Stand at Cornith by P.M. Griffin by P.M. Griffin - Read Online

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Federation Navy Chief Admiral Jack Dundee is sent to the planet Cornith for medical R&R following intense combat in space, but he finds little rest. Beginning with a near disaster at the planeting field minutes after setting down, Dundee and his comrades, Lieutenant Mike Sandpiper and Stellar Patrol Colonel Sybil Hunt, face death from difficult spacers, aberrant winds, and enormous waves. Even more terrifying is their discovery of a massive Arcturian invasion armada whose size and power will ensure the Federation’s utter defeat in the decades-long War should it reach their ultrasystem intact. With only thirty-four small Stellar Patrol ships and armed civilian freighters at his disposal, he must draw upon ancient naval tactics and perfect timing to delay the attacking force until the help he has summoned is able reach them. Can even the brilliant and famed Gray Jack Dundee pull it off?

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Science Fiction by P.M. Griffin

Federation Navy Chief Admiral Jack Dundee is sent to the planet Cornith for medical R&R following intense combat in space, but he finds little rest.  Beginning with a near disaster at the planeting field minutes after setting down, Dundee and his comrades, Lieutenant Mike Sandpiper and Stellar Patrol Colonel Sybil Hunt, face death from difficult spacers, aberrant winds, and enormous waves.  Even more terrifying is their discovery of a massive Arcturian invasion armada whose size and power will ensure the Federation’s utter defeat in the decades-long War should it reach their ultrasystem intact.  With only thirty-four small Stellar Patrol ships and armed civilian freighters at his disposal, he must draw upon ancient naval tactics and perfect timing to delay the attacking force until the help he has summoned is able reach them.  Can even the brilliant and famed Gray Jack Dundee pull it off?

Stand at Cornith © 2014 by P.M. Griffin

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, or events, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

MuseItUp Publishing

14878 James, Pierrefonds, Quebec, Canada, H9H 1P5

Cover Art © 2014 by Charlotte Volnek

Edited by Christine I Speakman

Copy edited by Greta Gunselman

Layout and Book Production by Lea Schizas

eBook ISBN: 978-1-77127-558-3

First eBook Edition *July 2014

To Margaret Choffel,

a good friend and loyal, observant reader.

STAND AT CORNITH

P.M. GRIFFIN

MuseItUp Publishing

www.museituppublishing.com

Chapter One

Forward lasers, fire!

Too soon! Federation Chief Admiral Jack Dundee’s blue eyes flashed toward the speaker, but he said nothing. A starship’s master had complete authority over her and her equipment. Brice was an experienced combat officer, and he knew his vessel. It was his right and his duty to fight her as he deemed best. Dundee’s own job was to fight the fleet.

He would not be able to do that if he was blown to stardust in the next few minutes along with everyone and everything else aboard the Terra’s Charm, he thought grimly.

The Terran studied their opponent through the near-space viewer screen. She was not a comforting sight. The Arcturian warcraft was a full battleship, five thousand-class like the Charm and basically her equal in the power of her armaments and defenses. It would require skill and sound judgment, quickness of thought and quickness of response on the part of captain and gunners, on the part of the entire crew, to take that monster down. Or for her to take them down. Brute force alone would not give either side the victory.

They were in the opening stages of the duel, feeling each other out, observing, testing the strength of one another’s firepower and screens, probing the skill of the gunners. So far, it was a draw. No hits on either side. This would be the first big barrage and might well end what everyone knew could only be a temporary immunity.

Combat in space always began somewhat in this manner, at least among participants large enough to mount pletzars. Those were the strongest weapons in both ultrasystems’ arsenals, but the charges in the banks were finite. No captain would squander his store needlessly, certainly not while lasers had a good hope of accomplishing the same deadly work more economically.

A wave of nervousness thrilled through the Chief Admiral. They were capable enough of wreaking awesome havoc with any starship. He should know just how much havoc after spending the better part of the last twenty-nine years facing them.

The laser phase of combat, though coordinated from the bridge, was very much the individual gunners’ battle. Each soldier had to select his or her target, decide how broad a beam to use, and determine when to fire and to cease firing. An error in judgment could prove fatal, to himself and to his vessel. Lasers could not operate through their own ship’s defenses. At the moment of discharge, the screens covering the firing port had to be deactivated to permit passage of the bolt. They remained open until the burst of slaying light was withdrawn. During that span of time, from the start of a laser’s attack to the resealing of its defenses, brief though it usually was, the port was vulnerable to invasion. Enemy marksmen would attempt to send their beams back along the line of light. If one of them succeeded in getting through before the protecting screens could be reset, the firing bay was gone. Normally, the gunner inside went with it.

So did any starship smaller than a twenty-class. Larger vessels could sustain a number of such strikes, but eventually the wild energy of some hit would punch through to a critical system, and the ship would be compelled to retire or would die outright.

Dundee watched the streaks of blue light tearing out from his flagship on their mission to batter the enemy battleship.

Most, if not all, glanced off her screens. If any made it through to their targets, they did no hurt sufficient to disrupt the Redjackets’ fight.

The response seemed almost instantaneous. A massive salvo roared against the Charm, literally encasing her prow in furious light as the beams probed for some weakness, some minute hole in her barely closed screens.

Red lights flashed on a console to his right.

Bays forty and forty-two out, Lieutenant Hortense Mbunda reported mechanically. She spoke briefly into her shipboard transceiver. The damage has been contained—

A blast ripped through the bridge’s interior wall even as a third light sparked to life on the Amazoonan’s board.

No flames accompanied it, but the force of it and the debris flying with it threw the occupants to the deck, those who had not instinctively flattened in the first nanosecond of trouble.

Something long and hard smashed into the admiral’s arm near the right shoulder, sending a shock of pain through him and driving him back and down. His head slammed against the drive control console…

* * * *

Gray Jack Dundee held onto a spark consciousness by sheer force of will and fought his way out of the black-and-red vortex that filled his mind and senses.

The world around him cleared a bit. He started to lever himself up on his arms only to fall back again with a yelp. A snapped bone…

He gasped as a surge of vertigo gripped him, setting everything reeling and swaying dangerously around him. His stomach churned violently, but he swallowed the sour slime rising into his throat and battled his body back under his control once more.

Jack squinted, trying to clear his eyes. His eye. The left one was swollen shut.

The bridge came back into acceptable focus. He was on the deck near the command console. There was a puddle of blood beneath him, his apparently. An exploratory touch with his good hand revealed warm wetness and a deep tear in his scalp. The fingers came away red.

He looked around, taking care not to move his head too abruptly. There was no chaos on the bridge despite the evidence of damage. Replacements filled the places of several of the soldiers who had occupied those posts minutes before.

Permit me to assist you, sir.

Dundee glanced up. The Communications Officer, Lieutenant Mike Sandpiper, was standing above him, his oddly round eyes radiating concern. The light reflecting off the fine scales of his head, face, and neck sent a stab of pain through the admiral’s head, and he looked away hurriedly.

Brice? Jack asked through clenched teeth.

Broken neck, sir, and the top’s sheared off his head. He’s alive. The renewer’ll take care of it.

Give me a hand up and plop me in the command chair.

You’re bleeding profusely, Admiral!

Scalp wounds are messy.—Haul me to my feet, will you? If I try it myself, I’ll just land back on my face.

Aye, sir. Sandpiper wondered if he could manage to do it should his commander prove unable to assist in the process. The Terran was tall in proportion to his stocky build, and Lemura’s race was both short in stature and slight.

I’ll help, Hortense told them. An ugly-looking gash marred the Damage Control Officer’s ebony cheek, but pressure had slowed the bleeding to a trickle, and she ignored the wound. A session with the renewer would repair it fast. In the meantime, this was no time to be making a pet of herself.

Amazoon’s offspring were big, and they were strong. Mbunda lifted the admiral with apparent ease and half-carried him to the command chair. Despite his injuries, she did not argue against his intention of assuming control of the Terra’s Charm.

Jack felt a surge of pride in his crew. That the bridge had taken damage was obvious, but the debris had already been cleared away and everything was fully operational. There had been casualties. None of the most severely injured were still present. They had been given preliminary care here and then rushed to Sick Bay for more complete treatment. The battleship had continued her fight despite the blow to her command center and appeared to be waging it well.

Damage? he demanded.

Contained, Hortense assured him. Bay thirty-nine is gone. The bolt taking it out is the one that hit us. Bay twenty was blown soon after. Nothing since.

The Redjackets?

We’ve put our teeth in them, Sandpiper informed him. We got the lasers that got us and a couple of others besides.

Deaths?

The gunners in the destroyed bays, Mbunda reported. Captain Shu was the only one on the bridge. There were some significant injuries, however.

We were lucky this time. It could’ve been worse. —Make a log note that I am ordering the shielding around the bridge area strengthened on all Federation battlecraft, Dundee instructed.

Aye, sir.

While he was speaking, the Chief Admiral’s eyes scanned the instruments and the near-space viewer to gauge the progress of the battle, the Charm’s and that of his fleet as a whole.

The space around them was full of starships, living vessels and the occasional rapidly dissipating ball of incandescent dust that marked the place where some unfortunate battlecraft had met her end. Everywhere, duels such as that in which the Terra’s Charm was engaged were in progress. A number of temporarily unchallenged ships were scouting for new opponents after having triumphed in their previous encounters. To his relief, most of them appeared to be Federation.

A man raced onto the bridge, Starship Captain Herman Brice. He gave a sketchy salute. Take over the ship, sir?

Are you fit? Brice’s tunic was saturated with drying blood.

Aye, Admiral, I am now. He had been near to death when he had been carried down to Sick Bay and still felt the effects of shock, which the renewer could not entirely eliminate in so short a span of time, but he knew he was needed here. Dundee had to be free to direct the fleet.

Grab another chair, Gray Jack told him. I’m better off holding to this one for a while. If he could hold to it. He felt weak and sick, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep the dizziness at bay. He would be on the deck soon, whatever his will to the contrary. Pletzar screens to full power!

Brice and several others turned to the Chief Admiral in surprise. Their eyes widened as they fell on the viewer screen. Three enemy one thousands were bearing down on the Federation flagship’s tubes.

Spirit of Space, Hortense muttered. All else was still. Even the Terra’s Charm could not fight odds like this and win.

Ignore them, the captain ordered. Just keep our screens up. Concentrate on the big bastard.

Dundee nodded to himself. Corcoran, the Charm’s previous master, had been a good officer, but Herman Brice was even better. It never ceased to amaze him that the man intended to waste that talent and use his family contacts to break into ultrasystem-level politics as soon as he left the Navy at the end of his present enlistment.

The captain’s order was the correct one, but their situation was critical, or it would soon become so. The Charm could not fight four such foes simultaneously, but neither could she simply try to defend against them. Her screens could not sustain the pressure of their attacks indefinitely. They all recognized that. He glanced around the bridge. Mbunda’s eyes were already fixed on her instruments, not watching for a breached laser port now but for the first, inevitable indication that the Terra’s Charm’s screens were beginning to weaken. She would not have to wait long for it.

The Terran studied the battle raging beyond his flagship. It appeared to be going well, praise the Spirit of Space. Even more Federation ships had disposed of their opponents and were seeking new opportunities to fight.

Sandpiper, give me fleet communication here, he ordered.

I have already done so, sir.

Jack’s fingers touched the controls. Dundee here. His voice was quiet, as if he were doing no more than engaging in conversation. "Anyone looking for something useful to do might give the Terra’s Charm a bit of a hand."

Immediately, two Federation one thousands swung about and streaked to their flagship’s aid. A five thousand sped in from the starboard to join them.

The three recently arrived Redjacket vessels ceased their attack on the Charm and braced themselves to meet this new assault.

The five thousand-class swept down on the nearest of them, her pletzars blazing. The enemy battleship’s screens held for several minutes against the flood of furious energy battering them, then they failed, and light filled the space where she had been.

Her companions broke off their battle. They did not flee outright, but they beat a fighting retreat, their tormentors right on their fins.

The crew of the Terra’s Charm concentrated once more on the big Arcturian. The two enemy starships blasted away at each other. Energy poured from the pletzar banks, dimmed, and blazed again in seemingly random patterns as each strove to shatter the other’s defenses.

Dundee watched tensely while Brice directed the battleship’s fight. The captain was good and the crew was good, but so were the Arcturians. The issue could go either way.

Pletzars, unlike the older lasers, were fired through their own ship’s screens, which were bonded to them, assuring an uninterrupted barrier to an enemy’s weapons. As long as the screens remained sound, nothing could reach the vessel they guarded, but once they were breached, once that violent energy found any opening at all, however minute, and succeeded in exploiting it, destruction was well-nigh instantaneous, and it was total.

The guards could hold almost indefinitely against a steady attack. By varying the pressure, cutting the power and then reactivating it abruptly, hitting the same place again and yet again, the screens could eventually be broken, either punched through or forced apart at their seams, conclusively finishing the contest. With equally matched opponents such as these, the outcome was normally dictated by the skill and judgment of the officers commanding the battle, the gunners manning the individual banks, and the crewmen monitoring and managing the screens. Sometimes, both vessels died.

The end came suddenly. There was a slight unevenness, a blurring, in the enemy’s screens. A breath later, they were gone, and a glory of blazing dust expanded rapidly outward from the place where the great warcraft had been.

The victors’ eyes shut as the glaring splendor of the explosion filled the viewer. It appeared in that first instant of destruction that a flare from an otherwise invisible sun had reached out to sear them.

Jack’s functioning eye teared and smarted as it struggled to adjust to a universe that seemed to consist of light only.

In the next instant, darkness as deep as the space between the stars closed in about him.

Chapter Two

When awareness returned once more, the Chief Admiral found himself in the sterile whiteness of a Sick Bay cubicle.

He ran a quick check on himself and smiled in satisfaction. Binocular vision restored and clear, scalp sound, headache, vertigo, and nausea gone, arm whole. The healing ray had worked its usual magic.

The renewer was one of medicine’s greatest discoveries, providing almost instantaneous complete regeneration of recently damaged or destroyed skin, muscles, blood vessels, even nerves and bone. Only the organs of the chest and abdominal cavities could not be so repaired. Those required treatment with the much newer and far more complex regrowth equipment.

At the War’s beginning, only a few of the greatest experimental hospitals could support the then-massive renewer systems, but development had progressed quickly until they had become standard equipment on every major battleship, and then on medium-class vessels as well. At this point, every battlecraft of one hundred-class or greater and many even smaller vessels boasted one. Only the real monsters, the one thousands and five thousands, could as yet support a regrowth center.

Jack closed his eyes again with an inward sigh. The ray could not immediately remove the shock and weariness left over from a major wound. Of course, he was always more-or-less tired…

That head injury had been serious. He had seen enough combat damage to recognize its gravity. He had been fortunate again.

The Terran felt no elation over that fact. He simply pondered it and wondered how much longer he could expect Fortune to continue favoring him. He had been embroiled in this bloody War for a seeming eternity now, for more than twenty-nine years. There had been some clash with the Arcturian forces on the average of every three to five weeks for the entire duration of that time. Some of the confrontations had been small. Most had been major battles, fleet against fleet, armada against armada. Soldiers had perished in their thousands and ten thousands in each of them. In three, more than one hundred thousand Federation men and women, and an equal or greater number of their foes, had died, the bulk of them along with the battlecraft they had manned. He flung his arm across his eyes. His turn had to come at some point…

Easy, sir. The physician assistant on ward duty had been keeping an eye on him and, upon seeing him move, had hastened to the cubicle’s entrance. Doctor Tuck has ordered that you are to remain quiet until he’s had a chance to talk to you. He hesitated. I can insert tubes for your comfort if you feel the need of them.

Dundee glared at him. He groped for and activated the bed’s patient control to raise himself to a sitting position. Young man, anyone coming near me with tubes had better be prepared to eat them.

Norman Tuck arrived at that moment. Now, Admiral, don’t be terrifying my staff.

Jack looked at the broadly grinning PA. The blackguard doesn’t look in the least terrified.

He’s quaking inside. —You can go now, Hal. I need to speak with Admiral Dundee.

The battle? the Federation leader asked, although the manner of his two attendants proclaimed that it was going well.

Victory. The sons turned tail a few minutes after you left the scene. That was about four hours ago.

Dundee frowned. They took off that soon?

It was an ordered retreat, not a route. We kept after them until they shifted into warp speed, then Colonel O’Malley called off the chase in case we were being lured into a trap.

Good for Lucy. The same thought would’ve crossed my mind. It was too soon— He frowned again, then shook his head and looked up. And my stay in your domain has been too long.

You had an eye swollen shut, a split scalp, a broken arm, and a concussion that could have killed you. It almost did.

Rot! The renewer would’ve taken care of all that in a matter of minutes.

I didn’t like the readings I was seeing. Since the fight was over, I decided to keep you under a light sedative until I could run a few tests in peace and get the results, the other man explained.

Really? Jack did not sound either appreciative or amused. That looks pretty damn presumptuous from my bridge.

Not from mine, Norman Tuck informed him. You’d managed to miss your physical for the past four years. I gave you one while I had the chance. —When was the last time you had a furlough longer than one week?

When I went on my honeymoon.

What about a whole week off-duty?

I don’t know. Five, six years. Jack scowled. What’s this about?

That’s about what I figured, the other replied. How much leave does the Navy owe you?

About ten years, he growled.

Well, you won’t have to sacrifice any of it. You’re taking a one-month mandatory emergency medical leave now.

It’s a long voyage back to Hedon, Dundee protested. I have no intention of riding as so much inert cargo on my own flagship.

You’re going straight to Cornith of Helos.

The Terran stared at him. Cornith’s sole claim to fame is that she sits just about smack on the Crawlspace through the Reef. From what I hear, about the only thing there is the spaceport—

Cornith is the only planet anywhere around here, the doctor informed him. Ignorance was sheer bliss. Now that I’ve seen those readings, I’d be afraid I couldn’t get you back to Hedon alive, much less as a functioning officer.

You’re exaggerating.

Aye, I am, Tuck admitted, but the situation is serious. Jack, I’ve known you for close to thirty years. You’re a good friend. I don’t want to risk seeing your health broken, body or mind, because of my negligence. You need a change and a rest, and you need them now. You’re going to get them. The doctor was afraid in point of fact. Gray Jack Dundee was the only Chief Admiral the Federation had ever produced who could consistently outfox and outfight his Empire counterparts. He had maneuvered the Navy into a position, into an advance, that made victory a dim but at least acceptable possibility in a foreseeable future. It was wrong, dangerous, that one man should have so much importance in a cause of such magnitude, but there it was. Now, that one man was facing a significant physical challenge, and it was his own responsibility to make sure that he met it successfully.

Dundee’s face and voice were cold. Lucy will be taking over the fleet and Ram the Navy?

Naturally. They’ve already assumed their duties. Both of them are delighted to be sending you off for a nice session of R&R rather than being forced to conduct a memorial service for you.

I have to talk to Ram. In private.

Admiral Sithe is waiting for your call. I told him when I’d let you wake up.

Thoughtful of you.

Norman ignored his sarcasm. I told Lieutenant Sandpiper to pack for you. When you finish your conversation, check that he included everything you’ll want. You can leave as soon as you’re ready. Arrangements have been made for your accommodations and for a rover to be put at your disposal. You’ll keep the shuttle, too, of course.

When my period of exile is over, assuming I haven’t gone clear out of my mind from sheer boredom?

The other man just shook his head. He had known Dundee was not going to like this idea, but he had not anticipated quite so much resentment. The fleet will remain in the Sector hunting those Redjackets. We’ll swing by at the proper time, and the two of you can rejoin us.

Two of us?

Lieutenant Sandpiper will be with you. Regulations. A soldier on medical leave must be accompanied when he’s not going directly to kin or friends.

Which of you sons stuck that poor young chap with a misery of a charter like this?

Sandpiper volunteered. He claims no Lemuran tosses away a chance to play around on an ocean and he’s looking forward to investigating what Cornith’s has to offer. It’s right near the spaceport and should also be of interest to you—

Nothing about Cornith of Helos interests me, Jack hissed. Neither does traveling about with a nursemaid.

You don’t require the services of a nurse. If you did, I’d have assigned one to you. With hardship pay, given your attitude.

Dundee did not bother arguing. Not even the Chief Admiral of the Federation Navy could override his physician’s edict under these circumstances. My clothes? he snapped. I have a transmission to make.

There on the chair. He smiled. Cornith really isn’t so bad from what I’ve been able to learn about her, Admiral. Just give her a chance and enjoy your holiday—

The blue eyes blazed. That cheerfully voiced comment, the blatant attempt to turn this wretched business into a mere jest, was the final degree that caused the fuel coil to flash. "You are dismissed! Get out of my sight before I order you transferred to some backwater surplanetary aid station and have a physician I can trust assigned to the post of Chief of Medicine aboard the Terra’s Charm."

Tuck stared at him, surprised and hurt, but there was no softening in his commander’s expression. He saluted and left the cubicle without saying anything more.

* * * *

The Terran slammed the door of his cabin and went straight to the interstellar transceiver. He punched in his fellow admiral’s private call sequence.

The response was immediate. Jack, are you all right? Ram Sithe inquired anxiously.

Apparently, I am not all right, as you have already been informed.

How could you have pulled this? For once, the other’s normally quite, cultured voice was sharp with anger. You’re the only man we’ve ever had who can consistently outfox and outfight the Arcturian Navy. We all risk death in battle, but to burn yourself out and conceal the fact that you were doing so, to circumvent basic health procedures—

I didn’t pull anything, damn it! I didn’t duck those exams, either. I simply forgot to have them done and was too busy in the odd moments when they crossed my mind. I didn’t suspect anything was wrong. I’m tired to my bones, aye, and my nerves are raw, but I figured the same was true with everyone else. We’ve been knocking heads with the Redjackets in some sense or another nearly every month for years.

Sithe was silent for a moment. It seems that Norman and I owe you an apology, he said at last.

You do, but don’t bother offering one. It won’t be accepted.

The fact remains that you are seriously in need of this furlough.

I don’t deny that. What infuriates me is the cavalier way in which I was treated, as if I were totally incompetent or so criminally negligent of my responsibilities that I would refuse to take the appropriate steps once I realized I was in danger of no longer being able to meet them efficiently.

All right, Jack. We mishandled the situation. We just wanted to move fast to rectify it once we discovered it existed. He paused. Cornith is the only available planet.

I’m capable of enduring a month there without having to be packed off in virtual chains.

I know. His friend sighed. You’re not likely to heal very fast if you insist upon going in determined to hate the place sight unseen. You’ll get a good rest there, if nothing else. Besides, Cornith may not be Terra, Hedon, or even Horus, but she’s not completely devoid of amenities—

I don’t give a peddler’s cuss about what Cornith supposedly has to offer! I told you I’d endure my stay on-world. I called you because I want you to do a couple of things for me.

If I can. What would you like me to do?

Prepare a list of potential replacements for Tuck.

What? Ram sounded stunned.

I won’t kick him out of space like I threatened. He’s too good at what he does. However, I may very well decide to get him off my ship and away from my fleet. I am at least entitled to have officers around me that I can trust.

You can trust Norman Tuck with your life, he replied evenly.

Perhaps. I don’t feel or believe that I can.

You’ll have your list, the other admiral told him tightly, only, I ask a favor. Don’t make a decision about using it until after you resume your duties.

That’s my intention. I’m too angry at the moment to judge him fairly. I simply want to have a selection of acceptable replacements on hand if I decide to give him the boot. In that event, you’re free to pick him up if you want him.

Doctor Tuck would be an asset to my fleet, Sithe said wearily. Your second request? He braced himself as he asked that.

I want to see the report on the battle my fleet just fought plus anything and everything that comes up touching at all on the Arcturians in the next month.

Now, Jack—

"Ram, please. Something was wrong about that fight, about the way they broke it off and when. I can feel it, but I can’t put my finger on it, not