With the coming of the new supplement, ‘The Dronescourge Returns’, Tim Bancroft has given us a serialised story to fill in the background. Previously, we saw Ghar Commander Shaltok discover the vast ‘Transient Observation Report 563’ was still host to human life and strange looking drones. We continue here with the last installment, chapters 7-8, in which Shaltok seizes – or is forced to seize – an opportunity.
Cables were already being run along the bridges, but immediately outside the control centre Shaltok found an emergency field hospital. ‘What happened?’ he asked, shocked at the number of naval ratings and technicians sitting on the ground and rocking back and forth. Others were just lying on the ground, curled up into a foetal ball, twitching occasionally. Very few had taken damage from the brief battle against the humans and those injured were caring for their unbloodied brethren. Shaltok frowned. ‘Aren’t these all bridge or engineering crew?’ he asked.
Tren dipped his head. ‘Correct, sir. They tried to use the human consoles directly. The interfaces use insane eye-projections suited for PanHuman eyes, retinal-neuronal feedback and brain patterns. They could not use command arrays or any sensible controls.’
‘Controls? I saw almost none other than projections and screens.’
‘Yes, sir. The other controls are projected directly into the operators’ eyes, sir, and the operators are supposed to wave their hands or fingers through them. Perhaps even operate them just by eye movement. An early form of the human’s holocontrols. The problem is that the data transmission is at a speed meant to be mediated by a human-machine subspace, ah, metacomm interface. The Slavemaster believes that because we can’t control it, we can’t slow the feeds down, so our operators could not cope.’ He gestured to the unseeing Ghar around them. ‘Unsurprisingly, they went a little mad. So I stopped the rest from experimenting.’
‘But not until they had worked out what each station does,’ added the Slavemaster. It cringed at a sharp look from Tren.
Shaltok thought of the shaking Ghar around him, all recovering from a human-system induced psychosis. It would take days for them to recover. Why does it work on humans but not on Ghar? We have spinal nerve implants and connections, have no need for crude retinal or indirect input! That, he felt, was the key. So what has Tren got in mind for the humans? He glanced at the Slavemaster-tech, noticed he was shuffling from one foot to the other and glancing at Tren. They have an idea. ‘Can you wire up our combat arrays to the control systems?’ he asked.
‘Not easily, sir. We’d need to sort out an intermediary system first so that our bridge crew could cope.’
Intermediary. Shaltok shuddered as he realised what Tren was suggesting. No wonder he dare not voice it aloud. It’s sickening. ‘Then this is the answer to my question, how the human slaves can help us?’
‘It was built for them at one time,’ said Tren. ‘Of course…’ He shrugged.
‘We’d need crew who can cope with working with human slaves, who can guide them. Operation will be slow.’
‘We have to use the runners until we sort out that box, anyway,’ said Tren, nodding towards the fused cylinder on the central platform.
‘We may be able to adapt the spinal interfaces,’ said the Slavemaster-tech. ‘Take a feed from the humans via an adapted combat array or implant, then…’
Shaltok shivered. ‘Abhorrent,’ he muttered, ‘Sickening.’ He closed his eyes for a moment. ‘And we have no research surgeons or facilities, just field medics.’
Tren looked up. ‘Perhaps we do, sir. The hospital we saw – it has an automated operating theatre.’
‘But for what we want to do?’ asked Shaltok.
‘We can persuade a human to control them, I am sure, sir. We might lose a few in the persuading, but they appear to be susceptible to threats against the ch… ch..’ Tren could not say the abhorrent word aloud. He swallowed. ‘Smaller humans,’ he finished.
This would be a fantastic prize, thought Shaltok. One that Dramak would take from me. He thought for a moment about Dramak’s casual mention of Karg. And he has connections which could ruin me. There was no time to waste – they had no idea when they’d be out of the Antares gate and into the new system. Be decisive! ‘We have hundreds of captives,’ he barked. ‘It may be abhorrent, but we are Ghar. Do it. Fix the ship.’
* * *
The ship emerged from the gate. Sensors showed a planet close to the sun that looked promising in size, but more detailed analysis revealed a roiling, acidic and highly radioactive atmosphere, a barren surface covered in ruins. Around the nearest gas giant were artificial habitats but the ship’s sensors showed them as being cold, damaged, probably abandoned. Because of the direction from which it had erupted from the gate, the ship was in an unpowered, polar orbit round the star, only likely to return back to the gate in a hundred years. Or more. We’re stranded. Dramak may come through after us, but has no idea of our course. It will take a while to locate us.
Shaltok studied the screens, proud at the activities of his Outlaw technicians, the Bearer’s engineers and his armoured squads. They may suspect we are stranded, but still they work. The huge scar across the top of the hull – perhaps from a weapon strike – had severed control lines and destroyed some systems, though power and the engines were still intact. The ship was largely intact, though the Ghar had little chance to explore its huge volume, focusing instead only on what was necessary. They had discovered the cleaning drones, the scavenger drones – though they were shy – and also overgrown flora, even dangerous fauna, in the parks and farms that were dotted around the ship.
Internal comm frequencies were alive with chatter. Ghar combat armour could be used in vacuum, the pressure from the disruptor launchers being particularly useful in guiding the suits and engineers guided the suited troopers as they dragged a web of cabling across the gaping hole in the ship’s topside. ‘You say this will be done within a few days?’ asked Shaltok of the Slavemaster-tech beside him.
‘Probably, sir. We are setting the human slaves to work – under Ghar supervision – and they are proving useful as extra hands, even if their technical knowledge is poor.’ He pointed to one side where the bright arcs of bonding tools showed where others were working. ‘We’re also putting together some work suits for us based on materials we’ve found in the storerooms.’ He shrugged. ‘There may even be enough material to patch the hull.’
‘Are you saying I will have a fully functional and defensible ship?’
‘Yes, sir.’ The Slavemaster hesitated. ‘But if I may speak frankly, sir…’
‘I beg to advise, but we’ve been discussing the situation, the technicians, I mean.’ The Slavemaster-tech took a deep breath. ‘We see a problem with Dramak.’
So it comes. Others can see the problem, too. Shaltok nodded. ‘Thank you, Slavemaster. It had occurred to me. However, we’re far too far from the gate to be easily located.’
‘Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. I mean when everything’s fixed. We think he may cause us problems.’
How could Fartok have encouraged such strategic thinking in technicians? Shaltok nodded in encouragement. ‘Go on. Permission to speak.’
The Slavemaster waved at the work being shown on the screens, the recovering humans connected to Ghar bridge crew as they tested the systems, tried out commands, learnt to interpret the displays. ‘A lot of this is, well, not traditional. I mean, it’s good Ghar work but we fear Dramak is a traditionalist, sir, an antiquated purist, if I may say so. He won’t like this, may take extreme steps…’
‘You are insolent, Slavemaster. You seem to be suggesting Commander Dramak would declare us as having betrayed the Ghar ideal, perhaps court-martial us.’
‘You see my concern, sir. He would kill us immediately.’ The Slavemaster paused. ‘All of us.’
‘I am aware, Slavemaster.’ Shaltok turned back to the displays. Karg’s new empire: Ghar betray each other for favours of the powerful. He sighed. What have we come to? Is Fartok right? That, he could not – would not – believe. There is only one way to ensure our survival, then, ironically using Karg’s new methods against Dramak. He patted the Slavemaster on the head. ‘Do not worry. I have a plan to ensure all our success. Just put the ship back together and under control. Only… make sure you put our comms online last. We will signal the Bearer when we are mobile, armed and at the gate.’
‘This is an abomination!’ snarled Ship Commander Dramak. ‘The merging of damaged human and warped, Ghar technology? Using my reserve watch to do this?’ He whirled round the control centre, gestured angrily at the stations around the perimeter. A maze of cables connected them all: consoles, Ghar and human slaves. At each operable station was a Ghar naval specialist, bridge or engineering crew, wearing their control headset. Rather than be attached to the workstation before them, each crewGhar’s headset and spinal connectors were connected to helmet and cervical implant worn by a human sitting or kneeling beside them.
‘It works, Captain,’ said Shaltok, mildly. ‘That is what is important. We Ghar do the thinking and are in control; the slave is merely operating the invisible consoles or taking in the feedback from the unseen display.’
‘It’s something that mutant Fartok would come up with! We cannot operate ships like mutants.’ He turned on Shaltok. ‘Commander, you are to dismantle this command arrangement immediately and scuttle this ship.’
Shaltok twitched his fingers: Ghar battle sign. The guards on the bridge stiffened, put their fingers on their triggers. ‘The ship is under Ghar control, Dramak. The human slaves are sedated and we have re-established control over the engines using Ghar technology. How do you think we made such a clean rendezvous with you here?’
Dramak spluttered. ‘You are insubordinate, Commander Shaltok!’
Shaltok stepped forward until he was nose-to-nose with Dramak. ‘Captain Shaltok. I am in command of a new Empire ship, the City of Triumph Over Humanity. You are the mere commander of a small troopship.’ He waved towards the displays where the comparatively diminutive Bearer of Triumph was standing off.
Dramak ignored him ‘I will destroy this antique abomination of a starship myself!’
‘You’ll destroy a troopship loyal to the Empire?’ Shaltok smiled. ‘What would Karg say to that? I brought this ship into Ghar control, Commander. My success, my prize, completely lacking your involvement.’ His smile faded and he gestured to his lieutenants, Dobat and Tren. ‘And I have witnesses.’
Dramak stepped back, snapped down his command helmet and almost immediately snatched it off again. ‘There are no communications! Allow me contact with the Bearer.’
‘I cannot,’ said Shaltok, his smile broadening. ‘That’s why I have runners on the bridge.’ He gestured to the eagerly awaiting Outcasts in a group near the iris door. ‘Protocols are clear in this case: I have the more capable ship, damaged or not; you have no option but to accept my command.’
‘Protocols? What protocols? This is a wreck – I will blast you down into nothing!’ Dramak wheeled, strode angrily towards the exit and stopped when he found his path blocked by Shaltok’s troopers. ‘Out of my way,’ he ordered; the troopers stood firm.
‘Commander,’ called Shaltok. ‘You might like to look at this.’ He stared at a display – he was getting the knack of it now – and an image of the Bearer zoomed into focus. ‘Watch.’
Dramak followed his gaze, stepped back in alarm as the display registered his interest. ‘What vileness is this?’
‘I said watch!’ snapped Shaltok. ‘Weapons,’ he called. ‘Target the Bearer. Lock on destructor beams’—no one had any idea what they were really called, but a few asteroids they had targeted were now nothing but dust—‘and lock on docking attractors.’ Targeting symbols appeared on the display.
Dramak swallowed. ‘This is a bluff.’
Shaltok kept his eyes on the display. ‘Ship Commander Dramak 5-94-7, I find you in contempt of orders issued by a field-established superior officer. How do you plead?’
Once more, Dramak took on an indignantly thunderous expression. ‘This is preposterous. You have no proof this is a suitably armed vessel!’ He waved dismissively at the control stations, queasy Ghar working alongside slaves, the humans still with bruises on their necks where wounds from the surgery had not quite healed. ‘Just look at that abomination and human contamination.’ He pointed to Shaltok. ‘Guards, seize that excuse for an officer.’
None of the guards moved.
‘These are my guards, Dramak. Obedient to me.’ Shaltok inclined his head to address the troopers directly. ‘Place the Ship Commander under restraint pending court martial or obeisance.’ Dramak spluttered as his guards stepped forward and seized him by the arms. Shaltok turned to the group of Outcasts. ‘Runner, get a message to hangar bay Sixteen. Have them release one of the smaller hulks.’
One of the Outcasts snapped to attention, a pleased look on his face. He saluted. ‘Sir! Have Bay Sixteen release a hulk.’ He dashed out the door. Shaltok knew they would not have long to wait. All the runner had to do was reach the circumference corridor, signal a semaphore message to the other side of the bridge, and more runners would carry the message to where the interference allowed normal Ghar communications.
Dramak tried to sneer. ‘Such primitive signalling. Runners!’ The words came out as a squeak. ‘You cannot control this wreck!’
Shaltok shrugged. ‘We are already laying down shielded conduit through which we can channel normal communication cables in true Ghar fashion. Until then, I can demonstrate we totally are in control.’ An indistinct speck appeared on the display which expanded and refocused itself to reveal one of the hulks from the landing bay they had first entered. ‘Weapons, destroy the hulk.’
Reticules appeared, lances of blue light flashed out. The hulk exploded into particles so fine that none could be seen on the screen. Dramak swallowed nervously.
‘That was only a tiny subset of my ship’s capabilities, Commander, less than one percent.’ I think. ‘So imagine how much damage we can actually inflict. Weapons,’ ordered Shaltok, ‘Target the Bearer of Triumph IX.’ He faced Dramak, breaking his immersion in the image. ‘Commander Dramak, with your court martial you will almost certainly be found guilty and both your life and those of your remaining crew will be forfeit as mutineers against the Ghar Empire. How do you plead?’
‘Mutineers?’ squeaked Dramak; his lip quivered in terror. He looked round the control centre: there was no sympathy, no support. Dramak jerked himself from the guards and threw himself on the floor. ‘I submit! I prostrate myself!’
‘Formal, please, using the oath. The mutiny charge is still outstanding.’
Dramak hesitated, eyes bulging, then he averted his eyes and lowered his forehead to the floor. ‘I, Ship Commander 5-94-7 Dramak-2, give my formal obeisance to Captain Shaltok 12-41-9 of the City of Triumph Over Humanity. I will obey the orders he issues from his legally, field-established rank of Captain. I am Ghar, we are Ghar and I pledge to fight alongside him to further the will of the Ghar and the Supreme Commander.’ He squirmed.
Shaltok waited a few moments. ‘We are Ghar. You may rise, Commander Dramak. Return to your ship and dock topside of the City of Triumph. We will return to the Empire and your ship will become one of my tenders. Is that understood?’
Dramak clambered to his feet, his head hanging. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Very well, Commander, you may proceed. To success!’
Shaltok watched Dramak scurry away, his unsteady gait betraying his fear. I have achieved success, but at what cost? He will no doubt give a distorted report to Karg, then I may have further problems.
To hide his disquiet, Shaltok put his hands behind his back, rocked back and forward on his heels and surveyed the control centre of the captured ship, his ship, one that would seal his reputation. Even though I have no idea what else might be on board. He pushed the thought from his mind. That’s something to discover. I am a Captain, the rank I am supposed to be. He straightened his shoulders and settled into his command chair.
I have a ship, and I have survived. Guilt nagged for the way he ensured his survival: the operations on the humans, the original failures, then successes and the continued, sickening sight and smell of them on the bridge. Already I have strayed far from the old ways. Realisation struck. I have stepped onto the path Karg follows.
What have I become?
This completes the Taking of TOR 563 but Shaltok’s tale continues when he encounters an old enemy in Ghar Into Exile