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The Wishbone Express - Chapter 10

 
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 17, 2015 12:54 am    Post subject: The Wishbone Express - Chapter 10 Reply with quote



Chapter 10

Twenty minutes after the briefing in the lounge, Mr. Aganto came out of his cabin and ascended the stairs to the cockpit. As he did so, he heard two unskilled male voices make a rough attempt to sing in unison. He paused on the steps and tried to make out the words.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, you never change your socks,

And the little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks.

The brakemen have to tip their hats, and the railroad bulls are blind.

There’s a lake of steeeew . . . and of whiskey tooooo . . .

You can paddle all around ‘em in a big canooooooe . . .

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.


Aganto continued up the steps until he saw Randy and Bill sitting with their feet propped up on the control panel, their seats tilted well back. The lights were turned low. Randy’s hands were cupped behind his head as he and Bill sang softly to the stars around them.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, the jails are made of tin,
And you can walk right out again as soon as you are in.
Oh, I’m bound to gooo . . . where there ain’t no snoooooow,
Where the rain don’t fall and the wind don’t bloooooow,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains!



“Excuse me?” Aganto spoke in a timid voice. Both men twisted around in their titled seats to find the lawyer standing three steps down from the top. Randy turned up the lights.



“What can we do for you, sir?” said Randy.

“Well, I was wondering if . . . I mean, if you’re not too busy . . .”

“Not busy at all, sir. In fact, if all goes well, the nav computer will do all the work. It will handle the approach to Donwaxihel, our close pass by the star, the evasive maneuvers — everything. Things will be happening a tad too fast for us dull-witted humans, so we’ll just let the good old Wishbone carry us into safe port.” Randy gave the control panel an affectionate pat.

“I see,” said Aganto. “You make it sound almost routine.”

“Perhaps preordained would be more accurate,” said Bill. Aganto couldn’t be sure, but it seemed that Bill’s eyes were focusing better. He looked more alert.

“Is there something you wanted to ask us, Mr. Aganto?” said Randy.

“Oh, yes, I forgot.” He hesitated for a moment, looking uncertain. “I was going to watch a movie in my room, just to take my mind off of what’s about to happen. I discovered several titles from the mid twentieth century that sound interesting, and I thought I’d let you recom¬mend which one I should watch.”

“Glad to help,” said Randy. “Which ones are you tempted by?”

Aganto held up a palm computer and studied the list he’d made. “Ummm, The Con¬quest of Space, This Island Earth, The Space Children, and Twenty Million Miles to Earth.”

The two men looked at each other and held a mumbled debate.

Conquest of Space?” said Randy.

“Naw, too gloomy.”

The Space Children?”

“Too cerebral,” said Bill

“Okay, so which one?”

Bill grinned and said, “The one with the big-headed aliens, of course.”

“Good choice.” Randy turned to Aganto. “And the winner is — This Island Earth!”

“I like the title,” said Aganto. “So, it’s a good movie, eh?”

“Good? Begad, it’s epic! Space battles and bug-eyed monsters and a square-jawed hero and a damsel in distress.” Randy paused. “But I must give you a word of warning. It’s the kind of science fiction movie where the fiction is frequently presented as the science. In other words, they make it up as they go along.”

“I guess they didn’t know any better back in those days.”

“Not true, sir! They did know better, but sometimes they figured the audience wouldn’t care. Ah, but never mind the flaws, this movie is fun.”

Aganto pocketed his computer, then he said, “Thanks for the recommendation. Please call me if there’s anything I need to know about.”

“Yes, sir, we will,” said Randy, looking sympathetic. “You just enjoy the movie. With luck, we’ll be buying drinks for each other in a spaceport bar a few hours from now.”

Aganto’s face colored a trifle at the mention of drinks, but he said, “The first round is on me.”

“It’s a deal. Hey, want me to get you some popcorn?”

“Oh, no thank you,” said Aganto. “I’m really too nervous to eat. Thanks again.” He started toward the door, but then turned around. “Oh, just out of curiosity, what was that song I heard when I came in?”

Randy flashed a toothy grin. “It’s called The Big Rock Candy Mountains[i], and it’s even older than the movie you’re about to watch. The words have been handed down from generation to generation, so they’ve gotten changed around some. There’s probably no such thing as an ‘official’ version. The song dates back to the 1930s, an era when many of the nations of Earth suffered a serious economic depression. During that time there was a group of wandering nomads called tramps — ”

“Hobos,” Bill corrected.

“Yeah, whatever,” said Randy. “Anyway these tramps lived a very preca¬rious existence, surviving from day to day on handouts and stolen food — whatever they could find during this period when nobody had much of anything. The song describes what they considered Tramp Paradise — ”

“Hobo Heaven,” Bill corrected him again.

Randy sighed. “Okay, Hobo Heaven. A place where all the things they needed and wanted were free, and all the things that normally threatened them were reduced to . . . mere comic distractions.”

“Very interesting,” said Aganto, and he meant it. “What sort of wants and needs and threats did these people have to deal with?”

“Oh, you know, like food and shelter,” said Randy. And they always wanted booze. But what they really needed was security. That was the thing they never had. And they wanted freedom from fear — like, the fear of being put in jail, the fear of being attacked by guard dogs — a long list of hazards that complicated their lives.” Randy shook his head sadly for a moment, then he chuckled. “One of the things the song refers to is the fact that a hobo rarely enjoyed the simple luxury of clean socks, which meant that in the winter time, his feet were always cold. To them, Hobo Heaven was a place so comfortable, so perfectly suited for its inhabitants that they never had to change their socks. One line in the song says, ‘On the Big Rock Candy Mountains, you never change your socks, and the little streams of alcohol come tricklin’ down the rocks.’ Get it? Everything is free, it never rains, it never snows, the wind doesn’t blow, things like that.”

“Sounds like a wonderful place,” Aganto said wistfully. Right at the moment, any place sounded wonderful to him, as long as it was safe.

“Yes, indeed,” said Randy. “And nowadays the modern version of the Big Rock Candy Mountains is a place called Tason. They sing the same kind of songs about it.”

“Tason? The planet?” said Aganto.

“You’ve heard of it?” said Bill.

“Yes, I have. They say the social system works remarkably well, considering the fact that the population consists of several hundred different species. According to most xenosociologists, that many different life forms shouldn’t be able to get along as well as they do. After all, they’ve got so little in common. And yet the art and literature produced on Tason has achieved a certain galaxy-wide acclaim. The same is true for their scientific achievements.” Aganto paused, looking wistful again. “I guess Tason [i]is
the real-life version of the Big Rock Candy Mountains, isn’t it?”

“Randy and I are going to retire there someday.”

Aganto gave Bill a sad smile. “From what I’ve heard, Tasonian citizenship is very tough to get. Billions of individuals apply each year, and the Tasonian government is very selective. To be accepted you have accomplish something really noteworthy.”

“Or just be born on Tason,” said Bill.

Aganto shook his head. “Actually, no. When they reach a certain age, even the native offspring have to leave the planet for two years and apply for citizenship, although they may get some special consideration — I’m not sure. But if their application is denied, they’re not permitted to return.”

“Well then, we’ll just have to do something really noteworthy,” said Randy. “Maybe getting you safely to Philcani-tu will be enough.”

Aganto smiled. “You’ll certainly get my vote, Mr. Jenkins.”

Bill turned to the control panel and checked the displays. “Twenty minutes until hyperdrive termination,” he announced. “If you want to watch that movie before we land, sir, you better get started.”

Aganto began edging toward the stairs. “Oh, yes. I guess I’d better get going. Excuse me, gentlemen. I’ll see you after we land.”

“Right,” said Bill. “Or in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

Aganto looked pale as he left. Bill turned toward Randy and found him wearing a hard look of disapproval, which made Bill feel suddenly guilty. He quickly busied himself with unnecessary things at the control panel. Randy tilted his chair back and propped his feet up on the panel again. Idly he reached over with one hand and dimmed the lights in the cockpit. Randy’s eyes were fixed on the stars, and he let the glorious sight push all other thoughts from his head. Worrying about the future would not change it a bit, so he made up his mind not to do so. Like Bill had said, they were either headed for Philcani-tu or the Big Rock Candy Mountains. And since they weren’t going to have much say-so in the matter, they might as well enjoy the ride.

Bill finished checking things that didn’t need checking, then he tilted his chair back to join his partner in some serious contemplation of the cosmos. After several minutes of silence, Randy began to sing softly.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, you never change your socks —

Bill joined in, and they sang it slowly, with many pauses. After each pause they had to second-guess each other about when to start singing again. They never got it exactly right.

— and the little streams of alcohol . . . come tricklin’ down the rocks.

A star shot by, well off to one side. It was Donwaxihel’s nearest stellar neighbor. Philcani-tu was right around the corner, a scant few light years away.



The brakemen have to tip their hats . . . and the railroad bulls all are blind.

The jinn wave scope had a fix on Donwaxihel, a little less than two light years ahead. Normally the Wishbone would have contacted the in-system traffic control authority by this time to request clearance for their entry into the system. But the pursuing ships were still jamming the jinn wave bands. An unannounced entry was highly illegal. Hopefully the authorities would be lenient when they set the fine.

There’s a lake of steeeew . . . and of whiskey toooooo —

“Hey,” said Bill, suddenly sitting up. “I think we missed something. Like maybe they programmed the computer on that ship to fire on us if it gets a chance.”

“Are you serious? Bill, if it’s going to ram us at hyperdrive speed, when is it going to get the chance to fire on us?”

“When it misses ramming us!” said Bill. His eyes had a bright and eager look. “Let’s not underestimate these guys again, okay? If they’ve figured out what we’re planning to do, they might have instructed the computer to match our deceler¬ation and then fire on us when we go sublight.”

Randy was nodding his head as he pondered Bill’s words. “True, but it can’t burst through our shields and slam us from behind — not if we’ve got the maneuver figured out right. If that ship plows into the star’s photosphere at hyperdrive speed, its own shields will bounce it off at a shallow angle.”

“We hope.”

“We hope, yeah. And if it doesn’t bounce aside, it’ll be destroyed, in which case we won’t have to worry about it shooting at us.”

“But if it matches our maneuver,” Bill said, “or if it steers clear of the photosphere and decelerates at about the same time as we do, it might get close enough to start trading shots with us.”

Randy thought it over for a moment and then said, “Okay, you got me. So what do we do? Change the maneuver?”

“Change it to what? We’ll be going sublight in ten minutes. All we can do is tell our computer to shoot at them if it gets the chance.”

“Okay. Right. Do it.”

Bill spent a few minutes dancing his fingers around on the keyboard, telling the Wishbone’s computer to take advantage of any opportunity to fire at the other ship. He gave it a list of priorities, specific targets to shoot at — weaponry, hyperdrive engine, sublight engine, shield generator, et cetera. When Bill finished he leaned back again and propped his feet up.

“All set.”

“Well done. Take a break.” Randy started humming softly while he tried to remember where he had left off on the song. After a few seconds, he started singing again.

You can paddle all around ‘em in a big canoooooe.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.


(Bill joined in, more or less in unison, more or less in harmony.)

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains the jails are made of tin,

And you can walk right out again as soon as you are in . . .


Randy leaned forward to thumb a switch on the control panel. He picked up his headset and spoke into the mike. The PA system carried his voice to every compartment in the ship. “Strap yourselves in, folks. We’ll be entering the Donwaxihel system in five minutes.” Then Randy fell back into his weary slouch. “By the way,” he said to Bill, “how do you feel?”

“Much better,” said Bill. “Less groggy, less horny, and more eager to take on those jackasses back yonder.” He sounded so enthusiastic that it surprised Randy.

The view dead-ahead on the dome display showed a faint star that grew brighter against the star-flecked background. Both men were beginning to feel very nervous, knowing that the ship was going to soar right into the Donwaxihel system at full hyperdrive speed and plow into the star’s chromosphere before going sublight. One tiny miscalculation by the nav computer could result in a host of truly unplea¬sant happenings.

Suddenly the Wishbone was buffeted by a series of blows. The shields were colliding with huge chunks of ice and rock, the cosmic debris of the Oort cloud that circled the star in orbits so slow and so distant that they took hundreds of thousands of years to make one revolution. The autopilot had to make corrections when the debris nudged at the shields and repeatedly knocked the ship slightly off course.



The Oort cloud was roughly one light year from the Donwaxihel system, which meant the Wishbone was ten minutes from hyperdrive termination. On the dome display the star continued to grow brighter and larger. Bill and Randy had stopped singing. They sat in silence, absolutely still, their eyes straight ahead while they consciously forced themselves to breath normally. It wasn’t easy.

The star came rushing towards them like the headlight of a freight train. A fraction of a second later, and the Wishbone was diving into the star system. Six gas giant planets streaked by like blurred bullets, gone in an instant. Bill and Randy still sat motionless, rigid, staring straight ahead. The star flashed up before them like a titanic yellow fist aimed squarely between their eyes. Out of pure reflex, the two men yanked their heads back.



The hyperdrive shut down at the last instant, and suddenly the star seemed to be barely moving. The ship twisted slightly to port and skimmed the chromosphere at the edge of the star. The Wishbone dipped into the white-hot blanket of gas that enveloped Don¬waxihel at almost the speed of light. At that speed the Wishbone reacted like a flat rock skipping across a pond. The chromosphere created tremendous pressure on the Wishbone’s shields, pushing it outward from the star. A bow shock formed, slowing the ship down even more. The autopilot twisted the ship until its prow was aimed downward at the star, blasting the sublight engines outward to keep the ship from being bounced off into space. The shields protected the Wishbone from friction, but the hull temperature still began to rise rapidly because of the blistering radiance of the star.

All of this happened in the blink of an eye, and during that brief moment, the Wishbone was hammered by a series of impacts. The unmanned ship streaked past the Wishbone, its plasma cannons firing. It crashed through the Wishbone’s outer two shields at a shallow angle, glanced off shield three, and bounced back outward toward space. The unmanned ship had terminated its hyperdrive a nanosecond later than the Wishbone had, and this had caused it to hit the chromosphere much harder, bouncing it away from the star. But as it ripped by the Wishbone, cutting a tangent across shield three, the unmanned ship had delivered a series of well-aimed shots that punched through the inner two shields and struck the Wishbone.



Fortunately, the Wishbone had also taken advantage of the near miss. Its own plasma cannons belched a torrent of white-hot matter at the passing ship, scoring several hits. Damaged but still functioning, the unmanned ship soared ahead of the Wishbone, unable to parallel the Wishbone’s arcing trajectory. The two ships were separated by thousands of kilometers in a matter of seconds.

Meanwhile the other two enemy ships entered the Donwaxihel system a few seconds after the Wishbone. But they terminated their hyperdrives twenty-five million kilometers away from the star. The occupants of these ships were hoping to see the blast that would signify the destruction of the Wishbone when the unmanned ship rammed it. They could see the Wishbone through the electronic eyes of the unmanned ship’s exterior cameras, now that both ships had dropped below light speed. What they saw through those cameras was both pleasing and displeasing. On one hand the unmanned ship had failed to ram the Wishbone, but on the other hand, it had damaged the Wishbone with its weaponry, and the shots had been devastatingly well placed. However, the unmanned ship was also damaged, and the occupants of the other two ships decided they had better finish the Wishbone themselves rather than trust the disabled, unmanned craft to do the job.

The two enemy ships dove toward Donwaxihel at 0.94 of light speed. They were moving in for the kill. Carefully they plotted a course that would take them dangerously close to the star. They were desperate to get within gun range of the Wishbone. They could not use hyperdrive because the distance between them and the Wishbone was only twenty-five million kilometers. Even an instant on hyper¬drive would be too much. So they followed the Wishbone down into the blazing chromosphere.



______________________________________________


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Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?
~ The Space Children (1958)


Last edited by Bud Brewster on Sun May 06, 2018 10:02 am; edited 5 times in total
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trekriffic
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 26, 2015 2:47 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Things are really "heating up" now!
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Fri Feb 27, 2015 10:21 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Oh, trust me. You ain't seen nuttin' yet! Very Happy
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