STARSHIP CAPTAIN: ENEMY WITHIN
THE DEMON WARS #3
by Derek Paterson
The words penetrated the fog that was slowly—too slowly!—lifting from Captain William Star's mind:
"Sir, I have no IFF signal for Charity. She is not on my scope."
The fog was the result of the jump that had taken Bluebird from Mars to the Moon. The semi-official term was discombobulation. Star shook off the dizziness and tried to focus.
The forward viewscope showed the arc of the lunar horizon. Bluebird lay seventy kilometers above Reiner Gamma, instantly recognizable by its distinctive splash pattern. His command chair's display showed Commander Valentin Tarkov and Lieutenant Brooks aboard Faith and Hope. The probe ships were approximately fifty kilometers ahead of and behind Bluebird. The quarter-screen that had shown Lieutenant Massey aboard Charity, the last of the new builds they'd launched from Mars Base One, was dark.
Star didn't request that Scanning Officer Maninder confirm his findings. Charity had jumped away from Mars first, preceding the other probe ships into the Warpstream by seconds. The blunt fact was that she just wasn't within range of their scanners.
Nor had Bluebird's scanners detected any OPFOR ships—yet. Reiner Gamma was located in Oceanus Procellarum, the so-called Ocean of Storms, on the Moon's near side. If the enemy was lurking off the Moon's far side, as he suspected, keeping the Moon between themselves and Earth until they launched their main attack, as Star expected them to, then they would not yet be aware of Bluebird's arrival. He hoped.
Star said to Tarkov and Brooks, "We seem to have lost contact with Charity. I am launching probes." On his command, four probes accelerated away from Bluebird, spreading upward and outward in a wide dispersal pattern. Their telemetry feeds enhanced his perception of surrounding space and the lunar surface below. He redirected Probe Number One sunward as soon as it cleared the Moon, remembering that OPFOR ships had previously hidden in the Sun's photosphere. He noted that Tarkov had also launched probes but was keeping them close to Faith at radius 50 kilometers, which gave him a defensive shield—these probes were carrying nukes. Brooks did likewise. The wealth of data from the growing swarm of probes was networked to Maninder's scope and from there to Star's display. A rapidly expanding three dimensional model built up in Bluebird's navigation tank, which displayed the Moon plus a surrounding 10,000 kilometer sphere. Bluebird, Faith and Hope were represented as three points of blue light. If Charity was lying just over the horizon, possibly powerless, then the probes should make contact with her any second. They hadn't picked up any radiation bursts that would suggest Charity had overshot and ended up in the middle of a parked OPFOR fleet, a single pigeon among hawks.
Another unwelcome possibility intruded into Star's thoughts. If Lieutenant Massey's jump calculations were out by the slightest fraction then it was possible Charity had made hard contact with the Moon upon emerging from the Warpstream. Star queued and launched a fifth probe, tasking it to scan the lunar surface—not only to look for signs of a fresh impact, but also to use its mass detectors to search for a foreign element buried beneath the surface.
"Contact," Maninder said. "Probe Number Three has returned a positive echo. Probe Number Two confirms." Star's expectation that they had located Charity was dashed by the scanning officer's next statement: "A second contact. And a third." Three white points of light appeared in the navigation tank. Maninder lifted his gaze from his scope for a moment to look at Star. "Zero IFF transmissions detected from any of them, sir."
"I am declaring the contacts hostile," Star said, broadcasting to Faith and Hope. The three white points of light turned pink, marking them as the enemy. "Engage and destroy."
Pilot Officer Megan Halley immediately took Bluebird away from the Moon and while doing so, lined up on the furthest enemy ship, range 6700 kilometers, leaving the nearer OPFORs for Faith and Hope to target at their discretion. She made it look ridiculously easy. He knew it was anything but. The instant Bluebird's X-Y axes centered on the OPFOR, every display on the bridge blacked out and the lights dimmed, confirmation that Bluebird's beam projectors had fired. When his display reactivated, he saw the probes had launched their ordnance—numerous missiles were streaking towards their distant targets, weaving random patterns to foil the aim of enemy gunners and interceptor missiles.
Faith and Hope opened fire together. Their beam projectors, by coincidence, targeted the same OPFOR. Scanners confirmed that the enemy ship had abruptly ceased to exist, utterly consumed by an explosion.
Analysis data streamed from the probes told him that the OPFOR Bluebird had fired upon was disintegrating, shedding material as it began a slow plunge towards the Lunar surface. The enemy ship had been tail-end towards Bluebird when the twin plasma beams caught it. The base section of the trident-like configuration Lieutenant Massey had described was gone. One of the prongs had broken away from the main body and was spinning outward, possibly escaping the Moon's gravity.
Halley was lining up on the third OPFOR, range 4400 kilometers. Bluebird fired her beam projectors as soon as the cross hairs aligned on the target. The displays blacked out and the lights dimmed again as main power was directed to the beam projectors. The three-second shutdown of ship's systems necessitated by this power shunt also protected them from the tremendous EMP burst generated by the discharging projectors. When the displays reactivated, Star linked to Faith and grabbed analysis data for the strike. The OPFOR ship was surrounded by a cloud of glowing plasma energy—but was still intact. The OPFOR's profile suggested it was nose-towards Bluebird. Unfortunate positioning; their beams had struck the OPFOR's meteor shield head on and splashed off—but Star noted that the shield had flared violet under the assault, suggesting it was close to overload.
"Commander Tarkov, Lieutenant Brooks, we must coordinate our firing solutions," he said. He painted the OPFOR ship. "Signal when ready to shoot, I will give countdown."
"Aye aye, sir."
Brooks looked fraught, as well he might. He'd had his ship, the Kiskadee, shot out from under him, and had only just been rescued in time. Now he was in command of a newly commissioned and untested ship with only a skeleton crew, forced to engage a superior enemy. To make matters worse, Faith's and Hope's power levels had plunged when they'd made the jump from Mars. Continually firing their beam projectors would soon exhaust their limited power supplies completely, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Star loathed that thought but he had no choice, this was battle and he had no reinforcements to call upon. He would commit his assets until the enemy was destroyed or until he was overwhelmed.
Halley, in the act of taking Bluebird through a series of evasive maneuvers, somehow continued to keep the OPFOR centered on the forward viewscope. Star's beam projector crew chiefs, Parsons and Kazimir, both signaled that they were ready to shoot. Brooks finally centered his X-Y axis on the OPFOR and achieved weapons lock. Star pressed his lips tight together to stop himself from cursing out loud as he waited for Tarkov, who had considerably less flight experience than Halley and Brooks, to center on the target.
The OPFOR opened fire first.
The enemy's ferociously powerful beams tore through the volume of space Bluebird had occupied a heartbeat before. But Halley's random maneuvers had fooled the OPFOR gunners, or more likely their automatic targeting system. Analysis suggested that if the beams hadn't missed, Bluebird's meteor shield would have overloaded instantly and the ship would now be an expanding cloud of radioactive gasses.
Tarkov acquired the OPFOR ship.
Faith and Hope fired together. Their beams targeted the OPFOR. The enemy's meteor shield blazed and Star thought it was going to hold—but then the shield flashed violet and overloaded. Bluebird fired then, blacking out the displays. Star silently cursed while waiting for them to reactivate. He noted Halley was still manually maneuvering using the directional thrusters, making sure Bluebird wasn't where the enemy might expect her to be.
"Sir, I have no contacts on my scope, besides Faith and Hope," Maninder said. The three pink points of light had vanished from the navigation tank. Star eagerly assessed the scan data delivered via the probes. Bluebird's strike had indeed overloaded the OPFOR's meteor shield. The enemy had attempted to maneuver, but too late: Bluebird's twin plasma beams had slashed through the material of its hull and initiated a titanic explosion. Nothing remained except a radiation cloud.
Two missiles came within range of the crippled OPFOR ship that was falling towards the Moon's surface, and detonated. One would have been enough. The OPFOR simply ceased to exist. The double nuclear blast rippled across the Moon and cast a cone of dust out into space.
The probes deactivated their missiles, since no targets remained. The missiles were allowed to drift rather than waste fuel returning to the probes or the ships that had launched them. They could be reactivated and re-tasked if and when necessary.
Star sat back in his chair, took a deep breath, and assessed the situation. In less than thirty seconds of combat they'd destroyed three OPFOR ships, for the loss of none of his own. He should be jumping for joy. Instead, the fact there had only been three enemy ships dampened his enthusiasm considerably. He'd expected to find a fleet, or at least a squadron. If the enemy intended to attack Earth, surely they couldn't hope to accomplish this with only three ships? Not unless these ships had carried some kind of super weapon capable of blitzing the orbital defenses and exposing Earth to open attack from space.
None of the probes had made contact with Charity yet. So he had actually lost a ship—though not to enemy fire. Massey, Seong, Cordeaux, plus two of Chadrow's engineers, Thompson and Kimberly, were aboard. Star was reluctant to presume them dead but that possibility weighed upon him.
"No further contacts on my scope, sir," Maninder said. Perhaps the scanning officer was thinking similar thoughts about Charity and her crew.
Star activated the ship-wide announcement system. He made sure Tarkov and Brooks were still linked and would hear. "Attention, this is the Captain. We have engaged and destroyed three enemy ships. Remain alert—but well done, everyone." He cut the link. He didn't want to say anything about Charity yet, not until he knew for sure.
Halley said, "Sir, begging your pardon, please be aware that thruster propellant tanks are at sixty percent."
"So noted. Continue avoidance maneuvers." Star wasn't willing to bet that other OPFOR assets weren't lurking out there and wouldn't welcome an easy drifting target.
"Aye aye, sir." He guessed Halley had expected his response, but she had been obliged to report the propellant fuel condition.
Chief Engineer Belle Chadrow's face appeared on his display. Star accepted the request. "Chief, how are things holding up?"
"As well as can be expected, Captain. Power levels are stable but that's not why I'm calling. The big black ball is behaving oddly."
Star opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again. Trying to guess was futile. Chadrow was probably about to tell him anyway.
"It's agitated. At first I thought it was irregular blips, but I've been watching it and there's a pattern."
"Chief, when you tell me the antimatter sphere that powers my ship is agitated, I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be just worried, or hysterical. Can you give me a hint?"
"I think it's reacting to something. Would it be possible to take Bluebird back to the emergence point?"
Star studied the navigation tank and the telemetry data that was still being sent by the network of probes. He could see no reason to deny Chadrow's request. No enemy assets were within detection range and the immediate danger had passed.
"As you wish, Chief. Pilot, please take the ship back to the emergence point."
"Aye aye, sir."
Halley turned Bluebird around and fixed on the volume of space where they had exited the Warpstream. Chadrow's attention was fixed on her instrument panel. Star didn't want to interrupt her to ask what was going on. He trusted she would tell him in good time.
"Status report every thirty seconds, Mr. Maninder, if you please."
"Aye aye, Captain. My scope is clear, with the exception of our assets. Probe Number One is still flying sunward. No contact reported as yet."
As yet. The scanning officer was also expecting more trouble than just three enemy ships.
"There it is again," Chadrow said, as Bluebird approached the emergence point. "Agitation is increasing. The big black ball is reacting to the presence of another power source. I think I know what it is."
End of sample
STARSHIP CAPTAIN: ENEMY WITHIN
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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Copyright © 2016 by the Author. All Rights Reserved.