The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Seven

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The primary difference between an oceangoing vessel and a space going vessel was the contrast. In space, most of your surroundings were black. Occasionally you’d pass by a ship or a planet but ships – at least warships – were deliberately painted to give only a dim contrast with the void. Planets were pretty bright if you were on the sun side. But even then the contrast with the darkness of space wasn’t as stark as you might think until you began the long fall out of orbit. Once atmo started to clog up your view of space light diffused and you were brought back into a fully illuminated world gradually.

On the water the glaring sun was directly above and the horrifying black abyss of the deep just over the side. It made it very hard to ignore the unknowns. According to the AI the proper term for it was thassalaphobia but Lang preferred to think of it as the water being really fucking creepy. The only thing worse than a giant body of water was a boat on said water.

And yet thanks to a momentary thought he’d decided to follow up on now Sergeant Martin Langley was doomed to locate a boat with which to revive the ancient art of the seaborne assault. “First there was the drop pod. Then the hovervan. Then there was an entire Rodenberry Stellar Navy cargo hauler.” Priss handed him back the binoculars. “Is piloting every conceivable vehicle in the galaxy under combat conditions your new life goal?”

“No.”

“I don’t think the admiral will let you be the Tranquility‘s new helmsman even if you somehow magically drag another group of stranded spacers back up to orbit.”

“Flying capitol ships is boring. The AI does 90% of the work for you under the best of conditions and the admiral tells you where to go anyway.” He looked at the marina laid out in front of them again, trying his best to figure out what he was looking for. They didn’t have the best vantage point from their place on a hillside a couple of blocks down. They’d hunkered down in an empty hotel poolhouse built over a large drainage system that connected directly to the sewer system which gave them a lot of good exit options. Only about two thirds of the docks were visible from there but Lang had preferred to have cover and a quick exit rather than a good view. “Think we can rig up one of those solar doohickeys without the natives around to help us out this time?”

“It’s not like Sean and Aubrey were crack electricians and we do have a half a dozen trained technicians with us so it’s not like we’ve got bad odds on fixing one ourselves.” She pointed at one of the boats. “Have you thought about that one there? If nothing else we probably won’t need to worry about the fuel or power situation.”

Lang lowered the binoculars to get an idea of where she was pointing but he didn’t have to use them again to figure out what she was talking about. “A sailing ship? Priss, I’m a pilot not a deckhand. Just because we don’t need to rig it with a portable fusion generator doesn’t make it more useful. For starters I’m not sure we could even get that thing out of the dock but even if we could I don’t think we could get anywhere close to the target zone unobserved.”

“I loaded my AI with a whole set of guidebooks on proper use of a sailing ship,” Priss countered. “If you can learn to pilot a Rodenberry lander by AI I think you can handle some ropes.”

“There’s so much wrong with that statement I’m not even going to get into it.” Lang pointed over at a sleek, white boat large enough to hold half a dozen people. “That thing looks like it can actually get us where we’re going inside of half a day and has the added benefits of being modern, mechanized and low enough to the horizon that they won’t see us coming with a casual glance.”

Priss toggled through a half a dozen screens worth of information before she answered. “That’s a Bluesky 52 cruiser. It’s got an onboard fusion plant that, according to the inspector’s stamps, was shut down over thirty years ago. The parts are probably no good by this point. Even if it does run, by some miracle, it’s containment envelope will create a magnetic signature large enough the Earthlings will be able to pick it up just by the way it interferes with their magnetic field generators. They won’t have to see us coming, they’ll know as soon as we turn the damn thing on.”

It wasn’t hard to peek over Priss’s shoulder – she wasn’t a tall woman – and verify what she was reading for himself. “Do you have data on every boat anchored out there?”

“No. Just the ones in the southernmost six piers.”

“Why?”

“Because some of us were thinking about hijacking one on our day off and taking a look out at the bay. It’s not like there’s anyone here using them.” Priss paged through a couple more screens of data, mostly specs and exterior holos of the boats in question from the looks of it. “The big problem that we’ve seen so far is power supply, which is why I’m thinking sail. Everything else looks like it runs on some kind of internal generator which is bound to be trash by this point in time.”

“You just said we’ve got techs of our own,” Lang said, amusement crowding out his lurking dread of the water. “I mean, sure, you can’t ask them for help getting a pleasure cruise up and running and you definitely couldn’t borrow a portable generator for it either, but the point stands. We don’t need to pile into a rowboat to make this expedition possible.”

“True enough. Have you considered that the high tech ships might be tied into a nav system that monitors their locations at all times?”

“Given what we’ve seen so far the UNIGOV approach to watching the populace is their nanotech.” Lang scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Although it’s true they controlled car and aircar traffic that way. On the other hand there’s no indication they tracked the van we used down in Texas that way.”

Priss shrugged. “They weren’t looking for us then. They know we’re here right now and are taking deliberate hostile steps against us. Looking at trackers on the boats is a logical step.”

“You’re not wrong.” Lang pinched the bridge of his nose. “Have you actually boarded any of those ships or did you just pull their specs from an archive somewhere?”

“The dockmaster kept files we were able to dump from his computer. I’ve got them all backed up to my AI although as I said we’ve only checked the files against the actual physical boats on a few of the piers.”

“Well, ultimately what kind of operation we run is up to the Major,” Lang mused. “It’s his call whether we make a stealth approach, a direct approach or what. Now that I think about it, we might even get better results targeting the magfield generators holding the disassembler field in place rather than striking the power plant directly. The kind of generator you need for a large scale nanolathe field like that has to be very specialized.”

“A power plant is better,” Priss said. “It’s a bigger building and needs more work to rebuild than magfield generators. No matter how specialized the field generator is you can make the component parts much easier than you can erect a containment facility for a fusion reactor.”

“But you can replace one centralized power source with distributed portable generators.” Lang shook his head in disgust. “Never mind, that’s officer talk we’re getting in to. The Major will handle target selection, too, let’s focus on giving him good options for ships we can hijack for our little adventure in larceny. Give me a couple of options for stealth, speed and ease of refitting.”

“I’m telling you…” Priss brought up the sailing ship again. “We got all three in one.”

“No. No one knows how it works and it can’t possibly get decent speed.”

“It makes eight knots.”

“I don’t even know what that means.” He went back to his binoculars, sweeping the docks slowly. “But we should have an option that’s the best example of each of those categories. We can put your precious ship of the line into the ease of refitting category if you’re really married to the idea of throwing your back out as we head towards our water grave.”

Priss folded her arms and sat down on an empty shelving unit. “Okay, sunshine, I get that you’ve never been the most optimistic of people but this isn’t like you. What’s on your mind?”

“Boats.”

“Seriously, Langly.”

“I’m serious, Priscilla.” He set his binoculars aside and jabbed one finger at his sleeve. “Do you see this?”

“Yeah, it’s a Sergeant’s stripe, my congratulations and condolences on your promotion. Did you ever stop to think that if you kept doing incredibly stupid things under pressure that somehow worked out in the end, sooner or later some genius with an officer’s commission might decide you could do it all the time?”

Lang threw his arms out in frustration. “Of course not, Priss! I was under pressure!”

“Taking the right actions without needing to think about it is a sure sign of leadership ability.”

One of his fingers was displayed for her viewing pleasure. “Have you noticed that ever since they sewed this stupid third stripe on me everyone pays attention to what I’m saying? I used to have to actually find someone willing to listen to me. Now they take every word out of my mouth like its some kind of revelation and Major Goldstein got it in his head to send us all out over the fucking abyss like we’re skipping up the space elevator on Copernicus Major. We don’t know the first thing about water, Priss. We didn’t even have sonar scanners in our landing loadout or if we did you can be damn sure getting it out of the basecamp wasn’t priority one so they’re gone now. There could be anything out there and we wouldn’t have the first clue about it.”

Priss tilted her head slightly, her expression not exasperated or impatient, just curious. “Is that so bad?”

“Do you know what happened on Mars?”

“You crashed a Rodenberry lander.”

“I got put under the most stupid, naive, happy-go-lucky lieutenant they had and dropped in the middle of a situation so crazy I had to make a controlled emergency landing just to meet a deadline.” He used a finger on the other hand this time. “I made it work, and you know why? Because, gravity, thrust, atmospheric breaking, those things are my bitches, Priss. But you know it’s going to happen all over again. Goldstein is going to saddle us with some fresh faced officer who never even saw combat in the last war and tell us to toddle off and blow up a power plant and I don’t know nearly enough about boats to make up for that kind of albatross. Someone’s going to die again, all for this stupid, stupid idea.”

Priss got up, took his hand in hers and gently folded its middle finger down, then took his shoulder and turned him back towards the marina. “It’s okay, Lang. We signed up for stupid ideas and a risky life.” She gently rubbed his shoulder as they stared at the assembled ships. “And as stupid ideas go, at least this one has the benefit of novelty so we can all say we died doing something no one on Copernicus has ever done before. You’re right, though, a D-day landing is probably enough novelty for one operation. We’ll find an boat with some solar panels and a modern control scheme and see what the Major thinks, okay?”

The rubbing abruptly went from feeling comforting to patronizing and he shrugged off her hand. “Fine. I saw solar panels on one of the boats on Pier H. See if you can find it in that database of yours.”