back of my mind and looked for other options.
Given our shortened time scale, we could drop almost two-thirds of our water, maybe more. I was loathe to drop food and other consumables, though. We’d need them on the surface. I started looking at things that weren’t attached to active systems. Each of the seats in the cockpit was forty kilos of steel, carbon fiber, nano-mesh and actuators. The tables and seats in the galley were disposable. Once the sleepers were moved to the pods, the entire contents of the sleeper bay could go. Tools. MMUs. The comm arrays. I began flagging my candidates, assuming Ox and Richter were doing the same. Everything that appeared on all three of our lists was probably a safe bet.
Research and reference material:
The Case for Mars, Robert Zubrin.
Deep Space Propulsion, K.F. Long
Physics of the Future, Michio Kaku
Starfish Prime: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZoic9vg1fw
Base ship design:
Mark Rademaker was kind enough to give me permission to base my ship designs on his fantastic work theorizing a functional Alcubierre design. I’ll be rewriting some to accommodate that changes, but check this bad boy out:
Hamilton and Hardy’s “Industrial Toxicology”
Institute of Materials, http://www.iom3.org/publications (recommended reading by Dave Wragg (@givenvalueoftru), Materials Dev Engineer for HiETA Technologies, LTD
electrodynamic tether for power generation:
I’ve also been thinking about casting, if this were a scene in a movie. I had to start describing characters a bit, and that got me thinking about who could play them, so I’d have a basis for descriptions.
Goldman, I needed someone that I knew could reduce himself to blubbering idiot on command: Paul Dano (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0200452/ )
Jones could be anyone, but as soon as I say Jones, I think Orlando Jones. (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0428963/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 )
Richter needs to be someone who can do cold, calm, iron control. Never the life of the party, but the guy that you know is keeping an eye on drinks and keys so everyone makes it home alive. And capable of knocking Goldman out from a snapped offhand jab, so action capable. Purely for the acting chops and flexibility: Misha Collins. (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0172557/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 )
Ox needs to be someone beefy, but a solid actor. NASA upper limit is 75 inches, so Chris Hemsworth it is. (Seriously, if we’re going to fight Jormungand, you send Thor, dammit.) Alternatively, Gerard Butler or Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
Anders needs to be someone good at cheeky, but capable of pilot hardassedness. I’m thinking Brian J Smith (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1668284/?ref_=tt_cl_t8)
Irene has to be smallish, older than the rest of the crew a bit, at the opposite end of the permitted size range for an astronaut, which is 5’2″. Lucy Liu is 5’3″. So is Salma Hayak. But the more I thought about, after Sigourney Weaver, who’s our favorite little alien asskicker? That’s right. Fucking Vasquez. Jenette Goldstein is 5’3″. (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001280/?ref_=tt_cl_t7)
Symbiotic plant discussion: https://www.reddit.com/r/askscience/comments/3lsf88/we_know_of_several_carnivorous_plants_such_as_the/