== 1 sep 2064: the Deladrier, in elliptical orbit around the Moon
Darcy floated above the cockpit floor and pulled herself through the open door into the passenger area.
It was disgusting – and heart wrenching.
The sound was bad. The whimpering of people with injuries acquired during interrogation sessions in the prison block merged with the sobs and occasional cries of those who’d broken bones in the brutal acceleration of the emergency lift.
Darcy’s eyes slid to the rear of the central hold. The sights weren’t much better. The press of floating refugees blocked her view, and even if there had been a space to see through, the lowered lights were off to save power so the back of the hold was dark, but she knew the corpse of one of the ADF soldiers was there. After a day of moaning and screaming from his gunshot wounds the injured soldier had mercifully died. Without even a sheet to wrap him in, his corpse was tied to a wall with nylon straps. People gave it space…which only contributed to the overcrowding in the rest of the small ship.
Worse than either the evidence of ears or eyes was the smell. The stink of urine and feces was overpowering. With the bathroom unit thrown overboard the prisoners had been forced to relieve themselves into janitorial plastic bags scavenged from a parts locker. In zero gravity it had been a mostly futile endeavor – urine and worse had leaked out, floated through the air and was now slicked on people’s skin and hair. Which in turn gave rise to vomiting, and now the acidic stench mixed with the other gag inducing notes.
The air was so think that the TASTE of the filth was inescapable. Darcy tried to swallow to clear her mouth, but she hadn’t had a drink in over a day. Her throat constricted but nothing happened.
She couldn’t even swallow.
Tears started to well in her eyes but in the weightlessness they just hung there, obscuring her vision.
She grabbed the bulkhead and pulled herself back into the cockpit. Prem looked up at her with haggard eyes. “Is there anything -?”
She shook her head to silence him and turned away, floating near the ceiling of the cockpit, trying to carve out a little space for herself.
She was a failure even at swallowing.
Just like she was a failure at getting these people back to Aristillus.
Darn it! Why hadn’t she remembered the increased drag that came from punching through the atmosphere at a higher speed? She’d upped the acceleration to take advantage of the better efficiency of the AG drive…and entirely forgotten about atmospheric drag.
Crap! She’d KNOWN this. She’d even told other people about it over the past few years. For God’s sake, she’d written about it in the instruction manual for the open source drive, in the warning about overriding the navigation defaults.
And yet she’d forgotten that in the chaos and the fear in the courtyard.
Now the Deladrier was coasting from Earth to moon. Except instead of ending up ahead of the moon in its orbit, where she could use the AG drive to match orbital speeds, she was going to end up behind it, where there was nothing to be done.
They were doomed.
Over the last twenty four hours she’d run a hundred simulations, and finally even set up a small pool of genetic algorithms, all ruthlessly breeding and being selected, generation after generation, for their ability get get the ship to the moon. None of her hundreds of attempts, and none of the hundreds of millions of frantically breeding software agents had come up with a solution. The closest any of them had come was suggesting that they burn all of the maneuvering fuel to throw the Deladrier into a drastically elongated elliptical orbit around the moon. So they’d done that…and now, instead of dying in interplanetary space, they were all going to die in lunar orbit.
Darcy sobbed for a moment longer, then rubbed her eyes clear and rotated so she could face Prem. “No chance the ship has magically grown a replacement antenna since I last asked?”
Prem bent his head back to look up – wearily – at Darcy. He didn’t smile even a bit at her joke. Of course not. It wasn’t even a little bit funny. He just shook his head sadly, then turned back to his screen where scrolled around a map of the moon aimlessly, occasionally zooming in on one crater or another. Finally he shut the window and turned to her. “You know, I took a nap earlier and dreamed that the ship had a spare antenna, to replace the one that was shot off in the battle.”
Darcy smiled sadly at this. “You know what? I actually had the same dream.” She suddenly had a thought. “Hey, I know that the diagnostics say that the antenna isn’t there, but is there any chance that -”
Prem shook his head. “I already thought of that. I dug up a dialog for the embedded controllers in the antenna gimbal mount. The gimbal is missing. No antenna, no gimbal mount. Nothing.”
Darcy cursed herself again for allowing the last few men onto the ship. She’d known better. Heck, she’d known better when she was eight years old and her uncle Barton had handed her a must old paperback with a story about this very situation.
And now she was going to die because in the confusion and fear of the prison break she’d allowed herself to be overcome with sentimentality. Since when did emotions trump math? Never.
She tasted something coppery and realized that she was biting her lip hard enough to draw blood. She unclenched her jaw and let her eyes drift to the screen. Eighteen more hours of air. “Prem, I’m going to take another nap.” Maybe she’d dream of more air. Or rescue. Any dream would be better than this.
Prem nodded mutely.
Darcy pulled herself down into her chair, strapped in, wrapped her arms around herself and let the sleep wash over her. The ship was clean now – clean and quiet – and her childhood dog Peanut Butter was there. He ran around the cockpit – there was gravity, apparently, but just for him, before jumping into her lap. Where had Peanut Butter been for the last twenty years? She’d missed him so much. And how had he gotten on the ship? Peanut Butter was gone now, but there was a deep clanking sound. The ship was being boarded, she knew it. Or maybe swallowed whole, like the Eater ships did in Star Captain. That didn’t make sense, though – Star Captain was just a web show, not real life.
Darcy opened her eyes. The light was dimmer than it had been a minute before. But of course it was dim – she’d set the lights that way. She rubbed her face. She’d been dreaming. Of course. Peanut Butter.
She looked over at Prem, but he wasn’t there. She twisted in her seat to see if he was behind her and realized that the background noise had changed – instead of moans there was an excited babble.
She was unstrapping when Prem flew into the cockpit. “Prem! What’s going on?”
“Something has grabbed us!”
Another clang. That hadn’t been part of the dream? Then a scrabbling sound, and finally a deep snicking sound, like a metal piston sliding home.
Something had grabbed the ship? What?
Was this – was this a RESCUE?
She found herself taking deep breaths. Darn it, she was going to cry again. She couldn’t believe it. There was no way the lunar forces could have found them out here in the darkness. And certainly no way that, after finding them, they could rendezvous with them.
But they had.
She took another deep breath. She was going to live.
She let the thought roll over in her head.
She felt whiplashed by the thought. After days and days of despair she finally brought herself to accept that she was dead, that she’d see Mike again, never have kids, never get to see a free lunar society unmolested by the government…and now, having achieved some sort of peace with that idea, she was being thrust back into all the messy details of life…and uncertainty and worry.
How the heck had the rescue ship found them? They were a fly speck – a thermally insulated, stealthed, black-painted flyspeck – and they were in a weird elliptical orbit. They should have been impossible to find.
A muddy resonant booming voice came from somewhere on the far side of the ship hull. “Please bang on the hull twice if you can hear this.”
Darcy craned her neck and looked out through the open cockpit door, to the Sargasso of floating prisoners, wounded ADF soldiers and detritus.
As she watched one of the wounded soldiers pulled himself to the hull, grabbed the fire extinguisher from its cabinet, and then banged it against the ceiling twice.
The booming voice spoke again. “Communication has been established. Please prepare for acceleration in nine minutes.”
There was excited shouting, imprecations, questions.
The voice didn’t answer.
Prem leaned forward and started a timer on his console.
A moment later the ADF soldier started banging on the wall with the fire extinguisher again. Bang. Bang Bang. Bang.
Darcy listened. It was Morse code.
“W h o a r e y o u”
The banging stopped.
The booming voice answered. “This is a restricted delegate of Gamma.”
Darcy blinked. Gamma?
“D i d t h e o t h e r t r o o p s s u r v -”
The voice cut the question off “This is a dedicated navigation agent. The current skills package manifest does not include abilities to answer questions on topics other than navigation.”
There was a pause.
Gamma’s voice boomed again. “Please prepare for acceleration in eight minutes.”
Darcy wiped the streaks of dried tears from her face and clicked her harness tight.