Peter A Dixon

[ Science Fiction Adventure ]

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The Juggernaut | Chapter 14

The next day they gathered at Malachi’s workshop to see what he had learned from the chip.

The workshop was always a mess, and Tila remembered why she avoided it. Apart from her unsettled relationship with Malachi’s father she hated the disarray. She liked things neat and ordered.

Malachi sat at one end of a low hangar on a high stool in front of a workbench covered in diagnostic tools. The space behind him was only large enough to accommodate one small transport or two personal vehicles.

Row upon row of metal racking filled the walls either side of him, apart from the doorway, and every inch of shelving was filled with boxes. Each box contained spare parts, or other basic components. Some boxes contained larger items that were either being assembled or disassembled. It was impossible to tell the difference.

Tila had peeked inside the boxes once. They were neatly organised. Malachi and Theo could easily find any item they wanted very quickly, but apart from their stores, the rest of the room was a mess.

Cables, wires, pipes, tubing, iso-chips, computer cores, broken AI modules, damaged ventilation systems, hydration units, air-filtration housings, waste recycling processors (they all stayed clear of these) and the like, covered almost every surface.

The third wall was home to stores of lubricants and other exotic, and possibly toxic, liquids.

It was partly this lack of space which meant that Theo had to travel as much as did. There was very little room left to bring the work home.

Tila wondered why, for example, someone would need sixteen, apparently identical, tools to remove worn bolts. Theo had once tried to explain to her the difference between clockwise and counter-clockwise threading. The advantages and disadvantages of quad, hex and octo shafts, and the different electrical properties of each type of metal, and why these details were so very important, but Tila had failed to grasp these inscrutable facts.

She had become bored and confused. Theo had become impatient and frustrated, and together they ended up turning something that should have brought them closer into something which drove them further apart.

Tila preferred Malachi’s approach to technology. This involved him looking at something, fixing it, and giving it back. She suspected (rightly) that her bored expression had somehow been interpreted by Theo as disrespect, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. She had a great deal of respect for Malachi’s father. She just didn’t like him very much.

Filling the limited space between all these things was Theo’s ship. It squatted in the centre of the workshop, its angular bulk hiding the bay doors on the fourth wall.

The ship was clearly built with utility in mind rather than anything that could be mistaken for comfort.

Although an old design it was still eminently practical. Large gull-wing doors on each side of the craft allowed easy access to tools and equipment.

At one time, Theo had considered replacing the gull-wing mechanism with a sliding door to save space. Malachi had instead cleverly redesigned the doors so they could provide easier access to their gear. Now the open doors saved space instead of consuming it.

Bunks inside the ship enabled a crew of three to work on location for extended periods. It was not a luxurious place to spend time, but it made it possible for Theo to undertake work which would not be practical in his workshop, located as it was some distance inside the hull of the Juggernaut.

The fact that the workshop was difficult to access from the outer hull was one of the reasons his family had settled in this area. What it lacked in space and practicality it made up for in the price.

The ship was named the Rhino after an animal from Earth’s past.

Tila had never seen one but Malachi had described it to her. Apparently, the sensor spike mounted on the front of the cabin resembled the creature in some way.

Tila couldn’t picture the animal until Malachi showed her on his data pad. Until then she had imagined it to be some sort of giant grey horse.

Horses she had seen. They, along with hundreds of other examples of plant and animal life from Earth, had been carried out into the stars as humanity expanded its heavenly realm.

Tila knew describing animals could be difficult. She had once tried to describe a horse to Ellie. Based on Tila’s description Ellie had pictured them as ugly, hairy creatures with big noses. The more Tila tried to correct this image the more caricatured the creature became in Ellie’s imagination.

“When you describe it back to me you make it sound like an elephant,” Tila had protested.

“What’s a nelliphant?” Ellie had asked.

“Never mind.”

The years of dirt had almost won their battle to hide the Rhino’s burnt-orange paintwork. It hugged the recessed corners and cracks of the hull. In stark contrast were the fresh, sharp metal scars and specular highlights on the raised edges and corners of the metal. It seemed the evidence of age and wear could make itself known no matter how proud you stood or how deep you hid.

And it was clearly a ship designed for space travel. Even Tila could see that. The hard, angled surfaces gave it all the aerodynamic efficiency of a brick.

The Rhino was the single most important item in the workshop, possibly the most important in all New Haven. It brought in trade, materials and supplies, and enabled the residents to travel to other communities by flying direct, rather than taking the dangerous paths through the city.

Most residents didn’t count the tiny one-person racers built from spare parts as an acceptably safe option. Without the Rhino, and without Theo, New Haven would not have been able to blossom like a flower in the dirt.

The wide main thruster was located high on the body of the craft, and because of this design feature the ship only just fit into the workshop.

Even this was a minor miracle, made possible only because the landing gear had been modified to prevent its full deployment. It meant a steady hand was needed at the controls but it allowed the Rhino to fly in and out of the workshop.

Malachi had pointed out to his father that they may as well remove the landing gear altogether, but his father was always one for doing things the right way.

Early in their friendship, Malachi and Tila had concluded that the right way was often Theo’s way. Just as often, and especially in matters of planning and bringing New Haven to life, Theo’s way had, time and again, proved to be the right way.

Tila almost wished that Theo was here now.

Almost.

She imagined he would pick up the damaged chip they had salvaged from the shuttle, look at it from all angles then rattle off a list of items he would need to solve the problem at hand while Malachi would fetch and carry things from the workshop stores to meet this list of demands.

It annoyed her that Theo would treat Malachi as just another part in a machine.

“I know he says there is a place for everything but he doesn’t mean you,” she had explained to him, too loudly, one time when she had lost her patience while trying to encourage him to stand up for himself.

“I’m just doing my part, that’s all,” Malachi had told her.

“It’s always your turn,” she had told him. “Why can’t someone else do all the running around for a change?”

“Because there is no one else! It’s my responsibility!” he had shouted back, and that ended the conversation.

Tila sensed that Malachi had avoided her in the days immediately following their fight. She hoped he had been thinking about what she had said, but she suspected he was just angry with her for pushing him to be something he didn’t want to be.

But there’s nothing wrong with making your own way through life, she thought. And there’s nothing wrong with being independent. He shouldn’t have to take orders all the time.

But Tila also felt guilty for pushing him. Malachi was clever in a way most people could never be. She had seen him find solutions to problems that even confounded Theo, but he never claimed any credit for himself. He seemed to enjoy being a cog in a machine, just one part among many.

She realised then that she didn’t need Theo’s help with this data chip. She trusted Malachi. He knew as much as anyone else.

More, probably.

A soft chime from the workbench brought the present into focus. She fetched a spare stool and dragged it across the workshop to sit next to the others. The metal feet shrieked horribly against the floor and made Ellie shudder as the noise scraped its nails up her spine and dug into her brain.

Malachi was rapidly entering commands into the computer without looking at the keys. He pressed a button and the screen filled with what seemed to be a random mix of numbers, letters, and symbols. He rubbed his tired eyes and blinked.

“Have you slept?” Tila asked. “You look exhausted.”

“A bit. The encryption on the chip was stronger than I thought. It took me some time.”

“How much time?”

“All night.”

“What? Why?”

“I was just trying to help.”

“And you never met a problem you couldn’t solve,” Ellie said. “He hates letting a machine get the better of him,” she added.

Tila pointed at the meaningless data on the screen. “Is that the chip? Do you know what it does?”

“I do now. This chip bridges the communication and navigation systems. You’re looking at the raw data, though. Let me fix it for you so it makes sense.”

He entered more commands, and the display changed into four neat columns. The first was a long block of numbers. The second column was a short alphanumeric sequence. The third was mostly blank but some rows displayed a two-digit number. The final column was another long string of numbers.

“Oh good. That makes sense,” said Ellie flatly.

Malachi held up a finger. “Wait, I can parse it in more detail.”

Ellie looked over at Tila with raised eyebrows. Tila shrugged a reply. Neither of them spoke the same language as Malachi.

“Got it,” said Malachi proudly. “That’s much better.”

Tila disagreed. The only difference she could see was that the first column of numbers was now separated with full stops, and the last column was separated with dashes.

“Is it?” she asked doubtfully.

“Sure it is! Look here.” He pointed at the first column. “This here is a timecode sequence. It’s coded in local time here but I can convert it to interstellar standard. The second column is the hex-code for the address of the transmission. The third column is a jump ID signature. That only appears when jump data is being coordinated among the ships who are about to take part. The last column is the local ship’s VOP.”

Ellie poked him in the ribs. “Are you going to make us ask you what that means?”

“It’s the only way you’ll learn. It’s the Velocity, Orientation and Position of a ship. It’s important for ships to know to make a smooth jump but I don’t think it’s relevant here.”

“So, no messages?” Tila said. Her heart sank.

“No. This is only metadata, not communications, but we were lucky to find it.”

“Why? If we don’t have the messages I don’t see how any of this helps us. We still don’t know any more than we did yesterday!”

Malachi tapped the first column of numbers on the screen. “But we do,” he said. “We might not have any messages, but what we do have is a complete log of ship transmissions for a fleet jump.”

He waited.

“And?” said Tila.

“And, any time more than one ship is involved in a jump, each navigation system has to synchronize with the rest of the flight group. It ensures all the relevant details are included in the point of origin calculation. It’s usually the pilot’s job to authorize these transmissions, but if a ship is regularly part of the same jump group or docked inside a larger ship, like this one probably was, it’s easier just to leave the systems on automatic.”

“I hate using automatics,” said Ellie. “I always forget how they are supposed to work.”

“Okay, so what does this actually tell us?” Tila asked, annoyed by Ellie’s interruption.

Malachi tapped the first column again. “This is the big one. These entries are the timestamps of the system messages so from this we can tell when the messages were sent. Do you want to have a guess how far they go back?”

Tila shook her head. “How far?”

“Twelve years. In fact, the earliest one dates to twenty-four hours before the colony jump. I checked.”

“Why would they be twenty-four hours before?” Ellie asked.