“Admiral, we have multiple enemy contacts bearing two-five-three, Z minus one-eight.”
He stared at the shattered picture frame lying on the deck at his feet. Gazing back at him through shards of glass were the bright blue eyes and smiling face of a young Ensign in dress whites.
“They are on an intercept course, sir. A dozen cruisers.”
The young man looked like his mother. He had her blue eyes and fair complexion. The dark hair was his, and the nose.
“Sir, weapons range in 30 seconds.” The voice became insistent, edged with panic.
His head felt large and heavy. He could barely move it. He could almost move his eyes. With an effort, he willed his gaze to the forward view screen. It was black.
“I don’t… see… there’s nothing there…” His tongue was thick and his words sounded distorted and distant.
“They are on the port-side screens, Admiral.” The voice became more shrill. “Weapons range in 15 seconds.”
He tried to look to the left, but his head was too heavy. His body would not obey his thoughts. The weight was too much, and his head sagged. His eyes came to rest on the picture lying between his feet.
“What do we do, Admiral?”
As he watched, the face withered and shrank. He wanted to reach out, grab it, stop it, but he was paralyzed. In a moment, the face of the young man was gone, and the glass crumbled to dust and blew away.
“Five seconds, Admiral. Weapons are loaded and at your command.”
He clenched his teeth. With an effort of will, he forced his head up. The enemy ships appeared on the forward screen, arrayed in a wagon-wheel formation. The center “hub” consisting of 5 ships in a circular formation, and the remaining ships spread out around the hub forming the wheel. Their gray forms rapidly filled the view screen, the dark maws of their guns swung around to bear on him.
“Fire all batteries,” he hissed. “Fire now.”
He waited for the thumping vibration of his guns, but nothing happened. His eyes swept an empty bridge. The crew was gone. He was alone. He looked to the weapons station. It was not far, but he did not have the strength to move to it. On the screen, the enemy’s guns flashed, and steel projectiles tore through the ships armor, piercing his chest in a thousand gaping wounds. His body was lifted into the air, spun through the debris of the crumbling battle cruiser, and into the black void of space. Floating in the the dark, cold of space, he saw the young Ensign again. The young man’s arms and legs splayed rigid, frozen. His eyes glassy and lifeless. His mouth gaping in a silent scream. It was deadly silent except for a high-pitched beeping. His lungs collapsed and his chest strained against a great weight as he suffocated and died, his vision fading into blackness.
He opened his eyes to a faint, gray light. The beeping repeated.
“Yeah.” His voice was little more than a croak. He rolled to his side on the firm cushion of his bed and coughed and swallowed. His throat dry as if a rag was stuffed into his mouth. He swallowed hard and poked a thumb and forefinger into his eyes.
“This is Vitols.”
“Admiral, this is Lank. We received a warp drone from Raveen.” The voice was thin and metallic through the tiny speaker mounted in the bulkhead behind the bed. “It’s priority, sir, high security. You’ll have to enter your code.” There was a muffled cough, a hint of excitement. “This could be it, sir.” Vitols slid to a sitting position and set his bare feet on the cool steel deck. He wore white boxers and tee-shirt. He placed his hands on the bed and leaned forward, coughing. His back arched with each cough, his vertebrae showed plainly under the thin material. He pushed a tail of thin, gray hair out of his face. White, patchy skin hung loosely from his arm.
He reached for a pocket watch sitting on the nightstand next to his bed. It lay between an empty bottle with Cyrillic letter surrounding the word “VODKA”, and a framed photo of a smiling young man in dress white uniform and gold ensign bars on his collar. He hesitated, his hand diverting to the picture. He turned it face down on the table, and picked up the watch, holding it close to his face.
“Give me five, Captain,” Vitols said. Squinting at the watch, he passed a hand over his face and large, hooked nose. “Make it ten.”
“Aye, sir,” Lank said. “I’ll have a cup ready for you.”
Vitols rose from his bed and stretched, his joints popping. He grabbed a pair of khaki slacks hung from a hook on the opposite wall. His cabin was small and plain, the only picture hanging on the gray walls bore a polished brass plate with the inscription ‘BCRS Monarch’. Set against an unlikely sea of glowing stars and a colorful nebula, the warship was the shape of an elongated football, rounded, almost featureless. It was encircled by two thick rings, one around each half, bonded to it’s body by five spokes. Pulling on his slacks, he fastened the belt and stepped over to a wall mounted sink sitting below a mirror. Running the cold water, he splashed it on his face, grabbed a towel, and patted himself dry. He dropped the towel on the edge of the sink and gazed at his reflection in the mirror. He ran his hand over his gray hair and narrow, lined face. His fingers pressed into the dark, loose skin under his eyes. He turned to a closet and retrieved a khaki shirt from a hanger and slipped it on. There were four gold stars on each collar, and four rows of rectangular, colored ribbons on the left breast pocket. He buttoned the shirt up, slipped on black shoes, and exited his cabin.
Outside, a young Marine in pressed gray fatigues, black cartridge belt, and gray, octagonal hat snapped to attention and saluted with his rifle.
“Good morning, sir,” he snapped, his voice echoed in the narrow corridor.
Vitols nodded in return. He stepped past the Marine and proceeded down the corridor. The long, gray passageway stretched for some distance broken at regular intervals by the indented frames of open pressure doors. It curved gradually to the right as it followed the contour of the ship. He passed men dressed in white or khaki uniforms and more armed Marines standing guard at various points along the way. They saluted and greeted him in the same precise manner. He passed many closed hatches, their purpose labeled in crisp, black lettering, and corridors angling perpendicular into the guts of the massive ship. He turned down one of these corridors, stepped over the pressure door frame, and stopped at a hatch labeled ‘Combat Operations Center’. He touched a keypad on the bulkhead next to the door.
“Admiral Vitols,” he said, leaning close to a grill above the keypad. “Request permission to enter the COC.” After a moment, something clunked in the wall and the hatch slid to one side. Vitols stepped inside. A Marine on the opposite side of the hatch snapped to attention.
“Admiral on deck!”
The room was dimly lit from overhead illumination, but he could discern male and female officers dressed in khaki uniforms sitting at consoles around the sides of the room. They monitored various screens, message traffic, and external sensors, their faces glowed a sickly green or cold blue depending on the instruments they monitored. The room was filled with a low murmuring as they spoke with one another or communicated via radio links to other parts of the ship and other ships in the fleet. On each of the four walls was a broad view screen providing a panoramic view of the exterior of the ship, the surrounding star field, and other star-ships hovering in the blackness around them. They were of various sizes, but all of them had the same characteristic elongated shape with noses that tapered into dull points. Each ship had one or two large rings wrapped around them and connected to the body by four or five spokes. The number of rings seemed to depend on the size of the ship. The smaller ships had a single ring attached in the center. Larger ships had two rings spaced at equal distance along the bodies. In one of the monitors, the dark curved edge of one of the Monarch’s warp rings obscured the space beyond it.
A tall, dark skinned man with glittering eagles on his collar approached the Admiral. He smiled broadly and handed Vitols a steaming cup of black coffee.
“Good morning, sir,” Lank said. “I took the liberty of placing the task force on level 3 alert. All duty crews are at their stations and awaiting orders.”
Vitols slurped his coffee, his eyes scanning the external monitors.
“Will Commander Garby join us?”
“No sir,” Lank said. “I didn’t invite him.” Vitols peered over the edge of his coffee cup and raised an eyebrow. “I’ll fill him in later,” Lank said with a grin.
“Very good, Captain. Let’s take a look at that message.”
Lank led the way to a closed hatch labeled ‘Communications Security’. He tapped a code into a keypad mounted next to the door and spoke, “Jonathan Lank, Captain in command of the Battle Cruiser BCRS Monarch.”
He stepped to one side and Vitols approached the door, entered his code on the keypad, and spoke, “Demarco Vitols, Admiral in command of Task Force Eight.”
The door slid to one side and Lank entered the room. A red light above the open hatch blinked intermittently. The room was cramped and had a single console with a low-backed chair bolted to the deck. Lank stepped to one side to allow Vitols into the room. He pressed a button on the console and the door slid shut. After a moment, the light turned solid red.
“We’re secure sir,” Lank said. He sat in the seat in front of the console and tapped on the symbols on a horizontally mounted touch screen. Again, he stated his name and rank. He leaned to one side and Vitols stepped to the side of the chair, tapped on the screen and stated his name and rank. Another screen, mounted vertically on the face of the panel, filled with text. They read the message silently, the only sound in the room was the hiss of the ventilation system.
Lank frowned and gazed up at the Admiral who leaned over him, his lips tight as he squinted at the screen. Vitols straightened and blew out a long, noisy breath.
“They’re shifting the time-table up by 90 days, sir,” Lank said. Vitols took a deep breath and held it for a moment but didn’t respond. Lank turned back and read the message again. After a moment he said, “How can we be ready for this?”
“We are ready,” Vitols said. “We’ve been ready. But this…” his voice trailed off. “Obviously something has happened that is forcing them to accelerate the time-line.” He leaned back, rolling his shoulders and neck to work out the stiffness. “Unfortunately, we won’t know what that something is, but that doesn’t matter. We have our orders.” Vitols folded his arms and gazed down at Lank who rotated his seat to face the Admiral. “Alright,” he said, glancing at a clock on the wall. “We need to be in orbit around Arwa in four days.”
Lank looked up, shaking his head. “Not even at maximum warp, sir. We are seven days out.”
“This is critical, Captain. We need to be on time. The success of the entire campaign may depend on this task force capturing and controlling the supply depot at Arwa.”
Lank chewed his lower lip and sighed. “It’s the logistics ships, sir. They can’t make that speed even when empty.” He leaned back in the chair and rubbed his chin. “The only way we can do it is to split off the log train and take the capital ships in first. We might be able to make it in four days. I’ll have to have the navigator run the course to confirm it. The log train could join us three, four days later.”
“Did we ever run this scenario through the simulator?”
“No sir, we always assumed we would have at least seven days notice.”
“If we split the task force and arrive on target ahead of our own resupply,” Vitols said. “Depending on the enemy situation, we could sustain a full scale assault and maybe a light counter-attack with the ammo and fuel we carry. After that, we would be out of ordinance. If we are not also out of fuel, we would have no alternative but to run if they attack us with any sizable force.” He shook his head and gazed knowingly at Lank. “I don’t like splitting my task force, Captain. I like less the idea of going into battle with no resupply.”
“As much as I agree, Admiral, I don’t see any other way to do it,” Lank said. “We should also split off a few combat ships with the logistics train as escort in case they run into an enemy patrol when they drop from warp.”
Vitols pulled at the loose skin under his chin and ground his teeth. Finally he nodded. “Very well, Captain, we’ll split off the log train, two light cruisers, and two destroyers. Have them proceed at best speed to Arwa. We’ll join back up at the other end. I want everything detailed in the ops order, and I want that distributed in 30 minutes. Can we make that happen?”
“Aye, sir.”
Lank turned his chair back to the message still displayed on the screen. “Sir, Admiral Gershing knows our situation and how far out we are. Yet, he advances the schedule by 90 days, gives us insufficient time to move our entire task force, and there is no explanation. No reason.”
“What are you saying, Captain?”
“Sir, I want to send this drone back a message.”
Vitols coughed and shook his head. “There’s no way to get a response in time, Captain. We’ll be gone before the drone could return.”
“I’m not expecting a response, Admiral,” Lank said. “I want to make sure they understand our situation. They should know we’re splitting the task force, or they may expect us to be supplied and at full strength.”
Vitols nodded. “Alright Captain, I agree. Send the drone. But first, I want to get the plan in motion. You can program the drone and launch it before we warp out.”
Together, they exited the communications room, and Vitols moved to the center of the room. A hush drew over the COC and the eyes of the officers turned to him.
“This is it,” Vitols said. He held his hands, fingers interlaced, in front of him and turned his head slowly to make eye contact with the officers in the room. “This is why we have been out here preparing and training for the last three months. This is the beginning of our last great effort to end this war and return peace to the Republic. You all know your jobs. You know what needs to be done. We depart within the hour.” The reactions from the officers in the room were mixed and ranged from broad smiles to grim determination. Vitols turned to Lank.
“Captain Lank, move the task force to alert level 4, and order them into staggered column in preparation for departure to Arwa in the Iwajim system. Split off the supply ships and escort.” Vitols glanced at the wall clock. “Send a message to all command officers to call in for a conference in my briefing room in 30 minutes. I’ll meet you on the bridge in 45 minutes.”
“Aye-aye sir.” Lank turned to the officers and began issuing orders as Vitols exited the COC.
Within the hour, Admiral Vitols stood on the bridge of the Monarch next to his command chair near the center. He turned his head slowly, surveying the monitors mounted on the bulkheads of the hexagon-shaped room.
Task Force Eight was arrayed in a staggered column formation. A long line of 23 warships stretched out in front of and behind the Monarch. The formation consisted of destroyers, light cruisers, heavy cruisers, and the single, massive battle cruiser, the Monarch. Hazy and located some distance away sat a second formation consisting of the supply ships and their escort. At their present location, in deep space and several light-years from any source of star-light, the ships were nearly impossible to see with the naked eye.
Lank entered the bridge from the rear via a ladder-well from below. Following him was the warp navigator, Commander Graves. Graves passed the admiral and made for his station near the front of the bridge. Lank approached the Admiral and gave him a thumbs up.
“We’re good for warp sir,” Lank said. “We should arrive at Arwa in 93 hours. Gives us 3 hours to spare.”
“Excellent work, Captain,” Vitols said. He sat in his command chair and pulled the straps around his shoulders. Lank moved to the chair in front of him and strapped himself in.
“Captain Lank,” Vitols said. “Launch the warp drone for Raveen and initiate warp countdown.”