Manxome Foe votsb-3, page 20part #3 of Voyage of the Space Bubble Series
“What the hell!” the COB said surprised.
“COB?” Spectre asked over the net.
“Somehow the debris just shot a lightning bolt at one of the Marines and he’s spinning out of control.”
“Himes! You and Berg secure that Marine now!” Guzik shouted.
“Got it, Master Sergeant!” Berg and Himes replied, thrusting at full throttle to the unconscious Marine in his out-of-control Wyvern. In a flying tackle both Himes and Berg hit the Wyvern at nearly the same instant, pinning it down against the boat. It took several more moments to fight the thruster pack into the air-lock.
Berg cycled the airlock controls as he and Himes held on tight to Lance Corporal Smith, bracing their arms and legs against the bulkheads to hold against the low-power cold-gas nitrogen thrusters.
“Green light Two-Gun!” Himes said as the airlock door opened into the ship where the watch Marines were waiting along with a few firemen.
“Get a corpsman here.” Berg shouted.
“Marines, stand down and do not touch the debris or the ship until we get this sorted out,” Guzik ordered.
“You think it was an attack?” the COB asked the Space Marine.
“Negative, negative,” Weaver interrupted over the com channel.
“Commander Weaver, do you have some input here?” Spectre added.
“Yes sir. Space charging, sir.” Bill said.
“Space what? Charging?” Guzik turned the bulbous torso of his Wyvern toward the COB, who was just standing there motionless.
“You want to elaborate on that, Lieutenant Commander Weaver?” Spectre asked.
“Yes sir. It’s the same reason you have to ground an airplane before you refuel it. The hull charges up and can cause an electrical arc from the plane to the ground. Well, in this case, the Blade is the ground and the debris is the plane. They’ve seen this sort of thing on docking spacecraft for decades. Been hazardous a few times for the Russians and I believe on the International Space Station,” Weaver replied. “That could have been millions of volts difference between the debris and the ship.”
“And you were going to let us know about this when?” Spectre raised an eyebrow. There was just so much more to space travel than flying or being on a boat. So. Much. More. Jesus.
“Sorry sir. I just thought about it. We need to get the COB some grounding wires with big alligator clips on them. Clip one end to the Blade and then clip the other to the debris and then reel them in. Once metal to metal contact is happening the cable is no longer needed.”
“Did you get that, COB?”
“Aye sir.” Weaver could have told him. Getting that kid hurt was gonna hurt his cred. But hand it to the lieutenant commander, he knew what the problem was almost immediately.
“Space tape?” Spectre asked incredulously. “That’s the best you could come up with, Chief of Boat?”
“Yes, sir,” the COB said stoically. “We’ve got the two chunks of alien debris that showed energy emissions taped down to the forward hull. I used a lot of tape.”
“Better than the last time, sir,” Weaver pointed out. “When we dropped on Area 51 with that big crabpus hooked over of the bow like a trophy deer I thought they were going to chither themselves. In warp, it’s not going to experience any acceleration. You might have to take the landing slow, though. And we’re going to have to land in Nevada, first, again.”
“Whatever,” Spectre said with a sigh. “Last bit. The Dreen bit. Tell the Marines they’re on point on this one.”
“Here we go,” Dr. Chet said.
He was munching on a bag of microwave popcorn and watching the monitors avidly. The three aliens had been placed in a quarantine room, the air adjusted to match what had been in their emergency bottle, and their “luggage” placed in there with them. And after thirty minutes of, apparently, testing their surroundings, they appeared finally ready to open up their suits.
“I hope the light level is right,” he continued. “There wasn’t any way to figure that. So I set it low.”
“And I’m having a hard time reading their body language because of that,” Miriam said. “Gimme some popcorn.”
“Yes, my dear,” the doctor replied, grinning through his beard. “Hard to read are they?”
“Extremely nonreactive,” Miriam admitted. “At least what I can get through the suits. Almost emotionless.”
“There’s a fair bit of chatter on the EM band,” the doctor said. “They’re more or less continuously sending and receiving.”
“And I can’t match any of it to their movements,” Miriam admitted. “It’s like most of it is a continuous background hum. And some of it looks more like radar than communication.”
“And the first one is taking off his helmet,” Dr. Chet said excitedly as the alien fumbled at the catches.
“Not the leader, either, notice,” Miriam said. “They’re doing it the way that the Marines would, probably. Junior man first.”
“Oh, my,” Dr. Chet said as the helmet came off. “Ugly.”
The alien’s head was round and… knobbly. And…
“Where are the eyes?” Miriam asked as the thing released a series of clicks. “I don’t see any sign of visual organs. Do you?”
“No,” Dr. Chet admitted.
The linguist leaned in closer to the monitor and considered the aliens’ movements and the series of clicks as the threesome shucked their suits. They had sleek purplish bodies with fine hair, which came in for some vigorous scratching as soon as the suits were off. Then the three huddled and clicked at each other for a while.
“Uh, oh,” Miriam said after watching for about ten minutes.
“What?” Dr. Chet asked.
“I think I know why they don’t have eyes,” the linguist replied. “And I don’t think those clicks are language.”
“Sonar?” Dr. Chet said. “In a land mammal?”
“Looks like,” Miriam said, exasperated. “And that means that most of their language is going to be ultrasonic! I’m never going to be able to talk to them! I’m barely a mezzo soprano!”
The movement to the probable Dreen ship was a relatively short distance. Short enough that the Marines remained on the hull, grav boots locked down and safety lines clipped off, but exposed to the debris.
“Whoa!” Himes shouted, leaning backward to let a piece of metal fly past. It cleared his suit by bare inches.
“This one’s interesting,” Berg commented, stretching out a claw and getting a hook into what looked like a wiring harness. He wouldn’t have grabbed it if it wasn’t clearly nonconducting. The harness held, fortunately, but his grav boots didn’t. He detached from the hull and slapped to a stop at the end of his safety rope, swinging through an arc that connected on Master Sergeant Guzik’s armor.
“Damnit, Two-Gun!” the master sergeant snapped as he, too, was detached from the hull. He swung outwards and in a spiral on the pivot of his safety line which intersected with Smith’s back, hooked into the traverse mechanism for the gun and pulled the Marine up to drift as well. His line caught Sergeant First Class Hanel across the back of the knees, popping his armor off the hull, then proceeded to wrap around the sergeant’s safety line.
In barely fifteen seconds, all five of the Wyverns, and their safety lines, were snarled in a cat’s cradle and drifting randomly. The chunk had grounded out on the ship’s hull so when it hit Himes’ suit there was barely a zap.
“Nice going, Two-Gun,” Master Sergeant Guzik growled.
“Hey, I got the wreckage,” Berg replied. “And unless I’m much mistaken, it’s some sort of engine.”
“Oh,” Guzik said, panning his sensor pod around and trying to get a look at the piece. “In that case… Nice going, Two-Gun.”
“Is it just me or does this thing look like a cut-open lung?” Himes asked as the threesome approached the probable Dreen ship.
“It sure looks organic,” Smith said. “I’m getting some monatomic oxygen readings. It’s still leaking.”
The team was approaching from a direction that took them to what had been the “interior” of the ship. Alpha Team was checking out the hull while Charlie was backing them up.
“Gunny, Berg,” Two-Gun said, puffing to a stop. “This looks like something that’s going to require dissection rather than entry. I don’t see any bits to enter. I’m getting some fermion readings from the aft quadrant, though. If that’s a working quarkium plant, we’d better be careful or this thing’s going to blow sky high.”
“Roger, stand by,” the gunny replied. There was a moment’s pause and then: “Try to cut into the area that the fermions are coming from. See what the source is.”
“Oh, great,” Berg muttered, moving forward. He located the closest point to the source and pulled out a vibe knife. The material, whatever it was, cut a bit like bubble wrap. Between working in microgravity and the flexible yet strong nature of the compartments, it wasn’t exactly easy to cut into. He’d cut through two of the compartments, having to shove his suit actually into the materials, when he noticed a glow ahead. Cutting his suit lights he determined that it was a green glow and that fermion levels were up, along with gamma ray levels, indicating a radioactive source rather than quarkium.
He ran the results against a matrix of radioactive generators and got a hit.
“Gunny, I think I’m looking at a chunk of californium, here,” Berg said. “At least, that’s what the computer’s telling me. In other words, it’s a radioactive chunk of material. I think that this other stuff is attenuating the nastier radiation but I’m picking up gamma rays as well as fermions now.”
“Berg, Commander Weaver. We’re also getting EM from the area. I’d like you to cut out a big area around that source and pull it away from the ship.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Berg said, trying not to swear. He backed out of the hole he’d made and looked around.
“Guys, we’ve got to cut out a big chunk of this material,” Berg said. “I’d like to blow it out with our rockets, but I think we need to be a little more surgical than that. We’ll cut it in an equilateral triangle, each cut being five meters long on a side. Once we’ve cut down past the source, we’ll try to join them up. If you hit anything strange, or the inner side of the hull, back out. Clear?”
“Clear, Sergeant,” Smith said.
“Aye, aye, Captain Crunch,” Himes replied.
It took nearly an hour of sweating and often swearing, but they finally managed to get the chunk cut out. By that time the rest of the teams had completed their survey and found nothing of equivalent interest.
“So what do we do with it now?” Himes asked as they pulled the chunk free of the surrounding material.
“I have no idea,” Berg admitted. “LT, what do we do with it now?”
“I guess we drag it back and strap it to the ship,” the platoon leader said.
“Aye, aye, sir,” Berg said, then checked his monitors. “Bravo Team, back off! Sir, radiation levels are increasing!”
“All teams, back away from the material,” the lieutenant said, putting his own suit into reverse.
As Berg backed away, he could see the glow expanding throughout the material. There was outgassing from it now, a lot, and it read as mostly carbon, which meant the radiation source had really increased in energy output. He’d gotten about fifty meters from the chunk of material when it just blew up.
The explosion had no effect on him — explosions propagate poorly in space — but it was spectacular. The chunk of lunglike material ballooned outwards and popped with a huge rush of gasses and a flair of intensely actinic light.
“Well, that was special,” Smith commented. “What just happened?”
“At a guess, whatever was keeping the reaction stable was part of the overall matrix,” Berg said. “Californium is a very hot isotope. There was probably more in the chunk than necessary for critical mass. When we cut that bit out, it went critical.”
“So we were just right next to a nuclear explosion?” Himes asked. “That’s not happy making.”
“It was a very small nuclear explosion,” Berg pointed out. “A lot smaller than a grain of sand that actually blew up. The suits are barely reading the rads. And there’s a way to get the generators on these suits to do the same thing. And bigger.”
“Really?” Himes asked. “I so didn’t want to know that.”
“Neither did I when I found out,” Berg said. “Which was when an SF sergeant on the last cruise blew his up.”
“I’ve seriously got to find a new line of work,” Smith said.
“So we’ve got three survivors of an unknown alien species, a couple of pieces of wreckage from their ship and a blown up bit of what was probably a Dreen ship. Does that about sum it up?”
“Pretty much covers it, sir,” the XO said.
“But not the important parts, sir,” Weaver said. “There is another race out there, it seems pretty friendly, and it has an FTL drive. Of course, the Mreee seemed pretty friendly at first. These guys might just be Dreen slaves for all we know.”
“A happy thought,” the CO said. “And anyone but Dreen would tend to be friendly if they were rescued from drifting in space. Miss Moon? Anywhere on their language?”
“As I suspected, most of it is ultrasonic,” the linguist said with a note of exasperation. “The problem with compressing that down to where humans can hear is that it’s like compressing a voice down to bass. You lose a lot of timbre and intonation. Between that, their remarkable calm and the fact that I’m having to sort out the language from their general sonar functions… No. I’m not getting very far on their language. And we can’t even show them pictures. They are simply blind to us and we are just as blind to them. It’s very frustrating.”
“Well, keep at it,” the CO said, frowning. “It would be nice to be able to talk to these people eventually. Tactical?”
“We’ve been going over the traces that Astro pointed out,” the TACO said. “We think we’ve got a good algorithm to use the method in the future for tracking. Be that as it may, there’s a pretty clear path headed outward from the system. I’d suggest we just follow it, sir. They apparently are not in warp, or theirs works far differently from ours. I’m not sure of speed, but if they’re not in warp, we should be able to catch up to them fairly easily. Perhaps their main ship has some gear that will permit us to talk to them. Those are a lot of ifs, sir…”
“But that’s what being a Junior Spaceman is all about,” the CO said, nodding. “Sounds like a plan. XO.”
“Make it so, sir. Aye, aye.”
“The bunk is where the heart is,” Smith said, stretching out.
“I dunno,” Berg replied. “It was nice to finally get out of the ship.”
“Anything on that bit you grabbed?” Himes asked.
“Guzik said he was going to take it to the aliens we picked up and see if they could do anything with it,” the sergeant replied. “Get some shut-eye. We don’t know when we’re gonna have to get to work again.”
“Can I ask one question, Sergeant Bergstresser, sir?” Himes asked.
“Why do we always get point?”
“Because we’re the best team—”
“In the best platoon in the best company in the—” Himes muttered.
“In the best Corps in the whole damned Galaxy!” Smith finished, grinning. “But really, why?”
“Because Top hates me.”
“I thought Top loved you. You two are going to have children together.”
“With First Sergeant Powell, it’s a fine line.”
“First Sergeant? Moment of your time?” Gunny Neely said, knocking on the open door to Top’s stateroom.
“Come on in,” Top said, looking up from his computer screen. There was
“First Sergeant, I’d like to discuss personnel usage,” the Gunny said, looking over at the SEAL who appeared to be asleep.
“Don’t worry about me,” Miller said. “I’ve heard more of these conversations than you’ve had hot breakfasts.”
“Go ahead, Gunny,” Powell said, spinning around in his chair. “Grab a bunk.”
“First Sergeant, with all due respect, on the last two missions First Platoon has always gotten the hot seat,” the Gunny said carefully. “And in three cases you’ve specified Bravo Team as the point. I know that you worked with Sergeant Bergstresser before and have… a high opinion of him. So do I, don’t get me wrong. He’s good. But…”
“But I keep putting him in spots where he’s liable to get killed,” Powell said. “And I don’t rotate that.”
“Yes, First Sergeant.”
“Do you know anyone else in your platoon who would have recognized that there was a subcritical explosion about to occur?” Top asked. “Or that the material involved was californium and, therefore, had the likelihood of going critical?”
“Unfortunately, there is no ‘but,’ ” Top said definitely. “Berg is, alas, unique in this company. I don’t know that even I would have been able to determine the material. And the best bit of equipment we recovered was the part he snagged, just standing on the hull. I put Two-Gun out front because he’s incredibly knowledgeable and makes good decisions in the crunch. There are plenty of other Marines who make good decisions, don’t get me wrong. But they don’t have Two-Gun’s knowledge and experience. That being the case, until we can grow some Marines that have his abilities, figure that First is going to get all the hot deployments and Bravo is going to be leading the way. That increases the likelihood that we’ll lose that knowledge and experience. But if it had been, for example, Alpha First pulling apart the Dreen wreck, I think we’d be out a team about now, don’t you?”