Traffic Accident at 70 AU’s
an Eventuality tale

by Brad Andrews

Twenty-seven days now, I just saw the date and time roll over on the windscreen, and just beyond that the tail end of the Hanky Panky. Watching her drive quad power up, then power down was enough to hypnotize you. Or drive you insane. The worst thing about traffic jams is that you can only guess as to what caused them, especially if that cause was still far ahead of you.

Oh you have hints sure. This wasn’t just a heavy traffic period; this was the middle of the rotation so it could only be an accident of some sort. The four ships ahead of me hadn’t seen anything, but everyone of our Drive AI’s reported a massive spike in some damned region or other. Something about gravity being pushed out at great speed and then being pulled back even more quickly. Our Drives had told us this only after they’d engaged stabilizing drives as this phenomenon washed over us.

I sat there a few more minutes contemplating my coffee when I noticed some of the exterior housekeeping drones enter the control deck. There were five of them, and they moved by a toy sized AG unit and looked like three half-spheres with a full sphere on top with all of the sensing equipment they needed and a slender whip antenna.

They proceeded to line up in single file and moved into a maintenance-only airlock. Once they were all in I head some clunking noises, and before I knew it the little suckers were out on the windscreen and moving to a formation.

I sat back down in my chair, I didn’t have anything else to do, and besides I’d never actually watched them do this necessary work. Those little half-spheres I told you about, well, underneath them were industrial diamonds created to polish diamond-armored windscreens. After some time even the toughest of these windscreens become pocked and pitted. At the start of each rotation we’d get a new windscreen as the periodic polishing ate layer after layer away from it. I’ve known captains who’d gotten away with three or four rotations without changing out their windscreens, but I wasn’t one of them.

God, this is boring.

In fact I should still be safe and snuggled up in my Gallagher Safe enjoying, every hour on the hour, the dream set I’d ordered before going under. But when something out of the routine happened, you got woken up. Makes some sense as I was the only person on board. Captain and crew at your service. It didn’t happen often, this waking up early; in fact during my subjective twelve-year career I’d only been awoken four times, this one included.

None of them happy times.

But, I thought, on my way down to the tiny but comfortable commons, have I ever been awoken for a traffic jam? Sure it was nearly 6,506,906,940 miles long, but what’s that these days? It’s only 34,930.33474 light seconds. My jocularity aside it took a ship of this class two years to accelerate to 72.3% C then ten years at that and then another two to slow down. As you might imagine, I spend most of that time well under. Thank you, Mr. Gallagher, whoever you were, for your Reduction Safes.

Walking through my ship — and she is mine — I wonder what it would be like to have other crew members on board; but I only do that briefly. N-Haulers are generally known to be a solitary bunch, and I am no exception; and while we know each other pretty well it is rare that any of us would ever buy a drink for another. Frankly it’s pretty much you and your ship’s Drive AI.

As I settled down in the ships wardroom I sipped at a Square beer and was a little surprised to see a message drone pop out of a recess in the wall with its green strobe flashing indicating a new message. This in itself was strange: local space must be really messed up if messages were coming in through drones. It extruded a connector into the room’s only projector and uploaded the message; then it retreated to a corner to await a reply if any were to come. Old projectors like this used dust, which had been removed by the air filters, to provide the medium onto which the message was played.

“Hello Billy, I hope this finds you well. I’ve forwarded this message down the line so everyone can see what has happened.” The message was from the Olympia and her captain Charlie Grimwood.

Billy didn’t know the man well but knew that he’d been captaining N-haulers for over a hundred years and was put off by how shocked the man seemed.

“We were right behind the King’s Ransom when her cargo went up. It was a full containment breach. I don’t know what more I can say, just watch.”

I sat back hard and looked around at my ship, her relative newness providing me some comfort.

The projector changed to an exterior view, presumably taken from the Olympia. Before me was a standard Ferry Class N-Hauler, smaller than most but they were the backbone of the fleet. A small ID near the bottom of the projector told me that I was indeed looking at the King’s Ransom. The shot showed her from astern and all of the equipment you’d expect on an N-Hauler. The largest portion on any of these ships were their carbon-crosshatched holds. These ran Push/Pull fields in an eerie symmetry that kept the pea-sized cargo secure.

We haul the raw ore of neutron stars.

The projector flared for a brief moment and then as it died down there was nothing. Caught off guard, I took my time and responded in a clinical way. By this I mean I picked apart the image that I had just witnessed. It seemed to me that a Push arm had collapsed and the now unbalanced forces compressed the ship’s cargo to its breaking point. Poof! Already I knew that this explosion was something that astronomers a thousand years from now would be pondering over.

It took another three weeks before we got around the accident site, and I have to admit that seeing it brought home all of the safety courses I had half slept through. The number of Earth Guard vessels on-site told me all I needed to know. They were trying to contain the damage or at the very least quantify it. This was an important shipping route, and the damage to local space was extreme. Anything but line-of-sight communications was spotty, and it would take years for all of the ships to incorporate the course change around the explosion. It was essentially a bend in the road where none had been before.

Once around the site I saw the Hanky Panky’s main drive flare with power, and it sped away. I gave it a ten-count and powered up, myself. I was glad to be moving on, as I’d been here long enough. With clear shipping lanes ahead, I told Drive AI goodnight and that I’d talk to him in four years, seven months. As the Gallagher Safe began to close I paused the program and ordered a new dream set. This one was called “Safety in Space.”

Copyright © 2006 by Brad Andrews

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