by John Steiner

Testing a new Flipspace protocol, the Mockingbird travels to its most distant mission yet. There, Colonel Rama orders Major Fitch to lead a surface team to a planet outside the habitable zone, yet teeming with life based on ammonia. Rama flies a second science team in studying the remaining planets, where an artificial satellite is found. Fitch’s team also finds traces of civilization and discovers a lingering threat that destroys technology. The study of fallen societies turns into defense from a planet-wide force.


Chapter 1

Cold Start

“Come on, people,” Colonel Ramachandra called over the ruckus made by her crew filing into the windowless room. “It’s going to be a long night, little birds.”

Her voice sounded no more stern than before, but the mother’s disapproving undertone brought down the noise level and firmed up discipline in the ranks. Maybe it was having just returned from Earth-side leave, Rama thought, or it was due to being based on Global Orbital Defense Station Seven. The space installation circled the Earth every twelve hours at around 20,000 kilometers altitude. It was large enough for successive rotational rings to each spin with centrifugal force equivalent to one gee.

For the mission Rama was about to brief her crew on, the Mockingbird docked with her Flipspace Device in low orbit in order to ensure that the FSD could not build up a charge for conducting a spatial rotation. The reason came from a new Flipspace Protocol more revolutionary than the mobile flip target, and it promised just as much savings in mission flight time.

“At last,” Rama chided with deadpan manner. “The room has come to order. Your Grav-Leave was well earned, but now it’s time to get into the biggest game of all. You may be wondering why our FSD docking maneuvers weren’t conducted at any of the Lagrangian Stations before exo-solar deployment. ForCom has called on us to test a new power-up procedure designated the Cold Start.

“The short version is this. We’ll be channeling power from Mockingbird’s fusion reactor into the FSD nacelles to prime up the reaction cells. Because of the tremendous draw, even to a fusion reactor, technical personnel are required to be on station to assist and prepare for emergencies. Mr. Goddard will explain to you the details.”

At Rama’s cue, the Logician and civilian FSD specialist, Stanley Goddard, rose from a chair to approach the podium with a computer slate in hand. After a couple swipes over its clear surface, the Logician was ready and cleared his throat.

“Thank you, Colonel,” Goddard accepted, and then began by directing everyone’s attention to a flat midair projection originating from a ceiling fixture. “To start, you’re aware of concepts like delta-V and other mathematic rate-of-change principles. To create sufficient Dark Energy for a spatial rotation, we need to employ far more sophisticated calculations which manipulate the Higgs field that gives particles the phenomenon of mass.

“We designate changes in a Higgs field delta-H with the superscript zero, and added the Greek letter subscript Psi for the field. Positive delta-H Psi values dampen cosmological constants that dictate the value of Dark Energy. With a negative delta-H Psi we get increasing Dark Energy from our FSD reaction cells. However, up until the Henry-Draper 40307 mission we never had the mathematical means of inducing a cascade effect in Dark Energy levels outside of a spatial rotation itself, and even then being within a gravity well severely hampered Tesseract formation.”

“Jesus Christ, Stanley,” Sergeant Dean Macready groaned, holding a palm to his temple. “My head can only take so much of this shit. We all don’t have twenty-fold brain power.”

Rama eyed Macready with raised brows, but made no further admonishment out of sympathy. She too struggled with the equations that befuddled the best mathematicians on Earth. Even Logicians had been stumped until Goddard’s SETI work.

“During my communication attempts with the Toroid organism,” Stanley skipped ahead to the whopper of his presentation, “I pitched some unsolved theorems dating back a little over a hundred years. At the time the Toroid responded I figured it was just repeating everything simultaneously, just like with the other math sounds I composed.

“Afterward, I reviewed the recordings and found through its tones precisely how off-key they were. The deviations encoded the solutions to the unsolved theorems, including one needed for asymptotic derivation for micro-dimensions and cosmological constants. I ... I’m sorry if that also is hard to grasp, but there’s no easier way to lay it out.

“Basically, it means that, more or less, we can accelerate a Higgs field’s interference to its asymptote of zero, which of course means an accelerating delta-H Psi to ever more negative values. There’s some hardware issues that hinder the effect, which may take decades to resolve,” Stanley warned. “However, we can build up a charge nearly two magnitudes faster than before. We can apply the calculations to alter our momentum to similar measure. From that, Tesseract endpoints can be that much closer to astral bodies. A second option is greater range tesseract formation under normal flip point conditions, though that’s more for long term missions that the International Space Organization is drafting. The third application is something we’re holding off on until emergency conditions require it, since I can’t guarantee it’ll work or if it’s even safe.”

“Okay, thank you, Mr. Goddard,” Rama spoke up, as she traded places with the Logician at the podium to wrap up the briefing. “We’ll be employing the new protocol in a flip to an exo-solar planet orbiting outside the habitable zone of Xiang Jin 1148. This planet, designated L as the tenth planet, is of interest for hints of weather and gradual terrestrial changes. Though it’s over seven thousand light years away, at a direct shot, it’s galactic orbital tract and velocities are fairly close to our own. Average temperature surface temperature is around forty-four degrees below zero Celsius. There appear to be rivers, lakes, inland seas, and small isolated oceans. However, chemo spectroscopy reads them to be ammonia. The atmospheric content includes, in diminishing order neon, argon, nitric oxide, hydrogen, methane and various trace gasses.

“We’ll be bringing two science teams and performing dual missions. For this we’ve been issued a TADS-55 Tang Sword for the surface mission. The FSD frame will carry external modules for supply, ordnance and a couple auxiliary modules should we need to swap out those within the Mockingbird. Our internal compliment will include the Hydra System, since we can’t rule out encounters with Natural Environmentally-Selected Intelligences. Questions?”

The bulk of inquiries dealt with the extended compliment and materiel. However, Mr. Ash wanted to know more about why Planet L was the primary focus when E, F and G were in a habitable zone much wider than what surrounded Sol. Colonel Rama explained that the innermost was airless, the outer of the three nearly so and the middle planet turned out to be an undersized gas giant with no large moons. The gaseous Planet F would fall under scientific scrutiny, but that doubts lingered about life without a surface and under such pressure as to turn hydrogen into a metallic liquid.

Rama, having doled out the last answer, dismissed the crew and ordered for Chief Carl Anders to muster them for launch. Ship personnel marched down major corridors to a freight elevator. From there, they moved toward the hub of GODS-7 which contained the docks. Mockingbird was linked via two airlocks in her cargo bay loading ramp. EVA drones worked all around the ISV-71 that Rama commanded, and assisted others ships in and out of the vacuous docks or moved freight onto or off vessels and space planes from Earth’s surface.

Protocol Authentication Code Techs had already updated Mockingbird’s Spectre codes and biometric back on Earth-side. Colonel Rama called for debarking from dock once preflight was complete. Maggie managed flight ops, however with Rama and Major Fitch linked into the ship’s instrumentation. Clear of GODS-7, the Mockingbird plus FSD frame began a Xenon Ion Pulse burn toward Geo-Luna Lagrangian One, the gravitational zero point between Earth and the moon.

Later, in Xiang Jin 1148, the mission called for cold start tests much closer to planets, however aerospace control regulations required sticking to spatial rotation points that still confined other ships. Ahead of the Mockingbird was a Russian Federation Flipspace-capable system of vessels. Rama took a closer look using the ship’s XD cams embedded into the armored skin.

All three Russian ISV’s were of identical design that incorporated similar concepts to the ISV-71 Raven. They were roughly triangular for hypersonic and spaceflight modes, but formed airfoils differently from the Mockingbird. Also, in deviation from the Aerospace Defense Response, the Federation ships didn’t lock up to their own FSD module.

Instead, Rama saw, the trio of unarmed civilian exploration vessels, their skins currently set to Russian White, Blue and Red, turned back to back to back and docked with a single pen-shaped Flipspace Device. A ring attached at the rear, where the FSD’s main fusion pulse detonation engine and major ion thrusters were housed. Once conjoined the three ships and FSD began rotating for centrifugal-force-generated gravity.

“Lucky bastards,” Rama heard Fitch remark to her right.

“Until they get shot at,” Rama replied. “Or their only FSD breaks down.”

The Federation composition vessel moved into position before priming up their tesseract. Lagrangian Station One floated more than twenty kilometers away, yet still loomed larger than a far more distant moon or Earth. Rama watched the Russian spatial rotation appear to suck the vessel cluster forward as if a liquid into a straw. A brief glimpse of their destination’s star field smeared across the one normally visible from the zero gravity point.

“ISS Four, Five, Four,” L One Flight Control sounded over Air Variation Resonance system, “Flip point is back to null state. You’re clear to move into position.”

“Copy that, L One Control,” Mockingbird’s Comms officer answered.

Relighting the XIP thrusters, Maggie maneuvered the ship into position. Once brought to a stop relative to the Lagrangian Point it was Mr. Goddard’s turn.

“Juice up the reactor, Lieutenant Imafidon,” the Logician prompted the engineering officer.

“Fusion reactor output approaching ninety-two percent,” Imafidon acknowledged.

“Power mains between Reactor Room and FSD are peaked,” Sergeant Wei Jin added, “Excess power being shunted through liquiplastic armor.”

“Cold-Start Power-up Procedure ... complete,” Stanley Goddard proclaimed under-dramatically.

“Shit, that’s it?” Major Fitch asked.

“In zero gee, yes,” Goddard answered. “The rate diminishes exponentially nearer gravity wells, same as usual. A little worse relatively to the new standard, actually.”

“That was no small investment, Major,” Imafidon declared across comms. “We’re go for flip.”

“Xiang Jin 1148 Lima is locked,” Maggie announced.

“Tesseract is sealed. Endpoint is clear of foreign object debris. Awaiting flip order,” Goddard stated.

“Hit it,” Rama granted.

The characteristic om of FSD reaction cells rose, until the base-toned water drop sound rang throughout the ship. In her view one star-scape was supplanted by another that included Planet L about a hundred thousand kilometers away. Telemetric lines appeared to denote key aspects of the alien solar system. Chief among them was Xiang Jin being an F-type star shining blue with nearly eighty times the luminosity of Sol. It put the outer region of the local habitable zone at almost two billion kilometers away. Cold as Planet L would be, that gave it a period of revolution lasting decades.

Most of the gap between the Mockingbird and Planet L, greatly reduced compared to prior flips, was used for an easy, day-long, point five gee burn to match velocities and line up an orbit. The Flashpoint Defense System popped a couple micrometeorites, but otherwise the ship’s inbound trajectory was uneventful. Along the way, the astronomical science team leader coordinated satellite launches with the weapons officer. A few were bound for orbits or landing on the sizable super-Earth’s three moons, one of which almost matched Mars for diameter.

“Major Fitch,” Rama began, “Take Lieutenant Tyson, Lieutenant Koroma and a crew from Reactor Room personnel. Then round up Captain O’Connell, Mr. Ash, the surface science specialists and the Ghostwalkers. I just assume not have a repeat of Planet Oz.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Fitch acknowledged, and then nodded to the Ops and Weapons stations. “Tyson, Koroma, come with me and notify your reliefs.”

As Fitch’s flight team departed, Rama studied the surface of Planet L with Mockingbird’s XD cams. Already, she could tell there was ecology on the surface, just no signs of civilization that could be recognized. Additional data from surveyor satellites, coupled with the GPS network now established, enhanced the view of weather and surface activity. There was a lot more than just microbes down there.

It struck Rama odd that a planet so cold would have wildlife with high enough metabolic chemistry that individuals and herds could be seen running across the terrain. On some, she double-checked her zoom-in resolution, unsure if the view were closer than intended.

“And be careful, Fitch,” Colonel Rama added.

Two hours later, and the surface team was ready to deploy. Switching her view, Rama watched the Tang Sword dropship thrust down out of the cargo bay. Unlike their last exo-solar mission, the Mockingbird would not be on station to support the TADS-55’s atmospheric entry. Any emergency signal sent would take minutes to hours to reach the ISV-71.

“Reactor Room,” Colonel Rama addressed across comms, “Run up another cold start for our next intra-solar flip target.”

“Copy that, OCS,” Lieutenant Imafidon replied. “Winding up the reactor now.”

“Mains and scaffolding relaying power,” Mr. Goddard affirmed, “We’re go on the FSD.”

“Weapons,” Rama called to the incoming officer taking Lieutenant Koroma’s station, “Plot a trajectory for XJ-1148’s Alpha-Lima Lagrangian Point and the rest for orbital support to the ground team. Launch the Hydra System and the first Helmouth Demon to the L-Point. Then, launch the second Helmouth and one artillery satellite for geosynchronous polar orbit. Deploy two UCAV’s for low orbit on standby and transfer control to ground team.”

Listening to six launches echo faintly throughout the ship, Rama also studied displays in her ocular augments. The half dozen vehicles exited the perimeter of where the tesseract would form. Then, Rama advised all stations to be ready for another flip. Never before had anyone conducted two spatial rotations so close together. Later flips would be even more frequent.


"Flipspace: Primalocracy" by John Steiner



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