There was a sound that Captain Thaddeus Westmore had never heard the like of before -- a kind of an otherworldly screech -- and the Aurora-class Confederacy Fleet Auxiliary Colony Transport Northern Lights suddenly seemed to do something that felt amazingly like a dry-skid, apparently sweeping to the right. The AI attempted to compensate, but was unprepared for the sudden lurch at the end; Thaddeus watched Ensign Hargrove's head bounce off the bulkhead next to his station with a sickening thud. The Ensign slumped and Thaddeus rasped, "Medic to the Control Room! AI, report status! What happened?"
"The Northern Lights entered the field of a small singularity while under hyperdrive," the AI reported. "The hyperdrive is destroyed. Sublight engines are fully available."
"Seventeen, as of this moment. Four are unresponsive -- unconscious or dead. Triage teams have been dispatched." The AI's assertion was immediately supported by the fact that two medics came through the hatch and hauled Ensign Hargrove out of his seat.
"Other damage?" Thaddeus asked.
"The Northern Lights merely grazed the gravitic anomaly and the rate of translation was such that it cleared the effective influence before entering normal space." the AI replied, "As a result, only the hyperdrive was damaged. Hull stresses before and during emergence were well within tolerances."
Thaddeus grunted, thinking, 'The cargo didn't do so well.' Watching the medics collect Ensign Hargrove's limp body and place it on a floater, he asked, "How is it that we didn't detect a black hole with sensors?"
"The Northern Lights does not possess military-grade sensors," the AI responded, "They are considered to be less than cost-effective for a cargo vessel. The anomaly is orders of magnitude too small to be natural and was apparently artificially created."
"That's possible?" Thaddeus warbled, surprised.
"Affirmative. It is cost-prohibitive, but possible."
"So we hit a chuck hole," Thaddeus grunted. "How long to repair the hyperdrive?"
"It will take a shipyard, or a GMU," the AI reported. "The damage is well beyond any ability to replace components available on the vessel and the components would have to be tuned using sophisticated equipment even if fabrication were possible. Detailed replicator patterns are unavailable on board in case the ship should be captured."
"What is our nearest available port under sublight engines?" Thaddeus asked.
"Rukabat is habitable and nine days' travel from our current location at full sublight cruise, but the planet is abandoned," the AI declared. "Facilities will be sharply limited, as the Ruka took every item of advanced technology they could carry with them."
Everyone on the bridge was fascinated by the conversation at that point. "And why did the Ruka abandon their homeworld?" Thaddeus asked.
"When they were made aware of a Sa'arm incursion predicted in twenty-five Confederacy Standard Annual Periods," the AI replied. "That would be twenty-six point two-three-seven of your years. The Ruka moved their civilization five hundred light-years beyond the current Sa'arm sphere of influence and commenced rebuilding. They are watching the conduct of the current conflict with the Sa'arm very closely to see if Humans will prevail or another move is required."
"Bully for them," Thaddeus grunted. "Who created the black hole?"
"The Ruka created several black holes in the vicinity of their system during the period between when they first left their homeworld and their admission into the Confederacy, as a defensive measure. They were somewhat xenophobic and still somewhat warlike upon their initial emergence from their homeworld and there were several small conflicts with other young races before this sector was tranquilized and the races involved were offered Confederacy citizenship. This is undoubtedly an unreported leftover. It is off the main shipping lanes and was probably thought to be too unlikely to present problems to make an expensive recovery and removal effort worthwhile."
Thaddeus tore himself away from pondering how one disposes of a black hole to grunt, "And naturally, since we're headed closer to the front and not using the normal shipping lanes, we just HAD to hit it..." He sighed. "Well, at least we have that deserted planet to go to while we send out a message drone and wait for a GMU or a tow..."
"Normally, that would be a prudent course of action, Captain, but it is not in this case," the AI announced.
Thaddeus scratched his head. "And why is that?"
The AI activated the holographic display forward of the navigation station. "Because the twenty-five annual periods have elapsed and a Sa'arm Hive ship is inbound and close to the system. In fact, if it follows established protocols, it should drop out of hyperspace for a sensor sweep sometime in the next five hours."
"Ugh." Thaddeus rubbed his face. "Can we see it?"
"The hyperspace wake and calculations for the location put it here," the AI reported, placing a flashing point in the hologram, which also displayed a marker for the Northern Lights and, at a distance, the Rukabat system. "The hive ship should emerge at a distance of forty light minutes, approximately."
"And forty minutes later, it will know we're here and reconfigure for a jump into our vicinity," Thaddeus sighed. "And we're an unarmed transport, so..."
"Precisely," the AI agreed.
"I knew when I took this mission that it was going to be a nightmare!" Thaddeus complained. "Heading toward the front in a transport with a cargo of whores..."
Technically, the nine hundred sixty women he had aboard were 'unassigned concubines, ' but Thaddeus thought of them as 'whores' because each and every one of them had signed on to be transported without a sponsor to what amounted to be a humongous Civil Service brothel near the front lines. Branson's World was a planetoid near the front that someone had the bright idea to turn into an R & R site, like Wrigley's Pleasure Planet in the old Star Trek series. Since Marines didn't bring their concubines forward into the combat zone as a rule, they needed relief, and a little reward as they rolled off a mission was a big morale builder, so Thaddeus had a cargo of women in every shape and size and color -- even age, within the limits of fertility -- for delivery to the Branson's World brothel. Thaddeus couldn't fathom what drove the women to volunteer to be a collection of fuck holes for oversized and over-stimulated Marines -- fully one hundred of them were virgins! What kind of sense did THAT make? What a gamble...
"Any update on the casualties?" Thaddeus asked.
"An adequate number of med tubes was available for the ten most serious injuries. Seventeen others are awaiting tubes for broken bones and other non-life-threatening injuries," the AI reported. "There have been no deaths."
"Not that it's gonna help," Lieutenant Willis grumbled, "when that Hive ship drops out of hyperdrive."
"Well, we'll need to know what we're dealing with," Thaddeus replied, "Sensor Officer, launch three recon drones. Try to stick them beyond Hive sensor range."
"Aye, Sir!" Willis programmed the drones and fired them off. The drones went straight to hyperdrive and were gone. "Now we wait. I set them for ninety second data capture. The first drone to acquire the target will call the others so they can rotate in with updates every ninety seconds."
"Very well, Sensors." Thaddeus sat back in his seat, thinking, 'Lucky us -- we hit an iceberg. Or a mine ... Wait a minute... ' "AI, what would be the effect of the singularity on the Hive ship if it struck it under hyperdrive?"
The AI paused to run some scenarios, apparently. "For anything less than a grazing approach to the edge of the singularity's gravity well, eventual total annihilation," it reported.
"Really? Something that size?"
"The Hive ship's hyperdrive is at least three generations behind the hyperdrive of the Northern Lights," the AI replied, "This effects field density and speed of translation, among other things. The Northern Light's rate of translation got it past the gravity well of the singularity before emergence into normal space -- but this would not happen for the Sa'arm Hive ship. The vessel's size is another negative factor, as the structural integrity of a Hive ship is considerably less than that of the Northern Lights."
"So the question is, can we vector them in?" Thaddeus muttered, "and will they see it on sensors?"
"If you can anticipate their movements, you can probably lead them to the proper vector," the AI replied, "but how sensitive their sensors are and whether they will emerge from hyperspace close enough to detect the singularity during a course change is open to question."
"Drone transmission!" Willis erupted. "The Hive ship has emerged from hyperspace! Current position is two-four-four mark one eight relative. Current vector is two-nine-four mark three-two relative to Northern Lights. They are adjusting negative 'y' to and positive 'x' to align with Rukabat, which is at two-eight-seven mark one-three. No sign of drone detection."
"How long until they can see us?" Thaddeus asked.
"The clock has been running for two minutes, thirteen seconds," Willis announced, totally immersed in his instruments and AI feeds. "Thirty-six minutes and forty seconds ... Mark!"
"Okay!" Thaddeus declared, "It's a given that we don't see them until they see us or just before. Where do we want to go from there? Navigator?"
Ensign Hargrove's voice sounded behind Thaddeus. "One moment, Sir. The AI has been updating me since I woke up." He moved rather shakily to his station and began running calculations. "We need to change radically, Sir. The singularity put us off course, anyway -- we were off-vector on emergence and have been under thrust nearly twenty degrees 'x' off-course. We'll need to shift five-two mark minus twelve relative to our base course and pour on the thrust. They will attempt to compensate by putting themselves in front of our real-space vector while not altering theirs appreciably in order to save sublight drive momentum."
"So they'll jump backwards and to their right and come more or less straight at us on their current vector," Thaddeus mused.
"Yes, Sir. We have to run in real space, so the best we can do is the opposite of their real-space vector -- but if we do that they'll miss the singularity coming in."
"Recommend that we operate at sixty-two percent of sublight thrust capacity and shift the vector another fourteen degrees 'x' and minus four 'y'. That will bring them in off our port quarter -- except if we time it just right, they'll hit the singularity during the hyperdrive jump, just before they emerge."
"What's the backup plan?" Thaddeus asked.
Hargrove shrugged. "Die in place?"
"Set it up." Hargrove nodded and set several controls, communing with the AI. "Ready." They settled back to wait.
"Detection!" Willis erupted. "They've shut down sublight!"
"Course change initiated," Hargrove announced. "Actually, we've been shifting for ninety seconds."
"Talk to me, Sensors!" Thaddeus rasped.
"Shifting drones to five second capture!" Willis replied. "He's running unpowered ... Hyperdrive spinning up ... Sir, I don't think he's going to do a single jump! I think he's still calibrating, looking to tune the rendezvous point."
"Jump a drone to a safe distance from the halfway point!" Thaddeus ordered.
"Order transmitted by outbound..." The drones were moving nearly instantaneously, rotating, acting as their own supra-light communications system, talking to each other at one end and the Northern Lights at the other end of their jumps.
"He's jumped!" There was a tense five-second delay, followed by Willis announcing "Contact! He's halfway!"
"Adjusting point four one 'y'. Thrust to sixty-one percent."
"And Round Two begins..." Thaddeus mused.
"They're back!" Willis announced. "We're directly visible on EM sensors." He frowned. "They're making slight course adjustments via sublight drive."
"Pipe them to me!" Hargrove ordered. "Sir, they're trying to cut the corner a bit -- and it could be a problem!"
"Recommendation?" Thaddeus barked.
"Wait until they start spinning up and then change course," Hargrove replied. "He may jump straight in or he may come in close for one final look before he pounces -- and if he does the former, we probably have no shot, but if he does the latter, it'll be close! I have a course here..."
"Execute!" Thaddeus snapped.
"Done!" Hargrove snarled, hammering a button.
"He's spinning up again!" Willis exclaimed. "Gone! Switching the drones to local space ... Emergence! He's right on top of us -- less than a light-minute out!" Willis stopped, frowning. "Multiple ... no ... he's ... Massive energy burst!"
"AI!" Thaddeus barked. "Analysis!"
"Lieutenant Hargrove's solution drove the Hive ship through the singularity's gravity well less than ten kilometers out," the AI announced, "the Hive ship's hyperdrive self-destructed and emergence tore the ship to shreds, detonating the power plant. The ship is destroyed."
Everyone seemed to deflate. Thaddeus sat there for a moment, letting the adrenaline rush of combat flow out of him, then ordered quietly, "Navigator, best speed to Rukabat."
"Aye aye, Sir!" Hargrove, clearly still overcharged, began adjusting his controls.
"Recover the drones, Sensors. Keep an eye on the Hive ship's debris for anything that might be able to come after us..."
"The singularity is already absorbing the Hive ship, Sir," Willis reported. "I doubt that one of their small craft could escape the gravity well."
"Very well. Bring the drones aboard and prep one to make the run to our destination and report our situation," Thaddeus ordered.
Four hours later, Thaddeus was sitting in his day cabin when Willis knocked on the door.
"Enter!" Thaddeus barked.
Willis looked somewhat hangdog. "Sir, about the passengers..."
"I prefer to think of them as cargo," Thaddeus grunted.
"Aye, Sir. As you're aware, we didn't bring concubines because we were headed for the front..." Unspoken was the additional issue that Thaddeus had considered it a bad idea to mix concubines committed to sponsors with 'whores.'
"And?" Thaddeus eyed his sensor officer.
"This last action was pretty hairy and some of the crew are, well, charged up..." Willis grimaced at Thaddeus' frown, but pressed on doggedly. "Now the cruise looks to last a good deal longer than anticipated, what with the whole waiting for a GMU thing..."
Willis didn't know the half of it, Thaddeus realized. The drone had returned from Branson's world well ahead of schedule -- because it hadn't gotten there. There had been a fleet action near a checkpoint between Rukabat and Branson's world, in a system called Gansebat -- six cruisers and escorts against three Hive ships and escorts, the Fleet force attempting to oppose Sa'arm landings. Fleet had won, but it had been costly, and the only two Fleet GMUs in sector were repairing two of the cruisers. Fleet and Fleet Auxiliary were arguing over the advisability of bringing forward a more lightly-armored Fleet Auxiliary asset for the recovery given the fact that the Northern Lights had already been in contact and the Sa'arm seemed to have broken through in sector, making continued occupation of Branson's world somewhat less than cost-effective. Willis hadn't seen this traffic because he and the crew who had handled the Northern Lights' little battle had gone off watch, but the rumor mill would apprise him of part the situation momentarily, no doubt, as his opposite number had collected the drone, and knew at the very least that it was early, if not the content of the secure signal traffic that the AI had decrypted for Thaddeus' eyes only. Since the immediate threat to Rukabat had been handled, there was some discussion of the idea of relocating the R & R site to Rukabat from Branson's World -- which was using a considerable amount of resources in a three-month emergency evacuation now that it had been discovered that the planetoid was just too close to the front. Two more waves of Hive ships were expected at Gansebat -- and none at Rukabat, until and unless three systems closer to the galactic core were successfully settled -- a matter of maybe fifty years' time, in all probability, due to the fact that the stellar neighborhood in this sector was much more heavily populated than the sector that contained Earth, and Rukabat was somewhat resource-poor. Gansebat -- and several other local systems -- were much better targets. 'Too bad Earth is hanging out there virtually all by itself, ' Thaddeus mused to himself. Staving off incursions was a lot harder in areas where there were so few targets for the Sa'arm to choose from -- and besides, it was becoming apparent that they had figured out where the spacefaring pests they were having to deal with came from...
Unaware of Thaddeus' mental diversion, Willis finally dribbled out, "After all, they ARE whores..."
"Ah," Thaddeus caught on. "Looking for a little R & R are we, Willis?"
"Well, yes, sir." Willis was embarrassed, but stuck to his guns. "Nobody shut down anyone's libido, you know?"
Thaddeus settled back, thinking. Nine days to Rukabat. Fleet and Auxiliary HQ were still wrangling. Branson's World was in evacuation -- and likely headed for Rukabat. Chances were that he would be in orbit for a month, minimum, and would have to make landings on Rukabat in order to relieve the crowding in the pods, if nothing else -- and they could be stuck there for three to six months while Branson's World assets were transferred in-system. "AI, how long will it take to repair the Northern Lights given a GMU?"
"Ten days, minimum."
Thaddeus sighed. "Do you have your full complement of concubines, Willis?"
Willis grimaced. "No, Sir. I ... made mistakes at pickup."
Thaddeus grunted. "Not an unusual occurrence." Thaddeus had NO concubines -- he had yet to find a woman he could abide, long-term. He'd been a wet Navy man before being offered pickup at retirement, and women were nice to have as long as all they wanted was your excess semen and the money that did you no good anyway at sea -- but then they started wanting other things ... There was no help for it, apparently -- he would have to do something.
"Very well," he grunted. "Off-duty crew may use VOLUNTEERS in Ring Alpha. Uniforms will not bear insignia of grade, so the..." he stopped himself from saying 'sluts' or 'whores' " ... women can't go gold-digging. AI, I want permission for such liaisons by the female clearly logged in every case!"
"Aye, Captain." The AI was trying out military forms of address this week.
"Thank you, Sir." Willis said formally.
"Dismissed." Thaddeus waved him off.
Things went fairly well on the crew relief front for a week; Thaddeus had the AI open one ring a day to the crew in rotation for their hunt for 'volunteers' to service them. Meanwhile, however, things went steadily downhill on other fronts. By Day Seven after the incident with the singularity and the Sa'arm, Thaddeus was under orders to make orbit around Rukabat IV and wait there for the first wave of transports from Branson's World -- which could take a month. Thaddeus was authorized to deploy pods and to use surface structures... "Oh, and by the way, you're the de-facto Governor of Rukabat IV," Admiral Davies told him. As for repairs to the Northern Lights -- "They're low priority. We're not using a lot of Auroras at this point. Getting the R & R site running is your first priority -- the people doing it on Branson's World couldn't seem to manage to do anything in an expeditious manner."
"Sir, my ship and my crew -- we're stranded out here!" Thaddeus protested. He put together a lengthy, reasoned case for recovery of the vessel and/or transfer of his crew and fired it off.
The drone returned with, "Hmmm. Stranded ... Thirty-six sailors and nine hundred sixty concubines. Think of it as R & R, Westmore. There is a note in your records jacket that says you have NO concubines and NO children. Why don't you take this time to rectify the situation? You need to immerse yourself in your secondary mission to procreate, and you have a target-rich environment there on the Northern Lights. Being governor of the colony there should give you an appreciation for how the other half lives, and provide you with some work-life balance -- give it a shot ... Davies out."
Thaddeus was stewing over this missive when the AI announced, "There is a concubine outside requesting an audience."
"What? From where?" Thaddeus sputtered.
"And how did she get HERE from G-Ring?" Thaddeus rasped.
"Apparently Lieutenant Hargrove authorized the move."
"Get me Hargrove."
"Sir!" The AI put the young Lieutenant on speaker.
"What's this about allowing a concubine to venture all over the ship?" Thaddeus growled.
"Sir, I think you should speak to her. The women know that something is wrong, and, well, rumors are running rampant, you know? If it goes too far, it'll be like herding cats, trying to get them under control..."
"We can lock then in their pods..."
"I really think that some kind of official announcement would ease their minds, Sir."
"That's not your prerogative, Lieutenant!"
"Sir, if you would speak to the woman..."
"Very well -- but no more of this -- understand? We can't have women running amok..."
"Aye, Sir!" Fortunately, Thaddeus didn't have Hargrove on video, so he didn't detect the roll of his eyes. The AI having cut the connection, Thaddeus also didn't hear Hargrove tell the comely redhead on his lap, "That woman has her work cut out for her -- the Skipper really doesn't have much of an idea what women are good for."
"Oh, and you're an expert?" the redhead teased, caressing his cheek.
"I know that there is more to it than 'Slam, bam, thank you Ma'am -- how much was that again? See ya!' If the skipper ever spent more time with a woman than it takes to drop a load in her and pay her for it, nobody on board is aware of it," Hargrove replied. "I don't think the word 'cuddle' is in his personal dictionary." He squeezed the redhead, who squealed and giggled.
"The female remains outside your door," the AI reminded Thaddeus.
Thaddeus released a snort of irritation. "Very well. Enter!"
The door slid open to reveal a strong-featured woman of about forty years, brown hair, not thin but not fat, either -- rather motherly-looking -- and nude.
"AI, replicate this woman a shift!" Thaddeus barked.
"Acknowledged. Execution proceeds."
"Over there!" Thaddeus waved at the replicator inset along one wall of his cabin.
"Does nudity upset you?" the woman asked. "I've about gotten used to it."
"There are times and places," Thaddeus grunted, "and for your purposes, they are most of the time, no doubt, but an appearance before me is a more, ah, formal setting. I prefer not to be distracted."