The Writer in Black

The Writer in Black

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Survival Test, Snippet 2

Remember that these snippets are very much draft copy.  They include typos, spelling errors, even places where I changed thoughts in mid sentence.  But, if you can get through that, enjoy.

David L. Burkhead
CHAPTER ONE (Part two)

For three days, Karen Gold had been working eighteen hours out of every twenty-four on the Troy Mission. Harry Jordan’s call had come as a welcome break.
She commanded FTI’s Troy Mission, a research mission en route to one of the Earth-Sun Trojan points. Astronomers had recently discovered several small asteroids there and they were to investigate and conduct assays.
The drive core formed the center of the ship. The ion engines that drove them, now turned in the direction of their travel to brake the speed they had developed in the first half of their trip, dominated one end and the gossamer fine web of the solar panels dominated the other. In between and on either side were the living quarters, twin cylinders that rotated around the drive core to provide artificial gravity for the sixty-three crewmembers that occupied them. The living quarters connected to the drive core by a pressurized tube and tether assembly at the center and stabilizing tethers at the ends.
The drives were shut down. Their schedule had enough margin that, from this distance, they could have the engines down for more than ten days and still rendezvous with the asteroids ahead of them. A slight increase in deceleration would make up for the lost time.
Gold and her second in command, Harry Jordan, clung to the mesh of small handholds that covered the outside of drive section of the ship. A technician responsible for the upkeep of the drive led them.
Sweat clung to Gold's upper lip, carrying its saltiness into her mouth.
"There," Jordan said as they passed the edge of the shroud and the engine drive units came into view. "Number three’s the one."
Gold followed his pointing finger to the number three, of twelve, drive unit. The housing had been rotated on its gimbals so that sunlight caught the ends of the drives at an oblique angle. The electrostatic rings, which accelerated the ions produced by the engines and produced the thrust that drove the ship, cast shadows across the porous tungsten ion generator plates. Even so and over the distance that yet remained, Gold saw the hole in the ion generator plate.
"That’s just great," Gold said. "How did it happen?"
"Drive electrode erosion, but not even over the surface," Jordan said. "A thin spot formed. Fuel pressure forced a crack that spread. The panel blew out."
Gold pulled herself closer. The ragged edges of the whole twisted outward as if the plate had been punched open from inside. "What’s this do to our flight?" she asked.
"By itself, it’s not too bad," Jordan said. "We can run on eleven engines if we have to and still have deceleration power to spare. I’m more concerned about the others."
"I can see that," she thought for a moment, remembering some of the reports she had read, reports that related to their engine fuel and power usage. "We can probably afford to lose two more and still make it, but if this happened to one, why can’t it happen to all of them?"
"Order’s, Captain?"
Gold swallowed. They couldn’t risk losing any more engines. The crew would have to inspect each one for any signs of weakness such as had damaged this one. They could seal small cracks before those cracks led to a failure such as this one. The repair would reduce engine performance, but it would be better than the loss of an entire engine. With the erosion of the drive electrodes continuing, those inspections would have to be an ongoing process, and they could not afford to shut down the drives every time they needed to make an inspection. She shook her head, hating the orders emerging from her mouth, "Have a complete inspection done of all the engines. Do it quick, but do it thorough. Then, set up a rotation of individual engine shutdown and inspects for the rest of the flight. We can’t afford to stop boosting for those, so pull each engine while the others are still running."
"Dangerous," Jordan said.
Gold nodded. "But that’s the only way we’ll make it."
"Understood, Captain," Jordan said, "Should I ask for volunteers."
Gold thought for a moment. A call for volunteers would be romantic, and if this were an old science fiction movie someone would be willing to put his own life on the line to save the lives of the rest of the crew. They would probably die heroically to save the ship. She could not, however, take the chance. "No, Harry. Let the drives crew take it in turn."
"Yes, ma’am."
"And I'd better get on the horn with Clarke and make sure that they get a complete new set of drive electrodes, and spares, in that robot resupply mission."
Suddenly, the thought of reviewing mounds of reports increased enormously in appeal to Gold.
Colonel Dave Mason, commander of Nasa’s lunar base, entered meeting room last. Although he had called the meeting, he felt more nervous than any of the others. He had spent the last two days speaking with various officials on Earth, including General Russell, his immediate superior. He liked each answer he got less than the one before it.
He needed a drink and he needed one badly, but not now.
Everyone, except in official communications, called the base Lunaville. Mason had called it that as a joke when he first arrived. In old science fiction stories the first moon colony was often called Luna City but they weren’t big enough to be a city, thus the nickname "Lunaville" since it was more the size of a village than a city. The name had stuck.
Mason's four primary subordinates sat at the table. He liked to think of them as his officers although all except Major Brian Angel, his second in command, were civilians.
"We have a problem," Mason could not restrain a grim smile at the understatement. "The North African Confederacy has made demands that, if followed, would mean the end of the space program, including all civilian projects."
"The North Africans?" Tad Alexander, who headed the industrial section, shrugged. "Ignore them. What can they do?" Tad was the shortest person at the table, about 170 centimeters tall. His short stature and pot belly had created an impression in Mason's mind soon shattered b yseeing Alexander performing Tai Chi forms with liquid grace in the gym, adapting them to the one-sixth gravity of the moon.
Mason smiled wryly. "They have threatened 'dire consequences' if we fail to comply with their demands."
"'Dire consequences'?" Alexander snorted. "Why does every tin pot country with a grudge think they can order the U. S. around with vague threats?"
"I agree with Tad," Leonard Franklin said. "ibnAllah's nuts. Ignore him." As chief doctor, Franklin did more than dispense advice on how to remain healthy and fit on the moon. He took his own advice. When duty did not keep him occupied he spent fully twice as much time in the gym as regulations required, most of that time on the bicycles or treadmills. At fifty, he still retained a narrow waist and a slim, but muscular frame, topped by a close-cropped brush of gray hair.
"It's not that simple," Mason said. He tossed a sheaf of printouts onto the desktop. "I just got an intelligence report which I am cleared to release here. The North Africans have, over the past five years, conducted a number of tests of satellite launchers, solid fueled. All have failed, crashing seven to nine thousand miles downrange."
"I don't understand," Franklin began. "Why do we care about failed rocket launches?"
"They may have failed to launch satellites, but does that mean they failed as rockets? They reached a range of five thousand miles or more," Angel said. "That’s the range that defines an ICBM, isn't it?"
Mason nodded.
"ICBMs?" Alexander half rose from his seat. "That's not...."
"In addition," Mason kept his voice level, "they have been secretly--or so they thought--developing thorium reserves. Those reserves have been vanishing. Nobody's been able to find out what the North Africans are doing with them. At least, if they have, they're not telling me."
"Thorium?" This time Angel cocked his head in puzzlement.
"Thorium." Alan Blanchard, head of the scientific team, nodded. "It can be bred into uranium 233 which is fissionable. I've never heard of it being used for a bomb, but I suppose it's possible." He frowned. "If it is, then we've got a real problem. Thorium is more than three times as common as uranium."
Blanchard was the oldest person at the table. At sixty-three, he had somehow managed to acquire PhD's in physics, geology, and mathematics. When Mason read his personnel file, he had learned that he also had the coursework for further degrees in chemistry and astronomy. Even more, Blanchard continued taking extension courses in engineering in the midst of his work with the Lunaville science team. Mason wondered where Blanchard found the time to have a wife, three kids, and four grandchildren back on Earth.
"Oh, God." Franklin dropped his head onto his hands, while his elbows rested on the table. "A madman with nukes."
"Exactly," Mason said. "As a result, we've got to tread carefully. I've been told that we might have to shut down for a while; move everyone back to Earth until it blows over. I'm told that we'll open back up once the current furor dies down, or when ibnAllah's subjects have deposed him."
Mason had to swallow. He did not believe that Lunaville would reopen in his lifetime if they shut down. Maybe it would never open again.
"So what do we have to do?" Angel asked softly.
"Prepare to shut down and evacuate," Mason said. "Try to leave things so that those who come after us, to reopen, will have an easy time of it."
He paused. "Tad, check over our equipment. Whatever we can mothball, we'll leave here. The rest will have to be either scrapped or sent back to Earth."
Alexander looked as if he would argue. Mason locked gazes with him. A moment later, Alexander nodded. "Yes, sir."
"I don't think you'll have much to worry about, Leonard. I don't think you have any equipment that we need to worry about either mothballing or taking back." He turned to Blanchard.
"We already share scientific data pretty freely, Blanchard said. "Maybe my team can stay?"
Mason shook his head. "Do you want to bet your lives on ibnAllah behaving reasonably? Frankly, if we do shut down there won't be a ship out this way for the duration. That means no bus home for you or your team. It also means no supplies. The eating would get mighty thin, mighty fast. Sorry, but if we go, you'll go too."
Blanchard sighed and nodded. "I'll try to get as much set up to run without us as I can. We can at least beam data back to Earth."
"Good man," Mason said. To the room at large, he added, "I'd like to point out that this is all worst case stuff. The suits in Washington may still convince the U. N. to reject the North African demands. The North African threats may be empty. Someone may put the brakes on President ibnAllah. Anything can happen."
The looks in their faces told Mason that they did not believe him. Fair enough. He did not believe himself.
"All right," he said. "You're dismissed."
Angel remained as the others filed out. "It's worse than you're saying, isn't it?"
Mason nodded. "The North Africans have already rejected three compromises out of hand. They obviously believe they’re holding a strong hand, so they probably have both missiles and nukes. Gods, they probably think that they've got God on their side so they can't possibly lose."
"IbnAllah?" Angel shook his head. "Do you know what that means?"
Mason shook his head. "I never learned Arabic. Something about Allah?"
"I spent a tour in Riyadh before.... Anyway, 'ibn' means 'son of'. 'Allah', of course, is their name for God. Since they haven't already stoned him for blasphemy, yeah, I'd say, yeah, they believe they have God on their side."
"If that’s the case, the current administration will probably cave in the end." He sank into his seat. "You know my tour out here has destroyed my marriage." His wife had "Dear Johned" him just a week before. He rubbed tiredness out of his eyes. "And now it's all for nothing."
"Not for nothing," Angel said. "We've already accomplished a lot."
"Nothing," Mason repeated. "All we've accomplished will be undone in the next few years. I've seen it happen before."
Angel shrugged. "Then we start over."
"Maybe. Maybe not." Mason sighed. "Whatever. I need a drink."
This was all Schneider’s fault, Mason thought. If Richard Schneider and his company had not been so active in exploiting space, maybe the North Africans would have left everyone else alone. But he wasn’t content with just grabbing the launch market. He had to control transport between orbit and the moon, have two space stations of his own and launch the space stations built by the Japanese and Germans. Worse, he had to get the contract for shipping to Lunaville and, in exchange, get the metal Lunaville produced as a by-product of oxygen extraction and ship it out to where he was building that space colony.
While Mason had no argument with what Schneider did. Building space stations and colonies were all good things so far as Mason was concerned. That one man did it disturbed him. Schneider seemed set on becoming king of all space and that probably set off the North Africans.
Maybe someone should lock ibnAllah and Schneider in an arena somewhere. It would be fitting. Let those two people who thought they were God kill each other.

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