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.
“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.
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.
“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.