Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Consulting Editor


Fiction

When Every Song Reminds You of a Dead Universe
by Karl Johanson

Side Effects of Yeah- Yeah Pills
by A.J. Kirby

A Breederax for Dalia
by Janett L. Grady

Cola
by Byron Barton

One of Our Starships Is Missing
by Terry Savage

Help Desk
by Robert J. Mendenhall

Toca la Guitarra
by Wayne Helge

How to Travel Through Time & Space
by Allen Quintana

Foreclosure
by Kevin Gordon

Articles

Bracing for a Brave New World
by Hunter Liguore

Sizing Things Up
by Eric M. Jones


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Addenda

 

One of Our Starships Is Missing

By Terry Savage

March 25th, 2809

THE TWO CADETS SAT nervously on the bench outside Admiral Neal’s office. One human, one chican, they had both risen to the rank of ensign in their respective services, and both had been chosen for the Officer Exchange Program. They had both finished their classroom training about the Empire, and about each other’s cultures. This was their final exercise to become an officer on a Grand Imperial Starship—field training.

Finally, the human put out his hand, and said, “I’m Barry Vroom, of the Earth Space Force. You must be Mario Totino of Chica. Looks like we’ll be training together. What’s your major?”

Totino took his hand firmly, and said, “Security Officer. At home, I’m one of the fastest and strongest people around. But here ... I don’t know how I could ever compete with a cantilian!”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Vroom replied. “I’m in training to be a pilot. Did you know that the tigroid pilots in the Empire psychically bond with their ships? I don’t even know what that would feel like, never mind whether I could ever learn to do it.”

Several people left the Admiral’s office, and the receptionist indicated to the cadets that they should enter. They nervously did so, stood at attention, and saluted. Neal, an old tigroid, just smiled and said “At ease. Please be seated, gentlemen.”

When he was a Captain, Neal had been offered an Admiral’s position many times, and repeatedly declined. Finally, they asked him if he would be willing to serve as head of field training for Grand Imperial Starship cadets for the AIS. Neal got a light in his eyes, and agreed. They had to make him an Admiral in order for him to take the position. Neal’s response was simple: “Well, crap. OK.” All this is legend, of course, but to this day, Admiral Neal insists on being called “Captain” when aboard his own ship, the Shilo.

Neal looked over the trainees, and said, “You really can relax, gentlemen. This isn’t a test of any kind. I don’t normally even speak to the new cadets until we hit space, but you two are in a somewhat different position. I wanted to give you some advice, and ask a question.”

Neal and Shilo held the Imperial record for a captain and a ship working together, over 8,000 years. Shilo was built before the Swarm. Neal was offered newer ships on many occasions. He just said “No.” After about a dozen offers, they stopped asking.

“Because neither of you are of direct Imperial descent, you will get extra scrutiny from some people. Some people will expect you to perform twice as well, to be considered half as good. My advice to you is to ignore this kind of bias. So, here’s my question, for each of you to answer individually: what worries you most about this mission, and your part in it?”

Silence.

“Officers who won’t be candid with me have no place on my ship. And officers who won’t be candid with their superiors have no place in the AIS,” Neal said gently.

“I’m afraid of not living up to AIS standards, sir,” Totino said. “I’m literally world-class on Chica, but how could I ever expect to defeat a cantilian in battle?”

Neal thought for just a moment, and then said, “Do you think I could beat a cantilian in battle?”

Totino hesitated only briefly, and then said, “No, sir.”

Neal smiled again and said, “You break even on that one, Ensign. You get one point for being candid, and one point off for getting the answer wrong. I have beaten cantilians in battle. Not because I’m exceptionally strong, but because I had cantilians teach me how to beat them in battle. If you want to be a warrior, you should seek out instruction from the best warriors you can find.”

Turning to the other cadet, Neal said, “And you, Ensign Vroom? What worries you most?”

“I don’t understand how you tigroids bond with ships, sir,” Vroom answered. “I was trained by tigroids, and even had some mock battles with them. I lost, of course, but I didn’t feel intimidated by the skill level difference itself. It’s just a mystery to me how you bond with ships, and I’m worried it’s something I can’t ever learn.”

“So,” Neal asked, “you’re worried that you can’t be a competent pilot?”

“No, sir,” Vroom answered. “I know I can be trained to be a competent pilot. I’m just worried that there will always be that special edge that I can never have.”

Neal looked at Vroom, and thought longer than he had in responding to Totino. Finally, he said, “You may be right. You may not end up being the best pilot in the galaxy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be fully competent ...” Neal drifted into thought, and then asked, “Do you name your vehicles?”

Vroom was caught off guard, and asked, “Sir?”

“You know,” Neal said, “the aircraft, or boats, or cars, or whatever, that you’ve owned in your life. Do you give them names?”

Vroom hesitated, and then said, somewhat embarrassed, “Yes, sir.”

“Do you talk to them?”

“Sometimes, yes, sir.”

“Do they answer you?”

Feeling very self-conscious, Vroom replied “Not in the way we’re talking now, sir, but ... sometimes ... sometimes I do feel like they’re answering me.”

Neal stared at Vroom directly, and said softly, “That doesn’t make you crazy, Ensign. It’s a good sign. We don’t have much experience with human pilots yet, so we don’t know about your species’ ability to bond. Still, there was that incident on Chica with Jackson, which I’m still not sure I entirely believe. Do the best you can. Listen for the machines, but don’t work at doing the listening. You’re both dismissed. We break orbit at 0600 tomorrow. Good luck!”

March 26th, 2809

“Alright you pathetic imitations of would-be spacers, listen up!” barked the Gunnery Sergeant. He was a grizzled old chimeran, with one arm missing, and countless scars. He had never bothered to adopt a name that was pronounceable in Imperial Standard, or any other “slow” language. If you were his superior, you just called him Gunny. If you were one of his trainees, then you just called him “Sir” ... and God help you if you forgot!

He was no Sergeant either. In reality, he held the rank of Captain in the AIS, 7th grade, and everyone knew it. But Captain Neal insisted on using the titles the trainees would actually encounter on their first assignments. The relative ranks were all correct, but aboard ship, they were addressed as anyone in their position would normally be addressed on a Grand Imperial.

As the trainer for the Imperial fleet, Shilo was configured differently than most Grand Imperials. Gunny was standing in the front of a meeting hall, with 325 cadets standing in front of him. They came from a dizzying variety of species, hoping to qualify for every AIS position aboard a Grand Imperial Starship. Wherever they came from, they were the best of the best. Only a tiny fraction of those who served in the AIS even qualified to apply to serve on a Grand Imperial.

They were used to deference, and always winning, but for the next four weeks of basic Grand Imperial training, they were all Scum, and Gunny would never let them forget it. For those four weeks, they were his.

“Before you all go off and try to learn whatever it is you think you might be good at,” Gunny said, “there are some basic things that every crewman needs to know about a Grand Imperial, and I’m the poor bastard stuck with the job of trying to teach you sorry sons of bitches those things. You will learn basic emergency procedures, you’ll learn how to patch an air leak, you’ll learn how to patch a leak in a fellow crewman, and you’ll learn how to clean a latrine. Anyone who gives me any static will get very good at that last item.

“You will also learn the basics of hand-to-hand combat. You don’t always get to just shoot Bad Guys with ray guns! How many of you were in the top ten in your class in hand-to-hand on your home world?”

Every hand in the room went up.

“Yeah,” Gunny smirked, “that’s usually the way it is. So, I have an offer for you. I challenge any two of you to engage me in hand-to-hand combat. No weapons, no quarter, no rules. If you win, you will be exempt from latrine duty for the remainder of the mission. But if you lose, you will be the only ones who get latrine duty for the remainder of the mission. After you get out of the infirmary, of course.

“I can’t tell you where we’re going. Not because it’s classified, but because I don’t know. The Captain’s only instructions to the Pilot are to take us somewhere that doesn’t show up on any records or chart. It may surprise you to know that there are still a great many places like that in the galaxy. We’ll all find out where we’re going at the same time ... when we get there.

“You can all find your initial assignments on any of the monitors on the ship, so hop to it! Dismissed!”

Later that evening, after dinner, the senior officers were gathered together playing cards, as usual. Commander Stephenson, pilot and chief gunner for Shilo, had just won a big hand, and casually asked, “Well, Gunny, do you think you’ll get any takers for your challenge on this run?”

“Almost certainly,” Gunny replied with a grin. “The challenge has only gone unanswered once in the last 300 years. There are always a couple of young bucks who think it should be easy to defeat a beaten up old fool, who’s been relegated to training duty.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to avoid killing either of them this time?” Commander Jobs, the Chief Engineer and Medical officer, asked.

“Probably,” Gunny answered, “but they do seem to be getting bigger over time. I’ll try.”

“Try hard,” Captain Neal said firmly. “With Alexi’s new directive to increase the chimeran officer numbers, I don’t need some promising kid killed in training just because he feels on top of the world.”

“Yes sir!” Gunny replied. Commander Beow, the Chief Security Officer, won that hand, and the game continued for quite some time into the evening.

April 16th, 2809

As they were approaching the uncharted stellar system, Stephenson turned to Captain Neal, and said, “I’ve found a nice juicy one for you this time, sir! There’s a planet in the habitable zone that seems to have the right chemistry for life. No signs of industrialization, though, so it’s hard to know one way or the other yet.”

“Interesting,” Neal replied. “Has the crew named the system yet?”

“Yes sir,” Stephenson answered. “They’ve decided to call it the Vroino system, after our two exchange cadets. Those two get at least the normal ration of hazing most of the time, but they’re actually pretty well liked.”

“I guess I should send them on the initial survey mission, then,” Neal mused.

“Hard to see how it could hurt,” Stephenson replied. “Even if there is life, it’s not likely they’d be able to do more than throw spears at us. Maybe send Willis along with them for security, and as mission commander?”

“Sounds good,” Neal answered. “Carry on.”

As they were entering orbit around the planet, Stephenson said, “Definitely life there, Captain. Intelligent life too, by the looks of it. Which means ...”

“I know,” Neal cut him off. “It means Sederburg is going to want to go along and, as the Ambassador, he’ll be the official mission commander for this first contact.” Neal thought for a moment, and then asked “Shilo, what’s the tech level of these folks?”

“Very low, Captain,” Shilo answered. “No industrialization, no large cities. But, they do have some basic agriculture, and a number of moderate sized settlements. No question they’re intelligent, no question they’re no threat.”

“No reason to change the mission crew composition, then,” Neal said. “Please inform Willis, Vroom, and Totino of the change, and that they are cleared to launch when ready.”

A young chimeran cadet had been working with his instructor on some components on the bridge, and after the two had a brief discussion, the young candidate stood and raised his hand, and said, “Captain, a question, if I may. Shouldn’t Ambassador Sederburg be notified as well?”

Neal was unable to suppress a small smile, as he replied softly, “Sederburg already knows.”

As the away team assembled in the shuttle bay, Sederburg turned to Commander Willis, and said, “Yes, Commander, in practice you’re in charge, unless something seriously unexpected happens. I’d like to sit in back with Ensign Totino, if that’s alright with you. It’s important tembarkhat young warriors understand that there are frequently alternatives to fighting, and we can start that discussion on the flight down.”

“Of course, Ambassador,” Willis replied, and then as an aside to the cadets, Willis mumbled with a grin, “I hate it when he does that!”

As they boarded the shuttle, Ensign Vroom was somewhat surprised to see Commander Willis climb into the co-pilot seat. Willis noticed instantly, and said, “What, you don’t know how to fly a shuttle?”

Startled, Vroom stammered out, “Well, of course I do sir, but I ...”

“Well, then, sit your butt down and fly it!” Willis ordered.

“Uh, yes sir!” Vroom answered. He’d done this incessantly in training, but never on a live mission before! Vroom carefully ran through the pre-flight checklist, opened the shuttle bay doors, and took them out. In the back of the shuttle, the Ambassador had started his discussion with Totino, and was saying, “Any good warrior can kill an opponent. A great warrior is one who can prevail, without the need to kill. I’m sure you’re aware of the Grand Admiral’s standing order on the subject. As an example ...”

Meanwhile, in the cockpit of the shuttle, Commander Willis had turned the shields up to maximum as soon as they had cleared Shilo’s own shields. Vroom tried to discreetly pull up the shuttle checklist on one of his screens, but before it even displayed, Willis said, “Don’t bother, kid. You did it right. You set the shields to 20 percent, just as the manual says. Trouble is, shuttle shields aren’t worth shit. If you’re isolated in space with no one around, 20 percent is fine for deflecting minor debris, but if you’re near a planet, or a ship, or anything bigger than a micro-meteor, set those puppies to maximum as soon as you clear the mothership, and leave them there until you return.”

“Yes sir!” Vroom replied, and then asked, “Is there anything else I should know that isn’t in the manual, sir?” Willis laughed out loud, and said, “You have no idea, kid! But that’s what I’m here for. I’m not worried about your ability to fly this tub. Word is you’re pretty good, which means you probably fly better than I do. Now, surviving in a shuttle in battle conditions is a completely different story.”

Both conversations continued amiably, but not for long. Less than five minutes after departure, there was a blinding light, followed by a deafening roar. All power shut down briefly, and then the system rebooted. Vroom felt like the shuttle was tumbling madly, and when he got focused on the instruments, he could see that it was. He looked over at Commander Willis, who was slumped over unconscious, and there was a huge rip in the shuttle hull.

“Crap!” Vroom yelled out loud, and quickly remembered the first words from his first flight instructor: First, fly the airplane. “Right,” he said out loud. “OK, Amber, work with me on this one.” For about ten seconds, Vroom tested small control inputs, and got a feel for what he was dealing with, and said, “Good girl. That’s better.”

“What the hell do you mean, better?” a yell came from the back compartment. “We’re tumbling out of control!” Vroom called up the rear cabin view, and saw Totino clutching the Ambassador to his chest. The rip in the hull was much worse in the rear cabin.

“Half right, Mario,” Vroom said calmly. “We’re tumbling, but were not out of control. Somebody shot us, and I want them to think we’re dead.”

“Barry, I don’t feel so good ...” Totino said weakly.

“Fix your eyes on the bulkhead in front of you!” Vroom said firmly. “Look nowhere else. Think of the odd sensations as ... as ... tactics of an enemy, trying to confuse you!”

A few moments went by, and Totino finally said, “OK, good advice. Better now. The Ambassador is hurt bad. He was almost sucked out when we were hit, so I grabbed him and pulled him in. I think I broke his leg. I don’t know what other damage I may have caused in the process.”

“Whatever you did, I’m sure he’d prefer that to being sucked out of a shuttle at 75,000 feet,” Vroom answered. “I need you to do something, Mario. I need you to strap the Ambassador into another seat firmly, look out the hole, and give me an estimate of the direction the blast came from. Can you do that?”

“On it,” came the reply, with no hesitation. After a few moments, Totino said, “I can’t give you an exact angle, but it came from above, behind, and to starboard, that’s for sure.”

“Good enough!” Vroom said. He pulled up a 3D map showing both ground terrain, and the position of the shuttle. He called up the position of the shuttle at the time of the hit, and plotted a likely direction of the attacker based on Totino’s observation. Extrapolating the attack line, it pointed to a mountain range not far away. “Yeah, that’ll do nicely.”

While maintaining the tumble and fall, Vroom subtly altered the flight path to head to the other side of the mountain range. They cleared the ridge. When Vroom was convinced they were well below the line of sight of the attacker, he snapped the shuttle into a stable, upright position just a few hundred feet above the ground, fired a full power blast from the shuttle’s meager weapons into some rocks on the other side of the valley, and set the ship down gently on the bank of a river running through the valley. “Good girl!” he said, and began to shut the systems down.

Nothing more was said for many moments, until Totino finally said, “Where in God’s name did you learn how to fly like that?”

***

The departure of the shuttle was displayed on the main view screen, and everyone was watching it out of the corner of their eye as they attended to their other tasks. Except for Captain Neal, who was fully focused on the departure scene.

“You really like those kids, don’t you?” a voice said next to him. Gunny had appeared out of nowhere, as usual.

Neal broke his concentration, and replied, “Yeah, I do. But you damned well better not go easy on them because of it.”

“No way, Joe,” Gunny came back with a grin. “I treat them about as crappy as I treat all the recruits, but when you add in the extra grief they get from the other candidates, they definitely have it harder than most.”

Then, Commander Beow stiffened at the security station, and listened. Everyone knew what that meant, and the bridge was instantly silent. Beow said, “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something here we’re not seeing.”

“I don’t see anything on the sensors,” Shilo said.

“Maybe not,” Beow said, “but there’s something not right here. I just can’t ...”

He was interrupted by the view on the screen, which showed an energy beam emanating seemingly from nowhere, pointed in the direction of the shuttle. Five of Shilo’s laser cannon instantly targeted the invisible source of the beam, and fired. An eerily silent explosion expanded, as the crew watched.

“Well,” Shilo said, “I saw that. The shuttle’s been hit. Definitely damaged. How bad is unknown due to the tumbling. No telemetry or comm of any kind.” Shilo put the visual image of the tumbling shuttle on the screen.

“This will sound counterintuitive sir,” Commander Beow said, “but the problem is much worse than that.”

“Damned right it is,” Stephenson agreed, head buried in the sensors. “We’ve got at least a couple more of those things coming our way, whatever the hell they are. Not showing on the sensors, but the space/time field is just a little off somehow ...”

“Dammit, Stephenson, I can’t see them!” Shilo shouted.

“Uhh ...” Stephenson mumbled, and adjusted the weapons systems settings. “They’re way out of weapons range, but maybe I can use the weapons as a form of sensor. Look where I’m firing.” Some vague shimmering appeared in places on the monitor. They seemed to be moving, but it was impossible to track them, or even be sure anything was really there.

“Do that again,” Gunny said, without emotion. Stephenson did so, with the same results. “Again,” Gunny repeated. Same result. “Please raise your feet, Commander. This won’t take long.” Puzzled, Stephenson did as requested.

There was a flurry of chimeran activity, with panels coming off and going back on. This continued for about 20 seconds, and then Gunny reappeared, and said, “Try sensor channel 13.”

“Why?” Stephenson asked. “You know there’s no signal on 13.”

“There is now,” Gunny replied. “Try it.”

Stephenson did so, and put it up on the main viewer as well. He had to project the image in 3D to show all of them. Fuzzy ellipsoids, moving in an impossible manner. “There you are, you little bastards!” Neal exclaimed.

“But the real question,” Beow said, “is can you hit them with an image that bad?”

Stephenson and Shilo answered instantly‚Ķbut with different answers! “Yes,” Stephenson said confidently, while Shilo said “Maybe ...”

“Gentlemen,” Neal said, with just a hint of impatience, “I require an actual answer!”

“Well ... probably,” Stephenson amended.

“I can go with probably,” Shilo added.

“Well, it looks like we’ll find out soon enough,” Neal said, as he sounded battle stations. “How soon will they be in real weapons range?”

“Three to five minutes, sir,” Shilo replied.

“Why the high range of uncertainty?” Neal asked, with some surprise.

“It appears they are trying to randomize their motions,” Shilo replied, “and they’re doing a damned good job. I’m at 80 percent capacity trying to figure out the pattern. If they come here directly, with the fastest speed I’ve seen from any of them, it will be about three minutes, not quite all at the same time. At their current average motion in this direction, they’ll get here in about five minutes. Four heading our way, one heading out of the system entirely in the opposite direction, moving about one light year/hour ... standby ... explosion on the surface, Captain. Probably the shuttle impacting.”

Just as Shilo finished speaking, a deep, low shudder was felt throughout the ship. It rose in intensity, and then modulated at a high rate. After about a minute, it stopped.

“Shit,” Neal said. “That can’t be good. What the hell was that?”

Gunny had been invisible the entire time, moving between every sensor the ship had. He materialized, and said, “Not sure, sir. A signal from yon beasties, I suspect. No way to tell for sure, or where it’s going if that’s what it was. We’ll have to look at the sensor readings in more detail when things calm down a bit.”

As if to emphasize the point, they felt a mild jolt from the first shot from the attackers. “Their range is better than ours,” Beow said grimly. “No damage from that one, but when they get close, this is going to be ugly.”

And so it was.

The four attackers were buzzing around like bees, and Stephenson was gyrating just as madly to avoid them, and shooting back. But the invisible attackers were doing a lot of damage, and the best Stephenson could do was land some glancing blows, which didn’t seem to slow them down. “There is a pattern to this,” Shilo said, with obvious frustration. “They are leading up to something, but I don’t quite have it yet. Almost there ....just another minute ...”

But they didn’t have another minute. Order suddenly appeared out of the apparent chaos of the attack. Three of the ships began firing on a single spot on Shilo’s #2 engine. The fourth ship added its own fire, and then accelerated rapidly toward the point of convergence of the beams, and rammed Shilo. The resulting explosion was enormous, and sent the ship tumbling away, out of control.

But not for long. After adapting for the change in the available controls and power, Stephenson started to get Shilo stabilized, and said, “OK, now I’m pissed!” He sounded the collision warning alarm. “Captain, I need permission to exceed structural stress and gravitational fluctuation design specifications.”

Without hesitation, Neal cinched his harness tight, and said simply, “Approved.” As soon as he finished the word (or maybe just a bit before), the world turned kaleidoscopic. Neal felt a tinge of nausea before locking his vision rigidly on the view screen in front of him. He knew that if he noticed it, half the cadets would be puking their guts out.

Shilo was gyrating and spinning in ways Neal had never thought possible for a Grand Imperial. They were taking constant hits from the attackers, but Neal could tell that Stephenson and Shilo were starting to understand the attackers. First one was blasted from space. Then the second. Then the third.

Things were briefly still, but Stephenson still had his head buried in the sensor readouts. “Where are you, you little bastard?” he said. “Come out, come out, wherever you are. I’ve got a surprise for ... there you are!” A wrenching turn, and then a steady acceleration ... and the ship started shaking. The shaking increased until the entire bridge was rattling. Badly.

Commander Jobs appeared next to Neal’s chair, in his spacesuit, and said, “Structural problems, Captain. Big ones. The stresses of cycling in and out of the nano-wormholes while going FTL aren’t being dissipated correctly.”

“Will we catch it at this speed?” Neal asked.

“Yes sir. About seven minutes.”

“What are the chances we’ll break apart before we get to it?”

“Under 20 percent, sir,” Jobs answered, and then sheepishly added, “I think.”

Neal paused only briefly, and then said, “Carry on.” Jobs was gone. The shaking was relentless. After what felt like an eternity, Stephenson started muttering, “Almost there ... almost there ...” Then, in addition to the shaking, the ship started shuddering again, like it had during the initial encounter, and Stephenson said, “Yeah, well, fuck you too!” The laser cannon were all inoperative, and there were only three antimatter tipped missiles left. Stephenson fired them all in a tight spread at the last fuzzy image on the screen. The first one missed. There was a brilliant flash as the second missile found its target, and then a smaller explosion as the third missile was consumed by fratricide from the explosion of the second. The shuddering stopped, and then they were buffeted by the shock wave of the explosions.

Beow slumped back in his chair at the security station, and said, “That’s it. That was the last one.”

All of the alarms stopped. The normal lights went dark, and the dim emergency lights came on. Stephenson was on the ship wide intercom, and said in a perfectly calm voice, “Attention all crew. Gravity has been reduced to 10 percent survival levels, so be aware. Stay where you are. If there’s anything near you that’s using power, turn it off. The attackers have been eliminated. Updates as developments warrant.”

Looking at his security board, Beow said, “I know we didn’t have much left, but did you have to turn all of the sensors off?”

Stephenson ignored him, holding up a paw for silence, while listening to the damage reports, and relaying them. “Number two main engine is dust. Number three is heavily damaged. We’ll never get it running again out here. Number one main engine is idling. But it’s definitely not right.”

“Commander, I need to get a message out at your earliest convenience,” Neal said, sounding calmer than he felt. Stephenson ignored him, paw still in the air, and said, “Four of the 12 APUs are dust. Three are down and severely damaged but may be repairable. Of the five that are running, two could quit at any time.” Stephenson finally lowered his paw and, looking straight at Neal, said, “Captain, I request approval to shut down our last operating main engine, with insufficient reliable power to restart it.”

Neal hesitated, and Shilo said, “No option, Joe, if you want any hope of getting out of here under our own power. Unless you order me not to, I’m shutting that engine down. Immediately.”

“Shutdown approved,” Neal said quietly, almost a whisper, as the enormity of their situation began to sink in.

There’s a characteristic low hum produced by the main engines of a Grand Imperial Starship. It’s completely inaudible to most species, and for the few who can detect it, like the cantilians, it quickly fades into the background, and is never noticed again.

Until it stops.

***

Vroom unstrapped, and did a quick check of Commander Willis’ condition. “This isn’t good. He’s alive, but unconscious, and cantilians never lose consciousness in a combat situation unless they’re seriously messed up. How’s the Ambassador?”

“Worse,” Totino answered. “I think he suffered more from the rapid decompression than the rest of us. He’s dinged up bad, bleeding, and barely breathing, we need to get him into a survival tent quickly.” Totino was opening the tent as he spoke.

Vroom rushed to the back compartment and after doing his own inspection of the Ambassador, said, “Wait.” He went to his duffle bag and tossed a small rectangular pouch to Totino, saying, “Flush that Empire shit. Put him in this.”

Totino looked over the pouch, and asked, with a tinge of wonder, “Is this what I think it is?”

“Yup,” Vroom answered. “Earth Space Force survival tent. Top of the line, and the best in the galaxy. Push and hold the button on the side, and it will self assemble. Put the Ambassador in it. There’s only one control. Turn it clockwise all the way.”

“Barry,” Totino said, “These aren’t officially approved for ...”

“You want him alive, or you want him dead?” Vroom interrupted.

Their eyes were locked for several moments. Finally, Totino nodded, and said, “He’d probably prefer alive, I suspect,” He put Sederburg in the tent, set the controls as instructed. “Now we have to get the Commander in one.”

“And that,” Vroom said, concerned, “presents a problem. How much can you lift?”

“Dead lift?” Totino responded. “About 182 kilos.”

Vroom looked up and down Totino’s 1.4 meter frame, and said, “Bullshit!”

“No bullshit, Barry. Usually more, but I’m a little dinged up myself at the moment.”

“Well, even so, we still have a problem,” Vroom replied. “I can lift 90 kilos, maybe, on a good day, and the Commander weighs 340 easy. The math doesn’t work.”

“We have to try,” Totino said firmly. “Maybe we can use something for leverage.” They tried everything they could think of to raise Willis high enough to get him into a tent, but finally Totino said, “Dammit, I’m out of ideas. If we were in space, this would be easy!”

Vroom froze, and got an intense, thoughtful look on his face. He pointed an index finger at Totino, and said, “You, sir, are a genius!” and started frantically scanning the shuttle’s manual on one of the display screens. “You know how when you’re in space, and then land on a planet, the gravity never changes? Artificial gravity! I think we can use that to our advantage here.” He was searching the database the entire time.

“I hadn’t thought about it,” Totino replied, “but now that you mention it, sure. You know how the artificial gravity works?”

Vroom laughed, and said, “No, I don’t have the dimmest clue how artificial gravity works. But I do know there’s a system on this shuttle that controls it. I just don’t know what it’s called. Dammit, Amber, help me out here! What the hell is that system that controls gravity transitions called?”

Vroom and Totino both jumped when, with no warning, a soft feminine voice said, “Voice interface engaged. The Automatic Gravitational Transition Controller varies the intensity of the artificial gravity so that the vehicle occupants feel a smooth transition from one gravitational environment to another.”

Stunned, the two looked at each other, and Vroom said “You ever hear a shuttle talk before?” Totino just shook his head. Vroom said, “OK, Amber, can it be disengaged without disruption to other systems?”

“Yes.”

“Then disengage it now.”

“Warning! Disengagement of the Automatic Gravitational Transition Controller violates the operations manual for a Grand Imperial Starship shuttle. Command override required to comply.”

“I understand. Override, and disengage the controller.”

“Your identity is confirmed as Ensign Barry Vroom, pilot. You do not have command override authority.”

“Shit!” Vroom yelled. “Who does?”

“Ambassador William Sederburg is Commander of this mission.”

“No help ... scan the Ambassador’s condition, and report.”

“The Ambassador is critically injured and unconscious. He is encased in an alien device.”

“Is the Ambassador fit for command?”

“No.”

“Then who is currently in command of this mission?”

“Commander Willis, Security Instructor, is in command.”

“Scan the Commander’s condition, and report.”

“The Commander is very seriously injured and unconscious. His condition is deteriorating.”

“Is Willis fit for command?”

“No.”

“Then who is currently in command of this mission?”

“Unresolvable equation. The remaining crew members are of equal rank. There is no rule to determine who is in command.”

Amber, you are seriously pissing me off here,” Vroom said. He thought intensely, and finally asked, “What is the AIS definition of Pilot in Command?”

“AIS regulation 75.3, sub-section f, Pilot in Command is defined as the sole manipulator of the primary controls of a spacecraft.”

“I have been the sole manipulator of the primary controls of this spacecraft for every moment of this mission. Therefore, I am the pilot in command. Confirm.”

“Confirmed. You are pilot in command per AIS regulations.”

“So, under current conditions, per AIS regulations, who is in command of this mission?”

Silence. It felt like hours, but the delay was just less than a minute. “Command override accepted, Captain Vroom. The Automatic Gravitational Transition Controller has been disengaged.”

Vroom and Totino looked at each other with wide eyes, and Vroom said, “Very good. On my mark, ramp the gravitational field inside the shuttle down to a value of 20 percent of Imperial Standard gravity over a period of 10 seconds.”

“Warning! Setting internal gravity below ambient gravity violates the operations manual for a Grand Imperial Starship shuttle. Command override required to comply.”

“Understood. Command override Vroom. Mark.”

“Command override accepted. Gravity reduction in progress.”

Totino had seen where the conversation was going, and had gotten in position to lift Willis. Gradually, he became able to, until he held him fully suspended in his arms. “This is some freaky shit, Barry.”

“Just hold him for a bit,” Vroom said, as he easily slid Willis into the tent. “Now let’s put him in back, and figure out what to do next.”

“He won’t fit back there next to the Ambassador. He’s too big.”

“Uh, OK, Amber, open the rear shuttle door. Do you need to set him down? I’m going to toss out some of the seats.”

“No problem. In this gravity field he weighs only around 70 kilos. I could hold him up all day, but that’s not our problem. We’ve got company coming. I saw them outside while you were talking to your girlfriend.”

“Smartass,” Vroom said, as he unhooked the quick releases and tossed seats out the back. “Hostile?”

“What do you think?”

“Great. We just can’t seem to catch a break today. OK, set him down back here. Amber, close the hatch.” The hatch closed, and the injured crewmen were both secured in their tents. “Now what?”

“Now we’re playing on my turf, flyboy,” Totino said with a smile. He strapped on a blaster, and tossed one to Vroom. “We should go out and meet them. We’ll appear stronger that way than if we just wait for them to come to us.”

While he was strapping on his blaster, Vroom asked, “You any good with one of these? Are you fast?”

“Very,” was the simple response. “On both counts.”

“Good”, Vroom said, “because I’m mediocre at best on both counts. Well, let’s go do this. Amber, don’t let anyone inside other than Ensign Totino and myself.”

***

Captain Neal didn’t have a long time to reflect. In mere minutes, Commander Jobs was standing next to his command chair, spacesuit on, helmet in hand.

“Damage report update, sir.”

“How many did we lose?” Neal asked, getting straight to the point.

“142 confirmed dead, sir, 47 wounded, and another 31 missing.”

“Over half the crew dead or wounded ...” Neal trailed off. “Who’s running search and rescue?”

“Gunny, sir.”

“OK, then I won’t worry about that at the moment. What about ...”

“Captain, you need to see this,” Shilo interrupted. The ship displayed the fuzzy image of the explosion of the shuttle on the main screen.

“Dammit, Shilo, what do I need to see that again for? You think I need to be reminded that we lost the shuttle and all aboard?”

“Not that at all sir,” Shilo replied. “Quite the opposite. There was something about that explosion that bothered me the moment I saw it, but I didn’t have time to look at in detail until now. The numbers don’t work, sir. Even a deuterium explosion would have been bigger than that, never mind the antimatter. A lot bigger. And that’s not all.” Shilo put a three dimensional holographic display of the tumbling shuttle in the center of the bridge, frozen at the point when they were hit. The display included the ground terrain. “Accounting for the atmospheric conditions and speed and direction of the shuttle at the time of the strike, a ballistic descent would have been as follows.” The ship displayed the path from the point of the strike, to the projected impact on the surface.

“Wait a minute,” Neal said, sitting up straight. “That’s not where the explosion took place.”

“No sir.” Shilo confirmed. “Here’s the actual trajectory of the shuttle’s descent.” Another track was added to the first. “Note this change in the shuttle trajectory,” Shilo indicated with an arrow. “And here’s a projected ballistic trajectory after that change, and the actual path of the shuttle. Note the additional change here. From that point, the shuttle continuously diverges from a ballistic trajectory, until it passes below the mountain ridge line, and we lose sight of it.”

Are you suggesting ...” Neal said, almost in a whisper.

“Yes, sir.” Shilo replied. “I’m not sure what that explosion was, but it was not the shuttle impacting the surface. I also don’t know what may now be in that mountain valley, but I can say with certainty that that shuttle was under positive control when it crossed out of our field of vision past the ridge line. Commander Jobs, I have updated the crew count to reflect 138 confirmed dead, and 35 missing.”

“I’ll be damned!” Neal exclaimed. “They might be alive down there! You’ve been holding out on me, Beow. I had no idea Willis could fly that well.”

“He can’t ...” Beow mumbled under his breath.

“Now that I think about it,” Neal said, “what about the other missing? Just sucked out into space, or what?”

“Some, certainly,” Jobs said. “However, there are 17 escape pods from the damaged areas that are unaccounted for. Some of them could be intact, and occupied. We don’t know.”

“How long can—” Neal started to say before Shilo interrupted. “The pods are designed for two normal size crewmen. If there was one crewman inside, they could survive for up to a month. A large cantilian, about half that. A small feline, maybe double that.”

“What’s the condition of the shuttles?” Neal demanded.

“Number four is dust,” Jobs replied. “Number three will never fly again, but has parts we can use. Number two ... Well, based on what we just saw, number two is missing, in an unknown condition. Number one is dinged up pretty good, but we’ll get it running eventually.”

“How long?” Neal demanded.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jobs said. “do you want me to take people off treating crewmen, or fixing oxygen leaks, or deuterium leaks, or ...” and then he stopped himself mid sentence when he saw the look on Neal’s face. He had only seen that look a few times in the many centuries they had served together. The first time, he had misinterpreted the meaning, and spent a month in the brig as a result. “I’ll have shuttle number one spaceworthy for you within the hour, sir.”

“Very good. Get to it. Stephenson!”

“Yes sir, I’m on it. I’m reluctant to leave Shilo without its chief pilot, but with only a few thrusters barely working, I suppose even you can’t get it into too much trouble.”

“Insubordinate bastard,” Neal replied. “Get off my ship. And take some cantilians with you.”

“Standard platoon of six, yes sir. And three chimerans.”

Neal glared at him, and said, “You will take two chimerans, and one of them will be a trainee. You’re not starting a repair depot down there, mister. You are to render whatever aid you can to any surviving crew on the ground, salvage what you can from the shuttle, and then get your ass back here. Hopefully we’ll have some way to communicate with you before then. Understood?”

“Yes sir, I’m on it!”

Neal sat back in his chair in wonder, and thought silently, they might actually still be alive!

***

As Vroom and Totino approached the natives, they saw they were in a rigid formation. A line of six, a second line of six, a single, slightly larger individual, and then a third line of six. “Well,” Vroom said, “I guess we know who the leader is.”

“Probably,” Totino replied. “Could be a decoy, but given the size difference, that’s probably right. A little over one-and-a-half meters tall for most of them, you think?”

“Yeah, that looks about right,” Vroom answered. “Carrying spears, perhaps? They look a little ... odd. They look ... oh shit! Mario, it’s a bunch of bugs!”

“Yeah, I saw that. Stay cool.”

When they were about 18 meters apart, the front line raised their spears and started running toward the Imperials. Vroom went for his blaster, but felt Totino’s touch on his arm and heard him say, “Be ready, but hold back for a bit. I want to try something.”

Without waiting for a reply, Totino leapt into the air, and landed on top of one of the attackers, knocking it over. But Totino never touched the ground. He used the energy from the impact to leap again, and knocked down another. And another. Vroom was transfixed by the scene. It almost looked like a ballet, Totino was so graceful.

As he was coming down on the last of the front rows of attackers, the rear group all threw their spears. Totino rebounded from the last front bug, and spun in midair so quickly he became a blur. He grabbed one of the spears that had been launched at him in mid-air, twisted again, and threw it down with such force that it was embedded 10 centimeters into the ground ... directly between the legs of the lead bug. A second later, Totino landed in front of the leader, in full attack posture.

Nobody moved.

“Play along with me here, Mario,” Vroom said quietly, and then very loudly, “Ensign Totino, come to attention!” Totino did so, and took two steps back from the lead bug. Vroom walked up to the leader, blaster in hand. He showed it to the leader, rotating it so all parts were visible. He pointed it at a rock some 30 meters away, and fired. The rear line of bugs were all visibly startled. The leader showed no reaction.

Vroom calmly turned toward the leader with the blaster lying flat in his hands. He walked forward, until the two were no more than a meter apart, and he stood there, eyes locked, holding the blaster out as an offering.

For what seemed like endless moments, nothing happened. Then, the leader took the blaster in his lower left arm, pointed it at the same rock, and fired again. He looked over the blaster, and then handed it to one of the third rank, who had moved forward to receive it. All of the bugs Totino had knocked down were recovering themselves, apparently not seriously injured. In one fluid motion, the leader pulled the spear out of the ground between his feet, and held it out in his two lower hands, lying flat, in a mirror to Vroom’s earlier gesture. Vroom took it, and handed it to Totino.

An unmistakable drop in tension pervaded the entire group. Vroom gestured to the leader to go to the shuttle landing site, and the leader returned the gesture, suggesting Vroom should take the lead. As they were walking back toward the shuttle, Vroom said, “I don’t know if I quite believe this yet, but I think we just negotiated our first peace treaty. What worries me is that we haven’t heard anything from Shilo yet. That can’t be good.”

“Yeah,” Totino said. “We may be here a long time.”

***

It was night when the shuttle arrived at the planet from Shilo. Commander Bradley was in charge of security for the rescue mission and sat in the co-pilot seat next to Commander Stephenson. “I don’t expect any threats, sir, but this sure is weird. Killer sats in orbit, and nothing more than spears on the ground? I don’t get it.”

“Yeah,” Stephenson replied. “We’re coming over the ridge now. There’s that fire we spotted from orbit. Here goes.” Stephenson opened the inter-shuttle comm channel, and said, “Commander Willis, this is Commander Stephenson. If you hear me, report!”

“Commander!” an excited voice said in response. “Thank God! Ensign Vroom here, sir. Commander Willis is seriously injured, and unconscious. I hope you brought a chimeran with you.”

Stephenson and Bradley looked at each other with a mixture of relief and confusion. “Roger that, Vroom, we have two chimerans on board. What’s burning down there?”

“Uh ... campfire, sir. We made some new friends. Totino and I have only very minor injuries. Ambassador Sederburg was critically injured, but he’s OK now, in a limping sort of way.”

More confusion. “Let me get this straight, Ensign. A 5.5 kilo feline was critically injured, but is now ambulatory, and a 340 kilo cantilian remains unconscious?”

“Um, yes sir. It’s a long story. You can land on our port side, plenty of room. Amber, turn on all exterior lights.” Instantly, the entire scene was illuminated. The shuttle was sitting on a river bank. The starboard engine was entirely gone, but other than that, it appeared intact.

Amber?” Stephenson asked. “Never mind, I’m sure that’s a long story too. We’ll be landing momentarily.”

“Roger that, sir. There’s no danger of any kind here. Please don’t bring an armed cantilian contingent over to the group until you’ve had a chance to talk to the Ambassador. Ensign Totino and I will meet you when you land.”

Vroom couldn’t help noticing that Stephenson’s shuttle was pretty banged up, too. What the hell went on up there? The shuttle doors opened and almost instantly a squad of six fully armed cantilians stood at attention outside. Commander Stephenson came out last, and as soon as he did, Vroom came to attention, and saluted.

Stephenson returned the salute as he approached Vroom, saying, “At ease, Ensign. What the hell happened here?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing sir, looking at your damage. The Shilo ... is it ...”

“Alive, but damaged. Very badly. Report, Ensign!”

“Well, it’s a long story, but ...” Vroom was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Commander Bufford, who said to Stephenson, “We have a problem sir, and it’s damned weird. The shuttle won’t let us in. It says it requires command authorization from Captain Vroom to allow entry.”

Stephenson had never worked with a human before, but he had heard vaguely about the human “blush response,” indicating embarrassment. Now he understood the reference. Vroom said. “Sorry sir, I forgot. Amber, let ‘em in. Allow full access to all AIS personnel. Command authorization Vroom.”

“Command confirmed,” Amber responded, as all the doors began to open. “Full access granted.”

Voice interface?” Stephenson asked, shocked. “I’ve been flying these shuttles since before your species could read and write, and I have never used the voice interface. I’ve never talked to anyone who has. Another long story?” Stephenson asked tolerantly. “Never mind. The logs will have it all. Where’s the Ambassador?”

“Right over here, sir. He’s talking to the hive Queen.”

They walked the short distance to the campfire, and as they approached, the Ambassador said loudly, “About damned time you got here, Howard. What kept you?”

Stephenson just rolled his eyes, and said, “Good to see you too, Bill. We got a bit ... distracted. I see you have some new friends.”

“Indeed,” Sederburg replied. “Mario, come here and help me, son.” Totino gently lifted Sederburg up, and cradled him in his arms. “Bum leg. This brute here mangled it while he was keeping me from falling to my death.” An air of formality suddenly fell on the gathering, and the Ambassador said, “Commander Stephenson, I am honored to introduce you to (a short pause, and then some weird clicking sounds), Queen of the Hive. (Same clicking sounds), this is Commander Stephenson, Chief Pilot on the Grand Imperial Starship Shilo.” Sederburg’s hands had been moving rapidly the whole time.

“So, what, you taught her sign language?” Stephenson asked.

“Not any known language,” Sederburg answered. “The entire way they think is different from ours. We’ve been cooking this up over the last couple of hours while you were on coffee break. She knows we need to talk among ourselves. So, what next?”

“Well,” Stephenson said, “I find myself in the unusual position of having more options than I expected. Willis will be fine, although not today. What about your shuttle, Vroom? Will it fly?”

“It’s certainly airworthy, sir,” Vroom answered. “It was under full control on the way down. Spaceworthy? I don’t know.”

“I do,” Bufford said, appearing out of nowhere. “And, somewhat to my amazement, the answer is yes. Or rather, it will be. The port engine has no discernible damage of any kind. The biggest problem is the rip in the starboard side, of course. We’ll figure something out. Worst case, they’ll need to wear suits for the flight back. Probably a good idea in any event. The flight control circuitry is a little messed up, but it’s nothing we can’t fix out here.” Bufford paused, and looking at Vroom said, “More than a little messed up, in fact. You actually flew that thing like that? I’m impressed!”

“Alright, enough of that,” Stephenson said. “How long?”

“Not long. Give us an hour, maybe two at the most, and we’re outta here!” And with that, Bufford vanished as suddenly as he had arrived.

“I can simplify things somewhat,” Sederburg said. “I’m staying here. I know I’m required to have two cantilians with me, but they are not required to be armed, and they won’t be. You can pick me up in a few days, or a week, or whatever’s convenient, while you go help with the recovery.”

“And rescue,” Stephenson said. “We could have a couple of dozen crewmen alive in escape pods, strewn anywhere between here and Shilo ...”

Vroom raised his hand, and said, “Sir, I have a suggestion, if I may.”

Stephenson gave Vroom an odd look, and said, “Vroom, you have a lot of flaws, but a lack of ideas doesn’t seem to be one of them. What do you propose?”

There was that redness again. “I should take Amber back to the Shilo to assist with repairs. You should take your shuttle, and look for survivors in escape pods. Bufford should go with you. By the time we depart, Amber’s problems will be known and stable. But there’s no way to know what you’ll encounter with the escape pods, and you should have the best chimeran available. Send Ensign Edison along with me. Even though she’s just a cadet, she should be able to hold us together for one short trip. Sir.”

Stephenson silently stared at him for so long, Vroom started to expect a reprimand. Finally, Stephenson said, “Well, what are you waiting for Ensign? Go supervise the repairs to your ship, and be ready to launch on my command as soon as repairs are complete. Dismissed!”

Vroom took off double time, and when he got over to the shuttles, he saw Commander Willis being transferred from Amber to the other shuttle. He was limping badly, with two other cantilians holding him up, but he was moving on his own. When he saw Vroom, he stopped, and said firmly, “Ensign Vroom!”

“Sir!”

And with just the slightest hint of a grin, Willis said, “I’ll bet you’ll remember what I told you about shuttle shields now, won’t you? Carry on.”

Just over an hour later, the repairs were done, and both shuttles were ready to depart. Commander Stephenson was completing his preflight, when he saw a red light flashing above one of the displays. Puzzled, he looked at the screen, and what he saw gave him a chill so profound, he physically shivered, and sat transfixed in his seat. The display showed the simple words:

“Voice interface requested.” infinity

Terry Savage studied science and engineering at the California Institute of Technology, and holds an honors degree in economics from UCLA. His first novel was “The End of Winter.” The sequel, “Circle of Fire,” was released in early 2012. “Through the Darkness,” the final book in the trilogy, is scheduled for publication in 2013. Terry lives in Incline Village on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and enjoys motorcycling on beautiful summer days.

 

 


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BIOGRAPHY CAPSULE
savage

TERRY SAVAGE currently heads up Andromeda Enterprises, an IT firm that has contracted with the State of Utah, and the State of California. He was Chief Information Officer for the State of Nevada for seven years. He has published two novels: “The End of Winter,” and “The Circle of Fire.” He lives in Incline Village, NV. He is a licensed private pilot and former board member of the National Space Society. He blogs at Jackson's Universe.

Favorite drink: Vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.

Favorite movie: “Forbidden Planet.”

Pet peeve: People who tailgate on the freeway, and people who won't move
over when someone is trying to pass them
.

Advice to NASA: Fund the search for extra-solar Earthlike planets to the point that the effort is technology limited, rather than funding limited.
bio