by Mike Ash
Rick's eyes flew open. He jumped out of his bed and fell rather unceremoniously to the floor. Fell? He thought. The Singing Beetle was supposed to be in free-fall. He shook his head trying to wake up. Suddenly the weight let off and he was left floating above the floor. Rick pushed himself to the bridge. "What in hell just happened?"
Corky, most junior of the crew, answered. "Meteor hit the drive system, cap'n, and punctured the hull forward. I got the drive shut down, but it's pretty smashed up. The Jakes are patching the leak forward."
"Stay here. I'm going to take a look at the drive. Tell the others to find me once they're done" Rick took off down the corridor.
The Singing Beetle was not a fancy ship. It had a standard ship's drive, a few tons of cargo space, cramped quarters. In short, about what can be expected for your normal merchant freighter. A lot of people in the asteroids were outcasts from Earth, and Rick was no exception. After spending thirty years in jail around the turn of the millennium for the murder of his wife, the world had changed too much for him to really fit back in. His modest investments had produced a reasonable pile of money, and he did like a many in his position did and bought his own ship in the booming outer solar system.
Beetle's drive was a mess. Some speck of dirt traveling at God's own speed had impacted it near the secondary fusion initiators, and ripped through the components with all the finesse of a gunman in a crowd of people. Rick wondered if it would ever work again. He looked over things once more, made notes about the damage, then yelled down to the bridge. "Corky! Better set up a distress beacon, we may be stuck for a while. And work out how much that thrust changed our path to Vesta."
Corky made moves to reply, but was cut off by a tone from the radio. Rick got to work clearing away some of the debris. Holy...! The fuel tank had a small hole in it, and was slowly leaking their precious deuterium into space. Better fix that first. Rick got to work. Corky came up the corridor, banging his head on the door. "Rick," he said breathlessly, "you gotta hear this."
Rick handed him a pair of pliers. "Here, hold the covering on while I weld it."
Corky held it, but protested. "Rick, you really gotta hear this now."
"It can wait five minutes while I weld our fuel tank shut, can't it?"
Corky nodded and they got to work.
The work was hard, but they made good progress. Corky positioned and held the makeshift patches while Rick welded them on. Mistakes were made, Rick almost burning his index finger off with a clumsy slip of the welding torch, but they survived. Curses such as most have never heard flew in all directions. When they were done, they sat back for a minute then checked the tank. The leak had stopped. They both breathed heavy sighs of relief.
With the immediate crisis over, Corky remembered. "Rick, you really have to hear what I got on the radio." They pushed themselves to the bridge and Corky played the tape.
"...Fifty-three West, thirty North. Repeat. The United Nations Space Watch has declared an emergency in the region around Vesta. At approximately 0630, radar picked up an apparently extrasolar object traveling inward from interstellar space. Refined observation shows a comet-like body approximately thirty kilometers in diameter, with a speed of 120 kilometers per second. Precise data follows. Because of the unusual amount of debris associated with this object, all spacecraft are advised to remain at least five million kilometers from the projected path of this body...." The transmission was dated today, 1103. I looked at the clock. 1149.
By this time the others had come back from the repairs forward. Rick filled them in on the situation with the drive and started in on the comet. Big Jake cut Rick off with his big baritone voice and yelled at Corky to play the tape again. He played it, and worked on the computer console as the words came out once again.
When the tape finished, Corky yelled for everyone to gather around his screen.
"We," he said, "have a problem. We're here." He pointed at a small flashing dot. "The comet head is here." Another dot. "And here's the field of debris around it." A sphere appeared, showing the dense debris close in, and tapering off to nothing. "Now, we take the data from the report and plug it in for a rough path, and... there." A barely-curved line projected out from the cloud.
"So what?" Yelled Big Jake. "We're over two million klicks from that thing."
Little Jake's round, black-haired head leaned in. "Hang on. Corky, plot our current path." Another curving line appeared on the small screen, crossing the line from the comet. "What's our distance of closest approach?"
Corky ran things forward. The screen danced. Finally, he said, "Twenty thousand klicks, maybe fifteen."
"Corky, what'll be the particle density at that range?" Asked Little Jake.
"More than enough to rip us all into tiny pieces. The meteor that hit us was probably from the leading edge of the debris cloud. It'll be a lot worse closer in."
Noise rose, everybody was talking at once. The four of us filled the small space amazingly well. Rick raised his voice above the din. "Corky, how long do we have?"
"Well, cap'n, about thirty-six hours before we enter the worst of it."
"OK, people, what are our options?" Rick demanded. Nobody thought rescue. The distances involved, the times, the scarcity of ships... if any of the crew had been lucky enough to pull off a rescue, he'd have won the lottery and not be stuck on some merchant ship.
Big Jake yelled out. "Shielding!"
"Yeah, sure, there's not enough mass in this whole ship to protect us. What we need is to get our engines working." Said Little Jake.
"I don't know if we can do that," Corky said very quietly. "The drive is pretty beat up."
"Well," Rick said, "do we have any other options?"
"That settles it, then. Corky, how long do we have to fix the drive?"
More fiddling with the computer. "Our drive can do about a half-gee, so, um.... We'd have to boost, let's see, six hours before closest approach to have a decent chance of survival."
"So we have thirty hours to save our rears. I think we know what to do."
They worked. None of them were going to let themselves get killed because somebody slipped up. Corky, the resident computer expert, got to work fixing the drive's control systems. Rick would have helped; he made his fortune in software. But his knowledge was forty years old. Corky was thin and blonde, with the same tanned face and pale body as the rest of us. His hair was cropped short so as not to get in the way without the help of gravity. None of us knew much about fusion reactors, but Big Jake knew the most, so he got to work on The Singing Beetle's smashed fusion initiators. His enormous frame was hard-pressed to fit in the engine compartment. His brown, organic-looking hair clashed strangely with the shiny metal and red emergency lights.
Little and Rick worked on the fuel feed and other secondary systems. None of them realized how complicated a fusion drive really was until they had to go fix it. It was an incredible maze of delicate wires, tubes, and linkages that didn't much appreciate being kissed by a micrometeoroid.
A lot of things were broken.
After a while, Rick left Little Jake and made sure everybody was doing ok. He was the know-everything of the ship. Consequently, he wasn't competent enough to do anything on his own, but he could help with just about anything. Big Jake needed four hands for a particularly tricky job. A fat cable carrying fifty tiny wires used to control the lasers in the fusion initiators had been sheared clean. Each wire on one side of the cable had to be reconnected to the corresponding one on the other. A daunting, tedious task, but they got it done. Eventually.
They broke for food around 2330. Eighteen hours plus change to live or die. Little Jake hadn't come yet, but Rick and Corky and Big Jake floated around the main cabin consuming huge amounts of food. Between bites, Rick managed to get a decent picture of the status of the repairs. He sat, quiet, doing some mental arithmetic for a few minutes. "I think we can do this."
"Hot damn." Big Jake said. "You know, this chicken and broccoli stuff isn't half bad."
Corky and Big smiled. They looked absurd, food on their faces and onboard a doomed ship, smiling. Rick started to laugh. It caught on and shortly they were all rolling in tears. They were still at it when Little Jake appeared, carrying some rounded mishmash of parts splashed with molten metal.
"As you might know, this is the fuel flow controller. Without it, we don't go. Mechanically, it's sound, but the servos, controller chips, everything for the computer to work with is gone." Little explained.
"Well get the spare!" Big roared.
"Jake," Little said, "this is the spare. This is what broke when we boosted from Eros last month, remember? We haven't restocked yet."
Big frowned. "If it's so necessary, why don't we have more of them?"
"Well, it's possible to run without it. At very low power. I guess if it broke we could have just limped somewhere and had it replaced."
"How low-power?" Rick asked.
Little said, "Ten percent, fifteen if we're lucky."
"Corky," Rick said, low, "how much sooner do we have to boost if we only have low power?"
Corky jumped off to the bridge. They sat in somber silence. Somebody fetched Little Jake some food.
Corky returned a few minutes later. He said. "If we got the drive going now, at fifteen percent, we'd probably survive. Computer puts odds of damage enough to kill us at one in four. They get worse with every hour we wait."
"What?" Big Jake demanded. "We can't get the drive running that fast!"
"Jake, we have to try." Rick said.
They realized he was right, and scrambled back to work. Little Jake and Rick worked on Beetle's smashed fuel flow system, jury-rigging around the broken controller. The others worked in their areas, cutting and crimping and covering and patching. It all took too long, every wasted heartbeat felt, every second of time thundering in their ears.
They reconvened at 1200 for another meal. They no longer remembered which one it was supposed to be. The drive had been brought back to a semi-working state. They thought. After chow they'd bring it up to power and try it out. They ate hurridly.
Corky went to the bridge, and the other three started off to the engine room. Corky stopped them. "Look, that drive is going to be putting off a lot of radiation. Go in shifts, no more than fifteen minutes each, ok?"
They drew lots and Little Jake lost. Rick told him to stay, grabbed a radiation badge and went up in his place. Rick yelled the all clear. Corky began punching computer controls with the Jakes watching intently.
"Okay!" Corky yelled. "She's starting up!"
"Roger." Rick yelled back. "Looks good so far."
"Idling at five percent, things look... squirrley. I think it'll hold. Increasing to ten."
"Looks good." Rick yelled back. The engine had begun to hum, and it was getting hard to hear him.
Corky yelled back, louder. "Alright, going to fifteen."
An alarm sounded. Beep! Beep! Beep! Corky scrambled, punching buttons. "It's overheating," he shouted up to the engine room. "Shut it off manually! Now!"
Rick fumbled for the cutoff valve. More beeping joined the first. Finally, he found it, and got it turned off. He flew down to the bridge.
"We came about this," Corky held his fingers in the air, "close to getting toasted there. I think it'll only be safe to run at ten percent. If that."
"Where does that put us?" Rick breathed.
Corky punched the computer. "Moves our closest approach to a hundred-twenty thousand klicks. Computer gives our odds as about one in a hundred there."
Rick said, "Can you rig up some sort of remote readout for those engine meters? I think I could keep it stable if I could control it manually from in there."
"Sure, I'll get right on that." Corky said.
Little Jake thought. "Rick! You can't do that! How much radiation did you pick up in there?" He grabbed the badge off Rick's shirt. "Twelve hundred millirems, see! In five minutes. You'd absorb a lethal dose in two hours."
"Corky? How long do we need full thrust?" Rick asked.
Corky answered back a few seconds later. "Three hours gives us better than even chances."
Rick looked at Big Jake, then back at Little. "Can I survive three hours in there?"
"What? You'd get way more than lethal dose after three hours!"
Rick took a deep breath and said very quietly. "That's not what I asked, Jake."
"Yes," Little Jake said, avoiding Rick's eyes. "You could survive three hours."
They floated silently for a few minutes, then Corky handed Rick a mass of wires
and components. Rick took it without a word, told them to warm up the drive, and
went into the engine room. The hatch closed behind him without a sound.
This page is copyright (C) 1999 by Michael Ash