Back to the Dark Horse, where we explore the meaning of the Prime Directive and also one of the crew becomes a god. As you do.
Apologies for the slight delay in posting this, and welcome to the New Year! We're back aboard the Dark Horse, for an episode about the Prime Directive because hey, why not? Patreon subscribers, this should also be live for you with notes and a bonus sex scene written by the inimitable :iconSpudz:. He offered to write one, and he did a very good job with it, but in the end from a story flow perspective I wound up leaving this one clean >.>
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
S4E4, “Responsibility to Protect"
Science officer's log, stardate 67265.6
Orbital scans indicating massive amounts of tucelian ore on this planet were—if anything—understating what we'd find. It isn't the largest, according to the databanks: that honor belongs to the Varsham mine on Varsha II. Still, the accessibility and purity of the ore is remarkable, and it certainly justifies the detour we took to get here.
To be honest, the asteroid doesn't interest me. I'm sure it will be entertaining to watch, but the real story is here on the surface. I'm beginning to develop a theory about the formation of tucelian veins which, if true, would imply—
“I'm telling you, it doesn't look natural." Something about the canyon face bothered Sakata, even if the tanuki had a hard time making his case without anything concrete to point at. It didn't look like it had been channeled by wind and water alone, not to him.
TJ Wallace didn't particularly agree, although—in any case—he also didn't particularly care. “How many planets have you been on, dude? Visit enough of 'em, you start to see weird stuff." This was a beautiful one, with a breathable atmosphere and clear skies. He wasn't really looking forward to leaving—but in any case, they had work to do. The otter double-checked his handheld scanner. “I think we're ready. Sabel?"
“Stand clear." The spitz waited, and triggered the remote explosives. The sound reverberated through the canyon; soon, the dust cleared on the results of a perfect demolition. “We can begin collecting the ore now."
“Roger that." TJ summoned the away team's antigravity sled, and began sorting through the rock with the highest quantities of tucelian. It was easy enough to tell; the micro-crystals caught the sunlight, splintering it into a thousand sparks of energetic violet.
They didn't need much—really, the away team was purely opportunistic. Half a kilogram of crystal would be more than enough to calibrate the fine-tuning of the ship's main reactor. The canyon seemed to have tons of it.
“Maybe that's why it seems unnatural," Barry Schatz suggested, picking up a pebble and examining it closely. “The strength of the crystal would be enough to change the erosion patterns on the cliff walls. Things like that have happened before."
“I guess, sir." Junya Sakata wasn't convinced. He wouldn't have been convinced by the Border Collie's full explanation, mostly because a “full explanation" would mostly consist of random examples completely opaque to anyone who didn't live inside the collie's head.
Instead, the tanuki left the pile of rocks behind, picking his way further up the cliff. The planet had some life, at least. There were plants on the surface, and a flash of movement turned out to be a scuttling arthropod that darted swiftly away when disturbed.
Down in the canyon, though, everything was quiet. And, while they finished up their work, Dr. Schatz returned to his log, eager to commit the contents of his overeager brain to memory. There was, he thought, at least a paper to be written out of the geological survey.
Even more, if the crew on the Tempest finds something interesting. I bet they're as excited as I am.
“It's a rock." Lieutenant Munro flicked her paw, sharing her sensor readouts to the other station so Mitch Alexander could see them more clearly. “We can say that pretty unequivocally."
Mitch grinned. “Not for long, right?"
Ciara wasn't always sure what to make of the Abyssinian, whose informality was a little perplexing. Nor did she seem to have much use for personal space—ignoring her own console, the feline was leaning very close to Munro's side.
Of course Mitch's reasons for joining Ciara aboard the Tempest were complex. It wasn't just that she wanted to get a good look at the inside of an advanced prototype. It also wasn't just that she wanted to get a good look at the 'rock' six days from impacting the planet's surface.
But, as the vixen didn't seem good at picking up on cues—or was willfully ignoring them, Mitch couldn't decide—she focused on the asteroid and the ship surveying it. Breaking Munro out of her shell could come later.
Watching the asteroid impact in real-time was both exciting and scientifically useful, and Mitch appreciated having the excuse. Captain May ordered the Tempest to approach as close as possible, taking copious readings so they could interpret the results of the collision.
The away team on the surface was supposed to be doing the same thing. Once they were done collecting their ore, all that remained would be for the crew to watch the fireworks.
But they had six days to anticipate that happening. “Can we get a closer look at that ridge there?" the Abyssinian asked.
“Which ridge?" As far as Munro was concerned they all looked the same.
Mitch took the vixen's paw, guiding it to the right spot. “This one. It looks almost like there's an opening leading deeper into the asteroid."
Ciara blinked. The spaceman's touch was mildly surprising, though by that point things were starting to fall into place even for Ciara, given that the Abyssinian was only a few centimeters away, and she could see her long tail swaying. “It's probably just more rock…"
“But we could investigate. We do have time," Mitch pointed out.
Carefully, Munro adjusted the Tempest's course. “We do, spaceman, yes, I just don't know exactly what you think we might find there."
“We won't know until we're there." She bumped her shoulder lightly against the vixen's own—not given to thinking of her as 'lieutenant' the way Munro was given to considering Alexander 'spaceman'—and stepped back to let her reposition the scout ship.
“We could guess that it will be rock." She brought them to a halt, relative to the asteroid, and began an in-depth scan of the surface. “Which is what it seems like."
“Do you need it to be more worthwhile?"
She's purring, Ciara realized. “Wait. Are you… serious?"
Mitch leaned closer, her eyes narrowing with the feline's predatory grin. “Why not? Why do you think people take assignments like this?"
The vixen was relatively certain Star Patrol had not designed their regulations under the assumption that secluded shuttle missions would be used to blow off steam. She was even more certain, though, that Mitch was going to disagree.
In this she was wrong, albeit only on a technicality. “Two minutes until the first scan's done," the Abyssinian said. She looped her arms around the vixen's back, pressing closer until their noses touched. “You can make up your mind then. And who knows? Maybe we'll find something, after all. Have to stick around…"
Ciara's ears twitched. “I don't know about that…"
“Sakata to the bridge. We've found something."
Siraj Ahmed, who'd taken Alexander's usual station on the bridge, glanced behind him at Lieutenant Commander Bradley, who was standing watch. Bradley shrugged, and Ahmed took the initiative. “Bridge here. Can you be more specific, chief?"
“Not really. But I'm switching my camera on. Are you seeing this?"
After a moment of brief surprise, the Ethiopian wolf transferred the image directly to the main viewscreen. He didn't know what he was looking at—not exactly—but the precise, geometric runes etched into the rock clearly hadn't occurred naturally.
Bradley sucked in a sharp breath: he didn't know enough of geology or engineering to be intrigued by minerals—but alien writing was a different matter altogether. “Get high-res scans on that. See if Sabel's suit can collect any more data. Captain May, Dr. Beltran, please report to the bridge."
By the time the two arrived, Sabel Thorsen had transmitted a fresh set of imagery, and his assessment of weathering on the petroglyphs. According to the spitz, they'd been left 'recently'—in geological time, at least.
“It does not match anything in the sector database," Beltran concluded. “Accordingly, I am not able to guess at what they might mean."
Madison May tilted her head. “Not at all, doc? Can you try?"
There were only a dozen symbols—not enough to attempt any sort of translation. The leopardess knew that her guess would, of necessity, be highly speculative. “Not with any particular rigor."
“Try without the rigor, instead, then. What does your intuition say?"
“They do not appear to be iconic or artistic. The fourth and eighth symbols are nearly identical, and all of them share the same patterns and angles. I would guess some sort of glyphic or alphabetic writing system, captain—but I could be quite mistaken. Perhaps their art is simply geometric, and it happens to take this form."
Barry Schatz, on the surface, chimed in. “The civilization that created them was post-metallurgical. The tucelian in the granite makes it harder than normal, for one, but… based on Sabel's scans, there's trace amounts of iron where the rock has been carved. I tried estimating the age from the oxidation of the iron, but there's not enough of it to draw practical conclusions from my end, either. But, uh, I think Sabel's right—between fifty and five thousand years seems to be a good guess."
“Understood. We'll get back to you. Bridge out." Madison closed the channel, looking at Bradley and Beltran. “Thoughts?"
“There's no sign the planet is inhabited, Maddy, and everything about it looks inhospitable. The life down there is multicellular, but otherwise primitive—as far as we know. I don't think the team is in danger."
Maddy didn't think so, either, but she did regret letting Schatz take lead on the mission. The Border Collie was smart, and she'd wanted him there to make decisions about the best way to collect the mineral, but…
“How much work remains to be done?" Beltran asked. “It is my recommendation that the away team conclude as quickly as possible, to prevent further contamination. Just in case."
Dave Bradley nodded. “I agree with Dr. Beltran, Maddy. No need to risk any confrontation. We can do plenty with the tucelian we already have."
Spaceman Ahmed's console lit up, preempting the discussion altogether. “Transmission from the surface, captain."
“Put it through."
“Bridge, Sakata. We've detected life signs—they're coming our way. I don't know how many, and I don't know what they want."
“Get back to the shuttle. Right now."
The first arrow whipped past Sakata's head a second later. He couldn't see where it had come from—as if it had been fired from the rock itself.
Sabel Thorsen could see; computers in his suit had immediately resolved the trajectory. By reflex he snapped the blaster into his right paw, vaporizing the next arrow in mid-flight before it could find its way to Travis Wallace.
“Get back," the spitz ordered. “I'll cover you."
He didn't know why he said it, at least not consciously: it was a pre-programmed directive, hardwired into the spitz by the engineers who created him. Survival of his crewmates was his first priority—and, after all, he was the only one with any weaponry.
At least thirty of the planet's evident natives were approaching, all of them armed. Four had bows: four quick, precise shots severed their strings, and that put a bit of caution into the rest. Sabel didn't have to look to see that the rest of the away team was, indeed, running back for the shuttle. He just knew it, the same way he knew that he had to defend them, because his tactical systems beamed their locations straight into his brain.
TJ Wallace reached the shuttle first; the otter started going through everything he remembered of the startup checklist, bringing the engines online and double-checking the reactor output. Adrenaline kept all of it purely instinctive.
A panting Barry Schatz was next. Life on the Dark Horse had rarely been safe, but watching a spear plunge to the ground half a meter from where his next step would've carried him was an entirely new kind of peril. He tapped his wristband communicator frantically. “Bridge, away team—we're—under attack. Wallace and—and I—are at the shuttle, but—"
“Me, too," Sakata shouted. “We're just missing Sabel."
And the spitz had been outflanked: a dozen natives, staying in cover, were now between him and the shuttlecraft. This didn't really bother him; as far as he was concerned, he'd done his job. “You should be able to execute an auto-return maneuver," he said calmly, into his radio. “The ship will fly itself."
“That's not the point!"
Before Sakata could explain further, the tanuki found himself spinning—then, a moment later, the cold shock of impact, and the tugging weight of the spear impaling his chest. And Sabel Thorsen seemed to have vanished. He heard Wallace shouting his name.
“Chief! Doc—can you get us up?"
Schatz was still trying to figure out where Sabel had gone. One minute the spitz was there; the next, he'd disappeared, and there was nothing on sensors. Wallace's voice, and an abrupt scream from the fallen Sakata, jarred the Border Collie back into action. He tapped the button to shut the door, and activated the autopilot.
Sakata's legs buckled as Wallace guided him to the floor—then the pain hit, and his vision started to dim, daylight vanishing as the shuttle's rear hatch closed.
Sabel—where did Sabel—
“The shuttle will be back aboard in twelve minutes, captain," Siraj Ahmed reported. “Chief Sakata has been stabilized—sickbay is standing by."
“What about Sabel?"
“I don't know. I'm sorry." The telemetry was an absolute mess: the shuttle's sensors weren't pointed in the right direction to catch what had happened. All the Ethiopian wolf could tell was that the computer abruptly stopped receiving his life-signs.
May growled. “I need better answers than that. Dave, what do we do?"
“The rock composition resists our sensors, Maddy. We can try recalling the Tempest, but I don't know that Munro will have any better luck. It might take another away team."
“In unfamiliar territory. Against an unknown, but hostile, society. That'll be great." The Akita managed to keep from swearing, but not easily. “Teleporters—that's what we need. Is Sabel alive?"
“Again, Maddy, I don't—"
“Yes." All eyes on the bridge turned to Spaceman Ahmed. “He's alive, ma'am. I've got a downlink from his suit on our backup transceiver's frequencies. It's intermittent, but his vital signs look okay."
“Open a channel."
Generally, when the ship's electronics failed, the result was a simple message at the CCI console. Something like “there was insufficient memory in the databank to download the sensor results," or “the incoming signal uses an unrecognized modulation and cannot be decoded," or “the infrared imager has been damaged by weapons fire."
This time the message said only: “failure (see more about: failure?)," and when Ahmed did so the screen went black. NotImplementedError: Cannot configure IRMC array parameters because no bindings exist in libngrcp2 for a model with no antenna.
The Ethiopian wolf cocked his head and tried again, in case they'd simply been unlucky. The result was identical, and self-evidently perplexing because all of their communication equipment did have antennas.
“I'm having a little difficulty getting a link open," he said, stalling for time while he looked for documentation on the secondary communications systems.
“Boost power to the receiver and try again."
May came from a school of thought that believed most problems could be solved by increasing power to them; it was one of her first courses of action. Ahmed knew the reality to be slightly more complicated than that.
When, five minutes later, he reached a tentative conclusion “complicated" was the least of it. The transceiver's software used a long-dead programming language—the last checkin had been in 2342—and none of them knew how to make changes to it. He summarized the problem to May in her ready room, with the senior staff gathered.
“The life-support computers use an extremely low-bandwidth protocol for their telemetry, designed for resiliency and simplicity. It doesn't appear to support two-way communication, and even if we could, there's no way to adapt our comms system to it."
Maddy nodded. “So. He's healthy, apparently. But we can't talk to him. How do we rescue him?"
“From an intelligence standpoint, we're at a slight disadvantage." Ever since hearing of Sabel's capture, Leon Bader had thought of no other problem than the one his captain now proposed. “We understand the terrain, but nothing of the enemy's disposition—or numbers. But, we do know there are enough of them that Sabel hasn't been able to escape."
“He might've been disarmed," Bradley suggested. “Or he can't escape the cell he's in without bringing the building down. It doesn't necessarily tell us much about the native's capabilities."
Barry Schatz raised his paw tentatively. “May I?" Just as tentatively, Bradley let the Border Collie speak. “I conducted an analysis of the spear we, uh… recovered. The spear's tip is made of flint, shaped through pressure-flaking. Given the fine work and some of the microscopic characteristics, I think it's likely they used a metal point for that. By way of analogy, it could've come from any number of Terran cultures in the early neolithic."
“What else could they hit us with, then?" At Bradley's question, Captain May got up and went to her display board, waiting.
“I don't know," Schatz admitted. “Technological progress doesn't follow a fixed path. On some planets, points like these were common even after electrification. On Terra, they predate agriculture. I believe they also used metal tools to create the rock carvings we saw, and that might imply they can work iron. My best guess, sir, is that the natives are relatively advanced but probably pre-industrial. Plasma rifles are unlikely, but quite conceivably they're still well-armed and armored."
May settled on writing: No disintegrators. “We could take them, then."
Leon nodded firmly. Indeed, he had several plans ready for such an occasion. “With long-range weaponry, it wouldn't even be difficult. I recommend using shuttles to insert two combat teams, led by myself and Ms. Smith, each with a dedicated marksman to cover us."
“We don't have many marines handy," the Akita pointed out. “Coming in peace, as we do. We do that still, please recall."
As a fighter pilot, Jack Ford leaned more in the direction of Leon's sensibilities. “They attacked us first. For what it's worth, Commander Kamyshev went through marksman training before transferring to flight school. He could do it. I could, too, in a pinch."
“Or," Bradley spoke up before any more volunteers offered themselves. “We attack, and they decide their hostage should be executed. Spaceman Ahmed, if it turns out that Sabel's communication equipment is still functioning, how could we raise him?"
“Proximity, sir. The mineral content of that valley is almost a perfect shield for our radio frequencies. We'd need to be within a kilometer or so."
Maddy wrote that, too, and clicked her tongue. “That still means a ground team. Right? There's no way to be discreet with a shuttle. Which means we need to have another conversation…"
Felicia Beltran sat in darkness, with her legs folded and her tail curled about, the tip twitching in her lap. What can we do about this? What will they really need to know?
Section Three of the Terran Confederation's Diplomatic Protocol Codex outlined the standard procedures for first contact. She knew most of them by heart—even the ones that hadn't been covered line-by-line at the Academy, back when she'd slept with the TC/DPC under her pillow.
3.F.76 CONDITIONS OF DEGRADED COMMUNICATIONS
Please see references 71.A-CF for definitions. In subsection 3.F.76f, “coefficient" refers to the normalized vector quantities, which must be certified in accordance with section 9.B, “CERTIFICATION OF TRANSLATED MATERIAL, APPROPRIATE CERTIFYING BODIES." TCSF1500B must be completed prior to establishing any…
The codex went on in that vein for some time, and the leopardess understood why, of course. Diplomacy was not something to be left up to chance, or the charisma of the individual diplomat. It was possible for so many things to go wrong…
Nobody was available to certify any of the work she'd done with their universal translator, and none of the requisite cultural pre-contact forms were completed. And this was all to say absolutely nothing at all of the fact that the society was, in all likelihood, non-spacefaring—not to be dealt with at all, in other words.
This, too, was for good reason. Well-meaning interference was still interference, and who got to say what “well-meaning" even meant?
Captain May does, Beltran thought. The leopard sighed and got to her feet. She straightened her dress, smoothed her fur down, and left her quarters for the shuttlebay. Madison May was waiting, along with Commander Kamyshev, Lieutenant Parnell, Ensign Bader, and Spaceman Wallace. All five of them were armed; only Leon was paying attention to his carbine, and arguing with the Akita. “But we don't know what they're armed with."
“I still think we can manage this without powered armor. Besides, the Class Three suits would need to be brought out of storage and recertified, and I don't think we have the time. Would we have the time, Mr. Wallace?"
“Like… not to do it properly. Sorry."
“So we'll make do with what we have. Is that acceptable, ensign?"
Bader sighed. “Yes, ma'am."
“Good. Hello, doc. Ready to go?"
“Yes, captain. I will brief you during our descent, if you are amenable."
Figuring it was only polite to offer, Bader held out a fourth carbine to the leopardess. She shook her head, and he placed it back in the weapons locker on the Type 4 shuttlepod. “If you want it later, ma'am, it'll be waiting."
“That will not be necessary."
“Due respect, ma'am? It would've been very helpful earlier. Before they kidnapped Sabel." On an away mission which, he would be happy to remind the spitz, operational planners decided they didn't need to take any other guards for. Once Sabel was back aboard, Leon had plans to make his displeasure very clear.
Among other things.
Beltran hadn't paid enough attention to the pair to pick up on Leon's fondness for the spitz, or to attribute the extra heat in his words to that fondness. As far as she was concerned, Leon was simply a bit twitchy and always had been.
But the others knew: Bader guessed, correctly, it was why Captain May had let him come along on the rescue mission, and why she'd let him draw up a detailed tactical map covering their routes of ingress and escape. She hoped it wouldn't be necessary, though for her part she also guessed—also correctly—that the shepherd wasn't averse to a bit of payback.
Eli Parnell finished starting the shuttle up and closed the hatch. “We're cleared to launch. Everyone's ready?" They were. “Twenty minutes to the surface. It should be a smooth ride."
“Your briefing, doc? Simple, if possible."
“It will have to be simple," Beltran began. “Their society appears to be pre-computer, and we do not have a good sample of the alien language. Dr. Schatz was able to extract between thirty-two and forty-seven unique phonemes from background noise during the attack."
“Phonemes?" Konstantin Kamyshev asked. The snow leopard had been brought along as a soldier, and a backup pilot in case Eli Parnell needed help.
“Sounds. But there is no way of knowing whether that is an exclusive list, or even if all forty-seven are truly unique. With the data we have, it is also not possible to guess whether the language will, in fact, prove to be related to any other in the sector. We, are, unfortunately, going to be deaf until the universal translator can help."
“And no matrix," May pointed out.
The “translation matrix" wasn't a real thing so much an idea that, eventually, most starfaring cultures settled on. Start with some mathematical or physical constants, phrased in one's own language. Then build from that to explain more complex concepts, until common paradigms could be established and used to contextualize an entire syntax.
Over centuries of exploration and first contact, Terran diplomats learned that there were only so many universal starting points—as had most of the societies they encountered. But May was correct: they'd have no such luck with the planet's natives. For all Beltran knew, the inhabitants weren't even aware of 'hydrogen' in any practical fashion.
“So we will need to be careful. I would appreciate it if we all avoided sudden moves… and I would definitely appreciate if we avoided sudden bursts of weapons fire."
May cleared her throat. “Sounds fine to me. Dr. Beltran is taking the lead on this mission. If she says hold our fire, we're gonna listen. Okay? Good. That said. Ensign Bader… it's your turn."
The five of them—everyone but Parnell, at the pilot's station—faced each other, on bench seats at the rear of the shuttle. Leon used his computer to project a map onto the floor. “This is what we know of the terrain. We will not have Class Three tactical armor, so our approach will be by foot: along this path, right here. Lieutenant Parnell will keep a low orbit, watching for hostile contacts and standing by to extract us if necessary."
He would take point, with May backing him up and Kamyshev looking for high ground with which to take up position as a marksman. Bader wanted more people, and he wanted the powered armor for protection, but the Dark Horse had a small crew and there weren't many to spare for the rescue.
So they'd make do with what they had, and perhaps—the shepherd was too cross about the first skirmish to call it a desire—May would be right and the whole thing wouldn't require any fighting at all. He still intended to be ready. Sabel would expect nothing less.
“Coming up on the site now, ma'am."
“Scan for Mr. Thorsen's suit—maybe we were pessimistic about the comms range. Anything?"
“Nothing yet, ma'am. No."
“What about our survey modules?" Wallace asked. He'd joined the away mission to provide technical support—holding a weapon felt unnatural to him, the energy contained in its power cells oddly threatening. There had to be other options: “Link into the modules and, like… uh, if you connect to—"
“I'm flying, Teej. Can you help?"
“Sure, yeah. Yeah." He passed his carbine over to Leon Bader, who looked less ridiculous holding two of them than the otter did with one, and unbuckled his harness to join Parnell in the cockpit. “Looks like… hm. We had four modules deployed, but I'm only reading two."
“Damaged in the fighting?" May's suggestion seemed the most likely to TJ, too, though given the chaos it was hard to say for sure.
And he had an idea of how to find out more on what had happened. “Maybe, dude," Wallace agreed, but busied himself with the telemetry logs from the remaining computers. “Uh. Yep, module C reported catastrophic damage and shut down. Module B… wait. Module B lost signal, but this is… it was attenuating… I wonder if they moved it?"
“Stole," Bader muttered. “Stole it."
“Hey; we left 'em, didn't we? Finders-keepers and all?" TJ kept playing around with the computer, trying to see if he could re-establish contact with the module. “It should've cycled to a different mode, so if we—yep. Sweet, there it is. It's in good shape, as far as I can tell."
Maddy lifted her ears hopefully. “Can you tell where it is?"
“Nope. Could try a few ways of guessing in a bit. But first, I can tell you I've got a solid comm-link to a mech suit with a Star Patrol ID code. Want me to give him a ring, dude?"
“Yes." May waited until the otter gave her a thumbs-up—he'd always been better at that than saluting. “Sabel, do you read me?"
“Captain May? I do indeed. It's good to hear your voice."
Everyone in the shuttle felt the same relief wash over them. “We're in a Type 4 shuttlepod close to the mining site. What's your status? Are you injured?"
“No, ma'am. I am fifty-one meters below ground, in a cave system. The entrance is half a kilometer north of the last detonation, at an elevation of thirteen hundred meters above sea level. My map of the system is incomplete, but I will transmit it as soon as possible."
“What's the best way to rescue you? I have Bader, Kamyshev, Parnell, and Wallace with me. And Dr. Beltran, if we can negotiate."
The spitz seemed to think for a few seconds. “I would recommend using the Class Three tactical suits. You should be able to approach at your leisure."
Leon Bader narrowed his eyes at no-one in particular. “We don't have those, Sabel."
“Protocol for such an operation would almost dictate their use. Leon, I have to say—"
“It wasn't his fault," Maddy cut in. “What else can we do?"
“Well, in that case… I would advise that you wait until after the ceremony."
“Ceremony?" May's voice hissed in Sabel's ear.
The others had noticed his silence—the spitz having shut off the speakers in his suit to talk privately with his crewmates. Vellar Nonviru straightened up, spreading out its armored plates apprehensively. “Great one, does the display not meet your expectations?"
Seventy Morli—a quarter the population of the mountain fortress—were assembled in the main hall, close together and undulating in a subtle dance. They twisted subtly, timing each movement, and the flash when their armor caught the torchlight. “It is extremely impressive," Sabel promised.
Vellar Nonviru settled down again. “They have your favor, Nin?"
“They have my favor." He muted the speaker again for a private explanation to his crewmates. “I am in a town called Anil, a fortress and mining camp belonging to a people called the Morli. They're excited to see me. A ceremony is underway to recognize it."
They were meter-high bipeds, with canine skulls and wide eyes adapted for the caves. Sabel transmitted an image from his suit, hoping to capture the fine scales of their skin between shiny plates of thicker, armored bone. At the right angle, it reflected light brilliantly; at others not at all.
Consequently the group of dancers formed shifting constellations, which was only appropriate. “Excited in what way?" May prompted.
“In my powered armor, I apparently resemble a mythic hero called 'Nin.' It cheered them up a lot to see me—or, rather, see me again? Nin is supposed to return to save the Morli when they're under threat of annihilation, and with the explosions and all…"
“You told them you were a god? Doc, can you—oh, Sabel, you need to see the look Dr. Beltran is giving me."
“They fired an arrow at me and I shot it from the sky, as Nin did in some myth. He also harpooned a star and brought it back to the Morli, but I didn't get what happened after that. It was a little confusing, before the suit's translator kicked in. It seems harmless. They're quite friendly, actually."
Madison May told Sabel to hold his position and closed the link. “He's a god?"
“Apparently." Leon was happy the spitz was safe, but not yet to the point of appreciating any humor in his condition. “For now."
“Doc: is this as bad as it sounds?"
“It is… highly irregular," Beltran replied. Within the borders of the Terran Confederation, she'd have considered what was now transpiring quite 'bad,' indeed—it violated every protocol, not to mention every bit of good sense. Beyond the frontier, with nobody coming to their aid, the leopardess had learned to be more flexible.
May, who set the tone of the crew's flexibility, didn't always recognize the degree of that change in their diplomatic officer. “'Irregular' meaning 'bad'? In your opinion, that is."
“He is alive, and unharmed. Were either of those conditions unmet, I might be more critical. As it is, 'irregular' is sufficient—but we should do what we can to avoid needing any reevaluation. In my opinion."
“Then we need to get him out of there, as quickly as possible. Ideally without any conflict. Right, doc? And the longer we wait for the 'ceremony' to be finished, the more exposed we are."
“I don't get what he was thinking. A god? Mythic hero, anyway, I mean—where did he learn that? It doesn't make any sense."
“Really? I might have guessed."
The Akita blinked her surprise at the leopardess. “Why?"
“His programming is oriented around threats, captain. The Morli ceased to be a threat, and he would have no reason not to engage with them. No one included diplomatic lessons in his design. Since he was awoken on your vessel, we have brokered peace treaties between a spacefaring culture and their less-technological counterparts, intervened in a civil war, attempted a decapitation strike on the most powerful empire in the sector, time-traveled back to the 1960s to prevent Earth's nuclear annihilation, sold weapons to a race of self-proclaimed 'hunters,' assisted a—"
May held up her paw. “I see where you're going. He wouldn't exactly have, ah… learned by example."
“On the contrary."
“Fine. Chew me out later, but how do we rescue him now?"
Leon had been reviewing all the data Sabel sent over. It included detailed, high-resolution maps of the cave system, 'incomplete' only by the spitz's exacting standards. “There would be a couple of ways to sneak in, and there don't appear to be more than two or three hundred of the Morli. We could hold them off."
“If it comes to that. Dr. Beltran, do you have an alternative before we go in guns blazing?"
“Perhaps. Sabel," the leopardess asked, switching the radio back on so the spitz could also follow any ensuing discussion. “How do the Morli store information? Do they have a writing system? Books?"
“There are inscriptions all over the cave, but I haven't seen any books. They might look different, or I didn't know what to expect from them. This is my first time doing this. It is a lot of fun. Commander Bradley often urges me to enjoy myself more."
“Good." Felicia took control of the computer from Leon, scrolling quickly through the imagery Sabel's suit transmitted back to them.
“Good, doc?" Maddy tilted her head, watching a dizzying array of pictures sweep by on the map while the leopard looked them over. “Why's it good?"
“Because of what he is going to say. Sabel, are you comfortable remaining a god?"
“I'm not sure what's changed since my apotheosis, doctor. A Terran saying comes to mind: don't rock the boat."
Beltran and May exchanged a look. The Akita was the one to fall on her sword: “given that none of us are sailors, Sabel, could you elaborate on what you, specifically, mean by that?"
“It's proverbial—derived, I presume, from the inherent instability of a craft dependent on buoyancy in a fluid medium. Simply put: I'm willing to continue the pretense rather than introduce an additional variable. If Dr. Beltran indeed has a plan."
“Keep not rocking the boat, then. Doc?"
The leopardess offered a silent, hidden prayer for good fortune—to gods other than the spitz. “It will require some preparation. Buy us time. Proverbially."
Twenty minutes of dancing later, Sabel turned from the display to face his host. “A beautiful presentation. And I wish you the best in the coming season."
Vellar Nonviru shifted uncomfortably. “You're leaving?"
Sabel repeated Felicia Beltran's words as soon as she said them, trusting in the diplomat's precision. “I must. You know the bargain that was driven between Lor and myself. Lor will not be pleased that I've stayed so long as it is. I must make sacrifices to explain myself, when I return to the Aram Minal."
“Yes." The Morli drew back, resigned. “As blessed as we were by your presence, we offer such scanty distractions, compared to the gods." A faint rumble began under their feet. “Can it be? Does Lor summon you even now?"
“I'm afraid so." Sabel turned and began walking towards the entrance, while Vellar Nonviru and two dozen others scampered to keep up. The closer they got to the surface, the more of them began to hang back—dizzying, blinding light danced along the cave walls in random, chaotic patterns.
Vellar Nonviru remained brave. “Might we impose upon you for one more bit of wisdom? One more morsel for the dark times ahead? The others have been so helpful."
Just beyond the cave's entrance floated a shimmering apparition, an orb crackling with barely contained lightning that played and rippled along its surface. Hurry up, someone urged in his ear. Doc says we don't have time for you to go off-script. The spitz looked back to Vellar Nonviru. “On the subject of?"
“Any guidance. Anything you could help us with, great one."
He tried to think of what might prove appropriate. “Yes. If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish then—presuming a reasonable abundance in the local environment and granting the need for a diverse variety of micronutrients—you have provided to him a skill that greatly improves his self-sufficiency and the value he adds to his community as a reliable provider of food."
“Of course. Yes. Yes, of course." Vellar Nonviru listened attentively, and mulled the lesson over as Sabel stepped towards the blazing light. “But what is a fi—"
“Got him. Go, go, go!"
Parnell hauled back on the controls, slamming the throttle forward and hoping the computer was exaggerating the odds of their imminent destruction. “TJ, I'm flooding that circuit!"
“Don't—give it fifteen more seconds!" the otter shouted back. “You'll weld the safeties open!"
“Fourteen hundred degrees on the main coupling!"
“I know. Five seconds. Three. Now."
Eli hit the command to fill the deflector shield generator with fire-suppressive coolant, which the damage-control system had been advising for nearly a full minute. She held her breath… waited… “Jesus. Temperatures are coming down. I think we're okay."
“Exciting." Wallace slumped forward, knocking his head on the console. “We're okay."
Leon crossed his arms, glaring at the still-suited Sabel Thorsen. “Reconfigured the deflectors to repel the atmosphere. A lot of it was trapped inside the shield radius. We thought it might make a good show."
“Lor is the sun deity in their mythology," Beltran explained. “According to the myths on the cave walls, Lor is capricious and vindictive. Nin gambled pridefully to Lor's mate Lehel on how many rellesha each could shoot in a day. Lehel shot ninety-six. Nin matched that in a few hours. Taking aim for ninety-seven, Lor fled, ending the day early. Nin must now serve Lor and Lehel for all eternity."
“You learned that from the glyphs?"
“Yes, along with the traditional representation of Lor's appearance."
Leon had gone along with it less because he thought the plan had merit than because the shepherd doubted an assault would meet with Captain May's approval. Now that Sabel was back aboard, his mood softened into something more generous. “Adapting the shuttle deflectors to create the illusion of a deity was Spaceman Wallace's idea. It worked… well."
TJ, head still down, offered a thumbs-up in Sabel's direction. “Just doing my job."
“Not everything can be solved through diplomacy." Beltran maintained her characteristic decorum, keeping her smile hidden. She, too, was happy the crisis had apparently passed.
There could still be others. Sabel discovered this when he and Leon retired to the tactical officer's quarters. No sooner had they kissed—lingering and deep, the shepherd's muzzle crushed tightly to Sabel's own—than he drew back, and took a deep breath.
“Is something wrong?" Sabel asked.
“You're upset with me."
“I'm upset that I nearly lost you," Leon countered. “I wish you'd be more careful."
“Like you, my responsibilities are often…" Sabel trailed off, understanding from the shepherd's glare that the argument was unlikely to be persuasive. “I'm sorry."
Leon Bader, for his part, understood Sabel's tone. “You're not," he said, and shook his head. “But if you'll pretend to be sorry, I'll pretend to forgive you."
And then Leon stepped close to the thick-furred dog, and kissed him full on the lips again. This time the touch was less desperate. He slid his arms around the barrel-chested spitz, who took the shepherd in a tight embrace a moment later.
“That's better?" Sabel asked.
“That's better, yes. I'm glad you're back. It must've been… exciting."
“Oh, it was. And for you, as well."
“I guess?" Now that the danger had passed, he could start to think of it in such terms. “Not knowing where you were? Being against the clock like that…"
“I will… attempt to modify my tactical assessments in any future engagement to avoid a similar scenario."
He pulled back slightly, favoring the spitz with a nod. “Good. And remember: you're just as valuable as any other member of the crew. You should stop acting like you're not."
Sabel's programming incorporated this information, although he came to different conclusions. “By that notion, however, logic dictates that my well-being doesn't outweigh the rest of the away team's. To borrow one of Commander Bradley's proverbs: the needs of the many—"
Leon Bader doubted, for some reason, that the proverb actually belonged to the retriever. But in any case, he put his finger to the spitz's muzzle. “No. We've been over this."
Any further thought Sabel might've had was, in any case, interrupted by a firm paw pushing him down to sit on the side of the bed. And, having seen the look currently in Leon's eyes before, he knew what was coming next.
Beyond purely tactical purposes, he enjoyed the shepherd's company—particularly on the occasions the two had been able to find what, in some of the material he'd reviewed, Sabel saw described as alone time. Each had been a learning experience, and he'd been taught well.
So it was no surprise to either dog when Sabel's response was a heady growl, back in his throat, as the shepherd flattened him against the bedsheets. His muzzle met the other dog's in a kiss that started out passionate and deepened quickly further, the heat and warmth of it delightfully familiar to them both.
It had become, indeed, a comforting sensation not unlike the one Sabel felt donning his combat armor: the sense that everything was unfolding according to some proper plan.
This was the sort of plan, however, that—far from putting things on—meant their clothes started coming off as soon as the kiss broke. Leon had no desire to delay the timeline, and promptly started helping the spitz out of his attire.
“You are... eager," Sabel remarked. “To return to the mission?"
Leon blinked. Learning experiences or no, the spitz still had plenty to learn. “Not exactly, no. No? The mission's over. We got you back, and—"
“Ah. Yes. But there's still the asteroid. What will happen to it, anyway?"
This, Leon thought with an inward growl, is not really the time, is it? With his paws held in place, bunching up the dog's tunic, he tried to return his thoughts to his duty. “What do you mean?"
“Its size means an impact would be quite destructive. How do we intend to stop it?"
His head cocked. “To do what?"
Maddy examined Dr. Beltran curiously when the leopard stepped through the ready-room doors. “You, too?"
“You were asleep?"
“I was. Yourself?"
“Yep." Maddy nodded, pouring a second cup of coffee and nudging it down the table. Beltran generally eschewed coffee; she opened her mouth to say so and May shook her head. “It'll be good if we've had caffeine. Did his summons sound like an order to you? I got 'Captain May, please meet me in your ready room in fifteen minutes.'"
“Similar." Beltran only spent a few seconds looking for milk or sugar before deciding the search would be futile. She sat, folding her paws carefully in front of the steaming mug. “Do you want me to proactively explain, captain?"
“If I get snappish, you might have to step in. I don't think Sabel understands that people don't like having important things like sleep interrupted. But I'll do my best, doc."
Sabel arrived precisely fifteen minutes after he'd sent the original message. “Thank you," he offered, then got to the point: “We must stop the asteroid."
“We didn't have a choice in violating the non-interference directive when you were captured, Sabel. That's not the same thing as what you're asking for now."
“I know." The bluntness of it caught both the women off-guard. “I wouldn't draw parallels between rescuing me and rescuing the entire ecosystem. But we must stop the impact because it's the right thing to do. Nothing more or less."
“Star Patrol, and the entire Terran Confederation, takes the natural evolution of species seriously. We have to. You've seen the alternatives, too. The Wanesh were more than happy to guide the development of planets they thought would make good vassals. So did the Hano, before them. They've spread their meddling through the whole sector."
May felt proud of herself for making the argument, both because she was exhausted and because, in truth, the non-interference directive seemed to her a bit of a mess. If she broke it so dramatically, Beltran would never let her hear the end of it—and if Beltran herself explained it, May figured, Sabel would ignore her as a rule-obsessed bureaucrat.
This logic, however, existed in the Akita's head. Rather than accept his captain's defense of the directive, Sabel doubled down. “And? We're not the Hano. We're not the Dominion. I think you'd agree that we're on a mission of discovery, but discovery is never pure, captain. Even a subatomic level, the act of observation changes what's being observed."
“There's a big difference between quantum uncertainty and blowing up an asteroid, Sabel."
The spitz's ears flicked. “I have much to learn. I didn't mean it literally, but I'd hoped the metaphor would work. I'm still new to metaphor, captain. But you've tried to teach me—I hope I'll learn its intricacies. Its 'Gordian knot,' as Commander Bradley explained. I presume that's obscene."
“I have much to learn," he repeated. “You've helped. You and your crew have changed me profoundly. I was programmed to be a weapon: not to question my orders. To kill as instructed, or to die as instructed. When the away team was attacked, I responded by instinct. But knowing what you've taught me, I would've reacted the same way logically, too."
May sighed, staring into her coffee. “We all would—I hope. But it's not easy. Difficult choices are even more challenging than metaphor, Sabel. There's not always a right answer. Sometimes there are just lots of bad ones. We do what we have to."
“No." Sabel gave up on metaphor. “You don't. You're deciding based on an idea, Captain May. A 1.5 exajoule detonation perpendicular to the asteroid's trajectory would be sufficient to deflect it from impacting the planet. Nothing in the matter-antimatter reaction would, will, or can depend on philosophy."
“Where would it end?" Dr. Beltran spoke softly. “If we are to undertake this responsibility, Mr. Thorsen, which others do we also undertake? And what responsibility do we bear for the consequences of this planet's future development?"
“That doesn't matter! You don't believe the asteroid has intent—it's not a weapon. There's no purpose we're interfering with by stopping it."
Madison finished her coffee, and decided the caffeine hadn't really changed her outlook, after all. “Doc, can you help? I'm not the philosopher here."
The leopard's gentle question had given May the wrong impression. “In that regard, captain, I cannot be helpful. Philosophy is the limitation of the non-interference principle. The Morli are not a thought experiment to drive stimulating discussion for Academy students. They are real people, and they will really die. A few days from now, not hypothetically. I would not take up the hubris of suggesting this intervention strips them of agency."
“So if I said I also didn't have a lot of patience for this trolley-problem bullshit of saying if we don't do anything we get to play innocent in whatever happens, you'd say…"
“The directive was not created simply for the pleasure of following rules, Captain May, no matter what you might think. Rules should have purpose. I agree with sincere conviction to its fundamental premise: mandating that societies in all cases should develop on their own is the best way to avoid the temptation of interference that is as often infantilizing as it is rarely selfless. It is meant for their benefit. I cannot imagine any of the directive's writers would agree it was intended to guarantee their extinction."
Beltran, who had been choosing her words carefully, hoped May would be able to read between the lines. Instead the Akita stared at the bottom of her mug, examining the rings while her brain caught up. “Alright. So what do I do now?"
Nobody spoke. Sabel glanced between the two. “Are you asking me, captain?"
“No. From a protocol point of view, I mean: what do I do now?"
Dr. Beltran's coffee was finally cool enough. She took a careful sip. “You should ask Commander Bradley. But, if history is any case, this is where you dismiss me, bring the rest of your staff to the ready room, and figure it out from there."
“Would you mind?"
The leopardess set her coffee back down, so gently that the cup made no sound. “It is a physics problem, as Sabel says—not a diplomatic one. And anyway, I'm off-shift."
“It's been a long day, captain."
The Akita arched an eyebrow. “'It's'?"
Dr. Beltran smiled. “Good luck with the physics, captain."
“Are you ready for some excitement?"
It was, coming from Captain May, a worrying way to begin the conversation. At least, it was for Ciara—Mitch had perked up the moment the hail came in. Munro hesitated a few seconds. “I think so, ma'am?"
“Thanks to your high-res imagery of the asteroid, Dr. Schatz has identified a weak point in its structure where a precise explosion would fragment much of it into harmless pieces and deflect the remainder away from impacting."
“Understood, ma'am. We can return to the Dark Horse at once."
“Well. That's the catch. Tactical can't guarantee our targeting scanners are accurate enough for the job. Modifying them would take at least a day, and our window of opportunity is closing faster than that."
Munro and Alexander both saw where May's suggestion was going—they just had different reactions to it. The vixen's tail froze, as if all its momentum had been transferred to the Abyssinian. “Our scanners are more accurate? Is that it?"
“Yes. We need you to provide terminal guidance to the torpedoes. Ensign Bader is transmitting the details now. Contact us when you're ready. Dark Horse out."
Mitch Alexander leaned on Munro, reading over her shoulder. “No big deal," she decided. “Computer'll handle it just fine. Park us… I dunno. Five hundred kilometers out? Catch the show?"
“Five hundred kilometers from a full salvo of three-kilogram torpedoes?" Munro asked. “You want to cut it that close?"
“It won't be close. The torpedoes are gonna channel most of their energy into the rock, and for the rest of it… well, y'know. Inverse-square law, right? Just gotta avoid the debris, but… you're a pilot. Isn't that an interesting challenge?"
Ciara backed the Tempest off to a more sensible position. They had an important mission to carry out, after all, and the challenge of a closer approach wasn't really her goal. In that sense, the Abyssinian was an enigma. And, while they waited, Munro gave in to her curiosity: “Why did you join the Star Patrol?"
Mitch shrugged, powering down one of the consoles so she could take a seat on the blank display. “Fun, mostly."
“Been to Clearwater?"
“Yes." On shore leave, which was the only reason someone in the Star Patrol would end up there. “Isn't that supposed to be fun?"
The Abyssinian shrugged again—Clearwater was always hard to explain to outsiders. “Y'know that eight of the last eleven land-speed records were broken on Clearwater? Right next to where Teej and I grew up. The Tellar Cup's named for the harbor."
Fortunately the feline didn't weigh very much, and Ciara thought she was unlikely to break the console. Reassured, she tried to see where Mitch was going. “Was racing not fun? I don't see the connection."
“My mom works on the speeders—the ones the tourists use? They're, like, covered in warning signs. Fuck, vix'—Teej and I'd sneak after-hours to bypass the limiters, and it's like… ten times more power, at least. Making it seem so unsafe is just part of the act."
“Dad is sixth-generation owner of a kiosk by the track. It's called, uh, Alexander's Drag-Time Stand. Six generations! His other wife grows pot. After TJ got his ass locked up—you know how that happened?"
The vixen had not, in fact, known of the otter's criminal record in the first place. He seemed easy-going and carefree, and unlikely to cause trouble. She took an educated guess: “He got caught with an illegal speeder?"
“Our buddy was graduating. Obviously, we threw him a party. Teej wanted to make sure the band was in good shape, for power, 'cause we were crashin' this abandoned cannery. So, I helped him pull a fusion reactor out of an old freighter, and we—"
Ciara blinked and held up her paw. “No, hold on. What? You stole the reactor?"
“Not the big one. The aux unit. That was fun. Figuring out these old electronics and shit to get it running? Well, the cops didn't see it that way when they busted up the party, and Teej got nailed. Nobody figured me out."
“He joined to get out of prison, and you followed him?"
“Why not? I don't regret it. Fuck speeders, you know? This is crazy—seeing all these aliens? All these new starships? It's the life. Why'd you join, if not for the fun."
“I wanted to make a difference."
Munro was expecting Mitch to laugh, or to look confused. She was not expecting the grin. “Right? And isn't that awesome? We're gonna save those guys on the planet—probably give 'em a great meteor shower—and it ain't even the wildest thing we've done this month."
“Yeah. I know. Captain May has a way of… getting us into…"
“Incredible shit," Alexander finished for the vixen, who did not immediately agree with that assessment. “Are you really gonna tell me you'd be making more of a difference filling out spreadsheets on engine tests back at Gustav Holst? You think that's the best use of this ship?" She gestured around the cockpit, filled with screens for systems that had never been more than half-functional experiments. “It's a one-of-a-kind prototype!"
“I just…" It was at this point Ciara realized she was an officer in the Star Patrol, talking to a junior enlisted sailor, who had showed no particular signs of any other decorum. Coming from Clearwater only excused so much. I just don't see that making out in the cockpit is the best use of the ship, either—but she retained enough sensibility not to say it so bluntly. “There is a difference between… ah, wait. We're getting a transmission."
Mitch hopped from the console and took the seat facing it. “It's the Dark Horse. Can we get in position?"
“Yes." Ciara checked the plot and pulled the Tempest onto its new course. “Dark Horse, Lieutenant Munro. Targeting scanners are online and standing by."
“Understood, Tempest. One minute to launch."
Ciara spent the next sixty seconds double-checking the reconnaissance ship's sensors, and the power output from the reactor, and anything else she could think of. Not everything about its prototype status was 'exciting'—a lot of it was simply broken.
“Tempest, this is the Dark Horse. Torpedoes are away. Time to impact: seven minutes."
Spaceman Alexander searched until she picked up their signals. “There they are. They'll switch to us for terminal guidance in about ninety seconds."
“Right. I'll keep us here. Let me know when you have control, spaceman."
“Mm-hm." The torpedoes were on a meticulous, fuel-efficient course, saving as much delta-V as possible to spare the energy for their warheads. Mitch would have to nudge them little more than a feather's touch. “Got a command link with the guidance computers."
“They're responding to commands?"
Spaceman Alexander scanned through the telemetry, furrowing her ruddy brow in confusion. “No."
“Uh." They had five minutes until the torpedoes made impact. “Why not?"
“Beats me. Let our friends know." While Munro did that, Mitch went line-by-line through the data. They had a good connection—no interference to speak of. Transmitting the course corrections went just fine, and the torpedoes even acknowledged they'd been downloaded into the guidance computers. But when it came time to commit the plot…
Ciara acknowledged May's order to follow the missiles and be ready to destroy them in case they couldn't be brought back into line. Next to her, the Abyssinian stared fiercely at the screen, her tail lashing. “Any progress? Down to three minutes."
“No. I'm gonna…" She dropped back a few menus and sent the remote-shutdown command, which removed at least the most explosive risk from troubleshooting the warheads. “They won't go back into 'safe' mode, either. Callin' a… hm. Oh."
“You have an answer?"
“Yep. Weapons as powerful as those torpedoes are authorized for only certain people to use. We aren't on the list, unfortunately."
“What about Captain May?"
“Yeah, if she was here. 'Cause I bet the preprogrammed users are all dead. Commander Pierce? Leo? Wait—you know him?"
Ciara nodded. “My previous commanding officer, in charge of Special Projects at Muroc. They must've transferred his codes when the ship was officially recommissioned out of LTSS."
“He's alive, though?"
“As far as I know."
The Tempest's computer had been state-of-the-art when first designed. Even a century later, they were faster than almost anything in the Terran Confederation. Alexander got up, and kicked the hatch under the computer console as hard as she could.
The Abyssinian, though, was already on the floor, staring into the guts of the ship's electronics. “They'd have to connect the new biometric scanner to the old mainframe," she explained, eyes flitting from component to component, looking for likely candidates. “And they wouldn't have done it right."
“You can bypass it?"
“Probably." She reached up, prodded a bit of electronics, and hissed at the sudden, scorching heat. “Fuckin'—ugh."
“Are you hurt?"
“I'll be fine." It was hot enough she thought her fur might've been scorched, but the pain was already starting to fade. Mitch grumbled, and switched on her communicator. “Teej, I need some help. How would you bridge an ALRS supercomputer with one of the new security modules? Whatever we're using off-the-shelf these days."
“Fuck me, dude," the otter's voice answered, a few seconds later. “Like… a ParaCom, maybe? A PC-20 or something compatible."
“That was my guess, but I can't see one. You could grill on the I/O interconnect, too."
“What about the X-bus?"
She craned her head, squinting to make anything out. “It's got something hooked up. Custom job? It says… Reli… Relic? Reliant?"
“Yeah, Reliant, dude. Like that one time they had your speeder impounded?" Listening in, and trying to follow along as best she could, Ciara Munro blinked. But he kept going before Mitch answered. “Either an N501 or a Hermes. Or it could be an N502. Or actually—hey, you got time to decap it?"
“Teej," she snarled. “What do you think?"
“Oh, yeah. okay. Try grounding pin eight."
Munro was still profoundly confused when the Abyssinian's head poked out from below her and told her to try connecting to the torpedoes. The command was still up on the console, waiting for someone to forget the definition of insanity. “It's trying. Now there's an error that says… 'could not be loaded.'"
“Same thing as before." Alexander bunched her paw into a fist. “Well…"
“Didn't you say I'm not authorized? Right?"
The Abyssinian slid free until Munro was back in view. “Right." She grinned: “Authenticate as Commander Pierce."
“I don't know his codes."
“So? Make 'em up. A good one. And hurry."
Munro cleared her throat. “Sure. Uh, computer, switch tactical control to Commander Leo Pierce. Authorization Pierce 1-5-4 Gamma. Confirm."
The computer buzzed. “Longer," Mitch said. “You need to use a longer code. Try again."
“Computer. Switch tactical control to Commander Leo Pierce. Authorization Pierce 3-1-4-1-5 the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain please tell me when I can be done with—is that a thumbs up? It's okay now? Confirm."
The biometric system told Tempest's main computer that someone named 'Leo Pierce' was taking over, then went to work analyzing the sample. But with more data, it was obliged to take more time when it ran into inconsistencies. 'Time,' in this case, meant 200 milliseconds instead of 2, during which Mitch grabbed the Reliant module and ripped it out of the auxiliary bus.
And when the biometric system tried to pass along the message that the whole 'Leo Pierce' thing had been a false alarm, there was nothing left to listen. “We're connected!" Munro gasped.
“Aren't old electronics fun? Tolja." Mitch levered herself upright, and dropped into the seat. Her right paw smarted—a cut, from where the edge of the module had sliced it open, bled freely.
Munro winced sympathetically. “Fun?"
“Hey—it worked, y'know?"
“Do you have time to change their course?"
Mitch grunted. The new calculations had already started, but would take another thirty seconds—outside their safety margin. “No. We'd be cutting it close. Want me to send the shutdown command?"
Munro looked over and compared the countdown to their current course. Following the torpedoes with the aim of disabling them put the Tempest in an awkward position: they could no longer maintain a stable line of sight for the transmitter and get safely away.
“You'll have to send it for me, I think." The Abyssinian had been pressing her paw against her thigh, using her uniform to soak up enough blood for the computer console to read her touch, but her fingers were sodden. “Any time."
The vixen couldn't help but frown, looking at it. The edge of Spaceman Alexander's station had been stained crimson. Fun? she heard herself ask. And then the reply: Hey—it worked, y'know? “Will you be okay without a bandage for a couple minutes?"
“Then strap in." By the time she had, the computer finished its trajectory calculations. Munro broadcast them to the torpedoes, holding the Tempest on course lest the signal be lost.
“Hey, they listened this time!"
“Small favors." But, for the moment, the Tempest was sticking along for the ride, and only six hundred kilometers separated them from the asteroid and an impact ten seconds away.
One more small favor, Ciara trusted, would be the ship's engines. She pulled back on the controls, flipping about in a sharp, crisp turn. The throttle surged at her touch, drawing a roar from oversized thrusters and a startled, hoarse cough from an Abyssinian surprised to have gained four hundred kilograms in a tenth of a second.
The vixen choked out as much of an apology as her empty lungs permitted. The Tempest's impulse engines could generate nearly 90 gees of acceleration, if pushed, and Munro took them as close to their limits as she dared for the remaining few seconds of the countdown.
Realistically, the thrusters didn't handle this much better than the craft's occupants did. Munro had to back off just after the detonation—at which point what remained of the impact site was hurtling towards them. Even with the stress of acceleration gone, Mitch sucked her breath in and held it.
A frigate-sized chunk of rock sailed past, missing them by two kilometers on a trajectory out of the system. It was a blur in the vixen's peripheral vision, evaded by the time she heard the collision alarm sound—and continue, the warnings blurring together at the edge of her subconscious where instinct and training met.
The ship rocked and slewed; the lights dimmed. The culprit weighed only a few kilograms, and put its velocity to compensatory use. Mitch saw the reactor output waver as the grid tried to absorb the impact, and reset the safeties with the same sort of reflex as the vixen.
And then, by the time Munro recovered half a second later, it was over. “We're through the worst of it, I think. Dark Horse, this is the Tempest. Detonations confirmed. The trajectory of the asteroid has been successfully altered."
“Looks that way here, too. Good job, lieutenant."
She signed off, and looked at her companion. “Let's have a damage report. Starting with you, and then the ship."
“I'll be fine." Alexander went through the diagnostic screens as well as she could with only one paw. “The Tempest seems to be holding up, though I'd have engineering do a full check when we land. And her pilot? How are you doing?"
Ciara considered her answer. “I'm… good."
With the adrenaline beginning to ebb from her system, the answer seemed less absurd. Mitch was smiling and, with a final shake of her head, Ciara returned it. “Having fun."