Price of Command

They say that combat in the vacuum of space is silent.

They are wrong.

 

“Contact. Port. Torpedo signatures. Twenty. 5 minutes 27 seconds to impact.”

“Contact. Port. Stealthed vessel. Unknown armaments.”

“Contacts. Prow. Antares Hammer class, one, 89% probability. Antares Sabre class, two.”

“Vector signature. Prow contacts accelerating.”

“Priority Alert! Starboard. Stealthed vessel. Launch signatures. 40 plus. 2 minutes 32 seconds to impact.”

 

The automated alerts were dispassionately issued by Czechered Past’s AI as the ship’s lighting switched to emergency power, turning the bridge a macabre crimson.

Silence reigned for a second, then the bridge exploded into furious activity.

“Dvorak, Svoboda, update positions and link tactical to Flag AIC.”

“Acknowledged. Linking to tactical.”

“Engineering, war emergency power, priority forward shields.”

“Extend formation distance, guide off flag.”

“Dvorak, J-23, combat ready.” The voice was just a touch smug as the commander reported his readiness just seconds before Captain Svoboda on J-24.

 

In Czechered Past’s Blue Room, the officer’s galley, Admiral Novak swore like a sailor denied shoreleave. He ditched his cup of stim-caf as he sprinted out, heading for the bridge. His digisphere access allowed him to issue orders as he ran. The crew that crowded the accessways cleared out of his way as he ran.

He didn’t bother to acknowledge the sentries at the bridge before hurling himself over the command chair and falling into the seat with a bone-jarring thump.

Didn’t matter. Dignity could come after the immediate threat was resolved.

His two escorting battleships had pushed themselves away from the two kilometre flagship and were displaying combat readiness. He spoke to his flagship’s shipmaster first, before focusing on the tactical display.

“Shipmaster, you have discretion. Prioritise incoming torpedoes.”

J-23, priority stealthed bandit, flag’s starboard. J-24, priority stealthed bandit, flag’s portside. Secure our flanks.”

The acknowledgements from Captains Dvorak and Svoboda were terse and short, but Admiral Novak knew it was because each was focused on fighting their ship as well as they could. He’d relied on them for four years, he had faith in their capabilities. Shipmaster Hekkel had no need to acknowledge Novak, instead he began issuing his own orders.

“Helm, maintain bearing, Ahead full.”

“Ahead full, maintain bearing, aye.”

 

A new star was born in the system as Czechered Past’s fusion engines flared up, pushing her to a violent confrontation with the foes dead ahead of her. Blazing streams of laser light briefly slapped at the incoming wave of torpedoes to the flagship’s starboard before the formation spread, fanning out like splayed claws preparing to draw blood.

The torpedo wave was typical of Antares stealth ships, fitted with a limited manoeuvre AI that made strong use of jammers and sensor spoofers to cause hell for the automated defenses that opposed them. Their engine outputs became sporadic, some munitions dipped too low, too high, fooling their defensive counterparts by pretending to be knocked off course or jammed.

Two torpedoes managed to close with the flagship’s shields exploding across the surface of the energy barrier that kept the flagship safe from harm.

Czechered Past’s magnetic cannons began hurling munitions at the three ships ahead of her, filling space with solid blocks of iron. They vapourised on impact with their target’s shields, beginning the process of overloading the systems that powered them through brute force.

 

On the tactical display, Novak watched as swarms of missiles began cycling from his battleship escorts, fanning out into nets that closed around the stealthed vessels that had surprised Czechered Past. The missiles thundered through nearspace, forming a perfect looping series of spheres that began to tighten and tighten until, there!

A contact marker showed up as an Antares stealth ship was struck by a missile.

 

 

On the bridge, the damage report was relayed to him by his Tactical Officer, Carpenter, but “minor damage” did not do justice to the actual event.

It did not explain the way the missile crumpled through the shieldless vessel with enough force to simply shatter the outer armour. It did not detail how the shattered armour turned to razor-sharp fragments that bounced and scattered across the entire vessel’s hull, creating more spalling within the crew segments as bulkheads bent and snapped. Nearest the impact, the lucky sailors would have died outright as the missile ripped through the hull, grazing the side of the stealth ship. From there, in a widening area, more would have been turned to confetti, ripped into flash-frozen chunks that mingled with an expanding cloud of debris.

 

The unlucky would survive, experiencing the agony of asphyxiation as fragments cut suits but lacked sufficient force to kill them outright.

 

Then the rest of J-23’s salvo slammed into the stealth ship, tearing it apart.

Admiral Novak smiled as the display showed Captain Dvorak’s ship spewing salvagers despite the ongoing combat as J-23’s salvoes raced towards the Sabre class cruisers. He was ever the opportunist, but Novak doubted they’d be lucky to recover anything from the wreck.

 

Captain Svoboda was having less success against his stealthed foe as the second sphere he’d placed failed to trigger any hits. The odds of him locating the vessel were decreasing the more time passed.

“Priority contact! Stealth ship, stern.”

“Priority alert! Torpedo launch, 30. 22.1 seconds to impact.”

Point blank range. Somehow the stealth ship had got behind him. J-24’s laser defense arrays sprang to life, mirrors spinning as streams of light were swept across the stars, but too little, too late as the torpedoes tore into his ship. The entire stern of Svoboda’s ship disintegrated, sending the battleship into a tumbling spin as the main drives were destroyed in an instant. Secondary detonations disconnected J-24’s power core, leaving the vessel helpless as she spun, shedding components and armour in a trailing cloud of ruin.

In an instant, Novak lost a trusted commander. A friend from before the extinction. His survival suit pushed a cocktail of stims into him, dulling the pain of loss and helping him focus on the constant demands for his attention.

 

“Priority contact. Stealth ship, portside.”
The Antares stealth ship was caught in the debris cloud, the clusters of ECM and ECCM modules failing to keep up their deception against the debris field that was formerly J-24.

Admiral Novak snarled silently at the display, “Fleet fire control, priority target stealthed bandit.” He could see, just beyond the armoured observation window, the dorsal railcannons traverse before they sparked, flinging their iron darts at the stealth ship. The first blow smashed through the stealth ship’s power core, the effect obvious and immediate as every subsystem across the ship malfunctioned.

But Novak didn’t care to recover the stealth ship’s wreck. No matter it’s value.

“Continue firing.”

Shipmaster Hekkel knew better than to protest Admiral Novak’s direct order.

 

It didn’t matter that the Sabre cruisers ahead of his vessel were now firing upon his ship’s shields, what mattered was watching the combat display render the steadily growing and ever finer cloud of particles that had once been an Antares stealth ship.

That was when both cruisers suddenly accelerated away from the Hammer-class ship,.clearing the space between Novak’s flagship and the Antares Hammer-class.

“Update. Hammer-class identified as Antares Maul-class battleship.”

Novak froze.

“Engineering! All power to shields!”

“Sir, we’re already focusing power to the forward shields.”

“Tanis! You shit, do as you’re told or I’ll come back there and do it myself! Engines to all-stop, cut the fucking life support if you have to and boost the forward shields!”

“Yes sir!”

 

Lights on the bridge flickered as the flagship stopped accelerating. Her forward shields glowed a brilliant, blinding white as they were pushed to their limits before the entire vessel shuddered. All two kilometres of Czechered Past rattled and shook like a house in the path of a tornado. Novak’s safety webbing closed around him as the bridge rocked. It seemed as if any moment, the entire flagship might simply break apart from the stress alone until calm suddenly prevailed.

The Maul-class was nothing more than engines and crew compartments built around a vast directed energy weapon and Czechered Past had weathered the blow, narrowly, Novak realised as he examined the tactical display. His shields were near critical, but now he had them. The Maul-class would need to replace its melted lens at a drydock while Novak’s ship could keep pounding them with its massdrivers. Would the foe double down on his loss?

“Delta vectors. They’re retreating to the jump point.”

Not a fool then but Novak’s work was not yet done.

“Captain Dvorak, see them off. Flag will run SAR operations and salvage the wrecks.”

“Acknowledged, sir.”

“Give them hell for their troubles.”

“We will, sir.”

 

Novak sighed as he looked around the bridge, the weight of the stress suddenly catching up with him as the combat stims were flushed from his systems. He removed his survival suit’s helmet and pressed his palm into his forehead.

He had won. Survived an ambush intended to destroy his entire fleet.

But he had lost an experienced and loyal commander.

He had lost a friend.

And the galaxy was that much darker for it.

Published
Categories Short Stories

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