Will Po and Ian hit the asteroid or will the asteroid hit the planet first. Lives at stake
|Beating the Asteroid
Prompt: Gathering Storm
“Hal, what . . . what’s the status?”
There was no immediate reply from Hal. Only gust of acrid smoke bellowed from the depth of the engine room. The goggles were black from soot. The heat that escaped was enough for Illuan to retrieve. But then something was heard over the scrapping sound of the fire. A voice. Hal was speaking.
“It's still shimmering,” he said. He had his mask on and hence didn't choke. “We would have to let it burn it out. Too much oxygen.”
“An hour at least. Then we can start putting on the layers of insulation before we can start the engine. Two more hours of work.”
Illuan backed and shut the door to the engine room.
The passageway had got heavier with smoke in the brief moment that we had kept the door to this engine room open. I waved the air in front of my nose and mouth to clear some smoke. It was only a gesture.
“So we are immobile for another three of hours?” I asked.
“It appears so, Po,” Illuan said scratching the back of his head.
“Zur,” I called into the radio. “How does the asteroid look like?”
“Beautiful and scary at the same time, Paola.”
Zur, the alligator had a poetic soul.
“Well, it’s still on course for collision.”
“How long before the collision?”
“Two hours,” he said. “If things go the way it looks, we’ll be tiny pieces of space dust in that time.”
“No chance of a course change?”
“Not unless you give it a shove by your shoulder.”
“Do we have a chance?” I asked Illuan.
“Were you hit by an asteroid?” he retorted and laughed.
We were in a grim situation.
Our pirate ship, the Red Star, had suffered a fire in the engine room while escaping from the patrol troops of the Intergalactic Force and got stranded next to Kepler, a planet half the size of Earth. Well that wouldn’t have been the problem, if not for an asteroid that was travelling faster than we liked and was on a direct collision course with the planet. Our planetary expert was afraid that if we didn’t get about a few hundreds of miles away we would be struck by the flying pieces of the planet and rest anyone could imagine.
Illuan and I came back to the bridge to find the captain, Orpal Minus, pouring over the scanners.
“So we are going to be blown into smithereens in a few hours?” his heavy grumbling voice reverberated in the small enclosed space and trembled my insides.
“That’s how it looks, captain,” Illuan said glancing at me.
Orpal Minus turned his red eyes at me. He was nine feet tall and I was only five. I had to crank my neck to see his face.
“What’s the matter, Mr. Second Mate?” he addressed me.
Did I catch sarcasm in his voice?
“Are we running short of ideas?”
I glanced at Illuan. He was the First Mate on Red Star. Wasn’t he first in line of Captain’s fire?
“Well,” I cleared my throat. “There is one option that Zur suggested.”
Zur straightened in his seat.
“It’s crazy but it might work.” I said.
Orpal Minus folded his arms over his chest.
“Let’s have it, lady.”
“We are in the danger of being caught in the explosion of Kepler once it gets hit by the asteroid. So if we don’t want to get hit by the scattering pieces of Kepler, we would have to stop the asteroid from hitting the planet by hitting the asteroid ourselves first.
The tree like arms of Orpal Minus unfolded and came down slowly. His face never registered any expression other than rage but for the first time I thought it worked on shock.
Illuan cleared his throat.
“We could give it a shot,” he said.
“How?” Orpal Minus harked.
Illuan and I exchanged glances. It was surprising but quiet helpful that we communicated without speaking. It was like we could read each other’s thoughts.
“We can take a pod,” he said.
“Load it with explosives,” I continued.
“And let it hit the asteroid,” he said punching his left palm with his right fist.
“It might just work.” I ended.
Orpal Minus put his hands on his hips. Zur was pushed onto the panels by the elbow.
“Are you sure that will even tickle the asteroid?”
“We will load it with AL-53,” Illuan said. AL-53 was an unstable explosive that had 350 Kj of energy in just .05 grams of it. You can blow up a whole city with just handful of it. And we were talking about a barrelful of it.
“Twenty minutes until take off,” Zur said.
Illuan and I stood behind him as he took control of the pod. We had loaded it with three thousand grams of AL-53. The whole lot that we had. That should knock the asteroid out of its course if not blow it up.
“Okay, so you launch it and then fly it at full throttle at the asteroid,” Illuan said.
“That’s that plan,” Zur replied. “We are pirates; previously I was a naval navigator. Neither explosive nor space mechanics is my specialty.”
“Neither for us,” I said. “But we still try. It’s gonna get destroyed anyway.”
So Zur prepared the pod which nearly half an hour and launched it. He pressed a few knobs and turned a few dials. Then he frowned and jabbed a knob repeatedly.
“Any problem, Zur?” Illuan asked.
“It’s not responding.”
Illuan and I raised a brow.
“It seems the external radio tower is not sending any data.”
“Brilliant,” I slapped the backrest of Zur’s seat. “Can’t you steer it in anyway?”
“I can shout,” he said turning more dials. “But I doubt it will hear me.”
The intercom cracked to life and Hal’s voice came through.
“Fire in the combustion unit. Would need a few hours.”
Illuan grabbed his hair and blew out.
On this side I just watched the pod loaded with the explosive drifting away.
“Nothing’s happening,” I cried. “It’s just floating further away.”
“We’ll have to do it manually,” Illuan said. “I’m suiting up. Ready the chamber.”
Illuan went out the hatchway.
“I’m coming,” I jumped after him.
He was running down the passageway when he heard me coming after him.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m coming with you,” I said as matter-of-factly. “You don’t suppose you can do it alone.”
With our space suit on, we waited for the outer hatchway to open. It was my first time in out of space in person. There were butterflies fluttering in my stomach.
“You don’t have to do this if you…” Illuan started.
“You really think I’ll back off?” I asked.
“No,” he shook his head. “Thanks. I feel a lot confident with you by my side. But …”
“But what?” I asked with a sidewise glance.
“For some reason it also makes me feel responsible.”
“Heaven’s sake, I’an. You’re the First Mate on Red Star. You are respon…”
“Not in that way, Po,” he shook his head. “If anything happens to you… I don’t know…”
He quickly pulled down his visor before I could see his face.
The hatchway opened and we propelled ourselves out into the dark space. The red curved surface of Kepler lay below us. About ten miles away was the asteroid. It looked like a piece of rock slowly tumbling in space. In naked eye its speed was undetectable.
“Here’s the plan,” Illuan said as we stayed there taking in the breathtaking scenario around us. “We open the canopy, start the engine, steer it in the right direction and get the hell out. Okay?”
Strain showed through his voice.
“Okay.” I showed him a thumbs-up.
With the help of the in-build boosters we caught up with the pod in about a minute. Illuan undid the canopy revealing the cockpit. He was about to pull the start button when the engine coughed and started on its own. Illuan and I looked up at each other, dumbstruck.
“Zur,” Illuan cried. “What the…?”
“That was my first command.” Came Zur’s reply. “It’s delayed in response. Something’s been relaying the commands or interfering with them. What, I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Illuan said looking at the pod.
“So the commands will be executed?” I asked. “Then the pod will eventually hit…”
“No,” Illuan said.
The pod as if on cue zoomed ahead and stopped about a few meters away from us.
“The commands we gave were based on the asteroids then position. If it executes those commands now, it’ll simply miss the rock my miles.”
“If it executed that one,” I reflected. “It will continue to do so. The only way is to manually override it.”
“Let’s catch it.”
Easier said than done.
Every time we either reached it or made an attempt, the pod, as if to mock us, would simply zoom away.
How many times did Zur try to maneuver it? Damn!
This was bad. Worse than any situation I had been in, on or away from Earth.
It took us nearly an hour to catch the pod and get inside it. Pressing buttons while hanging on to it was out of question.
We pulled ourselves in and strapped us to the seats.
“Well?” I asked. The asteroid was only five miles away from Kepler. The planet didn’t have any atmosphere or we should have been seeing a shooting star now.
“I am overriding the commands now. Shouldn’t be …”
“Fifteen minutes before collision,” I warned. “We need to go.”
Illuan pressed buttons as fast as his long fingers would permit. The pod was facing the asteroid now. Its rugged surface took up the whole windscreen. It was slowly turning like meat being slowly roasted on fire. I could event see the craters.
“I am done,” Illuan said what seemed to be after an eternity. “Let’s go.”
We pulled the canopy back and propelled ourselves away from the pod. The pod, like a little cracker zoomed forward towards the asteroid.
Illuan and I turned towards the Red Star.
“Guys,” Zur’s shaky voice brought us to a stop.
“What is it?”
Instinctively we turned towards the asteroid. The pod had gone so close that it was not visible any more. I expected to the combustion of the exhaust but there was none.
“The engine’s stopped.”
“No fuel,” Zur said and sighed. “I had to put minimum fuel that was required to cover that distance to balance its weight while carrying the explosive.”
“And it had covered more than its share of space,” Illuan concluded.
“How long to collision?” I asked.
“Ten minutes,” Zur said.
Illuan and I glanced at each other.
“Well?” he asked.
“It’s worth a shot.”
“What are you two thinking?” Zur asked.
“We can crank up its battery,” Illuan said.
“No,” Zur almost screamed. “You won’t be able to return… the captain doesn’t approve of it.”
“We are wasting time,” I cut short. I didn’t want to think about it. Not at all. Not a happy thought.
Illuan took a deep breath.
“Zur,” he spoke and when he did his voice was steady. “We’ll do what we can. If we don’t return, you are in command until captain decides otherwise. It was good to have you as a friend.”
Zur didn’t reply. He was too shocked to do so. Illuan closed his comm. line with the ship. I did the same.
The Red Star, my home for past one year, was on wish-list now.
Illuan took a moment to steady his nerves. Then he extended his hand towards me.
I took it and started the built-in booster, together.