The Kaydeross was one of the six frigates that supported the Horicon. She was an older style of Core Planets ship; even though she had been refit for military service, she retained her original name. She was rated for a full complement of weapons and marines.
In spite of her crew’s efforts, she was leaking away her precious atmosphere. The crew had managed to put a mat over the hole and slow the leak. An engineering crewmember had welded the number two weapons turret door shut to stop the flow of the atmosphere, but the pressure difference had wrenched open some conduits. They had stuffed another mat into the new holes, but this was only an interim solution. They needed to reroute some of the ship’s plumbing and control lines, brace up the frame and try again to weld the holes shut.
The ship had been shot by a succession of Outer Rim scouts and frigates. If they could stop the leak, they would escape with only the four killed when weapons turret two was ripped open to the merciless void of space.
On the bridge, something had caught fire, but no one was sure precisely what. They could all smell the acrid burning; a thin smoke brought tears to everyone’s eyes. They had opened cabinets and lockers, but hadn’t found the fire yet.
The Kaydeross was Lieutenant Adams’ first independent command. He had spent years in the service under captains on larger craft in fleet battles and ship-to-ship actions. This was his first irreparable leak. He’d exercised every trick used by engineers on other ships to stop a leak, but nothing had worked completely.
Adams had been standing when they took the fatal hit. He’d been knocked across the small frigate cockpit and his head had been cut open on the edge of a console. The corpsman had taped the wound shut and given him a shot of adrenaline. Adams was dizzy, sore and sick to his stomach. He could taste blood in his throat.
He was standing again, holding onto the sensor console. He didn’t dare sit, for fear that he would pass out. The sensor showed their tactical situation: at the moment they were not being actively pursued by the Outer Rim.
“What’s on the rock?” Adams asked the sensor officer.
Because the sensor officer had to switch from the tactical display to a search display, this left them momentarily blind. They had no real choice: they didn’t have enough life support to limp back to Henry base, nor could they stay and fight. They needed to locate other Core troops on the planet, or they would be destroyed where they landed.
“I think I’ve found them,” the sensor officer announced. “They’ve placed a code beacon in a valley.”
There was a general sigh of relief around the cockpit. They had an escape plan, this renewed their confidence.
Adams opened the intercom to engineering. After the collision, there was a chance that landing might be impossible. Adams had to choose between applying their engineering effort to landing or stopping the leak. He didn’t know if the leak would kill them before they had a chance to land. There were too many unknowns.
“Ready for gravity?” he asked, hoping the answer would be affirmative.
There was a long delay. A long delay meant they were testing ground tackle and landing gear. That was a positive sign. If the landing gear had been destroyed, the answer would have been an immediate negative.
“Stand by, sir,” came the answer from engineering. “We’ve got—.” The intercom buzzed idly for a moment. “I think we’ve had some supports shot away.”
Adams found the alternatives were all bleak. Without supports, they couldn’t take the hard gracefully; the ship would be destroyed; they’d survive the landing, but they’d never take off again. He could always try and tough it out in orbit, hoping for support from other ships. Whiting had already ordered him into the firing line; if they could patch the hole, they could still join the fleet for protection. However, the leak would kill them if they tried to fight.
Adams knew that his entire military career boiled down to finding an immediate answer to the question of which was smarter: destroying the ship in a landing or risking destruction in a fight. He was still convinced they had to take the hard, but a crash landing was no better than staying and fighting.
His head was killing him. When he’d been thrown across the cockpit in the accident, he’d been banged up badly. Gagging on the blood in his throat; he knew he needed medical attention. He just wanted to lie down and sleep. He had to make a decision and the throbbing and dizziness made it impossible to think.
He reached for the intercom switch, but as he wavered, the computer announced, “Pressure Dropping in Weapons Turret Three.”
That was the final word. A second turret was leaking, which meant the hull had suffered too much stress and was starting to break up. A crash landing would save some of the crew, while a delay to attempt repairs would cost them the entire ship.
He hit the ship’s general intercom switch. The familiar, traditional boatswain’s whistle called “now hear this” to all of his crew on his damaged ship.
“You swabs ready to finish this fight on the hard?” The cockpit crew made a noise midway between a “hoo-yah” grunt and a cheer.
The intercom burbled from the engineering in the waist, “As ready as we can be. If we can’t beat ‘em in space, we’ll be ‘em on the rock.”
That was the right answer. Adams was pleased that there was still some fight left in his crew. He hoped that once they were on the rock, he could lie down and rest and leave the fighting to someone else. He was suddenly very tired.
Adams stumbled to the command console. He struggled with the straps to secure himself during the landing.
He opened the intercom to engineering and the cockpit crew. “Take her down,” he said.
He put his head back, gingerly, on the support and closed his eyes, just for a moment. He hoped that the jarring impact of landing would wake him up.
The rock was dusty, barren, and scoured by an endless wind. The solar system had several orbits of dust and debris in addition to the single, remaining planet. The dust reduced the light to a very low level, making life almost impossible on the planet. The Horicon Five had landed in a long, dusty valley that provided plenty of flat space for other ships. It was a typical geologic syncline; the rim of hills on three sides provided defensive placements. The fourth side faced west and had a broad opening down to a shallow, empty chasm. This provided a killing zone or an escape path, depending on what the enemy chose to do.
Once the Horicon Five crew put up a beacon, other ships started landing, or attempting to land. Another frigate and several scouts had landed successfully, a few scouts had crashed, one of the crashes had burst into flames and continued to burn fitfully in the grinding wind.
Except for the fires, it looked vaguely like any impoverished space port. A few working ships were surrounded by rotting hulks. People dragged themselves around, hoping for some relief from their abject situation.
Once on the hard, the weapons had to be removed from the ships to make a defensive perimeter. Even though warships carried surface craft for this kind of work, it was still painful and grueling. The weapons were massive, the planet was large, and the tremendous gravity made everything difficult.
Before a complete perimeter could be erected, the Cephalopods started to arrive. The Core Marines had erected a small communications station, using the sensors removed from the Sacroon Three to scan for hostile activity. The Cephs had entered the atmosphere on the far side of the planet, flown low and fast, using the curve of the planet to hide them until they were less than 500 kilometers away. They covered the last few kilometers on the ground.
The first Cephalopod assault had been a complete surprise. The Cephs had maneuvered a huge cannon up onto the ridge. The first shot had destroyed a cannon still mounted in the Sacroon One, killing or injuring a dozen marines. The hull breach had made the ship uninhabitable. The return fire from three other cannon had destroyed the Cephalopod cannon and the vehicles pushing it up the ridge.
The Cephalopods retreated for several hours. The marines continued to wrestle cannon out of their grounded ships. The immediate threat of Cephalopod attack put urgency into their work.
Corporal Dave had just started his second tour of duty. He had joined the marines to see exotic new planets, meet interesting people and blow stuff up with the largest, cruelest weapons mankind had ever invented. He had adjusted well to the Corps; the pain and humiliation of boot camp had seemed funny. He had kept a notebook of the bizarre expressions used by drill instructors to try and shape the new pogues into fighting marines.
Under more normal conditions, he was of no real consequence in the Marine command hierarchy. But here, he was suddenly a senior officer. The available ship’s commanders had worked out an organization, and he was now expected to participate in mission planning meetings. He didn’t think that the simple task of moving a cannon required a formal mission plan, but he laid out the necessary sequence of tasks crisply and confidently.
The result of the meeting was his assignment to take Gerry and Mark over to the Horicon Five and remove the cannon. They prepared a vehicle, checked their weapons and armor. Corporal Dave had known Gerry for over a year. Mark was relatively new to their unit, but had been a lot of fun when they were at liberty on different bases around the cluster.
The Horicon Five had collapsed as it landed, then took even more damage from Squid attacks. The pilot had done a good job of attempting a soft landing, but the ship’s framework had been too far gone from damage in the initial attack. While the ship would never fly again, a number of systems could be salvaged.
Gerry worked at removing the fastenings that held the gun in place. Mark used the heavy manipulators on the truck to ease the cannon out of the ship.
Dave looked around at their encampment. He could see that they needed to rig a perimeter, and then move some of the ships together, gut the interiors and make a serviceable habitat. He could also see that they needed to man the ridges to keep the Cephalopods at bay until they could be rescued.
He never saw the movement on the ridge. He heard the small PANG of something hitting the hull of the Horicon Five above him. This was followed by the distant POP-POP-POP of Cephalopod small-arms fire.
“Friggin’ Squids!” Dave shouted to his team. “Cover!” He ran for a piece of ship’s armor that he could crouch behind. The nearest Core defensive cannon boomed; a jet of fire reached out to the ridge. Sometimes the ion stream would cause electrical problems in the powered armor the marines wore. Corporal Dave hoped that his armor was solid this time. He didn’t want to fall on his face out in the open.
Dave threw his back against the scrap of ship’s armor so he could watch his team running to join him. Gerry, weapon at the ready, flopped down next to him in the shadow of the huge scrap of metal. Mark ran over and kneeled on the other side, aiming his rifle at the ridge.
“Too bad we got breached,” Gerry said. “This planet sucks.” They heard a ripple of Cephalopod fire smashing into the armor they crouched behind. As Dave had expected, they had drawn fire by moving around. They were salted with bits of the armor’s ablative coating.
“Another crappy day on the frontier,” Mark said.
Dave stepped back a step or two from the piece of armor. Mark was leaning around the edge of the armor, taking sight on something. Gerry, still prone, wriggled over to look around the other edge. Dave moved so he could lean over Gerry to locate their opponents.
Up on the ridge, he could see movement. He heard the whine of the nearby cannon recharging. How long before they could fire? The ridge was too far for their weapons to have much effect. He thought it better to lay low and wait for the cannon to recharge, almost anything they did would only draw more fire.
Before the Core cannon could fully recharge, the Cephalopod cannon wiped out Corporal Dave, Gerry and Mark, as well as their crumpled piece of armor. They were all blasted into anonymous bits of debris. The Cephalopod shot, however, gave the Mammals a backtrack that allowed them to retaliate, destroying the Cephalopod cannon, vehicles and sensors. The Marines called it a “six-to-one” when a pod of Squids was killed for each Mammal lost.
The Outer Rim scout was not very maneuverable with the Core Scout Horicon Five Foxtrot Upper attached to it. It tripled the mass of the Scout, and as they started to deploy gravity foils, they could only crab along sideways. Larry guessed that Mo had never towed another ship. Mo was unusually quiet, and took a long time to execute any commands. Larry had towed ships before, but never in close proximity to ships firing ion cannons at everything that moved.
While Whiting organized the remains of the Core fleet, Larry experimented with moving and turning. He could, with some care, work against the star’s gravity field, tacking widely. It would make the trip down to Lyman extremely long. The alternative was to take precious hours to locate survival gear on this ship, go back to the Horicon scout and release it.
It had been a difficult job getting Mo situated in the cockpit. After a brief, frantic search, Larry found a folding table in the crew quarters and taped it in place at the engineering work station in the cockpit.
Larry was trying to adjust the primary drive foil to compensate for the Core Planets scout attached to the ship, when someone touched him. He gasped and jumped against the webbing harness holding him into his seat. He so rarely shared the cockpit with another person that it was something that had never happened to him in all of his years flying. It appeared that Whiting was trying to get his attention. Larry lifted up part of his headset.
“Turn on the orders channel,” she hissed.
Larry realized she didn’t know where the intercom controls were. He reset his headset, then reached over to the weapons console and toggled her headset from inter-ship communications to the ship’s intercom.
“Why?” he said, and slouched back into the pilot’s seat.
“I told the fleet to pivot, and you haven’t moved yet.” Larry shrugged.
She put up a tactical display on his screen. She’d added some lines and arrows to show the fleet edging toward a cluster of Outer Rim ships. It required a movement toward Henry base. It was the opposite tack from Lyman base and almost directly away from the prevailing gravity field.
“We have a dead scout hanging off our backside. I can’t point that direction,” he said.
Whiting stared at him. She had an intensity that made Larry flinch away. He changed the display back to a navigational display and tried to shape the course that balanced what she wanted against his inability to maneuver properly.
“Okay,” she said. “But when they shoot at us, you remind them how hard it is to steer.”
Larry recognized that she was certainly right. If she wanted it, there were ways he could do it. He could over-compensate with some of the trimmers. He could have Mo reef the foils. If anything went wrong, they’d run a risk of being disabled. It was hard to be sure that this was an appropriate level of risk measured against a mere hope of survival. He found the very idea of measuring risks foreign. There were procedures, and checklists, and safe, ordinary choices. He rarely looked at the cost of a sacrifice against a potential gain. But here, he had to put parts of the ship on the line, possibly destroying his own ship so the Core Planets fleet as a whole could press the attack on the Outer Rim.
Once Mo had trimmed the foils beyond the normal safe working loads, Larry edged them in the direction Natalie had ordered. He could see the ships on the navigation display start to shift. His tiny scout was the flagship of the fleet; a fleet reduced to a shadow of what Williams had started with. It moved with purpose, however, and the Outer Rim ships fell back.
Whiting updated her tactical display. She gave orders to the fleet and had Larry change direction to pursue some of the more vulnerable Outer Rim ships. Larry brought up a tactical display. He could see how she was trying to isolate a group of Outer Rim ships and concentrate fire on them.
Larry flipped on the intercom, “Hey, hon, what’s with those ships?” He put up a cursor on a group of Outer Rim ships that seemed to be closing in from another direction.
“Are we there, also?” Mo’s synthesizer boomed over the ship’s intercom.
Whiting swore and kicked the weapons console. She pounded the desktop and then kicked the panel again, denting it badly.
“Easy there,” Larry said, “we might need that.” Whiting put her head in her hands. She may have sobbed; it was hard for Larry to tell. It was clear that she was suddenly very upset.
“It’s Dieskau!” she shrieked at him. “It’s another trap.” Larry looked at the tactical display. He realized that it might be true. Dieskau might have lured her into a position where he could surround the organized fleet. By collecting the fleet in one place, she may have given Dieskau an advantage.
“We’ve got to run,” he said.
Her head shot up. “No,” she said, her old ferocity back in full force. “I can’t run.” “After what they did to us? Are you stupid?” he asked.
She knew that it was her intelligence report on the Outer Rim’s plans that sent the fleet into the trap. If she didn’t make some effort to prevent their complete destruction, her career was over. She realized that she might face capital punishment as a spy or collaborator. She stared at Drover, attempting to intimidate him into silence. Larry glared back at her for a moment, then went back to flying the ship.
She leaned over the console to get even closer to Larry. “You listen to me, pilot. If we can close up the formation, we can drive them back.”
“What?” Larry asked. He squirmed around to face her. “After they got the drop on us? We’d be lucky to get back to Henry.”
Whiting threw up her hands with a wordless exclamation and looked around the cockpit for some support.
“Run?” she asked. “Run? Admit defeat? When I get the fleet shaped up, we can win this.”
Drover shook his head.
He banked hard to change course away from an Outer Rim scout that was clearly lining up a volley from their port side guns. He heard her crash back into her seat. Maybe she would recognize the danger they were in.
Mo’s synthesizer chimed on, booming through the ship’s intercom. “Will we survive?” To Larry, that was the exact point. Before he could say anything more, the communications channel squeaked a feeble long-distance communication from one of the Horicon Four scouts.
“Horicon Four Scout Two, ready for relay,” the pilot said, fading in and out.
Larry checked his display; the scout was in a cluster of scouts supporting the Horicon Four. The group was moving purposely in pursuit of an Outer Rim frigate that appeared damaged.
Whiting sat at attention, bracing herself against the console.
Larry looked over at her.
“Message relay?” Larry asked. From what he could see, every scout was busy fighting. He didn’t know how she would spare one for running messages. The pilot would have to be damn good; the Cephs would be on a lone scout in a heartbeat.
Whiting looked at him, her face blank. Larry stared back, wondering if she would admit that they were beaten, or would she try to shoot her way out of this. He could see that Mo twisted around to look at her also.
“Fine,” Whiting said, waving her hands. She flipped on the communications channel to the scout.
“Record. Colonel Cole, this is Lieutenant Colonel Whiting. Colonel Williams and the Horicon have been destroyed,” she recited with clipped, marine precision.
Cannons from a nearby ship rocked the scout. Larry realized he was spending too much time listening to Whiting. He made a quick check of the ships around him, and saw that he had drifted out of position from the fleet.
Larry risked another glance over his shoulder. She looked lost. She’d dropped her gung-ho Marine Corps mask. She’d lost her hard-core business-woman veneer also. She slouched, swaying as the ship lurched, wondering what she could do to minimize the losses.
“We’re retreating to Henry base,” she said.
Larry was embarrassed to see her start to cry. Two tears ran down her cheeks. She ground her jaw shut. He went back to flying the ship.
“We’re what?” the scout asked.
Whiting sighed before she answered. Her hard edge returned.
“You just record, got it?” Whiting asked, looking at Larry as she choked out her message. “We’re retreating from an ambush. Dieskau’s destroyed most of Williams’ fleet. We’re running for Henry base. End message,” she said, and sighed again. Then she barked “If you’re not there an hour ago, I’ll personally cut you, got it?”
Larry nodded encouragement at her. She nodded back.
“Yes, ma’am. Like a squid on fish,” the scout reported.
Natalie turned off the channel. She had a fleet to command, she brought up the tactical displays to go back to work. She rubbed her eyes, trying to make the tears go away. There was no place for weakness when there were people to protect.
She started giving orders. She knew she couldn’t defeat Dieskau. It was clear to her that as a mercenary and a professional soldier, he was a master tactician with a record of crushing victories. She didn’t have the experience to take him on. She could, however, deny him a complete victory by staging an organized retreat to the cover of Henry base.
The first task was to get her scout free. Horicon Four and its crowd of scouts broke up their formation, flying in four different directions. The Horicon Four pounced on the nearest Outer Rim target, supported by some scouts. Others split from the Horicon to join other frigates in other fights. In the sudden flurry of movement, Horicon Four Scout Two made a break from the scene of the battle, running for Henry base with all the speed they could muster.
As she watched, she realized that she had told Dieskau that Henry base would be vulnerable. She could expect him to follow her back there. If the base was armed and prepared to defend themselves, they could take on Dieskau’s fleet. If he followed her, that would salvage something from this ambush.