Both Sequoia’s cruiser and the survey ship carrying the Admiral set off on a top-speed, bee-line course from Doom Cloud toward the Delfinian hospital ship. Everyone was tense with one thought; hurry Eddy to the doctors.
Delfinians had exactly the same idea. As soon as Sequoia had safely parked and Eddy had been lifted over the water barrier, Delfinian doctors whisked him to the emergency room in such a hurry that Sequoia and the crew had to push hard through chest-deep water just to keep up.
Traveling to the delfinian emergency room on a floating stretcher was far more interesting for Eddy the second trip. He actually enjoyed zipping through the passageways at delfinian full speed. The crew protection device had served its purpose well, treatment was much simpler and quicker than the first time around.
The doctors were through with him in less than an hour and Eddy suspected they were much more interested in determining how well the protection device had worked than in how sore he felt. Even so, he was feeling much better when Sequoia returned him to their base ship. He was almost grateful when human doctors once again ordered a night of hospital bed rest.
Eddy woke early the next morning feeling fit. Joking to himself about the yo-yo ride between Doom Cloud and the delfinian hospital, he hoped it wasn’t becoming a routine. After dressing, he went straight to the flight deck windows to see what he could see. It turned out to be a totally unexpected surprise. The entire battle fleet was parked out there.
Eddy counted and then recounted the spaceships. He came up with only fifty-four. Could it be? Six ships were missing? Running to the Windows on the other side of the ship he began counting those being recharged by delfinian ships and then counted the main part of the fleet for the third time. The total really was fifty-four! He turned on the instruments at the pilot seat and searched in vain for the missing three ships. None were hidden behind others.
Wondering who might have been lost he sat down heavily and heard himself gasp with a pang of grief. The wonderful people in Pacifica’s mighty fleet had become like a new family that had helped fill the loss of his parents during the tragic tornado strike. Eddy was devastated. Who might have perished in Doom Cloud’s latest attacks. What horrors had that awful dark force unleashed on his friends? What had happened while he slept in the warm bliss of peaceful exhaustion?
As he sat contemplating the worst of his imagination’s worries—perhaps even Walker had died—he noticed a small, round black spot darker than space itself. Straining to focus on a darkness that wavered in and out of sight he decided that what he was seeing was true; Doom Cloud was close enough to be visible with the naked eye. He zoomed the center screen above the forward window slots to full magnification, seeing Doom Cloud so close sent a chill down his spine. He stared at the approaching foe while remembering the desperate struggle he and the fighters had just been through, then he heard a slight noise and realized that someone else was on the flight deck with him. He flipped on the light switch and turned in his seat.
“Admiral,” he exclaimed. “What are you doing in the navigator’s chair without any lights on?”
“I can see all the windows from here,” the Admiral answered. “Like you, I can see outside better when the lights are dimmed.” The Admiral chuckled, his musical laughter was part of what others found so endearing about him, Eddy included.
Eddy noticed lines of tiredness under those friendly eyes. He also saw that the Admiral was slightly slumped and looked a little stiff. “How long have you been here?” he asked with a note of concern.
“Most of the night. I slept on and off watching the fleet arrive.” “Why didn’t you say something when I came in?” Eddy asked.
The old admiral, Inocente, pushed himself up and gradually wiggled straight in the chair. A hint of a twinkle returned to his eyes as he stretched and let out with a waking yawn. “The truth is, Eddy, I was asleep when you came in. I kept quiet when I woke up figuring you didn’t need me to tell you what you can see with your own eyes.”
“What happened? Admiral, I counted six ships missing.”
“There are three cruisers lost." The admiral said with a choke in his voice and Eddy saw actual tears in his eyes. "The other three; Sequoia, Shawn, and Walker, went back with the survey ship to try and find out more about Doom Cloud and search for seven missing fighters.”
“Seven missing fighters? I thought they all made it out of there after I went straight up and marked the spot for the fleet weapons to aim around.”
“That was brave, Eddy. The squadron leader told us all the fighters would have been lost without your quick thinking and flight skills. She asked that you be thanked, personally. You certainly are becoming something of a legend in this struggle. Keep it up, son, your bravery is inspiring the whole fleet. Everybody figures if you can do it, they can do it too.”
Eddy enjoyed compliments as much as anyone, still, he didn’t feel he quite deserve the praise. “Admiral, I wasn’t brave, I was so scared I don’t even like to think about it now that I’m safe. What happened to the other seven fighters?” he asked, changing the subject from himself and back to his first worry.
The Admiral, being an admiral, had been pushing on Eddy and he wisely decided not to continue Eddy’s on-the-job training, for the moment. “The fighters were attacking Doom Cloud using Commander Walker’s spinning saw-blade formation. They had almost cut a big hunk from Doom Cloud when it counterattacked with a barrage of inky black eruptions. The entire fleet was driven back by the ferocity of the attack. They used up all reserves defending themselves and more fighters were launched to defend during the retreat. When it was all over, seven fighters and three cruisers were missing. We are very sad about the missing crews, and don’t see a chance they survived. Even so, I am proud of them and would tell them that they did some hefty damage to Doom Cloud if I could.”
“But it’s still there and coming closer fast,” Eddy said, smacking his fist into his hand with a sharp thwack.
“It’s smaller. Even though it still looks the same we’re whittling away at it; slow but sure. The outer radius is the largest area and they’ve knocked the diameter down a full percentage point now. There’s no way to know how much that thing can take before it starts weakening.” The Admiral clenched his fist at Doom Cloud. “I have to believe we will beat that thing.” Bouncing up from his chair and walking with a spring in his step, he grasped Eddy’s upper arm and grinned, “Let’s go to the galley for breakfast,” he said, “I’m starving.”
Eddy walked next to the Admiral along the ship passageway to the galley, he had to trot every few steps to keep up. The Admiral strode into the galley, quickly selected his meal and sat at the nearest table, Eddy joined him as soon as he finished loading his tray. They ate in silence, both were famished. Eddy hadn’t realized how hungry he was until the meal was in front of him, he ate with obvious relish.
The Admiral pushed his chair from the table when he had eaten enough and sat back, watching Eddy finish. “You might like to know that the person who jumped Shawn has been caught,” he said.
Eddy was both surprised and excited by the news. “What happened?” he asked.
“Somebody used Shawn’s official communication department numbers to requisition the torpedoes sent to earth. That made it seem hopeless to ever track the culprit.”
“How was it done, then?” Eddy asked.
“It’s interesting how things work out. Shawn once was a companion with a very smart woman, Caitlin is her name. They have a seven-year-old son and still work together on some projects even though they are no longer a couple and just good friends. Anyway, she had become suspicious about a guy who worked with communication torpedoes when the distiller was sabotaged.”
“Distiller was sabotaged?” Eddy interrupted.
“It’s not exactly a secret,” the Admiral continued. “People thought playing dumb about what happened to the distiller might cause the saboteurs to feel secure and then make a mistake. The plan seems to have worked.”
“How did Shawn’s friend nab the suspect?” Eddy asked, sliding forward till he was sitting on the edge of his chair. Eddy watched the Admiral’s eyes sparkle, he was obviously enjoying telling the story as much as Eddy was enjoying hearing it.
“The code used to change the course from nation Pacifica to the United States of Earth wasn’t Shawn’s, it was from the torpedo maintenance facility. Shawn’s friend, Caitlin, noticed it because she knew Shawn’s code number. The person she was suspicious of was questioned and he confessed. He won’t identify others involved, though; all he’ll say is that he hated what he was doing and is glad it’s over. That means we still have the spy problem that we don’t have time to think about right now, so let’s hope we get another break soon.”
“Wow!” Eddy exclaimed. “Here we are under total attack and some jerk is diverting information to Use.”
“I’m thinking the two are related in some roundabout way,” the Admiral responded, “and that brings up the jobs I have in mind for you.”
“Jobs? For me?”
“There are two things you can do, both are important.”
“I’m ready, Admiral, I’ll do anything you ask.”
“I knew you would say that, so I’ll start with job number two. My personal ship is faster than a fighter and almost as maneuverable. It has two light cruiser engines and every gadget a fighter pilot would want, including the latest Delfinian crew protection devices. It also carries four passengers and some freight. I am assigning my ship to you and sending you to Earth. You might have to fight your way through to reach nation Pacifica’s space port but I don’t think Use has anything that can stop you, other than a lucky hit.”
Eddy grinned. He imagined himself coming out of deep-space drive about halfway between Luna and Earth. United States of Earth sensors would lock on to him as he arced over the planet in a suborbital dive to the spaceport. He visualized missiles rising toward him and crude rocket-powered interceptor fighters being launched. He felt the Admiral’s ship twist under him like a well-trained cattle herding horse intently watching a cow’s eyes look in the direction of its next move. He would change direction with a light tap on the joy generators and the fighters wouldn’t have time to react before he was into his final corkscrew dissent. He would be on the ground and the interceptors would still be going up.
The Admiral watched Eddy plan his imaginary moves. He didn’t try to suppress his own smile in sympathy with Eddy’s grin and faraway look. “I only wish I could be there for that,” he sighed.
Eddy’s attention jumped back to the Admiral “Okay,” he said, “I can deal with number two. What’s number one?”
Admiral Castro laughed, he found himself growing fond of the brave and enthusiastic young man in front of him. “The delfinians should be landing on planet Pacifica now. I’m told their ships fly around underwater or in the air as well as in outer space.” He rose from the table. “Let’s finish our conversation on our way back to the flight deck,” he said putting his breakfast tray on the dirty dish rack. Turning toward the door he reached in his pocket and handed a little gadget to Eddy. “Have you ever seen one of these?” he asked.
Eddy took a brief look. “It’s one of those communication collars the delfinians gave Shawn,” he replied handing it back.
“No, you keep it for the first job. It’s the latest model. Did you notice it has four discs instead of two?”
Eddy nodded and tried it on, “how does it sound?” he asked with a grin.
“Take it off,” the Admiral growled. “I don’t understand Delfinian.”
Eddy removed the translator collar and put it in his own pocket. “What are the two extra discs for?” he asked.
“It’s a two-way model, you speak in Delfinian and hear in our language.”
“How do the Delfinians make things like this so fast?”
“We don’t know, yet,” the Admiral answered as he walked into the flight control room. “They probably already had these things, at least experimentally. I figure you will be the one to tell us more after you start job number one,” he said, turning to study the ship sensors. “I was hoping to see the survey fleet at Doom Cloud but the signals still haven’t arrived,” he mused aloud.
“Admiral!” Eddy shouted. “The fleet is gone!”
The Admiral’s eyes followed Eddy’s gaze out the window. “They went to chip away at Doom Cloud. Our only hope is that the fleet can weaken it enough so that the big land-based weapons can finish it off, assuming the fleet doesn’t get the job done first.” He walked across the room and stood next to Eddy at the window.
Eddy’s immediate reaction was disappointment at being left behind. It made him angry even though the Admiral had assigned him two important jobs. “I want to stop that thing out there,” he said, in a voice that was quiet compared to his racing thoughts. “It’s a cold, heartless force that uses everything for its own awful purpose and leaves a ruined planet behind when it's done. What’s the point of that?”
The Admiral took a deep breath. “Who knows? Perhaps in some far distant time and place, it was the corporation that won the race in cannibal style capitalism like the United States of Earth has.
"Every one of those corporations is designed to grow to infinity. Maybe this thing we call Doom Cloud is the end result. Maybe after it gobbled up all the other corporations, it ground up its own planet and people.
"Now it wanders in space searching hungrily for other planets and people to eat up keep on growing. Maybe Doom Cloud is a corporate monster consuming life so it can grow to infinity as all corporations are designed to do.
"This is strange to think about; one could call it a servant of Satan and probably be just as close. I don’t think anyone will ever completely understand what motivates the negative force in that cloud, or anywhere else for that matter. All we need to know is that we must stop it from destroying the planet or die trying.”
Eddy walked to the opposite window and looked at Pacifica’s sun. “Whatever it is,” the Admiral continued, crossing to look at the still distant speck of a sun. “Delfinians chose Planet Pacifica partially because there is a huge subterranean cavern beneath the continent where our settlement is located. There’s more than enough room for us to hide there, too.
“The Delfinians are fixing up one of their ships to carry our heavy weapons to reinforce the fleet and another to carry everyone through the undersea cavern entrance. They want a human copilot after they have drained the water out of the top level of their ship. You seem to be the favorite among Delfinians, they specifically requested you to train as the first human copilot. A delfinian named Cecric will train you.”
“What about your ship, Admiral? Job number two.”
“First things first, Eddy.”
continue to Chapter 15