Let's jump into the deep end with a chapter from The Ghosts of Tantor - the Cassidyverse novel which should be coming out in the spring of 2022!
This story deals with some serious subjects, and this is a fairly dark chapter.
During the last battle of the Artemis War, many ships and crews met their end.
They were the lucky ones.
Others had to deal with the aftermath.
TFS Pike, Officer’s Mess
Where does my duty lie? What price loyalty?
These were the questions Shi had asked herself for four years since the Roosa had been destroyed in the final battle of the War. They surfaced again as she sought a quiet corner of the mess to eat her meal.
An involuntary tremor shook through her and her tray rattled. She clamped down harder, trying to stop the shaking.
It had been worse. In the immediate aftermath, she’d been a functional zombie, answering question after question: medics, then doctors, then the people and AI’s trying to reconstruct the events of September 14, and she’d dealt with them all. She’d answered the questions, reliving the horror of the Roosa’s final moments over and over again, ingraining the images and smells and sounds in her memory so deeply…
She pushed them away, tried to force them back into a corner of her mind.
It never worked.
It didn’t work now.
“Roll ship, damn it!” Captain Gonzalez’s frantic cry echoed through the bridge. The Roosa had been hastily retrofitted with Starfleet’s standard defensive equipment: a molecular coating of CeeSea reflective armor and a pair of EM shield generators. There hadn’t been time, space, or frankly the will to do anything more. The Roosa was a small ship, primitive compared to the gleaming starships the Federation was producing, and wouldn’t be facing heavy combat.
And now that decision was costing them.
The starboard generator had already failed, overloaded by the fusillades of fire the Roosa had so far endured. Now Shi’s hands flew over her controls as she tried to interpose the still-functioning port shield between the ship and the incoming missile. It was only a Tycho missile, a purely kinetic-energy weapon. It would still tear a hole through them if it impacted.
The ship rotated, the underpowered and damaged maneuvering system struggling to respond to her commands, but they were moving.
“Captain!” shouted the XO and Tactical officer, Icy Ballentine. “The Anders!”
The Anders was another Gemini-class frigate with the same paltry weaponry as the Roosa. But the Anders hadn’t changed sides and still fought for the Union, not the Federation. He was less than five thousand kilometers off their port side, the side she’d just finished rotating the vulnerable starboard flank to face.
Knife-fighting range for space.
The first of the Anders’s Tycho missiles slammed into the unprotected hull, blasting a glowing crater rimmed with twisted metal fifteen meters across and ten deep into his side. Then the Anders’ laser fired into the hole created by the missile. Even though it was a now-paltry 400 kilowatts, it still easily chewed through the interior bulkheads.
Straight into the bridge.
Captain Gonzalez’s final order would never be issued. Shi turned as her words turned into a pained squawk, then a screech of agony, then silence as the laser continued through her separated body and into the far side of the compartment.
The lights flickered and died, then the gravity failed as well.
“We’re getting hammered; Shi, get us out of here!” ordered Ballentine, firing her last missile. “Full power to the engines!”
“I’m trying,” Shi answered, returning to her controls and blinking away the blurriness from her eyes. “Engines aren’t answering commands.”
“Weatherby, get a signal out to the Defender. We need assistance! Gods damn it!” Ballentine’s order ended in a curse. Shi checked her own sensor readings and paled. The Anders was still there, but a larger signal was approaching: a Copernicus-class cruiser. No 400 kW lasers on this monster. They mounted four six-megawatt lasers on their spines and twenty-one-megawatt lasers in each broadside battery, as well as up to forty nuclear-tipped Huygens missiles.
“Blessed Mother save us,” whispered Shi, still attempting to get a response from the engines. She didn’t know if the control runs were damaged or even if the engine room still existed. Shi tried the comms.
“What?” She didn’t recognize the rasping, coughing voice, but it didn’t matter. If they didn’t move, they were all dead.
“We need power.”
Cough. “Nothing’s come through.”
“The controls are damaged. What can you give me?”
Another cough. “Three g acceleration.”
Sixty percent was better than standing still.
“I’ll lock it in. This Shi?” They didn’t wait for her to confirm. “Send a damage control party when you can.”
“I’ll tell the XO,” Shi answered, then closed the channel. She input a course and hoped the promised power would appear.
“Lieutenant, Engineering requests damage control assistance.”
“I’ll add it to my list,” Ballentine said. She’d restored emergency lights, even if the gravity was still out.
“Answer from the Defender,” Weatherby said. “Five minutes; they’re engaged with a couple cruisers.”
“We don’t have five minutes!” The lights died again, and Ballentine cursed.
“We’re moving,” Shi reported, the indicator on her console alerting her and confirming the tug she felt through her seat. “Acceleration is building.”
“Throw in some jinks,” Ballentine ordered. “Unless we can outrun them.”
“We’re only going to get three gravities.” She started programming random jogs away from their base course, hoping to throw off the targeting solutions. They’d be slow, given the crippled systems, and it wouldn’t fool a missile, but lasers were light-speed weapons. Once they were fired, they were done. Didn’t matter if they missed by a centimeter or a kilometer.
“Anders in pursuit and closing,” Ballentine said, still in the habit of reporting tactical information even though she was now in command. “I’d kill for one more missile.”
Shi scanned her readouts. With Ballentine commanding, she was the de facto XO, and the damage reports were being directed to her. “Wouldn’t matter,” she said with bitterness she didn’t know she held. “The last hit took out the magazine and the missile tube. Four thousand kilometers.”
“We’re not going to get away showing them our tail. Shi, can you give me one shot?”
She considered. Turning would be tricky, but if she used the main engines and altered their output, she might speed up the process. If she had direct control again, that is.
“I’ll work on it,” she said, tapping. “Engineering, Hendrickson. have you tracked down the fault?”
A different voice answered. “Kettner here. Yeah, the bulkhead with the run is gone.”
“Damn. I need one complete revolution and then resume course.”
“Use the maneuvering system.”
“The one that’s shot to hell already? Sure.”
The lights returned again.
“Hold on.” There was silence, then the voice returned. “Okay, Williams has an idea; it’ll either work or kill us all, even odds. One revolution at one gravity, twelve seconds.”
“Best odds we’ve had in a while,” she muttered.
“Do it. Give me a ten-second count.”
“It’ll take a minute to program. Kettner out.”
Shi told Ballentine the plan, such as it was, and got a grunt in response. She turned to look behind and saw Icy, hunched over, intent on solving whatever problem she was coping with now.
“Icy?” She never used Ballentine’s name in public, never in any official capacity, and it didn’t feel natural. They’d been hiding their relationship for far too long for it to be anything but foreign, here, now. But if not now, when?
“What are you doing?”
“We’ll have one shot, so it’s got to count. I’m programming the capacitor to overload and discharge all the power in a single shot.”
“Won’t that burn out the mechanism?”
“Yes, but it will also deliver nearly two megawatts of power in the second we’ll be able to fire. It’s the only way I can figure out to disable the Anders with what we have.” Icy looked up and grinned, lopsided as always, corner of her mouth quirking and making the dimple Shi had loved from the beginning. “Either it works, or we blow off the front half of the ship. What the hell, right?”
Shi found herself nodding unwillingly.
“Hendrickson, ten seconds.”
“We ready, Ice?”
Ballentine tapped a couple more commands. “No time like the present.”
“Five, four, three, two, one, initiating.”
The Roosa started to spin with a lurch, the aft pivoting downward around a notional point at the bow. The still-surviving crew were pushed upward in the microgravity on the bridge and all over the ship. Some were restrained by their seats, but many smacked into the ceilings, including Weatherby. Her yelp of surprise turned into a scream of terror as her helmet shattered, shards driven into her face and neck. It was a race to see which would kill her first, the blood loss or the vacuum, but Shi couldn’t pay attention.
“Coming up on target,” Ballentine grunted. “Two, one, firing!”
The capacitor vomited its stored power through the stressed conduits. In a triumph of overengineering, they held for the half-second needed to pass 95% through to the laser. There the raw energy was converted into a beam five times more potent than the Roosa had even been designed to fire. The beam crashed into the Anders a hundredth of a second later, scoring from the top deck to the keel as the rotating Roosa passed by. Most of the laser’s power impacted the hull, melting plates and rupturing decking but doing minor damage; the time of impact was simply too short.
But for a fraction of a second, the beam aligned with the missile tube and penetrated the magazine.
There were still three Tycho missiles in the magazine, one loaded for firing. Though they lacked any sort of explosive warhead, they were still chemically propelled. Hypergolic chemicals, and thus wanted to react violently. The rupture the beam caused in the storage tanks was just enough to allow them to combine, uncontrolled. The first missile exploded, which triggered the second, and the third. The combined force of the explosion split the sides of the Anders, bulging them outward like a botulism-ridden can of soup and snapping the spine of the ship. The force was largely contained, fore and aft, by the reinforced bulkheads emplaced for just such an occurrence, but the ship was effectively dead.
Shi didn’t see any of this.
The conduits failed. When the connection to the laser was broken, the remaining energy backflowed into the rest of the Roosa’s systems. None of them were designed to take the voltage they were suddenly subjected to, and cascading failures swept back through the ship. Panels exploded, machinery melted, controls fused, electricity arced.
Shi’s console simply blew apart in front of her. Her skinsuit blunted the impacts of the plastic and metal shards even as it transmitted the force to her body. She grunted in pain before blacking out.
She groaned, recovering consciousness, and then opened her eyes.
Why am I so heavy? she wondered, then remembered. We should have stopped. Why haven’t we stopped?
She looked around. The lights were gone again, the only illumination from sparks and flickers from the ruined controls around the bridge. Through the hole in the bulkhead she could see the stars moving.
No, we’re moving, not the stars.
Carefully she undid the straps on her seat. It would be tricky, but there was a secondary control system on the aft bulkhead. If she could reach it, she might be able to do something about the spin. She knelt and grabbed the deck. She’d need to stay anchored, or she’d end up on the ceiling like…
She remembered Weatherby and glanced upward. She was still there, pinned by the centrifugal force. Mercifully Shi couldn’t see her face.
Shi crawled along the deck, heading aft, passing Gonzalez’s vacant chair, then reaching the Tactical station. Icy was there, still stooped over the controls, and Shi sighed in relief.
“Icy, can you hear me?” She didn’t know if the comms still worked but thought she’d try. When she didn’t respond, Shi switched to the implants they’d all received. They should still be working.
Icy? Panic started to reach its cold fingers around her heart.
Status of Lieutenant Icy Ballentine, she requested of the ship’s computer. It wasn’t an AI, so it had no intuitive capacity, but it would respond to simple requests.
Dread filling her, she changed direction. From the deck, Icy looked fine, but something was wrong. She knew it. She turned over, sat, and jammed her feet under the edge of Icy’s console to hold herself in position. Fighting the force trying to push her to the ceiling, she stood, fingers of one hand gripping the edge to hold her down, and reached out with the other.
She pressed against the suit. Still pressurized, still whole.
Her eyes made it to Ballentine’s head, and suddenly she knew what had happened.
The console. Icy’s hadn’t blown. No, it was worse. Hers had transmitted inconceivable energy through the circuits, into CeeSea woven in her skinsuit, and electrocuted her. Icy’s eyes bulged, pushed from their sockets by the contraction of the muscles surrounding them, and clouded completely. Her mouth stretched in a rictus grin, teeth bared. Her neck was distorted, tendons popping. Now Shi could see her clawlike hands dug into the surface of the console, contracting so violently as to embed themselves in the very device which killed her.
Shi never knew how she got back to her seat or why. She simply did. She sat there, alternately staring and weeping, until the Defender caught the Roosa for recovery efforts.
She was the only survivor.
She shuddered, the memory passing.
How long was she to hold loyalty to her dead? When was it enough?
She’d tried to move on. It hadn’t worked. She’d wanted to lose herself in her position, and she’d been promoted for her efforts. But it was no good. There was no satisfaction, no pride in her accomplishment. She felt, more and more, like an imposter, a fraud, a person out of place, and she’d finally broken down and taken the medical leave everyone had advised her to take. It hadn’t been constructive either, but the nightmares, at least, had receded.
She’d been debating whether to resign and return to Luna when she’d been summoned by Admiral Cassidy. She almost didn’t reply. It would be easy, for values of easy, to refuse the assignment. Luna was home. She was third-generation Loonie on one side of her family, fourth-generation on the other. Though not one of the Families, her name was still respected and influential in certain circles. She could go back and mark time, deal with her ghosts, and fade into obscurity.
She’d answered the summons.
Then Admiral Cassidy had told her it was time to start living again.
Shi wasn’t sure Cassidy was right, but she was on this path now.
Perhaps that was where her duty lay to her fallen crew. Perhaps Cassidy was right. If so, zombieing her way through the mission was no way to honor them.
She looked around again, this time not for an empty table but one with someone, anyone, she recognized.
On unsteady feet, she walked over.
Was this the right choice?
Stop overthinking, Shi, a ghostly voice said. It’s time.
She stopped, four faces looking up with varying expressions of curiosity.
“Hi,” she said. “Is this seat taken?”