Chapter 32:

Fleet Battle

Red Storm Over Ganymede


I stood beside Tristan at the entrance to the docking tube, a whirlwind of emotion swirling through me. Grace’s ship had docked with us to exchange personnel for the upcoming assault. The Gates of Babylon would lead the main assault on Ganymede and send down the landing party to Catamitus city, while Grace’s ship, the Scheherezade, would lead the group that took the orbital docking platforms.

I was heading to the Scheherezade, a beautiful, sleek ship with long, tapered engines to coordinate with Grace. Which meant that I would likely not see Tristan until the battle was over, systems willing.

My chest hurt as I trailed my fingers down his cheek. “Promise me you’ll be safe,” I said.

Tristan looked down at the deck plating as people floated past us into the docking tube. “You know I’ve never been great at promises.”

My hand grasped his chin and forced him to meet my eyes. “Just come back to me, all right?”

His eyes locked mine. “Only if you promise me the same. No noble self-sacrifice?”

I nodded. “Only if you promise the same.”

He chuckled. “My princely life is all about self-sacrifice for the good of the people, though.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder then, and turned around to see Grace floating in the docking tube. “All the other personnel are aboard, Isul. Are you ready?”

I nodded, though my feet felt like they were stuck in hypergravity.

“Take care of him, Grace,” Tristan said.

She patted my shoulder. “I’ll make sure of it. You be careful too, Tristan. We’ll see you on Ganymede when this is all over.”

With that, Grace gently tugged me backward into the zero-gravity of the docking tube and we floated back as the door closed behind us, and Tristan was obscured from my sight for what I hoped was not the last time.

* * *

I plugged into the Scheherezade’s main computer at a seat on the Bridge behind Captain Nichols, and relished the familiar feeling of an Imperial computer core. It was nice to be back. Still, it was strange to be aboard an imperial cruiser that had so few personnel aboard. Grace had reported that she was taking the ship under skeleton crew to the shipyards at Ganymede for a full diagnostic. The crew left commanding the ship were all known Imperial loyalists who Grace had taken a chance on and introduced Tristan to, in hopes they would support the endeavor to place the true Prince on the throne. Her gamble had paid off, and we now had the support of at least ten crew members.

“The Gates of Babylon reports ready to depart Enceladus,” I said.

Grace sat down in her Captain’s chair and waved her hand. “Helm, take us out. Maintain a ten kilometer distance between us and the cloaked Collective ships.”

The helmsman repeated the order back and set her course. “Course laid in for Ganymede.”

“Any word from the Martians yet?” Grace asked me.

I shook my head. “Nothing yet. I transmitted the coded signal to their ships in the asteroid belt. It’ll just take time to reach them.”

Grace drummed her fingers on the armrest of her chair. “If they don’t show up, we’re going to have to scrap the operation. I can’t take us in with the full fleet still in orbit of Ganymede.” She eyed me, before saying, “You don’t think this is some kind of Martian trap, do you? Let us start fighting each other and watch the Empire burn itself to the ground?”

I shook my head. “Every interaction with the First Minister I had suggested genuine willingness to help Tristan regain his throne and overthrow the Uranians. I do believe their distaste for the Theocracy may even extend to helping the Empire.”

Grace snorted. “Let us hope you’re correct. Whatever happens, it will be a different Empire born after today.”

“Of that I am most glad,” I replied.

Hours passed as we continued our journey to Ganymede. I could tell Grace was on edge, and I certainly felt for her. This slow march to our possible doom gnawed at me as well.

Just as we passed into Jovian space, a transmission from Ganymede Central Command broadcast to the entire fleet.

Grace leaned forward in her seat as Admiral McFadden’s face appeared on the holo-transmitter, and it was a grave look he wore. “To the commanders of every ship in the fleet. Our long-range sensors have just confirmed a huge fleet entering Jovian space from the asteroid belt. The ships all appear to be Martian.

“They are not returning our hails and transmissions, so we are scrambling our fleet to rendezvous at the following coordinates and stand ready to engage the Martians should they refuse to turn back to their own space and attack.

“In the name of Emperor, let it be done.”

The ghostly hologram winked out, and Grace let out a huge sigh of relief. “By the Saints, I was beginning to think they were going to leave us hanging. Communications, send our regrets and inform central command that our ship is currently experiencing malfunctions that would make it dangerous to take into battle.”

I relayed the information on to Tristan’s ship in a coded message, and got back a winking face.

We were so close.

* * *

Ganymede grew before us, shining in the darkness, the lights of the bubble cities twinkling. And in front of the moon, blocking our path, was the Regina One.

“Transmit our clearance codes to the flagship, request permission to enter the orbital drydock,” Grace said.

I tapped the sequence that transmitted our codes, then waited in the tense atmosphere of the bridge until the all clear code came through.

I monitored the Scheherezade’s progress as we drew closer and closer, until we passed inside the sphere of the orbital defense platforms, their sensors recognizing us as friendly.

“We’re in,” I said. “Our Collective friends are holding position outside the sensor buoy line.”

Grace nodded and hopped up out of her captain’s chair to. “Helm, take us toward drydock, but at the last minute I want you to fire port thrusters and send us into this platform,” she said, indicating the satellite closest to the drydock.

The helmsman looked confused. “You want me to crash the ship into the platform, Ma’am?” she asked.

Grace shook her head. “No, not crash. Fire the starboard thrusters to slow us down, then use the docking tube to get us access to the platform.”

The helmsman looked dubious about this plan. “And once we’ve docked?”

Grace favored her with a dark smile. “Then I lead a boarding party, we take control of the platform, and then use it to take out the Regina One.”

It was crazy plan. I hesitated to call it brilliant, but it was definitely crazy. If we appeared damaged, and transmitted the codes for a navicomputer malfunction, it was certain to cause confusion among the Regina One’s crew. Which would theoretically allow us the time necessary to seize the orbital defense platform.

I cleared my throat and said, “I calculate a thirty-eight percent chance that the Regina One will catch onto our ruse, and fire on the Scheherezade.”

Grace tapped her boot on the deck plating as she considered the odds. “Those odds aren’t great. But good enough that I’m willing to take them.”

“Even with our weapons powered down?” It would look far too suspicious to leave the cannons charged entering supposedly friendly space.

Grace’s mouth pressed into a grim line. “I suppose we’ll have to depend on Tristan’s luck, and pray to the Saints that our Collective allies don’t let us burn.”

The helmsman looked like she was going to be sick.

If I had a stomach, I didn’t doubt I would appear much the same way. I liked the Bio-droids of the Collective, but this was definitely where our true trust was put to the test, and if the Collective didn’t come through, the dust from our explosion would no doubt add another ring to Jupiter.

But like all good soldiers on the eve of battle, we followed the orders we were given. As Grace settled back into her Captain’s chair - back straight, bearing proud - and gave the command to begin the operation, my circuits practically drank in the calm writ on her face. If she was scared of our future, like all good captains she didn’t let her crew see fear from their commanding officer.

“Helm, change course heading fifteen degrees, Isul, begin firewall countermeasures,” Grace commanded.

As the helm changed our course, I put up the false transmissions laced with protection subroutines that would not let the Bio-droids on the Regina One take remote command of our ship. I vowed that despite my damaged state, I would not be the weak link in this operation.

The ship lurched to the side, the artificial gravity struggling to keep up with the erratic movements programmed by the helm. I watched the dot that represented the Scheherezade move closer and closer to the orbital defense platform, then felt the first tingling sensations of probing from the Regina One. Bio-droids there were testing my transmission for authenticity. One almost broke through, but I managed to catch the probe just in time.

“Captain Nichols, they’re going to work it out soon,” I said, my voice growing frantic as I fended off more probes. They were sending standard queries for assistance, and my synaptic fluids chilled as the huge warship began to slowly angle toward us.

“Hold them off for as long as possible, Isul,” Grace said as she turned back to the helm.

While my attention had been diverted for a split second, I felt one of the probes break through. “They know, Captain.”

Grace rose from her chair. “Lieutenant, get us to that platform, I don’t care how.”

“Aye, Captain,” the helmsman answered as her hands flew over the navigational controls.

I poured my efforts into securing the ship from remote access, letting all pretense of our damaged computer core drop.

The communications officer looked up from his station. “The Regina One is sending immediate orders to halt and stand down for inspection.”

“To hades with inspection,” Grace spat. “Helm, continue current course. Tactical, charge up the main guns and raise our particle shields.”

The tactical officer yelled his affirmative as I fended off several more electronic attacks.

“They’re going to break through my firewall soon,” I said.

Tactical added, “Captain, the Regina One is charging their forward particle cannons!”

The entire ship shuddered as they released a barrage of laser fire at us.

Damage alerts popped up on every screen of the bridge. “Our particle shields are down to twenty-seven percent. These generators were never designed to handle firepower of that magnitude,” the Tactical officer said. “Shall we return fire?”

“Point everything you’ve got in their direction and let loose, Commander,” Grace said.

The Scheherezade returned fire, but we might as well have been putting on a light show for all the damage that registered against the flagship. The Regina One fired again, and this time the beam punched through our particle shields and tore a gaping wound in the starboard dorsal hull of the ship.

“We’re losing power,” Tactical screamed. Acrid smoke from the ship’s coolant system poured into the bridge.

The ship lurched again, faster this time, and alarm sirens began to scream as our proximity to the platform grew closer and closer.

“Fire the reverse thrusters!” Grace said.

“Aye, Captain,” helm replied. I felt our spin begin to slow, but it wasn’t fast enough. “I don’t have enough power left to slow us down,” helm choked out.

“Brace yourself for impact!” I yelled, a split second before the Scheherezade crashed into the side of the platform.

I was thrown over the top of my console, and cried out as I felt some of the synth-flesh rent from my hands and face. With a sickening crack, I felt one of the black antlers snap in half as my head was thrown against a bulkhead.

I pulled myself back up to my console with difficulty. The readouts weren’t reassuring. Part of the nose of the Scheherezade was lodged in the orbital defense platform. Emergency forcefields and blast doors had shut, saving the oxygen supply aboard the ship, but there was no way we were going to be able to use the crumpled docking ring and tube to access the platform.

And we were easy targets for the Regina One.

“Is everyone alive?” Grace croaked out as she picked herself up off the floor. Her lip was bleeding, and I could see the beginning of a bad bruise beginning to blossom on her cheek.

I switched to the sensor display on my console. The Regina One drew closer. They knew we were crippled, and in moments they would send their outriders to overtake us.

“Suit up for a spacewalk, everyone” Grace ordered, as the crew scrambled to follow her orders. “If we can’t get in through the docking tube, we’ll just have to gain access through the emergency entrance.”

The tactical officer piped up. “With all due respect, Captain, we’ll be easy picking for their cannons out there in evac suits.”

The main viewscreen fluttered in and out of focus, but movement there caught my eyes.

The Shakti lowered its cloaking field, and shimmered into view right between us and the Regina One.

Grace smiled, a corner of her ruby lips tugging upward. “Perhaps not such easy pickings after all.”

Steward McOy
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