Dragon's Egg, Blue Sun Cluster
The Jin Dui was skimming past the world of Bhima, headed for the Blue Sun shipyard orbiting Dragon's Egg, the uninhabited gas giant which Bhima and its sister moons Yudhisthira, Nakula, Sahadeva and Glynis circled. The ship was scheduled to deliver a trio of freezer cans of beef from Nakula -- tender steers which the crew had even helped to wrangle. Cooper was in the galley, slicing fresh steak of their own to marinate for dinner. She had a big basket of bae pears plucked fresh from the King Ranch orchard and was in a celebratory mood. It had been years since she had last had decent bulgogi that was anything like her grandmother’s recipe, and her mouth was watering in anticipation of the meal. It seemed to her like a perfect way to celebrate the sides of beef she and the rest of the crew had earned by their three days of hire-on cow-poking back at the King Ranch on Nakula.
“... the Second Opium War began in 1856 AD and ended in 1860... ” The morning school lesson was proceeding apace in the observation lounge, where Abby and Tilly occupied the low square central coffee table, sitting on colorful zabuton cushions that Fatima had stitched together out of second-hand sari cloth. “... the humiliation of the Battle of Canton, where a city of over a million was captured by a force of six thousand, hastened a second defeat for the Qing Dynasty...” Cooper listened to the lesson with half an ear, probably more interested in the subject that Tilly was, based on a long-suffering expression on the girl’s face.
Cooper heard the clatter of steps from the direction of the aft stairs and looked up in time to see Chang come trotting into the room. The ship’s numbers guy was barefoot and wearing sweat pants with his case of bed hair; the t-shirt he had obviously donned in a hurry was inside out and backwards. The half-coherent mumble of “zǎoshang hǎo,” was normal, but the straight beeline at speed through the galley and on through the hatchway bridgeward was definitely not, when at best, Chang’s usual morning appearance was a sleepy zombie shuffle toward the coffee pot.
Recognizing something was up, Cooper put down her knife and reached after her cane. As she took a step out of the galley toward the forward corridor hatch, she heard a hearty “H’lo!” from ahead -- Tor’s voice. Likely the professor was the process of climbing up from his cabin as Chang plowed past.
“Zăo ān,” Chang said. “‘Scuze, gotta chat with the pilot!”
Cooper made her way to the steps up to the bridge corridor, all ears as she overheard Chang’s breathless arrival on the bridge.
“Hey Sully! I woke up remembering something out of an intelligence report I’d read. You gotta be on the look out for counter-orbital debris.”
Cooper watched as Tor followed Chang up onto the bridge. “What kind of debris?” Sully was asking.
“The four-legged kind,” Chang said, sounding sheepish. He rubbed his head vigorously so that his hair went from bedhead to full-on rumpled. “I went to sleep this morning knowing I should remember the moon of Bhima for something. And then I woke up real sudden, having remembered. During the war, the residents of the moon got real nervous about protecting themselves. The folk didn’t have much, but they had one ship and a whole bunch of livestock. So apparently they collected a feedlot worth of cows and pigs, bundled them up into orbit, and then tossed them out of the airlock one-by-one.”
There was a moment of silence, as Sully and Tor remained stunned by what they were hearing. Then both men broke into laughter.
“You’re kidding us, right?” Sully chortled.
“That would be goats, not cows,” Tor corrected the other pilot.
“Totally, deadly serious,” Chang replied, although there was amusement in his tone. “And guys, it’s utterly hilarious--”
“Udderly,” Tor corrected Chang.
“--hilarious,” Chang continued, “... up until the hull breach alarm starts screaming. Can you only imagine the damage a ton of frozen Brahma bull would do to a ship’s hull?”
“Holy cow,” Sully replied, struggling for a deadpan delivery.
“No. Bull,” Tor said, reveling in the punnery.
“I’ve always heard that the cow jumped over the moon,” Sully continued. “But really? Bovine planetary defense measures take the cake.”
“Cows don’t cake,” Chang offered, grinning from ear to ear. “They patty.”
The puns were all lame as a bucked shin, but the men had one another dying with laughter. Cooper smiled and turned away, having eavesdropped enough. She limped back to her galley, ready to get the thin-sliced beef marinating in the soy-pear-garlic-ginger marinade she had whipped up.
“We’ve got some high-steaks flying ahead of us,” she could still hear Tor faintly from the bridge behind her.
“High steaks steering,” Sully corrected him.
“An orbital cow can’t be considered ground beef, can it?” Chang asked.
Cooper found herself laughing, which earned her curious glances from Abby and Tilly. “Okay kid,” the captain said, deciding to turn Chang’s odd warning into a classroom opportunity. “Let me throw you a hypothetical and see what you do with it. Orbiting a planet is really nothing more than continually falling toward the surface, but doing so with enough velocity that the object keeps missing -- correct?” she asked of Tilly.
The girl’s freckled face broke into a grin -- anything to do with spaceships was far more interesting to her than the dusty history of old Earth-that-Was. “Affirmative!” Tilly replied.
“So then. Let’s say we live on a little world like Bhima. And we’ve got a fleet of eetees or Reavers or something headed our way. And you’ve got a transport ship and a surplus of… frozen fish. A whole lot of big, fat frozen carp or something. Could you turn those into an orbital defense?”
The girl’s expression grew intent and she furiously sketched out some calucations out on her tablet before risking an answer. “We could set them adrift in a nice stable orbit, and that size mass would be super-hard to see for anyone coming in at speed,” she said. “And I’d make it even trickier for incoming traffic to avoid by flying my ship in a counter orbit, so that my school of frozen fishies are orbiting clockwise around the world.”
“And why would you do that?” Abby prompted the girl.
Tilly was still grinning. “‘Cuz incoming traffic almost always arrives at a standard vector somewhere around orbital velocities, which does differ from world to world ‘cuz of planetary size and mass. So my fishies would be traveling the opposite direction, also at orbital velocity and they’d really, really hurt when they hit!” Then her expression began to fall. “But even if I had a hundred thousand goldfish thrown into counter-orbit like that like little frozen missiles, the chances of even one ever hitting a ship would be just about nuthin’.”
“Would the fish be frozen?” Abby asked, not about to let the logic-lesson end.
Tilly grimaced and thought about it some, then her eyes lit up. “They’d be frozen part of the time, when they were orbiting behind the world. But they’d get all warmed up and squishy again every time they came back around into the sunlight from Qing Long, or at least the side of the fish facing sunward will.” She wrinkled her nose and giggled. “Oh wow, wouldn’t that just really stink?”
“Yes, it most certainly --” Abby began to answer.
The faint laughter from the bridge suddenly ceased; a split second later, the ship lurched suddenly. Thrown off balance, Cooper stumbled painfully into the galley counter. She snatched after the ceramic bowl the thin-sliced beef was marinating in and spun to stash it in the sink, while the ship’s allship channel buzzed on.
“We’ve got unexpected orbital debris and are taking evasive maneuvers,” Sully said, his voice tight with tension.
“Steer!” Chang yelled in the background.
“Enough with the puns!” Sully snapped. “I’m busy here--”
“No! Really!” Chang protested.
“Steer!” yelled Tor at the same time.
The Jin Dui made another shuddering maneuver -- with the grav on, it was hard to know what the hell Sully was doing with the ship, but there was a chorus of shouts from the bridge that carried down the corridor to the galley without any assistance from comm. At least the bulgogi was safe, Cooper thought with a sliver of satisfaction. She kept her feet, found her cane, and turned to head bridgeward--
The entire ship bucked from the force of the collision. Cooper went sprawling; behind her, both Tilly and Abby screamed. A shower of plass shards from the row of overhead windows rained down on her and pattered off of the deck. The hull breach alarm began to blare with bone-rattling volume, while the ship’s emergency strobe lights flared on. And -- above it all -- Cooper could hear the shriek of oxygen, being sucked out to vacuum. The captain made a mad grab after her cane and shoved herself to her knees, even as the corridor hatchways of the chamber around her rolled shut and sealed.
“Allship on!” Cooper yelled, to get the comm channel open. She got her cane positioned and tried to get to her feet; at the same time, she looked up, trying to make out what the mangled form was that was partially lodged through the center windows overhead. “Galley windows are breached!”
“What’s happening?” Cooper heard Abby’s demand in-between blasts of the hull breach claxon. As hard as it was to make out what was being said through the blare of the alarms, Cooper could hear that the other woman’s voice was tight with fear.
“What did we hit? What did we hit?” Tilly was yelling. She evaded Abby’s grab for her and scrambled out of the observation lounge. The girl climbed up onto the galley table for a better look. “What IS that?”
The one dangling leg Cooper could see looked more porcine than bovine, but it hung at a rubbery, unnatural angle. The head and skull that had bashed in through the forward galley window was so disfigured that Cooper would have only trusted a DNA test to fully identify it. Her best guess, based on four years in vet school before the War, would be a market-siezed pig. Cooper staggered but managed to get to her feet at the second try, needing the cane to stay upright as her bad leg buckled. “Damage report?” she yelled at the allship, hoping the only hull breach they were facing was the one above her head.
“Busy up here,” Sully was first to report back, as the ship swayed again in another evasive maneuver. “Going out of orbital plane to avoid this shit!”
“We’re good in the engine room!” reported Hoss. “Headed galleyward.”
“Cargo bay and belowdecks clear,” came Carver’s voice over comm at the same time.
“We got Tilly, Abby and me sealed up in the galley,” Cooper said. The blasting alarm claxon was probably overwhelming her voice for the comm pickups every other word or so, but she trusted her crew to fill in the informational blanks.“There’s a carcass of some kind lodged partway through the forward row of observation windows!”
“And we’re losing air!” Tilly yelled.
Abby bolted for the aft hatchway door; when she couldn’t open it, she began to pound on it with her fists. “Hoss!” she shouted. “Get us out!”
Cooper saw Hoss’s face appear in the aft hatchway window; the strobing emergency lights made his ta moko flash crimson. He spoke, but his voice reached them only through the allship com.
“The hatches are on auto safety-seal!” Hoss was yelling. “As long as the hull pressure sensors are triggered, we can’t get the doors open!”
“Captain!” said Chang urgently; Cooper looked around to see both him and Tor peering in helplessly from the forward hatchway. “You gotta get that pressure stabilized ASAP! We can’t pipe in more oxygen for you with the vents on auto-seal!”
“And if that breach clears itself, you risk getting sucked out to vacuum,” Tor added.
“Xuèxīng tā mā dì dìyù,” Cooper groaned, while Abby threw her hands up in the air angrily.
“Gǎo shénme guǐ? I’m a medic, not an engineer!” Abby yelled.
Tilly sprang into action. The girl scrambled down off of the table and braced herself against the butt end, trying to push it forward. “Help me!” she yelled.
“Tāmāde shì!” Cooper cheered. “Good thinking, kid! Abby! Help get that table into position!” she said, while she hobbled toward the forward starboard shuttle hatch.
Abby put her shoulder to the aft end of the long wooden table, and she and Tilly shoved it forward until the front end was well beneath the forward row of observation windows. Cooper slammed a hand against the button that opened the inset emergency tool locker there next to the shuttle hatch doorway. “Carver!” she heard Hoss’s below over the allship. “Can you get this hatch opened?”
“No demolitions!” Cooper shouted back at them, knowing well what Carver’s professional experience had been as a marine in a shipbreaker unit. “We got this!”
“Up! Up!” Tilly was yelling to Abby as she scrambled back up on top of the galley table. Abby scowled but crawled up alongside the girl, then stood and offered to pick Tilly up. The girl climbed up onto Abby’s shoulders as quick as a monkey. “Doc! Stiffy foam!”
“Shōudào!” Cooper replied. She was already pulling the can of spray foam from the emergency locker. She turned at speed and launched herself toward the relocated galley table, but staggered badly when the ship gave another evasive-maneuver lurch.
“The window cracks are spreading!” Abby shouted, while the scream of escaping oxygen grew even shriller.
“Doc!!” Tilly screamed, waving her hands wildly.
Cooper felt herself begin to fall. She aimed for Tilly’s center mass and threw the can of spray foam as her knees hit the deck. The girl caught it with a whoop and went to immediate work, spraying a stream of what looked like slightly greyish whipped cream around the edges of where the carcass met the observation window.
“Got it! Got it!” the girl chanted, while Abby held her legs to keep the girl steady as Tilly leaned precariously to deliver the spray fully around the carcass.
“One… two… three…” Cooper began the ten-second countdown under her breath. “...eight… nine… ten.” Tilly was finishing up even as the ten-second safety mark passed, and the sealant where it had first been applied began to swell as it hardened. Abby gave a cheer of relief, while Tilly gave her can a shake and began to go back over the hardening foam, trying to patch up any gaps she might have missed. The shrill scream of escaping air turned into just a whistle, and as Tilly’s can sputtered out the last drop of sealant, the hull breach claxon suddenly went silent. Both forward and aft hatchways rolled open; Chang and Tor rushed in from one end of the galley, while Hoss and Carver charged in from the other.
“We got it! We got it!” Tilly cheered. She launched herself off of Abby’s shoulders and Hoss caught her in midair, swinging the girl in a celebratory circle.
“Katahi na te tamaiti mohio, ko koe!” Hoss laughed in his native tongue, while Tilly’s freckled face was flushed red with delight. “Kei runga noe atu koe!”
“Zuò de hǎo!” Chang said to Abby, while Tor offered her a hand down from the galley table.
Carver made a beeline for the captain, while Cooper was trying to regain her dignity and get to her feet. She accepted his offered hand and looked critically at the elbow she had skinned at one point or another during the emergency. “Sully!” she called, wanting an update. “You got us out of the stampede yet?”
“I think so?” Sully replied. “But the damn things don’t show up on scan until they’re right in your face!”
“Just get us clear,” Cooper ordered, trusting her XO to manage that. “I don’t want to explain to Van Hooven how I lost his ship to a high-v heifer! Hoss -- can you and your apprentice get that rancid mass of organics stabilized up there?” she asked, pointing at the freezer-burned mystery carcass.
“We can do that,” Hoss said, putting a grinning Tilly back down on the deck. “We’re still two hours out from dock at the Blue Sun shipyard -- it’s not like we have to worry about it burning up on us during atmo.”
Abby groaned at the thought of trying to land dirtside with a hole in the galley windows; Cooper joined her. “Do that,” the captain said. “I’ll bet you heat shield-grade plass is going to cost us dear out here in the ass-end of the Blue Cluster, but we’ll have to pay out for it."
“A couple of sheets of hull plating over the damaged windows and a EVA walk to patch it up, and we’ll be safe,” Hoss said.
“Hey, Sully,” called Tor cheerfully. “See if you can hit a chicken next. We need some eggs to go with this ham.”
“‘And lo’,” intoned Chang in a stern voice, “‘the day these stout hearts band together is the day that pigs shall find their wings!”
The rest of the crew in the galley looked at the ship’s numbers man as though he had lost his marbles, then Tor gave a bark of laughter and replied “Then there’ll be pork in the tree tops come morning!” Chang’s resulting grin was a hundred-wattage in triumph. Cooper just shrugged and rolled her eyes at Carver beside her, figuring Chang and Tor were back to their usual game of quoting obscure TwenCen references. Tilly, however, was eager to join in the fun.
“Porksickles,” the girl said, pointing at the meaty mass lodged in the observation window above her head. “It’s sow not boar-ing.”
Tor and Chang both cheered approval, while Cooper groaned in pain. “First and only warning,” she growled at them, turning toward the sink to see if her bulgogi had managed to survive the excitement. “The next member of this crew to make a bad pun I’m gonna lodge up there into that window alongside that làndiǎo pig. Dŏng ma?”
With disaster averted, the rest of them laughed and got back to work.