Chapter 43: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines
Liam had not had a chance to visit the reactor room before and frankly had no need to before now. Four stories high and easily the size of a basketball court, it was full of every imaginable tube, wire, gauge, computer screen, dial, and pump. The Federal government mandated everything nuclear to have a ridiculous amount of redundancy for the redundancy and here, Grumm had spared no expense and Liam’s father had been happy to comply.
All these gadgets and gizmos were feeding into the massive reactor in the center of the room. Like a giant totem, it towered over the gangways and ladders placed at intervals to service its majesty. The government also mandated that any reactor that was controlled by an artificially sentient computer had to be equipped with manual overrides hidden behind firewalls with enough encryption that it would require the computer many years to break the combination.
Of course, this is why it had taken so long to turn the reactor on. That key had been buried like most of the rest of the country in a pile of rubble the size of Texas. It was only by sheer good fortune that they had located the one man in the world that would have had a backup plan. It was a celebratory day only marred by the departure of the one that should have been here to throw the switch. Liam and the others had purposely waited, hiding from Artemis the fact that they were ready to start up the reactor. They feared it would cause him to delay his departure, and with it, possibly his cure. After dropping Artemis Grumm and Kyton Davis off at the edge of Kyton’s ancestral province, Zak had no problem catching back up with the ship and he docked without incident.
Everyone gathered around a console. It had dials and gauges but also contained a large ornamental plate with a Victorian skeleton key style hole in the center of it. Since this ship had originally been designed to be a themed cruise ship in the steampunk genre, it was fitted to have the appropriate look, style, and feel. Even here since tours would have been conducted of the entire ship, wherever possible, the ship was designed to look authentic. The brass colored metal was for show as were the rivets, but the combination made the ship look like what H. G. Wells or Jules Verne would have designed had they worked for Disney.
Rebekah, Jonathan, and Jackson were busy checking dials and gauges against a checklist. No one wanted to be the cause of a nuclear reactor blowing up in their faces. It was far more likely of course that when they turned the key absolutely nothing would happen, but that was not an outcome anyone wanted to gamble on either. Liam thought it interesting that even though Jules was always connected to everything that happened in the ship, his holographic presence was standing with his shipmates. The three that appeared to actually be working all looked up from their pads and clipboards and simultaneously gave the thumbs up.
Daniel Pewter, the first engineers mate, flipped a row of switches. A series of pumps all around them roared and otherwise whined into action. All the lights on those switches turned blue to indicate they were on. There was a row of status lights under each switch that slowly, one after another turned from red to green, indicating the pumps were doing their job circulating water and hydraulic fluids throughout the machinery all around them. Rebekah was watching the pressure gauges very closely. If any of them wavered into the red, she was ready to shut it down in an instant. However, the pressure seemed to be leveling out and stayed right in the middle of the green area. Liam thought to himself Green is good!
The next step was what everyone had been waiting for the since the very first day the Empress of the Sky had first appeared on the drawing board. There had been an incredible amount of red tape, safety demonstrations, and politician’s palms to grease to get to this point. The Empress would have been the first commercial vessel to fly over civilian lands with a nuclear reactor. It was time. Rebekah nodded. All the pressures were holding steady.
Jonathan broke the tension. “Sydney, would you do the honor?”
Sydney started at his name. “What? Me?” He had been skulking around, watching everyone else and trying not to get in the way.
“It’s only fitting that the Captain be the one.”
Liam watched as Mister Pewter handed the key to Sydney. It was ornamental and rather largish - almost cartoon-like and garishly brass. A fitting skeleton key. He knew that inside there was a chip or something with the code that would start the reactor. Sydney placed the key in the keyhole. Nothing happened. Liam looked over at Mister Pewter.
He whispered to Sydney, “You have to turn it to the right.”
Sheepishly, Sydney slowly turned the key. If the room had been noisy before, it absolutely erupted in noise now. Everyone yelled a cheer, fist bumped and high-fived. Someone produced a bottle of Champagne and began to pass out glasses. Doctor Peck refused a glass, but he looked the other way when his daughter took one. After all, she had earned it. They were still reading gauges and dials and everyone seemed satisfied with the results. The pressures were holding. Someone was passing out earplugs now and Liam had to juggle his glass to put the earplugs in. The earplugs also contained a commlink so they could communicate and cut out exterior noises at the same time. Over the commlink, he heard a sigh of relief.
“That feels so much better!” Jules said to Liam.
“How so? I don’t understand.”
“I was in a power deficit for so long, I almost forgot what energy feels like. Instead of constantly juggling what systems should receive power when, all my batteries are filling up as we speak. Nothing like reserve power!”
“Well please don’t get drunk on it. I’m glad it makes you happy. I suppose we can start making plans to go home.”
“That sounds really, really good sir.”
Plans were underway. They were heading South through Yeren and they would deviate while in that land, taking advantage of the fact that Daran’s Corsairs would not follow them. They would pop out on the far side in an unpredictable place. There were mountains in the far western side of Yeren that would offer them a decent camouflage as they descended to a lower altitude. Everyone was anxious to get a little deck time after being cooped up so long in the pressurized hull. Repairs were almost finished to the observation deck where the kids had almost been dragon kibble. Liam was curious and went to check on the work in progress.
“At least you don’t need a respirator in here anymore,” He said, almost choking on the fumes of freshly minted Aerolon hull plating.
Jackson Peck walked out from behind a support beam. “Yeah, we never have been able to get the smell out. You should try it when it’s really fresh and coming right out of the molds!” He took a deep breath. He knew better and bent over in a choking fit.
“You are sure this stuff isn’t dangerous?”
“Perfectly sure. It’s a hydrocarbon, of course, but it’s no more dangerous than any other plastic production. It just smells bad, but it goes away after a couple of weeks. Think of it as that New Carpet Smell!”
“Well, I’m glad it’s almost finished.”
“Yeah, tomorrow when we drop down to Ten thousand, we’ll open it up and let the outside air it out. You’ll never notice after that.”
“That will be a relief. Is there anything I can do? I was just stretching my legs and exploring some more.”
“Nah, we got everything under control here. Oh, this is a slightly new formula too. Not that I welcome it, but from what we saw, this composite should stand up a lot better if there were another dragon attack.”
“Well, that’s comforting, though if it has to smell like that, I’m not sure which would be worse?” Doctor Peck looked hurt. “Hey! I was just kidding. I’m young, remember? That’s what I do.”
“Yeah. Sorry, I get it. It’s all Rebekah talks about actually.”
“Seriously? She talks about me?”
“Oops, I’m not sure I was supposed to say that.”
“I won’t say anything. We’ll just say you never saw me,” he grinned. Seriously, she talks about me?
Liam jumped as his commlink beeped. He was never going to get used to that. “Sorry Doctor Peck, we’ll have to talk about your daughter later.”
“Your dad here.”
“Oh, sorry dad. What’s up?”
“Can you come to the officer’s lounge? We have a situation. Bring Peck too.”
“Certainly.” Liam turned back to Doctor Peck who had gone back to take some measurements. Liam observed Scientists are always measuring things. “Doctor Peck?”
Jackson looked up from his pad. Liam nodded in the way that meant come here. Jackson trotted over.
“Dad wants you and I to meet him in the officer’s lounge, pronto.”
“I wonder what about?”
“Beats me. Hey Jules, old buddy, what’s up?” Liam got a double beep that told him that Jules was too busy to communicate right now. “That’s odd. Jules is offline.”
“Holy crap!” That was about as forceful a swear as you were ever going to get from Doctor Jackson Peck. Liam understood the silent urgency and they both jogged, rather than walked, to the officers’ lounge. Fortunately, it was on the same deck, but Doctor Peck was seriously winded by the time they got there. He bent over and caught his breath.
“You might want to drop down to three packs a day there, Doc.”
“Yeah, we’ll see if you still run like that when you’re my age.”
Liam politely waited until he stopped panting. Jackson produced a handkerchief and wiped the sweat beading on his forehead. Liam thought who carries a handkerchief these days? They walked into the room.
Liam has half expected Rebekah to be there, but she wasn’t. He was surprised at the momentary disappointment he felt. She added something to the team. He looked around. Besides his dad, Jules, Captain Blankenship and Zak, Ethan Phillips were there as well. They all sat down in a small circle. Jonathan started.
“I called Ethan down here also because he is a bit of a weather expert also. I guess all radiomen are.” Ethan nodded in agreement.
“I think I originally got my Amateur Radio license because I was interested in weather.”
“Very good… Jules, put on the screen what we were discussing earlier.” The screens lit up with a vast collection of pictures, diagrams, and calculations.
Liam said, “I wish you scientists would speak in English every once in a while.” He shook his head at the dizzying array of data.”
His dad countered “This is far more accurate and illuminating, don’t you think.”
“Well. you are going to have to spell it out for me.”
“Gentlemen, if you would allow me?” Jules asked.
“By all means.”
“Liam what you are seeing is an analysis of what we are calling the Breach.”
“Yeah, I get we are looking at the hole we fell through.”
“Yes, that hole. I have been doing a lot of analyzing and taking a lot of measurements.”
Liam thought to himself, Yep, Scientists are always measuring things… “So, what about it?”
“Have you ever heard of an Extinction Level Event?”
“No, I don’t think. Wait, is that what they think killed the dinosaurs?”
“So, you are telling me we are looking at an extinction level event with that asteroid hitting the earth?”
“We think so, yes. Scientists have measured five or six of those events through primeval history. They typically name entire epochs after them.”
“So what makes you think this is one?”
Jonathan jumped in. “Five sisters plus one Moloth? That’s six asteroids and I’m going to go with six known extinctions. Coincidence?”
“I don’t know, that’s your area of expertise. So, why is this an extinction level event?”
“Easy, the storms are getting worse, not better. The pressure is different outside and inside. Not a lot, but enough. The building low-pressure zone will keep funneling the outside atmosphere into the inside until the pressure equalizes.”
“Then everything would be ok?”
“Pretty much, but before that happens it will take seventeen more years and the entire surface of both worlds will see continuous wind speeds over a hundred miles an hour and that’s on the far side of the earth. The areas near the entrance and exits are more likely to see wind speeds around two hundred.”
“Wow is right.”
“So, what are we going to do? How do we close this hole?”
“I don’t know that we can close it, son.”
“Then why are you telling me about it?”
Suddenly Jules broke the silence. “I hate the break the tension with more tension, but we have a more immediate concern.”
The screen changed to a more traditional scanner or radar style screen. It showed their position to the mountain ranges they were beginning to enter that were the traditional border of Yeren. Superimposed was another set of dots in red. Pings from something rising out of the mountains to meet them. Liam asked, “Corsairs?”
“It looks like it at the moment, or something else. It’s really too far to know at this point. We’ll have a better idea in about thirty minutes.”
Sydney said “Jules, how is our fuel supply?” One of the first things the ship started doing once real power was turned on was to start cracking hydrogen fuel. They took their gray water supply – the kind of water you might shower with or use in the pool, ran it through a process that used a lot of energy and broke the water down into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen was then stored in the nacelles as fuel for the large jet turbine engines located in the rear of the ship.
Jules responded, “We’re right at sixty percent, sir.”
Captain Sydney said, “Is that enough?”
Liam asked, “Is that enough to do what?”
“Is that enough to outrun these idiots.” Sydney clarified. At least if the corsairs were to catch them again, Sydney would no longer have to pretend to be the captain.
The computer replied, “Easily. However, when we get to the Breach we are going to need at least eighty percent to clear the breach and reach the other side.”
“Really? That much fuel?”
“Definitely, we will be fighting a hundred mile an hour head wind the entire way and it’s about an eight-hundred-mile trip. At full burn, we should use about ten percent of our fuel per hour, so yes, I’m calculating it will take eighty percent to make it through.”
“Ok, that sounds reasonable. But we will be making more fuel the whole way, right?”
Jules said “Of course. As long as we have water, any water, we can have fuel. We have enough water on board to replenish the fuel at least twice if we need to.”
Doctor Peck interjected, “Well we still have to have water to drink of course.”
Sydney replied, “Naturally Doctor. I’m only asking in case of an emergency. I know with time and resources we can replenish it all.”
“True. We can. It just takes time.”
Sydney continued. “Well, what I am proposing is that we climb back up out their reach, maybe right at say fifteen thousand and then flip on the afterburners. We need to test the jets anyway, right?”
Jonathan replied, “You have a point there. We can test the engines and scare the religion right out of those nuts at the same time. I like you’re thinking!”
Sydney finished his thought. “Ok. So in about twenty minutes, we will get a positive confirmation that those blips are our old buddies out there. In the meanwhile, continue thinking about that breach and what we might do to fix it once we are through it. Jonathan, is there any device or toy you might still have access to that might help?”
Jonathan replied, “I’ll give it some thought. Remember, it’s been ten years for me since I was topside. I’m a little rusty.”
“You’ll be fine. It all comes back.” Sydney turned to address Jules. “Jules, you had better put out a ship wide announcement at five-minute intervals. Tell them we will be testing the engines at full burn and to batten down the hatches. Ha. I always wanted to say that!”
“Very good sir,” replied Jules.
Sydney turned to the rest of them, “Gentlemen, thank you for the briefing. I’m sure with the collective intelligence in this room, you will think of something.”
Liam said, “I know why you didn’t involve Rebekah, but I think given the circumstances, we might need her insights too. She tends to think a little more outside the box.”
Doctor Peck replied, “Liam don’t. I don’t want her needlessly worried. We have already been through so much; I don’t want her worrying about the end of the world as well.”
The group broke up and Liam retorted as he walked. “Doctor. Were you able to shield her from the last time the world ended? I mean you are here, right? I think she can handle it. It is the truth after all.” And with that, Liam was gone down the hall.
Liam went out looking for Rebekah when he heard Jules make the first announcement. Over the ship-wide intercom came “We will be conducting a test of the primary engines in fifteen minutes. You might experience significant lateral g-forces so please prepare yourself and batten down any loose objects. This message will be repeated at regular intervals.”
The earpiece in Liam’s ear beeped. Crap I forgot about that. I don’t need to find her, she is always there, he said to himself.
Liam addressed the commlink, “Wazzup buttercup?”
“Wazzup? Why are you testing the engines and not even asking me?”
“Why are you asking me? I was just looking for you. Where are you anyway?”
“I’m in the reactor room. You are going to want to come down here anyway.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Not immediately.” Liam didn’t like the sound of that.
“Not Immediately? That doesn’t sound promising. I’ll be right there.” Liam broke into a sprint. He was winded by the time he got there. Damn. Big. Ship. He stopped to catch his breath.
We will be conducting a test of the Primary engines in ten minutes. You might experience significant lateral g forces so please prepare yourself and batten down any loose objects. This message will be repeated at regular intervals.
Liam steeled himself for whatever Rebekah was going to tell him and opened the door. He found her seated at the same console Daniel Pewter had been at a couple of days earlier. He walked up beside her and crouched down to be at eye-level.
Not beating around the bush, she asked, “So what is really going on?”
He told her everything he remembered from the conversation. He didn’t try to sugarcoat it or hide any of the technobabble. He was, however, incapable of repeating the technobabble with any degree of success. She giggled over the pronunciation of some of the more obscure terms he had just heard.
We will be conducting a test of the Primary engines in five minutes. You might experience significant lateral g-forces so please prepare yourself and batten down any loose objects. This message will be repeated at regular intervals.
“What’s so funny?”
“You are. Look at you acting so grown up all the sudden.”
“Yeah, well there is a lot going on and they seem to value my input for some reason.”
“Yeah, mister big shit. So dad didn’t think I could handle it?”
“Something like that. Look, please don’t tell him I told you. I don’t want him being sore at me.”
“We certainly wouldn’t want him being sore with you. So, we just have to come up with a way to seal the breach?”
“Yeah, I argued for including you. You are one of the smartest people I have ever met in my life. Probably as smart as my dad, but a hell of a lot prettier. Now, what did you want to tell me?”
Rebekah was in a daze. Did she hear what she just thought she heard?
“Yeah, about that. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the containment, but a couple of the valves here are not operating correctly. We are going to have to shut it down at some point to replace them.”
We will be conducting a test of the Primary engines in one minute. You might experience significant lateral g-forces so please prepare yourself and batten down any loose objects. This message will be repeated at regular intervals.
Liam waited for the announcement to be over. “So is the reactor is out of warranty? Hmm. I’ll have to ask my dad. Hey is there anything to hold on to? How powerful are these engines anyway?
Rebekah took matters into her own hands. She grabbed him by the hand and led him to a spot on the floor on the other side of the reactor. “You wouldn’t want to be on the other side unless you wanted to do a face plant into the console.”
She sat down and extended her legs to one of the support poles with her back against the smooth side of a console. He had never noticed how long her legs really were.
We will be conducting a test of the Primary engines in 10 seconds. Prepare yourself now for acceleration. This message will not be repeated.
She pulled him down beside her and pulled his arm around him. He took the cue in stride and lined his legs up the same way hers were.
5… 4… 3…
He never answered her because suddenly there was a burst of speed. All around them equipment whined under stress. She pulled him tighter and clung for dear life. The next thing she knew; he was kissing her. There was a moment’s hesitation and just as suddenly, she was kissing him back. There was that damn chirping again. She was kissing him back. Why was there chirping? She broke the kiss. “Aren’t you going to answer that?” Rebekah said with a grin.
“Oh shit, the commlink. Liam here.”
Jules invaded their private moment. “Sorry to barge in on you, sir.”
“You picked a hell of a time, Jules.”
“Sorry, sir. However, now that we got close enough to get a good look, those blips were not Corsairs.”
“No, no. It’s all right,” Liam looked sheepishly at Rebekah. “What are they?” he asked innocently, already knowing the answer.
“Dragons sir. Lots of dragons.”
“Shit. But we can out run them, right?”
“Unknown at this time. The others think the engines will hold. We can top out a little over three hundred and twenty, but we saw that first dragon come very that speed in a dive. I just don’t know.”
Sydney broke into the conversation. “We could use you and Miss Peck up here.”
Liam pulled himself up against the acceleration. “Understood sir, We’re on our way.”
Rebekah had only heard Liam’s side of the conversation. She pulled herself up too “What is it?”
“Dragons. Loads of them. We thought they were Castalan airships, waiting to ambush us and we were going to jump to lightspeed right over their heads. Damn it.”
The two of them pulled themselves up and battled the g-forces as they left the engine room.