Chapter 1 - Star Light, Star Bright
Fighting fatigue and pain, Rissa slid the missile bay door closed. She had taken care of her wingman. Her body would not be suffering the punishment she was putting it through for much longer.
She floated motionless for a moment in the vacuum outside her craft, collecting her strength. The last hit the Banshee took had broken the cabin lighting, so there was little illumination other than her helmet light.
No Sun, she thought. Only star light here.
That thought set off a chain reaction in her skull, that led to a chant from childhood.
Star light, Star bright,
First star I've seen tonight,
She clamped down and concentrated on getting back to her cabin. At least she didn't need the maneuvering gun anymore. After the first tug on the tether, she could just brush against the hull with her good foot once in a while for control. As she drifted back, she took up the line, with a supplemental tug or two as she neared the open canopy. During the slow, careful journey, the children's rhyme continued in the back of her head.
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.
It insisted on repeating itself, too.
Her neck flared with pain, when she turned a little too far to look for the others. They were all beyond visible range now. She wondered if she were going to last long enough to carry out her plan. Every minute, she found herself in a bit worse shape.
After hauling herself into her couch, with her side searing in pain, she tapped the closure control. Her canopy closed off the hateful vacuum, and the atmosphere began hissing in. A fresh dose of willpower flowed into her soul as the cabin pressure came up. Another tap, and her flight controls went live. She brought the guns on-line a moment later.
She spun her craft around to the first target and squeezed the trigger.
# # #
The crash-out had been far from the usual shipping lanes. If Tor-Emmi weren't on the frontier, demanding extra diligence, the Sesseem might have missed it. It looked like one of their own ships, but the pack leader remained cautious while approaching.
The craft drifted dead in space, battered and torn in some valiant fight. It made no response to their calls, and the sensitives in the patrol pack believed no living Sesseem were on board. The pack leader gave his subordinates permission to prepare honors, but he continued investigations.
No story was universal among sentient races, but most who were hunters told a story resembling 'The Trojan Horse.' The Sesseem told a form that also echoed 'The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing'. The lesson was the same. The leader considered how to test further before risking one of his crew, and hit upon an idea.
Combatants in battle often deserved promotion or decoration long before the fight ended. To the Sesseem, this issue was of utmost priority, so their gun cameras had the ability to upload their contents as telemetry. The leader gave the order, and the technicians polled the cameras.
The excitement spread like contagion. The cameras held records of a glorious battle with many compatriots. The ring that they had fought was bigger than any pack member had seen in years. Furthermore, it looked as if they might have destroyed the enormous Enemy vessel.
But the leader's suspicions continued. The pictures included no victory pass, no final shots of honor fired into the fallen enemy. Indeed, the final shots seemed instead to be of empty space. The leader began to suspect that this was no Sesseem crew. Could it be an elaborate Enemy fake?
When the lead craft came close enough to get good visual details, the answer came. Just visible on the atmospheric surfaces, alien characters advertised a non-Sesseem identity. More experienced members of the pack recognized the markings immediately.
"ESDF". The symbols stood for the Earth System Defense Force, their Human allies. As he often thought in the past, the pack leader once again wondered how such a simple series of shapes could carry such a complex concept.
So, the wreck was a Human craft, but not one of their local pack. The ESDF often bought Sesseem hulls to make up for their own primitive technology, re-engineering them for their own use, but the Human base on the Sesseem colony world here flew Gr'ts'ck designs. Most of their visiting craft were their own odd designs, of a much larger size. The Humans cobbled those together out of their own technology and salvage they purchased from their elder Allies.
The leader ordered a halt to the advance, and instructed the pack to offer their honors at a distance. It was best not to trifle with a wounded alien, even an Ally.
They were too far out to allow hyperlight communication to punch a message out of Normal Space. He directed his number two craft to transit into Meta-Space to shorten the transmission distance.
# # #
Master Commander Jared Ross watched with satisfaction as his ship prepared to enter the system ahead. Strike Cruiser Orion was dropping sails and dragging tails to shed the speed of interstellar flight. The helmsman was plugging in to manage the work of transiting fifteen thousand tonnes into Normal Space. And across the control room, his XO was frying the hapless sail master's apprentice on duty. The kid's boss, CWO Gorecki, had insisted that he should have a go at it, and was keeping herself somewhere else on purpose. "This is what milk runs are for, Captain," she had pointed out. "Besides, you'll be present. You can take over, if anything goes wrong."
With a rueful smile, he told himself, that would the bad side to inspiring the confidence of your crew
His rusty sailing skills might not have done any better than those of the trainee currently at the ropes. And, the bulk of his sail experience had been in fighter craft, not warships. He didn't mention it to Gorecki, though. It was true he had been in Aviation at the trainee's age rather than Fleet, but that wasn't the sail master's problem. Orion was his ship, and his crew had a right to expect that he could work her.
He turned an ear to the XO, to see what had him rattled. The wiry German was a fine officer, but sometimes a little brutal on younger crew. From the look on Farouk's face, the boy was ready to give up on becoming a warrant officer and head back to the sail generators.
"I would prefer," Commander Metzger stated in his coldest voice, "to see a sun in the sky when we come out of Meta-Space, Mr. Farouk. You cannot be so light on the drag with a ship of this size. Overshoots take a long time to recover, and they cost reaction mass."
Just an issue of technique, he concluded. They were not overshooting so much to be a problem, or Metzger would have raised the issue to him by now. Likely, he had already marched the kid through the adjustments.
Ross suspected he would be hearing about the 'interference' from Gorecki later. He looked away before the trainee noticed the eye of the Old Man on him. No point in making it worse.
The voice of the bosun's mate on duty came over the PA, giving the take-hold warning. Metzger's couch was next to Ross, and he came charging across the room to reach it. They were currently braking, simulating gravity, or his trip would have been a slow swim, not a quick sprint. Ross used his nerve-ware to check the data feed and learned that the radioman, not the helmsman, had issued the alert. The low-data-rate comm was chattering out emergency orders from Abernathy. The take-hold was standard procedure when this occurred, an assumption that maneuvers would follow.
"Flash EO, Abernathy, Captain!" the Radioman yelled, then continued in cadence. "No classification level. Intercept and Assist. Coordinates packet incoming. Details to follow."
"Direct coordinates to the sail master's board, and read other details out as you receive them," Metzger directed.
Ross stopped himself from looking that way, but he imagined Farouk's face draining of color upon hearing the news. After considering having Gorecki called to the deck, he decided to see how the kid did, first.
"Mr. Metzger, if you please," Ross requested. The German looked over toward the apprentice.
"Sails, plot a lesser-time intercept, conserving mass, but using as needed. Helms, order Motors to steam up. Mr. Farouk will need them much earlier than we planned. "
"Aye, aye, sir," the two chorused in unison, and the control room dance began.