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The Wishbone Express - Chapter 5

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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Sun Jan 11, 2015 11:39 pm    Post subject: The Wishbone Express - Chapter 5 Reply with quote

Chapter 5

In less than an hour the I.S.Y. Wishbone was leaving the dust cloud at fifty thousand XLS. The force shields were all back in working order, thanks to Randy's feverish efforts. While he had been replacing damaged modules in the shield generator, Bill had finished his treatment in the mechmed cubical.

Feeling much better (largely due to the injection of various medications), Bill went back to the engine room where Randy was working and told his partner that the spare ribs had been taken out of the freezer so they could thaw out slowly, just the way the recipe recommended. This news put Randy in such a good mood that he started singing while he worked. Bill fled to the peace and quiet of the lounge.

A minor scare occurred right after the Wishbone broke free of the dust cloud and headed out into clear space again. The nav computer sounded an alarm, announcing the presence of another ship in the area. The ship was broadcasting an identification beacon which made it possible for the Wishbone’s jinn wave scope to plot the spacecraft's position, even though it was still far out of range. Its velocity was a fraction higher than the Wishbone’s. This lone spacecraft had apparently come over the northern side of the dust cloud, and it was now on a flight path that was slowly converging with the Wishbone's, although it would pass well in front of the Wishbone with plenty of room to spare; more than 3,250,000 kilometers.

"Looks like it's just another ship," Randy said quietly, studying the little blip on the jinn wave scope. The ship would be pulling dead even with the Wishbone in about thirty minutes, just about the time it would come within the range of the jinn wave scope’s ability to scan it directly. Randy read through the three lines of data superimposed next to the blip on the jinn wave scope – data provided by the unknown spacecraft's own identification beacon. "It’s a modified C class stellatug. No vessel currently in tow, no cargo pod attached. Presently en route to such-and-such star system, et cetera, et cetera. Boring stuff," Randy concluded, obviously satisfied.

"Yeah, but that doesn't prove anything. Anyone can fake an identification beacon,” said Bill. "It seems too much of a coincidence that its course intersects ours. And it's so close. The blasted thing is barely outside of the range of the jinn wave scope."

"True, but remember, an hour ago we stopped transmitting our own identification beacon, just to be on the safe side. That tug doesn't even know we're here, and it won't find out until our converging flight paths bring us within range of its own jinn wave scope."

In spite of Randy's logical arguments, Bill couldn't shake his suspicions. "But it came over the dust cloud, Randy. It could be one of those ships – "

"It's too fast to be one of those ships, Bill. It’s even too fast to be a missile. And its too far ahead of where the ships are supposed to be. The nav computer says we're at least two light years ahead of them."

Bill was still unconvinced. He furrowed his brow and gnawed on a thumbnail and tried to think of some reasonable objection to Randy's dangerously optimistic thinking. Bill wondered if maybe he was acting too paranoid. After all, the galaxy contained plenty of spacecraft that weren't trying to blow the Wishbone out of the sky. But then Bill started wondering if he wasn't acting paranoid enough. After all, the only spacecrafts they’d encountered in this immediate region of space definitely were trying to blow the Wishbone out of the sky!

And just to complicate Bill's inner dilemma, his poor brain was foggy from the pain killers the mechmed had given him. With an effort, Bill marshaled his thoughts and said, “It still seems odd that a ship would be in this area, at this particular time. I can't figure out why – and how – a missile would masquerade as a stellatug."

Randy had to think about what Bill had just said for few seconds, but then he replied, "Exactly! Why would it bother? More to the point, why would a missile announce its presence, disguised or otherwise, while it was outside the range of our jinn wave scope?"

Bill looked pitifully confused, and he was making no attempt to hide it. "I don't know, but – "

"Look, Bill, it can't harm us if it doesn't come straight at us, right? And it can't get within a million and a half kilometers of us without being detected, right? And it doesn't even know we're here," Randy concluded.

"True. All true," Bill said reluctantly. Then an idea hit him. "Hey! Why don't we just call the stellatug? If there's a pilot aboard, then obviously this is not a missile – "

“No. Bad idea," said Randy, shaking his head back and forth emphatically. "Use your noggin', boy. If we call it, the three enemy ships will pick up the transmission and locate us."

"So what? We're too far ahead – "

"Let’s not give the enemy any free information about where were. We went to a lot of trouble to lose those guys."

"Oh . . .yeah . . . okay, but maybe we should – "

"For cryin' out loud, will you relax? Even if it turns out to be a missile, we could correctly identify it when it comes into jinn wave range. It'll be just about dead even when that happens, right? So all we gotta do is go into a tight turn directly away from it and put it back out of range. Bye-bye missile, see? Or better yet, we'll just program the auto pilot to cut the hyperdrive for an instant if the tug – or whatever it is – changes course to head straight towards us." Randy started typing at the keyboard.

"Cut the hyperdrive?" said Bill, struggling mentally to keep up.

Randy realized that Bill didn't get it yet. “Try to visualize this. The tug is traveling in roughly the same direction we are. If we cut the hyperdrive, even for a split second, the tug will shoot past us and be billions of kilometers ahead of us in nothing flat. Right?"

Bill was nodding slowly, swollen eyes squinting in concentration. “Yeah, right."

"Will that satisfy your over-active sense of caution?"

"I'd like it even better if we went ahead and cut the hyperdrive now. We'd lose some of our lead on the three ships, but I'd rather be safe than sorry – "

And right there Randy Henson lost patience with the conversation. He changed the subject abruptly by saying two words in a quiet voice.

"Spare ribs."


"Spare ribs. Hot. Delicious. Come on, Bill, let's go fix dinner." Randy got up and walked out of the cockpit. Bill figured there was no point in arguing with Randy when the man was deep in the throes of culinary lust, so he gave up and followed Randy out.

Thirty minutes later, when the stellatug's course brought the Wishbone within range of its jinn wave scope, the tug changed course to fly parallel to the Wishbone, and it slowed to match the Wishbone's velocity. Bill and Randy speculated that perhaps the pilot of the tug was wary of the Wishbone because it was not transmitting an identification beacon -- an act that was both highly suspicious and extremely illegal. So the pilot of the tug didn't want an unidentified ship to get any closer -- much less get behind him. Fortunately this understandable caution also prompted the pilot not to call the Wishbone and challenge its self-imposed anonymity. If it had done that, the Wishbone's pursuers would have picked up the transmission, making it fairly easy for them to deduce the Wishbone's position.

"Are you still afraid it's a missile trying to sneak up on us?" said Randy.

"No, I guess not,” said Bill. "I think it's some poor sucker who's going to be mistaken for us if there's an ambush set up in the Philcani-tu system. Randy, we gotta warn him."

"Now wait minute. We can't start transmitting a lot of unnecessary crap – "

"Unnecessary crap?!" Bill exploded angrily. "It might be unnecessary to you, pal, but I think the pilot of that tug might disagree!"

"Hold it, whoa, wait just a second," said Randy. "I didn't mean it that way. Calm down, will ya? I just think we ought to wait a little while and see if the tug heads off in some other direction. After all, we don't even know for sure if it's heading for Philcani-tu. Right?"

With a conscious effort Bill calmed himself down. Randy was right, they didn't have to tip their hand just yet. They could afford to wait.

Mr. Aganto entered the cockpit looking distinctly unhappy about something. He wrung his hands for a few moments and then, with obvious reluctance, he said, "Miss Uquay is banging on her cabin door."

"Oh?" said Randy mildly. "I wonder what she wants."

"Ummm . . . .out?" said Aganto with soft sarcasm. "I'm just guessing, of course."

"Ah-ha," said Randy. "You could be right." He was nodding slowly. Then he raised his eyebrows and whispered, "But do we care?" He looked over at Bill to indicate that the question was really meant for him.

"Nope. Not really," Bill said sullenly. But then he added, “However, she is our employer, and I'd hate to have to sue her to collect our fee."

"True,” said Randy. "Okay, I’ll leave it up to you. Do you want to be big about it and forgive her?"

"I'm not sure I'm that big, but – well, you did pop her a good one on top of her head. And I introduced her skinny ass to my oversized boot." Bill looked wistful as he remembered the moment. Randy kept silent, letting Bill make the decision. Finally Bill said, “Alright. We'll let the bitch out."

The three men made their way back to Clawron's cabin. The wajinda, they discovered, was asleep in the cargo hold. Bill closed the door quietly, just to be sure the animal stayed there. Without shame, the two men drew their guns and stepped back after unlocking the door. When the door opened, she was standing just inside, looking perfectly relaxed. When she saw the weapons leveled at her she gave the men one of her almost-smiles and then slowly raised her hands to shoulder level, palms outward, a gesture of mock submission.

"What do you want?" said Bill. His tone betrayed a bit more bitterness than he had intended.

"To apologize," she said. "I suppose I got a little worked up."

Bill and Randy just stood there looking unconvinced and unforgiving, while Aganto fidgeted and looked at everybody and wondered what was going to happen next. Clawron endured the cold stares for a moment before she again spoke.

"Come on, Jenkins, be fair. What happened was partly your fault."

Bill’s mouth was agape. "Excuse me?"

"You made a pretty insulting comment. You deserved to have your face slapped. I just got a little carried away."

It was an audacious understatement of the situation. Amazingly, her tone seemed sincere, but her unreadable face made it impossible to guess what was going on in her head. One thing Bill did know, however, was that she realized he and Randy were going to stick together. Besides, if he let her out and she started any trouble, he could still shoot her in the thigh and put her into the comatank for the remainder of the trip.

With a look of saintly forgiveness, Bill holstered his weapon and gave Clawron a faint smile that imitated her own. In a sleepy drawl he said, "Bygones be bygones?"

"Friends forever,” said Clawron. "And now that we've got that settled, what's for dinner?"

Bill and Randy gave simultaneous but dissimilar answers.

"Nothing special," said Bill.

"Spare ribs!" said Randy – who then received a nasty look from Bill, who had not intended to share the prize dish with their unfriendly passenger. Clawron saw the exchanged looks and she understood instantly. She found it amusing.

"Ah, yes. My favorite," she said, practically purring. Bill just grunted and walked off.


During dinner Clawron demonstrated a subtle and previously unsuspected talent for mending fences. Although she remained her usual quiet self, she managed somehow to give the impression that her silence was caused by the fact that she was listening attentively to the general conversation. And the three men were learning to read the microscopic facial movements she substituted for expressions. This, plus the fact that she avoided any nasty little remarks, made it plain to everyone that she was trying to reduce the number of enemies she had aboard ship.

Randy had done a great job on the spare ribs, a fact he was so proud of that he bragged about it throughout dinner, usually with his mouth full. All in all, things were looking up.

Clawron salved Bill's wounded ego by sympathizing with his wounded ribcage. Mr. Aganto cheered up considerably at the sight of all this harmony and good fellowship. Even the wajinda cooperated by eating in the cargo hold where nobody had to watch the beast cobble down a dish of synthetic nutrients the autochef had concocted based on the animal’s physiology.

Dinner evolved into dessert, and dessert was accompanied by coffee, and coffee begat conversation. Aganto did most of the talking, and Clawron did most of the listening. For the first time, the two-man crew of the Wishbone began to relax and enjoy the voyage.

And then suddenly everybody froze when they felt the ship lurch as if it had been bumped from behind. At the same instant, the alarm went off in the cockpit. It was so shockingly unexpected that everybody just sat there for a long moment in stunned silence. The wajinda burst into the room and stopped cold to stare at the humans with a wild, expectant look. Randy leaped from his chair and headed for the cockpit, but Bill hissed with pain and grabbed at his injured rib when he tried to stand up. He followed Randy as fast as he was able.

In the cockpit Randy dove into the right-hand seat and glared angrily at the new blip on the jinn wave scope, making an earnest attempt to stare it into nonexistence. No good. The blip remained, and so did the hyperdrive missile that it signified, located just two thousand meters behind the Wishbone, nosing its way slowly through shield number five.

Bill came plodding up the short stairway from the lounge and then stood behind Randy's chair.

"Missile?" he said, still gritting his teeth while he pressed a hand over his rib.

"What else? But how’d the damn thing sneak up on us?"

"That stellatug – "

" – was carrying a hyperdrive missile?” Randy said in disbelief. “Okay, sure, but how come the sensors didn't detect its approach until – wait a second. What's this?"

The stellatug was still visible on the jinn wave scope, though it was no longer flying parallel to the Wishbone. Its course was now angled to intercept the Wishbone’s flight path – a collision course that would bring the two ships together in an hour and a half. And, as Randy and Bill watched, the blip split in two!

On the jinn wave scope the data superimposed next to the two blips changed to indicate new mass readings and velocities.

"Two more missiles?" exclaimed Randy. "What in Beelzebub's unholy name is going on here?"

"Punch up a rerun on the jinn wave scope," said Bill. "Let's study the approach."

"Okay, but while I'm doing that, you better start looking for something up ahead that we can use to peel those things off our ass. We've got about thirty minutes until the nearest one hits us."

Bill lowered himself carefully into the left-hand seat and started punching up images of the cosmic terrain ahead. Randy began to replay what the jinn wave scope had witnessed during the missile's approach. What he saw was astounding. The blip of the nearest missile had separated from the blip of the phony stellatug just an instant before the missile had made contact with the Wishbone's number five shield.

This, of course, was impossible. If the missile had been traveling fast enough to cross more than two million kilometers in a fraction of a second, it would not have been stopped cold by the Wishbone’s shields.

"I don't get it,” said Randy.

"Me neither. And I'm getting a headache from trying. Tell the computer to figure it out."

Randy told the computer to study the impossible situation and to think of a possible explanation for it. To do this, the computer had to be given free reign to ponder concepts that would normally be considered nonsense. After all, something had to be screwy – otherwise the missile wouldn't be there. Obviously the enemy was not playing by the rules.

"Found anything yet?" said Randy. Bill was scrutinizing the navigational data presented by the computer. He was searching through the information on this region of space, looking for some cosmic feature they could use to help them evade their pursuers.

"Nothing yet," Bill said absently, still searching.

Beep, said the computer, announcing the results of its deliberations. Both men eagerly turned to the display, which was filled with a long and annoyingly technical description of several theories the computer had devised to explain how the missiles had pulled their baffling trick. One theory had been given a much higher degree of probability than the others, and this was the one Bill and Randy were most interested in. After reading halfway through it, Randy turned to Bill.

"Are you buying any of this?"

"Well . . . I'm not sure. But you know what it reminds me of?"


"The trick that magician did. You know, the one on the old video we saw a few months ago. That young black-haired guy David what's-his-name."

"Oh, yeah. When he made the Statue of Liberty disappear "

"No, no, not that trick. The one where he laid on a table and let a big buzz saw cut him in half. The table was really thin, and there was no box around him to conceal a second person pretending to be the magician's legs. His assistants came out and pulled the two halves of the table apart while he just laid there – sawed in half, plain as day."

"Okay, right," said Randy, looking bewildered. "It was a great trick. So what?"

"Well, remember we finally figured out how he did it – but the explanation was so incredible we had a hard time believing it. We ended up deciding that the only reason we could swallow the explanation was that we just had to. It was the only explanation that worked." Bill tapped his finger on the display screen that held the computer's theory. "Same thing here."

They both turned back to study the display. According to the computer’s theory, the phony stellatug had been three missiles coupled together. No surprise there. As soon as the Wishbone had come into range of the missiles' jinn wave scopes, one of the missiles had separated and headed towards the Wishbone. The angle of the lone missile's approach had been carefully designed to insure that it remained directly between the Wishbone and the other two missiles (still coupled together). The two joined missiles had then altered their course to fly parallel to the Wishbone, a maneuver which had the added advantage of neatly allaying any suspicions. But this alone would do nothing to hide the existence of the lone missile as it approached the Wishbone. To explain how that had been done, the computer's theory had become a bit bizarre.

The computer suggested that the lone missile had shaped its five overlapping shields into a series of concentric cones and cylinders, one inside the other, forming a kind of "lens". This lens had the ability to direct the Wishbone’s jinn wave scans through a complex structure, effectively bending them around the missile and sending them on their way, still traveling in the same direction.

The lens would not have been efficient enough to make the missile completely invisible to the jinn wave scope. A small fraction of the jinn wave scans would have still bounced back, producing an irregularity on the scope which would have set off the Wishbone's alarms.

However, the other two missiles were positioned directly behind the lone missile, and they were bouncing the jinn wave scans back through the lens, returning them to the Wishbone, masking the irregularity on the scope so that the approaching missile went undetected until it actually made contact with the Wishbone’s outermost shield. At that point all three missiles had abandoned the ruse.

"Like hiding one shadow inside another," said Bill. "What do you think?"

"Sounds pretty farfetched," said Randy, shaking his head slowly. "But the computer's other theories are even worse. Look at this one, for instance. It suggests that the missile on our tail isn't really there. It's just a phantom image being produced by "

The ship suddenly lurched and then surged forward. The missile had pushed through shield five and socked itself into shield four.

"So much for that theory," Bill said casually.

Randy turned around to look astern. On the cockpit’s simulated view of what was directly behind the Wishbone, the missile was faintly visible, one thousand meters away, pushing at shield four.

"We're not going to have as much time as we did before," said Randy. "That missile can cancel its own shields. We're not inside a dust cloud this time."

"Yes, it can,” said Bill. "But it hasn't done it yet."

"What? How do you know?"

Bill was studying the nav computer's display screen again. He looked annoyed at having to explain things to Randy while he was so busy. "We felt the surge a moment ago, right? So, the missile's shields are throwing our artificial gravity out of sync, just like before."

"Oh . . . yeah. Right. Okay then, I'll cancel our number five shield and boost the power on shield four." He did some quick typing at the console.

"Good idea,” Bill said absently, his tone implying that it was a rather obvious idea. Randy felt foolish, so he changed the subject.

"Found anything? Anything at all?"

"Not a thing,” Bill said bleakly. "There's a pulsar coming up on the port side in a few minutes – but what can you do with a pulsar?"

"Nothing," said Randy. "It goes by too fast."

At hyperdrive speeds, almost everything went by too fast. In any moderately dense region of the galaxy, a starship will pass a star approximately once every six to eight minutes. Near the galactic core, where stars are frequently just a few light-months apart (or even light-weeks), a starship can't even cruise at full hyperdrive speed. Some of the globular clusters within the galaxy's spiral arms are equally dense. At top speed, the Wishbone traveled a light week every thirteen seconds – which meant that flying through a densely populated globular cluster would be like a bee flying through a hail storm. That’s why no starship ever tried it. Standard procedure was to either plot a safe course around such obstacles or reduce speed while inside them.

The yottabytes of data (one quadrillion bytes) in the Wishbone’s navigational computer was what gave her an advantage over most other starships. And that was why the Wishbone Express Interstellar Courier Service was in the short-cut business.

But time was running out, and Bill had still found nothing useful in all that navigational data. Out of pure desperation Randy instructed the nav computer to make a number of quick, shallow zigzags, hoping to dislodge the missile from shield four and thereby set its progress back a little. He knew he was running the risk of letting the missile cut the corners and gain on the Wishbone, but Randy figured it was worth a try. After all, doing nothing would be suicide.

Dutifully the nav computer spent a minute and a half yanking the Wishbone back and forth. The zigzags did absolutely nothing to widen the gap between the ship and its relentless pursuer. The missile copied every zigzag with great precision.

In fact . . . it copied them with perfect precision. Randy peered curiously at the jinn wave scope.

"Hey, Bill? There’s something funny here."

“Funny? Oh, good! Humor. That's just what I need. I'm sick of looking at this stuff," He shoved himself back from the display screen and reached up to rub his tired eyes, but he stopped himself when he remembered the bruised and swollen skin in that area. He turned to the jinn wave scope. "Okay, show me the funny part."

Randy punched up a graphic that depicted the zigzagging flight path the Wishbone had just flown. A thin green line wiggled across the screen like the track of a drunken snail. Randy tapped a button on the console, and a red line depicting the missile's flight path was superimposed over the Wishbone’s green line. The red line matched the green line exactly.

"No short cuts," said Randy. "Hell, it didn't even try."

"Hey, now . . . “ Bill said softly. “That’s really odd. Why would the missile deliberately not cut the corners?"

After five seconds of silent deliberation, they both turned amazed looks at each other, like practiced comedians.

"The dust cloud!" said Bill.

"Right. They're learning from their mistakes. Whoever launched those missiles must've figured out why we went into the dust cloud. So they programmed these missiles to take absolutely no chances. They told the missiles to zig whenever we zigged, and to zag when we zagged."

Bill was nodding in agreement, then he stopped and got a funny look on his face. "Good God!” he exclaimed. “I think those guys screwed up, Randy."

"What do you mean?"

"I’m not real sure." Bill furrowed his brow for a moment. "But suppose they worded the instructions in a more general way. What if they told the missiles to match every maneuver we made? If they did that, then the missiles would – "

Another surge of acceleration announced the missile's progress from shield four to shield three. Randy made a conscious effort not let his growing nervousness show. Quietly he said, "Don't let these little things distract you, Bill. What were you saying?"

Bill was getting pretty worried, too. He swallowed hard and resumed speaking, showing some noticeable haste.

"I think they told these missiles to do absolutely everything we do. I mean, everything! If that’s true, the missiles might even copy any changes we make in our velocity."

"What? “ Randy almost choked as he said it. “Our velocity?"


Randy looked bewildered. "Wait a second, Bill. That's silly. They wouldn't match our direction and our speed. How could they ever expect to catch us if – "

"No, no, you dolt! I'm just talking about sudden changes in our velocity. Like, if we suddenly decelerated, they would copy the deceleration, just like they copied the zigzags?"

Bill stared at Randy while his partner pondered the idea, and Randy stared at nothing at all, his eyes wide and glassy. Finally Randy exclaimed, “Ah-ha! Gotcha! They’re being too cautious!” But then Randy’s gleeful look faltered. “Hold on, wait a second – how will that help us?”

Bill had already pounced on the keyboard and was typing furiously. Obviously he had figured out some way to evade the missiles, and obviously Randy was just itching to find out what it was, but Randy was getting tired of Bill having to explain everything to him. So Randy didn't ask any more questions. Instead he did what he should have done several minutes ago, which was tell the computer to cancel shield four and beef up shield three. As he did so, Randy noticed the stars turning slowly outside. The Wishbone was making a forty-five degree turn. He glanced at the jinn wave scope to see if the missile directly behind them would cut across their trajectory and gain on them. But no, the missile dogged their tracks with slavish exactitude.

A horrible thought came to Randy: What if the other two missiles were not programmed to copy the Wishbone’s movements. Fearfully he checked the jinn wave scope. It took him a few seconds to be sure of what he was seeing. He had to allow for the fact that the missiles were not actually behind the ship, they were on a converging course. But it was obvious from their flight paths that the missiles were making an effort to drop into line behind the Wishbone as quickly as they could. It was as if the missiles assumed the Wishbone’s flight path was a safe window through some unseen obstacle course.

"Follow the leader,” whispered Randy.

"What?" said Bill.

"Nothing. Are you almost finished?"

"Almost." Bill was hunched over the display screen, peering at a computer image which depicted the pulsar and its surrounding star system. The one light-year-wide sphere of space around the pulsar was bisected by a spiral line in a flat plane, like a watch spring. A pulsar was at the center. A short paragraph of data was superimposed in one corner of the screen. Randy read the data, and his eyebrows shot up.

"The pulsar?" He was getting confused again. "But, Bill . . . what can you do with a pulsar?"

When Bill looked up from the keyboard he was wearing a lunatic grin – which, when combined with his battered face and swollen eyes, made him look like a scheming demon. "Ah-ha,” he said in a low, villainous tone. "You can't do anything with a pulsar . . . at hyperdrive speed. And that's why we are going to drop to sublight speed."

Randy blinked a few times and nervously licked his dry lips. "Sublight?" he said hesitantly. He was wondering if maybe the blows to Bill's head had knocked his brain loose.

"Yes, Igor! Sublight! And then we’re going to dive through the spiral beam of the pulsar."

"Through . . . the spiral . . . beam." The blood was gone from Randy’s face.

"Exactly. The difference is, we will know exactly where the spiral beam is, but the missiles won't."

It took Randy a moment, but then he understood completely. Bill Jenkins had gone crazy.

A pulsar is a rapidly rotating neutron star, the last stage of a star's slow cosmic death. After a star has passed the "main sequence" (middle age) and its primary nuclear fuel (hydrogen) has been depleted, it begins a series of collapses. The star's own crushing gravity compresses it until it eventually ends up about the size of Manhattan Island – ten miles across. And yet within this tiny sphere most of the star’s original matter still resides. One cubic inch of this degenerate matter weighs roughly a billion tons.

In addition to drastically altering its size, the star's original spin is accelerated by the collapse, the same way a spinning ice skater whirls around faster and faster when she draws her arms in closer to her body. This spin is the driving force of the pulsar. The super-dense little sphere, spinning furiously inside a cloud of material left over from the explosion that occurred during its energy-liberating collapse, becomes a kind of cosmic dynamo – a generator that puts out an intense beam of radiation. This beam swings around with the spinning star.

Many text books on cosmology describe a pulsar as a "stellar lighthouse", because of the obvious analogy to be made from the rotating beam. But this analogy is inaccurate in a very important way. A lighthouse beacon spears straight out from the rotating lamp – but a pulsar beam actually curves, forming a spiral whose concentric loops move outward at the speed of light. The distance between each loop is determined by the rate of the pulsar's spin. Each rotation spews out a circular wave of radiation that widens as it heads away from the pulsar.

Think of a lawn sprinkler spinning around as it spews out a stream of water. The sprinkler makes several rotations before the water hits the lawn. Seen in slow motion, the water spirals out in circular waves.

At close range (a few billion kilometers) the waves of radiation from a pulsar are strong enough to be lethal to organic life forms and electronic devices. Each wave is a concentrated blast of radiation in the full spectral range -- X ray, microwave, ultraviolet, infrared, et cetera. Even force shields are ineffective at extremely close range (eight hundred million kilometers or less).

With shields four and five canceled, and with shield three fortified with extra power, the missile spent ten minutes pushing itself through shield three. The Wishbone was converging on the flat plane of the pulsar's spiral beam at a shallow angle, like an aircraft on final approach to the runway. On the cockpit display the spiral beam was being depicted as a narrow red line that looped `round and `round like the grooves on a giant vinyl record. This particular pulsar had an unusually slow rate of rotation – roughly three times each second, which meant that each loop of the spiral was approximately one hundred thousand kilometers apart. The pulsar itself was too small to see, a sixteen-kilometer-wide speck, lost in the empty gulf of space. Even the one hundred sixty two million kilometer-wide nebula that enveloped the pulsar was still too small to see on the cockpit dome’s display.

The jinn wave scope had the pulsar's location pin-pointed, but even the jinn wave scope could not actually see the spiral beam radiating out from the pulsar. The placement of the looping red lines on the dome’s display was based entirely on data that the nav computer possessed – data obtained from scientific studies of this particular pulsar. These studies included information which allowed an approaching ship to plot the exact position of the moving spirals of the beam from one nanosecond to the next.

"It'll break through shield three any minute now,” said Randy.

"With luck we can hold it off just long enough."

Randy refrained from making any comment. He didn't share Bill's optimism for the plan to cut the hyperdrive engines and go sublight. It depended too heavily on the assumption that the Wishbone had earned a great deal of respect from her enemies. If their pursuers had instructed the missiles to believe absolutely in the necessity of every move the Wishbone made, then the missiles might choose to decelerate when the Wishbone did. But if they didn't – well then, even the two missiles that trailed one million thirty thousand kilometers behind them would overtake the Wishbone the instant it went sublight.

"One minute to hyperdrive termination,” said Bill.

Randy concentrated on the side view provided by the dome display. The Wishbone was now only a few million kilometers above the plane of the spiral beam. The concentric red lines looked like the spreading ripples in a surrealistic neon sea. They were flashing by beneath the Wishbone so quickly they were almost a red blur because they were going in the opposite direction as the ship, which was still traveling faster than light. But when the Wishbone actually flew past the pulsar at sublight speed in several minutes, the star would be to the left of the ship, and the red lines representing the radiation waves would be moving from left to right, passing the Wishbone at the rate of one every 0.66 seconds.

"Thirty seconds,” said Bill.

"Hey, what's going on?" Clawron's head appeared in the doorway as she came up the stairs from the lounge. Randy whirled around and snapped at her angrily.

"Get back down there and strap in!"

"But what are you doing about the missile? Is it – "

"Still on our tail, yes! I don't have time to explain. Go strap in! NOW!"

"I have a right to know what's going on,” she said savagely.

"We're going to cut the hyperdrive. Now go!"

"What?! You can't cut the – "

Randy drew his pistol and aimed it at her thigh. "GO!"

"Six, five, four – " Bill began counting down. Clawron ducked back out of sight and rushed to strap herself in as Bill finished the count. The plane of red lines rushed up towards them when the Wishbone went into a steep dive. “ – three, two, one.."

As Bill's countdown reached zero the hyperdrive engine shut down and the fabric of space-time itself dragged the Wishbone’s velocity down below lightspeed within seconds. Randy and Bill were both gritting their teeth and squeezing their eyes closed, waiting for the three missiles to slam into their backsides.

And they did. Or so it seemed. When the Wishbone decelerated, the missiles almost instantly did the same. But almost instantly is not instantly enough at fifty thousand times the speed of light. The nearest missile shot through the Wishbone’s number three shield, smashed right through number two, and collided with number one before the missile's velocity was brought down to that of the Wishbone’s.

The two trailing missiles did virtually the same thing. They crossed the one hundred thirty thousand kilometer gap in a fraction of a second, broke through the Wishbone’s reinforced number three shield, and imbedded themselves in number two while they dutifully shut down their hyperdrives, complying with their programmed instructions.

For Randy and Bill the experience was remarkably similar to being in an automobile during a multiple rear-end collision. Every time a missile hit one of the Wishbone’s shields, the ship was jolted forward. When all the jolting was over, the Wishbone had three missiles tight on her tail and a healthy sublight velocity of 0.92 of lightspeed.

The pulsar was located ahead and to the left, just six hundred fifty million kilometers away, shrouded in the nebula that had been created when the collapsing star had blown away its own outer layers. The Wishbone's flight path was designed to steer it clear of the pulsar's surrounding nebula – but not too far away, because it had to pass within the eight hundred million kilometer danger zone where the spiral beam's radiation was so intense that force shields would not deflect it.

With the autopilot in control of the helm, the Wishbone dove through a one hundred thousand kilometer gap between two of the loops formed by the spiral beam. Despite the size of the gap, it was a tricky needle to thread because it was moving at the speed of light, and the Wishbone was moving just a tad less than that, causing the two to move past each other at almost twice the speed of light. The waves of radiation were flashing by the ship at the rate of almost six per second, but this began to change as the ship moved steadily past the pulsar. The loops of the spiral beam started to come towards the ship from the port side as the Wishbone went past the pulsar. The Wishbone shot between two spiral beams and then pulled out of its dive. Nine loops of the spiral beam went by overhead before the Wishbone arced back up through another gap.

In the cockpit the two men watched anxiously as the Wishbone wove its way through the advancing waves of the pulsar's deadly radiation. Each maneuver had to be precisely executed or the two men would fry in their seats. The nav computer, unable to actually see the spiral beams, was playing a deadly game of Blind Man's Bluff. Accuracy was everything.

And the lack of it was death. The missiles were still slavishly copying the Wishbone's every move, trying to avoid obstacles they couldn't actually see. But it wasn't enough, not this time. Each time the Wishbone shot through a gap, the missiles followed blindly – and therefore they arrived an instant too late. The radiation swept across them time after time, and their hulls began to glow cherry red from the heat being poured into them by the pulsars microwave and x-ray emissions. And yet –

"Something's wrong," said Bill. "We're doing something wrong." He was turned around in his seat, looking at the cockpits rear view, watching the closest of the three relentlessly pursuing missiles, the one that was pushing its way steadily through shield number one. Randy didn't answer. He was too busy at the keyboard, asking the computer the same question that was on Bill's mind. The answer wasn't long in coming. Randy read through it quickly, then he summed it up for Bill.

"The one that's right behind us is too close. It's making it through the gaps between the radiation waves."

"We'll have to eliminate our safety margin and let the beam pass closer – "

"We can't do that. There has too be a safety margin because the nav computer – "

"Can't actually see the beam. I know. We're in trouble."

Four hundred fifty meters behind the Wishbone, the two missiles imbedded in shield two were suddenly covered by a writhing web-work of electrical arcs when their electronics systems suffered massive short circuits. Artificial lightning crawled all over their hulls, and the missiles began to fly with increasing instability. They wobbled off in separate directions for a few seconds and then, almost simultaneously, their sublight engines shut down. When Randy saw them tumbling away, a thought suddenly came to him that made him lurch as if he had been slapped.

"Bill!" he exclaimed. "We're a couple of idiots!"

Bill stared at him for a second, then he said, “Sure we are -- but why bring that up now?"

Randy lunged for the weapons console while he started talking so quickly he was almost unintelligible. "Our velocity is sublight, right? Well then, why don't we just blast the damn missile with the plasma cannons?"

The idea was so incredibly obvious that Bill was struck speechless by it, sitting there like a wax dummy wearing a theatrical look of amazement. Finally

"Hey, you’re right!” Then his expressed changed. “No, wait. You’re wrong. The missile will be programmed to detonate itself the instant it detects in-coming fire. We'll be caught in the blast."

"No, we won't, dummy,” said Randy, enjoying the moment. "We can just kick in the hyperdrive and outrun the blast."

Bill started the same act all over again. "Hey, your right! Okay, I'll tell the nav computer to gauge it just right – "

"No time for that,” said Randy. "We'll have to do it manually. As soon as I blast the missile, you hit the hyperdrive – "

"No, no, no!" shouted Bill. "You've got it backwards! First I hit the hyperdrive, then you blast the missile."

"You sure?"

"Trust me. We don't have time to argue about this." Bill put his hand on the hyperdrive control. "On three! Ready? One – two – three!"

Bill activated the hyperdrive. A split second later, Randy fired a healthy blast from the plasma cannons. The missile detected the approaching barrage and it detonated itself before it could be destroyed.

From the rear view in the Wishbone's cockpit the exploding missile suddenly seemed to race backwards when the Wishbone accelerated past the speed of light. The expanding bubble-shaped shockwave of the explosion chased along after the ship for an instant, and then it too was left behind. The concentric loops of the pulsar's spiral beam blurred together into a translucent red sheet and faded from sight as the Wishbone left the pulsar far behind at a velocity of fifty thousand times the speed of light.

Bill turned a solemn face towards Randy. The two men just stared at each other for a long moment, neither knowing just what to say. Finally Bill broke the silence in a quiet voice. "Hooray for our side."

An odd look came over Randy's face, and he turned to stare silently out the starboard side of the dome’s display for a moment. Then he turned to Bill and said, “You were right and I was wrong. I admit it. We should have run from the stellatug while we still thought it was a stellatug. But instead I let us – "

Bill interrupted with a sudden question. "Hey, yeah, why did those missiles masquerade as a stellatug?"

The question seemed idiotic under the circumstances, but Randy could still taste the bitter flavor of his own recently swallowed pride, not to mention a large dose of his own foot in his mouth. So he accepted the change of subject.

"You mean, beyond the obvious reason? So the missiles could cover their approach?"

"I think it was more than that, Randy. The guys who launched the missiles probably hoped we would call their phony stellatug and ask the nonexistent pilot if he had detected any other ships while coming over the dust cloud. If we'd fallen for it, they'd have located us the instant we transmitted. But they probably weren't really counting on us being that stupid. What they really expected us to do was to play it safe by slowing down to let the tug go on ahead. I even suggested that we do that, remember? If we'd done that, the missiles would have gone on ahead – and they just might have been programmed to wait for us in Philcani-tu's star system."

Randy's eyes went big and wide as he caught on to what Bill was saying. Gleefully he said, "They would’ve nailed us cold when we began our final sublight approach to Philcani-tu," He looked happy for a moment -- but then a dark cloud passed over his face. "Wait a minute, Bill. If there's an ambush waiting for us near Philcani-tu, we're dead men right now."

"Sure, but if they do have an ambush all set up, why would they be knocking their brains out trying to destroy us here in deep space?"

Randy couldn't fault the logic, but he also couldn't find much comfort in it. "Okay, admittedly I don't have the answer to that one, but do we really want to risk it?"

"We've already had this debate, remember? If we don't deliver our passenger to where she hired us to take her, we don't get paid."

Rand was ready with a quick answer. "But we don't get paid if we're dead either!" It was a sad thought which dampened Randy's spirits until he had a sudden inspiration. "Hey, that brings an interesting point to mind. Maybe our passengers – note the plural – maybe our passengers should be asked if they still want to risk going to Philcani-tu. Maybe they’re willing to hire us to take them someplace nice and safe."

Bill looked mildly resentful of the idea, but he had to credit the truth of it. "Okay. You're right. We'll check with our employer and her valiant legal defender. If she orders us to take her somewhere else, she'll still have to pay us."

“Right. Maybe even double.”

“Let’s not get greedy.”


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 Thu May 03, 2018 11:44 am; edited 1 time in total
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Starship Navigator

Joined: 19 Feb 2015
Posts: 593

PostPosted: Tue Feb 24, 2015 12:20 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Another hair raising escape! These cats are gonna use up all nine lives at this rate!
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Bud Brewster
Galactic Fleet Admiral (site admin)

Joined: 14 Dec 2013
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Location: North Carolina

PostPosted: Fri Feb 27, 2015 10:11 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Well, since there's two of them, that makes 18 lives total, so maybe they squeak through. Very Happy
Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?
~ The Space Children (1958)
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