Fleet maneuvers were a matter of careful planning. Signals took time to propagate among the ships of the fleet. The executive officers conning the ships needed time to react to the orders. A small course change could take minutes to ripple down from the officer in charge through the bridge and engineering staff on a single ship. It could be an hour between the commodore’s first order and final confirmation that the entire fleet was on a new course.
Williams paced the bridge of the Horicon, leaving a wake of swirling cigarette smoke. Maneuvering the fleet as a unit through the band of dust and asteroid debris was an exercise in patience, something Williams lacked. Doubting every word from Whiting and Drover, he had read and re-read the intelligence assessments from the Henry base intelligence staff, as well as the intelligence officer of his own ship. Williams’ only certainty was the basic story that the Outer Rim had captured them and let them go. He could, however, not see the Outer Rim’s reason for this. Williams was persuaded that there were two possibilities: either they were released to convey a message or they were spies, turned by the Outer Rim to report on the Core Planets military operations. Williams could neutralize them as spies by having them watched carefully.
The bridge door chimed open, Williams scowled over his shoulder. It was a midshipman, reporting for bridge duty. The XO looked at Williams, Williams nodded. The XO strolled over to the midshipman.
“Hampton, you see that circle?” the XO shouted, pointing at a quarter-circle wedge painted on the deck in the corner of the bridge.
Midshipman Hampton nodded.
“Stand in the circle, observe bridge ops, and don’t move!” the XO shouted.
Hampton scurried into the painted wedge and stood at attention. It was Core Planets policy to introduce midshipmen to all aspects of a ship’s operation. However, Williams didn’t like the distraction of a raw hand on his bridge. He insisted that the midshipmen stay out of the way, quietly absorbing military operations without sending the mission astray. Hampton, recently assigned to Williams’ ship, had a background in civil engineering, and understood how bases were built and operated. Even though he was destined to work with Eyre, not fly a space ship, he still had to put in his bridge duty time.
D’Agostino was in command of engineering on this watch. He kept too many communication channels open at once; while some were useful to coordinate activity among the various drive systems on the ship, others were purely social. Unlike Hampton, he was not an officer, nor would he ever be an officer. He was a mate, on his third tour of duty on the Horicon. He was not moved around from ship to ship to gain command experience, he was part of the Horicon’s fixed crew.
Hampton had taken the time to read the plans, and knew that a maneuver was scheduled to reach past the star and planet in the midst of the dust cloud, propelling them toward Lyman base. The maneuver was relatively simple, and executed as a series of scripted orders.
“Position check,” the XO said at the planned time.
“Okay, boys, stand by to ease foils for a reach,” D’Agostino said, unnecessarily, to the engineering crew. Clearly, one of his friends was on duty, and D’Agostino was trying to sound like an important part of the bridge crew.
The bridge crew verified, again, their exact location relative to the star at the heart of the dust cloud. Hampton knew the procedure had a standard set of orders and responses. He was here to learn the litany of call and response required to maneuver a ship of the line.
“Helm, ready to fall off,” the XO said to the helmsman, sitting at the console in front of the XO.
“Ready,” the helmsman replied.
“Rig, ready to fall off,” the XO said.
“Ready,” D’Agostino replied, sitting at the console next to the helmsman. D’Agostino dialed another channel to his friends; “Make it crisp boys,” he said.
The XO glanced over at the comment, but realized it wasn’t directed at him. Williams lit another cigarette, looked over the XO’s shoulders at the status displays, assured that his plan was being executed perfectly.
“Helm, fall off three points,” the XO said.
“Three points off, aye,” the helm replied.
“Oh, no, belay that,” D’Agostino laughed, talking to his friend in engineering.
“Rig, fall off three points,” the XO said.
“Belaying. Helm amidships,” the helmsman replied to D’Agostino.
Hampton glanced over at the control stations. He was not completely sure what he’d just heard. Had the helmsman responded to D’Agostino, as if D’Agostino was giving orders? If he had, the helm was pointed one way and the gravity foils another.
“Ease,” D’Agostino said to the engineering staff. “Easing now,” D’Agostino said to the XO.
The exchange took just seconds; it would normally be a short time before the ship responded to the changes in the drive engines and gravity foils. Hampton waited to see what was going to happen. If he was right, the ship was not turning. D’Agostino’s jabbering had interrupted the solemn call-and-response litany of a course change.
“Looks good,” D’Agostino said to engineering. “Trim in.” He turned to the XO. “Three points off, aye.”
The XO looked at the chronometer. “Very good.” He thought he was following Williams’ plan to the minute.
Hampton glanced up at the course bearing indicators to see if the ship would start her graceful turn. None of the bearing indicators moved. Hampton looked at the helm. It was not set to the three points off position, it was centered. He looked over at the foil position indicators. They were set on a different course.
“Wonderful work boys,” D’Agostino said, unnecessarily. “There’s beers in this for you if you can turn this crisply next time.”
The star in the dust cloud was dead ahead; the rate of closing was accelerating.
“Excuse me,” Hampton said.
The XO turned and stared him down to cowed silence in his corner.
Hampton hoped that someone on the bridge would notice that they were on the wrong course. He checked the maneuvering board, and saw that the uninhabited planet’s gravity eddy was ahead, also.
“I think that was the fasted rig change ever,” D’Agostino chattered away with engineering.
“Sir,” Hampton said, “we didn’t change course.” The XO looked at Williams. Colonel Williams turned his mighty weight of authority and command on the midshipman. “What is your problem, son?” Williams said from his cloud of smoke.
“Sir, we didn’t change course. The star’s on a constant bearing and decreasing range.” Hampton knew it was the correct formal phrase, but it sounded stilted and needlessly wordy.
“You said it,” D’Agostino replied to someone in engineering. “Smooth, real smooth.” Williams looked over at the XO and winked. “A ship this size takes a little time to respond,” Williams said. Williams took a drag on his cigarette and fixed Hampton with a meaningful, knowing stare. Hampton’s gaze flicked between Williams’ smirk and the bridge crew.
The XO looked at the bearing indicators. He picked up his computer, read the numbers quietly to himself, then read the indicators to himself. Hampton could see that the XO was making absolutely sure that he was not misreading or misinterpreting. Hampton could see the physical change when the XO confirmed that they were off course and drifting into danger.
“Helm!” the XO barked.
“Sir!” the helmsman responded, clearly hoping for an order that would avoid driving straight into the star.
“Four degrees off,” the XO said, keeping a calm restraint.
“Four degrees off, aye,” the helmsman responded, relieved to be changing course.
“Rig! Close down that chatter, D’Agostino or so help me God I will have you arrested,” the XO bellowed.
“Ease all foils; ease, ease, ease,” D’Agostino said with real urgency.
The ship started to heel under the influence of the new star. Hampton grabbed a rail to brace himself. He looked up at the bearing indicators as two of them slowly swung in different directions. The foil position vectors slowly drifted until they matched the prevailing gravity slope vectors. The ship was finally picking up speed on the new course.
The XO demanded new position checks and new course plots. He demanded confirmation from every ship of the line that they had completed the maneuver successfully. Once he had barked orders at everyone on the bridge except Colonel Williams and Midshipman Hampton, he whirled on Hampton.
The door chimed open; Whiting and Drover were lead in by the Williams’ chief of intelligence. Williams held up a cautioning hand to the XO.
“Welcome,” Williams said. “I wanted you to join us on the bridge to see what your intelligence has done for us.”
Whiting nodded. She stood approximately at attention on the sloping deck. Drover looked for place to sit. The only unoccupied chair seemed to be Williams’. He looked for a place to lean, and saw midshipman Hampton clinging to a hand-rail in a prime spot behind the door. He looked down and saw the painted wedge of a circle surrounding him.
“Dunce chair?” Drover asked him.
Hampton looked confused. “No, sir, midshipman’s observation station.” Drover nodded. “Who’d you piss off?”
Hampton looked over at Williams and the XO, but said nothing.
“What have the scouts encountered?” Whiting asked, all business.
Williams scowled at Drover and Hampton. He waved his cigarette expansively for a moment, preparing to speak. Then he took a few steps closer to Whiting.
“I didn’t deploy scouts,” he said. He made it sound like scouts were a criminal waste of manpower and fuel.
Whiting blinked, eyes level, staring off into the military middle distance when addressed by a superior officer.
“No scouts?” she asked, separating the two words.
Williams took a big drag on his cigarette. He exhaled slowly.
“Lieutenant Colonel Whiting,” he began. He contemplated his cigarette. “This is all about speed of deployment. Time is a precious commodity, and you have to do more with your allotted time than the enemy can.”
Williams was repeating the stock military doctrine. Whiting knew this, and bristled at being treated like a pogue or cadet in front of the entire bridge crew of the Horicon.
Drover’s computer burbled. Hampton looked over, menacingly, as did Whiting and Williams. The marine sentry at the door to the bridge picked his weapon up off the floor.
Drover slumped against the wall. He couldn’t make himself any smaller. He eased one module of the computer out of a pocket and flipped open a cover. He looked down at the display closely and hit a key.
The alarm was a voice communication from Mo Lusc. The communicator squealed, “Is the trap ready? Are we able hunters, willing to wait? Are we here?”
Larry looked around. He reviewed his rough mental map of the situation. He turned to where “forward” was, relative to the bridge. Off to the port side was a star, with a nearby planet. Ahead and above was another star, the Lyman base. The fleet was strung out behind them. Larry was trying to visualize where Cephalopods might be hiding. He scowled trying to fathom Mo’s hint.
Larry walked over to the local sensor systems console. Because they had their filters set to see the entire convoy of large Core Planet military ships, they would barely be able to see something as small as the Mule II. They’d never see a scout or a Ceph ship. Further, there was so much clutter from dust and debris that the display was almost opaque.
Larry reached over the flier’s shoulder to adjust the resolution of the display.
The operator shifted in his seat to block Drover.
The XO barked at Drover, “Please, sir, don’t touch the controls.” Drover looked over at the XO and Williams. They were staring hard at Drover. Williams glanced at the sentry. Drover followed his glance and realized the sentry had picked up the gun and was ready to start aiming it at something. Drover looked over at the chief of intelligence. He had his hand on his side arm.
Drover could see that this had the makings of a very ugly situation. He didn’t know that Williams had instructed his bridge crew to treat Drover and Whiting as Outer Rim double agents.
Drover backed into the corner. He glanced down at his computer, then up at Williams, Whiting, the XO and the marine sentry. He looked over at Hampton. Hampton had edged away from Drover, leaving his proscribed wedge of a circle to Drover.
Drover held his computer up to show everyone that he was just chatting with his flight engineer.
“Show me,” Larry said.
The bridge crew turned away, but did not relax.
“Sir,” the sensor operator said.
The intelligence officer stepped up to look over the sensor operator’s shoulder. Williams, trailing smoke, stepped up behind the intelligence officer to watch the proceedings.
Mo forwarded a sensor display to Larry’s computer. It showed the situation from the Mule II’s vantage point, tucked in a landing bay of the Horicon. Mo’s display had been correctly filtered to show smaller-sized ships, with stationary debris clutter removed. It had been sent through Mo’s phase difference filter that emphasized Cephalopod ships. There were dozens of large Cephalopod warships strung out, parallel to the fleet.
Williams had flown into a Cephalopod ambush.
“There’s dozens,” Larry said to Mo.
Williams waved his cigarette, and turned to Drover. “Yes, we expect to find ships for about fourteen hundred, fully engaged at Lyman Base.”
Drover stared hard at Natalie. She’d stopped staring straight ahead, and was watching Larry closely. Larry looked slowly and meaningfully down at his computer, then back up at her. Natalie’s eyes narrowed, her forehead started to furrow as the possibilities began to percolate. Larry waved the computer in a small circle. She slowly looked at the situation display and back to Larry. Larry looked down at the computer.
“Will you excuse us for a moment, sir?” Whiting asked, trying to sound crisp, military and ordinary.
Williams turned to the intelligence officer, winked and smirked. Williams waved his cigarette in a broad, dismissive gesture.
Larry got ready to say something, but stopped when Whiting made a fierce-looking “shut-up” face at him.
As Whiting stepped over to the door, the intelligence officer nodded; the marine sentry stepped aside, setting his weapon back on the deck. Larry waved the computer.
“It’s very important, Mo says,” Larry said, trying to drop a hint of the full importance.
“I’ll talk with Drover, sir,” Whiting said, more as a question than a statement.
Williams waved his cigarette. The sensor operator started twiddling controls on the sensor control panel.
Drover and Whiting stepped off the bridge into a companionway. The marine in the corridor stepped back, eyeing them coldly.
“What the hell was that all about?” Whiting hissed.
The door swung open and the intelligence officer stepped off the bridge. He looked at Whiting and Drover, then glanced up and down the hallway. There was a marine sentry standing a short distance away.
“Is there a problem?” the intelligence officer asked Whiting.
She ignored him and turned to Larry.
“Squids, dozens. We’re flying into a trap,” Larry said.
Whiting looked puzzled; her face contorted into a scowl. Larry could see her internal struggle written on her face. The intelligence officer looked back and forth between Whiting and Drover.
Larry suddenly felt very weak. He was trapped on someone else’s ship; someone who couldn’t organize a simple convoy properly. Whiting turned to scowl at the bridge entrance door.
Whiting took the computer out of his hand and squinted at the display.
“Is this current?” she asked.
The computer squawked a response. She looked at Larry.
“Real time,” Larry croaked, his throat dry.
“That idiot couldn’t find his ass with both hands,” Whiting said, scowling.
The intelligence officer took Larry’s computer from Whiting. “This can’t be right,” he said.
“We’re flying into a trap. Squids,” Larry began. “Outer Rim ships, everything.” Whiting looked hard at Larry. “We’ve got to do something,” she said.
“Do?” Larry said. “Can’t you just leave me out of this?” Larry was having a hard time convincing himself there was anything he could do. There was little chance of the Horicon passing through the crowd of Cephalopods unscathed. Williams would never believe them.
Whiting scowled through the half-open door, past the intelligence officer into the bridge again. Larry followed her gaze, wondering what she could do.
“Listen, pilot, the sensors on this line of battle ship don’t show any of this,” the intelligence officer stated.
Larry felt apologetic when Natalie turned back to him again. He was out of options; he couldn’t do anything to help her. Her anger seemed to soften; her expression seemed to shift just slightly. Her scowl had resolved into some kind of action.
Natalie saw two men in complete denial of the real situation. One was toeing the official line of lies; his attitude of denial and suspicion was applied to only unofficial sources. The other was harboring a romantic ideal of a frontier, unaware that it was being transformed from empty space into an armed and hostile border. She felt the deeply-held idealism herself.
“No,” she said, “I can’t leave you out of this. Your old frontier is gone, fly-boy.” She could see that he was frozen with terror. In his element, he was one of the best pilots she’d ever seen. Here, on someone else’s ship, he was paralyzed, unable to save himself. While Horicon could take care of itself, she could see that Larry needed someone to get him to safety.
Within the bridge, an alarm clanged. The light over the entrance door switched from green to red. The intelligence officer looked from them to the bridge and back. Natalie grabbed Larry by the hand and started dragging him down the hallway, away from the bridge.
“Mo!” she said to the computer, “Mo! Get to a scout ship!” The intelligence officer shouted something to the marine and ran into the bridge.
“Can they find scout pier five, bay foxtrot upper?” the computer squealed.
Reluctantly, Larry dragged along behind her. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“We’re abandoning ship,” she said over her shoulder.
Larry stopped hard, yanking his hand free from hers. She was deserting her post; he didn’t know much about military law, but this had to be dereliction of duty. She may have been in trouble for getting caught, but she would be shot for abandoning the Horicon when it was under attack.
“You can’t,” he stammered. “I mean you’re a Marine.” Whiting almost laughed at him. “Listen, I’m keeping our options option, here,” she said. “Get it?” She grabbed his hand and dragged him down the corridor and yanked him around a corner. They ran along the corridors past piers one and three. Larry, unused to running, was winded. Natalie, who had put in endless kilometers on her treadmill, jogged along easily, warming up as she ran.
“Almost there,” she said, stumbling through the bulkhead labeled with a giant “5”.
A large, dull explosion rolled through the ship. A gust of hot air rushed down the corridor as the ship tipped ninety degrees. The right-hand wall became the floor, throwing Larry and Natalie off their feet. Larry fell onto a doorway of some kind on his side of the massive structural bulkhead. Natalie vanished into an equipment locker on the far side of the bulkhead. Another equipment locker on the upper side of the corridor sprang open, and a pile of tools and supplies rained down on her as the ship rotated onto its side.
Alarms started blaring throughout the ship. Different alarms had different hoots and wails, creating a diabolical symphony of shouts for attention. The main lighting flickered, failed and was replaced by feeble emergency lighting filling the howling gloom with a hellish red glare. Larry got to his knees and looked over the edge of the bulkhead into the gloom of Pier Five. Whiting lay amid a pile of cleaning supplies.
“Hull Breach in Section One,” the emergency annunciator said, cutting through the blare of horns and alarms. The bulkhead door started to grind closed. A faint breeze picked up, blowing a thin trail of smoke out of pier five.
Larry hooked his leg over the edge of the bulkhead. The faint whistle of a breeze was rising in pitch as the door closed. Larry sat astride the edge of the bulkhead for a moment. Now that the ship was on her side, the barrier was rising from the floor and descending from the ceiling.
Whiting grabbed Drover and dragged him into pier five as the door continued to grind shut and the breeze rose in pitch. A pair of tentacles shot through the thigh-sized opening that remained in the bulkhead door. As the bulkhead door crunched shut, Mo squirted into the pier.
The ship shuddered. Several doors along the pier dropped open, banging open into the rooms that lay below their feet. They heard the clunk of falling equipment, and the groan of the ship’s structure as it shifted into new positions. Creaks and pops echoed throughout the ship.
Another rolling explosion temporarily drowned out the alarms and sirens.
Whiting jutted her jaw and popped her ears to equalize the pressure. Larry pinched his nose and blew. It took him two tries to get equalized. The pressure was falling fast.
“Still dropping,” Larry said. “This section’s breached somewhere, too.”