Eyre was not comfortable leading a gun crew. He was an engineer. He had assembled the inventory of parts and skills. He had planned the training of the crews, the construction of the guns, the sighting and calibration. He had been there through the “first fire” procedure; where failure would kill a huge number of people, and destroy large, complex and valuable Core Planets assets. He had toasted the success of his engineering team during the commissioning of the guns.
Eyre had done quite a bit of research into Outer Rim fortifications. He was not the most knowledgeable expert on fortifications. He was barely competent in the mechanics of assembling the vast guns. However, in spite of his lack of sophistication, he had brought the two elements together for the first time in Core Planets military history.
Major General Johnson had understood Eyre’s plan. Once he started building Henry base, the potential shift in power had been so intimidating that the Outer Rim had given Dieskau permission to attack. Eyre’s simple idea had sent a ripple of fear right to the top of the Outer Rim’s leadership. The presence of the heavily armed and armored Henry base so close to the Outer Rim’s Carillon base had shifted the balance of power.
“They’re in range, sir,” the gun one sensor crew said.
Eyre glanced at the display to be completely sure that there were no mistakes. The proximity alarm had been silenced, but the display showed the first of the Outer Rim ships pursuing the Core Planets retreat.
“Hold,” Eyre said. “Patch me through to the other, umm, commanders.” There was a standard order, but for a moment, Eyre was not sure if he was saying the right thing.
When he heard the communicator channel chime, he said, “Wait till every ship’s in the kill zone.” That should have been enough, but Eyre suspected that the other gun commanders might not remember the whole plan. “We fire for, umm, personnel kills,” he said. “Just slaughter,” he added, hoping this was clear enough for every commander. Eyre didn’t want to say it; he didn’t agree with Phineas, but he knew that a single-minded determination was sometimes more successful than the right approach.
The response from the other commanders was a silent “acknowledge.” The six operating guns would wait and fire as one on the Outer Rim fleet; their plan hinged on the assumption that the pursuers wouldn’t waste the time on anything other than chasing the straggling Core ships right up to the base.
The waiting was the worst part of combat.
“They’ve started to advance sir,” the sensor operator said.
The leading ships had paused, waiting for the Champlain to catch up and lead the charge to the base. That was good, as it would expose the huge ship to cannon fire during the first onslaught. If they were lucky, that would break their morale as soon as possible. If they started to retreat, Eyre hoped to switch away from the horrible antipersonnel loads.
“Hold fire,” Eyre reminded his gun crew. “Power levels at minimum.” In the cramped fire control deck, he heard the quiet grunts of assent.
If they appeared dead or inattentive, they would be better bait.
Eyre saw that there was some shooting going on at the outer-most gun. One of the frigates was firing as it drifted past gun six. Eyre couldn’t be sure, but it looked like they had gone against his plan and powered up an active targeting system. The gun crew had probably panicked, wondering at the size of the Outer Rim fleet, and tried to illuminate the entire fleet. Eyre had left explicit instructions for each gun to report as the fleet went by so that they would have as complete a picture as possible without using active sensors.
“Gun six, here,” Eyre heard over the communicator. “We’re taking heat, sir.” Eyre wanted to say, cynically, “I’m not surprised;” but he knew that this would not help the men being fired on.
“Kill your sensors, six,” Eyre replied. “Act, umm, dead.” Eyre tried to make it sound like a new idea. It was, however, the basic plan he had communicated to all of the gun commanders.
“Gut it out, six,” one of the other guns said. “We’re with you.” Eyre wondered who had chimed in. It might have been gun five. The fun crew’s mutual support and encouragement was essential. He was supposed to reprimand them for undisciplined chatter, but this was helpful.
“Gun two. We’ve got Squids,” came another voice. “Squids moving in” Someone on the fire control deck muttered something about it being crowded as a squid picnic. This was apt, Eyre, thought, grinning. He knew that Phineas would have brought down his almighty wrath on someone making jokes at a time like this.
The ship rocked, a muffled ‘whump’ reverberated throughout the ship. They’d taken their first hit. With another whump, the ship jolted suddenly, knocking pens, cups and loose equipment onto the deck. Eyre knew their armor would hold for several more shots like that. He glanced over at the display: their attacker was probably the frigate moving ahead of the Champlain, firing on each gun as it flew past.
The ship jolted again while Eyre was looking at the display. The frigate had hit him three times in three different places. As long as they fired indiscriminately, he was safe; concentrated fire would quickly open holes in their armor.
“This is Gun one. We’re taking heat, too,” Eyre replied to all of the guns. “No squids, here.”
He stared hard at the display, trying to count the ships. With the sensors on passive reception only, the resolution was bad, and the refresh rate was very slow. The image changed in jumps, instead of a smooth progression of images. The computer couldn’t interpolate intermediate positions well enough to make the situation clear.
“I’ve got four squids chewing up shields,” someone reported. It sounded like gun five.
Eyre wasn’t sure what to do about Cephalopod close assault tactics. The gun armor would hold them off for a while. Once the squids got too close, the guns could no longer be aimed successfully, or even fired safely. Each gun had a small compliment of Marines, but a determined Cephalopod assault would be fatal to a gun.
The ship jolted, almost knocking Eyre out of his seat. A few alarm indicators went on. The annunciator said nothing.
“Squids sir, all around us,” the sensor operator reported.
Eyre glanced down at his computer. He’d put in some simple parameters for a propagation equation, figuring in the distance and masses of the dust and debris star system and the Henry base star systems. The bulk of the fleet should be arriving shortly. Eyre tapped the display to make the current time more prominent. His predication was remarkably accurate. He decided to avoid panic and give the orders precisely according to his initial predictions.
“We’re still holding,” Eyre said on the command channel.
There was a long moment of quiet. The firing had moved beyond the idle guns to the base itself. Eyre watched the clock, his hands beating out the final seconds, as if he were the conductor of time itself.
When the clock ran down, Eyre gave the final downbeat and said, “Full power! Heat her up!”
The orders rang around the gun’s fire control deck. The targeting systems were energized, revealing the entire Outer Rim fleet. The power supply started its grinding sound; the ship’s frame began to creak as it changed shape under the influence of the generators.
Once the generators were past their priming stage, everyone had to shout to be heard on the command deck.
“Target selection, sir?” the gun focus crew bellowed.
Eyre peered at the display for a moment to confirm the Outer Rim’s line of battle. The Champlain, a vast destroyer, led the assault.
“The destroyer,” Eyre said, pointing at the display.
Commands echoed around the bridge, shouted over the roaring of the power supply.
“What about the squids, sir?” the sensor crewmember asked.
Eyre was not completely sure what they would do. He was, however, hoping that they were intimidated by Core Planets weapons. He needed to project confidence to his crew.
“They’ll run,” Eyre said. “You watch.”
The roaring had long ago reached the peak volume. However, it also increased in frequency. As it did, the power spectrum spread out, the volume decreased as the pitch increased. At full power, one still had to speak loudly and clearly, but the worst of the noise was over.
“Heaters to full, sir,” the gun launch crew reported.
This was the moment Eyre had counted on. From this moment, very little could go wrong.
Johnson sat alone in the conference room, baffled by the turn of events. The plan had been a simple, logical progression that would force the Outer Rim to withdraw from the cluster. From Orange, he had moved out and built the Lyman base, which had developed rapidly as a source of metals and organics. From Lyman, he had brought in additional labor and materials to build the Henry base. Johnson was becoming sure that his biggest mistake was setting up the wrong compensation plans for the crews that built the bases. The people who built Lyman base had been carefully recruited from his business associates. Once in place, they were not interested in moving further into the frontier. The crews he had assembled to build Henry base were too desperate, too hungry for business opportunities.
The tone and tenor of the briefings had been changing as the battle wore on. They had started to talk about risks and contingencies. His own staff were working out alternative scenarios where they would be forced to abandon the base. They had developed a plan for hiding some of the base’s assets in odd orbits, unmarked by any beacons. A returning force would be given precise orbital solutions for locating the equipment.
The door to the conference room chimed and slid open. A marine stepped in, saluted and said “Message from the bridge: Outer Rim ships in firing range.”
To Johnson, this was just more of the same incomplete news. What were his people actually doing? It seemed like his organization was crumbling away in front of his eyes.
“Where’s Eyre?” Johnson asked, wondering what effect the cannons were having. “Why didn’t Cole stop them?”
The marine stood, staring across the room. Johnson knew that the marine had nothing to say, and couldn’t answer unless ordered to. Johnson also knew that the marine had an opinion; sometimes the unfiltered front-line information was more useful than a summarized, aggregated, confirmed report. Every three months he would order his officers to meet directly with the rifleman to gather their opinions.
“That’s it,” Johnson said. “The waiting’s over, son. I did everything I could to prevent the attack on my base. Now, all that’s left is for me to lead the counter-attack.”
Johnson had heard Eyre explaining that the base was built to withstand just such an assault. Johnson, steeped in the Core Planets military doctrine, didn’t really trust Eyre’s plan; he could only trust powerful fleet action. Johnson was also a skilled political animal; since any inquiry would immediately blame the novel military concept of a large, fixed base, Johnson had to make a counter-attack with his remaining ships.
Johnson stood, leaning on the table for support. He moved around the table toward the conference room door. The marine saluted as Johnson passed, and fell in, two steps behind him.
The hallway was empty. The base was remarkably quiet. Johnson knew that Phineas had somehow managed to quell the panic and get marines, pilots and civilians to their battle stations. The ambush and the retreat had almost destroyed morale. This confirmed Johnson’s suspicion that a mobile, active force was most effective; people cowering behind armored shields were too passive and submissive to be a military force.
A muted boom echoed through the hallway.
“Are we shooting?” Johnson asked the marine.
“No sir, we’re taking hits.”
To Johnson, this meant that Eyre’s cannons had been defeated or out-flanked, and the base was doomed. With Williams and Cole gone, the remaining force had little ability to fight back without the cannons. They might hold out, but the Outer Rim could simply bring up reinforcements and eventually overrun the base. If Johnson could get a scout to Lyman to bring up the forces there, he might be able to withstand a siege.
The wall exploded, blasting Johnson to the other side of the corridor. He’d been told how suddenly death comes. The prospect of death underlay everything Johnson was trying to accomplish as a military leader. While knew about it, he had never experienced it, and did not really know what it was to face death.
He lay in a heap of bloody limbs, a broken desk and torn scraps of uniform. His ribs and arms were broken. He was stabbed in several places by shrapnel and burned by the ionizing radiation that blasted through the hull and several meters of offices, store rooms, and hallways.
The atmosphere started draining out through the hole. Johnson could feel the breeze and hear the rushing sound. He woke up, contorted painfully, laying on the deck, cold and in pain, unaware at first what had happened. He tried to look around, but his arms ached dully and wouldn’t respond. His legs were twisted terribly, and he could start to feel the terrible pain of dislocation in one knee. He found that he could only breathe shallowly and rapidly.
A face leaned close to his. “Sir?”
The base was groaning. He could feel the metal shudder underneath him. He was having trouble catching his breath. His throat was choked with something salty and thick.
“Marine?” Johnson croaked out.
“Yes, sir?” the marine said.
Johnson heard running feet. There was a conversation at the edge of hearing.
“Who was that?” someone asked.
“Well have to find the other half of him to see some ident,” the other voice said.
Johnson tried to turn, but his head was too heavy to move.
“Marine?” Johnson croaked. The face reappeared.
“Get Colonel Phineas. Make sure he knows he’s in charge,” Johnson ordered.
The marine looked around for a moment. People shuffled around. Someone called for a cutting tool. Someone else called for hull mats.
The marine’s face reappeared. “They’re going to take you to the infirmary, sir. You’ll be fine.”
Johnson tried to reply, but no noise came out. He rested a moment.
“I’m sure you’re right, son. You get to Phineas first, though,” he croaked out.
The marine nodded but didn’t move. There was some more activity around him. He heard some equipment being dragged across the deck. His legs had moved from throbbing to real pain. His arms had gone completely numb. He was very afraid that something had happened to both of his arms.
The commotion around him was growing. He thought he heard someone order “Goggles”. He heard the whine of a cutter starting up. He rested for a moment. The marine had taken a knee by his head; the marine shaded his eyes against the shower of sparks from the cutter. Random flashes from one direction contrasted sharply with the emergency lighting from the other direction.
After a moment, someone put a cutting safety mask into the Marine’s hand. The marine carefully positioned it against Johnson’s face. There was a flurry of activity that echoed behind the shield. Then the shield was whisked away, and a circle of faces appeared. Johnson saw two corpsmen and a nurse in addition to the marine that had knelt by him.
One of the corpsmen had taken charge. After shifting Johnson around a bit, they discussed how to move his legs. A number of hands lifted one leg, and rotated the other into a better position. The movement hurt, as did the new position. Someone fired a pain ampoule into his leg. The sudden cold replaced the pain.
Eyre checked the artillery situation display. All eight guns showed full power sensors. The two non-working guns had been rigged with ship sensor systems to make them appear operational; one could not be steered on two axes, and the other could not be primed for firing. Eyre knew the ruse was working when an Outer Rim frigate took up a position and rained concentrated fire at one of the dysfunctional guns.
Eyre still took the time to count through the guns by the numbers. The first volley had to be completely lethal. Eyre could see his own crew fidgeting. The kill zone contained almost the entire Outer Rim fleet. The Outer Rim was firing on the guns and the base. Eyre knew that this was the time when a small mistake could reverse the tide of battle.
On the situation display, he could see the targets moving slowly as his gun traversed into position. He flipped on the relays from the other guns and saw the intersecting lines of attack.
“Show ‘em the Core,” he announced.
There was a cascade of clicks as gates and shutters were opened. The electrical contact couldn’t be heard on the bridge, but the loud bang of the immense capacitor discharge deep within the bowels of the cannon could be heard clearly.
The actual firing of the cannon was a kind of shrieking as the ionizing radiation roared down the magnetic focusing array. The gun platform shook, knocking everything that was loose onto the deck. Eyre had forgotten to strap in, and was knocked from his console seat and slipped down into the vibrating deck. He tried to scramble up off the deck but the shaking was too heavy for him to get any purchase against the metal. He had ordered deck pads, but they had not arrived from Lyman. He would be black and blue on his entire left side.
Once he was back in his seat, he strapped in and looked at the damage from the blast. The grinding whine of the storage ring recharge began. In the intercom, he heard the orders being given in their ritualized sequence to assure that the machine worked perfectly.
Eyre switched on the external telescope to minutely examine the destroyer. It had at least two distinct holes in it, most likely from guns one and three. One hole had inverted nicely as the atmosphere spewed from the ship. The other hole was still folded inward, showing that nothing vital had been hit.
“Heaters to full,” Eyre heard from his own crew.
Seconds later, guns two and four announced that their storage rings were fully charged.
“Guns two and four, same targets,” Eyre said.
His crew shifted around a bit to see why they weren’t firing yet.
Eyre couldn’t count the Cephalopod ships that were appearing. It was not clear what they were doing. He was hoping that the intelligence assessment was correct and they would run. Otherwise, they were doomed to die in protracted hand-to-hand fighting with squids.
When guns two and four fired, the blasts ripped into two separate frigates. Some intervening Cephalopods scouts were torn up, also. Eyre knew exactly how impatient his men were, as he waited for some kind of positive confirmation. He wished he had an intelligence crew to count and track the Cephalopods. His best guess, however, was that they were running. He was sure now that the destroyer was having trouble maneuvering. It looked like two Outer Rim frigates had collided in their rush to avoid the destroyer. Another frigate seemed to be tumbling slowly, spewing a column of crap from a huge hole.
Guns three and five announced that they were ready. Gun six seemed to have had a breakdown already.
“All guns,” he said slowly, “fire at will.”
He created the slaughter Phineas had ordered. His gun, plus three and five immediately fired on the closest targets of opportunity. Eyre found that he was relieved to allow the other gun commanders to operate independently. He could focus more narrowly on the interesting problem of locating the highest value target in his range of operations. Once they were in fully offensive mode, gun operations became a simple litany, repeated with a calm detachment that contrasted with the horrifying damage they created.