The Genetic Menace
Click on image to enlarge.
by Robert E. Vardeman
Category: Science Fiction
Description: BOOK 2 OF THE STAR FRONTIERS TRILOGY
Pier Norlin and his misfit crew aboard the Empire warship Preceptor have scored the first victory over the mysterious invading Alien Death Fleet. The Fleet destroys the life on entire planets, then loots them of anything of value. Norlin has one small advantage other ships of the Empire lack: he has a captured alien energy weapon. But even this energy cannon is worthless against the waves of decadence flowing from the Emperor's Court where the magnitude of the threat is ignored.
Rebellion is brewing among the frontier worlds and Norlin finds his sympathies increasingly lie with them although his pledge of honor as an officer is to maintain and defend the Empire against all enemies. Even among his own crew he finds rebellion.
In spite of opposition from his superiors and the deadly power of the Alien Death Fleet, Norlin leads the Preceptor to victory after victory...until he encounters a foe he is powerless to fight. The Genetic Menace is an unstoppable force he cannot oppose.
eBook Publisher: Zumaya Publications/Zumaya Otherworlds, 2010 2010
eBookwise Release Date: April 2010
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [264 KB]
Reading time: 159-222 min.
Sub-Commander Pier Norlin sat in the automated command chair of the Preceptor and tried to believe everything that had happened. He now captained a Nova Class cruiser, the fastest, deadliest vessel the Empire Service had in space. This command had been his reward for saving the world of Sutton II from marauding aliens' Death Fleet.
He shuddered at the memory of the vicious, bloody battle on-planet.
Norlin turned in his command chair and tipped his head to one side, playing the field of toggles and touch switches on the chair's arm like a musical instrument. The heads-up display flashed once. He blinked several times and brought up the life-size holo image of the spider-like furry-legged alien they had killed on Sutton. The spindly arms and puny hands, the hard carapace stronger than battle armor, the high-domed forehead and large dark compound eyes made it difficult to believe it was a dangerous enemy and not an oversize bug.
This insignificant fragile creature, with its comrades, had devastated planet after human-colonized planet. Their Death Fleet scouts infiltrated a system and sabotaged celestial-approach warning sensors, then swooped down and destroyed all planetary life with their devastating radiation cannon and other energy weapons. When life had been exterminated, they landed automated looting devices that stripped the annihilated world of anything of value.
"You're looking at it again. That's not good," came a gravelly voice.
Norlin turned as a large black cat jumped into his lap. He gripped the back of the corpulent feline's neck to keep its questing paws from touching the sensitive controls. Even though most of the controls were keyed to human fingers, the cat might accidentally find the proper sequence that would damage the Preceptor seriously.
"Keep Neutron down in the engine room, will you, Lt. Barse?" Norlin made a face. The cat curled up in his lap and released a cloud of methane flatulence fierce enough to require everyone in the control room to turn away. "And stop feeding him so much protein."
"He eats what he likes."
"That's why he's so fat." Norlin hefted the bulky cat and handed it back to his engineer.
"I meant it about not dwelling on that." The short, stocky woman pointed at the vidscreen where Norlin still displayed the image of the spidery alien. "We've shown that we can beat them. Don't get yourself twisted around worrying about battles we haven't fought. You'll start wondering if we can do it again--and then we'll be blown into dust."
"Vaporized is closer to it," Mitri Sarov, the tactical officer, said. "Their radiation cannon work far better than anything we have. Our missiles have proven surprisingly ineffective against their heavier ships. They know how to armor and protect, the clever bug bastards."
Norlin smiled crookedly. The alien Death Fleet had given up one of their cannon--without knowing it. He and Tia Barse had salvaged the deadly weapon and installed it on the Preceptor. Although it caused grave problems when fired, draining their energy reserves to dangerous levels, it had proven itself more than a match for the aliens' top war vessels.
"Know your enemy," he said. "That's what we have to face. Admiral Bendo told us to go after them."
"The man's got vacuum for brains," muttered Chikako Miza, the ship's communications officer. "All he has to do is sit in his buried command center and fling orders around. We are the ones who have to die trying to obey them."
Barse snapped, "If you don't like it, why didn't you stay on Sutton? The admiral said he needed a com officer."
Miza shrugged, her face an emotionless mask. The sensors woven through her dark, stiff scalplock winked on and off as data relayed throughout the Preceptor's bulk. Norlin wondered how the woman coordinated all the information flowing through her head and across her com board. He had seen her do the work of six at the height of combat. He wished he had a dozen like her, in spite of her cynical attitude.
"We are ordered," came Sarov's gruff, booming voice. "We obey. We are in the Empire Service. To die for our glorious Emperor Arian is all we know." The trenchant sarcasm in his voice made Miza's seem mild in comparison.
"Enough of this," Norlin barked. "We are all officers. Liking the emperor isn't required for us to do our duty."
"Just as well," grumbled Miza as her sensor lights flared all the colors of the rainbow. "He's a fool. He's worse than Bendo. Arian never strays from Earth and his Crystal Throne."
"If that were all, I could take it better," said Barse, warming to the criticism of the emperor. Norlin knew she came from a world with strong rebel tendencies. He hoped she kept them in check. He was not going to allow a mutiny on his first real command.
"The genhanced simps he sends out are too much for me to stomach. Look what happened when one commanded the Preceptor. He damned near killed us all!"
To this Norlin had no reply. Barse knew he couldn't disagree, either. The genetically enhanced court surrounding the emperor showed flashes of genius, but it was always an unstable genius. Captain Pensky had commanded the Preceptor for a short time and had almost destroyed an entire star system--and them.
"We have our orders. If we're not doing it for the Empire Service, let's pretend we're doing it out of some sense of compassion for billions of other humans," he said, tired of their bickering. He closed his eyes and shut off the heads-up display for a moment when his first officer came into the control room.
The others in the Preceptor's crew were competent--and all knew it. Gowan Liottey might carry the rank of second in command, but his abilities were clearly the least of those present. His pale-blue eyes looked watery and weak to Norlin. As cruiser commander, he tried to be fair, but Lt. Liottey was not his choice as first officer. Barse or Sarov were better choices from the criteria of ability and knowledge. For all her bitterness, Miza outclassed Liottey, too.
If pressed, Norlin knew he would have chosen the ship's cat before the sandy-haired, effeminate Liottey.
"How are we breathing?" he asked, Liottey in an attempt to make polite conversation. His readouts showed the current status of the ship's environmental systems.
"Life support systems are fully functional," the lieutenant reported.
"That's a relief," Barse said, sotto voce. "I'd hate to breathe vacuum and not know it."
"Engineer Barse, you have work to do. I see the shift engines are at less than one hundred percent efficiency. Mister Sarov, see to the weapons systems. When we shift back into normal space, we are going hunting for aliens. Commander Miza, monitor all com frequencies for alien chatter."
Norlin gave them busy-work to free up a few minutes with his first officer. "Mister Liottey, step over here."
The officer moved to a spot in front of the command chair. Norlin flipped a toggle and shut off this area from prying ears. He knew Chikako Miza could listen in if she desired; he had yet to stop her from eavesdropping with her clever gadgets. The impression of privacy was more important than anything else for what he had to say.
"I'm new to command," Norlin started, forming his thoughts carefully. "We've been through a great deal since I came aboard the Preceptor. We'll see much more combat before this ship is decommissioned."
"Sir, I'm doing my best."
"I realize that, Mister Liottey. What I want is more from you. I want more than your best. If we don't work as a completely functioning team on this ship, we'll never be arguing over whether we'll end up plasma or dust--we'll be dead."
"Hear me out. More than our lives depends on how well we fight the aliens. Entire colonies must be defended."
"We can't do it alone."
"And we won't. We're doing it together." Norlin knew he wouldn't get zero-defects work from his first officer. He wouldn't even get flashes of brilliance, as he did from the others. The best Norlin could hope was for the first officer not to be responsible for their demise.
"Sir, are we going to engage soon?" asked Liottey.
"We're almost ready to shift back into normal space," Norlin said, checking his readouts. "There is every reason to believe the Renfro II system is next for invasion."
He found it impossible to keep the hardness from his voice. So many planets had been laid to waste--and so many lives lost. He forced himself to think of Neela Cosarrian--as she had been before the aliens invaded, not the emaciated husk she had become because of their attack. It had been for the best leaving her body in the cleansing fire of his rocket exhaust as he left.
"I need time to work on the escape system," Liottey said. "We can't get away from the Preceptor if we're hit."
"What's wrong with the escape system?"
Liottey looked confused, out of his depth. "I'm trying to find out why the firing mechanisms don't function on the escape tubes."
Norlin tipped his head to the left and got a complete readout on the escape tubes. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
"I've been working on it, sir."
Norlin had few options open to him but to continue, knowing they had no way of getting free of the cruiser if hit. He tried to tell himself it didn't matter. The aliens were efficient and hunted down the smallest fragments from an enemy ship to insure that nothing lived.
"I can't monitor every system on this ship, Gowan," Norlin said, trying to keep the anger from showing. "That's why there are engineers, com officers, tactical weapons officers...and life maintenance officers. If you needed help, you should have asked for it. We have to work together. We're a crew--a team."
"I thought I could handle it myself," Liottey said sullenly.
"Barse will do what she can to help, if you ask her. See to it immediately. We shift out in one hour," he said. "I want the system working by then."
"What's the difference?" came Chikako Miza's voice in his helmet. "The aliens blow up even the smallest debris. Their radiation cannon are deadly against unprotected vessels. We'd never make a planet landing in those anodized coffins."
"Commander Miza, you have work to do--other than spying on me." Norlin savagely hit the toggle opening the area to full observation. To Liottey he said, "Dismissed."
Before the first officer had vanished from the control room, Norlin's headphone crackled with static, and Tia Barse said, "I don't have time to play nursemaid. I'm going to let Neutron help him. The cat's a better engineer than Gowan will ever be."
He slumped in the command chair. Aboard this ship there were no secrets--except from him, it seemed. He had so much to learn about the dynamics of society and command on a ship.
Heaving a deep sigh, he turned back to the controls. Sarov put up several different attack simulations on the vidscreen. He worked through them carefully, noting problems and strengths, trying to evaluate alien psychology. By the time Barse signaled that the engines had started cycling the Preceptor back into normal space, Norlin had done what he could to program his combat computer with a half-dozen different tactical plans.
"Contact," came Chikako Miza's sharp voice. "The Death Fleet is here. They've already formed an attack pattern!"
"Contact," reported Mitri Sarov, an instant later. "Locking on. Plan three in effect." The tactical officer laid down an array of missiles across a volume of space, some set to explode immediately and others that would lie doggo until they locked onto a target.
Norlin's heads-up display flared with numbers and images. He kept scaling down until he was able to take in the battle unfolding around them without drowning in details. What he saw filled him with dread. The Death Fleet had followed its standard attack strategy. Scouts crept into the Renfro II system and replaced the sensors on the perimeter designed to detect potentially dangerous incoming space debris. An undetected comet or planetesimal colliding with a civilized world would kill billions.
The aliens replaced the sensors with their own. No alien ship appeared on the controllers' screens until it was too late to mobilize an effective defense.
In too many cases, Norlin had seen this cautious approach wasn't even needed. Human defenses took too long to initiate. Too many layers of bureaucracy had to be filtered through to get permission to open fire. The aliens had wiped out humanity on each planet they attacked--until they reached Sutton II. They had been stopped there.
Norlin vowed to stop them here, too.
He checked the Preceptor's sensors and tried to interpret what he saw. Sarov continued to follow the plan he had programmed, but Norlin failed to see the immediate danger. Only when the heavy cruiser's warning lights flashed and almost blinded him did he know his weapons' officers instincts had been better than his--or the Preceptor's sensors.
"Coming at us from behind our flare," Sarov said. "I don't know how they positioned so quickly."
"They monitored our shift," said Miza. "I got passive checks fifteen seconds ago. They know we're here, and they'll have active probes on the way soon."
Norlin cursed. Fifteen seconds reaction time? Was that all it took the enemy to detect, position and lock onto them? The Preceptor's systems took longer than that to adapt from the precipitous change from shift space to normal four-dimensional space.
"Damage negligible to all systems," came Sarov's report. "Inertial platforms turning to meet second wave attack."
Norlin felt helpless. He had approved the computer battle plans. All he could do now was sit and wait and watch.
The speed of light was almost too slow to keep up with the frantic pace of lasartillery firing, of missiles launching, of automatic preparation to use the captured radiation cannon. He shook himself and narrowed the input data stream to his display again, focusing on Chikako Miza's communications reports.
The alien vessel was small, yet it gave them more than their share of trouble. Half a dozen internal systems had failed during the first assault. Norlin ignored the failures and concentrated on the parts that had made it through unscathed. The Preceptor still functioned and fought well enough to survive.
"They're not budging," came Miza's calm, almost mechanical voice. The sensors woven into her tall, stiff scalplock flickered on and off faster than Norlin could focus on them. Whatever information they gave allowed her to keep up with the ever-changing conditions both inside the Preceptor and outside among the alien Death Fleet.
"The bugs came up right on our tail. They're locked onto us and firing."
Norlin switched to the weapons display and saw that the solitary attacking alien scout vessel had changed tactics. As long as their rocket flare pointed toward the enemy ship, missiles locked on easily and were difficult to destroy in flight.
"We're swinging around," he announced. "Let's get some hardware into play." A half-dozen of the Preceptor's missiles blew apart a new wave of torpedoes from the alien scout. "Tia, how's the radiation cannon?"
"Do we have to use it?" she asked. "It puts us down for too long. We'd need at least a day to recharge. Maybe more, if we're not lucky."
Norlin checked the battle's progress and decided not to use the captured cannon. Miza had detected another alien scout ship less than twenty light-minutes away. It could reach them at sub-light speed before they could recharge and prepare for another assault.
The ship seemed to slide, as if it were a wheeled giant and had slipped in mud. Norlin touched a private com link and spoke directly to his first officer.
"Forget the escape tubes. Get an RRU to work on the hull. We're leaking like a damned sieve."
"I've already got a robot repair unit at work, sir," came Liottey's whining voice. "It's not working fast enough to keep up with the damage we're taking."
"Put another one to work, then. Keep us airtight." Norlin savagely toggled off. He needed a new second-in-command. Gowan Liottey left everything to chance.
While Sarov worked on the immediate problem of defeating the alien scout, Norlin turned his attention to the second ship. Communication between elements of the Death Fleet was minimal before an attack to prevent humans from overhearing. During an attack, they coordinated perfectly. He tried to determine if this scout was in contact with any other.
Pier Norlin tapped in a new tactical plan to deal with the distant scout ship, if it bothered to come to its companion's aid. The Preceptor shuddered as an array of missiles launched. He blanketed the intervening space with a statistically perfect web of slowly patrolling low-power high-explosive missiles. If the alien joined the attack, it would find itself under attack from all quarters.
Satisfied, he turned his attention back to the current battle. He swore under his breath when he saw how the Preceptor's condition had worsened. A missile had penetrated their defensive array and ruptured the hull near the radiation cannon nodule. The weapon was still functional, but reaching it without a spacesuit would be impossible.
"Liottey, get another RRU to work. Put a dozen to work, if that's what it takes."
"Let me do it, Cap'n," came Barse's voice in his ear. "Gowan is making matters worse with his dumb programming. I tell you, the cat can do a better job."
"Let Neutron do it, then. Get those air leaks fixed." Norlin watched nervously as Barse sent her engine room RRUs forward into the damaged area. The control room had its own shielding and air supply and could survive even if most of the cruiser were destroyed. What worried Norlin was losing the capability offered by the radiation cannon.
"Plan three is failing, two sigma probability of defeat within the hour."
"Recommendation?" he snapped at his tactical officer. Sarov punched in a new program. Norlin approved it after a cursory examination. He had faith in the man's abilities.
"One strike on enemy," came Miza's voice. Norlin checked his heads-up display and saw damage estimates. The alien scout ship wasn't totally out of commission, but a second direct hit would destroy it. He watched the vidscreen as three of the Preceptor's missiles struck simultaneously.
"Enemy defeated," came Sarov's stolid, emotionless voice. "Checking weapons systems in anticipation of second scout ship attacking."
Norlin ran the battle recording through his tactical computer and made alterations to the expert system program that had guided them originally. Only through continual updating could they hope to defeat the Death Fleet. The aliens had superior firepower, battle coordination and--usually--the element of surprise. That didn't leave much but innovation as Norlin's primary weapon.
The Preceptor had left the battle in good shape. The other alien ship would prove no more difficult an obstacle.
"Chikako, contact the Renfro Port Authority and warn them of the Death Fleet's presence. Tell them their perimeter sensors are not to be trusted. Have them go to laser radar and optical observation. The usual warning."
"Yes, sir, lidar and opticals. Message sent."
Norlin sank back in his command chair. He adjusted his display to pick up the Renfro II response. His stomach turned over when he saw it. He was already punching in a direct com-link by the time Chikako Miza relayed the answer.
"They don't believe there is any danger, sir."
"Just like the other systems," he said grimly. "How can we make them believe us?"
"Scout ship on intercept course," broke in Sarov. "Estimated time for battle--one hour."
It never changed. Pier Norlin did what he could to convince the Port Authority of their plight. That usually proved to be the more difficult battle to fight.
The Empire Service's heaviest cruiser barely defeated the smallest scout ship in the Death Fleet--again. Only then did Norlin set course for the space station circling Renfro II and the never-ending battle with bureaucracy.