Spaceways - Purrfect Plunder Part 3

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Then: "Now, Shig!" After a pause during which he deliberately counted mentally to twelve, Jonuta added to all onboard listeners: "Two missiles launched by enemy just short of intersect. My guess is they're lampreys, because that's Corundum's style. With a little help from the con, Spacefarer First Shiganu just launched-not dumped, launched-several large items of cargo. I hope it's a lot more valuable to us this way than if we sold it; it may let us live to sell the rest. Shig?" "All away, Captain, at speed! And the vacuum's trying to pull me right out after them!" "Securing outer cargo hatch," Jonuta said. "For those virgins among you," he went on for the benefit of the two HRal, "a lamprey is a vicious little bastard of a device also called a Computer Traumatizer. That's what it does. It's kinetotropic, meaning it's drawn to a deliberately moving object. A spacer, for instance. It fastens itself to the hull and immediately starts trying 214 to become part of it. That makes it mighty hard to remove. Meanwhile, impact triggers its mechanisms: several continuous commsenders. It sends commands on several tight beams direct to ship's computer, and keeps it up indefinitely. Conflicting commands, negating commands, contradictory junk-orders. The result is that you can't trust a computer that's gone the electronic equivalent of psychotic. "That is Corundum's style, you see-indirect attack, with his hands all clean. Ah-our 'garbage' is moving away at speed, toward incoming blips. If they are torpedoes instead of lampreys, we won't feel the detonations, because here . .

. we . . ." Jonuta watched the chron winding down to 00.0207 and down . .

. "GO!" This time he shouted, and he was right. Away they went. Everyone onboard spacer Coronet had become a mere passenger, including the captain.

Everyone onboard felt immediate stress, and worse. Forward Defense Systemry let loose and kept on letting loose, piercing the dark of space with the blinding horror of ravening energies. But no one on Coronet felt that. What they felt was the ghastly lurch, the abrupt piling on of g-forces as the ship yanked itself "upward" and accelerated wildly. Even Jonuta was surprised.

After having chosen the action and inputting it, he had deliberately added an additional instruction to his "Mate," SIPACUM: Add one random factor, at any time. SIPACUM did, and almost at once. It imparted a bloody awful roll that tried to pull stomachs loose and stuff them down into the small intestine. And up through esophagi. Simultaneously. Meanwhile Coronet was completing the Jonuta-chosen pattern. 215 HRadem was busy trying to throw up, which wasn't easy with all kinds of gravities sitting on his face. Sakyo was encouraging his autofiring guns with ridiculous mouthings that were shot through with bits of ancient Japanese-like tracers. That they were obscenities no one would ever know, including Shiganu-who was just grunting and cussing with little imagination while batting about the cargo hold like a balloon blown up and released, untied. The miss/suit protected his body. It did nothing for his cerebellum. Shig didn't know if he was coming, going, or had been. Jonuta's gaze remained fastened on the schematic that SIPACUM continued to provide. He saw all kinds of billowing bright flashes and brilliant trace-lines- while both ships continued unhit. Firedancer's behavior was now in evasive mode, just as manic as Coronet's. A little bluegreen blip indicating a lamprey came together with a little blue blip from Coronet; a radioactive waste neutralizer off spacer India Spring. The blips became one. Lovely! Hope they have a long and happy relationship, Jonuta thought, watching the other lamprey shakily start to follow Coronet. At present acceleration that was impossible. The blip lurched, waggled as it was out-accelerated, and went into a drift. Then it began moving purposefully toward another spatially-afloat chunk of India Spring cargo. Scratch one multispectral thermal stabilizer and mark one spaceship saved, by its captain's cleverness. Now the manic onscreen ship representations resolved themselves, and SIPACUM shot him a few coordinates.

Another set followed, as it came up with an extrapolation of Corundum's probable course. An adjustment followed almost instantly, since Firedancer abruptly jigged and seemed to slide sidewise. Corundum had programmed a randomization factor, too. 216 Both ships were climbing to the gridscreen's "northeast." While that was true, and interesting, their courses were far from the same. A "northeasterly direction" consisted of quadrillions of kilometers of space. Besides, Corundum knew that he had input a loop: Coronet would continue moving along a 360 arc until he intervened. On impulse-the human randomization factor, Lord Admiral Zulfikar of the old Empire had called it- Jonuta intervened. SIPACUM yielded him full control at his first touch. Combat circuitry continued on independent. Since Coronet was starting a "due east"

turn, battle computer helped out by letting go with every bit of portside armament. That was not much, but it did help Coronet's move to starboard just a little, adding a bit of impetus. Of course it was also mucking up Corun-dum's grid-screen with a big bright light show, which would give him something to think about for a few moments. Did Jonuta know something he didn't know or was this merely random firing? (Yes.) Meanwhile his own DS had hurled out hungry energies to destroy-nothing. It would not have been just nothing, though, had Jonuta not yielded to impulse and interfered with his own course instruction. Firedancer fired through the spot where Coronet would have been, in about three seconds. "Damn, hell and Booda's balls! The bastard! He's got a superb battle computer-Qalaran, I'll bet!-and he's not one bit less smart than I am!" O ye gods and grumlins, Sakyo thought, I could not have heard that! "Wrong," Kenowa said quietly. "Corundum's smarts are mis-tempered by his arrogance. How do we use that big ego of his?" "And stuff it down his throat," Jonuta muttered. "Or up the other end. Damn, but you're smart, Kenny!" 217 He was programming as he spoke, calling for another "dive" along with a skim-bounce continuation of his new "eastward" course. For one minute, nineteen seconds. At 1'20", SIPACUM was instructed to randomize with a view toward moving back to rejoin battle. "Shig! Get that Qalaran crate ready! You have one minute to do that and getcher ass out of there. Crew: try to relax.

Insanity re-starts in one minute. We won this one, because we negated both that rotten flainer's lampreys-they'd have ended us. We also didn't get hit." Jonuta paused a moment before adding, "We didn't hit him, either. Now, we maneuver. Both of us dance around and circle in for the next try. Trying to cross the T, HReenee, in reverse." Oh, HReenee, HReenee, Kenowa mused grimly.

Stuff it up yours, you cat-eared furball! But that reminded her of HRadem, and she smiled in spite of herself. "Surrender?" Sakyo practically shouted, obviously high on excitement while his computer analyzed every shot fired and provided him with a dizzying report. "I have not yet begun to fight!" "Sighted lamprey, sank same," Shig's voice came, and even Jonuta did not know the reference. Home-world's second "world" war was one that had not occupied much of his time. It was required on Terasaki, where children learned that after all the blond Americans attacked the tiny island people because they were different, the Japanese won. For the first time HReenee's voice and HRal accent came clearly over inship comm: "Do not walk on me!" By the time Jonuta had mentally converted that to "Don't tread on me" and started laughing, so had everyone else. 218 Dwarfed by suns, dwarfed by planets and their moons and even by asteroids and orbitlessly meandering chunks of space-junk, two dots traversed thousands and thousands of kloms of Prussian blue space.

Neither space nor the cosmos took note or cared, but each of those tiny dots was bent on erasing the other. 17 An hour and a half later elation was gone and sweat was in. Once the two craft had come rushing toward each other and Jonuta had managed to break it off, because Corundum had the advantage. For the next twenty-five minutes he chased Coronet until Jonuta stopped all acceleration, then rattled their teeth and kidneys by jamming on deceleration, fired everything he had aft and kept firing, and sped away again directly toward a frozen planet far from its cooling sun. He blew up one of its tiny satellites and Corundum had to abort the chase to get out of the mess. A quarter-million kilometers later Jonuta came hurtling in with the advantage, and Corundum's evasion was undeniably brilliant. Since he was using absolutely every bit of velocity they could bear, Jonuta could only rush on past, and on, and on, turning slowly. Two hours gone. And away they went again. Jockeying.

Plotting. Jockeying. Planning. Feinting, amid futile bursts of fire sufficient to level most of a good-sized city amid gouts of orange and yellow and dazzling white flame. And away, barreling through that same solar system, seeking something to be turned to advantage. Seeking position. The fun had gone with the clock, which insisted that they had been at it for three hours, thirteen minutes. Jonuta found advantage and flattened everyone, 219 220 cheekbones trying to slice through skin, and slammed Coronet at Firedancer in a big beautiful T. Corundum went into a lateral at nine g's, an "upward" jig at eleven g's that became a long turn around a cloud-locked planet, a fantastic deceleration at minus-six g's aided by a dip into the planet's upper gravitic pull-which incidentally killed his crewman Sakbir- and went rushing directly at that tired old star. Jonuta gave it up again and went into a long circle to come at him again. The fourth hour twitched past, and bladders complained. Crew on both ships were silent. They felt drained, thirsty, weary as if they had run all those millions of kloms without benefit of ships. And they were plain dam' tired of it, and disheartened. They were also sweat-soggy. Neither captain gave it up. Forty-six minutes more dragged past, while Corundum evaded and countered, and Jonuta avoided and swung-and here came Corundum rushing at him, snout to snout. Simulation screen showed the two ships on the same course, heading in different but not opposite directions.

Directly toward each other. Jonuta's teeth worried his sensuous lower lip. A swift adjustment persuaded SIPACUM to show distance at the lower corner of the screen. The figures flashed almost too rapidly to be read, flicker-changing downward. More sweat erupted and trickled. Corundum's error became immediately apparent, but Jonuta did not smile. The error did not benefit him but could kill them both. The two ships were hurtling toward each other faster than World Series pitches or explosively launched missiles. At thousands of kilometers per second and only thousands of kloms from nose-to-nose impact. At their combined velocities that impact would imitate the eruption of a volcano. It was a particularly nasty form of chicken, because 221 he who veered off became an immediate target for the other's guns. Lurch "upward"

with "relation to Corundum and offer him a lovely belly shot, free. "Dive" and expose the perfect target: a dorsal surface loaded with sensitive and essential equipment. Slew and show him a lovely broadside expanse of practically unarmed hull as vulnerable as the belly of a land fish. The alternative was simple: remain on course. That way both won and both lost, by destroying everything and everyone onboard both ships. Firedancer and Coronet, on collision course. Corundum and Jonuta in what each hoped was the final confrontation-involved in cosmic chicken. In ancient parlance, each had a tiger by the tail. Hang on and be banged bloody and senseless in his bounding efforts to escape or turn. Let go and be torn to bits when he turns and springs. "His ego," Jonuta muttered, and actuated ship-to-ship comm. "Corundum, just for the record . . . your mother was a syphilitic jemel and you are clearly most closely related to that portion of the anatomy politely known as the anus." O gods and mother, Sakyo thought, wishing he could scratch the sweat trickling down through salt-flakes left by the evaporated sweat of the last round. The captain's gone jobby-that schoolboy macho stuff isn't like him at all. Naughty name-calling, for shitsake! "Admittedly this is stupid and Corundum might be said to have erred," Corundum's voice came back. Shockingly, frighteningly fast. "But what am I to do? He who course-changes now is lost-a target the size of a planet!

What are we to do? Which of us would trust a non-aggression pact?" He said 'I,' Shig thought. Holy Tao's dung-he said T! "Simple, idiot," Jonuta said, still working to needle 222 the swollen ego hurtling at him. His finger moved to depress a key and he dragged back a lever. "Shrapnel!" Instantly he depressed another key, giving full control to SIPACUM. "HANG ON!" "Shrap-?" With a buh-chung completely lost in space where no one heard the tree's fall, Coronefs cargo hatch was blown away. The smashed crate that had been positioned on that ventral hatch flung through into vacuum and continued toward Firedancer-at Coronet's velocity. In the same instant Coronet groaned mightily as SIPACUM took complete control and strove to save itself and incidentally the day and the ship. Kenowa's beginning "Jo-" was crammed down her throat by a sudden organ-crushing application of gravity and "upward"

lurch that also tried to stuff her teeth and tongue down her throat with her voice. HReenee tried to scream and no one heard because she could not. As close as the two ships were, Corundum's superb instruments registered the "shrapnel" as an absolutely flurrying cloud of small objects, to his intense alarm. His ship's automatic alarm system went wild. So did his simulation screen, which strove to show each piece of shattered crate and all five thousand, seven-hundred sixty of the superb polykel ball bearings of Jonuta's home planet. Like ancient grapeshot, all that shrapnel was rushing at Firedancer at the same velocity as the ship that had been coming at them. It, in turn, was now instead trying to kill its human components by doing its best to stand on its tail, wiggle, and set a new velocity record, "straight up." Having arrogated personal control of his gunnery for the sheer satisfaction of it in this final confrontation 223 with his chosen enemy, Corundum never fired a shot. In a micro-instant he saw that it was the final confrontation; that he was dead. If a mere ten per cent of those 5,760 tiny missiles struck Firedancer directly enough to pierce the hull rather than be deflected in an ultra-high speed roll-off, his ship would become an instant sieve. That was certainty. Forty Percent City was an uncertainty and therefore a possibility. It was the only possibility for the continued existence of Captain Corundum, and never mind how slim the possibility was. While Coronet blazed safely "upward," Corundum hit the panic button. He jam-crammed. Firedancer, along with everything and everyone onboard, was instantly converted to tachyons and vanished from the spaceways. The other ship disappeared from Jonuta's simulation screen. For a moment he merely stared. Corundum . . . jam-crammed. . . . Corundum . . . gone?! Relief combined with a strange sense of loss to leave him feeling overused, drained, let down, saggy. Eventually, straining against killing inertia even to move and use a finger, he seized control from SIPACUM. He punched for gentle but swift deceleration. "Re . . . port," he gasped, and had soon heard the voice of each crewmember of Coronet. HRadem sounded rather as if he might be speaking from the heart of a sun, but he was alive and motile. As well as mobile, Jonuta hoped. "Captain Corundum has just gone Forty Percent City," he said, in an unusually quiet voice. It even seemed less deep than normal. Kenowa sat staring at the simulator screen. Numb, slack-jawed. Gone?

Really? 224 Abruptly Sako whooped one of his "Hooo-rayyy!" yells. Then Shig came back, mock-practical, mock disappointed: "Shit. We won. Now we have to proceed to Bleak." Laughter filled Coronet, and released tension, but did not rock the decelerating spaceship.

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Spaceways - Purrfect Plunder Part 3

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