“It’s about time,” Kret said, grinning and nodding. She put her hands on her hips and turned to the captain. “My team have reported more sparking and glowing over the past few days. The sooner we switch over the better. But this one is not from the original plant, so I want to run some more field tests.”
Captain Ryan smiled a little. He too nodded as his gaze shifted over the huge structure before them, visible through the aft windows, their newly installed tunneling drive engine.
Kret’s smile faded just a bit. “Sorry, Cap. I, of course, didn’t mean to imply that you were the reason for the hold-up.”
“But I was,” the captain said, pulling his gaze away from the behemoth of an engine to look at his chief engineer. His brow creased a little. “Is this…about the size you were expecting?”
Kret’s grin returned. “I warned you she’d be big.”
“That you did.” Captain Ryan crossed his arms. “And you’re still okay with doing a spacewalk every time you need to do repairs?”
Kret shrugged. “If that engine is as good as they say it is, it shouldn’t need much repair or maintenance, especially for the first ten years.”
Being a prospecting and long-haul freighter, Vesta Magna, their ship, was better suited to handle the engine replacement than the majority of the ships in the sector. But even Vesta wasn’t big enough to have fit the t-drive inside the ship.
Cruising along at the edges of known space, the Vesta was among the last ships to receive the engine upgrade. But it wasn’t just distance that caused the delay. The t-drives were expensive. And unlike large organizations who could absorb the cost, individual contractors like Ryan and his crew had to weigh their options, even when their safety was concerned.
The nosebleeds, the headaches, the nausea, and even that one paralysis scare had not been enough to convince Ryan to take the risk. Not alone. But he couldn’t bear to wait until something worse happened, until someone lost a limb, or worse, their life. The numbers didn’t add up, no matter how he ran them. Unless they got lucky and found rich deposits of some needed resource or other for at least their next dozen jobs, the t-drive upgrade would cost them their livelihoods.
But if they hadn’t made the upgrade, continuing to use their old engine would have cost them their lives.
When the bombinating engine was first put into use, it had been a mixed blessing, allowing humanity to reach beyond their own solar system and still be able to return home to Earth in a matter of years, or sometimes months, instead of generations. Back then some people still called it by its original name, the skip-field engine. The engine worked not by increasing the speed of a ship, but by generating a field that allowed the ship to skip forward in space a certain distance in a matter of minutes. And by making multiple jumps, a skip-field ship could reach distances that a ship with a conventional engine would not be able to reach for centuries.
The problem was that the field caused mild but cumulative damage in the human body, which the early pioneers didn’t even realize, until they began to experience health issues and their life expectancies dropped. As it so often happens with successful breakthroughs, the technology was used before it was fully understood. The field energies were so subtle that it took a few decades for people to create detectors and develop protections. Suits at first, but those didn’t help. The skip-field penetrated all ordinary matter. So then, there were just general skeletal support and cellular regeneration therapies. Someone invented a detector that translated the threshold of danger from the skip-field into an audible buzzing or humming sound. All ships were required to install these particular detectors. The sound grew worse, even painful, as a person approached the core of a skip-field. It was meant to warn and deter. And the bominating sound became synonymous with the operation of the engine. The most recent development was something the inventors called a skip-shield, meant to cancel out the skip-field energies in the inhabited parts of a ship without interfering with the engine’s operation.
But before the skip-field was a twinkle in the eyes of its creators, a new type of engine was developed, capable of faster-than-light speed, faster than the bombinating engine, and safer thanks to side-by-side development of inertial control and power-regulating technologies. The new engine, the tunneling drive, was well-done by its inventors. After a decade of use, not a single accident was reported.
Bombinating engines became decommissioned and replaced one by one. The cost was still high, so many private ships didn’t take the leap at first.
Costs when down as construction went up, because materials were found so that the engines could be built in place. This is where it was feared that quality might break down and the first of the accidents would occur. It was expected to happen sooner or later, but considering that nearly fifteen percent of all ships launched with bombinating engines in the first decade were lost, the t-drive’s record was too impressive to ignore.
And the question became, what to do with the old bombinating engines? Some were used for further research into the still-mysterious skip-field. Some remained installed in certain ships as back-up measures. But again, only those who could afford the costs of licensing and maintenance chose to keep the old bominating engines.
“But what do you want to do with it, Cap?” Kret asked, batting a meatball around on her plate.
The clink and clatter of tableware around the mess hall bench suddenly slowed.
All eyes were suddenly on Ryan.
The thirteen crew members all shared an equal portion of the ship. But the Vesta’s bombinating engine—Model Tau, Serial Number SFE-Tau-12-329.029—was technically Ryan’s possession. He had paid more than his share of profits for two years to pay off the cost of the engine. But that was nearly a decade past. And the engine felt as if it belonged to everyone now. Certainly Kret and her three engineers deserved a heavy say in the matter. They were the ones who’d kept the engine running and running safely enough to bring them home on more than one occasion when they were too far from any communication relay.
And certainly Maggie deserved a say. Good pilots developed special relationships with their ships and particularly their ships’ engines, or so Ryan had heard.
Some wanted to leave the engine behind to be salvaged by scavengers. It was nowhere near as big as the t-drive engine. But Ryan could tell that some of those who suggested leaving it behind with a salvage transponder tag only said so because they felt guilty about asking their fellow crewmates to pitch in with keeping the engine around.
Ryan too was reluctant. He wasn’t sure why any of them should be. No more headaches. No more nausea. No more random nosebleeds. No more fear of sudden paralysis or stroke or organ fracture.
“What if they discover that the t-drive causes some fatal condition? We’ll regret not keeping Bomby around,” Maggie said.
“Maybe we should have an anonymous vote,” someone suggested. “Keep or discard.”
Ryan inhaled a calm breath. He’d just been about to suggest the same thing.
The comm system beeped and crackled. One of the engineers closest to a terminal pushed back his chair and reached over to respond (the tall young man had impressively long hands).
He pressed the terminal pad, and Ryan expected some word from the two people on bridge duty, or an automated computer voice announcing the status of the current t-drive test.
But a series of quick beeps indicated that the message coming through was text-based.
The far-reaching engineer sighed as a series of chuckles and mock boos followed him as he turned and stood. He read the message on the terminal. He pressed and flicked a few more controls, then he frowned.
“Who sent this?” he asked, turning to the table. His tone indicated that whatever he was reading was intended to be a joke, one that he did not find amusing.
“What does it say?” the captain asked, but he didn’t wait for an answer. He was already checking the terminal behind his own chair.
The message was a simple question.
Can we have it?
“It’s not coming from any of the nearby comm relays, Cap. The message was sent internally, but everyone claims they didn’t send it.” Kret shook her head as she swiped through the messages. They’d received two additional ones.
Do not be alarmed. We are not you, not your crew.
That was the second message, and the third…
May we have your old engine? We can offer no payment. Only thanks.
Captain Ryan sighed. They’d already spent over an hour investigating the messages.
“Maybe there’s a ship out there that we’re not seeing, but they’re afraid to show themselves until we agree to give them what they want,” Kret suggested.
“But why should they be?”
“Maybe we have stowaways.”
Ryan threw up his hands. “Then where are they? We’ve searched the ship, and all our cargo containers are empty.”
It was clear that he would have to engage with the mystery message sender. He hoped he was not making a mistake by veering away from official protocol for what he believed the situation to be… piracy.
He sent the simple message he had already typed in, his heart skipping a beat.
Who are you and where are you?
The response came right away.
We are sailors. We are in the engine.
Ryan exhaled. He nodded to Kret and she followed him out of the bridge and toward the aft side of the ship to prepare for an excursion.
He took a handheld terminal with him, and it beeped as they walked. He checked the message and stopped.
“What is it?” Kret asked, as she too stopped and turned back.
Ryan held the portable out to her to show the message on the screen.
The other engine.
Ryan and Kret met two of the other engineers, who were already waiting at Junction 43. Ryan nodded to one of them, the one who preferred to wear a work suit that matched his turquoise hair instead of the purple uniforms that Ryan encouraged (but did not require) the crew to wear.
The engineer nodded back and removed the panel to the junction. The other engineer gasped and dropped her handheld terminal, only it didn’t drop. It floated into the junction, as if there were no gravity.
But that was typical of a low-level skip-field.
What was not typical was the bluish-white glow coming from within the junction. And the occasional spark that floated out, like a piece of electrical pollen wafting through the air.
All four of them crouched to look inside the junction.
The field-generating module of their bombinating engine had been raised out of the engine core and was resting inside the junction. Once that module did its job, the engine could maintain a field, especially a low-level field, for days or weeks, without needing to be reignited.
There were more sparks floating around in the junction. On closer look, they appeared like glowing spheres with prickly thorns arrayed around the surface.
Ryan received another message on his handheld terminal.
Do not be alarmed. We are of no danger to the engine, or to you. We are sorry we didn’t ask permission to board. We did not know your protocols until we learned your language. And we have been living so long with you that we forgot that you were not aware of our presence.
“How…how long have you been on our ship?” Ryan asked.
Before Ryan could ask them to put the number in terms he would understand, they sent a clarification.
Three of your moon’s lunar cycles. Three months.
Three months. That was about the duration of their current job. They had started four months prior in that area of space, an area that seemed barren of any potential for life.
Ryan stepped back. He spotted Kret from the corner of his eye. She’d been standing behind her engineers.
Kret was staring ahead. “Cap, I think we’ve just made first contact with an alien species.”
Almost before Kret could finish uttering her last word, a message appeared on the screen.
Of course you have, Engineer. And we would greatly appreciate it if you kept our existence to yourself. We haven’t quite decided if we like you.
Ryan raised his brows, then narrowed his eyes. “And…would us giving you our old engine convince you that we are…likeable?”
If given as a gift, not a bribe.
Captain Ryan crossed his arms. “We could tell you it’s a gift. But how would you know our true intentions?”
We will try to help you fix it.
Kret and Ryan exchanged a glance.
“Fix what?” Ryan asked.
The broken engine.
“It’s not broken,” Kret said. “It’s just…an older model. But it works just fine.”
There was a long pause, then the handheld terminal beeped.
We are misunderstanding each other. We want the engine that works. You want the engine that is broken. We think you don’t know it is broken. We will try to help you fix it.
Kret turned to the captain. “The t-drive. We haven’t finished running all the diagnostics on it yet, but we’ve put it through some rigors already, and it hasn’t blinked. Not so far.” She turned back to the junction. “Why do you say that the new engine is broken? Do you detect something that we don’t, or maybe can’t?”
It should smell a certain way for the type of engine it is. But it smells different. Something is wrong. We are certain. But we need to use other senses to investigate.
“We’re running a lot of tests on this new engine,” Kret said. “We haven’t found anything yet.”
Are your tests sufficient?
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘sufficient,’ but if you mean to ask if we’ll be able to detect what you seem able to detect, then I don’t know. We’ll find out.”
“Would you tell us why you came aboard?” the captain asked.
Again, there was a pause before the handheld terminal beeped with an answer.
We were stranded. Then we heard the great humming of your vessel. We felt its warmth and nourishment. We could not move far. But you passed closely enough for us to reach.
“But there are no other ships out here, and haven’t been the whole four months we’ve been out here. Where did you come from?”
“Space,” Kret said. “They must have been stranded in the vacuum.”
You are right again, Engineer.
Kret scratched her chin. “So you come aboard, nestle into our bombinating engine, and since then, generations of you have come and gone without our noticing anything unusual except some harmless sparks and glows.”
Yes, and when we learned that you would no longer need the engine, we rejoiced. We don’t want to leave this region of space.
“You know the engine will spin down eventually, if you don’t reignite it every once in a while,” Kret said.
We are aware. We are ready to care for the engine.
“Allow us to confer,” Captain Ryan said. “You’ve taken us by surprise, and we need to compare notes and figure out how we should proceed.”
“And we thought the Viators were going to be the first non-human species we ever met face to face,” Kret said as she and the captain returned to the bridge.
Humanity had already made first contact of sorts, but with a people so far away that even with the new t-drive engine, it would take at least a generation, probably a few, before they could meet in person.
Kret turned to the captain. “Think they’re listening?”
“I hope not, let’s assume they are. They seem reasonable, and if they’ve been watching us, I hope they’ve judged that we are reasonable too. And they seem wise enough to know that we need to get to know them before we just go trusting them.”
Kret shook her head. “Why does it seem as if we’re being held hostage even though we’re the ones with the thing that someone else wants?”
“How close are you to shutting down the bombinating engine?”
“A few days. The only hold-up was the testing of the new drive. Speaking of which, my last test is to spin her up and then power down.”
“Let’s keep the bombinating engine on for as long as our…unexpected guests are aboard.”
“Do you think you could devise some way to detect our newest acquaintances?” Ryan asked.
“I don’t know, but I had a feeling you’d ask. I’ll get on it.”
Captain Ryan was jolted awake by the sound of the alarms. He rushed down the corridors to the engineering deck and found Kret and her team aborting the last test to the t-drive. The alarms disengaged just as he stepped onto the deck.
“Found something,” Kret said as he walked over to her terminal. She brought up schematics of the t-drive engine and the readings from the aborted test. She had to zoom in further and further, until she reached a sufficient magnification, and she pointed.
“I don’t know what I’m looking at,” Ryan said.
“You’re looking at a faulty t-drive.”
Kret described the specific problem she was pointing to, a misalignment of several small parts within the engine core. If engaged for tunneling speeds, the t-drive engine had a fair probability of breaking apart, and taking the rest of the ship with it.
“We haven’t calculated the numbers yet. It’ll be several minutes.”
Ryan leaned toward her ear. “Sabotage?” he whispered, hoping his volume was below the threshold of detection for their newly met stowaways.
“If it is, I can’t see how it could have happened out here.”
“Accidental damage?” Ryan asked, a little louder. Other than visual detection, no one had yet devised a way to track the aliens living in the bombinating engine, the people their pilot had started calling the mariners. And it was a challenge to distinguish between the light of the mariners, and their own lights.
“We’d have to take a closer look,” Kret said, “but if I had to guess, it’s likely this happened during construction and assembly.”
Captain Ryan nodded. If the problem Kret had discovered was indeed a manufacturing issue, then he would feel a bit more comfortable about their surprise stowaways. But it also meant they had a different issue to deal with.
When other contractors were allowed to start building tunneling drive engines, many feared it was only a matter of time before the overall quality of the engines dropped.
“You know, Captain,” Kret said. “It occurs to me that if our friends hadn’t mentioned the damage to the t-drive, we may not have caught this problem. And now that we have, we can’t use the t-drive. We’ll have to shut it down, and use the bombinating engine to get back home. And the first thing we’ll have to do is get close to a comm station so we can report the issue in case other engines are affected. They must have known that we’d have to keep the bombinating engine, instead of letting them have it.”
“But they offered to help us repair the problem.”
“We didn’t want to wake you when we received their last message. They told us they did not think they could help us repair the issue after all. It was too deep for us to reach. And while they could reach it, they didn’t have the proper tools. I’m not sure what exactly that means, but from the beginning they only said they’d ‘try’ to help us fix it. They never made any promises. They could have lied, but they didn’t.”
Ryan nodded. “From the beginning, they could have let us leave the bombinating engine and move off, and once we spun up the t-drive to get back home, we would have been destroyed, and they would have been left with what they want.”
“But by telling us what they discovered, they were demonstrating that they are at least interested in being allies. We have more decommissioned bombinating engines back home. Maybe they’re thinking ahead for their own futures. If we get home safely, we could bring them more engines. I’m certainly happy to help them if they can help us.”
“Even if we turned out to be ungrateful, maybe their principles require them to value life.”
“Let’s do a briefing in ten minutes, and let everyone, including our new mariner friends, know what’s going on and what we’ll all be doing next.”
“I know you don’t wish to leave your home,” Captain Ryan, addressing the mariners. “But we need to keep our bombinating engine for a bit longer. And you are welcome to come with us until we reach the nearest comm array. It will be another month.” As he spoke, the captain wondered how many mariner generations would live and die in that time.
The mariners agreed, thanking the captain and crew for allowing them to remain onboard.
And during the month that passed, both peoples continued investigating. They continued investigating the problem with the t-drive, and they continued investigating each other. Kret discovered a way to track the mariners, and told them they would be monitored to ensure they were respecting the Vesta crew’s privacy and the captain’s command.
The mariners were only able to move comfortably through the ship because of the low-level skip-field that remained active even when the ship was moving at conventional speeds. So if they ever got out of hand, all that Ryan would have to do was to order the bombinating engine to be completely shut down. It wouldn’t kill the mariners, just freeze them in place.
When Captain Ryan was finally able to send a message, report the problem with the t-drive, and provide enough proof to start an investigation, at least at the plant where the faulty engine came from, he was informed that an investigation was already under way.
They learned that three ships with faulty t-drives had already been lost, all of them private vessels. And all coming from the same plant that the Vesta’s drive had come from. There were dozens of ships with potentially faulty t-drives out there. And while the message was getting out for those ships not to engage their tunneling drive engines, most of those ships no longer had their old bombinating engines. Once they received the news, they would be stranded where they were until help arrived.
The Vesta crew voted to return home and help with the effort to relieve those stranded ships by carrying bombinating engines back out to them. That was the current plan. That was the fastest, cheapest, and easiest way to get to the stranded ships before people ran out of patience, and more importantly, provisions.
And when they took that vote, they knew they would be taking the mariners with them. And the mariners knew and agreed as well.
“You’re safe and sound on this ship,” Captain Ryan said. “And you’ll stay that way as long as I’m in charge, until we can get you your own bombinating engine, and carry it back out to your native space.”
Thank you, Captain, the mariner ambassador answered. The ambassador had no name, but quite enjoyed answering to the name given by the Vesta crew, Sparky. We have discussed the issue, and we’re not certain about the rest of your people, but as for the crew of the Vesta Magna, we have decided that we like you.
Captain Ryan smiled, and glanced around the conference table, where he saw the reflection of that smile on the faces of his crew.
“That’s good, Ambassador,” Kret said. “Because we’re all going to be riding together for a long time to come.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel