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The Hostile Stars

VI. Decision

Burman hurried after the big Marine through the corridors of Rhylanor. Their emptiness was disconcerting; normally, they would be bustling with crewmembers. They did not meet anybody until they came upon two Marines in battle armor guarding one of the ship's portside rec rooms.

The sentries saluted the big Marine smartly, and the door to the rec room dilated. Burman hustled through it just behind the Marine. Inside, scattered about the large, rectangular room on chairs and benches, was most of Rhylanor's command crew. Jasmine hung huge and dim in the center of a picture window that ran the length of the room. Burman saw Captain Moak in one corner, his shoulder being attended to by Sergeant Kelly and a medic. Marines in armor, weapons slung over their backs, bustled about, pointing to a map of the ship displayed on one of the rec room's holodisplays. Some one handed Burman a plastic cup of coffee and he sipped it absently. He hadn't realized how tired he was till now.

The rec room door dilated again and General Darrell and two other Marines stepped into the room. "Is everybody here?" the General barked. "Lokhiarealaw, did you find anybody in Sensors?"

The big Marine had taken off his helmet, revealing the short brown "mane" and russet, feline snout of a large Aslan. Sergeant Loki, as he was called, was one of Rhylanor's platoon sergeants, an outcast from his native clan who had found a career in Imperial service. Darrell was supposedly the only person on the ship who could pronounce his name even close to correctly; human mouths weren't built for Aslan language.

"Just this tech," the Aslan growled. "Everyone else was dead."

"We expected as much. All right, let's get moving on the SitRep."

"What's the status of the boarding parties," said Captain Moak in a whisper.

"Bad," said Darrell. "They really swamped us." He used a laser pointer to indicate sections of the holodisplay while he spoke.

"Zhodani control the Command Bridge and Engineering. They occupy the computer core, and much of amidships. We hold onto this section of portside, and one of the hangar decks."

"Can we bring up the main computer?"

"Yes and no," said a voice from the crowd. A slightly built man of about thirty, with anachronistic spectacles perched on his nose, elbowed his way up to the holodisplay. "We could, but we can't."

"Care to explain, Mister-Asherwall, isn't it?" asked Darrell.

"Yah. Operation Hard Frost worked: we transferred all the command codes, systems files, and intelligence data to compressed files stored in the computer of this rec room. Normally all we would need to do is transfer them back to the core, and bring the system back up. But we can't."


"Because the Zhodani fried the auxilliary core, and are in control of the main and engineering computers! We can talk to both of them, but they've already changed the security codes. So we can't get in to feed the operating files into the core, and they can't find the operating files to restart the computer themselves. Very pretty!"

"Do we have any data on the fleet?" asked Moak.

Loki grumbled, "Sensors was smashed, all the computers fried. There wasn't anything to salvage."
"Do we know if our orbit is stable? Lieutenant, did we establish an escape orbit before the helm went dead?"

The helmsman shook his head slowly. "Can't say for sure, Captain. It was a tricky vector, pretty easy to mess up and put us in Jasmine's atmosphere."

"So we don't know if we're going to burn up, and we don't know how many Zhodani ships are out there. That doesn't leave us many options." He said no more, but the clear implication was surrender-POW camps for most of the crew, reeducation or worse for Moak and his officers...

"Excuse me, Captain," said Burman, quietly. "I think I can answer both questions."

"How's that?"

"I was able to get some data through the solar observatory's telescope. Here..." Burman typed a few commands into his hand computer and the rec room holodisplay changed. "I found these ships near us."

"Two destroyers, a cruiser...that's an Imperial vessel, isn't it?"

"Yes sir, a Scout Survey cruiser. I think they're using it as a communications ship."

"I see. Were you able to calculate our orbit?"

"Yes, I used our estimated range from Gamma. Here's the figures."

The room was quiet. "Seven hours, more or less," said Moak, finally.

"Yes sir. Unless we can boost out of Jasmine's gravity well, we'll burn up by then."

"Which we can't do," said Asherwal, "without the main computer. Captain, what are our options?"

"What do you bloody think they are!" shouted Moak before he could restrain himself. "We don't have any. General Darrell, please have one of your officers see if they can approach the Zhodani to discuss terms-"

"Now, just a minute," said Darrell. "If you think-"

People were arguing with each other, filling the room with uproar. "Why don't you just use GORGIAS?" shouted Burman, trying to make himself heard.

"What was that? Quiet!" shouted Moak. "What did you say, Burman?"

"Why not use GORGIAS to reactivate the core?"
"What in the heavens is that?" said Asherwal.

"It's, it's a program," stammered Burman. "Or rather, it runs programs. It's supposed to be able to absorb and run any program, or almost any. It's good at defeating security measures, and hiding itself."

"Never heard of it," said Asherwal.

"We used it in the Scouts. I think it started as an entertainment program, designed to be able to run any software-doesn't matter how backward or advanced-that you could load into it. People started to add other features to it later. The Scouts tried to stop us from using it for a while; I think that's why it's so good at breaking security and hiding itself inside a computer. We use it to run ships in simulators now. Some people like to keep it in their computer so they can load different packages-survey, communications, and the like."

"I've heard of things like that in the Navy," said Moak thoughtfully, "but nothing with all those features in one program."

"That's odd. I would have thought the Scouts would have shared it."

"It doesn't matter," said Asherwal. "If we had something like that, it would have been killed by Hard Frost."

"We might be able to get it from that Scout cruiser the Zhodani are using," said Burman.

"Don't you think they would have taken it out of their system?" said Asherwal.

"If they knew about...but even if they did, they might not have gotten all of it. Like I said, it's very good at hiding."

Once more the room buzzed with conversation. Captain Moak stood up painfully. "TEN-SHUT!" roared Sergeant Loki.

"Thank you," said the Captain. "I think the decision is obvious."

He looked around the room. "We attack!"

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