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Rated: 18+ · Campfire Creative · Chapter · Sci-fi · #2129934
One ship, one crew, one mission. Can they succeed and save what remains?
[Introduction] The Story So Far...

Humanity has expanded from Earth to the stars, settling dozens of systems and hundreds of worlds. The expansion was not free; aided by their Parthian allies, the cost was paid with blood and sacrifice. In 2212 alien vessels invaded humanity's cradle of Sol; not to conquer but to pillage, loot and enslave. These terrifying and inscrutable aliens would eventually come to be known as the Rahlians, fierce lizard-like aliens whose prowess in combat were unmatched.

For 70 years humanity endured raid after raid while secretly building their forces and looking for help, a sympathetic race in a seemingly uncaring galaxy. Then in 2282 First Contact is made with a race of technologically advanced aliens who call themselves the Parthians, they too had been attacked by the powerful Rahlians for generations.

An alliance was formed between the two nations and cemented with the Articles of Federation, a simultaneous declaration of sovereignty, act of union, and declaration of war against the Unified Collective of Rahl. For eight long years the war raged across all of Federation space; while the Rahlians would stop at nothing to ensure their lucrative slave markets and resource rich systems remained under their control, in the end the Sovereign Systems Federation would achieve independence.

This independence was won not through force of arms alone (the UCR would have certainly triumphed over the SSF in that case) but through eventual action by the galactic community once it was clear that the UCR could not simply subdue the rebellious systems. For the Rahlians it was a slap in the face and a stain on the entire Collective's honour that such pathetic races could defy their authority but for the Federation it was a stunning realization of just how small and isolated they were in the grand scheme of the galaxy.

When the first of the great galactic races stumbled out into the galaxy, they did not have faster than light engines. Instead they discovered seemingly naturally occurring 'corridors' that allowed them to explore the length and breadth of the Milky Way in a few short years. Theories arose on everything about the corridors from who made them, to why, to how they worked...as they did in the Federation when the truth was realized.

Ultimately though the theories were moot, all of the space encompassed by the Federation was devoid of the corridors. This conspicuous absence meant that the Federation was isolated economically, geographically and symbolically from the greater galaxy.

In November of 2453 communications with the rest of the galaxy abruptly terminated, as did the meagre amount of traffic the Federation received. Convinced it was the prelude to an attack by the Collective, the authorities begin to prepare. The border system of Cerrano was the closest point of Federation space to the wider galaxy and was prepared accordingly with a massive military build up.

At this time the existence of an ongoing initiative was revealed to the highest authorities in the Federation, the effort to develop stealth technology for use in naval operations...Project: Olympus. All personnel and the project's sole prototype heavy frigate the SSV Wrath of Mars were immediately reassigned to the Cerrano system, the ship was to be outfitted with the Federation's most advanced Faster Than Light drive and deployed to find out what was happening.

Delays made sure that the Mars was in dry dock right up until August of 2454 when an attack on the system did come...from the Rahlians. Lieutenant Commander Alexander Acano, X.O. of the Mars immediately deployed to face the attack and though successful, the Mars was damaged and forced to jump away from the battle blind. With the ship's systems badly damaged and not enough supplies to last the crew until they could make it to an inhabited world, Acano made the difficult decision to put everyone into stasis, power down all but the most crucial of systems and wait for rescue.

Acano would awaken to a changed galaxy...a dark ages the like of which hasn't been seen for thousands of years. Now with an eclectic crew and his sentient warship; this hero from another age must bring back civilization and reforge the shattered remnants of his beloved Federation.

Characters:

Lieutenant Commander Acano:

Ares:

Saelis:

T'hali Sa'at:

SSV Wrath of Mars

To be added.

Systems of Importance

Sol System:

Ral System:

Cerrano System:
August 2, 2454

The crash of water against the shower echoes out into the darkened quarters while steam rolls out of the bathroom like a fog. The shape of a man can be made out; a silhouette behind the clouded glass of his shower stall.

A harsh white glow from his personal terminal bathes the quarters in light, and the chime of an incoming communication cuts through the crash of water. With a harsh screech the water abruptly ceases, and the man steps onto the bathroom floor with a splat.

A grey square is taken from the chair and unfurled, the man using the formerly folded towel to wipe the water from his body. He is Alexander Acano; commander in the Sovereign Systems Navy, officer of the Federation, and executive officer of the SSV Wrath of Mars.

The chime sounds through the quarters again; Commander Acano finishes drying his body and moves towards the terminal, the towel still passing back and forth over the wet stubble of his hair.

He sits heavily in his chair and checks the sender of the message; satisfied it’s the only person he wants to talk to at this hour he accepts the communication, and an image fills the screen.

“Hey Mel,” he smiles, his voice soft and subdued with fatigue.

On the other end of the line, Melissa Luzi winces in sympathy. “Sorry babe, I forgot what time it was up there.”

For her it’s late morning, her customary call uncharacteristically late due to a meeting of the senior partners at the firm she works for.

“It’s fine,” Alexander gives a wan smile as he finishes toweling off. “Just finished my shower before bed.”

“Lucky duck,” she teases. “I already feel like I could use another shower with the heat we’re getting down here! How’s it going up there?”

“Good. It’s going good,” Alexander scrubs his face with a hand. “Captain’s got us working double and triple shifts to get the final systems online, but if all goes well we should be ready for combat trials and a full crew complement by the end of next week.”

“That’s great news,” Juliana’s enthusiasm infects Alexander with a little smile of his own. “I know down here we’re just about ready to take on six new clients, four of which have pending litigation.”

“Sounds like you’re getting pushed harder than we are.” Alexander’s voice attempts to give all evidence to the contrary.

“Don’t you forget it mister!”

“No ma’am,” Alexander’s smile disappears as he checks the time. “Mel I’ve gotta hit the sack, it’s already 2352 here and reveille’s 0430.”

“Ok, talk to you tomorrow?”

“A little earlier please?”

“Earlier, yes definitely earlier!”

“I love you.”

“Love you too.”

Alexander’s screen fades to darkness as he powers it off, and a heavy sigh whistles past his lips as he stands. The bed groans as he flops into it, asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.

There will not be another conversation tomorrow…that rushed conversation eight minutes to midnight is the last one they will have, though neither fiancé nor fiancée knows it.


***

The Cerrano system never sleeps…this is not a proud boast or a regional motto, but a fact known and accepted throughout the Federation. Cargo ships of the Exchange Authority, construction vessels under Colonial Affairs, and Federation Naval ships of the line all create a continuous flood of traffic into and out of the system.

One of the many hundreds of ships, the Journeyman’s Pride has just translated to real space on the far side of the navy picket that secures the system. On a course from Mars to Cerrano Primus, the Pride carries the materials necessary to construct and initialize a stable fusion reactor; just one of the dozens needed to fuel the relentless construction and settlement on the world’s surface.

Stephen Miller, the Pride’s captain, knows how much his cargo is worth both to investors back home and to the colonists on the surface; he also knows the security procedures he must follow if the Pride is to gain entrance to the system…with painstaking familiarity.

”Federation Exchange Vessel CT-3062//JP, this is the Federation Patrol Cutter Castile de Sangro, disengage your engines and prepare to transmit your course, manifest and transit papers.”

Captain Miller narrows his eyes at the unfamiliar name, but then there’s a lot he is unfamiliar with when it came to naval naming conventions. He has no way to know that small patrol vessels are named after towns and villages throughout the Federation, this one in particular comes from a town in what was once Italy on Earth.

“Transmitting Sangro,” Miller replies as he dutifully inserts the requested documents into the carrier signal. “Please stand by.”

The voice on the other end of the line sounds bored and annoyed; Miller has no desire to entertain him as the subject of a surprise inspection, so he keeps his responses absolutely professional and limits the small talk he might otherwise engage in with the other sentries…his already tight schedule can’t handle that kind of disruption.

”Journeyman’s Pride, be advised that while your credentials and cargo do appear to be in order, your ship has been selected for a random security search.” Miller slams his hand on the console and swears under his breath. ”Continue to disengage your engines and prepare to receive our inspection team; failure to comply with these or any commands issued by myself or the team leader is punishable by vessel impoundment, cargo seizure, fines and potentially prison time. “

Discovered only fifty standard years before in 2404 by deep space explorer Valerius Cerrano, the system holds the distinction of being both the furthest from Sol, and the most prosperous in the Human Sphere. Its abundant natural resources and unprecedented number of habitable worlds (four) make it ideal for colonization, while its distance from Sol makes it attractive for commercial interests.


It also makes it a tempting target for pirates, criminals and hostile aliens; it is the last of these threats that warrant the intense security and scrutiny heaped upon incoming vessels. None of these thoughts are on Captain Miller’s mind as he activates his comm; only his “on time” bonus rapidly slipping away.

“Acknowledged Sangro,” Miller replies with a resigned sigh. “Standing by for inspection.”

***

While the Journeyman’s Pride undergoes inspection, the rest of the Cerrano system goes about its duties. Ore haulers prepare to break orbit over the honeycombed surface of Cerrano Quintus, their holds packed with mineral resources bound for the distant factories of Sol.

Passenger liners cruise the void between Cerrano Primus and Secundus, the light from the system’s star reflects off their stately hulls in glints and rays. The liners are filled with tourists, workers, executives and even soldiers on leave.

Naval Station Cerrano sits in orbit over Cerrano Tertius; where the hulls of the passenger liners reflect the light back into the void, the station’s black hull does its best to swallow them whole…the effect gives it a menacing and foreboding appearance. Only naval warships and cleared civilian vessels pass into and out of the controlled space around the installation, a state ensured by the constant and aggressive patrols.

On the surface below structures dot the continents: barracks, armories, motor pools, hangers and vast training areas. Cerrano Tertius acts as a forward staging area for some seven hundred and fifty thousand soldiers, sailors and airmen and the facilities are built to accommodate such numbers. In addition to Naval Station Cerrano, there are no less than four separate space docks in orbit, each capable of berthing two-dozen ships or constructing the same amount.

If the Cerrano system were to be compared to a great kingdom, then at its heart would surely lie a mighty dragon. Unlike the beasts of myth, this behemoth has no hide or scales but titanium hull and ablative armor; it’s teeth are massive ‘shipbreaker’ gun batteries and fat torpedo tubes; instead of pillaging and killing its duty is to serve and protect those under its charge.

It is the Hyperion, a Titan-class dreadnaught and one of the largest ships ever assembled by human hands. Coming in at a little under three kilometers in length and a little over one in width (including the dorsal and ventral launch bays); it has a crew complement of close to two thousand sailors, marines and flight crew. Many have compared it to a small city and they would be right…if most cities consisted of kilometers of hull armor, weapons and fusion engines.

Its existence an eternity of warfare, the signature armaments of the Hyperion are eight (four on the port and starboard sides) 850mm railguns (dubbed ‘Shipbreakers’), each capable of firing a 7 ½ ton shell at 3km per second. In addition to its batteries, the Hyperion boasts twenty-eight launch tubes (capable of firing both standard and nuclear tipped torpedoes), and hundreds of smaller guns for point defense against inbound munitions and smaller attack craft.

As powerful as she is the Hyperion is part of a dying breed; almost two hundred years of war, wear, tear, and stressful conditions have taken their toll. Only four other Titan-class vessels still cruise the stars and three of those four are permanently assigned to the Sol Defense Fleet.

That one of these godlike vessels could be assigned to any system besides Sol would have been unthinkable even a year ago but much change has come to the galaxy on short notice; the Hyperion demonstrates the value of the Cerrano system to the Federation…and shows the magnitude of the threat they face.

***

Captain Miller slaps the hatch control and the metal plate grinds down, obscuring the view of the retreating marines. Miller’s thoughts are not with the marines as he bolts back to his small bridge, his fingers flexing in anticipation. The Pride has passed its inspection and he is only fifteen minutes behind schedule; Miller knows that if he can find an empty approach lane and really gun the engines he might be able to dock on time, thus saving his bonus.

The Pride needs a new cascade device for her reactor, and Miller has no intention of letting his pride and joy down.

With a burst of blue fire the Pride’s engines come to life and she lurches forward into the heart of the Cerrano system. Captain Miller cannot (and indeed does not) know that his life, the lives of his crew and the existence of his ship are now being measured in minutes (eight of them to be exact) and that his bonus will soon be the last thing on his mind.

The Journeyman’s Pride continues its mad dash towards the system’s center.

***

As the Duty Officer (and de facto head of Orbital Defense Command in the absence of senior officers), Chief Petty Officer Sarissa Grover’s task is to remain vigilant in case of an attack and oversee the activation of the twenty-six networked platforms that span the system should it become necessary. Chief Grover and her subordinates would then liaise with Federation Naval Command, providing them with observed force strengths, maneuvers and firing solutions while also plotting those of the ODPs.

Currently she has her face buried in a status report on the condition of the platforms, alert for any hardware malfunctions or breakages but in a few seconds the first inkling of a serious problem will pull her attention to the front.

“Chief Grover,” Master Sailor Rogers’ tone brings her to alert instantly, the concern present isn’t something she’s heard in over three years of construction accidents, hardware malfunctions or drills. “We’ve got a problem.”

Sarissa is out of her command chair before Rogers finishes speaking and rests her hand on the back of his chair. “What sort of problem Rogers?”

“It’s the ODP’s Chief,” the concern in Rogers’ tone thickens as his fingers fly across his station. “I’m losing telemetry and they’re not responding to commands.”

The orbital defense network consists of twenty-six platforms; each one boasts two shipbreaker batteries and are indented to stop any sort of fleet attack on the Cerrano system dead in its tracks.

“Communications glitch?”

“Negative Chief; our diagnostics read clear. It’s like the network itself is trying to lock us out.”

Sarissa’s throat tightens at the sound of Rogers’ words but Able Sailor Bremen speaks before she can issue any command. “Chief Grover I’m getting an unusual report from Golf platform.”

“What kind of report?” Her voice is little more than a whisper; she already knows what’s coming.

“Golf platform is charging its magnetic coils,” Bremen’s voice is full of confusion.

“Shut it down Bremen,” Grover barks as she makes her way back to the command chair. “Kill that platform now!”

“Chief I-“

“Charlie platform charging coils!” Rogers’ report silences them both. “Target is…us Chief.”

“Us?” Sarissa starts back towards Rogers’ station. “What do you mea-“

The room disappears in a blinding flash of light, forcing a premature end to Sarissa Grover’s sentence.

***

Captain Miller is starting to feel good, damn good in fact. He’s made up the time lost in the inspection, and the main starport of Cerrano Primus is close enough to reach out and grab.

Miller you slick bastard, he pats himself on the back. You’ll get that money after all!

A chime sounds at his sensor station, as if to remind him that he’s not done yet.

He’s still learning forward to see what’s going on when the bridge explodes around him.

***

The Orbital Defense Platforms; designed by human minds, built by human hands and designed to keep humans safe annihilate the intra-system traffic. The orderly queue of everyday life in the Cerrano system quickly turns into uncontrollable chaos.

Smaller vessels are simply obliterated as the seven ton shells rip through their hulls, detonate their reactors and slaughter their crews. The Journeyman’s Pride is destroyed by ODP Golf with no warning; Captain Miller and his nineteen crew members are killed instantly, becoming the first human causalities of the Federation-Collective War.

Larger vessels; like the passenger liner Empress Catherine are an altogether more bloody affair. Bound for Cerrano Primus on a return trip, her decks swell with just under fifteen thousand people. ODP Sierra reverts to internal computer based targeting at 0347 hours Earth Standard Time (no later than 45 seconds after ODP Charlie targeted and destroyed ODCOM on Naval Station Cerrano).

The first slug strikes the Empress high on the port side, punching clear through the bridge and out the starboard side of the ship. The slug kills the entire command crew and severs the links to the rest of the ship. The ship shudders from the impact and begins to drift downward (relative to Cerrano Primus), her engines sputter once…twice before locking onto a descent trajectory.

Onboard the stricken behemoth, staff and passengers are just climbing when the ship pitches to starboard again. Exactly fifteen seconds after the first slug left the bore of ODP Sierra; the automatic loader finishes its programmed sequence and slams another slug home, the onboard computer calculating the most efficient firing solution to kill the stricken vessel.

The second slug hits the liner amidships, just three meters above the reactor. Unable to tolerate the destructive power of the seven ton slug, the Empress’ reactor transforms into a raging destructive inferno that engulfs a full quarter of the ship. Built only to tolerate the stresses of open space, the hull buckles under the chains of explosions that ripple across it.

The Empress gives a final death throe and explodes in all directions, the fireball quickly dissipating into gasses and hull fragments.
Time from second impact till destruction: 3.82 seconds

As civilian and commercial vessels flee in panic across the system, the vessels of the Federation Navy turn to meet this new and unexpected threat…a threat issued from the barrels of their own guns.

Frigates and Destroyers out on patrol push their engines to full, their officers knowing that no amount of armor or shielding they possess will hold off even a single shell, while the cruiser and dreadnaught captains deploy their ablative armor and push their shields to maximum; durability being the slow vessels’ only defense.

The massive Hyperion is struck by a staggering eight shells in less than thirty seconds, it’s signature making it a prime target for the now hostile ODPs. 247 servicemen and women of the Federation die in their bunks, playing cards, watching vids. The ancient warship goes to battlestations and targets its own batteries at the ODPs, its survival a testament to the construction of a bygone age.

Amidst the bloody harvest reaped by the guns of Cerrano, almost no one notices as an errant shell streaks past an embattled heavy cruiser and slams into the destroyer Olympus Mons; laid up in dry dock for an engine overhaul, and no one notices the tiny inspection shuttle that is incinerated by the slug’s trajectory. While he will be officially listed as MIA (presumed KIA), the very much deceased occupant of shuttle IS: 0207 is Captain Gregory Harkin, commanding officer of the prototype stealth vessel Wrath of Mars…berthed just twelve slips down the line.

***

Fleetmaster Se’ef leans back in his command throne and takes a moment to bask illuminarium’s glow; the radiant heat is nothing short of perfection. Though Se’ef’s face lacks the muscles to display what humans could recognize as a grin, his attitude is one of grim satisfaction and vindication.

Se’ef had been a proponent of wiping out the upstart enclave the Humans and Parthians had claimed as their so-called ‘sovereign systems.’ For years his demands for a quick and bloody extermination had been rejected as ‘politically unfeasible.’

But now… Se’ef’s musings carry on as he watches the Cerrano system, the ballet of violence beautifully backlit by the system’s warm yellow star. Politics does not matter and neither does feasibility, we fight for the survival of all Rahlians…the entire Collective.

The virus had been a brilliant piece of work and Se’ef would see to it that those responsible were handsomely rewarded but it was only a preliminary…the real work was still ahead.

“Inform the Shipmasters,” Se’ef barks as he slams his fist onto the throne. “We proceed with the attack!”
Her smooth white skin pressed gently against the biting steel grid, threatening cheekbone, temple and ear.

“What can you hear, T’hali?” The muffled voice of Alloc asked quietly from the expansive cell behind her.

“The captain’s voice.” She answered, her inhuman tone a purr in comparison to his own. She pressed a long, delicate hand to her opposite ear, straining to hear the conversation deep in the ship. It echoed off the walls, the rolling dialect of the slavers not far from her native Rahlian tongue, and still indistinguishable. A curse preceded the raising of voices, and T’hali Sa’at pressed herself further into the grid, cutting the flesh until she could set an ear to the safety glass beyond it.

“We have been out here too long.” The first angry voice spoke in common, a chorus of Thraeic slavers agreeing.

“You will find me the ‘mars’ and you will retrieve it. Do you have any idea what that ship is worth, you damn cowards. You have risked much more for much less.” The captain answered, his growl immistakable.

“Nothing is worth dying out here. The resources are dwindling, and the damned pinging. Nothing is worth drawing them in.” A slaver bit back in Thraeic.

A curse, a thud, and the captain’s growled orders were all that followed. “This is my ship! Shut your fucking mouths, do your jobs, or you will be added to the holds like the others. Any man caught off task will lose his share, of the current cargo and the mars. Understood?”

T’hali smiled to herself, her full pink lips parted to reveal smooth, and slightly sharp, white teeth. The inky black scales that freckled the skin at her hairline and neck and disappeared down her spine began their shift to the cool turquoise that marked her growing pleasure.

When the silence had lingered long enough to satisfy, T’hali withdrew, turning her lithe frame toward the open blackness of the hold, the gathered crowd waiting for her information.

“I believe we are in black space.” She purred, wiping the blood from her cheek and brow with a silk sleeve.

The group grew weary, and she continued, the warmth of her smile as much as could be expected from one of her father’s predatory race. The kindness in her red eyes, however, was solely her mother’s.

“The slavers are as uneasy as you, the captain is fighting them to retrieve a ship. The ‘mars’ he called it. If we are in black space, if they find this ship, it is our chance.” Two strides and her long fingers laced through the cages open grid and into the space with the hundred slaves that occupied to the cell. “We can do this, the right moment and you are free.”

Alloc nodded, pulling his young wife Cora to his side with an emaciated arm. The bump under her shirt, the sign of their growing child, growing more visible each day, along with her father’s bravery and her mother’s fear. “The doctor is right. Black space is the perfect opportunity, and I will not be sold and taken away from my family.”

The echoing footsteps signaled their captors approach.
“Discuss amongst yourselves who would fight, and if you choose to remain as you are, I will stay with you. But I hope,” She placed her hand to her heart, “my God, I hope, that you will come together and fight.”

The cage door rattled and T’hali turned, placing herself before the door to the hold. As always, the last line of defense. Huthuur, a hulking Thraeic guard entered, his towering frame dwarfing her own significant height. His broad shoulders were hunched in irritation, his massive clawed fingers rolled into fists.

“Captain wants you.” He growled, taking the chain that connected her steel collar and tugging her toward the door.

“No need to injure me, Huthuur.” She growled back, taking the chain from his grip with calm defiance. He showed his teeth, and she showed hers. “I will go willingly.”

“Remember, pet, that just because the captain doesn’t allow us to kill you, doesn’t mean he wont allow us to kill another of them.” A massive arm lifted, the extended extremity directed toward Alloc and the others.

T’hali’s posture softened, “I am aware.”

“Then move.” He snarled. She slipped past him, her footsteps as silent and graceful as his were heavy and vulgar.

“Damn trophy you are.” He said as they walked, reaching out to quicken her steps with a push. “He should have sold you 5 months ago on Tessa. And dressing you up like an elite, it’s useless. I'd tear you inhalf if he’s let me, split that fine belly of yours, test my blade against that mix-breed hide.”

They reached the wide door that marked the captain's quarters, and without a sound the door opened inward. The captain, a human named Orion, stood glowering. He was a filthy man of 40, his blonde hair matted to a high forehead, his shirt, reeking of body odor, stretched across his barrel chest and hung loosely at slim hips. He stepped aside and let her enter, leaving Huthuur in the hallway. “No more talk of cutting up my doctor.” He commanded, closing the door before the slaver could protest.

The room was the least humble dwelling she had ever laid eyes on, it’s vulgar decor an eclectic collection of other trophies, pillaged and bartered for from a dozen different worlds. All lavish, all garish. She had been raised with money, surrounded by arrogant elitists with even more money. Even their homes, packed to the gills with more than ever needed, felt restrained In comparison.

T’hali turned to the captain, her eyes running him over. He seemed in fine health, despite the yellowing of his skin through the frequent intake of a multitude of pleasurable and highly toxic substances. The Captain smiled a wide, toothy smile, lifting his hand to reveal bloodied knuckles.

“Think you can manage to stitch me up?” He asked, the foulness of his breath quickly filling the space between them.

She took the hand in both of hers, feeling the bones and tendons beneath the broken skin. He tried his damnedest not to wince, and she put very little effort into making the exam comfortable.

“We are far from a medical post. Better safe than to let the rot sink in.” He offered.

“Perhaps if you cared for yourself you wouldn’t have to fear the rot.” She suggested, her hatred of the man well hidden in her tone, despite the cutting nature of the comment. “Where is your kit?”

He pointed to the desk a few steps off.

She nodded. “Please go and wash your hands. Well.”

“No,” He answered sharply, “As I said, we are far from a post. We are conserving resources.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Then there will be no use in me treating it.”

He thought a moment, a crooked smile finally crossing his features. He bowed his head in respectful compliance and disappeared into his washroom.

She approached the desk, her eyes searching the wall of displays. The star charts rolled out, the silver pin prick of the ship lost in an inky blackness, the green ring of their searching pings spreading like a ripples through water. She zoomed the display out, finding their location. They were in black space. Off of the planet of Tahar, the Cassian system’s furthest most planet; uninhabited by all but slavers and smugglers. But if the ship he salvaged could get them there, she could barter transport out of the system.

“Perhaps you should choose who doesn’t drink for a day because of your orders.” The captain teased, his words preceding his presence enough to allow T’hali to finish her preparations without him ever seeing her eyes on his confidential charts. He presented his scrubbed-clean hand. She took it, popping the dislocated knuckle back into place without warning.

“Remind me, Dr. T’hali Sa’at,” He began, his voice strained with the pain, “was it your mother or your father that was human?” The captain asked for the hundredth time.

“My mother.” T’hali answered. “Though no pure Rahlians exist outside of the counsel anymore, so I suppose I could say both parents shared at least a bit of your lineage.”

“I suppose that's not a surprise. Your features are so human. Save for those eyes. And maybe those fangs of yours. A little vampiric, for a human.”

She slid her tongue across the point of her K9 and shrugged. “They have served me.” She imagined taking him by the hair and digging those sharp points into his throat; tearing away flesh in great, bloody bites. Truly barbaric imagery; as if it were 400 years ago and she were one of the old Warlord Se’ef’s violent supporters. Back when they lived on Rahl, before the genocide, the awakening, the forming of the counsel. When her people pillaged and murdered and slaved their way across multiple systems. They, like all races, had been capable of atrocities, and she was sure, like all self-aware individuals, that she were capable under the right conditions. Almost tasting the captain’s blood in her mouth with the thoughts, she wondered if these were just such conditions.

“Captain.” The intercom chirped on, “We have located the ‘Wrath of Mars’”

He smiled a wide smile, slapped his knee and turned his energetic attention back to T’hali. “Trade that lovely dress you're wearing for a spacesuit doctor, you have a job to do.”

Alexander existed in a lightless, soundless void; a vacuum that was both complete and welcome. The embrace of sleep held him like a child’s blanket, safe, secure and content. The wail of klaxons, and a shudder under his bed cut through Alexander’s sleep like a hot knife and rudely dragged him back to consciousness.

A groan escaped his lips as he sat up in bed, his face buried in his hands as if to shield himself from the sudden assault on his senses. “Ares,” he croaked. “What’s going-“

“Lieutenant Commander, you are needed urgently on the Bridge.”

If the telltale warble of synthized speech wasn’t enough to discern the identity of his guest, its sudden appearance in his quarters and the trappings it wore left nothing in doubt. Attired in the spotless plates of an ancient Greek Hoplite, the ship’s holographic avatar had a plumed helm tucked under one arm and a xiphos belted to his waist.

“Talk to me Ares,” Acano rolled out of bed and grabbed for his uniform, his voice suddenly alert “Why are we at GQ, I thought drills weren’t for another week?”

“This is no drill Commander,” Ares’ tone was serious but respectful. “And I have just updated the alert level, we are now at battle stations, the Cerrano system is under attack.”

Ares’ matter of fact statement chilled the room, and Alexander paused in the middle of tying his boot. “ID?”

“The hostile forces are Federation sir,” Ares paused for a moment. ”We are under attack from our own defense platforms.”

“How?” Acano muttered dumbly after staring at Ares for what seemed like an hour.

”Unknown,” Ares replied as Alexander finished with his boots and grabbed his cap. ”The guns appear to be in a computer guided firing mode, and Orbital Defense Control on Naval Station Cerrano appear to unresponsive. My current hypothesis is a virus, released by an unknown party and programmed to subvert Federation targeting controls over the ordinance platforms.”

”I’m sensing a ‘but’ here Ares,” Acano snugged his cap on and stepped out into the hallway. “Maybe even a ‘however’.”

”However sir,” The AI’s voice sounded as if he were inside Acano’s head; the cochlear implant behind his right ear made sure that only he heard the AI, while a second implant by his vocal cords made sure that only Ares could hear his subvocalized responses, ensuring a silent and private conversation. ”I cannot confirm anything at this time, I require more information before arriving at a conclusion.”

Acano stiffened to attention and returned the hurried compliments of a pair of techs, the clang of their boots on the deck faded behind him as they made their way deeper into the ship. That they were the first crewmen he’d seen since the alert was called didn’t surprise him; the Mars’ was running a skeleton crew of techs, engineers and a minimal security detail while in drydock, the rest of the crew was on leave until combat trials began next week.

”What does the captain have to say about this Ares,” Acano subvocalized as he cut a brisk pace through the corridors that linked his quarters to the Mars’ command center; his brow creased in confusion before the AI could respond. ”Come to think of it, why isn’t the captain on this channel with us?”

”Commander,” Acano could’ve sworn that the AI’s studiously neutral tone carried an air of reluctance for his next words. ”Captain Harkin was last sighted in the inspection pod Beta, on a tour of the Olympus Mons.”

”And,” Acano interjected, his impatience building. ”What does that have to do with the captain’s location?”

”Commander,” the AI’s tone was grave. ”We lost contact with Captain Harkin’s transponder approximately six minutes ago…at the exact moment a shell from one of the ODPs hit the Mons. I’m sorry Commander, but with a certainty of ninty-eight point two percent I am forced to conclude that Captain Harkin was killed in action and operational command of the Wrath of Mars falls to you.”

Alexander stumbled to a stop as if punched and leaned against the bridge bulkhead, the Old Man’s dead? Alexander had no more love for the crotchety old bastard than any other crew member serving aboard the Mars; but as a veteran of Corsair Wars and the last major border skirmishes with United Collective of Rahl some seventy years before, he had damn well earned Alexander’s respect.

It should be him here, not you. A vicious tendril of self-doubt wormed its way into his mind, crushing it reminded Acano of the second thing Ares had said.

“Did you say I was in command?” In his shock Alexander lapsed back into a vocal question.

”Correct sir,” Ares replied in a thoroughly serious manner. ”Under section eight, subsection-“

”Yes, yes Ares,” Acano hurriedly cut the AI off with a handwave and curt subvocalization. ”I know what the regs say!”

What I don’t know is what to do next.

The realization startled him and unlike the last though his mind had aimed at him, this one had the distinct ring of truth to it. Fuck it, his smacked the door control and shoved his doubts as deep as he could. Gotta do something or we’re all dead.

The bulkhead door ground open and revealed the nerve center of the Wrath of Mars, the Bridge.

”X.O. on deck!” the marine guard stationed just inside the entrance bellowed his arrival, his voice sanitized through the emitter in his helmet.

“X.O. on deck!” A second shout came from deeper within the bridge; the Officer of the Watch confirming the marine’s information, Acano knew the rest of the bridge crew would be stiffened to attention even before he saw them.

“As you were,” he replied as he walked in, nodding at the marine as the door ground shut behind him. “How are they up there,” he murmured to the marine. “Anyone show signs of cracking?”

”Well sir,” the marine paused to marshal his thoughts. ”Ensign Culhane seems a bit nervous but I don’t think that’s anything a little combat won’t sort out. Lieutenant Verde seems a little too eager; I don’t know about Lieutenant Shilo though, guy’s probably got a bitching poker face.”

Alexander tried not to let his smile show through at the word “bitching” but apparently he didn’t do a good enough job.

”Sorry sir, that he sounded uncomfortable through a voice filter was an impressive feat in Acano’s books. ”Still not used to you being one of…them.”

Now Acano did laugh, a quiet and forced chuckle that didn’t escape into the bridge. “It’s been four years Mulhaney!” the name etched into his chestplate was the only way Acano knew who he was talking to. “Christ, don’t tell me you’re getting stupider and uglier…there’s only so much that helmet can do for you.”

The helmet’s harsh cackle told Alexander he’d gotten the response he’d been looking for. “Damn sir, you caught me there.

“Carry on corporal,” Alexander gave him a knowing look before he continued on to the bridge proper. He mulled over Mulhaney’s information in the few seconds it took him to make it onto the bridge: Ensign Robert Culhane was the ship’s new Operations Officer; straight from the academy on Luna he was only a shade or two greener than his panel’s current readout.

Still, Alexander had to give him credit. For his first posting and having never seen combat the kid was doing an ok job of holding it together…it was just a shame he should have never been there in the first place.

Lieutenant Maria Verde was the ship’s Communications and Cryptography Officer: responsible for answering incoming communiqués, initiating outgoing ones, decrypting enemy codes, and assist Ares in using the Mars’ cyberwarfare suite to disable enemy ships and defend their own computer networks. Her experience second only to the Weapons Officers, Verde was in charge of the Bridge whenever the C.O. and X.O. were absent.

Alexander liked Maria but she was too eager to rush into the face of danger…even as an experienced veteran of the Corsair Wars it still seemed like she had something to prove, a chip that would just not come off her shoulder.

Lieutenant Edward Shilo was the Mars’ Conn Officer and Navigator; no matter what point in space the Mars was needed at, Shilo would make sure that she got there fast and accurately. Rumored to be the best pilot in the Federation Navy (a rumor Alexander had verified first hand at the Mars’ maneuvering trials), the man was positively clandestine in his privacy. He spoke little, offered nothing about his personal life but did his job superbly well.

Alexander had read his file when he first came aboard and found nothing out of the ordinary; the man had an uninterrupted rise to the position of First Lieutenant and apparently his pick of postings once he got his bars. Countless notes of commendation were attached from course instructors, theatre commanders and even the planetary governor of Idriss VII (Alexander had never found out what that was for). Despite his professional successes his file made no mention of any friends, family, or romantic attachments…a seemingly perfect fit for the Mars and her mission.

The bridge’s weapons console sat empty, Lieutenant Juliana Faraway was not at her post. Alexander felt her loss keenly as he stepped onto the bridge; the two were close friends, having shared a graduating class and commissioning at roughly the same time.

Juliana wasn’t due in system for another two days; no sense in having a gunnery officer aboard until you had reason to actually shoot the guns. Alexander would have to lead this ship; this crew…alone.

“Sir,” Lieutenant Verde’s voice brought his thoughts into focus.

“Good morning Lieutenant,” Acano replied with a confidence he did not feel. “SitRep?”

“Situation’s fluid sir,” Verde answered as she manipulated her slate. “Communiqués from ships all over the system and NavCom; apparently there’s been a critical systems failure with the Orbital Defense Platforms and...and they’re firing on vessels civilian and military alike…the shudder that must’ve woken you was the Olympus Mons, she disintegrated after her reactors breached”

Acano noted the quaver in her voice and the pause…he wondered if she had friends who served on the Mons.

“I meant a report on the ship’s status Lieutenant,” he replied gently. “I already know about the wider situation.”

Ares chose that moment to manifest his avatar, an ancient warrior made out of pure light. ”The Lieutenant Commander was briefed by me on his way to the bridge Lieutenant,” the AI’s synthesized voice carried to all areas of the bridge and surely embarrassed Verde in a way Alexander had been trying to avoid. ”You may proceed with the ship’s status brief.”

Verde’s faced burned with embarrassment but she didn’t let it enter her voice. “Thank you Ares and I apologize for my…lapse sir, I’m still not used to working with an AI.” Alexander gave a magnanimous nod. “As for the ship’s status; we just made it to GQ before you arrived sir but with our severe staffing shortages, going to battle stations in under eight minutes is going to be a serious problem.”

Alexander spared little time to digest the information. “Speaking of personnel, just how short of people are we?”

“It’s not good sir,” Alexander could hear the wince in her voice as she handed him her slate; Acano realized it was a personnel roster. Out of a total possible compliment of 97, the Mars carried 37 while she was in dry dock: One eight-strong details of marines provided basic security and operational secrecy, Acano, the captain and the three bridge officers added another five and twenty-three assorted technicians, fabricators and engineers finished up the last bits of construction and ran diagnostic tests on the ship’s systems.

The last name on the list was the ship’s chief engineer, Saelis.

“I wasn’t aware we were getting a Parthian,” Alexander muttered. “When did the Chief Engineer come aboard?”

“About an hour after you retired sir,” Verde replied. “I didn’t think it was important enough to disturb you that late for a personnel anomaly.”

“Hmm,” Alexander mumbled; grateful for the sleep he’d gotten while he simultaneously wished for more. “Open a channel to engineering.”

“Channel open sir,” Verde tapped a sequence into her console.

”What is it bridge?” A synthesized voice snapped; female in pitch and tone.

Alexander knew from his xenobiology classes that the Parthians were genderless and sexless; their reproductive process was similar to mitosis. They regarded human gender roles with something that bordered on amusement, and adjusted the voice modulators on their Self-Contained Biosphere Apparatus’ (SCBA) on a daily basis.

“This is Lieutenant Commander Acano, acting commander of the SSV Wrath of Mars.” Alexander met her flippant insubordination with a steely tone. “The Cerrano system is in a state of emergency and I need to get this ship underway to assist immediately.”

Her laugh took him by surprise. ”That’s all you need is it? Shall I just initialize the main reactor, calibrate the DEW arrays, detach us from the dock, and finish up the last hullwork within the next five minutes too?”

“You’ll mind your tone with me Chief or-“

“Sir!” Ensign Culhane’s nervous shout and the wail of his sensor station silenced Alexander’s threats. “Sensors are picking up multiple inbound contacts, unknown signatures!”

“Strength?” Acano asked as he changed gears.

“Fifty vessels-, no now it’s seventy-fi, a hundre-, one hundred seventy five vessels sir!”

Ares’ avatar blazed into existence beside the Lieutenant Commander. ”I’ve just made a positive identification sir; the inbound vessels are all of Rhalian design.”

“The guns…they were just a distraction,” Alexander breathed in horror as his stomach filled with ice. “The Rahlians are going to invade.”

Alexander snapped out of his spiral and turned to his bridge crew, fear now would mean all their deaths. “Ares; begin plotting enemy maneuvers and extrapolating their tactical weaknesses, Mister Shilo; begin plotting a course that takes us towards the fleet’s main body and stand by to bring subliminal and superluminal drives to full power, Mister Culhane; coordinate with station operations and get these tethers off of us, we’re done for if we can’t move, and Miss Verde; stand by to deliver a warning message to the flagship.”

As the bridge crew jumped to fulfill their assigned tasks, Alexander returned his attention to the comlink with engineering. “Oh and Chief Saelis, I’m going to need everything you just said done and I’m going to need it done now!”
T’hali fastened the clips of the thin the inner suit to her throat; it’s soft, insulated fabric a welcome change to the long, ill-fitting dresses the captain insisted upon since she was first taken aboard the Griffith Brand. The smell of Rhalian incense still clung to the suit’s fibers, the faint lingering of a life long left behind. She breathed it in a moment, searching for courage in the tiny piece of home.

An impatient release of breath was heard at her side, drawing her attention away from her comfort and onto the bent but forceful frame of one of the female slavers, a human whose only known monicker was ‘Sarge’. The inky black space suit in which Thali had been captured was held in Sarge’s gloved hands, her steel toed boots tapping impatiently against the textured steel floor. “We don’t have all day, mixed-breed.” She growled, as if the huff and posture had not been enough to convey her irritation. T’hali hastened her movements, tying her long, black hair into a braid and hastily securing it at the base of her neck.

“Ready?” Sarge asked with raised brows that now grew together above her arched and repeatedly broken nose.

T’hali decided to press her luck. “Nearly,” she answered, lifting the chain that held her steel collar in place, “There's hardly room in there with me. The helmet will not fasten.” It was a lie, but a reasonable one, and Sarge’s impatience suggested one she would not waste the time in challenging.

The slaver rolled her bloodshot eyes, laying the suit aside to retrieve a bolt cutter from the ajoining room. She returned quickly, and in 3 heavy steps she had closed the distance from the door to T’hali, snipping the bolt that held the collar in place. It protested the sudden change with the sharp scream of ill made metal, but came free all the same, falling in a pile at T’hali’s feet.

The doctor placed a hand to the back of her neck, feeling the broken scales, raw skin and dried blood caked on otherwise smooth flesh.

8 months she had not felt that flesh. 8 months that collar had bitten into her, stealing her sleep, choking her with every swallow, scraping against vertebrae and skull. That raw, bloodied flesh beneath it had never felt so good. She ached to give her friends that same relief, that same, symbolic and actual, retaking of their freedom. More than the suit that was hers, the smell of her ship and her home lingering in its fibers, that thought gave her courage.

“Alright,” T’hali acknowledged, tucking the wound into her collar, a renewed fire in her red eyes, “I’m ready.”

Sarge lifted the outer suit into place, allowing T’hali to slip into the thin, durable fabric that formed the suits main body. The external pieces, shaped to her limbs and torso like fine plate armor, housed the necessary life support and communication tech. Each was clipped into place one at a time, their systems secured in a long silver spine that ran along her own. It was not the simplest design to get in and out of, but the mobility was well worth the challenge. T’hali could move in it as easily as she could move in her own skin. She pulled on the gloves, pressing them onto the crook of each finger and ensuring the sensors at the fingertips sat in their proper places. It was an understated and advanced piece of technology, one she had designed and commissioned herself not a full year before her captivity began; one she prayed the crew had not analyzed or scavenged from too excessively.

Sarge clicked on the radio in the helmet. “You will be connected with the captain only. He will be watching. He will be listening. Don’t try anything.”

“Understood.” T’hali answered peacefully, a biting and sarcastic comment swallowed before escaping her lips. She slipped the helmet over her ears, securing it with a click to its base, the necessary cords connected by Sarge through a central port at the top of the suits silver spine.

T’hali reached back and double checked the connection. “Try the lights.” Sarge ordered, tapping the clear face shield with two fingers. T’hali obeyed, pressing the corresponding button on her wrist panel. The foreword lights turned on, the blinding onslaught causing Sarge to turn her face away and curse under her breath.

“The internals.” She continued through gritted teeth. The button was pressed, extinguishing the outer light and illuminating T’hali’s face with a warm, red glow.

“The com and the video feed next.”

The small video picture appeared on her internal display, then the dim red light to indicate the camera facing her had engaged. White noise wrang in her ears, its pleasantness interrupted by the captain’s voice. “Ready to lead the way, doctor?” He asked, the tiny image of him not quite small enough to hide his irritating smirk.

“Ready.”

She watched the captain pick up the receiver and the ship’s intercom cracked on, tinny and echoing, “We can see her, Sarge. Make sure her life support systems are online and send her over. Remember,”

“Yeah, she dies because of faulty equipment and its my ass, I remember.” Sarge rolled her eyes again. At least the captain’s pet project had some protection.

The hiss of oxygen filling the helmet was subtle, and then silent; the air in her lungs sweeter than any she had breathed in too long. She took two deep breaths and smiled.

“You look like you’re enjoying yourself.” The captain commented. She heard the airlock close behind her, Sarge having once again disappeared into the belly of the ship. The subtle hum of the pump informed her that the depressurization was underway, though the effects went otherwise unnoticed inside the thin black suit.

“The air smells sweet.” T’hali explained, “I am glad to see your crew stored everything properly.”

“Must be a welcome change to the recycled shit we breathe on the Griffith Brand.” He quipped, before his serious tone once again swallowed his features. “Though your friends won't have the luxury of breathing even our rank air if you don’t remember your mission, Doctor. There is no movement we can see on board, so I’m sure you’ll be alone, but if there are bodies, and if those bodies are carrying anything that could damage my crew or the supply, I need to know. Remember, you let my team contract something, intentionally or otherwise, your cell mates are tossed into the void along with you.”

“I understand how disease works, Captain, and I understand my orders. Open the hatch when you are ready.”

The light flickered on, the artificial gravity disengaged, and T’hali felt her boots lift gently off the floor.

The outer door opened to perfect blackness. She pressed the button and the white light illuminated the shining black hull of the Mars, it’s outside door flush and almost indistinguishable from the rest of the massive, arrowhead-like body. Large burns ran down it’s sides, catching the light like chips off obsidian. She could not spot any actual damage, no obvious compromise to the hull, at least not for the several hundred meters she could see. She would need to find and activate a status terminal. Easier said than done.

T’hali pushed herself lightly forward, floating in the void until her fingertips touched the outer hatch. She lifted the panel at its side, revealing a small, seemingly powerless keypad.

“Plug in when you are ready.” The captain ordered. She pressed her index finger to the mark and the panel came to life, it’s warm orange buttons illuminating. She could hear the captain typing, and the buttons turned blue.

“Done, press the center again, then pull the lever.”

She did as she was commanded, and the hatch disengaged without a sound. The ship, or at the very least this section of the ship, had already been depressurized. It did not go unnoticed.

“Seems they lost pressure hm? Not a good way to go.” The captain commented. T’hali prepared herself to see the result inside. The ship was enormous, and unless the crew had evacuated…

She pulled herself inside and swung the door closed behind her. The panels that ran along the small airlock were in English, the symbol of the old federation etched in brass above the door.

“An old federation ship?” She asked the captain, still searching the panels for the gravity controls.

“Yeah, a few hundred years old I think.”

“Looks very high tech for something that old.” She commented, watching his expression closely for a moment. He did not attempt to hide his smile.

“The most advanced machinery they had back then, I think. Still can’t touch even today what they managed to accomplish. Worth a fortune. Hell, I’ll be famous for finding her.” He patted his chest with open palms, his usual pride magnified in his voice.

“Excellent news for you, Captain.” T’hali remarked stoically, finally locating the correct panel. With a few ticking seconds both the air pressure and the gravity were restored. Again, Impressive tech to still function on a centuries old ship.

“Gravity and pressurization restored. Any sign of a breach?” T’hali asked.

The captain studied his monitors a moment, shaking his head. “Everything seems to be sealed up. Proceed.”

She held her breath as she twisted the handle to open the secondary door, hoping, praying, that the system had worked properly and had ensured the other side was equally pressurized. The latch clicked, the seal broke, and the air was still. She let out a sigh of relief.

“A little on edge about that one, Doctor.” The Captain chuckled. T’hali didn’t respond.

The secondary door swung wide on its hinges, revealing a large main room. She pointed her light toward each corner, examining every inch of the expansive area.

“What is it?” The Captain asked.

“Perhaps a cargo hold, though there is very little inside. It may be a shuttle bay. The walls seem undamaged, it’s shape is intact and the pressure is holding.”

T’hali swiped through the menu that displayed on her wrist, activating the detailed analysis of the air quality and toxicity. Had there been any present issues, an alert would have sounded the moment she entered, but the additional analysis made for a good show. The readout at her eyeline glowed red, it’s numbers bouncing a moment before coming to rest on a reading. “Air quality well within parameters. Cleaner than the Brand. You can start suiting them up, it is safe to use the standard gear in here. Use it as a staging while I search the rest of the ship.”

“Understood.” The captain replied, his monitor clicking off a moment while he gave his orders. Taking the opportunity, T’hali lifted her gloved hand to her ear, and tugged the tiny wire out of place, the external light flickering, and her outgoing feed disappearing.

“Captain, can you hear me?” She asked, waiting a moment for a response. “Captain?” Nothing. She smiled, feeling the warmth of hope rise in her cheeks and sensing the blue flicker of color in the scales at her hairline.

She jogged to the far wall and drew from her pocket a small sliver of fluorescent chalk. She scribbled in large letters; “Com out, continuing safety check. Will return when ship cleared. DO NOT MOVE PAST STAGING AREA. RISK OF CONTAMINATION WITHOUT BIOHAZARD SUIT”.

She pressed through the only doorway, and swinging the massive doors into place, barred the exit behind her. A narrow hallway split in opposite directions, a large screen, perhaps an information center or console at one point, rested at the center, now as lifeless as the rest of the ship. If she could use her secondary power supply to boot it, she could, perhaps, gain access to its primary systems.

T’hali stepped close, steadying the seams for access to the control panel. ”Where can I crack into you?” She asked the lifeless screen, fingers tapping as she searched. Her eyes scanned until she noticed a small port marked ‘Aries’.

“Aries?” She whispered, her brow knit.

A light on the wall, just to the right of the screen, blinked on, a camera she had not noticed below shifting to view her.

She froze for a moment, her eyes trained on the intruding force. “Hello.” T’hali spoke hesitantly, her heart suddenly pounding.

“State your authorization.” A man’s voice replied, pleasant and persistent and a little inhuman. It was not the Captain of the Brand, having overridden the systems and found her out. Her first fear quenched, she sucked in a deep breath and made her choice.

“I am Doctor T’hali Sa’at.” She began, allowing both her confidence and fear to be heard in her words, “The ship is being boarded by slavers. Whomever you are, I am in desperate need of your help.”

“I am afraid all systems are currently incapable of providing assistance, Dr. Sa’at.” He answered.

“Please, what’s your name?”

An image flickered on the screen; an ancient human soldier, a Greek, if her memory served her, dressed traditionally, a sword belted at his waist. “I am Aries, the Wrath of Mars artificial intelligence system. I am responsible for the protection of this ship and her crew. I will exercise whatever means necessary to achieve that end. I recommend you return to your ship, doctor.”

T’hali pressed further, not allowing the incredible improbability of a surviving crew, much less a successfully integrated artificial intelligence, to dissuade or distract her. “I assure you, Aries, the safety of this ship and its crew is directly tied to my own survival, and that of hundreds more in my care. I am a captive of these slavers. If your crew lives, and they do not assist me, their fate will be the same as my own. Please, direct me to them, or to your armory. Give me my chance.”

“Authorization can be given by the captain only.” Aries replied.

“Then let me speak with him.” She requested, her hope dwindling every moment that passed.

“I detect the disbelief in your voice, Doctor,” Aries replied, the image on the screen displaying the soldier’s raised eyebrow, “The Captain is alive, but I will not direct you without proof of your intentions.”

T’hali set her palms to her faceplate, tapping fingers against the helmet.

“An uplink.” She smiled with the revelation, “I will give you access to their ship and thus to the network. Run my history, run theirs, and if you are unsatisfied then vent me into space and be done with it. Are we agreed?”

The soldier nodded a single, consenting nod.

T’hali pulled the uplink chip from the helmet and placed it in the port. An instant later, the soldier on the screen met her eyes.

“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Doctor Sa’at. May I ask you a few questions, to ensure you are who you claim to be?” Aries began.

“The suit scans my finger prints, as well as my retina before activating, the proof of my claim is in the suit.” T’hali advised.

“I have already gathered the feedback from your suit. I have no question of your identity, Doctor. It is your character I wish to confirm.”

T’hali smiled, “Then of course.”

“You served six years for the Collective’s armed forces, the required is two. Why the additional years?”

“It allowed me to employ my medical training in higher stress environments. I felt the experience, as well as the additional combat training, would serve me well in my work in the outer worlds.”

“Have you found it useful?”

“Not nearly as useful as it is about to become, I assume.”

The image smiled knowingly in response, continuing with his interrogation with the smile intact. “Your records show you were offered a seat with the counsel of healers, a prestigious honor among the Collective, and yet you declined. Explain.”

“I have no interest in policy or prestige, and my skills are better used elsewhere.”

“In the service of others?” Aries questioned.

“In the service of others.” T’hali confirmed.

“May I suggest before waking the captain you dim the light that shows your face. Our captain will not take to one of Rhalian descent, not without the explanation gleaned from the information you have just given me. Though it is not obvious in your appearance due to your racial evolution, it is best if you speak only English, and I will introduce you honestly once the situation is under control. Agreed?”

T’hali smiled, “Agreed. Thank you, Aries.”

She dimmed the light as she was directed, until Aries and his discerning gaze motioned for her to stop. “Can I direct you to him?” Aries asked.

~~~

T’hali rubbed the dust off the thick plastic stasis pod, revealing beneath a man in a Federation uniform, his hair cut short, his face, young for a commander, still clean shaven after 400 years. His brow was thick and furrowed, even at rest. He looked so perfectly and purely human it was as if he had been carved from marble, an ancient artist’s depiction of first man. She found it difficult not to stare.

Around him a hundred more pods, some functioning, others offline or empty, filled the large hold. She felt her breath caught up in her chest, “How many of them are still alive?” She asked, her voice trembling without her realizing it.

“54 still live, though their viability is still in question.” Aries said, a disembodied voice in the darkness. “I have had to limit their resources over the centuries, prioritizing vital crew. I am unsure who will survive.”

“I am sorry.” T’hali said, a hand laid against the Captain's now slowly stirring stasis pod. “I cannot imagine the choice was an easy one. When they wake, I will do what I can to support your medical staff. You have my word.”

“Thank you, Doctor. It seems the kindness your clients spoke of in their reports was not exaggerated.” Aries answered. T’hali smiled. “I am sure it was.” She answered.

The gentle hum of the filtration system kicked on, the levels on her meter showing pressurization, air quality and temperature, all raising to survivable rates. She lifted her hands to her helmet, and chose to leave it on, Aries warning again in her ear.

The pod opened, the Captain lifting his hands to rub the sleep from his eyes. “Captain Acano?” T’hali began, the projected voice from her suit enough to hide the Rahlian purr.

His eyes, bright and intelligent, opened wide and landed accusingly on her, his posture instantly tense. She lifted her gloved hands. “Forgive the urgency, Captain. But I need your help. Your ship,”

“Who are you?” He growled, sitting up, his eyes evaluating.

“I am Doctor T’hali Sa’at. I am a captive of the Griffith Brand, a slaver ship out of the Rhalian System. The captain is boarding your ship with the intent to commandeer it. I need your assistance in stopping him and his crew, and to free the more than a hundred slaves in his hold. Please Captain. Let me wake your crew, let me fight with you, help me kill this man.”

“That is not a federation suit.” He questioned, moving past her comments so quickly she was unsure that he had actually heard them.

“No, it is privately made. A biohazard suit. That is why I am here alone. He sent me ahead to clear the ship of contaminants.”

“Captain.” Aries cut in, “There are 20 men boarding through the port side airlock.”

“Staging there until I return, or until the captain grows impatient. Please.” T’hali asked.

“Show me on the monitor, Aries.” He said, turning toward the small display on the pod. The image of the hold, filling with Thraeic, Human and Synnic slavers filled the screen.

“Aries,” The captain began, his eyes settling again on T’hali, his gaze no less evaluating, “Wake the crew and initiate lockdown protocol alpha.”

“I’m sorry, Captain. There is not enough power remaining to initiate the waking process. We will have to wait until we are able to siphon resources from the slave ship.” Aries answered.

The captain stood, his height nearly a head above her own, tall and leanly muscled, the man cut an intimidating figure. “Very well, We will capture or kill these intruders together, and we will free your slaves. Stay by my side. If I see so much as a flicker of ill intent in your eyes, I will put a bullet in you myself. Are we clear, Doctor.”

T’hali bowed her head respectfully, wondering how differently the conversation might have gone had he known her bloodline. Perhaps there would already be a bullet in her head. It was difficult not admiring his ferocity and protective behavior toward his crew.

“I believe that will not be necessary, Captain, I ran her history, she has as exemplary a record as any of your officers.” Aries intervened, already her advocate.

“Thank you, Aries, but as for her merit, I will decide for myself.” He answered.
Alexander struggled to focus on the dimly lit sleeper chamber and the spacesuited figure in front of him; his head felt like someone had jammed a spike into it, and was pounding it deeper with each beat of his heart. It was a side effect of the suspended animation process crews used for long interstellar journeys, disorientation, and sluggishness were to be expected in the first few minutes after wakeup; the knowledge gave him only a cold comfort as he pushed himself out of the pod.

Alexander gripped the edge of the pod as his legs gave out beneath him; they felt like bowls of mess gelatin. The spacesuited woman darted towards him; to help maybe but he made her pause with a growl,

“I’m fine!” He spat. “Just give me a minute.”

Her helmet cocked to the side and he thought he could make out a puzzled expression on her shadowed features. ”As you wish captain.”

“Don’t call me that,” he muttered as he leaned against the pod and did his best not to vomit. “I’m no captain.”

”Oh but Ares called-“

“Ares is following naval custom to call the C.O. of a vessel captain, no matter their actual rank. I’m Lieutenant Commander Acano but you can call me Commander.”

”Yes Commander,” Acano could’ve sworn she smiled as she said it.

Alexander let his gaze wander around the darkened chamber until it came to rest on the pod next to his; the frosted viewing glass obscured its occupant from view. His hand seemed to reach out of its own accord and began to wipe at the condensation.

After a moment’s work Alexander had cleared a small circle, a portal to who lay in the pod; the dark features of Sarissa Grover met his gaze.

***

“One!” Ensign Culhane’s voice rang out across the bridge as he finished the countdown. A shudder wracked the ship as the supply tethers and docking clamps disengaged and for the first time in her existence, the Wrath of Mars slipped her moorings at Naval Station Cerrano.

Alexander whipped his head towards Culhane, “Did she make it ensign?”

The young operations officer studied his console intently, his features arranged into a grin. “Airlock Gamma reports that the Chief made it aboard,” the bridge crew interrupted his report with a cheer. “PO Lindsay reports that she jumped across the threshold just as the doors slammed shut.”

Alexander breathed out a sigh of relief, one small miracle in a sea of hell. “Well done ensign, have Lindsay escort the chief and her people to sick bay.” Alexander turned to Verde. “Tell Chief Saelis her time’s up, I want that reactor and ECS online now.”

Acano turned to study his tactical display, “We have a job to do.”


***

Alexander snapped back to the present and sagged against her pod, he still hadn’t managed to find out how she wound up near the Mars, or the aftereffects of the cryosleep blocked it from his mind if he did.

“Why’s your helmet so dark anyway?” he panted as he leaned against the pod, “I can barely make out your face.”

”The interior lights dimmed when I disabled my audio/visual feed to the Brand,” Sa’at replied quickly. “There must be a short somewhere in that system.”

Alexander’s eyes narrowed, her responses seemed…rehearsed. After a minute against the pod to gather himself, he pushed off and moved towards the door. He paused only to wave the doctor towards the door in front of him.

”Really Commander,” her eyes narrowed in amusement. ”I appreciate the offer but-“

“It’s not chivalry doctor, I just don’t fully trust you yet.”

”Ah,” Dr. Sa’at lapsed into silence and moved towards the hatch.

Alexander fell in behind her and gave one last look at the other cryopods in the chamber…it felt like he was abandoning them.

He swung his eyes back to the doctor and kept them fixed on her as they left the chamber.

***

The sleeper chamber was on the lower end of what could be called the ship’s ‘core decks’, or those closest to the ship’s center. A few decks below the chamber was the infiltrated shuttle bay, at the ship’s ‘bottom’. The armory was located in the “arrowhead” of the ship, close to the bridge.

With the ship fully powered and accessible, the trip would’ve taken ten minutes but it took the pair closer to thirty as they skirted areas of the ship exposed to vacuum and waited for Ares to open and close doors.

Conversation was sparse as they walked; Alexander was too absorbed in his thoughts to offer any. What happened before I went into cryosleep, where are we, how much time has passed, is Melissa safe?

The last question in particular tormented him, the women he loved was in trouble, and he was God knows where, in a dead ship, with a mystery woman and aliens he had never even seen before trying to kill him.

“So what’s the deal with those unidentified aliens in the shuttle bay?” Acano broke the long silence as images of the massive creatures on the com screen filled his mind. “I don’t recognize them from any of the briefings. Has the Federation made contact with any of the galaxy’s other species?” Alexander knew intellectually that there were other aliens in the galaxy but space being as vast as it was and the position of the Rhalian collective made actual contact with them a near impossibility.

”The Thraeic and Synnic arrived in human space after the initial outbreak of hostilities between the Federation and the Unified Collective of Rhal,” her voice colored with hatred. “They have been a scourge ever since, the Thraeic in particular exist only to pillage and destroy!”

“The Federation would never allow large scale piracy,” Acano answered with pride. “The last of them were eradicated almost ten years ago in the Corsair Wars.”

”The Federation has…suffered in the aftermath of the invasion,” the doctor’s shoulders seemed to tense under the suit. ”It does not have the resources to prosecute such a campaign, no matter the necessity.”

Alexander’s eyes narrowed but he held his tongue; she was keeping something from him, he was sure of it. Ares, he subvocalized. What’s going on here, what isn’t she telling me, and who’s under that helmet?

Do you trust me Lieutenant Commander?

You’re the ship’s AI Ares, I don’t really have a choice.

Then don’t order me to tell you about Dr. Sa’at and trust that I know she’s friendly, otherwise you’ll be putting your ship, crew and self at risk.

Alexander mulled over the AI’s words and the pair were silent the rest of the way to the armory. Alexander motioned for the doctor to slow as they approached the hatch, the familiar blast shaped symbol stood out under the glare of her helmet lights.

The lifeless keypad blazed into life as Alexander approached and he punched in his access code; the heavy door slid silently open in response. Designed to carry a full complement of marines and the kit they would need to affect boarding, the armory’s interior was as spacious as a pair of shuttlecraft.

Every inch was used: weapon racks, equipment boxes and armor stands, all arranged and secured. Though the armory was not as full as Alexander would have liked, the racks were only half full and many more boxes had been left in the shuttle bay when the attack started.

As the door closed behind them, Alexander heard the familiar hiss of pressurization and tore off his rebreather mask, it landed on an arming table with a clack.

”Incredible,” even through her suit’s filter, Sa’at’s voice was breathless.

“The Federation uses only the very best.” Alexander muttered as he moved to the armor stands. “The room’s pressurized if you want a few minutes of comfort.”

”Excuse me?”

“Your helmet,” he mimed its shape with his hands. “I imagine it’s getting pretty stuffy in there, what with all the recycled air. Besides, you might be able to repair that short.”

”Oh,” Sa’at seemed to take a moment to marshal her thoughts. ”I prefer the air in my suit, it…reminds me of better times, and the short can wait, our success does not hinge on a minor system of my suit.”

You have no idea how much your life does though. Alexander thought darkly, he had to resist the urge to grab one of the racked pistols and force her to take it off, Ares’ plea was the only thing that stayed his hand.

”Captain, Doctor,” Ares’ voice filled the armory as if on cue. ”It looks like our guests in the shuttle bay are preparing to disregard Doctor Sa’at’s warning and spread into the surrounding sections.”

Alexander kept his stare on her for a beat before he turned to a darkened display, “Show me Ares.”

The screen faded into life and gave them a real time view into the shuttle bay, two massive saurian-type creatures who must have been the Thraeic, five humans and three blue humanoids that reminded Alexander of goats; complete with hooves, tails and horns.

”Why does the camera angle seem so strange?” the doctor asked, her question referring to the almost bird’s eye angle.

“The Mars has two gunships for boarding missions, the Phobos and the Deimos. They’re berthed higher up in shuttle bay in docking clamps when we’re not using them, that’s why the odd angle.” Alexander answered as he kept his gaze on the screen.

They were clustered around the entrance to the shuttle bay with what looked to be scanning equipment. Back from that effort stood two more Thraeic, one looked to be the same size as the others while the second was a gigantic brute, towering over even his massive kin. The large one’s hand came up; the talons on it looked as deadly as scythes, the gesture clearly a visual counterpart to what was surely a verbal command. One of the humans scampered towards the pile of equipment and began to frantically rummage through it.

”That is Huthuur,” Sa’at’s voice betrayed both fear and loathing. ”Captain Orion’s chief lieutenant.”

Something tells me it wouldn’t be fun to go up against him. Acano thought drily as he continued to watch the screen. At last the human slaves finished with their scans and Acano watched as the Thraeic and Synnic pirates barreled through the hatch, that was enough for him.

”Wait!” Sa’at’s anguished shout made him pause as he turned towards his armor. ”Ares, freeze that image!”

The image showed the Thraeic and Synnic as they raced out the hatch but it also showed a trio of humans, a human female was currently focused on. “Wait…” Alexander trailed off as he realized what he was looking at.

”That is Cora,” her voice lacked the composure he’d grown accustomed to.
“She’s pregnant,” he continued when she remained silent. “What kind of scum brings a pregnant woman onto a depressurized ship?”

Alexander shrugged out of his jacket without waiting for an answer, shirt and pants came next until he stood in just his underwear. He quickly grabbed the undersuit and pulled his leg into it, then the other.

”What are you-“ Sa’at stopped as she turned her attention from the screen, her gaze focused squarely on him. ”Oh.”

“Take a picture why don’t you? It’ll last longer.” Alexander snapped as he shrugged into the undersuit and sealed it. “Can you tell me where they’re heading Ares?”

”It is impossible to say with certainty captain but based on their projected path their likely destination appears to be the bridge.” The AI had changed the image on the screen to a wireframe representation of the ship; a cluster of seven red, and three blue blips represented the advance party as they made their way up the decks; while a much larger cluster of red and blue blips, around twenty in total, remained stationary in the shuttle bay.

“Why the bridge?” Alexander fitted the chest piece over his head and sealed it around him, “and why bring the humans?”

”Before she was captured Cora flew as a pilot for one of the planetary carriers,” Sa’at replied as Alexander fitted the greaves, vambraces and other armor parts over top of the black undersuit. ”Perhaps Captain Orion believes that she can fly the ship away from here, or at least bring it under his direct control.”

A pilot…

***

The smell of burnt flesh scorched hair seeped into the smog filled haze of the bridge. Alexander gaged even before he could sit up and look around; consoles sparked and popped while the main display shivered in and out of static, it took him a minute to find his voice.

“Report,” he croaked. “Bridge officers, sound off!”

He heard groans from Ops and Weapons and their respective debris piles began to shift but the Conn…Poor Shilo’s console had exploded in his face after that last shot, his upper body and head were a charred mass of ruined flesh.

Suddenly Alexander knew where the wretched smell was coming from.


***

”Commander,” Doctor Sa’at lay a hand on his shoulder. ”Are you okay?”

“I-I’m fine,” Acano stammered as he became aware of the world around him again. “I’m fine.”

He shrugged off her hand and pushed away from the stand he had been leaning against, his confidence returned. The final piece of armor was the helm and he donned it, the snouted faceplate and glowing red eye lenses always reminded him of a daemonic beast.

With the helmet sealed and locked, his voice came out filtered and enhanced; designed to provoke fear in those that heard it. ”We’ve got to stop them before they make it to the bridge,” he fitted a boarding gauntlet over his left arm and moved towards the weapon racks. An FMP2 sidearm went into a thigh slot on his right plate while a mark four carbine was cradled in his hands, the magazines found their way into the various pouches in his armor…and there were a lot.

”Are you going to give me a weapon Commander?” Alexander could hear the wariness in her voice, she expected him to fight her on it.

She had good reason to think so; Alexander would never have given a civilian a weapon under normal circumstances…these were anything but normal circumstances. As he kept his gaze on her he made a conscious decision behind his impassive helmet to trust her.

He grabbed a tube of rubber bullets and gestured at the racks, ”Grab a sidearm, a carbine and some ammunition. Have you handled weapons before?”

”Uh,” she seemed a little off balance by his response. ”Yes, I have had training with rifles and pistols.”

”Good,” Alexander grunted as he moved to stand by the hatch. ”It’ll save us time on the way there. Ares, anything else we should know about before we leave?”

T’hali loaded up both her weapons and moved to his side as the AI gave his response. ”There is one other thing Captain. Three of the crates of carbines and 4.6x30mm ammunition have been moved to the enemy ship in the last hour by the human captives.”

”What makes this important Ares?” Alexander asked impatiently. “Besides the fact that they’re stealing our stuff.”

”According to my observations the crates have been moved without attracting the attention of the guards.”

”They smuggled them on!” T’hali’s voice was colored with admiration. ”Alloc must have decided to go ahead with his own plans independent of me.”

”Good to know.” Alexander grunted sarcastically and hit the door control, ”but we don’t have time for this. If those slavers make it to the bridge we’ll all be in trouble!”

The pair rushed into the gloom outside, armed and considerably dangerous. Alexander hadn’t had this much kit on in a long time and it felt good, it’d feel even better to kick some ass.

***

Alexander and T’hali came to a rough stop, behind them lay the ramp that sloped up to the Mars’ bridge. They had beaten the pirates but with only scant minutes to spare, Alexander could see they were almost there in his helmet feed.

”Go,” he ordered into the comlink and accompanied it with a short stabbing motion towards a nearby alcove. “Get into position.”

T’hali took a hesitant step and turned to face him, “You’re sure they won’t be able to detect us?”

“This is a Federation ship of the line T’hali,” Alexander failed to hide his exasperation. “The hull is both thick enough and shielded enough to block civilian scans. Once I start jamming their helmet recorders, their friends at the shuttle bay will be completely blind as to what’s happening.”

She turned back and proceeded to her hiding spot, concern still written over her shadowed features. Alexander huffed inside his helmet and melted into the shadows, he wasn’t about to tell her that he was only half sure about the hull.

As the pirates drew closer on his HUD, Alexander could see the play of headlamp beams down the corridor. He signaled T’hali to be ready and then gripped a grenade in his hand.

As he had seen on the Deimos’ cameras; the party consisted of two Thraeic, five Synnic and a trio of humans, their features all obscured behind bulky vac suits. The Thraeic simply wore rebreather masks, their tough hide proof against the cold and their massive bulk too constraining for any vacuum suit.

As the party drew closer his helmet identified their weapons: the Synnic all carried primitive mechanical firearms, their cased ammunition and mechanical parts meant they would jam easier in these conditions than his electric carbine with its caseless ammunition; the Thraeic each carried a massive blade that looked as tall as his shoulder and as thick as his thigh, Acano had no doubt that they would use them to deadly effect if given the chance; the humans were unarmed, not a shock considering they were captives.

Just when Alexander didn’t think she could wait any longer, T’hali came out of her alcove and appeared in front of the group. ”Hold your fire, hold your fire!”

It was a good thing she started to yell as she came out, the Synnic nearly blasted her anyway. ”Stop!” one of them bleated through their helmet. ”Stay where you are mutt!”

Alexander puzzled over the insult but kept his focus on the group; his grip tightened around the grenade’s ring.

”What the fuck happened to you pet,” One of the Thraeic growled through his mask. ”Decided to take a trip did you?”

”Actually I got lost Rastas,” even behind her helmet Alexander could hear the bite in her retort. ”This ship is like a maze, and with no comms I was unable to find my way back. Yours are the first familiar faces I’ve seen since I boarded and I’m running low on air, can any of you spare any?”

After a bit of grumbling between the Synnic and Thraeic, the lead Synnic pushed the closest slave, Cora, towards T’hali. “Take some of hers then!”

”Wait,” Rastas started forward. ”Boss says we need her-“

Alexander pulled the pin and chucked it, it bounced off the Thraeic’s shin and landed on the deck at his feet. He looked down with a grunt of surprise and looked up almost comically before the flashbang went off.

T’hali had already been in motion; she grabbed Cora and shielded her from what was to come. As his visor depolarized from the blast of light, Alexander could already tell that the flashbang had been effective.

One of the big Thraeic writhed on the deck, blood dripped from his ears and nose and he pawed at his eyes. Rastas was hunched over with his palms in his eyes, his efforts to see were in vain for the moment.

Alexander rose from his crouch and squeezed the trigger on his carbine’s underslung launcher; the rubber round nailed Rastas in the sternum and sent him back against the wall.

With no time to reload, Alexander flipped his carbine to repetitious fire and drilled a pair of holes in a Synnic, his vac suited form crumpled to the deck in a heap. From her position on the deck T’hali drew her sidearm and shot the lead Synnic twice in the chest he spasmed twice on the deck and lay still.

The other three Synnic dove for cover on different sides of the hall, while the humans scrambled into the adjoining corridors of the intersection. Alexander took a bead on one of the Synnic and fired, his shot smashed into the wall above the pirate as a vice-like grip yanked him back.

His world spun and tumbled twice until he finally came to a rest on the corridor floor, dazed and disoriented. He looked up through his shivering HUD and saw Rastas, the rubber bullet clearly hadn’t put the monster down.

Acano climbed to his feet as the brute lumbered at him like a freight train and reached for his weapon. It was gone. Without pause Acano brought his gauntlet up and switched to the heat ray, with an outstretched palm sprayed it at Rastas.

The “Heat Ray” was actually a radioactive emitter that launched a highly concentrated ray of microwave particles at a target. It depended at the frequency (which he had flipped to maximum) but the user was supposed to be able to put an elephant down from the pain.

Rastas let out a thoroughly inhuman howl as he dropped to his knees, the Heat Ray fooled him into thinking he was on fire. The he got up again, first on one foot and then the other, and charged towards Alexander.

Two steps later and his massive fist smashed into Alexander’s plate, the commander was launched into the corridor wall with all the force of a bullet. Alexander’s helmet sparked and the jamming signal on his HUD disappeared; signals could escape the section now.

The sounds of T’hali’s battle against the slavers faded as they giant loomed over Alexander, his hulking form as imposing as fate itself. “Puny weakling,” Rastas growled from behind his mask. “Your game is over…you are over.”

Ares, now! Alexander subvocalized but aloud he snarled. “My ship, my rules!”

With no warning the gravity disengaged and Rastas found himself much lighter than before. Alexander rolled over and showed his gauntlet, its firing mode now changed to a force pulse. With an outstretched hand, a blast of raw kinetic energy smashed into the Thraeic and sent him into the opposite wall as if fired from a cannon.

Acano fired a second and third time, until he was sure that the brute truly was stunned. The he switched the gauntlet to its final mode; an expanding foam launcher. The foam left the launcher with a woosh and sprayed all over the Thraeic, its properties quickly bound him to the wall.

Only when he was sure that the Thraeic wasn’t going anywhere did he get Ares to switch on the gravity. Alexander landed on his back with a grunt and lay there panting, simply happy to be alive.

A gloved hand appeared in his field of view, T’hali’s. He took it and she pulled him back to his feet, behind her Alexander could see the slaves getting back to their feet.

”You might have warned me you were going to do that.” Despite the annoyance in her voice Alexander could see the smile on her features, she too was happy it had worked.

”Sorry, I didn’t think your buddy there would stop and give me a chance to warn you.”

Instead of an answer, T’hali turned to face the slaves. ”Cora, Sean and Jessie this is Commander Acano. His armor looks frightening but he is a friend, he will lead you to somewhere safe.”

”Yeah you’d better get going now, I don’t think it’s going to take them long to figure out what happened here.”

She shot him an ‘I-told-you-so’ look and ran back down the corridor, taking a turn and disappearing from sight.

T’hali jogged down the long corridor toward the shuttle bay. The intoxicating adrenaline in her veins not quite enough to overpower the dread that was growing in her mind. If anything had gone wrong, and signal broken through, she would be killed, along with the crew of the Brand.

“Will you protect my friends, Aries?” She asked, checking her weapon again and slipping it into her pocket.

“The Captain will see they are looked after. He is a good man, Doctor Sa’at.”

T’hali smiled, “Will you tell them, and the Commander, should things go poorly, that is has been my honor to know them.”

“You speak bleakly.” Aries answered.

“You have calculated my odds,” She answered with a chuckle, “I speak realistically.”

Aries paused, “I will tell them, Doctor.”

T’hali rounded the corner, the view of the large shuttlebay door, now swung open on it’s hinges, stood to greet her. She crossed her chest as her mother always did, her breath caught in her lungs. “May God grant me favor.” She whispered.

She paused at the entrance, stooped to rest her hands on her knees. “Huthuur, Who opened this door?” She questioned, a nod directed toward the offending breach.

The entirety of the shuttle bay’s occupants turned to meet her, their weapons drawn. Not a single slave remained. A concerning observation.

“Woah, a little jumpy are we?” She asked, her arms raised in surrender. Huthuur lowered his massive cleaver, and the others followed suit.

“Dammit pet, I was hoping you'd be dead.” He growled.

“And lose the opportunity to do it yourself? I'm surprised.” She but back, “Can you connect me to the captain? Something interfered with the Com and there are parts of the ship that are contaminated. We cannot send a crew until I am able to upload the layout.”

Huthuur snarled in her direction, clicking on the radio at his ear, the Captain’s voice suddenly projected into the room.

“Good to see you alive, T’hali.” The captain began, an arrogant bite to his tone. “Good to see your new friend did not interfere with your return to us.”

Her blood felt suddenly cold.

“New friend?” T’hali questioned, hoping he might be testing and not yet have proof of her involvement. A long shot, but worth the attempt. She resisted the urge to turn to the others, to measure their lessening distance; to take stock in whom she would need to neutralize first in order to flee again into the ship’s belly.

“Yes, a tall gentleman it seems, a red-eyed demon not unlike yourself. Killed the scouting party and seems to have taken my pilot.”

“A red-eyed demon, Captain? There is no one alive on this ship, I saw the bodies myself.” She allowed her tone to grow more apprehensive, “And what pilot?”

“You do not believe me, Doctor?” The captain continued, his expression showing a slight trace of change. She felt the great, hulking claw of Huthuur wrap around her shoulder.

“Huthuur, be gentle with my pet.” The captain continued, “Her betrayal won’t lead to her death until she watches the others die first.”

The instrument panel to T’hali’s right began to glow, the large command center for the shudder bay’s massive outer doors suddenly descript with luminous blue letters.

An alarm on the Brand began to sound.

“Bastards are syphoning our power!” The loudspeaker announced on the Brand, echoing through the Captain’s feed.

The Captain roared. “Bring her here!”

T’hali pulled from Huthuur’s grip and lunged for the control panel, wrapping her arm through a bundled mess of cables at its base. Her palm slammed into the emergency release. Her fingers finding the newly exposed lever, she pulled.

The alarm sounded. “Shuttle bay doors opening.”

The shuttle bay doors creaked open, the pressure ejecting the contents of the shuttlebay into the blackness.

And all was silent.

T’hali screamed as the pressure pulled against her forearm, the bone threatening to break as the void reached out to claim her. Huthuurs massive weight tugged on her leg, his claws buried deep into the protective layers around her calf. She watched the slavers, one by one fall free of their grip, tossed into the blackness. The remnants, three who had secured themselves as forcibly as she, would not be eliminated so easily.

“Shut the doors, Aries!” She cried. In an instant the door shut, herself and Huthuur slammed into the steel floor.

With a furious kick she removed Huthuurs breather, his grip digging tighter into her calf, even as his eyes began to bleed.

She pushed herself closer to him, wrapping her free leg around his massive throat, her elbow driven again and again into his exposed eyes. She planted it into his right, pushing until she felt the orb give way.

She felt his body quake beneath her, his massive arm twisting from under him and taking hold of her torso. With one vulgar motion he threw her into the path of the other two Thraeic slavers, who, with breathers still intact, now rallied together to come to their companions aid.

She drew the pistol from her pocket and fired two rounds into the nearer beast, it’s throat erupting in blood as it toppled under its own weight. She rolled to her side and placed another round in Huthuur’s temple. His head jogged to the side and slumped.

The third reached her, its massive arms lifting her off the ground and in one furious motion return her to it. She felt the metal spine of her suit dig into her own, the air pushed from her lungs.

“Get up T’hali.” She growled to herself, the taste of her own blood on her tongue.

He lifted his fists above its head, and together brought them down.

She planted her feet and lunged forward, the object of her focus strapped to its belt.

Thraeic liked knives, and this particular knife, was thick enough to penetrate even Thraeic hide.

The overhead blow missed its target and slammed into the floor. T’hali’s aim, however, was more precise. Taking the knife in both hands she plunged it into the Thraeic’s ribs, tearing the hide from sternum to spine.

It recoiled, “Bloody Mutt!” It choked, blood pouring from its mouth.

“I will make sure they know it was me that killed you, Hessef.” She growled in Thraeic, as she watched the creature sway on its feet. “The children you killed will rest peacefully now that you are dead.”

Its face contorted and it fell.

She returned to the one she had shot, and straddling its massive body, slid the blade twice more into its neck.

Then to Huthuur. She was hesitant to get within his range. The pulse throbbed at his throat, his remaining eye still bled, as the hole that once housed the other pooled with gore. She stepped close, placing the blade’s tip behind the creature's ear and plunging it upward. The pulse ceased.

T’hali stood erect, taking stock in the throbbing that now threatened to overtake her. Her calf, her back, her torso. She swallowed the blood that filled her mouth, unable to spit it out.

“Aries?”

“We are here, Doctor.” Aries answered.

“Where is the Brand?”

“Gone, Doctor.”

“Do we have the power to follow it? The slaves, they’ll,”

“Come with me, T’hali,” Commander Acano’s voice interrupted. She turned to see his frame leaned against the shuttlebay door behind her, pistol in hand. “We will discuss the next steps when I have more information.”

“Commander,” T’hali pleaded, her free hand on her heart, “Please, he will kill,”

“We will discuss it.” He cut off sharply. “ Drop the knife, leave your pistol, and come with me.”

~~~~

“Doctor Sa’at,” The Commander interrupted her objections, his brow furrowed above his straight nose. “I will do nothing until I know what I am up against, and that includes you.”

“Commander, I assure you, I mean no harm to you or this crew. I am a doctor for God’s sake, Aries has run my record.”

“I saw you in combat, Sa’at. You do not move like a doctor. Hell, you don’t even move like a human. No woman your size, even with your height, possesses anywhere close to that strength. I will not so much as consider your slaves a resource until I know what you are.”

“They are my people, Commander.” She replied, knowing already her defeat. “Will you not pursue them before he sends them into the void or worse?”

“Show me what you are and we can discuss then, and only then, what I will do to return them to you.”

“I advise you obey, Doctor.” Aries interjected, followed by the sharp glance from the commander.

T’hali removed one bloodied glove and then the other, tossing them unceremoniously onto the table at her right, lifting long fingers to unplug the connections at the base of the helmet.

The helmet clicked free, and pressing both palms to its sides, T’hali lifted the protective barrier off and set it beside the gloves.

“What?...” Commander Acano began, his head tilted slightly to the right, his eyes boring into her. She licked her full lips and averted her gaze. “Care to explain what exactly you are, Doctor?”

“The majority of my DNA is human.” T’hali answered, unsure how to begin.

The commander crossed his arms, “And the rest? Those red eyes are hardly human.” He answered.

She let out a soft breath through parted lips. “Rhalian.”

He turned away a moment, his head shaking, “You are the product of a Rhalian and a human?” He asked, disbelief hardly masked.

“The species has greatly evolved since your time, Commander, but yes. My Father is Rhalian, my mother human.”

“Impossible.”

“Her record agrees, Captain.” Aries interjected, “As does the scans I performed as she entered. She is as she says.”

“We look much different, but we hold some similar traits to the Rhalians you may have fought, Commander. I am sure you recognize these,” She lifted her lip in a snarl, revealing a pointed fang, before drawing her fingers over the scales that ran along her hairline, behind her ears and down her spine. “and these. My Rhalian blood, along with a great deal of training, is also what gives me the additional strength and agility you witnessed today.”

Commander Acano turned to the projected image of Aries, a look of unmistakable fury behind his eyes. “A Rhalian, Aries?”

“Captain, if I may.” T’hali interjected, “The Collective is much different now than it did when you were at war.”

“When we were at war?” He growled, “we are still at war! It was the Rhalian’s that destroyed so many ships, killed so many men!”

T’hali took in a quick breath, “Commander, I am afraid you are misinformed. The Rhalians have not been at war with the humans for more than 400 years. Not since the invasion in the 2400’s. ”

The commander grew silent, before his already light skin went white, his hand gripping the back of a chair in a moment of dizziness. “Aries.”

“Confirmed, Captain. It is 2947. The Rhalian war ended 4 years after the year the crew went into stasis.” Aries answered.

The Commander steadied himself, his composure, but not his color, having returned. The man’s willpower astounded her.

“And what are the Rhalian’s now?” The commander interrupted, his eyes distant but his tone firm.

“We are peaceful, altruistic, democratic. We are not the warmongering, scavenging invaders that fought against the Federation any longer.”

Alexander scoffed, his officers professionalism cracking for just a moment. “You hardly move like a woman who came from a peaceful society, Doctor.”

“We are peaceful, Commander, we are not ill prepared. Gentle men can still grow angry, and peaceful men are still capable of violence.”

“Aries, lead the doctor to the medical bay and her peers. Doctor Sa’at, as well as the other slaves from the Brand, will wait there until we are able to review their files, and the history of this new collective, more completely.”

“But Commander.” T’hali objected, as calmly and respectfully as she could muster, “The Brand is gone, with hundreds of others on board. If we do not go after them, they will be sold again or worse. You are not an immoral man, please, we must retrieve them. And quickly.”

“It will be discussed, Doctor Sa’at.” Commander Acano replied, his hand raised in exasperation. “Go quietly or you will wait in the brig, is that clear?”

T’hali bowed her head as the door behind her opened, Aries directions laid out as illumination on the floor.

“Very well, Commander.”

~~~~

T’hali once again found herself confined, though this was not a cell like the one she had left. Instead, it was comfortable, clean, and extraordinarily advanced, even by the day’s standard. Had the door not automatically locked behind her, she would have felt almost comfortable.

“There are scrubs located in the room to your left, as well as rations left for you by the Captain. Please use what you need to repair yourself and your companions, but be mindful of limited resources. Your companions are in the adjacent room. I will call for you when the Captain is convinced. Take heart, Doctor Sa’at.” Aires encouraged with a smile.

“Thank you. Aries, if the captain allows, may I send a message? My family, my father and brothers on the home world, my sister on Cassia, they must believe that I am dead. Can I inform them otherwise?”

“Craft your message on the terminal there, and I will send it with the captain’s approval.” Aries answered.

The image of the hoplite disappeared, leaving T’hali alone with her thoughts. She pressed her palms to her face and sobbed; quiet, hopeless sobs of relief, fear, and failure.

The door to her right opened with a hiss, her friends, led by Cora, appearing through the narrow opening. They were clean; dressed in the pure white of a patient, their bruises and cuts and emaciated faces all the more emphasized by their cleanliness.

Cora wrapped her arms around T’hali, her protruding baby bump forcing a greater distance between them than when they had last embraced. “What happened?” Cora asked quietly, her tone betraying that she feared the worst.

“The Brand has escaped, with a skeleton crew. It seems Alloc is planning to take the ship. Weapons were missing from the hold.”

“Are we going after them?” Jesse asked, his heavy brow furrowed.

“The Captain is considering it. I am afraid he is hesitant.”

“Why?” Cora asked.

“He wants to ensure victory, I think.” She lied, “he is reviewing the files he pulled from the Brand. Pray that he listens. If he does not go after them, we will barter passage elsewhere and go after them ourselves.” She took Cora’s face in both her hands, “I will not allow you to be separated from your husband for long.”

Cora smiled, “T’hali, it was never your responsibility to save us. Go, clean yourself up, there is food in the cabin there. The Captain has been kind to us. I have faith that he will do what is right.”

T’hali smiled and nodded, wiping the tears from her cheeks, “I am sure he will.”

T’hali moved into the humble quarters meant for the chief medical officer, or so she assumed. It had already been decorated, and a man’s clothing and essentials had been laid out in the bathroom.

Being cautious to not disturb his things, she showered and gazed in disbelief at her newly scrubbed form. Bruises already formed along her torso, calf, back and hands. Scales were missing from the back of her neck, and blood pooled at her temple, ear and from her split lip. But it was not her injuries that made her feel sick. It was her frame. Once well muscled and soft, her frame was now lean. The muscles in her abdomen were visible at rest, her ribs and hip bones obvious beneath her white skin. Her cheeks were thinner, her jaw more pronounced.

She wrapped a bandage around her torso and calf, dressed the bleeding wounds on her head, and dressed in the clean, charcoal colored scrubs left for her.

She sat on the medical officer's bed, feeling the comfort of carpet under her bare feet.

“He is ready to speak with you, Doctor.” Aries’ voice broke the silence.

~~~~~~~~

The commander sat at the head of the table, his eyes red, his hands folded over his mouth. T’hali pulled her long hair over her shoulder, waiting for his response, her heart breaking for his newly discovered loss.

“I have reviewed the logs, as well as yours, and the other slaves, records. It seems a lot has changed since the Mars put us to sleep. I can’t trust you yet, but I will bargain with you. I cannot pursue the Brand without our drive, and I cannot get our drive online without the Parthian. It’s stasis chamber reads no life, but Parthians are,” He seemed to search for the word.

“Complex.” T’hali offered.

“Complex.” He agreed, “Bring the Parthian back to life, and assist with the waking of my remaining crew. You do this, and we will seek the Brand.”

“Agreed.” T’hali answered.
Sparks gysered from auxiliary consoles and cascaded from the ceiling; fire crackled and popped in the destroyed helm station, while the operations and weapons stations were buried under debris.

Alexander staggered to his feet and took a faltering step towards Shilo’s station; blood from the gash above his left eye blurred his vision with a ragged, red sheet. Even with only half his vision Alexander could clearly see the still form of Lieutenant Shilo, to say nothing of the smell.

The conn officer was dead and Alexander couldn’t afford to mourn him right then, none of them could.

“Report! Bridge officers, sound off!” Far from a bark of command, Acano’s voice came out as little more than a parched rasp. It was enough though; from underneath shifting rubble piles he could hear the groans of Culhane and Grover.

Satisfied that they were alive, he turned to where Verde had been standing at his right.

Her prone form was on the far side of the command deck, crumpled and immobile like a used shirt.

“No, no, no, no!” His murmurs grew louder with horror as he rushed to her. “Maria!”

His hands trembled as he gripped her shoulder; it was slack, like a corpse’s. Her neck canted at a sickeningly unnatural angle and her vacant features seemed to pin his very soul in place; it wasn’t Maria Verde who lay before him with her neck broken but Melissa Luzi…his fiancé.

He awoke with a cry, an expression of anguish so raw and primal that it sounded closer to a roar. He staggered through his darkened quarters until he stepped into the bathroom, lights blazed into existence automatically at his entrance.

Recycled water issued from the tap with a gush; Alexander cupped his hands under it and splashed his face, multiple times. He shut the tap when he was done and leaned against the basin, careful not to look in the mirror just above him.

One look, one glimpse of the sad man he had become was all it would take for him to break down. Melissa, his brother Raphael, his parents, friends, colleagues, the Federation and even the time he belonged to…all gone.

The grief rose up like a tsunami, a titanic wave of sorrow and depression that threatened to wipe him out. His eyes stung and Alexander knew he was dangerously close to the abyss.

He turned away from the washbasin and focused on the digital chronometer beside his bed, willing the tears to go away until the blurry numbers sharpened into focus. 00:46, the red numbers indicated it was almost one in the morning Earth Standard Time.

He’d managed to fit in almost four hours sleep; not bad when he considered that the attack was only a little over an hour away but not good when he considered it was the first real sleep he’d gotten in 46 hours.

The last few days had been a maelstrom of activity on the Mars: waking the remaining crew (of the 23 who had entered stasis, 17 were able to be revived), repairs to the ship and coming to terms with their new situation.

The Rahlian doctor had been true to her word and brought Chief Saelis back from the brink of death after 19 hours of surgery, her only breaks were to assist in the revival of the crew. With the Parthian engineer able to supervise, the repairs proceeded at a rapid pace, the crew eager to throw themselves into work that took their minds off the existential horror of it all.

With the FTL drive, weapons, and other primary systems restored, it had been time for Alexander to be true to his word and free her people. Using the database she’d given Ares, plus the data he’d extracted during his brief connection with the Griffith’s Brand and information gathered from debriefings with Dr. Sa’at and her three colleagues, they had constructed a rough model of their area of operations.

In Alexander’s time, the system they approached had only been newly discovered. Still just a number in the ship’s database, it had only basic repair and refueling facilities to compliment a tiny colony on the surface of the only habitable planet in the system.

Dr. Sa’at’s debriefing revealed how much it had changed in the almost five century interregnum. The star had been dubbed Cassian and the planet Tahar, T’hali could offer no explanation for either change. The minor orbital support station had grown into a massive command and control center for pirate operations that spanned the entire sector; complete with defense emplacements and orbital production facilities for low-tonnage vessels.

The star itself had undergone a considerable change; a hotter G-type star, a failed attempt by the Federation early in the war to detonate it into a supernova caused a core loss that ballooned it into a Red Supergiant; eventually it would go supernova but in the ‘short’ term, it engulfed the other three planets in the system and turned Tahar into an uninhabitable hellscape.

What hadn’t changed since Alexander’s time was the abundance of resources buried under Tahar’s blasted sands and encased in its moon: iron, cobalt, nickel under the planet’s crust; and aluminum, titanium and manganese in its moon made the system an obvious candidate for ship construction.

All in all, Alexander was impressed with the pirates’ choice for their base of operations. Materials from the planet were drawn out by slave labor on massive, tracked cities (to keep on the night side) and used in the docks to produce ships. Radiation output from the dammned Cassian star ensured any ship that attempted to enter their space would be blind and easily dealt with by their patrols (if not cooked by the star).

Alexander had a few tricks to combat those advantages, mainly hardened sensors and radiation shielded hull armor. The pirates would have to shut down all but their most hardened sensors to operate in such an environment, so would he, but Alexander was willing to be they were more blind than the Mars. If that was the case, then they could pick them off one by one; no matter how superior their numbers.

With a start Alexander realized that he was already pulling on his uniform’s undershirt, clearly he wasn’t going to get any more sleep. He gave a short sigh and continued to dress; he might as well get one final briefing with everyone in CIC before the battle.

“Ares…”

***

They stood before him less than twenty minutes later, a small group with a clear dividing line. On his left were the soldiers and sailors of the Federation, men and women who shared the same loss as he. They stood at relative ease around each other; the bonds they’d developed clearly endured almost five centuries later.

Chief Petty Officer Grover and Master Sergeant Samuel Miller stood side-by-side, posture relaxed but still respectful. As veteran NCOs, they had been through enough briefings before to know what to expect, the most comfortable position to stand in and just how much they could get away with. While their faces were stone in a way only years of practice could have given, Alexander thought he could detect trace amounts of respect under their masks; he had led them into combat once and survived…could he do it again?

Let’s hope so, Alexander thought as he turned his gaze. For all our sakes

Next in line was Lieutenant Culhane; clearly the most uncomfortable of the Federation contingent, his eyes alternated between the deck and the ceiling while he rubbed at his arm. Alexander didn’t know whether it was the battle to come, his promotion to XO or the fact that he stood directly in front of the Rhalian doctor…he was willing to bet it was all three. Alexander felt for him but he’d have to shape up fast if he was going to remain XO, otherwise he could get them all killed.

On his right was T’hali Sa’at, the doctor that had set all this in motion. She stood in her custom EVA suit, her helmet off. Her eyes were pits of fathomless scarlet, marked with the slit of a pitless black pupil down their centers; all but impossible to read. She was undeniably Rhalian and had lied to him about it but she had also saved his life, along with Saelis and everyone else on the ship.

His feelings towards her were…complicated, to say the least.

His eyes settled on Cora, the pregnant slave they had taken on board since the Griffith’s Brand fled. She gazed around the CIC with a subdued awe, a marked reduction of her near giddiness a few days before. Alexander had spent some time with her on the bridge; familiarizing her with the helm controls, and from what he’d seen, he liked her. After she got over her initial nervousness towards him and child-like awe of the ship, she was an eager student who listened more than she talked, and approached the controls with a competence and control that confirmed her previous spaceflight experience.

How would she do under pressure though?

The five of them, plus Alexander made up what he would call the senior staff; a skeleton crew by Federation standards. Acano shrugged internally, they would make do with what and whom they had.

Ares’ avatar blazed into holographic existence beside them, his hoplite’s attire a sharp contrast to the others. ”Thirty-seven minutes until we exit faster than light transit captain.”

“Acknowledged Ares, this won’t take long.” He turned to address the rest of the group. “Alright people, this is it. In a little under forty minutes we’re going to drop back to normal space and make contact with the enemy.”

Alexander could see the slight unease on the faces of his Federation crew, none of them wanted to die for some Rhalian fool’s errand, he couldn’t say as he blamed them but a deal was a deal.

“Our primary objective is this ship, the Griffith’s Brand.” He indicated a blip on the tactical map, an estimated projection by Ares of where the ship would most likely be when they dropped out. “Over a hundred people are being held there as slaves and we’re going to free them.”

Alexander caught a faint nod from T’hali out of the corner of his eye. “Our secondary objective is that station; it was a Federation military outpost during the war and its data banks will have information that we can use to find pockets of friendly forces, not to mention supplies, fuel and weapons that we can use to complete the provisioning of this ship.”

Alexander’s skepticism bubbled up within him as he spoke, five centuries was a long time for any friendly forces to even still exist but what was the alternative? Alexander was a soldier first; he acted on orders, not on his own. He needed to find some sort of command structure, someone who could give him direction in this unrecognizable space and time.

“Our mission will be carried out in three phases: phase one involves the Mars dropping to real space at the edge of the system, we’ll gather updated intelligence and engage our Emissions Concealment System before moving deeper in; phase two will be the main thrust, two boarding parties will depart the Mars, one led by Master Sergeant Miller on the Phobos and the other by myself on the Deimos, our targets will be the target ship and the station respectively; phase three will be the withdrawal, once both teams have completed their objectives the now friendly Griffith’s Brand will make for normal space at maximum sublight speeds while the Mars provides cover and support. Questions?”

“Composition of the teams sir?” Miller asked after Alexander acknowledged his raised hand.

“Phobos team will be you, Dr. Sa’at, Corporal Minoza, Private Richards, Sean and Jessie; Deimos team will consist of myself, Sergeant Stevens, Corporal Mulhaney, Private Topher and Private Shazi.”

Miller nodded and said nothing further; Alexander was confident that his team selections were appropriate to their missions but it was always good to get the senior marine noncom’s endorsement on them too.

“Just to be clear sir,” Culhane’s hand was the next to be answered. “This mission is based around stealth?”

“Correct,” Alexander detected a hint of fear in the Ensign’s voice but then it was his first command experience. “This should be more of a raid than a battle and if all goes to plan, the Mars might not even take fire at all.”

***

Sparks gysered from auxiliary consoles and cascaded from the ceiling; Alexander was struck by déjà vu for a moment, the real world was mirroring his dream earlier.

“Report!”

“Two ships off our starboard bow, bearing two-seven-four mark three-two-one!” Culhane responded from his seat at ops.

“Damage?” Alexander scowled as he gripped the bridge railing, already his plan had been derailed and the mission hadn’t even begun.

“Minimal sir,” Culhane’s focus on his station was absolute. “They’re firing low impact rounds filled with a low grade radioactive isotope.”

“Those bastards are trying to light us up like a supernova!” Alexander growled as he turned to Grover. “Weaps, target the starboard array at those two ships and fire at will!”

Grover’s hands flew over her touch screen as she plotted firing solutions and input commands. “Aye sir, firing!”

The ship’s Directed Energy Weapon array on the starboard side brightened to a hellish orange glow before it discharged two lances of energy into the hostile ships. With an energy output of four megawatts per emitter that travelled at over 300 million miles per second, the two pirate craft never had a chance.

The upgunned freighter on the left took a direct shot to the reactor and disappeared in a bright orange fireball; the righthand cutter’s bridge exploded and she drifted aimlessly, her foredecks burned.

Onboard the Mars the lights dimmed and the displays flickered, Chief Saelis’ annoyed voice came over the com almost immediately. ”Cease fire from the Cerberus arrays bridge, I’m getting dangerous readings from the reactor. Any more shots like that and we could be looking at a large scale breech!

“Acknowledged engineering,” Alexander tried to keep the annoyance out of his voice at loosing a valuable weapon system. “Secure from Cerberus Weaps, we shouldn’t need them again for awhile.”

“Secure from Cerberus system, aye sir.”

“Ops, go to full EMCON and give me an update on hostile contacts in the system.”

“Engage ECS, aye.” Culhane spoke to the room. “Ares, commence fifteen minute countdown on my mark…mark!”

”Commencing countdown, heat sink containment failure in six hours.

The Mars had banks of heat sinks that ran the entire length of the ship,; they could store the emissions radiated by the engines for a relatively short period of time, effectively making the ship invisible with its matte hull.

“Sir,” Culhane’s call snapped Acano to attention. “Sensors are limited but according to the telemetry I am getting, we’ve got three cutters inbound to our position in a classic wedge.”

“It’s a good bet they know we’re here,” Alexander mused as he gripped the railing. “But that doesn’t mean they know where we are. Cora, thrusters one quarter, heading zero-two-zero by three-one-two.”

“Thrusters to one quarter, course zero-two-zero by three-one-two aye sir.”

Cora seemed to be handling her first combat pretty well; Alexander was impressed and hated the idea that she’d be gone after this, good pilots would be hard to find in this new era. He brushed thoughts of the future aside and turned to the tacmap, its traces constantly updated by Ares.

The enemy ships rushed towards their previous position as a triangular shaped constellation of three red blips, further into the system the blips were more numerous and clustered around the gravity well of the planet.

“Weaps; load tubes one and two with Mark 6’s, make firing solutions for the enemy patrol approaching our position and standby for my fire order.” A feral rush filled him as he spoke, he was the hunter and the pirates his prey.

“Tubes one and two standing by,” Grover spoke after a moment’s preparation. “Ready for your firing order sir.”

Alexander’s breath was deafening loud in his ears and his heart seemed to pound as he watched the contacts; closer…closer…closer. “Fire!”

“Firing!”

The two antimatter torpedoes struck out into the void, their propellant sent them towards their targets on columns of fire. The ragged wedge that the pirates had pulled their ships into disintegrated once the torpedoes impacted; two of the ships exploded outright, their reactors mushrooming into brilliant orange fireballs and the shrapnel from their deaths crippled the third ship.

The battle had barely even begun and already five ships were out of the fight, Alexander knew the ship had to displace, as the enemy would be able to track them based on the trajectory of their torpedoes. “Conn, fire the maneuvering thrusters on a random bearing, get us out of their line of fire!”

“Maneuvering thrusters on a random bearing, aye commander.” Cora’s reply was tight with emotion and Alexander knew why.

“Commander, those ships-“

“I know, I know.” Alexander cut off Dr. Sa’at with a handwave, “Ares, analyze playback and compare hull geometries of our assailants with those of the Griffith’s Brand.”

”Comparing,” Ares’ replied, his synthized voice devoid of tone. ”No match sir, none of the ships we neutralized were the Griffith’s Brand.”

Sa’at and Cora both made matching noises of relief; Alexander affected not to notice as he spoke. “See? Not a problem. We’re at full EMCON, we’ve dealt the enemy serious losses and our target is still out there.” He turned to the holographic hoplite. “Ares tell the crews to man their shuttles and stand by for launch, I want them out the shuttle bay the second we’re in range and we’ve made a positive identification of the Griffith’s Brand.”

”Understood sir, will you be joining the station team on the Deimos?”

“You’re goddamn right I will Ares,” Alexander replied as he turned to the bridge exit, he knew he would have to make a stop by the armoury on the way. “Mister Culhane, you have the Conn.”

“Aye sir,” the young man’s voice cracked from nervousness.

Alexander stopped and turned to face his new XO. “Relax, take a deep breath and remember the Chief Grover’s the one who’s actually in charge.” He added the last with a smirk.

The young man nodded and even managed a smile of his own, visibly relieved; the chief gave a rueful smile and shook her head.

“As you were,” Alexander turned and resumed his journey to the armoury.

© Copyright 2017 Undead Detective, Kat, (known as GROUP).
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