Trial By Fire – Snippet 16

Chapter Nine

Adrift off Barnard’s Star 2 C

Rubbing the goose-egg bump on his head, Caine watched Trevor paw through the utility satchel they had filled with burnt-out power relays during their painstaking survey of the damage done to the auxiliary module. The relays clattered noisily against each other. “How bad is it?” Caine asked.

Trevor shrugged. “It’s not good. With this much damage to the control circuitry, the environmental reprocessors are as good as dead. The air we have right now is all we’re going to have. Of course, we can use electric current to crack water and get extra oxygen, but that means cutting into our drinking rations and running the power plant more. Which means becoming a much bigger signal for our enemies to detect.”

“So how much life support do we have?”

“No more than three days, and that assumes that we shut down most of the module and limit minimal life support to a small, sealed area.”


“There’s more good news. We have only fifty percent fuel left in our attitude control system.”

“Fifty percent? Why?”

“We were in one hell of a three-axis tumble after the fusion plant on the cutter went up. Getting this coffee can stable was a pretty lengthy task.”

Caine frowned. “On the other hand, why should we care how much ACS maneuver time we have left?”

“Funny you should ask. I have a plan.” Trevor activated one of the screens. A miniature replica of the Auxiliary Command module blinked into existence, rolling through space on its long axis like a log going down a hill. The image diminished rapidly, shrank until the module was a small blue speck. Trevor tapped another key; red specks appeared, most of them traveling along the same vector as the blue speck and then flowing past it. “The red is wreckage, mostly ours and some of theirs. If we could manage to match vectors with the right piece of junk, the salvage might enable us to hang on for an extra week, maybe a whole month.”

Caine, studying the creeping red stream, rubbed his chin. He immediately regretted the action; the tug on his skin reopened the wound that the door jamb had inflicted on his lower lip the day before. He pressed the back of his hand to the gash, gestured at the screen. “How did you get those vector fixes on the wreckage?”

“Three-second, narrow-field, active sensor bursts. Four of them, over the last ten hours.”

Caine glanced at Trevor. “The OpFor might have left passive sensors behind.”

“Maybe, but that isn’t likely. This area isn’t important enough to monitor, and they’re not going to leave their own hardware behind if they can help it. Every piece of equipment they’ve got with them they had to carry in on their own backs, and they’re at the end of a very long and very narrow supply line.”

Caine nodded. “Okay. So, based on your data, what sort of delta-vee do we need in order to make intercept with the salvage?”

“That varies,” answered Trevor. “Most of the junk is moving in roughly the same direction we are, only a little faster. And the stuff that’s gone past us is already too far away to catch.”

“So we have to assess the trajectories of objects that have yet to overtake us and make intercept in the next two or three days.”

“Right. And then we have to accelerate the combined mass of our module and the salvage toward a reasonable destination. Whatever that turns out to be.”

Caine looked at the red motes. “Sounds like a tough job.”

“Actually, it’s two tough jobs. First, we’ve got to match vectors with whatever piece of trash we ultimately choose. That’s hard enough, given our fuel limitations. Second, our intercept should ideally end in a hard dock, or at least in a solid mooring. But that requires two things we don’t have: a docking ring–which we lost when we blew the jettisoning charges–and fully-fueled terminal navigation boosters.”

Caine nodded. Without navigational boosters, it would be hard to control their final approach. Their reliance on the main thruster made them highly susceptible to errors of over- and under-correction. They were as likely to ram the wreckage, or overshoot it, as they were to make a safe intercept.

“So how can I help?” asked Caine.

“Get out of that emergency suit and hop into the sensor ops spot.” Trevor indicated the appropriate chair. “We’re going to need more precise vector definitions on the pieces of wreckage that we can still reach, and then we’re going to need to get an idea of what the wreckage is.”

“If I remember what my space ops instructor was saying two weeks ago, the only passive sensors that are going to help me with this task are spectrographs and mass scans.”

“Correct. And if you get the chance, make a fast sweep for other approaching objects. Better safe than sorry.”

Trevor was halfway into his emergency suit by the time Caine had strapped into the sensor ops position. “And where will you be?”

Trevor flexed his gloved fingers. “Pressure-sealing the access ways and B deck so we can terminate environmental functions in those areas. I’ll start by sealing off– Damn!” Trevor exclaimed suddenly, grabbing his shin.

–at the same moment that Caine clutched at a sudden spasm in his left arm. “What the–?”

“Coupla old men,” Trevor grinned ruefully, rubbing his left tibia.

“Yeah, but having our recent wounds bother us at the same second?” Caine wondered.

Trevor shrugged. “Ah, I’ve heard of stranger stuff, and we don’t know what kind of sensors or other field effects the bad guys may be playing around with out there. Sometimes, just the right–or wrong–frequency can twinge a break or trouble a tooth.” He smiled, finished sealing his gloves. “Space is funny, that way.”

Caine nodded as Trevor clanked his helmet into place and ran the locking rings home with a sharp, sure sweep of his hand. They exchanged waves, then Trevor took two long bounds and was out of the control room and into the main corridor.

*   *   *

Caine started awake, jerked upright, was not sure where he was for a moment. His hands were still poised on the virtual keyboard of the sensor panel. Like many repetitious activities, what started out as a sequence of challenging sensor tasks had quickly become a mind-numbing routine. And without a high-end computer in the auxiliary module, a detailed search routine was only so automatable.

Two quick lazar bursts at each target would have provided the needed results, but that might have also been enough to attract any nearby enemy pickets. So far, thirty percent of the possible targets for salvage intercept had been eliminated simply because of the low confidence level of the sensor measurements. The module’s limited fuel situation prohibited any intercept attempts that were based on “best-guesses.”

Trevor’s voice in his earbud snapped him further awake. “How’s it going?”

“Fine. Slow. Boring. You?”

“I’m curious. Do me a favor; check on the Prometheus‘ trajectory.”