(12) Fire in the Hole

The Misha Campaign (056-1121 to 060-1121)

056-1121 : Zett / Klarn / Foreven

    12 minutes short of the six day minimum, the H.M.S. Third Eye comes out of jump.  Once again they've broken the barrier of currently accepted jumpspace physics.
    Immediately Robert Morris starts the regular sensor scans.  There's a beacon at the mainworld indicating where the class E starport is located.  There are no signs of any radio transmissions other than the starport beacon.
    Helia Sarina describes the system layout to the crew, and confirms that the astrographic data matches the sensor information.  The hot blue-white star bakes almost all the planets -- only Zett itself is below 131 degrees, but it's rather cold at -43C.  The planets inside the asteroid belt are extremely hot.  The mainworld is the only source of water in the system.
    They set course for the mainworld.  It will take several hours to get there.

    Ed "Shark" Teeth asks Mich Saginaw if he was expecting to alter jump time.  Mich -- also on the bridge -- replies that he did indeed expect this.  That seems to satisfy Shark, but leaves him wondering when to have someone on duty for jump exit.
    Helia Sarina replies that she is always on the bridge.  That's part of her job, she says.
    Shark suggests taking a survey of the planet before landing.  Misha Ravanos agrees, and orders it to be so -- do as much as they can on the way there, and make one low-level orbit on the way in.
    Shark wonders whether the zacks and scuba "zoot" suits act as pressure suits.  He thinks probably not.

    All this becomes moot, however, at five seconds short of six days since they entered jump...

    The ship is rocked with a heavy explosion, and all the power goes out.  On the bridge, they see the stars rotating around the ship.  Everything is in zero-g.

    "Mich!" shout several people..
    Backup power starts to come online.  The boards show serious trouble throughout the ship, the worst of it on Mich's Engineering console.
    Misha asks, "Were we hit, or was it something internal?"
    Shark replies, "I'm going back to Engineering, I'll tell you in a minute!"

    Mich quickly reports the ship's status.  Large areas of the ship are in vacuum.  There is a hull breach in Engineering.  All power systems are down, including artificial gravity.  The pod is apparently undamaged.  The crew quarters on the starboard corridor are in vacuum, including several staterooms, the Sick Bay, and the Armory.  The bridge is secure.
    Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead was in the Sick Bay.  Teri Cralla is in the exercise room off the port corridor and should be fine.  Vonish Kehnaan and Sagan are unaccounted for, although likely to be in the module, probably the galley or lounge area on the starboard side of the pod.  The double bulkhead comprised of the pod shell and the pod receptacle makes the module much safer.  The bassalope spends almost all its time in the module, too.  Otto Harkaman has also not responded, and should have been on watch in Engineering at the time of the explosion.

    Most of the crew climb into a vaccsuits, whether experienced in them or not.  Those who do have skill help check those who do not.  The zero-g conditions make this more difficult for most of them, although several have environmental combat, and of course Helia has no problems since she can use her wings to move around.
    As soon as he's in his suit, Shark calls Teri.  She's already in her battledress, and Shark tells her to cross over to the starboard side to find the Doc.  He'll join her as soon as he can.
    Shark and Mich enter the port corridor from the bridge; Mich of course is heading for Engineering.
    The easiest way from the exercise room to the Sick Bay is through the pod; Teri is already heading that way, and Shark will follow the same route.
    Teri reports that Vonish Kehnaan and Sagan are safe in the module.  Shark asks her to get them into vaccsuits as a precaution.

    Shark reaches Sick Bay.  He forces the door open with the help of Misha.  They see Bridgehead in his vaccsuit, sitting looking at the door.  Shark turns the Doc's suit radio on for him, and immediately is assailed by the Baron's questions and demands.  What happened?  Where are the wounded?  Get air back in here!
    Shark asks the Doc if he can move around in zero-g.  The old man replies that he can, and gets gear together to set up a temporary medical center in the pod.  Misha escorts him while Shark moves aft towards Engineering.

    Mich has now reached the airlock into Engineering.  Beyond the lock, the area is in vacuum.  He checks for radiation, and gets a reading above normal but not at dangerous levels.  He cycles the lock and steps into the compartment.
    It doesn't look good here.  It's a big mess.  The port side is the main power reactor -- the casing of the unit is intact, although the consoles and control systems are mostly wrecked.  There's a big gaping hole in the hull amidships, where engineering cuts through to the starboard side, underneath the tail.  His decides his first priority will be to get the reactor online, which will restore power for other purposes.

    Shark, meanwhile, has reached the airlock to Engineering at the starboard corridor.  The airlock here has failed, allowing the air from the crew quarters to escape into the vacuum beyond.  He looks around for Otto, but he doesn't know where to start.  It looks like a bomb went off in here.  He can see the hole in the hull.  He starts by checking the vaccsuit lockers, to see if Otto managed to get into a suit; most are still closed with all the suits present, but the aft locker is completely destroyed.
    He asks Mich where the special device they installed would be located; Mich replies it would be right where the hole is now, over the zuchai crystals.  Shark starts to try to assess the situation, but there's a lot of debris still floating around in here.  Rather than puncture his vaccsuit, he summons Teri, who can continue the search for Otto in her battledress.  Shark retires to a corner and observes from there.
    Mich reports.  There is no further danger of exposure to vacuum.  The Bridge is safe, the pod is safe, and the port side of the crew section is safe.  Unless something further breaks, which is unlikely, they'll be OK.  In response to Shark's question, he says they will need to get the reactor back online even to run sensors.  Life support will be limited until then too.

    Helia tells them that as far as she can tell -- looking out the front window -- they're not going to hit anything in the near future.  They hadn't been accelerating long enough to be arriving at the mainworld any time soon.  She peels off her vaccsuit, and stretches her wings outside her zack.
    Misha helps the Doc set up his temporary medical facility, as do Vonish and Sagan, although both the vilani and the hiver are somewhat in shock.

    The mechanical and electronic workshops are on the port side, which is less damaged.  The engineering shop is on the starboard side, closer to the jump drive section, but is still usable.
    Shark suggests patching up the starboard airlock so they can repressurize that area of the ship.  Mich replies that his priority is restoring power, and getting life support and grav plates online.  Shark is comforted by the knowledge that the gcarrier is almost certainly undamaged, and can act as a very serviceable lifeboat if needed.  Teri suggests locking the vehicle bays out of bounds just in case someone decides to do something stupid.
    Mich's assessment is that he can rig something up to get the power back online at about 5% in a few hours of vacuum / zero-g work.  That will get life support running, and running the grav plates low enough to get the debris to the floor.  It's been established that  1/10th of a g is just adequate to prevent zero-g injuries among unskilled personnel.
    Shark checks the two vehicle bays; the gravcraft are all undamaged, but there's no way to lock access to them.  Teri was obviously thinking of military ships.  He is, however, relieved to find that both bays are pressurized.
    Captain's and First Officer's quarters were on the port side, so they're OK.  Engineer's and Pilot - Astrogator's quarters were on the starboard side -- Mich and Helia can use the spare staterooms in the pod until their own rooms are restored.  The pod itself has its own limited power and life-support too.  Helia replies that she'll just sleep on the bridge, like she usually does.

    Teri has found no sign of Otto.  Shark is ready to pronounce him dead, even if they did find his body.
    The Doc snaps, "I'll make that decision, young man!"
    Helia's only comment is, "That sucks."  It had to be said, she muses sadly.

    Teri calls Mich on a private frequency.  "There's not much left over this side."
    "I didn't expect much," says Mich, "It's a big mess."
    "Something big went off in here.  I don't know what I can do.  Can I help you with anything?"
    "Can you weld?  Perhaps a patch over some of the big holes?"
    "I'm better at blowing things up, but I can patch things together too.  It won't be pretty."

    The hull breach is about 10 meters across.  Not only is the hull material gone, but of course so are the lanthanum jump grid lines.  Unfortunately that might be irrelevant, since the jump drive could be toast anyway.  Then they'd be stuck in a Red Zone, where no-one comes -- except the IFSS occasionally.  They could be stuck here for years.

    Shark requests that Mich and Teri collect the debris for forensic analysis.  He intends to determine the cause beyond any doubt.
    Helia asks, "Do you think it was the box that blew up?"
    "I'm personally certain that it was," says Shark.
    "Do you think they gave us a bomb?  Do you think it was deliberate?"
    "I'm 99% certain it was the box... but there's also the new guy on board, who's missing, with no body.  So there is still yet another possibility -- not a big one, but..."
    Mich wonders if Otto tampered with the box out of curiosity.  They were warned not to open it, after all.  That wouldn't be like the swordworlder, though, who seemed like a good reliable crewman.

    After two hours of work, Mich and Teri manage to bring the power back online.  Life support is restored, sensors are back, and there's 1/10th g on the grav plates.
    Unfortunately it's not soon enough for Vonish, who managed to break his right ankle while they were still under zero-g.  At least the Doc has something to do -- it seems to have made him happy anyway.
    The ship's computers are also brought online.  Once everything's stable, Helia and Mich decide to stabilize the ship's orientation and bring up the astrogation systems.  The engineer orders everyone to strap down, then shunts all the power to the attitude thrusters.  Inertial compensators are still off.  Helia gives a short burst and brings the ship out of her tumble.  She reports that to Mich, and he transfers power back to the environmental systems.
    Now Mich has better tools and conditions to repair the rest of engineering.  Shark offers his help, and Misha adds his assistance too.
    Mich accepts gratefully, "As Otto said, a lot of engineering is sweeping."
    Passive sensors are back online too, and Robert mans the sensor board, checking for any signals or encroachments.
    Helia starts running diagnostics.

    Teri has fixed the starboard engineering airlock, but the hull breach will take more people to fix.  Ten meters is a large hole.  Nevertheless, now they can pressurize the starboard crew quarters.  Mich runs a quick check, then restores life support to the starboard compartment.  The Baron is very grateful to have the Sick Bay back online.  Now only Engineering remains in vacuum.
    With the ship stabilized, at Shark's request Teri steps outside the hull to do a visual search for Otto.  There's no sign of him -- not that they expected any, but it was worth a try.
    It's easy for Shark to determine where the center of the explosion was.  It is consistent with a nuclear satchel charge, a directed blast pointed at the zuchai crystals.  Nothing remains of the crystal array.  That would mean no jump capability... on any other ship, anyway.

    The priority now is to get the maneuver drive operating.  The first stage is to assess the damage fully, which will take some time.  Mich gets started on the task.  He points out that their sole defense against the star's waves was a jump-0, and now they can't jump at all.  The light from the stellar material emission would reach them at the same time as the wave which interacts with jump drives.  And he can't repair the jump grid with the materials here.

    The timing of the explosion is suspicious.  If they didn't have their secret jump drive, they would still be in jump when the explosion occurred -- by at least five seconds.
    Helia wonders if it's possible the sun was doing its thing when they came out, but Robert reports no possibility of that, according to the sensor readings.
    After half an hour, Mich has finished his diagnostics.  He believes he can hack together a 1G capability with six hours of work.  That's about the limit for the present, as the thruster plates themselves are damaged.

    Mich studies the data from the jump drive systems through the jump and the explosion.  It looks perfectly normal, including power to the box.  There is an environmental alarm a tiny fraction of a second before the sensor was taken out, which would be consistent with an explosion of this severity.
    "It doesn't make sense, boss," says Shark.  "If they wanted to kill us, they would have blown it up four days into jump.  That didn't happen.  We never told anyone that we were six-day jumping, and this thing went off just under six days."
    Helia says, "What are the chances that there's something on our ship, that if we came to some area like Zett, that it would blow?  Perhaps receives signal from the beacon, sets a timer, and goes off?"
    Shark ponders the situation.  The explosion was definitely from the inside out.  The passive sensor logs would see any signal that they received, and aside from the transponder they transmitted nothing.  There was no time for the mainworld to receive the transponder signal and transmit a destruct command, and the sensors showed no object within range that could have been responsible for something like that either.  Perhaps Otto tampered with it, or tried to shut it off -- expected it to quit drawing power and it didn't?  The device must have been set to trap them here, otherwise why wait so long before blowing up?
    Helia suggests that maybe someone had heard that they were doing something special, and wanted to find out if they really were.  If they were making normal jumps, they'd be destroyed, but if they weren't they'd be trapped here now.  When they go back, they're nailed.  Nobody does less than six days, so they will definitely know then that they are.  "Everything else being equal," she says, "Our biggest worry is who's going to be popping out of jump here in the next day or two?"
    Mich asks why they'd even suspect they could do less than six days?
    "Because you're aboard.  A lot of people know about you.  You've already been kidnapped.  The fact is, if we die so what, but if we show up we've got something that they want."
    Misha says, "I don't buy the 'so what.'"
    Shark laughs, "You don't know who you're working with!"
    Helia says, "Why?  It's a minor gamble on their part.  A ship blows up, oh well."
    Shark adds, "Cost them a bomb."
    Misha says he's skeptical because there are simpler explanations.
    Shark suspects it was triggered by them coming out, not by a six day timer.  "I still can't see why you would set a six day timer."
    Helia says, "Because six days is minimum jump."
    "All you need to do is record how long the jump drive was on, inside the box which they know we are going to return or we're going to be hunted down.  They just need to record the data."
    "But if we ever figure out what the heck it is..."
    "We give them the box back and they say 'oh, it was a less than six day jump,' they get us with the equipment intact.  Now they don't get us."
    Mich agrees.  "If the jump drive technology is what they want, why blow it up when they could get a working example of the jump drive?"
    Helia replies, "Because if it takes six days to get there, it's not what they want."
    Shark says, "They could just have taken the ship and tested it, and still have the ship.  They don't need to trash a multi-million credit..."
    Misha says, "If they're powerful enough to have set all this up, they're powerful enough just to have taken the ship to test it."
    "Something either opened it, or it was triggered to keep us here for some reason.  Now why are we here, boss?"  He has confirmed that it was a nuclear explosion, probably a shaped nuclear blast.  It was a very specialized explosive, and definitely was in the box.  But there's no reason to give them a delay of eleven minutes.
    Mich asks, "Why did they get us to build a cage around it?"
    "So it would look good.  So you'd buy it."
    "Does it help position the box to ensure it fires in the right direction?"
    "So this charge was intended to take out the zuchai crystals.  The thing that makes you jump."
    Misha asks, "Could they have done this with more conventional explosives?"
    "Yes, they could have done it with chemical.  It would not have punched a hole clear outside the ship.  Possibly if you did it with mere chemical explosives, it would have been repairable if we had enough spares."
    Mich says, "It would probably have destroyed the entire array.  If you crack powered crystals, even when they're almost spent..."
    "So they weren't out to kill us.  They were just out to strand us.  So the average jump they would have been here, we have one or two days before they arrive to get us.  So are we going to hide on the planet, or in the asteroid belt?"
    Helia points out that there's virtually no defense in the asteroid belt.
    Mich agrees; they have no shielding from the star's emissions in the asteroid belt, but they could get some protection from the planet.  If they're caught in open space, they're dead.
    Misha decides they will go to the planet.  They can refuel there, and Mich can do his walk outside the hull to assess external damage, and see what they can rig up inside.  Once Mich has restored maneuver power, it will take them just six hours to reach the planet at 1G.  It would take five and a half days to reach the asteroid belt from here.
    Shark asks Mich to make all the preparations he can to make them very hard to find.  That would include shielding the transponder (an active shield they can just turn on at will), turning the grav plates off, and running minimal life support.  Any ship entering the system would do so at least 100 diameters from the planet, and that would work to their advantage too.  Of course they couldn't run the maneuver drive in that state, but that doesn't mean that they couldn't be travelling -- they would only be vulnerable when decelerating.

    When the maneuver drives are fixed, Helia sets course for the mainworld at 1G.  It will take six hours to arrive at the planet.
    During the journey, Robert runs the sensors to get as much information about the planet as they can.  The planet is ice-capped; the beacon is at the southern edge of the northern ice-cap.  About 40% of the planet is covered with ice.  That would be a large area to search if they hid in the ice.  Gravity on the world is 0.58.
    Mich suggests landing on the ice-cap and digging themselves a hole.  The ship has a point-defense laser just for that sort of purpose, clearing undergrowth and so on.  It would be really nice, however, to fix a cover over the hole in Engineering so it doesn't fill up with water.
    Baron Bridgehead, the ship's tactics expert, agrees with hiding at the pole under the ice.  He says that a priority is to refuel as soon as possible, and that it doesn't matter which pole they choose.

    In the meantime, Mich, Teri, and crew manage to patch the hole in engineering.  They can't fix the jump grid, but they can seal the patch enough to keep the air in and the outside out, and no-one will fall out of the hole.  It won't stand up to a hard atmospheric entry, or high speed atmospheric travel for that matter, but then Zett has no atmosphere so they don't have to worry about that for a while.

057-1121 : Zett / Klarn / Foreven

    The Third Eye arrives at the mainworld at 03:00.  The next stage is to launch a probe into orbit, to keep watch for the ship they expect to follow them in.  It will report to them by tight beam transmission every two hours as it passes overhead.
    Helia quickly lands them near the north pole.  She's their gunner too, and operates the PDLaser to cut them a sloping cave in the ice.  They go deep into the ice, both to evade sensors and for protection against the sun's instability.  The planet's magnetosphere (it does have a magnetic field) will help protect them too.  Robert arranges an antenna to the surface to pick up the probe's signal.  The ship being three decks plus landing legs, they set themselves down to 100m for protection against the stellar energy wave -- that gives them about 60m of ice above them.  They'll run with just life support and the refining systems while they're here, to reduce chances of them being detected.

    As they're cutting into the ice, Mich starts the refueling process.  By 15:00, all the routine operations are complete.  He then takes a walk around the ship in the ice cavern (in vacuum, of course), which satisfies him that aside from the hole in the hull, the ship is externally in good shape.
    His next task is to assess the damage to the thruster plates.  Fortunately there are enough spares aboard, when supplemented by parts that Mich makes himself, to fix the maneuver drive.  It won't look nice, but in 18 hours he can get back full thrust, including enough power to run it.  A full 24 hours of work will also restore full generating capacity from the power plant.  Allowing for time to sleep, that'll be about 36 hours.

059-1121 : Zett / Klarn / Foreven

    At 03:00, the work on the power plant and maneuver drive is complete.

    No other ships have come into the system, and the satellite probe has picked up nothing new at all.  Solar output is as steady as a rock, no fluctuations at all.  The advisories for this system do say that the stellar outbursts are unpredictable, though.

    Mich asks Shark to check the football sensors; the First Officer reports back that there have been no abnormal readings.

    The next task is to see what can be done for the jump drive.  The zuchai crystal array is completely gone, along with a lot of associated equipment such as power management, power distribution units, and so on.
    To fix it is surely a staggering task, jury-rigging scratch-built components to make it work.  Mich hooks up the matter phase inverters to run the drive entirely from that power source, eliminating the need for the zuchai crystal array.  The drive will be unreliable, risky, and unlikely to be capable of more than one use.  The jump grid of course is also incomplete where the hull is breached in Engineering; that can't be repaired here, without a source of pure lanthanum or barium and the equipment to make the fix.  They'd want to move everyone to the front of the ship to minimize jump sickness, and even then a misjump is pretty much certain.
    Mich briefs Helia on the state of the jump drive, and they discuss what the effects will be on jump calculations.  There will be a misjump on the time axis, but Helia believes she can make them come out at least in the intended target system.

    Mich then updates Ed and Misha.  The best chance would be to go to the starport and hope they have the resources they need to fix the drive.  The catch is that such facilities are only supposed to be available at a class A or B starport, not a class E like on this planet.  Now if there's a junkyard with a crashed ship, that would be a better possibility.
    Ed also says that they could see if there are any farspacers stranded here, survivors of ships lost in this system.  As Mich points out, the Third Eye has a reason to be here -- they misjumped, as demonstrated by the big hole where the drive used to be.

    Misha thinks about Marquis Marcus Crestworthy's story, that brought them here in the first place.  He decides to share it with the whole crew (except the hiver).  He tells them that if this information gets into the wrong hands, it's probably their life and the Marquis' life, and possibly others as well.
    The short story is that Marquis Marc, back before he was a Marquis, was in the Imperial Navy.  They brought him to this planet, took him out to the asteroid belt, and in some hidden place there they put him through this test.  The test went badly, and not only did one of the test subjects die, but all the testers died too.  The only people to live were the Marquis and a friend of his -- Sir Geoffrey of Adabicci, son of the Duke.  They've actually met Sir Geoffrey -- he's the one who offered Vonish a job as his personal chef.
    He then goes into details...

The Marquis' Story as previously told to Misha Ravanos.  It was not overheard, written down, or told to anyone else at the time.

    They're here to find that ship.

    Ed points out that there's supposed to be lots of supplies there too, perhaps enough to fix the jump drives properly.

060-1121 : Zett / Klarn / Foreven

    At 03:00, Mich has finished making something that resembles a jump drive.  He now needs to go to his stateroom to sleep off the stimulants the Doc provided for him.  But first, there are decisions to make...

    They need to decide what to do now.  Misha vetoes the idea of picking up any strangers (like stranded IFSS folks) until they're on their way out.  He says they need to search the asteroid belt for objects of a certain size.  It's a man-made object in an asteroid belt, not itself in an asteroid.
    Mich knows very little about standard Imperial Navy meteor screen containers.  It's probably constructed of hull material, with a layer of absorbent or ablative material outside it.  It's probably black.  They can do radar sweeps of the belt, looking for something that looks suspicious.  It's likely the object has some sort of active defense as well.  Locating it with passive sensors is hopeless -- they will have to use active sensors.
    Ed wants to know how much risk they are running by being in the area.  What if the star does its wave thing?  Of course they don't have zuchai crystals to be affected, so they should be able to jump out if they see the physical wave coming.  He does point out that if they do find the object, its active defenses could be very dangerous to them.
    A good solution might be to send out probes to do a lot of the searching for them.  Obviously they won't get the resolution that the ship's sensors can manage, but they could at least scan the belt to narrow down the search.  There'll be time to prepare the probes on the way out to the belt.  They will pick up their satellite probe on the way out through orbit.