Chapter 18 – The Drones Launch

Joint Ventures

The Launch

Launch Preparation

Rachael opened the panel of the probe. John presented her with a cage holding a dark sewer rat. The two rats sent over had been test subjects of Charles. Having nano technology would help evaluate them and match their own conditions more closely.  She looked at it feeling a bit unnerved. Charles was communicating to her through a notebook. She asked, “Charles, do the nanos do anything besides fix you up?”

Charles replied, “You need to be a bit more specific.”

Rachael said, “I swear this rat is scowling at me.”

There was a pause and then, “Cognitive response and capability rise to varying degrees.  You are your team mates are absorbing a tremendous amount of information. You were quite intelligent before, but the nanos open gateways that may have been closed.  I suppose the rats are no different.”

Rachael replied, “You are telling me this filthy rat is really scowling at me and I am about to stick him in an enclosed chamber subject to hours of potential torment.”

Camille replied, “He is not filthy. I scrubbed the vermin thoroughly before I let them anywhere near me.”

Rachael grimaced and then said to the rat, “Don’t blame me, you sorry bastard.” Then to the computers, “Do we need to worry that they will get loose?”

Charles said, “The chambers are air tight.  If somehow they could chew through permaplast, they would reach vacuum which would keep the electronic and gearing safe from the nibblers.” There was another pause and then, “We don’t have to bring them back alive.”

Rachael snapped, “Yes we do.” In a more controlled voice, “It is the whole point…we need to see if we can survive. Dead rats aren’t very useful.”

Camille said, “Pity.”

John shook his head and moved the cage to the opening in the chamber. Rachael prodded and poked the reluctant passenger into place saying, “In you go. There’s no escaping. Beside you’re about to have the ride of a life time.” The rat hopped in and turned back facing her and again she could swear it was glaring at her.  She asked John, “Did that rat look right to you?”

John leaned down stared at the rat and then scratched his head saying, “Not sure what is right any more.  Don’t think it fancies the trip as much as we do.  Can’t say for sure why I know that.”  On the other side of the floor, she heard Winifred Stanhope shriek, “That thing bit me!” John smiled and said, “On the other hand, maybe the nanos have made them discriminating.” Rachael smirked and checked the chamber one more time. There was bedding, a water tube and some  feed. There wasn’t much, but the trip shouldn’t be long in time.  She closed her chamber while Stanhope railed at the other rat and closed the door of her drone.

The drone Rachael worked on would be going to Ceres – an asteroid Millicent had suggested.  It was 22 light minutes away, a relatively new term Rachael had learned describing how far light could go in one minute’s time. It was more convenient than 251 million miles and, frankly, more comprehensible. The probe Stanhope was working on would be going to the planet Neptune and gather samples from Triton  – one of its moons.  That probe would travel 252 light minutes to its destination or the unimaginable distance of 2.8 billion miles.  Communication was impractical at such distances – an issue that would need to be solved over the long haul.  However, the drones were relatively autonomous. Charles and Camille provided a set of instructions for each drone.  On arrival, the drones would establish orbit and send a “I am here” signal. Ironically the travel time for the signal was such that, in the case of the Triton drone, it would likely be back in storage before the group received the signal – if all went well. After orbit and the signal, the drone had a feature it would find to use as a landing point. It would land take some soil samples and reverse the process.  The whole process at their destination might take 90 minutes. Data from Ceres would arrive, but there was little point in trying to send data from Triton.

Smith walked by both drones looking at the two women work, but said nothing.  Rachael made sure her hatches were secure and did a visual inspection although she wasn’t sure she would know a flaw if she saw one. Smith asked, “Can we get this little toy run over with now?”

Rachael shrugged and said, “Everything looks ok to me.”

Smith looked at the other drone and said, “Winifred?”

She closed her hatch at last and said, “I think everything is in place.”

Rachael nodded and said, “Charles and Camille verify communication links.”

Both AIs responded “Confirmed”

Rachael looked over at Winifred Stanhope who then said, “Initiate phase 1”

Phase 1 lifted the drones out of the warehouse and then on a flight path to space around Earth.  The drones hovered for a moment, switched to stealth mode making them almost impossible to see. The ceiling opened and two rushes of air could be felt as they headed out.

Smith looked at the open ceiling and said, “Ignoring the Morgaine family interference, Earth has its first two astronauts – Rats.”

Heroicos iter soricibus[1]

John watched the ceiling doors close. Rachael stared at the closed doors. The others began milling about until Smith said, ”We’ve got hours to wait. The galley is open. “ John watched Smith’s group recede into the ship.  John said, “Can’t say I really want to spend the next 4 hours making party talk with them. I’ve done it before and it isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds.”

Rachael laughed and said, “Six months back with the street urchins and you’ve lost your shine already? There’s no hope for the rest of us.”

John said, “Ah yes…well perhaps other options lay in the future.” He looked up at the closed ceiling. Then said, “Charles or Camille, do the drones have viewing equipment?”

Charles responded,”Yes…I’ll forward my drone’s image to your notebook.”

Camille said, “I suppose the others will want to see it as well. I will forward my drone’s work to monitors in the ship.”

Rachael said, “Thank you, Camille. I appreciate the effort.”

Camille said, “Miss Stanhope will want to see it as well.”

John muttered, “Whatever…lead on Miss Weiz. You can hold the notebook and I will make sure doors are open.”

The ships were remarkably similar so finding the environmental lab with its screens was very easy. The screens functioned in a very similar fashion.  Charles drone was now skimming across the water south of England.  The view was very reminiscent of the view from the gondola going over the channel, but it seemed much higher.  John asked, “Is there a rear view?”

The screen now showed England, only it looked like a map and it was next to an equally detailed map of Europe. Clouds obscured much of the coastlines. The sky had become almost black.  Rachael commented, “It seems so unreal.”

Camille and Charles now reported that their drones were in orbit.  Rachael shook her head and then took a deep breath.  She said, “Engage autonomy sequences for both drones. Request drone A send image of London. Request Drone B send image of Prague.” Camille and Charles both acknowledged the commands. Shortly close up images of the two cities appeared. Again, it would be difficult to tell if anyone actually was alive save the structures were clearly constructed.  John said, “I think Michael is going to spend a lot of time over the next few years looking at city construction.”

Rachael snorted and said, “I think we are all going to spend the next few years relearning everything we thought we knew.” She said to the two computers, “Camille and Charles please validate autonomous command sequences for each drone. Report any anomalies.”  John and Rachael stared at the images as the sequences were validated again. Charles reported back, “The sequence is verified.”  Camille reported back, “Sequence is verified.”

John heard Smith say over the communications, “Will you send them off, Miss Weiz?”

Rachael muttered, “Damn scheming, busy body, … Execute sequences for both drones. Off they go, Smith”

Charles reported back, “Dark Energy field rising.  Chronometers synced ….Oh!”

Camille said as well, “Oh dear!”

John asked, “Is there a problem?”

After a moment Charles said, “I can’t say for sure. The effect of the drone using the field is…disconcerting.”

Camille added, “Imagine having your limb suddenly disappear in a moment.”

Rachael twisted her lips, but John heard Winifred Stanhope say, “Do tell. Disarming, is it?” John winced at the comment.

Charles said in an apologetic tone, “I wish there was a better way to describe it, but Camille’s description fits…It must sound…insensitive.”

Rachael smirked and said, “A tad… John and I will stay in the environmental lab. I look forward to your …experience when they return.”

Smith said over communications, “I am not going to stand around for 3 hours waiting for some silly signal. Anyone equally bored may join me in the galley for a brandy and conversation.

John said, “Brandy?”

Charles said over the notebook, “The drone I am monitoring is 24 light minutes away. We will not hear anything for at least that long. I have sent a request for an image, but the earliest that will arrive will be 48 minutes.  Camille has informed me that Smith favors Napoléon Brandies – long on the mouth with floral notes and a bit of nut on the after taste.”

Rachael said, “Then Bob’s your uncle – I’ll try that even if I have to be in the same room as Winifred and Findley. “

John scratched his head and said, “How does an AI know about ‘long on the mouth with floral notes…’?”

Charles said, “Trade secret.”

Terra alienus[2]

John and Rachael sipped their brandies until, around 4pm the notebook said, “I have information.”

Rachael said, “Show me!”

The image showed up on the notebook was stark, unforgiving and very alien. The ground was grey, dark and strewn with equally dark angular rocks. The rocks themselves showed absolutely no evidence of rounding by any force.  Rachael passed the notebook around. Others in the room, other than Smith, seemed equally surprised and shocked at its starkness. Rachael asked, “Charles, compared to other locations, is this …normal?”

Charles replied, “Oh my dear, you will be finding your planet is the exception and not the rule.”

Rachael was trying grasp the strangeness when both Charles and Camille said, the drones are back.  Stanhope said, “Camille, our message to the drone was never acknowledged.”

Camille said, “And probably won’t.  The message we sent is still in transit to Neptune right now.”

The immensity of distances was finally beginning to sink in. Stanhope looked speculative. John looked satisfied as if some truth was proven. Brown and Carter-Frasier looked confused. Only Redman looked inscrutable.

Charles spoke,  “Our drones are now in orbit. It will take about 20 minutes for them to be in position to reenter. However, it is still daylight. I suggest we wait until dark. It will be more discreet. The drones will be hot and quite a show over water, but are easily explained as meteors or shooting stars.”

Rachael sighed and said, “Fine wait.”

Stanhope looked annoyed but Smith stared at her and said, “Avoiding unwanted exploration and attention is desirable at this point. Better to see a falling star destined for the ocean, than a fire ball that hovers and then heads to East Bristol.” He said to the others, “We have a few hours. Rest up. Dinner will be in order in an hour or so.”

The group spent the next two hours passing time. Smith’s group, for the most part, waited in the galley. John and Rachael went to the environmental lab and stared at the pictures from the drones.  John asked, “Camille is this natural color?”

John was sure he almost heard a sigh of exasperation, “As Charles said before, the colors or their lack is normal. The lighting has been enhanced because of the distance from the sun.  What you are seeing is rich in carbon, but consists of pyroxenes, olivines and various iron sulfide minerals. All of those, except the olivine will be dark or black.” John wished Simone had heard this with her knowledge of minerals.  Camille continued, “All very dull, grey and very old.  I am guessing this surface is hundreds of thousands if not millions of years old.”

Rachael snorted, “nothing is that old.”

Camille countered, “Even your own Charles Lyle says differently.  William Thompson recently published an estimate of the age of the earth at 20 million to 400 million years old. He is short by 1 to 2 orders of magnitude, but he begins to comprehend the venerable age of the Earth.”  There was a pause and then Camille asked, “How old do you think your cliffs of Dover are?”

John said, “I believe Lyell says they were laid down in the Cretaceous, but no one has put an actual date on them.”

Camille said in a sing-song voice, “My measures make it close to 100 million years old. Your species has only been upright for 4 Million. You’ve only had civilization for the last 10,000. I find your claim to the planet on such a short period of time absurd. Some of the Guild Members have been space bound longer than you have written history. Smith’s planet was destroyed 500 of your years ago.”

John said, “That’s absurd. He barely looks older than us.” But Rachael looked thoughtful and then asked, “This is one of those quirks of their travels, isn’t it?”

Camille said, “Charles said those notebooks were advanced…Yes…the faster you travel, the slower relative time moves. So they have not aged physically 500 years. Nevertheless, Smith and Morgaine are considerably older than their appearances.”

Rachael changed subjects and asked, “Do you have a picture from your drone yet?”

Camille said, “One moment…the drone has images stored. I’ve relayed some to your system.”

Rachael pulled one and had it displayed next to the one from Charles drone. It was equally stark, but the difference was breathtaking.

John mutters, “Blimey…that looks like ice…nothing…but ice.”

Charles joined the conversation, “38o Kelvin or -390o in that quaint Fahrenheit scale you use.”

Camille said, “You coddle them too much.”

Charles said, “It makes them loyal. Besides the real learning begins when we start travel.”

Rachael interrupted the argument, “The surfaces are smooth. Fewer edges. And I can’t see any stars.”

Camille said, “Triton’s surface is constantly changing. I have no way of knowing for sure how old this surface is but it may only be a few thousand years old.” The image shifted and a mountain in the background became clearer. Camille said, “That is an ice volcano. The crystals from that coat the local area and give it that smooth appearance. “

Charles added, “There is also a thin atmosphere which will blur the image of the stars.  We’ve enhanced the light to make it easier to see the surface.  Without that enhancement it would seem as dark as any night you’ve had here.”

Rachael and John stared at the strange ice landscape and did not hear Alfred Redman come in. He viewed the images and then said, “Gives a whole new meaning to ‘colder than hell’”

John asked, “The party in the galley is slowing?”

Redman shrugged, “Smith left. I grew bored with the conversation.” He looked at the images and said, “I’ve seen the sights of Europe and Egypt. Ice in the north and sand dunes as high as the clock tower.” He said,  “The Stanhopes travel extensively, “ in explanation. “Nothing perplexed me as these pictures do. I have seen nothing of the like.”  He looked up and asked Camille, “When do the drones come back?”

Camille replied, “We will bring them down on the next pass. It will make the papers tomorrow with lovely etchings and everything. But we will have the flight paths point to the Bristol Bay to avoid unwanted visitors.”

Rachael rolled back and said, “Then let’s wait in the warehouse.  I’ve stared at enough strangeness for one day.”

Retrieving results

Rachael asked about the state of the rats. Charles said, ”Both were alive but in considerable distress.” There was a pause, “Camille and I are working out the reentry sequence. It may take some extra effort. Assuming you want the rats alive, we will need to take a slower approach.”

Camille said, “Of course, if you don’t need them alive, they can be here in 30 minutes.”

Rachael said, “No!” and Stanhope said, “Yes!” simultaneously.”

Rachael said, “The whole point of this effort was to see if something could survive the trip.”

Stanhope said, “They’re alive now. We’ve shown something can survive the transit. We can autopsy the bodies to see if there is degradation we need to worry about.”

Rachael reddened and waved her hands, “We don’t have to be senselessly cruel. Alive, the rats will provide useful information about long term effects.

Smith approached the discussion, “Is there a problem? Why can’t we retrieve them sooner?” Stanhope smiled in victory.

Rachael shook in frustration, “The rats alive are more use to us than dead. We don’t know what latent effects this field might have on higher order intelligence, body systems.  Sure they’re alive.  So’s a fish when you pull it out of the water.”

Smith smirked and then turned to Stanhope, “You were the one who urged these tests. Miss Weiz is correct – there is more data on safety if they are kept alive. Am I missing something, Winifred?”

Stanhope’s expression changed to a scowl and then she said, “I suppose you are right. We should see how they recover. Fine…whatever…do what is necessary to return the rats alive.”

Camille’s low response was, “If you insist,….of course.”

The drones began reentry. Charles explained to Rachael that they were using the atmosphere to slow the two speeding drones.  The problem was that if the drones slowed too fast, the rats would be crushed.  They would using low angles and applying acceleration to minimize the force inside the drone to something survivable. He likened it to catching a bullet with one teeth.  Rachael grimaced at the thought and closed her mouth tightly.  An hour and half later, the two drones skimmed up the Bristol River and slipped into Smith’s warehouse. Bother were still quite hot and emitting strange gases. Camille ran fans to vent and cool them down. After another 30 minutes, the group could safely approach.

John asked, “Is this what we have to look forward to?”

Charles said, “Our ships are equipped with inertial dampers and artificial gravity.  Millicent and I can drop over the Atlantic and avoid the light show Cardiff just got. The odd trawler, freighter or airship might see us but we have more control on speed and location. When we arrived here, we took an hour flying up the Channel and the Thames before we got to the warehouse.  So the gases and heat had dissipated by the time we were set.  The path Camille and I planned for the drones was abnormal but the heat and gases are not.”

John whistled in reply, “Makes airships blowing up seem a bit simple.”

Rachael said, “We just flew one of those things 250 million miles. The other flew over a billion.  Both have returned whole with live passengers.  They just did this in no more time than it takes to get to Paris and back in an air ship. Yep…Airships are a bit simple.”

Charles piped up, “Well said,  Miss Weiz.”

John blushed red and said nothing more.

Rachael replied to the notebook, “I wasn’t bragging, Charles. Frankly, I have a lot of sympathy for the poor rats at the moment. “  She looked around, called over Alfred Redman and then asked, “I know it’s odd, but do you have any apples or cheese in your galley at the moment.”

Redman looked puzzled, “Yes, why?”

Rachael said, “Could you please bring one apple sliced up into two bowls? And a canteen of fresh water.”

Redman looked around at the technology and the people gathering around and then said, “I suppose ought to do something useful. Feeling a bit peckish? Snackies now?”

Rachael to a pained expression and said, “Not me. It’s for the rats. They’ve been on a long trip. They might appreciate a little refreshment.” Redman looked at her and then shrugged, bowed and headed to the ship. Rachael rolled over to the drones which were now cool enough to touch…just. Rachael said, “Alfred is getting something for me.  Let’s check a few things first before we open them up.  How do the internal clocks match up?”

Charles said, “My drone is 30 minutes ahead.”

Camille said, “The Triton drone is ahead by 5 hours.”

Charles said, “Their clocks kept going while ours were stopped. The clocks were much slower, but there is travel time in ‘nowhere’ state”

Stanhope paced and said, “We’ll solve that later. Let’s open the probes get these bloody tests over.”

Camille said, “Here, Here.”

Rachael fumed and then said, “I’ve asked Alfred to get some food and water for the rats. Can’t stand the beasts myself, but we’ve just subjected them to severe trauma. A bit of food and water in a nice stable crate seems only fair.”

Stanhope said, “They’re bloody rats. We don’t need to apologize.”

Rachael stared at her and said, “I’d expect that from you and Findley Brown. You don’t fucking apologize to the people you toy with. Some of us have a bit more of a conscious on these matters.” She turned to Smith and said, “Five minutes. Winifred doesn’t give a damn about the rats long term. I do and I say we wait for water and food.”

Smith pursed his lips and then said, “We’ve dawdled enough.  Mr. O’Malley, find a crate or parcel box somewhere in this warehouse and we’ll get the rats out and start analyzing the data.”

Stanhope smirked at Rachael who muttered, “Still a bastard.” Rachael rolled up to Charles’ drone and said, “Charles, what is the state of the rat?”

“He is conscious, but immobile.”

“Scared stiff.”

“Adequate description.”

She said, “John, get that crate close. “ She opened the door to the drone. Inside  the travel chamber, the rat cowered in a back corner. The bedding stank of urine. The rat stared at her.  Her eyes softened a bit and she said, “Sorry mate. Had no idea. Won’t happen again.”

John said in a quiet smooth voice, “Are you talking to a rat, Rachael?”

Rachael said pleasantly, “Shut your gob, John. Liam and Charles talk to Betsy. Besides, there is something odd about these rats.”  She reached in to pull out the rat and it bit her.  She cursed , put on a leather glove and said harshly, “You’re coming out. I deserved the bite, but you’re coming out.” She reached in and pulled the squeaking rat out and put it in the box provided by John.  Meanwhile Stanhope brought over her unconscious rat.

“Don’t see the point of the fuss.”

“Just put her in the crate with the other. Their my problem now, Stanhope. “ Stanhope dropped the rat unceremoniously into the crate and headed back to the other drone. Alfred Redman arrived with the apple and water.  “Your items, m’Lady.” She snatched the apple from Redman and dropped it into the crate and used the water dispenser from the drone and added fresh water.  She looked at John and said, “If you’ll follow me to the medical lab, I’ll start the tests on the rats.”

In the lab, Rachael started a sequence on each rat. Her rat, apart from agitation was in fine shape.  He was calmer now and took an apple slice before being returned to the crate. Stanhope’s rat was not ok.  Camille said, “This rat is severely dehydrated and malnourished. If the nano information is correct, it has been without food or water for days.”

Rachael said, “What do we need to do to revive it?” Camille provided directions for Rachael to administer fluids intravenously although it was difficult to find the vein.  With liquid in dripping in, the vitals were stabilizing and Camille said that the nanos had already begun to repair damage.

Rachael said, “You said the chronometer was off by 5 hours. That makes sense given the distance difference. But this rat is starved and dehydrated.”

Camille said, “I tried downloading the sequences from both drones. The sequences from Charles’ drone downloaded as expected and results are what was expected. I cannot find the sequences from my drone. “

At that moment John Smith walked into the medical lab, “What do you mean you cannot find them?”

Camille said, “That memory from that drone has been cleaned along with other significant portions.”

John said, “That can happen without your agreement?”

Camille responded, “If one has access codes, one can make changes. And this makes less sense – the access codes that erased the memory indicate it was Liam O’Hannigan.”

Smith laughed heartily, “Oh that is rich.” And then he said, “Miss Weiz, you don’t trust me. But I wish to prove something.  Camille, please display the monitor on your drone since it landed.”

“That is about thirty minutes of feed.”

Smith said, “Accelerate so we aren’t too dreadfully bored.” The screen began to show the drone.  Stanhope and Brown milled around it like little fast moving dolls. Stanhope could be seen removing the rat while holding her nose.  Smith commented as that sequence passed, “Your concern for the creatures was touching.”

Rachael said tersely, “Things change or I’ve changed. The poor creatures were pulled out of their life, injected with strange substances. According to Charles and based on my observations, they are probably quite a bit smarter than they used to be. But we put them in dark boxes in utterly foreign conditions to a faraway place and then bring them back.”  She paused, “I have a bit of empathy with them.”

Smith chuckled lightly. John looked uncomfortable.  They continued watching the screen as the two figures moved about the drone. Rachael said, “I find it curious that Stanhope, with all her concerns for our health and safety, wasn’t interested in the health of the rats. Wanted them dissected even and that made no sense. Did I miss something?”

Smith said as he watched the video, “You miss very little which is why Winifred loathes you. I suspect her purposes for this little experiment had very little to do with our safety.”  The screen stopped and he looked at her. “Did you miss something?”

John said, “Winifred and Findley milled around the drone the entire time…nobody else did.”

Rachael said, “She erased the memory.”

Smith smiled darkly, “The woman was born to scheme.  But she is playing a game without knowing the players, and that Miss Weiz, is very risky.”

Rachael said, “So you knew about whatever device she wanted in the drone.”

Smith said, “Camille keeps me informed just as I am sure Charles informs Millicent about you.” He pointed at the now still figures by the drone. “She bypassed Camille to erase those codes. That was very clever of her. She will be much harder to contain on our first stop. “ He looked up and said, “Camille, send me a list of star systems within 10 light years.  Let’s find out who saw the drone.” He turned to Rachael and said, “I do hope she doesn’t do something foolish. I rather like her style, but I won’t have her upsetting my apple cart.”

Rachael said quietly with a smile, “Dissent in the ranks, Mr. Smith?”

Smith straightened up and smiled down at her in a tight fashion, “Naïve ambitions, Miss Weiz. I found it useful earlier, but it is a weak spot in their character.  One that others can exploit.”

Rachael said with a smile, “The rat is biting back. Horribly ungrateful of her. ”

Smith walked out the door as he said, “If she has or if she does, she is going to find out what kind of predator I can be Miss Weiz.”

[1] The heroic journey of the rats

[2] Terra alienus – foreign land


6 thoughts on “Chapter 18 – The Drones Launch

  1. Pingback: The Omicron Matter – The Drones Launch – Launch Preparations | The Finder's Saga

  2. Pingback: The Omicron Matter – The Drones Launch -Heroicos iter soricibus | The Finder's Saga

  3. Pingback: The Omicron Matter – The Drones Launch – Terra Alienus | The Finder's Saga

  4. Pingback: The Omicron Matter – The Drones Launch – Retrieving Results 1 | The Finder's Saga

  5. Pingback: The Omicron Matter – The Drones Launch – Retrieving Results 2 | The Finder's Saga

  6. Pingback: The Omicron Matter – The Drones Launch – Retrieving Results 3 | The Finder's Saga

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