It was a small ship. Petite, even, measured against the mighty bulk of her sisters in death.
Huge battleships, kilometers long, holding tens of thousands of souls as they lived and tried to hold back the tide that would eventually sweep Jupiter colony, Mars, and eventually Earth itself into the pages of history. Of thirty trillion men, women, and children, the barest tithe were evacuated. Here in the old homeworld’s moon’s highest orbit was the graveyard of the home fleet. The pride of mankind stood here, stood in the teeth of oblivion and died.
Died damned hard, hard enough to save that tithe, hard enough to allow the remnants to get away. To rearm, rebuild, and return to drive the invader out, and reclaim what once was theirs. The Battle of Ceres was merely days old, and scout ships had been dispatched to discover the fate of those they had left behind. The tiny ship amidst these giants was a puzzle, one Captian Everts was determined to solve.
“Boarding team approaching the target vessel, Captain.” The ensign could hardly be considered young. Young in service, perhaps, but her skill and tenacity had won her a commission in this young fleet. Everts was a product of that system himself, poached from the merchant service before the stardust was even off the refugee fleet’s boots.
“Let’s see what that have to say. Battered as she is, I’m surprised her hull isn’t cracked. I wonder-”
“Power reading!” Ensign Liu barked as automatics slammed shield generators to full power and thrusters rammed the ship on a random vector to avoid the threat-
That never materialized.
“It’s coming from the ship, sir. The little one. It’s… barely even reading. Hell, the boarding team are practically touching the hull.” Everts glanced at the plot, noting that ‘practically touching distance’ was on the order of just under a kilometer. Which in ship-to-ship combat it was. That close, and you were either docking, or ramming.
“Boarding team to Celerity.” The grizzled marine sergeant sounded bored. But then, he always did, even when the ship rang like a drum to incoming fire…
“Got a weak signal from the target. Cannot refine. Retransmitting.” Short, and to the point, as always. At a nod from the ensign, he confirmed receipt.
“We’re on it. Let’s see what they have to tell us, eh?” A few short moments later, the AI recognized the apparently ancient civilian coding and a strange feminine voice echoed through the bridge.
“This is Spitfire to any remaining Terran ships. Do not approach. Alien bioform onboard. Destroy this ship at safe distance. Do not approach under any-” Gunfire punctuated the recording. The sound of tortured metal screeching, followed by a clang and a thud, then silence that lasted for almost a minute. The recording did not stop there.
“To hell with this. This is Spitfire actual. I’ve set the reactor protocols to overload. We’re running dirty red over here. Turns out the bugs don’t like it any more than we do, but the nanite packages survive. I’d recommend dropping this hull in the sun if you can. To the best of my knowledge, none of the other wrecks are infected. Not unless they seeded them after they killed me, that is.
“Don’t have much time.” The voice was growing weaker. A cough rattled wetly in the speaker’s throat as she continued, “Destiny still has supplies if you’re scavving. I heard there were some cryopods seen drifting in the deep dark, back in the Oort cloud. Who the hell knows where they are by now. Courageous has some intact sensor logs, but I can’t read them. Damned military encryption.”
“If you’re human, good luck to you. Damn bugs are taking over all our real estate, but we’ll kick ’em in the teeth before long, you’ll see. Did what I could here.” Cough, rattle. “Don’t none of y’all give up now, y’hear? Humanity’ll be back. We look after our own.” The fading voice was a whisper now.
“Always thought I’d get to see that big, bright light as they blew me away. Heh. That’s irony for ya. Anyway. Last call. This is Captain Lisa Caro, Spitfire 851-FC. Signin’ off now.” And with a click, she was gone.
Captain Everts stroked his shaggy black beard and sighed. Just one story among many. No less poignant for that.
“Boarding team, break off. That ship’s contaminated. We’ll pick you up.” Two clicks was his only reply.
He looked down at his bridge console as if seeing it for the first time. Plot images danced in the tank. Technical readouts hovered, telling him the drives were healthy and fuel was nominal. Defensive weapons and shields were back on standby, as were the tiny throw-weight in missiles and cannon. A smooth running machine, crewed by the best there was in the fleet- at least he thought so. The best of the last.
“I want to know,” he said slowly, “what happened here. Every damned thing. Go active. If a mouse farted here in the last fifty years, I want to know what he ate for dinner. Get me a fix on when this happened, and we’ll take a hop outsystem to see what the old light has to tell us.” No one argued.
* * *
Scout commands were granted wide latitude on hunting missions like this one. Preliminary reports were already on the way, courtesy of compressed log notes via the tanglenet. Slow, for instantaneous values of slow- around 80 baud, much too slow for I voice, but sufficient for sending terse, preplanned codes. Receiving rate was much higher, as the sending units on large vessels were much more powerful. They could, technically, send real-time voice. But in practice, the system was almost always split between multiple outgoing data streams.
Admiral Garns wasn’t one to micromanage his people, though. Nor was Captain (Scouts) Rikardson- the very same man who, as a Lieutenant recruited Everts and a good many others.
“Boarding team reacquired, sir.”
“Very good. Tell the good sergeant we will likely be needing his men again soon. Have the Archives send us what they’ve got on a Terran ship ‘Courageous.’ Then let us see what sensors can tell us.” The ship shuddered as the boarding shuttle jacked back down into the hull, sealing with a heavy clank. From the outside it would appear no different from the rest of the angular hull, its plating just as thick on the forward and dorsal sides.
“Sensor batteries charged, sir. Ready to fire on your mark.” Active radiation, from old fashioned radar to gravimetric and quantum ghost sensing equipment, was the scouts’ bread and butter. But it was dangerous, at least in normal circumstances. A scout going active was ‘bright’ to passive sensors. Like those found on missile heads. Nothing in space was hidden, unless blocked by a planet or the like. But the deep black was huge, and unless you were looking in the right place at the right time, things were missed.
Active scanning flooded local space with multi-band radiation, lighting up anything and everything in range. It took time for sensors to refine the chaos of battle, time that might mean things slipped by. Again, little things- like missiles. But once that process was completely underway, and the powerful intelligent systems got to work paring down the noise, every whisker twitch would stand out like a candle in a dark room.
The basso shockwave that rattled the deck and accompanying lash of power did attract attention. This time, ensign Liu was already on the ball, twisting the ship away at the speed of thought. Evert’s eyes flicked to the plot as near real time data flowed in. Massive railguns were firing, deep in the debris field. Lasers stabbed out, igniting shattered hulls and sending them tumbling wildly.
Celerity danced through the firestorm, avoiding what she could. Liu was fully immersed in the scout ship, her trained muscle memory desperately twisting and spinning, but no amount of skill, no speed could save her from everything. Gigawatt lasers clawed at her shields as bits of scrap scraped her hull. Suddenly a massive, U-shaped block of blackened metal highlighted in her enhanced vision. She dove towards it without question.
In fleet level actions, a scout had but one ploy to survive once she pulsed her active sensors. Find something big and tough- and hide behind it. Broken frigates, shattered moons, nickel-iron asteroids, pretty much anything with the mass to stop a missile or railgun slug was preferred. Scout ships were not meant fight it out with anything. In most fleet actions, they were too tiny to matter much either way. But incoming fire did not discriminate. The scouts had but one other advantage- speed. Speed to get away, to duck, dodge, and avoid until they were, relatively, safe.
Sometimes, it even worked.
Note these are mini-chapters one and two. Three is in process. Also, for those who asked, Holm is in process as well. I’ll update once there’s enough to post, and a decent stopping point. For the story, that is.