The Battle of Leila The Dog
by Rick Kennett
She took notice of it the second time in a spare moment after successfully tilting her donuts. She half turned in her seat and listened.
To the whisper of the air recyclers.
To the occasional voice.
To the low hum of the drive being tested.
Something had grunted, there at her feet; a sort of animal grunt, soft. She was sure she hadn’t imagined it, not the second time. But all seemed normal in the Control Room. Activity was building up again after five days in subspace. Visual screens were still blank, but data lights winked on the Engineering, Navigation and Fire Control boards. She looked across at Captain Brown who was checking his data screen and scanner repeaters; he seemed not to have heard anything. Nor had any of the other officers and technicians.
For a moment she wondered if she were going senile at seventeen. She hoped not. It was Emergence Day, and she’d have to be sparky when Utopia Plain – a frigate of the Martian Star Corps – hit the battlefields of the Procyon system in a few hours.
Cy peered at the space under her chair, as if daring it to grunt again.
The Captain’s voice came quietly from her earphones. “Lieutenant De Gerch, report Manoeuvring status, please.”
“Gravity donuts tilting correctly through their arcs, sir.”
“Lieutenant Peters will take over the rest of the pre-emerge checks. Chryse Plain has reported having engaged a Xenoid vessel in the vicinity of Procyon Three. Alter our final emergence co-ordinates accordingly.
“Aye aye, sir,” she replied, but slotted her seat over to Navigation with some misgivings. She knew the Terran and Martian forces consolidating on Procyon Three were a prime target for enemy attention — a target requiring the heavy firepower attacks of a big ship. Cy began computing a new exit hole in space, all too aware that Utopia Plain was not a big ship, and that even in company with Chryse Plain the odds might not greatly improve. And that was assuming just one Xenoid vessel.
Something behind her gave a low whine.
She spun about and stared down at the space behind her chair where absolutely nothing could be seen. ‘What the hell was that?” Her oddly pitched voice sounded harsh in the Control Room quiet.
All heads turned her way, but no one answered. She realized then that no one else had heard it.
“Something wrong, Cy?” asked the Captain.
“I thought I heard a gravity anomaly, sir,” she said, not quite believing it.
Whether or not Brown did, he said to Lieutenant Peters, “Run checks on the gravgens, Frank. I’m not taking the ship into battle if she doesn’t have full manoeuvring control.”
As Frank Peters went to work, Cy knew he was wasting his time. There was nothing wrong with the gravgens. That whine had been animal.
Utopia Plain emerged from subspace at the edge of the Procyon system, her crew at battle stations, watching and listening, finding nothing. Inwardly-rotating donuts of intensely focused gravity rippled down her hull. The donuts tilted and the ship curved toward the bright pinpoint of Procyon. Vanishing, she reappeared a second later millions of kilometres further in where the frozen gas giants rolled. Again and again she skipped in and out of dimension, never in one place long enough to present a target: now cruising an asteroid belt, now passing the rocky middle worlds, now arrowing through the shadows of the warm inner planets, each time closing with the white disc of Procyon.
Cy had been too preoccupied to take pride in the precision of the ship’s final exit from subspace. Although more important matters had crowded that weird whining to the back of her mind, it continued to push into her consciousness. It had sounded so pitiful, so directed at her. And the more she thought of it the more she wondered about that earlier grunting …
“Contact bearing three thirty by twenty,” said the voice from Scanner Room. “Range: ninety-five thousand and closing.”
“Engage! Engage! Engage!” said the Captain.
Cy cursed her inattentiveness. There it was on her fire-control screen: a shadow, a shape, an image. The target.
Cross-hairs centred, numbers flickered across her screen, ranges, bearings, speeds. “Forward lasers … fire!”
For a second she knew cold panic, then realized the identification light was on, locking out the fire-control system. It’d been one of the Captain’s impromptu drills. The target had been their sister ship, Chryse Plain.
“Stand to,” he said. “Prepare to come about.”
As expected, the Captain’s next words came through her phones. “Sloppy, Cy. Very sloppy. You’ve done far better than this in drills, and here it could’ve been the real thing.”
“I was thinking about that whining sound. I can’t seem to set it out of my mind.”
“Gravgen running out of line. It’s happened before.”
“You know Frank found no such thing, Ralph.”
“Then what do you think it was?”
“It sounded like a dog.”
“Perhaps, Cy, but what do you think it was?”
She said nothing, but only looked across at him again because there were no answers.
“Engage! Engage! Engage!” said the Captain.
Sparky, not caught unawares this time, Cy had Utopia Plain’s initial laser pulses off before Chryse Plain, hitting the Xenoid ship they’d intercepted forward and amidships. It was small, probably a scouter and not a direct concern for the planetary forces on Procyon Three. It was accelerating now, opening the range, gravity rings rippling down its hull. On Cy’s weapons screen the image distorted like plastic, hard to keep in the sights.
“She’s playing hard to get,” said Cy and the pitch of the drive’s hum climbed. “Forward and starboard lasers – fire!”
The ship echoed with the howl of the pulse-lasers. But the Xenoid ship seemed to twist again, and only two shots found the target. Utopia Plain’s gravgens whined a non-animal sound as she accelerated through a one hundred degree turn. The enemy came back into the cross-hairs.
Accelerating, Utopia Plain moved in, firing.
A million kilometres away, Chryse Plain closed from the opposite direction, firing.
Cy’s screen lit with thin white lines, raining towards the enemy. Then those lines twisted, bent themselves into sharp canine ears, the stars becoming eyes and teeth, the whole bulging from the screen like an animal snout — and Cy De Gerch, in her orgasm of battle-frenzy, did not, could not see the dog’s head pushing out at her until it howled like the lasers howling throughout the ship.
She shouted, shoving at the thing, touching nothing, pushing against her seat belts, pushing backwards from the console.
The guns fell silent. And in that moment of defencelessness the Xenoid closed at 200g acceleration, lasers blazing. Utopia Plain shuddered, and from somewhere aft dull thunder rolled, drowning out the incoherent yells of the girl thrashing in her seat.
Captain Brown re-read Damage Control’s report, accompanied by pictures of buckled superstructure shot by hull-crawling inspection cameras. He compared them with Doctor Norsk’s casualty report of two superficial injuries and a first degree radiation burn. Damn lucky, Doctor Norsk had scrawled near the bottom. The Captain agreed. But it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Nowhere in the report could he find an explanation for his young lieutenant’s behaviour. The only thing pertaining to that was the comment, almost an afterthought: “Lt. De Gerch under observation”. He glanced at Lieutenant Peters, now stationed at Fire Control. He was a good officer, sharp, thorough going, the ship’s next-best weapons officer. The only thing he lacked was Cy De Gerch’s genetically engineered empathy with the ship’s fighting machinery.
On his repeater screen was nothing but stars. The Xenoid scouter had escaped, forcing Utopia Plain and Chryse Plain to diverge into separate search patterns. For the moment all was quiet. But he always felt more secure with Cy at Fire Control. Losing her in that position was like losing a piece of equipment. What the hell was the matter with her?
He opened a line to the infirmary and asked.
“I can find nothing wrong with her, Ralph,” Doctor Norsk told him. “Physically or mentally.”
‘Then why does she say a dog jumped out of her weapons screen, Ben?” There was a long silence in which he could almost hear the doctor’s shrug.
“At last Doctor Norsk said, “She’s a first-generation product of the Gartino Experiment, and after nearly twenty years we still don’t know their full potential. Gartinos are still showing new developments, and not all of those developments are for the best.”
“Are you saying that because of her genetic origins my second-in-command could go psycho at any moment?”
“No,” the Doctor replied with some impatience. “But there have been quirks and lapses before with Gartinos. I’d like to keep her under observation a while longer.”
“Then you’re classifying her as unfit for duty?”
“Ben, she’s crucial to the firepower of the ship. That was little more than a scouter we fought. I wouldn’t mind betting there’s something bigger out there somewhere.”
“If that’s the way you feel, Ralph, then you can have her back. But first ask yourself if you can trust her not to see dogs again at a critical moment.”
Cy sat on the edge of a bed in Utopia Plain’s infirmary, feeling not so much ‘under observation’ as like a naughty girl confined to her room. She said, ‘Am I cracking up, Doctor?’
“Do you think you are?” he asked.
She hesitated, remembering the original grunting and what she’d thought at the time. “I’m not sure.” She smiled a fleeting smile. “Isn’t that a good sign? Doesn’t madness always deny itself?”
“You’re not mad, Ms De Gerch. The mind is still largely unmapped territory. We know more about what’s out there,” he swept his arm around to indicate the universe, “than what’s in here.” He tapped his head. “Your being a Gartino may also be a factor. The effects of stress on some one such as yourself are still unknown. I mean, here you are, the Executive Officer of a fighting ship when most people your age are fighting ache. That must have some effect in terms of stress. But the question is: how does it manifest itself?”
“By hearing animal noises, Doctor? By seeing dogs leap out of fire control screens?”
“What do dogs mean to you?”
“Nothing. I was born on Phobos, and although it’s the larger moon of Mars, it’s still a very small place as inhabited worlds go; so I grew up in fairly cramped quarters. No room for a dog, hardly room for a normal upbringing — if I can use the word ‘normal’ at all”
“Perhaps dogs represent normality to you. Subconsciously, I mean.”
“Normality?” She slipped from the bed, paced a few steps and stopped. “Just before leaving the solar system, when we did that quick trip to Earth to re-calibrate our sensors in orbit, I had my first good look at the ‘home world’. Can’t say I was particularly impressed. Although my family came from there generations ago, I feel no affinity with the planet. There’s nothing of me there now. I’m a Martian, and normality to me is a small, red world with planet-wide dust storms, surface temperatures usually little better than freezing, and an atmosphere that’s still being built. I can’t see how dogs fit into that picture.”
“Then why do you think you saw a dog jump out at you from the weapons screen?”
She sat down again and looked up at him. Once more there were no answers.
Utopia Plain opened fire.
Though still at extreme range, Captain Brown could see it wasn’t the same ship they’d fought five hours before but the big ship he’d been hoping not to find. At least not alone. He opened a line to Communications. “Give Chryse Plain our tactical position and celestial fix.” She’ll need at least twenty minutes to get here, he thought.
At Fire Control, Lieutenant Peters had the target nailed in the sights. The image disappeared amid a smother of white streaks, re-emerged, swinging left, swinging right, firing, closing, curving, dodging, firing, closing, distorting on the screens, impossible to follow, accelerating, closing, firing.
“Twenty degrees starboard,” said the Captain
The enemy came in at them, firing, large in the sights.
Utopia Plain shook, hit.
Smashed amidships, smashed aft.
Out of the rolling thunder came the whine of gravgens and the howl of pulse-lasers following the Xenoid as it slammed past. Brown watched a report scroll up on his Damage Control screen — then forgot it entirely. Behind all this chaos he could hear the barking of a dog.
She floated cramped in darkness, knowing only fear and loneliness. She’d been there a long time, shut away a long time, in the close dark a long time, round and round and round.
She padded metal floors, free and not free, really in that little dark ball but now padding metal floors, free almost free like she had been in the sunlight, and she saw her asleep and so sat brushing the floor behind her in an arc, happy, soft crying, waiting no more, leaping like she used to in the sunlight …
Cy started awake with the action alarm.
She sat up on the bed, feeling confused, training telling her to move, orders telling her to stay, while her mind tried to catch some elusive dream, fading, gone.
The alarm stopped, and in that snatch of silence before the lasers began to howl she heard that animal sound, that whining again, soft and plaintive, there with her on the bed. There in front of her. There where something was trying to form out of a milky cloud of no particular shape.
She leaned forward, staring. “Who are you?”
As if in answer her dream returned, vivid to her mind.
When the action alarm rang, Doctor Norsk was at his battle station in the surgery, taking inventory for the nth time with his two assistant paramedics. By the time they’d masked and had started scrubbing-up, the howl of the lasers had begun.
“Doctor Norsk, sir.”
He looked up from the basin. Lieutenant De Gerch stood in the doorway. “This is now a sterile area,” he said above the pulse howls. “Return to the infirmary, please. Either that or join the First Aid party if you feel you can –”
“I understand the dog now.”
“You understand the …?” He gave his assistants a warning look, then checked her telemetry readings on a bank of nearby meters. Blood pressure and heart rate were up, nothing more than battle tension normal. But brain activity was running riot. “It’s probably better you return to the infirmary and rest. I don’t think you’re at all fit for duty yet.”
“I’m not cracking up, Doctor,” she said. “There’s a large spherical object lodged inside number one ion exhaust on our port quarter. It collided with us and got stuck there while our sensors were down when we were in Earth orbit. That’s where she is.”
He gave her a long, searching look, and wondered if the nerve of this experimental girl had finally broken. He made to speak, but was interrupted by the whine of the gravgens, unusually violent. Utopia Plain was manoeuvring for her life.
“How do you know of this spherical object?” he asked, using his best bedside manner amid the chaos.
“The dog showed me …” She shook her head in frustration then said, “I saw it up here.” She tapped her forehead.
After nearly twenty years we still don’t know their full potential … He remembered saying that not five hours before.
“Oh, Doctors please! Let me go back!”
Whether it was the urgency of her tone, the pleading in her eyes, or some idea that she was indeed telling the truth, he suddenly heard himself saying, “Return to duty.”
“Thank you!” She laughed and spun about, and in that brief moment Doctor Norsk saw in her the little girl she had never been. Then she was gone, and with her — he could’ve sworn he saw — the blur scampering at her heels.
“Range: eight hundred thousand and opening … target coming about to port.”
The Captain barely heard the voice from Scanner Room, barely comprehended the report on his Damage Control screen. He listened again for the dog, but it was gone.
On his repeater screen the Xenoid ship was curving through a million kilometre arc, its tilted gravity rings distorting starlight into flares and patterns. He looked again at the Damage Control read-out: damage to Manoeuvring, to Engineering, to hull frames which didn’t look like standing another attack. As he opened a line to the torpedo flat he noticed the flashing call-light on Surgery’s line. He gave orders to his torpedo people first, then answered the doctor. By that time the enemy was closing again.
Hunched over the weapons screen, Lieutenant Peters noted with apprehension the winking of the Torpedo Ready lights. They were the weapons used when things looked desperate. Then suddenly there was no more time for worry or doubt.
“Target range nine hundred thousand,” said Scanner Room. “Closing at 100G … 120 … 140 … Range now eight hundred thousand and closing …”
“Permission to relieve you, Mister Peters.”
He jerked about and stared with open-face surprise at Lieutenant De Gerch standing beside him. He glanced up at the Captain who simply nodded and pointed to Torpedo Control.
“… seven fifty thousand and closing …“
Peters quickly unbuckled his seat belt and vacated the chair, trying not to show his confusion and utter relief.
“… seven hundred thousand and closing …”
Cy adjusted her head-set. “Stand by aft tubes, Frank. Half speed, wide spread … fire! Forward tubes, full speed, medium cluster … fire!”
Soundless seconds later eight spreading lines etched across her screen, intersected the following moment by eight more diverging from the opposite direction.
“Target taking evasive action …”
Frank Peters glanced at Cy. She didn’t seem to be listening to Scanner Room at all, and her breathing came shallow and rapid in his earphones. Brown, watching his weapons repeater, saw the cross-hairs leave the target, go hunting across the screen. Frowning, he leaned forward, cold with doubt.
“Range six hundred thousand and closing.”
“Stand by starboard lasers,” said Cy, distant and choppy.
What the hell is she doing? Captain Brown thought. She didn’t seem to be watching her screen at all, but simply staring straight ahead. He opened a line to her, heard her whispering, “Be patient, little one … be patient …”
The Xenoid began firing.
On the screen the cross-hairs veered to a point ahead of the target.
Cy De Gerch said, “Detonate first salvo!” Then, “Starboard lasers fire!”
“Target hit by torpedo!” said Scanner Room.
The lasers howled.
An instant before the target disappeared inside a smother of detonations Captain Brown saw it shoved into the cross-hairs by the torpedo hit. Then all was chaos and the howl of the lasers going and going and Cy yelled once as the target area swelled and swelled, a glowing circle engulfing half the screen — then fading, thinning, gone, leaving nothing.
She slumped in her seat, head lolled back, wet with sweat, breathing slowing again, consciousness slowly returning to her staring eyes.
The Captain stared at her, shocked with the realization of how literally true it was that he’d thought of her as a piece of fire-control equipment — an integral part of the ship’s capacity for destruction.
Over the next four days Utopia Plain, in company with Chryse Plain, decelerated gingerly at 30g while hull-crawlers made patchwork repairs to the damage. During these operations engineers, led by Lieutenant De Gerch, found a large metallic sphere lodged in an ion exhaust on the port quarter. Brought inboard it proved to be an ancient satellite which had apparently collided with the ship while in Earth orbit. They cut an opening, but it was Cy De Gerch who insisted she alone should crawl in to remove what she knew to be there.
It was a sombre trio, Cy, Captain Brown and Doctor Norsk, who gathered around the hole dug deep into the soil of the windy grassland. The sky was blue and peacefully empty. The planet was now secure, and the fighting was gradually moving away from Procyon Three. Out of a sense of occasion all three wore their formal uniforms.
Cy lowered the little bundle of mummified remains into the hole. “Good-bye, Leila. It’s not Earth exactly, but it’s rest at last.” She stepped back to allow the Captain and the Doctor to fill in the grave.
By identifying the satellite and tracing it through historical records it was found to have been launched at the dawn of the Space Age, carrying a dog named Leila into orbit. But in those early days there’d been no way home, and Leila, after a week of orbiting, had died. Thirst? Suffocation? Loneliness? It wasn’t clear.
With the burial complete the three stood looking at each other, feeling awkward. Far above, Utopia Plain was orbiting, being readied to join a concerted thrust into enemy space. The men turned and made their way back to the shuttlecraft, but Cy stayed a moment to place a flower on the little grave. She felt the heat of the day, smelt the green of the grass, and listened to the wind; listened with a kind of envy as it carried away the distant, happy barking of a dog.