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A Nudge in the Right Direction
By Charles Stucker
Two men, floating in freefall, toiled at panels in the small cylindrical room. Just two meters across and three long, with instrument panels along the curved walls, and closed hatchways at the ends. Both were lean men in their thirties, wearing unadorned blue flight suits. The shorter kept his zipped but the taller one had his open at the collar. A dull ringing sound reverberated through the room.
“Luke, what was that?” the little man asked his partner.
“I’m checking, Al, just give me a moment.” Luke toggled a switch, then checked the new data displayed. “Neither water reclamation, nor the gas separation. I think that was an external strike.”
“I paid good money for a full set of defenses. How could we get hit by anything?” Al pushed across to look over Luke’s shoulder.
“What happened?” One door irised open to admit Terry, a broad-shouldered woman. She sailed in, catching herself, long arms bridging the gap between two panels. She hung upside down relative to the two men. “That was not the power plant or the engine.”
“Oh mighty Amazon, tell us what external examination reveals.” Al grinned at Terry.
She rolled her eyes and snapped a sketchy salute. “Aye aye mon capitan.”
Luke eyed the door after Terry left. “Why do you tease her so much? She hates big jokes.”
“Just feeling small, out here in space.” Al gave a small cough causing Luke to frown.
“You need more time on the hamster wheel.”
“I was never a jock like you and Terry. Get with her. Assess the damage.”
Small hard-shelled objects undulated across the uneven outer hull of the ship, tiny lights illuminating the surface. In a command center, Luke and Terry monitored the progress. Twenty robotic remotes, aided by an expert system, scanned for any rent left by the collision.
“I thought those defenses were pointless.” Terry glanced at Luke, who shrugged.
“The chance of being struck by anything larger than a grain of sand is minute. To be safe, we installed multiple protective systems.”
“Why didn’t the radar pick it up?” She pointed at the long scar visible on the image. “That tear is twelve centimeters long. It must have been over a kilo of dense metal.”
Al drifted in, his face set, deep lines around the corners of his mouth. “I checked the automatic targeting and it seems the maneuver-alert range is being used for the shoot-it range.”
Luke and Terry nodded their understanding. Software tracked radar images to a user-specified range. Large bodies had to be dodged, but medium ones could be shot.
“Wait a second.” Luke paused, lost in thought. “We would have noticed the gun firing that often. You must have it backwards.”
“No, I have it right.” Al pointed at the screen. “With too many objects to track, the system bogs down and does nothing. We didn’t expect anything, so we never noticed.”
“We have a big CPU.” Terry looked unconvinced, but Luke stopped her.
“We’re close to a dense patch in the cloud. We’re near enough for our collision-alert radar to pick up all those fist-sized bits. Is the inner plasma layer good?”
Al nodded. Both Terry and Luke breathed a sigh of relief. The outer ship hull was composed of super metal that could survive a major impact mostly intact. The inner hull was formed of a ‘smart’ layer of silica gel which would reseal any gap in the outer composite layer.
“We had a lot of sunspot activity.” Luke interrupted everyone’s musing. “We know the magnetic shielding had problems. Did the radiation cause any damage?”
“I designed that gel to be pretty robust.” Al waved him off. “I need to see if I can get the remotes to patch that hole.”
“You avoid any physical exertion,” Terry said. “That’s why you look so pale.”
Al and Luke stared at her receding form. She had failed to shut the hatch in her hurry to depart. Al rolled his eyes at Luke. “What is her problem?”
“What is it, Terry?” Luke floated facing Terry, expression serene save for the slight squint of concentration. Terry turned from the complex assembly, gauges and pipes in equal density, and silently stared at the older man. Luke ran a hand through his now graying hair. “I know you’re upset about something with Al, but I have no clue. I thought we were a bit long in the tooth for your tastes, or has the mission been that long.”
“No,” Terry snapped, then sighed. “Al looks sick, probably allergic reaction from all the treatments to help us survive the low gravity so long, but he’s skipped out the last two times I tried to get him in for an exam. On top of that, the thermocouple battery showed an unexplained increase in power output last week for over forty hours, so I’m at wits end trying to figure out what’s up with it.”
“What?” Luke shoved across the chamber and grabbed Terry’s shoulders. “How much? Did you get a full set of data? I think I know what caused it, but doubted the theory until now.”
“Doctor Wells, you’re babbling.” Terry disengaged his hands, moving them to a grab bar. “What caused the battery to run hot?”
“Standing gravity waves excited the nuclei of the plutonium.” His eyes gleamed and darted. Terry could see the calculations behind his eyes. Dr. Lucas Wells was one of the big brains. The inventor Albert Taylor, and a group of investors Al knew, financed the whole mission to test some critical theory of Wells. Terry possessed the rare combination of nuclear engineer and physician needed for the mission. She had intended to study radiation health safety issues, but the chance to work with such prominent men convinced her to apply for the flight. Then it hit her.
“Al has radiation sickness.” She pushed off, flowing through the ship like an otter. Luke could barely make out her words as she sped away. “I know the RTG is supposed to be perfectly safe, but exciting the nuclei could result in gamma output.”
Luke caught up to Terry in the middle of her confrontation with Al, who was vehemently refusing to admit anything was wrong. “I’ve still got too much to do to take off an hour for your test.”
“Let Terry take a blood sample. That’s under a minute.” Luke cornered him as much as possible with the curved wall. “She’ll have your blood pressure, heartbeat, respiration rate and temperature in that same time. Only if something turns up will you have to go through a full workup. Fair enough?”
Al nodded and Luke left for another part of the ship while Terry produced her medical pouch.
“We have a problem.” Terry interrupted Luke, who looked up from the readout on his experiments. Seeing she had his attention, Terry continued, “Despite the vaccine, Al has lymphatic cancer. Probably a result of a failure in the magnetic shielding. I’ve isolated the damaged DNA segment. We need to make an emergency return.”
“Al makes those calls,” Luke said. “Get a message back to SPS. See where their resources are so we can coordinate our return if he does make the call, but we won’t have their return data for at least fourteen hours. I’m fairly certain the optimal return will involve our scheduled rendezvous with the Hunt fuel tank, but I’ll get the analysis ready so we can have everything in hand.”
“And until then you’ll keep on with your experiment as if nothing were wrong.” Terry waved around the chamber, filled with twisted tubes, combustible gas storage and monitoring sensors. “I thought he was your best friend.”
“Nothing I do will change whether Al lives or not, but if this experiment succeeds, he’ll get a full share of the credit for any breakthrough.” Luke bit his lip, then continued, “I don’t intend to let this chance slip away. This whole trip has been an effort to get far enough out to be subject primarily to galactic gravitational curvature rather than solar. By the time we optimize our return, the tests will be nearly finished. Even if we cut short, we might have enough data to justify another expedition. There’s even a chance we’ll have enough to test some of the competing cosmological theories, especially with the supporting data on gravitational standing waves from our battery. Do you understand?”
“I never understood how a test of gaseous combustion would do anything, but hey it was my chance to get on a deep-space probe.” Terry put gentle a hand on Luke’s shoulder. “If we don’t get back to better care than can be provided from the ship’s resources, Al has a one in three chance of dying in the next three months.”
Terry observed Al, strapped to the single bed of the small compartment, and the readouts of the monitors above him. Luke entered behind her, crowding the room to look past to Al’s pale sweaty face. He popped up a holoscreen to display two different flight paths. “We have a choice. We can turn around right now, using the capacitors and rail launch to convert every scrap of extra mass to delta vee. Combined with an optimum high-speed return on the fuel which we would otherwise use to rendezvous with the Hunt module, then a bungee stop for the three of us means we can meet up with a ship from SPS in eighty-seven days. If we remain and complete the experiments, then make rendezvous with the Hunt tank, the extra fuel will allow us to make a separate rendezvous in one hundred and four days. Terry tells me the extra seventeen days will drop your survival chance from eighty five percent to around seventy. You need to make a decision within two hours.”
“You know me Luke, no guts no glory.”
“More like no brain no pain,” Terry muttered, then shooed out Luke. “I’ll see to my patient. You get all your experiments run, meet that fuel tank and get us back. And you might pray for your friend.”
“You’re looking good, Al.” Al, again in a ship suit, joined Luke in a forward chamber, where the lanky physicist operated the arm to dock with the Hunt fuel tank. Launched thirty years earlier on speculation by venture capitalists who hoped to collect premium prices from researchers who did not care to launch their own round-trip fuel reserves, Hunt corporation bought them when the original group found they were undercapitalized. Al deftly took Luke’s place operating the arm, he was far more capable with the remotes, and quickly guided the arm to rotate the Hunt cylinder to bring the access port alongside their ship. Luke spotted a dark gash on the tank. “I thought we confirmed this tank still had fuel.”
“That’s what Huntcorp said, but I doubt we’ll live long enough to register a complaint.” Al directed and the huge mechanical arm pulled the canister alongside. “Can we at least cut it into scraps and launch them to get some momentum?”
“I’ll start the calculations. You get the bots to start dissecting that can,” Luke began, then stopped himself. “Wait, that’s retarded. Without the steady acceleration we could get from the missing fuel it will take years, perhaps decades, to return on any initial velocity we might impart.”
“Thanks for reminding me why we put up with you.” Al chuckled, then bent with a racking cough. Recovering he added, “I won’t get back, but I have faith in Terry. She can keep your CHON recycling going and you two will survive. Best we can do.”
“Al,” Luke stood flummoxed, “I, uh, I mean…”
“Survive. Finish your proof. Win a Nobel. Heck, marry Terry and have a lot of kids if that floats your boat.” Al turned back to the arm controls. “Because I will so kick your lazy behind if you give up now.”
Terry and Luke stared at the small bundle wrapped in the last of the scrap metal as it shot down the magnetic launch rail. The ship’s mass had been reduced so much that a tremor could be felt through hands that gripped support rails. Terry’s free left hand crept out and clasped Luke’s shoulder. Turning toward him, she noted his red-rimmed eyes, slightly obscured by the graying brown forelock which waved across them, the only outward sign of what she knew must be terrible grief. She had known Al Taylor for only the nineteen months of the journey, but they had grown up together, gone to the same college and kept in touch until the fateful day they decided to explore the farthest reaches of the solar system, all to gather data for Wells’ theory.
“We can talk if you want,” she offered, hoping he would take the chance.
“Not for long. With only two of us and a remaining mission time of over nine years, we have to keep busy with maintenance to have any hope of survival.” He gave her a knowing look. “What do you want to ask?”
“Why did you two come out here anyway? With modern medicine, you can live forever, and you both had the money to pay for it.” She waved about at the ship. “How can you justify the resources you used, the life you cost, the risk to ours?”
Luke sighed and turned to a set of controls, talking as he worked with the robotic remotes to check for minute damage to the skin of the ship. “Space exploration is hazardous. Al and I knew the risks. We took them, just like we used the resources that might have fed a village for years because we believed the data would help make life better for everyone. We personally came because we wanted to get a little adventure before we were too old. Sure our bodies can be kept young, but people become cautious as they age, and all the medicine won’t change that.”
“Was it worth the cost?” Terry bit her lip. She knew she should put Al’s death behind her, but it ate at her confidence, and she worried that the quirky magnetic shielding would fail again before they completed the mission and they would take lethal doses of radiation. Luke paused in his inspection and gave her his full attention.
“You must have read about how, when the physics of the combustion shock tube got analyzed, it changed everything. Not just industry, making combustion processes so much more efficient, but physics.”
Terry recalled reading how the discovery that the high pressure shock wave left a vacuum in its wake upset a lot of classical views about conservation of momentum until a clever physicist pieced together a solution involving gravitational fields. She didn’t follow the math, but understood that the effect was to allow a large body to absorb momentum in a gaseous combustion, leaving virtually all of the kinetic energy with the combusting molecules. She nodded and Luke continued.
“We came out to the edge of the solar system to get into the area where galactic gravity dominates. Al inspires me, sorry inspired, with his insightful questions, even when he’s fuzzy on the math. We conducted a set of shock-tube experiments outlined fifty years ago, but I ran a series, with each new test case based on analysis of the one preceding. The communication lag of over fifteen hours round trip meant I really needed to be here. I needed Al’s help, and he gave it even when he was coughing his lungs out.” Terry saw the tears gathering in Luke’s eyes and floating away, drops of pain in the ship’s air. “But we did it. We got what we wanted.”
“I already sent the data and full analysis back to Earth. This is what everyone has dreamed about since the early days of space flight, a method for reactionless drive. This one trip will push open the future for the entire system, for all humanity. I think that’s a fine legacy for Al.”
Author’s note – some of this is now dated because I wrote it before I determined how to build the PRD second type engine.
Please visit Charles on his Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/Charles-Stucker-103988060951288/