By Robert Lynch
“Alright Captain,” Flight said over the radio, “Our rendezvous with the Dauntless is in 15 days, and this is the last item on our job list. Get this nut cracked quickly and we’ll have enough time for some R&R before the mothership gets back.”
“Flight,” I said, “You are aware that bomb disposal isn’t something to rush?”
“I’m not saying rush,” Flight replied, “I’m just saying that the first round is on me when we get to Harry’s.”
“Harry’s is a significant detour from Fort Gabriel,” I said as I took the orbital maintenance pod into synchronous rotation with the old weapons platform.
“Not if you finish quick enough,” Flight said.
The weapons platform was an artefact from the Introductory War (What the Aracrons call the Third Metha’Luka War or most everybody else calls the Trade Federation-Crax War) from 150 years ago. The platform in its hay day would have been enough to hold the planet it orbited on its own. It had carried some very nasty radiological payloads, and there was no way for me to know if it had any of those left. Even without the missiles, the laser array would slice up my pod with no trouble. Understandably, the colony of more than 100,000 people who lived on the planet below weren’t too keen to have a massive mine hovering over their heads.
Some time ago the station had powered down. Either the generators ran out of juice or worse; the station had gone into a low power standby mode. Since then everybody had kept a wide margin between them and the station. Until now, when I had been ordered to ensure that there were no unspent munitions that could poison everybody below.
I stopped the pod 200 metres away and turned on my inspection lights. The bright lights lit up the station. I flipped through the database until I found the right model. At 154 years old the station was in surprisingly good condition, no large cratering from meteor impacts or visible corrosion.
“You just gonna sit there?” Flight asked.
“I’m just planning my approach,” I replied. “I need to go into radio blackout as I approach, if the platform is in standby mode, a radio signal could activate it.”
I moved the pod in closer and used the stabilisation arms to grip onto the platform’s surface. Later models had touch sensors, and what I didn’t know was this station had been retrofitted with them. The station’s lights dazzled me for a second as they flooded my cockpit with light, but my ears registered an alarm. The station had fired a missile.
“Holy shit!” I swore as I flipped the pod 180 degrees and begun burning as hard as I could. “Flight, get the hell out of here! Don’t let the missile lock on to you.”
“Hold on,” Flight said, “We can zap that missile with our lasers.”
“Negative, Flight.” I responded, “The payload will be armed, if you take it out now it’ll spread its poison across the planet.”
“You can’t outrun a missile in an engineering pod!” Flight said. I was ejecting everything I could think to eject. The spare tools and supplies went first, but before long, I was firing the explosive bolts around the hatch and evacuating the pod’s atmosphere in an uncivilised belch. My suit had its own air, and I needed to reduce the mass of the pod as much as I could.
The missile, being essentially all engine and bomb, had me beat on speed. Although the missile’s engine was smaller, its mass was tiny in comparison with its acceleration. The engine on the pod was a workhorse, built to potentially tow components and even craft, not a racing engine. As I dissembled the pod, I was gaining some kind of balance and watched as the missile closed the distance more and more slowly. Even with the kitchen sink out, it wouldn’t be enough mass loss to even the balance, so I overrode the safeties on the generator and pushed the tiny fusion reaction into overdrive. Finally, the missile was at a relative standstill.
There is a reason that fusion generators have safety limits; it’s because if the reaction happens too quickly, they become unbalanced and eventually explode. I was now being chased by a missile and riding one. And mine could only go for another 2 minutes before it exploded. I created a countdown on my head’s up display to track the time.
“There isn’t enough time to get out away from the planet,” I told Flight. “I’m going to have to try something a little riskier.” I turned the pod toward the planet.
I hit the atmosphere at a 4-degree angle. I was desperately trying to bring up the specs of the engineering pod so that I didn’t overheat, but I was already in the atmosphere before I could finish the maths. I was deep into winging it territory. I knew the missile would fare better than the pod, being a more aerodynamic shape it would gain on me as I was turning a pod into a meteor.
With the missile barely behind me at all I levelled out, then when I noticed that the missile was still gaining on me I tilted up slightly to keep the missile in the denser air. I programmed the pod with a flight path for the autopilot. I grabbed the tools I would need and shoved them into the various pockets around my arms. Plugging the handheld magnetic pads into my suit, I made for the hatch. I could see the missile. I jumped out of the pod and flattened my body against the thin wind. Using my body as a sail, I hurtled toward the missile.
Sometimes in situations where a craft is struggling, there is a phrase: ‘flying by the seat of your pants.’ I had just abandoned my craft. The seat of my pants was now all I had left.
I twisted around until I was feet first toward the missile and it came up beneath me. I reached out with the mag-pads, and I caught the missile. For a second I sat there, unsure that I had just done that, but the countdown on my HUD continued to drop. 1 minute and 20 seconds.
Turning off the mag-pads I slithered down the missile, past the weapon armature to the engine. It would take me more than two minutes to disarm the missile, especially with the atmosphere still whipping by. With a bit of awkward wiggling, I found the engine maintenance hatch I was looking for. 1 minute.
Using the drill tool, I drilled out the four screws around the hatch and pulled the panel away. 30 seconds.
I found what I was looking for quickly enough, but when I tried to grab it, my hand wouldn’t fit. I scrambled around to get out the pliers. 5 seconds.
Twisting the pliers, the flow control turned down the fuel getting to the missile’s engine. The pod screaming off away into the distance. For only a few seconds the pod gained ground, then seemed to stop again as the generator snapped back to a normal running mode and the pod’s acceleration stopped. I breathed out a sigh of relief, then started on crawling back up the fuselage to the weapon armature.
It became much easier to move as the atmosphere got thinner and thinner, and soon I was at the top of the missile. The drill made short work of the payload inspection point, and I was looking at an armed radiological bomb mechanism with the power to kill the 100,000 people below, and myself.
The bomb trigger was a small neutron laser. When activated, it fired a blast into the central mass of material about the size of a baseball. Without that laser, the weapon could still explode, if a natural source of neutrons came into contact with the material. I gently drilled out the crews holding the laser in place and then pulled the tiny pencil-sized trigger out of the housing, careful not to break the wires connecting the laser, and taped the trigger to the outside of the bomb.
The next part was the tricky part. Interlaced throughout the sphere of radiological material were grids of holes, into which stabilising rods slid when the weapon wasn’t armed. If I could get those rods back into place, the weapon would be essentially inert. When I tried to turn the mechanism the rods didn’t line up. For a bomb that was 154 years old, the mechanism was in remarkable condition. But at some point in the last 5-minute rodeo the rods had become misaligned.
I drilled out two of the six holding screws, about to start work on the third when the drill bit snapped. The drill bucked as the bit snapped and I nearly punched the weapon with the drill. In my haste to jump out of the pod, I had not grabbed extra drill bits.
“Only going to get one chance at this, huh?” I said out loud to nobody.
Using my pliers, I clamped onto the mechanism and leant on it with as much force as I dared. I held my breath. I have no idea why. In space, my breath couldn’t get past my suit and do anything, but I held it anyway.
Slowly the rods entered their assigned holes and locked into place.
I started breathing again.
I opened the panel on my arm and logged into the controls for the pod, directing it to slow down and come and get me.
When I got into the pod, I radioed Flight. “I’ve got this missile neutralised. I’m going to get a little distance and direct it away from the planet and then you can roast it to your heart’s content. After that, we’ll have to head back to the station. Also, I’m going to need a new pod.”
“Did you just fly on a missile like that guy from that old black and white film?” Flight asked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about Flight,” I replied.
“Can you just say ‘Yee-haw!’ for me?” Flight asked.