Castaway Resolution – Chapter 05

Chapter 5.

Portmaster Michael Ventrella — newly inducted a month and a half before — gestured for everyone to sit as he entered. “We’re not a huge organization, let’s not get too formal,” he said. “I hereby convene this official Review and Inquiry Report for incident OR-7-FTL, the event which resulted in crippling damage to colony vessel Outward Initiative. Are representatives of all interested parties here?”

Captain Toriyama stood. “I am Acting Captain Musashi Toriyama. I represent both the crew of Outward Initiative and the Colonial Initiative Corporation, as there is no ranking official of the corporation present in Orado system.”

Sue saw the Portmaster raise an eyebrow. “That puts this doubly on your head, sir. You understand that you may be in the position of having to remove yourself from command, or worse, if you or those under your command are found culpable?”

“I do, sir. But as the current commanding officer of Outward Initiative, the corporate directives are clear as to the fact that I also represent the company, and there are hardly any representatives of CIC here at the moment; I understand a new office is under construction and will be occupied in four to six months –”

“Never mind, then, Captain. As long as you understand your position, we can proceed.” Toriyama seated himself.

The androgynous person who rose next was someone Sue already recognized. “Len Bowie, Ambassador for the System,” they said. “We will represent the interests of the citizens of the System who were aboard Outward Initiative and, if it is acceptable to you, those of the few citizens of other colonies who do not have representatives present.”

“The System”, in Bowie’s context, meant “the original solar system”; Earth’s system was fairly well united, unlike most of the scattered colonies, and its massive population and industrial base still dominated humanity’s policies.

“That is acceptable. Lieutenant Fisher, you represent Orado Port and the investigative team?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good enough. Let’s get this underway, then. I’m not much for formality, so we’ll just move forward as makes sense. Lieutenant, you want to start?”

Sue stood up. “Thank you, Portmaster. Just to review, a quick summary of the events: Outward Initiative was slightly more than halfway through its journey to Tantalus, a new colony a bit over a hundred lightyears from Earth. There had been no incidents of note during the journey, and all systems were operating at nominal.

“At 17:35 local ship time, during a routine emergency drill, a fluctuation developed in the Trapdoor field. This fluctuation grew at a tremendous rate, completely overwhelming automated attempts to damp it down by stabilizing the field generators further. An alert was immediately sounded and the crew attempted to counter the fluctuations sufficiently to shut down the Trapdoor drive safely. They did in fact achieve this by attempting a synchronized unbalancing of the drive coils — a risky approach, but probably the only one that would have worked, given later data. However, this was not achieved in time to prevent severe damage to the hab ring and the loss of six lifeboats and, at the time, sixty-two people. Radiation pulses also caused a cascading shutdown of multiple systems, including all shipboard AIs. ”

She played an excerpt of the logs she’d been able to recover — the sudden eerie half-appearance of a starfield, the green blazing fire of a Trapdoor field shearing through metal and composite, the shocking destruction of the proud colony vessel in a matter of seconds.

“With the Trapdoor Drive finally shut down, the Outward Initiative was in normal space, severely damaged. It required two and a half weeks to use onboard resources to sufficiently repair and reinforce the vessel and allow it to rotate again; during that time, the extent of radiation sickness became obvious, affecting over two hundred crew and passengers, of which nearly half had to be kept in nanostasis. Those lost from the immediate and subsequent events included all three medical doctors and the ship’s commanding officer, as well as others.

“Nonetheless, basic repairs were completed, the Trapdoor coils rebalanced sufficiently to fit the changed profile of the Outward Initiative after the damage, and the ship made a relatively uneventful emergency trip here to Orado, the closest colony to their path at the point of failure, a trip of slightly less than two months.”

“A question, if I may?”

She looked over at the Earth system representative. “Yes, Ambassador Bowie?”

“You mention that six lifeboats were lost. Were any sufficiently intact to function?”

“We believe three of them were physically intact. Whether any of their shipboard systems still functioned remains in question.”

“Have any search and rescue ships been dispatched to search for survivors?”

She glanced at Ventrella, who rolled his eyes but nodded. “No, Ambassador, there have not.”

Bowie’s blue eyes narrowed. “Then may I inquire as to why not?”

“The short answer is that it would be a waste of time and energy. Do you wish a longer answer?”

The eyes met hers. “Yes. One with sufficient detail to satisfy me, unless the answers are inherently unsatisfying.”

Sue chuckled. “All right, Ambassador. In a way, they are inherently unsatisfying. The best answer is that, as the old book says, ‘space is BIG’. Even with the recordings of the event that we’ve been able to recover from Outward Initiative, we can at best determine when by shipboard time the lifeboats were severed from the ring. But they, and the final shutdown of the Outward Initiative, were separated by up to thirty seconds, and thus by millions of kilometers. If Outward Initiative had been able to do the search itself, right then, the lifeboats could probably have been recovered. But the starship’s sensing suites were badly damaged, those of the lifeboats undoubtedly were worse off, and Outward Initiative was in no shape to search.

“But we can’t actually tell exactly where that accident happened. There are a few flashes of a starfield in the moments during the oscillation, and of course clear images after the ship stopped, but that is not in any way good enough to locate the accident to within better than, say, a volume the size of the entire Earth System, with nothing to serve as a marker. The lifeboats measure perhaps thirty meters long; finding a thirty-meter object in a volume billions of kilometers in radius is a very nontrivial task.

“We’d also expect, if anyone was on them, they would attempt to make it to the nearest colony — here. There are Trapdoor drives on those lifeboats, although they have to run periodically rather than constantly; so we actually haven’t quite reached the point at which we would expect to see them arrive; it took more than two months for Outward Initiative to make it here and at best the lifeboats would take nearly three times that long — almost six months — to make the trip. There is, unfortunately, effectively no way to detect them underway.”

“I see. But from your tone I presume you do not expect them to arrive?”

“Well. . . LS-42 and LS-88 had more than enough rations to survive that long. LS-5. . . well, maybe, but they had a Bemmie on board who would have needed a lot more food, plus the dry environment on the shuttle would not have worked well for his survival. More importantly, though, simulations based on the damage suffered by Outward Initiative indicate that many shipboard systems would have failed. LS-88 might have had the right combination of personnel on board to survive — if they weren’t irradiated to death — but the others. . .”

Bowie nodded. “Understood. My apologies for the diversion.”

“Not at all. It was an important question.” She took a breath. “Returning to the main point of this meeting. . . First, let me address what is undoubtedly the most pressing question.

“It is our considered finding, backed by physical evidence as well as modeling and deduction, that the crew of Outward Initiative were in no way responsible for what happened to their vessel. Indeed, the record shows that they had taken exemplary care of their ship throughout its lifetime, maintaining it to the highest standard of civilian or, truth be told, military organizations. This was a ship, and a crew, that others would use as an example. In addition, their swift and efficient actions on the day the disaster happened were in fact responsible for saving the lives of most of those aboard; a delay of another second or two could easily have led to the destruction of the entire vessel.”

She could see Toriyama’s shoulders sag in relief; he closed his eyes, then opened them, smiling brilliantly. “Thank you, Lieutenant!”

“I thought you’d like to find out your fate right away,” she said. “Good work, Captain.”

“Then,” said Bowie, “what was the cause of the disaster? An unexpected component failure?”

Sue grinned. “Oh, no, Ambassador, something much more interesting.” The grin faded. “And something that has apparently destroyed thirty-seven vessels in the last fifty years.”

She projected an image with her omni so the others could see it — a stylized representation of a Trapdoor vessel like Outward Initiative, with the Trapdoor field shimmering around it, a long ovoid shape some distance from the vessel’s hull. “Most of you are aware that a Trapdoor field is generated by precisely spaced coils of a particular design, which must be properly in phase to generate an effective Trapdoor field. Biases of the coils allow effective navigation, directing the ship, although most navigation consists of pointing the ship in the desired direction in normal space, then activating the drive.

“In most cases, the drive envelope fluctuates slightly; this is partly due to variations in the. . . well, spacetime characteristics, I guess would be the best way to put it, of Trapdoor space. In essence, Trapdoor space isn’t completely featureless. The other fluctuations, much more noticeable, are from slight mismatches between Trapdoor coils, and at a “beat” rate between 5 and 500 Hertz, or cycles per second, most commonly at particular peak frequencies which have to be damped out because they are resonance frequencies between the field coils — they could cause the fluctuations to go out of control. And in fact, that was what I initially thought had happened.”

The simulated field showed oscillations of the field swiftly progressing to a destructive level.

“However, once we started looking at the data, that just didn’t fit. First of all, as you can see from the simulation there, such an oscillation tends to actually cause the field to ‘pucker’ inward at the ends, trying to turn the field into a sort of donut shape; this would usually result in damaging the main ship body at its fore and aft ends. You can get radial spiking, but it’s rare.

“More importantly, the data showed that the coils weren’t just acceptably balanced, they were exceptionally well-balanced. This was one of the best maintained ships I have ever had the privilege to examine.”

“Well?” the Portmaster said after she paused. “Don’t keep us in suspense, Lieutenant. It wasn’t sabotage, was it?”

“No. In all honesty, in a way, the crew of Outward Initiative caused the accident — just not in any manner they could possibly have predicted.”

“What? How?” demanded Captain Toriyama.

“By doing your maintenance too well,” she said.

There was silence, then Bowie laughed. “All right, Lieutenant. Answer us the riddle.”

“Resonance was the key,” she said. “Both Kryndomerr — the Bemmie mathematician — and I looked at the phenomenon and thought resonance, just from the way it all happened, but that seemed impossible. But then we happened to think about what it is that makes a really good resonance work.

“Think about the classic trick of breaking a wineglass by singing or playing a note. There are two key requirements. The first is that there be a known resonant frequency; the second is that the energy input — the sound — be of a sufficient volume to keep the vibration increasing; that volume is determined by the quality of the glass, as a lower-quality glass will dissipate far more energy and require more input to achieve destructive resonance.”

The others nodded.

“Well, Trapdoor space, as I mentioned, isn’t completely uniform. And as it is the Trapdoor field that is an interface between the ship and Trapdoor space, any nonuniformity acts directly on the field, causing the variations I mentioned earlier. So –”

“My God.” Toriyama had clearly seen it. “There’s some kind of underlying pattern — a field structure — in Trapdoor space. And if you have a well-enough maintained field. . .”

“. . . and you travel long enough, not adjusting your course, leaving your field effectively ‘rigid’, so to speak, and your field just happens to have the right size to vibrate at the right wavelength. . . yes. The intersection between the field and the space itself creates a positive feedback resonance that swiftly builds up out of control.” Sue showed them the graph that Numbers had created. “This was the real clue; Kryndomerr first saw this and pulled it out of the data. An entire population of well-maintained and mostly very large vessels going missing on long-run missions, whose fields — partly due to the development of standards in design, operation, and maintenance — have similar effective surface areas with respect to Trapdoor space.”

The Portmaster was frowning. “Are you certain of this?”

Sue considered. “As sure as I can be without running actual experiments. Kryndomerr and I came up with models showing how it worked, and demonstrating that the resonance was very likely to proceed along the radial dimension as experienced by Outward Initiative. In addition, the simulations and accident statistics indicated that this phenomenon may be a greater danger along particular routes and directions, meaning that the ‘structure’ of Trapdoor space has a systematic variation that may give us more clues as to the actual nature of the Trapdoor space.”

Ventrella nodded. “Then you must summarize this report and have it transmitted to as many locations as we can reach. We don’t have many ships available to go long distances, but we’ll have to figure something out. This is vital information and we must get it to all the large colony and transport ships as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ventrella looked at the others. “Given this, I think this meeting is complete. Do any of you have any remaining questions?”

After a pause, he stood. “Good. Inquiry complete; this was, effectively, an Act of God; no one could have predicted it given the known information at the time, and the crew did everything they could to minimize the damage to both ship and personnel. I will so state in the record.”

She waited for the others to leave, shaking Bowie’s hand and — after a hesitation — giving the relieved Captain a hug as well as a handshake.

Once the room was otherwise clear, she turned. “Portmaster?”

“What’s on your mind, Lieutenant?”

“In the report — I want to include a full research write-up, for publication in the Journal of Interstellar Spaceflight.”

He looked at her quizzically. “Well, of course. That’s good research there, and worth probably more than one paper. Not bad for someone normally doing disaster inspection. What’s the problem?”

“There’s one thing I need to make sure of. . .”