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Chapter Two: Laserfight

To be a parent is to be torn right down the middle. On one hand, it’s your evolutionary and social function to turn your children into fully autonomous adults as rapidly as you can. On the other—and here is why children are so often kept infantalized in other cultures—you will worry every minute they’re away from the nest until (and this is the only way it ever happens) you finally exhaust your capacity for worry. I have found that living on a frontier will keep you focused on the first hand.
—The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Someone was trying to blow up the factory ship in orbit!

Wilson felt his stomach tense as he imagined what a missile would do to the vessel and her hundreds of crew. Sickened, he watched the rocket climb and climb until it disappeared in the distance, boring through empty space toward its defenseless target, hundreds of miles overhead.

Then his heart leapt as the weapon exploded harmlessly, what must have been thousands of yards beyond the factory ship’s running lights. Somehow, through mechanical failure or human incompetence, it had overshot the mark.

Wilson knew that he didn’t have an instant to waste. He moved as rapidly as the lack of gravity would let him. True, it was twice what he’d been born to on his native Pallas, but the real difficulty was getting enough traction when he only “weighed” eighteen pounds—and his clumsy envirosuit didn’t help. A few feet short of the dizzying cliff that was the inner wall of the crater, he climbed the little upslope at its edge, then got down on his hands and knees and peeked over, careful to keep his head down between two clumps of impact rubble.

Down on a crater floor perhaps half a mile in diameter, a dozen figures were either facing outward, keeping watch, or tinkering with the primitive-looking rocket launcher they’d apparently brought with them. Wilson could tell from the shiny, cheerfully colored envirosuits they wore that they were merely amateurs, or tourists. What was that old song his grandfather Bill used to sing him about “a red one and a blue one and a green one and a yellow one and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky”?

If the intruders had been down there for any time at all, they must be miserable by now, suffering heat and cold at the same time, depending on what part of their mostly unautomated suits bothered them worst, and from accumulated moisture from condensation. To make it worse, cheap outfits like that didn’t even have elementary sanitary facilities.

No doubt that was partly why they’d grounded a small, cylindrical interasteroidal spacecraft in the shadow of the sunward crater wall. It looked to Wilson like a Fiat 914SX, a cheap rental “jumpbuggy” with a single deck, shared with the fusion-ion engine. With a dozen people aboard, uncomfortable wasn’t the word for it. It couldn’t be from anywhere but Pallas, of course, and probably wasn’t any more reliable than their suits. Out here, as anywhere else, you got no more than you paid for.

Wilson stepped up the magnifying power of his helmet’s faceplate and noticed the two-handed laser rifles being held by several of the outward-facing watchers. There was only one use for lasers under these conditions—against envirosuits of decent quality—and it wasn’t as a weapon’s primary energy source. The surface of a properly built envirosuit was highly reflective, and would ablate relatively slowly. Moreover, the gases boiling off would tend to attenuate the beam’s destructive power. That was the theory, anyway. If he’d been in their place, looking for trouble, he’d have forgotten about lasers, which were far too expensive, in any case, and brought magnetic driver weapons.

Thinking about it, he could have used something like a magnetic driver weapon himself, just now—the thought of tiny steel bullets fired at several thousand feet per second was comforting. The other figures below laboriously loaded another rocket into the front end of their launcher. Using a small finder scope attached to the barrel of the thing, they did their clumsy best to aim it straight at the factory ship in synchronous orbit overhead. Wilson watched them helplessly.

No—not quite helplessly!

Wilson glanced down, a little surprised to find the pistol-shaped transponder drill still in his hand, but useless. Carefully attaching it to one of the suspender straps of his equipment harness—no one abandons tools of any kind in an environment where all life depends on them—he withdrew a real weapon from a zippered, insulated pocket across his chest. He hadn’t thought about it before now because it was very nearly new. Nevertheless it was his pride and joy, a large-framed Herron StaggerCyl “double revolver”, chambered in the classic .270 REN. He’d never fired the massive weapon he carried until now, except against paper targets and the heavy metallic game animal silhouettes that represented almost a century-old sporting tradition on his native Pallas.

A true spacer’s “wheelgun”, the Herron StaggerCyl boasted a pair of six-inch barrels, one set above the other, under a broad milled rib supporting old-fashioned but reliable iron sights of the Patridge square-notch-and-post variety. The gun’s dual firing pins alternated automatically, geared to a 12-shot cylinder with an inner and outer row of chambers, neatly arranged in a zig-zag pattern around a center ratchet.

The small brass cartridge with its tiny projectile—its true caliber was only .277—wouldn’t be much good for anything on Pallas but playing games and shooting rabbits. The Herron StaggerCyl was low powered precisely to avoid excessive recoil in microgravity. But the little bullet’s velocity was high enough to do exactly what it was designed to do, which was to knock over a metallic animal silhouette, although it could also handily penetrate multiple layers of envirosuit fabric.

Wilson forced himself to calm down and breathe normally. Although he could simply have pulled the trigger through, “double action”, he prudently thumbed the hammer back, instead, and aligned the big square radio-luminescent iron sights of the Herron where he calculated that the tripod base was attached to the launcher far below. Only when he had a steady basic sight picture did he depress the switch-pad of the targeting laser built into the right grip of his revolver, gratified to see that it placed a bright red dot exactly where the sights were looking.

Taking half a breath, he squeezed the trigger slowly.

The sear released. The hammer fell. A bright three-foot ball of blue-pink flame blossomed briefly at the muzzle. Recoil was negligible and the shot could only be “heard” through his arms, through the fabric of his suit, and in the wave-front of rapidly dissipating gases generated at the muzzle. The small, nickel-clad hardened lead alloy projectile struck the launcher just as the larger weapon discharged, tipping it over and sending its missile skittering wildly across the crater floor, to blow up against the opposite wall, right beneath the jumpbuggy.

The rocket’s double fist-sized explosive charge would have opened a house-sized hole in the factory ship overhead, killing hundreds and possibly destroying the entire vessel. Instead, its power reduced the flimsy jumpbuggy to tinsel. The shot was pure dumb luck, Wilson was perfectly willing to admit. Some rental agent back on Pallas was going to be extremely unhappy. He don’t know himself, whether to laugh or weep.

Suddenly, both options were out of the question, as he discovered he was being showered with tiny sharp-edged fragments of rock. The shooters in the crater below were firing their laser rifles at him, missing badly, and mostly striking the boulders to either side of him, instead. Intentionally or not, they were spalling off flakes of heated olivine gravel that struck him harmlessly. However, his envirosuit, which was not a cheap piece of tourist ticky-tacky, began talking to him.

“Warning! Warning! There is a Class Five breach in the right shoulder of this device, Location SDY5955! Warning! Warning! There is a Class Five breach in the right shoulder of this device, Location SDY5955!”

Damn! One of those laser shooters must have actually hit him! A Class Five breach, Wilson knew from countless hours of screen time and from classroom training that his father and mother had both insisted on (in one of their rare moments of agreement), meant that a few stray air molecules could just be detected migrating outward through the upper layers of fabric in his envirosuit. Damage like that might cause him to run out of oxygen in a decade or two. He ducked down behind a rock, switched his big revolver to his left hand, and spoke to his suit.

“Activate right wrist pickup.”

“Warning! Warning!” came the automated reply to his request. “There is a Class Five breach in the right shoulder of this device, Location SDY5955! Warning! Warning! There is a Class Five breach in the right—”

“I know! I know! Shut up and activate the pickup!”

“Warning! Warning! There is a Class Five breach…”

However in a small video screen near his right cheek, he could now see what the tiny camera at the back of his right wrist was seeing. He reached toward the small of his back and seized a bright, lime-green, thumb-sized tab, pulling out an emergency adhesive patch roughly the size of his hand. Switching the big Herron StaggerCyl back to his right hand, he stripped the cover from the patch exactly like the bandage it resembled, and slapped it on his shoulder in the correct location.
“Warning! Warning! There is a Class Five—”

Abruptly, his envirosuit stopped talking to him. But by now he’d noticed that his radio antenna, located behind his right shoulder, had been reduced to a shiny-ended quarter-inch stub, and wondered why he hadn’t felt it when it happened. And why his suit hadn’t bothered to mention it. Too busy nagging him about the big bad Class Five leak, he supposed.

Suddenly feeling pressed for time again, Wilson crept back to the edge of the crater. Sure enough, two of the laser riflemen below had begun clambering painfully up the inside crater wall, coming toward him, miniature landslides starting beneath every uncertain footstep. It was a pretty stupid move, he thought, unless they believed he was dead. As his head became visible, one of them snapped off a shot at him and missed.

Ignoring the danger more than he probably should have, he sighted his revolver on the nearest figure and shot it in the center of its torso.

Not waiting to observe the effect, he shot the other climber.

Limp as cloth dummies, the two shooters tumbled back down the way they came, raising gray-brown dust that settled quickly without air to support it. Their expensive laser rifles followed after them. His own envirosuit might be able to seal a hole like that, possibly allowing him to survive. But they weren’t wearing his suit. If they weren’t dead, they soon would be. Catastrophic suit failure had that effect on people.

Down on the crater floor, two more of the cheaply-attired figures began lasering at him without bothering to take cover, doing their best to keep him busy while their comrades fought desperately to get their damaged rocket launcher upright again and reload it. They must all be very dedicated, down there, Wilson thought, or extremely stupid. He began to have a suspicion about which it was and who they were.

He shot one armed figure, then the other—and a third who had begun shooting at him from nearer the launcher. The last one took his hurried bullet through the front of the helmet and was squirming on the ground with both gloved hands clasped desperately over his ruined faceplate.

Five of their number now lay dead or dying. Through it all, the other seven went on struggling with the missile launcher until Wilson finally used his own, considerably less powerful laser to line a shot up on the barrel of the launcher and hit it with one of his little .277 bullets.

He felt a bit cheated. He didn’t knock it over this time, but in a proper atmosphere, that thing down there would have rung like a bell. It had the desired effect nonetheless: suddenly all of the figures in their colorful envirosuits laid their tools and weapons on the ground, stepped back from the rocket launcher, and raised their hands over their heads.

Guess they weren’t so dedicated, after all, Wilson thought, or so stupid. Nevertheless, as a warning, he splashed the red dot of his targeting laser on their chests, one by one—now that was the proper use for a laser in these circumstances—while he waited for help to arrive.

Only then did Wilson remember his damaged suit radio.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith
lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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