by Walt Staples -
The air inside his environment suit stank of a combination of sweat, halitosis, and machine lubricant seasoned with a hint of ozone and urine. In short, it smelled like everyone else’s suit. The fact that he noticed reminded Trail Boss to change out the scrubber cartridge when they made Avenir. After that, some quality time with his rack.
“Krueger is out of position, “ a voice in his earphones snapped him out of his reverie, the slurring of the vowel combination a dead giveaway to its electronic nature.
“Thanks, Kitty.” He toggled his com. “Krueger, get your butt back in position!”
A whisky growl replied, “Sorry, Trail Boss, A.I. slip.”
Trail Boss made a face. “And you were wool-gathering.”
A laugh. “Yep, ‘fraid so. Won’t happen again…”
“‘Til next time,” every one of the drovers chorused together.
Trail Boss shook his head with a smile as he scanned the plotting board. His drovers had the herd, 231 massive ore bodies, clustered together and moving at the same velocity and on the same vector, or close enough to make no difference. He spoke to his A.I., “Kitty, recheck gravity well alignment.” Though the herd was held in a net of tractor beams from his drovers’ cutting horses, Eclectia’s muddle of gravitational fields—five major ones—generated by the pair of suns and the three nearest planetary bodies could play hob with the unwary. One miscue and—stampede! Huge chunks of planet flying in all directions as he and his trail crew tried to dodge. His father, an aunt, and two cousins had met their fate that way.
Instead of acknowledging the order, the A.I. reported, “Hitchens has broken formation.”
Trail Boss’ eyes flew to the plotting board as the blue dot that was Hitchens’ cutting horse suddenly accelerated from its station as forward starboard flanker. “Hitchens! What the—”
Her panicked voice cut over his, “Trail Boss! Trail Boss! Drive malfunction! Hard wire out!”
As she drew a breath, he spoke in a quiet, assured voice, “Roger, Sana. Status of reaction mass?”
“I can’t shut it off! I can’t—”
“Status reaction mass? Report,” he chopped her off in his command voice.
“I…Okay. Okay, “ her voice steadied. “Three-six tons and dropping.”
“Roger. Hold on,” he said calmly. He felt the sweat soaking his under suit and heard the suit’s scrubber kick up a notch to handle the increased moisture. He did a quick calculation in his head; it was rough but faster than tasking the A.I. “Sana, you should have shut off inside four-four-zero seconds. Your present delta-vee is one-niner-six. Vector is X-three-point-zero, Y-seven-point-four, Z-two-point-one. What is your Oh-two?”
Her voice was matter of fact, she’d run the numbers also. “Doesn’t really matter, does it, Mike?”
He sighed. No point in trying to kid her. “No, guess not, Curly-Top.”
“I always hated this old Nebula-six. Was saving up for a newer cutting horse. Something younger than my grandma.” She paused. “You’ll see she gets the money?”
A tear trickled down his cheek. “Yeah, no sweat. I’ll make sure.”
“We had some times, didn’t we?”
“Yep.” He swallowed. “Some times.”
“Will you say it with me? You know the one.”
They began together, Trail Boss tripping over the words slightly—his folks said it a little differently. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”