Trouble with the Natives
by Karlos Allen
Table of Contents
Chapter 1, part; part 2
appears in issue 244.
“Cover” turned out to be a dense knot of dust similar to the one they’d been edging around when they were hit.
“It’s better than a solid rock,” Nate explained. “We can see through it with what we’ve got left for detection gear, but our emissions will be so smeared we’ll look like a rock inside a dust cloud.”
“Huh!” Aspen snorted. “Cover, from what? First I find out that I’m supposed to talk about a dead person differently because I happened to be in the room when Sorenson said her name, and now I hear we’re hiding in dust clouds from the Boogy-Man! Are we going to wait until Santa Claus comes in his sleigh to take us home?”
“Aspen, turn down the ego. Better yet, turn it off.”
“Or what, Singh? What will you do? Make me walk the plank?”
“No, I’ll just revoke your computer privileges for a week. How would you like to have to ask one of the techs to unlock the door to the head every time you need it?”
Aspen subsided grumbling.
“Tsao, were you able to find anything from the sensor data?”
“Not yet, things looked fine. Macaroon was working on something and then everything went white. From the attitude of the ship at that time, I’ve worked out the exact direction that the flash came from. I’d like to spend some time enlarging some of our optical data in that area.”
There came a rude sound from the back.
“Fine, I believe Dr Aspen has just volunteered to donate his computer allotment to your project. Thank you, Doctor. Nate, do you think we can begin working outside the ship here?”
“Yes, the dust will be a nuisance but nothing we can’t handle. Some of the Science crew have offered the remaining remote sensors to replace the cameras we had on the damaged side.”
The next few days were frantic. Tsao continued poring over the sensor data just before the hit and several from the Remote Sensing Department joined him. Aspen failed to turn down the ego and ended up with no computer privileges. At least once a tech “forgot” to unlock the head for a couple of hours to let him out, bringing a welcome break for the crew.
Finally Singh called Tsao and Nate to his office. “Tsao, have you found anything yet?”
“No. Dr. Tran thinks there’s something way out at the very limit of detection, but we can’t resolve it enough to be able to tell.”
“Well, the repairs, such as they are, are finished. I can’t justify spending any more time in this cloud and we do need to get home. I’m going to ask Nate to take us out of here and to plot the fastest orbit home that he can. Do you have any suggestions for that?”
“If it was an artificial laser, we will probably get shot at again. I recommend we extend the plasma sail and load it with as much of our reflective dust as possible. Dust clouds are about the worst thing to try to fire a laser through; the particles break up and absorb so much of the energy that what’s left hardly does any damage.”
Nate looked worried. “I don’t know, Tsao, the sail will interfere with the tethers pretty badly.”
Singh interrupted: “But it can be done?”
“Then let’s try it. Tsao, I know you haven’t found anything positive, but nobody has been able to come up with a model for a natural laser burst, and everybody agrees that that’s the only way this damage could have been done. Nate, I would like you to plot us a fast course, but I want you to try to do it with as small an energy signature as possible.”
“Fast but sneaky?”
The announcement that, with repairs done, they were going to try to leave for home was greeted with relief by everyone. Aspen attempted to put his two cents in with a caustic remark about running from the Evil Empire, but everyone shouted him down.
“We will make our first orbit change right after breakfast tomorrow. We do not know what will happen, so I am asking everyone to stay in the storm cellar unless your job prevents it. If we’re lucky, nothing will happen, but the phenomenon that struck before could strike again. We simply do not know.”
Nate sat at the controls the next morning running the final checks. Singh, strapped in the observer’s position behind him and his co-pilot, listened to the confirmations filtering back through the intercom as the Tech crew readied the ship.
“Che... no. Sorry, Nate, no plasma.”
Nate swore under his breath and re-entered the command. “Plasma struck?”
Singh could feel a gentle pressure as the ship started pushing against Jupiter’s magnetic field.
The pressure became stronger.
“We’ve cleared the dust cloud, our new external cameras are working fine. Singh, I’m picking up a heat signature up ahead.” He tapped the screen and a spot obediently magnified. Singh craned his neck and saw a small shepherd moon just outside the ring. On it was a blurred square. Suddenly a small point detached from the square and started moving toward them...
* * *
Krallgh stared at the probe ship again. He felt the base Commandant’s eyes boring into his back as they approached the native vessel. “No mistakes this time, Krallgh, and no mercy either.”
He flicked his ears in acknowledgment and continued monitoring. The Watch Officer looked up. “Sir, they are encased in some kind of dusty plasma field. It’s highly reflective and is blurring our scanners. I am not quite able to resolve the ship inside it.”
“That’s OK. Tactical, you are to aim for the center of the field. What they have here is a dusty plasma sail. It’s a common primitive propulsion technology and is very effective, if you don’t mind spending months getting from one planet to the next. Treat it as you would a particle shield because it works well as one of those.”
“Yes, sir, resetting the lasers to pulse mode.”
“Very well, fire.”
The native probe lit up again, this time pulsing as the lasers gradually bored through the sail. Abruptly the flashing brightened. The Tactical officer swore quietly.
“They’ve dumped more of that reflective powder into their sail, sir. I’m compensating but at this distance and with us trying to stay undetected ourselves, it’s going to take some time.”
Base Commandant Zhrey shifted impatiently. “Tell him to move us closer, Krallgh! These natives are unarmed. Any Navy Captain would’ve finished them off by now.”
“You heard the Commandant, Navigator. He’s ordered us to close to point blank range and ‘finish them off’.”
He sensed the Commandant shift behind him. “That is what you ordered, isn’t it, sir?”
“Can’t even take responsibility for your own ship, can you, Krallgh? Typical Contact officer. Don’t want to hurt the Natives.”
“No, sir, we’re not afraid of hurting the Natives. We’ve learned that the Natives sometimes have new ways of hurting back. Closing to point blank range will expose us to that.”
On the screen the native ship started to grow. Krallgh noticed that it was rotating slowly. “There’s why we’re having such a hard time, they’re forcing us to try to heat up the entire sail. Tactical, stop firing the lasers. They won’t help at this range. Wait until we’ve closed, then fire your lasers and follow that up with a low-yield missile barrage. Kinetic kill only. Nuclear heads would give us away beyond any doubt. Do you concur, Commandant?”
“That’s more like it, Krallgh. We’ll give you some spine yet.”
The native ship grew larger on the screen. Gradually the scanners were able to resolve the shape of the vessel through the hot plasma. It was long and narrow, clearly built out of a series of modules docked together.
Sticking out from the ship were several cables curving along the lines of the magnetic field. Krallgh watched them curiously; he knew what they were. Electrodynamic tethers were old tech, though he’d never seen them used along with a plasma sail. He wondered idly why they’d chosen to do that.
One of the tethers didn’t match the others, it was too straight, sticking out almost vertically. Something must be weighting the end to cause it to act like that. He looked at the end as it came around facing them. Yes, there was a irregular bundle attached to the end of it. He wondered what the purpose of that could be.
Suddenly the bundle detached itself from the end of the cable and slammed into the cruiser. That was the last thing Krallgh remembered for a while...
* * *
Singh looked up miserably. The ship was still spinning and so was his head, but it seemed in different directions. “Huh?”
“Remember when Tsao said we might want to figure out a way to shoot back? Well, we did. One of the tethers had a bundle of junk attached to end; I’d say about two hundred pounds of broken machinery, pieces of Module 2, and other stuff. When it came around facing them I just let it go. I recorded the whole thing so you can see it later. You should’ve seen it. It shot across and plowed into belly of that ship just as neat as you please.”
“You were taking a real gamble that they didn’t have some kind of shields, Nate.”
“No, those things have been pretty much ruled out as being physically impossible. Besides, we’re unarmed. I’m sure they knew that. Why would they need shields in the first place?”
“What’s the ship doing now?”
“Just sitting there. I don’t know what we hit, but it must have been important. The out-gassing has stopped now, but the ship is not maneuvering.”
“Do we have any more of those penetrator probes?”
“Good, I want you to fire one into each end of that ship and then I want you to get us out of here. And stop that spin!”
“You’ve got it!”
The ship lurched briefly as the penetrator probes launched and he watched them impact into the alien vessel. There were some small explosions and then nothing.
“Alright, get us home, Nate.”
* * *
Krallgh woke up to see the Doctor hovering over him with the exec, looking worried, standing behind him. He motioned him over. “What happened?”
“We were hit, sir. Three times. We took an improvised kinetic kill weapon in the center of the ship right next to the bridge. Then we took two low-yield missiles. One in the forward laser battery, the other in one of the rear cargo holds. Casualties were minimal and we should be ready to return to base when you give the order.”
“What’s the status of the forward battery?”
“That was a lucky shot sir. Control and power are fine, but the tubes themselves are hopelessly ruined. They’ll have to be completely replaced.”
“And the alien probe?”
“They’re pulling away sir. At about one-tenth space normal speed. We must have damaged them.”
“Not necessarily. That’s probably their top speed. Those sails are efficient but slow. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are looking at a two-year voyage home. Is the Commandant conscious?”
“I’m over here, Krallgh! What happened?”
“Apparently these natives found a rather interesting way of hurting back, sir. My exec reports that we can get under way for the base at our convenience. Shall we do that?” He braced himself for the inevitable.
It came. “What! And let the natives win? No! You are to follow up and take them out!”
“Our laser battery was destroyed, sir. It will have to be replaced. The only weapons we have left are missiles.”
”If I may suggest, sir. The probe is moving at one-tenth space normal speed. It is going to take them days to get out of the planetary system. We have enough time to return, get refitted and come back. Sir.”
The Commandant chewed his lip reflectively. “All right! But when we get back, you will be relieved of command! The charge is dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy. I will bring this ship back out, deal with them and then return to preside over your court-martial. Security, take Captain Krallgh to his quarters!”
Copyright © 2007 by Karlos Allen