Terminator (Part 2)

Helena’s hands moved across the control panels that covered the inside of the cockpit faster than the human eye could follow. She examined the instruments, looking back on footage from the cameras that studded the outside of The Spear, trying to determine what had gone wrong. There was nothing obvious – it could have been something as simple as a micro-meteor, travelling a little faster than expected, hitting them at the wrong angle, in the wrong place. In any case, they were venting gas into space from one end of the hab modules. It wasn’t just the initial accident that had sent them spiralling crazily off course: the plume of gas was also propelling them into a frantic tailspin.

“What is it?”

She turned and saw a pale, saucer-eyed face peering through the hatch. It was one of the humans, a male, very possibly the one she’d spoken to just moments ago. “Get back in the module,” she said shortly, turning back to the controls.

“The module’s ruptured. It’s dangerous.”

“I know,” she growled. She tapped more buttons, trying to do something about the gas spilling out of the ship, but that utilitarian engineering that had seemed so appealing less than five minutes ago was suddenly a huge obstacle. Everything was built to last, and to require minimal maintenance, but that also meant minimal control. There was nothing she could do from the cockpit to fix the problems at the back of the ship. But she couldn’t abandon the landing module now, while they were careering randomly through space.

“What happened?” The human crawled into the cramped cockpit next to her. His skinny limbs floated limply in the zero-gravity.

She bared her teeth at the useless sensory equipment, unable to focus on anything due to the erratic movement of The Spear, and held her hands up in frustration. “We’ve been travelling for over a century, but moving so fast that more time has passed for the rest of the universe due to time dilation. It’s been over six-hundred years. I think we’re in a debris field. Some sort of asteroid impact that we didn’t predict, I suppose.”

“Something punctured the hull.”

“Yes.”

“Are we going to die?”

She eyed him. “You’re human: of course you’re going to die.”

Helena had no time for this. The only part of the ship with engines outside of the huge ramjet at the back was the landing module, and they were just atmospheric thrusters to guide her descent. She couldn’t make course corrections. She considered their options. Of all the volunteers for this mission – and there were hundreds – she had been chosen for her ability to improvise, a trait not often found in her kind. She had run through thousands of disaster simulations during her training, and a situation like this was not unanticipated. But, now she was here, as far from Earth as any of its inhabitants had ever been, sitting in the cockpit of a ramshackle ship spinning wildly through deep space, it felt very different. She looked out at the whirling stars. Here in the zero-g of the lander, there was no sensation of movement, but it was probably playing havoc with the artificial gravity of the hab modules. The humans would be panicking. The reason her people led missions like this was because, unlike them, they could be relied upon to think logically; to be coldly indifferent to sentiment. That was what space travel required. That was why she was here.

She became aware that the human was jabbering something, and she turned and listened to him. He was saying something about patching up the hole in the hull, stopping the atmosphere from venting into the vacuum. “It’s no use,” she said right over him and his mouth snapped shut. “The mission is done.” It was true. They both knew it. At least, she assumed he did.

“It can’t be…” He looked frightened. Well, that made sense. His whole life had been building to the moment when they entered orbit of Centauri V – Home – and seeded it with the embryos of Earth’s sons and daughters. Now, that dream was gone, wiped out by another of space’s random mishaps. He must be distraught, but she had no time to worry about that now. Helena’s mind was racing, thinking about what her next course of action would be. The mission was lost; that was a given. That meant she was stranded. They could stabilise the leak, but they would never reach their destination now. The Spear was a self-contained biosphere, but it would become unstable in a few centuries. She had no hope they would be rescued. So, her only option was to seal this tin can up and survive as long as she could. The humans might continue to breed, but it would be hard to control their numbers without the promise of a resolution. And when the ecosystem finally broke down, what then? Perhaps it would be better to go out in the proverbial blaze of glory. Satisfy the cravings she had been tamping down for a century and put the poor creatures out their misery. No need for anyone to suffer. Except her, alone in deep space, with the hunger…

“We could send a radio signal back to Earth,” the human was saying.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped, “it would take more than three years to get there, and centuries for them to send any kind of rescue party, were that even possible.”

“Maybe technology has advanced. Perhaps they have ships that can travel faster than light or…”

“No.” She pointed out of the curving windows and the whirling starscape. “Sol is out there somewhere, but even I can’t pick it out. We could beam a radio message across space, but how would we aim it at Earth?”

“What about Home?”

“What about it?”

“Can’t we try to get there?”

She laughed hollowly. “We were travelling at thousands of kilometres an hour when we were hit. We’re probably flying out of the system’s plane of the ecliptic by now. We can’t find that planet any more than we can find Earth.”

“But there must be a way to detect it…”

Helena frowned at the controls. “Perhaps. On Earth, we detect large exoplanets using gravitational lensing. At this range, the gravity field of Centauri V will distort the radiation of the stars. The spectrometer is still functioning.”

His eyes had lit up. “So maybe we can…”

“What if we did find it? We can’t get there. We’ve been sent thousands of kilometres off course already. It’s over…um…” She looked at him.

“Eric,” he supplied.

“Yes, Eric. We can’t get there,” she repeated, “We only have fuel to cover our projected course. We’ve been slowing down for fifty years. The mission parameters are calculated to the nearest joule of energy. We are – were – still weeks away, and there’s no more thrust left in the ramjet.”

“Can’t we speed up somehow though?”

“It’s not as simple as…” She stopped. One possibility suddenly entered her mind, but it was a wild, dangerous hope. “There is something we could try.”

“What?”

“Shut up and let me think.” She furrowed her brow, trying to juggle all the calculations in her head. No time to boot up the computer systems to do some proper orbital mechanics. If they were going to pull this off, they had to do it fast, before they’d gone too far in the wrong direction. “The engine only needs a blast of energy to accelerate us. If we can figure out the right direction to go in, we can try to find some way of setting off a detonation that will carry us into orbit.” She looked up at the stars, still circling around them. “It’d be like hitting a target with an arrow from around the curve of the horizon, but it’s simple Newtonian physics. Billiard ball stuff.”

“We have to try. For the mission.” His thin face was almost comically earnest.

“You don’t understand, Eric,” Helena said grimly, “the only way to make an explosion of the size with need is with the chemicals in the deep freeze module. If you want to reach Home, we might need to sacrifice the embryos.”

His watery eyes were very wide as he considered the implications of the choice before them. “If we don’t do this, we’ll all die,” he said eventually.

“You’re going to die whatever happens,” she told him again, “but at least this way we’ll see what we came to see. And that’s something. Here: make yourself useful and start getting readings from the spectrometer. We need to find that rock before we do anything.”

*

The ramjet that pushed The Spear of Longinus through the void was the only part of the ship that would have been unfamiliar to the men who walked on the moon in the mid-20th Century but, even then, they would have understood its principles after only a little explanation. The power source was nuclear, but the actual physics were pure mechanics. The ramjet itself was invisible – a vast electromagnetic web sprawling out like angel’s wings from the rear of the ship. They were kilometres long, a transparent energy net combing the interstellar medium for hydrogen that would power the cold fusion reaction, catalysed by complex carbon-chain fuel, in the glowing rear engine assembly. A blackened thrust plate surrounded that: no matter how impressive the technology used to harness the atomic power of space was, in the end it all came down to explosions and rockets. The first decade of their journey had been marked by continuous nuclear blasts at their back end, pushing them faster and faster into deep space, accelerating them up to relativistic velocities. Then, at the halfway point, the same cataclysmic atomic forces were unleashed, this time on the other side of the thrust plate to gradually slow them down. Despite the apparent coarseness of the method, it was all precisely timed to leave them cruising gently into orbit of Centauri V, ready to settle a brand new world.

Now, that was all out of the window. They were going in the wrong direction. There was no more carbon to act as a catalyst and the wondrous ramjet was purely decorative – or would have been, if it was visible. So they were now locked at this velocity, plus the impetus provided by the venting atmosphere, destined to fly forever into empty space. Unless she could get this to work.

The humans were no help at all, not that she’d expected them to be. They were panicking, wailing, and she’d had to lock the hatch to the lander shut just to get some time to think. Only Eric was keeping his wits about him, and he manned the instruments with a stern frown. It had taken agonising minutes to get a fix on their destination, and now Helena had to do the calculations that would save all their lives. The trick was not so much generating the explosion as it was triggering it at the right moment and position to send them in the right direction, at the right speed.

“We need to hit the thrust plate just so,” she explained. Eric understood little of what she was trying to achieve – the humans’ education had been largely limited to the things they needed to know to support the nascent colony – but she talked aloud mostly to order her own thoughts. She’d picked up that habit in the last century of largely keeping to herself. “Ironically, the physics is much simpler in space. No friction, no gravity to worry about this far out. Just classical mechanics.” She used a stylus to scrawl figures on an electronic tablet. She had grown up in the age of pencil and paper and was always more comfortable doing her calculations this way. She’d confirm her workings with the computer before she actually ignited anything.

“We will accelerate continuously, like before?”

Helena shook her head. “No. We can only generate a single explosion large enough. Once the impetus from that is gone, we’ll be cruising at a constant velocity. With any luck, it’ll be fast enough that it’ll only take us a few days at most to reach the inner system.”

“So how do we slow down?”

She grimaced. “I don’t know. We can’t be very precise out here. We could go hurtling right into the atmosphere, or overshoot by a hundred thousand kilometres and fly into the sun. But, I’m hoping we’ll be able to fall right into a high orbit and let gravity do most of the work.”

He looked frightened. Well, he should. His whole life, Helena had been in absolute control of this mission, a calm, reassuring presence at the helm of his entire world. But now he was seeing the seams in reality open up. It must be disconcerting for such a small creature. “How could this have gone so wrong?” he asked her in a quiet voice.

“It’s space. Anything can happen.” She shrugged helplessly, but he was right to question it. It was such a minor blunder. Micro-meteors were common enough and their hull was built to withstand such impacts. It had to have been a billion-to-one chance but then, they didn’t know what had happened on the outskirts of this system in the intervening centuries. For all Helena knew, an interstellar war had taken place, and they were flying through the remains of a smashed battle-fleet. She doubted that though and, besides, there was no point thinking about it now. This was just the situation they were in. Eric continued to babble away, weaving all kinds of nonsense conspiracy theories, so she just tuned him out and carried on with her calculations.

It worked. Somehow, it worked. She watched through cameras trained on the back of The Spear as a primitive chemical explosion, powered by a soup of combustible materials hurled out of the airlock, smashed into the thrust plate at an oblique angle that sent them cartwheeling back around and then spinning, spinning, spinning towards the two stars waiting for them at the heart of the Alpha Centauri system. It was never going to be a straight ride down, although she hadn’t told the humans that. Their minds weren’t really equipped to handle the complexities of deep space manoeuvres. Even though these particular humans had never even walked on the surface of their distant homeworld, their primate brains were evolved to work with the physics of Earth, to think in terms of air resistance and acceleration due to gravity. The frictionless ballet of the vacuum would always be alien to them, so she didn’t even try to explain it. The chances of them surviving were slim anyway, so it would be doubly a waste of her time.

They sealed the venting atmosphere off as best they could, patching up the hull from the inside. The humans feared the vacuum, naturally enough, so Helena had to guide them through the repair job again. She spent more time with them in these few days than she had in a hundred years. It was a discomfiting experience. Eric became their unofficial leader, and she sensed he was getting attached to the role. This happened from time to time, she knew. Humans liked hierarchies, at least if they were the ones on top of them. Something to do with their cooperative nature. She supposed that after a lifetime spent bouncing around their little cylinder of life, sucking algae paste out of tubes, actually doing something was intoxicating for him. Well, let him have his fun. Their lives were brief enough, and likely to get briefer.

As she’d expected, the delicate ecosystem of the hab modules crashed now they’d leaked so much oxygen. It could have recovered with careful tending and time, but they didn’t have the luxury of either. She let the humans gorge themselves on the last of the algae. It was like a party.

And then, suddenly, terrifyingly, the planet was flying towards them, looking huge in the windows of the lander. They were still twirling around their centre, but now the pull of gravity started to exert its influence and their motion became even more erratic. The planet, a dirty-grey ball of rock, would career past the windows every few minutes. Helena watched it helplessly. They were heading right for it, travelling as fast as any comet. She had to at least admit the plan had worked, after a fashion. They were going Home.

“Brace yourself,” she whispered to Eric, who was up in the cockpit with her again.

“What?” He still hadn’t figured it out. Of course he hadn’t. Humans were always so optimistic.

She gripped the handle on the wall. Eric did likewise. Those big goggly eyes of his were like two saucers again as he watched the reeling world approach. There was only one chair. Helena just had time to gaze at the twin suns rising over the horizon. Centauri V was between them and the stars – that was part of the original mission parameters, and the reason they’d been able to detect it using the gravitational lensing – so they were careening towards the dark side of the planet. But, as it rolled back into view again, she saw the creeping light of dawn glimmering on the edge of the black disc. The terminator. She was supposed to have had weeks of travel, perhaps months in orbit, to thoroughly explore the planet’s surface remotely, find the hiding places she needed to survive the daylight in an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. But now, like the humans, she was being hurled helplessly down to the surface of a world that would almost certainly kill her. She clenched the handle tightly and closed her eyes.

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