Starship Captain: Call To Arms by Derek Paterson - available on Amazon and Smashwords

by Derek Paterson
Available from Amazon Available from Smashwords

Too late. They’d arrived too late.
“I estimate somewhere in the region of fifteen to twenty ships, Captain,” Maninder said. The scanning officer looked up from his scope, his face creased with tension. “The few that are still partially intact are in the process of breaking up. I am not detecting any foreign components among the wreckage. I believe—” He hesitated, then continued, “I believe they are all ours, sir.”
The wreckage he referred to was scattered over a 10,000-kilometer radius volume of space in the region of L1—Lagrange point #1, between Earth and the Sun. The Moon was currently sunward relative to Earth. Probe ship Bluebird’s lay inert above a magnetic anomaly on the edge of the South Pole-Aitken impact basin, taking advantage of its magnetic field. As weak as it was—the Moon currently lacked a dipolar field but did possess localized crustal magnetizations—the field would mask Bluebird’s presence from any eyes looking this way. Or so Captain William Star hoped.
He had ordered complete communications silence the instant they’d jumped into Sol System and Bluebird’s scanners had detected the expanding radiation source that was now the focus of their attention. A battle had taken place near L1, that much was evident. As L1 was the anchor point for Space Navy’s home fleet, Star had no reason to doubt Maninder’s assessment. The fact that the sum mass of the scattered debris added up the equivalent mass of fifteen to twenty probe ships suggested the entire fleet had been blown to hell. It was possible that some ships had been assigned patrol duties and had therefore escaped destruction. But many had not.
Before exiting Procyon System, Star had recalled his two probes from their stations above New Horizon—whose colony had been wiped out by a nuclear blast—and taken them aboard. They had been refitted and recharged during the transit to Sol System and were ready to launch again. But now he hesitated, caught between desperately needing more information, yet wanting to remain concealed to preserve his ship and crew. The enemy they’d encountered in Procyon System had struck again while Bluebird was in the Warpstream. Where was that enemy now? Unknown. Nothing was showing on the scanners except wreckage and the expanding radioactive cloud. The enormous loss of life—and yes, the loss of such a large number of ships—sickened Star.
With the home fleet destroyed, why hadn’t the enemy attacked Earth? Logic dictated that any force capable of wiping out the fleet was also capable of overpowering Earth’s orbital defense satellite grid. Thereafter they could fire at will or drop nuclear ordnance upon surface targets. He closed his eyes for a second and recalled the searing burst of light that had heralded the New Horizon colony’s obliteration. The thought of the same thing happening to cities on Earth horrified him.
Where was the enemy?
“Captain, I’m reading radiation trails,” Maninder said.
Star rose from his command chair and joined the scanning officer at his station. Maninder pointed to the irregular region on his scope that represented the radiation source near L1, and indicated two hair-thin parallel lines that emerged from the region. Maninder made the necessary hand motion to copy this data to the navigation tank, which extrapolated the course of the ships that had brushed the edge of the radioactive cloud, leaving proof of their passing in their wake. They had maneuvered inward towards the Sun. Even if they were still within scanner range, Bluebird wouldn’t have been able to separate them from the Sun’s photosphere.
The question was, were they survivors from the fleet, or did they belong to the enemy?
“Communications officer, launch a probe, directly at the Sun.
“Aye aye,” Valentin Tarkov said. Then, “Captain, I have a transponder signal.”
Star noted that Tarkov was readying the probe, as ordered, even as he operated the communications board. He returned to his chair and examined the transponder signal on his display. The identification code resolved to probe ship Kiskadee, SN 175, commanded by Captain Henrietta van Kort. The signal was likely automatic, triggered when the ship took damage. The chances of its being activated manually by survivors were slim.
Tarkov said, “Probe Number One launched, sir.”
The probe sped away from Bluebird. Star watched it in the navigation tank, a bright blue spark. Pilot Officer Megan Halley immediately pivoted Bluebird around and accelerated, taking them over the south pole and into the Moon’s shadow. If anyone tracked the probe, calculated its origin vector and dispatched something unwelcome along that vector, Bluebird wouldn’t be there to receive it. Halley, Star had discovered, didn’t wait for orders, she took action whenever it was warranted. He did not feel inclined to admonish her.
Now Bluebird had a clear view of Earth’s sunward side. The planet appeared utterly tranquil, unaware of recent events far away in another part of its solar system. The flurry of comms traffic on all bands suggested otherwise—that every nation and military force knew very well what had happened. Star could, in fact he probably should, contact Space Navy Headquarters and make them aware of his presence. But until he knew who else was out there, listening, he wasn’t going to break radio silence.
“Mr. Tarkov, your thoughts on the transponder signal.”
“It is cycling through Space Navy and civilian bands. I do not believe it is entirely automatic.” Tarkov wore a wireframe headset that positioned an earspeaker can over his right ear, so he was continuously listening to comms traffic while at his station. “A distress beacon pulses on the emergency band and stays there, as you know. Someone has overridden this. They’re sending a clear signal that they are alive, Captain.”
He sensed Tarkov’s questioning stare. He knew he also had the attention of the entire bridge crew. They were waiting for him to make a decision, to issue orders. Never mind that whatever order he issued might result in Bluebird’s being detected by the unknown enemy and targeted. But like it or not, the transponder signal couldn’t be ignored. If there was only the slightest chance that someone might still be alive among the wreckage, he was duty bound to investigate. At that moment, Bluebird might be the only ship in Sol System capable of responding.
He tapped the button on his chair arm that linked him to the ship-wide announcement system.
“Attention, this is the Captain. As yet we have failed to receive communications traffic from any elements of the home fleet. The entire L1 region is awash with radiation and debris. This suggests a conflict has recently taken place at the fleet anchor point. We can only speculate as to the outcome of that conflict.” He paused, giving his crew a chance to absorb this information and draw their own conclusions. “As far as we can tell, Earth has not yet been attacked. The orbital defense grid appears to be operational. Space stations and satellites are intact. I am reluctant to make contact with Space Navy Headquarters, as this may reveal our position to the unknown enemy. However. We have picked up a transponder signal from the L1 region. It is possible there may be survivors out there. It is my decision to investigate the signal. Crew will remain at alert condition red until otherwise notified. That is all.”
He cut the link, then said, “Navigator, please plot a course to intercept the transponder source.”
“Aye aye, sir,” the navigation officer, Fairbanks, said.
Star glanced at his display and saw that Fairbanks had actually done this already, passing the plot to Halley. She inclined her head slightly to acknowledge this. Star certainly couldn’t fault them on their efficiency but could fault them on not relaying accurate information. “The phrase you are looking for is ‘already done,’ Mr. Fairbanks. Carry on.”
“Yes sir, sorry sir.”
“Communications officer, drop Probe Number Two behind us, passive mode.”
A frown touched Tarkov’s forehead. “Aye aye, Captain.” The original Probe Two had been destroyed in Procyon System; the name was now re-assigned to the next probe in the launch racks to avoid confusion in identifying operational birds. In the navigation tank, Bluebird continued to circumnavigate the Moon’s sphere. A blue spark was left behind to mark Probe Two’s position. “I estimate Probe Number Two will fall and impact the Lunar surface in 56 minutes, Captain,” Tarkov said.
“So noted.” Probe One was still accelerating away from the Moon, towards the Sun. Star didn’t want to lose it—he didn’t have an overabundance of probes at his disposal—but its venturing out there was necessary. In the event of its destruction, its sensitive onboard instruments would identify its attacker’s relative direction and the nature of the attack at the very least. Bluebird was armed with two beam projectors, which offered considerable firepower. He had no missiles aboard, nuclear or conventional. When war with the Krench had been a real possibility, the probe ships had each been fitted with a score of tactical nukes; after the threat receded, these had been removed and put into remote storage, far from civilization. He vaguely remembered someone making a solemn speech about hopefully never having to employ such terrible weapons again. These sentiments were now redundant. The enemy had chosen to make them so.
Halley was flying from anomaly to anomaly, seeking cover whenever possible. She also followed the edges of impact craters and the divisions between maria and terrae to help mask their presence from visual detection. Bluebird cleared the other side of the Moon three minutes later. Again they had clear line of sight on Lagrange Point #1.
“Scanning officer, report your status.”
“Status is unchanged, sir. No new contacts,” Maninder said.
“Pilot, maneuver when you are ready. Find me the Kiskadee.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
The viewscopes showed the Moon shifting behind them as Bluebird accelerated sunward. Halley was using main propulsion, not thrusters, to adjust their course, making delicate adjustments to the gravitational field that was pulling Bluebird towards L1, one point two million kilometers away. There was no sensation of movement despite the fact they were under continuous acceleration, since the field encompassed the ship and everything aboard.
The navigation tank estimated their transit would take seventeen minutes. Star recalled the times when his instructors at the Academy had told him, over and over, that the most stressful part of command was the waiting. They were not wrong. But at least he felt he was doing something rather than just skulking in the shadows.
Bluebird entered the fringe of the radiation cloud. From this point danger levels increased exponentially. Their passage was leaving a track through the cloud, which if they were very unfortunate indeed would appear as a hair-thin line on someone’s scope. Fingers might be pointing at that line right now—assuming the enemy possessed fingers.
He noted that Halley was vectoring in forward flight, changing course every few seconds using lateral maneuvering thrusters, a tactic designed to throw off beam projector gunners trying to draw a bead on them. The gravitational field ensured Bluebird’s crew remained unaffected. Without it, they would have been thrown around like rag dolls.
“Contact, dead ahead,” Maninder said. It was too soon to be the Kiskadee which was still several minutes away. The forward viewscope showed them rushing up on a glowing hulk, spinning on its axis, shedding fragments in all directions as it broke up. It took imagination to recognize the hulk as the partial remains of a probe ship. Star wondered who had commanded her, and what they had thought in their final moments before they perished. He fought to control the burning desire to avenge the ships and crews that had suffered destruction. He badly wanted to pay the enemy back for what it had done—and he would, but on his own terms. Allowing his emotions to run rampant would only cloud his reasoning and lead to poor, possibly fatal decision-making.
The hulk disappeared from the viewscopes the instant they passed it. There had been no danger of collision, the closest they’d come was 12,000 kilometers according to the tank, and in any case Halley would have taken avoiding action. Bluebird’s meteor shield flared, briefly becoming visible as it encountered scattered debris, possibly from the dead hulk, none of which was large enough to tax the shield or affect Bluebird’s course.
Halley slowed their progress as they came up on the Kiskadee. Star watched with interest as she manipulated the gravitational field so it shifted behind Bluebird while still keeping the ship within its boundaries, which he likened to an elongated egg. Bluebird decelerated steadily.
“Coming up on target,” Halley said.
With an unnerving abruptness, they were so close to Kiskadee that Star felt he could have reached out and touched her. Halley had brought them to a dead stop and shifted main propulsion to neutral, collapsing the gravitational field. The damaged probe ship filled the forward viewscope. One of the Pavlov IV engines and its support arm was missing. The remaining engine was a half-melted shape that only vaguely resembled its former state. The rear of the main body nearest the engine shared that melted appearance, while the port side had been shaved clean off by what must have been a tremendously powerful beam, exposing the interior decks and compartments. Anything and anyone inside must have been vaporized instantly. The hangar compartment, connected to the underbelly, no longer existed. As Kiskadee continued to slowly roll, he saw the bridge section was still intact.
“Contact,” Maninder said. “Extreme scanner range. Difficult to separate from the mush. But I believe something is moving out there. Return is gaining strength. It’s moving this way.”
“No IFF signal detected, Captain,” Tarkov said.
“I am declaring the contact hostile,” Star said. “Make signal to Kiskadee.”
“Aye aye. Identification signal sent.”
Halley, acting on the scanner data passed to the tank, was maneuvering on thrusters, guiding Bluebird around and underneath Kiskadee, effectively putting the damaged probe ship between them and Maninder’s contact. Star silently approved her actions, while at the same time experiencing guilt for blatantly using Kiskadee as a shield.
“Someone’s responding, Captain.”
Star’s display flickered. Then a face he recognized stared at him, wild-eyed and covered with a sheen of sweat, illuminated by emergency lighting that gave his skin a sickly amber color.
Bluebird? Where are you? Who’s in command?”
“Captain William Star. We’re alongside Kiskadee. We’re looking right at your bridge.” The man he was addressing was Wallace Gentry. Star knew him to be a member of P&A, Space Navy’s planning and appropriations committee. Gentry didn’t have fleet rank but he still wore broad admiral stripes on his sleeves, technically outranking Star by several levels.
“Star. All right. Thank God. Systems are failing. You have to get us off.” Gentry’s voice was too high, filled with fear and exhaustion. Star did not judge him for being afraid. Placed in a similar situation, aboard a dying ship with no guarantee of rescue, or of anyone even being aware of his plight, he might have felt the same way.
“How many are with you, Admiral?”
“Myself and... seven others.”
Star had lost Bluebird’s only shuttle on New Horizon. Kiskedee’s shuttle had disappeared along with her hangar compartment. He would have preferred to use that method of personnel transfer but this was denied to him. The alternative would require some finesse. From what he’d seen of Megan Halley, she had this in spades.
“Admiral, we’re going to run an umbilical from Bluebird to Kiskedee.” Halley had heard, as he’d intended. She nodded to acknowledge his intentions.
Gentry looked puzzled. Star wasn’t sure if he’d understood. He was about to repeat it when Gentry said, “How is it that you’re here, Captain? Bluebird isn’t part of the home fleet contingent.”
“Providence, sir. Stand by.”

End of sample

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While I am a long-time Trek fan, this is not Trek fanfic.

All characters, settings and events in this series are original.

The Starship Captain stories are based on the webcomics of the same title.

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