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Ask the Right Question

Originally published in The Sonic Screwdriver #5 printed 1989

Ask the Right Question

"What is our position now, ORAC?"


"Twelve minutesl" Vila echoed. "It's no goodl" The thief looked at his companion In horror. "We're not going to get out of this one. Egrorian set us up."

"Yes, but how?" the computer tech hissed. "How did he do it?"

"Avon..." Vila's voice was soft, surprised, as if he couldn't quite believe what was happening. "We're going to die. Our remaining flight time is ten minutes. And another five before we crash. How do you spend your last fifteen minutes of life?"

Avon rose slowly, deliberately, and turned to face the thief. "Working. Working like we have never worked before."


The other man was angry -- and determined. "Gravity is holding us. We do not have enough engine power to lift us free. We must somehow lighten the load. Since we had no problem on the way in, we can assume something was done before we left the surface, something added that was not on board when we landed. We must search this shuttle millimetre by millimetre until we find that something. Once we jettison the extra weight, we should be able to achieve escape velocity."

"But what if we can't find anything?"

"We must.  Our fuel Is sufficient. We checked the engines for malfunctions; there were none." Avon's eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he dragged the other man out of his seat. "Come on! You search the cargo hold. I will start up here." He spun Vila around and roughly shoved him from the cockpit.

The thief hurried to the nearly empty cargo hold and began his search. "Find what's weighing us down, Vila," he muttered. "Anything that heavy would be too big to miss!" He yanked angrily at the door to a storage compartment; It flew open, struck him, and knocked the wind out of him.

"Damned heavy thing!" he swore as he searched inside. "Nothing! Absolutely nothing!"

Then he gazed speculatively at the door that had nearly downed him. There was no sign of Avon's probably mythical object, but even a little less weight might help. Grunting with the effort, he unfastened all the compartment doors, dragged them to the airlock, and shoved them Inside.

"Wall panels are heavy, too..."  He scurried to loosen the connections holding them to the wall of the shuttle. Once finished, he dragged them down and put them into the airlock along with the doors.

"There's nothing up here. Did you find anything yet?" Avon slid halfway down the ladder from the cockpit, and saw Vila leaning weakly against a wall. "What the blazes do you think you are doing? Rest now, and we will both rest for eternity! Move, Vila!"

The thief looked up wearily. They were both about to die -- and soon. What could Avon possibly do to him that was worse than that? "I just threw half this bloody ship out the airlock to lighten the load. Nothing else down here was heavy enough to help. You're supposed to be the genius; you think of something else."

The computer tech's normally expressionless face reflected anger -- and fear. His eyes glittered dangerously, like those of an animal in a trap. "Look again. You must have missed something."

"How?" Vila glared back, and gestured at the exposed framework of the shuttle. "There's nothing here. Nothing's left to search."

"The tachyon funnel? No, you moved it.  If someone had planted something there, it would have made the thing too heavy for you to move by yourself..."

"There's nothing, damn you! You and your clever little schemes! Egrorian must've seen right through you. Face it, Avon, you've failed -- again. And we're both gonna pay for it, like Caliy did on Terminal!"

Pain showed briefly in the other man's eyes; then it was masked by cold fury. One hand reached c out to grab the thief by the throat, pinning him to the wall. "No," he hissed, slowly shaking -'s head from side to side. "There has to be something you missed. There is no other way..."


Avon's eyes swept over the shuttle again. "We must dump the tachyon funnel. It is the only thing left. Then, you will help me search this hold again, until we find whatever was planted on board." He smiled unpleasantly, and his voice grew softer, slower, more gentle. "You are going -;, help me, now, or you will be the next thing out that airlock."

Vila flinched, frightened by the desperate, not quite sane look in his companion's eyes. Then he brought both arms up sharply, breaking the tech's hold, and darted away.

&.on turned to follow, and his foot struck a small object. He gave it an angry kick to remove it from his path -- and fell on top of it.

He lay stunned, trying to catch his breath, then sat up and examined the object. "Plastic. High -ensile plastic.     It cannot possible be that heavy, unless there is something embedded in it... But there is nothing... unless it is very tiny... in which case,    it would not have ...the weight!"

He looked up at the thief, who watched him warily.   "Vila, this is it!" he exclaimed, hope :awning in his eyes. "Help me get this thing out the airlock!"

The computer tech rolled over and, on hands and knees, tried to push the small cubic object. His hands, slippery with fear-sweat, missed their purchase the first time. He wiped his palms against his trouser legs, then tried again.

"Here, line it up with this." Vila dragged a small dolly toward him. "Together, now, push!" One on either side, the two men inched the cube slowly toward the airlock, gasping and grunting as they shoved with all their strength. Avon reached up with one hand, groping for the hatch controls. The door opened with a hiss, and with a final heave, the men rolled the doily and its burden inside.

"Stand back!" Avon gasped, hauling himself to his feet to operate the controls. Then he steadied himself against the wall for a moment, suddenly weak now the adrenalin rush was past.

The tech took a deep breath, then scrambled up the ladder to the cockpit. Vila lay on the floor for a moment, gasping. Then he followed his companion.


"I know, I know," Avon growled, gritting his teeth. With one sleeve, he wiped sweat from his eyes, then grasped the throttle with both hands. Eyes glued to the velocity indicator, he gripped the stick even tighter, willing their speed higher. Vila fell into his own seat.

Their speed inched upward. They were so close... They had to make it...

If only there was enough time...

Then the nose of the shuttle tilted sharply heavenward as they attained escape velocity. The thief stretched out one hand to steady ORAC, then collapsed gratefully across the supercomputer. Its plexiglass casing was cool against his flushed skin.


"You're a highly useless piece of Intelligent and sophisticated machinery, you mean. We were nearly killed, and you couldn't even tell us how they were doing it, you worthless, egotistical bundle of bolts. Ah, never mind. I've never gotten a straight answer out of you anyway..."

ORAC's retort whined away as Vila, with great satisfaction, yanked the computer's activator key. "We did it," the thief sighed. "I didn't think we were going to get out of this one."

"Such little confidence you have, Vila."

He looked sharply at the other man. Now the danger was past, the tech's facade had slipped neatly back into place. There was no sign of the Avon of only a few moments past, the man half-mad with fear and desperation. If not for his uncharacteristically rumpled appearance, one might think the entire thing had never happened.    "I suppose you never doubted we'd find a way out in time?"

"Certainly not." Avon looked down at his hands, still clenched around the throttle in a death­grip. He smiled, a rueful, self-mocking smile. "It !s as you always say, Vila. You know you are safe -- with me."