Year 2153, Day 001, Hour 1300
Gravitron Apple. Noun. CLASSIFICATION: TS. An artificial gravity field projection unit that can be used to fool sensors into believing that surrounding space is warped around a high mass object. Resulting sensor readings would make ISG travel highly inadvisable. Note: The unit does not actually create a large gravity field.
“We have another ship, Red Class, dropping out of ISG within one light year.” Ondrea spoke with cool precision – the opposite of her usual jovial manner. Malak nodded to acknowledge her statement, and all that she left unspoken.
Af was not as restrained. “Shall I prepare weapons?”
Hemah and her co-pilot, one of the thirty-series that had shown aptitude outside of melee battle, continued to maneuver through the debris around them. Two Culler destroyers and a fair number of close combat ships had been reduced to space junk. The largest piece was twice the size of the Pale Horse. The smallest, no more than a grain of sand. It was the in-between detritus that could cause problems. Larger than a ground vehicle and Hemah could dodge. Tiny, and the electromagnetic shield would refract the object. But anything in between would provide enough surface area that the energy of impact would have to be absorbed by the kinetic gel in the hull. Cullers bodies were light and thin in comparison to Legionnaires, but they continued to move through space at the speed their ships had been moving prior to destruction. A hard exoskeleton and sack of organs travelling at several million miles per hour had a great deal of force.
“Brace for impact.” Hemah spoke into the ship-wide comms. Her co-pilot cursed under his breath as they couldn’t avoid a wide swath of warped metal and bodies. Muffled thuds sounded, but Hemah had made the right decision. Going through the remains of a combat squadron allowed her to avoid two recognizable shipwrecks, each the size of a Runa-class, that were on a collision course with each other. Malak glanced down at the display closest to him. The Class Red had left ISG and sensors were picking up the signals of sublight engines. If the Cullers hadn’t spotted the Pale Horse yet, they would soon.
“Sir?” Af’s urgency was palpable in the air. Malak’s nose could scent her excitement and adrenaline. He gave her a quelling glance. A senior officer knew well enough to control their responses. Particularly with junior soldiers on the bridge.
“Comms. Status.” His gravelly voice had the usual effect on the two at that station. The Legionnaire straightened and dipped his head to the side. The human technician stuttered, eyes wide and anxiety wafting off of his skin.
“Still not through, Major. The Lieutenant is working on it, but the array in this sector has been locked down with access codes we don’t have.”
“Time.” Malak purposefully turned his back on the comms station, and could smell the relief.
“At least a couple of hours, sir.” The technician worked decently with the lower ranking soldiers, but his fear of Malak was beginning to get on the Alpha’s nerves. “There is just one other tech on board with decryption training, but we’re working as fast as we can.”
“Hn.” Malak leaned on the thick railing that separated the rear of the bridge from the lower nose, where helm was located. He could see over Hemah’s shoulder to her display, and the slowly dispersing debris field that was a constant, low-level danger. He didn’t have to look at Af to know that she was monitoring the newer, much higher threat of the Red Class. The local communications array was disabled. As far as the Falcon tech could determine, it was not destroyed or damaged, but had been shut down deliberately. That would have been an interesting puzzle, one which would no doubt lead to other questions, if Malak didn’t have more immediate concerns. Of course, those led him to have need of the communications array – which wasn’t working. Two days from his target, the first location identified as a site for Culler wormhole deployment, and he was delayed by shots fired during ISG.
The tactic was dangerous enough that it had piqued his curiosity. Typically, if battle was initiated while Interstellar drives were in use, it was quick. Either a warning shot to drive another ship away, or an overwhelming show of force that caused enough damage to disrupt the ISG field. That usually led to hull fractures and systems failures, if not outright destruction. Malak could have outrun the Culler ship that attacked him, but their continued hits against the Pale Horse were too out of the ordinary to ignore. He dropped out of ISG and was bombarded by not one, but two Culler ships. A third had jumped away while he was occupied. It seemed to have found back-up.
Even without the comms, he had only one likely possibility for where the enemy ships were coming from. The Pale Horse had been attacked in the Dark. The nearest star system between the Legion ship and CSNS was Alnitak. A trinary blue star system, with a wealth of rocky planets and moons, it was home to a few hundred million colonists. Corporate holdings there were lucrative enough to justify a permanent Sol Coalition outpost. For the last three weeks, Cullers had been bombarding the system, setting up a ringed offense that had been steadily gaining ground on the local forces. A large-scale defense had been ordered, but less than half was already in place. The remainder were en-route from other systems.
If the Cullers were monitoring the Dark in the vicinity of Alnitak for Coalition ships, then they were prepared for reinforcements to the system. Attacking the Pale Horse had been a preemptive strike on what the aliens must have assumed was support for the colonists. As usual, Malak was always waiting to be attacked, and the Pale Horse was outfitted far beyond a standard Cicuta-class. He had taken the Cullers by surprise, but the next Coalition ship they targeted might not be in such a position. They would be more likely to lose in such an encounter, and never reach their destination. If Alnitak did not receive reinforcements, millions would die and important raw resources would be lost.
If Malak didn’t reach RB14 on schedule, the wormhole device might be operational before he could get his people into place. It would be a waste of months of preparation, hundreds of lives of special forces soldiers and Legionnaires. A risk to the security of the Confederation that could not be afforded at a time when Culler aggression was on the rise.
His assessment took only a few moments. “Prepare to engage,” he ordered Af. “Helm. Find cover.”
“Aye, sir,” Hemah and her co-pilot agreed in sync.
Exact figures for Culler ships larger than transports did not exist. Few had been boarded, and none since the Repulsion on Earth had been operational and crewed when humans took them. The estimates, however, were accurate enough for Malak’s purposes. A Red, like the ship swiftly approaching, had at least six thousand Cullers on board. The crew required to pilot and maintain it was small – the most recent studies he had read showed that as few as ten might be able to pilot and run tactical and engineering systems. That left the remainder to fly the spiny, highly maneuverable fighters and attempt to board Coalition ships. Eight hundred six. That was the most Culler fighters ever documented as attached to a Red. One pilot per ship left five thousand, one hundred eight-four aliens preparing to dock, board, and slaughter. Malak knew the Legion was the best the Coalition had. His people were the ultimate fighters. Created. Raised. Honed. All to kill the enemy without remorse and with extreme prejudice. Of his pack, he was the elite. Malak was better, more efficient, more creative, and more vicious at killing than anything ever produced by humanity. It was not ego. It was fact.
Twenty-five point nine-two to one were not good odds. Not when his people would have to fight them all at once and inside a small, thin metal can hurtling through space. Simple fact.
Fortunately, Malak was also aware of his other attributes. Intelligence could be just as deadly as a gun, when properly aimed. “Comms. Place the squadron on standby. Notify engineering they have twenty minutes to get the damaged fighters operational. Prepare a Gravitron Apple for deployment.” He ignored the quick ‘yes, sir’ and tapped commands into the small display mounted to the railing. Information popped up on the plastiglass that wrapped around the front of the bridge, overlaying the view of alien corpses, ripped metal, and blackness. The location and speed of the Red was noted, as was the status of the fighters in the Pale Horse’s bay.
“Sensors, tell me about the wreckage.”
Ondrea highlighted debris visible on the display as she spoke. “Ninety-percent of the debris is still in front of us. Forty-seven life signs, all waning. Two data core modules have been identified and are being tracked for future retrieval. Two hundred, four thousand metric tons of biomechanical matter. Radiation dispersal indicates that one ISG has been breeched. Our shielding should block unacceptable levels for forty-two hours. One laser cannon remains oper-”
“The other drive.” It wasn’t a question, but a directive.
Ondrea was silent for a few moments while she searched for the equipment. “Located. No significant damage. Core containment is holding. Unused reserves total…” She paused again, her fingers gliding across her display.
“Weapons are hot, Major.” Af flicked her tactical overview into a corner of the main display. “Munitions supplies are sufficient for three strafing runs.” He nodded, still waiting on Ondrea.
“Point eight-three tons of secondary fuel. Four hundred sixty-seven micrograms of primary fuel.”
“Must have just filled up,” Hemah muttered as she directed the Pale Horse into an elegant dip, missing a small rubble field and bringing them alongside a piece of outer hull larger than the Legion ship.
“Munition conservation,” Malak ordered. Af frowned, but obeyed – entering in targeting sequences in preparation for attack. After nearly five minutes of Ondrea noting the significant contents of the trash around them, the Red Class pinged on the display at the front of the bridge.
“They’ve caught our signature,” the female reported. “Heading is being adjusted. Weapons warming up.”
“Comms. Send out two fighters. I want that intact ISG towed to these coordinates.” Malak punched in a location and sent it to the communications console. Emici-class one man fighters, like the Pale Horse carried, were not designed to pull, push, or carry cargo of any kind – much less highly volatile hazardous materials. It would require his two best pilots to nudge the engine into position without damaging it or the small ships. It was rare for one of his people to excel at the kind of specialized training required for pilots. He had the twenty best with him.
“Long range signals?”
“Still non-accessible, Major. Direct links should be up in another five minutes.”
Malak drafted a message for Skoll and sent it over to comms. “Send that when you are ready. And set up a James on the wide-band dispersal.”
“Ten minutes to long range weapons. They won’t have any accuracy, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try.” Af spoke with the derision of a skilled marksman. She would never have fired without being certain she would hit her target. Malak could hear the muffled grinding of Hemah’s back teeth as a small grouping of debris impacted the Pale Horse. In order to stay concealed, she couldn’t dodge even the most easily avoided objects. The younger male seated next to her was sweating slightly, even in the controlled coolness of the ship. Nerves, despite how many times even the least experienced of them had been in battle. There was nothing like waiting for the enemy to come to your position.
“Short-range communications operational, Major.”
“Open them,” he ordered. There was a mellow tone, and then he spoke. His transceiver implant picked up only his voice, so the crew did not need to be silent, but they still fell quiet. “You have breached Confederation space. Turn back, or surrender.” It was the standard Coalition warning given to all ships that came too close without authorization. Malak had only bothered with it a handful of times. He had no qualms in using his authority to shoot first, and generally enjoyed doing so where Cullers were concerned. The Jones software translated for him and repeated his words. There was no response for several minutes.
The Red was nearly within range when the shrieking cackle of their language was followed by the exacting dialect of the computer-generated voice.
Your blood will run cold or we have failed!
The first laser cannon barrage was nowhere near the Pale Horse, but the blast made a reddish light and then hunks of metal and biomechanical fragments were cut loose to careen away from the wreckage and into open space. Under other circumstances, Malak would not have responded. Under other circumstances, Malak would have never bothered with requesting a surrender to begin with. He was in a difficult position. It was something to which he should have been inured. If he ignored the enemy – which grated on his instincts – and fled, he could complete his original mission, but the Alnitak system would be left vulnerable as reinforcement ships would be ambushed and destroyed as soon as they approached. Destroy one Red Class, and another would take its place. The Pale Horse was not equipped to fight a prolonged battle. Reinforcements from Keres Base could not be summoned without a working communications array.
“There aren’t enough of you in this galaxy to make me bleed.” Malak sent out the order even as the translation completed. Five of the Emici launched, each going in a different direction – away from the Red. There was a wild spray of laser cannon fire, but nothing that was not already useless was hit. Emici were not equipped with ISG drives, but Malak’s ships had been given a new piece of technology that the rest of the Coalition hadn’t yet seen.
“Eight minutes until they can lock sensors for tactical assault,” Ondrea warned.
“You are wasting my time.” Malak hoped his tone, as bored and unimpressed as he could manage, made it through the translation. As one, the Emici disappeared from sensors. The bridge fell quiet, then a howl of outrage – high pitched enough to stab his ears like needles – was heard over the comm.
You cannot run.
“No running.” Malak nodded and the rest of the Emici left the bay. They circled wide, the small ships dodging through the frozen, weightless remains of Culler ships. The Red fired wildly. Malak was disgusted. The individual that was in charge on the Red enraged easily, fighting on emotion more than reason. It was common with the aliens, and it made them deadly, as well as predictable. He would have preferred to fight one on one with an opponent that was a challenge due to skill rather than numbers. That was not the Culler way. Again, the small ships dodged the weapons fire easily, then disappeared from sensors. There was another scream, then the transmission cut off.
Tension on the bridge was thick. Malak drew the scent of it, sharp with anticipation and a little salty from the co-pilot’s nervous sweat, in through his nose to settle in his lungs. His muscles flexed, tensing for combat that he would most likely not be able to participate in directly. His arms and chest felt too light without his armor suit, and the loss of even a few pounds made him eager to press forward on the balls of his feet. Ready to pounce. He curbed the desire, breathing slowly, deeply. His excitement would set the others on edge, and their calm was essential.
“Urchins are launching,” Ondrea highlighted on the display the barely visible reflective surface of the Culler ship. The small, spiny vessels used to attack Coalition ships and pierce their hulls could not yet be seen, but they were far more of a threat to Malak’s crew than the laser cannons. Enough breeches and the Cullers would be able to board and overwhelm the Legion. More than that, and it would be likely they would destroy essential systems. It was difficult to fight in zero gravity. Impossible to breathe without oxygen.
“Tactical has them,” Af responded. Her junior officer stepped up beside her, taking over controls for some of the defenses on the Pale Horse.
“Entering assault range in three, two-” The slam of cannon fire into the surrounding area reverberated against the hull. Impacts of moderately sized rubble caused the hull to flex and retract with the kinetic gel as it hardened and softened to protect the ship. The Red was getting closer, but still hadn’t locked on to the Pale Horse. Interference from the wreckage was bouncing their signal off course.
“Two more ships,” Ondrea reported, “still in ISG, coming up fast.”
“Urchins are lining up for a run on us. Return fire?” Malak held up a hand to stay Af, instead watching the small dots on the display that showed the location of the first two Emici he had sent out. They were nearly in position. “Sir?”
“Helm,” he said quietly, “Reverse engines.”
Three more minutes and the close-combat alien ships were distinct sensor blips on the display. The Red was clearly outlined in the starlight. Cannon fire was becoming more accurate, drawing closer to their position. Malak watched the proximity alert for the two new ships. They were coming recklessly close before dropping out of ISG.
“They have a lock on us!” Ondrea zoomed the display close enough that he could see each individual Urchin, the twisted barbs waiting to dig into the Pale Horse. Glowing with heat, the main forward cannon on the Red was seconds away from firing. The first hit scored along the side of the ship. Malak had braced his legs, but the Falcon behind him cursed. Iron and salt mixed with the chalky scent of calcium infused the air. The wound was too faint to be serious, so Malak did not bother ordering the man to seek medical attention.
“Comms, bring back Delta and Echo. Sensors, begin a count to enemy exit from ISG. Af – fire on her mark.” Malak braced his arms against the railing, his leg muscles locked in anticipation. Another cannon blast narrowly missed the Pale Horse, instead hitting the large hull fragment they had used as a shield. Notifications flashed across his personal display, indicating minor hull breaches and systems disturbances. It was nothing the engineering crew couldn’t handle.
“ISG drives narrowing. Fields beginning collapse. Entry into sublight in seven. Six.” Another shot hit the Pale Horse directly. A thump sounded behind him and the Falcon cursed again. Af began to slide as the artificial gravity temporarily malfunctioned, making the force holding them all to the floor tilt sideways. She climbed the near vertical deck to stay in position at her controls. Helm was seated, but Ondrea fell away from her console. Systems corrected and Ondrea announced,
“Two. One.” Space rippled with of sudden arrival of the two new Culler ships, distorting their vision as they abruptly slowed. “Mark.”
Af fired at the same moment Malak ordered, “Helm, cover.” Another burst of laser fire tore through the plating on the outer deck of the bay. Hemah’s hands moved over the control panel smoothly, and a large broken section of Culler hull rose between the view through the display and the Legion ship. There was no sound, only light. Seconds later the concussive force that slammed the makeshift shield against the Pale Horse. Radiation alarms went off before Ondrea abruptly silenced them.
“Assessment,” Malak demanded. He had forced himself to remain standing tall during the explosion, although the others all crouched or braced themselves as best they could. Blood, thicker and too metallic to be entirely human, dripped from a tear in the elbow of Ondrea’s uniform. She had a red mark on her chin as well; it would be a deep bruise before the day was through.
“The Red is done. Complete destruction. All primary and secondary fuel from the jettisoned ISG has been expended. Ships two and three are inert – life support and weapons non-functioning. Two is losing atmosphere at a rate of 400 – correction, 520 cubic meters per second. Thirty-seven Urchins remaining. Eighteen still have weapons and at least some maneuverability.”
“Paint viable targets,” Malak ordered Hemah. “Comms, send in the fighters.” Hemah slowly pulled away from the heavily damaged hull fragment that had protected them as Ondrea highlighted active combat ships for the Emici to hit. The small fighters reappeared on sensors just as quickly as they had cloaked. Each Urchin still capable of fighting was pinned with a yellow dot on the display. “Tactical – you have two shots.” Af grinned, showing the fang-like incisors that were usually well-kept behind her lips.
Thirty minutes later and all twenty Emici were back on board. Ondrea reported no life signs in the wreckage. “However, we have multiple ISG signatures – rerouting to our location.”
“Comms,” Malak stated flatly, “status.”
Surprisingly, the human appeared at his elbow, tablet in one hand, the other holding a blood-soaked square of temporary bandaging to his forehead. “Lucky break with the code. I pushed your message through, sir. We received this response from Lieutenant Skoll.” He awkwardly slid his fingers across the screen, leaving a pink smear, and Malak’s bracer vibrated quietly in response. “We have about a three minute window, but someone is on the other end trying to shut down the array again.” The decrypted message he read on his own display was simple.
On my way. ETA 21530032200.
Malak held back a snarl. Skoll was two days away. That would push back Malak’s arrival at RB14 three days later than he had intended. He typed a response with enough force that the human technician stepped back quickly.
“Send that. Contact engineering. I want a time for the Gravitrons to be activated.”
If the wormhole device was operational before Malak arrived, someone was going to hear about it. Even if he had to remove their ears to make certain they listened.