"Captain on the bridge!" called out the OOD. Lieutenant Kalwaski stood as she spoke and snapped a painfully crisp military salute. The bridge crew was only seconds behind her with their salutes, all with the same precision. The Valiant had a talented bunch of kids running her, and her new Captain was grateful for that.
Estrella smoothed her gold and black uniform and stepped forward purposefully to replace the young Lieutenant in the chair. Kalwaski took station at the communications console. Painfully aware of the attention focused on her, Estrella nodded and sat. "As you were."
The crew didn't exactly relax, but they went back to duty stations, industriously carrying out their jobs as if the Captain hadn't just walked in to breathe down their necks. Not that she was trying to make anyone uncomfortable, least of all her staff. In spite of High Command's assurances to the Fleet, the situation they'd just jumped into was dangerous enough to make a Mrrshan berserker think twice. Well, maybe once.
"Status," she called out, willing the voice of command into her throat. She needed to be calm to present an aura of detached authority, to reassure her people that she was in charge and she would bring them through alive. She absolutely could not let them know the nervousness that unsettled her stomach, the quiet calculations in the back of her head figuring how many of her people would die this day.
Kalwaski stood and presented Estrella with a clipboard containing the information she'd just requested. "Ma'am, we've completed our transition from hyperspace on schedule and have translated at bearing one-seven niner by zero-one-four mark zero-zero-niner. The Fleet is arriving on schedule, and we're forming around the Juggernaut at 200 kps. Admiral B'nari sends his regards and requests we take station in Position Three."
Estrella took the clipboard and made a show of looking over the data. Everything was on schedule, and her crew was performing admirably. She didn't really need the clipboard to tell her this, but it was expected of her. Finally she nodded and handed it back. "Very good. My compliments to Commander Veers, if he would join us on the bridge."
Kalwaski stepped over the communications console and spoke quietly into a microphone. Then she turned back with a frown. "Captain, Commander Veers reports that Engineering is having a problem with Engine Number Four, and that he wishes to assist repairs."
Estrella swiveled her chair to look Kalwaski in the eye. "Engine Number…that was supposed to be ironed out in shakedown! What's the situation?"
Her junior officer looked uncomfortable, but stood her ground. "Apparently there's a problem with the fuel mix. They thought they had it before, but it seems one of the injectors have fouled. The engine is operating at 74% efficiency."
Estrella chewed at her bottom lip briefly then swiveled back to face the primary viewscreen. "It's a little late for that now. Please inform Commander Veers he has one hour to effect repairs, no more. After that, we'll just have to do our best. We have a job waiting for us."
"Aye, Ma'am." Kalwaski bent back to her console and relayed the order. Estrella imagined Veers down in Engineering swearing a blue streak, his arms coated in grime and his hair in total disarray. The man was a rogue at the best of times and a brawler at his worst. She'd listened to his complaints that they were pushing the new Nova-class cruisers into service too fast, that the new engines didn't have all the bugs sorted out. While she agreed that battle was no place to test new technology, she also her orders. The Valiant was part of B'nari's Task Group Gold, like it or not. In the five years she'd served with him, Estrella had never heard him argue so passionately on a topic, and he was never shy about his opinions.
"Taking station in Position Three now, Ma'am," reported the Ensign at the helm. For the life of her, Estrella couldn't remember his name.
"Very good. Hold here and advise the Juggernaut that we have some minor engine problems, but they won't hinder us from performing our duty."
"Aye, aye." The bridge with a hive of activity with everyone performing as required. Only Estrella had nothing to do except look confidant. She stared hard at the viewscreen displaying the tiny yellow star the Psilons had claimed many cycles before.
Politics. Estrella couldn't say she exactly hated politics, but her dislike bordered on the extreme. The process seemed geared toward maintaining status quo, and for an unknown Fleet officer without political patronage, attaining the rank of Captain was nearly unheard of. Estrella had done so through hard work, extreme discipline and a natural flair for leadership. She watched many of her peers shoot up through Fleet ranks, gaining choice assignments because of their patronage rather than their merits. She had watched many more of her peers sink into obscurity for their lack of influence, even though many of them were far more competent and deserving than their political rivals.
Estrella was not fond of politics. She had not earned her rank or assignment through political savvy, and she was perversely proud of that fact. Yet, politics dictated her current assignment with B'nari's task group. The Human Republic claimed that the Psilons had broken treaty by withholding critical technological information; technology that could help make the difference between fending off Antaran raids or losing entire colonies to the monsters. The Psilons had responded by ridiculing the Humans' claims, stating that the technology in question was pure fantasy. After long debate, the Republic finally decided to declare war on the Psilons for their greed and narrow-mindedness. Estrella had no problem with that; it wasn't her job to second-guess the Republic's leaders. Her problem lay in the fact that the Republic decided not to make a formal declaration of war until after B'nari's raid on Shiva IV.
Kalwaski interrupted her thoughts. "Captain, the Admiral is signaling all ships. Proceed toward primary target, Alpha Formation, flanking speed."
"Helm, bring her about to course heading one-one-five by two-one-four mark zero-four-niner. Accelerate to flank speed." Estrella gripped the armrests on her chair as she gave the order. Her voice seemed unnaturally calm to her. The order meant she and the rest of the Fleet were now committed, and it was do or die.
"Time to target," she called out.
"Approximately twenty-nine minutes to intercept Shiva IV," called out her tactical officer, Lieutenant Hood. Hood was a bright young officer from a notable family with powerful influence. In short, he possessed the patronage Estrella lacked and could possibly be promoted above her in a few years. That alone made her resent him, though she pushed it to the back of her mind. She didn't know him that well personally, and he had the highest scores in tactics she'd seen in a while. So long as he performed his duty, she would swallow her bias and treat him with professional courtesy.
"Are we in range to scan the Psilon forces we'll be facing?"
"Not yet, Captain. Intelligence says we should only be looking at a single battlestation and minimal orbital defense satellites." Hood's eyes betrayed his opinion of Intelligence reports, and Estrella's estimate of him went up a notch. He didn't like flying blind any more than she did, and there was no guarantee the Psilons wouldn't see the task group before the task group saw them. The Valiant was equipped with the latest engine types, proven in trials to push her cruiser as fast as a destroyer. The same advancement could not be said for the Fleet's sensor capabilities.
The deck hummed under her feet, carrying the vibration up through her chair and bones. It was a familiar sensation, one every Fleet officer got used to before long. It was the sensation of a ship of war running at almost full speed. Estrella almost never noticed it anymore, but this time it was unmistakable. Perhaps it was her anticipation of the coming battle. She hoped it wasn't Engine Number Four tearing itself apart.
An atmosphere of excitement pervaded the bridge as the crewmen and officers went about their duties. Movements seemed quicker and sharper, and voices were pitched slightly higher than normal. This was the first battle many of them had seen. She needed cool heads on the bridge.
"Engineering, this is the Captain. Veers, where are you?"
There was a pause, and Estrella imagined her executive officer climbing out of a maintenance tube swearing his head off. Eventually he came on the line. "We're having trouble pinning it down, Captain. I think the seals are faulty, but we'll need to shut the engine down to replace them. It'd take about an hour, maybe hour and a half."
"Out of the question, Exec. You've got ten minutes, then I want you on the bridge."
"But Captain, we need –"
"Ten minutes, Veers," she interrupted quickly. "Then I'd better see your ugly mug on my bridge. Understood?"
There was another pause, and Estrella wondered if he would keep his control. She didn't need him haring off right now, there was too much at stake. The bridge was painfully quiet as everyone did their best to become invisible lest the Captain divert her attention to them.
"Understood, Captain. I'll see you shortly."
"Very good. Captain out." Estrella gestured to Kalwaski, who cut the connection. No one wanted to look at their commander at that moment and Estrella really couldn't blame them.
"Captain, I show a bogie on long-range…" the scanner tech working beside Lieutenant Hood paused and tapped at his display. "No, make that two, three…multiple targets."
Estrella stood up and walked over to see what he was looking at. The screen painted half a dozen objects at extreme range, but the telemetry seemed to be off. It had to be. Nothing was that big and moved like a warship. She turned back to communications. "Mr. Kalwaski, notify the Juggernaut. Advise them we have scanner contact with the enemy. All hands to battle stations. Mr. Hood, I want all weapons confirmed and a firing solution on the Psilon lead ship. Commander Veers to the bridge, now."
The bridge exploded with activity as the lights switched to a bluish hue. Estrella's ears were assaulted as everyone began talking at once, conveying orders through the intercom or requesting/conveying information. She resumed her seat and stared hard at the viewscreen now displaying the tactical information. The initial reading on long-range was confirmed: the ships approaching them at high velocity were at least 10 million tonnes; more than three times the tonnage of the Juggernaut. But what she found most odd was their formation; she'd never seen warships maintain so much distance between each other, even taking into account their increased size. She swiveled her chair to face the tactical station. "Mr. Hood, I'm curious about –"
He interrupted her with wide eyes. "Captain, I'm detecting multiple missile launches! Incoming!"
The world seemed to pause for just a moment, then Estrella snapped around firing out orders. "Trajectory analysis. Activate ECM systems, and I want weapons lock on as many of those missiles you can manage! Forward point defense guns stand by! All hands brace for impact! Veers, where are you?"
The ship exploded into action as the crew locked down safety hatches and made final system checks on weapons systems. Estrella acknowledged the data coming to her, but none of it was what she wanted to hear. Finally, Hood gave his report. "Analysis indicates five minutes to impact, Captain. Enemy missiles are targeting our battleships, not the cruisers. I have a firing solution for each of them, but electronic counter-measures are having no effect."
Estrella pondered briefly. "Time to weapons range, Mr. Hood."
"Three minutes, Captain."
"Very good. Fire when ready." Estrella cursed the fact that her point defense systems had such a short range. Her heavy fusion guns could have reached the missiles moments ago, but there would have been little chance of actually hitting anything that small. She turned back to communications. "Mr. Kalwaski, can you tell me where I might find Commander Veers?"
"Ma'am, Commander Veers reports he's locked in Engineering. He didn't get out in time before vacuum protocols sealed him in."
Estrella pursed her lips and decided not to say anything. So long as he was there, Veers had better keep those engines going. The Valiant was going to need them. "Time to weapons range on the Psilon ships."
"Almost in missile range now, Captain. I have firing solutions and can launch shortly. We won't be in energy weapon range for another ten minutes."
"Very well, Mr. Hood. One volley only, enough to harry them. We'll save the rest for when we get closer to the three-eyed bastards." She didn't want to give the Psilons the chance to do what she hoped to do to them: shoot their missiles out of space before they reached their targets. Not to mention, the initial volley would give the task group a fair idea of the Psilons' defenses.
"Enemy birds entering extreme weapon range. Commence firing." Hood pressed a button on his console then shook his head. "Direct hit on missiles one, two and five. No effect."
An audible moan swept through the bridge.
"Concentrate all fire on missile two," Estrella ordered. Her estimate of that missile's trajectory led it straight to the Juggernaut. She made some quick calculations on the tiny console in her chair. "Helm, prepare to come about on heading zero-eight-three by two-six-zero mark zero-four-four."
The Ensign turned to look at her. "But Captain, the Juggernaut is –"
"Noted, Ensign. Carry on." She really wished she could remember his name, but she couldn't take the time to find out right now. She turned back to the tactical station.
"All point defense batteries are concentrating on target," Hood reported. "Whatever those birds are, they're nothing we've ever seen before. Our fusion weapons aren't even denting that armor. Captain, I think we might be advised to retreat."
Estrella sighed deeply, closing her eyes for a moment to rest them. Just a moment. "I wish I could, Mr. Hood. I think we're severely outclassed, and I don't know how the Psilons knew we were coming. But until Admiral B'nari gives the order, we're stuck. Launch pulsion missiles at the lead Psilon ship, designate Target One, and keep firing with point defense. Helm; execute maneuver on full thrust. Engineering, give us everything you've got."
The Valiant lurched to starboard, shuddering under the thrust of a dozen powerful missiles toward the oncoming ships. At the same time, her thrusters altered course bringing her underneath the flight path of Task Group Gold and into the path of the oncoming missiles.
"Thirty seconds to impact," Hood called out. "The Fleet's shifting formation."
Kalwaski called out, "Admiral B'nari has ordered the cruisers to intercept enemy birds."
Suddenly, Hood gasped. "Captain, missile one has changed course! It's going around us!"
Estrella cursed and leapt to Hood's station to see for herself. The missile had indeed arced around the Valiant, apparently to continue on…but no, the arc was too tight. It wasn't going after the Juggernaut after all.
"Missile alert!" she shouted. "All hands –" She wasn't allowed to finish before the Valiant rocked and heaved as the missile impacted at the rear of the cruiser. Anything not bolted down went flying chaotically around the room, including humans. The lights flickered madly, then went out along with artificial gravity. A deadly silence fell, then the moans of injured personnel began to rise.
Lieutenant Hood fought down the nausea of weightlessness and pushed a few buttons, to no avail. "Captain?" he called out. "Kalwaski? Someone get the backup generator going!"
There were a few more moments of confusion before someone found the emergency generator controls. A sickly red light cast ghastly shadows everywhere, revealing the damage to the Valiant's bridge and her crew. Hood looked around again, squinting to try to make his eyes focus. "Captain?"
He found her ten feet away floating near a chair she had undoubtedly slammed against. He released the straps holding him to his chair and scrambled to her side to check for injuries. He wasn't a medical technician, but he couldn't find anything broken. However, a cut on her scalp looked bad and she was out cold. After securing her to the chair, he looked around again. "Kalwaski?" With Captain da Varga out of action, Lieutenant Kalwaski was the ranking bridge officer. Unless she was also unconscious.
She was still at her station, slumped over her console. Hood steadied himself, then launched himself over to her position. "Kalwaski?" he asked, feeling for a pulse in her neck. There wasn't one; his fingers felt jagged edges of broken bone underneath the skin just below her skull. Strapped into her chair according to protocol, Lieutenant Kalwaski's neck had snapped from the violence of the missile's impact with the ship.
That made him the ranking officer. He considered this carefully as he pulled himself hand-over-hand to front of the bridge. The chance to command a ship of war during battle could make or break his career, and he knew it. He had to choose wisely. "Blakely!" he snapped at the Ensign at Helm. "Are any ship systems responding?"
The young Ensign looked around wildly to see who had addressed him. Spotting Hood, he drew himself up and saluted unnecessarily. "Sir, my console doesn't respond. I…I don't know about anyone else, sir."
"All right, everyone listen up!" Hood called out loudly. He quickly gained the attention of the crew that were still conscious. "I need a status report from everyone's station: what works and what doesn't. From there, we'll figure out damage reports. Life systems!"
"Sir, all functions are dead, sir."
"Comm systems are out," replied the young man who was trying not to touch Kalwaski's body.
Hood went through every department, one by one. Everything was dead, except emergency lighting. He began organizing the crew into details, one to care for wounded, one to haul the dead out of the way, and the last to see about re-establishing communication and function with the rest of the ship. In spite of the chaos and weightlessness, he actually started to enjoy himself, to enjoy the feeling of command. He swam to every station to oversee operations and bark orders.
A very long half-hour had passed when the lights switched back to normal, the vents began blowing fresh air and a dozen consoles turned themselves back on. Everything not strapped down fell to the floor with a thump, including Hood. A cheer went up on the bridge, and he had to shout it down.
"Engineering to Bridge. This is Commander Veers. Please respond."
Hood nodded to the crewman at the station, who opened the channel. "This is Lieutenant Hood. Go ahead, Commander."
"Hood? What's the sitrep there? Where's Captain da Varga?"
"Commander, we were shaken pretty badly by the missile impact. We have two dead and nine wounded. Captain da Varga is unconscious, but alive. I'm presently in command of the bridge." Hood licked his lips, wishing he could take the time to savor that statement. "We were trying to re-establish controls when you called."
"Main power was knocked out by the Psilon missile. Engine Number Four is completely gone and the bay is open to space. Vacuum protocols saved the rest of Engineering; Engines One and Three are still intact and main power has been re-routed through them." Veers paused to cough, and Hood waited patiently. "Engine Two has partial function, but I'm keeping it separated in case it fails. We've got structural damage to the aft quarters of the ship, but I think we can hold together for now. You're in command unless the Captain wakes up or Admiral B'nari says otherwise."
"Aye, aye, sir." Hood felt a warm flush of pride wash through his body. He turned his attention back to the bridge to find all eyes on him and immediately killed the grin that had crept onto his face. "Tactical report! Where's the task group?"
Crewman Danzer bent over the tactical display and routed the information to the main viewscreen. "Lieutenant, Admiral B'nari has lead the task group to engage the Psilon ships. I now show eight Psilon heavies on my screen, two of which appear heavily damaged. Approximately one-third of Task Group Gold remains. If my analysis is correct, the fleet must withdraw in the next half hour or be annihilated."
"Is the Juggernaut still intact?"
"Yes sir, she's still in the thick of it."
Another hushed silence covered the bridge. Then Hood cleared his throat. "Helm, take us in. Best speed."
"Sir!" Blakely protested. "We're in no condition to fight!"
"As you were, Ensign!" Hood snapped. "You have your orders. Danzer, we don't have the punch of a Leviathan-class battleship, so I need options. You're up."
Danzer opened his mouth, then closed it. He stared at his display while the ship shuddered and built up speed, then shook his head. "Sir, my data suggests our weapons are insufficient to make a difference in this battle. We can't penetrate their armor, and their ECM technology is overwhelming the task group's missiles."
"What if we self-destruct right under their tails?" Hood asked quietly.
"Sir, with all due respect, that seems awfully extreme."
"The Admiral is still out there, and he hasn't ordered a withdrawal. We'll do what we can to support him until he sees orders a retreat. Understood?"
Danzer nodded and sighed. "I'll give you the best I've got, then. Ten minutes to intercept the task group, sir."
Hood walked to the command chair and sat down slowly. It was a very comfortable chair and he wasn't just the OOD, he was now master of the vessel. He nodded to the crewman at communications. "Bridge to Engineering. The task group is in trouble and we're going in. I need shields and engines at maximum."
"Lieutenant, I can't promise you anything. We have no aft shields since most of the emitters are gone, and we're at half speed at best. I hope you've got a hell of a plan in mind."
"I'll tell you about it during refit. Bridge out." Hood settled back in the chair and watched as medtechs spilled from the stairwells to attend to the wounded. In particular, he watched as the Captain was checked over and a light shone in her eye. The tech placed a bandage on the head wound and injected her with a syringe.
Estrella came awake with a heave. "Wha –" Her hands flew to her temples.
"Stay still for a moment, ma'am," the tech advised as he put away the needle. "You'll be groggy for a moment while this takes care of your injury. You hit your head pretty badly, but you're in no danger."
"Where…missiles! Did the missiles reach the task group? Did we knock any out?" Estrella struggled against the tech, who finally relented and helped her to her feet.
Hood pursed his lips as he watched his Captain regain her faculties, and slowly stood. His report on the situation took only a moment, and he kept his back stiff and straight while he waited for her response.
Estrella waved away the medtech's supporting hands and walked slowly to her chair. Hood stepped aside, hiding his resentment carefully. The Captain sank into the seat gratefully, then looked up at her officer. "You took command while I was out, yes?"
"Yes, ma'am." Hood stared straight ahead.
"Good work, Mr. Hood. Now I need you back at tactical. Mr. Kalwaski…" Estrella's voice trailed off as she realized the other Lieutenant wasn't there. "Crewman, open a line to Admiral B'nari."
Kalwaski's replacement worked at the controls for a while before he announced, "Captain, the Juggernaut reports that Admiral B'nari doesn't have a moment to speak, but that our orders are to engage the enemy until they are destroyed. That is all."
Estrella swore under her breath and chewed at her lip furiously. Finally, she turned back to Hood. "Mr. Hood, what is your tactical suggestion?"
Hood made a show of punching up figures at his console before he answered, and he pointedly ignored Danzer's stare. "Captain, the data suggests the Psilons have us outmatched. Our armament is insufficient to break through their defenses, and the task group managed to damage two of the eight Psilon ships through numbers alone. The Admiral doesn't have that advantage anymore, which suggests our present course is suicide. The only thing I can think of is to engage the enemy at point-blank and self-destruct."
Estrella shook her head violently, and regretted it. Her hand flew up to her temples to rub them tenderly. "That is not an option, Mr. Hood. Helm, what's our course?"
"Ma'am, we're on intercept for the nearest Psilon ship, designate Target Three, on our original heading."
"Time to weapons range."
"We are presently within missile range of the Psilon warship. We will be within energy range in two minutes." Hood checked his display again. "I believe the Psilons already have us within their range."
Estrella found she could taste blood; she had bitten her lip hard enough to puncture it. She licked the wound while she pondered the situation. She couldn't remember if she'd attempted a counterattack to the Psilon missile launch, but their distance from the battle suggested not. "Load all missile tubes and target the Psilon's weapons. Fire on my command."
"Aye, aye. All tubes loaded and ready to fire." Hood worked at his console, plotting the best solution to fly his birds through Psilon defenses. The data on his display suggested that few Human missiles were getting through, and he studied this to find a weakness. Seeing none, he put in the best solution he could find and locked it into the computer.
On the viewscreen, the battle drew close. Estrella could make out individual ships desperately battling Psilon behemoths and saw how poorly the Human fleet fared. No one could question B'nari's dedication to duty, but she began to question his sanity. The Psilon ship closest to the Valiant loomed closer until the tactical readout said they were a few thousand kilometers away. "Fire all weapons! Helm, hard to port! Z axis minus seventy degrees!"
The Valiant lurched once more as missiles streaked away, quickly closing the distance between the two ships. At the same time, her powerful fusion guns concentrated on tiny clusters on the Psilon ship indicating weapon pods. Bright spots of light appeared around the clusters as the Psilon energy shields absorbed and redirected the destructive force. Estrella noted with dismay that the shields held strong, and her missiles wobbled frantically before shooting off in random directions. The cruiser began to veer away from the Psilon ship.
Then the Valiant shook, and sparks flew from consoles all around her. Artificial gravity fluttered briefly, then steadied. "Report!"
"Something…hit us," Hood responded, pouring over his display. "I can't explain it, but they sent out a pulse of some kind. Most of the missiles in the area have been destroyed, and we sustained some minor structural damage. Starboard shields are down fifteen percent, but holding. We also lost a missile tube. Casualty reports are still coming in."
Estrella pounded her armrest in frustration. She had no idea what they were fighting against, but she knew they were having no more effect than a gnat on a horse. She couldn't hope to do anything against a fully armed warship of that size. But the task group had injured two others…
She gestured to the crewman at communications, who nodded to her. "All hands, this is the captain. I want the guidance systems on all missiles disabled. Rip out all targeting computers from our missiles. All available personnel are to assist and signal tactical when ready. You have ten minutes. Move out."
Estrella turned back to Hood, who was staring at her agog. "I see I have your attention, Mr. Hood. Very good. Would you agree with the assumption that Psilon ECM technology is superior to ours?"
Hood nodded slowly.
"I'd like your prediction on what superior ECM will do to a missile without a targeting computer."
"Ma'am, there's no guarantee the missile will hit anything, let alone its intended target. Considering the position of both fleets, we have a good chance of hitting our own ships. CenCom would define that an act of criminal negligence."
"Granted, Mr. Hood. But answer my question: how effective will ECM be against our missiles if there are no electronics in them to counter?"
Estrella took a moment to appreciate the light of comprehension that appeared in her tactical officer's eyes. "Excellent, Mr. Hood. We're now on the same page. Prepare a firing solution for point-blank missile launch from our port tubes. Also, I want full fusion fire support. You were right about the range Mr. Hood, but the only ship I want to blow up is the Psilons'."
She swiveled her chair to face front. "Helm, prepare to change course." She punched up data on her chair. "Heading one-six-six by two-five-seven mark one-three-seven. Execute."
The Valiant completed her turn in a tight arc, swinging underneath the Psilon ship that had damaged her. The Psilons ignored her for the moment, as Estrella hoped. Then the cruiser's nose pointed directly for the thick of battle, lining up to swing behind one of the wounded Psilon ships.
"Accelerate to full," Estrella ordered. "Engineering: Veers, I need everything the engines can give us. Redline and beyond. The only way we'll do this is if we're moving too fast for them to react."
"Captain, Engines One and Three are already at redline and don't look good. Number Two is about to either explode or shut down if we don't ease off." Anything else Veers had to say was lost in a fit of coughing.
Estrella was concerned by his cough, but she had no time to address it. "Do your best. Captain out."
Estrella sat back and nursed her aching head. The Valiant shuddered from time to time, either from enemy fire or her ailing engines, Estrella didn't know. As her trajectory took her out of the threat threshold by the Psilons for the moment, they seemed content to ignore her. That could change very quickly.
"Mr. Hood, do you have a firing solution for Target Seven?"
Hood looked up at her with unhappy eyes. "Aye, Ma'am. Without guidance systems, we're balancing on a knife-edge, but I think I've got it. You're planning to throw everything into their engines the way they hit us?"
Estrella nodded and smiled briefly. "That's right, David. I don't know if they have aft defenses, but I know their missiles won't care where we come from. As long as we can last long enough to deliver our payload, we have a chance of taking one of them out. I don't expect a second chance."
A massive explosion erupted 20,000 kilometers off the Valiant's starboard bow, and the resulting shockwave rocked the ship. Estrella clung desperately to her chair until the deck stabilized. "Who was that?"
Hood crouched over his display, hardly blinking as he struggled to keep up with the information passing by. "Captain, that was the Siberian. The task group is now down to one quarter strength."
The Siberian was one of their battleships. B'nari had lost the majority of his muscle, but he wasn't retreating. Estrella was firmly convinced of his insanity, and came to a quick decision. She checked her display before signaling for a comm channel. "Hail the Lexington. Let them know we're in position for a strafing run on Target Seven, and we'll be throwing everything we have at their aft quarters. We are requesting any assistance they can render."
The crewman nodded and relayed the message. A moment later he reported back with, "The Lexington acknowledges. They're changing course and will be five minutes behind us at our current speed."
Estrella leaned back in her chair, trying to relax and failing. Her fingers drummed impatiently as the seconds ticked by, waiting for the Psilons to react to her maneuver. Again as before, the enemy ignored her, arrogant in the supremacy of their ships and her inability to hurt them. The most damnable part was that she agreed. The Psilons were targeting the Lexington-class battleships before they bothered with the Nova-class cruisers.
Flashes of light lanced out from the Psilon ship, and she flinched automatically. However, the Valiant maintained her course without interruption.
"Captain, the Lexington just took heavy fire from Target Seven. They report damage to forward sections, with 20% loss to shields and several weapons batteries. They are returning fire."
Estrella nodded. She had hoped the Lexington would divert the Psilons' fire, and while she mourned their sacrifice, it was her only hope. Rather than have the cruisers escorting the battleships, the battle had turned her strategy around. Something else bothered her, though. "Where are their missiles?" she wondered aloud.
Hood sat up straight to look at her, then hunched over his screen again. "Captain, I don't have an answer for you. Right now, the only birds in flight are those from the task group. I don't see any evidence of Psilon missiles in use. It's possible that either the few they had have been used, or they're planning something else for the remainder."
Estrella frowned and checked the clock. It was almost time. "All hands, stand by to fire. Mr. Hood, at your discretion."
"Aye, aye ma'am. Firing in ten…nine…"
Estrella watched her screen anxiously, watching the data on the Lexington and their target. The Lexington was taking a pounding and losing miserably. The Psilon ship continued to fight viciously in spite of her wounds. She also continued to ignore the Valiant. The bridge crew seemed to hold their collective breath.
"Firing all weapons!" Hood called out. The Valiant lurched and Estrella watched a dozen pulsion missiles launch into view while half that number of fusion beams lanced out to splash against the Psilon screens. Again and again, the Valiant railed against those defenses before her trajectory took her out of range. Then her missiles hit, and the Psilon ship rocked under the impact. Three missiles missed completely and went sailing off into obscurity.
"Oh my God," Hood breathed. "Captain! The Psilons' shields have failed! We must have hit their generator! Target Seven has no shields! They have heavy damage to engine compartments and are having trouble maneuvering."
The bridge erupted with cheers and shouts of victory. Estrella let them go for a moment then gave her next order. "Helm, bring us about for another run. Mr. Hood, fire for effect."
"Aye, aye! Missiles away!" The acknowledgements were made in unison, and Estrella felt the Valiant swing around again. The deck shuddered as more missiles were launched.
"Captain!" the communications tech called. "Admiral B'nari is signaling all ships. We are to board and capture Target Seven if possible, then to await further orders."
Estrella flinched again. She didn't have assault craft for such a mission and wounded or no, the Psilon ship wasn't going to stop maneuvering long enough to let her people on board. "Mr. Hood?"
"The Lexington has launched all her assault craft, Captain. So has the Juggernaut and the Melbourne. The rest of the task group has taken up defensive positions around Target Seven. Most of the Psilon ships have not reacted yet."
"Cease fire against Target Seven. Redirect to…" Estrella consulted her data. "Target Four. Helm, hold position here."
Another bright flash of light rippled across the screen followed by a shockwave that rocked the Valiant. The Lexington had finally given up the ghost, and Estrella felt her heart go out to the brave souls they'd lost.
"Ma'am, Target Seven is attempting to fire on our assault craft. It seems their targeting systems are damaged. The first wave has arrived and is boarding now."
A tense silence fell over the bridge as everyone waited for Hood's next report.
"The first wave has failed. Second and third waves now boarding. The Juggernaut has signaled our remaining battleships, and all assault craft are en route."
Hood gave an audible sigh. "Second and third waves have failed." He double-checked something on his screen, then reported, "The Psilons are concentrating fire on the Juggernaut. The Queen Elizabeth and the Serengeti attempted to intercept and have been destroyed. I estimate two minutes before they destroy the Juggernaut."
"Orders from Admiral B'nari," reported the comm tech. "If boarding crews take Target Seven, we are to protect them with our lives until they can get her into hyperspace. If they fail, we are to destroy her and retreat to Alpha Sitias. God save us all. Message ends."
Estrella chewed her lip again, ignoring the taste of blood on her tongue. B'nari's strategy was now clear to her: he was willing to sacrifice the task group for a chance at bringing one of the Psilon heavies home. Considering the purpose of their mission, it was the only logical way to fulfill their directive. "Mr. Hood," she said quietly. "Ready missiles. Target the Psilon engine compartments and fire on my command."
"Aye, aye. Ma'am, the Juggernaut is gone. Final boarding parties have entered Target Seven…success! Target Seven is ours!"
Estrella cursed. It might have been better if the boarding parties had failed. "Helm, come around to one-one-seven by zero-niner-two. Prepare to match velocity with Target Seven once they get her under weigh. Engineering."
A woman answered the line; Estrella was too distracted to try to identify her. "Go ahead, Captain."
"Please let Commander Veers know we've accomplished our objective. Shields are now our priority until we can go to hyperspace."
The Valiant rocked under impact from Psilon fire. In the corner of the screen, the cruiser Minsk quietly vaporized. One by one, members of the task group disappeared from the scope until only a handful of ships were left. Estrella prayed fervently for a miracle.
"Captain, Target Seven has changed course! They're preparing for the jump into hyperspace!"
Estrella breathed a prayer of thanks. "All hands, prepare for hyperspace! Helm, stay on her!"
"Hyperspace coordinates programmed into the computer," the Ensign reported. "Target Seven has translated into hyperspace. Jumping now."
The viewscreen became a mass of confused images and lights as the Valiant jumped to safety. Estrella fairly leaped from her seat to the lift. "Mr. Hood," she snapped as the doors opened. "You have the bridge." She didn't hear his reply before she was on her way to Engineering.
It was the longest ride of her life. When the lift doors finally opened on Engineering, she was appalled at the amount of smoke and debris that filled the room. Her nose caught a whiff of acrid scents, and she felt a burning sensation start in the back of her throat to creep down her chest. Someone ran up to her and forced a respirator mask over her face. She accepted it without complaint, letting the pure oxygen drive the burning from her lungs.
"Captain, you shouldn't be here right now!" The man helping her was a crewman in full vacuum protocol. She couldn't make out his face behind the helmet, but her vision was blurred.
"Stow that, mister. Where's Commander Veers?"
"Ma'am, Commander Veers…he's over here, Ma'am." The crewman lead Estrella by the hand, guiding her around broken machinery and chunks of debris to a quiet corner where wounded were being attended. Pausing at the edge of the line of bodies, he pointed to one still form covered with a tarp.
Estrella felt her knees go weak, and she struggled to maintain her composure. "He…did he…was my message in time?"
The crewman shrugged. "Ma'am, I don't know. We cheered when we heard the news, but I was at my station. I heard he received a strong dose of radiation when the Psilon missile hit Engine Number Four, and he refused to leave Engineering until he collapsed. If it wasn't for him…"
Estrella nodded and turned away, walking stiffly back to the lift doors. She would recommend him for a posthumous Star Command award. All of her crew would receive the best commendations she could think of, particularly Hood. In spite of her reservations, she would help his career along. Perhaps, by aligning her star with his, some of his patronage might look favorably on her.
If the day came that she could wield her own influence, she would play politics. She would play patron to those who distinguished themselves, as she had. As Veers had. She would not let him die in vain.