I stayed in my suit the entire time we were in the shuttle, to make it less likely whatever the starfish rubbed on the bolt in my leg didn’t spread to the others. But still, we all got an extended stay in quarantine for our troubles.
Sam was waiting for us in quarantine, and she fixed me with a glare that was equally scared and angry, “I understand why you don’t want us to go. That… fear, knowing everyone you care most about is in danger, immediate and yet remote, where there was nothing I could do… it was difficult to bear. But… I calmed myself with the knowledge that it was necessary, to safeguard the ship and her crew, and with the fact there was not a natural force that could pry your safety from Elle, or hers from you. I hope that you can find the same calm, when Elle and I leave together.”
I looked from her to Elle, and realized there was no way I was winning any kind of argument on this one. She was also right, even though I hated admitting it. “Me, too,” I said.
I think Bill was getting sweet on me- or maybe he was just bored- but while we matched speed (as much as possible, anyway) for pickup by the Nexus, he suggested we start launching decoys again. At the time it was little more than idle chatter, but while I was the last man waiting in quarantine, he came back, to discuss it in more detail. He also had the head of our science division in tow.
“I’ve been running the numbers,” Bill started, “and I want to officially, formally, propose we reinstate the practice of firing decoys. They helped us evade the Argus, and even with the slightly better scanning equipment likely on board the Nascent, we’re likely to have similar results. If you’ll recall, we didn’t pause firing decoys because it was a bad strategy, it was just the Argus bypassed the decoys entirely by threatening the worlds we’d stopped at. The Nascent won’t have time for that. They’re a shipkiller, and they’re already on our trail. They’d have to abandon us entirely for that to become a solution-”
“So it would only be a viable strategy if we managed to slip them,” I said.
“So why’s Stephen here?”
“We don’t have a lot of fungible material, on the Nexus,” Stephen began. “Mostly, that’s because space is largely a vacuum. We deliberately fly through plasma clouds to suck up raw materials to power the star drive, and we’ve always had filters attached to capture micrometeroids or other debris unfit for introduction into the star drive. It was never a huge priority; chuck basically anything into a star drive and it’ll burn, because the temperatures are sufficient to tear apart the electromagnetic bonds holding subatomic particles together; there isn’t an element that isn’t fuel at that temperature and pressure. That’s why we have to expend so much of the ship’s energy into the electromagnetic toroid keeping the plasma suspended- it would ‘eat’ the ship if that suspension system failed, even for a picosecond, because the failure would cascade until the entire ship was swallowed in the birth of a miniature star.”
“I’m not liking any of this so far,” I said.
“Right. Focusing too much on the sexy destruction. My point was, we never had much reason to work hard at filtering out particles because the engine is essentially self-cleaning. But I’ve done some base-level modeling, and I think we could introduce some magnets into the plasma intake to siphon off metals. We could also build out a more elaborate screening system to try and pull in other elements, but that’s a slightly less known quantity. As far as metals, we can combine whatever we get to create an alloy suitable for serving as a decoy. If we want, say, a combination of materials to make an expanding canvas sack to create the shape and approximate mass of the ship… that might be more challenging to come by- it’s difficult to model because the constituent atoms are rare enough that it’s hard to know what any particular system will be rich in. But my modelling suggests we could regularly replenish the lost metal materials to have a steady supply of decoys. And if we get desperate, we could use the terraforming laser to blast some asteroids into chunks and collect the chunks.”
“Bill?” I asked. “How does all of this sound to you?”
“It’s some of his better and saner work. We’ve been talking over schematics, and I think everything but flying the ship into asteroid fields is practical.”
“I don’t remember a mention of ‘fields,’” I said.
“That’s because even he understands it’s a crazy idea,” Bill said.
“Not crazy,” he said, sounding vaguely wounded, “not exactly. But certainly far from ideal. And not asteroid fields. Asteroids are the big bastards. Meteoroids, though, are their smaller cousins; on the outside of an asteroid field are all of the chunks of asteroids that broke off; still moving synchronously, but nowhere near the multiball insanity of the asteroid field. But in the event we needed mass in a hurry, it could be done… provided we can be surgical enough with the laser to decimate without completely vaporizing the particles- which isn’t much of a guarantee, because some of the combustible particles will be superheated by the laser, and be driven by the combustion out of our path. Depending on the composition of the field it could be a quite lossy process, even presuming we could accomplish it safely.”
“Haley,” I began, “what’s your read?”
“The laser was, as originally conceived, both a deterrent weapon and potentially could be used to forge passages through areas where a circuitous path was less ideal; say a system bordered by a black hole with a volatile and dangerous star at its heart, with an asteroid field caught between them. To put it into old world terms, it was analogous to an icebreaker. The difficulty is the upgrades necessary to make it worthwhile for rapid, more surgical usage were deemed too expensive and not useful for our mission. However, I believe that 80% of these upgrades can be made merely through repurposing excess cryo technology.”
“And the other 20%?”
“As Stephen said, there are question marks as to the composition of the plasma clouds we may find, but it is highly possible we could acquire the necessary atoms that way.”
“How possible is ‘highly’ possible?”
“73% chance that we could acquire the necessary materials within a six month time-frame.”
“And I assume it legs out considerably from there. What’s our worst-case scenario?”
“Using data from the five year journey of the Argus, I would estimate that the materials should be achievable within six years at the outside.”
“And the odds we can avoid the Nascent that long?”
I sighed. “Get it started. Prep a presentation for the full council; they’ll want to at least know what’s going on, even if I don’t expect them to try to reverse course.” They turned to leave, until I put up my hand. “Wait. What about orphans?”
“Tragic. Though I don’t understand the connection,” Stephen said.
“As in lone asteroids,” I said.
“There aren’t all that many,” Stephen said, “but especially if we were aggressive with our probes, looking for any with a possible firing solution with the ship… it’s possible.”
“How possible?” I asked.
“I second Stephen’s ‘uh…’”
“Goddamnit,” I muttered.
“I think what they’re trying to express, is that it could work, theoretically. But lone asteroids aren’t exactly a known quantity. If we were talking about inside the well-charted Sol system, sure, but it could be hoping to find a needle in a haystack… or we could bump into the bastard without even looking for it.”
“Is it worth attempting, at the least, provided we can find one?”
“I don’t see a downside,” Stephen said.
“Could we have a moment?” Bill asked Stephen.
“Is it going to be something humiliating?”
“But it won’t happen if I stay.”
“Probably not, no.”
“Well, I’ll want details, later.”
“And I want-” Bill stopped himself, realizing this was not something he could win. “We’ll see,” he said gruffly. He waited until Stephen had cleared the doors, before he eyed me conspiratorially. “You didn’t gloat. Not once. We were trapped in that shuttle for days; you didn’t so much as snicker in a way that told me you told me so.”
“There was always the possibility I was going to die from a shit-covered prick from an alien… maybe I just wanted that detail to die with me.”
“Except we’ve been back on ship for a week. You’ve been all but cleared by medical; really, I think SackTug’s only kept you in here this long to give the rest of us a break from you. Still, nothing.”
“Maybe revenge is a dish best served so circuitously that it can never be traced back to me.”
“Maybe,” he said, with a shrug. “You’ve also been 39% less of a pain in my ass since we got back.”
“You chart how much of a pain in your ass I am?” I asked, and Bill chuckled.
“Nah. Just a ballpark. You want to talk about it?”
I didn’t, or I would have. But maybe that knee-jerk wasn’t the right way to play it. “They had Elle dead to rights. I couldn’t suppress both of them from my position, and moving would have just shifted which of them had a free hand to move. And I knew, as sure as anything, the one I couldn’t hit was going to shoot her. Might have been a flesh wound. Or it could have been fatal, or bad enough that she’d bleed out or go septic before we were picked up.”
“I didn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done for any other member of the crew. Even including you.”
“I know,” I said.
“Then what’s the big sloppy deal?”
“Maybe it’s the reminder that we’re, all of us, trying to help each other, save each other. Maybe it’s that it wasn’t any other member of the crew. But right now, I really don’t feel like lording over you how monumentally wrong you were. Speaking of…”
“Now that I’ve reminded you you feel compelled to be a jerk about it?”
“No. But I was wondering if you’ve made any progress on the black box.”
“Ah. Encryption’s pretty hardcore, even before you account for the arrow through it.”
“And you aren’t just keeping the juicy tidbits from me?”
“Right now we all need to pull together. That means not obstructing your access to juicy tidbits.”
“I’m regretting using those words.”
“I think we both are, at this point.”