The Admiral stood firm, staring straight ahead. The cold depths of space at which he gazed reflected the sullen tenseness of the bridge crew. The drone of active starship systems filled the bridge with a lonely hum.
A soft beeping from a console broke the near-silence. "Thirty seconds to reentry, Admiral." The captain spoke clearly, precisely -- no lesser discipline would be accepted on a military flagship -- but there was a quiet, withdrawn quality to his voice that would not have been present two weeks ago.
The Admiral nodded his understanding. He must appear unshaken, to project an aura of confidence to the crew, and he knew he was succeeding. His presence inspired his crew to fight harder than ever, when they felt they had nothing left to fight for -- because, in truth, they had everything to fight for. Today they would fight for their lives. Tomorrow, they would fight for their lives again. They would continue to fight for their lives, every day, until they had lost what they were fighting for.
It was their job to keep fighting until they died. It was the Admiral's job to postpone that day for as long as possible.
Inwardly, the Admiral was hurting. But he could not let that show; he could not abandon his life, his crew, his responsibility. They were all he had left.
When the console flashed 20:00 , the Admiral began shouting orders to his crew. They had all heard the orders dozens of times, and by now they were performing their duties almost before they were told what to do. "Prepare to emerge from hyperspace. Weapons, begin charging all systems. Engines, start warming the sublight drives. Communications, open a channel with the fleet and inform them to assume a cluster defense formation when they enter the system; open a second channel with the convoy and instruct them to position themselves between the fleet and the nearest star."
As the crew went about their routines, the Admiral watched the countdown in his peripheral vision. When it reached zero , the vessel exited hyperspace with a shudder. The Admiral now saw a bright blue sun ahead. There were no planets in this system; it was a newly formed star, with a large cloud of stellar dust surrounding it. Amongst the distant pinpoints of light, the Admiral could see a vivid Nebula of many colors.
"Navigation, find me a hyperspace route out of here." Acting on a whim, the Admiral added, "In the direction of that nebula." As navigation went about their task, the tactical display showed that the fleet was forming up around the flagship in a perfect cluster formation and the convoy was moving full-throttle towards the blue-white sun. The Admiral did not allow himself the luxury of hope.
Alarms began blaring as red points appeared rapidly on the tactical display. The crew continued with their previous actions, as though they had anticipated this. "Bring all primaries to bear on the enemy carrier." The Admiral spoke directly to his fleet this time. "All fighters, launch, repeat, launch all fighters." He paused as the visual display showed intense beams of blue light lancing out from the approaching enemy fleet. The plasma pounded into his shields, disappearing in a flash of energy as they absorbed the shock.
" All fighters, launch, repeat, launch all fighters. " The Admiral's voice crackled over Commander Blackwell's comm board. He switched to squadron frequency.
"Just got the order, boys; lets go vape some trigs." Blackwell heard a chorus of affirmatives, but none of the usual zeal that had once accompanied a fighter launch. He sighed, wondering when the shock and the grief would wear off.
" Red Squadron, you are clear for launch. " Commander Blackwell considered his squadron as they blasted out of the fighter bay. The fighter squadrons had taken enormous casualties in the past two weeks; the survivors had been redistributed to replenish the rosters of a few elite squadrons. Even after the integration, Red Squadron was a fighter short of its usual complement.
Turning towards the battle, Blackwell took stock of the situation: a swarm of opposing bombers was advancing against his squadron. "Red Squadron, break."
Blackwell slurred upward, narrowly avoiding a stream of laser fire. He dove, spinning as he went, and came up behind a bomber. Staring into its engine glow, Blackwell followed it through its turns, firing as he went. His energy weapons quickly ripped through the bomber's weak shields and began tearing away at its armor.
A bright blue flash lit up Commander Blackwell's cockpit, lightning dancing across his shields. The impact shoved his fighter to the side, bringing Blackwell's assailant -- another bomber -- within his sights.
Acting fast, Blackwell inverted and swerved to the side, watching a heavy missile fly over his head. Red Two was not so lucky: the missile plowed into his cockpit as he attempted to emulate Blackwell's maneuver, overloading the shields and disintegrating the fragile frame of the fighter.
Another friendly fighter flashed past Blackwell's cockpit, spraying fire across his field of vision. As his pursuers fell into line behind him, Blackwell turned his fighter around, using his inertia to keep him moving backwards while he fired upon the two bombers. His shots tore into the closer bomber's armor, finally breaking into the cockpit and leaving it dead in space.
The second bomber's powerful blue cannons bit into Blackwell's fighter, ripping away his shields. He turned slightly, intending to change direction and avoid further damage, but he had hardly started up the engines again when a bolt caught his port side. His engines sputtered and died even as the bomber burned up in the crossfire between the capital ships.
Caught between the warring sides, a similar fate almost certainly awaited Commander Blackwell. Many of his systems were now as dead as his adversary.
Resigned to his destiny, Commander Blackwell closed his eyes and prayed. The dark, menacing behemoths that loomed ahead in his cockpit sent a chill up his spine.
But they were nothing to the monstrosities that had shattered his world.
Shaking away painful mental images of inconceivably massive shadows in the void, Blackwell relaxed his mind; the deafening sounds of the heated battle just outside his ship were replaced with a peaceful silence. In what he knew would be the last moments of his life, Blackwell turned his thoughts to his wife and son.
I'll be with them again soon.
Comforted by this notion, Blackwell didn't see the missile rapidly approaching his cockpit. There were no proximity alarms, despite the fact that collision was imminent.
He never even realized he was dead.
"Acquire a targeting lock on their frigate," the Admiral commanded, indicating the vessel closest to the enemy flagship.
"Lock acquired," weapons informed him a few moments later.
"Transmit targeting data to the fleet and give them a salvo." The Admiral watched as half a dozen missiles streaked away from his fleet and met the opposing frigate. The first two explosions vanished into its shields, but the subsequent four crashed, one after the other, directly into its hull. Some fighters, taking advantage of the opportunity, went in closer for strafing runs before pulling away under heavy fire.
Though the enemy flagship's shields had long since fallen, the heavy armor was taking its beating in stride. "Incoming missiles!" sensor station shouted over the blare of alarms.
"All ships, scatter," the Admiral commanded stiffly. As his fleet broke formation, most of the enemy missiles passed harmlessly by, but a few connected, with terrible results. Screams from fighter pilots and fearful shouts of "Shields down!" and "Hull breached!" came tumbling out of the comm.
The Admiral gritted his teeth. The enemy frigate, under heavy fire, turned and began limping away from the battle. The Admiral turned to his navigation officer. "Lieutenant," he snapped, "we need those coordinates."
"I'm sorry, Admiral, we're still getting heavy interference from an unknown source, in addition to the interference from that nebula. It shouldn't be much--" The nav console beeped. The Lieutenant glanced at it, then turned back to the Admiral, grinning. "We have them, sir."
"Recall all fighters; we're getting out of here," he spoke into the comm. To his bridge crew, he added, "Transmit that jump data to the fleet and the convoy. Direct signal." As his crew went about their tasks, the Admiral watched the battle on his displays. The convoy was retreating beyond the gravity well of the star, his fighters returning to their destroyers. "Engage hyperspace drives on my mark."
The Admiral watched with bated breath as the pursuing fleet peppered his task force with energy weapons and heavy missiles. A beep from the nav console indicated a secure hyperspace route. " Mark! "
The Admiral saw his convoy disappear, saw his fleet vanish. His flagship lurched as it was pummeled by a final salvo of heavy missiles. The shields failed; the hull of his vessel was taking a pounding. It bucked a last time as it accelerated forward at faster-than-light speeds into hyperspace. Then all was dark.
Is this death? The Admiral wondered idly. He hoped his death would be so quick, so simple.
And he hoped it would be soon.
On the far side of the young blue star, unseen by either fleet, drifted a minute black speck of matter in the vast Universe. This was an observation probe, launched many years ago by a nearby space-age civilization.
The probe recorded information of strictly scientific nature -- energy signatures, star and planet composition, and so forth. It was present when two massive fleets hyperjumped into the system. It was present during the ensuing battle, as waves upon waves of plasma were exchanged between them. It was present when the first fleet vanished into hyperspace, and when the second fleet vanished similarly, just minutes later.
The probe drifted on, oblivious to the significance of what it had just witnessed.
This post has been edited by Starbridge21 : 10 May 2008 - 10:24 PM