Violent shaking roused him. He attempted to rub the sleep from his eyes, but his hand met the closed helmet visor. He cleared his head quickly and evaluated the situation. The control panel was lit up like a Christmas tree and the red warning light blinked madly. The silent klaxon told him what had happened.
He panicked at the lack of a response until he remembered turning off his comm before he dropped off. It was one of those ‘minor’ infractions that might cost him his pilot license for a few months, but he had enough confidence in the AI to raise the volume on the cabin speakers to wake him.
He turned on the helmet radio. “Computer! Report!” He failed to keep the panic out of his voice.
“The hull is breached. All atmosphere is vented into space. I shut down the pumps to retain your air. Tanks are at ten percent of capacity and holding pressure. I do not believe they are damaged.”
“What the hell happened? Debris hit? Micro-meteor?”
“Sensors recorded a small mass on high velocity approach before they went offline. I am running diagnostics. There is more extensive structural damage than can be accounted for from a meteor collision.”
“What sort of damage?” Ben sat forward and activated his helmet’s HUD.
“Full diagnostic is pending; major hull breach in forward section; communications array is lost; forward sensors and thrusters are offline...”
“It’s all in the front. What did we run into?”
Ben looked at the window of the cockpit. The clear graphene-plastic compound was cracked in several places and there were at least two holes where most of the atmosphere had been lost. The asteroid loomed before them.
“How close are we to that?”
“Forward sensors inoperative. At the time of the incident we were thirty minutes from contact.”
He watched as the two kilometres of space rock grew. If their trajectory was not altered by whatever had hit them, they were headed right at it.
“Do our maneuvering jets work?”
“Affirmative, there is lateral and forward maneuverability.”
“Is our rear sensor array still online?” He crossed his fingers.
Excellent! “Can you still pilot or do we need to go manual?” While He considered himself an exceptional pilot, some maneuvers were best left to the AI.
“I retain control over all remaining systems.”
Fantastic! “Activate maneuvering jets to flip us around and use the aft facing sensors and rockets to slow us and set us down on the asteroid. Oh, and increase sensor sensitivity to maximum. We can’t afford another hit.” Ben hoped the damage was minimal enough that he could execute a patchwork repair and get them out into the space lanes for some help. First things were first, though; he had to stop them from colliding with the rock and any of its associated flotsam.
The AI executed the maneuver while sensors relayed new data to the computer system. Within seconds, warning lights flashed, and the AI announced, “Pending collision.”
“Thanks, I know.”
“I did not mean that. There appear to be several small bodies orbiting the asteroid. Their movement suggests they are self-powered. One has changed course and is approaching us.”
“What? Impossible.” He said this as he realized it was possible. He needed more information to confirm his suspicions. “What size are they?”
“Each body is spherical; fourteen kilograms in mass and approximately twenty centimetres in diameter.”
“Smart mines! Why the hell are those around this thing?” Ben recalled his youth in the Terran space forces during the Lunar revolt. He lost a lot of friends in those days when they boarded supposedly derelict ships, booby trapped with these things. He unstrapped himself and pushed his weightless body towards the rear door of the cabin. “Time until impact with the smart mine?”
Ben entered the storage compartment. He found the item he was looking for and removed it from the restraining harness.
“Computer, open the cargo access door.” He pushed the trucking engine towards rear hatch. Secured by a tether at the opened door, he watched in awe the asteroid now completely filling his field of vision.
“Computer, remote access trucking motor number 265B.”
“Telemetry established,” Gina’s calm voice announced.
He pushed it out of the door and away from the ship with all his strength, trying to keep it from spinning more than necessary.
“Time to collision with the mine?”
“One minute, twenty-three seconds.”
Ben prayed the mine didn’t have a proximity fuse.
“In twenty-seconds, fire the trucking rocket at full burn.” He hoped he’d done the math right and cursed himself for not getting the AI to do the calculation for him. Old military habits were difficult to change, even thirty years later.
“Duration of burn?”
“I don’t give a shit! Just get it away from us!” He announced as he closed the door and made his way back to the cockpit.
Returning to his seat, he saw a flash of light outside as the trucking motor ignited. He strapped himself in and waited as it moved out of the sensor field.
“Your gambit worked, Ben. The mine altered course. Without sensors, I can only project the mine’s impact with the motor to be in twenty-two-seconds.”
Ben counted off the seconds silently, hoping his stunt worked. On the count of twenty-five a bright flash lit up the space somewhere to the rear of them, and he caught himself holding his breath. He exhaled loudly and relaxed for a moment before he remembered something.
“Computer, are any more mines approaching us?”
“Negative. They appear to respond to maneuvering rockets or other energy output, as you demonstrated. We are under null engine thrust, but we require a braking burst in another nine minutes if we intend a soft landing on the asteroid.”
“They usually only react to threats outside of a threshold distance, otherwise they would destroy each other. Wait until we’re inside their orbit before we fire the retro burn.”
“Please apply your restraints. I will begin the maneuver in eight minutes and fifty-three seconds.”
D.M.(Doug) Pruden worked for 35 years in the petroleum industry as a geophysicist. For most of his life he has been plagued with stories banging around inside his head that demanded to be let out into the world. He currently spends his time as an empty nester in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his long suffering wife of many years. When he isn’t writing science fiction stories, he likes to spend his time playing with his grandchildren and working on improving his golf handicap.