While a small, nimble scout ship and a freighter have very different missions, they share a common heritage. A freighter is a large ship, optimized for carrying mass at a minimal cost, where a scout ship carrier a small crew at high speeds over short distances. Since interstellar travel began as a freight-hauling enterprise, all ships are descended from the original freighter designs. The addition of weapons or marines simply displaces cargo storage, but doesn’t revise the design foundation.
When Larry opened the scout entrance bay, he was looking straight up at a vertical ascent of the interior of the ship. A scout, built to survive in a number of bad situations, had the necessary hand-holds to make the ascent possible. Larry didn’t like climbing up through tens of meters of vertical hallway; it was a hazard that could have been avoided if the scout ship had been left powered up correctly and generating its own gravity. The ship shook as the Horicon was wracked by another spasm in its death throes.
Larry scrambled up the hallway, clambering from hand-hold to door-frame. He tumbled into the cockpit, and crawled carefully across the console that formed the floor. He squatted carefully on a control panel to examine the pilot’s console.
Drover had chartered a wide variety of cargo ships, from the very large to lighters and tenders that were as small as this scout. The scout had a reasonably standard Core Planets pilot console and engineering console. It also had other consoles that were obviously for intelligence and weapons control.
“Do we have a stylus?” Mo’s synthesizer squeaked.
Larry patted down his pockets. He had brought his computer, but had no stylus, pen or pencil.
“Natalie!” he shouted.
“Easy, I’m right here!” she bellowed back at him.
“Find the office space and get some pencils or computer styluses.” Larry looked over his shoulder.
Mo was drooping sideways off the engineering seat, clinging with several tentacles, head hanging down. Others tentacles were hovering over the engineering console, lightly touching all of the controls. Since it was a purely human console, it had some push-buttons that Mo’s tentacles could barely operate. To prevent confusion, most consoles had a variety of different physical operations; it helped a pilot to associate certain ship commands with unique gestures. A few controls were buttons with a good, stiff click; these would be tiring for Mo, who was better suited to twisting and pulling than pushing.
“No bones,” Larry said over his shoulder. “It can’t push buttons.” Mo waved the two longest and most supple “finger” tentacles at Natalie.
Whiting’s head disappeared from the cockpit doorway.
Larry climbed up onto the side of the pilot’s seat and crouched there for a moment. He fished his computer out of his flight suit pocket, flipped it open and looked for his departure sequence. He reminded himself to breath slowly and deeply. There was no need for panic. He had to do a correct, complete launch or they would die just as quickly in the debris around the Horicon as inside the broken ship’s docking bays.
Larry and Mo started the pre-launch litany. It began with a series of steps to switch on internal power. This was followed by a sequence to disconnect external power using carefully planned safety precautions. This ship had been idle for a long time, and all of the storage covers had to be retracted before the gravity foils could be deployed. In addition to checking life support and fuel reserves, they had to add the time required to find the appropriate controls.
Larry heard Natalie scrambling into the cockpit. He looked back as she held out a handful of pens and pencils to Mo. Mo touched several of them before selecting two. These were moved to larger and more muscular tentacles.
The ship shook again.
“Problems?” Whiting asked.
“None yet,” Larry answered.
“When do we leave?” she asked.
“When the ship is ready to fly!” Larry shouted. There were procedures, a lot of them. They hadn’t yet switched on the drive systems to see if they had a working generator. There was still a very real possibility that the Horicon would break up around them, and they would never leave. To avoid dwelling on any one possibility, Larry knew he had to keep all of this alternatives laid out before him.
“Sorry,” Whiting said. She struggled into the intelligence console.
“Are we rushing as fast as our pods can move?” Larry called over his shoulder.
“Is this another crappy day on the frontier?” Mo squeaked.
They passed through the first phase of power-up without problems. Larry engaged the various sensors to get a good look at what they were about to fly into. The situation had gone from a vicious ambush to a complete rout. There were Cephalopod and Outer Rim ships everywhere, chasing and destroying Core Planet ships. Every Core Planet ship appeared to be either disabled or under heavy attack. It looked like there would be no survivors; the entire fleet would be annihilated, exposing Henry Base and Lyman Base to destruction.
They could identify a number of line of battle ships, each surrounded by Outer Rim ships flying in well-coordinated formations. The various Frigates and supporting ships were scattered and ineffective. The Outer Rim was able to pin down the line of battle ships, forcing them to defend themselves, while they isolated and pursued the Frigates to destroy them one at a time.
The systematic, total destruction stopped the launch procedures for a long time while Larry, Natalie and Mo Lusc took in the enormity of the destruction. None of them had seen or even heard of such complete, ruthless carnage.
Larry looked over at Natalie. She looked sick. Gripping the edge of the weapons console for support, she was ash-gray and shaking. Larry put his hand on hers; it was all he could do.
Whiting had been trained in tactical command. She had been in patrols, skirmishes, and small ship-to-ship actions, but she had never seen a fleet action before. At first, it was simply a cloud of ships filling up the entire display. With some adjusting, she set the computers to track the Core Planet line of battle ships, creating a number of separate scenarios. Each situation was different, but each could be understood in isolation. She could see that the Outer Rim line of battle ships hung back, firing rarely, if at all. Their strategy was to use the battle ships for command and control, using the smaller ships for the real work of the battle.
After cycling through the separate battles, Whiting began to see the strategy being used by this mercenary that the Outer Rim had hired. She realized that he had staged his own ships in attacking waves, the better to bring in reinforcements during the course of the battle. The Cephalopods would coalesce around a disabled ship, finishing it off. She was beginning to see what the intelligence reports meant when they described Dieskau as a master of managing his resources, and one who applied those resources with a measured hand.
How could the Core Planets stand against such a monster? Colonel Williams could only react, he had been weak at making useful plans. She was also quite sure he’d been killed. General Johnson was only able to build fortifications; Dieskau would pick those apart the same way he was picking apart the fleet. They’d lose this entire cluster. Compounded on the other losses at places like Duquense, the Core Planets would soon find their frontier shrinking.
“Get moving,” she said, quietly; her voice cracked.
She was close to tears. While it was unacceptable for a marine officer to cry in the first place, it was worse to cry in front of her men. She looked up at Larry, who stared open mouthed at the destruction on the monitors. She looked over at Mo, whose head waved around peering closely at the display. This was not really a crew, she told herself; this was more of a collection of fellow officers. She could let her guard down in front of them if it got any worse.
“Can we get moving?” she asked, hoping they didn’t notice her voice cracking. She felt tears forming at the corners of her eyes.
She saw Larry breathe out slowly. He picked up his computer and resumed his endless call and response litany of pre-flight checks.
She had no real choice. She had sold everything. She had alienated her family by using their money to buy her rank. She had lead Williams’ fleet into the trap; Johnson would pin the blame on her. Even if she survived the Outer Rim and the Cephalopods, she would still face a court martial. She was a dead woman, no matter what she did.
Cockpit alarms started to sound. Whiting knew that this was just the pre-power-up testing of alarms and sensors. When that was done, there would be another round of alarms as they started the engine ignition sequence. A cascade of steps began with an easily controlled chemical explosion, and culminated in enough energy for their field-effect drives and the coherent propagation of their wave function at speeds beyond those of matter.
“Hold on,” Larry repeated, as the ship started to rotate.
The ship’s gravity did not start smoothly, but faded in and out, shifting in phase, first to one side, then to the other, making the ship appear to lurch from side to side. The structure groaned and complained under the shifting strain. Unlike the Mule II, which had a bottomless well of noises, the Horicon scout had just a few sharp bangs and clangs. Natalie listened to the ship shifting position as she clung to the console. As the gravity stabilized, she settled into the intelligence console chair. On the Mule II, Larry could identify the origin of each noise; she wondered if he would provide her the same level of cool comfort on this ship.
The drive system noises ramped up and they separated from the Horicon. The battle had moved down the line of ships, leaving them in a relative lull. There were Cephalopods still moving among the wrecks. Ships on both sides of the engagement were firing furiously. The communications nets were jammed with orders and reports. It was a naval fire-fight, the most elaborate ritual of death mankind had ever devised.
Drover was not good at close-in maneuvering, and didn’t like it at all. He was used to having his course planned out well in advance and being able to plot the exact outcome of each correction to the plan. He had never dodged debris from nearby explosions. He did not know how to allow for the cannon fire from attacking ships. At first, the battle was a jumble of ships, debris and cannon-fire. Whiting brought up a tactical overlay that separated the two fleets and showed a kind of battle line between them. The additional display information made it possible for Drover to identify a course that might keep them away from Outer Rim ships as much as possible.
Whiting climbed out of the intelligence console and moved to another position in the scout cockpit. Larry couldn’t divert his attention for a moment from the fierce concentration required to plan a course through the combat. Once he started moving, he saw two Cephalopods start following him. He was sure he had the most speed, but he needed to get out of the battle to use his speed.
“Down a little,” Whiting said.
“Down?” Larry asked.
“Down and port!” Whiting shouted.
There was an explosion and a lurch as one of the scout’s cannons fired. Larry jumped in his seat, dislodging one of the controls, and turning the ship unexpectedly.
“What the hell was that?” Larry asked.
“Could you just follow orders? This isn’t really the time to—” she started. “Down again, and soon, dammit!”
Larry strained at the controls to try and pitch the ship down without changing their course. Gravity shifted, and the ship creaked.
“Down! Come on, half a point!”
Larry forced the controls past the safe operating limits. The ship’s alarms started clanging. Mo silenced them before Larry could even respond. If they turned, they would drive into a Core Planets frigate that was taking a pounding from an Outer Rim line of battle ship, a supporting frigate and a swarm of scouts and Cephalopods.
Larry jumped at another sudden explosion. A Cephalopod ship pursuing them began to eject a thin stream of debris. Larry’s stomach dropped down into his bowels as he realized that they were killing ships and pilots.
“Just stay back you stupid squids!” Whiting growled.
Larry risked a glance over his shoulder at her. This was not her first kill. She was already lining up another shot. After checking his course, and the course of ships around him, Larry looked back at her again. He didn’t recognize her. She was frowning with a ferocious intensity, eyes wide open, jaw clenched in a silent bellow of rage.
“Pick up the pace,” she said, looking over her console at Larry.
“This thing has no balls at all!” Larry said, struggling to trim the gravity foils.
“Hold her steady,” she said. “Steady”
There was a bang and a lurch as she fired. Larry wished there was some kind of firing sequence he could bring up on one of his displays so he wouldn’t be surprised when she shot.
The Outer Rim line of battle ship had changed course. It was moving into a new position to fire on a Core frigate. The frigate fired valiantly, ions blazing away from the gun ports. The Core Planets skipper was making best use of the opportunity. Once firing from the Rim line of battle ship stopped, the Core Frigate focused its fire on the various supporting ships, trying to knock down at least one attacker during the lull.
There was another explosion. Instead of a lurch, the ship rocked. They’d been shot at, and possibly hit. No alarms sounded, but a small scout could be destroyed in a single shot from a frigate or rated battle ship.
“We need another gun crew,” Whiting said, remarkably calm for the impossible situation. “Up a little and over to port.”
Larry turned up and over to port. Once he’d moved, he could identify her target. Larry released a big, long breath as he tried to relax. They were in a military ship, being pursued and shot at; he was the pilot, he had to have the coolest demeanor. It wasn’t her role as a marine to keep him cool and detached. It was his role as a pilot to look for an escape, to keep his options open, to select the best course of action too keep a bad situation from getting worse.
“Are we outnumbered? Are they pursuing?” Mo asked.
“You bet!” Larry said. A sensible escape route had just occurred to him. “We’re just about done, Mo, buddy. We’re going to have to find a way to surrender without being busted up for scrap.”
Larry had already been captured once by the Outer Rim. A second capture might not be so bad. They had been released; perhaps they would be released again. It seemed lower risk than trying to fight their way through the ongoing destruction of the ambush.
Whiting was frozen by the idea of surrender. They wouldn’t be intelligence pawns this time, they would be simple prisoners. They would be isolated on a prison base, and left to starve or rot from disease. Worse, the Core Planets ships were being torn apart by the ambush, and some were starting to run for Henry Base, leaving the rest to be destroyed.
“Can we board that rim ship ahead?” Mo squeaked.
Larry saw an Outer Rim scout outlined on his display. The little scout was firing on the Core Planets’ frigate. While they certainly could close with it, a Core Planets scout wasn’t equipped for the kind of grappling that Mo was hinting at. Plus, the ships that were following and shooting would make a boarding attempt impossibly difficult. Further, Larry, realized, he didn’t have a boarding checklist, or even an idea what the steps would be.
“Only Ceph ships have boarding mandibles,” Larry said. A weapons lock alarm flashed. “Look out!”
There was an explosion that nearly knocked them from their consoles. Mo lost its grip and had to climb back down onto the console from the wall. The explosion rolled into a series of clangs and groans from the ship. A loud whistling started. Alarms on the console started flashing.
“That’s it: we’re leaking!” Larry announced. “I’m taking her down.” He brought the planet that swirled through the dust cloud onto his navigation display, and tried to plot a course to the planet. He didn’t want to try to make either Henry or Lyman base. He wanted the nearest place to put the ship down and attempt repairs. He hoped there was enough atmosphere to make it worth-while.
“No, we’re not, not while she flies,” Whiting barked.
Larry turned and stared. She had lost her scowl. Somewhere her conflict between her mission, her career and killing other pilots had resolved. She was grinning and confident.
Whiting had found her own course. Her short-term goal was to save her crew; she had to commandeer the nearest ship that would fly. But once she had saved her crew, she might be able to get the Core Planets ships out of their rout into some kind of defensive formation. As long as the Outer Rim was able to force them into single combat engagements, they were being decimated. If they started a workable defense, they could make an organized retreat. She hoped that giving the very visible orders that saved lives and preserved Core Planets assets would erase her failure to execute General Johnson’s secret intelligence plan.
“Can we use the manipulators?” Mo asked.
The Mule II had several cargo manipulators for horsing the loading bays in and out of the ship in tight situations. Larry didn’t know if a Core Scout even had exterior manipulators.
“For what?” Larry said, trying to avoid another weapons lock. “Not for grabbing. Mo, don’t you dare grab a ship.”
“Match speed,” Whiting said, as calmly as if they’d docked with moving Outer Rim scouts before.
Larry turned to stare. Whiting was nodding her encouragement.
“Close in. They won’t shoot if we’re too close,” she added.
Larry felt the ship lean a little as Mo trimmed in a little closer. Their Core Planets scout ship picked up speed toward the Outer Rim scout that had turned to fire at them. The ship groaned under the slight change in pressures.
“What the hell are you two doing?” Larry asked, his hands open, frozen, hovering over the controls.
“Just fly the ship. Put us right on that one.”
This was not the usual solution to this kind of problem. The atmosphere was whistling out of the ship; he could hear that plainly. Some of the controls were not working. They had to ground the ship safely, not take on more combat. There was a loud knocking from somewhere deep within the ship, following by a slight change in the pitch of the whistle. They were starting to fall apart.
The weapons lock indicator went on, Larry stared, incredulous, at the display. The two ships were very, very close. The Outer Rim scout was turning to bring guns to bear, but not as quickly the Horicon scout was closing. Their ship rocked slightly as the ion cannon blast went wide. At this range, they had grabbed a tiger by the tail and could never let go while the tiger lived.