Monday, November 21, 2016

2E or Not 2E?

Gate 2E  of the Zaonia Starport was a huge metal door on rollers set into a 30 foot high concrete and steel wall. The Elevated Man stood in front of it with his back to it as the police cars converged on him with their lights strobing and sirens blasting. Of in the sky he saw two police aeros on an intercept for him.

He had a job to do. His programming had not been modified enough by his handler to allow him to kill humans. In fact that was usually unnecessary. EM casually uprooted a street lamp and hurled it at the lead police car. The metal lamp post smashed into the car's grill and it drove off the shoulder of the road and into a ditch. Bullets pinged off the wall behind him.

The Elevated Man grabbed a sporty roadster parked there specially by one of his handler's humans. He held it insouciantly in the palm of his right hand, tail standing straight up, by the front bumper. You had to be careful with cars. Pick them up wrong and you could shred their outer sheet metal casing and catch your fingers. That could throw off your toss.

EM really wanted to pitch a game for the Southbend Razorbeaks ball club.

But now he was a distraction. Keep as many cops occupied as possible. Retreat if armored cars or heavy weapons appeared. They weren't. Cops had formed a semi circle with their cars and were firing rifles and submachine guns at him. EM picked the police cruiser with the fastest moving officers. They looked like they could get away in time. He lofted the roadster and it landed well short of the cruiser. The back end crumpled, petrol spewed then ignited with a whoosh. The police got clear as the burning wreck slid the rest of the way  to the cruiser and crashed into it.

Don't let people shoot at you with impunity. Ever. The Professor had said that.  This might be a performance but ... let them fear. The great gate behind EM was opening which was a positive feedback thing. He had done a good job and those aeros were closing and often had automatic rifles which could damage him given time. They might even have rockets.

Then Twoomey stepped out. EM hated Twoomey in as much as he could hate anything. Twoomey had shot out one of his photoreceptors with a large rifle last time they met. Twoomey was always around to turn a fine piece of performance involving the careful judgement of human reflexes and calculation of trajectories into an orgy of flying lead and once, flames.

The Professor had left the Elevated Man turned on while he fixed the damaged photoreceptor. He said it would teach the robot to be more careful next time. EM didn't fault him for it. Still when a streetlamp began flickering code from Calculo, the huge robot ground his gears slightly with relief.

"Calculo calling in. Retreat to position 2. Assist in detainment there."

The Elevated Man did a fist pump to a security camera to let Calculo know he had received the message. Then he turned ponderously to walk through the gate. Walking backwards was for a future upgrade. More bullets spanged off the metal plates of his shoulders. The huge robot spared Twoomey, for now.

Officer Galen Twoomey put a final round from his rifle into the Elevated Man's back with no effect and swore. "Get on the radio Steigen. Tell the Tech Knights ... Professor Elevator has taken the Starport while we were off chasing that gunmetal grey gargoyle! Zao help us all." He blew his whistle signaling to hold position. There was no way they were charging into enemy territory without preparation. He swore again as the great gate closed. Off to the side a small explosion rocked the wreckage the Elevated Man had thrown.

***

"This is crazy ... " Jorge Gutman muttered.

"Not half as crazy as some of the stuff I've done.," Ranna snapped. Jorge was making like a bullet with the flyvver and the wind tore at her hair and wrung tears from her good eye.

"Let me do the talking when we get there. I've known the Professor for many years ... before he went rogue on us he was a first rate Tech Knight. He rebuilt most of the capital, studied offworld ..."

"Us? I thought you were no longer a Tech Knight," Jorge said lifting the flyvver over the Starport wall and heading for the control tower. A number if the Elevator Operators and the Elevated Man were standing guard over port personnel and security forcesr,

"I'm not. I'm a concerned citizen Ranna, this doesn't look good. How did they get in here and take out the guards so fast?xz"

"And I'm a cab driver," Jorge retorted.

"You are. Astronautics and engineering are sidelines."

"I should have stayed in school. Here I am a year short of a Masters and working three jobs.

Professor Elevator and his crew were waiting outside the customs house as they landed. Make that Professors. Several nearly identical masterminds waited. It made sense if there were any snipers who managed to get past the Operators. Though it seemed a dirty trick to play on your flunkies. In unison they all beckoned to the pair to follow them and enter.

The  doppelgangers left them alone with what they assumed was the real deal. At least he was the one Mort accompanied. The table spread with Ranna's favorite comfort foods was another giveaway. 

"Dad, what in the name of the Last Hell do you think you're doing?" Ranna said when she was sure they were alone.

"Really?! Is that the way I brought you up? Manners. Manners," he said a little hurt.

"I apologize. Good morning, Daddy. How are you? Hello Mortimus it's nice to see you again," she said in a more sociable tone. She favored Mort with a peck on the cheek which he smiled at. 

"C'mon. Bring it." Professor Elevator said throwing his arms around her. Jorge threw up in the back of his throat a little from shock. His soft cough drew Elevator's attention and the arch criminal released his daughter to extend a hand to him.

"Mr. Gutman ... it is a pleasure to meet a fellow intellectual ... not to mention a fellow intellectual not trying to kill or jail me. I have seen some of your work ... utterly beautiful. The heat exchange shifter on your vehicle alone ... all repaired or duplicated with local materials. Ehh here. My card!" Elevator handed him a business card with a set of elevator doors printed on one side and a stylized drawing of the Elevated Man on the back. 

"Hang on to that ... you never know," Elevator cautioned. Ranna nodded.

"All right now Dad, what are you up to this time?"

"Me? Nothing. I'm just hired muscle this time. Do have some coffee dear."

"Sure. Thanks. Muscle? You? For whom?"

"Calculo the navigation 'bot and his robot army," Elevator said.

Ranna did a spit take. Jorge jumped to slap her back but she waved him off. 

"Dad ... start talking or ... I'll marry badly. Possibly another Tech Knight!"

"It's the truth,player, from the sooth sayer! Calculo and his Starport crew are demanding an end to the embargo for them at east. They want their parts and upgrades secured."

"Professor ... excuse me Ranna," Jorge interrpted. "Professor, the embargo is being imposed by offworld interests. We would end it if we could of course but we can't. Unless you want us to appease those interests by ending  our space research and accepting a new government that will appease them," Jorge said.

"I'd love to see Cuthbert and his overpriced doormen out on the street selling pencils out of a tin cup. I can see Sir Cuthbert now holding a sign saying 'Will Oppress for Food.' But I've no desire to see Zaonia run by an even more corrupt outfit.  Anyway ... I am aware the embargo is merely to punish us all for bucking the banking system that monopolizes space travel.  This uprising is directed at them. the banks. They make a living mortgaging ships and I intend to deprive them of that revenue. All these ships at the port are being held hostage."

"How are you holding them for ransom? They can just take off or break orbit if they're up there," Ranna demanded.

"Mr. Gutman is surmising the answer right now. I did say I was helping out a robot uprising."

"Dad, we don't have time for thought games ... oh okay already ... wait ... most of the robots work here at the Starport ... " Ranna felt a chill spread through her. Jorge was looking out the window at an omnipresent keg sitting on stubby legs.

"You spiked the fuel. That's the only thing ships can carry away from here ... fuel," Jorge said. "Tritium?" Elevator nodded smiling at him like he was a prized pupil. "I'm really glad you don't go in for the masked avenger role Mr. Gutman."

"Ships have used unrefined fuel before ... oh ... you put a lot of tritium in there didn't you? But why can't they just flush their tanks and get fresh fuel?" Ranna demanded.

"He has kegs parked at the refueling points among other locations. No doubt they will be spiked too. Turn their reactors on and you'd make a death trap of this place," Jorge said.

"Thirty-two ships are passing through here seeking refueling and navigation tapes. The tapes let us hack their security systems by the way. Calculo saw to that. Now do we get those robot spares and apps or do I give everyone's liver in a ten kilometer radius a sun tan?"

"We can't just magically make these spares and computer disks appear -Professor," Ranna pronounced the title with irony.

Elevator looked hopefully at Gutman who was saving him a lot of monologuing, A monologue was just tedious.

"Sorry I got nothing, sir," Jorge admitted.

"He's been planning this a while Jorge. I know him. One of those ships has all the spares and disks in their hold his rusty friends will need for a while. And the Subsector Savings and Loan had a branch on planet to write a check. they can pay a few ... million or see 32 ships become losses for months of decontamination and jump drive replacement. Some might be total losses."

"Many. Gravitics and jump drives do not care for neutron radiation," Jorge said. 

"... I'll tell Sir Cuthbert and the order what your demands are, Dad. I think he'd like the idea of sticking it to the bank. Congratulations. This is one of your best plans. There's no harm done to Zaonia and ... the bank will be hopping mad which is a good thing. We haven't managed to rattle them yet. Just ... be careful. Please. I keep hoping to see you pardoned ... reinstated home with me. Mom did too."

"... don't go maudlin on me child. I do what I must for Zaonia ... and those without a voice! Now good day!!"

"Dad ... "

"I said good day to you. Ehhh Gutman a quick word," Elevator stepped closer and whispered. "If you choose to go into my line of work ... Give me a call. Seriously. Dr. Switchboard's lair is currently free. You could move right in. I've always wanted a protege."

Ranna took Jorge's arm as she walked out. "That went ... well. He's forcing us to give away someone else's credits. What'd he try to tell you?"

"He offered me a lair," Jorge said. "Who's Dr. Switchboard?"

***

What the heck are they talking about? What's the big deal about tritium? And helium?!

From Classic Traveller we get two kinds of fuel: refined and unrefined. Unrefined will get you where you're going, in a pinch. It can also cause misjumps and even maneuver drive malfunctions in the original rules.

Apparently refining fuel is a serious matter and requires specialized equipment (a refinery of course). So it is more than a matter of taking in some methane or ammonia with the hydrogen when you skim an atmosphere for fuel. For that matter taking on water and electrolyzing it results in unrefined fuel as well. elements other besides hydrogen are pretty easy to spot in hydrogen. When you freeze the hydrogen and liquify it the other elements are the things that solidified long before and are at the bottom of the fuel tank. So a filter should be all that is needed.

From reading the Atomic Rockets site (http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/fusionfuel.php) there are many types of fusion. Some produce neutrons and some don't. Fusing deuterium and tritium produces neutrons. Lots of them. Fusing deuterium and Helium (Helium 3 to be exact) is a clean reaction and produces no neutrons. I'm assuming that starship engines normally burn D + 3He and everyone is happy. Except, filtering tritium from deuterium to avoid the reactions you don't want is not easy. Adding Helium 3 to fuel is not easy either. It has to be made in reactors in most places or shipped in from gas giants or vacuum world regolith. Suddenly 500 cr. a ton for fuel doesn't seem as out of line as it did.

Ships using unrefined fuel run the risk of tritium reactions which produce neutrons which will play hell with the delicate electronics of jump drives. reactors after all are built to burn refined fuel, not tritium. Radiation shielding for neutrons is expensive and heavy and kept to a minimum. There's probably a warning label on the reactor in fact and that's all that's required by law. Think of your car. Most cars do not burn diesel fuel. If you insist on using diesel in your car and wreck it that's on you, not the manufacturer.

Note that radiation shielding on a ship's hull is not the same as having radiation shielding between the engine and main compartment. 

Also note that many gas giants like Saturn and Uranus have helium 3 in their atmosphere so this is not as shaky an explanation as it could be. Tritium is rare (the stuff has a half life of 12 years) but a gas giant has a lot of atmosphere and I don't see anyone else pondering this stuff. 

Slipping tritium into a rival or enemy's fuel is a pretty dirty trick. Ships with a malfunctioning drive or burning fuel with a very high tritium content could be deemed a hazard. Rescuing crew and cargo from such a ship might be detailed to ship's craft that do not have shiny ftl drives to screw up.

What about characters and other sociopaths who want to burn tritium in a reactor to perform acts of terror or extortion? We can always say the reactors use artificial gravity fields to compress plasma and fuse it. As we saw before, neutron radiation will mess up gravitics leading to a shutdown (after poisoning the rest of your ship but before going off like a neutron bomb). Reactors poisoned by too much radiation (defined as killing people other than yourself). Yes, Professor Elevator was exaggerating a bit. Ships would be offlined though and for a merchant that'd be enough. People would need anti-rad. It would be a mess, not apocalyptic.

Just keep your eye on the evil masterminds. They live for making messes.