2946-06-12 - Tales from the Inbox: The Sagittarius Sniper
Given Admiral Ilic's decision to announce the Navy's new initiative to accelerate exploration and survey of the far shore of the Sagittarius Gap on our vidcast two days ago, I went looking through our audience submissions for stories from that far-flung region. I was surprised to find several; evidently, our audience contains a fairly large number of people who wear the Centaur Badge, and a few of them are only too happy to share their experiences.
Gino S., a veteran spacer and modestly successful businessman, sent this story in almost two years ago; it's a shame the pictures he sent along with his story cannot be transmitted across a text-only feed.
I know the datasphere has been reacting pretty wildly to the announcement, both positively and negatively. Perhaps you would be surprised to know that the Cosmic Background audience's response has been fairly sedate. A quick analysis of the feedback which has reached the studio indicated to us that most of it is either slightly favorable or neutral to this policy; while this is not a scientific analysis of all interstellar professionals, it's a good indicator that the controversy is brewing largely outside the spacer community. Keep that in mind as the discussions around this new initiative develop.
Cosmic Background and its personalities don't have anything else to add to the conversation at this time. If that changes, expect either an Editor's Loudspeaker item on this feed, or for the topic to come up on future vidcasts. We appreciate the admiral's decision to announce major policy changes on our vidcast program, and hope that, controversy or no, she feels welcome to come back for another interview at a later date.
Gino S. breathed a sigh of relief when the last jump resolved, and the cold blue light of Sagittarius Gate flooded through his viewpanel. The star, still an incandescent mote many light-hours away, nevertheless possessed the power to cast faint shadows in the dimly lit cockpit.
For two months, Gino had spent completely alone in the tiny crew compartment of Ida's Venture. The autopilot had done most of the work, leaving him to perform maintenance, read, watch archived vidcasts, and do anything else to avoid paying attention to the perfect solitude through which his ship was traveling. Normally, he liked working alone, but this time, he’d come to regret the solitude.
Though Gino had crossed the Sagittarius Gap voluntarily, visions of massive profits dancing in his head as he shoved off at Maribel, he'd decided after only two jumps into the Gap that he hated its pure emptiness with a passion that exceeded all rationality. In a way he dimly recognized was unhealthy, Gino had also concluded that the Gap hated him back and wanted him dead. Too many things had gone wrong in transit for him to blame mere chance for his troubles.
The trouble had started only a few jumps out from Maribel. Despite having been extensively overhauled before departure, Venture’s star drive unit had broken down early in the trip. It had done so again on two later occasions, and each time Gino had suited up and clambered out onto the hull to make repairs. The atmospherics had broken down once, the navigation computer had reset and lost its course four times, and the food synthesizer had broken down twice, the second time in a way Gino couldn’t fix himself. For the last week, the lone spacer had been gulping down evil-tasting nutrient sludge without it being made into palatable substances by the machine, fighting his gag reflex with every meal.
Still, despite the best efforts of the malicious Gap, he'd made it through, and now the star which had been a faint pinprick in his astrogation telescope from Maribel was a blazing mote dead ahead. Sagittarius Gate, a blue giant too volatile to permit planets, had been the guiding star for brave explorers crossing to the Sagittarius Arm for as long as Reach humans had dared to cross the Gap, due to its brightness and the fact that it stood alone nearly a hundred light-years out into the emptiness of the Gap.
Gino set a leisurely course in-system toward the star, flicking on his wide-angle radio receiver and piped the result to the cockpit speakers. At Sagittarius Gate, empty and likely had been since the beginning of time, the radio bands were filled with the purest natural white noise, a soothing hiss in his ears. Though the blue giant had briefly hosted expeditions to Sagittarius, no human had ever stayed long. From Sagittarius Gate, most of those previous explorers had gone on to other stars near the Sagittarius shore, looking for life-bearing planets.
Gino, however, had other ideas. All his life he had never wanted anything to do with planets. Where many spacers dreamed of cool, green hills and open skies, he instead preferred the smaller, sanitary spaces only artifice could create. Sagittarius Gate itself was the object of his journey alone aboard Ida’s Venture.
As soon as Gino had set the autopilot onto a course that would suit his needs, he left the controls and climbed down the ladder into the depths of the ship to a control panel hastily installed in an aft-facing bulkhead. From that panel, control cabling ran into the vast unpressurized spaces that made up most of Ida's Venture, and the signals that flashed down these cables began to wake huge banks of machinery which had been dormant since the last set of tests Gino had run at Maribel.
As he watched, the panel's indicators lit up red, then turned one by one to yellow, then to green, and finally to blue. The shipyard-grade mass fabricator and asteroid-harvesting rig Gino had procured at no small expense had survived the trip. The deck shuddered as the equipment shifted out of its stowage mode and began a series of preprogrammed self tests.
Satisfied, Gino left the patch panel and headed back up to the cockpit, where he could start looking for asteroids with the right composition to start building his station. Soon, he would be the only source of replacement starship parts on the far side of the Gap – a supplier positioned where his own voyage had more than proved there would be regular demand. He could even fix his own food processing machinery – but that could wait until after the critical work of building the station had been completed and opened for business.
Gino didn't get even halfway up the ladder before something went wrong. A screeching noise like tearing metal carried through the structure of the ship, accompanied by a flickering of the overhead lights. Gino hesitated, fighting panic, wondering whether he should hurry to the cockpit or back down to the console he'd just departed.
As he hesitated, there was a second shriek of tortured metal, and this time the ship's A-grav unit failed. Since he was not crushed against a bulkhead by four gees of acceleration with the loss of the A-grav system’s artificial gravity and inertial isolation, Gino concluded that the main gravitic drive had also gone offline.
The loss of critical starship systems told Gino which direction he needed to go. No stranger to microgravity, he grabbed the ladder-rungs and pulled himself up toward the cockpit, focusing on the bright side of his predicament – the overhead lighting had stopped flickering and had not switched to dimmer emergency-power settings, so he still had main power. The phased-matter reactor aboard Ida’s Venture had, fortunately, not been affected.
Reaching the cockpit and strapping himself into the pilot's seat to avoid drifting away, Gino checked the readouts. Everything was still green, except the A-grav and gravitic drive unit, which were both off. The computer system offered no explanation for this except an incomprehensible error Gino had never seen before. A quick view of the cameras in the evacuated hold showed the machinery there to have halted in a partially unpacked state.
Gino jabbed the control to restart the ship's A-grav axis, then watched the readout as it went through its startup sequence. Everything appeared normal, and soon enough, he felt the tug of amplified gravity, weak at first but increasing steadily.
Now more confused than concerned, Gino kicked off every diagnostic sequence Ida's Venture had. Mechanical problems this far from home were bad enough; even a minor unaddressed failure could cost his life if he couldn’t fix it before he finished building his station. He was almost unsurprised when none of the diagnostics discovered any errors, except that the ship was slightly off its predicted course.
Gino resigned himself to manually checking every system, cable feed, and relay on the ship, if that was what it took to find this new fault. He released his restraints and climbed back down the ladder to the vacsuit locker. As far as he could tell, the problem had started when he'd activated the payload, so the fault would be found there, in machinery he hadn't even looked at since he’d left Maribel. Perhaps one of the power conduits had been damaged and shorted into the ship’s structure, but even that would explain only the machinery’s halting and the flickering lights, not the loss of A-grav or the drive.
Through the airlock, Gino jabbed at a control on his suit’s wrist to switch on the lights in the hold. His vast bank of machines, half-unfolded, looked like a titanic horror coiled into a burrow too small for its grandeur, waiting for a chance to spring out and devour whatever disturbed its slumber. Fortunately, even when it was on, the asteroid harvesting rig ate only asteroids and metal debris, and then only on his command – its conjoined twin, the shipyard fabricator, ate only raw materials the former delivered it.
As he pushed off from the airlock doorway toward his monster, Gino could see nothing wrong; evidently, the machinery had simply failed and stopped all motion partway through a diagnostic. Only when he got closer did he see the problem. There was a hole large enough to accommodate his helmet in the machine's housing, directly over the mass fabricator's control unit.
Cursing under his breath, the lone entrepreneur clambered up to examine the damage. The machinery was the seed of his new fortune, but it had cost a not-inconsiderable fortune to procure. If he couldn’t repair it, he would be forced to turn Ida’s Venture around and make the lonely trip back to Maribel, gulping down untreated nutrient slurry the whole way.
Levering himself up the side of the machinery, Gino realized immediately that there was no repairing what had been done to his equipment. The hole, its edges not burnt, nor bent, nor cracked, bored cleanly through the heart of the gigantic machine and out the other side. He switched on his helmet light and saw through this tunnel a similar hole in the hold’s thin hull beyond the machinery. The vast, sinister fabricator which he had yoked to build his dreams was truly dead, and its conjoined twin, weighed down by the fabricator’s sudden dead weight, lay paralyzed under its bulk.
Turning away from the hole, Gino saw the entry wound – a perfectly circular hole in the hull behind him, directly in line with the damage to his machinery. Through this hole, he saw only the vast emptiness of space, and he was glad that the blue-giant star’s piercing radiation was not in line to blind him through this unplanned viewport.
“Hells." Gino muttered to himself, the dreams of fortune which had brought him to Sagittarius Gate boiling away into the void. “If I didn’t know any better, I would say someone was shooting at me."