Larry Drover found that the basic difficulties of flying an Outer Rim scout ship were magnified by having ships shooting at him. Since the ship flew awkwardly, he could not shape a standard course away from the desolate planet in the dust cloud. Like other disabled ships, they were migrating out of position in the fleet, forcing the more able ships to accommodate to their clumsy course.
At some point, the Outer Rim worked out the chain of command in the retreating units, and Larry’s scout had started to come under fire. Without organized intelligence, it was hard to be sure, so Whiting had stopped giving orders, hoping that the other commanders would fill in for her. As they fell back, with more wounded and damaged ships, keeping a good defensive position was becoming more and more difficult. Larry wanted Whiting to go back to giving orders to the fleet because she had been successful maintaining a defense that shielded the damaged ships.
They were being pursued by two or three scouts. Larry wanted to move behind a frigate, but he could not longer actually tack the scout without losing precious momentum to the star’s gravity. The gravity foils were damaged, and he had few tricks left. The pursuers would close with him in a heartbeat if he sold off any forward speed for a tack.
Whiting had moved from navigation to weapons.
“Starboard,” she said. “Way over.”
In spite of her urgency, Larry took the turn slowly. Mo eased the trim on the foils as much as possible. The ship fell off the gravity field slowly. Larry and Mo both grabbed at hand-rests, but the Outer Rim scout didn’t heel like their old Mule II. During the turn, they could hear the change in the rumble of flight deck torque generator that countered the heel angle, keeping the deck level.
“Further,” she said.
Larry eased some more, careful to avoid any sudden maneuver that would sap away their speed. He was not sure what she was trying to aim at.
“Starboard further, dammit!” she bellowed.
They had reached the forward limit of the foils and had to reverse them. They had essentially worn onto the other tack, taking the first part of the long, slow 270 degree turn.
“Sorry, gotta bump,” Larry said.
He hit the command for a reverse tack. He steered through a few points on the bearing indicator; the foils went slack for a moment as Mo spun them to their reversed position. There was a noticeable slacking in their speed. The torque compensators in the scout whined. There was a thump as the foils began to respond to the star’s gravity. The ship settled on the new course. Larry glanced at the weapons display and saw a pursuing scout drift into their targeting area.
“Starboard again,” Whiting said. “Down a little.”
Larry pulled this ship into a tighter course. Mo trimmed in the foils, and their speed began to pick up. The pursuing scout had tacked, and was moving into position to create a gravitational eddy; this also brought into the sector Whiting was covering with their remaining cannon.
The ship jumped as the cannon fired. Somewhere in the structure of the scout, some safety bulkheads were left open; the roar was deafening. There was an electrical charge in the air for a moment. Anything Larry touched shot sparks at his fingers.
“Missed!” Whiting said, bitterly, almost in tears.
She was biting back hard to keep a calm exterior. Her primary mission had been reversed; she would be blamed for leading Williams into the trap. Her attempt to salvage an organized retreat was about to fall apart. She could see her military career following her business career. In the wrong place at the wrong time, they were low on ammunition, and being closely pursued. It looked like her fate had been reduced to a matter of being one of the lucky ones who survived the fight.
“I saw the shot,” Larry said. “It was good. You scared him.” Whiting sighed and wiped her hands. She was sweating and the controls were getting slick.
Mo’s synthesizer boomed through the intercom. “Have we enough fuel? Can we shape a course?”
Larry was afraid they would not have enough energy to move the doubled-up ship all the way back to Henry. It was awkward to fly, and clearly draining their fuel at an alarming rate. Mo’s veiled assessment was that they would never make it, and a heroic effort could only lead to a tragedy.
“We’ve got to go back to the rock and ditch,” Larry replied.
Whiting spun around on her seat.
“What is your problem, pilot? We’ve got a job to do and we’re going to do it!” It was her best military bark. She made it perfectly clear that she was willing to fight to the very end.
“Listen, hon,” Larry said, turning away from the controls to face her. “I hate to break it to you like this, but we’re low on fuel, low on ammo, and this thing flies like a bag of bricks. And they’re shooting at me!”
Larry turned back to fly the ship. He needed to keep shifting their course, erratically if possible, to shake of the Outer Rim pursuit. The hottest part of the fighting had moved further down the line. For a moment, they were being ignored.
“Will we die?” Mo said, breaking the silence.
“I think we’re out of options,” Larry said, looking at his controls. He didn’t want to face Whiting’s direct wrath.
“Aren’t you supposed to keep some options open? Didn’t you tell me to have a bail-out plan?” Whiting shouted.
Larry turned away from the console for a moment to stare hard at Natalie.
“This is the bail-out plan,” he said slowly.
Whiting slumped back into her seat. He felt bad about breaking it to her abruptly. He hated to crush her hopes for leading the retreat back to Henry base. Their crash-landing would make her heroic effort to salvage something from the ambush into a mere footnote in the final report on the battle.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” she said quietly. “But you’re the pilot.”
Larry, also, had a bad feeling. He was deeply suspicious of either course of action. He wasn’t sure he could survive going forward into more combat at Henry base. He was also sure that going back to the desolate planet was a just vague optimism. This was the frontier, and the frontier meant armed conflict; his idealized frontier of peace never existed, except as a perfectly fictional history of the cluster. He preferred his comfortable ideals over her unknown pragmatism; and a safe landing was the romantic ideal escape from a bad situation.
Natalie leaned over and put a hand on Larry’s arm. “Larry, I know it’s a little late, but I am sorry. I really regret putting you in this position. This was really my—”
An explosion rocked the ship. A locker door popped open, spilling spare parts for the control consoles into the cockpit. Natalie was knocked out of her seat.
“Crap,” Larry shouted, “I never saw that coming. Where is it?”
Natalie scrambled up to the console and tried to locate their adversary. It took several scans to realize that they had been flanked. They were cut off from the retreating line of ships. The good news was that the pursuer was almost lined up with their guns.
“Oh yeah,” Natalie told Larry. “Hold me. Up and over, starboard roll.”
Larry hammered the controls. They had lost some power from a damaged foil, but the attached Core Scout made a starboard roll their easiest maneuver. Larry braced for the change in forces, but an Outer Rim scout didn’t respond like a Core Planets ship.
“Port a little,” Natalie said. “Oh yeah, hold me right there. Come to mamma, honey.”
Larry picked out a set of navigation coordinates and tried to hold the ship steady on the present heading. The ship tended to crab, so their actual direction was different from the coordinates in the navigation display.
The ship was rocked by another huge explosion.
The Henry Base hallways were jammed with people, most of them in uniform. Everyone was going in a different direction. It was complete, undisciplined pandemonium. Phineas saw that the wounded and injured were being pushed around by people trying to get past the gurneys; nurses and corpsmen were shoved by the surging crowd.
He saw an officer waving a computer, attempting to force his way through the crowd, and being pushed backwards. Phineas shouldered his way into the intersection. One long, wide hallway led to several loading piers; the injured had been moved down this hallway. In the general panic, people had come down here looking for a ship so they could escape, but all they found were the injured and dying.
An armored Marine mashed Colonel Phineas into a doorway. The Marine was powering through the crowd, rifle held high.
Phineas took out his own side arm. He hooked his arm around the Marine. The Marine spun around to shake off the assailant. Phineas stuck his side-arm through the visor slot in the Marine’s helmet. The marine stopped moving; Phineas could see one eye, staring around wildly at the barrel of the handgun pressed against his face.
“Give me that weapon!” Phineas shouted over the milling crowd.
The Marine lowered the gun to Phineas without a pause. Phineas was pleased to see that some shred of discipline still remained.
Phineas armed it, primed it, and fired into the ceiling. There was a deafening boom. Acoustic insulation and structural components rained down into the suddenly silent mass of people. A burst pipe sprayed fitfully for a moment before a safety valve closed.
“Now Hear This!” Phineas bellowed. “The next marine that violates an order will be shot by me! Any questions?”
The eerie silence spread. Phineas could hear “shh” and “what” from other hallways as people craned around corners to see what had happened.
Phineas shouldered the weapon in a proper shooting position.
“There are dozens out Outer Rim ships inbound on this base. The plasma cannons are fully operational. Every marine in uniform will report to their battle stations immediately!”
There was a brief swaying. Some people started to move. The mob had a dense inertia; it would require tremendous force to change their direction.
Phineas brought the weapon down to sight in on the nearest marine with officer bars. He was a lieutenant who had been carrying a computer over his head, trying to push through the crowd. The crowd parted slightly, leaving the lieutenant standing, clutching his computer, glancing to the side. The lieutenant didn’t notice the crowed parting; he seemed to be too busy trying to edge through the crowd.
“What is your duty station?”
The lieutenant turned to see that Phineas was aiming at his head. His chin pulled back, his eyes went wide, he gasped for breath. Mixed in with the fight-or-flight response was the freeze response, hoping the predator would miss you.
“Logistics,” the lieutenant croaked, his mouth dry. “Weapons stores, sir.”
“You’ve got five seconds to get out of this companionway!” Phineas shouted, loud enough for everyone jammed in the hall to hear.
There was some movement away from the intersection. People further down the hall had not changed their direction, yet. People close to Phineas were slowly switching from a mixture of frozen terror and flight to a more concentrated fight; their first obstacle was to push against a wall of humanity still deciding what to do.
Phineas moved the rifle to a sergeant, staring at him in open-mouthed awe.
“What are you supposed to be doing?”
The marine’s mouth worked up and down before words came out.
That was a bad response, Phineas thought. The standard formula included “sir”, and this marine’s failure was a symptom of larger problems.
“Did you say squid bait?” Phineas shouted. It was the standard drill instructor response; he’d heard it shouted whenever he went to view the newest troops on a duty station.
“No, sir!” the marine shouted.
That was a better answer, given with more of the hoo-yah attitude that Phineas hoped for. It was a crutch that marines had built into their training for centuries. This call and response, this shouted enthusiasm for duty could make the most irregular situation into something more normal and well-understood.
“Prove it!” Phineas shouted. “Get our ships fueled up and fighting!”
The marine turned around and started clawing through the crowd. There was some more purposeful motion of those people around him. The silence had been replaced by a murmur. The panic and shouting did not erupt immediately. Hopefully, a few with discipline could sway those who dithered to tip the balance from flight to fight.
Phineas raised the weapon, and prepared to put it back on safe. A woman in a non-standard flight suit started to edge up toward Phineas. He looked over and saw her trying to slip behind the armored marine who stood by, silently, while Phineas used his gun.
Phineas brought the weapon down, pointing at her. She immediately started backing up, holding the wall for guidance.
“Where are you going?” Phineas asked, look at her through the sights.
She had both hands on the wall, almost clinging to it for support.
“That’s my ship,” she whispered.
Phineas glanced over his shoulder at the wall behind him. It was a cargo bay door. He raised the weapon and stepped aside. She scooted behind the marine, punched in the code, opening up the small crew access door, and jumped inside. The door rattled shut behind her.
Phineas, weapon pointed at the ceiling, stared around at the swirling mob. His hands were sweating, and he was having trouble catching his breath. He sighed, and realized that his knees had gone soft.
Phineas looked at the marine; the marine’s eyes were clearly visible through the openings in the helmet. The marine was glowering at Phineas; he was angry at being threatened by an officer.
“How about you? Are you going to save this base?” he asked, quietly.
The marine’s eyes narrowed.
“You pulled on gun on me,” the marine said slowly, his voice muffled by the armor.
Phineas took a step closer to the marine; he was leaning on the armor.
“What was that, marine?”
The marine stared hard at Phineas. He twisted around in his armor to get his chin up out of the air regulator.
“You pulled a stinking gun on me,” he shouted.
Staring at the marine, Phineas turned his shoulder to show his gold colonel’s insignia.
“Sir,” the marine added, as surly and bitter as possible.
Phineas looked over the armor for a moment. He looked up and down, as though seeing it for the first time. Then he leaned back close to the helmet.
“Marine, am I ever supposed to see battle armor in this part of the base?” It was a rhetorical question.
The marine knew that armor was worn only on battle stations. The marine glanced to the side.
“I had to get something,” he said.
Phineas waited for the marine to look back at him. It took a moment for the marine to stop looking away and look straight at Phineas. Phineas could see the marine working up a good sense of righteous defiance. Phineas checked the marine’s identification label on the front of the armor. It said “Cpl. Pittdorf”. Painted neatly below it, was his handle, “The Pits”. The lettering looked like the machine-embossed identifier; Pittdorf may have been a self-serving coward, but he was also a craftsman.
“I had to get people’s attention, Pits, and you were walking by.” Phineas stepped back so The Pits could see him through the narrow visor. He turned the weapon around, doing the inspection ritual that was usually reserved for formation at boot camps. Phineas opened the power supply, checked the magazine, cleared the breech and glanced through the barrel to the floor; it was in top working order.
Phineas held out the rifle. The Pits hesitated, but took it properly, and set it at parade rest. It wasn’t good enough for boot camp, but it would do for the circumstances.
“That’s a pretty good example of readiness. May I look inside, marine?” Phineas didn’t give the usual parade-ground order of “open armor”; that might be asking too much.
He could see The Pits squinting at him through the visor. The Pits had something in mind, and Phineas was between Corporal Pittdorf and his plans. It would be tough to talk him out of whatever he thought was more important than defending this base.
Pittdorf raised the lever on the cam-lock on the front of the armor; the bands holding the power supply on the back released, and the power supply leaned back. Pittdorf stepped forward and leaned to counterbalance it with crisp boot-camp precision.
Phineas walked around and looked inside. The power supply was charged and working. The contacts were clean; the rebreather backup gauges showed that he’d only been wearing the armor for a few minutes.
Phineas walked back around into The Pits field of view.
“You look good, marine,” Phineas said. The Pits leaned further forward, almost a bow, the power supply flopped into position; he snapped down the cam-lock and stood up straight.
“Yes, sir,” Pittdorf said quietly.
“Who’s running your unit?”
Phineas didn’t expect an answer. A corporal who wanted to be an officer couldn’t give any answer to why he left his unit. Pittdorf looked away, scheming for an answer.
“Without someone like you, they’ll be squid bait,” Phineas began quietly. “I don’t know what you’re doing here, and I don’t want to know. I need you to get to your battle-station, and keep your unit alive. We may be outnumbered; everyone has to do their job perfectly for us to survive. As far as I’m concerned, everyone here is depending on you.” Phineas had used this speech before; but he was never sure how much emphasis to put but “everyone”. It was the literal truth, not some hyperbole to motivate the reluctant.
The Pits glanced to the side for only a second before he said “Yes, sir.” “Make us proud to serve with you,” Phineas said.
Phineas stopped looking closely at The Pits; he stepped back a bit further.
The Pits gave a final, non-committal “Yes, sir.” Phineas turned away from The Pits; he didn’t expect a salute or anything like it. He had to get to his shuttle and return to his own command post on one of the ion cannons. Phineas paused before leaving the intersection; he wondered if he would have had to shoot someone to make his point; and if he did have to shoot someone, would he have pulled the trigger in cold blood?
Dieskau had not slept or been groomed in thirty-six hours. He had the stubble of beard; his hair style had fallen apart. His eyes were rimmed with red and sunken into his cheeks from too many stimulants and too little sleep. Propped in his seat at the situation display, he could see that the Cephalopods had turned a perfect ambush into series of small, hard-to-manage, pointless skirmishes. He was very sure that the Cephalopods had done nothing at all in the opening moments of the attack. He was waiting for the intelligence crew’s review of the sensor recordings to show him whether Caughnawaga had sent a warning to the Core’s Cephalopods. If so, then he would need to see if Linois’ secret agenda to replace him as supreme military commander of this cluster included deals with Cephalopods. Hidden deep within that fear was the deeper concern that the Linois was only a puppet of the Cephalopods. The actions of Caughnawaga further implied that some of the Cephalopods were controlled by the Core Planets. The depth and subtlety of the plan left Dieskau in awe. There was no possibility of a simpler explanation.
Opposite Dieskau, Caughnawaga stood, silently watching the display, also. The Cephalopods had said nothing for hours, simply watching the process of the battle. Dieskau insisted that Linois and Caughnawaga learn of his power, and come to respect Dieskau’s ability to crush all opposition. Dieskau could now see that Linois, as commander of the largest ship in the fleet, was the only commander able to hatch such a monstrous scheme; he was the one commander Dieskau could not easily have arrested.
Linois stepped from his bridge crew to Dieskau’s shoulder. They both looked at the situation display. Henry base was clearly identified. The stream of Core ships was edging closer, hounded by the Outer Rim’s fleet.
“Before we enter cannon range, we’ll need to make repairs and get resupplied,” Linois said quietly.
Caughnawaga stirred; it started moving toward Linois.
The speech synthesizer chimed, “The Cephalopods must rest and water and fuel. Ships are damaged, weapons stores are low.”
“If I may,” Linois said, “I suggest we probe their defenses, determine how many cannon work, what their combat readiness is.”
As Linois detailed his plans, Dieskau looked at the two of them, Mammal and Cephalopod, a small pod of allies buried within his own forces. He had suspected that there was disloyalty; a faction that had a private agenda, not for the benefit of the Outer Rim; within his force there were officers acting in their own narrow self-interest. Dieskau had an active interest in locating all of this faction, and rooting out the discontent they created. As Linois talked, Dieskau started to plan the intelligence-gathering necessary to find the true extent of this conspiracy.
Linois finished summarizing his own cowardly plans and looked at Dieskau intently. “We can’t rush into an ambush,” he concluded, without any trace of irony.
In a flash of insight, Dieskau realized that he had been manipulated by Linois and Caughnawaga: they had been visible cowards just to make Dieskau pit them against each other. Dieskau had fallen into their trap and given them the opportunity to conspire together. However, now that he saw their collusion clearly, he needed to know which of the two was leading, and which was following.
“No!” Dieskau shrieked, leaping up from the situation display. “Don’t you see? First we built huge bases, and they found success with small, mobile forces. Now they have built a huge base. Since they have become us, what else is possible but for us to become them?”
Dieskau sat back down at the situation display. The situation was suddenly clearer, clearer than it had ever been. Part of his sudden profound clarity was the stark realization of how completely isolated he was. His advisors were no longer providing him the kind of support he needed. The plans he had put together were not sophisticated enough to deal with the new threat he found inside his own organization. Until he understood his opposition, he needed a new, multi-layered plan, where only Dieskau knew the complete picture. He would not fall into this trap again.
“What will happen when we form up for an attack?” he asked. He was staring hard at the floor. He’d had a momentary glimpse of a plan so shrewd and compelling that it could not fail, irrespective of what his staff did to subvert it. He knew that he couldn’t articulate the plan to anyone, he could only issue necessary orders.
“They will crumble before me and sue for terms of surrender,” Dieskau went on, distracted by his wide-ranging thoughts. “This is the final glorious attack that will finish the battle.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Dieskau saw them stepping away; Linois and his pod of Squid allies. Dieskau leapt up, taking a step toward them.
“Perhaps someday you will see that today we rewrite history,” Dieskau shouted, his arms flailing at them to emphasize his point. “Do you no see the sublime perfection of this reversal of roles?”
Dieskau turned toward the bridge crew and roared, “Attack formation. Now!”