Prologue (Part 0 of Surfers)

[Estimated reading time: 11 minutes]

The ANN Greer began its life as a an ancient Stream mega-transport. This was in the early days of Stream exploration, before the tech shrank and became reliable, so the transport had multiple overpowered reactors and vast spaces for all manner of cargo.

The Stream tech kept improving and quickly it became much too expensive to power the Greer, and so much cheaper to jury rig a Stream reactor to a smaller craft, a shipping container, an ATV, or even a tractor. After a bit less than a century of ferrying mega-tons around the Solar System, Greer was repurposed as a travelling research lab and long-term transport.

At the moment, she's sailing across Saturn's face in strange non-orbits, orbits that can only be attained (cheaply) with the Stream tech.

Kieran watches the muddy yellows of the gas giant being stirred up by a storm that cuts across the planet from east to west. It will soon reach its tail, the earliest disturbances the storm caused in the atmosphere as it circles the planet.


Saturn storm

Kieran's sitting alone at a table in the cafeteria, gazing up through a ten-foot thick glass hemisphere that offers the best views around.

He's a bright-eyed intern and this is his first time to Saturn, so over the past two months this planet-gazing routine has become habit. He's not the only one. The cafeteria is kept open around the clock and typically has a few researchers planet-gazing at any given moment.

A hand touches Kieran's shoulder, then slowly caresses its way to his head and the bright-red mohawk.

"Rowr!" the hand's owner growls into Kieran's ear.

Kieran turns away from the ringed gas giant and looks into the smiling face of Jasmine.

"Hey! What a coincidence running into you here," he jests.

Jasmine plants a quick kiss on his lips, then comes back for a slow and languid exploration of each other's mouths and tongues.

"Come on, don't want to be late," Jasmine says with mock fierceness and heads toward the north exit.

Kieran looks at his retro watch and is surprised that he's once again lost track of time. He grabs his pack and catches up with Jasmine.

"Hey, when are you heading out?" Kieran asks as they make their way to the Stream Research Lab.

"Already tired of me?" Jasmine replies, her voice a bit on the cold side. Kieran looks over, worried, but finds the silly grin that originally won him over. "Mom and Jenna are on their way to Jupiter now. I'm taking a hopper after work, so we should get there around the same time tomorrow."

"Damn, that's entirely too soon." Kieran shakes his head.

They get into an empty elevator. Kieran pushes the button for the top floor, then his hands find and explore Jasmine's back, and they kiss like it's their last time together.

"Whoops, sorry," a familiar voice comes from beyond the opening doors. Kieran spins around and a deep red flush colors his face.

"Hi daddy!" Jasmine beams and bear-hugs the man who's standing in front of the elevator. "Are you heading out?" The lab's on the other end of the long hallway, directly opposite the bank of elevators, and it's actually strange to see Bernard out here, away from his work.

"Just coming back, had to get some stimpacks from medical." Bernard holds out a handful of sticks. "Saw that you two were on your way. Kieran, running late again."

"Is everything OK?" Jasmine frowns.

"A mega-storm is forming close to Jupiter. Biggest of the century. We're trying to reach Hermosa, see if they can sit this one out. It's going to be a long day."

"Damn," Kieran shakes his head. Your family's ship, he doesn't say.

When they get to the lab, the reports are up on all the screens. The room is filled with holograms of reporters, graphs, and dire warnings. The lab is tinted red by the mood of the media.

The Stream storm came out of nowhere, it beat all predictions and splashed down in the space between Mars and Jupiter.

In the shallows, the spaces close to the gravity wells of the planets, the storms are weaker. Out in the voids, the larger inter-dimensional Stream storms can move faster than light, so there is no way to warn other ships of the killer weather.

The ships out in the voids are taking great chances, for great payoffs: the constant acceleration provided by the Stream shortens intra-planetary trips from weeks to hours.

But a ship that is constantly relying on the Stream can be easily caught off-guard by a storm. The bones of the ships, the Stream equivalent of sails, will be suddenly pushed hundreds of times past their limits as a storm ravages in its strange multi-dimensional way. The lucky ships are quick to react and are able cut off the power to the engines. But a Stream generator does not spin down quickly. Some of the older models have reaction times in seconds. In a mega-storm, every moment counts.

"Anything?" Bernard asks the room at large as he enters. Heads shake, no news from the Hermosa yet.

It's a work day, and everyone's here, but most of the people are involved in the storm events. They're trying to reach the Hermosa. The simulators are running storm scenarios, trying to figure out how long this will last and if there are safe routes out. But the storm is multidimensional and despite all the quantum computing that's being thrown at the problem, the calculations take eons.

Kieran sits down at his workstation and shuts off his own simulation work, contributes his quota to the cause. There are unread emails and requests. He skims through these, ignoring anything unrelated to the storm. Research can wait a day or two.

Finally, distractions aside, Kieran turns his thoughts to Jasmine.

How could I have forgotten about her trip? Kieran thinks to himself. Have I blocked out that she's leaving?

Jasmine is standing in the communal holo deck with Bernard. They're rotating a holographic looping animation of the storm. It reaches from the floor to just above Jasmine's head. Bernard is a head shorter. His hands are moving back and forth, spinning the storm. There's smattering of blue spheres in the center of the storm. One of those must be the ANN Hermosa, others make up the rest of the Spanish flotilla.

Jasmine is a year behind Kieran in school, but she's not studying the Stream. She just enjoys spending time in the lab while she works on her own studies: Education and Graphic Design. Her summer classes have just wrapped up, so she's heading out to meet up with Mom.

Then, in a month, Kieran will ship out back to Luna, and they might not see each other ever again.

Kieran's desk is littered with toys and 3D mesh print-outs of curious Storm structures. At the edge is a framed old-style photograph of Kieran and Jasmine. Their first time to Europa. He picks it up and holds it, tenderly.

"Hermosa's been hit!" Bernard's voice cuts through Kieran's contemplation.

Everyone runs into the communal holo deck. Jasmine is working from a tablet and every few seconds with a flick of a wrist she tosses up a large 2D hologram, a flat blue rectangle with white text and sometimes accompanying media. Reports of the storm, the first text communications that some random ship picked up out in the voids, a choppy video transmission of a disheveled captain speaking.

The ship's communication gear must be damaged, if they're relying on this old tech, Kieran thinks to himself. Might as well be transmitting Morse!

"...engines sustained heavy damage...", the audio cuts in and out.

There's movement in the video and in the background a helmeted but clearly dark-olive face pops up. Jasmine's mom, she's alive.

Jasmine chokes back a surprised cry, concentrates on improving the incoming signal.

The text communiques paint a bleak picture. Hermosa lost 3 engines, has a single spare left. The structural damage to the ship is extensive: it was almost ripped apart. Multiple points of failure caused a blow-out, it was a miracle that no one died. The reactors were hit and shut themselves down as a precaution, so now the ship is running on battery power.

They're also in the middle of the storm, so it's unlikely that a rescue mission could get through to them.

The video feed improves and finally the captain of the Hermosa is clearly visible.

"The ship has suffered extensive damage. The ship has no atmosphere, we have about two weeks of oxygen and food. Power is failing, we'll be dark in less than a day. No casualties, yet."

Bernard pauses the video and turns to the gathered team. "This isn't what you signed up for. But you all just heard the stakes. I need volunteers...", the typically composed man suddenly has to hold back tears as he gathers himself. "Volunteers, to figure out what can be done. Three teams: weather, rescue, repair. We need to... need to..."

Old timers start talking as Bernard seems to deflate:
"Sim interns are on weather!"
"Anyone under THEORY is working on the rescue!"
"Everyone else on repair with me!"
"Leaders are coordinating on the main holo deck."

The lab is alive with people running around and working. It's more hectic than the busiest regular day.

Kieran helps Jasmine and Bernard into the director's office, shuts the door, mutes the windows.

"Do I have to be the asshole to say it?" Kieran says into the silence. He looks between father and daughter. He's known them both for just a few months, but they are close. Close enough for Kieran to dive headfirst into the situation.

Jasmine looks from Kieran to her father. "What's he talking about? Pops?"

Bernard rubs his eyes and sighs. He looks at Jasmine, then over to Kieran, and nods to himself. He unwraps and stabs a fresh stimpack into his thigh before replying.

"Our latest algorithm, Kieran is suggesting that we send it to the Hermosa. They can reprogram their Stream drives with this algorithm. Then, in theory, their one remaining engine can withstand the storm and can power through it, to Jupiter."

"In theory?" Jasmine asks.

Bernard shakes his head and heaves a disappointed sigh. "We've been playing with paper boats in a small bay, and now this is the ocean we're talking about. We've only run a handful of real-world tests, the rest has been models, simulations. This would be the first real-world run against such a powerful storm. We don't know if it'll work. We're not ready. The first deep-space tests are months away. Are, or were..."

"And?" Jasmine asks incredulously. "Did we hear the same report just now?" She pokes a finger towards her father. "They're going to die in the next few days. The three teams you have out there, they're going to come back in an hour and tell you three things," she starts counting on her fingers, "One, storm's getting worse. Two, there's no rescue possible. And three, there's nothing left to repair, they're hanging on to a skeleton! Mom and Jenna are up there, and they're dead if we don't do something!" Jasmine breaks down in tears at the mere mention of her family. Kieran comes over and she holds on to him like she's drowning.

"Yeah. We're doing everything we can." Bernard replies and turns to his terminal. The frozen video from the Hermosa is in the center of his vision, but the work is all around it. A constant reminder of the stakes. "This is the morning's candidate, our best compilation, Build 312." Bernard brings up the latest algorithms that his teams have developed. He includes the typical usage instructions, a document that Jasmine had a part in writing and proofreading. This wouldn't be the first time that Mom would be seeing the instructions, but the first as the "end-user". He grabs the holographic documents and flings them toward Jasmine. The holograms combine mid-flight into a single envelope.

Jasmine grabs the holographic envelope and takes it out of the director's office into the South Wing, the main mechanical section of the lab.

The repair team is using a scaled-down model of the Hermosa, but even so the hologram is the size of a four-story building that floats inside the lab and looks like it extends beyond the lab's walls.

Jasmine gasps at the curved and ripped metal. She was not prepared for the reality of the situation.

Kieran follows her. Jasmine is technically a civilian who's not involved with this project, and none of the people here answer to her. But when she brings the algorithm to the engineer in charge, they all follow her without question.

Kieran is the first of the team to propose the algorithm's use, but everyone understands that this is the right action. This is exactly the scenario that they are working towards.

Jasmine takes a few minutes and sends messages to both her mother and sister. She records quick personal videos, trying hard to keep the stress and fear out of her voice and tears out of her eyes. She reassures her family that everything possible is being done.

"Mom, get some rest while you can."

"Jenna, I love you, come home."


As Jasmine predicted, the weather and rescue teams report back with bad news: the storm is getting larger and there is no safe and quick way to get a rescue team to the Hermosa.

Half of the repair team is working to get the life-support systems back up, while the other half is running scenarios against Hermosa's digital twin to figure out what changes need to be made to the engine for the new algorithms.

It takes the team most of the day, but they soon have a full installation and trouble-shooting guide for the the Hermosa. Jasmine records the outgoing instructions for the upgrade, then they beam everything on a direct laser transmission straight to the ship.

Everyone in the lab is drained after a day of running around, so Bernard gets dinner sent up. Exhausted as the team is, there is still plenty of work to be done. Twenty minutes into dinner, Hermosa starts a real-time video stream of their work, and almost instantly they run into problems. The damage from the storm is more extensive than previously thought.

The ship is 1 light-hour away, so the entire process has a 2 hour feedback cycle: researchers suggest an approach, wait an hour for the ship to receive the message, time to implement the changes, and an hour again for the results to make it back to the lab.

Diagnosing and fixing problems with the new algorithms and the busted ship takes all night. Jasmine makes multiple trips to medical for stimpacks. Bernard is pushing himself ragged, but he refuses to leave.

Jenna's messages become shorter over the long night, more succinct and perfunctory, she's mostly communicating with the lab personnel now. Jasmine spends most of her time running errands or searches for Kieran, who himself is helping with the engine rewire. They are two ships sailing past each other in the night, only time to wave here and there.

In the early hours of the next day, Hermosa finishes the upgrades and are ready to set sail. The hoorays and congratulations sound both tired and wired. It's been a hell of a push, and this was the easy part.

The lab undergoes yet another transformation as the researchers and engineers now become flight controllers. There's also a large crowd looking into the lab from the outside, and Jasmine is aware that their efforts are being followed by countless viewers across the Solar System.

Bernard acts as a conductor and queries various teams for readiness as Hermosa brings the Stream generators up. Then the lab's side of the work is done and everyone just waits to hear from the ship.

For the first run, the ship is going to power up its engines at 1% for thirty seconds. Hermosa is going to accelerate for half a minute, then report back the results. The lab techs are then going to use the ship's telemetry to verify the theories behind the new algorithms. Ultimately, the plan is to use this data to calibrate the engines.

"3... 2... 1...", Bernard quietly follows along with the ship's countdown. At zero Jasmine squeezes Kieran's hand, and the signal from Hermosa dies.

The source is lost, ominous messages state in a red font.

The new algorithm, slowly brought up to 1%, was supposed to accelerate the ship at about 1 m/s^2. Tenth of an Earth gravity. Hermosa was supposed to move slowly toward Jupiter. That did not happen.

The comms team has been sweeping multiple wide- and narrow-beam radars over the Hermosa's expected position for the past couple of hours. In an hour, when the radar has waves have had time to bounce back off the Hermosa's hull and return, they will know where the ship ended up.

The count-down clock is now counting up from 0. A hundred pairs of eyes are locked onto the incrementing digits. Millions more follow along at home.

The clock reaches 30 and all eyes are on the receiver. Then 60, and still nothing, silence.

2 minutes pass. 3. At 5 minutes, there are no eyes watching the clock. Everyone is heads down with whatever work they can find. Hermosa just became their own personal failure.

Comms and radar teams keep at it. No one else wants to leave, not yet. Everyone's hoping that Hermosa is going to pop up on the radar, aaaaany minute now.

Jasmine is gazing up at main display, it has been 47 minutes since Hermosa disappeared.

Bright light floods every nook and crevice. It seems to come from everywhere, and just as suddenly as it appeared, it is gone.

The room plunges into darkness, every single device and light is off. A darkness that rarely happens on this ship. The engines are off, so there is no gravity, and everyone just starts to float.

Jasmine blinks multiple times. The lights start to flicker on, but there are no panels, no displays. The holos are not where they've been for the past decade. Jasmine looks around to note that everyone is doing the same. A sea of confused faces looks around and wonders what the hell just happened.

The systems are starting up, something that hasn't happened on this scale in centuries. The lab locates itself in the cosmos, using outboard sensors, then continues to try and find ANN Hermosa with radar and laser.

The engines turn on again, slowly, and the gravity is back.

They search, but they never find the ANN Hermosa or any of her crew. There is no explanation for The Flash, the strange penetrating light that shined everywhere in the known space for a fraction of a second.


Next chapter: Jaz

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