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fiction fridays 11 · "Command Prologue" by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

First, Second, Third Installments. Final Installment.

 
Command Prologue by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon
 (continued)
 
 

WAHRH-ANNNNNG!

The Bridge crew was shocked at the severe jolt. With acceleration dampeners engaged, you felt no sense of motion in a starship except at Jump and Drop. I should not have been half knocked out of the Command Chair.

“REPORT!” I bellowed to anyone who could answer.

“We’re hit,” Tactical replied in the understatement of the year.

I could already see an angled streak of red zones cutting into the ship aft of Hangar 20 and forward of Engineering. The main engines were clearly still online -- we had missed that bullet. But my eye caught a red flag on one screen at the same instant the report came in.

“Auxiliary Center is gone. Two crew compartments and a galley -- gone. Fresh Water System 5 is gone, too.” The chief making the report took a deep breath. “I hate to say it, sir, but we were damned lucky.”

“What hit us?”

“Computer tracked a missile looping in at a large angle of attack right at engagement. CLAWS fired, should have hit. Hangar door baffles deflected some of the debris but we got penetrated at extreme kinetic energy. Through-and-through -- no warhead detonation -- no radiation count,” Tactical reported, adding, “I’ll second that ‘damned lucky’ nomination.”

A shiver ran through me. Defending against incoming missiles at relativistic speeds.

“Casualty list coming up, Captain,” I heard behind me and I turned to see a grim-faced Captain Lucas stand and read the reports streaming in.

Under Active War deployment we were in the process of doubling the number of Command Officers from ten to twenty. Mark Langhorn and the new Eleventh Officer were in A.C. -- and Fourteen looked to have been erased as well. We were going to be replacing Command Officers as fast as we could promote them, but I was more angry than worried.

“Captain! Enemy ship just smudged on the drop tank,” Tactical called out. “I think they’re gone. Not jumped -- gone. Has almost a reactor failure signature. One kill -- confirmed.”

I saw Lucas momentarily clench his fist and give it a little shake -- that’s one, the gesture seemed to say. It wasn’t enough, really, but it was something.

***

Dr. Waltrip’s former laboratory wasn’t recognizable. In two days the electronics techs had built the first of two new Auxiliary Centers. My former roommate Mark Langhorn and his crew could not be brought back, and their loss only highlighted our vulnerabilities. This was the first military action where the Unified Star Fleet was opposed by someone who seriously punched back. Was it just so recently that my largest concern was a stash of illegal plantstuffs? It hardly seemed possible to me. Perhaps we were paying for five hundred years of growth and relative peace. At least the Serrano was still underway and under positive control.

“This looks good,” I told Lt. Welsh, the electronics supervisor.

“It’ll look better when the software interfaces are finally certified as error-free, sir,” Welsh, an ever popular pessimist, deflected the compliment. “But they don’t let me control those procedures.”

Wonder why, I thought to myself. Aloud, I said, “It’s not your job to question the compartmentalization of specialties, Mister Welsh. Maximum efficiency -- I need this A.C. and the Secondary A.C. online and immediately. If you’re debugging the software here, the other job would be languishing. I’ll take you in 2AC. There’s something to be said for wiring the controls of my ship properly.”

“I suppose,” Welsh said morosely. “Sir.”

***

“Captain on the Bridge,” said the vocal box, adding, “Officer Safekeeping Violation.”

Captain Lucas usually reluctantly acceded to the restrictions of the Officer Safekeeping rules, but today he ignored them. We had decisions to make after jumping and returning. Already Marines were inbound to Pica III, even as Tactical processed the enemy hits on the planet.

“One, Two,” he said to both of us, “My office, now.”

“Sixth Officer, you have the conn,” Ben Slater said, rising out of the command chair. I followed the two men into the captain’s office just off the Bridge.

The Captain waited until the door was closed before he said anything.

“Status on the Marine action.”

“Four days out, a little over six hours to re-entry,” I replied.

“And conditions on Pica III?”

“Bad. There are, or were, about 180,000 colonists Downside. Their planetary systems cut out the big pieces, but they still had half a dozen strikes at near-light,” the First Officer reported. “It’s the equivalent of several gigatonnes of thermonukes. P-III didn’t have the best weather to begin with, but it’s going to hell now.”

“Survivors?”

“Not a lot,” One admitted. “We have a line on maybe 2800 in two villages near Alpha Strike.”

“I’m going to take my Barge and go down,” the Captain informed us.

“No way!” Ben said forcefully.

“A Senior officer needs to be present Downside.”

“I don’t see that.”

“It’s early in the war. We’ve got to eyeball this, and if this war lasts any longer, there won’t be another chance for me.”

Well, that was true enough, I thought.

“Sam, talk some sense into him,” Ben turned to me. “We can’t have the C.O. going off the ship at a time like this. It’s too dangerous.”

“I don’t know, Ben,” I replied. “It seems there’s danger everywhere. We lost some good people on this ship, too. I think Captain Lucas’ presence Downside may be a good thing -- the Marines are part of our crew, too.”

“Show the flag and all that?”

I shrugged, “Part of Command responsibility is P.R. And the Barge is one of the larger landing ships we have. I was already assuming it would be sent down for the rescue effort.”

“Assuming that there is a rescue effort,” the captain said.

“Sir?”

“We don’t have the resources to pick up every stray colonist out here. I can’t believe this will be the only planetary attack in this war.”

“Sir, we also don’t have the resources to provide survival supplies to these people,” Ben pointed out. “If all you were planning to do was survey the ground damage, you didn’t have to order the Marines in.”

“I agree,” I found myself saying. “There may be a time for stone hearts later, but this war has just begun. It may be over soon, we don’t know. If we can save these people then we must try. I’ve been assuming that ever since we started to brake for orbit. Especially since the current survivor list is so low. It might be different if this was a colony of several millions.”

“Agreed,” the captain said, slumping back in his chair. “You’re right. Rescue is really our only option. But I am reluctant to go into orbit. We’re so vulnerable out here.”

“Options?” One asked, all business.

“I suggest we throttle back and continue the E-M silent mode.”

“You think we’re going to get hit again?”

“It has been several weeks. And the bad-guys may send a recon party out here to check up on their previous run. This is all so bloody new,” the captain complained. “We still don’t know what the rules of engagement are.”

“If there are any.”

The captain shot a glance at the first officer.

“Your orders, sir?” the exec asked.

“Begin to phase out main engine thrust. Have Engineering keep the engine cores warm. I’ll be leaving for Pica III aboard my Barge at 1800 hours ShipTime.”

“Very good, sir.”

“What, Mister Slater?” the captain smiled. “No argument?”

“It’s important to you, sir. And I’ll have your word this is your one and only such survey trip,” Ben explained.

“Agreed. Now one of you should get off the Bridge. Officer Safekeeping, you know.”

“Just leaving, sir,” I said with an answering smile.

***

Like the tiny messengers, the other small transport shuttles and the Captain’s Barge had a lot more accel and decel capability than a ship the size of the Serrano. Although we were currently heading toward Pica III at an unchecked velocity, Captain Lucas’ Barge was able to pull ahead of us and begin its planetary entry long before we passed by. Afterward, the smaller ships would complete their missions and then race after us. Once they caught up and were recovered, then the Serrano could blaze forth once more and head on out of the Pica system. With the change in our approach, the whole schedule was ramped up -- the Marines would catch up with us at a faster rate than they had deployed in the first place. My command screens juggled the timetables and contingencies, as the computers updated the complicated weaving of orbital mechanics and unpredictable human behavior.

I held the watch during the ground survey and rescue operations on Pica III. Ben Slater would oversee the processing of the reports, then during the recovery watch I would get to suit up and take charge of the Hangar operations. Only after we had begun our boost by tomorrow evening would I really get a chance to sleep.

***

The worst thing in the world has happened. We got caught short.

Another of these large enemy ships dropped in and we were in no position to defend Pica III. They dropped kinetic projectiles at near-light speed onto the planet and we are receiving no transmissions and no datalinks from any of our ships. The planet is severely distorted and no longer spherical. It might break apart. Everyone is presumed dead. And we were out of position to return fire.

Words cannot express the numbness I am feeling. It is only through superhuman effort that I remained at my post. Ben is now Acting Captain and I am Acting First Officer. This is not how I wished to advance in command grade.

We shall continue on without stopping.

***

“Mister Chisholm, take us into Jumpspace,” Captain Slater ordered eleven days later. “On the current profile.”

“Yessir,” I replied and took over the conn. Reading the command screens as I logged myself in, I saw we were still fifty minutes out from our Jump point.

I had barely gotten myself comfortable when we had our next unpleasant surprise.

“Drop tank report!” Tactical sang out, then more calmly reported, “Inbound type 60. Light cone ETA five minutes. Probable ID as the U.S.F.S. Burgoyne.”

The Burgoyne would be coming back from... where? We had expected to meet the Burgoyne here at Pica N9, but that hadn’t happened. The survivors from Pica III hadn’t heard from the Fleet warship, but then the colony leadership had been wiped out in the first kinetic barrage from the bad-guys. It was possible that a messenger had been sent in to tell us, back when we entered the Pica system, but the messenger promptly jumped without making contact when the bad-guys first showed up.

“I’ve got an X-transmission coming in from the U.S.F.S. Burgoyne,” Communications informed me.

This was not good. Under Fleet regs, messages that followed the single letter code ‘X’ were last ditch communication dumps.

“The signal is all broken up,” Communications continued.

“Captain to the bridge,” I called out. “Now!”

“Sir, I have a visual lock, but... oh, shit,” Imaging reported, then broke off. The visual records transferred to the big screen.

“Two, I mean One,” Tactical misspoke, “Uh, sir, I’ve lost the Burgoyne.”

What do you mean ‘lost’? I thought, a very bad feeling souring in my stomach.

“There’s been no jump. There just... isn’t any ship there anymore,” Tactical reported, confused.

A flash of light appeared against a blurred star field on the big screen. It grew and swept by, ending in a strange reddish glow.

“Computer enhancements coming up,” the Imaging Tech apologized.

Ben Slater came out of the Captain’s office and stared at the big screen. For an instant I was still surprised to see him, but of course he was captain of the U.S.F.S. Serrano. We all watched in silence.

What we saw were the final death throes of a starship. The U.S.F.S. Burgoyne seemed complete when it dropped into normal space. But an unnatural yellow glow spread along the undersides which wasn’t the result of relativity or computer color shifts. By the time the two ships were at their closest approach, we could see through parts of the lacy Burgoyne, as the glow consumed everything including the frame and armor. The starship disintegrated before our very eyes, and the golden disease which was eating it would spare nothing. It didn’t take any further image processing to understand that the mist at the end of the pass-by visual record was simply the remains of the Burgoyne.

“Sir? Sirs? Captain?” Navigation was asking. “Do we come about and search for survivors?”

Ben Slater stood in silence for only an instance, then savagely replied, “There are no survivors.” And he returned to his office.

I stared at the final screen of the pass-by, then shook my head to clear the image away. The X-transmission from the Burgoyne waited on one of the command screens at my side. I entered my access codes, noting that Ben was accessing the file from his office console.

The Burgoyne had known she was doomed -- holding on only long enough to ensure that we could take her last message. At the very end of their Jump, with the terrible fires eating the insides of the ship, they almost couldn’t Drop. They might have overshot us, or worse, fallen into the quasi-spatial distortion from Pica N9’s starry core.

Fleet was calling the war simply the War and the bad-guys were given the simple label of Enemy. There was nothing else to do. We had so little information about the Enemy, except their insistence on prosecuting the War with Fleet.

The War seemed to have started at TT616-5a, according to Fleet updates from a messenger at Pica the Burgoyne had gotten before us. The Burgoyne had headed there, as we were, via a jump at Ubana-3. There had been a great battle with many Fleet and Enemy ships and the Burgoyne had had to run for it. Somewhere along the line, she was hit, but the records were fragmented and too damaged to process and then the monitor noted the X-transmission had abruptly ended.

I lifted my head up and looked over the crew in Command Center.

“Prepare for entry into Jumpspace,” I said, my throat seeming very dry. “Time hack in seven minutes... mark! Navigation, please have your final corrections to Ubana-3 laid in.

“Hangar 5, stand-by to launch a messenger direct to Command.”

I was sure that Ben, the Captain, would want to forward this... encounter with the Burgoyne to Fleet. We would go on. There was nothing else we could do. Certainly nothing we could do for the men and women of the U.S.F.S. Burgoyne or our own losses. At least not yet. There would come a time, though, I thought grimly, when this Enemy would pay.

Make no mistake about that.

I would make them pay.

 

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©2008 · Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

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Last Update: 25 April 2008 Friday