Waiting for the Dawn
Posted By: 4642 Elitist Bastard<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 28 August 2009, 10:59 am
The steamer began to move slowly away, but on the landward horizon appeared the silhouette of a fighting machine. Another came, and another, striding over hills and trees, plunging far out to sea and blocking the exit of the steamer.
Between them lay the silent, grey, ironclad Thunder Child.
Slowly it moved towards shore, then with a deafening roar and whoosh of spray, it swung about and drove at full speed towards the waiting Martians.
--Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds
"Can I get you a coffee, Nina?"
"Yes, please. Milk, no sugar."
Lowell disappeared down the stairwell, and Wan sat back in the chair. She picked up the datapad, and nonchalantly read its contents.
The listening array was due to pass the twenty per cent completion mark today. Brilliant. Now they could monitor around a tenth of the damn sky, in case any Covenant vessel decided it wanted the 18 Scorpii system, and conveniently decided to approach from the direction of Barnard's Star.
She looked back towards 18 Scorpii. Although it was impossible, she swore she could see the tiny blue dot that marked Falaknuma. Who'd want Falaknuma? It was the single most depressing colony world she'd ever visited.
She heard footsteps, and turned back to see her first officer clambering back up the stairwell, a paper cup in each hand.
"There we go, skipper," he said, yawning, as Wan clasped her hands around the cup and sipped the contents. Hot, bitter and grainy. Typical. Someone needed to look at that food and drink dispenser... something wasn't working right.
She mumbled some thanks to Lowell, and stretched her back again. She looked to the holotank at her side. Idle stood there, staring outwards, blankly, glowing dimly.
"Receiver L6 has just had a kernel panic on one of its subsystems and is restarting as we speak, and an LED on D2's control panel is faulty... this is certainly worthy of our attention," he said, sarcastically. If he could have, he would have sighed in frustration.
Wan felt her heart rate spike subconsciously as the semi-silence was interrupted by a shrill beep from the communications station.
"Who is it?" she muttered, the blasé tone saturating her voice.
"Astronomy," Idle intoned, dangerously, polarising a small section of the forward window, which flickered as the projector initialised and the image of a middle-aged man appeared.
"Dr. Mandella," Wan said, forcing a smile. Trying to look cheerful when depressed was a fine art.
"Captain," Mandella said, quietly, an uneasy look on his face, "you'd better get down here."
"What is it?"
"I think you'd better come and see for yourself."
"I'll be down in a minute."
Wan closed the call, and stood up, stretching.
"I'll be back soon. You have the ship, Number One."
Astronomy was a large room in the control centre of the listening array. A massive tinted window looked out on to space, with bright holographic projections dancing across the polarised glass.
"What is it?" Wan asked Mandella, peering at the screen.
"We've just received a data dump from a Slipspace probe that was in deep space, and something has been found approaching at minus fourteen degrees, twenty-four minutes, nineteen seconds from forty-one point nine degrees out of the ecliptic."
"What is it?"
"A group of seven radio shadows."
Mandella struck a few keys and wormed his trackball around, and opened a loupe window showing a tiny region of space. Seven objects, tiny, disk-shaped, squashed perhaps more cigar-shaped than disk-shaped were visible against the noise of the background.
"How much data did you get?"
"Not too much. However, we managed to map its location four times."
The loupe disappeared, and four tiny crosses appeared, spaced apparently randomly, far away from the main 18 Scorpii system.
"And I presume you've projected its course?"
"Yes. We have. And it's headed for Falaknuma."
Mandella struck another key, and a line connected the plotted points. The line swung inwards and just about intercepted the orbit of Falaknuma.
"That's where they're going," Wan whispered. She felt her heart rate spike.
"Check the planned entry"
"I already have," Mandella interrupted, "nothing due for the next three weeks. It's them."
Wan felt her heart rate rise, and her breath quickened. It was them. No matter how depressing Falaknuma was, there were people there who were now in danger.
"How long until they arrive?"
"The radio silhouettes are growing at a rate that would indicate they're at about a hundred thousand astronomical units, approaching at a speed of three point five light years per day. So they'll arrive around about tomorrow morning. Of course, there's a chance they could fudge the jump, but that possibility is incredibly remote. They're incredibly precise, as you should know."
Wan nodded, and took a deep look at the diagram.
"Thank you, Doctor. My advice to you is to get your crew aboard the Isaac Newton, and get the hell out of here. It's unlikely they'll come after you, but it's better to be safe. Besides, it makes sense to call ahead."
"Of course, Captain. Good luck."
Mandella turned off the screen and headed out of the room as the Captain dug her data pad out of her pocket and hit the button for a ship-wide announcement.
"NOW HEAR THIS yellow alert, all combat units to return to the Thunder Child immediately and prepare to leave for Falaknuma. We're going to war. Repeat all combat units are to return to the Thunder Child immediately and prepare to leave for Falaknuma. Command crew to assemble on the bridge. Announcement ends."
No sooner had she hit the end button than the data pad had buzzed again. Lowell.
"Captain, what the hell's going on?"
"The enemy's headed for Falaknuma and they'll be there tomorrow morning."
"I'll be with you in a minute, Andrew. Assemble the command crew on the bridge and get them ready to depart as soon as possible."
Wan stowed the pad back in her pocket and ran for the exit as klaxons blared and lights flashed.
"That's all military units aboard, ma'am," Carey said, tapping the dismiss button on her console, "all decks acknowledging, the board shows green, all go."
"Thank you, Linda," Wan said, "Helmsman, ready the thrusters and prepare to undock us."
"Disengaging the retention locks... done. We're ready to separate."
The intercom clicked on, and Idle's voice reverberated about the ship.
"NOW HEAR THIS Prepare for free fall, repeat, prepare for free fall, followed in one minute by acceleration at two point three earth gravities for twenty four seconds. All hands to acceleration stations and secure your restraints. Announcement ends."
Wan pulled the seatbelt over her chest and clipped it into place underneath the arm rest. The rest of the command crew followed suit, and the oscillating siren indicating imminent manoeuvring echoed up the stairwell.
"Fire thrusters, Ensign Gantt."
There was a clang and a rumble as the retro-rockets fired, and the ship slowly nudged away from the dock.
"Bring us about. Mr. Idle, turn off the artificial gravity."
A siren sounded, and the normal downwards gravity was replaced by gentle acceleration to the side as the dock slid out of the frame of the viewscreen. The mild momentum went as quickly as it had gone.
The siren sounded again, and there was a high-pitched whistle followed by a deep rumble as the aft engines roared into life. Wan felt her extra ninety-one kilogrammes of acquired weight fall back into the seat.
"Fifteen seconds," Idle said, expression remaining politely neutral. Acceleration like this was always mildly uncomfortable, but it was only really punishing if it was sustained for several minutes or more.
The grunting of the engines subsided into silence, and the crew relaxed as the gravity returned to zero gees.
"Mr. Gantt, stand by. Idle, prepare the FTL drive."
"One moment... course computed. Power available to translight engines, new course is available. We're ready to transition."
There was a flash as the Thunder Child's stardrive tore a hole in space, and punched its way out of existence.
"Are you sure you'll be OK, Scott?"
"I'm not sure you are."
"I'm perfectly capable."
"Sorry for bringing it up again," Lowell said, sipping his water, "but look what happened last time."
"That was three and a half years ago"
"I know it was three and a half years ago, but..." he paused for a moment, rearranging the sentence, "I just want what's best for you. The last thing I want is for you to have a panic attack when we're in the middle of a space battle. Mr. Okuda's a perfectly competent helmsman hell, I could take the helm if it was needed."
"I will be absolutely fine," Gantt insisted.
"I'm not sure you will, and neither is Dr. Kabus. We can send you out when we ev"
Lowell looked up, and saw Wan waving at him from the other end of the mess hall. Damn.
"We'll talk about this later, I'll be back in a minute," he said, dropping the cutlery on the plate and heading for the corner.
"Sorry to interrupt your meal, Number One," the Captain said, apologetically, "but I wanted to just make you aware of what I plan on doing tomorrow."
"If we get the crew up late, around twelve mid-day, that leaves three hours for preparations. I think that we should send around half of our Marines down to secure the launch bays for the evacuation fleet."
Andrew frowned as he thumbed through the battle plan she'd written.
"Has Major LeBlanc run through this with you?"
"I'll show him later. I just wanted to give you a quick run-down on what I had planned. Go back to your meal, we can talk more in the morning."
"Of course, Captain." He handed back the data pad, and Wan darted out of the mess hall.
That was a bad plan. She was overestimating the ship's abilities: also, if this talk of a heat weapon proved true, the Marines would be toast. Literally.
He'd need to have a word with Idle later.
Wan swivelled around to see Idle, standing at full-size behind her, glowing brightly. For a moment, without thinking about it, she studied his projected form.
There was something bookishly attractive about him: Idle took the form of a skinny, pale-skinned man with crew-cut hair, a long trench coat and an astonishing variety of neckties, all of which shimmered with data when he was thinking. A pair of glasses sat on the bridge of his nose... a-ha. That was what had changed.
"You got rid of your goatee," she said.
"Very observant," the AI said, rubbing the fine coating of stubble on his cheeks and chin that had replaced the beard. "Do you like it?"
"It suits you."
"Thank you," he said, smiling and seating himself, a stool appearing to materialise beneath him. His facial expression quickly neutralised.
"Captain, it's twenty past eleven."
"Are the crew doing as I told them? Getting some sleep before tomorrow?" she said, not looking up from the computer she was working at.
"Most of them went to bed ages ago. Mr. Gantt is en route to his and Mr. Lowell's quarters, so I presume he's planning on persuading him to come to bed. Ms. Robertson is just preparing herself some hot cocoa as we speak. Dr. Kabus will be coming to the end of his night shift in the infirmary in an hour or so. There are three Marines still, one of whom is writing a letter to his parents, another who is praying, and another who has sneaked a data pad into his cabin and is currently watching a pornographic movie"
"Thank you, Mr. Idle," Wan said, interrupting him. Knowing what he was like, he'd then go on to give her the title, price and a detailed synopsis of the movie probably just to annoy her.
That was his tell. Nina knew all too well that artificial intelligences had discernible personality quirks, too: Idle had several, but his most prominent was the slightly more irritating, more robotic demeanour that surfaced when he was about to break bad news.
"Idle... what is it?" she asked, setting down her stylus and turning to face him fully.
There was a pause of seven seconds: a millennium in computer time.
"If I'm honest, Captain," he finally stated, bluntly, "I think you're wasting your time."
"Wasting my time?"
"Devising a ground assault strategy and then planning for an engagement in high orbit. It's a waste of time."
There was a short pause as Wan processed the information. Quietly, but forcefully, she leaned a little closer in.
"And why do you think that, Mr. Idle?"
"You know full well why, Captain," Idle said, shades of orange and red shimmering into his skin tones, "firstly, we're in a Phoenix-class ship that was only ever built to ferry colonists across Slipspace, one settlement at a time. They have seven three-kilometre long cruisers."
"What about the fleet at Falaknuma?"
"Three Marathon-class ships. They'll be no match for a fleet of seven heavily-armoured cruisers, plus one experimental weapon."
"Experimental weapon?" Wan's breath stabbed at her diaphragm again.
"Did you not read the radio chatter dump that was sent over from the Mello observatory?"
"No," Wan said, dangerously, "as a matter of fact, I didn't."
"It states," began Idle, matter-of-factly, "that the 'fiery blade' or 'weapon' we're unsure of the exact translation requires twelve units of time between each strike, or that they only have power for twelve minutes of continuous fire. I'm unsure which."
"That was a lot of help, then..."
"Our knowledge of the Covenant languages is severely limited," Idle interrupted, irritably, "especially that of those used by the higher castes. Cracking the encryption was difficult enough."
Wan ignored his complaint.
"What kind of weapon is it?"
"We don't know."
A purple sparkle slid across Idle's tie.
"Judging by the references to 'fires', 'infernos' and other variations in that family of words, I would take a calculated guess that this... weapon... somehow works by heating up its target. That may mean that it's an incredibly efficient infra-red or microwave laser, or it may mean a more destructive plasma weapon."
"It's impossible for me to guess."
There was another pregnant silence as the two glared at each other.
"We're digressing," Idle said, finally, deciding that the Captain had been allowed enough time to devise a retort, "the second fact is that we have no idea where exactly the Covenant are going to appear, where they're going to go once they've slipped out. For all we know, they could be here to glass pretty patterns on the surface with their new heat weapon. For all we know, by the time they've arrived, the refugee ships will all have been blown to smithereens and Falaknuma will be a giant globule of molten glass."
"And your point is, Mr. Idle?"
"Planning now for something that we can't predict until tomorrow is insane. The concept of a ground engagement followed by a high-orbital dogfight makes no sense whatsoever"
The synthesised voice ceased immediately, his mouth hanging open in thin air.
"Mr. Idle," the Captain said, quietly, "thank you for your concern: it has been noted. I will now appreciate it if you turned the cameras off in this room, and left me in peace."
Idle remained static for a few moments, his tie simmering with gold text and logic diagrams. Finally, the mouth opened again, and the voice spoke.
His avatar snapped out of existence.
Wan took a brief look around in the deafening silence. Slowly, silently, she drooped her head, swung about on her chair and opened her mouth.
"Computer. Play Eno, Apollo."
Music wafted from the speakers, and she returned to planning the offensive.
Andrew heard the door open and close softly behind him. He didn't look up as a familiar shadow cast itself over the desk.
"Hello," he muttered, quietly, as a hand landed on his right shoulder, and Ensign Gantt spoke in a low voice, accentuating his Texan drawl.
"Andrew, it's quarter past eleven. You're exhausted."
"I'm fine," Lowell protested, shrugging the hand off the shoulder.
"You're not," Gantt retorted, "you've been awake for forty hours, practically solid. The Captain told us to get some rest."
Andrew half-sighed, half-yawned as lightly calloused fingers reached around his temples and removed his glasses, reducing everything to a pleasant blur, the warm colours of the dimly-lit room smudging in to each other.
Gently, he stood and stepped out from the desk, dozing on his feet. He was vaguely aware of Scott's soft hands fumbling gently at the fastenings of the jumpsuit, the scratchy fabric tumbling to the floor, the undershirt being peeled away, and the sudden presence of a mattress against his cheek.
He forced his eyes open, and weakly smiled as his partner climbed into the bed with him and gave a gentle kiss on the forehead.
"Night, Andrew. Get some rest."
His vision flickered and faded into the greyness and blackness of fatigue, and within moments, he was out like a light.
Deep within the bowels of the colony ship, Nina Wan walked the corridors of the Thunder Child.
The overhead lights were dimmed, matching the time of 'day', and the climate control was far too hot, edging at just under twenty-nine Celsius. It had been playing up for weeks now. That would have to be fixed.
Little orange lights glowed around her; everyone had their "do not disturb" light on, so they were either asleep or close to being asleep. As she'd ordered.
Well, almost everyone.
She reached the elevator and dialled for Deck 49. There was a quiet rumble, a sliding noise, and a thump as the car braked.
"Deck forty-nine," the emotionless, genderless voice of the lift's computer said, "infirmary, ITU and casualty room. Stand clear, doors opening."
The door slid apart, and Wan stepped into the slightly cooler environment of the ship's sickbay.
As infirmaries went, it was rather quiet: she counted seven patients, all of whom were asleep. Or catatonic. This particular ward easily had capacity for seventy-five.
At the end of the ward, she could see the dim glow of a desk lamp through a small window. Dr. Kabus was still at work.
The Captain crossed the ward and buzzed the door.
William Kabus IV claimed to be twenty-four, but looked closer to forty. Dark hair capped an unhealthily skinny face, and heavy shadows sank into his eye sockets. If one replaced his clothes with a loincloth, he could have crawled out from a cave.
"Captain," Kabus said, stretching and rubbing his eyes, "what can I do for you?"
"Bill, you need to rest up. Everyone else is asleep, Idle can monitor the sickbay."
"Just let me finish this," Kabus yawned, scratching his chin and tapping in the remaining sentence. "There."
He stood, saved the file, shut down the computer, and led Nina out of the office.
"What are you still doing up at this time of night, Captain?"
"I'm devising the battle plan for tomo no, it's today now, isn't it? You know what I mean."
"You're devising the battle plan?" Bushy eyebrows slid up Bill's forehead.
"Um..." Kabus remained evasive for a moment, "I... I just thought Major LeBlanc would be deciding whether or not there was going to be a ground engagement."
"He's got enough work on his plate already conditioning his men into preparing for a battle after two years of inactivity."
"In twelve hours. That's not enough time, Captain."
"Well, he'll have to do his best."
"I still think"
"You concern is noted."
Kabus paused for a moment to rearrange the sentence, and spat it out.
"Why do we even need to engage the Covenant on the ground?"
"Isn't it obvious? Secure the silos for the departure of the escape ships."
"And how," Bill inquired, "are they supposed to defend the silos against a giant heat-ray?"
"You heard about the experimental weapon?"
"Everyone has. About three hours ago."
Wan digested this information for a moment.
"I presume some simple AA guns"
"Nina," Kabus said, positioning himself in front of her, "I'm a doctor, not a strategist. However, in my opinion, what you're planning is a bad idea."
"Deck 99. Observation lounge, Captain's cabin, senior crew quarters, command situation room. Stand clear, doors opening."
Kabus turned around and left without a "good night," and Wan only just realised that she'd entered the lift and dialled for Deck 99 without remembering it.
Perhaps she was too tired.
She re-entered her quarters, and sat down back in front of her desk. A holographic representation of the battle plan she'd devised glowed dimly before her.
Did Bill know about Barnard's Star? News travelled fast around the ship, but as far as she could discern, Lowell had done a reasonably good job of keeping the incident three years prior hush-hush. Or it had been allowed to seep out, and he'd done a good job of keeping all gossip about it behind her back.
She pondered this for a moment, and then, on a whim, sent a message to Idle.
"Where are Commander Lowell and Ensign Gantt now?"
"They're both in bed, sleeping like angels."
The exchange was terse, and she interpreted that as a subconscious message from Idle. Go to bed. Get some sleep.
How did a terse conversation indicate an order to sleep? She was reading too much into it.
She sat up in the chair, took a large gulp of coffee, and brought the computer out of standby.
Warmth. A cool breeze. A shaded sun, setting just behind the trees... and Andrew.
Oh god Andrew.Scott watched as his love, his rock, his baby, approached, arms thrown wide, ready to engulf him in his affection...
he's got a hole in his chest
and blood's pouring out
oh godoh godhe's dying
Scott felt himself jolt, and let out an unhindered scream of terror.
The image floated above his mind, like the fallout zone of a nuclear blast, polluting his logic as he kicked and screamed in involuntary spasms of terror...
A soft voice sounded in his left ear, and he felt two strong, warm sets of fingers grip tightly on to his shoulders. He blinked, his vision clouded by tears, and fumbled with his hands.
"Ssh... you're OK."
Scott took a deep breath, and felt the fingers on the right side of his shoulder relax and wander up to his face, gently caressing his jawbone. A soft pair of lips met his mouth in a quiet, tender kiss.
He blinked, and felt his muscles relax as the blur above his head resolved into Andrew's face, glowing a dark gold in the orange light of the bedside lamp.
Scott flung his arms around him, just to make sure he was there. He was. A warm hand glided around and gently stroked his back.
"You're OK, Scott," Andrew whispered, soothingly, as his lover nuzzled into his neck, "I've got you."
The dreams had been infrequent of late. A symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, he'd been told. Captain Wan had confessed to Scott that she'd already known about their long-distance relationship beforehand, and that part of her rationale for bringing Andrew aboard as the first officer was that she was "not going to have my helmsman in a permanent state of despondency."
He tightened his grip on Andrew, and whispered in his ear.
"I love you, baby."
"I love you too, sweetheart," his lover breathed in reply.
"I'm scared," Scott whispered, his voice wobbling.
"Don't be," he murmured, quietly. Scott silently complied as Andrew moved him so that he was lying on top of him, his ear cupped to his heart. Its gentle thud-thud rhythm was reassuring, as were the soft fingers that were now gently stroking themselves through his hair.
"Goodnight, love," Andrew said, turning the light down again. Sleep came within the minute.
"Idle," Wan said, swivelling in her chair irritably to face the hologram, "I told you to leave me to complete the"
"It's nearly half past one. You need to get some sleep, not slave away futilely planning something"
"I will decide how I'm going to spend my time, thank you," Wan snapped.
"That's not relevant," said Idle, his tie tingeing an angry red and his face twisting into a rare expression of exasperation, "you're wasting your time."
"Excuse me, Mr. Idle," the Captain said, deliberately staring straight into his eyes, "but who's the captain round here?"
"What are you going to do? Shut me down? You're welcome to. You won't be able to exit Slipspace without me."
For a moment, Wan remained silent. She leaned even further forward, her nose almost merging into some of the projected features.
"Are you threatening me, Mr. Idle?"
"Oh, come on, Nina," Idle flared, "get some perspective. It's not going to be a guns-blazing Thunder Child-saves-the-day scenario. Falaknuma's practically dead in the water. It's going to be damage limitation, making sure those rescue ships get to Earth as solids, not as lumps of molten metal, and making damn sure that no-one dies needlessly."
"It is, Nina. It's throwing lives away. Sending them down to the surface is like stripping 'em naked and throwing them into ice-cold water. It'll be very painful and very fatal."
There was yet another deafening silence.
"OK, then, Mr. Idle. What do you propose?" she demanded, softly.
Idle's tie glowed with thought.
"I propose simply getting us the hell off this ship, and moving on to the rescue vessels. We can control the Thunder Child remotely."
"And what would happen to the ship?"
"Come on, Captain. It's a lump of metal with bits of silicon and plastic inside, with some nuclear reactors on one end. We could use it as a fireship or simply as a ram."
"Don't be so fatalist," Wan barked.
"I am not being fatalist," Idle insisted, "I am simply being realist. Have you even read the Cole protocol?"
"I have. If the worst comes to the worst, we go down with"
"Bull shit," Idle interjected, "this war has enough dead heroes. What you're planning is reckless just like what happened at Barnard's Star."
"Mr. Idle..." Wan snarled, finally, "shut up and get out of my cabin."
The lights snapped off, and the room was cast into darkness. Damn. That meant he'd turned off the computer, too.