Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Twenty-Four

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.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Twenty-Three

While space ship construction was expensive, the potential cost of any failures made the designs evolve very slowly. Only tiny incremental improvements are adopted slowly through a fleet. Radical design changes and experimental craft were something the military avoided deploying until they were well-proven.

The amount of exchange between the humans assured that the very best technology was generally available everywhere. Modern communications prevented the isolation that leads to unique languages, customs or space ship designs. The current political problems between the Outer Rim and the Core Planets were only a chapter in the long history of Mammal space exploration.

Larry hadn’t looked into the engineering area to see what damage Mo and Natalie had done. He did retch when he saw the headless corpse on the bridge deck outside the cockpit. The body had developed a nauseating smell of blood, feces, urine and death.

Larry stumbled into the cockpit and turned up the ventilator fans to drive out the stink. The fighting, the ambush, the frontier; it all made him sick. It was a pointless waste of life.

Larry focused on investigating the cockpit of the Outer Rim scout. The seats where laid out differently from a freighter; it was larger and more open. Some of the switches had different shapes and different positions, but the labels were very similar to Core Planet labels. The ship was rigged similarly to a cargo lighter: it had extra gravity foils that would give good speed close to a planet; there were no preventers to lock the foils in position, nor was there an autohelm. Larry started cycling through the displays to get a sense of the ship’s status.

Whiting climbed into the seat at the weapons console. The communications system was unfamiliar. After some fumbling, she found out how to turn it on. She put on the headset and was able to listen to Outer Rim fleet messages. She tried to reset the channels and protocols to Core Planets communications, but the system went into an unfamiliar test mode, and then froze up completely.

“How do you set this for Core channels?” she demanded.

Larry was sick. Whiting could see his distress when she looked over at him. He was slumped, staring in horrified fascination at a tactical display. While they were securing a ship to save themselves, the Core fleet was being torn apart. Larry’s state of shock was preventing him from moving.

“What?” he said, absently.

She knew he would work better if she gave him a simple task focus; otherwise he would be mired in fear and anxiety. It was a dangerous feedback loop: once you’ve seen real fear, you began to worry that your fears will paralyze you; your own anxieties become more crippling than the basic elemental fear of being killed.

She spoke slowly and clearly. “Can you please give me the command channel?” Without looking, he reached over and reset the communications system.

“What the hell have we done?” he asked, still staring at the tactical display.

Whiting realized that she’d been wrong in her assessment. He wasn’t worried about the ambush or the tactical situation. He was shocked at the killing on this scout ship. She knew that Larry had been flying on the frontier for years; she assumed he’d been involved in this kind of ship-to-ship combat before. Now she saw that she’d been wrong: he was not as self-assured as she’d thought. He was cocky because he was afraid; she thought he might need a friend more than he needed an officer.

“We’re defending ourselves against an Outer Rim ambush,” she said, trying to keep the moral situation as simple and clear as possible. “Get ready to fly, please.”

Larry didn’t move.

“But there’s bodies everywhere!” he said, his voice cracking.

“There’s or our’s?” she asked.

Whiting recognized the sincere pain of guilt about killing someone else. She’d suffered it herself. She had found that she could do anything to protect people who were too weak to protect themselves; that relieved some of the guilt, and helped her keep the rest bottled up.

“It could have been us,” Larry replied slowly.

“And thanks to you, it wasn’t us; it was them,” she said.

It was the only answer she had, and she was glad to repeat it out loud. Saying it in the cockpit, still warm with the heat of the people they’d killed, made her decisions necessary and right. Every marine had to know deep in their heart when and why violence was necessary. She knew that violence in defense of self and planet was expected, but that didn’t make it right. As a Mammal, she was capable of tremendous violence to protect those she cared for. But violence has a cost: why were the lives she protected more important than the lives she had so quickly wiped out? She didn’t have a tidy answer. Instead of looking too closely at the problem, she focused on the next steps she had to take to preserve the fleet.

The weapons display showed the tactical situation very clearly. The Core Planets were torn into several groups, each of which was trying to flee toward Henry base. Each was blocked by well-organized Outer Rim battle formations. Most ships were retreating without any concern for other ships or the fleet; their disorganization would be their downfall.

She put on the weapons console headset, and set the communications for Core Planets command channels.

“Look out there,” she said to Larry. “The Outer Rim will put thousands of bodies onto that rock unless we stop them.”

Larry slumped down at the pilot’s console. He fished around for the headset. He was grateful that it was not still warm. He had to sit up straighter to get out his computer. Once he was holding his computer, he unconsciously buckled the webbing that held him into the seat.

He found the ship’s intercom, and selected engineering. “Mo! Mo, you ready to start pre-flights?”

While he waited for a response, Larry reviewed the same old checklist. He wasn’t sure where to count this. Clearly, this was the third time he’d abandoned ship. He pulled out the stylus and noted that in the computer. He’d never assumed control of a ship already on route, nor could be log it as a salvage operation, since this ship wasn’t derelict until Whiting killed everybody. As a civilian pilot, he was authorized take control of a ship where the original pilot was incapacitated or incompetent. Euphemistically, he logged it as assuming control of a ship not under command. Otherwise, it was seemed too much like murder and piracy.

The communicator boomed with Mo’s directly-connected speech synthesizer.

“Are we removing dead mammals from engineering?” Mo thundered.

Larry turned down the gain. He was suddenly very intimidated by the idea of a Cephalopod removing dead mammals from engineering. He’d always thought of Mo as a good flight engineer who was badly socialized by Cephalopod standards and was just a loner. Larry was starting to get the idea that Mo’s pod might have been wiped out in some kind of fight, and Mo was on the run from some powerful enemies. Larry realized that Mo might be much more than just a flight engineer. Mo could be a spy, studying mammals on behalf of some Cephalopod intelligence organization. Mo could be a criminal outcast, ejected from Ceph society and forced to live among mammals.

Larry desperately wanted to return to his old life, before war and piracy, before Mo was a ruthless killer. On the display, the remains of the Horicon battle group were being ground down to frozen corpses by the Outer Rim and the Cephalopods. Larry switched on the tactical overlay to identify Outer Rim and Core Planets ships. The color scheme was reversed from what Larry was used to; he would need to override the colors assigned by the Identify Friend or Foe system. He saw two Core Planets frigates start to run from two Outer Rim frigates. A few adjustments showed the Cephalopods that were shadowing the Outer Rim ships, tipping the balance of power in the engagement.

The Core Planets’ command channel rang an emergency alert. The command channel had been carrying some isolated chatter and mayday calls as ships took fatal damage.

“This is Lieutenant Colonel Whiting in command of Scout Horicon Five Foxtrot Upper to all frigates. All frigates open this channel.”

Larry looked over at the weapons console. Whiting stood next the console at attention; she was as straight as any marine sentry Larry had seen saluting a superior officer.

“All frigates form a battle line flank right on my position. My ship has an Outer Rim Scout attached. All frigates acknowledge by the numbers,” Whiting ordered. She had that calm confidence that was called “command presence.” Her tone of voice demanded a “yes, ma’am” from everyone who heard her.

“What the hell are you doing?” Larry said to her, bypassing the ship’s intercom. “Who made you commodore?”

To Larry, her orders smacked of mutiny: they were part of a fleet where there was a chain of command. Larry knew that someone was in charge of this battle; they needed to find their place and take their orders. They were not the people to be giving orders.

“Can it, Drover,” she barked. “I’m in command of this ship. I’m a Lieutenant Colonel. And I want the commanders of the stinking frigates to make a stinking firing line instead of running away. Did I ask you for a critique of my tactics?”

“No, ma’am,” Larry said, and turned back to the pilot’s console. He clicked the alert signal for engineering, hoping that Mo would pick up the pace. They needed to get moving if they were going to be part of a firing line.

“This is Lieutenant Colonel Whiting. By the numbers!” she barked.

Mo finally answered. Since the ship had been flying, Larry suggested they do a simple post-accident damage assessment.

“Horicon unit. One,” Whiting called.

Larry and Mo located the list and began the damage assessment. This was a standard call and response, a comfortable litany that allowed them to locate the controls, to be sure the ship was operating, and to gain some confidence that she would fly.

“Two,” Whiting called.

Larry realized that no response meant that a ship was destroyed or incapacitated. He started down the assessment list. He couldn’t listen for answers from other ships. He didn’t want to know how many had been destroyed.

“Three,” Whiting called.

Larry and Mo found that the first of the critical systems on the scout were working perfectly.

“Four,” Whiting called.

Larry glanced up at the ship status display. Was the entire fleet destroyed? “This is Horicon number 4, on the way,” a voice crackled through the communicator.

Larry breathed out. They were not alone. If she knew what she was doing, and they organized a defense, maybe they would survive long enough to run back to the strongly defended Lyman base.

“Five,” Whiting called.

“Can’t ma’am,” crackled the immediate answer. “We’re on the rock. Squid’s breached us.”

Larry wondered how long the ship could hold out on the planet. If Whiting got the fleet back to Lyman base, could they organize a rescue in time?

“Six,” Whiting called.

“We’re trying to rig for landing,” came the reply after a delay. “We’re leaking and we gotta take the hard.”

Larry risked a glance over his shoulder. Whiting was sitting, taking notes and shaking her head.

She shut off the communicator for a moment and looked at Larry. “Damn,” she said. Was she angry at the losses or saddened? It was hard to say what she was feeling.

“Sacroon unit,” Whiting’s voice boomed over the command channel, “one.” Larry and Mo finished the critical systems. They started on the maneuvering and navigational systems.

“Two,” Whiting boomed.

Was she leaving enough time? Larry wondered. He realized that a ship was either able to respond, or it was destroyed. Any ship that was hovering on the edge of destruction, where a struggling crew needed a few extra seconds to answer, was lost. If they couldn’t answer promptly, they couldn’t support a firing line.

Larry saw something edging into the local sensor field on a strange heading. It was not moving with the pod of Ceph ships, Whiting’s tentative firing line, or anything else. Larry tagged it and assigned the optical telescope. After a moment, the image stabilized. It was a piece of Sacroon Frigate Two.

“Three,” Whiting boomed.

Larry turned off the telescope image. The shell of a ship was as horrifying as the body in the companionway. Every pilot cherished the idea that, with reasonable care, the ship could be put on a planet, and the crew could survive for enough time to signal for a rescue. It was an image of security that made it easier to face the dangers of space travel. The wrecked hull fragment could never have landed. The crew were killed as the ship broke up, with no recourse, no fallback plan, and no escape.

“Four,” Whiting aid.

“This is Sacroon Four. We’re afloat. We’ll try to move into—” The communications channel faded to static.

Larry fought the urge to check the communications. He had his list, and he was going to finish it correctly and completely. However, he did have a moment while Mo searched for the steering foil controls. Larry flipped on the tactical display, and saw that there was a small line of frigates and scouts forming up. A pod of Ceph ships tried to move into position around the Mohawk. The entire line started firing on the Cephs. Most of the Cephs immediately reversed direction and started to move away. One never moved again, and another made fitful attempts to change direction. Both were ruthlessly shot into clouds of drifting trash by Whiting’s small firing line.

“This is Sacroon Four, moving into position,” hissed a voice. Larry saw the frigate closing in on the end of the line.

“I’ve got two Rim Scouts right and below,” Whiting said. “Targeting solution, please.” Larry stopped the checkout procedure, and looked back at the tactical display. The two Outer Rim scouts that had pursued them, forcing them to take control of this ship were both edging into a firing position nearby. Apparently, they’d been holding their fire to see if the Core Scout successfully boarded the Outer Rim ship. When the firing line started forming, this must have convinced them that the Core had won the engagement, and the Outer Rim scout was a lost cause.

“On my mark,” Whiting said. “Ready...and...Fire.” Larry saw and then felt the simultaneous cannon bursts from the line of ships. The ion blasts disrupted his gravity foils, making the scout lurch. Both attacking scouts were immediately breached. They began spewing plumes of atmosphere and trash from a number of holes. The various Outer Rim star-ship components started breaking apart. In an instant they went from attacking warships to drifting garbage.

Whiting knew that any organized defense was better than the chaotic rout she’d seen. When the Horicon had been destroyed, the various ship commanders were left on their own. Williams hadn’t provided orders or a second in command. Williams hadn’t even provided for scouting the route the fleet would take. Whiting knew that Williams had managed to kill a lot of people and destroy a lot of ships. She also knew that it was her suggestion, and General Johnson could try and protect Williams by pointing the blame at her. An organized retreat might keep her alive long enough to debate the real causes with a court martial.

She could see some small changes on her tactical display. Once she’d organized the Horicon and Sacroon units, others began to move toward their line. She didn’t know too much about fleet maneuvers, but she did know that they needed a single leader who could manage the fight.


The more she studied the display, the more she realized that the battle had scattered all over the cluster as Core ships had fled back toward Henry base. The Outer Rim and their Cephalopod allies were chasing Core ships in every direction. If the Core ships could get into a formation first, they might have an advantage over the spread out Outer Rim forces. She’d seen Dieskau; she’d seen the result of his planning and battle management. She’d already suffered losses in the initial ambush; her only hope was a carefully planned retreat.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Twenty-Two

Docking is an art form, different from the cold science and engineering of space flight. Once the list of procedures is over, once the litany of call and response has verified that docking is possible, the pilot has to use a nicety of judgment and experience to bring a ship to a docking pier. Something large, like a rated ship of the line, or a base, simplified the docking maneuvers; the tremendous inertia provided a relatively fixed frame of reference for computing speed and course. Something small, like another scout, which could actively maneuver to get away, was another matter entirely.

Mo, however, knew about close assault. It was the Cephalopod tactic of choice; Cephalopod ships had mandibles and manipulators to attach to another ship, force an opening, and board. Lacking the appropriate tools, a Core Planet Scout could not easily force an entry. In spite of the problems, they had no choice: their scout was leaking and they were pursued. If they didn’t board this Outer Rim scout, they would be shot out of the sky long before they took up a defensive position on the planet. Mo picked a section of the ship that was blind and eased their speed to nearly match. Under Mo’s direction, Larry steered them in.

If the Outer Rim ship would only cooperate, docking would be done slowly and gracefully, with the ships just nudging up against each other. As it was, the Outer Rim ship kept turning away. Larry realized that there would be no gentle contact. He was going to have to bang the ships together hard, damaging both ships; Mo would have use perfect timing to lock the two ships together.

There was an emergency docking checklist. It was mercifully short; merely verifying that the hard dock mechanism would deploy at all. There was no reason to check any other systems or any alternatives in an emergency; when there were choices, it wasn’t an emergency, it was merely a problem.

Mo kept their speeds closely matched; Larry was able to anticipate most of the other pilot’s moves and closed in steadily. Mo would have but seconds to both deploy dockside manipulators, and mate up the hatchways once Larry banged the ships together.

“You’re with me Mo?” Larry called.

Mo’s synthesizer chimed an assent.

“Contact in five, four, hold on — you bastard!” Larry said, trying to maintain speed.

The Outer Rim scout had jinked, and Larry had to increase speed to catch them and then slack the foils completely to drift in the last few meters under inertia alone.

“Contact in four, three, two, and one!” There was a solid crunch of ship-to-ship contact. Alarms began sounding. There was a groaning creak from the Horicon Scout as the hull settled into a new position. The lurch knocked Natalie out of her seat, leaving her clinging to her console.

The annunciator said, “Hull Breach in Four Bravo Two. Pressure Dropping.” 

“Now you notice,” Larry replied.

It was not news; the atmosphere had been leaking since they’d been shot. It did, however, provide some satisfying comfort to Larry. The ships were docked; the only damage was to widen an existing breach. Larry felt a wave of relief now that they were docked and had an escape plan. The ship continued to groan and creak as Mo used the manipulators to adjust their position. The atmospheric leak moved from a whistle to a rushing of wind.

Whiting stood up. “Inertial frame off for boarding,” Whiting commanded.

Larry grabbed a hand-hold and released the inertial frame that provided them with a usable gravity. Just as he hit the switch, he remembered that he should have checked the orientation indicator first.

The floors, the console seats, and tabletops in the ship suddenly let go of what they were holding. Everything fell to the ceiling: pencils, computers and drink cups all bounced around. Larry flopped forward into the webbing belts that held him in the pilot’s seat. Whiting grabbed at the weapons console for a moment and rolled onto her back on the ceiling. Mo drooped down from the engineering console. Some tentacles moved down to the ceiling, and it gracefully oozed to a new position, standing upright. Mo’s head was tipped to the side as it read the upside-down displays.

“Thanks a lot, Mo,” Larry said, struggling out of his seat. “You docked us upside down. Now what?”
Whiting scrambled out of the cockpit into the upside-down hallway.

“We board her,” she said over her shoulder and disappeared around the corner.

Larry scrambled after her. She had run down to a secured area on a lower deck. Larry heard the too-loud POP-POP-POP of a side-arm. Another alarm sounded somewhere in the ship, wailing away at the new problem that had arisen.

“Can we find the dorsal lock?” Mo squeaked through the ship’s intercom.

Larry looked up, but that was floor. He looked down at the ceiling on which he was walking for the speaker grille. He walked up to an intersection, leaned over and shouted into the grill.

“Dorsal port or starboard?” Larry said to the grille. There was no answer.

Larry shrugged, thinking that there must be only one dorsal lock. He continued looking down at the ceiling. He hung his head right down between his knees to get his bearings in the upside-down ship. He took a few wrong turns before he found the central stairs. Fortunately, there was no decorative ceiling; it would have made a difficult ramp in the inverted ship. He struggled over the wiring and plumbing that snaked along the ceiling and climbed to the dorsal side of the ship.

Mo was standing by the airlock, head tipped sideways, peering at the upside-down controls. Whiting bounded along the corridor carrying two huge marine-corps rifles. She leaned one against the wall and carefully checked the other. She worked the action and ejected a round of ammunition. It clattered onto the ceiling and rolled around for a moment. Larry gaped, realizing that she was planning to kill the people on the Outer Rim scout ship.

Whiting held out the rifle. Larry took it and looked at it. His palms were wet, making the grips on the rifle slick. He’d fired side arms, but never a rifle. Mo’s tentacles reached over and gently lifted it out of Larry’s shaking arms. Larry was a pilot, not a soldier. He could help them, but that was all, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a part of the killing.

Whiting checked her rifle quickly, ejecting another shell onto the floor. It rolled down until the two ejected shells lay side by side.

“Open it up,” she said.

The ships were only held by docking manipulators. There was no hard seal, because the Outer Rim scout ship didn’t provide the right kind of connector.

“There’s no seal,” Larry said. “It’s a goddamn vacuum.” Whiting looked up from her gun.

“It’s an emergency exit,” she said. “We do an emergency exit into their ship.” Larry held out his hands to emphasize his point. “And they shoot us!” “If we deny them a target, can they shoot accurately?” Mo’s synthesizer squeaked.

Larry turned on Mo. “What the hell are you talking about?” 

Whiting walked down the corridor and opened a locker. Since the door was sideways, it was difficult to work the handle. When she did get it open, the contents poured out onto the ceiling. There were a number of hull-repair supplies, including a stiff plastic mat that could be used to stuff a hole and prevent further leaks, adhesives and some welding supplies.

Whiting kicked the supplies away. She set her gun down, bent over and released the hinge pins from the locker door. She had done close assault before, and knew how it worked. The most important part of a forced entry was a distraction that allowed you to shoot them before they found and shot you. She’d had a brief assignment to a unit that specialized in it; she’d pinned a medal on a man who’d been the high-risk point man on many assaults, and was revered by his unit for his tremendous luck and courage.

Mo oozed over and took the door from Whiting.

“May I have the honor?” Mo asked.

Whiting picked up her gun. Mo oozed back to the airlock door, armed with a flimsy locker cover. Mo handed Larry the gun.

Larry put a hand on her shoulder to make sure she was paying attention to him. “Have you done this before? For real?”

Whiting looked up at him, squarely in the face. “Nope,” she said.

Larry could see that she was calm and confident. She had followed her own checklist, and she was ready for the next step. There was no doubt in her eyes that a Lieutenant Colonel, a pilot and a Cephalopod flight engineer could take control of a Core Planets scout manned by professional fliers and marines. Larry could see few choices: the Horicon had been destroyed, along with the Mule II, and the scout they were standing in. Out in space, the battle raged, and the Core Planets ships were being systematically destroyed. At least two Cephalopods were waiting to board this scout ship as soon as it moved away from the Outer Rim ship.

“I’ve abandoned ships twice,” Larry said, still holding her shoulder and trying to match her ferocious intensity. “Keep trying to shout ‘hup-hup-hup.’ Keep your eyes shut; wait till your tears thaw before you open them. This will kill you skin.”

“Don’t get mushy on me, pilot,” she said, impatient to get started.

Larry gave her shoulder a squeeze; he leaned over sideways to work the controls. The inner door creaked open. Whiting slid in, pointing her gun. Mo oozed in, clinging to the locker cover, with almost nothing showing but tentacle tips. Larry slouched in behind them, dragging the rifle. Larry located the emergency controls. He worked the manipulator to open the Outer Rim ship’s exterior lock door, started the oxygen pump for their lock; a small reminder bell chimed.

“Outer door’s open on their ship. Stand by for the deep freeze.” They all grabbed handles inside the airlock and took huge, shuddering breaths. The Mammals needed to hyperventilate and saturate their blood with oxygen. The usual procedure was three big breaths and then jump. Larry and Natalie looked at each other closely in the airlock and took their breaths together, counting as they did it.

Larry hit the emergency exit control as they started inhaling on “three”. The lights switched to red, an alarm sounded, a loud motor whipped open the outside door. The air rushed out of the lock, blowing loose bits of trash from their ship against the Outer Rim’s airlock door. They could see the various manipulators that held the ships together.

Mouths open, but making no noise, Whiting and Drover jumped across the gap into the other ship. They tumbled onto the floor of the Outer Rim lock and grabbed onto the nearest handle. Mo threw the locker door; a finger tentacle followed, wrapped around a handle, and Mo squirted in behind it.

Larry knew that the hardest part was getting the airlock closed once they were inside. The controls were hard to find; the cold was paralyzing and fatal after only moments. You could risk opening your eyes, but they could be damaged when your tears froze. Before Larry could find the control, Mo pulled the handle and the Outer Rim scout airlock door slapped shut. A whistling started and warm air started to fill the locker. As the pressure moved up they could hear each other feeble gasping out their last of the “hup-hup-hup” that ventilated the expanding gasses from their lungs. As the pressure climbed, it became impossible to breathe out any more, and they could breathe in great gulps of air.

Larry lay on the floor, eyes shut. Shivering, Whiting climbed to her feet. Mo had put the locker door against the wall and oozed behind it. Whiting hit the interior control, opening the airlock door. It hissed faintly as the pressures equalized. She tried to tip Mo and the door out into the companionway. Mo was too heavy for her to move alone.

Whiting kicked Drover as he lay on the floor. He looked up at her, blank for a moment. He didn’t know what the plan was, or what he was supposed to do. He was having trouble catching his breath. He had heard her “hupping” as the pressure came up, but now all was silent and cold.

“Hold it right there,” came a heavily accented voice from the corridor. It was an Outer Rim marine, guarding the entrance to the ship. Larry was sure the marine was armed; ready to burst into the airlock and start shooting. The plan came back into focus; Larry struggled to his feet and helped Natalie push Mo out into the companionway.

Mo and the locker door cracked into a locker across from the airlock. Larry shut the airlock door and Whiting looked out the view port. There was a very long pause as the Outer Rim marine considered the locker door that had been thrown onto his ship. Whiting and Drover held their breath. Larry jumped when the marine fired. He didn’t see the locker door get blown down the hallway by the impact of the exploding bullets.

Whiting ducked down below the view port. She waved at Larry, who scooted over next to her to squat in front of the door. She picked up her gun, and placed it against her shoulder, pointed down at the floor. She was relaxed, waiting. Larry was sweating, and still couldn’t catch his breath.

The door opened. They squatted, facing a marine in an Outer Rim uniform, holding an impossibly huge rifle. Whiting didn’t move. Larry almost fell over backwards.

Suddenly, tentacles enveloped the marine, hauling him backwards toward the door across from the airlock. The marine screamed, arched, and writhed, trying to get away from Mo Lusc. He tried swinging his rifle, but his arms were pinned. He dropped the rifle and tried to grab his knife, but Mo pinned his forearms, also. He tried to scream again, but it was only a whimper, and then he collapsed to the floor, blood pooling around him. He was not dead, but was rapidly dying. He moved, feebly, but could do nothing to help himself. Larry and Natalie had sat on the floor, watching his death agonies at the hands of a Cephalopod.

Mo oozed out of the equipment locker opposite the airlock, gliding over the dying Outer Rim marine. Whiting stood up, rifle at the ready. Larry sat, staring.

“Are we not warriors?” Mo asked. The parts of Mo that were visible were bright red. As Larry stared Mo faded to match the color of the walls.

“I thought you were a pilot,” Larry began, but trailed off.

“Bridge,” Whiting commanded.

Larry got up off the floor. They were not done. There was more killing before they were safe. After that, they would have to get out of the ambush, away from the Outer Rim, away from the frontier.

Larry looked blankly up and down the companionway. Whiting had gone left. Mo followed her. Shaking, Larry held the gun against his shoulder, vaguely like Whiting had done and started to follow Mo.

“Don’t ever get pissed at me, please,” Larry said.

“Would I attack my own pod?” Mo asked.


Whiting had a vague sense of how an Outer Rim scout was laid out. She knew that they had docked on the relatively fixed drive module. There was a connector to an interchangeable crew quarters module. Her only option was to sprint though the crew quarters. Only if there were more than three or four people on the scout would they be in real danger.

If she didn’t secure this ship, her crew were dead. Two ships had been shot out from under her; she had reached a state of ruthless desperation to keep Larry and Mo alive. Even if she did secure this ship, she still had to control the retreat; otherwise the entire Core fleet was dead. She kept the rifle on her shoulder, at the ready. She looked down the barrel: anyone she saw, she saw through the rifle’s sights. The only thing she had left were the people she had to protect; empty of everything else, she would kill anyone that stopped her.

The crew module seemed deserted. She didn’t waste time in a search; she merely paused to listen and then sprinted. At the end of the crew module was a multi-junction. She paused to look around for a moment. There was no noise, no smell of sweat or armor lubricants. She had to edge up to the connector, checking for opposition from each of the incoming hallways. She could see that taking a look down one hall would expose her to fire from another hall; she started to sweat as her heart raced. Larry and Mo were depending on her. They needed her to secure the cockpit.

As she edged along the wall toward the junction, she saw that one section was attached to the slowly rotating flight deck. She decided to simply leap for that section, put her back to the wall, and defend herself against anyone who tried to stop her.

She jumped, but no one opposed her. She climbed up into the slip ring, and onto the rotating flight deck. Once oriented, she edged along the wall so she could see the entrance to the cockpit.

“Roger that, we’re trying to locate the intruders now,” the pilot said. His accent was from this frontier cluster.

She heard a switch operated. There was small change in the background humming of the ship. Whiting caught her breath, quietly breathed in and out. She reminded herself that she had no choice; only her crew would leave this ship alive. She took the four steps into the cockpit as quickly as she could without actually running. She jammed the rifle into the pilot’s head, knocking him forward in his seat.

“Let’s go. Now,” she said.

The pilot spread his hands. He waved his fingers slightly, and with purposeful slowness, he took off his headset and set it on the console. He held one hand clearly to the side and used the other to unclip his harness. Slowly, he eased out of the seat.

The cockpit was roomy by Core Planets standards. Whiting backed up a step to let the pilot pass. She stared through the sights at his chest until he paused. She knew it would make it very hard, but she looked up at him to make sure he saw that she was serious about killing him if he didn’t keep moving.

She recognized him as one of the intelligence officers she had seen on the Champlain. He backed up a step and then turned to duck out of the cockpit. More than one Marine Corps rifleman had told her never to look a target in the eyes; that made it harder to kill them. Once the pilot turned away, she tried to imagine him as just an Outer Rim uniform. She could kill a uniform. She would kill anyone that threatened Larry or Mo. Mission, mission, mission, she reminded herself.

She followed the pilot closely, rifle on her shoulder at the ready. Out in the corridor, he paused and started to turn. Whiting flipped on the targeting laser as the pilot turned, waiting for the heart to move into position.

“Okay,” Larry said, slowly. Focused on the pilot, she didn’t recognize the voice at first.

With an effort, she took the gun from her shoulder and looked past the Outer Rim uniform. Larry slouched in the doorway, rifle drooping toward the pilot’s feet. Mo’s head was visible in the connector.

“Brig,” Whiting said. “Move it.”

The pilot was slowly relaxing; his hands dropping slowly back to his side. He shook his head. 

“Scouts don’t have brigs,” he said with a surly confidence.

“Our fleet is going to want him,” Whiting said. “We can’t guard him.” Larry looked at her. She seemed to be thinking out loud; Larry assumed that she was looking for advice on how to secure him.

“Can we secure a Mammal with cable clamps?” Mo squeaked.

Larry looked at Mo. It had eased into the connector, and was eyeing the pilot closely. Cable clamps would be a very painful restraint, but would be effective.

“Cable clamps,” Larry said. “You’re scaring me, Mo.” Larry frowned, wondering where they would find clamps on this ship. He thought about asking the pilot. The pilot stood between them, watching the conversation. He thought that the pilot was Kibber, who had captured them only a few days ago. While ironic, there were few enough scout pilots that the odds of this meeting were pretty good.

“Whatever,” Whiting said. “Make it fast, there’s still armed resistance in engineering.” Mo’s tentacles reached over and eased the gun from Larry’s arms. Larry looked around at Whiting, Mo and the pilot, crammed into the passageway.

“Which means what?” Larry asked. “We fight our way into engineering to get the cable clamps? Or we spend an hour searching for them? What the hell are you doing here, Lieutenant Colonel?”

Whiting squared her shoulders, put her rifle back up on her shoulder and focused on the Outer Rim pilot’s name tag. It was completely menacing; the pilot backed against the wall. Larry flinched away from her.

“You listen to me, pilot: your job is to secure our prisoners. If that means—” The explosion from Mo’s gun cut her off, blasting the pilot’s brains onto the passageway wall. Larry ducked away from the shot, Whiting flinched back from the sprayed gore. The dead pilot’s body dropped impossibly fast to the deck as a lifeless heap of bones. Blood gushed through the head onto the deck; the body groaned quietly before it lay still.

“Mo!” Larry shouted.

Mo shifted the weapon around in its tentacles. Its head shifted around so Mo could look down where Larry crouched.

“Was it a Mammal from the other pod?”

Back pressed against the wall, Larry slid up to a standing position. Mo’s eyes stayed glued on his. Larry’s legs were suddenly weak, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stand without leaning on the wall.

“You shot him in cold blood!” Larry shouted, trying to impress the enormity of this kind of murder on Mo.

“Are we Cephalopods?” Mo asked. With no inflection in the voice synthesizer, Larry had no idea what Mo meant. Mo had cold-blooded ancestors; is that what the phrase really meant? Or, was a Mammal just vermin to a Cephalopod?

Whiting put a hand on Larry’s shoulder. Very quietly, almost tenderly she whispered, “It’s done. We’ve got to secure engineering.”

She stepped over the body, heading for the exit from the bridge deck. She looked closely at Larry as she passed him.

“Drover. Let’s go,” she said.

She glanced over at Mo, who was also turning to go.

Larry clutched at Mo’s gown, his hand pulled back as if he was going to punch the Cephalopod. Whiting knew it was a common response to the stress of combat. She put one arm on Larry and her back against Mo; she tried to catch his other hand before he hurt himself or Mo.

“Drover! Larry!” she shouted. “Larry,” she said as he stopped trying to reach past her to punch Mo.
She ducked her head around to look him in the eyes. Once he focused on her, she stood up and moved away from the body behind her.

“They were shooting at us, remember? Where you there? We’re just one ship trying to rejoin our fleet,” she said. “Down in engineering there’s still someone ready to kill you. But I’m here, and we’ll kill him first.”

She relaxed her grip on his arms. She patted his arms. “You got it?” she asked.

Drover’s sigh was almost a sob.

“Sorry,” he whispered. “I’ve seen ships destroyed before, but I’ve never seen a person killed.”

Whiting gave him a hug. Immediately, she regretted it. It was not a professional Marine Corps response to the stress of combat. She felt genuinely sorry for this poor pilot that was doing everything he could for her. She owed him her life; and she had to clear out the ship as part of paying him back.
Mo pressed the weapon into Larry’s shaking hands. Larry looked at the body again. He picked up the weapon and put it against his shoulder. He turned it toward the body, but the idea of shooting a person was still too new and raw. He flinched away to follow Mo and Whiting.


Larry and Mo eased down the companionway on the engineering deck. Larry held the gun up, but his hands were still weak, and he wasn’t sure he could actually shoot anything unless it was right in front of him. At a branch in the corridor, Mo eased forward, stretching out until only the eyes were looking around the corner. Mo waved Larry and Whiting up. They went around the corner, and Larry recognized the more typical look of the engineering area. There were large control modules on the walls; he could hear the whir of pumps and controllers.

They crept down the hallway to the stairs leading further down into engineering. Mo oozed forward to look down the stairwell. Mo’s tentacles dripped over the edge and Mo dropped silently down to the next level. Larry followed reluctantly down the stairs. Whiting waved and stayed on the upper level looking for an alternate route down.

Larry was alternating between confidence and despair. Perhaps there was only a scout crew of three, now reduced to one. They might be able to intimidate him into submission. On the other hand, they could be oozing into a trap.

Larry heard footsteps running. They had come to a section of hall that led to a junction, with an open doorway on their left. Mo paused in front of the doorway, holding up a tentacle so Larry would stop. Larry noticed the color change; Mo had a definite stop and wait color. Larry thought he heard something that was not the predictable whir of machinery. Very low, right by the floor, Mo stretched out, reaching just its eyes around the doorway. Mo suddenly jumped back, almost knocking Larry over. An explosion ripped a hole in the door frame where Mo’s eyes had been.

Larry backed up. The scout’s crew were defending engineering, waiting for an attack. Mo had turned red, the blood red of the marine. They heard more running foot steps. Whiting skidded through the junction at the other end of the hallway. She looked at the two of them for a moment, then held up one finger, and pointed around in a big circle, pointed at herself and pointed back through the junction. Then she held up five fingers. Then she held up a fist and pumped it up and down once.

Larry shrugged at the coded message. He wasn’t a marine. He waved and smiled. He was relieved she was still leading them. Whiting put her gun at her shoulder and ran back out through the junction.

There was a sudden POP-POP-POP followed by a deafening explosion from somewhere inside the room on their left. Smoke and bits of plastic flew out the doorway and swirled down the corridor. This was answered by a very different POP-POP followed by more explosions. The acrid smell of high explosives filled the hall. Mo grabbed the rifle out of Larry’s shaking hands, oozed to the doorway, pushed the rifle around the corner and started firing. Mo fired at least eight rounds into engineering; smoke and heat poured out of the doorway.

“Hey watch it champ, you still gotta fly this thing!” Larry shouted.

Mo paused, ducked, rose up, and continued to look over the gun perched awkwardly in its arms.

“Did the mammal shoot first?” Mo squeaked.

Mo oozed through the door.

“You can’t plead self defense, you stupid clam,” Larry shouted from the hallway “it was his ship!”

“Clear!” Whiting shouted from somewhere else in the ship.


Mo oozed back out into the hallway and waved to Larry. Mo was fading from blood red to a more neutral color. Larry could feel his heart pounding. He had to go to the head and take a huge crap before he did anything else.