Fiction Friday. Escape Pod Here.
"So what to you think?" one of the students asked excitedly.
"I'll turn that question around. What do you think?" he said with a wily smile.
"Well professor. We recovered this from underneath the meteor fragments meaning it was there at the same time as the meteor struck making it almost eight millennia old!"
The professor smiled. Ah the enthusiasm of youth he thought.
"Well, this is clearly man made. However it is an advanced alloy that is very light. It is unlikely to be that old. The inhabitants of this planet were still working with coppers and tins at that time. I think you'll find if you run a scan on it that someone is playing a trick on you. One of the other dig teams probably slipped it in there when you weren't looking to prank you."
"That's unlikely sir for two reasons."
"Oh how so?" smiled the professor.
"Firstly it took all three of us to remove the large meteor fragment as we dug it out. It had clearly not been moved since it hit and nobody was around."
The professor nodded and gestured for him to continue although he was far from convinced that another group of students were playing a joke on this team.
"We have already run a mass-spec analysis on the alloy and we got a hit in the materials database."
"I told you it would be a recent alloy that....."
"It matches the material used to build the stargate."
"See I said that....."
"No professor, you don't understand. Not our stargates. The ancient one we discovered hundreds of years ago. The first gate built by the 'others'."
The professor dropped the fragment with a clunk.
Approximately eight thousand years ago.....
Hiroko looked out the forward window at the comet. It was beautiful. A massive chunk of blue ice that had been travelling the cosmos for millennia. It was her job to end that journey. She looked one last time and pressed a series of buttons next to the large window. Noisy motors started up and the thick armour plates slowly closed over the viewport. She held another button down and leaned into the control panel.
"Tail-shields in place. Ship secure."
Hiroko was crew on the Yoshino, a comet catcher. Terraforming barren worlds was a massive task. Atmosphere processors, heat generators, ozone producing stations. It took centuries. One of the biggest problems was the lack of oxygen and water. The easiest way to get them was to crash comets into planet. This was their job. Their ship would anchor onto the comet and then use its engines to slowly align it on a collision course with the planet. They would be told what trajectory was needed. It might be a "rain maker" or a "sea maker". The rain maker would be given a shallow entry into the atmosphere allowing it to burn up slowly. The ice would not just be converted to water, the heat of the entry would actually break the molecular bonds and convert the comet to hydrogen and oxygen atoms. That was the most tricky as too shallow the comet would bounce off the weak atmosphere and back into space. Too steep and it would become a 'sea maker'. Sea makers were the easiest. Simply slam the comet into the surface adding billions of litres of water to the environment and as an added bonus place millions of tons of dust into the air helping the terraforming.
She heard the low shield alarm and then the first 'tinks' of ice hitting the thick armour plates she had just positioned in front of the delicate areas of the ship. She left the observation room and headed to the bridge.
The ship was old. It had been catching comets for decades but they could not afford the new tech used by the Mega Corporations of Sol. High-tech tractor beams that gently nudged the comet in the way they wanted. No, they still relied on the 'grab it and point it' method which had been used for a hundred years or more. They worked for a corporation that had its roots in what was central Asia on earth and that one day would be the distant relatives of the Caldari State. Now into the 8th millena in Earth years their HQ was based on one of the outlying colonies in the sol system.
Sol, her home and now an unknown distance away. Nobody really knew where New Eden was. The wormhole that led them there could have taken them to a distant part of their own galaxy although it was more likely another galaxy or even a parallel universe. Their corporation had bought the small rocky planet in this system still referred to by a series of letters and numbers. It needed terraforming and seeding the planet with ice was the first step.
"Fifty 'k' to the tailcone" Sumiko stated as Hiroko entered the bridge.
"Steady as she goes." Captain Daichi replied.
Hiroko took her seat and looked at the monitor. They were close now. When they entered the comet's tail things would get dicey. The small tremors in the ship she had been feeling started to grow.
"Harpoon check?" the Captain called.
"All four green Captain. Tubes closed and ready on your command." Takara replied.
Once inside the cone of the comet navigation was almost impossible. The ship used the old tried and tested method of firing four harpoons into it. They could then steer the comet as if it was part of the ship. It usually took a few days to get the trajectory correct. Then they simply unclamped and drifted off the comet. The tremors in the ship grew steadily. Chunks of ice were bouncing off the hull making a lot of noise.
"OK we are in the tail!" Sumiko stated.
"Roger. Open the tubes and fire harpoons!"
There was a whooshing sound as the four harpoons fired followed by a tense moment.
"Helm reduce the engines ten percent."
They felt the ship slow and then jolt. The Captain looked over at Takara. He was intently looking at his screen. He looked over at the Captain and gave a thumbs up.
"Helm start the steering routine. Lets give this big boy a nudge in the right direction. Let's move to skeleton shifts for the next 48 hours. Get some rest people!"
A small cheer went up from the crew.
"Helm confirm trajectory." the Captain ordered. It had been a restful two days as the ship slowly altered the comet's trajectory. Now was the moment of truth.
"Confirmed Captain. Entry to the atmosphere in 12 hours. Shallow angle and computer says 2% chance of a skip, 4% of a sea maker and 94% chance of rain maker."
The Captain nodded. Good odds. Crashing comets into the atmosphere was a tricky business unless the Client wanted a sea maker. They were easy and usually 100% chance of success. Hence the pay for those was crap. It took skill, judgement and more than a bit of luck to angle the comet for an entry where it would do several orbits breaking up as it did and seeding the atmosphere with water, hydrogen and oxygen.
"Science. Disengage the harpoons."
Sumiko went to work. Announcing as each of the first two harpoons retracted their claws and were pulled back into the tubes. There was a long pause after the second was retrieved.
"Problem Sumiko?" the Captain asked.
"Sir. Harpoons 3 and 4 appear to have hit something strange in the comet and are jammed. Probably a metal deposit."
The Captain did not look pleased. The harpoons were expensive and cutting them loose would eat a lot into their profits. This was a regular occurrence unfortunately. The comets tail always made good sensor readings impossible.
"Helm. If we tried to pull them free what's the danger to the course?"
The helm went quiet for a few seconds as he tapped away at the console.
"Unlikely to be a problem Cap. A gentle tug won't make a difference to the course at this point, we're already in the gravity well of the planet."
"Good. Forward thrusters ten percent for 2 seconds and then reverse thrusters five percent for three seconds."
The bridge fell quiet. They felt the ship accelerate and then reversed. The inertial dampeners on the aging ship unable to cope fully with the change in direction. Then the entire ship bucked. Alarms started sounding.
"CUT ENGINES!" the Captains shouted.
"One Harpoon has broke free the other...." Sumiko was cut off by a huge crash. The sound of grinding metal and multiple alarms sounded. Then it went black.
"So we're fracked?" the Captain asked.
Eiji nodded in the cold, dim glow of the emergency lighting.
"Captain, we're still inside the comets cone with one of the harpoons still anchored. We cannot suit up and go for a look. I've looked at the shielded cameras and replayed the footage from the ones destroyed in the accident. As far as I can tell when we pulled one of the harpoons free a chunk of the comet broke off with it. The other harpoon is still stuck so held us nicely in position for that chunk of rock to hit us. We've lost most of the starboard side. The big issue now is that the harpoon that is holding us there has had most of its mechanics mangled. We cannot cut the remaining one loose without someone going outside with a cutting torch and physically snipping the cable. That's not an option within the cone as they would be shredded before they even fully left the 'lock. Engines are down, main power is down and the computers are down. I say down, I mean wrecked. The holes the rock chunk made in us have let in he fragments from the comet's tail. Engineering hasn't just been depressurised, it's been iced."
"Escape pods?" Hiroko suggested.
"No point." Eiji replied "They are more sturdy than a suit but not by much. Those ice chunks out there are flying at such speed you might as well eject in a can of cola. You'll have a thousand breaches before you are fifty meters from the ship, and we have 20km to clear the tail debris."
The room went silent.
"I don't supposed we will be released during re-entry and can make an escape bouncing off the upper atmosphere."
Eiji gave a weak smile.
"Two problems. One, we have no engines or power so even if we the cable gave way we'd just follow the comet. The second one is more important. The chunk breaking away and the ship hanging on with one 'poon means we'll have changed its course. Without the navi-com I cannot say for sure, but looking at the external cameras I don't think this bad boy is going to be a rainmaker. Its now a sea maker, and that means we're the fish!"
Hiroko lay in her bunk staring at the ceiling. Discussions were still going on about how they could save themselves but they were just going round and round. She'd come back here to escape the depressing conversation. She was not ready to die. Then again may be some of her biological mass would survive in the thin atmosphere on the planet. Frozen and preserved. One day when life started to sprout part of it would be because of her.
She looked over and found Sumiko almost floating in the doorway. The artificial gravity generators were fading and she could feel the low gravity getting even more shallow. Sumiko pulled herself down so she was almost standing.
"You had enough of the talk too?" Hiroko asked.
"Yeah. We've worked out 50 different ways that we're fracked and they are just starting back on option one for the fifth time. We've got four hours before we become terraforming material. Wondered if you fancied some company. I don't know about you, but I know I'd prefer to go out relaxed." Sumiko said.
Hiroko smiled and nodded. Sumiko entered her quarters and closed the door pushing herself off the bulkhead. She pulled her top off as she floated gently towards Hiroko. Hiroko herself pushed off and met Sumiko in mid-air.
The Captain looked at the bottle angrily. The almost zero gravity meant that it was almost impossible to get the rum out easy. He tried sucking and shaking the bottle but in the weightless environment it was no use.
"CAPTAIN!" a voice cried out. He looked to the far end of the galley and saw Hiroko floating in at speed closely followed by Sumiko. Both were partially dressed.
"Thanks girls but I think I'd prefer to spend my last minutes too drunk to perform!" he sighed looking intently at the bottle.
The two girls looked at him confused and then realised what they must look like.
"No Captain. We've got it! We have a way that might save us!" Hiroko spoke quick.
The Captain looked at her in surprise.
"The main cargo bay. Its exterior doors have emergency explosive ejection systems. If we blow them it'll depressurise the main bay. That should be enough?"
Daichi shook his head trying to clear it.
"So?" he mumbled.
"That should have us a boost in one direction which might be enough to start us spinning. If its strong enough the Yoshino should start to orbit the comet tethered by the harpoon. When we get close to the atmosphere we'd not be shielded by the comet. There is a chance the tether will snap and we'd be free.
The Captain started to sober up. "If it snaps as we're swinging towards the planet we'd be fracked as we have no engines."
"True." replied Sumiko "But if it snaps was we're swinging away we'd be drifting and someone might find us."
"How the hell did you come up with this zero-G physics solution?" said the Captain pushing off the floor and drifting through the air.
The two women looked sheepish. "We were just floating around and....." Hiroko's voice trailed off.
The Captain looked puzzled and then put two and two together. He suddenly looked embarrassed. As a frequent patron to the zero-G rooms in certain African Union stations he guessed what they were up to.
"Oh right. Eiji!" he yelled.
Eiji appeared from around the corner.
"Can we blow the main bay doors remotely from here?"
Eiji frowned. "Probably. It's a hardwire and the junction box runs down the corridor. It should still be OK. However if we do that there is the danger of a cascade. The explosive decompression could rip open the internal doors one by one."
The Captain nodded.
"Certain death by re-entry or 50-50 chance of survival minus chance of the doors giving way?" he asked.
Eiji paused. "I'll make sure the doors are sealed!" he said.
An hour later the crew stared at the two bare wires. Stripped and bare the coppery cable glinted in the dim lighting. The Captain held them apart.
"Well. Here goes everything!" he stated casually as he touched them together. There was a crackle and a spark followed by a huge distant bang. The ship shook and suddenly some gravity returned. There was another band followed by another. They looked at Eiji nervously. Three more bangs and then a pause. The pitter patter of the comet's tail fragments against the hull was the only sound now as they all held their breath.
"We depressurised about 75% of the ship at a guess." he said finally.
"Did it work?" Hiroko asked.
The Captain stood up and took a few uneasy steps.
"We have gravity. Therefore either the decompression fixed the grav-genny or we're spinning."
The noise of the tail fragments impacts that had been continuous for a day started to fade. A moment later they were in total silence. Nobody spoke. They just stood there. 30 seconds later they obviously re-entered the tail when the noise started. After a few more seconds it stopped again. They were indeed spinning.
"It did work. We got the comet spinning!" Eiji stated.
Nobody cheered. They knew that it still might not work. However now they had a chance. All they could do is wait and hope they were the right side of the comet when the tether broke.
"Its one of ours sir. A contractor, looks like a comet catcher. Looks pretty banged up." the Science Officer on the huge command ship stated. "I have some life signs but they are pretty faint."
"Understood. Launch a S&R shuttle and lets bring them home. I think the mystery of that comet that slammed into the planet yesterday has been answered. Med-Bay stand by for potential casualties."