Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Oddities in Space

This piece was originally titled that, and it made sense then, but now it is a very different piece and nowhere near as odd. I wrote this for my Speculative Fiction class.

Murtle was wearing his dress uniform, a crisp blue suit with white piping along the seams. He had a battle-ax slung across his back and a pistol by his side. He heard the airlock connect with the other vessel and a recorded message announced that it was equalizing interior pressure with exterior atmosphere. He sighed and waited a few minutes while the machine ran its tests. When the door finally creaked open he stepped forward and stood at attention. His display was greeted by a robot.

Welcome to Space Station Accidental. If you are Murtle of House Ondrata, please proceed to the bridge. Your package will be taken to your room.

The robot moved forward, grabbed the crate and exited back into the hallway, leaving faster than Murtle could hope to follow. Nervously, he looked for instructions to the bridge. He hadn't been this nervous when he visited the recruitment center. At the time, it had seemed like such a grand goal, giving up his life of privilege as a noble and joining the Terran Extra-system Fleet. Now, however, he was beginning to question his decision. The accidental was an under-crewed, generally forgotten station. It had been the first man made space station- cobbled together from the hulls of several heavily damaged fleet vessels it served as the home for a large part of the TEF after an early defeat. Now, however, the TEF could afford clean stations, designed around a central gravity modulator. Those were the ones that they showed in the TEF recruitment films- the Glory Hound or the Young Watcher.

He tentatively moved along the ancient corridors until he realized that a string of red lights was leading him the right direction and he began to move more surely. When he got to the bridge the massive view-ports looked out onto the open space and the occasional ship jumping through the system. There were a dozen consoles, all of which were idle. There was no one that Murtle could see.

“Hello?” he called, “I am Murtle of House Ondrata. I signed up to join the TEF at New Harfur.”

He heard footsteps behind him, and he spun, to see a man in a solid black uniform exit from the same door he came from.

“Murtle. I am Captain Dante. Welcome to the bridge of the Accidental. In addition to captaining this ship, I am in charge of training new recruits. This ship may not glisten like the Glory Hound, but they send good people here. Anyways, I see that you have your own weapons, but according to my manifest, you don't have a personalized suit of armor. Follow me and we can get one from our quartermaster.”

Dante turned and walked down the corridor that Murtle had come from. As he walked, he briefed Murtle on what would be expected of him.

“You're the last recruit here- the others have been training for a couple weeks. You will get to meet them at training. Your first week will have you in your suit, getting used to the way it moves. The mark-sevens are a good model. Not nearly as streamlined as the mark-eight is, but it is more than enough for our purposes. We'll have you then begin in unarmed combat, melee combat and after about three weeks of training you can begin to use the guns that we have stored about the ship. As you know, we will be the core of a specialized task force and your training will take nearly two standard years. Understood?”

“Clear, sir.”

“Good,” Dante turned off the corridor passing through a rusted out bulkhead. “This is where we'll get you scanned for your armor. Stand in that circle there.”

Dante pointed at a faintly glowing blue ring in the middle of the room. Cautiously, Murtle walked over, as soon as he rested his weight fully on inside the circle, four steel pillars rose from the floor and began streaming green lights over his body. The marks danced over him, creating a cross-hatch pattern on his body. After a few seconds, the lights stopped strobing and slowly dimmed.

Dante walked over to a computer console on the side wall and began typing into the interface.

“You can move now,” he began. “Your suit will be a standard model, adjusted to have room for your ax. It will have standard armor layering and four hard-points. You will be able to install a heavy weapon on each forearm as well as each shoulder. You'll get it tomorrow at training. Because you are new here, I will have a string of green lights lead you to the training rooms. From then on, you will have to work your way around the station. There are no master blueprints, so you'll have to follow some people or make some friends."

Two weeks had passed since Murtle had boarded the Accidental. In that time he had learned to walk in his armor as though it was his own skin, with only an occasional mishap. The metal monstrosity had been modified by the station's mechanics to have wheels on all of its joints so that Murtle could throw himself to the ground and slide down the walkways.

Everyday from breakfast to lunch the trainees practiced their combat skills constantly. The first day of training, after the others had cleaned and put away their weapons, they headed out towards the mess hall, Murtle trailing behind. The corridor was thinner than most of the other hallways, here, two ships had been welded together and due to a inaccurate measurement when the station was being hastily constructed, this hallway was barely wide enough for one person at a time. As he was navigating down the hallway, the other students managed to get farther away from him. He began pushing himself, hurrying along the corridor. He caught sight of the other students, the last of whom was just sitting down in the mess hall with their food. He began jogging down the hallway when he suddenly slipped. His legs lost their traction but his body kept its forward momentum and he fell. He slid along the metal floor until friction slowed him down, right before he crashed into the table.

One of the students got up and offered him a hand, “Nice moves slick. Private Joax, I didn't get a chance to introduce myself during training. I was the one who threw you to the ground a half-dozen times, glad to meet you under kinder circumstances,” he grinned. “And don't ask me if I know any good jokes. I've heard that too many times.”

Before he could reply, another student spoke up, “He knows a bunch. Just doesn't want the captain getting mad at him.”

“That is Darin. He likes to pretend that he is smarter than the rest of us because he went a university for a few years before signing on.”

“Murtle, House Ondrata,” he finally managed to get out and pulled himself up. Finally up, he looked around the table. The Accidental was being running on a skeleton crew so there were only a half dozen mechanics, a couple computer technicians (one of whom also worked as a cook) the captain and the other trainees at the table.

He saluted Dante, before getting his tray of official Fleet dry rations. He sat down next to Joax, and tried to voice a question, “Joax, about-” he managed before he was cut off.

“The ice is intentional. The ship has not sprung a leak, the captain just likes putting small obstacles in our way between the training rooms and the mess hall, its useful for practice for when we try the obstacle course. Don't worry- you'll get used to it.”

Question answered, he returned to his meal and listened to the recruits talking. Most of them were talking about either how much they hated the 'Dry rats' or were explaining particulars of their attacks that they had performed during the morning exercises.

After lunch the recruits would leave the mess hall and return to the training rooms where they would be instructed about various parts of the ship. The would study navigation some days, combat strategies others and sometimes more obscure lessons had been planned including learning how to play ancient Earth games, like backgammon and chess. The other students had been studying the material for a few weeks so when his first set of problems for navigation required him to plot an eighty percent efficient route across a third of the Terran Empire, he was at a complete loss.

He rolled out of his bunk and walked over to Joax's, and banged on the metal frame.

“Joax, think you could help me with this navigation stuff?”

“Joax left to get some extra combat training in,” said Darin, “I'm not as good as he is at navigation, but I could probably help you.” Darin hopped out of his upper level bunk, landed smoothly on the floor and walked over to a table, “Lets see what you have.”

Murtle put down his data-pad and set it to project the galactic map. He took a seat and began touching various icons.

“See I can get it to reach a sixty-four percent efficiency rate, as compared to what the best routes claim they can get, but I can't find anywhere to skim closer to a planet to pick up the gravitational boost.”

“I see your problem. You have the ship traveling the least distance, but that doesn't always mean that you get the most out of your grav-boosts. Sometimes if you go far enough out of your way you can get a really serious slingshot that is enough to overwhelm the extra traveling distance.”

Darin continued giving Murtle tips until Murtle was skating through the problems without much difficulty.When the work was done Murtle thanked Darin and got up to go.

“No problem, I was glad to help. You should consider joining me and Joax when we do our extra training. I didn't go to the extra combat work tonight because I was feeling sick, but we work on something every night.”

Murtle did join them the next night and the continued to work with them as they trained. Joax was a skilled navigator and also helped them with various minor mechanical fixes. Darin helped the other two with combat strategies and the basic principles by which their technology worked. Murtle quickly became one of the top performing recruits in the combat training.

After seven months of intense training, the recruits graduated. The graduation was a quick ceremony where Dante gave each student a slip of paper with 'The S.S. Accidental' inscribed at the top, their name and his own scrawled signature.

“It has been a pleasure teaching all of you,” began Dante, “I have begun to value you, and the crew of the Accidental, as good friends, not just minions to order around. Sadly, I have received orders from my superiors ordering me to step down. Admiral Nukoz has been ordered to take command of this station and will be arriving with a full crew. He is to deposit a frigate for our use on anti-piracy missions. To this extent, I would like to congratulate a few of you on your outstanding work. Private Darin LaHire. Because of your extraordinary tactical prowess and your shown skills leading a mock fleet, I have the honor of promoting you to Lieutenant, Senior Grade, and the Executive Officer of my next vessel. Private Joax Darhane. Your skills at improving routes grants you the honor of Lieutenant, Junior Grade and being the Navigator of my next vessel.” Dante continued in this strain, promoting most of the recruits. He went through the bridge positions first, listing officers for shields, gunnery, scanners, communications and engines. He then called out Murtle and promoted him to Sergeant in charge of the vessels marines, who would be the remaining two dozen recruits.

The next day, when Admiral Nukoz arrived, he detached The Warped Imposter from his fleet and sent it dock first so as to remove the old crew completely before beginning to settle in to his new command.

When the ship was fully loaded Murtle deposited his gear on his rack, shoved what he could into the locker under it, and tied the rest at one end to act as a pillow. He made sure the rest of the marines were settled in before proceeding to the elevator and began the tortuously long ride up to the bridge.Stepping out onto the deck he saluted,

“Captain Dante, the marines are buckled in and ready for deployment,” he paused for a second, unsure of himself. “Permission to speak freely?”

“Granted,” replied Dante.

“Thank you, sir. You should get some mechanics to look at the elevator. It took me at least ten minutes to go up two decks. I could crawl it faster.”

“I know what you mean,” said Dante, “We can create wormholes and travel from one side of the galaxy to the other in a matter of seconds, but our elevators barely move.”

“Captain, I hate to interrupt,” said Darin, who was studying a computer display, “We appear ready to manifest that miracle you just mentioned. Lets hope this tub doesn't screw it up.”

Dante grinned and turned around to face the view-ports. Murtle looked around the bridge, he hadn't visited the Accidental's since his first day on board. This 'tub' as Darin called it looked severely advanced compared to what he had seen back then. Instead of material monitors, there were light displays projecting their data and shimmering in various colors about the deck. All the seats faced forward although none of them required visual confirmation- distances in space were too vast for the human eye to comprehend or analyze. He was staring off into space when shouting interrupted his observations.

“Nav, set us to bearing alpha-victor-four-two by zulu-zulu-niner. Engines, raise capacitors to fifty percent. Shields, gunners, ready at your stations. Acknowledge,” shouted Darin.

“Alpha-victor-four-two by zulu-zulu-niner, acknowledged, on course to jump to the Monroe system.” replied Joax.

“Capacitors rising, twenty, twenty-three percent.”

“Shield capacitors are fully charged and ready when you need them sir.”

“Gunners hoping there is something to shoot. Green across the board.”

“Excellent, Lieutenant Joax, let engines know when we're on course.”

The engines started, and the ship began to hum slightly. Red lightning began to spread over the exterior of the vessel and began to move towards the bow. When massive amounts of energy had been collected, it shot forth creating a shimmering red and white portal. The instant the nose of The Warped Imposter touched it the entire ship shook, rattled and was launched across several solar systems to come to a sudden halt in the middle of an asteroid field. Upon arrival one of the screens went from green to red.

“Captain Dante, we have an emergency on deck four. Room of origin is four-one-seven. I believe that is a lavatory. Sir,” said lieutenant Jenkins, the communications officer, explaining the error message.

“Open a channel. I'll talk to them, unless we have any other errors, no? Then patch me in and start a system scan.”

The technician activated a couple triggers within the system and the comm system attached to the Captain's chair buzzed open.“This is the Captain speaking. What seems to be the problem?”

“We had an error with the inertial compensators in the room. They failed just as the jump ended so nothing was damaged. However, our sudden stop dislocated some things that had not been secured. If it happens again during a jump its possible that the plumbing in the room will move against the rest of the ship as quickly as the ship is moving forward. Or if someone is in the room they would be paste.”

“Thanks for the notification. I'll send a technician down. At least this time the fecal matter didn't hit the rotary impeller- just the wall. Dante out.”

Over the next two weeks they jumped from system to system, entering a system, scanning it for any unauthorized ships and then departing after the hour long scan was done. This entire sector of the Empire had been plagued by pirates and slavers for dozens of years. The primary fleet had tried to wipe them out, but any time they found pirates or slavers, the criminals jumped out rather than face massive odds. In the past few years the crimes had been getting worse, with ships landing at colonies and pillaging those, not just the occasional chancing across an undefended merchant vessel. Murtle spent the time training with the marines, eating, sleeping and reading about the old myths of Earth. He had been born in deep space and stayed there his entire life. These jumps to various asteroid belts were the closest he had ever gotten to a planet. To him, and to his compatriots, most of whom had also never seen a planet, the ancient stories from earth, especially those about the animals and human transformation were absolutely fascinating.

He was reading late into the night when the warning klaxons went off alerting him and everyone else on board that an unauthorized vessel had been detected. Over the ship's communication system the officer on watch was calling for Captain Dante and Lieutenant Darin. Murtle made sure that the stand-by marine squad was ready and that the other teams were preparing when he climbed up a modified ventilation shaft rather than waiting for the elevator. When he emerged on the bridge he was cursorily greeted by his friend and directed to stand to the side where he wouldn't get in the way.

“Scanning, what can you tell me?” asked Dante. “Commander Darin, you have command of gunnery and shields.”

“Engine traces are indicative of a medium-range assault corvette. Preliminary IFF data suggests that it is the Father Hound,a pirate vessel. Probably has military hardware. They'll detect us in about a minute. We've already entered their scanning range- it'll just take a little time for them to receive the data,” replied Kalrizian, the scanning officer.

“Maintain course. Lieutenant Jenkins, open up a communications link with them. Prepare double broadsides. Raise shields.”

“Yes sir. Hailing,” said Jenkins.

“Sir, confirmation. It is the Father Hound. We have a report saying that it hit the colony on Freedom's Hope. They have approximately four hundred civilians on board.”

“Thank you Kalrizian,” Dante grimaced. “Darin prepare precise strikes. We can't risk civilian casualties, we'll have to disable and board it. Sergeant Murtle, prepare a two squads for boarding. Jenkins, have we got a reply?”

“Auto-reply only sir. It claims that it is the merchant ship Venicia.”

“Tell them to drop shields, come about and prepare to be boarded. Call it a routine hazardous material's check. We need to be sure.”

After Jenkins finished sending off his message the rest of the bridge sat quietly as The Warped Imposter slid through space towards the unknown vessel.

“Sir, we have a reply. 'Could not discern message. Please resend.'” said Jenkins.

“Missile launch detected. ETA five point two minutes at a velocity of point eight seven C,” said Kalrizian, as soon as Jenkins was finished with his report.

“Pinpoint strikes launch,” commanded Darin, “begin individual fire after initial mass strike. Launch counter-missiles in two minutes. Begin power-up sequence for point blank laser defense systems in four minutes.”

From the sides of the ship dozens of ports opened up and over a hundred tactical nukes shot out, reoriented themselves to their target and activated their drives. Over the next few minutes Kalrizian announced updates on the missiles from both ships. The communications officer shouted over him when the counter-missiles launched and the laser defense system began to power up. When the pirate missiles got within twenty-five million kilometers of their ship, the first of the counter-missiles entered the fray. In the mere seconds the counter-missiles were in radio-range of the missiles, they managed to disrupt the course of many of their targets.

“Captain, scans show that thirty four percent of their first-wave missiles are still on target. We've still got twenty-four incoming,” Kalrizian reported. He paused for a moment and then continued, “It looks like their counter missiles accounted for all but twenty-nine of our first-wave. They had a slightly more effective launch pattern than we did. Forwarding the strategy to you and our gunners.”

“Thank you Lieutenant. What is the ETA on the first waves?”

“Just under one minute until their missiles hit sir. And just over for ours.”

“Acknowledged. Point-blank defense, prepare tracking algorithms.” He paused, watching the distance readings scroll down on the display. When they reached ten million kilometers he continued, “Fire at will.”

Green bursts of energy shot from turrets along the hull. They streaked towards their targets, fading within seconds. As the missiles got closer, explosions could be seen when the missile defense systems worked. Four missiles managed to get past The Warped Imposter's defenses. The first one glanced off the port shields doing minimal damage. The second hit the starboard shields directly and the third struck the shuttle bay shields. The fourth followed the path of the second and hit in nearly the same location. The already strained shields collapsed and the missile drove into the side of the ship. The explosion breached the outer bulkheads and was fed by the escaping atmosphere. The entire ship shuddered as millions of dollars of equipment slid silently out into space. The blast-doors had been sealed so the damage was limited to a few external compartments and everything vital was closer to the ship's core, but it would still be a blow to the crew to have lost their entertainment system.

Other missiles streaked towards the ship, but they were staggered and the laser systems managed to shoot them down before they got close enough to be a threat. Damage reports began scrolling on the main screen, but most of the vital parts were still where they were supposed to be. Dante redirected a few engineers to fix the more pressing matters but quickly returned to the battle reports.

“Captain, five confirmed hits on the Father Hound. Two seemed to have struck at their engines. Those have been blasted to bits. Their shields are down and most of their launchers have stopped.”

“Thank you,” acknowledged the Captain. “Sergeant Murtle, get your two best teams together. We're going to jump to about five million klicks distant, and launch you at it. You should be able to get a tractor beam to lock on. Secure the shuttle and board the vessel. If any surrender, disarm them, bind them and proceed towards the holds. I want you to secure the civilians. Have your other team secure their bridge. Joax, bring us about to bearing delta-uniform-three-zero by kilo-echo-seven and initiate point seven six AU jump.”

Murtle saluted and left the bridge before Joax could confirm the coordinates. He dropped down the ventilation shaft and rolled into the hallway.

“Bravo Squad, suit up and prepare for hostile boarding. We'll be taking a shuttle into the enemies missile range and securing the captives,” he shouted as he jogged past the marine housing towards the shuttle bays. “Charlie Squad, you'll be going for the bridge.”

Upon arrival in the bay he deftly clambered into his suit of armor and bounded towards the shuttle that the rest of Bravo had already gotten into. He slammed the hatch shut and shouted into his personal comm unit, “Bravo Squad, ready for launch!”

He felt the normal minor shaking involved with a jump, but it was slightly more pronounced now that the ship had a gaping hole in it. As soon as the shaking stopped the shuttle was shot out of The Warped Imposter towards the Father Hound. Almost as suddenly the shuttle jerked, its movement more controlled now that it was attached by tractor beam. After a minute of waiting, praying and hoping that no missiles or lasers would find their ship, the shuttle came in contact with the pirate vessel and resonated.

Murtle waved his hands to back the marines away from the center of the shuttle. He levered up the base hatch after confirming that the seal was good. He extended his cutting tool from his armor and began to slice through the hull. He quickly removed the plug and then waved the squad point through. The marine dropped through the hole, rifle at the ready. He made a loud crashing noise as he landed, but quickly followed up with an “All clear,” over the suits' comm systems. The other four members of the team followed and Murtle dropped last. Quickly they moved along the corridors, kicking open small doors and hacking the larger blast-doors. It took several minutes for them to find any organized resistance. Pirates leaned out from around the corners of the bulkheads and opened fire.

“Put down your weapons and surrender,” called Murtle, his voice echoing through the halls.

“No! Put down your weapons or we'll kill the colonists,” shouted one of the pirates. “Yakov, get a message to Narks, tell him to start killing them.”

“Bravo, cover me,” said Murtle as he loosened his ax. The marines dropped to firing positions and began laying down streams of fire. A pirate leaned around his cover to return fire, but only wearing a common vacuum suit, he was shredded almost instantly.

Murtle swung his ax, the monomolecular edge slid easily through the deck and he dropped down a level. He repeated the maneuver and landed in the hold, surrounded by civilians.

“Terran Extra-system Fleet. I'm here to help,” he said, kicking open the door out of the hold, his power amplified by the hydraulics of the suit. Seeing a metal monstrosity appear from where they thought they had only civilians, the pirates were cowed and quickly surrendered.

The rest of Bravo followed Murtle after they managed to defeat the pirates facing them. Charlie had lost some men getting to the bridge but they had managed to get to the last pair of blast doors. They called up Murtle who clambered back up through the holes he had made and proceeded down the corridors towards the bridge. There were a couple of marines along the way and a dozen or so dead pirates, but for the most part, after showing token resistance, most pirates surrendered and were bound by the marines.

Reaching Charlie Squad, Murtle took up a position, prepared to fight the last holdouts. The blew open the blast doors, to be faced by the commander of the vessel and several other pirates in armored suits. The commander was dressed in an ostentatious red and gold suit, with an unrealistic number of medals pinned to the chest.

“Your men have attacked us and died for what they have done. You can still save the rest of your crew. Surrender,” commanded Murtle.

“I am High General Turcin of House Leor. I am a Lion. Never give up, never surrender!” he shouted, charging, raising his sword high to strike.

“As you wish,” muttered Murtle.

As he stepped forward to slice his enemy in half, a graze from a shot that he not noticed shattered the joint of his suits right arm. It fell off and entangled his legs. Before he could get up, Turcin managed to get a strike in, preventing him from rising. Murtle hit the emergency release on his suit and rolled onto the floor, picking up his dropped ax as he did so. Before Turcin could get another strike in, the Marines focused fire on him, causing him to eject from his suit as well. The Marines then turned to fighting with the armored pirates. Murtle leaned low to the ground, and pivoted around one foot, sweeping with the other and holding his ax up to block. He parried the incoming attack and slid his foot back under himself and rose to a standard fighting position. He twisted his ax to try and hook his enemies sword but Turcin managed to retreat. He struck a quick pattern, high, low, high. Turcin blocked the first two attacks and stepped out of the way of the third. While the last blow was descending he stabbed at Murtle, who managed to twist out of the way. Another series of three quick strikes, but this time Turcin was slower to react and got grazed along his sword arm. In his instant of hesitation, Murtle lunged forward and reversed his strike, lopping off the head of the pirate general. During his fight, three more Marines had fallen, but they had been able to eliminate the last of the slavers.

He grabbed the decapitated general's clothes and used them to clean the blood off his ax before he re-sheathed it. He stepped over to the comm system and opened a channel to the rest of the vessel as well as a stream back to The Warped Imposter.

“This is Sergeant Murtle of The Warped Imposter,” he began, “To all pirates remaining on the vessel, your lives are forfeit. You may surrender and we will treat you according to just law. To Captain Dante, can I keep this ship I found?”

“Sorry Sergeant, regulations state that in absence of compensation for their losses, the victims of any pirate or slaver attack may receive the belongings of the their attackers. This is going to the people of Freedom's Hope. I hear that they didn't lose anyone though. Well done. Return to the Imposter and we can escort these people home.

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