Trial By Fire – Snippet 19

Caine recited this one from memory: “‘Projectile velocity may be varied by altering the volume of liquid injected into the firing chamber. This feature allows the user to both reduce warhead speeds and makes the weapon significantly less destabilizing when fired in low- and zero-gee environments.'”

“Very good. Now we perform a piece-by-piece diagnostic of our two emergency suits. We can talk though our next action while we work.”

Caine swung his own suit out of the closet and began his own checks. “What action is that?”

“Boarding procedure.” Trevor holstered the sidearm.

Caine swallowed–a large, uncomfortable sensation–and began the visual inspection of his helmet. A worried expression stared back from its visor.

*   *   *

“I read an approximate volume of eight hundred fifty kiloliters,” Trevor’s voice announced in Caine’s earbud. “We have matched its pitch values. Yaw values are minimal. Roll rate is one full rotation every twenty-eight seconds. Do you confirm? Over.”

Caine squinted out the bow observation port in the ready room, just forward of the command center. The stark white enemy craft was completing one full roll around its long axis about once every half minute. “I confirm that estimate.”

“Approximate range? Over.”

Caine sighted the pistol at the wreck’s midship hull, activated its dual-purpose targeting laser, read the rear LED: “One hundred forty meters, closing rapidly.”

“Your range estimate confirms on-board ranging. Closing at two meters per second. Stand by for final retro burn.”

A series of slight tugs indicated a quick sequence of counteraccelerations. The distance between the two craft stopped decreasing, stabilizing at just under one hundred meters. Caine was suitably impressed. The Auxiliary Command module had not been designed for precision spaceflight, just gross corrections to its own vector. And without Trevor’s piloting skills–well, no reason to think about that. Not unless one was eager to contemplate certain death.

“I read vectors and two axes of tumble as matched. Confirm?”

“Confirmed. Nice driving.”

“Not as nice as I’d like. Every ten meters is at least three seconds of exposure when we jump across.”

“What’s the current rate of exposure?”

“Thirty REM per minute. Nice tanning weather.”

Caine’s stomach contracted. “What about the exo craft? Are you reading active rad shields?”

“Negative. No EM grid. Do you observe any lights or sign of activity? Over.”

Caine studied the craft more closely. The wedge-shaped prow had taken damage; it looked as though its chin had been chopped off. Good shooting, Hazawa. An ovate, slightly recessed, jet-black slab dominated what Caine took to be the upper surface. A hull-flush cockpit blister? Perhaps, but no sign of life in or about what Caine mentally labeled as the command section.

The craft’s amidships belly rolled into view, revealing two parallel rows of white, oval containers: fuel tankage. No sign of damage, but no sign of activity. The aft propulsion system was also slightly easier to examine, now that the prow was out of the way. Toroidal fusion pods and thruster bells were crowded atop one another, but there was less apparatus for gimballing than on a comparable human craft. The enemy evidently relied more on magnetic bias to alter the vector of their thrust. But again, no light, no movement, not even any signs of damage.

“No sign of activity,” Caine reported. “No sign of damage other than to the command module comprising the prow.”

“What about sensor clusters?”

“None observable.”

“Points of embarkation?”

“Not sure. There are a number of surface irregularities on the sides of the command module, but I can’t even guess at their purpose. Can you get a better look with our external camera?”

“Negative. If I zoom in, the wreck’s roll produces a blurred image. If I zoom out, I lose resolution. Hobson’s choice. So any greater detail is going to require eyeballing it up close. Which means it’s time for a walk around the neighborhood. I’m removing my intercom jack.”

There was a sharp electronic snick and then nothing. Caine activated his suit’s radio, sealed his helmet, and leaned forward for a final, and better, look outside. To the left, Barnard’s Star was a small, bright red disk. To the right, the alien wreck rolled lazily. Falling behind, almost completely hidden by the bulk of the Auxiliary Command module, was the arc of the small gas giant. Strange, how serene it all looks–

The head’s up display briefly painted an orange radiation icon on the inside of the helmet visor; Caine backed away from the window and leaned off to the side. Ten minutes of external exposure would cause profound sickness. Two times that was probably fatal.

Another orange light came on, but this one was next to the aft passageway: the first seal on the internal airlock door had been unlocked. Caine exited the ready room, headed aft, found Trevor releasing the primary hatch seal. The orange light became red. They entered the airlock.

After dogging the hatch behind them, Trevor leaned over until the top half of his visor touched Caine’s. Trevor’s voice was muffled and distant. “Last suit check. All green?”

“All green.”

Trevor nodded, tapped the red button on the wall. Caine heard a low rushing sound, somewhere in between a cascade of water and burst of released gas: the airlock was being depressurized.

“Give me a procedure review, Caine.”

“I wait until you reach the target and send a hand signal confirming that you have made rendezvous and that I am cleared to remotely stabilize the line. I then jump over using a line-lanyard. I maintain radio silence throughout, to be violated only in the event of emergency or upon your initiation of broadcast.”

“How much time do we have to make our jump?”

“One minute each. Any longer and our cumulative radiation exposure becomes–er, unpromising.”

Trevor nodded behind his visor. “Okay, let’s go.” He turned to face the door, opened an access panel, depressed a red handle, held it there.

The red lights flashed rapidly for three seconds and then the door started to move aside noiselessly, as if presaging the strange, ghostly silence of outer space. Or of death. Caine bit his savaged lip, used the pain to control his nerves. A widening slice of blackness and stars opened before them. Trevor drew the Unitech ten-millimeter, attached its lanyard to a ring on his utility harness, and leaned forward, allowing his feet to rise behind him. When his soles met the interior hatch at their backs, he reached out with both hands, braced himself against the edges of the now-fully open outer hatch. He contracted backward into a squatting position, legs gathered under him as he attached his tether to a mooring ring on the airlock wall. If Trevor mistimed his jump, then he’d have problems landing on the bow module, which would mean more exposure. Which in turn would mean–Caine decided not to pursue that line of thought any further.

Trevor kicked off from the inner hatch and into open space, the line unfurling in his wake. Caine moved to a position near the door to get a better view.

Trevor was already fifteen meters away and had rolled over on his back, pistol in hand. He aimed back along the path of his jump, then shifted his aim slightly above the rim of the auxiliary command module. Caine saw the muzzle flash briefly, followed immediately by a noticeable increase in the speed with which Trevor was moving away.

His course-corrective shot had apparently been a good one; he was now headed directly for the enemy craft. He somersaulted very slowly to face in that direction, his legs out in front of him. The slack eased out of the tether as Trevor passed the halfway mark–and as Caine’s heads-up display painted the now-familiar trefoil radiation symbol above the scene.

Trevor’s forward progress started to diminish, suggesting that he had now fired the ten-millimeter to both kill his forward tumble and counteraccelerate, easing himself into a slower approach. Caine checked the small green chrono at the extreme left of his HUD. Elapsed time: fifteen seconds. Coming up on five REM whole body exposure for Trevor, probably about a third that for himself.

Trevor drifted closer to the wreck as the broad top of the prow began rolling around toward him once again. He had uncoupled from the tether: dangerous but necessary. Landing on the rolling hull with the tether firmly attached would have snapped the line like desiccated string and sent Trevor spinning off into space.