13 July, 2011

[SFAP] Chapter 7:1

This is the first section of the seventh chapter of Sonnets from a Proton. The novel starts here.
The next section is here.
Wow it's a long one, but it has a lot to cover.

“So why did the captain listen to you?” asked Jane
“My enduring charm I’m sure.” replied Laurence
“You pulled rank didn’t you?”
“Of course not, I’m not giving up my cover for something like this. He was going to do something much more stupid and modulate the engines to send a message”
“All that anyone outside will see is each of our ship’s exhaust trails departing each other going goodness knows where. Without the communications room we have no way of informing them of our distress.”
“Surely they’ll figure out where they’re going and track them.”
“For sure you can’t hide an exhaust signature and track where they’re going if they care”
“Surely they’ll care, they must be following this story at home, the first interplanetary rescue.”
“Slight problem there. In my talk with the captain I discovered that he sent off his plan and all the data they have but it’s very unlikely to have been received, the Prefect’s captain claimed to have jammed the transmission.”
“Is that even possible?” Asked Jane
“The captain thinks so, this does sound like a very carefully planned raid and the short timescales and communications lag between here and Earth goes a long way to explaining why he wasn’t worried about not getting a reply in time.”
“So all Earth knows is what they can see in our exhaust plume.”
“Which if we’re being tracked by the automated systems likely won’t raise an issue to a human person unless we do something dangerous.”
“We’re certainly doing things out of the ordinary.”
“Yeah but again according to the Captain because of all the false signatures the system receives from the Habitat’s drones and people joyriding around the inner system the tracking software only alerts a human if there’s something going on that it thinks will harm a human and here we are not in lethal danger”
“As far as it can see.”
“Hey it just makes sure we don’t crash into planets or miss the planet and that’s all it cares about”
“So we can’t tell anyone anything until we arrive.”
“Which is why the captain wanted to emulate a severe engine fault to get the tracking system to wake up then encode a message in the exhaust.”
“Advanced morse code in the engine pattern.”
“Quite, except that that really would be suicide, the only way to simulate an engine fault in these sealed units would be riskily close to causing an actual fault.”
“You told him this I trust.”
“I told him that you owned the engines and would not allow it.”
“He believed that did he?” asked Jane
“Once he checked your identity yes.”
“So now what?”
“Now we wait to get to Saturn.”
“Oh I forgot to say, you got a message from your new team before all this started, here have a look.”

Gtgs Laurence hope this finds you well. Viper is progressing well, initial tests matching simulations. I write bcs the prototype ship has been having enquiries made about it, the military is after it for goodness knows what, they seem to think there is something wrong with us developing engines in excess of what they have access to, if nothing else a mobile antimatter generator would be very useful for the battle field. With this in mind and given the obvious success of the project they have dispatched a ship to acquisition the prototype engines with orders to fit them to their own prototype ship immediately. The mobile antimatter generator has also been ‘requested’. The carrier they are sending has fusion engines that have already been modified to accept an antimatter boost into the fusion engines, these modified engines are currently being used to get the carrier to the base in time for the retrofit to be finished by the time you are due to arrive. The antimatter from the ships warheads is being used for this outward journey. I trust you can see the problems here and you will intervene in this in your normal fashion.

Laurence showed Jane the communication.
“But there’s no ship big enough to use the prototype ship’s engines. For goodness sake even the prototype engines are nearly a kilometre long. Try and stick those on a normal ship and they’ll stick out the front or back and be completely vulnerable to attack.” protested Laurence. “Besides they were designed for an interstellar craft with the thrust they produce any existing ship will be torn apart with the acceleration. You can’t just stick an engine capable of producing a several billion newtons onto any ship”
“If only that were true” said Jane, “Look this order specifies you’re coming on this trip as well so you’ll find out soon enough.”
“Find what out?”
“I’m surprised you haven’t guessed already. You know what the military is like, no civilian project can have something better or sooner than them.”
“Meaning?” asked Laurence
“When it became clear how ambitious our new drive” Jane saw the look on Laurence’s face “Fine, your new drive was going to be, they commissioned a carrier to use them. The final design called for six of the drive units, now we have obviously only built two at the moment, but they haven’t finished outfitting the carrier yet either so its mass will only be a fraction of the finished behemoth.”
“Then how the hell is it getting here then if it doesn’t have any engines?”
“Ah easy, you know the military, never rely on new technology if you can overengineer the problem. Fifty two military grade K7s, rated for 110% thrust 100% of the time. The idea was that they would be used as both backups and for more subtle intra system navigation such as habitat manoeuvres. Sounds like they’ve taken it a step further than the plans I saw if they’ve managed to modify them to accept an antimatter injection as well; goodness knows how the mix chamber is coping with the extra stress.”
“You knew the military was working on using the Viper engines?”
“Oh yeah, come on why wouldn’t they? I’m surprised they found the funding and the manpower to build it in this time, but I’m sure they raided other projects. Still they’ll give the units a good thrashing which will be interesting test data.”
“Hey Jane, focus! They might have done this pro-actively, but as soon as they find out about what we’ve just had stolen from us they’ll drag us into a battlezone.”
“Hey I am focusing, what’ll kill us here is the carrier propulsion going wrong. That carrier was built to outperform anything before conceived by a mile; literally in this case. Something will go wrong and if we can get it working it’ll do that, if the worst comes to the worst we can just outrun them.”
“Oh don’t be so naive.” Insisted Laurence“I’ve been looking over the data from our little skirmish and checking against the background observations traffic control made and crossed that with what the astronomy labs picked out”
“Your point?” Asked Jane.
“I’ll save you the analysis but the engine flares from the ship that captured us are easy to backtrack from the records once you look for them. Now we know they faked an incident that caused the loss of their engines”
“You found the carrier ship”
“No they were more cunning than that. They genuinely built a whole engine unit with the plan to discard it, or at least spend a long time flying back to them. They knew that a faked engine problem would be just that so they actually did cause an engine failure. The unit would have been built to fail, or maybe used up some old units they were done with.”
“You think they built an engine unit to throw away in order to capture a set of engine units.”
“The key is in the exhaust signature. We knew they were using a fission engine to get to us.”
“Well that’s what they told us” interjected Jane
“Nope more than that, look; the traffic control grid star tracker network picked up an unexpected engine bloom. Nothing was reported to a controller because it was out of any traffic lanes so nothing to worry a controller about. However the automated systems are designed to be as curious and as thorough as possible so they got a spectroscope to look at the engine’s output. They dutifully then recorded it and filed its flight trajectory for future reference.”
“Hang on so why didn’t it notify us that it was crossing our trajectory”
“Because there was no need it wasn’t going to cross our trajectory, remember we changed course to intercept the SOS. Anyway I checked the records and there’s no doubt about it, that rocket engine is without a doubt a thorium breeder based design, the radiation signature is unmistakable.”
“Why on earth would they build one of those, horrifically complicated to build.”
“I was wondering that myself, here’s my theory. Fission engine parts are as carefully controlled as fusion engine parts; however chemical engine parts, specifically turbo pumps and combustion chambers are ten a penny”
“So you think they stuck to an old solid cored fission engine design they could build with parts they could get hold of”
“Exactly. We were assuming they were using a standard gas core rocket; what if they’ve actually built their own engines but they have the industrial capability to produce those advanced parts? I think what they’ve done is dug out an old breeder reactor design, hooked it up to a bunch of over specified chemical engine parts and created a crude but none the less effective home built engine”
“And using thorium because it’s plentiful in their asteroids. Keeping the uranium they mine for their legitimate GCR rockets.”
“Explains a lot doesn’t it?” said Laurence smiling “But what this means is they’ll have more ships than our jingoistic friends anticipate and two things that scare the crap out of me.”
“You’ve lost me again” said Jane
“If they have breeders then they almost certainly have decent reprocessing capabilities. If they have those then they have an excess of lots of highly radioactive materials and I see no reason they don’t have as much weapons grade material as they wish.”
“Yeah but they haven’t done any weapons tests, hang on no, they’re miners aren’t they?”
“Exactly, if I were them I’d have quite a production line of nuke weapons running and using them for my mining, blasting new caves, it’s the perfect explosive. And if I were making nukes in large numbers I’d have a defensive perimeter set up around the base that we are soon to be lead to like lambs.”
“Makes sense.”
“I still don’t have a good reason they’d start this just to upgrade some engines, it’s a lot of trouble.”
Jane sighed, “Lou you may be a genius with quantum physics but you really can be stupid at times. We know we can trace the pirates’ exhaust plumes and so do they, they’re going to head somewhere to do something with those engines they just stole, engines that big only make sense on a medium or large vessel, presumably one they’ve been building in secret. They know we can follow them there so they’ll be expecting us, so there’ll be an ambush waiting and the best way to accomplish that is with a decent minefield.”
“Wait no, stop, you can’t mine an area of space, well not a large enough area to be certain of hitting your enemy ship whilst it is out of weapons range. Lots of missile emplacements yes, but minefield in space are ludicrous, it's just too much volume to cover.”
“Well define weapons range in space, but I’ll grant you that, but fine I’ll call them mines, you call them distributed smart missiles if that makes you happy. Also if you have a small base to protect and lots of time and sufficient resources you can mine a few million cubic kilometres with a few million mines if you are defending against mile long battleships.”
“You think they can build things that complex?”
“Do you know how they mine the asteroids these days?”
“Nope. I’m sure you’ll tell me” said Laurence
“On a large scale. Saying this is an enterprise spread across several AUs large doesn’t even begin to describe it. They have massive factories that build all the robots that are used for the mining operations themselves. They have factories that build factories. They are fully self sufficient out there and most of the work is robotized. The work done by humans there is mostly supervisory, it’s arguably the most advanced and thoroughly developed outpost of humanity.”
“Not as much as what we do at Saturn though.”
“Well your research base out there isn’t self sufficient is it? It relies on materials shipped by this very craft from Earth and materials provided by the asteroid belt. No there are only two places in the solar system that can survive without anywhere else and that’s Earth and them. Do you know what the difference between those two is though?”
“You can’t bomb the major population centres of the asteroid belt from orbit, hell we don’t even know where most of the belt's population centres are. In a war between Earth and the ‘roids I’d bet on the ‘roids. Oh and they use nuclear bombs regularly as a part of the mining process. So they know what they’re doing with large powerful explosives in space, and complex swarms of automated robots.”
“And we’re going to be on the front line of the first battle of that war walking into an ambush.”
“Yep, worried yet?”
Laurence leaned back and grabbed the pad “Ah," he exclaimed noticing a detail on the messge "they included their plans with this message” The wall lit up with a schematic of the battleship design. Laurence whistled in appreciation.
“You’ve got to love the military.” commented Jane
“You had a hand in this?”
“Look, you told me to look after the business, I got us the contract to build this, you should be thankful I got us in there.”
“Why didn’t you tell me, or at least ask me for advice on the design?”
“You were kind of uncontactable at the time what with having a new body built and all.”
“Fine, but what were you thinking, isn’t a five mile long ship a bit silly for a battleship?”
“I think a large ship is a great way to project power, half of battle is psychological.” said Jane “Anyway I just said if we could build it or not and got the designs for the engines working, it was the Admirals who chose the specification. They were interested in projecting power and psychological warfare and capacity requirements.”
“Well that’s what I mean it’s a hell of a big target, there’s the old mariner phrase that there are two types of ships, submarines and targets, you’ve made yourself a hell of a target here.”
“Not really, for most of its length it’s got the aspect ratio approaching that of a hair, it’s only the main engine that’s that long. Besides there is no stealth in space.”
“But still if it is hit then...”
“Then we’re in trouble yes, but that’s your problem you’re thinking of this like an aircraft carrier and while it is designed to carry fighters that’s not this ship’s main strength. Think of it more like a hit and run battleship”
Laurence tried to contain a smirk, “What is it then, what can it offer that is worth its size?”
“Speed. Huge improbable dollops of speed. The idea isn’t to get into battle quickly, but to have very high speed into battle. Once you get a high enough speed then you gain two things; first anything you launch will have a massive amount of energy due to its speed, our new warheads designed for this ship deliver more bang from their kinetic energy than from their detonation. When we use a nuke it is intentionally to add radiation to the area and have a secondary method of causing damage, but more energy is contained in the momentum of the weapon than in the warhead itself. Second high speed makes it hard to hit. Who needs stealth if no-one can go fast enough to hit you? Besides a nuke detonated at high speed in a battle area is very useful at decontaminating itself, most of the debris maintains it’s high velocity and gets out of the battle area, that excepting of course the debris which hits the enemy’s ships and sticks to them causing radiation damage to them and just them; provided you get the deployment right of course.”
“What’s to stop someone doing countermeasures at it though, a small bomb filled with ball bearings deployed roughly in the path of where they think it’ll be”
“That’s why you randomly change path close to our destination, even twenty seconds of the drive at full power can move us over ten kilometres away from where you might have expected us to be. Over the course of a conflict that’s an awful lot of ground for them to cover. Thanks to light speed delay although they always know what’s been done because we can’t hide that, they’ll always have old information. Therefore they always know exactly where it was, but not where it currently is.”

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