Friday, December 28, 2012

Science Fiction Story: Amalgam: Rocket Science

Here's the third science fiction story from the Amalgam trio:

It was the year, to use our terms, 2729, but according to the calendar adopted by the Universal Summit of Sovereign Planets and Federal Alliances of 2446, it was the year 10,342.

The orders seemed simple enough on the face of them: pick up fifteen-hundred miners from Europa and take them to Venus. But aboard the Rocket Science, nothing was ever simple. To start with, the ship was figuratively bursting at the seams with so many passengers, and it seemed Broderick Mazur’s security staff was always breaking up a fight somewhere.

And now they had slowed down. Captain Wendell could feel the change in vibration as soon as it happened, and she’d gone to the nearest interface and inquired about it, and sure enough, their speed had decreased by twenty-five percent. She frowned and left her quarters for the bridge, still in her off-duty buttercup-and-lavender sari. Hopefully, this would only take ten minutes or so. Hopefully, the outfit would help her get out of there a little sooner.

Shazzerine Wendell was an Orby brat. Far back in history, people started organizing themselves into fighting forces, and one of the words that came to describe these organizations was army, because they were armed. And then they started having armies on ships, and that was called the navy, because not only were they armed, but they also had to navigate. And then they started having armies in spaceships, and that was called the Orby, because not only were they armed and navigating, but now they had to navigate in three-D, taking into account all the orbit paths of all the celestial bodies along the way.

She was what people called an ‘accidental’, which meant she’d come about the old-fashioned way. Accidentals weren’t always actually accidental; sometimes they were planned. But not Shazzerine. Shazzerine had been a complete surprise, even managing to hide three months in the depths of her mother’s body before anyone even suspected.
Her parents had been delighted, and had opted to keep her with them - with both of them, as much as possible. They’d signed her up for remote school and volunteered for assignments based on how likely they were to let the little family stay together. Shazzerine adored her parents, appreciated their sacrifice, and was very careful with her birth control.

She made her way along the corridors and stairways to the bridge, where it was clear from the first glance that the bridge staff already knew about the problem. “So, did you slow the ship down because you found a problem, or did the ship just decide to slow down all by itself?” she asked the two staffers on duty.

“Just lost twenty-five percent of our speed about four minutes ago, Captain,” Jdind replied. “We don’t know why yet.” Lieutenant Vjidu Jdind was a Jasperian, a member of a purple-skinned species with hooves, and he was the senior bridge officer for gamma shift tonight.

A smile played at the edges of Wendell’s lips as the thought occurred to her that Jdind would be the perfect accessory for the outfit she was wearing. She kept that thought to herself, walked to one of the unoccupied computer interface stations and signed in. “What have you looked at so far?” she asked, “and has anyone communicated with Engineering?”

A voice from the wall answered. “We’ve got a channel open, Captain,” said the small image of Doreen Miran that seemed to be sitting just behind the monitor of the secondary communications interface. Miran was the gamma-shift duty officer for Engineering.

Almost on top of Miran, Jdind reported, “The first thing we tried was telling the ship to go back to standard cruise. But it seems to think it’s already going at standard cruise. So we changed the command to a hundred thirty-three percent and that did absolutely nothing. I was wondering if the problem is with the engines: maybe they’re already giving all they can give. But Miran says that’s impossible. She says standard tests and maintenance prevent that sort of thing, the last test was done yesterday and engines just don’t develop problems that fast.”

On the monitor, Miran nodded her agreement.

“So what’s left?” Wendell asked thoughtfully. “A problem with the programming? Computer hardware? The connection between the navigational computer and the engines?”

Jdind joined the brainstorm. “There could also be a problem with the processors in the engines themselves,” he theorized, “so that the engines are working on false information, not interpreting the commands they’re receiving correctly, or even working off false data regarding their own status.”

“In other words,” Crewman Eric Lobbs said playfully, from the helm, “the engines are confused. They need a psychiatrist.”

“Sure,” Jdind muttered, “whatever you say, Air Clobs.”

Wendell figured she hadn’t been meant to hear that, and pretended not to.

“Hey,” said Lobbs, “Could this be at all caused by what we’re doing right now?”

“Standing here talking?” Jdind retorted, making no effort to say it quietly this time.

“I was just thinking,” Lobbs explained, “is there any way the system could have gotten affected by Europa or Jupiter somehow? Maybe it could be electrical fields, or…I don’t, know, the miners? Could the mining equipment be causing some kind of interference? Or maybe a prank? Out of fifteen hundred people with nothing to do, one of them might have the skill and the lack of good sense to do a little hacking.”

“I’m afraid,” said Wendell, “that at this point we can’t afford to rule out any of these options.” It was also becoming terribly clear that the civilian-clothing trick wasn’t working at all. It didn’t seem to make the slightest difference to the engines whether she wore her uniform or not.

Sebastian Krazinsk held the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, but like most of the guys he worked with, he wasn’t very interested in titles and ranks and chains-of-command. He was interested in engines, in doing his part, in making sure the ship was ready to do anything its Captain needed it to.

For several centuries, Sebastian’s family’s name had been Kaczynski. Some time before that, it was sometimes Kaczynski and sometimes Kaczynskaya, depending on whether you were male or female. And then in only a generation or two, somewhere around the time when Earth’s sea level rose, it managed to be corrupted into Krazinsk. Maybe it was just the familiarity, but Sebastian liked it better that way.

Right now, it was gamma shift on board the Rocket Science, and for Sebastian Krazinsk, that meant personal time. He’d ordered some clothes from Earth, had them delivered to Europa, and now he was inspecting them. Only one was for himself, and it didn’t interest him much. It was a tough, practical pair of coveralls for all the jobs he’d need to do for his mother pretty soon. His leave was coming up, and he wanted to be prepared. He put it on and it fit, so he folded it and threw it in his suitcase.

Much more interesting were the clothes for his nieces. The youngest one was six months old now, and he’d never seen her. Lovingly, he lifted the first one and tugged at the wrapping, preparing for a thorough inspection of the little bright-yellow sun suit.

A jarring tone interrupted him. “What is it?” he answered it crossly.

“Commander, I’m sorry to bother you, but we’ve got issues and I don’t think they can wait till morning.” It was Doreen Miran, the duty officer.

“Of course, Doreen, I’m sorry I snapped at you,” he said, feeling like a heel. “What’s going on?”

“No problem. We’ve slowed down, and so far, nobody on gamma shift can figure out why. I guess the Captain has called up some of the bridge reserves, and I was wondering if we should do the same thing in Engineering, call up some reserves.”

“Yeah,” Krazinsk replied. “I hate to say it, but yeah, you shouldn’t have to field this one on your own.”

“Great, Commander, thanks. I’ll start waking them up.”

“No, wait,” Sebastian objected. “The first reservist is me. Let me have a look at it, and then we’ll go from there.”

“See you when you get here, then.” Miran looked so relieved and grateful that Sebastian found it necessary to suppress a laugh.

“Let me throw on a uniform,” he said, “and then I’ll be right over.”

The walk from his quarters to Engineering took just under three and a half minutes: he’d clocked it on several occasions. This time, it took a lot longer. Fifty-two seconds into the trip, he came to a knot of miners in the hallway. There were seven of them, all apparently male at first glance, five leaning against the wall, either slouched or sitting, and two pacing among them. None of them seemed to notice him.

“Pardon me, sorry to interrupt,” he said, as he approached.

“Well, what is this?” said one of them, a bearded human, pushing off against the wall to come out of his slouch. He took his place in the middle of the hallway and stood there like a bouncer, his feet set apart in a solid stance and his arms folded.

“That’s a Lieutenant-Commander,” another guy observed. He’d been sitting, and now he stood. The others followed.

“I’m sorry I can’t stay and talk,” said Krazinsk. “They need me in Engineering.”

“What, is it shift-change time?” asked the bouncer, without moving.

“No, not yet. Just a little issue with the engines they need my help on.”

“Can you get whiskey?” asked the bouncer.

“Whiskey?” Krazinsk repeated, surprised. Whiskey had been the last thing on his mind. “Not on board, I can’t.”

“Because that’s what we want: whiskey, vodka, rum, that sort of thing. No wine, no coolers, and don’t even talk about the fake stuff.”

“Sir,” said Krazinsk, “I’m afraid you’re talking to the wrong person. I have no way to get you any alcohol of any kind. We’re in the middle of space, alcohol is not available on board, and our next stop will be Venus, where, I understand, all of you will be getting off.”

“I bet you could get it if you wanted to,” said the bouncer.

“Aren’t you the big boss in Engineering?” somebody asked.

“Yeah,” Krazinsk answered. “Sounds glamorous, but what it really means is, if anything hiccups, I’m on duty, no matter what the schedule says.”

“Well, in that case,” the bouncer said, “you don’t have to get the whiskey.”

Krazinsk nodded and took a step forward.

The bouncer held up his hand, Krazinsk felt his arms being grabbed from behind, and somebody tripped him. He didn’t fall, though; they let him down onto his knees and tied his wrists together.

“Your Captain can get the whiskey,” said the bouncer. “You can stay with us.”

Captain Wendell had changed into her uniform, and she was in Engineering, along with Miran and about two dozen of her colleagues, all officially off-duty, some of them on the reserve schedule and some of them not. Miran hadn’t even had to call them. Most of them had felt the slow-down like Wendell had, and had started asking questions. And now the most troubling question was, where was Krazinsk?

Along with the bridge staff, they figured out that the engines were getting the right commands, that the settings were right so they should be going at the specified speed, and that, for some unknown reason, they were losing power. In fact, just a minute ago, they’d slowed down again. Now the ship was traveling at about sixty-two percent of normal cruise.

“Captain,” Miran called, “it’s Mazur for you.”

Wendell practically leaped to the nearest comm. Mazur was head of security, and she’d asked him to check on Krazinsk. “Give me good news, Rick.”

“We found Krazinsk,” Mazur said. “He’s been taken hostage.”

Wendell groaned. “Miners?”

“Yeah. Look, he’s unharmed, and we’re trained for situations like this. We’ll get him out of there. I just thought you should know.”

“I have every confidence in you and your team,” Wendell replied. “How can I help?”

“Be unavailable, for now,” said Mazur. “There’s a lot of symbolic power in getting an audience with the Captain. It’s a card we want to play at just the right time.”

“Sure. Anything else?”

“Not right now.”

“Okay, let me know.”

It was a grueling twelve hours of tedious work, checking and rechecking and systematically ruling out potential cause after potential cause, fighting the adrenalin, pushing down the urge to grab anything that would suffice for a weapon and run off to rescue Krazinsk. Gamma shift had ended and delta shift had run its course. Now it was alpha again, and most of the alpha staff had been here all along anyway.

“Okay, what have we got left to check?” Wendell asked Jibril Grenk, who should have been second-in-command on alpha shift, under Krazinsk.

“They just finished the signal diagnostic on the wiring,” Grenk answered. “Most of it was perfect and what wasn’t, they replaced. No effect at all, of course. That means we’ve got nothing else to look at except inside the engines.”

“And that means turning them off and letting them cool, like in dry-dock?” Wendell asked.

“Actually, there’s a diagnostic program built into the engines - assuming the program isn’t affected by whatever this is - that can capture images from inside the engine, during operation.

“Great!” said Wendell. “Can we try it?”

“Don’t see why not,” Grenk replied. “I wish I could confirm this with Krazinsk, but the way I see it, this is our last hurrah. The only way to do any further diagnostics is to shut the engines down completely.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Wendell. “How long until the images will be ready?”

“Five minutes, if it works.”

Like everything else, the imaging program seemed to be functioning perfectly. In less than five minutes, Wendell, Grenk and about twenty-five others began watching a slide show. Each image was a slice of an engine’s interior. To Wendell, whose expertise was in personnel management, interspecies relations and extreme piloting, the images held no information at all. She hoped the engineers were finding them more helpful.

Suddenly, just as a new image appeared, the near-silent crowd came alive. There were grunts and exclamations and a couple of whistles.

“What is it?” Wendell asked, out loud.

“See those black spots?” Grenk replied, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they were fleas.”

“Well, is it possible?” she asked. “Maybe not fleas, exactly, but is it possible the engines are infested with some sort of insects, or small creatures of some kind?”

Grenk shook his head, “No, they’d never survive. It’s about a bazillion degrees in there.”

“A bazillion, huh?” said Wendell. “I thought engineers were always extremely accurate, especially with numbers.”

“I was accurate, Captain, just not exact. And I wish I knew what those things were.”

“What about Ioite volcano mites?” asked a Jasperian who’d been on the wiring signal diagnostic team.

“Well, maybe,” Grenk replied doubtfully. “To be honest, I know practically nothing about volcano mites. I guess it’s a possibility. But whether those are volcano mites or not, I think we’ve learned about all we can from these images. The next thing we have to do, and this is really up to the Captain, is decide whether we’re going to just keep on going to Venus at whatever speed we can manage, or whether we’re going to take the engines offline and make no speed at all, in the hopes that it’s a quick fix we can do in space and get them going normally again.”

“Or,” said Wendell, “turn around and let Jupiter Station get a look at them. To be honest, I don’t like any of these alternatives, not with what we’ve already got happening on the passenger decks.”

A message-tone sounded and Wendell nodded to the crewman at one of the comms. The engine-image was replaced by the oversized face of the First Mate, on the bridge.

“Captain,” he said, the Mind-Reader is on its way to relieve us of our, uh, cargo. She’s got the room: capacity for four thousand and only carrying two thousand at the moment. I explained the situation and Captain Guden agreed to take them.”

“Great!” Wendell replied, “Good work. It almost sounds too easy.”

“He wasn’t too keen on going all the way to Venus, though,” the First Mate continued. “But the Brain Surgery is in the area, or will be, I guess. The Mind-Reader is going to take them to the Brain Surgery and the Brain Surgery will take them to Venus.”

“And we’ll see if the engines can get us to Jupiter Station,” Wendell replied, “which means right now, all we have to worry about is how to spring Krazinsk.”

Note: I answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and Rocket Science is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to Rocket Science, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.

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