Excerpt from Preparing The Ground

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I woke up about five hours later when Dulles came and got me. Our next run was one of our longer ones for this trip: a touch over sixteen light-years (23 Imperial) to what everyone agreed was our best hope to find a truly Earth-like world: Tau Ceti, a yellow G8 star. Will and Jayden were in their bunks, I noted as I climbed down. I don't think either one was asleep, but they were at least giving sleep a chance. I didn't blame them. Major Kyle had gotten us about four light-years out from Ross 154, but it was obvious he was at the end of his endurance. His eyes were red sores. "You take it, Joe. I'm crawling off to get some shut-eye."

I checked the ship read-outs and said, "I got it." I nodded to him as he got up. He'd done a hard day's work, even if it was sitting in a chair. It was obvious VSC needed to give more weight to people who could pilot the ship on the next run. Unlike the NASA missions, we needed someone awake and piloting constantly. Dulles was basically taking up space we could have used for another full-time pilot, and there was no reason Major Kyle or another pilot couldn't have led the mission. I'd done some basic oversight functions, but hadn't done much maintenance - I'd been too busy piloting. To be fair, as long as nothing malfunctioned we probably didn't need an engineer either, and Imperial gear was so reliable that even the best Earth gear was garbage by comparison. But if something did break, you couldn't call for a mobile engineer to come fix it - tachyonics had a range of maybe two light-years. Back in the Empire, they had relay networks, but not here.
Dulles was trying his damnedest not to fall asleep. "You might as well turn in for a while," I told him, "I'm going to run basic checks on the essential systems before I engage the time-jammer again."

"Let me know before you start up the time-jammer again," he said, "That's an order." Yeah, big man in a small pool. He was snoring in the chair within thirty seconds. Meanwhile I was checking that the impeller alignment was still good and there were no problems in the power circuits. Inertial integrators were fine, and the time-jammer itself was straight nominal down the line. Main siphon was not likely to be a source of grief, but I checked anyway. Shield circuits were nominal, capacitors were holding full charge, emergency siphon was functioning. Life support was theoretically Jayden's to oversee, but I double-checked his work. Six minutes Imperial (a little over ten Earth), and I was ready to go, reassured that everything was working as it should.

I tapped Dulles on the shoulder, said, "I'm getting ready to start the time-jammer." He stirred, mumbled something like, "Okay," then shimmied himself more comfortable in the chair and resumed snoring. Okay, whatever you say, Mister Commander Sir. I put my attention firmly on the forward sensors, engaged the time-jammer, and ran it quickly up to ten square (36,000). After a couple minutes of watching rocks that weren't particularly close crawl by to make certain I was awake enough, I started increasing the dilation again, up to thirty square (108,000). At that speed it would be about 25 Imperial minutes (46 Earth) to Tau Ceti, but I took us down out of light-speed after about five minutes. I stood up and stretched, moved my arms and legs a bit, then sat back in my chair and repeated the process. Maybe a trained Guardian could do it uninterrupted all in one session, but I thought it better if I did it in several short legs. Being a natural state human with less than perfect control over my mental state, better to stop and take a break before my attention started to wander of its own accord. At thirty square, we were crossing the full diameter of Neptune's orbit more than six times per Imperial second. At that speed, we might have a little over a second and a half warning. Kind of like running your car down the freeway at two hundred miles per hour with a visibility of under a tenth of a mile. Unlike that situation, we knew we could dodge - the metaphorical freeway didn't end and we weren't going to run off the edge - but you had a very limited time in which to react. You didn't have to worry about stopping or running out of maneuvering room, which was good. You weren't going to stop in time, but then, you weren't going to run out of lateral maneuvering room either. I was generally turning down the dilation on the time-jammer until I knew we had dodged - akin to stepping on the brake while yanking the steering wheel, only you didn't have to worry about either one causing you to lose control. Allowing your attention to wander while piloting a time-jammer was practically begging the universe to throw rocks at your blind side. All it took was one.

After about five minutes, I got back in the pilot's chair and resumed our forward progress. I wondered if it was better to just start out at thirty square, but chickened out and worked it up to that point over a couple of minutes, just like before. I left it going for about seven Imperial minutes at full speed, then eased off on the dilation factor and took another break. I figured I'd gone four Imperial light years this turn, as opposed to about three and a quarter the time before. Not bad at all; in less than half an hour Imperial, the ship had moved almost half the distance Major Kyle had left me to get to Tau Ceti. I got up and took another attention break; there was nothing to worry about at subluminal speeds for hours at least. As I got the blood pumping and smoothed out the muscle kinks, Dulles snored away in his chair, completely oblivious. Of course, if either I or Major Kyle let our attention wander and broadsided a rock, the offender and the rest of the crew would die instantly. The more I thought about it, the gladder I was that I was one of the drivers. If I was going to die, at least it would be because I screwed up. Conversely, of course, I had the opportunity to not die by not screwing up, an opportunity the passengers did not have. I'd hate to die from being along for the ride when someone else screwed up.

The third time, I let the time-jammer run a little longer but dialed it down hard when I caught myself distracted by a stray thought. Probably two more runs at this rate - can you imagine trying to explore the galaxy at these speeds? Ten thousand light years or more in little spurts of three and four light years at a time? If there was one thing Imperial records were clear on, it was that there were more rocks between star systems than most people thought. Sure it was still mostly empty space, but when you actually have to travel the distance, even small ships were "sweeping out" an awful lot of volume. I computed with my datalink that Golden Hind had thus far "swept through" over one point five times ten to the fifteenth power cubic kilometers on this trip. Nearly twice the volume of Earth. And that's if you felt comfortable missing rocks you were passing by at a hundred thousand times the speed of light by the width of a hair. I wasn't, and nobody else was, either. Official corporate protocol said anything less than a thousand kilometers was unacceptable. By that standard, we'd swept through a volume of roughly six times ten to the twentieth cubic kilometers, sixty million times more. Gives you either an entirely new perspective on the pilots of those old science fiction starships, or an appreciation of how much the authors had handwaved. Sol's Oort Cloud was thought to contain over a trillion rocks big enough to worry about, and where Sol's Oort Cloud left off, the next star's Oort Cloud began.

Personally, it gave me an appreciation for Vector Drive, which went from point to point without occupying the space between. This nonsense of watching the instruments like a hawk with obsessive compulsive disorder and we all die if my attention wavers at the wrong moment was bullshit. Even if Vector Drive meant I'd never pilot a starship again.

The fourth run, I thought about pushing the dilation factor even higher, but decided against. Let pilots risking only their own skin be the ones to test that - any other decision was rank arrogance. What I was doing was within well-established parameters of performance. Starting out at ten square and pushing it to thirty when I established my mind was sufficiently concentrated upon the task. When I disengaged the time-jammer a few minutes later, we were nearly four Imperial years closer to our goal. Tau Ceti was starting to be something a little bit more than the brightest star in the sky.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on January 9, 2024 7:00 AM.

First Draft Excerpt from Measure of Adulthood was the previous entry in this blog.

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