Trouble with the Natives

by Karlos Allen

Table of Contents
Chapter 1, part 2
appears in this issue.
Chapter 1

part 1 of 2


Captain Krallgh stared at the screen. The unarmed native vessel seemed too helpless, too primitive to be a threat.

“What is their course?”

“Unchanged, Sir.”

Intelligence Officer Sreagh, standing next to him, spoke up, “In another few minutes they’ll detect the base, Captain.”

“I know. I just keep hoping they’ll change orbit; a few degrees and they’d miss it entirely.”

“Not necessarily, That’s a primitive vessel out there, but it’s a probe. We don’t make that kind of ship anymore. We know what to look for when we enter a new system. Looking for life? Scan the chlorophyll band. Looking for ships? Standard neutrino detectors will find them every time.

“Probe ships are built by people too primitive and inexperienced to know what to look for and what to ignore. We can mask a neutrino signature. EM radiation too. But what about heat? What about changes in the chemical composition of the ring caused by our passage? What about a million other little things? They’ll find them and follow those clues right to our door. You know what will happen then.”

“Yes, I was in the Contact Service before the war. They’ll be ecstatic, beside themselves with joy at the incredible find they’ve made. They’ll try to talk to us and at the same time they’ll shout out our presence to the universe.”

“We can’t have that sir.”

“I know. ‘There’s a war on’. ”

He watched for a moment more, than turned back to the bridge. “Tactical officer, you are to fire a 100th-second laser burst, minimum dispersion, minimum yield. You are not to repeat the burst unless ordered.”

“That will not vaporize the target, sir.”

“I know, but weapons-fire can also be detected, and it will be enough to completely disable their sensors and communications. It will also make maneuvering impossible. They will drift helplessly until their life-support gives out. I give them about ten days. As far as their home world will know, they will simply be another ship lost in space.”

A second later the screen showed a brief flash, the probe vessel lurched, suddenly veering as leaking gases thrust it in vectors it was never designed to handle. Soon it had disappeared from sight behind the dim ring that surrounded the planet the natives called “Jupiter.”

* * *

Doctor Singh was awakened when somebody tried to hit him with the wall. Shaking his head he suddenly felt pressure as though they were accelerating in an impossible direction. Bracing himself he heaved up out of his sleeping tube and crawled along what had been a wall, carefully avoiding the switches and lights under his knees. The acceleration stopped just as he reached the control room. “What happened?”

“I don’t know, Dr. Singh. Something must have hit us. Radar, IR and optical are all gone. High-gain antenna doesn’t register, and... Mac isn’t answering.”

“Mac?”

“Yeah, she was doing an informal EVA when it happened. I can’t get her on the low gain communicator.”

Singh shook his head, “We were accelerating, that means out gassing somewhere. Do you know where that was coming from?”

Mr. Lee shook his head.”Intercom’s down. Deb, I mean Dr. Sorensen, was here when it happened. We were just talking, OK? She said she was going to check up on everyone.”

Singh smiled a little at Lee’s defensiveness. The budding relationship between him and their exobiologist/life support officer had been the source of more kidding, mostly gentle, then he’d been prepared for.

“Relax, Nate, your not-so-secret is safe with me.”

“Nate?”

The not-so-secret’s voice was quickly followed by her 300 pound form as Deb Sorenson floated into the room. “That out gassing was from the number-two life-support module; it’s been completely depressurized. I’ll have to get my suit before I can tell you more. Oh, hi Dr. Singh.” Self-consciously she ducked her head as though trying to hide her immense form behind her hair. Of course in zero-g that didn’t really help since it obstinately floated up away from her face.

“Deb, was there anybody in that module?”

“No. I’ve been counting noses as I went by, most of us were in bed. As far as I know the only other one up besides Nate and me was Mac. She was outside.”

“Where was her spotter?”

“She didn’t have one. She said she didn’t need one.”

“Mac always said she didn’t need a spotter, and both of you know standard procedure; nobody leaves the ship without a spotter. When we get her back in, I’m going to read her the riot act... again.”

“You mean, if we get her back in, don’t you, Doctor?”

There was an uncomfortable silence. “Alright, be that as it may, get everybody to the storm cellar. We need to count noses and make a plan...”

The name ‘storm cellar’ always gave Singh the mental image of one he’d seen on a trip with a college buddy to the American Midwest, a dark close hole with food and water stored away and a couple of semiautomatic shotguns hung beside the ladder. He’d asked his friend’s father about them. “We use these to avoid more than tornadoes, son,” was the only answer he got.

This was different. There weren’t any shotguns, of course, and it was well lit. It had its own power supply and enough plants, all edible, to feed and provide air for the entire crew. But it was still close and with everyone here, crowded. They counted noses. It turned out that the only one missing was the snub freckled one belonging to Mac.

“Does anybody have any thoughts on what happened?” Silence showed that they were all as much in the dark as he was. “OK, we have to do three things: find out what happened to us, find out what the damage is and if it can be repaired and, most importantly, find Mac. I want the science crew to get to their workstations and start running diagnostics on their equipment; see what works and what doesn’t. Same for the tech crew. We will all meet back here at lunch and I want a preliminary report. Nate, Deb, come with me.”

When they got back to the control room he turned to them, “What exactly was Mac doing?”

“She was setting up a gel trap.” Nate shrugged, “We were right in the middle of a particularly dense knot in the ring and she wanted samples.”

“I see. Which side of the ship was she setting it up on?”

“Over quadrant 2,” Deb said, then paused. “Oh, that’s the same side Module 2 is on.”

“Precisely. I’m going to go out and look at the hull. Nate, I want you to spot for me. Deb, I need a report on what our life-support situation is like.”

Fortunately, the main hatch was on the opposite side of the ship from most of the damage. The door opened easily and Singh grabbed the handle and rotated himself out onto the hull. It wasn’t graceful, in fact it was stiff and clumsy. But he’d gotten used to that. Nobody was at home on EVA, “except Mac,” a voice whispered in his head.

Below he saw Nate carefully paying out the lines. He gestured his intent to go over the rim of the hull and got the thumbs up in acknowledgment. Carefully sliding along, he noticed another set of lines paralleling his. They had to be Mac’s. Nobody left lines hanging off the side of the ship, you couldn’t, and Mac, with her station-sider phobia of being adrift, wouldn’t. He felt his heart race in anticipation. The lines were tight against the hull as if secured instead of floating free. He knew that Mac’s suit would not have run out of air...

As he went over the side he saw why they weren’t moving. They were secured alright, welded would have been a better word. The cables came up over the side and stopped. Looking closer he could see where the metal had vaporized away, the liquefied ends welding themselves to the hull.

Beyond that, the hull stretched away mirror bright, and mirror smooth, perfectly reflecting the stars almost to the point of invisibility. Here and there ragged stubs of metal stuck up from the surface, marking the positions of missing equipment.

Carefully avoiding jagged edges, he worked his way over to Module 2. The metal curved out in a series of razor-sharp sheets. They were far too thin. Obviously the metal had boiled away until it couldn’t hold the pressure; then it had burst, spilling air and plants into space.

Lunch was somber. Finding the vaporized and welded ends of Mac’s lines had ended hope that she was alive. The reports from the science and tech crews were coming close to ending the same hope for the rest of them. The only good news had been Deb’s report that, except for Module 2, life support was unharmed.

“All right,” Singh made an effort to sound decisive, “do we know what happened?”

Dr. Aspen spoke up. “Obviously we got hit by something very low mass and very hot. Almost all of the damage is heat damage, mostly metal vaporization. Perhaps plasma or an arc discharge?”

“Impossible!” a voice cut in,” The electromagnetic pulse from that would’ve fried the electronics!”

“These are space rated electronics-”

“Doesn’t matter. The EMP from an arc that could do that would’ve fried them no matter how well shielded they were, would’ve fried us, too. I’m thinking a hot neutral gas-”

“It was a laser.” The unfamiliar voice of a tech cut through the science crew’s argument.


Proceed to Chapter 1, part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Karlos Allen

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