Passing In The Night is the prelude to my new novel, The Pericles Conspiracy, which is set to release in ebook tomorrow, 24 August, and in paperback early next week. As part of the celebration of Pericles’ launch, I am posting Passing In The Night here in its entirety over the next several blog posts. You can find Passing In The Night on Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Apple, Sony, and Smashwords. I hope you enjoy it.
Passing In The Night
Space travel sucks sometimes. The thought crossed through Carlton’s mind as, for the three-hundredth time this shift, he checked the navigation display. Just as it almost always did, the ship’s position tracked exactly with projections.
But then, that was to be expected of interstellar travel. With hundreds of thousands of Astronomical Units – AUs – to cover, even a relatively short trip could take years. Unfortunately, this was no short trip. The run from the Gliese system to Earth, though routine, was also 20.5 light years in length. Even at the ship’s cruising speed of 95% of the speed of light (.95c), it would take almost six and a half years to complete the trip. Of course, it took a little less than a year to get up to cruising speed, and a another year to slow back down again, so the total trip was closer to ten years. But it could be worse. Without the time dilation caused by relativity, it would be almost twenty-five years.
God bless Einstein.
It was just rotten luck that Carlton drew this portion of the trip. The center passage was mind numbingly dull: nothing much to do for the year but monitor instruments and readouts and maybe make a slight course correction every now and then. Which is why it paid the least. But everyone drew the short stick sometimes.
He tapped the upper right corner of the display, and it shifted from Navigation to Engineering. Another tap pulled up the reactor specs.
Located two kilometers aft of the crewed area of the ship to save on shielding material, the reactor was an old-style fission device. Newer ships had fusion generators these days, of course. But construction on Pericles completed two years before Kilpatrick and Holbert patented the containment device that made fusion practical, and there was no point in scrapping a new and perfectly capable ship just because some new tech came along.
So the Company put Pericles in service on the Gliese run. This was her fourth transit of the interstellar void. When they reached earth, it would be time for her hundred-year overhaul.
That didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Carlton. Sure, Pericles would be about a hundred Earth years old when they docked, but she had only experienced a little less than 40 years of time-dilated service. No one asked him, though. He was just the driver.
The reactor specs all fell in the normal range. No surprise there, considering that without the plasma generators online to power the main engines, the reactor put out just a small fraction of its rated power.
Carlton moved on to life support.
Again, everything read normal. Consumables were depleting as expected. The crops in the hydroponics section were looking good, and the waste reclamation system was churning along nicely. Carlton expect this, as the system was operating at much less than its maximum capacity.
The crewed section of the ship consisted of two rings, each a kilometer in diameter and fifty meters wide, with three decks. They connected to the central hub of the ship through four passage tubes, and rotated continually in opposite directions during cruise flight to simulate gravity. During acceleration to and deceleration from cruise speed, the main engines provided all the G forces necessary.
Though initially set to simulate Gliese-normal gravity, the computer system slowly lowered the rotation period so that, at the end of the journey, gravity would be reduced to Earth-normal. The slow transition made it easy for the crew and passengers to acclimate to their new environs before arrival. That was one good thing about these longer passages. The passage from the Centauri colony was short enough for the transition to be difficult for some people. None of that trouble on the Gliese run, though.
Accelerometers in each section of A and B rings sent readouts to the display monitor. 10.36 m/sec2. Right on track.
Carlton pulled up cryogenics.
Cryo was the most important system on the ship, at least to the eggheads at Corporate. Five thousand passengers, plus the rest of the crew aside from Carlton’s shift, peacefully slept away the cruise under cryo-suspension, with periodically programmed massage and movement sessions. Cryo-suspension did not completely stop metabolic processes, after all. The nearly ten year passage would be equivalent to about six months of normal aging: long enough for the passengers to suffer severe muscle atrophy if they were not kept in motion periodically. They, and the cargo in the holds, were the reason Carlton was here. Their fares paid his commission, so he supposed cryo was the most important system for him, too.
He chuckled at that thought.
Just one last thing to check. Carlton punched up the external sensors and began a scan.
First, the hull monitoring cameras. Again as usual, he found no blemishes on the hull.
Next, the forward looking scanners. Pericles had radar units, of course, but at her current speed, by the time they received the returns, they would be almost on any objects in their path. And while starliners were equipped with exterior coils that generated a magnetic field to repel charged particles, the field did nothing for solid objects. Even a tiny object could create a fatal collision at relativistic speeds. The destruction of the Avalon, one of the first transport vessels to the Gliese system, was reportedly caused by a collision with a meteor the size of a melon.
To help defend against that, and to assist with navigation, the Company deployed and maintained a quartet of beacons every few light-hours along the spacelanes between the various colonies. Every starliner carried a few beacons to replace units that were approaching end of life or whose orbit had carried them too far from the most efficient course between stars. Pericles had just three days earlier deployed four to replace an aging quartet. The beacons transmitted coded radio signals. Pericles carried receiver units tuned for them, and could use the signals to help triangulate her position as well as detect objects ahead by interpolating the interference patterns between the signals from the beacons. It was a pretty efficient system, all things considered.
It took just a second to update the ahead display after Carlton shifted over from the cameras. There were no objects of concern within the next four hours of travel. Satisfied, Carlton set the automatic monitoring system to issue an alert if it detected anything, then pushed back from his console.
The bridge was smaller than a lay person might expect for a ship Pericles’ size: just a pilot station, a communications panel, and a command console for the Captain, all situated in a small bubble atop the hull, with viewing windows in all directions. The Captain’s station was astern and above the others. All were nestled between stairs leading back to the aft bulkhead, where the hatch to the rest of the ship nestled in the floor. During acceleration, crewmembers could walk up the stairs to sit in the chairs, their backs to the G forces.
Carlton could have run the diagnostic programs from a workstation in the command center down in the crew quarters, but he rather enjoyed coming up here. For one thing, it had some of the only windows on the ship without a rotating view. It was nice to be able to look at one point in space without losing it after a few seconds.
Of course, the view at cruising speed was different, disconcerting to the un-initiated. The light from the stars ahead was so blueshifted that very little was actually visible to the eye. The stars astern were redshifted similarly. But looking athwartships one could almost think one was looking up at a normal night sky from the surface of a planet somewhere.
The other thing he enjoyed was being in zero-G. No matter how many times he experienced it, Carlton never quite got over how different, and fun, it was. Some people got space sick from being in zero-G for too long, but he never had. He almost wished he could spend the whole trip like this. But he wasn’t a big fan of losing all muscle tone and getting brittle bones, so he did not wish too hard.
Carlton only lingered for a moment before pushing himself through the hatch to the central corridor of the hub.
Handholds on the walls made for easy travel through the bulkheads and hatches that separated the bridge from the crew’s acceleration quarters, and then through more bulkheads to the junction with Ring A, two hundred meters aft. During acceleration, the handholds would be ladder rungs, and the corridor a vertical shaft between decks. Yes, it was much more fun moving around during cruise, in zero-G.
At the junction, he took a moment to locate the tunnel to section four. It was always a bit annoying getting into the lift, with the hatch rotating around the junction, but he managed it without too much trouble.
The hatch slid shut behind him, and Carlton found himself pressed up against one wall as the ring’s rotation met his body and carried it along. Positioning himself feet “down”, toward the ring itself, he pushed himself to what would be the lift’s floor once the G’s began to build up and pushed the button for the first deck.
Ring A, Section Four, First Deck was crew quarters. The rest of Ring A contained consumables storage, hydroponics, life support equipment, and passenger berthing. Ring B was completely taken up with cargo storage. As with buildings planetside, the rings’ decks were numbered from bottom to top, so the first deck was the outermost and the third deck the innermost on the ring.
It took two and a half minutes to descend the five hundred meters to the first deck. By then, Jack’s feet were planted firmly on the floor, and he felt normal gravity, or at least a close approximation. If he threw a ball, it would not fly exactly the same way it would in a real gravity well, but it was close enough to do the job.
The lift door opened, and he stepped out into a small alcove, recessed in the aft wall of the main corridor. The wall directly opposite the lift door was terraced, almost like stairs turned on their sides.
Stepping into the corridor itself, Carlton noted as usual how it curved upward noticeably in each direction. The corridor was tiled in light brown tiles that, barring close inspection, were easy to mistake for wood. Faux-wood panels on the walls and softly glowing light fixtures at regular intervals combined with potted plants every so often gave the passage a somewhat homey feel. Prints of various artwork hung on the walls as well, except on the lift side of the corridor, to the left. During acceleration, the changing crew shifts could walk up the stairs in the wall from the lift, then down the corridor to the crew’s cryo-suspension beds.
Newcomers to space travel might be surprised at the decor, very much like a nice hotel, but researchers long ago discovered that the more comfortable people were in their living quarters, the less stressful they found long duration space flight. For the passengers, this was not a concern. They entered cryo-suspension not long after boarding, before the ship actually got underway, and awoke after the ship moored. But the crew had to live aboard, so starliner designers tried to make their living arrangements as close to luxury as they could.
Carlton found the Duty Captain in the command center, fifty meters down the corridor to the right. She was sitting at her desk near the back of the room, dressed in the light grey coveralls that all starliner crewmembers wore underway and sipping on a cup of coffee as she watched the news feed on a view screen.
The news came across on the coded signal from the beacons. While it was very time late, it helped morale to have some notion of what was going on at their destination. It beat showing up to the planet and having no idea of recent history on the ground.
Seeing her alone, Carlton grunted. “Where is everyone?”
The Captain shrugged. “Bryce went off to fix a problem in the galley. Malcolm and Stephanie are helping teach science class.”
Bryce was one of the two general technicians on the shift. Malcolm was the shift engineer, and Stephanie one of the reactor techs.
Each shift manned the ship for one year of the passage, and was kept as small as possible. In general, a shift consisted of the Duty Captain, two pilots, the shift engineer, two reactor techs, the doctor, two cooks, two horticulturists, and the teacher. Plus the crew’s children. The pilots, techs, and cooks swapped twelve hour watches. The others were on call as needed, but generally worked a normal day.
“Ah. Well everything looks good. Right on the money.” Carlton walked over to her desk to get a better look at the view screen. “Anything interesting going on?”
“More riots in Brazil. Looks like it’s getting pretty bad.”
“Well, it’s nothing we need to worry about. If you need me, I’ll be helping Alison.”
It became very obvious, in the earliest of humanity’s excursions to the stars over five hundred years ago, that it was asking far too much for a person to leave family behind while embarking on a decades-long journey. By the time a starfarer returned from even a short trip, he would have missed much of his kids’ childhood, to say nothing of the toll it took on marriages.
So almost from the beginning, crewmembers brought their families with them. Large as the starliners were, though, extraneous personnel were a burden, so family members learned tasks to assist in running the ships. Case in point, Alison was Carlton’s wife, and the shift’s doctor.
Eventually, the crews of the various ships became more extended families than colleagues, and the starfarers developed a culture altogether unique from the ground-based. Entire generations were born, lived, and died working on the starliners. Sure, some crewmembers left after their initial contracts expired, deciding they preferred life planetside. And some children opted for a different life as well. But for the most part, starfarers were a distinct clan.
Like him, Alison was raised on a starliner. They met on shore leave five years ago. When it came time for her to ship out again, he arranged a transfer onto Pericles to be with her. The rest, as they say, was history.
Carlton found her in the clinic, taking an inventory of the various drugs in storage. Managing medical supplies was tricky on long voyages. Drug expiration had to be carefully tracked, and fresh supplies removed from cryo-freeze early to avoid any gaps in availability during the long thawing process. Carlton did not envy her that.
Alison looked up as Carlton entered and beamed at him. “A letter from Sasha came over a few minutes ago. He got into Harvard Med!”
Sasha was her younger brother, stationed on another starliner on the Gliese route. Family members who were not on the same ship almost always worked to remain on the same route. It often worked out that they were able to see each other on shore leave on one side of the route or other. With the time compression of cryo-suspension, that generally worked out to seeing each other every three or four waking years, for a few months at a time.
Carlton returned Alison’s smile. “That’s great! When does he start school?”
“They’re four earth-years ahead of us on the route, so he should be just about finishing when we arrive.”
“Just in time for graduation. That should be a good party.”
Alison nodded. “And we’re rolling to shore duty, so we can be there for his residency.”
Shore duty. It was both cherished and dreaded.
Starfarers got leave at the end of each run while maintenance crews worked on the ship. Depending on how much was planned for the upkeep, they could get anywhere from three to six months off. But this run was different. Pericles’ overhaul was scheduled to take almost four years. That was too long for the crew to do nothing, so typically they were assigned to train new hires or manage projects at the corporate headquarters. It was good, in a sense. Being in one place for a while had its advantages.
But a body could grow soft, too. Especially for people with children in their teen years, being ashore that long carried its own worries. Most children who opted out of the starfarers’ life were teenagers planetside on shore duty. They lost their love for the ships during that time and left, leaving their parents with an impossible choice: to leave the lives they loved or the kids they loved.
That’s why most of the short-hop starliners were manned with older crews. The crewmembers could continue their jobs, but still see their kids every few earth years. It was a compromise many made that seemed to work out. Fortunately for Carlton and Alison, their son was only three, so that worry was a long way off, still.
Carlton was about to respond when the first few bars from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony emanated from the console on the wall and drew his attention. Each crewmember wore locator devices that allowed the ship’s internal sensors to keep track of them and forward calls wherever they were onboard. Beethoven’s Fifth was Carlton’s “ring tone”, to borrow a phrase from ancient Earth history.
He walked over to the console and tapped the screen. An automated message popped up. Forward sensors had detected something ahead.
Carlton frowned in annoyance. Probably just another rogue asteroid crossing their path. All the same, he had to check it out.
“I gotta go back to the bridge, babe. Be back in a bit.”
Five minutes later, he floated up to his pilot’s console and woke it up with a tap on the screen. A couple taps later he had the forward sensors called up.
This was no asteroid.
Whatever it was, it was big, about a light-hour ahead, and traveling on a near-collision course with them. The doppler readout indicated the object was traveling at .8c: slower than a starliner, but definitely not natural.
Carlton punched up the intercom to the command center.
“Yeah Carl. What’s up?”
“Better get up here, Cap’n.”
In the few minutes it took the Captain to get to the bridge, Carlton entered the commands to wake up the lower forward observation camera. Essentially a 4 meter telescope mounted beneath the bow of the ship, the camera, and its fellows mounted just aft of the bridge and above and below the main engines’ fuel tanks aft, was onboard for just this purpose.
The camera finished warming up and was beginning to zoom in on the approaching object when the Captain arrived at his side.
“Object ahead, Cap’n. Moving too fast to be an asteroid.”
Her eyes scanned the sensor readout quickly, and she nodded agreement.
“Not supposed to be another until Haverly, next month. Besides, this thing’s too slow.”
The Captain’s words stuck in her throat as the image from the camera filled the screen.
It was difficult to make out in the faint illumination from the distant stars, but it was definitely a vessel. It was of no design Carlton had ever seen, though, and he had seen them all. No rings, no plasma engine nacelles. It was crescent-shaped, off-white in color, and tumbled slowly end over end through space.
“What the hell is that?” Carlton breathed.
The Captain was silent for a long minute, her expression one of curiosity.
“What’s the CPA?”
“Wait one.” Carlton tapped the display, and the data came up. “Closest Point of Approach: .75 AU, Bearing 328 mark 47, in one hour, seven minutes.” A CPA above Pericles and to the left explained why he did not detect the vessel earlier. Though it was in their plane of travel now, it must have drifted up from below.
“Hmm. On that trajectory, it didn’t come from Earth. Any other colonies out that way?”
Carlton shook his head. Even before calling up the nav display, he knew the answer.
“Closest is Talos, but that thing’s forty degrees off course to have come from there.”
There was a long silence as they watched the strange ship grow slowly larger on the camera display. Carlton knew the Captain was thinking the same thing as he, but it was too incredible to voice.
“Maybe whatever crippled it knocked it off course.”
The Captain snorted.
“What do we do?”
Pushing herself away from the pilot’s console, the Captain floated to the starboard side viewing window. She looked out at the passing stars for a while.
Carlton alternated between watching her and the approaching ship. He knew better than to press too hard, though. When she got pensive like this, the Captain could be snippy.
Eventually, she spoke, in the tone she used when she really meant business.
“Keep watching it, and let me know if anything changes. Be sure to record everything. I’m going below to check on a couple things, but I’ll be back before it reaches CPA.”
With that, she pushed off and floated back to the entrance hatch. Before she disappeared below, she issued a final order.
“Keep this quiet, Carl. Lock out the workstations in the ring, and don’t breathe a word to anyone until I get back.”
Carlton blinked. Lock out the workstations? That was almost unheard of. What was she worried about? This was potentially huge! Everyone would want to know. Would deserve to know. But he had flown with the Captain for a lot of years, and had learned to trust her judgment. Obediently, he keyed the commands to restrict access.
This is the end of Part One. Part Two will follow within the next couple of days. I hope you enjoyed part one. You can find the rest of Passing In The Night on Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Apple, Sony, and Smashwords. The Pericles Conspiracy will be available in those same outlets in a couple days as well.
Thanks for reading!