Children of Prometheus 001

The universe has become a tower and the tower mounted a lance of fire. Deep below the tower was a barely visible yellow dot with a half crown bright arc of silver. The dot was millions of kilometers distant, and the illusion is was below the tower was cultivated by the onset of deceleration of Zeus I. The vessel was slowing down with a spectacle of force. The light cast forward by the four main engines would be brighter than the sun on a small 100 kilometer circle on Saturn and in that region a storm would form caused by the laser light cast by Zeus. The illumination of the vessel was well visible with the main telescope array, blazing in bright infrared. Moving ever closer, Zeus1 would pick up containers moving at the precise same speed launched from Ceres orbit years before Zeus1 left on its voyage from the Moon. These containers were densely packed with reaction mass, and they allowed the craft to reduce speed with an incredibly ferocious one tenth G. A strand of a dozen containers acted as fuel for this ferocious maneuver, lined up in advance at the precise desired trajectory and speed. Automated clamps would capture the containers and drain them for reaction mass. Close to a hundred similar vessels were hurtling through the solar system at the same time, and all had been launched in the same manner – the massive lunar laser arrays to add acceleration. Slingshot from high Lunar orbit, a stretched out sequence of fuel containers that maximized linear accelerator capacity. Then the Zeus1 had started its main engines as the plasma cloud used for particle beam acceleration had evaporated, and Zeus had initiated engine thrust to attain desired coasting speed to Saturn. Saturn still qualified as an outer planet, and even with this milking for maximum efficiency of available launch and deceleration infrastructures the voyage from departure to low speed coasting above the rings would still have lasted seven years, most of it coasting along in a swarm of micrometeorite defense measures. Most of this voyage had proceeded in a gentle arc high above the plane of the solar system, skirting most of the debris cloud of the asteroid belt by an appreciable margin. This had added some to the travel time, but had reduced risk for impact considerably.

There already was a human presence on various moons of Saturn. Titan had received two vessels worth of settlers seven years before Zeus1 departed from the inner system.

A crime had been committed. One of sabotage.

As Zeus decelerated a critical software flaw started affecting the deployment of the vessels massive cooling halo. Ships with such powerful engine output had the thrust of hundreds of atmospheric fighter jets. Even those the quadruple particle beam accelerators were extremely efficient, the plutonium reactors at the top of the tower put out massive heat and all that heat had to go somewhere. The ships artificial intelligence systems had quickly discovered the software flaws and had corresponded with its partner on the moon. The conclusion was almost immediate – industrial sabotage by corporate and ideological strategic competitors who were destined for Mimas, and who would arrive no sooner than 2 years later. The software hack had altered deployment of the cooling radiators and caused them to burn away partially. This had a gruesome effect. On board the vessel were twelve human cyborgs, in a state of suspended animation. These were all old men, and they were supposed to boot up the colony upon arrival.

The Zeus1 artificial intelligence calculated from a range of possible solutions to an impossible dilemma. Not decelerating was not a viable option, since overshoot would add at least two years to the voyage, needed for the vessel to tumble back to Saturn in a mostly uncontrolled spin. There was only one solution – use the plutonium reactors full force, partially deploy the cooling radiators, embed the critical radiation-sensitive cargo in one of the water-ice containers and gyrate it on a crane half a kilometer away from the particle accelerator beams, swirling it against a counterweight. This would keep the sensitive cargo away from the radiation. The human crew had no such luck – it received a lethal dose of radiation and they were awakened prematurely as parts of the vessel reached 60 degrees centigrade.

A good three months before Zeus1 would formally and legally arrive in coasting speed above the plane of the rings of Saturn the twelve old men on-board the main Zeus colonization hull awakened. These men knew they wouldn’t last long anyhow, and had willingly trained for the mission knowing it would be a one-way mission for them. They awakened sick and dying. They also awoke quickly. Hibernation technology that was available was not really a very gentle solution. From the perspective of the UN placing crews in suspended animation was an illegal act. The foundation responsible for launching Zeus1 had skirted UN and Lunar laws by using volunteers who were old and dying anyway. That same trick was used for colonizing the main asteroid belt decades earlier when hibernation technologies hadn’t been available yet. Hibernation required replacement of several major organs from the body of the recipient, which in itself wasn’t a completely healthy treatment to begin with. So when the 12 European astronauts in Zeus1 were awakened, three almost immediately died. One died a day later, and that was the primary ship physician so that wasn’t very good news for the eight remaining.

Two crew members were so sick they couldn’t do much anyway of which one had suffered brain damage, leaving the vessel at six sick but somewhat functioning frail old humans. These did what they could do, pumping themselves full of heavy sedatives and stimulants and assessed the damage.

The situation was grave – colonization of Prometheus was no longer viable under these circumstances. The sabotage that had resulted in the ship cooling fan deployment had in theory caused a complete mission failure. The three competitor vessels destined for Mimas would in two years time be able to claim Zeus1 and recycle the vessel for spare parts. The precious cargo frozen would be destroyed or recycled for carbohydrates.

The six wept, huddled in the deccelerating vessel. They pondered several solutions but couldn’t come up with any viable way to save the mission. So they dumped all dilemmas they faced in one query in the ships AI and talked it over with the vessel. The problem was that the political situation back home was even more miserable than when they had departed, half a decade ago. Earth was again in war, this time with Indonesia experiencing a migratory conflict. Earth had become a horrific place, and less we say about Earth, the better. The mess back home did cause problems for the ship AI to correspond with full confidence with its AI counterpart on the moon, out of fear parts of the correspondence would later be accessed by the many strategic competitors that would have their eyes on the investment value Zeus1 represented. Zeus1 had been crowd-sourced. Technically the ship represented a mixed EU investment by a large number of private institutions, ideological groups and private citizens. In practice the ship would either be owned exclusively by the crew of the vessel or, barring that, by any legal heirs of the vessel back on Earth. However, automated vessels with no living crew could be claimed by anyone, according to maritime law. So if no crew would remain on Zeus1 within a few years, people who could best be interpreted at this stage as mortal enemies would be completely free to legally appropriate Zeus1 and treat the vessel in the most dehumanizing and condescending manner imaginable.

The six remaining crew-members were embittered and viciously angry. They had some weeks left to come up with a solution before they would die. They would be dead long before the actual arrival, which was still three months away. The AI came up with an idea. That idea itself effectively constituted criminal act, by UN law. The six pondered the solution fate offered them and decided to do it, thereby setting in motion a sequence of events that would reverberate around the solar system for centuries.

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