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The Back Door


Ray Nothnagel

"Roycen! Got that scope analysis yet?"

Lieutenant Roycen watched the progress bar on the strategic operations screen panel filling up like watching paint dry. The Commander's inquisition was as impatient towards him as he was towards this damned progress bar. "Two minutes left," he read off from the screen, "But to be fair, it has been saying that for about three minutes now." Analysis of telescope data was never a fast process, and apparently even its slowness was unpredictable. Maybe the Bactarans were right, and these things have too much a mind of their own.

"Sounds like the Captain's retirement plans," Commander Essex replied, probably a little bit louder than was prudent. Captain Bartlet had been getting more and more lax on protocol and formalities as his retirement approached, but it was still a bold move to make a remark like that as his second in command. Roycen, for his part, found that sort of attitude endearing in a first officer. At least the Captain wasn't on the bridge to hear it.

As if on cue, the Captain's ready room door opened. "Cap'n on deck!" Roycen called out, apparently the first to notice. Some of the lower-ranking crew stiffened noticeably as if a schoolteacher had just rapped on their knuckles with a ruler, as was to be expected upon the entrance of most Captains. The senior staff, on the other hand, knew better: the real captain of the ship was already on the deck, and had been for hours.

"Commander," the Captain said as he strode towards Essex's position. "What's our status?"

"The battle group is cleaning up the last of their orbital defenses, sir," she reported. "We'll begin discussing the surface strategy as soon as the scope analysis finishes in..." Essex glanced over towards Roycen's screen.

"Three minutes, Commander.... Captain," Roycen read the display off, unsure to whom exactly. "Sorry it's going up, these analytic algorithms aren't entirely predictable."

"Let's call it five minutes," she continued, "And we'll have a recommendation for surface targets within ten minutes after that."

"Good. We've got half an hour until we reach the next maneuver point, I'd like to let loose a volley of drivers before we slow down and lose that kinetic energy." While the lower ranks hung on his every word, the Commander barely acknowledged his words. His increasingly limited time spent actually working ops was seen by the inexperienced as a mark of genius and efficiency, but the Commander knew better. Everything he'd said was redundant, already a part of the established mission profile. As quickly as he'd entered, he turned in place and walked off the deck, the door closing behind him.

By the time Roycen looked back at the screen, the readout had changed. It now claimed, despite its previous estimate of time remaining, that it had completed its analysis. "It finished early, Commander," Roycen reported.

The Commander pressed a series of buttons on her console, then spoke. "Lieutenants Miller and Tyrene, report to strategic operations immediately. Lieutenant Crosby, take watch." Commander Essex stood and walked to strategic operations as the Lieutenant took her place at command as ordered.

The officers converged on the strategic operations panel as the enhanced imagery appeared there. Essex began the meeting. "Here's our imagery. What are we looking at, Roycen?"

Roycen cleared his throat. "Well, we know that what we're looking for is somewhere near the border between the Houses of Torme and Moti. Those borders are here." He pressed a control, and colored lines appeared overlaid on the terrain. "According to what historical reference we have, there was a river that changed course a couple hundred years ago, which was the reason for the territorial dispute." The display zoomed in on one spot on the map, where a river traced the territorial border. "This is what the computer flagged as the potential old riverbed." Another line appeared, tracing a faint, winding divet in the landscape. Roycen delivered the coup de gras, "And here, is a series of buildings they don't want us to see."

Everyone leaned into the display. With a few more controls, seven hexagonal shapes suddenly stood out against the backdrop of wilderness—a large one in the center, surrounded by six smaller buildings and roads connecting them.

"Which building do we suspect has our target?" Tyrene asked.

"I clock those small buildings as defensive," Miller declared. "Keep their neighbors out of their business."

"Do you think they pose us a threat?"

"Almost certainly. Bactarans have more spaceships than we do, ain't no way they don't expect death from above."

Essex stared into the screen. "This is it, then," she tapped the display on the central building. "This is our key to controlling the Arm. Every Junardm in the galaxy comes out of that building. When this is over, it'll finally be us in control of who gets bridge travel."

The modified Envoy-class transport roared into the atmosphere of the moon which the Bactarans called home, accompanied by the lesser screams of its fighter escorts and a series of mass driver projectiles. The Earth Star Force had in recent years been modifying Envoys, usually a diplomatic vessel, for military missions. The strong armor and versatility of design on the Envoy was second to none, and once the creature comforts were removed, its carrying capacity was impressive as well. Extraction missions called for exactly this kind of ship.

The mass drivers, little more than heavy iron rods, built on more and more velocity from the gravity of the world, ready to deliver the whole of their kinetic energy explosively the instant they struck the surface, with explosive force rivaling atomic bombs. Six mass drivers were aimed at the surrounding buildings, eliminating their defenses, while the Envoy was preparing to land near the central structure.

"We've got incoming," Roycen called out from his station. "Reading thirty bogeys in five squadrons."

"Origin point of the squadrons?" Essex asked.

"Looks like the analysis was correct. Each sqaudron is coming from one of the surrounding buildings, and are expected to still be within the blast radius of their respective.... wait." Roycen pressed a few more controls. "Strike that. One additional squadron is coming from the central structure."

"Wait, what?" Essex froze. "Are you telling me that the central one is defensive?"

Roycen's hands moved over the controls quickly as his face contorted in panic. Essex could hear him uttering a series of obscenities under his breath.

"Roycen! What's happe—" As Essex spoke, six blinding flashes flared up, one after another, as the mass drivers hit their marks. Roycen had trained the ship's primary scopes on one of the surrounding buildings, the only one of the six of them which hadn't launched a squadron. Essex could see on his display a spectrum analysis in progress. As soon as the staggered line graph of the analysis appeared, Roycen froze, then slowly the color drained from his face.

"Lieutenant!" Essex barked, snapping him out of his reverie. "What just happened?"

"It's the fabricator," he answered, gesturing blankly at the screen. "It was in one of the small buildings."

Every person on the ops crew stopped what they were doing and turned towards Roycen, each one frozen in some combination of horror and disgrace. The air stifled with absolute stillness for several seconds until at last the helm officer, acting on instinct, press the controls necessary to halt the ship's descent. The gravity on the deck changed, shaking Essex into action. "Abort the mission. Notify all escorts we're returning to orbit."

As the communications officer complied, Lietenant Tyrene looked towards the Commander. "Did we just—"

"Our mass drivers just destroyed the fabricator," Roycen answered on her behalf. "They must have placed it in that building as a decoy. That's it. That's the end of bridge travel in this galaxy."

"Helm, get us out of here, best speed," Essex ordered. The ship lurched upwards at her command. "Open a channel to the Captain. Operation Backdoor is a catastrophic failure."

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