Hit and Run
Cora rebooted and found herself in darkness broken up by faint light passing across the room. She became aware of gravity pinning her lightly to the wall and the creaking and groaning of distressed metal reverberating through the walls, ceiling, and floor.
She scanned her surroundings for familiar heat signatures and found the human patterns of Ludmila Likhachyova and Evelyn Bonner as well as the quite different pattern of her friend Kim's cybernetic body.
"Kim, Is everyone okay?"
"Col. Likhachyova's unconscious. Might have a concussion. She hit the floor pretty hard, but we were all in the air when the electrical discharge happened. You weren't so lucky." Kim's glowing red optic strip shifted as she moved closer. "It arced out of a panel you were passing by and … well, zap."
"Ah. So, that's what knocked me out." Cora checked her internal chronometer and discovered she'd been offline for nine seconds. She ran diagnostics and scanned her recent memories for gaps caused by physical damage. Arriving at Odyssey Station, delivering supplies for the construction crew building the O'Neill cylinder. Meeting the new station commander and another pilot, Evelyn Bonner -- or "Boner," the unfortunate callsign she'd had since her Air Force days.
Noticing a flash outside the main viewport and finding a very large, crescent-shaped object hurtling straight at the station. The impact, another flash, Cora's sensors registering a power overload, then nothing for nine seconds. Just a routine flight that had gone completely to shit in only a few seconds.
Everything tracked with her chronometer. Her diagnostics flagged the damage to half of the nano-sensors in her metal surfaces, but she'd already noticed the numb spots all over her body. It would've been even worse if she hadn't been hardened against radiation and EMP before her first run from the Pacifica space elevator to Jupiter last year.
Cora secured herself to the wall with the electromagnets in her feet, turned back to the viewport, and noted the distant sun and Jupiter sweeping past the viewport. "The station's spinning."
"Yeah, when that thing hit us, it cleaved the station in half." Kim motioned at the viewport. "I caught a glimpse of the other half when it rotated past. It appears to still have power. The thing that hit us is still out there, too. Looks like it's drifting."
"Once we evacuate the crew and get them to one of the other stations, maybe we can take a closer look at it." Cora made her way over to the hatch. "I'd love to find out what it is and where it came from."
Kim turned to Boner. "Please tell me you still have the emergency kits and spacesuits in every room."
"Yep. The previous station commander made sure we always had more spacesuits than we needed." Boner pointed at a set of lockers in the far corner. "Ludmila left most of his policies in place when she took over, including that one."
"Good. Cora doesn't need to breathe and all I need is a tank to plug in and keep my brain supplied with oxygen." Kim crossed the room and stuck herself to the wall with electromagnets like the ones Cora had. She pulled a spacesuit out of one of the lockers and tossed it to Boner. "We need to get Likhachyova into that."
Cora opened the other lockers until she found an oxygen tank. She motioned for Kim to turn around. Kim faced away from her and pulled her shirt off, revealing her feminine-shaped but robotic torso. Cora connected the tank to a port in Kim's left shoulder blade.
"Good. Thanks." Kim grabbed another spacesuit, helped get Likhachyova into the first, and handed the other to Boner.
"How many people are aboard?" Cora moved back to the hatch and waited for Boner to seal her suit and activate its systems.
"Thirty-six, including three robots like you and another who has a quadrupedal body about the size of a car."
"I'm familiar with that model," Kim said. "My mom works with a few of 'em. They were built for police and military use, though."
"Lopez was the same, but after he became sentient, he wanted to build stuff instead of hurting or killing people."
"I like him already." Cora checked one last time to be sure everyone was ready, then she cranked the hatch open with the manual control. She returned to Likhachyova and carried her gently into the corridor. They made their way back to the docking module and found six more people floating in the air and slipping into armored spacesuits -- the guys who'd unloaded the cargo. One of them twisted his face up while putting his right arm into the sleeve and then cradling his left arm.
"How are you holding up?" Cora detached from the wall, floated over to him, and helped him finish donning the suit as gently as possible. Most of the others had already put their helmets on and locked the seals.
"Well, we're alive." A woman near the hatch spoke through gritted teet. "My legs were pinned between two crates. I keep telling myself that I'm lucky it wasn't my skull."
"We'll get you to a medical bay as soon as possible." Cora put the woman's helmet on and sealed it up. "Is anyone else here?"
"No," another guy said. "The rest were in the command and habitat modules when we headed over here."
"Aw, hell, I should've thought of this before." Boner tapped the control panel on her left forearm. "Can anyone hear me? We were in the pilots' lounge when all hell broke loose."
Cora activated her internal comlink and a new voice came through, sounding understandably panicked. "This is Vance. Is Ludmila okay?"
"She was knocked out and may have a concussion, but she's alive. So are Boner and the six crew members who handled our cargo."
Vance let a relieved sigh rush out. "Good."
"Is everyone on your half of the station okay?"
"No fatalities, but a lot of broken bones, lacerations, and one really bad spinal injury. And we haven't been able to contact Lopez -- he was outside, repairing some micrometeorite damage. His comm equipment must be offline. I mean, I hope that's all it is. He's a tough little 'bot, but that was a hell of a jolt. What was it?"
"Something collided with us. That's all we know, for now. Is your half of the station tumbling?"
"Yeah, slowly. Your half looks like it's in worse shape."
"That'll make launching the transports a challenge, but once we do that, we'll be able to pick everyone up. Sit tight until then."
"Got it. Good luck, guys."
"Whatever we're gonna do," Kim said once Vance had signed off, "we need to do it before that half of the station falls out of orbit."
"Whoa." Cora stopped and took in the sight of Io, Jupiter, the Sun, and the other half of Odyssey Station rotating around her. She spent a few seconds measuring the station's motion. The spin wasn't fast enough to tear the rest of the hull apart, but it could still present some problems while launching. One good whack from a piece of the station could damage the ships enough to prevent the rescue of the crew.
Likhachyova's heavily accented voice came through Cora's internal comlink. "Hey, anybody there?"
"Easy, Ludmila. Do you remember where you are?"
"I'm on Boner's transport, but I don't remember boarding."
"I had to take you outside and enter through the transport's forward hatch. The station's docking hatch was bent by the impact and wouldn't open, but the ships can still detach."
"Ah. Thanks for that. How is everyone else?"
"There are some injuries among the crew, but everyone is alive. The team unloading our cargo is waiting in our transport. Boner is on her way to you." Cora began recording a video clip with her optics and swept her vicinity for the object that had collided with the station. "What day is it?"
"Monday. No need to test me for brain damage. I remember my name, too -- Ludmila Likhachyova. My callsign's 'Brawn Hilda' because I'm built like a brick shithouse."
"Still better than the shuttle pilot we met last time we were here," Kim said as she finished giving the other pilot a piggyback ride to her transport. A tether connected Boner to the station's hull just in case something jolted her loose. "He got the nickname 'T-Bone' because he crashed his plane directly into a cow during a training flight."
Likhachyova laughed and then groaned. "Ow. I haven't had a headache like this since the morning after my callsign ceremony."
"Won't be long before we get you into a nice, comfy bed in the med-bay on Leonov Station," Cora found the crescent-shaped object overhead. Some of its windows had gone dark, lights in others flickered randomly, and electricity -- or something -- arced across a gash in its forward edge. "That must be where the discharge came from."
"Huh," Kim muttered. "Never thought I'd see a UFO way out here."
"It's more of an unidentified crashing object, but yeah," Likhachyova said. "The universe is so big, there has to be someone out there, assuming this really is what I think it is. Just never expected to find one in our own backyard."
"It's turning. Not just tumbling, I mean. It's stabilizing."
Cora watched the object's lights flicker back on and remain steady. It came to a stop, turned, and faced its forward edge away from both halves of the station. Cora turned in place to keep the object in sight. Now that she could get a more or less steady look at it, she zoomed in and started scanning it with every instrument built into her. "I'm getting video and sensor data."
"So am I," Kim said. "Nobody would believe us without it."
Likhachyova snorted. "A lot of people wouldn't believe it no matter what. There are still idiots who insist we never even landed on the moon, much less explored the rest of the solar system."
"Oh, don't even get me started on those nincompoops," Kim grumbled. Likhachyova snickered.
"The energy signature is unfamiliar. I'm picking up a series of small power spikes." Cora kept her optics on the object -- ship? -- and spotted tiny flares coming from ports in its hull. It turned sideways and accelerated. "Probably RCS thrusters. It's moving away."
"Okay, so, it comes out of nowhere, plows straight into us, then leaves without so much as an 'Oops, my bad'?" Kim let out a frustrated grunt. "Are you kidding?"
"Hold on." Likhachyova's tone was suddenly hushed. "It's not heading for Earth, is it?"
Cora calculated its trajectory and shook her head. "Unless it changes course later, it's moving out of the solar system." She wanted to try to communicate with the ship, but the Odyssey crew still needed to be rescued. That had to take priority.
"It's leaving the scene of an accident," Kim almost growled.
The ship increased its speed, dwindled gradually to a dot, and vanished. Cora stopped recording. Kim extended both middle fingers in the direction the ship had gone and turned away.
"Well, that's just peachy."
"You guys still in one piece?" Vance's voice came through everyone's comlinks.
"So far," Likhachyova said from her seat on Boner's transport while Cora powered up her ship's systems.
"Ludmila! Good to hear your voice."
"You, too. Is everyone still okay?"
"We're hanging in there." Vance paused and spoke in a softer tone. "We're deorbiting and our thrusters aren't enough to stop it."
"We're on our way. Prepping our ships for launch right now."
"Good." He lowered his voice even more. "See you in a few minutes, I hope." He signed off.
"Boner," Cora said, "prepare to burn your ventral thrusters the instant you detach."
"And hope we can get out of the way before any 'sticky-outy' parts of the station swing back around and bitch-slap us," Kim added.
"Ready." Boner took a slow breath. "Okay, Cora, on your mark."
"Stand by." Cora calculated the rate of rotation and the positions of nearby pieces that could damage the ships. She positioned her hands over the controls and counted down. "Mark."
She disengaged from the airlock and hit the thrusters a fraction of a second later.
"Burn complete," Boner said. "Huh. I didn't think this would actually work."
A screech reverberated through the hull, coming from the ship's underside. Cora and Kim winced as they were thrown to the left and yanked back by their seat restraints.
"Jesus!" Kim stared at the damage report and her hands hovered over her console while Cora glanced out the windows and found a cloud of debris spinning away.
The cabin lights and panels flickered and blacked out, leaving Cora in the same kind of dark she'd rebooted in after the collision. Kim's optics turned toward her.
"A power surge shot through the controls and now …" She tapped the panel. "Everything's offline."
"No," Cora whispered. "No, no, no, no …" If they couldn't get power restored, the six people they'd rescued would be in serious trouble -- and so would the rest of the crew. She pulled herself together and leaned over to open an access panel under the console to her left. "Switching to backups. Boot the systems as soon as power is restored."
Cora reached into the panel, grasped the lever, and pulled it. The cabin lights faded back on and the consoles came to life. Kim tapped a series of icons and the ship's navigation and other systems began their startup processes.
"Come on," Kim said under her breath. "Come on, come on."
The computer's voice came from the speakers. "Please enter passcode."
"Passcode accepted. Please stand by."
Kim slouched in her seat and stared at the console while clenching and relaxing her fist repeatedly. Finally, the familiar graphics appeared on the panels and Kim retrieved the damage report.
"No hull breaches or fuel leaks detected. Looks like there was still power getting to the manipulator arm and it discharged into the exact right spot to fry our primary systems. The backups appear to be okay, at least for the moment."
"I'll take any good luck I can get." Cora sent a status report to the other ship and turned hers toward the "live" half of Odyssey Station.
"Hell, yeah." Kim nudged Cora's shoulder and pointed. "Hey. I just saw a flash."
Cora turned off all the internal lights to provide a clear view of everything ahead. She kept her optics pointed at the station and waited to see if the flash repeated. When it did, she zoomed in and found a tumbling object shaped like a four-legged spider. The light reappeared and she realized it was from a set of spotlights flashing the Morse code for SOS. She opened a comm channel to the station and the other ship.
"Stand by, Odyssey. We've found Lopez."
"Yes!" Vance let out a relieved sigh. "I hope he's okay."
"Can't tell yet."
"We're suited up and we have thruster packs that'll keep us from drifting too far long enough for you to pick him up. Just reel him in before he's too far away to retrieve."
"Do we have enough time?" Kim said softly.
"We're on it," Likhachyova replied. "He's a member of my crew. We're not leaving him behind."
"Something wrong?" Kim stared at Cora as their transport approached the slowly tumbling robot. "Well, aside from damn near everything, I mean?"
"I'm a little surprised." Cora shrugged and made a slight course correction. "I shouldn't be. Most of the humans I've met have treated me like a person, but I've encountered bigotry often enough to be pleased when we're not thought of as 'mere machines.'"
"There'll probably always be a few people who never grow up, but most are reasonable enough, I think." Kim popped her seat harness, floated over to the airlock, and attached a tether. Cora depressurized the compartment and gave her a thumbs-up. Kim opened the hatch, secured her feet to the hull, and walked onto the dorsal surface.
"The other ship is closer to him. She's making the first attempt."
"Understood." Cora nudged the forward thrusters to slow her approach and watched the other transport inch closer to Lopez. It moved slowly into position and tried to match his twisting and turning.
"Still can't get a reply on the radio." Boner grunted. "He's in a hell of a tumble."
Kim spoke from her position on the transport's roof. "I've got a clear look at him. Both right legs are twisted into weird angles and he's dented all over. The impact kicked the shit out of him."
"Uh, Ludmila? What're you doing?"
"Line up as best as you can. I'm gonna go out and see what I can do."
Cora shook her head. "Maybe you should let Kim and I do it. Our bodies are more durable than yours." Her console pinged and she glanced at the ladar screen. "There's a large piece of debris approaching."
"I see it, too. Must've popped off the 'visitor' when it was correcting its course." Boner grumbled under her breath. "Oh, look, its trajectory will intersect ours because of course it will. We need to do this fast."
"On it." The other transport's hatch opened and Likhachyova appeared, secured with one tether and holding another in her left hand. "I have an idea. Bring us closer."
"I'll see if there's something we can do about the debris." Cora positioned her ship between the slab of hull and the other ship and rotated to avoid placing Kim directly in its path.
"Hey," Likhachyova said, "see if you can capture it. It could be the find of a lifetime."
"I'll give it a shot, but I won't compromise anyone's safety." Cora set about matching the object's slow spin. "Kim, let me know when you're ready."
"That'll do nicely," Kim said a moment later. "Grabbing on now. Begin slowing our rotation."
Cora tapped the thrusters every few seconds.
"Glad I was able to get a military-grade body back in the day. A civilian one probably would've lost its arms a few seconds ago."
"You sure you're okay?"
"Yep. Running diagnostics just in case, but nothing vital broke."
Cora continued gradually slowing her ship's spin and watched the other transport each time it passed by the main viewport. She spotted Lopez swiping his pincers at the second tether and missing before Likhachyova spoke again.
"Almost there. Get ready for a jolt."
The robot's arms swung around again and this time his left pincer clamped onto the end of the tether and pulled it taut as his rotation continued. The ship twitched and the other end of the tether zipped past Likhachyova. She lunged at it and her fingertips brushed it a split-second before it passed out of reach. She fired off a frustrated snarl.
"What's wrong?" Boner stabilized her transport. "That wasn't the kind of jolt I expected."
"The tether ripped loose. Move us a little closer. There's one more thing I can try."
Cora gave her thrusters one more nudge and brought her ship's rotation to a stop with the cockpit facing the other transport. She watched Likhachyova clamp her left hand onto something inside the hatch and reach out for Lopez's right arm.
"Oh, no," Kim blurted. "I don't think that's a good idea!"
"It's all we've …" Likhachyova grasped his pincers and groaned through clenched teeth as she pulled him toward her.
"How badly are you hurt?"
"I'm pretty sure my shoulder is dislocated." Likhachyova grunted and managed to point at Lopez's undamaged footpads, then point at the transport's roof, and give him one more tug. "Or worse."
Lopez magnetized his feet to the hull, aimed one of his cameras at Likhachyova, and waved his arm. She waved back, pulled herself into the ship, and closed the hatch. Boner chuckled.
"I hope one of you girls recorded that. Vance will probably think it's hotter than hell."
Kim laughed. "Oh, someone's getting laid tonight."
"That depends on how long I'm stuck in the medical bay." Likhachyova let out another groan. "One can hope, though."
"Speaking of which, how about we go pick him and the others up?"
"Sounds good." Likhachyova let out a long sigh. "Y'know, it just sank in -- I've been in command for only one week and my station's been destroyed by an alien spacecraft."
"Given the circumstances, I don't think it'll reflect badly on you. It's not like you could've moved the station out of its orbit to avoid the collision. And you didn't lose a single crew member."
"Yes, everyone survived. That's what matters." Likhachyova's tone brightened. "And we have a piece of the alien ship. Tranquility Station has the equipment needed to analyze it."
"Once we drop the crew off at Leonov Station, we'd be happy to carry it there ourselves." Cora plotted a course back to the other half of Odyssey Station.
"I'll secure it in our cargo hold while we're picking up the crew," Kim said. "If there's any money in it somewhere down the line, we should get a cut."
"I'm happy enough to get everyone to safety, but a bonus never hurts." Cora opened a channel to Odyssey. "Vance, we've picked Lopez up and we're on our way."
"That's fantastic news! We're waiting a safe distance from the station so we won't be hammered by an antenna or something. You won't even have to dock."
"Sounds good. See you there." Cora closed the channel and notified Leonov Station to prep the med-bay for Likhachyova and the other injured crew members. Then she kept a close watch on the ladar screen for more debris and waited to arrive.
"Well, how about that?" Cora secured the docking clamps, powered the ship's systems down, and leaned back in her seat. "We made it all the way to Leonov Station without anything else going wrong."
"Don't jinx us, goddamn it." Kim grinned, opened the hatch, and helped those with the worst injuries float into the docking umbilical.
"We're getting Ludmila and the other injured people into the medical bay," Boner said over the comlink. "And Lopez is being taken to the repair bay. You and Kim might want to head over there, too, so you can have any damage fixed. After that, we'll have to spend a day or two filing reports and being grilled about the collision."
"There's something to look forward to," Likhachyova muttered.
"We'll back you up. That thing seemed to just appear out of nowhere a few seconds away from the station. No one could've prevented it from hitting us."
"I hope you're right."
A new voice with an odd accent joined the conversation as Cora's passengers floated through the airlock. "Lopez here. I saw the object appear. There was a roughly circular distortion in the space around it. Inside the distortion, space didn't match up with what I saw outside of it. The stars didn't line up with what should've been there, and I caught a glimpse of a nebula behind the object. I'd be happy to attach a copy of my memories of the event to the report I file."
"Aw, thank you, Lopez," Likhachyova said. "Very much appreciated."
"I'm happy to help, señora."
Kim cocked her head as she and Cora followed the passengers. "I wonder why his voice sounds like the Frito Bandito."
Boner laughed. "Just the way he was built and programmed, I guess. It may not have even occurred to him to change it. Honestly, though, I think it's cute."
"Heh, yeah, it is. Just thought it was a little strange."
Likhachyova chuckled. "Well, I'm off to get my arm put back together and, hopefully, get a hefty dose of pain meds. See you both later."
Cora paused at a viewport as she and Kim said their goodbyes. She stared into space and pondered what had happened over the past couple of hours. Kim joined her and patted her shoulder.
"Nice break in the routine, huh?"
"Only because everyone survived." Cora shook her head slowly. "If we'd lost anyone, I wouldn't look at this in a positive light."
"Well, since we didn't, we can be excited by the possibilities. I mean, the chances of that thing being an alien ship are pretty good. That's awesome!" Kim tossed her a goofy grin. "Even though they did come across as drunken teenagers losing control of their car, the way they plowed into us and ran like hell."
"Yeah. I wanted this cargo-hauler job because I wanted to see what's out there, and we just got a glimpse of something we could never have expected. I want more -- I want to know who the people on that ship are and where they're from."
"Well, once the O'Neill cylinder is finished, it'll house a much larger construction crew to build Earth's first starship. You should apply for a position on it. Get your name in before a million other people have the same idea."
"I already did." Cora chuckled and poked Kim's shoulder. "I just hope you did, as well."
"I applied for the security team. Figured that'd be the best fit." Kim grinned.
"Nice! Great minds and all that, eh?" Cora gave her a quick hug and turned back to the viewport. "I'm going to meet whoever was on that ship, or whoever else is out there, someday." She pushed away from the viewport and floated toward the inner hatch. "No matter how long it takes."