Until Next Time

drafted by Faulx

Nervously, the Caldari man looked down at the chronometer on the arm of his environment suit.  

"Still six hours left," he mumbled to himself.

His gaze slid across the dosimeter readout displayed just below the time.  It still showed only background radiation from the room's lighting and electrical systems.

He puffed out a relieved sigh and shook his head.  "...Not that it would be able to read any x-rays from in here," he said to the empty room as the back of his fist rapped reassuringly on the wall of the station's communication's compartment.  

As he waited for the computer system to finish its diagnostic, he caught his fingers drumming nervously on the console.  "God I hate radiation," he said, squeezing the disobedient fingers into a fist.  To distract himself, he went over the science of it all in his head.

X-ray radiation is unique among the electromagnetic spectrum.  When interacting with atoms, its re-emission is delayed by over 180 degrees of phase.  Because of this curiosity, when an x-ray travels through matter, the apparent speed of the wave-crests actually exceeds the speed of light, and, consequently, the index of refraction of materials is lower than that of vacuum or air.  Thus, for x-rays, total internal reflection may actually take place on external surfaces.   This means that as long as the angle between the incoming x-ray and the reflecting surface is more shallow than the complement of the 'critical angle', 100% of the energy from the x-ray will be reflected.

This remote research outpost, in particular, had to be designed with x-rays in mind.  The entire shape of the outer hull had been built into a narrow wedge, with mirrored armor plates, pointing toward the expected source of the on-coming radiation.  The wedge shape lowers the angle at which the on-coming x-rays strike the hull, and total "external" reflection kicks in, preventing all x-ray radiation from the source from entering the station interior.

With this thought, the man's eyes quickly flicked to look out the nearby window, out into the stars, and his musings turned to the source of the x-rays: a source of immense power.  A neutron star, the collapsed remnants of a supernova so dense that the mass of a typical sun is squeezed into a sphere of neutronium only ten kilometers across and held there by its immense gravity.  During the supernova that formed it, the collapsing star's speed of rotation increased from hours to mere seconds (via conservation of angular momentum), and its magnetic field increased in density to the order of 10^15 Gauss.  The rotation of this massive magnetic dipole then began to sweep out a series of powerful electromagnetic pulses in the radio frequency.  From these pulses, comes the name: pulsar.  However, not just any pulsar could emit x-ray radiation.  The neutron star in this system is an intermittent accretion powered pulsar.  Located in a binary star system and set into a slightly eccentric orbit around its still burning stellar companion, this pulsar drifts into periastron with its neighboring star every 14 years or so.  In the months surrounding periastron, the pulsar's gravitational field dips in close to the surface of the other star, contracting the star's Roche lobe until it begins to overflow with stellar gasses.  The newly freed gasses quickly fall along the gravitational gradient toward the neutron star and enter its strong magnetic field.  Like a planetary aurora, the positively charged atomic nuclei of the gas are channeled along the magnetic field toward the magnetic poles of the rotating pulsar.  Charged particles in a magnetic field tend to swirl in spirals along the field lines, radiating energy as they do so.  In an accretion powered pulsar, the gas swirls with enough energy to blast out x-rays, and in some cases, gamma rays so strong that at the distance of 3.5 AUs... the distance of this station... a mere second's exposure is enough to deliver a lethal dose.

(( author’s note: 1 second lethal dose estimated using x-ray luminosity of 10^37 erg ))

"The science isn't helping," he gulped as beads of sweat began to roll off his brow.  Again he looked at his chronometer.  "We've still got hours before the pulsar begins to collect gas... plenty of time to finish the job and get back to the ship."

He gazed once again around the empty room, "Maybe some conversation would help."

After pressing a few buttons on a keypad near his environment suit's time display, he spoke once again to the room,  "Independence, this is Survey Two.  Remind me again what we're doing prowling around a derelict space station deep in pirate infested space?"

After a slight pause, a familiar gravelly voice answered back, "Survey Two, this is Independence.  You're over there now because the good Doctor wants this place checked out while the skies are still clear.  If we don't do it now, we're going to have to do it months from now, and I for one agree that its better not to have to sneak back through Blood Raider space more times than we have to.  Don't tell me you're feeling lonely already?  You've only been over there for seven hours, just one more hour to go."

"Lonely? No. More like trapped.  I'd much rather be back aboard with you guys, this place feels a bit creepy."

"So you're feeling claustrophobic and your solution is to move from the small metal box of a space station to the even smaller metal box of a Viator?'

"At least the Independence has a working life support system.  This station's been in low power standby for over 100 years.  There's been no maintenance to the power plant.  The atmosphere in here is pure N2 to protect the electronics.  The gravity's offline.  Half the docking ports aren't working.  Who knows if the biomass processors are working?  Let alone the idea of eating food synthesized from 100 year old biomass.  I do NOT want to get stuck over here with no heat, no air, no grav, and no food when that pulsar starts blasting."

"Relax, you're not going to get stuck, we've still got plenty of time to disembark you guys.  And besides, the Rust Bucket is sitting next to the sun keeping an eye on things."

"Rust Bucket? You mean the Chronos?"

"Feh, call it what you will; those Minmatar craft are all Rust Buckets to me."

"Gentlemen, Survey One here.  Let's keep the comms clear for operational use please," a third, soft voice gently asserts.

And in short order, a fourth, deep voice chimes in, sounding vaguely sarcastic, "Independence this is Rust Bucket, I mean, Chronos... If I may interject."

"Chronos this is Survey One, Go ahead."

"Sir, you know that thing you said almost definitely wouldn't happen?"

"Please tell me you're joking," interjected a panicky voice.

"Sorry Survey Two, no such luck.  It looks like the gravitational field of the approaching pulsar has caused a star-quake just below the surface of the sun."

"And the solar flare?"

"It's pointed straight at the pulsar sir.  It's a big one."

"How much time do we have till it hits?"

"It's already happened sir: my reading show the plasma entered the pulsar's magnetic field about half a minute ago...  My probes just cut out.  I assume they're fried.  You've got about 30 minutes till the first radiation wave reaches your location."

"Chronos, get out of there.  Fall back to the rendezvous immediately."

"Already done sir."

"All teams, this is Survey One.  Everyone drop what you're doing and make your way back to the airlock.  Be sure to grab your gear and any data you've collected.  All teams, Do you read me?"

"Survey Two, already out the door."

"Survey Three, copy."

"Survey Four, copy, on the way, ETA five minutes"

"This is Survey Six, we're wrapping up the power-core diagnostic and heading out, ETA fifteen minutes."

"Very well Survey Six, but don't take any unnecessary risks.  We do NOT want to get stuck over here.  Survey Five?....  Do you copy?..."

After a slight pause, a man with a slight Amarrian accent answers in a methodical drone, "Sorry ma'am.  Yes, I copy."

An audible sigh registers, "How many times do I have to tell you to call me 'sir'?"

"Apologies ma'am, I cannot; if my colleagues at the Imperial Academy caught me following Gallentean custom, I would never hear the end of it.  But I am afraid that is rather beside the point.  There is a problem: I believe I may need assistance."

"That's not what I wanted to hear Survey Five.  I should be closest to your location.  I'm on my way there now: ETA 8 minutes.  What's the problem?"

"If you recall ma'am, the electrical system in this section was demonstrating intermittent faults earlier."

"Yes. And?"

"Well it would seem that the controls to the hatch leading out of the surveillance processing chambers can be added to the list of faulty systems."

"Does that mean that the hatch wont open?"

"That is correct ma'am."

"There should be a handle near the door.  Pull it to open the door manually."

"Yes ma'am, that's the problem.  While I was actuating it, the manual override handle broke under the force.  The door can no longer be opened from this side."

"Understood Survey Five, I'll be at the hatch shortly.  In the meantime see if you can find another exit."

"Yes ma'am."

"All teams, status?"

"Survey Two here, teams Three and Four are with me in the airlock."

A moment later, "This is Six, we've finished the diagnostic and are packing our gear now."

"This is Independence, we've crunched the numbers on the probe telemetry from Chronos, we have a revised ETA on the radiation wave.  The wave will hit the station in 22 minutes 7 seconds.  I'm inputting the countdown into your environment suits' chronometer."

"Very good Independence, understood."

With that, the team leader mentally signaled her implant to shut down her outbound comm signal.  With the station still in low power stand by, the express lifts which would normally carry crew-members from place to place had not been cleared and were not an option for travel.  "Well," she said to herself, as she ran down the corridors of the station, "This expedition has certainly taken a turn for the worse."  Her magnetic boots thunked loudly as she went on, grinning uncontrollably,  "It's almost as exhilarating as being in a pod.  I should probably be careful though, with no trans-neural burning scanner I won’t be waking up in a puddle of goo if things go the way they're looking."  "But," she reminded herself, "it's what I have to do to get what I need."

As she navigated the station's passages she pondered her purpose.  Over 100 years of stellar observations had now been stored by the automated recording devices aboard these antiquated research outposts, all of them built around the variable stars and pulsars that litter the Period Basis region.  Moment by moment observations of pulsar radio signals, some with resolutions measuring into the picosecond (and during special stellar events, the femtosecond), had been meticulously recorded in facilities like this one.  Signals from these pulsars have been traveling through the void of space for millennia in every direction, and since the settled systems of New Eden span over 100 light years across, it was only in the last decade that the recorded radio signals would have reached the most distant systems on the opposite side of the stargate network.  With this astronomical data, observers in all other regions of New Eden could compare local measurements of light from the Period Basis to the high frequency baseline data her crew had been collecting and analyzing.

The data stored in just one facility was vast, uncompressed it would measure into the zettabytes.  The Independence couldn't hope to store even a fraction of it, but, at nearly all the stations, the survey teams had been able to verify the integrity of the data, and run diagnostics on the stations' comms facilities and power cores.  All signs were good, that, with a little work, the network of observatories could be brought to full working order as had been intended by the original builders: the Arithmetics.  Once restored, the data they gathered could be transmitted and backed up, and then the real magic could happen.  With copies of the baseline data open for all to see, direct measurements could be made from other regions and compared to the years-old-radio-signals recorded in Period Basis.  Comparing these readings with the baseline data made in a constant space-time reference frame nearby each pulsar, would allow any observer to independently synchronize their local time with others across the cluster against the effects of relativity.  No longer would nations, or anyone for that matter, be reliant on CONCORD's central authority for timing updates.  With this simple step, planets, corporations, budding nations on the edges of space, even the core empires would have a common astronomical clock to compare against, free from the yoke of bureaucratic oversight.

She looked forward to seeing that day.  That is... assuming she didn't get trapped in this tin can and suffocate, freeze, and/or starve to death.  And with that thought, she found herself within sight of the troublesome hatchway to the surveillance area.  She glanced at her chronometer and noted the time, 14 minutes 29 seconds left.

With a thought, she reactivated her comms, "Survey Five, I'm outside the hatch, opening it now."

"That is good to hear as I've had no luck in finding alternate exits.  God willing, I will see you in a moment ma'am," came a very confident reply.

Quickly, she analyzed the scene.  At the end of the cramped corridor was a small heavy metal hatch, resting upon a pair of thick metal hinges, each about a foot tall.  Next to the door, a slightly dusty control panel glowed dimly, showing a number pad and a few other options.  Chief among them was a large button marked "Open".

She tapped the button and looked hopefully at the door.  "Figures...  Nothing."

A few more times she tapped the button.  This time noticing that the lighting behind the panel flicker as she put pressure to it.  "Hmmm, could be a loose connection... Perhaps the old 'engineer's solution' will do the trick?"

With that, she slammed her fist into the panel, jarring it.  The panel flickered momentarily and then went completely dark.  At this, she rolled her eyes, "Well of course! that's the other thing the 'engineer's solution' can do."

"There's no time to fiddle with the panel: time for some leg work," she said, glancing at her chronometer.

Next to the control panel was a brightly colored covering marked "Emergency Override".  She pulled the cover off to reveal a solid looking metal handle about three feet long.  At the handle's base was a set of gears which redirected the force applied to the handle to simultaneously slide the heavy bolts within the door-frame and pry the door itself outward from the frame.  With enough strength, the mechanical advantage could allow someone to partially open the hatchway even against the pressure of vacuum if the need arose.  "With no vacuum on the other side, this should be easy."

She grasped the handle and tugged forcefully.  With a loud, creaking of metal, the handle swung out slightly, "That'll be the retaining bolts coming out."

She pulled harder to apply force to the hatch itself; stubbornly, however, the door stood fast.  "What's going on here?  It's like it's been jammed into the frame... Hmmm, or perhaps it's warped somehow?"

Bracing her leg against the frame, gritting her teeth, and closing her eyes, she pulled again with all her might.  As the metal groaned, the handle moved out another few inches before suddenly giving way with a loud crack.  At the same time she fell backward from the sudden lack of counter-force, pivoting about the point where her boot stuck to the wall.  

"Hah! Got it!", she exclaimed as she maneuvered to upright herself.  Then, looking first at the door then at the contents of her hand, she said, "... Or not."  

"I take it ma'am, from that rather familiar breaking sound, that I won’t be going anywhere soon?  It looks like God has revealed his plans for me at last."

There, in her gloved hand was a two foot section of the manual override handle, broken cleanly away.  "Damn it! What the hell is wrong with this thing?!  A hundred years alone in deep space should have left this hatch in practically new condition."

"Perhaps it's a design fault ma'am?  Ironic, that my fate should have been decided so many years ago."

An uncomfortably long pause filled the corridor.

"Ma'am... 'Sir'... I think it is time you returned to the ship.  It will take at least ten minutes to make your way there.  There's not much time left."

Annoyed and frustrated, she glanced down at her chronometer, 13 minutes and 2 seconds left.  As she looked, her gaze slipped across the suit's dosimeter, and she gasped.  There, pulsing lightly in the x-ray band was a signal.  She blinked in disbelief, "What?  How can that be?  It's too early!"

"Ma'am?"

"The pulsar, It's already started!... Wait... No.  Even if it had started, we shouldn't be able to see anything at all in here, not with this station's design...  This signal: it's the pulsar's low level x-ray signal from the accretion of the stellar wind.  The big light-show won’t start till the pulsar starts pulling plasma directly from the star.  But, how am I seeing it through the station's armor?  What if... the electrical failures... I have an idea.  Hold on in there."

Quickly, she dashed down the corridor, eyes fixed on the dosimeter.  After a few meters, the readings faded, a few steps after that they disappeared.  She looked up, nebulously, at the ceiling above her, "There must be a hole in the plating,... perhaps from an asteroid strike?  That would explain the electronic failures AND the door."

"From a rupture in the hull ma'am? If the pulsar's signal is bouncing its way through the station hull, it could certainly be interfering with the electronics, but how could that have affected the door?  The majority of the radiation should simply reflect from the metal or dislodge a few electrons creating a minor current."

As she listened, she dashed back to the hatch. "The low level signal yes, but, remember, every fourteen years, the intensity goes up a few orders of magnitude.  The intense bombardment of x-rays could deposit enough heat to warp the door AND anneal the override handles..."

Now at the door, with the broken handle still in her hand, she raised it over her head, grasping both ends, poised to strike.  "And if the handles have become hard and brittle, then maybe... just maybe, the hinges have too."

With that, she began striking at the hinges from the side, using the handle as a ram.  After a few, furious strikes a chip flew off one hinge.  Grinning wildly, she let out a delighted shriek and continued her onslaught.  Another several strikes later, there was a sudden BANG as shards of metal flew against the wall and rained back in every direction.  Momentarily confused, she stopped her assault and looked at her handy work, her heart still racing from her efforts.  The hinge she had been working on was no longer there, the hatch had shifted suddenly, breaking through the weakened pin and shattering the remnants.  

Laughing, she returned to the remaining one foot section of the manual override handle still attached to the door frame, "Looks like the hatch was warped after all... How the hell did you get this thing closed?"

With a light tug of the small handle, the hatch gave way, revealing a stoic Amarrian face inside an environmental suit helmet. "The door's electrical system was working when I first entered the chamber.  Apparently, well enough to secure the hatch QUITE firmly."

"Come on, let's go," she said as she offered her hand to help the Amarrian through the small hatchway.

As she held it out, he looked down at it.  "Ma'am, you're bleeding!  Your suit has been compromised," he said.

She glanced down at her arm; there was a large gash in her suit, running from her thumb down past her wrist.  Her skin had fared better, protected by the suit, with only a long shallow cut in the opening, dripping blood.  The blood was already beginning to crystallize from the chill of the station atmosphere.  "Great," she said sarcastically, while rolling her eyes.  "I'll have to hold in my air-supply with my other hand.  I doubt I'll have feeling in this one much longer.  That leaves you to activate any controls we encounter on the way.  Let's move!"

"Yes ma'am!," he said as they began running down the corridor.  "Although, I'm afraid God still has a bad ending planned for me yet," he said pointing as his chronometer, "We no longer have enough time to make it back to the airlock."

With a sickening realization she looked down at her own chronometer, he was right: 8 minutes 54 seconds.  "Nonsense, it just means we need to run faster."

"Independence, this is Survey One, please tell me all teams are aboard and no one else needs rescuing."

"Survey One this is Survey Two aboard the Independence, you're the last ones aboard the station.  We've been monitoring your situation, and I have an idea."

"Oh?  We could certainly use one of those at this point.  Do tell?"

"There's no time to explain everything.  You need to head to the docking hatch in section 12, you should be able to make it there in 2 minutes from your present position."

"Survey Five here, Section 12 is in the shadow of the station, none of those hatches is operational.  That is, after all, the reason we cannot dock safely while the pulsar is emitting radiation."

"Yes, I'm aware of that...  Typical Amarrian wet blanket.  I should have the problem solved by the time you're in position."

"Understood Survey Two, we're on our way."

Glancing over at her companion, she raised and eyebrow, "Let's hope God's bad ending for you takes place far in the future."

***

Back aboard the Independence, the command center bustles with activity.

"Navigation, you've got one minute to maneuver us into position.  Put us as close to the docking hatch as you can, if this goes right we won’t have a lot of time."

"Roger that, sir."

"Lieutenant, I've bypassed, the security lockout for the station mainframe, and created a mid-level user account for you.  I need you to access as many maintenance systems as you can and bog the system down with high-priority, low-latency diagnostic requests."

"Aye, Aye, sir," came a gravelly reply.

"Stay away from the airlock control systems though.  I'll need them responsive."

"Aye, sir."

After a few moments of furious tapping at the console, the man continued, "Alright, I've uploaded the trojan, let's hope the system is too busy to spot it before it does it's work."

"Survey One, this is Independence, are you in position?"

"Affirmative Independence, we're outside the docking hatch's internal door.  The external door is wide open and the control shows an error when I attempt to close it.  We won’t be able to open the inner door till the outer one is closed."

"Okay, Survey One, there should be a custom command uploaded to the airlock control panel.  I want you to take a deep breath and then exhale completely before executing it."

"Uh... I recognize that procedure... I'm not sure I like where this is going Independence."

"Yes sir, I understand sir.  Sooner would be better sir."

***

She looked back at her companion, with a telling expression, and said, "Then again, let's hope God has lots of bad endings in store for you.  I have a feeling we're about to see one of them right now, along with just how cheaply these environment suits are made." With that, she inhaled deeply, exhaled as much as she could, and nodded to the Amarrian.

"God save us," he exhaled, and pushed the button.

The moment he pushed it, wind knocked them off their feet as the hatch in front of them was forced open by powerful hydraulics.  Alarm klaxons began to sound over the gale, as the wind pinned them to the opening.  Soon, the opening expanded, enough to admit a person and the wind pressed them out into space.  The sounds, faded quickly as they drifted through vacuum, a steadily diminishing rush of turbulence still beating occasionally against their environment suits.  Opening her eyes, she noticed that, remarkably, the Amarrian's environment suit was holding pressure, though it looked puffed up and inflated like a giant man-shaped balloon.  She was not so lucky.  Her suit was leaking air through the opening in her arm at an alarming rate.  Through the tear in her suit she could see the tissue of her hand swelling as the water beneath her skin vaporized.  Though the grip of her other hand slowed the process somewhat, the rest of her suit was also depressurizing.  She could feel pressure building inside her ears, accompanied by a rapid "whooshing" sound: the beating of her heart.  The pressure turned to pain and was becoming quite pronounced, when suddenly, with two quick "popping" sounds, the pain disappeared, and she noted a warm wet feeling on the side of her head as her eardrums burst.  She could feel foam begin to collect around her mouth, nose, and eyes as bubbles formed in the fluids of her body.  Just as her vision began to narrow into a tunnel and fade to grey from lack of oxygen to the brain, she felt a sudden violent thud, though she couldn't quite tell from where.  The grey spot in her vision flashed and seemed to transition to red then black.  Moments after that, as if in a dream, there was a distant rushing sound and some muffled noises.  Finally, she felt a very familiar jerking feeling: a ship entering warp.

(( author’s note: see Joseph Kittinger, surviving ebullism, rapid decompression, multi-G deceleration and traumatic retinal detachment, also John Paul Stapp ))

Her retinas detached, her eardrums burst, and her arm one giant bruise, it seemed like hours before she could interpret her surroundings.  The muffled noises she understood to be talking, but the words were unintelligible.  Her vision was little more than occasional flashes of light in a field of blackness.  Her movements were weak, and she hurt all over.  Somehow she was breathing again.  From the sensation of someone wrapping her head and arm, and the odd jab with a needle, she had enough time to guess that she must be in the medical bay aboard the Independence.  Then the sedative kicked in, and she found herself drifting off.  

When she awoke, it was to a beautifully familiar sight.  The Independence drifted lazily in her field of view, she could see it clearly through the external camera drone.  She was back in her pod.  A painful smile played across her lips as her battered body floated, suspended in the pod's Neuro-embryonic containment fluid.  She did a quick diagnostic of the ship's systems, everything seemed in order.  She opened the ship's internal communications system, "Good work ladies and gentlemen.  I trust everyone is alive and well?"

An image of a Caldari man appeared appeared in her mind, labeled "Survey Two".

"Tisk, now that the mission's over, I'm going to have to update those pesky labels again," she thought to herself.

"Affirmative Sir, everyone's present and accounted for.  So, what did you think of my plan?"

"I think next time we use one of YOUR plans, I'm going to execute it from the safety of my pod."

"You’re welcome sir."

"How did the mission turn out? Did we get what we came for?"

"Yes Sir, a majority of the needed diagnostics were completed, we won’t be needing to return."

"I hope there's no bias in that assessment."

The man quietly coughed into his hand, "None at all sir."

"Very well, I'm programming a course for the nearest station with cloning facilities, I'd rather not wait for these wounds to heal... Tell me, did you have time to check the station message server?"

"I did sir, this station manager left a recording too, I've filed it with the others."

"Excellent.  Let's have a look," as she spoke, she began mentally browsing the ships internal filing system.  In moments she had found the folder and initiated a playback for herself and the crew.  On screens throughout the ship and within her mind, appeared an older man dressed in a distinguished looking business suit that was about 150 years out of fashion.  A grim expression played on his face as he addressed the recorder in the tone of one whose pet slaver hound had just died."

"Station Manager’s Log: Final Entry.  We've just gotten word that the Yoiul Conference has made its final decision.  The new CONCORD administration will be taking charge of the Traditionalist calendar model.  Our investors gamble has failed, and the corporation is filing for bankruptcy.  It seems they won’t even be selling off the outposts that we've already constructed, as there's no market for stellar observatories on the edge of space."

After a subtle shift in posture, the man continues, with a slight hint of hope in his voice, "I've spoken to the other station managers, and we're all in agreement.  When we evacuate, we're going to configure the recording equipment to run in low power stand by.  The automated power plants should continue operating for at least a few hundred years.  Perhaps, in the future, someone will be able to use the data to breathe new life into the project.  The Arithmetics may have lost today, but science is the study of truth, and, in time, the truth will set us free."

----

Basis: Time and the Astrologer chronicle http://wiki.eveonline.com/en/wiki/Time_and_the_Astrologer (Chronicle)

word count 4966 (5000 with author’s notes)