View Full Version : Mote In God's Eye, The - Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Pages : 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 [32] 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58

06-07-2007, 08:23 PM
Chapter 31 - Defeat

MacArthur lurched suddenly. Rod clawed at the intercom and shouted, "Chief Sinclair! What are you doing, Chief?"
The reply was barely audible. "'Tis nae my doin', Captain. I hae nae control o' the altitude jets, and precious little o' anything else."
"Oh, Lord God," Elaine said. Sinclair's image faded from the screens. Other screens faded. Suddenly the bridge was dead. Rod tried alternate circuits. Nothing.
"Computer inactivated," Crawford reported. "I get nothing at all."
"Try the direct wire, Get me Cargill," Rod told his talker.
"I have him, Captain."
"Jack, what's the situation back there?"
"Bad, Skipper. I'm beseiged in here, and I don't have communications except for direct wires-not all of them." MacArthur lurched again as something happened aft. "Captain!" Cargill reported excitedly. "Lieutenant Piper reports the Brownies are fighting each other in the main crew kitchen! Real pitched battle!"
"Jesus, Number One, how many of those monsters do we have aboard?"
"Skipper, I don't know! Hundreds, maybe. They must have hollowed out every gun on the ship, and they've spread to everywhere else too. They're -- " Cargill's voice cut off.
"Jack!" Rod shouted. "Talker, have we got an alternate line to the First Lieutenant?"
Before the Quartermaster's Mate could answer, Cargill came on the line again. "Close one, Skipper. Two armed miniatures came out of the auxiliary fire-control computer. We killed 'em."
Blaine thought furiously. He was losing all his command circuits, and he didn't know how many men he had left. The computer was bewitched. Even if they did regain possession of MacArthur there was a good chance she couldn't be made spaceworthy again. "You still on, Number One?"
"Yes, sir."
"I'm going down to the air lock to talk to the Admiral. If I don't call you in fifteen minutes, abandon ship. Fifteen minutes, Jack. Mark."
"Aye aye, sir."
"And you can start rounding up the crew now. Port side only, Jack-that is, if she stays oriented where she is. The lock officers have orders to close the holes in the Field if she shifts."
Rod motioned to his bridge crew and began working his way toward the air locks. The corridors were in confusion. Yellow clouds filled several-ciphogene. He'd had hopes for ending the Motie threat with gas, but it hadn't worked and he didn't know why.
The Marines had ripped out a number of bulkheads and barricaded themselves behind the debris. They poised watchfully, weapons ready.
"Civilians out?" Rod asked the officer in charge of the lock.
"Yes, sir. Far as we know. Skipper, I had the men make one sweep through that territory, but I don't like to risk another. The Brownies are thick in civilian country-like they were living there or something."
"Maybe they were, Piper," Blaine said. He moved to the air lock and oriented his suit toward Lenin. The communication laser winked on, and he hung in space, holding himself steady to keep the security circuit open.
"Your situation?" Kutuzov demanded. Reluctantly, knowing what it would mean, Rod told him.
"Recommended action?" the Admiral snapped.
"MacArthur may never sail again, sir. I think I'll have to abandon her and scuttle as soon as I've made a sweep to rescue any trapped crewmen."
"And where will you be?"
"Leading the rescue party, sir."
"No." The voice was calm. "I accept your recommendation, Captain, but you are hereby ordered to abandon your ship. Log that order, Commander Borman," he added to someone on his bridge. "You will issue the order to abandon and scuttle, turn over command to your First Lieutenant, and report aboard Lenin's number-two cutter. Immediately."
• "Sir, Sir, I request permission to remain with my ship until my crew, is safe."
"Denied, Captain," the merciless voice snapped. "I am quite aware that you have courage, Captain. Have you enough to live when you lose your command?"
"Sir -- " Oh, God damn him to hell! Rod turned toward MacArthur, breaking the secure circuit. There was fighting at the air lock. Several miniatures had dissolved the bulkhead opposite the Marines' barricade, and the joeys were pouring fire into the gap. Blaine gritted his teeth and turned away from the battle. "Admiral, you cannot order me to leave my crew and run!"
"I cannot? You find it hard to live now, Captain? You think they will whisper about you the rest of your life, and you, are afraid of, that? And you tell this to me? Carry out your orders, Captain My Lord Blaine."
"No, sir."
"You disobey direct order, Captain?"
"I can't accept that order, sir. She's still my ship."
There was a long pause. "Your devotion to Navy tradition is admirable, Captain, but stupid. It is possible that you are only officer in Empire who can devise defense against this menace. You know more about aliens than anyone else in fleet. That knowledge is worth more than your ship. It is worth more than every man aboard your ship, now that civilians are evacuated. I cannot allow you to die, Captain. You will leave that ship even if I am required to send new commanding officer into her."
"He'd never find me, Admiral. Excuse me, sir, I have work to do."
"Stop!" There was another pause. "Very well, Captain. I will make agreement with you. If you will stay in communication with me, I will allow you to remain aboard MacArthur until you have abandoned and scuttled. At instant that you are no longer in communication with me, that is moment at which you no longer command MacArthur. Need I send Commander Borman there?"
The trouble is, Rod thought, he's right. MacArthur's doomed. Cargill can get the crew out as well as I can. Maybe I do know something important. But suds my ship! "I'll accept your proposition, sir. I can direct operations better from here anyway. There's no communications left on the bridge."
"Very well. I have your word, then." The circuit went dead.
Rod turned back to the air lock. The Marines had won their skirmish, and Piper was waving to him. Rod went aboard. "Commander Cargill here," the intercom said. "Skipper?"
"Yeah, Jack?"
"We're fighting our way to port side, Skipper. Sinclair's got his people ready to leave. Says he can't hold the engine rooms without reinforcements. And a runner tells me there are civilians trapped in the starboard petty officers' lounge. A Marine squad is there with them, but it's a tough fight."
"We've been ordered to abandon ship and scuttle, Number One."
"Yes, sir."
"We have to get those civilians out. Can you hold a route from bulkhead l60 forward? Maybe I can get some help in to let the scientists get that far."
"I think we can, sir. But, Captain, I can't get to the Field generator room! How do we scuttle?"
"I'll take care of that, too. Get moving, Number One."
"Aye aye, Skipper."
Scuttle. The word had an unreal sound. Rod breathed deeply. The suit air had a sharp metallic taste. Or perhaps it wasn't the air at all.

It was nearly an hour before one of Lenin's boats pulled alongside the cutter. They watched it approach in silence.
"Relay from MacArthur through Lenin, sir," the coxswain said. The screen lit.
The face on the screen wore Rod Blaine's features but it wasn't his face. Sally didn't recognize him. He looked older, and the eyes were-dead. He stared at them, and they stared back. Finally Sally said it. "Rod, what's happening?"
Blaine looked her in the eyes, then looked away. His expression hadn't changed. He reminded Sally of something pickled in a bottle at the Imperial Museum. "Mr. Renner," the image said. "Send all personnel over the line to Lenin's boat. Gear the cutter. Now all of you, you're going to get some funny orders from the boat's pilot. Obey them, exactly as given. You won't have a second chance, so don't argue. Just do as you're told."
"Now, just a minute," Horvath bellowed. "I -- "
Rod cut him off. "Doctor, for reasons you will understand later, we are not going to explain a damned thing. Just do as you're told." He looked back to Sally. His eyes changed, just a little. Perhaps there was concern in them. Something, a tiny spark of life, came into them for a moment, anyway. She tried to smile, but failed. "Please,
"Sally," he said. "Do exactly as Lenin's pilot instructs you. All right. Out. Now."
They stood immobile. Sally took a deep breath and turned toward the air lock. "Let's go," she said. She tried again to smile, but it only made her look more nervous.
The starboard air lock had been reconnected to the embassy ship. They left by the port side. Lenin's boat crew had already rigged lines from the auxiliary vessel to the cutter. The boat was almost a twin for MacArthur's cutter, a flat-topped lifting body with a shovel-blade reentry shield hanging below the nose.
Sally pulled herself gently along the cable to Lenin's cutter, then cautiously moved through the hatch, She was halted when she entered the airlock. The mechanism cycled, and she felt pressure again.
Her suit was a woven fabric that fitted like an extra skin. A baggy protective garment covered that. The only space inside her suit that she didn't fill was the helmet that joined the skintight body stocking with a neck seal.
"It will be necessary to search you, my lady," a guttural-voiced officer said. She looked around: two armed
Marines stood in the air lock with her. Their weapons weren't aimed at her-not quite. But they stood alertly, and they were afraid.
"What is this?" she demanded.
"All in good time, my lady," the officer said. He assisted her in detaching the air-bottle backpack from her suit. It was thrust into a transparent plastic container. The officer looked into her helmet after he took that off, then put it in with the backpack and her coveralls. "Thank you," he muttered. "You will please now go aft. The others will join you there."
Renner and the other military personnel were treated differently. "Strip," the officer said. "Everything, if you please." The Marines did not even do them the courtesy of pointing their weapons slightly away. When they had removed everything-Renner even had to put his signet ring into the plastic container-they were sent forward. Mother Marine officer indicated battle armor, and two Marines helped them into it. There were no weapons in sight now.
"Damnedest strip-tease act I ever saw," Renner said to the pilot. The coxswain nodded. "Mind telling me what it's about?"
"Your captain will explain, sir," the coxswain said.
"More Brownies!" Renner exclaimed.
"Is that it, Mr. Renner?" Whitbread asked from behind him. The midshipman was climbing into battle armor as instructed. He hadn't dared ask anyone else, but Renner was easy to talk to.
Renner shrugged. There was an air of unreality about the situation. The cutter was packed with Marines and armor-many were MacArthur's Marines. Gunner Kelley watched impassively from near the air lock, and he held his weapon trained at its door.
"That's all of them," a voice announced.
"Where is Chaplain Hardy?" Renner asked.
"With the civilians, sir," the coxswain said. "A minute, please." He worked at the communications gear. The screen lit with Blaine's face.
"Secure circuit, sir," the coxswain announced.
"Thank you. Staley."
"Yes, Captain?" the senior midshipman answered.
"Mr. Staley, this cutter will shortly come alongside Lenin. The civilians and cutter crew except Cox'n Lafferty will transfer to the battleship, where they will be inspected by security personnel. After they have left, you will take command of Lenin's number-one cutter and proceed to MacArthur. You will board MacArthur from the starboard side immediately aft of the starboard petty officers' lounge. Your purpose is to create a diversion and engage any surviving enemies in that area in order to assist a group of civilians and Marines trapped in the lounge to escape. You will send Kelley and his Marines into that lounge with pressure suits and battle armor for twenty-five men. The equipment is already aboard. Send that party forward. Commander Cargill has secured the way forward of bulkhead one six zero."
"Aye aye, sir." Staley sounded incredulous. He stood at near-rigid attention despite the absence of gravity in the cutter.
Blaine almost smiled. At least there was a twitch to his lips. "The enemy, Mister, is several hundred miniature Moties. They are armed with hand weapons. Some have gas masks. They are not well organized, but they are quite deadly. You will satisfy yourself that there are no other passengers or crew in the midships starboard section of MacArthur. After that mission is accomplished, you will lead a party into the midships crew mess and send out the coffeepot. But be damned sure that pot is empty, Mr. Staley."
"Coffeepot?" Renner said incredulously. Behind him Whitbread shook his head and murmured something to Potter.
"Coffeepot, Mr. Renner It has been altered by the aliens, and the technique used could be of great value to the Empire. You will see other strange objects, Mr. Staley. Use your judgment about bringing them out-but under no circumstances will you send out anything that might contain a live alien. And watch the crewmen. The miniatures have killed several people, used their heads as decoys, and inhabited their battle armor. Be sure that a man in armor is a man, Mr. Staley. We haven't seen them try that trick with a skintight pressure suit yet, but be damned careful."
"Yessir," Staley snapped. "Can we regain control of the ship, sir?"
"No." Blaine fought visibly for control of himself. "You will not have long, Mister. Forty minutes after you enter MacArthur, activate all conventional destruct systems, then start the timer on that torpedo we rigged. Report to me in the main port entryway when you've got it done. Fifty-five minutes after you enter, Lenin will commence firing on MacArthur in any event. You have that?"
"Yes, sir," Horst Staley said quietly. He looked at the others. Potter and Whitbread looked back uncertainly.
"Captain," Renner said. "Sir, I remind you that I'm senior officer here."
"I know that, Renner. I have a mission for you too. You will take Chaplain Hardy back aboard MacArthur's cutter and assist him in recovering any equipment or notes that might be required. Another of Lenin's boats will come for that, and you will see that everything is packed into a sealed container the boat will bring."
"But-sir, I should be leading the boarding party!"
"You're not a combat officer, Renner. Do you recall what you told me at lunch yesterday?"
Renner did. "I did not tell you I was a coward," he grated.
"I'm aware of that. I am also aware that you are probably the most unpredictable officer I have. The Chaplain has been told only that there is a plague epidemic aboard MacArthur, and that we're going back to the Empire before it spreads to everybody. That will be the official story to the Moties. They may not believe it, but Hardy'll have a better chance of selling it to them if he believes it himself. I have to have somebody who knows the real situation along too."
"One of the midshipmen -- "
"Mr. Renner, get back aboard MacArthur's cutter. Staley, you have your orders."
"Aye aye, sir."
Renner departed, seething.

Three midshipmen and a dozen Marines hung from crash webbing in the main cabin of Lenin's cutter. The civilians and regular crew were gone, and the boat moved away from Lenin's black bulk.
"All right, Lafferty," Staley said. "Take us to MacArthur's starboard side. If nothing attacks us, you will rain, aiming for the tankage complex aft of bulkhead 185."
"Aye aye, sir." Lafferty did not react noticeably. He was a big-boned man, a plainsman from Tabletop. His hair was ash-blond and very short, and his face was all planes and angles.
The crash webbing was designed for high impacts. The midshipmen hung like flies in some monstrous spider web. Staley glanced at Whitbread. Whitbread looked at Potter.
Both looked away from the Marines behind them. "OK. Go," Staley ordered. The drive roared.

The real defensive hull of any warship is the Langston Field. No material object could withstand the searing heat of fusion bombs and high energy lasers. Since anything that can get past the Field and the ship's defensive fire will evaporate anything below, the hull of a warship is a relatively thin skin. It is, however, only relatively thin. A ship must be rigid enough to withstand high acceleration and jolt.
Some compartments and tanks, however, are big, and in theory can be crushed by enough impact momentum. In practice nobody had ever taken a combat party aboard a ship that way as far as Staley's frantically searching memory could tell him. It was in the Book, though. You could get aboard a crippled ship with her Field intact by ramming. Staley wondered what damn fool had first tried it.
The long black blob that enclosed MacArthur became a solid black wall without visible motion. Then the shovel blade reentry shield went up. Horst watched blackness grow on the forward view screen as he peered over Lafferty's shoulder.
The cutter surged backward. An instant of cold as they passed through the Field, then the screaming of grinding metal. They stopped.
Staley unclasped his crash webbing. "Get moving," he ordered. "Kelley, cut our way through those tanks."
"Yes, sir." The Marines swept past. Two aimed a large cutting laser at the buckled metal that had once been the interior wall of a hydrogen tank. Cables stretched from the weapon back into the mangled cutter.
The tank wall collapsed, a section blown outward and narrowly missing the Marines. More air whistled out, and dead miniature Moties blew about like autumn leaves.
The corridor walls were gone. Where there had been a number of compartments there was a heap of ruins, cutoff bulkheads, surrealistic machinery, and everywhere dead miniatures. None seemed to have had pressure suits.
"Christ Almighty," Staley muttered. "OK, Kelley, get moving with those suits. Let's go." He charged forward across the ruins to the next airtight compartment door. "Shows pressure on the other side," he said. He reached into the communications box on the bulkhead and plugged in his suit mike. "Anybody there?"
"Corporal Hasner here, sir," a voice answered promptly. "Be careful back there, that area's full of miniatures."
"Not now," Staley answered. "What's your status in there?"
"Nine civilians without no suits in here, sir. Three Marines left alive. We don't know how to get them scientist people out without suits."
"We've got suits," Staley said grimly. "Can you protect the civilians until we can get through this door? We're in vacuum."
"Lord, yes, sir. Wait a minute." Something whirred. Instruments showed the pressure falling beyond the bulkhead companionway. Then the dogs turned. The door opened to reveal an armored figure inside the petty officers' mess room. Behind Hasner two other Marines trained weapons on Staley as he entered. Behind them- Staley gasped.
The civilians were at the other end of the compartment. They wore the usual white coveralls of the scientific staff. Staley recognized Dr. Blevins, the veterinarian. The civilians were chattering-among themselves- "But there's no air in here!" Staley yelled.
"Not here, sir," Hasner said. He pointed. "Some kind of box thing there, makes like a curtain, Mr. Staley. Air can't get through it but we can."
Kelley growled and moved his squad into the mess room. The suits were flung to the civilians.
Staley shook his head iii wonder. "Kelley. Take charge here. Get everybody forward-and take that box with you if it'll move!"
"It moves," Blevins said. He was speaking into the microphone of the helmet Kelley had passed him, but he wasn't wearing the helmet. "It can be turned on and off, too. Corporal Hasner killed some miniatures who were doing things to it."
"Fine. We'll take it," Staley snapped. "Get 'em moving, Kelley."
"Sir!" The Marine Gunner stepped gingerly through the invisible barrier. He had to push. "Like-maybe kind of like the Field, Mr. Staley. Only not so thick."
Staley growled deep in his throat and motioned to the other midshipmen. "Coffeepot," he said. He sounded as if he didn't believe it. "Lafferty. Kruppman. Janowitz. You'll come with us." He went back through the companionway to the ruins beyond.
There was a double-door airtight companionway at the other end, and Staley motioned Whitbread to open it. The dogs turned easily, and they crowded into the small air lock to peer through the thick glass into the main starboard connecting corridor.
"Looks normal enough," Whitbread whispered.
It seemed to be. They went through the air lock in two cycles and pulled themselves along the corridor walls by hand holds to the entryway into the main órew mess room.
Staley looked through the thick glass into the mess compartment. "God's teeth!"
"What is it, Horst?" Whitbread asked. He crowded his helmet against Staley's.
There were dozens of miniatures in the compartment. Most were armed with laser weapons-and they were firing at each other. There was no order to the battle. It seemed that every miniature was fighting every other, although that might have been only a first impression. The compartment drifted with a pinkish fog: Mode bloat Dead and wounded Moties flopped in an insane dance as the room winked with green-blue pencils of light.
"Not in there," Staley whispered. He remembered he was speaking through his suit radio and raised his voice. "We'd never get through that alive. Forget the coffeepot." They moved on through the corridor and searched for other human survivors.
There were none, Staley led them back toward the crew messroom. "Kruppman," he barked. "Take Janowitz and get this corridor into vacuum. Burn out bulkheads, use grenades-anything, but get it into vacuum. Then get the hell off this ship."
"Aye aye, sir." When the Marines rounded a turn in the steel corridor the midshipmen lost contact with them. The suit radios were line-of-sight only. They could still hear, though. MacArthur was alive with sound. High-pitched screams, the sounds of tearing metal, hums and buzzes- none of it was familiar.
"She's not ours any more," Potter murmured.
There was a whoosh. The corridor was in vacuum. Staley tossed a thermite grenade against the mess-room bulkhead and stepped back around a turn. Light flared briefly, and Staley charged back to fire his hand laser at the still-glowing spot on the bulkhead. The others fired with him.
The wall began to bulge, then broke through. Air whistled into the corridor, with a cloud of dead Modes. Staley turned the dogs on the companionway but nothing happened. Grimly they burned at the bulkhead until the hole was large enough to crawl into.
There was no sign of live miniatures. "Why can't we do that all over the ship?" Whitbread demanded. "We could get back in control of her...
"Maybe," Staley answered. "Lafferty. Get the coffee maker and take it port side. Move, we'll cover you."
The plainsman waved and dove down the corridor in the direction the Marines had vanished. "Had we nae best be goin'wi' him?" Potter asked.
"Torpedo," Staley barked. "We've got to detonate the torpedo."
"But, Horst," Whitbread protested. "Can't we get control of the ship? 1 haven't seen any miniatures with vacuum suits
"They can build those magic pressure curtains," Staley reminded him." "Besides, we've got our orders." He pointed aft, and they moved ahead of him. Now that MacArthur was clear of humans they hurried, burning through airtight compartments and grenading the corridors beyond. Potter and Whitbread shuddered at the damage they were doing to the ship. Their weapons were not meant to be used aboard a working spacecraft.
The torpedoes were in place: Staley and Whitbread had been part of the work crew that welded them on either side of the Field generator. Only-the generator was gone. A hollow shell remained where it had been.
Potter was reaching for the timers that would trigger the torpedo. "Wait," Staley ordered. He found a direct wire intercom outlet and plugged his suit in. "Anyone, this is Midshipman Horst Staley in the Field generator compartment. Anyone there?"
"Aye aye, Mr. Staley," a voice answered. "A moment, sir, here's the Captain." Captain Blaine came on the line.
Staley explained the situation. "The Field generator's gone, sir, but the Field seems strong as ever...
There was a long pause. Then Blaine swore viciously, but cut himself off. "You're overtime, Mr. Staley. We've orders to close the holes in the Field and get aboard Lenin's boats in five minutes. You'll never get out before Lenin opens fire."
"No, sir. What should we do?"
Blaine hesitated a moment. "I'll have to buck that one up to the Admiral. Stay right where you are."
A sudden roaring hurricane sent them scurrying for cover. There was silence, then Potter said unnecessarily, "We're under pressure. You Brownies must have repaired one or another door."
"Then they'll soon be here." Whitbread cursed, "Damn them anyway." They waited. "What's keeping the Captain?" Whitbread demanded. There was no possible answer, and they crouched tensely, their weapons drawn, while around them they heard MacArthur coming back to life. Her new masters were approaching.

"I won't leave without the middies," Rod was saying to the Admiral.
"You are certain they cannot reach after port air lock?" Kutuzov said.
"Not in ten minutes, Admiral. The Brownies have control of that part of the ship. The kids would have to fight all the way."
"Then what do you suggest?"
"Let them use the lifeboats, sir," Rod said hopefully. There were lifeboats in various parts of the ship, with a dozen not twenty meters from the Field generator compartment. Basically solid-fuel motors with inflatable cabins, they were meant only to enable a refugee to survive for a few hours in the event that the ship was damaged beyond repair-or about to explode. Either was a good description of MacArthur's present status.
"The miniatures may have built recording devices and transmitters into lifeboats," Kutuzov said. "A method of giving large Moties all of MacArthur's secrets." He spoke to someone else. "Do you think that possible, Chaplain?"
Blaine heard Chaplain Hardy speaking in the background. "No, sir. The miniatures are animals. I've always thought so, the adult Modes say so, and all the evidence supports the hypothesis. They would be capable of that only if directly ordered-and, Admiral, if they've been that anxious to communicate with the Moties, you can be certain they've already done it."
"Da," Kutuzov muttered. "There is no point in sacrificing these officers for nothing. Captain Blaine, you will instruct them to use lifeboats, but caution them that no miniatures must come out with them. When they leave, you will immediately come aboard Lenin."
"Aye aye, sir," Rod sighed in relief and rang the intercom line to the generator compartment. "Staley: the Admiral says you can use the lifeboats. Be careful there aren't any miniatures in them, and you'll be searched before you board one of Lenin's boats. Trigger the torpedoes and get away. Got that?"
"Aye aye, sir." Staley turned to the other middies. "Lifeboats," he snapped. "Let's...-- "
Green light winked around them. "Visors down!" Whitbread screamed. They dove behind the torpedoes while the beam swung wildly around the compartment. It slashed holes in the bulkheads, then through compartment wails beyond, finally through the hull itself. Air rushed out and the beam stopped swinging, but it remained on, pouring energy through the hull into the Field beyond.
Staley swung his sun visor, up. It was fogged with silver metal deposits. He ducked carefully under the beam to look at its source.
It was a heavy hand laser. Half a dozen miniatures had been needed to carry it. Some of them, dead and dry, clung to the double hand hold.
"Let's move," Staley ordered. He inserted a key into the lock on the torpedo panel. Beside him Potter did the same thing. They turned the keys -- and had ten minutes to live. Staley rushed to the intercom. "Mission accomplished, sir."
They moved through the airtight open compartment's door into the main after corridor and rushed sternward, flinging themselves from hand hold to hand hold. Null-gee races were a favorite if slightly non-regulation game with midshipmen, and they were glad of the practice they'd had. Behind them the timer would be clicking away- "Should be here," Staley said. He blasted through an airtight door, then fired a man-sized gap through the outer hull itself. Air whistled out-the miniatures had somehow again enclosed them in the stinking atmosphere of Mote Prime even as they had come aft, Wisps of ice-crystal fog hung in the vacuum.
Potter found the lifeboat inflation controls and smashed the glass cover with his pistol butt. They stepped out of the way and waited for the lifeboats to inflate.
Instead the flooring swung up. Stored beneath the deck was a line of cones, each two meters across at the base, each about eight meters long.
"The Midnight Brownie strikes again," said Whitbread.
The cones were all identical, and fabricated from scratch. The miniatures must have worked for weeks beneath the deck, tearing up the lifeboats and other equipment to replace them with-these things. Each cone had a contoured crash chair in the big end and a flared rocket nozzle in the point.
"Look at the damn things, Potter," Staley ordered. "See if there's anywhere Brownies could hide in them." There didn't seem to be. Except for the conical hull, which was solid, everything was open framework. Potter tapped and pried while his friends stood guard.
He was looking for an opening in the cone when he caught a flicker of motion in the corner of his eye. He snatched a grenade from his belt and turned. A space suit floated-out of the corridor wall. It held a heavy laser in both hands.
Staley's nerves showed in his voice. "You! Identify yourself!"
The figure raised its weapon. Potter threw the grenade.
Intense green light lashed out through the explosion, lighting the corridor weirdly and tearing up one of the conical lifeboats. "Was it a man?" Potter cried. "Was it? The arms bent wrong! Its legs stuck straight out-what was it?"
"An enemy," Staley said. "I think we'd better get out of here. Board the boats while we've still got 'em." He climbed into the reclined contour seat of one of the undamaged cones. After a moment the others each selected a seat.
Horst found a control panel on a bar and swung it out in front of him. There were no labels anywhere. Sentient or nonsentient, all Moties seemed to be expected to solve the workings of a machine at a glance.
"I'm going to- try the big square button," Staley said firmly. His voice sounded -- oddly hollow through the suit radio. Grimly he pushed the button.
A section of the hull blew away beneath him. The cone swung out as on a sling. Rockets flared briefly. Cold and blackness-and he was outside the Field.
Two other cones popped out of the black sea. Frantically Horst directed his suit radio toward the looming black hulk of Lenin no more than a kilometer away. "Midshipman Staley here! The lifeboats have been altered. There are three of us, and we're alone aboard them-."
A fourth cone popped from the blackness. Staley turned in his seat. It looked like a man- Three hand weapons fired simultaneously. The fourth cone glowed and melted, but they fired for a long time. "One of the-uh -- " Staley didn't know what to report. His circuit might not be secure.
"We have you on the screens, Midshipman," a heavily accented voice said. "Move away from MacArthur, and wait for pickup. Did you complete your mission?"
"Yes, sir." Staley glanced at his watch. "Four minutes to go, sir."
"Then move fast, mister," the voice ordered.
But howl Staley wondered. The controls had no obvious function. While he searched frantically, his rocket fired. But what-he hadn't touched anything.
"My rocket's firing again," said Whitbread's voice. He sounded calm-much calmer than Staley felt.
"Aye, and mine," Potter added. "Never look a gift horse in the mouth. We're movin' away from you ship."
The rumble continued. They were accelerating together at nearly a standard gee, with Mote Prime a vast green crescent to one side. On the other was the deep black of the Coal Sack, and the blacker mass of Lenin. The boats accelerated for a long time.