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The Wishbone Express - Chapter 9

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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Fri Jan 16, 2015 4:24 pm    Post subject: The Wishbone Express - Chapter 9 Reply with quote

Chapter 9

“It’s still closing on us at the same speed,” said Randy as he sat down at the dining table in the lounge. He had just returned from the cockpit, checking on the pursuing ship. “The autopilot will sound the alarm if there’s any change.”

Bill just nodded as Randy sat down next to him. He didn’t trust himself to speak in front of Clawron and Mr. Aganto because his head still felt slow and fuzzy. The effects of the drug seemed to wax and wane about every twenty minutes. He knew it made good sense to keep his mouth shut whenever he started feeling euphoric — but the bad thing about feeling euphoric was that good sense flew blissfully out the window.

The two passengers were also seated at the table, watching Bill and Randy intently, waiting for them to explain what was about to happen. The Wishbone would soon be entering the Donwaxihel star system.

On the other side of the lounge, the wajinda was sprawled across the couch, listening intently to a conversation it could not understand.

“Okay, here’s the way it is,” Randy began. “One of those three ships may have been converted into a hyperdrive missile. We think it’s been programmed to ram us when it catches up, which will happen in about four hours if we remain on hyperdrive. And it will happen instantly if we go sublight — unless we do something to shake that ship off our tail.” Randy paused to let his audience digest what he was saying. Aganto was new to this sort of thing, and Clawron was just as fog-bound as Bill, thanks to the drugged lotion. But she didn’t show it as much, perhaps because her razorblade features served as a permanent barrier between her true thoughts and the world at large.

“Fortunately,” Randy continued, “Bill has figured out a pretty good way to outmaneuver that ship. Here’s how it works.” Randy slide back the cover which revealed a recessed keyboard in the dining room table, and he activated the wall screen on the right side of the cockpit doorway at the front of the room. He tapped at the keyboard, and the nav computer produced a graphic of the Donwaxihel star system. A green line represent¬ing the Wishbone’s flight path arrowed straight toward the star. “What we’re going to do is dive at Donwaxihel at hyperdrive speed and wait until the last pos¬sible instant to go sublight.”

On the wall screen the star expanded as the green line approached it.

“Our course will alter at the last moment so that we’ll skim through the star’s chromosphere — ”

“The shields can’t handle that,” Clawron said emphatically. She was leaning forward, peering intently at the graphic. “If you cut the pass too close it will either overload the shields or bounce the ship off at an angle. If you go too deep into the chromosphere you’ll cause a shock wave in the star’s photosphere that will — ”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Randy, halting Clawron’s sudden lecture. “Let me finish, okay?” Clawron shifted her flinty gaze to Randy and waited for him to justify the interruption. “Okay,” Randy continued. “You’re right about all that. And yes, I’ll admit that diving at a star in an inhabited star system is highly illegal. At hyperdrive speeds a ship will cause the star to suffer serious disrup¬tion if the ship collides with it. If a ship’s shields glance off the photosphere, they’ll create shock waves that can cause solar flares and surface disturbances.”

“So what good will it do for us — ”

“But,” Randy said, cutting her off, “we aren’t going to hit the star’s photosphere at hyper¬drive speed. We’re going to go sublight an instant before we reach it.” Randy held Clawron’s challenging look while he jerked his thumb toward the graphic on the display screen. The star grew larger and larger as the green line zoomed up to it, but then the line swerved slightly to one side. When it did, the green line changed to a red line and slowed down drastically as it skimmed past the star. Words and numbers appeared on the screen to one side.

Hyperdrive termination. Sublight Velocity: 0.94044 of light speed. All shields realigned for maximum resistance to stellar photosphere and solar wind.

Clawron read through the data quickly, but she still seemed unimpressed by the maneuver. “So what are you saying? That the ship behind us will hit the photosphere at hyperdrive speed and be destroyed?”

“If you would watch the screen for about six seconds, you’d see exactly what we’re saying. Here, I’ll run it back.”

“Run it back to what?”

“To the part you missed while you were telling me it won’t work.”

Randy fiddled with the keyboard, and the red line backed up until it became a green line and started forward once more. The green line slowed down and turned red as it slid past the star, then it swung around behind it. Meanwhile a faint green line continued in a much straighter course, demonstrating the tightest turn that would be possible if the Wishbone had stayed at hyperdrive speed. The faint green line shot off into the background and faded out.

“The unmanned ship can do one of three things. It can plow into the star’s photosphere at hyperdrive speed and be bounced off at an angle. Or it can steer clear of the star and sail right on by us. Or it can match our maneuver exactly, decelerating a fraction of a second after we do — in which case it will end up right on our tail. If that happens, we just blast it with our plasma cannons and go into hyperdrive to outrun the shock wave,” Randy concluded cheer¬fully, smiling at his audience.

Mr. Aganto looked attentive and earnest, but he didn’t look very happy. To him there was just nothing funny about any of this. It was a matter of life and death and injustice, and these were things Mr. Alphonse Aganto did not joke about. The fact that Randy and Bill did joke about them was not at all comforting. It made him doubt the sanity of the people around him.

Clawron’s attitude was quite a bit different. She peered at the screen with single-minded concentration, and when she saw the full run-through of the possible outcomes of the maneuver, her face took on a feline look, a faint cat-like smile. She turned toward Bill and said, “Not bad, lover. Did you think of this by yourself?”

Bill matched her placid look for a moment before he answered in a lazy drawl. “Aaah, you know I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”

She pointed at the wall screen and said softly, “Right. But will it work?”

Bill’s true opinion of Clawron was beginning to eat its way up through his lazy facade. “If you’ve got a better idea,” he said tightly, “I’d be glad to hear it.”

“Please,” Aganto said hesitantly. “I have a few questions.”

“Shoot,” said Randy.

“What about the other two ships?”

“Good question,” said Randy, grinning like a game show host. “In their case, the threat is a little different. Assuming they’re still behind us, they’ll catch up fast when we go sublight. Naturally they’re not programmed to ram us — ”

We hope, he added silently.

“ — but they might match our maneuver and stay on our tail. If that happens, we’ll all start shooting at each other. Frankly that part worries me a little, because those ships are bigger than we are and undoubtedly better armed. However, we’ll be within an hour or so of Philcani-tu, and we might get some help from the in-system police. In fact, if we shake off the unmanned ship, there’s a good possibility that the other two might not stick around. We’re hoping they’ll be very disagreeably surprised when we dive at Donwaxihel, go to sublight, and shake off that kamikaze ship.”

Aganto was still wearing a mixed expression of apprehension and rapt attention. He desperately wanted to believe Randy’s optimistic appraisal of the situation, but he knew that Randy was capable of lying to him just to calm him down. Aganto looked over at Bill for a moment, studying his face minutely, trying to find the truth behind all the good intentions. But Bill had lost his momentary anger and returned to being a smiling Buddha, unnaturally relaxed, mildly amused by the petty problems of mortal men. His condition did not inspire Aganto’s confidence. The nervous lawyer turned to look at Clawron. He knew she was just as mentally impaired as Bill because of the drug. But her careful cross-examination of Randy indicated that her brain wasn’t entirely on vacation. The wajinda, lying on the couch, seemed to be viewing the conversation with detached interest.

Then a disturbing thought came to Aganto, and he turned his attention back to Randy. “You said we’d be within an hour of Philcani-tu?”

“Roughly, yes. An hour and thirteen minutes. Our velocity will be just a jigger shy of light speed, which means if we start decelerating as soon as we pull away from Donwaxihel, we’ll be going slow enough when we reach Philcani-tu for our — ”

“How can we possibly decelerate?”

“ — final approach . . . pardon me?”

“Under the circumstances, how can we possibly decelerate?” Aganto said firmly. “If we’re still being pursued by hostile ships, how can we decelerate without them overtaking us and blasting us to atoms?”

“Well, now . . . ” Randy said, faltering for a moment. He glanced over at Bill, but the happy Buddha showed little concern, perhaps because he was trying not to look worried. If so, he was doing it too well. Randy met Aganto’s level gaze and said, “You’re really catching on to this stuff, sir — ”

“Just answer the questions,” Aganto said with quiet authority. If there was one thing a lawyer knew, it was the sound of an evasive answer.

Randy squirmed for a moment, then he said, “We haven’t quite worked that out yet, sir.”

“We can’t decelerate, so we can’t land on Philcani-tu. And we’ll be traveling so fast that the in-system police cruisers probably won’t be able to match velocities with us until it’s too late. So how can they help?”

Bill took the question, surprising everyone. “Actually there are a few star systems whose in-system police cruisers do have hyperdrive — ”

“But this isn’t one of them,” said Clawron.

Bill’s anger was back and ready for war as he focused a hostile look on Clawron. “And just how would you happen to know — ” He stopped when he remembered that she had admitted to being a military advisor for the Philcani-tu government. That’s why she was en route to testify before the Court of Inquiry.

“Armed Forces ships!” Randy blurted out, grinning as he did so. “There will be Alliance Armed Forces ships stationed in the Donwaxihel system, waiting for the decision of the Council of Justice. A few stellashuttles or battle-class stellavoyagers — ”

“Maybe even some stellacruisers,” said Bill.

“Sure! They’ll make short work of those jokers behind us, guaranteed.” Randy’s optimism was back in full force. He looked at Clawron. “What do you think, mercenary?”

“Sure, they’ll be there,” she said casually. “But I don’t know how much good it’ll do us. They’ll be in close orbit around Philcani-tu, and we won’t be able to call them for help because our transmissions are being jammed.”

“Doom and gloom, doom and gloom,” Randy said in a whiny little voice. He turned to Mr. Aganto. “The point is, sir, there will be somebody who can help us when we get there, and we’ve figured out a way to get there without being killed first. So relax, Mr. Aganto, and just remember — the game isn’t over until the last card is turned.”

Aganto was studying Randy’s face carefully, trying to decide if he was just making optimistic noises for the benefit of the passengers. Clawron’s endorsement of Randy and Bill’s contention that Alliance warships would be stationed at Philcani-tu seemed encouraging. If she agreed with them, all hope was not lost.

Aganto folded his arms and tried to relax. “So, we’re going to run for Philcani-tu, and hope we’ll get help when we arrive.”

“Exactly,” said Randy. “But even if we don’t, there’s still quite a lot we can do to defend ourselves.”

“Such as?”

Randy just smiled. “Why don’t you leave that to us, sir? That’s what you’re paying us for. I promise you’ll get your money’s worth.”

Aganto might have been a nervous man, but he was also a very pragmatic one. He knew that his fate rested firmly in the hands of these two men. Be they saints or sinners, fools or prophets, only they could determine whether this voyage would be remembered as an exciting adventure or Aganto’s Last Stand.

Besides, he said to himself, fate is on my side. Lawyers are supposed to die in bed.

Aganto drew a deep breath and let it out noisily. Finally he said, “I’m sure you’re both doing everything possible to protect the lives of your passengers. And we appreciate it very much, gentlemen.”

“I’m sure you do,” said Randy. “If you’ll excuse us, please, we’ve got work to do.” He rose from the table and hauled Bill up by the elbow. Randy led Bill to the cockpit door and started him up the steps, then Randy turned back to the passengers and said, “Try not to worry, folks. With a little luck, this will all be over in a couple of hours.”

“Right,” said Clawron. “With a little luck.”

Randy hurried up the stairs. Aganto decided that the best thing to do would be to get his mind off what was going to happen. He remembered what Randy had said about the Wishbone’s extensive library of movies. The movie he had watched earlier with Bill and Randy had been fascinat¬ing, a prophetic look at mankind’s future. Aganto wondered if any of the other movies made during that era had speculated on man’s eventual conquest of space, or the dramatic consequences that occur when worlds collide, or even the interplanetary conflicts which lead to a war of the worlds.

Aganto glanced over at Clawron and thought about asking if she wanted to watch a movie with him. She was fiddling with the keyboard and staring at the display screen, making it play the simulations of the Wishbone’s entrance into the Donwaxihel system, running the sequence over and over, punching in variations, evidently trying to improve it. Aganto decided to leave her alone, partly because she might succeed and thereby improve their chances of survival. But his main reason for not asking her was that he remembered what a poisonous bitch she was.

“If you’ll excuse me please, I think I’ll go to my cabin.” He rose from the table, but Clawron didn’t bother to look up, ignoring the lawyer while she continued to study the simulations. Her indifference annoyed Aganto, so he turned to face the wajinda, gave it a slight bow, and spoke in a courtly manner. “Goodnight, and sleep well, my friend.”

The wajinda dipped its head in imitation of Aganto. The man smiled and winked at the animal. Decorum had been observed. He went to his cabin.

Clawron sat in the lounge for a long time, peering at the display screen. She ran every possible variation on the planned maneuver, altering the flight path, the velocity, the shape of the force shields, the distance to the star, the moment of hyperdrive termination — anything and everything that might possibly make a difference. Finally she sat back, turned toward the wajinda, and started thinking out loud.

“This is not going to work.” The wajinda cocked its head to one side like a loyal dog listening to its master’s voice. “There’s a few things that our laughing boys failed to mention. Like the temperature of the hull when we graze the star’s photosphere. Over eight thousand degrees. I know the crystalsteel hull is capable of standing that much heat, but I’m not so sure about the insulation beneath the hull. If that insulation breaks down, we’d fry in about fifteen seconds.”

The wajinda just gazed at Clawron with large brown eyes. Clawron turned her attention back to the screen and tried to concentrate, but her body was concerned with a less intellectual matter, and it was clamoring for her attention. She cursed herself for mixing the drug too strong. It was clouding her judgment. However, she was able to handle it much better than Bill Jenkins for one simple reason: she had plenty of practice.

Clawron Uquay had been addicted to the drug for many years. Unlike most drugs, this one did not require the addict to constantly increase the necessary dosage. Clawron Uquay only ingested it about once every thirty days. With regular, moderate use, the drug caused a level of energy and alert¬ness that was not normally possible — but it permanently altered the personality of the user in undesirable ways.

Clawron knew that the aphrodisiac effects of the drug would dwindle somewhat in a few days, but right now it was creating a nagging hunger, a yearning that was easier to deal with than ignore. She switched off the wall screen and again turned to the wajinda.

“Maybe Mr. Aganto would like a little company in his cabin,” she wondered aloud. She was silent for a moment while she considered seducing the lawyer. But then she chuckled softly and shook her head. “No, that’s no good. He’s probably a virgin.”

The wajinda’s eyes never left hers. They were alert, immobile, unreadable. Clawron held its gaze for several seconds, then her eyes wandered toward her cabin.

“You’re a very good listener,” she said. “But right now my needs aren’t exactly conversational.”

She got up and walked back to her cabin, closing the door behind her. The wajinda gazed at the closed cabin door for several seconds, then it laid its head down between its paws and closed its eyes.


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