Riding the Hydra
The air flickered momentarily, and an ugly carbuncle of a ship hung waveringly over my desk, it was in close Luna orbit. This was a test bed ship; not build for looks just utility.
The name written on this ship read “Icarus”, it was gracefully written in copperplate script, but that was the only graceful thing about it. It was a phallic affair with spiky resonator nodules on the front and identical one’s on the aft section.
I could put a name to these devices because I’d seen the schematics; this however was the first time I’d seen the actual ship.
Cryptic leads and devices covered the skin of the test ship lending it a sinister air, it seemed powerful and dangerous! Emanating the feeling that it might blow up if you stared at it too hard.
The scene within the ship was just as confusing and inscrutable, even though I’d trained in a simulated version of just such a ship it was still strange and confronting.
I knew there was a pilot in this ship but no physical presence was apparent from the position of our video feed cam.
I knew Monty was buried under there someplace, but all I could see was the top of his helmet, there was a brace that prevented any movement and everything else was lost in a clutter of cables and tubing.
The other sections of the ship-housed experiments that were all computer controlled and monitored, everything else was for life support or directly related to ship board functions.
The internal audio feed came through to us, ‘Monty to Luna Central, all systems at quantum max, ready for the Go word’.
‘Central to Monty, all set here. The computer will ease her off slowly; you’ll hit one tenth by the time you pass Mars. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.'
Monty replied, ‘I’ll go for throttle up after I clear the asteroid belt, then step it up to one third if it’s still holding together.’
So the Icarus glided out of Luna orbit, the view switched to three-way split screen except that these images were floating in the air above my desk not on a screen.
One image showed the view from the orbital Luna telescopes that were tracking the Icarus, the other was the feed from the aft external section of the ship, and last one was the internal feed showing the buried figure of the pilot “Monty Setton”.
I glanced across to Vanessa inquiringly; transmitting live feeds from the ship once the drive was activated should have been impossible through the field the annihilation reactor generated.
Vanessa’s husky voice penetrated the holographic air with the answer, ‘We recovered the footage after the ship limped back to Luna base, you’re seeing the version we edited together for the historical achieve.’
The ship in the 3D holo was beginning to pick up speed, alarmingly so! Vanessa continued her narrative, ‘scientifically this holo is only slightly interesting, but it is dramatically compelling.’
The ship passed Mars in a flash, and it quickly cleared the asteroid belt.
Monty spoke for the benefit of the internal microphones; ‘Commencing throttle up to one third light speed.’
The ship streaked away, the orbital telescope had trouble following it, and the external feed showed the nearby space though the distortion field. For half a second I thought I saw Saturn though it was so distorted through the field it might well have been a flock of migrating geese for all I could tell.
Monty was doing his job speaking to the internal microphones since communication directly with Luna was impossible though the distortion field and delayed because of the vast distances.
‘Passing the Heliosphere, speed still climbing, central I believe it’s possible to accelerate to at least two thirds over a much shorter distance without any obvious physical or technical side effects based on my readings.’
In the internal video feed I saw a strange ripple run through the ship, I thought it was a glitch in the feed but it was obviously real based on the effect it was having on the ships systems.
‘Damit! The computers crashed, the speed is increasing to two-thirds, the system just keeps on rebooting! Switching to manual control.’
And still the ship didn’t stop, it was well clear of the solar system now and still going, ‘Emergency stop failed, I’m reversing the fields. I don’t know it this is going to work!’ Monty yelled to the microphones.
It worked too well, the ship went from two thirds lightspeed to zero just a little bit too quickly, even though it coasted for a third of a light-year.
The inertia got to Monty even though his body was well augmented. The last thing we saw in the 3D holo were drops of Monty’s blood splashing on to eye of the video feed cam.
Vanessa cut the projector and pulled the stick from the console, ‘Test Pilot Monty Setton survived that incident, after the ship stopped the computer rebooted and the systems came on line again.
He got it back to Luna and we’ve fixed that particular problem caused by distortion gremlins, it won’t happen again.’
‘But why do they need human pilots?’ I asked Vanessa. She looked uncomfortable sitting in the form-o chair; its ergonomic comfort function was set to body hugging. Vanessa didn’t like to be hugged.
‘It was mostly to test the anti-inertia devises and procedures. We learned a lot from Monty’s flight even though physically he suffered some permanent damage,’ Vanessa Kirkwood said picking her teeth.
Vanessa was the high acceleration labs coordinating bio-engineer. She was a large pensive woman with freckly skin. She seemed more like a farmer’s wife then an administrative scientist, a miscast babushka doll of a woman.
‘What’s this permanent damage? What the hell does that mean?’ My imagination was filling in the blanks.
‘Well as for the damage, you saw that Monty had to go manual. He stopped it too quickly when the computer crashed. If his body hadn’t been retrofitted he would have been splattered like jelly all over the bulkhead and he almost was!
It’s lucky he got away with just a few amputations, internal injuries and some other problems,’ she licked her lips as if relishing the idea.
‘He’s still alive and has since flown several other test runs with no problems,’ she said as if Monty had won the consolation prize.
‘And how the hell did the computer crash? I thought it was one the new bio-neural types with multiple redundancies.’
This incident had happened two months ago and I hadn’t heard anything about it when I was going through the operations.
Now I’d had every test pilots nightmare screened to me in living 3D holo just before I was about to be strapped into one of those flying sadomasochists arse stretchers.
Two months ago I’d just recuperated from the retro fittings in an isolated military hospital cut off from all communications. After that had come training in the use of my new implants.
Two days ago they’d dumped the mission briefings into my room; I’d only gone through about two sticks worth before my eyes glazed over.
Vanessa had asked me when she first arrived what I’d thought about Monty’s accident and I’d said ‘What accident?’ So she’d 3d’ed it for me for the first time.
Vanessa pushed a new stick into the interface on her desk and the holographic display hovered again in a smoky cube between us.
‘I’ve got some other video files of some of the experiments that Monty has already helped us with.’ She pursed her lips again in that disconcerting way of hers.
‘The physical problems we face with you guys is unique; we need to keep you functioning and active at speeds that no organism alive has ever experienced.’ She flicked through the holographic menu searching for more files.
It was early and the sun was just beginning to rise. Outside industrial precinct was beginning to appear out of the early morning fog haze.
Yet another foul sunrise to greet my foul mood.
Vanessa continued her monologue, ‘The reason we need human subjects is because the distortions and unknown effects that might occur near light speed can cause certain gremlins to appear.
These anomalies can mess with the automatic systems.
Like that computer crash in Monty’s ship, if Monty hadn’t been there to stop his ship after the computer crash, it would have kept going out of the solar system and we would have never found it.’
‘Gremlins?’ I half smiled as I said it. ‘You mentioned something about that before, distortion gremlins you called them.’
‘Call it what you will, distortions can have unexpected effects on equipment. At light distances we need an independent pilot to get the damn thing back here. We can’t trust robots they get gremlins too, and we can’t be waiting years for a signal to come back to us, can we?’ The duchess answered.
‘And there are effects on humans?’ I asked thinking about the blood I’d see in the cam feed.
‘You’ve been adjusted, to the best of our knowledge, you can thank Monty for that! This knowledge has been used to reinforce your body to the max; also there are nanocites in your blood guarding your flesh at a cellular level.
Aaron my lad you are probably the most durable human being now living.’ She studied the holo simulation of the retrofitting procedure floating above the desk.
‘How’s Monty holding up, he must be okay since he successfully managed all these other test flights?’ I knew they weren’t telling me the whole truth about Monty’s condition, these nanocites were a new addition Monty hadn’t had them.
‘You’ll see him soon, this is what he wanted, and the first man to attempt to get near light speed. I don’t think he considers anything else beyond that.’
Vanessa crossed her arms over her pendulous breasts.
‘So that’s it then?’ I stood up.
‘Yep! Aaron my son, you’ve got a ticket to the moon! I’ll see you on the dark side’ She struggled out of the form-o chair even though it didn’t want to let her go.
Vanessa left my room with a lingering smell of a perfume that didn’t react well with her own natural scent, the room felt somehow lighter without her presence.
I watched the sun climbing over the sprawl and the dirty black towers gliding through noxious oceans of dust, the morning traffic was starting and I realized that I wouldn’t have to contend with this crush of humanity anymore.
I had a ticket to the moon and I was already wearing the price of it on my skin, I could see my refection in the polarizing glass curtain window of the room. I was augmented! Sliver protrusions and cryptic panels covered my skin, but being slightly vain I’d mostly avoided looking at myself since I’d had the operations.
Frankenstein’s monster I thought.
I need to merge with the machine if I was going to pull this off. Monty’s conversion had been even more drastic and experimental, he was now virtually a cyborg and he’d probably lost even more skin since that accident!
But that’s what we test pilots signed up for from the outset, we sacrificed our humanity, our lives even! So we could join a technocratic priesthood, most people just thought we had a death wish.
We never had to worry about food rationing, overcrowded tenements or organ reapers like ninety nine percent of the rest population, we lived in gated communities and didn’t have to be armed at all times or worry about wearing personal body armour if we wanted to walk the dog.
Our families were taken care of and they would reap the benefit or our sacrifices even if we died on the job, and they could jump the list for transmigration.
The robots had almost finished terra-forming Mars; in fact there were now more terrestrial Earth species living there then still existed on Earth.
But it was one thing to transport frozen embryos that distance, relocating half of the whole human population was another, but that’s what they had to do.
Only when the all-devouring crush of humanity had been halved could the terraformers commence Earth’s restoration.
Our flights would make that trip to Mars seem like nothing, even a small percentage of lightspeed would open the solar system up to us like nothing else could, and we were going to test the limits.
We were going to pitch ourselves against “Relativity” itself.
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