Friday, February 8, 2013

Another Short Story, "The Long Way 'Round"


J. R. Egles

The crippled ship, dead in space for the last three days, began to move.

Jarrel's eyes bugged out as he read the motion indicators in total disbelief.  He stabbed the intercom button.

"Stop it!  Stop it!  It's not working!"

"I can't stop it, you know that, Jar.  We knew going in that if we tried it and it didn't work the effects would probably be irreversible."

"Poor choice of words, Morty, because that's exactly what it’s doing.  It’s pushing us backwards!  We’re getting farther way!"  Jarrel pleaded with the voice in the box, “Do something, Morty, something -- anything.  Being stuck dead in space is better than this.  At least then we had a chance of eventual rescue -- we weren't that far away.  But now ....  what now?”

"Well goddamn, Jar, I never thought it would go into reverse!" shot back Morty.  "That's not supposed to work.  These ships were never meant to be able to travel in reverse.  I don't know how the hell it's doing it now!"

Meanwhile, the small tanker, halfway back from the Titan mines, raced back towards Titan and the outer points of the Solar system.  Previously the ship and its crew of two had been stuck, motionless in space just beyond the orbit of Mars, attempting to repair, convert, modify, or otherwise fix a slightly out of date Star Drive that neither of them was qualified to work on.  In point of fact, the term Star Drive was a trade mark and was not technically accurate.  The drive system in question was one of the early models of the Star Drive Company's first working models, a prototype, suitable for pushing a tanker around the Solar system at a moderate speed, but hardly suitable for interstellar travel.

As the distance between the tanker and fuel mines on Titan began to lessen, the automatic tracking system at the mining station, which was fully aware of the ship's plight when it became stuck in space and had reported the situation to the appropriate authorities, now began to draw attention to itself as it entered the ALARM mode.  The tracking system informed the main system computer, which contacted the Chief Administrator, who was asleep at the time.

"Yes ....  yes, what is it?  ... and what time is it?" inquired a mostly awake Chief Administrator Bromsgrove, as he began to realize that he had just been awakened during his scheduled sleep period.  He did not like being interrupted during rest periods, and if it had been a human rather than computer who had bothered him he would have added "and it had better be damned important!", but he knew that the effect of that statement would be lost on the total logic of the machine.

"Sorry to awaken you, Chief Administrator,” said the computer.

"Bullshit," said Bromsgrove to himself.  He knew the computer didn't care about anything.  It just did what it had to do.”  But”, continued the computer, "tanker Bravo Lima Six One Nine is in reverse at maximum speed and on a collision course with this station".
Now the Chief Administrator was fully awake.  “But that’s impossible," he argued.  “Class Four tankers don’t have a reverse, not even Class Two -- only Class One, and they never need it."

He knew there was hardly ever a need to maneuver a tanker very much from their usually straight line course, so little maneuverability was built into them.  They mostly just moved from the orbit of one planet to another.  “Re-evaluate your data, Computer”, he ordered.  “What you report must be in error”.

The computer, programmed never to argue with the Chief Administrator of the Station, and, dealing in total logic, re-evaluated the information and reported the only other logical conclusion.

"Then, Sir, someone has repositioned the fore and aft transponder beacons on the tanker and the tanker is travelling in a forward motion at maximum speed and is on a collision course with this station."

Bromsgrove grimaced at the absurdity that he had forced the computer into, and cursed himself for arguing with the computer in the first place.  It was, of course, ridiculous to think that anyone would, or even could, reverse the fore and aft transponders, but if that absurd conclusion was the only alternative that the computer could come up with, then, as impossible as it seemed, that tanker must be returning and in reverse.

"What about communication," he asked.  "What do they say?"

"There is no response to our call, Sir," replied the computer.  "All communication appears to be out, except for the transponder beacons.  The ship seems to be engaged in major malfunction."

"Yes, Computer," the Chief Administrator replied, dourly.  ”I’d say that an apparently out of control tanker going backwards with no communication would constitute a malfunction.”  He grabbed at his clothes and barked, "Have second and third staff positions meet me in Central Control immediately!  Inform Damage Control of the situation.  Place the entire system on First Degree Alert and have Mining cease all active operations and secure fuel terminals."

"Yes, Sir," came the required response.

Morty was now back with Jarrel in the Control Room of the tanker pounding his fist down on a pile of engineering diagrams.

"It's impossible, goddamn it!" he repeated for what Jarrel was sure must have been the hundredth time. “It’s impossible!  And don’t you tell me again that it must be
possible because we're doing it.  I don't want to hear it."

"Well, what I would like to hear," suggested Jarrel, "is what we're going to do about it.  Am I right in assuming that we are precisely tracing our steps all the way back to Titan?"

"I'm afraid so," Morty said in a dull monotone, “except that when we get there we’re not going to stop ....  well, no, that’s not quite true ....  we'll stop alright ....  a good sized moon like Titan ought to stop us cold ....  no, not quite cold ....  with all that fuel there it'll get good and hot for awhile ....  about a month or so I guess ....  " Morty seemed lost in bad thoughts.

Jarrel, who was more straight forward and less poetic, looked away from his instruments and over to Morty.  "So what you're saying is that we're going full blast backwards to a fuel mine?"

"Sort of," Morty mumbled.

"Sort of?!" repeated Jarrel.  "Sort of?!  We'll be cremated along with everyone at the mine!  There must be something we can do."

"I don't even know how we did this yet," droned Morty.  “Reversing the energy fields should have just given the accelerator drive a jolt to get it started”.

"Oh, it started it alright”, cut in Jarrel.

"But when I put the fields back to normal it was too late”, continued Morty.  "We were already in reverse.  The field coil disintegrated from the tremendous current flow
that must have gone through it when the main drive went into reverse, and now there's no way to control it."

Jarrel just stared at Morty.  "Oh, wonderful -- just wonderful," he said finally, looking away and back to the instruments, but shaking his head.

"Don't act so surprised, Jar," Morty retorted.  "You knew it might not work.  We discussed that before I tried it”.

“Morty”, Jarrel said sternly", we did not discuss going BACKWARDS!"

"Who could guess?" protested Morty.  "It never came up."

"We should have just stayed put," Jarrel said.

"Sure, now”, Morty smirked.  "You say that now, but you were nagging me to death back there to do something to get us moving because you didn't want to stay put and wait for a rescue.  ‘Do something, Morty--do something, Morty'.  I got sick of hearing it...  so ....  "

"So you did it!"  Jarrel quipped.

"Well, I tried," complained Morty.  “Anyway, there’s still a chance”.

"What chance?" shot Jarrel.

"Maybe we can maneuver off course enough to miss Titan”, Morty offered

"Maneuver?!” returned Jarrel.  "We can't even maneuver worth a damn when we're going forward.  Our puny attitude thrusters won't do a thing against the Star Drive's full bore speed -- especially in reverse."

"Well, our radio has been out since we got stuck”, reminded Morty, “but we can still receive, and the mine's main systems computer is sending info all the time -- none of it useful, so far, but maybe they'll come up with something."

"I'm sure they're trying”, agreed Jarrel, "since we seem to have involved them."

"Yeah," Morty said, “I don't suppose they're too pleased about being our target."

Back at the mining station on Titan, Chief Administrator Bromsgrove would have gladly shot both Morty and Jarrel out of the sky if he had the means to do so, but mining stations were not so equipped.  So, instead, he and his staff were just about burning out the computer trying to find a way to shut down, push off course, or disable the on-rushing tanker.  Soon the computer rewarded their efforts with a solution.  The computer, unhampered by having to really care about any thing or anyone, simply suggested suicide for the tanker and followed up its suggestion with a workable plan: Jarrel and Morty would open the tanker's fuel entry port and allow the cargo of fuel they were carrying to escape under great pressure, and ignite it by overheating and burning out the fuel port servo motors with excessive operating voltage supplied from the Control Room.  This would require bypassing some safety circuits which normally prevented this from ever happening by accident.  The ignited fuel should quickly back up on itself to ignite the bulk of the fuel cargo, thus eliminating the problem -- and Jarrel and Morty.

"What?! -- are they nuts?!"  Morty shrieked.  "That’s suicide!"

Their printer continued to buzz out the self-destruct procedure being transmitted from the Titan mine's main systems computer, which never entertained the slightest notion of rejection of the idea by the occupants of the tanker.  The procedure it described would save the lives of one hundred ninety-two humans on Titan and save the costly mine operation as well, and at the relatively small cost of only two humans and an aging, nearly worn out tanker, which, at this point, was probably damaged beyond repair anyhow.  It was logical.  It would be done.

"It's not suicide to their computer, Morty," Jarrel said dryly.  “It’s the only logical solution.  There is no other choice”.

He turned from the printer and looked at Morty.  "Let’s face it, old buddy -- we've had it.  Why take those poor folks with us?  It's not their fault.  If I hadn't been so damn impatient to get home this never would have happened “.

Morty was becoming resolute.  "Ah, it's not all your fault, Jar.  If I hadn't botched up that Drive business ....hell, Jar, I'm one lousy engineer ....  I should have warned you ....  " he trailed off.

"Well, that's because you're not supposed to be an engineer-- you're a pilot, like me”, Jarrel offered.  "I guess it's the fault of whoever sent us out in this old tub when it should have been scrapped years ago!  We're not supposed to have to fix it -- it's supposed to work!"

"I guess none of that matters much right now, Jar”, Morty said slowly, then, with more spunk, added, "Well, what do you say?  Do we give it a shot?"

There was a long silence.

"Come on, Jar, there's not much time," Morty said quietly.

Finally Jarrel spoke, as if painfully.  "It's just that it feels real weird to sign your own death certificate, Morty....  but yeah, I guess so -- let's do it.

“They began by locating and isolating the fuel port’s servo motor circuit.  These motors opened and closed the fuel port door.  Jarrel threw the switch in the Control Room to open the port.

"It's open, right Morty?" he asked.

Morty, from an access way between Engineering and Control that gave him a visual view of the fuel port just below him, reported that it definitely was.

"But is the fuel escaping?"  Jarrel persisted.

"Yeah, it's blasting right out”,  Mort assured.

Jarrel quickly bypassed the safety circuits and hooked the low voltage servo motors up to the control console's main high voltage supply.  "Well, here goes”, he said, reaching for the switch on the console.

"Wait a minute, Jar”, protested Morty.  "You gonna do it just like that...I mean, that's it”? 

"Well, I could warn you to stand back, but what would be the point?"  Jarrel sounded almost angry.

"Well, I dunno -- shouldn't we -- well, don't you want to say goodbye or something?"  Morty said with hesitance.

"Look, Morty, let's not drag this out," Jarrel said hoarsely.  "It's hard enough to do, even without thinking about it.  I don't want to think about it”, -- a pause, then, “Goodbye, Morty -- it's been some trip."

"Yeah, I'll remember it as long as I live”, Morty agreed.

Jarrel nodded his head and chuckled.  "This is it, Morty" he said and threw the switch.

Morty saw the servo motors begin to glow a dull red as the overloaded coils began to overheat.  He bit his lip.

Some of the fuel began to ignite, spasmodically, in puffs of bright orange vapor.  Each time this happened Jarrel and Morty could feel the push against the ship from the force of the ignition.  More fuel ignited -- and went out.  Again fuel ignited, more and more each time as it blasted out the open port and passed the now bright red servo motors.

"How long is this supposed to take?"  Jarrel whispered in impatience.

Finally a great gush of bright orange against the white hot motors -- and Morty and Jarrel could feel the tanker lurch to the side.  Morty fought back a scream.  Jarrel was thrown to the Control Room floor.  He clutched the deck and hoped it would be over soon ....  and painless.

Then .......... that was all.

The servo motors went quickly dark in the icy cold of space as the coils burned away completely and the flame extinguished.

Morty unclenched his eyes and his fists and peered through the view port.  The fuel continued to escape, but un-ignited, and soon began to slow as the fuel cargo became exhausted.

"Morty!"  Jarrel shouted from Control.  "What the hell is going on back there?  How come we're still here?"

Morty was slow in responding.  He looked dumfounded.  “I dunno”, he said in surprise.  “It went out…the motors burned out and it went out before it could back up and explode."

"This goddamn cheap piece of junk!" screamed Jarrel.  "The motors weren't even up to specs.  They should have held up longer and gotten hotter before they burned out, according to the manufacturer's specs.  Lousy, cheap piece of junk!  Nothing works right in this thing!  It won't even blow up right!"

"What now, Jar?" inquired Morty.

There was no answer.

"Jar?" repeated Morty.

"Morty, get up here quick!” shouted Jarrel, but with a new tone in his voice.

When Morty reentered the Control Room he found Jarrel rolling on the floor in a pile of print-out and throwing it around as he howled with laughter.

Too much for poor old Jar, thought Morty, he's gone over the edge.

"Read this," Jarrel insisted, shoving some print-out in Morty’s face.  “Read this!”

Morty read and as he did a smile started on his face that quickly spread until it almost met in the back of his head.

"It pushed us off course!" he said incredulously.  "We're gonna miss Titan."

"Not only that," howled Jarrel, still laughing, "but it put us in a long elliptical orbit that will eventually bring us all the way around the back of the Solar system and back close enough to Earth to be rescued!  It'll take four times longer than if we had stayed where we were, but ....  "

"Better late than never," agreed Morty as his salvation sank in.  He threw the printout up in the air and joined Jarrel in the hysterical laughter of two lucky humans that still echoes through that part of space.


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