Trouble on Ceres

Bill! Where’ve you been? I thought you said you were going to spend your vacation here on Mars?”
“Up on Ceres for the last three weeks, give me a beer. Make it one of your lagers. They had a real bad emergency up there, and my boat was the only one close enough and fast enough to do any good. They were to do maintenance while I was vacationing, but postponed it for Ceres. Orion Transport had a ship here on Mars, too, but you know better than anybody that their ships are only a third or less as fast as ours. Hell, you used to be a captain and you’re on the Green-Osbourne board of directors.
“Everyone would have been dead when the Orion boat got there if we didn’t have one of our ships here. They sent it anyway, with even more batteries. They would have needed ‘em.”
John, the bartender and owner, replied “Yeah, I talked to Chuck. He called as soon as it happened. I didn’t know you ran the rescue boat. Sorry about your vacation.”
“Well, it was just postponed and I’m on vacation now. So Chuck called?”
Chuck Watson, mayor of the habitat dome on Ceres, was shaking as he put down the phone. It was one of the worst catastrophes possible on an asteroid dome; or in his case, a dwarf planet dome. It would have been even worse up on Mars, with the gigantic domes that had been built on that planet, with all of the people living in them. Of course, on Mars they would have all the supplies they would need, considering how many domes were up there.
But still, there were twenty thousand people down here on Ceres, the mining robot operators and the tradespeople and service people and repair people necessary for normal life, and all of their children. And they had less than twenty minutes to get inside a building, as the dome was leaking air, and leaking badly. The sirens went off in everyone’s pockets and purses immediately after the power went out and the battery-powered emergency lighting lit up.
Buildings inside domes were designed for this sort of emergency. They were airtight when the windows were closed, which was seldom; temperatures in the domes were comfortable whether one was inside or outside a building. But when alarms went off, windows closed by themselves. The doors to the outside of buildings opened inwards, and most buildings even had airlocks. Commercial buildings had at least one person-sized airlock at their entrances and exits, and a home’s garage served as the house’s airlock. Anyone not home who didn’t have a garage would have to find shelter elsewhere, because there was no getting inside or outside a building without an airlock when the dome’s pressure dropped too low.
Chuck called his old friend Charlie Onehorse, mayor of Dome Australia Two on Mars, hoping there was a Green-Osbourne ship there, and hoping there were enough supplies on Mars. Nobody but G-O had ships that were fast enough to get here in time, and he wasn’t sure they would survive even if one of that company’s ships were on Mars. The message would be a while getting to Mars, even though luckily the two bodies’ orbits were relatively close right now.
“You’re a dumb arse,” the London-born Chuck told himself when he got off the phone, and called another friend living in a different Martian dome, John Knolls. John owned his favorite Martian bar and quite a bit of Green-Osbourne stock, was on G-O’s board of directors, and his wife was the daughter of one of that company’s founders. If there was a ship available, John could get it here. If he didn’t, more people would die. In fact, he was afraid that everybody might die.
Two were killed in the blast, and three were already dying from radiation sickness. Several more people were injured, four of them critically. There had been an accident in the fusion-powered electrical generators; one of the chambers that the fusion took place in exploded. The entire place was now toxic, and many of the survivors probably wouldn’t survive in the long run.
It wasn’t, of course, a fusion explosion. A fusion explosion would have leveled the dome and instantly incinerated everyone there. It was a chemical explosion, and it would likely take months to find the accident’s initial cause.
Buildings in domes were always built with a dome leak in mind, and that was the problem in this case. The reactor was built against and as part of a dome wall. It was built intentionally thin behind the generating plant, far less sturdy than the rest of the building’s walls, so if the unlikely chamber explosion ever actually happened, the force and radiation would go outside the dome.
It worked perfectly, except that some of the building’s seams weren’t quite strong enough. Luckily the whole building didn’t give way or everyone outside at the time would have died instantly. But there were cracks around the doors and air was leaking badly.
It was a matter of time now. Air inside buildings would only last so long, and many had no extra oxygen.
Holy crap,” John said when he read Chuck’s phone call from Ceres. He called the main office on Mars, which was in his dome, and ordered that a ship be readied immediately.
“We only have two here, sir. One is due for maintenance, and the other one is stranded in orbit with two badly damaged generators waiting for a shipment of parts from Earth.”
“Reschedule the maintenance on the one that flies and get it and its pilot ready, and I mean now. This is a real emergency.”
He then called his friend Ed Waldo, who was mayor of his dome. He’d need Ed’s help coordinating everything. Maybe Ed would come by his bar later on when he got off from work.
Karen Wilkerson was chief engineer at the power station on Ceres, and was watching the board closely before it happened. One of the techs had pointed out some abnormal readings, and when she saw the blue line spike she hit the evacuation alarm immediately, saving a lot of lives. Had she not seen it coming, everyone in the building would have died. Instead, the only casualties were those who didn’t drop everything and leave the building immediately, and one who had fallen down in her rush to escape and had broken her arm.
Now she was in the annex, worrying about her people. She had already called Dome Hall with the disaster alert. Now all there was to do was to wait until the leaks were patched and a supply ship came with batteries, because they wouldn’t be generating any electricity from this generator again and building a new one would take months.
And wait for air, of course. If that ship didn’t get here on time everyone would likely die.
Commander Jose Ramos and the Green-Osbourne Security fleet that he was in charge of were in orbit around Mars, as usual, when he saw the pirates. “¡Santo mierde!” he swore in his native Spanish. That was an awful lot of pirates, more than he’d seen together for years. He set course towards them, and when the pirates saw Ramos’ fleet they took off. The G-O Security ships took chase.
A call came in from G-O headquarters. Transport 487-B was missing, and they believed that it was now in the hands of pirates. It had been stranded in orbit around Mars, waiting for parts for generator repairs. When the first transport showed up with its parts, the ship was gone. The repair facility’s crew was missing, hadn’t even radioed, and was presumed dead.
He swore again. Where was that damned Jones? Jones’ ship was supposed to be guarding the orbiting repair facility that held 487-B. He worried about Bob and his crew, praying that they had simply been disabled by a mechanical malfunction before getting there. He cursed himself; he shouldn’t have let Larry leave until Bob got there.
He then cursed himself for stupidity again; there was no way any pirate could beat Bob and his ship and crew. It must have been a mechanical malfunction.
He wondered how many of the facilities’ personnel had been killed. Damn. There were three orbiting facilities, each with a G-O security ship guarding it, except the ship guarding this one was missing. And it was his responsibility; he should never have let Larry leave no matter how long he had been since he’d eaten or slept. This, he swore, would never happen again.
This was bad. Ever since the piracy had started not long after Mars was colonized, all space vessels were armed to some degree, but G-O ships were the best built, most heavily armored and heavily armed. Transport ships owned by Green-Osborne even had EMPs, atomics, and rail guns, and the security fleet was armed and armored even better. An atomic explosion wouldn’t even damage a G-O craft, whether transport or security, unless it detonated closer than two hundred meters away. They were completely impervious to EMP blasts, which took out any electronics on anyone else’s ships.
Now that pirates had a G-O ship...
Bill Kelly was sound asleep when the alarm went off on his phone. It was his boss, who told him he had a half an hour to be in the pilot seat ready for takeoff.
He rolled out of bed and swore. Not having time for a shower or breakfast, he hurriedly dressed and rushed to the spaceport.
“Glad you got here so fast, Bill,” his boss told him. “There’s a terrible disaster up on Ceres. Their power generator blew up and caused a huge air leak. We would have called sooner but I knew you’d be sleeping. You need to get those batteries and tanks of solid oxygen and nitrogen to the belt as fast as you can make that ship go. The robots should be done loading in ten or fifteen minutes.”
Bill flew his houseboat to the ship and entered, belted into the pilot seat, and detached from the repair facility. Now he only had to wait for the countdown to leave orbit to begin as the ship drifted slowly away from the repair station.
The captain of the ship guarding the facility came on the radio. “You’re on your own for a while, buddy. Commander Ramos says I need to join the chase against an awful lot of pirates, so keep your eyes open.”
“I take off in five minutes anyway,” Bill said. “I’ll be okay.”
“Well, I’ll check on you shortly.”
The pirates split up and ran in different directions. The Green-Osbourne defense fleet split up to chase them, and Commander Ramos went after the biggest one. It might be the stolen transport.
¿Qué en el infierno?” It was outrunning him! That shouldn’t be possible. Maybe it was an old fission ship that had been converted to fusions. When converting them from fission generators to fusions, the engineers had left the fission generator as a backup to the fusions, which often malfunctioned back then. Apparently the pirates had done a bit of hardware hacking and had made it so that they were using all three generators at once. He shook his head, when the company got that one back it was going to really need a lot of work. They might even have to scrap it.
Not only were Green-Osbourne ships heavily armed and armored, they were also stealthy. But not invisible, not as long as the engines were running, since they left a trail of ions behind. Jose grinned at this; common knowledge was that they were completely invisible. Common knowledge is often incorrect, although they were indeed invisible unless you knew what to look for.
It looked like the pirate was circling back towards Mars. He kept following the trail.
Will Welton was relieved. His crew had finally finished sealing off the generator building, putting plates and glue on the doorways and sealing the smaller leaks by the dome wall. But the danger was far from over, as the dome itself had practically no air pressure at all now. Rather than going back to the shop, he went home, thankful that his house had a garage that doubled as an airlock. If it didn’t he would have had to stay in the shop until air arrived. All he could do now was wait for the supply ship to come, and hope his air held out long enough. “I need to get some house plants,” he told himself.
When he got home he took off his helmet and gloves, and shut off the environment suit’s power and valves, but didn’t remove the suit; he didn’t know how long his house’s air would last. There was two hours worth of air left in its tank, and if his house ran out of air he’d need it. He wondered if anyone would live.
Bill was barely out of orbit before pirates were after him, and a lot of them, too. And wouldn’t you know it, none of the Green-Osbourne defense fleet was anywhere near Mars where they usually were. Probably still chasing the other pirates, he thought, and here there were more. Well, Ralph had warned him, but he wished Jeff could have stuck around.
There was a lot more piracy now, ever since the trouble on Earth had started. The company’s defense fleet was busier than it had ever been.
Pirates could be pretty clever at times, and may have lured the defense fleet away somehow. They had once infiltrated company maintenance years ago and sabotaged Bill’s ship when it was being worked on. If it hadn’t had been for John, who was a company captain at the time, he’d have been dead.
“God damn it,” he swore out loud. “Not now! Pirates are the last thing I need. People are going to die if I don’t get to Ceres!”
But pirates don’t mind people dying. In fact, they quite often caused it. They seemed to enjoy killing.
He could have simply outrun them, but instead dropped an EMP set to discharge when it was right in the middle of the fleet that was after his boat. That should end the problem, and since it would kill everything electronic, the ships’ life control systems would also be dead. If the salvage fleet didn’t show up in time the pirates would be, too.
He hoped so. An awful lot of his friends had been killed at the hands of pirates. The only good pirate was a dead pirate, but he was okay with bad pirates rotting in prison.
His EMP didn’t disable them all. Bad aim on his part? Half a dozen were still accelerating.
He dropped an atomic. He hated destroying valuable space ships that would get a bonus for him if there was a finder’s fee involved, but it seemed the right thing to do at the time.
The lead ship survived. “Damn, they have one of ours,” he said aloud, wondering how pirates had gotten hold of a virtually invincible G-O ship. He quickly called headquarters informing them that pirates had a company transport, although they were certainly aware of it, he thought. This was real trouble. G-O ships were faster, better armed, and sturdier (and usually larger) than other companies’ ships. Now the pirates had EMPs and atomics!
But Bill knew these ships, and knew them better than most company captains, let alone any pirate. Bill was a nerd who loved not only studying how they worked, but how to make them work better. He’d gotten a third gravity on batteries once, and nobody else had ever managed to. Even though he’d tried to explain to the company engineers how he did it, they still didn’t understand.
He’d outrun that sucker.
It took hours, but he did. He was running on both generators and batteries, which he’d set up when he realized that the pirates had one of his company’s boats. He wondered why he wasn’t pulling ahead of the pirate any faster than he was, especially since it was an old ship after him that he should have been able to outrun easily, even without the extra boost from the batteries. He hoped the extra wattage didn’t harm any of the engines; this was a bit of his own nerdy design, the craft already was overdue for maintenance, and he had to run like this far longer than he thought he’d have to.
When he was far enough ahead of the pirate ship that he could no longer detect it, he went at full thrust for another two hours. Then he disconnected the batteries from the engines and set them charging from the generators as he continued on at the ship’s normal top speed. His boss had told him to go as fast as he could make it go, but he worried about the maintenance issues.
He still hadn’t had a shower or breakfast. He remedied that immediately.
Mayor Watson paced in his office, cursing himself. Why weren’t there more oxygen generators? They had existed since the late twentieth century when they were used to treat emphysema, long before that disease was cured. There were a few in Dome Ceres, of course, but not many. Not nearly enough for an emergency like this.
There weren’t many plants inside buildings, either, except inside the farm buildings. There were a lot of plants outside, but outdoor plants would do little good now; they’d die quickly without air, and in the cold. They would be a help in a home or business, changing the carbon dioxide people exhaled into oxygen and plant material, and he vowed to get plants in every building. Lots of them. Plants inside buildings would save lives!
And why didn’t he have enough air for this sort of emergency stored away? He swore that there would be enough if something like this ever happened again. He cursed himself again for his lack of foresight.
Well, hindsight would have to do. If He lived. He’d gotten a message from John that a ship full of air and batteries was on its way, but would it get here on time?
The company defense fleet’s commander never lost the ion trail, and eventually came up on the pirate ship, which was drifting through space at a high rate of speed. Either its engines had all burned out, or more likely all three of its generators had malfunctioned; it had been waiting for parts, and the pirates had probably installed old used, sub-par equipment. The other pirate vessels had been traveling along side, apparently trying to get the disabled craft going again. They took off in different directions, maybe five of them; his fleet had taken the rest when he was chasing the pirate Green-Osbourne transport.
He got a message from Bob Jones that he and his crew were safe. It had indeed been a mechanical problem, and he was at one of the repair facilities in orbit around Mars, cursing about the stolen transport. If only... And Ramos was still cursing himself for letting Larry leave before his replacement showed up. He wasn’t going to do that again!
Docking with the crippled purloined transport was easy, and now his commandos were all on duty. He wondered how many pirates would be captured, and how many killed. He gave no thought to G-O casualties, because there never were any. These men and women were very well trained.
He chuckled. When pirates fought with the police on Earth, often the pirates won. But never when they tangled with the G-O security fleet. Earth had better never go to war with Mars!
Bill fretted. Engine 129 was showing a small undervoltage in one computer, and a small overvoltage on a different computer. All four computers were supposed to agree. He trudged down the five flights of stairs, worrying and cursing. He was half a day from Ceres, his time, but it would be longer Ceres time because of the time dilation that extreme speed causes. If he lost any more engines... and God forbid that he lose a generator. Everyone on Ceres would die, including Chuck.
Even though two of the four computers disagreeing usually meant a bad electrical connection, he shut number 129 down, as per normal operation. He considered shutting the two next to it down as well, knowing that sometimes this sort of problem spread from engine to engine. One engine wouldn’t matter, since he was ahead of schedule, sort of, but three might.
He’d probably broken another speed record and would arrive “early”, if there was such a thing in a situation like this. He’d been doing more than a gravity and a half when the pirate ship was chasing him, which was as high as the indicator would go. The craft’s top speed was supposed to be one point four Gs, and he wondered how much he’d really gotten out of it. Walking up those five flights of stairs in that gravity was a real workout, especially after being on Mars and on low gravity runs.
Unlike most runs, he spent most of his waking time the whole run in the pilot room, the engine room at the bottom of the ship, and traveling between the two. “My legs will look like turkey legs when this run’s over,” he panted as he climbed the stairs.
It was time to turn the ship around and decelerate, and he was glad it wasn’t an old boat. The old models almost always had something break when you reversed them for braking. If he lost a generator now, he’d overshoot Ceres.
On Ceres it had been two Earthian days since the accident, and things were getting grim. Some people were running out of food, air was getting pretty bad in some buildings, and if the ship ran late a lot of people would die. Maybe everyone.
Will Welton had taken off the suit finally, realizing he couldn’t keep wearing it until air came. He’d put it back on if the air in his house got thick.
Mayor Watson had spent that time mostly pacing in his office, feeling like a caged animal. Most Cererians were probably feeling the same way, he thought.
While he paced, the same thoughts raced through his head, over and over, planning for the aftermath of this mess. Dome Ceres was going to have emergency oxygen, and a lot more inside plants. He envisioned air pipes running into homes from a central emergency air supply that would run parallel to water pipes. He wondered why this hadn’t been done before, and wondered what else he could do to make the Cererian Dome safer. All he could do now was hope that ship wasn’t late.
Jen Carpenter was in the hospital with a broken arm. She had panicked when she had a strange feeling and started running, and was outside before the alarms even sounded. She didn’t even know what had spooked her. The first one out of the building, she tripped and fell right when the alarm sounded.
Her arm hurt, but she was glad of her misstep, because hospitals keep lots of oxygen. The folks there would be the last to asphyxiate if that ship was late.
A tear ran down her cheek; she had lost friends in the accident, and probably wouldn’t even get to attend the funerals.
Chuck answered his phone. It was his Martian friend Captain Bill Kelly, piloting the rescue ship. He was only a half hour away, planet time! He hadn’t expected it to arrive until the next Earth day. Nobody counted Cererian days, since they were so short.
“Thank God!” he said over the phone to Captain Kelly.
Bill laughed in the weirdly fast, high pitch of someone on an approaching ship coming in at high speeds. “Thank pirates. They have one of our ships and I had to do what might have been dangerous to outrun ‘em. I’m pretty sure I broke a speed record. Look, Chuck, suit up and I’ll meet you at the transport dock. Ceres’ gravity is low enough I can land an ion ship on the surface.”
They spoke for another minute or two before hanging up. Bill readied the ship for landing, and Chuck suited up to meet him.
Will Welton was worried. Oxygen was getting low and carbon dioxide was getting thick in his house, and he was afraid he’d better drive to the hospital before he started suffering from anoxia. He donned his environment suit, helmet, and gloves, turned on the valves and electronics, and went into his garage/airlock to drive to the hospital. Surely they would have enough oxygen.
He got in the car, pumped the air back into the house from the garage, opened the garage door, started it up—and it wouldn’t lift.
Even though Ceres is classified as a dwarf planet, it still doesn’t have much gravity, so wheeled vehicles simply wouldn’t have enough traction to be very useful. So vehicles were hovercraft, with fans lifting and propelling the vehicle like an early twenty first century multi-fan drone.
But fans don’t work when there’s no air to fan. He got out and started walking to the hospital.
His CO2 alarm went off. He kept walking.
His low oxygen alarm went off. He kept walking.
Confused by the anoxia he was starting to suffer, he had a hard time finding the hospital. His head was pounding, and his mood was swinging like a yo-yo. He finally reached the hospital two hours later and collapsed in the emergency room’s airlock.
It was only a minute or two before he was found, as he wasn’t the only one who had started running out of air. Hospital staff were extra busy today!
I sure am glad to see you, mate. Things are getting desperate,” said the British Chuck.
“I hope I got here on time,” Bill replied.
“Barely, but yeah. Once those canisters are finished unloading and opened they’ll melt and boil away quickly in this warmth.” The robots were bringing them in and opening them, and the first ones opened were already appreciably less full. Clouds of vapor were rolling out of the boiling but super-cold liquid in the opened canisters.
Bill looked at the thermometer on his environment suit’s sleeve. Warmth? Oh, well. “So how long will it be until you can get a new generator built?”
“Six months. It would only take two if we could afford speed, but we’re going to need so many batteries our budget is going to be really strained.”
“Why don’t you call John and see if the company will rent this ship to you for a couple of months?”
“I don’t need a ship, I need electricity!”
“What do you think this tub runs on, hydrazine? There are two fusion generators on it, big ones, three stories tall each. We dock ships that have busted generators and charge the broken ship’s backup batteries all the time.
“My boat was going to be out of action for a while anyway for maintenance, and considering what I did to get here alive and on time it’s really going to need it. Maintenance should be easier with gravity, even as low a gravity as Ceres has. We could send the dozen or so people necessary to do it here. Call John. I’ll bet he’d do it for a load of rare earths, and you folks have plenty!”
“Come on, Bill, lets get to my office so I can call him, that’s a great idea!”
“Look, Chuck, I’d love to, but I need to supervise hooking the ship’s generators up to your grid so everybody can charge their batteries. I’ll meet you at the Bull’s Head for a beer later if it’s open.”
“It should be. Every restaurant, pub, and shop on the dome will be busy tonight. Cooped up in their homes running out of air they’re going to want to be out, and only a fool would leave his shop closed. I’ll meet you there.”
Yeah, Chuck called, twice.”
“I thought his staff would have.”
“I don’t know, I couldn’t exactly talk to him there. It was email, of course, but I can’t see Chuck not handling something like that himself. So how was your trip? What happened after you got to Ceres?”
“Well, there was nothing out of the ordinary on the way there, just routine. You were a captain once, you know how it goes.” He chuckled. “I’m pretty sure I broke a speed record, though.”
John laughed. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Well, anyway, a couple of hours after I got there you could walk around outside without an environment suit, and half the people there opened their windows because the cold, thin air outside was more breathable than the thick, oxygen-thin and carbon dioxide-saturated air inside.
“The police checked all of the buildings to make sure the occupants were all right, and I met Chuck at the pub when we were done working.
“I was on Ceres for a long time, rode back on the Orion ship after it finally got there, unloaded all the batteries, and loaded a shipment of rare earths for Charlie Onehorse’s dome here on Mars. As slow as Orion’s ships are I was on Ceres a week before he even got there, and it took half a day to unload the batteries and load the ore.
“So how have things been down here on Mars?”


The Accidental Traveler
Wierd Planet

mcgrew publishing