Shepherd Moon, Chapter 7: Back To Normal, Sort Of…
Bill stepped into the "Mud Turtle" shuttle - one of many in Seeker's complement, and was met by the little ship's co-pilot.
"Good day, Captain. Welcome to Seeker shuttle oh-four. I’ll bring you over to the Seeker."
She wondered where Mike, Pedro and the other CETI specialists she had requisitioned were in all of this. She hoped they were okay.
The flight to the Seeker was uneventful, and they entered Seeker's deck without a hitch.
Mia surveyed the large pressurized bay through the shuttle's window as she waited to get out. The Seeker's fleet of fighters were in various states of disrepair. Streamlined fuselages were cracked open, exposing their inner mechanisms like metal and plastic intestines. People in protective clothing scurried from one machine to another.
The bay itself was also undergoing furious repairs, as was the whole ship. The telltale flashes of laser welding bounced off the deck and curved ceiling as technicians hastened to replace worn out or outmoded fixtures and equipment.
The whole Seeker was, in fact, outmoded, a veteran of the Third World War. An outdated battlewagon. It could clearly be seen in its streamlined, aerodynamic silhouette. It was one of the few large-scale spacecraft still flying that were designed to be able to operate in atmospheric conditions as well as in the vacuum of space.
The lines of the new spacecraft under construction were however radically different from Seeker because, with the now-widespread use of force fields, streamlining was not necessary anymore, as force fields can be tuned to react like a streamlined hull in atmosphere. Besides incorporating force fields and the latest space drives and gravity generators like the FTL stardrive engines designed by the year-old Propulsion Research Commission, or PRC, current ships all looked like massive conglomerations of bulky and awkward modules and living sections, whose designers’ only concession to anything approaching streamlining were considerations for off-axis tangential stress loads and off-axis thrust (A good spacecraft, after all, had to be maneuverable and be able to stand up to all the possible gyrations and maneuvers its commander would see fit to put it through, and not just be air-tight.).
To a very noticeable extent, this type of thinking now extended to most other space vehicles, even those which, as a necessary part of their function, had to operate in both air and space. Although these ships were very effective, they could not be called beautiful.
The Seeker and its squadron of twenty-five Shrike fighters, plus a smaller complement of Mud Turtle shuttles and troop carriers, did not share this design preference. They were holdovers from a time when people were still "Earth-minded" - as well as being efficient in vacuum conditions, they were also sleek, fast and efficient in the air, looking more like metal birds of prey than spacecraft.
The new fleet craft under construction had the newly-developed supra-light “FTL” engines of the Propulsion Research Commission, or PRC - the new U.N. body formed to create a working design for a faster-than-light propulsion system. It was something of a miracle that the project was working so well. Mia knew from her experience with CETI that it was all a question of the best minds in the System working together with a single goal. In fact, half the fleet was already finished and just undergoing final assembly or shakedown, and the rest were in their final stages of manufacture.
Even so, none of them, except the Constellation and Hermes, were available for this little shindig. So the top brass did the next best thing: Intercept fleet 41/18 was composed of the two large "Inter-system Defense Craft" (a long-winded way of saying they were sub-lights) - the Constellation and Hermes, and supplemented with a third “Legacy” ship - the old DSR Seeker. It was a matter of beggars not being choosers.
Hermes' and Constellation's bulky, ugly facades contrasted greatly with Seeker's. As new ships, they didn't need refits. Not so with the Seeker.
From what she saw in the shuttle's windows as they flew in, the refit being undertaken on the Seeker was quite an extensive one. During her short flight up, she saw the engine sections half torn off. It hinted at the radical changes being done, and it bothered Mia.
She'd seen the original blueprints for the Seeker's redesign, and they didn't seem to match the changes now being made. For example, there was an engine pod behind each of the two wings, which were not supposed to be there.
Having landed in the hangar without incident, they got the all clear and she got out and waited by the shuttle hatch. She smiled her thanks as the shuttle crew disembarked and left to file their report.
She waited for some sort of a reception committee for some time, dodging maintenance people busy securing and checking out the shuttle, but she was becoming bored. She went looking for them instead. Mia started accosting ratings and some ensigns who didn't look so busy to direct her to Commander O'Connell.
At Mia's polite question, Petty officer second class Cassel looked up from the recalcitrant valve she was helping a spacer weld into place. She wiped her sweaty brow with her greasy forearm, and gestured down a corridor.
"The commander's down in Propulsion, sir, with Yardmaster Collins," she said. "Just follow the signs."
"Thank you," she said, and went through the corridor. Curious eyes followed her out.
When the lift doors opened to the Propulsion Section, or more commonly known as the Engine Room, she was not surprised to find it a shambles. Torn components were ripped out of the walls and littered the deck. Exposed ducts and pipes hung loose from the ceiling and trailed wires and cables, which made a spaghetti-like mess on the deck, making the already confusing helter-skelter of workmen and equipment even more chaotic.
At first, Mia thought that the room was open to space. She nervously looked around for a pressure suit, but it took a second glance for her to recognize Crystalline shields snapped over the hull. Through the transparent metal she could see a space tug hauling an engine section away, and another tug towing another toward the ship. Mia recognized the section as the coil assembly of an FTL antigravity engine, but it sported odd lumps and projections she didn't recognize.
Mia looked around and picked out O'Connell by her stripes. She was in a heavy discussion with the yardmaster and Marta Running-stream, the old civilian systems specialist who was now confined to a wheelchair because of some lingering after-effects of radiation exposure.
Marta was one of the few that couldn’t accept cloned body parts, and though cybernetic replacements had been in existence for two hundred years now, Marta would not consent to having them attached to her body. Even though these artificial limbs and organs have helped thousands of unfortunates shorn of their limbs, the Propulsion Research Commission's top engineer disdained them, and contented herself with getting around in her wheelchair.
Her frail form belied her inner strength. She was a full-blooded American Hopi Indian, and was fond of pointing that out. There weren't many around these days. And those who knew her felt she still had the strength and tenacity her people were reputed to have.
At the moment, she was exercising her ancestral gift for colorful language on the Commander and Yardmaster Collins.
"I believe it is idiotic," she was saying heatedly, "to just stop construction so that you can follow a set of silly blueprints. We're almost through. Isn't that enough?"
"Doctor, I - ,"
"With all due respect, Commander," Marta interrupted, "you gave Commander Collins complete authority over the refit. And I requested the Commander to allow a few changes to the design. He has so agreed."
"I am amenable to a few changes, Doctor, but these," she gestured around her, "are hardly 'a few changes.' With the major adjustments that we have made to the timetable to be able to accommodate your 'few changes,' we're now behind schedule by a day. I'm sure that when Captain Steele arrives, she will be greatly less than pleased."
The clearing of a throat behind them made them all turn around. Marta smiled. "Speak of the devil," Marta said. "Here he is now. Hi, Bill. Dammit! Mia! I meant Mia!"
Mia leaned down and gave Marta an affectionate peck on the cheek. "Hello, Marta," Mia said. She turned to Commander Elizabeth O'Connell and smiled, acknowledging their salutes. "Hello, Commander. Glad to meet you at last." She extended her hand. “Permission to come aboard.”
O'Connell shook her hand. "Granted, Captain. My apologies for not being able to meet you earlier, as well as not being able to meet you as you came aboard." She gestured at the bay. "We are rather busy."
"So I see," Mia smiled. She gave O'Connell a fast appraisal. O'Connell was tall and willowy, still young - about her age, quite the opposite of the female line officers the academies turn out. Her face was fair, pretty, and was surrounded by a nimbus of ash-blonde, almost white hair. Her grip was strong and firm. And from the expression on her face, it was obvious that she took Mia’s presence with something less than delight.
Mia could sympathize with her. After all, who would want to have her command taken away from her? Mia knew that she was the outsider here, and decided to tread very carefully.
"Is there some difficulty?" she asked. O'Connell deferred to Marta.
"Not on the technical side, Bill... Mia," Marta said. "You can rest assured on that account. It's more of an administrative problem."
"A difference of opinion, really, Captain," O'Connell said. "Between us and the doctor."
"Well," Mia said, "if it's going to hold us up more, you'd better update me. We're behind schedule as it is."
"Well, the problem is - ," Marta started but was interrupted by O'Connell.
"The problem,” O'Connell said, “is what you see out there." She pointed through the temporary Crystalline barrier, to the torn hull of Seeker and the new engine section being jockeyed into position outside.
"The refit plan that my crew has been trying to implement for the past six months was a plan to convert the Seeker into an inter-system cruiser. The engine section was to be left mostly alone. Look at that thing."
"I see what you mean," Mia said, and turned to Marta. "Commander O'Connell makes perfect sense, Marta. What do you have to say?"
"On the contrary, Mia," Marta answered. "If the refit design was kept to the original plan in the first place, then I guess the commander is correct.
"But the present situation is not that way anymore. The refit has been modified according to my specifications, and we're about ninety percent through. But if we suddenly turned around now and started doing it the way the commander wants it done, it will take twenty times as long as the time it would take to finish up construction the way it is."
Marta raised a hand against O'Connell’s rising protests. "Alright, alright, I freely admit that what I did was pretty dirty, tricking you and Commander Collins. But we do have an emergency on our hands. You can sue me later." Marta smiled feebly.
Mia paused for a moment and thought it over.
"Commander," she said finally, "I believe that the situation has quite tied up our hands, and anything we may decide here will be purely academic. It seems that there is only one course of action open to us now, and that is to continue the redesign. Deciding who is responsible now is futile, and is a waste of time best spent on other more important things. There will be time enough for that later."
O'Connell stood stiffly. "Is that to be taken as an order, sir?"
Mia raised an eyebrow. "If you like, you can, as Marta says, 'sue me later.'"
"Aye, sir." O'Connell saluted smartly and stiffly strode out of Engineering, and on her way to the bridge.
Collins turned as if to follow but winced when he was called back.
"Commander," Mia called, "A word, if you please."
Collins reluctantly turned back. "Aye, sir," he said.
"How well is the construction going? I want to be brought up to date."
"As well as can be expected, sir," he answered. "Most of the major stuff's finished, like the doctor says. Except for the fixtures and fittings, and packing away everything, and so forth, only that," he said, "and the fighters are the only major things left."
He looked undecided for a moment and then pulled out a fat binder from under his arm. No time to beat around the bush, he thought. "The problem, sir, is that the redesign is so - how should I say it - so drastic, that half of the changes haven't been run through the ship's computer. In fact, the brain itself and all the cybernetic systems are new and still unfamiliar to the crew."
He slapped the binder of holo sheets in his hand. "If you find yourselves in a real pickle, a major blowout in the ship, you won't even know what to repair or replace, and if you did, odds are that the computer won't be able to help you at all."
He looked at Marta. "I'm not trying to be difficult, Doctor, but I don't know how to do all that you're asking, and still stay on schedule. Half my crew is running around trying to figure out just what it is that they're supposed to be doing. Look."
Collins opened his binder of holo-sheets. Notations and penciled-in corrections and scribbling filled the margins, and most of the schematics themselves (the main reason Collins carried around the binder instead of a pad). "Just look at this. This is the plan for the coolant flow in the FTL modules we're interfacing with Seeker's old system. These charts are off the original specs of the FTL. But with that monstrosity," he pointed out the window, "we've had to redesign the whole thing as we go along.
"My people are the best, Captain, and Dr. Running-stream's assured me that she has the budget for it, and the Quartermaster's Office has a lot of spares. But we still need to have plans to work from."
Mia looked at him. "Any ideas how we can speed things up?" she asked.
Collins shook his head. "Sure, I do. Like I said, we need honest-to-goodness plans. With real blueprints I guarantee that we'll finish the thing in half the time. And if you can give us ten more systems specialists who can help us encode the changes into the on-board computer's database, we'll finish even faster."
Mia made a quick decision, and pulled out her comm-computer (or “CC”) - a combination stylus screen, database interface, communicator and computer - standard equipment for Armed Forces personnel - and thumbed the switch.
"Get me Triton Center Seventeen. Doctor Walter Thorpe," she said into the box, to a young lieutenant at the other end. After a short while, Walter's face came on the screen.
"Hello, Walter. Can't talk now. We have an emergency. Can you do me a favor?"
"Mia, I - ,"
"I need to borrow twenty cybernetics specialists familiar with the..."
"EDS-200," supplied Collins supplied.
"...the EDS-200 computer system. I think that's a bit related to the -361 we have in the base, so we have no problem there. Can you loan them to me?"
"Jesus, Mia, you know my hands are tied. I…"
"Don't quote me regulations, Walter. I wrote them in the first place. And I know I'm being unfair. But we're desperate. Can you help us?"
Walter stared at her for a moment and then said, "All right, Mia. I'll get twenty from the night shift people for you. I'll get them on the pad, but you better get them back to me within ten hours, okay? Otherwise, you talk to the union."
Mia nodded and smiled. "Walt, you're a life-saver. Thanks. I owe you one."
Walter smiled. "Don't think I'm not keeping count. Endit."
Mia got the lieutenant back and asked for O'Connell. "Send a shuttle to Triton Center Seventeen to pick up twenty civilians," Bill said to the commander, "right away. They’ll be waiting."
Mia switched off and turned back to Collins. "How long do you think it will take to finish up now, Commander?"
"Sir? About forty hours, sir."
"Commander, you now have ten."
"Sir!" Collins exclaimed indignantly.
"We’ll do the cleaning-up, Commander. Just get the major stuff done. Those plans you spoke of - we'll get them to you within the hour. Marta, I'll need your help. Let's go to my quarters, wherever those might be."
Commander Elizabeth O'Connell paced the bridge in irritation.
"Lieutenant," she said, "prepare a troop carrier to pick up a party of twenty at Triton Seventeen. Inform the pilot that they'll be waiting on the pad."
"Damn her,” she thought as she walked back and forth on the deck. Who does she think she is? Still she had to follow orders. To be fair, maybe the Captain's under orders, too. But she still remembered Fleet Admiral Silverman's call that fateful day, and could remember each word verbatim, with anger and frustration.
"Captain," she recalled Silverman saying over the bridge's main screen, "first of all, I would like to apologize for what I am about to say. The Defense Council has decided, and there is nothing I can do about it.
"New orders will be transmitted to your ship, but I would like to tell you the main points of your new orders personally. One, you are to make for Neptune Outpost Three, and pick up a special consignment of cargo and technicians to help you in your current refit and shakedown. Two, you are then to set course for Phobos Orbital Station twenty-eight to rendezvous with cruisers Hermes and Constellation. Together with your ship, DSR Seeker, they will make up intercept fleet 41/18, whose mission is to intercept, possibly repel a hostile fleet of alien vessels that is on course for the Solar System. You will then proceed to Neptune Three. During the trip to Neptune, the special group of technicians that you will be picking up will perform further updates and modifications on your ship and all equipment on board.
"Upon docking, Seeker will undergo more modifications. Do not take offense, Captain, but we would not have chosen the Seeker for this mission – a ship that, we believe, is very much out of date. We would have preferred the new ships like the Constellation and Hermes, but you are the only other cruiser that is available and capable.
"It is for this reason that she will undergo drastic redesign and refit. Yardmaster Collins and some people from the Propulsion Research Commission will be ready for your arrival. It better be fast, Captain. You will have very little time available."
Silverman seemed to hesitate. "Captain Amelia Steele is to take command of the intercept force. She’s a veteran of the Asteroid Wars and an expert on the aliens. She will be there waiting, ready to take command of the intercept flagship. That will be the Seeker."
O'Connell realized what was coming next.
"You will undergo temporary grade reduction to commander. You will be Seeker's first officer, and act as exec to Captain Steele."
She then remembered the shocked silence on the bridge.
"The specific details will accompany your orders, Captain," Silverman said. "Questions?"
"Uh, none, sir," she had blurted.
"All right, then, transmitting your orders now. And I'm sorry, Captain."
She remembered ordering a course change for the outpost, turning the con over to her exec, and walking out of the bridge.
She had taken it all on the chin then, and never complained. But if this upstart thinks she can order me and my ship around like this and expect me to sit still for it, she has something else coming. I'll show her, she thought. I'll show them all.
Finding Mia's cabin wasn't as difficult as they thought. She and Marta were pointed to the right direction by some helpful ratings. Many of them were out helping with the refit and, perhaps, waiting for a chance to get a look at the new captain. A good thing that the order came from Silverman himself. This crew could have mutinied.
Mia closed the door behind Marta and took a first look at her new quarters. It was formerly the quartermaster's cabin, who had had to be bumped off to other less comfortable quarters. The bulkheads showed signs of recent work. New lockers were riveted to the wall and the comm set and computer terminals had been converted to a ship commander's set - with facilities to connect her to the bridge, to the main computer, to tap into the ship-wide intercom, and all the other facilities a captain might need that weren’t available in other cabins.
Inside the bathroom, new fixtures replaced the old ones, and the lavatory and shower were converted to grav and non-grav ones so she could take care of… business whether the gravity plates were on or on the blink. Inside the lockers hung new sets of uniforms with proper sizes and nametags, as well as her new pressure suit.
Since her suit was here, she assumed that the accompanying outer shell - her battle-armor suit - had also been brought in, and was probably down in the main airlock lockers. Mia could have hardly done with someone else's. Space suits and armor are always tailor-made to their users and, as expected, most spacers become attached to their suits.
She dropped her attaché case on the bed and sat on the edge facing Marta.
"All right, Marta," she said. "Now you are going to tell me what the hell you've been up to."
Marta rolled her chair up against the wall facing Mia. "Okay, Mia," she said, "or can I still call you Bill?" She looked Mia up and down, smiling. "I have to say, you really look good as a girl. Too darn tall, though." She leaned down and whispered mock-conspiratorially, "Does everything, you know, work?"
Mia held in her laughter, although just barely, and tried to look at her old friend with her most stern look.
Marta made a patting gesture. "All right, all right. Simmer down. I know what I did was wrong."
"Will you tell me why you did it?"
"It's very simple, really. Okay, let's start from the beginning. You know what's been happening at the PRC, don't you?" she said, referring to the Propulsion Research Commission.
"I've heard you've been having some words with the other commissioners," Mia answered. "Budget appropriations, I take it?"
"Well, partly yes. You must be familiar with the basic FTL engine design by now. We got the design ideas from your Phase-Wave audio and video intercepts, as you know. It's been a bit like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle. A clue here, a hint there. After a while, we got a fairly complete picture of how their engines work, and we've been able to improve on it by a great deal with our own FTL.
"The principle of the Earth FTL engine was similar to the Elyran drive concept. In the Elyran drive, artificial gravity generators set up a constantly increasing gravity field at the rear of the ship, propelling it at a constantly increasing speed in the opposite direction of the gravity waves. There were, however, several practical problems."
Mia knew about those problems. The main one was that during acceleration to light speed, the constant increase in acceleration meant a constant increase in on-board gravity. In a short time, the passengers as well as the ship would be smashed flat. The same problems existed on deceleration below light-speed. Half of the travel time would have to be taken up by deceleration as the field is reversed, and still the ship would be smashed, but this time in the opposite direction.
And once light speeds were reached, there would also be problems with time dilation and the safe passage of the ship through space. Hyperspace was a strange universe where seemingly impossible things came into being, where tachyons and other invisible particles became deadly physical dangers, where X-ray stars and neutron stars became visible, and where dark holes in space became real dangers. And where spacecraft often vanish without a trace.
The Elyrans handled this by totally cocooning their ships in a separate bubble of gravity. The bubble maintained a constant non-variable gravity field for the passengers. They also extended a separate force field of sufficient strength hundreds of thousands of kilometers in front of them to stop or deflect cosmic debris that might cause damage to the ship.
The good thing about it was that these generators, which the PRC engineers copied, produced an isolating effect within the field, isolating them from the effects of the field itself, and the warped space it generated around it. It therefore transported the ship and its occupants encased in their own unchanged relativistic space and time, and thereby kept their relative time in the same constant rate as when they started their journey. The upshot of it was that there was no problem with time dilation. But, it made the time it took to travel a variable one.
Earth's own FTL system incorporated all these principles but with key differences that brought them to unparalleled efficiency. For example. instead of creating a separate field to oppose the main field's effects, the Earth system extended the main field over the entire ship, including the other smaller gravity field, so that it didn't take that much power to maintain a down-is-down orientation for the occupants, and to maintain relativistic equilibrium.
Earthpeople had known of artificial gravity for some time and, with the knowledge gleaned from Phase-Wave intercepts, they had made gravity manipulation more efficient: As well as creating it, new devices attached to Earth generators were now able to absorb inertial energy and turn it to radiant energy. Deceleration was no longer necessary. Travel time was therefore cut in half. And despite what was essentially going full stop, the passengers aren’t mashed to pulp since the inertia and relativistic mass disappears - the inertia converters convert the inertia of the entire ship including contents, which includes the passengers and crew. True, there were some limitations to this inertia conversion technology, but the concept of “reaction mass” has become irrelevant, at least on Earth ships.
And, with their expertise in computer technology and the use of Phase-Wave, Earth interstellar navigation technology was now several generations ahead of the Federation. Plus, with their expertise in planetary engineering, energy generation and synthetic-food production, they were more than equal to their extraterrestrial counterparts.
"I know," Mia said, continuing their conversation, "that you've made enormous strides in your research. Just the same, what has that got to do with our present problem?"
"Well, you know that the Commission's been pressured to settle down on a final design. That's the FTL system. I and a few of the other commissioners have, however, argued that the FTL could be improved, by an unprecedented factor of two, maybe even four or six. Of course, the other commissioners voted that down. Too much money and too little time, they said. Even our sit-down strike didn't change the situation. That was why we were at Outpost Three, you know."
Mia tapped her fingers on the metal bedside table impatiently.
"I still don't get it," she said.
"Don't you see, Mia?" Marta said. "The Fleet's done. No way out of that, now. Like Hermes and Constellation and their sister ships, all the others will be carrying FTL engines. But when the Navy approached us to refit the Seeker, we thought of it as our chance. They only wanted a sub-light cruiser but we're going to give them something more." The corners of Marta's eyes wrinkled as she giggled. "By the time we finish with her, she's gonna be the fastest ship in the galaxy.”
Mia thought it over a moment. "Does the Defense Council know what you're doing?" she asked.
"Are you kidding? Do you think they would let me do it if they knew?"
A slow smile spread across Mia's new face.
"Okay, Marta," she said. "Let's do it. If only to bug the Navy."
They both laughed, and soon they were into a deep discussion about the redesign.
Almost twenty-four hours had passed - fourteen hours beyond Mia’s self-imposed ten-hour deadline - when Mia followed the shuttle containing Marta and Walter’s borrowed systems specialists back to Triton Seventeen with satisfied eyes. Walter was fairly screaming then. But never mind. The job was done, and Walter would forgive her in time.
She, Marta and the crew of Seeker had done the job. She was still a sub-light, but when they got all the subsystems up and running, she'd be the fastest ship in the Fleet. There'd be time enough for that during the months it would take to reach the rendezvous point.
"Time?" she asked Commander O'Connell.
"Seventy-two hours behind schedule, in total," she frowned. “And still no shakedown time,” she added silently.
"Then we'd better set for departure. Helmsman, all moorings away. Fire all maneuvering thrusters, spool up the flywheels, and get us to free space."
"Aye-aye, sir." The helmsman started flicking switches and grabbed the steering controls.
Thrusters fired and he eased the sleek battle cruiser out of its docking bay collar. The huge internal flywheels, common to old battlewagons like Seeker, spun and balanced the ship as it turned.
"Free and clear, sir," the helmsman said.
"Good. Synchronize with Hermes and Constellation, punch in our course, and engines at optimum."
"Aye. Course laid in and engines powering up. Ship starting acceleration."
"Steady as she goes."
"Steady as she goes, aye-aye."
They were finally on their way.
- Washington DC
- Mistress of Confusion
Bobbi Cabot is a transgender girl in her thirties (35 y.o. as of 2016), who transitioned in 2005. She is known as "Roberta J. Cabot," "Bobbie-C," "Bobbie," "Bobbi" and "Bobbi-C" in the sites where she posts her stories.
Though not a professional writer, Bobbi is under the delusion that she writes passably well and indulges this delusion by sometimes posting stories, which is, thankfully, very seldom.
Bobbi's day job (the phrase "day job" is hereby stressed) involves being the big cheese of the overseas BPO practice of a Top 100 computer technology corporation.