Thursday, May 26, 2016

Snowball Part Three

"What wrong?" Tarrant asked.

Marek blew out his cheeks. "I plotted Lady Caroline's new trajectory as part of the vector calculations but I just noticed where they're going.  They're heading in the direction of the system gas giant. They'll miss it but they’re already its gravity well. In about thirty-three minutes, they're going to tumble right into a Snowball."

"What's a Snowball?" Kate asked.  Marek re-activated the navigational hologram.  In front of the red dots marking Lady Caroline and Nth Degree was a huge expanse of dark blue marking the gas giant. Next to that was a smaller group. Marek zoomed in to focus on the cluster, which showed blue objects of varying shape and size.  "It's a point in space between a planet and a satellite where the two gravitational fields balance each other. Space debris like ice chunks and rocks tend to collect in them. This system's got one of the largest fields in the Empire.”

“So it's like an asteroid field?”

“I wish. Most asteroid fields you can travel a thousand kilometers between rock chunks. In a snowball, you're lucky if there's one kilometer of space. Most of it is ice chunks, not rock, but some of the chunks mass in the tens-of-thousands of tons range.  Lady Caroline will get pulverized if one hits them.  We will have only fifteen minutes to get the ship under control once we reach them."

Jackson nodded. “OK, that’s going to make our job harder, so listen up. Once we match vectors and overtake, we'll deploy the grapplers. Tarrant, you'll move us into a position relative above the liner.  The grapplers will attach to the undamaged starboard side, and at full thrust we will be able to stop them from rolling.  Because they outmass us, there's no way we can bring the ship to rest or angle it away before it enters the Snowball. All we can do is slow them down a little to give us more time.  Once we stabilize them, we’ll evacuate everyone and let the Navy collect the liner, if it survives."
Kate objected. “That will put a huge strain on our life support, Tarrant. We've been in space for nine days with fourteen day’s oxygen supply, and there are more than 40 people aboard the liner.”

“But they won't be with us for too long,” Tarrant explained. “The navy ship will be along in less than an hour. They should have the life support capacity.”
Dack raised his hand like a student.  "How bad is the damaged to their drives?  Once they stop tumbling you and Anya can hop across to give them a hand.  Maybe you can jury-rig something so they can stop on their own.”

“I’d like to, but there won’t be enough time.  From the captain’s reports, it would take several hours to make even temporary repairs.  Their captain says some machinery in the drive section tore loose from its mountings, and is banging around the compartment.”

"If we stay right with them, Dack and I can at least blast some of the smaller ice chunks in their way until you make some repairs," Wally offered. “That would give you more time.”

"We may have to do that, but it'll be chancy."  Tarrant cautioned.  "Ice chunks don't show up on active scans well because they're not metallic.  So you'd have to rely on visual acquisition.  Don't get me wrong, Wally, you're a good shot, but without the computer to help you you'll have only seconds to get targets.  And some of them will be too big to pulverize.  I agree with Jackson, the best bet is to get the people off, and let the navy pick up the pieces.”

The crew broke up to prepare for the operation.  Marek relayed the plan to Lady Caroline’s captain, Kate, Anya and Tarrant set up the ship’s galley, which doubled as a medical berth.  “It's actually quite simple, Kate,” Anya was saying as they cleared the tables. “We have to match the liner's course and speed so we're stationary relative to them. Then, Jackson feeds out the grapplers and Dack and Wally line them up to grab hold of the liner. It's sub-atomic physics, but in simple terms the grapplers act like giant magnets.  Only they use gravitational force instead of magnetism.  Then Tarrant thrusts opposite to the direction of the roll, and the liner stops rolling. After that it should be easy to reposition and connect the airlocks; and we just evacuate the passengers over here."

Dack and Wally got into their vacc suits and unpacked the airlock tube that would connect the two ships.  Their main part was to guide the grapplers to contact then connect the tube to Lady Caroline’s airlock.

The minutes ticked downward.  From the bridge, Marek spoke into the comm. “Heads up, everyone, we’re coming up on intercept.  We should have visual contact in about a minute.  I hope we’re all ready to do this.” At the airlock’s inner door, Dack spoke into the comm. “Hey, Marek, we were born ready.” Wally pushed him aside so he could enter the airlock first. “I was ready before he was!” he laughed. Dack shoved back, saying “Oh, no you don’t. I’m going out first.” Hearing their scuffle, Marek snapped, “Guys, save the competition for later, OK?  Let’s get this done first.”

Tarrant returned to the bridge just as the image of the damaged liner appeared on the monitor.  Easing into the helmsman’s chair, he angled the ship’s bow to match vectors.  He angled the ship downward, bringing them closer and closer to the spinning liner.  "OK, that's as close as I can get." He rotated the Nth Degree to port and prepared the thrusters to counter Lady Caroline’s roll.  “We’re in position. Wally, Dack, out you go. Be careful out there.”

The bottom hatch opened and down in Engineering, Jackson began extending the half-meter thick cables which held the grappler pad.  Dack and Wally hustled across the side of the ship, gravity boots thudding against the hull, and made a short leap across the open hatch to land on the frame holding the large grav plates. A quick pulse of air from their suit's maneuvering thrusters brought them to a stop as they reached the pad.  As he got a grip, Dack spoke into the comm.  "We're on, Jackson. Lower us into position."

"Hey Dack." 

"What's up, Wally?"

"It just occurred to me.  If Jackson is the engineering whiz, why are we the ones out here space-walking?"

"It's because Jackson is an old codger while we are young and adventurous," Dack replied with a grin.

"I heard that, Hollingsworth!" Jackson chuckled. ” You do realize we've got the shipboard intercom on speakers?”  the two laughed as the large plates drifted towards the spinning hull beneath them. 

Jackson ran out the grappler cables as quickly as they would go.  On the bridge, Anya, Marek and Tarrant gathered around the monitor watching the view from Dack's helmet camera.

The grappler cables were almost fully played out when Wally called out, “Hold it here, we need a roll or two to get the timing down.” He watched the spinning hull beneath him, trying to estimate how long it would take for his target, the starboard wing, to come around again.

Marek answered him anxiously, “We don’t have much time, guys.  Drop it on the next go-round.”

“Don’t rush me, Marek.  You rush a rescue; you get rotten rescuing.” 

As the intact starboard wing swung by beneath them, Dack made some quick mental calculations.  “All right, Wally, get set to drop the pads on my count. We’ll go on this next pass. Get a good grip on the frame, Wally.  When we make contact the cable’s going to swing over pretty hard. Wish we’d thought to have Jackson install some safety tethers on this thing. Tarrant, get ready with the thrusters, here it comes!”

The grapplers activated, reaching out with artificial gravity to grab the approaching wing. The pad slammed into the starboard wing as it swung past.  Dack and Wally felt the force of impact like a sledgehammer. Lady Caroline kept rolling as if nothing happened, taking the cables, pads and them with it. Both of the men lost their footholds and swung up, clinging desperately to the handles.  Tarrant countered by firing the Nth Degree's thrusters, and the grappler cables quivered as they were pulled taut.  The vibration from the cables flung Wally from his perch as the massive cables shuddered under the strain.  He flew up and away from the ship, flipping end over end. He shouted in a panic, “Dack, help!”

Dack threw out a hand to grab him but missed, and almost lost his own grip. He launched himself forward onto the cables, but lost sight of Wally as the ship rolled over. He yelled out, “Your suit thrusters, Wally! Fire your thrusters!” 

For a few seconds, Wally couldn’t respond.  Then, ignoring the heaving of his stomach, he clumsily groped at the chest-mounted control box and pressed the button.  His first blast of compressed gas overcompensated for his spinning, and his stomach heaved again as he began rolling the other way.  Fighting the urge to be sick, Wally righted himself and jetted back towards the cables, but again fired too hard and almost flew right by.  At the last moment, Dack’s magnet-gloved hand reached out and snatched Wally by the leg.  For a few seconds Wally’s momentum threatened to pull them both free.  They hung precariously in space; Dack’s other glove the only thing holding them on.  Wally recovered some balance, reached down and grasped Dack’s arm. Together they crawled down the cables back to the pad frame.  They stood helmet-to-helmet, staring at each other. Slowly they realized that the hull beneath them had stopped moving.  Lady Caroline was still drifting through space, but stable for the moment. Through their helmet comms they could hear cheering, coming from the liner’s passengers.

“Hey, Dack are you guys all right?” Marek’s voice broke their daze.

“Yeah, if Wally would stop sightseeing and get on with it,” Dack replied, forcing levity into his voice.  “We’re OK.” 

“That’s a relief.  We’re gonna cross into Snowball in nine minutes, you guys get to target-shoot ice after all.  Anya is extending the connecting tube, so get ready to attach and seal.  We haven’t got much time to get the passengers out.”

Dack and Wally climbed down off the grappler pad and thudded onto the hull of the liner. “Anya,” Wally said, “Go ahead and begin extending the tube. We’re just gonna walk up the hull and meet the tube from this side.”

As Wally started out, Dack turned aside. “I’ll be just a second, Wally. I want to have a look at the collision site.”

“This is no time for sight-seeing, Dack. Come on.”

“Hey, I’m fast enough that I’ll still beat you to the airlock.”

“Says you,” Wally retorted, breaking into as much of a trot as was possible while wearing gravity boots.

Tarrant rotated the Nth Degree facing astern of the liner, and began thrusting backwards.  Jackson began slowly reeling the cables back in, pulling the two ships close enough for the airlock tube to reach across.  Lady Caroline’s bow swung to starboard from the off-center pull, but began slowing immediately.  Tarrant's smile was grim; he had already calculated that their velocity would propel them into the Snowball before they could stop. 

The story continues here.

No comments:

Post a Comment