While space ship construction was expensive, the potential cost of any failures made the designs evolve very slowly. Only tiny incremental improvements are adopted slowly through a fleet. Radical design changes and experimental craft were something the military avoided deploying until they were well-proven.
The amount of exchange between the humans assured that the very best technology was generally available everywhere. Modern communications prevented the isolation that leads to unique languages, customs or space ship designs. The current political problems between the Outer Rim and the Core Planets were only a chapter in the long history of Mammal space exploration.
Larry hadn’t looked into the engineering area to see what damage Mo and Natalie had done. He did retch when he saw the headless corpse on the bridge deck outside the cockpit. The body had developed a nauseating smell of blood, feces, urine and death.
Larry stumbled into the cockpit and turned up the ventilator fans to drive out the stink. The fighting, the ambush, the frontier; it all made him sick. It was a pointless waste of life.
Larry focused on investigating the cockpit of the Outer Rim scout. The seats where laid out differently from a freighter; it was larger and more open. Some of the switches had different shapes and different positions, but the labels were very similar to Core Planet labels. The ship was rigged similarly to a cargo lighter: it had extra gravity foils that would give good speed close to a planet; there were no preventers to lock the foils in position, nor was there an autohelm. Larry started cycling through the displays to get a sense of the ship’s status.
Whiting climbed into the seat at the weapons console. The communications system was unfamiliar. After some fumbling, she found out how to turn it on. She put on the headset and was able to listen to Outer Rim fleet messages. She tried to reset the channels and protocols to Core Planets communications, but the system went into an unfamiliar test mode, and then froze up completely.
“How do you set this for Core channels?” she demanded.
Larry was sick. Whiting could see his distress when she looked over at him. He was slumped, staring in horrified fascination at a tactical display. While they were securing a ship to save themselves, the Core fleet was being torn apart. Larry’s state of shock was preventing him from moving.
“What?” he said, absently.
She knew he would work better if she gave him a simple task focus; otherwise he would be mired in fear and anxiety. It was a dangerous feedback loop: once you’ve seen real fear, you began to worry that your fears will paralyze you; your own anxieties become more crippling than the basic elemental fear of being killed.
She spoke slowly and clearly. “Can you please give me the command channel?” Without looking, he reached over and reset the communications system.
“What the hell have we done?” he asked, still staring at the tactical display.
Whiting realized that she’d been wrong in her assessment. He wasn’t worried about the ambush or the tactical situation. He was shocked at the killing on this scout ship. She knew that Larry had been flying on the frontier for years; she assumed he’d been involved in this kind of ship-to-ship combat before. Now she saw that she’d been wrong: he was not as self-assured as she’d thought. He was cocky because he was afraid; she thought he might need a friend more than he needed an officer.
“We’re defending ourselves against an Outer Rim ambush,” she said, trying to keep the moral situation as simple and clear as possible. “Get ready to fly, please.”
Larry didn’t move.
“But there’s bodies everywhere!” he said, his voice cracking.
“There’s or our’s?” she asked.
Whiting recognized the sincere pain of guilt about killing someone else. She’d suffered it herself. She had found that she could do anything to protect people who were too weak to protect themselves; that relieved some of the guilt, and helped her keep the rest bottled up.
“It could have been us,” Larry replied slowly.
“And thanks to you, it wasn’t us; it was them,” she said.
It was the only answer she had, and she was glad to repeat it out loud. Saying it in the cockpit, still warm with the heat of the people they’d killed, made her decisions necessary and right. Every marine had to know deep in their heart when and why violence was necessary. She knew that violence in defense of self and planet was expected, but that didn’t make it right. As a Mammal, she was capable of tremendous violence to protect those she cared for. But violence has a cost: why were the lives she protected more important than the lives she had so quickly wiped out? She didn’t have a tidy answer. Instead of looking too closely at the problem, she focused on the next steps she had to take to preserve the fleet.
The weapons display showed the tactical situation very clearly. The Core Planets were torn into several groups, each of which was trying to flee toward Henry base. Each was blocked by well-organized Outer Rim battle formations. Most ships were retreating without any concern for other ships or the fleet; their disorganization would be their downfall.
She put on the weapons console headset, and set the communications for Core Planets command channels.
“Look out there,” she said to Larry. “The Outer Rim will put thousands of bodies onto that rock unless we stop them.”
Larry slumped down at the pilot’s console. He fished around for the headset. He was grateful that it was not still warm. He had to sit up straighter to get out his computer. Once he was holding his computer, he unconsciously buckled the webbing that held him into the seat.
He found the ship’s intercom, and selected engineering. “Mo! Mo, you ready to start pre-flights?”
While he waited for a response, Larry reviewed the same old checklist. He wasn’t sure where to count this. Clearly, this was the third time he’d abandoned ship. He pulled out the stylus and noted that in the computer. He’d never assumed control of a ship already on route, nor could be log it as a salvage operation, since this ship wasn’t derelict until Whiting killed everybody. As a civilian pilot, he was authorized take control of a ship where the original pilot was incapacitated or incompetent. Euphemistically, he logged it as assuming control of a ship not under command. Otherwise, it was seemed too much like murder and piracy.
The communicator boomed with Mo’s directly-connected speech synthesizer.
“Are we removing dead mammals from engineering?” Mo thundered.
Larry turned down the gain. He was suddenly very intimidated by the idea of a Cephalopod removing dead mammals from engineering. He’d always thought of Mo as a good flight engineer who was badly socialized by Cephalopod standards and was just a loner. Larry was starting to get the idea that Mo’s pod might have been wiped out in some kind of fight, and Mo was on the run from some powerful enemies. Larry realized that Mo might be much more than just a flight engineer. Mo could be a spy, studying mammals on behalf of some Cephalopod intelligence organization. Mo could be a criminal outcast, ejected from Ceph society and forced to live among mammals.
Larry desperately wanted to return to his old life, before war and piracy, before Mo was a ruthless killer. On the display, the remains of the Horicon battle group were being ground down to frozen corpses by the Outer Rim and the Cephalopods. Larry switched on the tactical overlay to identify Outer Rim and Core Planets ships. The color scheme was reversed from what Larry was used to; he would need to override the colors assigned by the Identify Friend or Foe system. He saw two Core Planets frigates start to run from two Outer Rim frigates. A few adjustments showed the Cephalopods that were shadowing the Outer Rim ships, tipping the balance of power in the engagement.
The Core Planets’ command channel rang an emergency alert. The command channel had been carrying some isolated chatter and mayday calls as ships took fatal damage.
“This is Lieutenant Colonel Whiting in command of Scout Horicon Five Foxtrot Upper to all frigates. All frigates open this channel.”
Larry looked over at the weapons console. Whiting stood next the console at attention; she was as straight as any marine sentry Larry had seen saluting a superior officer.
“All frigates form a battle line flank right on my position. My ship has an Outer Rim Scout attached. All frigates acknowledge by the numbers,” Whiting ordered. She had that calm confidence that was called “command presence.” Her tone of voice demanded a “yes, ma’am” from everyone who heard her.
“What the hell are you doing?” Larry said to her, bypassing the ship’s intercom. “Who made you commodore?”
To Larry, her orders smacked of mutiny: they were part of a fleet where there was a chain of command. Larry knew that someone was in charge of this battle; they needed to find their place and take their orders. They were not the people to be giving orders.
“Can it, Drover,” she barked. “I’m in command of this ship. I’m a Lieutenant Colonel. And I want the commanders of the stinking frigates to make a stinking firing line instead of running away. Did I ask you for a critique of my tactics?”
“No, ma’am,” Larry said, and turned back to the pilot’s console. He clicked the alert signal for engineering, hoping that Mo would pick up the pace. They needed to get moving if they were going to be part of a firing line.
“This is Lieutenant Colonel Whiting. By the numbers!” she barked.
Mo finally answered. Since the ship had been flying, Larry suggested they do a simple post-accident damage assessment.
“Horicon unit. One,” Whiting called.
Larry and Mo located the list and began the damage assessment. This was a standard call and response, a comfortable litany that allowed them to locate the controls, to be sure the ship was operating, and to gain some confidence that she would fly.
“Two,” Whiting called.
Larry realized that no response meant that a ship was destroyed or incapacitated. He started down the assessment list. He couldn’t listen for answers from other ships. He didn’t want to know how many had been destroyed.
“Three,” Whiting called.
Larry and Mo found that the first of the critical systems on the scout were working perfectly.
“Four,” Whiting called.
Larry glanced up at the ship status display. Was the entire fleet destroyed? “This is Horicon number 4, on the way,” a voice crackled through the communicator.
Larry breathed out. They were not alone. If she knew what she was doing, and they organized a defense, maybe they would survive long enough to run back to the strongly defended Lyman base.
“Five,” Whiting called.
“Can’t ma’am,” crackled the immediate answer. “We’re on the rock. Squid’s breached us.”
Larry wondered how long the ship could hold out on the planet. If Whiting got the fleet back to Lyman base, could they organize a rescue in time?
“Six,” Whiting called.
“We’re trying to rig for landing,” came the reply after a delay. “We’re leaking and we gotta take the hard.”
Larry risked a glance over his shoulder. Whiting was sitting, taking notes and shaking her head.
She shut off the communicator for a moment and looked at Larry. “Damn,” she said. Was she angry at the losses or saddened? It was hard to say what she was feeling.
“Sacroon unit,” Whiting’s voice boomed over the command channel, “one.” Larry and Mo finished the critical systems. They started on the maneuvering and navigational systems.
“Two,” Whiting boomed.
Was she leaving enough time? Larry wondered. He realized that a ship was either able to respond, or it was destroyed. Any ship that was hovering on the edge of destruction, where a struggling crew needed a few extra seconds to answer, was lost. If they couldn’t answer promptly, they couldn’t support a firing line.
Larry saw something edging into the local sensor field on a strange heading. It was not moving with the pod of Ceph ships, Whiting’s tentative firing line, or anything else. Larry tagged it and assigned the optical telescope. After a moment, the image stabilized. It was a piece of Sacroon Frigate Two.
“Three,” Whiting boomed.
Larry turned off the telescope image. The shell of a ship was as horrifying as the body in the companionway. Every pilot cherished the idea that, with reasonable care, the ship could be put on a planet, and the crew could survive for enough time to signal for a rescue. It was an image of security that made it easier to face the dangers of space travel. The wrecked hull fragment could never have landed. The crew were killed as the ship broke up, with no recourse, no fallback plan, and no escape.
“Four,” Whiting aid.
“This is Sacroon Four. We’re afloat. We’ll try to move into—” The communications channel faded to static.
Larry fought the urge to check the communications. He had his list, and he was going to finish it correctly and completely. However, he did have a moment while Mo searched for the steering foil controls. Larry flipped on the tactical display, and saw that there was a small line of frigates and scouts forming up. A pod of Ceph ships tried to move into position around the Mohawk. The entire line started firing on the Cephs. Most of the Cephs immediately reversed direction and started to move away. One never moved again, and another made fitful attempts to change direction. Both were ruthlessly shot into clouds of drifting trash by Whiting’s small firing line.
“This is Sacroon Four, moving into position,” hissed a voice. Larry saw the frigate closing in on the end of the line.
“I’ve got two Rim Scouts right and below,” Whiting said. “Targeting solution, please.” Larry stopped the checkout procedure, and looked back at the tactical display. The two Outer Rim scouts that had pursued them, forcing them to take control of this ship were both edging into a firing position nearby. Apparently, they’d been holding their fire to see if the Core Scout successfully boarded the Outer Rim ship. When the firing line started forming, this must have convinced them that the Core had won the engagement, and the Outer Rim scout was a lost cause.
“On my mark,” Whiting said. “Ready...and...Fire.” Larry saw and then felt the simultaneous cannon bursts from the line of ships. The ion blasts disrupted his gravity foils, making the scout lurch. Both attacking scouts were immediately breached. They began spewing plumes of atmosphere and trash from a number of holes. The various Outer Rim star-ship components started breaking apart. In an instant they went from attacking warships to drifting garbage.
Whiting knew that any organized defense was better than the chaotic rout she’d seen. When the Horicon had been destroyed, the various ship commanders were left on their own. Williams hadn’t provided orders or a second in command. Williams hadn’t even provided for scouting the route the fleet would take. Whiting knew that Williams had managed to kill a lot of people and destroy a lot of ships. She also knew that it was her suggestion, and General Johnson could try and protect Williams by pointing the blame at her. An organized retreat might keep her alive long enough to debate the real causes with a court martial.
She could see some small changes on her tactical display. Once she’d organized the Horicon and Sacroon units, others began to move toward their line. She didn’t know too much about fleet maneuvers, but she did know that they needed a single leader who could manage the fight.
The more she studied the display, the more she realized that the battle had scattered all over the cluster as Core ships had fled back toward Henry base. The Outer Rim and their Cephalopod allies were chasing Core ships in every direction. If the Core ships could get into a formation first, they might have an advantage over the spread out Outer Rim forces. She’d seen Dieskau; she’d seen the result of his planning and battle management. She’d already suffered losses in the initial ambush; her only hope was a carefully planned retreat.