THE BATTLE FOR CALLISTO by Gregory KH Bryant
Yamir studied Tu Hit closely for many long moments. The captain of the “Reliant” said nothing. He chose to take in Tu Hit’s appearance silently.
Tu Hit, for his part, stood before Yamir without speaking or raising his head. He had caught but a single glance of the man as he was ushered into Yamir’s cabin for this private interrogation. The crewman who brought Tu Hit here had pushed Tu Hit through the door, then stood outside.
Tu Hit was alone with Yamir.
Yamir was a stocky man, with muscular fingers and grey, tightly curled hair. He wore robes, and sat squarely upon a chair of wood and leather—a luxury thing, that, out among the asteroids. All this Tu Hit had swiftly seen, in that instant before he lowered his eyes.
And he stood before Yamir, silent and waiting to hear what the man would say.
“Who are you?” came the question.
“I am Tu Hit,” he answered, without raising his head. “Pilot of the “Grand Marquis”.”
“And you knew Turhan Mot?”
“Raise your head and look at me. Let me see your face when you talk.”
“Yes,” Tu Hit answered.
He raised his head. Yamir studied him intently.
“How did you know Turhan Mot?”
“He was captain of the ship, I was pilot,” Tu Hit answered.
“Ah. I see. So you know him well.”
“In his capacity as captain of the ship I piloted, yes.”
“Where is he now?” Yamir asked.
“I do not know,” Tu Hit answered.
“He is not with his ship, though his pilot stays?”
“That is so.”
“And when did he leave his ship?” Yamir asked.
“Turhan Mot left his command, please it him to do so, at Ship’s Clock twelve hundred thirty-six hours...”
Yamir waved an impatient hand. He scowled at Tu Hit.
“Don’t be coy with me, idiot,” he spat.
“Give me plain answers,” Yamir said. “It will be less trouble for me to kill you than to put up with any games.”
Yamir considered the man before him closely. Was he protecting Turhan Mot? Would he lie for Turhan Mot? Where were his loyalties, if he had any at all?
“No,” Yamir decided at last. Tu Hit was not one given naturally to deceit. The only cunning he knew was the cunning of reticence. But that forced the interrogator to be even more cunning, even more precise in his questions. A tedious process, one demanding far too much time and trouble for Yamir. He sometimes preferred the outright liar over those who were scrupulous, but parsimonious, with the truth. The liars are relatively easy to catch in the inconsistency of their lies, but one who tells `only the truth, and nothing but the truth’ cannot so tripped up, while also having the indisputable defence that they were only telling the truth, when further cross-examined about the misleading nature of their earlier answers.
“Now think, idiot,” Yamir said, finally, and glaring hard at Tu Hit.
“The man abandoned you. He led us all on this folly, and then, even before the battle is engaged, he flees, making cowards of you all who served under him. He is not your friend. He abandoned you, and he abandoned the “Grand Marquis”. You have no reason to protect him. Just tell me the truth, and plainly, and all will go well for you. Lie to me or try my patience, and you will be dead before a single heartbeat has passed.”
Yamir moved the sleeve of his robe to reveal a laser pistol near his hand.
“Now. When did Turhan Mot leave his ship? Speak. And feel free to speak freely.”
Yamir settled himself into his chair.
Tu Hit had of course already considered all the things that Yamir had spoken of. He’d spent many long and fruitless hours asking himself those very questions, and had long since concluded that his loyalty was to the “Grand Marquis” herself.
He’d been born between the asteroids, the child of two parents who sold him for two cases of real Earth-brewed beer, a rare thing out here, between Jupiter and Mars. After that, he’d spent his formative years, shunted from one trading ship to the next, earning his keep with menial chores, until he found relief from the endless beatings and drudgery by joining up with a band of Scroungers he met at one of the more remote outposts among the asteroids.
At first the lawlessness was exhilarating to him, but in time he lost his taste for it. And it was then that he had joined up with the “Grand Marquis”, first as a flight deck mechanic and then, finally, the ship’s pilot. His loyalty, he had decided long ago, was to the ship. The “Grand Marquis” had given him the only real loyalty he had ever known. It gave him shelter and fed him, expecting only that he do his job and do it well. Every other master he had ever known had been arbitrary in handing out both rewards and punishments. But the ship, the “Grand Marquis” herself, had never been but fair to him, giving back exactly that which had been promised.
“With permission, I shall so speak,” Tu Hit said.
Yamir responded with an impatient gesture.
“To his credit, Turhan Mot did seek to engage, at beginning. But he was confounded by a madman who attacked. This madman...”
“Madman?” Yamir smiled.
“Of his own crew?” he asked.
“Oh, no. They attacked us. I should have said two madmen, but the one, the small one, seemed most deadly. It was he who led this insane attack. The other seemed... I expect he was but following the smaller man.
“Even as the great Turhan Mot was sending our own fleet of fighter ships to battle against the “Bellerophon”, these two madmen flew in and landed their ships upon our flight deck.”
Yamir leaned forward in his chair.
“They flew against Turhan Mot’s own fleet?” he demanded, astonished.
“Aye... that was why we did not know how to respond... it was absurd...”
“Absurd, indeed. Even ridiculous,” Yamir agreed. “You are quite right. Only madmen would try such an idiotic, such a suicidal thing.”
“And in the seconds we hesitated,” Tu Hit offered, “They’d flown past our guns and landed upon our flight deck.”
“These ships they flew. Tell me about them. What were they?”
“They were small interplanetary transport ships. Two of them.”
“And Turhan Mot did not know these men?”
“Tu Hit begs to answer he believes Turhan Mot did have the knowing of this one man, if not the other.”
“Tell us,” Yamir said. “Tell us all you saw.”
“They flew in on their ships. So small they were and so outrageous their attack that we hardly understood what we were seeing. And then they landed on our flight deck, destroying all. They killed the flight crews, and destroyed the ships that had not yet taken off.
“And then they killed their way to the bridge, where the great Turhan Mot was commanding his forces...”
“These men. Describe them,” Yamir demanded.
“The one was taller than the other, and by several inches. He wore a great beard upon his face. The other was smaller. Perhaps he was six feet tall. He had no beard. He killed like a machine kills.”
“And their ships,” Yamir asked. Did you not read their numbers?”
“Yes, yes, of course. We recorded them,” Tu Hit answered.
Yamir gave a gesture. “A pity we can’t recover those numbers from the wreckage of the “Grand Marquis”, he said. “But perhaps you could remember them?”
“Not wholly,” Tu Hit replied. “But the one ship, the smaller ship of the two, was of an `O’ series.
“`O’?” Yamir replied. “Yes?”
“It was `O’ dash eight... one... Tu Hit faltered.
“Thank you,” Yamir said, blandly. Yes. He recognized the number. O8-111A. The ship belonging to that man who had thwarted Turhan Mot before, at the Interplanetary Station 3. Carter Ward. Yamir’s face let out no clue of his feelings. Inwardly, he smiled.
“Continue with your story,” he said to Tu Hit.
Tu Hit complied.
“The two men brought explosives,” he said. “And they blasted the hatch to the bridge. And from there, the great Turhan Mot and his second in command, Mokem Bet, made his retreat in an escape pod...”
Yamir waved a hand.
Tu Hit stopped speaking.
“And did you see Turhan Mot after that?” Yamir asked.
“No,” Tu Hit answered.
“Then you have told me enough for now. Go to the door, and have them take you to the brig. I might have more questions to ask of you later.”
Tu Hit did as Yamir bade him, and Yamir was alone to consider his impressions. Turhan Mot’s previously inexplicable absence from the battlefield was, finally, explained. But though his absence was explained, his cowardice was not.
For even if it were a murderous madman come after him, what kind of commander is it who abandons his crew and his ship?
Well, there it was. Horst Dal would not be getting back the debt Turhan Mot owed him, a debt he promised to repay with a very tangible bonus, after the sack and capture of Callisto.
This was news that, undoubtedly, Turhan Mot would not take the trouble, or the courtesy, to convey to Horst Dal himself. It was then and therefore up to Yamir himself to inform Horst Dal of this very unpleasant turn.
And he was at the moment of commanding the pilot of the “Reliant” to direct all thrusters toward Astra Palace, that he, Yamir, could convey the news of this rout and of Turhan Mot’s cowardice privately, from his own mouth to Horst Dal’s ear, when he was called by his crew on the bridge.
“Oh captain,” came the call, “We grieve it to intrude upon our captain in his cabin, but we have word that he must hear.”
“And what is it?” Yamir asked of the speaker on his desk that stood near at hand.
“We have observed four drones that follow us, and surveil us, from a distance of one thousand miles.”
Yamir frowned. “Is this so? he asked.
“We have scanned them closely for the last two minutes and fourteen seconds. We have only confirmed these observations since.”
“And these little friends must have been sent our way by the “Bellerophon”, if I do not miss my guess,” Yamir thought to himself.
“Continue course. Make no change,” he answered, through the speaker. “I shall be at the bridge in three minutes.”
“Aye, my commander,” came the reply.
And, punctual as he always was, three minutes later, Yamir was standing at the bridge of the “Reliant” studying the screens that showed the four drones as pixels of light in four widely ranging positions.
“There, there, there and there,” his lieutenant said, pointing each out on a separate screen, showing locations directly behind the “Reliant”, as well as to the ship’s rearward starboard quarter, below and above the horizon, and the rearward port quarter, similarly arranged.
“They have guided the drones to these positions, each remote from the others, that we might not guess that they share a common purpose.”
“I see...” Yamir said.
They were now more than a million miles from Jupiter. Even at this distance, faint sparks against the sable sky, near the gleaming, tiny jewel that was Jupiter, gave evidence of the battle that, though clearly lost for the Scroungers, still raged on.
“Your orders, sir?”
“Do not destroy them. I want you to send each of them a probe. `The’ probe, I should say. Send each one the probe.”
“Aye, my commander,” came the reply.
`The Probe’ was a tiny device developed by Yamir’s own crew that, when it had landed upon its target, could burrow into it, seek out its electronic systems, including, of course, communications and navigational systems, and take complete control of them. Yamir could direct where the drones went, in any number of false trails, while continuously sending equally false updates to his enemies.
All without notice.
It was somewhere around four hundred Scroungers who made the first wave of the ones who marched through the rail tunnel to storm Callisto Base 1. Behind that first wave came a second, another four or five hundred strong. And behind those first two came yet another wave of desperate Scroungers, desperate because their mother ship, the “Grand Marquis” was gone, and they had no hope for themselves, except to capture Callisto.
Colonel Bridgemont kept up an unstopping communication with all his bases throughout the domed city. He took in updates every minute on the condition of the neighbourhoods that were collapsing under the seismic shocks of battle, which proved to be as devastating as any earthquake, all while rallying his own officers, facing a force in the Scroungers four times greater, or more, than their own.
From his desk, placed hastily upon a platform above the tracks, one which gave him a dramatic view of the transparent rail tunnel, and the distant Space Port, far beyond, he could clearly see the Scroungers as they surged, like a poison through a capillary, toward Callisto Base 1.
The tracks were swollen with their numbers. Bridgemont calculated those numbers.
“Two hundred. Four hundred.... all the way back. They go all the way back to the Space Port. We’re looking at maybe twelve hundred of those bastards...”
He turned his head to take quick stock of his own forces.
Two hundred. That was all he could muster. Two hundred men and women, some of them no older than eighteen Earth years.
“Colonel Bridgemont! They’re here!” came the cry, with a huge pounding on the tentative barricade they had mustered together emphasizing the point. The barricade collapsed. Twenty Scroungers leaped through, followed by another twenty.
Not even time for an inspiring speech. Couldn’t give the man even that much.
“Kill as many as you can!” Colonel Bridgemont shouted out, loudly as he could.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK