From the Ashes of Armageddon
The final showdown between competing factions of a banished star nation erupts in an apocalyptic bloodbath. Those who stand for what is just and right, resist in the face of suicidal odds and relentless conquest. In the end, the contest will be decided by indomitable spirit and a ruthless desire to survive.
The final showdown between competing factions of a banished star nation erupts in an apocalyptic bloodbath in the orbit of Renas, as the survivors of a destroyed empire slaughter each other over the scraps of what remains. A broken fleet of crippled vessels with thousands of crewmembers abandoned to their fate, finally arrive in-system to bring to justice those who left them behind so many years before, marooned in space.
The planet of Renas—the prize in this gargantuan struggle—is being torn apart, its people manipulated by unimaginably advanced visitors from the stars. The citizens of this lonely world are thrust into another global conflagration, fueled by ambition, greed and military technologies never before dreamed of. Those who stand for what is just and right, resist in the face of suicidal odds and relentless conquest.
In the end, the contest will be decided by indomitable spirit and a ruthless desire to survive.
Local Renan Space
The Combat Information Center degenerated into a hysterical mess. Sailors and officers pushed past and shouted over one another while shock and confusion took hold with an icy grip. The compartment was cramped even under ideal conditions, but the room was packed with extra personnel monitoring the emperor’s state dinner down on Renas. Now those additional crewmembers were tripping over each other as they tried to manage the chaos unfolding down on the surface, desperately trying to extricate their regent.
The holographic status board turned red and magnified an active sensor return in low orbit just above one of the larger continents down below. During the process of magnification, the icon turned into a live image, beamed in from one of the escorts assigned to 8th Squadron that was positioned closest and could provide the clearest imagery. Even as panicked voices issued instructions and orders, all eyes in the compartment were glued to the video feed.
“What the fuck just happened?” barked Rear Admiral Gaston Kang, flecks of spittle flying from his mouth.
“I… I… don’t know,” said the Ops Chief, Commander Brice Silvestru, as he shoved a petty officer out of his chair and took over his watch station, feverishly hammered away at a series of commands.
Filling the screen was the image of a single Wolverine assault shuttle tumbling powerless in lower orbit. Visible along the sides of its hull were jagged holes torn into the skin and scorch marks on the composite, the telltale signs of battle damage inflicted by a small hyper-sonic missile. A valuable piece of military hardware was irreparably damaged, but worse, Emperor Karga and Empress Jennifer were on board.
“I want a fighter escort and a rescue shuttle there at once!” Kang bellowed.
“Yes sir!” Silvestru was already punching up the command frequency for flight ops aboard Ibis, redirecting the Combat Space Patrol to the new coordinates, and tasking a Search and Rescue bird.
While all of this was happening, nobody paid any attention to Commodore Pavel Marino, still seated in his command chair in the back of the room. He watched Karga’s wounded shuttle drift in space, helpless, and listened to the desperate members of the crew try to arrange a rescue mission on the fly to retrieve their regent. All the while, he kept the secure line open and fed updated intelligence to his co-conspirators on board the Imperator, anchored in geosynchronous orbit on the other side of Renas. He pulled up a miniature holo-tablet equipped with a crypto-scrambler and punched in a message.
Scramble a fighter squadron from Alietum and take Karga’s shuttle out before it’s too late. M.
Marino shifted his weight and watched as CIC issued orders to Ibis’s flight ops. Kang was shouting orders like a fucking lunatic, literally frothing at the mouth. He glanced back down to the tablet and saw a response already in the queue.
Acknowledged. Launching “Alert 1” now. Get off that ship and back to Imperator… immediately! A.
Marino looked up at the status board and the panicked officers and sailors. He was the only one sending a live feed back to 5th Squadron, but if he left the circuit open and manage to slip out of the room, he just might make it to the nearest shuttle bay where he had a crew standing by. If he was lucky, he could make a clean getaway in the confusion. Maybe even without clearance. They might have a shot at making it back to Imperator before a fighter from Ibis knocked them out of the sky, or a point defense system from one the dozens of other vessels blasted them to atoms.
Marino checked the circuit sending a live stream of data to Imperator and locked it with a code key. He slipped out the side door and bolted down the passageway. He was two minutes out from Bay #3, and might just make it there before anyone noticed he was missing from CIC.
He picked up the pace and pumped his arms, the sound of his heavy breathing filling his ears.
5th Squadron, 18th Fleet
Lieutenant Commander Dave “Sharky” Cramer fidgeted in the cockpit of his Raptor interceptor. He and the members of his squadron had been in their fighters, tucked in their launch tubes for hours now, and the stress was starting to take its toll. Every senior officer in the crew and all the pilots on the pursuit squadrons had been briefed. He and the others were aware there was a plot to assassinate Karga and free them from his oppression. They had been on alert status for too long.
He felt the ever-familiar sensation of a full bladder, and thought again about relieving himself. There was a tube inserted into his urethra and he could piss any time he wanted, but the sensation was uncomfortable, and he resisted it. He preferred the discomfort of having to pee over the petty torment of emptying his bladder. He should have passed on that last cup of tea after breakfast.
Sharky pulled up his status board, shifted his weight and grunted. The other eleven members of his squadron were ready to go, just like the twenty times he had checked in the last fifteen minutes. He noticed Lieutenant Junior Grade Bob “Party Boy” Flyzik’s resting heart rate was somewhat elevated at ninety beats per minute. All the rest of his vitals seemed to be okay.
He toggled a private circuit and hit transmit. “Party Boy, it’s Sharky. How you doin’? You feelin’ alright?”
“Yeah Chief, I’m good. Just tired of sitting here and waiting—you know what I mean?”
“Hang in there, buddy. It won’t be much longer.” Sharky wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince Party Boy or himself.
“Shouldn’t this shit be over by now? I mean, why haven’t we been told to stand down? How long are they going to keep us at action stations?”
“I’m sure there’s a good reason, they didn’t just forget about us.” Sharky toggled the open squadron circuit. “How’s everyone doing? You all got awful quiet on me.”
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was trying to catch a little shut-eye,” said Lieutenant Junior Grade Jesse “Halitosis” Wysperra.
“Sleepin’ on the job. What else is new? You’re a fucking inspiration, Hal,” quipped Nichelle “Booster” Chiu, sarcasm dripping from her voice.
“You’re just jealous you didn’t achieve half my rating during the last readiness exercise,” Halitosis shot back. “Oh, by the way, who was it again who nailed the top rating the fleet this last time around?”
“Fuck my life, I thought we’d at least make it through an hour without hearing you brag about that again. I swear if I hear about it one more time today, I’m going to punch myself out of the nearest airlock,” groaned Lieutenant JG Penelope “Phlegm” Pilapil.
“Hey, anybody catch the last bay ball game? I missed it,” interrupted Marc “Knuckledragger” Robbins.
“Yeah, I did. It was Imperator against Trapani from 11th Squadron,” responded David “Spooner” Smigelski.
“Really? How’d Imperator do?”
“You mean how did Flores do, right? We all know you rub one out in your bunk every night fantasizing about that chick!” Interjected “Drippy” Dick Schwartz.
“His hand’s callouses got callouses from whacking it so much,” Phlegm piled on.
“Oh, is that so? You could help a guy out from time to time there, Phlegm,” said Knuckledragger in a velvety voice.
“As much as I pity you and your pathetic excuse for a sex life, my charity only extends so far. I wouldn’t touch your dick with Zed’s diseased hand.”
“The fuck?” Exclaimed Allison “Zed” James. “How’d I get dragged into this shit?”
“Because you like to bang fighter pilots that’s why,” said Tae Up “Crash” Lee.
“Fuck you. Just because I slept with a fighter pilot—once—like seven years ago? The guy wasn’t even in our squadron!” Zed said, the indignation evident in her voice. “Besides, Booster’s shagged most of the Fighting Gryphons and nobody ever gives her shit about it!”
“You’re free to join us any time you like. The ‘team sports’ over in the Fighting Gryphons’ berthing compartments are epic,” Booster announced without a hint of irony. Her sexual exploits in the space group were the thing of legend, and her popularity only grew as the video footage of her off-duty performances made its rounds through the fleet’s secure servers.
“I’ll pass. I feel dirty just thinking about it,” Zed replied.
“Sharky, this is CAG, over.” Commander Nueva broke in on the higher command frequency, interrupting the banter.
“Shit, everybody clear the net,” Sharky said over their internal frequency, trying to tamp the chatter down. “CAG this is Sharky, send your traffic, over.”
“Roger, I am sending updated mission portfolios to your squadron. Launch ‘Alert 1’ immediately. Acknowledge.” The CAG’s voice was devoid of any humor and understandably so. They weren’t supposed to launch Alert 1 at any point. They were at action stations just in case something went wrong down on the surface. Apparently something went sideways and it was time for them to get activated.
“CAG, this is Sharky, acknowledged. Launching ‘Alert 1’ time now!”
Combat Information Center
“Admiral, we issued the tasking order to Ibis space ops who launched a SAR bird. Fighter escort from the Combat Space Patrol is near position. The wreckage should be secure in four minutes,” announced the Ops Chief, Commander Silvestru, who raised his voice in order to be heard over the din.
The tight confines of the CIC was overcrowded and the temperature was rising to match the stress levels. The watch station in the center of the room was oval-shaped and ringed with inward-facing chairs. All the officers and ratings could work at their positions and watch the holographic status board projected overhead.
“I want that Wolverine secured now, not in few minutes!” Admiral Kang shot back, his cheeks flushed, and his eyes on fire.
The hologram displaying the heavily damaged and powerless shuttle switched to split-image, with the Wolverine on the left and Admiral Vivaldi’s face on the right.
“Gaston, please tell me the emperor and empress are alive and you’ve got them,” Vivaldi said, the edge in his voice evident. He rarely lost control, but he was dancing on the razor’s edge of just that and nobody wanted to be in the effects radius when it happened.
“A recovery bird has launched and the fighter escort squadron is following. We’ll have Emperor Karga and the empress back on board the Ecnomus sir.” Admiral Kang responded in a flat, almost robotic, monotone, while sweat streamed down his temples.
“Admiral, if you don’t get our royals back safely, a demotion is the best thing you can hope for,” Vivaldi said through clenched teeth, his jaw muscles taut. He surveyed the small room. “Where is Commodore Marino? Why isn’t he overseeing the rescue?”
Every officer and crewman in CIC stopped what they were doing, looked around the room for the Chief of Staff. All eyes rested on the empty commander’s chair. The same chair Marino had been sitting in only a few minutes before.
“I uh… he was just here… I don’t know sir,” Kang stammered. “Did anyone see where Commodore Marino went?” Asking no one in particular.
He was answered with confused looks from everyone in the room.
“Alert the fleet, Condition 1. Send a security detachment to take Commodore Marino into custody and have him brought to me immediately!” Vivaldi said, his holographic image pointing a finger at Admiral Kang’s nose.
“Yes sir, at once!”
Marino ran down the passageway as fast as his feet would take him. He was nearly there, the sound of his racing heart drowned out his heavy breathing and footfalls on the deck. The clock was ticking and there was no time to lose.
The lights in the hall flickered strobe-like and the klaxon wailed.
“General quarters, general quarters, this is not a drill! All personnel to action stations! I say again, this is not a drill!” sounded the disembodied voice over the PA system.
Time’s up. Gotta get off this ship right now!
He snatched a squawker from inside his tunic. “Smith, Hardin… you two ready to bounce?”
“Roger that sir, but you better hurry, they just announced general quarters. It won’t be long before the shuttle bays are sealed up tight and we’re stuck,” Hardin crackled over the hand-held device.
Marino ducked down a hatch to a lower level, passing into the next frame of the ship, bounding down the stairs three at a time. “Understood, get the shuttle’s drive warmed up. We’re punching it without sticking around for clearance instructions.”
Marino stuffed the squawker back into a pocket and slowed his pace as he approached an intersection. A group of junior enlisted ratings came barging around the corner and stampeded past, nearly knocking him over. They didn’t even look over their shoulders as they sprinted to their assigned battle stations.
When he rounded the corner, he saw three sailors in fatigues, bearing the unmistakable insignia of the ship’s security detachment. All three were armed and standing near the entrance to the shuttle launch bay. One spotted him and pointed in his direction.
“Commodore Marino sir, we’ve been ordered to take you into custody. You are to come with us,” said the petty officer in charge of the detail. The expression on his face indicated he was in no joking mood.
“What’s this all about?” Marino demanded, pretending he didn’t actually know what was going on. “I have emergency orders transferring me to Saseno with no time to waste. Can’t you see we’re at action stations? Step aside!” He hoped he could bluff, but didn’t feel confident his lie was all that convincing.
“Orders from Admiral Kang, sir. Now, if you’ll please come along, we’d prefer if there were no fuss.”
The petty officer rested the heel of his hand on his holstered sidearm, while the other two fingered their stunners. They were focused on him and ready to pounce. Marino tried to keep his breathing under control but his chest heaved, and his heart raced, with the sound of blood pumping, in his ears. He swallowed the lump in his throat while he tried to figure out what to do. Meanwhile, the strobes continued to flicker and the klaxons shrieked.
“Stand down, I’m on a mission from Admiral Vivaldi and time is critical!” Marino used his best command voice, praying it sounded convincing.
“You’ll have to explain to Admiral Kang, sir, we have our orders.” The petty officer took a step in Marino’s direction. He’d started to unholster his weapon, as his head exploded. Brains, hair, and skull fragments flew, splattered against a nearby bulkhead, and over the two junior enlisted sailors he had in tow.
Marino and the two remaining sailors stood in stunned silence, watching the body crumple to the floor, landing with a sickening, wet splat. Within the span of a heartbeat, the contents of a sailor’s chest blew outward, sending him tumbling, landing only a few feet in front of Marino, his lifeless body sprawled across the deck. The third member of the security detail whipped around, yanked his weapon free, only to catch a glimpse of his attacker before taking a solid hit square in the face, laying him out.
In front of the commodore were three dead men, their expanding pools of blood staining the deck bright crimson. Beyond the carnage, someone in a vac suit peeked from a hatch with a weapon in hand. Warrant Officer Allison Smith, his shuttle copilot.
“Come on sir, we gotta get outta here!” Smith said waving him toward her.
“Good idea,” Marino said, stepping over the massacred security detail, liberating a pistol from one of them.
The two of them bounded down the hatch and covered the last couple hundred meters, weaving their way through crowds of crewmembers, off to their battle stations. They made it through the last doorway leading to the shuttle bay and dogged the hatch behind them. Inside, Lieutenant Hardin motioned them forward.
Sprinting full out, half way to the shuttle, the three of them flinched and crouched when the dogged primary hatch leading to the shuttle bay blew open in a thunderous roar. Over his shoulder, Marino could see the ship’s security detail pouring through the breach, disoriented from the deafening explosion and the lingering smoke. Hardin opened fire, trying to cover his copilot and the commodore.
Marino and Smith leapt behind a stack of containers secured to the deck for cover. Hardin blasted away as fast as he could pull the trigger, sending his shots into the “fatal funnel” the security officers had to pass through to get into the bay. Several of them went down hard, but more got inside, fanning out and grabbing whatever cover they could.
Hardin crouched on the top of the extended shuttle ramp, trying to make himself as small as humanly possible. The incoming fire wasn’t accurate, but growing in volume and intensity, with energy strikes landing all around him. It was only a matter of time before the shuttle itself took enough hits to damage it beyond use.
“Sir, move. I’ll cover you!” Smith yelled, before exposing herself and loosing a fusillade of her own.
Marino looked at her as he sat with his back against the crates, then shot a glance to the shuttle only twenty meters distant, and its pilot hammering away. The impact of energy rounds punched holes and gouged divots into the skin of their shuttle, their only means of escape.
He clasped the sidearm from the dead sailor a split second. He thought about joining Smith in the firefight, but he had very little practice or training with any sort of hand-held weapons. Worse, this one was not synched to his neural implant and therefore would need to be aimed manually by its inexperienced user, under a whole lot of stress. He shook the idea off and decided to make a break for the shuttle instead.
“You better be right behind me!” Marino shouted to Smith before bolting off.
Everything in the periphery blurred, and he focused on the ramp and open hatch. He thought he could feel energy rounds snapping past his head, but that was just his imagination. His heart was racing though, that much was real. Everything went into slow motion and he could almost feel each deliberate step. It felt like his legs were made of lead or he was slogging through molasses while being chased. It made the cold vice gripping his guts tighten even more.
And just when he thought he couldn’t take one more step, he was in.
He dove, landing on his belly. He spun and while prone, brought the handgun to bear. There were at least half a dozen security personnel in the bay, behind cover, and shooting at them. Marino fired wildly and without discipline, hoping he would hit something, anything, that would help them get out of there. He couldn’t manage a clear thought in his mind other than to shoot. He kept it up and never even noticed when Smith pounded up the ramp and crouched next to him, hammering away at their pursuers.
“Dale, get to the cockpit and get us out of here, I’ll cover,” Smith said to her pilot.
“They came through the door with a breaching charge, the bay is compromised and won’t hold a seal when it shunts the atmosphere in here. The primary bay doors won’t open by remote command from the cockpit. Get across to the control room and open the doors,” Hardin said before turning his attention back to firing his weapon.
“I’ll go,” Smith said but he was already up and running across the shuttle bay under withering fire from the security detachment. “No damn you, I said I’ll go!”
“Forget it, he’s already halfway there,” Marino said, snapping off shots. “Give me your weapon, get up in the cockpit. Once the doors open, get us out of here.”
An incoming round smacked one of the overhead storage compartments inside the craft, blowing it apart. Another hit a small tank of pressurized gas punching a neat little hole into it, venting its contents in a high-pitched whistle. The commodore fired a half-dozen times and landed a lucky hit on one of the sailors, who fell back behind cover. Marino couldn’t tell if he killed or merely wounded the man. It hardly mattered. The intensity of incoming fire grew as more security teams made their way forward.
She snapped off several rounds before tossing her weapon to the commodore. In a crouch, she made her way to the cockpit, and began spooling up the drive while donning her helmet and sealing it to her vac suit. Marino, still on his belly with a pistol in each hand, fired like mad, doing little more than keeping their heads down, but that was something.
Lieutenant Hardin shot his weapon on the run and made it to the control room in seconds. Once inside, he got down low as energy rounds impacted all around him. Several smashed the thick windows in the observation port, designed to protect the operator when the atmosphere in the bay was vented during launch and recovery operations. They were now permanently compromised. Not dissuaded, Hardin kept on at his task, releasing the safety locks and initiating emergency launch protocols which set off a series of alarms throughout the bay. That got everybody’s attention.
Sailors from the security detachment charged the control room. Hardin dropped two of them, forcing others the take cover. He opened a private encrypted circuit with the shuttle as the main bay doors began to open.
“Allison, take off the instant those doors are open,” Hardin said, firing more rounds.
“Not until you get here, hurry the hell up,” she snapped.
“The security detail will get in, close the doors, and trap us. I need to hold them off.” Hardin ducked and checked the charge on his weapon. He was almost out of ammunition.
“We can all make it if you make a break for it now,” she screamed over the din.
The shuttle bay doors slid slowly apart, venting atmosphere into space. Alarms shrieked even louder as the pressure started to drop. The sensors in the room automatically triggered countermeasures at the breached door. Small jets built into the walls and bulkheads sprayed a chemical foam into the jagged hole where the main entrance and door once stood. The foam solidified in the fraction of a second and sealed the shuttle bay off from the rest of the ship, preventing any more air from being vented into vacuum. The security detachment in the compartment found themselves trapped inside the bay, without vac suits, as the oxygen escaped from the giant armored doors slowly sliding open.
Marino’s ears began to pop from the change in pressure, could hear the alarms, and the whistling of air blowing out into nothingness. He jumped into a passenger seat in the back and strapped himself in, buckling the harness with one hand, and putting a headset on with the other. As he did so the ramp started to rise.
“Chief, lower the ramp for Lieutenant Hardin,” Marino said over the intercom, making the last adjustments to his harness.
“Are you strapped in sir?” Smith asked.
“Did you hear me? I said Hardin’s not back,” Marino reiterated.
The ramp snapped shut and hissed as the seals engaged. Small arms fire smacked against the outer skin, making a terrible racket.
“I’m punching at combat speed. Hang on,” Smith said, her voice husky.
As the last of the atmosphere expanded out into space, the copilot kicked the drives on at full acceleration, blasting them out of bay at maximum speed. Even with the inertial dampeners working in overdrive, Smith and Marino felt the familiar crush of several gravities. It was almost too difficult to breathe.
And then, in an instant, the crushing sensation was replaced with weightlessness. They were free of Ecnomus and cruising through space.
“Are you okay?” Smith said, her voice trembling.
“Yeah,” Marino said, before taking a pause. “What about Hardin?”
“He wanted you to know he was proud to serve under your command, and he knows you’ll save our people.” She sniffled and paused before going on. “Now sit back sir, and I’ll get you to Imperator.”
5th Squadron, 18th Fleet
Anchored near Renas
“Give me a status update, XO.” Captain Archie Aydin’s eyes were glued to the live feed streaming in from Pavel Marino’s secure feed aboard Ecnomus. Things were not looking good.
“Alietum reports ‘Alert 1’ launched and is en route to the target,” Commander Paige Kaya pulled up the next report before going on. “Commodore Marino is aloft and headed our way. ETA ten minutes. Wait, what’s this?”
“What is it?”
“Sir, Admiral Vivaldi put the fleet on alert and Ibis launched a second pursuit squadron to intercept Commodore Marino’s shuttle.” Kaya looked up at Aydin from her workstation, eyes held wide and the color draining from her cheeks. She and the others had been through a lot over the years and they could read each other, but it was the first time anyone had seen her like this.
“Can we launch ‘Alert 2’ to protect Commodore Marino?” Archie rose from his command chair and studied the holographic status board trying to find a solution. Things were starting to ramp up and there wasn’t time to ponder decisions.
“CAG aboard Alietum advises there’s be not enough time. Only ‘Alert 1’ is in range but already committed.”
“Status of Karga’s rescue operation?”
“Search and Rescue bird from Ibis ETA two minutes, Combat Space Patrol in position providing cover,” Kaya said, scrolling through another set of filters.
Archie Aydin crossed his arms and looked down at his feet. He had put the entire squadron on alert hours beforehand and they were suited up.
He looked at the status board one last time. “Ops, order ‘Alert 2’ to launch and take out the target package. Divert ‘Alert 1’ to intercept the pursuit squadron and protect Commodore Marino at all costs.” Aydin turned to his XO. “Paige, issue the order. We are going to sortie 5th Squadron, just like we rehearsed in the contingency plans.”
Commander Paige Kaya swallowed hard and cleared her throat. “Are you sure Captain? There’s no coming back from this.”
He inhaled deeply and then breathed out slowly through his nose. “Yes, Paige, a whole bunch of people just died down on the surface, trying to take out this tyrant. I don’t want their lives sacrificed in vain. We’re going all in.” He raised his voice so the others on the bridge could hear him. “Execute now. The fleet went to general quarters. We only have a few minutes before they’ll be ready. If we go immediately, we’ll catch them unprepared. It’s now or never.” He turned and looked straight at Kaya. “We’re committed. Issue the order if you please.”
“Aye sir, issuing the attack order.” Paige leaned over and typed in the commands.
In less than a second, all fourteen warships acknowledged receipt and initiated maneuvers, sliding like ghosts into attack formation.
4th Pursuit Squadron
“Sharky, this is Pubes. You seeing this?” Lieutenant Shafer Acharya said as he forwarded the incoming order now scrolling across his console.
“Yeah, Shafe, I see it. Looks like a change to the tasking order. We’re going to fly cover for a shuttle instead of whacking one,” Cramer said while reassigning mission profiles to his people. He flipped to the squadron command frequency. “Listen up, new orders. Commodore Marino got off the Ecnomus but they scrambled fighters to intercept. We’re gonna fly cover for him until he can land on Alietum.”
“Alietum? Can’t he just land on Imperator and take command?” asked Drippy Dick Schwartz.
“Captain Aydin ordered the entire 5th Squadron to execute ‘Contingency Plan B’ immediately,” Sharky said, the tone of his voice heavy and devoid of its usual humor.
“You mean 5th Squadron and all its ships are going to attack the rest of the fleet? You’ve got to be shitting me!” Spooner exclaimed.
“While ships are maneuvering, Imperator’s bays will be sealed and cannot take inbound shuttles. Only a fleet carrier like Alietum can accommodate flight operations on the move,” Sharky said, transmitting the new mission profiles.
“This is nuts, boss. Taking out Karga is one thing. Slugging it out in a full-blown fleet engagement with capital ships is completely different. I didn’t sign up to fight our own people,” said Party Boy, his voice somber. “I mean, we’ve come so far and it’s all going to end like this?”
“Okay everybody listen up, because I’m only going to say this once. Now is not the time for deep philosophical discussions about duty and loyalty. I don’t have the patience or the time for it. We are about to head into a fight. Anybody who doesn’t feel up to it, can head back now. I’ll call the CAG and authorize your safe return, no questions asked. But unless you want out of this right now, I don’t want to hear another word about second thoughts, got it?” Sharky paused to let it sink in. “Anybody want to head back?”
“Good, follow updated mission orders, and do it fast. We’re less than a minute out from contact.” His voice softened just a bit. “Good luck, everybody, it’s been an honor to be your commander. Now let’s get after it!”
4th Pursuit Squadron
“Sharky, this is CAG, we’ve picked up EW noise and several shadows beyond Marino’s shuttle designated as ‘VIP 1,’ how copy? Over.”
“CAG, Sharky, roger, I’m receiving your inbound update. Assuming signal shadows are bogeys, over.”
“Affirmative. Alietum launched ‘Alert 2’ and are now headed to intercept the target package. Will update as we go.”
“CAG, this is Sharky, understood.”
“Thanks, Dix, See you soon.” Sharky flipped to his internal command frequency. “Listen up, new bogeys are designated ‘Epsilon 1’ through ‘Epsilon 23.’ Expect to see more as we close in. Deploy Ravens, time now.”
Without responding, all twelve Raptor inceptor pilots deployed their internal unmanned space vehicles. Every fighter had four “Ravens” that were linked to the mother ship, Raptor, which were then assigned missions by their pilots. On command they could be re-tasked and handed off to other pilots within the squadron at will, but this was normally only done in extremis. The Ravens carried ordnance packages that supplemented the piloted craft, though not as much as the Raptors themselves. When deployed properly however, they amounted to more than the sum of their parts and were extremely lethal.
Sharky watched as his status board ballooned from twelve craft to sixty friendly contacts. The Raptors were illuminated in blue, the Ravens in green. Every one reported perfect functionality and were operating at optimum performance. On the other side of the board were icons indicating bogeys in orange. In seconds, those contacts would be confirmed and become bandits in red.
Sharky felt his mouth grow cottony.
As he had ordered, the Hell Raisers split into two elements. Pubes, his second in command, took Party Boy, Booster, Knuckledragger, Drippy and Zed to a cover position between “VIP 1” and the incoming contacts. Sharky led the rest on a direct intercept course. Even with CAG in the command and control bird filling space with a cloud of electro-magnetic interference, he had to assume the incoming fighters had a pretty decent lock on them. When they got re-tasked, they had to do a significant burn in order to change their heading, and gave off one hell of a signature when they did.
“Phlegm, you with me?” Sharky said, while assigning targets to the rest of his element.
“Roger that, boss. Right in your back pocket,” Phlegm responded, in her usual effervescent style.
“Spooner, Rusty, engage in a direct attack pattern. Force them to deploy. They’ll give off nice, bright signatures and the mask will be off for the rest of us to engage. How copy?” Sharky watched as the number of bogeys continued to steadily grow. Then one of the orange icons turned red, indicating a positive ID.
“Acknowledged,” Spooner responded in dry monotone.
The dozen Raptors and their Ravens broke formation with half the element moving to cover the shuttle and the other half toward the incoming contacts. Spooner and Rusty kicked on their drives and initiated a quick burn, accelerating, while the rest backed off, allowing for maneuver space. The closer they got, with each passing second, the number of positive IDs grew at an exponential rate until all the opposing fighters were identified. Automated systems quickly took over and computers began nominating targets for the pilots.
“Spoon, I got a lock on two bandits, firing now,” Rusty said, launching a brace of Stiletto missiles and initiating a deceleration.
“Okay, Rus, right with you,” replied Spooner, throwing his own ordnance into the fray.
There were sixty incoming contacts, which meant there was a fighter squadron of equal strength headed their way, coming in fast, closing the distance with Marino’s shuttle at an alarming pace. There wasn’t going to be much room for error, none at all.
“Shit, we’ve got incoming, my counter-measures just went hot!” Rusty exclaimed.
The missiles flashed through vacuum, headed in opposite directions. Dozens were inbound while ECM pods transmitted clouds of electro-magnetic clutter designed to confuse the seeker heads in the Stilettos. Both pilots maneuvered their Ravens forward to provide a protective screen as well.
Several of the incoming warheads found their mark and a half-dozen Ravens went up in brilliant flashes of light. On the other end, Spooner watched his scope with grim satisfaction when a few of the opposing red icons winked out. The two pilots adjusted their angle of attack and did another burn in an attempt to stay at max engagement range.
“Good job, you guys, you nailed two,” Sharky said, punching in a set of automated commands to the rest of the squadron.
Studying the incoming trajectory of the enemy fighters, it was apparent they didn’t even flinch. Speed was unchanged, as was their heading. Spooner and Rusty did an excellent job identifying their formation, but did nothing to slow them down. If they didn’t do something fast, the enemy would be within weapons range of the commodore and make short work of him.
Sharky did a little quick math and it didn’t look good. He watched Rusty and Spooner send another round of missiles as they launched past the incoming interceptors on their periphery. “Phlegm, Hal, Crash, tighten up, stay on me, straight into their center. If we don’t, this mission will be a bust. Pubes, if any of them get past us, take ‘em out. Got it?”
“Ack, just watch yourself Boss,” Pubes said, deploying his half of the squadron to backstop their commander.
The four Raptors and their Ravens adjusted attack angles and punched their drives at maximum acceleration. While gaining speed, Sharky enabled the commander’s override and fired everyone’s missiles. Hardpoints belched Stilettos in a constant stream until the last one left its rail. He ordered the frontrunner Ravens into a screening maneuver and keyed the ECM to active mode.
No sooner had the last of their missiles launched when an inbound wave of Stilettos smashed into them. The interceptors and Ravens adjusted speed and vectors to avoid being hit, but several of the enemy missiles found their mark. Ravens disintegrated, sacrificing themselves to protect their mother ships and irreplaceable pilots. In the span of a nanosecond it was over.
Sharky checked the three-dimensional status board and breathed a sigh of relief as red icons disappeared from his plot. The enemy was only focused on closing the distance and overtaking their quarry. They didn’t attempt any significant maneuver to evade the Hell Raisers’ Stilettos and it cost them. Nearly a third were gone, the rest were coming on fast. Lieutenant Commander Cramer was almost feeling optimistic until he checked the status of his own element.
Most of the Ravens were gone, reducing firepower by a significant amount. Worse, Crash was gone too.
Sharky’s flight suit was climate controlled, yet he perspired profusely. Even with the air scrubbers, he could smell the sweat mixed with the odor of chemical cleaning solvents. His nose itched but he couldn’t scratch it through the face shield of his helmet. And his guts were twisted in knots, making him want to shit his pants. Indicators and alarms rang in his ears, he tried to tune it out, and stay focused on the task at hand. It was hitting him all at once, his mind raced, trying to keep it all sorted, fighting the urge to second-guess himself. He swallowed hard, cleared his throat, pushed the thought of Crash out of his head. This was not the time.
“Sharky, it’s Hal. Two of Crash’s Ravens survived. I lost all mine. Request permission to have them re-tasked to me.”
Sharky shook his head to help clear his mind. “Roger, Hal, punching the command now.” He took a deep breath to ease the tightness in his chest. “Hal, Phlegm, listen up. We’re going in, weapons hot, at max acceleration, to punch through the center of their formation head on, ‘run and gun.’ Waste as many of them as we can. Once through we’ll never be able to decelerate and turn to catch them before they get that shuttle. We get one shot at this.”
“Roger that,” Phlegm said, her voice confident and full of resolve.
In a matter of seconds, the interceptors closed within energy range. Raptors and Ravens lashed out, sending bursts of energy out with computer-aided precision. The incoming fighters had their expendable unmanned space vehicles in the lead, standard practice. Sharky and his element fired everything they had as fast as they could, blasting their way right through the center of the formation.
The enemy concentrated their fire and owing to their superior numbers, wreaked terrible damage on the Hell Raisers. Phlegm took several dozen direct hits to her fuel cell at nearly the same instant, blowing her Raptor apart in a magnificent explosion. The escorting Ravens got cut to pieces and continued on, hurtling through space as nothing more than shredded junk.
Halitosis and Sharky broke through the enemy screen and lashed out hot death. They blasted several enemy fighters, killing nearly half before forcing them to break formation and maneuver. Halitosis hit the command to decelerate in order to loop around for a second run when a bolt of energy punched through the cockpit and cut him nearly in half. Sharky tried to bring his craft around as well and took a hit to the power plant, knocking his Raptor completely offline.
All the readouts, gauges and holo displays in his cockpit went instantly dark, and emergency power automatically switched on. His Raptor lost drive power at maximum acceleration and it continued on its trajectory, travelling further into space. The communications equipment was offline and he couldn’t monitor anything. He was trapped inside his cocoon, going ballistic into an infinite nothingness. He was well and truly out of the fight.
He silently prayed someone would come to rescue him, before the oxygen ran out.
5th Squadron, 18th Fleet
“Combat, status update.” Captain Archie Aydin struggled with the throat ring on his vac suit. After years of drills and combat operations, it was nearly worn out. He was having a hell of a time getting it to seal with his helmet.
“Sir, Alietum is hanging back, conducting flight ops, escorted by frigates Lake Poyang and La Rochelle. The rest of the 5th Squadron is on a heading to low Renan orbit to slingshot around the planet and intercept the rest of the fleet,” Lieutenant Hans Schafly was deep within the bowels of the ship, tucked securely away in the armored cocoon of the Combat Information Center.
“What about Commodore Marino?”
“His shuttle is still on the way, but rerouted to Alietum. ‘Alert 1’ is engaged with the inbound bandits, got them to commit, bought the commodore time, but he’s not out of the woods yet.”
“And what about ‘Alert 2’ and Karga?” Aydin’s gloved hand tapped the armrest of his command chair. Diverting “Alert 1” was a giant gamble that put the whole mission at risk. He couldn’t leave his friend to die.
“Engaged with a combat space patrol from Ibis and are having a hard time of it. We’re tracking that a Search and Rescue bird docked with Karga’s damaged Wolverine, but we’ve got no information beyond that. The fleet’s going to general quarters but are not at ‘Condition 1’ yet.”
“Good, we’re going to need all the advantage we can get.” Aydin switched his attention to the crew on the bridge. “Comms, set up a tight beam so I can talk to Commodore Marino.”
“Aye sir, up now.”
“Sir, it’s Archie, do you read me? Over,” Aydin opened a private channel to avoid eavesdroppers
“Loud and clear, Archie. Good to hear your voice.” Marino’s tone was much more relaxed than expected.
“I want to get you up to speed on the situation. I’ve deployed the squadron, and we’re about to make a run at the rest of the fleet. Alietum will hang back with escorts, recover you and the alert fighters, before hitting max acceleration away from the action. They’ll rendezvous with us on the outer fringe of the system.” Aydin caught himself tapping the armrest again.
“What about Karga?” Marino’s tone grew very cold.
“We diverted our interceptor squadron to protect you and launched a second one to take out the target, losing critical time as a result. They are decisively engaged with fighters launched from Ibis.” Aydin didn’t mention the obvious fact Karga was slipping through their fingers. It felt like someone had punched him in the gut delivering the news.
“Understood. I wish ‘Alert 1’ had not been diverted to protect me, but what’s done is done,” Marino said .
“Don’t worry sir, we’ll get him. One way or the other. In the meantime, we’re about to have ourselves an old-fashioned slugfest and things are about to get real interesting.”
“Good luck, Archie. Take care of everyone. I’ll meet you at the rendezvous point.”
“Will do, Boss. See you there.”
The squadron initiated a burn and eleven warships lurched forward in a tight formation, leaving Alietum and her two escorts behind. In the center were Imperator and Curzola, both heavy cruisers and packing the most firepower in the squadron outside of the carrier’s attack squadrons. The remaining nine warships were an assortment of light cruisers, destroyers and frigates of various classes and capabilities. Under normal combat operations they would be spread out, as far as their weapons could mutually support one another, engaging enemy squadrons from enormous distances. This day, they deviated from the standard play book and threw doctrine to the wind.
Captain Aydin stared at his plot and continued drumming his fingers. They had eleven warships executing a maneuver to circle around the planet and engage the fleet. The rest of the Vanguard was clustered together, anchored in orbit, in and around the Empress Jennifer. Scores of support vessels and civilian transports had followed them all the way from Trajan, but those would be ignored. Their targets were the forty-four warships in four different squadrons.
“Bridge, this is Ops, all elements are linked to our fire control network. Everything will be directed and synchronized through CIC,” Lieutenant Schafly reported, his disembodied voice coming through clearly in everyone’s helmets.
The holographic status came alive with activity shortly after their initial maneuver. The other squadrons were taking evasive maneuvers, and the civilian vessels scattered in all directions, positioning themselves in a blocking position to protect the Ecnomus, Ibis, and the Empress Jennifer.
“Intel, have we still got a live feed coming in from Ecnomus?” Aydin’s tension continued to rise while he studied the sudden panicked movements of his opponents. He had caught them with their pants down. And they knew it.
“Negative Captain, they picked up the transmission shortly after ordering general quarters and locked us out,” replied Lieutenant Commander Grace Liu, his chief intelligence officer. Her tone was elevated and she didn’t sound very confident of herself.
“Sir, the last of the interceptor and strike fighter squadrons from Alietum are aloft. Time to engage is less than thirty seconds,” Schafly announced.
“Got it,” Aydin focused on the plot, watching his squadron ride the Renan gravity like a surfboard, to bring them around and clear the celestial horizon.
“Captain, this is fire control, our status is ‘Green,’ request permission to engage.”
Aydin stared at the holographic images through the protective face shield of his helmet, watching his ships close the distance, nearly in range. “Fire control, you have permission to engage.”
The nine warships of 5th Squadron loosed scores of missiles in a single instant, sending them streaking forward, their drives set to max acceleration. As they rounded the planet and took on their terminal guidance less than a second later, the vessels bounded around and came into energy range.
Fire control networks aboard the remaining fleet were successfully linked, but only a handful of them had their weapons systems powered up and online. The fire from point defensive batteries was weak and inconsistent. A few of Aydin’s missiles were destroyed in the nanoseconds they were exposed, but most got through, taking a ghastly toll.
The light cruiser Sulci managed to position herself in a hasty picket to protect the larger and more valuable capital ships of the Vanguard. She had moved early, in coordination with the destroyers Lilybaeum and Ebro, and their countermeasures were working overtime. Point defense guns filled space with flashes of light as they took down a half-dozen Rapier anti-ship missiles. It wasn’t enough though, and most of them got through. Three hit Sulci amidships and the escort disappeared in searing nuclear fire. Lilybaeum managed to steer clear of the Rapiers, only to get slashed from the main batteries from Imperator. Focused beams of radiation sliced through the destroyer’s hull and disemboweled the craft, knocking it offline, leaving it dead in space, drifting toward the Renan stratosphere where it would burn in like a shooting star upon reentry. Imperator’s sister ship Curzola dealt the death blow to Ebro, literally cutting the tin can in half.
On the hull, energy batteries were arranged in clusters of blisters that lashed out and sliced huge, gaping wounds into the ships of the Van. Rapiers found their marks to send plumes of nuclear fire and blinding spheres of expanding plasma and gas. It was a hellish massacre but 5th Squadron was just getting started. They brought themselves around and came up on the outer periphery of the Van, positioning their principal batteries to achieve a broadside with maximum efficiency.
The plot refreshed and updated, while icons changed colors and flickered out. Voices grew louder and more frantic as the reports began pouring in. Aydin stayed focused on getting them lined up for the one and only pass they would make before punching their engines into overdrive to make good their escape. Missiles flew, guns flashed, ships and crews died. Alietum’s strike fighters joined the fray and the holographic display grew so chaotic, it was difficult to keep track of it all.
All at once, the members of the bridge crew lurched violently in their harnesses, some crying out in pain. Archie’s head snapped forward so hard when it slammed back into the headrest, he nearly knocked himself unconscious.
The damage control alarms wailed and the lights dimmed red.
“What the hell just hit us?” Aydin shouted.
“Stand by, sir, I’m pulling up from CIC,” his XO, Paige Kaya shouted over the noise.
“Captain, Ecnomus is fully online and she’s letting fly with everything she’s got! La Loiera took a direct broadside. We lost her with all hands!” Grace Liu’s voice betrayed a raw sense of panic.
“Sir, we took a severe hit in the forward sections. Breached the hull, several frames vented to space, touched off the forward magazine and blew a sizeable chunk out of the hull,” said the XO, not looking up from her reports.
“Bridge, CIC… our fire control link is functioning but the incoming fire is increasing in intensity. Some of the incoming missiles are bound to get through.” Schafly’s disembodied voice crackled over the circuit, barely audible over the noise.
“XO give the order, one last broadside with missiles and guns, then withdraw!” Aydin held on with both hands clutched to his harness as the ship buffeted and rocked once again.
“Aye sir, doing it now!”
5th Squadron let fly with everything they had, belching forth guided missiles, kinetic rounds, plasma and focused radiation. They sent a cloud of pure visceral hatred before punching their drives into action, stressing them to their upper design limits and beyond. They had taken their one swipe at the rest of the fleet and now were making a run for it.
In their wake, they left the remains of shattered ships, along with the torn and rendered remains of their crews, all comrades in arms just a few short hours ago.
Archie Aydin stared at the plot in the center of the bridge. He didn’t want to think about what they had just done.
He was death incarnate.
The harvester of souls.
28 Light Minutes from Renas Prime
“Amy, what exactly is going on? What am I looking at?” Commander Cam Zama chewed his fingernails down to the nubs again, trying to figure out what exactly was registering on the holo. He and his crews had skulked around this system for years, sending reports to Admiral Sulla while trying not to be detected. During all that time, they had never seen anything like this. Whatever it was, it was happening fast.
“One minute, sir,” replied his Ops Officer, as she ordered the tech manning the console to cycle through various filters and magnifications.
“Skipper, those energy spikes are the result of an orbital bombardment. That’d be my best guess,” said the XO, Lieutenant Commander Christoph Wash, standing next to his captain, his arms crossed. He looked paler than usual, his hair disheveled.
“Wait, what? Are you sure? That’s one hell of a bombardment, biggest we’ve seen since we’ve been in-system,” Zama strode across the bridge to get a closer look. Not that it made anything clearer or less confusing.
“There’s no way to be sure at this distance, but that’s sure as hell what it looks like.” Wash tilted his head to the left while studying the data streaming next to the three-dimensional imagery. He yawned and stretched. The watch had been a particularly long one.
“The XO might be right sir. We’ve seen energy spikes before that must have been orbital strikes,” the Ops-O said, her hand resting on the shoulder of the petty officer manning a nearby workstation. He didn’t pay any attention to it while he pulled up additional data.
Zama switched from chewing on the fingernail from his right index finger to the thumbnail this time. “Yeah, but the ones we saw were small and limited. This looks like they are burning an entire city to the ground.”
“It’s possible. I mean, why not? The Van has demonstrated they don’t mind shooting targets on the surface of Oasis. Why should a full-blown orbital bombardment come as any surprise?” The XO stuffed his hands into his pockets before turning to face his captain. “Out this far we’ll never know. Would you like me to launch Specter 1 to go in for a closer look?”
Zama shook his head. “Naw, it’d take them over a week to glide in close enough and this thing will be long over. We’ll have missed it.”
“So, what then? We can record what we’re seeing and relay it to Admiral Sulla in the Main Body, but we’re not certain what we’re witnessing from this far out.” The XO was reading the expression on his captain’s face. “Unless you’re thinking of doing something bolder.”
“I don’t think we have any alternative. Our mission was to gather information for the Main Body and something pretty significant is going down right now. We need to get confirmation on what it is.” Zama turned back to his Ops-O. “Amy, what’re we monitoring on their tactical frequencies?”
“That’s even weirder Skipper, the communications indicated a contingent went to the surface with some VIPs on board, things got heated and then nothing,” Jackson said, pulling up the communications logs they had recorded.
“Indications are there was some jamming going on right before the energy spikes.” Jackson scrolled through messages marked with time stamps. “We couldn’t make out all of it. Bottom line is, at this distance, we may have missed whatever is going on there.”
“That’s it then. Tell Naulochus and Hellespont we’re going in. They’ll stay put and monitor from here, but we’ve got to get in closer to find out what the hell is going on.” Zama quit chewing on his nails and planted his hands on his hips. “Rich, how long will you need to power up the coil and get us moving?”
The Nav officer, Lieutenant Junior Grade Rich Kim, sat upright with a surprised look on his face. He wasn’t expecting to move the ship anytime soon. “I uh, let me check, sir.” He tapped commands into his virtual tablet. “It’ll take five to ten minutes to get the coil warmed up and then we can set out.”
“Not good enough, Nav. We’re over twenty light minutes out from Oasis, which means what we’re looking at right now happened a half-hour ago. We don’t have five to ten minutes to warm up the coil and get the drives online.”
“I can have ‘em brought up under combat protocols,” Kim responded, his eyes held wide.
“Sound General Quarters,” ordered the XO without missing a beat.
“Aye sir!” Jackson said as he punched the code and broadcast throughout the ship. “General Quarters, General Quarters, this is not a drill! All personnel to action stations!”
Klaxons sounded and the strobes came on, pulsing bright orange light. The Aegates crew were jerked out of their mundane routines to scurry down the tight passageways and corridors within the vessel, scramble to their positions. Some were pulling on their vac suits as they stumbled through hatches and bulkheads. Even on the bridge, the mood changed from one of calm analysis, to that of hasty purpose.
“Captain, the coil and primary drive are coming online. We’ll be ready to move in thirty seconds!” Lieutenant Kim pulled his sealed vac suit from the storage compartment beneath his chair and struggled to put it on while giving a status update.
Zama and his XO, Wash, suited up as they done countless times before.
“Nav, plot a course that gets us within one light minute and no closer. I want flank speed until we reach max acceleration. Understood?” Zama slipped his left arm into a sleeve, pulled it on with his right, and issued commands without bothering to look at his officers.
“Aye sir, working on it!” Kim dropped into his seat and secured his restraints. He worked the console with his helmet on his lap.
The inertial compensators switched on in direct correlation to that of the main drive. The crew on the bridge could feel the almost imperceptible vibration of the coil coming to life, but had no sensation of forward motion unless they looked at the speed indicator on the status board. Speed was steadily climbing and at an impressive rate, how acceleration was done under combat conditions, not routine voyages. The strain on the coil and drive was great, but necessary so combat vessels could adjust their velocities abruptly.
Without warning, the light cruiser jolted and the gentle hum they’d felt through the soles of their shoes and seats of their pants changed to a severe vibration. A loud low frequency hum resonated throughout the hull and the primary power began to flicker. Warning indicators on the engineering panel lit bright crimson, a series of alarms gave off a high-pitched shrill, drowning out the klaxons and calls for general quarters.
“Skipper, we’ve got a problem!” Cried the XO, pulling up his virtual tablet and tapping in commands through gloved fingers.
“I can see that, Mr. Wash, tell me something I don’t know! Engineering, report!” Even though the microphones and headphones amplified verbal commands to be heard over the noise, Zama shouted his orders.
“Captain, Engineering… a huge energy spike in the primary drive. Automatic fail safes are engaging, coil is shutting down!”
Zama and his XO looked at one another. This was bad.
“Nav, can we execute a deceleration and come to a stop?” Zama brought his left hand to his face, in an unconscious attempt to chew on his fingernails.
“Not now, Captain. The coil and the drive are in an emergency power-down procedure and we have no ability to maneuver. We’ll continue on course until we can get the system rebooted and the drives restarted,” Kim said, while pulling up schematics on the holo display.
“Shit.” Zama studied the images and saw they were going to coast for some time. “The minute that system’s back, initiate a braking maneuver, decelerate to full stop.”
“Skipper?” The XO looked at the Captain, his pallor growing more pronounced.
“Yeah, XO, I know. That power spike alerted the whole system of our presence.” Zama broke the seal and removed his helmet. “Our mission’s compromised.”
The noise and flashing lights continued. Zama unbuckled his restraints and stood while the crew stared, not uttering a word. He set his helmet on the command chair and looked at the holo display.
“XO, have the crew stand down from General Quarters. Turn this blasted noise off.” Zama unzipped the vac suit to his midsection. “Continue monitoring the situation near Oasis. I’m going to my stateroom to write a report for Admiral Sulla. I don’t want to be disturbed. You have the bridge.”
Home Fleet Vanguard
Admiral Vivaldi’s face was incandescent with veins showing in his temples. He watched the crew on the bridge scurry about in disorganized pandemonium as reports poured in. From this position, he was in the Van’s flagship, and from here he commanded all its divisions. All, with the exception of 5th Squadron under Captain Archie Aydin, who had gone rogue.
One holo displayed the rescue operation underway, an attempt to retrieve and recover the emperor and the empress. The SAR bird was docked with the wrecked Wolverine, while a seditious fighter squadron from the Alietum fought with an interceptor squadron from Ibis, to break through and finish the job the insurrectionists on Renas almost accomplished.
On the second holo, more fighters were locked in mortal combat on the other side of the planet. The interceptors from Ibis were trying to break through a defensive screen to kill the traitorous Chief of Staff, Commodore Marino, who was, so far, making a successful attempt to flee. The dogfight was furious and confused, with only partial reports coming through the electro-magnetic jamming and interference.
The elephant in the room however, was the bulk of 5th Squadron who just cleared the planet and launched a murderous volley on them. The Van had ordered its ships and crews to battle stations and were caught unprepared when the traitors came at them unleashing a hellish fury. They managed to bring their tight formation around in a wide arc, putting the Van’s divisions between the planet and themselves, firing full broadsides the entire way before powering into max acceleration in an attempt to withdraw from the killing field.
Vivaldi watched in horror as his ships were ripped asunder, some destroyed within a matter of seconds. Crews that had traveled the vast emptiness of space for years, just to finally reach sanctuary, were slaughtered by their own comrades. They had fought so long and so hard to survive, only to betrayed by their own people. Shipmates who had sworn a sacred oath to both the constitution and the crown. It was too much to process, but it was unfolding right before their eyes.
The alarms pounded in his ears. The lights flashed all around. The crew screamed and shouted desperate orders over one another.
One holo displayed a live video feed of a destroyer named Bigano. The hull was splayed wide open from the insurrectionist’s guns. The internals were open and clearly visible, compartments and passageways vented to space. The image whited out as the small warship blew apart, sending hundreds to the afterlife.
The main board listed the remaining vessels of the Van, all updating battle damage assessments. Ships only an hour before were completely space worthy, were now horribly damaged. Some were without power and drifting in space. A handful had drives knocked out and were being pulled into the gravitational pull of Renas, where they would burn in re-entry, roasting the crews alive.
He was desperate to lash out at the traitors, but he still couldn’t get the fleet at Condition 1. It was making him unhinged with rage. There was no conceivable explanation for why it was taking so long. Now they were paying the bloody butcher’s bill for it.
Worse, the criminals who had done this were pushing their drives into full burn. If they didn’t do something and soon, the enemy would slip through their grasp.
Missiles launched from tubes in uncoordinated and desperate spreads, only to be knocked out by 5th Squadron’s point defenses.
They were getting away.
“Admiral Kang, why are we still struggling to get our forces marshalled?” Vivaldi seethed. He stood behind an empty captain’s chair, grasping the backrest and squeezing it with all his might. If he could have ripped it from its pedestal, he would have thrown it across the compartment.
The small display attached to the chair blinked on and Kang was there, a look of desperation on his face. “Sir, the crews were getting to battle stations when we were attacked. We were taken by surprise. We’re trying to get damaged vessels online. It’s taking much longer than expected. There’s more.”
“More? What else?” Vivaldi felt physically sick. How in god’s name could this be any worse?
“Sir, nearly a third of the crews were on furlough and not on board their vessels. We’ve got people scattered all over the place. Some are on the Empress Jen, and more on the surface of Renas. Some ships are reporting entire divisions are off. They can’t get critical systems working, due to lack of personnel.” Kang shook his head, his cheeks flushed red.
“What? How is that even possible?”
“Commodore Marino authorized a relaxed pass and leave policy. It went into effect across the fleet within the last week. We didn’t notice it here because he never authorized it for the crew aboard Ecnomus.” Even through the hologram, Kang was visibly shaking. From fear, rage or both.
“So, what you’re telling me is, we’ve been rendered combat ineffective, in the face of a sneak attack, due to a liberal leave policy? Admiral Kang, I don’t care what you have to do, or who you have to shoot… you better get this fleet moving and do it now. We are going to kill every single one of those traitors. I will not allow them to escape, do you understand me?”
“Fleet Admiral sir, you need to see this!” shouted the ship’s captain, Captain Joe Rizzo, waving to get the admiral’s attention.
“This had better be good!” Vivaldi screamed. “I am in the middle of organizing a counter attack!”
Rizzo was unshaken. He was a man with perfect command presence and was unflappable. It was him who was bringing order out of chaos as his superiors were having a meltdown. “Sir, we’ve picked up a power spike of unknown origin.”
“Captain Rizzo, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about a random fucking power spike at this juncture. If you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a full-blown shooting match!”
“Sir, the power spike is from a Lemuria-class light cruiser. Its location is mark 278 decimal 134.” Rizzo paused for effect. “Nearly twenty light minutes from here!”
Everyone on the bridge heard the captain’s announcement, and the tumult on the bridge suddenly quieted to a dull murmur as the significance sank in.
“Impossible. We don’t have a Lemuria-class light cruiser with us. Why would we get a signature twenty light minutes out, when all the ships in the Van are here? Do you have any idea how stupid you sound right now?” Vivaldi said, not believing what he was hearing.
Rizzo said nothing, but brought up the data feed from the plot. It was clear to anyone who cared to look. The equipment didn’t lie.
“Sir, the sensors on Ecnomus have stayed fully operational. This is no error.” Rizzo strode across the bridge and closed the distance with Vivaldi so he could speak to him so as not to be overheard by the the bridge crew. “Admiral, you are correct, we don’t have Lemuria-class vessels here at Renas, but we left plenty behind with the Main Body six years ago.”
Vivaldi blinked and shook his head, trying to make sense of what he was being told. “What exactly are you trying to say?”
“Sir, I’m saying this would appear to be part of the Main Body we left behind. They have not announced their arrival and this energy spike was unintentional, so they’ve been operating under stealth.” Rizzo put his hand on the Vivaldi’s shoulder. “It is not unreasonable to believe the Main Body is here and they are working with the traitors in 5th Squadron. I believe we are about to be attacked from another force, as yet unrevealed. We need to do something and we need to do it soon.”
This changes everything.
Not only did they just have a rogue cabal of traitors tear the guts out of his fleet, but now there was in all likelihood another force, perhaps bigger than their own, lurking. Options ran through his head, but he knew he didn’t have any time to properly consider them. For all he knew, this unknown enemy could have launched ship-killing missiles, already inbound.
He looked through a video feed that showed Renas below. A beautiful blue and green world, teeming with life, and with everything they could possibly need. No, not possibly need—it held everything they needed. Everything that could sustain life was there. He was starting to feel it slip from his grasp.
His gut reaction was to stay and fight for Renas, like a giant predator defending a fresh kill against all comers. But that wouldn’t work. No, they simply couldn’t stay here.
The problem with defending in the close vicinity of planets, is that planets have a predictable path they travel through space, orbiting their stars. If the Van stayed near Renas, they had to stay in that predictable band as well, a death wish for warships in combat. All the enemy needed to do was plant mines, or remotely activated missiles along the orbital path, which would be invisible, right up until the Van bumbled into them. Sure, there were minesweepers and other ships that could run forward in a picket, but the Van didn’t have those and the risk was just too high.
The other consideration was the potential for ambush from enemy capital ships using the same exact method. Powered down, they were almost impossible to detect, could lie in wait until it was practically too late, and hit them again. That was also unthinkable.
Think, Vivaldi, think! There’s probably ordnance inbound right now!
One of the most important survival tools a warship had was its ability to maneuver, and staying near a planet negated that. There really weren’t any other options, too many unknowns, and too many perils.
“Admiral Kang, belay that previous order. The minute we get the emperor and the empress aboard, I want every ship capable of moving under its own power to follow us away from Renas.” Vivaldi looked Rizzo in the eye while he issued new commands to the fleet. “Plot a course to the outer fringes of the system and get everyone there immediately. We’ll take stock of our situation and develop options.”
Kang stared back, utterly slack-jawed. “But sir, you’re not abandoning Renas to the rebels are you? We simply can’t!”
“Dammit man, we can’t stay here, it’s suicide don’t you see?” Vivaldi slammed his fist down on the back of the command chair. “If we stay, we’re all dead! Besides, those vermin in 5th Squadron can’t linger here for the same reason. As long as there are hostile forces in the system, no one will have the ability to orbit this world and hold it.”
“It’s a stand-off then?” Kang said, his voice cracking.
“It is, indeed.”
Pubes punched his drive into action, blasting himself into another tight turn that, without the help of his inertial compensators, would have crushed him like a bug.
“Come on… come on… just a little more…”
He was tracking a bandit that continued to elude him, having traded blows several times. This one had some serious skills. He didn’t want to think about who was in that cockpit because he almost assuredly knew him.
The targeting computer called out with a piercing whistle, announcing he had a positive lock.
“Finally, take that, motherfucker!”
Pulses of energy streaked from his guns, leading the enemy fighter by a perfect margin before making contact. The outer skin of the interceptor peeled off and vaporized in giant chunks, before its power core took a hit, overloaded and went critical, blowing the entire thing to oblivion.
“Scratch another one!” Pubes announced over the tactical net, overjoyed he had just ended the chase with his prey. “How’re the rest of you doing?”
“Pubes, it’s Booster, I’m almost out of fuel and nearly out of ammo, how copy?”
“Got it, Booster, what about you, Party Boy?” Pubes pulled up the status of each of his remaining people and their interceptors.
“Not lookin’ good either, Boss. We’ll stay as long as we must, but at this rate they’ll need to send recovery after us because we ain’t gonna make it back to Alietum under our own power.”
Pubes looked at the condition of the squadron and it didn’t look good. Sharky, Spooner, Hal and Crash were gone. Booster and Party Boy were running on fumes. Knuckledragger and Drippy were shot up pretty bad and limping back to the carrier. Zed had taken some hits but was still in the fight. And he himself was almost out of everything as well.
The Hellraisers had given the enemy one hell of a black eye and had taken out nearly two-thirds of them, but the bandits wouldn’t give up. They were still making a play for Commodore Marino’s shuttle. Their attacks were beyond logical and had moved on to straight up fanatical.
But the Hellraisers weren’t going anywhere. They’d fight until the bitter end if they needed to, because that was their mission. Like it or lump it.
They were running out of options. And time.
“CAG, this is Pubes. We’re nearly done here.” He took a deep breath before going on. “I’ve lost four personnel and those of us who remain are nearly out of fuel and ordnance. Is there anyone available to relieve us? Over.”
There was an uncomfortable pause that seemed to linger forever.
“Pubes, CAG here. I’m sorry, brother, there’s no help coming—none that will get there in time to make a difference anyway.”
The CAG didn’t offer any more and didn’t have to. His silence was worth a thousand words. They still had a mission, regardless.
He sized up the situation once more.
They might have enough juice for another run at the enemy fighters. One last tango and then that was it. They’d be dead in space, adrift and helpless. If they were lucky, any of the interceptors from Ibis that happened to survive their last gasp, might do them a favor by swooping in and putting them out of their misery. It was more likely however, they’d expend their last bit of fuel to go careening off into the abyss, waiting for their oxygen to run out.
It was a shitty hand they’d been dealt.
“CAG, roger… understood.” Pubes switched over to his internal command frequency. “Alright Hellraiser,s listen up. Form up on me for one last run. We’re going in and we’re going in hot… weapons free. Let’s make it count. Shall we?”
Before any of them could make their final burn, he noticed the enemy fighters change course.
“Pubes, CAG—hold what you got! I say again, do not engage! The enemy fleet has issued a withdrawal order and all of their elements are pulling out of Renan space. The enemy interceptor squadrons have been recalled to Ibis. Need you to escort Commodore Marino to Alietum. Acknowledge.”
He should have felt something, anything else… He felt relief. And a bit of guilt. But mostly, relief.
“Roger that CAG, we will form up on the shuttle and escort them in.”
Pubes looked at his fuel and ammo status, and merely shook his head.
I guess it’s better to be lucky than good. And I sure am glad I’m lucky.