Gridspace passed them in hues of red and rust. Captain Nalia Sargire checked her chronometer. Their wait for Colonel Miyashiro’s rendezvous had been longer than anticipated. She adjusted her silver captain’s star; her promotion was one of Atranas’ first two actions as admiral. The other action designated the Yasothon as Third Fleet’s command and control ship. Nalia was fine with that. She preferred to stay back and not stare down the barrel of a railgun. Yet being the most important ship in the fleet made it a prime target. She knew that once they engaged the enemy, all eyes would be gunning for her.
Reports from Carnarvon Station were sketchy and sporadic. The one distress signal that got through told of numerous contacts bearing down upon the installation. The battle must have already begun. Nalia replayed the strategy for the upcoming engagement. The joint fleets would relieve the beleaguered station and hold the enemy until Admiral Vendrian’s fleet linked up with them. She grew nervous. The planned route that First Fleet forwarded them went through one of the gigantic electromagnetic storms that littered the Ramanujan Expanse. The interference from the storm would mask their arrival in-system and allow them to surprise the Kenzenken fleet. But since the storm blocked fleet signatures to friend and foe, they did not know the time of their arrival.
“ETA, thirty seconds,” reported the navigator. Nalia checked the status of the ship. The display indicated all systems active. She pictured the admiral in her special tactical room, complete with its own crew of officers and analysts. Nalia did not envy Atranas’s job. She had enough on her own plate in keeping the ship intact. A disturbance in gridspace caused the ship to shudder slightly. She sat up straight in the captain’s chair as she surveyed the tactical holo. They entered realspace.
Third Fleet materialized in a binary star system with the planet known as Danube orbiting nearby their point of entry. She saw that Carnarvon Station was under attack. The holo filled with hostile configurations and detected shockwaves from multiple weapon impacts. The computer reported massive structural damage and failing subsystems all over the station. It was not going to last much longer. However, the enemy fleet, noticing the arrival of reinforcements, abandoned their attack on the station and turned about to face them. Nalia focused a rigid stare at the thousands of angry icons moving swarming to their position. Peace seemed so far away. Not for the first time would these two civilizations clash against each other with light and shrapnel.
The admiral’s voice echoed across the general comms channels. “Rebel Fleet. This is Admiral Rachel Atranas of the Third Fleet. You have violated the Neutral Zone and invaded Republic territory. You have opened fire without warning on our people. Under Article 5 of the Beta Epsilon Security Act, we are authorized to use force. Surrender, or be destroyed.” There was no response. A message on the tactical holo indicated that Admiral Atranas had given the go-ahead signal.
“Red alert. Prepare for battle stations!” Nalia ordered. Alarm klaxons wailed. Multiple destroyers, cruisers, dreadnaughts, and light attack craft headed in their direction. High yield torpedo alerts lighted up weapon detection systems. Streams of drones and Hawking ships flew from launch bays throughout the fleet. The new captain ordered the Yasothon’s gravity shield to extend as far as possible. Just in time as torpedoes reached their position. Their point defense lasers caught most of them, but a nearby corvette exploded as the warheads overwhelmed its defenses.
The small craft prepared to engage each other in their deadly dance. Before any weapon fired, half of the Thunderbirds broke off engagement and burned towards the center of Third Fleet’s formation. “Captain, incoming hostiles!” reported one of the crew. The Yasothon fired its full array of omnidirectional particle beams. Before the Kenzenkens could react, many of their approaching ships crumpled under a barrage of ion-pumped light as their hulls became molten metal. Even in this barrage of death, they kept coming. Five small grey ships penetrated the defensive screen and tore into the shields of the vulnerable ships behind the Yasothon with bursts of railgun and missile fire. A destroyer gone. Two corvettes. Yet, the attackers did not emerge unscathed. A flight of drones caught them on their escape trajectories and destroyed them with a bank of missiles. “Overcharge the capacitors and return fire,” she commanded.
Bright railgun bolts penetrated a cruiser near them. It exploded in a burst of blue light and wreckage as its weapon magazines detonated. A hypervelocity missile exploded off the Yasothon’s shield. The tactical holo chimed, catching Nalia’s attention. Vast numbers of capital ships approached and accelerated past the maximum engagement range. They did not slow down. Nalia could see what they were doing. They would come close and use their superior numbers to overwhelm the Republics beam weaponry. It was a risky choice, sure to cause heavy damage to both sides.
Before she could order another command, a barrage of railgun fire caught the enemy fleet in the flank. Colonel Miyashiro had maneuvered his fleet while the Republic forces kept the rebels busy. His Thunderbirds passed through their formations, their ordnance firing every second.
While they inflicted heavy damage, the vast numbers of enemy ships appeared undeterred in their assault. Admiral Atranas ordered a tactical retreat. One of the overcharged Yasothon’s beams caught an unshielded enemy destroyer. It lost control and its hulk blew apart in ignited metal chunks. The feedback from the overcharge caused a temporary power stall. The Yasothon’s shield blinked out for a moment; it was enough time for a torpedo to rip a hole in a ventral side deck before the PD could react. A bright flash engulfed the ship. The tactical holo blinked on and off. Unimaginable yields of energy reverberated throughout the decks. Crew who weren’t vaporized were sucked out of the ship as vacuum filled the hole left by the explosion. Nalia ordered force fields activated around the hole as power restored throughout the ship.
The space around them filled with PDC shells, laser light, and anti-missile missiles as they struggled to ward off the torpedo attack. Warheads detonated prematurely in a firestorm. The ships closest to them shuddered from the shockwaves. Nalia ordered all weapons to target a dreadnaught above them as it pummeled their support ships. Hawking ships and drones swarmed it, targeting turrets and point defense cannons. Once they disabled its defense weapons, the Yasothon’s particle beams and missiles proceeded unmolested to its innards. Streams of fire poured from its wounds as the ship fell silent. Then as if to end its suffering, a fully charged particle beam split it in half. Third Fleet continued its retreat.
A shudder spread throughout the ship as a railgun bolt impacted the hull. Too many, she thought, they weren’t fast enough to escape enemy fire. Colonel Miyashiro’s fleet was also tied down and Fifth Fleet still had not arrived. The power levels of the Yasothon dangerously entered blackout territory. Nalia wondered if there would be enough time to say goodbye to the crew.
“Fleet emerging from gridspace!” shouted the tactical officer. Nalia sighed in relief. A burst of blue dots appeared on her screen. “Republic configurations!”
Admiral Vendrian finally arrived. “Kenzenken fleet. This is Admiral Yuri Vendrian of the Earth Republic First Fleet,” his weathered voice announced over the comms. “You are surrounded. Lay down your arms.” The enemy fleet immediately decelerated in its pursuit. Nalia watched as the tactical holo displayed cessation of weapons fire. She looked around. Most of the bridge crew was alive. Some lay on the ground as medical personnel rushed to them. A few consoles had exploded from the power overcharges.
A garbled transmission over general transmissions broke through the brief calm. A scarred man with blood flowing over his right eye appeared on the viewscreen. “This is Warlord Batu. We have faced the might of our foe and lost. We surrender.” Silence filled the bridge. A great weariness overcame Nalia. She had completed her first mission as captain. A true trial by fire indeed. “Deactivate red alert,” she said. The ship quieted down. She checked the status of the station. It still stood.
She emerged from the shuttle to walk the halls of Carnarvon Station. Evidence of the previous battle was everywhere. Inside, twisted metal ruins suffocated the hangars. Hawking ships with more holes than hulls landed gingerly in the few open spaces left. Masses of repair crew directed robots to cauterize damaged electronic equipment. They wrecked it, but it still lived. As she passed a damaged Hawking, she saw a familiar face. Her heart skipped a beat.
Alan conversed with work crew. She saw him point to damaged areas on his ship. He waved his hands over blackened scorch marks on his engine. As they went to work, he wiped his brow. He looked to his side and saw Nalia. A look of recognition flashed on his face. They both paused. Nalia heard her chronometer beep. For a long moment, she wondered whether a new battle would erupt in the station. Then, he smiled. She returned it and ran towards him. Her boots echoed on the hangar floor. When she reached him, they hugged in a tight embrace. She saw tears form on his face as he shut his eyes tight. “It’s good to see you again,” he whispered.
A few minutes later, they found themselves in the station canteen. Around them, crew from the three allied fleets filled the seating space. The victorious sides forbade any rebels except for the leaders from setting foot on the station. They would be there to partake in surrender negotiations, which would take a few hours. Both Republic and Kenzenken soldiers sat in separate booths and eyed each other with some suspicion. No boisterous celebrations erupted. Nalia studied Alan. He looked as if he had not slept in months. There was also the pale face, the gaunt form, and the blood-red eyes. “You look like shit,” she said.
He chuckled. “Do I? I’ve been too afraid to look in the mirror.” He smoothed his hair back. “How long has it been?”
“Too long,” she answered.
“Hey,” his hand reached over to hers, “I’m really sorry about last time. I should have controlled myself better.”
“It’s alright. I didn’t understand back then.” Nalia felt her muscles relax from the long years of pent-up tension. She had forgotten what it felt liked. She should have reached out to him sooner.
They sat still for a while. The quiet chatter of the bar filled the silence. She watched a nearby video screen that had recorded Warlord Batu’s arrival hours before. It showed him arriving on a shuttle with his heavily armed guard. The cameras focused on the Republic crew and soldiers that greeted him with grimaces or stiff lips. That entrance would not help with the tensions. He demanded this stipulation, and to the Republicans’ consternation, the allied Kenzenkens agreed. The man certainly did not lack confidence. Alan stared at her captain’s star.
“I see you’re moving up in the universe.”
“Only just recently. Mainly from just playing nice with the Zenks,” she replied.
“That ship you have is a real monster. I wonder how they feel when the Republic uses it for negotiations.”
“They actually really appreciate it. Shows that we honor strength.”
“Ah,” he took a sip of his drink, “I’ve never really talked to a Zenk. We mainly communicated by shooting missiles at each other.”
“Things have really changed the past couple months. We might be entering a new era here. Well… aside from the recent mess that is.” She took a swig of her own drink. “From enemies to friends in the blink of an eye. Crazy. Of course, it’s mostly political bullshit, but it’s political bullshit that keeps nukes from flying.”
Alan looked down at the table. “Unless people like me fuck it up.” He held up his hand before she could protest. “It was a stupid decision, and I’ll live with it for the rest of my life.” Nalia then detected a slight change in his voice. He looked up then and his eyes bore straight into hers. “There’s something I need to tell you. Something that’s so crazy even I don’t believe it.”
Nalia felt his nervous energy. She held her breath. “What is it?” she asked.
“Mihaela… Michael was there. He was the pilot of that refugee ship. I didn’t believe it at first, but I couldn’t think up any reason why anyone would want to impersonate him. If it was really him… I killed all those people… and…” his voice trailed off.
“Michael? That can’t be! He disappeared in combat. Besides, he was always one about the preserving the ideals of the Republic. No way would he join the Zenks.” Nalia shook her head. “Are you sure?”
Alan’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m positive.”
“Then why hasn’t this come out? This would be huge news!”
He paused. “No one believed me when I told them and there was no way I was talking to the media. I wasn’t allowed to look at the evidence. The official reports didn’t even include his name. No one bothered to tell me anything. There’s something going on here. I’ve stayed quiet… because I’m afraid.”
“I believe you, Alan.” Nalia was surprised at her words. Every route of logic told her that there had to be an alternate explanation. “We need to get this info to the right people. I think something’s happening, too. It’s something that itches at the back of my mind.”
“How, though? We don’t have anything.”
“I’ll think of something. We’ll need to talk to the admiral. She’ll know what to do.” She reached forward to grab his shoulder.
A loud explosion rocked the station. Nalia’s vision grew purple as the lights blinked off.