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Shepherd Moon, Chapter 15: Saturnfall

 

Comparing notes –

Half a dozen Elyrans, all male, met them at their shuttle. As they approached, the six bowed low. In their hands were several cardboard boxes.

They apologized. They explained that they had only gotten their instructions a few minutes ago. In the boxes were about two-dozen of those i/o storage connectors, with four-by-four-by-four inch cubes attached to each of them. They explained that these were references and textbooks from their library, and hoped that their selections were useful.

Two of the Marines moved forward and got the boxes. Mia moved forward and bowed.

“Many thanks,” she said.

The last of the six moved to the front, bowed low and proffered a golden gilt box.

“What’s this?”

“It is Princess Tasha’s family scroll, My Lady.”

“Family scroll?”

“It is the Princess’s personal scroll that was given by her mother-in-law on the occasion of her bonding with Prince Ren - the Holy Book of the Ages, which is the last of the seven Ancient Scrolls. It is quite priceless.”

The six put their fists over their hearts and bowed low. They remained bowed until the Earthers were all in the shuttle.

“Hmmm,” Nick said.

-----

“T’Chahn, royal Earth shuttle,” the Talon’s communications officer called over the radio, “landing bay has been fully depressurized and main hatch is open. Please extend to Her Royal Highness, Captain Steele, the good wishes of the crew of the Talon, and our wishes for her safe journey back.”

“Ummm, roger, Talon,” the shuttle pilot responded. He didn’t know how to take that. “Ahhh, royal party is departing. Thank you for your hospitality.”

Mia was also surprised and confused by that as well, but she let it go.

The trip back to Seeker was quick - from leaving the dining room and walking back to the shuttles, waiting for the bay to be evacuated, waiting for the merging of their ships’ fields, flying back, and then landing in Seeker’s own bay, it took less than thirty minutes. The Earthers and Arachnians had a pleasant half-hour of chitchat, and talked about the meal and meeting the Prince and Princess.

Some of the Marines and crew were a bit ill at ease talking with what looked like big orange-and-white spiders. It was something Arachnians and their kind were familiar with: Arachnophobia was not exclusive to Earthers, after all (although the aliens called it something else). Most inhabited oxygen planets had small insects, spiders or their equivalents, and most intelligent species had an aversion to them to some degree or other, due to the parasitical nature of these insects. Arachnians and Erocii were not spiders at all despite a spider-like appearance. But such niceties didn’t count for much, especially to those who had arachnophobia.

Arachnians and Erocii knew this and just learned to live with it, trying to educate where they could. And as Federation society evolved, most peoples had adjusted. The First Ambassador prayed that the Earthers would, too. It would be too bad if the Earthers didn’t as well, he thought, because he respected them. And, more importantly, he liked them.

“So how did you like your first face-to-face meeting with Ren and Tasha?” he asked the Earthers as they felt the shuttle lift off.

In the past, many had been taken aback by his overly familiar behavior with the Prince and Princess. Nick looked at him with a raised eyebrow - a visual cue that the ambassador was now familiar with.

He moved his upper arms in the gesture that denoted mild amusement. “Do not mind me, Lieutenant,” he said. “I am allowed a few liberties with the Prince and Princess. I am a family friend, and they tolerate my few impertinences.”

“They were shorter than I thought they’d be, sir,” one of the Marines said.

“Actually, the Princess is considered above average in height.”

“She is?”

The ambassador moved his arms in the gesture that was equivalent of a shrug.

“Have you been to many royal receptions, Ambassador?” Mia asked.

“I have been to many royal receptions, as well as other ceremonial and formal events. In my capacity as a representative of my government, attending such events is part of my regular schedule.”

Mia nodded. “I would have assumed so. How did this one compare?”

“The protocols were a little different,” he said. “Your Earther Marines have put a touch more drama to the proceedings, but it was mostly like the others. What made it different was the exchange of gifts during the meal.”

“I’m sorry about our gift.” Mia sighed. “It was a last-minute thing. The expanding pages must have been weird.” The Seeker people laughed.

“What is wrong?” the ambassador said. Even through the translator, his puzzlement could be clearly heard. He waved his upper limbs left to right - the gesture of inquiry.

Mia, giggling, waved it down. “Forget about it, Ambassador. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Well, whatever,” he made a sweeping gesture of dismissal. “But the Elyrans were very surprised and very appreciative of the gift.

“So, Captain,” he continued. “The Torch of Freedom. A great honor, and an unprecedented one. Only a handful of non-Elyrans have ever been accorded the honor.”

“I’m afraid I do not know Elyran history well enough to know the significance...”

So the Ambassador went professorial and explained the background of the icon.

-----

More than a thousand millennia ago, the Elyran legend went, the Queen Mother had gone to war, in defense of a people being oppressed by their brethren. These were slaves more than anything, considered so because of an accident of birth. The legends say the Queen Mother challenged this, and her outnumbered warriors did several nighttime raids and, under cover of stealth and darkness, freed more than a thousand of these oppressed, as well as several crèches of their children.

Her actions rallied the remaining slaves and, together with her warriors, they eventually rose up and defeated their oppressors. It was from these original twenty-four tribes that many of the present royal families came from.

In gratitude, the newly-free people, called the Talah Anthropoi in the old tongue, presented the Queen Mother and her allies “three eights and one” ornamental torches carved from gold, silver and precious stones - made in the image of wooden torches - the kind that they used when they freed the children during those dark, moonless nights. The “three eights,” or twenty-four, torches were given to each of the chieftains of the twenty-four warrior tribes that undertook the rescue. The twenty-fifth of course was given to the Queen Mother herself. The Talah said that the torches were symbols of their debt, and that whatever the reason, if ever the debt was claimed, they would come - a promise written in the blood of their children.

But the Talah had disappeared from history, and the debt was never claimed.

The various families kept the icons, and through the centuries, they had acquired the patina of legend. The icons themselves were lost over time. Nevertheless, the people descended from the original twenty-four tribes made facsimiles of the originals. One of these tribes, which became the royal family of Kerr, started the tradition of giving jeweled copies of their torch as a token of their gratitude to those who helped them, and as a token of their pledge of loyalty. Subsequently, because of this, the Kerr Family acquired many allies over time and became one of the largest and most powerful royal families on the planet.

Seeing their success, the other twenty-three copied this practice, but more as a means to expand their influence, or to curry favor among their neighbors.

But that was ancient history. Nowadays, the torches were rarely awarded, and only given out by the families to those truly deserving them.

-----

“There are many things in this universe that are wrong,” the First Ambassador said, apparently wrapping up his lecture. “It is important to celebrate those that are right. This ceremony is just one of those.”

“Well,” Mia said, embarrassed. “Well... Thank you. I guess.”

“Here is another one,” he said, and reached inside a pack that was belted around his thorax. “I would also like to give you something. Here.” He held out a small, jeweled medallion or coin that hung on what looked like a thin chain necklace. “May I?”

She couldn’t very well say no, so she stooped, a little bit confused, and let the little alien put the necklace around her neck.

After he snapped the clasp closed, Mia straightened. She lifted the little medallion and looked at the design on it. It looked like a tree, with little shards of diamond or some other sparkly stone scattered through the branches.

“Does the design have some meaning?” she asked.

“It is my family’s... crest, for want of a word with a closer meaning. Usually, we have them inlaid permanently into our chitin once we reach adulthood,” he pointed to a similar one embedded into his carapace where a breast pocket would be in a shirt. “Yours is especially struck to be suitable for Elyranoids.”

“Elyranoids...” Mia thought, and smiled. She had not heard the word before - the word that the little translator she had been wearing that was set on assist mode chose seemed a little too onomatopoeic to be taken seriously, but it had the virtue of being clear in its meaning.

“The crest is not something that is given to non-Arachnians lightly, and when we get back, I will have to ask you to accompany me to Arachnia Prime so we can present you the medallion in the proper way.”

Mia smiled. “Okay. It’s a date then.”

“A ‘date?’”

Mia didn’t answer, and just reached out with a finger. The Arachnian responded automatically, and extended a feathery-tipped antenna.

The human and the Elyran regarded each other, and if someone else would see the two mismatched sapients, they would somehow know that these two were friends.

-----

“Well,” Mia said, “thank you very much for this, Ambassador.” She gestured at her new medallion. “As well as for the history lesson. I see now how important the Torch is.”

“It is more than that, Captain,” the Ambassador continued. “This evening’s events were unprecedented. And the fact you reciprocated by giving a gift as well...”

“Isn’t giving a gift in return just the polite thing to do?”

“Indeed it is. But on Elyra, only a peer may presume to exchange gifts with royalty...”

Mia’s eyes grew large. “So that means they think...?”

The ambassador made circular motions with his four upper arms - the gesture for amusement.

“Indeed,” he said.

Mia shook her head and groaned.

-----

“So that’s how it went, Madame Secretary-General,” Mia said. She, Beth O’Connell and Nick were reporting to Romarkin, the Admiral, Marc and Jennifer about their visit to the alien ship from inside Mia’s cabin. CETI liaison Sahsha was also there, via Phase-Wave, to record.

Their technical report wasn’t ready yet - it was still to be compiled and would take time, but they felt this warranted an emergency call. So as soon as their shuttles landed, Nick made the call.

“This business about the torch...” Jennifer said.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Nick said. “The Ambassador’s impromptu lecture was helpful, but I guess we need more information.”

“Indeed. Still,” Jennifer turned to Marc, “seems we got a pretty big IOU from the Princess.” She grinned predatorily.

“And the other problem?” The Admiral asked.

“Well...”

“They think I’m royalty, sir,” Mia interjected.

No one spoke for a moment.

“Well,” Romarkin said, “that’s not necessarily a problem, is it?”

Silverman grinned. “So long as the chain of command is preserved, I have no problem with one of my officers being...”

“Princess Amelia...” O’Connell snickered. She sobered up when Mia gave her a look. “Sorry, sir!”

Mia then turned and gave Romarkin and Silverman an aggravated look.

“I don’t think we can do anything about it, Captain,” Silverman said.

“Guess you have to ride it out, Mia. I mean, Princess...” Everyone laughed.

“This will not be good for shipboard discipline,” Mia complained.

Jennifer giggled. “It’s your fault, after all, Mia.”

“But I didn’t know! How could anyone know?”

The Admiral made some patting-down gestures. “All right, settle down. Let’s just keep this story hush-hush for the moment,” Silverman said. “No one knows about this, even the Marines in the shuttle. So, let’s just not spread it around. Either it dies down, or your crew adjusts, Captain.”

He turned to Nick. “Lieutenant, get those books copied and transmitted to CETI immediately, and make sure your report gets to us no later than 0900 hours tomorrow.” He then turned to Jennifer. “Professor Priestly, I would appreciate it if you can translate those books immediately.”

“Of course, Admiral. But Nick can do it right now, actually.”

He turned back to Nick. “Then get cracking on that right away, son. I guess that pretty much covers it, Madame Secretary-General. Anything to add?”

“I agree, Admiral - that’s pretty much it. Good work, everyone. Lets all get some rest. Talk to you all tomorrow.”

She logged off, and everyone followed. But before they were cut off completely, Sahsha called out, “Bye, Princess!”

Mia groaned again.

-----

Mia, O’Connell, the Second Engineer, the doctor and some of the Marines that were with them worked through the night and finished up the report the Admiral wanted, while Nick oversaw CETI’s translation program. He was gratified that their analysis of Elyran computer systems was right on target, and he was able to read the books without problems, except that the i/o socket was a trifle loose in their fabricated adapter. A little bit of toilet paper wadded in the appropriate area fixed that right up, though.

The Elyran data files were coded in the format that Nick and the CETI people were familiar with, and his program had an easy time opening them. The data came encapsulated in three formats - one for graphics, another for audio and video, and one for text. It was straightforward.

Except for the physical media, he could have done it all on his CC. He had finished creating English-text versions in an hour. Interpolating and dubbing the spoken components took an extra two hours, and subtitling the text in the video and graphics components took an additional two. But Nick basically had nothing to do except make sure they were properly rendered.

So he remained in the discussion that Mia conducted via intercom, only occasionally taking a peek at the computer as the program finished rendering the Elyran references into English.

To help Mia out, Nick had followed her advice and had Ms. Delyer join them online as well. Her transcription and documentation skills went a long way toward completing their report.

By nine AM the following day, they had completed a first draft of their report, as well as copies of complete translated versions of the books. He transmitted them to the Fleet Admiral and to Professor Priestly’s office. He left it to Sahsha to make copies for the Secretary-General.

After he had done that, he made excuses to his shipboard supervisor, and went to his bunk for some well-deserved shut-eye.

But he didn’t really get much sleep. Thirty minutes after falling asleep, a rating sent by O’Connell shook him awake. It seemed the Captain was paging him - it was some sort of emergency.

 

Disappearing act –

Nick came onto the bridge, still buttoning his shirt. The chronometer on the wall said ship time was 0945H. But no one could blame him for being late - he wasn’t supposed to be up yet.

The Captain and Commander O’Connell were there already, looking disgustingly well rested (he wondered how they were able to do it). Beside them was the First Ambassador with his ever-present assistant, and on the main screen, in split-view, were the Prince and Princess, Admiral Daxx, Fleet Admiral Silverman, the Secretary-General, and Walter Thorpe from Neptune.

“Sir,” Nick said and saluted the Captain.

“Nick,” Mia said and acknowledged his salute. “Glad you’re here. Solar tracking has lost the Empire ships. But more than that, Walter and Admiral Daxx have a bigger problem. Walter, Admiral Daxx - can you show Nick what you just showed us?”

“Hey, Nick,” Walter said. “I think the Admiral should go first.”

“Lieutenant,” Admiral Daxx said, “your captain has said you may be able to get to bottom of this.” Her image on the screen was replaced with that of a black rectangle with small dots of light overlaid by a grid.

“This is one of the frames from our radar navigation imaging system last night. What you see are stars as seen from where we currently are, looking toward your star, but using our radio navigation. However, since a few hours ago, all we have been getting is this.”

The star map was replaced by what looked like static from an old-style black-and-white TV set.

“What’s that?” Nick asked. “Cosmic rays? Background radiation in this part of space isn’t...”

“We thought so, too, Nick,” Walter said.

“Hey, Boss.”

“Hey, Nick. Long time no see. No, this isn’t just regular cosmic background radiation. After all, that’s more or less constant. This... phenomenon just happened to appear in the last few hours. Plus, it’s also messing up Phase-Wave.”

“What? But that’s impossible! That’s clearly electromagnetic - radio stuff! It shouldn’t affect Phase-Wave.”

“We are very worried, Lieutenant,” the Prince said. “Our communications have been rendered inoperative. If not for the Earther ships’ laser relayed data, we would be lost. We have essentially been rendered deaf and blind.”

Nick pointed at the screen. “Well, no wonder. But Seeker and Constellation are okay? Phase-Wave is unaffected?”

“Not completely,” Walter said. “That’s why we called you. Take a look at this.” He flashed another picture.

It was a black-and-white picture of some stars again, but this time as seen from above the solar plane. It was a Phase-Wave extrapolated graph. He knew this was from above the plane because the orbits of the major planets were marked, and there were nine of them - they had included Pluto’s telltale eccentric orbit even though it wasn’t a planet. It was therefore easy to recognize. But...

“What’s that smudge?” He pointed to a gray blob in between two of the circles. “Why would a computer projection include a smudge?” Counting the marked rings, Nick found that the big perfectly circular blob was near the sixth ring. “That smudge is near Saturn’s orbit,” he thought to himself.

“That is exactly what we’re trying to figure out,” Walter responded. “And it’s moving towards Saturn fast, and decelerating.”

“Maybe it’s a natural phenomenon?”

Walter didn’t react to that. Instead, he magnified the picture. “A perfectly-circular blob half a million kilometers in diameter, and it’s only visible as a Phase-Wave blind spot that’s moving towards Saturn at a substantial speed? I don’t think that smudge, as you put it, is some natural phenomenon. And the Empire ships have disappeared. I bet you they’re hiding in that blind spot.”

Nick looked at the picture more closely. “What is it?” he murmured to himself.

“We were actually hoping that you’d be able to tell us,” Mia said.

Nick looked at the picture further. He tried to see if any situations described by the Phase-Wave audio and video intercepts CETI had gotten matched the present situation. Nick felt like he was back in Triton Center still breaking Elyran and Tiros cyphers. His knack for breaking codes and his knowledge of things Elyran made him CETI’s best breaker, and he guessed that was the reason Mia picked him for this mission. He looked at Mia’s expectant face and realized that he had a reputation to uphold...

“So, lemme get this straight,” he said, “this phenomenon has jammed all electromagnetic signals in the system? No radio, no radar? The only thing I can think of that could fit this is...” He turned to the Prince and Princess.

“Your Highness,” he said, “does the phrase ‘curtain of light’ mean anything to you?”

Ren and Tasha looked at each other. Clearly, they knew something about it but were unwilling to talk. Daxx looked at both, and when the silence became too much to ignore, she all but exploded.

“Oh, please!” Daxx exclaimed. “Tell us already! The Earthers already know!”

And everyone within earshot broke into laughter.

Ren nodded to Tasha.

“Well,” Tasha said, “our agents have been hearing about developments in the Empire. The Tirosians have been trying to replicate the Earther instantaneous communications technology, but have so far failed.”

“They have yet to discover the basic principle of your technology,” Ren said, “but in their experimentation, they discovered something else. They call it the ‘curtain of light.’”

“What is it?”

“We do not know exactly, but it has to do with electromagnetic radiation. They are developing it as a weapon to disable spacecraft.”

“Lieutenant,” Silverman said, “what makes you think this is this ‘curtain of light?’ Seems to me...”

“Admiral,” Nick interrupted, “may I make a request? If you can have your people zoom in on the coordinates for the smudge with the Hubble optical scopes on the moon. Adjusting the coordinates back to the appropriate time, of course.”

Silverman sighed and gestured to someone off-screen. They made some adjustments on the apparent coordinates and compensate for the image delay, and the image was changed to a closer color view. On it could be seen some stars and nothing else. Of course, no blob or smudge could be seen. The radiograph they saw before was only a computer-generated graphic representation of what the Phase-Wave sensors were receiving, after all, whereas what they were looking at now was purely optical.

“Can you zoom in further,” Nick asked. The image shifted several times, zooming in until they could see a small speck precisely in the middle of the coordinates for that smudge. Being in the shadow comma of the planet, and being too far away from Saturn for any reflected light to matter, that speck shouldn’t have been visible. They couldn’t get different views since these shots were over an hour old - since it was optical, they knew the image wasn’t real-time, and was a shot of the sky an hour or so ago. Still...

“Well, hello there,” Nick commented.

-----

Using the pictures taken by the moon’s array of visible light telescopes, more properly known as the Hubble Optical Observatory II, they studied the area further. To supplement this, Seeker and Constellation also focused their own optical scopes on the area.

To say “near” Saturn was relative. The strange blip was several hundred million kilometers away, moving towards the planet and rapidly decelerating. But just using visible light to track it, without the assistance of Phase-Wave or even radar, it was difficult, to say the least. And even if it were decelerating rapidly, it was still traveling at several thousand kilometers a second, and that was on top of adjusting the coordinates because the visual would be from several minutes ago.

By tracking the Phase-Wave interference, they were able to use that to grab some still pictures, and close-ups showed that the speck was actually the Empire ships. What’s more, they were in the precise center of the so-called smudge.

“It’s clear then,” Silverman said. “The Tirosians are using their new technology to hide. They were counting on the electromagnetic interference to cloak them.”

“But they did not count on your Phase-Wave to penetrate their cloak,” the First Ambassador said.

“Still,” Mia said, “Phase-Wave was only partially successful.” She gestured at the Phase-Wave blind spot, or “smudge,” on the screen.

“Regardless,” Romarkin interjected. “It was good enough to get us this far. Your Highness,” she turned to the Princess. “Any more information on this ‘curtain?’”

“Not much more than what I’ve said, I’m afraid, Excellency,” Tasha said.

“We will transmit all that we have on it, of course, if...”

“Thank you, Your Highness. We will likewise transmit what we have, as soon as the radio interference clears.” She turned to Silverman. “Admiral, what’s your tactical assessment of the situation?”

Silverman turned to Nick. “Lieutenant?”

“Well,” Nick said, “let’s see...” He started ticking things off. “One - this new technology is largely unknown, which poses an unknown, un-assessed threat. It’s therefore necessary to get more information about it. Two - the proximate danger of the alien fleet has increased. This threat should be eliminated as soon as possible. And, three - the alien fleet is approaching Saturn. We need to warn Titan Colony.”

“Titan Colony?” Ren asked.

“It’s one of our largest off-Earth settlements,” Silverman responded. “It’s located on one of the moons of Saturn, the sixth planet from our sun.” He turned to Nick. “Very good, Lieutenant.”

“Standard military doctrine, sir,” Nick said. He turned to Mia and O’Connell. “Sir? Shouldn’t we raise Titan now?”

“Don’t worry, Nick,” O’Connell said. “We’ve been able to raise Titan Control. They’re, in fact, busy talking with Command. They’ve said they’re being appraised of the situation. The Admiral’s staff has already fully briefed them...”

“But they’re not within the blind spot?”

“No, Lieutenant. Not yet, at least.”

On-screen, they saw a uniformed lieutenant whisper something to Silverman. He whispered back and the officer nodded.

“What is it, Admiral?” Romarkin asked.

Silverman dismissed the officer. “Ma’am, something is wrong. About the Empire ships - instead of nine battle cruiser-class ships, four escort ships and a tanker, we’re only seeing six cruisers and two escorts. They’re missing six ships.”

“Where are they, then?”

“We are trying to find out.” Silverman turned to Mia. “Captain?”

“Sir.” Mia responded. “Navigation, set a course for Titan Colony, best speed. Communications, get me Captain Dupont.”

“Aye, sir. Captain Dupont is on-line.”

“Bonjour, Capitaine Dupont. Ceci est Amelia Steele.”

“Bonjour, Capitaine Steele. Oui. Nous comprenons. La Constellation est a votre service.”

“Tres bien. Merci, Capitaine. Nous irons a Titan Colony. Restez avec la flotte de la Federation et continuez sur Terre avec la meilleure vitesse.”

“Reconnu, Capitaine. Bonne chance.”

“Bonne chance, Capitaine.”

With that, Captain Dupont signed off.

Ren and Tasha looked at each other.

“What was that?” Ren said.

“Oh, sorry, Your Highness. I was just giving instructions to Captain Dupont of Constellation to stay with the fleet. I’m afraid Seeker will have to leave.”

“Your Highness,” Admiral Silverman said to Ren, “given the new developments...”

“We heard, Admiral,” Tasha said, “No need to explain, we are in full agreement. Lady Amelia, may the Messiah be with you.”

Mia chose to ignore the “Lady Amelia.” “Thank you, Your Highness.”

Admiral Daxx nodded as well. “Quite so, Admiral.” She turned to Mia.

“Your Highness, if only we were able to accompany you. Good luck, and do not let your wings get dry.”

Mia remembered that phrase, from the first ever Phase-Wave transmission. She bowed. “And you as well, Admiral. Good luck to us all.”

“Godspeed, Captain,” Silverman said. “We’ll take care of locating the missing ships. In the meantime, protect Titan. Keep in contact for as long as possible.”

“Aye, sir. We’ll maintain telemetry and open channels for as long as possible. Helm, execute course. Best speed to Titan.”

 

Battle at sea –

A few hours later...

“Captain, we are starting to lose communications with Earth.”

Mia nodded. “We must be entering the blind spot now.”

“Yes, sir. We can’t raise Talon, the Constellation or Earth, or anyone. And telemetry is sporadic to nonexistent. And...”

“Yes?”

“We’ve lost shields...”

It was less than eight hours since they'd left the Elyran ships, and cruising at about thirty percent of the speed of light, they were now just a few hundred million kilometers away from the Tirosian and Detterex cruisers.

Though there were no electromagnetic or Phase-Wave means of tracking them through that so-called smudge, Earth was able to track them via telescopes. Talon, Constellation and the other ships were far enough away from the source of the interference that Constellation’s Phase-Wave systems were still working. Even so, they could not track Seeker through the smudge either, except through telescopes.

“Noted on that, Lieutenant. Give me ship-wide.”

“Aye, sir.”

“This is the Captain,” Mia said, addressing the crew on the ship’s PA. “We are about to completely lose our Phase-Wave systems. That means we will be relying completely on dead reckoning and visual navigation.

“I am sure the enemy has also seen us approaching, and is presently tracking us. This was intended, I assure you. Nevertheless, it means that we have now re-engaged the enemy.”

She sighed in resignation. “I am sure you have all been briefed on the situation,” she continued, “and if ever there was a time that we needed everyone’s best, it’s now. We are Seeker, the best ship in the fleet. Let’s show everyone how good we really are.”

She turned to the pilot station.

“Helm, get ready to execute new course, and set for maximum speed. Let’s get her moving.”

“Aye, sir. New course has been programmed. Awaiting your command.”

“Execute!”

The pilot on duty grabbed the twin acceleration joysticks on the pilot control board and slowly pushed them forward. He kept his eye on the power indicators and accelerated as fast as he could without red-lining.

Throughout the ship, a kind of thrumming, almost subliminal, could be heard. It was more felt than heard, actually. Seeker’s hybrid engines were being pushed past what they had been before. In the months to come, the hum would be a normal thing - just another part of life onboard Seeker, but for now it was something new. Everyone looked up from whatever they were doing, knowing what it meant.

 

Pirate ship –

On the bridge, Mia looked at the main screen where the computer displayed where it thought they and the enemy were. It wasn’t completely based on dead reckoning - they did have their telescopes and optics.

“Lieutenant, project our course on screen.”

A curling line was overlaid on the display. It showed Seeker moving in a curving course away from the empire ships, and continuing on to the Saturn system.

“I don’t understand the reason for all of this,” the First Ambassador said.

He was wearing a cobbled-together self-contained translator with a very, very large battery the size of a large briefcase attached via a cable.

Apparently, devices that generated their own power worked in the EM suppression field, but battery-powered devices would be drained very rapidly. Instead of lasting a couple of years, the Ambassador’s pack would only last for twenty minutes and he would need to replace it with a freshly charged one before then.

“Oh! I didn’t see you, Ambassador.” Mia said, having forgotten her standing order to give the ambassador access to the bridge.

The Ambassador bowed and made an up-and-down gesture of apology. He seemed to be managing his battery pack well enough. “I apologize for disturbing you,” he said. “And your crew as well.”

“Oh, it’s all right.” Mia gestured at the screen. “You were asking about...”

“Yes.”

“Well, we needed to engage the enemy. But we are outnumbered, eight ships to one. Since the battle, we have been tracking them continuously, and they have undoubtedly been tracking us continuously as well. So they can see us approaching - we have no element of surprise.”

“Why were you able to surprise us before?”

“Space is vast, Ambassador. If you don’t know where to look, then it’s difficult to find a ship.” Unless you have Phase-Wave... But she didn’t say that aloud.

“I see. And you believe they have been tracking us since. So you think that they are unaffected by the electromagnetic interference?”

“No. Given that the interference is spectrum-wide, the Empire ships are as deaf and blind as Talon. We think. But regardless, they still have optics. They can track us that way, which is how we’re tracking them now as they head towards Saturn.”

“I see.”

“We’re actually counting on their being affected by the interference as well for this ruse to work. Having ‘seen’ them, we now retreat. Our course,” she gestured to the screen, “will move us away from them and towards the gas giant. Once behind the planet, we will then brake. To the Tirosians and Detterex we will have disappeared. They will make the conclusion that we have gone, maybe even back to Earth. Which is a reasonable assumption given the planet’s position, and since we would appear to be hiding behind it.

“We don’t know why the Empire ships are going to Saturn’s system. We can make some assumptions, but regardless, it’s our intention to protect Titan, and we will hold out until reinforcements arrive.”

The Ambassador nodded his head, a deliberate affectation he borrowed from the Earthers and Elyrans. “I agree, but you have an important mission. Wouldn’t it...”

“We are soldiers, Ambassador. It’s our duty to protect our citizens. That comes first. But don’t worry. Our comrades are protecting your fleet. And I assure you, Captain Dupont is an excellent captain.”

The Ambassador bowed. “I am humbled, My Lady. You are right, of course. And I did not mean to gainsay you. I apologize.”

Mia bowed in return. “Thank you, Excellency.”

“How may I assist?”

“You and I need to strategize.”

-----

Mia conducted a short impromptu “strategy meeting” with the Ambassador, the other Arachnians, Nick, O’Connell and some of her other officers. They came up with a rudimentary strategy. And though the Arachnians’ suggestions and insights into Detterex and Tirosian thinking were helpful in deciding on options, Mia thought they weren’t too out of line from what the humans were thinking. At least it gave her a measure of confidence since the aliens concurred with them. She nervously fingered her new medallion.

For the Ambassador, this “strategy meeting” was another chance to get to know these fascinating creatures. He was greatly intrigued by the Lady Amelia - such capability in such a young creature. It was too bad she wasn’t Arachnian. He could imagine the great wonders that she would have done for the family, of the great feats and achievements she would have accomplished for Arachnia Prime.

He had only felt this way about aliens a few times before - one of them was when he met Princess Tasha and Prince Ren. That was partly the reason he felt an affinity for them. And here was another one. Princess Amelia wasn’t an Arachnian and could not truly be of the family, but that wouldn’t be any reason she could be one in most other ways.

Their discussion was interrupted.

“Bridge to the Captain,” the intercom called.

Mia broke off from her conversation and brought out her CC. It didn’t work so she went to the wall intercom.

“This is the Captain.”

“Sir, you wanted to be informed when we reached Saturn’s area of responsibility. ETA is ten minutes to the boundary.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. I’ll be there shortly.” She went back to the others. “Well, friends, it’s showtime.”

A few minutes later, Mia, O’Connell and the Ambassador walked onto the bridge. The officer of the deck reported to Mia. She acknowledged the Lieutenant and asked for the main screen to be activated.

In a second, they saw an image of the planet Saturn. They were approaching her at an angle so they could see her famous rings to their best advantage. The Ambassador made comments about the beauty of the planet and its rings.

“What’s our present velocity, Lieutenant?” Mia asked.

“About just below a hundred fifty thousand kilometers per second, sir. Point-five C.” That was fast enough for the inertial converters to work, and still be ship-maneuverable.

“Time to put on the brakes, then. Get me Engineering.”

“This is Engineering. Aye, Captain?”

“We’re about to test your new brakes, Chief. Any opinions?”

“Brakes…” the ambassador thought to himself, but he decided there was no time to pursue this and decided to follow it up at another time.

“None at all, Captain,” Seeker’s chief engineer grinned as she responded to Mia. “I stand by my people’s work.”

“All right, Chief. Lieutenant, at your discretion.”

“Aye, sir. Making the curve around the planet... now. We’re out of Empire ships’ line of sight. Reversing thrust and firing all forward converters.”

None of them felt anything, but they all noted the disappearance of the thrumming.

“What’s our velocity now, Lieutenant?”

“We are now at about 1 kilometer a second, sir, and leveling off.”

“Engineering: how are we doing?”

“Very well, Captain - all excess inertial energy has been dissipated. Engine holding steady - power output still at five percent.”

“Excellent. Helm: set course for the Cassini Divide. We’ll park underneath the rings and use them to hide from the enemy. Avoid disturbing the rings.”

“Aren’t the rings too thin to hide under, sir?” the lieutenant asked.

“You’re forgetting - there are no EM or Phase-Wave detectors to help. They’re thick enough for our purposes at the moment.”

“Also, sir,” the lieutenant said, “you realize, of course, we won’t be able to use the inertia converters much given the speeds we’ll be moving at. The inertia converters are only going to work above a certain inertial mass. Below that…”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” Mia sighed exasperatedly. “I know. We’re gonna have to manage with conventional braking.” She gestured to Communications. “Get me Kajima via intercom... Commander: get your squadron launched. Best speed to Titan.”

Kajima was expecting the order and was standing by an intercom. “Are we ship-maneuverable now, Captain?”

“We’re at about one klick a second, Commander. Practically crawling.”

“Acknowledged, Captain,” Seeker’s CAG responded. In a while, the bridge crew could see two lines of Seeker’s Shrike fighters flying out and away.

“I count five eights of your fighters, Captain,” the Ambassador said, his jury-rigged translator winking.

“You are very observant, Excellency. Yes, all forty of Seeker’s fighters have been dispatched to Titan.”

“Will Seeker not be vulnerable in case of attack? Perhaps a few should have remained...”

“We still have our Mud Turtles and tow barges. We’ll handle that later if the need arises.”

Soon, they had reduced speed further (they were now down to three hundred meters a second), and were upon what they called the “Cassini Divide,” which was one of the many breaks in Saturn’s rings. On the screen, they saw it coming up. In seconds, Seeker breezed through the gap, flying sideways so as not to disturb the rings, and came through to the other side. The gap was more than 4,500 kilometers wide but Mia wanted to reduce even effects from residual magnetism.

“Level out and maintain station keeping,” Mia ordered, and the ship changed its angle of direction slightly, and slowly rotated about ninety degrees. After Seeker deliberately had drifted underneath the B-Ring, settled down and gone to a virtual stop, they looked at the screen again. The rings were like an incandescent roof over Seeker, the bottom side of the planet illuminating the rings above them spectacularly.

“Even in my wildest imaginings I never thought I would be privileged to see something liked this,” the Ambassador said. Even through the artificial sound of his translator, his emotions were very obvious. He had obviously swapped out the battery for a freshly charged one.

Mia chuckled inside. “Me, too, Ambassador. But as they say, one’s needs dictate one’s actions.”

“Nevertheless, Your Highness, my gratitude for this moment.”

Mia smiled. “It is our pleasure, Ambassador.” Instinctively, she leaned down and held out a finger, and the Ambassador let her touch the feathery tip of his left antenna.

“O’Connell to the Captain,” the bridge intercom interrupted.

Mia thumbed a switch on her armrest. “Yes, Commander.”

“I am in the tower observation blister, as ordered. Captain, you have to come up and see this!”

Mia smiled. She could just imagine what O’Connell was seeing, of feeling like she was floating just underneath a vast cloud of snowflakes, with light coming from the planet. “Maybe later, Beth. Okay, turn on your visor’s monitor so we can see, and you can start calling it out.”

“Aye, sir.” A moment later, the bridge’s screen was replaced by O’Connell’s magnificent view of the ring, but closer this time.

“All right,” O’Connell said, and picked a break in the ring. “Okay. Move the ship laterally, fifty feet to starboard. Another fifty feet, another... stop! Ten feet to port. All right, now start to move up perpendicularly. Slowly... slowly...”

Seeker’s pilot closely watched his gauges, and made sure he kept his movements precise. The ship moved upwards at a minuscule half a foot every fifteen seconds.

With O’Connell’s exact directions, the pilot’s precise control, and Seeker’s finely tuned inertial flywheels, it was like the Seeker was rising out of some ocean, like some ancient submarine. On the screen, they could see themselves rising out of the flat bed of snowflakes through a narrow but seemingly convenient break. The pilot’s precise movements prevented the B-Ring from being disturbed despite his keeping it above the ship, but keeping the bridge superstructure clear while he maneuvered it through the crack.

“Stop!” O’Connell suddenly exclaimed. “Drop the ship five feet. More... more... okay, stop. Hold relative position here.” Now, it was like the Saturnian roof was just a few feet over their heads.

“What is it, Commander?”

“We had to go down - the rear fins were breaking the rings. They’d spot us right away. I’m sorry, Captain, I guess this is the best that we can do.”

“Understood, Commander, but this is not good enough. We need to see from the other side of the rings...”

“Sorry, sir.”

“It’s not your fault. Besides, our hull’s residual magnetic field is already disturbing the rings. Okay, stand by while we think of something.”

“Standing by.”

“In the meantime - helm, pull away far enough that we don’t disturb anything.”

The ship retreated downwards an additional fifty feet or so.

“Now hide us completely under the ring.”

Seeker moved laterally until they were away from the Divide, and again completely covered by the ring.

Mia sighed. “All right. We’re hidden again. Any ideas, people?”

The silence was thick, but no one was responding.

A rustling, the kind that was made by two Arachnian forelegs being rubbed together, was loud in the silence. Mia knew that sound by now - it was the Arachnian equivalent of a human clearing her throat or an Elyran whistling.

“Yes, Ambassador?”

“That amazing view... it reminded me of a... ‘movie’ I saw on your ‘television.’”

Mia had to smile at the incongruity of that statement. But over the days, she had come to know the Ambassador, and thought of him as an astute and brilliant man... being... that brought a unique perspective to things, and rarely spoke frivolously.

“Yes?”

“The movie I was watching was called a ‘pirate movie.’ It was about crews of ocean-going sailing ships battling each other for reasons I did not understand. Nevertheless, it was an exhilarating piece of entertainment that gave us hints of your recent history.”

“I wouldn’t call a thousand years ago recent. But what is your point, Ambassador?”

“Well, what we saw reminded me of these oceangoing ships. They used a kind of observation post at the very top of their ships. They called this a ‘crow’s nest,’ I believe.”

Mia’s eyes grew large. “You can’t be serious!”

The Ambassador moved his upper limbs in a good approximation of a human shrug. “It’s just a suggestion, Captain.”

Mia sighed. “Well, unless anyone’s thought up something else?” This was greeted with further silence. “Okay. A crow’s nest, then.”

-----

Engineer Haskell, Seeker’s Second Engineer, was inspecting the new converters. They were based on his design, and he was gratified that they handled the load well. They never even reached a percent of full capacity. The fact that they were originally parts from Seeker-era gimbaled energy cannon made them weapons-grade, and therefore excellent energy emitters, as good as any he had seen from the drawing boards of the Propulsion Research Commission, maybe even better. Based on the last readings from the engines, he was now sure his new emitters could handle anything Seeker could dish out.

“Captain to Assistant Chief Engineer Haskell,” Mia called via the PA.

Haskell brought out his CC. It didn’t work, of course. He went to the intercom on the bulkhead. “Yes, Captain?”

“Chief, meet me in the observation blister in ten minutes.”

“Engineering blister,” Haskell thought. “Was that still even functional?”

“Aye, sir,” he said. “What’s it about?”

“You’re going to help me set up a crow’s nest.”

“A what, sir?”

-----

“Will someone explain whatinheck’s a... crow’s nest?” Haskell asked again.

Mia waved his question away impatiently. “Never mind that. If I’m correct, aside from the Chief Engineer, you are the one with the best knowledge of Seeker, right?”

“I suppose so, Captain. Aside from the commander.” He gestured to O’Connell.

“Excellent. Commander, how far do you think the back fins stuck out earlier?”

“Not much, sir,” O’Connell responded. “Maybe ten, fifteen feet.”

“All right. Chief Haskell, is there any way to raise the blister a further twenty to twenty-five feet?”

“Sorry, sir. This is the highest it can be raised. It was originally designed as a mooring mast for the beanstalks. If it was raised further, there would not be enough structural strength for that.”

“Dammit.”

“You know, Captain, I might be able to help more if you explain what you need.”

“What we need is a way to look out over the ring.”

“Well, then...”

“But we need to keep Seeker on the other side...”

Haskell thought that over. “Oh! A crow’s nest! I get it! Like the old sailing ships!” He blushed when he noticed everyone looking at him. “Ummm... Okay, I get it. Now, let’s see...” He grew quiet again.

“Well? Don’t keep us hanging!”

“Well, the blister also carries an EM mast. It was only occasionally used, even prior to Phase-Wave. Normally, it’s kept retracted, even when the blister was fully raised.”

“But, Chief,” O’Connell said, “wouldn’t that aerial be a little too flimsy for what we intend?”

“Not the bottom part, Commander. The bottom twenty feet of the mast is about half a meter wide. That part’s pretty sturdy.”

“What do you think we can use for an observation platform?”

“Let’s see... Hey! How about a packing crate? I think we have a few that aren’t doing anything. In fact, I think they were about to be ejected with the rest of the refuse.”

“How big are they?”

“They’re reinforced polymer packing crates about three by three by three meters in size. Very sturdy, actually, impact-resistant and rated for about a thousand cubic kilograms of pressure.”

“All right, then. Use one and start jury-rigging it as an observation platform.”

“It won’t be enclosed, Captain.”

“That’s all right, Chief. get to it. Chop-chop, Haskell.”

“Aye.” Haskell grinned, turned and went down the blister’s hatch.

Mia turned to O’Connell. “Okay, Commander, what else do we need?

Whoever’s going to be in that crate, she’s going to be in open space.”

“Well, then she’ll need to be properly attired. Class fives have their own air supplies and regenerators, and are good for protecting against debris.”

“Okay. Class five armor seems appropriate.”

“But she’ll need additional protection against EM fields and static electricity.”

“All right. Get to it, Commander.”

“Aye, sir. ‘Chop chop?’”

Mia chuckled. “By all means, Commander. Chop chop.”

-----

The new “crow’s nest” was ready shortly. Originally, Mia wanted to be the one, but O’Connell and, in fact, most of the officers, were adamant (although respectfully so) that someone else be the observer. So, to comply with regulations, O’Connell would have the responsibility.

Haskell grinned. “Now, if we can only convince the Commander to wear an eye patch and bring a parrot along,” he thought to himself, laughing.

They had established communications with Titan via line-of-sight laser comms. Everything else didn’t work. On the bridge, they had Titan’s Governor Kushenko and Commander Kajima on screen.

“Apologies for this less than efficient means of communication, Captain. And I am pleased to meet the First Ambassador.”

The Ambassador bowed in a reasonable approximation of the Elyran version.

“No need to apologize, Governor,” Mia said. “But I would also like to apologize. The cavalry will take some time in coming. I’m afraid we are it for now.”

“Commander Kajima has explained this. But Titan isn’t completely defenseless, Captain. We have taken all of our projectile weapons out of mothballs. We also have our own capital ships. We have three K-class ships which we are now outfitting with rocket launchers and as much ordnance as their cargo holds can contain.”

“K-class?” the Ambassador asked.

“Those are smaller, unarmed civilian versions of the Seeker,” Mia explained. “They are mainly used as cargo carriers, and are chemically propelled instead of using FTL-type engines.”

She turned back to Kushenko. “Governor? Why projectile weapons and rockets?”

“I will let the commander explain.”

Kajima stepped forward. “Captain, I’m afraid...”

Mia cut him off. “Commander. How are our pilots?”

Kajima smiled. “They are fine, Captain. Everyone is just going over to the main commissary to enjoy Titan’s excellent hospitality and have some breakfast. In the meantime, the Titans are doing some adjustments to our ships.”

“I envy you. I haven’t had Titan coffee in the longest time.”

Smiling, Kajima brought up a coffee cup and made a show of slurping.

Mia harrumphed, chuckled and gestured. “All right. Report, Commander.”

“Sir, we have discovered that the EM suppressing field...”

“You mean the EM interference field.”

“Yes, sir, but I think it’s more appropriate to call it a suppressing field.”

“Why?”

“When we were near enough to Titan, we tried all means of communications, but it turned out only line-of-sight visual communications were working. Nothing unexpected. The people here were briefed by Earth before they lost communications, though only partially. So they were expecting us.

“Anyway, having landed, we tested out all of our Shrike systems, per protocol, and we noted that all our energy weapons weren’t working.”

Mia and the Ambassador looked at each other. “We never thought to do a test...”

“Our weapons’ output seem to be suppressed - we can only assume it's the alien field. The yardmaster has been testing all EM wavebands as well, and they have identified some things.”

Mia listened closely. “Continue, Commander.”

“All radio communication frequencies are not available. All Phase-Wave channels configured into our equipment are likewise dead as a doornail. All coherent-energy weapons aren’t working, or rather they break down completely within a meter or so from their emission source. EM energy within the visual spectrum, however, is unaffected, as well as FTL and gravity fields. Energy traveling in a physical circuit or wire that is continuously renewed via a power-generating source seems to be fine, too, but batteries are quickly drained. Shipboard computer, power and life systems are therefore safe. And, Captain, look at this.”

Kajima flashed a picture of what looked like fragments of a missile floating in space.

“What’s that?”

“That was a missile with a nuclear fission warhead.”

“A what?”

“Yes, sir. The chemical-explosive trigger was set off by a switch on a mechanical timer an hour ago...”

“But...”

“The suppression field works on nuclear weapons as well.”

Mia thought that over.

“Oh, and deflectors are off as well,” he added.

“How about structural integrity fields?”

“Well, those work via direct-conduction, so they work. That means, so long as Seeker doesn’t get hit by really massive debris, or too much radiation, the SIF will be enough and you’ll be fine, sir.”

“Continue, Lieutenant,” Mia said.

“Aye, sir. Anyway, based on all of this, Titan Sector Command ordered all of the colony’s coherent-energy weaponry to be temporarily replaced by chemical, rocket or projectile-based armament. He has also had the energy weapons temporarily removed from our Shrikes to make room for some rail guns salvaged from the eighty-year-old equipment of the original Saturn expeditions.”

“Who authorized...”

“The Commodore is the ranking officer here at the moment.”

Mia nodded at this resignedly.

“I suppose he has enough rail gun ammunition in stock?”

“Well, they’re just metallic slugs four centimeters long and a centimeter in diameter. They probably just machine-shopped them just for us.”

Mia nodded. “All right. Well, now that you’ve gotten the lay of the land, any ideas on strategy?”

“The Commodore has... appropriated my squadron, sir. He has integrated us into his command, at least for the duration of the emergency.”

“The Commodore apologizes, Captain,” the Governor said. “There was no way to contact you. I have signaled him and he’s on his way down. He’ll be here in a moment.”

“Governor?” someone called from off-screen.

“Ahhh, Commodore. Captain Steele, I’d like to introduce you to Commodore Oshiro,”

“Good morning, Captain,”

Mia stood at attention. “Good morning, sir.”

“Stand easy, Captain. Firstly, I apologize for commandeering your squadron. There was no way to get word to you.”

“Not at all, sir. As it happens, I agree with you. May I introduce to you the First Ambassador of the Arachnian People’s Government. Ambassador, this is Commodore Oshiro, the commander for the Saturn Sector of the United Earth Defense Force.”

The Ambassador executed an Elyran bow. “I am pleased to meet you, Commodore.”

Everyone could see that Oshiro was a little ill-at-ease, but Mia glossed over that politely. “I apologize for the interruption, sir. You were saying?”

The Commodore shook his head. “Ahhh, yes. Well, aside from getting ourselves properly armed, we don’t have much intel to plan with. Naturally, we’ve lost communications with all our stations. And Titan is currently at the wrong angle to get any proper observations.”

“We’re trying to rectify that, sir. Commander O’Connell?”

“Aye, sir. I’m about to step out of the blister now.”

“Keep your intercom plugged in, Beth. Kajima says unwired comms will not work.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Good luck.”

“Thank you, sir.”

-----

O’Connell depressurized the observation blister, and as soon as it was safe, she opened the blister’s hood. Keeping a good grip on an external handhold, she stepped out into open space. The armor, not to mention the EM cloak, the probe and the projectile rifle she had to carry, made her movements a little cumbersome.

O’Connell doubted the utility of the cloak. It was made out of thin copper wire, woven into a kind of mesh cloth. It was based on how a Faraday Cage and a lightning rod worked, but in order to make it work, she’d have to be completely covered by it, which was not exactly do-able.

She'd told Haskell this earlier, and said she wanted to ditch it, but the Chief insisted - he was strictly following orders. So she took the EM shield with her, but tied it around her neck instead so it would be out of her way. She started climbing up the mast, but had to pause for a second.

It was like she had an enormous chandelier above her. The sight of it took her breath away.

However, the static electricity generated by the Seeker’s proximity to the rings caused small random lightning bolts to strike the ship’s hull from the rings above. This galvanized her to start climbing up the mast again.

She eventually got to the jury-rigged gondola and climbed in.

“Captain, I’m in place. I’m switching on my helmet camera now.”

She pressed a button on her sleeve and the camera in her helmet winked on.

“O’Connell to helm. Are you ready?”

“We’re ready, Commander.”

“All right. Just like before. Let’s get matched up with the break we were making for earlier. Start moving the ship laterally. Move us starboard at a rate of ten meters per minute.” She looked up and saw the break in the ring.

“Okay, keep going... keep going... Stop!”

She checked the crosshairs on her helmet, and they were dead-on. “Okay, that’s fine. Now, start bringing us up at a slower rate. Okay. Good... good...”

Mia and the others saw the image that O’Connell was transmitting. And they saw the rings coming close. “Stop!” they heard O’Connell say. “Move half a meter to port. Okay. Now, resume moving upward. Steady... steady...”

On the screen, they could see them moving up again. The rings were coming closer and closer, and in moments, they cleared the divide and were through.

“Good Lord!” Mia said.

“Stop,” O’Connell said as soon as the observation gondola was clear of the rings. “Are you seeing this, Captain?”

“We are, Beth. An incredible sight!”

The view was now from above the rings, and it was like they were skimming over a sea of crystals, snow, rocks and dust. The occasional electric discharges illuminated them from below.

“Keep your lightning arrestor in front of you, Commander,” Haskell said. “If a lightning bolt hits you, you’re dead.”

O’Connell agreed. “You’re right, Chief.” She brought out the two-meter-long telescoping rod and pointed it ahead of her - a lightning rod.

“Okay, what now?”

“Maintain station-keeping here,” Mia said. “Look around, Commander. See if you can spot the Empire ships. We’ll try and help.”

“Aye, sir.” O’Connell scanned the sky. Down in the bridge, Mia used the images being transmitted to spot the enemy ships as well.

“Stop, Commander! We found them. Look to the upper-right edge of the planet. They’re just emerging.”

O’Connell looked at the appropriate part of the sky through her telephoto visor. “I see them. Question now is, can they see us.”

“Well, if they can, then everything we did has been wasted. Commodore Oshiro, we are sending you telemetry. The data transmission via laser comm will be a little slow...”

“Getting it now, Captain... Ah, here it is.”

“They’re on continuous deceleration and heading for the rings, sir, on a direct line to Titan.”

“We’re seeing it here, Captain. And they’re not being shy about it, either.”

“They believe you’re defenseless.”

“Well, not exactly defenseless. They don’t know you’re hanging around.”

“What’s the plan, sir?”

“Well, we can’t afford to allow an attack on Titan itself. All the settlements are well away from the methane lakes - thank goodness for the low temperatures and lack of free oxygen. Combustion is unlikely. But even so, ice fractures can damage our buildings.”

“I’m from Neptune, sir. I understand.”

“There are over fifty million people in the Saturn system, and eighty percent of them are on Titan.”

“Noted on that, sir. What are your intentions?”

“My intention is to create a perimeter with some of your Shrike fighters and other ships, and prevent any close approach. Meanwhile, our cruisers will lure away as many of the enemy ships as possible and try and shoot them down. Seeker will do its best to lure away the enemy as well, and defend the system from any stragglers. Hopefully, we will be able to hold out until Earth comes.”

“Pardon me for saying so, Commodore, but that... sounds pretty thin.”

Oshiro wasn’t offended. He sighed. “I know, Captain. But we have very little to work with.”

“Well, you can count on us, sir. We’ll transmit telemetry as long as we have direct line-of-sight laser comms. Commander Kajima.”

“Sir.”

“Titan is counting on you and your people. Do us proud.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Governor, Commodore, Good luck. Seeker signing off.” The image was replaced by O’Connell’s view of the rings.

“Commander,” Mia said to O’Connell, “how are you doing?”

“Well enough, sir,” O’Connell said. “I had a close call with a lightning strike a second ago.”

“But you’re fine?”

“I’m fine, sir. Thanks to Chief Haskell’s lightning rod.”

“Well, you be careful, Beth. How are our friends?”

The view swung upward again.

“They’re a lot closer, and since I can visually follow them, they’re probably below ship-maneuverable now.”

Mia ordered a close-up of the ships, and puffs from the jets of chemical rockets could be seen.

“They’ve just launched their fighters,” someone on the bridge said unnecessarily.

“How close will they pass?”

“If the enemy is going to attack Titan,” the Ambassador said, “and does not care about not disturbing the rings, or worry about reprisals, they should make a direct line to the colony. That means they’ll be passing close.”

Everyone looked at the little alien.

“I cannot be sure but their apparent position and direction of flight indicates this. And if I am correct, they will be passing near our current position in a short while.”

Mia looked at him incredulously.

The Ambassador moved his upper limbs in circles, the gesture for laughter. “I am an Arachnian and therefore excellent at spatial geometry. Also I am, after all, a certified astrogator, Captain.”

Mia laughed as well. “Lieutenant, get on what the Ambassador just said. Give me a precise heading.”

“Aye.”

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About the author

Bobbi-C

  • Washington DC
  • Mistress of Confusion

Bio: Bobbi Cabot is a transgender girl in her thirties (35 y.o. as of 2016), who transitioned in 2005. She is known as "Roberta J. Cabot," "Bobbie-C," "Bobbie," "Bobbi" and "Bobbi-C" in the sites where she posts her stories.

Though not a professional writer, Bobbi is under the delusion that she writes passably well and indulges this delusion by sometimes posting stories, which is, thankfully, very seldom.

Bobbi's day job (the phrase "day job" is hereby stressed) involves being the big cheese of the overseas BPO practice of a Top 100 computer technology corporation.

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