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[OC] The HEL Jumper [Chapter 2.23]

Book 1 of The HEL Jumper
-----
Previous | First | Next
-----
"Morning love, sorry!" Veera gasped excitedly as Winters' eyes fluttered open and his abdomen clenched. He sat up and wrapped her in his arms instinctively, the blankets very much forgotten in the moment as Veera demanded her body's satisfaction.
"I know things are different for you right now," he whispered calmly as Veera held him in a firm hug, sighing and breathing against the shell of his ear. "But I can assure you this is still every human male's dream."
"But you're not...after yesterday?" She tried, not stopping the slow rhythm of her hips. Winters shook his head and bit her ear.
"Stop worrying about me and enjoy yourself," he commanded, scratching her fur at the base of her neck and continuing to nibble at her. She didn't last long, mewling and whimpering as he helped her achieve what her biology required. "There you go. I love you too, Veera. When you're ready, let's go watch the sunrise."
'Veera's admirable stamina has allowed her to get in ahead of me, but it is May 28th back on Earth. Happy birthday, sir,' Io cut in when they were finished. She'd been made aware of the 'situation' with Veera on account of a rather rowdy night between the two of them. As with most non-life threatening situations, Io had chosen to respond with a mixture of compassion and humor, laying among a pile of furs as if some pagan queen, in touch with natural sexuality, as she addressed them. 'And how are you, Veera? Feeling sated? I daresay you need not find him a birthday present at this point.'
Veera's feathers quavered slightly, but she smiled at Io as she threw her dress on. Winters had already exited the tent. "It's the time of Russell's birth?"
'Yes, Veera. He is twenty five today. Quite accomplished for a man of his age I would say. When is yours?'
"I don't really know," Veera replied, though she didn't seem unhappy about it, scratching Fenrir between the ears when the hyrven poked his head inside the tent, back from his pre-dawn forays. "Yes, hello Fenrir. I've not forgotten you."
'So how does it work?' Io asked, hoping to satisfy a bit of curiosity before going back to standby. 'Oh, no I'm sorry Veera. I didn't mean your heat. I meant how do your people celebrate the anniversary of one's birth.'
The Cauthan seemed much more comfortable discussing that subject. "I suppose it's different for everyone. I was born at the beginning of the fall, so when the harvest began my parents would have a special meal. But I don't know what day I was born. Io," Veera lowered her voice. "I think Russell might be homesick. How can I make today happy for him?" The AI replied using Veera's translator, keeping her advice private.
'Oh Veera, I can assure you that you already have if I know anything about young men, which despite my construction I'd like to think I do. I don't know exactly how to deal with such things, but when he expressed these emotions to me previously the simple act of speaking and listening seemed to help. You cannot replace his family, Veera. But I don't think the Lieutenant is the type of man who would expect you to.'
Io's words of confidence had Veera smiling sweetly at her. She took the piece of Winters' armor in her hands and brought Io's small projection up to her face. The AI was ready this time around and the two girls bumped noses before Io bade her good day. Veera left the tent to find her husband standing just outside, gazing at the still purple sky. "Io tells me you're twenty five today."
"I suppose I am," Winters replied absently, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
"Is it Alice this time?" Veera asked, nestling up against his side.
"Nah, my parents. Just hoping they're alright. By now they'll know my ship is missing for sure. We were never meant to be gone this long. No one would blame them for thinking I'm dead."
"I'm sorry, Russell. I know how much I miss my parents. I can't imagine how they'd feel if I'd been the one to pass on," Veera sympathized.
"Yeah, I'm sorry too. But thanks, Veera. I just wish I could let my mom know I'm alright." Neither of them spoke for a long while after that, choosing instead to take in the world around them and each other's warmth. "But I will say this, Mara never ceases to amaze. Where do you think they're all headed?"
"You mean those?" Veera asked, pointing to a steady stream of small, winged animals that were flying above them, heading from the plains to what Winters assumed was their home in anticipation of the rising sun. "I think those are aquilas," Veera said. "They're small little things with scales and wings, and a bit of fur on their backs. But I thought they only lived in the forest."
"Interesting. Sounds like a species from Earth called bats. They live in plenty of different places. Wanna go check it out? See what we can find?"
"Sure!" Veera agreed readily. "Come now, Fenrir!" They had not yet decided on a course of action regarding their travel, and anything to keep Winters engaged and not thinking of home was a good plan in her opinion. So they struck out with Fenrir trailing along behind them, clambering over rocks and small hills while occasionally glancing above to gauge the proper direction back to the flock's roosting place. The journey didn't take long. Seil was barely over the western horizon when they summited a small hill to find an open crevice in the earth a couple hundred meters away.
"Let's check it out!" Veera called happily, her natural curiosity compelling her forward as Winters took another moment to himself, turning about and watching thin columns of steam rising from scattered pools until they vanished into the sky, framing the first rays of daylight. Thoughts of his parents returned, but he shook them off as best he could.
"There's nothing you can do," he spoke softly to himself. "Right now all you can do is stay alive and see what happens. The rest is up to the HEL and fate." He was about to follow after Veera, but stopped short as he saw her sprinting back towards him as fast as her legs could carry her over the rolling terrain. He'd been inside his own head longer than he'd thought. "Woah Veera, what's going on?" He demanded, his stomach feeling suddenly leaden at the look on her face.
"We can't go in there!" She gasped, her hands on her knees.
"Hands on your head," Winters encouraged as Fenrir looked about uncertainly and Veera sucked down air. "Now what happened?"
"Those aquilas are roosting in Kel's forge. We can't go in there! No mortals should ever go there!" Veera repeated.
Winters felt his head spin as he tried to wrap his mind around Veera's allusions to Cauthan mythology. "Hey, slow down now," he said soothingly, stepping closer to her and noting the genuine fear in her eyes. "Here, sit with me, alright? Nothing's coming after us."
"Okay, okay," Veera breathed, taking an offering of dried meat and water from Winters' pack. "I'm alright. Thank you, darling. Russell, do you recall the tale I told you of Felen's sleep?"
"Kel did battle with him and ripped out one of his lungs, right?" Winters summarized, recalling that peaceful winter night in the village they'd shared together.
"Yes. How do you suppose he did that?" Veera asked.
"I always assumed he went full death god and ripped the lung out with his fist," Winters said with complete seriousness. A stifled giggle preceded Veera breaking into full throated laughter that carried on the wind. Winters joined her with a deep chortle from his belly. "What? Seems like something Kel would do!"
"Maybe to you, 'avatar', but that's not the way our people tell the story," Veera continued, calming thanks to Winters' steady presence.
"Alright, I'm listening. What's the forge of Kel? I thought Tyrdus was the master of metal."
"He is, Russell. He's also Kel's son."
A pregnant pause followed as Winters considered the implications. He woke Io as well, tapping his visor as they'd left his gauntlet back at camp.
'Is something amiss, sir? I don't see anything out of place.'
"Io, Veera says we found something out of her mythology. A location called Kel's forge. That cave over there, in the distance." Winters pointed as Io looked on.
'I see. Tell us more, Veera,' Io demanded, settling down in a chair and tying her hair up in a ponytail so that she could take notes.
"Ok Io, I just got finished telling Russell that Tyrdus is Kel's son. He is the one who forged the weapon that smote Felen during the battle of the first winter."
The look of utter elation on Io's face was impossible to miss. Winters conveyed the sentiment. "Veera, I think you're about to have a few questions come your way."
'Well excuse me for having curiosity in excess of humanity's best smasher of things,' Io retorted. 'Veera, which of your gods have children?'
"It's alright, Veera," Winters assured her. "I'm watching that cave and nothing's coming out. We've got time to talk. I'll protect you."
"I...alright. I suppose it wouldn't hurt to teach you more about the gods. Io, Seil and Kel both have children. Valta, Tyrdus, Uthos, and Meylith are the children of Kel. Seil is father to Felen, Eiur, and Auril. I guess that-"
'Wait wait, can we just go back a step?' Io demanded with a vigorous waving of her hands. 'Your goddess of family and fertility is the daughter of your death god?! Sir, are you confused too?'
"Not really," Winters admitted with a smile, holding Veera's hand in his as they sat across from one another. "Think about it Io, every story we've ever heard about Seil and Kel follows the same dynamic. Seil is chaos, while Kel represents order. Meylith definitely falls under the latter category."
"And she gave birth to the first Cauthan, so she has children as well," Veera supplied, looking warmly at Winters as he demonstrated an innate understanding of the basics of the pantheon of her people. "Does that help, Io?"
'I begrudgingly admit the Lieutenant appears to have a knack for this. And while I hate to throw cold water on this tender moment, Veera, what leads you to believe you've found Kel's forge?'
"It's a cave full of metal, and there's a faint glow from deep within. I dared not tread further," Veera replied with a shiver, even as the rising sun warmed her.
"You mean refined metal? Not ore?" Winters pressed. Veera nodded, sending off a cascade of possibilities in his mind. "Io…"
'I am thinking the same thing, sir. We must investigate,' she declared seriously.
A whimper from Veera's throat forestalled them both. Winters took her other hand and held them both tightly. "Veera, I promised Jess. I know what this looks like to you and I'll treat it with absolute reverence if it is really Kel's forge. But if it's not...it means an advanced species has been meddling around on your planet."
"I don't...why can't this be enough?" Veera pleaded, suddenly struck with fear not for herself, but of being alone again. Winters shut his eyes tightly and grimaced.
"It's a promise to the dead, Veera. And I care deeply for you and your people. If this isn't what you think it is, we need to know."
"But you don't have your armor!" She shouted. He acknowledged the point.
"Maybe not, but I have Io and my guns. You don't have to come with me but please, understand why I need to do this."
"I don't want to!" Veera yelled, wishing he could just understand. "I told you, I'm becoming a selfish female! I love you!"
A phantom hand seemed to wrap itself around Winters' chest, constricting him. "I know, Veera," he said simply.
"But you're still going to go," she replied as words caught in her throat. He nodded.
"I have to."
-----
A short time later Winters stood before the opening in the ground as Veera looked on from the hill. He'd brought his gauntlet and both his firearms, as well as Veera's spear which was strapped to his back. She had insisted. Even from outside, the hard edges and sharp angles of the opening made it clear to him and Io that the cave was anything but natural, even if it was now an overgrown hangout for Maran wildlife.
'Sir, it's been a very long time since anyone was here,' Io declared. 'These look like blast doors. I'm not sure how else you could classify a metal door that's many feet thick. The ground must have shifted over time. That's the only logical reason this place would have opened up at all if it's abandoned.'
"Veera said there was a glow inside. What sort of installation is still working after a literal tectonic age? One that isn't abandoned?" Winters asked, more for himself than her.
'Let us go and find out, mein barbar. Today you must be an Omega Jumper, not just Veera's husband.'
"Doesn't make it any easier wearing that helmet," he growled, turning to throw Veera a salute from afar. She waved back, but he knew it was a front and she would very likely claw him upon his return. "Let's get this done. I hate it when she looks like that."
'A sad Cauthan is almost impossible to refuse,' Io agreed as Winters took a step inside the cavern. Chirps and tired calls from the aquilas above echoed off the smooth walls as his boots sunk into significant piles of their excrement.
"I'm loving this already," he grunted, holding his breath and pushing on towards the faint and ominous red glow in the dark beyond.
'I hope you're at least partially serious, sir. There's no doubt in my mind that an advanced race used to live on this planet. Even this antechamber is proof enough.'
"One that left no discernable signs from orbit," Winters agreed darkly. "So what happened to them?"
'I'm not sure we want to know,' Io whispered, having equipped a spelunking helmet and more than one weapon. After about a hundred yards Winters boots stopped sinking into guano, dust, or earth. It was like being back aboard the Lancer with metal beneath his feet. 'How long is this hallway?' Io wondered. 'Activating secondary illumination.'
A small but bright light shone from Winters' visor, lighting the bland metal walls and floor of the space. The ceiling lay far above, easily a couple stories tall. They stopped before another door, this one firmly shut.
"I understand the outer entrance being that large but…"
'That door is comfortably ursae sized. Which is very uncomfortable,' Io stated, looking up with him as Winters gripped his rifle tighter.
"You don't think…" Winters trailed off
'Dear gods I hope not,' Io agreed as they carried on, drawing ever closer to the glow. The air was getting stale with every breath, leaving the roof of his mouth irritated. He swore he could taste metal. A few paces later they found an aberration that brought them to a halt again.
"Io, analysis?" Winters requested, approaching a scorch mark on the metal wall nearest him. Io placed her chin in her hand as he delicately scraped some of the residue off with his knife.
'I'm not sure you're going to like this, sir.'
"And you know by now that shouldn't stop you."
'The chemical signature has been significantly degraded over time. Carbon-14 dating is impossible. It's too old. But what I can say is that this potentially matches hypothesized residue of prototype ionic laser weaponry in development as of our departure, though the size of the beam is...I don't want to think about that.'
Winters activated the small flashlight on his rifle, giving them two sources of light. Standing back he shone them around the walls and floor, slowly uncovering a picture in the almost pitch black between the light outside and whatever the red light was at the end of the tunnel. "Io...this was a battlefield," Winters stated in awe, seeing scorch and scrape marks everywhere the more he looked. His lights cast a shadow far in the distance.
'Lieutenant!'
"I saw it!" He replied, readying his rifle as every hair on his body stood on end. Slowly he moved forward, keeping his line of fire mobile and flicking back over and over again to whatever it was that was lying on the floor in the distance. His footfalls on the metal seemed to echo within his head as his heart thrummed and pounded against his ribs. "What the hell is that thing?" He demanded as they closed in on a heap of twisted scrap, full of jagged pieces that looked like warped claws or ribs. Io flashed an alert on his visor, a radiation warning.
'I'm detecting alpha radiation…safe levels for now but proceed with caution, sir. The Geiger counter on this thing leaves something to be desired.'
"You looking like you're about to show up at Chernobyl isn't helping either," Winters quipped. Io nodded and got rid of the protective suit. "This is...this is some sort of skeleton, it looks like."
'What's left of it, sir. Can you please bring me closer to the source?' Io requested, highlighting a cracked metal cylinder in his visor's view. He held out the B-MASS and gave Io a moment to process whatever particles were leaking from the opening. 'Sir, the radioactive profile is consistent with Thorium-232 and its derivatives.'
"Nuclear powered robot?" He asked, barely believing the words coming out of his own mouth.
'With a fuel supply to last. No indication of the neutron source.'
"Can you date it somehow? Half lives and whatnot?" Winters demanded, not really knowing the science, nor if the B-MASS was capable of it.
'I can try, sir.' Io shrugged. 'It would be much easier if I had access to a larger spectrometer.'
"I'm not asking for miracles, Io." Winters removed his gauntlet and rested it among the broken, skeletal mass of metal and the container of radioactive material. A small sample was all he could manage with his knife through the cracks in the housing. His part done, Winters continued to survey the area while Io did her best with what she was given.
'Sir?' Io hailed him after several minutes. He'd only found more scorch marks and scuffs on the floor.
"What have you got for me?" He asked as he retrieved her before stepping quickly away from the radiation. "Io, what's going on?"
'Sir,' she whispered, eyes wide with reverence and what he thought was fear. 'We're standing in a tomb that hasn't been disturbed for several million years, at least until those little creatures moved in. Plus or minus a few hundred millennia, of course.'
Winters swallowed heavily. "How is any of this still standing after millions of years?" Io had no answers for him. "I...how?!"
'Asking louder will not conjure an answer,' Io admonished as his voice echoed down the hallway. 'Contrary to my self preservation instincts, sir, if we desire answers we must continue further.'
"Then let's go," he agreed, leaving the light of Seil further behind with every step. After many more minutes of closed doors and unremarkable hallway, the source of the red glow finally made itself known in the shape of a massive breach in the wall to their right. Winters stuck close to the wall itself and inched forward, not wanting to present an easy target to anything waiting on the other side. "Damn...not going to lie, Io, I would have enjoyed being around for that kind of boom."
'Something tells me that whoever or whatever was on the other side didn't share those sentiments,' she replied drolly as Winters got close enough to place his boot on the small pile of rubble left on their side. The breach had torn through a wall with a thickness of more than a meter. The installation was clearly built to last. 'I'm getting that same feeling as when the ursae was hunting us, sir.'
"Something's moving?" He demanded quietly.
'No, sir. It's just a feeling...insofar as machines can feel,' she admitted, swallowing heavily and marshalling her courage. 'Let us continue.'
"You can feel, Io. But you're right. We're going in on three," Winters agreed quietly, breathing deeply to steady himself. "One, two, three!"
Winters turned and leveled his rifle down the breach, trying to stay focused and alert as his mind compelled him to shout in awe. They were staring into some sort of control room; at least he assumed it was a control room. With cautious movement Winters walked them through the hole, clambered over a pile of similar metallic skeletons, and stepped out into the space beyond. They had very little time to appreciate the scenery.
'Movement left!' Io cried the moment Winters' own peripheral vision caught it. He leaped forward, tucking and rolling behind a construct that he likely would have classified as a terminal if he'd not already decided it was cover. After another breath he popped his head up and prepared to fire.
"Io," he panted, feeling cold sweat on his brow as the unknown all around them kept every bit of his body on edge. "Why is there a working, bipedal robot in here? Didn't you say millions of years? Also why isn't it doing anything?"
'Doing anything?! How about the fact that it looks like...oh mein gott! Sir?'
"Yeah Io," Winters agreed, still keeping his rifle tight to his shoulder and every muscle tensed. He didn't understand anything about the cavern they found themselves in but he was married to a Cauthan woman, and he knew what the robot standing before them had just done with its odd, metallic plumage. Veera's feathers had behaved exactly the same when they first met. "It's confused."
'Why is there a proto-Cauthan robot just staring at us?!' Io demanded as the robot took a step forward.
"Threat analysis now! Species analysis later! If you're asking questions I sure as hell don't know!"
'It doesn't even have the talons! Why do you think I'm talking about what it looks like?! None of this makes any sense! Who was this thing programmed to communicate with? Robots designed only to perform menial tasks don't have plumage!' Io shrieked. Indeed, Winters' visor was showing all green in Io's evaluation as the standoff continued, the robot making sounds that sounded absolutely like language.
"Io, the robot is programmed to speak," Winters pointed out as it finally turned away from them and began fiddling with the nearest terminal. Winters could see a large number of identical icons on it with alien symbols underneath. Most of them were flashing in a manner that, to him at least, indicated a lack of functionality. The fact that anything was still working at all was proof enough that the robot was doing its job.
'Sir...while I'm equally intrigued by the robot, do you think we could address the elephant in the room?'
"What might that be, exactly?" Winters asked sarcastically, finally determining the area safe enough to emerge from behind cover. The robot turned to him again, but when he didn't break anything it returned to its business. Io clarified.
'Oh I don't know, how about the gigantic drill shaped construct suspended over a magma chamber of undetermined depth that looks like something out of a bad supervillain movie?'
Winters had to agree it was the sort of thing one could only miss if one was concerned with taking cover and not dying. Beyond a clear barrier that he could only assume was not glass, since it was withstanding the heat of the chamber and still standing after millions of years. Winters could see a massive array of tubes, conduits, and wires coming from the central 'drill', burrowing into the reinforced rock walls and extending deep into the planet's crust. He couldn't see the bottom, but construction in the same alien motif extended all the way down.
'How much do you want to wager there's some sort of robot foundry down there, performing something of a similar function to your pod's fabricator?' Io asked. Winters found it hard to argue with the logic.
"Easier to believe than our friend here being that old. Geothermal power would theoretically have you set for a while too. Care to take a crack at this thing? Why is it pointed off to the side?" He asked, gesturing at the 'drill', but keeping an eye on their metallic companion who seemed perfectly content to maintain the space while they looked around.
'Hrrm...wait, no...yes? Hrrrm,' Io pondered, having acquired some wire frame glasses to accentuate her intelligence in his eyes. Winters cocked a brow but waited for her, keeping his visor roaming slowly over the object so Io could get the best look possible.
'Sir, I believe the metal scaffolding around the object is not just for support. It seems to have been constructed in order to keep this device stable and pointed in a single direction as the planet turns, think of a pendulum or a geosynchronous satellite.'
"And what is it pointing at?" Winters demanded as the robot disappeared through a door that creaked shut behind it, leaving them alone. "Well that thing definitely wasn't security, but I somehow doubt we'll get through that door. What is it?" He demanded, seeing Io's face had gone pale.
'I don't believe this,' she whispered. 'It can't be but...it is.'
"Care to enlighten the human?" Winters requested as his throat tightened.
'I began with the sky, sir, but given what we know about this system and the direction this thing is pointed, the star itself doesn't seem to fit. However, assuming my angles and estimates of our latitude are correct...I believe this device points directly at the warp point of this system for at least seven hours a day.'
Winters watched silently as Io held a model of the Seil system in her hand, applying rotational speeds and orbits as best she should based on the limited data they had from when the Lancer had still lived. Slowly he watched as lines radiated from Mara and then other bodies in the system, with Io moving through simulation after simulation as well as she could. He could feel the CPU in his pocket heating up. Eventually she held her hand out to him so he could see.
'Sir, given the number of bodies in this system and an assumption of my own that this device, whatever it is, would be stronger if closer to the warp point, I can discern at least seven solutions in which one device is constantly pointing at that location. There are two solutions with overlapping coverage from two or more stations for significant periods of time using these estimates.'
"I knew it wasn't an accident…" Winters growled coldly. "They were murdered. We need to destroy this thing!"
'How long before the actual security bots show up if you start shooting?' Io chastised him. 'Or what happens if there's some sort of singularity within that device that gets released from containment the moment you blow it up? Do you have any idea how much power is necessary to warp space time?!'
"How is that anywhere near reasonable?" Winters demanded.
'It's just as reasonable as any of this colossal mind fuck!' Io screamed, stunning Winters into silence as she composed herself and adjusted her glasses. 'Sir, I'm very sorry for losing my temper and I want to hold someone accountable for the Lancer just as much as you but...for all we know this might as well be Kel's forge, as Veera said. We understand so little. If this thing is actually doing what we think it might be doing, it could easily be powerful enough to destroy all life on this side of the continent.'
"But if another ship comes through the warp and-"
'And what if my redundancy theory is correct, sir? Then we risk the lives of everyone we know and love on this planet for nothing. This species, whoever they were, deemed this system off limits. Don't you think that sort of effort would at least have some sort of backup?'
"Io…" Winters groaned, slamming his fist into the barrier. It shimmered and held, leading him to leap away. "Oh look, alien fucking barrier tech!"
'Sir, we are standing in the remains of a species whose technology appears to be exponentially more advanced than the Ghaelen or our own. Please, consider not smashing it all before we discern its purpose!'
"How many people will die if you're wrong?" He asked bitterly, unable to provide any sort of coherent counter argument. "Fuck!"
'Most eloquent, mein barbar. How many Cauthan will die if I'm right?' Io replied tenderly. 'You are my operator and the final decision is yours, sir. But I'm not sure we could even do anything to this installation. We'd need a lot more grenades.'
"And even if we did we might not save anyone," Winters agreed despondently. "What do I do, Io?"
'I believe we should return to Veera, sir. She is no doubt worried sick over us and I do not believe that the two of us alone can make use of anything here. We do not have enough power for the length of study that would be reasonably required to attempt an adaptation of any of this technology. That and I'm not risking my only body attempting to integrate with these systems.'
"And the robot?"
'That question...begs a thousand more,' Io replied philosophically. Winters nodded.
"We need to get back to the pod. If any ship survives the jump they need to know. No sightseeing, no diversions. Hopefully we can shave off a couple weeks of travel time."
'I am in agreement, sir.' Io began flipping through a large stack of papers as Winters took one last look down into the chamber before turning for the breach in the wall. 'But believe it or not sir, I have great news.'
"Oh?" Winters responded in a tone that made it clear he wasn't holding his breath.
'Do you remember when we broke first contact protocols?'
"Which time?"
'All of them!' Io sang happily.
"What about it?"
'There's a bit of a footnote here, buried between the main text and the ensuing sections regarding the conditions under which certain species may or may not be inducted into the galactic community.'
"And what is that footnote?" Winters pressed. Io gave him an imperious smile.
'Extenuating circumstances, evidence of hyper-advanced races.'
"This definitely qualifies. What are the rules?" Winters asked, constantly checking his six but finding their back consistently clear.
'There are no rules, sir. Just survival.'
-----
Winters and Io were still engaged in a debate regarding their actions on Mara up to that point and whether the discovery of the 'forge', as they'd taken to calling it, absolved them of their 'transgressions' when they emerged back into the Maran sunshine, the human shielding his eyes as they adjusted to the change in ambient light. Veera was already halfway to him by the time he set out, casting a final glance back at the tunnel.
"Russell! Please tell me you're alright! Is it really you?" Veera cried, Fenrir bounding along at her heels.
"My first words to you were 'well, shit', and I call you feather kitten," he confirmed, assuaging her fear that he might be some sort of divine simulacrum. Her hands reached for his face and he took her left hand with his right. "Veera...we need to go home, now."
"What happened in there? What did you see?!" She demanded.
"Do you want to go see for yourself?" Winters asked, wondering how the robot they'd found might react to a creature that could wave its own feathers. But Veera shook her head vigorously.
"Absolutely not. That place gives me the creeps!" She replied. "Was it really Kel's forge?" Her husband sighed and shook his head.
"I honestly don't think so, Veera," Winters replied seriously, looking her sternly in the eye as she seemed to visibly deflate. "That doesn't mean the forge doesn't exist, you know."
"I don't even know why I'm disappointed it's just...it's scarier, isn't it?" She asked, hugging him around his gear and looking over his shoulder at the wound in the ground. "If it's not the gods...then it's something with their power, but maybe without their mercy."
"That's exactly what it is," Winters confirmed in a hard tone of voice. "Veera, there's evidence there of life on Mara; advanced life, old life. Whatever it was, it was significantly more advanced than my species is now. I'd bet anything it was more advanced than the species that uplifted us."
"Was?"
"Veera, there's a good chance Io and I were the first intelligent beings to step foot in there for millions of years," Winters explained, unable to stop himself from thinking about the moon landing and first contact.
"How many years is that?" She asked, sounding a bit like the scared girl he'd met months before.
"Thousands and thousands of lifetimes, more than the stars we can see in the sky," he tried. Veera seemed to understand the magnitude.
"Do you think it will be dangerous to my...our people, Russell? It's open now."
"I don't think so," Winters replied, wondering if he should even mention the robot. "We don't know how long that cave has been open, just that it's undisturbed. I think if something was going to come out it would have already.
"Maybe Thantis will know something?" Veera suggested.
"I doubt it," Winters began, separating from her and leading them both back to camp. "But he should be informed either way, I think. I need to warn my people as well, make sure any of them that survive the jump into this system know what's down here. Io and I think we found the system...or at least part of the system that killed my ship."
Veera stopped them dead at that moment, holding his hand tightly. "Then we're both going in there and destroying it," she insisted, feathers alight with fear and determination as her tail whipped about. Io gave the Cauthan a look of compassion the likes of which he wasn't sure he'd ever seen before, even during their wedding. He knew he was doing the same. "Have I ever told you I love you?"
"Yes, now let's go before my fear gets the better of me," Veera insisted with fire in her eyes. Winters shook his head.
"Veera, whatever this thing is, assuming it even does what we think it does, it's larger than the temple of Seil was before it burned. It's behind a barrier the likes of which neither Io nor I have ever seen. It's suspended above a massive hole that does actually seem to tunnel part of the way down into the liquid part of the planet I was telling you about yesterday. Io postulated that if we did manage to gain access and damage it, doing so could destroy the planet, or at least this part of it." Winters couldn't help a tired laugh as Veera's mouth hung open in abject horror. "It might as well be Kel's forge, Veera. It's beyond our understanding how it's still operational, or even still here."
"So we're just going to leave it there?!" She exclaimed. His shoulders sagged as he nodded.
"There's nothing else we can do. I can't shoot my way out of this Veera. This isn't like the ursae. I can't kill this...whatever it is. I'd need backup, serious human backup. And honestly I wouldn't be comfortable doing anything until Beta gets a look at this."
'Glad to see you're coming around to my way of thinking,' Io chipped in with a pleased tone. Winters brought a hand up to Veera's feathers and stroked then softly, knowing they were a sensitive part of her anatomy.
"I was trained to kill and survive. I can't kill this thing, so for now survival is the key, right?" Winters reasoned with all the finesse of a space marine.
"I suppose I can't argue when you put it that way, Russell. The things you said...I can't even imagine what they might look like."
"Last chance to go see the haunted house," Winters joked, earning a jab from Veera that quickly devolved into a short hand to hand struggle as he retaliated, wanting some small outlet for the stress of his incursion. With only one hand free he quickly found Veera's paw and claws at his throat in a symbolic statement of victory. "That's good, Veera, but mind your feet," Winters advised as he swept her leg and reversed the situation in an instant.
"Hey, that's not fair!" She complained sheepishly, standing back up and rubbing her behind.
"Neither is combat," he replied as his own mentors might have.
"Yeah yeah, I know. It's just hard to keep it all in my head at once!"
"We'll practice on the way back. No matter how fast we walk we still need to rest and sleep. You've already learned all the basics," Winters reassured her as they descended the hill towards their tent and the cave disappeared from view. "All you need to do now is practice."
"I guess we won't have much else to do," Veera agreed. Winters threw her a coy smile.
"I can think of at least one other way to pass the time."
"How can you be thinking about mating at a time like this?!" Veera exclaimed.
"Uh...I'm alive and very high on adrenaline right now?" Winters shrugged. "Besides, it's your fault I enjoy it so much."
Io snorted with laughter and promptly insisted that Winters would enjoy most any mating. He wrapped an arm around Veera's shoulder and threw her a wink. "Io, when you've been with a Cauthan woman let me know. And don't think I've forgotten your little rant about the end of the world coming about because I...stuck it in fluffy?"
"Io!" Veera shrieked in embarrassment.
'Lieutenant!' Io made a fine show of looking betrayed.
"I'm not the bad guy this time," he insisted. "Veera, I love everything about you, that included. Io, we can joke about sex another time. I want you thinking about what we've seen today, to the extent you can while you're on standby. We used a bit of juice in there." Winters' orders dropped cold water on the momentarily chaotic and lighthearted banter.
'Understood, sir. I must admit this is not the adventure I thought would be waiting for us at the end of the river. There is...much to ruminate on. Veera, please stay close to him. Both of you have quite a vested interest in returning to the village alive. And I'm sorry about what I said. The Lieutenant loves you very much; I can tell.'
"You've come a long way, Io," Winters said proudly as Veera smiled at them.
"Don't worry, Io. If human women ever show up in this system I certainly won't be upset about having some sort of innate advantage to my body. Sleep well."
Io gave the Cauthan an impish wink. 'Thank you, Veera. Sir?'
"I'll wake you at least once a day, you can be sure. Let me know what you're thinking."
'As you say, sir. Entering standby.'
With Io gone it was up to Veera and Winters to gather their things and pack their camp, the discovery of the 'forge' effectively terminating their westward journey. For a short while they held hands and looked back in the direction of the cave. "You're sure?" Veera asked.
"No," Winters admitted as he rubbed his jaw. "But a decision has to be made. We'll only know if we did the right thing a long time from now...if we ever know at all."
"I'll be here," she promised.
"I know. Let's get home, Veera. Thantis, Xan, and Antoth need to know about this."
-----
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7

Block 5 fleet update (and nuclear fission is [almost] never the answer)

As of UTC 22 Oct 2020, booster 1060 is scheduled to launch Strlk15 later today, and the count stands as follows:
B1049.6: 65 days since last flight
B1051.6: 04 days since last flight
B1058.3: 16 days since last flight
B1059.4: 53 days since last flight
B1060.2: 49 days since last flight
B1061: SpX-Crw1, delayed by B62 issue
B1062: GPSIII-SpX3, gas generator apparently exploded immediately before launch attempt 02 Oct, engine replacements on 61, 62, 63, and possible damage to the aft end of 62
B1063: ESA Sentinel-6A (launch courtesy of NASA)
B1064: AF-44 side booster
SpX have been prioritizing Starlink launches, and the booster situation has become and will remain disorganized. Apart from 1060.3, 1058.4 is apparently assigned to SpX-CRS2-21 in late November (~47 day turnaround), and I would expect NROL-108 on 1059.5 or possibly 1049.7 if they are launching a concrete block or something instead of a satellite. Despite recent reductions in turnaround time, the block 5 average will still be at 124.4 days if Strlk-15 launches later today. The BFstainless steel rocket development effort continues with little tangible progress.
With that out of the way, I have been attempting to collect the refueling histories of US nuclear ships and submersibles. The history of nuclear fuel, reactor pressure vessel, pressurizer, steam generator, steam turbine, and condenser development is extremely convoluted, but the summary is that all US ships have been fueled by pressurized water reactors with the exception of the USS Seawolf (SSN-575), which was built with a liquid-sodium cooled S2G reactor (after the S1G land-based prototype). Other General electric reactors include the D1G land-based prototype, the D2G (“destroyer, second generation, general electric”) reactor used in pairs on eight of the nine US nuclear cruisers, the S6G reactors of the 62 Los Angeles submarines, the S5G land-based prototype and USS Narwhal (SSN-671) reactor, the S7G experimental prototype, the S8G prototype and 18 Ohio submarine reactors, and the S9G reactor on the dozens of existing and planned Virginia submarines. Not to mention Combustion Engineering with the S1C prototype and S2C USS Tullibee (SSN-597) reactors, the S1B reactor planned on the 12 Columbia submarines, the A1W dual prototype reactors, the 8 A2W reactors on the former USS Enterprise (CVN-65), the two C1W reactors on the former USS Long Beach (CGN-9), the twenty A4W reactors on the ten Nimitz aircraft carriers, and the A1B reactors used in pairs on the Ford aircraft carriers. The submarine reactor output of the Westinghouse company is also considerable, with the S1W prototype, S2W on USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the S2Wa replacement reactor on the USS Seawolf after the original reactor was removed and dumped in the sea, 5 S3W/S4W reactors on the Skates and USS Halibut (SSGN-587), the S5W prototype, and the 99 S5W reactors installed on four types of attack submarine and three types of ballistic missile submarines. Two of the S5W reactors are also at the bottom of the ocean, but with full loads of nuclear fuel and at steam generating temperature when the submarines carrying them catastrophically imploded after a reactor electrical system failure (USS Thresher SSN-593, sank 10 Apr 1963) and a battery explosion (USS Scorpion SSN-589, sank 22 May 1968). By July 2016, 542 loads of nuclear fuel had been taken critical, with upwards of 14 more since then (6xVirginia, 2xcarrier reactor, 2xmoored training ship, 4xSSBN refueling).
Anyway, the summary of many hours searching through individual submarine histories is that US military reactors exclusively use 90+% enriched uranium, which maximizes the amount of nuclear potential energy that can be fit into the existing reactor pressure vessels. However, 90+% enriched uranium is also the stuff that fission bombs are made out of. In contrast, the French navy runs low enriched (~20%?) uranium and builds refueling hatches into their submarine hulls, trading more frequent (about every ten years) and easier refuelings for reduced proliferation concerns.
The information that I can find says that US submarines are rated for about 1.000 hours of the equivalent full power operation per year. Since maximum power output declines as the nuclear fuel is “burnt” up by the fission process, I have no idea if this the 1.000 hours/year figure is at the beginning of the fuel life or the end. However, a year is 8.760 hours (or 8.784 hours if a leap year), posing obvious operational limitations. In practice, a machine as complex and labor hungry as a nuclear submarine will be at the pier for a considerable fraction of its time, and the rest is not spent at full throttle all the time due to the fuel inefficiency and radiated noise caused by the hydrodynamic drag at full speed.
In the context of space, it would seem as though NASA have recently selected a combination of nuclear-electric ion engines and chemical propulsion as their Mars reference configuration for human landings. This is a spectacularly stupid idea. As a reference, the S6G reactor found on the Los Angeles attack submarines is rated at a maximum thermal output of 165 megawatts. The two main propulsion steam turbines that will need to absorb the vast majority of the maximum thermal output are rated at a combined total of 52 MW mechanical. Neglecting the electrical generation required to keep up with the hotel load, combat systems, and engineering plant parasitic loads, this leaves about 100 MW of thermal energy that must be dumped into the ocean (as a fact check, this makes some sense as steam turbines are heat engines, and the low temperature and quality of nuclear-generated steam [in turn limited by the maximum temperature the fuel elements can sustain] leads to a small difference between the hotwell and coldwell temperatures, in turn leading to low efficiencies). Luckily, the ocean is full of water, which is the preferred location to dump large quantities of heat due to its high heat capacity and ease of handling.
A Mars-bound spacecraft will not have the advantage of an entire ocean of water to act as a heat sink, and will also be unable to rely on thousands of tons of ancillary equipment to squeeze the maximum possible work out of the energy released by the fission process. Instead, current NASA planning relies on heat pipes to carry thermal energy from the nuclear fuel to Brayton cycle electrical generators. As heat engines, these also require a difference in temperature between input and output, and the bigger the difference the higher the efficiency. Precisely directing the heat into the input side of the electrical
generators and then out into space on a sustained basis over a period of months is essentially science fiction – heat is molecular motion, very entropic, and very difficult to control, as anyone who has dealt with regulating interior climate control systems will be well aware.
Reactor life is also a consideration. US naval reactors started out with about 2-4 years of reactivity per load of reactor fuel. Since the 1950’s, the technology has improved considerably. The S9G reactors currently being installed into Virginia fast attack submarines are intended to last the 33 year life of the boats on the initial fuel load, while the S1B reactors on the future Columbia ballistic missile submarines are intended to last 42 years (20 years operational, 2 year major overhaul, 20 years operational) and carrier reactors go about 25 years on a load of fuel. Given the reactor size (attack submarine smallest, then SSBN, then carrier), this can be explained by the use cases. Attack submarines operate as stealthily as possible, but are maneuvered much more violently than the SSBNs, which are expected to putter along at a sedate pace as far in the middle of nowhere as possible. Aircraft carriers probably spend a higher fraction of their time at sea, and must often steam at full speed into the wind to put the maximum possible air velocity under the winds of aircraft taking off from or landing on the flight deck. As can hopefully be seen, the ship/submarine environment is a fairly benign environment for a nuclear reactor, with plenty of downtime, little full-power operation, and plenty of people to fuss over the machinery.
On a spacecraft, the borderline neurotic attention that needs to be paid to every added gram of mass will inevitably lead to the reactor on a nuclear-electric spacecraft being operated at maximum power for the duration of ion thrust. If we assume 18 months of thrust required to get to Mars and back, this is upwards of 13.000 hours of full-power operation divided into two main blocks (and electricity will be needed in between the ion thrusting times – solar or nuclear). I have no idea if operating a nuclear reactor for 6.500 continuous hours at full power has been tried before, but in submarine terms that would be 6.5 years of reactivity burned off in 9 months without the benefit of heavy ancillary equipment. Additionally, the almost complete lack of radiation shielding means that asking a human to get close enough the reactor core to even look at the heat pipes or Brayton generators is out of the question, which means that maintenance is out of the question with the reactor running. Residual radioactivity from the decay chain of fission products and neutron activation of shielding and structural materials will not allow access to the reactor machinery area for months after the reactor has been shutdown.
Overall, nuclear reactors are enough of a nightmare on earth with thousands of tons of shielding materials around them – even the longest-lived fuel rods are only expected to last for 42 or so years before requiring special handling for hundreds and thousands of years afterwards, the amount of usable energy contained in all of the fissionable compounds on earth is a minuscule fraction of the amount of energy radiated by the sun year after year, and as a species our safety record with fission does not merit the use of the word “safety” anywhere near it. By ditching the reactor and substituting solar panels, a mars-bound spacecraft can be made much less failure prone, more pleasant to live on, more reliable, and more hope inspiring than a spacecraft that inevitably deposits a reasonably large quantity of fission products and activated materials into the path of future explorers. Similarly, if we as a species are serious about someday exploring the outer reaches of our solar system, we should avoid burning the uranium now when we don’t absolutely have to. Unless we can develop a better power source in the meantime, future exploration past the limit of solar viability will be severely hampered if we use up all the fissionable materials making electricity or driving warships in pointless circles on and under the sea.
submitted by FightingForSarah to SpaceXFactCheck