Ring the Bell
Year 2156, Day 127, Hour 1600
“Secondary blast wave damage being calculated…”
“Colonel Ben-Zvi on the line, ma’am.”
“Calculate route to Saladin. Put Ben-Zvi on the main display.”
If Jones felt any of the sick nerves and fear that splashed around in Maker’s stomach, her calm expression didn’t betray it. Ben-Zvi’s face came up on the screen even as Maker tried to concentrate on the disarray in the Culler comms. It was difficult to ignore the itch to patch into sensors again and confirm the Navi civilians and the Legion were okay. Malak is fast, she reminded herself, with ten minutes he could have probably run all the way through the pass and into Ben-Zvi’s camp. She did not think about why she was concerned for one soldier whose face she had never even seen when thousands were probably still in danger. Her skin felt too warm. her was sore.
“Captain,” the Colonel began. An indistinct shout in the background had the veteran frowning and pointing off screen to someone. “Our sensors are picking up aerial bombardment, but the heat has blinded us against reassessing enemy movements on the ground. Can you confirm numbers and movements?”
“Captain,” Soon interrupted. “Sensors confirmed secondary damage 2.83 kilometers from impact point. Preliminary review estimates thirty-six thousand terminated targets. Civilian signatures are holding steady and continuing en route to pass.”
“Good news.” The Colonel’s eyebrows rose. “We’ll be able to hold this position longer – hopefully enough for them to make it here and prep for extraction.”
The junior sensors officer called out a warning, “Urchins targeting us! Emici moving to intercept.”
“Give them all you can,” Jones advised Ben-Zvi. “Special ops are covering the civilians to your location.”
“Acknowledged. Good hunting.”
The main display reverted to the battle before them and Maker turned back to her console, doing her best not to be distracted by the continued silence of Malak’s comm line or the inexplicable ache at the base of her spine. Jones directed the helm to bring them into position to assist the Saladin, and the two officers at the comms station had their hands full relaying information on ship damage and fighter positions. The battle in orbit of Navi had shifted, with the Coalition chipping away at the initial Culler advantage – using their momentary distraction against them. Maker listened as the Cullers all but ignored the turning tide.
Ground forces in pursuit destroyed. Numbers low.
Find them! Alive. Bring them or you won’t be good enough to eat!
“Cullers launching ground transports!” Maker notified her Captain and pinged the two Amber class ships that were sending reinforcements to the surface. The enemy wanted captives. Specific prisoners. It flew in the face of everything the Coalition knew about Cullers, but with all that Maker had seen in the past few years she could believe it. The only questions were who, and why.
“I want two squadrons on those transports. Not another ship touches down.” Comms acknowledged the order and began dispatching more Ictus.
Tactical and helm were arguing loudly.
“I need room, dammit!”
“Then give me something to work with!”
“Helm,” Jones warned, “I need us alongside the Saladin.”
“Can’t do it, ma’am. Fighter movement is to thick, and that Citrine will clip us if we-”
“Urchins have locked on to our hull! Eight drilling into the aft section, between decks eight and nine.”
“Comms, send the reserve to meet them. Helm,” Jones’ voice never lost the cool, calm edge, but it still conveyed a warning, “get me in position or find someone who can.”
“-eight, seven, and twelve, say again. Say again.”
“Locked on target. Firing when-”
Maker turned on the cancellation for her headphones. It was dangerous, not being able to hear what was happening the bridge, but she relied on text readouts to alert her for important maneuvers or incoming hits. Her head was pounding, her heart racing, and her gut churning. The reserve were the newest recruits, lead by the oldest, most experienced soldiers on the ship. At least half would die when they met up with the Urchins trying to board the Khalid. Engineering was on decks eight and nine; Rodriguez would be there, exhausted and overworked and not armored or armed to stand a chance against shredding claws. Her cousin, Seamus, was on the Saladin, and its status as point ship in the battle made it a target. Three massive Culler battle cruisers had surrounded it and continued to press its defenses. If the Khalid couldn’t provide support, the Saladin wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer. Gonzales and Kerry were on the surface with Ben-Zvi, and if the Cullers took control of the surrounding system, then Navi-3 would be lost.
“Rommel breaking through distal enemy line,” Comms notified the Captain. “She’s targeting those Ambers.”
And Lin Yamamoto was captaining the Rommel.
Maker couldn’t listen to the updates and do her job. She focused on the Culler communications and breathed evenly to prevent hyperventilation.
Capture them or it will be your shell!
Hull breech, losing-
New target, the voice listed off the coordinates for the Khalid, moving to flank.
Provide cover, find them! Find them!
Too many lost-
-bigger trash! Attack the surface so-
Cut it open!
She sent a message to tactical, pinging the Amber that was preparing to launch ground reinforcements, but Maker didn’t bother to speak. She focused instead, trying to narrow her band and pick out the Culler that was giving the most orders. It wanted three humans from the surface, but she couldn’t tell which three – or for what purpose. She eliminated communications lines one by one, sending them into the background until she had what she was looking for.
Orders stand. Bring them or die, by the trash or by talon! It called out names for other Cullers, or possibly ships, Maker couldn’t be sure. Another voice, to faint to be heard, was speaking in the background. She strained her ears, eyes closed against the agony that was curling around her brain, squeezing with each shriek and screech. -locked. She had it, and more. The image of a ship, a Coalition ship, sprang into her mind. It look sharp and brutally bright against the darkness of space. A score of Urchins, prepped to rip through the hull, suddenly veered away.
It took nearly four seconds for Maker to understand. The ship she was watching fired upon an unseen enemy, launching another squadron of fighters under the cover of the rail guns. The view shifted, rising, spinning, even as a burst of a laser cannon cut through the distance towards the Coalition ship. There was only the brief sight of the insignia and the name, painted on the hull, and Maker cried out a wordless warning.
Too late. The impact rocked the Khalid and knocked her back from her station, slamming her against the main communications console. Her uniform provided little insulation between her spine and the unforgiving edge of metal. The secondary comms officers barely held to his feet, but the supervisor tumbled to the side, his elbow connecting hard with the top of Maker’s head. Jones was yelling orders. The bridge went dark, then flooded with the reddish glow of emergency lighting. An electric fire erupted hear the helm, the shower of sparks creating blinding white spots in Maker’s vision. Fire suppression systems functioned quickly, leaving a cold cloud of retardant chemicals floating along the floor. The display screen strobed a sickening, tilted view of the battle, bringing the room into alternating sharp relief and hellish fog.
Someone was gasping for air. Maker rolled across the floor, trying to find her balance and avoid the stumbling feet of the other comms personnel. Her headset was still on. Distantly she wondered how it had stayed on her head, and how she could hear anything through the noise cancellation. On hands and elbows she got to the edge of the station, gripping the stair railing that descended to the lower level where helms and tactical were located. The display screen flicked off, but the weaker emergency lighting did nothing to stop the spinning of Maker’s head. Her boots continued to try to magnetize to the floor, but her legs wouldn’t obey her commands. Tactical was working, shouting furiously, but she could hear anything but the desperate sucking and a buzz in her own ears. Her eyes rolled to the side, not able to focus, but tripping over the blood-hued vapor slowly settling to the floor. The secondary helmsman was dead, blackened and stiff at her still smoking console. The display flashed again, the reflection startlingly white before it winked out again.
On the floor, slowly revealed by the settling suppressant, was the primary helmsman. He was the source of the wet panting which was all Maker could hear. His eyes were wide and white against the sooty, reddened skin of his face. Below his chin, the color became darker. Red snaking and cracking into garnet and burnt mahogany. One wide brown hand – too healthy and whole to belong with the rest of the body – clutched at the crumbling flesh of his neck, desperate to breath. It wouldn’t do any good. His chest was peppered with holes where searing hot bits of shrapnel had exploded from his console and passed right through him. Maker could see an even shaped wound, just to the side of his heart, and the seared edges of lung tissues along the edges.
Her gaze flicked back up to his face, but his eyes were fixed. His mouth no longer gasping for air.
Sound returned in a thunderclap of dissonance. A strong hand gripped her bicep and tugged her upright, leaning her against the railing even as the room continued to tilt unexpectedly. Bretavic gave her one more squeeze, making sure she wouldn’t fall again, then slipped past her to the helm. He was not gentle as he moved the primary helmsman out of his way.
“Helm, defensive maneuvers!” It was Soon who was giving orders from the Sensors station while his second tended to Captain Jones. One of her shoulders was pinned to her chair by shrapnel. Two for one, Maker thought wildly, knowing that it had probably come from the explosion at the helm and may have even passed through the dead helm officer first. So much blood was running down her face and soaking the Captain’s uniform, Maker was certain she was dead.
“Circuits are shot,” Bretavic responded. “I need a new station.”
Tactical cleared their primary seat and Giradot, the fingers of his left hand blackened and stiff, moved back to work at the engineering console near the rear of the bridge. Comms was working furiously, directing the Khalid’s defense teams to breeches where Cullers were attempting to board the ship. A technician raced onto the bridge and popped open an access panel next to the malfunctioning display. Secondary comms was yelling into their own line, ordering Emici into position and checking positions with the rest of the fleet. Only one of Maker’s headphones was working.
Fire again. Then re-target main threat.
The Saladin. The display flashed, then flickered out, before coming on again dimmer, but steady. The lead ship for the Coalition forces was surrounded by Cullers. Urchins had bored into the hull in nearly a hundred places. Scorch marks and floating debris were all that remained of the aft bay doors and landing pad.
“We need to move in.” Maker didn’t realize she had spoken aloud, but the ensign tending to Jones shot her a horrified look.
It was obvious. Above Soon’s commands and the frenzied shouts of the officers behind her, above the furious efforts of tactical and the sound of scraping vibrations in the hull as another Urchin locked on, she could hear it.
The port side is weak, we need to protect it until the mission is successful.
Charge all weapons again, and keep that enemy ship away!
I obey, First! One hit and we will be lost. No others are ready to take command. First cannot fall. Can’t fail. Need the targets. Can’t fail.
With perfect clarity she could see the spot, see the diagrams of a ship in front of her fingers. The commands to launch more Urchins. The damage to the gravity drive – too close to atmospheric filters. She could feel the urge, the need, the all-consuming compulsion to succeed. To kill. They would destroy the Saladin, and in the ensuing chaos, escape with their captives. That was the plan. But the battle could be ended. Now. In the Coalition’s favor. One hit. One massive impact to destroy the Culler lead ship and take out their command and they would flee.
Cullers never ran. Never. But they would. She knew it, felt it. They were incapable of fighting if the lead ship was destroyed.
“Move in,” Maker said calmly.
“What?” Bretavic asked, not even turning to look at her as he worked at the new helm. Right next to the charred corpse of the secondary helmsman.
“Closer,” she repeated. She carefully stepped down and crossed the space to lean against the back of his chair. “We need to ram them. Here.” She opened the tactical display over that officer’s objections and highlighted the aft area of the ship. It only looked lightly damaged, but Maker knew how weak it was.
“Stand down, Lieutenant,” Soon snapped.
“They’re going to fire again, and they’re targeting our weapons. We don’t have time to maneuver away, but-”
“Controls are sluggish, Commander,” Bretavic interrupted. “Maneuvering is limited.”
“Hit them and they will go down.” Maker lowered her voice, “Trust me, Bretavic. Right there.”
“Lieutenant Maker, you have earned yourself a court marshal! Get the hell off my bridge!”
“He won’t have time.” The junior tactical officer didn’t look at her, but kept his face on his own screen. “Their laser cannon is nearly charged. They’ll fire again before we can close the distance and get out of weapons lock.”
Maker felt fear. It was familiar and expected by now. The cold slide of sweat down her aching back and the clench of her stomach didn’t distract from what she knew she needed to do. “How much time do you need?”
“Comms, get me an MP!” Soon snarled. “I want Maker out of here, now!”
“Yes, sir,” comms replied. Maker ignored them.
Bretavic frowned, then sighed. “Twenty seconds. Twenty-five would be better.”
Maker opened up a wide-range communications band over the bridge comm system and pulled off her headphones. She stood back on shaking legs and pushed sweat slicked hair off of her face. Her mouth opened, and she screamed.
“First! First, I see you! I see the trash you have dragged here! You are weak. Too weak to lead, too weak to fight. Too weak to live!”
There was a long silence. No shot hit the Khalid. No laser cannon fired. Every eye on the bridge, all but Bretavic, stared at her. Maker didn’t have any time to feel self-conscious, to worry if she had made the right decision.
One of you? How is it possible? The one called First answered, his tone equally shocked and enraged.
“You dare to take one of mine? You dare to challenge me? You shall watch as I rip the shell from each One under your command.” Bretavic was moving, the Khalid re-positioning, but he needed more time. Maker took a risk. “You will not be First, but Last! I will cast you down like the trash you are. Too weak and pathetic to claim any right! Failure! Defeat! This is your name!”
No! It is not, the One cannot be! I will kill you!
“Weapons,” Soon stuttered, flicking his confused and angry face down to his console and back to Maker. “Weapons charging. Targeting us. Maker, what have you-”
The laser cannon fired, but it did little damage. Bretavic had closed the gap inside weapons range and was gaining speed quickly.
“You can try,” Maker shrieked, her throat quickly growing raw. “It will not be so.” A grating cry of fury and denial came through the comm from the Culler ship, as they recognized what the crew of the Khalid could clearly see. Impact was imminent.
“No!” Soon’s eyes widened and he flung himself around his station and towards Maker. “No!”
She could hear more Cullers in the background. Whispering, wondering. She knew their fears and added them to her distraction. “They will not be pleased.”
The Khalid slammed into the Red class at the same time that Soon hit Maker with a flying tackle. Sparks shot across the room and the groan of impacoral gel in the hull quickly gave way to the grind of metal twisting and torquing under immense pressure. Emergency alerts sounded and the fire suppression system went off again, but Maker couldn’t focus on anything but the heinous and panicked shrieks of Cullers in her ears and the weight of Soon on her face and chest. Another console blew out, and Bretavic was thrown back over them, bouncing against the steps to the upper console level. Jones let out a sound of pain – loud enough to be heard over the shouts for bulkheads and atmospheric seals. Maker pushed at Jones, but he refused to move, holding his position and shouting for the crew to prepare for impact.
Impact? The thought circled Maker’s abused skull. We already-
The explosion shook her teeth in her jaw. Gravity stuttered, then increased to slightly above normal. The inner hull began to crack, sending globs of hardening impacoral gel dripping to the floor where they smashed, denting the floor or anything else they hit. Soon let out a groan and fell heavily against her, then another, smaller explosion rocked the Khalid. Comms was yelling for Ictus and Emici to form up and perform strafing runs. Other ships were queuing up requests for information and status updates. Maker could barely suck in air past the weight of the Commander on her, but before she passed out she heard the Ensign clearly,
“The Saladin, her bridge is gone!”