The Unexpected Satellite – Part 1

Editor’s Note: This is the first piece of fictional writing that I’ve done in about two years. I don’t regard myself as a particularly good fiction writer (although, to be fair, I’m not fantastic at non-fiction either), but I wanted to file off some of the rust and see whether I could bring a science fiction story with relatively hard scientific elements to completion. Any constructive criticism would be appreciated.

It was difficult enough at the best of times to make your way through a military spacecraft, Alan Hargreaves thought as he staggered through the corridors of the ECSA Chronos. At about 175 centimetres in height, Alan was at the upper reaches of what would be considered “comfortable” on a spacecraft, which meant that he only occasionally had to bow his head to get under the various pipes and conduits protruding from the ceiling. At this moment, though, he was being further impeded by a large collection of various electronic components lying on the floors in piles against the walls, causing Alan to have to take a rather more winding path to his destination than he would have preferred.

After completing his Master’s degree in aerospace engineering, Alan had promptly joined the European Commonwealth Space Agency, the quasi-military wing of the European Commonwealth which controlled the Commonwealth’s dealings in space. In their service, he had quickly progressed up the technical ranks to become a Chief Technical Specialist by the age of twenty-nine. In truth, Alan spent more time as a precision mechanic than he did as the sort of applied mathematician he had trained as, but the pay was respectable and Alan didn’t mind the hands-on approach.

By now, Alan was thirty-three years old and had spent ten years in the job. He had long been regarded a candidate for fast-tracking into the position of Commander on board one of the ECSA’s military spacecraft, even before the notable incident three years earlier where a group of rogue Chinese taikonauts had attempted to cause an international incident by firing on the ECSA Hephaestus. Along with the rest of the crew and some unsung sensor observers on a far-flung ECSA space station, he had conducted his actions with composure. This composure had brought him to the attention of his superiors even as the incident had been swept under the carpet and explained to the general public as a mistake in a training exercise.

Officially, Alan was still assigned to the Hephaestus, although right now it was laid up for repairs after an unfortunate collision with a poorly-piloted civilian shuttle. Alan had not officially been placed on leave, though, so when his current mission had been announced with the requirement for an experienced set of technical staff, Alan had been temporarily reassigned to the Chronos for the mission.

As Alan was sidestepping one of the piles of components, a door opened up to his left-hand side, distracting Alan sufficiently to trip into another pile located in front of him. As he struggled to keep himself upright, a figure exclaimed through the door, “Hey, watch out for the equipment!”

Alan recognised the voice as that of Andrew Donovan, a computer expert also temporarily reassigned to the Chronos. After ensuring his footing, Alan replied, “Oh, hey, Andy. Sorry about that. You distracted me a bit.”

Andrew walked over to the pile of components and looked closely at them, before replying, “Just hope they’re not damaged. If they are, the Commonwealth will have my head!”

Don’t worry about it, Andy. If they’re designed for spacecraft use, I’m sure they can take a gentle boot tap every so often,” Alan replied. “Actually, I was going to ask you: Did you really have to bring the entire set of computers for that spacecraft along with you?”

The spacecraft that Alan was referring to was an asteroid mining vessel, designed to automate the laborious, repetitive task of pulverising asteroids and collecting the loose material for processing for metals rarely found on Earth. Normally, the system worked well, operating more quickly and cheaply than placing a human into the spacecraft for control purposes. This time, however, things had gone wrong, and the asteroid miner in question had dropped off the sensors somewhere in the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt, not giving off any radio signals, nor any infra-red traces.

Well, the spacecraft did cost Brahms Space Mining eighteen billion euro,” Andrew replied after some consideration, “and it’s got a cargo on board projected to be worth one hundred million euro, some of which is earmarked for the Commonwealth itself. I felt that it was better to be safe than sorry.”

Alan grunted. “Right, of course. Well, if you can, try to keep the piles on one side or another. I mean, we’re used to being cramped in the ECSA, but we prefer not to have to walk like crabs to get from one place to another.”

Andrew nodded. “Understood, Alan. I’d best be off now anyway – I don’t think the Commander will want to wait too long. I’ll try to sort things out a bit more when I’m done.”

Alan grunted again, replying, “That’ll have to do. It’s not like we have any free space around anyway.”

The two men shared a brief, firm handshake, before saluting each other and progressing onwards in opposite directions. As Alan continued towards the maintenance bay, still winding his way through the assorted electronic equipment, he wondered if Andrew had underestimated the amount of space available on an ECSA military spacecraft, or if he was simply more comfortable with cramped space than Alan himself.

* * * * * * * * * *

Before long, Alan had settled back into his job. At that moment, he was resolving an incident that had occurred with a couple of the maintenance robots earlier. The robots in question, marked clearly in white paint with the serial numbers C11 and A15, had collided during a seemingly routine set of maintenance instructions, necessitating one of Alan’s technical assistants to climb through the tight maintenance pipes to clear the blockage before any other robots got clogged up in the same pipe junction.

Alan began looking closely at the robot marked C11. This robot, which went up to Alan’s waist, was shaped in the form of a rough sphere, with two rotating electromagnets used to “crawl” through the pipes and a set of optical sensors fitted around the two axes of the sphere. There also happened to be a big dent on one side of the robot, presumably from the collision. Alan thought of the lengthy repair job that he would have to do before the robot would be once again fit for service and sighed. First of all, he thought, he would have to figure out the cause of the collision.

Alan walked over to a nearby desk, picking up a large tablet computer and a diagnostic cable. Walking back to C11, he crouched down beside it, looked for the port for the cable and plugged the cable into the port, placing the other end into the tablet computer. Using the tablet, he loaded the command program which had been assigned to the robot and the sensor readouts onto the screen and took a cursory look at them. His quick glance didn’t reveal any glaring problems, so Alan proceeded over to another robot of similar construction which was sitting ready underneath an entry pipe into the maintenance network.

Shortly after loading the control program onto the undamaged robot, the robot pulled its way into the maintenance network, soon disappearing out of sight. Pulling up a few windows on his tablet, Alan aligned a view of the maintenance robots already in the network alongside a couple of views of the control program in both symbolic and text-based source code formats. After submitting a few commands to keep the other maintenance robots out of the path of his test, Alan sat down and watched the path of the robot as it made its way through the pipe network.

As the robot turned its way through each bend, Alan compared each turn with the corresponding instruction in the control program. Each time, the movement corresponded exactly to what was expected, and after twenty minutes, Alan was no closer to figuring out what had caused the collision. If the problem was with C11, Alan faced a slog through near-incomprehensible sensor readouts and a laborious examination of multiple components to find the problem. Before trying that, though, Alan thought that it would be better to test A15 first to either confirm or eliminate it as an obvious cause.

A15 looked somewhat similar to C11 in that it was spherical and contained electromagnets as a propulsion system, but on A15, there were two sliding hatches which contained a modular array of precision tools for repairing everything from cracks in the pipe network to miniscule electronic components. The optical sensors were also of a different model and arranged differently to the ones on C11.

As Alan was about to plug the diagnostic cable into the port on A15, he was disturbed by a tone from his earpiece. He looked down at his wrist and the screen of his wrist computer to see that he was being called by the Commander. Pressing down on the screen on his wrist, Alan answered, “Yes, Commander. Alan speaking.”

Hello, Alan,” the Commander replied. “Are you in the middle of something?”

Nothing that can’t wait,” Alan responded. “Just investigating a robot collision in the maintenance network. Routine work, although it looks like one of the robots took a heavy smack. It’ll be a bit of a job to fix it.”

Right. Anyway, I want you to come up to my office. Andrew was going through the details of the repair job on the asteroid miner, and he says that he needs a second man for the job.”

And I suppose then that I’m the second man?”

That would be correct. We need to discuss this plan in detail before our arrival.”

Yes, Commander. I’ll be up shortly.”

Pulling the diagnostic cable from its port on the tablet computer, Alan laid the tablet back in its place on the desk before walking over to the door of the maintenance bay and waiting for it to slide open. He had a feeling that he was going to have to spend quite a while later on figuring out the cause of the robotic collision, but for now, a more important task was at hand.

* * * * * * * * * *

A few minutes later, Alan was standing around a desk along with the Commander and Andrew. On the desk, there was a computer display of the blueprints for the asteroid miner, with a few areas of interest highlighted on the screen. Alan had studied the blueprints extensively before the journey, as, presumably, had Andrew, so the blueprints were there more for the benefit of the Commander, whose role was more to supervise the running of the Chronos and ensure that the crew got to their destination and back safely.

Alright, so you understand the plan, Alan?”, the Commander asked as Alan took a closer look at some of the dimension markings.

Pretty much, yes. We fly the shuttle over to the asteroid miner, enter through this entrance hatch,” Alan replied, pointing on the blueprints to a small hatch in the side of the spacecraft, “then replace the computer systems, the communications array, the power generators and anything else that could have been damaged.”

That’s the gist of it, yes,” the Commander replied.

So, just a standard repair job then. I’m sure that any of the technical staff on the ship could do it, given enough time. I’m just wondering what role I play in all of this. I mean, I don’t mind being transferred over from the Hephaestus; all I would have done is sit down and twiddle my thumbs until the repairs on my craft are finished. Still, there has to be a reason for having your own Chief Technical Specialist sit out of an apparently routine mission.”

Yes, I believe you were picked for a reason,” the Commander replied. “We could only acquire a two-person shuttle from Station Vienna. Neither I nor the Vice-Commander were trained as maintenance technicians.”

Alan raised his eyebrows in surprise, then replied, “Well, things are starting to make sense then.”

Andrew raised his hand timidly, and as the two other men turned their heads towards him, he asked, “Forgive me for interrupting, but I’m not sure I understand.”

Alan laughed. “It’s nothing, really. I’m guessing I’m the only maintenance technician on board who is officially rated to fly the shuttle in question. I can’t fly particularly well, though – I need to make that clear from the start. All I can promise is that I probably won’t fly into the side of the asteroid miner.” He paused for a second. “Probably.”

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One Response

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