I just hope it can live up to that billing...
The Lapwing long range search and reconnaissance plane dipped its wing and turned north onto the final leg of its sweep. Its pilot glanced at her chronometer and made a note on her kneepad. She lifted her eyes to the horizon again and a sudden torrent of icy water coursed down her back.
The threat warning receiver shrieking in her ear jolted her back to her senses. Instinctively, she rolled inverted, hauling back on her control stick and sending the Lapwing plummeting towards the sea. Feet dancing over the rudder pedals, she broke left, then sharp right, bracing herself for the juddering clang of cannon fire punching through her fuselage. She rolled upright, pulling the Lapwing out of its crash dive and banked sharply southwest, craning her neck in search of pursuing aircraft.
Nothing. She flicked the Lapwing into an aileron roll, rapid-scanning the skies around her for the enemy, then jammed the throttle lever against its stop, thumbing her microphone toggle as she raced for Humilisia and safety. “Greenfields, Picket One. Reporting hostile contact at waypoint Echo-Three. Multiple surface vessels but no bandits, repeat no bandits.”
“Reading you, P-One,” came the clipped reply. “Approx number and location?”
“Estimate twelve major vessels, on the horizon, bearing zero-seven-five. No clear escort count. At least one hostile radar contact. Search mode, no-track.” The pilot paused. “Didn’t stick around long enough to confirm.”
“Copy that. Make best speed for home - we’re clearing a space for you on Greenfield A.”
“Understood. Best speed for Greenfield A. Picket One out.”
The bow lookout aboard the Shield of Kolus swore as the swathe of dark specks on the horizon resolved themselves into an orderly formation of ships. She dropped her binoculars, shot a glance at the compass by her waist and signalled the officer of the watch.
“Vessels closing! Bearing one-two-seven. Escorts only, estimate two Doreni flotillas.”
The officer of the watch swung round to face his commander, just as the phone by his side warbled the high pitched tone that told him what he already knew. Raising his hand in apology, he picked up the handset.
“Yes - we have a visual on one-two-seven. Any flankers? Thank you.” The snick of the handset settling into its cradle echoed across the bridge.
“Tactical confirms, Ma’am. Doreni fleet closing off the port bow.”
The captain didn’t need to consult her navigation officer or her charts. “Radio, please signal Fleet Command. We have a confirmed second Doreni fleet and are moving to engage. Pride is on the line with us, Tenacity and Defiance squadrons to flanking speed, southeast hook.”
“By your orders Ma’am.”
For a moment, unseen by the rest of her bridge staff, a bleak look flickered across the captain’s face. Then her hand slapped down and the mournful honking of the alert klaxon sounded across the ship.
“All hands to battle stations. All hands to battle stations. This is not a drill.”
Halsy’s nose wrinkled as he watched the medic snip another clump of hair from the side of Erlin’s forehead, before dabbing more foul-smelling depilatory onto his exposed scalp. The aseptic reek of rubbing alcohol did little to clear the air, and he saw his former boss’s nose twitch in response.
“Can’t do much about it I’m afraid, Professor,” the medic said. “Just one more to go and we’ll be done.”
Erlin raised a silent thumb in reply. The scissors snicked shut just above his left ear, a cold dab of cream following them.
“And that’s the last one. Can I get you a drink of water?”
The an-Kerm shook his head fractionally, the leaves swathing his head rustling in response. “No - thank you.”
The cloying aroma of surgical adhesive added its own note to the overladen air. The medic threaded an electrode pad through a gap in Erlin’s leaves and pressed it into place against his scalp. Obrett and Gusemy lay on their beds beside his trunk, elasticated EEG bands already wrapped around their heads, skeins of multicoloured wires emerging from the napes of their necks and snaking across the floor to an equipment trolley parked by the hut door.
Halsy gave Erlin a reassuring look, not trusting himself to speak. Then he turned his attention to the monitors on the trolley and the second medic watching over them.
One of the screens flickered, the dense array of lines scribbling their way across it fuzzing into spiky noise. The medic reached behind it and reseated one of the cables linking it to the rest of the equipment on the trolley. The screen flickered again and cleared, the EEG display coming into sharper focus. “I’ve got a clear signal from both bands.” The second medic peered over the top of his monitors. “How do they feel?”
“Tight but not too bad,” Gusemy replied. Obrett nodded in agreement.
The first medic taped a bundle of multicoloured leads to Erlin’s neck before hooking them up to a box attached to the an-Kerm’s belt. He retrieved a lead from the floor and plugged it in. “Thank you, Professor.” He turned to his colleague. “How’s everything looking?”
“Looking fine,” his colleague answered. “Nice clear signal and the Professor’s traces are very similar to how I remember Jonton’s being.” He smiled at his three patients. “Which is a good sign I think. Just try to relax and start whenever you’re ready.”
He watched Obrett and Gusemy both take a deep breath before lifting their heads to the waiting leaf clusters. Their EEG readouts shivered and then flared into white noise.
Aboard the Shield of Kolus the officer of the deck flinched as the sky lit up behind the Pride, accompanied by the gut-wrenching thunder of enemy gunfire. He clenched his fists in triumph as the Kolan vessel sailed on, seemingly untouched. Then she shuddered and rolled hard to starboard, superstructure disappearing beneath the waves and exposing her keel. Foam swirled around her, flushing out debris and bodies alike.
Gouts of water belched up from the stricken Pride of Kolus, driven by the last of the trapped air escaping her hull. Then she slid beneath the waves, leaving the officer of the deck on her sister ship slack-jawed with horror. Swallowing hard, he turned to his captain, the stony expression on her face matching the solid lump in the pit of his stomach. He ran through the numbers in his head, ranges, speeds, enemy dispositions, and waited for his commander to confirm what he already knew.
“We can buy them time.” It was a statement not a question. “Punch through the Doreni lines, turn their strength in on itself.”
And hope the other poor seffleks escape before their shield breaks. “Yes ma’am.” For a fleeting instant, he saw his own resignation mirrored in his commander’s eyes. Then she straightened her shoulders and turned to the radio operator.
“Signal Tenacity and Defiance.” Her voice cut effortlessly through the clamour raging across the bridge. “All vessels are to break off the engagement and make best speed for Humilisia. They are to regroup off North Point and lend what assistance they may to Commander Geroly.”
The captain raised her hands for silence before leaning forward and pushing a prominently domed, button. A drawn-out two tone whistle sounded across the ship, before giving way to the static hiss of an open microphone. She leaned forward, speaking directly into the annunciator grille set above her head.
“Signal Fleet Command, priority zero. Message begins. Second fleet falling back. Tenacity and Defiance regrouping at designated location. Shield executing option kappa.”
A heartfelt, hastily muffled oath sounded across the ship-wide channel followed, mercifully quickly, by the controlled calm of officers issuing orders and sailors running to obey. The captain allowed herself a moment of steely pride in her crew, roiling emotions hidden behind an impassive mask.
“Mister Landorf, you have the bridge.”
Landorf saluted. “I have the bridge, ma’am.” He waited for the captain to step down from the command platform, before assuming her place behind the annunciator grille. “This is Lieutenant Landorf. I have the bridge.” He watched his commander turn and leave before directing his attention to the battle raging outside. “Signal both squadrons. Assume formation kappa, bearing zero-eight-seven, all ahead flank.”
The captain strode through her ship, offering a word of encouragement to a crewmember here, a gesture of thanks to a junior officer there, the expression on her face radiating nothing but complete confidence. Knowing better than to enter the Tactical Operations Centre whilst the ship was under fire, she reached under her collar, withdrew a finely carved Kerm wood charm from around her neck and hung it from the door on its silver chain. Then she left for the foredeck.
Outside, the wind knifed across the deck, enveloping her in salt spray and the stench of expended munitions. The gunfire, a steady thunder from the bridge, crashed against her ears in an unrelenting, deafening barrage. Staggering, she pushed on to the forward observation post, bracing herself momentarily against the rail before standing ramrod straight, shifting her weight in perfect time with the rolling warship. Slowly she turned to face the bridge, dipping her head in silent salute. Then she turned away, both arms thrust skyward, upraised fingers stabbing a gesture of defiance at the Doreni vessels that would be recognisable anywhere across Kerbin.
Halsy tucked his trembling hands behind his back, staring fixedly at the chaotic patterns sprawling across all three monitor screens. One medic moved from patient to patient checking pulses and noting eye movements before moving on. Two of the three monitors settled into a set of steadier rhythms, punctuated by spiky bursts of activity.
“Okay, here we go.” The second medic’s shoulders lowered slightly as he sat back in his folding chair. On screen, two of the wildly fractal waveforms on Erlin’s screen brightened, shimmered and shifted, each mirroring a trace on one of the other screens. The medic nodded in satisfaction. “They’re in. Rapport time on the long side but that’s consistent with Elton’s awakening too.” He smiled at Halsy. “I’d pull up a seat, sir. This might take a little while.”
The Shield of Kolus sailed into the teeth of the Doreni forces, her captain seemingly heedless of the murderous barrage shredding the skies around her, the continuous din of the smaller cannons all but drowned out by the soul-splintering crashes from the enemy’s main guns. Surrounding the Shield in perfect formation, her escorts replied in kind, most of their shots landing wide of the mark, their captains relying on speed and whatever evasive manoeuvring they could afford for defence, rather than any attempt at counter-battery fire.
The Kolans sailed onwards, driving suicidally close to the largest enemy vessels, the geysers of spray fountaining around them abating slightly as the flanking Doreni gunners held fire for fear of hitting their own forces. The Shield slowed, her stepped main turrets turning to bear on the enemy, her helmskerb matching speed as best he could with his Doreni counterpart, her For several long minutes, the two warships traded shell for steel-clad shell before the Shield broke away, cutting across the stern of the Doreni flagship before swinging hard to starboard for another pass, her escorts fanning out to engage the rapidly closing, smaller enemy vessels.
Gouts of smoke and fire erupted from the Shield’s main guns as she turned, the broadside punching gaping holes across the Doreni destroyer’s flanks and reducing a pair of her smaller guns to twisted, blood-spattered, wreckage. The ferocious answering salvo scythed across the Shield’s bows, smashing her forward battery and ripping open her superstructure. An explosion blew out her forward deck, launching the captain high into the air. Reaching the top of her arc, she watched her ship begin to turn, bringing her rear turret to bear. There was a confusion of smoke and fire, then she hit the water and everything went black.
“Main guns out of action, sir. Rear turret is still there but the turret drives and fire control system are offline. Starboard superstructure guns are gone, portside magazine hoists are shot to Kerm and back.”
Landorf nodded grimly. “Down to the last then. Time for everyone to get off this boat.” His hand slapped down on the domed button and again, a two tone whistle, followed by a static hiss, sounded across the ship.
“Now hear this, now hear this. All hands abandon ship. Repeat. All hands abandon ship.”
Landorf shut off the intercom and crossed over to the helmskerb’s post. “Mister Jenvis, I have the wheel.”
Down in the Tactical Operations Centre the radar plot officer snorted. “Ditch into that?” He pointed at his display. “I’d sooner take my chances with the Lieutenant.” He turned to his watch officer. “Permission to open the small arms locker, sir?”
A rumble of approval swept around the Centre. The watch officer shook his head. “Denied. That’s my job.” He raised his voice. “Set the security charges. All hands follow me, eyes forward. Anyone following the Lieutenant’s orders shall not be impeded in their duty.”
From the bridge, Landorf allowed himself a moment of anger as the lines of sailors marched out onto what remained of the foredeck, eyes front, rifles shouldered. He locked the helm before circling the empty bridge, eyes scanning the waves for life rafts.
Not a single orange shape could be seen.
A flicker of mingled relief and shame burned at the back of his mind. You poor, poor seffleks. What do we do to deserve the likes of you. He strode over to the helmskerb’s station and seized the wheel, glancing at the engine speed indicator which was still reading full ahead. He spun the wheel, nodding in grim satisfaction as the horizon obediently began to slide past. Then, gritting his teeth and taking a tighter hold of the wheel with his other hand, he slid the engine speed director up to flank speed, the increased thrumming under his feet accentuated by a clattering and banging of loose plating and the muffled crashes of equipment breaking free within the bowels of his ship.
Halsy fidgeted in his chair, casting sidelong glances at the EEG screens. “It’s been too long,” he muttered. “You must be able to tell something from out here.”
The second medic summoned up a patient look. “I’m afraid not,” he said gently. “At best, we can pick up the general mental state of a kerbal and we simply don’t have any reference points for an-Kerm electroencephalography. If it’s any comfort, Professor Erlin’s traces look very much the same as Jonton’s did before Elton awoke - same fractal patterning, same nested waveforms. What those waveforms mean though is anyone’s guess.” The medic coughed. “And I say that as something of an encephalography specialist.”
“Their vital signs are well within normal,” the first medic added. “Slightly elevated pulse, no signs of respiratory distress, no tremor or adverse neuromuscular reactions.”
Halsy nodded and sat back in his chair, eyes fixed on his friend and his two companions.
“What in the seven smoking hells are they doing?” The Doreni captain grabbed a pair of binoculars from his lookout and trained them on the oncoming Kolan vessel. What he saw would fuel his nightmares for the rest of his life.
It wasn’t the sight of the ruined Kolan ship still afloat and bearing down on him, despite the utterly ruined superstructure and the fires raging unchecked amidships. That merited no more than a grudging respect for the engineers and shipwrights who’d designed her.
Part of it was the sight of the bloodied and vengeful kerbals lining what remained of the decks, brandishing their weapons and screaming defiance. Even then, a small and detached part of him hoped that he would be doing the same were their situations reversed.
A bigger part was the sure and certain knowledge that someone still stood amidst the inferno, giving their ship direction and purpose even at the end.
But most of all, it was the silent few standing motionless amongst their comrades. The ones with the walled-up eyes, rifles raised and ready, seemingly aimed directly at his heart.
“Collision alert! Evasive action!”
His helmskerb needed no such prompting, already spinning her wheel hard to starboard. The Kolan vessel turned with them, shedding loose armour plating into her boiling wake as she heeled over. Then she straightened up, her crew still screaming from the ruins of her decks. Then, with a catastrophic lurch and a rending screech of steel on steel, she struck home, bows ploughing up and over the now-listing Doreni ship. Those Kolan sailors who hadn’t been thrown free by the impact, stormed aboard, weapons at the ready, even as the two mortally wounded ships began to take on water.
The second medic raised a hand and leaned forward, studying Erlin’s monitor intently. “Thought I saw a blip….” He leaned back, a broad smile breaking across his face, and beckoned Halsy forward. “And there we have it.”
Halsy’s knees threatened to buckle under him. On the screen, the baroque, nested waveforms had disappeared and three perfectly normal sets of EEG traces whisked quietly across the screens in front of him. “Boss… thank the…” A thought struck him. “What about the Kerm?”
“No way of telling for sure.” For the first time since the Awakening had started, Halsy heard a note of tension in the other’s voice. “But it hasn’t been showing any signs of distress. No excess cinnamon or undue branch movement. So it’s probably fine.”
“Or…” Halsy didn’t need to complete the thought. “Although…” He gestured at Erlin’s body sitting by the Kerm trunk, and Obrett and Gusemy lying on their beds. “I can’t imagine any of them would still be in Communion if it was.”
There was a muffled groan from one of the beds and Gusemy sat up, massaging his forehead. He peeled the EEG band off his head and dropped it on his pillow. He accepted a mug of water from the medic and downed it in a single swallow. Then he turned to face Halsy and the other medic and the awestruck expression on his face left no room for doubt.
“His name is Obrinn.”
The Tenacity of Kolus and the Defiance of Kolus sailed north, at the head of a ragged flotilla of warships. The captain of the Tenacity listened stony-faced, to the tired-sounding voice crackling from his radio.
“You’re speaking to him. We lost Commander Geroly during the retreat. Forget about North Point, captain; we’re to rendezvous at the port, evacuate as many civilians as we can, and get them to Kolus. Orders from Fleet Commander Gusden’s lips to our ears.”
Despite himself, the captain’s shoulders stiffened. “By his command. We’ll see you at the port - Tenacity out.” He scrubbed his forehead on the back of his uniform sleeve before turning to his bridge officers.
“You all heard the Commodore. We’re picking up our people and going home. Now lets get to Humilisia before the bjedla Doreni do.”
A grey-robed figure stood on the dockside, one arm wrapped around the shorter figure by his side, watching a steady stream of dinghies shuttling kermol villagers out to the waiting warships. Orderly queues stretched along the waterfront, kerbals wearing the clothes they stood up in and not carrying anything that couldn’t fit into a poncho pocket. Parents with the youngest kerblets or pouch-bound kerblings were allowed one small pack between them, with most of the kerblets clutching a favourite toy in one hand and holding tightly to their parent’s hands with the other. The older children stood around wide-eyed, staring at the heavily armed, steel-grey ships riding at anchor just beyond the harbour, makeshift white flags flapping from their masts.
Sailors kept the lines moving, the suppressed tension in their movements vying with their reassuring words and air of competence. Some of the youngest kerblings, sensing that something was wrong with the strangers, had retreated into their pouches, their thready wailing adding to the general air of quiet desperation.
“It’s okay sweetheart. It’ll all…”
His partner pressed a finger against his lips. “Don’t. Don’t say it.”
He looked at her helplessly. “I wish I didn’t… didn’t have to…”
“I do too, my love. But you’re the Keeper.” She pulled him into a fierce hug. “And I’m so proud of you for it.” Her shoulders began to tremble. “So, so proud.”
He glared at the approaching soldiers through red-rimmed eyes, cradling his shaking partner in his own trembling arms. The soldiers stopped at a discreet distance, a warning glance from their sergeant enough to close their mouths.
She unwrapped her partner’s arms from around her and stepped back, despair held at bay for the moment. “I think they’re waiting for you, my love. You’d better get going.” She looked him straight in the eyes. “I’ll be al… I’ve got a boat to catch.” She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “Go!”
He nodded wordlessly, kissed her back, and walked away. The sergeant saluted him as he drew near, carefully ignoring the other’s rumpled, tear-blotched clothing. “Good to have you with us, sir.” He passed the Keeper a rifle. “If you’d like to come this way, we’ll get you kitted out before we head back to the village.”