Proteus – 5

CHAPTER THREE

Strand walked to the control panel and pulled the handle. The hatch growled as it slid up and into the doorway. Varram stepped out of the locker room and stood in the corridor, unsure of which direction to go. Strand pointed to the right. “The grav-well is this way, sir.”

Varram smiled awkwardly. “Yes, of course.”

The two of them walked along the narrow corridor, and passed a medical staffer, rushing by with a bundle of supplies.  He shouted as he approached. “Make a hole!”

Varram and Strand stood to one side, backs against the wall as he passed.

Proteus – 4

Strand stood rigidly. “I understand, sir. I’ll try not to disappoint you.”

Varram had finally managed to pull the tight undersuit onto his frame and closed the seal-seam, but the collar was giving him trouble. He threw his hands up in frustration. “God! This infernal uniform will be the death of me!”

Strand turned slightly, looking sideways at the Science Chief. “Sir? If I may?”

“Would you?” Varram splayed his fingers at his neck region in a tense gesture. “This head-sleeve is impossible!”

The ensign walked over to Varram and untucked the baggy frill of material that billowed from the neck of his suit. “It’s designed to roll up into a cushion-type collar when not in use. Just leave the plastic release ring hanging out the back like this, so it’s easy to find in case of an emergency depressurization.” Strand took his wrist and guided his hand to the back of the suit, so he could feel the ring and learn its proper setup.

Varram looked at his reflection in the mirror, this time, fully dressed in the uniform of a Pantheon Space Corps Science Chief. His uniform was similar to the ensign’s, a tight-fitting black and green undersuit, but with extra gold bands around his wrists, denoting his rank. She stood respectfully behind him, and Varram saw her face, youthful and awkward. He was her commanding officer, and Varram felt his responsibility for her settle on his shoulders as the smartfoam lining of his undersuit molded to the forms of his body. He breathed a sigh and turned around. “Thank you, ensign… I’m sorry what did you say your name was?”

“It’s Strand, Chief.”

Varram held out his hand, and she shook it. “I’m sorry we got off to a rocky start there, Strand. I think I need my morning cup of tea. You seem like a good egg. I’m sure you’ll work out fine.”

The ensign nodded curtly. “I’ll try not to disappoint you, Chief. Now if you’ll follow me, Captain Hargest says we need to get to the bridge.” She handed him the data slate she had been holding.

“The bridge? But I haven’t met with my team yet, we haven’t even unpacked our experiment packets..” Varram raised his eyebrows as he thumbed the activation icon and the slate faded up “What’s this now? We’re not even in the Vela system yet?”

“That’s right, Chief. Most of the science team is still in prep for thaw-out. We’re on approach to the termination shock.”

Varram felt his senses sharpen as adrenaline spiked into his system. He knew that something unexpected must have happened. All the procedures, training, bureaucracy, all the necessary and logistical steps that had brought him to this place were falling away. The unknown was lurking close by, and this was why he had come. To stand naked in the void of space, bathed in the light of an alien sun, to push to the edge of the human sphere, this was why he had left his family. He had never felt more alive than those moments in his lab, or in the field, when his research took him into new territory. This was his reason for being. “Let’s go, Strand. You’d better tell me on the way to the bridge.”

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© Dylan Edwards, 2012.

Proteus – 3

He knew his sister Fadheela would carry on the family traditions and honour his father’s memory. He had abandoned his family; left the Earth, possibly forever, but this sacrifice would be worth it in the end. Yash would write his name in the stars, forever a part of this historic expedition to explore a new world. He saw the pride in his mother’s eyes when he said his final farewell. She had said to him, “Your father would be so proud of you.”

Now he was billions of kilometers from home, and the eyes looking back at him were not proud.

There was a sudden growling sound as servo motors pulled open one of the doors behind him. Yash turned just in time to expose himself to the woman who was entering the change room, with a data slate in her hand.

“Hey hey hey – changing in here!” Varram lurched left and right, waving his arms, grabbing the empty air for something to cover his nudity.

The woman seemed unimpressed as she fixed her eyes on the cieling. “Apologies, Chief. Your kit is in Locker 2.” She gestured towards one of the cages. He edged towards it, keeping a suspicious eye on the intruder. She wore the black and green uniform of a Science Specialist.

“You are on my team? I don’t recognize you.” He reached the locker and pulled open the door, using it as a screen.

“Ensign Inga Strand, Chief. Pantheon Command approved my assignment after launch prep was underway.” She glanced over at Varram as he popped open his trunk, and removed his uniform. He caught her looking and scowled fiercely.

“No peeking! Turn around!” Strand complied and faced the wall. Satisfied, Varram returned his attention to the task at hand. He stepped into his uniform. “You’re an ensign? How the hell did you get onto the Trident?”

“Command felt that the Science Division needed an extra set of hands, sir. Or so I was told. At the time.”

“Command felt-?” Varram struggled with the undersuit in his rising indignation. “An extra set of hands? I selected my team from a list of candidates as long as your arm, Ensign. If I had known I would get an extra set of hands..” He nodded apologetically to her back. “No offense, but there are many others I would have chosen to take your place.”

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© Dylan Edwards, 2012.

NOTE: Short post this week – it was a busy time – My eldest son graduated from high school today!

Proteus – 2

Yash Varram remembered the cold floor under his feet, the bright white lights, the stainless steel surfaces within the cryolab. He remembered a voice telling him to sit up on a steel gurney. He remembered a hissing sound, and the voice counting down from one hundred, and then nothing else.

He was itchy. He reached up to scratch his nose, but his arm was snagged on something. He moved his head but saw nothing, and then laughed softly. His eyes were not open.

“Of course..”

Varram’s arm was held in a gentle grip. An electronic voice softly droned. “Please remain still for just a moment.” There was a pinch on his forearm.

“Ok. Might as well.”

He decided to try and remember something else. He had been asleep. He had been dreaming. There was a house in the forest. She had said that he might dream and she was right. He did dream, he just couldn’t remember what. She said that during the hypersleep, people sometimes dreamed. The doctor was very nice. A nice lady. She had a kind face.

“Dr. Closson is a nice old lady.”

“And if you’re a good little boy you can have some ice cream.”

Varram started at the sound of the Doctor’s voice. “Ice cream! Doctor? I can’t see you.. oh yeah.” He laughed to himself again.

“Just a moment. This is going to feel a little warm.”

There was a squishy sound as liquid flowed over Varram’s face, and ran down his cheeks. A mask was pulled away from his eyes, and a flare of light dimmed down to soft amber. He turned his head to one side, seeing a tangle of clear tubes with multicolored fluids drizzling though them, and twinkling lights softly pulsing in the background.

He made a fist and then relaxed his hand, feeling a thick wetness. He brought his hand up to his face and saw blue gel dripping off his fingertips in clumps. Cryonic medium, the hypersleep subject is immersed in it for the duration of their journey.

“Oh yeah.. Oh!”

He sat up suddenly and looked around in alarm. He was in a small white room, paneled with rounded cushioning and lit at floor level. There were medical machines here, affixed to the wall, or held on mechanical arms. He was sitting up on a bed, dripping with slime and naked, but for a loose-fitting pair of shorts and a few strap-bands that were fastened to his arms and legs, trailing wires and tubes. A matronly woman in white medical robes stood nearby, tapping a screen. A white cylindrical robot craned up to him on its four legs and extended a padded grappler towards his shoulder.

The robot chimed softly “Please remain still for just a moment.”

“Science Chief Yash Varram?”

“Yes. That’s me.”

The doctor tapped the screen and pushed it away as she turned towards her patient “Of course it is.” She pulled a stylus out of her pocket and held it towards Varram’s face. “Open wide. Say ahh. Look here. Do you know where you are?”

Dr. Closson shone a light into his eyes while the watchbot removed tubes and straps. “Recovery Room aboard the SS Trident.”

Her firm hands felt his jaw and neck. “Correct. Except this room is multi-use. Rooms are a precious commodity on a ship like this. We call this ‘The Clean Room’ – just to help you get your terms straight.” She smiled as she touched the back of her stylus to his chest. “Breathe for me, please.”

Varram inhaled deeply and exhaled while Closson held her finger to a bead in her ear. “Good, good. Here swing your legs over the edge of the bed. Stay like this please. Can you tell me the year you left Earth?”

He squinted and recalled the details of his departure. “It was 2051 AD when I left Earth for pre-flight at Luna Prime and then 2052 when I arrived at Olympus Mons on Mars, where I was put into hypersleep.. by you, Dr. Closson.”

Dr. Closson nodded and helped him to his feet. “Can you stand up for me? Good. And do you know what year it is now?”

“A journey of 36 light years, accounting for gradual acceleration and deceleration, I’d estimate 2092, Earth time. Ship time would be less due to relativistic spacetime compression.”

“The relativistic what now?”

“It was a 40-year trip, but because we were traveling close to the speed of light it was perhaps as little as 12 years to us on board.”

“Right. Whatever you say, Chief. You’re clearly doing fine. I have about a hundred more thaw-jobs to get through so…” She thumbed her computer screen, it bleeped and flashed green. Varram’s file was displayed, with the updated status line that read: ‘Approved for active duty’. She guided him to a narrow hatchway and pressed a button. The doorway opened, revealing a stall fitted with nozzles. “You remember post-cryo procedure?”

Hesitantly, he stepped into the compartment. “Um.. “

“Welcome aboard, Mr. Varram.” Closson smiled and waved as the hatch closed.

“Thank.. you.. Doctor..” He made an inspection of the stall and found a cluster of controls. He pressed his thumb against the ID scanner, which hummed and then flashed green. A row of green lights appeared on the panel. They were going out one after the other, the line shrinking one green bead at a time. “Right. Post-cryo procedure.. which one of these is..?”

Hot water sprayed him from every angle. He screamed with the shock of it, and then started laughing. It felt amazing, his every nerve ending was opening like a garden of blossoms in spring. Warm fingers of water massaged his skin, washing away the clinging clumps of gelatinous cyro-medium, and also –

“My pants! Hey!”

Varram grabbed at the soggy clumps of dissolving material that had been his only clothing and watched as they plopped to the floor and fizzled away into foam. “Hmm! I guess there’s no underwear in space.”

With a sharp clack, the water flow stopped and the stall was lit up with a brilliant blue. He felt the flow of air as warm wind blew up through the floor grille. There was a popping sound in his ears and his hearing became much clearer. Rotors and pumps were growling in the walls, drains and pipes were circulating fluids, and behind that, the thrum and buzz of servos. He smiled to himself and kissed the wall.

“Hello Trident. This is one hell of a first date.”

As if in response, the blue lights went out, and Varram was left momentarily in darkness, naked and confused. A heartbeat later, a crack of white light appeared in front of him, and a rush of cool air blew over his skin, raising goosebumps. The line of white widened, revealing an adjoining chamber. It was a small locker room, featuring a bench, four large cage lockers, and a full-length mirror. There were two large octagonal hatches leading out of the room, each one with a standard door control operated by thumb ID scanner. He stepped out of the shower stall and into the room, his bare feet twitching against the non-slip bumps of the cool floor.

He regarded his reflection in the mirror – his dark hair was gone, buzzed close to his scalp before he awoke. His face was also shaved smooth. He turned around, examining himself. “Not too bad for a 75 year old man.” Biologically he was about 35 years old, his metabolism having been slowed to a standstill during the hyper-sleep. Back on Earth, 40 years would have gone by. His family would be much older, his sister might have a family, his mother could have passed away.

Varram stepped closer to the reflective wall and looked into his eyes. He saw his father’s eyes looking back at him, and he grimaced.

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© Dylan Edwards, 2012.

Proteus 1

Captain William Hargest was awakened from hyper-sleep as the SS Trident approached the outer heliosphere of the Vela IV system. A trio of watchbots assisted him with his recovery. T.009 offered a beverage. “Good morning, Captain. Ship’s time is 0500, January 15th, 2072 AD.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but only a rasping sound escaped his lips. T.009 held out the drink.

T.010 spoke with maternal authority. “Hydration and nutritional supplements.”

Hargest grasped the bev-tube and slurped. Once his throat was moistened, he spoke. “Ship’s status?”

T.011 held out a datapad, which lit up, displaying a schematic of the SS Trident. “Condition Green. Holding course at .012. Ship is in zero-gravity on all decks. All systems operating within mission parameters.”

“Crew?”

“197 souls aboard and in cryostasis.”

“Mission pods?”

“Gaea, Cronus and Atlas are secure.”

“Wake up Hyperion.”

T.011 beeped a warning. “Attention! Standard company protocol specifies that all alpha-level crew be fully active before any other personnel – “

Hargest held up his hand. “I’m overriding standard protocol, same as usual.”

T.011 held out a small device and the Captain inserted his index finger. There was a slight click and Hargest winced. “Genetic Sequence verified.” A light scanned his face as he spoke the override code command. “Executive override confirmed. Beginning spin-down of cryostasis for code-name Hyperion”

“Thank you, Eleven.”

T.009 activated a vac-razor and started clearing away the wiry growth on Hargest’s jaw and neck. “Any damage while I was out?”

T.011 rolled closer and tapped an icon on the pad “Summary: Seventeen low-level interstellar collision events, three radiation burst events and two equipment failure events during the past 12.7 shiptime years. All events were within the scope of automated mission procedures and have been repaired.”

“I’ll review the detailed report this evening.” T.009 made a series of passes across Hargest’s scalp, leaving him with a short buzz cut.

“It’s on the ship’s network, Captain.”

T.010 rapped Hargest’s knee with a mallet. A light was shone into his eyes and a swab taken from the inside of his mouth, nose and ears. T.009 brought the Captain a hot face cloth. Hargest rubbed his face and neck. He flexed his limbs slowly.

“Let’s take a look topside.”

The ship was still cruising within the interstellar medium when the Captain floated onto the bridge, wrapped in a comforter and sipping a hot beverage from a g-mug. He stood for a moment in front of the viewport while three more watchbots monitored the control stations. He cupped his good hand around Vela IV, his eyes drinking in its reddish light. He slowly closed his hand, until his fist eclipsed the star’s light. He stood this way for a moment, fist held out in front of him like a stone monument. The Trident was hurtling forward, and slowly, Vela IV crested over the edge of Hargest’s knuckles, her light flooded his eyes again. The bridge was quiet, and Hargest wordlessly called up the datafile for his destination, the second planet of this system, signified as HD85512b and renamed Proteus. 3.6 times the mass of Earth and 1.4 times the gravity. Very humid, with 60% cloud cover. Surface temperature ranges from 30 to 50 degrees Celsius. It orbits its late-cycle star every 60 days.

T.006 called out an alarm from the exterior sensor array control station. An object was floating a few hundred thousand klicks out, and directly in their flight path.

Hargest checked the navigational data to ensure that the Trident’s approach vector was aligned with the tail of the Vela’s heliosheath, the point of least turbulence between the galactic wind of the Milky Way and the solar winds of Vela.

“It’s the advanced probe.”

T.008 beeped. “This location is inconsistent with mission parameters. AT.001 was programmed to await Trident’s approach in orbit of the second planet.”

“Something’s happened.” The captain floated into his chair and buckled himself in, with assistance from T.009. “What’s Hyperion’s status?”

T.011 put up a human schematic on a holoscreen. “Code Name Hyperion is revived to 83%. Estimated time to full activity in 2 minutes.”

Hargest nodded curtly. “Excellent. Begin full warm up on all decks. Take the ship to condition yellow.”

All over the ship, 12 watchbots snapped into action, starting the revival cycle on the cryopods, powering up dormant sections of the ship. Captain Hargest could feel the hum of power under his feet. Trident was awakening from her long, cold slumber.

Hargest gripped the straps of his harness. “Main thrust burn on all three engines at 33%… on my mark..”

T.008 replied “Engines primed and standing by.”

“3.. 2.. 1.. Go.”

Alerts sounded across all decks and every watchbot secured themselves for deceleration.

Clung. Clung. Clung. Three flares of light stabbed out as the starship’s three enormous fusion engines fired in succession, slowing the ship. Hargest felt the lurch of inertia, and gripped the armrests, apprehensive for system failure indicators. Sudden deceleration could be hazardous, especially after the Trident had been dormant for an extended period. Hargest would feel more confident if the crew was thawed and active, but that would take hours, and the advanced probe would be behind them in minutes unless they dropped speed.

Trident shook as a loud roaring sound filled the ship. Alarms flashed on Hargest’s console indicating a coil failure in one of the engines’ reactor cores. The Captain swore to himself and rapidly punched a key sequence into his command console. “Shutdown engine number two! Emergency Shutdown!”

The ship shuddered and lurched. One of the watchbots slipped away from its station, hurtling across the bridge and smashing into a railing. It flipped end over end, but caught itself with an outstretched grappler.

Hargest desperately wished more of the crew was awake. He eyed the long range sensor display in front of him, checking the locator box around the approaching probe for its velocity. “We’re coming in too fast. We’re going to miss it!”

“Miss what, sir?”

Hargest swiveled his seat towards the human voice behind him. “Val!”

Commander Valerie Ruud had entered the bridge. Her build was solid like a gymnast, her dark hair was cut to short stubble like the captain’s. Her grip on the wall rail was solid and her eyes were clear and calm. She wore a zero-g undersuit studded with metallic shunts. “Reporting for duty, Captain.”

Hargest jabbed his finger towards the engineering console. “Engine 2 blew a coil! I need more thrust on engines 1 and 3!”

“Aye aye!” Val pulled herself along the wall grips, hand over hand, making her way towards the side of the bridge. She tumbled into place at the engineering station and fastened the harness around her torso. Her gloved hands tapped out keystrokes in rapid succession. “Increasing output on engines 1 and 3 to maximum.”

She hit a final key, and the ship shuddered again. The view screen flared with a brightness that blotted out the stars. Twin plumes of atomic fire jutted forward from the engine pods and the ship made a terrible groan as the ship’s superstructure flexed under the strain of rapid deceleration.

“Ease them off, Commander! I need my ship in one piece!”

The twin flares in front of the ship died down, revealing the open starscape once again. Hargest frowned at his readout screen. The data from AT.001 would be invaluable for planning the next phase of the mission. It was sent ahead of the Trident to make a close range survey of Proteus and the Vela IV system. It was supposed to be awaiting their arrival in orbit of the planet, yet here it was, hurtling away from the system. Was it a malfunction, or had it encountered something beyond the ability of its programming to handle?

Hargest barked at one of the watchbots. “Six! Can you get a data link with the probe yet?”

T.006 flashed as it interfaced with the Trident’s comm. Station. “Establishing connection.”

“How long till we are out of transmission range, Commander Ruud?”

Val checked her instruments, her lips tightening into a thin line. “We’ve got about 200 seconds, Captain.”

Hargest took a moment to check his options. There was not enough time to transfer all the data from the probe to the ship’s memory systems – and no guarantee that it would be useable anyways. They couldn’t physically intercept the probe, not without coming to a full stop and coming back around, which could put them months behind their schedule.

“Six! Retrieve original flight plan data packets for the probe from ship’s memory systems.”

T.006 flashed in response. “Files located; loading into transfer buffer.”

Ruud looked over. “100 seconds remaining, Captain.”

Hargest leaned forward. “Transmit the flight plan back to the probe and force a re-boot of its nav-system! Over-write the on-board files!”

“Transmitting.” T.006 displayed a progress bar on its display. “8% complete.”

Two objects, metal and angular, hurtled towards each other through an airless realm of shadow.

“51% complete.”

Across the void of space, pings of invisible radio waves bounced back and forth between the Trident and the little probe, whose computer decoded the signals into packets of data, assembling them into useable code.

“40 seconds!”

They passed each other in a flash, the closest distance between them over a hundred thousand kilometers, a hair’s breadth on the astronomical scale of things.

“86% complete.”

Commander Ruud re-checked her calculations. “We will be out of transmission range in 20 seconds, Captain.”

T.006 chimed out “100% Transfer compl-“

Hargest interrupted. “Re-boot the system! Do it now!”

The watchbot sent the signal, and the pulse beamed out towards the retreating device as it sped off into the all-encompassing darkness.

Val eased back into her harness. “It’s gone, Captain.”

Hargest rubbed his face and looked out of the viewport. “It was my best shot. If all goes well, the on board nav system will restart, check its position and then make a correction. With a bit of luck the probe will follow us, and maybe catch up in a few weeks. Shut down the engines, Commander.”

Commander Ruud cut the power and engines 1 and 2 fell silent. “What now, sir?”

“Let’s see.. I’ve been revived from hyper-sleep for about thirty minutes and in that time I’ve buggered up our flight plan, butchered our mission schedule and burnt out number two engine’s mag-coil. We need to get our crew thawed out and active before I wreck the whole ship, Val.”

“The Trident’s a tough bird, sir.”

“First of her line, Commander. Pantheon built her to take humanity further than we’ve ever been before.”

“340 trillion kilometers.” Ruud turned her face towards the glow of Vela IV, caught up in the emotion of the moment.

“The journey is over, Val” he said. “Now the mission begins.”

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© Dylan Edwards, 2012.