Back in the Academy simulators we called a situation like this a phillips head, so named because no matter what you did, you were completely screwed and in the crapper.

What we needed was more acceleration. The gravgrid under the shuttle was running at redline. I had the small maneuvering thrusters running at full. While making the SOBs who had gotten us into the mess get out to push might have made me feel better, that wouldn’t help either. The only propulsion system not running flat out was the other gravgrid on top of the shuttle.

Gravitic propulsion needs either a gravity field or at least a reasonable amount of mass to either react against or pull toward, the amount of lift and delta V constrained by several factors: the class and power rating of craft’s systems; the mass of the craft itself; the mass and gravitational pull of the bodies you are heading to and/or from, and the distance to those bodies. Much complex math here, but of a kind the shuttle knew how to do.

In other words, to use the topgrid I needed something above us to hook onto. So I ran some numbers.

Another dead end. K’leven’s moon was too far away to add all that much lift. The Gibbon was closer and suffci-iently massy, but the geometry sucked. Heading toward her would force me to take a longer flight path through more atmosphere, and we’d still be in air thick enough that the odds of the shockwave smutching us were seventy to thirty.

On our present course the odds were seventy-two to sixty-eight. So I loaded the course correction to veer us off toward the Gibbon and gain us that pointless increment of lift.

Just as my finger touched the surface of the pad which would initiate the change I froze. It was another case of inspiration striking, only this time it hit like a ten-ton gumball. I let out a strangled sound of dismay at the insane idea which had just stepped out onto the front of my brain, looked me in the inner eye, grinned and said, hey sailor, what do you think of ME?

“Are you all right, son?” Dr. Xan called from behind me.

I ignored him, moving my hands and preparing to run the numbers on the plan my possibly snapped mind had just given me.

A crazed chuckle rose up out of some deep and strange place inside me. “To hell with it,” I said, still cackling dementedly as I laid in the new instructions and initiated them.

The overloaded shuttle shied onto its new vector, moaning in protest. Noticeable acceleration settled over us as the topgrid sank its ethereal hooks into those oncoming rocks and began hauling us right toward them in a game of megalithic chicken.

Now I was getting a readout that was less than encouragingly labeled TIME TO IMPACT. It started at just over three minutes, and the numbers were changing faster than realtime because the closer we came to those stony spitballs, the more acceleration I could wring from them. I watched them flicker madly, sweat trickling down my sides.

When less than thirty seconds remained until we occupied the same space as those baby mountains I put my hand over the pad which would initiate our final, but hopefully not final course correction.

“Better hang on—” I called to my passengers. Ten seconds left.

“—This just might—” Five seconds. The slap of a pad unlocked the topgrid from the Stones of Death, stood the shuttle nearly on its side and latched onto the Gibbon.

“—Get a little—” A fiery chunk of K’leven’s moon, the size of Gagarin Hall back at the Academy, roared by us with less than five hundred meters to spare. The shuttle bucked as the pressure wave its passing created hit us, but that too added another bit of acceleration.

“—Rough!” One screen tracked the monster buckshot on its flaming descent. The shields were on full, and while we had reached the uppermost edges of the atmosphere, we still weren’t completely clear of it. The rocks’ kamikaze death-dive ended in a blinding blue-white light so sudden and so bright some of it made it through the shuttle’s luma-reactive ports.

The wait for the Shockwave seemed to take an eternity, one I spent pounding on the arms of my chair and going, “Come on baby, just a little faster, you can do it, just a little farther—”

When the wave front hit it was like a massive hand had come up under us and flung us like a shotput. My boards erupted with dire warnings and reports of systems failure.

The wonder of it all was that I was still alive to deal with them.

Just about an hour later I was still sitting in the shuttle’s cockpit. The boards were quiet, and there was no sense of motion. That was because it was snugged safely into its bay aboard the Gibbon.

My passengers had already debarked. They had interrupted their heated discussion as to whether the vault might have survived (it was one to one with four abstentions), and whether there might be well-hidden military emplacements the Spyter had missed worth investigating on K’leven’s moon, to each thank me for saving their artifacts and data—and by the way, their lives too. Clotilde slapped a vigorous liplock on me, then whispered that if I came by her quarters later I might just be given a proper hero’s reward.

I just sat there in the silence. My plan was to get up and leave the shuttle once I stopped shaking. I had high hopes that would happen before my thirtieth birthday, which was a mere four years away.

Captain Chandaveda materialized beside me on her bare and soundless feet. For once she didn’t startle me. My nervous system was beyond such responses.

“Shutdown checkout going a little slow, Ornish?” she asked, one eyebrow arched in inquiry.

I shook my head. “No ma’am. It’s done.”

“Good.” She parked a meaty hip on the edge of the control board. There was a bottle and two glasses in her hands. She filled both glasses, handed one to me. “Here, drink this.”

“What is it?” I asked dully.

“Nerve tonic. Go on, have some.”

“Yes’m.” I accepted the glass. She tossed off hers like it was water. I tipped my head back and took a swig, nearly choking as what felt like liquid antimatter ate its way down my throat.

“It’s 170 proof nerve tonic,” she added with a smile. “Maybe you’d better just sip it.”

When I could breathe and see again I looked at her through watery eyes and gasped, “Thanks for the warning.” Her smile turned into a big grin. “You did a good job, Ornish. I’m damned proud to call you my first officer, and I’d like to make it a habit. I hope you’ll reconsider trying to get out of serving on the Prezzie fleet ”

I gaped at her in open-mouthed surprise. “How did you know I—”

She laughed. “Honey, when they first dragooned me into this fleet and my appeal was turned down I seriously considered mutiny as a way to get out”

“You’re kidding, right?”

She refilled our glasses. “Nope. I was fit to be medicated. Then toward the end of my first voyage things got kind of interesting. Not as interesting as they did for you today, but enough to make me hold off taking my captain hostage I don’t know what I found harder to believe: her story, or her matter-of-fact attitude about what had just happened. “You call what I just went through interesting.?”

“Sure wouldn’t call it dull.” She took a swallow from her drink. “You weren’t really in all that much danger. The Gibbon has gravities too, and a little atmospheric scorch wouldn’t have made her any uglier. I was locked onto you and ready to haul your ass out of there if I had to ” She saluted me with her glass. “Never had to lift a hand, though. You cut it pretty close, but you pulled it off all by yourself.”

I shook my head in dazed amazement. “I never even thought of asking you to do that.” In fact, the two fields working together in gravitosynchronicity would have given the shuttle all sorts of lift, even if she hadn’t dropped orbit.

“Don’t feel bad. I didn’t exactly encourage you to ask for help, and your first thought was to get yourself out of the jam you were in. Which you did. I was betting you were up to the job, otherwise our headhunter wouldn’t have picked you for Prezzie duty in the first place. We know how to pick the best and brightest, Ornish.”

I appreciated the left-handed compliment, but I’d been chewing on my own liver about getting assigned this duty for so long I still had a bad taste in my mouth. “But why me?” I demanded. “Others had better marks than I did.”

“Lots of reasons. Here’s one. Tell me, had you settled on what branch you wanted to enter after graduation?”

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