Trial By Fire – Snippet 21

Chapter Eleven

Adrift off Barnard’s Star 2 C

The airlock was even smaller than it had looked from outside, barely big enough to hold the two of them at the same time. Caine kept the ten-millimeter trained on the squarish doorway that led deeper into the craft, watching for any changes in the lights on the panels that flanked it.

In the meantime, Trevor had found a knob similar to the one on the outside of the hull and was turning it rapidly. As he did, a hard-edged shadow advanced across the door, the floor, and finally, cut off all external light into airlock: the outer hatch was sealed. The red radiation icon on Caine’s HUD flickered into orange and then disappeared. The Arat Kur have pretty damn efficient rad shielding, considering there’s no sign of an operating EM grid. However, there were still radiation worries: Caine’s chronometer read 144 seconds total elapsed mission time. That meant almost seventy-five REM whole body dose for Trevor, about fifty-five for Caine. Plus the thirty REM they had picked up when their own EM grid had to be shut off yesterday, and whatever else they were going to pick up making the jump back to the Auxiliary Command Module. In all probability, they weren’t going to be feeling too well for the next couple of days.

Trevor moved over to the control panel beside the inner door, briefly inspected the lights and the glyphs beneath them. He tapped the bottom half of the panel, exploring.

Caine touched helmets. “What are you looking for?”

“This.” Trevor was now sliding aside the lower half of the panel, revealing three smaller, cruciform knobs. “Manual systems in case the power is out.”

“Won’t they be disabled or locked off?”

“Not unless there was a survivor on board who saw us coming and wanted to keep us out. You have to leave manual overrides functional during routine ops. Otherwise, if your power goes down and you’re unconscious or unable to move, rescuers can’t get to you unless they breach the hull. And I guess our adversary has learned the same lesson.”

“So since they’re not locked off, maybe that indicates there aren’t any survivors to take that precaution. Besides, survivors should have tried to effect repairs and rejoin their own fleet, particularly since this ship doesn’t seem too badly damaged.”

“Don’t judge a book by its cover, Caine, particularly when it comes to sensitive machines like spacecraft. They can look fine on the outside but can be hopelessly fubared inside.”

“I wonder how fubared this craft really is.”


“The rads dropped away completely when you shut the door behind us.”

Trevor shrugged, digging for a small tool kit on his utility harness. “They’re probably way ahead of us in material sciences.”

Caine shook his head. “You’d need tremendous density to stop that much particle radiation.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that this ship might still have enough power to be shielding itself, somehow.”

“Then why didn’t our passive sensors pick up the electromagnetic anomalies?”

“I don’t know. Maybe their EM field effect is not projected, but remains within the matter comprising the hull. Sort of how active electrobonding works, only this version is designed to repel charged particles rather than strengthen the bonds between molecules in hull materials.”

Trevor was silent before replying. “Where would the power come from? Their fusion plant is cold.”

“I don’t know. Batteries, possibly on constant recharge if some part of the hull is sensitized to work like a solar panel.”

“Which would probably mean that somebody on board did survive the battle,” Trevor pointed out. “What you’re describing is not an automated emergency backup system. It would need someone to activate and integrate all those functions.” Trevor put a hand on one of the three small knobs. “So, assuming we have an enemy to meet, let’s get moving. Stand to the side and cover the door.”

Caine crunched himself into the nearest corner, took the gun in both hands, extended it out in front of himself. The first knob that Trevor manipulated activated a series of dim red lighting bars that outlined the inner airlock door. The lights flashed rapidly. Probably the knob for opening the inner airlock door, the alarm signifying that the airlock itself was still unpressurized. “I’m no linguist, but I think red is their color for danger, too.”

Caine nodded his agreement and re-centered the handgun’s laser sight on the interior door.

The next knob Trevor tried had no immediately observable effect, but after several seconds, they noticed a faint external sound: the rush of air. Trevor squeezed himself to the other side of the interior airlock door, drew a pry-bar from his tool-kit, and hefted it. Caine heard his voice over the helmet speakers. “We’ll need to use radio, now. Shift to secure channel four.”

Caine made the appropriate choice on his HUD display with an eye-directed cursor, bit down with his left molars to confirm the selection. “Radio check. Are you receiving?”

“Loud and clear.” The inrushing of air had already crescendoed and was now diminishing rapidly. “Ready to dance?”

Caine nodded, focused on the intense red dot that his weapon was projecting upon the interior door. Trevor manipulated the first knob again. This time, the door slid aside.

A passage, side-lights receding away vanishing-point style. No blast of out- or in-rushing air, either; the craft still had an atmosphere. No sign of fog or fine snow drifting in midair; the humidity hadn’t frozen out, meaning that the internal heating hadn’t failed.

Trevor stopped turning the knob. “Fresh life-support means the probability of survivors just got a lot higher. Cover high; I’m going in low.”

“Understood. Go.”

Trevor jackknifed around the edge of the doorway, swam aggressively into the passage beyond. He swooped low, hugged the floor tightly as he followed along the wall to his left.

“What do you see?” Caine asked.

“Doors up ahead, two on either side. Two rows of handles–the four-flanged variety–run the length of the walls.”

“For zero-gee movement?”

“That’s my guess. Can’t make out the end of the hall. Looks like a dark opening, but I can’t be sure. Damn. What I’d give for thermal imaging goggles right about now.”

“Should I advance past you?”

“No, just join me here. This space is too tight for a leapfrog advance.”

And I’m not good enough in zero-gee to make it feasible, anyhow. Holding the gun in his right hand, Caine pushed with his feet and let his body straighten into a slow forward glide.

Trevor hadn’t exaggerated. The corridor was not well-suited to human physiognomy. Only one and a half meters wide by two meters high, it felt cramped, vaguely reminiscent of the engineering access spaces aboard the Auxiliary Command module. The lights that receded toward the dark at the end of the corridor were more amber in color than white.

“Caine, watch how you’re handling that gun. Don’t point the laser down the hall. We don’t want to announce ourselves.”

Caine nodded his understanding and pushed himself down to a prone position alongside Trevor. “Now what?”

“We go room by room. You cover, I enter.”

Which seemed a wise plan. Trevor was ensuring that they would not leave any uncleared spaces behind them. But there was one problem with its execution. As they began low-drifting toward the first of the four doors, Caine secured the handgun’s safety and offered it back to Trevor, butt first. “Give me the pry-bar. I’ll enter the rooms. You cover.”

“Nope. We’ve got the right resources in the right hands.”

“Trevor, you’re much more qualified with this weapon than I am.”

“And even more qualified in zero-gee maneuver. Did you have any classes in zero-gee hand-to-hand combat?”


“Then you should know what I’m talking about. Every time you take a swing, you’re propelling yourself in a new direction. Same thing every time you block a blow or duck; every movement is acceleration. Two sudden moves and you’ll be too disoriented to do anything other than try to steady yourself.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s get on with it, then.”

The first door–which was almost perfectly square–did not respond to physical manipulation. Trevor tried the buttons on the panel alongside it. On the second try, the door slid aside.

The room, illuminated by Caine’s helmet lights, was a hollow cube. Clutched in metal beams at the center was a radially symmetric collection of metal spheres, translucent tanks, and conduits.

Trevor dove in, brought himself to a halt, peered in between the tanks and tubes, drifted back out. “I’m guessing that’s life support. No one home.”

The next squarish door had irregular black smudges along two adjoined edges. Trevor ran a finger over the smudge, which erased but deposited itself on the tip of his glove. Carbon. Probably from an interior fire that had tried to lick around the door seal. The buttons on that entry refused to work and Trevor’s attempts to budge it were futile. His movements were hurried and annoyed as he drifted toward the next door.

This opened onto what seemed to be a private room of some sort. However, just beyond the doorway, the ceiling and floor pinched closer to each other, so that an individual entering the room had less than one and a half meters of vertical space in which to operate. An apparent sleeping nook that sheltered a pair of berths that looked like a mix of mechanical cocoon and fluffy sleeping bag stood out from the far wall. Other objects–furniture and implements, Caine guessed–seemed to be secured for zero-gee.