When the Nordera Battleaxe jumped in, a few hundred meters to Katyusha’s starboard, Olga knew she was going to die. It wasn’t the deafening collision alarms that blared throughout the ship, nor the screams of her fellow gunners, nor the wild heaving of the ship, as Captain Urumov, wounded and bleeding, wrenched his crippled darling in a desperate and futile evasive maneuver; or it might have been all that, put together: it was a deep-seated certainty, personal and clear, that turned her blood to ice and her hands to leaden weights. She couldn’t move, couldn’t think; her eyes were frozen on her targeting displays and the world around her had faded into a blur
So it came as a surprise when Petrovich’s ape-like arms reached over her crash webbing, grabbed the firing controls and pressed them home.
Katyusha’s broadsides were damaged from the fight against the Hertak, but Epsilon battery was still up and running, having been miraculously spared. Now it blazed to life, its single energy emitter focusing hellfire upon the Nordera vessel, while its three missile launchers went to rapid-fire.
It shouldn’t have made any difference. It wouldn’t have made any difference, if the incoming vessel was anything but a Nordera patchwork job, a lump of metal held together by spit and hope. It was too close and moving too fast for a single battery to be of any use in destroying it.
Thankfully, whether by design or accident, Petrovich hadn’t aimed to kill. Katyusha’s beam carved a long gash along the side of the Battleaxe and the follow-up missiles encountered much less armor than they were designed to penetrate. They went through the wounded Battleaxe like knives through butter and detonated a few dozen meters from its port thrusters. The resulting explosion was devastating in its own right, claiming the lives or more than fifty Nordera and turning their vessel into a barely-navigable wreck. It also blasted the warship away from a direct collision course. What it didn’t do, unfortunately, was silence its weapon emplacements – or blast it completely out of the way.
The Battleaxe came in screaming defiance, its weapons in rapid-fire. Epsilon battery’s emplacements died immediately – and a single missile launcher’s magazine went up in an apocalyptic fireball.
Olga had turned around, to gawk at Petrovich and maybe ask him if his fire had been aimed to hit as it had. She never got the chance. The exploding magazine had tripped every existing safeguard (as it should have) and blast doors were closing between the fireball and the ship’s interior but it was too late for Petrovich. There was a low, bell-like whoooonnnnnnnnnng as the expanding plasma hit the inner bulkheads and, in a fraction of a second, the ceiling of Epsilon battery bent inward like tinfoil stricken by a giant’s fist. It held, bending and stretching like the engineers had planned, and the flaming plasma on the other side never got the chance to reach the cowering sailors in their crash webbing.
But Petrovich was upright, having unlocked his own webbing to reach Olga’s controls. As the ceiling came down, it smashed his skull in and brought him low in bloody ruin.
There was a single moment of silence, the sailors staring aghast at their dead PO, and then the Battleaxe hit Katyusha’s ventral side like a sledgehammer, grazing along the engine nacelles and ripping the armor plating apart like butter. Katyusha heaved, flipped over and over and the lights died.
Some time after that, when Olga woke up and realized that, beyond all hope, she was still alive, the lights were still out. Olga’s suit had wrapped her head in emergency monomolecular film, allowing her to breathe out of the hyper-compressed nano-canisters on her belt and had tightened around her body, sealing any leaks. So there were definitely some problems with the life-support: the suit would only take such emergency measures if the atmospheric pressure fell under a certain threshold. It wasn’t enough to ward off total vacuum – but if a ship’s compartment sprung a leak it could allow sailors to work for a while and repair it. The point was that if she didn’t get into a compartment with functional life-support soon, she’d die (horribly), high-tech suit or not.
“Alexei…” she said, her voice rasping. “Georgi? Elena? Anyone?”
There was an explosion of light next to her and she raised her hand, in the verge of panic. Her eyes adjusted quickly though, and she made out the pale face of Georgi, two seats away, lit by the screen of the wrist communicator he insisted in bringing to the battery, despite the rules to the contrary.
“Are you all right?” Georgi asked, his voice shaky.
“No,” Olga replied and tried to get up. Her left hand didn’t move, and for a moment she panicked, thinking she was wounded, but then she realized that it was simply caught in the crash webbing. She fought it and pulled and writhed like a snake, and then she was free and panting heavily, standing in front of her ruined seat.
Georgi stepped up behind her, and put a hand on her shoulder. “Calm down. You’re wasting oxygen.”
Olga forced her breathing to return to normal and glanced around in the dim light. “You’re right. Let’s…let’s check the others.”
They stepped around the ruined body of Petrovich, and reached Alexei’s and Elena’s seats. It was immediately apparent that Alexei was beyond saving. Even if his suit’s indicators weren’t in the deep red, no man could be expected to live with a broken steel bar running through his torso like that. Elena, on the other hand, was alive, although her medical indicators did flash a concussion diagnosis when queried. She was unconscious and didn’t look good at all, having smashed her head against her console. Some blood was pooling inside the film covering her face, although she didn’t seem to be bleeding anymore. When nudged, she only groaned and flailed weakly.
“Great,” Georgi grumbled. “Now what?”
“Well, the ship must still be partly operational,” Olga mused, running her hand along the hopelessly bent hatch. “We’re still getting a gravity field, so the engines are running. So, we should see if we can get out of here and move inward, to where the light and warmth and air are.”
“Can we call for help?” Georgi asked, thumbing the intercom to no avail. “Because I really doubt we can get through that door.”
“No, it’s a solid inch of titanium alloy, and we have no heavy cutters,” Olga agreed. “What about that communicator of yours?”
“It’s a civilian model,” Georgi shrugged. “It can’t link to the military frequencies – and it doesn’t have any reception if it could.”
“What good is it then?” Olga snapped. “Why on Old Earth did you insist on bringing it with you?”
“It’s got ‘Angry Cordi’,” Georgi answered sheepishly. “I like to play when bored.”
“Oh great,” Olga groaned and bumped her head lightly against the wall. “We’re saved from boredom. Hurray!”
Olga looked up at Georgi’s tone and saw him staring at the communicator strangely. “…What?”
“Do we have any tools?” Georgi asked, his attention riveted onto the screen.
“What, with Petrovich around?” Olga scoffed. “You name it.”
“Oh, good,” Georgi scanned the room, gulped, and moved to Petrovich’s side. Quickly (and without looking, Olga noticed), he removed the PO’s omni-tool and ran back to her, sitting close to the wall.
“What are you doing?” Olga asked, her interest piqued
“Well, we have wireless intercom arrays in here, don’t we?” Georgi asked, removing his communicator and laying it across his lap.
“Sure,” Olga answered, sitting next to him. “Three of them. All useless – they don’t have any pow…oh. Oooooohhhh.”
Georgi held up the communicator’s battery pack. “Can you set up a Class C power transformer?” he asked.
Olga grinned. “You’re a genius.”
“Say that again after they get us out.”
“We got them out, Sir,” Urumov reported, kneeling next to Kalazonitov. “This makes it three hundred and forty-six dead, with all missing personnel accounted for. One way or another.”
Kalazonitov grunted in reply and waved off the pale-faced medic who was trying to stem the superficial bleeding from where the Admiral’d forehead had encountered his holoscreen frame. “Good. Get out of here, girl, go do some actual work. There’s actual wounded around here, go and find some.”
As the medic departed hurriedly, Kalazonitov staggered back to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane. He looked around Katyusha’s bridge mournfully. It wasn’t pretty. The entire sensors’ station had collapsed upon its users, killing three of his best officers and severely weakening the bridge’s structure. The room looked like a collapsed harmonica, crumpled up and twisted into something out of Escher’s darkest nightmares. It was a miracle its integrity hadn’t been compromised.
“What’s the verdict, Sergei?” he asked, darkly.
”She can fly, Sir,” came the answer, and Kalazonitov stared at Urumov as if he’d declared hard vacuum to be a nice place for a picnic.
“No, Sir.” Urumov looked insulted. “Engines are still at 80 percent efficiency, our fuel supplies are untouched, we still have three missile launchers online and our subspace core is operating at nominal levels. Life support and gravitics were touch-and-go for a while, but they’re back up, at 63 percent efficiency. If we isolate non-essential areas of the ship, we can up that to 82 percent. She can fly.”
“Captain,” Kalazonitov leaned forward and lowered his voice, “we are standing in a bridge that was crushed like a tin can, we have lost all but one of our starboard thrusters, all our energy emplacements and a third of our crew. We have no sensors, no tactical uplink and only one fighter catapult. We only have a single shuttle bay operational, and we need that to get our people off this wreck.”
“Don’t call her that, Sir. Please.” Urumov looked devastated. “I didn’t say she can fight, Sir, just fly. She can, trust me. I can fly her. And we can have the tactical net back up in a couple of hours – communications are still operational.”
“Wait,” Kalazonitov snapped and raised a hand to silence Urumov. “Wait. Can you steer her?”
“Can you give me back my tactical net?”
Kalazonitov glanced at the ruined holoscreen on his ripped-up Admiral’s Chair, still splattered with his drying blood and grunted softly.
“So there is some life left in the old girl, eh?” he asked, with the barest hint of a smile. “Very well. Captain, contact the rest of the squadron. All wounded that can be moved will be transferred to Katyusha. If she can’t fight, she can still care for our sailors. Until we can get her repaired, she’ll serve as a hospital ship. And if you get me that tactical uplink working in eighty minutes, I will consider not transferring my flag to Anastasia or Chongmingdao.”
Kalazonitov snorted. “A hospital ship as a flagship. Ridiculous. What else are we going to see before this war is over?”
The Delest fighters re-formed, like an explosion happening in reverse, clustering from a disorganized cloud around the Basileus’ hulk, into a quintet of wedges, aiming like spear-points toward the incoming Zy strikecraft. It was an impressive display of skill for the 2nd Home Guard pilots, given that a few weeks ago they were as green as raw recruits. And, what was even more impressive, was the fact that they held their attack vectors, depleted secondary banks and all, as the Zy interceptors closed.
The Zy pilots were very much aware that they would not be leaving Vega. The combined force of Sol, League and Delest fleets had smashed the 3rd Zy to pieces and their capital ships were being hunted down and destroyed before their eyes. They were dead anyway, and these enemy pilots were challenging them! No Zy would dream of rejecting such a fight.
So, when the two Grazhdanin cruisers Yangzhe and Songhua jumped in, right on top of the Zy assault vector and opened up with the entirety of their point-defense batteries, the Zy could not help but feel disappointed that they were being denied the fight.
A couple of seconds later, they were all dead, however, so no harm done.
“Kill them! Kiiiiillll theeeem! Wu Dong, you son of a pig, show them our broadsides, or I’ll have your head! I swear by the Empress’ ponytails, if you let that beat-up scow Anastasia gather more kills than us, I will have every member of the bridge crew out the airlock in the nude, myself included! Then, I won’t need to explain to the Admiral why we’re still being outperformed by his rustbuckets!”
The Chongmingdao’s bridge officers buried their heads in their consoles, unsuccessfully trying to hide their grins and the gunnery officer redoubled his efforts. Who would have thought, a couple of weeks ago, that the cool, composed Commodore Hitachi would turn into a berserker during combat? They knew better than to take his threats seriously, but there was something about his enthusiasm that made them wonder why the grizzled old man hadn’t shown this much fire before.
They liked him more now.
“Ha HAAAAA! Take that, blue lizard scum! Your mother was a Godzilla fart and your father was a one-balled newt! DIE, filthy reptiles!”
Virgo was a new sight for many of the sailors. The Aldebaran front had been a far-away place for most of them, as they’d been fighting in the Draco cluster since the early phases of the war. There were alien stars here and alien sights and the promise of some well-deserved R&R.
The man in the Lieutenant Commander’s uniform was very young; that was the first impression he gave. The second impression he gave was that of a rather tired young person. Kalazonitov couldn’t fault him; shuttling what amounted to two Battlegroups of capital and support ships into the front lines with only skeleton crews, to make up for the 3rd’s material losses would normally be a Rear Admiral’s job. Still, Kalazonitov had to give the young officer his due; the reports he had received were completely satisfactory.
“Lieutenant Commander Xi Dao, reporting, Admiral,” the officer snapped, crisply saluting and standing at attention.
“At ease, Lieutenant Commander,” Kalazonitov grumbled, getting up and moving toward his drinks cabinet. “Have a seat. Will you have a drink?”
“Thank you, Sir. No, Sir – I don’t drink.”
“You don’t drink!?” Kalazonitov turned, with a sparkle in his eyes. “You Core Worlders! No wonder you’re so skinny. Vodka is good for you, you know.”
He chuckled, as Xi Dao did his best not to stare at his own gangly physique. “Just joking, Lieutenant Commander. Very well, no vodka then. Some Tamy eau-de-vie, then? Despite the name, it’s non-alcoholic.”
Xi Dao relented and Kalazonitov poured the drinks. He then returned to his chair and collapsed in it with a sigh.
“So, I hear you’ve brought me more ships, to feed the meat grinder, then?” he asked, twirling the ice in his glass.
“Uh…yes, Sir,” Xi Dao replied. “Twenty MK.III Volyas, with escorts and a full fighter complement. Three thousand sailors. A thousand pilots, some of them veterans of the northern front, who re-applied for service. And three фабрика factory ships.”
The doors behind the Lieutenant Commander opened and Tanya Skivlana, now bearing the insignia of a full Commander entered. She hesitated for a beat seeing that the Admiral was occupied, then at a glance from Kalazonitov approached the desk.
Xi Dao turned at the sound of the door and froze. For a second, his mouth hung open and then he visibly shook himself back to the there-and-now – but not before Kalazonitov saw his reaction and smiled.
“With your permission, Admiral?” Tanya asked as she approached.
“Of course, Tanya,” Kalazonitov said. “May I introduce you first? Commander Tanya Skivlana – meet Lieutenant Commander Xi Dao.”
Tanya raised an eyebrow and extended a hand. “Really? Very pleased to meet you, Lieutenant Commander. My congratulations on the stellar job you’ve done! Admiral – this is what I wanted to talk to you about: I just came from the supply docks and everything looks as perfect as we could have hoped for.”
“Er…yes,” Di Xao stammered, standing up and trying to decide what to do with his dataslate. He eventually decided to leave it on his chair and shook hands. “Thank you. Pleased to meet you.” He waited for her to take a seat and then sat down himself. Thankfully, the dataslate was made of hardy stuff.
Kalazonitov smiled. “Commander Skivlana is my Adjutant and Logistics Officer,” he said. “She will be liaising with you during our stay here.”
“If I can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me,” Skivlana said with a smile.
“Of…of course,” Xi Dao replied. “It’ll be a pleasure. I mean…”
Kalazonitov’s lips were twitching. “You know, Tanya?” he interrupted, “why don’t you take the afternoon off? Go grab a bite on the station, or something. The Lieutenant Commander can escort you and you can discuss things without me standing over your heads and shoving my nose everywhere. After all, you’ve earned some rest yourself.”
“Well…” Tanya hesitated for a moment and then locked eyes with Xi Dao, who looked like something between a rabbit caught in headlights and a moth that just noticed a nearby candle. “Yes, why not? Thank you, Sir. Can I count on the pleasure of your company, Lieutenant Commander?”
Xi Dao remained frozen for a moment and then got on his feet like an automaton. He gave a courtly bow, surprisingly elegant. “Of course, Commander Skivlana. I would be honored. Can…should I wait for your message?”
“I suppose so,” Tanya answered, slightly hesitantly. “Give me half an hour to see if there is anything urgent to attend to and I will message you.”
Kalazonitov took a sip from his glass and grinned into it. Oh how fast they grow.