Vagrants chapter 17.

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There was a rogue planet out there, and it was going to come close enough to pull us. Captain Traitor had ordered a full stop to be safe, which would set us back months. He was probably right, though; I re-calibrated our sensors. Given to us by the aliens who had helped us leave the nest, they measured the movement of both dark matter and energy in the direction they were pointed; any movement in either usually meant an object or energy that was dangerous to humans.

Might have been dangerous to the aliens too; even with pictures and what other data Gen 1 had collected, I couldn't be certain of that. They were nothing like old Earth biology at all or even our imaginings of alien biology.

Done with the re-positioning and re-calibration (We normally kept the sensors reined in somewhat to discourage false positives) I flipped the switch.

The answer came back immediately: we were absolutely surrounded by foreign objects, all flying every which way and bouncing off each other. Clearly, the rogue planet's gravity well was already working its magic.

We had no less than sixteen objects heading our way, either directly to us or close enough to be considered a danger. The readings were already being shown on the bridge, but I still had to ask.

“You getting this, bridge?”

The response from Captain Traitor was immediate. “Yeah, we see it. Hang onto something.”

I grabbed onto a convenient handhold and waited. We had our own gravity, after all, and that sometimes caused things not properly bolted down to fly when we decelerated, though I had been told it wasn't quite the same as what one got from a planet, since it was our own gravity.

The sudden deceleration came, much worse than the gradual deceleration I'd been experiencing before. I rode it out and checked our shields. They weren't really shields that so much of the fiction of our home planet painted; invisible bands of force that could stop objects or weapons cold, but there was that aspect. They were ablative panels that moved, angling objects away from more sensitive areas of the hull. They were also backed by massive electro-magnets, capable of generating enough force to slow anything that had ferrous metal content down.

It wasn't perfect, but it worked. Well, aside from having to replace any panels; Cargie had hated replacing them. Probably because it required him to stuff himself in his EVA suit, and Cargie had been a big guy. I often wondered how he'd managed that when food was so carefully controlled and come to the conclusion that like the alcohol, he'd made his own... but he never had told me where that was.

Sometimes it worried me that there might be strange plant life rotting away in a hold somewhere.

But no, I needed to focus. The first panel was hit, but did it's job with a minimum of deformity. Oddball, or at least one of his subsystems, was controlling the angle of the panels, but I was watching him.

I didn't really trust Oddball much anymore. I wonder why?

Everything worked just fine. Two of the objects angled off poorly and cause some minor structural damage. Nothing to worry about, at least not yet; I made a note of where it was just in case the alarm indicators failed or turned off, and reported in. They would know of the shield deployment (they could have done it themselves of course, and Oddball could have done it on his own) and be watching from their own monitors.

“Bridge, engineering here. Some minor hits, nothing too terrible. But we should probably warm up the impact cannons, in case.”

The impact cannons were useful, slug throwers that used the principle of magnetism to throw small rocks or metal balls into large foreign objects to break them up and slow their momentum. Just one could fire seventeen slugs a second, and we had six of them on tracks set between the hulls. They could fire out but were protected normally, but deploying them was a minor risk.

I could always build one from scratch if I wanted to, so losing one wasn't that big a risk. It was certainly better than the alternative.

No human could properly plot a firing solution of course, but if Oddball was handling the shields, chances were he would handle the weapons just fine. If he didn't there was an old backup, built entirely on Earth, for the impact cannons. Not too many knew of it's existence, and it wasn't hooked into the network, but it wouldn't take more than a minute to correct both problems.

The cannons came online and started doing their thing.

…...

I had Billie ready to go, but she needed to know which way to burn. The screens showed that most of the debris was moving in one direction; orbiting. How had we gotten into the center of this without noticing?

“Three and relative low, Billie. Let the computer catch up and plot the course.”

When there were hundreds of objects of varying sizes, sometimes the computer plotting them all in order to make a course had problems. Oddball could do it But I liked a second opinion and a human hand involved; especially now. But away and in the same direction as most of the objects was good enough for now.

“Mouse.”

Her voice was lightened up to something beautiful, her tone less so. “Yes Captain Traitor?”

“Can you tell me the status of the cannon feeds?”

Sometimes the ammunition used in the cannons wasn't perfectly spherical; It hadn't really been machined that way in generations. So the ammunition feeds could clog and the cannons jam.

“All cannons report fully operational. Cannons two and five report low ammunition, but they should be fine for now. The shields are fine, though shield fifty-two is crumpled a bit from a strike, and the impact is affecting Oddball's ability to angle. So, if you have to you should roll us to avoid a hit there; that's at our chem lab wing.”

Not the place you want something hitting. The best place would be the primary habitat wing; not only was it better protected but all of us who normally used it were off doing our jobs. Let's see, a roll 'up' would put an impact at the third secondary water tank, used for experiments and hydroponics, and a roll 'down' would put a hit at maneuvering thruster number thirteen and the fuel feed. Relative up it was; we could stand to lose some partially contaminated water if we had to. Especially since most of it would freeze in the worst case scenario and we could recover it later.

“Don't suppose we have any spare ammunition for them, Mouse?”

“We don't keep that much on hand, but I'll see what I can do.” And she was gone, to work her magic. I knew we didn't keep much ammunition on hand for the cannon, it was a waste of weight and resources, but I'm sure the engineers had some special doomsday trick if the situation called for it; Cargie had for everything else, after all, and Mouse was better than he was.

The big hits stopped as Billie brought us on our new course, and the little hits didn't matter nearly as much; the shields could soak those all day, at least with most of the inertia they had spent.

The rogue planet was still coming, thanks to the course change we were now certain to miss it. The other objects though, those were a problem.

“Engineering to bridge.”

Whatever she wanted must be good to contact me. “Got a crazy plan. We are going to lose quite a bit of velocity from passing this close; what say we make it work for us, and gain some instead?”

Yes passing this close to a large planet's gravity well would slow us down. Was Mouse suggesting what I thought she was?

“I'm listening.”

She cut right back. “Don't play dumb;You know I'm talking about a slingshot. We go around a good seven or eight times, use the gravity well for us, and we can actually gain speed and make our destination galaxy much faster.”

She had to be weighing the risks. Staying the range of the gravity well would leave us open to all the debris we were trying to avoid. “How much faster.”

“Anywhere from six to ten years faster.”

We could reach the galaxy and it's planets in our lifetime. Not a maybe, a definite. Plus, reducing the time meant reducing the time spent in a dangerous transit. Less time spent under Oddball's watch.

However, the increased speed would affect our sensor range. That would be a huge risk.

Mouse knew what I was thinking. “Don't worry, I can alleviate the sensor risk. Besides, the planet already swept everything in our path up, probably.”

Gravity could act as a broom, sometimes. There should be a corridor more empty than normal back that way.

“See to the ammunition. We will need more. After that, we can discuss it.”

“Sure thing.” The answer was upbeat. Damn it, she knew what his answer was already.

“Roger? Sir?” Billie asked; she hadn't picked up on it.

“Just focus on evasive maneuvers for now, Billie.”

I went into the command conference room then called Siegfried. He wasn't long in responding.

“What's up, Captain? I hear we have a situation?”

No time, no time... “We have an emergency situation, needing a command decision. I'd like your input.”

It took longer than I wanted to explain the choices, and Siegfried was quiet for some time.

“I would say we just stay on course as much as we can, and ride it out. It may cost us years down the line, but it isn't worth the risk; the mission is too important. But in light of recent events? I think it might be time to take a stupid risk or two.”

His thoughts verbalized gelled my own.

“Right. It might come down to just riding everything out, but I think we can find an unoccupied lane. Alright, Sieg what do you say about rotating shifts?” I didn't want both of us down at the same time, and Sieg was the more trusted of the two of us right now, so putting him on the night shift (which didn't deal with me as much anyway) was a good idea. I could also trust Sieg to keep me in the loop if necessary.

“I say it's an idea. I guess I'll go try and sleep.”

“Good luck.” Knowing him, he'd be asleep in five minutes; a more laid back guy I just didn't know.

Well, I had a consensus, and that was good enough for a decision. I stepped out of the conference room and only glanced longingly at the liquor cabinet. I didn't need the habit.

“Billie, calculate a course for a slingshot maneuver.”

“Already done, Roger. Mouse calculated one, and I've double-checked it. Oddball is currently checking it for any errors.”

Oddball was doing something? Probably an uncharitable thought, considering if we got pulverized it died along with us and failed his mission. That couldn't be something it wanted, could it?

Billie's console chirped. “It's done, course complete.” She announced.

“Don't waste time, just use it.” I didn't need a play by play, she already knew what the plan was and what the stakes were.

I could feel motion as the Billie plotted the course, but I wasn't good enough to tell from where. There was something else, though, and I couldn't pin it down. I sat down but didn't belt in, watching the ship status.

Which got boring after awhile. Luckily, Mouse broke the monotony.

“Captain Traitor.” sigh.

“Go ahead, Mouse.”

“Got all the ammunition we could need. Made some tough ice our of some waste liquids, molded to fit. With the life support around the cannon turned off, they won't melt before we need them, and they will slow anything shot down. It'll require more bullets, but it won't fragment objects as much as our current stuff does.”

That was... remarkably good thinking. “Good work.”

“Whatever. Engineering out.”

…...

I watched the cannon work. Taking the worst waste slush we had, mixing it altogether, throwing it in some old ball bearing molds and then loading it up was a stroke of genius if I did say so myself. Sure, it took several shots rather than simply one or two per object, but the ice vaporized much easier, and instead of shattering what it hit, it merely nudged it out of the way or dumped it's velocity so the impact was feather soft. Well, at least most of the time.

The problem was now I'd have to decontaminate my suit; waste liquids were radioactive. The dose was mild, but it was enough that I didn't want to put it off too long, for all that I needed to right now.

At least we had enough ammunition now – three thousand rounds per cannon - provided Billie learned how to dodge a rock. It was like she was trying to hit every single one or something; cannon ten had already switched to the new stuff exclusively, and cannon eight and four were well on their way.

I tweaked the fuel flow mix going into the maneuvering thrusters. Throwing off burn calculations to the main engines was something I wouldn't do, but a little bit of extra dodging capability couldn't hurt. It would just mean I'd have to overhaul them later; but that just gave me something to do, assuming we survived.

Billie adjusted quickly, and we started using less ammunition; good.

I scanned myself for radiation, then set up one of my cots in the corner of the office. Setting my pad to alert me in case of several different kinds of emergencies, I laid down. I wasn't about to leave engineering during all this, but I couldn't just stare at a screen for hours. With my normal jobs done, the sleepers checked, I'd get bored pretty fast. So games or sleep it was.

…...

Brun woke me up. Her pad chimed a harsh counterpoint to the more normal engine noises; if I'd been less swift on the uptake I'd have probably broken my own trying to shut it off.

Instead I focused right in, finding her watching the main engineering console. “Sorry; I forgot to turn the alarm down.”

I stretched; sometimes I curled up on the cots, and that made me a little stiff. “No problem, Guessing it's time to be up anyway. You checked the sleepers yet?”

She shook her head no; it was barely two hours into her shift. I'd slept through Gym, and no one had tried to wake me? That seemed a little suspicious.

“Do you want to?” I'd have offered to do it myself, even preferred it that way, but I wasn't entirely trusted right now, so letting Brun do it would have to do.

She nodded. “Sure, get's a load off my mind.”

She grabbed her tools and left while I checked my pad. Hm, Gym was declared voluntary today, with people showing up or not based on whim, probably. There was a note from Milla, stating the botany team was locking down all the hydroponics for rough travel, and food production was temporarily halted for the next few days.

Chemistry, the bio-sciences, the textile Mill Claire had control of, and most of the other labs had followed suit. The clinic was still open, at least. I stumbled getting up; there was a drag, a slight but noticeable drag coming from my left side – starboard side. We had to be close to or orbiting something.

According to the console, something had buckled shield number four and it would no longer respond to commands. The camera directed at it showed the entire hydraulic strut bent and crumpled at one end. It was going to be a real pain in the butt to replace, provided I could even machine one. Until I did that shield would just stick out at that angle.

More worrying was the fact that I'd slept through whatever hit us; that couldn't have been a soft impact. Maybe the strut failure had absorbed more than the normal impact? No, that didn't make sense at all, and I wasn't a light sleeper.

Maybe I'd just been more tired than normal?

“Engineering to the bridge.”

Siegfried answered... and I released a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. “Bridge, go ahead Mouse.”

“I'm watching the monitors now. Any idea what crumpled number four?”

“A pretty big asteroid; it bounced instead of deflecting off. Going to be quite the eyesore until we get it repaired.” Sieg was fishing for information, there. Why he didn't just ask whether I could fix it, I didn't know. It should be obvious it just needed a few new struts on it.

“Yeah, should be, but the actual fix won't take long. Going to have people screaming about the amount of metals used, however. Well, at least until we melt the old ones.”

I checked the ammunition feeds. They seemed more full than when I laid down, but I'd already used all the waste liquids.

“What did you refill the cannon ammunition feeds with?”

“Seth and Joe ground down some parts of that asteroid we hauled in some weeks ago. That and used some of the waste from it.”

Well, that was good thinking. It's what I would have done if I'd been awake.

“Hit frequency still high?”

I could hear Sieg's dismissal. “Nah; we're closer to the planet. Orbiting it tight, turn number four and counting.”

Ah, as we start going back across the debris field again it'll pick back up.

“Who's at the helm?” It couldn't still be Billie.

“Ronald.”

Well, it could have been worse. Guido would have probably plowed us into the planet by now.

“Need help anywhere? When Brun gets back I plan on checking the hull and systems around number four, but other than that I'm free.”

No reason not to run a nice physical inspection to make sure nothing's wrong; the impact damage, force, or some of either, could have easily overwhelmed the safety systems and shaken something loose or caused some metal fatigue. Of course, if that was likely, Brun would probably already be there repairing it and I'd already be awake.

Maybe Brun was still in the habit of trusting the cameras and sensors. I'd have to break her of that, later.

She came back an hour later and promptly started staring over my shoulder at the displays.

“Sleepers fine?”

She nodded, tapping the number three's maneuvering thruster fuel gauge; the low fuel red light turned itself off, and I added it to the list of minor fixes to be completed sometime later. “The emergency impact measures are employed, and everything is triple green.”

“Had a chance to run a visual over the damage around four yet?”

“Had Eric and Opal looking over it, but they had some other stuff to do. Nothing major broken though, or we'd know already. Why, are you volunteering to have a look?”

“Well, I'll end up repairing it anyway; might as well have a look – that is, unless you have something else you think I should be doing?”

She finally looked up, shot me a hard look, and shrugged. “I don't care. You're the boss; if you just start in like you normally do, however, you could log it first so I know what's going on.”

“Will do.” I grabbed my own tools, just in case, and started off. Once out of sight I checked it; the lock and other anti-tampering measures I'd started using were still in place. Never could be too careful – at least if you were me.

After all, next time I could wake up as something else entirely. All it would take is Oddball holding the vote, and my loving crew would once again vote nearly unanimously. Well, maybe that was a little uncharitable, but I still wasn't taking chances.

The Hull around shield number four was fine, the metal wasn't stressed or cracked, and the systems I could get to looked to be just fine. I wasn't going to go into the service tunnels, though, I had a better idea. I'd suit up and EVA in the space between hulls and get a better look at the other side; that would give me a much better idea of whatever I was dealing with before something mission critical had a chance to explode.

“Excuse me, Chief engineer Mouse.”

I turned away from the airlock my suit was in to find one of Oddball's security bots (Number 37, I noted; that might come in handy later.) staring me down. At least it didn't have it's weapons out.

“What do you want, Oddball?”

“I'd prefer if you did not EVA. Your suit is radioactive, and therefore dangerous to attempt extra-vehicular activity in.”

What? “Not performing the check is more dangerous; you have to know that.”

“Of course; to that end, I would propose a compromise.”

Here it comes... “What compromise?”

“I would like to propose you take control of one of my drones to use for the purpose. The unit would be slaved to your pad for the duration of the inspection and it should allow you to perform such an inspection without placing yourself in danger.”

Well, creepy factor aside, that actually didn't sound like a bad thing. IF I could trust Oddball. IF I could trust what I was seeing. This was the first time I'd heard of Oddball actually sticking his neck out at all, for anyone of the crew like this. He had made suggestions before but never offered direct help. Then again, he was in danger too, if the ship got cracked in half he was just as dead as the rest of us.

I didn't trust it.

“I'll have to have assurance that the drone is transmitting unfiltered information directly to me. I've no doubt that since you can control the feeds, you can alter them. I want that control for myself, and I'll share the information with you afterward.”

Oddball thought for a second. “That is acceptable. I assume you will require movement control as well; I will instruct you on how to run a bypass of my control scheme if you promise not to interfere with the drones emergency kill switch.”

So he didn't want to just hand me a drone of my own, indefinitely. That was fair. “I agree, and I promise. So where is this drone you're talking about?”

“It is standing in front of you.”

The security bot was a drone to him? These things were armed and all but unbeatable, at least by anything on this ship. Oddball really was trusting me. Engineering didn't even handle the maintenance on these things, and the schematics were not in our database; this would be my first look at the insides of one. It might be any humans first look at the insides of one since they were made.

“Alright, tell me what to do.”

My pad lit up with schematics and step by step instructions. The Oddball started talking on top of that; I rolled my eyes and tried my best not to throw the thing as he started with: “First remove panel C-3....”



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