Chasing Stars: Chapter 7

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The motors whined as they strained to move the heavy blast doors open onto the auxiliary mission control room on Orbital One. They slid apart slowly but precisely, leaving no doubt that despite their noise, the motors had a lot more power to offer if necessary. This and the main control room were the most hardened locations on the station, designed to be the last free floating, still intact pieces of the station if the rest of it was blown away around them. It was combination lifeboat and black box.

There was a massive wall screen at the front of the room which displayed a live feed of the New Horizon, lit full on with the sun from behind the view of the camera. Several dozen specialists sat at their designated station along the tiered seating. Some wearing peacekeeper office fatigues, some others were wearing Bowland Power Systems field uniforms, and the rest who wore plain clothes Markus assumed they were from the New Horizon team.

The main operations control room was off limits to non-Peacekeeper personnel, and they served as traffic control to and from the station and in near Earth orbit. This control room was built to accommodate large civilian operations such as this, those which required extensive oversight.

Orbital One was more than just a tourist trap and space traffic control tower, it had become the de facto capital of Earth since it was under no single country's jurisdiction. The Peacekeepers were a UN force commissioned to patrol, police, and regulate all extra-terrestrial activities, and the biggest threat they tended to face was chasing pirates around who were stealing resources from the various automated mining platforms across the system. The extra-jurisdictional quality of the facility even lent itself to housing a large and regularly used space for the UN General Assembly to meet.

Markus wondered if Wiremu, who was near the front and seemed to be slowly winding his way around to every station, felt weird being in civilian clothes in an environment like this. Every peacekeeper in service knew and revered him, maybe it was as weird for them as it was for him. Before he could stand in the way of the door long enough to block anyone else, a Peacekeeper stationed at the door ushered him over to the observation area where he found In-su and several other faces he didn't recognize.

"Hello Mr. Kim, it's nice to see you again," Markus offered politely as he sat down. He wondered where the others were and looked around until he found Sadhika sitting at a station working intently at her terminal, then noticed Sasha sitting beside her. They seemed to be discussing something pretty intently. Lucas was on the opposite side of the room surrounded by Bowland techs.

"Likewise," In-su answered, matching his empty politeness and pushing up his square black rimmed glasses to look at him. "Do you have a name for us yet?" In-su inquired.

"Thinking about going myself, actually."

In-su's attention dropped immediately from whatever it had previously been on. "Oh?"

"Yeah," Markus answered, scratching his temple and now finding himself uncomfortable.

"Why?" It was a naked and direct question, but Markus didn't sense any enmity in it, just sudden and severe interest.

"I'm… well, honestly I'm still trying to figure that out."

"This is not something you can change your mind about Markus" In-su informed him gravely. "Look at the New Horizon crew out there. Every single one of them joined this mission long before we laid down the ship's keel. Nobody else just joined up along the way like you mean to. We formed a co-operative, the poorest and the richest of us all became equal parties. We selected our target together, we designed and built the ship together, and when the time comes, we'll all join hands and jump off of the edge of the world together.

"Every one of them," he continued, "had spent their whole previous lives waiting for and dreaming of an opportunity like this to come along. This mission fills a hole in our spirits we could never define individually until we met each other in pursuit of this goal. We have sacrificed wealth, family, dignity, years of our life to see this dream realized. You will find that many of the crew will resent you for being dropped in unearned at the very end."

"Will you be one of them?" Markus asked.

In-su tilted his head slightly to the side. "No. I support well informed decisions more than particular outcomes. I just want your decision to be adequately informed."

"Then let me ask you… what are you most afraid of leaving behind? What will you miss? What's the biggest threat to you regretting it all?"

"It's not what we leave behind. My biological family has always known me as an oddity… such radical behaviour from me is not unknown to them. They've always known I followed an untrampled path. The people I've worked with on this mission the last few years have come to feel more like family to me than my real family ever did. The mission aside, I want to be with my loved ones. I will follow them… wherever they go."

"Not what you leave behind?" It seemed like he was meaning to say something else before he got sidetracked.

"It is who we leave forward who I most mourn for," In-su admitted with some apparent reticence as he looked down to the floor.

"I know what you mean; I've thought about that myself."

"Early on I came very near to abandoning the project once we realized what we would be doing to our children, what horrors we would visit upon them. I don't mourn for those who will be born late enough to arrive and participate in the landings. I envy them that struggle more than anyone else. It is those who will be born long after Earth, and who will die long before Haven… I don't know if I could survive that."

He seemed lost in it, as though he were living one of their lives in fast forward over a few moments.

"But then again," he concluded, "I did grow up with a sky…"

"What changed your mind?"

"Sadhika," he said with a knowing smile. "Besides, what's normal for us might drive them crazy and vice versa. That ship will be the only world they ever know, maybe it won't seem as horrific to them as it does to me. Maybe the immensity of a sky will be horrifying to the last generation born on the ship."

"Jesus Mr. Kim… horrific?"

"I choose my words very carefully." was all he said as he shrugged.

Wiremu reached the end of his tour of the systems stations and took his post standing behind them all with is arms crossed over his broad chest.

"Alright folks," he called out, "you know the drill. Give me go no go for startup."

One by one the stations each individually called out their stations and their ‘go' status. There was already a full working crew on the New Horizon, but for the core startup they had all been evacuated to Orbital One.

Fusion cores were tricky to get started, but once they were running smoothly, they could be locked down and operated continuously for an as of yet undetermined amount of time. About twenty years ago, some twenty years after sustainable fusion power had been initially cracked, a hundred fusion cores were built and set up to run continuously forever. Every five years one was taken offline and studied extensively for wear damage. But there were no moving parts to wear down, and after twenty years, no hints of wear and tear on the internals of the reactors were detected. This left the assumption that they could effectively run forever if continuously fueled. New Horizons only needed its reactor to last a hundred and sixty years of continuous use with no down time, and no backups.

Adverse reactor incidents were rare, but such incidents always occurred during their startup or as a result of physical damage to the core. They were giving birth to a star, and stars had trouble keeping even themselves in balance. Too little juice and you won't get a reaction, too much and you risk losing containment and blowing up the ship.

The last station answered ready to go.

"Okay, fire up the primary accelerators."

The image on the main screen shifted to show the ship as a picture in the larger picture that had now switched to show the core room. It revealed an imposing twelve-meter-wide metal doughnut suspended in air by its mounts to the floor, walls, and ceiling, allowing enough room for human bodies to move around it and access all sides. The image swiped so what had been the whole screen displayed on the right, complete with ship picture in picture, as the other side of the screen switched to diagnostics displays and critical data, including internal temperature as it was nearing a million degrees.

Plasma swirled hotter and denser inside the reaction vessel as more and more energy was dumped into the system and the temperature reading steadily climbed. Once at a high enough temperature, the fusion in the heart of the sun could be replicated to unleash massive amounts of energy, but most of that energy went back into sustaining the reaction. If you did it right though, there was a bit of energy left over for trivial things like powering a city or a starship.

Markus watched as the temperature climbed on the big screen. Ten million degrees… twenty million… thirty… The feel of the room grew tenser as the temperature increased. Everyone was laser focused on their individual tasks in these most critical moments. Indicator readings and power levels were watched constantly, but no anomalies were found. Once the temperature hit 50 million degrees there was a new flurry of activity as their target idle temperature was hit. Now came the process of locking in all of the control parameters and stabilizing the reaction. They had just given birth to a miniature artificial star.

"Talk to me," Wiremu ordered. "Magnetics?"

"Rotation and compression accelerators are… nominal." one of the technicians answered a few moments later after tapping intently at his work screen.

"Excellent," Wiremu stated evenly. He looked over at the woman who Markus intuited to be his uniformed Peacekeeper liaison standing off to his side one level down. "With your permission sir, we're ready to test fire the engines." The younger woman blushed just barely and smiled at Wiremu. She must have been amused by this legend of her organization referring to her with the title reserved for his superiors.

"Go ahead Wii," she answered with a smile. Markus wondered if he'd read that wrong. Now it seemed more like there was just subtext to their interactions he wasn't privy to. ‘Military life…' he mentally shrugged.

Wiremu smiled back and nodded his acknowledgement. He looked back towards one of the waiting faces of the technicians looking at him. "Engine Team, go on Engine One power up," he ordered of one of them.

Markus glanced over at the lesser wall screen across the room behind Wiremu which had dozens of shifting images, random rotations of security camera feeds from around the ship. Several of them revealed the promenade with people gathered around the large circular windows lining the floor of the pathway around the ship. It was a great place to watch, and an occasion few would ever see.

Barely perceptible at first, the eerie electric blue jets coming off the first of the four massive ion engines appeared and then grew brighter and brighter until a long pale blue jet could be seen out the back of the engine. Being an ion engine, the light was much more impressive than the thrust, but over time that thrust could aggregate to meaningful fractions of the speed of light.

"Engine one, full thrust. Power readings… steady, zero warning signals… system nominal," the head of the Engine Team called out.

"Excellent," Wiremu answered. "Okay. Power down engine one, then go on engine two power up." The bright jet of engine one diminished gradually until it was entirely gone. Then, just as imperceptibly at first, a faint blue jet began to emerge from the rear of engine two. Firing thrusters even this large for only a minute or two had little impact on their orbital position or attitude, and a few sporadic and much more immediately effective maneuvering thrusters bursts automatically kept the ship in position.

A single long klaxon blared through the control room, accompanied by flashing warnings on many of the screens. "What is that?" Wiremu asked, perfectly cool.

"Fuck, I'm sorry sir, that's… it's the Earth-bound solar flare alarm." The directions in which solar flares burst were quite random, but this particular one just happened to be aimed straight at Earth, triggering the alarm.

"What's the ETA on the particle wave?" Wiremu asked.

"Um… network reports that it's a fast one sir, only thirty-three minutes."

"Hmm. Fuck indeed… Oh well, not much we can do about it now. Power the reactor back down and lock all of the New Horizon's systems into safe mode. We'll have to call off the tests and start all over again once the weather settles down."

Solar flares were a known danger in space, but one which could usually be mitigated with early warning systems and fusion powered artificial magnetospheres. Although the New Horizon's field was scheduled to be initiated later that day after the core startup, Orbital One's powerful magnetic field had already protected everyone from the initial photon burst, and would likewise protect them from the proton wave when it hit. It was fortunate no one was on the New Horizon during the start up, but as per regulations they would have had portable field generators with them regardless. Nobody was allowed to work naked to radiation exposure in space since the early days.

"I said shut down the core. Shut down the core now," Wiremu ordered, frustrated at the delay. The technician tapped at the screen a few times before pleading, "I… I can't! There's something wrong, I think somehow her electronics are… oh no."

"What?" Wiremu asked.

The technician stood to face him. "The system is locked into an over-regeneration cycle. I… I can't shut it down." Markus knew this meant that more energy was being looped back into the reaction than was being used, leading to ever higher temperatures and pressures.

"I understand," Wiremu stated grimly. "The controls are completely unresponsive?"

"Yes sir. We have instrument feeds, but… the ship's computer isn't accepting any remote commands at all now. It appears to be a cascading failure, probably caused by the initial radiation burst. Either way, we only have…" the technician looked at her screen and then back at Wiremu, the results she'd read leaving her looking alarmingly pale and distressed, "thirty-one minutes until it breaches if we can't shut it down."

Wiremu put a reassuring hand on the technician's shoulder. "You keep trying anyways for me, okay?"

The tech nodded and sat back down. Wirmeu looked around the room at the expectant faces. "Exec meeting please. Sadhika, Sasha, In-su…" then he remembered. "Bowland and Peacekeeper brass too, please." They approached from around the room as he held out his arms and waved them in with his fingers and backed up. When In-su got up Markus realized that he probably qualified as Bowland top brass, so he got up and followed along.

"Sidhu, you have ops." Wiremu stated before leading them out through the heavy doors into the hallway, empty as usual in this secure section of the ship.

Wiremu folded his arms and wore a grim expression. "We have a very serious problem. We're getting uncontrolled regeneration in the core. The power will build up, it will overload the containment bottle, and then it will vaporize the ship. It might even take out the station, but I can't that say for sure because humans have never created an explosion that large before. They project it will detonate in twenty-seven minutes." A man like that must have a pretty accurate stopwatch in his head, Markus considered.

There was silence as the group pondered the dire situation Wiremu had laid out for them.

"Options?" Sasha asked.

"Well," the Wiremu replied, bobbing his head slightly. "Ordinarily it wouldn't be a problem, we'd just quickly send a crew over to physically sever the connections which loop the reactor's outputs back into its own power systems, but…"

"…but the proton wave will catch up with them and be lethal to anyone who goes out there to make the repair…" Lukas realized out loud.

"Bingo," Wiremu said. "Either problem alone we could deal with, but together… If we try to wait it out the ship'll detonate." His tone was entirely matter of fact, as though this was just a mildly more interesting Tuesday than usual.

All that could be heard for a few moments was the dull hum of the ship's systems.

"What will we do then?" Sasha asked. "We don't have the resources to just start all over again," She was more visibly agitated than he'd seen her before.

"At the moment I'm more concerned with the lives on Orbital One Sasha," Wiremu pointed out.

"Yes, of course." She looked down.

"If New Horizon goes, Orbital One is definitely at risk?" Lucas asked.

"No question," Wiremu confirmed.

"What can we do?" The female Peacekeeper liaison officer asked.

"There is a way, but… you're not gonna to like it." They all looked at him expectantly. "I'll take a shuttle to manually shut the reactor down myself. I'll physically sever the pathways; destroy the whole regeneration system if I have to."

"No," Sadhika said as though it were stupid to even suggest such a thing. "There has to be another way."

Markus looked over at his brother who was just listening intensely and rubbing his chin.

"I agree," In-su stated with some noticeably growing anxiety. "We can send a droid, or a sim to get the job done."

Markus winced at the implicit suggestion that a sim's life was more losable than a human's.

"You can't…" Sadhika uttered with growing anxiety. "You can't, Wii." she said again, more defiantly. "Send a droid or, or a sim!"

"Can't." Wiremu stated firmly. "Just can't trust one of them for such an important job. Besides, that proton wave will disrupt their electronics just as effectively as it will DNA, and much more immediately. I'm sorry Sadhika, but somebody is going to have to die today Sadhika." He said firmly to emphasize the truth of this as he looked around at the others. "It has to be done," he shrugged, "and I can't ask anyone else to do it for me."

"You don't have to ask; I'll do it," Sasha declared. The other three looked at her stunned.

"What are you talking about? You're not even qualified." Something in Wiremu already knew how things were about to unfold, but his mind had yet to accept the inevitability. "We can't lose you, you're invaluable. I'm not. You can find a new captain. Don't you get it? This is my job. I can't let anyone else do it for me." Wiremu was too seasoned to betray any panic, but he was desperate for an alternate solution.

"Utility." Sasha said.


"I've already done what I needed to for us to get to Haven. I found it, I did the research, I plotted an interstellar course. Your job is just starting, your job is to follow that course and safely get us out of the heliosphere. The principle of utility means that you're invaluable, and I'm not anymore." Her tone was so matter of fact that it was hard to tell what emotions she was feeling, if any, over volunteering for suicide. "The mission is what matters now." she said a little more softly.

"I have to go too." Lucas stated. One arm was folded across his chest but the other was up to his mouth, slowly rubbing his lower lip with his thumb and forefinger.

"What?" Markus uttered in shock. "What?" he repeated, "Why?"

"It's too important," his brother answered. "There are thousands of people on Orbital One and that's a Bowland reactor that's about to kill them, and an experimental one at that. This is on us too, and what happens if Sasha doesn't make it, or needs help, or, or anything else? I can't ask someone who works for me to die in my place. It's on me, Markus."

"That's… not necessary," Wiremu offered hesitantly.

"Again, not a question," he nodded at Sasha, who seemed to understand. Lucas shrugged as he looked over to Wiremu. "I'm going with her unless you physically restrain me."

Wiremu seemed like he was going to protest further, but instead just said: "I understand."

Markus forcefully pulled his brother to the side as the New Horizons team formed their own private huddle. "What the hell is wrong with you?" Markus asked. What about your family? Your kids? You don't even have to go at all and you're just going to just widow your wife and kids for nothing? Fuck, you'd think you of all people would know better, know what will mean for them!"

"I do know better, Markus." He put a sympathetic hand on his little brother's shoulder. "That's the thing. Our parents died for nothing, in a stupid accident… just like so many parents are going to die when that ship kills everyone here. Yeah, Susan and Kaz will finish growing up without a father, but at least they'll know their father died for something, that he died saving other people's kids and parents. And besides… it's our core."

"But none of this is your fault, it wasn't even the core that faulted, it was their fucking ship's computers that got fried in the flare!" Markus was near hysterical.

Lucas just shrugged sympathetically. "Our core, Markus. My core."


"There'll be plenty of time to discuss this later when I'm in hospice," Lucas said as he observed the New Horizons team disband their huddle. He moved over to them and someone signaled for the door to open with their brain chip. Sadhika went through, then Sasha and In-su. When Lucas went through, Markus made a grab for him, but he was pulled back by steel fingers on his left shoulder.

Wiremu pulled him back into the corridor and pushed him against the bulkhead with one hand. He executed the forceful act as gently as he could while ensuring Markus' immobility. Markus struggled briefly out of instinct more than intent, but quickly abandoned the effort.

"Son, your brother's decided he's going to do die a hero to save a lot of innocent lives. Are you going to make that more difficult for him?"

"No." Markus stated coldly with smoldering, impotent rage.

"Good," Wiremu said as he let him go, "cuz we're on the clock." He stated grimly as he made his way through the doorway and started barking orders. "Sasha, Bowland, go now. Sadhika, escort them to the shuttle."

"Come on Lucas," Sadhika said as she led him and Sasha out of the room. Markus turned to follow them, but when Lucas noticed he turned around to stop him.

"No, absolutely not." Lucas said.

Markus raised his hands. "Not trying to stop you. Just… want to help make sure you get where you want to go."

He hesitated for only a moment. "Then come on," he urged.

"Alright people listen up…" they heard Wiremu say as the door to the control room powered closed.

"All you have to do is brain chip to the shuttle ‘human maximum emergency thrust flight to New Horizon'," Sadhika explained as they flew up the access tunnel, climbing up the ladder into ever diminishing spin gravity. "It will calculate a flight plan before it finishes disengaging from the station, but be prepared. Maximum human thrust is just that. Triple check your restraints. Chemical rockets go max thrust for halfway, then quickly flip and reverse burn to stop right at New Horizon's airlock which is right by engineering. We'll be watching and guiding you the whole way."

They arrived at the Orbital One main airlock. The area would normally have been bustling with the normal comings and goings of the main orbital traffic hub, but Peacekeepers had fully cleared it by the time they arrived, and were stationed along their route to secure their travel. Markus didn't even have the moment's thought to appreciate the eerie rarity of the empty departure bay. They arrived at the airlock to the New Horizons shuttle, and Sadhika winced it open.

She pulled apart her medium scroll and showed them a schematic diagram of the core room on the unfurled screen and zoomed in on the relevant part, more for Sasha's benefit than Lucas'. "If you can get the terminals to accept local inputs I can talk you through the shutdown. Otherwise, cut here, here, and here," she said as she pointed out locations on the scroll, then pushed it closed and handed it to Sasha.

"Yeah, but if it comes down to it though," Lucas pulled an emergency axe out of the emergency kit on the wall. "Old school." Markus, Sasha, and Sadhika all looked at him. "Hey I know it's low tech but uh… well, unfortunately it'd be the right tool for the job if things get that bad over there."

"Sasha…" Sadhika said, turning to her friend.

"There'll be time," she held up her hand and reminded her.

"Of course," Sadhika said with a look away as Sasha went through the airlock.

Lucas put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Same."

"I know." He wanted to scream protest at his brother, punch him out and drag him to safety. "Good luck." he said instead.

Lucas gave him an odd look which he couldn't identify. "…Same," he said before pulling himself through. Sadhika immediately closed and secured the hatch. When she turned around, she was crying.

"Should I have gone?" she asked him through tears, but he suspected she was more asking herself.

"Should I have?" he asked her, but he was really asking himself.

By the time Sadhika and Markus got back down to the control room, Sasha and Lucas were already on the New Horizon and were just arriving at the core room. The time to detonation was under two minutes, time to proton wave under four.

"Don't they have any portable field generators?" Markus asked Sadhika. They were both hyper alert, but had effectively regained their composure for the moment.

"Not since we finished construction on the ship… we weren't supposed to need any after today." The fusion core and artificial magnetosphere where a joint system, one was a byproduct of the other, but it had to be calibrated.

Markus watched on the big screen as his brother hurried to one of the terminals and aggressively tapped at it. "Controls are… responsive! Keying in my id… taking control of the system."

"Excellent work Bowland," Wiremu said, "talk me through it."

"Sasha," Lucas ordered, "On that panel over there. Monitor the field geometry as I decrease the power, watch for hot and cold spots."

"I understand."

"Jesus, two-hundred and eighty-million degrees…" he muttered as he manually balanced the power levels as he decreased them. He seemed more impressed than distressed. "Damn thing redlines as one-seventy-five, that's Bowland qualify for you…"

Markus shook his head with a smile despite himself. ‘That's my brother,' he thought, "company man to the bitter fucking end…"

A single loud klaxon blared signaling the arrival of the proton wave, and the image shimmered before gradually restoring its quality. The two on the screen looked up at the camera. They were dead, it just hadn't caught up with them yet.

"How are we doing there, Bowland?" Wiremu asked gently.

"Right…" Lucas said somewhat distantly before regaining his focus. "Um… right. Temperature at… uh two hundred million and falling, almost back under the red. Sasha how's the bottle?"

"I'm having to make some manual adjustments as we come down in response to your changes, but I've been able to keep up. Looks good if we can keep this up."

"We look good over here," Lucas reported through the screen, "proceeding to full shut down. Sasha it'll pop eventually obviously, but try to hold the field together for as long as you can."

"That wise Bowland?" Wiremu asked. "Why not just bring it down to stable and lock it down?"

"Two hundred and eighty million reasons…" Lucas said as focused ever more on further reducing the power. "Got to take it apart and inspect the inner casing with a micron scanner before we start it up again after a burn that far out of tolerance. It's probably fine, we way overbuilt this thing to last forever, but given your requirements you've got to let us double check."

Sasha sighed. "So much for our launch window," she remarked without taking her eyes off of the panel she was working on. "Now I'll have to update our course."

Clearly this was the most unfortunate consequence of all of this. Markus looked at Sadhika and she gave him a dismissing shrug. Sasha was Sasha.

"Okay Captain Tynes," Lucas said, "we're in the green now, continuing to power down…"