The Flip of a Coin
Chapter Two: The Windshield and the Bug
Lieutenant Ning Yuanhui watched the young ensign fidget in his seat. He’d been glancing between his com panel and central screen for five minutes. Something was obviously bothering him, but as yet the ensign hadn’t said anything.
Ning brushed an imaginary crumb off his uniform. With all the senior officers celebrating the marriage of Commander Dalrymple, the bridge was his. It was his first time in command, although he’d spent more time on the bridge than the Captain herself.
Like the Captain, Ning preferred to stand. He could see better that way. The observation cove was aimed at Earth, slowly spinning in the view. The sight made some people dizzy. The command module was relatively small, which meant their spin was faster than the rings or disks in other parts of the station. The Coriolis effect made some people nauseated when the radius of spin was that small, but Ning never noticed.
“Is there something you’d like to share with me, Ensign Watts?” he asked, in a voice just sharp enough that the ensign jumped. He didn’t leave his seat, but his back suddenly snapped straight and his head swiveled on his neck, looking from the Lieutenant Commander to his screen then back again. Wilson, the first officer’s pet droid, rolled up, blinked a couple of times, then rolled away. Wilson was one twist short of a slinky, aging but still useful. He got in the way, but the bridge crew was used to his presence.
“Sir, there is a small craft heading toward the station.”
That was unusual. Small shuttles were common to get from one part of the station to another, but the words “toward the station” implied it came from elsewhere. They were a hundred thousand kilometers from Earth, and much farther than that from Luna, which was currently on the far side of humanity’s homeworld. The only ships approaching the station would, by practicality, usually be large ones full of passengers or cargo. “Where did it come from?”
Ensign Watts took a moment to check his screen. “Tracking says it came from beyond.”
“Beyond?” Ning said. “Luna? No one can make it that far in a ship that small. Is it a drone? Are there any large ships near us at the moment?”
The ensign took a moment to check his instruments. “No ships in the vicinity. Unknown whether it is a drone or manned, sir. There has been no communication.”
“Have we tried hailing it?”
The communications officer on duty, Lieutenant Sariputta, answered. “Yes sir. For the last ten minutes the autocom has been attempting to initiate contact, but there is no response.”
“Does anyone claim it?”
Lieutenant Sariputta exchanged a glance with Ensign Watts. “Not yet, sir. It’s still far enough out, and not exactly moving…quickly.”
“It’s approaching much more slowly than most ships, sir.” Watts answered.
Lieutenant Sariputta’s fingers flew over the keys. “I’ve put a request for ident out to all fronts, asking if anyone has information on the approaching craft.”
Ning nodded. “If there’s no response in the next two minutes, repeat the message and add the warning that unidentified craft approaching the station will be destroyed.”
Uncommunicative craft were, unfortunately, not uncommon. Too many wealthy, entitled entrepreneurs thought they were above the rules that governed the Chʼil Awoshí Station. At least once a week, command had to dress down some civilian who responded to the request for identification with some version of “Hey, it’s me!” as if they were a celebrity approaching the red carpet who should be recognized on sight and treated with favor.
Now that the first officer was off getting married and the Captain and other high ranking officers were in attendance that dressing down would come from Ning. He was looking forward to it. He’d heard Commander Dalrymple make the speech at least a hundred times and he’d been rehearsing his own version. Polite enough to not offend, but terse enough to make sure the civilian knew that station command was in charge and must be obeyed.
Ning toured the bridge, checking on the officers and enlisted, keeping himself informed of everything that was happening. Tumbleweed’s bridge was quite different than the bridge of the cruiser he’d served on early in his career. The ship’s bridge had been exclusively functional, with only enough space for the bare minimum of officers who had to be there. Tumbleweed’s command module was a small office complex, with the bridge itself a spacious and comfortable room with a dozen stations for the various departments necessary for the running of the city in space. From the command dais in the center he could see the main screen, currently displaying a view of the station from the cloud, the array of solar collectors that maintained a position between Tumbleweed and the sun, regardless of the station’s orientation. The three smaller screens below it rotated through views from various vantage points around the station. The observation cove was to the right of the screens. Further right, and slightly behind him was the adjunct bay, an area for support services or other personnel who needed to work closely with the bridge crew.
There were more people in the adjunct bay than usual. Besides Ensign Watts, who was in training for regular bridge crew and serving as an assistant or backup for whomever needed him, there was one officer and two more enlisted he didn’t recognize. He nodded to the officer briefly as he made his rounds, and the next time he came around they were gone.
Ning crossed paths with Wilson twice, as the droid followed the same pattern that Commander Dalrymple usually made around the bridge. For the most part, everything that was supposed to spin was spinning, everywhere that was supposed to be pressurized was pressurized, and everyone who was supposed to get married that day had officially accomplished the task. All was well.
Wilson tumbled down the steps into the observation cove, then bounced himself back out again.
“Sir?” Ensign Watts said.
As soon as Ning turned to face the ensign, he knew something was wrong. He carefully kept his expression tuned to ‘alert and mildly concerned’ even though his stomach had suddenly turned a somersault. Somehow, he knew he wasn’t going to be delivering a dressing down to some spoiled yahoo zooming around in his private yacht. This was something else.
“The unidentified vessel will impact the station in six minutes.”
“Six minutes? I thought it was moving slowly?” Ning struggled for composure. He wasn’t sure whether the mistake was his own, or if the ensign had been negligent about estimating how far away it was. He couldn’t remember whether or not he’d already been given an estimate. It seemed like something he should be told.
Ning wished the Captain was there, yet he was glad that she wasn’t.
“Still no response from the craft,” reported Lieutenant Sariputta. “Two thirds of the station members confirm the craft is not theirs and not an expected visitor.”
“Sir, it’s accelerating,” Ensign Watts said, speaking over the communications officer.
All eyes on the bridge turned to him. He took a moment, no more than a few seconds, to evaluate the situation. “How long until it reaches the zero point?”
“Four minutes Sir,” the ensign reported.
“On screen and orient us that way,” Ning commanded. “Send a patrol to intercept.”
A gentle chime preceded the movement of the command module. Ning surfed it, not reaching out to handholds like most of the bridge crew. He stepped down into the observation cove, standing in the alcove and looking out through the station. He couldn’t see anything but the governing quarter.
Feeling somewhat foolish for assuming he’d be able to get a clear view of the incoming craft with the naked eye, he stepped out of the cove and turned his attention to the main screen.
“What do we know about it?” he asked, hoping there would be some kind of miraculous insight that would guide him.
The communications officer reported calmly. He wondered whether she was masking her nervousness or whether she was as unflappable as she sounded. “It’s a cube, ten meters on a side. Standard shell that can be outfitted any way the owner wants. No identifying marks. D-standard connector.” She paused. “Still no response.”
A patrol ship came into view on the screen. “Connect me to patrol,” Ning ordered. The large screen showed the approaching cube. The small screens showed the patrol ship, its pilot, and the drone driver sitting behind him.
“Connected,” said Sariputta.
“Patrol, can we nudge it?” Ning asked.
“Sending a drone to nudge,” the drone driver answered.
On the screen, one of the patrol’s bludger drones darted ahead, impacting the vessel at an angle designed to move it into a trajectory that would avoid impact with the station. If it was just a drifting, abandoned hunk of junk, that’s all it should take.
But it accelerated already…
“Patrol, ready weapons,” Ning said, then turned back to Watts. “How much time?”
“Fifty seconds to zero point,” Watts answered. “The nudge was not sufficient to change the trajectory.”
“Unidentified craft, you will be fired upon if you do not respond immediately.” It was surreal how calm the communications officer sounded.
“Thirty seconds,” Watts reported.
“Unidentified craft…” Sariputta repeated the warning.
“Awaiting the fire order,” came the disembodied voice of the patrol.
“Is it manned?” Ning asked. He knew he wasn’t going to get a definitive answer, but he didn’t want to kill anyone. He didn’t want to give the order when they didn’t have all the information. What if the craft’s communication system was out? What if it was desperately hoping that Tumbleweed could save it? What if—
“Sir?” Watts interrupted his thoughts.
There was a flash of light on the screen as the patrol fired on the unidentified craft then burned its thrusters to avoid impact.
“We have debris,” Watts reported. “Impact in one minute.”
A thousand questions went through Ning’s mind. Had they just killed someone? Was the craft intending to ram the station? How much debris? Was it enough to endanger the station? What part of the station? Was it something expendable?
There was no time. He was responsible for delaying the fire order until it was too late, but moving the Chʼil Awoshí was not an easy task.
“Helm! Evasive maneuvers.”
“Evasive…yes sir,” the officer at the helm looked shocked, but he keyed in the necessary codes. This time there was no gentle chime warning them of the move. The shift was subtle, but Ning cringed inwardly, knowing they would be flooded with complaints and questions. There would be no grace period for them to figure out any answers.
A second shift followed, and there was silence on the bridge. Ning held his breath. The cube had been small. It wasn’t really a danger to the station as a whole. Should he have let the debris hit? Should he have risked that any damage would be superficial? He should have asked what it would hit. Maybe it would have been—
The screen lit up, sheer white for just a second.
“What was that?” he asked.
“Unknown,” said Watts.
“Patrol is reporting a secondary explosion,” Sariputta said.
“Information,” Ning commanded to no one in particular.
“Shall I put patrol on?” asked Sariputta.
“Yes. Put patrol on,” Ning said. He hated that he hadn’t asked the officer to do that before she suggested it.
“Secondary explosion in the debris,” Patrol said. “It hit the cloud.”
“Reports are coming in,” Sariputta said. “Mostly near misses. Some small impacts.”
“Most of the debris spun through with that fancy maneuver you did,” patrol said.
There was a moment of silence. “Patrol,” Ning began. “Do you see any bodies?”
There was a pause.
“Scattering the drones.”
“Sir?” Sariputta asked. Ning raised an eyebrow, afraid his voice would crack if he spoke out loud. “Shall I notify the Captain?”
Ning nodded curtly. “Immediately.”
Eight minutes later, Ning was on the com with The Captain, filling her in on everything that had happened. Four minutes after that, Captain Kitewhetu swooped through the main doors, followed by her yeoman.
“Damage report,” she said, stepping up onto the command dais. Ning stepped down, even though there was more than enough room.
“Micropuncture in module thirty-nine C…” Ensign Watts began, then continued to list a dozen more small impacts.
Captain Kitewhetu cut him off. “Any injuries? Any major harm done to the integrity of the station?”
The main doors swooped open again and the first officer, his kilt twisted and shirt half unbuttoned, stormed in. “What the hell is going on?”
“Ensign Watts,” the Captain spoke curtly. “Brief the first officer on the situation then get him off my bridge. He’s off duty for the next ten days.”
Ning, along with most of the bridge crew, kept his eyes on the main screen, which was focused on the damage to The Cloud. The ensign did as he was told.
“What do we know about the secondary explosion?” the Captain demanded.
“Secondary explosion?” the first officer echoed.
Something red caught Ning’s eye, reflected in the observation cove. Captain Kitewhetu continued her line of questioning, gathering the incoming information and asking more questions while the first officer looked on and occasionally added his own inqueries.
Ning stepped down into the cove. The red object was a human in a space suit, changing direction and orientation every few seconds. They must either be inexperienced in controlling a suit, or they were in distress.
How many workers were outside the station when we shifted? he wondered. How many workers are usually outside the station at any given time?
He had no idea what the safety protocols were for working outside. Each module probably had different rules.
The figure continued to zig-zag. Ning tried to figure out its intended trajectory, which was difficult with the spin of the command module.
“Captain?” Ning said, his voice too soft to be heard over the din.
The red suit was definitely headed toward them.
What if it’s a saboteur?
“Cap…” his voice broke. “Sirs!” he blurted out, the sound much louder and abrupt than was appropriate for addressing his senior officers. The Captain and first officer stopped and turned to him. He pointed out the transparent panel. Captain Kitewhetu looked confused, then her eyebrows shot up.
Ning turned back just in time to see the space-suited anomaly impact the clear panels at an angle, sliding diagonally as it reconciled its own momentum with that of the rotating module.
“Ning!” he barely registered the Captain’s shout as he heard the hiss of the emergency bunker about to slam over the observation cove. “Get out!”