Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright (c) 2017, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part LXXI: Trial and Error
Continued from the previous excerpt
25 Firstmonth 564JR
21 December 2361CE
Independence Day and New Year's were the same in the Republic. Though each world necessarily had her own calendar, business was conducted and national holidays observed on that of Monticello, Tau Ceti II, the Republic's capitol.
Not for the first time, Aurora and her Family had been invited to be guests of honor at one celebration or another. The New Israel Home Fleet traditionally put on a fireworks display with their weapons, in space above the planet's nightside as it turned, and Aurora was invited to join.
There were fireworks displays elsewhere, but one was not being celebrated.
"Awww, darn," Alice Rabin-Fujitomo said, as a hundred-meter-wide fireball rose into a mushroom cloud over Chadash-Sinai, an equatorial desert across the southern edge of New Israel's major continent, Greater Judea. The region had been used for weapon testing and live-fire military exercises for centuries. It wasn't hard to arrange some time to use a piece of it to test their experimental reactor.
Grbblb observed, "It would appear the Helium-3 plasma broke containment... again." From his 'puter, he projected high-speed video of the event. Even at a thousand frames per second, everything had happened quickly. The exact point of failure was difficult to find, before the camera was vaporized, but it appeared that the magnetic containment field, which had been used for centuries with deuterium fusion, was not strong enough for a Helium-3 reaction.
To which Hlossh responded, "And this time it took the hydrogen system with it. And since we're in an atmosphere, instead of the vacuum of space, we get a spectacular fireball."
Trllbl, quickly becoming an Engineer's Mate herself, added, "At least there should be little radiation." She held up her own 'puter, fitted with a radiation counter. "We'll get a small dose of neutrons out here, but we get more than that every time we make orbit. The count should drop to background levels in a few minutes."
Solomon Danner and Jennifer Blain were along to observe this latest test. "I'm reminded," Danner said, "of the development of gunpowder, on Terra." The others turned to look at him.
"Original gunpowder," he continued, "was 75% saltpeter, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur, ground finely and mixed dry. That was called 'serpentine' powder, and worked for hundreds of years. Then around 1400CE someone probably got a batch wet accidentally, dried it out and ground it up, and discovered it burned more uniformly and gave higher pressures. The guns of the time couldn't handle the new 'corned' gunpowder, and 'serpentine' remained in service for a couple more centuries, until the metallurgy caught up."
Alice replied, "So we need a higher energy output to create a stronger magnetic field to contain a higher energy output." She frowned, and kicked a clump of desert grass, where the group stood watching, three kilometers away from the still-rising fireball. "And then there's shielding, or we'll buckle hull plates from the magnetics alone. To say nothing of skewing sensors and confounding computer processors."
"That can be taken care of with field geometry," Blain said. "Superconductor grids can create counter-fields to..." she trailed off.
"Yeah, at these magnitudes?" Alice asked. "Same problem. What we have isn't strong enough to hold what we want."
"Perhaps an improved superconductor?" Danner asked.
After thinking a moment, Alice said, with obvious reluctance: "There's this guy... who was tinkering along those lines. Got canned from EdoCorp for drinking on the job. If he hasn't medicated himself to death yet...."
The guy was named Tetsuo Fukuwa, and he was an alcoholic.
He and Alice were of an age. They'd met during a technical convention on Edo Station, and dated a while. Alice had broken it off after witnessing the man's excesses. That had driven him to drink more, and down he spiralled. Alice felt some guilt. Jenny Blain, who knew, told her she shouldn't, after Alice told the story on the flight to meet him.
Now he was living in a Steeltown flophouse, doing manual labor when he was sober. There were still a few things robots couldn't do, and a few people and places that couldn't afford the capital investment of 'bots. His current job was artistic landscaping, the kind of thing a robot couldn't get quite right.
They caught him at the end of his shift, before he could drink his pay. He was mostly nikkei, darker than average, shorter than Alice, slight of build, but not finely-tuned like Daisuke - he was underweight. He wore coveralls, stained, not entirely from his work. Alice stood by silently and uncomfortably, while Danner introduced himself and his Family members. "Alice, here, tells me you were working on an improved superconductor. If it's what we need, we're prepared to pay."
Tetsuo's eyes darted between them: Alice, the girl who left him for good reason; Aurora, the most famous ship in service and the first one recognized as alive; Danner, an international hero and hand-to-hand killer of pirates; Blain, known for her genius across hundreds of stars; and companions they found worthy.
They could see faint tremors in his hands, and facial tics. A tear grew at the corner of one eye. "I can't," he said, nearly sobbing. "I'm a drunk."
Jenny Blain stepped forward. "I can fix that," she said, with absolute certainty. "Or rather, my Brother, our Ship's Doctor, can. I was hooked on Juice, and I have an anomaly that prevents the Cure. We invented a new one. It works on booze too."
Danner said, "We'll make a gift of it to you. We can have you at the Treatment facility in an hour." He swept an arm toward Aurora's One Boat, the Apogee aircar which served as the Captain's Gig. The Treatment had been spreading through Known Space, but the facility the Family had built here on New Israel years ago was still in operation, constantly refining all the processes, both regeneration and addiction Cures. It was still guarded by a detachment from the First Glautopolis Infantry - ceremonial, now (though even the most ritualized of Jeffersonian guards always carried live weapons) - and staffed by regenerated amputees of many races, or Cured addicts, mostly Human and Eyani, who knew how to help people recover. "Ready to push your reset button?" Danner asked.
The MVB Treatment - Marsten, Vatelius, Blain - took only a few minutes, but needed a full day to recover from. Testuo was still unsteady, but his eyes were clear for the first time in at least a local year.
He was also hungry for the first time in about as long. A town, which the Glaut refugees had named Restoration, had been growing around the MVB facility. The Family took Tetsuo and Alice to a buffet restaurant there. Ralph and Delilah had joined them, having been working at the facility when they arrived. Delilah warned him to slow his intake.
"Captain Danner, I... thank you," Fukuwa said, tears quivering at the corners of his eyes. "Doctor Vatelius, Engineer Blain. I can't tell you how much better I feel." Tetsuo's eyes returned to Alice frequently, then skipped away nervously. He, embarrassed by what he had become, and she, thinking she was responsible for driving him to the bottom of the bottle, hadn't spoken.
Solomon gestured to Jenny and she got to business: "Tetsuo, please tell me about this new superconductor you're working on."
The recovering man lit up his 'puter - also for the first time in thousands of hours. His notes and research were still there. He began reciting names from the Periodic Table. Solomon, Ralph and Delilah were quickly lost, but Jenny, Grbblb, Trllbl, Hlossh, and even Jack seemed to be keeping up. "If I'm right, this should take at least twice the load of anything we have now. But I never had a chance to test it."
Solomon turned to Alice, who said, "If it works... it's what we need."
"What... what's it for?" Tetsuo asked.
Solomon answered, "We're working on a new power plant." He didn't say what kind. "Much higher output than before. We're having trouble containing it. We need a stronger confinement field, and your superconductor might be the answer."
Tetsuo met Alice's eyes squarely now. "It's Helium-3!" Of course, they would have told each other about their work, before the bottle came between them. After a moment, Solomon nodded. "That's exactly what this is for!" Tetsuo continued. "We... were... working on it together...." He didn't look away from her now, but his expression was of someone who needed a drink and didn't want one. Tetsuo Fukuwa still wasn't back in one piece. He must have been falling in love with Alice, before the bottle drove her from him.
Solomon Danner thought of Anna Nowak, and sympathized.
Fukuwa had eaten too much, too quickly, too pleased with actually tasting his food for the first time in too long. He trotted to a restroom, and returned chagrined.
Danner waved away his apology. "We didn't force you to take the Treatment. You could have said no. I'm pleased you didn't."
Blain added, "A lot of people don't have the strength to take the Cure, even as a gift." Y'Tre, her sponsor at Interstellar Charities, had led Jenny Blain back into the world many years ago. The elderly Eyani had taken the MVB Treatment herself, finally. Both her addiction and her decades-old burns had been healed, and she'd been Rejuvenated besides. The two females had bawled into each others' shoulders at their last reunion. Fukuwa didn't have any anomaly which precluded the older kinds of anti-addiction treatment - it was his own mind he had to overcome first.
Returning to business, Fukuwa noted, "All I have on this is these notes. No samples, no test rig, not even my own fabber."
Alice, overcoming her reluctance, said, "Well... I have a fabbery. A good one, my folks built it and it's constantly updated."
Danner turned to Alice. "Dropping a prefab for him to live in, in an empty piece of your land, would be pocket-change to us." By pre-Escape standards, the whole Family were millionaires. Prize money from a half-dozen nations, for the pirates they'd fought, had fattened their accounts for years. The gold they'd received from Queen Agnieszka, torn from the palace decorations, for their part in the Illyrian Civil War, was still in the vault Daisuke had made in the ship's missile magazine. "Aurora's 'bots can have it up in two hours." Tetsuo's Steeltown flophouse was a third of the way around New Israel from Rehovot and Alice's fabbery. It made sense for him to move closer to the work.
Solomon Danner knew a lot about ships... but knew what he didn't know, and knew what to delegate to specialists. The Marsten Drive, and any more than the basics of superconductors, were mostly beyond him.
Hlossh, Grbblb and Trllbl went to Alice and Tetsuo's team, working on the Helium-3 plant. Solomon returned with Jenny to Cohen's Shipyard, where she was trying to contruct the first Blain Drive.
She'd been running simulations in Aurora's computer, one of the most powerful in the system. "I have enough to start cutting metal," Jenny reported. "According to the sims, this-" she projected a schematic- "should get a ship into hyperspace-as-we-know-it, and then from there into my theoretical second level." A traditional Sixth Generation Marsten Drive was an array of Marsten Devices, FTL communication devices, arranged in a cylinder tapering at both ends. Danner could see that in the projection, but there was a lot else - parts of a whole second drive wrapped around the first, in an expanded configuration, with a single Device, of a different design, in the very center. Jenny explained how the central device was derived from the earlier, obsolete Fifth Generation. "But there is no way I'm putting a person in it for the first flight. Nora Gaines I ain't." Gaines had been the first Human to exceed lightspeed, and a Founder of the Republic. No one knew, at the time, whether it would have killed her.
Aurora, in her Human hologram, said, "I will go, however. A copy of myself, or rather a copy of a part. If the flight is successful, that part will return and merge with the rest of me and her experiences will become my own. If she does not return, I lose nothing."
"Can you make the test flight before the power plant is ready?" Danner asked.
"Yes," Jenny answered. "On a test rig, with no considerations for life support, we can load enough fuel to use a conventional hydrogen plant for a short run. It'll have to be towed away from gravity wells, preferably several light-minutes away. I don't know where the Limit is going to be for this thing, and I won't until I get some real telemetry."
"Hmm." Danner contemplated, "Perhaps this will evolve into not a duplex drive, but a dual drive - the Blain Drive for high-speed Transits, and a more conventional Marsten Drive for closer Transitions to save realspace time. But that's a lot more cubic and fuel and so on." He tossed his head. "That all comes later. When is your first flight?"
"Hal and Jack and I can have it built in a couple hundred more hours. It won't be pretty, bits hanging out naked."
"Pretty comes later too."
5 Secondmonth 564JR
3 January 2362CE
Outer system, Epsilon Indi
Pretty it wasn't. Hal Cohen had selected an old, bent and leaking tanker from his yard, crudely patched the fuel storage, and gutted it of most everything else usable, including its single fusion torch, leaving only enough of the reaction control system for convenience. He left the single main and small auxiliary hydrogen fusion plants too, quickly refurbished by Aurora's Engineer's Mates and Cohen's own employees, who all learned a few things from each other. This ship wasn't going to be certified for spaceworthiness or commerce or duty as a Reserve Privateer - and under the Republic's minimal laws, it didn't have to be. As long as other people's navigation or safety wasn't provably threatened, nothing else they did was government's business.
The tanker had been named Pecos, after a river in Old Texas on Terra. Some people felt it was bad luck to change a ship's name, and Danner agreed; and the name was good enough. If Aurora had been renamed by her previous owners, through all the lonely decades in Mothball Orbit, he would have given her back her first name.
Pecos was loaded with hydrogen fuel, instruments, and some Giant Fauxhare from New Israel. The species, introduced from Adams' World before the War, had overrun its new ecology and threatened disaster, like rabbits in Australia. Centuries later, the New Israel government still paid a mounce silver bounty for every one proven killed in the wild. Their nervous systems were enough like other Common Life to be vulnerable to Marsten Radiation, so they made good test subjects.
Aurora grappled Pecos, extended her Marsten Field around the tanker, and Transitioned to an empty part of the system, light-minutes outside any previously-known Limit for hyperspace Transition. She then retreated a like distance, while a copied part of herself counted down.
The first several test flights were in the first level of hyperspace only; a light-hour in this direction, two in that. The Blain Drive could easily operate as a conventional Marsten Drive. Studying telemetry and experimenting near a planetoid, Jenny Blain found the Limit of a Close Transit to be in the same range as a normal Drive.
Another tanker, Charlene, often worked with or for Cohen's Shipyard, and was accustomed to discretion; many of Hal's customers remained smugglers, as he had been, though pirates, if discovered, went into the forge which reprocessed scrapped ships into ingots to build new ones. Charlene ran back and forth to the cometary cloud, mining for hydrogen fuel and transferring it to the test ship. Pecos' consumption in the first, known, level of hyperspace was only slightly higher than a regular Marsten Drive.
After a half-dozen first-level flights, Blain instructed Aurora to instruct Pecos to begin powering up the Blain Drive. Fuel consumption soared, and data poured in to Jenny's computer. On the fourteenth flight, Pecos was programmed to make the first second-level Transition.
Aurora was waiting, several light-minutes away from the expected exit point, one light-year north of the Epsilon Indi system's ecliptic plane, having spent more than fifty hours getting there at her best speed. By Marsten Device she communicated with Charlene and Hal Cohen, who sent the start signal to Pecos, and reported a successful first-level Transition. By Jenny's calculations, Pecos would arrive about 28 hours later - half the time Aurora took.
Aurora was too close. A Transition EMP stronger even than the derelict Northerner swept the region, to an incredible distance. Fortunately Aurora and Aurora both were prepared, some systems already in standby, others shut down completely, data backed up and secure offline.
It took nearly nine minutes for Aurora to reboot. She'd hadn't been reset this violently since her first Close Transit, over Dakota. "I am well, my Captain," she finally said, "and I remain myself. Jenny, you were right. This was far too dangerous to install in me without these tests. You have saved my life, again."
Jenny laid a hand on her sister's bulkhead for a moment, then said aloud, "Let's find out what went wrong."
The part of Aurora inhabiting Pecos had been placed in a shell armored almost as well as the living ship's own brain. The shell in turn had been fitted with multiple recorders and beacons.
Pecos had returned to realspace at eleven percent lightspeed and in several thousand pieces. A handful of those pieces were the flight recorders, redundantly placed throughout the ship. Less than half of those still had functioning beacons. Aurora had to Transition to relativistic speed to catch them. Sarah Heusner, piloting One Boat for recovery, kept eyeing the chronometer, which Aurora had adjusted to record the passage of time in realspace. The clock was running just a little too fast.
One of the pieces with a beacon - only one remaining of the six it had carried - turned out to be the computer core. This, with three other flight recorders, were brought back, while new beacons were left in the swarm to give at least some warning of its approach.
Seeing this result as a possibility, Danner had got together with Admiral Maet, suggesting there might be an opportunity to engage relativistic targets for live-fire practice. He'd left out the details, saying only that a Drive was being tested and it might fail catastrophically. Maet's face did the pheathered equivalent of cocking an eyebrow, then took the vector data from Danner and turned on his adjutant. The New Israel Home Fleet would be sweeping up the mess that used to be Pecos, before it could cause harm.
The tanker's computer core was cracked like an egg, and whatever part of Aurora had been in it was dead. Just as there were six beacons, there were also six duplicate storage banks for data. None were intact, but two had enough surviving areas overlapping to create a useful picture.
Pecos had successfully entered Blain's second level of hyperspace, which was no longer theoretical. She had achieved a speed of 314 times light, relative to realspace. Jenny Blain had broken the record.
The plan was for the Drive to disengage from the second level, reverting to a normal Marsten Drive on the first level, before Transitioning back to realspace. Instead, the ship had Transitioned directly from the second level - which Danner suggested be called Blainspace, and Jenny flinched again - forcing its way through Marstenspace and back into Einstein's universe. Gravitational shear from Epsilon Indi, a light-year away, or perhaps the underlying fabric of the universe itself, had torn the ship apart.
Jenny was both elated and crestfallen. Reviewing the flight with her in Aurora's engineering department, Solomon placed a hand on her shoulder and turned her to look in her eye. "You've done it, Jenny. You're on the right track. This is a success. Now we just find out why the Transition between levels failed, and you'll fix that, and everyone will get closer, again."
Continued in the next excerpt....