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Tall Tales (Chapter Cover Art)

"Let's see what happens when we mix genres..."
--Note from Author

Story By JA Baker[]

Run Silent, Run Deep
Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written October 11th, 2020
Story Era Jihad Era

For all their many, many failings, I personally think that the worst thing about the Word of Blake was their complete lack of a sense of humor.

Okay, so we were technically poking our noses in somewhere we shouldn't have been, but that's just how The Game is played. They do it to us, we do it to them, and both sides pretend that nothing is happening, while trying their damnedest to stop each other. We're all adults, all know what's awaiting us if we get caught with our hands in the proverbial cookie jar. Spies may get exchanged, but spy-ships get blown out of space.

I don't know where they found the Chiroptera or how they managed to get her working again. Its not like you can buy parts for a Nightwing from your average chandler. But she was a good ship, with probably the smallest jump-signature of anything this size of a Bug-Eye. Oh sure, she smelled like old socks, the grav-deck had a tendency to rattle something awful, and they'd stripped out all the weapons to fit LF batteries. Meaning that we had the defensive options of a potato. But, given our job was to not be seen, I guess they figured that declawing us might stop us thinking with our balls not our brains.

Yeah, and I'm the long-lost heir to the Cameron dynasty!

So, we were in this system that didn't have a name, but rather a alphanumeric designation. About fifty light years "below" the plane of the galactic ecliptic. Nowhere near as many main sequence stars there, so far fewer habitable planets. That means that most people, even militaries, kind of forget it's there, because they're Dirtyfeet who can't help but think in two dimensions. For us Rockjacks, we embrace the void, and see it for how it truly is.

Which does make you wonder how the Robes found that system...

Well, it wasn't much of a system. An A-type dwarf with a single "Super Saturn", which is to say a large gas giant with an extensive ring system, and not much else. The Robes had set up shop on a moon that would have been a dwarf planet anywhere else, certainly big enough to have a natural gravity strong enough for Dirtyfeet to feel comfortable. Our mission was to observe from a safe distance, maybe lob a probe or two on ballistic trajectories to see if they could pick anything up. The entire mission was to be run "silent", with everything shut down, even the running lights and emergency transponder. With all the baffles engaged and the reactor barely ticking over, we had the electromagnetic signatures of a wristwatch, which should have been more than enough to keep us safe.

But that would make this a pretty damn boring story now, wouldn't it?

No, unfortunately we had some high-and-mighty from HQ ridding shotgun on the mission, questioning everything the Captain said or did. I couldn't tell if he was a has-been who'd lost his touch, or a never-was who believed everything in the training manual, but he could barely use a microgravity toilet without getting himself sucked out into space. Man was nothing but a waste of reaction mass, but he had mission command authority, so we had to bow and scrape and act like he was gods own gift to space ops. He was hunting for glory. Something anyone worth half a hump would tell you is not only pointless in our line of work, but downright suicidal.

Well, we jump in deep within the shadow of the planet. Thankfully the Robes hadn't seen fit to set up a proper picket, so seemingly undetected. Original plan was to poke our nose out round the edge of the planet just enough to get a good look on the passives, then just slip back and jump out. Simple.

But, as the old maxim goes, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Especially when said enemy is a supposed ally.

I had the weapons station, which meant I was responsible for keeping an eye on the threat detector, given our offensive options were reduced to hurling obscenities over the radio. But it did mean that I had a ringside seat for the showdown between the captain and our jerk-off of a mission commander. See, he had all these crazy ideas about getting a closer look, running a ballistic orbit around the gas giant and trying to look like just another rock. And the captain, God bless her, shot down every single one of them, one after the other, pointing out that it put the ship and crew in unnecessary danger on what was supposed to be a sneak-and-peek. And, mission commander or not, she was still the captain, second only to God Almighty himself when under way.

Then he goes an escalated to the nuclear option: either she agreed to his harebrained scheme, or he'd make sure that the entire crew was beached at the bottom of a gravity well.

I think had he just threatened her, she would have held her ground. But by threatening her crew, mostly Rockjacks like her, some of whom had it on our records that we had such crippling terraphobia that we were permanently excused shore-side duty... she didn't really have much of a choice. The only thing she could do was minimize the risk of detection. Which meant doing something somewhat bizarre and extremely risky. So, she called the XO to the helm and gave the order for everyone to suit-up.

It was time to go diving.

For those who don't know, which I'm going to assume is most of you. A ring diving is an old Belter trick from pre-diaspora days, although it may be more appropriate to call it a form of collective insanity. See, you need a planet with a ring system dense enough to hide in, but not so dense that you wreck the ship bouncing into rocks and ice. If you know what your doing, you simply vanish into the debris. Having everyone put their suits on had two advantages: first and most obviously. It meant that we were ready in case of a hull breach, but it also meant that we could vent the atmosphere, bringing the ships temperature down to something closer to the ring fragments. On paper, well, the entire thing is still crazy as they come, but Rockjacks don't think like Dirtyfeet, and it was worth the look on the mission commanders face when he realized exactly what the captain had in mind. Of cause, by that point, it was too late for him to back-down without looking like the fool he was, so he had little choice but to suit up and strap in.

I've always found something comforting about being in a space suite, with just the gentle hiss of the air circulation system for company. Unfortunately, when you're not only on-duty, but at what was laughably called Battle Stations on a ship without any weapons, you need to be tied in to not only the general ComNet, but the audio output from your station. Thankfully, everyone was keeping quiet as we watched the XO do his thing, and my screen was clear, so I got to sit back and watch.

Looking at a Nightwing Class ships like the Chiroptera, most people assume that the bridge is towards the bow, but that's actually the main recreation room. The bridge is much further back and higher "up", between the communications array and the jump-sail rigging arms. The captain kept the blast screen on the main viewport open long enough for us to see the ice and dust particles start to rise up, attracted to the static charge that had built-up on the ships hull. It is somewhat mesmerizing to watch the streams dance around the ship, slowly coating the hull, making us look like just another fragment, at least to the untrained eye.

But, all good things must come to an end: an unshielded viewport is just asking for trouble.

Okay, we were we're technically trying to do a full dive: without even short-range LIDAR, it's tantamount to suicide, but rather getting as close to the "surface" of the ring as possible, so we'd be hidden in the haze. But it still takes a steady hand to keep 100,000-tons of starship level less than a kilometer above chunks of rock and ice that would crush us like an empty beer can if we hit them. That's why the captain had the EX at the helm. He was the only one on the entire crew to ever successfully pull-off a ring dive before, and had liquid helium for blood he was so cool under pressure.

So we coasted along on momentum, XO using the RCS thrusters to make the bare minimum of course corrections needed, when all of a sudden my scope lights up with a possible contact. I dial in every passive sensor we had, including one of the cameras built into the hull, trying to get a fix.

"Con, Weapons: we have a possible contact bearing 031.2, positive 022.7." I reported, doing my best to sound far calmer than I actually felt, "Looks like we caught the edge of someone's search radar."

"Cut thrust!" the captain snapped, "Check the baffles!"

"Baffles clear." the crewman at the engineering station, a kid on his first mission called Dobson, responded, "Our EM signature is within 1% of minimum."

"Okay, everyone, nice and calm." the captain reassured us, "Ain't nobody here but us rocks."

It felt like the eyes of the entire crew were on me as I worked my station, trying to get more information on the unknown. Eventually, the computer was able to put together a composite image, and ran it against our records for a possible match.

"Warbook identifies the contact as a Lola class destroyer, with 67% certainty." I leaned as far forward as I could, turning the contrast up to maximum, "Could be a Lola II, but at this range and angle of deflection, I can't get a good enough look to know for sure."

I don't think anyone on the bridge was breathing as we listened to the warble of the threat detector growing louder and quicker, every external camera that had a line of sight tracking the faint point of light that marked the destroyer as it made its way along its orbit of the gas giant. Even if we'd still had weapons, a destroyer, any destroyer, would have been more than a match for a Nightwing in its prime, and the Chiroptera was starting to show her age back when she was originally mothballed.

I wasn't sure which was louder; The threat detector or my heart-beat.

Eventually, after what felt like an eon, the contact moved off. The pulsing of the threat detector growing less frequent and eventually fading away.

"Game faces, people!" the captain ordered, "If they consider this place important enough to have guard dog out front, then there's probably other defenses. I want everyone on the lookout for active and passive sensors, mines and anything else their twisted little minds came up with."

She didn't have to tell us twice, and what little chatter there had been was silenced as we all went back to work.

The trick to ring diving is moving slow enough that you don't leave a wake in the dust that makes up most of the ring. Sure, your in a vacuum, so you don't need to worry about turbulence in the traditional sense of the word, but we were still a 300-meter long lump of metal moving close enough to the ring that we'd attracted a faint halo. Fortunately, we were close enough that it was all but invisible unless you were looking from just the right, or I guess, wrong, angle. Even so, the captain gave the order to cut speed, slowing us down even further.

Speed is relative. What may on paper sound like a ridiculously high number to someone who's spent most of their life at the bottom of a gravity well. In a constant atmosphere, is a snails pace when you're in the outer black. Even with the base speed we'd built up. We were mainly reliant on our slow orbit of the nameless gas giant to bring the moon into range for a closer look. And that meant two days in suits, pissing into a tube rather than a head, drinking enriched fluids that contain everything you need to keep the human body running, but taste like damp ass. And that's to say nothing of the fact that you can't exactly shower in a vacuum suit, so yeah, you become acutely aware of your personal hygiene at a time like that. Rockjacks, we train ourselves to put up with it, even if we don't like it, but Mr High-and-Mighty Mission Commander Sir is the worst Dirtyfoot I have ever shipped-out with, and bitched pretty much the entire time.

Unfortunately, we couldn't cut him from the link; safety protocols and all.

During this time, we had another three encounters with the tin-can on guard duty, allowing us to plot a rough patrol rout for it. Seemed to be swinging around several of the Inner moons, letting their gravity do the hard work. That's a Rockjack trick, not something you'd expect to see from a Dirtyfoot, least of all a Robe. Sol may be home to the oldest and best established Rockjack community; the original Beltas, but they've never been the type to sign up with any Dirtyfoot. Not the Alliance, the Hegemony, the Camerons, certainly not the Fat Man, and nobody since. Even by Rockjack standards, Beltas keep to themselves, but whoever was driving that Lola, they thought like one of us, and that was a scary thought.

Every so often, the threat detector would sing out, and we'd do our best impression of a hunk of rock as it glided by.

When I was a kid, I read a book about how people used to navigate underwater with nothing more than a map and a stopwatch. In many ways, they were the ancestors of Rockjacks, spending their lives in pressurized metal tubes, deep under water. And sometimes they'd be doing something similar to what we were, and would likewise find themselves having to hide from patrol ships with orders to shoot first and ask questions later. Major difference was, they had the ability to shoot back, while we didn't.

Day three, and we finally got close enough to start observing the moon that was so important to the Robes. I didn't get the chance to look for myself; that close to a hostile base, my 'verse consisted of the threat detector and little else, but from what I overheard, it looked like they'd covered it in massive antennas and receiving dishes, for what purpose was lost on us. We tried deploying the towed array, but it disturbed the dust too much, so the captain ordered it stowed less it gave us away. The XO managed to get us close to the moons orbital velocity, allowing us to keep it under investigation for longer.

That's when the waste matter impacted on the atmospheric recycler.

Our esteemed Mission Commander decided that he was going to power up the active sensors, convinced that the EM interference from the gas giant would hide it. Had he thought to ask anyone before using his override codes, we could have told him just how bad an idea that was, but he was still smarting from being taken down a notch by the captain, and felt the need to reassert dominance over the crew. So he set the main array for a ten second burst, then locked the system so that it couldn't be deactivated short of physically pulling the circuit breakers.

I'm not sure who must have been more surprised: us or the Robes, because it must have lit up every alarm in the system like a Chrismukkah tree!

And then there was all the shouting and screaming and the flailing of arms, which is never a good thing in microgravity, followed by the Captain drawing her side-arm and almost shooting the Mission Commander where he sat. And I tell you this for nothing, not one of us would have said a word. Not one single syllable. Damn fool may as well have set the ships self-destruct countdown, as the threat detector all but exploded as we started to get hit by active sweeps from about a dozen different locations, including our friends in the patrolling destroyer.

Oh, have I mentioned that the most offensive option we had was to invite them to eat something cooked in our galley?

Year, we were screwed six ways from Sunday, so the Captain gave the only order she could, and told the XO to take us into the ring. And I hope you remember the part where I said just how suicidally crazy that was without active sensors, because we were effectively running blind into an avalanche! The ship shook and rattled as we struck chunks of rock and ice as big as an aerospace fighter, all of us praying under our breath that, if we hit anything too big or solid, it would at least be quick and painless.

Except for the Mission Commander, because ****** that guy!

Well, it worked, after a fashion: the Robes knew we were out there, but couldn't get a lock on us because of all the debris. Only, we couldn't stay in there for two long without having to power up the main reactor, and you can bet that the had every single neutrino detector in the system pointed in our general direction. The only option we had was to try and open up enough of a gap between us and the Robes that we could make a run for a jump-point. Unfortunately, that was evidently obvious to the other side, and we picked up traces of DropShips heading for the obvious pirate points, meaning that there wasn't going to be an easy way out of this. Obviously, they'd gotten a good enough look at us to realize that we were jump-capable, and weren't looking to be picked-up by someone else.

I guess my grandma was right; The only easy day is yesterday.

We were deep into the ring when we detected the first detonation on passives. See, unlike normal space, a dense ring like the one we were in has just enough material in it to allow for shock wave propagation. Not very strong or long-lasting shock waves, but shock waves none the less. This meant that they were blind firing capital grade autocannons into the rings, the shells set to detonate a certain time after being fired. It's an old trick, almost as old as ring diving itself, intended to either expose the ship you're hunting, or rattling them enough that they try and rabbit. It was a good plan, and in their place, I would have done exactly the same thing. Which only made me wonder just who was running that Destroyer, that they knew all our ticks?

Well, hopefully they didn't know all our tricks, because the Captain gave the order to turn one of ST-46 shuttles into a Cry-Baby. Essentially a massive EM transmitter, the ships primitive autopilot was programmed to perform a series of random course adjustments intended to make tracking its point of origin impossible, then make a high-G burn for a transient jump-point in the shadow of one of the moons, hopefully drawing enough fire and attention for us to make our escape. The shuttle was launched, and we had little choice but to sit and wait, listening in silence to the near constant warbling of the threat detector and the impact of ice and rock upon the hull. To call nerve-wracking would have been an understatement, and I could hear my crew-mates over the open link: some were praying to a variety of gods and goddesses, others sobbing, a few even saying goodbye to their loved ones. We all face death in our own way, and don't question how others do-so. As a life-long atheist, I didn't really have much to do but sit there, intently watching my screen, and hope that I had left the universe a better place for my being.

They say that there are no atheists in a foxhole, but vocabulary aside, I managed to remain one thus-far.

I wasn't hard to pick-up the Cry-Baby on the passives once it went loud... unfortunately, it soon became clear that it wasn't fooling the Robes quite as well as we'd hoped. Oh, sure, they destroyed it after a few minutes, but they probably sent fighters to run it down, while the destroyer kept on blasting holes in the ring like it was going out of fashion. XO did his best to plot a course that avoided the biggest fragments, and avoid making any obvious disturbances, but a 300-meter long, 100,000-ton starship handles like one would expect, especially when you're limited to the docking thrusters.

Suffice to say, the old girl was going to have to spend some time in dock getting all the dents and gashes buffed out if we ever got back to base.

Time seemed to drag on, minutes feeling like hours, hours like days, as we sat there, barely breathing, never knowing if the next shot might be the Golden BB. Even a glancing blow could cause catastrophic damage, possibly even cripple the ship and leave us drifting. As I said before, the rules are different for spy-ships, which is why our scuttling charge was in the megaton range, and supposedly guaranteed to turn the Chiroptera and everyone on board into a rapidly expanding cloud of radioactive particles in less than the blink of an eye. And yes, we technically could have loaded it onto a shuttle and sent it hurtling towards the destroyer hunting us, but leaving aside how that would have been a massive escalation in what was still a cold war. Shuttles make for crap missiles, especially against something that can shoot back. Far better keep it with us and go out in a flash than be taken alive by the Robes, after all.

Well, it came time to start thinking about using it when we detected a number of detonations directly ahead: the Robes had apparently gotten bored, and decided to blow a hole clean through the ring. With so much forward momentum, we had no chance of stopping in time, and everyone held their breath as we emerged from the ring into open space, almost directly below the destroyer... only it was very suddenly preoccupied by the...

You see and hear things in space, okay? That old quote about there being stranger things than science can explain? Yeah, that's true. You sit around a spacers bar, and you eventually hear tall tales of ghost ships, inexplicably abandoned colonies, mysterious phenomenon and alien beasts as yet unknown. And like any right minded person, you think they're bullshit, until that day you run into something that you can't explain logically.

It was big: part we could see was easily a kilometer long, and at least a hundred meters across. It's skin, if you can call it that, looked like it was made up of some kind of crystalline material that looked to all the world like the same rock and ice chunks we'd been dodging for almost four days by that point. I couldn't make out any eyes, but it certainly had a mouth, with massive teeth that were crushing the hull of the stricken Lola like an empty beer can.

Then we saw them. A smaller, but only in comparison, one with what looked like a fresh scar along its back.

We didn't stick around to find out what was happening, or who would win, but it certainly looked like the Destroyer's back was broken as we burned hell-bent for leather for the nearest pirate point. Even the Robes seemed to forget about us, the DropShips they had deployed to hunt us moving to try and help their stricken command ship.

And we made it, by the skin of our teeth trough a thirty second jump-point only ten meters wider than the ship was long. We reported back everything we'd seen, the entire crew lodging complaints against our illustrious Mission Commander. But I think command was more interested in the footage taken by our hull cameras.

The End

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