The Hinth proved a challenge to recruit. They didn’t do well alone. Ha-bob-bob-brie, who Lee had met on Derf home station, isolated himself after a catastrophe had wiped out his shipmates and family in an exploration gone bad. He’d offered his name and bared his face to Lee in camaraderie after hearing of her own loss of family. However other Hinth regarded him as insane to be able to live years without other Hinth companionship. In fact the first Hinth Gordon and Lee had interviewed had visibly shivered, and almost lost the ability to speak of it, trying to describe how abnormal it was.
Ha-bob-bob-brie they did hire, sane or not, but as crew on the High Hopes, and the best they could do for other Hinth was a family group of three, who would all remain together on the Retribution. The idea they would be close associates to the other crewmen and not wear the mask like at home took a bit to work through. It said a lot about how hard set the custom was that they still wore the mask, but hanging lowered like a Fargoer’s medallion of rank. All the marks and writing on their mask spoke to what and who they were, and they had no other way to show it.
If they ran into aliens they wanted be able to feed them video of three races standing on the vessel’s bridge together, sharing command. It would suggest they should be able to get along with these strangers too. Or that was Gordon’s theory. They might of course find it an abhorrent mixing, but if that was the case establishing good relations was probably a lost cause anyway.
The ships were all short crewed. In the case of loss to mechanical failure or hostile action they wished to be able to double up a crew and leave a vessel behind. If it came to that they would also destroy the abandoned ship to prevent its capture and examination. The Fargoers had a very hard time being persuaded to reduce their crew to the required level. They agreed in principle, just not in particular. Every position seemed to have a reason to be exempt from being cut.
The ships being short crewed worked better on a long voyage for another reason. The volume of food and other perishables they laid in was much larger than for a conventional voyage. There simply wasn’t room for the supplies and a full crew. They even had some hydroponics for fresh salad things, which no ship in living memory had used, but they were trying it again in both DSEs and the Retribution. The Sharp Claws had no room for gardens, even short crewed.
The ground attack nukes were unloaded, all but a half dozen, and their slots filled with ship to ship X-head missiles. Those were so expensive they took a sizeable hunk of Lee’s cash to buy, even trading in the ship to ground missiles for their nuclear kernel. But the newly minted Fargone models had both better guidance packages and warheads that could be altered in the last seconds before detonation to emit their x-ray beams in a shotgun pattern, or steered at specific angles to try to hit more than one target. USNA warheads had a set geometry, and you had to orient them exactly to put a beam on target.
Unless the USNA had made advances kept secret, these new missiles would give a significant advantage between two ships of the same size and throw weight to the Fargone equipped ship.
Gordon also had a secret weapon he’s ordered developed after his unpleasant fight with a USNA fleet in fringes of the Fargone system. He’d aborted his run out system knowing a fleet was waiting to ambush him, and fired blind at their potential emergent point before he’d diverted to another system on a jump that was far too risky.
He’d had the same weapons developer who created the ‘peashooters’ make him a jump drone carrying an X-head. He could fire blind down a jump track he was certain had an ambush waiting on the far side, or fire it after a fleeing vessel he had no chance of catching in a straight chase before it jumped out. It was an ugly weapon, with the potential to kill an innocent ship unseen if you guessed wrong. But war is messy and survival sometimes costly. He had just two of them on the Retribution.
The considerable computing power to allow the weapon to act autonomously and pick a target or continue a pursuit after making a jump, cost more than the nuclear explosive part of the warhead. To the point it seemed an extravagant waste to treat that much computer as a perishable asset. But unleashing a stupid weapon on the far side of a jump line was even less defensible morally. The hardest instructions to write were those that made the weapon abort a pursuit and self destruct.
With a planned absence of several years the crew could not be left to choose their own kit. Cotton underwear and socks, popular and low cost, wore out too fast and crew were required to buy extra longer lasting hemp or synthetics. Shoes had to have one or two back-up pairs depending on the person’s duty stations. Personal drugs and other consumables had to be stockpiled for the crewmen.
A generous personal mass allowance for recreational items, including video, music and even recreational intoxicants was an acknowledgement of how long they’d be gone. Fargoer’s all seemed to bring at least a half case of their excellent rum. The Purser assured Gordon from personal experience that the cure was worse than the disease. Denied any outlet crew would raid supplies to make alcohol, grow various weeds, and even assembly entire synthesis labs from spare parts and shop supplies. Some brought small trade items hoping they’d meet an alien race who would appreciate them. The expedition itself carried little, thinking it a very hard matter to predict. They could dip into stores to a certain extent if they needed trade goods.
Almost all the human supplies loaded at Fargone. Derf specific items came from Red Tree. Much of their food came directly out of Red Tree stores. The ships rotated back to Derfhome to load stores and back to Fargone as their refit and load for weapons became available. There was such a shortage of Hinth related items outside their system that a fast courier had to be dispatched to acquire more food, medical supplies, and personal weapons for the bird-like aliens.
The usual ship’s web package for entertainment and instruction was often five to ten percent of the English web. They needed a deeper resource if they dealt with aliens. They loaded near half of the English web and special attention for Derf and Hinth elements. They also had obscure texts and references for language and translation, including dead languages, cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Their studies on stellar formation and planetology were extensive and up to date. The history of mankind was fleshed out in some detail, no matter how unpleasant the truth was.
Given the fact they might want to trade with any race they found, coinage in standard weights was brought along in copper, silver, gold, platinum, and palladium. They welded in the safe for the money right in the flight deck. It wasn’t that much volume, but it was a significant mass item. Their machine shops had extra cutting bits and the 3D machines extra stocks of exotics like tungsten and beryllium.
One point on which Gordon drew the line was the inclusion of a ship’s cat in addition to the regular testing animals. He had personal experience cats got in trouble on ship. Sometimes in inaccessible areas. He did allow a cubic meter stuffed with seeds of every plant that might be an item for trade.
Gordon went over the manifests personally. He was horrified to find there was no shared supply of brandy laid in, neither was there sufficient small arms ammunition in his estimate. There was the usual moon-hut and tent in the Deep Space Explorers, but no tenting or camp cots and such, if they wanted to bring the crew of the two war ships down to a planetary surface. All that was corrected.
Thor his second in command and weapons officer insisted they bring a couple hard suits with support gear and parts, such as shipyard workers wore for long shifts doing exterior repair. If they had some major damage to deal with along the way soft suits were neither as safe or comfortable as hard shell suits for heavy labor in high vacuum. They had better maneuvering jets and offered better radiation protection too. In the end the master manifest was so large it seemed a miracle it could all fit inside six hulls.
Admiral Hawking called him up after the Sharp Claws and the Retribution were both armed with the newer interceptor missiles and the Deep Space Explorers were doing a minor refit so that the short range defensive missiles they usually carried could be replaced with the military versions.
“Gordon, do you suppose you could be a good fellow and rotate your escort ships back to Derfhome now that they are stocked and armed?”
“We could. No reason the whole expedition can’t depart from there. But why? It’s not like you are short of parking space.”
“This is stupid, and embarrassing, but I have to deal with it. There are Captains in our navy all bent that you have such a formidable force parked around Fargone. Some of the idiots are complaining we should have a defensive watch on your movements, and park you much further from the planetary surface. It would just be much easier to have you rotate out than deal with their paranoia.”
“Are they aware there are only a couple crewmen on board and the duty crews are all enjoying the last of their leave on a world?”
“Yes, I pointed that out, and the fact you’d just unloaded almost all your ground strike missiles. They countered how slickly you suckered the North Americans during the war and captured their ships at dock without a shot. You seem to have gathered a bigger than life reputation as an exceedingly sneaky bastard. A pretty hard thing to do given your personal scale,” he quipped.
“Well then, I guess the crews can finish up their last liberty as well at Derfhome as Fargone. What’s one more shuffle back and forth? The local merchants, flooded with bonus money aren’t going to thank you I’ll predict, but I’ll broadcast a recall and make ready to move both escorts,” he agreed. “We shall wait at Derfhome for the Deep Space Explorers to join us and depart from there.”
* * *
“Any serious objections from the crews to being shuffled off to Derfhome?” Gordon asked Thor later, after he’d had a chance to pass the orders down the line.
“It’s the oddest thing. I thought they’d resent it. But they are taking perverse pride in the fact they are regarded as too dangerous to have around. Sneering at the Fargone crews, saying their brass are afraid of their little fleet. Even the Fargoers in the cruiser Murphy’s Law seem to have picked up this superior attitude, and have staunchly integrated with ‘Little Fleet’ as they are calling themselves. They’ve all taken up wearing a black brassard or neck cloth, since we don’t share any uniform, even the Hinth! And strutting like they are special forces. I asked, but damned if any of them will tell me who’s idea it was. At least they didn’t take up something even more provocative like the Jolly Roger. ”
“If you take the complaint literally, then it’s true,” Gordon pointed out. Thor just rolled his eyes. He didn’t say anything when Gordon had a black silk scarf worn like an ascot next shift. A day later he too had a black wrist band, rather than appear to reject his own crew.
The move back to Derfhome allowed Gordon and Lee to make one last visit to the Red Tree Keep. They didn’t have the time to travel by surface like their last visit. They set down by air car, and if anyone thought it too fancy they’d just have to swallow it.
Lee was shocked to see all the trees near the Keep dead, bare limbed in mid-summer, killed in the burst of radiation from when the USNA had landed four combat shuttles full of Space Marines in front of the empty Keep. The Great Champion of Red Tree , William had stayed to challenge them, and when they refused to surrender he’d triggered the weapon killing them all, himself included.
At least most of the grasses and weeds survived, but there was still a charred circle where the one pilot had tripped the self destruct charges on his shuttle after the Fargone supplied neutron bomb killed them all. The wreckage had been cleared, but the locals took up bringing stones to the scorch mark and making a cairn. It was growing to be a memorial to both William and the battle. Lee approved and found a stone she could lift and lugged it to the pile. That didn’t go unnoticed by the Derf. The Mothers said nothing either way, content to let the people follow their feelings.
The other three shuttles had been moved out of the way, lined up neatly further from the Keep, and all the dead soldiers buried. A crew was systematically felling the dead trees, saving the main trunks for lumber, and planting replacements that would take years to mature.
Gordon asked and was granted to recover the shuttles to the Retribution and Sharp Claws to be externally grappled and taken on their expedition. They only had room inside for human crews, but that was fine, a majority of their personnel were human.
As their departure date approached there was a steady stream of news people and academics asking to go along. The news people seemed to be of an opinion that they couldn’t operate a video camera competently. The academics all seemed to be of obscure disciplines unrelated to any need they had as an expedition. They’d have welcomed a really good linguist or an historian dealing with the modern space era, but none volunteered. None of either group offered anyone who could fill a ship board job day to day in addition to their specialty to be exercised when they finally arrived somewhere.
On literally the last day, their number two cook and missile magazine technician for the Retribution announced he had sudden remorse for his enlistment, and didn’t want to be isolated from society for several years. The number one cook privately informed Gordon that the real reason was the fellow had acquired a new and very serious girlfriend the last week he’d spent on Derfhome. He’d also blown his enlistment bonus on said Honey, so they pretty much had to write that off. No point in being vindictive about it. He’d find out nobody on Derfhome would give him credit or take his contract with the squandered debt hanging over his head.
This would have required a rush recruitment, but the Mothers also decided on the last day that there should be one of their number in the expedition to watch their interests and provide a voice of law. That of course fell to the third and youngest Mother. She was young, fit, strong, and too inexperienced to be afraid. Best of all she’d come up through the kitchen. She could cook and they could easily teach her to sort and move missiles under way. They’d hoped she’d serve on their own Sharp Claws, but Gordon dashed those hopes citing necessity.
When the two explorers joined them in Derfhome orbit they had everything needed stowed aboard. The ships were all in the same orbit well above Derfhome station. Notice was given departure would be the next day, several shuttle lifts being needed to lift all the crew to the new fleet. That night there was much serious partying, and tearful sayings of goodbye. Particularly heartfelt weeping by several bar owners and restaurantuers.
Late the next day everyone was aboard. For a miracle nobody was absent and unaccounted for. The command ship, the High Hopes, had all five bridges tied in a tight little com net, nobody having a full tenth of a second lag to his signals. The Roadrunner grappled empty.
“We are departing orbit first,” Gordon announced, “with The Champion William to follow, then Murphy’s Law, and the Retribution. Sharp Claws will bring up the rear. That will be our normal order unless we find some reason to alter it. In deep space, beyond the frontier, we may send in the Sharp Claws first, as the fastest most nimble armed ship, before entering as a group. Unless I am really paranoid about a system, in which case I may even send in the fast courier Roadrunner, which would normally be carried grappled and unmanned on the Murphy’s Law. It is unarmed, but nothing here can touch it for speed.”
“We shall transition in sequence this first jump to a known system, Survey System 2723. It has no particular navigational hazards. We’ll go with thirty second intervals, spaced a hundred kilometers laterally. After comparing notes and transit clock settings we’ll jump to our last surveyed point, Survey System 2754. It has a gas giant and a few minor navigational hazards to anyone going deep in system. However, we shall transit the fringe and exit to our first uncharted system.”
“That will be our first exercise in coordinated jumps. We’ll do so with the same physical spread for safety during training, but making every effort to exit and arrive within the microsecond of each other. Eventually I expect us to have the capability to jump together within a kilometer of each other, even if for some reason one or more of us has a speed differential. Emerging together as one radiant point in a new system masks our numbers and size. The military does this all the time, there is no reason we can’t do so with the same nine nines probability of arrival a standard jump demands. I am pinging your clock and starting our run. See you on the other side.”
“The military does it two ships at a time and counts it a damn hot piece of piloting!” The navigator Parsimony Cho noted to his Captain Precocious Henry. “Does he really intend to have all five of us jump in a bloody fur ball together to show off to any natives we meet?”
“I doubt it Mr. Cho,” he said amused. “If I read our Commander right, I expect after we have the trick of five down, he’ll cut the Roadrunner loose and make us jump with it overtaking us a few hundred kilometers per second off our group speed so it sprints ahead on transition.”
“I suppose that’s why God and the Admiralty gave us three clocks,” he said weakly.
“Indeed, look sharply here! Our turn coming up and we don’t want to muff the easy one, do we?”
“No Sir! I’ll do us proud or dead,” the navigator promised.
* * *
Survey System 2723 hadn’t seen a ship emerge in twelve years. There was nothing of interest there, no rocky planets worth mining, no need to get fuel from its minor gas giant, no sensors left to watch the system, since it was a gateway to nothing interesting. Six bursts of mixed radiation marred it’s tranquility at regular intervals. The ships formed up in a parallel line, turned slightly and accelerated for an unremarkable portion of the sky, and disappeared together this time.
* * *
The fleet appeared in Survey System 2754 in one microburst of particles along a line. If anyone had been here since the original survey it wasn’t noted on the latest chart file. One clock of one ship disagreed with the count on emergence. Not a full microsecond by any means, but enough to wonder why. They took the opportunity to replace it rather than worry about why. They had a complete replacement set if need be, clocks were life and death.
“It shall be our habit, upon emerging in a new uncharted system, to coast dead quiet and inertial, simply listening for at least a quarter hour. Making every effort to catalog planets and radio sources. This is another reason to make a close entry. We can communicate by com laser instead broadcast. If we encounter immediate hostile action we are all of course free to maneuver and engage in any manner necessary to our vessel’s survival.”
“If we should emerge in a system with an obvious civilization, especially radiating from different points in the system, not just one planetary body, then we’ll listen and record, and formulate a response. Likely we’d send Sharp Claws forward in system and try to establish communications. We might disperse somewhat physically, High Hopes and Retribution pairing off and taking some distance from The Champion William and Murphy’s Law.
“Would you entertain a suggestion?” Bodacious Williams, XO of Murphy’s Law asked.
“Anytime and welcome,” Gordon offered.
“When we transition into a new system I think you should have two pilots strapped in the Roadrunner, ready to ungrapple and head back the way we entered. If we find a major outpost or inhabited planet it will remove any temptation to try to capture or silence us to keep us from reporting home. They will see the cat is out of the bag already, and have to deal with us on that basis.”
“An excellent safety measure. Captain Henry, make that your standard procedure for entry on the Murphy’s Law.”
Thor spoke up.”As we get deeper, make sure the Roadrunner navigation suite is updated with our most recent jumps, and at some point inventory and make sure they have food and supplies sufficient to take them all the way back to Derfhome too. I’d also suggest they do not demonstrate their full acceleration capacity unless it is needed to avoid interception.”
“Again, all good ideas, make it so please.”
Since the next system they entered would be new to their civilization, Captain Henry immediately ordered the new pilot of the Roadrunner to his command. Chance Ochocinco had previously served as number two on several fast couriers. He was delighted to step up to his own ship, and he had as number two the previous Captain Fat Ortega, who gave up the command of the heavy cruiser Quantum Queer to get his new berth. This was a measure of what people were willing to do to join the ‘Little Fleet’. Chance had no illusions that Fat didn’t have two decades of command experience on him, and he didn’t intent to waste that much expertise sitting next to him by being jealous of his authority. He intended to ask Fat’s opinion and recommendations at every turn.
“We shall enter a new system next jump, never seen through the eyes of any of our three races. I’d like to take the High Hopes in heavy, with Retribution and Murphy’s Law. If you do not see Roadrunner coming back out within a half hour, then I’d like The Champion William, and Sharp Claws to jump in together. We’ll pair up like this, practicing jumping in together in different combinations until everyone is comfortable. If you have any objections to your jump mate speak up. I will not force a movement against the Master’s will if he feels his vessel at risk.”
Each reported in turn they were good to go. They were on their jump line, and Sharp Claws and The Champion William throttled back to allow the other three ahead.
“Tighten up, we shall jump at 1300+.6 hour to fourteen zeroes on my clock. That’s the smallest interval of our clock and we should have the meter per second differential inside single digits when we go. Double check your settings with two different officers, because if you get left behind the tidal stresses will kill your ship,” he reminded them.
At 1300.6 they ceased to exist by all appearances to the two left behind.