The Dark Horse embarks on a salvage operation, and junior helmsman Srivastava points out that, in atmosphere, a lot of people can hear you scream.
Okay, I'm really sorry it took so long to get this up—I promise I haven't abandoned this setting, and I screwed up by not having the rest of the season properly plotted when I posted the two-parter, uh... uh. Last year. For what it's worth, this will be a 5-episode season as opposed to a 4-episode one, and the remaining two episodes are already written. For once! Patreon subscribers, this should also be live for you with notes and maps and stuff.
Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute--as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes.
Tales of the Dark Horse, by Rob Baird
Madison May had gotten used to waking up to “action stations" being sounded. How serious the alarm was always depended on who was responsible for sounding it—Ensign Bader, for example, was given to a certain degree of paranoia befitting their chief tactical officer.
“What is it?" the Akita mumbled towards the intercom; she'd already sat up and was giving her uniform jacket a weary glare.
“Picked up a distress call from about two parsecs out, captain." Jack Ford's voice was on the other end of the line.
Well, it's probably worth checking out, she decided. “Change our course, then, and take us to maximum FTL speed. I'll be on the bridge in a moment."
The coyote would've been equally surprised and pleased to hear that May thought of him as a responsible individual. He thought of May in similar terms—which, in fairness, would also have surprised the Akita. On the ship's bridge, he ordered their helmsman to adjust the ship's course and waited for arrival.
“Captain on deck!" Barry Schatz was the first to react when the doors swung open. The Border Collie, with a well-earned reputation for being somewhat scatterbrained, had been making the effort to follow Star Patrol protocol.
May did not appreciate protocol, per se, but at least she appreciated the effort and so she nodded. “Thank you. Secure from action stations. What can anybody tell me about this distress signal?"
“It's using the standard encoding for this sector—the ordinary trading pidgin. The ship is the Zevozli, a bulk cargo vessel with twenty souls aboard. Their FTL drive has been disabled."
Madison processed what Barry told her, nodding again. It would take a few hours for them to reach the source of the distress signal; in the meantime she asked Schatz to work with Dr. Beltran and Ayenni to come up with whatever they could intuit about what might be waiting when they dropped back into normalspace.
Unfortunately, there wasn't much. The distress call, presumably, wasn't in the ship's native language. Ayenni, as a native of the sector, should've been at an advantage—but “Zevozli" didn't give her much to go on. It could've been nearly anyone. 'Zevoss' was a city on Jow-Dewurki. Shevoshlii meant 'beautiful' in Ardzulan. Zevoz-Ree was an honored ruler of the Savaza.
“I get the picture," May said. “I presume it's the same in our database, Dr. Beltran?"
Felicia Beltran nodded. “The general syllabic pattern has thousands of matches, captain, everywhere from Terra to the Edra Frontier. We will have to get closer."
So they emerged from hyperspace to discover themselves in a planetary system, with the distress signal emanating from a rocky planet with a breathable atmosphere and abundant vegetation. “Helm, take us into orbit. Dr. Schatz, I have some questions…"
“Space is big, right?"
Barry had already turned the cruiser's scanners on the planet; the Zevozli was, fortunately, towards them and it didn't take long to pinpoint its exact location. As near as the Border Collie could tell, the ship was three hundred meters long and massed the better part of a million tons.
May wanted to know how a disabled ship had managed to find—and crash on—a celestial body, given the vast distances involved in space. It didn't take long for the collie to have an answer; finding a way to corral his thoughts until they were comprehensible to the crew was the real challenge.
In this he leveraged Shannon Hazelton, the chief engineer, who understood the significance of the Border Collie's sensor readings. “They use a gravity drive, Mads. They're more efficient for bulk cargo, but they don't generally work well in deep space. And they're fragile. Probably explains what disabled them."
“But we don't know for certain," the Akita countered. And the Zevozli wasn't answering any hails. The ship's main reactor appeared to be functioning, although given the nature of alien technology Hazelton could only give an educated guess about how well it was running.
“Away team?" Lieutenant Commander Bradley knew, of course, that May would want to offer assistance to the crashed vessel, and sending a shuttle down was going to be the only way for them to do that.
“Yes. You, Dr. Beltran, Mr. Thorsen—who from engineering, Shannon?"
“I'll get back to you on that, Mads." The engineering staff had been performing superlatively, in the raccoon's opinion, and she was inclined to offer the opportunity as a reward for whoever proved to be sufficiently adventurous.
Captain May didn't know this, though she wouldn't have minded: if Shannon thought they could get the job done, that was more than good enough for the Akita. She also didn't mind when Dr. Beltran recused herself from leaving the ship: the diplomat wanted to stay on the Dark Horse, with direct access to its more powerful computers.
In any case the plan was simple. It would go wrong—plans always did—but May was certain in her conviction that Bradley would be able to handle whatever came up, and Sabel Thorsen was nothing if not adaptable.
“Get it done," the Akita ordered. “We'll keep scanning for life signs, but be prepared for anything."
“Are you sure you don't want to go?" Eli asked. Personally, the wolf was excited to see what the alien ship looked like up close—and to meet what might be an entirely new race. But it was also her second away mission in a row, and she wanted to offer the junior helmsman an opportunity.
Chandrika Srivastava shuddered. “Thanks, but… no. You know how I feel about planets." Even being in orbit made the dhole slightly uncomfortable; she avoided looking at the viewscreen whenever the surface was in daylight.
“I know, I know. But I figured it's a chance to see a new ship, too."
“That would be nice," Rika admitted. “But not nice enough. I'm just fine staying here. Anybody sensible would stay in space. That freighter didn't—and look what happened."
She had a point, sort of, though Eli wanted to point out that the crash did not really indict all planets, nor all chances to visit them. But it wasn't going to change Rika's mind. “Alright. I'll let you know what it winds up being like."
“Thanks." She shook the wolf's paw. “Fly safe, lieutenant."
Eli felt comfortable leaving the Dark Horse in Rika's knowledgeable paws, at least. The dhole's skill had been honed by a life spent among the stars, and she'd adapted quickly to the old cruiser's quirky systems. One of these days, Eli thought, she might also adapt to breathing air that didn't come from a life-support system…
But if so, there was no point in trying to force that day.
She met the rest of the away team in the shuttle bay, and quickly went through the startup checklist for the Type 4. TJ Wallace leaned on her shoulder, watching. The otter shared every bit of her excitement—new technology to explore, a new planet to experience…
Adventure was one of his biggest reasons for joining the Star Patrol, and the Dark Horse offered plenty of that. It was all Eli could do to force him to take his seat so they could begin the journey down to the planet's surface.
The launch itself was smooth. Just before they hit the atmosphere, though, one of the control panels lit up with an incoming message from the Dark Horse. It was an update from Mitch Alexander—and, somewhat ominously, it began: “watch out." Lieutenant Parnell scanned the rest of it, and sighed.
“We might have some turbulence coming in, okay? We have to cross through a high-atmosphere storm to get to the surface."
“It will happen with or without our agreement," Sabel, who had taken the copilot's station as the next most-qualified, pointed out. “Also, it's more than just high-atmosphere. I suggest an updated course to avoid the worst of it." He'd already sent it over to her for review.
“Thanks, Sabel. That'll do."
Which it did—until, ten kilometers up, the first of the real turbulence slammed into the shuttle. Eli barely had time to warn her passengers before the jolt hit them, hard enough that the structural integrity generators signaled their discontent with a jarring, buzzing alarm.
Then there was another, backed moments later by a flash of lightning. Her controls darkened. “Teej, I need more power to the shields. Can you help?"
Spaceman Wallace did not want to unbuckle his harness, but the otter understood Parnell wasn't really asking politely. He turned on the magnetic soles of his boots, hoping they'd be enough to keep him from being thrown into the wall.
She didn't, of course, mean she needed more power to the shields. She meant, TJ knew, that the deflector shields were absorbing too much energy and it needed to go somewhere else. Even the Dark Horse wouldn't have just shrugged off a lightning strike of that magnitude.
Starting to understand how that freighter crashed. The shuttle took another bolt, and one of the deflector couplings hissed in overstressed protest. “Two or three more of those and we lose the ship," TJ warned: the safety systems were already over their limits.
“What can you do?"
“Back us off?"
Lieutenant Commander Bradley was acting as the shuttle's flight engineer, doing what he could to monitor their environment. “Storm activity is slightly diminished off to starboard."
Eli nodded, bringing the Type 4 around. “I see it. But we—" the shuttle bucked, and then began to fall.
“Not so fast," Dave said.
“It's not me," Eli told him curtly, attention focused purely on the ship's controls in the worsening storm. “It's this turbulence. Tell Dark Horse we might have to abort."
The retriever did as she asked without questioning. But it didn't matter: the next bolt of lighting that intersected them cut the lights out completely, and when they flickered back on Eli found that the main thrusters were down to only a fraction of their rated power.
“Teej," she called out. “Get me my engines back."
Wallace had been focusing on the bigger problem, though, which was the imminent failure of the deflector shields. There was no way they could be reinforced—certainly not to the extent necessary. Instead he turned the problem on its head. “I'm gonna bring the point-defense lasers on. Hey, uh, Sabel?"
Sabel Thorsen objectively thought the odds of their survival were quite slim, but he'd been designed not to care about things like that and his voice had none of the otter's concern. “Yes?"
“Can you plot a firing solution towards one of the mountains?"
Eli's ears flattened. “TJ…"
But Sabel saw immediately what the otter was thinking about. “Of course. Allow me to interface with the main computer." He pressed his paw to the nearest console, waiting until the connection came up. “Power will need to be increased by forty percent."
“On it." The otter thought it would, probably, have to come from the deflector shields—but if they got lucky…
Eli Parnell believed in luck, but not the way that theirs was developing. The Type 4 was all but in free-fall, the storm wasn't getting any better, and she wasn't entirely certain they'd make it through the crash landing. “Why is Sabel shooting the ground?"
“Spaceman Wallace intends to use our lasers to create a plasma channel between our location and the ground," Sabel explained, already programming the relevant trajectories into the firing computer.
“A lightning rod," Dave said.
“Exactly. I'll try to get the engines up in a sec, dude. Hold tight."
Eli gritted her teeth and leaned on the ventral thrusters to arrest their descent as best as she could. “Holding. Two minutes to impact, though."
“I know, I know. Sabel, I'm bypassing the overrides and linking you right to the deflector capacitors. Ready?"
The spitz nodded, and when the lasers powered up he fired them at once. The immediate response was a yelp from TJ Wallace, who vanished behind a geyser of sparks when one of the capacitors in question chose to punish the shuttle's power grid for the otter's impetuousness.
But the job had been done, and the storm's electrical energy lost interest in the shuttle. As a bonus—when TJ could see clearly again—discharging the capacitors freed up enough power from the deflector couplings that he was able to kick the main engines back into shape. “Try it now, Eli?"
“Seems to work. We're through the worst of the storm," the wolf added—no matter that it left them only a few kilometers over the ground.
“Great," TJ muttered. “That's all great…"
“Happy you got to go on an away mission?" Eli watched over her shoulder until the otter finally gave her a weak thumbs-up. Naturally, back aboard the Dark Horse they'd both pretend none of the descent had worried them even for a moment.
For now, it was time to get back to business. The Zevozli had quite obviously crashed: the jungle had been torn up in a long, straight furrow that pointed to the freighter's grave. Still, she was well-built: Eli saw no external sign of damage. The cargo ship had a long, deep hull, with a hammerhead superstructure at the fore and engines bulging gracefully amidships.
“Part of the forward structure is embedded in the hillside," Sabel reported. “But it does appear intact. I believe the dark ventral object is an access hatch, if you want to attempt a landing."
“Let's do it." Eli touched down smoothly and killed the shuttle's engines. As soon as that was done, she felt the unmistakable thunk of a coupling device; the access hatch slowly lowered into the recesses of the Zevozli's hull, revealing an inner airlock.
The hatch didn't close above them, and offered no shelter from the storm—at the same time, this meant they could escape in case the welcome was less than warm. Of course, they hoped the occupants would be friendly. Just in case, though, all four of the Star Patrol crew suited up, and when Bradley ordered a sidearm clipped to their right wrists nobody argued.
The shuttle's ramp lowered into a hangar bay designed for somewhat larger ships, two of which were secured and motionless on the deck. “Cargo lighters," the retriever suggested. “Though I don't see the cargo…"
“Don't see much of anything, sir," Eli Parnell added. She turned up her flashlight and swept the beam over the bay. Aside from the lighters and their own shuttle, it was all but empty.
“Let's move forward. Sabel, anything?"
Sabel had been watching, listening with his cybernetic implants to the Zevozli. “No. There does not appear to be any activity." At the front of the hangar bay they found an airlock; the computer in Sabel's suit took barely a handful of seconds to analyze the controls. “I can open it, if you'd like."
“Go ahead. Careful," Dave added to the others, stepping back and raising his right arm in case the pistol became necessary. They followed his lead. The airlock hissed open, and slid smoothly closed behind them.
Sabel explained the brief flash of light was a burst of sterilizing ultraviolet—nothing harmful. And, presently, the inner door cycled. Only darkness lay beyond it. “The atmosphere is breathable," Sabel reported. “Slightly elevated oxygen content. Pathogen scans are coming back negative, although you may wish to keep your helmet on. Based on the chemical analysis, I do not think you'll find the smell enjoyable."
“Is it harmful?" Dave asked.
“No. Just unpleasant."
The suits were rather counterproductive to their visibility and range of movement. Bradley unlocked his helmet and slowly pulled it off. It hit him even before he inhaled—an overpowering reek, as if someone's cache of sulfur had somehow begun to rot. “You weren't kidding…"
“I generally don't."
Bradley hoped they'd get used to the smell—they were Star Patrol, after all, not to be laid low by such things. And they'd work faster without the helmets or suit gloves. He motioned for Eli and TJ to take them off.
Being Star Patrol, with the resilience and bravery that entailed, neither threw up. Spaceman Wallace wanted to quite badly, but after a few seconds he was able to rationalize that this would only make a bad situation worse, and he gradually brought himself under control. “Is it… like… supposed to be like this?"
“Who knows?" Dave tapped his communicator. “Away team to the Dark Horse. We've entered the ship, but there's no sign of life so far."
The effort required for their radios to clear up the interference in the transmission proved to be too much; the system gave up, transmitting May's words and letting the computer reconstruct them without the nuance of any tone. “That is too bad. See what you can find out about what might have gone wrong."
Too bad. Dave started to sigh, then thought better of inhaling deeply. “TJ, try to get access to their computer. Sabel, help him out. Eli, you're with me. Let's see if we can't find out where the crew is."
“Do you think it has crew?"
“Nothing un-crewed has any right to smell like this."
“We need to clear up our commlink, spaceman," May said. The signal from the away team was so marginal that they couldn't even afford a proper orbit; the Dark Horse had to keep its engines running, burning fuel to maintain line-of-sight over the crashed Zevozli.
“I'm trying, captain. The storm is getting worse, though."
“How much worse?"
Barry spoke up. “Electrical activity has increased by a factor of two in the last twenty minutes, and the wind shear is worsening just as quickly."
“At the limits of what you can compensate for?"
“We crossed those limits an hour ago. There's not much more Alexander or I can do. I suppose we could buy a little time by coming a bit lower."
The Akita shook her head; they were putting too big of a strain on the reactor as it was. “Hail the away team."
“Sabel Thorsen speaking." He was all but inaudible.
“Have you made any progress in fixing the ship?" If there was an answer, May couldn't hear it. She had to trust that the away team could, at least, understand her. “You need to return while you still can. The weather's getting worse."
“Say again? Did you—"
He cut off suddenly, and at the CCI station Mitch Alexander flinched with what she saw. “The freighter just took a direct lightning strike. We've lost signal, ma'am."
“Get it back!"
“I believe Captain May was attempting to order our return, commander. The signal was not particularly clear."
Like everyone else, Bradley's ears were still ringing from thunder that seemed to have shaken all the way through the hull of the Zevozli. “Well, let's not keep her waiting. Any luck, Spaceman Wallace?"
“Naw. We're in the computer, but I can't figure out anything from the engine diagnostics… if they are diagnostics. Plus, uh, plus that lightning kinda knocked out my link. I'll have to get that back. Gimme… I dunno, like, ten minutes?"
“Don't bother." There was no sign of any life on the ship. Bradley wasn't even able to guess what the crew had looked like. The doors were larger than those on the Dark Horse, but the ship was devoid of anything like chairs and the flat-paneled computer consoles told him essentially nothing.
They could hear wind howling outside even from within the airlock. It was too vicious to appreciate fresh air—so violent it was hard for them to even breathe. The four Star Patrol crew put their helmets back on and activated the grapples on the soles of their boots.
This was barely enough to keep them steady in the gale, with driving rain that brought the visibility down to only a few meters. Sabel's augmented vision cut through it to the shuttle, which allowed him to guide the others. It also gave him pause: “Commander Bradley, I believe the shuttle may have been damaged."
It was charred, for one, with a hole punched straight through the side of the hull. Molten metal had oozed down before solidifying, giving the unsettling impression of a scabbed wound. Eli's heart sank even before she got to the dead access panel on the shuttle's hatchway.
“TJ?" Bradley prompted.
The otter knelt next to the shuttle, opening a diagnostic port just behind the cockpit. When he connected his computer, there was no reply from the stricken Type 4. “Uh. We might have a problem, dude."
A fork of lightning split the air directly above them, casting the hangar bay in blinding light, terrifyingly brilliant even with the reflexive dimming of their visors. “What kind of 'problem,' spaceman?"
TJ switched the connection protocol and tried again. This time one of the shuttle's systems—a backup of a backup—managed to answer. “Every single system is giving errors. I… oh, wow. I've never even seen this."
Eli Parnell joined him, looking over the otter's shoulder at his computer screen. “'Auto-scram poss. fail no answer'? Is that for the main reactor?"
TJ nodded before realizing the helmet kept her from seeing it. “Yeah. Hold on, dude. Let me… here."
Err 15040 'Possible auto-scram failure.' This code is returned when the reactor emergency shutdown unit was commanded but did not provide a response code. This is most likely when the reactor does not have a TCRSC726 Part 9A compliant shutdown unit installed.
The diagnostic manual, having been written by Star Patrol bureaucrats, went on to explain the grave legal consequences of operating a reactor without such a protective system. This should not have applied to them: despite May's tenuous relationship with Star Patrol formalities, the shuttlepods were new and up to code.
Sabel had to force the rear hatch, at which point TJ didn't need a computer to see what had happened. The reactor safety had successfully triggered, but in the milliseconds of delay before it could report that success the energy surge had obliterated the entire unit.
“It's that," the otter pointed to a splatter of metal and composite painted against the wall of the engine bay. “Star Patrol made sure the reactor wouldn't explode. The safety unit wasn't so lucky…"
“We can't restart the—" the inside of the shuttlepod went white, and the booming shockwave rattled it against the hangar deck plating. “Can't restart the reactor, right?" Dave finished.
“No. No way, dude. It's fucked." Travis hadn't even known it was possible for a safety system to be quite so fucked, but so it went. “I don't know what this lightning is, but I've never seen anything like it."
“Shouldn't be out here, either, then. Get what you can—let's move back to the freighter."
It had now been almost ninety minutes; the storm was finally starting to dissipate, which May appreciated, but the fact remained that they'd been unable to raise the away team and the Akita's concern continued to mount.
Lieutenant Munro had taken their reconnaissance ship, the Tempest, and parked it at the edge of the planet's atmosphere. Thanks to its powerful sensors, they knew the shuttle had been disabled without taking off. Munro couldn't tell anything about the away team's status.
The vixen could only hope they weren't anything like the Type 4; she'd seen the damage to its outer hull. Any occupants would've been vaporized. She'd learned to appreciate Madison May's tendency for good luck, though. I'm sure they're fine. Her eye caught the 'incoming transmission' light; she turned the radio on. “Go ahead?"
It was Spaceman Alexander. “Any update, Tempest?"
“Nothing. No movement on the ship, or around the shuttle."
“Captain May says—uh—"
Madison took over. “Lieutenant, what about a spectral analysis? Can you tell if maybe they're alive from the oxygen content?"
She was grasping at straws, Munro figured. “I can try, captain, but from up here there's no way we can…" The radio started to flash again. “Wait one, Dark Horse."
“—Bradley. If anybody's listening…"
“Tempest to Bradley. I'm here. What's your status?"
“We're safe. The Type 4 is completely disabled, though, so we're stranded for the moment. I strongly advise you not to make any attempt at rescue until the storm has completely died down."
“But you're safe?"
On the bridge of the Dark Horse, Rika breathed a sigh of relief. Now that they knew the away team had survived she felt less guilty about thinking that it was exactly the sort of trouble you got into when you subjected yourself to environments with 'weather.'
Oh, sure, shoreside types liked to go on about 'blue skies'… never the attendant ultraviolet radiation, of course. Certainly never things like tornadoes and hailstones and 'snow'—'snow,' for God's sake! Chunks of ice falling from the sky? It was perverse.
Rika wouldn't voice this particular opinion aloud, because nobody else on the Dark Horse sympathized. But when Eli was back aboard ship, the dhole had every intention of holding it over her friend.
Before any of that could happen, the storm needed to abate. Twelve hours, give or take; that was what Barry Schatz figured from the behavior of the weather system so far. Dave signaled his acknowledgment and closed the channel. “Can you get anything done by then?"
TJ gave him a thumbs-up. “Plenty, dude. I've almost got this locked down. It's one of two power couplings just forward of main engineering. Fried at some point. They built this sucker good, though. Think the rest is working fine."
The shuttlepod's demise had given the otter an idea, and a bit of luck convinced him he was right: the engines were out because a safety mechanism on the freighter had been triggered in response to a lighting strike.
Her reactor was undamaged—that was why the internal systems had power, and why the radio worked well enough to send a distress call. Wallace had another hunch, too, though he was waiting for a decryption routine to run on the freighter's computer before saying it aloud.
He didn't know this was unnecessary: for their own reasons, everyone else on the away team had come to their own, identical conclusion about the Zevozli. Dave and Eli, scanning for any trace of organic compounds, found the remains of the microbes that presumably explained the absence of any crew. Those microbes were deceased, though, decayed near to the point of unrecognizability.
Sabel, looking back over his records of their descent, realized the damage to the jungle wasn't fresh. It was starting to grow back, the deep impact scar fading as new life took over. The Dark Horse had never stood a chance of rescuing the Zevozli's hapless crew.
“The logs," Wallace said—his revelation had proven a bit anticlimactic, but the otter was rallying—“are still decrypted. But I found the manifest. The Zevozli was carrying charged power storage units, and if I'm lining the dates up right, they were loaded about twenty years ago."
“Power storage units?" Dave asked.
TJ shrugged. Without their main computer, the translator didn't have enough information to make the description accurate, but from what he could decipher they were probably iridium-stabilized storage crystals. Those were common enough for civilizations who needed a safe way to ship energy from one place to another.
“Terraforming, maybe," Bradley pondered aloud. Most of the Terran Confederation's colonies were self-sufficient on power; it was only the newer settlements that required importing.
“Or one of those places where they use solar arrays or singularity generators; keep all big infrastructure off-world where it's cheaper and safer. They've been talking about doing that on Clearwater for ages, dude. Doesn't ever happen, but they talk about it."
Curiously, there was no sign of the cargo. Dave and Eli's survey had found nothing to indicate a struggle, either: no scoring, no debris from weapon's fire. The crew and cargo both had just vanished.
But then there was the matter of the distress signal. Someone had survived the crash. “More than one person," Sabel reminded Dave as the retriever walked through his thoughts aloud. “The distress call said there were twenty aboard."
“Maybe they got away? They were able to recover the cargo and leave." He rubbed behind his ear. “But then, why not turn off the distress call?"
“Perhaps it was automated. When lightning struck the ship, its backup systems resumed transmitting the original distress call, without anyone to turn it off."
Dave nodded. “Perhaps. It's all a bit mysterious. It gives one… pause."
Eli Parnell thought this greatly understated the matter. “It gives one the creeps, is what it does. A ghost ship broadcasting a distress call for twenty years? The sooner I'm back on the Dark Horse, the better."
Captain's log, stardate 67333.4
We've received good news from our away team on the surface. The Zevozli can be repaired with relatively minimal effort. All we need is one of our damage-control drones, and it can be flown out on its own power—which also allows us to recover the damaged shuttle without having to mount a separate operation. Dr. Schatz has created a device that will allow our drone to make the necessary repairs. He's agreed to go to the planet to oversee the operation and make sure the ship is working again.
Of course, that presumes somebody can fly her…
Lieutenant Parnell had already communicated her doubts to Madison May: they had a working understanding of the freighter's controls, but everything else about the Zevozli made the wolf uncomfortable. It was huge, and its gravity-based propulsion system didn't behave like a conventional sublight drive.
There were more pilots on the Dark Horse than might be expected for a ship of her size, and as the Akita quickly learned, Eli wasn't the only one who seemed apprehensive about how the Zevozli would perform. Jack Ford, in particular, shook his head. “I wouldn't chance it, myself."
Nearly all of his flight experience involved the Type 7 scout-interdictor—the “Riverjack," capable of flipping end over end in just under two hundred milliseconds. It was a world of difference from a bulk freighter the size of a skyscraper and, even as a coyote, he didn't want to volunteer himself.
“Sabel doesn't think he can learn how to fly it without risking 'catastrophic damage,' either," May said. “Commander Kamyshev is just a scout pilot, right? Like Lieutenant Munro?"
Jack nodded, ignoring the implication of 'just' in just a scout pilot. “They won't be much help. What about Ensign Srivastava, though?"
May summoned the dhole to her ready room. Seeing the two captains, Chandrika flattened her ears, as if she'd abruptly found herself facing a firing squad. The whole way, walking from her quarters, she'd been worried about what they might want.
And her fears would prove entirely justified, though she wouldn't discover the full extent for a few more minutes. In the interim, May reviewed everything that had been going on down on the planet's surface. She even called up a hologram of the ship's schematics, and explained her unconventional thrusters.
Rika nodded along with everything. “Yes, ma'am. A mass-shift drive. Not uncommon for older freighters, even in the Terran Confederation. There are plenty in the merchant marine."
“Have you ever seen one in operation?" Ford asked.
The dhole nodded. More than that, she'd practically grown up around cargo ships of various types—this was merely one more of those. “I was junior helmsman on one for my training semester at the Academy."
“Dr. Schatz mentioned something about why this one crashed," May mused out loud. “Something about its interaction with the planet?"
Chandrika had, incorrectly, started to believe that this was why she'd been brought to the ready room. She nodded, increasingly at ease. “Yes, ma'am. They experience magnified interference in hyperspace, and they're notoriously finicky about the transition. In the TC, they're really only used in deep-space travel."
May tilted her head. “Really? Hazelton said the opposite. Something about them being fragile and… used near planets?"
“No, ma'am. That's a reputation, but it's unfounded—or the result of people who don't know how to fly them. Trust me, I've heard from plenty of merchant mariners about freighters like these. The only problem is keeping an eye on your stability at FTL speeds. That's all."
Rika had grown up on a starbase far from the nearest troublesome star: Research Center Rosalind Franklin, whose remoteness was notorious. Maddy vaguely remembered this from the dhole's file, and decided her judgment could be trusted. “So they accidentally tumbled out of hyperspace and into a planet, and crashed before they could recover. Commander Bradley says it should be possible to repair the ship, though."
It didn't surprise the dhole; out of necessity, freighters like that tended to be overbuilt. If, as she understood, the problem was with the electrical system, then getting it back in orbit would be easy.
“We'll just need someone to fly it," May concluded. “Ensign, please prepare the other Type 4 shuttle for travel to the surface."
All at once Chandrika saw the trap she'd blundered into. She tried to recover. “Uh, ma'am? The surface?"
“I don't—um. I don't do—I don't do surfaces, ma'am. Planets are, uh. Planets aren't really my…" She trailed off, ears flattening at the stern look May was giving her.
“You'll have to find a way," the Akita said.
Rika swallowed. The note on Vassiliev's Syndrome was in her file. In her entire life, the dhole had seen 'sky'—horrible thing that it was—exactly once, and recovering from that took nearly a week. She abhorred planets. May should understand that!
May did understand, at least clinically. She was, however, more concerned that four of her crew were on the surface of an alien world and the best option for recovering them and the damaged shuttlepod was the dhole and her expertise.
The urgency of the matter was just more stress—Rika felt the lightheadedness coming as her panting grew faster. Sky. Atmosphere. All the things she'd been perfectly content to avoid… her posting to the Dark Horse had even been contingent on that…
Jack caught the dhole when darkness took her and she threatened to slump from her chair. “I'll talk to her when she comes around."
Captain May nodded, eyeing the unconscious helmsman with concern. “And if she's not up to it?"
“Try explaining it to Parnell, I guess. Maybe we can talk her through it? She's smart."
Rika figured out where she was shortly after opening her eyes in the Dark Horse's sickbay, whose lights had been turned down to ease her recovery. The dark shadow next to her she quickly intuited to be Jack Ford. “How long…"
“About fifteen minutes."
The dhole sat up carefully. “I'm sorry, captain. Captain May must think I'm such a…"
Jack shook his head. “She understands," he reassured her, although both of them were aware this was a very charitable interpretation of May's actual thoughts. “What do you want to do, ensign? Here's the thing: you're the closest thing we have to someone qualified for that ship. Maybe Parnell could manage, but…"
“I know," she said. “Don't you think I know? I didn't ask for anybody to put the ship where it is, sir."
“I looked up Vassiliev's Syndrome in the ship's databanks. I see there isn't much of a treatment for it, huh?" He didn't really have any way to relate, but the coyote wanted to be sympathetic.
Chandrika had explained it hundreds of times to people at all levels of the Star Patrol. Why would there be a treatment? Do you expect there to be a 'treatment' for Nizari not functioning well on high-gravity planets? Do you expect there to be a 'treatment' for Terrans requiring underwater breathing equipment? Of course not.
She'd grown up with the artificial gravity, lighting, and atmosphere of RCRF and the transport vessels serving the research center. There wasn't a way to treat Vassiliev's Syndrome any more than there was a way to treat someone trapped in a small, dark box from 'feeling' confined.
Star Patrol understood and accepted the dhole because there had been plenty of opportunities for someone to serve without setting foot on a planet's surface. And she was a good pilot; her marks excused what most of them were inclined to see as an idiosyncrasy.
Except now. Now there didn't seem to be a way out.
“Can you talk Parnell through it?" Jack asked. “She's qualified for large ships."
“I doubt it, not remotely."
“What about me? I've tried my hand at the Dark Horse a few times. Could you train me?"
She flattened her ears. “No, sir. It's an entirely different kind of flying altogether."
“Then we're back to you. What if we treated this like an instrument training op? You've flown around gravity wells, right? This wouldn't be any different."
“And pretend I wasn't on a planet?"
“Yeah. Think that could work?"
Rika took a deep breath. “Yes."
“If you keep asking, sir, I might change my mind."
The coyote laughed knowingly. “Got it. I'll start modifying a shuttle for you."
Only the control panels offered any illumination in the cockpit of the Type 4. The Zevozli was in daylight, and the system's star should've been brilliant—but the viewscreens had been completely deactivated; there was no sign of the outside world.
Just like docking with a space station, Rika told herself. “One thousand kilometers. Is the course… good?"
It was as 'good' as Barry could make it, limited by the accuracy of their weather models. “Yes. It's fine," the collie told the dhole's dim silhouette. “You can begin your descent whenever."
“Approach," Rika corrected. “My approach."
“You can begin your approach whenever. There shouldn't be any…"
Barry stopped talking, because 'turbulence' was also liable to be contraindicated as a term, and he wasn't sure how else to describe atmospheric phenomena to a helmsman who was unable to deal with atmospheres. On the other hand, it was sort of an interesting problem—there were species whose language relied heavily on metaphor, and they could paint vivid pictures of unfamiliar scenarios.
“There should be minimal stochastic inertial events. If there are, I'll try to compensate for you."
Rika took the charitable interpretation of this last phrase: 'compensate on your behalf,' not 'compensate for your limitations.' In this she was correct; Schatz had no reason to judge Ensign Srivastava. Despite everything, the dhole had volunteered to land the shuttle, and to fly the Zevozli back into orbit.
They just had to get there first. As they approached the surface, its contours appeared as colored points of glowing light on the viewscreen—objects without depth or unnecessary context. All Rika needed to know was how to avoid them.
A stochastic inertial event kicked the shuttle into a sharp bank, and the dhole fought to bring it back on course. “I thought you were compensating," Rika growled tersely.
They dropped a hundred swift meters, rose thirty; dropped again. And the nearer they got to the surface, the more intense the turbulence became—too chaotic for Barry to effectively predict it. “I'm doing what I can, but…"
This is what you get, Rika decided. This is what you get when you try to play nice with planets. She'd known it was a bad idea. Somehow in a brief moment of madness she'd convinced herself that she could handle it, but it was a bad idea from the outset and now the fucking—
“Collision alarm," Barry warned. “There's a… an obstacle dead ahead, twenty kilometers out. It'll be easier to pass it on the right."
The illusion had grown hard to maintain for the dhole: it was obviously a mountain, and obviously she had to pass it above or to the side—there was no way underneath it because she was trying to land a shuttle on an actual, honest-to-god planet with seventy kilometers of nitrogen and oxygen pressing down atop her.
But she turned the ship, and the clinical wireframe of the peak swept by the port windscreen. This was the last part—they were in a valley now, with the Zevozli drawing ever-nearer. Rika fired the retro-thrusters and slowed the shuttle.
“Are conditions good for landing?"
“Should be. Just watch the… uh…"
“Call it whatever it is."
Barry added the air currents to her display. “There's a strong updraft coming off the southern cliff wall. You'll need to be ready for it."
It hit them with a hard jolt, but she steadied the Type 4 and let it drift down until her computer plotted the other downed shuttle and she was able to identify a suitable landing point. The rest was easy—a final thump when they touched down, like they were in an ordinary shuttlebay.
Then she cut the engines, and heard the sound of the wind for the first time. The darkened cockpit only seemed to magnify its harsh shrieking over the hull of the Zevozli and the rocks to either side of her resting place.
Rika gritted her teeth. “Let's get this over with."
So much of the data at Spaceman Alexander's station was chaotic that she almost missed the new signal when it showed up on her console. And then, for another few seconds, she was only concerned with why it didn't seem to be coming from the surface.
The Abyssinian frowned heavily. “Contact. Another ship just dropped out of hyperspace. It has the same energy signature as the Zevozli."
“Hail them," May ordered.
“No response. They're on an intercept course, ma'am. Two hundred thousand kilometers away and closing."
Madison sighed. They're going to be difficult, the Akita thought. I just know it. “Action stations. State Gold, please. Dr. Beltran, report to the bridge."
The other ship looked rather like the Zevozli, though it was twenty times the freighter's mass. All that extra size apparently didn't trouble them—they'd join the Dark Horse in orbit in a little under two hours.
Felicia Beltran spent her time examining everything the away team had transmitted up from the surface. The leopardess was at the point of a working understanding of the alien language. She hoped it would pass muster.
“The ship is hailing us."
“Open a channel." May waited until she saw the confirmation. “This is Captain Madison May, of the Star Patrol ship—"
“Grave-robber. Thief," the other vessel cut her off.
At least we know the translator is working, Beltran thought, when May shot her a look. Felicia cleared her throat. “We found a crashed starship on the surface. It has a similar configuration to yours."
“Of course it does. It is one of ours. And now we know who was responsible for its disappearance."
“We were responding to a distress call," Dr. Beltran explained.
“There was no distress call. We received no distress call."
Spaceman Alexander temporarily muted the outgoing transmission. “Doc? It's still broadcasting, for what it's worth. You want the frequency?"
Beltran nodded, and reopened the channel. “Perhaps we misinterpreted the distress beacon. It is still transmitting. If you scan the surface, you will discover—"
“That is not our language. Not our technology. You don't fool us."
Mitch didn't like the energy surge she was picking up from the other ship. “Captain, I think they're powering up their weapons."
Damn it, of course they are. I knew they'd be difficult. And both helmsmen were on the surface. May took direct control of the Dark Horse, backing them away from the new starship. “Shields up. Tactical, stand by."
Dr. Beltran knew it was up to her to defuse the situation. “There is no attempt at subterfuge. We were simply responding to what we understood to be a request for help. If that is not accurate, then—"
“You'll leave immediately or we'll destroy you."
“We still have crew on the surface. We—"
“Grave robbers!" the voice from the other ship insisted. “So it seems we understood your intent perfectly."
At the tactical station, Leon Bader was able to adjust their shields to take the worst of the impact that followed, but the sheer power of the blast worried him. “Captain, forward shields are holding, but I'm not sure we want to tangle with them."
“Close the channel," May growled. “CCI, get a signal to the surface and tell them what's going on."
“Trying, but we've lost line of sight. With the atmospheric interference, ma'am, I'm not sure they heard us."
TJ checked the last report from the damage-control robot, which claimed to have finished its analysis of the power grid. Barry's construction skills left a lot to be desired—most of his modification to the drone was bare wire and optical cable, untidily shrouding a Confed-standard recoupler he'd untidily fused to the drone's arm—but the design was solid and it did the job. “Hey, dudes? I think we're good. Power looks stable."
Commander Bradley was more than ready to leave the surface, chiefly because—like all of them—he was more than happy to leave the Zevozli. The retriever just hoped the smell would come out of his fur at some point. “Good. Ensign Srivastava, how's it coming?"
“I'll need main power up to be sure, but I think I understand the controls." She also felt sure she had, in fact, found the ship's bridge. There were no windows and no huge viewscreen like on the Dark Horse. The others had ignored the room even after TJ's analysis suggested it was the center of the thruster control network, as a result, but Rika wasn't surprised.
“Even better," Dave said.
Sabel Thorsen, in the engineering space with TJ and Eli Parnell, checked in over the radio with an update from the Dark Horse. “They broke orbit to meet with the new ship. We're now out of communication range."
The last update Bradley and the others received had said only that a starship had joined Madison May and the Dark Horse—apparently similar to the Zevozli—and that May was trying to talk to them.
Without guidance, the decision was up to the retriever, and he didn't feel like waiting any longer. “Bring the reactor out of standby. Carefully."
TJ Wallace hoped he was doing the right thing, and transmitted the command to the damage-control robot. Lights came on throughout the ship, though the ultraviolet was above the visual range of everyone but Sabel Thorsen. Wallace just saw the energy output increasing. “So far, so good."
Two hundred meters forward, on the bridge, Rika waited by the control panel she expected to be the ship's helm. After thirty seconds, it came to life. Yes, there it is. Precisely the type needed to control a ship with gravitic thrusters. “Commander, the engines are online."
Bradley kept the radio link open. “All hands, standby for test firing. Ensign, whenever you're ready."
“Two percent vertical translation. Three… two… one… now." She held her finger against the control, and a shudder reverberated all the way through the Zevozli. The dhole lifted her finger; the shuddering stopped. “Spaceman Wallace, what does the impulse-response check look like?"
Travis compared the thruster output to the stress it had put on the freighter. “Uh, give me three percent?" The shuddering was noticeably stronger. “Five? Cool, uh, wait a sec, dude."
Ensign Srivastava looked over at Lieutenant Commander Bradley. “'Dude'?"
“I've come to suspect he was absent the day they covered protocol like that," the retriever said. “But he's smart. And it takes all kinds, doesn't it?"
Given that similar things had been said about Rika herself, the dhole nodded. She grasped the subtext of what Dave hinted at. Anyway, officer or not, she didn't really need to be saluted. “True…"
“Okay, dude. Your throttle response is linear, with an amplification coefficient of 171 and a thrust factor of 2.7. Just a guess, but, uh, from the compensator setup, that factor goes to 2.1 if the differential is over forty-seven kilokaras."
“What makes you say that?"
“Hunch? Like, uh… here, I can try to transmit the schematics." They appeared, floating as a dim hologram projected from the communicator on Rika's wrist. “It's sorta neat, like, I thought the radials on either side of the cargo bay were redundant, but, uh, I pulsed them at the grid frequency and they're like some kinda self-reinforcing intrinsic mass generator."
Rika snapped her wrist to close the hologram. “Not your first gravity-drive freighter, huh? You know how these ships work?"
“Never seen one of 'em before. Just a hunch, dude, like I said. Anyway, structural integrity's good and stuff, so like, I guess you're ready."
Dude, Rika thought. But Bradley was right about the otter's competence. “I'm going to take us straight up, at first, slowly. Let me know if there's any hull stress or alarms."
“You got it, boss. Standing by."
She looked to Dave, who nodded his permission. Rika guessed at a good takeoff mass for the starship and dialed it in. This time, as she advanced the throttle, the shuddering was immediate and violent—but only for a second or two. Then the ride smoothed out.
After twenty years, the Zevozli was flying.
One more thing—the gravity fluctuations coming from the planet were just one more thing. Alexander was trying to focus on keeping Ensign Bader updated as the attacking starship varied the modulation of its energy weapons. She triangulated the new data as quickly as she could. “Captain, the freighter's energy signature has changed. I think they're taking off."
Madison wondered if the Zevozli was as inexplicably maneuverable as the enemy warship was proving to be. She'd been trying to keep the Dark Horse out of their firing arc—the main weapon seemed to point straight forward—but that had been a lost cause.
Now she was compelled to increase the distance from the ship, while not completely abandoning the planet. And that, too, was easier said than done. The Akita growled. “Hail our new friends, please."
“Channel open. I think."
“Hey. Look. Do you notice I haven't returned fire?"
“That isn't our concern. You haven't left, either."
“Like I said, we want to get our crew back. The freighter on the surface has lifted off. You can have it back. You can have your damned ship, which I didn't want—"
“More lies! It is a cursed place. Nothing leaves."
May shut her eyes and gritted her teeth. “Please. Check. Your damned. Sensors."
Silence. “For what—your trap?"
She stabbed the control to put the channel on hold. “For the love of God. Dr. Beltran, will you please talk some sense into them?"
The leopardess turned her paws up hopelessly. “First contact is not always easy, captain, unfortunately. I do not know why they would think it to be a—"
“Multiple new contacts," Mitch announced. These ones, though, were familiar. “They're pirates, captain. I count eighteen Wanesh-class raiding ships. Four minutes to intercept."
One more thing. May thought it at the same time as Alexander, albeit for different reasons. The alien warship was, at least, in between the new attackers and the Star Patrol cruiser. She called Captain Ford, who was standing by in the shuttlebay with his wingman, Commander Kamyshev. “You following this?“
“Yep. You want us to launch?"
“Yes—we'll need cover."
“Roger that. We'll be aloft in two minutes."
Madison rubbed her temple and unmuted her open channel to the aliens. “These aren't our friends. We should—"
Before she could finish saying 'engage them,' the aliens fired again, and the Dark Horse's rear deflector wavered at the impact. “Seventy percent," Leon Bader reported. “The pirates are also opening fire."
They were all familiar with how the raiders operated. Their heavily armed corvettes were packed with missiles, and the big alien dreadnought couldn't hope to evade all of them. Heavily armored as she was, the damage still looked unpleasant.
“Another salvo or two, and they're going to start losing their hull. They're turning to engage the pirates," Leon added. It took some pressure off the Dark Horse, although the German Shepherd didn't say that because he knew what would be coming next.
Maddy counted to ten in her head, snarling heavily in an attempt to regain her sense of charity—or at least to redirect her irritation on the proper targets. “I have the conn. I'm taking us about. Ready the point-defense grid and get me firing solutions on those fucking pirates."
“Yes, ma'am. Point-defense grid is operational."
“Where are our scouts?"
“Six hundred kilometers to port, ma'am."
A wave of the Akita's paw converted the forward viewscreen into a tactical plot of the evolving battle. The pirate corvettes were too small and too maneuverable for the dreadnought to effectively track them, and the missiles kept coming. “Jack, I need you two to cover that ship. Take out as many warheads as you can."
“Understood," the coyote said.
It wasn't so simple, and the Akita knew that. She was putting them right in the middle of what was about to become a three-way fight. But, like her, Jack had internalized the Star Patrol's moral code. He wouldn't have protested.
The markers for all eighteen raiders lit up one at a time as Leon computed firing solutions on them. Maddy chose three of the closest. “Selecting attack pattern Beta-4. Ensign Bader?"
It was a profile designed to hit multiple targets in quick succession, each with a quarter of the Dark Horse's weapons. Theoretically possible, though tight—but he'd practiced enough in the simulators. “Ready for framing, ma'am."
The guidance computer suggested a course for May to follow. It also suggested that the maneuver was impossible, which the Akita chose to ignore. “Framing in fifteen. Zero on all secondaries. Tactical interlock… now."
As the framing maneuver finished, helm control passed temporarily to Leon's station so he could align the particle cannons. The shepherd worked as quickly as he could; it was all over in two seconds. “Two ships disabled. I missed the third."
And they were, suddenly, very interested in the Dark Horse. “Incoming," May warned.
The cruiser's point-defense cannons did their job commendably—and they'd had lots of practice dealing with the pirates. Only two missiles made impact. “Dorsal shields holding, ninety percent. The alien warship has sustained critical damage, however. Their maneuvering thrusters appear to be highly compromised."
“Hail—no. Screw it. The aliens can wait. CCI, open a channel to the pirates."
“The pirates? Er… yes, ma'am. Done." Mitch assumed that the Akita knew what she was doing; May had a good sense of intuition.
“Call off your attack and get out of here: this one's mine. Let me have it, or we keep shooting."
“This is our territory, outsider," the voice on the other end of the line retorted.
May growled without muting her outgoing transmission. “Not anymore. Back the fuck off, asshole."
“Who are you to steal this claim? What house do you belong to?"
Her claws dug in to the armrest of the captain's chair. “I'm Captain Madison May of the Star Patrol. If you're smart, you know that name. I've met your kind before. If you're not smart, you're about to find out. Tactical, ready particle cannons." She left the channel open for that last part, then killed their commlink and picked new targets.
She didn't get to the point of choosing an attack pattern before the signals started disappearing. “FTL signatures," Mitch called out. “I don't even think they've plotted a destination, they're just running."
“Good." The Akita steadied herself, waiting for the last pirates to vanish. “Now that that's over with, let's see if we can find anybody more interested in talking."
Captain's log, stardate 67335
The Mez'hoosh claim to be ancient residents of the Rewa-Tahi sector. Ayenni's unfamiliarity with them now has a clear answer: they have no homeworld. Their entire civilization lives in space, drifting from star to star and avoiding contact with more settled societies.
Ishvel, captain of the dreadnought Sarahi, tells us that—as a nomadic people—every ship is sacred to them. Knowing the fate of the Zevozli brings closure to the crew's families, some of whom will share ownership of the vessel, now that it has been restored to operation. He has spent five years looking for the wreck; reactivating its systems apparently gave them the clue they needed.
Ishvel apologized for the aggressiveness of our first encounter, but the more I've learned, the more I understand it. The Mez'hoosh are wary of what they view as expansionist empires, and when I told him the size of the Terran Confederation and our mission of exploration, he clearly wanted to consider us in the same category.
Their technology is extremely advanced—the Sarahi's hyperdrive is faster than our own by an order of magnitude, and their ability to collect and store energy has no parallel anywhere in the Terran Confederation. I didn't even bother asking if he'd be willing to share.
We offered to help repair the Sarahi, but our assistance was politely declined. According to Ishvel, the ship is four millennia old, and I wonder how much we really could've helped, anyway. He says it is unlikely that we'll meet again—but I think of this as a successful first contact, nonetheless.
The door to May's ready room slid open, and Chandrika stepped through. “You wanted to see me, captain?"
“I did. I was wondering if I could get your thoughts on that ship. The dreadnought, I mean—the Sarahi."
It looked a little like a flying city: a main 'street' ran the full length of its two-kilometer midline on both top and bottom of the hull. Perpendicular 'streets' banded the rectangular hull, at regular intervals. They were not actually streets—Rika recognized them as inertial compensators for the starship's gravity drive.
But they looked like it, and the dreadnought's superstructure rose like ordinary buildings in between. The dhole was amazed by it, and by the way it was obvious that the Sarahi had been constructed over a period of centuries—the structures were made from different materials, with different colors, of different architectural styles.
“It's marvelous, ma'am, if you ask me. I've never seen a work of engineering quite so advanced—according to the after-action report, it maneuvers almost as well as we do. And it's significantly better-armed."
“Yeah. Those turrets fire energy beams more powerful than ours by an order of magnitude. You can imagine how Lieutenant Hazelton's eyes lit up when she saw that. And Ensign Bader's, for that matter. Me, I have to wonder… what must it be like to live your whole life in space?"
“You mean, without seeing the surface of a planet?"
“It's not really deprivation, captain. I wonder what it would be like on Terra, back in the iron age. Living in a two-dimensional world and thinking that was normal…"
May smiled. “That's fair enough. Sunsets, though. I'd miss sunsets."
“Would you? What you call a 'sun' is just a star, captain. I grew up without expecting there'd be anything between me and the stars except the wall of a starbase or the hull of my ship. No atmosphere in the way to hide its color or blur my ability to see it."
The Akita wasn't about to give up the sight of blue sky, herself, but she could stretch to understand what the dhole meant. “It would be different," she allowed. “I also wanted to thank you for your help getting the Zevozli back. I know it was a hardship, but you did it anyway. That's the kind of mentality we need in the Star Patrol, if you ask me. I guess you could be right—you belong in space. I trust you. All I know is, you definitely belong here."