Springingtiger's Blog


Chapter 8: Beta -4

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Beta One was a horrible, inhospitable lump of rock but it was rich in minerals humanity had never before encountered. It was the first place we encountered Dilithium Crystals – named obviously after the fuel of choice in Star Trek, however it was crystalline and the moment someone said the name it stuck. It had taken sometime before scientists managed to control a Dilithium reaction, but once they had it was obvious that space travel would be revolutionised. The sheer amount of energy available from Dilithium meant that the same space that could hold fuel for an interplanetary trip could hold enough fuel to travel thousands of light years. Humans were already using stasis pods for long flights. However the discovery of Dilithium provided an unprecedented impetus to the development of deep space travel technologies.

The science of Dilithium was way beyond my comprehension. There were other crystals I found more interesting. Before Zeppelinium got its name it was being tested in the labs like the other new minerals. It was only when it was heated with water in a sealed container that it became very obviously lighter than air. Until heated with water it was inert and when its container was opened it dispersed quickly into the air. Better still inhaling the gas appeared to cause no ill effects and was mildly stimulating.

As the Human Resources Chief for the Beta One mining colony I was an ex officio at all the management meetings. Doctor Charles ‘Chuck’ Rogers report on what would be called Zeppelinium attracted little notice as it was presented at the same meeting as the properties of Dilithium, but I was excited.

Transport on the new colony of Beta Four was proving challenging because of the sheer number of mountain ranges and other ‘non optimum geological features’. As I have noted elsewhere shuttles were a somewhat fuel intensive means of planetary transport, I arranged to meet with Major Dr. Stella Stacy and with Chuck and put it to them that Von Zeppelin’s airship designs could be used with the new mineral. As for the engines in the absence of other economic fuel why not use waste burning steam engines? There was plenty of water on the terraformed B-4 so the Zeppelinium could be transported there in its inert state. The boiling water from the steam engines could be first used to activate the gas and then diverted back into the ship’s propulsion system.

For a moment the two scientists sat thinking and then Chuck said,

“Do you know, Stella, this may work?”

“If it’s any help, I can give you copies of the Hindenburg design.” I added.

Major Stacy looked at Chuck and told him to work up a prototype and so a new era of colonisation was born.

Chuck’s Zeppelin followed the original quite closely except on a smaller scale. For exploration and surveying we didn’t need something the size of the Hindenburg. The major difference was that the gas was contained in semi rigid containers which could be connected to the boilers by a system of tubes and valves. When the Zeppelin had sufficient lift the supply of hot water could be stopped and used to turn the air-screws. Additional lift was easily obtained by increasing the number of pods activated descent, simply by venting gas. When the ship was not in use the pods were allowed to cool and the water drained for reuse.

The first of the Colonial Zeppelins were prefabricated on B-1 and could be assembled and in the air within hours. One of Chuck’s innovations was to incorporate solar panels into the top and sides of the envelope to provide electric power for the instruments and communications. Because of certain unexpected genetic side effects of the terraforming it was not long before a machine gun was added to the observation turret on the top of the envelope and a revolving gun turret added to the underside of the gondola. In keeping with tradition we maintained the old terminology and adopted naval style uniforms for the aircrews. It was a popular move with the men as the uniforms marked them out from other military personnel and carried a certain romantic cachet which could be an advantage when it came to supplying future generations of colonists.

No sooner had my ideas been accepted than I applied to serve in the Zeppelin squadron where my experience quickly marked me out as an expert. I was delighted when Chuck was seconded as the project’s scientific officer to evaluate its success as well as conduct the mineralogical surveys. Naturally I handed him what papers I had on Zeppelins even though all the relevant material had been digitised centuries before. I think I just wanted to impress him, he was delighted to have original Twentieth Century documents to examine. I hadn’t really thought through the consequences.

One evening as we anchored a mile or two north of the Great Corbyn volcano which we were monitoring, Chuck came to my cabin as he often did after work. Before I could even pour him a gin – Chuck was a very good distiller of spirits in his leisure time – he put some letters and a couple of photographs on my table and pointed at them.

“Can you explain how you are in these pictures?” He demanded.

I had forgotten about the pictures one of myself in the crew of the Hindenburg, slightly scorched along one edge and – less easily dismissed – one of Ferdinand Von Zeppelin and myself in front of his first successful prototype. The letters were addressed to me by name.

“How old do you think I am?” I replied hoping to deflect him.

“Well I know you have the body of a healthy forty year old. Your official records suggest fifty three, but you have the air of a man who has seen and done more things than anyone who’d spent most of their life in a stasis pod could ever have. Tell me the truth, you know you can trust me.”

I could not lie to Chuck and so I told him everything hardly expecting him to believe me. The next morning as he was dressing to return to his own cabin he looked at me sadly and asked,

“Will you watch me die or will you have left me too?”

“Would you like me to be with you at the end?” I asked.

“I think…yes I would!” Chuck replied.

“You realise I have to go where the military sends me although where possible we can be stationed with our spouses?”

Captain Abraham married us that same day and Chuck only returned to his own cabin lone enough to collect his things.

In the end I did see Chuck die, rather sooner than either of us expected although we had ten adventurous years of exploration – of the planet, in case you have other ideas! – before the laboratory accident that killed him.

No one is quite sure what caused the explosion. The lab team were working on what appeared to be fossilised plant remains. They thought that it might, like coal, be combustible. However no matter what the team tried the rock remained completely inert.

I came to pick Chuck up from work and was watching him from the gallery through the observation window. He saw me and waved then told the team to finish up for the night and closed the specimen case around the rock. Technician Lin began to open the door towards the locker rooms and showers when the specimen case exploded scattering shards of toughened glass everywhere.

Within seconds the whole room including the airlock was filled with a mass of white filaments. The lab team was covered with them and seemed to be unable to breathe. Somehow Chuck reached the window, pulled out a marker and wrote ‘FUNGUS?’ on the glass before collapsing.

I realised that the mass of filaments – spores? – were migrating into the air lock through the lab’s partially open door. I ensured the lock was secure from the outside. I told the emergency teams who had arrived moments after the explosion triggered the alarms that we had to consider the lab contaminated. We then sealed the whole block until we could work out what to do.

I called Major Stacy and told her what had happened and of Chuck’s last message. Stella immediately agreed to the sealing of the block and continued,

“I’m sorry Cain, but I’m going to order the conditions in the lab to be returned to pre terraforming. If Chuck’s right and he usually is…was. Oh dear, I really am sorry Cain. Chuck was the best.” She paused and took a deep breath, I suspect to control her emotions.

“I know it’s a big ask,” she went on, “But could you monitor the operation? We’ll need anything you can get from the sensors and cameras in the lab.”

“Do you want me to take a team in?” I asked.

“On no account. Until we check the data we don’t know what we’re dealing with. The last thing we need is a hostile alien life form running amok through the colony!”

It wasn’t wasn’t easy for any of us duplicating in the lab the conditions on B-4 before the terraforming. If anyone had survived we were condemning them to death, but we knew the Major was right the safety of the colony was paramount.

As we duplicated the former conditions the spores seemed to resolve themselves around the bodies of the lab team who lay inert on the floor. For a long time nothing more happened and so I went to dinner, not that I felt like eating, but I needed a break from watching Chuck’s body. While I was sitting in the canteen listening to ‘The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse’ in a futile attempt to lift my mood, one of the technicians hailed me to come to the lab. I rushed down to see what was happening. As I entered the monitoring station Docter Lee turned to me,

“We seem to have life signs and movement, should we go in?”

Technician Lin was Lee’s fiance so I hated to refuse him, however no human could live in those conditions and I pointed that out to him. I asked him to stand away from the station, he looked desperate so I opened a comms channel to the lab and spoke,

“Technician Lin, come to the camera. Lee wishes to speak to you!”

Lin came to the camera, her face filled the screen, but her eyes were blank and expressionless. Lee asked if she was okay. When Lin opened her mouth it was full of moving spores, there was nothing human about the sound she made although it was an obvious attempt to speak.

Lee staggered back a couple of paces and dropped to his knees. I called Major Stacy, updated her and uploaded all the data and video.

Within thirty minutes she had ordered that the whole block should be enclosed in neutrofoam. Neutrofoam had come to replace concrete when it came to covering mistakes. It was quicker and easier to use and set into an impermeable barrier within an hour.

There was not much more we could do except launch a campaign of vigilance. Leaflets were circulated and information films shown on the public information channel identifying the fossil and warning people not to touch it, but to inform the authorities.

“The problem is,” Stella said to me after the first broadcast, “human beings are incapable of doing what they’re told. Sooner or later someone’s curiosity will get the better of them and then we’re all in trouble.”

“Trust me,” I replied, “Mankind always survives.”

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