From the Ashes of a Dead World

The defeated survivors of an interstellar war seek refuge on a long-forgotten planet, only to discover a human civilization with the industrial development of mid-20th century Earth—and which itself is embroiled in a brutal world war. Should they strive for peaceful coexistence or domination?

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Pavel Marino commands one of the last remaining squadrons in the final days of an unwinnable interstellar conflict. He must now spirit his government’s leadership across the stars to a forgotten planet whose inhabitants were believed destroyed in an ancient war. There, far from the reaches of a ruthless foe, they can regroup their forces in order to fight again.

But his ships were never designed to travel such a distance. Along the way many difficult decisions are made so that a few can survive. And when they finally reach their anticipated refuge, they discover that the planet is already inhabited by billions of humans with industrial-level technology, driving cars with internal combustion engines, flying airplanes with propellers, and waging a brutal world war.

Desperate, and with nowhere else to go, the weary space-farers make contact with their primitive cousins. They must now make a fateful decision: Should they strive for peaceful coexistence or domination?

20,193 C.E.
HMPS Imperator
5th Squadron, 18th Fleet
Trajan System

“Combat, I need a report on the current status of the evacuation,” Captain Pavel Marino said as he paced up and down the bridge, wearing a groove in the decking.

“Sir, transports are still docked planetside and are in a ‘load’ status,” responded Lieutenant Commander Paige Kaya, working deep in the bowels of the Combat Information Center.

“I can damned well read a status board for myself! Now get in touch with Operations Center on the surface and find out what the hell is going on! And I want that report five minutes ago!” Marino was exasperated by the fact that he had to stay on top of his officers for the simplest of things, like actually providing their commander with a substantive report. It was almost like he was commanding a ship full of midshipmen or something. He knew that the crew was tired—he was too—but that was no excuse for any of this amateurish shit right now. Particularly with how serious events were unfolding at the present time.

Marino swept his gaze across the bridge and saw everyone there uncomfortably avoiding eye contact by pretending to be much busier than they actually were. That was up until he saw his XO standing there cleanly shaven with a fresh uniform on, flashing a pearly-white smile. If he didn’t know any better he might have thought the Exec was well rested, but he knew that wasn’t the case. He had been working more grueling hours than anyone and the captain was well aware of it. “XO, what are you doing here? I thought I told you to go and get some rack time.”

“You sure did Captain, but that was over four hours ago. I thought I’d give you a spell and take over flogging the crew for a while.” Commander Archibald “Archie” Aydin was and always had been a fine officer who worked well with Marino. They had only one previous assignment together long before the war and it was a treat to have him as a subordinate again. If there was anyone who could read Pavel Marino’s mind, it was Archie Aydin.

“Tell me something XO, how is it that after all the shit we’ve been through over the last few months, you look like you’ve just reported back on board after a month-long furlough relaxing at the beach?” Marino almost wasn’t kidding.

“It’s all this healthy living. Good food, adequate rest, lots of vigorous exercise and plenty of time for spiritual reflection; that sort of thing,” Aydin said, ticking off a list of things literally none of them had experienced in recent memory.

“You ought to consider a career on the comedy circuit,” Marino said while rubbing his bloodshot eyes, right before indulging himself in an epic yawn.

“Yes Sir. You look like you could use a break, why don’t you get some sleep? I can herd the cats for a while.”

Marino looked at his XO and thought about arguing with him, but the fatigue was overwhelming. “Alright Archie, you talked me into it, I’m off to my stateroom for a badly needed eyelid inspection. Once Combat gets that report from the surface be sure to update me okay?”

“Will do Skipper.”

“Alright XO, you have the bridge,” said the captain as he shuffled off to the hatch, running through a mental list of the thousand things that required his immediate attention, but wouldn’t get it. The tasks heaped upon them kept growing at an exponential rate which directly translated into a series of unpalatable decisions. It felt like it was just a constant stream of “lesser of two evils” and that was the reality they lived in these days.

Marino was a career naval officer who had climbed the ranks in all the usual ways; doing all the expected jobs, attending all the usual schools, and going through all the normal gates. He was an above average officer, though certainly not brilliant and he knew it. He was hard-working and dedicated, always giving one hundred percent to his duties, usually at the expense of his family. That was his cross to bear and he did so as any quiet professional would.

Family. He had one… out there… somewhere. His wife Sadie was down on the surface of Trajan, safe for the time being with her three brown mastiffs. He had spoken with her on a private line a few days ago and the conversation was cordial, if a bit strained. They hadn’t actually seen one another in person in a few years, and since he was in-system she had asked—already knowing the answer—if he could take a shuttle down and see her. But the answer was no, he and his ship were not back home for holiday, they were back home on business. And his business was aboard the Imperator. It was a quiet hell he lived in knowing that he was about to abandon her to her fate when they evacuated the system, but it was a quiet hell that almost every other member of the crew was living in, so he could do nothing more than bear it. He knew Sadie secretly hated him for leaving her here like this, but there was literally nothing he could do.

Pavel and Sadie did have three grown children and they were out there among the stars somewhere, assigned to various fleets fighting now for the home worlds. They were a navy family so there was no doubt that his two sons and his daughter would serve as well. It was a common practice for the military families to carry the burden of service from one generation to the next while the rest of society carried on with their lives in blissful ignorance. It was the military families that suffered during peacetime and sacrificed their children on the altar while the civilians lived their comfortable existences unencumbered and uninterested. They paid their taxes and figured that that was their way of “doing their duty.” As long as it wasn’t their own kids wearing a uniform, then it didn’t matter. That’s probably why Trajan found itself embroiled in so many military adventures during its history—the people weren’t really invested in the outcome. At least they weren’t until now.

Pavel hadn’t heard much from his kids but he hoped they were still alive. Communications between star systems was slow, and communication during wartime was limited at best. Add to that complication the movement of naval fleets from here to there, in contact, and limited space allowed for personal messages after clearing the censors and well… getting word from his kids was tough. In the early days of the war he knew they were fine because he would have been notified of any of their deaths immediately through official channels. But now that everything was coming apart at the seams, that standard procedure had fallen into disuse. He just had to constantly convince himself that he’d know if something was wrong, but there was no way of knowing that for sure. He certainly didn’t want to think about all the abandoned units and squadrons scattered throughout the galaxy, left to fend for themselves. Or those that were so completely destroyed that there were no survivors left to report. Those dark thoughts haunted him and he tried to shake them away.

The various worlds of the Interstellar Protectorate had been a solid unified entity for over a millennia and had witnessed many great things over that time. There had been many challenges during its long and storied history to be sure, but it had always endured. It had shrugged off civil insurrection, financial collapse, human challenges to its sovereignty, and even the great alien war with the Orions. Never had its continued existence been in doubt, but now everything was lost.

There had been a long-standing competition with the Maktoum Dominion that went back for centuries. They had engaged in the on-again, off-again military clashes with them along their respective frontiers, and even full-blown war over a hundred years beforehand that bled both peoples white, emptied their coffers and ended in stalemate. It was just sort of understood that the Protectorate and the Dominion would carry on like this into perpetuity, competing with one another—occasionally coming to blows—but always accepting that the other would be there. Coexisting like two neighbors that hate each other who engaged in passive-aggressive games. That was up until the “Aguilar Incident” at the Garapan Rift and that’s when things took an irreversible turn that would trigger the end of them all.

It started off as a surveying operation which quickly escalated into a stand-off between small vessels of the local constabularies. That in turn led to a small engagement which quickly grew into local naval squadrons from both sides getting involved. As far away as everyone was from any sort of seat of government from either side, it was left to the commanders on the scene to make all the decisions and that’s when the perfect storm of ineptitude set in. The result was dozens of capital ships engaged in a full-blown battle costing thousands of lives on both sides. This had the predictable result of hurtling the Dominion and the Protectorate into a state of war. Not one of those convenient proxy wars mind you, but a formal declared war.

What was different this time from all the other flare-ups was the state of political and military affairs in the Interstellar Protectorate. The IP was on the tail end of a brutally slow recovery following a massive economic contraction brought on by years of irresponsible fiduciary decisions by the sitting governments. They had been overspending for decades and running up the debt they knew couldn’t be repaid and kicked the can down the road fully expecting the following generations to sort it out long after the politicians were out of office—or cold in their graves—without suffering the inconvenience of facing responsibility for their actions. Buying votes with bread and circuses was the norm for a long, long time until it simply wasn’t sustainable any longer.

Then came the “Great Austerity.”

That was a kind euphemism for the descendants paying for the largesse of their ancestors. A few generations lived like kings and then their grandchildren and great-grandchildren paid the cost. This was really what marked the beginning of the end for the IP. The declining hegemon slowly lost its edge at first, and then went into a freefall.

Fleets of ships fell into disrepair. The equipment of the army soon became obsolete and then poorly sustained as well. The numbers of service members on the rosters was scaled back, and then scaled back some more. Pensions were looted. Operating budgets slashed. Recruiting and retention goals plummeted. This was the navy Ensign Pavel Marino joined; a hollowed-out husk of a once-proud organization.

But Pavel had signed up when things were beginning to get better and they continued to do so throughout his career. He witnessed the low point and then gradually watched the organization that he loved resurrect itself. The officer corps got better, the budgets increased, the older hulls were replaced with cutting-edge new ones crewed by a new generation of trained professionals. It was a heady time full of optimism. Perhaps with a bit too much optimism. They were all guilty of believing their own propaganda back then, fully buying into the messaging that they were “Part of the greatest military the galaxy had ever known.” And while it was true that by the time Pavel earned the shoulder boards of a captain the military was far better than it had been in decades, they all had overlooked just how much better their strategic competitors had become.

While the IP was in a state of decline, her enemies were not and the Dominion enjoyed a series of advantages that were underappreciated by military and civilian leadership back home on Trajan. They had fallen into the trap believing that their family of powerful worlds had existed in sovereign unity for over a thousand years, and that that would never change. They simply did not consider the possibility that they were vulnerable to an existential threat. One that had been known to them for a very long time.

Some of the strategic planners weren’t completely stupid however and recognized critical shortcomings in industrial capacity and a lag in technological innovation. They knew that the Dominion would quickly overwhelm them if the war dragged out for very long, so they opted for a series of daring and operationally risky actions that were designed to gain advantage after inflicting crippling blows on critical military targets and enemy infrastructure. Some of these battles were decisive and successful. But not enough of them were and slowly but surely the Interstellar Protectorate started on a gradual slippery slope of military reversals.

It was seven years in before the first of the home worlds fell. The rest fell in rapid succession after that. The royal family and the seat of government were on Trajan, so the High Commissioner ordered that it be defended at all costs. This was in contravention to military realities and the advice of every single senior leader wearing a uniform. It played into the hands of the Dominion and sped up the inevitable.

Now it was nearly ten years after the “Aguilar Incident” and Pavel Marino was orbiting his home world, commanding His Majesty’s Protectorate Ship Imperator, a heavy cruiser whose keel was laid only a few years ago. Under peacetime conditions Marino probably wouldn’t have made the cut to command anything at all—let along a heavy cruiser—but the war needed hulls, and officers to command them. Especially when many of His Majesty’s best and brightest had been blown to atoms out fighting in a thousand different systems. War had a voracious appetite for flesh.

Pavel knew damned well that command was something he was privileged to have and he worked himself to the ragged edge constantly so as not to let his people down. Maybe he worked himself too hard. It was difficult to say. Particularly when the scope of work seemed to keep growing while the number of people left to do it kept shrinking. No matter. He was a professional and he would do his duty.

Not only did Pavel have the same ship and crew for the last few years, but now he had been put in command of a decent-sized squadron, tasked with the evacuation of Trajan. It was an unenviable task. It was a nearly impossible task.

The Maktoum Dominion military was running down the scattered IP fleets, task forces and squadrons just about everywhere. Most of them were fighting delaying actions, buying time for the evacuation of Trajan, such that it was. The Home Fleet was out there fighting like hell to hold onto the last three jump points in the galaxy that offered up any chance of escape, and they wouldn’t hold long.

In the meantime, down on the surface the last transports were getting loaded full of evacuees.

Naturally all the really important people and their families had seats on those transport vessels. This would also include a small intimate circle of important friends as well such as wealthy business partners, political connections, mistresses and illegitimate children. There was also this farce of a lottery that was put in place to convince the masses that the selections for salvation was done in a random and equitable fashion, but that was all bullshit. There were just enough families from the naval crews selected to give the illusion that it was fair, but more importantly to keep the crews from mutinying.

Pavel’s wife wasn’t one of those selected, but even if she were he would have quietly had her swapped out with the loved one of another crew member. He wouldn’t have asked others to leave family behind if he wasn’t prepared to do it. Besides, most of the crew on board the Imperator were from the other thirteen worlds in the IP and their families had mostly been left to an enemy occupation force.

Those that were absolutely guaranteed seats were the members of the royal family, the High Councilor, all the members of the High Council, and those that sat on the bench of the Principal Judiciary. And naturally most of them were fighting to get others preferential treatment which was bringing the evacuation to a grinding halt. The clock was running and it was only a matter of time before those precious last three jump points were lost, and down below on the surface the anointed ones were squabbling over seats on the Arc.

People were dying by the thousands to keep the escape route open, and the longer the delay, the more would die. But that hardly mattered to the ruling classes, they were concerned about nothing more than saving their own skins while the world burned around them. It was maddening.

Pavel made his way through corridors with members of the crew passing to and fro, all giving respectful acknowledgement of him as he passed. Some looked as if they were carrying out routine tasks, others looked harried. A few had the blank look of a robot simply going through the motions, with nothing left inside. Perhaps he identified with those the most.

When he arrived in his stateroom there was a certain sense of relief and release. He was in his own private sanctuary, a place he spent precious little time and a luxury he rarely afforded himself. At the end of his rack was a holographic status board giving live updates to various bits of information he was most interested in. There was a gently pulsing red light in the lower corner of the display that indicated a missed call from the XO.

He virtually pressed the call button on the holographic screen. “What’s up XO?”

“Skipper I’ve got some updates from dirtside. What would you prefer first, the good news or the bad news?” The audio was crystal clear as if the XO were standing right there in the room, but Marino had the video switched off for a bit of privacy.

“Since when did you ever have any good news? Don’t tease me, I might start developing an uncharacteristic sense of optimism,” Pavel said, running his fingers through greasy, unwashed hair.

“Well, Colonel Bridger called to report that things are coming off the rails down planetside. Order is breaking down rapidly and his troops are engaged in some pretty significant gun fights down in the capital and it isn’t all just rogue civilian groups looting and stealing. He reports that there are several military units down there initiating a coup and they’re trying to keep the government representatives from getting off-world. That’s effectively keeping the spacedromes in the city shut down for the time being for fear of shuttles getting shot out of the sky.

“That’s just one problem. The other, bigger one is we’ve got members of the High Council down there making a mess of the manifests and demanding changes to get other people evacuated that aren’t on the lists. Every person of influence or title is down there pulling rank,” Archie said without a hint of humor in his tone.

“So what’s the good news?”

“The good news is that the royal family got out and their ships are slipping into formation with the rest of our squadron. The King sends his compliments to you and the rest of us for our professionalism and undying loyalty.” Marino thought he picked up a hint of sarcasm in the last part of Archie’s response, but just a hint, so he let it go.

“Is the Palace Guard with them as well?”

“Affirmative. Brigadier Khan has the entire battalion loaded up with all of their equipment, including Mark II Armored Combat Ensembles and maintenance staff.”

“Good, those are some excellent troops and they’ll likely be useful later on. Whenever the hell we get out of here,” Pavel said, feeling just a bit exasperated thinking about all the politicians down there holding up the entire operation.

“Skipper, I know I shouldn’t ask this but…”

“But what?”

“At what point are we going to cut bait? I mean, we’ve got the royal family all safe and secure, but the longer we stay here the less likely it is that we can guarantee that. We probably need to consider pulling out of here regardless of whether or not we can get the government out.” Archie Aydin did not make this statement lightly and it was hardly off the cuff. He also had to know that if he was transmitting it to the captain’s stateroom that it was being recorded as well.

“XO, we are a constitutional monarchy and we take our orders from the duly elected government. The government that is currently on the surface making our mission more and more difficult with each passing minute. But they’re still in charge and we are going to stay here until we get them all up here with us. If all of us end up dead or spending the rest of our days on a prison barge then so be it, but we stay.” Pavel said it as firmly and gently as he could. There was no doubt in his military mind what his mission was, and he was ready to lay down his life for it. Even if the mission seemed more and more ridiculous with each passing minute. Saving the duly elected government while simultaneously abandoning the electorate that put them into office. And the more he thought about his wife Sadie down there, well… that didn’t make this pill any less bitter to swallow. He almost wished he would have the opportunity to die carrying out this shitty assignment. It would be the easy way out.

“Understood Skipper. You know me, I’m always up for a good time, and this here is one hell of a party.”

“I know Archie, that’s what worries me about you. One of these days I’m going to have Doc have one of his best head-shrinkers do a full clinical study on you. I’m sure we’d gain priceless insights into the human condition. But I’m afraid that is going to have to wait.

“Now, if you don’t mind, my rack is calling my name right now. I’m going to get some sleep, call me if there’re any further issues.” Pavel could feel the exhaustion wrapping him in a warm embrace.

“Will do Captain. Get some rest, I’ll see you soon.”

Without a further word Pavel laid himself down and stared into nothingness. He did not bother to undress or even remove his shoes. His mind wandered as he tried to focus on all the things he needed to do when he awoke.

And then he fell mercifully to sleep.

20,193 C.E.
HMPS Aquila
Interstellar Protectorate Home Fleet
Vicinity of Heaven’s Gate jump point

The Ready Room aboard ship looked absolutely immaculate, with everything in pristine repair and nothing out of place. Nothing except for the near dozen marine strike fighter pilots of the Grey Fox Squadron who were currently desecrating the place with their very presence. In fact, this may very well have been the very first time marine aviators had been allowed to defile this rarefied sanctum of naval aviation. Their unwelcome presence underscored by the two enlisted naval ratings working in there beating a hasty retreat out the nearest hatch the minute they arrived.

Not that any of them gave a shit.

There were ten of them assembled, a few of them milling about while others took a seat on one of the thirty empty recliners in the room. There was a small podium up front and a space next to it for a holographic display. Throughout the compartment were scattered various devices and luxuries unheard of in any marine squadron. A couple of them marveled at the unimagined comforts they found themselves surrounded by, amazed at the soft existence of their navy counterparts.

“You gotta check this shit out, I’ve never seen one this nice before,” exclaimed First Lieutenant Gabriel “Professor” Baker, pointing to the coffee maker in the back of the briefing room. There was an ancient tradition going as far back as the very first military aviators where each of them was bestowed a nickname or call sign. It was a time-honored tradition and one of the few things that every military pilot treated with sanctity. Of course unlike the other services, the marines always chose the most belittling and insulting call signs for one another—another time-honored tradition—and kept it the entire time they were in uniform. Baker got his name “Professor” for being a bit slow and dim-witted; a nickname that came as little surprise to anyone who knew him.

“Don’t hurt yourself with that thing genius,” replied First Lieutenant Peter “Animal” Hirsch, not even bothering to look up from the notepad he was working on. Hirsch had earned the moniker “Animal” for being one of the largest and strongest human beings most of them had ever seen. He was so big in fact, that the service nearly did not allow him into flight training because he almost couldn’t fit into a cockpit. He was in fact very large, very tough, and also very hairy.

While Professor and Animal were engaged in witty banter, First Lieutenant Helena “BOTT” Kershaw leaned over to her wingman, Lieutenant Raj Patel, and pulled up some files from her notebook and presented it to him. Hailing from the home world of Lemuria, Patel picked up the moniker “DROOL,” which stood for “Dumbass Retard Out Of Lemuria.”

“Okay DROOL, this is what I’ve been working on and I need some feedback,” Kershaw said, brushing her long hair aside.

“DROOL” Patel looked at the equations she was scrolling through and tried to make sense out of it. “You wanna tell me exactly what I’m looking at again?”

“I told you about this at chow this morning, remember? It’s my design for an active sensor program to fool drones.” Kershaw was pointing at a series of algorithms on her display that she had been working on for the last few months. She was a bit of a tech nerd, and the boys in the squadron gave her shit constantly about it. That and her big breasts. Which was where she got her call sign “BOTT” which stood for “Big Ol’ Ta Ta’s.”

“Oh yeah, I remember now. You actually think that this would work in the Goshawk?” DROOL cocked an eyebrow, clearly a bit skeptical. Mostly because he didn’t understand the base principle of her idea in the first place.

“Listen, it’s simple. We in the Protectorate used manned fighters and the Dominion uses drones, right?” BOTT was starting all over from the beginning again.

“Yeah, everybody knows that,” DROOL responded.

“Why is that?” She asked, quizzing him.

“Well, I suppose it’s because they have a large industrial capacity, smaller population and a low tolerance for casualties,” he said, not sounding terribly confident in his answer.

“All true, and they also recognize that drones are utterly flawed and inferior to human beings that actually make decisions. Drones will have a certain failure rate, and in the case of the Dominion, they accept that failure rate as within acceptable parameters. That’s why they use them. They are sloppy, but they are a compromise that they are willing to work with. We on the other hand prefer human beings in cockpits that think, make decisions and are prone to fewer errors. Understand?” BOTT wanted to make sure he was caught up so far and not completely lost.

“Yeah, so how does your program give us advantage then?” DROOL was working to make the connection.

“Right. So the critical factor here is that human pilots think and drones don’t. They rely on Artificial Intelligence to make their decisions for them. Due to the distances in space combat and the realities of time lag, the drones can’t effectively be controlled from a distant ship—they can be slaved off to a C2 bird, but nothing too far away. But the Dommies don’t typically fight with C2 birds since they are slow and vulnerable. They let AI do the fighting for them and there lies the rub. Artificial Intelligence is only as good as the information programmed into it and that is its inherent weakness.” Kershaw scrolled through another set of algorithms and pulled up the page she was looking for and showed it to DROOL.

“I still don’t get it,” he said, scratching his bald head.

“The Goshawk strike fighter is basically a highly maneuverable stealth craft. Its core survival principle is based upon being as invisible as possible. Right?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Well what if we made the Goshawk transmit a signal—more of a signature that everyone could see? What if that signature were something completely absurd that shouldn’t exist in the vacuum of outer space?” She was quizzing him again to see if he was catching on.

“Wouldn’t transmitting a signature compromise the spacecraft and make it a target?” DROOL was getting interested now as he was beginning to follow the line of logic, even if it seemed flawed.

“Yes, the active signature would give away the craft’s position, but it wouldn’t compromise it because the drones wouldn’t recognize it and therefore wouldn’t treat it at a threat. It would simply ignore the fighter because it doesn’t look like one,” BOTT said, her face beaming with pride.

“There’s no fucking way that’d work,” DROOL said, shaking his head. “Plus, I’m sure the engineers would have thought of this already and if there was a chance it would work, it’d be part of the ECM package.”

“I’m telling you, the designer’s philosophy relied on stealth and this will work. Trust me!” Kershaw was not one little bit put off by the criticism.

“Fine, let’s assume you are correct and this program of yours is solid, what are you proposing to do with it?”

“Why install it in our Goshawks of course. It would be badass!” BOTT was closing up her notebook and getting more animated.

“Seriously Helena, nobody’s going to authorize you updating the software package on any of our birds without extensive testing and training. I know you’re thinking about putting that shit in there before we jump and there is no way in hell that’s going to happen,” Patel said matter-of-factly, trying to get her to see reason.

“It’s already done,” she said, still beaming.

“What do you mean? What’s already done?”

“I already got the program installed,” BOTT said with a twinkle in her eye.

“No way. How the hell did you manage that? Chief Ortiz would never allow any of his techs to install software on any of ‘his’ birds without direct authorization from the CAG,” Patel was stating the obvious at this point.

“Chief Ortiz didn’t authorize it, but technician’s mate Solomon gave me access permissions and I installed it myself anyway,” Kershaw had lowered her voice when she shared this part, not wanting the others in the Ready Room to overhear.

“You did what? Why would Solomon do that for you?”

Kershaw simply smiled and winked at him.

Patel lowered his voice. “You didn’t actually fuck him did you?”

“Come on, I’m much more refined with my feminine charms than that,” she said. “I just let him think I was going to fuck him. It’s all about the art of flirtation. You men are really easy you know.”

“Dear lord in heaven,” Patel said, shaking his head again while rubbing his hairless scalp. “You are one manipulative bitch.”

“And don’t you forget it,” she replied with a toothy grin.

Unnoticed by anyone in the room due to the usual exchange of banter and general grab-ass, the squadron XO entered and took his place behind the podium up front. “Alright, everybody take your seats so we can get this thing started.”

Nobody noticed that the XO was speaking and the group of them continued to carry on unabated. The XO’s frown turned to a scowl and his ears began to turn red. “HEY! Everybody shut the fuck up and take a seat!”

The room went immediately quiet. Those that were milling around slowly found an empty chair and directed their attention to the angry captain standing behind the podium. The angry captain they affectionately knew as “Dickcheese.”

“Listen up, as usual there’s a shitload of stuff to do and not nearly enough time to do it in. That’s hardly new. What is new is now we’re operating on a carrier and we have to make nice with the navy pukes on board this floating deathtrap. So before the boss gets here I want to cover a few things,” the XO said, warming up for his monologue.

Animal leaned over to Flash and whispered under his breath. “Oh boy, here it comes.”

“First, you will henceforth cease referring to the sailors and your new shipmates as ‘walking vaginas’ is that clear?” The XO scanned the room to make sure all eyes were on him.

“Second, it has come to my attention that some marines have decided to ‘claim’ additional berthing compartments from some of the navy personnel in order to have a little room to spread out and gain a bit of privacy. I believe this practice is currently referred to as ‘securing a jack shack.’ Effective immediately you will return these berthing compartments back to the naval personnel and move back into the spaces allotted for you.” The XO gave a moment for this to settle in.

There were a few muffled groans.

“And lastly, for any of you clowns that snuck booze on this ship, there is an amnesty box set up here in the Ready Room. Turn that shit in, because if I find it there’ll be hell to pay.”

And with the formal portion out of the way, the XO got started with his briefing.

✽✽✽

Paddy walked up to the terminal built into the bulkhead and used the attached stylus to scroll through a few pull-down menus to find the information he was looking for. He found the file for his squadron and then hit the tab marked “Maintenance Status.” Another screen appeared with a list of choices arranged alphabetically. He found the one for “Space Craft” and double-clicked on it. A window popped up with all the fighters in his squadron graphically displayed on it. All of the little fighter icons were shaded a green color with the exception of one; it was amber. He tapped that icon with the stylus and a detailed series of reports on that particular strike fighter came up.

“Son of a bitch.” He said aloud. “I can’t believe they haven’t fixed this yet.”

He exited out of the program and turned to head down to “The Basement” where all the fighters were located. He had to go find a particular Aviation Electronics Technician that had promised him that a certain problem had already been fixed. The fact that he had to constantly check up on those guys was getting on his last nerve.

The corridor was full of people making their way past each other, hastily trying to knock out final preparations before the ship got underway. You could cut the tension in the recycled air with a knife and this was not filling Paddy with a whole lot of confidence.

“Paddy I think you need to see this.” Captain Yates pushed his way through the crowd holding a tablet in his hand. He was motioning to his Squadron Commander in a manner that betrayed his utter mental and physical exhaustion.

Major Chris “Paddy” O’Connor fought his way upstream through a crowd of maintenance techs and ratings who were going the other direction. Chris was the commander of the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron on board, known as “Grey Fox Squadron” and Captain Barry “Dickcheese” Yates was his XO. He couldn’t remember the last time any of them had had any sleep and he was having trouble concentrating on simple tasks. He also couldn’t remember when it was that he took those four painkillers because his head was still killing him, and it looked as if the headaches were only going to continue. “What you got Dick?”

“I just got a copy of the ordnance inventory and it doesn’t look good.” Yates extended the clipboard over to his boss.

“Come on Dick, we’ve got about a thousand things left to do before we have to get into lockdown before the jump. Checking ordnance lists isn’t one of them. That’s not our job, getting the birds prepped and secured is and we’re only just going to get it done before we got to report to the meat locker.” Paddy ran his fingers through his hair, took the tablet and started scanning through it. “Okay, what is it I’m supposed to be looking for? How ’bout giving me a quick summary?”

“Yeah, no problem. Go to page three and check out the on-hand stockage for Rapiers and Stilettos.”

“Okay, so what I see… no, wait… holy shit! Is this right?” Paddy started flipping through pages of the inventory trying to see if he had missed something.

“It’s right all right. I went down to the magazines and checked with Chief Fletcher to make sure there wasn’t some sort of administrative error. He told me that we got the wrong shipments—they got mixed up with some other division, and we’ve got the wrong allotments of just about everything. We’ve got the load-out that was supposed to go to Accipiter, and presumably they’ve got ours.”

“If what you’re telling me is correct we’ve got an excess of interceptor missiles and not nearly enough anti-ship ordnance.” Paddy handed the tablet back. “Did you tell anyone about this?”

“Yeah, I couldn’t find you so I passed it along to the CAG.”

“And?”

“Well, he told me it was too late to do anything about it. Accipiter is two light hours out and we’ve got less than half a day before we jump. There’s no way we can unscrew this before lights out.” Dick took the tablet back and scratched the stubble on his face. “The CAG told me that we are just going to have to sort it out along the way.”

“Who’s going to sort it out along the way? We’re supposed to all be in the meat lockers in deep freeze for the trip and we can’t run supply shuttles in transit even if we weren’t. We ain’t getting those missiles in time for the big show. The timetables are too tight. We’re supposed to be punching out the tubes almost the minute we get there.” That headache was really starting to pound now. “Okay, fuck it. Nothing we can do about it now. What’s our status, is the equipment ready?”

“Almost. My bird is secured below decks and the grease-monkeys finally got around to replacing that faulty circuit card in the targeting computer. They’ve still got to run the final diagnostic on it before it gets the green light though. After that I’ve just got to secure my sea bag and get suited up for the freezers.”

“Okay, get to it. I want you to get this squared away and then I want you to get some real sleep before you report to the meat locker. We’re not going to get much chance for rest on the other end once they thaw us out of deep freeze. And coffee will be a poor substitute for rest.” Paddy’s body ached at the thought of getting some sleep. He was hoping to get some too, but he wasn’t going to begin holding his breath. He supposed he could get plenty of rest after he was dead, and if things kept going the way they were going that was going to happen sooner rather than later.

20,193 C.E.
HMPS Ecnomus
Flagship, Interstellar Protectorate Home Fleet
Benidician System near Heaven’s Gate jump point

The last elements of the formation slid into their positions moving like ghosts through the vacuum of space. The smaller vessels slowly maneuvered into the outer periphery protecting the larger, more important warships. The outer screen of destroyers and light cruisers acted as a forward tripwire providing standoff range for the massive dreadnoughts and carrier strike groups. They initiated deceleration and finally came to a complete stop creating a virtual sphere around the critical center.

Captains signaled their positions in a prearranged order and automated battle tracking systems updated their status. Most of this was done with the aid of computer navigational control, a sort of pre-programmed auto-pilot while crews secured themselves in suspended animation chambers. With the exception of a few assigned to the skeleton crews, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines were going to “sleep” during the transition in order to avoid consuming critical stores during the jump.

Admiral Jenkins tapped a few commands into his console as he tuned out the activity going on about him in the Combat Information Center. As commander of Home Fleet he was deploying the Protectorate’s last viable combat formation on a desperate gambit to buy time for the evacuation of their senior leadership from Trajan. In all his years in uniform, he never dreamed that things would come to this, yet he was still absolutely committed to his duty.

For once things seemed to be falling into place and preparations for the jump seemed complete. For months they had been behind on all their established timelines and dangerously close to blowing the entire operation. Failure was not an option so the leaders within the fleet pushed the crews to their limits and beyond to get things back on track. After much heartache and pain they were ready.

With a whopping twelve minutes to spare.

Operation Beowulf itself was nothing more than a spoiling attack designed to buy time for the lucky souls who could make it to one of the last three secure jump points leading to salvation. There were hundreds of jump points still under their control, but these critical three actually led to sanctuary. A place where they could go to lick their wounds and consolidate. More importantly, it offered a way out that didn’t include surrendering to the Dominion and facing war crimes tribunals. They all knew there would be nothing more than a kangaroo court for every surviving officer who willingly surrendered. And that was tantamount to a death sentence.

Now they readied themselves for a jump through Heaven’s Gate. That would be three weeks of relative translation, which most of the crews would sleep off in the tanks. A few would be awake the entire time and minding the equipment while the others hibernated. On the other side, essential personnel would come out of stasis and do what needed to be done. Or they would die trying. Either way, they were absolutely committed.

The clock in CIC ran down the time until the fleet was ready to execute the jump. The few remaining individuals working there watched the countdown as anticipation and anxiety grew. All of them had done this many times before, but it never got any easier. It was always mentally and physically taxing on them all.

“Status on drive system?” The captain called out.

“Status reports ‘green’ across the board Skipper.” The response came back.

Jenkins checked his board and saw that it was consistent across the entire fleet. They were as ready as they were ever going to be. He wanted to broadcast a last message across the command circuit congratulating them all on their dedication, hard work and wishing them luck on the upcoming mission, but he had done that already and he had to force himself just to sit and watch the clock run out. It was maddening, and he wanted nothing better than to retreat to his stateroom for a bit of solitude. But his place was here, and he needed to be present if for no other reason than to lend a bit of moral support to the crew.

“Nine minutes. Check ignition systems.”

“Checking ignition systems aye.”

The power plant automatically spooled up at its pre-designated time, synchronized with every other vessel. The ships would all enter the jump point within nanoseconds of one another so computers ran the launch sequences, since manual initiation would be far too imprecise. As the core drive system ‘warmed up’ it gave off a massive vibration that resonated throughout the entire ship. Those that weren’t already tucked snugly away in their freezers felt the engines power up through the soles of their shoes and the seats of their trousers.

Without being told to do so the crew members all secured the collars of their vac suits and donned helmets. The suits themselves were essentially a set of sealed coveralls that provided basic limited life support in case the hull breached and atmosphere was lost. The ensemble was known as the “Naval Atmospheric Protective System” or “NAPS” for short. Most sailors just referred to them as “Long Johns.” It was standard operating procedure to wear them during transitioning to and from hyperspace, as well as any time combat was imminent. Any time there was risk of venting their oxygen into vacuum, the crew was required to put them on. They weren’t exactly comfortable, but better to be uncomfortable than dead. And dying from sudden depressurization was hardly a pleasant way to go.

Jenkins seated his helmet and heard the reassuring “hiss” when it made a seal with the collar. Reports scrolled across the small display inside the visor right next to a read-out of his own vital signs. He worked the touchpad attached to his wrist, adjusted the settings and status of the reports on display. He looked around to see the last of them taking their seats and buckling themselves in, all according to standard operating procedure.

“Four minutes!”

The admiral took a moment to reflect back on the events of the last couple of years and realized that it all had been one big long blur. So much had happened in such a short period of time. There had been no time to rest, no time to catch their breath, and now they were launching headlong into who knows what. All he was sure of was that he was going to spend the next three weeks out of the freezers, catching up on sleep and going over the tactical plans at his leisure. It would be his first chance to take a break in a long, long time.

Lost in his thoughts he didn’t even realize it when the clock reached “zero” and the hyperspace jump initiated. His whole world went white and then suddenly dark. A moment later his eyes came back into focus and everything seemed normal again. His body tingled all over and a funny smell hung in his nose, but other than that he seemed perfectly fine. When he looked up, the clock had reset itself and was counting down the time until they made the translation back into normal space once again—three weeks from that moment.

He popped the seal on his helmet and set it down before going over to check the fleet status boards. Just as expected, every ship—with the exception of the one he was on—had a dimmed icon. Ecnomus still had a very bright green hue to it. This indicated that Ecnomus’ status was current, and the others were accurate as of their last report. Since no vessel in existence could communicate or see another while in hyperspace, the status boards reflected current status right up until the instant they jumped. Until they reached their destination, they would all be trapped inside their little metal cocoons cut off from the universe. It was just as well though, Jenkins could really use a little solitude right about now.

✽✽✽

Cold.

Darkness.

Piercing loud noise.

Panic.

Fear.

“Where am I? What’s going on? What’s that noise? I can’t see!” Paddy couldn’t remember how he had gotten where he was. He could barely remember who he was for that matter. He was cold all over and his head was pounding. It took all of his effort to open his eyes and when he did his vision was completely blurred to the point of blindness. His heart raced and he began to hyperventilate, only to find that his breathing was labored as well. He wanted to cry out but could not… he was quite convinced that he was dying.

And then suddenly, there was light.

The light was so bright he had to squint, and he still could not see anything or make out shapes. All Paddy knew was that the screeching wail had only grown louder, and many more sounds added to the din. He reached his shaking hands out in front of him and took a step forward only to trip and fall flat on his face. And that’s when he felt the blows to his sides and his head. He was being kicked by an angry mob of people for reasons he didn’t understand.

It was all so confusing. He felt as if he were going to die right there.

Then he remembered.

He had been in cryogenic freeze. That’s why he was so cold. That’s why it was so dark. That’s why his mind was so slow to wake up.

He blinked away the tears that streamed from his eyes. Shapes took form.

There was activity everywhere. Frenzied activity.

The wailing was the sound of the klaxons. It was the sound of general quarters.

There were people still kicking him and he curled up in the fetal position. As the veil lifted from his mind he realized that they weren’t doing it on purpose. It was other members of the crew also stumbling out of their cryogenically-induced haze, running off to their battle stations, tripping over him as he lie upon the cold hard deck. Some were tripping and falling over him in a heap, looking nearly as confused as he was.

“Think Chris, think! What am I supposed to do?” He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to block out the noise so that he could concentrate. His whole body shook uncontrollably from the cold. His teeth chattered.

He pushed himself up and struggled to get erect. Someone else bumped into him.

He steadied himself and saw others dashing past.

His head hurt so bad.

“Pull yourself together man. Where do we have to go? Frame Eighty, that’s it! Now where the hell is Frame Eighty?” He rubbed his temples vigorously and ran his fingers through icy, wet hair.

Paddy suddenly realized what he had to do. Everything came into focus at once. He had to get down to flight ops immediately. They had been awakened under emergency protocols and this was an alert, which meant only one thing… they were in big fucking trouble.

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