In the prequel to Voyage of the Star Wolf, the starship Roger Burlingame is obsolete as it drifts through space on the brink of collapse. Yet, as its demoralized crew hopes for reassignment and its weary captain counts the days before his promotion to a desk job, a fanatical first officer named Korie refuses to succumb to apathy. He believes he has seen the enemy—no more than a blip on a screen—and he’s sure he can defeat them.
Korie knows he will need these men—even if they hate him—to hold the Burlingame together until the final confrontation. But as they drift ever deeper into the oblivion, following quarry that may be only a figment of their first officer’s imagination, the crew must decide whether Korie is a savior or a madman—and whether he is leading them to glory or certain annihilation.
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If anything can go wrong, it will.
The operations of a destroyer-class starship consist of more than seven hundred thousand separate and distinct functions. All of them can be monitored from its Command and Control Seat.
The seat is a harsh throne on a raised dais. It is the center of the bridge and the man in it controls the ship. Right now, Jonathan Korie is that man. Thin, pale, and motionless, he is the first officer of the United Systems Starship Roger Burlingame.
The ship has been on battle alert for twelve days, and for ten of those days, Jon Korie has been the highest ranking officer on the bridge. Ten days ago the captain retired to his cabin, and he has not been seen since. So Korie sits in the Command and Control Seat and is bored.
Lean and angular, he sprawls loose across it; his colorless eyes gaze disinterestedly at the giant rectangle of red dominating the front of the bridge. On it is a single shimmer of white, the stress-field projection of the enemy ship. Superimposed below that is a number, 170; the enemy's speed is 170 times the speed of light. The speed of the Burlingame is 174 lights.
They are gaining, but only slowly. It will take at least twelve more days to close the remaining gap — and even then, when they do catch up to the enemy, they may not be able to destroy him. As long as the quarry stays in warp, he has the advantage; he is easy to pursue, but difficult to catch. Either he must be outmaneuvered or he must be hounded until his power is exhausted. Both procedures are difficult and wearying.
Korie stares without seeing. The huge screen bathes the room with a blood-colored glow; the image burns into the retina. His nose no longer notices the familiar odors of old plastic and stale sweat. His ears no longer hear the muted whisper of activity, the ever-present, almost silent humming of the computers.
A speaker in his headrest beeps. He touches a button on the chair arm. "Korie here. Go ahead."
A laconic voice. "Mr. Korie, this is the engine room. We're picking up some kind of wobbly on the number three generator."
"What's wrong with it?"
"I don't know, sir. The damn thing's been throwing off sparks for a week."
Korie grunts. And swivels his chair sixty degrees to the left. Above the warp control console is a medium large screen, one of many that line the upper walls of the bridge. On it, the power consumption levels of the ship's six warp generators are shown. The red bar of number three is hazy at its tip with a shallow but extremely rapid oscillation.
"It looks mild enough," Korie says to the waiting communicator. "Could one of the secondaries be out of phase?"
"Negative. If it were, we wouldn't be able to hold a course. It was one of the first things we checked."
"Well, how bad is it? Can you manage?"
"Oh, sure. Just thought you ought to know. That's all."
"Right. See what you can do about it. Let me know if it gets worse."
"Yes, sir." The communicator bleeps out.
Forgetting the wobbly, Korie swivels forward again. He pushes his hair — light, almost colorless — back off his forehead. Stretching out his long legs, he shifts to a less uncomfortable position.
Idly, he smoothes out a wrinkle in his dark tights, scratches vainly at a spot on his grey and blue tunic. He wets a pale forefinger against his tongue and rubs at the persistent stain until it fades. Satisfied, he reclines again in the chair.
A chime sounds, a bell-like tone. Korie's gaze strays automatically to the clock — abruptly he checks himself. (It isn't my relief that's coming.) The thought echoes rudely in his mind.
The bridge of the starcruiser is a bowl-shaped room. The wide door at the rear of it slides open to admit four low-voiced crewmen. They cut off their talk, move quickly into the room, and separate.
Two rows of gray-blue consoles circle the bridge, the outer row surrounding the room on a wide raised ledge, the other just inside and below. Despite the spaciousness of the room's original measurements, the additional consoles and equipment that have since been added force a cramped feeling within.
Brushing past their shipmates, two of the men move around to the front of the ledge, called the horseshoe. They tap two others and step into their places at the controls. The other relief crewmen step down into the circle of consoles in the center, a lowered area called the pit. They too tap two men. Dropping easily into the quickly vacated couches, the new men settle into the routine with a familiarity bred of experience.
The men going off watch exit just as quickly and once more the bridge is still. The crew are sullen figures in the darkened room, sometimes silhouetted against the glare of a screen.
One man — a small man on the left side of the horseshoe — is not still at his post. He glances around the bridge nervously, looks to the Command and Control Seat just above the rear of the pit.
Working up his courage, the man steps forward. "Sir?" Korie peers into the darkness. "Yes?"
"Uh, sir ... my relief — he hasn't shown up yet."
"Who's your relief, Harris?"
"Wolfe?" Korie frowns. He rubs absentmindedly at his nose.
Harris nods. "Yes, sir."
Korie sighs to himself, a sound of quiet exasperation, directed as much at Harris as at the absent Wolfe. "Well ... stay at your post until he gets here."
"Yes, sir." Resignedly, Harris turns back to his waiting board.
At the same time, the door at the rear of the bridge slides open with a whoosh. Red-faced and panting heavily, a short, straw-colored crewman rushes in, still buttoning the flap of his tunic.
Korie swivels to face him. "Wolfe?" he demands. He touches the chair arm, throwing a splash of light at the man.
Wolfe hesitates, caught in the sudden glare. "Yes, sir ...? Uh, I'm sorry I'm late coming on watch, sir."
"You're sorry ...?"
"Oh." The first officer pauses. "Well, then I guess that makes everything all right."
Wolfe smiles nervously, but the sweat is beaded on his forehead. He starts to move to his post.
"Did you hear that, Harris?" Korie calls abruptly. "Wolfe said he was sorry...."
Again Wolfe hesitates. He looks nervously from one to the other.
"Harris?" Korie calls again. "Did you hear that?"
"Uh, yes, sir." The answer is mumbled; the man is hidden in shadow.
"And that makes everything all right, doesn't it, Harris?" Korie's eyes remain fixed on Wolfe.
"Uh, yes, sir," Harris answers. "I guess it does — if say so —"
The first officer smiles thinly. "I guess it does then." His voice goes suddenly hard. "In fact, Mr. Harris, Mr. Wolfe is so sorry that he says he's going to take over your next five watches for you. In addition to his own. Isn't that good of him?"
"Shut up, Wolfe!"
"Uh, sir —" insists Harris. "You don't have to do that —"
"You're right, Harris. I don't have to — Wolfe does."
"Sir!" Wolfe protested again.
"I don't want to hear it."
"But, sir, I —"
"Wolfe ...!" says Korie warningly. "You are ten minutes late in getting to your post. Are you trying for twenty?" He cuts off the spotlight, darkening the bridge back to Condition Red, and swivels forward.
Wolfe stares at the first officer's back for a moment, then mutters a nearly audible, "Yes, sir ...!" He steps across the horseshoe and ritually taps Harris's shoulder.
In the Command and Control Seat, Korie exhales angrily through even white teeth. Ignoring the sound of Harris's quick exit, he forces himself to gaze forward at the screen. (There, that's the only thing to be concerned with — the enemy.) That pale shimmer of white remains tauntingly near, maddeningly far.
Somewhere a computer hums as it measures the gap between the two ships. Murmuring to itself, it notes the ever-narrowing distance, notes by how much it has narrowed since the last measurement, and records the difference. The gain is imperceptible to all but the most sophisticated of electronic eyes. On the screen, the image remains frustratingly unchanged.
Eyes narrowed, Korie stares — seeing and yet not seeing. He ticks nervously at the chair arm.
He glances up. A crewman on the right side of the horse-shoe, near the front, waits expectantly. In the dim light, Korie can barely make out his face. Then and lanky, barely post-adolescent, the man is Rogers, crewman third class and assigned to duty on the gravity control board.
"Yes?" Korie grunts. "What is it?"
"Ship's gravity is down to 0.94 again — and still slipping."
Korie nods. "You might try checking your available power. That's what it was last time."
"Oh — yes, sir." The youngster turns back to his console and Korie turns back to his thoughts. The problem of the fluctuating gravity is relegated to the same dark corner of his mind as the persistent wobbly of the number three generator.
Idly, he swivels his chair to the right. On that side is Barak, the astrogator. A big, raw-boned black man; he is hunched over his console at the edge of the pit. Jonesy, the assistant astrogator — small, wiry and curly haired — is standing next to him.
"There," says Barak, tapping at the monitor. "There's the error — 0.00012 degrees." He drops back into his couch. "We'll just have to watch it for now. It's too small to correct. Give it a couple of days to grow."
Jonesy nods. "I wonder where it came from."
"Engine room, probably," Barak murmurs. "One of the generators must be picking up a bit of heat." He touches a button and the projection on the monitor dissolves.
"It figures," Jonesy snorts. "Can't those field jockeys do anything without screwing up?"
"That's funny." Barak's broad face splits into a grin. "They were just asking the same thing about you."
Jonesy snorts again, pulls his headset back down over his ears, and turns back to his board.
Watching, Korie is troubled. He doesn't like errors. Even the slightest one could add days to the chase. But Barak knows his business; this one won't have a chance.
A sound from the horseshoe attracts his attention. Rogers is standing at his gravity control board crying into a microphone, "Now it's down to 0.89 and still falling. Who's taking all my power?"
A laconic voice answers from the speaker, "The engine room. They've picked up a wobbly, so they're overcompensating —"
"Yeah, but I need power too! I'm supposed to keep the gravity within 2 per cent Earth normal, and I can't do it if I don't have power."
"Power ..." sighs the speaker. "Everybody wants power. ... All right, let me know when it hits critical and I'll cut the auxiliaries."
Korie frowns. Than damned wobbly is making its presence known all over the bridge. He swivels left to look at the warp control console.
There, an engineer is yammering into a mike, "Listen, there's nothing wrong on this end! All of our settings are correct. Are you sure your fields are —"
The engineer pauses, scratches his chest. "I'm not so sure. The curve doesn't feel right."
"I don't care what your curve feels like. I know what it feels like down here, and we've got static up the wazoo!"
Korie's gaze flickers to the screen. The number three generator is shimmering dangerously, a red piston vibrating faster than the eye can follow. A wide hazy area indicates the depth to the wobbly.
He stabs a button, "Engine room! This is Korie. You're wobbling too much. Can you correct?"
The answer is immediate. "Sir, we've got our hands full just trying to stay on top of it. It won't respond."
"What's causing it?"
"We don't know yet. Mr. Leen is down in the well now."
Korie grunts. "Well, damn it — try to hold it within limits. I'm not going to lose that bogie!"
"Yes, sir." The communicator winks out.
Korie shifts his attention forward to the pilot console. "What's our warp velocity?" he demands.
One of the officers straightens in his couch, leaning forward to read his monitor. "Uh ... holding at 174, plus a fraction; but it's not firm. ..." Questioningly, he looks back at Korie, his face a dim blur in the dark.
Korie frowns. "Damn. If it starts to drop, let me know immediately."
"Yes, sir." The other turns forward again.
Korie glances back to the left, to the warp control console. Angrily, he glares at the flickering red bar on the screen — that damn number three generator! Able to do nothing but watch, he beats intensely at the chair arm with a clenched right fist.
"Fix it already. ..." he mutters. "I' don't want to lose that kill ...!"
The screen flickers redly. Somewhere a warning bell starts to chime. Eyes flicker toward the screen as the oscillation increases, widening past the danger levels.
Sudden red flashes on all the boards — the insistent chiming becomes a strident alarm; its shrill clanging shatters across the bridge. Crewmen turn hurriedly to their controls.
A voice: "We're losing speed! One hundred and sixty and still falling!"
Simultaneously a communicator bleeps. The first officer hits it with the butt of his fist. "Yes?"
"Engine room, sir." In the background another shrill alarm can be heard. "Mr. Leen requests permission to shut down."
"Can't do it," Korie snaps. "Is it absolutely necessary?"
"Uh — just a moment. ..." There is a bit of off-mike mumbling, then the voice returns. "Mr. Leen says no, it isn't absolutely necessary, but, uh, if he had another set of engines, he'd junk these."
Korie taps indecisively at the chair arm. He stares ahead with pale eyes. The bogie shimmers and flickers across the screen; the wobbly is affecting the sensors too. Agonized, he hesitates —
"Sir?" asks the speaker.
"Just a moment." He takes his hand off the button, snaps at the officer ahead of him, "What's our speed now?"
"One hundred and forty-three and dropping steadily. It's —"
"Never mind." He stabs at the button on the chair arm. "Radec!"
"Yes, sir?" A new voice on the intercom.
"That bogie — you still have him." It is as much a statement as a question.
"Yes, sir, of course — but he's flickering pretty badly —"
"If I have to shut down, can you pick him up again?"
"After we unwarp, sure, I should be able to."
"How long will you be able to keep him on your screens?"
"Uh — five, maybe six hours. ... We can't scan more than a hundred light days, no matter how big his warp is. After that — well, the whole thing gets pretty fuzzy."
Korie sucks in his lower lip, bites it hard. Damn! "Do you have anything else on your screens? Anything suspicious? I don't want to be caught by surprise."
"Uh — no, sir. Nothing. No major field disturbances at all — and nothing faster than light."
"All right." Korie disconnects him. Hardly seeing it, he stares at the empty red screen ahead. The enemy shimmer coruscates wildly and uncontrollably across the crimson grid.
"One hundred twelve and still dropping," calls a dark voice.
Every eye in the bridge is on him, but he sees only the screen.
The first officer is torn with pain — that flickering blur —
"Eighty-seven lights — sir!"
"I heard you."
"Sir! The engines are overheating —"
"I know it!"
Suddenly, Barak is standing beside him. "Damn it, Korie! Admit it! We've lost him! Now let go! Shut down those engines before they burn out —"
Korie looks at him, his pale eyes suddenly hard. "We'll shut down when I say we'll shut down!"
"Yes, sir!" Barak spits out the words. "But you'd better do it while you still have engines to shut down."
Korie stares at the other. They lock eyes for a clanging moment —
— And then the moment is over. Korie reaches for the button.
The answer is immediate; the crewman has been waiting at the mike. "Sir."
"Stand by to shut down."
Korie disconnects. There is nothing more to say. He looks at Barak, but the astrogator is silent.
Korie turns away then, calls to the warp control console, "Prepare to collapse warp. Neutralize the secondaries."
The routine takes hold. Crewmen move to obey and orders rattle down through the ranks.
"Remove the interlocks. Stand by to neutralize."
"Interlocks removed. Standing by."
"Cycle set at zero. Begin phasing."
"Cycle set at zero. Beginning phasing."
Around the horseshoe, crewmen exchange wary glances. The smell of defeat hangs heavy across the bridge. The chase has been abandoned.
Korie sinks lower in his seat; he stares grimly ahead.
(So near ... so near and yet so goddamned far!)
Confirming lights begin to appear on the boards. Red warning lights blink out, are replaced by yellow standbys. The strident clanging of the alarm dies away, leaving only a slow fading echo and a hollow ringing in the ears.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Starhunt"
Copyright © 2014 David Gerrold.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
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