Warning Shot ?
The second intercept was just moments away. The crew was more relaxed as the first fly-by went so well, but Maxby had an uneasy feeling. The Tholion ship entered into the scope of the navigational sensors and proceeded through just like the previous time. Just as the ship passed the halfway point, the Tholion ship ejected a black cloud from its tail like a frightened squid.
“Helmsman, hard to port!” Maxby shouted.
The ship veered left but not soon enough to avoid being caught in the periphery of the black cloud. The view screen showed the cloud was made up of millions of black particles. Some bounced off the hull while others stuck to it.
“Damage control parties to stations!” Maxby ordered, “Helmsman, reestablish orbit. This time make sure we are nowhere near the Tholion vessel. McLeod, what were those things?”
McLeod worked furiously with the sensors. “They’re carbon silicate amalgamation of some sort. The ones I am scanning seem totally inert, sir. At least for now, they don’t seem to be a threat.”
“You’d better be right, McLeod. Let’s hope their Captain was just trying to send us a harmless message to back off by dumping their garbage in our faces. Did we complete our scans?”
“It was cut short, but we were able to get another close range scan.”
Ayers added, “No damage reported on any deck, sir.”
Maxby turned to Commander Blackpool and ordered, “I’d like you to take a detachment of Marines to inspect the hull. I want to be certain that those black chunks are no threat to the ship.”
“Aye, sir. Right away.”
Wælrave interrupted, “The Tholion Shuttle is lifting off planet, sir.”
“McLeod, keep an eye on it and tell me the minute it reaches the Tholion ship.”
Blackpool, Corporal Macgregor and four other marines stood in formation in the airlock, their æthersuits touching chest to back and shoulder to shoulder for lack of space. When the pressure had cycled, the hatch swung open, and the six poured forth in a lethal blossom that only a skilled tactician could have choreographed. Commander Blackpool took point, cutlass in one hand and Blaiser in the other, and approached one of the black lumps stuck to the hull. Using the blade of her cutlass as a sample collector, she turned to MacGregor who dutifully held the collection jar. Once the specimen had been sealed, the Corporal shot back to the airlock and on to the Science deck. Blackpool directed her troops to fan out to survey the hull, ordering them not to step on any of the black chunks until the boffins came back with a report.
As the airlock was repressuring, MacGregor stared at the sample. He could make out fissures and grooves along its outer surface. They seemed organic like beetle chitin or wasp larvæ. He muttered darkly, “Damned sack o’ festerin’ pus! I’ll shoot th’ next blasted Tholion son o’ whore I see! God blasted pools o’ steamin’ vomit!”
MacGregor found it hard to suppress his indignant infuriation on his way to the Science deck. When he arrived, he felt no inhibition about voicing his opinion of what the specimen was to the scientific experts. Within minutes, MacGregor’s theory was confirmed.
On the Bridge, McLeod caustically remarked, “Spores! What fun!”
Ayers retorted, “Your scan would have detected cosmic Spores when you scanned the cloud.”
McLeod explained, “These spores are unlike any we have ever catalogued, sir. They seem to be totally inactive, inert. Normally cosmic spores would start feeding or making an effort to metabolize any material they came in contact with. These seem either dormant or more probably roasted to a carbonized lump.”
Maxby asked, “Do they represent any danger to the ship?”
“I don’t believe so, Commodore, but I would recommend removing them form the hull just in case I’m wrong.”
Maxby cued Wælrave to open a channel to Blackpool who was still on the exterior of the ship. “Commander, I’d like your men to assist the ship’s crew in removing the spores from the hull of the ship. I will be sending out all available crew for scrapping duty immediately. They will be under your command. Make certain not one spore is missed.”
“Aye, sir. I’ll have them start straight away.”
Before MacGregor headed back outside to begin a long shift of scrapping and cursing the Tholions, he headed back to his quarters to loose Private Hood to do his duty on the ship’s interior. In the last few weeks the ferret had explored every nook, cranny and crevice in the ship that a cosmic spore could use to hide and breed. After releasing the beast to perform his assigned task, MacGregor accessed his secret cache and took a draw from some 80 proof brandy he was able to collect as part of a gambling debt from one of the officers.
Meanwhile on the bridge, the Captain pondered the Tholion’s stratagem with Ayers and McLeod. “Do the Tholions breed spores? Would roasted spores be analogous to a warning shot, promising that the next cloud would contain live spores? Were the spores intended as a delaying tactic? Did the Tholions just want to make us flinch?”
Wælrave interrupted to announce that the Tholion shuttle had been brought aboard the main vessel. Seconds later, the Tholion ship broke orbit and took a course heading that would take them back to Tholos.
As scheduled, the scientific staff congregated in the conference room to discuss the findings of the last pass. McLeod opened the discussion as before, “The interior of the Tholion ship has been mapped and information specific to each area has been recorded for analysis. This central section indicated here seems to be the power plant. Chief Winston has no theory on the method of power generation, but Dr. Kitchner of Physics group has a theory.”
Kitchner stood and drew the room’s attention to a secondary Visograph. “We have researched the theory behind sub-ætheric power generation, but it is in its infantry. The Concept is to find a power delta between our space and some other layer of the Ætheric medium and open a conduit. The resulting power flow from one layer to the other could then be tapped much like tapping the power of a flowing river with a mill wheel. I believe the Tholions have a method of opening such a conduit using electro-reactive crystals. It’s only a theory, but all the sensor data seems to support it.”
“Very good.” Maxby commented, “Do you have a way of disabling it?”
“No, sir, but we know for certain that the Tholions can’t use soliton shields. The use of such shielding would cut power to their ship.”
Maxby looked pleased and said, “That is good to know, lieutenant.”
McLeod explained using the main visograph that the Tholions congregate in two main barracks of sleeping quarters. The bridge was located in the center of the ship and that the ship carried a large cargo hold. Most curiously the Tholion weapons were mounted inside the hull and could only fire in the direction they were mounted.
Farrell elucidated, “Tholion weapons are mounted in a cluster to fire from fore, aft and in three broadside batteries.”
“What type of weapons do they employ?” asked Maxby.
“As near as I can tell, Commodore, kinetic or gravitic force beams. Their weapons literally bash the hull of their target vessel. From the set-up of their weapons’ capacitors, each weapon has a low rate of fire.”
Maxby was anxious to return to the danger at hand so he called for Dr. Tandekar’s analysis of the spore pods.
“It is obvious from the data gathered that the spores we encountered are a curious hybrid of common cosmic spore. The entire structure has been made more durable to survive even harsher environments than the vacuum of the Æther. To reproduce, the specimen’s anatomy would require a tremendous amount of energy so I don’t think the familiar cosmic spore behavior of mass reproduction is likely. Unlike other spores, it does not contain much stored energy to be used for adaptation. We haven’t discovered what might activate the organism, but we are sure the organism can be reanimated.”
Maxby dismissed the group but stayed to talk to Tandekar and McLeod. “We know something of the organisms, but we still have no clue as to why the Tholions would have used them in the manner they did.”
Tandekar only offered, “They are enigmatic creatures with strange ways. This treatment may be their ultimate humiliation. What would an alien culture think of a human vessel mooning them? Maybe we just don’t get it, who knows?”
Groups of æthersuited scrapers were almost done clearing the hull of what was becoming known as Tholion turds. Blackpool asked, “MacGregor, what makes you think these are Tholion droppings?”
“Wha’ wood ye call it, Ma’am?”
Blackpool thought for a while and responded, “Actually, the moniker seems quite appropriate.”