The Carmel B Crazies
by Rick Kennet
On the day she turned seventeen Cy De Gerch peered through a window into rusty red desert and saw her future squatting darkly in its launch cradle.
She’d been discharged from hospital an hour before and had made her quick way to Styx City Starport. Standing now at the window into Launch Cradle 3, her bag slung over the shoulder of her new Martian Star Corps tunic, she gazed through the glass like a kid outside a toy store. Utopia Plain, her new toy, smooth, black, ellipsoid, seemed to squat in its cradle amid a patch of the red desert of Mars. Recently repaired after a battle with Xenoid warships at Rigel, the starship’s liquid lines were unbroken but for the pressure tunnel extruded from her forward hatch. A thing of space, it seemed to sit impatient to lift into the pink-brown sky and the void beyond.
All her fears and excitements came flooding back – a feeling of elation at this new beginning aboard her first ship; a scary feeling too of coming adrift, separated from her family on Phobos and the surrogate family of her space cadet section, training days ended.
Inspecting herself in the window’s reflection, Cy adjusted her tunic sporting its new lieutenant’s bars and ran a hand through her short dark hair, wondering if she’d surprise her new captain with her age. She thought that she might. She was the first of her breed – a product of the Gartino genetics experiment – to qualify for active service. It all depended on what Captain Ralph Brown was like. Would he understand and appreciate her as a purpose-built person, trained and schooled seventeen years for this purpose? Or would there be suspicion and mistrust?
Taking a last critical look at her reflection she rubbed at the scar on her left arm, a souvenir of the tragic accident in the asteroid belt twelve days ago. She’d been in hospital since then getting bone restructure and knew the scar would be a constant reminder that she was human after all and not the genetically engineered superhero she used to think she was.
Cy presented her credentials to the Lieutenant standing in Utopia Plain’s forward hatchway. He regarded her from his seven or eight year superiority in age and space experience. Maybe he too had scars, as the ship had scars. Unlike her own, though, they’d probably not be the product of a stupid accident. From the way his eyes flicked from her face to her lieutenant bars and back to her youthful, open face she could tell he was judging by appearance alone: Is this our new navigator? Is this our new gunnery officer? Is this who takes over if something happens to the Captain?
Yes, she thought in answer. I am.
“My name is Peters,” he said. “I am… I was the First Lieutenant. I suppose I better take you to see the Captain.”
In the control room she met Captain Brown, a dark-haired man, early thirties, tallish, slightly stooped. Though he didn’t regard in anything like a judgmental way, his handshake had quivered a little as he realized just how young his new First Lieutenant really was.
“Welcome aboard, Ms De Gerch,” he said nevertheless, and though she knew he meant it, Cy wondered just how welcome she was. She was too aware of being a new thing, an unknown and untried thing.
Stowing her gear in her cabin, she unfolded and hung up a hologram on the wall: a 3D image of her late friend Jos and herself in their trainee vacsuits standing amid the majesty and thin snow at the very top of the Martian volcano Mount Olympus, highest peak in the Solar System. Taken a year ago when they’d been both sixteen, it already seemed like another world a lifetime ago.
“We’re on the shores of space,” Jos had said atop the mountain that day.
Utopia Plain lifted an hour later, gravity rings rippling down the hull, acting on all atoms at once, causing no G forces within.
As Mars shrank on the aft view screen from a red ball to a sparkling blood diamond, and with Cy busy at Astrogation, Captain Brown opened an Intership channel. “Listen up, people. This is the Captain. Our destination is Carmel B, the secondary of a main sequence binary star system seven hundred light years distant. Our mission is to support the Terran vessels already there and to curtail Xenoid attacks on the planets of that system. Because the Martian Star Corps is a small force compared to the Terran fleet, the Eathers tend to underestimate our capabilities and potential. At Carmel B Utopia Plain will show them how incorrect that view is. That is all.”
Three hours later, now accelerated to 70% of light speed, Utopia Plain arrowed into the dimensional limbo of subspace where a short line was not necessarily the shortest path between two points and the speed of light was not the speed limit of the universe.
When not on watch in the control room Cy studied astrogation, strategies and tactics, playing simulations on the ship’s computers. Twice she played chess with the Captain and was twice defeated.
“I’m no good at stylized warfare, Captain,” she said, pushing her chair back from a second checkmate, “The real thing’s not like chess. It’s brutal, random and often unfair. It’s like someone said once, ‘It’s magnificent, but it’s not war.’”
The Captain, with his first hand knowledge of what war was like, nodded agreement as he collected the chess pieces. “Do you know who said it?”
Cy cocked her head to the side, thinking. “Duke of Wellington?”
“No, Marshall Bosquet, a French observer at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. He was watching a brigade of British light horse charge a battery of Russian heavy artillery they mistakenly thought they’d been ordered to attack – a gallant but useless action that ripped them apart. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.”
“So what famous remark did Wellington make?”
Captain Brown leaned back in his chair. “Ah, yes, the Iron Duke. The night before the Battle of Waterloo he said of his troops, ‘I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by god they frighten me.’”
Having decided, like Marshall Bosquet watching the charge of the light brigade, that chess wasn’t war either, Cy instead sat in on poker games, played with other crew members in the mess deck. Its chance and dare and bluff appealed to her.
And they drilled, practising Abandon Ship and Gravity Loss, Decompression and First Aid, as well as Battle Stations and Damage Control accompanied by jolts and buffeting contrived by colliding gravity rings fired simultaneously from bow and stern. Sometimes the Captain stepped back and let Cy take charge, and sometimes he left it to Lieutenant Peters, the officer who’d met her at the hatch with that judgmental manner. She was sure he still viewed her with caution, as something a little suspect.
And the Captain… she had yet to decide what Captain Brown really thought. Despite his genuine welcome and his satisfaction in the way she carried out her assigned drills, he seemed to regard her with a vague uncertainty.
Then two torpedoes went crazy and there was no time for games and uncertainty.
Utopia Plain emerged from subspace at the edge of the Carmel B system, her crew at battle stations, ready, watching, finding nothing. The rippling gravity rings tilted and the ship curved toward the bright pinpoint of the star. 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, each time closing with the white disc of Carmel B.
Cy De Gerch turned from Astrogation and said, “Crazies?”
Captain Brown, sitting amid instruments and repeater scans, reread the message just received and nodded. “Two of the new Mark Nine-One torpedoes were launched by a Terran ship in an engagement with a Xenoid vessel. They failed to self destruct as they should after the enemy eluded them. They’re now described as ‘units tactically-cyberconceptional malfunctioning’ which is basically Command-speak for crazies.”
“That’s why it’s not a good idea to give ordnance real thought,” said Lieutenant Peters at the weapons console.
“Hardly real thought, Mr Peters,” said Cy. “Put thinking under a neutron warhead and the thing would never want to explode. Then where would we be? Once a weapon is launched it has to think for itself, so the Nine-Ones were given just enough pseudomind to do so – they were just coming on-line in the Terran Star Corps when I was doing my last ordinance classes. But where there’s mind, even artificial, there’s always the possibility of madness.”
“Interesting,” the Captain mused. “I best discuss this with our torpedo people on the Weapons Deck. Cy, you have the Com. Continue dimension skipping till we get into the inner system where the torpedoes were lost.” He glanced across at Lieutenant Peters. “Frank, once we’re stabilized in real space start a standard search pattern.”
He left and Cy slipped into the captain’s chair. Now finally she was no longer just baby-sitting in the nothingness of subspace or overseeing exercises. Now she was in command of a starship in real space. As she looked over the instrumentation she felt like saying, “Steady as she goes, Mr Peters!” But Utopia Plain was still weaving in and out of dimension, and Frank Peters, now at Astrogation, was watching her – she thought as perhaps others in the control room were watching her. This was it. The experimental test tube teenager, the new thing, the unknown and untried thing, was now in charge.
She said, “Mr Peters, check that we have correct identification override codes for the Mark Nine-Ones. No good if our weapons systems lock out because they identify the torpedoes as Not Enemy.”
Frank Peters turned to his task without acknowledgement, something he should’ve done. Cy frowned and was about to remind him of proper procedure when three things happened bang, bang, bang.
Utopia Plain dropped out of subspace on its last dimension skip – dropped almost on top of a swiftly moving white blur on the close-range scan.
The blur immediately vanished in a swell of bright light, engulfing half the screen.
The ship lurched to starboard, throwing everyone in the control room to the deck.
Scrambling back into her chair Cy snapped open a line to Environmental Control. “Report status!” she said. Their ability to continue breathing had priority over other damage reports.
To her relief she found life support systems still functioning.
However Frank Peters looked anything but relieved. “Weapons Deck’s badly damaged,” he said, adjusting the earpiece whispering him the evil news. “Damage also to the Drive… the hull’s breeched with decompression in sections 17, 18 and 20… casualties and people missing.”
“The Captain?” said Cy.
He paused, a finger to the earpiece, then said, “Still unaccounted for.”
Before Cy could properly realize the full import of what this meant for her and for the ship a line buzzed from Scanners.
“Target bearing three-five zero by zero-one-zero. Range one point five million kilometres and closing.”
Cy looked at her repeater screen. A white blip at its edge was moving inward towards them. Even without reading the electronic tag flickering beside it she knew it for one of the crazies they’d been assigned to kill. That explosion could only have been its companion finding them first. By sheer bad luck they’d emerged from subspace right in their track, and now it looked like the hunter was now the hunted.
As Lieutenant Peters sent out a distress call to the nearest Terran base in the system, Cy said, “Helm, come to new course one-eight-zero. Crank acceleration up to 100 g. Let’s give this crazy torpedo some space.”
The crewman at the helm said, “Aye aye, ma’am,” but a moment later added, “Helm sluggish to respond. Getting power fluctuations. Acceleration rate irratic.”
“Range now one point two million and closing,” said Scans.
“Mr Peters,” said Cy, “now would be a good time to download the ID override code for that torpedo to our lasers.”
He turned to her with a look of barely controlled calm. “Computers say we don’t have that code.”
“Seems Terran Command has not yet seen fit to pass this info on to their ex colonial ally. Our weapons system is recognizing them as friendly and won’t fire on them.”
Cy cursed. “Then why the hell were we sent to chase these crazies when we haven’t been given their ID override code?”
“Just another example of the right hand of high command not knowing what their left hand is doing. Welcome to the real world, M De Gerch.”
Cy slid him a sidewise glance, then checked Utopia Plain’s acceleration and course change. Neither was moving fast enough for her liking. And the crazy torpedo was gaining on –
She looked up sharply. Someone had begun to pray, a quiet, personal murmuring. From the helm? From one of the monitoring stations? Did it matter? She was the closest thing they had to God right now. The thought was exhilarating. The thought was frightening.
“We can’t outrun it and we can’t shoot it,” said Frank Peters stepping up beside her. “What are we going to do?”
Cy studied her screens while absently scratching the scar on her arm – and remembered promising she’d never again think herself a superhero. But now, she reflected, was not the time to be keeping such promises. “Trust me,” she said.
“Trust you to do what?”
“What I’m about to do in the next few seconds … well, just don’t think me crazier than I actually am.”
He shrugged a shrug that plainly said, “What could be crazier than the present situation?”
Cy regarded him coolly a moment, then smiled a little secret smile. “Frank, what Earthie said ‘Oppose whatever our enemies support’? Could that also mean ‘Contradict everything your enemy says’?”
“Does that matter?”
“It’ll matter in a moment. Helm, come about one eighty degrees.”
Frank glanced at the repeater screen, for the moment not registering the order she’d just given. The torpedo, larger now, closer now, showed more distinctly, showed sharper outlines and detail. “What a shit-ugly thing,” he said.
“Not at all,” she said almost admiringly. “Yeah, they’re ungainly looking, angular and blunt. But they don’t have to be aerodynamic or impress anyone. They’re handsome beasts in their way, all brutal power. That, I think, is what I like about them. They do their job with elegant efficiently.”
“The trouble is, right now this one’s elegantly efficient job is us.”
Cy made a sort of grunt as if an awkward fact had just been pointed out.
Still watching the screen and with the first notes of strain in his tone Frank said, “You’re turning us straight into it.”
“Yes,” she said. “I am. Frank, you’ve resented me from the moment I came aboard, haven’t you. You’d like to see me fall flat on my ass. It’s ironic, but if I do fail not only will you not live to have your moment, but neither I nor anyone else will have an ass to fall on.”
“What do you want me to do? Say I’m sorry? All right, I’m sorry you came aboard.”
Ignoring this insubordination Cy looked down at the image of the torpedo closing with them. “If the little bugger thinks it can think let’s give it something to think about.”
As Utopia Plain lined up on a collision course the image of the torpedo visibly quivered.
“I knew it!” said Cy triumphantly. “We’re not acting like a target. Altering towards has confused it. It wants to play the Think Game? It doesn’t have the humanity.” She laid a finger on the approaching image. “My poor crazy baby,” she murmured. “You just don’t know what it’s all about.”
Torpedo and starship rushed together.
Cy smiled at the scanner image of the torpedo, smiled at oncoming death like a child at some rare bauble.
She opened an Intership channel. “Listen up, this is the Captain.” Yes, it felt good to say that. “Secure all hatches and brace yourselves. We will soon be experiencing sidewise G forces. That is all.” Switching out she said, “Frank, program the after gyros to pivot ninety degrees to port, then the forward gyros ninety degrees to port, then engage maximum acceleration. Execute on my word.”
“Sure. Why not.” He returned to his position at Astrogation, convinced he’d been right from the start, that an experiment all gone wrong now had command of the ship and was running it headlong into an equally insane torpedo. Just the same he programmed the fore and aft gyros as instructed because he was a creature of duty. He began chanting off the falling ranges.
“Six hundred thousand … five fifty … five hundred thousand … four fifty thousand …”
“Explode,” Cy said quietly, finger on the image. “Detonate, my pretty,” for it was a pretty thing, all rough wrought beauty, the power and the glory.
“Four hundred thousand.”
“Explode,” she cooed.
“Three hundred thousand.”
“Cyleen tells you to explode.”
Two fifty thousand.”
“Two hundred thousand … it’s too close. It’ll kill us if it detonates now.”
She made a frantic shushing gesture, all the while not taking her eyes from the scan, not taking her finger from the image. “Detonate, crazy baby! Explode!”
The swing to port on aft gyros wrenched them all against their seat straps, crushing them breathless and dizzy. The second swing wrenched them in the opposite direction. Vision greyed to monochrome with blood pushing away from the eyes. Everything swirled and jarred and rocked as Utopia Plain turned sharp about in her own length, the drive kicking in with a scream of ragged power, slamming tilted gravity rings down the hull, accelerating away on a divergent course. And within the chaos came a silvery sound Cy could not place in her moments of grey blindness, a sound musical and glittering, rising above the noise of the drive, growing louder and bursting in upon her with disbelieving recognition.
It was herself, laughing.
As vision cleared, Cy caught her breath and watched the gap between the crazy torpedo and themselves widen on the screen: one thousand, two thousand, three thousand kilometres, four thousand, five thousand, six …
“We need ten thousand,” she heard herself say as she heard Frank Peters yell, “Idiot machine, just human enough to –”
At nine thousand the torpedo image blurred and was lost in a swell of light, obliterating everything on the screen.
Instinctively Cy braced herself for the shock against the fabric of space itself she knew the blast would deliver. For half a heartbeat she saw Frank Peters similarly bracing, looking across at her with an expression that plainly said, “You were right, I was wrong.” It almost gave her comfort to think it might be the last thing she’d see.
The expanding, sparkling blur of light reached out for them … and vanished.
No killing shock came.
A dark-haired man, early thirties and tallish, stepped into the sudden silence of the control room.
“Captain!” said Cy, engulfed in a flurry of emotions: surprise, happiness, confusion, realization the last few deadly minutes had been a drill, just another game.
Understanding was also dawning on the faces of Frank Peters and the rest of the control room personal.
Cy stood up, not at all resentful she had been tested in this way, instead proud in the knowledge that the Captain must now have faith in her, must have his approval. She looked for it in his eyes, his face, his expression. Approval was there, yes, but so was something else, something she had not expected to replace his waver of doubt.
And as she recognized with a shock what she saw, Cy was back at the chess board those few days ago, checkmated twice over, airing her dislike of stylized warfare, hearing again Captain Brown quoting the Duke of Wellington’s opinion of his troops.
“I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by god they frighten me.”
She frightened him. She’d frightened him in the best way possible.
“Helm, come to zero nine one,” he said, regaining his chair. “Ms De Gerch, close-up at primary fire control.”
Utopia Plain swung onto a new course, and Cy De Gerch, stepping to the weapons console, said, “Aye aye, sir!” and went to war.
About the Author
Rick Kennett has had horror and SF stories published in several magazines, anthologies and podcasts including Dunesteef, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. He won two Parsec Awards for podcast stories in 2013, a year that also saw the publication of his novel The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. One of those Parsec Awards was for Cast of Wonders Episode 71, Now Cydonia, one of the several Martian Ranger Cy De Gerch stories.
When not toiling at the day job in the transport industry, he can be found wandering cemeteries – necrotourism – or working as the podcast reporter for the Ghosts & Scholars M R James Newsletter.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.