Chapter 25 Beginning of the End
   John Morrisson scowled at the empty space in the hangar. He really didn't need this, with only one month left until he retired from this business for good. A ship he was doing testing on had been dragged out of the hangar and flown off, despite having the A and C conduits from the prime mover disconnected (and of course, the alarms inhibited so he could test the B without the prime mover shutting down). If the B conduit failed...well, Morrisson would rather not be there when it did. His mood was as incandescent as the Zearlan sun. He was regretting ever taking this contract, even though it paid well. He had started regretting it ever since he'd seen that INRA man there.

"Where's KV-355?" he snapped at a passing colleague.
"Oh, it's gone. That new guy and Wyatt took it, it was parked on pad 6 ready to go," the younger mechanic replied breezily. The young man's keen senses told him that somehow he was on dangerous ground, but he hadn't quite worked out what he'd done wrong yet.
"Who detagged it and put it out there?" growled the old mechanic.
"Oh, Kev probably did it. We were asked to get two ships ready, that Asp looked good to go."
"You do know the A and C conduits are disconnected and all the alarms are inhibited? That's why it had all those big red danger tags all over the flight controls?"
The younger mechanic's face drained of colour. "A and C disconnected, sir?"
"Yes. Where's Kevin?"
"But they're dead in the water if the B fails!"
"Don't you think I know that! Where the hell is Kevin Bright!" Morrisson yelled, losing his temper. He didn't need to be reminded of the consequences of the only power conduit splitting open in deep space.

Morrisson spotted Bright leaving the kitchen, nonchalantly rolling a cigarette. The young man was far too cocky, he'd only been working as a mechanic for 18 months and he thought he knew it all. Morrisson growled, and began pacing across the hangar angrily. Kevin Bright, indeed. More like Kevin Dim. He was going to give the kid a piece of his mind...

The Asp's flight deck was not a good place for intimate relations, but that didn't seem to be deterring Elyssia Wyatt or James Winston, who were now almost wedged between the command seat and the console in lustful embrace. It was unfortunate that the rather simple ship monitoring system had taken all the movement on the bridge to mean that someone could see the flashing master caution, and therefore not sound the loud and attention-getting remote alarm. It was even more unfortunate that every distraction so far had brought Winston's probing hand slapping randomly on the console until the distraction went away. His other hand had been reserved for certain other probing activities.

The Asp flight manual reads, "There are three plasma conduits for the thruster system. These are fully redundant, and a single conduit is designed to be able to take the load of all three for periods not exceeding twenty minutes. In the event of multiple conduit failure, the operator is advised to use reduced power levels, as diagrammed in table 5.7.7"

Winston now didn't care that Wyatt suddenly dragging him across the cabin was an act of lust. Her smooth, athletic body rubbed against his. Her slender fingers were madly trying to rip off his cl...

There was a muffled whump from somewhere in the rear of the ship. Both Wyatt and Winston were suddenly jerked back into reality as the main alarm started a piercing shriek that killed any moment of passion. Winston sprang up, and painfully cracked the back of his head on the underside of the console.

"What the hey!" yelled Wyatt, as she scrambled to her knees and slammed her palm on the Alarm Silence.

Winston tried to read the warning display. It seemed like every system had lit up red. He quickly identified a conduit breach, and reached over to shut down the prime mover. His hand never made it to the controls. A deafening crash followed by the sound of rushing air caused him to miss the appropriate part of the panel! A slam behind them indicated the airtight section doors sealing. Finally, he hit the right panel, but the automatic systems had already taken care of it.

"What the hell's happened?" yelled Wyatt, confused.
"We lost a conduit," grunted Winston, as he tried to reroute via the A and C. "I don't understand, it's not letting me re-route!" he shouted frantically.
"Is the prime mover secured?"
Winston glanced over at the engine display. "It's shut down, we're safe - for now," he said, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "I think I need to go back and take a look, it sounded really bad," he added unnecessarily.

Winston struggled to his feet, and stumbled through the flight deck door into the supplies area. His hands were shaking from a mix of adrenaline and the ebbing excitement of the encounter that was just so rudely interrupted. After three attempts, he finally had the EVA suit on. Wyatt helped him put his space helmet on. He hurried towards the back of the main cabin towards the equipment deck, but the airtight door was down. Moving as quickly as he could in the EVA suit, he slid down to the deck below to the cargo bay airlock. He could go up to the equipment deck via the upper cargo bay airlock, even if it was a bit more awkward. It was certainly less awkward than letting all the air out of the cabin...

"Can you hear me?" came a tinny voice in his helmet, as he stepped into the airlock.
"Yes," he replied. "Patch Jas in and have her get a damage report," he said, as he squeezed through the airlock, and finally into the cargo bay.

Now weightless, he glided up gently through the hard vacuum towards the upper airlock. It had been a while since he'd last tried to manoevre in microgravity, and his movements were clumsy. After a couple of attempts, he grabbed hold of the door, and opened it.

"Jim, it ain't good," came Jas's voice through the helmet, as the inner airlock door opened.
"I think I can see that now," Winston replied, as he moved into the equipment deck. There was a hole in the prime mover.

Winston dropped down to the lower catwalk to activate the APU. It'd at least keep the ship warm and the atmosphere breathable as they waited for help to arrive. He suddenly felt a further surge of adrenaline, as he surveyed the scene. The B conduit had exploded. There was no doubt about that. It had exploded right into the APU. A twisted lump of pulverised metal was all that remained. Most of the generator had been blasted off into space, through a gaping hole in the hull.

Winston looked upwards at the prime mover. The A and C conduits were not even attached. They had temporary blanking plates over where they'd normally connect. He hauled himself up to the prime mover manual control panel, and flipped open the cover. Another surge of adrenaline hit him when he saw that the alarm inhibits were activated, and the override key was in. The B conduit had been shot out through the hull and into space. Above him was another gaping hole in the upper hull. He fancied he could see a bright speck through the hole - Alioth's light reflected off the rapidly receeding parts of the Asp. This was deliberate, he thought. There is no way that someone could have done this accidentally. There was still even the red "Danger! Do not operate!" flags on most of the manual controls.

"Elyssia, I think we've been sabotaged. They were trying to kill us, and we are in deep, deep trouble," Winston said grimly, the strain making his voice shake. He tried to pull himself together - he'd faced pirates, freeloaders, and multiple attempts on his life - but the almost certainty that they'd freeze to death or possibly asphyxiate over the next few days filled him with a new kind of terror.

"Elyssia?" he asked, hearing no response from his shipmate.
"Are we going to die?" she asked.

Winston paused. No APU, no prime mover equalled no generated power. All they had was the battery. The AJN had routine Quest patrols of Alioth space, but it was anyone's guess whether they were within a dozen AU of their current position. Winston decided to dodge the question for now.

"Look, turn everything off apart from the emergency radio and minimal life support. Set the radio to broadcast a mayday. We're in safe space here and I know it's patrolled. I'm coming back up to the cabin. Jas, get some figures on our power load and how long we can survive"

"Are the clones prepared?" Tyler asked.
"They are ready, their minds have been imprinted - all we need to do is set up the distraction so we can capture the real people and deploy our clones," answered Piquet, in his distinctive Cassiopean drawl.
"In that case, if we are all agreed, we're go for the final stages of Backstab. The rest of you must act quickly and accurately to plan. We have only twenty days to complete the plan"

The meeting broke up...

"Set the life support for ten degrees celcius. That's still rather warm, isn't it?" Winston asked as Wyatt entered the final parameters into their emergency power profile.
"It'll last long enough," replied Jas.
"Did you catch S&R on the last scan?"

Jas paused. The pause was less than a second, but it was long enough to bring out a subtle truth to Jas - no more than an AI in a box. An insight had hit her advanced AI systems like a tonne of metal alloys slamming into the hull of a stricken Boa. She realised that she couldn't grok fear. She felt she ought to feel it as the humans obviously were - but she couldn't because she literally didn't know what it was. Was it the desire to stay alive? She certainly had the desire to remain functional, but it was a mere programmed response.

"I'm not sure," she said, "there are a lot of ships there. You've got about fifty hours of life support of the main battery at that temperature. The battery is in good condition."
"How much longer do we have if we turn it down a few degrees? We have coats and space suits on board, we can have it lower," Winston replied with concern.
"You won't need life support for more than 47 hours."
"Why not?" asked Winston, getting slightly frustrated that Jas was stringing it out. Maybe rescue was on the way, and it was Jas's perverse way of playing a joke. Whoever had developed her AI had a warped sense of humour.
"Well," she said, "in approximately 47 hours we will slam into the broadside of asteroid A-7755L at a relative speed of nearly 50 kilometers per second"

The bridge fell silent.

"We're dead, aren't we?" Wyatt asked.
"Not for another 47 hours," Winston groaned harshly. He'd had enough adrenaline surges for one day and death had started to lose its sting.

"One of ours, you say?" asked Dennis Kernighan, peering over Captain Mike Johnson's shoulder.
"Yes, seems though they lost power. I think we ought to try and get there before anyone else does," Johnson replied in a businesslike manner.
"Who is it?"
"With nothing but the emergency beacon, we can't tell, other than it's a Backstab mission ship. We're only two hours away, so I expect we'll get there first."

Kernighan entered the new course into the ship's computer. Without fuss, thrusters fired, and the Anaconda started to rumble as the massive engines worked hard to bring the vast ship onto an intercept course with the striken Asp. It was fortunate for the occupants of the Asp that they had already decelerated significantly for the approach to Edinburgh starport, only two and a half days away.

"We might have a bit of problem though," added Johnson quietly, "it looks like an Alliance search-and-rescue vessel has picked the signal up and is also responding."
"If they get there first..."
"Let's hope the crew of the Asp have followed protocol and destroyed any sensitive data already," muttered Johnson, turning his attention back towards the navigation display.

© 2003 Dylan Smith.

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