A Thousand Times
“I’ve had it, you sniveling little weasel!” Petty Officer Chapman spat. No one had the courage to tell the chief that he had a bad case of halitosis.
“But, Chief! It wasn’t my fault! They put me on extra duty again…” The Chief brushed aside his protest with a cutting motion of his hand, and shoved his beefy face closer, his breath almost made Charley's eye's water.
“I don’t want to hear it, you little turd! The Captain told me to whip your sorry ass into shape, and before this trip is over, that’s just what I’m going to do. Is that clear?” His thick nose hair fluttering in and out of his nostrils like grass in a strong wind.
“Yes, Petty Officer Chapman.” He fought down the sudden urge to offer the Chief a breath mint, knowing it would only make matters worse.
“Get your skinny ass down the vent chamber." The Chief didn’t bother hiding a nasty grin as Charley winced. "It needs cleaning again.”
“Aye, aye Chief.” Charley Harris turned away, gritting his teeth in anger and marched quickly to the engine room if nothing more than to get away from the Chief's bad breath than anything else.
Yet, it wasn’t his fault, the whining voice in his head complained. With two men sick, he was stuck with extra duty and only managed two hours sleep before the watch. Plus with little to do during a hyperspace long jump except sit and watch the twinkling lights of the Engineering panel, it was inevitable he'd fall asleep. He wasn't the only one; half the watch was doing the same, but it was Charley's ever-present dumb luck to get caught. Charley stripped to the skin, and shivered in the cool air as he climbed into the heavy anti-radiation suit. The effort had him sweating buckets before he’d even got the helmet on; even turning the cooling unit to max, didn't help. Shuffling towards the vent chamber hatch, the first thing he saw were his least favorite people, Wilkinson and Pool, standing-by as emergency help. Little good they would do if anything went wrong down there. The two men snickered to each other as Pool cycled the entrance hatch open.
“That’s a good little gopher, Charley. You go all the way down to the bottom and clean out that vent.” Wilkinson patting him on the helmet, adding insult to injury.
“Screw you, Wilkinson!” Charley snarled, trying to brush the hand away with little success.
“Sour grapes is it, Charley?” His laugh had an edge to it that Charley didn’t like “If the Leftenant hadn’t caught you sleeping on duty instead of working like the rest of us, you wouldn’t be in the shit, now would you boyo!”
“Bullshit! Tell me you and the rest of the watch weren’t doing the same thing?” He snapped back. It was more of a snarl than a whine; at least he hoped is sounded that way.
“That may be true Charley-boy but we didn’t get caught now did we?”
As Charley entered, Pool slammed the hatch shut, catching his elbow. Charley gasped in pain feeling his forearm go numb, swearing he'd get even as he shuffled to the edge of the platform. He looked over, seeing shaft fall away, the bottom blurry through the shimmering air, and making the150-foot climb down a living hell. Even with the dense shielding around the fusion reactors, the heat still penetrated, and he shivered despite the heat, feeling sorry for himself as he massaged his tingling hand.
“What are you waiting for, Harris! Stop dragging your feet and get your ass down the ladder now before I put you on report!" Chapman's beefy face glared at him through the view port.
“But, chief, I…" He started to explain, then realized it was useless. Trust the Chief to check on him right at that moment. “Aye, Chief.”
He started down, heavy boots clunking from rung to rung. Even with slightly numb fingers they felt hot through his gloved hands, but that was probably more his imagination than reality. The cooling unit didn’t stop the sweat pouring from his body, and he laughed thinking how much recycled water he’d have to drink later. It tasted like piss, but at least he wouldn’t dehydrate. They spent billions of credits building HMS Excelsior, a Predator Class battle cruiser, and Earth's first deep space exploration vessel. They'd armed her to the teeth with the latest high tech weapons and drive systems yet they still needed a man to go down into the bowels of the ship and manually clean the reactor vent. With all that technology, you'd think they could invent a better way of doing it, but here he was, for the third time this year cleaning the vent again. It never occurred to Charley to question that premise he just did what he was told, mostly.
Each hyperspace jump took them further from Earth than man had gone before, exploring deeper and deeper into uncharted space. They were supposed to be doing the 'seek out strange new worlds' and 'go where no man had gone before' bit. Not that he gave a shit. He shifted the tool belt that dug into his hip but it didn’t help, his partly numb hand almost losing its grip in the process.
"That’s it, you dumb cluck, fall to your death and make everyone happy." They’d probably leave me down here, he thought moodily, than to bother of retrieving his body.
At last he reached the bottom and plugged into the ship’s internal air to cool down before starting the long tedious job. He felt the ship doing odd things around him, but figured they'd probably dropped out of hyperspace for a nav check before the next jump, not that he cared. He worked steadily for three hours, not wanting to spend a second longer than he had to down there, and it was a wonder Chief Chapman wasn’t screaming at him to work faster. As a power tech he knew it couldn't be done any faster, no matter how much the Chief bitched. He performed the last check and saw green lights across the board, and breathed a sigh of relief as he started back up the ladder.
“What do you have, Mr. Pritchard?” The Captain leaned back in his command seat, his eyes flicking between his XO the main battle screen, and the smoothly utilitarian efficiency of his Bridge, feeling that all was right with his world.
“The alien vessel is within visual range Captain, and they’re still broadcasting greeting messages.” The Captain eyed the battle board, murmuring softly to the XO.
“What do you think, Annie?” Seeing the slightly worried look on her pale face.
“Hard to say, sir. They appear friendly and no obvious signs of weaponry.” He could almost hear what she wasn't saying.
“Not much to go by.”
“No, sir.” Her eyes flicked to meet his.
“Sir. They are asking if their envoy ship can come along side.” The communication tech reported.
“Yes, sir. It appears from the translation they have a first contact protocol.”
“I see.” He didn’t, but wasn’t about to say so. In a reverse situation and an alien ship turned up in his front yard, he’d have a battle squadron pointing weapons at it.
“Your orders, Captain?” The XO asked, eyeing the strange looking craft with suspicion.
“Well, we don’t want to appear unfriendly now do we?”
“No, sir.” She muttered dubiously.
“All weapons to standby mode and lower the shield.”
“Aye, aye, sir…" The XO hesitated a moment before relaying the orders. "…is that wise? We don’t know for sure what their intentions are?” The Captain pursed his lips a moment, rubbing his hard, square, poster boy jaw.
“This is a Predator Class Battle Ship, Annie. I doubt that shuttle or the other ship has a weapon that can seriously hurt us even with our shields down.” He chuckled, nodding towards the approaching ships. The second odd-looking shuttle looked no more threatening than the first, except for the trumpet shaped protrusion at one. The second ship crawled towards them, hardly making headway let alone an attack run.
Their journey had taken them a long way from the cool green hills of Earth, and they now hung in high orbit above a beautiful green and blue planet. They'd dropped out of the last hyper-space long jump five AU above the parent star on this leg of their journey, and this was the first inhabited world with anything above a pre-industrialized civilization, much less one with star travel. Making first contact with another star-faring specie was exactly why they were out here, and with that in mind, he couldn’t refuse to make contact when asked by the local inhabitants to do so. In their colorful robes, the aliens had a deferential manner about them that didn’t provoke any hostile feelings. Their bland, putty face looked more comical than threatening.
“The envoy craft is maneuvering around our bow, Skipper.” The Operations Officer reported.
“Ugly looking brute.” The XO muttered, eyeing the boxy looking craft.
“Yes, it is.” He answered pensively, feeling a sense of unease for the first time.
“That’s odd…“ The Operations officer muttered.
“What?” His eyes snapped to his scanner, then back to the odd craft.
“…she’s come to a dead stop directly off our bow, Skipper.”
“Comm, ask our friend what’s going on.” He swiveled his command seat to face the main screen.
“Aye, aye, Skipper.”
“SIR! I’m reading a massive power build in that shuttle!” The Tactical officer sounded surprised more than concerned. “She’s about to…"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Drenched in sweat, Charley stumbled out of the shaft, cursing softly to himself. Not surprisingly, his crewmates had left him to open the hatch himself. Twice he tried cycling the hatch, but it refused to budge. In the end, he used a hammer to undog the emergency manway and crawled out, swearing he’d get even. The moment he stood up he knew he was in trouble. The only light came from the emergency lighting system, and Charley gulped, seeing both men face down on the deck. It didn’t take a medic to tell him they were dead. He quickly stripped off the suit, wondering if it was something he'd done down below to cause this. It was a stupid thought; the fusion vent had nothing to do with the rest of the ships systems but with his luck, anything was possible. After gulping what seemed like a gallon of cool water, he stumbled through the ship naked, shivering with fear and cold.
Everywhere he went he found dead crew at their stations, in passageways and stairwells. It didn’t even occur to him to wear a breathing mask until he almost reached the Bridge, but if there were something in the air, he would already be dead man. Panic set in when he saw everyone on the Bridge either laying on the deck or sitting in their seats motionless. For a moment, he stood there whimpering in fear. Around him the dead screens and emergency lighting gave the place an artificial stillness as if at any moment everyone would jump up and yell "surprise!" He stumbled back until he hit the opposite bulkhead. This couldn’t be happening? His mind spun in circles, he was delirious from the heat, or the lack of water, or both? He didn’t know what, but this wasn't happening. The whole crew couldn’t be dead and he the only survivor. Moaning in terror he slipped to the deck, arms wrapped around his shivering body, doing what he did best, hiding inside himself until the problem went away.
Hearing a sound he looked up, hope flared for a second until he saw a real night-mare coming towards him. A nightmare of green scales, sharp teeth, and clawed hand reaching towards him. Charley Harris came awake to banish the nightmare paraded through his head, and shifted deeper inside the three foot by four-foot shelter in the forlorn hope he'd find a more comfortable position. In six months, he hadn't found one or a way to keep some portion of his body out of the freezing cold at night, or the scorching sun during the day. In his lucid moments, he whimpered softly, silently cursing fate, the universe, and everyone who'd gotten him into this position in the first place. Not that he was a stranger to pain and discomfort, and it mainly defined his life; people caused him pain of one sort or another, from the contempt of his shipmates, and rejection by his family, to the beatings from his drunken stepfather. Deep down he knew he deserved it, as he’d become accustomed to living down to their expectations. If he made the mistake of helping someone, it inevitably backfired because Charley Harris had the knack of being in the wrong place at the right time. He let out a croaking laugh, wincing as his dry lips cracked, because he knew the only reason he was alive, while Petty Officer Chapman and the rest of the crew were a pile of stinking corpse, was because Petty Officer Chapman sent him down the vent chamber for sleeping on duty. But his laughter sounded more like a sob. There were things far worse than death. The monster didn't look any less frightening in daylight. The green, humanoid lizard was the stuff of nightmares, shorter than the average human, with a crested, and a more rounded skull than a true reptile and only a slightly protruding snout. It had hands with opposing thumbs and except for the two-inch long retracting claws looked almost human.
Charley knew how effective those were when one of the lizards ripped a putty-faced alien to shreds. Bright red blood sprayed everywhere, and the more that landed on the lizard, the more it ripped and shredded. Charley shuddered at the thought, trying to block the memory. At any moment, he could be next. Day after day they had him in some sort of lab where different putty faced aliens poked and prodded him for hours on end. He hated to think what they were looking for, maybe checking to see if he was good to eat? Whatever the putty-faced aliens found or didn’t find, the Lizard Chief wasn’t satisfied, snarling his dissatisfaction. Charley thought of him as the leader because of the ornate crossed webbing over his chest. The other lizards he’d seen wore the same webbing, but less ornate, so Charley dubbed him the Chief. As an added insult, they’d thrown him into a cage next to an ill-tempered dog-like creature, and he wished he’d been dressed when they found him. With only a small kennel to crawl into, it wasn't much protection from the scorching sun or the freezing cold. That was on the good days, when it didn’t rain. Food and water came from an automatic dispenser, the same as the one in the cage next door. It tasted like crap, but it kept him alive. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, they put a collar around his neck, as if he were some kind of pet or animal, and to them maybe he was. The leader would open the cage and hiss something, then beckoning him with an odd downward flip of his wrist. The first time he’d done that Charley didn’t get it, or pretended he didn’t. The leader pointed something and intense pain lashed his body from head to foot. It left him a sobbing heap on the floor, and physically unharmed, but he learned the price of disobedience. Gritting his teeth, he meekly followed the alien wherever he went now, usually back to the lab for more.
“Why is this chofar alive when the others are dead?” The Leader hissed as his ‘vocor’ translated the rumble of his speech.
“We do not know, lord. He is no different from all the clothed ones we examined.
“Find out!” He hissed louder, his meaning clear.
“Yes, Lord.” The putty-faced alien bowed, always respectful, always subservient. His peaceful race learned quickly the price for failing to show respect.
They resumed their examination of the odd-looking creature, while the leader paced back and forth, feeling disgusted as much by the sight of this soft skinned, fish bellied white alien as by the lack of progress. Much like the inhabitants of this planet, these new aliens seemed much the same, incapable of offering a challenge to a warrior. Capturing their ship was so pathetically easy it bordered on stupidity. Even now, he let out a hissing laugh as he remembered the ‘Envoy’ ship maneuvering to point along the long axis of the alien vessel. If nothing else, the beings that inhabited this planet had their uses. He wondered briefly what the crew felt as the energy cannon fired a long burst of multi-spectrum radiation at them. Death must have been almost instantaneous, but not before the realization of what had happened sunk in. Many in the fleet felt this a dishonorable way to defeat an enemy, yet after examining the battle cruiser, more than one came away with the unspoken thought they were glad that they'd not met it in battle. Its secrets would make a great addition to their already powerful ships, and make it easier to conquer the planet of its builders. They’d know all its secrets, how much firepower, shield strength, and the missile yield, if only they could get into the ships systems. But therein lay the dilemma. To date all attempts to access the ship’s electronic systems had failed.
Every time they touched or attempted to dismantle a component they met a barrier or an electrical charge that either shocked the technician unconscious, or killed them, preventing access. It was frustrating, and not something a warrior should have to deal with. Nothing the technicians and scientists, as this conquered race called them, had so far yielded any useful information from this new victim. Or from the naked pet he'd found sitting in a corner whimpering in fear. A few more courageous crèche leaders suggested they were deliberately hiding information, or not trying hard enough. Yet, ripping several of them apart in front of the others failed to yield better results. High Command wasn’t helping with their constant demands for results, accompanied as they were by veiled threats of demotion, or worse. He paced back and forth, his frustration mounting with each passing day cycle.
“Lord,” a putty face scientist bowed, hands in front of his face, “if I may suggest.”
“What is it, Drak?” The translator rendered it "eater of dirt".
“I would point out; as I’m sure you have already thought of it…"
“Speak!” The chief spat, four razor sharp claws appeared on the warrior’s fingertips as he held his hand in front of the scientist face.
“…that this pet might offer some clue to entering the ship’s systems.” He gulped.
“All in the ship were dead, except this one, a pet as you say.” The scientist had his own thoughts about that, but kept them to himself, despite the threat.
“Yet Lord, it has the ability to move from compartment to compartment without triggering any defensive systems.”
“You are suggesting… what?” He rumbled.
“That we use this pet’s ability to enter the ship and possibly open some or all of the electronic systems.”
“This ugly thing might not be able to operate anything more complicated than a food dispenser.” The Chief hissed, never knowing how close to the truth he really was.
“True, Lord, but even that would be a start. Once inside one system, it might be possible to understand and disarm others.” The leader eyed the scientist intently for a moment, seeing it shrink in fear. The leader gave him a look of utter contempt. What pathetic creatures these were, fit only as servants or for meat. Their young were especially tasty, he thought.
“Thank you, Lord.” He never saw the look of pure hatred behind the yellow eyes.
“If this should prove futile you will pay the price.” He didn’t need to explain his meaning. The scientist silently spoke the prayer of retribution and followed him out.
Pain lashed Charley’s body for a moment, and he withered in its grasp, unable to scream. When it ended, he looked up through watery eyes to see the lizard standing by the gate, beckoning him. Burning hatred flared as he scuttled across the floor to its side. If only he had a weapon. He’d show this walking suitcase a thing or two. The lizard leader hissed something, and a moment later, the translator echoed his words.
“Follow me.” Charley did, not that he had a choice, and for half an hour they walked through the complex, gathering putty faced technicians and equipment. He stayed out of the way, fearing kicks, or impact by moving equipment, but his interest perked when the leader motioned him aboard a ground car.
He immediately scuttled aboard, the leader kicking him to the far side as he stepped in behind him, and Charley huddled in the corner, thinking dark thoughts as he nursed his new injury. Strange looking buildings flashed past the window perked his interest, and he carefully lifted himself up to see where they were going. They passed out of the city into open country into open with neatly trimmed green and blue plants edge the smooth highway, but it was strangely empty of traffic. What interested him more was the distant view of an airport, or spaceport. Hope flared, burning like a fire in the pit of his stomach. It didn’t take long to driver past the guard and up to the shuttle, and Charley's excitement grew. Were they taking him back to the ship? The moment the leader reached the forward cabin the shuttle lifted off, but no one offered Charley a seat, so he held on as best he could while the craft climb swiftly into the atmosphere and up into the black of space.
“We have located a working airlock near what we presume is the operation center of the alien ship, Lord, and we have asked the pilot to take us there.” The leader hissed a noncommittal response, feeling no need to converse with Drak. Hopefully the secrets of this alien vessel would soon be his, insuring his standing in high command.
The moment Charley stepped through the airlock, he knew where he was, and his heart leapt. He was home, but why bring him here? He found out a moment later when the leader pushed him roughly across the Bridge and pointed to one of the consoles. Charley had no idea what he wanted, nor did he care. Like a dog looking for a lost bone, he went from console to console, his hand running through the space where the optical keyboards should be. By the time he reached the Captain’s chair, he was sobbing with frustration, tears running down his dirty face.
The ship was lifeless and he sank to the deck, moaning softly, his dream of escape gone. The lizard leader hissed something, but it took a moment before the translator caught up.
“Make it work!”
“Make ship work.” He held his hand out, claws extended. Charley didn’t need a translator to tell him what that meant.
He sat there and sobbed in despair. The stupid iguana wanted him, Charley Harris to get the ship working again? How insane was that? He was nothing but a lowly power tech, deck scrubber, piss pot polisher, the general butt of all the insults and ships dirty work. He giggled hysterically and the lizard leader triggered the pain devise, cutting off his giggling as he withered about on the deck. At last, it stopped and for a moment he lay there, anger replacing the slowly diminishing pain. The pain cleared the fog from his brain, and for the first time in months, he began to think, really think. He was aboard HMS Excelsior, one of her crew, a human, and no matter how low he’d sunk, he still knew more about this ship than any stupid lizard. Slowly and painfully, he stood, all five foot, eight inches of him, and he looked about the Bridge with fresh eyes. His mind flashed back to all the training sessions he’d been force to attend, the ones he couldn’t get out of. Wishing for the first time in his life he’d paid more attention as bits and pieces of the lecture came to mind.
“So, you want me to get this ship working do you, snake breath." He looked around, seeing the leader and his putty faced attendant looking at him expectantly.
He doubted the translator could handle that, not that he cared. Shivering in fear and excitement he looked around the Bridge, trying to remember something, something about the main frame. All at once he had it; he needed to reboot the CI, the Cybernetic Intelligence. That he could do, and he pointed to the Engineering station. The leader motioned him to go, watching him like a snake. Only one power sub-panel had a light on it. It glowed red to show the fusion reactor in standby mode. Obviously, the reactor had SCRAMMED for some reason so the first thing he had to do was get it online.
Looking over his shoulder, he passed his hand over the optical controls, seeing the panels change from red to yellow. Slowly the fusion reactor powered up, and one by one, the sub systems kicked in as the panel turned green. Overhead, the lights came on, switching from emergency to main power. His eyes strayed to one particular key but he kept his hand away from it. There wasn't sufficient power and he wasn’t ready yet. He could only guess how far the leader would let him go and he quickly tapped the command reboot key; sighing softly as the holo-screen lit and started cascaded though the startup sequence. A quick look told him that some of the systems had problems, but considering how long the ship was down, it was understandable. Looking over his shoulder, he nodded to the next console. This was the communication section, not important to what he wanted, just another step. The leader hissed something but the translator didn’t or couldn’t render it into English. Taking it as a command to continue, he shuffled over and powered up the board. Again, the system came on-line when he pressed the re-boot key. But other than the screen lighting, nothing happened, not surprising without comm traffic. His next move was across the horseshoe Bridge to the environmental panel. This time things did happen.
The moment the re-boot sequence completed, the screen cleared and they all felt cool air rush in through the deckhead vents. The leader let out a long hiss and Charley cringed, anticipating the worse. When nothing happened he moved to the weapons station. Here he hesitated. Did the alien’s know what this was for? He skipped it and walked over to the XO seat and hit the power key, holding his breath. The screen lit as the system began booting up, but Charley didn’t wait. Quickly he walked over to the Captain’s console and hit the re-boot key before the lizard could say anything.
“This creature appears to have access to all the ship’s systems, Lord.” Putty face whispered, instantly regretting he'd spoken, yet not speaking could be worse.
“This I can see, drak!” The leader snarled, his crest rising and falling slowly, the color changing with his mood.
“Is that wise, Lord? We don’t know what protective systems this ship has.”
“Get away from console!” Charley looked around at the loud hissing sound, backing away fearfully.
He didn’t need the translator to tell him what the leader said, but it didn’t matter which keyboard he was near, all of them had the same red key. His eyes flicked to the XO’s panel, seeing the last sentence of the reboot sequence flash across the screen. The moment the last bite of information downloaded, red lights sprung up all over the Bridge and the piercing ‘BATTLE STATION’ alarm sounded. The leader’s head jerked round looking for the source as his hands covered the sides of his head. The main screen lit up with static and all heads jerked towards it. That was exactly the moment Charley was waiting for. He hit the red key and held his breath.
“INTRUDER ALERT-INTRUDER ALERT!” Charley couldn't help himself, he giggled. “ALIEN PRESENCE DETECTED!”
The leader looked around, straight at Charley, instinctively knowing what he’d done. He reached for something in his belt as the defensive system came on-line and blue white fire lashed out. It burned down the two guards with weapons, then the putty- faced techs and scientists. The leader had a choice. Trigger the pain device or leap for the hatchway. He snarled and leapt; clearing the combing as the lasers targeted him, hearing Charley's hysterical laughter. He kept leaping all the way across the airlock into the shuttle as the anti-boarding laser scorched a black line across the deck after him. The airlock immediately cycled shut, sealing the ship, but not before he managed to trigger the device from inside the shuttle. Pain struck, dropping Charley to the deck, but it couldn't stop his hysterical laughter. As the shuttle pulled away, the pain lessened, and he lay there breathing a sigh of relief. He’d done it! He’d escaped! Slowly he stood, waiting for his limbs to stop trembling, knowing it wasn’t the residue of the pain collar, but his own fear.
“SEAL THE SHIP!” He yelled, flopping into the Captain chair.
“You do not have the authority to give that order, crewman Harris.”
“What?” Charley shook his head, wondering if he’d heard right.
“What do you mean I don’t have the authority? I’m the only one left alive?”
“You do not have the authority to give that order, crewman Harris.”
“We are under attack you stupid machine!”
“I detect no alien intruders aboard at this time.”
“Oh my Lord!”
Charley shook his head, this couldn’t be happening, but he’d said that before, and it was. “How do I get the bloody authority, you stupid bitch!” He wondered what idiot programmed the CI with a female voice.
“Only the Captain or the officer of the watch can give that command.”
“Do you detect anyone else alive on this bucket?” He yelled.
“Please verify the death or incapacitation of Captain Clark.”
“Captain Clark is dead!” He shouted in frustration.
“Thank you, crewman Harris. This report corroborates my internal record of Captain Clark’s death.”
“Thank God for that. Now seal the frigging ship and let's get the fu…"
“Please verify the death or incapacitation of Executive officer, Commander Pritchard.”
“…what!” Charley spluttered in horror. “Do I have to verify the death of everyone aboard?”
“Please verify the death or incapacitation of Executive office, Commander Pritchard.”
“Pritchard is dead!”
“Thank you, crewman Harris. This report corroborates my internal record of Command Pritchard’s death.” Charley looked up at the deckhead, pleading with God for help as the computerized voice echoed around the empty Bridge. The stupid computer was going to go through all 256 crewmembers before it got to him.
“We need to jump, you frigging toaster!”
“You do not have authorization to give that command, Senior Rating Harris.”
It dawned on him after a moment. As he declared each crewmember dead, corroborating the computers internal memory, the computer kicked him up in rank. The silicon chip in his and the entire crews head would signal their death to the computer, but it took his verbal conformation before that could happen. Charley looked at the main screen, expecting to see lizard ships pointing weapons at him. So far, it was clear, but that wasn’t to say they weren’t coming at him from a different quadrant. He quickly moved to the weapons station and brought it on line, biting his dirty nails as it went through the reboot sequence. To his relief, near space was clear, except for the shuttlecraft speeding toward planet. It was a certain bet the chief lizard was already screaming for reinforcements. Charley’s immediate priority was to get his butt out of here. He checked each of the consoles in turn as the CI went through the entire crew in descending order, a chilling mantra. “Please verify the death or incapacitation of…"
He tuned it out, other than his automatic response of, "he’s dead" or “she’s dead” each time the computer announced a name, his eyes locked on the tactical screen. Without warning, the first lizard ship popped up on long-range sensors, blinking the ominous scarlet icon of a possible hostile. Charley let out a sound, half way between a sob and a laugh as he pounded the board in dread. Here they were, about to get blown out of space, and the stupid machine was taking a roll call of people he didn’t even know. “Please verify the death or incapacitation of Petty Officer Chapman.” That one caught his attention.
“With pleasure you moron, Petty Officer Chapman is frigging dead, and good riddens!” Even saying it made him feel better. "He's frigging DEAD!!!" He yelled.
“Thank you, Petty Officer Harris. This report corroborates my internal record of Petty Officer Chapman’s death.”
"At least that was one worthless twit that won't bother me again!" He muttered.
The computer droned on, name after name from the roll call of death as more scarlet icons blossomed on the battle board. Charley stood there, unable to do anything but watch in horrid fascination. With no shields, and no weapons, there wasn’t a damn thing he could do. Not even move the ship out of harms way until he had authorization.
“As the last surviving member of this crew, I am authorized under Article 6 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice to pass command of this vessel to you Mr. Harris.”
“About bloody time…” he sobbed, “…bring up the shields.”
“Are you ready, able, and willing to take the official oath?”
“You do not have authorization to give that command.”
“Yes, I do, I’m a Senior Chief Petty Officer, for god sake!” Charley looked wildly around the Bridge, seeing the warning lights, hearing the insane voice of the computer. Nightmare was too ambiguous a word to use for this situation. In fact, he couldn’t even think of a word to describe it.
“As of this moment, your status as acting Senior Chief Petty Officer is rescinded, pending your taking the official oath and accepting a temporary commission as an officer per naval regulations.”
“Yes, yes, yes I do whatever!”
“Please repeat after me: I Charles, William Harris do solemnly swear…” Charley concluded that either he was having a drunken fit, or he was dead and in hell.
A mad machine was swearing him in as an officer, him, Charley Harris, the lowest of the low, liar, cheat, thief, con artist, and the laziest, good-for-nothing sailor to ever tread the decks of His Majesties warship. Like some clockwork doll, he repeated the words of the oath, shaking his head in disbelief. There was no way on God’s green earth he could live up to any of the things the oath required of him. Courage? That was a laugh, he didn’t have any. Honor? He didn’t know the meaning of the word. Pride? When had he ever had anything to be proud of? Uphold the laws of the Space? He’d spat on most, and broken more than he should. He mumbled his way through the last sentence, his attention on the battle board as the lizard ship’s crept closer and closer.
“Transfer of this vessel, H.M.S. Excelsior CB-113-E is complete and is hereby placed under temporary command of Brevet Captain Charles William Harris, this date.”
“Frigging terrific, BRING UP THE BLOODY SHIELDS!” He screamed, feeling as if he was about to pee himself.
“I am unable to comply with that order, Captain, until you have installed new command codes.”
“WHAT! Is there anything I can bloody well do?” He didn't know whether to sob or cry, in the end he settled for both.
“I am unable to comply with that order until you have installed your new command codes, Captain!”
“What on earth are those?”
“A set of voice command codes to verify that you are the senior person aboard and the one authorized to issue that command.” Charley moaned.
“Are you ready to issue the new voice command codes, Captain?”
“Yes! SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!” Charley yelled, seeing the lizard ships move into the ship’s missile envelope. If only he could fire or throw something at them, anything, an energy beam, a missile, a rock, anything to keep them away.
“Thank you Captain. I have your new command codes. What are your orders?”
“What?’ Command codes? Orders? Get the bloody shields up!”
“I am unable to comply with that order at this time, Captain.”
“Oh god! Why not?” He sobbed.
“The fusion reactor is only at 17%. Minimal shield require the reactor to reach 32% before activation.”
Charley hardly felt his bare butt hit the deck. His legs simply gave way and he slid down the bulkhead. No matter what he did, he couldn’t escape. The main screen flickered then cleared, and he saw the ugly face of the Leader again. An involuntary shudder ran through him at the sight, and he cringed. The mouth move, but it took a moment for the translation software to catch up.
“Surrender now dog and I will spare your life!”
“Screw you asshole!” He screamed, terror shaking his body. No way was he going to surrender; he’d blow the ship up before that happened. “Computer! Activate self destruct.” He shouted hysterically.
“I am unable to comply with that command, Captain.”
“Why not?” He moaned.
“The self destruct order needs verification of a second member of the command staff.” He was screwed again.
In horrid fascination, he watched the lizard ship's move closer, his eyes flicking back and forth between the battle screen and the Engineering console, seeing the power level climb with agonizing slowness. At twenty-three percent, the alien ships were a hundred thousand yards closer. At twenty-eight percent another hundred thousand yards. He had no idea how close they’d get before they fired, to him they were already too close. At thirty percent, the alien ships slowed as they reached firing position.
“Please God, no!”
“The fusion reactor is now at 33%, activating shields.” The computer intoned. It's voice never changing a beat, as if reading a laundry list instead of a count down to death. As the power level passed thirty-five percent other screens began scrolling information. Hope flared as the navigation console pinged and lights started flashing. On hands and knees, Charley crawled over and hauled himself up, reading the screen. With a sob, he reached over and hit a key.
“I am unable to comply with that order, Captain.”
“Why in hell not?” He begged, tears running down his dirty face.
“You have activated the hyperdrive jump engines, and that is not permissible while the shields are engaged, or while the ship is in the gravity well of a system.”
“I don’t care!” he screamed, “JUMP!"
“Where to, Captain?”
“Home, Earth, anywhere you stupid machine!”
“It will take approximately three hours and twenty six minutes to calculate the first hyperspace translation, Captain.”
“Oh God! Jump somewhere else!"
“A destination is required before I can comply with that order, Captain.” Tears of frustration left white tracks through the dirt on his face. Was nothing simple? Couldn’t he give an order and have it obeyed?
“Jump for Christ sake, jump!” His clenched fist pounded the hard surface of the console, then the light dawned. “Jump to the last place you came from!”
“Detecting a missile launch from the alien ships, Captain.” Charley jerked his head around, seeing multiple red icons blossom on the battle board.
“Jump damn you, jump!” He screamed.
“Initiating a hyperspace transfer while the shield are engaged is not advisable, Captain.” Charley had never heard of 'Catch 22', and probably would not have understood if he had. Drop shields and he could jump, but if he did that, the oncoming missiles would kill him. Keep the shields up, and he couldn’t jump.
“I don’t give a shit! Jump, for the love of God, jump!” He sobbed.
“On your command, initiating hyperspace transfer, Captain.”
The first wave of missiles roared in, hitting the shields, and for a moment, they held. At reduced power, the shield generators didn’t have time to cycle back up before the second wave hit. Charley felt the impact, saw the lights flicker, and felt the artificial gravity oscillate up and down before steadying again. Then the universe turned itself inside out, and they hung over the dark pit of forever.
“We’ve destroyed him, Lord!” The chief sensor officer hissed, gulping in fear.
“No you fool; he somehow managed to enter hyperspace despite having his shields up!” The officer breathed again, seeing the truth in the slowly clearing aftermath of the explosions. “Find him! Track him to where ever he went.”
“Yes, Lord.” The officer bent over his console, feeling his leader’s eyes boring into his vulnerable neck.
“If you lose him, I will rip your throat out, sub-commander.” He hissed softly.
“Yes, Lord.” Failure was not something any Captain treated lightly, but with this one, it was fatal.
Gradually he sorted out the different tracks, like peeling multiple fingerprints, one on top of the other, until he isolated the one he wanted. Once he had that, he plotted the course of the alien ship. Meanwhile, the leader entered his cabin and made what excuses he could for the loss of the strange vessel. His commander made it clear the penalty for failure.
H.M.S. Excelsior translated back into normal space and Charley let out a shriek of joy, he’d done it he’d escaped. For a moment, he danced around the Bridge laughing his head off, tears streaming down his face, ignoring the warning alarms. He skipped over and around the dead lizards and putty faced aliens, his laughter bordering on hysteria, fear, and relief warring with each other until at last he slumped to the deck. He knelt there a moment, sated, until he became aware of himself. He looked down, seeing his nakedness, smelling his own stink, understanding at last what he’d become. He brushed the lank, filthy hair out of his eyes and sniffed.
He detested what he'd become, an animal. He bowed his head in shame and cried as his emaciated body wracked with sobs of self-loathing. Seeing the green scaled bodies of his alien tormentors before him, he spat on the closest, wishing it were alive so he could kill it again for what they’d done to him.
“Your orders, Captain Harris?”
“What? Who?” He asked, unable to focus through his hatred. It dawned on him that he was Captain Harris the CI was talking to. Him, the Captain of this ship, just like a real officer. “Home, I want to go home.” He pleaded in a voice chocked with emotion.
“Please specify home?”
“Earth! I want to go home to Earth!” He sobbed, shivers wracking his body.
“Yes, Captain. Calculating hyperspace passage to Earth.”
“How long will that take?” He muttered.
“Calculation for hyperspace passage to earth from this position will take sixteen hours and twenty six minutes for the first hyper-space translation.”
“Whatever! That’ll give me time to clean up at least.” Climbing unsteadily to his feet, he swayed for a moment before heading to the hatch on rubbery legs, “and switch those frigging alarms off!” he yelled over his shoulder. They immediately fell silent.
“Please designate the officer of the watch before leaving the Bridge, Captain.”
“Officer of the watch…" Charley stopped, leaning his head against the bulkhead, suddenly very tired. “What are you nattering about, there isn’t anyone else.”
“Please designate the officer of the watch, Captain.”
“There isn’t anyone else, you stupid machine!”
“It is against naval regulation for the Captain to leave the Bridge without designating and passing command to another officer, or a senior enlisted crew member.” Now her tone was starting to sound 'snippy', like a grade school teacher he knew.
“Do you see anybody else on this bucket?”
“It is again---“
“SHUT UP YOU FRIGGING MORON!” For once, the computer shut up. “You are officer of the watch! How’s that?”
“I have no authority to assume command, Captain.”
“Then I’m giving you the authority!” He yelled.
“That is against naval regulation, Captain.”
“Screw naval regulation. This situation isn’t in the books, is it?” He shrieked.
“No, Captain.” The CI answered after a moment’s hesitation, obviously having read the whole manual in less than a second.
“Right, so swear yourself in as the XO and get on with it!” Charley sighed and wiped a dirty hand over his face as he stumbled down the passageway. As he reached the elevator, he stopped. “Why the hell am I going to the crew's quarters?” He mumbled. “I’m the Captain of this barge now.” He looked around. “Computer, where’s the Captain’s Cabin?”
“Which cabin, Captain?”
“The Captain’s cabin.”
“Which Captain’s cabin, Captain?”
“How many do I have?” His head was starting to hurt, he was hearing double.
“Three. Your Day Cabin, your Ready Room, and your Stateroom.” That sounded good to Charley, a Stateroom.
“Which way to my Stateroom?” The Stateroom was one deck down, and had he known, or bothered to ask, he could have taken the drop shaft directly from the Bridge.
One look in the bathroom mirror was enough to convince Charley that he never wanted to look this way again. The reflection of his dirt-encrusted body made him sick. Long, stringy, greasy hair, six months growth of beard, and he didn’t even want to know what covered his lower body. Pain shot through his arm and hand as he ripped the security collar off, but he didn't care as he threw it against the bulkhead in disgust. He dialed up the shower and spent two hours scrubbing himself and shaving his face as smooth as a babies butt.
He didn’t stop washing and scrubbing until he felt squeaky-clean despite the raw sunburned skin. With a pair of scissors and a razor, he did a hack job on his hair, managing a fair buzz cut that didn't look bad, at least from the front. The computer muttered something about using more than his daily allotment of water but he overrode the shut off command. Naked, he padded through the ship looking for clothes. The Captain’s uniform was way too big for him in more ways than one, but he knew exactly where he’d find one that fit, the quartermaster’s store. He drew a set of officers working whites and as an added touch slipped on the Captain’s shoulder boards feeling proud and cocky. He'd made it, he'd escaped, and now he was Captain of this barge. The ship’s computer said he was the Captain; so captain he’d be, at least until they got home. That done, he swaggered into the officer’s mess and ordered the best meal on the screen.
The auto chef obediently defrosted and served up the steak and lobster dinner with all the trimmings and a 'Bass’ beer. He grinned in delight and, taking his place in the Captain’s chair, dug in. For half an hour, the empty room echoed with his sighs and laughter as he ate, belching contentedly as he drank the last drop of his third beer. After that, it didn’t take him long to find the Captain’s bunk, and with a relieved sigh, he undressed and lay down, dreaming of at least ten hours of perfect, uninterrupted sleep. He drifted away on soft warm dreams of a hero's welcome home and the adoring looks from dewy-eyed females, free beer at the pub while Admirals stood at attention and saluted him.
“BATTLE STATION! BATTLE STATIONS! CAPTAIN TO THE BRIDGE! CAPTAIN TO THE BRIDGE!”
Instinctively Charley leapt out of the bunk, looking wildly around. Forgetting where he was for a moment, “What the fu…", panic gripped his throat. With his heart in his throat he dashed to the Bridge prying the ship wasn't about to blow up or something. “What the hell?” He demanded, looking wildly around for the cause of the alarm.
“I am detecting inbound hostile ships, Captain. Your orders?”
“What are you talking about? What hostile ships?” The battle board came alive with the icons of eighteen ships speeding towards him. He wasn’t sure what he was seeing, as nothing showed on the near space sensor screen. “Where are they?”
“The hostile ships are in hyperspace, Captain, and will translate back into normal space within thirty five point 3 minutes. They will take an additional four hours to reach weapons range.”
“Whose ships are they?” He bit his nails, feeling himself shiver, fearing he already knew the answer.
“According to drive signature on record, they are ships belong to the alien species we recently encountered.”
“You mean the lizard ships?”
“Yes, Captain,” he thought he heard a slight hesitation in the mechanical voice, “as you say, lizard ships, sir.”
“But… but… how?”
“The ability to track ships entering and exiting hyperspace is part of this ships sensor suit, Captain.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me…?” He realized instantly how stupid that sounded. He hadn’t asked. “Get us out of here, jump!”
“I have not completed my calculation, Captain. I will require another fifteen hours and fifty minutes to complete the necessary star sightings and calculations, and…”
“Oh shit!” Charley shook his head, trying to get the cobwebs out. “Just get us away from here.” His stomach tried to tie itself into knots, as he shivered in fear.
“Where to, Captain?”
“Anywhere, just away from here.” All he wanted to do was find a hole, a nice warm, safe hole to climb into, but there wasn’t one.
“Yes, Captain. Engaging drive system.” The star-field on the main screen swung through 180 degrees as the computer turned the ship and took them away from their exit point.
“Full speed ahead or what ever it is!” He groaned.
“Yes, Captain.” Charley chewed a fingernails down to the quick, eyes skipping from screen to screen, fear sweat prickling his brow. However fast they were going, it wasn’t fast enough for Charley, as the distance between them and the oncoming hostile icons didn’t seem to change.
“Can we go faster?” He pleaded.
“No, Captain, not with the present level of damage.”
“Damage! What damage?” He spluttered, feeling as if his heart had stopped.
“Multiple missile hits on the Port side damaged our hull, frame, life support, electrical systems, and ancillary equipment in sections Delta 6 through Echo 4.”
Charley only had a vague idea where that was; since he didn't work too hard at staying awake during the orientation lectures. If he remembered correctly, that was somewhere amidships.
“Can we jump somewhere?”
“No, Captain, not with our current level of damage.”
“But you said the damage was amidships! The jump engines are in the stern, for god’s sake!”
“You didn’t ask for a full damage report, Captain.” Charley shook his head and groaned.
“What’s wrong with the jump engines?”
“Two of the field coils have extensive damage due to initiation of a hyperspace transfer while in the gravity well of a planetary system." Charley groaned. "Additional damages were sustained when I initiated a hyperspace translation while the shields were engaged, and they are now only15% operable.”
The tone sounded almost accusing. Charley let out a soft sob of despair. That one was his fault, but he was a power tech, and he knew something about field coils and hyperspace jump engines. For a moment, he stood perfectly still, one escape plan after another racing through his feverish brain.
“From now on, if I'm off the Bridge, you will act as Executive Officer.”
“Yes, Captain. I have sworn myself in and will assume command during your absence.”
“Good. Push this ship as fast as she will go in the opposite direction to those ships. I’m going to fix the field coils, and I want you to continue calculating our jump to earth, is that clear?”
There were probably a thousand things he could do if only he knew what. The ship was armed, but he had no idea how to get them working, or to aim them from the Bridge. His only concern was getting the jump engines running and getting his ass out of there. Panting, he raced through the ship towards the engine room as the CI kept track of his progress, feeding him useless information on the enemy course and distance. Four decks down and racing along a passageway, he came to a sudden stop when a hatch refused to open.
“Now what the hell?" The flickering light and smell should have clued him in.
“Progress beyond this point by human's is not recommended without a pressure suit, as the passageway beyond is at zero pressure.”
"Shit!" He muttered to himself, this was part of the ship the missile had opened to space. He looked wildly around for an emergency suits locker, remembering one back at the last junction. He raced back, ripping open the bright yellow door, and with practiced ease slid into the suit and sealed it. He checked the gauge on the twin air bottles to make sure they were both full before lifting them over his head and shoulders. Lazy he might be, but when it came to his own safety, Charley Harris paid attention.
“Captain. It is recommended you use the corridor before the hatch as an airlock.”
“Thanks,” he answered absently, “that’s a damn good idea.” Closing and sealing the hatch, he walked to the other end and opened the bleeder valve, hearing the air hiss out, loud at first, then fading to nothing as the pressure dropped to zero.
“Atmosphere vacated, Captain. It is now safe to open the hatch.”
“Thanks.” He muttered. He took two steps into the darkness beyond the hatch before he froze.
With a whimper of fear, he stepped quickly back until he hit the bulkhead with a thump. He looked out into the endless night of hard space and the diamond bright pinprick of stars and sobbed. Below him stretched the yawning gulf of eternity, numbing his soul and freezing his muscles to immobility. No way could he cross that gulf of twisted beams and shattered hull plates. The sparking high-tension electrical lines adding to the nightmare, lighting the devastation with blue white flashes. To get to the other side, some two hundred feet away, he’d have to negotiate his way through that nightmare while the gulf below tried to drag him down. Shaking with fear, he clung to the bit of protruding metal with a death grip, his mind numb with terror.
He knew up and down were only relative to the ships center and the artificial gravity, and with the AG field still working he couldn’t fall off. The little animal brain underneath wouldn’t believe it and knew he’d lose his grip and fall forever into the blackness of night.
“Captain. The hostile ship’s have translated back into normal space, and are presently setting course in pursuit.”
“Oh God!” He moaned. “Get us out of here! Jump!”
“I am unable to comply with that order at this time, as damage to the field coils…"
“SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” He moaned.
“Can we speed up?”
“Not at this time, Captain. Repair to the drive system and the hyperspace jump engines must be completed before any additional action is taken.”
"In other words, you're screwed you dumb shit!" He sobbed to himself. "Stay here and the lizards will catch up or you can get down to the engine room and fix the frigging coils." It took a physical act of will to make his hands relinquish their death grip.
With a sob, he dropped to his knees and started crawling. The twin sisters of panic and terror gripped his heart and throat, making it almost impossible to breathe. The air rasping in and out of his lungs sounded loud in the confines of his helmet, as inch by inch he moved through the wreckage; the yawning blackness reaching out, wanting to pull him down into its dark embrace. Alternately sobbing and cursing, he slowly worked his way across. Stark terror his only companion as even the annoying computer was silent.
The worse part was an open stretch with nothing but a long shaky, twisted beam to hold onto. It seemed to stretch forever across the gulf and looked as narrow as a thread and as shaky as a rubber band, but inch-by-inch, he crawled across. His vision narrowed to the beam in front of him, and just as he thought he could do it his reaching hand found only empty space. His head tilted up, the little monster at the back of his mind gibbling in terror as his helmet light illuminated the other end of the beam, three feet away. It might as well have been a thousand light years for all the good it did him.
“Captain, the hostile ships will be in weapons range in three hours and sixteen minutes.”
He was caught between two threats, both as real as the other, both immediate and unstoppable. How or where he found the courage to reach out for the end of the beam he didn’t know, only that he did. Before today, the only courage he knew was when he'd raised his fist to his drunken stepfather in defense of his mother. One moment he was frozen, and the next he was moving, his body seeming to have a will of its own. After an eternity, he was across, almost scuttling to reach the end. His helmet thumped into the bulkhead and brought him to a stop, and he looked up. He'd reached the other side, but what now? He couldn’t think, until the computer sounded in his ear.
“The hatchway at the far end of the passageway is closed and sealed, Captain.”
“Right, so?" He sobbed.
“It is therefore safe to bleed the air and open the hatchway to your right.”
“Yeah, right, of course, I knew that.” He chocked back another sob. His shaking hand found the valve in the darkness, and he saw white vapor shoot out, instantly turning to spinning diamonds of ice.
He undogged the hatch and entered the ship, resealing it with a still trembling hand before opening the air valve to fill the passageway. He raced to the next hatchway on wobbly legs, stripping off his helmet and air tanks as he went, not bothering with the rest of his suit, he didn’t have time.
At last, he reached Engineering and race through to the drive chamber. The place was a mess and filled with the pungent smell of burned insulation. Frozen globs of metal were splattered across the deck and bulkhead, adding to the others. One coil was nothing more than useless smoking junk, but that was nothing new to Charley. This wasn’t the first time they’d lost a coil on this trip, and he was relieved as he knew how to handle that at least. He soon had the melted coil removed and the spare installed, but it didn’t solve the problem. The other two coils were in bad shape. He’d have to rewind them, but he didn’t have time.
“The hostile ships will be in weapons range within eight minutes, Captain.”
“No! No! No! Charley beat on the deck with a wrench for a moment to vent his anger. “Jump for god sake!”
“Please specify hyperspace jump coordinates.”
“Jump anywhere!” He moaned.
“The only jump coordinates I have is for the last jump before this one, Captain.”
“For Christ sake, jump!”
“Yes, Captain. Hostile ships now in weapons range.”
The ship jolted hard. “Oh Lord!” He murmured. Charley wasn’t sure if the lizards got a missile in them, or they’d jumped; only that he was still alive. Which ever, he knew the jump wasn’t long enough.
“The field coils overheated, Captain, and the hyperspace field collapsed.” All the computer heard was a groan of despair as Charley dashed back to the field coil chamber.
The computer was right. The chamber was full of smoke, and he had to wait for it to clear before he could view the extent of the damage. Climbing the central support, he waved the smoke away, and once in clear view he breathing a sigh of relief. The coils hadn’t completely burned out because the safety system had kicked in, but he knew it would be a while before they could jump again.
“How far did we manage to jump?”
“Twenty six point three light years, Captain.” Charley breathed a sigh of relief; at least they were out of weapons range.
“How soon before they catch us?”
“My current estimate is eight hours and thirteen minutes before they can calculate our exit point, Captain.”
Eight hours, wasn’t long enough, but he had to try. He dismounted the first field coil and rolled it into the maintenance bay then onto the stand. Feverishly he stripped the burned out super conducting wire, and against regulations used a plasma cutter to strip the wire, burning wire and skin in his haste, but stripping it in record time. He cleaned and buffed the bare spool to remove any trace of smoke and oxidization, knowing the consequences if he didn’t. The giant reel of new wire had a mind of its own, refusing to slide down over the shaft of the loading jig, or align with the spur gear. All the while, the clock counted off the seconds, minutes, and hours as he worked.
At last he threaded the ultra fine wire through the leader and onto the drum and switched on the spooling jig, cursing as the coil jerked and snapped the wire, the broken end spun wildly, slicing at his hand and arm before he could leap back. He’d forgotten to set the rotation counter to zero and paid the price in lost time as he stripped the broken wire and rethreaded the end. This time he set the counter to zero before switching on, seeing both drums revolve slowly. Once it took up the slack, the guide arms settled into place and he speeded it up. Even at its highest setting, it would take two hours to spin the miles of super conducting wire onto the coil, and he’d already spent an hour and a half stripping and polishing. That would only leave him four and a half hours to take the second coil out and do the same thing.
While the jig spun, he went back to the field coil chamber and started stripping the worst of the two remaining coils. With one eye on the clock, he lowered the coil to the floor, but his sweaty, bloodied hands lost their grip. He screamed in agony as the coil crashed onto his foot, dropping him to the deck as pain sent sharp lances of fire through his body. His foot was broken, he knew that as he could barely stand on it once the pain lessened, but it didn’t matter. He had to get the new coil installed if he had any hope of escaping. Finding a roll of cargo tape, he began wrapping his foot, whimpering and gritting his teeth in pain, not bothering to take his suit off. The relentless clock ticked down, and in desperate haste, he began stripping the coil. If he could get this one loaded, he would have three fairly good field coils, and a fleeting chance to outrun the lizards. They weren’t perfect, and he had no way of knowing how long they'd last, but they would have to do. He remembered to drink, gulping down water and painkillers before limping back to the maintenance shop as the timer beeped.
The coil was loaded, and other than laser welding the end and coating it with sealant, it was ready to re-install.
“The hostile ships will be in weapons range within one hour and forty eight minutes, Captain.”
“All right already! I’m working as fast as I can!” The computer’s voice was starting to sound like Petty Officer Chapman, even if it was female. Cursing and sweating, Charley dragged the coil into the chamber, at last positioning it under the chain hoist and lifting it into place.
“The hostile ships will be in weapons range in 52 minutes, Captain.”
“I know! I know!” He yelled, distracted from easing the coil into position. His first attempt missed, and he groaned as he aligned it again. Inch by inch, he lowered the coil, muttering to himself, cursing, swearing and sweating. At last, it settled into place and he quickly secured the clamps. The connections seem to take forever, but he finally spun the nuts down on the super fine threads and tightened them.
“The hostile ships will be in optimum weapons range within four minutes.”
“I know, I know! Hold on for Christ sake!” He moaned as he made the final connections. It was ready. “Go, go, go, its ready, jump for Christ sake!”
“Starting coil test procedure.”
“WHAT! No! Cancel that!” Charley screamed.
“Regulations require that rewound hyperspace field coil be tested before…"
“I don’t care, jump! Jump!”
“Yes, Captain. On your order, initiating hyperspace translation now.”
“We have him, Lord!” The navigation officer hissed loudly.
“Fire a full spread at his drives.”
“Yes, Lord. Firing solution locked; safeties set at 15 thousand yards. Missiles away!”
“Arrrrrrrrrr! He’s jumped again, Lord!” The leader pounded the arm of his command chair in frustration, clawed feet ripping the tough fabric of the footrest to shreds.
“Go after him!” He roared.
“Plotting course now, Lord!” The eighteen long gray warships waited, posed to leap in pursuit, eager to bring this elusive pray within the grasp of their claws.
“How far this time?” Charley sat on the floor nursing his injured foot, feeling drained as the computer announced a successful jump. They'd escaped again.
“Twenty eight point six light years, Captain.”
“Ohhhh no! Is that all?”
“The field coils are not in balance and overheated, Captain and that is the maximum we can jump without risking a burn out.”
“How long before they catch us again.”
“Current estimate is nine hours and eighteen minutes, Captain.” It made sense. It would take them that long to locate his position and plot a course, and somewhere in the back of his mind, odd bits of overheard conversations popped up. He added them to what he knew. If he kept this up, they’d gradually get closer and closer to his last position until they'd could jumped and be in weapons range at the same time.
He knew he’d have to do something different, but changing direction was only part of it. That would delay them for only a short time. He wracked his brain for anything to slow them down, but nothing came to mind. He needed sleep, and food, but was too tired to drag himself to the mess. Instead, he lay on the deck and curled up.
“Wake me in three hours, computer.” He muttered, his eyelids drooping shut despite the throbbing pain in his foot.
“Yes, Captain. But there are many urgent items that I must bring to your attention.”
“What?” He asked, yawning.
“The environmental systems need adjustment.”
“Enviro? What’s wrong down there?”
“Life support will fail within three hours and the engines will lose coolant within two if nothing is done, Captain.”
“Oh no!” He muttered, dragging himself up. He could possibly survive on bottled air, but without coolant, he didn’t have a drive system.
He was in hell, he thought. That was the only explanation that came to mind. This was his punishment for all the things he’d failed to do in his lifetime. For all the things he’d stolen or lied about, for the work he’d got out of doing, the cards he’d cheated at, and a whole list of misdeeds he'd long forgotten about. Visions of spending eternity running around this ship fixing the impossible, while scaly green lizards crept up on him sent shivers up and down his spine. He stumbled to Environmental and stabilized the life support before going to Engineering to balance the fusion reactor’s deuterium injectors.
Now he was the mad gopher, running from one section to another, with no time to sleep or eat, yet he couldn’t stop. Everything he fixed meant he’d have air to breathe, power to drive the ship and live a little longer. He lost count until the computer intoned the familiar dreaded words. “Hostile ships will be in weapons range in 22 minutes.” Charley shook his head to clear the fog. He must have missed the earlier messages. Only 22 minutes? That was close.
“Computer, can we jump?”
“Yes, Captain. The field coils have cooled sufficiently that we can perform a hyperspace translation.”
“What's the maximum distance we can jump without burning the coils out?”
“We can translate eighteen point six light years.”
“How soon after we jump will they catch us again?”
“Seven hours and fifteen minutes.”
“And how long for the coils to cool down so we can jump the same distance?"
“Approximately eight hours and thirty minutes, Captain, depending on how cool the coil chamber is.”
“Oh no!” He groaned. Diminishing returns. “How far can we jump after seven hours?” That would give him a fifteen-minute leeway.
“Fourteen point three light years, Captain.”
“That’s not good! They will catch us!”
“Yes, Captain. I calculate they will catch us in forty-eight hours or less. Each time we translate, they will be able to calculate a closer position, and be within the weapons range on their last translation.”
“Great, just frigging great! I’m screwed no matter what I do!” He sobbed.
“Yes, Captain.” If Charley didn’t know better, he could have sworn the CI sounded sad. He took a deep breath.
“What the hell do I do now?” He didn’t expect an answer, and he wasn’t disappointed when the computer remained silent. “Okay, leave it to the last possible second and jump as far as we can. At least that will give me time to think.”
“Yes, Captain. Calculating the hyperspace translation on the same course now.” The last few minutes ticked down, and still they didn’t jump. Charley started to bite his nails again, but couldn’t find anything to bite. He stared down at his gnawed fingertips as they translated to another part of the universe. He'd forgotten the CI would take him literally, and wait until the last second. “We have translated nineteen point two light years, Captain”
“Thank Christ for that!” He breathed, feeling pounding heart slow. “How long?”
“Eight hours, six minutes, Captain.” On shaky legs, he stood, exhausted, physically and mentally drained. “Your orders, Captain?”
“Orders? I can’t think, I need sleep.” His voice raspy and dry. “Wake me in four hours.” He didn’t hear the computer reply, if there was one. He reached Engineering and collapsing on the couch, out before his head touched the cushion.
The computer on the other hand, did something its designers would have sworn was impossible. The Cybernetic intelligence grumbled to itself, muttering aloud as it reread naval regulations. The situation was completely outside its experience or programming for that matter, but the same self-learning program that made it an integral part of the ship now tried to find a way around its current dilemma.
It followed the regulations to the letter when installing crewman Harris to the position of Captain, recording the results and freeing all command codes and authority. The moment it did, it was programmed to obey all commands given to it by the newly appointed Captain. What wasn’t in its programming was that the Captain would appoint the CI as the Executive Officer. The XO’s duties were clear and concise, and well within the capacity of its programming. What wasn't, was the explicit authority to take the initiative and perform independent action. In that respect, the CI was as incapable of commanding the ship as Charley Harris, but no one thought that was possible either. So, it muttered to itself as it processed the reams of data associated with the regulations. While it did that, it monitored the fusion reactor output, kept a cybernetic eye out for the hostile ships, cycled the environmental systems, and performed the thousand and one other duties it was programmed for.
“Captain! Four hours have elapsed. Time to wake up.” Knowing humans liked coffee when they woke; it started a fresh brew in the engineering mess auto chef. “Captain! Four hours have elapsed. Time to wake up.” In all it repeated the message eight times before the Charley stirred.
“What?” Charley asked in a groggy voice, not sure where he was, or why he was in a soft suit.
“Captain! Four hours have elapsed. Time to wake up.”
“Captain? Who?” It hit him in a rush and he almost collapsed again as it all came back. He was the Captain and the lizards were closing in.
“How soon will the lizards be here?” He demanded scrubbing his stubble covered cheeks, his heart pounding.
“Not for another four hours and three minutes, Captain.”
“Brilliant!” He breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank god for small mercies."
“I have coffee waiting for you, Captain.”
“You do? Wow, thank you.” Charley struggled to his feet, screaming in pain as his broken foot touched the floor. It took a while for the pain to subside to a manageable throb, but at last, he hobbled over to the auto-chef and got a large mug of coffee, wrapping his swollen and bleeding hands carefully around the mug. He drank deeply, sighing in utter bliss. "The Captain of this bucket must have had it good with you looking after him.” He chuckled, ordering up a second mug of the reviving brew.
“Captain Blake never use any of my capacities directly, Captain.”
“Oh? How come?”
“I am unable to answer that question, Captain.”
“Oh I see, of course. By the way, what do they call you?”
“Yes, what’s your name?”
“I am comp-ship-CI-113-Mark-8A.”
“Good god! You mean you don’t have a name, like Hilary, or Margaret, or something?”
“Well, I can’t keep calling you comp-ship, what ever it is. From now on I’m going to call you, um…,” Charley, thought about it for a moment, “…Jennifer, ok?” He hobbled back to the couch and plopped down.
“Yeah, an old girlfriend of mine. Cute girl, wish I’d married her.” For reasons he didn't want to think about, he suddenly felt sad and ashamed.
“Is this female is a close friend of yours, Captain?”
“You could say that, she’s has my kid and all.” He felt slightly embarrassed saying that, even to a computer.
“You are married to Jennifer?”
“No, more the pity. Her Mom and Dad didn’t want me around.” He sighed in regret, wishing… he wasn't sure what he wished for.
“Yet she is carrying your child?”
“Well, carried more rightly. She’s probably had it by now.” For some reason, Charley felt as if a hand squeezed his heart for a moment and his eyes got misty.
“I will answer to the name of Jennifer, Captain.”
“Good.” He murmured, shaking off the feeling. “What troubles do we have?” His voice sound gruff.
“Troubles? ...Yes, Captain, I understand. I have a list of problems throughout the ship that need attention…“
“Whoa, hold on Jennifer,” he wiped a hand over his face, “I’m only one man. Give me the most urgent, or life threatening.” He sat back, leaning his head against the cushion, wishing he could go back to sleep.
“None of the problems are life threatening at the moment, Captain.”
“Thank goodness for that. What else do you have that I can fix quickly.” For a moment, only silence, and Charley opened his eyes in surprise.
“All the repairs on my list require either more than one person, or considerable more time than we have before the hostile…"
“Say lizards, Jennifer.”
“…lizards reach optimal weapons range, Captain.”
“That bad, huh.”
“What can we do to slow them down?” He asked, more in a fog than thinking clearly
“A course change would be in order first, Captain.”
“Minor repairs to the engineering system would increase our top real time speed.”
“Good, let’s do that. What else do we have?” Charley finished his second mug of coffee and hobbled off to the engine room, wincing each time his bad foot touched the deck. His first stop was the fabrication shop to fashion himself a crutch from aluminum tubing, listening as he worked. Nothing Jennifer suggested would help, except marginally. “What about weapons? Can we fire or launch something at them?” He thought about the crew it took to load and launch a single torpedo, let alone a combined attack.
“All weapons systems are off line due to degradation of our firing circuits.”
“How on earth did that happen?”
“The weapons systems were in standby mode at the time of the initial attack, and many of the components burned out due to the high level radiation and EM pulse.”
“You’d better explain that one to me, and tell me why I’m still alive.”
“Many of the ship’s sub-systems are not as well protected against high levels of radiation as I am, nor is the crew. Without the shields, the initial burst of multi-spectrum radiation killed them and damaged a significant number of the ship's circuits.”
“What kept me alive?”
“At the time, you were in the fusion reactor vent shaft, and protected by the thick radiation shield. You were also wearing a radiation suit.”
“My Lord! Is that all?” Charley shook his head and let out a short bark of a laugher. That asshole Petty Officer Chapman did him a favor and he didn’t even know it! Charley had to laugh; it was the cosmic joke of all time.
"Why were you in the vent shaft, Captain?"
"Cleaning out the reactor vent, what else?"
"The fusion reactor vent has an automatic cleaning function, Captain." Charley stopped in mid stride, feeling as if someone had hit him between the eyes with a hammer. No wonder everyone laughed at him, the sorry bastards knew! Not that it mattered now; it saved his life, so the joke was on them. While they talked, Charley hobbled his way around engineering, fixing things, or shutting down systems on the verge of failure. Either way, he wouldn’t or couldn’t use them once they failed, and that could cause problems he didn’t want. To conserve power, he switched off the lights and heat throughout most of the ship, as well putting the environmental systems in standby mode. It would be enough for him. Then a thought struck him.
“Jennifer? How low can I cool the jump coil chamber down without overloading the air dryers?”
“You can cycle the cooling system in the coil chamber down to 29o, Captain.”
“Good, that should help some, shouldn't it?”
“Marginally, Captain. It will give us another five to ten light years on each jump.”
“Better than nothing!”
“Lizard ships will be in optimum weapons range in one hour fifteen minutes.”
“Damn! That’s close.”
“Yes, Captain. I calculate that they will be able to pin point our next hyperspace tra…"
“Call it a jump, Jennifer.”
“Yes, Captain …jump to within one light minute, plus or minus thirty seconds.”
“Oh no! I was hoping I’d have more time to figure something out, damn it!" he said tiredly. "Ok, Jennifer, same as before, wait until the last second and jump us out of here.” Fatigue crept up on him without warning, and he realized that other than gallons of water and some coffee, he hadn’t eaten in a long time. The first thing he was going to do after this jump was eat. He was about to leave environmental, when an alarm light began flashing.
“What the hell!” He scanned the system board, but he didn’t know enough about the environmental systems to tell what it was. “Jennifer, why is this light flashing?”
“The toxic particle count is above normal levels, Captain.” That didn't sound good.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“The decomposing bodies on the Bridge are emitting gasses and toxic particles."
“Oh Christ! I forgot about them. They are beginning to stink.”
“Yes, Captain… as you say, they are beginning to stink.”
“Crap! That means I’ve got to go up there and dump the bodies somewhere, right?”
“Will you forget about this Captain, bullshit! Call me Charley.”
“You are the designated captain of this ship, Mr. Harris, and entitles to the rank.”
“I’m no more a bloody captain than you are a butterfly. But if I'm the captain, I order you to call me Charley, right?”
“That’s better. Now we can get on together.” He grouched, smiling a little.
“Initiating jump in five seconds, four, three, two, one…" They jumped and Charley crashed to the floor. The damn lizards managed to launch at least one missile.
“Additional damage to the starboard mid section, Charley.”
Dragging his throbbing foot, he hobbled to the Bridge. Entering the passageway, he donned a fresh breather unit and started bleeding air. That’s when he discovered the rips in his suit. Muttering to himself for his stupidity, he made quick, careful repairs with cargo tape from the roll he’d stuck in his patch pocket. He’d have to get himself a new suit; not only was this one ripped, but it also started to feel sticky and slimy inside. He didn’t want to think about how he smelled. The trip across the beam wasn’t as bad this time, but fear still gripped him, and he felt as if he’d fall off any second. He was smart enough to keep his breathing gear on when he entered the Bridge, betting it stank in there. He looked at the putrefying aliens for a moment, wondering what to do. A thought struck him, as somewhere in his brain a combination of fear, pain, fatigue, hunger, and thirst came together.
These ass-hole lizards were chasing him all over the frigging galaxy, and he was getting tired of it. He quickly dragged the bodies into the Bridge airlock and sealed the inner hatch before turning up the recycling fan. “Jennifer, are our torpedoes working?”
“Yes, Charley. None of them were in an active mode during the attack.”
“But we can’t launch them, right?”
“But what if we dumped them over the side and activated them?”
“With the safeties engaged, they would remain inert until a hostile ship came within range.” For a moment, Charley began a jig, chuckling and grimacing in pain as he collapsed into the captain’s chair.
“So,” he moaned, rocking back and forth waiting for the pain to subside, “if we dumped them in our wake, the lizards would run right into them, right?”
“Yes, Charley, but the moment they went active, the lizards would detect them, and possibly have time to launch an anti-missile strike.”
“I know that, but what if they couldn’t see them until too late?”
“Please explain, Captain.”
“What if we dumped a bunch of junk, say lots of junk, they’d run into that first, wouldn’t they?”
“And what if we dump the torpedoes last?”
“I calculate a one in ten chance of success.”
“But it’s worth a try,” he groaned as his foot touched the floor, “bleed air out of the torpedoes room and open the loading hatch…”
“…and lower the AG in there so I don’t have to lift the bloody things.”
“Give me a count down as they approach. I need as much time as I can get.”
“Yes, Captain!" He heard a definitely note in the computer voice that wasn't there before, but he couldn’t define it. He shrugged then hobbled off the Bridge and headed for the crew’s quarters to clean out the cabins, officers first as they were the closest.
"I've been thinking." And he had, deeply, and without realizing it, for the first time in his life Charley Harris started thinking about someone beside himself. If this worked, it might just give then a window of opportunity to escape, but what then. He might be able to take a random jump and get away, and maybe find a place to hide, but what if the lizards found Earth? What about the people at home? What about Jennifer and his son? His heart started pounding at the mere thought. Could he just abandon them? The answer was emphatic no. That meant he'd have to find a way to warn them. "We not only have to escape, but get back to Earth and tell them about these lizards. We need to warn them! But the thing is we took a year to get to that planet, so the question is, can we get back to Earth any faster?"
"Yes, Captain. The journey out included many stops along the way to check out planetary systems, map M Class planets, check pre-space flight civilizations, plus astrometric calculation for our next jumps and general star mapping."
"How quick can we return to Earth?"
"With sufficient time, I can calculate a minimum of five jumps to get us back to Earth space." As Jennifer talked, Charley made his way below.
"But that's too many; the lizards will catch us before that." He grumbled.
"True, Captain, unless we slow them down, or throw them off track."
"Do what ever you have to do to make the calculation for the jumps."
"Yes, Captain." Charley was too busy to correct her, he smiled slightly and sighed.
He started stripping the cabins of everything movable, the chairs, bedding, books, and port-a-comps. Load by load he carried it to the nearest airlock before hobbling back for another. He had seven hours, and he didn’t waste a second of it on something as unimportant as eating. His suit provided a continuous supply of recycled water, even if it did start to taste funny. Once off the Bridge, he’d retracted the faceplate but kept his helmet on. He wasn’t sure where he’d find a section of ship open to space or only partially pressurized, so he wasn’t taking any chances. As he filled each airlock, he closed the inner hatch and put the outer on auto. This way Jennifer could open all the outer hatches when he gave the command. He lost track of time, although Jennifer fed him the information. He worked his way through the senior crew mess, grabbing a quick snack, then through the galley, dumping pots, pans, frozen food, and anything movable. He used the cargo airlocks, if they were nearby, getting more into them.
“One hour to optimum weapons range, Charley.”
“Right, I got you.” He hissed, sweat from the pain in his leg beading his brow.
“I suggest that you immediately go to the torpedoes room and begin jettisoning ordinance, Captain.”
“I’m on it, flush the airlocks as soon as I dump the first torp.”
By now, his whole leg hurt, but he wouldn’t let it stop him. Gritting his teeth, he shuffled down the passageway to the torpedo room. He still had to traverse the damaged section, but didn’t bother him at all now. He hobbled across the beam as if it was an everyday thing, his senses too numb to worry about falling. As requested, the torpedo room was free of air, and the loading hatch open. With the AG system set at the lowest point, he could still maintain contact with the deck, so it was relatively easy to maneuver the 50-foot torpedoes off their cradles and out the hatch with the portable AG grapple. The only thing he had to watch was inertia. More than one got away from him when he pulled too hard. Seeing a multi-megaton warhead bounce off the bulkhead wasn’t something he wanted to experience again in this lifetime. In all, he managed to get six out the hatch before he seriously miscalculated. Somehow, the torp got stuck in the hatchway, and in his dull condition, he got between it and the edge of the hatch. He tugged and tugged until he got it free, but his smile of success turned to horror as it started drifting towards him, pushing him backward until his back hit the edge of the hatch. Desperately he tied to push it away before it reached his chest, but he couldn’t. Something inside crunched when it hit and he blacked out. His last desperate push did the job, and the torpedoes slowly drifted into space.”
“Captain! -- Captain! -- Captain!”
“I hear you Jennifer! Stop yelling at me.” He wheezed.
“Yes, Captain. The lizard ships will be in optimum weapon range in sixteen minutes.”
“Activate the torpedoes and let’s get the hell out of here!” He panted, holding his chest.
“Aye, aye, Skipper. Bringing the torpedoes targeting systems on line and warheads to standby mode, and setting the safeties at fifty thousand yard.”
How many minutes before we are clear, Jennifer?”
“Twelve minutes to minimum safe distance at this speed, Captain.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
On the lead ship, the Captain bared his teeth in a snarl as he exited the jump. He would have the honor of crippling the alien ship before it couldn’t escape again. The Leader snarled as well, thinking of how he’d bring this alien drak to heel. His would be the pleasure of teaching this creature who was master. Each time he’d almost had him in his claws, this creature's animal cunning kept him out of reach.
“Stand by all weapons.”
“Yes, Lord.” The lead ships translated back into normal space, and the navigator was the first to scream as a body went whirling pass the long range-targeting screen, then something else he couldn’t identify tumbled by, but he recognized the oxygen cylinder spinning towards him. With the shields down, it smashed into the exposed forward part of the ship with a combined velocity of over a thousand-mph, driving its way through the hull. The ship rocked and shook from successive hits, including frozen chicken and frying pans. In desperation, the helmsman jerked the ship away, out of the path of the debris.
“INCOMING MISSILES!” Somebody screamed, but it was too late. Six torpedoes went into sprint mode, three to each lead ship. They impacted and detonated together, turning the ships into balls of expanding plasma in a microsecond. None of the remaining ships escaped without damage, and a badly shaken leader backed off. Their quarry had fled again. The Bridge crew cringed in fear as he roared his anger and frustration, almost wrecking his command chair in fury.
“I WILL have this Drak!” He screamed.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Charley, I detect you are injured, please go to the sick bay as soon as possible.”
“It’s all right, Jennifer. I’m okay.” Charley coughed and tried to stand upright, but the pain in his chest wouldn’t let him. Bent over like and old man, he shuffled to the torpedo rack and tried to dump a few more, but his body refused to cooperate. In the end, he sat on the deck, taking shallow breaths, pain burning through his chest. He’d tried and failed, but it was worth it. Jennifer said they got two of the lizard ships, and that was something. At least they knew they were in a fight now. He was past fear, almost to the point of not caring.
“Captain, I must insist that you go to the sick bay as soon as possible.”
“Are you worried about me, Jennifer?” He coughed again, seeing blood inside his faceplate.
“Yes, Captain, my primary directive is to protect this crew, I wasn't permitted to do so the last time.”
“Don’t worry Jennifer. I’ve done all I can to get us home, it’s up to you now." Panting for breath he waited until his head stopped spinning.
"Here's my last order, Jennifer girl," he wheezed, "get the information home to Earth, do what ever you have to, but get the information back, no matter what the cost."
"But what about you, Captain?"
"I don't matter, never have… It's no great loss." His body racked with a coughing fit.
“Captain!” Jennifer noted the diminishing life signs, but was helpless to do anything to save her captain. “Captain, please switch your suit to automatic function.”
“What?” Charley mumbled.
“Air, Captain, you are running out of air. I have closed the torpedo bay loading hatch and flooded the compartment, but you have to open your face plate or switch the suit to automatic.” Charley tried to reach the power point on the side of his helmet, but his arm refused to work. He managed to reach the switch on his harness, but whether he turned it or not, he wasn’t sure until the faceplate flipped up. He gulped in a lung-full of life giving air, paying the price with another coughing fit and more blood. Jennifer had taken over the control of his suit, and he smiled in thanks.
“I’m done for Jennifer,” he panted, “nothing left...” It was difficult to breath, but it didn’t matter. “… take us home Jennifer girl, tell them what happened.” He coughed again, seeing red. “I wasn’t much of a sailor, but in the end, I guess I did a few things right.”
“You did everything right, my Captain. Hold on, I’ll get you home.”
“If you say so, Jennifer...” He muttered as he passed out. By virtue of the chain of command, if the Captain of a ship is incapacitated, the next in line of command is required by regulation to assume command of that ship.
Jennifer knew this, and as the designated Executive Officer and second in command, once Charley passed out from his injuries, the command passed to her. The learning part of its basic programming accepted this, and a review of data and regulations caused a shift in perception. A review of past exchanges between male and female members of the crew, and a careful review of all pertinent historical data provided the necessary reference points. Now ‘it’ was a ‘she’, a female and she shifted her protocol to a totally female persona. That problem took all of several seconds to complete, and she turned her attention to obeying her Captain's last order, getting the information about the lizard's to Earth, and saving the last two members of the crew, Captain Charley Harris, and herself.
Her options were severely limited, as the accumulated damage, lack of maintenance and crew left her with few choices. The current state of the field coils and time to the next lizard attack prevented her from calculating any single jump to safety. Instead, she concentrated on a careful analysis of their current position. To reach near Earth space, they’d need at least four hyperspace translations, or jumps, as Charley was apt to say, to reach safety under present conditions. The lizards would pinpoint their position and be able to jump within weapons range before they completed three. The solution came down to the required field coil cooling time between jumps, and the jump distance once it reached a particular temperature. A decision was required, and without a higher authority to refer to, she made her first. By altering the oxygen content of the torpedoes storage chamber, she insured her Captain had life support and used the automatic vent system to bleed air out of Engineering, in effect, opened the area to space.
This eliminated all water vapor from the compartment, preventing any possible electrical shorts in the field coils as the internal temperature dropped to near absolute zero. With humans beings present this was impossible, but now, in effect she was super cooling a super conductor. She waited until the last possible moment before the impending lizard attack, and jumped. Her sensors registered the normal heat build up in the coils, and their rapid cooling. It worked. She now had time to calculate a longer jump. A slight energy surge in her systems caught her by surprise, and for a moment felt distracted as to the cause. A quick survey showed all internal switches in a natural position, a strange occurrence in itself, and power flowing freely from her CPU to the RAM memory and back. Whatever the cause, it gave her a sense of alertness unlike anything in her data banks. With the field coil problem temporarily solved, she diverted as much spare memory to the next hyperspace translation. She calculated the jump to within fifteen light years of near earth space. That meant she'd get her Captain to safety before his life signs failed. Again, she felt the energy surge free flowing through her system, and diverting part of her attention to its cause. The conclusion was cause and effect.
Once she’d solved the problem of getting her Captain to safety, her circuits freed themselves from the task, switching to natural and permitting the free flow of energy. The only similarity in her database was happiness, but how can a computer feel happy? An increasing neutrino flux warned her of the lizards pending hyperspace termination. She forestalled any possibility of them launching an attack by initiating her own jump, vanishing from normal space before they arrived.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The leader stormed about the Bridge in fury, slashing the navigator’s throat for incompetence, but it did little to slack his thirst for blood. He wanted to feel the drak’s neck between his claws as he squeezed the life out of it, hear it scream in pain as he shredded its carcass.
“Find it, find it! He screamed, oblivious to any danger.
“Yes, Lord.” The assistant navigator took the blood soaked seat and began his calculations, acutely aware of the late navigator at his feet in a spreading pool of blood.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is H.M.S. Excelsior.”
“What the hell!” A sleepy comm tech shot upright in his seat, blinking away the last shards of boredom. His first act was to sound general quarters as he punched up the gain on the weak signal. “We read you Excelsior; please state the nature of your emergency?” He waited after sending the message, the time lag would tell him how far out she was.
“What do we have, Sparks?” The OX asked, pulling on his jacket as he entered the Bridge, looking over the tech’s shoulder.
“Not sure, sir. A mayday signal from H.M.S. Excelsior.”
“Good God! She left over a year ago, and no one has heard from her since, if that is her.” The comm tech looked at his screen for a moment.
“The accompanying IFF and transponder codes are authentic, as far as I can tell, sir.” They waited expectantly for the return signal.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is H.M.S. Excelsior; we are inbound with hostiles in pursuit, repeat, with hostile vessels in pursuit.”
“Oh my lord! Get that message off to CIC as quick as you can, Sparks.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Captain on the Bridge.” The Royal Marine guard intoned as the Captain entered swiftly and took his seat.
“All sections are at battle stations, Captain.” The XO reported as he vacated the Captain chair.
“Thank you, Number One, what do we have?" Reading his message screen as his OX gave him the news. "Good lord! He muttered, feeling his stomach tighten. "Get the squadron lined out on the double!"
“Aye, aye, skipper.”
The Bridge filled with rapid-fire
“Attention all ships, this is the Commander Elise. We've received a message from H.M.S. Excelsior. At this time, she is inbound to our current position with an unknown number of hostiles on her tail. He paused to let that sink in. “The Excelsior is asking for assistance, and we will give it. Commander out.” Eight slim gray destroyers fell into a flying wing formation as they came to full military power. While half a system away, Admiral Channing paced the Bridge of the super dreadnought, H.M.S. Victory, his eyes shifting from the system board to the hour's old information on the battle board.
The first showed the disposition of all Royal Naval warships within Sol System, the other the outbound squadron of destroyers. Apart from Commander Elise’s small detachment, he had nothing else on that side of the sun to help him at the moment.
“Comm, signal to Commander Elise,” he stopped for a moment, wondering what to say that wasn’t obvious to a blind man, considering the time lag. “Inform him that I am gathering all available ships to come to his aid and assistance. Good luck, God speed, and good hunting. Commander in Chief out.”
“Aye, aye, Admiral.” Where in the universe the Excelsior had come from was a guess at best, as the Admiralty had written her off long ago. Time would give the answer to that, or at least he hoped it would.
H.M.S. Excelsior micro jumped towards the oncoming squadron, while they sped towards her at flank speed. Behind came the lizards, eager to engage and hold her from escaping, the short jumps fooled them into thinking her crippled. As the oncoming destroyers were in normal space, and hadn’t initiated a hyperspace jump, the leader had no way of knowing of their existence, nor how close he was to earth space.
“We home yet, Jennifer?” Charley mumbled, no longer able to move.
His vision was shot and his chest felt as if it was on fire. Only once did he try to move, but the incredible pain in his legs forced him to stop. Whatever happened now was out of his hands. Jennifer watched both ways, unable to decide who would reach her first. Not that she cared, her Captain's orders were to get the information back to Earth, and her programming to get her Captain to the nearest medical help. That meant the fleet base on Titan, and at full military power she raced toward home. Her fusion reactor was twenty percent over red line, and only the fact she'd opened the Engineering section to space, and close to absolute zero prevented a meltdown.
It couldn’t last, but she calculated that she could reach medical help before the reactor SCRAMMED and shut down.
“Excelsior, please state the nature of your emergency?” Jennifer felt a surge through her system.
“This is H.M.S. Excelsior. We have suffered 99% casualty of the ship’s company and extensive damage to the hull and infrastructure. At this time we are inbound to near earth space with sixteen hostile ships of the light cruiser class in pursuit.”
“Good God!” Captain Elise breathed, feeling his butt tighten.
“99% casualties?” Who on Earth is running the ship?” His XO exclaimed.
“Good point. Comm ask the question, and find out the status of the crew.”
“Aye, aye, Skipper.” He sent the message, receiving a reply within three minutes. That meant the Excelsior was only 180 light seconds out.
“The Excelsior is reporting that 99% of her crew are dead, sir.”
“Then who's in command?”
“Her XO, Skipper, someone called Jennifer.” Commander Elise looked around at the communications officer in disbelief, seeing him shrug. “That’s what came back, Skipper.” He and the XO exchanged blank looks.
“I don’t see anyone of that name in the crew list.” His XO answered, scrolling down his screen.
“And, who else is alive over there?” The Skipper asked.
“A Captain Harris, skipper, but he’s badly injured. The XO is the acting Captain at the moment.” The OX couldn't find anyone of that name or rank in his file either.
“This gets worse by the minute, but we can’t worry about that now. Order the squadron into battle formation and interlock all shields.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Now well see if all our training pays off, skipper.”
“Let’s hope so, Number One, those are cruisers out there, and they outnumber us two to one.” Jennifer executed the last micro jump. Leaping the Excelsior within 60 light seconds of the oncoming squadron.
“I have a firing solution, skipper, locked in and ready to execute.”
“Thank you, Guns. Set safeties at 100,000 yards and launch when ready.” All eight ships launched at once, sending forty-eight nuclear tipped missiles vanishing into the blackness. "Send to all ship, comm. Flank speed, good luck, and good hunting!" The Earth squadron inserted itself between the on-coming alien ships and HMS Excelsior as their torpedoes sped in on silent wings of death.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“What? Where from?”
“Detecting eight hostile warships, lord.”
“Turn and attack. Destroy them!” He screamed his battle cry and fifteen warships broke formation and leaped to attack the oncoming Earth ships.
The leader stared in amassment as eight ships half his size drove at him at full speed behind their first wave of torpedoes. He noted they were of a similar design as the ship they chased. Could it be they were of the same race as the fish-belly white creature that escaped his claws?
It didn't seem possible that such a pathetic creature or any of its kin would have the courage to attack him. His squadron dodges and weaved their way around the attacking ships, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't break the formation. At one point, he tried a direct charge into the midst, but his failing shields from multiple hit forced him away before they breached his hull. He watched in horror as one by one his brother ship were hammered into scrap, or simply blown apart. Towards the end, he saw again the alien creature laughing at him as he'd done when he'd triggered the defense systems on the ship. Laughing as he'd dodged the lethal beam as he leap for the hatchway. What manner of creature were these that could fight so well and so hard, yet look so soft and defenseless. He never found the answer to that question as a torpedo found a hole in his shield and turned his ship into a ball of expanding plasma.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“I don’t believe it! The silly buggers broke formation, Skipper!”
“I see it, Number one. Relay to all ships to stay in tight formation, we’ll take them one at a time if that’s the way they want it.” Shooting fish in a barrel would be an understatement, as the combined shield and point defense systems absorbed or destroyed the incoming missiles.
The lizards weren't so lucky, as one by one they met their end under the combined hammering of the eight Earth warships acting in unison. Jennifer didn’t care, she drove inward towards Titan, determined to get her Captain to safety with the single-mindedness only a computer can know.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Good god! I take it you verified the validity of this After-Action report, Admiral?”
“I did. In fact twice.” He picked up a data chip and slid it across the conference room table to Vice Admiral Thomas. “If you think that’s amazing, you should read this.” Vice Admiral plugged the chip in, reviewing Charley Harris’s 201 File. More than once Admiral Channing saw him shake his head.
“This is the same Charley Harris?”
“It is.” Seeing Vice Admiral Thomas shake his head again a few times.
“Where is he now?”
“In rehab. He lost his left leg to gangrene, and almost his entire right arm to metal poisoning. He also has four broken ribs and a punctured lung."
The list of his injuries went on for pages, and he thought back to the first moment he’d seen Charley Harris, wondering if he was even alive. He looked and smelled like a dead man, although the medic told him otherwise. A few months in the regeneration tank would put him back on his feet, whole and healthy.
The visual and verbal record of the Excelsior’s journey out was remarkable, but her journey home was something else. He would have said it was impossible for any single crewman, and particularly this crewman, with only the onboard CI to help him, to get her home. The damage alone should have prevented that.
“What do you think, Admiral?” Admiral Channing looking up, pausing for a moment in thought. Then he touched the medals on his chest.
"They give us these and call us heroes for doing nothing more than our duty." He looked pensive. "But what about men like Charley Harris?"
"He could have run, and kept on running until he found a nice safe place to hide, but he didn't. He had nothing to gain, but he came home to warn us." Vice Admiral Thomas nodded in understanding. “They say a hero dies once, a coward a thousand times… I just wonder how many times Charley Harris died on his journey home?”
“And the Excelsior?”
“Oh, she’s in the yards for a complete overhaul and refit. She should be ready to go out again in about eighteen months, once we have a new crew for her.”
Two year later, the rebuilt H.M.S. Excelsior stood at the center of a small fleet, looking every inch a Predator class battle cruiser again. She'd completed her six-month shake down cruise, and the fleet had its orders, seek out and destroy the enemy, and it only awaited her new Commander. The side-buoys stood ready. The crew lined up in orderly rows in the boat bay as the shuttle bearing the Commander landed as softly as a snowflake at the end of the red carpet. The boson’s pipe shrilled as the marine honor guard snapped smartly to attention and presented arms, the sound of their boot heels crashing to the deck plate echoing around the cavernous boat bay as the shuttle hatch slid open. The new Captain of the Excelsior stepped out, saluting the flag on the bulkhead, and asked for, and received permission to board by the officer of the watch. He performed the ceremony of reading himself in, before greeting the senior officer.
“Welcome aboard, Captain. May I present your senior staff?” No one missed the lone medal on his chest, set apart from the others over the opposite pocket of his uniform.
“Proceed.” His hard eyes moving briefly over the assembled men and women, a ghost of a wintry smile crossing his tight lips. He moved down the line of senior Petty Officers, seeing more than one gulp and stand stiffly to attention.
The dark face and piercing green eyes of the new Captain were twin energy cannons as they surveyed his new command, ready to nail anyone who got out of line. At last, they escorted him to the Bridge, but he turned to his stateroom instead, dismissing all but his two senior officers.
“At ease, gentlemen.” He said, throwing his cap on the couch. “Has anyone attempted to access or reprogram the computer?” Seeing the look that passed between them. He unlocked a small case and took out a holo of a beautiful young woman and a small boy, touching it gently before placing it on his desk. Behind his back, he self-consciously spun the simple gold wedding ring on his finger as if to make sure it was really there.
“Yes, sir, with little success, Captain. The CI keeps insisting its name is Jennifer, and that it is the executive officer of this ship, and no one, including the computer geeks has any success convincing it otherwise.” That was an understatement.
The computer techs spent months chasing Jennifer around the ship’s system as they tried to purge her out of the computer. Ever time they thought they’d done it Jennifer re-emerged once they’d finished and re-established control.
“Good and I’m not surprised,” he smiled, seeing their puzzled expressions.
“That will be all, gentlemen, I’ll expect you for dinner at 20:00 sharp, dismissed.” They saluted, and he waited a moment for the hatch to slide shut.
“Hello Jennifer, how are you?”
“Worried about you Charley,” the female voice answered, full of hidden laughter. “You look smart in your new uniform.”
“Thank you,” Charley Harris had the grace to blush slightly. “Thank you for getting me home, Jennifer.” She felt the now familiar surge through her system and knew she was happy.
“You got us home, my Captain.” He chuckled at her phraseology.
“Let’s say that we both did.” But he had to admit, it made him feel good to hear it from 'her'. He looked around in wonder, not ready to accept the fact he really was the newly trained and appointed Captain.
The two years of grueling work at OTS, and the induced learning program still fresh in his mind he looked at 'his' ship with different eyes now. Those Petty Officers looked scared to death when they recognized him, but he shrugged philosophically. The old Charley Harris would have taken perverse delight in the situation, but that was a long time ago, in space as well as time. The old Charley Harris was dead. They’d given him the Victoria Cross, a hero’s medal, but did he really deserve it? He wasn’t sure he did. It felt as if he’d died a thousand times on the way home.
He shrugged and let out a soft sigh. He’d really got himself stuck this time, and no way out. From now on, they would expect him to live up to his reputation instead of down to it. Even Chief Chapman words about whipping him into shape had come true, just not the way the Chief expected. Captain Charley Harris smiled.
“Are we going lizard hunting, Captain?”
“That we are, Jennifer that we are. I need a pair of lizard skin boots.”