An endless loop of starlight
Spins a timeless tunnel
Which frays slowly as the spinning slows
Becomes a dark backdrop with scattered points of light
Cold, empty and deep as the darkest ocean depths
We are alone. I in my artificial world
And my ship, drifting on an endless sea
Far away from home
I always find that I am disoriented when I first come up
out of deep suspension. You know...light headed like
you sometimes are for a few days after a bout of illness or lack of sleep.
I recheck the orders.
I gaze at the viewscreen and then begin a series of mind numbingly boring system checks, designed as much to restore the comfort of routine work as to ensure all is operating as it should be.
I imagine what we look like. A sliver of dark metal spinning through a dark void. Thatís all these scout ships look like. A sliver, a fragment... like a shard from a great dark blade. Of course, thatís the intention. They are designed to be damn near impossible to detect unless you are right on top of them. Packed full of fancy technology to deceive and conceal, they have but one purpose and that is toinfiltrate where other vessels could not safely go.
OK - time to rouse the rest of the crew.
The crew - well thatís an interesting term for this group since two are fixed position robots, computers with bio-mechanical circuitry. As such, they insist on offering personnae. Two more are androids and that leaves just three humanoids, myself, an earthman and a second generation Promean colonist. Quite a mix.
We had to call the FPRs by names of course. They all have personalities these days, personalities that develop. So they got to be George and Kaytar, George as an earth name and Kaytar from my own, Centauran culture. Maybe that's why when Kaytar talks to me, her voice tone becomes just a little deeper and more sultry. Personally, I prefer KZ103-80-54-A and B but I know it annoys the hell out of them if I call them by their serial numbers. Funny, the androids are far less picky even though they are really artificial life forms. They are, in my view, infinitely superior but then Iím accused of being both biased and even bigoted. The FPRs, I know, have far more memory and can reference just about any subject known to the confederacy. But they are just big database computers as far as I am concerned.
The androids are much more...Gallean. I havenít introduced them have I?. Jax is the tall one with short, dark hair and lean figure. She is a specialist tactical and security 'droid. She is conversant in some twenty six forms of combat and one hundred and three weapon types. She can drive most vehicles, particularly apc and armoured attack gravtanks. She tells me she knows over thirty ways to kill with a single blow or pressure hold. Iím sure she's right. All I know is she is athletic and you may take that how you want!
North is the other. If he was human or tauran, youíd call him taciturn. He speaks only when spoken to, plays chess at a level that makes the rest of us look stupid and likes to spend long hours cataloguing the exact intensity of any stars within range. He claims he has now found two hundred and thirty four errors in the Starpedia varying from a 0.00005 variance to as much as 0.0001. So who cares?
The earthman, Lennox is a good engineer but I find him....difficult. For one thing, he rarely washes and in my opinion, it does not benefit earth males to wear their hair long as he does. Also, I find what he calls music somewhat disturbs my mental state. It is...uncivilised even by earth standards. The constant thump of the rythmn, clashing sound of electronic instruments and raucous voices are, I understand, considered to be historically significant in the development of earth culture. If so, this "Heavy Metal" probably explains a lot about the whole race.
Strange how different the Promean is. Originally ninety percent earthbloods, the Promeans are as quiet and studious in their ways and culture as Lennox and his friends back on the station are loud. Krovol is an artist as well as the best pilot I have known for many years. Quietly efficient, I would judge him. They do say on earth, "that it takes all types" Quite typical of their philosophy but true to be honest.
I pause and stroke my mane in thought. Curious race, the earthers. How anything that is nearly as soft as a Jellyfish could come to be the dominant race on a savage primeval world such as the one they inhabited is beyond many of the scientists of the confederacy to fathom. Compared to ourselves who were always primary predators and to the Moorn who had the advantage of their wings and their awesome talons, the earthmen survived despite nature or so we always say. But then you probably know all those earther jokes.
Time to get back to business I guess.
The mission is about to begin in earnest. Quite simple really. Either the Drazilians are conducting manoeuvres on the border or, as the original intelligence suggested, they are preparing to strike against one of the colony worlds. Our task - Find out and report back. At the same time we get to test this new class of scout and test if it really can avoid detection. I suppose that if we are not blasted into a million atoms that we can assume it works. Donít you love scientists ?
We are a darkness against the stars. If viewscreens in these ships were really clear, a sharp eye would surely reveal us blotting out a starfield that a moment before had been visible. Iím told however, that the ship reads what is beyond it and projects the same points of light with the correct degree of intensity from the various angles that it can be seen from. I asked North about this and his answer did not give me a great deal of confidence. Then again Iím not an expert in stellar cartography or radiology.
Heads up! The long range scanners detect three large vessels and about half a dozen smaller ones in formation. I take the captain's chair. Iíll bet you think that these big chairs are comfortable so that you can sit for many hours without aches or pains? Well you would be wrong! They are hard and as uncomfortable as they need to be to keep your concentration on the job. However, they do have the advantage of a micro control set in the arms that allows you to do most things without having to leave the chair.
At that moment the proximity alarm sounds off. Dammit! How did anything get that close without us spotting it ? The bulk of a fast moving corvette virtually spins the entire ship on its axis as it crosses over us. They nearly hit us and never even realised we were there. It must work then. One to the scientists. I look again. Make that seven ships that we have on scan.
Now comes the hard part. This is where we have to slip in amongst the flotilla and monitor transmissions. Yes...I can see you have grasped what a suicidally stupid manoeuvre it is to get amongst a group of enemy ships - just nicely positioned so that they have you englobed. That way if they fired, you would be hit from all sides. The end would be very quick and weíd be very dead. Ah well, the problem is that if you try and pick up transmissions using most apparatus, you would be detected too quickly. This way, you just let them bounce off the dishes and itís all passive detection on minimal power.
That leads me onto another real nice thing about this job. You have to maintain the lowest possible power profile so as to blend into the background noise of this whispering universe.. That means life support on minimum and no weapons or propulsion systems capable of generating the sort of power you'd want at your fingertips if trouble started....
Here we go then. I snap a few orders. Kaytar reminds me I could reduce the temperature by another three degrees and still maintain operational status for humans, taurans and especially Promeans. My answer is tetchy and I use her serial number. Well, I was born and raised in the deep jungle zone and itís like a polar region in here already as far as I am concerned. I ignore her protest and focus on the viewscreen.
The battle cruiser fills the viewscreen, looming ahead, huge and hostile. Nobody could ever describe a Drazilian ship as stylish or aesthetically pleasing. They always bristle with metal structures, towers and gantries, blisters and blockhouses as if they have grown organically instead of being planned and built that way. Of course, they are laden with weapons. The Drazilians love weapons. They are an aggressive, rapacious race. That said, I can't help but be impressed by this monstrosity. It looks every inch a battle ready floating space armoury, a great shark with the smaller ships like remoras about it. Two similar ships although about half its bulk trail along behind.
Krovol manouvres and we slide in closer, allowing ourselves to be pulled along in the wake, it seems. Gradually we are creeping up upon the main ship, silently and undetected. Lennox is busy now, muttering to himself and tugging at his untidy beard and hair. He is trying to ensure the comms come on line without a system error and more importantly, without advertising our presence. I glance about. Jax is watching Krovol intently. North is occupied with some piece of calculation and the FPRs are just feeding data to the systems and the team as itís needed. I feel almost left out sitting in the command chair just observing. I snap open the left hand panel and hit a switch so that a mini viewscreen extends up on a flexible arm, swings the
tiny screen into position in front of my eyes and flickers into life. The target locking system comes on as well to show me where the main pulse laser is aiming just now.
The tension mounts. You can always feel it on the bridge of a ship, moreso when itís a small one like this. Here, there can be no passengers. The crew is too small to allow it. Lennox curses and drops a driver of some sort, rubbing his fingers...Suddenly there is a crackle, a hum and then the speaker is on and a cacophany of white noise and conversations between Drazilian vessels floods the room. I hit the buttons in the arm rest and allocate three seperate recording channels to decode and store the conversations for analysis later. North gets busy
now. I am watching the battle cruiser. We are in close against it now, close enough to probably pass automatic detection and proximity alarms to trigger.
North announces that he has projected their intended trajectory. The Drazilians are altering course, that is obvious. So, where does he estimate that they will end up ? I ask him with a certain impatience in my voice. This is key data. North is sure itís Lamarda. That system supports two colony worlds and a scientific institute on the second moon of Lamarda Three. Jax is alert. Her voice cuts through the quiet of the bridge. She has been translating as fast as she can decode the Drazilian channels. She says she is certain that the Drazilian officers are discussing an attack and that the ships are readying weapons and payload. Add that to North's estimation and itís not looking like a good day to be a Lamardan.
I snap orders rapidly. Slowly and unobtrusively we drop back from the ships and prepare to send a coded bulletin on a tight carrier signal. Amazing how quickly these signals can carry through sub space. I never was that great on the theory of these carrier distortions. I expect North could explain it in infinite detail if you had a couple of days to spare. The response is terse and rapid. ďCaptain Klandor ElíSaarthi DíHar eyes only. Fleet out of range. Attempt delaying tactics - Klannath only ship in range (thats us by the way) Ė Fleet support will arrive in 19 standard hours. Message ends.Ē Well...Great...
Here is how it falls out. There is one Drazilian battle cruiser and two ordinary cruisers, three frigate class vessels and a transport and then five support vessels. Of these, two are fuel carriers, one is a repair tender, thereís one scout and a small lander with a couple of drop craft slung underneath. And then thereís us, sitting here with a single pulse laser and a batch of mines.
Dont you love these sorts of orders. I mean, what exactly is the expectation here. I
look round. North is fiddling with a scanner and Lennox is twisting his hair nervously. Jax is alert now. She is the only one who looks pleased. Krovol, impassive as ever half turns.
"Should I try to get in under one of the big ships sir?"
I consider the situation. A million and one ways to commit suicide cross my mind, all equally glorious and all equally stupid. I hesitate and then decide to let Jax do her job. After all, she is the tactician ďfirst classĒ. I wave a hand towards her
"We should mine a fuel carrier first and hope the explosion looks like an accident as well as damaging any other ships in close proximity. If we get the second, they may even have to turn back if they need the fuel"
I am not convinced. I suspect the fuel is for the drop ships and so on. These Drazilian ships may be old designs but Iím sure they are self sustaining. Still, the fuel carriers would light up the sky. Iíd just rather have people say;
Oh yes Klannath, that was the ship that got the Drazilian battle cruiser before they took her down" rather that than remembering us for destroying a small fuel tanker right before being blasted by a Drazilian flotilla. However, I guess Jax is right. Start with the tankers and go from there.
"Trail the support ships and prepare to launch the Ichneuoid."
The Ichneuoid for those of you not familiar with the technology, is the little one or two man craft that goes out on the fibre thread and can attach to other vessels with the spindle legs using the claws and various magnets. It has a high speed drill head through which objects can be passed hence the name. Thatís after the eight legged creatures of my world that move around on threads of sticky silk and inject a poison which paralyses their prey so they can eat them alive later (although despite what earthers say, there are only sixteen poisonous species out of the twenty seven types).
We digress. Now, wouldnt it be useful if the FPRs could do something to help at this point like go out on the thing instead of sitting there just providing the control mechanism and showing an array of monitoring dials and meters that are totally superfluous. Jax volunteers. I should send Lennox or North but Iíll die of boredom if I donít do something soon on one of our missions. I elect myself and leave Krovol in charge. North should take over but he is programmed to be very cool and I donít like the idea of being abandoned out here because something went slightly wrong and it was the logical course of action. Krovol at least would try to retrieve his colleagues first.
The thread winds out. Itís freezing even inside the heated battle armour of the environ-1 suit. Remind me if we get out of this to write a memo and complain to Equipment & Supply about these suits. They need to be adjustable to temperatures above the human norm. You see, thatís the trouble with buying earther-wear. They design for themselves. I sigh and concentrate on steering.
Slim metal legs reach so slowly, almost imperceptibly for the target vessel, probing for proximity alarms or any other device that may detect us. These are Drazilians 'though. They expect others to behave as they do - come straight out, all guns blazing. No proximity alarms and very little of anything defensive. It takes about six or seven minutes attaching a couple of mines that will blow this tanker into fragments. Of course (here comes the cliche) it seems much longer than that. Well it does. Try it yourself - but not, as they say, at home.
At last we are on our way back. Very slowly the line is wound in and we are withdrawn into the Klannath's outer hold. I make straight for the command deck. Jax follows as if something else is on her mind. "What ?" I look over my shoulder at her as she follows;
"I have been considering the very high likelihood that as soon as the first ship is damaged even the Drazilians will realise we are here and we will be destroyed shortly afterwards. On balance, I believe we should target several ships at once and try to do the maximum damage to force them to pause and consider their next move."
I consider, myself. Drazilians are not known for their subtlety. They will probably blast off in every direction where there are none of their ships and then they may, just may, look around a little more carefully for something they havenít blasted into dust. So, do we risk another trip with the Ichneuoid ? I like snap decisions Ė itís too late to withdraw once youíve made them and at least that way you keep the momentum going in a situation that is clearly beyond redemption.
I take out a tube of arcols and pop one Ė thatís strong flavoured sweets to you non Centauri, the equivalent of mints which the earthers like so much except these generate extra adrenalin which feels great at times like this. I nod;
"Letís do it. What target do you suggest"
Now why do I hope she opts for the battle cruiser? By this time we are on the command deck.
"Well, the frigates are the most dangerous to us but we would never get all three but since they are all escorting the support ships, then getting both tankers may damage them. So, Iíd say go for the engines of any of the three big ships and hope they slow to make repairs. I have been considering and I think they need all three for whatever attack they have planned. My guess is that additionally, the two cruisers will cover the flagship so if one goes; the commander of this expedition is going to feel exposed. Itís part hunch but Iíd say, based on what I know of Drazilian tactics, that they intend to blast a way through the planet defences and then the drop ships will use the opening to get in and hit a nerve centre. So, we should try for a cruiser. We should go for the second tanker as well."
And there you have it. Which is why, about five hours and a great deal of nervous sweat later, we were sitting close by the convoy with the mines in place ready to attend a party that would start with a bang. The rest Iím sure you can guess but just in case you havenít got there yet or just wanted to hear it again the way it was, lets just cover off the rest of the tale.
It all started with such high hopes. The first tanker flashed into a brief lived fireball and even this far away, you could see the frigate rocked by the shock wave before the fragments of the tanker struck her. When the other mines went up, the second tanker did not blow the way fuel carriers should. It was damaged heavily enough but maybe the tanks didnít rupture or some safety system cut in. Certainly, we did disable the engines of the cruiser too. Then it was their turn. One moment, all was confusion as ships spun, manoeuvred and presumably crews and
Their commanders all ran about in panic, thinking they were under attack.
The next few minutes the whole area was flooded with crossfire in the way that only Drazilian retaliation looks. Of course, we had anticipated that too and were right under the belly of the battle cruiser where only an idiot would aim a shot or a traitor.
So, as you can imagine, I was beginning to feel quite smug. That may have been our downfall on reflection but I prefer to consider that detection was inevitable. The whole area of space was so flooded with radiation that energy particles lit up our outline like a beacon. The battle-cruiser suddenly lurched forwards and as it did, turrets moved, swinging around weaponry to point at us and blisters opened to reveal gunnery that would grace the surface battery of a small moon. Even as I yelled at Krovol to take evasive action, the first blast caught us right on the nose. Of course everything just erupted around me. I was lucky to be flung on top of Jax and she was lucky because the chair crashed into both of us. We spent about five seconds picking ourselves up by which time the second and third blasts had hit us. Krovol, or what was left of him was scattered far and wide and George was a smoking mess of blackened circuit boards.
"Main thrusters to full, preset evasion pattern delta 2,Ē then I hit the Announce button on the secondary command console, ordered the evac and ran for the life pods with Jax half a pace behind. At the engineering console there, I ordered Kaytar to aim the life pods away at random, three seconds before self-destruct so they looked like fragments. Her reply was tense but she accepted the command;
"Iím sorry Kaytar. We have to rely on you to ensure the ship doesnít fall into enemy hands. Only you can save us and the technology from the Drazilians."
There was the briefest of pauses;
"I understand" Calm, so calm and yet never losing that deep and sultry edge. I shook my head. I never thought Iíd feel a pang of regret about losing an FPR.
"Goodbye Kaytar, and thanks"
No reply. Well - I and Jax paired up, Lennox and North took the next pod. Ten or so long, long seconds and then we felt the acceleration as we were shot away at a tremendous speed. In the tiny on-board viewer, I saw the explosion as Klannath erupted into a bright white and orange comet that slid slowly towards an asteroid and died like a firework in the cold night sky. I could see too, the nearby Drazilian second tanker or rather a troop carrier in disguise. From that, came a long string of figures in encounter suits, like a string of pearls loosed from a necklace. They must have been pretty suprised when she blew. After the flash of the self-destruct and once my eyes returned to normal, it looked like there were certainly less of them and in no sort of order. And that was about it really.
The life pods were also as undetectable as possible so we had a long trip back as they homed in on the nearest beacon. There is no stasis available on a life pod and little to do to entertain yourself. In such circumstances, fifteen days is a long time. I have no doubt that North was able to keep Lennox interested by giving him a full exposition on his star field researches. As for us, well, given no other distractions, Jax and I spent the time exploring our athleticism.
Copyright Alun K March 1998.