“Shuttle seven landing confirmed,” said the hangar master. “Shuttle eight begin docking sequence. Shuttle nine make final approach. Shuttle ten begin approach. Shuttle eleven enter docking pattern.”
A shockwave rippled out from one of the Planetary Interceptors as its core detonated, crashing against the Pelican. Yellowish lights burst to life across the bridge, calling still reeling crew back to their stations. Initial damage reports were shouted to the captain whose orders in response were carried out immediately.
Despite the ship’s recent appropriation by the Alliance Military at the command of the Central Authority, she was not a warship. Designed to ferry passengers and cargo across the void between stars, Pelican was never meant to take this kind of abuse. Never meant to be so close to an active war zone.
Pelican quickly righted herself, and the final damage report did not raise concern. What few immediate issues had arisen from that shockwave were easily contained or repaired. Any future issues, breakdowns or failures that could appear from something missed, were unlikely to cause issue going forward. At least, not until the ship and its cargo were well behind friendly lines.
The Human Superiority Front advance party clashed with the Planetary Interceptors and orbital stations again, dueling for control of the lost planet’s orbit. It was a last-ditch effort. The garrison fleet had been completely overrun, and the requested reinforcements hadn’t arrived.
Light flared in the starboard view screens, other transports breaking through into hyperspace and vanishing down the primary trade corridor. More lights flared as, one by one, the first waves of refugees to be ferried off-world were away; further into Alliance space. Further away from the blistering assaults of the H.S.F. as they tore holes in the frontier.
“Shuttle eight landing confirmed,” intoned the hangar master, drawing every eye on the bridge. “Shuttle nine, begin docking sequence. Shuttle ten, make final approach. Shuttle eleven, begin approach. Suttle twelve, enter docking pattern.”
Through the bow view screen, more lights bloomed against the star-studded black. Alliance and H.S.F. interceptors dog fighting for control. It was a losing fight. Even if the Interceptors beat back the first wave of the invasion, Pelican’s computer told the bridge crew that the primary invasion fleet was nearly upon them. Ploughing through the void, noses pointed squarely at what had once been the breadbasket of the Fifth Sector.
“Any news from the relief force,” Captain Connolly asked.
“Negative, Captain,” came the response from communications. That part of the bridge seemed almost overflowing with crew as they struggled to keep track of everything happening around them. The tenth shuttle had lined itself up to follow number nine, meaning that Pelican’s boarding procedure was nearing completion, only 5 more shuttles, causing eyes to turn worriedly towards the view screens.
Out there, more brilliant flashes lit the sky as Alliance interceptors died or burned towards their next fight. There were not enough of them. Threnidy, the planet currently under siege, was never supposed to be the front line of any conflict, so its defences were rudimentary. Scarcely enough to fend off a determined pirate raid on the outlying mining stations and orbital transport hubs, the garrison fleet had crumpled under the determined attack.
It had mainly been a training post. A place for the graduates from the naval academies to gain space experience before being deployed to the frontiers. Never a place where they thought a serious threat would be encountered. Instead, it was meant as an emergency reserve force at the furthest extreme of bad luck.
Speculation ran rampant through the crew, people wondering exactly what had happened on the frontiers to let such a large fleet come so far into Alliance space. The Eighth Fleet should have intercepted them more than two lightyears from Threnidy. And if that fleet failed, then the ninth and sixth should have made it in enough time to mop up whatever was left.
Nothing in the history of humanity could match the forces that the Alliance could bring to bear. So how had the H.S.F. come so far?
Proximity alarms wailed, pulling hands from consoles to clamp over suddenly aching ears.
“Shuttle ten,” the hangar master’s voice was rock steady, even as the other bridge crew worked their stations, calling up any help they could. “Evasive maneuvers. You are not cleared to begin docking sequence. Say again, you are not clear.”
An H.S.F. Interceptor blazed passed on the view screen, its rail guns flaring in vacuum, projectiles riddling the lumbering shuttle. Captain Connolly screamed something, and the weapons master tried to lock onto the tiny fighter, not wanting to waste ammunition shooting at where the enemy had been or would never be. The Interceptor’s guns blazed again, and the lights visible on shuttle ten died as it tilted off its axis and began to drift back down Threnidy’s gravity well.
“Shuttle ten,” said the hangar master, his voice shaking with barely controlled emotion. “Shuttle ten, please respond.” But the line was dead. Every eye turned towards the shuttle, their own concerns forgotten, as it accelerated away from them, the first hints of fire sparking against its hull as it entered the planet’s atmosphere.
Six hundred. That number ran circles in every head as fire engulfed the craft, the force of uncontrolled re-entry tearing chunks off and flinging them away from the corpse. Some watchers imagined that they could see the bodies of the six hundred passengers who had squeezed onto the ship, desperate to escape the coming storm, as they were pulled from their sense of safety into…
“Got you, fucker,” screamed the weapons master. She overrode the view screen feed and replayed the view of the H.S.F. Interceptor as Pelican’s point defence systems tore through its shielding and armour. No one cheered as the fighter died, instead, as the orange fire consumed the craft, each eye turned towards the background, where the angry red flares of the main invasion fleet shone against the backdrop of stars.
“How long will it take us to make escape velocity,” Captain Connolly’s voice was barely a whisper, his voice sounded raw and dry. No one answered. “I said,” he rounded on the crew, drawing every stunned eye, “how long until we make escape velocity?”
“Too long, sir,” said a small voice from his left. The captain turned and looked at the junior officer who spoke.
“It’ll take too long, sir. I’ve run the numbers, and we won’t be able to make it before they catch us, not if… not if they… I don’t think they want us to escape, sir. They need our… cargo for the planet.”
“Hard to import farmers,” muttered Captain Connolly, nodding. “Maybe they want to deny us… Helm!”
“Maximum burn, we need to get away from this planet as soon as possible. Don’t stop for anything, do you hear me?”
“Aye, Captain! Maximum burn!”
“Everyone else,” said Captain Connolly. “Strap in.”
As the Helmsman warmed up the engines and laboriously spun the ship so that its nose was pointed straight down the trade corridor, every person present rushed to strap themselves into their high-G couches. Mechanical hums replaced the sounds of hurried, almost panicked movement that was mirrored across the ship. Every possible couch was taken and every passenger unlucky enough to outnumber the couches on the over-burdened ship hurriedly strapped themselves to anything sturdy enough to take the forces the ship was about to be subjected to.
“Ready, Captain,” said the helmsman.
Right on her heels, the cargo officer and passenger officer shouted that everything was ready. One by one, each station reported, and prayers were said to every god recognized in the Alliance. Prayers that none held any notion of being answered.
A rending shudder rocked the ship from bow to stern as the enormous engines fought against inertia. Pelican was overburdened. Everyone knew that and closed their eyes, hoping against hope, that she could take the strain. Finally, with a shout of triumph, helm punched the accelerator and gravity flipped on its head.
A cocktail of drugs slammed into the veins of every bridge crew through the myriad of needles that automatically placed themselves when they strapped into their couches and for the briefest of moments, vision faded behind a kaleidoscope of shifting colours. Pain snapped the crew back to full consciousness as an elephant that had been dropped on their chests by the acceleration shifted itself.
Pelican groaned under the strain, she was not equipped for the sheer mass of the refugees crammed into her hold and more prayers were whispered that she could make it. Two countdowns sprang up on screens across the bridge before being banished by a command from Captain Connolly, no one needed to know just how tight their chances were. No one but the captain himself.
Nine shuttles. They had only taken nine shuttles. Not even six thousand desperate evacuees from Threnidy in the marginal safety of Pelican’s hold. Connolly forced himself to ignore the manic requests for assistance that the remaining shuttles squawked at him. Forced himself not to count the souls that would either be forced to return to the doomed planet or else die in hard vacuum.
It was his own burden to carry. His own torment. None of the rest of the crew need to know how frantic the calls for assistance were. None of them ever needed to hear or read the begging from the shuttle pilots as they watched their last hope of salvation steadily built velocity around them. It was his burden alone.
Time passed with agonizing slowness as reports filtered up to the bridge, telling the terrified bridge crew that the ship was holding together. If only just. Though they were paying a price with passenger injuries, there were no reported fatalities. That was a blessing, if the only one.
Captain Connolly struggled to tear his eyes away from the countdown, struggled not to watch as the numbers showed him things he did not want to know. Surely it was better for the end to come as a surprise, surely it was better-
“Captain,” shouted the communications officer. “We have contact!”
The captain swore violently under his breath, letting his strain show on his face since none of the crew could see it. He imagined his wife’s face when she learned what had happened to him. He wrestled with the thought that his children would never truly know him. His parents, their little apartment on Ulsa Station, his brothers and friends, all of their names and the last things he had said to them flashed through his mind.
Forcing himself back to the present, he said, “report,” fighting to keep the rising panic, the certain knowledge of his own mortality out of his voice. He was the crew’s anchor; he was the only one who could make the necessary decisions. Their guiding beacon through the void. They needed to know to their bones that he was in command, that he would lead them through the storm, even as he was burdened with, he knowledge that it was a lie.
Instead of reporting, the communications officer activated the bridge main speakers and a calm, detached voice blared from every speaker.
“Attention all craft. This is the A.N.S. Dauntless, maintain your heading. Do not deviate under any circumstance. Say again, maintain your heading.”
“Main view screen,” shouted the captain over the sudden clamour of officers demanding information. “Put it on the main screen, damn it!”
Out in the black, just barely visible at their distance, the re-entry light was just fading. A gleaming flower of multi-hued hyper-space particles slowly closing as a monster of a ship ploughed through the void between stars. Her brutal hull bristled with rail gun embankments, missile tubes, and armour, the flare of its engines nearly blinding, even at that distance, as she blazed towards the invaders.
Cheers erupted across the bridge. Bridge crew wept and had they been able to stand from their couches, they would have thrown their arms around each other in pure, unadulterated joy that the navy had finally arrived.
An alert cut through the captain’s raptures, calling his attention to a private message from the communications officer. It was short, to the point, and crushing.
>“Sir, there’s only one.”
Firey hope ran to Ice in Connolly’s veins, a cold that reminded him of his first time stepping through an airlock when he had been aa young spacer. The bone-deep terror of failure, the knowledge that his survival was completely beyond his own control.
>“A.N.S. Dauntless is the only Alliance warship in the system. No other signal beacons are active.”
Dauntless, flag ship of the Sixth Fleet, was alone. Alone against an invader that had already cleared the local garrison from the system. Hope died in the captain’s throat; a fog of panic threatened to take over his mind completely. He thought that this meant the entire fleet had been destroyed. That the Dauntless was engaging in a desperate holding action to ensure that as many refugee ships as possible made their escape velocity.
>“Send them a message. Ask for more information.”
He desperately counted down the minutes until a response could be expected. He watched with bloodshot eyes as the ship stormed passed the planet, vomiting up its compliment of interceptors which burned towards the losing fight in orbit. More flashes lit the void as the reinforcements joined the fight, pilots vanishing in blinding flashes of light that would appear as short-lived new stars to anyone left behind down the gravity well.
> ”Sixth and Nineth fleets engaged in blockade breaking. Estimated time to arrival, three hours.”
Dauntless a Thunder Child class dreadnaught, the most powerful class of warship ever built, would reach the main enemy force in under forty minutes. Captain Connolly watched the time tick slowly down as his ship sped further from the planet with his heart in his mouth. Three hours until the rest of the navy arrived, and only one warship to defend the shattered remnants of Threnidy until then.
Fog consumed his mind as he watched the three countdowns march inexorably to their inevitable conclusion. Mirth and hope died in the countdowns, melting away to be replaced with hollow dread as no further Alliance warships punched into real space.
Light delay meant he could only watch as the after images of Dauntless as she screamed towards the H.S.F. fleet. He whispered another prayer. A prayer that maybe the ship would survive, a prayer that the enemy would realize their blockade had broken and send them burning away from the planet where the tide of the orbital battle was turning, back beyond the Frontier where they belonged.
Minutes ticked slowly by until the third countdown reached zero. He knew the battle had begun. Light flared in the distance, just barely within range of their sensors and a quiet only challenged by the true silence of the void fell like the pressure of acceleration across the bridge as the full attention of every bridge crew locked onto the after images of the battle.
Mini suns blazed to life as Dauntless fought for the future of a planet that was already lost.
Urgent reports from ships closer to the planet, those within easier sensor range filtered to Connolly’s console. Dauntless fought with reckless abandon, venting atmosphere and crew at an unsustainable rate. The ship was paying for the refugees and the Pelican with her life.
H.S.F. escort ships were reported to be falling at a staggering rate. Dauntless tore through them like a laser through thin sheet metal. Every one within range of its arsenal died or was left adrift, steadily venting atmosphere. Lifeless hulks that could only watch as one of the wonders of the modern age devoured their comrades.
More reports from the other evacuation ships came in. The three capital ships of the H.S.F. fleet had clustered closer than normal combat doctrine allowed, their rail-gun embankments concentrating fire on specific sections of Dauntless’ hull, tearing into its guts and shredding the pride of the Sixth Fleet.
The enemy had probably expected a more careful approach, a steady harrying of their fleet as the Dauntless circled them, giving and taking punishment in equal measure. But her captain had had other ideas, this was not a battle Dauntless expected to survive. It was an all or nothing attempt to break the fleet, destroy its ability to take the planet, or at least throw it into such chaos that Alliance reinforcements would have enough time to arrive before they got themselves sorted out.
Finally, a report appeared on his console that he refused to credit.
Waiting as the minutes crawled by, he stared at the screen, ignoring the panicked reports from other captains in the evacuation fleet. It was impossible. It was unbelievable. The scale of the sacrifice defeating belief.
Dauntless had rammed the centre of the three H.S.F. warships. It had actually rammed it like something out of the annals of history, guns still blazing at the unfortunate target’s comrades. And in that moment, the ship’s FTL drive overloaded.
A new sun flared in the void, taking with it Dauntless, the enemy ship, and every crewmember aboard. Seconds after the first flare, so close together that Pelican’s sensors couldn’t distinguish between the two explosions, the FTL drive of the enemy ship also ignited. Catalyzed by the Dauntless’ own sacrifice, the enemy warship’s drive added its own power to the massive explosion.
Fresh silence flooded the bridge of the Pelican. Connolly shook his head, the only motion he could manage. When the reports flooded in, form his own crew and ships close enough to have seen the final act of Dauntless, he could not read them. He knew what had happened. A light like that could only mean one thing. The Dauntless was gone.
>”The enemy is broken.”
Trembling from head to toe, he carefully read the reports from other evacuation captains closer to the action. One ship was confirmed destroyed, a second was dead in the water atmosphere rapidly venting and on the point of total collapse. The third was slowly limping away from the battle, laboriously turning its nose back towards H.S.F. space.
He wanted to cheer, as some of his bridge crew did. He wanted to celebrate that, if not a total victory, Dauntless had at least achieved a stalling action.
Instead, he whispered a final farewell as the report was confirmed over and over again. Dauntless was gone. The shockwave of its last heroic act throwing the enemy fleet into disarray. Above Threnidy, the last survivors of the H.S.F. Interceptors abandoned the battle, fleeing back to their motherships pursued by the victorious remnants of the planetary defense forces and Alliance reinforcements.
Time passed out of knowing until the claxon alerted him that they had reached critical velocity and he spoke the command without hearing it. “Jump.”
About the Creator
Writing has been a hobby of mine for years, so I'm just thrilled to be here! As for me, I love writing, dogs, and travel (only 1 continent left! Australia-.-)
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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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