Ambassador T'Phai blinked in astonishment at the seed-shaped pod revolving in the holographic display. It was difficult for him to accept that such a small object could be so heavy or so dense -- or wreak such havoc.
"Based on our probe telemetry data, we estimate that there are about two thousand of these objects headed your way," the image of Captain Ibanez played on the main view screen, "We think that small antimatter pulses should disintegrate the objects on contact, but it's just a theory. Your intercept window is probably about twenty five minutes at best. L'Whar's Hope is the only armed ship in the area which can respond in time. We're all counting on you now, T'Phai. Godspeed." Carmen's image winked off.
"Ensign Nae'Quor, move the ship directly in front of the path of the projectiles," T'Phai commanded, "Orient the ship skyward so that the direction of the enemy is 'up'"
"But sir, the shield --"
"That was an order, ensign."
"Our particle beam cannon is powerful, but it can only fire at one target at a time," T'Phai explained more for Gossard and Higgins' benefit that Nae'Quor's, "Our turrets can be configured to fire antimatter pulses at multiple targets."
"Hey, good call, T'Phai," said Gossard as he watched Nae'Quor carefully maneuver the ship into position.
"Perhaps you should reserve judgment until I inform you that the turrets are currently unmanned," said T'Phai, "As I stated before, I have only a skeleton crew. Discounting Ensign Nae'Quor and myself, there are only twenty-four crewman on board this vessel. Ten crewmen are required in engineering, four are needed in central life-support, two must staff the comm tower, leaving only eight crewman to man forty turrets."
"Ouch," Higgins commented.
"Okaaaaaaaay," said Gossard, who began to pace the bridge, "Let's think about this. Ummmm. Okay. How about this; we use the ships's sensor array to provide the turrets with targeting information, just like the missile system."
"Why don't we just use missiles in the first place?" asked Higgins.
"The enemy pods are way too dense and have too much momentum, Hig. Missile impacts wouldn't even alter the pods' flight paths much. Besides, if the pods fragmented, we would just have extra pods to shoot down. We need something like antimatter bursts that will disintegrate the pods completely." Gossard explained, "T'Phai, what kind of targeting systems do the turrets use?"
"I believe each turret's targeting telemetry is linked directly with the Power Suit visor of the individual gunner manning the post," T'Phai replied.
"Right, just like on the Valley Forge," Gossard mused, "Okay, so what if we plug the turret comm channels directly into forty spare Power Suit helmets and then plug the helmets into the sensor array and let the ship's computer do all the shooting?"
"Ah, an interesting proposal, Cpl. Gossard," T'Phai indulged, "But I do not know how this could be accomplished. The interface between the turret targeting sensors and the helmet visors is a 'wireless' connection. What you propose would require extensive software reprogramming. There is simply not enough time for such a procedure."
"Ensign Nae'Quor," Gossard addressed, "Where is the conduit for the turret comm backup channels?"
"Sir? I'm not sure I understand what you're asking --"
"Somewhere, here on there bridge, there has to be a back up system, an actual wire or cable that conveys the comm signals directly from the turrets to the bridge in case of radio interference...or failure.....right?"
"Ah, you speak of Emergency Backup Conduit."
"Yes! Where is it?"
"Emergency backup is located here, on a panel below the view screen," Nae'Quor abandonded her post to show Gossard the panel he had to pry open to gain access to the comm-channel conduit.
"Okay," said Gossard, "which wire connects directly to the turrets?"
Ensign Nae'Quor consulted her palm-unit to call up the schematics for the conduit before pointing to a thick purplish cable nestled inside the hole in the wall.
"Hey, good work there, Nae'Quor. Now, all we have to do is split this cable into forty separate channels, probably have to build a splitter tree for that, and then run each channel into a spare Power Suit helmet. Then plug the visors from the helmets into the main computer."
"Plug the visors into where?" the exasperation in Nae'Quor's voice was self evident. "There are no comm feeds to the main computer here on the bridge. Can you imaging the security risk if we --"
"T'Phai," Gossard interrupted, "Somewhere on your command chair, you can download the ship's logs into a palm-unit right?"
T'Phai lifted a panel on the armrest of his command chair to reveal a singular comm feed designed for palm-unit insertion. "It would appear so, yes."
"Great! So now all we need is a router!"
"What kind of router?" asked Higgins.
"Well, the sensor array would have to be able to read each helmet visor input as a separate channel. Otherwise we'd have.....well, we'd have one very overloaded turret relay."
"How about a camera router?" Higgin's queried.
"Hey, yeah, you can download helmet visor data directly into your camera, can't you?"
"It requires an adapter, but yeah, I suppose."
"Well, do you have a camera router with you?"
Higgins dug into his knapsack and pulled out a standard issue camera router, the same kind used by Fed-Net field agents to network multiple cameras together in a pinch.
"Will this work?" Higgins was taken aback by the crestfallen expression on Gossard's face.
"Yeah, this might work, but there's only twelve channel feeds here."
"Hey, I'll bet I left a couple of spares back on the shuttle!"
"Alright, that would give us.....thirty-six. That'll have to do. Go now, Hig, and snag all the spare camera cords you have along the way. T'Phai, remember those eight crew members you have to spare? Get them on the horn and tell them to bring all the spare Power Suit helmets they can find up to the bridge."
T'Phai watched in amazement as Gossard put his plan into motion and fifteen minutes later had all the components he needed lined up and linked to the ship's main computer. The purple cord from the comm channel conduit was now plugged into what Gossard had called a "splitter tree." The tree branched out into thirty-six cable ends that were connected to the thirty-six spare T'Phetti Power Suit helmets arranged in a semicircle on the floor of the bridge. The visor of each helmet was then plugged into the camera signal routing devices Higgins had provided. One thick cord extended from the cluster of camera routers to Nae'Quor's palm-unit which Gossard now held in his hand. A relatively thin cord connected the palm-unit to the feed in embedded in the arm of of T'Phai's chair.
The eight "spare" members of the ship's skeleton crew struggled to stay out of Gossard's way until T'Phai decided to dismiss them from the bridge. T'Phai ordered one of the eight to stay behind to man the copilot station, but the rest were told to return to their posts. As soon as the extra Skinnies had left the bridge, Higgins stepped up next to Gossard and leaned over in a conspiratorial whisper.
"Is this really going to work?" he asked.
"Yeah, I think so," Gossard whispered back.
Unbeknownst to them, both of their whispers had been broadcast over the PA system on the bridge. The speaker-phones on the front of their helmets had also been activated automatically once they stepped outside the decon chamber door so that any T'Phetti personnel not wearing a helmet could still hear them easily. Gossard continued to whisper anyway, assuming that Nae'Quor, T'Phai and the other T'Phetti copilot couldn't hear.
"I'm worried about the target count though," he said.
"What?" said Higgins.
"The target count. Carmen...I mean...Captain Ibanez said that there were over 2000 objects headed our way. By the time they're in firing range we'll only have a couple of minutes before the objects hit the Earth's atmosphere. Now, the targeting sensor algorithms for the turrets are fast, but not that fast. We'll be lucky to hit 200 targets, let alone 2000."
Gossard continued to fiddle with the palm-unit as he turned to face T'Phai.
"Alright!" he declared as if speaking up so that the Skinnie could hear, "The sensor array now sees each turret individually and the helmet interfaces seem to be working fine. I rigged the palm-unit upload switch on the arm of your command chair to commence firing."
"Understood," said T'Phai.
"Right now I'm trying to tweak the target assessment protocols," Gossard's hands never stopped typing as he spoke, "I downloaded all the telemetry data that Carmen gave us into the main computer so that wherever the sensor array detects one of those 'pods' it will automatically shoot it out of the sky. Unfortunately.....I'm having to download the telemetry into each comm channel node individually.....How we doin' on time?"
"Approximately two minutes until contact," Ensign Nae'Quor responded.
"Good, I think I can have this done by then....." Gossard's cool demeanor was betrayed by the sheen of perspiration beading on his forehead. He was having difficulty trying to type the necessary data into the palm-unit through the padded index fingers of his Power Suit mitts.
"Ambassador, the projectiles are now in visual range," Nae'Quor reported.
"On main viewer.....magnify," said T'Phai.
"Gossard!" exclaimed Higgins.
"I'm almost there, Hig --"
"Gossard!" Higgins was gesturing wildly toward the main view screen.
"Just a sec, Hig!"
"Finished!" Gossard exclaimed triumphantly, "Now what was so.....WHAT THE!"
The sight Higgins had been trying so desperately to bring to Gossard's attention was the main view screen's portrayal of literally hundreds of L'Whar Class battle cruisers as they bore down on the position of L'Whar's Hope. The turrets of the T'Phetti vessels blazed away at the tiny foreign projectiles barely visible in the foreground. Viewed as such high magnification, it looked as though the T'Phetti warships were about to collide with L'Whar's Hope, but at the last possible moment the T'Phetti ships started veering away in all directions, the flare of their engines scattering in a fire-works display of light and gleaming metal. If they hadn't pulled away at that particular moment, the fleet probably would have been caught in the Earth's gravity well and plummeted to a untimely death.
"322 projectiles still register on radar!" Nae'Quor alerted.
"Now, T'Phai, fire now!" Gossard urged.
T'Phai's thumb was already resting against the switch on his armrest, so he flipped it.
A tense hush fell over the bridge. Nae'Quor brought the radar display up on the bridge's holograph projector so the small bridge crew could witness the projectile onslaught first hand. They all watched in near silence as one by one the bright blue blips disappeared from the display. The turrets were firing once they locked on to a target and then swiveling to find the next target without double checking to see if the previous target had been hit, just as Gossard had planned.
Nae'Quor also called up two holographic display counters, one written in T'Phetti characters, the other in Terran numerals. Everyone's attention was fixated on the hovering digital numbers as they began counting down from 143, the number of projectiles still soaring through space. Both the counters and the number of blips in the display reached zero with only seconds to spare. Then, and only then, did the entire bridge crew breath a unanimous sigh of relief.
Instead of cheering, however, Gossard and Higgins looked at T'Phai with mixed expressions of awe and disbelief on their faces.
"Woah, T'Phai, you've been holding out on us!" Gossard exclaimed.
"Yeah, T'Phai, where'd all those ships come from?" Higgins added.
T'Phai blinked, trying to discern if their expressions leaned more toward awe or disbelief. Mostly it just looked like their mouths had stopped working, as if the synapses of their brains were firing too quickly for their mouths to catch up. Realizing that this behavior might continue for some time, T'Phai finally stretched out his arms and said: