Authors: Allen Steele
Clarke County, Space
Labyrinth of Night
A King of Infinite Space
The Jericho Iteration
The Tranquillity Alternative
All-American Alien Boy
Sex and Violence in Zero-G: The Complete “Near Space” Stories
Primary Ignition: Essays 1997â2001
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Copyright Â© 2007 by Allen Steele.
Published in serial form in
Asimov's Science Fiction
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Steele, Allen M.
Galaxy blues / Allen Steele.â1st ed.
1. Interplanetary voyagesâFiction. 2. Outer spaceâExplorationâFiction. 3. Space coloniesâ Fiction. I. Title.
Wife. Lover. Ambulance driver.
The narrative beginsâ¦
our protagonist leaves Earth, in a rather illicit mannerâ¦
subterfuge and the art of baseballâ¦
fashion tips for stowawaysâ¦
My name is Jules Truffaut, and this is the story of how I redeemed the human race.
It pretty much happened by accident. At the very least, it wasn't something I intended to do. But life is that way sometimes. We make our own luck, really, even when we don't mean to.
Perhaps it's best that we start at the beginning, the day I came aboard the CFSS
Robert E. Lee
. Not as a crew member, despite the fact that I was qualified to serve as a junior officer, nor as a passenger, although I'd gone to the considerable trouble and expense of acquiring a first-class ticket. Instead, circumstances forced me to become a stowawayâ¦but we'll get to that later.
Hitching a ride aboard a starship isn't easy. Takes a lot of advance preparation. I'd been on Highgate for nearly ten months, working as a longshoreman, before I managed to get myself assigned to the section of Alpha Dock where ships bound for Coyote were berthed. I'd taken the job under a false identity, just the same way I'd got on the station in the first place. According to my phony ID, purchased on the black market back home in the Western Hemisphere Union, my name was Lucius Guthrie, and I was just one more guy who'd left Earth in hopes of getting a decent job in space. So I schlepped freight for six months before the foremanâwith whom I'd spent a lot of time in the bar, with yours truly picking up the tabâdetermined that I was capable of operating one of the pods that loaded cargo containers aboard ships bound for Mars and the Jovian moons. I did my job well enough that, two months later, he reassigned me to take care of the
when it returned from 47 Ursae Majoris.
Which was exactly what I wanted, but even then I was careful not to make my move before I was good and ready. I only had one shot at this. If I screwed up, my true identity would doubtless be revealed and I would be deported to the WHU, after which I'd spend the rest of my life in a lunar penal colony. I couldn't let that happen, so my next step was to cultivate a friendship with a member of the
's crew while he was on shore leave. Like my boss, I plied him with drinks and massaged his ego until he agreed to satisfy my curiosity by sneaking me aboard for an unauthorized tour. Pretending to be nothing more than a wide-eyed yokelâ
gee, this ain't nuthin' like one of 'em Mars ships!
âI memorized every detail of its interior, comparing what I saw against what I'd gleaned from engineering docs.
Two days later, the
Robert E. Lee
left port, heading out once more for Coyote. Two weeks after that, it returned again, right on schedule. Another two weeks went by, and then it was ready to make the trip again. That was when I put my plan into motion.
So there I was, seated within the cockpit of a cargo pod, gloved hands wrapped around the joysticks of its forward manipulators. I couldn't see much through the wraparound portholesâmy view was restricted by the massive container I was loading aboard the
âyet my radar and side-mounted cams told me that the vessel lay directly below me, its cargo hold yawning open like a small canyon. All I had to do was slide this last container into place, andâ¦
“X-Ray Juliet Two-Four, how are we looking?”
The voice of Alpha Dock's traffic controller came through my headset.
“Launch in T minus twenty-two and counting. You got a problem there?”
Nag, nag, nag. That's all traffic controllers ever did. Sure, they had their own schedule to keep, but stillâ¦well, one of the things I liked the most about my scheme was that it gave me a chance to use their insufferableness against them. A bit of revenge for ten months of henpecking.
“Negatory, Trafco. Putting the last container to bed now.” I tapped the sole of my right boot ever so slightly against the starboard RCS pedal. This caused the reaction-control system to roll the pod a few degrees to the left. “Aw, hell,” I said, even as I compensated by nudging the left pedal. “Damn thing's getting flaky on me again.”
The thrusters worked fine, but no one would know it until the maintenance crew took them apart. I'd been playing this game for the last couple of hours, though, complaining that something was wrong with the pod, thereby establishing an alibi for the precious few moments I would need.
“Bring it in when your shift's over.”
The traffic controller was impatient.
“Just load the can and get out of there.
's on final countdown.”
“Roger that.” The truth of the matter was that I had perfect control of my craft. Handling a cargo pod was child's play for someone who'd been trained by the Union Astronautica to fly Athena-class shuttles. But in my role as Lucius Guthrie, I had to make this job seem more difficult than it actually was. “I'm on it. Tell
not to hold the count for me.”
A short pause. The controller was doubtless on another channel, discussing the situation with
's bridge crew.
Just a small problem with one of our pods. Pilot says he's getting it worked out.
Meanwhile, I continued to descend slowly toward the starship. A few seconds later, I heard Trafco again.
“We copy, X-Ray Juliet Two-Four. Don't stop for a coffee break.”
“Wilco.” I smiled. Fly ball to center, outfielder caught napping. All I had to do was make it to first base.
I carefully guided the container into
's hold, where it would join the nine others already aboard. Keeping an eye on the comp, I took a quick look around. As I expected, the hold was deserted. The two other pods that had assisted me earlier were gone, and with the countdown this close to zero, the crew member assigned to overseeing the load-inâwho just happened to be the fellow who'd shown me around the shipâwould have already cycled through the airlock so that he could get out of his suit before the captain sounded general quarters. Just as he'd told me he usually did.
So I was alone. My suit was sealed, the cockpit depressurized. I felt a slight bump as latches on either side of the hold seized the container and locked it into place. A double beep from my console confirmed this. Safe on first, and the ball still in the outfield.
“All right, it's in.” I reached forward, typed a command into the navigation subsystem. “Gimme a sec, and I'm outta here.”
I grabbed the horseshoe bar of my chest restraint, pushed it upward. A stab of the thumb against the buckle of my waist strap released me from my seat. Floating free within the cockpit, my own private countdown under way.
Obeying the preset program I'd surreptitiously entered into the comp, the pod's manipulators released the canister. A moment later, the RCS fired a brief burst lasting only a second. Through the forward porthole, I saw the canister slowly receding as the pod moved away.
“Roger that, X-Ray Juliet Two-Four,”
“You're looking good.”
No doubt I was. A camera within the forward bulkhead monitored everything I was doing, its image relayed to both the traffic controller and a junior officer aboard
's flight deck. Everyone was ready to relax; the last container was loaded, and once my pod was clear of the hold, the crew would shut the hatch.
“Copy, Trafco,” I replied. “I'mâ¦aw, damn!”
Right on the dot, the pesky starboard RCS thruster misfired again, once more rolling the pod around. This time, though, the accident caused my pod to pitch forward so that the bottom of its hull faced the camera.
And that was when I popped the canopy hatch and bailed out.
I love baseball. It's a game that seems relaxed, almost effortless, yet as with any great performance art, timing is everything. When a player steals second, for instance, he has to pick that moment when the pitcher is looking the other way. Sometimes that occurs in the split second after the ball has left the mound. That's when the guy on first makes his move.
Although I'd worked over this part of my plan to the last detail, a dress rehearsal had been impossible. So my heart was pumping as I pulled myself free of the cockpit. Grabbing hold of a fuselage rung, I twisted myself around until I was able to slam the hatch shut with my free hand.
“X-Ray Juliet! What's going on out there?”
I kept my mouth shut, and a moment later I heard my own voice through the headset.
“Hang on, it's just that damn thing again. I'mâ¦okay, here it goesâ¦”
That was my cue. I kicked myself away from the pod, careful to keep it between me and the camera. Perhaps there would be a minor, telltale perturbation caused by my kickoff, but I was counting on it being corrected by the pod's thrusters. I didn't look back to check as I sailed toward the containers neatly arranged in triple-stacked rows just below me. They were less than twenty-five feet away, yet I knew that I was exposed, if only for a few seconds. With any luck, though, anyone watching the screens would be too distracted by the runaway pod to notice what was going on in the background.
I just managed to insert myself into a four-foot gap between two of the topmost containers when I heard Trafco again.
“All right, roger that, Two-Four. Get out of there and bring it home. We'll have someoneâ¦”
“Thanks. Sorry about that.”
My prerecorded voice cut off the controller before he was finished.
“Need to take a breather here. X-Ray Juliet Two-Four out.”
I let out my breath. From my hiding place between the containers, I looked up to see the pod rising from the hold. The autopilot would safely guide it back to its port within Alpha Dock; in the meantime, any further queries from Trafco would be met with my own voice, saying noncommittal things like
. The pod's polarized windows wouldn't reveal that its cockpit was vacant, and if Lady Fortune continued to stay on my side, no one in the maintenance crew would check out XRJ-24 for at least ten or fifteen minutes after it docked. Even then, it was a safe bet that it would be a while before anyone put two and two together as to why Lucius Guthrie was AWOL. At least not until they checked the bar where I hung out, and that might take some time. The foreman was a nice guy, but he wasn't all that swift.
Wedging myself between the containers, I used my wrist unit to access the primary com channel. For the next couple of minutes, I eavesdropped on the chatter between the
and Highgate controllers. No sign that my trick had been detected. Cool beans. I was safe on second.
Exactly two minutes after I made my escape, I felt a vibration against my back and the soles of my boots. Looking up through my helmet faceplate, I watched the enormous doors slowly lower into place. The moment they shut, the interior floodlights shut down, and the hold was plunged into darkness.
I was still wary of the camera, though, so I didn't switch on the suit lights. Instead, I opened a pocket on my left thigh and pulled out a small UV penlight. Lowering my helmet visor, I activated its ultraviolet filter, then used the light to guide myself, hand over hand, between the containers until I reached the airlock in the forward bulkhead.
The airlock was already depressurized, just as I expected. Climbing into the tiny compartment, I shut the hatch behind me. A glance at the heads-up display on my faceplate: less than twenty seconds to spare. Grasping elastic loops on the walls and tucking the toes of my boots within the foot restraint, I braced myself for MCFA.
I couldn't hear the warning bells, but the Millis-Clement field activated on schedule. Gravity returned as an abrupt sensation of weight, welcome after two and a half hours of zero g. Even as my boots settled against the floor, though, I detected a faint rumble through the deck plates. The
was being released from its berth; in another moment, tugs would begin hauling the starship through the mammoth sphere of Alpha Dock, guiding it toward the giant hangar doors that had confined the vessel until then.
Time to make a run for third. Unsnapping a shoulder pocket, I pulled out a miniature tool kit. Within it was a small flat-head screwdriver that I used to pry open the service panel beneath the airlock controls. Part of my preparation included learning how to circumvent the internal sensors; it took less than a minute to locate the proper wire, which I cut with a penknife. That done, I'd be able to pressurize the airlock without anyone on the bridge taking notice.
The tugs had detached their cables and peeled away from the
when a green lamp on the airlock panel lit, telling me that the compartment was fully pressurized. I released my suit's collar latch and pulled off my helmet, then went about removing the rest of my suit. Beneath it were ordinary clothes: dress shirt and cravat, travel jacket, trousers, and a thick pair of socks. All woven from cotton microfiber, they provided almost as much warmth as the single-piece undergarment I normally wore inside my suit, albeit without the luxury of internal waste-removal systems; for that, I'd taken the precaution of not eating or drinking for two hours before I went on duty.