2948-04-14 – Tales from the Service: An Icebound Refuge
The disappearance of the destroyer Carondelet might have gone un-noticed for months, save that the admiralty vectored a Navy logistics hauler to intercept her on patrol with new orders and the supplies to carry them out. A quick search discovered the crew marooned on a frozen world after an encounter with enemy warships had ruined their ship.
Though they were rescued in three weeks instead of the months they had planned for, the Carondelet crew, what might have been a dull, mind-numbing time of flared tempers and misery turned out to be anything but – indeed, the thirty-odd spacers who survived the stricken warship were recovered in high spirits as if they had been retrieved from a wilderness vacation. This account, taken from the debriefing of Carondelet’s young skipper, is a perfect example of the spirit that drives spacers everywhere – military and otherwise. For interstellar professionals, of whom I cannot claim to be one, the hardships and discouragements of the lifestyle are all undone by the rare moments where something new and intriguing appears.
Carondelet was finished, and Yann Okafor, its first and last skipper, knew it.
The ship had been through the fire before - a victim, some of the enlisted crew said, of a cursed name, she had been battered badly at both Berkant and Bodrogi, streaming atmosphere and debris as she limped out of formation early in the engagement, destined for a stay in the Maribel naval yards.
Yann sat alone in his duty chair on the crippled destroyer’s command deck. The other officers had departed minutes before to supervise an orderly evacuation, leaving their skipper alone with his dying ship. Carondelet, newest destroyer in the Fifth Fleet, had been his first command, and he was finding it hard to let her go.
Though there had been only one dead and four injured in the brief, one-sided battle, Carondelet had been deprived of the aft one-fifth of her hull structure by a slicing hit by a Nate pulse-beam. Though this section contained no pressurized crew compartments, it had contained the primary drive unit and critical components of the auxiliary system, leaving the ship helpless on a looping trajectory that hurled her into the local star. There was plenty of time to get everyone off – five standard days according to the navcomputer – but the nameless system had only one planet, a frozen sphere tracing a cometlike orbit. With no HyperComm relay in range, Yann couldn’t even call for rescue – it might be months before someone came looking for the missing Carondelet and her crew.
“Bridge, the pinnace has begun its sweep.” Lieutenant Catalano’s voice pierced Yann’s heavy thoughts, and he glanced at the tactical display to see the pinnace’s mote tracing a faint path only a few dozen kilometers up. “Deploying drones. We should be seeing ground-side data shortly.”
“Understood.” The ship’s pinnace and two logistics shuttles could carry the whole crew at once with room to spare, but the first flight carried mostly equipment on its nine-hour round trip. Three spacers would unload the vessels on the ground and start setting up some sort of hab complex for the rest. There, the crew could survive for perhaps two or three months – longer if the frozen world provided any organic matter with which to feed emergency bioreactors and food synthesizers.
While Catalano remained optimistic about their chances, Yann expected them all to die on the frozen rock before the harried Navy came to rescue them. It might be better, he thought, to remain aboard Carondelet for its burning dive into the heart of a star like an ancient water-navy captain going down with his ship. His second-in-command, a native of rugged Margaux, would be better placed to supervise the survival effort in any case – Yann, a spacer from birth, would be little more than another mouth to feed.
A chime indicated the beginning of the pinnace data-stream, and Yann sat up, dismissing his morose thoughts in order to supervise the ship’s computer as it analyzed the flood of information. Carondelet’s state-of-the-art computing core might be doomed to annihilation, but it would solve one last big problem – deciphering the geology of this nameless iceball in order to flag hazards and highlight resources for the crew preparing to abandon her.
Calling up the console controls in his chair’s armrests, Yann called up the topographic map and watched as the pinnace and its surface-skimming drones chart the sun-side hemisphere. Vast, glittering ice-plains covered almost two thirds of the surface, with rocky massifs rising out of it into rolling plateaus and sharp-edged mountain ranges. If not for its sterile grey-and-white palette, it might have been a comely place – the sort of world which encouraged a spacer in orbit to linger by a viewpanel. As it was, Yann, who had never liked going planet-side anywhere, shivered at the thought of setting foot on its surface. He would rather burn up with the ship than freeze to death there.
The computer bracketed an anomaly which it could not reconcile with its geologic model, and Yann called up the details. A blocky formation of what appeared to be silicate stone jutted out from the ice in a narrow valley where a mountain range tumbled down to the ice plains. Yann glanced at a few stills taken by the drone swarm – blocky boulders crowding each other on the gradual slope below a precipitous mountain - and marked the anomaly as a probable avalanche. So assured, the computer continued its work.
After several other such interruptions, Yann returned to images of the dramatic valley and avalanche. Though as cold as the rest of the world, it might have been a scene out of a fantastic holo-drama – ridges on the slopes almost looked like terraced farm-fields dusted with midwinter snow, and the blocky boulders of the rockslide occupied the spot Yann would place an ancient city’s winding alleys if the ice-plain were a liquid ocean. The place would be well-protected against land armies and armadas of sail-galleons – it was a shame none of the holo-drama producers would ever be inspired by such a place.
Yann was about to dismiss the view and start looking for a likely landing site when he spotted the citadel. Perched on a rocky cliff fifty meters over the ice below, the decaying fortress, unmistakably artificial, frowned down upon both the valley and the plain beyond. Though its corner towers had collapsed into hollow sockets, the central structure remained largely intact, with an arched gateway opening out to a switch-back road climbing the steep valley wall.
“Catalano, I’ve got ruins on the surface.” Yann immediately sent an override to one of the drones, sending it toward the ruins. It would take several minutes for both transmissions to arrive, so he hopped up to order a coffee from the commissary dispenser, pacing nervously as the machine gurgled and hummed. Had a planet he had just written off as worse than death once housed life – sapient life capable of devising fortress architecture?
Eventually, the lieutenant’s reply reached Carondelet. “Ruins? Hell, that changes things. Do you think we can land there?”
Yann stared at the images in the display for some time before replying. Now that he was looking for intelligent design, the blocky stones of the avalanche looked more and more like the dense-clustered dwellings of a primitive city, and the contours of the hillsides which suggested terracing might indeed be just that. Fortunately, the ice-plain “bay” would make a perfect landing site even for an ungainly cargo shuttle. “Looks possible. I’ve got drone thirty-seven following up. Do you think it’s a good place to make camp?”
Again, there was a long, tense wait for Catalano’s reply - longer this time, as if Catalano was choosing his words carefully. “I’ll check it out Skipper, I’m more worried about morale than resources. Any place that gives us something to do besides sit in our habs has my vote.”
Yann, knowing whose morale his second-in-command had in mind, winced as he retrieved his acrid synthetic coffee. All thought of going down with his doomed ship had vanished from his mind – even if he was going to die on the frozen planet, he wanted to climb the switch-backed road up to the fortress and step inside the hall of some doomed xenosapient monarch before he did. “Understood, Lieutenant. A little mystery might keep us all sane down there.”