X. Grand Transfer Vul
Death is the condition from which there is no recovery.
Rachel led Alpha Wing into the grooved terrain of the big asteroid, and down around it, hunting for their prey, Natasha behind her, Vera close behind Natasha, Clay taking a fairly distant position as tail. Rachel zigged and dropped and flipped dizzyingly and then cut around a sharp crag in a rock trench eight meters wide and turned hard right about 110°, and the other two ladies followed her, and when Clay made the turn, he knew there was something behind him.
Rachel was already shooting upward out of the crack, crossing a gap of a hundred kilometers toward the Ngugma freighter, an exact copy of Big Fourteen. Natasha and Vera followed her. Clay started, then dropped back.
Already in close along the surface of the freighter, the other three had met six enemy fighters. They were in the process of destroying them. Six, Clay counted, or his computer did: he should have two. He found a spire of rock in the middle of the now 20 meter crack, spun around it thinking of Rachel and the Moon, and came out firing.
He had four fighters against him, and they had him on target already.
Still, Clay Gilbert was nothing if not agile in a Ghost 204. He lost a couple of flectors, spun sideways and came up from the black depths at the lead fighters. One took a hit and spun up into space, dead to the world. The second took four hits to its central body, turned, took one more shot at Clay and then hit a wall and exploded. The other two went over to evasion until they could get a bead on him.
Clay came up out of the crack and headed for the big freighter, but as the last two fighters behind him made to follow, he flipped again and dropped straight at them. His right flectors went down with a blast: he ignored his screen warnings and knocked the third enemy dead. Now he had just one, and it ran. He chased it, thinking: lo, even into the mouths of Hell I shall pursue thee!
But long before he reached the mouths of Hell, Clay was dropping again into darkness, and then veering down and out and up again. Suddenly he was beset by doubt and confusion.
And then he was beset by photon fire. His drive core overloaded and he just had time for one more—and then the rock wall was coming at him and—
But this was not death. There would be recovery.
He climbed out of his Ghost, in the bay of the Honshu. He walked up to Padfoot, Rachel, Li and Daria, all standing around chatting and laughing.
“How were there ten of them?” he asked. “How did we have ten to fight?”
“How did you lose to Apple again?” asked Daria.
“Oh, that part was easy.” He turned, and there was Apple herself, pulling off her helmet. “How is it always you?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s not always me,” said Apple.
“Well, you always get me,” said Li Zan. “You made Tim smash into the wall before you did. You’ve got Gemma twice in a row. I guess Maria’s just good against you.”
“Or maybe I’m just good,” said Maria.
“Maybe,” said Rachel. “Come on, Hubbylicious, let’s get some good Honshu eats and go to meeting, ‘kay?”
An hour later, all of Alpha and the commanders of Beta and Gamma joined Park, Kalkar, Root, and a couple each of the Primoids, the Kaahriig, the Tskelly and the Errhatzky, in the Honshu conference room. Park stood or floated near the middle, and next to her, dwarfing her in fact, was Patricia Hixon, a.k.a. Padfoot.
At some moment determined by Park alone, Park said, “Thank you.” Everyone shut up. She turned to the mechanic and said, “Padfoot?”
“Thank you, Commander,” said Padfoot. She pushed a brown hair back out of her face, clicked a remote in her hand and looked to her left. A three dimensional display was opening up next to her: Fvaerch and the Primoid who wasn’t Skippy moved out of it and tried to get out of everyone’s way. The display was dark, and in its middle was Big Fourteen or something just like it. “So what do we have?” said Padfoot. “A freighter carrying five thousand cubic kilometers of metal and silicate, actually mostly metal because they dump a lot of the silicate. So that’s five trillion cubic meters, or about twenty-five, thirty trillion tons, or something like two times ten to the forty-third protons and neutrons.”
She looked around. Natasha and Skippy and the Primoid cruiser captain were gesturing around Natasha’s tablet while Fvaerch looked on; other than that, this room full of egos was silent.
“So when I look at this,” Padfoot went on, “or when Poto looks at this, or really, when Hhmvyvya looks at this, when the Kaahriig look at this, one thing we all see is a bunch of protons. And that means a bunch of opportunities for what?” She smiled around. No one said a thing. “Well,” she said, smiling at Park, who joined her for the next two words: “Proton decay.”
“Proton decay?” several people repeated. “That’s just a theory, isn’t it?” said Clay.
“It’s real,” said Padfoot. “But normally, in a whole solar system, you might see one proton decay every billion or trillion years.”
“But you can speed it up?” said Rachel.
Padfoot, smiling, raised her eyebrows. She tweaked her 3D display. “Yes,” she said, “we can. And in a densely packed collection of metals, say, a hold full of lava, we can make it contagious.”
She handed her remote to Park, who smiled as wide as she ever, ever did, pushed a button and caused a spot inside the hold of the freighter to glow red. A second later, or perhaps a nanosecond slowed way down, the entire freighter began to fly apart, its metal cargo flying apart and burning-evaporating as it did so.
They all looked at this for some seconds. There was some whispering. Skzyyn said in Clay’s ear, “Science on Fyatskaab thought this could be done, but we never did it. Or we would have.” But no one spoke right up: they were still watching the bits burn to smaller bits. They still watched the empty space when the super-hauler was no more.
“How the—?” asked Clay.
“Well,” said Padfoot, “it turns out that the Primoids and the Fyaa have both studied proton decay extensively. And so did some people on Earth. The Primoids came to the conclusion that proton decay would be more likely to occur in a molten metal than in any other form of matter. Something to do with combining heat and metallicity and the liquid state. And they observed it, they actually documented proton decay thirty or forty times, where we have maybe ten we thought were probable. And the Kaahriig scientists, they were studying ways to trigger proton decay, and they thought, well, they were using mercury, which if you think about it is a molten metal, it’s just molten at room temp. And they documented about thirty events. Not a lot, but enough to make us think.”
“How sure is this?” asked Cassiopeia Root.
“We’re about as sure as we can be from just simulations,” said Padfoot. “We got it so it always works, in the computer simulations. So, that sure.”
“From anyone but you,” said Park, “I would not consider that very sure.”
“So,” said Vera, “apparently we can blow up super-freighters.”
“So we can show the Ngugma that we can blow up super-freighters,” said Padfoot.
“And we need to show them,” said Park, “even if it’s just an experiment.”
After another long moment of thought, Kalkar said, “So we have a show. Now where can we find an audience?”
“You mean,” said Root, “a population of Ngugma who will recognize what we now know how to do? We have a larger distribution hub, a system where we think they do processing and manufacture, about thirty-two light years from Okhozzhan, from here. You may recall that as we were first arriving in this lovely system, another freighter was departing in another direction: that was headed for the particular distribution system we have in mind.”
“Big plaaaccce?” said Sheaeek.
“Very big,” said Root. “In the depot computer, it’s listed as the hub for eleven different depots.”
There was another silence. Then Kalkar said, “Well, shall we be on our way? We have a show to put on.”