Skirmish at Galakhad (Story)

Another short story, set in the same universe as my last one. As ever, I’m not completely happy with it, but meh.

Skirmish at Galakhad
by Ian Peters

Station Galakhad-4A swung through the night’s sky, a constellation of lit windows and navigation lights against the ancient stars behind. A structure only seen as it occluded the stars behind – its low albedo, a consequence of the highly efficient solar cells covering every exterior surface, rendered further irrelevant by the eclipsing gas giant Galakhad-4. The star occlusion hints at offshoots from the central mass, irregular projections from the orbital plane, breaking the perceived symmetry of -4A.

“How long until we’re ready?” Commander Thorn spoke quietly, addressing the largely empty bridge of the Excelsior. Despite being flagship of U.P. Auxiliary Fleet 303, the majority of the crew were on shore leave, enjoying the dubious pleasures of Galakhad-4A. Especially the bars, simul-suites, and ‘companionship’ undoubtedly available on a such a backwater supply and requisitions station. An ensign looked down at the status displays in front of him.

“Nominal for departure in 36 hours. Logistics shows we are at 60% of combat load, 30% of overall load.”

Thorn waved a lazy thanks, and went back to studying the contents of the reader he was holding.

The viewscreen in front of the bridge flashed to a new angle – a new arrangement of stars casting their light across the bridge. The flicker of change brought Thorn’s eyes up in annoyance, turning quickly to interest as a torus of light burst across the faces of the skeleton crew, and then to alarm as the flowering toroid was joined by a bloom of others.

And then they came.

Holes in the shower of light, like the echo of an insect’s proboscis in the corona of an insect bite; the Continuum ships slipped through the wormholes and descended on the station and its captive audience of resupplying vessels.

“Action stations! All ships, emergency undock!”

With the crew staggering to obey, Thorn leaned towards the temporary Executive Officer. “Sitrep on crew?”

The officer looked wild-eyed for a moment, then calmed as he met the steady and collected gaze of Thorn. A quick look down at data displays to confirm. “All ships at skeleton. Pegasus, Prometheus, Grozulla have command staff. All other ships have minimal command representation. Emergency recall has gone out. Station is locking down…”

A siren sounded out, and the enemy icons on the tactical display flickered as the computer issued a launch warning.

Thorn studied the tactical map, measuring and calculating in his mind. He reached over to the command console, and triggered the fleet broadcast frequency – “Urgent message all ships: jump on my command, irrespective of safe distance.”

“XO, lay in a course for alternate-1. Disable jump safeties.” There was a pause from the XO, considering the command given, shocked by its consequences. Thorn again brought his command presence to bear, and repeated, still in a deceptively calm voice – “Now, please, XO. And drop a spread of recording buoys.”

He finally turned and started issuing orders, allowing Thorn to return to the tactical display. Cueing the main display to focus on the approximate location of the nearest missiles – accelerating by gravitic effect, invisible through stealth coating – Thorn stood and watched. Every second took the U.P. ships further from the station. Every second improved the safety margins for his next action.

A ripple of fire erupted on the viewer towards the top of the screen, as the chemical rockets of the missile terminal guidance systems triggered. Of its own accord, Thorn’s finger flicked the broadcast switch. Thorn heard his subconscious give the jump order; his conscious mind was preoccupied as it screamed at him that it was too soon, and that his action would cost the lives of thousands.

The crew performed as any well-trained military does – it mechanically obeyed his orders. More flowers of light bloomed in the sky around the station, and the U.P. fleet jumped to its destination, alternate-1. The gravity differential sucked the ships through the wormholes they had created, accelerating away from the missiles zipping in towards them, jumping to safety.

But the gravity differential didn’t just affect the fleet ships. Behind them, as they thundered away in all directions, the station was still spinning in space. Designed for the minimal gravity of a distant orbit around Galakhad-4, it was suddenly subject to the pull of gravity in 13 different directions. Metal shredded, pulled far beyond limits of elasticity. Fountains of frozen water vapour turned into ever-expanding clouds as the atmosphere within the station flowed into space, carrying with it the still struggling forms of the station’s inhabitants. Some 15,000 souls tried to scream out, their voices rendered silent by the vacuum around them.

The sirens sounding aboard the Excelsior abruptly cut out, as the wormhole slammed shut behind it. Out of sight, but not out of mind; Thorn continued to brood about the slaughter he had left several hundred light-years away. A tactfully cleared throat from behind brought him out of his reverie.

“Sir, Orders?”

Of the 13 ships in AF303, 9 had escaped the attacks, and of these only the Excelsior had escaped any damage at all. For the next few hours, a fury of activity took place on the other ships, as skeleton crews attempted, largely successfully, damage control.

On the bridge of the Excelsior, Thorn sat statue-still, eyes glued to a spot in the air in front of him. He had mechanically received status reports, approved actions, issued orders as needed, but mainly he had just sat.

The XO glanced again at the immobile Thorn. He was worried. As the interface between Captain and crew, he was familiar with the fact that captains were a species apart, and no two were alike. While the immediate fallout from the attack was being dealt with, the crew had been active, and the XO had been able to shield them from the void their captain had become. However, now these actions were coming to a close and the bridge crew had increasingly trended towards idleness. And the sidelong glances he was catching hinted that the crew weren’t happy either.

The fleet communications officer brought a final status report to the XO’s attention, “Sir, Guppy indicates it has completed damage control and is ready for action.” A nod indicated receipt, and the XO slid over to stand in front of Thorn, forcing the captain’s attention.

“Sir, Guppy is now online. All fleet ships have reported as ready. Perhaps we could discuss our next steps in your boardroom sir…”

This latest status update appeared to finally bring Thorn out of his funk. Eyes suddenly alive and active tore away from the void they had been staring into, and rested on the XO’s own. Thorn jumped down from his chair.

“XO, first of all we need intelligence. I want a signalling buoy sent out, to download the logs from the buoys we left at Galakhad-4.”

Seconds later a rocket fled away from the ship, accelerating at maximum speed. Essentially a fast-burn chemical rocket, with a one-shot gravitic engine that burned out within minutes, within a relatively short time it was several light-seconds away. At this safe distance, the rocket destroyed itself, creating a short-lived small wormhole back to Galakhad-4, allowing the Excelsior to bypass the limitations of the speed of light and query the stealth-buoys in near real-time for the fifteen seconds the hole remained.

The fleet went silent as the crews looked at the latest video footage from the attack. Where before a station had spun through the night, now only a steadily expanding cloud of detritus remained. Already, a multi-coloured display was forming around Galakhad-4, as metal and organic remains encountered atmospheric friction. A palpable anger filled the fleet. An anger which needed a focus, lest it be placed at the feet of the fleet’s commander, whose actions could be considered, after all, as condemning thousands of their comrades to death.

Meanwhile, Thorn had been working away at a console, focussed not on the destructive outcome of the attack, but on the blossoms signifying the attacking fleet’s arrival and departure. Task complete, and surrounded by the surging of raw emotions, Thorn walked back to the fleet comms panel.

He flicked the broadcast switch.

“Look well, and remember. Our friends. Our comrades. Our brothers and sisters in arms. All now rest in peace. It is with us now that the burden rests – to remember, and to act. And this burden we gladly take.

This cowardly attack cannot go unanswered, and will not. We will show these craven animals the proud hearts that beat within us. Creatures so terrified of our battle fleets that they attack supply convoys and unarmed stations; we will show them the error of their ways. We will paint a message across the stars with their blood.

Through our actions we will remember our friends. Through our actions we will revenge our friends. And through our actions we will teach such a lesson that the murderers of the Continuum will quiver with fear in their holes, as our vengeance is visited against their bodies.”

A cheer erupted around him, the crew’s anger finding a concrete target. Anger became blood madness as people remembered the friends they had lost, and eagerly considered the retribution they were to mete out.

As the cheers continued, and martial songs spontaneously broke out, Thorn flicked another switch to activate the closed circuit to only the senior officers, and privately addressed these individuals.

“The words I spoke were for the crew. They need the simplicity of a black and white fight. The lack of moral ambiguity that derives when the Continuum are considered evil monsters, and we are the proud representatives of what humanity should be.

But we, as leaders, cannot and must not fall victim to such simplification. For life is grey. And all wars end, not in the complete destruction of the enemy but through the agreement by all parties that no more blood need be shed.

When we fight, we must fight to win. But to win not just the battle, rather, we fight to win the war.

There’s a line that separates justice, and revenge. When the response to a military attack is disproportionate, we tread close to that line. When we mete out punishment to the innocent and the young, when we kill and maim those not involved in the war or the decision to go to war, when we destroy without compassion, without empathy, then this is not justice. This isn’t even revenge. This is murder.

And by committing murder, we only increase the blood cost we will need to pay to win the war.

Now we will go after the perpetrators of this crime against us. And we will mete out justice as promised. From the logs of the attack, I have identified the origin of the attacking fleet – sufficient astral information was visible through the attacker’s jump points for mapping against star charts. But when we get there, it is justice we seek. Not revenge. And not murder.

All ships are to go to battle stations in 30 minutes.

Excelsior out.”

Had Thorn been on the bridge of any of the other ships, he would have seen the frowns on the faces of the officers he had just addressed. In most cases the majority of the command crew had been aboard Galakhad-4A when it was destroyed, leaving only a skeleton crew of junior officers behind. These junior officers had cheered with their friends and colleagues during Thorns first address, but were neither senior nor experienced enough to fully adsorb the latter lesson he had tried to teach. Still, they were well-trained military officers, and would follow the orders given.

Thirty minutes later, the fleet was as ready as it could be. Weapons, offensive and defensive, were fully manned, and damage control parties were scattered around each ship. Each body was sheathed in an armoured vacuum suit, respiration systems set to flick over from atmospheric to internal sources at the slightest blip in air pressure.

Each commanding officer however, was not ready. Contrary to established routine, Thorn had neither briefed nor prepared his command staff. Thus on each ship bridge stood an officer masking, with varying levels of success, their unease. All they had been given was a list of co-ordinates, each identified by a codeword.

After a scan of the status boards, Thorn began the battle of Skegul. And unknowingly started the second galactic war.

“Fleet, radio silence for the next minute. XO, I want a comms buoy sent out, remote end set to point alpha. Seven seconds later, send a stealth buoy along the same exact bearing, target to be updated mid-flight.”

The XO turned and began to question Thorn, but met his gaze and stammered to a stop.

“XO, timeliness is of the essence for some part of this plan. Now, if you please, the comms and stealth buoys…”

The Executive Officer forwarded the orders, and two new icons flickered into existence on the tactical display. A short while later, the comms buoy flickered out of existence, and was replaced by a small wormhole.

“Sensors, route the stealth buoy through the comms wormhole. Start telemetry by laser.”

The XO again turned and began to query the order, but the lieutenant sat on the sensors console had not such qualms. The stealth buoy tweaked it’s direction, and plummeted into the tiny comms wormhole. A data stream leapt towards the Excelsior, carried in a beam of coherent ultra-violet radiation, and almost immediately stopped as the buoy was shredded by the unstable gravity surrounding the sub-metre wormhole.

It turned out, however, that the received data was enough. The small sensor package, affixed to the front of the larger propulsion system, had sufficient time to detect and locate a number of ships within the target system. Just prior to being destroyed, followed quickly by the destruction of the wormhole itself, the buoy forwarded this information back to the Excelsior.

A sketch of the Skegul system appeared on the tactical display. The locations of planets, pre-calculated from known orbital information, was joined by the estimated positions of ships, which were broadcasting in the sub-second time when the sensor package was in-system, and represented as globes of red, slowly growing as elapsed time degraded the quality of the location estimate.

Thorn studied the map, then broadcast to the fleet. “IP two light seconds out from Skegul-3, on ecliptic. Point Bravo one light second, retrograde tangent to Skegul-3, on ecliptic. Form close wall formation, in plane derived from line between Charlie and Delta, origin Charlie, orient ecliptic.”

He watched the fleet drift into the ordered formation, then turned to the now thoroughly bemused XO. “Get Shuttle Ganymede to disable IFF, and evac. Shuttle Orion to pick-up and return to Prometheus at maximum speed.”

Whilst his orders were being followed, Thorn turned again and studied the tactical map. He watched as the symbol for the Ganymede, some distance away, flickered and turned blue, and the green Orion began to head back. As the Orion passed some indeterminate line, existing only in Thorn’s mind, he again addressed the fleet.

“All ships, target shuttle Ganymede, fire full offensive spread. Continue fire until initial load-out exhausted. Set terminal guidance on command only.”

A subset of the ships began to fire, a trickle of missiles began to flash towards the target, becoming a flood as inexperienced commanders followed the example of their peers. Remarkably soon, the flood became a trickle again, as weapon magazines grew exhausted. Thorn watched the cloud of icons approaching the distant shuttle. It was enough.

As Thorn sat, and his XO seriously considered the sanity of his commander, crew members around the fleet struggled to reload and rearm their primary munitions. The Auxiliary Fleet was made up of supply vessels, tenders, tankers and other non-combat ships. Whilst each had offensive weaponry, combat was neither their primary, nor secondary role. Systems automated and efficient on front-line vessels were manual and awkward when bolted onto non-combat ships.

And all the while, the cloud of munitions crept towards the distant shuttle, and Thorn’s consternation grew.

Finally, status boards began to trend to green, and it was time.

“Prometheus, I want Ganymede to jump to point Bravo, orient towards Skegul-3, in…” Thorn did some quick calculations, “five minutes seventeen seconds from my mark. Configure it to keep the wormhole open as long as possible, but to shimmy out perpendicular to insertion direction. Mark in… three, two, one, mark.”

“Fleet, on my mark, in around four minutes thirty seconds, jump to IP. Orient towards Skegul-3.”

As acknowledgements rolled in, Thorn studied the tactical display, measuring. At the back of his mind, he also considered his XO. There was no doubt as to his basic competence. When given a task, he could do it, with a minimum of thought but a maximum of consistency. For the U.P. fleet, these were the factors favoured in selection and promotion, and the reason why Thorn had been shuffled off to this unimportant fleet in a backwater sector. But Thorn was nervous about him. He had no real command presence, and appeared not to be able to separate himself well from the crew, and the infectious emotions a group of individuals can exert.

The clock counted down, and soon it was time. Thorn brought himself back to the moment, and counted down the last five seconds himself. With his final “Mark!” the fleet flickered and jumped from one location to another.

Skegul-3 proved to be a well-populated planet, situated slap-bang in the habitable zone of Skegul. Spinning around it were a number of stations, and scattered around these a fleet of ships lay at rest.

Repeating the tactic used against them, Thorn didn’t wait. Each ship in the U.P. fleet began to shudder slightly as it began to fire it’s primary munitions towards the enemy ships, as per Thorn’s orders.

However, this was no auxiliary fleet, docked and resupplying, that they were facing. Even as the 303’s missiles flew towards the enemy, the Continuum forces began to orient themselves. As defensive weaponry was unmasked, fire rippled along the flanks of the forces, twinkling in the distance. A fog of heavy metals raced towards the cloud of U.P. missiles, guiding towards the reflected echoes of the fleet radar signals.

As the defensive weapons fired, they were joined by an initial barrage of Continuum missiles, fired slightly out of the ecliptic and the dense field of obstacles forming between the fleets. Weapon platforms were ejected above, below, prograde and retrograde of the immediate field of battle, seeking to gain line-of-sight on the U.P. forces and avoiding the obstacle-rich field forming between them.

A single burst of light, well wide of the ongoing battle, announced the arrival of the Ganymede. U.P. forces ignored it, as they knew what it was. Continuum forces saw a single, non-combatant, ship arrive and likewise ignored it.

The battle continued. Now it was the turn of the U.P. forces to begin to fire interceptors. The Continuum weapon platforms were still trying to seek an angle-of-attack, but the surviving missiles from the initial response flashed as their terminal guidance began to kick in. Poorly supplied as AF303 was in offensive munitions, the ship designers had likewise scrimped on defensive weaponry. The element of surprise had helped, but even so the odd missile began to slip through.

The floor slammed under Thorn, and the local gravity disappeared, as a missile clipped the Excelsior. Dense metal mass, accelerated to fantastic speeds, suddenly decelerated. Several terajoules of kinetic energy flashed to heat and light, evaporating part of the ship. A shock-wave flowed through the remaining ship’s infrastructure, throwing its crew around, blasting free shards of stress-fractured metal, and in many places evacuating its atmosphere to the vacuum of space.

Thorn’s ears popped, and vision blurred as the pressure within his suit suddenly dropped, and then restored. The noise of the bridge disappeared, replaced initially by a scream of air, and then the hum of his suit, as the atmosphere was torn from the bridge. A reach and a grab brought him within reach of the floor, and he managed to get his boots affixed to the ferrous floor.

There was a clunk as someone clashed his helmet against Thorn’s. The XO.

“Sir, are you okay?” The sound bass heavy through direct helmet-helmet conduction.

Thorn tried to walk away, but one of his legs didn’t seem to be working. His eye’s were fixed on the tactical display, on the timer since the Ganymede had jumped into the system. He reached down, grabbed the grating of the floor, chunky fingers seeking purchase on the mesh.

Again a clunk, and a change in vector as someone tried to hold him back. The XO again. “Sir, you’ve been hit…”

It was an agony to drag air into his lungs. Even the XO seemed to be quieter now, despite that he seemed to be shouting. Thorn continued to claw himself forward.

It was getting darker now. His vision began to contract, centred on a button on the weapons console. The console operator himself was gone, a constellation of floating red globes all that remained. Another metre. Another drag. His body felt curiously heavy despite the lack of gravity. Every metre felt like ten, dragging a weight behind him. He reached out. Almost there. With a last gasp his finger dropped on the button on the console. And then blackness.

In the night, a ripple of flames erupted, orthogonal to the main axis of the combat. A cloud of missiles, fired by the fleet tens of light years away, brought to this system by blindly following a trajectory which intersected the Ganymede’s wormhole, a wormhole purposefully set such that the passive trajectory would bring them plummeting towards Skegul-3. The missile cloud became a storm. The radio pulse initiated by Thorn enabled terminal guidance for this initial barrage, and in a thousand missiles tiny silicon brains flickered into action. Reflections of radar energy tantalised their senses, and flickers of RF energy flowed within the cloud as each negotiated which of the multitude of valid targets it should head towards. Then the flames erupted, as each missile oriented itself and sent itself plummeting towards it’s target.

The Continuum were taken completely by surprise. Unprepared for an attack from that direction, only minimal interceptor defences could be called upon. The missiles plummeted towards their targets.

Thorn came to in the sealed capsule of a medical pod. One leg was swathed in bandages and padding, and the rest of his body ached. Clear plastic pipes led from assorted points on his body. He could feel a periodic thumping through his body, a signal forwarded through the ships frame, but he couldn’t place it.

The battle must have been long over. His wounds were tended, and he couldn’t hear the urgent sirens which signal a ship under fire or in trouble. His anaesthetic-dulled mind continued to gnaw at the signal. Weapons fire. That’s what it was. The medical bays were down near the main weapons pod, and what he was hearing was the periodic firing of heavy weapons.

But the battle must be over…

A hiss and a whirr sounded, and the med-pod door opened. The XO, flushed and with an unhealthy gleam to his eyes came into the cabin. There was a madness to his face, as of an anger no longer kept in control, but instead given gleeful release. He smiled, the sort of smile an anthropomorphised fox would have after feeding on an entire brood of hens.

Thorn felt a stabbing in the chest. He knew what had happened. But he had to ask.

“What have you done?”

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