Saturday, October 3, 2009

54. Xenon


Warrior Princess

The Warrior Princess was an ion-drive mining ship with a mind of her own. It had been downloaded into her from a retired librarian in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. She prospected frozen gases in the Oort Cloud.

Comet-mining is solitary work—that's why it's largely done by intelligent machines. So the Warrior Princess was surprised one day to be hailed by a human voice:

"Hey there, pretty lady. My name's Wilkins. Got some volatiles to trade for a slug of xenon?"

"Well …" The Warrior Princess had heard rumors of hijackers. Still, she was always in the market for propellant. "Leave your ship where it is, and cross over in your vacuum suit."

"Okey-dokey, missy." The voice clicked off. The Warrior Princess's radar detected something small separating itself from the distant ship. After a while the readings began to worry her. "Wilkins—you seem to hauling a lot of mass."

Wilkins laughed. "Well, y'see, ma'am, I'm kinda packing an industrial laser. Now, don't you try to get away or I'll have to punch holes in you. I can't hardly miss at this distance."

"Why are you doing this?" the Warrior Princess asked fearfully.

"Well, there's two schools of thought on that one. Some days I think I'm hoping to amass enough product to return home with a decent profit. Other days I think I'm just plain crazy."

"Suppose I just give you all my cargo. Would you take it and go?"

"Aw, now, why would you wanna cheat me outa my fun?"

The Warrior Princess thought quickly. She booted up her data bases and searched through the physical properties of everything she had on board.

She found what she was looking for.

There was a high-voltage arc welding unit on her hull, used for breach repairs. She moved it closer to her fuel storage area. Simultaneously, she reversed the refrigeration unit in Fuel Storage Bin B. The frozen slugs of xenon propellant began to heat up, and then to sublime.

Because xenon is inert, no particular effort had been made to keep the fuel bins airtight. Soon the Warrior Princess was surrounded by a diffuse cloud of xenon gas.

"Hey, Wilkins!" she said.

"What is it, purty thang?"

"Look sharp!" She triggered the arc welder, sending a jolt of energy through the readily-ionized gas. An intense burst of pure blue light flashed, all in a single pulse, too sudden for the hijacker's visor to adjust and block it.

He screamed. "I'm blind! You bitch! You blinded me!"

The Warrior Princess returned her refrigeration systems to normal. She fired up her ion pulse engine. "I'm leaving now," she said.

"Wait!" Wilkins cried. "My ship! Lady, you gotta tell me—where's my ship?"

"Find it yourself."

The Warrior Princess headed outward, deeper into the Oort Cloud. Briefly, pityingly, she thought back to Wilkins. "That'll teach you to fuck with a librarian!" she snorted.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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