Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Consulting Editor


Saturday Night in Saskatchewan
by Steve Stanton

Praise the System
by J. Richard Jacobs

Network Outage Engineer
by Erin Lale

Unintentional Colonists by Elizabeth Guizzetti

Mr. Weston’s Key
by Todd A. Burnett

Central Battle Command, Allied Forces: Day Four by Marilyn K. Martin

We Do Not Serve Weeping Men
by Eric Del Carlo


Zeros ... All Those Zeros! by Eric M. Jones

Facing Facts—And Analyzing Them
by John McCormick





Comic Strips



Central Battle Command, Allied

Forces: Day Four

By Marilyn K. Martin

“OUR WAR GAMES among the moons. Any casualties? Medical or equipment?” asked a concerned Commander Mirlok of the young Battle Tech on his comm screen.

”So far, just ... just one,” answered the nervous Battle Tech One from the open floor below. “It was a, uh, a Grll fighter craft, Sir. Pilot and craft destroyed. We’re still analyzing probable causes, and don’t—”

“Initial analysis won’t help me, Battle Tech,” interrupted the Commander, suddenly straightening in his open chair with the flared sides. He looked away to swear softly to himself. He did not need casualties among the Allies before the “official” battles even began! He was already playing wrestling-coach between most of the Allies. Throw in friendly-fire casualties, and this whole Alliance could start to unravel.

“Stop the war games immediately, Battle Tech!” the Commander ordered, looking back at the screen. “And get a half dozen Analysis Bots out there for a precise determination of what went wrong. I expect a detailedCommander Mirlok  report by tomorrow.”

“Yes, OK, yes, Sir,” stammered the Battle Tech One, as the Commander saw him quickly punching unseen buttons on smaller embedded screens at his work station. “Stop Order has been transmitted, Sir.”

“Good,” answered Commander Mirlok. “Get a Diplo who is fluent in the Grll language to the Grll Command Base immediately. I think it’s on the last moon. Apologize for the accident, convey our condolences for the loss of life, and assure the Grll Commander we are doing everything we can to analyze the situation. And—most important!—tell the Diplo to gauge the Grll’s willingness to stay in our Alliance. Then have him call me direct, immediately after he concludes his meeting. Understood?”

The Commander could hear quick shouts and footsteps from his “Battle” department, in one corner on the floor beneath his elevated Command turret. He was pleased that his staff was responding with all due urgency. Now if he could just get all the assorted Allies to react that way, instead of arguing and complaining, this upcoming battle against planetary invaders would go a lot more smoothly.

The comm screen suddenly fizzled and refocused, showing another, older Battle Tech. “Understood, Sir. Battle Tech Four Loktim here. I’ve take personal command of the situation, from the Battle Tech One.”

“Alright,” answered the Commander. “But I still want that Tech One to deal with the Diplo. He needs to learn, especially since we may be running a lot of Diplos around before this is over.”

“Yes, Sir,” came the reply, and Commander Mirlok ended the call.

The Commander knew that higher ranks were permitted to take over situations or orders from lower ranking soldiers in a crisis. But there were always the lingering questions: Was the Battle Tech Four just trying to make points for a promotion? Or was the young Battle Tech One already making too many mistakes?

Commander Mirlok swiveled sideways, then rolled his chair a meter over to his dedicated Outer Surveillance computer screen in his circular office-pod. He punched on the darkened screen, and waited.

For a split second, he saw his face reflected in the darkened screen. He looked tired and worried, his four almond-shaped eyes, one pair beneath the other pair, sagging from exhaustion over the skin ridges of his cheeks. He ran a seven-digit hand over his green and wrinkled ridged head, keeping his sucker finger-tips flat. (He’d learned as a very young officer that talking to someone in an official capacity, and having to suddenly pry loose a finger-tip stuck to an eyelid, neither projected capability, nor inspired confidence.)

“You got what you always wanted, Mir,” he half-joked at his reflection. Commander of a Multi-System Alliance. And ... in our first real test, it is still unknown whether we can save that invaded planet below us. Or if all these arguing Allies are going to end up killing each other first.”

The screen flashed on, shimmering into focus. It was a long-range view from secret satellites orbiting among the planet’s moons. He put a suckered fingertip on a small, round, floating disc below the screen, then moved his finger around. The views changed, from satellite to satellite, as he looked for the best view of the recent battlefield.

Settling on the most straight-on view, he was pleased that it did look like the first mock battle amid the outermost moons had stopped, and most of the Allied craft had left or were leaving. The half dozen Analysis Bots had just arrived, and were spreading out amid the smoky battlefield, with its dark eddies of exhaust particles and sparkles of weaponry residue. He watched as flashes of lasers and plasma spirals indicated that the Analysis Bots’ scans and measurements had begun.

The Commander nodded. Very good, he thought. Especially since it’s the first order I’ve given that all the Allies obeyed without arguement since we arrived, he sighed to himself.

Then he turned and rolled his chair back to the large screen dedicated to just his forces. It had six segmented surveillance views of his own tech staff crowded onto the floors below, each box with a label of that department. First he touched the all-documents bottom corner box, labeled “Troop Strength and Availability.” He checked this box every few standardized hours.

The box popped open, covering the whole screen. On it were constantly changing statistics, about the actual Allied fighting forces, the Commander’s troops as well as all the Ally forces. The stats for his own Alliance Troops, all stationed on and behind this closest moon to the planet, seemed in order. He’d set up three overlapping, round-the-clock shifts, with mandatory sleeping and meal periods during this pre-battle phase.

He quickly recognized that almost half of his troops were in the mess halls right now. But hungry and exhausted Pilots returning from the war games , plus participating Battle and Weaponry Techs, were allowed to address their own needs out-of-shift.

Nourishment, showering, Med Call, and discussions with battle-equipment Techs was the usual descending list of what his relieved battle troops usually headed for first. De-briefing would come in a few standardized hours after they had arrived back at-base, especially after war games . This way the participating troops could be watched and monitored for unreported injury, illness and stress, before being de-briefed.

The Commander was pleased to see that all the Allies’ Sick Call Lists were in the lower single digits, mostly minor colds and viral illnesses from the new environment. He then checked the sidebar “Progress Against Alien Microbes.” He nodded, also pleased to see that his Med Tech team had already developed vaccines or cures against the top three most harmful microbes related to the planet below. (No Battle Commander sent out sick fighting forces, sneezing and leaking from all orifices, and expected to win. And standardized vaccines were only partially protective. So “harmful native microbes” were just behind the “enemy” as areas of Top Concern at all Alliance battle locations.)

The Commander quickly scanned the Allies’ stats of Current Troop Strength. The Grll pilot’s death was noted, but only reflected as “.03% of Grll fighting forces.” Sometimes Allied forces were as secretive of their troop strength, as they were of their weaponry technology. So the Commander was pleased to see that the Grlls had reported only a .03% drop in force strength, meaning they still had plenty of fighting forces in their temporary, moon Command Base.

He then straightened and closed out the “Troop Strength and Availability” screen. When the segmented six boxes reappeared, he touched the surveilling view under the term “Language Translations.” The screen flashed to focus on the Lang Tech On Duty.

A surprised face looked up as his own screen lit up, and he recognized the Commander.

“Yes, Sir!” the young Tech answered. “Lang Tech Five Kigen here, Sir!”

Forearms on the curved desktop, the Commander leaned toward the screen. “Lang Tech Five, I need a better translation of the language our Piltern Ally speaks. They tend to be a little excitable, and I’m getting daily doses of their Commander loudly assuring me that the invaders’ ... bladderpus is going to be running in rivers when they are done. And that their ancestors’ ... bladderpus will be avenged, and so on. I think they mean blood and bloodshed, but I need a cleaner translation to be sure.”

“Yes, I ... we’ve had problems translating that language, Sir,” answered the Lang Tech Five. “Their language is mostly vowels. And the louder or more excited the Pilterns get, their language shifts along with their emotions. We have a 79 percent accurate translation for when they are speaking while calm. But our translations start to fall apart when they get, you know, excited.”

The Lang Tech Five continued. “We have, however, identified fifteen separate levels of the Piltern’s language, Sir. We’re just starting to work up from their calm language version, thru their more excited language levels.”

The Commander rubbed his top pair of eyes with his knuckles, thinking. In the heat of battle, the excitable Pilterns would be anything but calm. And accurately translated communication between pilots and others during battle, could spell the difference between success and failure. Especially when trying to combine potent and highly dangerous weapon-shots from several different Allied battle craft.

The Commander looked back at the screen. “How many of the mandatory ’Top Twelve Battle Nouns and Verbs’ have you translated?”

The Lang Tech checked a side screen. “We’ve got ... ten Top Battle Nouns and eleven Top Verbs, for the Piltern’s calm language version, Sir. The next level up ... Uh, only one and one. And none from the remaining thirteen upper levels. But we are working on—”

“I do not want you to work your way up from the bottom calm-mode version,” interrupted the Commander. “It’ll take too long that way, to get accurate translations of the Piltern’s screaming-mode version. And that’s probably the version they will be shouting in the heat of battle. No, we need something better and faster.”

The Lang Tech looked bewildered. “I ... I could assign a Lang Team to work on just their ... screaming-mode,” he offered. “But that may take awhile, since that gap of thirteen levels between their calm and, uh, highly-excited language versions will be like starting from scratch with a whole new language.”

The Commander shook his head, thinking. Then, “No, get three Lang Teams going, Tech Five. If you’ve identified fifteen tiers of the Piltern’s language, get me translations for the fifth level, the tenth level, and the ... screaming-mode of level fifteen. Have all the Teams communicating with the other Teams constantly on what they accurately translate. Especially those mid-range Lang Teams working on levels five and ten, since those will be the key language versions between the Piltern’s calm and screaming modes. That should give us at least a working knowledge of all language levels, especially the Top Twelve Verbs and Nouns, by the time we go into battle. And then your teams can work to close the gaps for complete translations of all the Piltern language levels. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir,” nodded the Lang Tech On Duty, already hitting buttons and panels out of sight. “I’m assembling the three teams right now. And I’ll put our best Lang Techs on the level fifteen team, or screaming-mode version.”

“Excellent,” answered the Commander hoarsely. “Also, don’t forget that our most secretive Ally, the Virocs, have a strong cultural bias against referencing body parts or discussing illness or infection. They don’t have their own language translators, and are relying on our translations of the rest of the Allies’ languages, since they can read and understand our language. Let’s not give them an excuse to bolt, if the Pilterns are in battle, screaming about ... bladderpus, instead of bloodshed.”

“Understood, Sir,” answered LangTech Five Kigen, his lower lip jerking like he was trying hard not to laugh.

“Good. Out.”

As the screen flashed back to its six segments, Commander Mirlok swiveled in the other direction, and reached for his tankard of drink. It was always something, he reflected, shaking his head. The fifteen levels of the Piltern language, with differing versions dependent on expressed emotions, was a new one to him.

He leaned his head back in his cushioned chair, his tankard in his lap, and briefly closed his eyes to rest. He wondered anew why he even wanted this assignment to begin with. All the “easy” Alliances had been set up long ago. The ones between homeworlds and colonists who shared a common culture and spoke the same language. Or the Alliances between neighboring solar systems with strong abilities, and dangerous neighbors. These were the Alliances where all the parties were determined to forge an effective fighting machine for their mutual survival.

So now the latecomer Alliances were being put together, like the one he had been put in charge of. It was a hodgepodge collection of never-allied military forces, with vastly different weaponry and fighting styles. Some came from sole inhabited worlds in off-the-beaten-track solar systems. Or isolationist societies with strong militaries who never intended to be in any Alliance.

But, not long ago, powerful weapons systems under enemy control began turning inhabited planets in this galaxy into asteroid fields. Or space dust. Suddenly these never-allied militaries started to re-think their protection status. And started forming and joining newer Alliances.

Which introduced a new series of problems that he’d never encountered before. He had been chosen for his wide range of experiences, from a Diplo out of war college, through various Tech and then Pilot assignments. So now he was beginning to understood why he’d been chosen to try and force a cohesive fighting Alliance with these fractious forces. These never-allied forces were strong and independent, not used to taking orders from another species, let alone be expected to fight alongside them.

These types of Allies were secretive and suspicious. No one would download all their weaponry specs for a more effective and safer battle arena. He’d had to sit down with each Ally in their own Command Base upon arrival and thrash out the parameters of exactly what weaponry specs they would release to the rest of the Allies. Once again, he’d had to problem-solve on the spot, insisting on each Ally releasing the upper capabilites of each battle weapon. As well as the unique features of each weapon. He and the other Allies didn’t have a clue how some of these “unique” weaponry features worked.

But the information shared was imperative for everything from the potential combining of weapon-shots, to battle-craft shielding requirements. As well as minimizing the chances of friendly fire. And everyone could keep most of their jealously guarded weaponry technology secret.

Which was probably the point at which these distrustful, long-isolated Allies started arguing among themselves, he sighed, taking a gulp from his tankard. Accusations and threats started flying, mainly along the lines of “My great-ancestors were slaughtered in battle from a monster weapon like that! If your shots get too close to us, we will turn our weapons on you!” Which suddenly reminded him of something he had to do ...

The Commander opened his four eyes, yawned, and put his tankard off to the side. He rolled back to the large six-box default screen of his key departments. Then he tapped the box with the term “Enemy and Spies.”

Another startled young face looked up. “Yes, Sir! Spy Tech Three Artol here, Sir. Tech On Duty.”

“What have we got new about these invaders on the planet?” asked the Commander crisply.

The Spy Tech quickly leaned over to smaller embedded screens, punching and studying the data. “Just ... bits and pieces, Sir, or we’d have sent you a formal report. The resistance movement we started is making a little headway, picking up at least one trustworthy new member a day. But we have found some natives that may have some ExInf, or ... extraordinary information.”

“I’m familiar with the term, Spy Tech,” answered the Commander testily, straightening in his chair. “What kind of ExInf?”

The Spy Tech looked down, quickly punching buttons on an embedded side screen, pulling up more data . “We have an ... elderly male native, who discovered a weapons cache some time ago, hidden on their planet by a species fleeing a long-ago and unknown war. We have a Weapons Tech Ten examining the cache now, to see if the weapons even work, or if the resistance movement could use them against the invaders.”

“Good,” nodded the Commander. “What else?”

“We were also approached by a female native who has secretly given birth to a hybrid baby that is one half of the enemy species. We’ve got a DNA Tech Seven working with the baby now, to see if there is anything in the enemy DNA, or hybrids, we could use against them.”

“Has she asked to be paid yet?” wondered the Commander.

The Spy Tech seemed confused. “Uh ... no. But she did approach us, threatening to kill the baby if we didn’t try to find something useful in its DNA to use against the enemy invader.”

The Commander was nodding, as knuckles quickly rubbed his bottom pair of eyes. “Yes, she will probably be asking for payment at some point, or passage for her and the baby off the planet. It’s a rather sad ruse, Spy Tech, but invaded native women will figure out quickly that having a baby by one of the enemy is their ticket to bettering their circumstances—or escaping from an invaded planet. Alliances are always looking for half-enemy hybrid babies on invaded worlds. Since the DNA mix can sometimes, although rarely, yield a simple chemical or microbe solution to exterminate the enemy invader without firing a shot. So the word gets around that Military Alliances are always looking for half-enemy children.”

The Spy Tech suddenly straightened and nodded, understanding shining in his four dark eyes. “Oh yes, I did study that! It’s called the Enemy Baby Syndrome. But I’ve never actually seen it before. Sorry I didn’t make the connection, Sir.”

“So what about the Roving Telepaths?” continued the Commander brusquely, with little interest in hybrid baby DNA that was probably a dead end anyway. “It is paramount that I get a sense of whether or not the enemy is willing to rise off the planet to engage us, Spy Tech. Or if we have to reassemble near-ground craft and weaponry. Which opens up the possibility of considerable native casualties and environmental destruction. You should have learned that in school too.”

The Spy Tech was nodding vigorously, as he leaned over, and quickly punched an embedded screen. He then scanned the scrolling data about the secret Roving Telepaths the Commander’s forces had sent to the planet. “Um ... It seems to go up and down, Sir,” the Spy Tech responded, his upper pair of eyes checking the Commander’s expression, as his bottom pair of eyes read the data. “One day the enemy seems willing to fly out to meet us in a beyond-planet battle. Other days they are thinking that they should stay on-planet because they’re not sure about our numbers and weaponry capabilities.”

I don’t even have an accurate idea about our Alliance troop strength and weaponry! the Commander thought to himself. And I won’t have any Alliance left, if the enemy figures that out before I do ...

“Don’t we have our best Roving Telepath following the enemy high commander?” asked the irritated Commander Mirlok. “What does he have to say?”

“He, uh, seems to be sick a lot, Sir,” answered the Spy Tech Three. “He’s our absolute best Roving Telepath, but he’s very old. And environmental conditions on the planet haven’t—”

“Break his assignment, and get him off-planet. Now!,” ordered the Commander harshly. “If he’s always sick, or stumbling around against an unfamiliar gravity, it’s a dead-giveaway he probably isn’t a native. The enemy may have even targeted him for telepathic-invasion.”

The Spy Tech was already matching phrases on an out-of-sight embedded screen, ordering the sickly Roving Telepath off the planet, and setting up a rescue. “I’m doing that right now, Sir ... Done!”

“Then get your next best Roving Telepath assigned to follow the enemy commander. Preferably someone who has studied or worked with the older RT, and get them on the job immediately,” continued the Commander urgently. “I have to convince this enemy to come up off the planet to fight us, Spy Tech. Does us no good to win by obliterating the enemy if we leave the natives and their planet in cinders. So who’s the next best Roving Telepath down there?”

The Spy Tech looked up and took a deep breath, thinking. “Well, the next best RT down there is an older female who has studied with the sickly RT. She’s very good, but tends to pick up more ... emotional or personal type details. We do have a newer RT down there though. He’s really good at describing unknown weaponry and intended battle strategies. But ... he gets bored easily, and isn’t too good at maintaining a telepathic link with one individual.”

“Assign the female RT to follow the enemy commander, Spy Tech,” sighed the Commander, rubbing his forehead wearily. Was there anything about this upcoming war that was going to be easy? “Just give her specific instructions, to focus on the enemy commander’s military thoughts and intentions,” added the Commander. “She needs to continue sending us everything she picks up telepathically from him. And, like the sickly RT, I’m personally authorizing her to be pro-active in this vital assignment. She must do everything she can to urge this enemy leader to take his forces off-planet to engage us. Being female, maybe he will feel that her telepathic energies are less threatening and more engaging.”

The Spy Tech had been punching buttons, and now written words just spoken by the Commander appeared at the top of both sender/receiver screens. The Spy Tech was moving sentences around by touch on his screen, since the message with the Commander’s exact orders would be sent out with his “authenticity” code. There would be no room for argument, if the “order” was proved to have come straight from Commander Mirlok.

“Alright, Sir,” answered the Spy Tech Three. Suddenly he was punching buttons on a side screen, and the sentences disappeared from both screens. “Your orders to her are going out right now, Sir.”

“Good. Out,” answered the Commander.

Suddenly he had an incoming call. The tone indicated that it was from one of his Techs below. He quickly rolled over and hit the Answer Option on his comm screen.

“Commander Mirlok here,” he announced as the side comm screen shimmered into focus. An older face appeared, which the Commander recognized immediately. Analysis Tech Twelve Chok was battle-hardened and brilliant. And he only called if he had something he knew the Commander needed to hear.

“What have you got, Chok?” asked the Commander, in a semi-formal greeting for the seasoned soldier he’d gone through many battles with.

Analysis Tech Twelve Chok glanced up at the screen with his upper pair of eyes while his lower set of eyes read off an embedded screen before him. “We’re getting a few calls from mercenary groups, Commander. Offering their services for a negotiated fee, of course.”

“Hmmm,” frowned the Commander. He knew it was impossible to move that many Allied Forces toward a single destination, without the mercs sniffing out an opportunity for work. “Anyone we know?”

“The largest merc group is run by Liltlar, son of the old merc with one leg, Ritkap. Their capabilities are somewhat a mystery. They’ve won as many battles as they’ve lost, since Ritkap was killed,” answered the Analysis Tech. “But Liltlar did seem to inherit most of his fathers’ forces. Hard to tell if these mercs signed on with Liltlar out of loyalty to Ritkap. Or out of loyalty to each other, as a proven and cohesive fighting force. So most of those mercs are older, but experienced. And that type of merc usually takes good care of their weaponry. Although ... age and injury may be taking a toll, since their current success rate, like I said, is about fifty-fifty.”

Chock then dismissively waved a seven-fingered hand over an embedded screen. “The other merc groups are insignificant, mostly splinter groups from larger merc forces, hungry for work. I don’t recommend dealing with them. As we both know, poor quality or disloyal mercs can hurt you bad in battle.”

The Commander felt no slight from the Analysis Tech’s offered advice. “I agree, Chok,” he answered thoughtfully. “What kind of services are these various merc groups offering? Actual fighting forces, or aux?”

“Mostly auxillary,” answered Chok disdainfully. “Med Transport, Peripheral Comm Units, Battlefield Clean Up. Only ones specifically offering to fight alongside us are Ritkap’s forces. Although they have that ... consistency problem.”

The Commander frowned. “What kind of weaponry has Liltlar’s aging merc forces got?”

“Fairly current, and well repaired,” answered the Analysis Tech Twelve, who’d done his homework, and didn’t have to check any side screens or scrolling data. “But their plasma-burst and liquid-projectile weaponry are basically duplicates of the weaponry we already have with several of our Allies.”

The Commander thought a moment, flat-sucker fingertips rubbing the back of his neck absentmindedly. “Well, dump all the mercs except Liltlar’s group, Chok,” he finally answered. “I hate to use mercs in an Alliance, since they have problems taking orders. But then again ... some of our Allies are already grumbling about wanting to cut and run. So ... let’s put Liltlar’s mercs on a Maybe List. Give them some currency to hang out in a nearby solar system for awhile. If we get desperate, we’ll call them in.”

Silence. The Commander looked up at the screen.

“Which Allies do you think might cut and run?” asked Chok calmly, zeroing in on the most important piece of information from the Commander, which he needed to know as a Senior Analysis Tech.

“The Soccs and the Atdrs are constantly at each other’s throats,” sighed the Commander. “I really want to keep them in our Alliance. They are experienced and discliplined fighting forces. And they’ve got some superior mid-level weaponry. But I’d rather get rid of them, if they are going to turn their weapons on each other, and compromise our mission to save this planet.”

“Hmmm. I ... could do a weaponry analysis on the Soccs and Atdrs,” offered analysis Tech Twelve Chok. “Everyone is secretive about their weaponry tech, but I’ve gleaned plenty from that recent mock battle. Then I can match up the Soccs’ and Atdrs’ weaponry and performance against what Liltlar’s mercs have. It may be like pounding a square peg into a triangular hole, but we’d still have plenty of firepower on our side in the battle arena, if the Soccs and Atdrs bail. And, personally, I like Ritkap’s mercs better than some of these Allies anyway.”

Commander Mirlok quickly put his head down so Chok couldn’t see his smile. He felt the same way, but couldn’t show it. He lifted his head to face the screen again. “Excellent suggestion, Chok. Do it!” he answered.

The Senior Analysis Tech nodded, then ended the call. It was another slight breach, since only the Commander was supposed to end comm calls. But Mirlok knew that the value of seasoned soldiers like Chok outshone their occasional protocol mistakes.

The Commander suddenly heard another incoming call. This tone told him it was originating from an Ally Command Base. The Commander quickly punched up the incoming call.

“Diplo Fisco, Sir,” said a nervous grey hybrid face under the white triangular hat of a trained diplomat. “I’m on break from talking with the Grlls. I need to discuss a few issues with you, before I return to our meeting.”

The Commander leaned toward the screen. “Are they going to stay in the Alliance?”

“Well, maybe,” answered the Diplo evasively, as Diplo’s were known to do. Most military types hated dealing with Diplo’s, since it seemed they could never give a straight answer, or get the other party to agree fully to what the originating military wanted. But Commander Mirlok knew this testy Alliance was going to need their Diplos.

And, as a former Diplo himself, Commander Mirlok valued their nuanced interpretations, and fluid opinions and advice.

“What do you mean?” asked the Commander pointedly.

“The Grlls are being ... somewhat demanding,” answered the Diplo. “I personally had to record a message of sympathy for the dead pilot’s family and planet, since he was apparently some form of minor royalty. And now the Grll commanders are pressing for a ... zonal battle structure, since they’re convinced their pilot’s death was due to friendly fire. Otherwise, they are strongly hinting that they may leave the Alliance.”

The Commander swore softly and looked away. He was trying hard to not give in to a zonal battlefield, where each ally could fight away with whatever weaponry they wanted within that zone. It was the way the galaxy’s original Alliances had finally agreed to fight together, since every species jealously guarded their weaponry and technology.

But Commander Mirlok was pushing for the more effective and updated fighting style, of each Ally sharing enough weaponry tech so they could combine shots. Or use multiple Allies’ shots to take out the larger and more complicated battle craft—like this enemy was rumored to possess.

Then again, the Grlls possessed a mysterious memory-projectile wrapped in plasma that could find and track a target, then wait for the optimum moment to strike and destroy the target. And this memory-projectile had its own Artificial Intelligence, and contained-explosion capabilities. (No chance of friendly fire or collateral damage).

After it was targeted and sent, the Grlls had no more contact with, or control over it. Which eliminated any chance of the enemy tracking the memory-projectile back to its source. Or using the projectile’s (non-existent) linked-software to crash the Grlls entire computer systems. No, Commander Mirlok did not want to lose this Ally!

The Commander looked back at the screen, and the waiting Diplo Fisco. “Tell them ... I see no need for a zonal battle structure. It unnecessarily hinders and complicates a battlefield. But, if they wish, I’ll post them just beyond the outer perimeter of this eventual battlefield. Some fighting forces prefer that arrangement, since they can fire away with any and all weaponry, unimpeded. They will only be dealing with the enemy, possibly in a mass retreat situation. Or catching outgoing enemy runners, off to contact reinforcements, or escort heavy-weaponry craft to the battle,” he continued. “But no Ally weapon’s fire should reach them. Although they will be on the periphery of the action, they’ll need to stay alert. They also have to agree to immediately join the general battle, if we need them. See if that is more to their liking.”

The call ended, and the Commander leaned back in his chair, pondering. It was a double-edged sword with fighting Alliances today, especially Alliances like this one, he thought. You had to have an effective, cooperative fighting force. So you bent over backwards at times, to accomodate testy Allies you wanted desperately to keep in the Alliance. But when you started granting too many special requests to different Allies, you could end up on a battlefield with hovering Allies who refused to fight against certain weapons, or with certain other Allies, or because it was time to rest or pray or meditate or call home.

He sat up quickly, reminded of something. He rolled toward the large six-box screen of his key departments, and taped the screen labeled “Equipment and Schedules”.

Another young face looked up, startled. “Oh, Commander! Yes, uh, Equip Tech One Jostlr, Sir. Tech On Duty.”

“Are our supply lines still intact and on-time?” demanded the Commander.

“Yes, Sir. But I’ll be happy to check,” the young Tech answered, as he tapped on embedded screens, then studied the data. “Yes, Sir. All our supply ships, both general and disguised, are on-course and on-time.”

“And how about our incoming battle craft?” continued the Commander brusquely. “Are they on-course and on-time too?”

The young Equip Tech tapped again on some smaller embedded screen to the side, and quickly scanned the data. “Our Field Med Craft have a smooth route, and should be here by tomorrow, planetary-time. Our heavy-weaponry craft are taking the usual circuitous route to avoid detection, but are still on schedule to arrive the day after tomorrow. Our medium weaponry craft were forced to detour around some dangerous galactic phenomenon,” the Equip Tech continued, upper pair of eyes glancing up at the Commander on his screen. “And possibly had some delaying dust-ups with pirates. At least that’s what we interpreted, when they reported attacked by squid. Few but vicious. Spray-beam counter. Squid now in different sea of existence.”

The Commander dropped his head so the Equip Tech couldn’t see his smile. Even encrypted, the comm messages from some of these huge lumbering weaponry craft, with their bored crews, could get ... humorously creative.

“So they are, uh, now scheduled to arrive in three days,” added the Equip Tech, nodding hopefully. “Unless, you know, they get lucky and find a momentarily-powerful, short-cut dimensional portal.”

The Commander rubbed his bottom pair of eyes with green knuckles. So he needed another three days, by planetary time, before he’d have all his weaponry in place for a full battlefield complement. So it was probably good that his secret on-planet forces were progressing so slowly.

And ... he needed to straighten out this “Equipment and Schedules” group. This department was where most Techs started out, so they were mostly young and inexperienced. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm couldn’t make up for key mistakes, that could be of critical importance in time of war.

“That’s fine, about the schedules for our incoming craft, Equip Tech,” he started out as calmly as possible. “But from now on, I need to know every single delay of any and all incoming craft. Immediately. Do you understand?”

“Y ... Yes, Sir!”

The Commander straightened. “And I want you to post that in the Urgent Orders File of every single computer in your department. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I understand, Sir,” mumbled the suddenly confused Equip Tech. “We were just told not to bother you with, uh, minor delays.”

The Commander caught his breath. “We will probably be in battle within ten planetary days, Equip Tech. So there are no minor delays! I want all departments, as well as myself, notified immediately when there are projected delays for any incoming craft. Out.”

As the large screen flashed back to the six boxes of his key departments, the Commander sagged in his chair and rubbed his face. Then he checked the time. Exhaustion and hunger were just about to end another long and troubling day. He was close to mandatory Lock-Out time, when he had no choice but to stop and retire for the night.

Suddenly he remembered something, and leaned forward to tap the screen on the “Enemy and Spies” box.

A different Spy Tech looked up and acknowledged him.

“Give me some good news, Spy Tech On Duty” said the Commander hoarsely. “Is that new Roving Telepath assigned to follow the enemy commander on the job yet?”

“Yes, Sir, she is.”

“And what has she got about whether or not the enemy can be persuaded to fly off-planet, and engage us in a battle in space?” asked the Commander urgently.

The Spy Tech quickly tapped then scanned a side screen. “She sent us a message after she’d done her Initial Assessment of her new target. It doesn’t have a lot of specifics related to warfare. But she does say the enemy commander seems exhausted and stressed. And seems to be drinking too much. She thinks this combination is pushing him to seriously consider a pre-emptive strike, off the planet. But she’s not sure which moon he’s imaging on, as a possible first target,” the Spy Tech continued briskly. “The RT also says that the enemy commander was aware of our war games amid the moons earlier today. And is concerned that he doesn’t want to, quote, get trapped on the planet under attack by such powerful weapons.”

The Commander was nodding thoughtfully. “That’s good to hear. The enemy obviously values the planet, for whatever reason, if they are willing to rise off-planet to fight us.”

The Commander looked up. “Very good, Spy Tech. I just need you to get messages to all our forces on-planet, to take it slow and easy for a few days. Our larger weaponry craft won’t all be here for another three days. Keep me informed. Out.”

Suddenly the elevated Command Pod was flooded with soft sounds of nature from the Commander’s homeworld. This was his notification, that he’d reached his work-limit or Lock-Out, and had to leave for nourishment and then sleep.

He turned off his pleasant “notification alarm,” and rolled over to a small embedded screen, to punch up the Current Schedule. He scanned what the three Mess Halls were serving for dinner. He made his selection, and ordered it delivered to his quarters. He liked to share meals with his troops in the Mess Halls at least every other day. But he was too exhausted tonight.

Suddenly he thought of something, then swiveled and rolled over to his large department screen, and tapped the department box for “Battle.”

“Battle Tech Three Tilba, On Duty, Sir!” came the crisp answer.

“I’m getting ready to leave for my sleep-period, Battle Tech. What do we know so far about how that Grll pilot was killed?”

The Battle Tech leaned over to reference side screens and scrolling data. “The Analysis Bots are still doing their measurements and scans, now based on the actual battle recordings, and exactly what was going on around that Grll craft. The Bots have detected no weaponry residue from any of the other participating Allies, to that Grll craft. So we have a 73 percent certainty at this point that the Grll craft and pilot were destroyed by some kind of internal malfunction.”

The Commander was very relieved. Any loss of life was regrettable. But he did not need any friendly-fire or targeting mistakes between the Allied craft. “Very good,” he said crisply to the Battle Tech. “Notify the Grlls immediately with what we know, so they can start or add it to their own investigation. Promise them a full and formal report, probably tomorrow. Out.”

The Commander rose and stretched. He knew he needed to stick to his Lock-Out work stoppage, especially now, in pre-battle. No use jumping to conclusions from stress and too little sleep, like the enemy commander was doing. There would be no Lock-Outs once the battles started anyway.

He turned and walked toward the small rear elevator for the trip down from his command turret. He started tapping in his secret code that he was leaving. It transferred authority during his sleep-period to one of three sub-commanders on the floor below.

Before he finished putting in the last of his code, an incoming call sounded. He was never Locked-Out of incoming calls, and this specific tone revealed that it was from an Ally Commander, and that automatic translators had been activated. The Commander hit the Cancel button on his keypad, and strode over to take the call.

The comm screen shimmered and focused, but the Commander had audio momentarily before he saw the caller. It was the excited Piltern Commander, four spindly, rubbery arms waving around a slender, tall trunk, topped by a squarish orange head. The translation, still stuck in the Piltern calm-mode version, sputtered and hesitated.

“Promise us-me, Big Soldier! ... My noble ... fighters ... need fight at outer battle line! ... Great honor ... to spill bladderpus of traitor... enemy escaping!”

The Commander quickly figured out that the Piltern commander had heard that the Grlls had been offered the beyond-perimeter battle post. But he couldn’t remember promising that outer post to anyone else.

“I ... will ... study ... your ... issue,” stated the Commander slowly but forcefully. “I ... will ... discuss ... it ... with ... you ... tomorrow ... There ... is ... no ... rush ... yet ... to ... assign ... battlefield ... placements ... We ... need ... to... be ... focused ... on ... our ... weaponry ... coordination ... at ... this ... point ... And ... your ... forces ... fought ... very ... well ... today ... Sir.”

The Piltern Commander had calmed down, and was repeatedly tilting his orange head to the right, as if nodding in agreement. “Agreed ... Big Soldier ... Your ... slathering ... is ... wise ... Our sacred ... bladderpus ... honors your ... slathering ... Us-me ... wait.”

Commander Mirlok ended the call, and headed back to the elevator. As he re-entered his complete transference-of-power code, he contemplated that strange call. Bladderpus meant bloodshed. He’d already figured that out. And slathering was ... Correct-thinking? Courageous thinking? Maybe even wisdom?

As he entered the small elevator, he turned around to face his empty Command Turret. Starting to descend, he nodded to the now-dark screen the Piltern Commander had just been on.

“And the Big Soldier is taking his ... slathering to sleep. With prayers only the enemy sheds copious ... bladderpus.” 

Marilyn K. Martin is a freelance writer who loves mashing the genres. She’s had a science fiction horror story in the July 2011 issue of Deadman’s Tome, and a science fiction dystopian romance in the Spring 2012 anthology, Strange Valentines. She is also writing a humorous YA science fiction cosmic adventure series, Chronicles of Mathias, (available on Amazon and B&N). She also contributes weekly articles and humor columns to ComputorEdge.

Once Crowded Skies