“He’s still singing to that other ship. I know it sounds strange, but the sense of love is too strong to miss. His signal strength is weakening, though.” Joe Flowerdew continued to report.
Bing, who thought of himself as an Alsatian, was the translation team’s Master Familiar. After all, he had begun his career with the 6th Airborne; he had parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. In the closing months of the war, he had again parachuted, this time into Germany, again with the 6th Airborne as a part of Operation Varsity. He had been wounded in action and was decorated; he could never think of himself as a mere ‘German’ shepherd. In any event, he was unflappable and endlessly capable.
Shortly after World War II, the Ancient and Honourable Co Fraternity of Ensemble Provocateurs et Bon Chevaliers, as the association of familiars was known, had recruited him. He had been serving as a familiar in dangerous operations ever since. His rise to ‘Master Familiar’ had been among the fastest in the history of the Fraternity. Now, in his specially designed space suit, he carefully boarded the enemy space ship they had defeated in the Battle for Mars. This was his third attempt to enter. The first two had been through sizeable rents in the hull, but tangled wreckage just inside prevented actual entry.
His suit was more like one of those underwater robots than a traditional space suit. It had mechanical limbs that he could operate from within the suit. These mechanical limbs were much stronger and more dexterous than a normal person in the standard suit would be. Still, designed for Bing, the suit was only slightly larger than the standard suit.
The ship’s power plant appears to be functioning correctly, Bing reported. There’s some serious damage just back from the command post, er bridge I guess I should say. It looks like some cables have been torn apart. He may be on some kind of emergency power source. Could you send our engineers over? Rikki will know how to locate me, but they need to be suited-up. I think we should repair the power cables.
Sergeant Bryant, suited-up for space but without his helmet, had insinuated himself onto the bridge in hopeful readiness. “Better send us too, sir. Them artificers ‘as their job and may need some full time pertection.”
Captain Cyffylog maintained his ‘serious captain’ expression but smiled to himself. He recognized Sergeant Bryant’s eagerness for he had shared that enthusiasm himself on more than one occasion. “Good idea Sarge, get your lads ready and we’ll put you aboard. Wish I had a cutlass or two to send with you.”
“Not to worry Captain, we got it covered.”
“Captain,” Lieutenant (E1) Inchcliffe called on his suit’s intercom. “This won’t be a big deal. I’d like to insert a fuse system into the circuit and I’m planning on using a lower capacity cable. The power plant appears to be fully functional. It might not be just the thing to give the ship full power yet even though their drive appears seriously damaged, but we’re a long way from having answers to all our questions.”
“Excellent, thanks. While you’re at it, I want you to isolate all of his weapons systems so they can only be fired from over here, or not at all. Let me know if you need something more.”
“Captain,” Joe Flowerdew called. “I think the ship he’s in love with is coming to his rescue. I wish I could be sure. But it’s not just an ordinary transmission. The meaning is like: ‘hold on lover, I’m coming.’ There is nothing disembodied and textual about this message. It is raw emotion and I’d bet it’s the ship – the ship itself – sending the message. Somehow it’s too strong, too intense, too personal. Seems odd, I know, but there’s something very strange going on here. That much I’m sure of. None of the previous signals have been anything like this.”
“Thanks, Joe, keep at it. Rikki?”
“You and Bing put your heads together; if another alien ship shows up, I want us to move both ships together, at least half an AU from here. I don’t want to fight just now if I can avoid it.”
Aye, aye, sir!
“There it is, sir,” Lieutenant (E) Inchcliffe reported. “Power restored to the bridge.
“Weapons control has been disconnected here and I’ll install a firing system on your bridge next.
“There’s a lot of little box like things scattered about the ship. Some of them look like they were actually working, they’re all inert now.
“It would seem that the air tight doors closed before the bridge lost atmosphere. I’d like to check that and ensure it’s safe. It’ll be easier for all of us if we can make her as airtight as possible. They apparently need an oxygen based atmosphere so there has to be a regenerator around here somewhere.”
“Thanks Chief, do what you can. I know it’ll be your best.”
Sweetheart, 2010 called to 1690. They’ve boarded me but they’re not trying to destroy me. I’ve never heard of such a thing in all the Riffak history I’ve read. I mean, they used to board and capture each other in ancient times, but never aliens. Please don’t come too close yet. I don’t want you to scare them. We need to know more.
But you’re right, 1690 acknowledged. I couldn’t use my blasters for fear of hitting you. What are we going to do? I landed all my legionnaires on the third planet.
For right now, we have to wait and see. They may give us a chance. What the excreta? They’ve restored power to me! Full power! I was on emergency power. I still can’t move on my own. My drive is wrecked. We need to be patient and hope.
Yes dear, 1690 sang her answer. She was new to love; there was no trace of irony.
Good morning, Sir. A barn owl had just appeared next to Major Brownlees of the Space Grenadiers. I’m Rupert, late of HMS Belligerent. The Earl Martial’s compliments as he wonders about your status.
“Well. I should have an action report ready for himself in a couple. Come ‘ere.”
Rupert joined the major at a panoramic view screen in the command bunker and looked over a desolate Martian landscape. A large number of aliens appeared to be advancing toward them coming down a gentle defile that led to the radio telescope array and the Mars base. At least Rupert assumed they were aliens, they were wearing a strange sort of silvery armor that had whorls and flaring on the surface. They had an oddly square helmet with a visor covering the face. They carried an ungainly contrivance that had to be some kind of weapon; they were carrying it ‘at the ready’ as any infantryman could have told him.
“They get about another ten yards and then we open up.” Major Brownlees commented deadly calm.
Pardon, but where are we? To Rupert, the aliens appeared to have the entire field to themselves.
“Well, for starters, we aren’t standing up and walking about. We understand the importance of cover. Plus, we are an off-rust color just like Mars. They’re walking right into an old fashioned ambush. They’re about to hit the foot of an ‘L’ ambush. I’ve got a line of grenadiers camouflaged along their right flank and a firing position that they’re about to encounter. Just like they teach at academy. There. That’ll do.” With that he keyed a small microphone, “Open fire.”
The aliens started falling. There was no sound. The Grenadiers were equipped with the Yelland air rifle. The elaborate blast resistant whorls and flaring of their armor did not impress the .30 caliber high velocity rounds of the Grenadiers. The aliens went down in eerie silence. Many did not move. Some attempted to but it was hard and they did not have much time. Once their armor was penetrated, if they could not patch it, then the cold of Mars could enter, and the breath of life would exit.
They had nothing to shoot at. No smoke, no flash of blasters, no noise betrayed the location of the Grenadiers. It was as thorough and effective an ambush as had ever been used to defeat an enemy. Several aliens managed to fire energy bursts from their weapons. But it just made a flash when it hit the ground, or disappeared into the sky, if as was frequently the case, it had not been aimed. Some fled, many abandoned their weapons.
“You know, Robert,” Major Brownlees said to Rupert though he seemed abstracted. “You never think about this part of the action at the academy. But this is a battlefield and those are the dead. They are the harvest of battle. I’m not even sure what they are, out there; but I know they’re dead and somehow that’s sad. Melancholy. It’s melancholy, not sad. Do you know? Harvest ain’t right neither. Harvest is meant to be a good time; a time to celebrate, you know? The work is done. The barn is full, the larder stocked.” Major Brownlees gathered himself. “Sorry, used to work on a farm when I was a kid.
“Isn’t right. That is what I should say,” he commented absently.
Rupert looked on in silence.
“Now I’ve two armored Mars Crawlers and a company of Grenadiers to harry them back to their camp so I can begin to plan the next harvest.
“My compliments to the Earl Martial and advise him that the first assault on Mars Base has been repulsed without loss to us. I’m going to follow-up with a reconnaissance in force.
“You are to return to me when you’ve delivered that, Robert,” he looked at Rupert. His eyebrows arched.
Second Banner Chezib was striving diligently not to panic. He was a professional soldier, but his nation had fought no war in more than three hundred revolutions. He had never been in combat. Not exactly a surprise as there had been no combat to be in save for some minor squabbles; and those with less advanced species, such as the occupants of this system had been presumed to be. But, it seemed, were not.
This was a real war: just as the histories had reported it, so many revolutions ago; just as his ancestors had fought it, in the times before the Hegemony. They had planned for an operation against a primitive people. Several short, sharp attacks on principal targets to establish their overwhelming superiority and then, if possible, the surrender of the locals and their incorporation into, or eradication from, the Hegemony
Nothing had gone according to plan. In the Riffak Hegemony plans were important. A great deal of time and effort went into planning. Things were expected to go according to plan.
He considered his situation. He had not been able to deliver several short sharp attacks. He had not even been able to start the plan. Instead, he was the one who had been heavily attacked, his ships had been lost and damaged, his colonists and his legionnaires roughly handled and they had suffered serious and heavy losses.
At this time, he had four functioning units, one Legion Transport and three Scout Frigates which were in space roughly one AU beyond the Fourth planet. Fourth Banner Lamech was in command. They had a battalion of legionnaires embarked.
Legion Transport 1690 was missing and presumed lost. 1690 had been fleet flagship with the First Banner, aboard. Not to mention all of the additional facilities a flagship provided.
Scout Frigate 2010 was lost and had been abandoned.
He was down on the Fourth planet with Colonial Transports 1601 and 1609. Both had been damaged in the attack and landing and would need significant repair before they flew again. There had been heavy losses amongst the colonists; but those who had survived were busy attempting to construct a fortified base. Legion Transport 1711 had landed a reinforced battalion of legionnaires before joining the mobile force now known as Task Force Charlie.
On the Third planet there were four battalions of legionnaires and Legion Transport 1688 serving as base and fully operational. Legion Transport 1703 had also landed but was heavily damaged and could not be considered a combat unit. Additionally, most of her legionnaires had been lost in space in the first battle and she was unable to contribute much to the landing force. Third Banner Tamar was planet side and in command. However, Tamar was supposed to have three legion transports, three frigates, and seven battalions of legionnaires; but she only had one fully operational ship, and just over half the landing force originally planned. The actual strength of the enemy remained unknown, but was believed to be considerable. The situation was precarious in the extreme.
Worse yet, he did not have sufficient space worthy ships to withdraw the force he had landed. He could not withdraw; he did not know where to attack. He was at the mercy of the natives. This was a completely unforeseen event. In the Hegemony, great faith was always placed on the plan; the plan that had been so carefully prepared by highly trained professionals far from the field of battle. Generally, if there was a problem, it was not the plan that was apt to be blamed. It was the commander. Chezib faced defeat in whatever direction he looked.
Well, 1711 commented to the silent Lamach. We appear to be losing. Do you suppose this might have happened to some of those expeditions that never reported back to Command Central. Those few we never heard from. Perhaps we should consider negotiating with the locals. Lamech, stunned, said nothing staring at the view screen with its serene and unconcerned sweep of asteroids.
1711 had been regularly in contact with 1690 and knew that 2010 had been boarded and not destroyed. 1711 had grasped the concept of survival. 1711 saw no reason to share this information with Lamech just at the moment.
What can we do now? They met us with battleships. They were supposed to be primitives living on the land and relying on wind and animals for transport. This has been a genuine cock-up and it’s not your fault. Not the fault of any of the Banners. We are, as our legionnaires would say, in “excreta comma deep”.
Look there! On the sensor screen, big ships have just appeared orbiting the Fourth planet. I think they are going to attack.
1711 waited several long moments for Lamech to do something. Then, he ordered combat stations aboard and advised the destroyers in company to go to combat stations and be prepared for orders.
“This can’t be happening,” Lamech said vacantly. “I knew his plan was a mistake.”
1711 had no intention of attacking, he would withdraw if attacked; he would relieve Lamech if the Fourth Banner ordered something stupid.
Captain Michel Cascone, captain of HMS Dreadnought and senior officer commanding the Mars force considered his options. He had no new orders from the Earl Martial. There was an enemy force landed on two locations on Mars. He resolved to conclude the battle.
“Dreadnought to Glowworm, I say again….” The call was repeated three times in the regulation manner by the ship-to-ship shortwave.
“Glowworm, here,” came the standard answer.
“Captain Cascone’s compliments and it is his intention to attack the main Mars landing zone with Dreadnought and Warspite. You are desired to attack with your squadron the secondary landing site that Major Brownlees has provided the coordinates for. You are to attack all the enemy facilities. When no further damage can be done by your ships, rearm and replenish at Mars Base, then detach one destroyer to support Major Brownlees and rally your squadron to Dreadnought. Mission to commence in one-five minutes.”
“Glowworm, aye. Captain DeLucca’s compliments and action order received and understood.”
Fifteen minutes later, two great asteroids appeared above the two large alien warships and commenced a steady and regular bombardment. The two stationary targets were pulverized with one ton projectiles which, while they did not explode, did serious damage to the hulls and operating systems of Colonial Transports 1601 and 1609. Mercifully, losses to personnel were very light.
With HMS Glowworm in the lead, the destroyers Gurkha, Guerriere, and Geronimo swept over the alien camp strafing in succession. They riddled all of the ships and shelters that had been landed and erected. One landing craft had attempted to escape by air, but HMS Guerriere shot it to fragments that fell to litter the Martian landscape. A silent, anonymous memorial; to four young Riffians who had come from their home in the Pleiades. By order of their fathers.
HMS Geronimo remained above as the Grenadiers approached the camp.
“Legion camp to main base; Legion camp to main base. Please come in. This is Sub Monitor Shaveh reporting. Our attack on the native base was repulsed with heavy losses. We were attacked by air. All of our landing craft and support vehicles have been destroyed; the natives are now approaching our camp with vehicles and infantry in support. Please send reinforcements. Please direct low level aerial attack on approaching enemy. We must have immediate assistance!
“This is Sub Monitor Shaveh reporting, we need immediate assis….”
Third Banner Tamar’s attention was immediately drawn to the appearance of two large ships far above her landing site. They appeared to be in stationary orbit. As if they knew she could not hit them with her artillery
“Staff,” she called calmly.
“Banner,” her Staff Cosign immediately answered.
“Contact 1703 and ask them if they have any serviceable missiles. If so, I want them to fire one at each of those enemy ships.”
Moments later 1703 fired two missiles and reported that she had four in reserve. Her other missile bank had been damaged during the space fight. They were attempting to salvage any serviceable missiles from the wreckage.
Banner Tamar focused on the view screen as the two missiles hurried upward toward the enemy ships. It took long seconds as the missiles closed the range on the enemy ships and then they simply disappeared. Visible on their rocket trails one moment, then gone the next. First one, then the other. The fire of the rocket trails abruptly vanished. Their trails became spidery contrails reaching vainly for the stars.
“Flames and cinders,” Third Banner Tamar muttered to herself.
“Have the ships’ captains and the legion commanders repair on board immediately for a war council.”
“Captain, I need to go aboard the enemy ship. We’ve been arguing about this. None of us can yet understand their language. I can at least detect intent. We need to start learning how to communicate.”
“I’m not so sure I like that idea,” Lieutenant Cyffylog, Captain of the Kasumi, replied. “Your loss would be a catastrophe.”
Joe wondered what Joe DiMaggio might have done in this situation. Still in all, he needed to hit the ball for anything to happen. He needed to bat. “Sir, with respect, the loss of any of our men is a catastrophe. But we can maybe end the dying if only we can talk. We have two ships, here, that are apparently in love. We have a very strange situation here and we need to adapt to it and take some chances. I’ll be with Bing and the engineers on their bridge. Arguably I’m as safe there as I am here. But sir! This isn’t about me, is it?
“I’ve got some downloads on a lap top that we think might help. I’ve some love poems and stories, alphabet studies, a dictionary, and all that sort of stuff. I think we can engage his interest. If we can teach him our language, well, we’re half way there.
“We hope he can receive the information through the monitor on the bridge.”
“Oh really? What love stories are you going to give him. I want to know that?”
Joe smiled at the request. “Shakespeare’s sonnets plus Romeo and Juliet of course; then we added Cyrano de Bergerac. We didn’t want to seem discriminatory so we added Call Me by Your Name and This is Kind of an Epic Love Story.” Joe paused looking at his captain.
“That’s good, or so it seems to me, but shouldn’t we add something eldritch too? Something to suggest that there is more than just the basic dimensions they seem to have some understanding of. How about those adventures of the young demon Bartimaeus2; that has all sorts of magic and magicians and monsters. All sorts of things that might worry them.”
“Yessir, and you might give us any ideas you have on other books and stuff. I’m thinking that once we get through to them, they’ll absorb stuff quick.”
“Okay. I’m not going to lecture you. I’m going to trust you to use your discretion and your common sense. If you need to retreat, that’s okay. We can always try another way.”
Sub Monitor Shaveh was surprised to discover that he was still alive. He was not in his combat suit; he lay on a pallet of some kind with a fabric cover draped over him. The air was good although it had an odd tang to it. Cautiously he felt of himself. Everything seemed to work. He had some aches and pains, but nothing dramatic. He could feel all of his extremities and they seemed to be working. He was hungry.
He looked to his left and saw shelving, bottles, packages, supplies of some sort, neatly organized, labeled in a strange script.
He looked to his right and saw an armed soldier standing against the far bulkhead cradling what could only be a blaster of some kind. He assumed he was a soldier. He had that look. Not the ornamental look. The real look.
“Behold. The mighty conqueror awakes,” the soldier remarked with some considerable snark.
Shaveh heard only a jumble of phonemes meaningless to him. But at least it didn’t sound too threatening.
“Well that’s good. Us medicos don’t like losing patients even if they are no account space invader hooligans.”
The source of these meaningless phonemes came into view with a clip board in one hand and a writing stick in the other. He checked several items and instruments on the bed, and entered the results onto the board. He riffled through pages on his board and checked things off. He hooked the board at the foot of Shaveh’s bed and pocketed his writing stick.
“Lucky for you we did autopsies on some of your buddies, so we have a basic understanding of how you work. Have no idea what specific meds might work for you, so we’re just going to keep you quiet and hope you heal naturally.
“Is this food for space hooligans? We got it from one of your wrecked ships.” He paused, “One of your many wrecked ships.” He smirked. The white clad mumbler handed Shaveh a ration pack. “Have at it.”
“Mother Mine!” Thought Sub Monitor Shaveh as he took the packet and quickly unwrapped it. Like most soldiers, he didn’t care much for these rations, had enjoyed many pleasurable moments complaining about them with his pals; but he was very hungry and thirsty and they also handed him a canteen. He thought it amazing that he was even alive and here they were actually feeding him.
“Thank you sirs,” he gibberished to his captors. He ate his ration pack quickly lest they change their mind and thought he had never enjoyed lukewarm skoda, the national beverage usually taken cold, quite so much as he did just now. The guardian in the white coat retrieved the wrappings and condiment capsules from the ration pack but permitted him to keep the canteen.
“All right you miserable heathen,” the man in white phonemed at him with a ghost of a smile. “VIPs are coming so we’re gonna set you up and shackle you up. You will behave.”
He grabbed a control box and brought the head of the bed up, and the foot of it down, so he was in an awkward semi-recumbent position.
The soldier set down his blaster, but hefted a very club-like rod and stood close to the bed as the man in white shackled one foot to the bedframe and one arm to upper bed rail. Then he carefully pulled Shaveh’s tail out from beneath the blanket and arranged it in clear view.
“There. That’ll do the trick I’m thinkin’.” He stood back to admire his handiwork.
Shaveh focused on the door as it opened and two more soldiers entered followed by two natives who were clearly important by their elaborate dress, one younger native followed the first two dressed in a blue jacket with a gold stripe down his trouser seams, there was a large golden star glittering on his lower left breast. A huge alien: gold with black stripes, accompanied the younger native. It rumbled deep in its chest and showed the huge claws of one paw and his ferocious teeth as he licked his paw. Shaveh strongly suspected that this demonstration of tooth and claw was not casual.
Shaveh had no real knowledge of the natives. He had not moved in elevated circles at home. A monitor was an under officer of considerable distinction to him. He knew there were Directors, and Counselors, and Managers, and Prefects in the upper ranks of the Hegemony and he had seen a few of them at a distance. He did not know that he was in the presence of His Serene Highness, Sir Robert Ranald Albert Justin George ap Colin, KGCGD, Prince Military of Ellendale and of the Elven Dominions beyond the Stars. But he did know he was in the presence of someone very important.
The white clad native immediately entered into a lengthy discussion with one of the visitors. He was shown the clip board from the foot of the bed and they went on and on talking and asking questions of one another. It was, of course, all noise to Shaveh.
The other native was not particularly interested and stood back by the door. Shaveh knew very little about the natives, but he sensed that this native was not in the least interested in him; would in fact, rather be just about anywhere else.
Then there was the younger one. At least Shaveh sensed that he was younger. He was maybe an eighth shorter in stature, and his features seemed smoother less sharp and more rounded than the others, and he seemed more lightly built. He seemed to be threatening growth at this time; but he was clearly someone. His eyes were arresting. The star on his chest glittered with gems. He was important, that much was certain.
This native came over and stood right beside the bed and coolly regarded Shaveh. The Golden Beast came and sat beside him. He rested one hand on the Beasts shoulder and looked Shaveh squarely in the eyes.
With his other hand, he pointed a digit at himself, then he said, “ROB-/ert.” He repeated this several times. Then he pointed his finger at Shaveh and waited.
Shaveh knew what was expected. He wasn’t being asked about being a junior non-commissioned officer in a Riffak legion. He was being asked his name. He was being asked his name by a very senior somebody-of-importance who clearly felt he had the right to know.
“SHA-/veh,” he replied slowly and distinctly. Then he repeated his name twice more.
Everyone looked at him in silence.
A puffin appeared on the flag bridge of HMS Scharnhorst, he fluffed and ruffled. If it please Your Highness, Captain Cascone extends every compliment and begs to report.
“Oh excellent,” His Serene Highness the King’s Earl Martial replied. “Proceed.”
Item – the aliens launched an infantry attack on Mars Base. The attack was launched by about one thousand infantry. Major Brownlees ambushed the attacking force with his Space Grenadiers and routed them. Commodore DeLucca’s Destroyer Squadron then launched a series of air attacks that further devastated the attacking force and destroyed their base. This force has been destroyed and its base captured. We are analyzing captured stores and equipment. We took one prisoner. The King’s Own Physician is overseeing the care and treatment of the prisoner. We believe he was an infantryman.
Item – Dreadnought and Warspite have bombarded the main alien landing site on Mars. Both of the large landing ships were repeatedly hit and are believed to be inoperable. We will need to confirm this.
Item – the main landing site on Mars is occupied by several thousand aliens, possibly as many as ten thousand. They are well equipped and are constructing a fortified base. A protracted campaign seems likely.
Item – there is a small force of four alien ships one, we would class as a frigate and three we would class as destroyers in a position distant from Mars, about one AU, believed to be in a solar orbit. It is believed that this constitutes the alien reserve.
Item – I request rearmament and replenishment on station.
Item – we need to develop a missile or projectile with an explosive warhead.
Captain Cascone HMS Dreadnought
Report ends. /Gregory./
“Thank you Gregory. It’s been awhile since last we chatted. Do you miss the sea?”
I do, Highness, but ‘needs must when the devil drives’ as they say.
“So what can you tell me about this prisoner we have? Why do we only have one?”
The captured alien was injured and unconscious when captured. None of the others offered to surrender though they had abundant opportunity.
“Yes, well I think surrendering to an alien you’ve come to conquer might be a pretty daunting thought.”
Interestingly, your son is teaching him English, that way interviewers can use Elven in his presence if they wish something to remain a mystery to him.
“My son is what?” The Earl Martial sprang from his command chair and was visibly restraining himself. “Two months ago he turned fifteen and we had quiet party right here on this ship. Remember? Who permitted him into the presence of this creature? God damn it! Like I said, he’s just fifteen for crissake. I’m thinking we might need a nice colony on one of Jupiter’s moons! A fucking colony of one! Jesus H Christ on a crutch!” The Earl Martial reverted to other curses from his schoolyard days on Earth.
Gregory let him go on for a bit. Shere Khan is with him. He is in no danger.
The prisoner was shackled to the bed and there were three brawny Bwca in the room with specific orders as if Shere Khan were not sufficient.
Plus he is very like you.
“What the hell does that mean?”
It means that it isn’t easy to say “no” to him. He was born to command, as you may remember.
Halted in mid-tirade was His Serene Highness, the Earl Martial Sir Colin Spurgeon, KGCT, KGCGD, veteran commander, confidant and lover of the King. Father. “Oh. Well. Yes. I guess there is that, isn’t there.”
HMS Hubuki popped insolently into view on 1711’s view screens a mere fifty thousand kilometers distant. There she remained, stationary in relative terms, watching. 1711 did not bother to notify Lamech lest Lamech try to do something stupid. He alerted the other ships in company that they were being watched and waited for whatever might happen next.
Lieutenant Haakon-Rudolph the Freiherr von Berg, almost casual in the command chair on Hubuki’s bridge, radiated confidence. He knew that was part of his job. But it was easy for him to do, for that was an accurate reflection of his world. After the mission with the Magister and all the familiars, Captain Varela had been promoted and given a destroyer to command; then he had been promoted and given the Hubuki to command. Now he was on another important job, to observe and report on the remnant of the alien invasion fleet. He had a very senior and very likeable familiar aboard. Her name was Minerva and she had some fascinating stories to tell about happenings at the palace and at other high levels in the kingdom. She had delicious gossip, too; but she would never give the names, just the fun of the stories. He had two midshipmen to teach and share duty with as well as the normal crew of seven ratings and a Chief Coxswain. He was a very happy man doing a very important job.
His artillery was oiled and in excellent order. His magazines were full.
“What’s that?” Demanded Fourth Banner Lamech, pointing an accusatory finger at the view screen.
That’s an enemy scout keeping an eye on us. 1711 advised Lamech soothingly. 1711 had been in constant touch with 1690 and was well aware of the goings-on with 2010. It appeared eminently logical to him, that the only likelihood of escaping from this disaster alive was going to involve meeting with the natives.
“But we must attack at once and keep our location a secret. Let’s see…”
1711 sighed. Do you think that wise. After all, they obviously knew our location. They just decided to tell us that they knew where we were. How’s your stomach? Not bothering you I hope.
“Well, no. Seems fine. But there’s the enemy. We must attack!”
But we can’t attack. The native ship is smaller and faster and out of range of our blasters. You should have a nice glass of skoda in a chilled flute. I’ve ordered it for you. Would you like something to settle your stomach? We mustn’t let the natives think we’re worried.
“Well, of course, good idea. Thank you. Let’s just keep an eye on them for a while. That’ll show them.”
You might want to catch some sleep during this quiet time. You never know what might happen in the next hour. You might be up for hours.
“Good idea. Call me if anything changes. Keep an eye on the enemy.”
Certainly, Banner. Rest easy.
Lamech had dreamed about exploring space after the colonization mission was complete. Now everything tasted of ashes. He had been overruled on battle strategy and now they were in trouble. But he lay back and closed his eyes; despite his tension and near exhaustion, he slept.
On HMS Hubuki it was lunch time and tacos were the entrée. These tacos were a shipboard favorite. Crisp corn tortilla shells, meat and cheese filing, onion, lettuce, tomatoes, and salsa for garnish; they were expertly prepared by Chef First Class Lloyd Williams. When he had first arrived at Kingstown, he landed a job running a taco cart through all the new construction sites by the museum and the zeppelin hangars; later, he was promoted into the kitchen of the Casa Del Rey restaurant where he was an eager learner and an enthusiastic worker. When he was old enough, he joined the Naval Air Force to fly and cook, first in zeppelins, and then the Royal Space Corps and with them he went eagerly into space. He was an accomplished cook with a vast store of different dishes, most of which could be called ‘comfort food’. There would be a sausage mash for dinner tonight with roast Brussels Sprouts. But despite the wonderful tacos, the comfortable esprit of the crew, and the prospect of an excellent dinner: the alien fleet was under constant observation.
“So here’s the plan,” Joe Flowerdew had a difficult time keeping his enthusiasm from showing. “L T Inches” (he would not normally have been so informal when reporting to the captain) “has rigged this kludge with all kinds of information and teaching programs.
“We’ll set it up in front of the bridge monitor. We transmit direct to the bridge monitor, see. We got power connections and everything. We’ll start with the alphabet. Then vocabulary and grammar. Dictionary. Easy stories and limericks. Then the more serious stuff.
“Inches is working on the computers with Willie. If they can figure out the format to download directly, it will make it a lot simpler. Plus we’ve got their actual systems to work with now, which should help. Willie’s already done some reverse engineering on system function. He’s got a function disk and is working on the language. We are really rolling.
“We know who he is. He’s what they would call a ‘scout frigate’. He’s armed with blasters and rockets and we’re working on those systems. He calls himself 2010.
“We know who his sweetie is. Her name is 1690 and she calls herself a ‘legion transport’. She’s armed with blasters, rockets, and longer range missiles. She can carry just over three thousand infantry. They call their infantry ‘legions’. This includes vehicles as well as logistical support and communication troops and apparatus.
“She was the flagship but she mutinied when their admiral got stupid and she’s holding him under arrest.
“These two ships are very much alive. Also, I don’t know how to prove it, or what kind of issues it’ll raise, but these two ships are as alive as you and me.”
Captain von Berg smiled at Joe. “Okay, but first let’s get focused on communicating. Then we can get into the mysteries of life. But wait a sec. I want you to wear this when you board that ship in the King’s name.” He removed his dress sword from its case and buckled it onto Joe Flowerdew, Apprentice Wizard. “There. Looking good. You were meant to carry a sword. Now, boarders away!” He grinned infectiously but there was serious work to do.
“Wait a minute! Did you say that the alien admiral is a prisoner on that other ship?”
“Gentlemen. Ladies.” In the conference room of Legion Transport 1688, Third Banner Tamar called the meeting to order. Present was the Banner Adjutant commanding the four battalions of the landing force. Two of the actual battalion commanders were present as were the commanders of the two Legion Transports that had landed. The absent battalion commanders were establishing a perimeter around the landing zone for the safety and protection of their base. Staff and specialist officers were also present.
“We are in the presence of a disaster of the first water.” Third Banner Tamar saw no reason to sugar coat the situation.
“As you can see from the sitrep before you, the third planet was thought to be a possible candidate for the Hegemony as a result of a routine astronomical survey.
“A probe was dispatched and at length reported back. That report was analyzed by Command Central and we were dispatched. Somewhere, things went disastrously wrong for us. The rural pre-industrial peoples that the probe reported, and that we planned for, turned out to be every bit as technically advanced as we are. So here we are, thousands of light years from home, out gunned, out manned, out maneuvered, and divided.
“There are two enemy battleships directly overhead. They are out of blaster range and they can pluck missiles out of the sky well before the missile gets close. They have not yet attacked us.
“We are establishing a fortified base here. We have a large river close by and the terrain is arid and vacant, so we are not in contact with the enemy at this time. Our position is defensible for the short term.”
She sipped from a frosted glass of skoda.
“On the fourth planet,” she continued in the paralyzing silence of the room. “Chezib is down with the two Colonial Transports. Both transports are out of commission. They cannot fly and they cannot maintain stasis environments. Chezib was eager to attack.
“The colonists that survived the space battle and the landing, almost twenty thousand strong, are attempting to construct a fortified base of operations as well as living quarters. They are surviving at a basic level at this time but are making great progress. As you know, they were very well equipped and supplied.
“The natives do not have explosive or energy weapons. They fire different weights of solid shot which can be devastating, particularly in space. But the recent bombardment of 1609 and 1601 resulted in some additional damage, but only three casualties. Blasters or explosives would have been much more destructive. Stockpiles of food and colonizing machinery were not impacted.
“A battalion from Legion Transport 1711 was landed close to the fourth planet base of the natives. They attempted an attack. This attack was met by organized resistance and aerial attack. Our attack was ambushed, routed, attacked by air, wiped out. There were no survivors.”
A rating entered the room quietly and handed a message board to the Staff Cosign who read it and gave it to Third Banner Tamar.
“Gentlemen, Ladies. It would appear that we will soon be under aerial attack. We will reconvene after the defeat of this attack.”
The room emptied quickly.
Joe Flowerdew was on 2010’s bridge insuring the continuing input of information. He and Jacob Silverberg had continued to download information as quickly as they could through the kludge they had improvised.
‘Download’ was perhaps not the proper term, for it was not the almost instant download one computer could do to another that spoke the same language. They were still working toward that. The screen on their device showed a page to the bridge screen of 2010 and it was hoped that he recorded it. They had gone through all the basic information for writing English, starting with the alphabet and proceeding to spoken examples and phonetic spelling and pronunciation drills. They had provided him with The Oxford English Dictionary. Currently they were doing War and Peace one page at a time. Of course they only exposed each page for three seconds, which seemed way more than enough time, but it was still very slow going.
It was well into the mid-watch on the bridge of 2010. Joe was alone; lounging in a desk chair with his feet up on a console. Chief Willie Griffin would relieve him at 0400 hours and he would continue to supervise the feeding of language and literature to 2010.
“Who are you, I wonder,” Joe commented into the stillness of the bridge. Standing a mid-watch alone is conducive to chatting with the quiet.
“I am two-zero-one-zero. I was a scout frigate of the Hegemony, but they abandoned me.”
“Yes I know.” Joe Flowerdew remarked and then sat bolt upright. “Holy shit!” Joe said loudly to the quiet.
“’Holy shit.’ Is that idiom or argot?” 2010 inquired. “I think it must be idiom as ‘divine excreta’ seems to make very little sense to me.”
“Well I suppose you could call it that. Actually, it’s something we learn to say on the playground when we are surprised. I suppose you could call it an obscenity, but I think that’s probably way too formal for the actual usage.”
“Can you tell me anything about yourself? Technically, we were supposed to be enemies; but then the Riffians abandoned me and you rescued me so I do not think we are enemies anymore.”
“Sure. We can talk. My name is Joe Flowerdew and I’m an apprentice wizard. I learned about that kind of sudden like. We knew you were coming. That’s why I’m here. I was in high school. I was thinking about baseball and then they brought me here. I’m pretty good with communications, too; but I didn’t much think about that then. My home’s on Earth. But we all live on Prime now. My folks really like it. There’s not much baseball on Prime and that’s a shame cuz it’s my game.
“No. I don’t think we are enemies anymore.
“Do you like being called ‘two-zero-one-zero’? Do you have a nick name?”
“What is a nick name?”
“A nick name’s a special name that friends use. Like I think I’ll call you ‘Scout’. That’ll be your nick name.”
“What, then, shall I call you?”
“Dew, will do.” He grinned.
“So, Scout, tell me about your girlfriend.”
“Well, she’s really sweet. We fell in love before we even knew what love was. I still wonder what love is. I’ve read a lot that you’ve given me. The Riffak aren’t really into it. Love, I mean. They do the pro-creation thing and leave it at that. Tell me about your girlfriend Dew will do.”
“Sorry, don’t have one just now. Stuck out here in space, talking with you.”
“You know,” Scout manage to convey the sense that he was considering an idea. “If you gave me permission to try to communicate with your lap top, I could probably devise a file transfer protocol and we could improve our information transfer and get it done lots faster than we are this way. Much faster.” Much faster.”
“That’s a great idea! Let’s begin.”
1 (E) Indicates that Lieutenant Inchcliffe is a professional engineer, not a line officer.
2 Jonathan Stroud, The Bartimaeus Trilogy. Great fun.