Welcome!

Please login or sign up for a new account.

I forgot my password

Password Reset



Disaster

Ryk E. Spoor


i.

Sue Fisher tried to force herself to stay awake. Three more hours of this. If only something would happen!

But nothing ever happened in Orado Port Control. Once in a great while a starship would arrive — an event scheduled usually years in advance — or somewhat more frequently one of the inter—system shuttles or the few private vessels would want to dock. Mostly, though, it was just the automated manufacturing pods, bringing raw materials from the asteroid mining operations to be sent down the beanstalk to the ground, or collecting manufactured cargo or key materials from the ground and distributing them around the system.

If I actually had to do anything, that would make it less boring. But all of that was automated. The only reason she was there — the only reason anyone would be here on the Port Control Deck — was that regulations stated that a qualified human observer would be present at all times in case of emergency. AIs could handle virtually any situation a human could — usually better. It would take something extraordinary to make the AI even consider cutting a human into the loop, or for Sue to decide to override the machine herself.

And the last time there had been an emergency in Orado system had been —

ERRRRT! ERRRRT! ERRRRT! ERRRRT!

Sue snapped out of her half—daze, adrenalin washing through her in a cold tingle that drove subtle spikes into her gut as she focused, triggering a situational download to her retinals.

The first thought she had was a starship? There isn’t one due for at least six months, the Explorer’s Compass out of Vellamo.

But the second thought was spoken, as enhanced imagery from the distributed telescopic array materialized. “Oh my God.

It was one of the Initiative line of colony vessels, immense transports three kilometers long and over a kilometer wide that carried colonists and cargo to and from the now dozens of colonial worlds that could be over a hundred lightyears from old Sol. Sue had seen Initiative class ships twice before, beautiful graceful spindles with a perfect, sparkling circle of a habitat ring standing out from the central body.

Except that this one was anything but perfect. Chunks were gone from the hab ring, cut in what seemed impossibly smooth arcs, as though some titanic spacegoing shark had taken a series of bites out of that circle of carbonan, titanium, and steel.

She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. What in the name of God happened to her? You can’t attack a ship in Trapdoor, and even if you could, how could you find a ship between the stars? But if it wasn’t an attack, what was it?

Even as she was taking in that horrific sight and trying to grasp what it meant, she saw that there was an incoming transmission.

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Orado Port, this is Outward Initiative, out of Earth,” it began. But not in the calm, measured voice of a ship’s AI, which nearly always controlled communications, but the exhausted, worn, yet triumphant tones of a human being. “Request assistance immediately. We have suffered severe damage on multiple ship systems, we have multiple severely injured people on board who require medical assistance, and our remaining ship systems are unreliable. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Orado Port, this is Outward Initiative, out of Earth . . .”

She sent a query to the station, and once again found herself stunned. According to the schedules received eight months ago, Outward Initiative should still be en route to Tantalus! Her closest approach shouldn’t have brought her closer than ten light—years from Orado!

Focus! Her brain had finally caught up to the situation. She restrained the impulse to try to respond directly by radio; Outward Initiative had arrived about one point two billion kilometers outsystem from Orado Port, meaning that the Mayday itself had taken over an hour to get there. Unfortunately, that part of the Orado system currently had almost nothing there. Odds were that she really was the first person to hear that terrible message, and if she tried to respond by radio, it would take hours just to ascertain the ship’s condition and decide what kind of help was needed and could be sent.

But there was an alternative. “Orado Port,” she said aloud.

“Yes, Sue?” answered the Port’s AI instantly.

“Relay that alert to the Portmaster immediately, even if you have to wake her up from a dead sleep. Alert the Alabastra and Vilayet that we will probably need towing duty and they should prepare to intercept Outward Initiative and help bring her home, and they’ll need to have medical personnel aboard. This is a rescue operation; I don’t see a Nebula Drive deployment yet, and with that much damage they certainly won’t be able to do short—range Trapdoor hops, so I don’t think they can come in by themselves. Also, make sure that President Jami is briefed. Whatever happened here . . . I don’t think anyone’s ever seen it before.”

“No reasonably parallel situation is found in my databanks,” Orado Port said. “That is why you were immediately given full authority. What are your intentions?”

She was already pulling on her EVA suit, settling her helmet over short—cropped blonde hair. “I’m taking Raijin.”


ii.

Raijin lay before her, a perfect sphere of polished silver and glass cradled in a setting like an egg cup, every feature of airlock, impulse jets, Trapdoor coils, and all others meticulously set as flush with the surface of the sphere as possible. At her approach, the circular airlock door swung open, and she could feel her omni establishing full link connections, readying the little ship for launch. I wonder if —

“I’m here, I’m here!” came a somewhat breathless voice behind Sue.

The sight of the cheerful face under too—curly—to—restrain hair made Sue smile with relief. “So you were here. Thanks, Orado!”

“It was the obvious next step,” the station replied.

Sue extended her hand; the other took it. “Dr. Pearce, I’m glad you were able to make it. Orado’s briefed you?”

“Well, summarized, yes,” Dr. Carolyn Pearce said. “I can’t really believe it myself. Do we have any idea what happened to — “

“None. That’s why we’re heading out.” She noted the black case — a far more advanced version of the legendary “black bag” of traveling physicians — and nodded. “That’s all you need?”

“Without holding us up much, yes.” Dr. Pearce clambered into Raijin with practiced ease; she’d been one of the physicians of Orado Station for twelve years, much longer than Sue had been here. Sue could hear the harness snapping shut around the doctor even as Sue got into the pilot’s seat. “Raijin, prepare for launch immediately.”

The spherical perfection of Raijin was the key to its unique performance. It, and all the other “Lightning” rescue and courier vehicles were designed to allow the most carefully controlled Trapdoor jumps possible. A normal Trapdoor vessel had to take roughly thirty seconds for a minimum jump, and had what amounted to a startup and cooldown time that was short but variable. However, “variable” when dealing with something moving at roughly seventy times the speed of light meant that you might end up ten million kilometers to either side of your ostensible target with only a total startup/cooldown variation of one second.

But Raijin could boast a maximum variation in endpoint location of less than one hundred thousand kilometers, a hundred times better than standard commercial drives and ten times better than even tuned Trapdoor drives on more standard craft. Moreover, its minimum jump time had been reduced to about one second, meaning that it could manage jumps of about twenty million miles with good accuracy. The perfect sphere simplified the field interactions immensely, making it possible to approach the theoretical minimum responsive times of the Trapdoor Drive.

Combined with a built—in fusion reactor to drive a nuclear rocket, the Trapdoor Drive, or an extremely large—volume Nebula Drive, this gave Raijin and its siblings the ability to carry messages from point to point, or more importantly rescue people at speeds far in excess of any conventional drive ship, if the job could be done by no more than three people.

“Orado Station, this is Raijin. We are prepared for launch. Check our flight path.”

“Flight path is clear. Launching now.”

The bottom literally dropped out of the “egg—cup” in which Raijin sat, and the spherical ship shot outward. The launch bay was located on the edge of the rotating ring of Orado Station, and thus the centripetal force which had kept her sitting solidly on that surface was gone, releasing Raijin to follow the commands of Newton for a few minutes before she would end up sneering at him and Einstein both.

“Wheee!” she heard from Dr. Pearce’s seat, and despite the gravity of the situation Sue chuckled. It was a rather fun way to launch.

“Glad you like it, Doc. Some of my passengers have been less than thrilled with that process.”

“I’ll bet they hate roller—coasters, too. How long to Outward Initiative?”

“Depends on how good I am today.”

According to the data, Outward Initiative had been at one billion, two hundred and fifty—three million, five hundred thousand kilometers from Orado Station at time . . . mark. Fortunately, the huge ship hadn’t entered “hot” — going at high relative speed — or it would have taken a long time to adjust her speed to match. The relative speed was about five kilometers a second, well within Raijin’s twenty kps delta—vee from its nuclear jet. That also wasn’t fast enough to matter much at Trapdoor speeds, so she discounted it for the most part.

That’s just under a one—minute jump.

The key to real performance here, however, depended on the pilot. Even the best AIs yet made could not match human gut instinct on the final instantaneous adjustments to the field just before jump. Some liked to claim this was proof of some ineffable human superiority, a sense beyond the material; Sue thought it simply showed that current AIs didn’t quite know how to integrate everything from the tactile feedback on the controls, the sound and vibrations transmitted through the ship, the miniscule variations in the system readouts, and simultaneously apply it to the external conditions that were fed to a modern pilot through their retinals and haptic simulation links — that could make the pilot very nearly be a part of the ship.

“Well, here goes. Orado Station, Raijin preparing for in—system Trapdoor jump, estimated time fifty—nine point seven seconds.”

“Confirmed, Raijin. Jump when ready.”

She grasped the controls, both physically and mentally, concentrated on the feel of the ship. Nice balance. Resonance sounds almost perfect. Very slight beat coming from coil seven… about five point seven hertz.

She nudged the jump parameters just a hair… and activated.

A faint green sparkle shimmered and Orado Station — and the stars themselves — disappeared. Raijin was now hurtling through a lightless void, the Trapdoor Space. The only light that existed there was from Raijin itself, but its perfectly spherical exterior had no angle or vantage to project light upon itself, nor to provide a view, so the screens were darker than the waters of distant Europa’s oceans, a perfect blackness that made ebony and pitch seem bright.

“You said fifty—nine seconds?”

“Turned out to be fifty—nine point six nine seven seconds by the jump command. The exact full time of transition varies slightly.”

“You changed it?”

“A bit. Felt right. If my instincts are still good; been a long time since I had to try this.” She felt the usual tension rising. “We’re about to find out. Here it comes. Jump completion in three, two, one –”

The stars sprang into existence again — and in the first screen, to the lower left, something that was not a star, something large enough to show signs of structure.

Sue let out a completely unprofessional whoop of triumph. I can see it without magnification! We’ve got to be less than six thousand kilometers away!

“Outward Initiative,” she said into the radio, “This is Lieutenant Susan Fisher, pilot of Raijin, S&R out of Orado Station.”

“From Orado?” came the same voice that had given the Mayday. “Thank God! Raijin, do you have any medical personnel on board?”

Outward Initiative, this is Dr. Carolyn Pearce,” her passenger said. “I am a fully qualified physician, frontier, traditional, and nanomedical.”

The relief in the voice was palpable. “Wonderful. This is Masashi Toriyama, acting captain of Outward Initiative.”

“We’re on our way, Captain,” she said, checking vectors and activating Raijin’s nuclear rocket. Acceleration shoved them both back in their seats. “We’ll be matching with you within an hour.

“Now that we’re close enough to talk — can you tell us what happened?”

“Something I’ve never seen before — nor heard of. We were cruising along on Trapdoor just as smooth as you like, and suddenly the field stability alert starts screaming. We followed the book, authorized an emergency stop, but the field oscillations were so out of control that it took us thirty seconds just to damp them enough to do the shutdown.”

“Jesus,” Sue heard herself say. “Oscillations? You’re saying that the Trapdoor Field is what did that to you?”

“Oscillation depths were increasing so fast that if we’d been a second or two slower in reacting it might have bit straight through into the main hull,” Toriyama said. “As it was… well, you saw. Took five chunks out of the hab ring, compromised the integrity of the ring itself — part of what took us so long to get here was that we had to repair the ring well enough to keep it rotating.”

The hab ring — as its name implied — was where most people lived; it rotated, providing effective gravity for the crew and passengers. But that meant… “How many people…”

“. . . did we lose?” Captain Toriyama’s voice was grim. “Fewer than we might have, I suppose. We happened to be in an emergency drill at the time, so everyone except a skeleton crew was in the lifeboats already. No one was killed in the living quarters, but we lost six lifeboats out of the hundred twenty on board. Wasn’t the worst of it, though, the bad luck was just starting. We lost all three of our ships’ doctors — two were on the lifeboats and the third . . . well, she was too close because she’d gotten a call that someone was sick on one of the boats and the captain gave her permission to go tend to them.”

“That was a violation of —”

“Lieutenant, I’m fully aware of that. So was he. But routine . . . routine kills, whenever routine stops. You know that. We’d had twenty-odd of these drills and everything had gone just fine.”

Sue shook her head, but she couldn’t argue with Toriyama, either. There wasn’t an organization in the world that didn’t start to relax when nothing broke the routine and everything kept working fine. It was the price you paid for working with humans. “Never mind, Captain. Go on.” Raijin vibrated to minor thrusts, as the automatic systems adjusted their vector to match more closely with Outward Initiative.

“Well, like I said, we lost six lifeboats and all three doctors. Total of sixty-two people, mostly colonists.” Sue’s omni informed her that this was out of a complement — passengers and crew — of one thousand, one hundred, and fifty-seven. “That was bad enough, especially since it included Chief Master Sergeant Campbell, our head of security and navigation and piloting backup. But it wasn’t long after we got shut down and started trying to fix the vital damage that people started getting sick.”

“Sick?” Sue repeated. A disease at the same time?

“Good God,” Dr. Pearce said. “Trapdoor intersection radiation pulse, yes?”

“I’m impressed,” Captain Toriyama said. “Took us a while to figure that one out.”

“I was present at the cleanup for an accidental ground activation of a drive.”

The thought of even a small Trapdoor drive being activated at ground level made Sue shudder. “So where the field was cutting off those chunks, it was also causing big radiation bursts.”

“Exactly.”

“Were the lifeboats taken intact or . . . not?” asked Dr. Pearce.

“Thinking of survivors? Let me check.” There was a pause. “It looks like LS-88, LS-5, and LS-42 disappeared in a single piece. The others were . . . cut apart, one way or another. I don’t know if they actually stayed intact when they . . . fell across the field.”

“You have recordings?”

“Some, but they’ll need some cleanup, at the least. The Trapdoor radiation pulses damaged things severely. The lifeboats themselves are heavily shielded, but the hab ring is light and relies on ship systems to keep them protected from radiation when we’re traveling in interplanetary mode; of course, there’s normally no radiation in Trapdoor space except what we bring with us.”

“How many people were affected by the radiation sickness?”

“Two hundred thirteen — most of the skeleton crew, unfortunately, plus a lot of passengers whose shuttles were near the intersections; despite the shuttle shielding a lot of people got hit hard. We lost fourteen — one of them the Captain, which is why I’m acting captain now. About half of the others recovered fairly well, but we’ve had to improvise nanostasis for the rest; I’m hoping Dr. Pearce can help out there.”

“I am sure I can. If you’ve kept them alive this long, they’ll make it. Anyone else?”

“Unfortunately, yes. We had to repair and re-balance the hab ring so we could rotate and give most people some gravity again, and then we had to replace Trapdoor coils and balance the field . . . well, there were injuries, both among the remaining crew and the passengers.” His voice dropped to a confidential tone. “We’ve also got several Bemmies on board, and that hasn’t helped matters.”

Sue let out a long breath. The genetically engineered amphibious version of the aliens discovered on Europa were viewed by many with a combination of suspicion, concern, and sympathy. There had been several very well publicized breakdowns of the early generations, and many people didn’t like being around them — with “didn’t like” ranging from mild discomfort to raging anti-alien sentiment or plain old-fashioned phobia, since — by human standards — they could be pretty scary, like a combination of a vampire squid and a slug weighing up to three hundred kilograms.

Add that kind of xenophobia to the panic on board a vessel limping into port after an inexplicable accident . . . “Have there been any… incidents?”

“None yet, but I’m real glad we’re here now. The Bemmies’ pod didn’t get away unhurt, though; one of their younger children was on board one of the lost lifeboats.”

“What? Why weren’t they all on the same boat?”

“Harratrer followed procedure; he went to the nearest lifeboat, as the emergency rules dictate, rather than making his way four lifeboats farther down.”

So in addition to all this, there’s a bereaved family of Bemmies. Never dealt with that before.

Outward Initiative now loomed up hugely, the great ring arching above and below as they approached almost perfectly aligned with the immense ship’s main spindle-shaped body. “All right, Captain, I’m going to have to pause and pay attention as we dock. We’ve got towing vessels en route, and Dr. Pearce will tend to your injured. Once I’m on board, my job — our job — will be to figure out what happened.” She grasped the controls and looked somberly at the shredded remains of the hab ring. Because if this can happen once… it could happen again.


iii.

“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant Fisher, Dr. Pearce,” Captain Toriyama said. Sue was slightly surprised to see that while many of his features were as Japanese as his name, his skin was the color of coffee without much cream at all; he was also tall and not bad looking at all, and would probably be even better looking without the circles under his eyes and the worry lines engraved on his face. Next to him was a woman who looked to be about forty-five, some gray in her brown hair, tanned, narrow-faced with keen brown eyes.

“Thank you, Captain.” Despite all the efforts of modern nanofilters, she could still catch a faint whiff of burned electronics. The air must have been foul for a while after the disaster. “Two tow vehicles, Alabastra and Vilayet, will be arriving here in a few days. Have you prepared a room for us to work in?”

“The day briefing room is where we did most of our decisionmaking after the disaster. We could use that, as long as you don’t mind microgravity; it’s in the center of the main hull.” He looked to Dr. Pearce and gestured to the woman next to him. “Doctor, this is Janice White; she’s an RN and the closest thing to a doctor left on the ship.”

Pearce and White shook hands. “You have a medical facility intact?”

“Mostly intact. You’ll see when we get down there, Doctor. Follow me.”

As the other two departed to address the pressing medical issues, Sue recalled herself to her own mission. “Microgravity isn’t a problem for me,” she said. “That will do just fine. Lead on.”

As Toriyama led her down a corridor and then to one of the spoke elevators which connected the hab ring with the main body, she noticed something strange. “My omni’s not connecting with your shipboard network, Captain, just some local comm nets.”

“That’s because the shipboard network is still mostly down, Lieutenant. All the major AIs were taken out by the radiation pulses, and we really haven’t had the luxury or, really, resources to devote to trying to fix or replace them. Assuming that the replacements work. No, don’t ask me how the radiation got to the central core; we’ve got a lot of guesses but no proof.”

The elevator doors slid open; Sue jumped slightly at the sight of a horse-sized creature with three hook-clawed, multibranched arms or tentacles.

“My apologies,” the creature said in a deep, slightly buzzing voice. “I should not have been waiting so near the doors.”

“No, it’s not your fault at all. I knew there were Europans on board. I’m Lieutanant Fisher.”

“My formal name is Kryndomerr, but please call me Numbers.”

Toriyama was noticeably relieved by her reaction. “You’ve worked with Bemmies before?”

“During my undergrad work on Luna, yes. Call me Sue, then, Numbers. I would guess you’re a mathematician?”

“That is my profession. Analysis of datasets for anomalies is one of my specialities, which would seem a useful talent for this investigation, yes?”

“Yes indeed. Glad to have you aboard, Numbers.” Now that they were in the central body, there was virtually no sensation of gravity — the radius of the main hull was less than a tenth of that of the hab ring — so she followed the big Bemmie by extremely long, flat jumps. “You’ve assembled all the data on the event?”

“As much as we could without the automatics, and the damage that we have sustained,” Numbers said. “That is not quite as complete as we would like.”

They reached what was obviously the briefing room, with microgravity chairs, presentation projectors, and other accoutrements of such locations, including a zero-g coffeepot. Sue turned to Captain Toriyama. “Captain, prior to the disaster, what was your position on Outward Initiative?”

“I was second in command with a primary responsibility for the engineering department.”

About what I thought. “Then, Captain, I must request that you leave and not involve yourself in the investigation further. A board of inquiry will have to be convened into this event, and you will be directly involved. If I find evidence of negligence or other irregularities, this may reflect poorly upon you; at the same time, if I find no such evidence, that work must be clearly done separate from your involvement.”

Some of the worry lines deepened; he had clearly understood from the beginning that he might be held responsible for the disaster. “Yes, Lieutenant. That’s why Numbers here is available. He was a colonial, not one of the crew. I have had a list of other colonials you may be able to consult, for information separate from that of the crew.”

Well done. “Good work, Captain. I appreciate your cooperation.”

Captain Toriyama saluted and then turned, departing the briefing room without a backward glance.

She looked over at Numbers, who was arranging a number of articles in careful order. “Colonists? I didn’t know that they were yet allowing you —”

“We are the first,” Numbers said; the pride in his voice was unmistakable. “Our pod petitioned extensively for the opportunity, from the oldest to the youngest. It was the proudest day of our lives when we were notified that we had been selected for this opportunity.” The vibrant shifting patterns on Numbers’ skin — generated by bioluminescent chromatophores similar to those seen on Earthly squid — suddenly grew muted and dim. “Little Harratrer was especially happy to go, because it meant he could stay with his best friend.”

“Harratrer is the one of your people who was lost?”

The Bemmie expanded and then contracted, causing his body to bob up and down — the closest equivalent to a nod that they could manage. “He was called ‘Whips’ and was my second son. Studying to be an engineer, and was near the top in his class.”

And his best friend was obviously a human, since this is the only Bemmie family aboard. Interesting. “My sympathies, Numbers.”

“Appreciated, Sue.” He completed his placing of objects (with appropriate adhesion clips to keep them from moving) on the table. “Might I ask about your profession? You piloted Raijin to us with frightening precision, but you are now an investigator?”

Sue laughed. “My official title is Emergency Watch Officer, which basically means ‘person that you hope doesn’t have much to do’. My job’s to respond to emergencies the automatics don’t know how to handle. Piloting’s my avocation, investigation and handling of emergency procedure’s my responsibility, and engineering analysis is my main professional training.”

“I see. You have the skillset to get to an emergency quickly, the training and authority to run an investigation, and the professional knowledge to understand how the emergency happened.”

“Basically. There aren’t many of us in any given solar system, which is good . . . because it means that there aren’t enough emergencies like this to require more. Modern safety systems are extremely good.” She floated to the table. “Records of the event from all systems . . . testimony from witnesses . . . video recordings . . . prior maintenance data . . . you’ve done a good job pulling this together.”

A ripple of light and color showed Numbers appreciated the compliment. “I simply thought about what I would need to fully understand the event.”

“Well, you seem to have thought it out well.” She strapped into one of the seats; floating at random was a pain. “Let’s get started, then.”


iv.

Sue shoved her hair back and forced it back under the restraining clip. “Well, now I’m even more mystified than I was before.” She drifted over to the coffee dispenser, filled the transparent carbonan cup again.

Numbers floated nearby, chaotic patterns flickering over his hide. “Yes.”

“I’d expected to find a flaw somewhere — neglected maintenance, a mistuned coil, a one-in-a-million abrupt coil failure, something. The symptoms sure looked to me like some kind of beat between coils that turned out to have a positive feedback resonance. But . . .” Sue shook her head.

“Agreed. Instead, we have found nothing but exemplary records of service, coil condition monitoring records showing micro-tuning being regularly performed to maintain an overall synchronization less than one micro-Hertz, absolutely nothing to show a fault anywhere in either maintenance or design. No apparent manufacturing or component flaws, either.”

“No. Those would almost all show themselves immediately in the synchronization data, if nowhere else.” She looked across to the Bemmie’s two visible eyes and grinned. “Good news for Captain Toriyama and his crew, anyway.”

“Yes. There will still be a Board of Inquiry but this part will be mostly formality.”

Her smile faded as she looked down. “But knowing what it isn’t doesn’t help so much. We need to have an answer for what it was, or at least whether it’s something that could happen again.”

“I have acquired data on all known lost ships,” Numbers said. “I assumed that if anything like this had occurred before, we would already know about it. Therefore, if this phenomenon had been encountered by anyone else —”


“ — the ship would have been completely destroyed. That fits with the recordings; Captain Toriyama was right in guessing that his ship would have been completely destroyed if they had been a second or two slower to respond. Good thinking.”

Sue checked status first. In the last few days, the tow ships had arrived, docked and deployed their oversized Nebula Drives. Outward Initiative was finally underway to Orado; it would of course take a few months to actually reach Orado from this far out. Sue was tempted to go back to Orado Station using Raijin, but she really did have everything to do the investigation here.

She took a sip of coffee, resettled herself in the seat. “All right, let’s see if we can get anything from that data.”

Her omni displayed the data as a multi-dimensional plot of glittering stars, showing time and date of loss, type of ship, location of loss, ship size, and many other factors. The first thing that struck her was that there was too much data from the past. “I think we should filter to, um, nothing more recent than about fifty years.”

“Why fifty years?”

“Because that was about the time that they deployed the current Trapdoor Coil design and basic operation guidance. Ships before then would have had some of the flaws the redesign was intended to eliminate.”

Numbers buzzed pensively. “That will heavily reduce our numbers.”

“I know, but it doesn’t do any good to look at data that’s on ships not built like this one.”

“True. It’s just that with delays on the order of a year between scattered systems, and months even on closer systems, propagation of records and data can take years. We’ll be missing a lot of the most recent info.”

“Let’s try it anyway.”

The plot darkened, then reappeared, this time with far fewer dots — but still quite a few. Across human-settled space, we’re using a lot of FTL vessels.

There didn’t seem to be a clear pattern here. “Do you see anything?”

“No, I . . . ” Numbers’ multibranched arms slowed, froze. “Wait. Let me try something.”

The display darkened again, and then suddenly rematerialized. The scattering of dots representing lost ships had returned , but now they were mostly grouped into two separate populations, one low down and spread out along the x-axis which seemed to account for about seventy percent, one higher and focused far down the x-axis, though with still considerable spread, that comprised twenty-five percent of the total; the remaining five percent were scattered separate points.

Sue sat forward abruptly, knocking the sealed coffee cup away; she ignored it for now, as it was practically indestructible and not large enough to hurt anyone. “Well, that is interesting. What are our axes?”

“Estimated travel distance at loss for the x-axis, versus maintenance score history on the y-axis.”

Sue stared. “That means that most losses in the last fifty years fall into two separate categories — one group is what you’d expect, ships that weren’t maintained too well. But the other . . .


“ . . . is ships with extremely high maintenance scores — usually new ships, or commercial vessels like this which try to keep all the drive systems in tip-top shape for efficiency and economy of operation! Yes, yes!” Numbers quivered and patterns like strobing squares and triangles circled across his body. “How fascinating! Not at all what I would have expected.”

“I certainly wouldn’t have.” Sue’s brain raced, trying to make sense of this. It was an assumption in essentially any engineering discipline: keep your machine in top condition, and it was less likely to suffer failure. But this graph seemed to say that you were actually safest if you kept it is ‘pretty good’ condition — not neglected and mistuned, but not perfectly tuned and polished either, and that made no sense.

Except, of course, it had to make sense. The division was too clear to ignore. “What’s the p-value on this division?”

“Extremely low — about 0.00004.”

“So essentially no chance that this just a random artifact in the data.” She rubbed her chin. “Freaky, as a friend of mine might say. Why hasn’t anyone else noticed this?”

“Well, I can’t say that no one has, but it’s only been relatively recently we’ve been accumulating enough data to make this pattern obvious. For all I know, of course, there could be a paper on it already published and on its way from Earth.”

The coffee container gave a rippling chime as it struck the table; she caught it and put it back where it belonged. “You know what this means?”

“Probably not in the sense you intend. What?”

“There’s some kind of flaw in the current design. A subtle one, but just the kind of thing that doesn’t show itself for years until enough people are using it, or when you extend the design to some new regime. Can you sort this by size of ship?”

“Certainly.”

The new plot showed what she suspected. “Looks like this disproportionately affects larger ships, don’t you think?”

“Yes; p of less than 0.009. What sort of phenomenon are you talking about?”

“Well . . .” she searched her memory for a good example. “Oh, here’s one engineering students have looked at for years — the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on Earth, back in the 20th century. They built this really long, very narrow and shallow bridge over a deep canyon that had regular high winds. The design might have been fine somewhere else, under other conditions, but where it was it got exposed to winds of the right magnitude to induce really severe aeroelastic flutter that ended up tearing the bridge to pieces. After the fact they figured out what was going on, but no one really thought much about it beforehand, and it was really some minor design changes that led to the disaster.”

“Oh. I think I remember that, but my instructors called it an example of runaway forced resonances.”

“Argh,” Sue said, rolling her eyes. “It’s been mis-taught like that for centuries, I suppose it always will be. It looks like a resonance effect, I’ll admit. But it’s not, really. Resonance comes from a natural frequency of the structure, like my coffee container here,” she bounced it on the table, causing a ringing chime before she caught it, “being stimulated by some external force. If the stimulation’s in-phase with the natural frequency or frequencies of the object, the resonance can build.”

“But this isn’t a resonance effect.”

She shook her head. “No. The coils were all pretty much perfectly in tune. No sign of beats or resonances between them. The field was about as perfect as a crystal . . .” she trailed off as a sudden idea struck her.

“What is it, Sue?

She picked up the coffee container, stared at its shining crystal perfection. “Perfection . . . that might be it!”

The big Bemmie gave a momentary flicker of reddish annoyance. “Might be what?

Lieutenant Sue Fisher sat forward eagerly. “Come on, Numbers — I’ve got some simulations for you!”


v.

Portmaster Michael Ventrella gestured for everyone to sit as he entered. “We’re not a huge organization, let’s not get too formal,” he said. “I hereby convene this official Review and Inquiry Report for incident OR-7-FTL, the event which resulted in crippling damage to colony vessel Outward Initiative. Are representatives of all interested parties here?”

Captain Toriyama stood. “I am Acting Captain Musashi Toriyama. I represent both the crew of Outward Initiative and the Colonial Initiative Corporation, as there is no ranking official of the corporation present in Orado system.”

Sue saw the Portmaster raise an eyebrow. “That puts this doubly on your head, sir. You understand that you may be in the position of having to remove yourself from command, or worse, if you or those under your command are found culpable?”

“I do, sir. But as the current commanding officer of Outward Initiative, the corporate directives are clear as to the fact that I also represent the company, and there are hardly any representatives of CIC here at the moment; I understand a new office is under construction and will be occupied in four to six months —”

“Never mind, then, Captain. As long as you understand your position, we can proceed.” Toriyama seated himself.

The androgynous person who rose next was someone Sue already recognized. “Len Bowie, Ambassador for the System,” they said. “We will represent the interests of the citizens of the System who were aboard Outward Initiative and, if it is acceptable to you, those of the few citizens of other colonies who do not have representatives present.”

“The System,” in Bowie’s context, meant “the original solar system”; Earth’s system was fairly well united, unlike most of the scattered colonies, and its massive population and industrial base still dominated humanity’s policies.

“That is acceptable. Lieutenant Fisher, you represent Orado Port and the investigative team?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good enough. Let’s get this underway, then. I’m not much for formality, so we’ll just move forward as makes sense. Lieutenant, you want to start?”

Sue stood up. “Thank you, Portmaster. Just to review, a quick summary of the events: Outward Initiative was slightly more than halfway through its journey to Tantalus, a new colony a bit over a hundred lightyears from Earth. There had been no incidents of note during the journey, and all systems were operating at nominal.

“At 17:35 local ship time, during a routine emergency drill, a fluctuation developed in the Trapdoor field. This fluctuation grew at a tremendous rate, completely overwhelming automated attempts to damp it down by stabilizing the field generators further. An alert was immediately sounded and the crew attempted to counter the fluctuations sufficiently to shut down the Trapdoor drive safely. They did in fact achieve this by attempting a synchronized unbalancing of the drive coils — a risky approach, but probably the only one that would have worked, given later data. However, this was not achieved in time to prevent severe damage to the hab ring and the loss of six lifeboats and, at the time, sixty—two people. Radiation pulses also caused a cascading shutdown of multiple systems, including all shipboard AIs. “

She played an excerpt of the logs she’d been able to recover — the sudden eerie half-appearance of a starfield, the green blazing fire of a Trapdoor field shearing through metal and composite, the shocking destruction of the proud colony vessel in a matter of seconds.

“With the Trapdoor Drive finally shut down, the Outward Initiative was in normal space, severely damaged. It required two and a half weeks to use onboard resources to sufficiently repair and reinforce the vessel and allow it to rotate again; during that time, the extent of radiation sickness became obvious, affecting over two hundred crew and passengers, of which nearly half had to be kept in nanostasis. Those lost from the immediate and subsequent events included all three medical doctors and the ship’s commanding officer, as well as others.

“Nonetheless, basic repairs were completed, the Trapdoor coils rebalanced sufficiently to fit the changed profile of the Outward Initiative after the damage, and the ship made a relatively uneventful emergency trip here to Orado, the closest colony to their path at the point of failure, a trip of slightly less than two months.”

“A question, if I may?”

She looked over at the Earth system representative. “Yes, Mr. Bowie?”

“You mention that six lifeboats were lost. Were any sufficiently intact to function?”

“We believe three of them were physically intact. Whether any of their shipboard systems still functioned remains in question.”

“Have any search and rescue ships been dispatched to search for survivors?”

She glanced at Ventrella, who rolled his eyes but nodded. “No, sir, there have not.”

Bowie’s blue eyes narrowed. “Then may I inquire as to why not?”

“The short answer is that it would be a waste of time and energy. Do you wish a longer answer?”

The eyes met hers. “Yes. One with sufficient detail to satisfy me, unless the answers are inherently unsatisfying.”

Sue chuckled. “All right, sir. In a way, they are inherently unsatisfying. The best answer is that, as the old book says, ‘space is BIG’. Even with the recordings of the event that we’ve been able to recover from Outward Initiative, we can at best determine when by shipboard time the lifeboats were severed from the ring. But they, and the final shutdown of the Outward Initiative, were separated by up to thirty seconds, and thus by millions of kilometers. If Outward Initiative had been able to do the search itself, right then, the lifeboats could probably have been recovered. But the starship’s sensing suites were badly damaged, those of the lifeboats undoubtedly were worse off, and Outward Initiative was in no shape to search.

“But we can’t actually tell exactly where that accident happened. There are a few flashes of a starfield in the moments during the oscillation, and of course clear images after the ship stopped, but that is not in any way good enough to locate the accident to within better than, say, a volume the size of the entire Earth System, with nothing to serve as a marker. The lifeboats measure perhaps thirty meters long; finding a thirty-meter object in a volume billions of kilometers in radius is a very nontrivial task.

“We’d also expect, if anyone was on them, they would attempt to make it to the nearest colony — here. There are Trapdoor drives on those lifeboats, although they have to run periodically rather than constantly; so we actually haven’t quite reached the point at which we would expect to see them arrive; it took more than two months for Outward Initiative to make it here and at best the lifeboats woult take nearly three times that long — almost six months — to make the trip. There is, unfortunately, effectively no way to detect them underway.”

“I see. But from your tone I presume you do not expect them to arrive?”


“Well… LS-42 and LS-88 had more than enough rations to survive that long. LS5. . . well, maybe, but they had a Bemmie on board who would have needed a lot more food, plus the dry environment on the shuttle would not have worked well for his survival. More importantly, though, simulations based on the damage suffered by Outward Initiative indicates that many shipboard systems would have failed. LS88 might have had the right combination of personnel on board to survive — if they weren’t irradiated to death — but the others . . .”

Bowie nodded. “Understood. My apologies for the diversion.”

“Not at all. It was an important question.” She took a breath. “Returning to the main point of this meeting . . . First, let me address what is undoubtedly the most pressing question.

“It is our considered finding, backed by physical evidence as well as modeling and deduction, that the crew of Outward Initiative were in no way responsible for what happened to their vessel. Indeed, the record shows that they had taken exemplary care of their ship throughout its lifetime, maintaining it to the highest standard of civilian or, truth be told, military organizations. This was a ship, and a crew, that others would use as an example. In addition, their swift and efficient actions on the day the disaster happened were in fact responsible for saving the lives of most of those aboard; a delay of another second or two could easily have led to the destruction of the entire vessel.”

She could see Toriyama’s shoulders sag in relief; he closed his eyes, then opened them, smiling brilliantly. “Thank you, Lieutenant!”

“I thought you’d like to find out your fate right away,” she said. “Good work, Captain.”

“Then,” said Bowie, “what was the cause of the disaster? An unexpected component failure?”

Sue grinned. “Oh, no, sir, something much more interesting, and something that has apparently destroyed thirty-seven vessels in the last fifty years.”

She projected an image with her omni so the others could see it — a stylized representation of a Trapdoor vessel like Outward Initiative, with the Trapdoor field shimmering around it, a long ovoid shape some distance from the vessel’s hull. “Most of you are aware that a Trapdoor field is generated by precisely spaced coils of a particular design, which must be properly in phase to generate an effective Trapdoor field. Biases of the coils allow effective navigation, directing the ship, although most navigation consists of pointing the ship in the desired direction in normal space, then activating the drive.

“In most cases, the drive envelope fluctuates slightly; this is partly due to variations in the . . . well, spacetime characteristics, I guess would be the best way to put it, of Trapdoor space. In essence, Trapdoor space isn’t completely featureless. The other fluctuations, much more noticeable, are from slight mismatches between Trapdoor coils, and at a “beat” rate between 5 and 500 Hertz, or cycles per second, most commonly at particular peak frequencies which have to be damped out because they are resonance frequencies between the field coils — they could cause the fluctuations to go out of control. And in fact, that was what I initially thought had happened.”

The simulated field showed oscillations of the field swiftly progressing to a destructive level.

“However, once we started looking at the data, that just didn’t fit. First of all, as you can see from the simulation there, such an oscillation tends to actually cause the field to ‘pucker’ inward at the ends, trying to turn the field into a sort of donut shape; this would usually result in damaging the main ship body at its fore and aft ends. You can get radial spiking, but it’s rare.

“More importantly, the data showed that the coils weren’t just acceptably balanced, they were exceptionally well-balanced. This was one of the best maintained ships I have ever had the privilege to examine.”

“Well?” the Portmaster said after she paused. “Don’t keep us in suspense, Lieutenant. It wasn’t sabotage, was it?”

“No. In all honesty, in a way, the crew of Outward Initiative caused the accident — just not in any manner they could possibly have predicted.”

“What? How?” demanded Captain Toriyama.

“By doing your maintenance too well,” she said.

There was silence, then Bowie laughed. “All right, Lieutenant. Answer us the riddle.”

“Resonance was the key,” she said. “Both Kryndomerr — the Bemmie mathematician — and I looked at the phenomenon and thought resonance, just from the way it all happened, but that seemed impossible. But then we happened to think about what it is that makes a really good resonance work.

“Think about the classic trick of breaking a wineglass by singing or playing a note. There are three key requirements. The first is that there be a known resonant frequency; the second is that the energy input — the sound — be constant and of a sufficient volume to keep the vibration increasing; and the third is that the target object be sufficiently high quality and sufficiently rigid that it doesn’t dissipate the energy internally, thereby failing to vibrate to destruction.”

The others nodded.

“Well, Trapdoor space, as I mentioned, isn’t completely uniform. And as it is the Trapdoor field that is an interface between the ship and Trapdoor space, any nonuniformity acts directly on the field, causing the variations I mentioned earlier. So —”

“My God.” Toriyama had clearly seen it. “There’s some kind of underlying pattern — a field structure — in Trapdoor space. And if you have a well-enough maintained field . . .”


“. . . and you travel long enough, not adjusting your course, leaving your field effectively ‘rigid’, so to speak, and your field just happens to have the right size to vibrate at the right wavelength . . . yes. The intersection between the field and the space itself creates a positive feedback resonance that swiftly builds up out of control.” Sue showed them the graph that Numbers had created. “This was the real clue; Kryndomerr first saw this and pulled it out of the data. An entire population of well-maintained and mostly very large vessels going missing on long-run missions, whose fields — partly due to the development of standards in design, operation, and maintenance — have similar effective surface areas with respect to Trapdoor space.”

The Portmaster was frowning. “Are you certain of this?”

Sue considered. “As sure as I can be without running actual experiments. Kryndomerr and I came up with models showing how it worked, and demonstrating that the resonance was very likely to proceed along the radial dimension as experienced by Outward Initiative. In addition, the simulations and accident statistics indicated that this phenomenon may be a greater danger along particular routes and directions, meaning that the ‘structure’ of Trapdoor space has a systematic variation that may give us more clues as to the actual nature of the Trapdoor space.”

Ventrella nodded. “Then you must summarize this report and have it transmitted to as many locations as we can reach. We don’t have many ships available to go long distances, but we’ll have to figure something out. This is vital information and we must get it to all the large colony and transport ships as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ventrella looked at the others. “Given this, I think this meeting is complete. Do any of you have any remaining questions?”

After a pause, he stood. “Good. Inquiry complete; this was, effectively, an Act of God; no one could have predicted it given the known information at the time, and the crew did everything they could to minimize the damage to both ship and personnel. I will so state in the record.”

She waited for the others to leave, shaking Bowie’s hand and — after a hesitation — giving the relieved Captain a hug as well as a handshake.

Once the room was otherwise clear, she turned. “Portmaster?”

“What’s on your mind, Lieutenant?”

“In the report — I want to include a full research writeup, for publication in the Journal of Interstellar Spaceflight.”

He looked at her quizzically. “Well, of course. That’s good research there, and worth probably more than one paper. Not bad for someone normally doing disaster inspection. What’s the problem?”

“There’s one thing I need to make sure of . . .”


vi.

Numbers stared at her with all three eyes, one of them flicking back and forth to look at the display near him. “The ‘Kryndomerr Resonance’?”

“You and I did the work together, but you were the one who first found the pattern that showed something was causing well-maintained ships to disappear, and then did the hard work of deriving the function and building the models that showed that it actually worked the way we thought.”

The Bemmie’s hide showed a doubtful blue-and-pink pattern. “You were the one who came up with the basic idea, though.” She saw, past the big alien, his pod or family, waiting at the nearby shuttle.

“Resonance? Come on. We both thought ‘resonance’ at the beginning, we just couldn’t figure out how there could be a resonance once we saw the maintenance records,” Sue said. “Yes, I did come up with the idea that a near-perfect field might resonate, but you were the one that came up with the model that showed that it could actually happen. Numbers, thousands of people thought it should be possible for people to fly through the air, the idea was ancient, but only the Wrights, Langley, Whitehead, and a few other pioneers who made it real.”

Two eyes closed, the other narrowed, as different colors and patterns chased across Numbers’ body. “Is that the only reason you put my name on the effect, and my name first on the paper that you actually wrote? I’m terrible at writing.”

She laughed. “All right, no, it’s not. You guys have enough roadblocks in your way getting ahead in our society. It costs me nothing but a little credit to put your name first, and this is a big, splashy, important event in the history of space travel. If you get a lot of the credit, it will show a lot more people how much you have to contribute, not just by diving and swimming and so on, but in thinking fields, just as much as us. And you did do a lot of the work, so it’s not in any way a lie.”

The big Bemmie rubbed his arm-tendrils uncertainly for a moment, then relaxed. “Then . . . thank you, thank you very much, Sue. I’ll make sure to always mention you if anyone asks.”

She gave the alien a friendly slap on the back. “I’d expect no less, given how I’ll be talking you up.” She looked at her omni display. “Your family’s continuing on? You’re sure?”

“Yes,” he said emphatically. “Whips . . . Whips would not want his loss to stop us. We were honored beyond all other pods in being chosen; we cannot give up now, or it is possible that it will be a long time before any of our people is given the chance again.” His colors muted again for a moment. “And it has now been nine months. More than enough time for any survivors to have made it here . . . and longer than any of them could have survived.”

She held back a reflexive, well-meaning offer of hope. Kryndomerr was right; there weren’t enough supplies on any of the lifeboats to allow them to survive to this point, and even fewer supplies had been on LS-5, the boat that Numbers’ son had been aboard. “My sympathies again. But I’m sure you’re right.” She gripped the bases of two of his arms with her hands, the equivalent of a warm handshake. “Good luck on Tantalus. And maybe I’ll find a way to come out that way and visit.”

“Please do. My pod . . . my family would be honored to have you as a guest.”

She stood and watched as Numbers and his family — Windharvest, Dragline, and Pageturner — boarded the shuttle to Outward Initiative. All four of them stopped just before boarding and gave her a wave-and-flattened-bow that was the deepest sign of respect, echoed by the solemn color pattern on each. She waved and bowed back; a few moments later, the landing shuttle launched and was gone.

Sue stood there a moment, just letting the quiet efficiency of Orado Station soak into her. She thought back to the time just before Outward Initiative’s arrival, and felt a pang of guilt. I was wishing something would happen then. I should always remind myself what ‘something happening’ means in space. This “something” had cost over two hundred people their lives. Some might have died long after the others, drifting in space in non—functioning shuttles; they obviously had not survived.

From now on, she promised herself, I will be happy to have nothing to do.

She smiled, and headed towards Port Control. Back to what I devoutly hope will be many years of boring duty!


FIN.



Copyright © 2015 Ryk E. Spoor


Ryk E. Spoor is the coauthor, with New York Times best seller Eric Flint, of the popular Threshold series of science fiction novels. Spoor's solo novels for Baen include the Grand Central Arena series, and the epic fantasy, Phoenix Rising. His latest, Paradigms Lost, is out now.