“Knowledge and imagination are the life buoy and the extra lung for breathing outside the walls of a tainted reality.”
Rob cursed at himself, loudly and long and with great creativity. He was in a bad spot and with no one to blame but himself.
“I guess I’m a double-damned idiot, eh Pinwheel?” he groused.
Pinwheel, being a cat, floated mid-cabin and simply washed his face in studied indifference. Pinwheel was a descendant of a long line of cats who had been adapted to life in micro-gravity. His kind didn’t need the occasional medical treatments his owner did to remain healthy outside of Earth’s gravity.
“Six years of surveyin’ the asteroids and now I bolluxed up what shoulda been a simple landing. They oughta revoke my pilots license – well if I manage to get us back without doing something else cracktacular.”
The little calico cat, still floating in the negligible gravity of the asteroid, stretched itself in improbable dimensions.
Rob Fischer studied the control console’s readouts and displays as he talked to his cat. Many pilots, like himself, carried a cat, or bird, or something else to talk to during their years-long missions to keep them company. As the ship’s AI-based pilot assistant was too single-purpose to offer any comfort, smarter minds than his had found pets necessary for comfort. Because the light speed delays in interplanetary distance communications made audio and video transmissions a game of hurry up and wait, you couldn’t talk in real time with anyone back on Earth or Luna. Other pilots were also too few and too far between and it was too expensive to crew a survey ship with two or more crew – unless only one is human.
This is because the solar system is a rather big and mostly empty place, and most people don’t realize what big and empty can mean. You’re more likely to be near one of the planetary or interplanetary spaceport hubs, due to your own course requirements, than you are to be near another private pilot. No matter where you’re going, you’re going to start and end at one of the major hubs or at least a private port.
The commercial ships, on predetermined routes, used courses supplied by a local super-computer that interfaced with the system-wide distributed deep space radar. These ensured safe passage for ships following standard transitions. The computers monitored the position of all planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, comets, bits of rock, and even pieces of spacecraft using the solar system deep radar networks. When they plotted a course it wasn’t simply the orbital dynamics, they were also plotting where everything else was to be sure your ship and a random bit of junk didn’t happen to occupy the same space at the same time. If they did intersect – a ship would get a hole knocked in it or worse. However, Rob and his fellow pilots had to rely on the buoy network in space similar to what sailors rely on down on Earth’s oceans.
Rob was a private pilot, sub-contracted to operate a survey ship owned by the Pluton Corporation – one of the major asteroid mining companies. His job was to visit and survey as many asteroids as he could and bring the assays and core samples back at the end of his journey. Private pilots who, like himself, were not following set courses, couldn’t rely on the pre-plotted courses created by the super-computers at the hubs for the commercial ships on regular runs. First off, he started from Pluton’s private space port that kept station in the middle of the group of asteroids they laid claim to. Private ports didn’t keep the larger computers around and they didn’t subscribe to the radar network. His personally computed courses had to take into account varying lengths of time spent on any given asteroid and where all the hundreds of nearby asteroids and other detritus would be when he was finally done. Additionally, he had to be able to change to a new destination as needed to optimize fuel usage in order to survey as many asteroids as possible in a single trip.
Rob had been surveying a group of the Apollo asteroids, currently moving in their orbits between Earth’s orbit and that of Mars, looking for metal-rich asteroids and volatiles. The more he visited, the better his chances were of confirming a valuable find. Most Earth-bound people thought of asteroids as being out beyond the orbit of Mars – and statistically, most of them are. But there are many other asteroid groups whose orbits go far closer to the sun. The Aten, Amor and Apollo asteroids were the gold-rush territory of Rob’s generation, enticing pilots to take on the dangerous surveying jobs. Many hundreds of these were between Mars and Earth – some even diving in towards Venus and Mercury. Far closer and easier to reach and exploit for Rob’s employer.
Rob had visited several asteroids without much luck so far. All the expected metal-rich asteroids turned out to have rocky cores instead. At a payout maxing out at .001% of the assayed value of the surveyed asteroids, he wasn’t going to do very well on this trip, much less make his fortune. He’d followed the usual buoy signal to the current asteroid on his list, known in the database as 162173 Ryugu (or provisional designation 1999 JU3). It orbited as far out as Mars’ orbit and crossed slightly within the orbit of Earth. Original estimates of its composition suggested a rare combination of nickel, iron, and cobalt as well as the volatiles water, nitrogen, hydrogen, and ammonia. Pluton had registered hundreds of claims, including Ryugu, and Rob’s job was to survey the asteroids on his list and confirm their composition prior to a crew being sent to initiate mining. Ryugu was expected to be a thirty billion dollar payday (after expenses) for Asterco. Rob, with an inverse modicum of talent, had managed to do five things wrong at the same time and had landed far too hard on Ryugu. The only thing he did right was the initial grapple – which helped hold him to the asteroid.
He now deployed the repair drones, tiny robots really, that climbed down the ship to survey the damage that had been reported on Rob’s console.
“Merrow?” inquired Pinwheel as Rob studied the video feeds and scans from the drones.
“You’re right, it’s pretty frackin’ bad,” answered Rob, “The main engines are busted into actual pieces now. I’m also pretty sure that vapor out there is our propellant as well”
“You said it. The drones can’t handle repairs that major and even if they could – no go-juice left in the tank.” He sighed then looked at another drone’s display, “Oh shit. No-no-no,” he moaned and added, “Aw, dammit!” The drone’s display showed the ship’s parabolic antenna – normally attached to the hull up near the living section – was lying in pieces on a ridge of the asteroid a few hundred meters away.
Pinwheel, not interested in such things as radio, lightly pushed off of one wall to land on Rob’s shoulder where he began to push his head against Rob’s somewhat larger head. Possibly in response to sensing Rob’s distress or perhaps hoping to get a scratch in return.
“I really screwed the pooch for us, buddy,” he said while stroking the cat’s furry head, “That over there is the only antenna we have that could reach anyone, and it’s all cattywampus now. Guess I’ve proved again I’m not the tallest rocket on the launch pad. Seems to me I need to use my brain box a bit and see what I can noodle together. We’ve got us a few million in bits ‘n bops and widgets making up our spaceship here and I oughta be able to frankencobble something together. Seems like the best we can hope is to find someways to let someone know we need help. Somehow.”
The little cat drifted away having decided to nap.
On Earth, the buoy system is so commonplace that few think of what a complex feat it was and how it evolved. Starting around the 13th century in Northern Europe; the early buoys were the responsibility of the port authorities and were used to help direct guild ships in and out of a harbor. The port authorities charged fees which paid for the service. Later, during the 1500s, governments took over and these were expanded to sea lanes, then beacons and lighthouses.
The buoy networks that private pilots and others relied on in space were similar to those that came before on Earth. Once colonies were established on Luna, Mars, and permanent space stations were established – a commercial need to track the thousands upon thousands of asteroids in the solar system was realized as the computational overhead was far too high for ship-based computers.
Like their 13th century counterparts, the commercial spaceports charged fees to create and maintain buoys on all the known asteroids. These buoys were ultra-miniaturized radio transponders. Their radios could only broadcast a few million miles – but it was enough to warn pilots, and their autopilots, so they could make minor adjustments to avoid them. New objects found would have a buoy attached by the discoverer as all ships were paid to keep a stock of the tiny gadgets and deploy them as necessary.
Some hours later, an inordinately loud series of banging noises, which had been accompanied by mild curses, finally ceased. Rob emerged from an access panel behind the pilot’s console, dragging a neon orange cube with him.
“Pinwheel quit it!” the cat was tagging behind Rob and was attempting to chase the wires that dangled enticingly from the cube. Rob spun the cube around examining a black label dense with text. He leaned his dark tanned face close in order to read.
“What we’ve got here is our combination flight recorder and emergency locator transmitter. CFR and ELT. My thinking is, I can boost its regular range and tiny little ping up enough to put out an almighty ping that, if anyone’s paying attention, can be triangularated on from several spaceports and lead people here.”
“Yeah, it’ll break about five dozen regulations – but you can’t make a gimlet without breaking a few eggs. Point is, the ELT signals are bog standard and if I put enough sparks behind it, it’ll ping out on everyone’s radio and bring ‘em running,” he said hopefully.
Rob stretched his thin frame, then reached back in through the panel to haul his toolkit back out and clamp it to the hull near him. “I’m gonna have to bodge this a little big. This box is sealed tight using star head bolts – and nothing else in here uses those, so naturally, the toolkit doesn’t have such a screwdriver.” He attacked the bolts first trying a variety of Philips head screwdrivers, then ended up filing down a flat head screwdriver to match the interior angles of the bolts. One by one, through expenditure of muscle, torque, and bracing himself against various objects in the cabin, he got it open. As he removed the last bolt, the little cat batted it around and took off chasing it down – demonstrating his apparently natural skills at free-fall gymnastics.
The next problem Rob faced was extending the antenna cable. The ELT only came with a long enough cable to reach for it’s regular cradle to the antenna plug directly beside it. Rob needed to be able to keep the cube close to the main power bus that ran on the other side of the interior of the hull and a few back from his pilot’s chair. About two meters, give or take, of antenna cable was going to have to be fashioned out of something else. He’d also have to keep the cabling reasonably similar to what was originally used in order to match (mostly) the ohms per foot so he wouldn’t degrade the signal once it was generated. That eliminated using the cables he used with his drones to connect and power the core borers and other survey equipment.
After studying diagrams from the ship’s database, not all of which was taken up with his personal video and image collection, Rob traced down some wires that weren’t part of any of the life support system. They safely belonged to the now useless propulsion control system. Unfortunately, they were located in areas not designed for human access. Small little tunnels and access panels far too small for him to manage. Fortunately, they were designed for his repair drones. Unfortunately, the repair drones were not designed or coded to take the ship apart – just to put it back together if something else took it apart.
“Fortunately Pinwheel,” he said scratching under the cat’s chin, “I was a passable code monkey before the call of space piloting got me out here.” Rob gently plucked the cat off the keyboard, where it had recently decided to nap, and sent it drifting back to the living quarters of the ship. The cat tolerated this with quiet, but offended, dignity as Rob started working on re-coding the artificial intelligence of the tiny drone workers.
He’d been dreaming of flying, back home on Earth, when a soft cat paw on his face woke him up. Rubbing his eyes to clear them he saw he’d been asleep for about nine hours since turning in after finishing his marathon coding session.
“Hungry are you cat?”
“Brrrpt,” agreed Pinwheel.
Rob undid the straps that held him in position while he slept in his sleeping bag, He shucked the bag off, stored it away, and glanced at the console. The code had successfully compiled, he observed, so he prepared breakfast for the cat and himself.
Pinwheel was chasing a last, loose, morsel of replicated fish (low-odor) as Rob spooned his similarly created eggs with cheddar cheese into his mouth. He followed it with something acceptably close to coffee. He then cleaned the dishes and put them away. By virtue of necessity, anyone working in micro-gravity needs to maintain neat habits because if they don’t, loose items might come flying directly at them the next time acceleration is applied to their ship.
He was ready to harvest wire for his project. He pushed himself forward back to his console. He brought up the drone utility software and downloaded his new code to the pair he’d selected to use. After a second or two, the drones activated and scuttled off like plastic crabs into the service hatches that led to the propulsion systems.
It took nearly an hour before the drones returned dragging the wire with them. Rob was playing fetch with Pinwheel, tossing the cat’s toy mouse to the rear of the living quarters and letting the cat chase it and bring it back to him. Not all cats like to play fetch, but Pinwheel loved it and it was fun for the both of them. Abandoning their game, Rob collected the wire, tapped a control to tell the drones to store themselves away and power down, then got to work.
Rob carefully dissected the antenna cable, midway along it’s short length, paring back the rubber coating, the shielding, and separating out each wire. He stripped each wire end back to expose enough of the conductive metal for his splicing needs. Then, with the aid of a magnifying glass, he compared each wire with some of the scavenged wire the drones had brought him. His goal was to match the diameters as closely as possible. His electronics knowledge wasn’t deep – so his goal was to match everything as closely as possible.
Connecting the wires together required a UV cold welder from his toolkit. The welder used non-conductive polymers that were judged safer for use in spot repairs in space. No heat to possibly damage anything, no conductive bits that could fly off to short-circuit anything. Rob carefully applied it to weld together the new wires to the antenna cable. When he was done, the antenna cable was three meters long, as he’d given himself some extra length just in case.
He took the cable forward and wormed his way back into the access panel and reconnected the cable to the antenna connector inside. After working his way back out, he connected the other end to the ELT. For the extra power, he’d already identified a power supply cable used for the console. Since the ELT was self-contained he wouldn’t need the console to control it. He plugged it in, then studied the instructions on the black label’s dense text again.
“Pinwheel, according to the guys who made this, all I need to do here is put the ELT into test mode. It would normally automatically activate itself in a crash, but I didn’t crash us the right way apparently,” he wryly observed, “So according to this, I flip the red dingus there to ARMED, back to OFF, then to TEST and that should do it.”
“Mrrow!” agreed the cat from his current perch over Rob’s head.
Rob put words to action. The immediate result was a crackling noise, followed by a series of loud pops, and a modest amount of acrid smoke. Pinwheel, startled by either the noise or the smoke, jumped back to the living area and hid himself in the lavatory.
The pilot repeated his verbal performance from the previous day’s crash and began, again, to curse loudly, long, and with increased creativity. Eventually the little cat peered around the lavatory opening to observe with interest.
Two days passed. Rob, for lack of any better idea, tidied up after his botched job, reconnected his console (which did not explode), and groused around the cabin. Pinwheel attempted to engage Rob in games of fetch, but the pilot wasn’t interested – preferring to mope around and brood.
“Bah,” Rob finally said on the second day, “I really flummoxed that up. We’re pretty much toasted and roasted now. We got food, water, and hot ’n cold air on tap. But radio – we don’t have that anymore. Pinwheel, you shipped with a idiot for a partner. I barely know enough about electronics to change batteries, but I thought I could trick out our ELT. I’m so stupid I probably can’t even spell ELT right.”
The cat of many colors paid little attention. It was currently involved in a high speed game of catch the toy mouse in three dimensions. Pinwheel would bat the mouse, apparently at random, and watch it ricochet off walls, console, Rob, and other things then it would launch itself off the nearest surface and snag it, shake it to be sure it knew who was boss, and then start the chase over again.
“Silly cat. You don’t care just as long as you have food, water, and something to play with. You and that mouse just bounce from one place to another,” he mused as the cat played.
Suddenly, Rob was struck with an idea. He launched himself forward and unlocked the console.
“Pinwheel, I have an idea and this one might not be sucktacular,” he brought up the radio menu, “I need to find out if we can still pick up the buoy’s signal even without our parabolic antenna.”
The console speaker emitted the telltale audio signal of the buoy.
Rob controlled his excitement, “Partner – that’s a damn good sign. But it’s just step one,” he said to the cat, “I’m gonna need to educate myself on these little gadgets before I even know if step two is doable.” With that he started to bring up everything the database held on the buoy network.
After some hours of study, he tried to contact the buoy’s data signal but with no luck. Apparently the audio band was within the limits of his radio – but anything requiring more bandwidth was no-go. He wished he could study the buoy up close, but he’d run out of them a couple of asteroids back – tagging them onto smaller, previously undocumented, debris floating in orbit with the asteroid he was surveying at the time.
“Pinwheel, I’m going to need to send out a drone. I need to see if Ryugu’s buoy here has a data port on it. I’ve been going over the database and there are dozens upon dozens of models, many of the earliest didn’t have data ports, and if our luck is still… well, anyway, there’s nothing left to do but check it out.”
He brought up the drone software on his console, and activated one of the outside drones. He instructed it to home in on the buoy signal and alert him when it got there. He then sat back to wait.
Hours later, after both he and the cat had eaten dinner, the console chimed with an incoming message from the drone. It was at the buoy. Rob launched himself at the console and nearly hit his head on it.
“We’ve got it Pinwheel!” he instructed the drone to circle the buoy and as it did, he studied the video feed. This model resembled a sea urchin. It had simple antennae and legs studded all around it. As the drone crab-walked around, keeping the camera aimed at it, Rob zoomed in to study the casing at the base of the legs and antennae.
“Brrpt?” inquired the cat as it tried to lie on the keyboard.
“No partner…no naps on the keyboard now…I’m not seeing a port, “ he distractedly replied, “Wait! Ah-ha! Mucking afazing! It’s got a 100% standard data port on it!” He grabbed the cat and held it in front of him – face to face, “Pinwheel – we’re going home!”
Over the next day and a half, Rob was busy. He had the drones unload the exterior cables and drag them out to the buoy. Once there, they carefully held the buoy in place while they undid the cover on its data port and pulled the cable into it. Now Rob had direct access to the buoy at full bandwidth.
Rob’s plan, this time, was well within his skill set. He got the idea watching Pinwheel bouncing off the walls. What he wanted to do was bounce his message from one buoy to another until it reached a ship, whereupon it would broadcast his SOS and location, and then hopefully someone would rescue them. He knew, from the information and animated charts in the database, that the buoy-tagged asteroids crossed near each other frequently. Having them bounce his message from one to another should result in the eventual delivery of his message to someone who could act on it.
The practicalities of this were all in programming. The buoy’s were designed with a stripped-down operating system to keep them as simple as possible. They had modest and reliable processors and an even more modest amount of storage. This kept them simple, stingy with power, and above all cheap.
Rob thought about it and made a list. His code had to do the following:
- Not interfere with the basic operation of the buoy. To do so would likely cost lives.
- Store his message.
- Detect other buoys.
- Upload his code and message to detected buoys.
- If a ship was detected -send message repeatedly until acknowledged
- Once acknowledged -detect buoys with his code and tell them to stop sending.
The last instruction was important simply because once he was, hopefully, rescued, he didn’t want his message to repeat endlessly. It had to stop, otherwise, people would be looking to rescue him again – long after it had already happened.
Rob started coding. The first thing he did was download the buoys code so he could simulate everything within his ship’s computer. He had to do all testing in simulated buoys because once he loaded the final code into the buoy, he couldn’t test the results once it was echoed out to other buoys. When he’d set up his testing environment in the computer, he started some serious coding.
The first new challenge he ran into was that the processor in the buoy was old. He had documentation on its instruction set, but, old as it was, it was completely new to him. He was also coding at the machine level. No nice high-level programming languages or tools like he had for the drone programming.
“It’s stone knives and flint axes time,” he informed Pinwheel, “I’m coding at a level that was more common at the dawn of computing than anything else today. I’m sure I can make it work though, and it’s all thanks to your inspiration, partner.”
Pinwheel accepted the compliment with all due modesty.
The coding went slowly. Rob had the advantage of a few tools designed to simulate the processor in a buoy, but he was doing everything else by hand from the ground up. What began as a moment’s idea ground on into weeks of work. The first stage, a working program meeting all the criteria he listed, was done after two weeks. But it was far too large to fit in the buoy’s storage. He spent another week and a day simply re-coding it to make it smaller and smaller until it could fit. Rob had been getting by on short naps and quick meals in order to make the most of his time. They weren’t in danger of running out of anything – but his personal guilt over the situation that he had put them in was driving him to exert all his efforts to fix it. Pinwheel, as well, was annoyed at the lack of attention. Rob realized this, but he been unwilling to stop until he finished. He performed the final check of the code and simulated it running and finally decided there was no reason it shouldn’t work.
“You ready enough Pinwheel?” he asked.
“Mer-ow!” replied the cat.
Rob initiated the transfer of the code to the buoy where it would run automatically.
That ‘night’ they celebrated together. Rob produced a special meal for the both of them, and played fetch with Pinwheel until they both were beyond tired and turned in. Rob sleeping in his bag, and a comforted Pinwheel curled up on his chest with claws lightly hooked into the bag to secure himself.
“Hailing Pinwheel, come in Pinwheel,” the message came from the speaker on the pilot’s console. A confused cat looked around.
“He means the ship, Pinwheel!” Rob exclaimed, “Not you, you silly cat!” While it had been to honor him, the ship having been named after the cat, this occasionally led to feline confusion.
Rob shoved off forward to the pilot’s console. He activated the fore cameras and located a much larger ship that was maintaining station directly above. It was clearly not another survey craft, which is what he’d been hoping would show. He thumbed the control to activate the microphone, “Hello! We’re here. We’re here. Who is hailing?”
“This is the Trinity House out of the Mars colony spaceport. We were dispatched by the Lighthouse Board!”
“I’m mighty glad to hear your voice. We’ve been waiting for months, living on hope. Did you say dispatched? I expected another survey pilot might hear my SOS,” Answered Rob joyfully.
“It was another survey pilot who got your message, but she was on an asteroid on the far side of the sun from you. Besides, once the Lighthouse Board heard how you got your message out, they wanted one of theirs to reach you first.”
“I’d kinda thought they were gonna be upset with me for re-purposing their dingle-thingies actually.”
“You thought wrong, pilot. They think it’s a billion-dollar idea and they wanted me out here as fast as possible before someone else could cut a deal with you. Do you have any idea how valuable your idea is? An ultra-low power, system-wide, emergency messaging system? Christ man, there’s been a call for this since the days we were living only on Earth. I’m empowered to negotiate with you.”
“Skookum!” he laughed, “But, what about my mostly destroying this ship?”
“They don’t care. It’s been written off already. Between us, and because I’m a fair dealer who won’t let the company take unfair advantage, they’ve been taking turns now blaming each other for only hiring you guys as sub-contractors. If you’d been working directly for them, they would’ve owned your idea and code outright.”
Rob heard the gentle clank of the larger vessel’s airlock locking onto his ship’s single hatch. Pinwheel, startled, bounced off a wall and into Rob’s arms.
“It was a good ship, it was no fault of its for the crash – that was on me entirely.”
“No worries pilot, someone will recover it.”
“And did you really say ‘billion’ dollar idea?” he confirmed.
The other man laughed, “Damn straight!”
Rob and Pinwheel looked at each other dumbfounded. “Ave Maria, Pinwheel! Looks like you’re gonna be eating real fish from now on!”