2950-11-22 – Tales from the Service: The Pack’s Intruders

Pack Captain Ojathl Khedru woke with the sense that something was wrong – very wrong in fact – though this instinctual impression at first did not resolve itself into any factual concerns. His cabin remained dimly lit as it had when he’d retired for a few hours of sleep before his shift, and the reassuring hum of Howling Gale’s reactor still carried up from the deck through the curved lattice supports of his sturdy sleeping-frame as it had before. 

Opening his eyes, he saw no blinking lights on the comms headband he’d left hanging in its usual spot, nor any flickering of the dim sleep-cycle lights overhead. Still, however, the sense that something had gone poorly tugged at his mind. 

No matter how well he knew not to solve problems without a sufficiency of data, Khedru replayed the last few hours prior to sleep in his mind, looking for anything that might have catalyzed into such a pernicious feeling of danger. He’d retired to his cabin, drafted a diplomatic message to his clan’s elders stating that his crew would not be returning before the end of the pairing season, then listened to a few scenes of his favorite Rattanai-language audio drama to prepare his mind for sleep. Only a few messages from the bridge had interrupted, and none of them could be classified as anything more than status updates. 

Finally levering himself up off the sleeping-frame, raising the lights, and grabbing the comms headband, Khedru stretched his arms and stepped in front of the mirror. One by one, he checked his quill-spines for any that had become loose or showed signs of being ready to fall out. Only when he was satisfied did he return his attention to the unknown which had woken him. 

“Watch Captain, any updates?” Khedru knew that Watch Captain Lrinah would have surrendered his station to Watch Captain Ralgahar by this point, but the two would have discussed the situation sufficiently during the change-over that it made no difference who answered. 

A few seconds passed, however, without any answer at all. Annoyed and expecting that his subordinate was merely preoccupied, Khedru tried again. “Watch Captain, report.” 

Still, he heard nothing. Dragging the headband off his head, Khedru checked its status lights, only to find most of them dark. Only the power indicator remained consistently lit, with the light for main system connection blinking intermittently next to it.  

With a low, frustrated growl in the back of his throat, Khedru woke the hard-wired console in the corner of his cabin and called up system diagnostics. In theory, a ship’s comms system was heavily fault tolerant, but Howling Gale had experienced several brief wireless comms outages after clan technicians had installed a set of Rattanai language and dialect interpretation package on their last visit home. It would hardly be the first time someone at a duty station had crashed the system by using some obscure, archaic profanity that the system had tried to add to the transcript log, and it couldn’t come at a worse time. 

For a moment, Khedru was heartened to see that the comms mediator already showed as disconnected on the main diagnostic, suggesting that the ship’s techs were already working on the problem. Nothing else on the board seemed amiss, except that the air pressure was a few percent lower than standard, as it might be if the airlocks cycled a few times while techs worked on comms components outside the pressurized spaces. 

The sense that something was wrong eased for a moment, then spiked again when Khedru saw the atmospheric pressure drop a little further. A pressure-hull breach would have sounded alarms all over the ship even as the automatic systems worked to seal it off, but an alarm-free pressure loss could only mean failure of the atmospherics – which came with its own kind of alarms – or intentional malice. Given how often Khedru, fearing death by suffocation over all others, had Howling Gale’s atmospherics checked, and the simultaneous loss of comms connectivity, malice seemed more likely. 

Scrambling for the flechette-thrower stashed in a bag under his sleep-frame, Khedru checked the weapon, then tossed a bandolier laden with spare magazines over one huge shoulder. There was still a possibility that the failure was simply unfortunate timing, but he’d lived to long and fought too many underhanded humans to take that possibility very seriously. 

The corridor outside Khedru’s cabin was empty, but he could smell the sour, musty reek of humans. They’d been there – perhaps standing just outside the cabin – and had not tried to enter. That was wise of them, since Khedru’s cabin contained no less than three booby-traps which automatically engaged whenever he was absent or asleep.  

If they suspected this, Khedru knew, the intruders had tangled with Rattanai before. Though he was not nearly as fast or agile as he had once been, he crept up the corridor toward one of the maintenance crawlspaces which humans would probably expect to be too small for him to navigate. If any of his crew were still alive, he didn’t intend on leaving any of the available glory to them. 

Maribel had its biggest invasion scare of the war so far this week. The entire operational Fifth Fleet battle line sortied for combat, but was only under power for about an hour before the all-clear was given. 

The cause of the false alarm remains unclear; either headquarters doesn’t itself know yet, or, more likely, Naval Intelligence figured it out and kept it quiet. I’ve heard rumors from various sources that Admiral Venturi is expecting an attack on this system in the next forty days, but none of my contacts seem to have any idea why this is expected nor have they heard it from any primary sources. Based on the jumpiness of most senior officers, the rumor might be true. 

No word on our parent company’s efforts to have us transferred to Seventh Fleet. Most likely, if it does happen, it won’t be until after the expected attack, rumored or real.