Episode 7 -- Hammurabi
Part 1 in a 3-episode series.
Most human ships kept a strict colour code. Yellow-white lighting was for the artificial day. Red lighting was for the artificial night. Blue lightning was for these exceptional moments when everyone aboard was expected to perform at the apex of their abilities. On warships, blue was the colour that called for battlestations. On civilian vessels, it meant imminent danger, either for the ship itself or for another engine in the vicinity.
The Al-Awaidh had been under blue lighting for the past six hours. Qasmuna watched her screens, an empty coffee thermos in her. The Algorab navigator was sixty-two years old, including twenty-two years spent in the USRE High Fleet and fifteen in the militant branch of the Lebanese Space Interests. She had six combat engagements and two confirmed ship destructions under her belt. The first one had been an unregistered Martian corsair, shot down during a rescue mission at the edge of Oort's cloud. The second one, well, only the stars knew their identity now. A hijacked mining vessel turned into an improvised missile aimed at one of Saturn's moons. In total, estimated Qasmuna, she had killed between ten to thirty-two people, depending on the state of the mining ship's crew prior to its destruction. A military navigator was the highest authority aboard her ship. Of course, the missiles had been fired by a weapons specialist and guided by the ship's sensors, but in the end, the order originated in her. Qasmuna had never felt anything close to remorse, even though each time, she could have had taken another path. The corsair, she often thought, could have been neutralized by a laser shot aiming for its radiators. The spinal mounts on her Luciole interceptor would have had been up to the task. As for the hijacked mining ship, it would have been possible to catch up with it and slow it down, yes. But both options would have had required to gamble the lives of a cargo ship's crew and a lunar outpost's population. Missiles were more reliable. Ninety-seven percent of effective target neutralisation after acquisition, not accounting for active defences. Against a middle-sized improvised combat vessel, this percentage neared one hundred. Qasmuna had spent days reliving these two encounters over and over, in simulations and live exercises. And every single time, her decision had been the same. Yes, she had underestimated her crew and her ship. Yes, the missile had never been necessary. Thirty-two people had been fruitlessly killed by her hand.
Yet, Qasmuna had never found it a moral problem. Many ship commanders spent the rest of their lives rationalizing the decisions taken in the heat of combat. They said it was war, and at war people died. They said it was bad luck. They said it was fate. They said many things that provoked nothing but deep ennui in Qasmuna's mind. She had killed thirty-two spacers. Fine. What had happened, had happened. She wasn't cold, nor flippant, nor even a sociopath as she had long believed. No, it was just the way the universe was made. The way she watched it through her spectacles. Dancing screen lights on her empty thermos.
"Qas. I think I've got it."
Qasmuna leaned towards Jalil. Her husband was the Al-Awaidh's pilot.
"What do you see?"
"Look here. On the axial sensor. It is too steady to be a sensor fluke and too weak to be a routine emission from a space station or satellite. I think we are looking at backscatter from the communications laser of the Hammurabi."
"Can you determine an origin point?"
"Yes. I need two antennas on the same side relative to the sun. Can you give me a twenty degrees clockwise rotation?"
The navigator nodded and anchored her thermos on a magnetic pad. The Al-Awaidh's cockpit hearkened back to the stealth bombers of the industrial age -- sharp, geometrical angles. Qasmuna rolled a control sphere and the Al-Awaidh fired its RCS thrusters.
"Twenty degrees clockwise. Done."
"Getting the signal on two antennae...there. I have the backscatter source. Target in infrared. Weak but steady signature. That's the Hammurabi alright. Two hundred thousand kilometres downrange. Main engines cold. Auxiliary engines cold. Radiators cold. There's just the emergency laser emitter. I have no idea who that ship is broadcasting to, but it's not us. A true ghost ship...I'm afraid the rescue mission is about to turn into a salvage mission. Hang on a second. What's that?"
"I have a second heat signature, ten kilometres away from the Hammurabi, stable trajectory. Even weaker. I think that's Courier 7. The hell is the postal service doing here?"
The Internationale was on the same vector as the Hammurabi, radiators folded and engines off. Isaac/Isabeau watched the unknown ship with a sore heart. The engine that, according to its IFF, was named ICS Hammurabi looked like it belonged to another historical era. It moved through hard vacuum at about ten kilometres per second, having apparently reached an orbital approach vector to Typhoon via geometry translation, two to three days prior. The Hammurabi was made of three modules. At the centre lay a VASIMR propulsion unit organized around a nuclear reactor and two rows of radiators. Two cables, a hundred metres long, extended away from the engine module, linking it to two separated sections. The first one was a launcher stage acting as a counterweight, while the second was a habitation module made of white cylinders. The entire structure was rotating, with the nuclear reactor acting as a center of movement. The Hammurabi was an old-fashioned centrifugal gravity ship. Most modern engines were fast enough to avoid the problem of living in zero-g -- either by thrust gravity, or simply because they travelled in FTL fast enough that long stays in microgravity were not a concern -- but this one didn't even have a proper fission drive. The design was antique; yet, the ship was pristine. A historical error and a vessel in distress -- and now, Isaac/Isabeau understood why the Hammurabi had sent it.
"The centrifugal rotation is fast, way too fast" said Bubbles, audibly terrified, "the simulated gravity inside the ship must be close to six times standard."
Isaac/Isabeau had already put on an EVA suit.
"Still no contact with the crew?"
"No. But 6 sustained gees..it's not survivable for more than a few tens of minutes. An hour or two, for trained personnel, maybe? And as far as I can tell that ship has been drifting away for days."
"I'll believe it when I see the corpses. Can you raise an autopilot?"
"Negative. A true ghost ship, like the Night Flight."
"We need to find a way to dock with one of the side modules. Then we'll be able to slow the rotation down to manageable levels with engine thrust."
Isaac/Isabeau's hands tightened around the three-dimensional controls of the Internationale's thrusters.
"Can't do. I cannot maintain such a circular acceleration and trajectory with the Internationale on our current RCS. And these two outer modules are like high-speed hammers. If we drift away and they smash into us..."
"Our best option," intervened Bubbles, "is to dock with the nuclear module then send a drone alongside the cable after having it match the clockwise movement. Once the drone is docked to the outer modules, it can thrust with its engines to slow down the hab module down."
"Do we have a drone that can operate at six gees?"
"Our djinns can do it. The problem is that they don't have enough fuel to significantly slow the Hammurabi down, not by a very long shot. We need to get back to Rainwater Station."
"Wait, Bubbles. I have a thermal ping. Translation exit, one thousand kilometres away. Small ship on an interception vector with the Hammurabi. Identifies itself as Al-Awaidh."
"What is an Algorab vessel doing in Rainwater space?"
"Probably answering the Hammurabi's distress call, just like us. Opening a coms channel. Al-Awaidh, this is Courier 7 Internationale, registered as ISI-7, Five Suns postal service. I am navigator Tali Talasea. Do you read?"
A low-pitched, sweet voice answered in Sanskrit.
"Internationale, this is gunship Al-Awaidh, attached to the Algorab outpost of Cordoba Port on Silene. I am ship navigator Qasmuna bint Fatima Al-Yasamin. I assume you're answering the Hammurabi's distress call?"
"We are. I can't get an answer from the crew or from the on-board systems. It appears the ship suffered from a catastrophic failure of its centrifugal gravity systems. We plan on trying to slow it down with a drone but we do not have any vehicle that would be powerful enough."
"We do. Hold tight, Internationale. We are coming."
Isa contemplated the expanse of space through their helmet visor. On one side, there was Typhoon. A gigantic eye aimed at Rainwater station, two million kilometres away. On the other side, a starless blackness. The pilot stood on the outer hull of the Hammurabi's central module. Above and below them, the cables turned the ship into a mad clock. Yes, they thought. There is no way this hab module is not a tomb.
The Internationale had moved to the direct proximity of the ship, a mere hundred metres away. The Al-Awaidh followed right behind. The gunship was painted in black, white and grey, with the stylized raven at the prow and symmetrical lines of azulejos at the stern. The front-facing part of the fuselage was shaped like a chisel to protect against laser fire. The midsection was home to four blade-shaped heat sinks. The rear section was all white, a short cylinder with six nozzles. In stark contrast with the Internationale, the Al-Awaidh used a powerful, high thrust gas-core nuclear drive. But even with that much power at her disposal, its navigator had deemed rendezvous with the hab module too risky.
A faint thump spread through the hull when Jalil anchored himself to the VASIMR module.
"Hey. Isa. Happy to see you again. I'd like to thank you once more for the birthday letter. It's amusing that we are both looking after the same distress signal."
"You're a bit too relaxed, aren't you? The Hammurabi's crew is probably dead by now."
Jalil remained unfazed, but he did give Isaac/Isabeau a sorry smile.
"Alas, I am accustomed to boarding derelicts."
"And what kind of drone are you going to use?"
"It's not exactly a drone. It's a little less refined."
A torpedo-shaped object drifted towards the VASIMR module, escorted by two EVA djinns.
"A space to space missile?"
"It has enough delta-v to slow the module down and safely operating at six gees is within its basic specs."
"So, the plan is to match the motion of the cables with the missile, then to have it climb down towards the hab module and fire its engines to stop the rotation? You have such fine control over a torpedo?"
"Most missiles can perform millimetre-accurate course corrections," answered Talasea on the radio, "and the EVA djinns will remain docked to facilitate precision manoeuvring. I am more doubtful of the missile's ability to match the relative motion of the cable."
"Qasmuna ensured me it would work and I'd trust her with my life."
Jalil signalled his navigator she could start the motion matching burn. The missile drifted by Isaac/Isabeau, then used its RCS thrusters to position itself upright, relative to Jalil and Isa. The torpedo was eerie. It moved like a djinn drone but with the speed and accuracy of an apex predator. The missile started rotating clockwise, steadily accelerating. After a minute of uninterrupted RCS thrust, the projectile had become the hand of a frenzied clock, matching the motion of the cables like a star-cast shadow.
"Contact," said Qasmuna.
The djinns pushed the missile against the cable. The projectile attached itself to the carbon rope with a prehensile tentacle and gave a very slight RCS burst to travel towards the habitation module. The closer the missile went to the cable's outer end and the more powerful centrifugal gravity was. Qasmuna gave the torpedo its halt order a few metres away from the habitation module. The torpedo moved into an horizontal position then moored with the hull.
"Qas, how are we looking?" asked Jalil.
"Six gravities is a bit much for the djinns, but the missile feels at home. Igniting main drive."
A white flame followed the ignition of the missile's metastable hydrogen engine. Qasmuna kept the torpedo on moderate thrust, in order to limit the stresses on the hab module as much as possible. Isaac/Isabeau switched their visor to vector mode to visualise the slow counter-rotating motion the missile imposed upon the module. They could clearly see the various forces at play -- including the ever-increasing stress put on the Hammurabi's structure. And suddenly --
"Jalil! The cable!"
The Algorab pilot looked up, just in time to see the Hammurabi's cable snap. The missile's thrust had finished what several hours of high-speed centrifugal rotation had started. The missile and the module were ejected in opposite directions. Isaac/Isabeau and Jalil left the VASIMR module on voidsuit thrusters, retreating towards the ships. The missile drifted for several kilometres before Qasmuna could regain control of it. In the meantime, the habitation module had been sent on an outwards trajectory. Its relative velocity had greatly diminished but it still moved at almost fifty metres per second.
"Qas! Can you intercept?"
"Negative! I am not going to lit up a nuclear lightbulb with EVA personnel nearby!"
"The Internationale has an auxiliary rocket drive. Bubbles?"
Courier 7 ignited its metastable nitrogen drive and lunged forwards. Bubble's piloting skills were less sharp than Isa's but they were perfectly serviceable and it took her only a handful of seconds to match the movement vector and velocity of the habitation module. The AI used the Internationale's manipulating arms to intercept the crew section and thrusted back towards the Al-Awaidh, holding the module like a bird bringing an egg back to the nest.
"Hammurabi, Hammurabi..." whispered Jalil, "what are you hiding?"
The Hammurabi's outer airlock was sealed like an industrial-era bunker. Its unwilling union with the Internationale was almost grotesque: a two-bodied abyssal creature. Even Isaac/Isabeau's breathing felt strange to them, imprisoned in the little self-contained universe of their space suit. The white hull moved towards them with unnerving regularity. Right before making contact, Isa lit up their RCS thrusters and activated the magnetic anchors on their gloves.
"Contact with the Hammurabi."
"Contact with the airlock confirmed," added Jalil.
The Algorab pilot drifted for a few metres, glancing through the main porthole of the hab module.
"I see a body. Looks like it's been here for a few days at least. Isa? Are you alright?"
They forced the outer airlock open without answering. The Internationale first sent a drone in to make sure the airlock hadn't been booby-trapped, then Isa entered, followed by Jalil.
"Isa, talk to me," said Talasea on the radio, "what do you see?"
"The inner airlock is in good shape. I see two empty vacuum suits, ready for use. The airlock door is intact. Inside is not pressurized. We are about to enter. Bubbles?"
The AI had deployed a fibre optic cable to connect with the Hammurabi from her Internationale-based mainframe. Her bird avatar was now displayed by a screen in the airlock.
"Ah. It looks like the inside of the module has been physically separated from the outside circuits. I can't open the inner airlock door. You'll have to manually unscrew the whole thing. I need to warn you: I was able to access the engines controlling the centrifugal rotation and got troubling data. The Hammurabi didn't start spinning at six gees due to a human mistake or technical failure. The on-board computer sent a direct order. It was murder."
The silly bird disappeared, replaced by a simple icon. Jalil unfolded an electric drill that he used to carefully unscrew the bolts keeping the inner airlock door in place. Isaac/Isabeau could perfectly feel that his apparent serenity was an illusion. The man was angry. Cold, razor-sharp rage, nourished by what Bubbles had just said, and what he had seen through the porthole.
"Hey, Isa..." whispered Talasea in Isa's helmet, "I think I know what you are thinking about. Calm down. Breathe in."
"And what am I thinking about?"
"You are picturing yourself as the crew of the Hammurabi. You are telling yourself that you may have ended up like this on the Distant Shores, that we could have ended up like this. And I have the very same thought. But please, try to keep these considerations for later, when we will be back together on the Internationale. You are about to enter a derelict. Breathe in, breathe out, calm down and watch out for yourself and Jalil. I am here. Bubbles is here."
The pilot didn't answer. Jalil unscrewed the last bolt, unhinged the airlock door and signalled Isa it was time to enter the Hammurabi. Here we are, thought Isaac/Isabeau. I am arriving on my first murder scene and the only thing I can think about is me -- Talasea, Bubbles and me, dessicated corpses in a drifting wreck no one will ever find. Jalil entered first, helping Isaac/Isabeau through the module. The Hammurabi was small and cramped -- it wasn't made to bridge between stars, even with a geometry drive.
"I believe I know what kind of ship the Hammurabi is", commented Jalil, "it is a pinnace. A medium-range lifeboat made for mining stations, from before we had geometry drives. From before we could just snap our fingers and travel across lightyears. At the time, in the solar system, a ship could take months to reach the closest settlement. And a crew of asteroid miners can't spend that much in zero gravity."
"That was one and a half century ago, Jalil. And the Hammurabi does have a geometry drive."
"I have no idea. Even the poorest communes, the cooperatives that only have one geometry drive for fifteen ships...even these ones, I don't see using such a contraption. I don't have a lead on the owner. I'm just telling you what I'm seeing."
"Why is the inside depressurized anyway? Bubbles, the Hammurabi isn't damaged, right? No impact hole nor hull leak?"
"No, and I can confirm it. The ship's atmosphere was purged by the flight computer."
"It was the first murder attempt. It failed, probably because the crew had their suits on. Thus, the flight computer decided to escalate and triggered the deadly rotation."
"So what? We're dealing with a killer AI?"
"Isa, flight computers are not sapient. They can't even understand their own environment. This one couldn't possibly take the decision to kill the crew. It was hardcoded. Whoever built this ship didn't want it to be stolen. That's the only possibility I see."
Jalil turned around.
"Hey, Isa. Do you feel capable of entering the crew quarters? I fear the corpses are right behind this door."
Isaac/Isabeau nodded. Their monad activated, pumping very light sedatives into their blood. Jalil slid the door open. The pilot pushed against the opposite wall and drifted through the Hammurabi's crew quarters. The main cabin was all-white, a caricature of ancient space stations. The interior looked intact, save for the damage caused by the centrifugal rotation -- crevices in the ceiling, broken glass on the ground, bent steel beams. In the image of the rest of the ship, the hab module looked ancient but the make was modern. An ahistorical ghost. The black box lay in a corner, its data erased. Isa finally garnered the courage to look at the bodies.
There were two of them. Huddled against each other, holding hands, they drifted in zero-g, their bodies twisted by the acceleration. Their vacuum suits were white and anonymized; they reminded Isa of the space clothes used aboard old corporate stations. Their faces were difformed by pain. Eyes closed, they had put their visors against each other, as if they had wanted to get as close as possible in their last minutes. Jalil remained silent and just took a few photographs of the bodies.
"How did they die?" asked Isa, their voice strained. Bubbles' answer took a good minute.
"A stroke, consecutive to a six gees acceleration sustained for at least several hours. Their death was painless. I...I think."
"Right. Right. Jalil. We need to get the bodies to the Internationale. With the flight computers."
Isaac/Isabeau watched the two white shrouds as they drifted in the direction of Courier 7's cargo bay, guided by the EVA djinns. Their hair and forehead were gleaming with sweat that glittered against the lights of the screens. Blissful were the djinns that dragged the bodies towards the Internationale, ignorant of what they carried in their pincers. Bubbles was nowhere to be found. Her post-it avatar was frozen, leaving questions and requests hanging. The AI had started a full diagnosis of Courier 7's mainframe. She had escaped into mindless work. A luxury, considered Isa -- the only kind of mindless work they could carry out was the displacement of the bodies between the Hammurabi and the Internationale.
"Isa, I'm taking control of the djinns. Go take a shower and some rest."
The pilot had not even heard Talasea enter the cockpit. The Irenian had just materialized herself out of sheer will. She was pale. A blue spectre against the VR displays.
"Shit, Tal. I think I'm crying."
Talasea caressed their cheek, gently.
"Yes. Zero-g tears are dangerous. Salty drops get in the computers, in the fans, everywhere...come on. Let go. Take some rest. I'll take it from here. Ah. Don't say anything. That's an order, navigator to pilot. Out."
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