War of the Second Iteration, Book Four

The display showed the long, marred hull of the Resolute, and the flare of the main engines as the ship moved itself into position. To the extent possible, they’d reused the containment system of the old drive to conceal the newly installed and far more powerful engine pack. The scene was lit half by the distant star Pr’pri, and half by the glare of unshielded matrix generators. The starlight had more warmth to it, John  decided. Time ticked away, punctuated by calm communications between the mission and flight crews.

“Forty seconds.”

“Hold position,” Greg said.

“Aye, sir. All forward motion stopped,” said the pilot.

The ghost ship moved away from them, leaking atmosphere and with its engines stuttering according to the program, lending to the impression that the ship was dying in space.

“Drone telemetry is good,” the mission operator announced.

The pilot called out the final seven seconds of the count. The Resolute slid between the stepper halves and a pale blue aura shimmered around the polygon that enclosed its own matrix drive. In the same instant the unshielded generators spread around it pulsed. There was a glare of blue light the external sensors could barely control, and the Cygnet trembled slightly as gravity waves from the cross-amplification spread out from the stepper.

The Resolute was gone.

“This will be the worst part,” Greg said. “We can’t even guess how long it’ll be before the drone snaps back. If it does.”

They spoke of other, less consequential matters, seated in the command center of the Cygnet. The conversation had gone on for only a few minutes when the mission specialist announced, “Incoming!”

“Full alert!” Greg announced.

Perseverance and Han’anga answer full alert,” one of the RDF techs with them said.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” Grayson said. “It worked!”

The drone was there, coasting toward them and away from the space between the stepper components. The image was live, not a schematic, but even so it took John far too long to spot something wrong with the drone. Something about its outline had changed. A heartbeat after he saw it the word “Pods!” burst from him. And even then the most insidious weapon of their enemy had already launched away from the probe and straight at them.

“Fire at will!” Grayson shouted. “All ships! Fire at will!”

He didn’t need to specify targets; they all knew what they faced.

“Take them head on!” Greg ordered, and their pilot’s hands moved quickly over the board in front of him.

The Cygnet slewed and put itself in the path of the small swarm of pods, blocking the direct route to the station. From either side fire from the cruisers guarding the system cut into the pods. The swarm opened up, spreading out and becoming a more difficult target. Fire from the Cygnet met the Faceless, and most of the remaining pods were destroyed. It was clear, to John’s immediate relief, that no pods would make it past their defensive line.

The pods didn’t try to cross the line. Instead, the remaining half dozen or so swept in and vanished from the range of the external sensors, which meant that they were too close.

“All hands! Prepare to repel boarders!” Greg shouted desperately. “Han’anga! Perseverance! Take them off us if you can!”

“We’ve been boarded!” a voice shouted over the com. “Fighting reported in the engineering section and the galley! And…”

“Did he say the galley?” John demanded, reaching for his sidearm. “How the hell – that’s in the spun portion of the ship! They attach to the outer hull, not…”

A hole appeared in the hull near the lift doors, a sight all too familiar to John. He stood and drew his sidearm in a single motion, adrenaline flooding his system. Others were moving and drawing as well, and weapons fired all around him. But the Faceless poured in as he had seen them do back at Umbaramo Rings, a boiling mob of silvery shapes, some barely humanoid, some all too Human in form, if not face. On his left a crewman backed away from her station, firing into the silver crowd, but not fast enough. The Faceless were on her and had her in a moment, and with a shriek she fell, only to rise an instant later – now one of their foes.

John shot that one, and saw it flash into a cloud of dust. The air was filling with the acrid stuff, stinging his eyes and nose. The surviving crew stood shoulder to shoulder, firing with deadly effect, and for a moment the Faceless were balked, pressing forward at about the same rate that they were destroyed.

“So many!” Grayson shouted. “Damn it, how…?” His voice choked off, coughing as the debris from dead Faceless took his breath.

The lift doors opened and three crewmen jumped out with rifles, spraying fire into the Faceless mob. And Grayson, distracted for an instant, missed a target. He didn’t make a sound as he was struck down, less than a meter from John, and was suddenly filled with horrid white light.

Hammer blows struck the ship. The portal to the Faceless pod rippled and vanished, and in that instant the Faceless around them froze, then flew apart, becoming dust.

Armed crew stood just away from the lifts, looking wildly around for targets, of which there were none. Just that ghastly powder swiftly settling to the deck. John looked around, heart hammering, and saw that Greg was safe and sound. Only two had been lost from their number.

“Signal from the Han’anga,” someone said. “They report six kills, all attached to our hull. And that we’re venting atmosphere at two sites. Damage control crews are responding.”

Greg suddenly, frantically, started batting at his arms and chest, sending a cloud of dust into the air. “Jesus! Get this shit off me! Get it off!

They were all coughing again by the time John could grab his friend by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. Greg tried to shove him away, then made eye contact and shuddered. “Sorry,” he muttered. “God, I… No, I’m okay.” He made it to his seat, pale and visibly shaken, and started calling up status reports. “Come on, people, get to stations! Let’s get this done!”

John almost fell into his seat, legs trembling as the adrenaline shock drained out of him. The seat beside his was empty. My God! The RDF Fleet Admiral!

Posted May 11, 2017 by underdesertstars

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