The Gladius was docked to one of 112 bays surrounding Space Station 1. In its turn, the space station orbited Prospero itself. The planet bulged below, a brown and green bulk covered with a lacing of clouds.
Garth Hobart, PhD, had waded through months of bureaucratic paperwork and red tape for the privilege of bringing his equipment aboard the Gladius. He had developed the experimental sensor array for the University of Danthair at Lanskey.
The varied components and loose collections of wiring had been installed as far out of the way as possible. They were secured in place with what he felt must surely be an excess of zeal. Elastic cords and straps positively cocooned it, though the spacemen had been careful to leave all the switches and ports freely accessible.
His equipment and his chair, or ‘anchor point’ as the spacemen called it, were tucked into a slightly wider open space just to one side of the secondary sensor station and plumbed messily into it.
He was sitting on his anchor point currently, though he looked suspiciously like he was asleep. He lounged, sandaled feet braced wide on the deck, arms folded, head lolled back, eyes closed. The spacemen working around him traded amused glances and occasionally raised their eyebrows at each other. They liked Garth, he was friendly and stayed out of their way.
In the center of his tangled clump of equipment was a large screen flickering quickly and silently from one subtly different view of static to the next.
Midshipman Singh knew that Garth was not asleep and spoke quietly to him from three feet away on his official anchor point on the secondary sensor station.
“Sir, some of the men have said that you are working on a way to intercept Joined Pair Communications. Surely this is not the case?”
Garth snorted and replied without opening his eyes or moving anything but his mouth. “Correct. Intercepting JPComms is a fool’s errand, though it would certainly have interesting implications for you folks. The entangled sub-atomic particles that make up a joined pair don’t interact physically in any way.”
He leaned forward, raising a finger, a glint in his eye, “Of course, some kind of interaction is unavoidably implied but currently it seems to only take place in ether-space. And, of course, the extremely slow passage of time in an ether-bubble, though useful when traveling, makes observation as well as the possibility of any practical application…problematic. No, faster than light communications are safe from the likes of me.”
Singh nodded to himself, “Yes. I knew this.” He let the silence between them stretch out companionably. “What are you working on?”
Garth smiled and opened his mouth to answer but before he had spoken a soft ping rang out from somewhere within his electronics and the flickering stopped. Garth opened one eye and tilted his head slightly to look. After a moment he sat bolt upright and looked more closely.
He put one hand on either side of the screen, as if to adjust its position slightly, and stared. There was an indistinct triangle moving slowly across it, or rather, an arrowhead shape. It was very unclear, more of a distortion of the background noise than a shape superimposed upon it. A drop of water over text.
With a puzzled frown, Garth moved his hands to the keyboard and tapped out commands telling the computer to find and follow the shape. The computer had some trouble discerning the image and Garth had to fiddle with the detection parameters and narrow the search field before the machine managed to lock onto it. When it did, it threw up an outline around the original distortion as well as two more arrow shapes, which he’d missed at first. They were identical to the first but smaller. Garth’s eyes widened along with his grin. He leaned back in his chair and let out a war whoop, fists raised to the ceiling.
Scattered around him on the ship’s sensor deck, spacemen jumped and shot looks in his direction. Garth stood up, sat down again, and began slapping switches, shutting down his equipment. Finally, he groped under the station and unplugged the main power coupling. He sat back up in his chair and began counting under his breath. Spaceman 1st class Andre Cordova stepped up behind him, raising a questioning eyebrow at Singh, and asked, “What’s up professor?”
Garth held up his finger until he reached sixty then plugged the power coupling back in and began turning his machines back on.
Garth pushed a strand of black hair back from his face and replied gleefully to them both. “Fame, fortune, and the adulation of my peers.”
Andre rolled his eyes, “Right. You turn something up on your static detector there?”
Garth chuckled, “Allow me, Andre, to delight and amaze you.” He patted one of the many boxes in front of him and turned the screen back on. It was showing static again. Garth tapped some keys, calling up its previous settings and waved grandly.
“What you are looking at, my martial friend, is an algorithmic interpretation of Penzias Static, an algorithm of my own design, thank you very much. I would tell you the algorithm but then I’d have to kill you, and it’s also several thousand lines long, but no matter!”
“So, what’s so special about this particular view of the static?”
“Can’t you see?” Garth tapped the screen, “There are shapes here! This screen provides a visual representation of the static. These shapes represent a pattern within the static, an organized transmission if you will. Or perhaps a flaw in the root assumptions we’ve been using to define randomness…” He paused, frowned and said softly to himself, “That would be almost as important a concept as…if…hmmm.” He started to gnaw lightly on his thumb then dropped his hand and shook his head.
“Nonetheless, let me show you.” Garth called up the detection parameters that had worked for him a minute before and outlines appeared around the shapes. They glowed in multicolored splendor on a static background. Andre’s face froze as he leaned forward for a better look and the lines of his body in the charcoal grey uniform stiffened. Singh also, leaning over from his anchor point, frowned.
His voice was flat as he spoke, “Professor, can you bring up more definition on those shapes?”
Now it was Garth’s turn to be puzzled, “What do you mean more definition? I hardly think there’s anything to be defined…”
Andre cut him off. “Professor, where exactly do you have your dish aimed, in global coordinates?”
Garth stared at him. “What? Why should…?”
“Professor, the coordinates. Where are you looking with this equipment?” Andre’s voice had changed subtly. Garth wordlessly turned to the keyboard and called up a utility screen. “12° 15.5 minutes by 356° 12 minutes from the ecliptic. Why?”
Andre didn’t answer him but turned to the Midshipman seated at the primary sensor station. “Harper, give me a 2 degree sweep centered on 12° 15.5 minutes 356° 12 minutes, relative.” He turned back to Garth.
“Professor, can you give me a bearing and a speed on these anomalies we’re looking at?”
“Well, the equipment’s not really designed to…I suppose if we treat them like they’re artifacts, I can detect the relative motion…yes, I think so.” Garth swung back to the keyboard.
It hit him. These were ships, not some heretofore-unknown pattern in the Penzias Static. Garth felt fame and fortune slipping out of his grasp. He groaned inwardly. A new and extremely complicated method for detecting ships was not going to get him tenure.
Harper called out, “Sweep negative, Spaceman.” Garth shot Harper a surprised glance.
“But these are definitely local. I’ve picked up relative motion across the starfield. You should be able to see them easily.
“Assuming they’re ships of a reasonable size,” He tapped on the keyboard for a moment. The approximate bearing and speed of the shapes popped up on the screen. “They’re well inside the Oort cloud, and on their way here. You really can’t see them?”
Around them, sensing the change in Cordova’s attitude, the other spacemen grew quiet until you could hear the sigh of the air pumps. Midshipman Singh picked up an intercom and began speaking tersely, reading off the global coordinates, bearing and speed of the ‘suspected contact.’
The officer of the watch appeared through the door to the bridge. He asked tersely, “What have you got, Midshipman?”
“Look here, sir.” Singh pointed at Garth’s monitor. “He’s picking up multiple ships at this heading and speed. Over here…” He stepped over to Harper’s monitor and pointed. “This is the same spot and we’ve got nothing. The profile search on the screen capture from the professor’s equipment…” he stepped over to look at his own station again, “gives us a 75% match with…” he looked more closely, puzzled, “TingKlap vessels?”
“Pretty low probability but given the circumstance, it’s fairly good.” The officer, a lieutenant, rubbed his chin. “They couldn’t be further from the rest of the fleet could they? The exercise has the main body practically across the system.”
“And these ships on a perfect orthogonal to the Grav-limit. How do their positions match up with the known Federation ships in the system?”
“They don’t, sir. They are definitely undeclared.”
Garth, suddenly curious, zoomed his screen’s view of the static out. As he did so, his detection algorithm located more and more shapes until the screen was filled with hundreds. The officer of the watch swore and stepped to a duty terminal. He flipped the cover off a red button and slapped it with the palm of his hand. Klaxons blared.
Garth could feel tension rise over the entire ship as hundreds of spacers dropped what they were doing and ran to battle stations.
Things had gotten extremely hectic on the sensor deck of the Gladius. If you knew what you were doing, exactly what you were doing, and had the right parts, it took about thirty minutes to modify a standard sensor array so it could detect the ships. Fortunately, the Gladius stocked some of the necessary parts and Garth knew what he was doing.
As the ships drew slowly closer it became more and more probable that they were TingKlap.
Halfway through modifying the primary sensor station the order to secure for maneuvering piped over the comm. Garth grabbed a stanchion with both hands and pressed his feet against the deck while the sailors reached down and activated their magnetic soles or strapped into their anchor points. The force pressing him to the deck evaporated and the ship seemed to rotate sickeningly around him. After a moment, weight returned and he let go. The deck under his feet was vibrating, evidence of the main engine’s operation. The all clear sounded and he went back to work, plagued by a feeling of grim foreboding.
He had just finished entering the correct filter parameters on the last monitor on the sensor deck and was stretching when Andre approached him again.
He spoke, “Professor, we’ve got another job for you if you’re up to it. I don’t know if I ever told you, but my primary combat duty is as a VR torpedo pilot. Do you think you can convert the virtual reality sensor rigs so they can see the TingKlap ships?”
Garth spoke, “We’ve got a few of these modular extensors left, what kind of sensor array do the torpedoes themselves have?”
Andre looked pained and asked, “Could you ask a more specific question, Professor? Most things about the torps are classified.”
Garth nodded, he was cognizant of such things, although in his world secrets lasted only until you had published. He replied, “Can your torpedo’s sensors register signals between 1500 and 3000 MegaHertz?”
Andre stared off into space for a moment and then answered, “Well, yes. Normally we don’t ask them for that band but the sensors they use include that range.”
“Andre, if your torpedoes can read that band and send it back to the VR rig over JPComms link then all we have to do is install the extensor so it can interpret the data correctly. I think I could probably teach them to do so. I could use some help though, its been a few years since I got inside a Virtual Reality engine. Who’s your expert on such things?”
“That’d be me, Prof.”
As they were walking to the torpedo bay Garth asked, “Andre, did I hear you say that you’re a torpedo pilot?”
Andre replied, “Yup.”
Garth paused, “What’s it like to crash yourself into a ship?”
The spaceman kept a straight face as he replied, “It’s a blast sir.”
Less than an hour later Andre was instructing Garth on a better way to have the VR rigs interpret the new data from the torpedoes. When the Lieutenant entered the long dark torpedo bay he found Garth handing Andre tools as the spaceman lay far into the guts of one of the rigs installing an extensor.
“How’s it going, Professor?”
“Very well, Lieutenant. I’m learning new things about VR programming, some of which, I might add, look like they will be very useful when I get a chance to return to my research. Andre is extremely knowledgeable. In fact, I think he deserves a raise. Do I speak to you about such things? He was a VR tech before he joined the Space Arm and frankly I think his talents are wasted here. He could be making three times his current salary in the private sector. You’re lucky he hasn’t walked out already. Why…”
The Lieutenant put a stop to Garth’s gushing by raising his hand. “Professor, let’s stick to the matter at hand. I need you to come with me and it sounds like Cordova has things well in hand.” He leaned over and yelled into the VR rig’s casing. “Spaceman! Do you need the professor to come back when the Captain’s done with him? What? Oh, sure.” The Lieutenant looked at the pile of tools at Andre’s feet, extracted a clip-vice, and handed it in.
He looked up at Garth, “Professor, if you’ll follow me?” As they passed out of the pilot’s bay the Lieutenant snagged a passing spaceman and asked him, “What are you doing?”
The spaceman snapped to parade rest and said, “Delivering this to the armsmen, sir.” He held up a package.
“I’ll take it to him. You go help Cordova with the VR rigs.”
“Aye aye, sir.” The young spaceman took off at a trot.
The Gladius was a confusing maze to those who didn’t live in her. There were no markings to indicate location and the layout was not uniform from deck to deck. Garth stared at the ubiquitous gray, green and white paint and mused, “You’d think they’d put up signs or something. I don’t even think I could find my way to my room from here.”
As they stepped into a lift, the Lieutenant punched his access code and then their destination into the control panel before he replied. “It’s designed to confuse boarders.”
Garth stared at him incredulously, “Boarders? Surely not. In space?”
The Lieutenant did not reply.
He dropped Garth off in a conference room, paneled in what Garth assumed was faux oak, containing a mid-sized table. It reminded Garth of the dining room in his house in Clamuth down on Prospero, which reminded him of Mariel and his two children.
He felt a flash of guilt. It had been hours and hours since he’d thought about them. He glanced at his watch and more guilt welled up. It had been two days since he’d called them. They’d be awake now. He’d have to give them a call when he got a chance.
At that moment the Captain and four other officers entered the room. Their faces reminded Garth of what was going on. He stopped and sank back into a chair.
Garth knew Captain Kerr by sight but would probably not have recognized him out of uniform. They had spoken only briefly when Garth first boarded the Gladius a week before.
The Captain spoke, standing at the head of the table while the other officers found seats and began powering up the work stations associated with them. “Ah. Professor, good to see you. We need to get right down to business. I’ve got a very difficult favor to ask of you. It is obvious to Higher, and I concur, that the TingKlap are launching, or rather have launched, a full-scale planetary invasion aimed at Prospero. Their fleet contains a large segment of transports and ground support units. Reports have surfaced in the last several hours of TingKlap pathfinders down on the surface.
“This places us in an unenviable position. The entire fleet, excluding this squadron, is in the middle of an exercise a good distance away.
“The camouflaging the Tinks employed, which you so handily saw through, has allowed the morgtaken knuckle-draggers to reach the point where it is impossible for the fleet to arrive in time to challenge their invasion. Even if they were here, we would still be badly outnumbered.”
His voice remained even. “We are the only ships capable of confronting them before they start to drop troops.”
Garth sat stunned. Drop troops? On Prospero? He had to get home!
The Captain continued, “The rest of the fleet must be given the capability you have given us Professor. How long will it take you to put together idiot-proof instructions for converting a sensor array so that it can see and target the Tinker ships?”
Garth’s thoughts strained at the bit. Instructions? Oh, to transmit to the rest of the fleet… “Three to four hours, Captain. Not less than that.” The other officers muttered to each other.
Captain Kerr, frowned, “Are you sure, professor? You managed to put the fix on all our sensors and make a good start on the torpedo rigs in under four hours. What’s the holdup?”
“Captain, the sensors on your ships and torpedoes are not designed to detect what I have them detecting. The conversion I implemented was seat of the pants, to describe it charitably. To convey all the factors I took into account mentally, as benefit of my years of experience, will require a good deal of explaining. That’s not something that can be rushed because it not only has to be complete but also clear…”
The Captain cut him off with a wave and a frown. “I feared as much. That brings me to the favor I have to ask of you, or rather that the people of Prospero have to ask of you. You need to leave this ship.” He stopped speaking and leveled a solid gaze at Garth.
Garth grinned, “Happy to do so Captain, no offense, but I need to get back to my family. A warship at war is no place for a scientist.”
The Captain’s frown did not waver as he said, “Professor, I’m afraid you misunderstand. When I said we were the only ships capable of engaging the Tinker fleet before it began dropping troops I meant to imply that we would be engaging them. Those troops are at their most vulnerable right now. Any drop ship we destroy now means thousands of troops that will never set foot on our planet. We will destroy as many as we can before we are ourselves destroyed.”
The other officers around the table returned Garth’s darting glances. Some of them were sweating, some breathed a little quickly, none of them blinked. Objections ran in screaming circles inside Garth’s head. He gritted his teeth and asked, “Captain, what do you mean by ‘leave the ship?’”
“Professor, right now we’re transferring a work station and a portable JPComm unit, paired with the fleet’s flagship, into a shuttle. I’m asking you to climb into that shuttle, write those instructions as fast as you can, and transmit them to the rest of the fleet.”
Garth stared, “But, why don’t I just stay on the ship and do that?”
“Because, Professor, this ship will reach the TingKlap invasion fleet in just under two hours. It will likely cease to exist before you have your three to four. If we send you back the way we came at the maximum boost a shuttle is capable of, we’ll be able to send you into a fairly stable orbit around Prospero. You will have, at most, four hours to write the instructions and transmit them before the Tinks come within effective range of you.”
That sounded ominous. “What do you mean by effective range?”
“The distance at which the Tinks will be able to detect the power signature of your JPComm transmission and launch missiles that can reach your shuttle. It’s a fuzzy value because we don’t know how sharp their sensor crews are or the exact capabilities of their missiles.”
Silence reigned in the conference room. Garth pondered the Captain’s words. If he were quick about it he could be done sooner than the four hour limit and maybe not be detected at all. If he was in orbit then maybe somebody would come pick him up and he could get home to Mariel. The Air Arm had vessels capable of reaching orbit, didn’t they? It was certainly better than staying on a ship bent on suicide…
“Professor, the clock is running.”
Garth started out of his reverie and said, “So where is this shuttle? Can I stop by my room first?”
“Certainly, Professor. Rolf, take the professor to shuttle bay three by way of his cabin if you would.”
One of the other officers rose to his feet and said, “Yes, sir. Professor, follow me please.”
Garth obediently followed the man out into the gray corridor. Behind him he heard the Captain bark, “Engineering, sit-rep.”
The air in the shuttle was a comfortable temperature. Garth was still sweating. He looked at his watch. Two hours had passed since he’d been installed in the shuttle and fired on his way. He could see the battle taking place behind him on the shuttle’s heads up display. He’d been delayed getting started when he realized, at the last moment, that he needed to have an actual sensor array in front of him in order to make the instructions reliably coherent.
Andre Cordova had delivered the unit. He had been wearing full vacuum armor with the helmet hinged back off its locking ring.
“Here ya go, Professor. You need anything else?”
“What’s with the armor?” Garth had asked. “The other spacers just have the soft suits.”
Andre’s reply still echoed in his mind. “Yeah, they want us torpedo pilots to be a little more survivable. Our control rigs have independent power sources. Before a torpedo-cloud goes out the tubes, its particle pair gets stuffed into the VR rig, faster that way. So, even if the ship disintegrates around you, you can still steer your torp-cloud…assuming the rig itself survives anyway. They’re hardened too. These things,” He patted his armored chest. “are good for 72 hours. The batteries are good for years of course but the air and water are a little bulky.”
An uncomfortable silence grew in the cramped cabin of the shuttle until Andre rubbed his hand through his hair and said, “Well, I’ll quit botherin’ ya.” He got up to leave.
Garth, said awkwardly, “Hey, Andre.”
“Yeah, you too, Prof.” Andre had thrown him a sketchy salute and walked out of the shuttle.
Now, Garth watched the Gladius and the three other ships in its squadron in their encounter with the Tinker fleet on the sensor rig. He kept imagining Andre, armor and all, folded into his VR rig.
Garth threw himself back into the instructions he was trying to create. An hour later, as he was finishing, a sound from the sensor rig yanked him out of concentration. It was just a small sound, a beep. He looked back at the screen and saw that it was a proximity alarm. The Tinker fleet was just within torpedo range of the shuttle.
And the Tinkers were the only ones showing on the screen. The Gladius and her sister ships were gone. He had not seen their end. He didn’t even know if there were fewer Tink ships now, there were too many to tell. A sigh fled from his lungs.
He finished the instructions and read through them again. The opening paragraph, an explanation from Captain Kerr, including verification codes, was blunt and to the point. The instructions themselves couldn’t be made any clearer. They were also shorter than he’d expected. It would only take a few seconds to transmit, including the diagrams.
Of course, when he did transmit, the Tinkers would detect the operation of the JPComms equipment and would probably shoot a missile at him on general principle. If he bagged the whole idea and just floated up here in orbit, someone might, no would, eventually come pick him up.
The temptation not to attract the wrath of a faceless Tinker behind a console filled Garth. Mariel would be devastated if he died. He would be devastated if he died. His children were so young they wouldn’t even remember him in a few years.
Memories of life with them in the house outside of Clamuth flashed before him. He tried to imagine what they were doing as he floated far above them in the shuttle. In order to give him the maximum time to write the instructions and transmit them, the crew of the Gladius had used up almost all of his fuel in the initial burn. There was still a little left though. Might it be enough?
Garth queried the computer about an automated landing sequence. It flashed an answer on the board in the affirmative. His heart began to race and he asked the computer if it would start the sequence. It refused; there was too little fuel.
Garth swore and sat back in the Pilot’s seat, the instructions momentarily forgotten. Maybe the Tinks would leave him alone or capture him instead of killing him if he just sat here without doing anything. Maybe the Air Arm would see him and come get him. Maybe. . .
As he pondered his situation, he noticed movement on the sensor rig’s screen. A TingKlap torpedo was streaking back toward where the battle with the Gladius had taken place. The Tink ships, flying in a globular formation, were maneuvering. Garth sucked in a breath and jerked forward in his seat.
A Space Arm torpedo-cloud had just appeared from off-screen and was now closing with the globe from the direction of the battle. It performed gyrations and penetrated the globe. It seemed to be targeting one of the battle ships that were angling in on it. The dots of light representing it on the heads up merged with the dot of light representing the fighting ship . . . and emerged again. The torpedo-cloud increased its velocity and arrowed straight for one of the slower moving dots in the center of the globe, which Garth had assumed were transports. The torpedo dot merged with a transport dot, and they both disappeared.
Garth sat back in his seat and watched the missile the Tinks had fired suddenly disappear near the edge of the screen. He knew where it had stopped. It had destroyed a torpedo pilot, sitting dead in space, breathing canned air provided by his armor, encased in his VR rig, surrounded by the wreckage of his ship and the bodies of his comrades. That pilot had triggered the Tink torpedo in exactly the same way Garth was supposed to, by activating his JPComms link with the last torpedo-cloud he would ever pilot. In his mind’s eye, that spaceman had Andre’s face.
Garth climbed up out of the pilot’s seat and went back to the communications equipment Andre had brought him. He spent five minutes writing a note to Mariel and his children. He added it to the end of the instructions and included his home address as well as Mariel’s email address.
He took a deep breath and, before he could change his mind, punched the SEND button. He watched the machine until the transmission was complete and reception confirmed. He thought about striking up a conversation with the communications personnel on the other end of the link. But what would he say?
He went back to the pilot’s seat and looked at the heads up display. His heart froze in his chest. Yup. The Tinks had fired a torpedo at him just after he had started transmission, and it was headed straight for him. He queried the computer for its ETA. Ten minutes.
The computer refused to allow him to override and activate the automatic landing sequence. There were safety features. Garth glanced at the torpedo, which had covered half the distance while he fought the computer and asked the shuttle for manual control.
It gave it to him.
Garth, almost not believing what he was about to try, but not worried particularly about the fact that he had never flown anything more complicated than a kite, managed to aim the shuttle at Prospero and fired the engines. They fired for less than five seconds before they cut out for lack of fuel.
The shuttle was just entering the outer fringes of detectable Prosperan atmosphere when the TingKlap torpedo jammed itself up the craft’s tubes and exploded, ripping the shuttle into thousands of pieces, not one of which was larger than a man’s clenched fist.