Manxome foe votsb 3, p.5

Manxome Foe votsb-3, page 5

 part  #3 of  Voyage of the Space Bubble Series


Manxome Foe votsb-3

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  “What’s giving me fits is trying to get a good algorithm for the grav bubbles.”

  On the previous mission the Blade had discovered that gravity worked differently between stars than it did in the immediate region of them. This caused a gravitational disturbance area around each star. The disturbance area was related to the size of the star, how massive it was. Around Sol it started at about a light-year and stretched for about sixty astronomical units, the latter being defined as the distance from the Earth to the sun, one hundred and fifty thousand kilometers or about eight light-minutes. Bigger stars had larger bubbles. In some cases, where two stars were in a binary or multi-star system, the bubbles overlapped, creating massive regions of gravitational disruption. Traveling into and out of the bubbles had been worked out. Moving through one of the multi-star regions, though, was “problematic.” The last time the Blade had traveled through one it had been bent, folded and darn near mutilated.

  “I’ll add that I would prefer not to hit a grav bubble unawares,” the CO said dryly. The first time they’d gone through one, mostly unawares, it had sent the drive haywire and kicked the Blade through a dimension jump that left it forty light-years off-course. If it hadn’t been for Weaver and the other astronomers onboard, they’d still be playing “Lost in Space.”

  “So would I, sir,” Bill admitted, peering at the screen. “But what’s really got me worried is what’s not on the charts. We’ve had teams out on the other planets doing paralax studies of stars and other stellar phenomena for over eight years. But we still don’t have solid distances and positions on every star in the catalogue, much less uncatalogued ones. And where we’re going, we’re hitting ‘uncatalogued’ area. So, really, I don’t know what’s out there for sure and for certain.

  “And it’s not just stars we’ve got to worry about. I’ve got to worry about. We don’t know if there are any black holes out there, for example. Just because they’re not on the charts doesn’t mean they’re not there. And the course I’m laying in is going to put us in just the sort of area where they’d be undetected. There’s only two ways to detect them at any range. Either by effect on nearby stars — and I’m planning on staying far enough away from stars that that’s not a way to see them — or if they occlude a star. Then they make a particular diffraction pattern of the occluded star’s wavefront as predicted by general relativity: That’s a sort of cross pattern that’s really cool. But that doesn’t matter.”

  “Are we getting anywhere with this?” Spectre asked, sighing. Sometimes Weaver’s technobabble could try a saint.

  “The thing is, sir, they just sit there,” Bill said, frowning. “Well, sort of. If the black hole has been around long enough to start sucking in matter the accelerated ionized debris will be emitting gamma rays like all get-out. That is why I wanted to have us grab the Chandra X-ray telescope out of orbit and mount it in the ship somewhere, but NASA whined and whined… so we aren’t gonna be detecting the black holes that way and our on-board X-ray telescopes ain’t accurate enough to do us any good in that regard. Besides, we don’t know that all black holes have accretion disks that emit gamma rays. Though I kinda think they do.”

  “So we’re not getting anywhere with this?” the CO growled.

  “Bottomline, sir?”


  “There’s just no sure way to detect them until it’s too late. We probably shouldn’t get near one, but it’s got me worried. So do undetected neutron stars. Those are less of an issue since they generally give off a pretty solid X-ray signature. Actually, it’s strong enough to kill us if we’re not in warp…”

  “Stop,” the CO said, grinning. “You’re giving me the warm and fuzzies!”

  “Then there’s the fact that at the far end of the mission things like M-class stars are going to be questionable for detection,” Weaver continued. “There could be undetected dwarfs, in other words. In this area we’ve got all these stars like Groombridge 34 mapped out. They’re dim, a fraction of Sol’s magnitude, and pretty small. But they’re going to have grav bubbles around them. Not as big as Sol’s, but they’ll be there. And when you get out towards places like HD 36951 they’re not on the charts. Nobody in the regular astronomical community has ever considered anybody would care. And mapping them now would require a rather specific tasking of one of the newer space telescopes.”

  “And the solution is… ?” Spectre asked, sucking in to let an overburdened crewman by. The sigh when he relaxed had nothing to do with Astro’s explanation. Absolutely nothing.

  “When we get out to about two hundred light-years we need to stop and do a forward survey, sir,” Bill said. “That may take a couple of days. Our time going out is going to be increased. Coming back should be easier. The survey will be done.”

  “We’re in a rush to get there, Commander,” the CO said.

  “I’m aware of that, sir,” Bill said. “But my job is to get us there. Alive, sir. I cannot guarantee the last bit unless we have some clue what we’re driving into. Think of it as uncharted waters, sir. You go slow. Going a light-year an hour into the mess we’re headed into is like going at flank speed into a reef, sir. We’re back in the days of Captain Cook, sir. We need to throw some sounding lines.”

  “I accept and comprehend your metaphor, Astro,” Spectre said, wincing. “Watch the rocks and shoals.”

  “Yes, sir,” Bill said. “And there are going to be some.”

  “I can’t believe the CO wants us to turn in all our space tape,” Corwin said, handing over a partial roll to Gunny Juda. His tone was one of deepest sadness. “What are we going to do without it?”

  “Use rigger-tape like any normal Marine,” the gunnery sergeant growled.

  “Gunny Juda, with all due respect,” Berg said, holding out his own spare, “we’re not regular Marines.”

  “It don’t mean we have to use this stuff,” Gunny Juda said, waving one of the many partials he’d collected in the air. “You got any idea how expensive this stuff is?”

  “One hundred thousand dollars per thirty-foot roll,” Berg replied.

  “No shit?” Himes gasped. “That’s grapping insane!”

  “Gunny,” Berg said, ignoring Himes, “let me be clear. I consider this an order right on the edge of madness. May I make my salient points?”

  “You earned your say, Two-Gun,” the gunnery sergeant admitted. “But an order is an order.”

  “Roger that, Gunny,” Berg said. “Here, however, are my salient points. When you get a minor breach in a Wyvern, say from a micrometorite, how do you patch it?”

  “What’s wrong with rigger-tape?” Gunny Juda said. “And there’s a patch kit.”

  “The patch kit takes up to ten minutes to set, Gunny,” Berg replied. “It’s a minor little footnote in the training documents I don’t think you noticed. Meanwhile, your air is goin’ out the hole. And you don’t have all that much of it. Rigger-tape is not impermeable to air, simply resistant. It will not hold in vacuum and fails under high pressures. Not to mention the fact that the base woven material is subject to thermal cracking in space cold and melting in space heat. Space tape holds. You got any rigger-tape holding stuff down on your carrying vest, Gunny?”

  “Sure,” the gunnery sergeant replied, looking thoughtful. “Gotta keep stuff from moving around. Otherwise you sound like a tinker.”

  “The load-bearing equipment we’ve been issued has been rated for space work,” Berg said. “It’s designed to go over our suits. And in space, you really don’t want stuff floating around. Forget the noise, it’s going to hook on something and probably end up killing you. So we’ve all secured any loose bits. If you’ve used rigger-tape, however, as soon as you enter a death pressure environment, much less have to go EVA, it becomes exactly as useful as so much toilet paper. Now, contrary to the CO’s desires, my gear is secured with space tape, Gunny. It’s fully reusable. Care to pull it all off?”

  “I’m beginning to get your point, Two-Gun,” Gunny Juda said sourly.
So why’d Top just take the order?”

  “Well, Gunny, I have hereby turned in my one officially reported roll of space tape,” Berg said. “I’ll leave the rest to your professional consideration.”

  “Gotcha,” the gunny said, nodding. “For somebody who’s not much more than a wet behind the ears recruit, you seem to be fitting right in to the Corps, Two-Gun.”

  “I do try, Gunnery Sergeant,” Berg said. “I do try.”

  “Hey, Sergeant Bergstresser, do we know anything about this planet we’re going to?” Corporal Vote asked as soon as the gunny, who had become much less insistent on securing “every last roll,” left the compartment.

  The teams were assembling their gear for shipment and the activity slowed minutely as the other Marines listened in. Not only was Two-Gun Berg one of the “old hands” he was one of the unit instructors on astronomy and physics. If anyone was going to know, it was going to be Two-Gun.

  “I barely got a chance to glance at the data,” Berg said, stuffing another skinsuit in his bag. It had been one of his suggestions in the after-action review from the last mission that more than one of the suits be assigned to each Marine. They’d ended up spending a lot of time in the Wyvern Armored Combat Systems, which required wearing the skin-tight black suits. After a couple of hours of heavy use they got a bit rank. Since they were often in and out of the suits too fast to get the suits washed, the rankness had pretty much permeated the Marine compartment on the last mission. This time they’d each been issued four, which was probably too many. There was only so much room for personal gear on the ship.

  “The sun is an A3V,” Berg continued. “What’s that tell you, Corporal?”

  “Blue?” Vote said unsurely. “Blue and hot if I remember correctly, Sergeant.”

  “That would be the description,” Eric said. “A very hot blue giant. The planet, however, is well out at the outside edge of the life zone. In fact, it’s over four AU from the sun. Nearly as far as the asteroid belt is from Sol. Lance Corporal Himes, that means what?”

  “It’s cold,” Himes replied. “Life zone is defined as the orbit region around a star in which the ambient temperature of a planet is between zero and one hundred degrees, Celsius, meaning that water is neither constantly frozen solid nor boiled off. Being on the outside it’s going to be damned near frozen solid. Sort of like Mars. Atmo?”

  “Barely,” Berg said. “Low O2, high CO2. Technically, it’s outside the life zone. Why is it still considered habitable… Lance Corporal Uribe?”

  “Probably the CO2 gives it a greenhouse effect,” Mario Uribe said. The rifleman from Charlie First was short, slender and dark.

  “On target,” Berg said. “It’s Wyverns all the way on this one. The scientists working there used respirators and cold-weather gear, but we’ll be using Wyverns. Light levels are below Earth standard, meaning it’s going to be relatively dark even with the sun at zenith. It’s a bright sun but it’s a long way away. So it’s going to look more like a planet that you can see at midday. The planet has ruins that are at least twenty million years old located near the Looking Glass. Probably it was warmer back then. Nothing is known about the previous residents that I’m aware of. And since they’ve been gone for twenty million years, they’re probably not the problem.”

  “The briefing said they dropped a nuke through the Glass,” Vote said. “What’s there going to be to find? I mean, even if there were other survivors, they’re gone. Right?”

  “That, Marine, is what we’re going there to find out,” Berg replied. “And to do that, we need to get this shit loaded. So I’d suggest more packing and less chatter.”


  “Handsomely! Lower away!”

  “What the grapp does handsomely mean?” Sergeant Priester asked nervously.

  There was plenty of reason to be nervous. The bosun doing the shouting was in charge of the party loading the SM-9s, space-combat missiles based on the Trident and tipped by Adar ardune warheads. They probably wouldn’t destroy the entire area if one dropped free, but only probably.

  Ardune was a substance known as quarkium, only a theoretical material before encountering the Adar. The material was composed of unique quarks, entirely of quarks of one particular type. Since quarks combined with other “flavors” in nature, when released to encounter “normal” material it caused subatomic chain reactions that were more powerful than equal quantities of antimatter. Antimatter just hit normal matter and released their combined energy. Quarkium did that and then just kept giving and giving. The SM-9s weren’t the only quarkium devices on the ship. The space-torps were quarkium tipped, and the drive used it. All in all, the Blade was just one giant nova waiting to happen. If there had been any choice but sitting it in Newport News, the Powers That Be would have gone for it.

  Unfortunately, basing anywhere else was logistically unsupportable. The Blade was a ship. It was a big, complex system of machinery. When it returned from the last mission, whole sections of its hull blasted away, it had been forced to put down at Groom Lake, the region people knew as “Area 51.” But despite movies to the contrary, there were no facilities to repair spaceships at Groom Lake. Doing the minimal repairs to get the ship capable of entering the water had taken up more time than all the repairs at Newport News.

  And building a space port was out of the question. The program was still entirely black. Any such facility would have been instantly spotted by Russian spy satellites. Heck, the construction would be obvious to commercial satellites. And creating some huge underground facility that a ship the size of a WWII battleship could fly into would have been nightmarish.

  Using the sub pens at Newport News, dangerous as that might be, was the only way to maintain any shred of deniability and security. There were plans in the works, once a breakthrough made it possible to create more ships, to create a major spaceport. But in the meantime, Newport News was the world’s first.

  The organized chaos of the rapid loading proved that, for the time being, it was a good choice. The missiles, under Marine guards from the nearby Naval Weapons Station, could be rapidly and efficiently loaded at the same time as the mass of material necessary for the mission was being shoved through every hatch the ship had.

  The number of hatches was, however, limited. So part of the load plan detailed specific groups to specific hatches and included routes to their storage areas. Otherwise you ended up with sailors loaded with food, cleaning supplies and parts crossing paths with Marines loaded with weapons, body armor and equipment. It was never a good mix.

  “Handsomely means slowly and carefully,” Berg said, negotiating his way down a ladder with an armload of body armor. “Which is how we’re going to have to load the Wyverns.”

  The Wyvern suits were nine feet tall and weighed in at just under a ton. The bulbous body of the suit held the pilot, who drove it through a set of controls attached to arms, legs, head and torso. Half worn, half “flown,” the suits were getting more and more intuitive with each iteration. But they were difficult to load in a submarine.

  “As soon as your team’s gear is stored, meet me in the Wyvern storage area. We’re next to use the crane after the missiles.”

  “Got it,” Priester said. “I’ve never loaded them before. Is it that hard?”

  “I dunno,” Berg said. “When I got to the unit, they were already loaded. But I’m told it’s a stone bitch.”

  “Three teams,” Gunnery Sergeant Juda said. “Lower, tote and load. Two-Gun.”

  Juda was a short, slight, intense senior NCO with jet-black hair and a face that was unusually pale for a Marine and that seemed to have a perpetual five-o’clock-shadow. His parents had defected to the U.S. during the latter part of the Cold War and although he had been born and raised in New Jersey he carried a fire of anger against anyone and anything that smacked of an enemy of the United States. What he had to say about communists, pseudo-Marxists or any other stripe of socialist wasn’t printable.

  “Gunny?” Berg answered. He w
as already worn out from loading all the team’s gear and accoutrements. Now they had to load Wyverns. Thank God the Navy was handling the ammo.

  “Your team is going to be on lower duty to start,” the gunny continued, pointing up. Room for the Marine “security detachment” and the scientists they normally carried had been made by ripping out twenty of the twenty-four missiles that had once filled the ship. A large housing area had been installed to replace them, containing not only bunks for the Marines and small cabins for the science teams but kitchens, mess halls, toilets, supply room, armory, labs and all the other things people needed to live, work and fight. There wasn’t actually much room for bodies.

  The space where one tube had been, though, was left open. The open space descended through all three levels of the ship, with heavy hatches at each level and on the outside. It was the primary loading point for all the heavy equipment the Marines and scientists needed, including the Wyverns.

  The Wyverns themselves were stored in racks between the remaining missile tubes, sixty of them in all. It was up to nine Marines to get them all loaded in less than twelve hours.

  “The Wyvern will be dropped through that hatch,” the gunny continued. “Bosun Charles is in charge of lowering. On the first level it’s not much trouble. You attach those lines to the clamp points on the shoulder,” he said, gesturing at the devices, “then swing the Wyvern over to the side until it’s on solid ground.

  “But we’re starting on the bottom level,” the gunny continued, grinning evilly. “And the problem with lowering them that far is that they have a tendency to swing. So at each level they have to be secured. Question?”

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