by SGT Pepper
The Pirates are beating the Allies at every turn. Only a miracle can save Jericho.
|The USS Apache had been at General Quarters for over twelve hours. All hands at their battle-stations for twelve hours. No sleep. No rest. As Churchill once said, "...nothing but blood, sweat, toil, and tears" for twelve long hours.
For those twelve hours all ships in-system had been playing cat-and-mouse with the enemy battle-group. Twelve hours they'd kept the enemy busy. Twelve hours of relentless attack and retreat.
Of the nine ships that had been assigned to guard Jericho, only 3 were left. Their reactors low on power, their magazines running dry on ammo, and all viable man-power almost extinguished, the Apache, the USS Mohican (the Apache's sister ship), and the HMS Plantagenet had two options. Retreat and leave the 9 million citizens of Jericho to be exterminated, or stand firm and go down swinging. ALLIED FLEETCOM had made abundantly clear that they needed every ship they could muster if they were to prevent the other super-powers from laying claim to allied worlds and stop the advancing horde of Pirates from reaching the core systems. HIGHCOM, however, had the final say. The current standing order had been issued shortly after the fall of Paradis de la Mer. In no specific terms, official policy was to stop the enemy or die trying. At 2234 Zulu time, seven hours into the battle, HIGHCOM had issued the infamous "victory of death" order. Such an order had never before resulted in "victory," and there was no reason to believe this battle would end in anything but "death."
Captain Hathcock had been summoned to the bridge of the Apache halfway through the first sleep cycle he'd be allowed in the last 48 hours. He was now, needless to say, tired. "Dead to the world," as his first CO had often said. He had been woken no less than three hours after rolling into his rack by the flashing of red lights and the blare of klaxon sirens. He had been dressed in four minutes and on the bridge in two. Now he wouldn't dare sit down for fear of the off-switch that was installed on the ass of every sailor. Even standing, he was in a constant state of touch-and-go.
Already he could tell that the defense of Jericho would be one for the history books. A small battle-group rated for nothing more dangerous than rear-guard duties fighting a superior invasion force with at least a 5-1 advantage to a stalemate. Or what passed for a stalemate in this war. Three badly beaten-up frigates holding position in the shadow of Jericho's moon, Joshua, while the five remaining enemy vessels regrouped and plotted their next move. Or stonewalled their adversaries until reinforcements arrived.
With the Napoleon Corridor blockaded, the Apollo battle-group, the reactionary force designated to the Jericho, Paris, and Rome systems, was still another eight hours away. The area of space-time surrounding the Jericho system was so warped and unpredictable that there were only a hand-full of safe ways to reach the system without the risk of dropping through a hole in the fabric of existence. The fastest and safest route was named after the French sloop that discovered it, Napoleon's Revenge. FLEETCOM had assured Vice-Admiral Wilson that the fleet was doing everything it could to free up the corridor long enough to send reinforcements. Now the Vice-Admiral was dead, floating somewhere in the space around the planet, killed when he ordered his flag-ship, the cruiser Ticonderoga, surrounded and beaten, to overload it's nuclear reactor, destroying itself, the enemy's carrier, and two frigates in the blast.
One cruiser, three destroyers, and two frigates lost for almost ninety percent of the Pirate's invasion force. A good trade by recent standards. And now, low on everything, his back to the wall, the Captain had no choice but to follow the late Vice-Admiral's shining example. Delay the deaths of millions of civilians with the deaths of thousands of sailors.
LT Vicars, the operations officer, snapped to attention and looked up from his monitor with fear in his eyes. "Captain, a new contact has just jumped in-system."
Hathcock's blood ran cold. Fear gripped him and his stomach did a flip in his gut. We're too late. His face, however, betrayed nothing. He set his jaw a said in a loud, commanding voice, "Report, Lieutenant. How many are there?"
Vicars frowned. Then whispered into his headset, double checking something. "Sir, I only count one signal." He stopped and looked up. "Captain, it's one of ours."
"Impossible. Our equipment must be malfunctioning," said Hathcock.
"Sir, I show green across the board and the techies have confirmed it," replied Vicars. "They're sending a burst transmission now. Standby to receive."
LT Marland, the communications officer, adjusted something at her workstation. "Receiving. Piping the audio now."
A hiss of static, then the calm, clear voice of a man. "This is Commodore Wolfe of the USS Avenger. All receiving ships are hereby ordered to make ready to jump out-system and return to friendly space via the Napoleon Corridor. Repeat, all receiving vessels will jump out-system. The blockade has been temporarily lifted. This is a Priority One order, codeword KING-OF-THE-HILL. Good luck. Wolfe, out."
The entire bridge crew stared in disbelief. A Priority One order to retreat was unheard of, let alone one with a codeword. Among all the officers on the bridge, only Captain Hathcock had the privilege of knowing exactly what KING-OF-THE-HILL meant: Top-secret, proto-type technology. Captain Hathcock hesitated for exactly five second before speaking. "Make ready to jump. Charge the Quantum Exploiter and calculate our heading." He paused and thought. "And launch an observation drone, heading 145 by 090. Loop it around Joshua and send the feed to Screen 3."
His junior officers jumped to their tasks. Never had they thought they would be lucky enough to survive this impossibly long day. Long, complicated equations screamed across various screens. A video feed snapped to life on the starboard bulkhead. It showed the crater packed surface of Joshua and the space beyond.
Six seconds later the scene came into view. The USS Avenger, the namesake vessel for a whole new class of battleships, forged her way through space. She looked like hell. Her hull was melted, burned, peeled away, and, in some spots, nonexistent. Her super-structure was warped and charred black where it was visible. Whole outer decks, completely exposed. As her engines pushed her to flank speed, the entire ship shuddered and, if sound were possible in space, would have let out a zombie-like groan. In that shape, it was nothing less than a miracle that the ship had survived the jump in-system.
As badly damaged as she was, the Avenger's weapon systems appeared to be untouched. With four MAC (Magnetic Accelerator Cannon) batteries fore, a rotation MAC battery aft, 120 heavy laser batteries, a state-of-the-art point-to-point anit-missile/small craft defense system, and six torpedo tubes--three port, three starboard--she was the most heavily armed ship in history. But even with all that, there was no way she could take on five enemy ships head on and win. Or was that the point?
Hathcock watched on the screen as the Avenger accelerated to intercept the closest enemy ship. She killed her engines just at what Hathcock calculated as the red-line limit of a standard nuclear fission reactor. Her two starboard MAC batteries belched thunder and fire at the first frigate. It was too much for the already battered vessel; both rounds punched clean through her. As the Avenger continued on it's heading, the torque created by the heavy MAC rounds from the starboard batteries rotated her until her port-side batteries came to bear on the second frigate. A second salvo at a second battered ship. The pirate vessel couldn't hold up. Both rounds hit midship, tearing her in two and detonating her reactor as the Avenger disappeared into the debris cloud created by the implosion of her first victim.
The bridge crew of the Apache cheered, their orders to leave temporarily forgotten. They were given further cause to celebrate when the Commodore fired his ship's rear MAC battery, killing a third frigate that was attempting to give chase.
By now the other two ships were in position to fire on their strange, new adversary. Long-range missiles and heavy laser fire raced to their target. But there was something strange about the Avenger as she emerged from cover to face this new threat. Like she was surrounded by some otherworldly, blue haze. Hardly visible, but still there.
The lasers impacted first. Except they didn't. They were stopped. Then the missiles impacted, detonating into plumes of flame feet from the Avenger's hull. And that's when it all became clear.
"LT Vicars, scan the Avenger. I want to know if I really saw what I think I saw," said Hathcock. If ONI had finally done it...
"Already done, sir. It is. Energy shields." He sighed in disbelief.
LT Dodd, the navigations officer, turned to face Hathcock. "Sir, we finished calculating our jump two minutes ago. I sent an alert to your command station."
Hathcock turned to her. "I've been standing here, a good six feet from my command station for the last two hours, Lieutenant. Why didn't you just say something?"
She locked eyes with him. "Because I wanted to stay and watch. Just like everyone else."
He broke eye contact to look back at the screen. The Avenger had fired all six of her torpedos. As they impacted on the enemy ships, they turned to flee. It was too late. The most powerful ship in the Allies' arsenal brought all four of her MAC batteries to bear on the retreating ships. Thunder and fire tore through space. The first ship was hit broadside by two rounds, fore and aft. It was too much for her super-structure to take as the torque of her tight turn ripped her apart. The second ship had already come about and was making a run for it when the other two rounds tore through her engines and all points forward.
Hathcock stared blankly at the screen. The voice of LT Marland snapped him back to reality. "Sir, we're being hailed on the E band. I'm pulling it up now."
The same calm voice from before came over the speakers. "This is Commodore Wolfe of the USS Avenger calling all human ships in-system Jericho. Stand ready to make the jump out-system immediately. The Napoleon Corridor has been cleared, but your safety cannot be guaranteed if you remain here. If the fleet loses control of it, no one will be getting out. All USN and Royal Navy personnel should be advised that anything they think they witnessed is classified information of the highest possible level. I repeat, everything you just saw didn't happen. Jump as soon as humanly possible. Wolfe, out."
Captain Hathcock looked at his bridge crew. "Well, you heard the Commodore. Get us out of here." And with that, he sat down and immediately fell asleep.