Work in Progress

Robot Story (Colony) #5

Traffic Stop

     There is a distance of one hundred and fifty two million trillion kilometers between the solar system and it's only extrasolar colony world. It had taken the Fortune just over fifty-three years, eight months, and three days to reach its current position. The ship was located fifty astronomical units from the new world. Currently Fortune was transiting the cometary cloud surrounding the alien star, like the halo of a dandelion. 

     Someone was waiting for the Fortune in that unfathomable darkness. 

     A small vessel, about the size of a house, had been matching speed and course with the Fortune for the past two weeks. Now close enough to it's quarry, but not so close as to trigger the Fortune's navigation systems to steer away from what it might perceive as a navigational hazard, the chase ship released a cloud of boarders at the ship.

     This was no casual meeting in space. The Fortune was still decelerating at a full multiple of the force of gravity on Earth, bleeding away the kinetic energy that had carried it across the interstellar gulf, but now had to be dumped to make orbit around the new world. Unaware it was being boarded, the Fortune did not slow to make the jump across space easier for the intruders.

     There was no exhaust plume from the Fortune to incinerate the approaching invaders. Fortune utilized a modern reactionless drive technology that made the peaceful settlement vessel of ten million souls almost invisible to detection equipment that might have been looking for the bright approaching exhaust plume an older technology would generate. The pirates were able to target the bulk of the ship in their high speed dive from above.

     Because the ship was decelerating, and because the timing was calculated almost perfectly, the skydivers hit the hull of the Fortune at nearly the instant that their velocities matched, making an almost perfectly soft landing. This was an advantage to the pirates, because anything less than a perfect landing would have ripped the intruders in half. 

     Some of the pirates, their timing off by only the tiniest bit, hit the skin of the passenger ship hard. They dug into the ship's skin with tools strapped to their hands and feet, finding purchase on the vessel. Some limbs twisted awkwardly beneath form-tight pressure suits.

     Now clinging to the hull, the pirates individually navigated inerrantly the outside of the ship moving from their touchdown locations to the nearest external airlocks. Each pressure door providing ingress into the Fortune had been secured with technology that had once been formidable. However, the security's prime had been fifty three years past. The boarders circumvented the antique locks with ease, slipping inside.

     Now that the boarders had been safely deployed, the chase craft pulled out of the way of the Fortune, allowing itself to follow at a safe distance. The Fortune had a surprisingly small radar signature for a ship of peace. Even after it had been found, tracking the vessel had been challenging. Had it not been for detailed information radioed ahead from a highly-placed sources, the colony world would have had no clue about the Fortune's approach.

     The Fortune was thirty million tons of passengers, crew, infrastructure, and cargo. The twenty-four boarders each had a Herculean task to perform. Once inside the airlock, the first invaders aboard connected themselves to the ship systems, uploading codes that put the Fortune's supervisory computer systems to sleep while they worked. The boarders then co-opted the Fortune intercom system, putting the internal communications to work for them.

     Each of the invaders checked in. Safely inside the inner lock, the invaders each began unsecuring the grappling attachments to their hands and feet that they'd just used to bite into the Fortune's skin from space. Removing grappling claws, one of the invaders surveyed the cavernous passenger modules. Automatic systems began switching on the lighting. They had thirty days to search the vessel and decide what to do before the first members of the crew were scheduled to awaken from preservative slumber.

     While less than twenty seasons old, the pirate possessed the direct-to-brain memories of the original settlers, and most of the ten million colonists born or crafted since then. He could appreciate how much construction techniques on Earth had advanced since their own colony ship had launched a hundred and ninety four years earlier. The vast modules were in no way limited by what you could fit on an atmospheric rocket.

     "Proximity alert has been updated," one of the intruders advised over the ship intercom. 

     "Alytarches has been radioed to come around," radioed another.

     Fortune continued braking to enter orbit. The deceleration kept a steady gravity inside the ship. It was easy to stand and walk around. The pirate listened with half a mind while it's peers worked out the details of their own vessel pulling alongside. The ship was packed tightly. Each ring was three hundred meters in diameter. Low importance goods, like personal items, were packed the outermost part of the ring. The outer skin was the place most likely to suffer a loss of pressure. Three hundred thousand individual aestivation sleeves held sleeping passengers in a secondary ring. Large hallways allowed travel between the rings. The central core of each ring was more room for moving and staging equipment, as well as the heavy critical tools and supplies for the colony. The passageways in and out brought to the pirate's mind ancestral memories of Earth sports stadiums. As if thirty such stadiums were packed on top of one another. Which was only a small part of the Fortune compared to engines, infrastructure, and fuel - most of which was now spent.

     The intruder turned down one of the passenger rows. Hundreds of human beings were packed in sleeves filled with preservative slush. They were sleeping in a chemically induced near death that protected them from hunger and age during the five decades that the Fortune had spent in space. Each sleeve had a number. The pirate leaned close and shined a penlight inside. He thought he could see the human resting inside the gel. The pirate saw there was room enough for some personal possessions.

     The boarder followed the large hallway to the innermost part of the passenger module. Holding with the Earth stadium example, this would be where the game was played. This is also where larger equipment stored. A central shaft, taking up about a fifth of the arena floor allowed easy access of even the largest material. The large door covering that central shaft was closed during the flight.

     The bandit spotted two of his colleagues, also gathered together on the inside perimeter. That was expected. They had all aimed to land on the top ring. 

     The pirate circled to the other part of the arena, approached his companions. As the pirate close, trusted network communication automatically connected the trio. A fused reality overlay slipped into view, revealing the people inside the suits. The other bandit's forearm was twisted at an awful angle. "That looks bad, Stephen" the pirate said.

     "Got twisted on aerial," Stephen acknowledged. "Don't know yet how it's going to effect my work."

     Steven regarded the place high on the arena where he'd first saw the other pirate appear. "That's a pretty good distance. Have some problems of your own?"

     "Not as easy as in practice," the other bandit's comrade said to Stephen.

     "Trina," the pirate greeted Stephen's comrade.

     "Hey Dennis," Trina returned. She looked over the rail at the floor full of shipping containers arranged neatly on the floor.

     "Wow," Trina said.

     "Forty seconds per container!" Stephen complained. "What are they thinking?"

     Dennis was awestruck by what they were trying to do. "How are we supposed to search all of  this?" the pirate asked. Certainly at least some of the other twenty-three were thinking the same thing. 

     "They're early; and way off course," Trina commented. "We're lucky we caught them at all," she said, trying to put on a positive perspective.

     An informant had provided a time that the Fortune had started its trip, and the vessel's planned speed. From those two bits of data, the colonists had calculated where they expected the ship to arrive, plus or minus some allowance for error. Fortune had come into the cometary cloud nearly outside the net the pirates had laid for it. The Fortune's current position was the sum of millions of tiny course corrections the passenger ship had made independently during the fifty three year journey. 

     "I really want to see the engine," Stephen interrupted. According to their intelligence, the reactionless drive was near the center of the ship, fifteen stadiums down.

     "There are eight more Alytarches that think they can make our position in time enough to be useful," the commander of their inspection team announced over the intercom. "Until then," he advised, "stick with the plan. Do your best." 

     Dennis updated the math in his head. The adjustment would increase the amount of time they had to inspect each incoming passenger and baggage. "I've got five and a half minutes," Dennis announced. Trina nodded, indicating she'd come up with the same estimate.

     "We should probably get started," Stephen suggested. "Which one is first?"

     "The big ones might be a good way to start," Trina offered. Dennis agreed.

     Fused reality markers indicated other members of the inspection team in the auditorium as communication improved. Dennis lead, followed by Trina and Stephen down the stairs onto the stadium floor. Dennis picked one of the shipping containers randomly. 

     The shipping container door was closed by a simple lever. Dennis lifted a lock holding the container shut.

     "Should we cut it?" Dennis asked.

     Trina and Stephen looked at one another. "I guess we're going to have to," Stephen answered.

     Dennis unclipped and unslung the tool bag from his bag. He rested the backpack and the ground and crouched to retrieve the cutting torch packed neatly inside. Dennis stood and positioned the lock for the cutter. He took a glance at Trina and Stephen. They gestured back to Dennis reassuringly. Dennis lit the cutter. A brilliant spark of plasma created by a high powered laser cut the container lock almost instantly. Dennis discarded what was left of the lock.

     "Let's see what we've got," Trina said. Dennis lifted the container lever, and swung open the door. Trina helped with the other door while Stephen watched.

     Inside was a confusing bulk of metal on a pallet. Stephen recognized a control cabin for a human operator first. The machinery appeared to have teeth.

     Trina recognized the equipment. "It's a utility walker," she said. "Those are the four legs." Trina pointed at the teeth. "For navigating isolated terrain," she recited.

     "Is it dangerous?" Dennis asked, wondering if the equipment met the criteria for removal.

     "It looks dangerous," Stephen suggested.

     "No," Trina answered. "We're looking for anything that's clearly intended as a weapon. I don't think this counts." They walked onto the pallet. Stacked beside it were boxes. Dennis removed the boxes and Trina opened them. Inside were parts and supplies. Dennis continued unpacking boxes until they could reach the far end of the shipping container. He stepped inside, inspecting the far side with his pen light. 

     Stepping back out onto the stadium floor, Dennis asked, "how was that for time?"

     "Sixteen minutes," Trina answered. She looked at the boxes still on the stadium floor. 

     "And we will need to put this all back," Dennis realized. He felt overwhelmed.

     "Just do the best we can," Trina said encouragingly.

     The second cargo container was cloth and bulk goods, preserved and stored. When they were done, they proceeded to the third. Dennis cut and discarded the lock and they opened wide the doors that had been shut for half a century. Stephen, Dennis, and Trina stepped inside to begin unpacking.

     "How are you doing?" asked a voice from outside the shipping container. Dennis recognized the voice. He looked up from behind a box to see Josephus and Aleister, the team lead and executive officer standing in the doorway.

     "Is this right?" Trina asked their commanders. "Should we just be cutting off locks and diving in?"

     "I can't think of a better way to do it," their commander assured them.

     "We're trying to override the navigation system to get more time," Josephus advised. "We'll stop in a few times a day to check." The members of the team thanked Josephus and Aleister, who continued to their next review stop.

     A week later the leader of the inspection team waited in a room located immediately above the stadium floor. The room might have looked like a skybox, if not for the twelve preservative sleeves that made it seem more like a macabre mausoleum.

     "So this is it?" Josephus asked. He scanned the dark room of frozen bodies.

     "I think so," Noman, the technician, answered. "According to what we have pulled from the ship's computer, there is one captain of each primary colony assembly. Above them, coordinating the thirty captains, is a central fleet command consisting of one merchant spacer admiral and an executive staff of eleven."

     "And this is it?" Josephus queried, repeating the question. Noman sometimes got confused. 

     "MOD-11 is the only colony assembly with two separate executive officer decks," Noman answered, explaining his reasoning. "And the number of sleeves is right," Noman added, counting the sleep chambers. As if agreeing with Noman's prediction, Fortune's automatic systems illuminated a lamp above each of two hibernation pods. They had arrived just in time.

     "How soon?" Josephus asked.

     "It's a completely different aestivation technology," Noman answered. "Between five and eight minutes, according to the available documents."

     Above the dim noises of the ship, Noman and Josephus both now heard drains running from the sleeves, piping away the protective gel. Josephus crouched to see the person now clearly visible inside.

     "Why two?" Josephus asked.

     "According to the documentation, staff thawing happens in pairs," Noman answered, "so that, in the event of emergency, the sleeve buddy can provide assistance." 

     The second pod door lifted open, raised by an arm coated in preservative gel. Josephus stood up and straightened himself to deliver the news. Then, realizing the person inside was struggling, he reached inside the sleeve to help the Earther get out. At the same time, Josephus heard choking from the first sleeve. Noman assisted the other executive staff member of the Fortune out of the hibernation tube.

     The two officers accepted help silently. Noman provided a towels out of a storage closet to both officers. Josphus stood by while the other one coughed up the remains of the insulating gel. Now steady, Josephus could see the smaller officer assessing them with sharp, intelligent eyes. No doubt they had been briefed that they would be the first to awaken, Jospehus thought. Did they realize their ship had been intercepted?

     "Let me be the first to welcome you to the Asa system," Josephus began, reciting his prepared speech. The admiral and assistant dried off and donned their uniforms, taken from personal lockers. They did not say a word. "We've begun an inspection of your vessel for hazardous items, which will be removed before the Fortune is allowed to disembark."

     The first one to awaken, a taller man, glanced at the older one. This was the most dangerous moment: it would be easy for the Fortune's lawful crew to decide to repel the boarders. And, given the difference in numbers, such an insurrection could very easily succeed. 

     Keeping the Fortune crew in the dark about the precise number of inspectors, and using carefully chosen language to make this seem as routine as any other port inspection, would help - he hoped - to keep the Fortune's commanders peaceful. In the end, the colonial inspectors were relying on the crew to keep in mind the ten million sleeping souls for whose well-being they were responsible.  

    The older officer spoke after an awkwardly long pause. "Please don't delay us in orbit. The aestivation for the passengers is chemically timed. They begin awakening sixty days after we do."

    "You can call me Joe," Jospehus introduced himself. "I'll be your primary point of contact with the inspection team.

     Thirty days later, the Fortune was in orbit around the colony world Marin. The Fortune's whole crew complement had been roused from hibernation without incident, although the passengers remained asleep.

     The lawful crew had spent the last four weeks confined to quarters, a situation they had remarkably tolerated. Declaring the inspection concluded, command had been returned to the lawful crew, who now assumed control of the ship. 

     The crew conducted a series of maintenance spacewalks, repairing sensing equipment, and making the Fortune's bridge spaceworthy after having taken some minor damage during the half-century journey. 

     Joesephus had slipped into a new role as the colonial government's representative, and pilot into the inner system. Their destination, the planet Marin, was still a beach ball sized sphere in the view. They approached the planet from just behind the morning terminator, keeping the sun to port. Filters kept the orange star from blinding everyone on the bridge.

     "You'll want to take up a circular orbit at 4,000 kilometers above the surface," Jospehus advised the commander from the bridge, as they approached.

     "That's very close," the Admiral commented. "Where's your space elevator?"

     "Marin doesn't rotate fast enough to have one," Jospehus answered. "One day-night cycle is three hundred and forty two hours long. We thought of something creative for moving bulk material down the gravity well."

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