The Core Frigate Horicon Six, named the “Kaydeross”, was damaged and leaking. The repair crew had managed to stabilize the hull by tensioning a cable between bulkheads. Once the ship stopped twisting, they could weld plates to cover the openings. In engineering, they had been making atmospheric gasses as quickly as the equipment would allow, diverting all of their available energy toward life support.
Since they couldn’t maneuver effectively, they missed their first orbital solution. Drifting through the combat zone, they refined their plans to lay the ship on the hard and continue the fight on the planet’s surface.
The crew had panicked when they were ambushed. After the first, difficult hours, Lieutenant Adams had brought some kind of order to his crew, putting some fight back into them. Loss of blood made him dizzy and sick; throwing up further dehydrated him. A corpsman had stopped giving him stimulants, forcing him to accept intravenous saline and blood plasma. He slumped, barely conscious, at the command console, tethered to two drip bags suspended from a metal pole.
The ship rocked with an explosion, the medical drip bags swung, Adams tipped to his right side, head lolling. The ship’s intercom crackled with chatter among the gun crews and junior officers. The second lieutenant directed the repairs, while a junior midshipman had been elevated to command the defense. Several of the cannon had been used to the point where they no longer worked. One had exploded, killing a second gun crew and exacerbating the repair problems by opening another hull breach.
The remains of the cockpit crew felt — rather than heard — the gentle crunch of the Cephalopod ship settling onto their hull. No pincers tore open an airlock door. No alarm wailed to alert the crew of the Cephalopod intrusion.
The Cephs had placed their ship over the opening created by the destruction of one of the starboard guns. After re-pressurizing the area, they could enter without using noisy, cumbersome armor.
The engineering pod cut a small hole through a patched bulkhead. The hunting pod used the same high-powered, one-meter laser cutters; these could slowly grind through ship’s armor, as well as immediately kill an unarmored mammal. Once the hole was large enough for a laser cutter to pass through, the engineers stood back and the hunters oozed through the opening. Their plan was to secure the area, then open a hole suitable for sending armor in to the ship or bulky mammal weapons out of the ship.
First Hunter moved into the hallway, eyes and finger tentacles first. There was no movement. It could see smoke, flashing lights, and dead mammals everywhere. The Ceph was aware that Mammals had visual signals, and it knew that the language would be incomprehensibly alien. But the overbearing bright red flash of the emergency lights appeared meaningless. It was a simple, mechanical on and off, with no amplifying message or instructions. The Ceph knew that this inefficiency was what doomed the Mammals. Like the Echinoderms before them, hunting Mammals to extinction would only take patience.
First Hunter examined several Mammal bodies littering the companionway. Most were cold. One had survived longer that its pod-mates, but had died close by. The most important thing, however, were the Mammal weapons. The First Hunter knew precisely what it was looking for.
To hide from remote sensors, First Hunter stripped the gown from a fallen Mammal. It ripped out the undersides of the sleeves and draped the garment over its head. The idea was not to look like a human, but to wear human identification and insignia. It wasn’t clear to the Cephs precisely what parts of the uniform spoke. Since the visual cues were so simple, and audio was not used at all for identification, Ceph intelligence considered it possible that mammal identification schemes involved something like radio frequencies. But Cephalopod scientists were sure that Mammals were insensitive to radio frequencies except at extreme power levels. First Hunter’s pod had decided to focus on the visual signals embedded in clothing.
The fourth Mammal body had a weapon. The mammal was configured differently: different hair patches, different coloration of hide, different uniform. First Hunter, like others in its pod, was becoming aware that the ranks and divisions within the Mammals were a complex, multi-part hierarchy, with hunters somewhere in the middle. The spaceship pilots, somehow, controlled the hunters. One theory held that the extended in-vivo gestation lead mammals to strong parent-child attachments, creating family breeding dynasties. The result of this family-focus was to mix individual achievement and family rank as part of a complex social hierarchy.
First Hunter announced the weapon to the pod, hoping the Second Hunter was watching closely through the smoke and flashing lights. First Hunter was never comfortable talking at full saturation. However, it was clear that Mammals were unable to recognize anything that was not said as broadly as possible. Shades of meaning, tenses, numbers, genders, noun modes and cues were lost on even the cleverest Mammal.
The weapon appeared to be powered up. The weapon’s display murmured a set of stationary indicators with incomprehensible meanings. However, the various controls were approximately in the locations that the engineers had described. This was First Hunter’s first Mammal weapon, and it was surprisingly heavy. First Hunter would need the engineering pod to replace the power pack with something lighter, perhaps separated from the main body of the weapon.
The arming switch made the weapon vibrate very slightly. The frequency increased to an impossibly high pitch. An indicator changed its murmur. First Hunter reached around the weapon, trying to imitate the images of Mammals cradling the weapon. Like all Mammal devices, it had not been optimized for power, weight, or maintenance; it had been optimized for fit with their bones. The weapon discharged with a satisfying POP and a jump. The explosive charge blew a hole in the ceiling and the floor of the deck above. Plumbing was ruptured, bits of structural metal and plastic rained down through the hole.
First Hunter was gratified. The pod would be unstoppable. It would be easy to gather Mammal hand-to-hand weapons and clean out the ship. Then they would tow the it back to a base, sell what they could, and have the heavy weapons moved to their ship. It was a glorious day.
First Hunter called the other hunters in the pod. Adjusting to the shape of the weapon, First Hunter practiced aiming by shooting the Mammal bodies littering the frigate gunport area.
Second Hunter started searching around for additional weapons. Third Hunter noted that this was a frigate: there were dozens of Mammals on the ship, all heavily armed and desperate to save themselves for the good of their families or dynasties or whatever it was the Mammals fought for. Second Hunter was nonplussed, the Mammals were easily cowed; they fought among themselves, leaving them vulnerable to the Great Hunters.
The pod echoed Second Hunter’s sentiment. They were, however, disappointed in only finding miscellaneous small tools. They did find something that might be a side-arm, but it was of an unknown type. The danger was too great for the Hunters, so they set it aside to be given to engineers for study.
On the planet surface, Rifleman Chris Griffin, sometimes called “The Grif”, was cold. He hated being cold; it sapped his energy quicker than pain or sleep or hunger. He had been a competitive swimmer in high school and college, and the early morning practices in a freezing pool were almost unendurable. He had good speed, not good enough to win any awards, but good enough to make the cut in the Marines.
Like most successful soldiers, The Grif had enjoyed boot camp. He had seen the troubled and the misfits find boot unendurable. He enjoyed the physical training, he liked the weapons; he found the endless drill and repetition to be, in a way, relaxing: he could focus completely on one and only one task, knowing that food, rent, friends and all the other parts of a young man’s life were handled by the Corps.
The Horicon Five had fared badly in the ambush in spite of everything The Grif and the other marines had done. Parts of the starboard side had been shot away by the Outer Rim in the first hour of the engagement. When the Cephs appeared, the marines ran to their battle stations, ready for boarding and hand-to-hand combat. One of the Ceph ships had a real Core Planets ion cannon. After the first shot, they took the hard as quickly as possible.
The landing had gone well, considering the ship’s condition and the unknown planet. The Grif knew that they had only done a few orbits, hastily picking a spot that looked defensible. One group of rifleman had picked up a rumor that the Lieutenant hadn’t looked at geology or meteorology, so they were still very vulnerable. The Grif was in a group that was just happy to be on the hard; anything was better than space.
Once they were down, the Lieutenant laid it out for them. The ship would never fly again; the fight was going badly; others would need a place to ditch. The Horicon was not answering any communications channel; each ship was on its own. They were the first ship on the hard, so they had to establish a surface base. It meant hours of cold and hunger until they could build shelter, but they needed to support the fleet before they looked to themselves.
The Grif’s job was communications. It was a long, cold day assembling the towers and antennas. Even the simplest job took hours longer than anyone expected. Once, deep within the ship, a circuit breaker had tripped. No one in maintenance or engineering could locate it. They had resorted to cutting open a crumpled bulkhead to get at the ship’s power conduits. They had killed the power supplies on several hand-lamps crawling around in the wreckage looking for the broken or shorted connectors.
While defenses were set up, it was the Grif’s job to man the comm center for a watch. It meant four hours hunched in the freezing, dusty wind of the desolate landing plain. Shelter for the communications equipment was being created from the remains of the ship. Until the shelter was completed, the only option was to plug the communications equipment into the powered battle armor intercom and try to operate the equipment using a remote interface inside the armor.
The Grif’s power pack was running down. He’d turned down the heater to save power to make it to the end of his watch.
A hail from one of the other Horicon frigates was the start of the fourth landing. The Lieutenant had given the Grif ground coordinates for the landing. He’d been trying to reconnect with the frigate to give them final coordinates and pass the word that the north ridge seemed to have some squid activity. Since there were no relay satellites, for most of an orbit each ship was out of contact. By his armor’s internal clock, they should be appearing soon.
“Base, base, base,” came the call, alarmingly loud and close. “This is Horicon One, looking for landing approach.”
“Horicon One, this is Bloody Rock Base,” the Grif answered.
They gave him an approach vector that meant very little. The Grif had a pilot on a dedicated intercom channel. The pilot told him that the vector was low, very low. It was at an elevation that indicated they were doing ground-hugging evasion.
“Horicon One,” the Grif began, “west of the ridge it’s flat. Keep your altitude.” The intercom chimed. The Grif switched, and heard an intelligence report that the landing on the other side of the north ridge was not a crash. There seemed to be Ceph activity behind the ridges on all three sides. The wide open western area was still clear; the Cephs had not tried to creep up the valley from that direction.
The Grif opened the ship communication channel. “We’ve got Horicon Five as a solid base, plus some crashed scouts. It’s a regular squid picnic on the east ridge.”
The Grif was gazing idly at the horizon, shivering. It was a good thing, he reminded himself; it would warm him up inside his armor. He glanced down at his clock. He still had almost an hour to go, hunched over the communications equipment exposed to the freezing, dusty wind on this desolate rock.
He was looking in the right direction as the ship as it leapt over the eastern ridge, writing a streak across the sky. The ship was dropping too quickly to join the others. He immediately hailed them.
“Horicon One, I have you on visual. Stay up, keep your altitude, you’re miles short.” The Grif didn’t notice the eruption from a cannon on the southern ridge. The Cephs had waited for the distraction of a landing to fire their weapon.
Even though the Grif didn’t notice, the shot did trip a sensor; it was relayed to the communication station. The Grif hesitated for a moment: should he save himself or talk the ship down? He realized that the ship was on its own, just as the Horicon Five had been. He ripped the cable out of his armor, grabbed his rifle and started to run.
Thousands of small Cephalopod bomblets rained down on the Grif’s position. The communications equipment, the marine, the slender link with the rest of the fleet, were all destroyed in an instant.
When Lieutenant Colonel Cole got the Whitehall moving out from Henry base, the ships that were not ready were simply left behind to defend the base. The officers in charge would answer for their neglect of duty. The departure of the task force was complex: every lighter attached to the base, along with a number of scouts, were used to rearrange personnel. The Whitehall was trimmed down to its normal fighting complement; marines and pilots were offloaded to the base. Fighting troops who’d been idle while the base was under construction were given orders and expected to execute within minutes.
While the defense preparations for the base had been meticulously planned, sending out a task force to rescue Williams’ fleet was something that had never been contemplated. Until the ambush, the only notion had been building a base and attacking the Outer Rim at Carillon. The attack plans were hastily cut and pasted to make them appropriate for locating the remains of the fleet and supporting a retreat.
While the plan was being cobbled together, Whiting’s firing line was preserving the remains of Williams’ decimated fleet as they retreated. She was trying her best to conduct an unplanned battle with an ad-hoc command staff. She had quickly sorted the officers into those who could lead and those who could fly. A few could do both. Most of the fliers were ferocious fighters, but needed support. Those who could lead did well at relaying orders, coordinating and organizing.
She was not a tactician. She could see from the situation display that Dieskau’s fleet had her hemmed in. Every ship that was assigned to an end of the line was eventually isolated and destroyed. She’d had a chance to try two different variations, but neither had worked. She could see from the navigation display that there was a good chance that only half of the fleet would ever make it back to Henry base. To save some, she was sacrificing other ships and lives. They only way to do it was to ask for volunteers to fill the most vulnerable positions. Her only relief was from ships scattered by the ambush joining the formation.
Sacroon Five was commanded by Lieutenant Kaszycki. He’d wasted two opportunities for promotion by arguing with superior officers. Unlike most officers passed over for promotion, he didn’t retire from the military, making him a highly-qualified and experienced small-ship commander.
Kaz was a rare officer who could manage the details of leadership and fly. She had put him at the center of the left wing of the line. He was keeping the left side under tight disciplined control. Losses had been minimal on that side. His leadership had allowed the retreat to pick up some speed. He’d assigned working ships to tow the damaged and injured, still firing back at the pursuing Outer Rim.
She was trying to identify the exact list of ships that remained when she caught chatter from the left wing ships that sounded ominous. An Outer Rim frigate had, apparently lost some ability to maneuver and was drifting out of the well-calibrated attacking formation that Dieskau had intended.
Lieutenant Kaz was directing fire at one of the supporting scouts. She stopped drafting her list of ships and their status to listen for a moment. The chatter stopped. She checked the situation display. The firing on the left side of the line was particularly intense. She jotted a note to check ordinance and weapon status at the top of the next hour.
“Spike,” she heard Lieutenant Kaz ask. “What’s the holdup?” She listened intently to see what Kaz was developing. She didn’t want to interrupt with questions, but if he had an improvement in their strategy, she wanted to be able to instruct the rest of the fleet.
“Nothing,” came the feeble response, almost drowned in static. “It’s clear sailing.” She was gratified that Kaz had opened up more maneuvering room. If he could speed up the retreat, more ships would make it back to Henry base.
“Sacroon Five here Ma’am,” Kaz said. “That Rim frigate has drifted farther out of position. Give me two ships and I can split their line in two.”
It took Whiting a few moments to realize what Kaszycki had done. She had to rotate the situation display into his view to see the gap he had opened in their line. It wasn’t the first time she had seen such a gap. She was sure it was a false opportunity; if they chased it, it would turn into a trap, and the ships involved would be destroyed.
“Negative, Five. Stay with the line, we’re retreating,” Whiting said.
There was a too long silence.
“Five, this is Horicon Four, I’ve got you,” came a reply. “Let me just” the transmission ended in a burst of static. A few seconds later, the situation display showed the probable destruction of Horicon Four.
“Horicon Four,” she said, knowing there would be no reply.
She had to clamp down hard on her feelings to open her notebook and locate the scout that she’d put down at that end of the line. Tears were welling up, but she blinked them back. No matter how much she rubbed them, she couldn’t make out her notes.
“You idiots!” she shouted. She pounded on her console to ventilate her frustration. They were too full of themselves, too pumped up with adrenaline to see that Dieskau had them cornered. There was a time to fight and a time to run, and too many of her peers were getting killed because they couldn’t see the difference.
“Listen hon, you can always get out and walk,” Larry said, without turning away from the console. He was painstakingly working to keep the ship oriented so that the wrecked Core Planets Scout faced his pursuers.
“It’s not you, it’s them,” Natalie said, sniffing.
“Look out!” Larry shouted as a cannon blast rocked the ship. “Do you mean us-them or them-them?”
“Us-them. Why do they think we can win this?” She asked. She couldn’t see why Kaz continued to think it was safer to attack their opposition than to back off firing defensively. She assumed he still couldn’t see what a master tactician Dieskau was.
“Scout Horicon Two Delta One,” she said over the communicator.
She had a focused list of tasks: defend the Horicon Four, then remind Kaszycki why they can’t win this fight in space. The ship rocked again from someone firing at them. She also needed to defend herself.