Observation Station 331-3
It was not just a routine solar flare. The first sign was when video contact was lost with the three pods performing work outside the ship. The technician controlling the pods noted the problem at once and followed the standard procedure by selecting the auto-terminate command on his console. This should have signaled the pods to cease work and return for docking and shutdown. But a vast cloud of magnetized plasma sweeping over them was already having a devastating effect. It scrambled unshielded control systems, including the “brains” in the three pods. Instead of a normal return-to-base, the signal seemed to be an emergency command for full engine thrust.
Had the pods been sentient beings, the command would have puzzled them. But, being robots, they immediately obeyed. Two units then heading away from the ship sped off harmlessly. The third had been heading inbound after making repairs on a navigation beacon. It had a powerful reaction engine to allow it to move heavy loads. At full thrust and no load, its acceleration was high. In the distance it traveled to the ship, it built up the momentum of a speeding railroad locomotive by the time of impact.
The immediate effects of the collision were catastrophic. The pod shattered the subspace communications antenna, then penetrated the ship’s hull. It tore two compartments open to space, killing three crew members instantly. Fortunately, the internal bulkheads held, sparing the rest of the crew the horror of death in the vacuum of space. That was the only good news.
The kinetic energy of the impact spread throughout the ship’s framework. This shock dislodged critical ship control and power generation systems. The automated controls that should have performed graceful shutdowns of these components were gone. They were among the first casualties of the intense magnetic storm. Without them, the crew was left with manual overrides. They worked these desperately to get ahead of the rapidly progressing destruction.
Chief Engineer Fareen held off as long as he could. But when the support machinery began to fail, and he saw the signs of imminent containment loss around the main power core, he gave the jettison command. The core ejected from the ship and then vanished in a burst of Hawking radiation at a safe distance.
Every crew member of a space vessel is vital for damage control. The lower grade technicians shored up the ship’s structure and fought fires. Their officers directed and coordinated the efforts. The ship’s master and its chief scientist manually activated, shut down, and rerouted critical systems. The crisis finally passed, and the automatic alarms switched off.
An eerie silence fell over the ship, broken only by the labored breathing of the frightened crew. Ship’s Master Strux looked about briefly, then activated the intra-ship communication system. “All hands set Security Watch. Officers assess damage and report to Central Control.” Chief Scientist Lanor stared at Strux as he shut off the communication system and turned away to walk to his command station. Lanor was not an operations or engineering expert, but even he knew their troubles were just beginning.
The ship was one of a fleet of patrol vessels serving the Confederation of the Six Systems. They performed scientific research and provided general law and order and defense services. Not that there was much to defend against—the Confed had defeated and assimilated the last active enemy within range long ago. Nor was there a significant problem with law and order within the Confed. But, as had been proven repeatedly, even the freest society needs a “Cop on the Beat.” If not as a complete deterrent to determined criminals, then at least to keep honest citizens honest.
The ship’s mission was to keep watch on one of the dozens of developing planets within the Confed’s territory. The Confed’s laws protected these societies, chiefly from exploitation by their aggressive commercial class. However, they had also learned the hard way that any contact with their advanced race, no matter how well-intentioned, always leads to inadvertent harm. Thus, this planet was off-limits to everyone except for approved researchers and planetary monitors.
The planet the ship was watching was unusual in the variety of societal development. The sentient race’s science and medicine were very advanced. In fact, some of their discoveries had been passed along to Confed science and industry. But in terms of space travel, they were laughably backward, still reliant on chemical engines, and barely able to send small payloads outside of planetary orbit. Nevertheless, their advancements in optics and electromagnetic signal science were such that large vessels like this ship could no longer keep watch from close orbit. They had to conceal themselves behind the planet’s large, tidally locked satellite.
This planet’s social advancement was also well behind their technological progress. They had hundreds of competing nation-states and little international cooperation. The world had only recently come out of a period of almost constant warfare, culminating in two global conflicts that ushered in the use of nuclear weapons. After 50 years on the brink of sudden nuclear self-annihilation, the population had stepped back to a state of somewhat peaceful, if not cooperative, mutual existence. The people themselves were the usual mixture in a sentient society, some good, some bad. They were still prone to fear and panic. For that reason, it would be a long time before the Confed could safely reveal its presence.
A little over an hour after Strux’s order to assess and report, the ship’s officers gathered to discuss their situation and courses of action. Inside his thoughts, Strux was quite morose and expected the worst, but he appreciated the need to maintain hope and morale if there was to be any chance of them coming through this crisis successfully. “Shipmates,” he began, “I’ll start this meeting with a general well done to you and your subordinates. We are all lucky to be alive, a result of everyone doing their jobs well. I hope you pass that along to the crew. Now, what is our situation? We will begin with you, Chief Engineer.”
“We jettisoned the core before containment failed,” Fareen reported. “And it collapsed harmlessly and evaporated. The pod collision obliterated the communications array—there is no possibility of local repair. Most of our stellar instrumentation is down, along with everything else that wasn’t hard-shielded. The jump drive and capacitor are intact, but the main dynamo has extensive physical damage. It is completely useless until we can make repairs. We have a full battery charge, enough for our current sustainment needs and one short jump.”
“The surface of the planet, no further.”
Strux found that a very discouraging response. Particularly so when the loss of the communications array eliminated any chance of calling for help. “We will affect temporary repairs and jump to X534. I presume our power reserves will hold out that long.”
Fareen’s pupils dilated in surprise. “Sir, I have not made myself clear. We cannot make repairs in our present condition. The storm wreaked havoc on our electronics. The pod collision and resulting control systems’ failures caused serious physical damage to many of the mechanical components of the main dynamo. Our electronics stores and semiconductor materials are not sufficient to replace the critical components. And as far as the mechanical components go, it is not something we can correct through annealing. Some parts are shattered, and many were corrupted by radiation when the core was compromised. We need to land to gather fresh metals and electronic components just to fashion makeshift repairs sufficient to get us to a shipyard.”
Strux could not believe what he was hearing. “Unthinkable! We cannot land on that planet. The indigenous population would go completely mad if we appeared. How could we procure the supplies needed without contacting them?”
“I discussed this problem with the chief scientist and the expeditionary leader. They believe there may be a way to land, gather the resources we need, make repairs, and depart without detection.”
Strux turned to Lanor, who shifted nervously under his superior’s blinking stare. “Well?”
“Master, you are correct that we must remain unobserved. The natives would react with violent irrationality if they became aware of our presence. With that in mind, I believe I have identified three locations on the planet that would be suitable for our needs. Each provides an excellent combination of an unobserved landing while being reasonably close to sources of our needed supplies. Two of these locations are volcanic craters near major populated areas. The third is an archipelago, near a smaller settlement.”
“I would prefer the archipelago. We cannot be assured of concealment if we stay in the open air. Submerged in water, we would be safe from radio-ranging and optical sensors and at least have a chance of remaining concealed while we affect temporary repairs.”
“I concur, sir,” Lanor said. “That site is close to the base location of one of our embedded observers. He can supply us with a vehicle to use in securing the needed materials.”
“I dislike exposing our forward people to the risk of discovery. Is there no other way?”
“I am afraid not. The engineer has made his needs known to me. The resources he requires are too bulky to transport without a vehicle, and our probability of procuring one within the time we have without revealing ourselves is virtually nil. We will not need the observer’s active participation in our efforts. He can leave the vehicle at a designated location, and we can retrieve it without too much trouble.”
Strux turned to Expeditionary Leader Trecklo. “Can I assume our reconnaissance personnel are up to operating the vehicle and procuring the supplies?”
Trecklo replied confidently, “Certainly, sir. We possess complete libraries of alien technologies and their operation. We do not have time to provide our crew with the training needed for them to blend into the local population like we do our observers. However, a good representation of a native from a distant culture should be enough for unavoidable meetings with locals.”
“Unavoidable? How can we avoid contact if we need to get supplies from them?”
“Well, risk of discovery and exposure would be unacceptably high if we went to the locals directly for the supplies.” Trecklo shifted nervously. “So, we will steal them.”
The suggestion stunned Strux. Seeing this, Lanor weighed in. “Of course, it is against our principles to exploit our technological advantage over a native population, but circumstances force us to choose how to do the least harm. I assure you that larceny is common in this society, so they take steps to protect against and recover from it after it occurs. We can easily overcome these. The resources we will take have a relatively low intrinsic value within the economy of this society, so their theft will create neither great hardship nor undue attention.”
Strux’s head drooped in despair. “We maintained an observational mission on these people for millennia. Watched them progress from the lowest savagery to something approaching our level of civilization. In a few centuries, we may even contact and set up relations and trade with them. Now you are telling me our only choice is to steal from them?”
Lanor sympathized. “No Master, but it is the only choice that does not involve our death in space or the substantial risk of destruction to their society.”
After a pause, Strux resigned himself to the terrible reality facing them. He raised his head. “Acknowledged. We will go ahead with the operation you suggested.” He turned to the ship’s navigator. “Pilot, coordinate with the scientist to localize the landing site and begin jump preparations.” Returning to Lanor, he continued, “How soon can we begin?”
“It will take several hours. We have to restore local communications and find one of our relays that is still operating after the storm and within line of sight of the observer’s position. There may be an added delay, as the observer’s need to work within the society prevents him from keeping a constant watch. Finally, we should jump just after the median of the dark period for the target region—the sentient population is largely at rest in darkness, and it would improve our chances of arriving unobserved.”
“Agreed.” He turned to Fareen. “Once you have the supplies, how long to complete the necessary repairs?”
“Difficult to say, exactly, Master. A minimum of 107 hours to fabricate and assemble the components if the quality of the materials is high, and we do not have any problems with integration. However, because I do expect at least some problems, it could be as long as 150 hours. I will try to expedite the repairs within the bounds of safety, of course.”
“Good.” After a few seconds, he added, “I want to leave the planet as quickly as possible, even if that extends the overall expected completion time. Can you affect a full recharge of the batteries first?”
“Yes, but it will require temporary rerouting. It would extend the repair period by as much as 20%. Also, if we were to launch on batteries, it would be riskier to complete the repairs in orbit—we would have no options remaining if there were problems.”
“I understand. Nonetheless, that is how I wish to proceed. I will not make the jump before we have full capability unless the alternative is the discovery of our presence in the system, or worse, losing this ship or our technology to the inhabitants.”
“Understood, Master. While the contact efforts proceed, I will complete the planning to go ahead along those lines.”
“That is all,” Strux concluded. “Please keep me informed of your progress. Dismissed, except for you, Chief Engineer.” The other officers bobbed assent and then proceeded on their separate tasks. After they departed, Strux turned to Fareen. “How many core initiators do we have in reserve?”
“Are you aware of what my first order is when this ship is disabled?”
Fareen thought it an odd question. All officers were aware of the Patrol Fleet’s First Order: no ship or technology could be allowed to fall into the hands of a developing society. If a ship was damaged beyond recovery by Confed forces, the senior surviving officer must ensure complete destruction of the ship and crew. No officer could receive a commission in the Patrol Fleet without swearing a separate oath to follow that order. “I am, Master,” was the only reply Fareen could make.
“Once we land, I cannot use the conventional self-destruct system. The detonation could trigger a nuclear war among the inhabitants. If our efforts fail, I intend to use a controlled implosion to obliterate the ship. Can you set up one of the initiators to do this on command, without the effect spreading beyond the ship?”
“I am unaware of it being done before, but it is theoretically possible.” The very thought of pursuing this course of action would normally terrify him. He now understood Strux’s first question was a reminder that absent this option, he would have to destroy the ship in space. “I can confirm this for you in a few hours.”
“Do so discreetly, if you please. If it proves to be practicable, I do not want it known among the crew. It will be difficult enough to achieve success without everyone thinking about the alternative.”
“I understand. It will be as you say, Master.”
After Fareen bobbed and moved off, Strux turned to prepare the standard memorial service for lost crew members. It was an activity he had dreaded and hoped never to face during this commission. Like most patrol ships, this crew was hand-picked and closer than those of non-military vessels, and Strux knew them all well. Despite the loss of communications, he would compose and record notes of condolence to their families for later delivery (hopefully). As unpleasant as these duties were, they were a welcome distraction from the infinitely more terrible decision he faced.