Meanwhile, I thought I’d give you a preview of my story. This tale also appeared in print in Wandering Weeds: Tales Of Rabid Vegetation edited by Frances Pauli & Jaleta Clegg. You can read about that on Goodreads here. Besides it being the first time I’ve shared a Table Of Contents with my favorite writer of all time, Silverberg, and had a story in a charity anthology, it’s also the first time one of my stories has been published twice, and I’m glad Duncan gets a chance to reach a wider audience, as I’m hoping this is the first in a series of adventures for him.
I hope you enjoy this snippet of Duncan’s first adventure. Inspired by love of pulp characters and Mike Resnick’s Catostrophe Baker and Lucifer Jones tales. And please support Triumph Over Tragedy.
DUNCAN DERRING AND THE CALL OF THE LADY LUCK
Bryan Thomas Schmidt
he mission sounded simple: head out to the edge of the solar system and save the Princess Line’s Lady Luck from the Andromedan tumbleweeds. It was the sort of mission I was made for, and I fully expected to wrap her up in less than a day and be on my way. For once, my expectations were wildly out of synch with reality. Happens to everyone sometime, I suppose.
Duncan Derring, weapons and demolitions expert—what do you mean you never heard of me? Where have you been? It wasn’t exactly the kind of profession you’d expect tourism ventures to call upon, I know, but the galaxy held all kinds of odd dangers for these passenger ships. They weren’t outfitted with any weapons and only the barest sorts of shields. In fact, if I’d been the one hired to approve the design, they never would have made it out of concept. But no one asked me.
The Lady Luck was one of the newer liners, “a five star resort amongst the stars,” the brochures said, and they weren’t talking about the kind of stars you see in movies. She could carry a load of up to five thousand passengers, not counting certain odd-sized alien species, and provided all the dining and entertainment options anyone could imagine. She contained twenty-seven restaurants, eighteen bars, ten nightclubs, eight ballrooms, thirty-five shops, fifteen cinemas, and any number of other recreational and entertainment facilities. If I hadn’t been aboard a liner once myself, I’d have thought it absurd, but Princess Ltd. specialized in making absurdities reality.
I’d never seen the Andromedan Tumbleweeds, although I’d heard a lot about them, of course. Kinda goes without saying that, in my profession, you stay abreast of the latest developments. Floating in deep space between Neptune and Uranus, the tumbleweeds were freshly arrived from Andromeda, where the locals tired of the toll they took on ships and planets and used a fleet’s worth of force fields to drag them to the edge of their solar system and push them off on us. How nice of them, you might think, and you’d be right, but then you don’t know the Andromedans. No one ever called the Andromedans nice.
It took about two days at full on ultra-light engines to make the journey from my previous assignment, Ganymede Colony just off Jupiter. Why anyone had wanted to build resort towns in the Galileans was beyond me, but some people like looking at cool, gaseous masses, I guess. I certainly prefer them to some warm gaseous masses I’ve known. I was able to set the nav computer to auto for much of the route and catch some much-needed sleep. Despite my distaste for the location, the Ganymede Colony was a busy place and sleep had been more of a rarity than I’m used to. The custom-made feather mattress I’d installed in my quarters molded itself to the contours of my body as I slept. It took three tries and its sexiest feminine voice for the nav computer to awaken me. I warmed quickly as the heaters in my sleep pod brought my body temperature to normal and the blood raced through my veins again.
Yawning, I sat up, rubbing at the aches in my neck as I put my feet on the cold deck. The sensation got me moving faster as I slid out of my sleep jumpsuit and began strapping on my demolitions gear. At least as much of it as I could and still move around with speed and conduct ship’s business. You have to be ready to jump at a moment’s notice in this business, for both economic and literal survival, and the better prepared you were, the more successful you’d be.
As the Trini, short for Trinitrotoluene—aka TNT—slipped out of hyperspace, I found myself immediately at the heart of the problem. Until I’d encountered her, I would have never thought a nav computer could be programmed with a sense of humor. I figured a jealous woman of some sort must be behind her, because she was always pulling this sort of thing on me, and for once, I wasn’t in the mood. As accustomed as I am to dangerous situations, the sight of three tumbleweeds rotating seeming inches from my cockpit view screen stopped my heart.
I requested a location on the Lady Luck herself and found her frozen in space just inside the edge of the field. The report said she’d come upon the tumbleweeds unexpectedly and figured staying put and keeping pace was her only chance. Given the tumbleweeds’ propensity for random changes in direction with the slightest shift in gravitation, I’d say the Lady Luck lived up to her name. The readings my computer took upon arrival showed little influence from planetary gravitation at that particular moment. It was enough to make me relax again, which would turn out to be a regrettable mistake.
As I rotated the Trini and took in the view, I noted damages on the Lady Luck’s hull from unlucky encounters with a few of the surrounding tumbleweeds. The fact the liner was still functional and in one piece indicated the impacts had deflected the offending tumbleweeds away without disturbing any others. Such a disturbance would probably have caused a sizable enough chain reaction that my mission would have been pointless.
The Lady Luck hailed me as soon as I arrived. “Lady Luck Liner calling craft Trini,” the comm officer said in that annoying formal style they have.
“Yeah, I’m here,” I responded. “Just checking out the damages.”
“None necessitating more than a change of five thousand shorts so far,” she said. The Lady Luck had full on laundry facilities, too, so I figured that didn’t pose them much of a problem.
“How is it you came to be inside the field?” I asked, thinking only an idiot could have made such a colossal blunder.
“We were at full stop, under night crew. The weeds came upon us faster than we could bring her up to full and take evasives,” the Captain answered. “Our nav computer malfunctioned and the scanners read them as small debris.”
Given my own experience with nav computers, I didn’t bother to delve any further. When they weren’t in motion, the tumbleweeds always appeared smaller than their actual size to scanners. Pilots relied on nav charts and computers to pinpoint their location when they travelled this part of the system. But they always verified their presence with human eyes.
“Can you back her out the way you came in?”
“It’s not so easy to move a one hundred thousand ton liner,” the Captain said. “It’s a bit like backing Saturn through one of her rings. We don’t have the maneuverability. Backing up’s rarely called for.”
I checked my computer’s readings again. “For the moment, it appears you got lucky, but when the field reaches the influence of Neptune’s gravity, it could change in a hurry.”
“Can you try and have us out before then?” the Captain replied, as if I needed some amateur questioning my competence for the mission. But the thought of four thousand five hundred passengers suffering for the ignorance of their crew wasn’t something I could live with, so I set about my calculations for clearing them a path.
As I flew along the field’s edge, it became obvious I’d have to go in manually and set the explosives. My jetpack was quicker and I a far smaller target than my ship. The odds I would avoid entanglements with any of the weeds would greatly increase if I went alone. The catch was that I hadn’t used my pack in over a year and never in a situation rife with the risks I’d face here. All it would take is one wrong move, one wrong placement of an explosive, or one disturbance of the field to send the weeds into chaos, haphazardly spinning like their Earthen namesakes across space, colliding with each other or anything else in their way.
To complicate things further, Neptune’s gravitation was coming into range. Planetary gravity started influencing objects millions of kilometers out. On paper, the figures looked ridiculous but this wasn’t on paper. Even a slight gravitational pull could send the tumbleweeds into chaotic motion, which would be the end of the Lady Luck, the Trini, and me.
Finishing my calculations with due speed but proper care, I slipped into my suit and jetted out the Trini’s passenger airlock, making my way into the field. The tumbleweeds were even more intimidating up close than they had been through the Trini’s ports. The temperature inside my suit rose as adrenaline coursed through my veins. Spying my first target, I used the suit’s jets to swing left and approach, taking care not to lose control or come in too fast.
I reversed my jets’ thrust, slowing my momentum as I reached each tumbleweed’s surface. Then I could set each charge and use my boots to push free before jetting off to the next target. Firing the jets too close might start the weeds spinning. The Trini’s calculations determined it would take twenty-two charges to both clear a path for the liner and deflect nearby tumbleweeds away from the Lady Luck. My plan included setting five more just in case something went wrong.
Thanks to my experience and skill, the execution came off without a hitch. As I released the last charge and clicked the activation button, ready to push off and head back to my ship, a motion over my right shoulder drew my attention. A door was opening on the Lady Luck. It appeared to be a garbage chute.
I punched the button on my radio. “Captain, don’t jettison anything, until you’ve cleared the field!”
But I was too late.
Continued in Triumph Over Tragedy.