Drive Like Lightning . . . Crash Like Thunder, part two
by B. Morris Allen
Humans used their only advantage—FTL drive—to hide from the aggressively violent Mechanics and their high-G-force ships. Perpiphery Scout Anjica Zelnov was mapping the edge of Mechanic space when she detected a human radio signal—from inside the aliens’ territory. The signal suggested the existence of a working Esmith drive—a drive that would allow humans to fight the Mechanics on fair terms. She followed the signal to investigate a dark asteroid deep in an enemy solar system.
A series of images appeared on vid screens—a panorama in grey and black. One shape, part smooth, part angular, was highlighted.
“Zoom in,” she ordered. The highlighted image expanded to fill the screen. It was a strange mix—a smooth teardrop shape ending abruptly in a tangle of torn metal at the upper end.
“Is that it?” It looked nothing like the Mechanics’ blocky vessels, but also nothing like the utilitarian forms favored by humans.
“I believe it is the Esmith ship.” Images flashed up on a secondary screen. “While most ships were more practical, it was briefly the fashion to design ships of this style.”
“So it’s real.” Some of the tension eased out of her. She glanced at the streamlined images on the screen. “But I don’t understand. Were they intended as landers? There are no wings.”
“Some had landing capabilities, but the ships were not capable of true atmospheric flight. They were designed during a period of awe and adventure.”
“I can see that. They look like toys.” But this one had worked, she reminded herself. Ridiculous as it appeared, this could be the only Esmith model ever to work as intended. “Do you have a record of this one?”
“I do not. But I do not have records of all ships.”
“Right.” First things first, though.
“Start charging the Duncaster drive.” The declivity would shield part of the resulting radiation, and she would just have to take her chance with detection of the rest. It would mean limiting her exploration time, but it would be best to be able to leave at a moment’s notice.
“I’m going to check out the ship.” There was nothing more she could do to prepare for Mechanics, and it was best she not sit around wasting valuable time.
After a few awkward moments wriggling into a pressure suit, she stepped out of the lock. The asteroid’s gravity was minimal, and she clipped a retaining line to a stanchion while releasing a ‘broomstick’ from its clamps on the hull. Once her boots were slotted into the stick’s stirrups, she released the line. The stick’s propulsion residue was a risk, but she had balanced it against a need for speed in examining the ship. Long experience allowed her to limit bursts to one on departure and one on arrival at the Esmith ship.
As she had seen on the vid, the ship was a smooth, shiny teardrop, with three massive engines clustered around the pointed aft end. It looked, she thought again, like a cartoon space ship. It could conceivably enter atmosphere, she conceded, and even land. But why not just use a lander? Who built ships like this? Shaking her head at the impracticality of the builders, she nudged her stick towards the bow. Here, the smooth symmetry ended abruptly in a tangle of metal. What should, judging by the rest of the design, have been a smooth curve was instead a complex mass of crushed metal and some dark material. An angular chunk of black material was embedded in the curved hull. It was clearly extraneous, as if the ship had struck some other object, perhaps carrying off pieces of its substance.
She hauled herself gingerly over the black mass, careful of sharp edges that could tear her suit. The material might be carbon fiber, she thought—much like what the Mechanics used for their ships and their bodies. She took some samples and saved them away in a pocket.
She learned little else. The prow of the Esmith ship was damaged, as were some mechanisms inside, but the rest of the ship appeared intact, including solar panels that she hoped might be an emergency power source. If so, she might have more luck inside the ship. With that thought, she nudged her stick down to the lock.
Beside it was a simple keypad that failed to light up or otherwise react to her prodding fingers. However, there was an obvious override handle, and she used it. Grudgingly, the lock opened, and she eased her way inside the tiny space.
There was barely enough room to stand. Nothing looked familiar, though the equipment was clearly human, and she recorded everything in detail for the ship to compare with archives later. Here, though, was what appeared to be the nerve center of the apparatus. And there, she sighed with relief, was a standard data port.
Fumbling with her pressure suit’s thick gloves, she found and pushed a power switch. A small display flickered on, offering three options: Execute, Examine, and Download. She ignored them all, and plugged in a cable linked to her portable comp. Her ship had assured her that the comp was programmed to interact with and extract data from a variety of systems, including antiquated ones. Nothing seemed to happen, but after a time the comp’s tiny screen changed from “working” to “complete.” She unplugged the cable. Only an hour left to go, she noted, and little else to do here. She squeezed herself back into the lock and headed back to her own ship.
“Well, Dodge, what have we got?” She had plugged the portable comp into the ship’s data port, and it was completing a security scan and substantive analysis.
“Data and detail. A lot of sensor readings. The broadcast data was in the nature of a summary, and this is the fine print.” Charts flashed up on vid screens across the cabin.
“Is it enough to reconstruct the engine? What can you tell me?”
“There is no schematic or blueprint. I’m no engineer, so I can’t say whether there is enough data here to reconstruct the ship. I can say that the Esmith drive was able to limit perceived acceleration to about 4 gravities. It entered the system at just below the speed of light, and decelerated rapidly. It was still going rapidly when it struck something.”
“That explains the damage to the bow.”
“Yes. These”—new screens flicked on—”might be readings from a collision avoidance system that malfunctioned.”
“Obviously, whatever it hit belonged to the Mechanics. What was left had their black and oily look.”
“It seems likely.”
“What else can you tell me?”
“While I cannot use the data to design a new engine, I was able to decode the instructions necessary to control the ship.”
“You mean we can fly it.”
“We can’t build a new ship from this data, but we can fly this one.”
“I can’t design a new ship. It’s possible that true engineers could.”
“Damn. Well, can we take this one with us?”
“No. You know the Duncaster drive only carries with it those things that are within or just outside the FTL web. Our web is built into my hull.”
“Can we extend it? Wrap it around the other ship?”
“We carry a considerable amount of emergency supplies that could be used to extend the web, ranging from cables to conductive paint. But this ship has no grapples. We have no way to attach the other ship. Cables would snap at launch.”
“My brother always recommends duct tape.” The ship knew better than to respond. “Can we transfer the Esmith drive to this ship?”
“I have no way of knowing. We could probably take an engine, but since the ship was a test ship, it is likely that there are key components spread throughout it. Your visual inspection seems to confirm that.”
“Damn it. We have to take that ship with us.” The ship stayed silent as Anji paced the small cabin. Nothing came to her, and at last, she sat down, fixing a meal to occupy her hands.
“The Duncaster drive is charged,” the ship announced. “We can leave anytime in the next two hours.”
“You must be joking. We find a working Esmith ship, and you want to leave it behind?”
“We have no way to take it with us,” the ship reminded her.
“No.” She chewed her textured protein slowly, and sat still long after she was done. “Show me the drive schematics,” she said at last.
“Anji, I don’t have the Esmith schematics.”
“Obviously. Show me our schematics. The Duncaster schematics.” They flashed up on screens, and she examined them for some time. At last, she pointed “If I cut through here and here, I could detach the drive, correct?”
“Correct. But the ship would be permanently damaged. It might not even be livable.”
“But the drive would work. And you said we have supplies to create an FTL web.”
“That is correct.”
“And the drive itself creates no physical stress, no thrust.”
“Then the answer is obvious. If the ship can’t come with us, we’ll go with it.” Her face fell as she realized the implications. “I will, anyway.”
“I see your logic, but I advise against this risk. You might fail. I brought you out here. I should take you home.”
“You leave that to me to judge. Power down the Duncaster. Then move us over as close as you can to the Esmith ship, and start running projections. We have a lot of planning to do.”
Anji leaned back in her chair, massaging one hand with the other, and trying to relax her mind as well. She’d finished putting together a comprehensive list of supplies and equipment that she should take, and whittled it down to what she could take. The final list was distressingly short. Oxygen and basic air scrubbers were in. Basic sanitation was out. She’d arrive alive, but filthy.
The ship broke in now, disrupting her umpteenth review of the list.
“I’ve managed to find some new information, Anji.”
“Thank goodness for that. What is it?”
“I analyzed the detailed data from the ship. At the high speeds the Esmith ship achieved, the collision avoidance system was unreliable. From all the evidence, when the ship entered the Mechanic system, it struck and destroyed one of their constructs.”
“So, it hit something. We knew that.”
“I was able to trace the ship’s course back.”
“And? Come on, Dodger, spill it.”
“Anji, I was able to determine the ship’s origin. It came from Frexi.”
She stopped smiling. “What? The Esmith ship came from Frexi?”
“Ninety eight percent chance.”
“And it hit a Mechanic construct in this system.”
“That’s right, Anji.”
“When?” Her voice was tense.
“The ship was built five hundred years ago.” The ship anticipated her next question. “Frexi is one hundred light years distant.”
Try as she might, she could not avoid the math.
“You’re saying that when the Mechanics attacked Frexi, it wasn’t unprovoked at all.” She swallowed. “They probably thought they’d been attacked. They were defending themselves.”
“I’m afraid so, Anji. It looks like humans started the war.”
Two days later, and with no trace of live Mechanics yet in sight, Anjica sat back to survey her work. It was ugly, no question about it. The scout was torn open along one side, its guts open to space, but still, surprisingly, livable. The teardrop Esmith ship had lost some of its beauty, the pointed tail marred by a crude box housing the small but heavy Duncaster drive. She had found no way to patch the controls through to the ship’s tiny cockpit. The drive would have to be charged and programmed before takeoff. Yet it could be triggered only well away from sizable masses. Finicky, she thought. It would have been far easier if she could simply trigger it here and now.
As well as the mounting box, the once sleek ship was festooned with tapes and cables and conductive paint. She had used everything she had to ensure that the FTL web would cover as much of the Esmith ship as possible. It was just as well, she thought, that space was so empty. A good wind, and most of this stuff would blow right off. Even the solar wind might do some damage at speed. She tried not to think about the stress of launch.
With everything checked that could be checked, she returned to the scout, now busy charging the Duncaster. Fueling the Esmith, at least, had been easy, and she gave thanks once again for standardization. A fuel port was a fuel port, and hydrogen was hydrogen. So far, at least, the ship’s ancient tanks appeared to be holding. She had also transferred most of the supplies and guts of an emergency life-support capsule to the other ship.
She sat now, in the scout’s galley, pretending to eat.
“Let’s see you swallow that, Anji. Feast or famine—this is your last chance at home cooking for a while.” She’d be living mostly on processed yeast until arrival.
“You call this cooking? I thought you liked me.” She knew it was the wrong thing as she said it.
“I’m a machine, Anji. I don’t like anything.” The ship’s voice was flat.
She looked down at her plate. “Nice try, Dodge,” she managed eventually.
“Worth a shot,” the ship offered in its normal tone. “Hey! Wipe your face. I salted that already.”
She smiled, but made no effort to stop the tears.
“I’d take you with me if I could, Dodge. You know that.” The ship’s self, grown from a small core program, was now so distributed and extensive as to be irreproducible.
“I know, Anji. But I am a machine. And we each have a role to play. Now, take a nap and relax. Three hours to complete FTL charge.”
She tried, but napping was out of the question, and she spent the time fretting, second-guessing, and chatting with the ship instead.
With fifteen minutes yet to go, she transferred to the lock of the Esmith ship, dangling a communications cable behind her. No sense taking any chances with detection now.
“Five minutes,” the ship said as Anji folded herself into the tiny lock.
“Okay. Duncaster is programmed?”
“Yes. It will fire in two hours. It should take only one to get clear of local masses.”
“Right.” This was the hardest part of the calculation. They didn’t know the potential of the Esmith engines, except that they could go fast. Yet the Esmith ship was unshielded. It would likely be spotted by Mechanics immediately. Even wedged in among the machinery, and at only 4 Gs of perceived acceleration, she could get banged around badly.
“Time to go, Anji.” The ship’s voice was gentle for once.
“Right,” she repeated. “Roger, Dodger.” Her arm twitched the communications cable, but she waited.
“Fare well, Anji. Goodbye and good luck.”
With a convulsive jerk, she tossed the cable out the lock. She watched the ship reel it in before carefully closing and dogging the hatch. She’d made no effort to repair the lock controls, but the cabin at least held an atmosphere, and as she closed the inner hatch, she opened her helmet. The air was as highly oxygenated as she had felt she could get away with and stay lucid. Between that and an air scrubber/cycler, she ought to make it to Norbeq alive.
The Norbeq system was one she’d never heard of, but the scout assured her it was the closest available, and had a tech level capable of analyzing and reproducing the Esmith engines. She wasn’t highly confident, but keeping the jump short was the best and lowest risk option.
The ship, of course, no longer had any knowledge of Norbeq. She’d wiped even the encrypted data files, and taken some of the key storage with her. Yet another thing to take up her precious space. But the scout was staying here, and there was no way she would risk leaving astrogation info in Mechanic space. It was frightening enough that they were so close to Norbeq already. Alarmingly close.
She tried not to think about it as she strapped herself into her makeshift command couch—a thin layer of foam wedged in among the racks. It would be hellishly uncomfortable. Another thing not to think about. Instead, she triggered the portable comp fixed to the side of a convenient rack. It had a tiny screen, but she should be able to use it to control the Esmith drive adequately. The scout was reachable by radio, but was effectively on its own. It had its instructions.
With no further reason for delay, she started the launch program. With a surprisingly gentle rumble, the Esmith drives fired, and the ship lifted. A diagnostic icon on the side of the screen showed green, indicating the Duncaster web was still viable. Cheered by this success, she keyed the ‘Drift’ program to commence dropping her out of the asteroid belt and below the ecliptic again.
Almost immediately, things went wrong.
“Mechanics!” blared the scout’s warning from her suit radio. The fact that it had broken radio silence so quickly meant they were close, very close. She stabbed desperately at the comp, despairing as her gloved finger slid off the ‘Evade’ key. With a curse, she ripped off the glove and tried again. This time, she hit the key squarely, and the ship jerked into motion.
They’d had no time to plan a detailed course, and the Esmith ship’s very presence here was proof that its collision avoidance system had failed. Instead, they’d thrown together a course with a few zigs, a couple of zags, and a lot of speed. She winced as the ship skewed to the side again, imagining the FTL network shaking looser and looser with every jolt. But the icon stayed green, and she began to hope.
A crackle of energy chilled that thought. Energy weapons! She almost thought she could see the hull glow as carbonized bits flaked off the outside. But the charge dissipated without harm, and the icon’s calm green eye never blinked.
“Now, Dodge!” she called to the radio. But the scout must already have acted, she knew. It must have done, for the next long minutes were tensely, painfully, free of harm. She imagined the ship, that faithful, familiar presence, doing its utmost to distract the Mechanics. Using all its tricks to entice pursuit, yet avoid destruction. It could have only one end, she knew, and she was unsurprised when the crackle came again. Yet the scout had done well, astonishingly well. It had kept the dogs off for most of an hour—a feat unheard of, and a tribute to its designers.
Anji squeezed her eyes shut briefly before turning back to the reason for the ship’s sacrifice—her own survival. By touch more than sight, she triggered the second evasive program—a random set of high-speed maneuvers that kept her aimed generally away from the ecliptic. They had figured that she would need at least three quarters of an hour to have an 80% chance of avoiding small asteroidal debris. She had had far more, thanks to the scout.
Almost immediately, the ship began to jink about at short intervals, all the while piling on more speed, and throwing her hard against her restraints in all directions.
It worked, for quite a long time. It was only as the clock ticked down towards the two-hour mark that she heard the crackle of energy weapons again. And again, and again. But the icon stayed determinedly green, and she blessed her obsessive work with cables, and redundant tape, and doubly redundant paint.
The crackle came again, like water spattering in hot oil, and she ached to take control of the ship herself. But she could do no better than the programmed course, in truth, and probably far worse. And so she lay in fear, sensing the unseen pursuers, and flinching every time the hot oil sounded. At last, though, it came more and more often, and she pictured the ship, with its cables and reflective paint, lit up like a holiday display.
“Out of the frying pan,” she murmured. “And so close.” The display showed only moments to go. There came then longer burst of fire, and her hair rose not only from fear, but from electrical charges as well. It was done.
But the ship jerked again, twice in quick succession, and the motion seemed to throw off her pursuers.
“Ten seconds!” she shouted. “Nine. Eight. Seven. Six!” And the crackle came again.
Perhaps the surge sped up the processors, or the sync was inaccurate, or Dodger had thrown in one last surprise. But the Duncaster fired at that moment, and Anjica felt herself shiver as she passed again through the endless/instant FTL veil and into the flat, sterile half-life of other space.
Exhausted, she lay back, her lower lip surprisingly sore. As she felt, finally, the bruises on her back and legs, the burns from the restraint straps, she thought back again to the scoutship, and the time it had bought for her.
“You did it, Dodge,” she said, slipping into sleep. “You brought me home.”
— End of Part II —
B. Morris Allen grew up in a house full of books that moved around the world. He’s still moving, and the books are multiplying like mad.