Chapter 19 – A Practice Voyage


Into Orbit

Charles Bridge’– Eleanor

Eleanor Woodson sat in a comfortable chair with a panel of information and controls in front of her. Millicent would be flying this trip, but Eleanor had studied and practiced enough that she could run the ship if Millicent chose not to or wasn’t available. There were several stations on the bridge. She, Jason, John, Michael and Felicity had spent weeks studying controls, reading data, and learning new tools. Eleanor’s station showed speed, acceleration, direction and it included a navigation panel. She spent her studying hours working with Charles to understand the intricacies of traveling in space. After she felt a bit comfortable, Charles popped her bubble by saying, “All of this may be moot given how those devices work.” There were controls for maneuvering in the conventional sense: forward, back, up, down, right, left. However, she could use them in combination for interesting effects. Strong forward, with equal portions of up and right, would force the ship into spin along the forward vector. A light forward touch with in one direction caused the ship to execute a loop. She asked about pulling back and Charles simple asked, “How do you expect to pull away from something?” She didn’t understand the question enough to know to how answer.

Millicent sat down next to Eleanor. Millicent no longer wore long dresses and bodices. She was in a tight fitted body suit. Her hair was in braid that ran down her back. Millicent had said that clothes needed to be practical and required changes for everyone. Eleanor opted for a more modest set of pants, blouse and tunic jacket. The others were dressed in a similar fashion.  Eleanor’s hair, unruly as always, was simply parted in the middle and came down the sides. Millicent asked, “Is the pre-flight checklist done?”

Eleanor looked at the list on her console and said, “Navigation systems and position controls are working within parameters. Simone and Rachael report the Omicron devices are set and ready to function.”

Millicent nodded, “Thank you Miss Woodson. Mr.O’Malley, status of the engines?”

John said in a sharp deck voice, “Full load of water. Engine systems are responding within parameters. “

Millicent nodded again and said, “Excellent, Mr. O’Malley. Mr. Richards, ship operations?”

Michael stammered a bit as he said, “We secured quarters last night.”

Charles muttered quietly, “We’ll see about that.”

Millicent waved a hand at Michael to continue and he did, “The pool is covered, secured and attached to ships cooling. Heating systems, air recirculation, water recirculation and other environmental systems are operating at optimal settings.” Eleanor knew he had studied hard to understand the environmental controls. Much of his early work, like everyone else’s, had been focused on understanding why a feature such as heating or air recycling was necessary to survive. After that, he worked with Charles to understand how to control and respond to issues. And, like everyone else, he could probably function fine if nothing went wrong.

Millicent looked at Felicity and asked, “Mrs. Richards, do we have active communications with Mr. Smith and Camille?”

Felicity’s head had a covering and devices fed into her ears. She worked some dials and said, “Smith Ship, please report communication status.” After a moment, Felicity reported, “Miss Stanhope says that we are coming in loud and clear.” Eleanor had a small smile knowing that Winifred Stanhope had to be polite Felicity Richards.

Millicent looked at Jason and asked, “Observation Station, Mr. McNeill?”

Jason said, “Sensors are currently fully functional. We have 305 rats in the warehouse. Two drunks passed by but are moving on to Eagle Wharf road.”

Millicent raised an eyebrow and asked, “You knew they were drunk?”

Jason said, “I practiced some gas analysis and found alcohol on their breath.”

Charles said, “The badly sung ballad and weaving pattern might have been more a more efficient method of diagnosis.”

Millicent looked around then and said, “Well then, Miss Woodson, we are ready. I will take us out of London. You will get your chance later.”

Eleanor was simultaneously relieved and disappointed. Millicent had the experience to maneuver the ship well around structures and crashing into St. Paul’s or the Clock Tower would make an unwanted scene. But the idea of leaving London faster than any airship or train in existence was something to be excited about. Eleanor held her face neutral and said, “Opening warehouse roof.” In reality, she was relaying the command to Charles who then operated the winches to move the roof open. As she understood the systems of the ship and the warehouse, Charles could do just about everything but decide where to go. Eleanor asked Millicent, “Liam and Betsy are clear?”

Charles answered for the quiet Millicent by saying, “Mr. O’Hannigan said he thought he would be of little use and that his time would be better spent getting a few more fares. He and Betsy are currently in the queue at Euston Station.”

Millicent said tightly, “Then we are free to go. Let’s give him something to chat to his fares about.” She looked at the console in front of her and then said, “Leave the running lights on but switch to stealth mode. There’ll be a few strange lights over London tonight. “She pressed the console and adjusted controls and said, “And beginning lift.”

The window at the head of the bridge was not really a window but a screen that could project the view in front of the ship. As the ship rose, the warehouse slipped by and then North West London was visible. Euston Station showed brightly was a bit less than a mile away – a bit more than a kilometer in the ship standard system. Far in the distance would be Dunstable. Millicent moved the control sticks in her hand and the scene shifted as the ship rotated. The Clock Tower and Parliament came into view and the ship was now facing South East. It was dark, but London’s gas lamps showed the irregular streets. The lights seemed to point to a thick black darkness that ran along the south marking the Thames.

Millicent moved the ship slowly at first and then turned off the running lights. As the ship moved it gained elevation quickly.  Everyone on the bridge seemed transfixed as the city passed beneath them. At the river, Millicent guided the ship upward and altitude was gained quickly. Parliament were more than 3000 feet below and looked smaller than the models on Rachael’s clocks.

Jason called out “Airship 40 degrees to port.” He paused for a moment working the calculations that Millicent had been drilling them on for weeks, “750 meters below us. There is a second at 15 degrees to port and …850 meters below us. Our current altitude is… 1200 meters and rising at 240 meters a minute.“ Eleanor stifled a smile as Jason struggled converting his understanding of measurement into the hated metric system. If he just read the numbers and did not think about their meaning, he wouldn’t stumble.

Millicent replied, “Very good, Mr. McNeill. They will not be a concern to us. Miss Woodson, take controls.”

Eleanor took the controls and said, “I have the controls.”

Millicent said, “Miss Woodson, set a course 30 degrees West of North. Continue a mild incline – %15 should do. ” Eleanor moved the control sticks and watched the headings as she maneuvered the in a gentle bank as she had been taught in simulation.

After a couple of minutes, Eleanor said, “Course set. She looked at the information on the panel and said, “Altitude now at 2000 meters. “

Millicent said, “Good, now double our speed and altitude gain.” She then turned to a speaking tube and said, “Make secure for orbital ascent and I mean secure.”

Eleanor listened as each person on the bridge acknowledged the command. Simone’s voice came back over the speaking tube, “Secure, finally in the engine room. There was a bit of bother with Rachael’s chair but we’re set.” Vague cursing could be heard in the background.

Millicent turned to Eleanor and said, “Let’s have a bit of fun, Miss Woodson. I’ll control the speed. You will control the direction. Remember the simulations. Don’t over steer.” Eleanor nodded sharply and braced herself and gripped the controls, “Ready when you are, ma’am.” Millicent moved some dials and Eleanor felt like Betsy was sitting on her chest. Eleanor watched the console and set the direction as steadily as she could manage. An image of the ship’s path was projected on the panel surrounded by green lines. Eleanor kept her hands steady so that the ship followed the green path. John called out, “Engines at one third. Ground speed is 7.8 Kilometers per second” and his voice softened a bit said quietly, “several times the speed of a bullet.”

Millicent said tightly, “Mr. Richards, report on the planet.”

The acceleration eased and the horse that had been sitting on Eleanor’s chest disappeared. In fact, there was an odd vertigo sensation. Michael reported, “Atmosphere is %70 nitrogen, 25% Oxygen and traces of other gases. We are currently heading south over …the eastern portion of Russia and heading over the Pacific.”

Millicent smiled and said, “I look forward to the place names you use with Triton. Miss Woodson, release controls and set for orbit.” She turned to the rest of the bridge and said, “I think we can enjoy an orbit or two while we wait for Mr. Smith. I expect we have ninety minutes or so before he can catch up with us.”

Camille’s Bridge – Alfred

Alfred sat in the galley now open to the bridge. Winifred was at the controls for the Omicron devices and communications. Neville was at the station monitoring the ship and its surroundings. Findley occupied the chair next to John Smith. Smith asked Findley, without looking up from his console, “Have you finished the preflight check list, Mr. Brown.”

Findley was relaxing in the comfortable chair said, “I frankly don’t see the point. Camille can do just a good a job as me and will have it done faster.”

Alfred thought, Findley lad, you are about to find out who is really in charge. Smith turned his face in Findley’s direction and then stood up. Smith faced Redman and said, “Mr. Redman. It seems someone made it onto the bridge without having the right authority. “ He rested his hand heavily on Findley’s shoulder who shrank under the weight and waved easily at Alfred, “Not your fault Alfred. He could have slipped past any of us. I’ll need to deal with our…” he face Findley and said with a sneer, “pest.”

Findley tried to sit up but Smith pushed harder causing Findley to yelp as he protested, “Just Joking…squeal.”

Alfred winced as he saw Smith tighten his clasp on Findley’s shoulder. Smith used his free hand to lift Findley out of the chair by his chin. Smith stared at Findley and said slowly, “No, Findley, you were not joking. You were testing. And as any good scientist knows, you learn more from a failure than a success.” Smith turned towards the galley still holding the dangling Brown and said, “Mr. Carter Frasier, Assist Mr. Redman as necessary while Camille and I explain to Mr. Brown the importance of preflight check lists and, more importantly, who makes decisions.” Findley was gasping for air in Smith’s grip. Smith looked over at Winifred and said, “You will assist Mr. Redman as necessary and take his orders. Is that clear, Miss Stanhope?”

Winifred stared at the purpling Findley Brown and said, “As you say.” Smith released Findley’s neck and he collapsed on the deck. Smith lifted him up, twisted his arm to the back and marched him out of the bridge. Findley gasped, “This isn’t necessary…ow!” as the arm went higher up his back.

Alfred sat at the console and sighed. Then began, “Fuel and Reserve tanks?”

Neville stuttered for a bit saying, “B..b.b. oth are filled.”

Alfred touched the line and it turned green and he continued down the list. It took a while and Alfred did not comprehend near half the items on the list.  He was certain he would not know a problem if Neville or Winifred had told him there was one.  After 30 minutes, the list was finished and Smith had still not returned. He looked up and said, “Camille. We’ve completed the bloody checklist.”

Camille responded in a smooth tone, “I will inform Mr. Smith. He and Mr. Brown are still engaged in… intense discussions.”  Winifred giggled.

Alfred glared at her and said, “Remember what I said about crossing Smith?”

Winifred held her hand to her mouth trying to suppress another chuckle and said, “Of course Alfred. You’ve said it so many times I am not sure I could forget if I wanted.”  She waved her hand at the door and chuckled so more, “It was such a stupid act.” She straightened herself a bit and said, “I daresay you’ve never seen me make such a foolish mistake. So utterly avoidable.”

Neville shivered, “I…I can’t understand why it’s taking so long.  Smith should have just locked him up if he was that upset.”

Alfred glanced at Neville in a soft manner, “Really Neville? Is your memory that short?…Or is thinking about why it is taking so long that disturbing?” Alfred leaned back and said, “You’re the only one here who really knows what Findley is going through.” Neville paled and started shaking. Alfred waved him off and said, “Go freshen up or something.  Take some time in your quarters. I’ll explain to Smith when he comes back.” Neville scurried off.

Winifred sat in her own chair and tapped a beat out on the console with her metal hand and said, “I don’t know whether to thank Findley or smack him some more afterwards. He’s drawn all the attention. I find him useful at times, but now Smith will have him on a short leash. Blasted annoying right now.”

Alfred narrowed his eyes and asked, “Thank him? Why?”

“Smith has been expecting a rebellion.  Findley gave him a small one.  An example is being made.”  There was just a hint of emphasis on the word “small”.  She turned back to her console, “Better Findley than me, andI see no reason to repeat his mistake.”

Alfred shook his head and closed his eyes.

A Blue Green Gem

Charles Bridge – Jason

Jason stared at the scene on the screen. The ship was oriented so the view showed the planet as it passed by.  According to Charles, Michael and Eleanor they had achieved orbit somewhere over Sweden. The ship systems were checked again and that took another twenty minutes. Now they were floating past the Pacific Ocean.  Millicent and Charles agreed that everyone could release restraints. Michael and Simone reported a bit of wooziness Charles said that was common and he would alert their nanotechnology to compensate.

Rachael burst up through the stair case and flew through the galley squealing with delight.  The time she had spent in the pool suddenly was meaningful as she glided between stations with a simple hand push.  She had freedom that she had not experienced in six months.  She and John took to throwing medicine balls and other objects testing Newton’s laws and seeing how to convert momentum.

Jason gazed back at the screen as his world moved by. The Pacific was dark blue with contrasting bands of white clouds.  A fierce cyclone covered the South Pacific in a huge billow of clouds that looked like so much wool.  Its winds were in excess of 100 miles per hour (according to Charles) and dropping several inches of rain an hour.  The ship was transiting over the southern tip of South America. The Atlantic had its own storms but none looked so large. Charles commented that it was the wrong season.  What didn’t appear were the boundaries he had learned so carefully in school.

Millicent watched the scene next to him. He asked, “Do they all look like this?”

Millicent paused and said, “If you mean a brilliant blue green with vast continents of green and brown, dotted with chains of snowcapped mountains? Then no. Every planet is different. Water seems to be essential to most life, but not all. Most planets are uninhabitable by anything you would understand as life.  We will be visiting a gas giant planet with cyclones the size of your planet.  There are planets so far away from their suns that gases freeze and fall as snow.”

Jason continued to stare out at the passing Atlantic and said, “It looks…I can’t find the right word…awesome? Delicate? Breath taking?”

Millicent sighed for a moment and her eyes seemed blank in thought. She blinked a bit and said, “I think all the planets are like that, but one’s home does seem to be a bit more special.”

Jumping Over the Moon

Charles Engine Room- Rachael

There was an extra 90 or so minutes because Smith’s flight had been delayed due to operational matters. Millicent looked bothered but Rachael reveled in the extra time.  Here, she could move easily. She understood, now, why Charles had her learn swimming and spend so much time in the pool. Water was the closest thing she had felt to full mobility. But here, oh my, here there were no limitations.  Jason, Felicity and Michael had spent the time gazing at the screens.  Eleanor and Simone had retreated to their quarters giggling when the extra 90 minutes had been announced. Millicent had raised an eyebrow and then shook her head.  Rachael just smiled a bit at the thought.

John was in the mood for exploration and experiments. Rachael and John spent the time in the gym tossing medicine balls and testing a variety of rules.  Then John wondered how liquid would act. Charles, almost with a sigh, said John and Rachael would have to clean up all the mess. With the first blob of water, she understood his comment.  It floated about like a giant lost rain drop.  When poked, it lost some cohesion and then there was a rain storm in the galley.  Rachael was glad they had not tested other, messier, stickier liquids.

Fun always ends and Smith had finally made it into orbit and everyone was ready to make to jumps to other locations.  No one was certain how widespread effects were, so the devices would not be activated while in Earth’s orbit. Smith and Millicent also felt it might remove Earth a little from the political issues surrounding the devices. That seemed like legal hairsplitting to Rachael but they knew the Guild.

Simone and Neville Carter-Frasier would be running the devices and coordinating the first jump.  That caused some turmoil but Simone eventually agreed to work with Carter-Frasier because a) he was on a different ship and b) she was not required to be civil. Rachael would be monitoring the devices in the engine room and assisting. Winifred Stanhope would be performing similar duties on Smith’s ship.

For thirty minutes the ship accelerated at the equivalent of one gravity. Given their initial velocity of nearly 8 kilometers per second, the final velocity would be 25 km per second.  It seemed shockingly fast to Rachael but it only got them 1/20th of the distance to the moon. At that point, the two ships aligned themselves and began preparations to use the devices.

Simone announced on the speaking tube, “Starting dark energy generator.”  The rings on the device began to glow strangely. Rachael heard Carter-Frasier give an acknowledgement. “Power storage at 60%” Rachael watched the reading on her console in the engine room as the Simone counted off the numbers. At 90% storage, the second device engaged and the rings began to spin: slowly at first and then faster.  The 3 meter rings turned fast enough that Rachael could no longer discern any one ring but only a blur.  Then a strange blue glow started to grow from the rings. Simone announced, “field strength at 60 megagauss, 120 megaguass, 3 gigagauss. The blue field grew faster and filled the room. Rachael felt light headed and mildly confused. Simone paused for a moment and then said slowly as if she were straining to remember, “The ship is surrounded by the field and it is holding.”

Camille’s Bridge – Neville

Neville watched the power indicator rise. He shivered a little as a memory of the collar walked through his head. On this occasion, he would have gotten a full pleasure jolt. No more, thanks to that busybody, Morgaine.  He saw Winifred eye him speculatively. That would have to be enough for now. He read off the numbers saying, “80% power storage. Camille, are ship systems ready?”

Camille responded, “Ship engines are currently at 1 gravity thrust. The systems are ready for engagement.”

Neville listened to the communication device as Simone Campbell made her count down.  He said, “We will engage at the same time as Morgaine’s ship.”

Camille replied, “The light will indicate when to start the sequence…starting now.”

Neville said, “Loops are engaged and rotation is beginning. ..Field is building.” On the bridge, the only indication of the field’s growth were the indicators as the field strength rose.  From what he could tell, the two devices were closely matched. Suddenly a wave of dullness swept over him. He looked at the dials, shook his head trying to clear it and then said, “Field is fully engaged.”

Smith said, “Run for five minutes and then disengage.”

Neville’s head felt like he had been drinking all night, but he watched the timer count down the minutes.  The field strength remained constant and the energy storage barely changed.  He opened a viewing screen to the engine rooms. The loops appeared stopped, but when he viewed his instruments the field was as strong as ever.  McNeill or Campbell or, possibly Winifred might make sense of it afterwards. Right now, if they felt like him, they were barely focused on their tasks.

The timer counted down with Camille sounding out, “The field will disengage in …5…4…3…2…1….NOW!”

Neville flipped the necessary switches. Just as suddenly as it appeared, his fuzzy head disappeared.  Winifred signaled to Morgaine’s ship that they had completed the jump. He looked over his screen and then saw it pop into view suddenly. Winifred announced, “We have contact with Morgaine’s ship.”

Neville said, “We are 75,000 Kilometers from the moon…give or take.”

Smith said, “Reversing direction and applying 1.5 gravities deceleration.” He applied the switches.  Smith leaned back and said, “That was good trial for a first run. Those side effects are bothersome. We will have to investigate those. Miss Stanhope, check with Morgaine’s ship to see if they felt them as well.”

Charles’ Bridge – John

Both crews stayed in their seats with the hard deceleration. They had travelled to the moon in the space of five minutes, not counting positioning.  That was less than the speed of light, but impressive nonetheless. The next jump would be longer and further and, hopefully, faster.  Simone was already pouring over the data from Charles and Camille around biology.  The feeling of dullness was universal.  The Omicron field seemed to be affecting the nerves of the body in Smith and Millicent as well as the Earth dwellers.  There was no chance of fixing the issue for this excursion, but they could collect data.

John reviewed the status of the ship systems from the comfort of his chair. Fuel levels remained high. Most of that was burned getting off the planet.  The data he collected during the jump suggested that, far from being in molasses, the ship encountered none of the forces that might resist it.  According to Charles that, even in space, there was some resistance, but not when the Omicron field was on.  Charles listed all the possible sources of influence:  discharges from the Sun; dust particles, and gravitational pull of nearby objects. All of those seemed to be irrelevant in the field. Inside the field, it was as if they were a beam of light. In this case, the beam of light could accelerate and had no speed limit.  John pulled out his notebook and wrote down his musing. Charles would appreciate the effort and Jason might actually listen to John’s thoughts on space and time. Jason was suddenly finding himself washing up on the shores of philosophy as he considered space and time. John might become a life guard for Jason’s intellectual tumult.

Camille’s Ship – Smith

Smith stopped outside the empty bay.  The room lacked furniture, facilities, or even light. He asked Camille, “What is the status of Mr. Brown?”

Camille answered smoothly, “As per your instructions, I removed any dampening effects from his nano technology. He has been in there for three hours during orbital insertion, free fall, the jump and the current high acceleration. He is shivering against the wall, nauseous, dehydrated and disoriented. “

Smith mused, “Miss Weiz said she had a certain sympathy for the rats. Mr. Brown would certainly have empathy if he had the capacity for such an emotion…He is otherwise healthy?”

Camille replied, “He is bruised from the orbital insertion and your discussions before, but no broken bones or serious internal damage. His nanotechnology is addressing that.  Be aware the room is a miasma of his various excretions and nausea.“

Smith smiled darkly, “As expected, Camille. He will be cleaning up after himself…probably for the first time. Open the door.”

There was a small sound as the doors slid apart. Findley Brown was naked and shivering in one corner. He blinked at the light.

Smith said harshly, “Mr. Brown, have I made myself clear on the matter of insubordination and the following of orders?”

Brown burped then coughed and said, “I’d have gone through the damn checklist.”

Smith turned around and raised a hand and said, “Apparently not. Camille, lock this door. Filter the waste that you can out of the atmosphere before we go to our next free fall. Can’t have the merchandise aspirating before I deliver it.” He turned to Brown and shrugged apologetically saying, “Damaged goods and all that. You understand.” He walked out and the doors started to close and Brown shouted out, “Wait…Wait, please…” Smith turned and faced Brown but said nothing.

Brown bowed his head and said, “I will be following your orders…sir.” Smith clasped his hands behind his back, but said nothing. Brown coughed again and said, “I was…hasty in my response. “

Smith leaned forward to the prostrate Brown and said, “You thought you knew better than me what to do. I tolerate your arrogance towards others, but I will never suffer it myself.  You will never be my superior in anything.  Am I clear, Mr. Brown?”

There was silence in the room.

Smith said harshly, “I asked you if I was clear.”

Brown gasped and said, “Very…Mr. Smith…I will never be your superior….Sir.”

Smith leaned back and closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. Brown was showing more mettle than he expected. In other circumstances, he would have left Brown rot a day or two more.  But the ship was damnably short-handed with these new devices.  And he needed Brown to be competent in ship flight before he was handed over if he was to be of any value.  Smith put his hands behind his back and said, “Camille, I believe we are making some progress.  Have his nanotechnology help him in the freefall.” To Brown he said, “Clean up this room up first. Then clean yourself off and return to the bridge. You will observe and you will only do what I tell you to do.”

There was a sullen, “Yes, sir.”

Smith turned and left the room and said over his shoulder, “Cross me again, Findley Brown, and I will collar you irrespective of my promises to Morgaine. You will learn what obedience really means.  And I will sell your contract to a sadist that makes Winfred’s games look like tea parties.”

A Stop at the Doorstep of Olympus

Charles’ Engine Room – Rachael

Rachael secured her wheel chair and steeled herself for the next round.  The small jump to the Moon proved they could turn the device on and off and live to tell the tale.  Now they need to prove there was a value.  According to John and Charles, there was tremendous fuel savings for the short trip.  But that was not the same as traveling between stars, if she understood the distances. The device had to be better and faster.

Simone repeated her count down to the dark matter field engagement over the speaking tube. This time Charles and Camille would coordinate the execution of the jumps.  They needed to see if multiple ships could arrive at the same location at the same time.  Millicent said this was important although Rachael thought it was a rather minor requirement.  At zero, the same dullness swept over her thought and senses. Charles said in a remotely perceived voice, “I’ve added stimulants to your water. Drinking may help.”

Simone brought her a container of water.  It tasted a bit odd, but in a few moments her head cleared some.  She still felt like she hadn’t slept well. She returned to her position, buckled herself in, and tried to focus on the gauges and readings.  When she was at University, she would stay up late at night and into the early hours studying or working on homework. At some point, she started feeling like she was reading but the words weren’t sinking in.  Staring at the gauges and screens felt like this. She understood all the numbers but could not reach conclusions.  In frustration she shouted out, “Charles, I am bloody useless. Do you need me for anything until we get out of this mess?”

Charles replied, “It is a short jump. I estimate we have about 20 more minutes. The others are suffering as well. Even Millicent.”

Rachael said, “That is almost refreshing. I was beginning to think she didn’t have limits. I think I have time to get to the bridge. I am curious what Jason’s readings are saying.” She used her wheel chair because the ship was under a slight acceleration. It was small, but floating around was not possible.  On the bridge, everyone was obviously suffering to different degrees and in different fashions.  Simone was holding her head as if she had a massive headache. Michael kept whispering things as he tried to remember what steps he needed to take.  She rolled up to Jason and he spoke, “I feel like I would the day after a long night at the bar…only sleeping it off didn’t work.”

Rachael grimaced, relayed her late night study session feel, and said, “I am hoping Charles and Simone will be able to find something to help. I would go crazy in weeks like this.”

Jason gulped and said, “Weeks?”

Rachael said, “It all depends on how far. Do your instruments say anything?”

Jason looked at them and said, “It’s hard to tell.  Outside is highly charged and radioactive.”  By now most everyone understood the structure of atoms and what radioactive decay was.  Jason said, “But everything is gone…not visible.  When we were at the Moon, I could see Mars and Venus on the sensor, faintly.  Now? They’re gone. Something might be there but it is hard to tell.”

Charles said, “Five minutes to normal space.”

Rachael smiled weakly, “That’s my cue. “ Rachael left the bridge as the others started looking intently at their stations.  Once in the engine room, she set her wheel chair in place. She heard Simone count down. Rachael watched the loops of the assembly which seemed stopped and yet her instruments said they weren’t.  When Simone reached zero, the loops seemed to go in reverse for a moment and then disappeared in a blur. The blue glow shrank into the loops which became discernable again. Her head cleared up almost immediately.  She heard Michael say, “We are 400000 kilometers from Jupiter.  Eleanor said, “Standby for deceleration.  We need to shed ….close to 12,000 Km/second over the next 20 minutes.”  John said, “Ship systems are holding normal. Fuel level is 95% of full.” Rachael looked over at the now still hoops and said, “The device is now at rest. Less than 100th of dark energy reserve used.” Jason said, “I can detect Smith’s ship off to the port. It was here when we arrived.”

Charles said, “Camille estimates we were less than 1 second behind.  Detectable, but acceptable for a first try.”

She heard Michael say over the tube, “One frigging second…acceptable.”

Millicent responded on the tube, “One second for our first try is acceptable; we were only in transit 30 minutes.  Multiply that by days or weeks. Now we are talking hours if not days of difference. I want precision, but we will worry about that later.”

Felicity said, “I have a message from Smith…Everyone is in one piece. Work to do, but tell your crew…well done.”

Millicent said, “Return message…’everyone is in one piece as well. Next time we will keep up.’ Miss Weiz, Mr. McNeill deploy a drone and start collecting data. Charles project bridge view. ”

Charles’ Bridge – Michael

The foreignness was stark and even a bit scary. The images from Jupiter showed a huge storm that would cover the entirety of Earth (Charles showed a black dot representing Earth for a helpful comparison).  Jupiter was not a peaceful planet. It was stripes of pink and blue and brown with huge storms that rushed by with wind speeds that were faster than bullets.  They were inside the rings of the planets – those vast bands of ice and rock that glowed eerily on the sunlit side.

Michael asked Charles, “Is this normal? I mean common.”

Charles responded, “Quite. Your planet is the exception.  Most planets are gas giants such as you see now.”

Michael gestured to the chaotic atmosphere and asked, “What lives there?”

Millicent said, “Some people say nothing could. I have no such hubris. However, no one has been able to detect life as we understand it.  We probably just don’t understand life as it exists in these environments.”

Michael pulled out his notebook and started to sketch the storms and the rings.

A drone from each ship had been deployed. Millicent said, “We need to practice refueling here. These gas giants are the fuel depots of the galaxy.” Michael added a drone flying across the rings.

Millicent looked at the view and said, “The winds there are fierce. In other locations, there are ships built to race on the winds.

Michael’s eyes widened and he said, “That fiber you showed me…it would be used for rigging.”

Millicent said, “And the fabric Eleanor used to make her test airship make up the sails. I think the sailors are crazy, but it is quite thrilling. The winds could tear a person apart, but the ships skim the eddies and travel hundreds of kilometers in minutes.” She stared at the scene as it passed under the ship.  Michael closed his book and took some more readings of the atmosphere and wind speeds. Winds were as high as 360 kilometers per hour. The atmosphere was ammonium hydrosulfide and ammonia.  Further below, it was so cold and so dense there was a layer of liquid hydrogen (a concept he hadn’t know was possible before).   There was a tremendous magnetic field that was caused by the core of the planet that was solid hydrogen which was highly conductive. Simone must be enjoying the data coming in at this point, he thought.

It would hard to imagine a more inhospitable place. Yet he found the story of the sail races oddly reminiscent. Others were conquering the winds and currents of a harsh sea with boat, rope and sail…it was all so very English. Millicent straightened up and said,  “When the drones return, we will coordinate our next stop…circling Triton.”

A Journey to Neptune’s Kingdom

Camille’s bridge – Winifred

Winifred’s head was finally clearing after the jump. Smith had adjusted the ship into orbit around Triton, Neptune’s largest moon. The screens showed the light coloured desolate landscape as it passed underneath. Neville seemed entranced by the images. Findley looked bored, but he had been forbidden from doing anything for the entirety of the trip. In other circumstances, Winifred may have spent time poring over the readings which seemed impossible. But she had other tasks at hand. She coughed lightly. Smith turned and faced her looking irritated. She asked in her sweetest voice, “Mr. Smith, I should check on the ring assembly and see how it has fared.”

Smith waved his hand in a distracted fashion and said, “Of course.”

Winifred added, “I could use Mr. Brown’s assistance.”

Smith glanced at Findley and then back to Winifred and then said slowly, “Why not Mr. Carter-Frasier? It seems his electronic skills might be more valuable and Mr. Brown is doing a very good job of obeying my orders at the moment.” Findley flushed red and tensed but said nothing.

Winifred replied, “Neville…Mr. Carter-Frasier is gathering observations. This inspection is likely a routine and nothing more. It seems a shame to waste this opportunity for him to practice while Mr. Brown is standing about. Besides, Mr. Brown’s knowledge of mechanics could be valuable.”

Smith snorted, “Mr. Brown’s knowledge of mechanics barely covers removing a jar lid.” Findley’s jaws tightened. Winifred admired his restraint at this point. If anyone else at any other moment had said such a thing, there would be a duel.   Smith leaned back in his chair and said, “But you have a valid point. I suppose I can spare Mr. Brown from his current duties. Take Mr. Redman with you.” He turned to Alfred and said, “Mr. Redman ensure that Mr. Brown follows Miss Stanhope’s orders explicitly.”

Alfred raised his eyebrows and then moved to the door. Winifred gritted her teeth. She did not want him along. His willingness to meet her needs with a minimum of fuss was far less these past few months. He was questioning her decisions and interests too much. His loyalties were beginning to be questionable. However, it was too early to raise concerns and she might be able to work around it. Winifred looked at Findley and gestured to the door. Findley nodded at her and followed Alfred silently.

Outside the door, Winifred snapped, “You are a frigging idiot,” and passed him in the hallway.

Findley stopped and whined, “But I was right…”

Winifred said harshly, “Of course you were right. Smith knew you were right. Camille knew you were right. Everyone knew you were right. But you questioned his orders and he had to do something.” She stopped and turned so quickly, he almost ran into her. She leaned in and said in a whisper, “Too much is at stake now. You will do everything he says or Camille says and you will be polite when you do it.”

Findley shook his tunic and straightened his collar and said, “I spent the most unpleasant two hours hearing that from Smith.”

Winfred grabbed his shirt and collar and lifted him in the light gravity and hissed, “just outside that wall is a hard vacuum. Accidents are scary out here because they almost always end in death.” She let him down and patted his shirt and collar straight. “Smith wants you alive because you are worth more to him that way. I prefer you alive because managing the responsibilities of Earth after this is done will be a bit tedious alone.” She turned and headed down the hall and said quietly, “But not impossible, Findley… do not forget…not impossible.” Alfred watched from the next bulkhead opening and frowned as she walked by.

Camille’s Engine Room – Winifred

The ring assembly sat idle as they orbited Triton.   She moved to the control panel at one side of the room and knelt to start disassembling it.  Findley joined her unscrewing the bolts that held the panels.  She looked over at Alfred and called him over, “Alfred, could you please remove the panels? I need Findley’s assistance by the access station.”  Alfred eyed them narrowly but took the wrench and began to remove panels.

Findley followed her to the access station. Winifred pulled out two cubes and placed them on the station. They held instructions for AIs such as Camille. When Findley arrived and she placed one in a socket on the station which caused Camille to ask suddenly, “What are you do…” and then she stopped as suddenly as she started.  Winifred handed Findley the second cube and said, “I’ve disrupted Camille’s monitoring and memory around the drones. Go to the drone bay and put this in the last drone on the row. It will know what to do after that.”

Findley took the cube and said, “I am with you, but I will not be talked to in such a fashion again.”

Winifred hissed back, “You are with me because we both see which is the winning side. But I will speak to you as I please.” She flicked up a knife and toyed with it. “If you have a problem with this Mr. Brown,  we can stop this arrangement now.  Be warned, if Smith catches a hint from you , you will find out long you can last without air.” Findley’s face contorted in frustration.  Winifred almost felt sorry for him.  She patted him on the cheek and said, “Now leave, the disruption will last for 10 minutes before Camille restores her monitors in that area. And we certainly do not want you in the drone bay when that happens.”

Findley said, “Fine….Fine, and your Mr. Redman?”

Winifred said, “My problem…leave …now.”

Findley headed for the door and Alfred started to get up to follow. She said loudly,  “No need to worry. I left my welding attachment in my quarters. Findley can go get it while we work here. “ She hoped Findley had heard and was smart enough to find the damn thing in her quarters before he came back.

Alfred grimaced as Findley left at a fast pace. Alfred held the wrench at in his hand and said, “Smith will ask what Mr. Brown was doing while he was down here.”

Winifred moved closer to him almost touching said, “And you can say he followed my orders explicitly. Now don’t be so fussy.”

Alfred kept looking at the door and said, “I should have followed.”

Winifred shook her head and moved to the console and said, “Help me lift this chassis out of the way. You are more useful here.”

Alfred pulled out his watch and looked at it and then turned to help her saying, “As you say, m’laday.”

With the chassis removed, Winifred began examining the assembly. Nothing was amiss and there was little reason for her to be poking her head about in here. She prodded one wire or the next making various affirmative noises.  She pulled out her watch. It showed seven minutes since, Findley left. He better have put the cube in place by now. She poked and prodded more. She glanced at her watch – it said 11 minutes. Findley burst into the room. He was a bit out of breath. He held her attachment out. She said, “That took longer than expected.”

Findley said, between breaths, “I had some trouble …finding your attachment…but everything …in your room is in place.”

Winifred smiled warmly, “Sorry you had to hunt for a bit.” She switched in her welding attachment and returned to poking about. She turned it on for a few moments, touched nothing and then said, “There that’s that. Let’s close up. Mr. Brown, please assist Mr. Redman.” Findley moved to help Alfred reassemble the console chassis.  Winifred moved to the access station and checked the state of the devices which were all positive.  Then she asked Camille, “Has the drone returned?”

Camille responded, “Not yet, Miss Stanhope.”

Winifred asked, “What are the statuses of the other drones if we wanted to launch another?”

Camille responded, “All 10 are prepped and ready to go.”

Winifred replied, “Thanks. I don’t think we will need another, but I just wanted to check.”

Charles’ bridge – Jason

Jason continued his scans of Smith’s ship and the drones as they went about their missions on Neptune’s moon. Michael was gathering the scientific information.  The moon had a slight atmosphere and was snowing frozen ammonia in some places. The thought was mind boggling. Millicent had him monitoring the other ship and the drones. “Practice. In case we see someone we don’t know.” So he was looking at the ship sizes, the energy output and any activity they exhibited. He was reading the same numbers over again only this time it was different. There was a new drone leaving Smith’s ship. Jason called Millicent over and asked, “Are we going to send out a second drone as well?”

Millicent said, “We only planned for the one each.”

Jason said, “Smith just released a second”

Millicent’s brow furrowed and she said, “That was not in the plan. Mrs. Richards, call Mr. Smith’s ship.”

Jason watched the drone move away from Smith’s ship at a fast rate. He said, “The drone will have escape velocity shortly.”

Felicity said, “Miss Stanhope says there was no drone release. Are we sure we were seeing the numbers correctly?”

As Jason listened and watched the scan, it suddenly disappeared. He said, “That’s odd…it’s gone.”

Millicent asked, “Gone? Mr. McNeill?”

“Gone…like it was never there.”

Millicent said, “Charles, run diagnostics on the ship sensors. Mrs. Richards, let Miss Stanhope know we no longer see the drone.”

Jason protested, “But it was there.”

Felicity passed on the message and said, “Miss Stanhope said there was probably a problem in our systems.”

Charles spoke this time and said, “There was no problem with our systems and Mr. McNeill was interpreting the information correctly. There was a drone and then there wasn’t.”

Jason fumed until Millicent said, “Well done, Mr. McNeill. Very accurate reporting of most confusing data.  We are going to want to review it after the flight. I will discuss the matter with Mr. Smith after our journey.”

Evaluating Results

The jump back to Earth had taken a bit over an hour. Which was a bit shy of four times the speed of light.  The data had both teams looking at the devices and devising ways to speed the journey. It was a welcome bit of cooperation.  Both teams had dealt well with a taste of the vast strangeness of the galaxy. Her team was acting like a unified crew.  She set her tea down and spoke, “I think our biggest problem remains the issues around neural acuity during the jumps.”

John Smith answered, “We could just say it is the price of travelling faster than light.”

Millicent said, “I have no problem saying that for a start, but we need to research it and see if there is a solution. Besides, we can sell the potion for the trip. We may have to plan more trips for Miss Weiz’s pet rats. “

Smith chuckled, “The gruff Miss Weiz has found attachment…to rats?”

Millicent said, “She is keeping them in her quarters. She says it’s to better study their behavior. Charles reports that she lets them lose and it is causing him fits. It seems they have taken to sitting on her shoulders while she reads.”

Smith pursed his lips in thought and said, “Probably some side effects of the nano technology. Those rats maybe smarter than some humans.”

Millicent smiled a bit this time and said, “Possibly.”  She chuckled and wondered what Charles had wrought in the rat population of Eagle Wharf road.  She straightened a bit and said, “There is one more matter. Mr. McNeill reported a drone leaving your ship.”

Smith stopped his cup in mid sip and asked, “And you are sure of Mr. McNeill and your systems?”

Millicent said evenly, “Quite.”

Smith put his cup down and said, “Why am I hearing about this now?”

Millicent said, “I could ask you the same question. We notified your crew and were told we must be mistaken.” For the first time that Millicent could recall, Smith looked surprised and upset. His brow wrinkled and then he put his head in his hands.

He finally asked, “Miss Stanhope made the reply.” It was a statement; not a question.

Millicent said, “We checked our instruments thoroughly. They are functioning properly. Charles and I reviewed the data.  Jason was not mistaken – a drone left your ship while we orbited Triton. Then it disappeared.”

Smith said in a tired voice, “The field would account for that.” He sat up and then leaned back in the chair and said, “It seems I underestimated Miss Stanhope.”

Millicent said, “She is becoming a problem.”

Smith pounded the arm of the chair and said, “Damn her ambitions…I will deal with the matter. I will find out what she has managed to do.” He groaned and said, “I will be severely shorthanded until we reach the trading post. I will have to lock up Findley Brown as well I suppose.”

Millicent said, “That is a problem with potential solutions.  I am more worried about what Miss Stanhope has wrought.”

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15 thoughts on “Chapter 19 – A Practice Voyage

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