Human-Centauri escorted Holsteader's and Krammer's vessels to the Human-Centauri/CN Leonis hyper hole, and Brezhnev's and Carter's vessels to the Human-Centauri/Sirius hyper hole, without incident or aggression. At least the Human-Centaurians could be counted on to keep their word. Sirius, however, had no such qualms; doubtlessly its comminucation relays would refuse to forward Carter's messages to Sol as soon as they found out that Sol was now officially their enemy. He didn't like the situation one bit.
"Has he announced it yet?" the ambassador asked his pilot.
"Announced what?" the man's hardened jaw line turned to Carter.
"Our sanctions. Has Ayatollah Brezhnev announced to Sirius that Sol is taking military action against them yet?"
"He told 'em that before we even got through the hole."
"Ulch." Carter put a hand over his eyes. Then, he snapped his fingers and brightened up. "No, wait, that's good! They know we've broken off diplomatic relations with them, but their Human-Centauri gate guard didn't fire on us. They're going to let us through!"
"Or they just hadn't made up their minds to attack us yet."
Carter's heart sank.
"Sirius A IV's on the far side of its orbit from us, but the news has had time to reach some of the nearer outpost stations. I've been radar-sweeping the space in that direction for spacecraft movements ever since we got here. We'll know if they mean to make a move on us by the time the latest echoes get back, or if we pick up any engine telltales first."
Carter turned away and put his hands behind his back. Being ambushed wasn't his idea of a good time. "Can't you make this crate go any faster?"
"This ain't a combat vessel," the pilot replied. "We can't pull more than about one gee without burning out the fusers or knocking down the furniture. And besides, we're gonna have to start slowing down long before we get to the Sirius/Sol hyper hole."
"Slow down?!" Carter yelped. "Good God, man, why?! We'll be sitting ducks for the Gate Guard on the Sirius side! Screw the traffic controllers, why can't we just go through the hyper hole at full tilt?"
"Two words," the pilot replied sternly, "Boundary shear. Anything inside the hyper hole when it crosses the plane appears on the other side of the link. Anything outside the hole doesn't. If part of this spacecraft intersects the edge of the hole, the part of it that's sticking out past the edge will stay in Sirian space. The boundary acts like an infinitely-sharp knife. Even at low speeds, boundary-shear incidents happen about once or twice a year due to pilot error. If we go barrelling toward that little two-hundred-meter target at thousands of kilometers per second — which I'll remind you is both moving in orbit around Sirius A and very slowly rotating in synch with the hole it's linked to — we'll be lucky to even hit it, much less to hit the dead center."
Carter cringed. He turned to one of his aides. "Is our missile ready yet?"
The aide snapped to attention. "All loaded up in the E-mag launcher, ambassador. It's set to transmit as soon as Sol's Gate Guard is in line-of-sight."
"Good. Then send it. If we don't make it back, Sol's got to know what happened."
"Right." The aide opened the central door in the floor and climbed down the ladder, disappearing into the next room.
"I sure hope it makes it if we don't," Carter muttered.
He stuck his head into his bubble-shaped window. A hum echoed through the spacecraft, which changed pitch as the launcher gently shoved its cargo forward. For the brief instant the launch lasted, Carter felt light on his feet; the launch had been made with such force that a little of the spacecraft's otherwise-relentless acceleration was briefly cancelled. Once well clear of the limo, the missile's tiny hot-fusion engine flared into life. Carter glipsed the tiny speck of blue-white light far ahead and watched it dwindle and vanish in the distance. His announcement of five-way war was on its way.
The pilot checked his radar. "The missile's on course, all right. At fuel burnout it should be going six zero permil, relative."
"Uh, six zero what?"
"Permil. Per mille of c. Sixty one-thousandths of the speed of light, relative to us. That's about . . . uh . . . eighteen thousand kilometers per second."
Carter whistled. "Whew. That ought to outrun anything they've got."
"Except a laser."
"Er, except a laser, of course."
"Or a particle beam."
"My, you're the shining optimist, aren't you?"
The pilot glared down through the hatch on the bottom of his flight deck, directly at Carter. "You're the one who got us into this war."
"Hey," Carter protested, "This isn't a war. We've received no news of a formal declaration of war from Sol. We're engaged in sanctions with aggressor nations to protect our interests and ensure lasting peace."
"Diplomats," the pilot snorted as he turned back to his displays. "You'd sell people's children into slavery and then find a way to sugar-coat it."
Carter didn't know whether to feel incensed or ashamed. "So," he tried to change the subject, "Am I to assume that our trip back through Sirian space will take the same five days it did to cross it on the way out?"
The pilot nodded. "It'll be a little quicker, but not by much. We're following what's called a Full Brachistochrone trajectory. We accelerate continuously up to the half way point, then turn around and decelerate for the other half of the trip. It's the fastest way get to your destination without zipping past your destination. Usually, we just fly a near brachistochrone, where we coast for the middle twenty percent or so of the trip. That's when you get that little mid-flight zero-gee period I've heard you complain about so much. The delta-vee you expend accelerating is nearly wasted close to the midpoint; you're only going to do a full brachistochrone when you're in a real hurry."
Like we are now, Carter thought.
"It does have one safety issue, though. If you underestimate the fuel requiremests, or if your engine fails after you've been accelerating for a while, you won't be able to slow down. You'd go whizzing past your destination and off into deep space."
"And . . ." Carter began, "We'd have the same problem if somebody shot at us along the way, and disabled our engine."
The pilot snorted. "If somebody does shoot at us, they've got a better chance of blasting us apart than they do of disabling us. Y'might as well settle in and not stress about it. If they do attack, we'll have plenty of advance warning."
"I don't suppose there's any way we can sneak past them, is there?"
"None," the pilot replied.
"Don't we have one of those Radar-absorbing field things?" Carter queried.
"Wouldn't matter even if we did. Active Radar Absorption only makes it a little harder for enemy weapons to hit you, it doesn't prevent them from detecting you. As efficient as QC&C engines are, you're still going to radiate a lot of waste heat — we're like a thermal-infrared beacon. And interplanetary space isn't exactly full of hiding places."
Carter felt a lump in the pit of his stomach.
His pilot reassured him: "The good news is, I got instructions from the civil traffic controllers just a couple minutes ago. If they meant to kill us, they wouldn't be talking to us."
"Maybe they're trying to sell our children into slavery," Carter jabbed icily.
Carter couldn't sleep any more. The long days crossing a foreign star system were boring enough without the threat of annihilation hanging over his head. Even if the Sirius/Sol Gate Guard were still relaying his messages to Sol — which it wasn't — it still took several minutes for any transmission he made to get to the Gate Guard, what with comm signals moving at the sluggish cosmic speed limit of 300 000 kilometers per second. And it would take the better part of an hour for the relayed signal to get from the Gate Guard to anyone he might want to talk to. And both delays again should his receipent decide to send a reply. Conversation was impossible at those speeds, let alone networked games or other interpersonal pasttimes. Even news and passive entertainment feeds at such distances required somebody to point one at you, which no one in the Sirius A system seemed willing to do. He'd seen every movie in the limo's library that was worth seeing, and couldn't stomach the idea of watching another one.
He almost considered reading a book, but he wasn't that desperate yet. Perhaps a mock virtual battle against the Limo's S.I. might help pass the time. He donned the rendering glasses, put his hands on the mice — bristling with buttons shaped for his fingers, both — and chose one of his old favorites: Barbary Coast pirates. Boarding a wooden sailing ship brimming with cutlass-armed marines, drawing his one-shot flintlock pistol at the right moment, ducking inside the hold and using the pine bulkheads against his foes; there was a chess game of sorts being played underneath the veneer, but the thrill of the parry and riposte — with no rules other than kill or be killed — had the visceral appeal his career utterly lacked.
He rounded a virtual corner, the scene painted with utter realism by the glasses, the smells of salt air and sweat on his virtual brow shunted directly to his olfactory nerves, the rocking of his ship tingling gently on his inner ear. He was up on the main deck now, looking out across open sea at the nearing ship. It was flying an old American flag bearing fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. Carter sighed; it was the British ships that made the most tempting targets, laden with heaps of gold and jewelry. These little American schooners, so far out from their home port, hardly seemed worth raiding half the time. But, a target was a target. He grabbed onto the rigging as his pirate cutter swung to cross their soon-to-be victims' path.
From the front, the enemy couldn't get a shot at them with its broadside cannons — if this schooner even had cannons. His ship's rocking increased as they crossed the oncoming bow shock, and they were upon them. Able pirate hands thrust boarding planks out and onto the hapless schooner's deck. With a muffled battle cry, he leapt up onto a plank and charged toward his prey, cutlass drawn and shining in the sunlight. The enemy deckhands scattered, terrified by their Barbary attackers, but soon enough the American marines swarmed the deck and were upon them. A burly lad swung a claymore right at him, but the heavy blade moved so slowly he easily dodged out of the way. A quick counterthrust with his cutlass pierced the lad's right flank; he screamed with pain and collapsed.
He raised an eyebrow in surprise. Someone called out "ambassador"? That was new. Was this ship carrying an ambassador? They might be able to take a valuable hostage. He kicked one of the scrawnier marines flat onto his back, then parried another cutlass-to-cutlass.
That couldn't have been right. In this reality, he wasn't James Carter, ambassador of Sol; he was was Yizak Al'Akbar, terror of the Barbary Coast. The game wasn't even supposed to know his real-life name. Was that his pilot's voice? As he hooked his cutlass around his opponent's and disarmed him, everything went black. Shocked back into the real world, he yanked off the rendering glasses and barked, "What?"
"We've got incoming," the pilot announced from above him.
"We've got two thermal sources accelerating right toward us at nearly a hundred gee. They've gotta be fighters."
Carter's blood ran cold.
"Haven't heard a peep outta their traffic controllers for three hours, either. I've asked them to confirm what those fighters are doing, but I don't think we're going to get a response." He sighed. "Looks like the Sirians finally made up their minds about attacking us."
"M-maybe the fighters're headed for the same hyper hole we are," Carter hoped, "To, um, to attack Sol or something."
"If they were mounting an offensive, they'd be towed there by their carrier," the pilot noted, "Not closing under their own power. The fuel costs of running a hot-fusion engine at a hundred gee are enormous. They only do it when they want to close with a target or run away."
"Um," Carter's voice shook from his loose nerves, "How — how long before they get here?"
"They're about forty-five million kilometers away. If they follow standard procedure, they'll accelerate to ten or eleven permil and then coast, which puts their E.T.E. at a little under four hours. That's about two hours shy of our rendezvous with the Sirius/Sol hyper hole."
Carter buried his face in his hands. Then, he snapped his fingers. "Can you call them up? Maybe I can talk them into calling off their watchdogs and letting us through."
"You can't negotiate with a fighter's S.I.," the pilot admonished him.
"No no," Carter shook his head, "I mean, call up the people who launched the fighters in the first place."
"Their launching base is over forty-five million klicks away. Any comm signal we sent would take two-and-a-half minutes to get there, so you can forget holding any kind of conversation in real time — assuming we even knew what frequencies they'd be listening to. And that outpost is probably following orders that were beamed to it from Sirius A IV; they wouldn't have the authority to call off the attack even if they wanted to."
"Then let me send a comm laser message to Sirius A IV!"
The pilot thought for a moment. "Okay, but you need to do it now, and make it quick. The closer those fighters get, the worse off we'll be if we're transmitting. And you can't tell 'em anything about our situation."
"Excuse me," Carter bristled, "But I think I know a thing or two about diplomacy. We'll transmit as often as we need to, and be as honest as we need to, to talk our way out of this."
"Ambassador," the pilot looked squarely down at him through the hatch, "My number one job — my only job — is to maximize your chances of getting back to Sol space safely. If Sirius has really decided to go hostile on us, I need to defend this spacecraft. Every watt of radio or UV energy we broadcast, no matter how tightly beamed, is a beacon. Every plea we make on such a broadcast can give away our fuel situation, or our maneuvering limits, or our intent. Their traffic controllers have stopped sending us updates because they want us to be in the dark. We need to keep them as much in the dark if we're to have the best chance of making it through this in one piece, and frankly, right now, our chances of that aren't too good even without you broadcasting your heart on your sleeve."
Carter looked down at his shoes. This was worse than he thought. "All right, then. S-skip the message." He took a few breaths, and was surprised at how nervous and uneven he sounded.
"There's one shot we have to survive this," the pilot reckoned. "Sirian military doctrine calls for fighters to always assume a worst-case scenario, i.e. fighter-versus-fighter combat. They keep coasting at their cruising speed all the way, rather than slowing before they get there. Their thinking is that if their target is another fighter, it might accelerate away just as fast and they'll never catch it. But, this means that when they arrive, they're zipping past their target at full tilt; they've gotta fire their weapons on that one quick pass and hope they score a solid hit. It's actually a pretty stupid doctrine; Sol's already abandoned it in favor of a rendezvous strategy. If we can dodge their weapons fire on that one pass, it'll take them so long to brake to a stop and come back at us that we should be able to make it all the way to the Sirius/Sol hyper hole."
"B-but you said there were two fighters after us!" Carter was near panic.
"Yeah," the pilot added glumly, "And each one's going to make a separate pass. There's one other thing we can do to tip the odds in our favor. Throttling back to idle."
Carter felt his stomach lift out of his seat as gravity vanished. "You're turning off the engine?!"
The pilot flipped three neighboring switches, then with determination, cranked the rotary switch below them to the right. Quick dings and pings reverberated through the hull. "Decoys away! . . . We just launched four thermal decoys, each about as big as a soccer ball. They give off a blackbody spectrum that looks just like ours does when our engine's off. They're small, but they're just as bright as us in the thermal infra-red. They're even programmed to dim themselves at the same rate as this limo cools off without engines. And they're practically mirror-balls in the microwave range, so their radar cross-section'll looks as big as ours does if the enemy decides to do radar sweeps. Each of our attackers now has to pick one of five thermal sources to close with. If the guys who built those decoys did a good enough job, they've got an 80% chance to pick the wrong one. By the time they're close enough to tell, we'll be too far away for them to get a positive weapons lock on us. We'll be out of range of everything except their cruise missiles."
Carter glared up at him. "Cruise missiles?"
"Fighters can carry a wide assortment of armaments," the pilot noted. "If they are using cruise missiles, though, they'll only be carrying one or two of 'em each. Those things have their own engines and their own fuel supplies, so they can get pretty heavy. They mostly launch 'em at long range and let 'em accelerate toward their target, so that they're zipping along as fast as twenty permil relative when they hit. At that speed, they don't even need a warhead; the impact alone will blast most spacecraft into fragments."
Carter scanned the cabin around him, seeing everything implode in his mind. He looked at the plushly-adorned wall that separated him from the vacuum outside, and imagined it shattering into a million shrapnel shards. He saw himself adrift, surrounded by stars and baking in the ultraviolet-rich shine of Sirius, his arms and legs flailing as he choked on the utter lack of air before consciousness and life left him.
The pilot looked down at Carter through the hatch. "All we can do now is wait. You might as well go back to your video game."
Like I could enjoy it now, Carter thought. He tightened his harness and tried to slow his nervous breathing. Staring out the window at the background stars only served to remind him of what might happen. He looked blankly at the softly-lit plush wall in front of him, and thought of home.
"Yes!" came a cheer from above after what seemed like only a moment. Carter jolted to attention; he must have dozed off. How long had he been out? "They bought it," the pilot announced, "They both bought it! Both of the fighters are chasing after our decoys! One of 'em's closing on decoy A, the other's on decoy D. In another hour, they'll pass the point where they can intercept us at all!"
Carter allowed himself a smile of relief. Then:
"Uh oh. More thermal sources, separating from the fighters. It's gotta be their cruise missiles." The pilot scanned the readouts, watching the situation evolve while Carter waited in tense silence. "They're going at least twelve permil relative and . . . dammit, I should have thought of this. One of 'em launched a missile, and the other launched two missiles. The single launch looks like it's accelerating toward decoy C. With the double launch, one'll be accelerating toward decoy B, and the other'll be accelerating toward us. They've covered all the bases."
Carter didn't get what he meant by covering bases — it was probably some quaint analogy — but he didn't have to. Their Sirian nemeses were attacking all four decoys and the limo, to ensure that he wouldn't get away.
"... yep," the pilot sputtered after a tense silence. "Ho boy. That one's headed right for us, all right. It'll be a while before it arrives. We've already lost a lot of deceleration time while we've been playing possum, so I'm going to throttle back up to full the moment we pass the intercept threshold for the other four bandits. Ironic thing is, to slow down enough so that we don't miss the Sirius/Sol hyper hole, I'm gonna have to accelerate almost directly toward the one missile that's aimed at us."
"So it'll hit us even harder?!" Carter winced.
"Speed is both your enemy and your friend when a kinetic missile's after you," the pilot explained. "On the one hand, the faster it's coming at you, the more deadly the impact if it hits. On the other hand, the faster it's closing, the harder it'll be for it to make course corrections if we get out of the way at the last instant. When that missile gets within eighty thousand klicks or so, we'll go to evasive maneuvering."
"Evasive . . ." Carter tried to picture what he meant. "What exactly is involved in that?"
"I keep the engine throttled up to full, then tell the limo to rotate hard and fast in random directions. The spacecraft's S.I.'ll try as best as it can to keep the engine pointed perpendicular to the missile's course while we rotate, to maximize our chance of being missed." The pilot held up his fingers and tried to mime the action of the limo vis-a-vis the incoming projectile. "We can't rotate as fast as the missile — heck, we can't even rotate as fast as a full-sized fighter carrier — but at max output our attitude jets should give us five or ten degrees per second that the missile can't predict. Then it's just a matter of how fast we can accelerate in that new direction. We've spent a good deal of our fuel load coming this far, so at full throttle we should be able to pull about 1.2g. Any more than that and we'd stress the limo's superstructure."
"It doesn't sound very comfortable for us, either," Carter grumbled.
"Getting hit by a cruise missile is even less comfortable. In fact, it might not even need to hit us directly. Some of these missiles carry a low-yield shrapnel warhead. If it gets within a couple hundred meters or so, it detonates, and now you're not just dodging a single solid object but a whole cloud of high-speed debris, with each chunk coming toward you as fast as the missile was."
"Wh-what'll a piece of shrapnel do if it hits?" Carter asked.
"Punch right through the hull and come out the other side, if we're lucky. If we're not lucky, the hull absorbs enough of the impact energy that it explodes and tears itself open. We've got a whipple shield, but it's designed to protect against small impacts at natural interplanetery speeds — you know, like ten or fifteen kilometers per second. A cruise missile can close with you at six thousand kilometers per second. It won't even matter if they make the shrapnel out of chocolate pudding and feather pillows; at that speed, any hit will ruin your day."
"Oh, geez," Carter was visibly shaking now.
"Well," the pilot tried to reassure him, "We can't be sure that missile does have a shrapnel warhead. The carrrier that launched those fighters might've been stocked for planetary defense. Every scrap of debris in a planetary orbit is a navigation hazard, so for an orbital defense weapon, shrapnel bursts are one thing you'd want to avoid. If we're lucky, this cruise missile might be the kind that stays in one piece."
There was nothing to do about it for the next hour, though. Just wait. Carter put the video headset on again and tried to find some kind of mindless entertainment to fill the time, but the terrified gnawing in the pit of his stomach just refused to leave. It was almost more relaxing to run through worst-case scenarios in his head than it was to try and forget his situation.
A buzzer sounded on the pilot's panel. Carter jerked, startled. "What's that?!"
"That's the S.I. telling me that the hour is up. Neither of the fighters, nor two of the three missiles, can intercept us any longer, even at a hundred g. Set yourself and anything you're carrying on something horizontal, I'm throttling up to full."
The warning wasn't necessary; Carter had already strapped himself into his seat as tightly as he could hours ago. He sagged into the cushions as the engine resumed its relentless push. His full weight returned, and then some. Ugh . . . the extra 0.2g was annoying. Instinctively, he glanced out his bubble-window, but he didn't know what he expected to see. His attackers, and the incoming cruise missile, were way too distant to be made out by the naked eye. By the time the missile was close enough to see, even as a tiny speck, it would be upon them. "How long before we're hit?"
"We're not gonna be hit," the pilot lied, more to reassure himself than Carter.
"How long," Carter insisted.
"Impact should — no. Closest approach should be in eighteen minutes."
More waiting, Carter thought. A missile with a hundred g engine was closing on them, crossing the width of South America every second, and still he had to wait. He wished they'd just get it over with.
He counted down the minutes on his watch. He felt so defensel— "Do . . . do we have anything we can shoot at the missile?"
The pilot shook his head. "This is only a diplomatic limo. We don't have any weapons."
"What about the message missile launcher?" Carter offered.
"It's got no targeting," the pilot replied. "And neither do the message missiles it launches."
"You said it was coming toward us at twelve permils, right?" Carter asked.
"Fourteen permil now," the pilot answered.
"Well," Carter mulled, "Couldn't we just dump something in its path? I mean, at that speed . . ." he tried to phrase his thoughts so that they'd make sense . . . "I mean, anything the missile runs into should do just as much damage to the missile, right?"
"Which is why they're programmed to get out of the way," the pilot said. "They've got thermal sensors and radar for tracking their target. They can also track other objects on a collision course and dodge them."
"What if it's something bigger than we are, so that avoiding it means it'll have to miss us? Like, say, a big cloud of ball bearings?"
"Or a big cloud of sand?," the pilot completed Carter's thought. "It would have to be a huge cloud of sand or BBs, more than all the junk we carry on board put together. By the time that cloud got a few kilometers away, it'd be so sparse that the missile would fit in between the grains. If we timed it so that we released the sand right when the missile was about to reach us, so that the sand cloud only travelled a kilometer or two, well . . . the missile's going to cross the last 4 or 5 kilometers to us in a thousandth of a second. Even if one of your sand grains got an incredibly lucky hit and completetely destroyed the missile, the debris from the missile would still hit us at the same speed."
Carter's heart sank. If they got close enough to disable it, they'd be too close for disabling it to make any difference.
Ten minutes remained on his watch.
One. He glanced over at his aide. He had a barf bag out, of all things. Was he actually overcome by the steady 1.2g they'd been experiencing? Even Carter was hardier than that.
"Eighty thousand klicks," the pilot announced some seconds later. "Going to evasive!"
The limo rocked like a sailing ship on stormy seas. It briefly reminded Carter of the rocking ship in his virtual pirate game, but that game had been engineered for enjoyment, and this uneven pitching was anything but enjoyable. The same steady 1.2g kept him pressed to his seat as before, but now the whole room twisted around it, first left, then back, then right, in an unpredictable pattern he had no hope to compensate for. He felt the bile rise in his throat as dizziness and nausea threatened to overwhelm him. Now he understood why his aide had readied a barf bag for himself. He stared out the window to try and reduce the nausea, but it didn't help — the background stars swirled and changed direction continuously, making it impossible to fixate on anything.
"Damn, it's correcting course!" the pilot cursed, scanning his panels. "This is gonna be close." Carter was amazed that this man could keep his attention on his instruments at all. The pilot sat in the limo's nose, the farthest point from its center of mass; all this evasive maneuvering was tossing him around even harder than Carter and his aide.
Something bright flashed outside the window. The missile's exhaust plume! To be close enough to be that bright, it must —
"Yeah!" the pilot screamed. "It missed us! It missed us! Thank you, thank you, S.I.!" He kissed his palm and slapped it on the dashboard. "Hah, look at it go!" he cheered as he watched the blip on his scope vanish into the distance. "It'll be outta gas before it can come to a stop!"
After one more rotation, the evasive maneuvering mercifully came to an end. They were now decelerating in a straight line again. Carter breathed with relief, both for his life and for his stomach.
"Now all we've gotta do," the pilot gasped between exhausted breaths, "Is make it past their Gate Guard."
The limo continued its relentless 1.2g braking as it fell toward what seemed, to Carter, like their ultimate fate. "There's not a chance in hell of making it past the Sirian Gate Guard, is there?"
The pilot took a moment to answer. "I always like to hope that we'll beat the odds, even if they're stacked a million-to-one against us."
"The odds were against us when we dodged one missile," Carter declared. "How the hell are we going to dodge the full firepower of a hundred kilometer wide asteroid station?"
"I wish their Gate Guard were only a hundred kilometers wide," the pilot commented. "We might have a fighting chance then."
Fighting, Carter thought. "You know, I shouldn't have let you talk me out of putting in a call to Sirius when we sighted those incoming fighters."
The pilot shrugged. "You really think it would have done any good?"
Carter grinned wryly. "Part of the art of diplomacy lies in knowing how to make your opponent look bad. Sure, they probably wouldn't have been willing — or even able — to call off their fighter attack, but when the public got wind of our transmission, they'd see a poor, defenseless civilian under ruthless attack by their own military. It could have drummed up sufficient public sentiment to let us pass by their Gate Guard unmolested."
The pilot remained silent. Carter figured the man hadn't thought of that angle.
"There may still be time," Carter explained. "I want to send a transmission to the Gate Guard — no! To both the Gate Guard and Sirius A IV. Send the Sirius A IV copy on both their traffic control frequency and enough of their public bands to make sure it can get picked up by their news organizations. It's only, what, fifteen light-minutes to Sirius A IV from here, right?"
"About that much, yeah," the pilot answered.
"That's a half-hour round-trip signal time; we've got over an hour 'til we reach the hyper hole. Should be more than enough time to give 'em second thoughts. Hand me the microphone!"
This time, there was no hesitation. The pilot lowered the slender black cord through his flight deck hatch; Carter snatched it while it dangled in mid-air before him. "Start it," the Ambassador ordered.
A few soft-button-presses and some display lookups later, and the outgoing frequencies and transmit-vectors were all selected. The pilot pressed a switch with firm conviction. "Recording," he whispered.
Carter closed his eyes for a moment to focus his thoughts, then spoke into the tiny pickup. "Attention, Sirius. This is James Carter, from Sol. I am in an outbound spacecraft with two travelling companions, attempting to get home. Four hours ago, two of your nation's war machines embarked on an attempt to end the lives of everyone on board my craft. Now, we are only a little over an hour away from your Gate Guard. We have little doubt that this great sentinel of yours, built to keep intruders out, will turn its guns on us."
"Therefore, we surrender. We offer this vessel and all its contents to you for the taking. We offer up ourselves as prisoners of war. I know I now represent one of your sworn enemies. Many of you may even blame me for starting the conflict in which we are now embroiled. But please, don't sacrifice the lives of my innocent travelling companions for the sake of pre-emptive vengeance. Take us prisoner instead. We will not, and indeed cannot, put up any resistance to your forces. We wave the white flag. James Carter, over and out."
The pilot cut the recording and reeled the mike back up onto the flight deck. "Sending to all parties," he said, pressing the single button that started the transmit sequence. Now, all they could do was wait for an answer.
"You know," the pilot grumbled, "They know where we're headed. If they'd been willing to accept a surrender, they would have told us so a long time ago."
Carter shook his head. "I know the odds are low that they'll change their minds. But, well, you said you like to hope you'll beat the odds."
But an hour later, when the Sirius/Sol Gate Guard loomed large below them, they'd still heard nothing. A vain hail or two went out from their limo to the Gate Guard, but as they feared, again came no response.
The pilot let out a long, resigned breath. "Looks like this is it. The Gate Guard's probably got its weapons locked on us already. We've got no Active Radar Absorption, we've got engines limited to 1.2g, and there's only one place for us to go. They'll know exactly where we are instant by instant. They're just waiting for us to close the gap so that the kill will be quick and clean."
Carter shook, breathing in sodden gasps, as he glared out the bubble window at the ever-growing Gate Guard. There really was nowhere to run or hide. Keep diving for the hyper hole and the Gate Guard would blast them to fragments. Avoid the hyper hole, and their pursuers would be upon them in less than half an hour. What could —
A flash from a missile launch turret erupted from the Gate Guard's surface . . . but it wasn't aimed at their spacecraft. Carter looked at where the flash seemed to point. It zeroed right in on the hyper hole, where —
"Fighters!" the pilot screamed. "Our fighters! Looks like at least two carriers' worth! They just came outta both sides of the hyper hole, at speed!"
"What the hell are Sol's fighters doing here?" Carter demanded.
"Saving your shiny butt!" the pilot growled. "You must have whined pretty loudly in that message missile you sent. They've got the Gate Guard distracted; I'm going for the hole, strap in!"
Carter did. The instant his harness clicked shut, the spacecraft began gyrating randomly, as it had done when the Sirian cruise missile made its pass at them earlier. The jinking rotations were getting the better of his inner ear; he grabbed a barf-bag out of a slot on the wall and heaved. When he looked back up, he noticed his aide for the first time since the pursuit, strapped into the seat across from him and curled into a fetal ball. It looked like a damn good idea, but Carter's paranoia got the better of him and he stuck his head into the window. The Gate Guard's surface covered his entire view, gross surface details whizzing past. He thought he caught the briefest streak of a fighter darting away behind them, a scant few hundred kilometers away — the kind of close call that made space-traffic controllers flinch. Amid his pilot's evasive maneuvering, Carter was accelerating toward the hyper hole.
"What did you say about hitting the dead center of the hole?" Carter winced.
"I'll hit it," the pilot grunted, wrestling with the controls as he glanced from display to display. The wild wobbling of their evasive maneuvers subsided and distinct, deliberate pitches and yaws pointed their engine where it needed to be. The constant thrust at last pushed them onto a direct line perpendicular to the hyper hole's flat plane. Carter thought he could see the edge flying toward them when he craned his head forward.
"Made it!" the pilot cheered. "Dead center! Transit in twelve seconds!"
Damn, that was cutting it close! Carter thought.
A jolt knocked the spacecraft sideways. "We're hit!" Carter yelped.
"We're okay," the pilot reassured both his passengers and himself. The maneuvering thrusters had kicked in automatically, and brought the vessel back on course and line in a heartbeat. They'd probably been grazed by a kinetic weapon or a magnetic snare from the Gate Guard, now that they no longer jinked about randomly. "And . . . transit!"
The stars to the front flashed frantically as the welcoming backdrop of Sol space irised out to replace the starry battlefield of Sirius. Carter felt elated for half a second, before another jolt made him scream.
"Boundary! Boundary!" the pilot yelled, and those were the last words Carter heard. The cabin lights went out instantly, replaced with dim red emergency lamps. The flimsy door in the cabin's floor burst outward, and a wind rushed out like water gushing down a drain. Carter's ears popped wildly. Explosive decompression! He forced his mouth open and his throat to go lax, letting the waning pressure pull the air from his lungs lest they burst. Mercifully, normal cabin pressure was less than half an atmosphere, with the same amount of oxygen, but far less nitrogen, than the air on Earth — but his skin still felt tighter and tighter as the pressure dropped. As the last of the cabin's air vanished, the shrieking wind gave way to absolute silence.
Carter's eyes bulged and felt painfully dry, but he had to find — there! A cabinet door had thrown itself open, revealing a giant clear-walled rubbery bag tethered to the hull. He unbuckled, pushed against the wall while pulling the bag free — gravity had disappeared along with the air — and wriggled his way into it. Once completely inside, he gave a good yank on a cord at the bag's opening. The hole sealed itself off, and the whole bag inflated from a tiny oxygen tank contained inside. Encased in this emergency balloon, Carter could finally breathe again; but to keep from poisoning himself with his own CO2, he quickly strapped the tank's rebreather onto his face. It reeked of fresh rubber, having sat unused since the spacecraft first entered service.
The plastic bubble encasing him was transparent, but gave a distorted view, like staring through a clear shower curtain. Carter glanced over at his aide; the young man was already in his own emergency pressure balloon, and had probably crawled in before Carter had even started looking for his. Carter needed to know what had happened, and if they could still fly to a safe haven. The tether attached to these balloons was pretty long; long enough to let him move around freely within the cabin and then some. He pulled himself toward the center of the cabin floor to look out the door.
He expected to see a big gash torn in the lower cabin; but instead, all he could see were stars. The entire bottom half of the spacecraft was missing! The engine, the fuel tanks, the air and water recyclers, everything. That second hit he'd felt must have knocked them off course in the middle of hyper hole transit. The rest of the vessel was back in Sirian space, 8.6 light-years away.
A speaker on the small oxygen tank blared, "Are you two all right in there?" Carter's nerves were already on edge, and the sudden noise nearly made him panic. But he recognized it as his pilot's voice. "Carter here," he hoped the tank's short-range radio would automatically transmit his reply, "I'm in a rescue ball."
He couldn't hear his aide speak, but he could vaguely see his lips move through two layers of clear rubbery plastic.
"Good, I read you both," the pilot's voice returned. "We're back in Sol space, but it's pretty frantic out here with three empty fighter carriers. The Gate Guard's gonna send an Ascender to pick us up. It'll be a tight squeeze, but it beats asphyxiation. My flight deck's sealer-hatch slammed shut the moment the pressure dropped, so I can't see what's going on in your cabin. Can you describe it?"
"Everything below our deck is gone," Carter replied. "I can see open space through the center door."
"Damn," the pilot whispered. "You two're both lucky; it sounds like the boundary sliced through the hull only a couple meters aft of you!"
"Why didn't the door keep our air in, like it did with yours?" Carter demanded.
"The passenger cabin was built as one tall space," the pilot replied. "The floor isn't part of the safety bulkhead system."
I'm going to yell at their design team when I get back, Carter thought. "Do they have another limo prepped for me? I don't intend to stick around at a Gate Guard."
"As a matter of fact, they tell me they're putting you on a liner bound for Titan."
"Titan?!" Carter winced. "Why is the diplomatic corps sending me all the way to Saturn? I was supposed to be on Ganymede after the summit."
"Everything within half an A.U. of Jupiter is on lockdown," the pilot's voice told him. "That war you started is already on our doorstep. We just got word that some kind of Alpha-Centaurian attack force just blew past the other Gate Guard."
The Pentagon War is continued in chapter 6.
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