Alone In The Night

Chapter 3

As Captain Drake Raynor sat in the chair in his ready room, he was still contemplating the morality and overall repercussions of his mission. He had never been happy with the whole situation, but being a good soldier he went where he was ordered to go and did what he was ordered to do. As the Ares slid swiftly through hyper-dimensional space, he kept the sensors on active scan so Voltath vessels would be unable to surprise them. The course he had been given by DuGalle would take him on a roundabout path through Voltath space, supposedly to avoid sensor outposts, until he reached the border. The ship was approaching another course change, when something interesting popped up on the outermost ring of the long-range sensor board. At first the XO thought it was a malfunction, since there was no way a photonic surge that big could exist in nature. However, as the operations officer did a thorough diagnostic, he knew it was for real.

Raynor was sitting at his desk trying to purge the concern from his mind with a good book, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, when the chime went off indicating someone was putting a message through to him via the ship's com system. He placed the bookmark where he was and sat up. He liked to always be in an upright position when he spoke to members of his crew on duty, as sitting in a relaxed position tended to make him feel, act, and sound overly tired. He cleared his throat, pressed the activation switch on his desk, and responded.

"This is the Captain. Go ahead."

"Bridge to the Captain, Commander Rawlings reporting. We seem to have a bit of a situation here, sir. Our long-range sensors have detected a massive cloud of photonic radiation. The intensity of the phenomenon, along with the small area it is contained in, suggests it to be an unnatural occurrence. Debris in the area also suggests that a large battle may have taken place here. We are right now comparing the energy signature with that of any known weapons to ascertain what caused it. Your presence on the bridge is also requested."

"Very well, on my way."

Drake slowly stood up from his chair and carefully put on his uniform jacket. He looked in the mirror to ensure it was on straight, then made his way to the door. So much for a relaxing book. He probably wouldn't get another opportunity like that for the rest of the day. Before he pressed the control to open it, he took a large heaving sigh, and then quickly composed himself. He walked deliberately through the corridors to the nearest 'lift, acknowledging salutes as he received them. When the 'lift arrived, the doors opened to reveal a midshipman with his nose buried in his portable holoscreen. Raynor cleared his throat, and the middy snapped to attention. Drake returned the salute.

"As you were, Mr. Wilsky, two demerits for inattention. One cannot function on a starship with one's head buried in his holoscreen." Each demerit would be worked off with a hour of aerobic workout in the ship's training room. Twelve meant being bent over the barrel in the 1st Lieutenant's cabin while a rattan cane was applied to his rear.

"Aye aye Captain. It's an astro-navigation textbook, sir. The Chief Engineer has been drilling me."

"And one more for arguing. If you weren't fresh from the Academy I'd cane you myself. But, seeing how you are now at ten, I shall leave the future in your hands."

Wilsky took a shocked expression on his face for a nano-second before saluting and replying with another "Aye aye, sir." The crew was always amazed at Raynor's ability to memorize petty details with no difficulty.

Midshipman Wilsky got off the 'lift on deck five, while Raynor remained. When the 'lift arrived at the bridge, he stepped out and took in the sights around him.

All around the bridge the hurry of panicked anticipation was evident. Every member of the crew had been too engrossed in his duties to even notice the Captain walking onto the bridge. As he surveyed the scene in less than an instant, he called out for a report.

Commander Rawlings ran briskly over to the captain and began to explain, "Captain, that photonic radiation has a very similar energy signature to most Terran weapons. Whatever caused it was more than likely made by humans. We are also detecting hull fragments from numerous Voltath vessels, at least seven. From the ion paths that remain in the area, there has been an enormous amount of Voltath activity ever since. I recommend keeping a very healthy distance from this place, sir."

"A sound recommendation, but I must disagree. If that is a Terran weapon signature, there could have been a large battle near there, which means there could be survivors. We need to investigate and find the truth, whatever the source of the radiation." He turned away and continued to himself. "However, if the war truly has begun, many more will die before we see the end of it."

According to the orders Drake issued, the Ares entered the area with all sensors on full alert and all weapons and defensive systems online and at full power. Once they had assured that there were no Voltath vessels in the immediate area, they began to investigate the radiation cloud. After much scanning and comparison to databases, they confirmed that the protonic residue was consistent with most Terran weapons. They were also able, through analysis of the blast, to determine the type of weapon used. There were, on record, only 4 vessels in the entire fleet that could deliver photonic charge mines without risking their own destruction in the process: The assault scoutship Dauntless, The Ares herself, the flagship Emperor's Wrath, and the battle wagon Excalibur. The Dauntless patrolling the frontier near the Voltath border almost 500 light-years away, and the Excalibur had been lost with all hands in the first action against the Voltath. The Ares hadn't done it, which left only one possibility.

Back in the conference room, the senior staff was seated at a table with Commander Rawlings at a display panel. On the screen was the image of a magnificent vessel.

"The Emperor's Wrath. Commanded by Captain Benitez and currently flagged for Admiral Jerec DuGalle. The largest and most powerful ship in the entire Imperial Fleet, this vessel is almost a week and a half overdue to Mars, and has not been heard from since she left her mooring at Alpha Centauri. She had been assigned to guard the shipyards in the Terran system, but never arrived. No wreckage was ever found, no transmissions were received, and no trace of a course. We suspect that she might have come here and done this. The time it would have taken her to travel here from her mooring at Alpha Centauri does correspond to the time of the explosion."

"Commander," Captain Raynor said, "I realize that the evidence does indicate the flagship, but as a personal friend of Captain Benitez I find this impossible to believe. I know for a fact that he obeys orders as valiantly as I do and would suffer death before betraying his oath to the Empire. I certainly hope you can present some concrete evidence to support this grave accusation."

As the captain finished his sentence, Rawlings strode over to the controls for the view screen and pressed a switch. The screen changed to a personnel file, specifically that of Captain Benitez.

"Captain Benitez was killed shortly before the ship left Alpha Centauri when the main shuttle bay decompressed. The accident was blamed on a computer error. Admiral DuGalle himself is now in command."

He then pressed the switch again. On the screen the image changed to that of the sine curve of an ion signature.

"Captain, this is a readout of the engine signature from the Emperor's Pride, taken directly from the database in our computer."

Drake gave his XO a concerned but curious look, "Continue…"

Rawlings punched another control and the image disappeared. He then pressed another control on the panel and, when an identical image appeared, he returned his attention to the Captain.

"Captain, this is the Terran engine signature we detected in our scans of the area. The decay rate of the ions corresponds perfectly to the time of the explosion. There is also an indication of weapons fire matching the weapon signatures in our database of the Emperor's Wrath, and spatial disturbances consistent with a terran vessel making a hyperdimensional jump. The evidence is irrefutable. Either someone has hijacked the ship, the crew has mutinied and gone on a suicide mission, or DuGalle has made some modifications to the Emperor's plan."

"Commander, I do not have to remind you that questioning the actions or loyalty of a superior officer is a serious offense. For the moment, I shall pretend I did not hear that. As for you theory I find…"

As the Captain was about to finish his sentence, the deck shuddered violently under them, and alarm sounded indicating a red alert had been issued. As Raynor was about to demand an explanation, a voice sounded over the all-call. "Red alert, all hands to battle stations, Captain Raynor to the bridge. We are under attack by a Voltath strike force. All hands to battle stations! This is not a drill!"

When Raynor stepped onto the bridge, his ship had already been hit several times. His first action, out of instinct more than thought, was to call for a report.

The response came from the young watch ensign who sprung to attention from the duty officer's chair the instant Raynor appeared. "Captain, we are under attack by six Voltath assault craft. Shields are down to eighty-six percent, weapons online and at full power. Three of them are coming in for another pass."

"Lock on to the closest vessel and give it a full power burst from the starboard battery. The pick another one and take it out with a low power burst from the proton cannon. Fire as your weapons bare."

As the nearest Voltath vessel came within range, 4 beams of ionized laser energy reached out and hit with deadly force. The beams dug into the hull of the vessel and completely destroyed its main engine assembly, leaving it float dead in space. The second vessel was not as lucky. As the firing sequence for the proton cannon began, the Voltath vessels scattered to the Four Winds. Before the last vessel passed out of range, the beam of pure protonic energy speared forth and struck with unerring accuracy. At first the vessel spun like a toy top on its axis as the metal in the hull attempted to absorb and divert the almost infinite amount of energy. Then the vessel vanished in a flare of blinding light as each individual atom in the vessel's hull ruptured and began to infinitely expand.

As Raynor and his crew began to breathe easy, his operations officer spoke out clearly, "Sir! I am detecting a small object heading toward us from the direction of the debris field. It appears to be some kind of guided mine."

"Ion lasers, take it out, now!"

"Lasers ineffective, Captain! Impact is imminent! 5 seconds!"

"All hands, brace for impact!!"

As the self-guiding mine slowly but steadily made its way to the vessel, all members of her crew braced themselves against walls and on railings. Raynor leapt from the command arena toward the helm and fired the starboard ventral thrusters. This action caused the vessel to rotate on its horizontal axis so its more vital engine assembly and reactor core would be out of the way of the incoming mine. He was trying to get back to his chair, when the mine impacted and detonated.

The vessel was struck on the underside aft section of its starboard wing. The explosion blew half of the wing clean off and utterly destroyed the starboard ion thruster. Drake, as well as every other member of his crew that was not properly braced, was thrown across the deck. His back slammed into the bulkhead and he was rendered unconscious. From space, the once mighty Ares was spinning out of control like a top that was winding down.

When Drake awakened, it took him a few short moments to realize that he was lying in a bed in sickbay. As he looked around, he saw the form of his operations officer hovering over him. "Captain, can you hear me?"

"Mr. Kelson, what happened? How did I get here?"

"We were hit by a Voltath mine, Captain. Don't you remember?"

Drake's mind suddenly flooded with the memory of what had transpired. His reaction was immediate and decisive, although his voice did carry a slight tone of exhaustion and strain. He had after all been thrown into a bulkhead at almost ten meters per second. He groaned slightly as he slowly sat up. He chose not to notice Kelson's guiding hand on his shoulder as he stood. Touching the Captain without permission was a capital offense.

Drake groaned, "Of course I remember, damn you! How bad is the damage?"

Kelson was taken aback by Raynor's outburst. He had seen his captain in this mood only a few times before and knew to watch himself carefully. Raynor abhorred few things more than blasphemy, and when he began using it, one treaded lightly. "Well Captain, not as bad as it would have been had you not adjusted the ship's position at the last minute." Kelson began to gesture with his hands as he spoke, a habit Raynor found highly irritating, but could little about. "The mine struck about midway along our starboard wing, blowing a large portion of it clear off the hull. The weapons assemblies on that side are, of course, completely useless, and the starboard ion thruster was irreparably damaged. The weapon also caused some sort of power surge through most of our main and auxiliary systems. Weapons, propulsion, navigation, sensors, main computers, communication, all either completely without power or heavily damaged. To use an old term, we're dead in the water, Captain."

"Dead…" He shook his head slightly to clear his thoughts, only causing more pain. "Speaking of which, what are the casualty figures?"

"Well, Captain," he hesitated, but responded with formality, "All figured, we suffered 165 dead and more than 400 wounded."

"Good Lord," Raynor muttered. "Almost 70% casualties. Where is Commander Rawlings?"

"Captain, he was struck in the head by a beam that fell from the ceiling. He died almost an hour ago."

As Drake's mind began to work again he slowly took in the news, and took some time as well to look around the sickbay. He noticed not only a person in every bed, but also stretchers and cots all over the deck, leading out into the hall. Seeing men lying on the cold, hard deck plates in far worse condition then he, he grabbed the next nurse to walk by and barked an order, "Ensign, get someone in more serious condition and give him this bed. I can manage on my feet." The nurse started to object, citing some medical excuse, but Raynor followed it with a snapped, "Belay that rubbish! I gave you an order, damn it!"

He walked slowly out of sickbay, picking his way through the cots and men lying on the ground, and made his way to engineering crawling through access tunnels since the autolifts were offline. What he saw there filled him with despair and made him wonder if he would ever get what remained of his crew home. Fully three quarters of the consoles were black and charred, shorted out by the power surge. The main reactor was dark and silent, having been powered down to avoid a catastrophic breach.

Suddenly, a cheer rose up from a group of engineers huddled around the auxiliary sensor board. Drake's immediate reaction was to run over, but his back and concussion forced him to slow down. When he reached it, he saw that the board was active. He also saw that main scanners had picked up a vessel.

"Who is the highest ranking officer here?" he demanded.

Someone attempted to make his way through the crowd. A first Drake thought he was going to see a very short man, but instead a wolf-like Dassican made his way through the crowd and faced the captain. "I am, Captain. Lieutenant Gnarg Bledthag, Assistant to the Chief Engineer, well, I guess I am the Chief Engineer, now."

"Good, I want you to focus all your men and materials to establishing contact with that vessel. Lieutenant Kelson, can you tell what kind of ship it is?"

Had Kelson not spent two hours examining the specs on the computer during the briefing, he would never have recognized the silhouette before him. But the identification was immediate. "Captain, its the Emperor's Wrath, I'm positive. I recognize the silhouette from the briefing this morning. I'm not sure that her presence here should be viewed as a good thing. It does corroborate the commander's theory."

Raynor thought on that for a moment, "It very well may, but that is a Terran vessel, we are deep in enemy territory, and we are in need of assistance." He turned back toward the screen. "How far away are they?"

Bledthag looked at the board then back at Raynor. "They are about 5 light years from our position, heading 158 mark 312, Captain."

"Good. Lt. Bledthag, I want that com system operational ASAP. Make it happen. Lieutenant Kelson, consider yourself the acting executive officer. Come with me, we're going to the bridge."

"Right behind you, sir."