Authors: Allen Steele
“And you don't want to know why I'd go through so much trouble?” I tried to remain calm, even as I heard Heflin mutter something else into his headset. “After all, I purchased a ticket. That means I'm not aâ¦”
“Without bona fide ID or a valid visa, you're whatever I say you are.” Tereshkova was quickly losing interest in me. So far as she was concerned, I was little more than a nuisance. “Hope you enjoyed our first-class accommodations. I regret to say that the brig isn't nearly as comfortable.”
“My name isn't Lucius Guthrie.” Straightening my shoulders, I stood at attention. “I'm Ensign First Class Jules Truffaut, formerly of the Union Astronautica, Western Hemisphere Union. I hereby request political asylum from the Coyote Federation.”
Tereshkova's gaze rose from her pad, and the navigator and helmsman darted curious glances at me from over their shoulders. I couldn't see Mr. Heflin, but I could feel his presence as he took a step closer. All at once, the bridge had gone silent, save for the random boops and beeps of the instrument panels.
“Come again?” Heflin asked.
I didn't look back at him. “As I said, sirâ¦my name is Jules Truffaut, and I'm a former ensign in the Union Astronautica. My reason for being aboard your ship is that I wish to defect from the Western Hemisphere Union to theâ¦”
“Is this true?” Tereshkova's eyes bored into my own. “If you're lying, so help me, I'll put you out the nearest airlock.”
“Yes, ma'am. I can prove it.” Raising my right hand as slowly as possible, I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket, pulled out my papers. “Copies of my birth certificate, citizen's ID, Union Astronautica service recordâ¦all here, Commodore.” I handed them to her, and went on. “If you check myâ¦excuse me, Lucius Guthrie'sâ¦biometric profile against whatever recent intelligence you have on the Union Astronautica, you'll find that it matches that of Jules Truffaut, who was expelled from the corps a little more than eleven months ago.” An ironic smile came to me before I could stop myself. “I prefer to think of it as a forced resignation. Didn't have much choice.”
“Uh-huh.” Tereshkova unfolded my papers, gave them a brief inspection. “And what led you to make that decision, Mr. Guthrie?”
“Not Guthrie, ma'amâ¦Jules Truffaut, as I told you.” I hesitated. “It's a long story. I would prefer not to get into details just now.”
“I'm sure you would.” She studied me with cool skepticism, her hands refolding my papers. “Of course, you realize that your allegation will take some time to investigate. Until then, we'll have to hold you in custody.”
“Of course.” A shrug that was almost patronizing. “It's an extraordinaryâ¦well, an unusualâ¦claim you've made, and naturally we will have to look into it further. So until thenâ¦”
“So you're not willing to take me to Coyote.” A chill ran down my back. “Commodore, pleaseâ¦”
“I'm sure my government would be willing to consider a petition for amnesty pending a thorough investigation. Until then, you're a stowaway and will be treated as such.” She glanced at her chief petty officer. “If you willâ¦”
Mr. Heflin grasped my arm. Looking around, I saw that the warrant officer had returned, his right hand resting upon a stunner holstered in his belt. No doubt about it, my next stop was the brig.
There was nothing more to be said. I turned to meekly allow myself to be taken below.
So there it was. I'd managed to cover the bases, but when I tried to steal home, the catcher tagged me before I could cross the plate. No sympathy from the ump. It was off to the showers for the rookie.
As Mr. Heflin and the warrant officer escorted me from the bridge, I contemplated my prospects. They didn't look promising. These two men would take me below and lock me in the brig, and there I'd remain for the next couple of weeks, until the
made the trip back through hyperspace to Earth. If I was lucky, my cell would have a portholeâ¦well, no, maybe that wouldn't be so lucky after all. Because the most that I'd see of Coyote would be the distant view of a place that I'd never visit.
I had little doubt of what would happen next. Once we returned to Highgate, the Western Hemisphere Union would be informed that a stowaway had been caught aboard a Coyote Federation starship, and that this person claimed to be a former Union Astronautica officer. A Patriarch would quickly verify this, and make a formal claim of extradition. Under the articles of the UN treaty the Coyote Federation had signed with the WHU, there would be no way for this to be legally contested, because although I'd been nabbed aboard a Coyote vessel, I hadn't yet set foot upon Coyote itself.
That small fact made all the difference in the world. The Coyote Federation was considered to be a sovereign nation, true, but one can only defect to another country if you're already there. And although the
was under the flag of the Coyote Federation, it wasn't Coyote soil. At least not for someone who wasn't a citizen.
Nor had I given anyone aboard good and sufficient reason to break an international treaty. Like it or not, I was little more than an illegal immigrant who'd managed to con my way aboard the
, my former rank as a UA officer notwithstanding. If I'd been carrying top-secret documents, the situation might have been different; Tereshkova might have been willing to go to bat for me. But I had nothing but the clothes on my back and a sunny smile, and neither of them cut much ice with her. Nor could I blame her. She had rules by which she had to play, and I was just some schmuck lucky enough to get to third base on a bunt.
But this was just the end of an inning. The game wasn't over yet.
We left the bridge and started down the ladder to the lower decks, Mr. Heflin in front of me and the warrant officer bringing up the rear. The steps were narrow; Heflin had his right hand on the railing, and I was willing to bet that the warrant officer was doing the same. And both of them were relaxed. After all, I'd been a perfect gentleman about this whole thing, giving no one any trouble at all.
I waited until we were about three steps from Deck Two, then I quickened my pace just a little bit. Not enough to alarm the warrant officer, but enough to put me within range of Mr. Heflin. Hearing me come closer, he started to turn to see what I was doingâ¦and then I gripped the rail with my right hand and shoved my right foot against the ankle of his left foot.
Heflin tripped and sprawled forward, falling the rest of the way down the ladder. He hadn't yet hit the deck when, still holding the rail tight with my right hand, I threw my left elbow back as hard as I could.
Just as I hoped, I caught the warrant officer square in the chest. He grunted and doubled over, and I twisted around, grabbed hold of his collar, and slammed him against the railing hard enough to knock the wind from his lungs. Gasping for air, he started to fall against me. I let him go and jumped forward, landing on the deck next to Heflin.
By then, the chief petty officer realized what was happening. Raising himself on one elbow, he started to make a grab for me. I hated to do itâhe seemed like a pretty decent chap, reallyâbut I kicked him in the head, and down he went.
The warrant officer was beginning to recover. Still on the ladder, he clutched the rail as he sought to regain his feet. I snatched the stunner from his holster before he could get to it, though, and there was the awful look of someone who'd just screwed up when I shot him with his own weapon. He tumbled the rest of the way down the steps, landing almost on top of Heflin.
Hearing a gasp behind me, I looked around to see Ms. Fawcett standing in the hatch leading to the passenger section. For some reason, I didn't have the heart to shoot her even though she posed a threat to my getaway.
“Thanks for the drinks,” I said, and then I dove down the ladder to Deck One.
Just as I figured, the lifeboat bays were located directly beneath the passenger section, where they would be easily accessible in case of an emergency. The hatches were on either side of a narrow passageway, tilted downward at a forty-five-degree angle. I was halfway to the nearest one when someoneâMs. Fawcett, no doubtâhit the panic button.
Red lights along the ceiling began to flash as a loud
came over the speakers. A crewman darted through a hatch at the opposite end of the corridor. He saw me, and his mouth dropped open, but by then I'd grabbed the panel above the lifeboat hatch, wrenched it open, tossed it aside, and found the lock-lever within. A quick yank to the left, and the hatch opened with a hiss of escaping pressure. I jumped into the boat, then turned around and shut the hatch behind me.
No time for the niceties of strapping myself down or making sure that all systems were active. Any second now, either Ms. Fawcett or the crewman who'd seen me would be telling the bridge that their stowaway had made his way to the lifeboats. If I was going to make a clean escape, I'd have to do it before someone in the command center locked them down.
Hauling myself over to the control panel, I jabbed the red
. button with my thumb, then grabbed a ceiling rail and held on for dear life. A loud whoosh of escaping pressure, the hollow clang of clamps being released, the solid thump of pyros being ignited. Through the round window of the hatch, I saw the cone-shaped cowling of the lifeboat port fall away amid a fine spray of crystallized oxygen and small debris.
A moment later, I caught a last glimpse of the lower hull of the
Robert E. Lee
. Then I began to fall to Coyote.
Aboard the good ship
no coffee for the wickedâ¦
coming in on a heat shield and a prayerâ¦
wherever it is you think you are, you're not there.
Forget everything you think you know about lifeboats; whatever it is, it's probably wrong. The one I stole from the
didn't have wings or landing gear, nor did it have particle-beam lasers for fending off space pirates; the first kind is rare, and the latter exists only in fantasy fics. Mine was a gumdrop-shaped capsule, about twenty feet in diameter at its heat shield, that bore a faint resemblance to the moonships of historic times. All it was meant to do was carry six passengers to a more or less safe touchdown on a planetary surface, preferably one that had an atmosphere. Other than that, it was useless.
a spacecraft, with a liquid-fuel engine and four sets of maneuvering thrusters, which meant I had nominal control over its guidance and trajectory. And although the
was still eighty thousand miles from Coyote when I took my unauthorized departure, the boat also had a life-support system sufficient to sustain a half dozen people for up to twelve hours. Therefore, I had enough air, water, heat, and food to keep me alive for three or four days.
So as soon as I was sure that I'd made my getaway, I grabbed hold of the hand rungs upon the ceiling and pulled myself across the cabin. The lifeboat was tumbling end over end by then, but so long as I was careful not to look through the portholes, there was no real sense of vertigo. I reached the pilot's seat and pulled it down from the bulkhead. It was little more than a well-padded hammock suspended within a titanium-alloy frame, but it had a harness and a headrest, and once I strapped myself in, it was much as if I were in a simulator back at the Academy.
The next step was to gain control of my craft. I unfolded the flat-panel console and activated it. The board lit up just as it was supposed to, and I spent the next couple of minutes assessing the status of my vehicle. Once I was sure it was fit to fly, I pulled down the yoke and went about firing reaction-control thrusters, manually adjusting the pitch, roll, and yaw until the lifeboat was no longer in a tumble. The lidar array helped me get a firm fix on Coyote, and the navigation subsystem gave me a precise estimate of where it would be
minus so many hours later. Once I had all that lined up, I entered the data into the autopilot, then pushed a little green button marked
A hard thump against my back as the main engine ignited. Gazing at the porthole above my head, I watched the starscape swerve to the left. Coyote, still little more than a green orb capped with white blotches at either end, drifted past my range of vision until it finally disappeared altogether. I wasn't heading toward where it was at the time, though, but where it would be. That is, if I hadn't screwed up in programming the comp. And if the comp was in error, then I would be taking a tour of the 47 Ursae Majoris system that would last until the air ran out.
The engine fired for four and a half minutes, giving me a brief taste of gravity, then shut down, causing my body to rise within my harness. I checked the fuel reserves, and muttered a curse under my breath. That maneuver had cost me 42 percent of what was in the tanks; I'd have enough for braking, final course corrections, and atmospheric entry, but practically zero for fudge factor. Like I said, the lifeboat was little more than an uprated version of the cargo pod I'd flown on Highgate. Even the training craft I had piloted at the
Academia del Espacio
was more sophisticated.
In the bottom of the ninth, I'd earned myself another chance at bat. Yet there was no room for strikeouts, and my next foul ball would be my last.
I let out my breath, closed my eyes for a second. Eighteen hours until I reached Coyote. Might as well offer my apologies to the home team. Groping beneath the couch, I found a small packet. I ripped it open and pulled out a cheap headset. Slipping it on, I inserted the prong into the left side of the console, then activated the com system.
“Hello?” I said, tapping the mike wand with my thumb. “Anyone there? Yoo-hoo, do you read?”
Several long moments passed in which I heard nothing, then a male voice came over:
Robert E. Lee
to CFL-101, we acknowledge. Do you copy?”
“Loud and clear,
. This is”âI thought about it for a momentâ“the
. We copy.”
A few seconds went by. I imagined bridge officers glancing at each other in bewilderment. Then a more familiar voice came online.
“CFL-101, this is Commodore Tereshkova. Please use the appropriate call sign.”
using an appropriate call sign.” I couldn't help but smile. “Lou Brock. Outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. One of the great base-stealers of all time.”
While she was trying to figure that one out, I checked the radar. The
was near the edge of my screen, about eight hundred miles away. So far as I could tell, it was keeping pace with me; I had little doubt that, if Tereshkova ordered her helmsman to do so, the ship could intercept my lifeboat within minutes.
“All right, so you're a baseball fan.”
When Tereshkova's voice returned, it was a little less formal.
“You're very clever, Mr. Truffaut. I'll give you that. If you'll heave to and allow yourself to be boarded, I'll see what I can do about getting you tickets to a game.”
I shook my head, even though she couldn't see me. “Thanks for the date, Commodore, but I'm going to have to take a rain check. Maybe next time you're in town?”
For a moment, I thought I heard laughter in the background. In the meantime, I was sizing up my fuel situation. If the
started to close in, I could always fire the main engine again. But I needed to conserve as much fuel as possible for retrofire and atmospheric entry; as things stood, I had barely enough in reserve to do that. The
was no shuttle, and my margin for error was thin as a razor.
“Ensign, you know as well as I do that this is pointless.”
The commodore no longer sounded quite so affable.
“My ship isâ¦”
“Faster, sure. No question about it.” I switched back to manual override, then raised a forefinger and let it hover above the engine ignition switch. “And
know as well as I do that there's no way in hell you can board me if I don't want you to do so. Allow me to demonstrate.”
I touched the red button, held it down. A quick surge as the engine fired. I counted to three, barely enough time for the lifeboat's velocity to rise a quarter g, then I released the button. On the screen, the
had drifted a few millimeters farther away. “See what I mean? Get too close, and I'll do that again.”
No answer. If she had any remaining doubts whether I was an experienced spacer, that little display settled them. The
was capable of overtaking my lifeboat, sure, but her ship didn't have the equipment necessary to latch on to a craft whose pilot was willing to alter delta-V at whim. Not unless she wanted to position her craft directly in front of mineâ¦but even if she was foolish enough to do so, my lifeboat would collide with her vessel like a coupe ramming a maglev train.
I'd never do anything like that. For one thing, it would be suicidal; I would die a quick but horrible death. For another, there were also passengers aboard, and the last thing I wanted to do was put their lives in danger. But Commodore Tereshkova didn't know I was bluffing; perhaps she'd realized that I'd just trimmed my fuel reserves by three-quarters of a percent, but there was no guarantee that I wouldn't pull silly crap like that again. And no one but a fool would play chicken with a madman.
The comlink went silent, doubtless while she talked it over with her bridge team and tried to determine if I was the lunatic I seemed to be. While they did that, I took the opportunity to get a new flight profile from the nav subsystem and feed the updated info into autopilot. To my relief, I discovered that all I'd done was shave twenty minutes from my ETA. I'd just let out my breath when Tereshkova's voice returned.
“All right, ensign. Have it your way, if you must.”
There was an undercurrent of resignation in her voice.
“You may proceed with your present course.”
“Thank you, Commodore. Glad you see it my way.” Another thought came to me. “I meant it when I said that all I want is amnesty. You'll communicate this to your people, won't you?”
A brief pause.
“I'll ask them to take this into consideration.
“Thank you, ma'am.
, over.” I waited for another moment, but when I heard nothing more, I switched off the comlink.
All right, then. For better or for worse, I was on my own.
Robert E. Lee
remained on my scope for another hour or so, but gradually it veered away, its course taking it farther from my lifeboat. Although I had little doubt that its crew continued to track me, the fact remained that it was a faster ship, and it had its own schedule to keep. Through my porthole, I caught a brief glimpse of its formation lights as it peeled away, its passengers probably enjoying dinner and drinks as they chatted about the minor incident that had occurred shortly after the ship had come out of hyperspace.
Sweetheart, did you hear about the man in Cabin 4 who lost his mind? Don't worry, I'm sure he's been properly dealt withâ¦oh, steward? Another glass of wine, please?
It took another eighteen hours for me to reach Coyote. I didn't have table service; my sustenance was the ration bars I found in the emergency locker, which tasted like stale peanut butter, and tepid water that I sipped from a squeezebulb. I caught catnaps now and then, only to wake up an hour or so later to find my hands floating in front of my face.
Little sleep, then, and no coffee. Not much in the way of entertainment, either, save for a brief skim of the emergency tutorials on the comp, which told me little that I hadn't known before. I sang songs to myself, mentally revisited great ball games and tried to figure out where critical errors had been madeâthe World Series of '44 between Havana and Seoul was one that I studied more than onceâand reviewed my life history in case I ever wanted to write my memoirs.
The rest of the time, I stared out the window, watching Coyote as it gradually came back into view, growing larger with each passing hour. My flight was long enough that I witnessed most of a complete day as it rotated on its axis; what I saw was a planet-size moon a little larger than Mars, lacking oceans but instead crisscrossed by complex patterns of channels, rivers, estuaries, and streams, with a broad river circumscribing its equator. By the time I was scratching at my face and wishing that the emergency kit contained a shaver, I was able to make out geographic features: mountain ranges, volcanoes, tropical savannahs, and rain forests, scattered across subcontinents and islands of all shapes and sizes.
A beautiful world, as close to Earth as anything yet discovered in our little corner of the galaxy. Worth the effort to get thereâ¦provided, of course, that I didn't end my trip as a trail of vaporized ash following the slipstream of a man-made meteor.
When the lifeboat was about three hundred nautical miles away, the autopilot buzzed, telling me that the time had come for me to take over. By then I was strapped into my couch again. I took a deep breath, murmured the Astronaut's Prayerâ“Lord, please don't let me screw up”âthen I switched off the autopilot, grasped the yoke, and did my best to put my little craft safely on the ground.
While I was earning my wings in the
Academia del Espacio
, I logged over two hundred hours in simulators and four hundred more in training skiffs. Before I was thrown out of the UA, I'd also flown Athena shuttles, including one landing on Mars. But those were all winged spacecraft, complete with all sorts of stuff like elevators and flaps and vertical stabilizers. As I said, though, the
was only a lifeboat, and for this sort of thing I'd completed only as much training as I needed to graduate from cadet to ensign: four hours in a simulator, and my flight instructor had forgiven me for a crash landing that would have killed everyone aboard.
I was getting a second chance to show that I'd learned something from that part of my education that few spacers thought they'd ever use in real life. Watching through the windows, I carefully adjusted the lifeboat's attitude until it assumed a trajectory that would bring it over Coyote's northern hemisphere. I'd studied maps of the world, so I had a pretty good idea of what was where. Once I determined that I was somewhere above Great Dakota, I initiated entry sequence.
Keeping an eye on the eight ball, I maneuvered the RCS thrusters until the lifeboat made a 180-degree turn, then I ignited the main engine. My body was pushed against the straps as the engine burned most of what remained of my fuel reserves. This lasted several minutes, and once my instruments told me that I'd shed most of my velocity, I shut down the engine and fired the thrusters again, delicately coaxing the lifeboat until it had assumed the proper attitude for atmospheric entry. Then I revved up the main once more, this time to make sure that I didn't hit the troposphere too fast. When everything looked copacetic, I goosed the yaw and pitch a bit, fine-tuning my angle of attack.