Chapter 13
The Coming Storm
Location:
ESS Spotted Houndshark, Outer Rim of the Martian Sphere
Date: Mon 27 Oct 122
Time: UST 2114

Ensign Juneau Weiss-Pulver waited for the docking port to open. It was a routine stop-and-search, but you never knew when things might get ugly. Who needs the Shellies when you have to deal with smugglers, pirates and other desperadoes on a regular basis? Out on the edges of civilization, the criminal element seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.
It annoyed her how much people crapped on the Orbital Guard. The OG did more for the day-to-day security of the planetary spheres than any of those big hundred billion-credit warships. Investing all that money and manpower into the Orbital Guard would make Union space far safer, but would the bigwigs in Atlantis City ever listen? Of course not.
Before she could grouse any more on the undervaluation of the Orbital Guard, the port opened, revealing a scraggly-looking man in greasy coveralls. Standing stiff as a ramrod, Ensign Pulver gave the standard introduction.
"Orbital Guard. We are coming aboard to inspect this vessel for contraband."
Even though she could imagine the answer, she then asked, "Are you the captain of this vessel?"
"No'm," the scraggly man replied.
"Would you take me to him?"
"Aye'm."
Pulver and her six-man boarding party came aboard and the scraggly man led them through the narrow passageways to the bridge. 'Bridge' was perhaps too generous a description for the cramped two-seater pilot room. Both seats were filled and there was nothing to distinguish one man from the other.
"Orbital Guard," Ensign Pulver said. "Which one of you is the captain?"
A balding, bearded man raised his hand. He was sweating rather profusely and he dabbed his forehead with a dirty handkerchief.
"We are here to inspect your ship," Pulver said. "Under Article 33 of the Aerospace and Maritime Commerce Act of 103, you have one chance to declare and surrender any and all illegal or unlicensed items in your possession for a mitigated penalty. Do you or any of your crew have anything you would like to declare at this time?"
The captain, still dabbing his forehead, muttered something in a language Pulver didn't understand.
"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to speak in Standard."
The captain continued to speak in the language she didn't understand. This was starting to get annoying.
"Sir--"
"Ma'am," Fireman Jabbar interrupted, "allow me."
"Go ahead," Ensign Pulver said.
Jabbar started talking to the captain in a pidgin of Arabic and whatever language the captain was using. Even though her Arabic was poor, she was able to get the gist of what was being said. The captain switched to using straight Arabic, which Pulver could understand better, but she wasn't fluent enough to properly conduct the inspection. However, she suspected the captain was obfuscating his understanding of Standard. It was likely just a tactic to delay them. All the more reason to hurry things along.
"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to escort us to your cargo hold," she said.
Jabbar took the initiative to repeat what she said in Arabic. It was probably unnecessary, but she saw no harm in it. The boarding party had to press themselves against the bulkhead to let the captain pass and then let Pulver follow behind.
As they were walking, a jet of steam burst from a leaky pipe, blasting Ensign Pulver right in the face. She screamed and would've fallen if Seaman Waldemar hadn't caught her arm.
"Are you alright, ma'am?" Waldemar asked.
Wincing from the pain, Pulver replied, "I'll live. How does it look?"
"A little red, ma'am, but I think you'll be okay."
"I'll have Doc look at it when we get back to the Spotty Dog. Let's finish thing up here."
Jabbar found the cutoff valve to stop the steam from spraying anyone else.
Holding her sore cheek, Pulver told her men, "Be careful around here, people. It doesn't look like maintenance is a priority for our hosts."
"Unless it was on purpose," Fireman Bello muttered.
"Can the chatter, Bello," Petty Officer Madero growled. "We got a job to do. Let's get to doin' it."
They continued on and the only other incident on the way to the cargo hold was Seaman Nguyen slipping on a pool of oil on the deck. When they got to the hatch to the cargo hold, the captain directed a nearby crewman in Spanish to open it. His act of feigning the language barrier grew thinner by the minute.
When the captain gestured to the open hatch, Ensign Pulver told him, "After you, sir."
Jabbar told him to go down in Arabic in rougher terms than Pulver used, but if the captain was going to continue to play this game, he could deal with a little rudeness. Once the captain climbed down into the hold, it was Pulver's term.
Drawing his sidearm and turning on the attached flashlight, Madero said, "I've got you covered, ma'am."
Before going down, Pulver told the boarding party, "Madero, Jabbar, Waldemar, and Nguyen, I want you to come down with me. Cervantes and Bello, post here."
"Aye-aye, ma'am," the boarding party replied in unison.
With Madero covering her, Ensign Pulver descended down the companionway into the cargo hold. While the stench wafted its way up when the hatch was opened, it struck Pulver full force when she went below. She covered her nose with her sleeve at first, but quickly realized that she needed to have both her hands free. Resolving to deal with the dank, musty smell of the hold, she dropped her arm. She pulled out her Foodoo from its case on her belt and unfolded it. Hooking it on her ear, she tapped the button on the side to turn on the built-in flashlight to compensate for the exceedingly dim lighting.
Turning her head, Ensign Pulver nearly jumped right out of her skin at the sight of a big black crewman just standing there between some crates. He was holding a heavy wrench that had to be nearly a meter long and a good five kilos at least.
Quickly drawing her sidearm, Pulver identified herself, saying, "Orbital Guard." Motioning with her offhand, she then told the crewman, "Put the wrench down on the deck... slowly."
The big crewman looked at her impassively for a moment before complying with her order. From the deck above, Madero called down to her.
"You alright down there, ma'am?"
"I'm okay," she replied. Keeping her weapon trained on the crewman, she told him, "Now keep your hands where I can see them and slowly walk over to the captain. That's right."
As the crewman walked over to the captain, never showing his back to Pulver, Madero descended down the companionway. As he was stepping off onto the deck, he scanned the area and asked Pulver, "Everything okay, ma'am?"
"Yeah," she said, lowering her sidearm. "He just spooked me is all."
"Come on, people!" Madero shouted to the men above. "Shake a leg."
Waldemar, Jabbar, and Nguyen promptly made their way down. Once everyone was there, the inspection could begin.
"Nguyen, get your scanner out," Pulver said.
"Aye-aye, ma'am."
"Is it started up?"
"Yes, ma'am."
Pulver tapped her Foodoo.
"Synching now."
It took a second and then she was getting the scanner's readings on her display.
"Okay. We're good to go. Let's get started."
While Nguyen was running the scan, Ensign Pulver could see the discrepancies from the get-go. The captain had a lot of explaining to do.
"According to the manifest you submitted," Pulver said, "you're supposed to be carrying machine parts, but we're reading a lot of organics."
Sticking to his phony language barrier, the captain, still dabbing his forehead, said something in his unintelligible language of choice.
After arguing with him for a bit, Jabbar then told her, "He says it's just straw packing, ma'am."
"Straw packing?" Waldemar scoffed. "Who the hell uses straw packing?"
"Not people transporting machine parts, I can tell ya that," Madero replied.
Pulver pointed to one of the crates.
"Open it up."
The captain nodded to the crewman, who kept his hands up as he walked to the crate. It was the kind that opened up from the side rather than the top, which made their task easier.
"Okay, get back," Pulver told the crewman, gesturing with her sidearm. "Waldemar, Jabbar, check it."
Waldemar and Jabbar went to the crate and pulled out the rotting straw that was clearly there for the sole purpose of disrupting scanners. There were lengths of tube in the crate, some sort of air hose, perhaps. As the two sailors were pulling out the coils of tubing, Waldemar seemed to notice something.
"What have we here?"
While the tube appeared intact, there was a split down the length masked by plastic reinforcement rings and some cheap adhesive that was already failing. Waldemar opened up the tube and pulled out a plastic cylinder. Even without opening the cylinder, Nguyen's scanner was able to read the contents. Raw hashish resin. Not the typical fare of drug smugglers out in the Colonies.
Following Waldemar's lead, Jabbar was able to find another, similar cylinder that came up with the same results on the scanner. That was more than enough evidence. Ensign Pulver promptly called up their mothership.
"Desmond, this is Sierra Hotel Zero-Two. We have a positive ID on contraband. Request towing. Over."
Pointing her weapon at the captain, she said, "You're under arrest. Hands behind your head, interlock your fingers, face the bulkhead. Madero, search and cuff them, please."
The two men began to turn around, but as Madero approached them, the big crewman spun around and charged at him with a great roar.
"Look out!" Pulver cried.
Almost as soon as Madero shouted, "FREEZE!", he opened fire, sinking four pulses center mass and side-stepping to avoid the crewman as he fell headlong onto the deck.
In all the commotion, no one saw a pistol spring up into the captain's hand from a wrist-mounted rig. He took aim at Ensign Pulver and fired three rounds right into her chest. As Pulver fell backward, she shot at the captain, as did Madero, Waldemar, Jabbar, and Nguyen. The captain's body flailed like a ragdoll before flopping onto the deck.
Madero cautiously approached the captain's body, kicked the pistol away and knelt down to check his pulse.
Bello stuck his head down through the hatch and asked, "Are y'all alright down there?"
Before anyone could answer him, he fell screaming down the companionway, or rather, he was pushed.
Amid the sound of his pulse rifle firing, Cervantes could be heard yelling, "Drop your weapon!"
Sounds of a struggle followed, banging and grunting.
"A little help up here!" Cervantes cried, still holding his own, but just barely.
While going to Ensign Pulver, Madero pointed to the companionway and shouted, "Waldemar, Nguyen, go!"
Waldemar got on the companionway first and was almost at the top when he had to duck down as the hatch slammed shut.
"Dammit!" Waldemar cursed. Quickly regaining his bearings, he looked down over his shoulder and shouted, "Nguyen, brace me!"
With Nguyen supporting him, the brawny Waldemar was able to force the hatch open and scrambled up before it could be closed again. The noise of the struggle was ended with what sounded like a few buttstrokes of a rifle.
Waldemar could be heard asking, "You alright, Cervantes!"
"Yeah, I got it."
"We're clear up here!" Waldemar announced. "How's the Ensign?"
Madero snapped open Ensign Pulver's shirt to inspect her TacVest underneath. He then opened up the TacVest to ensure none of the rounds penetrated. Thankfully, they didn't.
"She's gonna be okay," Madero said.
"Thanks for askin' 'bout me, ya sumbitch!" Bello yelled angrily.
"You'll be fine, Bello," Jabbar said, inspecting the arm he landed on. "It's just a sprain."
"It still fuckin' hurts," Bello whined.
Ensign Pulver could sympathize. While the TacVest is designed to provide some ballistic protection, you can't expect to walk away unscathed. She at least had a couple cracked ribs and could expect a nasty bruise to cover most of the left side of her chest.
However, she had more important concerns than her own injuries.
"How are they?" she asked, referring to the captain and the crewman. Unwittingly, her P43 was still pointed where the captain was lying.
"Captain's dead," Madero said. "Big guy's still alive."
"Give him first aid and stabilize him," Pulver said, starting to sit up, holding her injured chest. "We need to sweep the ship and round up the crew." She looked to the companionway and said, "Tell me what's going on up there."
"Waldemar," Madero shouted, "what's the situation?"
"Two hostiles down," Waldemar replied.
"Living or dead?"
"One dead, the other banged up a bit."
"You got the living one cuffed?"
"Naw, I'm just waitin' for him ta get his second wind so we can tussle again. Maybe he'll chuck Nguyen down there next."
"Cut the smartassery, Waldemar. Shit's gotten real."
Madero turned back to Ensign Pulver and said, "Ma'am, we should pull out and let the Desmond take care of things here."
Pulver shook her head stubbornly.
"Negative. We can finish the job."
Before they could do that, though, they were going to need some help from the Spotted Houndshark. She called up Lieutenant McWhorter, the captain, on the radio.
"Sierra Hotel Zero-One, this is Sierra Hotel Zero-Two. We've had hostiles. Two fatalities, two wounded, one critical. We have two light injuries in the boarding party. We could use Sierra Hotel Zero-Seven. Over."
Sierra Hotel Zero-Seven was the ship's Corpsman, Hospitalman Najjar. Although he was still an E-3, he actually had a civilian nursing license and was quite good at his job. He could've been commissioned as a nurse, but he chose to serve as an enlisted Corpsman instead.
Najjar wouldn't be able to do much for her besides give her some ibuprofen and maybe some ointment for the burn on her face, but they were obliged to do what they could to keep even someone like the big crewman alive and Najjar was the only one in the crew who stood a chance at saving that man's life.
"Sierra Hotel Zero-Two, this is Sierra Hotel Zero-One," Lieutenant McWhorter replied. "You need to round up the civilians and evacuate immediately."
The unexpected order caused Pulver to lapse from standard radio protocol and ask, "Sir?"
"We're picking up dozens of bogeys here," the Lieutenant explained. "We need to get out now."
So many bogeys... Could it be the Shellies? Pulver felt numb.
"What is it, ma'am?" Madero asked.
"Trouble," she said. "Inbound bogies."
"Shit..." Madero muttered under his breath. Clearly he was thinking the same thing she was.
"We have to get the crew and evac," Pulver said.
"Understood, ma'am."
After helping Ensign Pulver to her feet, Madero walked over to the big man and said, "Jabbar, give me a hand with this guy." He then shouted up the companionway, "Waldemar, get ready! We're bringin' up the big guy."
Madero took hold of the big crewman under the arms while Jabbar took hold of his feet.
"You got him?" Madero asked.
"Yeah," Jabbar replied.
"Up we go."
It was no easy task to carry the big crewman up the companionway, but between Madero and Jabbar, they were able to get him far enough that Waldemar could get him the rest of the way.
"You next, Bello," Pulver said.
This gave Pulver time to close her TacVest and rebutton her shirt--at least as far as she could since Madero popped a few buttons. The shirt would have to be scrapped because of the bullet holes anyway, so it was no great loss.
Once she was up through the hatch, Pulver saw a crewman they had not encountered before lying dead on the deck while the scraggly crewman they first met was slumped against the bulkhead, his wrists zip-tied behind his back and his face red and puffy from several no doubt well-deserved blows.
She wasted no time giving orders.
"Waldemar and Cervantes, carry the casualty to the Spotty Dog. Bello, you can escort this detainee. Nguyen, guard the docking port. Madero, take Jabbar and do a quick sweep. We need to be out in five minutes."
"What about you, ma'am?" Madero asked.
"I'm going to the pilot room."
"Alone, ma'am? I wouldn't advise it."
"I'll be fine," Pulver insisted, suppressing a wince from her now throbbing chest. "There's no time. Just execute."
"Aye-aye, ma'am."
Pulver made her way back to the pilot room. Not taking any chances, she already had her sidearm drawn when she approached the pilot.
"Hands up," she said tersely. "Does this ship have an intercom?"
"No, mum, it don't," the pilot replied.
"How about an evacuation alarm?"
The pilot laughed.
"Whey we gonna evacuate?"
"You have to have some way to communicate with each other in the event of an emergency."
"Wolkie-tolkie," the pilot said.
His hand started to migrate downward, but Pulver reaimed her weapon at his head before he could get too far.
"Keep your hands up. Stand up slowly. Now turn around. Hands behind your head."
The pilot complied and Pulver holstered her sidearm, hoping to cuff him before he could try anything. She worked so fast, in fact, that she was already getting the second wrist into the zip-tie by the time he could say, "'Ey, wot's the big oidea?"
"You're under arrest," Pulver said. "Which pocket?"
When he did not respond, she had to clarify.
"Which pocket is the walkie-talkie in?"
"Leff pockit."
She was patting around the left breast pocket of his coveralls, when the pilot corrected her.
"Naw, me 'ip pockit."
Somewhat reluctantly, Pulver reached into the unusually deep hip pocket to fish around for the walkie-talkie. The pilot chuckled lecherously.
"Heh heh, now thee's some sehvice."
Pulver opted to ignore him. When she pulled out the walkie-talkie, she asked him, "What channel?"
"Olreedy set, mum."
Pushing down the talk button, Pulver said, "Attention all crewmembers. This is the Orbital Guard. You must evacuate this ship immediately. Head to the docking port at once and await instructions. Any resistance or other noncompliance will result in you being left behind. You have two minutes.
"I repeat, all crewmembers must evacuate immediately. Head to the docking port and await instructions. You have two minutes. Out."
Stuffing the walkie-talkie into her own pocket, Pulver grabbed the pilot by the collar and steered him out of the pilot room.
"Come on," she said.
"Wot's the rush?"
Pulver did not answer him. She was thankful she remembered the way back to the docking port. The last thing she needed was to wander lost in the passageways. Nguyen was still posted at the docking port as ordered, but Chief Spinelli was also there waiting on the other side.
As soon as he saw her, the Chief said, "Ma'am, you need to get aboard now."
"Are Madero and Jabbar back yet?" Pulver asked.
"Negative, ma'am."
Getting on her radio, Pulver said, "Sierra Hotel Zero-Six, this is Sierra Hotel Zero-Two. Get back to the Spotty Dog ASAP. Over."
"Sierra Hotel Zero-Two, this is Sierra Hotel Zero-Six," Madero replied. "We haven't finished our sweep. Over."
"There's no time!" Pulver shouted. "Get out of there!"
Much calmer than her, Madero replied in a steady voice, "Copy that, Sierra Hotel Zero-Two."
Pulver insisted on waiting at the docking port with the Chief. It didn't take long to hear the sound of boots clacking on the deck. As soon as Madero could be seen rounding the corner, Pulver eagerly waved him and Jabbar in, yelling, "Come on, come on!"
As soon as the two of them were in, Pulver asked Madero, "Did you find anyone?"
"Negative, ma'am," Madero replied. "They might be hiding out."
"We can't worry about that now," she said. To Chief Spinelli, she shouted, "Close it!"
"Aye-aye, ma'am," the Chief said, closing the docking port and detaching their ship from that of the smugglers.
Having successfully evacuated the entire boarding party was no small relief, but they weren't out of the woods yet.
Tugging on the pilot's collar, she said, "Madero, take the prisoner to the holding cell. I'm going to the bridge."
"Aye-aye, ma'am," Madero replied, taking the pilot off her hands.
The adrenaline was starting to wear off and Pulver was reminded of stinging pain in her face and the throbbing pain in her chest. She couldn't worry about them now, though.
Like everything else on the Spotted Houndshark, the bridge was cramped, honestly not much better than the tiny pilot's room on the smugglers' ship. There was room for the captain, the XO and the four crewmembers manning the terminals, but not much more than that.
Because she wasn't the ranking officer there, the bridge wasn't called to attention when she entered. Honestly, at a time like this, it was just as well.
The first thing she did upon setting foot in the bridge was ask, "What's the situation, Captain?"
Lieutenant McWhorter wasted no time asking about the smugglers. They weren't even a factor at the moment.
"Scanners have confirmed the bogies are Shellies," the Lieutenant said, "more than I've ever seen. They're closing fast. There's no way we can outrun them, not in this hunkajunk."
The Sky Sharks were antiques. It had only been two months since they celebrated the sixty-first anniversary of the Spotty Dog's commissioning. They should've been retired years ago, but there weren't enough of the new Starstorms to go around, so even though most of the class had already been shuffled to the Reserve before the war even began, they continued to be rotated into 'temporary' active duty service.
The latest warships could stand a chance against the Shellies. An old ship like the Spotty Dog? Well, there was a reason the early years of the war were so brutal.
That didn't mean they ought to just roll over and die, though.
"We have to do something!"
"We're going at full burn," the Lieutenant said. "The Desmond went on ahead as soon as the bogeys were IDed as Shellies. At best, we might be able to buy them some time."
The nearly four hundred crewmembers of the Desmond versus the twenty-three of them. It was no contest. Of course, the Wellesley-class frigates weren't much faster, so ditching their escort might not improve their chances of survival much.
"We sent a distress signal," Lieutenant McWhorter continued. "It'll take the Bedivere about two hours to meet us."
"When will the bogeys make contact?" Pulver asked.
"They're not bogeys anymore, Pulver," the Lieutenant said severely. "We know what they are. They're Shellies and it'll take them three and half hours to overtake us. That's if they don't pick up the pace."
Ensign Pulver allowed herself a brief moment of hope.
"So we might just get out of this?"
"Maybe," the Lieutenant said, "but it's gonna take the whole damn Fifth Fleet to repel this many Shellies and even then..."
Before Pulver could reflect on what Lieutenant McWhorter had said, Petty Officer Delacoeur spoke up.
"Sir, we've got contacts breaking off from the main formation. They're accelerating."
"Estimated time to intercept?" Lieutenant McWhorter asked.
"One hour and forty-four minutes."
"What was the time on the Bedivere?"
"Two hours and twenty-four minutes, sir."
"We'll never last forty minutes," the Lieutenant said. "Delacoeur, contact the Bedivere and request that they send some of their escorts on ahead."
"Aye, sir," Delacoeur replied. "Bedivere, this is Spotted Houndshark. We have hostile contacts accelerating to intercept. Request faster ships in your squadron accelerate to meet them."
"Spotted Houndshark, this is Bedivere," a voice over the radio replied. "Request is denied. We cannot compromise the squadron's defensive posture."
Lieutenant McWhorter went over to Delacoeur's console and took her headset.
"Give me that," he said. "Bedivere, this is the captain speaking. If you don't send those ships on ahead, we're all going to die."
A new voice responded, presumably the captain of the Bedivere or maybe even the commander of the squadron.
"Captain, if we send any ships ahead, the entire squadron could be lost. You'll just have to hold out until we get there."
"Acknowledged," Lieutenant McWhorter said.
As soon the feed was cut, the Lieutenant slammed the headset on the console and kicked the side of another terminal, screaming, "Goddammit!"
He stood there staring at the deck with his head hung and shoulders slumped. Pulver tried to break the awkward silence.
"Sir, I--"
Not even listening to her, the Lieutenant straightened himself up and said, "I have an idea. Delacoeur, get me Engineering."
He picked the headset up right as a voice crackling with static replied, "Engineering."
"This is McWhorter. I want you to disable the safety on the engines and increase output 30%."
There was a pause before the voice on the other end, the Engineering LPO, said, "Sir, are you sure that's a good idea? The failsafe could kick in and shut 'em down."
"We have to chance it, Wincott," Lieutenant McWhorter said. "It's the only way we're going to stand a chance of surviving."
"Aye, sir. I'll let you know when it's done. Engineering, out."
While Ensign Pulver certainly preferred to see her captain doing just about anything besides surrendering to the inevitable, such a reckless move didn't make her feel much better.
"Sir, what if the failsafe kills the engines?" she asked.
"As long as we can get our speed up, it may not matter," Lieutenant McWhorter replied.
Of course. Even for a Colonial like Pulver, it was easy to fall into the trap of terrestrial thinking. There was no wind or water resistance to slow the ship down. Any increase in speed in space has much farther-reaching effects than on Earth or Mars and it might just save them.
"We're accelerating, sir," Delacoeur announced.
The intercom buzzed. Lieutenant McWhorter held the headset up and said, "McWhorter."
"Captain, this is Engineering."
"I see it. Keep an eye on things. Squeeze those engines as hard as you can."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Once Wincott hung up, the Lieutenant asked the navigator/helmsman, "Gouri, what's our speed?"
"One eighty-seven and climbing, sir," Gouri said. "One eight-eight. One ninety. One ninety-two. One ninety-five."
The whole ship shook violently. The lights flickered and switched over to emergency red.
"What was that?" the Lieutenant demanded.
"Engines are dead, sir!" Gouri cried. "We've turned over to the auxiliary."
Lieutenant McWhorter fumbled with the headset. Delacoeur had already dialed up Engineering in time for him to shout, "Wincott!"
"Sir, the failsafe's kicked in!" Wincott replied with no small hint of panic in his voice. "She's locked up tight!"
"Can you override it?"
"I can try, sir."
"Do it. Work as fast as you can. Would it help if I send you some backup?"
"Negative, sir. They'd just get in the way."
"Alright. Make some magic happen."
"I'll see what I can do, sir."
"McWhorter, out."
Lieutenant McWhorter then asked Gouri, "What's our current speed?"
"One ninety-six, sir," Gouri replied.
"Do the calculations," the Lieutenant told Delacoeur. "What's the new intercept with the Shellies?"
"Two hours, sir."
"And the Bedivere?"
"Two hour and three minutes, sir."
Lieutenant McWhorter called Engineering back and said, "Wincott, this is McWhorter. I want my engines back in ninety minutes tops."
Wincott didn't even try to argue. All he did was reply awkwardly, "A, aye-aye, sir. Engineering, out."
All they could do was wait. Nobody said anything. Pulver watched the radar screen for a while, but that proved to be far too taxing on her nerves. She excused herself to go see Najjar, who--as expected--gave her some ibuprofen for the pain and some ointment for her burn. She then went to her room to get a new shirt without any bullet holes in it. It was probably a waste of time given the very high probability they were all going to die, but she did it anyway.
That killed a good half hour. She returned to the bridge to wait out the rest of the time. When the ninety-minute mark hit, Lieutenant McWhorter was back on the line with Engineering.
"Wincott, where are my engines?"
"It's no use, sir," Wincott replied. "We can't override the failsafe. It won't budge."
"That's not good enough!" the Lieutenant snapped.
"Sir, what do you want me to do?" a frustrated Wincott demanded. "We barely have the personnel to keep these engines running normally. We're not equipped to handle a situation like this."
"Well, congratulations, Wincott," Lieutenant McWhorter said bitterly. "You've just killed us all. You've--"
"Sir!" Pulver exclaimed.
This was enough to make Lieutenant McWhorter realize he had gone too far.
"That was out of line," he said. "You and your people did good, Wincott. We'll have to do what we can from here. McWhorter, out."
Just as with his outburst after the Bedivere refused to send ships on ahead, the Lieutenant looked defeated. It was the sort of total defeat that can lead a man to blow his own brains out rather than face one more second in this world.
Somewhat uncertainly, Ensign Pulver rested her hand on the Lieutenant's shoulder and started to say, "Sir, I--"
"It's okay, Pulver," the Lieutenant said, pulling himself together once more. "Gouri, we're going to have incoming fire soon. Do what evasive maneuvers you can with the directional thrusters. Try to buy us those three minutes."
"Aye-aye, sir."
"Olivares, keep an eye on our shields."
"Aye-aye, sir."
"On auxiliary power, the shields won't last long, sir," Pulver noted.
"They wouldn't last long anyway," Lieutenant McWhorter replied. "If you believe in God, Pulver, now's the time to start praying."
Pulver considered herself one of those spiritual but not religious types. She didn't believe in a personal God, but at a time like this, divine intervention by an all-powerful Deity with an individual concern for her well-being would be welcome.
The ship shook slightly.
"We're taking fire, sir," Olivares said. "Shields at 83%."
"Evasive maneuvers."
"I'm trying, sir," Gouri said, "but without the thrust of the main engines, we can't really dodge their fire."
"Shield at 57%."
"Delacoeur," Lieutenant McWhorter said, "do we have external comms?"
"Negative, sir," Delacoeur replied. "Almost all the auxiliary power is being routed to the shield generators."
The Lieutenant told Olivares, "Reroute power from the fore shield generator and get me external comms."
"But, sir--!"
"Just do it!"
Reluctantly, Olivares replied, "Rerouting power, aye."
A few moment passed and Delacoeur announced, "We have external comms."
"Hail the Bedivere," Lieutenant McWhorter said.
The Lieutenant picked up the headset and once the connection was established, he said, "Bedivere, this is the Spotted Houndshark. We're taking fire. Engines down. Shields low. Give us some covering fire. Over."
"Spotted Houndshark, this is Bedivere. The risk of you getting caught in the crossfire is too great. Over."
"It's the only chance we've got! Give us some covering fire! Spotted Houndshark, out."
Setting down the headset, Lieutenant McWhorter told Olivares, "Okay, reroute the power back to the front shield generator."
"Rerouting... No good, sir. There must be a short. I can't reroute power and we've lost external comms."
McWhorter tried calling up Engineering.
"Wincott, I--"
"Internal comms are down too, sir!"
"Shields at 21%! 15%."
The Lieutenant when to the sound-powered telephone. He put on the headset and started priming it.
"Come on," he muttered under his breath. "Pick up, damn you!"
"Shields at 4%!"
"Come on!"
"Shields are down, sir!"
The ship rocked violently.
"We have hull breach in the Engine Room!" Olivares exclaimed.
The emergency lights flickered and went out. Everything had gone black.
"Terminals are down!" Olivares cried. "We've lost auxiliary power!"
The ship rocked again. Another hit or two would be all it'd take to finish them off. In that moment, Pulver didn't care who it was, the Bedivere, God, the Universe, anyone. She wanted someone to save her and her shipmates. But no one did.