This serialized story began here, with part one.
It took 152 years for the expedition from Outpost Pluto to make it back through the solar system to find out what happened...
At least two laser blasts and someone screamed.
The rocket boosters started and he could hear nothing after Mission Control said "Blast off."
Quid felt the tightness in his chest as it was forced down and flatter as Rocket Osiris launched itself obliquely into what passed for Pluto's atmosphere, a collection of airlike molecules that was not much better than it had been when the settlers had arrived here 18 months before. He wondered if he would ever see Pluto with real air, and walk on its still-cold surface without a helmet.
Probably not, he resigned himself. If there is someone left on Uranus, they're not talking.
He watched the instruments with attentive eyes and waited for the interference to clear so that he could again communicate with Mission Control to find out what had happened, what the laser blasts were.
Two minutes into the mission, Osiris was safely on a launch orbit, picking up more and more speed from the gravity of Pluto itself, and the boosters, to be used only for emergencies from here on out, shut off. Quid immediately flicked his eyes in the direction of the COM link in the upper corner of his visor and the Open Channel came on first, followed by the Mission Control line, which he had overlap with Open Channel.
"Rocket Osiris checking in. Mission Control, what's the status?"
"Quid, use boosters to turn back. Now. That is an order."
"Jena, we went over and over this."
"Quid, I have assumed military control of Outpost Pluto. This is a direct order. You do not know everything that's going on. You do NOT have authority to leave Outpost Pluto. Boost retro now and reverse the mission."
Quid bit his tongue and looked at the few of his companions that he could see without turning his head, something the 5Gs they were pulling made unwise -- turn his head and he won't be able to get it back to see the control panel.
"QUID: do not use Open Channel!" Jena interrupted.
"Quid, if instruments do not show boosters engaged in retro immediately, I will have you shot down."
"We have no weapons that can do that."
"You don't know everything," Jena said.
"This is insane," Quid said.
He wanted to believe that, that Jena's new talk about him not knowing everything, was not true, but was simply the ravings of someone who was scared.
"Interceptors fired," said a new voice.
It was a voice Quid did not recognize, and Quid knew every single person on Outpost Pluto.
He felt his skin grow clammy. His eyes searched out on the panel in front of him the scanner that looked for objects Osiris might interact with. He saw nothing. No sign of interceptor missiles or any other attacker. The readings told him their speed made it next to impossible that something else could catch up with them, at this point, that anything from the surface could ever hope to get to where Osiris was before Osiris was out in space and free of Pluto's weak gravity.
"Jena," he began, but she interrupted again.
"Quid, I'm sorry."
"Sorry? For what?"
And as he said it, he saw, on the screen before him, the two small dots that indicated something coming.
From above them, from higher up in orbit.
"Jena!" he yelled.
"Quid, it wasn't my decision."
But there was no time for debate, not anymore. He had a decision to make.
"Mick," he said.
"The boosters," Mick answered.
"We've no choice," Quid agreed. He flicked his eyes around on his visor, changing the internal controls from Monitor to Pilot and with that, his gloves became sensitized in their fingertips to the controls he needed, while view screens showed him a 360-degree look at the Osiris.
"Mick, give me a short burn," he said into his radio.
"They're tracers," came a third voice, Tanya, behind him.
"No burn. Mick. Let's try this." Quid's mind raced through manuevers and tactics, the various systems the ship had, the few weapons it could muster. It was a settlement ship, not a battle rocket.
"Shut it all down?" Tanya asked.
Dead Hulk maneuver.
Would it work?
"No time," Mick said. "They're too close."
"Where were they launched from?" asked Quid, before deciding. "Deploy sail," he said.
To their credit, his team did not hesitate even though it was an unusual maneuver. Mick saw, unfurling before them, the lightweight, nearly intangible sail that would ordinarily be used to carry them between the planets, using the solar wind to pull the ship in the direction they wanted to go. There were three of them, rigged in various ways to allow steering, but this was the Main, the one that pulled from the front of Osiris to give it the most power. It maintained residual energy when used so that it could push out even against the solar wind it usually used as its power source, and that blast now propelled its filmy mass ahead of them.
"Quid. I'm very sorry," Jena's voice said over the radio again, and the two tracer rockets hit the sail, becoming entangled in it, their own boosters getting turned against them, causing them to flip and turn. Quid and the rest of the Osiris team, and no doubt everyone on Outpost Pluto, watched as the rockets tried to burn through the sheer amount of sail they were caught up in -- the full Main sail would be nearly two kilometers wide when opened -- but could not, and finally a fold of the microthin material pulled one rocket over to the other and both exploded.
The explosion was near enough to rock the Osiris and cause several screens to go blank. Quid saw Life Support shut down, Shields shut down, and Guidance begin to flicker. The static on his helmet prevented him from giving orders to anyone onboard and he focused on his own job, piloting the crippled Rocket Osiris away from Outpost Pluto, his home no longer - and away from whatever it was in orbit that had attacked them.