PLEASE NOTE: This is part two of a story. Part one is online here. http://www.republibot.com/content/original-fiction-bob-and-cargo-death-r...
I showed up to the mission briefing early. The crew of about a dozen that I'd met yesterday was all in attendance, with the exception of Thor. Nancy winked at me. I just stared back. Flirting was never my strong suit. And strangely enough, I wanted to see Emily. She was forty when I last saw her a year ago. I didn't really care that at this point that she'd have to be about sixty-five. She was kind to me, once....
I listened to the mission briefing and went through my docs. Boring stuff, really; but boring like seatbelts. Ignore them at your peril. We all went through decontamination, and then put on our shipsuits and boarded a local shuttle to the NPR launch site. There was still no sign of Thor, but Nancy was doing her best to suck up to me. It must've been the celebrity thing- in my prosthetics I was NOT a pretty person.
At this point, I'm probably expected to wax poetic about the appearance of the rocket against the sunset, but to be honest, I never saw the exterior of the thing. We landed the shuttle-plane and were hustled through underground tunnels to an elevator. The elevator dumped us at the boarding tube and the boarding tube had an interior hermetic seal. Nope. Didn't see a thing. I wasn't even really sure that I was on a rocket until we had initial thrust.
I've ridden a couple of pulse rockets in my time. It's not pleasant. A pulse rocket isn't really a rocket as you think of it-- you know, like the big Apollo launches, or those goofy old space shuttles. A Nuclear Pulse Rocket drops a nuclear bomb out the butt-end of the ship which explodes and pushes against a thrust (or pusher) plate. Simple. Not elegant, and responsible for tons of penguin deaths back in the days of the great exodus fifty years ago, but very, very effective. It's extremely efficient for large payloads - we were about to put twenty-two million pounds of cargo in orbit, or the equivalent of more than three-hundred *thousand* old NASA shuttle launches - but passenger comfort is not it's strong suit.
I checked off my boards, and announced that we were ready to go. I heard the pilot call “all clear!” in a vaguely Scandinavian accent, and the first bomb dropped.
KRUMP! A mule kicked me in the chest, and then I felt a distinct falling sensation. KRUMP! There was that damned mule again... and then the fall... and another KRUMP! There's a reason that they starve us for 12 hours before launch. I dry-heaved. KRUMP! It would take about sixteen of these KRUMP to get us into orbit.KRUMP. KRUMP. KRUMP. I was surfing a series of ten-megaton thermonuclear explosions. Even *I* thought this was crazy. Crazier still, I’d done this before.
After seemingly sixteen years, the mule decided to go play somewhere else, and I unstrapped. We were in orbit, weightless. My station was in secondary propulsion, Alex was main propulsion. He unstrapped and used his cameras and remotes to start counting bombs. I checked the pressure inside the caustic fuel lines. Secondary propulsion was all about maneuvering, and the steering rockets used hypergolics. Like the pulse rocket itself, the manuevering jets were all about simplicity. In this case, two pipes go into the thruster, one carries hydrazine, the other carries nitrogen tetroxide. They touch each other and they spontaneously ignite, giving off oodles of heat and thrust in the process. Hypergolic engines don't "hard start”; they're very predictable and easy to control. Turn off the fuel, the reaction stops instantly. Being in charge of secondary propulsion was a breeze.
I sight inspected the holding tanks and the twin tubing for the hypergols. I was not thrilled with the design- I'd rather keep the chemicals very separate before they are combined in the thruster, but this design was less expensive. I'm rather familiar with the tyranny of the lowest bid.
I started to inspect the external lines once Alex was done with the external cameras. While doing so, I snuck a peek at the cargo pod mountings. I was expecting to see a shaped charge or two bolted on the couplings so that the E.E.'s could jettison the cargo. They would have to commit their sabotage in the next twenty minutes or so--- definitely before we resumed thrust and committed our course for Caspian Station.
Alex peered over my shoulder as I hunted charges. “I don’t see anything”, he said after running cameras up and down the struts and clamps that held the pods in place. I had to agree. Unless they were able to pry the clamp codes out of the pilot, I was stumped as to how the EE’s would pull off their little act of eco-terrorism. Alex grinned at me and drawled “Well… maybe they grew a conscience”.
The next couple of minutes are a blur. Thor came hand-over-hand down the pole in a pressure suit and floated into the propulsion space. I remember seeing pilot insignia on his jumpsuit—his voice echoed in my head as he grabbed us and threw us into an emergency pressure closet. “You two! Get into pressure gear! Emergency! We’re under attack!”
KRUMP! The mule was back! What the..? Alex and I slumped to the deck in the P-closet. The door slammed shut behind us. My ears popped as we struggled to get the helmets and life support packs on while watching Thor through a window. He seemed to be trying to disable the main propulsion controls--- This had to be the sabotage! He’d locked us in the pressure cabinet--- and he was going to drop the whole ship on Earth!
I started banging on the window with a helmet mounting ring wrench. He didn’t respond. Either he was ignoring me or…
“The propulsion bay is depressurized.” Alex stated matter-of-factly, “He can‘t here you banging.” He continued to look through the life support stats on the computer monitor. “In fact, with the exception of our little slice of paradise here, the whole ship is depressurized” He paused. “I’m only reading four active pressure suits out of a ships complement of twelve. Two thirds of the crew are either dead or off the ship”.
I was stunned. Thor could now turn the ship toward Earth and accelerate it to… I started to figure out the maximum velocity, but I couldn’t. Not only did I not have enough data, I was having a hard time getting sufficient emotional distance from the problem. My thinking was uncharacteristically fuzzy.
Alex spoke up again. “There’s only one escape pod left- the one here in the propulsion bay”
“I’m not running, Alex. Thor over there needs to be stopped before we crater this bucket”
Alex grinned. “Great speech, coach. Where do we start?”
I started to survey the bay. Thor seemed to be close to his goal. We needed to depressurize the closet, sneak across the bay, subdue or kill Thor… but someone was beating us to that last goal.
Thor twitched convulsively as small flame blossoms planted themselves in a row across the wall, across the pipes, across his back. He floated into the console, but continued to twitch as a female figure launched herself across the bay. Instinctively, I clamped down my helmet and motioned for Alex to do the same. She turned in our direction… Nancy!
The smile on her face was pure evil as she aimed her needlegun at the closet. There was a flash as the window exploded outward…. Shrapnel flew in every direction. Alex and I were pushed out by the puff of expanding air. It was a big closet, there had been a surprising amount of air in there. I practiced looking very dead, in preparation for the real thing.
As I tumbled slowly in the microgravity, I saw that Nancy was working the propulsion boards. She struck it with the butt of her gun once or twice—then set to work. It looked like Thor was unable to lock the board completely down. Nancy set a sequence into the board, looked at us, locked the board and sailed to the escape pod. The hatch closed behind her, and the pod gently fell away.
I snapped to attention: Alex was hurt. His leg was mostly gone and he was going into shock. His suit had sealed over the rupture, but it wouldn’t stop the bleeding. I ignored the protruding remnants of his leg as I made a makeshift tourniquet and injected him with an ampule of adrenisol. There was nothing I could do about the pain or the panic: I didn’t have a happy juicer, and even if I did, there was no way to get one on under his helmet in this situation. I pulled him toward the acceleration couches where he could see the status of the propulsion units.
“Bob…” He paused, gathering strength. “It looks like the pilot disarmed most of the propulsion bombs. That’s the good news….” He gasped. I was surprised. Thor was a good guy?
“And the bad news?”
“He didn’t get the last half dozen—and they are the big ones.”
By ‘big ones’, he meant the larger megaton yield bombs that were designed to get the ship out of a gravity well in an emergency. There were six of them left in the racks, hot and ready to go.
The mule’s older brother joined him in caving my chest in. I stood corrected, or in this case, lay gasping, corrected…there were now five hot bombs in the rack. I surveyed the mostly ruined control panel. There was no way to route ship’s guidance to my station so I looked at Alex’s area. It seemed to be in worse shape, only displaying what Nancy had done last.
I was reasonably sure that she had turned the ship back Earthward and was hellbent on causing the biggest bang since that original one. I had to get to the control room and see if I could reset the course to some sort of low-earth elliptical orbit. I had no illusions about it being stable, but maybe we could coax a few days out of it, and maybe save a few million lives in the process.
I looked down at Alex. His face was pale and sweaty…. I had to get him to the infirmary, and then I had to get to helm control. I had maybe five minutes before the ejectors threw the next bomb behind the pusher plate.
I surveyed the bay quickly, figuring out the best trajectory to get us to the ladder.
I told Alex to hold on as I picked him up. To monitor him, I held him to me visor to visor. He gave me a weak grin. “Ready to boost, Chief!”
I grinned back. Brave kid.
I pushed hard against the footrest of the acceleration couch. Almost immediately, I felt burning pain. Alex’s face… my God, his face turned incandescent and melted away… the remains of his helmet burst into mine… my faceplate fogged and crazed and fused to my forehead…. I was blind
The last thing I saw was Alex’s head burning into the vacuum.
I don’t know how I got to the infirmary. My vision came back as the faceplate was sawed away from my face. I saw Thor cutting away bits of helmet. I have no idea how my suit held air judging from the damage. As my eyes cleared up, I saw strange burned…. something on one of the beds. I couldn’t get my brain around it. And then it clicked. Alex’s body, or what was left of it, was neatly laid out on the biobed.
I switched off my emotions. At this point, I could feel the grief pumping its way to the surface. It had to be shut down. I analyzed the data. It was obvious what had happened: hypergolic reactions don’t generate light or smoke. They’re effectively invisible, and very, very, very dangerous because of it. The fuel lines had been breached by Nancy’s needle gun and created a small, invisible thruster inside the propulsion bay. Alex…. Oh God.... I had carried Alex right into the invisible flame. His body shielded me from most of the jet.
And Thor must not have been as dead as it seemed. I stared at him a moment as he continued to cut melted helmet and suit fragments away from my head. He didn’t look well, by any stretch of the imagination.
“How… Why?”… I managed to croak out. My throat burned.
“What? How did you survive your attempted suicide? You used your friend as a shield”
I gulped. Thor coughed blood.
“No. Accident. Tried to get him help. Didn’t see leak” I didn’t mean to sound like Frankenstein’s monster, but every syllable hurt.
“I know that, ‘John’, but you could’ve avoided it had you paid attention to the pressure gauges on your own board before you went and jumped.”
“My board was ruined by your girlfriend’s toy gun”
“Girlfriend?” Thor’s bitter laughter ended with a red-flecked coughing fit. “She opened the entire ship to space. Every airlock at once, every lifepod jettisoned. We were lucky.” He stopped for a second. He really didn’t look well.
I’d nursed a sort of fool’s hope that the Nuclear Pulse Engine had been shut down while I was unconscious, but no such luck. The mule kick to my ribs took the fight out of me for a moment. It did far worse to Thor.
“I’m already dead, ‘John’,” he said, “One of her shots got me in the liver, I think. Unless you are a surgeon…”
“I’m sorry…. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name”
“Pilot First Class Tor Trygstadt”
I started crying, because I didn’t dare laugh.
“I’m sorry, Tor. I’m an engineer, not a doctor” I instantly wanted to die for saying that. It hadn’t come out the way I’d intended.
He gasped, rattled and died as the acceleration let up. My stupid accidental joke was the last thing he’d ever hear.
I looked in the mirror over the sink in the infirmary. My face looked partially burned, partially melted. I inspected my suit. It looked scorched, but serviceable. I felt a cold rising anger creep through my bones. Les did this to me. He killed Tor, he killed Alex. I don’t know where he found Homicidal Nancy, but she killed everyone but me.
I sprayed hard-set dressing on my head, the gel quickly stiffened into a yellowish cast. The dressing contained antiseptics, antibiotics, anesthetics and blood plasma. Once it hardened, I grabbed some blue surgical tape and scissors out of a drawer.
I promised Li that I’d treat Alex like a son. I failed. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I cut the tape into flower petals and arranged them on my cast, above my right eye. Alex had gone to the stars. Not the same way the rest of us did, but still…
I coughed violently. My throat felt like razors had cut it lengthwise. I looked around for an oral anesthetic. There was an inhaler of some sort that ended in ‘-caine’. I put it to my mouth and puffed. I breathed in fire that quickly cooled into a glacier in my throat.
Tor’s helmet floated next to his body. I strapped the big guy to a bed and stole his helmet. He didn’t need it anymore, and I did. I clamped the helmet down over my dressings and walked toward the door. As I depressurized the infirmary, I touched Alex’s left boot. He wanted me to save the world. I pushed myself through the hatch into the airless ship. I would save the world, but only because he’d wanted it.
There were bodies on the way to the control room, floating gently a few inches from the decking. The less that can be said about death by spacing, the better. I undogged the hatch to the control room and pushed myself in. I sat in the main couch and looked at the monitor. This couldn’t be right. I expected to have the viewer filled with Earth, looming ever closer as the ship was used as the ultimate weapon against her.
I saw space.
Realizing that I must be looking at a rearward view, I checked the camera controls. They were all normal, I was looking at space in the direction of our travel. For a second, I was elated! Nancy had made a mistake, we were still on course for Caspian Station.
Then it hit me. We were still on course for the station at a high velocity and a locked main propulsion board. Les didn’t want to harm the Earth, he was still at heart an Evangelical Environmentalist. It would be like shooting his own mother. He wanted to destroy the station- in his mind, it was leaching resources from the Earth. And since it was also the immigration station to the stars, with the station’s destruction, it would stop the drain of human resources as well.
I had to call Li.
I pressurized the cabin and punched up his number. He appeared immediately, Les at his side. White hot anger surged through me, but I tamped it down. I had to let Li know about Alex, without allowing Les to know what I had figured out. I started to speak, but nothing came out. I had numbed my vocal cords!
Les took the initiative. “Bob. I’m sorry to say this, but I cannot negotiate with environmental terrorists.”
If I wasn’t already speechless, I would’ve been struck dumb. The final piece fell into place. Les would be able to politically distance himself from the EE’s, using the symbol that I’d become against them. I was already a known whaloid hugger, a xenophile, it wasn’t that big a step to make me into a suicide bomber. I seethed, knowing that Les was enjoying the irony of my becoming a symbol for a movement that I personally despised, and then becoming a symbol of terror, death and the end of Earth’s involvement in interstellar colonization. I made eye contact with General Li. His eyes darted up to the makeshift blue flower on my wound dressing and then back to mine. They widened in anguish as he realized what he was seeing. I nodded ‘yes’ slightly and tilted my head towards Les. The general’s face darkened and then disappeared off the side of the monitor.
“Bob, you were once my friend, but I cannot condone what you are doing. Please change course and spare the lives of the colonists waiting to board your old ship, the Bahman.”
My eyes must’ve widened at that. The Bahman was docked at the station? That meant that when I hit, I’d also take out one of Gagarin’s Archangel class ships. And around 50, 000 people.
“What could I tell you to make you stop this madness?” Les was playing this up for all it was worth, knowing full well tapes of this conversation would be played in every history class and environmentalist revival meeting for generations to come. “What could I say?” A short scream escaped from his lips. I saw the point of a West Point saber extend out of his chest. “I’m stabbed!” he cried. I saw General Li standing behind him as the screen went black.
Yeah. He could say that for starters.
My throat felt funny, but I ignored it. I had to change course before the ship plunged into the station. While I tried to bring up the thruster controls, I punched up Station Traffic Control. Before the face on the screen had time to speak, I croaked out “Caspian STC, listen up! I’m coming in VERY hot with limited control. Please evacuate if you are able or at least get in the ‘cellar’. I am going to try to miss you, but you still might get some radiation exposure. If you can run the electromagnets, you might want to start.” I choked and started coughing.
“Uh, you’re not Tor. Who are you?”
“Bob Wilson. Look me up.”
I cut the channel. Boring. The thruster displays were not a happy sight. We had leaked a good amount of the hypergols before Thor shut the valves on the port side. I could not use them to slow us down. It left me with only one option. I pumped all the hypergols to the starboard side thruster array. Hoping that this would work, I opened the top thruster wide to topside and the lower thruster wide to keel. Slowly, the ship turned on its centerline, flipping the pusher plate in the direction of travel. I reversed the jets before the turn was complete, stopping the rotation about 15 degrees from our course line.
My throat was beginning to really bother me. Stabbing pain. I had talked too much to the airhead traffic controller. I scanned around the control room, looking for a first aid kit. Finding it, I pushed myself over to the bulkhead where it was mounted. There was a nice little O2 bottle/rebreather in addition to the usual supplies. I thought that it might do me a little good, so I put the mask on and started it up. The oxygen went right to my brain. I had not expected that, so I took my right thumb and forefinger and squeezed my left index fingernail. It stayed white a bit longer than I anticipated—hypoxia! The CO2 scrubbers were not working in the control room. This rebreather would not last long. I was probably dead.
I saw a countdown timer across the room tick down to zero. As the KRUUUUUUUMMMPPP mule kicked me again, I saw the timer reset to seven and a half minutes. I saw my monstrous reflection in a monitor. I felt a rib move in a way it wasn’t supposed to as I collided with the arm of the acceleration couch. I saw black, I welcomed death.
I woke up, and it wasn’t hell. It looked like a well lit, well stocked infirmary. A slim woman with short cropped salt and pepper hair was sitting beside my bed, holding my hand. Her eyes welled as mine opened. I looked at her for a minute, almost recognizing her, but not quite. My heart knew her before I did.
“Emily?” Fire shot through my throat. I swore an oath of poverty, chastity and silence all at once.
“Yes, Bob. It’s me. You’re okay now.”
“Caspian infirmary. Try not to talk. Your larynx transplant and grafts haven’t had time to set in.”
I motioned for a whiteboard. She handed me one.
What happened? I scribbled, my IV tubes getting in the way.
“You saved us, Bob. You shifted the vector of the ship and slowed it considerably so that it passed by us. We got a good dose of the last bomb as it swept across the station’s orbit, but the magnetic shielding took care of most of it. We were able to get the women and children into the ‘cellar’. Only a few hundred people got a bad dose of rads” She spoke with authority. I looked at her shoulder, she wore general’s insignia. My darling little Emily was the executive officer of the station! My darling little Emily had grey hair and lines around her eyes.
I wrote furiously: How Long?
“You’ve been out for about 70 hours.” She stopped, emotion leaked into her voice. “I thought we’d lost you. When I saw you in the control room, you weren’t moving. Your burns and your internal bleeding should’ve killed you.”
Why did you get me?
“As soon as I heard your call to Traffic, I scrambled a Med team and took off in one of our fast launches. Once my pilot figured out what you had done, he plotted a course and got to you as soon as the final bomb went off.” She laughed. She always had a great laugh. So did her dad, if I remember correctly. “That was a bit dodgy, but we snatched you and got you here as fast as possible.”
“Who were the bodies in the infirmary?” She was serious now.
Tor the pilot and Alex Li My hand started shaking. She grabbed it and held it like iron.
“It’s okay, dear. It’s okay.” But it really wasn’t. And it wouldn’t be. Not for me, anyway.
With her permission so freely given, I let the bottled emotion out in sobs that cracked my ribs. Emily held me close. The General and the Engineer were gone, it was only me and the woman I had not-quite loved a couple of years ago; she and the boy she had definitely loved a quarter century ago.
The buzzing of the needle stopped. The girl with the pink hair and the varicolored skin handed me a mirror. There above my right eye, in a blue ink that blazed in contrast to my burned skin was a single flower. I paid her, and walked out into the Gagarin night. I took a deep breath, it didn’t hurt much anymore, and started across the square toward the Mount Saint Anthony city gate. The monastery wasn’t too far, I could make it in a couple of hours. I caught my reflection in a window, the flower startled me with it’s newness.
“To the stars”, indeed.
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