by Garon Whited
Jerry woke with a headache, a nosebleed, and a terrible whistling in his ears. Against his better judgment, he opened his eyes.
The turret was a mess.
Red light pulsed everywhere from the emergency circuit. Several pieces of hypervelocity material penetrated the forward duraluminate and punched holes in the turret. Various bits of debris from the damage floated in free fall. The artificial gravity was probably out throughout the ship.
Looking around the turret from his combat cradle, Jerry catalogued the damage while simultaneously taking stock of his personal damage. Thankfully, none of the Ziran projectiles entered along the centerline or they would have punched through Jerry, suit armor or no. On the other hand, the view through the remaining center panel showed a lot of weapons fire and entirely too many alien ships. It also showed a number of warnings and alerts.
The whistling of escaping atmosphere was almost enough to drown out the klaxon signaling “abandon ship.”
First things first. Jerry checked his suit integrity and found a long, open gash in his helmet, along the top and left side. He felt it with gauntleted fingers but couldn’t tilt his padded head far enough to see it. Fine. So, how much longer would his suit’s life support last with the gash? His forearm readout told him depressing news: Three minutes. It also told him the turret’s environmental systems were compromised.
“No shit,” he muttered, and slapped the readout’s cover closed. He uncapped the bug-out button and pressed it home.
Nothing happened. The hatch behind him was supposed to open—blow open, if necessary—while his gunnery cradle slid backward into the body of the warship. He stabbed the button a few more times for luck, but it persisted in stubborn uselessness.
Main computer off-line, replied a flat, metallic voice. Turret backup systems on autonomous mode.
“Why isn’t the bug-out button working? The klaxon’s sounding abandon ship and I’m stuck in a turret!”
“Open the hatch!”
Turret nineteen is sealed due to depressurization.
“What’s the point of an emergency switch if it doesn’t open the hatch in an emergency?” Jerry demanded.
“Goddam government designs,” he muttered, and fumbled for the emergency repair kit. A piece of something had wrecked it, but there was an intact tube of sealant. He applied it to the holes in the turret facing. It reacted and foamed, filling the holes and spreading like something alive down all the cracks. The whistling sound diminished as he worked, finally fading to silence.
“Computer! Turret life support report.”
Turret pressure stable. Active life support for sixteen minutes. Please evacuate.
Jerry’s reply involved what might be considered “navy language.”
With the turret sealed, he took off his helmet and looked over its damage. The gouge was deep, carving out not only a narrow trench in the helmet surface but also two centimeters deep into the padding underneath. In one spot, there was open space. Another centimeter and the helmet might not have a long gash in it, but two neat holes, front and back, and Jerry’s head would have the long gash. The impact of the shrapnel was probably what bounced his head around enough to make him black out, while the pressure change caused the nosebleed.
The medkit was untouched. He broke open an ampule and sniffed. The residual nosebleed stopped and he wiped away some of the blood from his face.
The helmet was not as easy to fix. Cursing the computer liberally, he applied what little sealant remained to reduce the size of the hole. He put the helmet back on, closed the faceplate, and hit the bug-out button.
“Computer! God damn it, why isn’t the hatch opening?”
Turret nineteen is sealed due to depressurization.
“I sealed turret nineteen!”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Only damage control parties may authorize access into areas of decompression.
“The turret is no longer decompressed! You just said so!”
“Then open the goddam hatch!”
Only damage control parties may authorize access into areas of decompression
“The turret isn’t depressurized, damn it!”
“Then why—wait. You mean the corridor is the depressurized area?!”
“Damn it! Override hatch seals. Blow it!” he demanded, slapping the button again.
Primary computer not on-line. Turret computer cannot override hatch controls.
“You know why it’s sealed, but you can’t control it?”
“Built to government specifications,” he growled. “Fine. Status report. And shut off the damned klaxon! I can’t hear myself think!”
Mercifully, the computer silenced the klaxon.
“Better. All right, give me a status update. Last I checked, we were maneuvering in close for a laser barrage on an orbiting Ziran warship.”
Contact with hypervelocity rounds damaged primary systems. Turret nineteen has lost communications, life support, and main power. Abandon ship alert engaged forty-seven seconds after the initial barrage. Turret internal backups are on-line.
“Hold it. What do you mean the alert engaged? Didn’t the Captain announce it?”
Unknown. Turret nineteen has lost communications, life support, and main power.
“Did this happen before or after the abandon ship alert?”
Turret nineteen lost communications, life support, and main power forty-seven seconds prior to the abandon ship alert.
“Getting anything out of you is like pulling teeth.”
“You’re not very user-friendly.”
Backup systems are tasked with sensors and targeting. Running heuristic programs consumes processor cycles and degrades targeting performance.
“Since we’re not likely to be shooting anyone, run the heuristic programs.”
The flat, metallic voice changed to a more human one. It sounded like an eager cadet.
“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!”
Jerry groaned and rolled his eyes.
“Computer, where are we and what’s going on?”
“One moment, Gunnery Sergeant, while I process that.”
“The Birmingham has no attitude control and is in a slow tumble. It is also in a decaying orbit around Gamma Hydrae Six. Atmospheric entry in twenty-one minutes. Four fighter craft are engaged in combat with the remaining fighters of the Ziran warship. The warship is in a decaying orbit, lower down, and will intersect the atmosphere in four minutes. A Ziran transport is moving into the combat zone.”
“What about the escape pods? Did anyone abandon ship?”
“I am limited to the sensors in the turret, Gunnery Sergeant. The main sensor net is either offline or not accessible from this location. I detect what are probably—eighty-six percent plus—escape pods in our sensor arc. Eleven of them. As the Birmingham continues to tumble, more may be detected.”
“Put up the targeting projections on the remaining screens.”
The undamaged window panels—all three of them—lit up with dots, targeting reticles, velocities, projected flight paths, and more.
“Please note, Gunnery Sergeant, the data projected are not as accurate as usual. I am limited to the sensors in the turret. The main sensor net is either offline or not accessible from this location.”
“Duly noted. Looks to me like the transport isn’t shooting down the fighters. Shouldn’t the transport’s weapons blow what’s left of our fighters away?”
“Ziran weaponry consists primarily of hypervelocity projectiles and assisted-launch short-range missiles. Our fighters are too far away for accurate hypervelocity targeting, thus endangering the Ziran fighters.”
“Got it. Anything we can do about it from here?”
“Our laser cannon capacitors are charged, but the probability of a hit is low. The transport is maneuvering at a distance greater than one light-second. Tactical analysis indicates the fighters are engaging Ziran fighters to draw them away from the transport. Two of our fighters have attempted to line up suicide runs at the transport, although the Ziran fighters forced them to go off-course to avoid premature destruction.”
“Got it. All right, how many escape pods are left aboard?”
“I do not have that information, Gunnery Sergeant. Turret nineteen has lost communications, life support, and main power. I do not have access to either the primary or secondary computer network.”
“I guess I’ll have to go look.”
“Disengaging from a combat cradle during battle is not advised.”
“As far as I can tell,” Jerry replied, unstrapping, “we’re a tumbling derelict doomed to hit atmosphere and we’re not a target. Therefore, we are not part of the battle. So shut up.”
The computer had no reply. Jerry finished unstrapping, double-checked his suit seals, and readied the manual hatch release.
“Computer, shut down life support in the turret. When I open this hatch, I don’t want you wasting what’s left trying to repressurize the whole ship.”
“Confirmed. Please stand by.”
Jerry waited for several seconds. He felt a faint throb through his boot soles.
“Computer, what are you doing?”
“Storing the atmosphere of turret nineteen.”
“I’d love for you to do that, but I have a suit breach. I’m going out there to find an escape pod. If I can’t find one in the time my suit lasts, I’ll come back here. Got it?”
“Confirmed. You may exit when ready, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“Thank you so much.”
Jerry pulled the manual lever out of the bulkhead and heard the heavy, metallic clunk! With the clamps released, he removed the lever and inserted it into the gearwheel. With a grunt, he turned the wheel, slowly cranking open the hatch. Air rushed out around the edge and he hurried, not wanting to waste any more of his suit environment than he had to.
He continued to crank until something went spung! The gearwheel turned easily after that, but the hatch no longer moved. He pushed directly on the hatch, swinging it wide. He jammed the fingertips of his left hand in the helmet breach to help slow the escape of air.
The corridor was technically still there. He could see an intact section of it less than three meters away. The open space between looked honeycombed, pockmarked with multiple explosions. Projectiles fuzed to detonate only after penetrating? Secondary explosions from damage? He didn’t have a good way to tell and no time to find out.
At least this explained why turret nineteen was damn near cut off from the ship. It was damn near cut off from the ship!
Zero-gee training was a long time ago, but it was a short distance. He cut his magnetic boots and pushed off, drifting through the hatch and across the damaged area, clicking down again in damaged-but-present corridor. A quick jog took him to a wall station.
The computer net was still live, although badly damaged. He poked at it with his free hand, calling up a readout on the escape pods. The Birmingham had a complement of sixty escape pods, each capable of carrying four crewmembers—the exact complement of the ship. The theory, or so it seemed, was a space disaster would allow for the orderly evacuation of the ship, or there would be enough casualties to make the number of escape pods more than sufficient. Once an escape pod was full, it launched automatically. The rest launched when triggered manually or when safety systems deemed it necessary. All sixty pods were away.
In vacuum, it was impossible to hear his commentary, but the blistering language couldn’t have done his suit any good.
With air still whistling through the padding of his helmet and around his gauntleted fingers, he hurried back across the gap and into turret nineteen. The hatch swung closed, or almost. Something in the mechanism wasn’t cooperating, so he let go of his helmet and resorted to cranking the gearwheel around again with his lever. Turning in the opposite direction, it worked perfectly. A moment later, the wheel locked. He reinserted the lever and threw it, driving the hatch’s locking clamps closed.
Pressure immediately started to rise in the turret. Silently, he thanked whatever gods of space might be listening for computers that weren’t completely useless.
His suit readout told him he had less than a minute of life support. The turret’s remaining display panel had a warning indicator, as well. The turret’s backup life support was down to eight minutes. He climbed back into the combat cradle and considered his options.
“Computer. Time to atmospheric entry?”
“Nineteen minutes, plus or minus ten seconds, Gunnery Sergeant!”
“I’m damn well not going to suffocate,” Jerry replied.
“Never mind. Where’s the access port for the turret life support?”
“Deck plate eleven.”
Jerry searched the debris floating in the turret, gathering most of it by the simple expedient of grasping the cradle and waving magnetized boot-soles around. What was left was nonmagnetic, but also less clutter. A roll of patching tape caught his eye and he snagged it. With small, flat bit of debris against the inside of the gashed helmet, held there with tape, and several layers on the outside as a secondary seal, it should last longer than his oxygen…
Jerry couldn’t find the tool to open the deck plate, but a piece of debris served adequately as a prying instrument. He extended the emergency hose from his suit and siphoned off the remaining oxygen from the turret system. The turret would stop running active life support, but the air in the turret would take a while to go stale. By using it in his suit, it would last about as long, but wouldn’t have a slow process of suffocation.
The readout climbed. Forty-two minutes of suit time. No suffocation today. Plenty of time to go down with the ship.
“Computer. Shut off life support alarms for turret nineteen. Maintain pressure, but do not monitor oxygen content.”
“Warning. This action is in violation of safety—”
“I’m aware of the violation, you worthless piece of polluted silicon! Override! I’m going to breathe air in my suit instead of filling the whole turret. Now do it!”
He strapped himself into the combat cradle again and watched the display. The Ziran transport had taken several hits from the fighters’ weapons, but it was still functional. There was no sign of the Terran fighters or the Ziran fighters. The Ziran transports mounted what the Terrans called a hypervelocity shotgun. If it was forced to defend itself, it might have destroyed all the fighters that got too close. Or the dogfight might have destroyed both sides.
“It’s what I get for not paying attention,” Jerry muttered, glaring at the monitor.
The transport’s vector changed as he watched. The turret’s sensors were targeting sensors, not as sophisticated as the ship’s sensor net, but targeting was good enough to predict course and speed. The transport closed on an escape pod. After a minute or so of maneuvering, it took the escape pod in through a hatch and began maneuvering toward another.
They were taking prisoners.
Jerry felt a cold sensation somewhere around his liver. Ziran biology was close enough to human biology to make humans edible. It was one of the major reasons for the conflict. Zirans viewed humans as cattle, only slightly more evolved than the native species raised as food on their own worlds.
“Computer! Status of laser cannon!”
“Target the Ziran transport!”
“Unable to target Ziran transport. Ship’s orientation does not permit cannon to bear.”
“We’re tumbling, right?”
“Correct, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“Calculate tumble. When will the cannon bear on the transport?”
“Approximately fifteen minutes, thirty seconds.”
“Approximately?” Jerry echoed.
“Aerodynamic forces during reentry are unknowns, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“Display course and time marks!”
“Displayed, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“We’re going to hit atmosphere before we bear on the target?”
“Correct, Gunnery Sergeant.”
Jerry swore for several seconds, then shut himself up.
“Fine. What’s the delay between hitting atmosphere and getting the transport in our firing arc?”
“Approximately one minute, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“I can last one minute,” he decided. “Even if I don’t—computer, when the cannon bears on the Ziran transport, target it and fire on it, maximum power.”
“Turret computer is unable to fire turret cannon. A human operator is required in the absence of the primary or secondary computer net, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“What? Who programmed such a stupid restriction?”
“Bureau of Ships, Cybersecurity Division. ‘Any turret separated from the main computer network shall not fire autonomously. A human operator is required to preclude the possibility of a cyberattack compromising individual turrets and turning them on allied forces. In the event—’”
“That will do! Great. I’m a security feature. Not the promotion I was after.”
“What promotion were you after, Gunnery Sergeant?”
“Huh? Computer, run a self-diagnostic.”
“Diagnostic complete. All functions are within operating parameters.”
“Then why did you ask me a personal question?”
“Heuristic programs are running, Gunnery Sergeant, and the personality subroutine is part of the natural language interface module.”
“Oh. Right. Uh, well, I was hoping for Gun Sergeant First Class.”
“Is that important?”
Jerry looked at the remaining view panels.
“No. No, I suppose it isn’t.”
“But you wanted the promotion, Gunnery Sergeant?”
“I did. Now I have more important things to think about.”
“May I inquire what they are, Gunnery Sergeant?”
Jerry tightened the straps and settled himself more firmly in the combat cradle.
“Bring up the long-range focus array. Divert any power we have left into the laser capacitors, all except the sensors and targeting systems. I want maximum possible power when we come to bear on the target.”
“Warning: the range will be over three light-seconds. If the target does not follow predicted maneuvers, chance of a hit will be negligible.”
“I’m betting we can predict which escape pod he’s headed for. He’s mopping up, not maneuvering in combat. We should get one clean shot. Against a transport, that’s all we should need.”
“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.”
Jerry flexed his hand and nestled it snugly on the firing grip.
“Computer, if I recall my training on this system, the trigger doesn’t actually fire the cannon. It gives authorization to fire on the indicated target and the computer—in this case, you—actually fires the cannon. Correct?”
“Correct, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“So, if I hold down the trigger, as long as I hold it down, you can fire as we bear on the transport?”
“If you so order, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“I so order. Acknowledge.”
“Order acknowledged. Fire as we bear on the target.”
He squeezed the trigger, wrapped tape around it, and strapped himself in again.
“Computer, confirm your authorization to fire as you bear.”
“Confirmed, Gunnery Sergeant.”
Jerry settled himself in his cradle. He grasped the gunnery grip, wrapping his hand tightly around it. The sealant holding pressure in the turret wouldn’t survive atmospheric entry. The tape on his helmet wouldn’t, either. But the tape buried under his gauntleted fist might last longer than the nerves holding his finger down. Maybe even long enough.
“Computer, any idea how long I’m going to survive once we hit atmo?”
“Medical data is not part of my onboard database.”
“Fine. Display projected temperature curves for this turret.”
The data obligingly sprang up on the screens.
“According to this, I’m not going to roast until nearly six minutes after we hit atmo. I would have thought it would be quicker. Why does it take so long?”
“The atmosphere at the edge of space is thin, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“Ah. Yes. It’ll start to really matter when we get lower.”
“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.”
Jerry settled himself more firmly in the combat cradle and eyed the screens, waiting for his shot. His patience was rewarded. He couldn’t even hear the hypersonic whistle of atmosphere past the turret, yet, when a red reticle went yellow and began to pulse, moving toward the edge of a projected white circle.
“Got a target lock?” he asked, quietly.
“Target locked, but we have no window.”
“We’ll only get one shot at this. Deactivate heuristic mode. Prepare to fire.”
Heuristic mode deactivated. Target coming into range.
“When we have a firing solution, fire.”
Jerry waited, fist clamped tight around the taped-down trigger. The reticle crossed the white ring and blinked green. A high-pitched chirp! sounded in the turret as the capacitors dumped their charge into and through the laser cannon. Jerry held his breath. The data from the sensors was seconds old and the bolt from the laser had to travel an equally long time to reach the target. If it maintained a steady course for six seconds, or even just five…
A blossom of white light flared briefly on the screen.
Target, said the computer, destroyed.
“Take that, you Ziran sons of bitches!” Jerry whooped. “You’re not taking dinner home tonight!”
And the monitors blinked. The larger debris, marked on the display, winked out. The horizon of the gas giant, both visible moons, and the transponders of the remaining escape pods—everything flickered out.
“What the hell is going on? Did we lose our external sensors?”
Turret sensors at eighty-eight percent. Turret nineteen has lost access to all ship systems.
“Damn it. Activate heuristic mode!”
“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!”
“What’s going on? Where’re the escape pods? Where’s the gas giant?”
“Sensors indicate we are in open space, Gunnery Sergeant. There are no escape pods within detection range. There is no gas giant within detection range.”
“How can we lose an entire gas giant?”
“While I am not the primary ships astrogation computer, I have the programs for stellar cartography stored in hard memory. Shall I access them and attempt to fix our position?”
“Why do you have those programs? You’re a gunnery computer.”
“Bureau of Ships, Safety Division, Data Processing Subdivision, mandates the storage of certain ship-critical software in hard backup locations, including, but not limited to—”
“Stop! Just run the damn program!”
“Please stand by.”
Jerry fumed for a few minutes while the computer attempted to identify enough stars to fix their position. The grand, slow tumble of the wounded battleship helped by providing a wider field of view over time. Jerry tried to be patient, but also recognized he was running slowly out of air. There would doubtless be other suits around the ship, as well as spare helmets, air tanks, and, if nothing else, stored air in the ship’s main life support. He unstrapped from the combat cradle and reached for the lever to unclamp the turret hatch.
Someone knocked on it.