You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Digital Sailor

Digital Sailor

A short story by Michael R. Lockridge

Thomas Weston sat on the bench by the harbor, eating a toasted onion bagel and enjoying his first cup of coffee. He was watching the loading of the new Lustig 270 robotic shipping vessels just a few hundred yards away. He could see seven Lustigs lined up, waiting for off-loading. Once unloaded they would automatically slide forward in the channel and be loaded by a largely robotic crew.

Tom knew all of this, and more. Though his rather cherubic appearance did not fit the image, Thomas Weston was a Sea Captain. Well, Sea Captain Trainee, actually. He had six more weeks until he received the full title. However, he knew the largely automated shipping system backward and forward. He felt ready for the test.

He finished the coffee and got up from the bench. It was time to go to work. He dropped the cup in a composting bin as he walked the rest of the way to his office. Well, cubicle, actually. He greeted the night shift officer with a perfunctory “Good morning.” She got up and said, “Nothing to report.” Tom assumed the seat she had vacated, and she headed off through the sea of cubicles to make her way home.

Tom scanned his monitors. Most displayed rotating images representing the gauges that would have been part of the various vessels in earlier configurations. Some contained images from cameras onboard the vessels in his charge. One image appeared to be someone’s living room.

“Damn, Lisa!” Tom said. “Can’t you clean up before you leave?” He cleared this unauthorized image the night officer had left on his screen, and began scanning the data.

Tom had seven vessels in his charge today. Three Lustig 250’s, two Lustig 255’s, and two Lustig 257’s. The 257’s had been discontinued shortly after the first lot had been delivered. Several design flaws had emerged making them slower than specified. However, until the purchase cost was fully amortized the company intended to keep them on line.

All of the vessels had their solar arrays properly aligned, and were charging well. The wind was favorable, and the 257’s had their wind wings fully deployed. The 250’s and 255’s, though older models, had only 72 per cent of their wings deployed, so that they would not outpace the slower vessels.

Tom checked his instruments, and all seemed to be in order. The weather was perfect for this run, and Tom did not anticipate any problems. He pulled out one of his text books, and opened to where he had left off. He read about the ancient days of giant vessels burning fossil fuels and consuming vast resources in their construction.
Some of those vessels carried the raw fossil fuel in massive tanks, hauling the very fuel that would later power their engines to the places the fuel was processed. The waste was astounding.

Operating the vessels, however, had been another thing. Crews of ten, or even twenty people were required to run these monsters. In those days the Captain was a leader, the master of a vessel that had to be mastered.

Now Thomas Weston, twenty two years old, was on the verge of earning that same title. From the comfort and safety of this little cubicle he could direct his string of vessels to any suitable port in the world. Automated port facilities were not quite common, but probably would become common in the course of his career.

With the title of Sea Captain he would also earn the privilege of working from home. He already had a lot of the gear, since remote vehicle operation had long been his hobby. Now, it would be his career.

He returned to his reading, looking up now and then to check the instruments and monitors. He noted an unknown object approaching his vector, and set one of the alarms to advise him if it got too close. He had just gotten back into his reading when the alarm went off.

Tom directed one of the cameras on his lead ship to scan the direction of the object. He got little from that. A dark spot out on a gray sea was all that was visible. The radar and sonar told a bit more. The data indicated a small craft.

Another alarm sounded. All seven vessels were stowing their wind wings. The tall airfoils retracted into their chambers in the center line of the ships. The electric motors cut in, trying to maintain the momentum. A second later another alarm indicated that some kind of override had shut down the motors.

His vessels were slowing, and would soon be motionless.

“Pirates!” Tom mumbled.

This was another reason he longed for command of the 270’s. Lustig Corporation had installed onboard anti-piracy systems on the 270’s. Even the 260 series would be better. They had onboard gun systems. Nothing like the 270 weapons arrays, but better than the nothing on early models.

Tom sent the coordinates of the pirate vessel to missile command, requesting a standard pattern deployment. It would be several minutes until the data was verified and authorization made. This would be a great time to test his idea.

Always a creative thinker, Tom had analyzed the average losses of goods to pirates, the cost of anti-pirate missile systems, and the value of vessels under trainee command. He had determined that one of his 257’s had been sufficiently amortized to use in a special project. Tom had read about fire ships in the maritime histories required for trainees. He had proposed the 257 as just such a ship.

In ancient days a ship set afire and sent into a gathered enemy fleet could do considerable damage. Tom had understood this, and after running his numbers decided that the 257 model robotic container ship would be cost-effective in such an application.

Tom sent the code. One of the 257’s broke formation and began closing on the pirate ship. Tom switched to a bow camera on that vessel. He could see the pirates leaning over the gunwales and pointing. The shock factor gained him time.

The pirates again tried to shut down his boat’s electric motors. Several override codes were received. His program stood firm, and the 257 closed on the pirate vessel. Tom could see the pirates begin to scramble across their vessel, trying to get it moving away from the growing danger.

They were too late. The screen of the monitor went white. Tom switched to a camera on his lead vessel, a 255. The 257 had become a smoking hole in the water. The pirate vessel was on fire and already listing heavily to port. The surviving pirates were deploying inflatable survival rafts.

Tom sent a message canceling the missile attack. He also realigned his vessels, deployed their wind wings, and got them back underway. He turned one of the cameras to view the pirate activity as his vessels began to move. One raft was desperately trying to catch up with the departing vessels. Slowly they fell behind. Soon they were lost in the vastness of the surrounding sea.

Setting aside his text book, Tom turned to his keyboard and got ready to write his report. He had cost the company a Lustig 257, but saved the cost of missiles and eliminated a pirate vessel and an unknown number of pirates.

If he wrote this up right, he could see a very bright career ahead. Not a bad day’s work for a digital sailor.

Tom smiled as he began to type.

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