At The Speed of Light – Part 2

The repairs took longer than expected, but eventually Brett was satisfied. As the Pikes Peak restarted its jump preparation, the atmosphere on the ship was one of unease and paranoia. Everyone aboard knew the risks of cutting corners, but no one wanted to attract the wrath of Captain Cole, whose mood had remained foul ever since the problem first arose. By the time the eight hour recharge cycle had completed, he seemed ready to snap. As the ship prepared for the next jump, everyone aboard, Mike included, broke with routine and filed on to the flight deck as if it would be a good luck charm. Compared to before, the Jump was conducted almost in silence, with only the most minimal of interaction between Cole and the ships computer. As ship’s voice counted down to zero, everyone held their breath and crossed their fingers.  The more experienced among them knew that if something did go wrong with a Jump it would at least be quick, but that was little comfort. The clock hit zero…

“Jump.”

…The ship instantly reappeared four lightyears away without any difficulty. The mood lifted, jokes were made and congratulations shared, even the stoic Cole seemed to perk up a bit. The only person who didn’t see cause to celebrate was Jordan, who still had the pressure of the rest of the flight weighing down on her. Everyone’s high spirits meant they paid little notice as they tried to get back into normal routines. In less than a day the trip would be over, the crew would get some needed downtime, and Mike would be out of their hair and off on the more sedate ‘Express Liner’ to Earth. The thought of any more difficulties couldn’t be further from their minds.

The eight hour recharge cycle for the sixth jump passed quickly, Mike’s anticipation of finally being off the Pikes Peak improving almost everything. Even the stodgy protein ration meal just before the clock ticked over seemed more bearable somehow. It had made sleep impossible, however, and he spent the time pacing around the common area trying to tire himself out. After a few laps, he gave up and decided to investigate the flight deck. Hauling himself up the ladder, he found Ramin and Shuang going through the motions for Jump preparation, the big clock showing only a few minutes left.
“Mike, hi!” The tall pilot greeted him. “Come to watch the B-team work?” She grinned as Ramin gave a derisive snort.
“Something like that,” Mike replied, “All the excitement’s been keeping me up.”
“Yeah, can’t wait to get to New Albion, get some r-and-r.” She returned to the console as she talked. “Guess you’re heading straight on to Earth, then? Would love to visit some day.”
“That’s right,” He hesitated before adding “You’ve never been?”
“No. Strange really, I grew up in orbit but never took the time to go down the gravity well before shipping out here.”
“In orbit? You mean the Moon… Luna even?” Mike asked, and Shuang nodded and tapped the Lunar Federation flag on her jumpsuit.
“One of the bits that used to be Chinese way back when. Think I’m the only member of the crew who’s never set foot on the Homeworld,” She laughed at the very idea, “though Jordan and the Cap have the excuse of being born there. And you, obviously.”
“If we’re quite done sharing for one day, can we get on?” Ramin interrupted loudly. “After all, we do have another star system to be in.” He had already pulled the Drive Key from its locker and waved it around idly.
“Oh, yeah, sure thing Ramin.” Shuang replied, pulling herself in to the pilot’s chair. “Take a seat, Mike, not like there’s a crowd.” Mike complied and took the same grav-chair he did on the first Jump. Ramin, seeming suddenly impatient, forced the Drive Key in to the console and turned it.
“Drive Key is in, coordinates set,” He announced as the computer started to go through its script again, “Jump Eight hundred and seventy-three, let’s get this done.” Again the ship lurched as the computer took control, though by now Mike had finally become accustomed to the violent acceleration. He even managed to close his eyes and just listen to the din of the flight deck. As the ship reached full acceleration, Mike heard Ramin raise his voice over the computer.
“Wait one, something’s not right here. That shouldn’t be a-” but it was too late. The computer had finished its checklist and discharged the drive exactly on cue.

“Jump.”

The computer had barely finished before there was a sickening crash from somewhere deep beneath the flight deck. Immediately the entire ship shuddered and accelerated unexpectedly.
“Warning. Warning. Jump Sequence Interrupted.” The computer announced over the din. Clearly the ship was no longer travelling in a straight line, as the gravity on the flight deck started veering around dramatically.
Somewhere out of sight, Ramin was yelling at the top of his voice. “What the fuck was that?”
“Capacitors fully discharged. Ship has sustained severe damage.” The computer rattled off to itself.
“I don’t know!” Shuang yelled over it. “We’re tumbling at full acceleration. I can’t get any response from the main drive, I think we hit something.”
“No shit. Can we get control back?” Ramin countered, sounding panicked.
“Still got RCS, it’s the main drive stuck on full burn.” The strain of fighting the ship’s motion was audible in her voice. “I’m going to try something, wait one.”
A few seconds later, the entire ship shuddered again and the acceleration came to an abrupt halt. From the direction of the ladder, Mike could hear everything not tied down in the common area dislodge itself. Then the only sound for a moment was the constant pulsing alarm.
“Estimated Jump of three-point-seven lightyears with a navigational accuracy of fifty-three percent.” The ship finished. “Ship has sustained serious damage. Returning ship to manual control. Safety interlocks re-engaged. Jump Drive is now cycling to Idle mode.”
Ramin jumped from his grav-chair, looking panicked. For the first time, Mike saw something other than hard pessimism from the technician. From below, there was a commotion as the rest of the crew came to their senses. Cole dragged himself up the ladder  on to the flight deck, looking furious.

“What the fuck just happened to my ship?” He bellowed over the alarms. “Where the hell are we? And someone shut that fucking alarm up.” There was a flurry of activity and finally the room fell silent, far more silent than it had been before the engine was offline. “Right. Now I can think. Shuang, can we get under some kind of control?”
“No main engine, captain, but we got thrusters,” The pilot responded, “Will take a while, but we should be able to stop tumbling.”
“Do it.” Cole ordered, “Ramin, stay up here and figure out what the hell is going on, Mike, come and help out down below, we might have injuries.”
Mike paused, since this was the first time Cole had used his first name, before complying. Following the captain down the ladder in to the common area, he realised how difficult moving around in zero-G could be. In the common area Jordan was helping Brett, his forehead bleeding heavily. As they passed the galley, Cole grabbed a first aid kit from a locker and thrust it in to Mike’s hands.
“Brett, how we doing?” Cole said, moving to help.
“Just peachy, boss,” The engineer replied, sounding groggy. “You should see the other guy.” He grinned then touched his forehead. “Should probably do something about the blood, though. What hit us?”
“Don’t know yet,” The captain steadied himself as the ship’s thrusters sent shudders of light gravity in multiple directions across the room. “Need you on your feet for it, though. Need to get it fixed, yeah?” He turned to Jordan. “You ok?”
“Bit sore, but fine, I guess.” Jordan gave a weak smile, “Something must’ve gone severely tits-up to do that out of a Jump. I swear my coordinates were fine.”
“Don’t worry about that now, just make sure everyone’s alive, then we can figure out what happened.” Cole hauled himself back to the ladder and disappeared down into the depths of the ship, leaving Mike and Jordan tending to Brett’s wounds.

Bringing the ship to rest took less time than anticipated, and before long the view out of the tall windows of the flight deck settled on the small, dull, sandy-grey planet they had Jumped alongside. With no idea what had caused the accident, Cole had sent Ramin and Brett back out on to the hull to investigate, even though everyone was convinced that the engineer was severely concussed. But with the ship essentially dead in space, Cole had said that he had no other choice. As the damage was assessed, the rest of the crew kept themselves busy any way they could. Cole and Jordan had cordoned off the flight deck and were going over every possible source of a Jump error, while Shuang and Mike scoured the common area and cargo hold for whatever useful supplies they could find. Keeping busy seemed to be the best way to avoid having to think about the fact they would be stranded here if the issue was unfixable.
Two hours passed before the entire crew assembled again. Half the crew hadn’t slept in quite some time now and the other half had been rudely awakened by the accident. No one spoke as they sat around the galley table, nobody wanted to admit how bad the situation had become. Finally Cole cleared his throat.
“So, me and Jordan have gone over the entire system and it seems there was an error in the coordinates for Jump Eight Seventy Three,” He explained, wearily, “We Jumped too far in-system and must’ve caught some debris, or a meteorite or something.”
“It doesn’t look like it was our mistake,” Jordan interjected, “It looks like something as simple as a jammed relay.” The room fell silent for a moment before she added “It wasn’t anyone’s fault, understand, it was a mechanical failure.”
“But,” Cole continued, “We’re still here, and we’re still in trouble unless it’s fixable. Brett?” Everyone turned to the engineer expectantly.
“Well, the main engine is dead,” He started, the stress taking the usually cheerful edge from his voice. “Stone dead. Whatever we clipped completely destroyed the main exhaust bell and shredded most of the assemblies that let us vector thrust. If we power up, we’ll have no control over acceleration, and there’s enough of a tear along one side that we’ll have to fight lateral thrust too. Honestly it’s a miracle that it didn’t crack the heat shield and slag the pressure hull, really.”
“So not fixable?” Mike asked.
“A week in sealed dry dock, maybe,” Brett shrugged, “But out here, with the tools at hand? No. We’ve got thrusters to keep us in a stable orbit, so no need to worry about that at least, but we’re going nowhere.”
“Nowhere.” Cole repeated and sighed. “Ok, so what’s the supply situation?”
“Well, we had a look,” Shuang began, “What do you want first, good, bad or worse?”
“Start at the top.”
“Ok. So, water and air,” The pilot read from her notebook, “Last refit we had one of those new recycler plants put in and the scrubber’s are certified for decades, so we should be good on both counts as long as we’ve got power. But that’s where problems start. We’ve got enough fusionables for the generator to last a few months, we can stretch that a bit longer with whats left from the drive now we don’t need it. We can power down anything redundant but we’ll have six months tops before we’re in the dark. Then there’s food…”
“How long?” Cole interrupted, a grim look of realisation on his face.
“We had supplies for six on board, three weeks each for redundancy. We’ve used a couple of days worth already, but we can stretch them out with rationing. Then there’s those emergency supplies down in the hold…”
How long?” Cole repeated, more forcefully.
“A month and a half, maybe a tiny bit more if we really try.” The room went quiet again. Cole put his head in his hands.
“A month and a half.” He said to no one in particular. “Ok. At least we have a timescale. I’ll go power everything down, you guys,“ He waved vaguely, “find something to keep yourselves busy, I guess.”

Keeping busy was more difficult than it sounded. As the ship fell dark, power limited to just the bare essentials to keep alive, the crew tried to deal with the knowledge that they would now likely die orbiting a lifeless planet in an uncharted star system. Some tried their best to ignore it, throwing themselves into what little work there was on the dead ship. The captain, however, had isolated himself on the empty flight deck, doing nothing more than stare out of the cupola. For Mike, the knowledge of impending doom weighed heavily on him. When he had entered middle age, he had expected to go through the usual crisis, searching for a new direction before finally settling down, but now he actually faced down his own death, he had no idea how to take it. It also didn’t seem right to go to one’s death reading crap spaceport fiction. After the first eighteen hours, he eventually gave up and emerged back into the common area. Brett and Ramin were sat at the table looking morose.
“You know, when I left home, I didn’t think it’d be like this.” Ramin said as Mike approached, any derision gone from his voice. “I thought I was going to get on a long haul freighter, see Earth, get as far as Polaris then come all the way home.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh.” The engineer nodded along, taking a swig from a bottle he had acquired from somewhere.
“Even after I signed up with the Peak, I always thought it wouldn’t be forever, you know?” He continued, politely refusing the bottle when offered. “It wasn’t like home was going anywhere, was it? New Pakistan would always be that little star in the distance. Never had the time to go back, and now…” He sighed “…here we are.”
“I don’t mind not seeing home again,” Brett responded. “Never did like living under the domes. Would have liked to see Olympus Mons one more time, even if it’s too touristy these days. Maybe once they get the atmosphere finished, you know?” The engineer looked up and passed the bottle to Mike. “How about you, Passenger Wiggins?
“Canberra? Nah. Most of my family live elsewhere these days, anyway. Would rather have a sky over my head, though.” He caught the bottle and took a sip and coughed violently. “What the hell is this stuff?”
“Potato alcohol,” Brett laughed. “Make it from galley scraps in the engine room. Potentially lethal, not that it matters now, really.”
The three men fell silent. The bottle was emptied and Brett went off to find another one. Left alone with Ramin, Mike decided to voice the concern that had been creeping in to his thoughts since the accident.
“So how come we can’t…” He fumbled tipsily for the right word, “Y’know… go?”
“What?” Ramin stared at him blankly.
“You know, Jump.” He gestured wildly, “Thought that’s nothing to do with the main engine and we’re close enough to New Albion. ”
“Ah, Well, you need thrust to Jump.” Ramin said as if that explained everything.
“How’s that?”
“You have to be accelerating forwards, right,” the comms technician waved his hand around to illustrate, “at least half-G, or you Jump to the exact same point you left from, or close enough, and either get caught in your own Jump wake and explode,” He made a childish explosion noise, “or you try to occupy the same space twice for a split second and you violently explode. Either way, quick but not pretty.”
“Shame we can’t use the planet, really.” Mike said idly, vaguely recalling a trick he’d heard once. “Y’know, use gravity.”
“Nah, no point, we’d need an engine to try and slingshot us in to a Hohmann transfer.” Ramin replied, then thought for a second, “But… If we use the thrusters… de-orbit us and ride the gravity well down… yes. It’d be potentially suicidal but we’d get acceleration enough, sure.” He got up. “You might be on to something there, let me run this past someone.”

Captain Cole responded with a full minute of hysterical laughter before giving the idea his blessing. He dragged everyone in to the common area to announce the new plan.
“So thanks to Mister Wiggins’ imagination and some applied thinking by Ramin, we have a solution of sorts.” He announced as the other crew members held their breath. “We are going to Jump through the planet!” After a few seconds, Brett started laughing uncontrollably.
“Is that possible?” Shuang asked.
“Well, yes, but…” Jordan replied, thinking through the problem as she spoke, “…It’d depend on the planet’s gravity and atmospheric drag, but so long as we de-orbit at the right point, with the right coordinates and Jump before we get cratered… theoretically, yes.”
Theoretically?” Mike repeated, “No-one’s ever done this before?”
“Don’t think so, and anyway, the computer’s hardwired to stop the process if it detects anything in the way within sixty kilometres.” She turned back to Cole, “We’d have to bypass it and Jump manually.”
“Can we do that?” Cole asked Ramin.
“Sure, it’s one of the old Santiago Computing Twelve-Nineties, I can bypass it, reprogram it, repurpose it if we want to,” Ramin replied, grinning broadly.
“I’m no seasoned Spacer,” Mike interjected, “but there seems so much that can go wrong here.”
“Oh, loads,” Brett said, still out of breath from laughing. “Almost certain death, I’d say. But I’d take that over slow decay orbiting some pebble in the middle of nowhere.”
“So we can do it?” Cole asked, receiving a nod from his engineer. “Ok, so you all know the risks, you all know what we need to do. I’m going to put it to a vote. All those who want to try it…” Everyone but Mike raised their hands. “Right we are, get to it people.

For possibly the last time, the ship became a hotbed of activity. Everything was powered back up to normal levels and the crew set to hacking apart the very systems that were put in place to keep them safe. Ramin and Brett were elbow deep under the flight deck consoles trying to rig a bypass that would allow Cole to trigger the Jump engines manually. The modifications so far had left the air thick with the smell of ozone. At the same time, Cole and Jordan were poring over every scrap of available data to make the whole scheme work. While the Jump to New Albion would be easy to plot, the difficulty came from finding what everyone was carefully avoiding calling an impact point to allow the Jump to work. Despite the stress, they were in relatively high spirits, the knowledge they were working a way out of their predicament kept the pressure from being too much. As the others worked, Shuang and Mike kept themselves out of the way, the latter deciding to keep his protests to himself for the time being.

The flight deck filled for one last time as the Pikes Peak’s orbit took it towards the tipping point.
“Well, here we go,” Cole announced from his grav-chair, “I hope you’ve all made your peace with the world, because if we fuck this up, we won’t be able to complain about it much.”
“At least we’re at the top of the ship,” Brett commented, “It’s quicker that way. Wouldn’t want to sit at the back and wait for the reactor to breach.”
“Real cheery,” Jordan replied. “The coordinates are set, and the Drive Key is rammed so far in the console I don’t think it’ll ever leave again.”
“So if everything’s set,” Cole called out, deliberately sounding authoritarian, “Let’s get the drive up and going. This’ll be Jump… what? Eight-Seven-Four-and-change?”
“I want it to be on record that I still think this is a very bad idea,” Mike said to no one in particular.
“Noted. Brett, throw the switch, Shuang, start the manoeuvre.” Cole finished. From somewhere on the other side of the deck came a loud, electrical crackle followed by a blast of ozone scented air. Immediately alarms went off.
“Warning. Drive Key has been tampered with. Jump sequence will not engage. Warning. Safety interlocks have been bypassed. Warning,” The toneless computer blared.
“And somebody turn that off!” Cole yelled over it. The lights flickered ominously and the room fell silent. “Thank you.”

Unlike normal Jumps, things started slowly, with just the gentle nudge of the thrusters slowly pushing the Pikes Peak out of orbit. You would have been forgiven for thinking nothing was happening at all, but slowly and surely, the planet moved from being only on one side of the ship to occupying the entire view from the flight deck. As time passed, the ship began to interact with the thin atmosphere and start shaking dramatically. Secure in his grav-chair, Mike could see flames beginning to lick across the windows, and for the first time he noticed the green-brown landscape. It was rushing to meet them all alarmingly quickly.
“Thirty seconds!” Someone shouted, though the noise masked exactly who. The shaking was increasing and the momentum was beginning to make him feel faint. He was becoming aware of the increase in heat in the cabin, the ship must have lacked any serious form of heat shielding, the designers at Santiago-Lansing never having anticipated such a suicidal manoeuvre.
“Fifteen!” Came the voice again. The ship quaked, and now it was easy enough to pick out individual features in the landscape in front of them. He screwed his eyes shut and tried to concentrate on remaining conscious. Somewhere, someone was screaming.
“Five!” The ship was shaking so much now that the metal of the walls and deck sang. Somewhere below there was crashing.
“Now, now! Push the fucking button!”

“Jump.” 

From the outside, the ship seemed to almost touch the ground before disappearing in a blast of iridescent lightning that rolled across the landscape with the destructive power of a hydrogen bomb. 

“Jump.”

No-one was around to see this, of course, and when things calmed down, all that remained was a molten crater ringed with volcanic glass. It was the Pikes Peak’s solitary parting gift to its temporary home.

“Jump.”

The ship rematerialised in open space surrounded by a cloud of dust that had been brought along for the ride. Every member of the crew felt it this time, even the most hardened spacers. For a while nobody spoke, then Cole raised his voice.
“It worked.” He seemed to only want to state the facts. “Where the hell are we? Ramin, make the call.”
“Mayday, mayday, this is San-Lan Express X-ray Charlie Two-Niner-Zero-Four-Five-Two-Six declaring an emergency, anyone in range please respond.” Ramin said in to his headset. A blast of static came from the speakers in reply. “Mayday, this is San-Lan Express X-ray Charlie Two-Niner-Zero-Four-Five-Two-Six Pikes Peak declaring an emergency, anyone in range, anybody please respond!” He repeated, panic seeping in to his voice. There was a tense moment of silence.
“Come in X-ray Charlie Two-Niner-Zero-Four-Five-Two-Six, This is New Albion Comms Relay, squawk transponder to Seventy Seven Hundred, what is the nature of your emergency? Do you require assistance?” The reply came through in a heavy English Midlands accent.
“New Albion Relay, it sure is good to hear you,” Ramin replied, sounding relieved, “Assistance is required, We have taken serious impact damage to our engine system and are unable to proceed under our own power.”
“Understood Pikes Peak, dispatching emergency towing vehicle, squawk transponder accordingly” The reply came, “Looks like you’re two days overdue. What the hell happened out there?”
“I’ll have to tell you sometime,” Ramin laughed, “It’ll make one helluva story. Squawking transponder as instructed, can’t wait to see you all. Pikes Peak awaiting assistance, over and out.”

The tow vessel arrived and slowly dragged the Pikes Peak to the relay station. Mike used the time to get his luggage together. Despite all the excitement and stress of the last few days, the fact his experience was over weighed heavy on his mind. Dragging his suitcase out into the common area, he was greeted by the majority of the crew waiting for him. Only Cole was missing.
“You know, we should take you along more often,” Jordan spoke first, “You must be a good luck charm or something.”
“Not for the poor bastards who have to sort out the mess we made here.” Mike replied, grinning. “Though, yeah, it’s certainly been… an experience.”
“And not one I think any of us wish to repeat,” Brett added, “Not deliberately anyway. But if you’re ever in the area in the future, look us up. After going through this you’re part of the crew as far as I’m concerned.”
“Yeah, good luck, Mike.” Ramin shook his hand vigorously, acting friendlier than he had all trip. “Hopefully you won’t get stuck on your trip home, eh?”
“And hopefully I’ll see you on Earth someday, yeah?” Shuang said, giving the same shy wave to Mike she had done on day one.
“Yeah, sure.” Mike responded, not certain what to say. “Good sailing to all of you.” 
He waved and followed Jordan down the ladder to the airlock. As they entered the final corridor, they were greeted by Captain Cole.
“Ah, well…” Jordan said, before patting Mike on the back. “See you around, Mike.” And with that she left the two men alone.

“Well, looks like you won’t miss your connection. How’s that for service?” Cole said, remaining stony-faced.
“Captain Cole, I…” Mike started before Cole raised his hand.
“Owen, please.”
“Owen, I’m sorry I didn’t believe we could do that. I should have trusted… well, my captain.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Cole reassured him. From the hull came the thud of a docking arm attaching. “What we did was insane. I’d have complained if I were in your shoes too. But, we made it though.”
“That we did.” Mike grinned.
“Well, this is where you get off, Mister Wiggins,” Cole checked the gauge and opened the airlock. As Mike pulled himself in to the connecting arm, Cole tossed him something in a bag. “A memento of your time on the Peak. Good luck, Mike.”
Mike waved a goodbye and lost himself to the station. It wasn’t until he got on the shuttle that he opened the bag. Inside was the control that had been rigged to Jump manually. He turned it over in his hands a few times and smiled.


< PART ONE


This story, its characters, setting & imagery are ©2019-2020 Dom “Ndro” Barlow, All Rights Reserved

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