Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 02
“Yes, it’s possible the frame field might interfere with the specimens.”
Helena touched the “hold” icon while she recovered her calm.
“Have you looked outside at all, Professor?” Helena eventually asked. “You may have noticed something of a debris storm.”
“Never mind the paintwork on your ship. This research is too important to be held up by petty military regulations. I’d explain but you wouldn’t understand.”
“It may have escaped your notice, professor, but I captain this vessel. As such I am responsible for it and the crew. If I decide your request,” Helena emphasized the word if, “is too dangerous then it won’t happen.”
“I shall complain to the Grant Committee!”
The opinion of an academic grant committee carried about as much weight with Helena as a petition from a delegation of rock apes. She answered to the Navy Board and she doubted they cared a fig what a bunch of academics thought either. On the other hand the Board could be downright unreasonable to captains who smashed up their ships.
“It may also have escaped your notice, professor, but that is not just a neutron star out there but a magnetar, a star with a massive magnetic field…”
“I know what a magnetar is.”
Helena continued remorselessly as if he hadn’t spoken.
“…which is why the debris field is so energetic and chaotic. Iron debris is subject to different forces to non-magnetic rocks and hence has different trajectories. The resulting collisions cause endless fragmentation. It would be like dephasing into a shotgun blast of hypersonic pellets.”
Finkletop said. “Well, if you’re frightened…”
“Be careful, Professor,” Helena’s knuckles clenched until they were white.
An officer of the Brasilian Navy could display many faults from drunkenness to licentiousness and still prosper. Cowardice was the one intolerable weakness.
“We’d also have a major problem with magnetic forces such as diamagnetism which is the…”
Finkletop attempted to interrupt. “I know what diamagnetism is but I don’t see…”
“…temporary opposing magnetic force induced in materials by an ultra-magnetic field. Our ceramic hull is a good example as it is repelled by the star. Other materials are paramagnetic and will be dragged towards it. Furthermore, while naval architects use nonmetallic materials as far as possible in a ship’s construction to limit drag and hence heat build-up while moving through the Continuum sometimes there are no acceptable nonmetallic substitutes. Our large iron heat sinks are a good example.”
Finkletop tried again. “Well…”
“So if I dephase at our current location the ship’s hull and heat sinks will push in opposite directions while I try to dodge high velocity debris on chaotic trajectories.”
There was a compromise option. She told herself she was all kinds of a fool for even considering it. Unfortunately, Finkletop was stupid enough to insult her honor without seeing that she would have to call him out. That could wreck her career. No one would openly blame her for protecting her reputation. Nonetheless, she would always be remembered as the captain who killed her charge. Actually, she reflected, Finkletop wasn’t stupid. A Blue Horizon professor just couldn’t be stupid. He was simply incredibly focused and limited in his world view.
“How big a specimen do you need?” Helena asked.
“What? Just a few micrograms would do.”
“Very well, I’ll harmonize the field of a small jolly boat to pass through the ship’s fields. The boat can phase out for the few seconds necessary to recover your sample without endangering the whole ship. Magnetic tidal effects are limited on such a low mass object. It will also present a smaller target to incoming rocks. I won’t risk trying to bring the jolly back in through the ship’s field as the harmonization will drift out of phase within minutes. We will rendezvous and recover the boat from a quiet area beyond the debris field. Is that satisfactory?”
“I suppose so, seems a lot of stuff and nonsense to me, usual bureaucratic ineptitude, typical of the military…”
She cut the link while Finkletop was still blathering and gave the necessary orders.
The Reggie Kray’s field shimmered metallic green when the jolly boat pass through. The phase harmonization with the boat’s field was less than perfect. That observation caused Helena little surprise. No human procedure in the history of the universe had ever achieved perfection. She saw no reason to assume that this was about to change any time soon for her benefit.
Finkletop insisted on supervising the sampling personally. Helena had been equally insistent that a naval rating coxswain the small craft, not one of the academics. She watched the boat’s progress on a holographic screen. Once clear the boat adjusted its heading and moved to match speeds with a debris pile. It stopped while the coxswain waited for a signal from the ship indicating he could dephase safely. Well, not safely perhaps but at least without facing instant destruction. Safety is one of those irregular nouns.
Communication was impossible over any distance through the continuum. Anything not protected by a field rapidly decayed or was ejected into realspace. At short range lasers could exchange narrow bandwidth data. Small open frame crews often resorted to hand gestures and flashing lights.
The ship’s information analyzers tracked and predicted the immediate debris field. An icon indicated a break in the debris bombardment. It was now or never. She sent confirmation to the jolly boat.
The boat’s field flicked off and it drifted towards the debris. Steering thrusters fired to brake the craft alongside a stream of gravel and match velocities. A mechanical arm extended and took a sample. Sparkles ran along the arm where microscopic dust moving at a high relative speed struck the ceramic surface.
The arm had almost withdrawn when the jolly boat shuddered. Its hull flexed under the impact of particles larger than microscopic dust. A ceramic plate peeled off and span away. Jets of escaping air distilled into arches of silver crystals that fanned out in the magnetar’s strong tidal gravitational and magnetic fields like a celestial peacock’s tail.
The jolly boat should have been safe enough in realspace for that short period of time. The ship’s autos predicted a ninety-five per cent chance of success. She should have anticipated that the unlikeliest disaster would happen at the first opportunity. The gods of probability delighted in shitting on mankind’s collective head from a great height.
She crossed metaphorical fingers and waited for the jolly boat’s field to reform. Survival suits would protect the crew for a while. She counted slowly to three but it never happened. The boat’s field generator must be knocked out. The gods were piling improbability upon improbability today. They probably didn’t like Finkletop any more than she did but why stick the boot in on her watch?
The boat’s crew were in the deepest possible fertilizer. It was only a matter of time before a bigger impact smeared them like raspberry jam across a slice of toast.
“Close and try to enclose the jolly boat in our Continuum field,” Helena ordered. “Finkletop you feckin’ lunatic,” she added under her breath.
The Reggie Kray’s pilot swung the ship around as if it was a one-man frame and accelerated smoothly. They reached the boat just as its field unexpectedly flicked back on. The two energy bubbles interacted dynamically in a sharp release of violet lightning. The boat couldn’t penetrate the ship’s field because its field had drifted out of phase during the off-on transition. The debris strike probably hadn’t helped either.
The ship pushed the smaller vessel with its field like a ball on the edge of an avalanche.
“All halt,” Helena said, trying to keep her voice calm.
Then something happened, something unfathomable, something she had never witnessed before in all her years in the navy.
The boat imploded soundlessly leaving nothing but a black stain. Helena had the impression of spreading darkness. A dark spear thrust into the Reggie Kray, collapsing its field like a pin going into a balloon. The ship rang like a bell struck by a hammer. That’s not possible, Helena thought, we’re only semi-phased. Nothing that powerful can penetrate our field. A deep chill froze her bones and the lights went out.
Helena felt cold. Her throat hurt like hell. Water vapor condensed from her breath. It hung in the air like a superior’s admonishment. Only the glow from instruments leaking across the cabin broke the darkness. To top it all she had one hell of a headache.
“Status?” she asked.
Well, she tried to ask but what came out was a croak.
“Fusion motors decoupled. Trying to get them back on line before our batteries fail,” said a voice.