Jerry, Chapter Six

by Garon Whited


Kent pulled his head out of the guts of a machine.

“What’s up, Punkin?”

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Always a good idea.  More people should try it, if only for the practice.  What have you been thinking about?”

“I don’t think the humans are going to win this.”

“The conflict with the Zirans?”


“You’re right.  They have serious disadvantages.”


“Name some,” Kent said, sticking his head back into the machine.

“Uh… well, their ships are slower than the Ziran ships.”

“A major strategic issue, yes.  Go on,” echoed from within.

“The Earthlings are more clustered together, colony-wise.  It’s easier for the Zirans to get into position to attack anywhere they want.  The humans have to establish, what?  Three bases?  To be in practical attack range of all the Ziran colonies?”

“Something like that.  I think they could do it with two, but my estimate is based on their drive capabilities.  You’re the one who studied their star charts.”

“Yeah.  Three bases.”

“I’ll take your word for it.  But you haven’t got to the worst of the worst.”

“Communications?” she guessed.

“Yep!” came the tinny reply.  “Now, explain to me why that’s an issue.”

Phoebe thought about it for a moment, lacing her fingers together and flexing them, one by one.

“Humans can use a courier ship to move data at FTL speeds, but Zirans just know stuff as soon as it happens.  They can react immediately, rather than waiting for some round-trip delay nonsense.”

“Tactically, that’s awful.  Strategically, it’s a handicap.  Keep going.”

“Well… I guess it also works at short range, so they don’t have to yell instructions into a communicator.”

“Sort of,” Kent agreed.  “It goes deeper than that.”


“The Zirans also have superior command and control.  They aren’t organizing squads and companies and fleets.  They’re fighting with the coordination of a single brain.  If the captain of a Terran ship wants to concentrate all his firepower on one specific vessel, he has to issue an order, have it passed down to all his gunners, and they have to receive the order, understand it, and implement it.  Zirans just do it.  The captain is directing his crew on how to throw each punch, while the other guy is doing his kung fu by reflex.  The delay is awful.”

“And the humans are going to die,” Phoebe added, sadly.

“Oh, I don’t know about that.”

“Are you going to fix it?”


“But you could?” Phoebe asked, hopefully.



“If I wanted to, I might be able to tap into the Zirans’ psychic link and discuss the matter.  Maybe we could negotiate a peace.  I doubt it, and if we did, I doubt it would last long.  In theory, it’s possible.  In practice, I won’t.  Instead, Bronze and I are giving them this ship, the Thunder Child.”

“I thought it was named the Birmingham?” Phoebe asked.

“It was.  Bronze and I rebuilt that burning pile of Swiss cheese, so we got to rename it.  You want to go out in a spacesuit and paint the name on?”

“Not especially.  Can I smash a champagne bottle on the nose?”

“I’ll get you a bottle as soon as I get a chance.”

“You two have been doing a lot of upgrades.  I thought Bronze just wanted to play with running at faster than light?”

“She did.  But she also feels bad about swiping Jerry’s ship while he was still on it, and she loves to rebuild old clunkers.  You know how she is.  We were trying to get an empty one, you know.”

“It’s a lot of work, isn’t it?”

“Not really.  Bronze is playing with the interior while the spells keep running.  Whenever Jerry is around to see, I make sure I look busy.  I’m sure he thinks there are robots and nanobots and replicators and whatever else his technological worldview requires.  Remember, we’re in a technological world.  It’s all technology—or made to look like technology.  We’re not at home, so temporary plausible deniability is all we need.”

“Gotcha, Pop.  But I still worry about the humans.”

“Don’t.  I’ve already spotted the Zirans’ chief weakness.  I did a little psychic tracing and some scrying.”

“Did you?  I’m relieved.  So, what’s the plan?”

“Plan?” Kent asked, arching an eyebrow.

“You do have a plan to save Earth, right?”

“Nope.  But Jerry might come up with a few ideas.  I’m giving the Captain the tools to do whatever he thinks best.  It’s up to him to decide what to do with them.”

“But, Pop!  He’s just some local.”

“And we’re not locals,” Kent reminded her.  “Yes, we can interfere.  I am interfering.  So are you.  What we are not doing is assuming responsibility for them.  The locals will make their own decisions.  They will choose what to do and how.  We don’t own them, Phoebe.  They aren’t our playthings.”

“I just don’t want them to do the wrong thing.”

“Wrong for who?”

“For them?”

“How would you know what’s right or wrong for them?” Kent asked, emphasizing the last two words with raised eyebrows.  Phoebe thought it over.

“If they all get killed, it’s wrong for them?” she hazarded.

“That’s usually a good benchmark,” Kent agreed.  “But if you save them, will they expect you to save them again?  There are lots of arguments like that, and there are arguments about preserving life at all costs, too.  Neither of them really matters.  We didn’t come here to be the benevolent aliens who save the human race.  We’re just fooling around on a starship.  We’ll leave it in better condition than we found it—and whatever they choose to do with it is up to them.  When it comes right down to it, it’s their ship.”

The Thunder Child snapped into place nearly five light-hours from Gamma Hydrae.  The bow of the ship had dried almost instantly in the interstellar vacuum, but now even the shards of broken glass were out of scanner range.

“Extend complete, Captain.”

“Very good,” Jerry replied.  He moved to one of the sensor stations and started a scan.


“Yes, Phoebe?”

“You know it’ll be around ten hours before you get anything back from the sensors, right?”

“Gotcha,” Jerry chuckled.  “One of the neat tricks to having a warp field is the ability to warp space.”


“It’s a lot like gravitational lensing.”

“Oh!  The warp field can act like a big lens!”


“You’ve got a super-sized telescope.  But everything you’re looking at will be five hours old, won’t it?”

“Yes, it will.  It won’t matter.  I’m listening for escape pod distress beacons.  I’ll happily take a look at anything I can see, but I’m mostly concerned with recovering the crew.”

“Of course.”

The communications panel whistled for attention.  Phoebe moved to it and answered.


“Hey, Phoebe.  Is the Captain nearby?”

“Yes, sir.  Captain?”

Jerry touched a few screen controls and spoke into his console.

“This is the Captain.  Go ahead.”

“Captain, I’m going to have to take half the warp nodes offline for a bit to start the gravity-shield upgrade.  Once I get them back, I’ll need to work on the other half.  Can we avoid using the spatial compression drive for an hour or two?”

“You’re taking my warp drive offline?”

“Not all of it.  We can still use the crawler drive.  Just not the extension drive.”

“What’s our maximum acceleration with the crawler?”

“Uh…” Kent began, and trailed off.  “About… Hmm.  It’s not really an acceleration, as such.  It’s partly dependent on nearby gravity stresses.  If you’re near a planet or in a solar system, it’s relative to those.  Far enough into deep space and it reacts mainly to the galaxy’s gravitational footprint.”

“All right.  If I’m in a solar system, what my maximum speed?”

“With half the warp nodes down?  About five percent of the speed of light.  It’s called a crawl-er drive for a reason, Captain.”

Jerry took a moment to do some quick calculations.  Half the nodes down and it still does the trip from low Earth orbit to the Moon in under thirty seconds.  It was Earth’s orbit to Mars’ orbit in ninety minutes.  True, it was slower than they used to be with rockets and spacewarp, but it wouldn’t run out of reaction mass or require complex acceleration maneuvers.  Best of all, it didn’t accelerate; it simply went.  There were no acceleration couches required for high-G maneuvers, no need to secure everything…

And with only half the warp nodes.

“I can live with that.  Carry on, space pirate.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Pop?” Phoebe called, before he disconnected.

“Yes, Punkin?”

“Why are we shutting down so many nodes?”

“It’s faster this way.”

“Oh.  Just wondering.”

“No problem.  Engineering out.”

Phoebe returned to the Astrogation station and began reviewing the planets and other bodies in the Gamma Hydrae system.  Jerry approved.  She was more conscientious and proactive than a lot of lower-echelon officers.  Her ship had new limitations so she set about learning about her current options.

Jerry continued scanning the system.  He didn’t like anything he found.

Telescopes can work with any sort of electromagnetic radiation.  Visible light is only one small part of the spectrum.  Infrared, radio waves, microwaves, even x-ray and gamma rays can be utilized in a sufficiently advanced telescope.  A telescope with a lens made of warped space is sufficiently advanced.  And the data it gathered—the images in all the colors of the electromagnetic spectrum—went into the best intelligence analysis software the Navy had developed.  There, it combined with information gleaned from other sources, cross-referenced with known data from previous encounters with the Zirans, and came out as conclusions.

Jerry wasn’t fully familiar with all the spectra the ship used to observe things even before the upgrades.  He never dealt with the intelligence analysis systems, either.  All he knew was the computer gave him answers from whatever data it collected.

The Zirans had moved a small fleet into the system.  Most of it surrounded Gamma Hydrae Two, a hot rockball of a world with no atmosphere to speak of.  It had rich mineral deposits, though, and that was probably why the Zirans were here in the first place.

Jerry knew the Zirans hated to land ships.  Landers had to be light, and they did love their armored bricks.  It probably came with being a species with a carapace.  So if they were on the planet, they were there for a damn good reason.

The computer also pointed out the new moon of Gamma Hydrae Two.  In accordance with the Zirans’ love for flying bricks, they were known to burrow into some of the hardier nickel-iron asteroids, turning them into the equivalent of space stations.  A hyperdrive could get one to another solar system, no problem, although it might take them quite a while.  Getting it into a stable orbit might take even longer.  But they were tough, heavily armed, and served as both supply depots and repair stations.

Sometimes, if a planetary moon was small enough, they might steal it from the original planet.  These were even worse, from a logistics point of view.  It gave them a new center for manufacturing machine parts and reaction mass processing.  But not hatcheries.  Nor growth tanks.  Nor any other reproductive equipment, according to Naval Intelligence.  So far, that was the sole province of their homeworld.  Ziran reproduction was still a mystery.

The Zirans had put an asteroid into orbit around Two.  It was still in a long-period, elliptical orbit.  Three specialized ships were latched on to it, pumping out all the thrust they could manage, gradually altering the orbit to bring it in to a closer, more convenient orbit.

They meant to stay a while.

The Ziran presence in Gamma Hydrae wasn’t limited to Two.  There were scout vessels in orbit around the star, as well.  They were in pairs, each one orbiting the star in opposition to each other.  None of them were in the plane of the ecliptic.  Instead, they orbited in three planes, each offset from each others by ninety degrees, forming rudimentary spheres at one, two, and four light-hours distance from the star.

Had they noticed their presence, yet?  Probably not.  The extension dropped Thunder Child into normal space far enough out to be a very tiny dot, even to the closest ship.  Their arrival also used a warp technique never before seen.  Could the Zirans detect it?  Jerry had no idea.  Still, at that moment, there were no alarms going off about incoming hyperspatial anomalies, so no Ziran craft were inbound.

Not finding any attacking craft was the only thing he liked about the things he didn’t find.  The rest were distress beacons.  He checked for them by listening on the standard communications channels.  When this failed to find any, he ordered the astrometric module to begin a detailed search, starting with the outer system and working inward.

The prolonged silence only served to sink his stomach along with his hopes.

Damn Kent!  He insisted on playing around with the ship!  If they’d gone back immediately, maybe they would have found survivors!  The man wanted to keep the ship for himself, so he made sure to keep it mostly empty!  And Jerry kicked himself repeatedly for allowing himself to be persuaded by repair work and the razzle-dazzle of new technology and toys!

How many shipmates were captured, helpless in their escape pods?  How many were on Ziran vessels, alive and waiting to be eaten?  How many more were dead, butchered, and frozen solid for later?

“Kent!” Jerry shouted.  He slapped the communications console.  “Kent!  Get your pirate ass up here on the double!”

“Problem, Captain?”

“On the double!  Move it, mister!”

“On my way,” Kent replied, amiably enough.  The circuit broke.  Jerry paced the Bridge, seething.

“Uh, Captain?” Phoebe asked, in the tone of someone who doesn’t want to be noticed but has to speak up anyway.  Jerry shot a withering glance at her, one fit to make a spaceman first class come to attention and click his eyeballs frontward.  He relaxed a little when his brain registered the little girl he glared at.

“Yes, Phoebe?” He tried to avoid snapping at her, but he didn’t quite manage it.  Moderated it, yes.  Managed to avoid it, no.

“Sir… I’m guessing the Zirans have your escape pods?”

“See for yourself,” he suggested, gesturing her toward the console.  “No recovery beacons.  None.”

Phoebe did as instructed, running the scan again.

“Kent took too long,” Jerry grumbled, still pacing.  “He wasted so much time with his little projects, always with another excuse about where to go and how long it would take and why it was a good idea—and I accepted it!  I went along with it!  Once we had the capability to go back for them, we should have done it instantly!

The elevator doors hissed open and Kent emerged, still in his black coverall.

“Hello, Captain.  Space pirate, reporting as ordered.”

“You bastard.”

“Metaphorically, yeah.  What’s on your mind, Captain?”

Jerry explained, using language unbecoming an officer.

“And now,” he finished, “we’re too late to keep any of them out of a Ziran freezer!”

“Technically, they’re being used as fertilizer.  Human biochemistry isn’t good for them.  It takes too much processing to make it safe.  Zirans use human organics to grow things they do want to eat.”

That’s not the point!

“Pop!  He’s upset!  Now is not the time to be technical.”

Kent blinked at Phoebe, running her statement through his thoughts a few times.

“Oh.  Oh!  Right.  Sorry about that.”

“Damn right!” Jerry seethed.  “You and your distractions!  We should have come back and rescued them the moment we had the capability!”

“Hmm.  In retrospect, you’re probably right.”

“You—” Jerry began, and choked it off.  “You admit it?”

“Admit what?”

“That you let them die!”

“Hmm,” Kent repeated, this time more thoughtfully.  “I could argue it either way.  If I hadn’t come along, this ship would be buried in a gas giant and all the escape capsules would be captured.  I presume the escape capsules are still captured, but the ship is almost intact.  True, I didn’t hurry back to rescue the lifeboats, so that’s one argument.  On the other hand, if I hadn’t come along, there would have been no survivors at all.  So you could just as easily argue I saved one person.  I didn’t have to save anybody.

“But you’re not in a mood to hear that,” Kent continued.  “Survivor’s guilt, I’d guess.  You don’t like it that I could have let you die with your shipmates and won’t listen when I say, given what we knew at the time, I thought I could help you rescue them.  I was wrong.  We were all wrong, Captain.”

Jerry glared.  It was a good glare.  It withered enlisted men and made junior officers want to review Navy regulations.

But the damned space pirate had a point.  A couple of points.  He was practically a Photon-blasted porcupine!  Jerry still remembered recovering consciousness in a perforated gun turret.  And he, like Kent, had thought the Zirans wouldn’t be so quick to grab Gamma Hydrae.  And, last but not least, Kent always acknowledged him as the Captain.  If Jerry had insisted on going to Gamma Hydrae as soon as possible, things might have been different.

On the other hand, they might have flown straight into a Ziran fleet and been instantly destroyed, too.  The sensor upgrades hadn’t come on-line until recently.  Now the ship was in working order and probably the most dangerous ship in the fleet.  He might be too late to rescue the rest of the crew, but he was here now, along with a bunch of Zirans who had no idea what to expect.

“Are we combat-ready?” Jerry asked.

“Uh… yes?” Kent replied, startled.  “I mean, mostly.  We’re not finished with the gravitic deflector upgrade, but everything else is either on-line or can be brought on-line.”

“Astrogator, punch up the sensor suite and get me a tally of the in-system forces.”

“Aye aye, Captain!”  Phoebe moved to do so.  While she did, Kent’s brows drew together.

“Captain, if I may?  Are you considering attacking the Ziran forces?”

“I am.”

“With what end in mind?”

“Driving them off from the Gamma Hydrae system.  And testing my ship to see what she’s capable of.  I haven’t seen her fight.”

“Sir, this isn’t going to bring back your shipmates.”

“I’m aware of that, Kent.”

“I see.  One more thing, Captain.  If you want to take your ship into battle, that’s your business.  We won’t be here for it.”


“Not now, Phoebe!  Captain, I will happily work on your ship as a handyman.  I will replace outdated technology with newer stuff.  I’ll even give lessons on how to shoot antiparticle accelerators—don’t use them in an atmosphere being the main point.  But I will not allow my daughter to be aboard if you’re going to pick a battle.”

Jerry paused as he digested this statement.  It halted his plans in mid-flight.  Was he seriously going to take an under-crewed—almost un-crewed—vessel into combat?  With a child on board?

Even the burning urge inside him to Do Something had to take a moment and reflect.

Everything else was up for grabs, but Kent, damn him to the darkest hole of the universe, was correct.  Maybe even right.  No matter how competent, helpful, and enthusiastic the child might be, she had no business on a warship in combat.

“All right.  We’ve done your test run and experiments and all that.  Thank you for all your help.  But it’s time this ship got back to the war.”

Kent pursed his lips, then nodded, slowly.

“Okay.  Do you want me to quit in the middle of what I’m doing?  Or do I make sure everything is connected and working, first?”

“How long will it take to tie everything off and lock it down?”

“Most of it will be pretty quick.  I’ll need another day to finish your deflector node modifications, then we’re out of here.  If that’s acceptable to you, of course, Captain.”

“It’ll have to be, won’t it?  Carry on.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Pop?  Are we really leaving?”

“In about a day,” Kent replied.  “Enjoy it while it lasts.  After that, he’s on his own.”

While Jerry worked in the Combat Information Center, making his plans, Phoebe followed her father through a corridor.

“Are we really going to let him do this?” Phoebe asked, skipping along to keep up with Kent’s longer-legged stride.

“We are.”

“But he’s all alone, Pop, or will be.”

“Not entirely.”

“Oh?  Is Bronze going to stay in the ship?”

“Not a chance.  But we’ve been adding automation to the thing all along.  Between the Captain and the computer, they can do anything a crew could do.”

“A crew could repair stuff, or cross-wire it, or whatever,” Phoebe pointed out.

“Yes, but Bronze is working on more redundancy in the systems, as well as short-range wireless links to bypass broken control conduits in emergencies.”

“Wireless isn’t as secure…?” Phoebe half-suggested.

“No, but the Zirans don’t understand human computers.  They might conceivably jam the signals, but they won’t be able to access systems remotely.  But since you’re worried, I’ll also leave the repair spells running, at least as long as Jerry is here.  As long as he’s alive and aboard the ship, it’ll pull itself together.”

“I don’t like leaving him.”

“I don’t like you being aboard a ship in the middle of a battle.”

“It sounds like fun!”

“It sounds like danger,” Kent corrected.  “It also sounds like one lucky hit can turn either of us into a puddle of goo.  No, Phoebe.”

“Can’t you fix it so the ship can’t be hit?”

“‘Can’t be hit?’  No.  Unlikely, yes.  Improbable, yes.  Difficult, yes.  But we’re talking about all-or-nothing propositions, here.  A hit from a starship’s weapons won’t wound you.  It will obliterate you.  I can’t fix you if there’s nothing left.  So we’re leaving.  Probably just after lunch tomorrow.  Unless you have somewhere else you’d like to have lunch?”

Phoebe’s face fell at her father’s insistence.  The prospect of lunch anywhere she wanted helped, but only a little.

“Could we… that is, I liked that Nishiyama place.  The hotel with the hot springs?  They served food there.  We could try that.”

“Which century?”

“I’m tempted to go when they opened, but how about the current century, if they’re still there?  I’d like to see what Earth is like this year.”

“Of course.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to bring in more stuff for Bronze.  She’s doing some hull reinforcement.  I also have to get started on the hyperdrive wake sensors.”

Phoebe frowned.

“Does the ship have hyperdrive wake sensors?”

“Not like these.  He’s probably going to need them.  Strategically, if not tactically.”

“And you’re putting them in for him?  I thought you were just finishing up stuff, not starting new things.”

“Well, yes and no.  I have a day to finish up, but I can finish this up before the deflector shield upgrade is ready.  So I’ll put the new sensors in… but not because of him.”

Phoebe hugged him.


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