The scream following the loud clang was Alyssa’s first clue something had gone wrong. Then the voice of the crew leader who had taken the crawlers under the piping and into the cramped depths of the conduits by injector five echoed from deep in the walls of the Sun Bottle, “Hot rain, hot rain!”
Alyssa bolted up from where she’d been crouching by the hatch, waiting for the crawl team to report back, and dashed past Naomi, who was monitoring the board just above and to the left of the hatch. Ten steps further down the hall was a gear locker that she yanked open, her free hand shooting up to catch the bucket on the top shelf before conscious thought registered that it was wobbling and about to fall on her. Once it rattled back into place she snatched the collapsible stretcher off the rack on the back side of the door and slammed the locker shut again. She was back to the hatch, working with Naomi to unpack the stretcher, within a dozen heartbeats of hearing the first shout.
But they were heavy heartbeats indeed, shaking her ribs as if some eldil had made a home there and was now pounding on her ribs like the keys of a piano. Alyssa’s heart made its way through a full major chord progression before they got the stretcher unfolded and switched on. It wasn’t fully booted before the scuffle of feet and panicked breathing warned them the crawlers were back. Both women dropped to their knees and peered under the hatch. On the other side the crew leader was carefully laying a body almost flat on the floor and gingerly sliding the feet towards them. Naomi positioned the stretcher as Alyssa took the feet and delicately pulled the body through the hatch opening, barely tall enough to accommodate it.
“One day,” Naomi muttered through gritted teeth, “we’ll figure out how to get these things open all the way again.”
“Oyarsa will it so,” Alyssa said in agreement.
The injured crawler was in bad shape. The crew leader had pulled off his coveralls and undershirt and Alyssa could clearly see where superheated coolant had doused his right arm and shoulder. The whole limb was an angry red but over the shoulder joint the skin had boiled and burst. She quickly folded the extendable portion of the stretcher up and over the damaged limb and set it for automatic. The stretcher went about its work, disinfecting the wound, sealing it up and administering painkillers. She dragged it back from the hatch as the crawl leader scrambled out. “All conduits are currently sealed but we didn’t replace 12 yet. I need you to unlock the safeties for us.”
Naomi got up and went back to the board. “I’ll do it. Alyssa, you two take him down to the Glass Box.”
Technically it was Alyssa’s responsibility to make sure the conduit replacements got finished. But one look at Naomi told her that this was something the Eldest wanted to do on her own. She glanced over at the crew leader – what was his name again? Hezekiah. He was a tall, lanky man who didn’t look like he’d fit into the conduit sections if not for the fact that he wasn’t any thicker than a conduit himself. But thin or not he could heft a stretcher. She motioned him to the front set of handles and they lifted the injured crewman up and took off down the hall towards the Sun Bottle’s exit.
“Prioritize retrieving drop pods currently on atmospheric entry trajectories,” Craig ordered, studying the relative positions of the pieces in play. The Johnston had a crew of 853, standard Copernican ship evacuation procedures dictated that they abandon ship in drop pods that held four people each. However, given how sudden and catastrophic the ship’s destruction had been Craig estimated that a minimum of half the crew had never had a chance to get to their pods.
The Copernican Spacer Corps supplied their people with evac suits for use during elevated alert situations and, like all good stellar navies, they considered any transition to or from superluminal velocities an elevated alert status. And, as the wealthiest planet in the Triad Worlds, Copernicus generally supplied top quality equipment to their spacers. Any Johnston crew that had survived the explosion but failed to reach a drop pod would be safe for as long as an hour before they were in any real danger.
“I’m sorry, Captain, why are you prioritizing the drop pods?”
Craig pushed down annoyance at the question. He’d been all for the Rodenberry Parliament dispatching embedded reporters on both ships in the fleet and Harriet Thacker was, in most respects, a very agreeable woman to have on the bridge. But, like a lot of his crew, she was young enough to have no immediate family back home to miss her for the eighteen to twenty four months the mission had been planned for. And thus she was too young to have embedded into a combat situation, either.
Of course, Craig had never had a reporter embedded on his ship so they were even on that score. He quickly considered approaches to the issue of having a kibitzer on his bridge, then decided to simply answer the question as quickly as possible. “There’s a good chance Earth is hostile towards us, ma’am. Or, at the very least, they aren’t recognizing us as friendlies, maybe they’ve mistaken us for space pirates from the Martian colonies or something. I don’t want those people getting shot down by Earth’s defenses.”
The relative positions of the fleet in this case were unfortunate. The plan had been to enter the – admittedly quite old – standard approach vector opposite the moon and just inside the Lunar orbit. The fleet had stopped just outside Pluto’s orbit on their way in to confirm positions and make the final vector checks but, even with such a short superluminal jaunt, the fleet formation had spread out quite a bit over the trip given the small irregularities in starting vectors before breaking lightspeed. The Remus had actually decelerated the closest to Earth, at a distance of just under 120,000 km up from the center of its gravity well, but the Johnston hadn’t been that much further away from the planet. Thus, many of the drop pods’ automated nav systems had opted to make gravity assisted descents towards the planet below rather than burning all their reaction mass in an attempt to reach one of the friendly ships further up in orbit.
A distant part of Craig’s mind wondered if the Johnston’s drop pods registered the Stewart as a friendly ship. Some of those drop pods should have maneuvered into synchronous orbits and waited for his crews to pick them up if they did. So probably they thought the closest friendly was actually the Roberts, a few thousand kilometers further away towards the fleet’s center – and at a higher orbit that was far more difficult to reach. That was a bug and someone was going to have to look in to it.
“Captain!” Rand dragged the ship plot back up to primary importance on his portion of the holotank. “The Tranquility is maneuvering into swarm position.”
Sure enough, Stewart’s scanners showed the massive ship swiveling its bow towards the surface of Earth, looking like nothing so much as a giant arrow pointed down at the planet. The image wasn’t entirely coincidental, either. Unlike most human ships, which were essentially fat tubes built to best endure the stress of their central thrusters, Copernican orbit ships were wide, boomerang shaped things intended to allow as many weapons on each surface of the ship to bear on a target as possible. All you had to do to get the largest concentration of fire on an enemy was point the prow of the ship in the general direction of your target.
“What’s happening, captain?”
Craig didn’t even spare the reporter a glance. “Vice Admiral Carrington has decided to bombard the planet.”
The ship could run itself for a moment. Most of Craig’s mind dragged itself up and away from the bridge, focusing on the problem at hand by willfully excluding all other input. For better or worse the Admiral was effectively going to war with Earth, previous warnings about avoiding provocations notwithstanding. The Principia had been hit, which meant the Newtonians would probably follow along. The Minervan spacers were half pirates so the Remus was probably along for the ride as well, although what the Dianan half of Galileo’s ships would do was anyone’s guess. Probably fight, too. The Galilean lunar states stuck together. Which left him, as the senior captain, to decide whether Rodenberry was in for this fight.
The Genies had originally split off from the Triad Worlds because they were sick of the stubborn politicking that had led to the First Galilean War. They’d chosen to go their own way before the inevitable Second. Theoretically they were supposed to try and avoid being drawn in to these kinds of stupid, short sighted wars.
On the other hand, it was a long six months of superluminal travel back to Copernicus. And that was the closest of the Triad Worlds, Rodenberry was almost another full month beyond that. It was a lot of dangerous space to cross for just two ships. And, on the flip side of the coin, many of the Stewart’s survey labs and scout probe bays had been emptied of their normal contents and refilled with supplies for the fleet. Leaving the rest of the ships behind and running off would leave them in a bad place and wouldn’t be taken well by the Triad World governments.
More than that, the great man himself had left many lessons on how ultimately it was most important to stick together, even with unpredictable companions, in the face of even greater uncertainties. No one had talked to Earth in two centuries. Everyone had assumed they’d find it much the same cantankerous, fractured planet full of stupid, short sighted humans striving for nobility that it had always been.
But no one had predicted instant hostilities.
“Captain, we’re picking up radiation spikes down on the planet. Looks like small power plants booting up – just big enough for laser batteries.” Rand’s map of the battlespace adjusted again, plotting the locations of the spikes on a miniature globe inset beside the more immediate plot of the unfolding battle in orbit. The drop pods were taking fire from the planet’s surface.
Craig made his decision. “I want a full EMG work up of those locations sent to the Sea of Tranquility. Give the Admiral a good look at those gun emplacements. Hopefully he can neutralize them with a minimum of collateral.”
An uncomfortable silence swept over the bridge. Finally, Hoyle said, “I’ll arrange it with Tranquility BASIC.”
Craig settled back into his command chair and watched as rescue operations unfolded. For the moment there was nothing more for him to do.
Alyssa slid the stretcher out from under the body that Hezekiah was cradling in his arms and tossed it at the base of the Glass Box. As Hezekiah rested his crewmate on the bottom of the Box and closed the side and top she hit the Wake key and checked to make sure the input feed was set to “E”, not “I”.
Hezekiah got the Box sealed before it finished booting and they were left waiting impatiently as the old device finished checking all its functions and slowly filled with clear fluid. For several long minutes after that they waited to see the diagnosis. Finally it came up and they sighed in relief.
“Orange.” Hezekaih gripped her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “He’s gonna make it, Elder.”
Alyssa sighed and nodded. Then realized that she should probably say something Elderly. “You’re to thank for that. Good job getting him out of those conduits.”
“Oh, uh… sure.” He offered a nervous smile. “Malacandra protected him.”
She slapped him on the back. “Lucky you, helping the Oyarsa so directly. That’s something to be proud of. People get burned in the conduits all the time, not all of them make it out to the Box in time. No eldil is going to say you did anything less than what was expected of you. So stop looking so gloomy.”
Hezekiah just grunted and watched the Glass Box work for a moment longer. “I should get back to my team.”
“Of course.” At least he walked out of the infirmary with his back straight. She leaned on the Box and looked down at the sleeping face inside. The burns were beginning to fill in with healthy, pink flesh and his face no longer looked quite so pained.
“And lucky you,” she murmured, resting her hand over his chest. “You haven’t gone to the Silence yet.”