The Long Wait for The Long Voyage of the Little Fleet

It’s been so long getting it out I decided I should drop another chapter on y’alls. This is the book that has snippets in the back scroll as ‘Family Business’. Please be aware these are the rough unedited snippets like you’d get in an advance reader copy. – Added a paragraph later in the day.

Chapter 5
The Small Fleet picked a star beyond the Bunnies’ that the Roadrunner had not visited after passing through the Bunnies’ system or in the arch back to them. The system turned out to be unusual in that it had twenty planets. Several with moons. None were water worlds, nor did any show signs of life and none huge gas giants. That there was no large band disturbed by the gravity of large planets which helped explain such a crowded system.
The odds one had a particular heavy concentration of an important mineral was not worth tying up the Fleet to do a survey. They recorded the general scan information and moved on. Radar showed nothing unusual within the orbits of the planets.
* * *
The next system never formed planets. It was a disk of unconsolidated material. The Little Fleet stopped short and cautiously moved over the plane of most of the orbiting junk. There was a radar return from deep in the mess, suspiciously similar to the alien reflectors marking the mineral rich asteroids previously. Gordon was unwilling to risk even a shuttle to investigate this one. It did suggest the unknown aliens could safely navigate in a cluttered system that intimidated them. They moved on.
* * *
The next system was a hierarchical three star system. A tightly orbiting pair and a larger companion. Only it wasn’t when they looked closer. There was a brown dwarf orbiting the larger companion instead of a simple three body system. Not many brown dwarfs had been examined closely. There was one about six light years from Earth, but like most it didn’t have sufficient mass to make jumping into its gravity well a safe transition. There were no interesting planets in the system, a couple small gas planets way out and some asteroids than were far too thin to call a belt. The brown giant however had satellites and that was so unusual they took a closer look. On the way in they scanned the system hard with radar. The echo they got was not off in the fringes of the system, but right where they were going.
There were several rocks tagged with reflectors, the same crude sort they’d seen before. These were a bit smaller and more of them. The brown dwarf was lousy with moons and moonlets rich in elements of high atomic number. One moon had been excavated so much it had a pit in one side. There was a bigger boom anchored next to the pit, bigger than the ones used to mount radar reflectors. Everyone quickly agreed it was a ship mooring mast. After sampling showed platinum group metals, tungsten, osmium, gold, thorium and uranium on various rocks the consensus was that this moon system was far from played out and it was abandoned while being worked.
The rock with the uranium deposits appears to have been so rich it was once critical for a period of time, the Fargone Marines exploring by suit informed them. There were elements consistent with the decay products of fission products and laser vaporization even revealed traces of transuranics.
The end of the mooring mast had clamping marks and discoloration. Testing with the laser showed the yellow markings were from a bronze alloy. Most of the rubbed off bronze had been eroded by micrometeorite impacts. The system wasn’t that dirty, so the mast was old.
Gordon sent The Champion William to orbit a claim satellite around the whole brown dwarf system. There was enough here to make them all rich many times over.
They didn’t have a real Astrophysicist, but a fellow in engineering followed all the latest research as a hobby and they’d loaded all the recent papers for him. Gordon gave him a call.
“Ernie, are there any current theories of stellar formation that would explain such a system?”
“No, not a one. I can confidently say nobody predicted this, but if I were you I’d keep the find quiet until you have to make it public. If only we can figure out why it formed we have a much better chance of finding similar systems. I would really like first shot at putting a clam satellite around them too.”
“Don’t you think this one will give you more money than you could ever spend?”
“I don’t think you can imagine how much I could spend. I’d like to be able to buy and sell deep space explorers and warships like Lee. You’re damn near as rich as her from Providence. Does that mean you’ll be turning down your cut from this find because you have enough?”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Brown dwarfs are not that uncommon but we don’t have many in the sphere of human exploration. It would be expensive to visit a brown dwarf all alone by itself. They don’t have enough mass to make it a safe transition unless you have an ungodly velocity, so going to and from one will be expensive in fuel. You come in close to one too, so it takes a lot of fuel just to vector away from hitting the damn things. If there isn’t another gas giant associated with one you’d have to mine it directly for fuel and most of them are still pretty damn hot, even if they haven’t ignited as main sequence stars.”
“This is a pretty fortunate combination then, isn’t it?”
“It sure is. We have a couple small gas planets further out to fuel up and the bigger star the brown dwarf orbits lets us make a safe jump in. We should look hard for this combination. I’d hate to make a fast pass through a system and miss a brown dwarf hidden on the back side of the main star. That’s assuming there are similar moon systems around others, but the possibility of finding more is exciting and certainly worth pursuing. I’m having a hard time understanding how so many heavy elements congregated, but I have even less of a clue how they accrued in separate masses, so concentrated.”
“Thank you for your help. I’m recommending you for a double share on this one, for your advice.”
“Excellent, that’s why I came along. But I admit seeing such systems ahead of the big boys with all the proper degrees and professional reputations is sweet. But have they found any more artifacts?”
“Not so much as a busted bolt and we have the Fargone Marines crawling around that mined out pit, looking in every pocket and crevasse with hand lamps. Whoever they were, aside from the reflectors, it seems like they were obsessively neat.”
* * *
“That’s it?” Thor asked two days later, looking sort of peeved. The object was round with a scalloped edge. “What is it?” He asked. He made no move to take it from Gordon’s hand.
“A cap of some sort I’d guess, see the other side is concave with threads.” He flipped it over in his hand. A spiral of threads ran down the side wall to a flat inside surface.
“And no bottle to screw it on?”
“We almost missed this. It was under some dark ore pieces and it was only because the Marine took the initiative to poke around with the rod he was carrying that it came to light. I put him on the list for a double share.”
“It might not go on a bottle,” Lee objected. “There are tanks on machinery that hold lubricants and other fluids. I used to carry specimen bottles for bugs and small plants that had a similar lid. The body was glass too, not the same as the lid. The lid was some sort of plastic. What is this made of?”
“Aluminum, with a little silicon, tin and traces of magnesium, hard anodized and dyed,” Gordon supplied. “That’s why it has a little bright chip in the surface on the inside flat. They cut a little piece out on the milling machine to analyze. The machinist was helpful too. He looked at the threads under a magnifier and told us they were milled on with a spinning cutter that had the thread profile along its edge. You also need a robotic machine tool to do that, you can’t feed it in by hand. A single point tool could do it on a lath, but that’s not how it was done.”
“The edge tells us they have fingers,” Lee said confidently.
“I don’t know. Why not tentacles?” Thor asked.
“Tentacles aren’t going to be as strong. If they had tentacles the edge would have little knobs you could wrap a tentacle completely around. I’ve struggled to get jammed jar lids off before. Sometimes I had to get my dad to take a knife and rap it all around the edge to get them loose.”
“You scare me sometimes,” Thor admitted. Lee just shrugged. It seemed obvious.
“Ah, it tells us something else,” Gordon said, with a smug smile. They just looked at him and wouldn’t beg to be enlightened.
“Their hand is at least big enough to span across it and have enough finger length to fold over the edge and engage the dips on the edge.”
Lee put her own small hand out and fit it over the cap. It was about a hundred millimeters across. “Yeah and most of them had a bigger hand than I do, it’s a real stretch for me.” The Derf though had more than enough reach.
Gordon frowned, deep in thought. “I’d caution that it has likely been hundreds of thousands of years since this rock was mined. We should not presume the same race made the reflectors and the screw lid. This might be from someone like us, who came through exploring long after the original miners and got sloppy and left an artifact behind. I’m not saying it’s likely, but it is possible.”
“Whether there was one race or two, the fact they are so neat about cleaning up a site, says a lot to me. They are either different than us psychologically or they have had bad experiences meeting others and now don’t want to give them any clue about their race by leaving artifacts behind,” Lee said.
Thor nodded agreement. “Things we consider an aberration or impairment might be normal. You might have an entire race of obsessive compulsive people. They might never allow randomness. Piles of objects oriented every which way would offend them. Everything would have to be turned the same way and lined up. Someone who was a slob would be institutionalized as crazy. I bet they’d see patterns whether they were there or not, like humans who get involved with numerology or astrology.”
“I saw a little of that in the Bunnies,” Gordon suggested. “They drove that road across the continent and it was going to be level even if they had to tear down a mountain range to do it.”
“Not to mention they had a fixed idea about the Teen and there was no making a partial change or adjustment. It was all or nothing,” Thor said and actually shuddered.
“We have been leaving claims satellites,” Lee reminded them. “If it’s dangerous to leave things that tell a lot about you then I suggest we clean up after ourselves too. Just in case. Let’s not leave anything more complex than those beacons. They tell much more about us than these radar reflectors, but there isn’t much we can do about that while the Survey demands they be placed for claims. We might suggest back home that something like the reflectors is safer than a big squawking radio beacon.”
“We should pick them back up on the way home,” Gordon decided. “The chance somebody will cross over our path and claim something we didn’t tag is so small. If somebody decides to do a deep voyage like us surely they will go off a different route. Following us they could expect we’d have already claimed the good stuff and their effort could be wasted.”
“It sounds sort of paranoid, but I agree,” Thor said. “I just wish we had somebody who could give us an accurate idea how old these reflectors are. I’m going to have one of the small ones here put whole in the vacuum sample box on our hull. When we get back maybe somebody can date them.”
“I wonder how long one of our claims satellites will keep transmitting? They only hold the claim for five years, so I doubt they spend money to make them last very long,” Gordon guessed.
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Lee decided. “Are we done here?’
“Oh yeah,” Gordon set the cap down. “We’ll let the off shift stand a watch and we’ll transition out of this system in the morning. I sent Roadrunner to look closer at the binary orbiting around this star and they should be back and grappled to Murphy’s Law by our shift.”
* * *
Ernie Goddard from engineering left a message he’d like to talk to Gordon overnight. Gordon wondered if he’d ask for a bigger share than a double. The man seemed a little avaricious, but he was spot on Gordon didn’t want to limit his own wealth, he had to admit. Why didn’t he just leave a text message? Gordon already had too many messages to sort every morning.
“Ernie? Gordon here. What did you want to talk about?” The man was up already and dressed.
“I understand you have a couple weaponized jump drones?”
“Yes, though I’d appreciate if the Little Fleet didn’t broadcast that in port. They are a very dangerous weapon to use. I only bought two and I’d be very reluctant to use them except in extreme circumstances. If you guess wrong you could easily kill an innocent ship or station on the far side of jump.”
“I can see all that. But I’ve been thinking about these brown dwarfs. If we find another that is harder to make a safe jump in and examine with a ship, perhaps you could put a few sensors and recording equipment on one of those drones and it could safely make a jump in and examine a brown dwarf system for rocks and moons like the jackpot we found. Now, I don’t know if the warhead is easily removable, but if you can take even some of the warhead mass off it will make the drone even easier to transition into a low mass system. Would you consider that and see if it’s helpful?”
“The warhead is a separate Fargone package on a New Japan drone, so it’s relatively easy to yank it out and put it in storage. We can even put it back in later if we expend the other drone and really need it. All the extra computing power it carries will allow us to give it detailed instructions for doing a survey too. I’ll have your boss start making a sensor pack and data recording system for one of the drones and I’ll tell him it was your idea.” Gordon got a twinge of guilt at his first thoughts about Ernie. “And Ernie, this is what makes a crew really successful, good ideas from everybody. Don’t let it go to your head, but I’m going to put you down for another share for exemplary service. I’d keep it to myself if I were you. Some of the others who are not as quick with ideas might be jealous.”
“That’s nice and good advice, thank you sir. Being appreciated is nice too, besides the money.”
“Call me again if you get any more ideas,” Gordon invited and broke the connection. If he kept coming up with stuff this good Gordon might have to pay him a fourth share. He was worth it.
* * *
They transited seven more systems with no alien artifacts, no significant planets and nothing really unusual except one star had a large planet so close it had baked off all the volatiles and the iron core with a thin crust was orbiting the star yellow hot and molten. It turned so fast the night side didn’t have time to freeze. It simply had a bit of a graduated glow as the edge turning into the dark was hotter than the edge going back to the light. They were tired again and planned a rest if the next system was suitable. It was stressful going through a bunch of boring systems, while keeping alert.
* * *
“Do you realize? We’ve been taking the longest safe jumps on the same vector away from know space, so the distance has added up quickly. We are now almost as far from what was considered the frontier as it is across all of explored space to the far surface of expansion,” Gordon told them.
“And we haven’t been out six months yet. That just justifies it to me,” Lee said. “It just shows how slow everybody has been going.”
“We have enough right now to turn a profit against the cost of the expedition. We have a water world, a huge deposit of silver, a moon system with so many heavy metals I think it will take centuries to mine out and of course a living world,” Gordon enumerated.
“But we can’t claim an occupied world,” Lee complained. “We may be in the history books for finding it, but if the Bunnies don’t get their act together and trade with us we won’t make a Dollar off finding them. I suppose we can put a brag gem in our earrings, but I wouldn’t feel right to even survey and mine their outer system. It would feel like plundering the kitchen in somebody’s house and excusing it because they were confined to an invalid’s float chair in the living room and couldn’t use it. Did anybody try to mine in the outer systems of Hin or Derfhome?”
“Somebody tried to file a claim for Hin and the Claims Commission disallowed it in pretty strong language. They made it clear enough that nobody tried it on the other occupied worlds,” Gordon told her. “I would suppose you could get a license from them to mine for the natives, but with the Bunnies I suspect they’d want you to do it for free, since the Teen already owns it.”
They were orbiting a beautiful gas giant with enormous rings to shame Saturn and a couple dozen moons. All the ships were fueling up on a slack schedule. There were minimum crews on duty and even those taking turns off. There were card games with IOUs changing hands, making wild assumptions about what their shares would be worth when all the claims proved out.
The Hinth holed up in their suite for this break and Thor explained as delicately as possible that three Hinth was a breeding group, the neuter third sex being the one who sat the nest and hatched the single egg. “They are a bit like Humans and consider it indelicate to discuss the details in public,” he told Lee.
Nobody got so blind drunk they made a nuisance of themselves and the crew had hoarded enough materials and entertainment that nobody was short at the six month mark. There wasn’t any shortage of food or spare parts. The hydroponic garden in The Champion William was a sour fuzzy mess however. They stripped it out, sterilized the soil and reinnoculated it with bacteria and worms from the Retribution. They also sent one of their gardeners over to supervise and see if he could have similar success with the garden there.
There was concern there might be some source of fungus and mildew aboard that would recontaminate it. A few cabins that the Hinth, with their sensitive sense of smell, declared had a ‘funny’ odor about them were pumped down and opened to hard vacuum as a precaution. One crewman’s cabin the Hinth wouldn’t enter. He was forced to vacuum clean all his clothing while he did a personal supervised scrub down and decontamination procedure in the clinic while his cabin was cleaned. One pair of his soft shoes was double bagged and incinerated as beyond any known cleaning regimen. He was then assigned a supervisor to make daily checks of his cabin and person.
Thor taught Lee how to play Go, but she found out chess was no fun to her. It seemed needlessly complicated and she grew bored and antsy after a dozen moves. Maybe she’d like it better when she was older, Thor predicted. For some reason she couldn’t articulate, that irritated her.
The engineering department converted the jump drone to a Brown Dwarf explorer and put it back in the launch tube ready to deploy before they took a well deserved break. The cooks prepared a few special treats like actual cakes that were hard to do when there was variable acceleration and maneuver to contend with. They dug a few items out of stores that were not served every day like prawns and whole fish. It made their break seem different and special. The last day shift of the break they had a Mexican supper and a German breakfast, complete with Mariachi music and Polkas. After six days everybody had received a minimum of two days off and they were ready to move on.
* * *
The next jump the new clock in the old cabinet on Sharp Claws, that had varied a few nanoseconds from the others before was slightly off again. They tore out the entire chassis, examined it and the mounting studs on the bulkhead, checked for sharp points and cracks, ran new wiring from the clock to the computer and power source and added isolating shielding on the runs. When they reinstalled it they fabricated a new housing and put another clock in a fourth cabinet, altering the software to run comparing four clocks instead of three. The Captain didn’t like Gremlins and was just about ready to run all six clocks they owned instead of three, but his navigator dissuaded him, saying that whatever was wrong was likely beyond their current understanding and no number of clocks was likely to fix it. He promised to yank the clock in the refurbished cabinet out of play and trash the entire assembly of hardware if it was off again. They’d keep it in storage and have somebody study it when they got home.
The system was uninteresting. A single star. No worlds worth looking at closely. There were no unusual radar returns. The Sharp Claws did all their repairs under way and they jumped out together.
* * *
They transited six more systems, another uninteresting stretch that wore them down. Gordon had by this time gained trust in the off shift crews to the point they went ahead and recorded data and picked a target star and jumping out while the main shift crew slept. They racked up a lot of light years quickly, before they took another break. They could have done one more, but they were tending low on fuel and this system had a nice gas giant. There was no telling if the next one had such an easy fuel source and how deep the jump after was.
* * *
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the alter-shift crew making transitions while we are sleeping,” Thor told Gordon the second day of their break.
“Tell me why. Is there any particular person in the off-shift that worries you? Did somebody say something or do something that made you lose confidence?”
“No, I never got confident. You saved the transitions for the first crew until just recently. Why did you change that arrangement?”
“They seemed to be doing a good job and it seemed peevish to make them wait to start a jump run, or accelerate slower to time it so we’d take the bridge before jump. And it slows us down. It adds an extra day every fifteen days or so.”
“They aren’t as good a crew as ours. I mean, they’d be fine, more than good enough, for say taking a freighter into a know system. But would you have wanted them sitting the conn when we were at war exiting the Fargone system and ran head on into the USNA destroyer Phoenix? Would they have made a split second judgment to fire blind at the emergent point the fleet waiting in ambush for you would use? Would they even have understood there was a trap waiting for them behind the destroyer?
“I admit, I have my doubts. We did luck out on that one.”
“No, that’s my point, we didn’t luck out. You read the situation perfectly and the entire crew all responded flawlessly in seconds, under fire and damaged, to take us to safety and defeat their fleet. The Fargoers on Murphy’s Law told us they’ve all had the record of that battle played for them, synched with the real time system scan, so they would know just what they were dealing with to serve under us. They are universally awed to hear you ordering complicated spreads of fire and a low probability escape jump with a hole burned through our middecks, calm and unhesitating and then politely inform system control of changed jump plans, like you decided to take a ship load of socks to Bountiful instead of New Japan on a sudden whim. That’s why the Fargone captains were nervous having you in close orbit. It wasn’t the weapons load out on the ships. You scare the crap out of them!”
“I’ve always had a hard time accepting a compliment. But thanks for spelling it out.”
“I don’t know that we’ll meet anybody out here. And I hope we don’t cross runs with somebody who starts shooting at us immediately, like the Phoenix did. But if we do, I’d sure rather have you in that chair than anybody else, including myself. I don’t think we should allow jumping into a virgin system to become routine. It’s easy to do when we do one after another, but there is nothing routine about it. We may run into something none of us can deal with,” he said with a shrug, “But let’s not do it because we had the ‘B’ team up.”
“You’ve convinced me. Now, can you tell me how to change back and not make the whole shift feel slighted and resentful, killing morale?”
“Blame it on me.”
“OK,” Gordon agreed grinning, “I will.”
The rest period over, the new scheduling chief, Thor, posted the new rotation, switching a few people around and returning to reserving late run to jump and transition to the prime crew. There was little bitching, just a few “Oh gods no. Not him.” muttered when Thor’s name was on the header over the duty roster posting, surprising Gordon. “Why so few complaints?” He asked Thor.
“They like you,” Thor explained. “Even knowing you are the law between the stars and a master to be feared, they still think you will listen to a bunch of nonsense and try to keep everybody happy. Me, well, they don’t like me, indeed they expect the worst. I have not found that an impedance to command. At best they know I’ll mock them if they complain, at worst I’m likely to put them on slop well and filter cleaning duty if they waste my time complaining.”
“I wish I’d know this months ago,” Gordon marveled. “I’d have sent all the pestering fools to you and saved untold hours. It doesn’t faze you either, does it?”
“It’s like throwing mud on a pig,” Thor answered. “He doesn’t know it’s supposed to bother him.”

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