Chapter 7 - The Crazy Eddie Probe

"But -- " said Renner and pointed at Cal's growing image on the bridge screens. Before he could say anything else MacArthur leaped ahead at six gees, no smooth transition this time. Jolt meters swung wildly as the ship hurtled straight toward the looming sun.
"Captain?" Through the roaring blood in his ears Blaine heard his exec call from the after bridge. "Captain, how much damage can we sustain?"
It was an effort to speak. "Anything that'll get us home," Rod gasped. -- -
"Roger." Cargill's orders sounded through the intercom. "Mr. Potter! Is hangar deck clear to vacuum? All shuttles stowed?"
"Yes, sir." The question was irrelevant under battle conditions, but Cargill was a careful man.
"Open the hangar doors," Cargill ordered. "Captain, we might lose the hangar deck hatches."
"Rape 'em."
"I'm bringing the pod aboard fast, no time to match velocities. We'll take damage -- "
"You have the con, Commander. Carry out your orders." There was a red haze on the bridge. Rod blinked, but it was still there, not in the air but in his retinas. Six gravities was too much for sustained effort. If anyone fainted-well, they'd miss all the excitement.
"Kelley!" Rod barked. "When we turn ship, take the Marines aft and stand by to intercept anything coming out of that pod! And you'd better move fast. Cargill won't hold acceleration."
"Aye aye, sir." Six gravities and Kelley's gravel rasp was the same as ever.
The pod was three thousand kilometers ahead, invisible even to the clearest vision, but growing steadily on the bridge screens, steadily but slowly, much too slowly, even as Cal seemed to grow too fast.
Four minutes at six gravities. Four minutes of agony, then the alarms hooted. There was a moment of blessed relief. Kelley's Marines clattered through the ship, diving in the low, shifting gravity as MacArthur turned end for end. There wouldn't be acceleration couches back there where the Marines would cover hangar deck. Webbing straps to suspend the men in corridors, others in the hangar space itself hung like flies in a spider web, weapons ready- ready for what?
The alarms sounded, and jolt meters swung again as MacArthur braked toward the pod. Rod turned his screen controls with an effort. There was hangar deck, cold and dark, the fuzzy outline of the inner surface of the ship's defensive field an impossible black. Good, he thought. No significant heat storage. Plenty of capacity to take up the rotational energy of the pod if it had any, slow down the impact to something that MacArthur might be able to handle.
Eight minutes at six gees, the maximum the crew would be able to stand. Then the intruder was no longer ahead as MacArthur turned and fell toward it sidewise. The crushing acceleration ended, then there was low side thrust as Cargill fired the port batteries to slow their headlong rush to the pod.
It was cylindrical, with one rounded end, tumbling through space. As it turned Rod saw that the other end was jagged with a myriad of projections-thirty-two projections? But there should have been shrouds trailing from those knobs, and there was nothing.
It was moving up to MacArthur far too fast, and it was too big to fit in the hangar deck. The thing was massive, too damn massive! And there was nothing to brake with to the sides but the port batteries!
It was here. Hangar deck camera showed the rounded end of the intruder, dull and metallic, pushing through the Langston Field, slowing, the rotation stopping, but still it moved relative to MacArthur. The battle cruiser surged sidewise, terribly, throwing the crew against their harness straps, while the rounded end of the pod grew and grew and-CRUNCH!
Rod shook his head to clear it of the red mist which had formed again. "Get us out of here. Mr. Renner, take the con!"
Jolt meters swung before the acceleration alarms; Renner must have set up the course in advance and slapped the keys the instant he was given control. Blaine peered at the dials through the crimson mist. Good, Renner wasn't trying anything fancy; just blast lateral to MacArthur's course and let the sun whip her around. Were they accelerating in the plane of Cal's planets? Be tricky to rendezvous with Lermontov for hydrogen. If they couldn't bring Mac in on this pass, she'd have dry tanks...fuzzily Blaine touched display controls and watched as the main computer showed a course plot. Yes. Renner had set it up properly, and fast work too.
Let him do it, Rod thought. Renner's competent, better astrogator than I am. Time to inspect the ship. What happened to her when we took that thing aboard? But all the screens covering that area were blank, cameras burned off or smashed. Outside it wasn't much better. "Fly her blind, Mr. Renner," Blaine ordered. "Cameras would just boil off anyway. Wait until we're moving away from Cal."
"Damage report, Skipper."
"Go ahead, Commander Cargill."
"We've got the intruder clamped in with the hangar doors. It's jammed in solid, I don't think we can rattle it around with normal acceleration. I don't have a full report, but that hangar deck will never be the same, sir."
"Anything major, Number One?"
"No, sir. I could give you the whole list-minor problems, things jarred loose, equipment failed under impact stress-but it boils down to this: if we don't have to fight, we're in good shape."
"Fine. Now see what you can get me from the Marines. The corn lines to Kelley's station seem to be out."
"Aye aye, sir."
Somebody would have to move around at six gees to carry out that order, Blaine thought. Hope to God he can do it in a travel chair. A man might just slither along under that strain, but he wouldn't be good for much afterwards. Was it worth it? For probably negative information? But suppose it wasn't negative...
"Marine Corporal Pietrov reporting to Captain, sir." Thick accent of St. Ekaterina. "No activity from intruder, sir."
"Cargill here, Captain," another voice added.
"Do you need Kelley? Mr. Potter was able to get a line to Pietrov without leaving his scooter, but there's a problem if he has to go further."
"Pietrov's fine, Number One. Good work, Potter. Corporal, can you see Mr. Kelley? Is he all right?"
"The Gunner's waved at me, sir. He is on duty in number-two air lock."
"Good. Report any activity by intruder immediately, Corporal." Blaine switched off as the warning horns sounded again. Fifty kilos lifted from his chest as the ship's acceleration cased. Tricky thing, this, he thought. Got to balance between getting too close to Cal and cooking the crew, and just killing everybody from the gee stress.
At his station forward, one of the helmsmen leaned against the padding of his couch. His partner leaned against him to touch helmets. For an Instant they cut their mikes while Quartermaster's Mate First Class Orontez spoke to his partner. "My brother wanted me to help him with his wet-ranch on Aphrodite and I thought it was too goddamn dangerous. So I joined the flipping Navy."

"Commander Sinclair, have we enough energy for a report to Fleet?"
"Aye, Skipper, the engines hold verra well indeed. Yon object is nae so massive as we thought, and we've hydrogen to spare."
"Good." Blaine called the communications room to send out his report. Intruder aboard. Cylinder, ratio of axes four to one. Uniform metallic in appearance but close inspection impossible until acceleration eases off. Suggest Lermontov attempt to recover the sail, which would decelerate rapidly with no pod ahead of it. Estimated time of arrival, New Scotland...suggest MacArthur put into orbit around uninhabited moon of New Scotland. No evidence of life or activity aboard alien, but...-
It was a very large "but," Rod thought. Just what was that thing? Had it fired on him deliberately? Was it under command, or what kind of robot could pilot it across light years of normal space? What would it, whoever or whatever was commanding it, think of being stuffed into the hangar deck of a battle cruiser, cut loose from its shrouds.
Hell of an undignified end to thirty-five light years of travel.
And there was nothing he could do! to find out. Nothing at all. MacArthur's situation wasn't so critical, Renner had her well under control; but neither Blaine nor Cargill could leave his station, and he wasn't about to send junior officers to investigate that thing.
"Is it over?" Sally's voice was plaintive. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes." Rod shuddered involuntarily as he thought of what might have happened. "Yes, it's aboard and we've seen nothing about it other than its size. It won't answer signals." Now why did he feel a little twinge of satisfaction because she'd just have to wait like the rest of them?
MacArthur plunged on, whipping around Cal so close that there was a measurable drag from the corona; but Renner's astrogation was perfect and the Field held nicely.
They waited.

At two gravities Rod could leave the bridge. He stood with an effort, transferred to a scooter, and started aft. The elevators let him "down" as he moved through the ship, and he stopped at each deck to note the alert crewmen still at their posts despite being at general quarters too long. MacArthur had to be the best ship in the Navy...and he'd keep her that way!
When he reached Kelley's position at the air lock to hangar deck, there was still nothing new.
"You can see there's hatches or something there, sir,"
Kelley said. He pointed with a flash. As the light flicked up the alien craft Rod saw the ruins of his boats crushed against the steel decks.
"And it's done nothing?"
"Not one thing, Captain. It come in, whapped against the decks-like to threw me into a bulkhead; that thing didn't come in fast but she come down hard. Then, nothing. My files, me, the middies who keep swarming around here, none of us seen a thing, Cap'n,"
"Just as well," Rod muttered. He took out his own light and played it on the enormous cylinder. The upper half vanished into the uniform black of the Field.
His light swept across a row of conical knobs; each a meter in diameter and three times that in length. He searched, but there was nothing there-no tag ends of the shrouds which ought to be hanging from them, no visible opening in the knob through which the shroud could have been reeled. Nothing.
"Keep watching it, Kelley. I want continuous surveillance." Captain Rod Blaine went back to the bridge with no more information than he'd had before and sat staring at his screens. Unconsciously his hand moved to rub the bridge of his nose.
Just what in God's name had he caught?