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This is science-fiction, of the set-in-the-future, men-flying-around-in-spaceships variety. Certain ideas were clearly influenced by books such as Niven and Pournelle's The Mote In God's Eye, but the characters, settings and plot are original. It is also rather bleak (see ending).

The View from Ground Zero

We sometimes experience moments free from worry. They are called panic.
- Cullen Hightower

On board a shuttlecraft, 0900 hours, ship's day 231.

Munroe, the Captain, Marcus, the Engineering Officer, and a small civilian scientific team had spent more than three days - about 80 hours of ship's time - investigating reported artifacts on the surface of Phaedrus I's smaller moon. Their ship, UCSS Marsden, had been assigned to the task of mapping space around the giant planet in order to assist colonists on 'New Bristol' - known to the Navy's asinine bureaucracy as Phaedrus II - in planning economic activity in their solar system.

Although the search had yielded no evidence of intelligent or any other sort of life, the geology of the moon and its apparent mineral wealth had convinced the civilians of the object's value and Captain Munroe felt justified in having left communications contact with Marsden for more than twice the time naval protocol allowed. Munroe liked to run his ship 'by the book', but was not averse to cooking that book when it suited him or his crew, and back on board the destroyer he felt sure that Jones, the ship's First Officer, would not have felt it necessary to record his prolonged absence in the log.

In the passenger compartment of the shuttle - one of two carried by the Marsden - two of the civilian geologists were arguing about the naming of the two moons. The present names, based on order of discovery by the survey ship that first charted the system, had them as Phaedrus I (1) and (2), but it was customary that final nomenclature was the decision of the colonists. Drs. Schmidt and Winter reported directly to the Commissioner on 'New Bristol' and it was likely that any decision they came to would be abided by. The planet was not yet important enough to host a parliament or even a administrative council and hence governance followed an autocratic colonial model. Under Commissioner Fisher's guidance, 'New Bristol' now sustained a population of almost one hundred and fifty thousand, mostly clustered around the initial landing site of Andrews Peak but now beginning to spread out into more distant regions, and, all other things being equal, the planet would soon become important enough to have not only a permanent Navy presence but also to win subsidies from the Sector Government.

Schmidt - who unlike his colleague possessed a sense of humour, or, at least, a Germanic approximation thereto and was a great fan of old Warner Bros. cartoons - wanted to name the moons 'Tweety-Pie' and 'Sylvester' while Winter, of a classical bent, insisted that 'Anthony' and 'Cleopatra' would be more appropriate. Munroe, thankful that he was not entitled to interfere in this important matter of colonial government, watched in some amusement as the two senior members of the civilian expedition sought to argue the merits of their choices:

"Might I direct your attention to document UC1107/1 on the Naming of Moons and Planetary Bodies, article 14, section 1.1," - Winter began to read from the screen of his portable computer - "which begins 'although names should of course be chosen to reflect the culture of local colonists, and at the discretion of the relevant authority,' um, that's Commissioner Fisher, of course, 'it is not intended that this be taken as encouragement for frivolous or unconsidered assignment of names. It should be remembered that the nomenclature chosen for objects cannot readily be altered and will in most cases outlast the memory of any special reasons which might have been given for an unorthodox choice. Hence it is recommended that in all cases where a conflict arises, the conventional should be chosen in favour of the imaginative.' I think that makes it quite clear: 'Sylvester' and 'Tweety-Pie' are characters from children's entertainment. My choice is serious and formal. What objection can you raise to naming these important moons after two characters from classical literature?"

Schmidt, who had obviously looked up the document that Winter was referring to on his own terminal, began, "Firstly, the document that you have cited is merely advice. It is not even a set of guidelines, and should he decide to do so Fisher would not have to give any account of why he decided against following it. Secondly, it can hardly be said that 'Sylvester' and 'Tweety-Pie' are entirely 'frivolous' characters. The Looney Tunes cartoons contain a great deal of, err," - Schmidt was hampered by never having taken a literary criticism course, and searched around for suitable phraseology - "satire and, um, social comment. The fact that they were primarily children's entertainment does not detract from that. Furthermore, why not name the moons after something fun?"

"Colonial government is not about 'fun'. I hardly think that to be an appropriate criterion for an important decision of this sort...."

Munroe realised that he could have a lot of fun introducing a 'compromise' - suggesting, perhaps, that the moons be named 'Sylvester and Cleopatra' or 'Anthony and Tweety-Pie' - but thought that this might well lead to one of the geologists strangling the other, an outcome likely to prove detrimental to naval discipline and which would also lead to a great deal of unnecessary paperwork. And other things called: Midshipman Davis, the pilot, had paged him.

"We should be in comms range of Marsden in a couple of minutes; I was going to transmit the standard acknowledgement message. Is there anything to be added to that?"

Munroe asked the geologists whether there was anything vital to be relayed to the government at Andrews Peak, and although the answer was 'no' he did succeed in splitting up their debate. Marcus had a set of performance figures for the shuttle's recent engine upgrade which he wanted fed into the ship's computer for analysis, which were duly appended to the message. This done, Davis powered up the comms system and keyed the transmit command into his console. Using the calculated orbit for Marsden, the transmitting laser was tracked around to point at the ship, and its optics were adjusted to make the beam's divergence sufficient to account for the uncertainty in the ship's position. The shuttle's computer encrypted the text with Marsden's public key and beamed it forth. The destroyer, in common with all warships, did not transmit an automatic reply: in time of war this could reveal a ship's position to the enemy.

The same, 1015 hours.

Although there was no reason for Marsden to transmit any reply to the shuttle's ack message, Davis kept the comms system 'up' in accordance with sensible practice. Somewhat to the pilot's surprise, however, a message was received about ten minutes after the shuttle's message was transmitted.

UCSS MARSDEN '1648/72' 'PHAEDRUS I 170'21.2:14,536'  SST D231 1014.46
     TO SHUTTLECRAFT '1648/72.0'                      Pr SPK | Tr BBM

Report situation 27 mechanical/systems trouble on board.

Captain's-eyes-only message follows.

Lieut. Jones (commanding)        MsgAuth JZ898.41

Davis, alarmed, paged the captain: "Err, Captain, I think there's some sort of trouble back on board Marsden. We just got a message over the broad-beam." Marsden's transmission had been sent by broad-beam maser, an insecure and slow communications system normally used only by merchant ships or when the position of the recipient was unknown.

Munroe made his way to the shuttle's tiny bridge and read through the received text. "No sign of the second message, then, I suppose?", he asked.

"Not yet. The antenna's still up, of course, so there shouldn't be any trouble receiving it. But that first message came out quite weak, and if the second one's any worse we might have problems picking it out. Hell of a lot of noise from the ion flux out here, you know." Davis pointed to a graph he'd brought up on one of the computer screens which covered the bridge, which showed message power falling, and signal-to-noise rising inexorably. He had spoken the truth: had the signal strength dropped another 25% then the built-in error correcting code would have trouble picking out the meaning of the message,

"Are we in visual range yet? With the telescopes, I mean?"

"I'm afraid the telescope on this ship isn't much good. I can try...."

The shuttle's telescope was mounted on the same turret as the comm laser, and with a bit of hunting around Davis got a picture up on the viewing screen. Marsden was too far away to pick out much detail but the captain noticed two strange features of the image: it was blurred - more than could be accounted for by the poor quality of the telescope - and the ship appeared to be twinkling periodically.

"Odd. Get Marcus up here. Maybe he'll have some idea what's going on."

Davis paged Marcus absent-mindedly. In a previous life - before he'd joined the navy - he'd been an astronomical assistant at the acclaimed observatory on the moon of Michael's World, the sector capital. Unlike both Marcus and Munroe, he had extensive experience of telescopic observations, and the image he was seeing now was ringing bells somewhere in his recollection. Marcus came to the bridge, and the captain showed him the message and the image from the telescope.

"Hmm. I don't like that blurring - we're sure that's not from the telescope or the computer enhancement, presumably?"

"No. Look at the stars away from the ship. They look perfectly clear. And if we turn the image processing off..." Davis keyed in a command "... the thing just gets more blurred."

"Very odd, then. I must admit I'm baffled," - the captain found that Marcus was too easily baffled and was looking for a way to replace him - "have you any ideas, Davis?"

"I think so. But it's going to seem a bit strange. It looks like the ship is spinning, like an asteroid or something. It must be catching the light periodically."

"Interesting. But far too fast - the period would have to be two or three seconds. And the blinking is irregular." mumbled Marcus. "There must be some other explanation. Could the light be some sort of a beacon? To tell us where they are, perhaps. Have they drifted off station?"

"No." Munroe spoke up, "The position stated in their last message was right where it should have been. They must still be in the same orbit. Anyway, I don't think we're going to get anyway by further speculation." He made a mental note of Davis's suggestion - he felt that the man would make a good bridge officer and was accumulating the evidence that would be required to convince a Promotions Board that this was a good idea. "Can you switch the PA on... thanks... This is Captain Munroe speaking. There is some sort of a, um, situation back on board ship. We have no reason to suspect it's a big problem but be aware that things may not go as smoothly as they had been doing before. Thank you."

"Any sign of that message yet?"

"No, and I don't think there will be unless they get their transmitter back in order. The ion flux has gone up again," - the fluctuations in the solar proton wind in the Phaedrus system were as yet completely unexplained - "and I don't think that last message would have gotten through under these conditions."

1130 hours.

Davis paged the captain again: "The image from the telescope's rather better now. Shall I pipe it through to your terminal" - all of the ship's officers carried portable computers - "or will you look at it on the bridge?" Munroe and Marcus were back on the bridge within fifteen seconds.

Marsden could be made out quite well on the screen in the bridge. The ship was quite stubby - most warships are, in order to keep their moments of inertia as small as possible and so make them more maneuverable - and relying as it did on shuttlecraft for planetary landings, not aerodynamic in any sense. The main bulk of the ship was taken up by the aft fuel tanks, which stored deuterium-enriched hydrogen to run the ship's fusion reactor and its main drive. Communications antennae and batteries of more warlike laser equipment were clustered around the fuel tanks, as were big radiating fins used to dump heat from the tank's refrigeration systems. Forward, the outline of the ship was dominated by the armoured spherical accommodation and command section. A bulge in the stem of the ship around the front of the fuel tanks held the massive housing of the neutrino scanner, a passive system used to detect other ships by the neutrinos thrown off from their fusion power reactors. The Class 16 destroyers were the smallest ships in the Navy to carry such a system: the huge quantities of heavy polymers, the fragility of the photo-multipliers used to detect the elusive neutrinos, the sophistication of the computers needed to filter out 'signals' - enemy ships - from 'noise' - the massive neutrino flux given off by stars - and most importantly, the need to spin the whole thing at inconveniently high speeds to scan around made neutrino scanners more suited to battleships than destroyers. Small painted reflectors scattered around the hull marked the nodes of the phased-array radar antenna, and sundry ports and external 'hard-points' showed where missiles would be mounted were the ship to go to war.

Munroe often wondered what an alien race - for like every captain in the navy he dreamed of making 'first contact' - would make of his ship. Primitive, perhaps. Strange, probably. Warlike, certainly. For even through the digital 'eyepiece' of a telescope, even from some hundreds of thousands of kilometers distant, UCSS Marsden looked every inch a fighting ship. Too small for cargo, too uncomfortable for passengers, and with obvious weapons scattered all around the hull, the ship was a specialised product of the periodic aggression that characterised human culture. But even to him there was definitely something strange about the ship today.

Davis had been right. The ship was spinning. It was rotating rapidly - at about five revolutions per minute-end-over-end about its center of mass, and, worse, it was precessing in an apparently unpredictable manner. A thin cloud of fogginess surrounded the vessel, and one of the aft fuel tanks seemed strangely crumpled.

"You were right. How did you figure that out?"

"Back at the observatory we used to do observations on asteroids - radar would pick them up to see if they posed a threat to the settled worlds, but you can't get a reliable estimate of size from that. We had to actually look at them, and one of the things we did was to watch them over a period of time. The little ones-the ones where you can't really make out a disk in the telescope-just twinkle as they reflect the sun. Much slower than that," - he pointed at the image of Marsden - "of course. But the principle's the same."

"Very impressive. And that explains why they sent that message on the maser - they couldn't have locked the laser on reliably enough." Munroe scribbled a note into his computer with the special stylus. He felt sure that this would be sufficient to secure Davis's promotion next time they could get him in front of a Promotion Board. But at the moment there were more pressing matters. "Any idea what might have happened, Marcus?"

"Hard to say. A meteor" - as an engineer Marcus did not feel that he need use the correct terminology, and Davis winced subconsciously - "big enough to impart that sort of spin would have broken the ship up. Anyway, radar would have picked it up and had the aft batteries take it out. And that fog... hmm... they must have had to flush one of the fuel tanks or something. One of them does look damaged, in fact. But why the spin...? I suppose if the neutrino scanner seized up or something it could transfer the momentum to the rest of the ship...."

"But the NS shouldn't have been spun up. It's not in the standing orders. Jones could have had it switched on, but what for? No, that doesn't make sense. And the bearings came out OK in the last diagnostics, right?" The neutrino scanner was balanced on precisely machined rails to allow it to rotate rapidly in two axes; a mechanical glitch could prove disastrous as Marcus had speculated.

Marcus might have been unimaginative, but he was a fastidious ship's engineer. "Yep, well within tolerances on last week's checkout."

"Should I get Lieutenant Jones on the comm?" inquired Davis

"Don't bother. We'll be there in half an hour."

The shuttlecraft, holding station one kilometer from UCSS Marsden, 1205 hours.

In the passenger compartment, the civilians were, understandably, agitated.

"Christ, I don't like the look of that. Do you suppose there's anyone left alive on there? They'll all have been crushed!" Dr. Winter proved that he could act hysterically as well as humourlessly.

"Good point. We should ask the captain." Dr. Schmidt demonstrated his lack of physical intuition.

"Lord, no. The ship's only spinning at half a radian per second or so. The apparent force of gravity at the ends will be a bit over a gee, better nearer the center of mass. There's no problem, assuming all the life-support systems are still going, which they will be since the navy designs its ships to survive being shot at as well as any other mishaps. Now shut up and don't go panicking the biologists," explained Dr. de Fleury, a physicist whose desire to use the mission to investigate the Phaedrus system's bizarre proton wind had been frustrated by the navy's lack of suitable apparatus for his measurements.

The captain came over the PA: "As you can see, all is not well over on the Marsden. We have received word that, excepting minor injuries, there is nobody seriously hurt on board. All of the ship's systems are up and running. However, we will not be able to dock with the destroyer because of the, um, unpredictable nature of the ship's rotation. Hence, Lieutenant Marcus and myself will make our way over by a 'space walk' and Midshipman Davis will remain here to ensure your safety. On that point, you have of course my assurance that the navy will do everything we can to ensure your safety and the continuing success of this mission." The navy loved anything that was good for public relations and hated anything that made it look foolish or unwise - after thirty years of peace it needed all the public goodwill it could get to maintain its massive fleet and even more massive bureaucracy - and Munroe was well aware of the potential for an immense and embarrassing cock-up here, with his ship full of civilians and close to one of the Confederation's most successful and well-known new colonies.

Munroe hated space suits, space walks, and in fact anything that smacked of going outside of a nice warm life-support system and out into the cold hard vacuum of space. In contrast, Marcus loved to prance around 'on the outside' whenever he could. But at this point the enterprise seemed to have little appeal for either man.

The shuttle was holding station a good thousand meters from the ship, to avoid having the flimsy craft smashed and swatted aside by the fast-moving and heavy accommodation portion of Marsden. Various parts of the destroyer described different arcs within a sphere, and there was no angle of approach from which it could be guaranteed that the officers' journey would not be prematurely cut short by the impact of a very expensive blunt instrument.

The plan which Marcus had devised involved using the space suits' thrusters to accelerate towards the ship, and time their arrival so as to make contact with the main drive exhaust, the part of the ship closest to its center of mass, and which was rotating most slowly. Unfortunately, since the long-term motion of the ship could not be predicted, this meant that once inside the 'danger zone' the two men were entirely committed to their course.

The same, 1215 hours.

As they left the shuttle, Munroe noticed that Davis had re-oriented it so that the civilians could not see what was happening. Sensible though this was - in its cynical way - he was rather frightened by the obvious implication. Afterwards, the captain remarked that he had somehow been able to blot out the experience from his memory, but Marcus - who, being effectively in control of both men's destinies, took most of the risks - was not able to and despite his easy-going vacuum-breathing demeanour had nightmares about the journey for weeks afterwards.

On the main drive exhaust, UCSS Marsden, 1220 hours.

Both men felt petrified, with apparently the only comforting feature of the situation being that, to each, the other looked equally shaky. The Chief Engineer indicated a route up to the nearest access hatch, and both began to climb, an alarming experience due to the rapidly-changing and counter-intuitive accelerations that the strange motion of the ship brought on.

Upon entering the hatch - where the Marine Sergeant-at-Arms was waiting for them - they made their way cautiously to the bridge, which, being at the forward end of the ship was experiencing the largest 'gravity'. The unfamiliar sensation altered the men's whole perception of the ship's layout: except when under acceleration, which anyway caused gravity to act 'backwards', the ship had no natural sense of 'up'.

The bridge furniture had been moved around to avoid the sensation of sitting strapped to the wall, and had been securely fastened down so that off-axis accelerations did not throw the officers around the room. A ladder from Engineering had been placed between the armoured hatch which led to the bridge compartment and the forward bulkhead to enable access.

"OK, listen up, what the fuck is going on here?" asked Captain Munroe in a manner which, had he been a more junior officer, might have caused him to be dragged before a naval court-martial.

It turned out that - contrary to the captain's worse expectations - the current situation was the result of terrible bad luck and only mild incompetence, rather than as he had suspected the other way round. Early the previous day one of the valves in 'B' tank aft had jammed, leading to a build up of pressure. Following the operating manual for the Class 16 ships, Engineering had rigged a line from 'B' to 'A' tank to bleed off the contents. Unfortunately, the procedure used to expel fuel from the damaged tank - relaxing the refrigeration system to allow a build up of pressure and so push hydrogen through the fuel hose-relied on the assumption that the tank's internal divisions were bulkheads, able to stand up to large pressure differences. This was not the case - Marsden's fuel tanks were of an earlier design than described in the manual - and heat dumped in the rearmost compartment of the tank warmed the adjacent sections, causing each to blow out against the lowered pressure. Boiling hydrogen escaped through the hose, which quickly broke, and the pressure thus exerted began to swing the ship around. At this stage, maneuvering thrusters should have corrected the problem, but the crew had taken a short cut and sealed other access to the fuel tanks during the transfer operation, so that no fuel could be fed to the engines. As the ship span up, it also began to precess unpredictably as fuel sloshed around in the damaged tanks. And with the ship spinning, there was no way to get fuel running to the engines again and so the spin continued.

"Suggestions, anyone?"

The bridge crew were strangely silent. Jones looked understandably embarrassed - left in charge of the ship, he had let this situation develop, probably severely to the detriment of himself, the captain and the navy as a whole, given the number of civilians on board.

"OK, can we have a damage report then?"

"Well, 'B' tank is totally out of commission. We don't know what happened to the outlet valves in the first place but it looks like we lost half the bulkheads during the- err- cock-up." - Peters was the Second Officer (Engineering), Marcus's deputy - "The other fuel tanks still seem OK, though we can't pump anything out at the moment. Power is still on, and the tokamak's auxiliary tank is undamaged and about forty percent full, so we can run the reactor for about another two hundred hours. We can't use any of the comms gear reliably, so we can't request assistance...."

The captain interjected: "We are not, repeat not, requesting assistance from New Bristol. Not unless the situation gets really bad. Go on."

"... Other than that, all the internal systems are OK. We haven't had time to run a full internal diagnostic yet but life support checks out fine."

"How long before we have to get the people on the shuttle back over here?

"Should be fine for the next eighty hours, and bearable for forty hours after that."

"OK. Now listen up. I don't want to push any of these limits at all. We have to get this fixed in the next ten to twenty hours, tops. Is there a precedent for this?"

"Nope. The Class manual doesn't have anything for unrecoverable spin. There were a couple of references in data on other classes, but mainly on ships big enough to have rotating accommodation sections. None of it was very helpful."

"Hmm. Right. We are going to split into groups of three and reconvene here in an hour. I want you" - Munroe addressed the communications specialist, Tully - "to explain that to Davis back on the shuttle, and get him to reassure the civilians. Right, look sharpish!"

The captain selected groups of officers to discuss the problem together and instructed them to go to various other parts of the ship to seek out a solution. Marcus, Jones and some of the others felt that this was unlikely to be helpful, but the captain was very much a believer in shared decision-making (known by his fellow officers as 'distributing responsibility', and by some of his superiors as 'shirking' it) and it would have been unwise to question him.

The bridge, UCSS Marsden, 1330 hours

The four groups of officers had returned to the bridge to discuss their possible solutions to the problems facing the ship. Each had at least managed to think up a solution, though these ranged from the bizarre - firing the remaining shuttle's drive, while it was still docked to Marsden - to the foolhardy - attempting to counteract the spin by boiling off the contents of 'C' tank, which even if it had worked would have left the ship virtually without freedom of maneuver. As might have been expected, it was the Engineering Officer's team that came up with the best solution:

"The neutrino scanner has just about enough moment of inertia to take off most of the ship's spin. If we can rewrite the controlling code so that it uses the NS drive motors to counteract the spin of the ship, then we should be able to get things back to the stage where the engines can be fuelled up again."

"Excellent. That seems like a good strategy. Does anyone have any objections?" Munroe was not an engineer, and, in light of what little he could remember of rigid body rotations in classical mechanics, the idea seemed workable. It occurred to him, in fact, that the plan was sufficiently clever to get into the 'book' - to give it its full title, Destroyers, Class 16: Operating Manual, Technical Specifications and Tactical Guidelines (Revised) - and wondered whether he could somehow take responsibility for its conception.

None of the bridge officers had objections - or, at least, none which they felt that they could argue out with Marcus and his technical expertise. The plan was to go ahead, once Marcus's team had inspected the details of the NS to ensure that it precisely fitted the description in the book: 'once bitten, twice shy' was already the unofficial motto of Marsden's Engineering section.

"Marcus, I want you to get on to that right now. Jones, Tully, Spencer" - the third of these was the Marsden's Weapons Officer, who in time of peace acted as a sort of captain's dogsbody - "to the Conference Suite right now. Oh, and get Paine up there too." Paine was the Medical Officer, and unofficial vet - responsible for the welfare of Sophocles II, the ship's cat (also its officially sanctioned rat catcher, and known inevitably as 'Tiddles' despite his impressive pedigree) - but provided the captain with an umpteenth opinion (and yet more opportunity to distribute blame) for any contentious decision. Munroe had long ago reached the conclusion that success in the navy lay not in competence in battle - for no real battle had occurred for thirty years, and even the most realistic of 'war games' bore no relation to even the worst of the contingencies that strategists dared to imagine - nor even expertise in ship-handling, but in public relations, and, being at heart a pessimist of the worst sort, the captain had spent his entire career in building up a network of fall-guys who could in time of need be caused to sacrifice their careers and livelihoods to ensure that his continuing position in the navy, his carefully crafted mediocrity, his ambition to be a safely desk-bound Admiral, and, above all, his cushy pension remained intact.

Conference Suite, UCSS Marsden, 1345 hours

"OK. I call this meeting to order. Be aware, it may prove necessary to produce minutes for this and in view of that putative requirement our conversation is being recorded. Now, to our present situation.

"It looks like Marcus should be able to sort out the little local difficulties without too much trouble" - the Engineering Officer had reported that efforts to rewrite portions of the computer control system for the NS for their present special purpose had been successful, and notwithstanding unforeseen eventualities, the big scanner should start to spin up in a few minutes - "so I think we should now move onto a far more pressing problem. What in hell's name are we going to tell the civilians, and more importantly, what should we tell the government back on New Bristol?"

The others seated at the conference looked dumbfounded. Munroe explained further:

"You are aware that, however successful we are in recovering this situation, the navy... err, this ship, us, has just succeeded in endangering the lives of twenty-seven of the most important people in this system? Commissioner Fisher, unless I am very much mistaken, will flip his lid. Go ape-shit. Throw an ep. Are you people getting the picture?" The captain was a little surprised to discover that his colleagues had not considered the situation in this light before.

"Um, shouldn't we be worrying about the ship, not the civilians? The civilians are all, um, OK...." Paine's voice trailed off, aware that he had perhaps said the wrong thing, and he turned instead to stroking Tiddles who had broken a leg during the 'situation' and, the doctor felt, needed all the comforting he could get.

"For Christ's sake, can you imagine, even conceive, of what the Admiralty are going to say when they get Fisher screaming at them that they sent an ship full of idiots? And nearly killed most of his colony's fucking scientists? Have you not even thought about this?" Munroe's demeanour - he had turned dangerously red in the face - betrayed a deep fear for his future.

"If I might make a suggestion?" - Jones felt a special responsibility for the disaster, and thought that he had best contribute something - "Can't we prevent them talking about this at all?"

"What? Are you planning to have them all shot or something... alright, go on?" Munroe did not see what his First Officer could mean.

"We could claim military privilege. You know, say that the people had witnessed the consequences of a massive design flaw, say that having the information get out could endanger the Navy and the Confederation. That sort of thing. I think there's a precedent - came up in law classes at the Academy. I could look it up if you want."

"I'm not sure I see your meaning. You intend that we invent a reason for nearly thirty people to sign documents to say that they won't talk about a simple accident?" Tully had not been in the navy long enough to appreciate the gravity of the situation - although he had served on enough committees to see that he should probably cover himself in the event of any major problems.

"That's interesting. Perhaps you should investigate." Munroe addressed Jones, ignoring the Communication Officer's comment which although probably made with the best possible intentions did not exactly fit the captain's view of matters.

"But what happens when the navy finds out about our actions? I appreciate that seeing the Colonial Service rip them apart over this won't be good for them, but it's not like they're going to participate in a big cover-up which we started?" Spencer was a realist, and in addition came from a naval family.

At that point, the klaxon blared for 'acceleration warning', and Marcus's voice came over the PA to instruct all personnel to strap down. A few seconds later, the lights dimmed slightly and the high-pitched whirrings of the neutrino scanner's drive motors became audible through the ship. Occasional wobbles and off-axis accelerations made Munroe wish that Marcus's team were better computer programmers, but gradually it became clear that the ship's spin was being recovered. A message over the intercom indicated that the first stage of the procedure was had been successful, and, presently, the rumble of fuel being transferred through the ship indicated that Engineering had managed to fix up the engines again. Three short burns from the ship's Orientation Maneuvering Thrusters finally brought the ship to rest. Shortly thereafter the familiar sounds of a shuttlecraft docking indicated that Davis had finally brought the remaining members of the exploration expedition back to the ship.

The bridge, UCSS Marsden, 1355 hours.

The neutrino scanner was controlled by a process running on Marsden's main computer system. Although Marcus had rewritten the code that steered the detector - which was able to scan reliably over all space only by spinning very fast and integrating the results, and was therefore quite useless when stationary - the code that analysed the data remained untouched, and during the recent maneuver had been running without interference.

Even a moderate-sized ship - one like Marsden, for example - consumes vast quantities of electric power. In addition to the 'military' functions such as the destroyer's massive radar system that were peculiar to a warship, life-support systems and the control gear necessary to run the ship at all consumed most of the output of a moderate fusion plant, and hence generated a sizeable neutrino flux. The engines - big fusion rockets - generated an additional tell-tale signature. The neutrino scanner's sophisticated signal-processing software was able to detect, and, given sufficient additional time, locate ships anywhere within a system with a reliability that made most active systems strictly supplementary, and, depending as it did on such a vital attribute of a spaceship, almost impossible to counter.

Hence, a sizeable 'blip' in the neutrino flux detected by the NS almost certainly indicated a ship of some sort. The computer flagged it automatically, and checked it against the list of known ships in Phaedrus space. There were none, apart from Marsden itself, and so the scanner checked it again, guarding against the possibility of error. Authority had not been delegated to the computer to interrogate the target automatically using the radar, so the system announced its discovery to the operator.

Second Lieutenant Hale, operating the detector-systems console, didn't have authority to power up the radar either, so he paged Spencer: "We seem to be detecting another ship on the NS. It checks out on the CTA," - he used the abbreviation for computer target analysis - "but the database says there's nothing else in system at the moment. Can I power up the radar to check it out?"

"Yep. Run a schedule one Pulse-Scan. It's in the standing orders. Report the results back to me."

The computer had an automated program for the radar interrogation, and Hale merely had to key in a command to run through it. Powering the system up took a few seconds, and once this was done the system hurled forth eight pulses of microwave energy, distributed through the spectrum and with randomised delays between them, so that even in principle the characteristics of the pulse train could not be used to identify its source. The radar powered down again, and the computer set to waiting for echoes to be received. When they had, after about twenty minutes, it analysed the data received. Hale paged the Weapons Officer as soon as the results came in:

"OK, I got radar to check out the target the NS threw up. Looks like it's two ships, very close together. One of them's real big - looks like a bulk freighter or something - and the other one is about frigate-size."

"Hmm. And neither of these should be in system at the moment?"

"No. We got notice of all intended ship movements, right?" Phaedrus, as a colonial system, was not yet trading on the open market and there were no supply missions planned for some months.

The Captain cut in, "Does New Bristol have radar up and running yet?" Worlds, being easy to locate, need have no qualms about giving their positions away by radar, and most ran large systems to detect asteroids and incoming ships.

"Nope, I think that's scheduled for next year."

"Right. Check out the ships as best you can, do another scan with the radar if necessary, and get the orbits plotted. Spencer and I will be back on the bridge as soon as possible." Munroe closed the intercom connection.

"We will reconvene this meeting at some other time. Spencer, Jones, Marcus, I want you on the bridge. Paine, see what you can do about reassuring the civilians."

Hale ran another check with the radar, and used data from both scans to plot the orbits of the new ships. By the time that had been done, the Captain, First Officer and Engineering Officer had taken their positions on the bridge.

"You got that orbit calculated?"

"Yep, looks like a perfect intercept course for New Bristol."

"Right, that seems fine. Shall we radio the course on to the authorities there? Do them a favour, since they don't have radar themselves." The captain wanted to do Commissioner Fisher any favours he could, under the circumstances.

Spencer relieved Hale at the sensors console, and was putting the principal axes for the orbit into a message to be lasered off to New Bristol, when he noticed something odd about the ships' orbit.

"There's something very wrong here. Our two new friends are in a retrograde orbit."


"That's right. They're on a perfect intercept course for Phaedrus II, but it's retrograde." Hale looked embarrassed. He had assumed that the two ships were heading around their orbit in the same direction that the planet was, but in fact they were going the opposite way.

"Bizarre. That's quite a big screw-up."

"Looks like a merchant ship, anyway. Should tell them? They might just not realise."

"Yep. Oh, and get them to tell us what they're doing here... we can claim privilege for that. And get a message off to New Bristol anyway."

Spencer composed a message and had the comms operator send it over the broad-beam to the two ships, which were still some way away. "Should be about thirty minutes round trip time, including ten minutes for them to sort out their reply."

UCSS MARSDEN '1648/72' 'PHAEDRUS I 171'24.6:14,549'  SST D231 1357.21
     TO UNKNOWN VESSEL/S '?'                          Pr PSS | Tr BBM

Your vessel/s are currently on a retrograde orbit heading for the
inhabited world of Phaedrus II (New Bristol). If your intention is to
rendezvous with that object, it is essential that you change your
course immediately.

In compliance with UCN Protocol 27-0012 it is required that you report
your intentions over this communications channel.

Capt. Munroe (commanding)        MsgAuth KH742.49

"How long is it going to take those ships to reach New Bristol, anyway?"

"About six days on their current orbit." The two ships were on a hyperbolic orbit, falling into the system very fast from the hyperspace jump point. In itself this was slightly unusual - few merchant ships, end even fewer that were of the size of the one detected - could afford to do this.

"How quickly can we make a rendezvous with them?"

"To equalise velocities?" - Spencer started running calculations on his console - "Four days, if we push things and go at one and three-quarters gee all the way. We won't have much of a fuel reserve if we do that, though."

"Right. Set that course up, just in case."

1500 hours.

No message had yet been received from the two ships, although the Colonial Government on New Bristol had replied:

     TO UCSS MARSDEN '1648/72'                       Pr SPK | Tr NBL

We are not aware of any scheduled ship movements in Phaedrus system
at this time. Request further details on vessels detected and their
intentions. Please clarify also exact nature of orbit.

K Genarro
Office of Trade and Shipping, Andrews Peak
by authority of Commissioner Fisher        MsgAuth OP126.33

"Would we have had any problem receiving the message from those vessels?"

"Nope, ion flux has decreased and a ship that size should have a decent communications system anyway. I can't think what they might be up to."

Spencer could think what they might be up to. "Is it possible that it could be some sort of attack?"

"What makes you think that?"

"Well, they obviously came into system from the number two jump point, and even if they had made a simple mistake about the direction of orbit, it's not a very efficient way to rendezvous with the planet anyway. Even if they weren't retrograde, they'd burn a lot of fuel getting into the same orbit as New Bristol. And they're perfectly on course, even from that far out. It's too convenient."

"As an attack, it would be pretty effective" - was Marcus's contribution.

"Can you run numbers on that?"

"Yep. Coming up...." Spencer pulled up a page from the Planetary Tactics Manual, specifically, the section on 'Destruction of Surface Facilities'. The section tabulated explosive yield against target size for 'hardened targets in broken country' - the navy did not want the book to be seen as a guide to bombing cities - but in this case the distinction hardly mattered.

"If we take the lower limit for that thing's size - about half a million tonnes - it's going to hit with an equivalent yield of about point seven five million megatons. It's going to wipe out the whole planet, wherever it hits."

"Jesus...." moaned the Captain, who imagined the earlier screw-up paling into insignificance against his likely incapacity to prevent the destruction of an entire world.

"We just got a pulse on the NS. Looks like one of those ships fired its engine. It has to be the little one, judging by the flux."

"Get the radar on, right now!"

Marsden's radar switched into continuous mode, sending forth pulse after pulse to the position of the two intruders. Hale had more news, though: "We've got the two signals on the NS separating. Definitely looks like the second ship is moving away."

"Can you get that on the telescopes?"

"Yep, coming up now."

The dust in the Phaedrus I system prevented even the destroyer's sophisticated telescope optics from picking up a good image of the two ships. But the glow of the smaller ship's fusion drive was unmistakable.

1515 hours.

Echoes from the radar had started coming in, and it was clear that the smaller of the two ships had separated, making for the Phaedrus system's second hyperspace jump point. It seemed pretty clear that the ship was running away. The larger vessel continued inexorably on its course, and by now there was no doubt that it was headed for a collision with New Bristol. It had even been so timed as to hit Andrews Peak exactly, unnecessary though that was for a missile whose impact would make a hydrogen bomb look like a firecracker.

"I want the whole situation explained to Commissioner Fisher, and also to the civilians on board" - who despite the captain's worst expectations were more relieved to be safe than angry about the ship's earlier troubles - "and get us on that intercept course. Is it going to be possible to catch the smaller ship on our way in?"

"Yes. The geometry works out fine for that, though it's going to push the fuel reserve even more."

"Then make it so." Captain Munroe was feeling decisive, if rather edgy. Klaxons blared, and the ship's drive began to fire. An unaccustomed feeling of gravity developed, confining most of the civilians, unused to space flight, to chairs or bunks.

"Looks like the perpetrators are leaving the scene of the crime. What's our angle on stopping that thing?"

"Depends on whether the engines are still working. Whoever did it probably wouldn't expect the Navy to be here, so they might not have disabled them. Anyway, if they're still working we'll be able to change the orbit and just push the thing into a stable orbit."

"If the engines aren't working, can't we just blow the thing apart?"

"Hmm... well, we could break it up with one of the two hundred k nukes" - all warships carried thermonuclear-armed torpedoes, so ineffective had conventional explosives proved themselves in space combat, and despite the obvious danger which this posed to any inhabited world should the weapons get into the wrong hands - "But even if we did, it wouldn't disperse the fragments much. The debris would still make a hell of a mess."

"Could we push it out of the way?"

"Unlikely. When we rendezvous, it will only be two days out from New Bristol, and we're going to have to do something about getting out of the way ourselves within the last twelve hours of that. I don't think a thirty-six hour window is going to be enough for little us to push that big freighter out of the way."

"Christ. What do we do if there is no way stop it hitting?"

"Can we get people evacuated from New Bristol?"

"I doubt it. They just won't have the tonnage of shipping that requires. But suggest that to Fisher anyway."

Another message was flashed by laser to Phaedrus II, heralding almost-inevitable doom for one hundred and fifty thousand men, women and children.

UCSS MARSDEN '1648/72' 'PHAEDRUS 45'89.7:8,645E3'    SST D231 1521.02
     TO COLONIAL GOVT. 'X'                            Pr SPK | Tr NBL

Vessels previously reported on intercept course for New Bristol have now
separated. Larger ship appears to be on collision course with the planet,
and the other has changed course to leave the system. It appears that
an attack is being mounted on the colony. Our calculations indicate
an approximate impact yield in the range 500 thousand to one million
megatons, leading to certain destruction of all facilities around the
target zone (indicated as close vicinity of Andrews Peak) and elsewhere
on the planetary surface.

Suggest you make what preparations you can to evacuate personnel. This ship
has changed course to intercept vessel but we cannot guarantee success in
preventing an impact with New Bristol.

Good Luck.

Capt. Munroe (commanding)        MsgAuth TV017.22

The bridge, UCSS Marsden, 1100 hours, ship's day 232.

The reply from New Bristol had not been encouraging. At present there were four ships in orbit around the colony world, of which one had no interstellar capability. Their total passenger capacity was for two hundred and forty three persons, not including crew. Nevertheless, the government there had seized the ships and was arranging a lottery - 'You Bet Your Life', perhaps - for places on the evacuation fleet. The population, understandably, was in an advanced state of panic. Captain Munroe himself was tearing his hair out, not least because he had the unenviable job of explaining to the civilians on board Marsden - all of whom lived on New Bristol - the forthcoming incineration of their homes and families.

On their current course, the destroyer would - briefly - intercept the fleeing ship, but not for long enough to board and investigate, or even, in the most attractive scenario that presented itself to Munroe, blast the vessel out of space to the tune of hundreds of kilotons. Hence, a shuttlecraft with a squad of marines was to be dispatched under the able control of Spencer and the marine Sergeant-at-Arms, Watkins. They had orders to determine who had perpetrated the attack, why they had done it, and to arrest them - if circumstances allowed. And to destroy them, if not.

The shuttle was loaded up, and Spencer issued with his written orders by the captain. The vessel, small though it was, mounted eight two hundred kiloton torpedoes, and anti-missile lasers, as well as the marines' side-arms and heavier weaponry with which they could force their way aboard the target vessel. The Weapons Officer had selected Davis to fly the shuttle, sharing as he did the captain's belief in the man's future. The shuttlecraft was dispatched at 1107, and as soon as Davis was clear of Marsden he fired the engine to intercept the fleeing ship.

On board a shuttlecraft, 1445 hours.

The shuttlecraft had no radar of its own, but was able to receive pulses transmitted from Marsden's big phased-array set. These enabled it to gauge time-to-target pretty accurately, and Davis estimated that they would be within missile range in ten minutes. Repeated messages-lasered to the destroyer, then masered on to the target in Captain Munroe's name to avoid revealing the shuttle's position or even existence-had not elicited any response, despite their increasingly terse tone:

UCSS MARSDEN '1648/72' 'PHAEDRUS 42'17.1:7,028E3'    SST D232 1446.22
     TO UNKNOWN VESSEL '?'                            Pr PSS | Tr BBM

Personnel aboard your vessel are suspected in contravention
of multiple articles of Confederation law, in addition to refusal to
reply to messages in compliance with UCN protocols too numerous to list.

You are instructed to turn your ship around and make arrangements to allow
a naval boarding party aboard. It is imperative that you reply to this
message indicating your compliance without delay.  If you do not comply
with our instructions we will fire upon you without further warning.

Capt. Munroe (commanding)        MsgAuth PJ246.10

"Do you want me to run a target solution for the torpedoes?"

"Yep, get that done, and tell me if anything else happens."

The same, 1452 hours.

"Target's switched its radar on. They've lit us up... getting the ECM ready" - switching on the radar was a likely prelude to launching a missile of some sort.

"We have two torpedoes incoming. Range seven thousand, closing."

"Evasive action."

"Breaking left... now." The shuttle swung to the left. Davis requested that Marsden use its big radar set to jam the target's detector systems, thus effectively blinding the ship.

"Anti-missile laser is switched into target-intercept mode. Shooting... now."

The laser mounted in the shuttle's anti-missile turret started firing at the incoming torpedoes. One was quickly reduced to flying scrap, while the other - its fuel tank neatly burst - exploded impressively.

"Can you detonate a torpedo a bit off their bow, see if you can freak them out a bit?" - Spencer's order was not strictly in compliance with Munroe's instructions, but with the target's radar effectively jammed by Marsden, it seemed a risk worth taking.

"Yep. What sort of offset are you looking for?"

"Try ten clicks out, explode it in front of them."

"Setting up to fire... now." Davis entered the target co-ordinates into the shuttle's computer, which verified them and asked for confirmation. He punched the 'COMMIT' button, and the shuttle lurched slightly as the torpedo shot away.

"They tried anything else?"

"Nope... oh, they've switched the engines on."

"Trying to outrun us?"

"Looks like it. That torpedo's gonna be pretty nearly on top of them when it goes off."

"Christ, you mean you didn't set it relative offset?" - Spencer realised that Davis had set the torpedo to explode at a point fixed in space, rather than at a point relative to the fleeing target.

"Um... no."

"Get a message off to them."

"Right. Trying to open hailing channel now."

"Patch me in...."

"This is Lieutenant Brendan Spencer of the United Confederation Navy. If you do not alter your course immediately your ship will be destroyed by a torpedo already launched. Repeat, you must alter your course immediately to safeguard your ship. If you do not then comply with my further instructions, we will not hesitate in firing again."

There was no reply from the other vessel.

"Can they hear us?"

"Yep. I'm certain of it."

"How long before that torpedo goes?"

"Thirty seconds. It'll be about three hundred meters away from them when it does."

"Still on target?"


"Sod it" - was Spencer's fatalist reaction to the problem - "Pity we'll never know why they did it."

The shuttle's windows blacked out. Even from a couple of thousand kilometers out, a two hundred kiloton hydrogen bomb makes quite a bright flash. "EMP coming in now. We've lost the signal for the target" - was Davis's unnecessary comment. "Debris field is present... we have a picture."

Through the shuttle's inadequate telescope, the target - previously a small frigate, of unknown origin - had become a spreading mass of scrap. Some glowed brightly, other parts did not. Shortly all of the heat of the explosion had radiated away, and the destroyed ship was just a group of slightly radioactive fragments. Davis turned the shuttle around and fired the engine again to rendezvous with Marsden again. Watkins and his men looked a little disappointed that they would not be able to deal with the terrorists - as the crew had started to call them - on their own terms.

The bridge, UCSS Marsden, 1700 hours

Munroe was not exactly upset that Spencer and Davis had so summarily dispatched the men who had mounted the attack on New Bristol, and even Fisher was able to communicate a certain grim satisfaction to him. But the larger problem, of tens of thousands of doomed colonists, was a more pressing concern. Radar had a very accurate track for the freighter, and the destroyer's telescopes - which used an interferometry technique to achieve fantastic resolution - had a good picture of it, detailed enough to make out the vessel's name and registry data.

Calco Alaska was a bulk freighter, cylindrical in shape. The aft end contained the drive complex and associated fuel tanks. A roughly rectangular accommodation section, upon which were mounted all the vessel's communication antennae, was attached to the main hull by a short cylindrical bridge. Running lights - strobes located about every hundred meters along the twelve hundred meter long ship - were still flashing, but the lighting in the crew quarters had been extinguished. There was - the bridge officers were relieved to note - no obvious damage to the engines, but this did not rule out the possibility of more subtle sabotage. Munroe had ensured that pictures of the vessel were on file, along with Spencer's account of his encounter with the frigate. Copies had even been dispatched to New Bristol; futile as that was at this late stage, the captain felt that the colonists had a right to see what was about to hit them. He had little faith in his ship's ability to avert the disaster, and even less in his own ability to ride out the ensuing storm of accusations and recriminations.

Paine had paged the captain: "Some of the civilians want to send messages back to their families. It just seems likely to lead to upset" - the Medical Officer was perhaps not the best of counselors - "But I can't think of any reason to refuse the request."

Munroe looked for some way to refuse the request - likely as it was to lead to even further grief for the thirty-four men and women who would probably soon be sole survivors of the most vicious terrorist attack in history - but found none. "OK, I suppose that will have to go ahead. Get one of the communications technicians to help them. I think the messages can go through Fisher's office."

The captain wanted to call another conference - perhaps one of his officers could find a way to divert Alaska from her trajectory, a clever scheme to save one hundred and fifty thousand souls and Munroe's career - but knew that it would do no good. If a solution could be found, it would have to wait until their rendezvous with the freighter, fifty-five hours in the future.

Accommodation section, UCSS Marsden, 1130 hours, ship's day 233.

The civilian members of the expedition was in a state of deep gloom. About one fifth of them were now heavily sedated on Paine's instructions, and the rest were sitting lifelessly around the officers' mess, which had become their temporary home. A few were reminiscing privately about their homes and loved ones on New Bristol; others stared glumly into space. One or two were livid with anger, blaming everyone - Munroe, Fisher, the Confederation government, ad infinitum - for the fate of their homes and families. A few clung desperately to some shred of hope, among them Winter who somehow believed that Marsden might be used to evacuate colonists, despite the fact that fewer than forty scientists had pushed the ship's accommodation to capacity. Schmidt - who the captain had found the most personable of the team, and de Fleury, who seemed to be sufficiently stable to listen in, were being briefed by Munroe and Jones.

"At the moment, the basic situation is that we can rendezvous with Alaska" - both scientists had been provided with pictures of the vessel - "about forty-eight hours before, um, impact." The two men cringed at that last phrase. "If we can solve the problem within the first thirty-six hours, then that's that. But in the last twelve hours of the rendezvous window we are going to have to get out of the way to avoid hitting New Bristol ourselves."

"We have also investigated the possibility of destroying the freighter. Unfortunately, as you will realise, if we did that, the debris would continue along the same orbit, and we would not gain any significant advantage. At the moment, that's about all the substantive data we have, but feel free to ask any questions."

There were none. The two scientists had reached these conclusions privately some time before. But Jones had a question for them.

"I'm sorry to ask this, but, well... do you have any idea what might be the motive behind this? There just doesn't seem to be any reason for it...."

Schmidt, it appeared, could barely stop himself from breaking down. De Fleury had no explanation either. Munroe and his Executive Officer closed the briefing. Through the rest of the day - on board ship, an artificial period of time marked out by the silent ticking of a digital clock - Alaska continued racing towards New Bristol, its impact at Andrews Peak and its appointment with destiny. Marsden chased after it as best it could.

Ship's day 234.

     TO UCSS MARSDEN '1648/72'                       Pr SPK | Tr NBL

Our arrangements to evacuate as many colonists as possible have been
exhausted. Request please that you make arrangements to rendezvous
with these ships whether or not your primary mission succeeds. Details
will follow in a separate transmission.

Myself and my staff will be staying at Andrews Peak whatever the
outcome. We wish you every hope and guidance in the coming trials.

Please, please, let fortune be with us.

Commissioner Fisher
Office of the Governor, Andrews Peak        MsgAuth LQ738.19
UCSS MARSDEN '1648/72' 'PHAEDRUS 32'17.3:6,526E3'    SST D234 1218.13
     TO COLONIAL GOVT. 'X'                            Pr SPK | Tr NBL

All on board are doing everything we can to achieve success in these coming
trials. No words can express the anxiety and worry I feel for all on New
Bristol but trusting in fortune we hope to prevail in this difficult hour.

Capt. Munroe (commanding)        MsgAuth TV017.22

The bridge, UCSS Marsden, 2130 hours.

Alaska was clearly visible even on the unmagnified picture on-screen in the bridge. The clumsy bulk of the freighter betrayed nothing of its deadly trajectory, but all present were well aware of what it represented. A boarding party - to consist of Munroe, Marcus, Spencer, Paine and a large squad of marines - was preparing to board the vessel as soon as a thorough threat analysis was complete. The Book - the Naval Strategy Manual (fourteenth edition) - contained nothing relevant to this present situation, but did offer the general advice of adopting a tone of paranoia in any dealings with terrorists.

It soon became clear that there was no sign of any threat on board Alaska. There were no tell-tale emissions from computers or electronic systems, no heat of people on the vessel. The ship's shuttlecraft - like most freighters she carried only one, which served mainly as an escape pod - was still present. Even the maser dish mounted atop the accommodation section was in its 'stowed' position, unable to send or receive messages. About the only thing that definitely was running was the ship's fusion reactor - for that was how the ship was detected in the first place. Spectroscopic measurements showed that hydrogen was leaking from the pressure-relief valves of the fuel tanks, a promising sign since it showed that the tanks were not empty, but it was still impossible to tell whether the engines would fire or not.

Munroe had reached a decision: "It looks OK. Let's go."

A shuttlecraft, holding station one hundred meters from Calco Alaska, 2150 hours.

The side of Alaska's accommodation section dwarfed the shuttle, rearing up, as it did, dark and largely windowless. On board, Jenkins was making preparations to board the freighter. Under normal circumstances - were the freighter manned and prepared to receive them - they would dock with the ship's main hatch, an airlock designed to allow access from an attached vessel. But, for obvious reasons, this could be opened only from the inside. The marines - among them a specialist brought along to assist in gaining entry - intended to force open the freighter's hatch, in the first instance by hacking into the circuitry that controlled it, or, if that proved fruitless, blowing apart the control mechanism with an explosive shaped charge. A third option - documented in the Tactical Operations Manual (Marines) (eleventh edition), but not recommended except as a last resort - was to crash the shuttle through a weak spot in the target's side, then disembark in vacuum suits.

Andrei, the marine specialist - a man who had developed a deeply warped view of life through spending years of employment in blowing things up while lesser men sought merely to create them - did not feel hopeful about gaining access by a subtle method. It was, he felt, likely that the ship's onboard systems would lock the hatch against potential disaster were it tampered with. Using explosives was, he reasoned, much more likely to work. He disembarked alone from the shuttle - few would have wanted to accompany him, even if it had been necessary - and made his way over to the freighter, trailing a line as he went. This he attached to a rung of one of ladders which covered the ship's hull in order to allow easy access for maintenance workers. That done, he made his way slowly - to the men anxiously waiting on board the shuttle, his journey seemed to take an eternity - to the hatch, around which he then proceeded to search for a hatch to access the control system.

Eventually he found one. From the shuttle he could be seen fiddling with a case of tools, until finally he wrenched open the hatch cover with a crowbar. The rectangle of metal, inscribed with warnings - 'Do Not Open. Authorised Personnel Only' - spun away into space. Davis toyed with the idea of blasting it away with the anti-missile lasers but decided that this act of frivolity would not prove commendable.

After a few minutes, Andrei radioed back that he had no hope of opening the hatch by attacking the control circuitry, and that blowing it apart would probably make the situation worse. He suggested that he try to gain access by another hatch, and open the main hatch from the inside, but Munroe overruled him. Once he had returned to the shuttle, all on board donned spacesuits and Davis drove the craft at the side of the freighter.

A sickening crunch accompanied the impact of shuttle with freighter. Dust blew briefly around, and debris flew off into space with the ship's escaping atmosphere. The sound of klaxons blaring out the 'vacuum warning' could be heard briefly before the air became too thin. When the marines began to disembark, it became clear that the shuttle had landed in one of the recreation areas of the ship. Video screens and pictures were peppered around the walls. A solitary potted plant - leaves bubbling pathetically as its sap boiled - drifted past on its own private journey to the stars.

It soon became clear that Alaska's design was almost as paranoid as that of the navy's warships. Pressure doors had automatically closed off most of the ship from the damaged section, and many of these were actually double-doors that would function as airlocks. It was not long before Andrei was able to break into one of these, and gain access to the main part of the ship.

The command section, Calco Alaska, 2200 hours.

The freighter's bridge was much like that of any other merchant vessel, and in fact not dissimilar from Marsden's. But in two respects it was very different: all of the on-board systems were shut down, so that the computer screens which would otherwise be flashing with messages - most perhaps concerned with the imminent impact with New Bristol - were dark; and the bridge was littered with dead bodies. Even the efforts of the ship's substantial air-recycling plant had not purged the compartment of the stench of rotting flesh. All had died by gunshot, and all were dressed in the same uniform. The ship's weapon cabinet - most vessels carry some sort of small-arms, mainly in order to reassure paranoid insurers about the risk of piracy - was open, and a man - what remained of him, anyway - was slumped over it, obviously having tried to grab a gun to defend himself and his colleagues.

Of the perpetrators, there was no sign. No terrorist corpses were left aboard Alaska, and if any of those men had died here, their corpses had been removed by - and vapourised with - their living accomplices.

Paine - obviously disgusted by the bloodshed, for the ship's medical officer had never had a chance to become used to combat wounds - began to search out clues to what had happened. There was little else for him to do: not being a religious man, he felt that there was no-one there for him to save. Spencer and Marcus were already trying to boot up the ship's computer again. It was Paine who first found success:

"Um... I think I've found something interesting."


"It's the captain's computer." Like Marsden's officers, most captains of merchant vessels carried a personal computer. The grey plastic device - about the size of a sheet of notepaper, and a centimeter or so thick - had been hidden under the captain's body where he lay bleeding to death in the command chair. A tap on the screen - with the stylus from his own machine, since the dead man's was caked disgustingly in dried blood - switched the machine on. It began to play back a soundtrack.

"This is Captain Elias Fox of the freighter Calco Alaska. My vessel is currently under attack by pirates, who have forced their way aboard after threatening to destroy this ship. Their own ship, the Ariadne, is now docked with this one. We cannot ask for help as these men have threatened to destroy us if we use the maser." The man's voice was failing with the strain, and sounds of battle - shouts, screams, shooting - could be heard in the background. "We are not carrying anything of value and I fear that these men will kill us all. To anyone who finds this recording, could you please pass it on to my wife Celia." The recording continued with expressions of the man's love for his family, and instructions on how to locate them.

Munroe radioed back to the destroyer: "Do a search for a vessel of frigate-size, registered name Ariadne. Get back to me as soon as you find anything."

"It looks like the message was recorded two weeks ago."

"Yep, that figures. Before they jumped into this system."

"Can we tell where they jumped from?"

"Can only have been Calypso or Helion."

"Won't that be in the log or the cargo manifest or something?"

"Yep, if we can get into the computer."

Spencer announced that they would probably be able to get into the ship's computer, but it would require a massive amount of computation to find the passwords. Marsden's computer was slaved into this, but it would still take quarter of an hour to complete. Marcus stalked off to inspect the engines.

2215 hours.

The search for a vessel named Ariadne had yielded only one plausible match: a frigate, bought war surplus from the navy - supposedly disarmed - some twenty years before, and registered in Haven system twenty light years and two hyperspace jumps away from Phaedrus. The computer on Marsden had also cracked the password for the freighter's computer, and Spencer was booting the system up.

Marcus, for his part, had found no obvious damage to the engines. Even the most vulnerable components - the wiring conduits which carried control signals to them, and the coolant circuits which prevented the drive system from melting - were untouched, and there was in fact no evidence to suggest that the terrorists had ever visited that part of the ship.

When the computer was on-line again, it was easy to recover the details of the ship's voyage. Alaska had left Haven for Helion some three months before. In Helion system, it was intercepted and a course for Phaedrus set, and when Phaedrus had been reached, it was injected into its present orbit. What was less easy to do was to use the computer to fire the engines. It seemed that all of the code that allowed control of the drive system had either been deleted or corrupted, and although there was nothing to stop Marcus from laying in a new course - one that missed New Bristol - the ship could not use its engines to change to that course.

"Is there any hope of getting the engines to fire again?"

"Hmm... if we had the technical manuals for them, then there's a chance that we could botch up some code to do the job. But it looks like they either didn't have the technical manuals for the engines" - this was possible, in order to protect the design of the engines from reverse engineering - "or they've been deleted from the system."

"So if they did all this, why did they bother to switch the computer off?"

"Don't know. Maybe they were afraid that there would be a backup routine, and that the ship would automatically maneuver onto another course to avoid New Bristol? It's hard to see what the motive is, really."

"Is there a backup routine?" - Munroe clung to any hope.


"What's the chance of working out the thing without the documentation?"

"Pretty near zero, I would have thought."

"And if you could make the engines fire without the computer?"

"That's probably possible, but we couldn't reorient the ship like that" - the ship's Orientation Maneuvering Thrusters, a complex network of small rocket motors, could only be operated under computer control - "And this close to the planet, we would just succeed in increasing the impact velocity."

"What about using one of the shuttles to push the ship around?"

"Nope. Moment of inertia is too large."

It seemed - as Munroe had long feared - that Alaska would not be diverted from its deadly course, and it was now only forty hours away from New Bristol and its impact with Andrews Peak.

"Get your best people over here, and see what you can do with the engine control code. It may be a long shot, but there's sod-all else we can do." And with that, Munroe, Spencer and Paine made their way back to Marsden.

The bridge, UCSS Marsden, 2230 hours.

Munroe composed a progress report - more properly an admission of lack of progress - to be beamed to New Bristol, which, according to Fisher's last resort, had now settled into its final days. Those who could escape had left - all two hundred and forty three of them - and the rest could do little but await the end. Bars were doing a roaring trade and the most pressing problem seemed to be a potential shortage of alcohol. Other than that, the economy had collapsed - there was, after all, little point in going to work when the entire planetary surface was about to be incinerated.

Which left the question, why? Now knowing the apparent origin of the terrorists, the captain felt able to address this question. He had looked up the entry for Haven in the ship's computer, and discovered that the system - another colony - bore an uncanny resemblance to New Bristol. Under Colonial Service control, it was also developing rapidly towards becoming a self-governing member of the Confederation. Navy documentation on the matter indicated that the system was felt to be of less strategic importance than New Bristol; Haven was not so well-placed, and also, it was feared, not so defensible. The Navy's doctrine - its justification, even - was 'to safeguard peace by preparing for imminent war'. Was it perhaps possible that there was competition between the two new colonies? He got Paine on the intercom.

"You spent some time on Haven?"

"Yes, last year. I was posted there after Indomitable was decommissioned." The ship's medical officer had previously been assigned to the battle-cruiser of that name; what had lead to his then being posted to a destroyer was, so to speak, shrouded in the mists of bureaucracy.

"What was the general view there about New Bristol?"

"Hmm. I was posted at the Survey Base" - the Navy often did geological surveys for new colonies, both to save them time and (more importantly) to boost its public image - "which was a bit away from the main settlements. But I got the impression that lots of folks there felt that they were in a race with New Bristol to reach self-governing status."

"That's a bit odd? I mean, nothing would stop both colonies reaching self-government."

"Yes, but I think it was the prospect of the Navy detachment being based there. You know, the Sector Outer Boundaries Fleet."

"Oh. And that would bring some sort of subsidies?"

"Probably... the Sector Government has a huge budget for that. I think they would have matched the local budget funds-for-funds."

"But only for the first colony to reach that status?"

"I think so. The intention is not to duplicate too much, avoid needless redundancy and all that. They only want a few really important colonies this far out" - current policy in the Confederation was to develop a few worlds, to avoid creating an unwieldy, uncontrollable mess of planets each with its own tiny settlement.

Munroe cut in the other bridge officers - "OK. Let me run this theory past you. Someone on Haven decided that New Bristol was winning the race. So, they come up with a plan to wipe out the colony on New Bristol. They think that, well, no-one on New Bristol is going to find out what is happening. Probably they won't even notice the thing before it hits. So the Sector Government stops getting messages from the colonists, sends a ship, and discovers the whole place destroyed. By a big meteor strike. It might look a bit odd - not many comets or whatnot in retrograde orbits, but they won't dwell on that. Net result, Haven gets the funding because the Colonial Service can't afford to redevelop New Bristol from scratch."

"It seems plausible" - Paine thought that Munroe was extrapolating some way beyond what was justified by the evidence, but he did not mention that - "I can't think of any other explanation."

"Yes. It looks like the only problem is, who is responsible? It hardly seems that the Commissioner on Haven..."

"Kelley, I think his name is."

"Thank you... would order something like that. They are supposed to be independent."

"But it wouldn't have to be ordered at that sort of a level. That frigate could have been bought by a small consortium, and a bent supply officer could have ensured it wasn't, err, disarmed in return for a suitable bribe" - Jones was more cynical than Munroe felt was healthy in an officer.

"So you think we're looking at some sort of stunt by Haven patriots?" Munroe choked on the latter word. Patriotism - as opposed to a healthy enthusiasm for the work of the Confederation - was a distasteful sentiment, widespread expression of which would be bound to lead, as in this case, to fractious acts or civil war.

"Stunt's a bit of an understatement, but that seems to be it."

And Alaska continued on her deadly course, gathering speed as she reached perihelion - and New Bristol. By the middle of the next day it was clear that, even if Marcus had been able to make progress in reverse-engineering the freighter's maneuvering systems, it would be too late to avert a collision. Marsden made for the hyperspace jump points that would take her back to another planetary system, one not populated with the despairing and the doomed.

Andrews Peak, New Bristol, just after 2100 hours, Planetary Day 111.

Commissioner Fisher's office was on the top floor of Government House, itself the tallest building in Andrews Peak. New Bristol's axial tilt gives it a significant seasonal variation in day length, and the sun had set only a few minutes before. Those who knew where to look - slightly to the east of Sol, the yellow speck around which Earth orbited - could see a bright spark. Alaska glinted in reflected sunlight, and by now could be seen brightening by the minute. And as Fisher looked out across the vista of a newly-settled world, he wept silently for years of toil and hope, all in vain.

Impact came at two minutes past nine. Many of the townsfolk waited to watch an event that no human eye could properly see. High-speed photography would have revealed a two flashes in quick succession, the first from the ship hitting the dense part of the atmosphere, and the second from its impact with the ground. Perhaps a properly designed instrument would have recorded an almighty clap of thunder. But of human experience, there was none: merely the instantaneous ending of one hundred and fifty thousand lives.

Munroe, the unlucky observer of a disaster he could not prevent, nevertheless achieved his dream of a secure desk job; nominally an Admiral, and in charge of Supplies and Provisions, he continued to build private empires within the Navy bureaucracy. Many of his officers went on to greater things. No hard evidence of the identity of - as they came to be called - the 'New Bristol terrorists' was ever collected, but the Colonial Service disciplined and sacked almost three quarters of the government on Haven, including Commissioner Kelley, for good measure. Two years later, Haven did receive government subsidies, and elements of the Fleet are still based there. Jones and Paine lead an expedition to erect a monument on Phaedrus II, but no new settlement was ever made there.

Copyright (c) 1997 Chris Lightfoot. All Rights Reserved.