The tedium of a long voyage in deep space was punctuated only by duty and the pressing bodily needs of food, sleep and hygiene. On a small vessel, interior space was at a premium, never more so than on a military ship. Boredom brought problems, but they were manageable. The trip had been strictly routine this far.
Everyone agreed that was a good thing, up to a point.
Captain Jake Rhodes studied the readout.
Mayaguez was leaking heat and light like a sieve. They were broadcasting all over the electromagnetic spectrum.
He nodded at the communications officer.
“Marko. Contact Mayaguez. Ask them if they can possibly button it up a little.”
The slender, blond and very young man nodded wordlessly. He tapped it into his board.
He looked up.
“Captain Esparza sends his apologies, but he is understaffed and they are doing the best they can.”
“Acknowledged. Ask him to please make all efforts.”
The young man put his head down again. This time there was no relevant response.
Jake avoided swearing when applicable.
The light cruiser Nike was engaged in convoy duty.
The passenger ship Albireo, the cargo ships Maersk, Astron, Erika, Vega II, Salem and the tanker Mayaguez were en route from Earth to the embattled 55 Cancri system.
Earth’s farthest outpost, 55 Cancri was at the end of a very long supply chain. Its three million human citizens aside, it was a strategic prize of incalculable value. The closest point to rebel Confederation space, it must be reinforced at all costs.
The cargo was somewhat essential to the survival of the colony’s civilian population, but most of the shipment was intended to bolster the defense of the planet Kepler. Ultimately, it would be a jumping-off point for the reintegration of rebel space. The enemy could see that as well. Albireo carried the Fourteenth Army Brigade, and as much of their heavy equipment as could be jammed in. Some of the equipment was scattered aboard other ships, wherever it could be fit in or even lashed on to the outer hull in some cases.
Cancri system had been raided twice by the Confederation.
The object of the raids was not conquest, merely subjugation. That was the spec. Cancri had few major industries of her own, but if the small terrestrial planet Kepler would simply cooperate, it would be a source of badly-needed stores, military equipment and no doubt manpower.
The Confederation had seceded from the Empire. The act wasn’t exactly legal—even they didn’t claim that, only that it was self-determination. Attempts to put down the rebellion at such a long distance from Earth had only ended in disaster with the minimal forces allotted.
“All routine so far, sir.”
Captain Rhodes nodded at his executive officer, Commander Rick Allen.
“Yes. Let’s hope it stays that way.”
Barely a minute later, out on the left flank, the frigate Draco blew up in a flash of brilliant blue-white light.
“Jesus Christ! What in the hell was that!”
The system was already sounding Battle Stations and the bridge staff were frantically trying to determine exactly what was going on or had happened over there. Rhodes quickly recovered, only to freeze and stare as a projectile, glowing red on the screens and streaking straight for them, suddenly dissipated. Small pieces of it sparked and trailed and tumbled out of existence.
“All crew! Hang on! I repeat, hang on! Two degrees-to-port! Pitch, down, three degrees!”
The missile sailed over their heads, and they stared, fixated, at the screens as it sputtered out, its chemical engines apparently hit, spewing gases and going into a wild spiral. Nike resumed its course on the right flank.
“We’re under attack, sir!”
“Where did that come from?” Their automated short-range defense system, a simple rail-gun shooting bits of soft iron wire, had hacked it down. “Back-track!”
The path of the known projectile showed the enemy off to the left and behind the Fleet units.
The Commander gave curt orders to all ships as Rhodes’ mind and eyes worked furiously.
“All ships. All ships. Take evasive action.” The convoy’s vectors on the navigation screen broke sharply in a pre-arranged pattern, all of it worked out beforehand although few seriously thought it would be used.
They had been mistaken about that. The changes in vectors were necessarily minute, for none of the civilian ships were stressed for high-g. It was forlorn hope that it might spoil the aim of an unseen enemy or make it harder to acquire and track targets.
They held their breath and waited.
All the captains were on the Open horn, all speaking at once.
“One at a time, please.” Making a slice across his throat, the Commander looked at Captain Rhodes. “Go ahead, sir.”
Marko turned the civvies down to a dull roar and awaited further instructions.
“Draco destroyed by torpedo, sir. We are looking, sir. There’s nothing out there according to our systems.”
“I know, sir.” Captain Yazici was shaken by the sudden destruction of Draco, a sister-ship of the Earth’s brand-new D-class frigates.
While not a personal friend of Captain Seong of Draco, three hundred and forty-two people had just vapourized.
Rhodes turned to Allen.
“How in the hell did they do that?”
“Stealth technology, sir.”
That much was obvious, but they should have been detectable by alert military systems and personnel. After five months in dry-dock, every system on the Nike was state-of-the-art. All systems were scanning and pinging, every second and every millimeter of the way.
“What are your instructions?” The communications officer had a point.
The civilian ship’s captains were scared shitless, and someone had to take charge. Rhodes was the Flag.
“All right. We’ll re-form, only this time in extended formation. I want five hundred kilometers of separation, and they will still be within our protection envelope. Demon and Eutropius will continue the escort. The course remains unchanged.”
Fleet replenishment ship Eutropius was lightly armed and at least capable of defending itself.
The fleet ship also had all the updated detection and properly-encrypted communication systems.
The faces onscreen nodded, not a lot of enthusiasm to be seen there, but they were all professionals. They would do as they were told.
Almost three-quarters of the way to their destination, they didn’t have the reaction mass to turn back or do a whole lot of sudden maneuvering.
As things stood, Nike and the other Fleet units were limited to the speed of the slowest member of the convoy.
“Orders, sir?” Commander Allen gave the chop signal to the communications officer.
“Yes. Signal all ships. We are breaking off to look for survivors—” A hush fell over the bridge crew on hearing that.
Allen himself looked very solemn.
“…and we’re going to take a look around out there.” Something very cold went through Rhodes’ eyes.
Out there was a cloud of interstellar dust, thin as a wisp and barely visible to the naked eye, although it showed up well enough on instruments of military sensitivity. The convoy had steered around it, as some of the ships were not well-shielded for micro-impact.
The captain gave Rick Allen a long look.
“Mr. Allen. Are your people ready?”
“Let’s see if we can find that enemy ship.”
Rick Allen’s plan was ludicrously simple. As was known or suspected from previous attacks, including the surprise attacks on Kepler, the Confederation had discovered a method of cloaking their ships to avoid electromagnetic detection. Visual detection, due to the required shielding from radiation, was almost a forgotten science and military ships had little provision for it—civilian ships had virtually none, being almost purely robotic and fly-by-the-numbers. The crews were minimal but necessary, mostly for the beginning and end of their flights.
Non-essential personnel, anyone who was not immediately detailed for battle stations, a small portion of the ship’s contingent, were stationed in all available cupolas and view-ports. There were few enough of those on the ship. It was just as easy to take a look out at an antenna for example, rather than suit someone up and go see if it was still there in the case of a minor electronic malfunction. The time could be better spent analyzing systems. Skills and people were always in short supply on a deep-space military vessel.
The Fleet had grown so fast since the split, as it was called, that most of the Nike’s people were on a deep cruise for their very first time.
Allen stood beside Lane, a crewmember fresh out of the Academy. They were at the observation dome above the crew’s mess on Deck Five.
She had been issued with a heavy pair of good, old-fashioned binoculars.
“What are we looking for, sir?”
He shook his head, chewing his thoughts.
“Anything, really.” A pair of binoculars hung round his neck.
The unaccustomed weight and feel drove some of the adrenalin-laced excitement he felt.
“Those bastards are still out there.”
“You’re absolutely right, Lane.”
She swept the star field, took the glasses away, blinked, and then looked again.
His personal device buzzed in his ears.
“Commander Allen.” It was Davies, down on Deck Nine, where the ship’s boats were stored and launched.
“I’m not a hundred percent sure, sir. But I think I’ve got something.”
“I’ll be right down!” He clapped Lane on the shoulder. “Keep looking. This is probably nothing—and there may be more than one of them out there.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” He keyed for the Captain. “Sir.”
“There’s something out there. Port, stern. Pitch, nine or ten. Yaw, left fifteen or so. Can we put all active systems on that, please, and check all passive screens…”
Allen keyed back to his ‘private’ channel.
“Special Duty Squad.”
The acknowledgements came swiftly.
“We’ve spotted something here.” He ordered those who might be in a position to see it to have a look for it.
“The rest of you, keep looking. We have no guarantee this is it. We have no way of knowing how many are out there…”
He clicked off and went back to the Captain.
“There’s nothing out there. We can’t see it.” Captain Rhodes’ eyes bored into his from the small screen.
“What exactly are you seeing?”
Distinctly unhappy with their present vulnerability and still shocked by the suddenness of Draco’s destruction, now just a ball of warm haze in the rear screens, his patience was minimal.
“I’m taking a look now, sir.”
Shoving the device into his pocket, he lifted the big glasses and had a look.
“What a devious device…”
“Talk to me, Commander.”
“Sir. Still observing.”
Ted Cruz, the ship’s morale officer, came running up.
He stood at the Commander’s side. He pulled out a communicator and relayed to the bridge.
“Okay, sir. We’re going to try and get a picture of this thing.” Rick thought for second. “It might be well to steer towards it…but just give me a second.”
Cruz repeated in soft but clear tones.
Awkwardly, Rick dropped the glasses and looked around for the camera, hastily brought by another crew-member on clipped orders from Allen. The crewmember Halston, suddenly bent over, with his hands on his knees panting, having run all the way from ship’s stores.
Allen found the object in the view-finder. It was dimly illuminated by the reflected light of a billion stars.
He snapped as many pictures as he could in a minute, hands shaking all the while.
“Do either of you know how to use one of these?”
“Ah, yes, sir.” Halston took the camera, still gasping for breath.
“Keep shooting. And keep reporting, I want a constant stream of observation. Davies. You have your own job to do, and I suggest you do it.” Commander Allen turned and pelted towards the bridge.
The object was right with them, shadowing the convoy. With a little luck and some proper thinking, they might still be able to get a shot at it.
When he got to the bridge, it was buzzing with tension.
“Any idea what that weapon was?” The Captain leaned over the tactical board, but the harried technical rating only shook his head and kept bringing up new tidbits of data.
It might take a while to get a proper analysis.
“Speak.” Rhodes was famous for his twenty-five words or less doctrine of situational reporting.
“Their shape is rounded. They must have a stinger, maybe four or five out the back to redirect our EM. They are keeping the nose to the enemy, sir—us.”
The convoy’s slow speed made that much easier for the enemy. Nike was a prime target.
“We’ll stream pictures in a moment.” Allen lifted his communicator and spoke as the captain listened.
“Here we go.” The communications officer, Marko, pointed at the first half-dozen.
“How far away are they?”
“Assuming internal equipment not unlike our own, ah…their ship may be half or even a third of our size—”
Allen shrugged. “Shit. Between a hundred and a thousand kilometres. Closer to a thousand, I’m thinking.”
“How in the hell did they ever get that close...” The captain’s face flushed.
There were too many unknowns for a more accurate fix. It was a grey, fuzzy dot on a black background with no measurable reference points in the relativistic sense. Still, it couldn’t be very big—
“Sir.” A rating on the sensor board called them over. “I’ve got something—it’s fuzzy, but it’s there, in about the right place?”
“What do we do?” Rhodes looked at Allen.
“They’re not firing.” He looked at the board in front of them, and then looked at the bigger display at the front of the cabin, showing the convoy making way for 55 Cancri.
The captain’s mouth was a hard line.
“Yes…they’ll try and avoid detection. Live to fight another day.”
His eyes stabbed Allen.
“Analysis of the attack.”
“They ignored the civvies, sir.”
The captain bit his lip. The Fleet was small, but the Confederation’s fleet was smaller. They would love to cut down those odds.
His eyes came back.
“How do we get a shot at this guy?”
Allen nodded grimly.
“I am with you all the way, sir.”
He looked at the communications officer.
“Inform the Demon that they have charge. Tell them to inform Eutropius and the rest of the convoy that we are investigating. After that, all ears on me.”
“I have a suggestion.”
The idea was to sniff around the remains of the Draco, an ever-expanding cloud of wreckage big and small, spewing hot gases, a fog of cold vapors, and streaks of smoke where higher-velocity debris had left a trail.
“We have to assume that they can see from inside of that thing. However, they may be buttoned down to some extent.” Allen quickly laid it out.
“And then, say, we find something interesting. We’re looking for survivors. We swing the bow around, nice and slow…ease in as close as we dare.”
Nike’s heavy weapons might very well be in range. It was a question of the distance, and the location of the enemy ship. There was the problem of that unconventional rounded shape, sitting somewhere in the middle of that fur-ball of interstellar dust and the enemy’s own EM-deflecting counter-measures.
“And what do you propose to do then, Commander?”
“Aim manually, at the centre of that thing, Eyeballs and open sights, Captain. Fire everything that we got, and don’t back off—if we turn our backs on them now, they’ll fire for sure.”
The captain smiled thinly.
“Hmn. Obviously, we can’t do that.” His eyes fell for a moment.
He straightened up and looked around the bridge.
“Prepare to attack. All weapons will bear on target. Any questions?”
A ragged cheer could be heard through the thin bulkheads. There were no questions.
The captain went to his seat.
“All hands. All right, ladies and gentlemen. Strap in for high-g maneuvering.” The order was repeated throughout the ship.
He looked over at Commander Allen, strapping himself into his own chair.
“The attack is yours, Mister Allen.”
“Thank you, sir.” There was a sudden, delayed grief written all over his face.
He had just lost a very good friend on Draco.
Allen had quickly briefed the bridge party and the various weapons rooms.
The plan was to use full countermeasures, jamming, silent running, and passive systems. They would be going to full stealth attack mode; and as soon as all that came active, they would launch all available weapons.
“Wire-guided?” They were strictly for close-in battle, an event which had never happened in the short history of interstellar warfare.
The bridge got quiet.
“On my mark. Three. Two. One. Mark.”
The hands stabbed at the icons, the defensive electronic systems went to full output and then the boards lit up with weapons release.
The trouble with missiles was the fireball on the end. You couldn’t see a damned thing otherwise from the flaring screens. Something happened and the bridge went wild.
“Shut up!” Captain Rhodes’ voice cracked like a whip.
They stared fascinated at the big forward screen.
“Looks like we got him, sir.” On the ECM panel, Crewman Vogel’s voice was a hushed whisper.
The enemy ship was a glowing fireball.
What came next was shocking in its intensity.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”
The communications officer looked at Rhodes.
“What do I do, sir?”
The young man spoke into his microphone.
“Mayday acknowledged. Identify, please.”
There was a squeal of radio interference, as the burning ship veered erratically, the venting process throwing off vector-stability. With systems damaged, they were having trouble controlling her. She was no longer invisible, but a flaring match in a dark room. All weapons systems went green with lock-on.
“This is the Confederation Armed Vessel Constitution. We are on fire, approaching meltdown. Please render assistance.”
Rhodes looked at Allen.
“Demand unconditional surrender and order them to abandon ship.”
Rhodes looked at young Marko on the communications board.
Signals sped back and forth as Rhodes and Allen consulted quickly. Top priority had to go to the convoy.
The enemy ship was done for.
But there was also much to be gained here.
They watched as the first of the Constitution’s boats was launched, heading away from Nike in their haste to clear the doomed vessel, now spiraling around like a balloon with the air coming out.
The odds of the entire crew getting out were looking worse by the half-second.
“Contact Eutropius. Ask Captain Malone to take charge of the scene. They are to recover prisoners, make intelligence assessments of the hulk, if there’s anything left by then, and then they can rendezvous with the convoy ASAP. Destroy anything useful that can’t be taken away.”
“Ah, yes, sir.” Marko’s face was intense with concentration as he relayed all of that to Eutropius.
There might have been other enemy subs, as everyone had taken to calling them out there, but the rest of the trip was uneventful.
The funny thing was that it was still exciting.
Rick Allen was just in that fuzzy moment before true alert status. It was his first good night’s sleep in a couple of days, and he wiggled his toes in sheer bliss. A couple more days and they could all rest…
There was a quick rap on the door.
Rick threw the cover aside and shambled to the door in his underwear. On a small ship, formality took a back seat to an emergency.
Rick stepped back, mouth open and eyes widening as the Captain came in bearing a flimsy print-out of a Fleet Priority One communication.
“I thought you’d like to have this.”
He proffered it with a grin, ignoring Rick’s morning breath and the crust around his blinking eyes.
Rick stood there reading as the Captain took a quick glance around the small space, organized but lived-in, just as his own was.
“Congratulations. We’ll talk later.”
Rhodes gave Rick a slap on the bicep and turned, closing the door carefully behind him as he went.
Rick’s knees wobbled and his pulse raced as he read it over and over again.
Fleet was offering Rick his own command—and asking him to leave Nike.
Louis has several science fiction novels and a number of short stories available from Barnes & Noble.
He usually has something up for free, ladies and gentlemen.