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The Adventures of Beer Keg of Science! (Cover)

Chapter 22

The Adventures of the Beer Keg of Science!

Aboard NMS Beer Keg of Science![]

Physics Lab
NMS Beer Keg of Science!- Stettin Orbit
Stettin System, Free Worlds League, September 3rd, 3158

“This should not be possible." Captain Lea Carpentier said, staring at the device in front of her.  Bolted to the lab table were two laser emitters and receivers, an evacuated ferroglass tube between them, filled with a nonreactive noble gas that permitted external viewers to see the beam pulse back and forth between the two lasers.  Each of these emitters, in turn, were tied to two bulbous housings containing a series of charged plates separated by infinitesimally small distances.  Lieutenant Bob Howard, she knew, used this “rig” to verify the values of vacuum energy, thanks to the Casimir Effect between the plates, the lasers helping take measurements, ensuring the device is not warped in any way, and measuring movement of minute amounts of germanium.

Howard, she knew, had tested these rigs multiple times during their brief foray to the surface below.  She’d even had him drop on the opposite side of the world the next day, to test the results again, which at first seemed within the margin of error of his first results.  Now, though?

“It shouldn’t, Ma’am, but it appears that at least one universe isn’t agreeing with us." Bob replied.  “The more we analyze the results, the clearer it seems that proximity to star Stettin increases the effect, not the planet.  It took a couple more orbits to establish that, though, and the differences between being on the day side and the night side of the planet are still really close to the margins of error.  We’ll be able to tell more once we’re farther away.”

Lea turned to Mo O’Brien-Howard, her chief science officer, who on the duty roster was third officer of the Keg. Mo hadn’t been listening to her husband speak so much as she had been observing Lea listening.  But that wasn’t really a surprise, given Mo had been there for the initial discovery.  “Commander O’Brien," she asked, “what about other data points?  Cosmic microwave background radiation, or EM leakage from nearby stars.  What have we detected there?”

“CMBR looks perfectly normal." Mo explained, “Which is good, and points to us still being in the same universe, but that’s not conclusive on its own.  We could also have been transported to a universe that’s overwhelmingly similar to our own, which makes sense, because if their Big Bang came out too differently, the physics of this other universe may not be able to support our existence.”

“True enough.  What about radio signals?” Lea asked.

Mo shook her head.  “We just don’t have the antenna surface we’d need, even with the modifications to the outer hull.  EM emissions from the direction of Niops are nil, but given how far away they are, we’d struggle to pick up any strong signal at the best of times, and the Niops of 3113 was hardly the best of times: we were just getting our acts together again, and weren’t exactly radiating much EM at the time. So I gave up on that pretty early: if it’s not FTL like an HPG or a fax machine, we’re not going to hear them.  I’d hoped Lesnovo would give us more, since they have a population of over two billion, and being closer at 38.7 light-years, but we just don’t have a big enough antenna to collect that kind of radio signal, and shorter wavelengths like visible light are useless.  Possibly the Keg could probably detect signals at three or four light-years away, and almost certainly at one light-year, so that would be a valid tactic going forward, but any further and we’d just be wasting our time.”

Lea sighed.  “And the same’s going to be true in reverse trying to observe Stettin.  We know that they dropped off the map shortly after the Third Succession War kicked off in 2866.  Two years before that, the Third Free World Guards were still stationed there, but records show they got pulled out to reinforce the Lyran border.  After that, there’s nothing from Stettin.  No final HPG message, no ‘Help us, we’re dying,’ nothing.  Just went completely quiet.”

“Doesn’t explain why the League never sent anyone on their own to investigate." Mo added.

“Who’s to say they didn’t?” Bob asked.  “Remember, WarShips are gone at this point, either destroyed outright, or rendered as inoperable as the Vesuvius had been before someone had the brilliant idea to nearly bankrupt ourselves refitting her as a science ship with nuclear weapons and a cranky SDS AI who figures he’s too old for this crap.  No offense, Mac, you overgrown calculator.”

{”None taken, fleshbag.  But you were saying…?”}

“Right." Bob continued, as Mo and Lea just stared blankly at him, then the nearest security camera, then each other.  “They couldn’t have used a WarShip.  So, they’d have sent a JumpShip.  And I don’t mean something big and durable with a primitive core like a Conestoga. No, I mean a fragile standard-core JumpShip, where the jump drive takes up 95 percent the mass of the whole ship and everything else has been stripped down and lightened, including its structural integrity, as much as it possible can.  Misjump like we did in one of those, you might not come out the other end or, if you do, it could be in a fine mist of subatomic particles.”

{”Or over a different Stettin.”}

“Good point." Bob agreed.  “We’re seeing the effect now.  We don’t know what it was three centuries ago.  It could have been more intense then.  And remember, the Keg’s jump drive is a kludge, a WarShip-grade compact KF drive patched with lower-tech, lower-grade components, its jump range cut in half, nearly 25 thousand tons heavier than it’d otherwise be, with harmonics and resonances that weren’t originally there.  For all we know, that saved our butts when we jumped in: other ships may still be unable to do so.”

Lea nodded.  “And any debris that had made it into the same Stettin system as us has probably long since had its orbit decayed.  Meanwhile, if any of their DropShips had survived, they’d have come here, and we’d have been able to spot them.  Ergo, they either didn’t survive, or never arrived at this Stettin.”  After thinking for a moment, Lea seemed to come to a decision.  “We certainly can’t wait here for three years while we wait for the light cone from our pre-jump position to catch up to us, and I’m not sure our sensors would be able to detect us anyway…which is a sentence that probably no JumpShip captain has ever had to say.  We’ll proceed to a jump point, and retest again, and see what we find, then.  Ultimately, unless we decide we can’t jump for some reason, the end result will be the same: we go home.  The question will be whether we’re going home and reporting what we found, or finding out what our home is like in this universe.”

Wardroom, NMS Beer Keg of Science!
Zenith Jump Point, Stettin System, 17th September, 3158

The Keg’s senior officers had gathered again, with a decision to make.  Commander James Kirk looked over at his captain.  Outwardly, Lea’s elven features showed no sign of the turmoil that he knew she must have also been feeling, instead a picture of serene bemusement.  Kirk, meanwhile, worked to project an aura of confidence and approachability, which he hoped was still intact, despite the insanity of their current situation.

“So, bottom line." he asked, “We’re probably still in our universe.”

“Yes, sir." Bob Howard agreed.  “Retesting shows the disparity in quantum fluctuations in the vacuum energy has fallen off at an inverse-square rate the farther we move away from the Stettin primary.  It’s not proof that we’re still in our universe, but the rate of fall-off when you reach three light years would be about what you’d expect from the discrepancy in our last jump calculations.”

Kirk nodded. “Good.  What about the HPGThe Fax?  Have we been able to detect anything from Niops at all?”

{”Nothing from Niops”} Mac interjected.

“It’s possible the effects we’re seeing from the Stettin primary are affecting our ability to receive messages." Mo O’Brien added.  “We’re receiving strange interference on the bands the Faxes use.  There’s research that shows increase in Fax transmissions resonates in the bands that the Fax machines use, with effects down to the quantum level.  Throw quantum fluctuations from another universe into the mix, and we may not be able to hear them until we get further away from Stettin.  We may be able to get a signal again after our first jump.”

“Can we jump?” Captain Carpentier asked.  “From an engineering standpoint first.  Are we still confident the drive can handle another jump?”

Tig Reno, the Keg’s chief engineer and second officer, shrugged.  “About as well as it ever does.  At least, it doesn’t seem to be any worse.  We made a lot of changes to the Keg’s KF Drive to get it working again, thousands of tons of extra equipment, and changes, and kludges piled one on top of the other on top of the core.  All I can say with any certainty is that it’s no better or worse off than it was before our last jump.”

Lt. SG. Ian Kent, the ship’s chief navigator, answered next.  “We can take into account the quantum fluctuations.  There’s no variables in the jump equations to take into account jumping between universes.  So, we’ll just…ignore that part, since we probably aren’t in another universe anyway.”

“Very well," Lea said, “how long do you think you’ll need?”

“Another two to three days at most, Captain.”

“Good.  Tig, any other systems checks you want to run before we jump?” Lea asked.

Tig shrugged.  “Extra time never hurts.”

“Very well." Lea said, satisfied. “We’ll depart in four days.  That gives us time to verify our jump numbers, continue to make observations, do one last systems check of all our systems, and, besides, it will be the 21st night of September.”

{”Not following.”} Mac noted.

“I do!” Major Stark, the Keg’s marine detachment commander blurted out. “I, uh, understood that reference.”

“See?” Lea said.  “Someone appreciates the classics.”

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