It was unquestionably an impact of some kind. The structure of the ship rang like a bell, and the mess room went instantly still. “What the Hell was that?” Todd asked into a hubbub of the same question repeated, with variations, by a hundred tongues in two languages.
“Damn if I know,” Peters said, “but whatever the Hell it was, I reckon we oughta be gettin’ back amongst our own. Racket like that’s likely God sayin’ you oughta be lookin’ for a safe place.”
Their exit from the mess room was impeded by a crowd of mixed Grallt and humans, all with the same idea, and they didn’t even try the elevator, just headed for the stairway down.
They hit the ops deck as the third impact shook something loose, and rounded the corner into the bay to meet a group of sailors coming the other way. “We’re under attack,” Kellman stopped to tell them. “Todd, get your ass over to your bird and get prep started. Deutsch oughta already be there, send him back for deck gear, his and yours both. Peters, I don’t know where you oughta be….”
“My battle station’d be the retarder consoles,” Peters told him. “They ain’t launched yet. You need some grunt labor?”
“You know how to tweak a HEL pod?”
Headshake. “‘Fraid not.”
“Then don’t get in the way.” That was just business.
Peters didn’t take it wrong. “Gotcha. Go get ’em.”
Llapaaloapalla had come down from high phase to approach the next planet, which they were told was called P’Vip. The apostrophe was a little catch in the throat, and Peters, like most of the humans, could pronounce it better than the Grallt could. Which had exactly nothing to do with anything… both sets of bay doors were open, and the ship was doing random rotary maneuvers, stars streaming in fits and starts across the opening. Brighter stars were moving crosswise to the streaks, and as Peters watched one of them emitted a streak of light.
Boom! Well, that answered one question.
Deutsch went past at a dead run, and Peters sprinted after. He got to his quarters to find the Third Class rummaging through the wrong locker. “Over here,” he said, and ripped Todd’s cabinet open, tossing the flak jacket on the bunk and wrapping boondockers and helmet in it.
“Thanks,” Deutsch gasped, and took off at another dead run.
Either Llapaaloapalla was tougher than it looked or the bad guys were using something that made a lot of noise without doing much damage. That didn’t make sense either. Peters skinned into his gear with all deliberate haste and headed for his console.
Planes were rolling out of the hangar accesses under their own power. Officers were hustling out of their quarters by ones and twos, some of them trying to get helmets on as they ran, not a practical procedure. A little knot of red-helmeted ordnancemen converged on each plane as it emerged, popping catches on the laser pods and reaching inside, no doubt to turn the knob to the right as far as it would go…
A pair of Hornets were the first to get ready, simpler systems and only one driver beating extra crew for the Tomcats. Warnocki was in place, and had the plane directors holding up crossed wands until more could queue up.
Boom! The bay was lit from aft by God’s own flashgun.
“Those bastards are using nukes!” Jacks shrieked. If the vid special effects people had been getting it right, the glowing, expanding cloud couldn’t be anything else. The ship didn’t seem to be maneuvering any more, but some of the stars were still moving. One of them, visible out the bow door, was noticeably larger and slower than the others.
Boom! No bright lights this time.
Warnocki had four ready and two moving into place; he let the first pair go, and they accelerated side by side down the bay, just short of taking out wingtips on the doorframe. A slow count of ten and the second set followed, Tomcats, and another brace of Hornets pulled up, with a mismatched pair coming up behind.
Carlyle’s 105 was last out. Eighteen planes in a little over a minute and a half, and Peters estimated that from the first Boom! to a clear deck was ten minutes or less. Not too shabby for no notice.
That was the last bang for a while. The retarder crews headed for the aft bay door for a better view. Howell should have chewed them out for it, but he was among the first to leave his console.
From what they could see–mostly just bright sparks moving against the stars–the bad guys had gotten a surprise. A spark expanded briefly, puffing up to a visible disk before shrinking back to a point, and its pursuer vanished over the top of the ship. Both were too far away to make out shapes, and the sailors shared looks. “Hope that wasn’t one of our guys,” somebody prayed.
The action moved away from aft, leaving the retarder crews and the others who’d chosen that door without anything to see, but Llapaaloapalla executed a swift rotation, ending with the big spark centered in the aft door, surrounded by fast movers. First one, then another of the sparks expanded briefly and ceased to maneuver, but the whole pattern was shrinking. The Grallt were running away, which was not only cowardly, it was stupid. As Peters understood it, the ship couldn’t shift to high phase within a certain distance from the star. They’d come down four, nearly five ande ago, and by the time they got back to where they could shift up the battle would be over, win or lose.
A couple of sparks intersected expanding flowers of flame. Howell had managed to remember the binoculars hanging around his neck and was using them, bent forward slightly like he was hanging over a rail. He waved an impatient hand up and down. “It’s OK, both birds came out of it and turned. The ones that puff up don’t turn afterwards … there’s another one!”
Some of the sparks bunched up, which at least told them who was who; American military thinkers had been teaching dispersal in combat for a century or better. The bunch seemed to head for the larger spark, but the others kept diving in by turns, and more and more of them went puff and stopped maneuvering. Another, smaller, spark separated from the big one, traveled a little way, and blossomed.
Six or seven sparks merged with the big one and disappeared, with the rest of the maneuvering sparks swarming around it. Another missile went out, but that one puffed up like the little ships had, and another did the same. Then the big one seemed to vary in brightness and started moving faster, up and to the right from their point of view, and the smaller ones quit trying to follow it. Cunningham was the first to collect his wits. “Man the consoles, dammit. They’ll be on their way back in, and we need to get the rug out.”
“Yeah,” was the consensus of a dozen murmurs, and the retarder crews headed back for their stations. The small sparks remaining were gathering, with a pair of suspicious outriders well toward the fleeing larger ship. Peters got his console in order, passing a suggestion up the line that they should expect a little more speed than usual.
“Right,” Howell agreed. “And look alive, we’ll have to spot which type they are and get set. We don’t know what the schedule is.”
“We don’t know if they have a schedule,” Kraewitz drawled.
“Right enough. Hell with that,” Howell said impatiently, head down to his own console. “Just do it, people.”
The pattern of sparks was obviously following the ship, but it didn’t seem to get any bigger. “Shit,” somebody mentioned. “The bastards are still running, and our guys can’t catch up.”
They all looked at one another. Ships were slower than planes, weren’t they? Perhaps not here.
“What’s happening, Peters?” Todd came up from behind and slung his helmet over his shoulder by the strap.
“Hnph. Looks like our guys came out on top, but they might not get back. Th’ Grallt are runnin’ like deer from a dog pack.” He spared a look aft. “I’m gonna be needed here when they do catch up. Get up to the bridge and tell ’em to stop.”
“Me? You’re the one who’s buddies with the Exective Officer,” Todd pointed out.
Peters grunted again. “Hanh. If you can’t convince ’em I’ll put an oar in, but I’d rather you did it this time. Get your ass in gear.”
“I’ll get Dee.” The younger sailor hurried off, helmet flopping, dodging other sailors standing around kibitzing. Peters shook his head.
It seemed like hours, but was only a few minutes, before Todd and Dee erupted from the EM quarters hatch and headed for the elevator. Before they got there their errand became moot. The pattern of sparks aft started growing rapidly; apparently somebody on the bridge had figured out what was going on. “Clear the deck, clear the deck, now now now!” Warnocki shouted.
Sailors started heading back for their posts, clearing the ops deck for recoveries. “I just had a thought,” said Rupert.
“How’s that?” Peters wanted to know.
“What if it ain’t our guys? Far as I can see that’s nothing but moving stars. Can’t tell the difference from umpteen thousand miles away.”
“You got a point,” Peters conceded. “Howell,” he called, then thumbed his earbug. “Green Three-One, Three-Seven.”
“Three-One,” Howell responded. “What’s up, Peters?”
“You got a visual? Rupert wants to know if that’s really the good guys comin’ up.”
“Wait one.” Howell brought the binoculars up, stared for a long moment, then tapped his ear. “That’s confirmed, they’ve got their recognition lights on. Tell Rupert he did good to think of it. I didn’t.” He brought the binoculars back up. “Yep, that’s the right guys all right. Heads up, one of the Tomcats is … what the fuck?”
A spark of light streaked by at an angle to the formation, leaving a blossom of fire in its wake. The bunch broke up immediately, scattering in all directions. None of them went after the one that had bombed them. It tookPeters and the rest a long time to figure out why that was.
Several more sparks were crossing the pattern at high speed. One puffed up, but its attacker didn’t break off, just tracked it as it went by, hitting it repeatedly until it separated into smaller sparks.
The big spark was back, high up and to the left as they saw it, and the group of sparks they assumed was the Navy planes headed directly that way, keeping relatively tight. Smaller sparks detached from the big one, but they immediately began to show the brief flares of hits, and this time the humans were taking no chances. One by one the smaller ships were hit repeatedly, again and again until they broke up into smaller bits. Two turned and headed back for the big ship. One made it.
“Look alive there!” Howell screamed, audible both over the earbugs and through the air. “One’s coming in, I’ll bet he’s hurt! Clear the damn deck, Goddamn you!” Sailors scrambled in all directions.
Peters got to his console in time to hear Howell call out, “It’s a Hornet, and she’s not keeping a real good line. Stay on it.” The chorus of ayes was audible through the air, but the processors in the earbugs kept it off the channel.
The Hornet managed to straighten up enough to avoid hitting the doorframe, and a little extra speed was no problem if the retarder crew knew it in advance. They let her twang the first three to give her an easy ride, but when Number Four had brought her down the plane started moving again, still under power. One of the plane directors jumped out with crossed wands, and that was enough to get the pilot’s attention. The Hornet finally stopped almost level with the officers’ quarters hatch, two-thirds of the way down the deck. “206,” said Jacks. “Lieutenant Williams.”
“Hope she’s OK,” Rupert worried. That generated affirmative rumbles, but the canopy went up without anybody pulling the yellow handle. Sailors were converging on the plane, one of them–the plane captain, by his brown outerwear–carrying a boarding ladder stiff-armed overhead at a dead run, a feat none of them would have considered possible before seeing it.
“Attention on deck!” the Master Chief overrode all the chatter. “Get to your duty stations and stay there, this is the Navy, not a circle jerk! Green Three, what’s your status?”
“Consoles are manned and ready,” Howell replied without looking around. He was right, but only just. Most of the retarder crews, Howell included, were watching the action around the Hornet, but the section leader shook his head like a dog shaking off water and looked back aft. “Nothing on approach, Chief.”
“Keep a sharp watch. This is serious, Howell.”
Lieutenant Williams got out of the cockpit under her own power, but the medic hustled her onto a stretcher as soon as her feet hit the deck. The Hornet was looking a little worn. Its entire upper surface was bare of paint, the plastic of the canopy looked misshapen, and the vertical stabilizers were no longer at the correct angle.
“Near miss,” Rupert deduced.
“Near hit,” Jacks corrected, old joke.
Nothing visible happened for what seemed a long while, except that Howell occasionally lowered the binoculars, shook his head, and lifted them back to his eyes. “All right, I think it’s over,” he said at long last, tone bemused. “They’re coming in.”
“Green Three-One, Green One. How many?” the Master Chief wanted to know.
“Counting now, Green One.” Howell raised the binoculars. “… thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. No, wait.” There was a long pause, then the First Class sagged and lowered the glasses. “Green One, this is Green Three. Seventeen, I say again seventeen visible on approach. They all made it!”
* * *
“All right, listen up,” the Master Chief growled. The entire enlisted human contingent of Llapaaloapalla, less Chief Gill in the infirmary and Cheives with the duty, stirred and came to attentive positions, conversations cut off as if with a switch. Enlisted quarters had no big rooms, so they’d taken over the mess room, half filling it. Waiters lined the walls, and sailors eyed them from time to time, but no other Grallt were present, it being between meals. “First off, you all know the good news,” Joshua went on. “All our guys got back OK.”
That raised a muted cheer, which Joshua cut short with a lifted hand. “Injuries: Ms. Williams is partially flash blind, the Doc says she’ll recover with time. Mr. Everett and Mr. Hubert have broken arms, and Ms. Kline has a fractured elbow. All of them took radiation, lifetime safe doses in a few cases. In case you hadn’t heard, those were nukes the bad guys were tossing around, but their aim was lousy, and Commander Bolton says nukes are a piss-poor weapon under these conditions. I don’t understand why, but it seems he’s right.”
Another general murmur, cut off the same way. “As for the bad guys,” Joshua continued with a thin smile, “our guys among them claim thirty-one kills.” Standards for what constituted a “combat kill” had been tightened up, so that probably meant fifteen or sixteen hard downs. “Plus they carved a chunk off the carrier with their lasers, so as to give ’em something to remember ’em by.” That got a chuckle.
Chief Joshua let the susurrus pass in its own time instead of cutting it off. “All right,” he said finally, straightening to attention and picking out eyes in the group to catch. They quieted and leaned forward slightly, and the Master Chief said in a low carrying voice, “That’s it, sailors. What with upside-down girl friends and beer on tap at the geedunk stand, we’ve all been treating this like a cross between liberty at Mariel and ropeyarn Sunday, and I’m no better than the rest of you, but that. Has. Got. To. Stop.” He punctuated the last five words with sharp raps on the table in front of him, and a hundred and ninety-nine sailors breathed out at once.
“We’re gonna start acting like the U. S. Navy again, and that’s all there is to it. Starting as soon as we can get a roster set, there will be lookouts at the fore and aft bay doors, with binoculars and earbugs, half-ande watches. All hands will be on that roster. That includes me, by the way, so all you twenty-year Firsts can report to the proverbial Ms. Waite to apply for exemptions, you hear me?” Another chuckle.
Joshua sought out a particular eye. “Hernandez, how are you fixed for paper?
“Not bad,” the computer section leader judged. “We haven’t been using much.”
“Good. We’re gonna start publishing the Orders of the Day again. To save paper they’ll only be posted at the fore and aft hatches to the O-1 level quarters, but they will be orders. Section leaders, pass the word to your sections. We’ll muster at our duty stations right after breakfast and do a head count, and all the other Navy bullshit we’ve been slacking on, you got that?
“Last thing: From now on, when the ship’s planning to drop out of high phase we’ll all be in full gear, and as soon as we’re sure we’re down we’ll be manning duty stations. Commander Bolton’s setting up a rota of his own, and we’re gonna be launching a two-plane CAP that’ll be on duty from as soon after we’re down as possible to when we’re sure we’re on orbit and secure.”
That generated grumbles, but the Chief was right. They’d been goofing off, and it was time to be Navy again. Joshua relaxed a little. “Questions?” he offered. Whispers were exchanged, but nobody took him up on it. “Nothing?” he asked, a little amused.
Mannix stood up and glanced around. “Master Chief, I think I speak for most of us when I say that there will undoubtedly be details to take care of, but we can’t efficiently settle them here, so there’s little or no point in trying to hash them out. I do have one question: Who were our guys shooting at? It’d be nice to know.”
A rumble of agreement went through the group, but the Master Chief shook his head and held a hand up. “I don’t know, and neither does the Commander. All any of us knows is that they attacked, they were pretty damned stupid, they had lousy weapons and didn’t know how to use those, and they ain’t here any more.”
“Well, Master Chief, it occurs to me that we’re wasting a resource in that connection,” Mannix opined.
“Hm.” Joshua scanned the group, his eye finally falling on Peters. “Petty Officer Peters, you got any problem with goin’ up and asking about that? Seems to me you’ve got a pretty good relationship going with the ship’s crew.”
“Aye, Master Chief,” Peters responded, his tone resigned. “Dreelig didn’t know nothin’?”
“I get the impression Dreelig isn’t real popular upstairs right now,” the Master Chief told him. “At any rate, if he’s getting the word he ain’t passing it on.”
“I reckon I coulda figgered that out.” Peters’s tone was grimly amused.
“Yes, you should’ve, shouldn’t you? At any rate, soon as we’re done here you go make whatever prep you think you need and shag ass up there.” Joshua gestured in the general direction of the bridge. “See what you can find out.”
“Aye aye, Master Chief.”
“All right.” Joshua glanced over the group. “You’ve got the basics. Chiefs and section leaders in my office as soon as this meeting breaks up. Which is now, as far as I can see.”
“Aye,” was the consensus of the murmurs, and the sailors began getting up and milling around.
“One question more, Master Chief,” came a voice.
“Eh? Oh. What is it, Everett?”
“Before all this happened we were scheduled for liberty,” the weasel-faced First Class offered. “Is that still on?”
The group quieted as the Master Chief considered that. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “Peters, another thing for you to get us up to speed on.”
“Aye, Master Chief,” Peters responded with some reluctance.
Joshua gave a short nod. “Let’s get to it, people.”
The group began breaking up, and Mannix sought out Peters. “You need moral support?” the First Class asked, briefly for him. “Tollison and I can just about order beer, as you so colorfully put it before, but if you’d like backup we’re available.” He grinned. “Among other things, I’d like to see the bridge myself.”
Peters considered that. “I do appreciate the offer,” he said after a pause, “but I reckon I need to do this on my ownsome. We can probably arrange tours later, if the folks up there ain’t too stirred up.”
“Very well, you can keep your secrets a little longer,” Mannix said, his grin taking some of the sting out. “Tollison, it would seem we’re not needed or appreciated. Shall we go attend the Master Chief’s little soiree?”
“Best thing anyway,” the big sailor opined shortly.
“Beyond a doubt. Come along then.” The mismatched pair headed for the door, Peters regarding them with a sour expression, Todd looking on with a knowing grin.
“You comin’ along?” Peters asked. His tone said he knew the answer to that.
Todd spread his hands and confirmed it. “I’d have nothing to add,” he said with a shrug.
“Yeah.” Peters regarded the younger sailor for a moment, then sighed. “Well, nothin’ for it. I reckon I oughta shower and shave first, though.”
* * *
Dhuvenig looked up as he entered. «I’ve been expecting you,» he said with a smile. «We’ve had a little excitement. You probably have questions.»
«Many questions,» Peters nodded. «Would you mind telling me what happened? My people are very curious.»
Dhuvenig smiled more broadly. «Yes, I suppose they would be. We have a few questions of our own, so I may not be able to tell you everything you’d like.»
Peters nodded. «I understand.»
Dhuvenig nodded. «Yes. What would you like to know?»
«My first question is one that doesn’t seem to have occurred to my associates: are you satisfied with the actions of the ship operators? They detected an attack and responded in the way they, and we, have been trained, but we don’t know much about the situation in general.»
«Oh, yes, we’re very pleased with what they did,» the officer responded seriously. «We have this kind of trouble occasionally, and usually we have no way to make an effective response. Your ship operators have saved the traders a great deal of money.»
«Yes. Usually when an attack like that happens we try to run away. If we can’t do that, the attackers will come aboard and take things. Trade goods, money, sometimes they carry people off. Very often they want to take zifthkakik.»
“Pirates,” Peters summarized, then responded to the lifted eyebrow: «We, too, have a special word for that particular category of attacker,» he explained. «Who were this group of pirates? What species? Are they of the kree?»
The responding smile was a bit grim. «I don’t actually know, but I suspect it was a group of Grallt. The weapons and tactics seemed familiar.»
Peters considered that. «I suppose I should have expected something like that,» he admitted. «We humans have pirates. Why shouldn’t you?»
«Yes, all of the species of the kree have one or more types of criminals.» Dhuvenig grinned. «Not everyone disapproves. When I was small I wanted to be a pirate.»
«Yes, I’ve been reading some of those books.» Peters shook his head. «Another thing we have in common,» he remarked. «Violent ways of asserting status can be attractive to the young, especially males.»
«Yes.» Dhuvenig grinned. «Of course that doesn’t explain why Heelinig finds the books so enjoyable.»
Peters grinned back. «You say you aren’t certain,» he pointed out. «Has no attempt been made to recover the broken ships? I would think they would have some value.»
Dhuvenig nodded. «They would have considerable value. The zifthkakik are almost certainly recoverable, and that is the greatest part of the value of any ship. Unfortunately we have no way to recover the wreckage. The ships are moving very fast, and unless the zifthkakik are active we have no way of tracking them.»
How’s that for a revelation, now? «You have no way of detecting a ship other than the response of its zifthkakik?»
«None.» The Grallt looked at him sharply. «Your tone of voice tells me that you do have such a means.»
«Yes. Radar.» When Dhuvenig looked blank, Peters went on, «Our ships are equipped with a means of emitting radio waves and detecting the reflections. We can determine where something is by examining the timing and direction of the reflected energy.»
«Remarkable.» Dhuvenig thought for a moment. «You used words in your own language. Is this radar related to your communicators?»
«Yes, a variant of the basic system.»
«Remarkable,» the Grallt said again. He steepled his hands in thought. «Do you suppose your ship operators would be willing to search for the damaged ships?»
«I don’t know. Could they gain some advantage by doing so?»
Dhuvenig’s eyebrows went up. «You haven’t been paying attention,» he chided. «Zifthkakik are extremely valuable. If any are recovered your pilots would certainly get a share. Aren’t your people anxious to acquire zifthkakik? Almost everyone else is.»
«That’s a new thought for me,» Peters admitted. «Yes, my people would certainly want to acquire zifthkakik… I do see one problem.»
«Our ships have no equipment for handling external objects, and it is difficult for the operators to get in and out of them without assistance. They might be able to find the broken ships, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything about them.»
Dhuvenig shrugged. «The freight carriers have external handling equipment of a sort, and it’s easy enough to carry people in airsuits along. We don’t need to recover the ships; they’re probably not useful enough to be worth repairing. All we’re interested in is the zifthkakik.»
«Yes.» Peters was staring into space, thinking. He brought his eyes down to meet the other’s. «I will pass this proposal along. As I have told you, I am too junior to make commitments–»
«Yes, yes, I know all that,» Dhuvenig said impatiently. «Pass the proposal along, as you say. I will be waiting for the response.»
«Yes, Dhuvenig.» Peters grinned. «I can say with some confidence that they will at least find the proposal somewhat intriguing.» The Grallt grinned back, with a little twist of irony, and nodded.
Then they both laughed.