The Tesserene Imperative - Excerpt

© Mark Terence Chapman

Chapter 3

 

History of Space Exploration: Asteroids—As dangerous as space travel is in general, asteroid belts are especially hazardous. There are billions of pieces of debris moving at once, varying in diameter from a grain of sand to city-sized. As a group, they travel in a fairly regular orbit; however, the paths of the individual rocks are frequently altered by gravitational attraction and collision.

 

On Earth, ice floes still menace shipping. Just as ninety percent of an iceberg is hidden underwater, in space it is often the unseen hazards that are the most dangerous.

 

— Excerpt from Encyclopedia Solaris, 2194

 

* * * *

 

Fun-and-games time was over. We’d finished our poker marathon and Cap surprisingly came out on top, much to Sparks’ dismay. As usual, we swapped chits afterward until everyone pretty much ended up with his usual chores and duty shifts—except for Cap, who got out of a bunch of them, and Guido who ended up with eight or nine extra. We’d also had plenty of time to watch our going-away holos until we had them memorized. Mine was a teary affair from my on-again/off-again girlfriend, Helga. It was something to hold onto during the long months away from home.

 

Seventy-plus light years and eight days in transit were more than enough for me. I was ready to get to work. We donned our suits an hour before reverting from interspace back to realspace, as we do anytime we explore an asteroid belt. There’s too much space junk whizzing around to chance doing otherwise.

 

Of course, there’s no way we could have worked for weeks at a time in our suits with bulky EVA packs on our backs holding hours of air. That would have been ridiculously uncomfortable and impractical. Under normal conditions we breathed ship’s air, with no need for external suit tanks. In a quickseal emergency, we’re forced to rely on the small backup air supplies contained in several small high-pressure tanks integrated into the legs of our suits. They only hold thirty to forty minutes worth between them, but that’s generally enough for someone to survive initial depressurization and then reach an external air supply.

 

While in realspace, the only time we weren’t in them was when we showered. Except for having to hook up our suit sanitation ports to the ship’s life support system once a day, we could stay in our suits forever. The helmet bladders, for example, did double duty as both shock absorbers and pillows. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t rather be out of them, just that staying in them for weeks at a time wasn’t as unpleasant as it sounds.

 

We arrived in the Richelieu system without incident. (The name, officially registered by Cap, was a lot better than its stellar catalog number of Bonner Durchmusterung (BD) -25º8519—quite a mouthful. “Richelieu” is French for “rich place”, which is what we hoped the system would prove to be for us.) After performing the usual mapping of the major objects per our charter, we hopped to the asteroid belt and began searching for usable ores in earnest.

 

“Coming up on A2, Cap,” Sparks reported. I was down in Engineering, tinkering and hoping for news that we’d found an asteroid with ore to extract. As per standard operating procedure, normal shipboard communications were over open intercom, so that everyone stayed current with what was going on. “It’s got a borderline TB signature, so I’m not optimistic.”

 

Picking out the siren call of tesserene from all the normal celestial background noise is like trying to listen for someone whispering in the forest when you’re surrounded by the sounds of wind rustling the leaves, a babbling brook, birds singing, and crickets chirping all around you. Unless you filter out the noise, the whispering is inaudible. That’s the situation we faced with tesserene.

 

Luckily, a ship’s shield serves as exactly that filter. Besides deflecting meteoroids, it also blocks harmful radiation. Without it we couldn’t live in space for extended periods. By tuning the shield, we could let whatever frequencies we wanted, such as theta band, pass through to the sensors. Even so, we had to be close to the source to be able to hear the seductive murmur of promised riches.

 

“Commencing detailed scan,” Sparks continued. Several minutes of chitchat passed between Sparks and Tom on the bridge while the sensors remotely poked and prodded at the asteroid. Because he had nothing to do while the sensor sweep was ongoing, and we were holding position near the asteroid, Cap was in his cabin taking a catnap.

 

Eventually Sparks concluded, “It looks like A2’s a dud, guys. Two down and a few hundred to go.”

 

We knew that most scans would come up empty. Still, we always had hope, so there was a bit of a letdown each time we found nothing.

 

 “Hey, Sparks,” Guido called from Hydroponics, “I’m going stir-crazy back here tending the jungle. How about finding us a keeper before I start doing a Tarzan routine and swinging from the vines?”

 

Sparks chuckled at Guido’s remark. “Okay, Tom, let’s see if we can find Guido a better one this time. Which one are we designating A3?”

 

The first two asteroids we’d visited were no-go, but we still had months of prospecting ahead of us, and plenty more opportunities to make our quota.

 

* * * *

 

“Anything yet, Sparks?” Cap hovered over his second-in-command.

 

I distinctly heard the sound of teeth grating, even from across the bridge.

 

“Not a thing—for the third time in the last twenty minutes,” Sparks replied. “The sensors are on automatic. I'll let you know when they detect something.”

 

“I know, I know,” Cap sighed. “But I'm starting to get concerned. We've been out here for weeks and so far, nothing. What if this whole system's a bust?”

 

Including the trip from Earth, it’d been twenty-three days since we headed out with high hopes, and nerves had begun to fray around the edges.

 

Cap paced furiously in the limited space available on the bridge, his frustration evident in the way he waved his arms as he spoke. “We need to catch a break soon, find something to bring home—anything! The Company’ll skin me alive if we return empty-handed.” His voice softened. “After all, I’m the one who chose this system.”

 

I understood his frustration. With nothing to refine and the equipment in tip-top shape, I was reduced to polishing the consoles for want of anything better to do. I’m sure my kibitzing was getting on Cap’s and Sparks’ nerves, but they were polite enough to say nothing—so far.

 

“Relax, Cap,” I said, trying to sound more hopeful than I felt. “We’ve had longer droughts than this before.”

 

Cap nodded. “True. But this time—I can’t put my finger on what’s bothering me, but I have a bad feeling….”

 

Recalling my nightmare from weeks earlier, his remark sent shivers down my spine, but I pushed such thoughts to the back of my mind.

“We’ve hardly even begun to explore the system, Cap. Something’ll come up. You always manage to deliver the goods—the company knows that.”

 

Cap’s uncanny sense for picking star systems with mineral-rich asteroid belts was legendary among spacers. He’d done well by us—and the Company—over the years.

 

With only two seats on the bridge, I was forced to resort to perching atop one of the inactive instrument consoles toward the back of the room.

 

Cap continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “Are you sure the sensors are working properly, Sparks?”

 

It was Sparks’ turn to sigh. “You know they are, Cap. You helped me check them again yesterday. Why don't you go get some rest and let me do my job. You've hardly slept since we entered this system.”

 

“Yeah, maybe you're right. I guess a little shuteye couldn't hurt.”

 

“Even a big shuteye wouldn’t hurt,” Sparks suggested with a weary grin. “Catch a few winks for me while you're at it, would you?”

 

“Will do. You'll keep me apprised?”

 

“You know it, boss.”

 

With a wink of his own, directed at me, Cap turned toward the hatch to the main passageway. Before he took more than a step, we heard the unnerving BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP of the proximity alarm.

 

“Cap! Incoming!” Sparks yelled.

 

A moment later, a deep CLANG reverberated throughout the ship. A tremendous jolt hurled Cap through the hatchway and slammed him against the opposite bulkhead in the passageway as the ship bucked. I tumbled to the deck from my roost and came to a stop, sprawled half on the bridge and half in the passageway, with my face hard against Cap’s boot. I had a close-up look at the non-slip surface that coated the durasteel decking.

 

Sparks, who was buckled into his seat, was the only one not tossed around like a rag doll. The lights went out and almost immediately came back on. I heard the whine of the emergency generator as it kicked in.

 

“Bloody hell,” Cap said. “Sparks! Status!” He picked himself up, rubbed his left shoulder through his suit, and worked his arm up and down as if to make sure it was still in one piece.

 

Before Sparks could respond, Cap hollered, “Belay that!” We heard the unmistakable whistle of a hull breach. It was followed a moment later by the WAH-WAH-WAH of the air pressure klaxon. “Kill that alarm! We've got at least one bleeder—where is it?” Cap turned to re-enter the bridge. I was right behind.

 

“Cap, we’ve got more incoming! They’re moving so fast the sensors can’t pick them up until they’re almost on top of us. Hang on!”

First one and then another impact rocked the ship. Several more followed over the next few seconds. Again Cap and I were thrown through the hatchway into the passageway, where we bounced back and forth off the bulkheads like so many billiard balls. Cap fell on top of me, crushing the breath from my lungs. The faceplates of our suits snapped shut as the quickseal sensors kicked in, closing us off from the outside world. We now had to speak via suit radio.

 

Cap’s eyes widened in surprise. It couldn’t have been fear—not Cap. Not with his experience.

 

The thinning atmosphere attenuated the sound of the bridge’s airtight hatch sighing shut centimeters away and locking us out of the bridge. Similarly, hatches sealed themselves all over the ship to try to preserve our air.

 

Cap bellowed, “Sparks! Get us the hell out of here! See if you can find us a rock to crawl under.”

 

“I’ll do what I can, Cap, but all we’ve got are the maneuvering thrusters. I’ll head for the nearest ‘roid. Cross your fingers.”

 

I held my breath instead. Judging by the silence from the others, I suspected it was unanimous. If one micrometeoroid is scary, a swarm of them is terrifying. When the first one hits, your only thought is ‘What if there’s more?’ Then you wait for the other shoe to drop. One minute went by, then two, then three. I kept expecting to be knocked from my feet at any moment, perhaps for the last time.

 

Sparks’ voice sounded extra loud in the silence. “All clear, guys; we made it!”

 

The sound of several explosive exhalations over the radio told me my conjecture had been correct. With the asteroid shielding us, we knew we’d avoid any new stings from the swarm.

 

Sparks continued his report. “Cap, we've got bleeders in dozens of places. The ‘roids went clear through us. With that many holes the failsafes are practically useless. Right now we’re about as airtight as a screen door. We’ve lost containment in all but three compartments—Cargo Hold 1, the galley and the bridge. Jesus!” There was a definite quiver in Sparks’ voice.

 

“Which leaks are the most urgent?” Cap demanded, trying to maintain discipline.

 

It wouldn’t do for the captain to show fear or to let the rest of us fall apart. As for me, I was practically wetting my pants. After all my years in space, and more than one impact, I should have been used to this sort of thing, but I wasn’t. Every time was like the first. It was not knowing what would happen next that was so terrifying.

 

Sparks replied, “The ones in Cargo Hold 3, the galley, and Hydroponics are the worst.”

 

“Hydroponics? Damn, wasn’t Tom working in Hydro? Tom? TOM! Tom’s not answering! Swede—check on Tom! Then fix the leak in Hydro. I'll take the galley.”

 

“On my way!” I sidled past him in the tight confines of the passageway and then sprinted toward Hydro.

 

“Guido, you're closer to CH3, aren’t you? Take care of that leak!”

 

“Aye, Cap!” Guido acknowledged over the radio.

 

“Cap?” It was Sparks again. “It looks like we lost a lot of water, too. A ‘roid took out a water main in Section D.”

 

“Bugger! When I said we needed a break, I didn’t mean to a water main!”

 

I found Tom moments later, sprawled on the deck. He was moving, but just barely. As I approached, I peered through his faceplate. He appeared unharmed, but groggy. I helped him sit up. He tried to put a gloved hand to his face, but banged into the faceplate instead.

 

“¡Huy! ¿Qué pasó?”

 

“He seems to be okay, Cap,” I radioed. “I found him in the passageway outside Hydro. He’s a bit dazed, I think—he’s speaking Spanish again. I don’t think he knows what happened. He may have a concussion, but I can’t be sure—Guido’s the medic, not me.” I glanced over my shoulder. “The hatch is closed, so I don’t know the condition of the lab yet. Give me a minute to get in.”

 

Because there was no air pressure on either side of the hatch, it opened easily when I triggered the emergency release.

 

“What a mess!” I reported. “The rock apparently came in through the ceiling and exited through the far wall. There’s a hole there about a half-meter across. All the plants were ripped loose from their trays and most were sucked through the hole along with the water. Stuff is splattered everywhere. Hydro looks like a total wreck. Thank goodness Tom wasn’t in here when it hit, or we might have lost him too.

“It’s going to take some time to fix a hole this big. It looks like we’ve got a break in the water feed to the hydroponics trays as well. I’m going to be here a couple of hours, minimum.”

 

“Do the best you can,” Cap responded. “I’m still working on the air leak in the galley. We may have lost some food, too. Guido, how are you coming in CH3? Can you break away to check up on Tom?”

 

“The bleeders in here aren’t too bad—I’ve already sealed the entrance hole. It was only a couple of centimeters. I just started on the exit hole; it’s a bit bigger—maybe nine or ten centimeters. I’ll be done in a minute, and then I can run over to Hydro.”

 

“Here comes another one!” Sparks shouted.

 

CLANG!

 

Once again Tom and I went sprawling.

 

“Damn it!” I cursed under my breath. “I’m really getting sick of this.” I climbed to my feet, for what felt like the tenth time, and helped Tom up.

 

“Where did that one hit, Sparks?” Cap asked.

 

“Near the tail section. It doesn’t look too serious. Damn! I thought I had us tucked all the way behind the ‘roid. It must have deflected off another rock. Thank goodness this ship is tough. It could have been a lot worse. At least we’re still in one piece.”

“Right, then. Everyone remember to keep track of your air situation. Make sure you locate your EVA packs and keep a spare air tank near you at all times. I don’t want anyone becoming so involved in his repairs that he forgets about his air until it’s too late. Got it?”

 

“Aye, Cap!” we all responded—including Tom, who sounded lucid again.

 

“It’s good to hear your voice, Tom!” Cap said, clearly relieved. “If you’re feeling up to it, give Swede a hand patching up Hydro.”

 

“Will do, Cap,” Tom confirmed.

 

Once Sparks was able to leave the bridge to help, the repairs proceeded much quicker. It still took another four hours and a fair amount of cursing among the five of us, but we finally got all the leaks patched. Then we nearly emptied the ship’s reserve tanks to replace the lost air, leaving only enough to replenish our suit tanks after EVAs. That returned us pretty close to normal atmospheric conditions, but left us without any air to spare.

 

“Immediate crisis averted,” Cap radioed. “There’s a fair amount of other damage, but we can worry about that later. For now, open your faceplates and grab a bite to eat. We’ll start working on the less pressing problems on a full stomach.”

 

Despite his hopeful words, he looked more worried than I’d ever seen him.

 

* * * *

 

Hours later, with holes patched and bellies full, it was time for a rest break—not that anyone felt like sleeping. But there wasn’t much we could do about our air situation. That’s the problem with exploring an asteroid belt—there aren’t any oxygen-rich planets handy when you need one.

 

I guess we were lucky; we were still alive. Of course, we could have been luckier. The ‘roids took out two water lines—costing us more than a thousand liters sucked into the void before the auto-shutoffs kicked in—not to mention most of our free-flowing air. Normally, water and oxygen aren’t a problem. The starflight drive powers the life support systems that purify and recycle the air and water, extracting oxygen from the carbon dioxide we exhale. Unfortunately, the ‘roids took care of that, too. Two different bits of cosmic rubble smashed different parts of the drive, as if to guarantee they got the job done.

 

“We’re screwed, aren’t we?” Guido asked softly from his bunk.

 

“Yeah,” Sparks replied.

 

We’d been working feverishly since the ‘roids hit, but it probably wouldn’t matter in the end. The engine wasn’t a total loss, but the damage was so severe, so comprehensive, that we didn’t have the spare parts to repair the damage. We had the equipment to manufacture any parts we didn’t have in stock, but not the time.

 

“What are the odds we can jury-rig something before we run out of oxygen?” Guido asked.

 

Silence was his answer.

 

It was ironic. On my last shore leave, a friend’s little boy, Jimmy, bombarded me with questions about living and working in space. One of them had to do with how long we could stay out before having to return. I told him most missions last three to five months but we always carry enough food and fuel for six months, just in case, and that the water and air can be recycled indefinitely.

 

But, as they say, the universe has a perverse sense of humor.

 

Had we lost only the starflight drive, we had enough of the other stuff to survive until we got the drive repaired. On the other hand, had we lost just the air and water it also wouldn’t have been catastrophic. Our life support system could have kept purifying and recycling the air and water we had left in the ship’s reserve tanks. It also could have extracted some extra water from the humidity in the air. We could have gotten by until we made it home.

 

Of course, the ‘roids knocked those options for a loop. Not only didn’t we have enough oxygen or water to last until we reached Earth, we had no way to actually get there.

 

“It’s too bad we can’t send out a mayday and get some help,” Guido mumbled.

 

“Yeah, and if wishes were horses, we could gallop home,” Sparks countered.

 

A faster-than-light mayday to Earth and any nearby ships would have been great. However, there were two problems with that idea. First, we knew there were no other ships in that part of the galaxy. Space is vast, and Earth had barely a hundred tesserene-powered ships of all sorts in its fleet, and none of them out in our direction. Second, and more importantly: There’s no such thing as faster-than-light communications.

 

Yes, the starflight drive lets us travel “faster than light” by slipping through folds in space, but that only works within the energy field the engine projects around a ship. It can’t fold space outside of the energy field; therefore any radio transmissions leaving the field were limited by the speed of light. It would have taken seventy years for a mayday to reach Earth. We were on our own the moment we left the solar system.

 

Guido’s question, “We’re screwed, aren’t we?” kept echoing in my mind.

 

We were six hundred and seventy trillion kilometers from home, with a dead starflight drive, little water, and less than three days of air. We needed a miracle and there was no cavalry out there to come to our rescue.

 

It was all up to us.

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