Thousand Words for February 17, 2018

Deep within the superstructure of Artois RT Portland, Renko Swarsski held his light in his mouth while he tried to find a comfortable position among the conduits and cables. Upstairs, Pamela Vickers was in the captain’s chair half asleep; she’d been monitoring his progress, but like so much of deep space operations, there was little of interest between emergencies, and the readjusting of the Crater unit hardly counted as an emergency. The ship had four of them, the primary plus two redundant units already installed and a spare unit in a box in the vacuum storage bay, but the adjustments involved in transferring operation to one of the redundant units, not to mention to trouble that installing a whole new unit would be, led Vickers to see if Swarsski couldn’t just make an in-place adjustment to the operational unit–even if it meant crawling deep into a powered panel. Vickers could have chosen any of the certified personnel for the job–Randy Cox, maybe, or Cheryl Kolfax. But Swarsski was the most careful of the three, and the least unstable in that weird way that deep spacers tended to be, the way that was aggravated by troubles on a deep mission. When Swarsski activated his headset and the handshake tone sounded on her panel, Vickers roused out of her half-sleep with a start. “Yeah, yeah, Renny, I’m here,” she said reflexively.
“I didn’t say anything,” Swarsski replied, his Russian accent lightly coloring his words.
“Right,” she said. Then she cleared her throat. “How’s it looking in there?”
Swarsski snapped his static line to a nearby bulkhead and shone his light around, looking for the interior light switch. He found it and flipped it on. The lights illuminated and he turned his torch off and slipped it into the pouch on his shirt made precisely for that purpose. “Hmm,” he said, orienting himself to the Crater unit and its surrounding area. “I’m looking at it now. We’ve got three greens on the panel, but that can’t be right.”
“I know,” she said, drawing close to the computer display in front of her. The display showed the output of the Crater unit and the results of a series of diagnostic tests that had already been run on it from the ship’s control center. The Crater unit’s purpose was to work with the ship’s engines to permit travel at speeds that made space travel practical. Developed at a secret government agency base in Nevada, the Crater unit increased the ship’s ultimate speed not by increasing the power of the engines but instead by lengthening the amount of time contained in the seconds that the engines were running. Longer seconds meant more power per second, more distance traveled per second, and thus a faster speed. It was a black-box device; very little was known about it, and safety mechanisms were in place on the unit to prevent it from being disassembled, inspected, or otherwise snooped upon. There wasn’t even any way to operate the unit directly; one operated the engines, using the control panels to put a demand on the engines for a particular speed, and the engines interfaced with the Crater unit to lengthen the duration of the second by however much was necessary to meet the demand–within limits, of course. The ship’s maximum speed under these conditions was nearly 40 percent of the speed of light, after a period of acceleration and deceleration, which meant that the trip from the outer asteroid belt, where the high-metal asteroids could be found, to the mining station in Mars orbit took about eight days–a perfectly manageable trip, given that Artois put the two-man crews in the nice, newer three-man ships, which meant that there was room to stretch out a little. They didn’t have inertia dampers or artificial gravity generators, but the ship could be spun up for old-fashioned centripetal-force gravity.
But the Portland, the ship which Swarsski was presently deep in the belly of, was no three-man ship; it sported a crew of twenty-seven humans, three movement-caste Sendsails, and a robotic watch crew consisting of three stationary units and a dozen mobiles. The watch crew could perform a variety of dangerous, repetitive, but essential tasks, such as the patching of micrometeorite holes in the hull, the monitoring and respond to problems with the bio loops that reprocessed their urine and other wastes, the cooking and cleaning, and so forth. The Sendsails were representatives of the alien race that provided the Crater unit technology; they were part of a hive community, like ants on Earth, and the three onboard were housed in three separate large containers of sand, in which they would remain buried for the entire duration of the mission, They communicated with the crew via an electronic hookup which translated their language–a dance language not unlike that of Terran bees–into English and piped it into the ship’s communication center. From there, it could be accessed by anyone with the right codes from practically any location on the ship. The Sendsails didn’t really have names, the Send race didn’t use names, but for the convenience of the human crew, they were referred to as Sail 1, Sail 2, and Sail 3. Their purported purpose on board was to assist with navigation, but Vickers and Swarsski and everyone else knew they were there to keep an eye on the Crater units and make sure none of the curious humans on board got too frisky with a screwdriver.
“Are the Sails awake?” Swarsski asked. The Sails didn’t really sleep, but they did sort of go dormant for a period of hours every few days. Whether this was as a result of the need to rest or because of boredom, or maybe even frustration with the humans, no one knew. It was clear based on the Send race’s technology that they were some hundreds or even thousands of years ahead of humans, they were so different culturally from humans, so bizarre in their behavior and communication, that it was difficult to know what they were doing and what their intentions were. It was rumored that a Sendsail, one of the royal caste, was in a box full of sand in the While House Situation Room, and that he–or she, or it, whichever it was–regularly advised the President on matters which were handled in that room. President Robinson’s administration would not confirm or deny the presence of a Sendsail in the White House, of course, but rumors in that direction continued to circulate.
“Yeah, they’re awake all right, but they’re not responding,” Vickers answered. “They’re in their feeding frenzy now.” The Sendsails were fed on a hydrocarbon-based spray with some sulpher and potassium added to it–sort of a banana milkshake with motor oil instead of milk. The material was prepared by one of the robots according to a recipe provided by the Send race and sprayed onto the surface of the sand in their boxes. As the liquid descended, the Sendsails consumed it–neither Vickers nor her crew were very clear on the exact process whereby this happened, but they didn’t need to be.

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