The Champlain was a wreck. Two cannon blasts had torn through vital parts of the ship simultaneously. The anti-personnel rounds had done some structural damage, but the energy levels of the radiation had been precisely tuned to slaughter the crew. Because the ship was far from destroyed, the remaining crew, with luck, could patch the holes, make the ship spaceworthy again, and perhaps survive long enough to be rescued.
It had been the fleet’s flagship; the captain had hosted the Commodore of the fleet, as well as the military commander for the cluster. Once, it had a full complement of crew and marines, plus hand-picked staff for intelligence and communications. Now, it was a sarcophagus. Flight engineers would describe it as a ship slowly filling with vacuum. The falling pressure would kill those that had not been slaughtered by the high-temperature radiation.
Two of the supporting frigates had been damaged in the initial attack, and subsequently collided with each other. The collision had made a very bad situation much worse. After losing a connecting gallery in the initial attack, one frigate then lost a crew compartment in the collision; the bulkheads had sealed, isolating parts of the ship. The other frigate has lost all of its gravity foils, and was falling into the nearby star, completely out of control. Scouts scrambled to rescue the crew.
The third frigate attending the Champlain tried to move in to a position to rescue the top commanders. The initial damage had put the Champlain into a tumble, but incapacitated crew was occupied trying to stop the leaks. The frigate, with some care, had computed a course that would match the tumble, allowing a hard dock and the transfer of survivors. As they closed with the Champlain, the Henry Base Gun Two spotted them as a working ship. The gun slowly traversed to match course.
The frigate, in following the tumbling destroyer, could not bring its guns to bear effectively on the cannon. The frigate sensor crew marked the traversal of the gun; it was the second-hand of the clock that counted down to their execution. They fired wildly, hoping that they might intimidate or distract the crew of the gun.
The gun’s ionized plasma tore through the frigate’s shielding, causing catastrophic metal fatigue and killing everyone in the path of the blast immediately. Parts of the stream continued through the frigate and into the destroyer, causing even more damage to the already injured ship.
From the shadow of the cannon, a number of Core Planet scout ships erupted. They pounced on the damaged frigate, strafing it with even more damaging fire. After two more passes, the scouts planned to force entry into the ship and finish its destruction.
Major General William Johnson had left the Lyman base staff with a bewildering list of stores, equipment and materiel required by the Henry base. All of it had to be ordered from other planets, shipped to the Lyman base, stored temporarily until it could be organized for transport to the Henry base.
The bridge crew on Lyman base was completely focused on managing the freighter traffic to and from the base. Their current standing orders required careful examination of incoming ships for Cephalopod contact. The intelligence community was trying to understand the nature of Cephalopod alliances and enemies.
Captain Racinowski was the deck officer of the day. He was known as “Rat Man” even though was large and slow-moving. Racinowski liked to correlate the previous shift’s arrival and departure counts with the number of docking piers actually in use. It was a half hour of low-value busy work that eased him into the routine on the bridge. Also, when he found discrepancies, he felt that his attention to detail reinforced his fitness to be the senior officer.
The chatter of the traffic control was a quiet contrapuntal chant that was the background of their working life. The arrival and departure counts looked like they would balance properly when the Rat Man noticed a small trace of dissonance in the background chatter. He looked up from his clipboard to see the source.
One of the sensor operators was looking around at the adjacent displays in obvious confusion. Rat Man set aside the counts and walked over to see what was interrupting the orderly chorus of the bridge.
“Captain,” the crewmember reported, leaning back in his seat, “I think I see shooting at Henry base.”
Rat Man looked at the other displays for a moment. Mentally, he ticked off the reasons why this was unlikely: Henry base was a tremendous distance away; there was an intervening star system; it was a dust and debris system, making all sensor readings very obscure; it was incoherent propagation, not the coherent wave function of a ship in transit or transmission of signals; the biggest reason of all was that Lyman base had their freighter full of critical cannon parts parked nearby, waiting for orders to send them to Henry base.
“Shooting?” Rat Man asked.
The crewmember leaned over his display, and made some adjustments to sharpen up the image.
“I think it’s our plasma cannons,” the crewmember said. “Five or six, firing simultaneously.”
Rat Man looked down at the sensor, and saw the shimmering echoes of a vast, coherent ionic discharge coming from the right piece of the sky. The crewmember dialed in the cannon filters; as soon as they were in place, the signal dropped away to nothing.
“Plus surface guns, sir,” said the crewmember sitting next to him.
Rat Man sighed. He was too old for a shooting war. He was just a traffic controller. He reached over and switched on the communications to the base senior commander.
“Colonel, post a code yellow alert. The Outer Rim appears to be attacking Henry base.” There would be a long pause while this was sent through the network to the personal communicator of the senior officer in charge. Rat Man used the time to start reassigning the crew. He set one member to counting shots, getting accurate measurements; he set another to pulling the recordings to see when the first shot was fired. He set a third to trying to locate any communication signals buried in the background noise of space. He told the rest to stop traffic completely until further notice.
The call came back from Sims, the senior officer, with the expected requests for some kind of positive, independent confirmation. Rat Man asked for an hour to gather data. Sims gave him twenty minutes; Rat Man only needed ten. He hated the game, but played it well.
Eyre had reduced his rate of fire to avoid damaging his gun. The discharge was a tremendous strain, as was the charging cycle. He was fortunate that it didn’t take too many shots to put the Outer Rim fleet into confusion. There was a general retreat and regrouping of the Outer Rim ships. Then the remaining Core ships began forming up near the Henry Base. The battle would change from bombardment to ship-to-ship action, requiring considerably more care in target selection.
While the Core fleet formed up, Eyre kept the cannons firing at any Outer Rim ship that slipped into range. The Outer Rim fleet may have retreated, but it remained active, and very dangerous. Eyre knew that they would start to work around the guns, looking for vulnerabilities in the gun placements. With care, they could, eventually, wear down the guns.
Larry Drover had shaped several alternative courses back to Henry base. He was sure, however, that he couldn’t get the damaged Outer Rim scout onto any of those courses. The ship was too heavily loaded and badly damaged to make the trip. He was not sure of the state of the life support systems, either. There were too many unknowns, too many things that were certain to go wrong.
“Come on baby,” he said to the ship. “Just a little more.”
Whiting was still sitting at the weapons console. The guns no longer worked on the scout. Either they were out of ammunition, or some critical component had failed. It was hard to be sure without a thorough examination. Some parts of the ship had been damaged, and the bulkheads had sealed automatically. They weren’t sure that they could even leave the bridge.
Whiting leaned over and put her arm around Larry’s shoulders. She could feel his tension. He was hunched over his console, his hands shaking as he tried to get the ship to respond.
“You’re doing great,” she said. It was not a cheap motivational tribute; she had seen marine pilots unable to fly a ship with so much damage. “What do we have for fuel?”
Larry glanced around for a moment, he brought up a display that was not encouraging. In order to do the basic math, he had to stop his search for Outer Rim ships pursuing him. It was hard to switch his focus to anything other than the enemy.
“Has our vent rate increased?” Mo asked.
That stopped Larry cold. He was having trouble doing a straight line calculation. If the vent rate was increasing, the hole was being torn open, the distance they could cover on the remaining fuel was falling. That reduced their effective range, and put even more pressure on him to get the ship to safety.
Larry could see where Mo was headed; they really couldn’t get anywhere further than the desolate rock in the dust and debris cloud. This would expose them to a ground battle between Outer Rim and Core forces.
“I don’t know,” Larry muttered. “We don’t really have a lot of choice, do we?”
Natalie leaned closer, putting her head against his shoulder.
“Half the fleet’s down there. We’ll rendezvous with them and join the surface defense.” It was, to Natalie, the only choice. It put her back in contact with the Marines, their only salvation. To Larry, it put them in harm’s way; when it was time to evacuate, he was only a civilian and would be abandoned.
“I don’t want to get shot at,” he said, empty of any sound, logical reasons for staying in space.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have come back to this rock,” she said quietly.
She sighed, looking for a resolve she barely felt. She wasn’t sure what she’d accomplished. Her scouting mission had failed when she believed Dieskau’s assertion that he would attack Lyman. She couldn’t see how Dieskau could have been so absolutely convincing while having a secret plan to attack Henry, and she couldn’t imagine anyone who could change Dieskau’s attack from Lyman to Henry at the last minute. Her attempt to turn the ambush into an orderly retreat seemed to have worked, but she didn’t know if Henry base had responded. She would never know, trapped here on this desolate rock. Even if she got back to General Johnson, her role in this horrifying mess would be ambiguous.
On the balance, Larry had done everything he could to keep her alive. He’d saved her from the ambush; he’d flown the Core Scout until it was disabled. He’d flown the unfamiliar Outer Rim scout until that ship was almost wrecked out from under them. He had a huge reserve of skills. Even if he was annoying, he was successful and competent; she didn’t dare ask for anything more. She realized that should have offered him some support, instead of threats and intimidation. She had secured the ship for him. He had flown it for her. As a team, they might be able to work through this and survive long enough to get rescued.
“We’re here,” she said, sitting up straight at her console. “We’ll get through this, too.” She glanced over at him; he was looking at her closely. “I’m sorry about the gun business,” she added quietly.
Larry leaned over and put his head on her shoulder. He sighed, relaxing visibly. His hands dropped off the console and fell onto his lap. He massaged his face for a moment.
“You must have been desperate,” he said quietly.
Natalie sighed. It felt good to relax, even for just a moment. He was warm, alive and real. He wasn’t a threat, or a concealed threat, or a possible problem. He was a pilot who had done everything she wanted.
“No. I was scared. Johnson had me in his sights. I panicked and took it out on you. It was a mistake; we’re better as a team.”
The ship shifted slightly. Larry glanced up at a display to be sure it was just gravity increasing as they closed with the planet.
“Could we,” Larry started and paused. He had doubts about asking anything from her. But with her leaning on his shoulder, her arm draped across the back of his seat, he decided to ask anyway. “You know, could we see each other socially? You know, when I have a delivery out here again. Or something.”
Natalie laughed. Larry had never heard her laugh before.
“After this? Dating seems a little too low-key. We should just get married.” She said it with her usual matter-of-fact determination. To Larry, it sounded like and order, and it was up to him to work out the details. He sat up in his seat to he could turn around and look at her.
“I mean,” she stammered, “if you want to.” She might have been blushing. “Did that sound like I was giving orders?”
“No ma’am,” Larry said.
He glanced over at Mo; it had slumped down on its table and faded to an odd color, probably from exhaustion. It looked like a kind of cowering posture. Larry sighed and stretched up straight. He changed the angle of the console seat to force him to sit back a bit.
“You still with us, Mo?”
Mo stirred around a bit. “Are we not great fighters?” Mo replied. The listless stirring revealed the truth underpinning the synthesized voice booming through the ship’s intercom.
“Okay, chief, can you rig this for gravity?”
“Do we know Outer Rim scout ships?” Mo asked. “Are we rated crew only Core Planets medium freight?”
“Great,” Larry said. “Do what you can; keep looking for the ground tackle.”
Whiting reached over and touched his hand. Her fingers were warm and dry. His hands were still cold and wet from sweat. Her touch was calm and confident. He found relief; knowing she would make the right decisions about where to land and what to do once they landed. He could relax and focus on flying, leaving the surface details to her. It was a comfort to know that they were able to share the burden of survival.
The force defending the Lyman base was only a frigate, two small brigs and an odd collection of scouts. It was enough to secure a base against an isolated Cephalopod raid; it was barely enough to show the Outer Rim that this was Core Planets territory.
Colonel Sims had done well under William Johnson. He had purchased the rank of lieutenant, but had been promoted to colonel. He was eligible to be a general by seniority, but the Lyman base just wasn’t big enough to justify the rank of general. Sims, however, was planning on the expansion of Lyman base, and his eventual elevation to general.
When Captain “Rat Man” Racinowski laid out the data, Colonel Sims had to admit that the probabilities of a battle were very high. Rat Man had used just about every tool at his disposal in the brief time allotted to him to gather data. Unlike many officers, Racinowski was intimate with the men and equipment under his command. He’d personally adjusted filter settings and stared at displays to be sure that it was Core Planets cannon fire.
Sims had not worked closely with Racinowski before this. He knew him well enough, but had never seen him in action. When Sims had asked for more information, Rat Man didn’t call in one of his crew. He knew the readings, ranges and bearings off the top of his head. Sims was impressed by Rat Man’s performance.
“How large a force?” Sims asked.
Racinowski peered at Sims for a moment, his expression falling to one of sudden doubt and confusion.
“I’m not sure how big our force was at Henry base,” Rat Man stammered.
Sims wondered what had wrecked Rat Man’s confidence. Sims could see that he had strayed into an area where Rat Man was not prepared.
“Their force. Make a bet; how many of them are we shooting at?”
Rat Man fumbled around for a moment, patting pockets and looking very lost. After checking his entire uniform, he looked around and saw a folder full of printed notes and a small computer on top of that. Sims looked at the notes, also. The folder was crammed with scraps of paper. Rat Man picked up the folder, opened it, and started shuffling the papers haphazardly. It was a complete contrast from the confident Rat Man of only moments ago.
Sims couldn’t see everything in the folder, but he could see that the hard copies of images, and displays had scrawled notes in margins and on the backs. It was a complete mess of raw data. It showed an underlying undisciplined disorganization that shook Sim’s confidence in the results.
Rat Man flipped over a report of some kind and read a note for a while.
“We counted,” Rat Man started then stopped, still peering at his report. “We counted the,” he started again and looked up at Sims, lost. “What do you call it?” Rat Man asked; then said, “Spectral signatures.”
Sims nodded. He carefully maintained a very dour, almost sad expression when listening to briefings. He liked to wait to the end without showing any preferences or opinions of his own.
“We counted less than a dozen gun spectral signatures,” Rat Man announced. Rat Man was suddenly complete confidence again. “We’re still analyzing the recordings, but we think we saw some ships firing before we started firing, but haven’t seen those signatures since.”
Sims looked at the random pile of scribbled notes. He realized he would have to make a difficult decision based on scribbled recollections on the edges of torn scraps of paper. It made it easy to keep his sad face on. Sims didn’t know that some of Rat Man’s notes were scribbled on desk-tops and consoles in the sensor bay.
“You’re saying the odds are good that we silenced some of their ships during the first shots fired?”
Rat Man looked up at him with an odd joy. “I should get you the recording of the first shots. We think it was six or eight guns all firing at once! You should see the interference noise spikes: off the scale.”
Sims sat back in his chair for a moment. The picture was becoming clearer. The Outer Rim had attacked Henry, and Henry had fired back, silencing the Outer Rim ships. The force at Henry was large, the base well-defended. There were two scenarios that Sims would put bets on: overwhelming force or bad intelligence. If the Outer Rim had overwhelming force, they might try to assault the base. That kind of force would have been impossible to conceal, so it was the less likely scenario. If the Outer Rim was mistaken about the level of readiness, they may have attacked, thinking the base lightly defended.
While the official military doctrine left to Sims the question of how large a force he should commit for the relief of Henry base, his fleet was so tiny that he had no choice except to send all of his ships. He had a number of fixed cannon, so the base would have some defense without the ships. It appeared that the Core Planet’s plan to push the Rim out of this cluster had gone terribly wrong; they were now fighting to keep their position in the cluster. It was a very safe bet that the Outer Rim had no reserves to pounce on an undefended Lyman base.
His communicator buzzed. Racinowski stared at it. Sims saw that it was intelligence; he put them on the speaker so Rat Man could hear.
“Sims,” Sims said. “You’re on speaker with Racinowkski.” “Hey Rat Man, Daddy-O here,” intelligence said. It was Lieutenant D’Addio.
“What have you got?” Sims asked.
“Stragglers from an ambush,” Daddy-O announced with some pride.
“Ambush?” Sims and Rat Man asked.
“Ambush,” Daddy-O said. “I’d say that the Outer Rim caught some of our ships in the dust and debris system, midway to Henry.”
Sims tried to take surprise off his face and resume looking sad.
Rat Man frowned. “When?”
“A day or more,” Daddy-O replied. “It would have been all close combat, small ship weapons. I doubt you’d have seen it from here.”
Rat Man looked relieved. Sims recognized that same edge of glee that Colonel Williams had when he was right and everyone else was wrong. Sims often thought of D’Addio as someone who would eventually replace Williams in the command structure of the Core Planets. The association was ironic, since D’Addio would be the first to announce officially that Williams has been killed.
Sims said, “Thanks,” and turned off the intercom. He turned to Rat Man. “That’s pretty much that. I guess it’s time to mount ‘em up and move ‘em out.”
Rat Man nodded and started gathering up his notes and scraps and jamming them into his tattered folder. Sims stood up; he needed to give acting orders that would put Rat Man in charge of the base while he was gone; he needed to form up his tiny fleet for rescue and repair work; he needed to commandeer all of the empty freighters on the base, which would mean activating all of the MP’s necessary to arrest the freighters that objected. Sims was excited, almost enthusiastic; but he kept a focus on moving slowly and deliberately.