Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Breadcrumbs

by John E. DeLaughter




Breakfast was Shery Roosa’s favorite meal of the day. A nice bowl of congee with Martian fig, a cup of hot chai from Proxima, and watching the stars on the forward lounge viewscreen made for a pleasant start to any morning. Unfortunately, just as Shery was taking her first bite from the congee, her wristcom blinked brown-gold-brown: emergency on the bridge.

As she headed for the door, Shery noticed that she and Medical Officer Borman were the only ones summoned by the Captain’s message. Harry from Life Support was still at his table, as were Eugene from Passenger Activities, and Michelle from Engineering. What sort of an emergency needed a pilot and a doctor? Putting two and two together, Shery started to run the moment the below decks doors hid her from the passengers.

When she got to the bridge, she saw that things were even worse than she thought. A sheet was draped over the pilot’s station, and Captain Swigert was in the corner arguing quietly with the Duty Officer. Four corpsmen stood nervously in the back, staring at the viewscreen which was edged in red with an ominous “Coordinates Not Found” blinking in the lower right corner.

Reporting as ordered, Captain!” Shery announced formally. “What is the emergency?”

We’re lost,” Captain Swigert replied with a nod to Borman as he came onto the Bridge. “And not just one-jump lost. We have been jumping blind for at least three hours.”

What? How?” Shery exclaimed. “What about the safeguards?”

The problem with artificial intelligence,” Swigert started.

Is that it is no match for real stupidity,” Shery completed the quote with a sigh. “What happened?”

Lieutenant Schmitt decided that he hadn’t gotten enough beauty sleep last night and took a nap on duty,” Swigert explained with a withering glance at the lieutenant. Shery winced. At best, Schmitt’s error had ended his career; at worst, it had doomed them all. “His gentle snores put Haise to sleep as well -- while she was still wired into the guidance system. As near as we can tell, we’ve made about thirty blind jumps. We’d still be jumping but…”

That many jumps quickly killed her,” Borman finished the thought. 

What about the tape?” Shery asked.

No luck,” Swigert said, “It recorded the star field after every jump, just as it is supposed to do. But after the first three, they don’t match any known jump points. And we’ve had…”

Thirty, you said. How did this happen?”

It appears that while Haise was asleep, her REM was just enough to convince the computer that an OK had been given for each jump. And the computer’s stimulation was just enough to keep her in REM state. With thirty blind jumps, we are officially the most lost ship, ever.” The captain shrugged wryly. “One for the history books.”

I’d rather make history by becoming un-lost,” Shery replied. “What’s our plan?”

I’ll handle the passengers. I’ll tell them that we’ve detected an unusual phenomenon and are required by regulations to stop and observe. It isn’t even a lie,” he said meditatively. “As compensation, everyone will get a free bottle of champagne.”

That’s an expensive distraction,” Borman objected.

Compared to what might happen if the passengers found out the whole truth, it is cheap.”

OK. I’ll try to come up with a way to get us home,” Shery said, “To do that, I’ll need all hands on deck, which means the other remaining pilot. Where is Mitsuyama?”

I didn’t want to bring him in on this yet. It’s the middle of his sleep shift. And he’s just a cadet,” Swigert said.

He graduated two whole months ago. You were new once yourself, you know. I need him, and I need him now if we are to get back home.” Turning to Borman, Shery continued, “Please take the pilot’s body to the morgue. Let me know if you find anything that might help.”

At Swigert’s curt nod, the doctor gathered up a pair of corpsmen and carried the body away. Shery slid into the vacated seat, shuddering a little as the chair re-shaped itself from the dead pilot’s contours. Quietly, she flicked the button that would summon Mitsuyama to the bridge.

Ten minutes later, she and Mitsuyama were sitting in the bridge, looking at the past day’s logs on the viewscreen. To her untrained eyes, Haise’s heart rate, blood pressure, and brain activity seemed normal, but Borman would do a more thorough analysis. Shery took another deep breath to calm herself and turned to Mitsuyama.

OK, George. Let’s start at the beginning and see if that sparks any ideas. Right now, all we know is that we’re far from home. We need to do better than that. Let’s look at the star records.”

What good will that do?” George asked. “They don’t show the way back and even if they did, we’re only two pilots!”

I don’t know that it will do any good,” Shery admitted, “But I know it won’t do any harm, which is a good start. There’s enough trouble in the universe that we don’t need to go looking for it. And it might spark an idea or two.”

Mitsuyama sighed in agreement and started the playback. Going forward in time, the star field went from the familiar ones of the Epsilon-Aldebaran run to stranger and stranger constellations, until all sense of familiarity was lost. Played in reverse, the playback almost seemed mocking, whispering “just find the breadcrumbs and you can go home!” But there were no breadcrumbs to find, only empty space where they once were.

Well, I’ll admit it; that wasn’t very useful,” Shery said, “It did confirm that we have the star field records, which is good. We can double-check our route back. And it also told us that we took twenty-eight jumps. Still a record, but not as bad as we thought.”

Just twenty-eight blind jumps,” George replied, “And because each jump nexus has at least five paths leading from it, we’ve got at best a 25% chance of guessing the right one each time.”

So, let’s assume that we do guess right. If we push the limits and each do six jumps a day instead of four, we’ll be back where we started in just three days. Add in the two days for getting to Epsilon and we’re hardly even late!”

You are optimistic,” George said, “What if we guess wrong every time?”

Then it takes us four times as long to find ourselves. We’ll be twelve days lost instead of three.”

Suddenly, Swigert’s voice came from the back of the control room where he had been waiting while the pilots reviewed the file.

We don’t have twelve days,” he said, “You know the brass is never overly generous when stocking these ships. We’ve got enough food for five and enough air for eight. If you don’t guess right, we’re not going to make it.”

What about pushing the limits a bit further?” George asked, “Can we do eight jumps a day?”

Sure, if you don’t mind risking your sanity, your health, and the life of everyone on board,” Shery replied. “There are times to take stupid chances. This isn’t one of them.”

Shery paused for a moment to look at Swigert and Mitsuyama. After taking a deep breath to calm herself, she continued, “Captain Swigert, with your permission, here’s our plan. George and I will stand alternating watches, six hours on and six hours off. I’ll take the first watch. We will make no more than three jumps in any given watch. After each jump, we will scan three times to verify our position. If it matches one of the blind jumps, then we’ll proceed. If it doesn’t then we’ll go back and try another direction.”

I don’t like it,” the captain said, “But I don’t have a better alternative. Let’s meet again tomorrow at noon to see what progress we’ve made.”

George waved goodnight to Shery and left her and the captain to start working their way home. The day dragged by as Shery, then George, tried to find the right jumps to take them back. At the end of the first watch, Shery had managed to make one correct jump and one wrong one. The time spent jumping back from her incorrect transit bothered her more than the fact that she had guessed wrong in the first place. George did even worse than Shery; he guessed wrong, had to jump back and then guessed wrong again. Shery used her first jump to correct George’s last error before making a wrong guess herself. She jumped back just as George came onto the bridge.

I’ve got an easy one for you,” she said, “We’ve eliminated three of the five choices on this nexus, so you’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of getting us one step closer to home.”

Don’t jinx it!” George said.

Luck was with them and George found the right nexus point for both that jump and the next. Unfortunately, his luck turned sour and the next jump put them further away from home. The viewscreen flashed the all-too familiar “Coordinates not found” as Shery came onto the bridge, trailed by Captain Swigert and Medical Officer Borman. Swigert asked for a status report as soon as they were all on the Bridge.

In the past day, we’ve managed three correct jumps and five wrong ones,” George said.

That doesn’t add up,” Swigert replied, “There should have been twelve jumps, not eight.”

There were,” Shery said, “Remember that each wrong jump counts as two because we have to jump back to where we were before trying again. So there were actually twelve jumps, and now I have to jump us back before picking another nexus point to try. Right, George?”

Right.”

At this rate, we won’t get back to where we got lost for fourteen days!” The doctor exclaimed. “We’ll run out of air! Why can’t you use the star fields to guide you?”

Because the stars tell us where we need to go, not how to get there,” George said.

Shery nodded and continued the thought, “Jumping is more like hiking in the woods than sailing the ocean. The stars are those far-off landmarks that tell us where we want to go. But they can’t tell us which path will get us there.”

How many paths can there be?” Borman asked.

Lots,” Shery said. Taking a deep breath, she went into her “Piloting for Passengers” lecture. “Look. We know that the 12-space universe is fractal in nature. Each jump nexus represents a place where at least five, and sometimes as many as twenty equipotential points touch in 12-space, even if they are parsecs away in 4-space, or what we think of as the ‘real’ universe. Even though each point has the same amount of energy in 12-space, they can appear easier or harder to travel and pilot in 4-space, but nobody is sure why. And even though the points take you different distances, the amount of time required to traverse them is exactly the same in every case.”

So, thanks to these blind jumps we could be just the other side of Proxima or all the way on the other side of the galaxy,” George said.

And because the nodes can only be sensed by living people,” Shery added, “the computer can’t tell us which points Haise took. All it can do is analyze the starfields and tell us if we’re on the way back or further away.”

But do you have to wait so long after a wrong jump?” Borman asked, “Why can’t you just jump right back? That would let us make more progress.”

Because the pilot is disoriented for up to an hour after each jump,” George said, “If we jump back right away, we are just as likely to make another wrong jump as to pick the right point.”

That’s enough, Borman,” Swigert said as the doctor opened his mouth to make another objection. “Give our pilots the same respect that you’d expect.”

Borman thought for a moment then nodded at the captain. Turning back to Shery and George, he gave a sheepish smile and said, “Please forgive me. I’m letting my worries get the better of my manners.”

We’re all a bit tense,” Shery agreed.

Doctor, is there anything to report on the autopsy?” Swigert asked, diverting the meeting back to its original purpose.

Not yet,” he replied, “We’re pretty sure that it was jump trauma but we want to make certain.”

That seems reasonable,” Swigert agreed. “Shery, is there any way to speed up things on your end?”

We’re doing the best we can, captain,” Shery replied, “If we go too fast, we’ll just make things worse. Just keep the passengers under control and we’ll get back as soon as possible.”

And tell them to take shallow breaths,” George muttered.

The second day of retracing their route went better than the first, but by the end they had only made four more correct jumps. That put them just twenty-one jumps from home, which may as well have been two hundred. And though their luck had improved, their concentration was starting to fray under the twin pressures of piloting and searching for the right route home before the air ran out.

I know you two are doing the best you can,” Swigert said at the start of the next day’s meeting. “But if this lasts another day, I’ll have to tell the passengers.”

Is that wise?” Shery asked, “They could get tricky to handle. And there are a lot more of them than there are of us.”

We really don’t have much choice,” the captain replied. “We owe them honesty, if nothing else.”

Just make sure that Schmitt is under lock and key before you make the announcement,” George suggested. “The passengers would rip him into so many pieces that even the doc couldn’t put him back together.”

Speaking of which, any news on the autopsy?” Shery asked Borman.

Just what we expected,” he replied, “She died of jump trauma from piloting too many jumps too quickly. But her REM records show that she was peacefully asleep the whole time, so it wasn’t too bad, if that’s any consolation.”

Not really,” Shery said, “I’d much rather she was still here and we were anywhere but.”

On that note, the meeting broke up and Shery went back to piloting. After correcting for Matsuyama’s last wrong jump, she chose a wrong node as well. She jumped back to the starting point and sat glumly, looking at the screen and the unfamiliar stars until George came in for his watch.

No dice?”

No dice,” she replied, “I’m going to get some warm milk and some shut eye. Maybe I’ll dream the way home.”

Well, I hope you sleep well, then!” George said.

Shery stopped in the doorway, a stunned look on her face.

What did you say?” she asked.

Er, ‘I hope you sleep well,’” George replied, “What’s the matter?”

George, you’re a genius! When we get home, I’ll buy you a drink! I’ll buy you a bar full of drinks!”

What do you mean?” he asked. Surely she couldn’t be cracking from the strain already.

When you dream a peaceful dream, are you fighting or at rest?”

At rest. Everything is easy.”

Right. And what did the doctor say yesterday?”

That Haise died in her sleep.”

No. He said that Haise was peacefully asleep the whole time.”

So?”

So, if you are peacefully asleep, then you take things easy. And if nodes seem harder or easier, you’ll…”

Take the easy one!” George shouted, “Of course! If we choose the easy node each time, we should have a much better chance of getting the right one!”

Right! So, you start, and I’ll go to bed. When I get back, I expect to see three perfect jumps racked up!”

Five hours later, Shery was on her way back to the bridge, jittering with excitement. Would this be the solution? Could they make it back in time? Opening the door, she didn’t even need to hear George’s excited shout, or see Captain Swigert’s pleased grin, to know that they were finally on their way home.

Three jumps, each one a perfect step back along the path!” George said, grinning widely enough to split his face. “We’ll be back on track in three days and at Epsilon Erandi in five, with one whole day to spare.”

And when we get there, I’m giving the two of you a month off, with pay,” Swigert said, “The company owes you both a huge debt and it is the least they can do!”

That’s good news,” George said, “Shery promised to buy me a bar full of drinks and I mean to make her pay up!”

Laughing, Shery took her place at the piloting console and set the course for home.


THE END


2022 John E. DeLaughter

Bio: John E. DeLaughter is a geophysicist, paranomasiac, and world-famous bad sailor. His work has taken him to all seven continents where he always meets the nicest people. Currently retired, he lives on a sailboat with Missy the cat. Among the stories he's had published is "A Fluke So Rare" (October 2018, Aphelion Webzine) and "The Terran Game" (December 2021, Aphelion Webzine).

E-mail: John E. DeLaughter

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