Geeks in Space
Chapter 9: Dancing with the Star Charts

Copyright© 2011 by Sea-Life

There was a hearty breakfast in the captain's mess, a bit of glamorous conceit that had been added to the Pai Lung when she became the Hawking and the ship became a commercial venture. It was Ted, Victor, Wendy, Ike, DeeDee and Rob, along with Alexandra Nascimento and Owen Gardner. Victor and Ted seemed a touch too cheerful, and blamed it on their military backgrounds.

"We learn to be of good cheer and to eat well, of our meal and of life before we go off to battle." Victor said, raising his glass of tea in salute.

"The modern soldier can't quite say 'We who are about to die salute you.' Too many movies, both the cheesy ones and the good have made those words seem too cheap." Ted added. "But that is the attitude. We're able to find joy in our commitment to our duty and our oath and ignore the possibilities that the situation might suggest."

"It doesn't matter that the moment isn't a literal sword over our necks." Victor added with a laugh. "A moment of mind-boggling impossibility will do as well, eh?"

Victor and Owen Gardner were going on the trip. Alexandra Nascimento had risen to second in command after taking Rob's place on the bridge, and would assume command for the duration of the trip. She had three experienced officers to rely on in Victor's absence, and Rob expected she wouldn't need them. Alexandra always was one of those 'eye of the eagle' types, and now that she had learned to master her natural inclinations in a healthier way, the position suited her. Ike and DeeDee would come as well. The rear cargo space had been emptied out and some collapsible emergency folding seats had been added. Of course the Q-Space Engines were just past the bulkhead to the aft of those new seats, but Rob wasn't going to mention it until they had made their first trip.

Everyone ate their meal and left, heading to their quarters to get ready, a last minute chance for everyone to 'freshen up', empty a nervous bladder or calm a queasy bowel, and then meet in the shuttle bay. The Cherenkov, with her new blister, took up most of the bay. There was an awkward bit of ladder and scaffolding to negotiate to get to her entry hatch. A small design flaw, in a cobbled together craft.

Ted took the pilot's seat in the forward command cabin. Rob took the second seat, and would be the one with access to the QSE, as Ted had begun calling it. Victor took the third seat, but he was just along for the ride today. Wendy was in the middle cabin at the sensor and communications center that had last been used for tracking the Q-One and her now sacrificed sister. Ike, DeeDee and Owen Gardner took the new seats in the converted cargo bay behind her.

The Hawking's tractor beams eased the Cherenkov out of the shuttle bay, and once she was free of the shields, they fired up her own G2 drive and move a quick million miles away from the Hawking. Wendy had standard Q-tap communications with the Hawking established, and was in active contact with Ty Glover and Fred Wassermann. She also had the Cherenkov's Beacon up and actively locked in by the Hawking. Everyone was wearing full Caldwell suits with space harnesses that had added EV utility modifications. If the ship couldn't make it back, they weren't likely to make a difference, but they wore them all the same.

"Systems Check." Rob called over the Cherenkov's circuit.

"G2 drive is green." Ted called. Rob heard him in stereo, as his words came through the tap at the same time as he said them beside him.

"Comm suite green. Tracking suite green. Beacon green and active." Wendy said through the comm.

"Bringing the Q-Space Engine online." Rob said, watching the displays flicker as he did. He watched them settle into stable readings.

"Bringing the QSE from standby to full ready." He said. "Power is holding steady."

They sat there for a moment, collectively feeling the hum of the ship whispering through their bones.

"Ready when you are sweetheart." Rob said to Wendy on a personal channel. He looked back through the open hatchway behind him, spotting her figure in the distance.

"Hawking, this is the Cherenkov. All systems are at full ready and we are prepared to engage the drive." He said, switching to the Hawking's channel.

"Roger that Cherenkov, this is the Hawking, we have you locked and are standing by." Came one of the bridge officer's voices. Alexandra's voice followed.

"Good luck and God speed, Cherenkov."

"All hands, prepare for Q-Space activation." Rob called. "Comm, what is our Beacon, and our phase?"

"We are locked on Alpha Centauri A, and our phase offset is zero." Wendy replied.

Rob nodded to himself and reached down, tilted the safety cover up and caressed the button for a second, and then pushed it.

Nothing happened. Rob felt nothing at all. He looked at the displays. The power readings were showing a completed cycle, and the Engine showed as having engaged.

"Status?" He called.

"Beacon lock is still active, and I have a reading that says its 5 AU away, dead behind us." Wendy called.

"Ted?" Rob said

"On it!" He answered, pulling the yoke to the side to spin us around.

Slowly the distant little yellow ball, so similar and yet so different, came to be centered in our screen. Rob tapped a circuit to the Hawking.

"Hawking, this is the Cherenkov. We have Alpha Centauri A in our screens."

They hung around for the same two hours that the Q-One and Q-two probes had for their first trips, and while they waited, put the Cherenkov's sensor array to work, trying to get a little more information on the three planets the probes had seen. All they got were some signs that the second planet, the one in the theoretical 'life zone', had an atmosphere, and that there was at least trace oxygen in it.

At the end of their two hour stay, Rob avoided any sense of drama and just pushed the button. Once again there was no sensation at all.

"Welcome home Cherenkov." Came Alexandra's voice. "Welcome home."

The debriefing aboard the Hawking was interesting, to say the least. The entire medical staff gave them a going over like they had just spent a month in the desert without food or water. They were told to expect an MRI, CAT scan and a full work up when they got back to Infinity Station. They nodded their heads and kept on grinning.

"The first and most amazing thing I noticed was that there was no perception of a transition, at all. None. We did not know we had succeeded until we looked at the data displays." Rob began.

"Everything about that transition must be beyond our physical ability to experience." Wendy said. "We literally can't feel it.

"The second thing I noticed was that no time appeared to pass for us." Rob said. "Did the same 3 or 4 second period that we observed with the probes occur? Did you have a loss of contact?"

"Yes, exactly the same amount of time passed." Fred Wassermann said. "And Ty found something interesting." Fred said, turning to Tyrese Glover and raising an eyebrow.

"I do not claim this means anything, but our standard tracking chronometer only displays 4 decimal places, and all transition periods measured out to 3.1416 seconds. However, it is internally designed to measure up to 12 decimal places, so I pulled the measurements up in the diagnostic display instead of the tracking display. The time measures out to 3.141592653589 seconds."

"Wow." someone said into the silence. "Transition time is pi?"

On the way back to Earth, Rob tapped Tom Standaahl and got him into a holo call with Coretta and Saalih.

"We've had a good test in the Cherenkov, and we're ready to refit the Hawking and our two transports." He began. "But we gained some experience that I want to pass along. I've got some data for you. Here." Rob said, piping the data through to their Q-taps.

"I see what you wound up doing with the Cherenkov. Is that going to be permanent?" Tom asked.

"No, and that's what this call is about really. We did that to avoid loosing our easy access to the Engine. The damned things are just too complicated to risk tight quarters, and that's what we would have had to do to shoehorn one into the Cherenkov's drive bay."

"So you want to go modular it appears?" Tom said, looking at the data Rob had sent.

"Yes. I'm picturing every one of these engines being built into a vehicle pretty much like the two we already built, but I still don't want these four to have to go through the poking and prodding that surface to orbit certification would require."

"So we modify the exteriors with all these mounting surfaces. Should we pull the internal flight controls and just leave the control and remote interfaces?"

"No, I think the fact that every Q-Space Engine is a self-contained ship, with its own reactor and controls is a good idea, and it adds very little to the overall cost. You might want to remove all the hard seats though and replace them with the fold up and drop down seating used in emergency vehicles."

They hashed things out for over two hours, but when they were done, they had a pretty good design. They also knew exactly what they had to do to the Hawking to get her ready for her new engines.

Victor was not amused.

"What do you mean we are pulling the existing G2 drive? We just finished getting refitted with her!"

With several months to go before the first of the new engines would be ready, they had plenty of time to get everyone used to the idea, and plenty of time to reserve some time in the Infinity Station dry dock.

Given the Hawking's size, they weren't going to have to alter her external appearance at all. There was more than enough room in the rear drive bay for one of the new engines, but it did mean modifying the layout of the surrounding area pretty drastically. The crew did all the internal work they could while waiting for their slot, stripping interior walls and bracings until they had the existing drive isolated in a framework of supports and control feeds. They had the cuts they were going to need to make marked and ready to go. The time in the dry dock was going to seem like an Indy 500 pit stop.

A week after Rob's call to Erie Precision, Saalih called to let him know they'd be getting the first two engines at the same time. The crew took that knowledge and ran with it, prepping the Beagle in the Hawking's shuttle bay.

The two transports were not big enough to add a Q-Space engine to without visible external modifications, so they tore apart her entire rear end and rebuilt it from scratch. The drive assembly would slide into the transport like a bullet into the chamber, and the rear of the Beagle would have a flared bulge that did resemble those on an old fashioned revolver's magazine.

There was an internal struggle in Rob's mind about making the Q-Space engine public and revealing this new ability to travel to the stars. He hadn't held anything back in the past when his weirdly wired brain fired off something new. Other than to be able to surprise a few people. This time though He felt like they needed to have some sort of handle on the new technology and become familiar with the process and the underlying reality. As long as the folks at Erie Precision were willing to keep their lips sealed, they had time. Time to adjust, time to think and time to explore.

Things were kept kind of mum back on Sandy Isle too. Rob and Wendy's parents were happily adjusting to the island life, and had begun to take sailing lessons. They were shopping for a sailboat and Dave McKesson had volunteered to help. Sailing was something of a family obsession with the McKesson family, it seemed.

Dave was there with his wife Ginny during one of the couple's trips down, and the two of them seemed to sense they were up to something special. Rob could see a shine in their eyes when Wendy or he talked about getting back to the Hawking.

Rob hadn't really met Doctor McKesson before, except for briefly at Andy and Cor's wedding, and it was still amazing to him that someone so young and beautiful could be old enough to be Andy and Serenity McKesson's mom. He thought Wendy felt a little outdone in the beauty department with her around, but he did spend some serious time every night making her forget her concerns.

They invited the Hawking's crew down for some time on the beach as well, and by the time everyone had rotated through for at least a week of swimming, soaking up some sun and being winded and dined by the elder Youngs and Fellowes, the entire crew was feeling fully recharged and ready to go. Rob almost regretted not being there during Alexandra's week. He understood she considered the beach as clothing optional, and had absolutely no problems being seen au natural.

Wendy slugged him in the shoulder twice, both times they heard the story from someone on the ship.

"That's for imagining her naked." She said.

The practical minds of the geeks in the lab had decided that an interstellar drive that worked in so unnoticeable a fashion was not a good thing. They tied the engine's firing circuits to the ships artificial gravity, and set the gravity field to flicker just above the level of perception. It probably wouldn't wake up anyone who was sleeping, or interrupt someone's concentration, but everyone who was awake would feel a momentary flutter in the pit of their stomachs when they made a jump.

That wasn't the only surprise. Someone had decided that if they were going to be interstellar adventurers, they needed something distinctive to wear. Everyone was pretty comfortable wearing synthetic mesh shirts and shorts under their Caldwell suits, and the suits were mandatory attire during duty hours. To be honest, they were so comfortable most of the crew forgot they were wearing them until it was time for a bath or a little romance.

They all got a little 'zap' from a portable update module, and now their Caldwell suits sported a triple circle logo over the left breast that symbolized the three stars of the Alpha Centauri System. Rob really liked the looks of it, and decided he would have to use it officially for whatever business venture he wound up in when interstellar travel became a public reality.

Saalih and Coretta came back to the Hawking to supervise the installation of the new Engines. The hardest part was shredding the shipping crates off them. The system of mounts and rails worked perfectly, and the engines slid into their new homes smoothly. The biggest difference between the two installs was the manner in which they tied the existing fusion reactors into their power grids. The Hawking had a much larger reactor for her original drive, and routing that power to the new drive assembly did take a little reconfiguration of the power couplings.

Ted Henley, who had originally been hired as a glorified chauffeur after all, stayed at home this time. He parked Isaac at Infinity Station and took the Viking to their lab on the moon. The Viking may be waiting for her new engine, but she had all the beacon and tracking gear she needed to become their home base's tracking station.

Even with the extra trickiness of the power tie-ins, they were done in two days. The next two engines wouldn't roll out of Erie Precision's shop for another month. Saalih volunteered to go back in the Viking with Ted and stay at Erie until the engines were done. By then it would be close to time to begin work on the new freighter at the McKesson yard, and he could shift over there to act as liaison on that build.

One concern that came up was the power drain. Standard fusion reactors were considered to be good for a hundred years when powering a grav field generator, even a G2 Drive version. Examination of the power consumption from Q-One told them that those same engines would only last fifty years at the rate one of the Q-Space engines was drawing power. They would have to keep an eye on that until they were very sure of the rate, but the Hawking wasn't going to drain a reactor with a few jumps.

There is always a brief 'ants scurrying' period of time before any mission. They had experienced it every time and this was no exception, but finally, the scurrying was over, the crew were at their stations and it was time to leave Infinity Station and head for space. The Hawking was, as far as anyone on Earth knew, heading for the Oort cloud, but what they really intended to do was test the 5AU limit they'd observed at the incoming end, and see if it applied to the departure end as well. They would hit the button at about 2AU, just before they got to the Asteroid belt, and if the first one didn't work, again just before they got to Jupiter at 5.1AU.

An hour after leaving Infinity Station the Hawking passed beyond Mars orbit, and thirty minutes after that, with the backscatter of the asteroids providing some cover, Rob pushed the button. His stomach fluttered and the star field in front of him changed immediately.

"Okay! No 5AU limit on outgoing jumps!" He said into the crowded bridge.

"Definitely still holding at 5AU for incoming." Owen Gardner said from the navigation station.

"Wendy, can you tap Ted back on the Moon and let him know all is well and that we'll give him more details when we've parked the ship somewhere for the night?"

Two hours after arrival, they were orbiting the second planet of Alpha Centauri A, and looked down on a world with water and life and what looked like breathable atmosphere, though they would have to wait until a more complete analysis had been done.

"We've got three island continents." Peter London called out.

"Axial tilt appears to be much less than Earth, only 12 or 13 degrees." Carol Kingman announced.

"Surface temperature at the main equatorial continent is currently reading 34 degrees Celsius." Alexandra said.

They had a lot of eyes focused on the scenery below. Everyone with access to an external sensor array was looking for something.

"We'll come back, but lets get the rest of the big picture stuff out of the way." Rob said to Victor.

"Of course. Time to cruise around the neighborhood, before we decide where to park for the night, eh?"

Rob smiled and nodded back.

"All hands, we are breaking orbit on a course for planet one." Victor said over the ship circuit. He paused for the reaction he knew was happening all over the ship. "We will be back. To your stations!"

The innermost of the three planets was not that much to look at. Somewhere between Mercury and Mars in size, with no atmosphere, and tidally locked on Alpha Centauri A. The Hawking spent only enough time in orbit to get the particulars of axial tilt and a gross reading of her composition. The live reads suggested the possibility that she was rich in heavy metals and carbon, but it would take some in-depth analysis by the experts to tell them more.

Rob went over to Owen's navigation station and the two of them ran through the procedure of getting a beacon lock. This time the target was going to be Alpha Centauri B. The two stars' distance from each other varied between 11 and 35 AU, approximately. Currently the two were about 23 AU apart. This was little more than three light hours away, and at G2 drive speeds they could actually make that trip in a half a day. They didn't have to settle for G2 speeds though. Once the lock was set, and Owen nodded his confirmation at how exactly they had just done what they did, Rob looked at Victor.

"All hands are at their stations." Victor reported.

"Very well, you may proceed Captain." Rob said.

"Navigator, activate the interstellar drive on my mark." Victor said, followed by a short pause. "Mark."

My stomach fluttered, and once again, the stars had changed.

"We have a lock on Alpha Centauri B, and our distance is 4.8 AU." Myron Kirby, the assistant astrogator called.

"A sensor sweep indicated two planets and an asteroid belt." Owen called in turn. "The asteroid belt is behind us about 20 light minutes. Planet one is in the HZ."

"Captain, make for the second planet at speed." Rob said.

"Navigator, give me a course." Victor called.

"Locked in sir." Myron called back a moment later.

"Helm, put us under way at full drive."

The second planet was again somewhere between Mercury and Mars in size, but this one had a hydrocarbon rich atmosphere similar to what had been seen on Saturn's moon Titan. There was a moon as well, though it was small and misshapen, half again as big as Phobos. This planet had an extreme 83 degree axial tilt, and they saw signs of atmospheric movement just in the brief hour they were in orbit around her.

"Break orbit for planet one." Rob called out once they'd captured the vitals.

Victor repeated his exchange with the navigator and the helmsman, and they were on their way. The distance between the two orbits, planet one and two was only 1.5 AU, but planet one was currently at their nine o'clock in relation to the star itself, so the trip in took almost as long as it had to reach planet two from the jump threshold.

The crew of the Hawking were not disappointed when they got there. Not in the least. If the second planet of Alpha Centauri A had seemed a revelation, then this planet was a miracle! Air and water and life was not enough. Fred Wassermann called it perfectly over the ship circuit.

"We have dinosaurs!"

Rob looked at the images in the view screen and shook his head. 'The religious fanatics back on Earth who seem to oppose me at every turn because I keep inventing things that they see as contradicting the Bible might well be happier with him in the future.' He thought to himself. 'Alpha Centauri is surely God's gift to the people of Earth.'

Rob expressed similar sentiments over lunch with most of the lab rats, and found himself defending his position. While most everyone agreed to some degree, there were a few holdouts, mostly on the principle of science and faith being mutually exclusive.

"Most of us who delve into the depths of the way the universe works are people of faith, but we are also professional skeptics." Rob said with some passion. "I cannot look at Alpha Centauri and imagine God as not existing. Why else would the Sun's near twin and its close cousin be so tantalizingly close, and why else would we find such bounteous life once we got there?"

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