Authors: Benjamin Schramm
“Report,” Captain Nadia said wearily as she rested in her chair.
“Despite Ensign Lingstrom’s efforts,” Doyle said with clear distain, “we are only seven hours behind schedule.”
“It is the duty of every Navy . . .” the ensign started.
“Save it, boy,” Doyle growled more than said. “We’ll see if you can hide behind the rules when we get back to the staging area.”
“It is our duty to oppose pirates,” the ensign said proudly. “The ships matched the configuration of those used in the last pirate raid. It was . . .”
“A complete waste of time,” Doyle bit in. “We tracked them down to find a pair of dirt barges.”
“Soil relocation transports,” Nadia corrected with a small smile.
Doyle sneered but nodded.
“Thanks to your pointless jaunt,” he continued, “we have been struggling to be back on schedule for our assigned patrol.”
“If I had been right and we had listened to you, we would have allowed one of the most dangerous pirate circles to waltz two of its strongest ships through defenseless trade lanes.”
“That’s enough Vincent,” Nadia said firmly. “Your heart was in the right place, but in the end it turned out to be a wild goose chase. And it will fall on you to explain why we were delayed.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the ensign said.
“I don’t care
his heart was, I can’t want to see him try and pry his foot out of his mouth,” the short man said.
“Are we ready to jump?” Nadia asked, ignoring the comment.
“Almost, ma’am. Maintenance reports capacitors nearly charged.”
“Excellent, I’ll be glad to be back on . . .”
“Ma’am,” a small voice said slowly.
“Yes?” she asked as she turned toward the meek crewmember.
“I’m picking up a jump window.”
“Out here?” Doyle asked with a raised eyebrow. “Did the fleet grow weary of waiting on us and send someone out to find us?”
“No,” the small voice said, deep in thought. “The Wall isn’t right. The dimensions are all off.”
“How so?” Nadia asked.
“Comparing to records now, ma’am,” the small voice said softly. “It’s . . . this can’t be right.”
“Report,” Nadia said firmly.
“Ninety percent match to an Independent Traders Union assault craft.”
?” Doyle demanded as he rushed over to check the data himself. “Why would their PSF be out here? There isn’t an ITU trade lane for . . .”
“Incoming!” the hulking man at the weapons console shouted.
They all turned to find several small blips of light racing toward them on the main monitor. The angular assault craft hadn’t even cleared the Wall before opening fire.
“Evasive maneuvers,” Nadia bellowed. “Turn for an attack profile.”
“Get all weapons online,” Doyle said firmly as he ran to the weapons console. “I want that ship reduced to slag!”
“Why is the private security force of the Independent Traders Union firing on us?” the meek crewmember whimpered.
The lights on the bridge shifted to a reddish hue and damage reports started to fill the side monitors.
“Questions can wait until after we’ve disarmed that craft,” Nadia said as she scanned the new data. “How bad is it?”
“They certainly knew where to hit us,” Ensign Lingstrom said sternly, “we’ve lost most of our maneuvering capabilities.”
“I can’t get our main weapon array in position to return fire,” the hulking man said through grit teeth. “I’ll never be able to penetrate their armor in time with what we’ve got angled now.”
“I’m detecting a build up in the enemy weapon systems,’ the meek voice said with an obvious quiver.
“They mean to finish us off with one final salvo.” Doyle spat at the floor plating.
“We’ve got no choice,” Nadia said in a hollow voice. “Abandon ship.”
The hulking man shouted an obscenity as ensign Lingstrom shoved the butt of his rifle into his gut. Before anyone could react, the ensign had entered several commands into the console and the weapon systems responded.
The angular assault craft lined up the final volley as the rectangular battleship started to fire randomly. Streaks of light and vapor trails fled the doomed ship with no rhyme or reason as it flailed one final time. Only a few of the hastily made shoots even came close to the angular opponent. With a victorious smirk, the commander of the private security forces ship gave the command to end the thrashing. The angular ship’s turrets aligned and the missile silos opened. In an instant a brilliant flash blanked out the entirety of the monitor. It struggled to adapt as the piercing flare of exploding warheads surged against the inky black of space.
“What did you do?” Nadia asked, hesitant to break the silence on the bridge.
“Private security forces deal with raiding parties for the most part,” Ensign Lingstrom said as he visibly relaxed. “They don’t have time to place elaborate shots and calculate ranges before their prey tries to jump away. As such most of their weapons are live in the chamber. While the random fire distracted them, I launched a salvo of interceptors, designed to seek out their missiles
“Where did you learn to do that?” Doyle demanded.
“In the same place that clearly states it is our duty to oppose pirates,” he said proudly. “You really should bother to go through all the required reading sometime.”
“Enough you two,” Nadia said before they could start. “I want to know where that ship came from, why it fired on us, and how badly we are hurt.
Everyone on the bridge nodded and got to work.
“A few minor hull breaches are already being patched up, ma’am,” Doyle said as he studied the reports. “Still waiting on the crew to check in. It seems almost all of the damage was focused on our ability to maneuver. We can still jump, but don’t expect us to be quick about it. Lining up the jump vector is going to take some doing.”
“I wouldn’t jump yet,” the meek voice said.
“And why’s that?” Nadia asked.
“I’ve finished analysis of the enemy jump vector, ma’am. Three times in fact.”
“And . . .”
“The origin is the Navy staging point, ma’am.”
Everyone stared at the timid boy as his meek words sunk in. An assault craft of the ITU had come
the staging point looking for a fight.
“Get me contact with Navy Command
,” Nadia demanded as she bolted upright from her chair.
“I’ve been trying, ma’am,” an older woman said with a furrowed brow. “I thought the ITU was jamming us, but that ship is deader than a gambling hall on inspection night. I can’t contact the fleet.”
Nadia’s footing wavered for a moment.
“That can’t be!” the hulking man shouted as he rubbed his ribs. “Those Union dogs stabbed us in the back and got away with it?”
“They might only be blocking communications,” Doyle said desperately. “We need to get to the staging area . . .”
“And do what?” Ensign Lingstrom demanded. “We would be a sitting duck in a combat situation. Even if there is anything left of the fleet, we are in no condition to help anyone.”
“You coward,” Doyle roared as he charged the ensign. “Where is your talk of duty now?”
The short man dug his shoulder into the ensign’s chest as he knocked them both over. Before he could toss another punch, the hulking man easily lifted him off the downed ensign and held him dangling above the floorboards.
“Now isn’t the time for that,” the hulking man barked. “We have to do something about those Union dogs.”
“What would you suggest?” Nadia asked, her voice shaken.
The hulking man stared at the captain, his anger slowly giving way to uncertainty.
“Best case scenario is the ITU has declared war and the fleet is currently engaged in battle at all the various stating points across the Commonwealth,” Nadia said coldly. “Worst case is we’ve already lost and that assault craft was one of the ships hunting down stragglers.”
“You can’t be considering surrender,” ensign Lingstrom said as he wiped at his lip.
“Give me an alternative,” she said, obviously struggling to retain what was left of her composure.
Lingstrom stared at her long and hard before he finally got to his feet.
“Operation Landed Mountain,” he said finally.
She stared at him as her brow furrowed.
“And just what is that?” the hulking man asked eagerly.
“In the Great War, a recon unit was ambushed by the great enemy,” the captain said thoughtfully. “They had discovered a massive assault group, but they knew they would never get back to safe space alive to warn anyone. So they jumped onto the enemy world and turned their warships into ground fortresses. It took the great enemy two months to dig them out again, and their surprise attack was completely thwarted.”
“He wants us to scuttle the Steward?” Doyle demanded.
“If the ITU has declared war and is already attacking our fleet staging points,” ensign Lingstrom said solemnly, “the next step will be to invade the core worlds and wrest control from what’s left of the government. We might not be able to save the Navy, but we can try and save the Commonwealth.”
Stunned silence filled the bridge.
“Transmit a full summary of our encounter on all encoded channels,” Nadia said firmly. “Warn any surviving Navy ships of the situation, and then set course for the nearest core world.”
Brent stirred as the three tones pulled him from his slumber. Rubbing his eyes, he tried to hold onto the last fading images of the rolling fields under the auburn sky from his dream. As the final traces of his dream vanished, the harsh lighting piercing his eyelids reminded him he was not in some peaceful field, but an academy of the military. He opened his eyes to find himself completely covered by a blanket, Cassandra still holding him tight. For a moment his mind raced as he tried to recall how he had ended up in the same bunk as the heavy gravity girl.
It took him a minute to recall the previous day. Assembling a squad of his friends and testing their abilities in the Gauntlet. A smile pulled at his lip as he recalled their impressive performance. Slowly he recalled the party of the previous night and the slow trek of dragging the half-asleep girl back to her bunk. As he was about to stir, he heard approaching footsteps. Cassandra’s arms tightened, holding him down.
“Morning,” a lively and friendly voice said. It took him a second to place it as Hiroko’s.
“Morning,” Cassandra responded anxiously.
“Have you seen Brent anywhere? We can’t seem to find him. He isn’t in his bunk, and no one remembers seeing him leave the party yesterday.”
“I’m sure he’ll turn up.”
Brent tickled Cassandra’s side; she let out a surprised giggle.
“You okay?” Hiroko asked.
“Yeah, my leg just fell asleep; I hate when that happens.”
Cassandra batted the blankets, gently pounding on Brent’s back.
“Okay. Well, if you see him, let Tyra know. See you at breakfast!”
Cassandra held perfectly still until Hiroko had left. Then she whipped off the blanket and eyed Brent angrily. Pushing him aside, she got out of the bunk. She turned to face him and gestured down the row of bunks.
“Idiot. What if she had found you?” she demanded.
“All you had to do was tell her the truth.” He stretched and yawned.
“That would have made things worse! After that party and the entire academy patting us on the back for breaking the Gauntlet record – to admit being carried here and falling asleep in the same bunk; that kid would jump to conclusions again.”
“Who?” Brent asked, suppressing a yawn.
who I’m talking about.”
He simply shrugged.
“That Dante person,” she said with a shiver. “He was telling everyone I was your girlfriend!
calling me a ripe tomato about to explode.”
“And why does that bother you exactly? Cain has called you far worse, and his nonsense doesn’t phase you. One comment from Dante and you are climbing the walls?”
“Cain’s an idiot and a bookie. He says things just to get a rise out of people. Dante, on the other hand, seems to know what he’s talking about.”
“I see, so you are worried that people will believe him. He’ll let out your secret, and everyone will actually pay attention to him.”
“My secret? What secret?”
“Shush, you wouldn’t want anyone to hear. Come closer.”
Cassandra checked the room nervously. Cautiously she lowered her head closer to his. When she was in range he pulled her close and kissed her. For an instant she was surprised and tried to pull away, but that passed quickly. She closed her eyes and relaxed. Wonderful warmth flooded into him. The surroundings washed away as the serene feeling wrapped around him. When they separated, she was a deep red. Brent couldn’t help but smile as her heavy gravity world cheeks flushed an unnaturally strong red.