LAST CHANCE GAS – Part VII
Universal Media Syndicate
ABOARD THE E.S. CHAMPLAIN – We have become prey. A strange vessel more than 20 times the mass of Champlain has emerged from its hiding place on the Saturn side of Hyperion. Its design and configuration are unlike anything found in the Jane’s Space Ships databank. It is closing at an incredible rate; students of aviation history may imagine a jet chasing a hot air balloon.
“That’s some kind of foo fighter,” Commander Alicia Yuan says in wonder. “That would be a kick to fly.” Her ward room adjacent to the Champlain’s bridge is filled with her senior staff. Grant Turnbull, Titan’s sole survivor and an old friend of Yuan’s sits in. The mood in the room is one of tense bewilderment but there’s no place for panic on the agenda. This reporter has been granted full access, perhaps because traditional protocols for dealing with the press now seem meaningless.
“Mars wasn’t the best place to grow up,” Turnbull says to Yuan, “but it’s home and we’re leading them right there.”
“They’ll overtake us long before we’re even close,” she replies.
“And probably turn us into another Armstrong.”
“How ever they may’ve done that,” Yuan confirms.
Like her doomed sister ship, the E.S. Champlain was purpose-built for research and exploration with a large cargo capacity to re-supply stations along the relay system. She carries no armament. The additional weight and crew complement but mostly the extra expense was deemed unnecessary by irrefutable though dusty a priori logic proved by thousands of years of recorded human history: We are alone and our enemies are ourselves. Well, not any longer. Hopefully this lesson just learned is not too late.
“But they’d have to get very close,” Turnbull says. “Maybe we can give them some of their own medicine.”
There is a strained silence. Finally Yuan says, “Are you suggesting we turn the Champlain into a missile too? Ram them?”
“That might be overkill.” Turnbull rises from his chair and then picks up the lone ornament in the ward room. “Jimmy gave you this?” He is referring to Jimmy Singh the late sole proprietor and president of the Last Chance Gas outlet on Titan. He brandishes a brass figurine of a leaping tiger.
“The Brass Tiger,” Yuan replies. “Jimmy said he had it cast just for me.”
“I’ve got one too,” Turnbull says, “or I should say, had one. He had thousands made.”
“He was, but charming. You remember Nick and that cricket bat or whatever it was he always carried around?” He is referring to the late Nick LeBlanc, Singh’s major domo and Titan security chief. “He always said that anything can be a weapon if you know what you’re doing.”
Can one brass tiger bring down a ship? “No!” says Turnbull. “But a cloud of flotsam and jetsam just might. We’re in the middle of a relay, in a vacuum. Commander Yuan, you know what even the tiniest speck of dust or meteor fragment can do to a ship travelling at high velocity. It’s like running into a punch.”
A human fist is about the same size as a human heart and it tends to punch above its weight.
Everything on board that may be flushed into the wake of the Champlain has been collected. A brass tiger sits atop the pile at the cargo bay door. While the risks don’t matter, there are still many questions and concerns. How long will the field of metal debris last before it is swept into an orbit by some distant source of gravity? Will the alien ship have time to take evasive action? What is the integrity of the panels which comprise its hull? Will Turnbull’s idea even work?
At first, it doesn’t. The mechanism of the segmented cargo bay door is jammed. There is an emergency manual release intended solely for use while the ship is at rest. This reporter, the least essential member of Yuan’s Champlain crew, volunteers to break the glass and pull the lever. A tool will have to be retrieved from the heap of scrap awaiting ejection; perhaps a hammer or a tiger sculpture. With Champlain in full flight, an anchored lanyard and pressure suit are pointless. One is reminded of visions of skeletons half-buried in the gravel dunes of Titan.
Your reporter asks for gree-gree; desperate for the courage soon to be required, and wanting to know why people travelled to Titan just to get it. Turnbull looks on with disapproval as Yuan prepares a dosage from her dwindling personal supply. The Martian knows the damage done. Three inhalations are enough to fool the brain into tasting ambrosia and then focus all of its resources on the immediate. I have ceased recording history; I will now be its agent: I am ready.
Copyright UMS 2414.