Hello again, and welcome back to the maiden out-System voyage of the TFS Enterprise!
It’s funny; I still wish I had been there for this mission.
I know, I know, I was needed for what happened back home; and if I hadn’t been home, who knows how it would have turned out.
But dammit, I missed the first flight, the first extra-solar star system humanity visited, the whole nine yards!
Adam’s got a new collection; isn’t the cover cool? He’s gathered the four volumes which contain the Artemis War, the prequel (telling how Cass and I got started on this crazy road), plus an exclusive novelette, The Martian Gambit, all in one place and then slapped a price of $9.99 on it all.
Personally I think he’s nuts, but hey, I just lived it.
If you want to order, click the cover image or the button below.
As usual, the audio for this installment is at the bottom, and you can also buy the book in any format by clicking the other button or any of the cover images.
A day later…
”Entering Wolf 359 system in three, two, one, entry, warp drive shutting down, sublight engines at one half,” reported helmsman Kay.
System entry wasn’t ‘old hat’ by any means; this was only the third one they had done. But it was beginning to become familiar, the officers and crew learning the steps in the dance.
“Scanning system,” announced Zihal.
“What do we expect, Cassidy?” asked Stewart.
“Two planets, one a Jovian, one a super-Earth.”
Conversation stopped as Alley emerged from her ready room. “I see we didn’t bump into anything. Well done, Mr. Kay.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Kay. “Lt. Seabolt’s charts are bang on.”
“Anything exciting, XO?”
“Just getting the scoop, Captain. Cassidy, continue.”
“Ma’am. The super-Earth should be at about 2.7 million kilometers, less than 0.02 AU. The Jovian is at 1.85 AU, 276 million kilometers.”
“I’ve got the Jovian,” said Zihal. “Official designation is Wolf b. Putting it on the screen.”
There was a flicker, and then the image of a large, orangish planet with faint striping appeared. “Gathering data. Initial readings suggest more or less typical Jovian atmosphere: 84 percent Hydrogen, 6 percent Helium, 6 percent Oxygen, which is unusual, diminishing percentages from there of Carbon, Neon, Nitrogen, and so on.”
“Very likely, ma’am. He3 is usually approximately one out of every million Helium atoms, but given Wolf b’s proximity to the star, and the irregular flaring, we might find a higher percentage here.”
“Are you thinking we could try the scoops?” Stewart asked Alley.
“How’s our bunkerage?” Alley said by way of reply. While the ship could, and did, use just about anything for reaction mass for the annie plant, the fusion reactors that provided power for the sublight engines relied on He3. The Bussard scoops were useful, but at one lonely Hydrogen atom per cubic centimeter, and not much else, the idea that they’d be able to refuel while traveling between planets had been pretty well disproven. On the other hand, they had demonstrated that they could dip into the upper atmosphere of a Jovian planet and extract useable gases. They hadn’t gotten too deep, so had primarily picked up Hydrogen and a whiff of Helium, but they knew they could do it.
They had exhausted the potential of Proxima Centauri fairly quickly. While Proxima b had what both scientists continued to describe as an “interesting” atmosphere, it was not a planet that would yield much in the way of benefit for landing. Proxima c, a super-Earth which was far outside the life zone of Proxima Centauri, was a rocky body, and while mining operations might return some He3 recovered from the rocks it wasn’t a viable candidate for colonizing. The one planet in the Alpha Centauri binary system was even more disappointing: a lone cinder, orbiting Alpha Centauri B in twelve days and slightly smaller than Earth. The similarity ended there, as the surface was revealed to be molten and utterly impossible for any landings.
Alley was a veteran officer who strongly believed in keeping the maximum amount of consumables aboard a ship. On a submarine that was pretty well limited to food, especially fresh food. That wasn’t as much of a concern on Enterprise, between replicators and a large hydroponics bay, but other factors came into play. Helium-3 was critical for in-system propulsion, as well as powering the Wolves’ plants. Other elements could be used as mass for the annie, but lighter elements were preferable, so there was another consumable. And, despite their best efforts to make Enterprise a closed system, with water and Oxygen being recycled, it was still a manmade vessel. There was an inevitable, measurable, minute loss.
“We’re at 82 percent on He3, 91 percent on water, 88 percent on Oxygen,” answered Stewart.
“It’s as low-risk as we’re going to get, Captain,” she answered. “It’s a Jovian, but only just. Mass of 43 times Earth, low density, no ring system. I’d say it’s just about perfect. We should be able to get deep enough into atmo to get to good layers of Helium.”
“Engineering?” There was always an engineering officer on the bridge, though almost never the Chief Engineer. She tended to stay with her machinery. This watch was being covered by Morgan, and she turned to look at Alley.
“Any concerns? Will the Bussards hold up to the atmospheric density?”
The Bussard scoops, installed at the fronts of both nacelles, were an adaptation of an idea from the 20th century, the Bussard ramjet. The imagined ramjet would extend electromagnetic fields in a rough cone, up to thousands of kilometers in diameter, and funnel the collected atoms into a compressor. The compressor, in turn, would produce enough pressure to ignite a fusion reaction, which would then provide thrust for the vehicle to continue. Unfortunately, as imagined, it would never work, as the drag force, as well as the power drain for the catcher field, would result in a thrust too low to maintain the necessary velocity.
What Val had done in her redesign of the Enterprise was to scale the Bussard idea down, from thousands of kilometers to a few hundred meters, and not rely on it for propulsive power. Instead, her scoops channeled charged particles, both positive and negative, into the nacelles, where they could be further separated and refined using another series of electromagnetic fields for filters. It was designed to work in vacuum, though, rather than atmosphere, so there had been much debate between Science and Engineering, occasionally refereed by the XO and, once, the Captain.
“Engineer Anderson’s calculations confirm we should be able to collect, as long as the pressure doesn’t exceed 140 kPa.”
“Which we’ll monitor from Science,” said Cass. “If the atmosphere is too thick, we can reduce our speed relative to the planet, or abort. We’ll also be coming in with the prevailing currents, which will give us a bit more margin of error.” Wolf b, like other Jovians, had differential rotation. The core of the planet, which was presumed to be some sort of solid mass, rotated faster than the gases above. The contrasting speeds led to turbulence and fierce winds. The plan was to travel with the winds to the aft, reducing the total strain on the ship and the relatively fragile pylons, while still allowing them to maintain enough headway to stay in orbit, if a very low one.
“Let’s do it,” said Alley. “XO, take us in.”
“Aye, Captain. Helm, set course for Wolf b, then take us into low orbit.”
“Course for Wolf b, aye. Low orbit, aye.”
They covered the distance to Wolf b, taking readings of both the Jovian and the rocky Wolf c, confirming and refining their initial measures of the atmosphere.
“Low orbit established,” reported the helm.
“Commander Cassidy? Ms. Morgan? Your show. The conn is yours.”
Cass twitched. This was the first time she had officially been in command of the ship. Oh, she’d known it could happen; as Lieutenant Commander, and a bridge officer, she was fifth in the chain of command, behind the Captain, XO, Chief Engineer, and Lt. Commander Sanzari as Tactical Officer. She just didn’t realize, until this instant, how the weight of command could feel like all the kilotons of the Enterprise settling on her shoulders. She’d done it before, more or less, on smaller scales: the craziness around her wedding, running HLC. But this was…She shook herself, ever so slightly visibly.
“Helm, take us in, ten degrees down angle, maneuvering speed.”
“Ten degrees down, aye. Maneuvering speed, aye.” The image of clouds on the screen changed as the course changed.
“Minerva, give me readings on distance to our target level.”
“Yes, Commander. Forty kilometers.”
As they descended, the winds around them started to catch at the ship. That was something she hadn’t anticipated.
“Engineer, inertial dampers to max.”
“Inertial dampers to max, aye.” Morgan entered the command, and the ship steadied.
“Steady as she goes,” she said, more to herself than anyone else.
The depth they had chosen was eighteen kilometers below the ammonia-sulphur clouds, at a pressure of about 100 kPa. There should be water clouds at that depth, the temperature having risen as they descended, along with the He3 and other gases they’d come to fetch.
“Morgan, activate the scoops.”
“Activate scoops, aye.”
Two invisible, insubstantial cones sprang to life from the nacelles, and the gases started funneling their way to the collectors.
“It’s working!” exclaimed Zihal, who was monitoring the intake. “I mean, we have collection.”
Alley concealed a smile. It was easy to forget that her crew was largely new to any sort of organized service, but their enthusiasm was also a boon. They were willing to do and try things that service veterans wouldn’t dream of, including the space exploration equivalent of dipping a cup into a well for water, albeit at speeds measured in kilometers per second.
“Stress building in the nacelles,” reported Morgan.
“How much have we onboarded?” asked Cass.
“Still filtering. 85 percent on He3, though. Oxygen and water are running behind,” Zihal answered.
“Morgan, let me know when stress levels hit 80 percent of rated capacity.”
“Eighty percent, aye, ma’am. Currently at 57 percent and climbing.”
“Target level,” said Minerva.
“Helm, level off, maintain speed.”
“Level off, aye. Maintain speed, aye.”
“Getting good readings on water,” said Zihal. “Oxygen, too. Density outside is just about high enough that you could go out without a suit.”
“Yes, but could you breathe it?” asked Stewart, echoing the thought in Alley’s head.
“Yes, ma’am. Pressure is 117 kPa, slightly above Earth normal. Partial pressure of Oxygen is 7.02 kPa, which is thin but breathable. You wouldn’t want to run in it, even if there was anything to run on.”
“That gives me an idea,” mused Cass.
“Later, Commander. Finish the maneuver.”
That snapped Cass back to the present. “Aye, Captain. Supply levels?”
“We’re full up for water; we’re still collecting, but we can break that into components, Oxygen and Hydrogen. Helium-3 is at 88 percent and climbing, Oxygen is 91 percent.”
“Stress level 65 percent,” reported Morgan. “Still climbing.”
“Minerva, extrapolate. Will we finish filling He3 before we bend something?”
“Yes, Commander. At current rates, we will fill the He3 tanks before we hit your stated maximum stress level on the pylons.”
“Continue the evolution,” decided Cass.
Five minutes later, Zihal reported, “Helium-3 tanks full, Commander.”
“Shut down the Bussards and button us up,” ordered Cass.
“Shut down Bussard scoop, aye. Close intakes, aye,” echoed Morgan.
“Helm, bring us out of the atmosphere, angle up thirty degrees.”
“Angle up thirty degrees, aye.” The subtle sense of motion was reinforced by the changing view on the screen.
“Screen, not window. Screen, not window,” repeated Alley to herself.
“What’s that, Captain?” asked Stewart.
“Oh, just a reminder,” evaded Alley. “Commander Cassidy, nicely managed. As soon as we’ve regained orbit, please see me in my ready room.”
“Aye, Captain,” said Cass.
Ten minutes later Cass entered Alley’s ready room.
“Reporting as ordered, Captain.”
“Sit down, Commander. Relax. You really handled that well, especially someone who had no military or shipboard experience prior to our current endeavor.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“And you can cut back the ‘Captain’ to once an hour, in private.”
“Aye, Cap – Alley.”
“Did the same thing the first time my commander on NIS Aurora tried to get me to chill a bit. Of course, I didn’t have the advantage of knowing him outside the structure of rank, where you’ve known me for months, now.”
“I just don’t want to slip up in front of the others,” said Cass. “It’s not quite a habit yet, but I’m getting there.”
“As odd as it might sound, I think that we actually benefit from a little bit of a looser structure. Not all fuzzy and best friends and do-what-you-will, but we’re not, after all, fundamentally military. We’re a weird hybrid of scientists, fighters, and engineers, so some flexibility is going to benefit everyone.”
“I agree, Alley, but I didn’t want to push it. I think that I probably ask for enough as your head-in-the-clouds science officer.”
“You do keep Kiri and I on our toes,” admitted Alley. “What do you think of our little refueling trick?”
Cass considered her answer carefully before answering.
“I think that it’s good that we’re able to do it, but it might be of limited utility. We put some stress on the pylons, which isn’t going to make any engineer happy, and we didn’t actually need to refill our stores just yet. The scoops worked as advertised, and so did the separators, and the excess water we collected is a nice bonus. We’ll be able to stretch out our annie fuel, using the Hydrogen we collected.” Cass thought some more. “You know the design for the Endeavour is going to be different?”
“Yes, I’d heard. Kendra had a big hand in the design of Enterprise, right?”
“More like she made a hairy nuisance of herself until Val gave in.”
“That sounds like Kendra,” Alley said, laughing.
“She was able to push through the changes to this ship because it didn’t interfere with the function, at least they didn’t think it did at the time. But there are some impractical choices, like the pylon separating the primary and secondary hulls, and the nacelles perched way out from the body of the ship.”
“True,” agreed Alley.
“Endeavour gets away from this design. In the first place, this isn’t a redesign; Enterprise had been originally intended to land, and some of those design cues are still present, like the location of the shuttlebay. Endeavour won’t have that concern. There’s still a primary and engineering hull, but they’re more nearly a single unit, with the primary hull elongated and the engineering hull attaching under the primary and extending behind. And the nacelles, which aren’t a bad idea of themselves, are going to be much closer to the engineering hull, the pylons thicker, and angled downward at 45 degrees.”
“Interesting, but what does that have to do with our refilling?”
“I’m getting there. These are all considerations that Engineer Anderson and I discussed when we were planning. The Endeavour will be able to refill more easily, given the location of the nacelles. There also won’t be as much stress on the pylons since they’ll be both shorter and wider.”
“I don’t think, no, let me rephrase that. I’m going to recommend that our little maneuver not be repeated for Enterprise unless the supplies require replenishment.”
“And is that your official word?”
“Yes. I’ll talk with the engineers, get a sense for how close we pushed the structure, but a bent pylon, or worse, would put an end to our explorations.”
“You said something about an idea. Does that have anything to do with the replenishment?”
“Oh, yes, it does. I don’t have anything concrete, so I don’t know if any of this will work.” Cass waited expectantly.
Alley said, “I understand. I won’t pretend that the dreams you’re about to spin are solid plans.”
“That’s about right. Well, it occurred to me that we could use a space elevator to station a gas mine at the breathable level, and basically turn Wolf b into a service station for any Starfleet vessels that pass through.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up a minute. Space elevator? Gas mine?”
“You want the long or short version?”
“Short, I’ve heard your long versions.”
“A space elevator is essentially a long rope, stretching from the surface of a planet out past synchronous orbit, with a counterweight at the end orbiting the planet. Think of a ball, threaded onto a piece of string with a bit knot at the end. You have the string in your hand and you spin around, letting go of the ball. What happens?”
“It flies out to the end of the string as long as I’m spinning.”
“Right. You’re the planet, the ball’s the counterweight. Got it?”
“We use carbon nanotubes, woven into a polymer matrix, for the rope, and an asteroid or something like it for the counterweight. Maybe that’s where the ‘gas station’ is.”
“I thought this was a Jovian? I seem to recall that their surfaces are problematic.”
“You mean buried under huge amounts of pressure and violent winds?”
“That would be problematic, yeah.”
“What we’d have to do is not anchor it to the surface. It’s trickier, because the balancing is much more critical, but it can be done. Two counterweights, the one on the bottom being pulled to the planet, the one on the top pulling away from the orbital speed.”
“And a gas mine…?”
“A platform at the breathable level, pumping gas, probably liquid, up from further down, separating out the junk, then sending the rest up the line. I know that the Union has had plans to do something like that on Saturn, but they’re waiting for Titan to get their act together first.”
“And you know that why?”
“Oh, just keeping up on my reading,” said Cass. “Even if I’m not running a lab any longer, I still want to stay current.”
“Uh-huh. How does this replenishment effect your timetable?”
“Not at all,” said Cass. “We were taking constant readings and measurements as we refilled the tanks, so we’ve probably gotten more data than we would have otherwise. I’d like to do some close-in readings of Wolf c, but I don’t think it will take long. A few hours ought to be enough. Wolf 359 is close enough to Earth that, honestly, we can get here any time we want if we find anything worth coming back. We budgeted sixteen hours, but I think we can depart in five. That will put us five ahead of schedule.”
“Very good, Cass. Let the XO know the plans.”