The Boron Carbide Lathe
How the hell did she get into this predicament? Sal Small was just a mechanical engineer on a Fleet repair ship – the Runtel Lathe (UUR-30) – a junior grade lieutenant. She certainly wasn’t a command officer or a main engines officer.
But there she was. The last surviving officer aboard in the middle of a battle with their implacable Enemy.
It had to be worse for Ray Dantrell. He was just a medic.
She wasn’t sure that the whole crew was dead, but it seemed likely. The giant space doors in the main hangar bay had been holed in the first thirty seconds of the attack and no one had gotten into space suits yet. No one but Sal and Ray.
Sal had run into the medic in a corridor and dragged him into the airlock leading into the aft engine compartment.
Main Engine was littered with half a dozen bodies. A close thermonuclear detonation had set off the fusor engine and flooded Main Engine with a neutron blast. The maintenance ship hadn’t stood a chance against a heavily armed warship.
“I’m just a girl from Missouri,” Sal complained as she tried to make sense of the main control panel. “Joined Fleet so I could learn thermal superconductors and help with Dad’s HVAC heating and cooling business.”
“How’s that working for you?”
“I’ve spent the last three years working on artificial gravity systems – superflow circuits.”
“A-ha!” At least there were tutorial screens. “I’ve restarted the engines. We can move.”
“Can we jump now?”
“No. The jump system is down and we aren’t anywhere close to jump speed.”
“Oh. What about fighting?”
Sal sighed. “I had one course on starship management and one on space warfare. The Runtel Lathe is a utility maintenance ship – the war shouldn’t have been in this system.”
“What’s a Runtel lathe anyway?” Ray asked.
Sal shook her head. “You’ve been on the Runtel Lathe for nearly a year and now you think to ask such a question?”
“Yeah, well, it never seemed important before.”
“A Runtel lathe uses a boron carbide cutting tip – it’ll turn anything you can put in front of it. Kind of important when you’re working with superflow conduits.”
“It’s a lathe – you spin the stock and then cut it with the tools. Turning.”
She wasn’t sure that Ray knew enough about machine tools to make any sense of that.
“So, what do you know about the aliens?”
“We don’t know anything,” Sal admitted, “except they seem rather insistent that they kill us all.”
Ray nodded. “Humans are so charming to each other, why am I so surprised that we pissed off an alien race?”
“I don’t think it worked that way. Anyway, we’ve never had any communication with them. We know nothing about their culture. We’ve never exchanged greetings or threats or anything.”
“Could be a religious war. When you’re set in your religion, you aren’t going to spend a lot of time trying to talk with the heathen.”
“I hadn’t thought about that,” Sal admitted.
“Probably is nothing more than we aren’t doing things The One True Way.”
“What kind of things?”
Ray shrugged. “Anything I suppose. I mean, look at that sign – SAFETY EQUIPMENT MUST BE WORN AT ALL TIMES. Maybe it written the wrong way. It offend me. The alien me, that is. Writing wrong. Must be evil.’
“Wrong? How can writing be wrong?”
“Structured backwards. Bad magic.”
“Backwards, you say?”
“Yes. Left to right. Idiots human subset write also top to bottom.”
“Surely the preferred direction of writing is arbitrary.”
“Gods say not. See also stupidities your other. Zones time many. Nouns follow descriptors. System measurement adequate but universal not. Flow electricity plus to minus. Humans backwards ways many.”
“Well, we don’t have a single planetary government to set or enforce standards.”
“Problem also. Gods like not. Humans sloppy. Query: we fix.”
Was it as easy as that? Sal didn’t know.
An alarm sounded on the master control board.
“Shit. The mass cancelation system is about to fail. If I was a genius, I could reroute the artificial gravity system – they’re all superflow systems. But there isn’t time.”
“What are we going to do?” Ray asked.
She wanted to scream at him that she didn’t know – she wasn’t a combat officer or a main engineer.
“Okay, what’s the stupidest thing we could do against your righteous, superior aliens?” Sal asked.
“I dunno. Stop?”
“Exactly. We can do that,” she said, rapidly typing in a chain of commands. “Or at least slow down as much as possible.”
“What are you doing?” Ray asked, pointing at the spinning display on one screen.
“Turning us end-over-end. Now the engines will slow us down. And the exhaust is pointed away from the Enemy – they might not see what’s going on.”
“But they can still see us. Track us. Shoot us out of the sky.”
“Yeah, but before they get here I’m shutting everything down. It’s a lot harder to target a dark ship.”
Waiting was the hardest part. It took six hours for the Enemy ship to return – jumping out and back into the system – and search them out.
“If this was a movie,” Sal commented, as they sat on the deck against the bulkhead, “this is where the plucky heroine and the tough male warrior would fall into each others arms and irrationally screw like bunnies. That wasn’t a suggestion, by the way. Just an observation on how dumb the movie version would be.”
“The long conversation when they should have been doing something to save themselves.”
“Exactly. Thank god that isn’t going to happen here.”
“We’re smarter than that,” Ray said. “Besides, I’m gay.”
“So am I,” Sal said.
“Definitely smarter then.”
A display chimed. Sal got up to look. “Thirty seconds to intercept.”
“Do we have any weapons?”
Sal shook her head. “The forward weapons systems are all light stuff – designed to repel opportunists, not fight a major interstellar war. But…”
Rapidly tabbing through several screens, Sal could see that the bulk of the weapons were offline from the first attack. Except… for one missile.
“Wish us luck,” Sal said.
“Luck. What am I wishing us luck for?”
“The Enemy ship is about to pass us. As soon as it does, I’m going to shoot this missile up its engines – just like they did to us.”
“Karmic,” Ray observed.
“And… they passed by. Didn’t see us.”
“Good luck, lieutenant.”
Sal fired the missile.