3 Hours Later
“What? This is our exam?!”
“You’ve been working on this stuff for three months! What the hell were you expecting?”
“More than repairing a fucking generator! I’m not studying to become a damn mechanic, I’m here to be a mechanical engineer! Emphasis on the ‘engineering’ part!”
“You’ve got to be kidding…” A woman with red hair sighed irately before spinning her chair around to face the dashboard in front of her. “Alright, alright, give me a moment to work something out…”
Pierce nodded in approval as he sat back in his chair. His intended major back on Earth was in mechanical engineering; he was far more interested in design than he was in the physical nitty-gritty of spacecraft operation, and to suggest otherwise would have been a blow to his pride. Any low-life with a wrench could become a mechanic, after all, but engineering required years of learning and a signed degree. There was no question as to which was more prestigious — or so Pierce thought.
As the woman continued working in silence, Pierce took a moment to idly check out his surroundings. He was currently sitting in one of four seats in a small cockpit, barely tall enough for Pierce to stand up straight in. The seats were arranged in two rows of two, with the front two situated right in front of a large dashboard panel and the back two folding out of the side bulkheads, as though they were only intended for temporary seating. Pierce himself was seated in the back left; to his right sat Phoenix, who held her arms crossed in impatience, and in front of Pierce sat Trenon — or, more properly, Trenon Rakos, a Lieutenant Green in the Nimalian Systems Defense, the official interstellar military of the Nimalian Union. Pierce and Phoenix were mere 21- and 20-year-olds who hailed from Earth, so when they traveled to the Nimalian Union for their summer program, the Nimalians saw fit to assign them a liaison to help them adjust. In that role, Trenon had served well.
To Trenon’s right was the red-headed woman whom Pierce and Phoenix were actually studying under: Brikén Krosin, an interstellar courier who owned her own small spacecraft. She didn’t take kindly to Pierce calling her a “space trucker” when they first met, but her muscular physique and rugged manner of dress reflected what Pierce imagined a space trucker would look like anyways. She wore thick boots, into which she tucked a pair of thick, denim-like gray pants; on top of that she wore two shirts, with the undershirt appearing to be made out of a coarse black material that extended just beyond her crotch like a mini-apron. Due to the shirt’s dark color, Pierce couldn’t see any stains on it, but he had seen Brikén use it like a rag while working on the internals of her spacecraft, so he was certain it had to be covered in oil stains and shock absorber fluid. Her crimson overshirt was comparatively clean, and was further covered by a longcoat of sorts that covered most of Brikén’s right leg, but left the other exposed. The sleeves of the coat were rolled up past her elbows, and her long red hair was tied back into a ponytail, further contributing to her rugged look.
Despite her rough appearance, Brikén had proved to be rather knowledgeable regarding the operation of all sorts of spacecraft, and had picked up a fair amount of wisdom as well. While her primary interactions with Pierce and Phoenix over the previous three months had been in teaching them about spacecraft operation, they had also grown friendly with each other and would often talk of subjects completely unrelated to spacecraft. Even Trenon would join in on their banter and off-the-clock bar visits, leading the four of them to grow comfortably familiar. With that said, Pierce and Phoenix would occasionally butt heads with Brikén over what she was teaching them — the two Earthians were pursuing science-oriented degrees, mechanical engineering for Pierce and physics for Phoenix, while the vast majority of Brikén’s knowledge was hands-on. She often complained that they were pushing the limits of what she could teach, though she nevertheless rose to the occasion each time.
Pierce passed her another glance, but Brikén still seemed absorbed in working out new material, so he contented himself with further investigating the craft in which he sat. Behind him, in the back of the cockpit, was a small door that led to the rest of the craft; the surrounding bulkheads appeared to be an unpainted dull gray, and almost completely featureless. Attached to the ceiling of the cockpit were several metal handles, no doubt intended to be used as hand-holds by anyone standing in the small space. Within the cockpit itself, the most visually interesting object was the dashboard, which contained dozens of switches and buttons, and also projected a holographic HUD onto the cockpit window — which itself led straight out into space.
Three months of spacecraft-related training — most of which had been in actual space — had somewhat numbed Pierce to the dangerous beauty of the dark abyss well beyond the surface of planets. The idle time he was now experiencing, however, gave him the chance to properly observe the vista in front of him. Out the cockpit window of Brikén’s spacecraft was the surface of a planet, covered in blue and green and swathed in wispy white, not too unlike Earth. In a significant departure from Earth’s appearance, however, the planet below possessed a magnificent set of rings, with a width nearly a quarter of the planet’s diameter. The visible rings were split into three distinct sections, with the innermost being a dense, thin band just outside the atmosphere, and the outermost being a sparse field that dominated almost half of the rings’ total width. Pierce couldn’t help but stop to admire them for a second; Earth-like Terra planets, with abundant liquid water and life, seemed plentiful enough throughout the galaxy — but Terra planets with rings were a rarity.
The particular planet which Pierce was currently staring at was Ainminthalus, a Tier 2 world belonging to the Nimalian Union. As a Tier 2 world, Ainminthalus only possessed a population of around 1.5 billion, with most of that number concentrated on a massive continent in the southern hemisphere. Vast swaths of Ainminthalus’s surface were reserved for preservation and scientific efforts, thereby confining development to the one currently inhabited continent. Pierce expected this to lead to a greater urban density than he was used to, but between the use of several habitat space stations and general Nimalian urban design, much of Ainminthalus’s inhabited space felt far less dense than even Pierce’s home near San Fransciso on Earth.
“Alright… I think I’ve got something.”
Pierce brought his thoughts back to his immediate surroundings as he turned to look at Brikén, who had finally turned away from the dashboard to address Pierce and Phoenix.
“Is it a good challenge?” Phoenix questioned.
“I’m not convinced anything I’ve taught you folks has been a ‘challenge’ for you,” Brikén retorted with an amused smirk on her face, “but I’ll try.”
“Damn straight,” Pierce replied. “This spacecraft shit has been way easier to grasp than I expected.”
“Alright, hotshot, don’t take it too far,” Brikén countered. “Today is exam day. I could just fail you both, you know.”
“Don’t fail me because of his attitude,” Phoenix responded with irritation. “I’m not about to go down with him.”
“And I won’t go down with you,” Pierce declared before turning back to Brikén. “C’mon! Give us what you’ve got!”
“Competitive as ever, right to the end,” Trenon remarked with an amused smile.
“Competition my ass, this—”
“Alright, alright, cut it out,” Brikén interrupted and snapped her fingers multiple times to draw everyone’s attention back to her. “Behave yourselves, or I really will fail you, got it?”
Pierce and Phoenix exchanged annoyed glances, but then they turned toward Brikén and nodded.
“Alright. Great.” Brikén momentarily turned around to input some commands into the dashboard, prompting the holographic HUD to minimize the various information displays and replace them with a view of Ainminthalus’s solar system, which contained three rocky planets — of which Ainminthalus was the outermost — and two gas giants. “What I’ve got here, as you can see, is a map of our current solar system. Phoenix, you’re the physicist, right? And physics is about gravity and shit, right?”
Phoenix stared at Brikén incredulously. “I mean… there’s a lot more to physics than just gravity.”
“But gravity is part of it?”
“Uh, well… yeah. The part that I’m studying, at least.”
“Good enough. Your test is to plot a course from Ainminthalus Prime — which is the Terra planet, here,” Brikén pointed at the third rocky planet in the display, “to the second moon of Ainminthalus IV, here.” She then pointed to the first gas giant, and its ten moons. “And then get back to Ainminthalus Prime.”
“You want me to… plot a course?” Phoenix frowned. “Can’t the computer do that?”
“Yes, but I want you to do it without the computer.”
“Do you have any idea how much work that would require?!”
“I don’t need an exact course, just give me an approximate. And before you say that this is pointless, this is actually a useful skill. Computers plot optimal courses, but they only have access to mapping data from the Relaynet. Sometimes you’ll know something that the computer doesn’t, and it’s easier to wing it than it is to update the system.”
“That doesn’t sound quite right…”
“Who’s the experienced spacecraft pilot, here? The two of you are the ones who wanted a more challenging exam, anyways.”
Phoenix sighed warily. “Fine…”
“Good. You and Trenon swap spots, so that you’re closer to the display.” Brikén then turned to Pierce as the other two cockpit inhabitants swapped seats and Phoenix began investigating the solar system display. “Now for you, Mr. Mechanical Engineer, I want you to name the most important systems of a spacecraft, and give me a general overview of how they work.”
“What?!” Pierce scowled. “Isn’t this just more mechanic bullshit?”
“‘Mechanic bullshit’ my ass. Telling you to fix the damn fuel injector would be a mechanic job. Hell, even fixing the reactor regulator would be a ‘mechanic’ job, as advanced as that is.” She paused for a moment to stare pointedly at Pierce, who pretended not to notice by suddenly distracting himself with the holographic HUD. “Anyways,” she continued, “if you’re going to be designing spacecraft, then you need to know the key systems and how they work. I would think that that’s obvious stuff, but I suppose I’m not the one going after a degree here, so what do I know?”
“Okay, okay, I get it. Damn.” Pierce shook his head in annoyance. “Just describe the key systems, right?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Hmph. Well, obviously, there’s the propulsion systems. On your dinky little civilian craft—”
“My respectably sized courier craft.”
“…My point being that you only have rocket engines — for atmosphere escape and maneuvering — and Ion Drives, for in-space propulsion. If you actually had a military ship, then you’d also have Fusion Torch Drives.”
“Wow, I don’t remember teaching you that part. I see you’ve been reading up on the Relaynet,” Brikén drawled. “I don’t care what NSD ships use — no offense, Trenon.”
“None taken. I’m not a naval officer, anyways,” Trenon replied.
“Anyways, just stick to the specs of my ship, and similar civilian craft,” Brikén insisted as she turned back to Pierce. “We’ll be here all damn day if you try to list off all the systems of a military ship.”
“Damn, I was hoping for extra credit,” Pierce snarked.
“Just get a move on, already. What other systems are there here?”
“Hmph. …There’s the anti-gravity systems, which let us actually walk around on the craft while in space. You also use them in tandem with the rocket engines for atmospheric escape, and for planetfall. As for how they work, I hear it’s just Chaos Energy bullshit.”
“Bullshit that you’ll have to work with as an engineer. Now how about the FTL system?”
“The Chaos Drive? That’s, like, the epitome of Chaos Energy bullshit. Do you really want me to tell you how it works?!”
“Just tell me what you know.”
“…It’s some bullshit about shoving the spacecraft into the ‘shadow’ cast by Chaos Energy, where it moves at a constant speed of 21 light years per hour. And since Chaos Drives rely on Chaos Energy, they don’t work in space where there isn’t any, like Dead Space.”
“Wow, a full answer with no snark. You’re doing better!”
Pierce made a face at her, but otherwise didn’t snap back.
“Alright, let’s go for three more. The power system, and the two systems that keep us alive. What do you know?”
“Your craft’s powered by a fusion reactor. A small one, since your craft’s so damn small, but it’s fucking fusion anyways. Seriously, fusion? Talk about overkill.”
“Don’t complain to me about Earth’s lack of technological advancement. Besides, between propulsion and one more system you haven’t named, the fusion reactor is necessary. What’s the system I’m talking about?”
“The Energy Shielding, obviously. Which is a whole complicated piece of shit.”
“A ‘piece of shit’ that you’re going to explain to me.”
“Hey, if you want to fail, that’s fine by me. I would’ve thought that you’d revel in this opportunity to boast about your knowledge, anyways.”
“Yeah, but you turned it into a lame trivia quiz.” Pierce sighed impatiently. “But, whatever. The shields are supposed to protect the craft from, well, fucking everything. Harmful radiation, space debris, fucking nuclear weapons—”
“In what world is a civilian craft going to be hit by a nuclear weapon?”
“The tonnage rating on your shields could take a hit from one, that’s for sure, which is pretty fucking crazy for a civilian craft.”
“Those must be some small nukes. But you still haven’t explained the actual shield systems.”
“And stop complaining so damn much,” Phoenix piped in. “I’m doing actual work here, and you don’t see me whining my ass off.”
“Yeah, because you’re doing something actually interesting,” Pierce countered. “You hear this shit I have to sit through?”
“Alright, alright, cut the chatter,” Brikén cut in. “Pierce, this is getting ridiculous. If I promise to buy you a beer tonight, will you please stop complaining?”
Pierce clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair, a smugly amused expression on his face. “Well, when you put it that way, I suppose I can hold my tongue.”
“You really are a piece of work,” Brikén muttered. “Now, about the shields?”
“Well, the shield ‘generators’, as they’re called, are actually made up of two separate pieces of tech: the projector, and the capacitor. The projector is the part that actually, you know, projects the energy shield in space. Easy name. And the capacitor stores the power that the projectors actually draw from. Any time the shields absorb a hit, they use up energy that was stored in the capacitor relative to the magnitude of the impact, and then the capacitor starts recharging using power from the craft’s reactor. And if the capacitor runs out of charge, then the shields go down, which is why shield strength is often reported with percentages — you’re actually just saying how much power the capacitors have left.”
“Alright, good. And what are the two metrics that we use to grade shield capacitors?”
“Threshold force and recharge rate. The threshold force is the total amount of force you need to drain the capacitor from full charge, without any recharging, so a capacitor that’s rated at 1 kiloton would need to be hit with that much energy to overload its shields. And the recharge rate is, you know, how fast the damn capacitor actually recharges. So, like, if a 10-kiloton shield has a recharge rate of 10 percent per hour, then if it takes a 9-kiloton hit and then recharges for 9 hours, it would be back to full charge and could take another 9-kiloton hit with no problem.”
“Good, good. Then what, exactly, would a shield array be?”
“That would be when you use a system of multiple individual shield generators, spread out all over the ship, to provide better shield coverage and redundancy. It’s what lets you project shields that closely follow the contours of the spacecraft’s hull, to reduce the shield cross-section that might actually get hit.”
“Alright! Now, one last question — if you get this right, I won’t even make you explain the life support system.”
“How generous of you.”
“It really is. Now, what are shock absorbers?”
“They prevent blows to the shields from ripping the shield generators out of their anchors. ‘Cause, you know, shield generators always project their shield a set distance away from the generator. So if a force pushes on the shield, then it’s also, effectively, pushing on the generator. The shields can absorb and cancel out most of that force, but to absorb the rest, the generators are surrounded by shock absorber tech to let the generator move a little without ripping it out of its housing or moving the whole ship with it. Nimalian shock absorbers use some kind of compressible fluid… well, yours does, at least. The absorbers aren’t always able to absorb all the force, though, which means that hella big shield impacts can cause the whole ship to jostle.”
“Hmm, alright, alright…” Brikén nodded along, and then began moving her hands as though she were taking notes in thin air. Pierce knew that she — like most space-faring denizens of the galaxy — possessed ocular Augmented Reality implants, so she was definitely actually interacting with something, but from an outside perspective it looked rather silly. He then glanced over at Phoenix, who seemed to be absorbed in drawing paths on the holographic solar system; he wasn’t too knowledgeable regarding setting spacecraft courses, but it looked to him like she had figured out a reasonable path.
Brikén then looked up, drawing Pierce’s attention back to her. With a smirk on her face, she said, “well, you lost a lot of points for your back-talk in the beginning—”
“The hell does that have to do with passing the exam?” Pierce exclaimed.
“Success in life isn’t just about what you know. You’ve really got to work on keeping that tongue of yours in check.”
“Hmph…” Pierce scowled and glanced aside. “…Don’t tell me you fucking failed me.”
“Ha!” Brikén let out a brief, but loud guffaw. “I really considered it, let me tell you. But I ultimately decided otherwise.” She smiled again. “Congratulations, Pierce. You passed!” She held out her right hand in a fist; Pierce promptly responded by hitting the back of her fist with his own, in what he had learned to be a form of Nimalian handshake. “Now don’t make me regret it!”
“I guarantee you never will,” Pierce replied with a self-satisfied smirk. “But with that out of the way… spacecraft design, here I come!”