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10 : Extreme Reaction

Star Dancer was continuing its journey home cautiously, alert for ambushes and reluctant to get too close to any planetary systems. Captain Fregath felt that her crew was holding up well during a tense time. Her strategy ruled out the possibility of shore leave but visiting the planets or bases along the way was seen as a bad idea while the ship was subject to attacks for no apparent reason. The crew also had plenty to do as they headed for home.
   Preparing navigational data was keeping the cosmologists, communications staff and the navigator busy. The biologists and geologists were standing more than their fair share of bridge watches. The linguists were still working happily on the material gathered on Arlsworld and Osirlanding, and the physicists were working closely with those engineering staff who were not busy with repair work, conducting tests based on the theory generated by the Mathies.
   The mathematicians would have spent all of their time working, arguing with each other and sleeping if their friends had not insisted on breaking into their lives from time to time.
   The technicians had their endless rounds of maintenance work, which was designed to keep Star Dancer at a high level of efficiency - performing tasks such as charting the lifetimes of components and swapping them out at 66% of their design life. The development work on the deflectors, detectors and disruptors - the ship's essential 3Ds - was also good for crew morale. Making the ship more able to spot potential trouble and more able to survive unavoidable encounters with hostile aliens was always a good idea.

Six uneventful days had elapsed since the unprovoked attack by the pair of predators. Star Dancer was twelve weeks from home space, barring further delays. Korolas Draxt had been excluded from Officer of the Watch duties for three days but he was still working night shifts as part of his field punishment.
   His contacts with his fellow mathematician were mainly in the early overlap period between the end of his day and the beginning of Pevel Merrith's. They were now holding their breakfast meetings in the snack bar, which was placed at the opposite side of the ship from the mess hall and well out of range of Catering Officer Metzreg and his apparently inexhaustible stocks of r'vode. The leader of the R'vode Promotion League was willing to compromise on unimportant issues and their tasty biscuits were an accepted part of the fare on offer.
   "Proposition: there are four exceptions to the Draxt Exclusion, not three," Merrith said without warning.
   "Why, what's the fourth?" Draxt frowned across the table in response to his friend's expectant expression.
   "The case where the inverse parameter exceeds the threshold by alpha c over four pi."
   "Do you know that for a fact or are you just guessing?"
   "It has the character of being a true statement," Merrith said loftily
   "Right. You're guessing. Although four exceptions certainly makes better sense on symmetry grounds. We always had trouble justifying just three."
   "So we're going to think about that, are we?"
   "We certainly are." Draxt nodded thoughtfully and reached for his personal data logger.
   "This is where you're hiding, is it?" Commander Arrik Jones, the chief engineer, took over a vacant chair at the table.
   "Obviously, not well enough," said Merrith.
   "I have a proposition for you," said Jones. "Given that it's now possible for the deflectors to absorb part of the incident energy when under fire and the extra energy can be used to harden the area under attack; would it be possible for them to absorb even more energy, which could be channelled to the disruptors? The concept is to soak up energy, store it temporarily and safely in the deflector field, then release it on command within a relatively brief time period via the disruptors."
   "Sounds brilliant," said Merrith. "Don't you think so?"
   "This man is a genius," said Draxt.
   "So all I need now is someone to tell me how to do it," said the chief engineer. "Or, before that, if it's actually possible."
   "So you want some numbers calculated on energy absorption rates, containment parameters and transfer parameters?" said Draxt. "And how easy it would be to overload the system?"
   "Yes, doing it without blowing every circuit on the ship would be a good idea," said Merrith.
   "Yes, survival is the number one consideration," Jones said with a laugh. "The trick will be to contain the extra energy until the weapons have a target they can fire on. A go, no-go within the next hour or so would be good. I've cleared it with the captain. You can put your current jobs on hold."
   "I'll do input, you do containment," said Draxt. "And the first to finish can get started on transfer. Okay?"
   "Yeah," Merrith said abstractedly. He was already tapping figures into his PDL and calling in data from the ship's computer.
   "So I'll leave it with you?" said the chief engineer.
   "Yeah," said Draxt abstractedly, most of his attention on his PDL.
   "Aren't you still on night duty?" Jones added with a frown at Draxt.
   "So?" he replied.
   "Shouldn't you be going to sleep, or something, about now?"
   "Sleep is for wimps," Merrith said with a challenging look at his fellow mathematician.
   "You think I can sleep now I've got something interesting to do?" Draxt complained.
   "Sorry I asked," laughed the chief engineer.

Even though there had been no contact with hostile ships for a week, no one expected Star Dancer's luck to hold. In the middle of the afternoon of the next day, it ran out again.
   "Captain, possibly contact, range one point six grids, zero eight zero by minus two nine," Brevett Rogan of A watch reported from the bridge detector station.
   "How firm a contact, Tom?" said the captain.
   "There are indications of a cloaked ship hiding among space debris, Captain. But it's difficult to be too sure. The signals we're getting look similar from the ones we've seen before but also different. There's no residual drive trail left and there's very little dust and gas in the area."
   "Helm, steer directly away from them," said the Captain.
   "Contact confirmed," Rogan said urgently. "They've powered up their drive and dropped the cloak. They're coming after us on a direct intercept course, Captain."
   "Can we run away?" said the captain.
   "No, Captain. They're much faster than us. And they're a lot bigger than the previous attack ships. About one and a half times our size."
   "Very well." The captain smacked a fist onto her control panel to sound the yellow alert. "We'll run as far as we can and see if they get fed up. Although I doubt they will. Captain to Engineering."
   "Engineering, aye?"
   "Kindly ask Mr. Jones to join me on the bridge."
   "Mr. Jones to the bridge, aye, Captain."

The chief engineer was looking thoughtful when he arrived at the bridge. He had taken the precaution of finding out what was going on during his journey. Lt. Merrith had come with him to view the results of the Mathies' theoretical contributions to the ship's weapons. Merrith took over a monitor station beside the main engineering station and prepared to review data.
   "What's the state of your modifications to the deflectors and the disruptors, Arrik?" the captain asked.
   "We have some of the new systems in place, Captain, but we're still working on them," said Chief Engineer Jones. "Remembering we only started developing the concept yesterday."
   "We seem to be about to find out how much progress you've made.."
   "The new systems may not work the first couple of times, Captain." Commander Jones tried to avoid an apologetic note.
   "What?" The captain glared at her chief engineer; Dragon Lady to a subordinate who was telling her something which she did not want to hear.
   "It's a new and largely untried system, Captain. All we've done so far is blast it with rovers a few times this morning. We're still processing the data. And a fully armed warship is another matter. Especially one that's bigger than us."
   "Very well. Do your best. Heads up, everyone," the captain added, "this could get very ugly. Comms, locate Mr. Sampar. I want him on the helm."
   "Mr. Sampar to the helm, aye, Captain," said the duty communications technician.

The enemy ship ground relentlessly into its weapons range. By then, Star Dancer was at Red Alert and Brevett Draxt had joined his Mathie colleague on the bridge to assist with data gathering; on the assumption that the ship would survive the coming battle. It was the middle of the night, as far as Draxt's personal body clock was concerned, but he felt wide awake with something interesting in prospect.
   The enemy's first shot bounced off the deflectors, as it was supposed to do from a conventional deflector system, especially when the ship was flying a Draxt-Sampar evasion pattern. Star Dancer's first shot dented the enemy's deflector field briefly. The enemy's next energy bolt also bounced off Star Dancer without causing damage.
   "I thought we were supposed to be capturing the energy from their weapons and giving it back to them?" said the captain. "Or is Mr. Sampar doing too good a job of making them miss?"
   "Just lining things up, Captain," the chief engineer said calmly around conferring with Merrith and Draxt and discussions with the weapons and tactical officer.
   "Fair hit, their deflectors are still taking the strain, Captain," Sub-Commander Howard reported from the Weapons station. "Yes!" he added a minute or so later, when Star Dancer rocked to an impact then returned fire. "An augmented fair hit on their weapons system. Their central disruptor has gone down."
   "Well done, Mr. Jones," said the captain. "And our Mathies."
   "We aim to please," murmured the chief engineer.
   "Standing by to return their next shot, Captain," Sub-Commander Howard reported.
   "Very well," said the captain, starting to look almost happy with the situation.
   Star Dancer fired twice more in response to shots from the enemy.

"We've just punched a hole right through them, Captain," said Howard. "They're going to be too busy making repairs to fight on. Their entire deflector system has just gone down."
   "Punch a few more holes in them while we have the chance, Weps," said the Captain. "Give them a lot more to think about."
   "Yes, sir. Target their drive. Starboard first. Shoot."
   "Firing," said the weapons technician. "Fair hit on their starboard drive array."
   "Meanwhile, Helm, stand by to get us out of here," the captain added.
   "Stand by to shoot again," said Howard. "Target the port drive array."
   "Oh, ... my ...," someone muttered.
   "Was that us?" said the captain as the debris cloud from the exploding enemy ship expanded to invisibility out from the vessel's final position.
   "No, Captain," said Howard. "We didn't fire again."
   "There was a sudden internal power surge, Captain," Brevett Rogan reported from his detector station. "Almost like they'd powered up the rest of the drive with the containment fields switched off."
   "Sounds like a good way to commit suicide," remarked Brevett Sampar from the helm station.
   "Yes," said the captain. "Could they be so paranoid that they'd self-destruct to avoid capture?"
   "They certainly seem to go in for extreme reactions," said the first officer. "Shooting on sight, lying in ambush, no challenges. And it certainly explains what happened to the others we ran into."
   "No other hostile ships in detector range?" said the captain.
   "None that we can detect, Captain," said Rogan. "But if they're hiding on a lump of rock somewhere and cloaked ..."
   "Quite," said the captain. "No possibility of survivors after a bang like that? Or of gathering useful intelligence materials?"
   "No indications of survival pods, Captain," said Rogan. "No obvious powered structures."
   "The debris field would be dangerous to explore, Captain," the first officer added. "We'd have to move slowly and carefully. And we'd be vulnerable if we had to recover our rovers in the event of another attack."
   "Very well," said the captain. "Resume previous course, stand down to Yellow Alert. Good job, everyone. And would Lieutenants Draxt and Sampar kindly adjust their badges of rank? I think you've redeemed yourselves now, gentlemen."
   "That's going to make my bank manager very happy, Captain," Draxt remarked.
   "That's going to upset a few sub-lieutenants who've been giving me orders," Sampar added.
   "Permission to leave the bridge, Captain?" said Draxt. "Mr. Merrith and I have some data to review."
   "Granted," said the Captain. "I'd imagine your bank manager is going to be smiling over the royalty payments you can expect from your part in the work on our improved 3D systems, Mr. Draxt."
   "I should think the same applies to the whole crew, Captain," said Draxt, who agreed with the proposition that advancements in technology made aboard an exploration vessel came out of a group effort and who supported a ship-wide bonus system through his example.
   "Senior officers, a review of the engagement in my ready room in one hour, please," the captain added.

The review process was routine and brief. Star Dancer's new systems were working but they required further adjustment. The hull stressing caused by enemy weapons fire was minimal and easily relieved. The encounter with another, larger spacecraft had provided little new information about the hostile occupants of the region through which Star Dancer was passing.
   Two hours later, as she was starting to think about an evening meal, the captain decided to take the risk of asking the newly restored Lt. Draxt for some information on the current performance of the detector systems.
   "Captain to Mr. Draxt," she said into her commlink. There was no response. "Computer, locate Mr. Draxt," she added.
   "Mr. Draxt is in sickbay," said the vaguely electronic voice.
   "Captain to Dr. Percey. What's wrong with Mr. Draxt?"
   "Nothing, Captain," the doctor replied after a brief interval. "He's taking part in an experiment."
   "Could I speak to him?"
   "Not for about two hours, Captain."
   "Very well. Thank you, Doctor."
   The Captain completed a log entry and decided that food took priority over studying further reports. She spent half an hour in the mess hall over a meal and a discussion with the linguists, Lts. Dean and O'Neill, on what they had gathered about the ancient control systems at Osirlanding. Then, on a whim, she decided to visit the sickbay.
   Captain Fregath was rather alarmed to find Lt. Draxt stretched out on a bunk, surrounded by a mass of recording instruments and totally immobile. "Is he breathing, Doctor?" she asked with a frown.
   The doctor smile. "Just about, Captain. He's at a minimum survival level. An MSL, if you want the jargon."
   "How?"
   "It's a meditation technique. Described in the official survival manual. Draxt came across it while he was confined to his quarters. It was his answer to surviving without having to eat r'vode-based rations. Literally switching himself off."
   "So that's what he was doing with himself instead of thinking useful thoughts."
   "Captain?"
   "Never mind."
   "Actually, I suppose it all depends how you define useful. If this state could be induced in an injured crew member far from help, it could be a life-saver. The same for anyone stranded with their air running out. It's always been regarded as dangerous in the past ..."
   "How dangerous?"
   "Strictly a last resort. Only a forty-some per cent chance of survival. But Draxt seems to be able to do it to order. And if we can work out what he's doing that makes it safe ..."
   "I can see we're going to be bringing a lot of extraordinary new ideas home, Doctor."
   "Assuming we don't run into any bandits with superior fire-power."
   "Yes, there is that," laughed the captain. "I was just thinking, Spacefleet's commanders will probably toss us back into that black hole to see what we can come up with on another return trip."
   "How was it Mr. Draxt put it? 'To reach a destination, one must travel in the right direction. The black hole and the data we recorded during our encounter with it pointed us in this direction. So that's why we're light years ahead of the rest of the galaxy in 3D technology.' We can only hope that Spacefleet's commanders think it's someone else's turn to be tossed into the black hole."
   "I suppose we can take some consolation from that thought," laughed the captain. "Tell me more about your experiments with Mr. Draxt."
   Radiating pleasure, Dr. Percey gathered his thoughts and began to describe his research programme. Tacking a project associated with something other than disease control or tissue repair was unusual and all the more rewarding for its unexpected nature.

The captain returned to the bridge to wait for Lt. Draxt to emerge from his MSL. Science Officer Andersin caught up with her there.
   "Any hope of some good news, Donna?" the captain remarked.
   "Possibly," Andersin returned with a cautious smile. "Our physicists have been reviewing the detector information on the weapons systems of these attack craft. Frand and Jesper tell me they've isolated what they call an 'initiation spike' one point one milliseconds before their main weapons fire. So we've been wondering if we could rig up some sort of automatic course shift for the ship when we detect such a spike."
   "Are we going to have time to do anything worth while?" the captain asked with a frown.
   "Not to get out of the way. But we might be able to move enough to make the difference between a direct hit and a grazing impact."
   "That's not going make life any easier for the pilot, sudden random course changes. I suppose they'd have to be random?"
   "Yes, I should think so. But I'm sure we could trigger Mr. Sampar's vanity about his skills as a pilot if he starts moaning."
   "True," laughed the captain. "Do our own weapons show this spike?"
   "Not as far as we can tell, Captain. It may be a function of how they handle the power surge to their more powerful weapons."
   "Okay, it's certainly worth developing the idea," the captain decided. "Although you won't make any friends in Engineering when they hear you want to install a new sub-system into the helm control."
   "I think we're still at a very theoretical level, Captain," said Andersin. "But it is looking quite a promising idea."

Three days later, another ship changed course toward Star Dancer from a range of five standard grids, which indicated that it had a longer detector range than the earlier hostile vessels. Star Dancer was at yellow alert when another pursuit began.
   The latest vessel was much, much bigger than anything encountered previously. It was also slower - not much faster than Star Dancer - and it lacked a cloaking system. And it began to hail Star Dancer when it reached the usual range. Captain Fregath called the linguists to the bridge and they set in motion the task of exchanging information at a safe distance. After half an hour, the process reached a useful level.
   The other vessel was a battleship called Trevdoran and it dwarfed Star Dancer. Its captain had suspected Star Dancer of being one of the raiders at first but his bridge crew had reported that Star Dancer did not fit the raider pattern, being globular in shape instead of looking like a conventional, long-hulled spaceship. Receiving a response to routine hails had been another surprise for the battleship's captain.
   Trevdoran was the command base of Admiral Gadres, whose species had originated on a planet called of Minhot. He confirmed that the Minhotei were at war with fast and aggressive pirates - a loose alliance of their own and neighbouring species, which was preying on big and slow trading vessels, and also attacking anything of a similar size to the pirate ships. He advised Star Dancer to quit the immediate area without delay as the pirates were known to be operating in it.
   Captain Fregath surprised Admiral Gadres by telling him that Star Dancer had already been attacked by several pirates and that there were none in the vicinity. The battleship's external hull had a distinctly battered look. Admiral Gadres expressed surprise at how unscathed Star Dancer looked after its encounters with the pirates. Lt. Mary Dean, the chief linguist, mentioned that there was a note of disbelief in the Admiral's tone at this point and suggested that further work with the Minhotei linguists would be helpful.
   When the linguists on both sides of the exchange were confident that they were providing translations which were reliable, Admiral Gadres got down to business. It was the policy of the Minhotei to require strangers to steer clear of their territory. Their intention was to avoid spreading the conflict. They did not wish other alien species to become belligerent when pirates began to destroy their spacecraft.
   Captain Fregath was willing to avoid settled regions but she had no intention of make long detours as a matter of policy and in the interests of crew morale. The immovability of the Minhotei crumbled when she offered to share the technical information which Star Dancer had gathered on the raiders, including what was known about their cloaking system, in exchange for a laissez passer.
   Admiral Gadres, the linguists reported, seemed alarmed to hear that the pirates had a cloaking technology, but the news provided an explanation for how they had pulled off recent daring hit-and-run raids. It was the common conclusion of the commanding officers that the raiders had stumbled across some old technology during their travels; possibly something from the same source as the ancient gravity and atmosphere-containment systems found on Osirlanding.
   Eventually, Admiral Gadres turned the decision on Star Dancer's route; through or around Minhotei space; over to his government. In the meantime, he allowed Star Dancer to resume its direct course for home with Trevdoran as an escort. The cynics in Star Dancer's crew voiced the opinion that they would cross right through Minhotei space while the locals' leaders chewed over the issue of granting free passage.

11 : Stakes Raised

Two days into the transit, Star Dancer detected what appeared to be the signatures of cloaked vessels at an outer moon of a gas giant as the convoy of two was passing an uninspiring solar system. Admiral Gadres was sceptical about the conclusion at first but he seemed willing enough to accept an invitation to come aboard Star Dancer to make sure the visitors were tracking a real target and not spinning a tale.
   The admiral boarded Star Dancer in biological isolation gear as a routine precaution. The Minhotei were reluctant to get involved with the visitors to the extent of conducting a full range of biocompatibility tests. Admiral Gadres gave the impression of being used to wearing the BIG and that such relatively brief face-to face contacts with alien species were routine.
   After spending a long time trying to convince himself that Star Dancer really could see the surrounding universe in greater depth and detail than the battleship Trevdoran, the admiral decided to change course away from the suspected raiders. He took note of Captain Fregath's recommendation that it would be wiser to pretend that they had not seen the suspected hostile vessels, but he chose to ignore it.
   The admiral was preparing to leave Star Dancer when the technician at Star Dancer's bridge detector station reported that a wolf-pack of nine raiders had uncloaked and launched from the surface of the moon. The admiral left for Trevordan in his personal rover in a cloud of worry. Captain Fregath gathered from his demeanour that he had never seen so many raiders together before.
   Once safely aboard his command vessel, Admiral Gadres instructed Star Dancer to take an independent course. It was a clear invitation for the smaller ship to try to run for its life. Six raiders set an intercept course for the battleship. The remaining three headed for Star Dancer at high speed, which removed the option of running away.
   In their brief breathing space before the inevitable battle, Lt. Sampar turned the helm station chair toward the captain and said, "We need to launch the rovers to help with defending Star Dancer, Captain."
   "Sounds like a suicide mission to me," said the captain.
   "More suicidal than trying to fend off three faster, more heavily armed ships on our own, Captain?" said Sampar. "They obviously think that many can finish us off quickly so they can concentrate their whole squadron on the battleship."
   "Dividing their attention makes sense on a purely mathematical basis, Captain," said Draxt. "Although your tactical experience has priority here."
   "Weps?" said the captain.
   "We need some help, Captain," said Sub-Commander Howard. "I admit rovers are no substitute for proper fighters but they do have a weapons system and they'll be an unknown threat element to the pirates. And we are heavily outnumbered."
   "You're saying we need every weapon we can bring to bear?" said the captain.
   "Yes, Captain. I expect them to be cautious while they feel us out. They're going to assume we're something new developed by the Minhotei if we're in the company of one of their battleships. We'll be in real trouble when they get bolder. Seeing us launch our rovers should get them wondering even more, just how tough we are."
   "And maybe let us surprise them?" said the captain.
   "Yes, Captain. And it's highly possible that the rovers could create local overloads in their rather inferior deflector systems. Two or more attacking together may be able to pour in more energy than they can disperse and blow out some of the circuitry. Possibly even create holes in the deflector coverage and achieve hull penetrations."
   "Very well. Mr. Sampar, Mr. Draxt, take R-Four-A. Mr. Orcand, match our best rover pilots with a weapons and deflector tech as crew. Let's jump to it."
   Draxt and Sampar were first to launch. They drove out from Star Dancer to obtain room to manoeuvre then slowed down to let the rest of the rover fleet form up around them. Sampar was the flight leader but everyone knew that they had not trained for this mission and they would have to make everything up as they went along.
   "Have you ever done this for real? Used a rover as a fighter with people shooting at you?" Draxt asked from the control and monitor station at the rear of the rover as he checked his systems for the umpteenth time. "I mean, with people trying to kill you?"
   "First time for me, too," said Sampar, trying for tight-lipped serenity. He had begun his career with Spacefleet before transferring to the Science Division in search of new horizons.
   "I never thought I'd be in a position like this. I mean, having a chance to do something about it when we came under fire. I always thought I'd be stuck in somewhere like Detector Control with everything happening around me and not having any input in the decisions."
   "It's always been theoretically possible for science staff to get involved in the military side of things. The face-to-face stuff."
   "How often do theory and practice overlap in the real world?" scoffed Draxt.
   "We're not in the real world now, Rol," Sampar pointed out. "We're in a through the black hole wonderland."
   "Where mad bastards in faster, bigger, better-armed ships try to kill us without provocation?"
   "As long as they don't have any Mathies aboard, we should be all right," said Sampar. "Are we ready for death or glory, boys and girls?" he added as the other five rovers completed a loose crescent formation around R-4a.
   "I'd rather have a nice cup of tea," said Draxt. "Hold on to your hats, boys and girls, they're here."
   A crescent formation of six raiders sliced at Trevdoran, seeking to chop at the Minhotei battleship with energy weapons and slice it into small pieces. The remaining three raiders attacked Star Dancer from three sides.
   A mass attack by the rovers distracted one of the raiders and a timely shot by Star Dancer, crippled it. Soon, the damaged raider was left far behind the battle. The other two raiders decided that the rovers were no real threat and chose to ignore them. A swarming rover attack on a second raider caused the predicted local deflector overload. When the rovers' disruptors started punching holes in his hull, the pirate captain turned to shoot at the pests.
   The first shot bounced off Rover Three's deflectors. The second shot was a miss between Rover One and Rover Five, which seemed to reflect consternation on the part of the raider's crew at R-3's survival after a grazing hit. Normally, any sort of energy weapon hit would have overloaded a rover's deflectors to the point of collapse.
   In passing, Captain Fregath noticed part of the battleship break off, trailing energy flares. The huge vessel's fighting efficiency seemed unimpaired, however. One of the raiders attacking the battleship got too close and suddenly erupted into a cloud of debris. The odds were down to seven to two.
   Another assault by the group of rovers and two enhanced shots from Star Dancer disabled another raider. Another lump of the battleship was sheared off and left behind. Rover Two exploded, becoming a nova for a few seconds, just after the battleship accounted for another of the raiders. Star Dancer's disruptors bored into the bridge area of its final attacker. Another shot punched a hole clean through the main drive bay and left the vessel dead in space.
   "Rover Six has gone, Captain," Brevett Grad reported from the detector station. "It split into two pieces. Like Rover Four did. Two of the raiders around the battleship have broken off their attack. They're heading our way."
   "How many are still left?" said the captain.
   "It looks like just those two still have manoeuvring power, Captain," said Grad. "The others are either dead in space or destroyed."
   "All rovers, stand off to our right relative to the incoming enemy ships," said the Captain. "Stand by for a co-ordinated attack."
   Flares of light appeared on the monitors.
   "Grad, report," said the Captain.
   "The disabled raiders have destroyed themselves, Captain," she replied. "And the survivors are going to full power. I think they're running for it. They're changing course away from us now."
   "Their new course doesn't bring them into effective weapons range, Captain," Sub-Commander Howard reported.
   "Maintain target tracking, Weps," said the Captain. "Helm, keep our main weapons aimed at them. Stand by in case they come back at us."
   "Standing by, Captain," said Howard.
   "Helm, aye, Captain," said the helm technician.
   "Life signs from our damaged rovers, Herlith?" said the captain.
   "R-Two is just dust, Captain," Brevett Grad replied. "Two life signs from R-Six."
   "Helm, close on R-Six for a tractor recovery. But maintain the weapon tracking on the enemy."
   "Close to tractor range on R-Six with weapon tracking, aye, Captain," the helm technician repeated.
   "The battleship is hailing us, Captain," said the duty communications technician.
   "What's left of them," someone murmured.
   "Very well," said the captain. "Accept contact."
   Admiral Gadres seemed very pleased with how the battle had gone and relatively unconcerned by the degree of damage which his vessel had suffered. Destroying seven raiders made everything worthwhile. The admiral was also very impressed by the power of Star Dancer's weapons and the ship's defence capabilities. His new respect was clear in his voice.
   Captain Fregath agreed to a pause in the journey across Minhotei space while the battleship carried out running repairs. No other choice was available to her and her own command had sustained some further battle damage. Another battleship was on the way to assist with Trevdoran's repair work. The admiral also wanted to scour the debris in search of useful information on the raiders.
   Star Dancer recovered the larger pieces of the wreck of Rover Two after the survivors of Rover Six had been moved to the sickbay. A study of the battle records and the wreckage showed that Rover Two had been unlucky enough to be hit simultaneously by shots from two of the raiders. Rover Six had suffered the same type of deflector failure as Rover Four had experience over Osirlanding.
   Rover Six had broken into two main pieces. The pilot was relatively unhurt but the weapons technician had received severe injuries, from which she seemed unlikely to recover. The pattern of injuries was much the same as that observed in the crew of Rover Four, the doctor reported at a subsequent staff meeting.
   "I recommend the pilot and the weps tech both sit up front if we have to fight again, Captain," said Sub-Commander Howard.
   "Yes, it's going to be a bit cramped but the techs will be able to concentrate on their job better if they know they've got a reasonable chance of surviving a deflector failure," said the captain.
   "Sounds a good idea to me, Captain," Draxt said in response to an inquiring look in his direction. "For the techs."
   "But not you?" said the captain.
   "I understand the theory of how the deflectors operate so I can control them better, Captain. The techs will need a lot more training before they can realize something's going wrong in time to do anything about it. Although we must be missing something on the theory side if the rear of the rover is so much more dangerous than the forward part."
   "Right," said Lt. Merrith. "The element of forced symmetry shouldn't be making a real difference. Although ..."
   "Right! Maybe we should be looking at the framing parameters in more detail," said Draxt.
   "Mr. Draxt, Mr. Merrith, you're excused," the captain said quickly. "I can see we won't be able to hold your attention until you've thrashed this problem to a conclusion."
   "Thank you, Captain," said Draxt.
   "And you'll be sitting at the front of R-Four-A until further notice, Korolas," the captain added in an uncompromising tone.
   Draxt was looking offended as he and Merrith left the briefing room and headed for their usual working space in Detector Control, deep in conversation.
   "A further recommendation, Captain," said Sub-Commander Howard. "About that scheme the physicists came up with for making Star Dancer react to the initiation spike from the pirates' main weapons. It should be useful to install the system in a rover. A random course shift away from the line of attack at full speed should be more effective in moving a rover out of the path of an energy weapon."
   "No rest for the wicked," remarked Chief Engineer Jones.
   "My people will lend a hand if you're stuck for bodies," said Howard.
   "While we're with Engineering," said the captain, "I'm giving you top priority, Arrik. We'll maintain a skeleton watch on detectors and essential services and everyone else will be available to Engineering for repair work and installing new systems. Officers included. We need the ship back to one hundred per cent soonest. I don't think we've seen the last of the pirates."
   "Most welcome, Captain. The priority," said Commander Jones.
   "That said," the captain added, "is there anything we can do quickly to redistribute the interior equipment of a rover? I want to create more space at the second pilot's station. We need to accommodate the full range of control and monitor equipment installed at the rear station as well as the second set of flight and weapons controls."
   "I'll need a couple of hours on that one, Captain," said Chief Engineer Jones. "But we should be able to do something. But isn't that assuming our Mathies won't crack the problem with the deflectors?"
   "They're not infallible, Arrik. And it will be good for the psychology of the situation. Putting the weapons and deflector control tech in what is perceived to be the safest spot on a rover, next to the pilot, can only be good for morale."
   "Except, if our Mathies come up with a solution, Mr. Draxt will insist on sitting at the back of R-Four-A where he has a bit of elbow room," said Sampar.
   "Leading by example," the captain said with a half-smile. "An unaccustomed role for a Mathie."
   "I think it's worthwhile making the changes anyway, Captain," said the first officer. "We may want to put more weapons or other systems on the rovers and we may need more crew aboard to operate the new systems."
   "You mean, it's always a good idea to optimize what we have now and not to wait for a deus ex machina?" said the captain. "Two hours for an engineering report, you said, Arrik?"
   "Do-able, Captain," Commander Jones said with a nod. "That's a report, not actually any work done, by the way. And that doesn't include doing anything about Frand and Jesper's evasion system in response to detecting initiation spikes."
   "Understood," laughed the captain. Her expression became serious. "The memorial service for Brevett Iemen and Technician LeBrext, the crew of R-Two, will be at twenty hundred this evening. We may also be including Senior Technician Berish from R-Six. The doctor isn't at all optimistic about her."
   Dr. Percey shook his head when the captain looked at him.
   "Twenty hundred, aye, Captain," said Sub-Commander Orcand, who would be making the arrangements.
   "I'm going to co-ordinate a swing past the star of this system with our escort when we get moving again," the captain added. "A stellar cremation would be in accordance with the beliefs of our dead."
   "Noted, Captain," said Orcand.
   "Anything else we need to think of?" the captain added, seeking to bring the meeting to a conclusion.
   "Lots more training in the simulators, Captain," Lt. Sampar said unexpectedly. "For pilots and weps techs both. We've had a few people muttering about the training schedule. I think they'll be a bit keener to learn and practice now we've been in combat. We all need to do a lot of formation flying training after we've studied the data from the battle. So we can co-ordinate mass attacks properly."
   "Agreed," said the captain. "I'd like to make a priority of organizing the data from this scrap into a battle training programme, Clivv."
   "Noted, Captain," said the first officer.
   "Any more?" said the Captain. "Very well. Meeting adjourned."

In the evening, Captain Fregath held a memorial service for the crew of Rover Two and the weapons technician from Rover Six, who had died several hours earlier. As Trevdoran required about four days for repairs, the bodies were stored in an improvised morgue on G-Deck until they could receive a stellar cremation when Star Dancer resumed the journey across Minhotei space.
   Midnight was approaching when Sub-Lt. Frand and Lt. Sampar tracked the Mathies down to the snack bar. They were taking a break from their thoughts on rover deflectors. It was a technique which usually gave them a fresh direction when they became bogged down.
   "You'll be telling me next you enjoyed being shot at," Frand was saying to Sampar when they arrived.
   "I always wanted to be a fighter pilot," Sampar returned.
   "Is that your secret ambition, Rol?" Merrith remarked as their table filled up with others.
   "I prefer to let someone else do the driving," said Draxt.
   "I never saw you as a heroic type," Merrith added.
   "Sure!" laughed Draxt. "What's heroic about following orders?"
   "Go out and annoy a heavily armed enemy in a rover?" said Merrith. "That's a hell on an order."
   "I wasn't exactly happy to get it," Draxt admitted. "But once you get an order like that, you just have to try and stay alive while your hot-shot pilot enjoys himself."
   "You're amazingly calm about all that," said Frand.
   "That's because he's in something like a state of shock," said Sampar. "We all are, the rover crews. The ones who got back still can't quite believe we survived. Him more than the rest of us."
   "What does that mean?" Frand said indignantly. "He's not as heroic as you?"
   "No, he hasn't been just prepared for combat as thoroughly as we Spacefleet types." Sampar was a member of the Science Division now but he remained Spacefleet at heart.
   "Which makes him more heroic," said Frand.
   "No, it makes him just as surprised he's still alive," said Draxt. "So this is what being Spacefleet is all about. They give you a job to do and you do it because there's no other option. And because they'll have you shot at dawn if you don't. I knew there was a good reason why I went for the Science Division."
   "For all the good it did you," scoffed Merrith.
   "I don't care what anyone says," said Frand. "I still think Rol's a hero."
   "Yep, you're probably right," said Draxt. "And so's Max. But I don't feel much of anything right now, so I probably am in shock. It was probably caused by having to go to a post-mission debriefing with the Spacefleet types."
   "Praxis Coefficients," Merrith said suddenly.
   "Probably," said Draxt.
   "Hello, this is where the Mathies desert us," Frand said with a sigh.
   "No," said Draxt, "this is where everyone else shoves off and gives you and me a bit of privacy."
   "He really must be in shock," laughed Sampar. "Draxt wanting to spend time with a woman instead of a Mathie problem? I don't believe it."
   "It's associating with Spacefleet types that does it," said Merrith. "So I'll just go and crack the problem on my own, shall I?"
   Draxt glanced at a clock to find out how much of the break he had left. "If you can crack it in the next thirty-five minutes, you'll definitely be my hero," he said with a laugh.

A day later, the Minhotei battleship Rashdoran arrived on the scene to assist with the repairs to Trevdoran and to protect a precious asset until it was fighting fit again. The crew of Star Dancer had to fight against a growing inferiority complex in the presence of two space leviathans; a tiny moon next to two gas giants.
   Captain Fregath found herself riding another tide of scepticism when she met Senior Captain Arash aboard Trevdoran at a command conference designed to provide the officers of the newly arrived battleship with the latest knowledge gained about the raiders. Captain Arash of Rashdoran was reluctant to believe that the enemy could be detected out to thirty-two standard grids instead of five.

Two days after the battle, the Captain went to Detector Control with a specific mission in mind. She was deflected from it when she saw Lt. Draxt sitting on his own, staring into space.
   "How's the theoretical work on the rover deflectors coming, Korolas?" the captain asked as she approached Draxt.
   Draxt turned and put on a slow smile. "Everything's very clear now, Captain. It's quite surprising how obvious it all looks from this end of the problem."
   There was a long pause, then Draxt added, "In fact ..."
   The captain watched his eyes close slowly. Draxt's head drooped. Very slowly, he relaxed and began to slide out of his chair. Captain Fregath was too surprised to do anything other than just watch until Draxt had flowed from his chair to make a soft landing on the floor.
   "Call sickbay," she told the nearest technician as she rushed to check that Draxt was still breathing and that he had a pulse.
   "He's all right, Captain," said one of the technicians. "He's only asleep."
   "People don't just go to sleep like that in the middle of a sentence." The captain was outraged by the apparent indifference of the technicians.
   "They do if they're a Mathie and they've not had any sleep since before the last battle with the raiders, Captain."
   "But that was two days ago."
   "Exactly, Captain. Mr. Draxt and Mr. Merrith have been here since the debriefing, working on the rover deflector problem."
   "So this is a regular occurrence?"
   "It happens, Captain. When they're thinking about a problem, they can't sleep until they've solved it or proved it can't be solved. They just bring in a supply of their new snack biscuits and get on with it. We get one-box and two-box problems. This was a two-boxer."
   "I'm not sure I want my officers sleeping all over the floor."
   "Their quarters are just down the corridor from the lift, Captain. We usually just carry them there and put them on their bunks."
   "I'm not sure I'm too thrilled about that, either."
   "With respect, Captain, I don't think you can expect Mathies to behave like regular officers. They're obsessives. Once they get their teeth into something, well, they just can't let go. Especially if solving it could save lives." The senior technician was in her late twenties and she had the air of someone who knew what she was talking about.
   "So they don't stop until they get somewhere?" said the captain. "Very well. Kindly put Mr. Draxt to bed. I take it Mr. Merrith made his quarters under his own steam?"
   "He left about ten minutes ago, Captain, and there was no one lying in his corridor when we looked a couple of minutes ago. Mr. Draxt had some loose ends to tie up."
   "I suppose we can only hope they reached a solution rather than a dead end," said the captain. "Very well, carry on."
   The captain realized that she had forgotten why she had come to Detector Control. She headed for her ready room as a reflex.
 

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Created for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10/12 SK6 4EG, Romiley, GB.
The original story İ Merik Katuryan, 2002. This version İ Merik Katuryan, 2005