117 views, and I know that, at most, six of them are mine. Anyway, I'm going to go ahead and post Chapter Two.
Chapter Two: Risinger's Star.
Dateline: 25200528.1400, USS Federation, stationed at Risinger’s Star (formerly the 168 McCormick System.)
The lights were off in Ben’s office. He had often found it helpful to turn them down when he had some thinking to do. It was a habit he had picked up from his old commanding officer, Laura Risinger, who was his friend from all those years before. She was the commander of the Denison Risinger, at the time it was destroyed in the Demonoid ambush. She was the one for whom, the system was named.
Ben shook his head, pushing away the sudden flood of memories that came to mind, still fresh after forty years. He chose, instead, to focus on the 160th Advance and 161st Primary Battlegroups’ recently completed mission. Save for the loss of a third of the 160th’s sixty-four, and a fifth of the 161st’s vessels, it was an unqualified success. The Demonoids lost a Star Depot-class military base, and close to three hundred starships. And, better still, he was informed by Admiralty that it would likely be the proverbial straw that broke the back of the equally proverbial camel. The Demonoid Regency was now less than a month from total defeat.
As a result, the group was ordered to remain at Risinger’s Star until Admiralty had something for them to do. It was a risky strategy, Ben thought, because Risinger’s Star wasn’t in Federal territory. It was a system belonging to the Star Commonwealth, which had an uneasy love-hate relationship with the Federation. The Commonwealth permitted
the Federation to launch its operation from Risinger’s Star, since they were involved in a very ruinous war of their own, and couldn’t deal with the Demonoids themselves. However, given the growing number of incidents between the two fleets, Ben sensed that the Federation was quickly wearing out its welcome here.
However, as long as Ben's ships were in the system, he could temporarily focus his attention to other efforts. An Admiral's day never really ended in the modern Federation. There was, for example, the fact that he had been tapped by none other than Fleet Admiral Garrett Whitney himself, to track down possible connections between the Demonoid Regency and the two other major Human powers. That was, namely, the Star Commonwealth, and the Empire of Ascension.
Ben frowned. It had long been suspected that the Empire of Ascension played a vital role in the ambush of the Denison Risinger; especially when he had been rescued with a man who was a known agent of the Empire of Ascension. Unfortunately, the Empire disavowed all knowledge of the man, and repeated mental scans of him could dig up nothing incriminating. If the Empire was responsible, then they had covered their tracks very well.
They certainly did have their motivations. At one time, all Humanity was united under the Empire. And it was a very long time too. From the time when Diane Murray lead the Al Jaraz Asteroid Mining Cooperative uniting post-Interregnum Earth and the rest of Sol System into the Solar Alliance in 317 PE, to the time when the Dissidents of the Epsilon Eridani system drove Emperor Androwski I from power in 1642 ARC. It had been a long-standing dream of the emperors since him, to one day come back to Earth and reestablish their rule. Using the Demonoids to weaken the Federation would certainly go a long way towards realizing those goals.
Of course, the Star Commonwealth also had probable cause to aid the Regency. Commonwealth and Federal relations had been tense from the day the Federation's founder, Prime Minister Christos al-Qua’rachi, allowed the Commonwealth to regain its independence from the Federation, after they'd lost it because they'd picked the wrong side to back in the Rebel War of the late 2100s.
Under its absolute monarch, King Benjamin IV, little had been done to stop the flow of pirates and privateers from the Commonwealth into the Federation. And now, the Commonwealth was about to get its collective ass handed to it by the ancient alliance of aliens known as the Star League. That fueled talk in the Federation of launching a war against the Commonwealth . . . all to ostensibly protect its citizens from the "inevitable" collapse that would be brought on by the undoubtedly ruinous terms the League would impose upon the Commonwealth.
Ben snorted derisively. The Commonwealth was the Federation's equal in terms of technology and economic power, in spite of having less than a fifth of the latter's planets and territory. The only real reason there would be in seizing the Commonwealth was pure greed. One reason the Commonwealth was so rich because it controlled the system of Gates, the ancient intra-galactic transportation network built by unknown aliens back when dinosaurs were all the rage on Earth.
However, no matter how greedy or paranoid his superiors were, all Ben could do was order his fleet to keep collecting data. Hopefully the data would eventually find its way into rational minds and cooler heads. As Admiral Whitney had pointed out to him, this was merely his secondary goal.
Ben's primary job was to follow up on the growing body of evidence that an unknown agency, or agencies, was tampering with Federal affairs. He was no stranger to intrigue. After all, it was a grief-stricken and guilt-ridden Lieutenant Ben Lewinger who had uncovered such meddling in the past. The Denison Risinger and its fleet had been sacrificed to further the agenda of the Imperialists, men and women who wanted to dismantle the Federation established by Christos al-Qua’rachi, and return Known Space to the supposedly glories of its past as the first incarnation of the Empire of Ascension.
Though their Imperialist networks had been dismantled forty years ago, it seemed that there was someone who was still interfering in Federal affairs. Fleet Admiral Whitney wanted them tracked down. And Ben had agreed with him wholeheartedly. He had his own, very personal, reasons for agreeing. Forty years before, Ben had met one such person. He had been on-hand to witness the destruction of the Denison Risinger, and had supplied him with the means to go after Commodore Wright. He had also taken his friend and captain with them.
The reason Ben was so eager to help, was because his commanding officer, longtime friend, and one-time lover, Captain Laura Risinger, did not die aboard the Denison Risinger, as had been recorded in the history books. Instead, she had been taken by a man who was supposed to be long-dead himself.
Ben shuddered, the memories clawing their way to the surface:
Dateline: 24810430.2215: USS Denison Risinger, Primary Computer Core.
"If you take her with you to that escape pod, she will not live long enough to be rescued, Lieutenant,” Steven Jacot said firmly, a hard expression finding its way to his face.
"How can you be so sure of that!" Ben exclaimed, cradling Laura in his lap. He didn't want to admit it, but she looked much paler now than she had just five minutes before. Her blood continued to seep from her body, soaking her uniform and his.
"It is a miracle that she survived all . . . survived all this,” Steven replied, not entirely unsympathetic. With a sweep of his hand, the tall man indicated the carnage in the room, from the unconscious form of Colonel Andrew Mihalik, the advisor to Meghan Salazar, the scientist who became the leader of the Demonoid force tasked with capturing the Risinger. Meghan's own broken and battered body lay some distance away, barely alive, in a pool of her own blood. And finally, the mostly headless form of Major Andrew Dohlman, the man whose job it had been to ensure that the Risinger's mission failed entirely.
"I know Laura,” Ben snarled. "She can pull through this."
Steven nodded. "Not with Federation, or Commonwealth technology, she isn't. She's dying, Lieutenant. I can save her, you can't. And the more time we waste arguing this, the more certain her fate becomes."
"Why her, why now?" Ben said, the desperation in his voice growing.
"Not just now. The only reason I was here was to bring her back with me,” Steven said, his tone almost guilty. His expression softened, "Look, Lieutenant. Perhaps it is time you knew. We've been courting her for a very long time. And she finally agreed to join us, in the hours before the attack."
"That's a lie!" Ben snapped, almost half-heartedly..
"It isn't, I'm afraid. Open your datajack to me, Lieutenant. It's time you learned how things really are in the Federation and the Galaxy,” Steven replied tersely. "Knowledge only hurts those who are too weak to embrace it."
For a moment, Ben relented, and the implant in his brain was open to Steven Jacot for a brief instant. Yet, that was all that was needed. Data flooded into Ben's neural implant and drove its way into his brain. The memories that shook themselves out were of discussions between Laura and the man before him. They had the fuzzy, not-entirely-there feel of human memories, a feeling that was impossible to counterfeit. Threaded in and between the memories was hard data.
Ben visibly sagged, "Why?" He asked slowly. Steven looked at him, not unsympathetically.
"You now have the means to find the answer, Lieutenant. Don't let them go to waste," he said, glancing down at Laura's still form. "And don't let Captain Risinger's life go to waste either."
Reluctantly, Ben released Laura, sitting dumbfounded as Steven effortlessly picked her up.
"You should be going," Steven said, looking at the readout on the computer display. There was less than ten minutes left until the ship self-destructed.
Ben nodded mutely. After a moment, he spoke: "Will I ever see her again?"
"No," Steven replied. "The price of being able to make a difference is that nobody must ever know that you're out there, making that difference. As far as anybody outside this room is concerned, Captain Laura Risinger went down with her ship. But, rest assured, we'll still be out there, Lieutenant."
Ben blinked, letting the surge of emotions fade. In spite of their warning, for forty years, he had tried to find them. He wanted to find out who could possibly be so well connected that they could slip in and out of the Federation, and probably the other Human powers, entirely at will. And most of all, he wanted to see Laura again. Though he could remember her conversations with Steven Jacot as if he'd been there, he wanted to ask her why she had decided to do what she had done, and why she never told anybody. Not him, not anybody else.
He sighed. There were times he had gotten close. But as a lone officer, Ben had few resources at his command. Alone, he knew he would never get close enough, but he didn’t know who he could trust. And then he had the support of Fleet Admiral Whitney, and the resources that the most senior officer of the Federal military could command. Ben made more progress in a single year than he made in the thirty previous years he had been trying. So much progress, in fact, that he felt confident enough to organize an expedition aimed at cornering his unknown opponents.
“Admiral Lewinger, Commodore Zelthig is here to see you,” the voice of his steward said over the comm. Ben quickly looked up, blinking away the glaze over his eyes. He tapped an icon on his screen.
“Send her in, Emilia,” he said, looking up at the door. After several moments, the door slid open, and Jenni Zelthig stepped into Ben’s office with cat-like grace. She squinted, briefly wrinkling her nose.
“I don’t think I’ll ever understand why some of you like it so dark,” Jenni remarked, making her way over to Ben’s desk.
Ben briefly smiled at her. “It isn’t dark in here at all, Commodore. There is a very bright and very obvious planet outside the window.”
“You’ve been sitting here so long; you’ve become used to it.”
“And you will become used to it as well, if given a few moments,” Ben said, motioning Jenni to a chair by his desk. “And besides, a bit of sensory deprivation does wonders for opening the mind.”
“Not if you trip over something you can’t see and wind up in a coma!” Jenni exclaimed, sitting down.
“You’ll notice that I’m not moving,” Ben said. “What news do you have for me,” he asked. Jenni Zelthig was Ben’s protégé for close to forty years. She had been so, ever since she had been orphaned by the Demonoids during their assault on her home colony.
“Most of our ships have completed their repairs,” Jenni replied. “Unfortunately, challenges by the local Commonwealth fleet have increased tenfold over the last week.”
“Is it that bad now,” Ben said, leaning back in his chair.
Jenni nodded. “I’m afraid so, Admiral. If we stay here too much longer, someone is going to issue more than just a challenge,” she said, fixing Ben in her gaze. “How much longer are we going to remain here?”
Ben pressed his lips together. “I was afraid you were going to ask me that, Commodore. And the answer is the same one I gave you the last time. At the moment, our orders are to hold position in this system.”
Jenni briefly furrowed her brows, that small gesture being the only outward sign of her frustration. “Can you at least tell me for how long? Our crews have been tense ever since we returned to Risinger’s Star. And it doesn’t help that they’ve had to stay on guard since the moment they returned.”
Ben nodded sympathetically. “It won’t be for much longer, Commodore. Our secondary assignment is almost finished,” he said.
Jenni sniffed, wrinkling her nose again. “I don’t understand it. You’re looking for threats outside the Federation, when it’s been proven time and time again that the only thing that it really has to worry about is itself,” she replied. Ben looked thoughtful for a moment. Jenni Zelthig knew the ins and outs of politics better than he did. She was married to J. Theodore Zelthig, the eccentric genius behind the most recent line of Fleet starships, and the most powerful man in the Shipwright’s Guild since Matt Andren ruled it with an iron fist more than a century before.
“I know, and probably better than anybody outside of this room,” Ben said slowly. Then, he fixed Jenni with a look of his own. “Only this time, things are different.”
Jenni blinked. "How?"
"I hoped you would ask that," Ben said, touching several icons on his screen. In moments, several brightly colored shapes materialized and hovered over Ben's desk. When Jenni waved her hand through a shape, a block of Standard script materialized in front of her. Written before her were corroborated accounts detailing where things occasionally didn't quite add up. And, moreover, these incidents were entirely unexplained . . . no known clerical errors, nothing related to other scandals in the Federation's lengthy history. Many of them would've had little apparent effect. Yet some of the incidents played a key role in influencing politics on several Federal worlds, including the Core Worlds.
Jenni furrowed her brow thoughtfully, leaning back in her chair. Absentmindedly, her hand went to her chin, her index finger tracing the bottom half of the jagged scar that cut across her cheek, near the corner of her lips to just below her ear.
"I don't know, Admiral," she finally said, looking up at him.
"What don't you know?" Ben asked.
"Just two things,” Jenni replied. "First, it looks good, but I don't know if there's really that much there."
"Now I wouldn't say that," Ben said firmly. "You've only given the data a cursory glance. I've given you a lot of it to look at. What was the second thing you didn't know about?"
Jenni nodded. "I'll look it over later. Speaking frankly, Admiral, I know this is something between you and Admiralty. Why show this to me?"
Ben smiled mirthlessly. "That, Commodore, was also something I were hoping you would ask me," he answered, briefly looking away from Jenni. "I need a favor of you."
Jenni's eyebrows shot up in response. "Admiral," she said, quickly wrinkling her nose. Her expression of puzzlement quickly turned into one of disgust. She exhaled sharply, bringing her eyes up to meet Ben's.
"You've pulled this on me before, sir," she said. When she addressed him as 'sir,' it usually meant that she was very unhappy. "I bet that if I had the time to fully go over what you've given me, I would notice that you think you've found enough to warrant firsthand investigation."
Ben started to open his mouth, but Jenni waved him off. "No, sir, let me finish. I also bet that what you are looking for is in this sector. That can only mean that you plan to launch an expedition in order to chase ghosts. And worse yet, you need my ships to do it. Am I right, sir?" She said, fixing Ben with her best glare.
Ben looked at his protégé for a moment. Then, he nodded slowly. "I'm afraid you're right, Commodore," he replied. Then he pursed his lips together and looked ahead thoughtfully. "Well, you're right, and you're wrong."
Jenni blinked. "This isn't a time to be cryptic sir. What do you need, and how can I get it to you without turning my fleet upside down?"
"No, I'm being as direct with you as I can afford to be,” Ben said reproachfully. "Yes, there's enough compelling evidence for me to mount an expedition. However, I don't need many ships. This will probably be a quiet little surveillance expedition. No more than four vessels, tops."
Jenni seemed mollified by this. "That's doable. Especially if the rest of the fleet is expected to sit here in Risinger's Star."
"And that's exactly what it's expected to do, Commodore,” Ben replied. "I'm not expecting serious trouble; a Federal squadron in the sector would go a long way towards keeping it that way."
"And who would lead this operation of yours?"
"I would,” Ben said with a nod. Jenni opened her own mouth, paused, then pressed her lips together and waited for Ben to go on. Ben let a ghost of a smile play across his face. "Admiralty's orders are very clear on this one. I can't be sure what would happen to any ships I send out, and I can't be sure if the data being reported back to me is accurate or not," he said, ignoring the momentary scowl on Jenni's face. "I need to be out there gathering intelligence firsthand."
Jenni nodded quietly. "Will you be taking the Federation?"
Ben quickly shook his head. "The Federation is too obvious. In fact, I think I’ll now plan to make her and most of the battlegroup available to join the rest of the Sixteenth Battlecluster at 143 McCormick to support Fleet’s assault on the Demonoid homeworld. That should ease tensions here in Risinger's Star, and provide a distraction to anybody who might be watching."
"Admiral, your paranoia impresses me,” Jenni said, smiling faintly. "That means you're going to need good officers backing you up."
"That's right," Ben replied. "I need you to give me a list of officers and ships. The officers should be experienced, and not afraid of thinking unconventionally."
"I'm way ahead of you, Admiral. I have a short list I could give you right now."
Ben nodded. Jenni had learned well the benefits of being one step ahead of her opponents, whether they were hostiles trying to kill her, or superior officers trying to make her life harder. "I'd appreciate that very much."
Jenni nodded. "Yes Admiral. I have four names: Captain Marcel Shipley of the USS Steadfast, Captain Duman Tureem of the USS Bern Rasmussen, Captain Kristin Epps of the USS Agamemnon, and Captain Justin Phillips of the USS Starla," she said, quickly spitting out the last name.
"Phillips?" Ben said, scowling. "I've heard of him. He's good at getting the job done, but he's a loose-cannon, infamous for having a very low tolerance of superior officers, especially those whom he thought were giving him bad orders."
"Of course Admiral, but you'll remember that you did your best to inspire in me a low level of faith in superior officers," Jenni replied with a momentary smirk.
"I suppose you're right, but why him?"
"If you've heard as much about him as the usual officer does, then you'd know that he was a frontier captain before the outbreak of hostilities. He led his command on several very daring raids into Zicharion territory. All of which were very successful."
Ben nodded, listening to Jenni while he touched another set of icons on his screen. He frowned, holding up his hand.
"I know that, I just pulled the files of all the commanders and ships you've given me," he said. "I'm not sure Captain Phillips and I would be a good fit. He's not going to appreciate me right there hovering over his shoulder, and I've got to be where the action is."
Jenni nodded. "Alright then," she said. "How many ships are you looking for? I'll try to scare up a few more names for you."
Ben looked thoughtful for a moment. "Half a squadron will do. I don't need that many ships. Your three remaining names will do just fine, so you just need to come up with some possibilities for that fourth slot."
"Yes Admiral,” Jenni replied. "Permission to speak freely?"
"As always,” Ben said, nodding once.
"I think you're making a mistake counting out Captain Phillips. In spite of what you may have heard about him, he is a good officer, and he's exactly what you need right now. He can pull together the other three for you and get the job done."
"But only if I stay out of the way and let him run the show,” Ben interrupted. "I'm sorry . . . Jenni, but this is something that I have to have the tightest control over. Find me five or six other names within the next three days," he said, his tone quickly growing cold.
"Yes sir,” Jenni replied, almost spitting out her words. "You'll hear from me then."
Dateline: 25200528.1600, Captain's Log: USS Starla, stationed at Risinger’s Star. Since we returned from our assault on the Demonoid base, we have been stationed in this system. Unfortunately, I feel that this may be a move that is fraught with increasing risk . . .
Captain Justin Phillips slipped his recorder under his chair and leaned back. He was completely unaware of the discussion about him that had taken place two hours before and ten million kilometers away. All he knew was that he and his ship were trapped in an increasingly hostile system. What was worse was that the man directing the fleet's operations in the system, Admiral Lewinger, was doing nothing to alleviate the situation.
"Sir, we've just finished downloading the latest set of logs from Recon Buoy Twenty-six," reported Lieutenant McFarland, the stocky young woman manning the Tactical station.
Justin nodded. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Navigation, take us to the next buoy."
"Aye sir, setting new course,” answered the young man at the Navigation station.
Justin stretched out, surveying his surroundings. The bridge of a Venture-class heavy cruiser was a study in simplicity. At the front, just behind the main viewscreen, were the Tactical and Navigation stations. The Tactical station managed weapons and tactical communications. Navigation plotted the ship's course, tracked it in space, and piloted the ship. Off to Justin's right was the Operations station; the person there had to keep track of what went on inside the ship and doubled as the bridge's quartermaster, as evidenced by the equipment locker next to the station. Directly behind Justin were the Engineering and Science stations. While Engineering's purpose was obvious, Science was responsible for all the data collected by the ship's sensors and computers, and handled everything not handled by the Tactical or Navigation stations.
At the very center of the bridge was the Captain's station. Surrounding the captain was a horseshoe of computer displays, which gave him instant access to everything he could ever want to know about his ship. And the man in the Starla's captain's chair looked every inch the proper commanding officer. Tall and solidly built with a well-kept brown beard and intelligent eyes, Justin Phillips radiated command and charisma.
"Captain, I've run a preliminary analysis on the data,” Commander Carol Westridge said, running a hand through her graying blonde hair.
"Something's up?" Justin said. Commander Westridge was the director of the ship's Science department. She knew better than to interrupt her captain unless something serious had come up.
"Yes, Captain. Do you remember the anomalies that we've been tracking over the last week?"
"Yes I do,” Justin answered, nodding to himself. Every sensor buoy the Starla visited over the last week recorded anomalous readings. And so far, nothing had been done, or said about it by the fleet's command staff.
"Buoy Twenty-Six also reported sensor anomalies."
"That makes . . . fifteen buoys so far, doesn't it?"
"That's right, sir."
"Do we have anything new on this one then?" Justin asked, not really expecting an answer. The fourteen other buoys didn't have anything really definite to report, other than something odd was going on.
"Actually, Captain, the buoy noted the energy signature of a ship passing by. The ship seemed to be under deep stealth, and the buoy happened to be looking right at it when they powered up their sublight drives for a course correction."
"That's interesting, Commander. Was it enough to ID it?"
Commander Westridge sighed. "No sir, but the energy curve suggested a vessel of possibly light cruiser tonnage."
"It's not enough,” Justin said with resignation. "We simply need more hard data here. Can you guess where it might've been going?"
"It looks like if you give me half an hour, I could tell you."
"Good," Justin said, "When you have a likely course, contact whichever ship is responsible for the buoys in that area. Maybe that will give us something we can follow."
"Aye Captain. I'll make that our highest priority."
"Got problems, Justin?" A man asked, stepping onto the bridge. Justin recognized him as Commander Westin Enderman, the ship's head of Security and Executive Officer. He was also one of Justin's best friends, having served with him for almost eight years.
Justin smiled. "Shouldn't you be down in First Command," he asked. First Command was an exact duplicate of the bridge Justin was on, formally known as Primary Command. In the event that one of the two bridges happened to catch a laser, the chain of command would remain uninterrupted. Though it only worked when the ship's senior command wasn't all concentrated in one bridge.
"We're on data harvesting duty," Wes replied with a grin. "Anything hostile is much further inside the system."
"That's true enough," Justin replied. "It's the principle of the thing, though. Either way, it's good that you came when you did. We found another sensor anomaly."
"Another one?" Wes said, raising his eyebrows. "Anything good?"
"I wouldn't say that just yet," Justin replied. "Better than usual would describe it. We got a solid hit, a very small one, mind you, but it might be enough to give us a clue."
"That's good," Wes said, coming to stand just behind Justin. He was tall and lanky, with slightly curled dark hair. "You want me to get Ryan in on this?"
"Science seems to have a good grip on it," Justin replied. Commander Ryan Zeiken was the ship's Operations Officer, and he also knew a lot about data analysis. Like Wes, he was also a close friend of Justin's. "We'll let them do their job."
"Captain," Commander Westridge interrupted. "I've got a cone of potential courses plotted for our bogey."
"Good work, Commander," Justin said, tapping on one of his panels. Instantly, a ghostly cone was superimposed on a map of the system. "Any buoys in that cone?"
"As it turns out, we're in luck, Captain,” Westridge replied, tapping on her own console. On Justin's display, a number of flashing red dots suddenly appeared. "Buoys Forty through Forty-Eight lie squarely inside the cone."
"Tactical, who is responsible for harvesting those buoys?" Wes asked, walking up behind Lieutenant McFarland's station.
"Umm, let's see," Lieutenant McFarland said, tapping at her own consoles. "According to TacNet, the Agamemnon and the Emperor Laganoski, are covering that series in tandem."
Wes nodded. "I wouldn't trust the Emperor Laganoski."
"Agreed,” Justin said. "Captain Janasaki is a definite political. She's only here because her aunt wants her to be here," he said, referring to Captain Eris Janasaki's famous relative, Third Minister Raen Janasaki. Raen Janasaki was the outspoken leader of the Opposition in the Federation Security Council. She was frequently at odds with Prime Minister Leroy Gonzales, a man Justin respected very deeply.
"We'll contact the Agamemnon then,” Justin said. "Commander, get in touch with Captain Epps. See if you can get her to share her data with us. It might give us what we're looking for."
Dateline: 25200528.2000, Imperial Navy Vessel Avenger, of the Empire of Ascension, deep within the Risinger’s Star system. Captain Abdul-Hakim al-Rashim watched the over the shoulder of his ship's Weapons officer. Unlike anyone else in the system, his ship, the Avenger, had no business in 168 McCormick. Though, as far as the Empire of Ascension was concerned, the rules set by the other Human powers only applied if one was caught. And al-Rashim had no intention of getting caught.
The Avenger had a two-pronged mission in the system. One was to get a detailed accounting of the Federal and Commonwealth forces in the system. With just eighty-one systems under its control, the Empire couldn't afford to take on either the Federation or the Commonwealth in a stand-up fight. However, keeping tabs on their enemies' ships would give the Empire a substantial advantage when the inevitable did come.
And the Emperors very much regarded war as an inevitability. In the nine centuries since a quarter-million Imperial loyalists agreed to take Earth's fleet of starships into exile, and founded the new Empire, careful plans had been drawn up to reunify all of Humanity under their control. And to that end, if the Empire couldn't do it directly, they weren't above doing it through deceit.
"We are ready to deploy the next drone," al-Rashim's Weapons officer reported calmly.
"Let it be done," he replied, his dark, fierce features remaining impassive. "Deploy the drone and head for the next waypoint."
"Yes sir," the other man replied tapping on the icon representing one of the Avenger's four cargo hatches. Al-Rashim knew that meant the ship had rolled another reconnaissance drone. The drone was the longest-duration, best-concealed drone the Empire could produce. It and its fellows were meant to study the movement of traffic in the system, and would do so in exhaustive detail.
The Empire had a long memory; it had been nearly forty years since ships commanded by Rear Admiral Avicenna dashed themselves against an unexpectedly strong Royal Navy presence in the system. The Empire still had strong interests in this region of space, and al-Rashim's masters wanted the best information they could get their hands on. He was only too happy to help them get their hands on it.
"We're receiving a message over hypercomm," the woman at Avenger's communications station said. After a few moments, she looked up. "The scramble codes match those of the Majestic."
"An update, then," al-Rashim replied.
"So it appears, sir. They report they've serviced the last of the Hassan-class drones and will be headed for rendezvous with the collier."
"Acknowledge our receipt," al-Rashim ordered, turning back in his chair. The best part of a group was operating in the system, though half the group was assigned to protecting the fleet re-supply ship Caravan. Drones, after all, were space-intensive, and space was at a premium aboard an Imperial warship.
"We're ready for our course correction," the man at Avenger's helm reported, his voice sounding metallic from the speaker grille of his helmet.
"If we have no company, carry it out,” al-Rashim replied. The Avenger was doing everything its crew could think of to reduce emissions. Her power signature was being held to the lowest levels possible. That meant his hyperdrives were as cold as they could be while still being capable of generating sublight transits. It also meant he couldn't run his fusion thrusters for long periods of time, since every second they spewed hot plasma and gamma rays was second someone might be able to get a read off him. If someone did get a read off him, it would be a very long and likely very fatal run for the system's transit limit.
"One potential contact found," Avenger's Sensors officer said.
"The light cruiser?"
"Yes sir," the man replied. Al-Rashim nodded. There was a Federal light cruiser that was in their immediate neighborhood. At least, that's what the Avenger's CIC thought she was. It was hard to say for sure with the Avenger limiting herself to the most basic of passive sensors. The light cruiser, like most of the other Federal ships in the system, was apparently following a standard patrol path. The Federal ships were fairly dispersed, by and large. That suited al-Rashim even better than it suited the jumpy Commonwealth naval commanders who had to temporarily share their domain with Federal units.
"Is the cruiser still behaving as she was the last time you tracked her?"
"Yes sir," al-Rashim's Sensors officer replied.
Al-Rashim looked thoughtful. He could let the ship continue along its current vector, but he would miss his next drop-off point by a considerable margin. He could risk maneuvering, and hope that the commander of the Federal ship wouldn't be watching his sensors too closely in the time it would take for al-Rashim's light to reach him. That, however, was risky. The Avenger wouldn't be quite ready for a fight if things went south . . . unlike the Federal ship.
"Sir, they're engaging in a course correction. They've lit off their fusion thrusters, and it looks like they might be spinning up their sublight drives."
Al-Rashim smiled humorlessly. "It looks like we've caught a break, Sensors. Helm, execute our next course change; far be it from us to reject fortune when she chooses to smile on us."
Dateline: 25200528.2012, USS Agamemnon, Risinger's Star.
"Captain, we've got a hit!" The Agamemnon's Tactical officer, a slender dark-skinned woman, shouted out.
"Hmmm," Captain Kristin Epps replied, sitting up in her chair. "What sort of hit?"
"Buoy Forty-Six just sent us an emergency transmission, ma'am," the Tactical officer replied. "A ship of cruiser tonnage powered up its sublight engines made several hops and vanished again."
"Is it anyone we know?" Kristin replied, bringing up the relevant information on her own console.
"The drive emission spike is too high-velocity to be a Commonwealth ship."
"What the hell," she swore, leaning forward. "Who is it then?"
"I'm trying to find that out now, Captain . . . hold on, Comms is getting a transmission from the Starla. They say it's very urgent."
Kristin momentarily gritted her teeth. "Put it through, but make locating that ship your first priority."
"Yes ma'am," the Tactical officer replied. On Kristin's console, the disembodied head of Captain Justin Phillips shimmered into existence.
"Sorry for the interruption, Captain, but we've got something we'd like you to take a look at," he said.
Kristin frowned. "What can we do for you?"
"We've been trying to track some anomalous readings from the buoys we're monitoring. Now we have reason to believe that what we're tracking may be in your area."
Kristin blinked. "Strange you should say that, Captain."
Justin paused. "I beg your pardon?"
"One of our own buoys has just found a ship we can't identify."
"When?" Justin asked with a puzzled frown.
"Just now, my Tactical officer is trying to sort it out."
Meanwhile, aboard the INV Avenger . . .
"Captain, we have a problem."
Al-Rashim scowled. This wasn't the best time for Avenger to suddenly encounter a problem. "Well, what is it?"
"Right as we made our course correction, we were lit up by a Federation reconnaissance buoy," the Avenger's Sensors officer reported grimly.
"Damn the Federation and their buoys. Why are they spying on their own allies?" Al-Rashim asked rhetorically. He hadn't counted on the Federation laying their own surveillance equipment in the system. The Commonwealth was unhappy enough with the Federal battlegroup in their system as it was. Why would the Federation go out of its way to potentially antagonize their allies? He smiled, after a few moments of thought. They had to be after the same thing he was. The Federation and the Commonwealth were allies, yes, but they were also rivals with a long, checkered history.
It didn't help al-Rashim's personal situation, though. The Federation's buoys were quiet, and small. They could saturate a system with them, and their opponents would never know. It said bad things about the comparative capabilities of the Empire and the Federation, as neither the Avenger, nor her sister ships had any idea the Federation was also laying buoys.
"I can't say, but I do know that it hit us with a full-power radar and LIDAR sweep and then began broadcasting."
"Damn!" Al-Rashim swore again, turning back to his own station. "Did they make us?"
"Our stealth systems were fully operational at the time, sir. They won't find much, and they don't know much about our ships to begin with."
"It won't take them long to realize that we're not supposed to be here," al-Rashim snapped. "We may not have a lot of time left. Get the hyperdrives warmed up. We may need full combat power shortly."
Major Gregor Kuznetzky was very much the stereotypical Commonwealth Sector Defense Fleet officer. He was hot-tempered, hard-drinking, and blessed with a great deal of ruthless brutality, and relatively meager amounts of restraint or civility. In his former life as a privateer working the frontiers between the Federation and the Commonwealth, and in his new life as a "legitimate" officer, often forced to work with Federal forces, Major Kuznetzky developed a deep loathing of the Federals.
He had little patience for them, as a result. And what little patience he had was again being tested. Within the last four hours, a Federal cruiser-destroyer had drifted within a hundred thousand kilometers of his ship, the RNV Capella. And that was simply too close for comfort when one was dealing with ships that beam ranges of better than a half million kilometers. Kuznetzky's commanding officers had mandated that Federal ships could get no closer than 250,000 kilometers of a Commonwealth ship in open space.
Yet, that was exactly what the Federal ship had done. And worse, those self-righteous pigs had the gall to challenge Kuznetzky in his own system. They informed him, very politely, of course, that the Capella was in the path of the Federal ship's patrol route, and if they could just back out of the 250,000-kilometer limit, it would just make life so much easier for all parties.
In a rage, Kuznetzky told the Federal ship that they were in Commonwealth space and that the Federal captain could take his request and do something obscene with it. As a result, he watched as the ship closed the distance between them. As much as he would've loved to take a shot at it, he knew that his ship, a seventy-two year old Viriditas-class destroyer, was completely outclassed by the Federal ship, a new Valiant-class cruiser-destroyer, in every meaningful way.
Captain Marcel Shipley watched as the minutes ticked away. In less than five, they would hit the predetermined turnover point, and could make their course change, away from the Commonwealth ship, and its stubborn skipper. He remembered the confrontation between himself and the Commonwealth officer. Shipley knew he had the right-of-way, and he acted accordingly.
So far, it seemed that the ship, the RNV Capella was behaving itself, even as the Steadfast slipped inside a hundred thousand kilometers of the other ship.
"Two hundred and forty seconds to checkpoint sir,” Shipley's Navigational officer reported crisply, her attention focused on her console. Shipley prided himself in running a very tight ship.
"Thank you, Navigation. Tactical, is the Capella still behaving herself?"
"For the moment, sir," Shipley's Tactical officer replied. "At least they've stopped hurling insults at us."
"Thank God for small mercies," Captain Shipley said. "I think, though, that we need to remind Capella to mind her manners. We don't need an interstellar incident, and being inside 100,000 kilometers of someone with Capella's obvious animosity to us is somewhere I'd rather not be."
"What do you propose, sir?" Shipley's Tactical officer asked.
"Get CIC to run a tracking exercise on the RNV Capella. Standard navigational radar at standard power only," he replied. Active navigational tracking of a ship that was getting too close for comfort was seen as a universal signal for the other ship to back off, without the provocation of, say, using fire-control radar. Captain Shipley hoped the RNV Capella would get the point. Having to endure Major Kuznetzky's invectives had robbed Shipley of much of his usual patient tolerance. If he'd known that Major Kuznetzky's patience had been worn even thinner than his, and that Capella's antiquated sensors were being fed to a CIC manned by officers not entirely up to doing their jobs, he might've just let the Commonwealth ship pass in silence. Unfortunately, that wasn't going to be the case.
"Major! The bastards are locking onto us!" Major Kuznetzky's Weapons Officer exclaimed, looking into his display with disbelief.
"Those Federal pigs are targeting us?" Kuznetzky asked incredulously.
"They're gonna lock us solid Major! We gotta do something!"
"Yes, if those pigs want to play with fire, we'll make it as hot as possible. Shields to full, all weapons to active targeting, safeties off!"
"Captain, the Capella had just gone shields and weapons hot," the ship's Tactical officer reported, the surprise clear in his voice. "We're being locked up by their targeting sensors."
Shipley scowled. "What the hell do they think they're pulling?"
"Uncertain, sir, but they're rotating into prime firing position."
Shipley's scowl slipped into a snarl. "If this is their idea of a joke, let's show them that we're not amused. Lock them up, begin pre-charging the shields for rapid deployment."
Alarms wailed aboard the Capella as its sensors reported that the Steadfast had acquired a firm targeting solution. Both ships were now inside prime range and getting even closer. Any shot fired from those distances could be placed accurately within a hundred meters. A firefight inside prime range never lasted very long, and Major Kuznetzky knew that. In a moment, he let himself get carried away. His predatory instincts took over.
"Broadside the pigs," he snarled.
The Capella already rotated to bear as many guns as possible to the Steadfast, let loose a punishing assault. Though it was an old, outdated ship, it could deliver a devastating amount of firepower . . . especially against a ship as unprepared as Steadfast was. In the first tenths of a second, the space between them was filled with questing laser beams. They smashed into Steadfast's shields, their impacts pumping tremendous amounts of energy into the charged particles contained in them. As they were only partially assembled, they were quickly dispersed; and the hail of relativistic projectiles in Capella's follow-up salvo smashed directly into unprotected hull.
Parts of the Steadfast's hull flashed into incandescence, shattered by the high-velocity impacts. Jets of material exploded from the ship as destructive energies slashed into the ship's interior. Within three seconds, Steadfast was a crippled wreck, and it began to dive away from the Capella, flailing about blindly, desperate to get out of her attacker's range.
However, Capella's guns had already fallen silent, as reports of the effectiveness of her attack registered with her crew. Against a fully-shielded Federal ship, such an attack shouldn't have had so devastating an effect. The effect was so devastating; in fact, that the savage hurricane of energy that had been visited upon Steadfast had penetrated deep enough that a shot had blown through her bridge, vaporizing Captain Shipley and his entire bridge crew. Command of the ship immediately switched to the Steadfast's Executive Officer, who was in CIC. And, to him, there could only be one response.
Alarms screamed around Major Kuznetzky as the crippled Federal starship slashed at his own. A Valiant had a broadside nearly as powerful as that of some cruisers. Kuznetzky's opening salvoes had robbed Steadfast of many of her sensors and weapons, but not enough of them to stop her from replying.
He gripped his armrests as a hail of high-energy lasers blasted through Capella's own semi-powered shields. The ship shuddered and shook as Federal beams shredded through his command. However, Commonwealth ships were designed to take a pounding. The Capella would be more than capable of following whatever command he gave next.
Major Kuznetzky yanked his communications handset from its cradle.
"All batteries to rapid-fire! Kill the fuckers!"
Capella's guns opened up in terrible vengeance, hammering the wreck of Steadfast further. Capella's gunners gave no quarter. In the end, they would never know which of their hits breached the armored silos containing the Steadfast's antimatter bottles. It didn't matter, for ultimately the Steadfast had taken one hit too many. In a final brief instant, the Steadfast died as ships in combat tended to do, the once majestic ship becoming a tumbling collection of glowing wreckage.
"Captain, central TacNet has just gone down!" Lieutenant McFarland exclaimed. Justin snapped his head up from his displays. "Down? How?"
"Sir, it looks like we're being jammed,” McFarland replied, with frustration in her voice. "But the last message that got through was that a Commonwealth destroyer has just killed the Steadfast."
"Impossible, a Viriditas is no match for a Valiant,” Justin said, frowning.
"They might've been ambushed,” Wes offered from behind him.
"True, but what does the Commonwealth have to gain from such a stupid ambush? And what's going on with the Agamemnon?"
"I don't know, I'll find out sir,” Lieutenant McFarland replied, working her console.
"I'd better get back to First Command,” Wes volunteered, already working his way off the bridge.
"Good idea,” Justin replied, tapping on his own console. "Attention all crew, we're going to General Quarters. Repeat, we are going to General Quarters."
Alarms began to sound aboard the Starla. In the next moment, Captain Epps' head appeared above Justin's console.
"You got your bogey made yet, Captain?" Justin asked quickly.
"No, Captain,” Kristin replied brusquely, "I need more time."
"You don't have it. I'm sure you know this already, but the central TacNet's just gone down and we've lost the Steadfast."
"Captain! We've reestablished connections with a couple ships from the fleet. The locals are blaming us for the attack!" Lieutenant McFarland said.
"What is going on here?" Justin asked rhetorically, turning his attention back to the hologram of Captain Epps. "What would you say the chances are that this all has something to do with that ship you picked up?"
Kristin frowned, consulting something outside of Justin's view. "They might, I'm not sure yet though."
"We'll help you out, Captain. The Starla will begin saturating the space ahead of you with our Starburst array."
"And we watch and see what gets flushed out. Very clever, Captain."
"We're going to start now,” Justin said, relaying the commands to his Science officer.
"Understood. We'll be waiting for them. Agamemnon out."
Justin looked up from his console. "What's going on, Lieutenant?"
"We keep losing contact with ships, sir. Nobody can get anything going long enough to reestablish TacNet. And we can't raise Admiral Lewinger or Commodore Zelthig,” Lieutenant McFarland replied, her voice clipped.
"Nobody ever expects Central Command to be there when you need them. What's going on with the Commonwealth?"
"Their local forces are jamming our central fleet, sir. They look like they're maneuvering against us, and the jamming's so bad I can't tell what their Royal Navy ships are doing!"
"It's going to get very ugly unless this all gets sorted out,” Justin said, looking back to his Science station. "Do we have anything at all, Commander?"
"Nothing yet, Justin. I'm working our sensors outward from the Agamemnon. If something is out there, I'll find . . . hold on I think I've got something!"
"Finally! Pass it along to Captain Epps,” Justin said.
"Starla's got a hit,” Kristin's Tactical officer reported.
"Yes ma'am. Confirming now. Ordering Starburst array to scan the region," the Tactical officer said. After several moments, she pursed her lips together. "We've got them. They're barely radiating, but we've got them."
Kristin nodded. "They're hiding in stealth," she said. A cold little smile crossed her face. "Lock the bastards up."
"Sir, we're being actively pinged by enemy sensors!" Al-Rashim's Sensors officer said.
"Damn!" Al-Rashim swore. "Source it!"
"Sir, it's that light cruiser! I've got wormhole traces all around us, and fire-control radar and LIDAR! They're locking us up."
Al-Rashim scowled. "It must've been responsible for watching that damned buoy that made us."
"Sir! Emergency transmission from the Ataturk! Something's happened deeper in the system. The Commonwealth and the Federation look like they're ready to shoot at each other and Ataturk's been spotted," al-Rashim's communication's officer said, her voice rising in panic.
Al-Rashim furrowed his brows, his eyes glinting dangerously. "They're undoubtedly going to blame us for this, regardless of what actually happened!"
"Sir, the light cruiser's dead astern, and she's just lit off her sublight drives. Range is seven point seven million kilometers and closing with an acceleration of two-hundred standard gravities."
"It never only rains, does it," al-Rashim snapped. "Engineering! How long until we can safely engage the hyperdrives?"
The answer served to deepen al-Rashim's scowl.
"Captain, we've got fifty-seven minutes. We can give you combat power in the meanwhile, but we won't be ready to make transit."
"Do the best you can," al-Rashim replied. "Clear the channel and get on it already! Helm, keep the distance open between us."
"Captain, the light cruiser has locked onto us with targeting sensors," Avenger's Weapons officer said. "From her emissions profile, CIC's identified her as the USS Agamemnon."
"We have to keep it together for another hour," Al-Rashim said to himself, inspecting the icon that was now labeled as the Agamemnon. "Tell me, is that cruiser alone?" He said to his Weapons officer, looking up at the other man.
"Yes sir, we've just confirmed a heavy cruiser accelerating towards her at eight hundred standard gravities, but she's too far out to help them," the Sensors officer replied.
"That will have to do," al-Rashim said. "Bring the Avenger out of stealth mode. Load all broadside and forward missile tubes. Arm the primary beams. Let that cruiser come to us."
"Ma'am, our target has just gone hot," Kristin's Tactical officer reported.
"No surprise there," Kristin replied. "Who are they?"
The Tactical officer's eyebrows shot up. "Ma'am, the energy signature and hull profile suggest an Empire of Ascension ship."
"The hell? What are they doing here?"
"I'm not sure, ma'am, but they're not getting away now. Shall I arm weapons?"
"Yes, load a torpedo salvo and fire when we reach maximum range. I think we'll want to disable them and take them intact."
Agamemnon closed rapidly on her target. Kristin could only watch as Avenger made no attempt to evade or maneuver as the final few kilometers ticked away. Their warhead launches were almost simultaneous, with both ships firing a brace of just four missiles. The missiles, each equipped with their own compact sublight drive, added an additional 490 kilometers per second to their apparent velocity for each second they were in flight. They would give up almost all their virtual acceleration and velocity when they entered terminal attack range, but they'd be close enough to their target that it wouldn't matter.
As the Agamemnon’s torpedoes closed in, Avenger rotated slightly, presenting the narrowest profile possible. From its broadside tubes, decoys streaked into space, racing ahead of the ship. Two of Kristin’s torpedoes were dazzled by the display, quickly streaking away from the Avenger. As the two remaining torpedoes closed in, they were met by streaks of defensive laser fire, which slashed at them as the Avenger’s fire-control computers attempted to predict where the missiles would be. With a silent flash, another one of Agamemnon’s torpedoes was destroyed. Then, the last one entered its terminal phase, corkscrewing wildly, seeking an optimal point to set off its deadly cargo. Federal torpedoes unleashed their fury in broad cones of bomb-pumped x-ray lasers. If they exploded at the right distance, almost all of their four megatons of destructive power would go into disintegrating an opponent’s shields.
Yet, al-Rashim was not yet out of tricks. At the last moment, he pushed his ship into a sharp starboard turn, rotating Avenger’s open and vulnerable stern away from the attack. The torpedo tried to follow, but overshot, and then detonated. Avenger’s port side became obscured in a nimbus of blinding light as the shield absorbed punishing energies.
Then it was his turn. Imperial ships were cigar shaped, with a long bulge in the center, which housed the broadside mounts, and a small hammerhead at either end. As a result, an Imperial ship tended to be much lighter and had much less internal volume than its Federal counterpart. It carried far fewer missiles, all of which lacked the miniaturization of Federal energy torpedoes. So, the Empire tried to make its missiles even more accurate, and packed them with more EW and ECCM than their Federal counterparts.
The space ahead of Agamemnon was filled with brilliant blue flashes as her own decoys detonated ahead of her, seeking to blind Avenger’s missiles. One missile corkscrewed off, its sensors rendered useless by a Federal decoy. The three survivors pressed the attack, even as the Agamemnon began its own maneuvers, diving and rolling to present as many weapons arrays as possible to the incoming missiles. Federal weapons streaked out at the incoming missiles, succeeding in picking off another warhead. And then, they ran out of time. Avenger’s missiles detonated, all their energies pumped into a much narrower cone of terrifying energy. The first one sliced across Agamemnon’s forward shields. Ahead of the beam, her shields flared, trying to absorb and dissipate the energy cutting into them. For an instant, they flared clear into the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum, as they were completely overwhelmed. Agamemnon trembled as her shield generators overloaded, and her shield strength sagged as her forward shield vanished. Then the second warhead detonated, almost instantly carving a smoldering gash completely along the length of the Agamemnon. Air and debris exploded into space where the ship’s armor was completely defeated. Across numerous compartments, alarms wailed, announcing the damage suffered by the ship.
“Operations, report!” Kristin said sharply, glaring at the red slash that had appeared across her ship.
“Ma’am, forward shields are completely overloaded. The entire system is down to seventy percent. Sensor arrays on the starboard bow are completely blind. We’ve got breaches in sections five through eight along the starboard side of the top hull. Damage control has a preliminary estimate of fifteen casualties.”
“I see,” Kristin replied grimly. “And our opponent?”
“Their port shields are radiating at two thirds of their peak capacity, but they’re still holding; otherwise, no damage.”
“Bastards!” Kristin swore. “Tactical, hit them again.”
“With pleasure ma’am.”
Al-Rashim watched as his target spat four more torpedoes towards the Avenger. He nodded grimly; he respected an opponent who didn’t blink after being given a bloody nose.
“Sensors, just how badly is she hurt?”
“The shield signatures would indicate that Agamemnon's shielding systems are damaged, but her overall power curve remains steady.”
Al-Rashim nodded with slight satisfaction. “Very well, hold our course, keep the range open!”
( . . . continued in next post . . . )
Last edited by GrandMasterTerwynn on 2007-05-25 11:45am, edited 1 time in total.