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The Wishbone Express - Chapter 4

 
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Sun Jan 11, 2015 2:02 am    Post subject: The Wishbone Express - Chapter 4 Reply with quote



Chapter 4

The term "vacuum" is often used to describe a somewhat relative concept. Space is described as a vacuum. And it is – relatively speaking. But it’s not an absolute vacuum – not in the strictest sense. In fact, throughout the galaxy there are regions which are, relatively speaking, thick with a mixture of dust and gases (mostly hydrogen). The actual density of these dust clouds is pretty low. A fog bank is solid matter by comparison. But when a faster-than-light spacecraft plows into one of these clouds it's like a bullet punching into an oak tree. The force shields overload in seconds, and the dust grains and gas molecules impact with the ship's hull hard enough to cause a fusion reaction. The result is one whale of a bang.

These dust clouds are often hundreds, even thousands of light years across. Despite their relative lack of density, they obscure the light of the stars behind them simply because several trillion kilometers of dust adds up to a great deal of dust. Often there are stars and protosuns imbedded in these clouds, and the light from these stars causes the hydrogen to ionize, producing huge glowing nebulae which radiate in a magnificent variety of colors. The Great Nebulae in the constellation Orion and the Trifid Nebula in Sagittarius (both visible from Earth) are perfect examples. Whenever an interstellar passenger liner cruises by a nebula, everyone on board crowds around the wall-sized jinn wave displays, staring goggle-eyed at these fine examples of the universe’s true showmanship.



The Wishbone was headed towards just such a dust cloud, although this particular one was a mere baby as dust clouds went, measuring roughly six light years across. Like all such dust clouds, it was not just a foggy region of uniform density. It had a complex inner structure, comprised of thick areas and thin areas and long, wandering gaps that were "vacuums" in their own right. These tunnels of clear regions twisted and looped and curled, varying in width, sometimes opening up into gigantic hollow spots, sometimes closing into dead ends.



The overall shape of the dust cloud was determined by the gravitational and magnetic influences of the stars within it. The resulting shape was a complex and convoluted structure, filled with these open pockets and maze-like passages. The only way to go through a dust cloud at FTL speeds was to use these maze-like passages. Miss one turn in the maze and a starship would be instantly vaporized. The trick, of course, was to have an accurate map of the maze.

On the Wishbone’s navigational display screen was an image that represented a section of the dust cloud ahead of the ship. The section was about one quarter of the cloud's total width, and it appeared to be riddled with hairline cracks and fissures throughout its lumpy, translucent mass. This image was not actually derived from jinn wave scans of the cloud, because at this extreme range the jinn wave scope could not provide the necessary details. Even at close range the low density of the cloud would not register well on a jinn wave scope. The map of the cloud that the nav computer was using was part of the computer's vast store of astronomical data. The sheer volume and accuracy of this data was what made the Wishbone so unique.
___________________________________________

As Randy and Bill watched the screen, the nav computer was frantically searching for a way through the maze within the cloud. At a whirlwind pace the computer was tracing thin red lines through the cloud's gaps and alleyways. Most of them dead-ended or angled off in the wrong direction or curved back on themselves. But finally one of the computer's zig-zagging lines made it safely through a section of the cloud. With true electronic humility, the computer announced its success with a single electronic note. Beep. Problem solved.

"Nice going, sweetheart,” said Randy.

"Wait a second,” said Bill he as peered at the display. "This isn't going to do us any good. The missiles will catch us right after we enter the cloud. There won't be time to shake them off."

"What?" Randy glanced at the display. "Oh, that. Don't worry, they'll just hit our shields first and be stopped."

"Stopped? What do you mean, stopped? They aren't going to be stopped by – "

"Sure they are. At least temporarily. Bill, you didn't think they were going to just crash right through, did you?"

"Well . . . yeah! I mean . . . “ Bill looked a trifle confused -- then a touch embarrassed -- then a bit angry. "Pardon my blunt question, but do you know what you're talkin' about?"

Randy adopted an air of great patient suffering, and Bill had to resist a sudden urge to sucker punch his best friend right on the nose. Randy began to lecture. "The missiles will hit our shields at about nine-hundred thousand kilometers an hour, right? Okay, and the shields are designed to deflect objects we encounter at hyperdrive speed – fifty thousand XLS. So at a measly nine-hundred thousand kilometers an hour, the missiles will be stopped – or to be more exact, they'll be slowed down to about our speed, and we'll be sped up to something close to theirs. If they were coming head-on at us, things would be very different, but because they’re approaching from the rear – "

"We get a boot in the backside!" exclaimed Bill, grinning like a mischievous kid who just opened his parent's closet and found all his Christmas presents on December 24th. But then his happy face melted away like Frosty the snowman and he said, "But eventually the missile will push their way through, won't they?"

"Eventually, yes. But they'll have to push through all five shields . . . the hard way . . . with us being pushed along in front of them."

"Hmmm. And what about their own shields?"

"What about ‘em?”

"Will their own shields be pushing on us, too?"

The question caught Randy by surprise. "Oh. Hmmmm. Lemme think about that." He pondered for a moment, then he said, "No, of course not. The missiles don't want to be protected from us. They want to collide with us. They'll just cancel their shields."

"Cancel their shields? Inside a dust cloud?" Bill had a wily look in his eye and a very self-satisfied grin. He had redeemed himself by thinking of something that Randy had missed.

And then Randy got it. "Hey, your right! They can't cancel their own shields, even inside the clear gaps. Even there, the dust is thick enough to destroy an unprotected spacecraft!"

"Exactly," said Bill, smiling the way Saints do when sinners see the error of their ways. "So how much time do we gain by all this pushing and shoving?"

"I'll have to figure it again," said Randy, pouncing on the keyboard. Just as he started to type, Aganto's voice called out from the lounge.

"Hello? Please . . . tell us what's going on,"

Randy looked up from the keyboard. "Uh-oh. I forgot all about our passengers. Guess I better go fill them in on what – "

"I'll go," said Bill.

"No, that's okay, I'll be done here in a second and – "

"Bad idea. I'll go," Bill repeated.

Puzzled, Randy looked up from the keyboard. "Okay. But . . . why?"

Bill took a few seconds to compose a diplomatic reply. "To preserve whatever's left of our good relations with the passengers."

Randy understood. "Oh-hooo! I get it. You think I'm going to make trouble with the Wicked Witch of the West, eh?" Randy shrugged. "Suit yourself." He finished typing in his questions for the computer, then he adjusted his seat so it was titled back. When Bill got up to leave, Randy had his eyes closed and a peaceful look on his face.

"Might as well take a nap, huh?" said Bill.

"If I time it just right I'll miss the painful part and I won't wake up 'till I'm dead."

In the lounge Bill found the passengers strapped down securely – all three of them. The wajinda's seven-foot long body was sprawled across the couch with two straps wound awkwardly around it. Seeing the animal wallowing all over the furniture put a look of mild distaste on Bill's face.

"Hey, uh . . . that critter isn't going to stain the couch, is it? I mean . . . is it housebroken?"

Aganto wore a look of pained disbelief, amazed that Bill could worry about such trivial things when they were all about to die. Clawron's face, on the other hand, displayed no emotion what-so-ever. Her slitted eyes regarded Bill with reptilian disinterest.

She isn't even going to ask me what's going on.

"Well?" said Aganto, desperately hoping for good news. "Did we evade those missiles?"

Bill looked at Clawron. "Did you explain it to him?"

"I tried. But he can't seem to grasp the scale."

Bill knew just what she meant. Most people had trouble comprehending the vast distances of space. The tremendous speeds of hyperdrive-equipped starships tended to reduce the unfathomable gulf between the stars to a mere few weeks, days, or hours spent in transit.

"Mr. Aganto," Bill said patiently. "Those missiles are almost one million six hundred kilometers behind us, and they're gaining on us at about nine-hundred thousand kilometers an hour. At that rate they'll catch us in about an hour and a half if we run in a straight line. They'll catch us even quicker if we try to dodge around, because the missiles will just cut the corners and narrow the gap."

These were not the words Aganto wanted to hear, and his disappointment was etched into the deep lines on his face. "You mean there's nothing we can do?"

Bill smiled like a used car salesmen trying to close the deal. "There is something we can do, sir, and we're doing it. We're going to zig-zag through a six-light-year-wide dust cloud so that the missiles can't take short cuts."

"What good will that do?"

Bill gave the man a lop-sided smile as he said, "Ya see, sir, these missiles are slightly stupid. Too single-minded for their own good. They'll try to catch us by cutting the corners as we zigzag through the dust cloud. And that will be a very dumb thing to do. I won't bore you with the technical details, Mr. Aganto. What it boils down to is, the missiles will have to play the game our way, instead of vice versa."

This answer, being generally optimistic, seemed to reassure Aganto, and some of the anxiety left his face. Bill looked over at Clawron and said, "See? That wasn't so hard, was it?"

There was a subtle change in her expression, a change that didn't make her look a bit more attractive. Apparently she took Bill's remark as a criticism of her intelligence.

Aganto was still watching Bill, hoping for a few more reassuring words. It occurred to Bill that he could offer Aganto something better than mere words. Bill crossed the lounge to the galley booth and punched in an order for two tall drinks. As he was lifting them out of the dispenser, Clawron walked past him on her way towards the cabins. With a deliberate attempt at charm, Bill said, "Here's something to wet your whistle – "

"No."

Just like that. Her silent, cat-like walk took her down the corridor and into the cargo hold while Bill stood there with a drink in each hand and a smoldering look in his eyes. He took one of the drinks to Aganto, who accepted it gratefully. Then Bill walked back to the cargo hold, even though he had absolutely no idea what he would do when he got there.

The woman was involved in an intricate series of stretching exercises, and she ignored Bill completely. He leaned casually against the bulkhead and sipped the drink while he watched her. She was wearing a dark blue pants-and-blouse outfit, totally devoid of feminine frills, similar to the one she'd wore earlier. It was made of a semi-elastic material that clung to her body. There was no modesty or shyness about her as she did the exercises – bending and reaching and twisting, stretching her ultra-lean muscles. Even though her body was obviously in prime condition, Bill could not find a single part of her that pleased his eye. Her body was so gaunt and wiry that it was almost angular. It had a sexless quality.

Still acting oblivious to Bill's presence, she started doing a series of martial arts routines. Her small, hard hands and feet made lightning jabs and whistling arcs as she punched holes in the air. Despite Bill's feelings of hostility toward her, he had to admit a grudging admiration for the obvious skill she displayed.

For no particular reason, Bill decided to strike up a conversation. "You must have some pretty heavy evidence to offer the Council of Justice, eh?"

Clawron continued to strike at invisible foes.

"I assume that whatever hard evidence you've got is in that briefcase Mr. Aganto brought aboard."

Punch, kick, jab – she stopped abruptly and looked Bill in the eye for the first time. Very quietly she said, "Keep your hands off that briefcase. Understand?"

Bill felt a slow, burning anger well up within him, and he held the woman's hostile gaze for a long five count while he considered a number of possible retorts. Finally he selected one that had just the sound he wanted. He delivered it with an icy, sarcastic smile.

"How come a lovely lady like you isn't married? You've got so much to offer."

He saw her jaw muscles flex and her eyes widen. For a moment he thought he had actually hurt her feelings. But no, her rigid face showed anger, not hurt. She reached him in six rapid strides, and she stopped when her nose was three inches from his. The look in her eyes was purest hate, not a pleasant thing to see at such close range, but Bill had his back to the wall and he suddenly knew exactly what it felt like to be a dart board.

Clawron spoke in a deceptively soft whisper. "Listen to me. For the rest of this trip, you just keep your mouth shut when I'm around. If you don't, I'm going to make you eat your teeth. Got it?"

The time for clever comebacks was definitely over. Bill wanted to take a sip of his drink, but there wasn't enough room between their faces. He phrased his reply with simple honesty, then he delivered it with slow and careful enunciation.

"Back off, lady. You're pushin' your luck."

Clawron's open right hand flashed up and clapped against Bill's left ear. He felt excruciating pain and instant deafness. His drink crashed to the deck as he reflexively raised his hand to cover his ear. Clawron took a step back and struck out with a fisted left, socking Bill flush in the mouth before he could recover from the screaming pain in his ear.

Bill Jenkins was shocked by the suddenness of her attack, as well as the pain she had so quickly and skillfully inflicted. He was pinned against the bulkhead while she hammered a hard fist against his ribs, but he managed to roll sideways in time to deflect a third blow that was aimed at the middle of his face. Standing with his back to the corridor, Bill raised his hands to defend himself, but Clawron launched a series of kicks that caught him three times – chest, chin and forehead – sending him staggering back into the corridor towards the lounge. Bill fell onto his back, but he didn't stay there very long when he saw Clawron bearing down on him. A savage pain in his chest announced the presence of a cracked rib, making it difficult to get to his feet as fast as he wanted. He knew he was badly out-classed by this wiry dealer of pain, and he had no urge to prove his manhood by squaring off with her. He just wanted to get away.

Favoring the cracked rib, Bill struggled to his feet and retreated down the corridor. He knew the only thing to do was to get to the weapons locker and grab something that would convince this women she couldn't simply beat him to death.

Bill crossed the lounge at a shuffling run, and he glanced over his shoulder to see how close Clawron was. He saw Randy standing next to the door, his back pressed against the bulkhead, his right hand holding a pistol beside his head, pointed straight up. Clawron came through the door and took two steps into the room, her eyes fixed on Bill. Randy swung the pistol and bashed it against the left side of the woman's head. She took a few drunken steps and then turned to face Randy. He aimed the pistol right between her eyes.

Mr. Aganto leaped up from his chair at the table. "Stop that!" he shouted. "This is insane! Stop it, right now!"

The wajinda was standing on the couch, all four of its paws drawn up tightly beneath it, poised for the long leap that would end at Randy's gun-wielding arm. Ignoring the pain in his ribs, Bill dove for the weapons locker.

Clawron's face was a mask of hatred, a frighteningly inhuman thing. Despite the blow to her head she was crouched in a fighting stance, her body tense, her face twitching convulsively. Randy spoke slowly to her, his voice low and harsh.

"If you move an inch . . . just one inch . . . I'll kill you."

Clawron stared at the muzzle of the pistol, silently weighing her chances -- rage battling against reason. Meanwhile, Bill unlocked the weapons locker, yanked it open, snatched a pistol out of its clamps, and spun around to face the wajinda. He half expected the animal to already be in mid-air, but for some reason it was still motionless on the couch. Perhaps the animal needed some signal from Clawron to attack. Bill covered it with the pistol, ready to fire if the beast moved a muscle.

Aganto stood next to his chair, frozen with fear, his eyes wild and wide as he stared at the crazy people who surrounded him.

Slowly Clawron regained control of herself. She straightened up, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, her body relaxing visibly. Nobody else in the room twitched a muscle. Blood was trickling down across her right ear from the break in her scalp where Randy had struck her with his pistol. After a few seconds Clawron opened her eyes and turned a passive face towards Bill. She spoke in a tone so casual and matter-of-fact that it was shocking amidst the tension of the situation.

"Can I have that drink now?"

Bill's own anger showed no signs of going anywhere soon. A stream of blood flowed down his lower face from his nose, his left ear was still deaf, and every time he took a deep breath he felt a sharp pain in his ribs. For a brief moment he considered firing a plasma bolt into Clawron's thigh and making her spend the rest of the trip in the comatank of the mechmed unit. It was a very tempting thought, but somehow he resisted the urge. Instead, he elected to deliver one brief comment, spoken with great conviction through clenched teeth.

"If we'd gotten paid in advance . . . you'd be dead right now."

The wajinda had settled down on the couch, though it was still taking a great deal of interest in the people around it. Apparently the fact that Clawron was no longer in a fighting stance was enough to satisfy this well-trained beast. Randy lowered his pistol, and Clawron turned towards the galley to mix her own drink.

"Are you okay?" Randy said, looking concerned at his friend.

"No,” said Bill with no pretense of humor, humility, or modesty. "But I'll live. Question is, what'll we do with her?"

"That's easy,” said Randy. Clawron stepped out of the galley booth with her drink. Randy turned towards her. "Madam, you can enjoy that drink in the comfort of your cabin."

Her answer was quick and casual. "No."

Randy brought his gun up. "I think yes. And I haven't got time to screw around." He aimed the gun at her belly. "Into your cabin. Now."

"No,” she repeated quietly. She took a sip of her drink. She appeared to be completely relaxed. Randy tried to watch the wajinda out of the corner of his eye as he glanced over at Bill. He was surprised to see that Bill was actually smiling.

"That's okay,” said Bill. "She doesn't have to stay in her cabin – if she'd rather spend the rest of the trip in the mechmed's comatank. Heavily sedated."

"Ah-ha,” Randy said softly. Now he was smiling too. "Good idea."

Clawron lost her cocky look. Her eyes narrowed to mere pencil lines. "No." She said again, almost inaudibly.

"Just to keep the mechmed happy,” said Bill lightly, “we should give it some little minor wound to treat while she's in there." He aimed his pistol at the woman's thigh.

Aganto, still standing next to the table to Bill's left, uttered four words in a ragged whisper. "You can't do this."

Clawron was standing motionless, her face betraying no emotion, her steely eyes fixed intently on Bill's trigger finger. She saw it bend a tiny fraction.

"Fine” she suddenly said in a weary, bored way. All the tension disappeared from her body. "You may show me to my cabin."

"Aaaah, shucks" said Bill, looking greatly disappointed.

"This way,” said Randy, keeping his weapon aimed at Clawron while he backed into the corridor. Bill shuffled along behind the woman, keeping a safe distance, one hand pressed against his cracked rib, his gun never straying from her. When Randy came to the second door on the right he hit the touch plate that opened the cabin door. Clawron ignored both the weapons pointed at her as she strolled blithely into her cabin. When she was halfway through the door, Bill kicked out with his right foot and booted her narrow backside, propelling her into the cabin and causing most of her drink to leap from the glass. The effort cost Bill dearly -- his side felt like he'd just been branded by a Texan who hated cows. With a vicious snarl Clawron whirled around to strike at Bill, but Randy had already slapped the touch plate, closing the door in her face. The metal door rang like a Chinese gong with the force of her blow. Bill spun around to see what the wajinda was doing, and Randy kept his gun on the door in case the woman tried to open it. The door remained closed, and the wajinda still lay on the couch, apparently indifferent to what its mistress did behind closed doors.

Bill flipped open a small access panel next to the door. He reached in and flipped the switch that locked the door from the outside.

"Nicely done,” said Randy, referring to Bill's well-delivered kick. He almost slapped

Bill on the back as he said it, but he stopped himself in time when he remembered the man's condition. He stepped back and surveyed Bill's beat-up appearance. "Ouch,” he said sympathetically. "We better get you to the mechmed."

"Okay, but we can't let it dope me up. We've got work to do."
______________________________________

Forty-five minutes later Bill was sitting in the cockpit, his chair tilted so far back he was practically lying down. His ribs were bound and the mechmed had given him several injections of a mild local anesthetic at the places where Clawron had pounded on him. Hearing was returning to his left ear, but it still had a ringing that made him look around for an answered phone. Both eyes were badly swollen and discolored, and his nose was turning into a cucumber.

As Bill lay with his eyes closed, Randy was explaining how he'd managed to come to Bill's rescue.

“ – and I was curious to see if you could get along with her any better than me. So I switched on the inboard monitor cameras in the cargo hold. When I saw the fight begin – "

"It wasn't a fight,” Bill said gloomily. "It takes two to make a fight. I never got in a punch."

"Ah, stop feeling sorry for yourself."

"I am not feeling sorry for myself – "

"Never mind, never mind. Anyway, when I saw her beating you up, I hurried – “.

Bill's jaw muscles bulged. "Gee, thanks."

" – back to the lounge and set up my ambush."

"Much appreciated, sir. But it really wasn't necessary. I had her right where I wanted her."

"Oh really? And where exactly was that?"

"Out of arm's reach, but still in gun range."
______________________________________

The I.S.Y. Wishbone streaked along at fifty thousand times the speed of light, pursued by three missiles that were traveling a tiny fraction faster. Ahead of the Wishbone loomed the glowing nebula, six light years in diameter, studded with stars like raisins in a cake. None of the wandering gaps in the cloud were currently visible to Randy and Bill because the image on the cockpit display was a computer simulated version of what the nebula would look like by visible light at slower-than-light speeds. The multi-colored glow of the nebula tended to mask all details of the dust cloud's inner structure.



But the nav computer had been programmed to follow a course through the unseen gaps, a course based on the computer's detailed knowledge of the cloud, like a blind man maneuvering himself through a familiar room.

"About six minutes to go,” said Bill, watching the displays as the Wishbone neared the outer boundary of the cloud. Tension made his voice sound a half-octave higher than normal. "And the missiles are going to catch us right at the edge."

"Just like we planned it,” said Randy with a sinister smile. It was such a moronic thing to say that Bill turned and tried to glare at him. Problem was, Bill's bruised face wasn't capable of readable expressions, so Randy didn't get the message. Bill gave up and turned back to the displays.

"Have those ships gone out of jinn wave range yet?" said Randy, referring to the three ships that had launched the missiles.

"Yep. Gone. They're making a wide detour around the cloud. Maybe they'll just assume we've been destroyed inside the cloud, or maybe they'll try to pick up our trail on the far side. Either way, we'll have a two-light-year lead on them, so I don't expect to see them again."

"If we ditch the missiles and make it through the cloud."

"Right. Either way, I don't expect to see them again," Bill repeated mildly.

The view on the cockpit dome/display was spectacular. The glowing cloud continued to expand until its wispy edges enfolded the Wishbone. Up ahead, the two men could now see a canyon-like gap between two bright translucent walls.



The ship sailed into the gap, and the walls became increasingly narrow as the Wishbone went deeper and deeper into the cloud.

"Gorgeous," whispered Randy.

"Yeah. We haven't done this in . . . what, about a year? I'd forgotten how beautiful it was."

"Me, too. Kind of ironic, isn't it? Sometimes the most scenic route is actually the short-cut."

Bill nodded, smiling blissfully. Both men had their chairs tilted well back so they could relax and enjoy the view. Neither of them wanted to think about the three missiles that were tearing along behind them. What good would it do to worry?

Even though they were waiting for it, they were still shocked when the Wishbone suddenly surged forward. Bill had his teeth tightly clenched and his swollen eyes squeezed closed, waiting for that ultimate kick In the ass. He heard Randy speak in a strained voice.

"Don't look behind us."

"Why not?"

"Just don't."

Bill did anyway. And there they were. Three pinpoints of light, plowing along in hot pursuit of the Wishbone. But they didn't appear to be gaining – certainly not at nine hundred seventy-five kilometers per hour.



"It worked,” said Randy amidst a long, shuddering sigh. "Lordy, lordy, I was half convinced it wouldn't work, but it did. They're embedded in our number five shield, and we're embedded in theirs."

"What's our velocity now?"

Randy glanced at the display. "We've increased by 0.0006129 of light speed. Just under seven hundred kilometers per hour."

"Kind of weird to actually feel it when it hit."

"Must've taken the Wishbone’s artificial gravity a microsecond to compensate for the acceleration. And our electronics systems are probably a little screwed up. We're immersed in three separate force shields, one from each missle." Randy reached up and pinched the air between his fingers. "It feels kind of spongy."

"Like your brain,” said Bill, very dead-pan, which was the only expression his bloated face could make. He turned his head and shouted over his shoulder. "Hey! Are you strapped down back there, Mr. Aganto?"

"Yes,” the lawyer's quavering voice called back.

"Good. Things could get a little shaky, so hang on tight." Then Bill thumbed a switch on the console, activating the speakers in the cabins. He picked up his headset to say a few words into the mike. "Miss Uquay? You might want to strap yourself down. However, if you choose not to, I won't mind." Bill tossed down the headset and waited for Randy's inevitable wise crack. But Randy just let it pass.

The glowing walls of the cloud-canyon had constricted to a narrow alley – a mere one hundred forty-six billion kilometers wide. But at fifty thousand times the speed of light it looked like a narrow alley, the walls flashing past on both sides. And the narrower it became, the more crooked it got. The Wishbone’s autopilot was in command of the helm, keeping the ship in the center of the twisting alley. The ship began to roll and twist as it followed the snaking passage through the cloud.



Behind the Wishbone, pushing at its number five shield with dogged determination, the three missiles matched every maneuver perfectly.

The canyon did a full twist and a wild loop. The Wishbone rolled over quickly and fought hard to follow the turn. The two men in the cockpit saw the smoky canyon wall rush towards them and flash by for several seconds. In spite of the cloud's tenuous, near-vacuum nature, if the Wishbone were to plunge into the one-million-kilometer region that comprised the mushy "wall" of the canyon the result would be no different than if the wall were made of stone.

After the Wishbone pulled out of the tight turn and got itself back into the center of the canyon, Bill and Randy turned around to look at the rear view which the dome display provided. The wanted to see if any of the missiles had made the fatal mistake of cutting the corner too close.

"Still there! Dammit!" said Bill. "All three of them. Why isn't this working?"

"The missiles are too close to us,” Randy said. "They're quick enough to match our maneuvers almost instantly, and the gap between us and them just isn't wide enough to give them a respectable corner to cut."

And then, while the two men were still watching, the missiles broke through shield five and shot forward until they collided with shield four. The two men felt a brief drop in speed and then another surge of acceleration when both the Wishbone and the missiles reached the next layer of each other's shields.

"It didn't feel quite as hard that time," said Bill. "Did it feel as hard to you?"

"No. I wonder why." Randy chewed his lower lip while he tried to visualize the complex interplay between the Wishbone, the missiles, and all the various force shields that were pushing on each other – ah-ha. "Okay, how `bout this? Before the missiles first hit our number five shield, their own shields hit our shields and passed through each other. So the missiles actually started pushing on us when our individual shields first made contact, even though the missiles continued to gain on us until they hit our number five shield. Does that sound logical?" When Randy looked over at Bill he saw that Bill's eyes were closed and his head was slumped to one side. Bill made a loud, comic snore.

With great indignation Randy said, "Well, you did ask?"

Bill made a performance of waking up. "Ask? Ask what?"

"You asked who your father was. I said I'd tried to find out."

Bill closed his swollen eyelids again for several seconds, but then they popped open (as far as they were able) and he sat bolt upright.

"Hey, wait a second. If the missiles are pushing on our number four shield, that means their own number five shield is out in front of us – right?" Bill looked over at Randy – who, of course, was slumped down in his chair, eyes closed, snoring softly. "Hey, quit screwing around!" Bill said sharply. "This is important. Shield five of those missiles is now out in front of us, right?"

Randy sat up. "Sure. So what?"

"Don't you get it?" Bill said excitedly. "We're getting extra protection because of their shields. Protection from the dust cloud!"

"Okay, yeah. But – "

"So why don't we tell the nav computer to take advantage of it? We can cut the corners even closer, maybe even graze the walls a little "

"Good thinking," Randy pounced on the keyboard and hammered it with his fingertips.

Outside the ship, the convoluted walls of the alley suddenly pinched inward to form a bottleneck less than billion kilometers across. The bottleneck then proceeded to zigzag back and forth and up and down. Even though the distance between each zig and zag was hundreds of times the diameter of Pluto's orbit, the Wishbone’s titanic velocity turned them into a series of hairpin turns and tight loops, a wild and wooly roller coaster ride that quickly had Bill and Randy unconsciously gripping the armrests of their chairs while they stared straight ahead. Neither of them were looking the least bit sleepy. Even though the ship's gravity and the hyperdrive engines counteracted the influence of acceleration and inertia, Randy and Bill found themselves leaning left and right in response to the ship's wild gyrations. A reflex.

As bad as things were, they got worse. When the autopilot began taking advantage of the protection provided by the outermost shields of the three missiles, the Wishbone’s wild maneuvers became positively suicidal. It clipped the corners off the tight turns and veered in closer to the cloud-canyon's walls. Seen from such close range (less than a billion kilometers) the walls looked much hazier and indistinct, like clouds as a plane flew past them. The wall-like appearance was mere illusion, caused by the tremendous size. Whenever the Wishbone’s flight path dipped into the hazy wall of the alley, the Wishbone’s shields would flash white hot for an instant as they struggled to deflect the dust and gases.

[img] https://i.imgur.com/vyrxdMB.jpg [/img]

The glow of the cloud, a product of ionization caused by the stars within the cloud, was not entirely consistent. The Wishbone passed through an area that was dimly lit because there were no stars in that immediate area. Several minutes later the Wishbone shot past a star that was located smack in the middle of the canyon. The presence of that star, so dwarfed by the enormous space between the smoky walls, emphasized the immenseness of the dust cloud itself.

The wiggling alley made a hard left, and the Wishbone grazed the smoky wall again, cutting the corner dangerously close. The Wishbone’s shields flared again, and the outer shield began to overload, setting off an alarm in the cockpit.

"If only they weren't so close behind us!" Bill said angrily. "They're actually being protected by our shields, just like we’re being protected by theirs."

The pursuing missiles suddenly broke through shield four and then buried themselves into shield three. It would take the missiles longer to penetrate each shield as they got closer to the Wishbone, because the inner shields had a smaller radius, and that allowed them to have a greater strength. The Wishbone surged forward again.

Randy had a strange thought, inspired by the comment Bill had just made. It was a slippery idea, and he had to chase it around for a moment before he finally nailed it down. He glanced at the warning on the console; shield four was beginning to overload also. If shield five and four went out while the Wishbone was dipping into the hazy wall of the canyon –

Randy's eyes widened when he suddenly realized what had to be done. He lunged at the computer console and started typing furiously.

"Hey, what's up?" said Bill.

"I just now figured it out! We gotta drop the force shields!"

"What!"

"We . . . we gotta . . . damn!" Randy's fingers stumbled across the keyboard as he frantically tried to compose a complex set of instructions for the computer. He was typing so fast that he kept making mistakes and having to back up.

"Randy, what are you doing?"

"I haven't got time to explain!" Randy shouted, still pounding his fingers on the keyboard.

"Don't do anything stupid, Randy. Maybe we oughta talk about – "

"Shut up! Shut up!"

The alarm was blaring insistently. The Wishbone’s outer two shields were beginning to go. Randy stopped typing and read the computer's reply on the display. Then he squeezed his eyes closed for a moment and mumbled something unintelligible, after which he did more furious typing. He stopped, looked at the display again, and then shouted one word at it. "Yes!" He slammed his open hand down on a final key and shouted, "Now!"

The Wishbone’s computer canceled the four outermost shields and poured the extra power into the one shield that remained. Instantly the three missiles shot forward and slammed into the Wishbone’s number one shield, a mere one hundred fifty-four meters away. The autopilot swerved the Wishbone towards the canyon wall, causing it to dip into the denser region of the ionized dust. When the shields of the missiles were suddenly deprived of the help they had been getting from the Wishbone’s shields, they overloaded in a matter of seconds. The missiles' shields winked out of existence in an eye-hurting series of flashes – twelve flashes total, the outer four shields of all three missiles. Only their number one shield remained. All this took place in an instant of time, and in that instant the Wishbone pulled out of its tight turn and veered towards the center of the canyon.



The missiles took a split second to match the maneuver – but it was a split second too long. In that moment, when they were not directly behind the Wishbone’s fortified innermost shield, they took the full force of the dust cloud. Each missile’s last remaining shield overloaded, flashed white hot, and was gone.

Then the missiles themselves were vaporized by the faster-than-light impact of the nebula’s material.

Despite the extra power being fed into it, the Wishbone’s lone shield also began to overload as soon as it started taking the full force of the dust cloud. The computer restored the other four deactivated shields and shut down the hyperdrive engines. Before the ship could get clear of the hazy canyon wall, shields four and five overloaded and were gone. As the Wishbone dropped below light speed, it sailed into the clear region with three shields still intact. The whole thing had taken place in less than two seconds.

"Did . . . did it work?" Bill said in a bewildered voice. He had seen the quick series of flashes, but he didn't quite understand what it meant.

"Yep. It worked,” said Randy. He knew the missiles were gone without even looking. If they hadn’t been gone, he’d be dead.

The ship was now traveling at just a hair below light speed, and the glowing walls of the cloud-canyon were so far away they gave no sense of motion. It would have taken the Wishbone several hours just to travel from one canyon wall to the other. The view of the canyon gave no sense of movement at all. It looked as if the Wishbone was standing still. Strange to think that just a few seconds ago this huge gulf had seemed like a narrow, twisting alley.



Randy rose from his chair like a weary old man and went back to the lounge to check on Mr. Aganto. The lawyer had his face deep in a nausea bag, busily losing his recent lunch. The forward bulkhead screen had been activated to show the view outside, a mistake on Mr. Aganto's part. Randy got him some anti-nausea medication from the mechmed in the corridor, then he returned to the cockpit and left the poor man alone to barf until his toenails were in the bag..

Quietly and without conversation the two men started checking the readouts on the control panel, surveying the damage to the ship's power systems. The Wishbone was hurt, but not irreparably. When they finally completed their survey they both sat back and spent a few silent minutes enjoying the heady luxury of being all in one piece. It occurred to Bill that he could now let the mechmed shoot him full of pain killers, since all the brain-work had been done. For the moment.

Slowly, hesitantly, Bill said, “This is probably going to sound awful dumb, but . . . I still don't understand how you managed to pull that off. It happened so fast."

"I'll explain later. Over dinner. You'll enjoy it more after you've visited the mechmed."

"You read my mind, old friend. Okay, I'll wait until dinner."

"Good. By the way, what are we having?" said Randy. He looked serious. Bill looked homicidal.

"Jeez Louise, you just had lunch and your already thinking about dinner?"

"Can't put off these important things `till the last minute."

"I don't want to think about it now,” Bill groaned as he started pulling himself out of the chair. Air hissed through his teeth when the cracked rib gave him a stab of pain. Randy gently helped him up and started walking with him back to the mechmed.

"You just relax, pal,” said Randy. "I'll take care of dinner."

"No, that's okay. I'll be fine after I get a little treatment."

"You need to rest. I'll take care of dinner as soon as I finish repairing the shield generator."

Walking slowly like an old man, Bill started across the empty lounge, assisted by Randy. Aganto had gone into his cabin to clean himself up. The wajinda was nowhere in sight. "Well . . . okay. If you insist. What are we having?"

"Oh, I'll whip up some little surprise."

Something about the way he said it made Bill suspicious. "Like what?"

"If I tell you it won't be a surprise."

"No more surprises today, okay? What's for dinner?"

Randy gave Bill a big idiotic smile. "Your favorite! Spare ribs!"

"You liar,” Bill groaned, still hobbling towards the mechmed. "A cheat and a liar. Spare ribs are your favorite, not mine. And we just had spare ribs a few days ago."

"Wrong. It's been a whole week."

"Doesn’t seem like a whole week."

"A week is a long time to go without spare ribs."

"No, it isn't. A week is a long time to go without water or sleep or a woman if you happen to be Don Juan – “

"Don't cloud the issue with a lot of hedonistic analogies. We're talking about the necessities of life – spare ribs."

"Why should we be having your favorite? I'm the one that's wounded."

"Ah-ha, but I'm the one who saved our lives with a brilliant maneuver, a strategy so complex and unexplainable that you don't even understand how – "

"You're really pressing your luck, you know that?" Bill said as they reached the mechmed unit in the corridor. "Bet it was just an accident. You probably had nothing to do with it."

On the right side of the corridor, past the two passenger cabins on that side, Randy pressed a touch plate on the wall. A wide set of doors opened up, revealing a twelve-foot cubical lined with complex readouts, displays, and control panels. The left two-thirds of the cubical was occupied by the mechanical medics comatank. This was the Wishbone’s automated intensive care unit. It resembled a glass-topped coffin, and it was capable of sustaining the life of a seriously injured person for weeks while it administered complex medical treatments and surgical procedures.

To the right of the comatank was the treatment chair, which dealt with less serious medical situations. Bill lowered himself into it and allowed the left armrest to enclose his forearm from wrist to elbow. Sensors in the enclosure attached themselves to key points on his arm as the mechmed went to work trying to fix its damaged patient. Bill felt the quick prick of hypodermic needles being inserted. He welcomed the brief discomfort.

"Can I get you a drink or anything?" said Randy.

Bill's eyes were closed, his head leaning back against the headrest. He rocked his head back and forth a few times in answer to Randy's question.

"Okay,” said Randy. “Then I guess I'd better get to work on the shield generator. Sing out if you need anything."

Bill nodded his head up and down. A slight smile had appeared on his lips. Tranquilizers and painkillers were trickling into his veins from the mechmed's inserted needles.

As Randy turned towards the engine room Bill opened his eyes and said, "One favor I could use. Check Clawron's door for me."

"We locked it, remember?"

"Right. I remember. Check it anyway."


___________________________________________


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