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The Wishbone Express - Chapter 12

 
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Thu Jan 22, 2015 4:22 pm    Post subject: The Wishbone Express - Chapter 12 Reply with quote




Chapter 12

The temperature in the cockpit was finally back to normal, so the two men had put their shirts back on.

Randy was doing it again — calling out the data on the displays. But this time Bill needed it, because he was flying on manual and he wanted to know when (and if) the unmanned ship was going to collide with the Wishbone.





Actually the possibility of collision wasn’t their immediate worry, because the unmanned ship would have to push its way through the Wishbone’s shields. But the enemy ship’s plasma cannons — that was a different story.

“500 kilometers . . 450 . . . 400,” Randy said, watching the screen as the unmanned ship closed the gap. It was below them now, climbing up out of the atmosphere. “I wonder why it doesn’t fire.”

“Recoil,” Bill suggested. “The plasma cannons would push it backward.”

“Oh. Right,” Randy mumbled, still staring at the scope. On a sudden impulse, he turned to the keyboard and did some quick typing, then he watched the screen as the data flashed up. “Jeez Marie,” he whispered.

“What is it?”

“Radiation. Lots of radiation. Boy, I’d hate to be on that ship right now.”

“I hate being on this ship right now,” said Bill.

Randy was still staring at the data on the screen. After a few seconds, he said, “Know what I think? I think that ship can’t shoot straight anymore.”

That idea appealed to Bill, so he looked over at Randy and said, “Why not?”

Randy repeated himself on purpose. “Radiation. Lots of radiation — fouling up the data signals, screwing up the gun controls, shorting out the electronic systems, throwing everything out of kilter. Eventually it’ll mess up the nav computer so bad it won’t be able to steer the ship.”

“Right . . . eventually,” said Bill, giving the word all the importance it deserved. “But can we hold out that long?”

Randy didn’t answer because Randy didn’t know. So Randy just did what Randy did best — dramatic readings from the data displays.

“350 kilometers and closing . . . 325 . . . 300 . . .”

“Wanna fire off a salvo to make it feel welcome?” said Bill.

“Yeah, why not?” Randy reached over to the keyboard and told the computer that it could let fly with a burst from the plasma cannons. The computer happily obliged, and the Wishbone vibrated as the cannons opened fire. On the telescopic view provided by the cockpit screen, the unmanned ship looked small, despite the magnification. The plasma bolts hit the ship’s five shields and were deflected by each in turn.





A few seconds later, the ship fired back — but the barrage was a trifle off target, proving Randy’s prediction about the unmanned ship’s deterioration.





Bill turned to Randy with a look of admiration. “Hey, you’re smart every now and then, aren’t you?”

Randy smiled. “I get that from my father. He was smart every now and then, too.” Randy turned back to the display. “Here it comes. 28 kilometers . . . twenty-seven — oops!” He flipped a switch on the control panel and snatched up his communication headset. “I hope you’re strapped in, folks, because the ride is about to get bumpy.” The intercom carried his voice to the passengers. Then he turned back to the display, “That ship is about to hit shield five, Bill.”

“I know.”

The unmanned ship, flying roughly parallel to the Wishbone, rose up from the planet below and collided with the Wishbone’s outer-most shield. The shield stopped it, but the moment the ship slammed into shield five and its prow poked through it briefly, the unmanned ship’s forward plasma cannons belched a torrent of super-heated material at the Wishbone. Most of the plasma bolts went wild, but a few punched through all four of the inner shields, and some of them glanced off the Wishbone’s hull.

In the cockpit, the displays lit up with warnings, alarms, and damage reports. The plasma bolts had not ruptured the hull around the cockpit, the crew quarters, or the cargo hold. But they damaged the sublight engines. The Wishbone was floating free.

After glancing off the Wishbone’s outer shield, the unmanned ship swung around and dropped in behind it. The ship’s prow rammed into shield five again, pushing insistently, trying to penetrate. The Wishbone was pushed along ahead of it like a beach ball propelled on the nose of a seal.





Randy and Bill checked the displays to make sure the Wishbone’s interior hatches had held, sealing off the punctured engine room from the rest of the ship.

“How bad is it?” Randy said, unable to bring himself to actually look at the display screen that held the computer’s damage report. He was letting Bill do the dirty work.

“Real bad. No, wait. Make that real, real bad. The engine room is open to space. In fact, the only readings I get are from the fire control systems, and since the engine is open to space, I don’t think there’ll be any fires.”

“But the shields are still holding,” said Randy, braving a peek at the displays. He glanced up at the cabin lights. “The reactor and power systems are okay.”

“Right,” said Bill. “We’ve got lights. We can read a good book till we die.”

“No power to the weapons systems?”

“Nope.” Casually Bill slapped his hand a few times on the manual firing switches. Nothing happened.

“Well . . . what do we do now, partner?”

“Hmmm. We could grab a quick snack.”

Randy considered the suggestion for a moment. Then he said, “Let’s make it a round of drinks.”

“We already have drinks,” said Bill. He lifted his fruit punch and took a sip. He lowered the glass quickly and looked down at the liquid with visible disfavor. “I take it back. We don’t have drinks. Go put some rum in these.”

“Sure. And the second round is on me too, okay?”

“Right. Second round.”

Brave chitchat. At any moment the unmanned ship would hit them with a salvo and turn the Wishbone into fireworks.

“Wonder what it’s waiting for,” said Randy. “Why doesn’t it shoot?”

“Sadism,” Bill suggested. As he sat there in his chair, he could feel the muscles in his back knotting up, waiting for a blast of plasma bolts that would rip into the stern of the ship and vaporize everything inside. Thirty seconds went by — a long thirty seconds.

Finally it came. The unmanned ship unleashed a flurry of plasma bolts at the Wishbone’s mangled backside. Several of them scored solid hits, blasting away fragments of the thrust tubes and the exterior hyperdrive grids. But most of the barrage was off target, not just because they were deflected by the Wishbone’s shields but because they’d been badly aimed to start with.





Several seconds went by, and then a second barrage cut loose — but none of them struck the Wishbone. Another pause, then a third barrage, but the shots were fired wildly, some of them blasting out at right angles from the unmanned ship, clearly out of control.

“Hey,” said Randy, sitting bolt upright. “Look here!”

The rear view normally provided by the cockpit’s dome display was dark because it required all of the stern mounted cameras to provide its high definition picture. But Randy and Bill were staring at a control panel display that carried a picture from the only stern-mounted camera that hadn’t been damaged. They saw the unmanned ship make several more attempts to fire at the Wishbone. The plasma cannons were shooting in every direction but the right one.

“Gun-control systems are breaking down,” whispered Bill. “All that radiation in the aft sections.”

Randy turned to Bill, his eyes wild with hope. “Hey, Bill? Do we still have power to the maneuvering thrusters?”

“I haven’t even checked.” Bill touched the manual controls, and the maneuvering thrusters flashed briefly along the hull of the ship. He smiled like Richie Rich on Christmas morning. “Yep.”

Randy’s fingers pounced on the keyboard and told the computer to put the Wishbone into as tight an orbit as possible. The maneuvering thrusters were far less powerful than the main engines, but they were capable of lifting the Wishbone from the surface of a one G planet right up into orbit. They were also capable of holding the Wishbone in a respectable forced orbit around Philcani-tu.

As he typed at the keyboard, the data on one of the displays caught his eye. The unmanned ship was steadily losing power. Its engines were growing weaker due to the deteriorating reactor. But the deterioration was fairly slow. The ship would probably penetrate the Wishbone’s shields before its engines gave out.

While Randy was giving orders to the nav computer, Bill cancelled the inner four shields and poured the extra power into shield five. It was a gamble, based on the fact that the unmanned ship was no longer attempting to fire at the Wishbone with its defective weapons systems. Bill told the nav computer that when the enemy ship eventually broke through shield five, it should cancel five, reinstate and reinforce shield four, then do the same for shield three, and so on. The unmanned ship was going to have a tough time slugging its way through to the Wishbone.

When both men were finished, they sat back and peered thoughtfully at the control panel, each wondering if there was anything else they could do to further delay the moment of their own death. Finally Bill turned to Randy. “Well? Any ideas?”

“Ummm, lemme think, lemme think . . . ummm . . .”

“Just say no.”

“No.”

“Fine. You can go fix up these wimpy drinks now,” Bill said.

Randy nodded, but he didn’t get up. He sat there staring at the displays, trying to think of something — anything — absolutely anything — that would get them out of this mess. The displays were all filled with urgent warnings about the sorry condition of their beloved starship. The control panel was so packed with little red lights it looked like a late-night traffic jam as viewed from the back. The cockpit was echoing with the noise of a dozen low-volume electronic alarms: beep-beep, ring-ring, toot-toot —

“We can do without all this racket, can’t we?” said Bill. He and Randy started acknowledging the warnings and damage reports, canceling the alarms as they did. They had about three to go when Bill noticed one that grabbed his interest, a warning that had been lost among the others.

“Oh, wonderful!” he said sarcastically. “Look! Company’s coming.”

The telescopic display showed the magnified image of the other enemy ship, rapidly approaching. It was traveling 2,900 kilometers an hour faster than the Wishbone, and it would go past them at a distance of roughly 80 kilometers.





“No, dammit, no,” Randy swore softly. His clenched fist lifted six inches above the armrest of this chair and thudded down. “This is just . . . too much.” His voice grew from an angry whisper to a full shout. “Why don’t these sons of bitches just give up and go bother somebody else? I’m sick of having to — ”

“Randy!” Bill snapped. “Grow up! Bitchin’ about the situation isn’t going to do us any good!”

Randy stopped and turned his angry glare at Bill as he hissed, “Excuse me? Did you just tell me to grow up?”

Bill’s nerves were just as shot as Randy’s. “I need some constructive suggestions — not a temper tantrum!”

They glared at each other for a long and dangerous moment. But finally Randy just slumped back in his chair and laid his head against the headrest. He closed his eyes while he massaged the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. After a moment he spoke in a weary voice. “You want a suggestion, huh?”

“We’re not going to last too long without one. And please make it something other than suggesting I go do something lewd and anatomically impossible to myself.”

“No, I wasn’t going to say that. But I don’t think you’ll like the suggestion I do have much better. The only choice we’ve got is to — ”

The Wishbone was suddenly rocked by a series of impacts to shield four from the second enemy ship’s first salvo. With only a reinforced shield four to protect them, they were lucky the plasma bolts didn’t carve them up like a Thanksgiving turkey.

“Uh-oh. Guess I better just show you instead of telling you,” Randy turned to the keyboard and did some fast typing. Before Bill could figure out what his partner was doing, Randy had cancelled shield four. The unmanned ship rushed toward the Wishbone, canceling its own shields consecutively to let the Wishbone pass through. But it was stopped by the Wishbone’s reinforced shield two, which Randy had re-established. The Wishbone surged forward as the unmanned ship began pushing it again.

“Oh, great!” Bill screamed furiously. “You just signed our death warrants, Henson! How could you — ”

“Think about it,” Randy said in a level voice.

“ — be such a stupid — ”

“Just think for a second.”

“ — impulsive idiot — ”

“Just think about it!” roared Randy. It silenced Bill, but it didn’t do a thing to calm him down. The veins were sticking out on the sides of his neck, and Randy watched them pulse rhythmically while Bill held himself as still as a park statue, consciously resisting the urge to do murder right there on the spot. Instead, he turned his eyes toward the telescopic view on the screen and tried to optically burn holes in it while he pondered the possible advantages of what Randy had just done. Off hand, there seemed to be no advantages at all. Having the unmanned ship so much closer only meant it would ram the Wishbone that much sooner. Admittedly they probably wouldn’t live long enough to be rammed by the unmanned ship, because the other ship was about to blast them into —

Bill spoke in an awed voice. “Aha. The shields?”

Randy wore a smile of saintly forgiveness as he nodded and said, “Exactly. Three of them, compliments of our friend the Headless Horseman. Now we have the protection of our own reinforced shield two, plus the unmanned ship’s shield three, four, and five.” Randy smiled in a faint and weary way. “Ta-daaaa,” he said quietly.

“But how did you know the unmanned ship would reinstate its own shields after it dropped them to let us go through?”

Randy looked a little less confident as he said, “I didn’t know for sure, but since that other ship is firing in this general direction, I figured the unmanned ship would act to protect itself from their plasma fire, just like it protects itself from ours. And it still has to worry about ramming satellites and space debris this close to the planet.”

It had been an absolutely lunatic gamble, and if Randy had suggested the strategy thirty seconds ago, Bill would have happily filled out the papers declaring Randy insane. The fact that the idea had worked made it damned hard for Bill to argue against it, and that was strangely annoying.

“Weeell . . . I must admit.” Bill said reluctantly. “Pretty smart.”

“Runs in the family. Especially my father.”

“Okay, what now?” said Bill. “Even with our shield two reinforced, four shields may not be enough against the cannons of a ship that size.”

“True, but let’s wait and see before we let the unmanned ship get any closer. I’m still hoping that there are a few Alliance ships around here somewhere.”

“Are the com systems still jammed?”

Bill checked. “Yep.” Then he said, “Hey, maybe we better tell our passengers what’s going on.”

“Nope. Disagree. Why worry them? However, we should make sure they’re strapped down.” Randy switched on the monitor cameras in the cabins. They found Mr. Aganto and the wajinda both strapped down while they watched This Island Earth on the wall screen of Aganto’s cabin. A raging space battle was in progress, providing an ironic distraction for the nervous lawyer. The movie’s flashing lights, the bright colors, and the rapid motion seemed to fascinate the wajinda.

Clawron was in her own cabin, strapped into her bed — and wearing Bill’s spacesuit. She had the ceiling screen activated to monitor the cockpit data displays.

“Boy, she’s not taking any chances, eh?”

“Smart girl. You know, I think I’ll put Mr. Aganto in my suit. It could make a difference if the hull — ”

Beep, beep, beep, beep . . .

“Incoming fire!” said Bill as he shut off the alarm. Randy’s hands reflexively gripped the armrests.

Eighty kilometers away, the other enemy ship was passing the Wishbone. It was flying backward, decelerating at full thrust, and its plasma cannons were blazing away. Unlike the unmanned ship, there was nothing wrong with this ship’s aim. Despite the four shields that protected the Wishbone, a few of the plasma bolts grazed the hull. Somehow the crew quarters and the cargo hold remained pressurized.

Randy did some quick typing, and a moment later, the unmanned ship slammed into a reinforced shield one. Now the Wishbone had five shields to protect it, one highly reinforced shield of its own and four more that were provided by the unmanned ship.





The incoming fire was deflected away by a narrow margin. The occupants of the ship ceased firing, thinking the Wishbone was about to be rammed by the unmanned ship. The attacking ship’s flight path was curving steadily in toward the planet as it decelerated, bringing it slowly down toward a forced orbit that would put it in front of the Wishbone and its pursuer.

Randy and Bill were dividing their anxious attention between the ship ahead and the ship behind. The ship ahead of them was slowing itself down so it could push through the outermost shield protecting the Wishbone and use its weapons to deal the final blow. The unmanned ship behind them was pushing itself steadily through the reinforced wall of shield one. Even though the shields were strong enough to deflect approaching objects at hyperdrive speeds, they were meant to deflect them, not stop them. The determined pressure being exerted by the ship behind them would eventually penetrate the invisible barrier.

The Wishbone’s maneuvering thrusters fought valiantly to push it down toward Philcani-tu, curving it into a lower orbit than its speed would otherwise have permitted. Randy and Bill knew that their only hope was to stay near Philcani-tu and get help from somebody, such as the in-system police, the continental police, the com satellite maintenance crews — anybody.

The unmanned ship made one last attempt to fire at the Wishbone. But its gun control systems were so fouled up by the radiation flooding its interior from the overloaded reactor that the plasma cannons again fired in all directions. Some of the cannons actually did wander in the general direction of the Wishbone. Given time, the unmanned ship might have scored a hit out of blind luck. But some of the cannons had already ceased firing because they were no longer receiving intelligible commands from the gun control systems. The entire weapons system would soon be completely inoperative.

And yet the nav computer itself, located on the bridge at the opposite end of the ship from the reactor, protected by the intervening bulkheads, was apparently able to function. The phantom ship was still hot on the trail of its target, still determined to perform its programmed task — ram the Wishbone.

As the Wishbone curved around Philcani-tu, the other enemy ship pushed itself down toward the planet until it was lined up in the same forced orbit as the Wishbone.





Then it opened fire. But the plasma bolts were still being deflected by the combined shields of the Wishbone and the unmanned ship behind it. Randy and Bill were worried that the shield generator of the unmanned ship would begin to fail, leaving them vulnerable to incoming fire. But there was nothing they could do to prevent it, so they just did the only thing they could do — sit there and wait to be blown to smithereens.

Doing nothing was certainly no picnic under the circumstance. After several minutes of diligently doing nothing, they both started throwing out suggestions — wild suggestions, insane and desperate and totally unworkable suggestions.

“We could, uh . . . we could pull into a higher orbit real fast and let that ship blow the unmanned ship out of the sky,” said Randy.

“Don’t be silly. The unmanned ship could easily follow us. And if it did get blown up, we’d get blown up by the explosion. And besides, we need its shields to — ”

“Okay, forget that. How ‘bout if we flash our landing lights in an SOS. The in-system police will see it — ”

“Geez, Randy, think about what you’re saying! We’re smack in the middle of a blazing battle. Don’t you think that all this gunfire makes a pretty visible SOS without us flashing our puny little landing lights? The problem is, nobody seems to be around to see it!”

“Either that or nobody cares.”

“A possibility, yes indeed. To some people, SOS means Stay Outta Sight.”

Randy put his fingertips against his temples and rubbed furiously for a few seconds, hoping to shake loose an idea. Then he said, “How about the continental police? This close to the planet, we’re bound to be within their jurisdiction. Surely they can see a raging battle going on right above their own atmosphere.”

“Maybe they can, but do they have anything fast enough to catch us?”

“Sure they do. They’ve got missiles, particle beam weapons, maybe even ground-based lasers — ” Randy stopped, then he said, “Uh-oh, wait a second, I just had a thought.”

“And I’m not going to like it, am I?”

“Doubt it. The continental police wouldn’t fire on the unmanned ship because it doesn’t appear to be taking aggressive action against us.”

“Crap. You’re right,” said Bill. “Hey, I wonder what a plasma rifle would do to that unmanned ship.”

“Tickle it. What are you gonna do, lean out of the airlock and shoot at it?”

“Why not?” Bill said angrily. “It’s worth a try.”

“No, it’s not. Couldn’t scratch it. Besides, we’re outside its number one shield, and it’s outside ours.”

“No, actually we aren’t. Its nose is sticking through our shield, but it cancelled its number one shield the moment we reached it.”

Bill was right. In fact, that was their problem. More and more of the unmanned ship was sinking into the Wishbone’s primary shield. The process was much slower than it had been with the hyperdrive missiles because of the unmanned ship’s larger mass, but eventually the unmanned ship would push its way through. When that happened, the unmanned ship would surge forward and the Wishbone would be split open like a ripe walnut.

“Without weapons, we’re sittin’ ducks,” said Bill. “There’s not a damned thing we can do about it.”

And that was the very thing Randy couldn’t stand to hear. Even the most lunatic suggestion had a positive effect on morale. With that in mind, Randy raised his fists high and shook them in the air as he shouted, “Hell’s bells, Buffalo Bill! We have to do something! Come on, man. We’re clever and resourceful and young and strong — ”

“Don’t forget good lookin’.”

“Damn right! Especially me. So, let’s get brilliant. We’ve whipped these guys at every turn. We can’t let ‘em beat us now!”

“Easy, easy,” Bill said quietly. “I know it sounds like I’m saying we should just give up and stick our butts out of the airlock for targets, but the sad fact is, we’ve got nothing left to work with. Our ship is wrecked. We can sit here and think all day, but we can’t do anything. We’ve got no way to affect either of those ships. We can’t even get their attention as long as they’re jamming us — ”

Wham! Another salvo of plasma bolts slammed into the shields. The ship in front of the Wishbone was getting closer as it continued to decelerate. Most of the plasma bolts were still being deflected enough to miss, but a few of them were grazing the Wishbone’s hull, sheering off antennas and stabilizers, leaving white-hot spots that cooled slowly. If just one of the plasma bolts scored a direct hit on the cockpit dome, the Wishbone would rupture like a bubble gum balloon.

Arranged in a nice, neat conga line, the three ships came tearing around Philcani-tu, three-quarters of the way through their first full orbit. Reduced to the role of clay pigeon in a shooting gallery, Randy and Bill watched the star Donwaxihel rise above the edge of Philcani-tu. The cockpit dome display had turned transparent during their approach to the planet when the Wishbone’s velocity dropped enough below light speed to prevent distortion, and now the forward portion of the dome polarized against the harsh light of Philcani-tu’s sun. Both men were rigid as they sat there with their hands clutching the armrests. Each time a barrage of plasma bolts arrowed straight at them, they flinched unconsciously. The near misses were getting nearer. The ones that glanced off were hitting more solidly. The ship ahead of them was drawing closer.

Bill glanced down at the telescope screen . . . then he glanced down again . . . and then he stared at it with eyes that got bigger and bigger until the whites showed all around.

“Hey!” he said excitedly. “Hey, look!” He stabbed his finger at the screen, pointing at it as if it was a pot of gold.

Lo and behold, there they were. Two distant objects beyond the enemy ship, visible on either side of it. And next to each object, the computer had superimposed a readout that identified them both as Alliance Armed Forces galactic stellacruisers. They were directly ahead of the Wishbone, at the same orbital altitude, and traveling in the same direction. However, since the Wishbone was in a forced orbit, it was traveling faster than the two stellacruisers — which meant they were on a collision course.

The collision alarm blared until Randy slapped the switch that silenced it.

“We’re coming up on them from directly behind!”

“Now we flash an SOS with the landing lights!” Bill shouted. He typed furiously at the keyboard. The computer started flashing a distress code to the two Alliance ships.

The leading enemy ship ceased firing at the Wishbone and turned to flee. The occupants realized that the two stellacruisers would retaliate if they witnessed the cold-blooded destruction of the Wishbone, a damaged vessel flashing an SOS and taking no action to defend itself.

The jamming that had silenced the Wishbone’s communication channels suddenly ceased, and the cockpit was filled with a voice from one of the stellacruisers.

“GSC Candlelight to approaching ships! Power down your weapons and match orbits with us immediately or you will be destroyed!”

The two stellacruisers were massive vessels, many times larger than the enemy ships. In its urgency to escape, the enemy ship ignored the order to match orbit. It blasted into a higher orbit, attempting to rise above the two Alliance ships and the overlapping shields the two Alliance vessels were sharing to protect themselves. This flagrant disregard for the orders they had been given resulted in quick action. One of the stellacruisers fired a plasma bolt, hoping to disable the fleeing ship’s engines. But the shields of the enemy ship deflected the bolt by a narrow margin. The enemy ship foolishly fired back a full-strength salvo, but it was easily deflected by the powerful combined shields of the Alliance vessel.

Such aggressive behavior in such close proximity to Alliance starships was absolutely suicidal. Both Alliance vessels opened fire with their main batteries. Against such an onslaught, the shields of the enemy ship were virtually useless. It was blown to atoms, a blinding flash of blue-white light that caused the Wishbone’s polarized cockpit to turn jet-black for several seconds.

Moments later the stern voice from one of the stellacruisers blared from the speakers again.

“GSC Candlelight to approaching ships. Comply with the course correction or be destroyed. This is your final warning!”

Bill snatched up his headset and shouted into the mike. “Mayday! Mayday! Our weapons are inoperative and so are our main engines. The ship behind us is unmanned — repeat, unmanned — and it’s programmed to ram us. Help!”

Randy and Bill gripped the armrest of their chairs, expecting to either collide with the stellacruisers’ outer shields or be blasted out of existence. When neither of these happened, they looked at each other for a puzzled moment and then stared out the cockpit dome while the Wishbone and the unmanned ship slid between the two stellacruisers and pulled ahead of the Alliance ships.





“They must have cancelled their outer four shields to let us through,” said Bill.

There was a long, agonizing moment while the two men wondered why they were still alive, and then the voice came back and said, “GSC Candlelight to unidentified ship. We cannot fire a disabling shot at your pursuer’s engines while its shields are up. Any shot strong enough to penetrate the shields without being deflected would be powerful enough to destroy the ship, and your own ship would be destroyed by the explosion.”

“What about grappling beams?” said Randy.

“Stand by while we consult with engineering.” Several seconds later the voice said, “Engineering advises that we cannot get close enough to use grappling beams. The shields preclude their use.” The voice sounded apologetic. When it spoke again, it sounded downright embarrassed. “What, uh . . . other suggestions can you offer?”

Bill gave one bitter chuckle and said, “Prayer.”

Frustration put an edge on Bill’s voice when he turned and spoke to Randy. “Looks like we’re a ship in a bottle.” He lifted the headset mike again. “Isn’t there anything you guys can do to get that jackass off our backside? We’re running out of time.”

“We’re discussing strategies. While we’re doing so, please state your designation.”

Wishbone. ISY Wishbone. Bill Jenkins here. And this is Randy Henson, sweating to my right.”

There was a suppressed chuckle in the voice when it answered. “Stand by, Wishbone. We’re working on your problem.”

Bill turned to his partner and said, “They’re working on our problem. Doesn’t that ease your mind, knowing they’re working on our problem?” Randy didn’t answer. He seemed lost in thought, staring straight ahead. “Hey, what’s with you?”

“Quiet. You told me to think. I’m thinking.”

“Oh. Well, better late than never.” Bill shrugged, and then he noticed the drink Randy had brought him, ages ago, way back before they had even gone into orbit around Philcani-tu. It was still sitting in the beverage recess on the side tray, forgotten. All the ice had melted, and half of it had sloshed out while the ship was being slapped around the sky by enemy fire. Bill picked up what was left and took a cautious sip. A mixture of warm fruit juices and a dash of coconut. Watered down by melted ice. Yuck.

A condemned man has a right to a cold drink, he thought to himself.

“GSC Candlelight calling ISY Wishbone,” said the voice. “I’m afraid the news isn’t very good. That ship on your tail is emitting a high level of radiation. Evidently the reactor is unstable and it’s headed for a meltdown.” There was a long pause. The two men knew what was coming, so it came as no surprise. “In order to get to you . . . well, it would take us too long to push through those shields. The captain says we can’t risk it.”

“We understand,” Bill said wearily. “But don’t desert us just yet. We still might think of something.” There wasn’t much confidence in Bill’s voice. He peeled off his headset and tossed it down on the console. “Well, old pal, what now?”

“Gimme a minute.” Despite his casual posture, Randy looked extremely alert. He knew Bill was watching him curiously, but he continued to stare out the cockpit dome. Randy Henson had a plan, and he was carefully working out what had to be done. Finally Randy lifted his own headset and said, “Listen, Candlelight, we’re going to try something crazy. But it might work, so be ready to assist us, okay?”

“Copy, Wishbone. What are you planning to do?”

“Take the bull by the horns.”

Randy yanked off his headset, tossed it onto the control panel, and leapt up from his chair.

“Wait a second, what’s going on?” said Bill. “What are you going to do?”

“You just fly the ship. I’ll explain it to you while I’m getting set up.” He dashed out of the cockpit, leaving Bill looking puzzled and asking questions. Randy ignored the questions as he sprinted through the lounge and down the corridor. When he entered the cargo hold, the intercom blasted out with Bill’s angry voice.





“Gimme a hint, will ya? I mean, you’re not going to embarrass us by doing something stupid like . . . well, like shooting at that ship with a rifle, are you?”

“No, of course not,” Randy said. The microphones in the walls carried his voice to Bill.

“Well? What then?”

Randy yanked open the storage locker and hauled out his spacesuit. From a shelf in the locker, he grabbed a tube of Kwik-Stik epoxy glue. Hurriedly, he hauled it and the space suit over to the cluttered pile of cargo-related gear that occupied one corner of the room.

“Answer me!” Bill shouted.

“We don’t have any force we can use against that ship. Right?” said Randy as he hunted through the pile, flinging aside straps and netting and insulation tarps. Then he found what he wanted: a gray sack made of stiff, heavy, canvas-like material, shaped like a flexible 50-gallon drum with a zippered lid. It was a radiation-proof insulation sack, designed to fit around the barrel-shaped metal containers in which radioactive isotopes were sometimes transported. It provided extra protection against radiation leaks.

When Randy pulled the insulation sack from the pile of litter, he held it up with a satisfied smile and then addressed the wall mike again. “We don’t have any force to use on that ship . . . so I’m going to reason with it.”

Bill tried to make his voice sound very patient. He failed miserably as he shouted, “What the hell are you talking about?”

Randy had detached the miniature video camera from its rotating mount on the top of his spacesuit helmet, and he was using the tube of Kwik-Stik epoxy to attach the back of the camera to the barrel-shaped bag, a few inches below the zippered lid. He was working in frantic haste. He glanced up at the monitor camera on the wall and said, “I’m going inside that ship.”

There was a pause, like the fuse on a bomb, and then the bomb went off. “What?” Bill’s voice exploded so loudly that the sound was distorted by the overloaded speakers. “Don’t be stupid, Randy! You’d pick up enough radiation in the first thirty seconds to kill you within forty-eight hours!”

“No, I won’t. I’ll be protected by my spacesuit — ”

“That won’t be enough — ”

“And I’ll be inside an insulation sack. The radiation-proof lining will give me the extra protection I need.”

In the cockpit, Bill was so agitated he actually stuttered. “B-b-but w-what will you do when you get in there?”

Randy paused in his labors, looking up in surprise. “Ah, come on, Bill! Isn’t it obvious? I’m going to reprogram that damn autopilot. I’m going to cancel its suicide mission. Get it?”

Bill got it, and it left him sitting in the cockpit with his face frozen in amazement. His brain froze up like an Alaskan lake as he pondered Randy’s words. The nerve, the plain fool gall of such a plan. Bill was speechless. He didn’t know whether to praise Randy for a genius or call him a moron. He tried to calm himself down and look at the situation logically. He knew Randy’s only hope was for somebody to talk sense into him — and since Bill was the only one around, he got the job with no competition.

“Now look, Randy . . . first of all, how are you going to move around while you’re sealed in the bag?”

“I’ll hop. Like in a potato sack race.”

The speakers made a sputtering sound for a few seconds, then Bill said, “All right, okay, but — how are you going to see where you’re going?”

“Don’t make me explain the obvious stuff, eh? I’m in a hurry. Watch the monitor.”

Bill was watching the monitor, but he watched it closer now, studying what Randy was doing. He saw the video camera glued to the outside of the insulation sack, pointed outward from the side. The helmet of Randy’s spacesuit was somewhat like the cockpit of the Wishbone, in that it offered the person wearing the suit a variety of ways to view what was around him. The transparent faceplate of Randy’s helmet was capable of becoming a display screen that gave the wearer a three-dimensional view of whatever the small camera on top of the helmet was seeing. The camera could do things the human eye could not, like giving the wearer telescopic vision, microscopic vision, infrared vision, and even a limited X-ray vision. These abilities often came in handy for a man doing repair work in space. And the camera was detachable. It could be put into tight places where a man’s head couldn’t go (or wouldn’t want to go).

Bill was determined to keep his voice level and to argue this thing sanely. But he sounded like a loving father trying to convince his beloved daughter that marrying her Hell’s Angels boyfriend was probably not going to lead to marital bliss.

“Okay, so now you’ve invented a potato sack with an electronic eye. But even if you get inside that ship, you won’t be able to stick your hand out of the sack. How are going to work the computer keyboard? Or the airlock controls for that matter? How will you push the buttons?”

“Slowly, I’ll admit,” said Randy. He was hunched over the bag, using the tube of Kwik-Stik epoxy again. He turned slightly so that the camera on the wall could see what he was doing. Bill used the wall camera’s zoom to get a closer look. He saw that Randy had pulled up several T-pins from their holes in the deck. The T-pins, so named because they were shaped like a capital T, were used to secure the removable deck plates in the cargo hold. The vertical part of the T was eight inches long, and it fit down into the hole in the deck plate. The tip of it was shaped like a narrowed wedge, similar to a chisel. The horizontal part of the T was five inches across and an inch wide. It was flat on top so that it fit flush with the deck plate when the T-pin was locked down.

Randy squirted epoxy along the flat surface of the horizontal part of the T-pin, then he glued it to the insulation sack about ten inches below the point where the camera was attached. The vertical part of the T now stuck straight out from the side of the bag. Randy picked up another T-pin and glued it to the inside of the sack, exactly opposite the first T-pin. With the horizontal parts of the two T’s glued back-to-back on opposite sides of the bag, the vertical parts of the T’s were lined up like one solid bar of metal that stuck straight out through the insulation sack.

“Ooooh, I get it!” said Bill’s voice from the wall speakers. “You’re going to grip the T-pin on the inside and tap the keys on the keyboard with the one on the outside!”

Randy didn’t bother to answer, didn’t even bother to nod. He was still working in frantic haste. After he had glued the two T-pins and the video camera to the insulation sack, he started scrambling into his spacesuit. Randy’s spacesuit was the most expensive thing he owned, second only to his half-ownership of the Wishbone. The suit was a marvel of technology, designed to last for many, many years and to keep its wearer alive in spite of the extreme conditions of space.

“You better glue another T-pin to the inside of the sack, opposite the camera,” said Bill. “Otherwise you won’t be able to point the camera where you want it.”

“Good idea,” said Randy, still hastily getting into his spacesuit. He was trying to do everything so fast his hands were getting in each other’s way. Before he put his helmet on, he snatched another T-pin out of its hole in the deck plate and glued it to the inside of the insulation sack, just behind the camera, so that the pin would serve as a handle inside the bag for the camera mounted on the outside..

“Want me to come back there and help?” said Bill.

“No,” Randy said firmly. “I’m almost done. Besides, if that ship breaks through our last shield, you might be able to soften the blow if you’re quick enough and clever enough with the maneuvering thrusters.”

As he finished speaking, Randy slid the helmet over his head and jammed it down onto the collar ring. He gave it a savage twist to lock it in place. In the cockpit, Bill turned the com systems to the same channel as Randy’s suit communicator.

“A question,” he said simply.

“Ask it,” said Randy’s voice in the headset.

“How are you going to get to that ship? It’s still pushing us, remember? And the moment you step outside you’ll be out of the influence of the Wishbone’s artificial gravity. Your suit thrusters don’t have nearly enough power to match the forward thrust of that ship and hold you down in the same forced orbit. You’ll be slung — ”

“The grappling beam.”

“ — outward by . . . What did you say?”

“The grappling beam. When I get clear of the ship, you can catch me with a grappling beam and ease me back until I get to the airlock of that ship.”

Randy had hurried over to a control panel set into the bulkhead, and his gloved fingers were punching at the buttons.

“What are you doing now?” said Bill.

“Sealing off the cargo hold from the rest of the ship. The engine room is open to space, and I’m going to leave the ship through the hole in the hull. That will be quicker than waiting for the airlock to cycle.”

“But you can’t open the hatch to the engine room until you’ve depressurized the cargo hold. That’ll take more time than the airlock.”

“Too much time,” Randy agreed. He finished at the panel and then pulled on the clip at the end of his safety line, reeling out two feet of line from its spring-loaded retractor on the chest of his spacesuit. He snapped the clip onto one of the cargo web rings mounted on the bulkhead near the door to the engine room. He spoke quickly to Bill.

“So, I’m not going to wait for it to depressurize.”

Randy locked off the line so that no more of it would unreel from the retractor on his chest. Then he turned his back to the closed door that led to the engine room and leaned back to make the safety line taunt. He wadded up the bulky insulation sack as much as possible and wrapped his arms around it, hugging it to his chest.

On one of the data displays in the cockpit, Bill saw that the door to the engine room had been programmed to open automatically in ten seconds, despite the vacuum in the engine room. Randy had countermanded the safeties, and now he was ready to endure the hurricane that would occur when all the air was sucked out of the cargo hold.

With considerable admiration, Bill decided that Randy had been right — smarts did run in his family. And courage, too.

“Good luck, partner.”

“Thanks, my friend. If this doesn’t work . . . I’ll see you in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

Suddenly the door to the engine room popped open and the air went screaming out through the doorway. The loose pile of cargo gear in the corner was plucked up and pulled out by the escaping air. The long cargo straps turned into flying snakes. They went through the hatch like spaghetti being sucked up by a hungry Sicilian. A heavy insulation tarp became a piece of tissue paper when it leapt into the air and disappeared into the dark doorway. Randy’s feet were yanked out from under him and pulled toward the hungry maw of the open hatch. The insulation sack in his arms was almost torn from his grasp. Randy dangled sideways at the end of his taut safety line. The rest of the cargo bay’s contents — sealed containers filled with personal items and valuable equipment — were secured to the deck. The miniature storm was over in seconds, and as it subsided, Randy dropped to the floor. He quickly got to his feet, unhooked the safety line, and dashed through the door.

He found himself in a dark and twisted nightmare, a half-lit piece of surrealism — the remnants of the Wishbone’s engine room. There was a gaping hole in the ship’s hull, a hole framed by jagged daggers of crystalsteel, pointing inward. They looked like broken glass that had been melted and bent.

The heat, thought Randy. The incredible heat. It must have been an inferno in here when the hull was punched open.

Despite the darkness, Randy could see more than he really wanted to. The sight broke his heart. To Randy Henson this was more than just a twisted mass of machinery — this was the Wishbone’s heart and soul, the power that had carried it to the stars. The machinery had possessed a kind of elegance and beauty. But looking at it now was like staring down into an open wound.

Randy tried not to look as he made his way over to the gaping hole in the hull. A narrow shaft of raw sunlight was coming in at a steep angle, illuminating a portion of the back bulkhead. It only served to make the rest of the room look darker, but it did make it easier for Randy to see the circular row of crystalsteel teeth that lined the hole. Razor sharp, every one. Randy decided it would be suicide to try to climb over them. He started tapping at the buttons built into the left forearm of his suit, giving instructions to the suit’s computer.

“What’s happening back there?” said Bill’s voice. The monitor cameras in the engine room were demolished, so Bill couldn’t see anything.

“The hole in the hull is pretty ragged. I’m going to use my suit thrusters to give me a boost through the hole and out away from the ship. I want to get clear when the artificial gravity loses its hold on me.”

“I’ll be ready to catch you with the grappling beam.”

Randy finished programming his suit’s computer, then he reeled out a few feet of his safety line. He wound it tightly around the wadded mass of the bulky insulation sack and secured the clip. Then he turned to face the jagged hole in the Wishbone’s hull. He realized he was panting noisily, and he knew Bill could hear it through the mike in his helmet. But Bill understood exactly how nervous Randy was. Both men were wondering the same thing: was this lunatic plan nothing more than a fool’s way to die?

Randy suddenly realized that he was just standing there staring out the hole at the black, star-filled space.

Come on, Henson. Quit stalling. This is no time to get cold feet. Onward and upward, boy. Squared-jawed heroism.





He pushed the button that activated the suit thruster’s firing sequence. A slight vibration ran through the suit’s equipment pack, a smoothly molded, round-edged rectangular box that contained air bottles, suit thrusters, computer, gyroscopes, food-goo bottles with tubes leading to his helmet, and a host of other life support mechanisms.

The gyroscopes were revving up, and Randy could feel them holding him upright. The thruster nozzles unfolded at the four corners of the backpack — small rocket exhausts on swivel mounts, located at the ends of six-inch arms. The neck brace in the suit automatically stiffened to hold Randy’s head upright. He reached down to grab the control handles on the bottom corners of the suit pack, on each side of his hips.

The suit thrusters roared to life and shoved Randy toward the jagged-edged hole. Randy quickly pulled his knees up against the insulation sack tied to his chest to make himself smaller. As soon as he went through the hole, he felt the Wishbone’s artificial gravity lose its hold on him. He started falling upward, away from the planet below, because the Wishbone’s maneuvering thrusters were holding the ship down in a forced orbit. He also started dropping behind, because the unmanned ship was still pushing on the Wishbone, constantly increasing its speed.

Under the direction of the control handles which Randy gripped, the swivel-mounted thrusters twisted around and turned Randy’s body so that he was facing straight down at the planet below. Then the thrusters blasted outward toward space, holding Randy down in the same forced orbit as the two spacecraft.

A grappling beam lanced out from its projector on the Wishbone’s hull next to the cargo hold’s oversized hatch. Randy felt like a fish on a hook as the beam yanked at him and slowed the rate at which the Wishbone was pulling ahead. The grappling beam was capable of pulling him toward the Wishbone, but it was not able to push him down toward the planet. His suit thrusters had to do that by themselves, and they were barely powerful enough for the job.





With the grappling beam acting like a safety line, reeling him out like a kite on a string, Randy drew nearer and nearer the unmanned ship. He managed to tilt his head down enough to glance back at the Wishbone . . . and immediately wished he hadn’t. The sleek and streamlined starship was barely recognizable. She wasn’t even shaped right anymore. The entire stern section looked like it had been placed on an anvil by a giant sadistic blacksmith and beaten savagely.

When Randy saw the Wishbone’s pathetic condition, his nervous fear slowly transformed into tight-jawed anger. He turned back toward the approaching unmanned ship. He knew there was no logic in feeling hatred for a mere machine, but it was easier to give into the hate than to fight the fear. The occupants of the three ships that had chased the Wishbone across several hundred light years of space were all dead now, but they might still succeed if Randy failed to change the programming of the unmanned ship’s autopilot.

Only a few dozen meters to go. Randy realized for the first time how much larger the unmanned ship was than the Wishbone — more than five times the length. It was dissimilar in appearance as well. Bulky, brutish, with no concession to aesthetics, although the hull and hull-projections had a rounded look, no doubt an aerodynamic consideration. Spacecraft spent most of their time in the vacuum of space, but when they reached their destination, there was almost always some kind of atmosphere to fly through. However, the prow of this ship was surprising blunt, and the hull was wide and massive. It reminded Randy of some bloated sea beast — and he felt like a tiny fish swimming toward it, ready to crawl into the belly of the whale.

“How are you doing back there?” said Bill’s voice. It startled Randy out of his trance, and he pulled his eyes away from the ship ahead of him. He answered like a Baptist preacher at revival meeting.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Randy intoned with exaggerated melodrama. “I shall fear no evil!”

Bill answered quickly. “Having plenty of fuel for the suit thrusters would be a comfort. Have you checked it lately?”

“Oops. No.” Randy tapped at the buttons on his left forearm. A one-inch square on the inside of the faceplate of his helmet turned opaque and filled with numbers. Randy read them aloud. “Fuel is down to eighty-seven percent. I’ll only need another five percent.”

“Good. Uh, listen . . . I don’t want to alarm you, but the radiation level on that ship is going up pretty fast. Be sure you get into that insulation sack before you open the airlock.”

Randy opened his mouth to say okay, but then he had the feeling that something was wrong with the idea. After a few seconds, he got it. “Hey, Bill, I can’t do that. The instant I turn off the suit thrusters, I’ll start moving outward from the planet.”

“Oh. Oh, yeah, I forgot about . . . Hey, what if that ship’s artificial gravity isn’t working?”

Randy didn’t answer because he didn’t like the question. If the ship’s artificial gravity wasn’t working, then once Randy was inside he would be pushed against the ceiling by the tidal pull of the forced orbit, and he would be pushed toward the stern by the ship’s acceleration. That meant that getting from the airlock to the cockpit while he was inside the bulky, lead-lined bag would be like trying to crawl up a ski slope in a heavily starched potato sack.

As Randy neared the nose of the huge ship, another disturbing thought came to him. If the ship were to push through the Wishbone’s shields right now, its rounded prow would butt him aside like a bull colliding with a bumblebee. Randy visualized it — and then he realized that it made a funny picture. Positioned as he was in the grappling beam, he was literally hanging by his feet, his head pointing toward the unmanned ship. It reminded Randy of one of the old cartoons in the Wishbone’s library: Pecos Bill, butting heads with a buffalo.

Randy twisted the suit thruster’s control handles next to his hips . The swivel-mounted nozzles of his suit thrusters turned slightly to guide Randy to one side of the ship, lining him up with one of the forward airlocks. Held in a delicate balance between the grappling beam and his suit thrusters, Randy drifted back along the flank of the ship’s hull. When he caught sight of the airlock ahead of him, he twisted the control handles so that the suit thrusters made a few fine adjustments in his position, then he started directing Bill so that the grappling beam wouldn’t let him slide past the airlock door.





“Little more, little more. That’s it, good, good,” said Randy as the beam slowly allowed his body to glide along next to the hull.

“About two more meters . . . one more . . . good, good, almost there. Almost . . . there . . . Whoa! Okay, hold me steady!”

Randy’s gloved finger stabbed at the airlock button. The airlock started cycling, pumping the air out of the inner chamber.

“How’s your fuel?” Bill asked. Randy glanced down at the little opaque data insert on the lower right-hand side of his faceplate.

“Still got eighty-one percent.”

“Good.”

The airlock door slid open.

“Okay, here we go,” said Randy, tension straining his voice. “Getting into this is going to be tricky. You’ll have to cut the grappling beam when I say to. If I miss the door and tumble out, grab me with the beam and haul me back.”

“Gotcha.”

Randy took a deep breath, set his teeth, and rotated the control grips. His body twisted toward the airlock, but he underestimated the tidal force that was pulling him upward. He missed the opening and collided with the upper edge of the airlock, then he started sliding up along the hull, still being pushed against it by the suit thrusters. Above him he could see one of the ship’s maneuvering thrusters, blasting straight out away from the planet, holding the ship down in its forced orbit. Randy frantically twisted the control grip and got his body turned so that the suit thrusters were pushing him back down toward the airlock.

In the cockpit of the Wishbone, Bill was wondering why Randy hadn’t told him to cut the grappling beam yet.

“Uh . . . now?” Bill asked tentatively.

“No!” Randy shouted.

“What’s wrong?”

“I can’t talk now!”

Randy’s suit was scraping along the hull as the suit thrusters slowly shoved him back down toward the airlock. The grappling beam still held him in line with the airlock. When he finally went past the upper edge, he shouted at Bill.

“Now! Cut it!”

The grappling beam vanished just as Randy was pushed sideways by the thrusters. The ship’s artificial gravity was still functioning, and it took hold of Randy the instant he entered the airlock. Because he was coming in from the top of the airlock, he fell seven feet to the floor and landed belly down. The wadded mass of the insulation sack softened his impact, but it still knocked the wind out of him and he couldn’t move for several seconds. The tiny beeps of an alarm went off in his helmet, and a row of small, glowing red words marched across his faceplate, repeating the same message over and over.

RADIATION HAZARD — DANGEROUSLY HIGH LEVEL — RADIATION HAZARD — DANGEROUSLY HIGH LEVEL — RADIATION HAZARD — DANGEROUSLY HIGH LEVEL — RADIATION HAZARD — DANGEROUSLY HIGH LEVEL —


______________________________________________________________________


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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 10:18 am; edited 2 times in total
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PostPosted: Thu Mar 05, 2015 10:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Best one yet! Meant to comment on the last 3 but couldn't get signed in...turns out I wasn't a member of the new site yet. That helps! 😛
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