Coherent light pulses stabbed outward at a chunk of ice the size of a shuttlecraft. It shuddered, and large pieces of it broke loose and drifted out of the way. Tarrant banked as hard as he dared to get around it, struggling to keep the two craft from drifting together. It was so quiet on the bridge he could hear his breath coming in short puffs, as if inhaling too hard would alter the ship's course.
Out of nowhere, the communicator bleeped and a new voice broke the silence.
“Assisting ship, this is the Navy rescue vessel Damascus. We are closing on your position, please identify yourself.”
Tarrant waved his arm to quiet the spontaneous cheers so he could hear to answer. “Damascus, this is Confederation ship Nth Degree, tail number 27B-94E. We can’t see you, the ice has fogged our sensors. Where are you?”
“Nth Degree, this is Damascus. We are above you to port aft. Break off to bearing 212 by 037 and get out of there. We are deploying grapplers to recover Lady Caroline. She’s in good hands, get clear before you get yourselves killed.”
“Thank you, Damascus! We are on our way out.” Tarrant responded with a sigh of relief. Cheers went up from the crew and passengers. Smiling at the celebrating crowd, Tarrant stabbed the grappler release button with his thumb. The grin faded as the ENGAGED light went out and the MALFUNCTION light came on. He thumbed the button again, frowning now, and the MALFUNCTION light blinked at him. The knot in his stomach squeezed even tighter. He groped for the comm panel.
“Jackson, something’s wrong with the grapplers. Blast it all, they won’t detach!”
Jackson was at his elbow, bending over the panel. Shaking his head, he reached for the comm.
“Damascus, our grapplers won’t detach. There’s some kind of malfunction in the pads. We’ve cut the power but they haven’t let go. Can you pull us both out?”
“Negative, Nth Degree. We’re big enough to move you both, but there’s too much risk of causing your ships to collide if we try a double grab. Can you release the grapplers at the pads? We will try to provide covering fire to clear your path while you do.”
“We’ll try it, Damascus,” Tarrant answered. “Wally, the manual release on the grappler pad, can you get to it?” Dack, seated closer to the doorway, answered first. “I’ll get it, Tarrant. Wally, you keep blasting us a path. I’ll be outside in under a minute.” He sped out the door, heading for the airlock at a dead run. Tarrant jabbed the release button again, then slammed his fist onto it in frustration.
Another ice chunk in Wally’s sights shattered into fragments. Blinding bright bolts of plasma arced from Damascus down onto the frozen chunks. As each bolt struck, it created huge billowing clouds of steam which then refroze in an instant. Tiny ice pellets coated the hulls of both ships. Small fragments scattered in all directions, clanging when one bounced off the hull.
A small chunk that avoided the active sensors smashed into Lady Caroline’s bow. Hull plates buckled, an alarm whined as some more air escaped through the cracks. Wally swore, Marek grumbled and the rest of the crew sweated a little more.
Dack climbed down the cable; hand over hand as fast as he could go. Several times he had to stop to avoid small chunks of ice and rock as they floated past. Looking at the grappler pads, the problem was immediately clear. “Gehenna! Tarrant, the pads are actually wedged into the hull! The plates must have buckled when we made contact. There’s no way I can pull them off. Get Anya out here with the fusion torch, we have to cut the cable!”
Jackson’s voice came through the radio. “Dack, I’ll be out in two minutes with the cutter. You get back inside; we need you at your guns. Let the old codger take care of this. Get going!”
Wally’s voice broke in. “Move your can, Jackson! I don’t know how much longer we can last in here. Dack, I just missed another one. I need you, now!”
Dack and Jackson met at the airlock. Without saying a word, they hurried through the depressurization cycle to let Dack in and Jackson out. Jackson gave Dack a look that said 'We're counting on you.' Dack returned one that said 'Don't get dead.'
On the bridge and in the galley, everyone gathered around the comm, waiting for Jackson to give them a word. Seconds ticked by, Wally and Dack fired again and again at the barrage of ice. Anya sat in the comm chair, clenching the spanner in her hand.
“The first cable’s free!” Jackson shouted into the comm. The loose cable swung away from the ship, snapping like a whip. He felt the ship under his feet shudder as it tried to pull away from the liner. Jackson pulled the torch up to begin on the second one. Out of the corner of his eye he saw an ice fragment coming straight at him. Without thinking, he swung the fusion torch up and a miniature sun vaporized the chunk. Water particles splashed over him, caking him in ice. Ice chips flaked off his suit as the torch tore into the second cable. He scraped at his facemask with a glove so he could see.
More seconds ticked by, then he cried out, “Second one’s gone! Get us out of here, Tarrant! I’m already on my way inside!” Anya sprinted off the bridge to meet him at the airlock.
Marek plotted the vector, and Nth Degree banked hard to starboard, climbing to get clear of the field. “Damascus, this is Nth Degree. We are pulling out, she’s all yours. Please take good care of her; we have one of our own people aboard.”
“No worries, Nth Degree. I dare say we’re rather good at this.”
The rescue ship activated its forward repulsor bays. Two beams of focused artificial gravity stabbed downward from Damascus. They merged ahead of Lady Caroline’s hull, creating a screen of solid gravitational force. Small ice chunks shattered against the unseen wall. Larger chunks bounced away to smash into splinters against still larger ones. The wedge of gravity plowed ahead, creating a tunnel through the field. Damascus’ grapplers snaked out and clamped themselves to Lady Caroline’s hull. Under the screen's protection the two ships banked upwards into the empty space above the Snowball.
EpilogueDack walked into the ship’s lounge where Marek and Tarrant were relaxing. He waved a data pad at them. “Hey, are you guys free? You said you wanted to see the video I got of the liner. Good thing I made a backup before the Navy took it away to examine.”
“Sure, punch it up on the big display,” Marek said with a sigh. “I still think you’re hearing Whisperers, though.”
“Hey, give him a break, Marek. I think he may be on to something,” Tarrant countered. “And so do Wally and Jackson. There was stuff that didn’t make sense about this. How come one of their lifeboats was inoperable just when they needed it? The engineer I talked to said that boat had passed the company’s safety inspection just two days before. Power systems don’t just fail like that for no reason. Then the ‘asteroid’ strike just happens to destroy the other lifeboat? Odds are long enough of just getting an asteroid strike. One that strikes and disables the only means of escaping the ship is extra-long odds.”
“Yeah,” Dack agreed. “And what about Kate’s space suit that didn’t fit? She said it was the only one left in the locker, but an officer and a drive man had disappeared. There should have been two left. Where’d the other one go?”
“A passenger could have grabbed a crew suit, if they didn’t trust the off-the-rack models,” Marek argued.
“Well, here, take a look at this,” Dack insisted, pointing to the holographic image glowing before them. It displayed a section of hull, out of focus but recognizable. There was a hole of more than a meter radius torn in the metal plating. The blackened edges curled outward from the hull surface. “What kind of asteroid hits a ship, disintegrates so there’s no fragments left, and pushes the edge of the hull outwards?” He jabbed a finger at the hologram.
“Escaping atmosphere could have blown the asteroid fragments back into space. And, a secondary explosion could account for the outward turn of the hull plates.” Marek observed. “Sorry, guys but I’ll still need more than that to believe this wasn’t an accident. The Navy people are all treating this as an accident, so why shouldn’t we?”
Marek then turned his attention back to his book reader. Dack shrugged, closed the data pad and left, shaking his head in frustration. He was sure that there was more to this incident, but he had no idea how to prove it.