Trial By Fire – Snippet 18

Chapter Ten

Adrift off Barnard’s Star 2 C

Caine double-checked his survey results and sighed. So our survival depends upon my skill as a trash-scrounging sensor jockey. Great.

Trevor checked the tactical plot, leaned back, removed his helmet, and powered up the life-support systems. His words rode plumes of mist up into the chill air. “Enemy hull now crowding three gees, passing five light-seconds range–and good riddance.” Trevor swiveled toward Caine. “Time to pick through the junk. What looks best?”

Caine scanned down the list of possible salvage targets, now fallen off to less than fifty, and compared apparent mass with total thrust required for intercept. “Only one promising target remaining. This one.” He pointed. “It’s a fast mover and near the leading edge of the debris field.”

“Is that still in range?”

“Barely. We have twenty-two minutes left to initiate an intercept burn.”

Trevor looked at the fuel numbers, shook his head. “Damn, that’s an expensive intercept, Caine. We’ll burn up all of our primary thrust fuel, and we’ll have to dip into our station-keeping fuel by ten percent.”

“I know it’s expensive, but take a look at the mass and volume estimates of the other remaining targets.” Caine pointed to the depressing data. None of them were likely to be larger than six meters in their longest dimension. Most of them were probably fairly light as well. “Just hull fragments, I’d guess.”

Trevor’s misty breath fogged the computer screens in front of him. “Any possibility for new targets, ones we haven’t seen yet?” Without commenting, Caine displayed the statistics on wreckage density. Trevor saw the sharply diminishing values, then nodded soberly. “Looks like this vein is just about tapped out.”

“My thoughts exactly. So what now?”

“Now we take another look at our last, best hope, see what we can learn before we have to start maneuvering for intercept. I want to make sure it’s not another dry hole.”

Caine swallowed quietly. And if it is? Then what? Spend two days staring at the walls, waiting to slip finally, fatally, into anoxia? Or assuming they found some way to breathe, waiting for the excess rems–the ones that the EM grid and shielding didn’t stop–to build and the sickness to gather like a sour oil slick in the pits of their empty stomachs?

The sensors produced their first image of the target wreck upon which they were pinning their diminishing hopes of survival: a slowly winking patch of brightness at the center of the screen. Caine enhanced the scan sensitivity to maximum. The object’s reflected light patterns might allow the computer to estimate its structural configuration and yield a better mass estimate.

Trevor read off the results as they appeared on the screen. “Craft type and class: unknown. Mass estimate: 2455 tons, plus or minus 3 percent. Estimate confidence: 98.2 percent.” He frowned, then typed: “detail configuration.”

The screen scribed a three-axis grid. An outline formed swiftly at its center: a small wedge-shaped prow, a midsection of oblong bulges, and a confused collection of sharp angles to the rear. The confidence level indicator for the basic outline showed eighty-five percent. That initial level began increasing rapidly as planar surfaces started shading in, first in green–the high-confidence planes–then orange, and finally red: successively less certain projections. Caine and Trevor watched the object go through rotational analyses several times before they looked at each other.

Caine cleared his throat. “As a command grade officer in the USSF, it is my responsibility to be able to identify any human-built craft from a single cross-section, taken from any angle.” He looked back at the rotating image on the screen. “I am not familiar with this design, Captain.”

“I am, Commander,” Trevor replied in a tight voice. “That’s the small craft that was approaching the cutter, the one Hazawa hit with the PDF battery.”

Caine took a deep breath. “Do we make intercept?”

Trevor shrugged. “Do we have a choice? Enemy or not, that wreckage is the only chance we have of extending our survival time. If we’re lucky, its engines might still be intact, and they’ve got to be at least ten times more powerful than ours. That will give us enough thrust and endurance to angle back toward The Pearl, find if anything is left, maybe in the hidden caches, see if we can piece together some way to survive.”

“Assuming we can find a way to control the exosapients’ systems.”

“We’ll find a way, or we’ll reroute control through to our own computer. Otherwise, we’re on a short countdown to death from either asphyxiation, radiation exposure, or dehydration.” Trevor unstrapped, pushed off and drifted to the command center’s utility locker. He opened it, reached in and produced a Unitech ten-millimeter pistol. He unholstered it and started a crisp and professional inspection of the handgun. Caine raised his eyebrows slightly. “Are you expecting a welcoming committee?”

“No. But, in case I’m wrong…well, I hate going to a party empty-handed.”

Caine felt his palms grow cool. He watched the computer’s graphical representation of the unfamiliar craft spin, roll, and somersault through its three-dimensioned dissections.

Trevor reholstered the weapon, strapped back in. With a single touch to the dynamically reconfigurable screen, he wiped away the current, sensor-optimized setting and brought up the piloting set. “All systems checked and committed to computer control. Commencing intercept.”

Trevor started firing the plasma thrusters in sustained bursts, angling the module into a trajectory that would eventually allow them to stern-chase the Arat Kur wreck. “Velocity will be matched automatically, but the final eight thousand meters of approach will have to be manual.” His gaze continued to shuttle between the trajectory data and engine controls.

“How long?” asked Caine.

“Of this? Another two or three minutes. Then we coast for eight hours, at which point we go hands-on for a few sweaty minutes while we match its vector and tumble values. Then we suit up and check our gear.”

“Our gear?”

“Our weapons,” Trevor clarified, staring at him “We are going to be boarding an enemy craft, you know.”

Caine stared back. “Yeah. And you know I’m probably going to be more of a hindrance than a help. Like you said, I’m a make-believe soldier.”

“That was obligatory hazing, Caine. Besides, you’ve been shot at more today than any newb has been in the last twenty years. And as much as it pains me to say it, you showed some good weapon-handling aptitudes.”

“Mostly for heavy weapons, though.”

“Yeah, I noticed the reports. You either had one hell of a run of beginner’s luck or you’ve got a sixth sense for those weapons. But today, the weapon of choice is the handgun. How’d you do with those?”

Caine shook his head. “Not so good.”

“Well, today is your lucky day. You get to work on improving that skill.” Trevor drew the Unitech ten-millimeter, held it directly in front of Caine’s eyes. “Are you familiar with this weapon?”

Caine could not bring himself to answer yes “Read about it. Live-fired about fifteen rounds from one during the second week of training.”

“Okay, then we take it from the top.” Trevor swiftly field-stripped the handgun, laid each piece on the console in front of Caine. “Reassemble and review.”

You’ve got to be kidding. But Caine picked up the receiver, reached for the bolt, and dredged up already half-forgotten memories of a weapons-familiarization class that he had aced only two weeks earlier. “Unitech ten-millimeter selective-fire automatic handgun. This weapon uses a binary mix of reactant liquids as a scalable propellant. The two reactants are stored in separate canisters inside each magazine, which contains thirty projectiles. The standard load is fifteen antipersonnel, and fifteen armor-piercing projectiles.” And the recitation and assembly went on until Caine checked the action, secured the safety and handed the rebuilt weapon back to Trevor, butt first.

Trevor looked at it, then at Caine. “Forgetting something?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Think again. EVA ops require special systems.” Trevor took the weapon, pointed out several small nodules along the weapons frame and receiver. “Thermal regulation studs. They control the temperature of the weapon’s primary metal components to ensure constant operating temperatures across crucial interfacing surfaces, such as breech-to-barrel. Necessity in spaceside operations where thermal variations can be extreme.

“Also, the position of the trigger guard is adjustable, as is the tensile setting of the trigger spring. These two features allow the weapon to be reconfigured for a bigger handprint.” Trevor unlocked the trigger guard and pulled it forward until it almost reached the end of the barrel. “Looks odd, but it’s the only way you can use it if you’re wearing one of these.” Trevor wriggled his right hand back into one of the emergency suit gloves. He picked up the pistol with that hand; the weapon almost disappeared within the cumbersome gauntlet. “The bigger handprint allows you to fire and reload the weapon normally. But the most important EVA feature is–?”