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Technical Advisor

By Nicola Mody
Page 3 of 4

Vila and Cronin were intent on their chess game. To Cronin’s mixed pleasure and chagrin, Vila was a quick learner and looked like winning his second game. A sudden jolt sent them and their pieces tumbling to the floor.

“What was that?” Vila picked himself up. “That’s a bit unfair. I was winning.” His eyes widened in fear. “Did we hit something?”

“Or something hit us. Come on.”

Cronin went over to the main door, Vila close behind him. The guard stationed there was talking frantically into his communicator. He finally turned to the group of prisoners which had gathered around him.

“A meteoroid hit the main drive,” he said, looking worried.

“They can fix it, can’t they?” Vila asked.

“I don’t know.” The guard looked around at the growing group of prisoners. “All right, you lot. Get to your launch seats.” He raised his voice. “All prisoners to their launch seats now.”

Vila buckled himself in next to Alaris, and heard the clunks as the guard hit the automatic locking controls. “Hey,” he said, scared, “we’re trapped!”

“Don’t worry about it, kid.” Alaris said. “That’s the least of our worries if we’re belly-up in space.”

“Oh.” Vila paled and tried to distract himself by wondering what their orientation with respect to galactic north was, and what belly-up counted as. Heads to the south? And why would it matter? “I think I’m starting to feel sick.”

“Well, turn the other way if you are.”

Vila wriggled uncomfortably. “And I wish I’d gone before.”

Alaris sighed and looked at the ceiling.

The guard walked up and down between the launch chairs, checking that each prisoner was secure. He then opened the door and let in an officer, saluting him.

“I’m Captain Aston,” the officer said. “Our main drive has been damaged by a meteoroid impact. We have a problem...” He raised his hand and waited for the prisoners to quieten down. “...and we’re open to suggestions. The damage wouldn’t be hard to fix normally, but it’s open to vacuum, and the work’s too delicate to manage in environment suits.”

Everyone started talking at once.

Vila twisted in his seat to look at Cronin. He was an engineer, wasn’t he? A civil one, whatever that meant; probably not what it sounded like. Cronin however looked as blank as everyone else. “Cronin?” Vila said urgently. “Why can’t they just fix the hull first so they’ve got air to work in?”

“Just as hard in a suit. That’s delicate work too. You couldn’t use the equipment properly with those gloves.”

Vila sat back. True, try picking a lock with fingers the size of sausages. Could you take off the gloves though and seal the suit at the wrists? Well, he wouldn’t risk it; any leaks would be fatal. He couldn’t stop his thoughts turning then to how they would all die. Lack of oxygen? Wasn’t that like going to sleep? That wouldn’t be so bad. Or would the food run out first? Was the engine compartment sealed off, or was the air going to leak slowly out so they died of decompression? At the thought of that, Vila’s chest tightened so he fund it hard to breathe. No, wait a minute...air leaking out. Force fields! Vila remembered studying them because some very clever vault designers used them to imitate walls. You couldn’t blow them up, but you could get through them with a very low-energy and extremely slow probe. And air leaked through them too, he’d read that.

He turned back to Cronin. “What about a force field, then? Air gets through, but not that fast. What d’you think?”

Cronin stared at him. “That could just work...Captain!” he called out. “The boy’s come up with an idea. Use a force field and pressurise the drive chamber.”

Aston looked doubtfully at Cronin and Vila.

“Look, forget who suggested it, if that worries you. I’m an engineer, and I reckon it should work if you don’t waste time doing the repairs.”

***

“And did it?” Blake asked.

“Well, obviously.” Vila grinned. “Wouldn’t be here telling you about it, would I?”

“I’m impressed.”

“So were the others. They made me technical advisor to the escape committee. Coffee?”

“You stay there.” Blake stood up. “I’ll get it.”

“Mind you,” Vila said, “if my mother hadn’t been sick, I might have stuck my five years out. Not a bit like Cygnus Alpha. I mean, they had all these educated high-grades there besides the low-lives like me, so they had a good library, and you could learn a trade too if you liked.”

“Did you?”

“Oh, I already had one, Blake. But Cronin and I downloaded all we could find on freighters, pilot’s manuals and stuff, read up all we could on the sly.” Vila nodded towards his pad. “And anything else I liked, history and novels and suchlike. Wouldn’t have been a bad life at all,” he added reflectively, “if it hadn’t been for the space rats.”

“Space rats?”

“Speed-freak space rats. Violent buggers, that lot. But they weren’t nabbed for doing anything vicious, just breaking into transport museums to steal fast wheels. They picked on me for some reason. They were always trying to frighten me.”

Blake brought the coffees over. “But they didn’t, of course.” he said gravely.

Vila gave him a reproachful look.

“So what was your escape plan?”

“Steal a freighter. They came in every six months, and we decided to jump the next one...”

***

Vila flung the door open, leapt across everyone’s outstretched legs, and collapsed in the far corner of the store room, gasping for breath. “Sorry I’m late. Space rats got me again.”

Ronda laughed. “You should be flattered. They like you, Vila.”

Like me? Threatening to tie me to the front of one of their hotted-up tractors is liking me?”

“Oh, you’d know if they didn’t. You wouldn’t still be in one piece.”

“I’d watch out for the guy though,” Alaris added, amused. “Those two women may think you’re cute, but he’s getting jealous.”

“Oh, wonderful. Sooner I’m out of here the better.”

Barker took out a plastisheet. “Only two weeks to go. We’re all still in, I assume?”

Everyone nodded.

“Good. Right, seventeen of us. Let’s go through it all again. The freighter lands, the crew get off, and a prison detail unloads the cargo. That takes about six hours. The crew gets a 24-hour layover, but we only get three daylight hours to work in.”

“Why don’t we go at night?” Vila asked. “They wouldn’t see us then.”

“Which is precisely what they expect,” Barker said. “85% of escape attempts have happened at night.”

“More guards on at night, Vila.” Cronin grinned piratically. “Big, mean ones.”

Vila clutched at his chest dramatically. “Don’t tell me that, Cronin. I’ve got a weak heart, I have.”

“Right, let’s get on with it. Vila opens the locks to the landing compound while they’re still unloading and lets us in. We hide in the warehouse and wait till the work detail leaves. At this point the ship should be empty. Vila gets the airlock to the flight deck open. They’ve got cameras on both airlocks, we’ve got two minutes to get aboard before security’s out there. All right with that, Vila? Then Cronin is our pilot with Vila to help if needed. All clear?”

Vila looked round at everyone. As usual, it seemed he was the only one who was scared. He tried to look as brave as the others.

***

“I assume it worked. After all, you’re here.”

“Oh, went like a dream, right up to the end...”

***


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