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Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Larry Drover found that the basic difficulties of flying an Outer Rim scout ship were magnified by having ships shooting at him. Since the ship flew awkwardly, he could not shape a standard course away from the desolate planet in the dust cloud. Like other disabled ships, they were migrating out of position in the fleet, forcing the more able ships to accommodate to their clumsy course.

At some point, the Outer Rim worked out the chain of command in the retreating units, and Larry’s scout had started to come under fire. Without organized intelligence, it was hard to be sure, so Whiting had stopped giving orders, hoping that the other commanders would fill in for her. As they fell back, with more wounded and damaged ships, keeping a good defensive position was becoming more and more difficult. Larry wanted Whiting to go back to giving orders to the fleet because she had been successful maintaining a defense that shielded the damaged ships.

They were being pursued by two or three scouts. Larry wanted to move behind a frigate, but he could not longer actually tack the scout without losing precious momentum to the star’s gravity. The gravity foils were damaged, and he had few tricks left. The pursuers would close with him in a heartbeat if he sold off any forward speed for a tack.

Whiting had moved from navigation to weapons.

“Starboard,” she said. “Way over.”

In spite of her urgency, Larry took the turn slowly. Mo eased the trim on the foils as much as possible. The ship fell off the gravity field slowly. Larry and Mo both grabbed at hand-rests, but the Outer Rim scout didn’t heel like their old Mule II. During the turn, they could hear the change in the rumble of flight deck torque generator that countered the heel angle, keeping the deck level.

“Further,” she said.

Larry eased some more, careful to avoid any sudden maneuver that would sap away their speed. He was not sure what she was trying to aim at.

“Starboard further, dammit!” she bellowed.

They had reached the forward limit of the foils and had to reverse them. They had essentially worn onto the other tack, taking the first part of the long, slow 270 degree turn.

“Sorry, gotta bump,” Larry said.

He hit the command for a reverse tack. He steered through a few points on the bearing indicator; the foils went slack for a moment as Mo spun them to their reversed position. There was a noticeable slacking in their speed. The torque compensators in the scout whined. There was a thump as the foils began to respond to the star’s gravity. The ship settled on the new course. Larry glanced at the weapons display and saw a pursuing scout drift into their targeting area.

“Starboard again,” Whiting said. “Down a little.” 

Larry pulled this ship into a tighter course. Mo trimmed in the foils, and their speed began to pick up. The pursuing scout had tacked, and was moving into position to create a gravitational eddy; this also brought into the sector Whiting was covering with their remaining cannon.

The ship jumped as the cannon fired. Somewhere in the structure of the scout, some safety bulkheads were left open; the roar was deafening. There was an electrical charge in the air for a moment. Anything Larry touched shot sparks at his fingers.

“Missed!” Whiting said, bitterly, almost in tears.

She was biting back hard to keep a calm exterior. Her primary mission had been reversed; she would be blamed for leading Williams into the trap. Her attempt to salvage an organized retreat was about to fall apart. She could see her military career following her business career. In the wrong place at the wrong time, they were low on ammunition, and being closely pursued. It looked like her fate had been reduced to a matter of being one of the lucky ones who survived the fight.

“I saw the shot,” Larry said. “It was good. You scared him.” Whiting sighed and wiped her hands. She was sweating and the controls were getting slick.

Mo’s synthesizer boomed through the intercom. “Have we enough fuel? Can we shape a course?”

Larry was afraid they would not have enough energy to move the doubled-up ship all the way back to Henry. It was awkward to fly, and clearly draining their fuel at an alarming rate. Mo’s veiled assessment was that they would never make it, and a heroic effort could only lead to a tragedy.

“We’ve got to go back to the rock and ditch,” Larry replied.

Whiting spun around on her seat.

“What is your problem, pilot? We’ve got a job to do and we’re going to do it!” It was her best military bark. She made it perfectly clear that she was willing to fight to the very end.

“Listen, hon,” Larry said, turning away from the controls to face her. “I hate to break it to you like this, but we’re low on fuel, low on ammo, and this thing flies like a bag of bricks. And they’re shooting at me!”

Larry turned back to fly the ship. He needed to keep shifting their course, erratically if possible, to shake of the Outer Rim pursuit. The hottest part of the fighting had moved further down the line. For a moment, they were being ignored.

“Will we die?” Mo said, breaking the silence.

“I think we’re out of options,” Larry said, looking at his controls. He didn’t want to face Whiting’s direct wrath.

“Aren’t you supposed to keep some options open? Didn’t you tell me to have a bail-out plan?” Whiting shouted.

Larry turned away from the console for a moment to stare hard at Natalie.

“This is the bail-out plan,” he said slowly.

Whiting slumped back into her seat. He felt bad about breaking it to her abruptly. He hated to crush her hopes for leading the retreat back to Henry base. Their crash-landing would make her heroic effort to salvage something from the ambush into a mere footnote in the final report on the battle.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” she said quietly. “But you’re the pilot.” 

Larry, also, had a bad feeling. He was deeply suspicious of either course of action. He wasn’t sure he could survive going forward into more combat at Henry base. He was also sure that going back to the desolate planet was a just vague optimism. This was the frontier, and the frontier meant armed conflict; his idealized frontier of peace never existed, except as a perfectly fictional history of the cluster. He preferred his comfortable ideals over her unknown pragmatism; and a safe landing was the romantic ideal escape from a bad situation.

Natalie leaned over and put a hand on Larry’s arm. “Larry, I know it’s a little late, but I am sorry. I really regret putting you in this position. This was really my—”

An explosion rocked the ship. A locker door popped open, spilling spare parts for the control consoles into the cockpit. Natalie was knocked out of her seat.

“Crap,” Larry shouted, “I never saw that coming. Where is it?” 

Natalie scrambled up to the console and tried to locate their adversary. It took several scans to realize that they had been flanked. They were cut off from the retreating line of ships. The good news was that the pursuer was almost lined up with their guns.

“Oh yeah,” Natalie told Larry. “Hold me. Up and over, starboard roll.” 

Larry hammered the controls. They had lost some power from a damaged foil, but the attached Core Scout made a starboard roll their easiest maneuver. Larry braced for the change in forces, but an Outer Rim scout didn’t respond like a Core Planets ship.

“Port a little,” Natalie said. “Oh yeah, hold me right there. Come to mamma, honey.” 

Larry picked out a set of navigation coordinates and tried to hold the ship steady on the present heading. The ship tended to crab, so their actual direction was different from the coordinates in the navigation display.

The ship was rocked by another huge explosion.

The Henry Base hallways were jammed with people, most of them in uniform. Everyone was going in a different direction. It was complete, undisciplined pandemonium. Phineas saw that the wounded and injured were being pushed around by people trying to get past the gurneys; nurses and corpsmen were shoved by the surging crowd.

He saw an officer waving a computer, attempting to force his way through the crowd, and being pushed backwards. Phineas shouldered his way into the intersection. One long, wide hallway led to several loading piers; the injured had been moved down this hallway. In the general panic, people had come down here looking for a ship so they could escape, but all they found were the injured and dying.

An armored Marine mashed Colonel Phineas into a doorway. The Marine was powering through the crowd, rifle held high.

Phineas took out his own side arm. He hooked his arm around the Marine. The Marine spun around to shake off the assailant. Phineas stuck his side-arm through the visor slot in the Marine’s helmet. The marine stopped moving; Phineas could see one eye, staring around wildly at the barrel of the handgun pressed against his face.

“Give me that weapon!” Phineas shouted over the milling crowd.

The Marine lowered the gun to Phineas without a pause. Phineas was pleased to see that some shred of discipline still remained.

Phineas armed it, primed it, and fired into the ceiling. There was a deafening boom. Acoustic insulation and structural components rained down into the suddenly silent mass of people. A burst pipe sprayed fitfully for a moment before a safety valve closed.

“Now Hear This!” Phineas bellowed. “The next marine that violates an order will be shot by me! Any questions?”

The eerie silence spread. Phineas could hear “shh” and “what” from other hallways as people craned around corners to see what had happened.

Phineas shouldered the weapon in a proper shooting position.

“There are dozens out Outer Rim ships inbound on this base. The plasma cannons are fully operational. Every marine in uniform will report to their battle stations immediately!”

There was a brief swaying. Some people started to move. The mob had a dense inertia; it would require tremendous force to change their direction.

Phineas brought the weapon down to sight in on the nearest marine with officer bars. He was a lieutenant who had been carrying a computer over his head, trying to push through the crowd. The crowd parted slightly, leaving the lieutenant standing, clutching his computer, glancing to the side. The lieutenant didn’t notice the crowed parting; he seemed to be too busy trying to edge through the crowd.

“What is your duty station?”

The lieutenant turned to see that Phineas was aiming at his head. His chin pulled back, his eyes went wide, he gasped for breath. Mixed in with the fight-or-flight response was the freeze response, hoping the predator would miss you.

“Logistics,” the lieutenant croaked, his mouth dry. “Weapons stores, sir.” 

“You’ve got five seconds to get out of this companionway!” Phineas shouted, loud enough for everyone jammed in the hall to hear.

There was some movement away from the intersection. People further down the hall had not changed their direction, yet. People close to Phineas were slowly switching from a mixture of frozen terror and flight to a more concentrated fight; their first obstacle was to push against a wall of humanity still deciding what to do.

Phineas moved the rifle to a sergeant, staring at him in open-mouthed awe.

“What are you supposed to be doing?”

The marine’s mouth worked up and down before words came out.

“Fuel management.”

That was a bad response, Phineas thought. The standard formula included “sir”, and this marine’s failure was a symptom of larger problems.

“Did you say squid bait?” Phineas shouted. It was the standard drill instructor response; he’d heard it shouted whenever he went to view the newest troops on a duty station.

“No, sir!” the marine shouted.

That was a better answer, given with more of the hoo-yah attitude that Phineas hoped for. It was a crutch that marines had built into their training for centuries. This call and response, this shouted enthusiasm for duty could make the most irregular situation into something more normal and well-understood.

“Prove it!” Phineas shouted. “Get our ships fueled up and fighting!” 

The marine turned around and started clawing through the crowd. There was some more purposeful motion of those people around him. The silence had been replaced by a murmur. The panic and shouting did not erupt immediately. Hopefully, a few with discipline could sway those who dithered to tip the balance from flight to fight.

Phineas raised the weapon, and prepared to put it back on safe. A woman in a non-standard flight suit started to edge up toward Phineas. He looked over and saw her trying to slip behind the armored marine who stood by, silently, while Phineas used his gun.

Phineas brought the weapon down, pointing at her. She immediately started backing up, holding the wall for guidance.

“Where are you going?” Phineas asked, look at her through the sights.

She had both hands on the wall, almost clinging to it for support.

“That’s my ship,” she whispered.

Phineas glanced over his shoulder at the wall behind him. It was a cargo bay door. He raised the weapon and stepped aside. She scooted behind the marine, punched in the code, opening up the small crew access door, and jumped inside. The door rattled shut behind her.

Phineas, weapon pointed at the ceiling, stared around at the swirling mob. His hands were sweating, and he was having trouble catching his breath. He sighed, and realized that his knees had gone soft.

Phineas looked at the marine; the marine’s eyes were clearly visible through the openings in the helmet. The marine was glowering at Phineas; he was angry at being threatened by an officer.

“How about you? Are you going to save this base?” he asked, quietly.

The marine’s eyes narrowed.

“You pulled on gun on me,” the marine said slowly, his voice muffled by the armor.

Phineas took a step closer to the marine; he was leaning on the armor.

“What was that, marine?”

The marine stared hard at Phineas. He twisted around in his armor to get his chin up out of the air regulator.

“You pulled a stinking gun on me,” he shouted.

Staring at the marine, Phineas turned his shoulder to show his gold colonel’s insignia.

“Sir,” the marine added, as surly and bitter as possible.

Phineas looked over the armor for a moment. He looked up and down, as though seeing it for the first time. Then he leaned back close to the helmet.

“Marine, am I ever supposed to see battle armor in this part of the base?” It was a rhetorical question. 

The marine knew that armor was worn only on battle stations. The marine glanced to the side.

“I had to get something,” he said.

Phineas waited for the marine to look back at him. It took a moment for the marine to stop looking away and look straight at Phineas. Phineas could see the marine working up a good sense of righteous defiance. Phineas checked the marine’s identification label on the front of the armor. It said “Cpl. Pittdorf”. Painted neatly below it, was his handle, “The Pits”. The lettering looked like the machine-embossed identifier; Pittdorf may have been a self-serving coward, but he was also a craftsman.

“I had to get people’s attention, Pits, and you were walking by.” Phineas stepped back so The Pits could see him through the narrow visor. He turned the weapon around, doing the inspection ritual that was usually reserved for formation at boot camps. Phineas opened the power supply, checked the magazine, cleared the breech and glanced through the barrel to the floor; it was in top working order.

Phineas held out the rifle. The Pits hesitated, but took it properly, and set it at parade rest. It wasn’t good enough for boot camp, but it would do for the circumstances.

“That’s a pretty good example of readiness. May I look inside, marine?” Phineas didn’t give the usual parade-ground order of “open armor”; that might be asking too much.

He could see The Pits squinting at him through the visor. The Pits had something in mind, and Phineas was between Corporal Pittdorf and his plans. It would be tough to talk him out of whatever he thought was more important than defending this base.

Pittdorf raised the lever on the cam-lock on the front of the armor; the bands holding the power supply on the back released, and the power supply leaned back. Pittdorf stepped forward and leaned to counterbalance it with crisp boot-camp precision.

Phineas walked around and looked inside. The power supply was charged and working. The contacts were clean; the rebreather backup gauges showed that he’d only been wearing the armor for a few minutes.

Phineas walked back around into The Pits field of view.

“You look good, marine,” Phineas said. The Pits leaned further forward, almost a bow, the power supply flopped into position; he snapped down the cam-lock and stood up straight.

“Yes, sir,” Pittdorf said quietly.

“Who’s running your unit?”

Phineas didn’t expect an answer. A corporal who wanted to be an officer couldn’t give any answer to why he left his unit. Pittdorf looked away, scheming for an answer.

“Without someone like you, they’ll be squid bait,” Phineas began quietly. “I don’t know what you’re doing here, and I don’t want to know. I need you to get to your battle-station, and keep your unit alive. We may be outnumbered; everyone has to do their job perfectly for us to survive. As far as I’m concerned, everyone here is depending on you.” Phineas had used this speech before; but he was never sure how much emphasis to put but “everyone”. It was the literal truth, not some hyperbole to motivate the reluctant.

The Pits glanced to the side for only a second before he said “Yes, sir.” “Make us proud to serve with you,” Phineas said.

Phineas stopped looking closely at The Pits; he stepped back a bit further.

The Pits gave a final, non-committal “Yes, sir.” Phineas turned away from The Pits; he didn’t expect a salute or anything like it. He had to get to his shuttle and return to his own command post on one of the ion cannons. Phineas paused before leaving the intersection; he wondered if he would have had to shoot someone to make his point; and if he did have to shoot someone, would he have pulled the trigger in cold blood?

Dieskau had not slept or been groomed in thirty-six hours. He had the stubble of beard; his hair style had fallen apart. His eyes were rimmed with red and sunken into his cheeks from too many stimulants and too little sleep. Propped in his seat at the situation display, he could see that the Cephalopods had turned a perfect ambush into series of small, hard-to-manage, pointless skirmishes. He was very sure that the Cephalopods had done nothing at all in the opening moments of the attack. He was waiting for the intelligence crew’s review of the sensor recordings to show him whether Caughnawaga had sent a warning to the Core’s Cephalopods. If so, then he would need to see if Linois’ secret agenda to replace him as supreme military commander of this cluster included deals with Cephalopods. Hidden deep within that fear was the deeper concern that the Linois was only a puppet of the Cephalopods. The actions of Caughnawaga further implied that some of the Cephalopods were controlled by the Core Planets. The depth and subtlety of the plan left Dieskau in awe. There was no possibility of a simpler explanation.

Opposite Dieskau, Caughnawaga stood, silently watching the display, also. The Cephalopods had said nothing for hours, simply watching the process of the battle. Dieskau insisted that Linois and Caughnawaga learn of his power, and come to respect Dieskau’s ability to crush all opposition. Dieskau could now see that Linois, as commander of the largest ship in the fleet, was the only commander able to hatch such a monstrous scheme; he was the one commander Dieskau could not easily have arrested.

Linois stepped from his bridge crew to Dieskau’s shoulder. They both looked at the situation display. Henry base was clearly identified. The stream of Core ships was edging closer, hounded by the Outer Rim’s fleet.

“Before we enter cannon range, we’ll need to make repairs and get resupplied,” Linois said quietly.
Caughnawaga stirred; it started moving toward Linois.

The speech synthesizer chimed, “The Cephalopods must rest and water and fuel. Ships are damaged, weapons stores are low.”

“If I may,” Linois said, “I suggest we probe their defenses, determine how many cannon work, what their combat readiness is.”

As Linois detailed his plans, Dieskau looked at the two of them, Mammal and Cephalopod, a small pod of allies buried within his own forces. He had suspected that there was disloyalty; a faction that had a private agenda, not for the benefit of the Outer Rim; within his force there were officers acting in their own narrow self-interest. Dieskau had an active interest in locating all of this faction, and rooting out the discontent they created. As Linois talked, Dieskau started to plan the intelligence-gathering necessary to find the true extent of this conspiracy.

Linois finished summarizing his own cowardly plans and looked at Dieskau intently. “We can’t rush into an ambush,” he concluded, without any trace of irony.

In a flash of insight, Dieskau realized that he had been manipulated by Linois and Caughnawaga: they had been visible cowards just to make Dieskau pit them against each other. Dieskau had fallen into their trap and given them the opportunity to conspire together. However, now that he saw their collusion clearly, he needed to know which of the two was leading, and which was following.

“No!” Dieskau shrieked, leaping up from the situation display. “Don’t you see? First we built huge bases, and they found success with small, mobile forces. Now they have built a huge base. Since they have become us, what else is possible but for us to become them?”

Dieskau sat back down at the situation display. The situation was suddenly clearer, clearer than it had ever been. Part of his sudden profound clarity was the stark realization of how completely isolated he was. His advisors were no longer providing him the kind of support he needed. The plans he had put together were not sophisticated enough to deal with the new threat he found inside his own organization. Until he understood his opposition, he needed a new, multi-layered plan, where only Dieskau knew the complete picture. He would not fall into this trap again.

“What will happen when we form up for an attack?” he asked. He was staring hard at the floor. He’d had a momentary glimpse of a plan so shrewd and compelling that it could not fail, irrespective of what his staff did to subvert it. He knew that he couldn’t articulate the plan to anyone, he could only issue necessary orders.

“They will crumble before me and sue for terms of surrender,” Dieskau went on, distracted by his wide-ranging thoughts. “This is the final glorious attack that will finish the battle.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Dieskau saw them stepping away; Linois and his pod of Squid allies. Dieskau leapt up, taking a step toward them.

“Perhaps someday you will see that today we rewrite history,” Dieskau shouted, his arms flailing at them to emphasize his point. “Do you no see the sublime perfection of this reversal of roles?”

Dieskau turned toward the bridge crew and roared, “Attack formation. Now!”

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Some of the conference rooms of the Henry Base had been heavily used from first days that the base had been habitable. People had moved through the conference room continuously for months. The intelligence group had moved into the room to reduce the time spent walking from office to office. The construction of the ceiling had never been finished, nor had the room been cleaned on any regular basis.

With Cole gone on the Whitehall, Phineas was the senior-most officer in or around the Henry Base who would still confront Johnson. Once the cannon positions were aligned with the most likely direction of attack, he had gone back to the base itself to brief Johnson and try and direct the remaining defenses.

The basic attitude of denial was something he found intolerable. His shuttle had been idled waiting for traffic to clear. He was unable to get any meaningful status from anyone. There was an eerie official silence from the Henry Base staff.

Phineas found that operations at the base were intolerable, and when he was finally allowed to dock and disembark, he told General Johnson to make a direct announcement that Williams had been ambushed, that the fleet was returning to Henry Base for resupply and they had the materiel needed defend themselves against the Outer Rim indefinitely. It was a simple, clear message, Phineas thought. It would firmly establish the priorities for defense.

“I can’t do that,” Johnson had replied after the briefing.

Phineas stared, incredulous.

“I’m not here to defend this base. I’m here to drive the Outer Rim out of this cluster.” Phineas looked at Pomeroy and the flock of assistants that followed Johnson around.

“Well, sir, if you don’t defend this base, you’ll finish your career in an Outer Rim brig,” Phineas said.

Johnson stared around at his supporters.

Pomeroy looked from Johnson to Phineas. “I think the General is looking for you to support our primary mission,” Pomeroy said.

Phineas put his fists on the table and leaned across to close the space between his face and Pomeroy to just inches. “Is there a poster on that wall that says that we have to secure this base?”

Pomeroy looked around at the other members of the command staff. There certainly was a “secure Henry base” motivational campaign. It was posted everywhere; it was part of every briefing, every plan, and every operation. Pomeroy had to agree with Phineas. Disagreeing with Johnson was a career risk, but at this point, Johnson wasn’t leaning in any direction. Pomeroy slumped as limp as a flag without a wind.

Phineas stood up straight.

Johnson looked at him. “What else can we do?” he asked.

Phineas shook his head. There was little else they could do. They had made a difficult choice in sending Williams out to relieve the forces left at Lyman base. Now they were paying the price for that decision. Deep in his heart, Phineas hoped that luck was on their side, and sending Williams out had both weakened Dieskau and lured him to the still powerful Henry base.

“We can stop them if we maintain fire discipline,” Phineas said. “We can’t waste a shot. We need to hide our capability until they are committed and their entire fleet is in range.”

Johnson scowled; he didn’t like this. Pomeroy was glad that Johnson was finally showing a preference. Since the ambush, Johnson had been lost, directionless. The first returning ships had upset him. Johnson had done nothing but wander from meeting to meeting since Cole’s presentation of the tactical situation. When Cole had departed, Johnson had listened impassively to briefings by Phineas and Eyre on the defensive preparations. Pomeroy’s fear of leading in the wrong direction, left him unable to take any action, either.

“Allow them to close?” Johnson asked. “It’s such a risk.” Phineas didn’t answer. He turned away in disgust. He paced across the small conference room, all eyes glued on him.

The door chimed and creaked open. The marine standing just inside the door stepped into the opening see who was trying to get in. Over the marine’s shoulder, they could see a small knot of civilians in the corridor. One of the heads leaned in, trying to get past the sergeant standing at the door.

“Johnson! General Johnson” the civilian shouted.

“Halt! You’re not authorized,” the marine barked, blocking the freighter.

Pomeroy recognized him as Boone, one of the freighter pilots. It was hard to see past the marine, but Boone seemed to be the spokesman for the group in the hall.

There was a quick movement; Boone’s elbow appeared between the marine and the door frame. Suddenly Boone was beside the marine and the marine stumbling against the wall.

“General Johnson. We need launch clearances,” Boone said, breathlessly. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

The marine started to shove Boone back out into the hall. Boone twisted away from the marine without even looking. The marine stumbled again, barely moving Boone.

Johnson stood up. “Those Cephalopod traitors will hunt you down and kill you,” he said with a sudden vehemence. “You’ll never make a landfall.”

Pomeroy knew that this was contrary to the official propaganda position; it was, however, what intelligence had been reporting. Johnson seemed to have trouble keeping to the official position statements. Pomeroy was going to clarify the statement for the freighters when Phineas stepped in front of Boone.

Boone was bigger than Phineas, but Phineas was far more intensely determined. They were both remarkably muscular for pilots and career officers.

“You’ll goddamn stay is what you’ll do,” Phineas ordered; Boone flinched back half a step. “I don’t care how bad it is, I won’t have a panic.”

Boone looked closely at Phineas. “Colonel Phineas, it’s no good,” he pleaded.

Phineas relaxed. He dropped his brusque command voice. “Get to your ship, stick to official channels and don’t listen to a load of crap from who knows what source.”

Boone looked over Phineas shoulder at the rest of the command staff. Johnson looked at Boone, as if seeing him for the first time.

“Panic?” Johnson asked.

Boone looked back at the knot of freighters behind him in the hall. There was a weird shaking of heads and looking around. Phineas could see them shuffling around, looking at each other, but also looking away. They looked to Boone for support, but he was looking to them. Phineas saw some whispering, and he could see the expressions on their faces clearly. They were trying to justify running from the base; hoping that the Outer Rim and the Cephalopods would be more merciful in empty space than they would be at the base.

“Panic is fatal,” Phineas said, through Boone to the knot of freighters in the hall. “Discipline is all we’ve got! I’ve got six fully operational plasma cannons.”

Boone was not impressed. The other freighters paused a moment. The whisperer at the back of the group said something.

“Six of eight?” Boone repeated.

Phineas tried to see the instigator who had prompted Boone. Phineas knew that people who panicked were spreading fear like a virus around the base. He disliked someone who wouldn’t stand up and say they were terrified, but would sow doubt and dispute in those around them.

“We’ve got surface guns to support the space guns. Every crew is standing by with anti-personnel loads. We’ll stop them,” Phineas said to the group.

He heard a mutter in the conference room. He turned around as Johnson squinted at him.

“Anti-personnel?” Johnson asked. “That’s just slaughter.” Phineas had talked it through with his gun commanders, and anti-personnel rounds had given them the confidence to brave the brunt of the attack waiting for the perfect chance to unleash the full fury of their guns. Phineas knew that men would flip back and forth between fight and flight almost at random. The anti-personnel loads had bolstered their fragile morale.

Phineas took a step to the side to address the freighters as well as Johnson. “After their victory in the ambush, a few lost ships won’t even slow them down. If we don’t kill their people as fast as possible, they’ll overrun this base in a heartbeat.”

Phineas looked around at the command staff and the civilians. Boone backed out of the room. The freighters held a whispered conference in the hallway and then bolted down the corridor. Phineas was outraged at their cowardice. They weren’t marines, but they could still spread fear among the troops. Phineas shouldered past the marine to see which way they ran.

“Sergeant,” he shouted, “arrest them.”

The sergeant, only too happy to punish Boone, sprinted after them, yelling into his radio to organize the MP’s and cut them off.

The corridor was already in mayhem. Phineas realized that the freighters were not the cause of the panic; they were only a symptom of a wave of panic already in full flood. There were people everywhere; the number of civilians amazed Phineas. He saw knots of soldiers, clusters pilots and fliers and civilians, all moving through the base in different directions; there were collisions, blockages, arguments and fights.

Someone running down the hallway bumped into Phineas and ran off with a brusque “watch it.”

Phineas looked back into the conference room. His worst fear was internal panic and a lack of discipline. He had hoped to prevent it, but it had already happened. In the conference room, all but Pomeroy and Johnson had left. It looked like Pomeroy was presenting some kind of plan to Johnson.
The contrast between the turmoil in the hall and the irrelevant planning in quiet conference room struck Phineas as a metaphor for the tactical situation. Out-of-touch officers were trying to manage an attack, while their troops fell into chaos.

The Kaydeross had managed to shape an orbital solution in spite of two Cephalopod ships attached to them. It was a dangerous and highly eccentric orbit. The cockpit crew had made contact with the planet, and was slowly edging toward a smaller orbit, and ultimately making a landing. However, they had to rid the ship of an infestation of squids before the hole in their hull made the ship into an orbiting coffin.

First Hunter could easily make use of the architecture of a Mammal ship. Bony Mammals left large gaps and openings, clearly for their own access. First Hunter, without armor, could fit between equipment sections and move freely through the structure of the ship. The only complication was identifying hidden structural bulkheads that prevented access.

First Hunter’s armor had an elegant scalloped ridge that ran from front to back. It was a common style in its birth pool. The pod agreed to leave the armor standing by their entrance as a distraction to any Mammals that might counter-attack. First Hunter carried only a medium-sized mammal weapon that could be pushed through the openings.

Second and Third Hunter agreed to move down a wide, open corridor, carrying the largest and bulkiest of weapons. First Hunter slid through an access panel, and felt its way through an unlit open space between the ceiling and the deck above. The space was narrow, dark and very dusty. It had some electrical conduits and lighting fixtures, but access was quite good.

First Hunter heard the tramp of bony mammal feet, and the scrape of something heavy. Clearly the mammals were moving things around. Perhaps they had an even larger weapon that they were moving into position. It may be bad for Second Hunter, but in the long run it would be good for the pod if First Hunter could secure that weapon.

First Hunter reached an equipment bay that lined the wall. Just beyond the equipment, First Hunter could hear the mammals making low barking or groaning noises. The device in the equipment bay was mostly silent; it made a low erratic clicking as it cycled through its assigned task. First Hunter could visualize the situation in the hallway clearly.

First Hunter needed to move right, over another equipment bay. First hunter probed around looking for an opening large enough to fit the mammal weapon. The weapon, being rigid, required some care in selecting a route. While it was often easiest to drop down into equipment bays and move under the flooring, there were often unexpected obstructions that made it complex to manage a bulky mammal weapon. If Second Hunter and Third Hunter kept them occupied, there would be time to explore for an optimal route. But pressure was continuing to fall. They needed to take control of the ship quickly before they were forced to retreat and put on pressurized armor.

There was some more noise from the mammals. There was a scrabbling around then the BOOM of a weapon being fired. There was an explosion and the acrid smell of their explosives filled the air.

There wasn’t enough time. First Hunter pushed the mammal weapon as quickly as possible. Noise was not an issue. They needed to get past these mammals to move toward engineering and gain control of the ship. First Hunter dropped into the equipment bay that was behind the mammals. The opening to the bay whistled faintly as the atmosphere rushed past it.

There was more scrabbling around and a weapon boomed again. The explosion shook the equipment bay. First Hunter hoped that Second Hunter had survived; otherwise the pod would be weakened.

It took a moment to get braced inside the equipment bay. First Hunter released the catch and opened the lid slowly and silently. This was the riskiest part of the attack: if a mammal was posted in reserve, then First Hunter would be killed. There was no noise; they did not have any reserve. Pushing out the weapon only required a tiny opening. First Hunter twisted it into a firing position. It was a painful position, balanced between head and mouth, two legs on the wall inside the cabinet, two legs holding the door, four legs holding the weapon solidly. One finger probed outside to be sure that all was in position; the other finger operated the firing trigger.

The mammals were relatively quiet, but the thin metal door transmitted the low humming of their armor. First Hunter adjusted the weapon and then lay down a barrage of fire. After firing two five-round bursts, First Hunter sprang from the equipment bay to be sure they were all dead.

It was hard to be sure, but there seemed to be bloody remains of two mammals. Once out in the hall, First Hunter fired more carefully to be sure that they were completely dead. The mammal weapon was heavy and difficult to hold at an attitude that permitted accurate sighting. However, the first few rounds could be used for ranging, and the rest would have full impact. With mammal blood and bones everywhere, it was a glorious victory. They had two more weapons. The scraping sound had been two hardened portable shields. They would help in the final assault on engineering.

First Hunter looked down the corridor. Someone was sheltered behind a turn in the hallway. There were blood and legs from a Cephalopod. Why did they still hide?

First Hunter realized why they hid and flattened onto the deck; at that moment a mammal fired, blowing an opening in the ceiling just over First Hunter’s head. First Hunter held up the weapon and fired down the hall at the Mammal reserves. Part way through the fully automatic burst, First Hunter heard the shout of a dying Mammal. First Hunter stretched up tall and took a close look. A piece of armor coated with blood rolled into the hallway.

First Hunter looked back. Third Hunter announced that Second Hunter had not been fast enough. That meant the legs and blood were all that was left of Second Hunter. The pod was weaker by one hunter, but stronger by two weapons. Third Hunter agreed to bring up the rest of the pod. They would switch weapons, grab the shields and form up for an assault on engineering.

Dieskau paused a moment before entering the bridge of the Champlain. They were closing in on the Henry base too slowly. This was his ninth major campaign. What if this was his first mistake; his last fight? Combat, by definition, lacked boundaries or limitations that made it possible to have a fixed, standard approach. Mankind’s history provided many examples, but no simple recipe. Dieskau was a military leader precisely because he was a student of the history of human warfare. Even so, he knew there was always the chance of something unexpected that would escalate to fatal consequences. He stepped up to the sentry, hoping that this was not his last fight.

The sentry placed his weapon on the deck and opened the door to the bridge. Dieskau looked in. The captain, Linois, was moving the fleet carefully forward, but Dieskau needed more speed to prevent the base from being well-defended. They needed to fall on the base when the disarray from the retreat was at its peak.

Dieskau took a seat at the situation display. He brought up the tactical map. It looked very clear that the defenses had been badly beaten down. The remaining Core Planets force was small, concentrated in a narrow area. It was also obvious to Dieskau that the Cephalopods had completely dropped out of the attack. Their ships were everywhere except the line of attack. The IFF system could not discriminate between Cephalopods aligned with Caughnawaga, and those aligned with the Core Planets ally, Hendrick. The Cephalopod forces appeared to have dissolved into a number of small, irrelevant battles as well as piracy and looting of disabled ships.

Dieskau fumed as he concluded that the cowardly squids had failed to attack, or even prosecute the battle with any aggression or discipline. He could see his own fleet falling into two factions: those who would pursue the Core Planets forces and those who would retreat. He had heard enough from Montgomery and Linois to know that they were cowards also. He was outraged that anyone could think it possible to achieve the reward of victory without the risk of battle.

Dieskau stood up and paced across the bridge. He looked over the XO’s shoulder at the helm, the weapons systems, life support, defensive measures and stores. His fleet was struggling, but victory was assured. The Outer Rim and Core forces had been approximately equal, but Dieskau’s ambush had torn the Core Planets force apart.

“We need to make more speed,” Dieskau said to the officer of the watch.

The officer of the watch was the second Lieutenant, who was not as sure of his position on the ship as the first Lieutenant. The first Lieutenant would have executed Dieskau’s order with only a quick nod from Linois. The second Lieutenant looked at Captain Linois for confirmation. Linois stepped over to Dieskau.

“Yes?” Linois purred.

“We need to fall on their base before they can organize their defenses,” Dieskau said.

Linois nodded, as if he agreed. “My Baron, their defensive line is holding.” Dieskau realized he didn’t know enough about Linois. Clearly, he had a well-placed family to be given command of the vast and powerful Champlain. He was ambitious, or he would not have taken frontier duty. What weakness did Linois have; Dieskau needed to know how he could exploit this captain.

“Push through their line. We must engage the Whitehall destroyer as quickly as possible.” Dieskau leaned into Linois to emphasize his point. Linois did not back up, but stood, staring up at Dieskau.

Linois nodded vaguely, but neither acknowledged nor refused. He stood and stared back at Dieskau. Dieskau recognized that Captain Linois may be the actual leader of the faction that opposed direct action; this made Montgomery the spokesman for Linois. As Dieskau considered, he kept his gaze locked on Linois.

There was a chime and the marine sentry barked, “Squid requesting entry, sir.” Dieskau had insisted Caughnawaga be present on the bridge so he could pit Linois and the Champlain against the Cephs. Dieskau hoped that he could make the assault on Henry base into a point of honor between them; the first one to the base would be free to take possession, the second one would be publicly humiliated by a round of bad publicity through the fleet and through the cluster. Dieskau would break the career of anyone reluctant to carry out his plan to the fullest extent.

Dieskau nodded his permission to Linois to admit the Cephalopods to the bridge. Linois scowled slightly, but shook his head. Dieskau was taken aback for a moment by this tacit refusal. It was, technically, Linois’ bridge, and Dieskau could be seen as exceeding his privileges by inviting squids to a meeting on the bridge. It was, more importantly, an opportunity for Dieskau to show Linois who was the supreme military commander of the cluster.

Dieskau, still holding Linois in his weapons-lock gaze, shouted over his shoulder to the sentry, “Send our Cephalopod allies in.”

Dieskau clenched his jaw hard, careful to say nothing. He didn’t see the sentry look to the bridge officer, or the bridge officer look to Linois. He did see Linois nod, followed a long moment later by the slap of the sentry hitting the control and the door grinding open. Dieskau hoped that Linois was gaining a clear understanding of his position in the fleet; there would be no dispute or disrespect among his officers.

The Cephalopods oozed onto the bridge. They were heavily armed. The indicators and status displays reflected off their armor. Dieskau noted that Caughnawaga seemed to have shifted the personnel in the leadership pod. One of its two lieutenants had been replaced. A new Cephalopod, wearing armor with a scalloped ridge going from front over the top and down the back, had joined the pod. Dieskau wasn’t sure which squid had been replaced, but he took this as a sign that the Cephalopods were disappointed with their performance in this assault and had rearranged their leadership. Dieskau was gleeful at this positive turn of events.

Caughnawaga’s speech synthesizer chimed on. “You called for our attendance.” 

Dieskau looked closely at the Cephs. They were silent, showing muted colors reflecting the bridge crew uniforms. Dieskau concluded that they were merely looking around, perhaps whispering among themselves.

Dieskau turned to the situation display. He made an elaborate gesture of presentation. The ships were carefully color coded, with the Outer Rim in prominent red, and the Cephs in an ambiguous yellow.

“You observe the Core Planets fleet,” he began, “hemmed in, surrounded, being destroyed by the Outer Rim fleet?”

A quick message passed among the Cephs. Caughnawaga’s vast U-shaped pupils gazed at Dieskau. The new squid, with the scallop ridge, turned and moved closer to peer at the display. Caughnawaga, without looking, along with the other squids oozed to adjust the gaps and keep the spacing between them even and precise.

“Why do you ask for confirmation of the obvious?” Caughnawaga replied.

Dieskau suspected that they knew how much he hated their sluggish indolence. Their tacit admission of failure to aggressively pursue the Core Planets infuriated him. He saw it as the first step toward justifying their cowardly strategy; it might be followed by a refusal to see any advantage in leading the assault on Henry base. Dieskau began to see their agreements as simple lies, uttered to lure the Outer Rim into early action, weakening them through a premature fight with the Core. It was very possible that the Cephalopods would turn on the Outer Rim.

Barely able to contain himself, Dieskau leaned close to Caughnawaga. He could hear the low gurgle of the ventilator. He desperately wanted to pull his side arm and show these squids real fear.

“Where are your ships?” Dieskau hissed. “Where are the hellish squid? Why do they stand aside from the fight?”

A message flicked among the Cephalopods. Dieskau realized that he was falling into a position they had opened for him. He was going to be surrounded by his own allies. Once surrounded, he would be in great danger.

“We claim our spoils of victory from fallen ships and the planet.” 

Dieskau took another step forward. “You filthy scavengers!” he shouted.

This had the desired effect. A color flashed among the three of them. The scallop-shell Ceph turned away from the situation display. The group closed up and backed away from Dieskau, still flickering a small message amongst them. Dieskau was pleased at this; all of their statements about being mighty hunters had led him to suspect that they despised their own history as scavengers.

“You are not engaging the Core Fleet,” Dieskau said, pursuing them.

“We do not choose to engage the other Cephalopods,” Caughnawaga’s synthesizer chimed.

This was unexpected: Dieskau had to admit that there was a possibility they were dealing with a federation of separate Cephalopod states or nations. The squids were behaving as if the various factions were separate but still had a common loyalty to some overarching organization that was of little military power, but huge social or political influence. Dieskau was angry with how own intelligence service for failing to alert him of this multi-layered political organization. Dieskau would never suspect that the Outer Rim intelligence service implicitly understood them as mere animals and was blind to anything subtle or complex about squid behavior.

Dieskau started pacing on the bridge. He didn’t notice the Cephalopods spreading out and shifting to cover his pacing.

“They’re my enemies!” Dieskau shouted. “You will destroy all of my enemies, or there will be no peace between us.”

This did not have any useful effect. The Cephs seem to have anticipated this, also. A perfunctory message flickered. They stood for a moment as Dieskau paced.

“We take the straggling Mammals,” Caughnawaga’s synthesizer chimed. “We do not fight our own.”

“Of course,” Dieskau thought, “you would not attack your own.” The more important question was the nature of the Squid intelligence. Did Caughnawaga already know of the tribe that was supporting the Core Planets? Was this really a master plan of this shadowy squid government? Dieskau dismissed the possibility was that they didn’t know until the moment of the ambush; they decided at the last moment to renege on their alliance. Instead, he began to suspect that there was a larger conspiracy within the Outer Rim that doomed this enterprise to failure by tempting him to make the wrong squid alliances.

Dieskau concluded that he had been misled. Since he was on the Champlain, Linois’ intelligence service had altered reports, briefings and conclusions to put Dieskau into this position. A small corner of Dieskau’s still rational mind could see that this kind of deception was impossibly large to coordinate and execute. That small corner was drowned out by the paranoid fear and rage that consumed him.

Dieskau slammed the situation display. The bridge crew startled. The Cephalopods pulled their tentacles back under their armor.

This setback meant that Dieskau had even more to do. He realized that he could never control a single cluster. He needed multiple fleets from which to choose loyal officers and punish those who were too cowardly or self-serving to follow his plans. He needed forces in multiple clusters to help him locate enemies of the Cephalopods; these enemies could be pitted against Caughnawaga, creating a new balance of power that he could control. His mistake was to limit his strategy to a single, isolated frontier star cluster.

Dieskau stormed off the bridge. The sentry saluted; when Dieskau looked at the solider, he realized he needed to begin a final assault on Henry base that would succeed without Cephalopod support. Once he controlled Henry and Lyman, he could begin planning to destroy his real enemies: Linois, Caughnawaga, Montgomery.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Protocol dictated that Colonel Montgomery should lead the fight. But Dieskau found the tactical details of combat to be the only compensation for enduring months of agonizing negotiation and positioning. The evolution of the tactical situation allowed Dieskau the exercise of power with immediate consequences; a continuous stream of enemies isolated, hounded, frightened, intimidated and ultimately destroyed. Dieskau’s patient, thoughtful positioning of a command structure, allies, bases, and movement of war materiel lacked the gratifying reward of tangible victory.

Dieskau was, unlike his command staff, a completely professional soldier. In twenty-five years, he’d been in eight significant campaigns, and several smaller “situations” that hadn’t evolved into war. He’d served three different governing bodies within the Outer Rim. He still loved the blow-by-blow tactics of pushing aside enemy opposition. The glorious joy of victory purged the rotten lying and duplicity of politics and counter-intelligence.

Dieskau had been pacing the bridge, occasionally hovering over the executive officer of the Champlain. Captain Linois recognized that his career depended on being deferential to the supreme military commander. Dieskau rapidly progressed from suggesting orders to the XO to simply giving his own independent orders. The XO took his cue from Captain Linois, and acquiesced to Dieskau without complaint.

Dieskau had spotted yet another tactical flaw in the Core System’s attempt at an organized retreat. His opponent was clearly thorough and energetic, but spent their time scrambling to correct basic mistakes. He could see that they had never led a battle of this scale before. Dieskau was reasonably sure that his intelligence service was wrong about the leadership of the retreat. He was sure that Williams had abandoned the Horicon and continued to conduct the battle from the Sacroon or one of the other frigates. His intelligence service claimed it was a junior officer, a Lieutenant Colonel who was issuing the tactical orders. Dieskau scoffed at the idea, insisting that the orders had to be fakes, sent merely to confuse.

Dieskau’s sacrifice of several scouts had shifted the Outer Rim attack. Dieskau was sure that it would appear to the retreating Core Planets fleet as a hole in his web of defenses. Indeed, several Core scouts had pulled out of the retreat to form a wedge. As Dieskau had hoped, they flew into the trap.

“Ten degrees up!” Dieskau said, leaning over the helmsman’s shoulder.

Linois looked disapprovingly. The XO glanced over, saw the disapproval, but still got a curt nod from Linois. Once assent was granted, the XO ordered the helmsman to adjust the gravity foils.

“There, the Sacroon’s scouts have chased our bait and left the Sacroon vulnerable,” Dieskau said, making sure that Linios was paying close attention to the turn of the battle. “Close range and fire.”

The XO looked; Linois nodded.

“Aye sir, closing range to engage,” the XO repeated. To the bridge crew, he started giving the sequence of commands to close range and start firing.

As the foils shifted position, the ship’s components began to precess at a different rate, everyone on the bridge leaned slightly to counter the shift in torque.

The sensor officer got a report from one of the crew manning the complex array of sensor systems. He caught the Linois’ eye. The Captain of the Champlain looked down at the computer screen to see what the message was.

“Baron Dieskau,” Linois said, with a slight emphasis on the Baron. “There are additional ships on the way.”

Linois, like Montgomery, was a titular Lord in the vast association of royal families and titles that made up the Outer Rim government. Linois outranked this mercenary who styled himself a Baron, because Dieskau held no planetary systems within the Outer Rim. Dieskau was somehow a distant relative of what had formerly been an imperial family, but that ancient human empire had crumbled into separate factions centuries ago. Linois, however, had extensive planets under his or his family’s immediate control.

Dieskau frowned and took two steps over to Linois.

“What ships?” Dieskau asked.

Captain Linois looked down at the sensor officer and nodded.

The sensor officer looked from the Linois to the XO to Dieskau. “Sir, they scan as the Whitehall, third-rate, and support.”

Dieskau leaped for joy. He shrieked, jumped and pumped his fists in the air. It was a display that no officer would ever engage in, for fear of starting rumors about his fitness for duty, or casting shadows on his family or heritage. Emotional displays were considered to be a weakness of the common classes of society. The nobility, the exclusive members of the officer’s corps in the Outer Rim Navy, were above childish emotional outbursts.

“Yes!” Dieskau shrieked. “They will be crushed!” Dieskau did a small dance around the bridge. Linois watched, but was careful to sneer. The crew should know that he disapproved, but would not dare to rebuke an inferior but commanding officer.

Dieskau stopped, and leaned over the communications officer. “Give me a channel to the fleet command staff.”

The communications officer did not need to check with the XO. As a guest on the Champlain, this was a request that within Dieskau’s traditional rights.

The XO reported, looking at Linois, but loud enough for Dieskau to hear, “Range made, engaging Sacroon frigate.”

The bridge lights came up. The communications officer took out the hand-held camera. There were a few minutes of scurrying to realign some of the lighting. Dieskau had to move to one of the marks on the bridge. A lamp was out, leaving a large shadow; forcing them to reset the scene facing in a different direction.

Once they were set, Dieskau struck a heroic pose. When the communications officer finished the countdown and pointed at him, Dieskau knew that his victory was complete. He would wipe the Core Planets out of this cluster. He would, without any doubt, be elevated to commander over all of the adjacent clusters. He took a breath, the command staff were waiting.

“Commanders!” Dieskau announced, making no effort to suppress his glee. “Our trap is sprung. The arriving ships are all that remain of their forces. Pursue the Core back to their base! When we take their base, we will have broken their military force in this cluster. They will be unable to defend themselves further. Victory is ours!”

The communications officer nodded. She grabbed her headset and leaned over to hear a conversation. She nodded again. She waved an OK sign at Dieskau. The message had been sent around the fleet, and acknowledgements were coming in. The second battle would begin shortly. There would be isolated skirmishes as he drove through the remains of their fleet to assault their base. The retreating ships would have to switch roles to defending ships, and after that, they would become refugee ships.
The fleet communications channel chimed. Someone announced that Colonel Montgomery was calling from his battle-ship, the Brittany. Dieskau went to the communications console.

The video feed was weak and garbled, the audio was weak. “My Baron,” Montgomery began, “we don’t have the reserves for this.”

Dieskau recognized Montgomery’s endless worrying as simple greed. Montgomery, in order to maintain his status, needed to command a fleet of over 1000 men. Dieskau sneered at Montgomery’s position: if he won, but his force was reduced, he would lose face among his peers; if he lost, he would be mistrusted by his superior officers. Dieskau could see how Montgomery viewed the narrow knife-edge he walked. But Dieskau also knew that Montgomery’s detractors would turn even a well-won victory into a new problem, namely, how to man the two new bases. Poor Montgomery, Dieskau thought, without better allies, you will be defeated no matter what you achieve.

“We don’t need numbers,” Dieskau said, patiently. “Look at them run. Their brave line of retreat falters. What will happen when the ships start to reach their base with damage, wounded and killed? It will break their will to fight!”

The video flickered and jerked. Dieskau couldn’t see what Montgomery’s reaction was.
Linois stepped up to Dieskau.

“I agree,” he purred. “My Baron, we need time to prepare for the assault on a base.” 

Dieskau started pacing on the bridge. He was well aware that Montgomery’s opinion was not his own. Dieskau kept Montgomery close because he appeared to be the mouthpiece for a faction of officers that supported him as a usefully weak future leader for this cluster. Linois was now clearly part of this faction propping up Montgomery. Dieskau could see that his presence on the Champlain was strengthening this faction within his army. He knew that this was the kind of dissension that would sap away the morale and spirit of his troops. Dieskau put these officers on a par with Caughnawaga and the other cowardly Cephalopods. He would need to reverse this, and show the various ship captains that the Champlain, under Linois, was completely loyal to Dieskau.

Dieskau went back to the display. “No!” he said, leaning closer to Montgomery’s image on the screen. “We cannot give them time to retreat or prepare defenses.”

Dieskau turned away from the display, saw Linois watching him closely, and the XO watching Linois for his cue. It infuriated Dieskau.

Dieskau half turned to the display, the better to address both Linois and Montgomery. “I will not have factions within my force,” he snarled. “I will break you and every one of your skulking faction of cowards and dissenters. We can only win with a single, unified assault. We will lead those worthless Squids to Henry base. While they loot, we will form up for the glorious final assault on Lyman base.”
The video was too grainy to see any response other than a flickering face.

Dieskau peered at the display. There was a long pause, then the transmission ended. Dieskau hoped that he could find some leverage to appease Montgomery’s worries about destruction of his precious ships. While he was on the Champlain, Dieskau knew he could pressure Linois; he also knew that he needed to locate the faction that Montgomery spoke for and remind them of their duty.

Fatigue caught up with Dieskau as he slumped into the seat at the console. He heard the whirr of a camera as it followed him. He sighed, realizing that he should probably try and catch some sleep before the second battle began in earnest.

Ships were using every docking pier of the Henry base. There were ships in planetary parking orbits waiting for docking space. The priority list, based on the contents of the ship, gave medical emergencies the first open pier. Weapons resupply was second. Everything else was being parked and ignored.

Commanders of large warships were fuming, tying up communications channels with their protests. If the ship could fly, it was parked, no matter how badly damaged. Shuttles and lighters were ferrying men and equipment around. If the ship was too damaged to park, it was ditched on the planet for repairs.

Command staff in the base were trying to reassign personnel to create full fighting complements in the ships that were still working. Computers were taxed to the limit, failures were increasingly common, tempers were flaring.

The largest loading docks were converted to infirmaries. The shuttles and lighters would tie up to the smaller piers; the wounded loaded on gurneys and raced to the large docks for triage and treatment.

Corpsman Robert loved the emergency room. He didn’t like all of the trauma cases he saw, but he lived and breathed the adrenaline rush of being the first to respond to an emergency. He’d been a corpsman and nurse for only a few years, but he’d studied hard and the frontier allowed him to see much of the vast array of human maladies.

Robert had been raised in a very religious tradition, and he kept a tenacious grip on a faith that there was an order and a sense to the universe. While the cruelty of war was wrong, he had to believe that a just war could be a good man’s response to evil and injustice. Rather than look for tidy, complete answers or remedies to rape, assault and other pointless criminal acts, he tried his best to comfort and heal the victims as much as possible, and prayed that some help could be found for abusers.

When the wounded started arriving, he had simply reported to the medical facility, assuming that some jar-headed marine had broken a foot in a typical accident involving massive, complex explosives. The first of the wounded, however, had suffered barotraumas from a leaking ship. This was rare, but ships did suffer catastrophic accidents if they were mishandled.

The medical corps were busy with the injured and dying, but soon they were the only ones on Henry base to recognize that they were responding to an ambush. No one in intelligence had been able to piece together a coherent story as quickly as the crews trying to set up trauma centers as the ships came in. The traffic control and communications staff were careful only to repeat the official announcements, and did not report their private understanding of an ambush. Even when the available docking spaces were exhausted and ships had to be parked, the traffic control unit was able only to parrot back an official ignorance of the situation.

One of the traffic controllers began prioritizing the ships based on their level of distress. This tipped the scale from simple active ignorance to a kind of silent denial. The policy among the traffic controllers was to avoid using words like ambushed or attacked or even fighting. The ships were described as “in distress” or “needing resupply” until some official word was bubbled up from intelligence and then trickled back down from Major General Johnson.

Corpsman Robert had ordered the construction of a triage area in the companionway between one of the scout piers and a cargo area. The wounded were offloaded into the pier as quickly as possible, moved to the hallway for triage. From there, the living and dying were separated from the dead and sent to different cargo bays for treatment or interment. Corpsman Robert both loved and hated triage.

As the battle wore on, the wounds had progressed, also. While the primary cause of death was almost universally barotrauma from a ship leaking away its life support, these bodies were generally lost in the vacuum of space, and officially counted among the missing for a decade until they were retroactively pronounced dead. After the first waves of hypobaria victims, later casualties suffered from hand-to-hand combat with Outer Rim marines. There were burns from ion and plasma weapons; there were the horrifying holes and amputations from projectile weapons. These had standard treatments; they were Mammal weapons and the medical corps understood them.

The latest waves of the wounded had been in fights with Cephalopods. They suffered from bizarre cutting-weapon attacks and blunt trauma from being beaten or strangled. Many suffered attacks from dimly understood Cephalopod chemical agents.

Corpsman Robert could make an immediate diagnosis of the spectrum of injuries caused by Mammal weapons and non-combat accidents. The Cephalopod weapons were less familiar, and involved a delicate balance. While he could be wrong and consign someone to a slow death that they might have survived, he was balancing the load on the medical staff. Not everyone could be saved. He was no less random that the ion blast that ripped open their ship in just the right place to save one person but kill all of their mess-mates. He held tight to the belief that he was part of the larger design of the universe; he was as random and inevitable as gravity itself, even as he worried about his abilities.

The Core medical researchers had identified several Ceph chemical agents, and simply labeled them Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. The Alpha agent was designed to kill Cephs; it incapacitated, but rarely killed Mammals. The Bravo agent was a general-purpose nerve gas, and could be lethal to an unprotected marine. Its biggest effect was to paralyze marines who didn’t scrub down properly before taking off their armor. The Charlie agent, however, had two parts. It had some kind of catalytic agent that rotted away the joints in the armor almost instantly, exposing the marine to a lethal chemical that lead to burns and profound external bleeding.

Corpsman Robert coded a corpse missing an arm. The armor was punched with holes showing that the marine had been in a terrible fire-fight against Outer Rim projectile weapons. Nurse Robert wondered how much fear and adrenaline this marine had endured in his last minutes. He could see that someone had eventually used some kind of explosive to amputate the arm and part of the leg. The marine had bled to death rapidly after that, but his squad had recovered his body. Nurse Robert felt that it was likely that his bravery had allowed the survival of his squad, and blessed his sacrifice.

On the next gurney, a marine was thrashing in pain, his armor falling apart even as he moved. He was still bleeding, but couldn’t survive for more than another hour. There was no treatment to Agent Charlie; any attempt to scrub off the chemical also scrubbed off the skin, and the survivors died of infections or complications from the scrubbing. Nurse Robert coded him as fatally injured and started to move on.

The marine grabbed onto Robert’s scrubs. He croaked out a question. This was the worst part of triage duty.

“I’m sorry,” Robert said, forcing himself to look at the condemned man. “The squids got you good; it’ll be over soon.”

Corpsman Robert waited a moment. Was the marine religious? Did he want to know more? The marine was twitching in pain, but said nothing. Nurse Robert looked over at the next gurney. There were too many; he’d need another triage nurse, and another hallway to put gurneys in.

“Why me?” the marine asked.

Why does anyone die? Why do we fight? Corpsman Robert had pat answers to many questions, but sometimes the answers sounded hollow. He was sure that it was not just a human trait. Every species fights; pain and death seem to be the antithesis that makes joy and life so precious.

“I wish I knew,” Robert said. “I hope that who lives and who dies is in the hands of the almighty.”

The marine’s hand slipped away, leaving a trail of blood down the surgical gown.

The next gurney had a more common barotrauma. It called for emergency re-pressurization followed by examination for neurological damage and surgery for embolism and ruptures. Corpsman Robert coded the gurney. The attention indicator went to green. An orderly would move him as soon as a chamber was available.

The next gurney was rigged with drip bags of plasma. The marine had been partially stripped of armor, and someone had applied several layers of bandages over an explosion wound that had clearly torn off his right shoulder. This would require extensive surgery. Corpsman Robert checked the instruments for pulse and blood pressure and checked against the standard profiles to see how long before he could be expected to die. In the back of his mind he wondered where the marine had been hiding that left his shoulder exposed; how horrifying is the shock of knowing your arm has been blasted away?