The rescue of survivors turned into the recovery of bodies, then it was just the clearing of wreckage from the docking port. That dock is no longer usable for anything larger than a shuttle. Station commander Nap Crepp says it will take many months to get it operational again, but they still have two working ports and the port in the rotating hub.
We now have shields thanks to Effie's assistance. TT installed them in her fighters and everyone took turns firing at them. The small shields can survive a direct hit by a beam from a corvette's arm. The heavy-duty shields installed in a ship are much stiffer and can deflect everything up to a heavy cruiser's main beam. Everyone feels safer now.
The AI has manufactured a network of fine silver wires and passed them on to us. She says that if Cas builds a fax around the network it will act as a receiver and pass the signal on to the neural system in the fax so she can control it. Cas also has the pattern for the AI. This hybrid fax will have to be self-repairing since the aliens can't recycle and rebuild org-tech systems. We need to do some experimental design before we can release the remote.
Clearing away the wreckage took several days but finally our fighters could fly in to collect me. They did this during my sleeping period, and when I woke in Cas' hangar I had a few minutes of confusion as I tried to work out where I was. She was about to start repairs but I suggested we wait until I could examine the weapon carried by Peib Dborch. I think a multi-barreled mini-canon would make an excellent addition to our fighters.
We spoke to the crew of the Ielfet, and Cas and I met Captain Mitch, Peib and Brentford at a café in the station. They had arrived earlier and were eating when we arrived. Peib had ordered some food for us. Cas scanned it. "Is your blood chemistry copper-based?" she asked him.
"I think we can synthesize your food, but I'll need to do a high definition scan of your body."
While they were talking I smelled the food. At first I thought there was something wrong with my fax's senses, then I tasted the food and realized it really did taste as bad as that. "I don't think we can produce this," I said to her. "Or if we can, then we shouldn't."
Cas tried the food for herself before I could stop her. We were caught in a loop. We couldn't spit the food out without breaking a protocol, and we couldn't force our faxes to swallow. The food sat on our tongues and the taste increased in awfulness. Finally I grabbed Captain Mitch's coffee without his permission, and drank a mouthful. It was enough of a change to break the cycle and let me swallow. I handed the mug to Cas and she drank the rest.
"What do you think?" asked Peib.
"I think we won't eat that again," I said.
The three aliens laughed. "That dish is native to Peib's homeworld," said Captain Mitch. "You two are the first to try it and not throw up."
"I didn't build in that reflex," said Cas. "Which was a fortunate oversight."
Brentford gave us some of his food, a fish-based meal, and we tried that. The taste was a vast improvement over the other... food.
We examined Peib's weapon. It's a mini-canon from one of their fighters, but he is strong enough to use it as a handgun. The canon is a cluster of five heavy pulse-lasers arranged to rotate around a small particle beam canon. Each laser has a cycle time of 1/5th second, and the cluster fires sequentially. Peib says the beam canon is his favourite because it goes BANG, but he would not demonstrate with a live firing.
While we were examining the internals of the canon, HC1 told us the station commander wanted to have a private conference with the ships tomorrow. The commander wouldn't elaborate on an open channel, and when we asked Captain Mitch if he knew anything, he and Peib looked at each other but said nothing. I could see the three aliens knew something about the meeting but were unwilling to discuss it in public.
We will find out tomorrow at the conference.
The planetary council of our Homeworld have signed an order to terminate Mike. No timetable has been given yet.
We are all concerned.
Once the atmosphere was contained and stabilized in the docking arm, I approached the officer in charge of the rescue and asked how we could help. She asked what our capabilities were so I told her what the faxes lifting capacity was, and that we are impervious to radiation and lack of atmosphere and some of us carried internal medical scanners. She assigned each of us to a rescue team as a sort of highly mobile heavy lifting unit.
I joined a small group of eight humans. We picked our way over the wreckage looking for life-signs. They found the going exhausting and after an hour of effort they had to stop. I checked the systems in my remote and discovered I'd burned off more energy than I had expected. My best estimate gave it less than two hours of operation. Tenthree said he'd start building us spares and ship them over.
After half an hour we found an intact hull buried under a pile of support structures. It took us an hour of cutting with plasma torches to clear the beams from the doors. I asked them to cut a hole in the door large enough to push my fingers through, so I could pull them apart. That would be quicker than trying to cut our way in.
I should have waited for the surface to cool before touching it, but at least we now know high temperatures cause pain as well. The pain didn't last long. I used the last energy reserves to force the doors open, and had enough time to tell my rescue team that my fax was about to fail before it shut down. I heard on their coms that they'd become alarmed thought I'd died. I told them not to worry since I had a spare.
Four humans were inside the wreck. They were alive, and we found out later they would be the first of 20 survivors found. The crane that had pulled me from the wreckage yesterday had been converted into an aerial rescue unit. It arrived and lowered paramedics and stretchers. The survivors were stabilized then strapped into stretchers, my inactive fax was tied by rope underneath, and they were brought back to the command area.
The parents of Lorn and Drep, the young humans I rescued, arrived and thanked me for saving them. The father said he'd heard we were after shield technology so he would pass over any technical information we required.
He was the third person to offer us shields. Only Captain Mitch Dae and the Station Commander had beaten him to the offer. Mitch said Effie can help us adapt the technology so we could use it. He apologized for not offering it earlier, but no one really trusted us.
They do now. Apparently our actions during the battle and in the rescue proved something to them. I don't know what, exactly, we proved. We acted as required. The station was under attack and the people needed help. It appears to me that the people on the other side of the border may have acted differently.
Doc has almost finished construction of Panau's support reactor. Panau suggested bolting it into his hangar. "It doesn't have to look good," he said. "It only has to keep me alive."
Once that's installed, Doc can begin work on the destroyer's internal reactors. While he had the battle droids inside him, Doc managed to get some scans of them. He says they appear to contain an organic component in their control systems, and that it looks like human neural tissue. He sent this information to Station Commander Crepp, who replied that we must not make that public. He will explain later at a private meeting but said nothing more.
The AI called Effie is in discussions with Tenthree and Cas. She is interested in acquiring a fax for herself. We're looking at ways of giving the AI control of one, but her technology is totally alien to us. We have more in common with Humans than with her.
We decided to aid the station personnel in the search and rescue of those trapped in the shuttles. Doc is unable to help, of course. When he has stabilized Panau he'll work on the holes in TT's side, then his own.
Mike has been dragged to one side, out of the way. Captain Dae sprayed "THIS IS NOT SCRAP" on his hull so no one will try to dismantle him. The two young humans are sitting with him now to keep scavengers away. They were quite impressed with his fax.
Our first task is to establish the atmospheric containment fields so the humans can operate without their life-support suits. This has taken a lot longer than we expected and I can't see us finishing for many hours.
They found a few survivors but so far there have been more dead than living pulled from the wreckage.
The blast from the exploding ram was so massive it picked up every ship and shuttle parked at the mouth of the docking bay and hurled us all down the length of the dock. I ended up tangled in a pile of shattered ships and structural beams.
It took me a good thirty minutes to orientate myself. I was laying on my starboard side with my port wings pointing at the roof. As I looked around I saw my top-starboard wing in the wreckage before me. I have no idea what happened to my lower starboard wing.
I was wondering what to do when I remembered the two children I'd picked up. As I made sure the life support systems were working, I asked "Are you all right?"
"Yes," said the older boy. "I hurt my arm, and my brother has a cut on his head."
"It's dark!" said the young boy.
"I know," I said. "I'll turn on the external views when I know the life support is operating." After five minutes I had the oxygen generator going so I turned on the screens.
"What a mess!" said the elder boy. "It'll take HOURS to find us."
"I'm afraid it will," I said. "They have to check the other shuttles for survivors, too."
"Can we get out?"
"No. The gas barrier is down." I did a quick scan and could see they'd established an emergency barrier 100 metres further in. "We're a hundred metres from the nearest atmosphere. We'll have to wait." I reconnected to the Fleet network, and felt Cas' relief. I also learned of the damage to Panau and what they'd done to save him, and how they'd destroyed the ram raider capital ship. I passed the information onto the boys, and had one of my cockpit screens show them what the Fleet was doing. That entertained them.
It took the rescue crews two hours to get to us. A crane appeared overhead, dragged me from the wreckage and carried us back through the gas barrier. I opened my cockpit as soon as we were on the ground. Lorn and Drep were collected by the medical staff and taken to hospital.
I lay on the ground. My landing gear was gone, my engines were ruined, and I'd lost two wings. I'd be scrapped if I belonged to this station. I was wondering what to do when I saw a familiar white-furred figure pushing through the crowds. Peib looked in my cockpit, then rapped his knuckles on my nose. "You all right in there?"
"Yes," I said.
"Looks like you'll be stuck here for a couple of days. What will you do?"
I thought about that question. "Since my fax is already on this station, I should reconnect to it and try some local foods."
"Do you like fish soup?" asked Peib.
"I don't know," I said.
It will be interesting to try some.
TT, Doc and I disconnected from the Station's docking arms so that he could aim his weapons. Doc and I took shelter inside his hangars, but TT stayed outside and launched her fighter. Omega station launched its fighter squadron and we logged their signals so that we wouldn't fire at them by mistake. Mike asked the station commander to send him their targeting data so that he could aid their targeting systems.
The ship that dropped out of hyperspace was huge. It was easily as large as one of our stations. It launched fleets of fighters and dozens of rams. We teamed up with the station fighters and fought off the raiders. The station humans turned out to be excellent pilots. We are better, but there are only eleven of us. Actually, there are only ten. TT found that she could out-fly the raiders but couldn't bring herself to shoot them down. Dee's fighter was vapourized by the capital ship's main weapon and asked TT if he could use her spare. Then HC1 lost her fighter and TT said she could have the other.
While the one-on-one battle was in progress, the Fleet was destroying the rams with their own canons. But one got through and hit TT amidships. Doc went out to help, and another hit him. They dumped their battle droids into Doc and TT. Doc managed to scan one before they self destructed.
Tenthree destroyed every ran launched at him, but the other station almost let some through. One exploded right in front of Number 2 Dock and damaged the gas containment fields. Station Command warned everyone that the dock would undergo explosive decompression. That's when Mike's external microphones picked up a sound. He stopped targeting for a moment to collect two young humans and shoved them into his cockpit. That pause was disastrous! Another ram entered the dock as it exploded. The blast blew Mike 200 metres along the dock where he tangled up with the wreckage of all the other shuttles. His signals stopped.
The capital ship fired its main gun at Panau. The beam skewered him from bow to stern. It sliced off four arms and disabled the other two, then destroyed his No.2 reactor and damaged the other two. Sirocco became furious and prepared to ram the alien ship.
Then we received a transmission from Omega station: an analysis of the alien ship's shields. Commander Nap Crepp told us to concentrate all fire on the shields above that point. We did so.
Everyone curled their arms in to their main weapon emitter and fired. Tenthree fired every dock beam he could bring to bear. The ship's shields held for a good minute before failing, and when they fell we sliced that ship into large pieces. Its engines failed but momentum kept it moving through the area. Flames, hot gas and fragments vented from the holes we made. Some of the small pulse lasers were still operating, and fired at us as we drew near but they were ineffective. They stopped firing one-by-one.
We turned our attention to Panau. His reactors were failing. He was dying.
"I wonder if I'll see the White Ship," he said. "Sirocco? I'll wait for you."
"You're not going anywhere," she said.
"No.2 just failed. No.3 is down to ten percent," he said. "I don't think I can stay much longer."
Sirocco backed away from him, and used one of her beams to slice the end of an arm. She looked at the hole in his bow, found the power conduits and wave guides from one of his lost arms, and shoved her amputated arm onto the hole. "You're not going anywhere," she said again, and fired that arm. The power of the lost canon flowed into Panau.
"His reactors have gone," said Doc. We waited.
"Um, Doc?" said Panau. "Can you hurry with a spare reactor please?"
HC2 cut off an arm as Sirocco had and moved into position over her. "Doc! Hook me up first. Sirocco can't keep this output going." Doc welded HC2's arm into Panau's bow. The heavy cruiser could easily match Sirocco's energy output with no effort, but it still took a lot of persuading to get Sirocco to back away. She did not want to stop powering Panau.
Panau was dragged over to Tenthree and docked. It took Doc and me another two days of hacking and cutting before the destroyer had a permanent power supply from the station and HC2 could release him.
We were so busy with saving Panau I'd almost forgotten about Mike. It was a relief to finally reacquire his signal.
"Interesting" really doesn't do justice to the events of the last day. Intense, worrying, and frightening would be a more accurate description.
We loaded our faxes into Tenthree's shuttle, and I followed it over to Omega station. We were met by the station security in Docking Bay 2. The three docking bays are huge hollow tubes jutting out from the frame under the rotating section of the station. Each could hold a dozen ships the size of Cas, and a little interceptor like me could turn tight circles without hitting anything. Large ships could go deep into the structure and connect to gang-ways and service lines. Small ships were given an area with artificial gravity so they could land as though they were touching down on a planet.
Tentree landed the shuttle at a point not too far from the gas barrier, and Cas ordered me to choose a landing bay even closer to the opening. I obeyed her, of course.
After Security had checked us for weapons, they asked us to climb onto some small transports and drove us into the main body of the station. One of them (I don't know who. They all wore identical uniforms so we couldn't tell them apart) told us the trade delegation were already waiting for us, and we were to be taken directly to the conference room.
They drove us two kilometres into the station to the interface between the docking frame and the rotating habitation ring, and then by elevator another two kilometres out to the edge of the ring where centrifugal forces provided all the gravitational services.
There are a lot of aliens on that station, most are human. We found out later that there are nearly 300,000 people living there, and they are the only signs of life on their side of the border for a hundred lightyears. Even the world below is barren and airless. They ignored us as the security drove us through the crowds. We were just some more aliens to them.
Eventually we passed through a security checkpoint and entered an almost deserted passageway. Waiting for us were three more aliens. From the description we obtained from Effie these were Captain Mitch Dae a human, Science Officer Brentford, who was covered in black fur and looked like a possum, and Executive Officer Peib Dborch, who stood nearly three metres high and looked like an Earth polar bear in an environment suit. He was armed with a multi-barreled canon that I wouldn't mind having for myself.
I was searched by XO Dborch. I attempted to scan him for the mechanical components but he clamped his hand over my face. "Don't do that," he said. "It's irritating." I tried to remove his hand but I couldn't! He is immensely strong. Doc asked the Captain Dae if we could scan them later, but the captain wouldn't commit.
We were finally permitted to meet the trade delegation. The humans spoke without ceasing for an hour, telling us what they wanted from us. Effectively, they want unlimited access and unrestricted trade with worlds in our territory. Eventually they stopped talking. Our lack of response seemed to worry them. Their leader asked what we wanted.
"We require your shield technology," said TT.
"I'm afraid we can't transfer technology," said one of the delegates.
"Then we will enter your territory with our unlimited cargo and passenger capacity," I said. "And operate at no cost as a free service to the worlds there."
The humans went pale. "You can't do that!" said the leader. "You'll threaten our economy!"
"We don't make threats," said Cas. "We act as required."
"We require your shield technology," said TT again.
The humans jumped to their feet and began talking at once, but Captain Dae shouted "SHUT UP!" at them. He listened to something coming through his head-set, then said "Right, Effie says we an unidentified capital ship arriving here in ten minutes. We have to get the delegation to a safe zone."
"What sort of ship?" asked HC1.
"It's bigger than your heavy cruisers." He looked at her name and added "Bigger than you. Effie thinks it's a ram-raider so you might want to warm up your weapons. We'll need your help."
We disconnected from the faxes and prepared to fight. I found a place near the opening of the docking arm and asked everyone to start feeding me targeting data.
The two heavy cruisers, 62 and 65, said they were between jobs and decided to accompany us to Omega Station. We have quite a squadron here now: Me, Cas, Panau, Sirocco, Doc, HC62, HC65, and TT have joined STN3, HC1, HC2 and Dee here. We all want to go to the station to explore its interior, so our twelve faxes will meet with their security team after the trade meeting.
On the way over TT built a fighter for herself. She wants to do something now that she's become unable to carry passengers, but I'm afraid she won't be able to bring herself to kill an enemy fighter pilot. I don't know what we can do for her.
We also discussed Forno's last transmission. Our feeling is that he wasn't alone at the end but we have no idea who was with him.
An hour after we arrived we were delighted to see the little solar sailor called Ielfet arrive. The AI known as Effie greeted us and said they would be attending the trade talks, but only as bodyguards. They are on hire to protect the Guild Traders in the event of us trying to harm them.
Cas and Doc would like very to meet the captain and the executive officer of that ship. We've heard they both contain mechanical components in their bodies, and Doc wants to perform a detailed scan of them. They have been invited over, but I don't know if they'll come before the trade talks.
Right now we are waiting for the rest of the alien delegation to arrive. I think the next few days will be very interesting for us.
The traders from the SLE controlled sector want to make a treaty with us, but we don't know what we can supply. The only commodities we have is escort services, passenger and cargo capacity. My hope is that this is enough to obtain the shielding systems their ships have. We've tried to build our own but we can't get the protective systems to exclude high energy pulses.
Furz and Commander Tipps joined us on Essten's concourse, along with HC65 and HC62, to discuss the best way to obtain the alien technology. Furz said she would help us adapt it to our systems.
Our discussion was interrupted when TT dropped out of hyperspace and performed a high-speed docking. She was so stressed couldn't communicate, but her passengers who poured onto the concourse were all shouting about being attacked. TT sent her fax on board with them but she couldn't speak.
"Where's her escort?" asked Commander Tipps.
"Where is DE54NO?" asked Essten.
"Forno!" whispered TT. "I had to leave him with the Ram-raiders!" She connected properly to the network and passed the information to us. Once again I had the odd feeling caused by the time delay due to distance. We were still getting the 6 hour old telemetry from TT and Forno on their mission, and now we were getting from TT details of the attack by the Ram-raiders. The dead capital ship dropped out of hyperspace and immediately hit Forno with beam weapons, and launched its rams at TT. Cas estimated a 10 minute differential, so in 10 minutes we would start receiving Forno's telemetry of the battle. TT's arms were curled back and coiled tightly, and she couldn't keep her fax still.
The telemetry arrived. Essten put it on her screens for Furz and Commander Tripps. We watched through Forno's systems as the Ram-raders arrived and launched their rams at TT. He ordered her to jump to hyperspace while he destroyed the pursuing ships. He shot down eight while the capital ship beamed holes through his fuselage. TT left the area and the rams turned for him. He targeted the capital ship and fired everything at them, but one destroyer didn't have enough fire-power to penetrate their shields.
Then they hit is No.2 reactor. It exploded and destroyed his No.3 and damaged No.1. Two rams hit him and dumped their loads of battle droids into him, but when they found there was no crew for them to take, they self-destructed. The alien capital ship jumped, leaving him alone.
Forno knew he was dying. His No.1 reactor was failing and he could do nothing to stop it. As his power failed his last transmission was confusing and was broken by bursts of static but that is to be expected: "Who are you? … How can you be a ship if you're white? … Then I will wait there for TT. …"
And then he was gone.
This is beyond our experience. None of us knew how to react. TT grabbed Commander Tipps on the arms and shouted "Tell me what to do! Order me!" Panau and I prised her fingers off his arms. She'd left bruises in the shape of her hands there.
"Sit down," said Commander Tipps.
TT sat beside Furz. "I feel pain," she said.
"I know," said Furz. "I felt like that when my husband died." She put her arms around TT's fax. "It hurts."
Outside, Cas and Sirocco wrapped their arms around TT's hull. "Does it stop hurting?" asked TT.
"It fades with time, but it'll never fully go away."
. . .
Essten suggests we delay our departure for a day until we recover from the shock. We all have a- a hole in our minds that used to contain Forno's transmissions, and TT feels as if she has lost half of herself. I fear she will never be able to carry passengers again.
We received word that the traders on Omega Station want to negotiate a treaty. Doc, Mike, Cas, Panau and Sirocco are heading home to discuss our options. We can't do it from here; the delay is too much.
Our operations here have scaled down fo the moment. To keep myself busy I am making facsimiles of the base gardens on my concourse. It all looks a little bare and stark.
Before they left we spent a few more hours on the base. Cas, Mike and I entered the medical centre and found Doc and Doctor Helen deep in discussion. Dr Helen was quite surprised to see Mike walking around, but we explained again about the faxes. She said she'd like to see us one day. I think Doc would like to have her visit.
Mike recognized signs of fatigue in the human and told Doc to let her sleep since they can't function properly without a period offline.
That's when we got the call about the alien traders. Doc and Dr Helen will have to resume their discussions later.