The Darkest Heart, Part 22

Ensign Neskatrai Dradital wasn’t nervous anymore. In fact, she was too busy to be nervous. If she’d been able to think at all, she probably would have realized that she was terrified, but as it was, she was far too busy trying to keep the ship running while it fell apart around her to have any time to think at all.

“Shift auxiliary power to the number five coupling!” yelled her immediate superior, and she did it, without thinking. She was one with her console. There was no one in the universe but her, her console, and the voice yelling in her ear, telling her what to do.

So it came as a complete surprise to her when her aunt’s voice came across the ship’s communicator, ordering all hands to abandon ship.

“You heard the Admiral!” yelled Commander Moskoren immediately. “Non-essential personnel, get to your assigned escape pods, now! Senior staff, wait for my order. Let’s keep this tub afloat long enough for everyone to get off!”

Neska was too stunned to move for a moment, then a hand grabbed her by the collar and pulled her out of her seat.

“Are you deaf, Ensign?” screamed her superior officer, Lt. Hatalmor Longavei. “Get moving, now!” Lt. Longavei practically threw her toward the exit, and Neska just barely caught herself before she sprawled face-first on the deck. As soon as she regained her balance, she was running, along with a few dozen junior officers, headed for the escape pods nearest to engineering.

A few times on the way, the ship rocked so hard that Neska and a few others were thrown to the deck, but she immediately picked herself up and kept running. She was on autopilot now. Her training had taken over completely, and she wasn’t even thinking about what she was doing. Which was good, because if she’d stopped to think, she’d probably have been too paralyzed by terror to take another step.

Before she knew it, she was in her escape pod, and it was launching out into space. Looking through the small viewport in the pod’s side, she was able to get her first look at the state of the battle. Deep in the bowels of the cruiser, she hadn’t had any idea what was going on, until the call came to abandon ship. That alone told her that things were going badly, but now she could see for herself just how badly. The Imperial Fleet was badly outnumbered, and losing ground quickly. At first, she couldn’t understand what had happened, but then she saw something that made it all click into place: a second Starfortress. Suddenly, it all made sense. The Imperial Fleet had fallen into a trap. Neska felt like icy fingers were grasping her heart. She may have escaped from Decimator before it was destroyed, but her troubles were just beginning.

***

As the Imperial marines crept through the corridors of Heart of the Galaxy without encountering any resistance, Colonel Nerevor became more and more convinced that the Hadramorans had an ambush waiting for them somewhere. Either that, or there weren’t any soldiers on the ship, and the captain of the ship was unwilling to throw lives away defending her vessel, but that option seemed more like wishful thinking than anything. A man could hope, though.

After all of the narrow corridors that Nerevor and his troops had passed through, it was almost a shock to open a door and end up in a huge, open chamber. It looked like some sort of courtyard, with a second level high above that circled the entire room and had a railing all the way around. The second level was high enough and dark enough that Nerevor couldn’t make out what, if anything, was lurking up there. He was just thinking that it was a perfect place for an ambush when another door opened nearby and another squadron of his troops came out. This only deepened his suspicions, and they were confirmed when two more doors opened and the rest of his troops entered.

“Fall back!” he yelled, waving his arm in the direction they’d just come. “Find another route!” But no sooner had he said this then the doors slammed shut automatically.

“They’re sealed!” yelled a soldier who was still right next to the doors.

“Imperial soldiers!” boomed a voice that resounded throughout the vast chamber. “This is Admiral Chieria Peltoren, commander of the Republican Navy. You are trapped. In the level above you are 2000 Republican marines, all with their guns trained on you. If you fight, you will all die. If you lay down your guns and surrender unconditionally, you will live. You have two minutes to decide. After that, my troops will open fire.”

Colonel Nerevor looked around at his soldiers. They were all good men and women, highly trained, and ready to die for the Empire. They would not hesitate to fight, if he gave the order. But if he did give that order, they’d be dying for nothing. Even on the off-chance that the Hadramoran admiral was lying, whoever was up on the balcony still had a commanding field position. Even if there were less troops up there than under Nerevor’s command, they could still tear his soldiers apart. And from the way this ambush had been laid, Nerevor suspected that the Hadramorans had known full well that the Empire was coming, and had prepared accordingly. In other words, if he surrendered, the mission would be a failure, but he and all his troops would be alive. If he fought, the mission would still be a failure, and he and all his troops would be dead.

“All right!” he yelled suddenly. “I agree to your terms. We surrender unconditionally.” To emphasize his words, he laid his assault rifle on the ground, pulled his sidearm out of its holster, put it down next to the rifle, and held his hands up in the air. He nodded to the troops nearest him, encouraging them to do the same, and one by one, all 400 Imperial soldiers laid down their arms and held their hands up in the air.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 21

As big as Heart of the Galaxy was, Peltoren still felt a slight shudder as the Imperial cruiser slammed up against it. She grinned a feral grin as she thought about what was going to happen next. An alarm blared suddenly, and one of her officers called out, “Intruder alert! Boarders on decks 37 through 40!”

“All marines, prepare to repel boarders,” Peltoren ordered, and then she said to her communications officer, “Comm! Send a message to Iron Dragonfly: it’s time.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” came the response.

***

“The marines are reporting that they’re all on board,” said Decimator‘s communications officer.

“Good,” Zomulin said. “Get us back into the fight.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” replied Sahrinae.

The cruiser shuddered slightly as it disengaged from Heart of the Galaxy‘s hull, and then it turned toward the nearest enemy vessel and accelerated. Suddenly, the tactical officer called, “Admiral! New contacts! Hadramoran ships are dropping in behind our forces!” There was a pause, and then he turned slowly to look at Zomulin, his eyes wide. “And there’s another Starfortress with them!”

Zomulin froze for a moment, letting those words sink into her mind. “That’s impossible,” she finally said, her voice flat. Then she shook herself, and snarled, “It was a trap! And we fell for it, like idiots!” She thought for a moment, and then she shook her head. “We need to hold as long as we can. Keep the enemy ships away from Heart of the Galaxy, so they can’t land reinforcements.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Venrel said heavily.

***

Colonel Hobalgen Nerevor followed his troops through the breach made in the Starfortress’s hull, assault rifle at the ready, alert for any threats that might present themselves. It was quiet inside the Starfortress. Nobody in sight. Most likely they had an ambush planned somewhere, in a place that the Imperial marines would have to pass through to get to the bridge. Hopefully they didn’t have too many soldiers onboard. They wouldn’t, unless they expected an attack. It was expensive to carry around a bunch of people who probably wouldn’t be needed, because resources were at a premium on a starship. Although, maybe not as much on one this size.

Colonel Nerevor had 400 troops at his command, spread out evenly among the four decks they had landed on. They didn’t have plans of the interior of the Starfortress, so they needed to try and make their to the bridge without knowing exactly where it was. Split up into four groups, it would be more likely that one of them would be able to find it. Nerevor didn’t expect it to be too difficult to find. As big as the Starfortress was, there were only so many ways to lay out a ship, and only so many places the bridge could be.

Suddenly, Nerevor heard Admiral Zomulin’s voice through his in-ear communicator. “Colonel Nerevor, this is Decimator. Come in, Colonel!”

“Yes, Admiral,” he replied. “I read you.”

“Another Hadramoran fleet just dropped in behind us,” Zomulin said. “We’re going to hold them off as long as we can, but you will probably be on your own soon.”

“Understood, Admiral,” Nerevor replied. “We’ll find the bridge double-quick, and be back to Imperial territory before you know it.”

“Then I’ll see you soon, Colonel,” Zomulin said, and Nerevor could almost hear the tight grin on her face when she said it. “Decimator out.”

“We’ve got company, troops,” Nerevor said on the channel that would broadcast his voice to his soldiers. “Let’s find that bridge on the double, and bring this baby home!”

***

The look on Kryla Zomulin’s face was grim as she surveyed the situation displayed on the main screen. Her forces were badly outnumbered, and caught in a vise. She had arrayed her ships around Heart of the Galaxy, in order to keep the other Hadramoran ships from getting close and transferring reinforcements to it, but that meant they had enemy ships on both sides of them. Until her marines had control of the Starfortress, it was going to keep shooting at them, and so she was in the unenviable position of trying to defend a hostile target.

“Come about to heading 9921.7 and target the destroyer at 3245.8,” she ordered, and there was a slight vibration as the ship sped up and turned around. Then suddenly, the ship rocked violently as it was blasted by another round from Heart of the Galaxy.

“Admiral, our shields are down to 20 percent!” the damage control officer yelled.

“Dammit,” Zomulin growled. “We can’t take much more of this. We’re going to have to retreat.”

“Those marines won’t last long if the Hadramorans land more troops,” Venrel said grimly.

“They won’t last long if we get destroyed either!” Zomulin snapped. She opened her mouth to give the order to retreat, when suddenly there was another violent shudder as Decimator was blasted again.

“Admiral, we just lost subspace capability!” the damage control officer yelled.

“Get it back!” Zomulin yelled. “We’re not going to last much longer! We need to retreat!”

There was yet another blast from Heart of the Galaxy, and the damage control officer yelled again, “Shields are gone! Hull breach on deck 5!”

“Engineering, ETA on subspace!” demanded Zomulin.

“Best case scenario, it’s going to be at least half an hour,” came the response from Commander Moskoren.

“That’s not good enough, Commander,” Zomulin snapped.

“I understand that, Admiral, but the damage is just too extensive,” Moskoren replied. “Half an hour, and that’s if we don’t sustain any more damage between now and then.”

Zomulin was silent for a moment, and then she scowled. “All hands, abandon ship,” she ordered in a voice that sounded as if it had been dredged up from the bowels of Nerzaga. “Evacuation plan Zeta. All hands get to your assigned escape pods.” She turned off the all-ship communicator, and then looked at Commander Sahrinae. “Commander, set the auto-pilot for evasive maneuvers until all crew have evacuated, and then direct it to crash into the second Starfortress.”

“Understood, sir,” Sahrinae replied, her face as grim as Zomulin felt.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 20

Admiral Chieria Peltoren was sound asleep in her quarters on Heart of the Galaxy when an alarm blared and a voice yelled, “Admiral to the bridge! Admiral to the bridge!” She shot out of bed, practically leaped into her uniform, and strode to the bridge at a brisk walk. She would have ran, but it would have been undignified, and it would have instilled an unnecessary sense of panic in any crew members who saw her.

As soon as she arrived on the bridge, she barked, “Status update!”

“At least two dozen Imperial ships just dropped out of subspace, and are headed our way,” replied Captain Emain Lomor, Peltoren’s former XO who was now the captain of Heart of the Galaxy.

“They took the bait,” Peltoren breathed, grinning. “Time to put this plan into action. Advance to meet them, one-quarter speed.” She pressed a button on the command chair that would broadcast her voice to the entire ship. “All hands to battle stations. Prepare for incoming boarders.” Boarding parties were a quite uncommon occurrence in ship-to-ship battles, but this one was different. The Imperial Fleet wasn’t coming to conquer the planet that her ship was defending, they were coming to steal the ship itself. That certainly meant boarders, and those boarders had a nasty surprise waiting for them. An entire battalion of marines was defending the halls and vital operation centers of Heart of the Galaxy. Any Imperial soldiers who thought they could just waltz onto her ship and steal it for themselves would be deeply disappointed.

***

“Status report!” barked Kryla Zomulin as soon as Decimator dropped out of subspace.

“There are sixteen Hadramoran ships orbiting the planet,” announced the chief sensor officer. “Two battleships, four cruisers, nine destroyers…and one Starfortress,” he finished with a grin. Zomulin felt like grinning herself, but she kept her face still.

“All ships, engage the Starfortress’s escort and disperse them,” she ordered. “Navigation, close in to boarding range.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” Commander Sahrinae replied.

***

Peltoren gazed intently at the vast screen that filled the front of the bridge on Heart of the Galaxy. So far everything was going well. The fifteen ships that were escorting Heart of the Galaxy were engaging the Imperial ships, while Galaxy itself hung back, as if she was unwilling to risk it in combat. She wanted the Imperial commander to underestimate Galaxy, to think that she was trying to protect her ship at all costs. In other words, she wanted Galaxy to look like a tempting target.

Her fleet was outnumbered by the Imperials, but they were still holding their own. Most of the Imperial ships were focusing on the other ships in her fleet, but one Imperial cruiser was making a beeline straight for her.

“Tactical, concentrate fire on the cruiser at 7932.4,” she ordered. She expected that some boarding parties would make it on board, but she still wanted to make it as hard for them as possible. The battle plan called for goading the Imperial Fleet to commit itself, and then Iron Dragonfly would drop in with another dozen ships, trapping them in a vise, but if Heart of the Galaxy and its escort could deal with the Imperial Fleet all by itself, so much the better. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep the fact of Iron Dragonfly‘s fully operational status a secret for a little bit longer.

***

“Look at the size of that thing,” Sahrinae breathed, staring at the main screen in something approaching awe, as Heart of the Galaxy drew closer.

“Steady, Commander,” Zomulin ordered wryly.

“The Starfortress is opening fire!” yelled the tactical officer suddenly.

“Evasive pattern Onzina,” Zomulin ordered. “Return fire, but remember, we don’t want to hurt that ship too badly. We want to bring it home with us, not turn it into scrap.”

Commander Venrel gave her a wry look. “You think we can do much more than scratch the paint on that thing?” he asked.

“We’d better be able to do more, or this will be the shortest mission ever,” she replied grimly.

***

“Admiral, we just lost Pride of the North,” said a tactical officer.

“Acknowledged, Lieutenant,” Peltoren replied, keeping her face smooth. Pride of the North was a destroyer, one of the newest ones in the Republican fleet. Hopefully the wreck could be salvaged. Hopefully most of the crew made it off safely. But Chieria Peltoren couldn’t do anything about either of those things at the moment. Win the battle. Make their sacrifice count. That’s what she could do.

“Admiral, two cruisers, a battleship, and three destroyers have broken through our lines and are headed for us,” announced another tactical officer.

“I see them, Lieutenant,” she replied. “Have Lightning Storm and The Coming Judgment pull back and flank them. Then have Ebony Crystal, Sundering Hand, Blue Mountain, and Call of the Dawn move in and hit them from behind.”

“Admiral, that will leave our defensive line dangerously depleted,” replied the chief tactical officer, Commander Belanas Foltouren.

“I understand that, Commander,” Peltoren replied, “but we don’t want them to suspect we have reinforcements coming. It’s a desperate move, but we want them to think we’re desperate. We also want them to underestimate Heart of the Galaxy.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” Commander Foltouren replied.

***

“Damn, that monster packs a punch!” Venrel exclaimed as Decimator shuddered under the force of a blast from Heart of the Galaxy‘s guns.

“Just think about all the punching we’ll do once its ours,” Zomulin replied with a tight grin. “Comm, tell the ships behind us to spread out! Enemy ships are moving in to flank them.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” said the communications officer.

“Five seconds to docking range, Admiral,” announced the sensor officer.

“Good,” Zomulin said. “Remind the marines to book it as soon as we’ve cut through the Starfortress’s hull. We can’t stay docked for very long, because we’ll be a sitting duck.”

“Yes, sir,” came the response. Almost immediately, there was a deep clanging sound that rang through the ship, and all sensation of movement ceased.

“Colonel,” Zomulin said, pressing the button to communicate with the CO of the marines onboard, “it’s all up to you now.”

“I won’t let you down, Admiral,” the colonel replied.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 19

There was a long, cold silence in the room after that statement, as Admiral Zomulin and Emperor Valador just stared at each other. Meanwhile, Commander Venrel was fidgeting and looking around the room, as if he was desperately looking for an escape and knew that there wasn’t one to be found. Finally, Valador broke the silence.

“I should throw you out the airlock for your impertinence,” he said in a harsh voice. Zomulin just looked back at him impassively. He stared coldly at her for a moment more, and then finally he sighed and looked away. “But you’re right. Maybe I am being a foolish old man. So I will explain my reasoning for wanting to come, and I will leave the decision in your capable hands.” He looked at her again with a wry grin, but she just looked back at him, her facial expression unchanged. The Emperor’s grin faded slowly, and then he sighed again.

“Okay, here it is,” he said, “this mission might be the most vital mission the Empire has carried out in the past twenty years. Certainly it’s the most important mission of my career. If it fails, it could spell the end of the Empire, whether or not I survive. I want…no, I need to be here, to see this through. If we win today, we will be on a solid footing to recover our strength and weather the storm. If we lose, it won’t matter if I’m alive.”

“And what if we win, but you still die?” Zomulin asked grimly.

“Then whoever takes my place will be in a strong position to build on my legacy,” Valador replied with a smirk. Zomulin stared at him for a moment, a searching look in her eyes, and then she sighed heavily.

“I don’t know,” she said wearily. “It just seems so risky.”

“Please, Kryla,” Valador said in a pleading voice. “I need this.” Zomulin was so startled at his words and his tone that she just stared at him, wide-eyed, for a long time, and then, finally, she nodded her head. Valador exhaled slowly, and then grinned. “You know, there aren’t many people who could get away with what you’ve just done,” he said.

“To be honest, I thought you really would throw me out an airlock for a second,” Zomulin replied, the surprise slowly fading from her face. “I still think this is a terrible idea.”

“Maybe it is,” Valador said with a harsh laugh, “but I’m doing it anyway. And may the One have mercy on our souls.”

***

“Admiral on the bridge!” announced Commander Sahrinae loudly, standing up and moving out of the way as Zomulin and Venrel strode back onto Decimator‘s bridge.

“Man your station, Commander,” Zomulin replied, settling herself in the command chair that her navigation officer had just vacated. “Comm, send a message to all ships. Prepare to drop on my command.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” replied Lt. Otur. For a few minutes, everyone sat in silence, waiting, and then Otur turned to Zomulin. “All ships reporting in, sir. The fleet is ready to drop.”

“Send the signal to drop, Lieutenant,” Zomulin ordered. Otur nodded, and a few seconds later, Decimator shuddered slightly, and the view on the main screen shifted from black studded with stars to a kaleidoscopic swirl of every color imaginable. “Let’s do this,” Zomulin said in a soft voice, staring intently at the view of subspace outside her ship.

***

Deep in the bowels of Decimator, Ensign Neskatrai Dradital was sitting at her station in engineering, monitoring the energy output of the cruiser’s Nexus drive. It was an important job that took most of her concentration, which was good, because the small corner of her brain that was not engaged was utterly terrified. Despite having the best training the Empire could offer, there was no substitute for actual combat experience, and that was something that Neska was about to experience for the first time in her life. She kept stealing glances at the other people working in the ship’s vast engine room, and none of them seemed nervous at all. She wondered how they did it. Actually fighting in a battle was the most terrifying thing she could imagine.

Which was ironic, because she’d wanted to join the Imperial Fleet ever since she was a little girl. She was young enough that she couldn’t remember a time before the war started, so the idea of joining the military and doing her part to defend the Empire seemed natural. Plus, she’d grown up idolizing her aunt, one of the youngest starship captains in the Imperial Fleet, so it was almost a foregone conclusion that she would someday join up herself.

Her mother, Lucila, hadn’t wanted her to join the Fleet. Lucila and Kryla were sisters, and while they got along well, they were very different in temperament. Kryla was bold and confident, whereas her sister was quiet, reserved, even meek. And if Neska was going to be honest with herself, she was more like her mother than her aunt. Maybe even a lot more. But she wanted to be like her aunt. She wanted to be able to stand on the bridge of a starship while everything was falling apart around her and hold it together by the sheer force of willpower. She just didn’t know if she was ever going to be able to pull it off.

So here she was, sitting at a console in the engine room of a massive cruiser, so nervous she felt like she was probably going to pee her pants. She wondered how her aunt had felt on the eve of her first battle. She realized that she’d never asked her that before. The idea of her aunt being nervous was…difficult to imagine.

“Ensign,” said a male voice behind her suddenly. She jumped, and then blushed and turned to see who it was. The red on her cheeks deepened when she realized it was Lt. Commander Allavade Moskoren, the chief engineer on Decimator. “How are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m…I’m just fine,” Neska stammered.

“No you’re not,” Moskoren said with a knowing smile. “We’ve all been there. It’s okay. You’ll get through this. Trust me.”

“I…um…yes, sir,” Neska replied. Moskoren nodded, and moved on to the next station, while Neska turned back to her work. Oddly, she did feel a little bit better.

To be continued…