Singularity Research Facility
Momar system periphery
"Options!" Ferris yelled impatiently. "We've got less than two minutes, people. What haven't we thought of? Somebody give me some good news."
"I've got some good news," Allbright offered from the Engineer's workstation. "I know what caused this: The Redoubt was sabotaged by Skarsgaard. It's the only answer. The other good news is I know how to fix it."
"Great! Get to work on it." Ferris ordered with relief. "So much for the theory that a Visible Man can't lie. He screwed us pretty good." Ravindran stood up from where she had been securing the soldiers' weapons, and McMichael started replacing the access panel he had removed from the starboard CPU maintenance access.
"I could get started on those repairs, sir," Allbright continued, "but it would be pointless. It will take. oh, about an hour to repair the damage he did. The problems are distributed all over the ship, cutting out specific control and power nodes at certain key points on the Redoubt. It can't be done centrally, and it will take more time than we have."
"What about shields?" asked Ferris. "Can we at least get the LDA back on line so we can bounce off that thing. That would give us the time to do the rest."
"Negative. We don't have LDA, LDS, PBC or any other combination of letters you can think of," Allbright replied. "The bastard knew what he was doing. This is an all-or-nothing repair job. We can't even call for help unless we blink our bridge lights in Morse code."
"How hard are we going to hit, anyway? Will the ship's hull and structure take the impact?"
"Nope," Allbright shook his head. "We're going to hit hard enough to hurt very, very badly for a few seconds. Then we won't feel anything at all.ever again."
"Can we use the pastie or the ComSec to separate? Maybe we could use them to push the Redoubt out of the way of the SRF. Or evacuate at least."
Allbright shook his head in the negative again. "I'm afraid not. He's rigged all docking clamps to lock solid. That's probably what we picked up before. The pastie and the ComSec can't separate. Even worse, if someone docks to us, they won't be able to separate again, either. At least not until we get all the problems fixed."
Ferris ran his hand through his hair and sighed heavily. "Well, I wouldn't call any of that good news, then."
"Captain," McMichael said cautiously as he strapped into his pilot's seat. "I may have something. I'm not sure if it's good news, but it's definitely interesting. The Wolf-In-The-Fold is on approach with us, right now."
"I wonder what MacDuff meant by 'Mind the Redoubt'?" Volochkov asked no one in particular. "Did he mean for us to be wary of it because it's dangerous? Did he want us to protect it? Damn his colloquialisms. Damn him and his Indie friends. What a mess this has turned out to be! First we get here to find that COSA has all but decimated the place. They take one look at the four of us and run like rabbits. The whole COSA fleet just left without so much as a farewell. Then the Redoubt arrives and tries to arrest us, helps us rescue survivors, then cuts off our conversation and hits full thrust for six seconds only to start coasting straight toward the SRF? Meanwhile MacDuff and his other little helpers run away leaving us to figure out what 'Mind the Redoubt' means. And now we have Commonwealth Navy ships coming in one at a time? It doesn't add up."
"Nothing has made much sense since we hooked up with MacDuff, Captain," said Finn. "Especially this weird SRF place. It's all happening too fast."
"Maybe MacDuff has gone for help," N'Bele answered. "Or maybe he's just thinking ahead guessing that the Redoubt might be a valuable asset in the future. He seems to want more people to hear his message about COSA. Maybe he wants to bring Ferris into the fold."
"Maybe this is another of MacDuff's tests," Finn added.
"A test for what?" Rydstrom answered acidly. "Loyalty? This is the simplest, most straightforward case of getting screwed over I've ever seen. What part of this isn't obvious? We're just a bone that's been tossed to the dogs, and our esteemed Captain Volochkov, here is either too ambitious or too in love with MacDuff to see it! Why are we even still here? Let's get."
"Mr. Rydstrom," Volochkov replied with a dangerous calm. "Please step away from your station and move to the rear of the bridge."
"Look, Captain," Rydstrom back-pedalled as he unbuckled his harness. "I just think we should be getting out of here, too. I."
"Do it now. Move." Volochkov yelled.
Rydstrom walked past the Captain to the aft bulkhead and turned when he reached the hatch to face forward again. Volochkov had his service sidearm drawn and aimed carefully in Rydstrom's direction. He fired. The bullet struck the bulkhead next to the hatch with a metallic spang, missing Rydstrom's head by a centimetre or two. Rydstrom held his hands out in front of his with his eyes squeezed shut, as if he could ward off the next slug with that gesture. He held that pose for a few heartbeats before he opened his eyes one at a time, and looked up at his Captain. Volochkov let the weapon drop to his side and simply said, "You're fired; get off my ship."
".but Captain, I.where do you expect me to go?"
The weapon was aimed again directly at his chest this time. "The next round won't miss Rydstrom, and that's a promise. You've been a problem for too long, and I don't have time for your crap. I don't care where you go. But you can start by getting off my bridge immediately, and off the ship at the soonest opportunity. Maybe the Redoubt will take you. But one more word out of you, and I'll put you out an airlock. Now go."
Volochkov wasted no time waiting to watch Rydstrom stumble out the rear access hatch. He wheeled around to face Finn and N'Bele, gun in hand. "Anyone else want to start making decisions here?" Neither remaining officer spoke. "From now on, I'll be handling NAV functions, too. We're docking with the Redoubt. We'll use our thrusters to push them away from their collision course. Finn, keep trying to raise them. Kobie, stand by to offer technical assistance."
They both scrambled to comply with his orders rather quickly.
Chen watched displays on the bridge intently as the situation unfolded. They followed the location signal unknowingly transmitted by the Redoubt to the SRF, holding position near the smaller of the Quarrelling Lovers, only a few hundred Kilometres away from what was left of the facility. She could already see that the Redoubt was in trouble, and was puzzled to see the Wolf-In-The-Fold moving to assist. The Niagara was there too; picking it's way through the debris creeping closer to the SRF. The situation was unfolding like a scene from a stage play, to her thinking. The most recent players were just arriving, stage left, as she watched. "MsoNormal"The Purdue and her support vessels had cut LDS drive, and were moving toward the SRF at thruster speeds.
The Malta's Captain watched the displays from his vantage in the command deck as well. "Have we been detected by any of those incoming ships yet?" he asked his scans officer.
"Negative Captain. That thing there is putting out a lot of interference, but we've found a nice shadow here next to this big rock," he replied.
Colonel Chen had been quiet since they began tracking the Redoubt's travels, following them from a safe distance along every leg of its journey to this place. She broke her silence now. "Very soon it will be time to make our presence known. I suggest we get ready to do battle. Captain Mead, bring us in closer to the remains of that big structure," she said from her seat on the bridge of the Malta. "The moment you see any evidence of Wexler's ships taking hostile actions toward those ships, or what's left of the station, hail them for me. If they start shooting at the Redoubt or the Wolf-In-The-Fold, you have my permission to dissuade them with lethal force."
"Yes, Ma'am," replied Captain Mead.
"Look at this mess," fumed Wexler from the raised walkway near the aft bulkhead on the Purdue's bridge. His face reddened as he slammed his fist on the handrail to emphasize his vexation. "I don't know who screwed up worse: COSA, or the Indies!"
"I'm not sure I understand, Vice Admiral," ventured "MsoNormal"Captain Malvo, somewhat tentatively. "The SRF has been destroyed as planned, has it not?"
"No, not as planned! Not in the least," replied Vice Admiral Wexler. "They weren't supposed to wipe it out like this, they were just supposed to hit it and set back their research a few more years. I had plans for that thing after I took over.after all this. Bloody COSA was supposed to destroy only the SRF's defences and their research capabilities in a rapid strike, but to leave a good number of survivors to witness the Indies when they arrived. They were supposed to send a distress call much more widely after their part was done. Instead, the distress signal was sent too early, and on a different band. Then, for some reason, they proceeded to wipe the place out to a man. At least they left the main SRF structure containment section more or less intact. To make matters worse, it looks like the damned incompetent Indies missed their cue entirely."
"Not entirely, sir," came the report of the scans officer from his workstation below the walkway. "We're getting IFFs on some vessels by the SRF. One of them is Indie and the other is Commonwealth Navy."
"Are they fighting each other?"
"Negative, sir", replied the scans officer. "From the looks of it, they're docking with one another."
"We're getting ship IDs, now, sir," he replied. "The vessels are confirmed to be the Wolf-In-The Fold, and the Redoubt. The Redoubt is drifting and the Wolf-In-The-Fold appears to be about to dock with her."
Wexler was still for a moment as possibilities raced through his mind. A smiled crept across his face. "This could work. This could be exactly what we need. Are we recording all this? Record everything. Make sure you get every detail," he ordered excitedly. "This is perfect: Our rogue spy and our Commonwealth Navy traitor, caught working together at the scene of a cruel attack. I couldn't have."
"Sir, the Niagara is closing in on those ships, too. She's going to be seen in the recordings."
"Tell her to hold position and wait for our arrival," ordered the Vice Admiral. "Then we'll all move in to attack together. The old saying holds true: If you want something done right, do it yourself."
Iwamasa linked the leftmost display screen at his ENG workstation to the gunner's board hoping to be able to monitor the tactical situation as it unfolded. He found it more frustrating than helpful, since he couldn't do much about what he was seeing, and he still wasn't certain if Lejeunne was going to help the Redoubt, or attack them. At least he was gaining credibility as Lejeunne witnessed the activities of the Purdue's strike fleet during the last several hours.
The Niagara had been given a series of orders that made it clear to Lejeunne that his assignment as the forward guard of the Purdue strike group was little more than sacrificial fodder. This last leg of the journey had been a long LDS run to a waypoint beyond the furthest edge of Momar. It seemed like they were being sent on a long trip into deep space at near light speeds.
They arrived at Wexler's assigned waypoint to find an immense bio-bomber-like structure stationed near a pair of large asteroids. There was debris and evidence of destruction everywhere.
"Send the all-clear signal to the Vice Admiral, and hold position here, North," said Lejeunne to the pilot before turning to his gunner. "Edwina, let's see who has already arrived at this party."
"Captain," Iwamasa said, "there is too much interference coming from that structure to take accurate readings of the area from this distance, but there are at least two ships over in the larger debris field surrounding that big. whatever that thing is. There is a tremendous energy output from the power appears to be fluctuating dangerously. It appears as though it is barely stable. From the looks of the damage, the power generators in the mast structure are only just holding together whatever they've got cooking in there."
"Very well, take us further into the debris field. Tell me when you know the identity of those vessels."
The bridge crew of the Niagara silently watched the scene of destruction and the myriad pieces of floating debris drift by them as they moved closer to the SRF. North broke the silence with a cry of astonishment. "Captain, it's them! It's the Redoubt and the Wolf-In-The-Fold. The Redoubt is drifting fast on a collision course right for that structure, and it looks like the Wolf-In-The-Fold is moving in to intercept for docking.
"We're also being ordered to hold position here and wait for the rest to join us. They want a coordinated attack to destroy those vessels in one pass."
"Captain Lejeunne," said Iwamasa. "This is one of those moments. We can either get over there, help the Redoubt and stand with them, or we can stay here on the wrong side of that line and wait for the Purdue to lead us down the path to ruin."
Lejeunne said nothing. He looked ahead to the view of destruction outside and waited. He was about to speak when a new order was received from the Purdue, directly from the Vice Admiral.
"Niagara, this is Vice Admiral Wexler. We've got trouble. We just picked up another destroyer, and it may be the Malta. I am ordering you to destroy those two corvettes immediately. Move as quickly as you can and take out the Redoubt and the Wolf-In-The-Fold. We'll soften them with a volley of missiles, and do what we can to provide you with cover, but we're still too far away to be of much use. We may have to eliminate another . treasonous element first."
Bates reported from the gunner's station. "Captain, I've detected seeker missile launches from each of the Purdue strike group's vessels," she said calmly. "They're not wasting any time. They're still pretty far out even for missiles. But they're definitely sending some grief toward the Redoubt before they turn their attention to the Malta."
"Bates, warm up the PBCs and stand by to launch an LDSi missile at Redoubt," Lejeunne ordered. "Ensign North, take us into close range of the Redoubt as fast as possible."
"Captain," Iwamasa said. "Don't."
Lejeunne held up a hand to cut him off, and spoke over Iwamasa and the roar of the main thrusters. "Stop telling me what to do, Kenji. I make the decisions for the Niagara. I've come to a decision, and I will stand to it. My decision is final: We help the Redoubt. I will not allow this ship to be on the wrong side of that line." He turned to Bates. "As soon as those missiles converge to within thirty Kilometres of the Redoubt, detonate the LDSi missile. That should eliminate most of them. Destroy any other incoming missiles with defensive PBC fire. We are standing with the Redoubt people, so be prepared to fight a battle against some very bad odds. We have only a skeleton crew and our loadout is only what they felt we would need for a short shakedown patrol. I doubt we will survive, so I want you to know that my brief service with you as Captain has been an honour and ."
He was interrupted by another transmission coming in on an all-channels broadcast, audible from the speaker at his workstation. "This is Colonel Chen of the Commonwealth Naval Intelligence Service, Covert Operations branch, aboard the Malta. All vessels stand down. I repeat, you are ordered to stand down and hold position. Vice Admiral Wexler, you are invited to present yourself for an immediate meeting with me on the Malta." Her tone left no room for misinterpretation that this was simply an invitation.
"See?" Iwamasa said to the rest. "You made the right decision after all. I told you the Redoubt was on the right side of this. At least we won't be court-marshalled if we survive this."
"If we survive this," Bates said. "Look at the Purdue, and her escort. They just launched another round of missiles at the Redoubt. It won't be long before they figure out we're not doing our part, then we'll be targeted too. Not only are they ignoring Chen's order, they're splitting up. The Toulon, the Khyber and the Stonebridge are heading this way, the rest are changing course to go meet the Malta; and not in a friendly way from the speed they're gathering."
"Very well," said Lejeunne, his French accent growing stronger with stress. "We give them everything we have. Ready missiles. We start with the Toulon."
The docking mechanism of the Redoubt's dorsal UDC accepted the ring of the Wolf-In-The-Fold's dorsal UDC easily in the standard head-to-tail auto-docking configuration. It then locked them together with a finality that was hidden in the normal docking sounds. Without having made comm contact, the situation was clear enough to Volochkov that he didn't require permission from Ferris to act. He fired the attitude thrusters of the Wolf-In-The-Fold, to change the angle of attack, and pushed with his main ventral thrusters as hard as possible so the two mated ships would miss colliding with the containment structure of the SRF. The combined mass of the two corvettes was more than the attitude controls were designed to move with any speed, but the force of the thrusters on the spy vessel was making a small difference. The seconds ticked down to the moment of impact, but no impact was felt. The surface of the SRF rushed by in a blur of panels and hull plating mere metres from the forward tip of the Redoubt's ComSec.
"They're clear for the time being," said Volochkov. "Let's undock and deal with whatever situation is brewing back there. I thought I heard the launch alarm."
Finn reported from the WEPs station. "Captain, the vessels of the Purdue group have all launched missiles at, well, at us, basically. It looks like they're targeting the Redoubt specifically, but we'll catch it too. They're all coming right this way. The Niagara is inbound, and much closer, but hasn't fired on us yet.
"Damn!" Volochkov cursed. "We can't undock. Kobie, get us free of the Redoubt. Quickly. They're dead weight. Neither of us can fight like this."
"I can't, sir. We're locked to them. I'm also getting a call from them on.on our shipboard intercom. They must've made a hard connection at the UDC. Captain Ferris seems pretty eager to talk to you."
"I've got it. In the meantime, Finn, target any incoming missiles, and be ready to send a volley at the closest of Wexler's ships on approach. That would be the, let's see.the Niagara. In fact, ready one of the slow pokes and REM it to me." Volochkov keyed open the comm channel. "Ferris, you have unbelievably bad timing when it comes to chats. We have missiles coming in and some very hostile Commonwealth Navy ships after us both. First, though, get us undocked. We can't fight if we're stuck to you."
"Wish I could oblige you," Ferris replied from the comm arm, "but I can't. We've been sabotaged.long story, but the bottom line is that we're dead in the water for this fight, and we can't move, shoot, deflect, or undock anything, including you. I know it's a bitch of a way to say thanks for saving us.again."
"Then we're all dead," Volochkov sighed. Comms were interrupted by the broadcast by Chen ordering everyone to stand down. They all listened to her message to the Vice Admiral Wexler. With the realization that they weren't completely alone, Volochkov found renewed vigour to fight. "I'll bring us around to get our shields and weapons protecting you as best we can, but."
"Captain!" Finn yelled. "I think we have another friend. The Niagara just launched an LDSi missile at us but detonated it in a way that was timed to take out that first wave of missiles. They just bought us some time."
Ferris' voice spoke again from the comm arm. "He's right. The Niagara is likely to be a friend. Our former Chief is with them. Is there any way we can talk to them through your comms?"
"Shouldn't be a problem," Volochkov said, nodding to N'Bele. "I'll hail them right now. When you hear the click, start talking."
Volochkov hailed the Niagara, and nodded to N'Bele again when he received Lejeunne's reply. "I have Captain Ferris on the line from the Redoubt who wants a word. They're damaged and their comms are out, so this is being routed through our ship. Go ahead Ferris."
Ferris spoke hastily from the speaker. "Captain Lejeunne. My compliments and thanks for the assist. We're in a bad state here, but I'm glad you didn't believe the lies about our so-called treachery. My new Chief Engineer, Lieutenant Allbright has an idea he'd like to run by you and Lieutenant Iwamasa. Time is short. We've got the Toulon, the Khyber and the Stonebridge all coming in for an attack and .damn it looks like they've launched missiles again." He paused to confer with someone then continued. "We need to eliminate those threats first, and I'm afraid you're it. We're stuck to the Wolf-In-The-Fold for the duration. Do your best to deal with those attackers first. We can talk about solutions later. Good luck, Captain."
The comm connection to the Niagara was broken with a touch of a key by Volochkov, but the shipboard intercom remained open. Ferris had heard the over and out sound and assumed he was talking only to his bridge crew, when he was heard from the speaker on Volochkov's comm arm to say, "Allbright! Get this damned ship fixed now. I don't care what it takes. Mac, Rav, you're his assistants until we can get separated from the Wolf-In-The-Fold and running. I don't care if we have to suit up, go outside with torches and cut our own UDC off to get them free. They just saved our lives and I will not let that act be their undoing. Move, people. Now!"
Volochkov smiled as he closed the intercom connection and said, "Kobie, take a couple of reliable cell officers and get to the UDC. Take Rydstrom with you, and send him over to the Redoubt. Help their crew get our ships separated. Top priority. Move."
Lejeunne watched his LDSi missile eliminate an entire wave of seeker missiles bound for the Redoubt with short-lived satisfaction. It would now be clear to Wexler's vessels which side he had taken the Niagara to. They appeared to understand too quickly, as the Niagara was immediately targeted for attack by all three of the approaching corvettes. Lejeunne saw the inbound missiles and ordered his crew into action.
"Edwina, fire seekers at the Toulon, then concentrate on defensive PBCs for the moment. We've got too many missiles coming at us at once. Damn, they're coming in fast."
"Aye, Captain," she said. "But I don't like these three-on-one odds, sir."
The sounds of LDA shields intercepting missile impacts, as well as countermeasure launches mixed with the sounds of more solid impacts of incoming weapons, both explosive and beam type.
"Too many shots getting through," Iwamasa said.
Bates shook her head in dismay, "We hit the Toulon with everything, and they only took minimal damage. Firing again."
"They're coming in a coordinated pass now," North reported. "I'll try to keep us."
The Niagara bucked and rocked to three successive explosions, punctuated by alarm klaxons and the ominous red illumination of emergency power. The three corvettes continued on their original course toward the Redoubt and the Wolf-In-The-Fold leaving the Niagara to tumble helplessly away in a shower of her own hull plating and heat sink debris.
"They got us, sir," said Iwamasa solemnly. "The Niagara's a dead ship." He sat for a moment watching his board to make sure he hadn't misinterpreted the information. As if to offer confirmation, the ship vibrated again to a muffled explosion in the drive sections aft of the ring. A shower of sparks burst from a panel above the bridge's aft bulkhead. "Port accommodation module is junk, Captain, we're down to a few seconds of emergency power. We have very little time before the reactor goes." A second louder explosion provided urgent punctuation to his report.
"Clear the bridge," Lejeunne said. "Get everyone to the remaining pastie and abandon ship." He opened an intercom channel and gave the ship wide announcement to abandon ship. A moment passed and the bridge workstations were still occupied. "Didn't you hear me? I said move!"
North stumbled past them on his way through the bridge access hatch, his footsteps audible down the corridor as he made his way toward safety. Edwina stood and placed a hand on Captain Lejeunne's shoulder. He nodded toward the aft hatch and returned to typing a message into his final log. She squeezed his shoulder and made her exit almost as quickly as North. Iwamasa waited until she left, before saying, "I'll be making sure you get to that pastie, sir, so I respectfully request that you hurry the hell up."
"I'm staying here," said Lejeunne quietly. "You get going, now."
"Uh, that's a negative sir. Please unfasten that harness now and come with me."
"No! Not again!" bellowed Lejeunne. "I destroyed the Corregidor with a piloting error and good people; a good Captain - died because of it. It should have been me. One day into my first command and I've managed to destroy another ship. This is my curse and my fate. I stay with this ship and die with her."
"OK," Iwamasa shifted his weight to the other hip. "Now you're just being stupid. Forget the dying with honour and valour crap and come with me. You just took on three corvettes in a head on attack designed to help divert them from helpless friends. I don't know what could be more honourably than that. We paid the price, though, and this ship is going to blow any second. We need you alive and on that pastie, so let's go..sir."
"I don't wish to sit and wait for pickup in a pastie again." Lejeunne refused to budge.
"Edwina'll kill me if I let you sit here and martyr yourself," Iwamasa said. "Please don't make me render you unconscious." He brandished a long panel removal tool he had been using earlier to illustrate his point. "As you know, I'm not very good at following orders, but I am pretty damn scared of Edwina, so please."
Iwamasa's use of Lieutenant Bates name worked and Lejeunne's resolve broke. "She is a fearsome woman, isn't she?" he said as he unbuckled his harness. They hurried out of the bridge together and made it to the UDC core airlock when the ship was rocked by a third even more violent explosion. They wasted no time regaining their feet and launching themselves across the chasm at the pastie hatch. Bates and another member of the crew were about to seal the outer hatch when they saw Iwamasa and Lejeunne coming at them amid a cloud of smoke and sparks. The hatch was pushed open again and arms reached to pull them in. They had barely fallen to the decking in a tumble of bodies when the airlock hatches sealed home, docking clamp bolts exploded and the module's engines roared to life. The pastie cleared the tumbling remains of the Niagara at full thrust. Within seconds, the main reactor of the doomed ship blew, rocking them all with the force of the blast wave of gas and debris that marked the passing of another Commonwealth Navy corvette.
"At least the Niagara slowed them down a little," Volochkov said aloud, giving Ferris an update over the intercom. "They didn't have much hope in a three-on-one direct charge like that."
"I don't like those kind of odds," said Ferris' sombre voice. "But I like the odds against the Malta even less. She's designed more for intelligence work than direct combat against a fully armed destroyer and three or four corvettes. The Purdue's on her already, giving her a beating. Looks like the Malta's trying to get closer to the SRF as fast as it can."
"I suppose that makes sense," added Volochkov. "If you can't fight hard, fight smart. The SRF is putting out enough interference to confuse missiles and disrupt REM links. The Malta might just be able to use that to their advantage. We can't even tell very well what happened to the Niagara after that explosion because of all the interference."
"I just hope they got clear of that explosion in a pastie," said Ferris. "We're all pretty fond of the Chief Engineer that was on the Niagara, but I've got a gunner here who's beside herself with worry right now."
"It looks like they slowed down the Toulon a lot. We've launched a REM missile at them, but our link is fading fast. I have to time the detonation carefully.I hope the survivors of the Niagara got some distance, 'cause even after surviving all that, they might be taken out . by.this." He touched the control and the REM missile he had been piloting toward the incoming corvettes blossomed from a blinding point of brilliance into an expanding sphere of dissipating light.
"A little too soon, sir," Finn reported. "It looks like you damaged the Stonebridge, pretty badly though.and you destroyed some of those incoming missiles."
"Damn! The other two are going to be all over us in a few seconds, and there's nothing we can do," said Volochkov. "Ferris, any luck getting us separated?"
"Ah, negative, Captain Volochkov," reported Ferris from the comm arm with disappointment in his voice. "We've had some lucky breaks and some good help from your team, but we're still several minutes from getting separated. If only the damned Dreadnaught would come and save the day."
"The who?" asked Volochkov.
"Oh," said Ferris. "I was being facetious. I said the Dreadnaught. The famous CNV 301 Dreadnaught, the first production model of these corvettes. It was quite a famous ship a few years back before she was lost at the Toliman exchange. Then she was salvaged and put back into service with a new crew. She's making a name for herself as the sweetheart of the Navy again.one of our deadliest warships in active service these days.I was just joking that this kind of last minute miraculous save-the-day kind of capture-all-the-glory moment would be perfect for them to sweep in make a picture-perfect rescue."
"I see no such ship on the scopes,"
"Nor do I," said Ferris. "Nor do I."
"The only thing I see is trouble bearing down on us, and the Malta over there getting the tar kicked out of her by the Purdue. Looks like the Malta's drives are gone. She's just sitting there like some wounded animal waiting for the circling predators to finish her off."
"Kind of like us, but."
"Captain, the incoming ships have veered off from their attack," reported Finn. "The Purdue and her escort are leaving the Malta alone as well and moving off. It looks like they're all heading toward the same.what is that? That signal looks like several ships coming in together out of LDS."
"That's exactly what that is," said Volochkov. "I'll bet you that's the Crack-In-The-World group coming in right now. I knew MacDuff wasn't going to leave us hanging. You hear that, Ferris? You got your miracle rescue after all, and by a bunch of Indies, not your Commonwealth warrior hero!"
"I'll take anything at this point," Ferris replied. "And it's just as well it's the Crack-In-The-World group. The Dreadnaught is just one ship."
Vice Admiral Wexler watched the Malta lying helpless off their port bow a few dozen Kilometres away, waiting to deliver the coup-de-grace. He was savouring this moment, imagining Colonel Chen's personal distress and suffering at this very instant, wishing he could personally witness it before giving the order to finish the destroyer off. Just as he was about to give the order, a bridge officer in the bridge control pit in front of him yelled out a report of new sensor contacts.
"Incoming vessels, sir," reported the sensor officer. "Several of them from the looks of it, still in LDS and on approach. Sensors are resolving them on the registry now.looks like a destroyer, several corvettes, PatComs, and a few armed tugs. Indies. Sir. It's the."
"The Crack-In-The-World!" said Wexler with growing satisfaction. "Well, this is shaping up to be a better day than it started out to be. Keep those recorders recording ladies and gentlemen. Recall all our ships and tell them to join us as quickly as possible. We're going to attack the Crack-In-The-World immediately with everything we've got."
Captain Malvo nodded to his officers to confirm the order, but strode closer to the Vice Admiral with a concerned expression on his face. "Vice Admiral, shouldn't we finish off the Malta, and the Redoubt first before turning our attention to the Indies?"
"Forget them. Once we take these Indies out, and get it all recorded, we can knock out the power generators on the SRF and run like hell the other way. As soon as that containment field goes down this whole area will cease to exist. As long as we set a timer on whatever explosive we use on the SRF, we should be able to get clear with ease. That should take care of our cleanup in a single, very large explosion. We'll have footage galore of all these very nasty enemies, who have been so cooperative about showing up today for our cameras. Once clear, we can tell whatever story we damned well choose to tell.
"So leave those damaged ships alone for the time being and focus all our offensive weaponry of the Crack-In-The-World. Everything we've got, you hear me? I want that ship dead!"
"Aye, sir," said Captain Malvo as he saluted the Vice Admiral and spun around to face his officers. "Order to all ships: fire on the Crack-In-The-World with everything we've got. Gunner set me up a couple of REM missiles. Let's see if we can't knock that stolen destroyer down a peg or two, shall we?"
The Purdue and its escorts ran headlong into the oncoming Crack-In-The-World group in a blaze of explosions and dying ships. The two strike groups clashed in a combination of slow, close quarter exchanges, and high-speed chases that looped around the area. Missile trails criss-crossed the dark region and ended in brilliant flashes. Particle Beam and Gattling Cannon fire added to the fury. Ships rushed past one another, spun, wheeled and circled in a series of coordinated clashes and individual duels. The Crack-In-The-World received a severely damaging REM missile blow early in the exchange from which it never recovered. The constant barrage of missiles and the hail of PBC fire stripped it of offensive capabilities within the first minute of the assault. Even though the corvettes from Vice Admiral Wexler's strike group suffered heavy damage from the Indie destroyer's escort, the strategy worked. The Crack-In-The-World died a spectacularly colourful death. In the deep darkness of the SRF's region of space, the brilliance of the explosions that tore the Crack-In-The-World apart lit the scene of battle like flashbulbs at a press conference. She broke in two along a dorsal seam, ending her service in a final violent burst. Her remains continued to burn and flare for several minutes after the reality of her death was clear.
The price of that kill was higher than Vice Admiral Wexler had anticipated, though. While he had thrown his resources into the destruction of the Crack-In-The-World, he had left too little for his own defence. Indie ships with names like Ghost-In-The-Machine, Stick-In-The-Mud, and Bird-In-The-Hand all directed a withering barrage of fire on the Purdue. The Strathmere had been dedicated to defending the Purdue, but lost her ring after a swarming attack by Indie ships, and went up in a violent explosion a few seconds after that. Despite heavy losses on both sides, with only a handful of combatants left on the field, it still appeared that the Purdue would be able to claim victory and leave the battle limping under its own power. In a last-ditch effort to claim the day, an Indie PatCom called Pie-In-The-Sky drove full burn at the Purdue. The Indie ship detached her ComSec at the last moment leaving the main ship body to slam into the Purdue's aft section near the root of the port weapons pylon wing. The impact was only partially warded off by the LDA emitter on that quarter, inflicting considerable damage. Several decks were opened to vacuum, and explosions ripped through her hull. Despite the damage to the Purdue, she still had the appearance that she was operating under her own power.
The Indies, already disheartened by the loss of their destroyer, now felt that their last gambit to kill the Purdue had failed. The surviving ships were scattered, damaged, and very few in number. The three or four remaining Indie corvettes withdrew into LDS toward some predetermined gathering waypoint. Three Indie tugs remained behind after the survivors of the former Crack-In-The-World group had escaped. The Braveheart, the Bannockburn and the Edward Teach moved away from the Purdue in the direction of the Redoubt and the Wolf-In-The-Fold. The two ships were still locked together in their helpless embrace.
Explosions rocked the Purdue, klaxons wailed on the bridge, and the red lights of emergency power told a tale of critical damage to Vice Admiral Wexler as he pulled himself back up from the decking. He surveyed the bridge, which was only barely recognizable as such after all the damage. Several bodies lay strewn in on the decking below him. A few more were slumped over their control workstations, held in place by seat harnesses. An acrid smoked fouled air of the bridge. Captain Malvo's lifeless eyes stared up at the ceiling, as if to identify the place where the structural beam that had killed him had been before it struck him down. Alone, at the very front of the bridge, the ship's pilot sat harnessed securely to his workstation, trying to make sense of screens that jumped between static, and distorted information from the damaged sensors. He continued to do his best to manoeuvre the heavily damaged destroyer away from the battle.
Wexler pulled himself along the rail to stand beside the NAV officer at the piloting station. They looked at each other for a heartbeat, in an effort to identify the individual under the caked blood, dust, and dirt. They exchanged a nod acknowledging that they were the last alive on the bridge for the time being.
"This ship is too damaged to fight anymore, and most of the ship behind that door is either on fire or in hard vacuum. I don't think there will be any repairs until help comes. We have only a few more seconds of emergency power left before we lose all thrust, including attitude and directional thrust, sir," said the pilot. "Course?"
Wexler pointed out the main forward view port on the bridge. "There! Set a collision course for the Malta. We're going to ram her. She's immobile and as bad off as we are. I'm going to gamble that we're in better shape than she is. Take the Purdue right through her!"
"Uh. Aye, sir," said the pilot. "Course corrected." The main thrusters came to life for a brief push. "We're gaining as much velocity as we can before we lose the last of our." The engines cut out and the Purdue was coasted silently to her meeting with the Malta. "Don't worry, sir. We still have more than enough speed to hit the Malta plenty hard," said the pilot. "Umm.were you planning on staying here for the impact? 'Cause I'd really rather not. Sir."
"Of course not," Wexler assured him. "Don't you worry, I've always got a backup plan. Get me a copy of all our sensor logs from the past hour. I want to keep a copy on my person at all times. Check your contacts registry and see if you can find an accommodation module listed as a marine assault module. It often simply goes under 'special' but it should be out there, I'm pretty sure I saw them launch. Find them and hail them. They're going to be our ride home."
"Aye sir!" said the pilot enthusiastically.
Lieutenant Commander Skarsgaard had worked continuously to repair the damaged marine pastie throughout the entire fleet battle raging around them. The work took much longer without any assistance, but the repairs progressed nonetheless. He stepped over the bodies of Connover and Minnes several times without a thought as he travelled from the flight control deck to other parts of the module with tools and spares in his hands. Dupuis, apparently unconscious on the floor of the control deck was another object to be ignored in his single-minded work as much as the corpses were.
Dupuis had regained consciousness to some extent, though, and was struggling to reorient himself. Despite the hammering pain in his head he managed to open one eye and pieced together where he was without being seen by Skarsgaard. He worked a hand free of the loosened tape holding his arms at his sides, and started on the other. He noticed a large tool resembling a wrench on the decking not far from where Skarsgaard sat, busily working switches and the main control keypad. He resumed feigning unconsciousness once the second hand was free, and tried to work out a plan.
The comms came to life, and Dupuis listened to what he could of the conversation from where he lay. "Are you trying to tell me that you need me to dock to your precious destroyer and save you before you smash into Chen's precious destroyer?" Skarsgaard said. Something else was said that was too garbled for Dupuis to understand, to which he replied, "I don't care how little time you have, or how important those recordings are. There's still the matter of you trying to kill me along with the Redoubt for the past couple of days. We had a plan, and that plan involved killing the spy ship first, then eliminating the Redoubt in a tragic accident before they got home, of course after I got safely off the ship. I had a beautiful little plan all set up involving locked docking clamps, and a ship's main reactor timed to go critical, and me watching them both go up together as I sped away. Instead, I had to improvise, and improvisation can get messy. I want to know why you changed plans so fast, and I want to know how you propose to compensate me for saving you now." More muffled speech was heard from the comm unit, and Dupuis worked out that Skarsgaard was speaking with Vice Admiral Wexler. Skarsgaard answered again. "Sure, we can probably pin it on him. He's lying right here on the floor, but I still want to know one thing: Why did you want to get rid of all of us now? Sure, you were cleaning house so no one could threaten you once you got to power, but I don't see why you needed to do it now?" Dupuis didn't hear the answer, but he heard Skarsgaard say, "I see. So this was one of the few chances you'd get to catch King at a moment of weakness. Well, Bravo, Vice Admiral.or should I say soon-to-be-President Wexler! Your decision to sacrifice the SRF was a brilliant one, and COSA and the Indies both ate it up. As they say: 'You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs'. A few thousand scientist's lives are a fair trade for the power you'll have. Heck, you'll be giving Admiral Brett and Admiral Hensen orders by tomorrow night if you play this right."
Dupuis hadn't heard everything, but he had heard enough to understand that Wexler had been the one responsible for the attacks all along. Wexler had been responsible for Corinna's death. Wexler had been behind Skarsgaard's treachery. To think I considered you a friend, he thought as he opened his eyes, grasped the tool in front of him and stood up silently behind Skarsgaard. The translucent Lieutenant Commander was so focused on activating the drive and aiming the marine assault module at the Purdue that he didn't notice Dupuis positioned behind him.
"We still have time for retrieval, Vice Admiral," said Skarsgaard. "But I'd recommend you make sure you're the only survivor. If you've got any other survivors helping you out, you'd better arrange some kind of accident. We don't want any unnecessary loose ends. I'm on my way. I hope you can.Yves. No!" Skarsgaard glanced up to look out the forward view port in time to see the faint reflection of Lieutenant Yves Dupuis behind him, arm raised, poised to strike him with a heavy-looking metal tool. He had time to attempt to duck, but not enough time to avoid the blow. Dupuis brought the tool down as hard as he could on Skarsgaard's head. Skarsgaard's head flopped sideways with the impact, but quickly shot back as he arched his entire trunk stiffly, twitching twice in a full body spasm that horrified Dupuis even more than the feel of the tool crashing into the bone of his skull. Yves brought the tool down again and again, as much to end the macabre thrashing, as to kill his enemy. When his vision cleared, Skarsgaard was lying on the floor at his feet in a pool of blood. Dupuis looked up and saw the reflection of himself in the glass of the view port, still holding the tool in his blood-coated hands. His face had been liberally spattered with blood as well. He barely recognized himself as he stared at the gory visage in that reflection, thinking of Skarsgaard's face after assassinating those marines only a short while ago, and how horrified he'd been when he saw all that blood on him. Dupuis dropped the tool and sank down into the control seat, grasping the control yoke. He pushed the throttle control to its full position and changed the marine pastie's angle slightly to head directly at the Purdue's bridge.
All Dupuis could think of as he watched the Purdue grow larger and larger in the forward view port, was Wexler wondering what had gone wrong as he died, in the same way that Corinna had probably died with a similar question on her mind.
His timing had been pretty good for a man with so little pilot training. The marine pastie struck the Purdue just aft of the bridge on the dorsal surface near one of the weapon and LDA emitter mounts. The force of the impact drove fiery debris from the pastie through several layers of armour and decking into the Purdue's interior, sending a few large pieces out the destroyer's ventral surface. The resulting explosions almost broke the destroyer in two. The crippled destroyer held together despite the gaping holes separating the main body from the forward section. However, the effect was achieved. The Purdue was finally, a dead ship.
One survivor on the bridge of the Purdue stood up again, after being thrown against the ceiling from the violence of the impact. He regained his feet, gun still in hand and looked out the forward view port. The body of the pilot, still bleeding from the fresh bullet wound in his chest, remained strapped to his NAV workstation seat looking out with sightless eyes at the same unfolding scene before them. The sidearm clattered to the decking as Vice Admiral Wexler let it drop from his limp hand and simply repeated the same breathless phrase several times. "No. No. This was not part of the plan."
"Good news, Captain," Allbright said self-righteously. "I think we can separate the two vessels sooner than I thought. The lock is off the UDC clamps, but we can't bring them to the 'open' position under their own power yet."
"How is that good news?" Ferris asked, too tired to think. "We're still stuck together aren't we?"
"Yes, but if we can get the thrusters back online, which isn't going to be long now, we can get both ships to fire thrusters in opposite directions, and pull apart. The ships should separate under these conditions without literally ripping themselves apart. The UDC clamps should simply give under the pressure, and open all by themselves."
Ferris' haggard expression turned into a bright smile. "Get on those thrusters, Allbright. I'll tell Volochkov." He keyed open the intercom he had been using to communicate with the spy ship's Captain. "Captain Volochkov. We'll be able to separate in a few minutes as long as we can apply balanced counter-force with our respective ventral thrusters."
"Good news, indeed, Captain," replied Volochkov. "I was just arranging an evacuation with the aid of these Indie tugs nearby. They were going to dock with our ventral UDC and take everyone from both ships through that hatch and away in three groups. The trouble with that plan was time it was going to take to get everyone off. I hope you're right about the separation. After all this, I'm afraid we're in more of a hurry than ever. Look at the Purdue."
Ferris keyed the display to focus on the crippled Navy destroyer. The vector trails calculated by the computer portrayed the situation clearly. The Purdue, now little more than a drifting, burning hulk, had been on a direct collision course with the Malta up until a few moments ago. The marine assault module; the modified pastie that had been attached to the Redoubt, had rammed the Purdue with sufficient force to deflect it away from its collision course, saving the crippled Malta. On first glance, this seemed to Ferris to be very good news. He called up a projected course of the Purdue on its new vector, and sank back in his seat. The image was unmistakeable. It felt like someone had hit him in the stomach.
"I see what you mean," he responded to Volochkov's concern. "Our NAV computer says that the Purdue will hit the power generators on the SRF in three minutes and forty seconds. Not much time, I'm afraid." Ferris sent Allbright a hopeful look. Allbright shook his head to say no, indicating that they weren't yet ready to try the separation.
"We're out of time, Captain Ferris," said Volochkov. "It was a good try, though. Frankly, I'm amazed we've lasted this long. We'll need at least a couple of those minutes in full LDS just to get far enough away from this place when that containment field goes down. If we're going to try this separation, we'd better do it soon."
"Agreed," said Ferris as he heard something to his right that caught his attention. Allbright was snapping his fingers to call Ferris' attention from his console. Ferris looked up to see Allbright holding his thumb upward. "Captain, Volochkov, we have a green light to try separating. We're bringing thrusters online now. Have your NAV console link directly to ours and we'll try to pull apart as evenly as possible." Ferris nodded to McMichael, who was strapping himself in. "Let's do this right the first time, Mac."
McMichael nodded as he keyed the attitude thrusters to push against the thrusters on the Wolf-In-The-Fold. He waited for the indicators to show a complete seal had been established at the airlocks between the ships and hit the undock command at the same time he pulled the Redoubt gently up in what was, for him, a straight vertical climb. The two ships clung together for a few heartbeats, as if they were reluctant to end their embrace. Suddenly they broke free of one another and sprang apart.
"You've got comms, shields and helm again, but we'll need another few minutes to get LDS operational," Allbright reported. "Weapons will take longer."
"Forget weapons," said Ferris. "You've got one minute to get us into LDS."
"That's got it, Captain Ferris," said Volochkov from the comm arm. "Thanks for the help. It's been a pleasure working with you again. Hopefully we'll meet again under less urgent circumstances. Goodbye." With that, the Wolf-In-The-Fold turned to formate with the three Indie tugs. Together they accelerated away, ramping up for LDS, presumably in the direction of the Indie rendez vous in some other part of the Momar system.
"Thank you for saving our hides again," said Ferris to the receding ship. "I owe you one." He turned his attention to the situation at hand. "Get us over to the Malta, best speed."
"On our way," reported McMichael.
"Captain," Ravindran reported excitedly from the WEPs station. "I'm getting a distress signal. It's from the Niagara's pastie. Looks like some of them got clear, but the pastie was damaged in the explosion that destroyed the Niagara."
"Belay that last order, pilot," Ferris said. "Get us to that pastie as fast as possible. We have an empty slot, and if we can get them into it while we're waiting for our LDS drive to work, we're going to do it."
"Aye Aye, sir," said McMichael. "What's a little rescue work on top of everything else?"
The Redoubt pulled aside the Niagara's pastie and braked hard. The pastie had lost all motive power during their evacuation, and depended on the skills of McMichael to match her gentle tumble and ease the Redoubt underneath and bring it gently upward to settle the errant pastie into the empty accommodation module slot on the Redoubt's starboard side. The docking procedure went well, if a little rough. No one complained about the jostling. All eyes were on the clock. The pastie was secured at the same time Allbright reported a new development to Ferris.
"We now have LDS drive up and running," said Allbright.
"Speaking of running," said McMichael. "Isn't that exactly what we should be doing right now?"
"In a moment, Mac," Ferris reported. "First get us over to the Malta, and try to get them on comms. Rav, seeing as we have no weapons, I want you to get down to the starboard pastie airlock and help the survivors of the Niagara in any way we can. We owe them a big debt of gratitude, too. Let me know if you find Kenji." Ravindran had been practically straining against her harness to rush down there already, and did not need any urging to go. She was out the bridge's aft hatch in a flash.
"Malta's responding now, Captain," said McMichael. "Still coming in a little fuzzy, but we've got a connection."
With another nervous glance at the numbers counting down on the timer, Ferris keyed the comm arm. "Come in Malta. This is Captain Ferris of the Redoubt," he said. "What is your situation?"
"This is Captain Mead on the Malta. Colonel Chen is here, too. She's sending over a comm packet to you now. Our weapons are destroyed. Sensors, Navigational and Shield systems are gone. Comms are just barely working. We still have drives, but we're completely blind and unable to navigate. We."
"In just over a minute, this entire area is going to be a lot like the inside of a star," said Ferris. "Direction, at this point, is unimportant. Just hit your LDS drive, and get clear of this area. You can worry about repairs and navigation later."
You don't understand. We can't repair it. It's gone.completely gone. We'd be just as lost wherever we ended up. We'd just keep going, blind, in a straight line."
"Can your navigational computer still link to another ship? Can you formate on us?"
"Perhaps we could formate on you, if we re-routed our targeting computer..."
"Just do it now," Ferris interrupted him for a second time. "And get ready to move. We're leaving in ten seconds." He looked up at McMichael's face in the overhead mirror. "You hear that Mac? We wait ten seconds exactly. Then we leave with as much haste as possible. Ultimately, we're heading in the direction of Momar L4, but I want you to take us away on a course that has the larger of those two big asteroids between us and the SRF." He looked at the chronometer and back at the mirror. "Start moving us now, Mac. Let's hope they got a formate link to us."
Thrusters rumbled to life after sitting silent for too long. The Redoubt angled toward the desired course and accelerated away. The LDS drive ramped up to its full capacity at its normal rate, which seemed far too slowly for the anxious bridge crew. The edge of the larger of the Quarrelling Lovers obscured the flickers and flares of the SRF.
"The Malta's with us!" cheered McMichael. They continued to feel the force of accelerating thrust as they raced away from the area.
The darkness of space so far from Momar's primary star was profound. The interruption of that darkness came suddenly in a brilliance that flashed just beyond the horizon of the asteroid. The light grew into the blinding glare of a swift sunrise behind the Quarrelling Lovers asteroids. Ferris felt the stark silence of that moment, fearing the power of that event would reach out and snatch them back from their escape. An interminable heartbeat later, the Redoubt's interplanetary drive hurled them away from the area at near light speed.
"What the hell was that?" asked McMichael. "Even at this speed, we can see that thing expanding."
"Don't know," Ferris answered. "Don't want to know. I just want to get the hell out of here, and home." He called up the comm packet that had been sent for a quick scan, assuming it would be coded logs and intelligence data sent to them for safe return in the case of the Malta's destruction. Some of the packet was indeed data he couldn't decrypt, but in front of it all was a message directly from Chen to him. He started reading.
"Looks like we're going to be able to get home just fine." said Allbright. "The ship's holding together just fine. These corvettes are really built well, ain't they?"
"Glad you noticed, gramps," said McMicahel. "I'm also glad you know how to fix 'em. Where'd you learn to do that?"
"Back on the Acadian," replied Allbright with a little hostility. "Sonny."
"Yeah, well. Thanks again," McMichael said. "Speaking of well-built ships, the Malta's still with us. Looks like they'll get home, too. If only we weren't still wanted fugitives, marked for death. It would seem a shame to get through all that only to be taken out by one of our own because of that little misunderstanding."
"I don't think that will happen," said Ferris. "Not if this message is correct." He looked up and glanced at each member of the bridge crew before continuing. "It seems that Wexler was playing a coy game; a kind of power play. Our mission was little more than a distraction. It was never meant to succeed. We were just pawns meant to provide him with something he wanted, a moment of perceived strength meant to coincide with a moment of perceived weakness on the part of President King. The accusations of treason and calls for our destruction were not broadcast fleet-wide, nor were they condoned or approved by Fleet Command. They were more or less local comms he was sending out to specifically targeted ships, but altered to look like fleet orders. He could do that because he had all the codes.
"Chen had been watching him for a while, gathering data about him, waiting to see what he'd do and where he'd go. Maybe she was trying to find out something about those stealth ships, too. For what its worth, she's thrown the weight of her reputation behind us. That means we get to go home without fear of any formal action against us, but it also means our reputation will always be kind of tainted by being so closely associated with the Intelligence Service. We may not be trusted or viewed as straight Navy by our peers, much after this, but at least we get to go home."
"I'll take that over certain death any day," said McMichael. "Whatever that thing was back there that blew, I think it's starting to fade. We're safe for now. We should be at the L-point in about an hour."
The comm arm swung out in front of Ferris again to reveal the widely smiling faces of Ravindran and Iwamasa. "I see our former Engineer made it back intact," Ferris said with a smile. "Kenji, it just so happens we're in need of a Chief Engineer on the Redoubt. I understand you'll be looking for a new ship to serve with. Perhaps we can coordinate the filing of our requests back at Saltlake."
"Gladly, Captain," Iwamasa said from the speaker. "In the meantime, I'd like to meet that Lieutenant Allbright of yours. I hear he's quite a find."
"Indeed he is," said Ferris, raising his eyebrow and smirking at Allbright's embarrassed scowl. "Though you might have to wrestle him for the Chief's seat." To which Allbright sat upright with both hands raised, indicating an eager willingness to relinquish the position.
"No need for that, I'll take a scut job down in the intercooler pumps if I have to. But I'm not leaving the Redoubt again," Iwamasa joked. "Oh, and Captain Lejeunne requests a meeting with you at your convenience as well."
"Very well," replied Ferris. "I'd appreciate it if you sent my gunner back to her duties on the bridge. Tell Captain Lejeunne I'll meet him in my suite as soon as he's ready. This time it's my turn to offer the profuse thanks. The Niagara saved our necks back there." Ferris stood from his seat with a groan that reminded him of his own father. "Mac, I'll be in my office if you need me. Please bring the Redoubt and the Malta safely back to Saltlake Naval base as quickly as possible. It's been a long.." He waved his hand in dismissal as he slumped toward the aft hatch. "However long it's been."