Monday, August 11, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 21

            The effectiveness of their attack plan was nearly compromised by Jolly’s insistence on keeping Scape Grace within close range of the other two ships until the last possible moment.  If the Zig were watching carefully, they could have already spotted the oncoming objects.  Depending on the quality and attentiveness of the miners’ observations, they might perceive three separate ships or one large vessel.  If they saw two other ships split off from Scape Grace and approach from lateral vectors, the lure of the familiar pirate ship might not draw the full force of the defenders. 

            Evgeny supposed he should have been less surprised when Gleamer announced, “The foreign ship… it’s getting all blurry.”
            “What’s that?” Evgeny responded.
            “My readings are getting scrambled.  Its mass, volume, albedo, output signature… everything detectable is varying randomly across its respective spectrum.”
            Jolly intruded to explain, “Didn’t I say our friend is quite mutable?  It can be an anomaly just as well as a familiar face.  Is it a ship?  Is it an asteroid?  No, it’s… well, it is a ship.  Also, an artificial organism.  And it’s tricksy.”
            “Great,” Evgeny retorted, “We’ll need more than tricks.  Are we ready to start the strategy?”
            “What is strategy but a whole lot of tricks played in the right order?  But yes, sound the trumps and start the game.  We shall bid high and claim the pot!”  Jolly sounded perversely enthusiastic and even Punch nodded in evident readiness. 
Jolly plugged its suit into the command console, transmitting the signal to break away to Harauch and the unnamed ship.  As the latter vessel pulled away, Evgeny could see its hull rippling and shifting.  The former falsified insignia was gone, wiped away in a shimmer of color as the foreign ship obscured its identity once again.  It was not only reshaping its exterior.  Sections of its internal structure were being reworked, judging from the new bulges and pits appearing in its profile.  Evgeny hoped Katy and NuRikPo were cached somewhere safe within the malleable mass.
The engines of the strange ship flared to greater fury and it leapt away past sight.  At that cue, Scape Grace also accelerated, aiming directly toward the planetoid ahead.  Harauch fell behind, both due to its lower maximum speed and its lateral course, opposite the direction selected by the foreign ship. 
Harauch would arrive after and to one side of Scape Grace after following a wide arc away.  Its separate but converging course would hopefully add to the apparent threat posed by Scape Grace, drawing more of the Zig fighter craft into engagement.  Once the battle was joined, the late-arriving Harauch would force the Zig to choose between dividing their force to deal with both threats separately or else swarming the Scape Grace exclusively, leaving themselves vulnerable if they were still thus engaged as Harauch closed.
Scape Grace was a known threat.  It had reduced the fighter fleet by five craft before the battle turned against the pirates.  Unless the Zig had rebuilt those five plus another half-dozen more, the two pirate-salvagers together held a slight advantage.  All that meant was that one or both ships might survive the battle.  They would be badly damaged, almost certainly, under most projections.  That outcome could be swayed far in either direction by strategy or simple fortune.  Mischance or a tactical error could easily result in total destruction; only a stroke of luck or genius would get them through the fight minimally scathed. 
It was not a fight captain Lerner would have chosen.  In fact, he had rejected it before and was not responsible for choosing it now.  Still, he could hardly abdicate responsibility for his ship’s survival while still desiring – and intending to reclaim – authority over ‘Grace.  Thus, Evgeny had given his best input to the planning of this foolish endeavor.  He would also lend his full expertise to its execution. 
He also issued his own orders to his crew: “Full speed ahead, Soloth.  Let’s smoke the bees out of that hive so that the baby bear can get its honey.” 
Jolly tilted its head toward Evgeny, “That’s not half bad.  Clumsy... but at least the metaphor sticks together.  Ha!”  It raised one hand, palm open and fingers splayed, lowering it in a violent gesture toward Punch.  The other Ningyo had already raised its hand at the elbow and reached upward in a matching gesture.  Their two molded plastic palms smacked together with a sharp crack as they met in midair. 
The movement and noise startled Havish, the Mauraug replacement gunner.  It looked back at the two Ningyo in alarm, hands coming off the weapons console in preparation for defense.  When the robotic figures settled back into position as if nothing important had happened, Havish began to relax.
Soloth grunted, “Ningyo,” and that was explanation enough.  Soloth increased their speed.  Scape Grace hurtled forward on an apparent collision course with the planetoid ahead.


            The opening moves of the assault played out exactly as Jolly had intended.  A squadron of crude fighter craft deployed from the Zig encampment well before Scape Grace was close enough to singe with their weaponry.  In their first clash, the Zig had kept the existence of their fighters concealed until Scape Grace entered orbit and began to organize a landing.  Struggling to recall its shuttle had delayed the pirate ship’s escape.  The delay had given the miners several minutes of free shots.  Evgeny thought of the farce as the equivalent of getting caught with his pants down and around his ankles.  This time, now that each party knew the other’s assets, there was no point in secrecy.
            The fighters spread out in a loose net, separated widely enough to anticipate and intercept any lateral movement by Scape Grace, but not divided so far as to lose the advantage of their numbers.  No doubt the Zig pilots were being assisted by mathematically precise computer simulations which took their capabilities into account and adjusted for the actions of their enemy.  Well, the Scape Grace had similar programs, plus the flexibility of Human-made sub-AI systems.  Battles fought on autopilot alone hardly needed to be fought; the unpredictable elements were what gave combat its risk.  Basically, an AI could still beat an expert chess program 55 games out of 100, though both would probably manage 90 out of 100 against a biological grandmaster.
            Soloth reported eleven fighters arrayed against them.  Two appeared cruder than the rest; these might have been the products of hasty assembly by the miners or else hasty repairs on the damaged fighters they could salvage.  Gleamer monitored the comm traffic and reported that the fighters were relaying signals back and forth with the main base on the planetoid beyond.  The transmissions were encoded: not well enough to stymie the programmer for long, but long enough to make them inaccessible before the attack started.  Gleamer recorded and started decoding everything anyway, on the chance that the information gleaned might prove useful later. 
Havish tracked the closest targets and reviewed its choices from among the array of destructive tools NuRikPo had added to Scape Grace’s arsenal.  Energy beams, high intensity lasers, magnetically accelerated projectiles with or without payloads, and even miniature suicidal drone ships were among its options.  There was great variety but limited uses of each weapon; even the energy weapons drew power from the ‘Grace’s finite fusion engines.  That was part of the trouble of fighting a many-on-one battle: there were only so many shots one could fire, at once or in total.  Getting left without offense was bad enough, but it was possible to be left defenseless also.  The best defense against material attacks was intercepting fire.  Power might also be drained so low that defensive fields failed. 
The first Zig volley employed their energy weapons, which had greater range but much weaker impact, particularly at longer ranges.  Scape Grace demonstrated that her defensive fields had been adequately repaired by refracting the incoming radiations.  As ‘Grace drew closer, the pirate demonstrated the disadvantage of the many-on-one scenario for the many: their attacks would have an increasing chance of striking an ally via ricochet off the lone enemy’s fields.  If the fighters tried to surround 'Grace, stray, missed shots could become a hazard as well.
The Zig chose the tactically sound option of remaining effectively stationary between the approaching Scape Grace and its apparent target, their mining base.  They would allow the attacker to draw close, weakening its defenses as it neared and falling back steadily to maintain distance as long as possible.  Only when backed up against the planetoid’s gravity well would the fighters at the fringes begin to break off and seek vulnerabilities at Scape Grace’s flanks. 
Rather than fall into this pattern, Scape Grace veered to one side, intentionally in the same direction as Harauch’s original tangent.  This drew the fighters in the same direction as they struggled to maintain their screen.  Of course, Harauch was on the returning arc of its course now.  It appeared beyond Scape Grace and headed for the leading edge of the Zig formation. 
By this time, Scape Grace was close enough to choose targets with its own guns.  Havish fired a dozen shots, removing one and then a second fighter from the battle.  They were small and maneuverable ships, but relatively slow and piloted by amateurs.  Most of Havish’s misses were near ones, as it led its targets expertly and capitalized on any piloting errors. 
Then, the Harauch was within range, and the Zig were put to their decision.  To Evgeny’s relief, they chose to respect Scape Grace’s threat and decided to split their remaining strength.  Three fighters broke off to intercept Harauch in an equilateral formation.  The remaining six closed upon Scape Grace, trying to pull in close enough to engage their physical weaponry and maximize the damage of their energy attacks.
“Reserves below fifty percent of full charge,” reported Soloth, monitoring data relayed from the engineers Georges.  “At this rate, we still cannot withstand long enough to remove the remaining fighters.”
“Alone, no,” Jolly rebutted, “but Harauch will do its part and pick up where we slacken.”
Indeed, its faith was justified, as the formerly innocuous-seeming Harauch released its own volley of fire and removed one of the three oncoming fighters.  The remaining two split widely, approaching their target from opposite sides.  
Scape Grace answered this point with a score of her own: Havish unleashed one of the drone ships from its anchoring.  The miniature vessel had only sufficient fuel for a single burst of trans-light drive, but that was sufficient to launch it through a much larger ship.  In this case, one of the fighters suffered the fatal impact.  Both ships shattered in an uncontrolled fusion reaction, releasing sufficient force to nudge two other fighters and the Scape Grace away. 

“Watch your range!” Soloth bellowed at Havish.  The other Mauraug grunted in acknowledgement, annoyed at its own error. 
They would have to deal with the fighters at even closer range soon.  If only one or two remained while the pirate ships still survived, those Zig might choose suicide runs in order to protect their comrades back at the base.  Havish would be hard-pressed to shoot down each ship before it smashed into Scape Grace.  Even if it hit every target, the backwash from their deaths might still cripple or destroy their enemy.  The likelihood of such heroics was unknown.  If the pilots were Iron Caste volunteers, then they almost certainly would die in defense of their fellows. 
Jolly interrupted the rising intensity of the battle with an announcement: “Our friend is in position.”
Soloth confirmed, “Energy discharge from outside of the atmosphere, striking the Zig base on the surface."
“Hopefully your friend doesn’t melt down all the goods in the process,” Evgeny sneered at Jolly.
Jolly asked innocently, “Don’t you cook your meals?”
“Oh, yeah, distress calls from the base,” Gleamer chimed in, “aaaand now they’re quiet.  Punched in the throat.  Good job, no-name.”
“Maybe with nothing to defend, those fighters won’t be so willing to stand and die,” Evgeny ventured hopefully.
All through this discussion, the fighters, Scape Grace and Harauch had been dancing and firing, spears of light igniting and dispersing as they beat against one anothers’ defenses.  Havish was doing its utmost to connect solidly with its own shots, while Soloth tried to present a difficult target to the fighters.  The 'Grace had greater power on both offense and defense, but was forced to absorb more attacks.  The fighters would fall to a direct hit, but were more likely to avoid attacks entirely. 

A few early projectile attacks had been attempted, but the range was still too great to give these much effectiveness.  Even Scape Grace could veer away from a slug thrown at a mere thousand kilometers per second.  The Zig most likely did not have the resources to spare for guided projectiles.  However, given their technical expertise, their shells could easily contain extremely dangerous payloads.  One hit with a ferrovorous catalyst could quickly strip away portions of Scape Grace’s hull and multiple vital systems.  Without NuRikPo aboard to counter such agents, their doom would be assured.
            Still, the fight was going in their favor.  Evgeny began to think they could hold out long enough for the unnamed ship to finish subduing the mining base.  Then, even if the Zig defenders felt like continuing the fight – just to avenge their fallen co-workers – the three attackers could join together and wipe out any remaining resistance. 
            Evgeny's igniting optimism was quickly snuffed by reactions from Gleamer, Jolly, and Punch.  The three reeled back as if hearing a painfully loud noise.
            Gleamer explained his reaction, “Really big magnetic wave from the planet.  Distinct rhythm.  Magnetic acceleration launcher.”
            Jolly’s response was more cryptic: “She’s hit… it’s killing her!”
            Soloth belatedly confirmed, “Replay shows a magnetic acceleration lift of a mass from the planetoid’s surface, near the base.  It might have been an escape shuttle, except that its trajectory aimed it at the unnamed ship.  It likely made impact.”
            Evgeny shrugged, “They got off a desperate last shot.  That ship ought to be able to absorb a crash…and we didn’t see any explosion.  It’s not blowing up.”
            Jolly swiveled sharply to look at the other captain. “It’s a Zig weapon.  It contained crystallizing catalysts.  Our friend did absorb the impact but the payload is freezing up her… systems.”
            Looking back toward the view screen, Jolly fell quiet. 
            Soloth reported, “Harauch is pulling away.”
            Oh, good, Evgeny thought to himself, they’re giving up the alien as lost.  Too bad, but at least we aren’t too badly hurt by this idiot’s…
            Soloth amended, “Harauch is moving toward the base and the unnamed ship, on an intersecting course.  Zig fighters are remaining behind, en route to us.”
            “Wait, what?”  Evgeny shouted, turning from Soloth to Jolly, “They’re leaving us here alone?  We can’t manage all of the remaining fighters alone, not without some serious chances of death."
            Jolly ignored him this time, continuing to focus its attention on the signals passing to and from its connections to the other two ships.
            It was Punch who replied, instead, in a bizarre, harsh falsetto, “We must remain and do our best.  Harauch will protect our friend.  The base remains a threat.  She must be protected until she can heal.”
            Gleamer gave further insight: “Confirmed, the Zig planetside are arming a second maglift projectile.  I have their comm code worked out.  They’re talking between the cannon site and the base.  The launcher's range is enough to protect them from direct landings.”
            “But not enough to threaten us if we pull back.  Come on, Jolly, pull us back.  You did your best.  Don’t waste your people just to protect that foreigner.  Don’t waste my people to buy them time for their martyrdom.”  Evgeny struggled between commanding and pleading tones.
            Punch answered him again, “It is necessary.  She cannot be left to die.  The mission must succeed.  Nothing else is acceptable.”
            Evgeny was done arguing. “No, this is not acceptable.” 

            Scape Grace emphasized his tension by shuddering.  Havish had winged one of the fighters, and flying debris carved from its structure had bounced off the pirate ship’s nose.  The hull in that section was now dented and a storage bay was slightly smaller.  Fortunately, the tough outer material had held and the hull remained unbreached.
            “Thirty percent reserves,” Soloth announced.  “Seven fighters remain operational.  They are regrouping.  These are familiar conditions.  Now would be a good time to withdraw, once again.”
            “Do it,” Evgeny ordered, “Retreat.  Full speed.  They’ll go back to protect their base.”
            Soloth tapped in commands once, then twice, then turned back to look at Evgeny and then Jolly.  “No response.  Command override… your codes."
            Evgeny looked at the Ningyo as well.  Jolly remained unresponsive, frozen still as it communed with whatever master guided its devotion.  It had locked him out of his own ship.  It was forcing them to stand their ground and die.
            “That does it.  Fuck you, and fuck your friend,” Evgeny spat at the two Ningyo.
            He then raised his face to the ceiling.  As the flares and impacts of the rejoined battle surged around them, Evgeny Lerner started to sing.
            “Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda…”
            A youthful, feminine voice answered him from the speakers above, “You’ll come a'Waltzing Matilda with me!”

1 comment:

  1. For as long as the link stays valid, here's a helpful reference for the song Evgeny is singing: