Geeks in Space
Chapter 7: The Geometry of Ideas
Copyright© 2011 by Sea-Life
For the first time after one of his episodes, Rob saw a doctor. The UNNESA flight controller who had been on duty when the call came in insisted on it. He spent three days in the hospital giving samples of pretty much every fluid and solid available. He endured electroencephalograms, CAT scans and MRIs. He talked to therapists and counselors, doctors and medical researchers until he couldn't talk anymore, and nobody could find a thing wrong with him. Not everything was textbook normal, but nothing was off enough to be an indicator of any sort of problem. In the end the experts could only say that there was concrete evidence that Rob had experienced a period of intense mental activity and physical exhaustion. Ted and Wendy could have told them that, and did!
Rob was released in time for the Saturn flight, but wasn't sure if he should go. It was only the fact that every piece of equipment he would want was available either on the Hawking or the Cherenkov, and that the Cherenkov would be coming along, attached to an external docking hard point that let her be integrated into the Hawking's structure and included in her gravitic and drive fields that convinced him to go.
Twenty scientists signed up for this trip, from six different universities as well as the Chinese and U.S. Governments. Their fees alone were going to cover the costs for this trip. With Titan on the menu, they seemed heavily weighted towards the atmospheric and planetary sciences, but there were still some genuine mysteries to solve. There also was a neurologist on board, to keep an eye on Rob. The fourth berth on the Cherenkov was going to be his, and he was being paid to monitor Rob at all times when he was working.
Only Wendy and Ted knew what He was working on during the trip, not even Doctor Kepler, the neurologist knew. Rob was going to have plenty of time to work on it. The trip out was going to take half again as long as the Jupiter trip. Saturn was almost double the distance from Earth that Jupiter was, but once again they were gaining efficiency, and experience with their gravity engines. The Hawking had already seen a 75% improvement since the first trip to Mars.
One of the things Rob had to build for his research were modified gravitic field generators that allowed him to shape the flow and output of the standard G-drive. The Hawking was 4.5 au out, almost Jupiter distances when Rob told Wendy he needed to meet with the brains behind the power team. She grabbed Peter London and Saalih Jaffre, and he grabbed Victor Emanoff. This wasn't something you discussed without the Captain. Lunch was in the owners cabin, which was half again as large as any cabin on the ship, and the one concession to being 'the owner' that Rob had allowed. Considering how little time he spent in it these days, he might have seriously considered having it converted to another function if it wasn't already designed to be used as a conference room when needed. He had it set up for that purpose when everyone arrived. Lunch was laid out already, grilled sea bass and salad. Yummy!
Once everyone had a chance to make a dent in the lunch, Rob activated the holo-projector. The lights dimmed automatically.
"I have been working on my signal problem, as you all know. One of the things I needed to be able to do was focus and direct my signal sources." The projector was showing a 'blow-up' diagram of both the research reactor and the research drive on the Cherenkov.
"Modifying and directing the output of the reactor is a well understood process, and Wendy's latest energy couplers are proof that this is a well researched area." I dropped the reactor from the display, and centered on the G-drive. The standard issue drive, as first installed slowly rotated in everyone's view.
"In order to study this signal source, I made a few modifications to this drives outputs, putting new deflector fields around it, and then wrapped that entire system in a shell field that was designed to focus the output in a way that was more compatible with my inputs."
The image, done mostly in subtly glowing shades of blue and green, sprouted a violet shell, inside of which were embedded bright red curved fields, representing something Rob called 'deflector plates' The image slowly rotated, showing the drive now looking like an old style jet engine, with moving deflectors to focus the thrust. The view changed to the next image. The red plates suddenly tripled, covering the drive in multiple layers, and covering the drive more thoroughly.
"But it suddenly occurred to me that my deflector plates and tuning fields could be used in a different way."
"This can't be correct, can it?" Saalih said, looking at the diagram, and then reading the data that scrolled in the air below it.
"I believe it is. But of course even if it is correct, the problem is still the same as with out current drives, isn't it?"
"Inertial compensator efficiency." Peter said loudly.
"Exactly! Wendy said. "We've improved our compensator efficiencies, and that has let us double our existing drives to almost 6 percent of C. This new drive would appear to be able to do 80 to 95 percent of C if we can get the compensators to achieve the same kind of breakthrough."
"As usual, the compensators never seem to catch up as quickly, but here's a modification using the same deflector plate and tuning field technology." Rob said, flipping the display to the appropriate image.
"We need to test this. We could be in Saturn's orbit tomorrow if we had these modifications working." Victor declared.
"I agree. Ideas anyone?"
"How about your original SISI?" Wendy said. "Its sitting idle in the docking bay now that you have the Cherenkov to play with."
"My God!" Peter said, standing excitedly. "Do you realize that this opens the entire solar system up for almost casual travel? Days or weeks instead of months and years to get from any point in the system to any other!"
"I agree with both Wendy and Peter." Victor said. "The SISI is the perfect choice, and indeed, this promises to once again revolutionize travel within the solar system, just as completely as the Pai Lung did when we first took her to Mars."
"Alright, here's what the simulator says about the whole idea." Rob said, flipping the display at last to the feed from the unit on the Cherenkov where he'd done all the preliminary work.
A project to work on while quietly zooming through the void was always welcome, and everyone in the drive and systems crew threw themselves into it with gusto. No one was going to be so foolish as to test this new drive with a live crew. It would all be done with remotes.
The first step was to dump all the data into the Hawking's own modeler and simulator, and let the crew run the data themselves. With their specialized eye for things relevant, Rob's beginning idea was quickly modified, dropping power consumption levels down to more reasonable levels from the wasteful ones he had been projecting.
The biggest piece of re-engineering was the modifications to the secondary field generators that already existed on the standard drive, and the addition of a band of tertiary generators and the new tuning field generator. While those pieces were being built Howard Dexter and DeeDee Ponders began redoing the controls to allow for remote operations. The previous work done to tie the Hawking's slap and go panels into the Command Net finally got put to some real use, and that work made the tie-ins go pretty quickly. Once again the advantages of the bandwidth of the FHS connections made it possible to ensure that they were doing real-time remote controlling of the SISI.
The modifications to the inertial compensators were much more straight forward, but it was even more crucial that they work right once people started being put aboard, so that work got double and triple-checked, and then checked again. The interior of the SISI got peppered with tiny little gravitic telemetry sensors that would feed us real-time reports on the effectiveness of the compensators.
Dave Hamlin's tractor beam technology really proved itself when it was time to test the new drive. They locked onto the SISI through the opened transport bay and pulled her out and into position a hundred miles to port of the Hawking. The tractor was set to release its grip at the slightest sign that the SISI wanted to go faster or slower than her current velocity. The tricky part was configuring the tractor's gravity fields so that the SISI's drive wouldn't react against them.
The engine startup and drive engage process had been fully automated and put on a timer, to eliminate any interference from human sources. DeeDee was the voice of 'launch control', and most of the ship was tuned in via a sensor screen somewhere, watching and hoping for success. The external tractors were very definitely a bridge function, so everyone heard from the bridge first.
"Launch control, this is helmsman Krupt, your package is on station."
"Roger helmsman, this is launch control initiating startup sequence."
Rob was sitting with Wendy and Saalih watching the telemetry readouts, superimposed on the bottom half of a display that was also showing the SISI, via sensor array. When the board showed the warmup was complete, Saalih keyed his tap.
"Launch control, we have green lights across the board. Launch is a go."
"Roger that mission control. Initiating automatic drive start up and engagement procedure on my mark." DeeDee's voice came, and a few seconds later. "Mark."
They watched the telemetry as it showed the gravitic drive cycling up to power, and then a brief blink as it engaged. Suddenly the SISI was gone from the view screen. They all had to force themselves to look down at the telemetry readings. It was Wendy's turn to tap into the comm and make an announcement.
"Launch control, telemetry indicates we have drive activity and readings show full integrity and acceleration at .63 lights."
This announcement was answered by a large amount of cheering on the ship's public channel. Several seconds later, DeeDee came on again.
"This is Launch control, we read the SISI as having just passed beyond Jupiter orbit. She is currently accelerating at .82 lights and ETA to Saturn orbit is ninety minutes."
That was a wild-ass guess, based on speed only. They wouldn't know for sure how practical that estimate was until they got a handle on how the inertial compensators were doing. They started pouring over that set of telemetry data immediately.
Ten minutes later and victory hads turned into apparent defeat when all telemetry from the SISI suddenly went dead. DeeDee was the only even marginal voice of calm.
"We don't know for sure if its gone or not. It could have hit something that forced the shield generators to draw power too quickly. It may have shut down, it may be just a telemetry failure."
The effort was appreciated, but they were despondent. What bothered most was that, in their zeal to record every little iota of what happened inside the SISI, they had completely forgotten to consider recording anything external. If the ship had indeed pranged off a piece of debris, there was no way of knowing. It was back to the drawing board.
A week later they had built not one, but four replacements. The new units were referred collectively as the G2s and designated individually, A through D. Telemetric sensors were slapped all over the outside of them this time. The power capacity of their shield generators were double that of the SISI and the plan was to launch them in pairs, with each unit of the pair dedicating some of their sensors to watching the other. Slight modifications to the control program were made to allow for the pair to maintain their relative positions during flight, and then it was time again.
G2-A and G2-B were tractored out into position and cycled up through power up and the telemetry check very quickly, and after a minimal hold to check systems stability, the launch controller gave the word.
"We have automatic program initiation on my mark." Came the helmsman's voice. "Mark!"
Once again we watch the auto-sequence cycle up the drive and then the pair of G2 probes blinked and were gone.
"Launch control, telemetry indicates we have drive activity and readings show full integrity and acceleration at .61 lights." Wendy's voice came through the comm. There was no spontaneous cheering this time. Everyone held their breath and waited for the next words.
"This is Launch control, we read the packages as having just passed beyond Jupiter orbit. They are currently accelerating at .73 lights and ETA to Saturn orbit is ninety minutes."
This estimate was no more accurate than the previous one, but the telemetry held, and the next words came again from launch control.
"This is launch control, the packages are currently accelerating at .615 lights. ETA to Saturn orbit is 40 minutes.
Almost afraid to divert their attention to the telemetry, they began to dig into the data to see if the compensators had done their job.
"8.32147g max on A!" Howard Dexter called out.
"8.37139g max on B!" came DeeDee's voice immediately after.
This was not welcome news, but it wasn't unexpected. We knew the new compensators were good, but we didn't expect them to handle the new levels of acceleration. We would spend a good amount of time tweaking both the compensators and the internal governors on the drive controls to make sure we had safe speeds that didn't leave little red smears on the insides of the ships.
"This is launch control. Deceleration has been auto-initiated." Came the call from the helmsman some time later. Twenty minutes after that came the announcement that finally drew the cheers on the ShipNet.
"This is launch control. We have received the 'at station' signal. Telemetry indicated we have two birds parked in Saturnian orbit." This was victor's voice at the end, having preempted the helmsman for the announcement.
In the end, this new development didn't really save any time on the outward leg. Modifying a few drives that had been slapped onto a couple probes was one thing. Modifying the Hawking's drives while en route was another, not to mention there would have to be a serious amount of testing with the compensators and the new settings for the governors on the drive controls. Rob got the Cherenkov's drives and compensators adapted, and so did the Beagle and Viking, but they were not going to do the main drives until the Hawking was safely in orbit around Saturn. Testing was another matter that would have to wait until we were in orbit.
"At the new speeds, the transports are suddenly eligible for lifeboat duties again." Rob said to begin the staff meeting.
The Hawking was in orbit around Iapetus, and it had already revealed some strange news. It appeared that the mysterious equatorial ridge that had been detected during the Cassini flyby at the end of 2004 was the vestigial remains of the collision which had created it. Iapetus was the result of two nearly identical masses colliding while still forming. The ridge was the 'seam' between the two original bodies. The reasons for the light and dark regions were still a mystery, but the current theory was that the darker region was overlaid with a foreign material, probably due to internal cryovolcanism, perhaps triggered by a meteor impact of some kind.
The scientists who had paid for the trip, along with the full load of geeks who made up most of our crew were all over it. Rob though, was more interested in giving the G2 probes a thorough going over and starting to test the freshly modified drives on the Cherenkov. Meetings like this were just an annoying side issue he was forced to deal with as the owner.
"We'll just adjust their outfitting back to what we used for the Mars trip." Victor offered.
"Even that might be overkill." Peter London offered. "Once we've got this up and running smoothly, the transports are days away from home from almost anywhere in the system, not weeks or months. Days."
"We arrived in Saturn orbit pretty much right on schedule and the science types are fairly oblivious," Ike suggested. "so I think we should keep this under wraps until we're back on Earth and Rob can file the patents on these modifications and make himself even richer."
"Speaking of the scientists." Fred Wassermann said suddenly. "They're really starting to make noise about a Titan landing."
"We have to be careful with this one." Owen Gardner added. "There's real atmosphere on Titan. Its half again as dense as Earth's atmosphere, and there is the possibility of real weather there."
"We'll be safe in our Caldwell suits, won't we?" Keith Vance asked.
"We should be. The atmosphere may be thick, and the pressure higher than we're used to, but its over 98% Nitrogen. Methane makes up the bulk of the trace gases. We will definitely have to observe air lock procedures, and make sure we flood everything we plan on taking to the surface with nitrogen." Owen answered. "The methane is bad enough, but there are some trace elements that are very much instant rocket fuel when combined with oxygen. The same procedures will be necessary in the other direction because some of those traces include things like hydrogen cyanide, which is highly poisonous in even low concentrations. We don't want to bring anything back into our shirtsleeve environment."
So it went, the usual sharing of details, interests and concerns followed by the modifying of schedules and assigning of duties. Rob let the parts that needed sink in, and the rest wash past in a wave of disinterest. His head was already back aboard the Cherenkov, wrapped around his ongoing work.
Wendy and Ted were the only ones who might understand it, but the new drive which had everyone else so excited was mostly just a byproduct of the real idea he was pursuing.
Rob stayed home for a while, working on the G2 probes, modifying them further for his own uses. Now that he could 'see' the signal that identified a source of what he was calling the 'Q3 wave', it was time to try to reproduce it. He created two rotating gravity compression fields like those used to focus the gravity drives to their new speeds, and like the inner tuned fields of a Caldwell suit. He cranked up the power until each field approached singularity strength and then meshed the two fields, closer and closer together until finally the two fields hit a 'sweet'spot' of field harmonics, and bam! It was generating a Q3 Wave, just like the ones he'd been detecting. Rob had an artificial Q3 beacon!
Considering the implications of a beacon, Rob wondered about the possibility that there might be aliens out there in the universe somewhere using this same technology, and using it as he hoped to be able to, for interstellar travel, then his beacon was the equivalent of turning on the 'Open for business' sign.
A Q3 wave is one thing, but moving from that to generating a Q3 field, that was another story, and one that was going to take some serious tinkering!
The first thing Rob did was build a working 'quantum gyroscope'. This was a relatively old technology in a sense, based on the Josephson effect, first theorized in 1962, but the gyroscope itself came out of Berkeley at the turn of the century. The sensor array technology borrowed on these origins as well, but this time Rob was applying them to the new Q3 wave, which like so many things in the universe, exhibited two faces, wave and particle. He was using the particle side of things to make a Q3 pseudo-superfluid, and then spinning this up to match the rotating compressed gravity fields.
By the time they had their first accident on the surface of Titan, Rob had a theoretically workable Q3 drive built in the modeler, and no way yet to know if it was testable.
The accident was just a small 'flash blast', as Victor called it. A rock sample containing a small pocket of methylacetylene vented in an airlock that had just finished cycling back up to a normal interior Earth atmosphere. A slight static discharge caused the two gases to go boom! The small quantities involved produced only minor damage to the container the samples were in and the scientist involved was unharmed, thanks to the Caldwell suit. Safety procedures that had been taken only semi-seriously by the scientists up to then suddenly became the topic of conversation.
The presumably natural Q3 beacons Rob had been detecting since the trip to Mars could be anywhere in the universe. Signal strength in this case bore no relationship to distance, and he was now able to detect them so well that he was having to refine the circuitry to include filters and rectifiers to allow for isolating individual signals.
The nearest theoretical source of a natural beacon was the Sun, and after that, it would be Alpha Centauri. This was a particularly rich source as well. Alpha Centauri was actually a three star system, with Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B and Alpha Centauri C, which was the physically closest, and thus called Proxima Centauri.