Chapter 46: Preparing for Home
“How much less?” cried many voices in unison.
There was a moment’s hesitation and the virtual screens hanging in the air began to fill with diagrams and data. The pictures showed numerous ideas, all with margins of error and statistics.
Liam didn’t understand much of what he was looking at. “Would you put it in English, Jules?”
“One factor that seems to override everything is that we can make this Duranae explode, though not in the conventional sense. It’s more like an expansion. If this data is correct, and I have to assume it is, even though there are gaps in the information, there is a thin, almost incomprehensibly thin layer in between the crusts and the magma that is actually responsible for what we call gravity. It pulls in both directions. I had already been running simulations to account for the observations geologists have made over the last couple of hundred years combined with all the new information we were gathering since we have been here. I had reached the same conclusion, but this verifies it.”
“As we have guessed and what Jonathan has collaborated, the earth is actually a shell about five hundred miles thick. Scientists have only assumed it is solid. The deepest hole anyone has ever dug until now was a single borehole twenty miles deep about ten years ago and that doesn’t begin to shed any light or give any hints to the structure of the inner earth. I have no direct evidence, but there is a strong possibility every planet and even the sun is probably hollow in the same way. I am guessing that this extremely dense shell of what can only be thought of as collapsed matter or even dark matter is a central layer that other matter is attracted to. The closer that matter gets to this event horizon- the denser and more energetic that matter becomes.”
He continued “Over millions of years, asteroids that are powerful enough to puncture through that layer of material, are slowed down enough that they take up orbit around the central sun. The clouds of debris and dust contain microscopic particles of that dark matter and I believe that the instant they are exposed to just the fabric of spacetime and maybe exposed to the organization of quarks and other quantum particles in the local vicinity, they form this amber material. It’s also the specks of material that are evident in the dragon’s scale. They probably ingest it in their diet. The material is very energetic and seems to have very unusual properties that will take many years to discover.”
Liam jumped in. “That wasn’t exactly English, but I think I get the idea. The part I still don’t understand is about getting home.”
The computer replied, “I’m running every simulation I can with the data I have. The best chance I can give you of pulling this off is thirty-one percent.”
Sydney snorted. “Thirty-one! that’s higher than I expected! I’ll take those odds! Just make sure we have a plan B also.” Sydney continued, “I also understand that this is a new, unknown material with properties similar to nuclear material, at least in a way that you can get gobs of heat from it to drive a reactor. I’m guessing that’s all a reactor really is?”
Rebekah answered first “Pretty much.”
Jonathan added. “Yes, this reactor creates steam that runs turbines, just from the water’s exposure to processed amber.”
Zak asked “Processed Amber?”
“The natural amber we dug out of the ground has a lot of impurities in it. Just like any other element, we dig it up and process out all the metals and oxides and other impurities.”
Liam said, “Where did you find this stuff?”
“Well, I kind of knew where to look of course. Your mother has an amulet with a tiny bit of Amber set in it. It gave us the properties to look for. Most of the material we have on this ship came from digs in the caves around the Yucatan, in Mexico.”
“Why hasn’t this stuff been discovered before?”
“It has, but people really didn’t know what to look for or what they had. It’s extremely rare. Rarer than any of the natural elements on the table. First off. It doesn’t fit into the normal periodic table like every other element on earth. And second, I knew what I was looking for and where I might find it. That always helps.”
“How rare is it?”
“I can only guess. This ship has one of three sets of samples in the known world. Each sample was about the size of two regular chicken eggs I guess, but perfectly round. They are actually very beautiful when they glow. A transparent amber color with a bluish glow like they are being lit from the inside.”
Immediately Liam thought back to the room he had stumbled into when they rescued Kyton and discovered his dad was being held prisoner as well. His thoughts were interrupted.
Doctor Peck jumped in. “What you do mean most other elements?”
Jonathan grinned. “There are a few more oddballs we discovered. Things that don’t fit the normal periodic tables.”
“When we get a chance. I don’t have that data here. Remember, I was kind of caught off-guard which is the reason I was trapped here in the first place.” Changing the subject, “Please continue, Jules.”
“Very well. I believe that there is a way to use this reactor to close the breach. With a concentrated heat of twenty-two hundred degrees, the amber apparently changes to a gaseous phase and expands rapidly at least ten thousand to one expansion in mere milliseconds.”
“But that hole is still ten miles in diameter. Are you sure it will expand to fill the gap?” Jackson Peck still looked incredulous, trying to do the math and keep up.
“If the data is correct.”
“It is,” replied Jonathan.
The computer continued “If the data is correct, just the presence of the material near the breach will catalyze a reaction. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it when that happened. The local seismic activity will likely be catastrophic.”
Liam said, “Well it will be two hundred and fifty miles down, so no big deal, right?”
Rebekah countered, “Afraid not. Most big earthquakes happen deep in the crust.”
Rebekah continued, “So, where are we going to get twenty-two hundred degrees?”
Everyone looked around them at each other. Jonathan was staring at all the accumulated data on the scores of screens. Jackson Peck was busily calculating something using his fingers. Liam pushed off and swirled around in the chair and pointed to the frozen simulation from before.
Liam said, “The dragons…”
Everyone stopped and stared at him. Jonathan was the first to say something. “The dragons? You want to lure them in with us and hope we can outrun them through the tunnel before dropping the reactor and detonating it?”
“You said yourself we need to get the core up to twenty-two hundred degrees. Is there a better way?”
“None that I can think of,” admitted Doctor Peck.
Jonathan jumped in. “I was thinking about overcharging the lasers. We would probably have to do both. The tungsten and graphene containment system is very insulating. We might have to break through it to get the process started.”
“I thought you said this thing wasn’t radioactive?” stated Jackson with alarm.
“It’s not. At least not in the conventional sense. Hell Jackson, I don’t completely know what it is, or what it does.”
“Then why is it on a ship full of civilians?”
“Same reason the engines were.” Jonathan pointed out the far window at the nacelles that could just barely be seen.
Jackson replied, “Damn military. I spent my entire life avoiding military contracts and their damn interfering. That’s the biggest reason I directed my Aerolon discoveries at the novelty and entertainment world…. To avoid any entanglement with the Military Industrial Complex.”
“Well for good or bad, this ship represents the Military Industrial Complex. It wasn’t going to directly be in or affect combat, but many of the systems we were testing would have found their way into future contracts one way or another. The engines, the computer, the reactor, the sensors… and yes,” He stopped and sighed “even our application of your formula, Jackson.”
Jackson turned beet red. He stammered “You… You had no right!”
Jonathan held up his hands and replied “I understand you’re upset. If it’s any consolation, I’m sorry…”
Jackson was beside himself, but he managed “I doubt you do…” He turned to look at Sydney. “Please, excuse me,” He said as he turned and stormed off the bridge.
“Oh shit…” was all that Rebekah could manage before hurriedly leaving to catch up with him.
Liam stared after her. His thoughts were interrupted with Jonathan’s exclamation, “Oh my God! You are sweet on her, aren’t you? You dog!”
Jules chimed in. “You only noticed now? Yesterday, you should have seen them in the…”
Liam hit the intercom button with his foot, cutting off any further comments from Jules.
Jonathan reached over to turn it back on. Liam stopped him. “Jules, there will be no further discussion about my personal affairs, got it?” He pushed the intercom button.
“How rude!” Liam made to push the button again. “Ok, ok. Nothing more about your personal affairs. But he is your father.”
“Especially to my father.”
Jonathan just grinned.
Sydney broke in. “Jules, make yourself useful and start calculating how we are going to pull this off.” A massive number of simulations began to jump across the screen.
You could hear Jules muttering to himself, “...useful ...I’ll show him useful.”
Preparations were being made. Jules was still making calculations, but the overall plan was simple. At least it seemed simple on paper. In reality, it was terrifying. They would fly near the recently created mountains from the up thrust where the asteroid tore through. It would be tricky navigation as the mountains were so high that even the Empress would have to pick a safe passage between the spires. When they had originally arrived in Aerathiea, they had woken up after they were already a few hundred miles from the mountains. They hadn’t seen much and really hadn’t been paying attention. Even with the storm front that looked just as apocalyptic on this side, it was the center of their focus now as they approached.
The spires seemed to reach all the way up to heaven. Jules was able to find a way through the outer spires that were visible to radar and his other sensory systems, but as they got close, they would have to pick a path carefully. They were already battling hundred mile-per-hour, shifting headwinds winds and craggy peaks to navigate.
The plan was that once they got past the crags, they were going to have to do something really stupid. They intended to upend the ship. That by itself would be an engineering feat. The main engines were only designed to give forward thrust. The ship was never designed for fast vertical maneuvers, so some of the engineers were busy constructing special crash seats for everyone to keep them safe and hopefully upright during the procedure.
They would have to dump most of the water the ship carried. It was over a thousand tons of their weight. Then they would purge the vacuum from the front vacuum bladders. This would violently flip the Empress into the correct position and angle to start descent under full power. They would continue fighting headwinds all the way so they will have to turn on the reactor long before they even reach the mountains just to have enough power to pull this off. Which meant the dragons would be waiting for them. Within fifty miles, the dragons would start picking up the scent or feeling or whatever it is about a female dragon in heat and begin their assault. This will leave them very little margin of error.
Just like with a gunshot, the exit wound in the ground was much larger than the entrance and this one was easily fifty miles in diameter. They anticipated battling the dragons for at least an hour before they could make their descent into the gaping hole. It would also take a few minutes to safely and slowly blow the forward vacuum bladders and upend the ship. Jules said the ship could handle the stress, but he doubted whether the crew could.
Sydney had been running all over the ship, acting very much like a captain should act, asking questions and making decisions. Everyone on board knew their role but after the last incident, any prolonged encounter with these creatures was unsettling at best.
“Are you sure this is the only way?” Liam was second guessing the plan again. He was standing next to the reactor in the very same spot he and Rebekah had shared just the day before.
“I’m not sure of anything. All I know is that I can use this to breach the containment of the reactor.” Zak tossed a small cigarette pack sized object to Liam. He had also had a munitions background in the army before becoming a pilot. He and Jonathan were going over the preparations for the reactor itself.
Now that Liam understood that the reactor had been designed to jettison in an emergency, he could see the mechanism that made it happen. There were struts and gantries all around the reactor that contained explosive bolts. A few decks below, he could see what looked like the doors of a bomber bombay from the inside.
“So that’s how you’re going to get it out of the ship?” Liam asked, bending over the rail and continually looking far below.
“Yep,” responded his dad through clenched teeth. Jonathan was busy winding some electrical wire. He couldn’t talk well with the electrical tape in his mouth. Liam turned to him and tried to help. Jonathan reached out for the package Liam was holding.
“Here let me help you with that.” Liam wrapped the tape where Jonathan indicated. As Liam watched, his dad took the newly taped package, gingerly stepped over machinery to the reactor, and taped it in place next to a panel.
Zak looked up from his side of the reactor, frowned and walked over to where Jonathan was working. “You are going to need that charge about two more inches to the right.”
“Charge?” Liam asked, “That was an explosive?” Liam looked down at his hands making sure there was not residue of any kind.
“Relax, it’s totally inert right now. What did you think it was? Playdough? We will set it off electrically.”
“Are you sure it’s going to work?”
“We tested a couple of lengths of it topside. It works.”
“But will it be powerful enough to crack the reactor casing? I don’t know what it is, but it sounded impressive and strong.”
“Yeah, it’s strong, but everything has its breaking point. Trust me. This will work.” Liam didn’t feel any better. His history with some of his father’s experiments tended to never go quite as planned.
Zak looked up and still saw the look on Liam’s face. “Then trust me. It will work.” At that Liam visibly relaxed.
Sydney said, “I’m going to check on some of the other preparations.” The other two were so busy they didn’t notice him walk away.
In the corridor outside the reactor room, Sydney talked into his commlink. “Give me an update on the couches Gus.”
Gus was called in to help the Engineers design something that would take the stress off the crew as they had to adjust to the ship being thrown upright just like the Titanic before it sank. God, Sydney wished he hadn’t just thought of that. Besides being a paramedic, Gus was trained in sports medicine and had a little better understanding than most how to pull this off.
“It’s going well. We are using the main theater.”
“The theater?” The ship had three theaters and they always used one of the smaller ones for movie night. The main theater could seat over four hundred on a good day. This of course, was not a good day and only needed to seat about one hundred and three guests.
“Yeah, it’s the only one that was facing the rear.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“With just a little work, we can make the seats swivel and since they are facing rear, when they swivel, they will have their backs to the front.”
Sydney still didn’t completely understand.
“That means they will be seated the same way an astronaut is when the rocket takes off. There will be a moment or two where the crew are hanging in their harnesses, but as soon as you turn those engines on, the g-forces will still press people into their seats. Once we clear the center, everything will be oriented the correct direction, and when we regain buoyancy on the other side, the seats will swivel back.”
“Ingenious. Keep me informed and let me know if you need anything at all.”
“Will do, captain.”
Captain. Sydney thought to himself how funny that sounded. It was nice to see a plan come together. He was satisfied that the crew was in good hands and that the reactor would be jettisoned at the proper time. The big unknown were the dragons of course. When they got a little closer, Jules would be able to start sensing individual dragons and get an assessment of what they were up against. Sydney found himself near the water recycling section in engineering, so he went in to make sure they didn’t need anything.
Inside he found Tom Foley and Daniel Pewter poring over a pad looking at the details of flushing over nine hundred tons of water. They seemed to be deep in discussion. Confident they had the situation under control, he backed out of the area, not wanting to interrupt them.
Talking into the commlink again, “Jules how are those simulations coming and have you seen anything from our mountain friends yet?”
“No, and yes.” Came the answer over the commlink. “Still working on the computations and we are just starting to get some pings back from possible dragons.”
“On my way.” Sydney began walking a little more briskly down and forward to the bridge where Liam, Jules, and Rebekah were working out the details.
“So give me an update, Jules.”
“So far we are about three hundred miles from the first peaks. At this point, the headwinds are just about one hundred miles an hour.”
Liam said, “Funny, it doesn’t feel like it from up here.”
“No, because there is no point of reference. We are about the same distance now as we were when we regained consciousness when we first got here.”
“There wasn’t much wind then.” Liam thought back to his first excursion from the ship when they had first met Telami. “It was pretty peaceful on the ground, except for that dinosaur and everything.”
Rebekah started. “Dinosaur, you never told me about the dinosaur.” She launched into a thousand questions. “How big was it? Did it have feathers? Was it a carnivore?”
“I just remember it was big and fast and smelled really, really bad.”
“What did you do with it? How did you get away?”
“We killed it,” Liam said offhandedly.
“How could you?”
“Look around, dear. There are plenty more. Besides, it almost managed to eat Telami and I’m sure that when that Hrok or whatever they call it, finished with that little snack, we would have been the main course.” Liam stopped short. He had just remembered Mister Simmons. From what they saw, he was probably dead, but it still made Liam feel awful that they never had the chance to hunt for him.
Liam started with Rebekah snapping her fingers in his face.
“Earth to Liam. Come in Liam.” He reached up with the incredible reflexes he had only demonstrated a couple of times and snatched her hand out of his face. He then, very un-characteristically, bent over and kissed her hand, causing Rebekah to blush.
Turning his attention back to Sydney and the computer, “So, Jules you say the storm is stronger than it was?”
“Definitely. It’s easily double what it was when we got here.”
Sydney asked, “So, this still seems like a good idea?”
Jules replied, “Not at all, sir. This is a horrible idea. However, the breach must be closed and I don’t calculate any other way of accomplishing it. Incidentally, it would have been really bad had our reactor actually been nuclear like we originally thought.”
That got Liam’s attention. “How so?”
“Based on the data your dad has accumulated about the anomaly, we would have made matters much worse. At the very best, it would not have made an impact at all, but at the worst, we could have even doubled the size of the breach.”
“This does seem like the only course of action. By the way, I am reading thirteen dragons now.”
“Only thirteen? This sounds like a walk in the park. Do you have a handle on any exterior defenses?”
“That’s a tough call. Once the reactor is jettisoned, my power reserves will barely be enough to keep the engines running. We will not have enough power to electrify the ship. Besides, in the storms up ahead, it would be quite dangerous.”
“Is there anything you can do to keep those bastards off the hull?”
“We can try generating some lightning, but dragons are used to thunderstorms. I doubt it will do any good.”
“Well think of something.”
The computer responded in a most un-computer-like way “I always do.”
Rebekah said, “Let’s run through the plan again.”
The computer interrupted, “The wind speeds are picking up. We are going to have to engage the reactor ahead of schedule I’m afraid.”
Liam said, “Figures. Why is that?”
“These headwinds are over one hundred and twenty miles per hour now. I’m going to have to switch to the reactor.”
“This far out?” Sydney knew they weren’t prepared.
“I’m afraid so. The propeller motors are draining the batteries hard with this much stress. I have to recharge. I can recharge the batteries and run the turbine engines from the reactor. With the storm up ahead I will have no opportunity to recharge if I don’t do it now and we will need that power for later when we jettison the reactor.”
“You know best. I just know uninvited company is going to be dropping by a little earlier than expected.”
Liam spoke into the commlink and told his dad, Ethan, Zak and Marcus what had just transpired. He told them to batten down the hatches and get ready.