Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Twenty

Whiting and Drover ran along the right-side wall of Scout Pier Five. After the Horicon had lost control of its gravity foils, the apparent gravity had shifted ninety degrees, forcing them to scramble along, jumping over doorways and fallen equipment. They had to pick their way through the remains of a large machine that had fallen through the wall from the former left-hand side of the corridor, leaving a ragged hole in the new ceiling.

One door they jumped over was covered with papers, food wrappers and scraps of clothing. The high-pitched whistling told them that the hull had been breached somewhere behind that door. They came to a double door that had been a guard position for defense of the landing pier. The right half lay open, but the left half banged in the breeze. Beyond this, the pier was lined with the Scout landing bays.

Once over the door, they came to a flight of stairs. Mo oozed to the right, following a zig-zag path along the wall that took them to the upper row of bays.

They jumped over doors marked Alpha, Charlie, Echo and Golf. The line of status lights along the floor showed that all of the bays on this side of pier were empty. They looked up at the ceiling. The Foxtrot bay was impossibly far away, straight up above them. The indicator lights confirmed that it was the only occupied bay on this pier.

“Oh, holy crap,” Larry said, looking back down the pier. Somewhere through the gloom, the armored doors were sealed, isolating them in the leaking scout pier.

Larry bent over and checked the display on Five Golf Upper carefully. He hit a couple of keys to see what additional information was available. The red emergency lights made it difficult to read the displays.

“Gone,” he said.

Natalie had walked a little further down the pier and was peering up at the inaccessible ceiling.
“Probably all gone,” she said.

“Who would send out all but their spares?” Mo Lusc asked. Its head was rolled back, directing its eyes up at the ceiling, also. “Who would leave without a full complement of scouts? Who would want to be blind?”

Natalie took a look up at the other side of the landing bay pier. She took a close look at Mo.

“How tough are you?” she asked.

“Are we not warriors? Have we not hunted the Echinoderms to near extinction?” Whiting judged the distances again.

“How well can you cling? Can you hold a hundred kilos?” From under his gown, Mo extended one of the tentacles with the largest and strongest of suckers. She looked up to be sure of how far Mo had to reach.

Mo turned around in the corridor, looking the situation over carefully. After a moment, Mo oozed over to the ceiling. It was now a wall, and held a row of lamps, and some miscellaneous overhead plumbing. Mo’s tentacles spread over the ceiling supports, plumbing and electrical conduits. Mo swarmed up the ceiling to the wall with the Foxtrot hatch on it.

Mo paused a moment, tentacles covering the wall, eyes and head hanging down. Mo’s head swung back and forth, judging the distance. It was a long reach across the smooth metal surface to any little crevice that could be used for clinging. Mo reached out with the two longest “finger” tentacles, feeling around the airlock control panel and the door. Somewhere Mo found the necessary support, and several other tentacles oozed over and braced around the edge of the door.

Once in place, tentacles dropped down toward Whiting and Drover. With four of the largest tentacles clinging to the door, Mo used the more precise finger tentacles to try and operate the Scout landing bay door control. The door didn’t respond.

Larry and Natalie looked at each other through Mo’s dangling tentacles.

“You’re smaller,” Whiting said.

Larry looked up at Mo, dangling from ceiling to floor. Mo was stretched to at least 5 meters. Mo’s gown, head and other equipment stuck out from the tentacles in odd places and directions, making it barely recognizable. Eyes blinked from among the tentacles; midway between floor and ceiling.

Embarrassed, Larry touched the tentacles dangling in front of his face. This was, he knew, the height of rudeness among Cephalopods. They rarely showed the insides of their tentacles. Larry had gathered that beaks were not shown except in the most humiliating and degrading of pornographic displays. A polite Cephalopod used erotic colorings and pulsing rhythms, it didn’t display orifices or sexual organs.

The ship groaned, and began to shift under his feet. Drover grabbed a handful of tentacle and started to climb.

Once he was partway up, Mo grabbed him and oozed him up to the ceiling. Larry was mashed against the wall, and with some fumbling, located the lock for the landing bay and released the door. It hissed open and powerful gust of fresh air poured out of the lock. Larry reached around to pull himself up, but Mo stuffed him in before he could do anything on his own.

Lying on the access console, an alarm started chiming because had bumped some controls as he tumbled in. Gingerly, Larry rolled off of the console toward the original floor. Below the console was an access panel; it dented under his weight, but held. A message flashed on the display under his feet.

Natalie looked up as Mo wadded Larry into the docking bay. She waited for Mo’s tentacles to descend. She was feeling dizzy and faint from the lack of pressure. She felt the floor slowly turning underneath her. Another explosion, this one very close by, knocked her down onto the wall. The whistling of the atmosphere rose to a scream. First papers, then food containers, then small pieces of gear started blowing along the wall. The landing pier continued to tip, and Natalie started to slide away from Mo’s dangling tentacles. She grabbed onto the Echo bay door frame as best she could, struggling up the sloping wall, against the wind, toward Mo.

Larry was paralyzed; he watched as Natalie was knocked down and blown away from the landing bay. Larry realized that Mo needed a way to reach further.

“Mo! There are handles up here! Would that help?” Larry shouted over the wind screaming down the landing pier. A finger tentacle probed around inside the airlock. Larry grabbed it and placed it on the massive grab rail just inside the door. Two large tentacles wrapped around the handle. Able to hold more firmly, Mo released all of its other tentacles and stretched impossibly far down to Natalie.

Whiting clawed her way across the Echo doorway. With a grunt, she lunged at Mo’s tentacles just as Mo swept down to grab her. Larry didn’t pull back in time to avoid being slammed by Natalie as Mo stuffed her through the airlock. Larry, Natalie and Mo rolled around inside the scout docking bay in a tumble of arms, legs and tentacles.

Once Larry rolled out from under Natalie and Mo, he closed the bay door. The screaming wind was silenced immediately, and the lock pressure shot up to standard. Natalie grabbed her ears, wincing in pain. Larry equalized his ears, and opened the inner door to the Scout Horicon 5F Upper. Larry hoped that someone had done pre-flight preparations for this scout.


The Outer Rim fleet had surrounded Williams’ column and was systematically destroying the ships. Dieskau’s flagship, the Champlain, had pounced from the concealment of the dust cloud onto the unsuspecting and undefended Horicon, destroying Colonel Williams’ bridge in the first volley.

As the pressurized ship fell apart, the internal atmosphere blew the parts into a growing sphere of trash. After the Champlain moved away from the remains of the Horicon, Caughnawaga’s Cephalopods moved in to finish the destruction.

Once the column was in disarray, Dieskau moved toward the second part of his plan. He drew his ships together to focus his firepower on the next Core Planet line of battle ship, the third-rated Sacroon.

The Champlain and several frigates began to pick apart the Sacroon’s defenses. Dieskau identified Sacroon Frigate Three as out of position. The Sacroon frigate fought back valiantly, but without effect. After the vast Champlain tore the frigate apart, it turned toward the Sacroon itself.

The Lieutenant in charge of Frigate Two tried to steer away from the awesome might of the Champlain and its supporting destroyers and frigates. In his haste, he didn’t allow enough room for a sudden course change. Frigate One had already taken severe damage from the initial onslaught, and couldn’t stay clear. In the collision between the frigates, Sacroon Frigate One lost several docking piers, weapons turrets and the mounting mast for three of the gravity foils. The damage to Sacroon Frigate Two was even more severe, puncturing several inner sections, leading to immediate failure of hull integrity and catastrophic pressure loss.

Smoke continued to pour into the bridge of Horicon Frigate Six, named “The Kaydeross”. While most of the alarms had been silenced, a single horn wailed for attention. Indicator lights flashed knives of light through the gloom and smoke. The crew coughed and gasped for air. Without fully functioning life support, acrid smoke poured into eyes and lungs, and work was almost impossible.

Lieutenant Jacob Adams could see his options in the eyes of the crew. They were hoping for a miracle that would preserve their ship long enough to retaliate against the Outer Rim’s Champlain. Adams knew that success depended on keeping each crewmember task-focused. If anyone stopped to reflect for even a moment, they would recognize that their most likely future was death as their ship bled its atmosphere into the void.

Lieutenant Adams held onto one thread of hope: they had not been breached. Even though many systems were destroyed, the basic hull integrity had survived. All he needed to do was get steerage way and bring his guns to bear on one of the frigates defending the Champlain. He couldn’t tackle the Champlain, but he could wreck a critical element of the defenses around it.

A faint tremor ran through the ship, hardly even an explosion.

“Hull Breached. Pressure Dropping. Bulkhead Doors Sealing,” the ship said.

It was the final blow, the coup de grace. The ship was dead; it would slowly depressurize and kill the crew, also.

“We’re breached,” Lieutenant Adams repeated. “Put her down on the planet.” Adams looked down at his bridge crew. The helmsman had completely panicked. He couldn’t move. His eyes were huge; he had started to hyperventilate and the acrid smoke had made him gag up a lungful of phlegm into his uniform and lap. He sat, staring blankly at his console.

“It’s uncharted, sir,” said the intelligence crew.

The Lieutenant pushed the helmsman out of the chair and onto the deck.

“Get me an orbital solution. We’re leaking,” the Adams said, forcing himself to give orders in the standard, calm, matter-of-fact way that bridge commands were usually given. “We’ve got to get down.”

“Sir,” was the reply, almost a question, not an affirmative response.

Lieutenant Adams wiped vomit off the helm console. He checked the position of the various control surfaces. Some of the gravity foils were working. There was some rudder response. Engines might be working.

“Squids, sir,” said the weapons crew.

“Very good,” the Lieutenant said, bringing up the targeting display on the helm console.

Two crisp concussions rocked the ship as the Cephalopod fired their hull-piercing weapons. The smoke was beginning to clear as the atmosphere drained away.

“I don’t think we can—” began the intelligence crewmember.

“Don’t think,” the Lieutenant interrupted. “Get an orbit.” The crew was starting to take the first steps from a problem to a crisis. Any experienced officer knew that panic would kill them more assuredly than the Outer Rim, Cephalopods or the vacuum of space.

The Lieutenant trimmed the foils. The deck canted as the ship picked up speed and began to respond to the helm. The vague drifting after the first wave of the attack was replaced by a firm heeling and a sense of purposeful movement.

“Maintenance,” the Lieutenant barked over the ship’s internal communications channel.

“Sir,” came the response; it was tentative, too.

“Where’s the hole?”

“Cannon two, port side. The hole is big, sir, and the ship’s buckled so the bulkhead won’t seal.”
He could imagine the scene. The maintenance crew would be clinging to handgrips, open mouthed, looking through the gap in the bulkhead as their atmosphere poured into space. The pressure was falling fast; they would be struggling to keep from being sucked through the opening into the void of space.

“Rim Frigate bringing guns to bear.”

Adams was pleased to hear the crisp definite statement. This meant there was still fight left somewhere in his crew.

“Countermeasures!” Lieutenant Adams replied. He heard a satisfying series of switches as the crew turned on their signal jammers, and released a pair of transponders. That would create both a blur of noise and two solid signals jinking off in opposite directions. The chance of being a target was significantly reduced.

The intelligence officer announced, “Orbital Solution.” He said it with unconcealed triumph.

The Lieutenant opened the channel to engineering. He looked over at intelligence and gave a quick salute.

“Ready to throttle up?” the Lieutenant demanded.

“Ready for speed,” Engineering replied. They were standing by their posts, ready to configure the gravity foils for a desperate charge to the nearby planet.

There was plenty to do to keep the crew busy. He needed to get the maintenance crew to block off the hole. He needed to get engineering to convert part of their powerplant to making atmospheric gasses; while this bled off dangerous amounts of power, it kept them alive longer. He needed to determine what life support capability remained for a stay on the planet. He needed to organize ground defenses once they had landed. He needed to reprimand the helmsman who lay on the deck, vomiting, gagging and coughing.

The ship groaned. He felt it through his feet: maybe they wouldn’t make it to the planet; maybe they would break up here in space.

Lieutenant Adams slid out of the helmsman’s seat. He leaned over to the crewmember still lying on the deck.

“Can you fly?” the Lieutenant asked.

The helmsman stared up, eyes still big and staring.

“Get on your feet and fly this ship!” the Lieutenant shouted.

The helmsman wiped his mouth.

“Let’s move it! To your station. We don’t have all day!” Adams knew that panic was best fought with small, digestible orders to provide a concrete focus.

The helmsman struggled into the console. The smoke had an acrid edge of burned plastic.

“Fall off two points,” the Lieutenant barked. The helmsman looked around, made several adjustments to his controls, and then eased the ship off. They were starting to follow the pull of the gravity field straight at the planet.

Adams checked the display and matched the present course with the orbital solution. The match was done by remembering a simple rule and doing a subtraction, but he could see that it was beyond his helmsman’s current ability.

“Up half a point,” Adams said, quietly.

Slowly, the helmsman hit the appropriate controls. His motions were slow, confused, and unsure, but he did carry them out.

“What was that, flier?” the Lieutenant asked.

“What sir?” the helmsman asked.

“What did we just do?” the Lieutenant demanded.

“Up half a point, sir?”

“Put a little life in it, next time,” Adams barked.

He checked the course again.

“Squids, sir,” Intelligence reported.

“Where?”

“Both sides, following out of range.”

“Helm!” the Lieutenant barked.

“Sir,” the helmsman replied, still quavering.

“Down half a point.” The adjustment was not really necessary, but it kept the helmsman busy. In a minute or two they would be a full point above their course. That would give the helmsman something more to do. If he recovered any self-control, he’d announce the deviation to the Lieutenant; that would be the best possible situation.

“Down half a point, aye.”

The Lieutenant took what comfort he could from having the helmsman making an effort to keep under control.

“Maintenance!”

The intercom crackled a moment as the entire bridge crew listened intently for a reply.

“Sir,” came a breathless response. “We’ve got a mat over the hole. We’re going to weld a plate in place.”

Lieutenant Jacob Adams breathed out. It was a surprisingly long breath. He realized he’d been breathing shallowly and rapidly. He took a few deeper, calmer breaths.

“Engineering!”

“Sir,” the intercom crackled.

“Get a detail down to the power plant to start making atmospheric gasses.” There was a pause.

“Sir,” came the reply, “we don’t have enough men to maneuver and make gasses.” Adams realized that this meant that some of the engineering crew had either been killed or disabled. He needed more information, but they needed a breathable atmosphere first. The remaining available crew were manning the guns. At first he thought of using the forward gun crews, but the idea of having to fight his way to the planet made that too risky. Then he remembered something he’d seen done when he was a midshipman.

“Even-numbered crews,” he barked into the intercom. “Even-numbered gun crews stand down. Port side report to engineering. Starboard side report to maintenance.”

The intercom jammed with acknowledgements. That would help keep his ship flying. Once they cleared the smoke and patched the hole, they would be able to resume more orderly and regular duties.

“Odd-numbered gun crews,” he said, more casually. “Fire on anything you see, in range or not. Conserve your power, but keep everything away from us, especially those squids.”


It wouldn’t take too much more good luck to survive. All that the Lieutenant needed was to make stellar orbit and converge with the planet. The crew would realize that the crisis was behind them. Their morale would shift back from panic to cocky confidence.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Nineteen

Fleet maneuvers were a matter of careful planning. Signals took time to propagate among the ships of the fleet. The executive officers conning the ships needed time to react to the orders. A small course change could take minutes to ripple down from the officer in charge through the bridge and engineering staff on a single ship. It could be an hour between the commodore’s first order and final confirmation that the entire fleet was on a new course.

Williams paced the bridge of the Horicon, leaving a wake of swirling cigarette smoke. Maneuvering the fleet as a unit through the band of dust and asteroid debris was an exercise in patience, something Williams lacked. Doubting every word from Whiting and Drover, he had read and re-read the intelligence assessments from the Henry base intelligence staff, as well as the intelligence officer of his own ship. Williams’ only certainty was the basic story that the Outer Rim had captured them and let them go. He could, however, not see the Outer Rim’s reason for this. Williams was persuaded that there were two possibilities: either they were released to convey a message or they were spies, turned by the Outer Rim to report on the Core Planets military operations. Williams could neutralize them as spies by having them watched carefully.

The bridge door chimed open, Williams scowled over his shoulder. It was a midshipman, reporting for bridge duty. The XO looked at Williams, Williams nodded. The XO strolled over to the midshipman.

“Hampton, you see that circle?” the XO shouted, pointing at a quarter-circle wedge painted on the deck in the corner of the bridge.

Midshipman Hampton nodded.

“Stand in the circle, observe bridge ops, and don’t move!” the XO shouted.

Hampton scurried into the painted wedge and stood at attention. It was Core Planets policy to introduce midshipmen to all aspects of a ship’s operation. However, Williams didn’t like the distraction of a raw hand on his bridge. He insisted that the midshipmen stay out of the way, quietly absorbing military operations without sending the mission astray. Hampton, recently assigned to Williams’ ship, had a background in civil engineering, and understood how bases were built and operated. Even though he was destined to work with Eyre, not fly a space ship, he still had to put in his bridge duty time.

D’Agostino was in command of engineering on this watch. He kept too many communication channels open at once; while some were useful to coordinate activity among the various drive systems on the ship, others were purely social. Unlike Hampton, he was not an officer, nor would he ever be an officer. He was a mate, on his third tour of duty on the Horicon. He was not moved around from ship to ship to gain command experience, he was part of the Horicon’s fixed crew.

Hampton had taken the time to read the plans, and knew that a maneuver was scheduled to reach past the star and planet in the midst of the dust cloud, propelling them toward Lyman base. The maneuver was relatively simple, and executed as a series of scripted orders.

“Position check,” the XO said at the planned time.

“Okay, boys, stand by to ease foils for a reach,” D’Agostino said, unnecessarily, to the engineering crew. Clearly, one of his friends was on duty, and D’Agostino was trying to sound like an important part of the bridge crew.

The bridge crew verified, again, their exact location relative to the star at the heart of the dust cloud. Hampton knew the procedure had a standard set of orders and responses. He was here to learn the litany of call and response required to maneuver a ship of the line.

“Helm, ready to fall off,” the XO said to the helmsman, sitting at the console in front of the XO.

“Ready,” the helmsman replied.

“Rig, ready to fall off,” the XO said.

“Ready,” D’Agostino replied, sitting at the console next to the helmsman. D’Agostino dialed another channel to his friends; “Make it crisp boys,” he said.

The XO glanced over at the comment, but realized it wasn’t directed at him. Williams lit another cigarette, looked over the XO’s shoulders at the status displays, assured that his plan was being executed perfectly.

“Helm, fall off three points,” the XO said.

“Three points off, aye,” the helm replied.

“Oh, no, belay that,” D’Agostino laughed, talking to his friend in engineering.

“Rig, fall off three points,” the XO said.

“Belaying. Helm amidships,” the helmsman replied to D’Agostino.

Hampton glanced over at the control stations. He was not completely sure what he’d just heard. Had the helmsman responded to D’Agostino, as if D’Agostino was giving orders? If he had, the helm was pointed one way and the gravity foils another.

“Ease,” D’Agostino said to the engineering staff. “Easing now,” D’Agostino said to the XO.

The exchange took just seconds; it would normally be a short time before the ship responded to the changes in the drive engines and gravity foils. Hampton waited to see what was going to happen. If he was right, the ship was not turning. D’Agostino’s jabbering had interrupted the solemn call-and-response litany of a course change.

“Looks good,” D’Agostino said to engineering. “Trim in.” He turned to the XO. “Three points off, aye.”

The XO looked at the chronometer. “Very good.” He thought he was following Williams’ plan to the minute.

Hampton glanced up at the course bearing indicators to see if the ship would start her graceful turn. None of the bearing indicators moved. Hampton looked at the helm. It was not set to the three points off position, it was centered. He looked over at the foil position indicators. They were set on a different course.

“Wonderful work boys,” D’Agostino said, unnecessarily. “There’s beers in this for you if you can turn this crisply next time.”

The star in the dust cloud was dead ahead; the rate of closing was accelerating.

“Excuse me,” Hampton said.

The XO turned and stared him down to cowed silence in his corner.

Hampton hoped that someone on the bridge would notice that they were on the wrong course. He checked the maneuvering board, and saw that the uninhabited planet’s gravity eddy was ahead, also.
“I think that was the fasted rig change ever,” D’Agostino chattered away with engineering.

“Sir,” Hampton said, “we didn’t change course.” The XO looked at Williams. Colonel Williams turned his mighty weight of authority and command on the midshipman. “What is your problem, son?” Williams said from his cloud of smoke.

“Sir, we didn’t change course. The star’s on a constant bearing and decreasing range.” Hampton knew it was the correct formal phrase, but it sounded stilted and needlessly wordy.

“You said it,” D’Agostino replied to someone in engineering. “Smooth, real smooth.” Williams looked over at the XO and winked. “A ship this size takes a little time to respond,” Williams said. Williams took a drag on his cigarette and fixed Hampton with a meaningful, knowing stare. Hampton’s gaze flicked between Williams’ smirk and the bridge crew.

The XO looked at the bearing indicators. He picked up his computer, read the numbers quietly to himself, then read the indicators to himself. Hampton could see that the XO was making absolutely sure that he was not misreading or misinterpreting. Hampton could see the physical change when the XO confirmed that they were off course and drifting into danger.

“Helm!” the XO barked.

“Sir!” the helmsman responded, clearly hoping for an order that would avoid driving straight into the star.

“Four degrees off,” the XO said, keeping a calm restraint.

“Four degrees off, aye,” the helmsman responded, relieved to be changing course.

“Rig! Close down that chatter, D’Agostino or so help me God I will have you arrested,” the XO bellowed.

“Ease all foils; ease, ease, ease,” D’Agostino said with real urgency.

The ship started to heel under the influence of the new star. Hampton grabbed a rail to brace himself. He looked up at the bearing indicators as two of them slowly swung in different directions. The foil position vectors slowly drifted until they matched the prevailing gravity slope vectors. The ship was finally picking up speed on the new course.

The XO demanded new position checks and new course plots. He demanded confirmation from every ship of the line that they had completed the maneuver successfully. Once he had barked orders at everyone on the bridge except Colonel Williams and Midshipman Hampton, he whirled on Hampton.
The door chimed open; Whiting and Drover were lead in by the Williams’ chief of intelligence. Williams held up a cautioning hand to the XO.

“Welcome,” Williams said. “I wanted you to join us on the bridge to see what your intelligence has done for us.”

Whiting nodded. She stood approximately at attention on the sloping deck. Drover looked for place to sit. The only unoccupied chair seemed to be Williams’. He looked for a place to lean, and saw midshipman Hampton clinging to a hand-rail in a prime spot behind the door. He looked down and saw the painted wedge of a circle surrounding him.

“Dunce chair?” Drover asked him.

Hampton looked confused. “No, sir, midshipman’s observation station.” Drover nodded. “Who’d you piss off?”

Hampton looked over at Williams and the XO, but said nothing.

“What have the scouts encountered?” Whiting asked, all business.

Williams scowled at Drover and Hampton. He waved his cigarette expansively for a moment, preparing to speak. Then he took a few steps closer to Whiting.

“I didn’t deploy scouts,” he said. He made it sound like scouts were a criminal waste of manpower and fuel.

Whiting blinked, eyes level, staring off into the military middle distance when addressed by a superior officer.

“No scouts?” she asked, separating the two words.

Williams took a big drag on his cigarette. He exhaled slowly.

“Lieutenant Colonel Whiting,” he began. He contemplated his cigarette. “This is all about speed of deployment. Time is a precious commodity, and you have to do more with your allotted time than the  enemy can.”

Williams was repeating the stock military doctrine. Whiting knew this, and bristled at being treated like a pogue or cadet in front of the entire bridge crew of the Horicon.

Drover’s computer burbled. Hampton looked over, menacingly, as did Whiting and Williams. The marine sentry at the door to the bridge picked his weapon up off the floor.

Drover slumped against the wall. He couldn’t make himself any smaller. He eased one module of the computer out of a pocket and flipped open a cover. He looked down at the display closely and hit a key.

The alarm was a voice communication from Mo Lusc. The communicator squealed, “Is the trap ready? Are we able hunters, willing to wait? Are we here?”

Larry looked around. He reviewed his rough mental map of the situation. He turned to where “forward” was, relative to the bridge. Off to the port side was a star, with a nearby planet. Ahead and above was another star, the Lyman base. The fleet was strung out behind them. Larry was trying to visualize where Cephalopods might be hiding. He scowled trying to fathom Mo’s hint.

Larry walked over to the local sensor systems console. Because they had their filters set to see the entire convoy of large Core Planet military ships, they would barely be able to see something as small as the Mule II. They’d never see a scout or a Ceph ship. Further, there was so much clutter from dust and debris that the display was almost opaque.

Larry reached over the flier’s shoulder to adjust the resolution of the display.

The operator shifted in his seat to block Drover.

The XO barked at Drover, “Please, sir, don’t touch the controls.” Drover looked over at the XO and Williams. They were staring hard at Drover. Williams glanced at the sentry. Drover followed his glance and realized the sentry had picked up the gun and was ready to start aiming it at something. Drover looked over at the chief of intelligence. He had his hand on his side arm.

Drover could see that this had the makings of a very ugly situation. He didn’t know that Williams had instructed his bridge crew to treat Drover and Whiting as Outer Rim double agents.

Drover backed into the corner. He glanced down at his computer, then up at Williams, Whiting, the XO and the marine sentry. He looked over at Hampton. Hampton had edged away from Drover, leaving his proscribed wedge of a circle to Drover.

Drover held his computer up to show everyone that he was just chatting with his flight engineer.
“Show me,” Larry said.

The bridge crew turned away, but did not relax.

“Sir,” the sensor operator said.

The intelligence officer stepped up to look over the sensor operator’s shoulder. Williams, trailing smoke, stepped up behind the intelligence officer to watch the proceedings.

Mo forwarded a sensor display to Larry’s computer. It showed the situation from the Mule II’s vantage point, tucked in a landing bay of the Horicon. Mo’s display had been correctly filtered to show smaller-sized ships, with stationary debris clutter removed. It had been sent through Mo’s phase difference filter that emphasized Cephalopod ships. There were dozens of large Cephalopod warships strung out, parallel to the fleet.

Williams had flown into a Cephalopod ambush.

“There’s dozens,” Larry said to Mo.

Williams waved his cigarette, and turned to Drover. “Yes, we expect to find ships for about fourteen hundred, fully engaged at Lyman Base.”

Drover stared hard at Natalie. She’d stopped staring straight ahead, and was watching Larry closely. Larry looked slowly and meaningfully down at his computer, then back up at her. Natalie’s eyes narrowed, her forehead started to furrow as the possibilities began to percolate. Larry waved the computer in a small circle. She slowly looked at the situation display and back to Larry. Larry looked down at the computer.

“Will you excuse us for a moment, sir?” Whiting asked, trying to sound crisp, military and ordinary.
Williams turned to the intelligence officer, winked and smirked. Williams waved his cigarette in a broad, dismissive gesture.

Larry got ready to say something, but stopped when Whiting made a fierce-looking “shut-up” face at him.

As Whiting stepped over to the door, the intelligence officer nodded; the marine sentry stepped aside, setting his weapon back on the deck. Larry waved the computer.

“It’s very important, Mo says,” Larry said, trying to drop a hint of the full importance.

“I’ll talk with Drover, sir,” Whiting said, more as a question than a statement.

Williams waved his cigarette. The sensor operator started twiddling controls on the sensor control panel.


Drover and Whiting stepped off the bridge into a companionway. The marine in the corridor stepped back, eyeing them coldly.

“What the hell was that all about?” Whiting hissed.

The door swung open and the intelligence officer stepped off the bridge. He looked at Whiting and Drover, then glanced up and down the hallway. There was a marine sentry standing a short distance away.

“Is there a problem?” the intelligence officer asked Whiting.

She ignored him and turned to Larry.

“Squids, dozens. We’re flying into a trap,” Larry said.

Whiting looked puzzled; her face contorted into a scowl. Larry could see her internal struggle written on her face. The intelligence officer looked back and forth between Whiting and Drover.

Larry suddenly felt very weak. He was trapped on someone else’s ship; someone who couldn’t organize a simple convoy properly. Whiting turned to scowl at the bridge entrance door.

Whiting took the computer out of his hand and squinted at the display.

“Is this current?” she asked.

The computer squawked a response. She looked at Larry.

“Real time,” Larry croaked, his throat dry.

“That idiot couldn’t find his ass with both hands,” Whiting said, scowling.

The intelligence officer took Larry’s computer from Whiting. “This can’t be right,” he said.

“We’re flying into a trap. Squids,” Larry began. “Outer Rim ships, everything.” Whiting looked hard at Larry. “We’ve got to do something,” she said.

“Do?” Larry said. “Can’t you just leave me out of this?” Larry was having a hard time convincing himself there was anything he could do. There was little chance of the Horicon passing through the crowd of Cephalopods unscathed. Williams would never believe them.

Whiting scowled through the half-open door, past the intelligence officer into the bridge again. Larry followed her gaze, wondering what she could do.

“Listen, pilot, the sensors on this line of battle ship don’t show any of this,” the intelligence officer stated.

Larry felt apologetic when Natalie turned back to him again. He was out of options; he couldn’t do anything to help her. Her anger seemed to soften; her expression seemed to shift just slightly. Her scowl had resolved into some kind of action.

Natalie saw two men in complete denial of the real situation. One was toeing the official line of lies; his attitude of denial and suspicion was applied to only unofficial sources. The other was harboring a romantic ideal of a frontier, unaware that it was being transformed from empty space into an armed and hostile border. She felt the deeply-held idealism herself.

“No,” she said, “I can’t leave you out of this. Your old frontier is gone, fly-boy.” She could see that he was frozen with terror. In his element, he was one of the best pilots she’d ever seen. Here, on someone else’s ship, he was paralyzed, unable to save himself. While Horicon could take care of itself, she could see that Larry needed someone to get him to safety.

Within the bridge, an alarm clanged. The light over the entrance door switched from green to red. The intelligence officer looked from them to the bridge and back. Natalie grabbed Larry by the hand and started dragging him down the hallway, away from the bridge.

“Mo!” she said to the computer, “Mo! Get to a scout ship!” The intelligence officer shouted something to the marine and ran into the bridge.

“Can they find scout pier five, bay foxtrot upper?” the computer squealed.

Reluctantly, Larry dragged along behind her. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“We’re abandoning ship,” she said over her shoulder.

Larry stopped hard, yanking his hand free from hers. She was deserting her post; he didn’t know much about military law, but this had to be dereliction of duty. She may have been in trouble for getting caught, but she would be shot for abandoning the Horicon when it was under attack.

“You can’t,” he stammered. “I mean you’re a Marine.” Whiting almost laughed at him. “Listen, I’m keeping our options option, here,” she said. “Get it?” She grabbed his hand and dragged him down the corridor and yanked him around a corner. They ran along the corridors past piers one and three. Larry, unused to running, was winded. Natalie, who had put in endless kilometers on her treadmill, jogged along easily, warming up as she ran.

“Almost there,” she said, stumbling through the bulkhead labeled with a giant “5”.

A large, dull explosion rolled through the ship. A gust of hot air rushed down the corridor as the ship tipped ninety degrees. The right-hand wall became the floor, throwing Larry and Natalie off their feet. Larry fell onto a doorway of some kind on his side of the massive structural bulkhead. Natalie vanished into an equipment locker on the far side of the bulkhead. Another equipment locker on the upper side of the corridor sprang open, and a pile of tools and supplies rained down on her as the ship rotated onto its side.

Alarms started blaring throughout the ship. Different alarms had different hoots and wails, creating a diabolical symphony of shouts for attention. The main lighting flickered, failed and was replaced by feeble emergency lighting filling the howling gloom with a hellish red glare. Larry got to his knees and looked over the edge of the bulkhead into the gloom of Pier Five. Whiting lay amid a pile of cleaning supplies.

“Hull Breach in Section One,” the emergency annunciator said, cutting through the blare of horns and alarms. The bulkhead door started to grind closed. A faint breeze picked up, blowing a thin trail of smoke out of pier five.

Larry hooked his leg over the edge of the bulkhead. The faint whistle of a breeze was rising in pitch as the door closed. Larry sat astride the edge of the bulkhead for a moment. Now that the ship was on her side, the barrier was rising from the floor and descending from the ceiling.

Whiting grabbed Drover and dragged him into pier five as the door continued to grind shut and the breeze rose in pitch. A pair of tentacles shot through the thigh-sized opening that remained in the bulkhead door. As the bulkhead door crunched shut, Mo squirted into the pier.

The ship shuddered. Several doors along the pier dropped open, banging open into the rooms that lay below their feet. They heard the clunk of falling equipment, and the groan of the ship’s structure as it shifted into new positions. Creaks and pops echoed throughout the ship.

Another rolling explosion temporarily drowned out the alarms and sirens.

Whiting jutted her jaw and popped her ears to equalize the pressure. Larry pinched his nose and blew. It took him two tries to get equalized. The pressure was falling fast.


“Still dropping,” Larry said. “This section’s breached somewhere, too.”

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Eighteen

The Core Planets military doctrine was to have a very mobile force of marines, able to either defend or assault as necessary. Rapid deployment was the essence of this strategy. Since time was one resource that was always in short supply, they strove to leverage time as the key to military victory, demanding more in less time than any possible adversary.

The Henry base was heavily defended by a large expeditionary fleet. The fleet was capable of prolonged travel through otherwise uninhabited space. It contained the makings of a complete, temporary base. While capable of almost anything, progress was faster when supported by resupply from an established base.

The flagship of the fleet was Colonel Williams’ ship, the Horicon. It was a large third-rate ship, commanding teams of lower-rated ships. These ships, in turn, were supported by the smaller frigates and tiny scouts.

Colonel Williams wasted no time in organizing a task force for the relief of Lyman base. He demanded lists of ships of various types. He knew the standard ratios of smaller ships to line-of-battle ships. He also knew the captains that were personal friends of Johnson, and those that were essential to the defense of the new Henry base. Of the remaining captains, he allocated the battle ships that, coupled with their supporting frigates and scouts would round out his allocation of ships.

Following Williams’ hastily organized force, there was vast second army of Cephalopods. These were drawn from the nations of Cephalopods who were aligned with the Core Planets, friendly to the increasing trade between Mammals and Cephalopods. Their most prominent leader was a Cephalopod called Hendrick.

Williams strode into the cramped mess area on Hendrick’s flag ship. It was large by Cephalopod standards, but tiny by Mammal standards. The ship held two or three pods, somewhere between a dozen and eighteen Cephalopods, was heavily armed, and highly maneuverable. Like Core Systems ships, the gravity drive systems dominated the interior space, leaving only narrow twisting corridors. The mess area had a high ceiling, but Williams still had to stoop slightly. A number of low platforms were scattered about, each platform held a depression, presumably for food.

There was a rich vomit-sweet Cephalopod smell throughout the ship. It turned Williams’ stomach, but over his years of Cephalopod contact, he had grown used to the smell, and now associated it with his alliance with Hendrick and their mutual preparations for defense against the Outer Rim incursions.

The atmosphere was a very different mixture than Mammal ships, and Williams had a supplemental nasal inhaler to feed a helium-nitrogen mix to dilute the high levels of oxygen in the Cephalopods used. The metal gas bottle seemed to weigh a ton, tugging his pants down. He was already dying for a cigarette, but he had been warned away from open fires in a Cephalopod ship.

Williams had brought five ordinary Marines with him. They stood in a small group in the mess area.
“Fan out and fall back when they enter. This is just for show, boys; Hendrick’s a good Squid. He can’t trust anyone who flies solo, he’s just a Squid.”

“Sir?” one of the marines asked.

Williams peered at the name plate. “Sure, Corporal Kaszluga, what is it?” “Sir, why do they have to stink so bad?”

Williams grinned. A tense chuckle passed among the marines.

“Your god-damned grunt sweat is killing me, marine; think what its doing to them.” The marines were polite enough to laugh at their commanding officer’s joke.

“Chemical weapons,” the corporal replied.

The others laughed.

“Squid, sir,” he said, stiffening.

“Semi-circle, on me,” Williams said, and turned to greet Hendrick.

Kaszluga moved the marines into a semi-circle with Williams near the middle. They shuffled for a moment, looking at each other. Williams realized he’d forgotten to bring a sergeant. The corporal looked at his men, shrugged, and they slid into nervous-looking at-ease positions.

Hendrick oozed in, followed by the rest of his pod. Williams and Hendrick both stepped forward, circled each other, touched finger tips to tentacles and fell back in with their pods. One of Hendrick’s fine “finger” tentacles was a foot shorter than the other and ended in an ugly knot of old scar tissue.
“Is this the crisis?” Hendrick’s synthesized chimed.

Hendrick’s head was dominated by several large scars. They ran from its back, covered by a gown, past the eyes and down through the tentacles to its beak. Only the puckered skin between the eyes and around the right eye could be seen; the left eye had been lost in a battle years ago.

“This is it. The Outer Rim has assaulted some of our transports. Several were captured, and at least one was subsequently released.”

“Will we attack now?” Hendrick asked.

“Our leader’s answer is still no. We will defend.” Williams knew that General Johnson was going to focus all available forces on his Henry base in spite of anything else that happened. He also knew that the forces remaining at Lyman base were unable to carry on an attack of any scale. What would become of Core Planets defense in this cluster depended on an old man focused on a personal empire.

“What do we defend?”

Williams pulled at his lower lip. “We defend the Lyman base. They will attack there first, cutting the Lyman away from Henry.”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. The Cephs flickered among themselves. Williams looked around at them. In addition to a sergeant, he should have brought an intelligence officer who could help him understand the Cephalopod conversation. The conversation was obviously very important, but it was impossible to tell what they were talking about.

“Will you be blocked?”

Williams waved Hendrick off. He did not notice the flicker that passed among the Cephs in response to his gestures. “They’ll attack Lyman, we’ll flank them.”

“Will Caughnawaga be there?” Hendrick asked.

Williams shook his head and sighed. “This is no way to fight a war. You’ve got your own intelligence sources, you tell me if this Caughnawaga Squid will be there. We don’t have much time. I’m going, and you can go in convoy with us.”

Williams looked around at his troop of marines for support. Dutifully, they were staring down their Cephalopod counterparts. Williams caught the Corporal’s eye and nodded to him. The corporal looked back, blankly.

“Will Caughnawaga block your convoy?”

Williams shook his head again. “Listen, Hendrick, I’ve got ships for twelve hundred fighters ready to move. I’m asking you to help us.”

There was more flickering among the Cephalopods. Williams looked back at Corporal Kaszluga. The Corporal was watching the Cephs intently; it appeared that he was following part of their conversation.

“Have we always helped the mammals?” Hendrick asked.

It was as positive a response as a Cephalopod would produce in front of a Mammal. Williams would have liked their speech synthesizers to appear more definite.


When Drover and Whiting boarded the Horicon, they found it was absolute mayhem. Troops thundered down every companionway. Heavily armed marines, loaded with armor, supplies and equipment, raced from quarters to supply depots and from supply depots to marshaling points and from there to battle stations.

Whiting steered Drover away from the Horicon’s bridge. They squeezed down a couple of companionways filled with columns of marines. When the last troop had thundered by, Whiting grabbed him by the elbow and spun Drover around. She had a grip like a pipe wrench.

“Wife?” she said.

Larry shrugged. He looked around. There was no troop of marines to break up the conversation. He was trapped in the stare of those intense brown eyes.

“Summary execution,” he replied.

Whiting shook her head. “I don’t know which is worse,” she said.

Larry laughed at the idea of her involved in any kind of marriage. He could feel pity for anyone involved in a partnership with her. She was ruthless, and willing to wave a gun around to get her way. Any relationship with her would be very one-sided.

“It’s not like anything actually happened,” he said, even though that was not completely true. They’d worked together with only a nod and outfoxed the Outer Rim intelligence service. That was a kind of second-guessing intimacy that Larry shared with Mo, but very few people. If he forgot about her pulling a gun on him, he felt that he could almost trust her, even in a real crisis where they faced death instead of arrest.

“So, where’d you get that suit?” she asked, pinning him with an intense gaze.

Larry guessed that the question wasn’t casual. “Crailo, I think. You don’t like it?” 

“I don’t think it will ever be in style again. And what’s that Sal thing with your key?” she asked.

Larry slumped; this was not going to go well. He specifically bought the suit because it had a classic cut, from the earliest days of the frontier expansion in part of the galaxy. Now she was classifying it as simply old. She didn’t like music. In particular, his newly purchased recordings of ancient of canal songs were something she’d complained about.

“You don’t want to know,” he said, looking away.

She squinted slightly at his evasive answer. “Why not?” Larry sighed. “It’s on your list,” he said, looking at the deck.

“What list?” she asked.

Larry shrugged and dug his hands into his flight suit pockets.

“Cocky, greedy, talkative,” he said, risking a glance at her. She might have been smiling or she might have been embarrassed.

“Which is Sal?”

She’d probably heard it on the flight deck in the music system. It was one of the better canal songs. There was some issue about the song coming a century after the original canal systems, but history of pre-spaceflight Earth was a complex and difficult subject.

“A song,” he said.

Larry looked again. She was definitely smiling. Larry hoped that even if he wouldn’t get to play the music at top volume again, they might spend less time arguing about it.

“I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal. She’s a—,” he started singing.

Whiting stormed off toward the bridge for a few steps. She turned back to Larry. “Now I know why I dislike you so much,” she said. She turned back down the companionway that led to the bridge.

“Oh, and you’re a real treat to have around, Miss Sweetness and Light,” Larry shouted after her.


On the bridge of the Outer Rim flagship, Champlain, Dieskau checked on the status of his attack plans. Almost everything in space interfered with communications. The dust cloud was almost opaque to most signals. When ships were propagating above the speed of light, most forms of signaling were slower than the ship itself. Scout ships were used to move between the fleet and the ships stationed in the dust cloud, relaying messages.

Dieskau had several intelligence officers on the bridge, as well as Linois, the captain of the Champlain. The Commodore of the fleet was absent, Dieskau noted, as was appropriate. The details of managing a fleet were endless, and Dieskau delegated them readily. Being Commodore called for an occasional ceremony and endless accounting for the ships of the fleet.

Colonel Montgomery, standing near Dieskau, flinched away in response to a communication. He covered his ear, the better to hear the message. When he had confirmed the message, he stepped up and saluted Dieskau.

Dieskau did not return the salute or look away from the situation display. “The trap is in position?” he asked.

Montgomery checked a note on his computer. “Yes, Baron Dieskau. The trap fleet has taken defensive positions.”

Dieskau nodded. He checked the time on the display. The plan was behind schedule by hours, perhaps an entire day. It meant that the ships’ crews would be tired, and not as effective as he demanded.

Dieskau turned to Linois. “This dust cloud is so perfect. I can so easily turn their defenses into my offenses.”

Linois looked over a Dieskau. Linois was several steps below Dieskau in rank, but above him in the complex social peerage of the Outer Rim. Dieskau was a skilled mercenary, but could not properly address Captain Linois, who was a Marquis. Linois preferred rigid adherence to a social hierarchy that gave him rank, privilege and wealth. He would never willingly lower himself by responding to a casual comment by a Baron, even the supreme military commander in this remote cluster of the Outer Rim.


In one of the message-running scout ships, Carillon Two, Soiros completed his scan of the planetary mass that drifted with the dust cloud. With a large number of Outer Rim ships moving through the cloud, it had already been scanned several times. Soiros was aware that a single Core planets scout ship, hidden by the planet, could alert the Lyman base, and tip the scale of the battle. More important than that, Soiros knew that if he found that stray scout, he would be more visible as a top intelligence officer and would certainly be promoted.

Kibber picked his way through the dust, minimizing damage to the scout ship. He was attached to Frigate Champlain Four. As part of that task force, his mission was to stay well away from the main part of the fleet, looking for Core planets ships entering the trap in the dust cloud.

Kibber opened up the ship intercom. “What’s on the planet?” he asked Soiros.

“They call it a pod rock,” Soiros replied. “Little indigenous life. They’re not using it.” Frank changed a channel on one of his displays to bring up a recording of the last survey pass of the planet. It had atmosphere and gravity; some water. Like most inhabitable planets, it had a wide variety of algae and unicellular slime.

“They’d have to be one desperate son of a bitch to put down there.” Soiros nodded in agreement. This was so impossibly far from his home planet that he had trouble understanding the distances involved. It had taken weeks to get here on carefully planned legs of his trip. Were he to crash here, he would never be rescued. If it came to a fight, he preferred death in space to the lingering death that would come from landing on that rock. Water was the critical factor, he knew, and ships could make water on many types of planets for extended periods of time. Eventually, however, systems would begin to fail, and death would slowly creep on those who survived the battle in space.


On the bridge of the Champlain, the situation display showed the almost perfect concealment of the Outer Rim fleet in the dust and debris cloud. The Champlain’s sensors, baffled by the orbiting detritus, picked up essentially nothing of the ships. With engines off and only passive sensors operating, the fleet was nearly invisible.

Dieskau knew that the most difficult part of ambush was waiting for the proper moment to project shock and terror through the approaching enemy. He was confident that his fleet had the necessary fire discipline to wait. He was also sure that the Cephalopods would cower, waiting for the Outer Rim to commence firing before they came out of hiding.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a nod from one of the communications officers. Linois caught it and sidled over to the console. With growing rage, Dieskau saw Linois holding a whispered conversation with the communications officer. Dieskau turned to stare at Linois with open contempt. While Linois was the captain of the ship, the bridge was his domain and Dieskau was only a guest; however, Dieskau was commander over the entire military operation.

Linois nodded to the communications officer and straightened up.

“Squid Caughnawaga, sir,” the officer said.

Dieskau found the awkward situation made worse by the difference in social position between Linois and himself. Dieskau forced himself to look at the communications officer and nod.

The squid’s image blinked onto a corner of the situation display.

“Caughnawaga”, Dieskau said as a greeting. The ambush was poised, waiting for the actual fighting to begin; Dieskau could barely contain his joy. “Your troops are deployed?”

Caughnawaga’s speech synthesizer was connected directly to the communication system; it chimed and then boomed with an inhuman volume, “Is the trap ready? Are we able hunters, willing to wait?”

Dieskau looked closely at Caughnawaga’s image. The question told Dieskau that they had a very complete picture of the situation. Dieskau had never characterized the ambush as a trap, it was a conclusion that the Cephalopods had drawn. He didn’t like having Cephalopod trying to confirm his battle plans. But it also meant that the Cephalopods tacitly agreed with that part of his strategy. That was the first step toward using them as an effective weapon, saving the Outer Rim from loss of ships or lives.

“We must turn our attention to the strike at Lyman, once we have struck down a few Core transports and your pod is armed with Core weapons,” Dieskau said. “Your Cephalopod attack will drive the Outer Rim and their Squid,” Dieskau had added before realizing that he shouldn’t use the derogatory term. “You will drive their Cephalopod allies,” he corrected himself, “from this cluster.”

Caughnawaga stood, swaying slightly. In the background, Dieskau could see the other squids in the pod. He could see that they were armored, even on their own ship. It made perfect sense, when Dieskau considered that their favorite attack mode was a ship-to-ship assault. The silence dragged out, while Caughnawaga’s image flickered a silent conversation among the pod in the background.

Then the Caughnawaga’s synthesizer chimed, “We do not fight our own.” It took a moment before Dieskau understood the enormity of this statement. Caughnawaga was announcing that there were other Cephalopods supporting the Core Planets, and Caughnawaga was using this as some kind of excuse from combat. Dieskau slapped the situation display. He strode across the bridge and back. The phrase echoed through Dieskau: they do not attack their own. Intelligence had failed, again, to understand the Cephalopod alliances. He had been assured that Caughnawaga commanded a large, completely independent force; he understood that the other prominent squid leaders, including Hendrick and Abenaki, were not allies with Caughnawaga. Dieskau was becoming very afraid that the Cephalopod alliances had shifted in some subtle way, exposing his fleet, and the Carillon base. Perhaps that was why Caughnawaga’s pod was not here on the bridge of the Champlain.

Dieskau could see other possibilities. There was a possibility that this was the first hint of the Cephalopods uniting against the Mammals. There was a chance that Hendrick and Caughnawaga were not completely independent. If they were only lords under some higher king, they may have been compelled to stay out of the Mammal’s fight. Dieskau wondered how he could confirm that these were really two factions within a shadowy federation of Cephalopod empires.

In another flash of insight, Dieskau realized that he may be the only person in the Outer Rim that understood the enormity of what Caughnawaga had said. The entire ambush was beginning to look like something the squids had engineered by cooperating with each of the Mammal empires. Dieskau could see a new career opening before him as the envoy between the Outer Rim and this hidden Cephalopod empire.

Dieskau focused on the display. “You will fight the mammals,” he said. He immediately regretted his querulous tone. He should give commands, not seek confirmation.


Dieskau turned to Captain Linois and gave the sign to end transmission. Linois nodded to the communications officer, who announced the end of the transmission. The Cephalopod vanished, leaving an emptiness where the situation display had been.