Prologue – Herschel
03:01 August 19, 2845 – INS Subjugator – 350 kilometers above ESO26487
The Viceroy is dead. The Drums of War sound in the Curia Imperator, and there is talk Emperor Testive may deploy The Fleet into The Vandar Territories. SOSA has again pushed up our timetables; I don’t know how much faster I can go, and the worst part is, no one will tell me where you are. Where ever that is Herschel, please be careful. I’ve been looking at your picture, wishing you were here with me. I’ve missed you and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t re-read your messages more times than I can count. It seems like just yesterday you standing there on the tarmac, your smile brighter than a thousand suns. Despite being suffocated by the sea of humanity on Heimdall; the more I think about it, the more I realize that I’ve never felt quite so alone. I feel adrift in an endless void without you. I wish you could come home, but with the talk of war, I’m nearly certain your absence will be prolonged. Little Ashton asks about you every day. He has his father’s eyes. I love you more than I thought was humanly possible.
Yours forever and always,
The Com skittered across the nightstand, as the small motor sputtered and vibrated to get Herschel Kingston’s attention. He rubbed at this bloodshot eyes then looked down at the screen’s clock. The soft light felt intrusive in the dimly lit Captain’s Quarters, and he squinted fighting back the beginnings of a headache. He let out a long sigh as the numbers came into focus. It was already zero three zero-one hours. He yawned as he tried to blink away the pain, but it didn’t seem to help. He scratched absently at his chin, the stubble ringing out in the silence; he needed a shave, but like most luxuries, it would have to wait. He pulled up a mental list of who would be on duty Gamma shift and as best as he could remember, Lieutenant Wilkins would have the Conn. If it had been anyone else, he might have dismissed the message, but if his XO was paging him three hours before he was due on deck, something must have been seriously wrong. It gave Hershel an uncomfortable feeling in his gut, like the night of Ashton’s birth, when his doctors had told them his son might not make it through the night. He pushed the thought from his mind. If it had been that bad, he would have gotten more than a high priority page. He took a deep breath. Calm and composure, he told himself as he walked across the room to where his coin gray dress shirt hung on the door. Calm and composure.
He slipped it on but left top button unfastened. He hated how restricted it made him feel, and while he valued discipline, his crew enjoyed slight reprieves from the by-the-book leadership most Captains in the Imperial Navy leveled against their crews.
He fastened the two golden cufflinks into place, tugged on the cuffs and smiled. They were a gift Lara had given him when he had shipped out of Madeeha two months ago. Each resembled a pair of miniature anchors stylized after turn of the millennia seafaring vessels, something Hershel had taken a keen interest in since his childhood. The polished gold glistened in the dimly lit mirror as he ran a hand through his silver-gray hair.
“Calm and composure,” Hershel said to the Captain in the mirror, “Calm and composure.” He took a deep breath, opened the door, stepped out of his quarters and headed down the short hallway toward the bridge of the ship.
The bulkhead heralded his arrival by way of the metallic cycling of locks and the hiss of compressed air, as if to tell the crew your captain is here. Eyes shifted, but aside from Lieutenant Wilkins, the crew continued whatever business.
“Captain on deck,” Wilkins said, as he snapped off a sharp salute.
“As you were, I have the deck,” Herschel said.
“The Deck is yours Sir.”
Hershel looked around the room at his topnotch crew. He had handpicked nearly every member of the bridge and they had not disappointed. They were eager, some might even say ecstatic, to have been deployed aboard the newly christened INS Subjugator. She was a state-of-the-art frigate with more armaments than any ship in her class, and amenities that rivaled even the most luxurious civilian vessels of her size. Fresh from the Deidameia Orbital Shipyards, the Injunction II Class frigate was the first of its kind, and they all felt lucky to be the first crew to server aboard her.
“Status Report Lieutenant Wilkins,” Herschel said above the hiss of the bridge doors. He felt a grin form on his lips as he watched the crew hurry about their posts. The pits bustled with activity as crew members exchanged data reports and reviewed sensor readouts. It was organized chaos, and he loved it.
“Ensign Ribley can bring you up to speed faster than I can Sir,” Wilkins said, as he shifted his weight from one foot other. Herschel narrowed his eyes, and was about to open his mouth when he heard someone call his name.
“Captain Kingston, Sir,” a voice said above the chatter. Hershel turned toward the center most console and saw a young Ensign standing ridged beside her station. The velcro name badge read S. Ribely, and despite her outward calm, her eyes flicked nervously between Hershel and the console. “I thought it prudent to alert you, Sir.” He dismissed the salute with a wave of his hand.
“At ease Miss Ribely, I’m all ears, as long as it’s not another communiqué or Situational Status Report.”
“No Captain. I’ve been tracking a powerful anomalous reading on the long-range scanners for the past ten minutes.” Her short-clipped words were direct and to the point, a trait he appreciated. “Then our mid-range scanners picked up some sort of distortion two minutes ago, that’s when I sent for you. Something exited Warped Space heading at high velocity toward the star. However, it just changed course. It’s now tracking on a near vector approach.”
“Mister Wilkens,” Hershel said. “Material Condition III. Miss Ribely, put this on the Holo.” A moment later a large three-dimensional grid appeared in the space above the console, and a few heartbeats later an electric tritone buzzed four times in quick succession to alert all personnel that all airlocks, bulkheads, and fittings were to be sealed. Hershel looked down at the small three-dimensional representation of space around the Subjugator.
“Play this back to when it first appeared,” Hershel said. Ribley pecked at her console and a moment later a small bulge appeared and slowly moved across the grid. Hershel cleared his throat and Ribley increased the playback speed. He watched the small orange blip move across the system then looked out the view ports, as if it would confirm the anomaly’s true nature.
“I thought it was an error,” She said, “but I had engineering check the calibration on the sensors. Nothing to report. Then there’s the fact that it changed course. If you look at our current grid, the sensors first picked up the disturbance here, in quadrant A1. Object is currently moving through quadrant C27, no, D28.”
From across the pit Flight Officer Fitzpatrick chimed in. “Mid-Range Spectroscopy finished. Large quantities of Steel alloy and Titanium, Sir. The object appears to be solid. Measurements estimated at 91 by 150 meters in length with ten percent margin of error. Initial scans put it at 30,000 kilometers per hour.”
It appeared to be a ship of some sort then, though that didn’t explain the strange anomalous signatures Ribley had detected. Hershel expanded the quadrant map to include Sinus Aestuum. It was the main trading hub of the Prilox Sector and was nestled on the moon Sinus. The Subjugator was as far from Sinus as you could get and still be considered in-system. At his last check, Hershel had them in a holding pattern about 350 kilometers outside the orbit of a moon the computer noted as ESO26487, next to one of only a few dozen Link Buoys in that section of the Wolf-327 Star System. Personally, Herschel had never heard of the planet the ships computer had identified as PBI3272, nor had anyone else on the crew for that matter. The only real destination for any law-abiding citizens of the Empire would be Sinus Aestuum Space Port.
“Captain,” Fitzpatrick said, “I don’t know what to make of this.” His voice had gone tight and Hershel turned to see him wipe away the sweat from his brow, as he leaned down to his console. “I re-calibrated the array three times Sir, and secondary scans from the High Intensity Solar Arrays are now showing the object just shy of 85,000 kilometers per hour. It made the transition in three fifths of a second.” That didn’t even seem possible, he didn’t know how many G’s the crew would have been pulling like that, but he doubted it was survivable.
“Thrust signature?” Hershel asked, as he punched in a string of code into a console beside Ribely’s monitor without waiting for a response.
“Yes sir,” Ribely said, “Picking up three distinct tightly clustered thruster readings now. It appears they were attempting to mask speed, sir.” She leaned in closer to the monitor, and then turned fully in her seat to face Hershel, “At that speed, I’d say they’d need to have Darnell Class II Drives sir, but that jump.” She just shook her head. “These readouts are off the chart, Sir.”
“Those don’t look like any Darnells’ I’ve ever seen,” Warrant Officer Weller said from an adjacent terminal. “I’ve never even heard of a Darnell with that sort of anomalous burst, look at those pluses.”
“Dose that readout match the engine ID?” Hershel asked, to no one in particular.
“Hard to tell sir,” Weller said. “It’s within the IMI and Navy parameters, but analysts allow for a margin of error up to ten percent, and someone would have had to have done some serious custom overhauls.” Weller tapped the duraglass screen in front of him as the ships on board computer began to run a series of calculations. “We’re looking at a 93% match based on the constant speed and fluctuation. It could be part of a Republic Strike Force, but they would have just pulled over 9.3 million G’s of trust. Anyone on that ship is less than paste.”
“Bring up all Link Buoys in the surrounding quadrants,” Hershel said. A moment later a projection of the system map appeared on a holo-table located between the crew pit and the command chair. Small yellow beacons began to populate throughout the system, with the majority clustered around PBI3272 and Sinus Aestuum, with the remaining few near the planet Pril and her moon Prilox. He followed the path from the warp field disturbance along a straight vector out of the system. “There are no buoys in its flight path.” He said to the crew.
“I agree with the Lieutenant, Republic,” Sergeant Wilkins said. “That or pirates.” He stepped up alongside the table and looked at the map. “Maybe smugglers,” he added after a moment.
“Either way, they’re not using the buoys which indicates they don’t want to be seen.” Hershel said, and rubbed at his eyes. They burned form having spent the last few hours sifting through hundreds of reports and reading the letter from Lara. Her words of war echoed though him as he watched the object continue along its path.
“Did no one hear me?” Weller asked, a pang of panic in his voice. “9.3 Million G’s that’s not a ship, that’s some sort of massive unmanned ship or craft.”
“Like a drone?” Wilkens asked.
“That or maybe a huge torpedo. Whatever the hell it is, there’s no way anything organic is onboard.”
“Sir,” Ribley said, her voice barely audible above the din. Hershel turned and looked down to see her transfixed on her screen.
“Ensign,” Hershel said.
“Uh,” she shook her head, “The- the ship-” Hershel heard the hesitation in her voice, and he felt his stomach tighten. “The ship it- it vanished Sir.”
“What do you mean? It couldn’t have vanished. Was power cut to the thrusters? I want every active and passive array scanning that field,” Hershel said. He half ran to the main bridge viewport, but saw only empty space and the moon far off in the distance.
“No sir, no sign of any ships or thruster signatures in sectors A1 through S34.”
“We’re negative for any infrared, pocket radiation. Spectrometry is also negative for anything larger than five by five meters,” someone else called out from the pit.
Hershel thought back and remembered an email he had received from a Lieutenant Colonel Tristel a few weeks’ earlier. He had requested that he keep his scanners out for any strange anomalous activities in their vicinity. Apparently, Lieutenant Colonel Tristel had personally placed the request as some sort of advanced research project for IMI. Hershel looked back to the holo-table, and zoomed into the spot where the anomaly had vanished. He tapped a button on the table, and rewound the hologram and watched the object vanish again. He felt his stomach churn and turned toward the command pit.
“Expand your search quadrants,” Hershel said then pulled out a small tablet from the holster strapped to his thigh. He keyed in an 18-digit passcode, followed by both a finger and retinal scan. Moments later a photo-scanned document flickered to life, and the image enhancement suite brought the otherwise fuzzy digitalized copy into a crisp resolution on the screen bearing the title; Imperial Military Intelligence. Classified Top Secret. Project Fahrenheit.
“Expanding search into quadrants A1 through AB42”
“Larger,” Hershel said as he scrolled through the document.
“Quadrants A1 through AD44 are empty Sir. Quadrants A1 through AE47 are also coming back null for queries across all system scans.” Ribley said.
“Keep searching,” He said as he scrolled through the report.
“Quadrants AE49-50 all clear. Sir should we- wait. Quadrant AH-” the gasp that slipped form her mouth brought Hershel’s eyes up from the tablet. He could hear her try and clear her throat. “The object- jumped? Now showing in quadrant AH36. Can someone else confirm this?” She asked, the controlled panic now fully showing through on the young woman’s face.
“No,” Wilkins said, “Anomaly in quadrant AH42, 45, 47! Sir, it’s moving, and fast! Now on a direct vector approach.”
“How long until it’s within range?” Hershel asked as he continued scrolling through the document.
“I- I can’t- It’s already in range Sir.” Wilkins said as he tried to steady his hands to run the calculations a third time. He shook his head. “It had to have been going near 432,000 Kilometers per hour, at that speed- 26 seconds until its danger close.”
The automated Tactical Computer System came to life as the object entered the ships restricted space. “Warning; object on direct vector approach. Course correction engaged.” The synthetic vocals of the T.C.S. were warm, almost sedate, with an elegance that rang of old British aristocracy. “Warning; object on direct vector approach. Course correction engaged.” Hershel felt the slight sway of the deck as the Subjugator began to take evasive action. The maneuvers in question were by their very nature unpredictable, and the sudden directional change in thrust caused Hershel to feel as if he had doubled in weight. The ship’s stability compensator caught up a moment later, and he could steady himself as he turned back to the pit.
“Sir,” Weller said, “I’m picking up five tight beam radio and lasers, it appears we’re being targeted.” Kingston nearly dropped the tablet as he turned and ran across the intersecting walkway toward the command chair and strapped himself in.
“Lieutenant Wilkins, General Quarters! Ribley, patch me through on a secure line to IMI, Lieutenant Colonel Tristel!”
Before he could finish, Wilkins – without a moment’s hesitation – lifted a latch and punched the general quarter’s alarm. A cacophony of klaxons trumpeted the warning throughout the Frigate as the ships Tactical Computer System initiated its defense protocol.
“General Quarters, General Quarters! All hands man your battle stations,” the computer said. The synthetic voice nearly matched the klaxon in intensity, and within moments men and women across the ship dashed to their posts as nearly all remaining bulkheads sealed shut throughout the ship. Those not on duty were unceremoniously roused from their slumber, into a throng of utter madness.
“The flow of traffic is up and forward on the starboard side, down and aft on the port. Set material condition ZENITH throughout the ship. This is not a drill, repeat, this is not a drill.” The computer continued to bellow the order as Hershel ran through a sequence of preparations on the mainframe for deletion of all records and classified records in accordance with the material condition. The voice of the ships main computer faded into the background as Hershel furiously deleted file after file.
“Sir,” Ribley said, “I can’t raise IMI.”
“Try another channel,” Hershel said.
“I did sir, I tried them all. We’re being jammed.”
“Can you get through to Daniels?”
“We made contact, but no response.”
“Damn it,” Hershel said. He unfastened his restraints and jumped into the pit and pushed Ribley aside and took hold of the Com Array. “Mayday, Mayday, this is Captain Herschel Kingston of the INS Subjugator, we are in need of immediate assistance in quadrant AX42. Unknown hostile object en route. I repeat again this is the INS Subjugator, we are in need of immediate assistance in quadrant A-”
The deck lurched beneath his feet, and the unmistakable groan of metal under stress echoed from somewhere far below.
“Sir, hull breach in the aft medical bay!”
Hershel switched the Com to the gunnery team. “Bring the PDCs online.”
“All batteries are online sir,” Gunnery Sargent Esperson said. “Awaiting your orders Captain.”
“All batteries open fire.” The silence which hung in the air seemed to drag on for an eternity, then the Com crackled to life.
“At what?” Esperon asked. “Sensors are clear; I don’t have visual-”
“Just open fire,”
“Open fire god damn it!”
Within a heartbeat the bridge was illuminated as a dizzying array of light shot forth from the Subjugator’s 28 Fokker-Mueller Point Defense Laser-Cannon Batteries. The faint sounds of high-powered energy being released made the hair on the back of Hershel’s neck stand up as the frigates 14 Starboard Gauss Gun Batteries let lose a stunning bombardment of high-powered tungsten slugs. He smiled at the sight. His crew was fast, even he was impressed with how quickly they had responded to the attack, but there would be time for accommodations later, he had a ship to destroy.
“Status report,” Hershel shouted down the pit.
“All batteries are online sir,” Lieutenant Wilkins said, “Engineering is reporting that shot at the Medical bay missed the main reactor; though we have a rupture along the Starboard maintenance shaft, but it’s been locked down. Repair drones en route as we speak. No casualties reported.”
“Shields at maximum strength, sir,” Wilkins said, as he poured over the streams of data beginning to spill off the monitor and onto the side terminals.
“Then how the hell did we get hit?” Hershel asked. He ran his finger along the readout terminal as he searched for any clues.
Lieutenant Wilkins blinked for a moment, and then turned back to his stations screen, then over at Ribley’s. “Can’t be sure Sir, sensors didn’t detect anything, but my guess is some type of railgun-” The deck shook again, this time much harder than the first, but most of the crew was braced this time and only two members of the navigation crew who had just entered the bridge, lost their footing. A moment later Hershel heard a thunderous explosion.
“What the hell was that?” Ribley asked as she looked over at Wilkins screen.
“Sir, I’m getting a readout now, ship is danger close. She’s already opened fire, but I’ve never seen anything like it sir. Multiple high-energy energy batteries along with what I’d classify as some sort of gauss gun emplacement.” Wilkins said, then picked up the com. “Esperon, target all firepower on that cruiser.”
“Mr. Thompson,” Hershel said to the helmsman, “bring us about, divert power to the engines.”
The helmsman nodded and punched in a strong of commands. A heartbeat later the Subjugator groaned as another hit tore through her shielding like a hot knife through butter, and despite his firm grip on the back of Wilkins chair, Hershel and everyone else not strapped into his or her seat fell to the floor. The Klaxons began to shriek in a higher pitch as the lights flicker then failed completely. A moment later the emergency lighting flickered, then bathed Hershel in an eerie blood red, as the Helio-Dyson I Backup Fission reactor’s flywheels spun up, and the generator came online.
“Main reactor is offline and venting plasma. Engines 3 and 6 are non-responsive. Decks 4 through 7 are venting atmosphere, but damage should be contained,” Wilkens said. Ribley jumped in as her screens fizzled back to life.
“Belay that order Mr. Thompson,” Hershel said as he got to his feet. “I want power taken from the engines redirected to the starboard shielding.”
“Sir, Lieutenant Riley has lost contact with aft engineering.” Ribley said. “I’m receiving word of massive casualties.” Hershel could see the sweat pouring form her brow. He looked around the bridge, and saw the wave of uncertainty was already in motion, and a storm of utter chaos would soon follow.
“Calm and composure,” He said and slapping Ribley on the shoulder. “We’re still in this. As long as we remain under power we’re not out of this fight.” He turned to Weller and put a hand on his shoulder. “What are their shield status readouts?”
“They appear to be eating everything we’ve thrown at them and holding fast,” Ensign Weller said. Hershel closed his eyes. Hershel had that sudden sickening feeling in his gut again. Nothing the Subjugator had thrown at the ship appeared to have even left a scratch. He looked down at his own ships read outs and saw their shields wouldn’t hold out much longer. The amount of damaged they had already suffered with their shields up was bad enough; he did not even want to consider what would happen when they failed.
“Divert power from all batteries to our shields and engines. Try to raise Lieutenant Riley again, and send word to forward Engineering, tell them to send a few men aft, see if they can’t bring at least one of those engines back online then prepare for an emergency jump.” Everyone on the bridge nodded and began punching in commands and moments later the space around the Subjugator went black as the gun emplacements all ceased to fire.
“Shields are back Sir, holding steady at 100%, but they’re still punching rounds through the shields. Nearly one in three are making it through to the hull.”
Hershel’s com crackled to life, it was Gunnery Sargent Esperon. “Captain, I’ve lost power to-”
“We’re getting out here, keep your men at the ready.” He clicked the com shut before Esperon could reply, then turned back to the crew. “Damn it, anything not being used to power the shields needs to be divert to the main engines, everything. Get us the hell out of here.”
“Sir!” Ribley said, the fear in her voice gone. “Sir, Look!” Hersehl looked out the view port and smiled. Three Imperial Naval vessels dropped out of their jump and into slow space. They had taken positions on all sides of the assailant, the largest placing itself between the unknown ship and the Subjugator. “Sir, I’m getting their signatures. It’s The INS Vendetta, Vengeance, and Valor. They’ve all opened fire on the ship. She’s turning to engage.”
Kingston fell into his chair and let out a breath he had not known he had been holding, as a cheer went up among the bridge crew. He was almost certain they would never had complete the jump with the damage they sustained. Until five seconds ago they had been as good as dead. Now two Imperial Injunction I Class frigates and a massive Imperial Destroyer Class Dreadnaught would even the odds. That ship, whatever it was, was no match for firepower of that magnitude. His mind wandered back to the message from Lieutenant Colonel Tristell, and he felt almost silly for thinking that this could have been what he had been referencing. This was simply some sort of Republic Drone Ship, a powerful, but no mysterious anomaly.
“Open a channel to the captain of Vendetta,” Hershel said, “I’d like to thank them for their timely aid.”
“No need sir, they’re already hailing us.” Ribley said, her face a grin from ear to ear.
“Patch them through Ensign,” Hershel said, and a moment later the cool crisp voice of a woman in her late fifties came across the bridges speakers.
“This is Captain Casel Shamoor of the INS Vendetta,” she said. He could hear the smile on her face. “I heard you could use some help Captain.”
Hershel let out a laugh and ran a hand back through his hair. “I hate to admit it, but we certainly did. These clowns seem to have really given us a run for our money,” he said with a grin. “I was just about to ask if-” Hershel paused as he heard a sudden clamor fill the com. The whole bridge of the Vendetta erupted in a sudden clamor, all of it indistinguishable aside from one word; incoming.
Hershel turned to Wilkens. “Are you picking up anything in the vicinity of the Ven-” He stopped as he heard Shamoor over the com.
“Reroute power to the PDCs, I don’t want those things getting-”
The com died as a brilliant light brighter than a thousand suns poured through the duraglass observation windows that ringed the bridge of the Subjugator. The black emptiness of space faded to absolute white, and despite the tinting, the enormous explosion blinded everyone who had been unfortunate enough to witness the horror. After what seemed like an eternity Hershel’s sight slowly returned, though he almost wished it hadn’t.
Hershel and the crew stood in awe, eyes transfixed out the observation windows. They had all seen them; they were there, an indestructible Imperial Naval Flotilla, which had pulled them from the jaws of certain death. Yet now, in their place only hunks of twisted metal and dust remained where only moments earlier the saviors had been. The sheer scale of carnage, the countless lives lost was incomprehensible. He looked around the bridge and saw every pair of eyes now fixed on him, waiting for their captain to pull another ace out of his sleeve, to save them as he had so many times before. He was supposed to be the man who lead the charge, and saved the day. Yet here, now, against these truly insurmountable odds, he finally found himself lost.
He took solace in the fact that his cowardice would be short lived, for as he turned Hershel saw the true source of what had wreaked so much havoc in such little time. The single vessel was no longer alone. Dozens of ships just like it had materialized where the Vendetta had been moments before. No, not dozens, hundreds, he couldn’t keep track of the blur. Every moment another blinked into slow space, all letting lose an unholy salvo of energy beams and metallic slugs. Herschel Kingston fell to his knees in final defeat wishing more than anything he could meet his son and hold Lara one last time. He whispered her name as the INS Subjugator vaporized around him.