Of all the days in the week to choose from, the whole thing began on a Sunday.
Sunday was a very special day in the Holloway Battle Group, for Sunday was the day that Commodore Cale Sandorsen, the Parson himself, would conduct Divine Worship on the Recreation Deck of the Holloway.
Cale opened his services to any officer or crewer throughout the battle group who wasn’t on watch, regardless of their faith. He delivered his services with passion, making it clear to his people that he himself believed strongly in what he was preaching. Not that the crews needed any proof of that, of course. After all, he wouldn’t be the Parson if he didn’t believe.
Cale and his congregation had just finished their service when he noticed Jeff MacIntyre, his Executive Officer, standing at the entrance to the Recreation Deck, hands folded respectfully before him as he waited for the assembled crew to leave the deck and return to their duties.
Cale was almost immediately curious. Jeff never comes down to the services, he thought. He always stands watch on the bridge so that I can conduct them.
The crew filed out the door to return to their duties and Jeff stepped up to the pulpit as Cale passed off his Bible and other implements of ministry to a waiting steward. “Judging from the looks on their faces,” he commented, “that was either one of your most enlightening services, or one of your most confusing.”
Cale thanked the steward and stepped down from the pulpit, started for the access way to the corridor. Jeff fell into step beside him. “You mean to tell me that you can’t tell the difference,” he commented with a smile.
Jeff returned his friend’s smile. “It’s tough to say,” he answered. “They always have the same looks on their faces regardless.” He turned serious as the pair stopped in front of the door for the turbo lift. “By the way, we’ve received a message from Fleet Command.”
Cale touched the button that would summon the lift. “Okay and what’s so special about this message that its delivery couldn’t wait until I returned to the bridge?”
The lift door opened and the two men stepped inside. Cale keyed the sequence for the bridge access way into the panel. “The message contained new deployment orders,” Jeff explained. “We’re being diverted from our rendezvous at New Chicago.”
“Diverted?” Cale asked with a frown. “The High Command has been pressing for the New Bellerephon attack for months. It’s taken weeks to gather the forces necessary to pull it off.”
Now Cale was concerned. He had been watching fleet movements for months, ever since Naval Intelligence had discovered the location of New Bellerephon and the Rebel base situated there. According to the Intelligence estimates, the Rebels had tasked a fleet of ships equivalent in strength to five Naval Battle Groups with protection of the planet and its base. That meant that the Navy had to attack the facility with at least that much firepower, and then some just for good measure. Moving that many ships into position for the strike had taken time, and the Holloway battle group was supposed to be part of that force. “What reason would they have to divert us?” Cale wanted to know.
“Contact has been lost with one of the local scientific research outposts,” Jeff explained. “Given the increase in Rebel activity in this area they’re concerned that the station may have come under siege. As the closest battle group we’ve been tasked with investigating.”
The lift door opened and the two men stepped out into the bridge access corridor. Cale frowned as he tried to come to grips with his change of orders. Personally, he didn’t care one way or another which of the two jobs the High Command wanted him to do; he just wished that they would make up their minds. “All right, then, so we’re being diverted. How long will it take us to get there?”
“That depends,” Jeff answered. “We have to come about and go back through the jump point we passed through yesterday. Then one more jump and a short cruise in-system to the station. If we hold to our current velocity of point five sublight, then we’ll be there in just under twenty-six hours. If we run her up to full power, point eight sublight, then we’ll be there in just over sixteen hours.”
Between sixteen and twenty-six hours, Cale thought to himself. If the station is under siege, then by the time we get there it could all be over.
As Cale and Jeff passed through the access way and onto the bridge the Marine sentry posted there came to attention and called out, “Commodore on the bridge!”
Cale waved everyone back into their seats with a quick “As you were,” before anyone really had a chance to stand up and salute. He climbed the steps to the flag deck and Jeff stepped up to the command deck immediately forward of Cale’s station. “Have we made the course change yet, Exec?” Cale asked.
Jeff turned to face his commander. “No, sir, not yet.”
“Very well, then.” Cale dropped into his chair and began keying commands into his computer access. “Put us on course.”
“Aye aye, Commodore,” Jeff answered. “What speed, sir?”
Jeff shrugged. “Regulations call for us to make one max speed run per year. Normally I like to save that run for when we’re on our way back to port, but given the contents of that message you told me about I think this would be as good a time as any to make that run.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Jeff returned and turned to face the rest of the bridge. “Navigator, put us on course for Newton Station. Make your speed point eight sublight.”
Lieutenant April Knight brushed a lock of chestnut brown hair behind her ear. “Course for Newton Station at point eight sublight, aye.” She began calling up star charts at her station and set to work.
“Helmsman, starboard engines back full and port engines ahead full. Bring us about one eight zero degrees.”
The helmsman began keying commands into his station. “Starboard engines back full port engines ahead full one eight zero degree turn, aye.”
Cale watched Jeff maneuver the ship around onto her new course for a moment as he waited for the information he had called up from the ship’s database to be retrieved. One of the screens before him came to life and lines of text began to scroll slowly by.
NEWTON STATION WAS BUILT IN THE YEAR 2650 UNDER THE AUTHORITY OF THE IMPERIAL ARMED FORCES CORPS OF ENGINEERS AS A RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT OUTPOST. SINCE THE FACILITY WENT ONLINE THE SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS STATIONED THERE HAVE CONTINUED TO PRODUCE A STEADY STREAM OF IMPORTANT ADVANCEMENTS IN STARSHIP TECHNOLOGY. NEWTON STATION ENGINEERS WERE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE BREAKTHROUGHS THAT ALLOWED THE ARMOR PLATING ON ALL NAVY VESSELS TO BE UPGRADED IN THE YEAR 2675. IN ADDITION, NEWTON STATION ENGINEERS WERE RESPONSIBLE FOR DEVELOPING THE MECHANISMS THAT ALLOW STARSHIP SHIELDS TO REGENERATE THEMSELVES BY LEECHING ENERGY FROM WEAPONS STRIKES INTO RESERVE POWER CELLS.
CURRENT PROJECTS UNDER DEVELOPMENT AT NEWTON STATION INCLUDE ADVANCES IN ACCELERATION COMPENSATION TECHNOLOGY.
THE STATION IS UNDER THE COMMAND OF A NAVY CAPTAIN. IN ADDITION TO THE STANDARD SPACE STATION DEFENSIVE SUITE, NEWTON ACTS AS THE HOME BASE FOR FOUR SQUADRONS OF FURY CLASS STAR FIGHTERS AND CARRIES A DIVISION OF MARINES.
Very interesting, Cale mused to himself. I wonder who’s dumb enough, or desperate enough, to attack a space station protected by four squadrons of the best and most agile Star Fighters in the naval inventory.
It certainly explained why the High Command wanted to send an entire battle group. The Empire went to great lengths to protect their space station’s and overwhelming their defenses was no mean feat. The level of force required was considerable.
In the back of his mind Cale began to pray that they wouldn’t be too late. He knew they were going to be, but he prayed anyway. After all, he was the Parson. Praying is what he did.
* * *
Military service consists of long periods of profound boredom punctuated by short periods of stark terror. Even when responding to an emergency, the crew of a starship could look forward to hour after monotonous hour of dull, boring routine.
Right up until the point where it hit the fan.
Cale stepped onto the bridge and made his way up to the flag deck just as the Holloway battle group made their last jump. Funny, he thought, how even with inertial compensators we can still feel the Jump transition.
Cale dropped into his chair and waited while Jeff directed the bridge crew through the process of verifying that the entire battle group had made it through the jump in one piece, and then directed the Holloway’s scanners and telescopes outward into the black.
Finally Jeff turned to face Cale and came to attention. “We’ve made the last jump and are on course for Newton Station, Commodore,” he reported.
“Very well,” Cale answered. “Let me know as soon as you have something on the scanners.”
Cale rose from his chair and stepped back to the tactical table situated on the deck behind his station. He tapped a series of commands into the controls built into the edge of the table top and the screen that dominated most of the table top came to life, depicted a graphical rendering of the star system they had just jumped into. Cale superimposed their course onto the image and then marked the locations of all of the other local jump points relative to Newton Station, of which there were two. The other two jump points were on the opposite side of the station, relative to the Holloway and her escorts.
Cale entered a few calculations and watched the screen. Two long red lines representing the courses that the Rebels would have to follow branched out from the golden triangle which represented Newton Station, one to either of the other two jump points. A series of numbers appeared beside each plot indicating projected accelerations and estimated time of arrival at the jump point.
Cale entered a few more calculations. Two thin green lines branched out from the blob of dots that represented the Holloway battle group, reaching out for the local jump points. Numbers indicating projected accelerations and estimated time of arrival appeared beside these lines, as had happened before. Cale noted that the computer was constantly changing these numbers, updating them as the Holloway drew closer to Newton Station.
No matter how the numbers changed, though, the end result would be exactly the same. If they run, there isn’t any way that we can catch them.
In the background a console beeped for attention, making Melanie Fosters eyes widen as she scanned her displays. “Sensor contact,” she called out, “breaking away from Newton Station.”
“How many?” Cale asked.
“I’m just reading one ship,” Melanie answered. “Mass and power consumption profile suggest a rebel cruiser.”
“Impossible,” Jeff said. “It would take a lot more firepower than one single cruiser could muster to overwhelm a space station’s defense. You must be reading that wrong.”
Melanie shook her head. “I don’t think so, Commander,” she said. “I’ve checked the reading a good five or six times now, and I’ve run the sensors through a test cycle. I’m sure it’s just the one ship.”
Cale leaned over his console so he could face Jeff. “If they did attack the station, then I’m sure that they used more than one ship to do it,” he reasoned. “The one we’re detecting could be the mopping-up operation.”
Jeff looked down at the sensor reading and frowned. “I suppose you’re right,” he admitted, “but somehow it feels wrong to me. I don’t think that’s the way it is at all.”
Cale cocked his head at his exec. “Really? What do you base that on?”
Jeff shook his head. “Nothing I can put my finger on, really. It’s just a feeling.”
“Very well,” Cale said. “Melanie, keep an eye on that cruiser. Let me know if she does anything but run.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Jeff turned away from his board and faced Cale. “We’re not going to pursue?” he asked.
Cale turned to Jeff and shook his head. “Do the math, Jeff. Their only smart move is to make for a jump point. They can match our best speed, and they know that just as well as we do. If they make for a jump point and we change course to intercept them, we’ll get there hours later than they will. That’s a long time to find a bolt hole on the other side of that jump point.” Cale dropped into the chair behind his command console. “Steady as we go, Commander, and sound battle station’s. We’ve still got another two hours before we get there and I want to put that time to good use.”
* * *
An hour later Jeff mounted the steps to the flag deck and stepped up to Cale. “What have we got?” Cale wanted to know.
Jeff shrugged. “We’ve managed to get our first really good sensor focus on the station,” he reported. “Cale, that station took one hell of a pounding.”
Cale grimaced. “So, the station was definitely attacked?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” Jeff replied. “We’re still not certain if it was just one ship that attacked, but whether it was one ship or an entire battle group the attackers did their job with a high degree of skill and precision. They overwhelmed the station’s shields and melted the shield generators. Then they took out the weapons placements and the countermeasures. They also destroyed the long- and short-range signal antenna clusters.”
“Thus taking out the station’s ability to communicate with the outside universe,” Cale mused, “which explains why the High Command never received an SOS.”
“Does, doesn’t it?” Jeff agreed. “However, they should have been able to signal before the antenna clusters were destroyed.”
“Unless the attackers were jamming the signal frequencies,” Cale supposed.
“Which is exactly what I think happened,” Jeff continued. “Another point of interest: our scans don’t show any debris concentrations consistent with destroyed star fighters.”
“You don’t think they had a chance to launch the fighters.”
“No, I don’t,” Jeff answered. “Unfortunately our scans don’t show whether the fighters are still in the hangars or not. We won’t know that until we go aboard, and we’re still at least an hour away from that.”
Cale nodded. “What about the station’s reactors?” he asked. “Is she under power?”
Jeff grimaced. “Yes and no,” he answered. “Three of the station’s four fusion reactors were knocked off line during the fight. She’s under emergency power. Life support and artificial gravity are on line, but at very low levels. They’re lucky those reactors didn’t breach. We’ll know for sure if they’re repairable or not once we go aboard.”
“What about life signs?” Cale wanted to know.
Jeff shook his head sadly.
Cale managed not to grimace as he cursed to himself. In his mind he knew that there hadn’t been anything that the Holloway group could have done to protect the station and her inhabitants, for they had just been too far away and the realities of space travel simply did not allow for instant response to emergencies. It took time to get from one place to another and that was all there was to it. All one could do was accept it.
In his heart, though, Cale felt the emotional weight of all the deaths on Newton Station. In his heart he felt that there should have been something that he was able to do, some way that he could have made a difference in what happened to those people, and he cursed himself for not being there when it happened.
It was always that way for Cale. He believed that he should be everywhere, that he should be in a position to respond to every emergency everywhere. Perhaps, he believed, if he could do that then he would never have to report to someone’s family that someone they loved was never coming home again.
That’s what really irked Cale; every time he had to write one he could see in his mind’s eye the faces of the people who had just lost someone they loved. He could feel their grief and anguish as a vital and important part of their lives was suddenly and savagely ripped away from them, could feel it as if it were a living, breathing entity.
And Jeff knew it too.
The two men had known each other for years, had become close friends despite their personal differences. Jeff could read Cale like a book, and he knew that his commodore was feeling the deaths of the Newton Station crew.
Jeff reached out and placed a hand on Cale’s shoulder. “Hey,” he said gently. “It wasn’t our fault. There wasn’t any way we could have gotten here in time.”
Cale nodded slowly. “I know, Jeff,” he said quietly. “I also know that if this were a perfect universe we would have been able to. And sometimes I really hate the fact that it isn’t a perfect universe, and that people die because we’re too far out of position to do them any good.”
“Sometimes?” Jeff asked wryly. “I thought you hated that all the time.”
Cale shrugged. “Okay, so I understated. Sue me.”
“I will,” Jeff said with a grin, “just as soon as we make it back to civilization.”
Cale grinned and shook his head. Then he turned serious again. “I want to go aboard with the boarding parties,” he said.
Jeff jerked back in surprise and narrowed his eyes at Cale. “That’s against regulations,” he protested.
“Yes it is,” Cale agreed. “Nevertheless, I’m going with the boarding parties.”
“Okay,” Jeff nodded thoughtfully. “Can I ask why it’s so important for you to go aboard?”
Cale leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. “I had a nightmare last night,” he said.
Jeff frowned. “What kind of nightmare?”
Cale smiled a wan smile. “The kind that may be more of a vision than a nightmare,” he explained.
Now Jeff was really frowning. “You think that you had a vision?”
Cale nodded. “It’s not unheard of, you know.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Jeff agreed readily. “Not if you lived a few thousand years ago and your name appears in the Bible it isn’t.”
Cale closed his eyes. “You think I’m nuts.”
Jeff shrugged. “Maybe I do and maybe I don’t. Truth be told I’m trying not to pass judgment right now. Why don’t you tell me what you saw and we’ll talk about it.”
Cale opened his eyes and leaned forward in his chair, his eyes pleading. He was about to go out on a limb and he desperately needed Jeff to believe that what he saw was real.
Believing was no great feat for Jeff, for he had believed in a number of things throughout his career. He believed in the wisdom of the chain of command which had given Cale command of the Holloway battle group. He believed in Cale’s abilities to command this ship and this group. He believed in his own abilities to survive whatever was to come, even should the worst happen and Cale be killed.
But one thing that Jeff had never been able to believe in was the idea that mankind was the creation of a supreme being who had created the species in his or her own image. He knew that Cale believed without question, and he even knew all the reasons why Cale believed. But he had never been able to bring himself to believe, to suspend all thought of control over his own life to the belief that he was put in this world to do something predestined.
Truth be told, Jeff believed that if there was one person in this world who was predestined to do great things it was Cale Sandorsen. But Jeff was never about to tell anyone that.
Cale took a deep breath. “I saw myself on the promenade deck of a space station,” he explained. “The walls were scorched and burned and the floor was covered with the dead bodies of the station’s residents and crew. The blood was at least ten centimeters deep. I could smell burned flesh, the ozone of weapons fire.”
Jeff leaned against Cale’s console and folded his arms across his chest. “That’s quite a powerful dream,” he admitted. “It would have scared the hell out of me.”
“It did scare the hell out of me,” Cale admitted.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J. A. Tyzuk