A few moments later I felt through the thin but terribly strong Vac-Webbing that encased my entire body the sudden tiny jolts and vibrations that signified my darker fears. The pulses under my hands and legs ceased almost the moment they started. It was time to rush into battle.
I unhooked my legs from where I had wrapped them about one of the hastily rigged support beams that held the shield over the complex of old and new fuel, gas and fluid canisters that made up our homes and followed the central tower forward. Our ship, like almost all the craft of the Belters consisted of a central spine, an open lattice not unlike an old earthly radio tower, along which are bolted myriad boxes, spheres, cylinders and whatnot, connected in haphazard fashion by pressurized tunnels. Our ship, the Strawberry Fields, was both home and ore hauling truck, for we six Belters.
My first priority lay somewhere to the fore, I was sure of that. While some might laugh at the idea that any soul could possibly sense the microsecond difference between feeling the vibration of impact between hand and knee, I was sure that I had felt the jolts in my hands first. That meant the waves were propagating from fore to aft, so the impact must have been forward. With no sound and no way to see the hits, It was as shrewd a guess as any.
Hand over hand I pulled myself along the tower frame. My mind, even after years in zero gravity still clung to the belief that the Strawberry Fields was a big vertical radio tower. I had once been a Radio Engineer on Earth, and although I was never crazy enough to climb a tower, I certainly spent enough time at their base for the illusion to become fixed in my mind. I was climbing up, even though there was no up, and no down.
I grabbed a fluid return pipe with my left foot, between my big toe and second toes. The flexible, thin Vac-Web covered my every contour, toes as well as fingers. Vac-Web suits are not unlike wearing a very tight nylon stocking over one's whole body. The tough fibers quickly lose gas to the vacuum when outside, and as they lose gas they tighten. The tough fishnet captured my internal organs like trout in a net, holding my skin intact as well. The beauty of this is that one can sweat normally, and move freely. Worry about radiation is pretty much pointless. Even a big bulky suit really fails to help much, and few could manage under a proper armor made of a least ten feet of rock. Our saving grace is our great distance from the sun, and spending as much time as possible inside stone or metal when docked. Ray exposure is the curse of the Rock Haulers. I would need some Nano-Therapy after this run.
With my feet firmly anchored, I endeavored to stretch out to my full length. It was good exercise to push against the constraining Vac-Web which seemed to be only really content when I was in a curled, fetal position. Shaking slightly from the exertion, I did my best to scan for any anomaly that might guide me to my goal. I was hoping for a plume of easily repaired fluid line, or perhaps a sparking pit that would indicate impact. Nothing. I opened radio contact with my family inside to see if they could help. We Belters refer to any group of ourselves as "family", we depend so much upon each other for survival no less word would do.
"Hey! Got a hint for me on where we're hit?" They would be waiting breathlessly for any word from me, in battle there was nothing else for them to do.
"How we doin? didja see anything? You OK? Nothin showin here, Toobz!" Gamer was understandably excited, sitting around debating immanent mortality is a high stress occupation.
"Listen, Gamer, what's the status on payback?" I wanted to know how long
I had before the charge had sufficiently built up to make firing a return
shot with our cannon possible. It needed a hefty jolt of electricity to
impel a meter long cylinder of iron to mortal velocity. Average charge
time was about fifteen minutes, I figured I had about eight left.
Combat in space is not a glorious thing. While the ships family huddles in terror, a remarkably straightforward piece of software determines life or death. Two ships (in our case, at least) with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, perhaps a hundred miles or more between them, out in the middle of nothing. Out here in the Sandbox, seperating Mars from Jupiter, there is an awful lot of nothing too, twixt the tiny specks we mine and live within. With hours or days to get to anything or anyone, and radar eyes pinpointing mutual location and matched speed, there is only hit and be hit. The computer is very unlikely to miss, and strategy is a matter of choosing targets on each other. Every fifteen minutes another chance to be hulled rolls around, the only defense pot-metal shielding and an intercepting counter-shot. Because of the accuracy of the software, I was not worried about a direct hit. Whatever projectile they flung at us, we could track and hit with a missile of our own. the real danger was fragmentation.
When two rushing slugs of iron hit each other out in the intership space, they get very hot and melt. They splash against and off of and through each other forming an angry swarm of particles that shoot off in all directions. some hit both the ship under attack, some the source of that attack. Most are lost perpendicular to both ships. Sometimes one side or the other in this exchange will decide to get clever and accelerate a heavier slug or a fragmenting slug. When that happens, more will get through to the opposition. In either case, I wanted to be back under a nice piece of shielding when that happened.
" Toobz?" It was Hack-Man speaking up, using my antiquated radio-days Belt-name "Toobz? I would estimate you have about six minutes to payback, then the three minutes to the next impacts. Did you get that?"
" Got it, keep calling out the minutes, nine on down, OK?"
"Here you go Toobsie: NINE!"
"No warnings? No clues about the last hit?"
"Sorry Toobz - all green in here. We felt it though, heard it too!"
That was a useful clue. If my family heard the hit as well as felt it, then that meant the hit was close to where they were, close enough that the vibration could make sound in the pressurized Command Section, back in the Aft part of the Strawberry Fields. Damn! I had guessed wrong, the impacts were the opposite direction from that which I had chosen. I had been so sure, too! It felt fore! Damn!
It had taken me about five minutes to get where I was, and it would take me ten to pass the middle where I started and go further on all the way to the tail where I needed to be. Since no warnings had shown, and no one had a clue as to the hit, I hoped it was not too vital. I began pulling myself back to the middle shield.
I briefly contemplated doing a glide along the tower, just give a steady pull up to speed with my hands and let go, but the thought of a lonely death in the great Black Empty if I missed the right angle kept me climbing along. I also dared not go too quickly, lest I tear my Vac-Web. Even a tiny rip would have my flesh distending all purple and bloated through the gap in the webbing, possibly even rupturing when it could stretch no longer. I remembered seeing a Belter rookie, before the Belter Revolution with a ten millimeter worm of belly skin and fat extruding through a teensy break in his Vac-Web. I remembered how long that took to heal on the poor lug, how he suffered. I concentrated even more on my climb.
The inside of the transparent bubble that kept air in my face became lightly frosted with my exertion. I sincerely hoped that was the last of my problems with it, my helm was never supposed to fog up at all. That meant a glitch had developed in the nanoconditioning colony somewhere in the helmets collar. The little Nanotech Maxwell Demons that micro-adjusted my air supply were on some sort of a bender. I became momentarily worried about the fog being the symptom of a collar seal breach, but calmed myself with the knowledge that I had been climbing rather furiously. Yanking and pulling, braking and stretching become strenuous after a time despite the happy float of a no-grav environment. My chest was faintly streaming sweat vapor into the vacuum through the webbing of my suit. It felt cool and pleasant.
I made the shelter of the midsection shield just as Hack-Man called out "SIX!" I had made the trip in just about three minutes! I was going faster than I had thought! That left six minutes till the impacts started. I felt a moments recognition that my speed also implied a risk I had just unthinkingly taken. Damn!
As I foetused under the thick shield my eyes scanned the aft section just to see if I could discover the location of the last hit, for the next recharge period. Both the Strawberry Fields and our silent enemy the In-System ship Pat Buchannan had only one magnetic accelerator cannon apiece. That meant the battle was essentially regular as clockwork for me. I was glad that magnet cannons were so costly to make. One each was enough.
A magnetic acceleration cannon is a simple enough beast, just a long series of electromagnets encircling a nonferrous barrel. Pop in a hunk of iron in one end and juice the magnet rings one after the other at an exponential speed. The metal goes faster and faster through the barrel, pulled ever onward by the ring just ahead of it until the slug finally leaves the muzzle at some god awful velocity. The real cost of making one is not just the expense of all those massive magnets, what is also needed is a way to gather and store the vast amount of power required to shoot the thing just once. Our cannon crosses the long line of our central tower like the crossbeam of an archaic diamond kite. It sticks out, improbably long, impaling the Strawberry Fields through the middle. I was only a few meters from where the business end thrust outward through the midsection shield. The whole ship would recoil from its electric fury.
A translucent jet of bluish white was geysering out from behind the enormous boxcar that was our low-rad larder. Our special foodstuffs, the freeze dried treats and goodies we could not grow ourselves, waited quietly in the unpressurized metal structure for the next holiday or special event in our lives. behind this happy source of diversion from the alginates and insects that made up the bulk of our diet lay the tertiary pressure stores. We must have a leak in the third level of our triply redundant gas supply! The leak looked small, but in time all that precious reserve gas would be lost to the great Black Empty. Every soul in the vacuum has a special feeling about pressurized gas. Whatever that gas might be, be it Oxygen or Hydrogen or even some odd cargo like Argon, is like pure Soul, the very Life Spirit in a can. When it leaks, all vaporous like some apparition, into the empty void, we feel like a part of us is dying.
"FIVE! Are you under the shield yet Toobz?" But I wasn't listening. I was too busy being really stupid. When I realized what I was doing I had just finished slathering Instant Metal all over the section of pipe that had been cracked by the whack of an errant bit of Iron. The tiny piece of shrapnel had spanged off the curve of the largest redundant tank and had spanked the pipeline before burying itself in the tower proper. The smack of the fast moving particle was enough to crack the metal of the gas conduit. The break itself was too small to see, save for the gas plume which gave it away. I had used quite a bit of the vacuum-drying repair goo in my haste. I doubted it would leak again any time soon.
As I looked up from my work I became aware of Hack-Man and Gamer both shouting in my ears. They were rather afraid something had happened to me and were quite cross. I took a moment to allay their fears. "Just fixing a leak gang, not too bad though..." "Hey where are you now?! You’ve got less than two minutes to impact! Get under a shield you Idiot! ONE MINUTE!"
Fear suddenly snatched my calm away. The aft shield was too far to get to safely in less than one minute. I could easily tear my Vac-Web on the way if I hurried. Aft was where most of the spiky YAGI's and other antennas were masted. On the other hand, there was a rain of hot, sharp iron bullets very likely converging with our home, even one of which could potentially pop me like a balloon. An image of my intestines spooling out through a hole made me start to hyperventilate a bit. Shit! the midsection shield was too far as well!
Suddenly I remembered the old superstition of the soldiers of World War Two. They used to hide in the blasted craters where bombs had just dropped on the belief that it was improbable for another bomb to hit exactly the same spot. In my terror, I too resorted to the Gamblers Fallacy, and curled my legs around the pressure line I had just repaired. I squeezed my body to the pipe like a lover, pressing my crotch into it until my pubic bone ached.
Some part of my mind actually expected to hear the swarm coming. My intellect is well aware that the vacuum is a place devoid of sound, my fear is well acquainted with the profound airlessness of the environment I have spent my last five years a resident of, yet, I still expected the whistle of incoming projectiles. It is uncanny how the mind can expect the familiar in the most unfamiliar places. This was the first experience of battle in my life, yet my mind was convinced of what I would experience. The time seemed to drag on forever while I waited for a swish followed by a boom, then perhaps capped by my own screaming. Had they failed to fire back?
"Hey! Hello? Hack-Man? How long to impact?" Perhaps I had heard the time incorrectly. I had felt nothing, and of course seen even less. It would be almost impossible to actually see the particles hit, their speed being so great. "Hack-Man? Gamer? Elf? Hello?" This was bad. I hadn't realized how long the jabber of nervous background chatter that had filled the spaces between my conversations with Hack-Man and Gamer were absent. The whispers of the other crew reassuring each other should at least be faintly audible, for we had left the channel constantly open. Now there was no evidence of five people rustling about a cabin in my ears. My heart decided to run a private marathon.
I forced myself to think. If the command cab had been punctured I would be feeling the inertial tug of the entire Strawberry Fields slowly tumbling end over end. The atmosphere in the cab would make a reasonable Pitch Thruster as it blew into the void. Any hit that could kill my family would move the ship in some fashion. That was simple physics. That was reasonable. Settle DOWN!
OK. No fatal holes. What else could cause a radio silence. There were lots of things. Power loss, a broken wire, a short, antenna trouble, lots of things. Fixable things. I extended my torso and had a look around. The aft command cab was intact. no visible damage, and I certainly hadn't been touched. I could not see the cabs forward window from my angle, the aft shield prevented this. The shield had been bolted on at a sloppy angle because the supporting struts were too short and the cab was too bulbous. When the Belters began their revolution they had not expected conflict. Conflict in space was unthinkable! It was expected to be a political rearrangement of power, with the In-System worlds proudly acknowledging the maturity of their Out-System children. Business as usual, with only a little more of the pie for the hardworking Belters. When the first Belter ore truck, the Skanky Frog was shelled and captured, the Belters faced their shock and started making shielding slabs. They also started making acceleration cannons. This battle was the third real fight of our war. We had to make things up as we went.
Maybe they could still hear me! It was unlikely, but my mind seems to grasp at straws with amazing eagerness. "If you can hear me, I think communication is down. I am on the job, so hang in there, I'll get it fixed in a trice!" I like to bolster my confidence whenever I can.
"They're all dead you know. You're alone. Your pals are bloating in the vacuum right now. You'll never make it."
My heart skipped a long beat. My helmet got surprisingly foggy. I started breathing again, with effort. The voice was very unfamiliar. I caught myself looking rapidly around and curled back down to the pipe. It couldn't hurt to hide a little.
"You..." There was a pause filled with what I sounded like a soft grunt of effort. "...are dead, dead, dead, pal..." Another soft grunty pause "...and prayers can't be said in a vacuum." It was someone on the other ship, someone on the Pat Buchannan! He was trying to frighten me, play off my fears! That grunting -again I heard it. What was going on?
" Hey, pal! You still alive or did your belly blow? There's a nice present
coming...uhnnn...Hope you like iron! I picked it out just for you!"
The cannons! there would soon be another attempt at violence and
I had no way to tell exactly when it would occur. I had a chronometer in
my heads up but I had forgotten to notice the time. How long had I been
goofing around? I had to get busy! I started toward the command cab, my
first priority was my family. I had to make sure I was not alone. I might
as well give up if I was the only living soul. I'd be better off under
custody on the Pat Buchannan. I moved as carefully as I could past the
tanks and tubes and antenna clusters. I found the cab window and peered
in. The light of a waving lamp caught my attention in the blackness inside.
My family was alive, just without power. That was something I could cope
I gave a comforting rap on the cabin wall with my torqueless wrench "Shave-and-a-haircut". I left the "two-bits" for them to fill in, although there was no way for me to hear it, of course. "I'll get the power back on Hack-Man, just a moment!" I was already scanning for a clue to exactly where, following the power conduits back to midsection where the batteries were. "No you won't! No power eh? That's very interesting! are your friends getting a bit warm?" It was my unknown grunter! I'd momentarily forgotten him, he could hear me whether or not my family could. My family would eventually get warm and short of breath. Old sci-fi thrillers had folks freezing when the power cut off in space, but space is just one big thermos bottle. The big problem is getting rid of excess heat, as the vacuum is a perfect insulator. Without cooling, the cab would get like a sauna in time. Fresh air would help that, and although Atmosphere Nanoconstruction was on a separate circuit, I would be foolish to simply assume it was untouched as well.
"No power, no gun, my friend! Hmmm, if you help your pals, you're dead, and if you do the gun, you're one lonely dead Rock-Hopper." Belters hate being called rock-hoppers. At least most do, I really didn't care. But he was right about the gun. If the Strawberry Fields couldn't counter the next few shots with shots of her own, speeding, large slugs of iron could seriously hole us in a number of critical places. Then it would be Corporate Prison for the survivors and our patchwork home would be more stolen resources for greedy groundhogs on Earth and Venus and Mars. I was getting pissed off.
This was getting rather complex. I thought about the possibilities, about the best course of action. If there was a problem with our cannon, it could be very bad for us indeed. It could mean the end for my family, for the bulky command cab would be an excellent target. The hastily rigged shields could stop shrapnel, but would be like a wall of butter in fending off a whole cannon slug. One or two direct hits could end the battle. We all needed a defending gun more than anything right now. As I made my way as quickly as I dared to the acceleration cannon I became keenly aware of a pain in my thigh. Some of the Instant Metal from the gas line I had repaired was now a permanent part of my Vac-Web suit. I hoped that the rough gob would not tear a hole in the opposite thigh. A rip near my crotch would be especially bad. "Damn!" I said reflexively.
"MORE bad news? I am so very sorry to hear that! Could it be time to give up? I hear the food in RobCor is real fine!" RobCor was Robertson Religious Correctional Corporation, one of the more infamous corporate prisons. Only the most unloved were put to work there. My distant Rectal Annoyance could not have picked a worse place for me to end up, should our side fail to win.
"Bite me, asshole." I spoke my cerebral commentary in measured tones, the manner of a patient mother instructing an impaired child. "I believe my reply is forthcoming momentarily." came the response. Then the ship swung up and hit me.
The stars were rotating slowly around me. I had instinctively clutched the power conduit, and the tower strut as well. I felt another jolt and assumed we had somehow, impossibly, been directly hit twice, only seconds apart. The stars reversed their slow rotation. A second ship perhaps? I imagined us pinned between two In-System vessels, a sandwich of doom. Some force was now acting on the ship a third time, this one slow and steady. The stars slowed even more, then became still.
I was definitely terrified now. My view had balls of moisture sparkling in it. Condensation in my helmet had reached the stage of beads with visible diameters. My heart was trying to explosively decompress 120 times a second. I thought about how my own vomit, if I could not control the powerful urge inside my throat and abdomen, would coat my lungs in zero gravity, and that nothing could save me in time should this occur. My thigh ached.
Thrusters! The attitudinal software had countered our rotation. We had been hit, that much was for sure, and badly, and had started to spin. The thruster had fired and ended our cartwheel. Then our attitude was reset by rotating the Strawberry Fields to her original position. I adore redundancy! We had five backup Lizard Brains to run low level functions, more than all other ore hauling ships. That had been my idea after I had heard about the Wang Chung incident. I had acquired the last two Lizard Brains my self. One I blatantly stole from an In-System ship before the war, the other I won in payment of a bet. These last two I had wired to the Mandatory Research Package, after hacking the government seal that prevented access. The Packages were government issue, and collected scientific data for some agency In-System. They were benign enough, they had their own power, were self contained, and were neither too massive nor too bulky to be truly annoying. I simply resented the dead weight. If they were on board, then they should contribute to everyone’s benefit. I had thought that a separate power supply for Basic Functions was a job they should be doing. When the war came, I had forgotten about them.
That choice had been a good one. I had saved my own hide! This was a happy moment. I was such a smarty! I began pulling myself along the power conduit again. I was angry now.
"So...When's that reply due? Or can't you get it up?" I tried to sound anything but angry and frightened, I wanted my unseen adversary to think a miss had occurred. I was beginning to play the game. I wanted to intimidate him for a change. "Hey! Wuss! What's the matter? forgot to boot your Conflict Software? I'm WAITING!" Why was I saying this? I should just keep my mouth shut and fix the ship.
I found the reason for the power loss. Just two meters from where I had been crouching at the start of the battle, just outside the midsection shield, there was a five millimeter gap in the power conduit. Part of the conduit was just not there anymore. the damned thing was that the tower, and the pressurized causeway that ran inside the tower, were perfectly unblemished. What could remove that much conduit but not touch beneath it? I could only assume some bizarre ricochet or elastic collision.
I found one of the parts caches I had tied all along the length of the Strawberry Fields. We had enjoyed several days of warning before the Pat Buchannan had come within attack range, and I had prepared for the event by dividing up our spares into little lots. I tied the lots everywhere I thought a good place, using linkage cables as the ties. I slid a segment of conduit from its bundle. I could replace the severed conduit with the new. But first, I had to cut the juice from the power unit.
The Strawberry Fields had two sources of energy. We could unfurl enormous solar panels, each only a hundred molecules in thickness, like the wings of a monster dragonfly. These nano-mechanized monster sails could capture the light of the sun even out here in the dark of the Out-System. We had retracted them for battle. Our other source was the old radioactives plant. It was primitive, and metal radioactives were hard to come by, but it did its job. The little reactor that could.
The "top" of our ship held the reactor. Hand over hand, with help from an odd grip with my toes, I began the "ascent". Suddenly a terrible thought burst upon me. Just where had we been struck? To cause such a rotation surely we had been hit at one end or he other, a blow to our midsection would not have had any power to tumble us. One end held our aging reactor, the other was taken by the command cabin. My family! Wildly I twisted my body to confirm my greatest horror. The command cab was untouched. No damage aft that I could see. I spun to face the fore so rapidly I had to grab at the tower to cancel my inertia. Stretching out again, clinging with my toes, I faced the towers vertex. At first everything seemed normal. Then the twisted crown of metal and plastic which blossomed from the galley module finally registered to my mind.
A slug of iron alone, even at great velocity, could not have spun the Strawberry Fields so powerfully. The great jet of gas exploding outward from the rupture of our galley would have acted as a rocket engine, pushing the great mass of our ship head over heels. Because the galley is very close to the forward terminus of our great central tower, it was in a perfect position to blow us about our axis like some inhabited pinwheel. All of our algae and mealworms would be dead. We would have to survive on our stores for the weeks to come. If we could survive the battle, first.
"...no female..." It was my distant enemy, muttering to himself. Was he trying to insult me? No, it was clear he was muttering to himself, my gender was evident in my voice. Suddenly realization dawned on me - he meant a female jack, a connector in an electrical device. My opponent was an engineer like myself! He was looking for a female connector to patch a damaged part of his own ship! It struck me that he too probably had a "family" huddled in the Pat Buchannan's equivalent of our command cab. He was racing to keep things going, just like me! I had assumed somehow that he was some sort of Terran or Venusian Officer, shrewdly planning a terrifying attack strategy while berating me. He was in the same position as me!
The grunting! My counterpart on the Pat Buchannan must have been pushing or pulling a mass a while ago. The mass must have been significant to cause enough strain in zero gravity to elicit a grunt. Although the Pat Buchannan's cannon was obviously operational, something serious must be wrong over there. I felt a warm flood of encouragement wash through me! I am very proud of my skills as an Engineer. What I do, I do very well. No mouthy groundhog Three-Vee Repair goon was going to beat me! I bet the poor fool thought Ohms Law was a legal precedent! The grunting pig!
While this was going through my head my eyes noticed a dark snake curved in an "S" against the great spear of the Magnetic Acceleration Cannon. Five meters distant, on the side facing away from our adversary, that out of place cable hung. I had wondered why the Cannon was not operating the moment I had noticed a break in the power conduit. The gap occurred downline from our weapon, so the gun should have power, even if the command cab did not. How did a cable break out along the shaft of the cannon, especially upon the side shielded by the tower itself? Shrapnel is mischievous stuff.
Blocking any further direct hits could be the difference between prison and freedom, life and death. I was gliding, untethered, like some damned flying squirrel leaping between trees in an instant. I simply leapt without thought. I watched the cannon run like a river beneath me. The length of the entire Strawberry Fields slowly backed away from me. The flowing stream of concentric magnets were coming closer, the worm of wire almost in grasp. I extended my fingers and toes, preparing to grab hold. For all the world it seemed that the entire ship had courteously moved itself for my benefit, while I and the stars remained rock still.
My hands, grasping the large wire wrapped doughnut of an acceleration ring, engaged the use of my arms and shoulders for the purpose of absorbing my bodily inertia. I grabbed at the metal cage that supported the electromagnets with my well trained toes. My tightly webbed breasts hit the next ring, bubble helmet recoiling at an uncomfortable angle as the last of my mass was bought to standstill relative to the long cannon. The broken cable tickled my belly. Although my landing was clumsy, my aim had been unbelievably perfect. I doubted I could ever launch myself five meters with such accuracy again in a lifetime of tries. I was too surprised to be terrified at my foolishness.
A quick examination showed that the data cable had been gouged by something, shrapnel or otherwise. I had several sections of data cable tied to the environment pack on my back, as well as my tool kit and a satchel of parts. The environment pack was the smallest of the masses, less than half a meter in length. Inside the slim, rounded case was a whole society of infinitesimal nanotech beasties that could rip individual atoms out of molecules, or stick atoms together one by one to make a molecule. Here the carbon dioxide and water I breathed out was rebuilt by gear and sprocket into free oxygen, the hydrocarbons reclaimable from a replaceable cartridge in the side. The back was plated with solar collector, so it could even recharge itself as I worked.
As I replaced the data cable, which served to inform the cannon that the Neural Engine hidden under the midsection shield gave its permission to fire or to load, I thought of my family. They had air for at least an hour in the command cab if for some reason the emergency batteries that guarded the nanoenvironment unit had failed. A larger capacity version of my own environment pack, one was allotted to each compartment on the ship. Actually, come to think of it, they all had suits and personal packs as well in there. Hmmm, even if the cab was depressurized, they could still do fine. The biggest problem would be getting too hot in the dark, uncooled cab. If worse came to worse, they could let the air out and sweat into the vacuum. This encouraged me to concentrate only on getting the ship in fighting trim.
As soon as the last connection was made, I was yanked brutally to the cannon. My helmet made a funny sound when it whacked one of the acceleration rings. My tethered tool case had smacked my funny bone in a mad leap at the cannon. I nursed my elbow for a moment.
The cannon had fired the moment it could. The sequential powering of the giant electromagnets had yanked at the ferrous tools and components about me. I was lucky my arms or legs had not been the conduit of a bone frying short. I scrambled down the cannon, back to the main tower of the Strawberry Fields. The Pat Buchannan might well receive a direct hit, what with the timing of the battle being off. Then again, what if the computer had targeted an incoming slug, perhaps close by, to spend the electrical charge built since our last shot? We could have shrapnel at any moment!
I had no way of knowing what would happen now. If I hid under the shield unnecessarily, I would waste valuable time I needed to complete repairs. If I got hit while clambering about, it would be bad for my family, as well as for me. I was the only soul on the Strawberry Fields who could fix all of the systems, we were after all just a truck for hauling ore, not some military secret weapon. Perhaps Hack-Man and the others could seal a few leaks, but only I knew how to really keep a ship like the Strawberry Fields in full form. We needed full power. I was feeling almost giddy.
I fitted the section of power conduit into place an twisted the connecting latch ring with one hand while applying countering force with my other arm and my toes. I had zero gravity engineering down pat, and never ended up moving my own mass while the work at hand remained still. Finished. Now I could climb back "up" and put the old reactor back on line.
"Damn you, you bitch!" It was the Engineer on the Pat Buchannan, come to haunt me again. "Do you hear me, you dried up old trout?" I had not heard from him in some time, now he seemed anything but intimidating. I reasoned that our cannon had been busy during my repairs, although I had not noticed any shrapnel vibrations, or firing pulses either. I had been concentrating on my job rather intently.
"I hope you rip your tits open and lose your ribs to space!" The grunter did seem a bit peeved. What had happened over there? "We surrender! Stop firing! What the hell is wrong with you damn bloodthirsty bastards! WE SURRENDER! STOP FIRING!" Apparently the battle had been won. Certainly we had not been hit again, as far as I could tell. Was this a trick?
"Why the hell don't you acknowledge? We cannot fire back! Answer me!" His voice sounded genuinely upset. But if they had surrendered, Hack-Man should have informed the cannon's brain to cease our attack. I looked down at the conduit I had just replaced. Hack-Man was cut off from talking with the cannon because there was no power to run the command electronics. The brain of the cannon was ruthlessly selecting targets and then dispatching them. If the Pat Buchannan had no capacity to fire, they would be receiving direct impacts from our iron.
"Hey! What's going on? You telling the truth over there?" I knew it was a foolish question to ask, but this circumstance threw me. "STOP FIR.....AHHHHHHH!" I heard a lot of grunts and sounds for a while. "Spinning....Please...." I knew what that felt like. He sounded much worse off than I had been. But what if he was lying? What if he was just making funny sounds, laughing to himself? I had no way to tell. What was I to do? Then again, people might be dead over there, or about to die. If the Pat Buchannan was spinning quickly, someone might be spun into the Black Empty. I shuddered. I was no warrior, no Yes Sir Soldier. I really didn't want anyone, Groundhog or Belter to die. I again approached the cannon shaft.
"Listen!" I said "Tell me what's going on. We've had a few problems of our own here and our cannon's on it's own. Do you hear me?" I waited for a response but only heard a light thunking sound that repeated about once every six seconds or so. If I was hearing sound from his helmet, chances were that my adversary was still pressurized, and alive. Finally I heard a low groan and a soft gagging noise. I was sure those sounds were real. I felt panic, and fear for the life of the grunting Engineer of the Pat Buchannan. I knew I must act.
I had no idea when the acceleration cannon would next decide to expel a ferrous gift of pain. but I did know a quick way to suspend that delivery. The same cable I had repaired out on the long shaft of the cannon terminated in a jack plugged into the side of our Tactical Brain. I braced my body so as to permit the disengagement of the data cable from the brain that ran the cannon. "Hello?" I hoped my counterpart could hear me "I've stopped our cannon for a while, OK?"
"...Uhhh...Spinnnn....Uhhh.." It was definitely him. He was alive but unhappy from the sound of things. I wondered what I could do for him. I began the ascent to the reactor. The important thing now was to finish the process of returning power to the command cabin. Nothing could be done for the Pat Buchannan until the Strawberry Fields was functional again.
While I worked, I found myself talking to my former enemy. I tried to reassure him. I told him we would help just as soon as we were up and running. I explained what I was doing while I did it. Occasionally he would utter a brief, strained acknowledgement. I told him to hang on.
When power was again restored to the command cabin, I explained the situation
to my family.
"Looks like the Buchannan is in a bad spin, Toobz." Hack-Man was imaging the other ship while I was checking out the remains of our galley module. "looks like a period of about sixteen seconds. I think I can even make out your pal, tied to the forward boom. The centrifugal force must be rough."
That explained a lot of things. "How can we help?"
Wow, their gun's all broke!" Elf had ascertained the reason for the lack of return fire. "I'm not sure, Toobsi, let me think a moment.." Surely Hack-Man could come up with something. I looked out, as though I had a hope of seeing the Pat Buchannan in the starry blackness, a hundred miles away. "What if.." I had an idea "What if we sidled up to the Buchannan, matched rotation, and brought her to rest with our thrusters? If we squat in the midsection the torque won't be too bad!" I sure seemed straightforward to me.
"How do we grapple her once we match spin? You gonna climb around and bolt us to her?" It was Kelster, who didn't like the idea of saving our enemies. "I say let 'em spin!" I thought for a moment.
"That’s exactly what I intend! I'll wire us together at six points or so, and we'll do things nice and slow."
"WIRE US TOGETHER? Wire can't hold two ships together through a thruster maneuver! We'll rip loose and something bad will happen! Real bad, Toobz!"
"It will work if its done gradually enough. It has to be really slow and gentle." I had to convince them. I couldn't live with just leaving people to slowly die, spinning helpless in the night. "Hack-Man! Figure it out, It will work! It's just basic physics!"
An hour later we were attempting to match spin with the Pat Buchannan. A lot of angry words had been exchanged but ultimately compassion had won the war. Belters have had to value life because of the awesome dangers involved in space. Decades of cooperation made even rookies like Kelster loath the wanton loss of any life. None of us could really let the Pat Buchannan spin, especially right in our own travel vector. It would be grim knowing the people we had let die would be tailing us for weeks. We used a lot of reaction mass getting close quickly.
The stars were whirling around us. The Pat Buchannan was silent and enormous. It was an awesome sight to see her spin slowly match ours, two linked pinwheels in the night. I looked up, and in time, across, from the huge In-System ship. My Engineer friend had stopped making sounds. I presumed he was unconscious, probably from the centrifugal pull. After years in zero gee, one becomes rather sensitive to any hint of "weight", and centrifugal force could drain the blood from lazy vessels.
When we were in sync, Hack-Man brought the two ships together. The impromptu docking crushed our big YAGI and bent our dish all to hell. It would have been nice if the docking ports on both ships had been facing each other, but that bit of fortune was apparently out of the question. In order to speed things up, Gamer, Elf, and Glory were positioned at strategic points. Their job was to tie us together with wire as quickly as possible, before they became overcome by the torque. I worried for all of them. Kelster and Hack-man ran things from the control cabin. Kelster had been a full time Belter for only six months, the time since the start of the war, and had spent the time previous on mars under gravity. Since the command cab was going to be subject to a lot of force, It was a wise idea to have a backup in case Hack-Man fell ill.
The stars were awful to look at. They went by, swarming at a horrifying rate, around and around. I tried not to notice them, an impossible task. The pull on my organs, my blood, made me feel faint and cold. I deliberately rubbed my sore thigh against the Instant Metal blob because the pain distracted me from the sick feeling in my stomach. I carefully strained to move my body to a position where I could bend wire around part of the Pat Buchannan, attaching it to the Strawberry Fields. My fingers felt numb, it was hard to bend the wire.
"Uhhhhhh...Ohhhhh...Stop it! Help me!" It was Elf, pushed past tolerances by the unholy rotation. My helmet was filled with the sound of unhappy family members. The metal around me reflected the swarming stars. I began to moan a little too.
Sometime, several eons later, I noticed I felt better. The stars were slowing their unholy dance. As the stars spun ever slower, we started asking about each other, talking about what we had accomplished. Elf wasn't sure she had gotten enough wire around the struts she was working on, Glory was actually enjoying the ride now. We began to feel like heroes.
"I...." It was the voice of my Engineering friend, my counterpart on the Pat Buchannan "I...want to thank you. You risked your lives, your ship to save us. Thank you for our lives." In that moment I knew we had won two battles, not just the fight against the Pat Buchannan, but also the battle against a descent into brutal savagery. I decided the family of the Pat Buchannan would not be our prisoners, but our guests.