KriegspielenBy Neil Faulkner
Page 2 of 3
Blake sends me down to the hatchway with Avon. It's a sound decision.
Jenna's needed on the flight deck, to get us underway as soon as
possible. Vila's best kept out of any potential face-to-face
confrontations. Blake must stay on the deck to command. Sound
reasoning, but is it really Blake's?
We're both armed, but we keep our weapons holstered. The Federation are supposed to be on our side, for the moment. Thing is, do they all know that? We're about to find out. The hatch is sliding open.
There are three of them, and they're a pathetic sight. Gaunt, hollow-eyed, the two men unshaven, the woman propped up on one of them, her helmet still sealed on, all of them blinking in the light. They're all armed as well, regulation issue laser pistols jammed ready in their belts. Just a precaution. We all know from the moment we see each other in the flesh that we're none of us going to start any shooting.
I wonder how we look in their eyes. None too good, I should think.
"Welcome aboard the Liberator." Avon takes the initiative, which is just as well because I can't see me doing it. "Kerr Avon," he adds, hand extended. He can play the part when he has to.
One of the Federals shambles forward and takes Avon's hand. Takes it firmly, and doesn't so much shake it as just give his wrist a twitch before letting go. "Fleet Lieutenant Rogan." Somehow he still manages to look like a fleet lieutenant, even after days living in his pressure suit. He rubs a hand through his sandy hair, lanky with grease, and cracks a smile. "Tech Officer McCrae," he says, indicating the other man, shorter and darker, with a face etched by a haunted look, "and Able Spacewoman Klye." Klye manages to force a bashful grin at us, or maybe just at me. She's very young, very white in the face. She can't walk without McCrae's support.
Avon deftly plucks Rogan's pistol from out of his belt. "You won't be needing these." There was, for a moment, a kind of bond forming between us, a sense of trust. Rely on Avon to demolish it. There's a hardening of the air between him and Rogan, and I tense up, hardly able to believe this is really happening. Last thing I want right now is a fight.
The tension breaks. Rogan looks down at Avon and nods. "Reckon not." He understands. Under the caked sweat and starvation there's something eternal, even noble. I remind myself that this is a Space Fleet officer, a volunteer, a professional warrior, not a garrison conscript. He gestures, and McCrae and Klye hand over their weapons. I take them, clumsily, one in each hand, and fall in behind as Avon leads the way to the flight deck.
"I thought your class of ship had a crew of nine," says Avon.
"First hit took out the primary weapon bay. We had two more critically wounded. With the medbay beyond repair and the shortage of oxygen..." There's no need for him to expand on that. Avon questions him further. They've been drifting for nearly twelve days. A quick calculation: some of the Aliens are fifteen days ahead of us. They'll have reached the outer edge of colonised space by now. We're getting close ourselves. But what was Rogan doing so far out?
"Mine shipment." Adding to the antimatter barrier beyond Star One. He tells us about it. The mine-layer, his cruiser, three pursuit ships as escort, or relief for the outer patrols. The signal came through to turn back, then to carry on, rendezvous with the Eighth Fleet at what we know as Star One. Then to turn back again. Space Command has responded well to the situation but not in detail. They're pulling up everything they can spare and probably more besides, but they don't seem too sure what to do with it. The Aliens are very much an unknown quantity. Rogan's was one of five ships. One alien vessel took them all out bar one, and left that one for dead. We can fill in some of the gaps on the Aliens. They're good. Too good.
"They weren't expecting any resistance at Star One, and they were slow to respond." Avon gives Rogan a quick summary of our side of events. The Federals look blank. They haven't even heard of Star One. Avon doesn't explain further. "We were outnumbered and outgunned but we still managed to scatter them. The fact that they don't seem to have regrouped yet suggests they're poorly organised, at least by our standards. If the performance of their individual warships is anything to go by, it could be the one thing we've got on our side." Rogan nods, taking it in but not really concentrating. His eyes are wandering everywhere, and so are McCrae's and Klye's. They don't say anything, but it's fairly obvious what they're thinking. They're on board the Liberator. Actually on board the Liberator. If anything they look... let down.
"Well," says Rogan, looking round the flight deck, "it's certainly roomier than the Torricelli." Blake comes across, looking them over, uncertain, sticks out a hand for Rogan. I hear mumbled mindless pleasantries from both of them. Blake doesn't handle it too well. He's too concerned with looking like he's in command. He shifts his glance over to me. "Get back to your position, Cally." I nod, stupidly, only half aware of what he's saying, before it sinks in and I climb back up to the detector field monitors. There are readouts all over the screens, and none of them mean anything to me. I fall into my seat and try to sort out what they're telling me. Nothing. There's nothing out there. The Torricelli ought to be out there, behind us, well behind now Jenna's kicked the drives back in. And it is. It takes me a while to find it, nestled in a scroll of blank data quietly shifting up the screen. How the hell I'm supposed to find something I don't know's out there...
"Avon, you'd better get back to work on Zen."
I don't have to be watching to sense Avon stiffen. There's a long silence before he answers. "With respect, Blake, I think it's time you stood down for a while. You've been up here for nearly thirty hours. If anyone needs a rest, it's you." To which he adds: "It's hardly as if you haven't earned it."
Number strings flick across the screens, all saying the same thing. We're alone out here. The war's going on at my feet. Blake hasn't been on the flight deck for thirty hours. Hasn't been here for even half that.
"A little longer won't hurt." I can almost feel the teeth grit. Avon's got him cornered. We are Blake's Seven. We're a legend. Avon knows Blake, knows he'll be desperate to keep up appearances. We've got the Federation on board, the old enemy. Got to put on a show, make them see what we're made of, prove that we really are...
"Blake, I've got a contact!" Something clicks in my head. The screens make sense now. I can read them sweet and clear, as if I were fresh back on station. "Single reading, zero two seven by one four three, range band delta one, closing point zero three five." We're going a good bit faster. Or the other ship's going a good bit slower, but it's still too fast to be a Federation ship.
"Avon, get me an I.D." We hardly need one, it's got to be an Alien, but Avon gets to work on the signature. I make a race of it and beat him. "One of their big snails." That feels good. Screw teamwork. I'm part of this crew and I can do my bit just as well as the rest of them. And we do need to know what we're dealing with. More than one type of alien ship. There aren't any I.D. codes or anything for them, so we've had to come up with our own. We've met big snails before. They might be some kind of support vessel or transport but that's just a guess. They're not as well armed as some but still something to be reckoned with.
Blake absorbs this. We all know what's coming next. "Jenna, deviate to intercept. Avon, stand by the force wall. Vila, clear all neutron blasters. What's our intercept time?"
One punch of a button and I've got it. "Seven minutes thirty four."
Avon's voice cuts across the flight deck. "It's picked us up. Turning to engage."
Rogan takes a few steps nearer to Blake. "What's the score with one of these?"
Avon answers. "They've got the edge in range and manoeuvrability, but we outclass them in fire power. Unless they get in a lucky shot before they come into range of our blasters we should be able to take them out."
"You said that last time." Vila fumbles over the blaster controls. "What happened? They got lucky."
"Shut up, Vila."
I manage to put the enemy up on the main screen. Still very distant, but instantly recognisable. A fat slug of a ship, slowly spinning like a falling drunk. Faster than it looks - drawing a bead on one's a tough call at long range, tougher still since the last one managed to take Zen offline.
Observation panels start lighting up. It's scanning us in earnest, sensors hitting us right across the range.
"Cally, jam its detectors."
What the hell does he think I'm trying to do? The opposition's up to the same trick. The sharp pinprick image on the locational plotter goes hazy, meaningful strings start turning into lists of random numbers. This is what the war's all about. Jam and counter-jam, false echo transmission, side- shimmer generation, sneak signature punchthroughs, setting the spectrum ablaze in a vicious battle of modulated pulse signals. It's where the really hard work's at and guess who has to do it all? The others, the boys, they're just sitting back waiting for that great zapping moment of glory of theirs. Lost count of the number of times I've seen it. Avon: we're in range / Blake: fire! / Vila punching the big red button and all the lights dimming as the blasters eat up the power and spew it out in a torrent. One punch of a button for them and they think that's all there is to it. Like to see any one of them take my place even for a minute, see how they cope. It might shut even them up, no more Cally do this/Cally do that/what's the range Cally/Cally don't let it get a fix on us, harping on and on at me the juggler who makes it all happen, and I can't even scream in my head because they'll hear it anyway.
Don't you shout at me! Rangefinder's gone haywire, telling me the hostile is getting closer moving away both at the same time, telling me there's three of them out there or maybe none. I'm sliding dials up and down and round and round like a maniac but I can't get a fix and all they can do is shout. Well, I'll show them. I'll show them I can do it. Better than they ever could. They're the incompetents, not me.
There's something wrong with the whole detector console. It's not just giving false readings, it's moving. Must be structural damage. That last hit did more than we thought. I'm having to pull it back upright, but it doesn't want to move. I think it's going to go right over...
The crash shakes my head back into gear. I reach out for the controls but they're not there, just Rogan gently pushing me back. Into a crash couch underneath the main vision screen.
"You passed out." It sinks in slowly, I can't quite grasp what he's saying. My eyes drift to the screen, the Alien filling it. Someone must have put the magnification right up, either that or...
The ship bucks again, the lights flicker. Vila squeals in panic.
"That one got through!"
Blake wheels round to face my position, only it's Avon there now, glued to the controls. Everything's in place like it ought to be.
Avon doesn't look up. "How the fuck do I know? Jenna, compensate zero zero one. Vila stand by."
"One of the blasters is out!"
"Then stand by on the other two! We're coming back into range."
Jenna's eyes are narrowed, bloodshot. I can see the sweat from her hands gleaming on the flight controls.
"They've launched another salvo."
The ship lurches, Blake falls back onto Avon's empty console. Klye slams into me with a cry of pain. That wasn't another hit, though. It's Jenna's doing. She's rolling the ship. She snaps out an order to Vila.
"Open fire, continuous beam!"
Avon's head snaps up. "We haven't got the power!"
"If we don't we haven't got a chance. Vila, do it!"
"I'm not getting a reading on the "
"For fuck's sake just do it!"
The last thing I see before the lights go out is Jenna's hands, locked tight on the laterals, fine-shifting our line of fire. Then the only thing to look at is the main screen, two hair thin beams reaching out into the void, ever closer to the enemy ship, not quite getting there, never quite touching...
"Vila, cease fire!" It's the closest I've ever heard Avon get to hysteria. Jenna gainsays, hoarse and urgent.
"Keep it going, Vila!"
The beams make contact, and a spot on the alien hull flares brilliant. Then the whole ship explodes. A scream rips through my head, a shapeless deathjerk of undefined souls. The Aliens have some psi ability. It feels terrible, and the death of their ship is a terrible sight, but it's beautiful too, like factory plumes in a winter sunset, a boiling incandescent cloud arcing across the empty black. It goes off screen as we pass it by. Vila cuts out the blasters and light returns to the flight deck. Comes back on by degrees, as the tension drains out of all of us.
Blake gets himself back on his feet. "Nice one, Jenna." Hard to be sure quite what he means by that. Avon's less ambiguous.
"That nice one took out ninety per cent of our power reserves. If we hadn't had one blaster down it would have drained the lot. Vila, next time I tell you to stop firing, you stop firing."
Vila isn't listening. He's taken out a pocket datapad and making an entry. "That's my seventeenth personal kill, you know. I deserve to go down on the list of great aces for this. Somewhere near the top, at this rate. I see it now: V. Restal, 17 and still zapping."
"Vila!" Blake growls, undisguised menace in every stride as he crosses the flight deck.
"'Course, 27 would look better." He shuts up, and I wonder if it isn't some game he's playing, goading us, seeing how far we can be pushed. For all his professed desire for safety, he needs a sense of danger, goes out of his way to cultivate it. If he ever found himself in command of his environment he'd be lost. Just so long as he can choose his troubles.
Blake's coming over to me. "All right, Cally, I want you to get off this flight deck and get yourself some rest right now."
I shake my head. "I'll be all right."
"I'm not so sure about that."
I shouldn't feel guilty. There's some scrap of common sense in the back of my head trying to tell me he's right. There's a great wide stubborn streak that won't admit it. "It won't happen again."
"Oh, it won't," he says, and he towers over me, blocking out the light. "Because you're not going back to your position until you're fit to."
"And that's an order, is it?"
"If you like."
"Well, maybe I don't like." I'm up on my feet now. Still a bit unsteady? Not at all. I've never stood straighter. My legs are firm, but my hands are shaking like mad. I feel I've got to do something with them, and putting them round his neck isn't bottom of my list. "Maybe, if I say I feel up to carrying on, then I do actually feel up to carrying on. Maybe I do just happen to be the one who can do a better job of it than the rest of you put together. And maybe, just maybe, I don't like being described as some sort of incapable "-
"Cally, no-one's saying you're "-
"You are, aren't you? Aren't you?"
"Cally." Avon creeps in like a ghost. "Blake is right. Tactless as ever, but right all the same. In your current condition you're a liability, to all of us. Take a break, a short one - just a few hours - and then see how you feel. If you think you can come back on station then, do so."
It makes so much more sense coming from him. I could almost agree. "But the detectors..."
"I can handle them. Not as well as you, I agree, but well enough for the time being."
I'm still not convinced. I can be a perverse bitch when I get the inclination. "You're meant to be working on Zen and the auto-repair."
"Well, they'll just have to take a back seat for a while."
"And if we run into any Aliens?"
"Then we do what we've been doing from the start: take our chances. If we come off badly you'll be the lucky one, you won't know anything about it."
I nod. Eyes follow me off the flight deck. As I go I think I hear Rogan mutter something to McCrae.
"Just who the hell's running this outfit?"
Maybe I just imagined it.
The corridors are only half-lit, maybe a result of that last strike. I'm suddenly aware of how stiff I feel, aches in every limb, every muscle tremoring. My clothes are clinging with sweat and my hair feels like an ants' nest. I ought to clean up. Too tired. I don't even close the door behind me when I stagger into my cabin. There's an unmade bunk waiting and I fling myself on it, gouging my nails into the pillow. Avon was right, and so was Blake. I need this. I can see myself standing between them, arguing like a stupid stubborn child. Or another pawn in their power game. Have I got grounds to hate the pair of them?
Just who the hell's running this outfit? I've got a pretty good idea.
My eyes have just closed when a hand comes down on my shoulder. It's Jenna.
I sit bolt upright. Have we run into more trouble already? "What's up?"
"Nothing. Just wondered if you felt up to coming back. Blake wanted to give you longer but Avon talked him down."
Realisation hits. The bedside clock confirms it. I've been asleep for something like eight hours, perhaps more. Nice if this could be a dream, but that's too much to hope for.
I clamber off the bed and stretch. I feel terrible and say so. Jenna says I look it. Thanks. She's no-one to talk, and knows it. Looks even worse than when I left the flight deck. Those last few minutes flood back in a sudden rush, and something in my face must betray what I'm thinking because she laughs.
"It was some performance."
I can't argue with that. "I did everything but stamp my foot. How am I going to walk back out there and...?"
"I shouldn't worry about it. Blake's finally seen sense and gone to get some rest of his own, Avon just put it down to battle fatigue, Vila doesn't care anyway and I... " She pauses, and looks across at me slyly with sunken, sleepless eyes. "I'm just looking for an excuse to do the same thing myself." We both laugh at that, and she helps me to my feet. On the way to the flight deck she fills me in on the past few hours. No enemy contacts. Blake and Vila came close to blows once, until Avon stepped in. The Federation personnel are behaving themselves. Klye's condition has deteriorated, she's been put in the medical unit. Rogan and McCrae have filled in for Avon while he was working elsewhere. Blake's idea, and Avon wasn't too happy about it. He doesn't want Liberator's secrets to get too widely known.
Right now we're on our way to rendezvous with the 14th Fleet, but communications are poor. The Aliens are seeding space with ionic reefs to disrupt signals and reroute traffic. Apparently we clipped the edge of one a few hours ago and nearly had a total systems shutdown. I never knew a thing about it.
+ Information. +
Now there's a voice I haven't heard for a long time. Jenna smiles impishly. She obviously hasn't told me everything.
+ There is a band of ionic material ahead of the Liberator at bearing three five two by zero one four. No course deviation is required. +
"Thanks, Zen," groans Vila. "It's amazing, isn't it? He's been back with us for a whole hour and all he can do is tell us things we don't need to know."
Avon looks up. "Just so long as that's all it has to tell us. You'll be the first to complain when Zen picks up an Alien interceptor heading straight for us." He ignores Vila and turns to me. "It's good to have you back, Cally."
"I just wish I could say it was good to be back." It isn't. I don't feel any better than the moment I staggered off. More tired, more drained, stiff in every limb and a pounding in my head, but certainly no better. Just seeing the flight deck makes me want to reel.
Avon wrenches out his earpiece and hands it over. "With Zen back online the detectors aren't a priority. Concentrate on communications traffic. There's not a lot of it but every scrap of information could be vital."
As I take his place, he squeezes out behind me. I catch his eye and hold him for a moment. It's as if it's all he can do just to stand still in one place. I murmur: "Thank-you."
He turns a shade whiter, colder. "I didn't do it for you," he says, and shuffles away, down to where Rogan and McCrae are laid out on the crash couches. Orac's there too, back where we need it now Avon's finished with Zen.
"Any more on the whereabouts of the 14th Fleet?"
"I have been unable to make further contact," drones the computer. Just for once it sounds calm, friendly even. All things are relative. "Further to your other requests, my limited analysis of the ionic reefs we are now so frequently encountering leads me to conjecture that they are not deliberately placed to some tactical or strategical end. I can at present only theorise, but I consider it possible that they result from the decay of the Alien vessels' intergalactic drive."
Avon raises an eyebrow. "Decay, Orac?"
"It is only a preliminary hypothesis," snaps Orac, "but what little data I have been able to process, suggests that the intergalactic drive has a finite operational time span, after which it becomes non-functional. In such circumstances it would probably be jettisoned, leading to the phenomena we are currently passing. The alignment of the ionic fields is in accordance with such a hypothesis."
Rogan stirs. He looked half asleep a minute ago but obviously wasn't. "That could explain a few things," he said.
"It could," agreed Avon.
"Like, why not go round the barrier?"
"The only route to the colonised galaxy within range of their drives." Avon nodded. "We can presume they have a more conventional - slower - supralight technology to take over when their high speed drives stop working. Just how much slower... well, I dare say we'll find out soon enough."
Jenna leans forward, interested. "Makes their invasion something of one-way trip, though, doesn't it?"
"Well, they may have a back-up to take them home."
Rogan looks thoughtful. "Always assuming," he says absently, "that going home is part of the plan."
"Oh wonderful." Vila sighs in weary resignation. "They've come to stay and they seem to think they can get away with it. Do you ever get the idea they know something we don't?"
Jenna turns away from him in equally weary resignation. "Everyone knows something you don't." It brings a trace of a smile to Avon's face, the first I've seen for a long time.
Vila slumps back in his seat. "Terrific. Admiration of one's peers. Nothing like it to make you feel indispensable."
"Now we've got Zen back," says Jenna coldly, "we're none of us indispensable. We can get back to a proper stand-down rota. And yes, that is a hint."
There is something in Avon's eyes that might be understanding. Sympathy at least. He's always had a... well, maybe not a soft spot, but something, certainly... for Jenna. He was the first to offer to go back for her on Cephlon. Strange, but now I come to think of it, he's never really let us down, run off and left us when we needed him. Could it be that he feels responsible for us, for all of us? Even Blake? Especially Blake?
On the other hand, it could be that I'm just not thinking straight. I've more or less forgotten what that feels like.
He turns his back on us and stands before Zen. He surveys the interface panel like an emperor surveying his realm, or a conqueror gazing out on virgin territory. Or both. There's two Avons there...
- blink -
...no, just the one. No proud warlord, just a tired man pondering an uncertain future. He holds some instrument, it looks like an ultrafine beam probe, in one hand, and absent-mindedly taps it into his open palm, backwards and forwards in a lulling hypnotic rhythm. Nobody speaks.
"I don't want more than one of us off station at any one time," he says finally. "We'll give Blake a few more hours, then... Then you can take your turn, Jenna."
She accepts this with a hint of a mock bow of the head. "And you?"
"There is still the auto-repair to see to."
"It's not that crucial," she says, softly. "The scoops are making up some of our losses. We've enough reserves for another encounter." She speaks as though she's treading taboo ground. She's admitting she cares about him.
Avon still stares up at Zen's interface panel. "Well now, that's a pretty poor assessment. You might as well say we don't need a crutch so long as we can crawl. That kind of rhetoric I'd expect to hear from Blake."
Jenna bridles. "What's Blake got to do with it?"
"Oh, Blake's got everything to do with it."
"Avon, I'm just trying to "-
"Then don't!" He wheels round, his face contorted, savage. "Don't try. Don't even bother. You said you wanted time off, so you take it." He snatches up a toolbox and storms off the flight deck. Jenna swallows and slaps her hand against the console so hard I have to wince.
Rogan and McCrae share knowing glances. Only then does it really occur to me. They're planning something! They mean to take the Liberator and hand it over to the Federation. And us with it. Why didn't I think of it earlier? I must have been too heady with ideas of allies against the common foe. I've got an idealistic streak that pushes common sense aside from time to time. But Avon hasn't. So why hasn't he realised?
Then again, perhaps he has.
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