Chapter 1: Float Like A Butterfly
Year 2156, Day 126, Hour 2230
Navi. Proper noun. A star in the Cassiopeia system, formerly catalogued as Cassiopeia. Navi has unusually high x-ray emissions in a variable and unpredictable pattern. A blue supergiant, its luminosity exceeds others of its type. The combined effects allow for a habitable zone far distant from the star compared to others. Three rocky planets orbit Navi.
Maker let the hot water pound against her face. Steam clouded her small bathroom with the clean fragrance of water and unscented soap. A muffled thump from her quarters reminded her of the time. She sighed. The move to third shift bridge duty was technically a step up from her position as a supervisor in comms, but after the twenty-second straight day of an eight hour shift that always seemed to run long, she was nostalgic for her old station – even with the mildly insubordinate staff.
“Mind if I use your shower?”
She patted herself dry and wrapped her hair in the same towel before answering. “Just don’t use my shampoo.” She stepped out of the brightly lit bathroom to see Gormann seated at the foot of her bunk, sheets tangled around his thighs. His hair, a little longer that regulation, was sticking out on one side. The dimmer lighting from a reading light cast interesting shadows along the lean muscles of his chest and arm; the snake tattoo that wound up his bicep and onto his shoulder eyed her judiciously.
He snorted, which morphed into a yawn. “No problem. I have my kit.”
“Kind of presumptuous, don’t you think?” She ignored the temptation to shut his ever running mouth, imagining all the ways he could use it that wouldn’t irritate her, and opened her wardrobe. Lotion and deodorant were followed by plain white undershorts and a supportive tank top.
Gormann leaned back on his elbows, making no effort to conceal his ogling. He grinned, “I earned it.” Maker couldn’t argue that, but she wasn’t going to admit it either. “Besides, the quarters my team were assigned are on deck nine.” Maker winced. Sandwiched between green recruits on their mandatory tour and the secondary entrance to engineering, the bunks allocated to the Raiders would be loud, uncomfortably warm, and fraught with eighteen year olds scared out of their minds but too stupid to realize it. “One of the common shower units is down for maintenance. I don’t even need a washcloth – you get scrubbed off just walking past everyone else.”
“That’s disgusting.” She slid her uniform pants on and reached for a long-sleeved shirt.
His grin got wider. “If I didn’t know I was going to get jumped as soon as we were alone, I might have enjoyed it.”
“You are such an asshole.”
“You aren’t seeing me for my personality, short stack.”
“I’m not seeing you at all, Gorm. I am taking advantage of an SC-conditioned hard body. Your personality is just an obstacle to my enjoyment.” She pulled on her jacket and fastened it, leaving the top few inches at the collar open until she was on duty. Maker sat down next to him to pull on her boots.
“Yeah,” he let out a breath, “that’s what I like about you. Practical about sex. Speaking of, we’re scheduled to re-base with the Saladin at 0600.”
“Are you asking for a quickie?” Maker raised both eyebrows, her lips twitching into a smile in spite of herself.
“Do you have time?” At the shake of her head, he continued, “Didn’t think so. I wondered if I could crash her for a few hours before I have to suit up.”
Maker hesitated for a moment, not sure she wanted to leave Gormann unattended in her personal space. “How about, I let you sleep here, but you have to do me a favor.” He leaned closer, smiling licentiously. “Again – I don’t have time for that. Can you deliver something on the Saladin? To Lieutenant Richter?” She pawed through a drawer under her bunk and pulled out a small vinyl envelope. ‘Seamus Richter’ was printed on the outside.
“Wow, I knew we were keeping it casual, but using me to send love notes to your boyfriend is a little cruel.”
“If I had a boyfriend, I wouldn’t have to put up with your…you…I wouldn’t have to put up with you just to get laid. He’s my cousin. A belated present for his promotion.” She set in on the desk and quickly combed her hair and twisted it into a Coalition-approved knot at the back of her head.
“Okay. Where can I find him?”
“He’s the primary shift helmsman, but his quarters are listed on the back there.” Gormann whistled, and Maker rolled her eyes. She grabbed her tablet and snapped her bracer onto her wrist. “Throw the bedding in the laundry, please. And Gorm,” she paused, the door to her quarters opening automatically to the empty corridor. “Try not to get dead out there.” He winked and grinned.
Scrolling through her tablet for messages occupied her on the way to the mess. Communications and Cryptography, like every department on the ship, was understaffed. High priority Culler translations were still sent to her for verification, which meant extra hours on top of her shifts on the bridge. She ate her reconstituted eggs and fruit as quickly as possible to avoid the taste and savored her tea. With twenty minutes until her shift started she cleared her table. Rodriguez was coming in as she was leaving, but he pivoted and followed her as if that had been his intent all along.
“You are looking ravishing this morning, LT.”
“Your hair looks extra shiny – have you done something new?”
“Whatever you want, the answer is no.” Maker could see him out of the corner of her eye, smiling and nodding as if they were in agreement.
“Of course, of course. Did I mention how delightful you smell? Is that…” He leaned closer and took an appreciative sniff before his smile slipped in confusion.
“It’s unscented,” she answered shortly.
“You didn’t like the products I gave you on your birthday?” He actually looked wounded, and Maker had to struggle to keep her frown in place.
“Sensitive skin,” she explained, then immediately regretted it when his smile turned suggestive. She jabbed the control for the lift and avoided the lewd comment she was sure was coming. “What do you want Rodriguez?”
“A party,” he answered promptly. “To celebrate your graduation. I finished my level one exams last month, and you’re slated to graduate the Academy level twos next week. We should drink and play cards and forget about the war for a while.”
“We do that every Thursday.” The lift doors opened and two soldiers stepped out, leaving only Bretavic inside, lounging against the rear wall. She nodded at him, ignoring his wrinkled uniform and the irritation etched on his face. She reached for the door controls.
“Yes,” Rodriguez followed her into the lift, ignoring her attempt to leave him behind and end the conversation. “But this would be extra-special. I have real liquor. The kind not made in repurposed hydroponics equipment and smelling of rubbing alcohol.”
“Are you bad-mouthing my gin?” Bretavic’s usual scowl deepened so that his eyebrows met over his nose.
“And we haven’t yet toasted to our good friend’s promotion,” Rodriguez continued as if the pilot hadn’t spoken. He poked Bretavic in the shoulder, right over his poorly attached sergeant’s stripes. “We should-”
“Touch me again and I will knock out your teeth.”
“Okay! Okay!” Rodriguez held up his hands and smiled, but it looked strained to Maker. She felt a little guilty for that. If every department was shorthanded, engineering was running on a skeleton crew and had been for months. Rodriguez was severely overworked, and with his personality he needed social interaction a hell of a lot more than Maker.
“I’ll think about it,” she hedged.
“Yes! That’s a yes!” He pumped a fist in the air and threw a gloating look at Bretavic, who scowled back.
“That’s an ‘I’ll think about it’,” she countered. A tone sounded and the doors opened to the corridor outside the bridge. She had ten minutes until her shift started. Bretavic followed her, practically dragging his feet. He may have been promoted, but he was certainly not happy with his reassignment from transport detail to the helm of the Khalid.
“Great, so we’re on. Wear something sexy, LT.”
“Not even to your funeral, Rodriguez.” The doors closed on his chuckles and Maker caught up with Bretavic as he entered the break room.
“Why do you put up with that shit?” he asked as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
“He can’t help himself,” she shrugged. “And a party sounds a lot better than another night watch, right?” From his expression, Maker guessed that Bretavic was weighing the two options and having trouble determining which was worse. The rest of the third shift crew straggled in, and they all reported to their positions.
Maker stood next to the senior comms officer on duty, monitoring lines and codifying information for three hours before a high priority alert came through. M’benga handled it. “This is the Kahlid…Authorization? Putting you through now.” Maker glanced up from her display, trying not to show her interest. M’benga caught her eye and shook his head – he was still listening. After only a few minutes he disconnected the line and signaled to the acting captain. “Sir, I advise readying the bridge for Captain Jones, sir.” The Lt. Commander and M’benga had worked together longer than Maker had served on the Khalid, and didn’t seem to need to say anything else. Orders were given for coffee to be put away and status reports readied. An air of formality unusual to the night shift swept the tired officers on the bridge, but the last uniform was straightened just as Jones’ voice came over the comm. She ordered a new heading and requested that the all-ready call be sent out. Maker turned on the magnetic lock on her boots and dialed it to the lowest setting. Wherever they were headed, she doubted it would be good. The ship shuddered as they fell out of ISG. Bretavic and the primary helmsman – an Ensign so green she left grass stains when she walked – input the new destination and pushed back into ISG before the engines had completely spooled down.
M’benga organized the incoming and outgoing lines, distributing so that he and Maker could share the work load if they entered combat. He didn’t speak Culler, barely understood the most basic words, so enemy comms were delegated to her along with any ship to surface and ship to ship communications. More experienced by several years and many, many battles on the bridge, M’benga kept intraship and fighter comms for himself. That would be the most pressing and fast-paced work. He had just finished briefing her on how he wanted emergency traffic handled when she heard something in the background.
At the Academy, level one classes were split into two portions. Everyone took general subjects for officers, physical training, and weapons familiarity. During the other half of each day they studied focus areas. Communications was one of the most demanding tracks, academically, second only to engineering. Maker’s first instructor had strongly recommended that she keep an open line at all times, in case there should be something unexpected – even in deep space. Most of the students had ignored that advice. Listening to the background noise of the cosmos for an entire shift was not particularly appealing. But that instructor had a look in his eye – the human one, not the implant that had replaced what he lost in the war. When Maker was on the bridge, she kept an open comm.
She heard it then, not half an hour into their new trajectory. A quiet, whrrew sound that faded in and out without pattern. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. There was no sound in the vacuum of space, but the frequency waves that carried sound still traveled. Maker selected the band on her display and maximized it, increasing the volume gradually.
whrrew. whrrew. whrrrewwww.
She dialed it up as far as it would go and the unmistakable screech of Culler language whispered through the Dark. She double checked against the computer, but it couldn’t identify. Maker hesitated for only a moment before pulling one side of her headphones off.
“Lt. Commander!” Her sharp call, which protocol dictated should have been directed to her supervisor, made M’benga loosen his headphones and the acting captain raise an eyebrow. “There is an enemy ship in our gravity wake.”
“Sensors,” the Lt. Commander snapped.
“I have nothing, sir.”
M’benga spoke quietly, “Are you sure you-”
“Look again.” Maker spoke directly to the Ensign manning the sensors station. She kept her eyes on him, but her attention was on what she was hearing. She typed swiftly onto her display. “I’m calculating the Doppler shift…it’s closing from behind, Ensign.” She sent the information over even as the computer was completing the math. There was a long pause while they waited for confirmation. Maker felt like her skin was shrinking, anticipation and anxiety making her muscles tight and jumpy.
“Got it!” The Ensign yelled. Helm was suddenly a flurry of activity as new information was brought up on the main display. The Lt. Commander took his seat. “Aft, sixteen million kilometers. Their speed exceeds ours, sir. Comms is hearing a fifty-three second delay.”
“Time to weapons range?”
“At current speed….three hours, sir.”
“Comms, do they know we’ve spotted them?” There was no question that the Cullers were intentionally following the Khalid. It took precision and skill to enter the ISG wake of another ship. The chances of it happening unintentionally were infinitesimally small. Maker frowned, trying to clear up the signal enough to make out words. M’benga dropped to his knees, popping open a panel and leaning in to reach the circuitry.
“One moment, sir,” he called out.
The ship to surface comms went dead and volume for the Cullers increased – although still not as loud as intentional communications. Maker could only parse out tone but it was enough. “I don’t think so, sir. I am just hearing general comms on their ship. There is no sense of urgency.”
“Stay with it, Lieutenant. M’benga, get me-”
Captain Jones entered the bridge then, followed closely by Giradot and Soon. The Lt. Commander vacated the captain’s chair and succinctly explained the situation. The Chief Intelligence Officer stepped over to the auxiliary tactical station while Soon waved the Ensign into the second chair at sensors and took over the main console there.
“How long until we reach our destination?” Jones looked as unflappable as ever, sitting straight-backed and legs crossed.
The green Ensign was sweating a little, Maker could see that even across the bridge, and her hand trembled on the control display. It was probably her first time in ISG combat – maybe her first time in combat at the helm. Bretavic surreptitiously slid her the calculations from his own station. “Five hours, ma’am.”
“Captain,” Giradot spoke up, “we are rendezvousing with the fleet, are we not? It would be tactically wise to increase speed and wait until we are within range of assistance before engaging.”
“We’re already at maximum recommended,” Ensign Green blurted. She quickly ducked her head back to her console and focused her attention there.
“We have no way of real-time communication or sensors with anyone within two-light-years of the Navi system until we are out of ISG,” Soon stated. “X-ray emissions from the star are variable and too intense to allow for subspace transmissions at this speed.”
“Captain-” Giradot fell silent as Jones held up one hand.
“How much reserve fuel do we have?” Soon answered the Captain, and Maker held her breath, still listening to the distant alien ship. “Start a leak, XO. One microgram of dark matter per minute. Helm, be prepared to slow and then drop out of ISG on my mark. Let’s hope they think we have maintenance trouble. It should buy us some time to reposition.”
“If they begin firing while we are in range of the dark matter-”
“I am aware, Giradot. But I’d rather fight them in the Dark that lead them to the fleet. Without real-time comms we have no way of knowing how the engagement is progressing. We could be bringing reinforcements to a bad situation. We will clean this up before we rejoin with the other ships in the Navi system.”
“Aye, Captain.” Soon typed in commands and repeated orders to the helm. “Prepare for slow to one-half maximum.” Maker took over half of the intraship communications, transferring them to visual readouts so that she could focus her hearing on the enemy. M’benga picked up the rest. Captain Jones placed the ship on silent running, on the off chance that the Cullers might be able to get a clearer signal of the Coalition ship.
Bretavic caught her eye just before they left ISG. He sent a message to her console, You wanted a party.
Maker didn’t have time to reply. Although it would have taken hours for the Culler ship to overtake them in ISG, once the Khalid was effectively standing still the distance was quickly closed. With proximity, her comm signal increased.
“They see us, Captain!” Maker was correcting the James as quickly as it translated the few signals sent out by the Cullers. There was far more activity than she expected.
“ISG engines are cooling,” Soon reported.
“Orange alert. Tactical, seek firing solutions, all weapons. Have medical stand by for-”
Maker came to the same conclusion as Soon, just a few seconds earlier. “There’s two of them!”
“Second ship, running in the wake, Captain. I am tracking a Titian and Citrine.”
“M’benga, alert the Gunnar to prep squadrons of Emici and Ictus. And get me Ben-Zvi.”
For Maker, the rest of the battle passed in a blur of shouting voices over the comms and cool orders from Jones. M’benga held the comms for two squadrons of Ictus and four of Emici while Maker handled intraship communications and monitored the Cullers. The main display faced their enemy, and sensors kept pinning and painting targets for the Captain. Comms had no time to even glance at the images of the massive battle, too engrossed in the life and death conversations in their ears.
“Delta-one, you are cleared to make your run. Echo squadron, check your sensors. Kahlid is picking up a second deployment of Urchins, port quarter of the Titian. Tactical,” M’benga snapped across the bridge, “Mike and Kilo requesting heavy support, coordinates-”
“-understood, Chief. First Engineer, report to lower ISG bay. Sensors,” Maker sent information over to the Ensign in the secondary chair as she spoke, “we have reports of impacoral leaks on deck nine. Please confirm. Medical, three Emici are down, two limping home. Meet casualties in the carrier hangar.” Through it all she could hear the faint comms between the two enemy ships.
Take down the fighters.
Target ventral weapons.
“Tactical! Citrine is targeting our lower rail guns!”
“Evasive action, helm.” Jones’ order was easier said than done, and Maker was briefly glad that she was not expected to turn a two hundred thousand ton hunk of metal and delicate circuitry on a dime. Bretavic and Ensign Green acknowledged the order and their hands flew across the controls. Artificial gravity made the movement almost surreal; the stars and ships outside the display dipped and soared but the ground remained firmly under her feet. An explosion rocked the ship and reports streamed in to Maker even as the Captain was demanding,
“They have switched targets to the ISG ports.” Soon worked with glowering efficiency, the Ensign beside him floundering in an attempt to keep up.
“Engineering is reporting casualties. Visual inspection underway.” Maker listened to Soon describe the damage as Giradot and the tactical officer continued to update on hits to the enemy ships. M’benga was coordinating an attack between Delta and Echo on the Citrine.
“Comms, prep a report for the fleet, send as soon as the nearest array is clear of interference. Captain to Ben-Zvi-”
Whatever command the Captain had been about to give was cut off as another explosion rocked the ship. Alarms sounded from every station, but there was no question as to what had been hit. The artificial gravity faded out over several seconds until there was nothing to hold the crew to the floor. The same magnetic field that held the ISG in proper containment regulated the gravity on the ship. Maker was glad she had thought to turn on her boots. Ensign Green had not considered the possibility, and began floating away from her station before the Captain got hold of her and switched on her boots. Green fell to the floor with a thump and a groan.
“Status!” The Captain barked.
The battle continued for another two hours, engineering crews working desperately to contain damage and repair the ISG under continued fire. At one point, gravity came back online only to increase to more than twice Earth standard. Only two of the bridge officers managed to remain standing during the ordeal. When the last shot was fired, Maker could feel a tremble in her legs and her eyes burned from focusing on her screen so intently. Each station reported in turn to the Captain. Injuries, damage, repairs, deaths. Thankfully, those were few. M’benga completed a review of mechanical systems and then Jones’ gaze turned to Maker.
“How is the fleet?”
Maker coughed, surprised to find that her voice had gone scratchy: too much shouting and not enough liquid. “Still not able to get a signal through the interference from Navi, but we are receiving data packets.” She had only briefly scanned the information, but she knew the Captain would not be pleased.
Maker complied, pushing the most recent map of fleet positions and a status listing up to the large screen. She wasn’t sure who said it, but she had to agree with them, “Good God.” She hoped that Gorm hadn’t been caught in the leaks on deck nine. She hoped Rodriguez wasn’t lying about having real liquor on board. They were all going to need a drink. If they survived.