As the airlock cycled through its pressurization, Captain Lawrence attempted to make sense of the last ten minutes. Almost out of nowhere a DSF dreadnaught had blocked their path and demanded that they dock with them. While it was not unheard of for a frigate or even a destroyer to board ships for anti-smuggling operations, a Trafalgar-class dreadnaught was far too valuable a resource to waste on something as trivial as hunting down a few containers of contraband.
Once they had gotten over the initial shock of being confronted by the massive battleship, Hunter and Lawrence quickly realized they were being hailed by the vessel. An arrogant young lieutenant announced that they were in the presence of DFS Actium, flagship of the Seventh Fleet under the command of Admiral Pierce. The brash, little officer then demanded that they prepare to dock and that the captain come aboard the Actium immediately. Faced with such overwhelming firepower, Lawrence had very few options, aside from acquiescence.
The Actium was a standard pattern, Trafalgar-class dreadnaught. The bulk of the ship, including its massive engine complex, was contained within a rectangular structure nearly six hundred meters on any give side. Two long wedges, joined by a platform at their base, protruded from the forward end of the ship. These served to form both the hangar bay area as well as the ship’s primary, forward weapons array. From either side of the main body, horizontal wings swept out. At about two thirds of their length, the wings tapered and angled down slightly. At the beginning of the taper, vertical pylons provided for secondary weapons arrays and external docking ports. While not implicitly stated in the ship’s design, these wings also helped to shield the ship’s core from some degree of incoming fire. The engines on the rear of the ship were aligned in a 2-3-2 configuration, with smaller maneuvering engines in each of the corners. Each of the engines was capable of adjusting its orientation slightly, to aid in steering the behemoth.
A high pitched whine signaled the end of the airlock cycle, followed by a faint, grinding sound. The Captain made a mental note to have Michaels look into the grinding noise when, and if, he returned to his ship. As the outer hatch slid back, the captain was greeted by the same junior officer that had hailed the ship minutes earlier. The officer’s dress was impeccable, as was to be expected of someone serving on an admiral’s flagship. As they were guided through the passageways, however, not everything was in as pristine a condition as their escort’s uniform. On the short walk from the airlock to the bridge they passed at least a half dozen maintenance crews conducting all manner of repairs. Each crew was surrounded by stacks of burnt out components, and many of the systems they were working on seemed to be cobbled together or bypassed well beyond acceptable safety standards, even for a cargo ship. In some places entire bulkheads had simply been removed to aid in the repair efforts. Nearly every crew was filthy, which, although not uncommon for a maintenance detail, when combined with the current state of disrepair led the captain to believe that something else was going on.
“Lieutenant, would you kindly explain exactly where you’re taking me? Since you haven’t put me in cuffs and read me my rights, I figure I’m not being arrested for anything. Beyond that, I haven’t the slightest idea in hell what you want from me.”
“My orders are to escort you to Admiral Pierce’s quarters then wait outside until called for.”
“Well aren’t you just a good little drone.” The Captain muttered under his breath. The Captain never had much tolerance for blind obedience to orders. Always seemed like a quick way to a bad outcome.
Shortly, they arrived outside a hatch adorned with an admiral’s rank insignia emblazoned over the DSF flag. The lieutenant stood in front of the door and knocked sharply twice. After several seconds the familiar click of a lock was heard and the hatch swung open. Behind the hatch stood Admiral Pierce. Roughly the same age as the captain, Admiral Pierce had seen better days. His hair was now mostly grey, though it had once been a dark red. A deep scar ran from his chin to his right ear and he had dark bags under his eyes, like someone who was living with too much stress and too little sleep. Unlike most flag officers he was dressed in a plain working uniform, though its perfect condition indicated that he wore in infrequently. On the middle finger of his right hand was a class ring from the Fleet Officer’s Academy on Io.
“Captain Lawrence, please come in and have a seat.” The admiral said, gesturing for his guest to come in. Almost as an afterthought, he added “Lieutenant, you’re dismissed”.
The Captain took a few steps forward and surveyed the admiral’s quarters. Though spartan, they were spacious and befitting an officer of his rank. The furniture was all standard military design with one exception, a large mahogany desk in the left corner. Next to the desk was a small sitting area with a couple of single chairs and a short couch. Opposite the desk was a long conference table surrounded by several large monitors which displayed the status of several critical ship systems. Many of the panels were filled with alarms and critical warnings.
Admiral Pierce shut the hatch behind him and again gestured for the captain to sit, “Please, sit.”
“You know I haven’t done anything wrong, so what am I doing here?” the captain asked, coolly crossing his arms.
“Oh for the love of…will you just sit down!?” Admiral Pierce said exasperatedly, as he sat into one of the chairs. Lawrence finally relented and joined Pierce, sitting in the chair across from him. On the table between the two men was a bottle of brown liquor and several glasses from which the Admiral poured two glasses. He offered one of the glasses to his guest.
“Things are not going well,” Admiral Pierce began.
“I’m sure they’re not as bad as the propaganda makes them out to be.” Taking a sip, the captain found the drink to be a surprisingly good, single malt scotch.
“James, look at me. Things are going badly, very badly.” The captain looked up from his glass. He was stunned to see the Admiral shaking his head, his face of worry and fear.
“How bad is it?”
“Best estimate? Eighteen months. If we can’t at least stem the tide, we’ll be lucky if we have that long.”
“What the hell happened?”
“I’m still not sure. I’ve never seen an enemy maneuver like this. To say they’re bold and inventive is an understatement. We’ve been unable to even guess at what their next move will be, and as a result they’ve caught us out of position in the last nine engagements. Our primary and secondary defensive perimeters have been smashed and the fleets that held them were scattered. We’re trying to regroup, but given our losses, the chain of command has been pretty fractured. “
The captain took another sip from his glass, finishing the scotch. He held the liquid in his mouth for a few moments before swallowing while he let this revelation sink in. “So what do you want me for? What could I possibly do to turn this around? Why should I put my ass on the line?”
“Their success has made them arrogant. They think they’re invulnerable, and we haven’t done anything to prove them wrong. As a result their supply ships travel alone and without a military escort. If we start raiding those supply ships, it might just throw them off balance—buy us the time we need to regroup and mount a decent counterattack. It’s a long shot, but right now a long shot is the best we can hope for.”
“How’d we get this information anyways?” The Captain shifted in his seat, more than a little curious to see what the Admiral would say.
The Admiral pressed a button on the base of a small device sitting on the table. Immediately a small holographic display formed about a foot above the device and a ship’s sensor record began playing. A tactical readout in the bottom of the display mirrored what was being shown in the rest of the projection.
“During the retreat, one of our cruisers happened across a couple of enemy cargo ships. They didn’t realize the front had moved so rapidly and they were now behind enemy lines. We were smack in the middle of their supply lines. Our cruiser destroyed two of the freighters and disabled a third when it tried to run. For some reason, and I have no idea what it was, the cruiser’s captain decided to pull the disabled ship into his hangar bay. Turns out the hull was punctured. Whole crew suffered explosive decompression. It was not a pretty picture inside; I’ve seen the film. Aside from the mess, the computer system was relatively intact. Our tech were able to decrypt their orders and start piecing together a map of potential shipping lanes.”
“Why me? I’m sure you’ve got more than a few corvettes that were specifically designed for this kind of work. I’m just an old, merchant captain.”
A faint smile crept across the Admiral’s face. “We both know that’s not entirely true. And you’re right, we could deploy corvettes to do the job, but as soon as the enemy sensors picked up a naval vessel, they’d report it in. We’re betting that when they see a merchant ship, they won’t bother. You can capture the ship quickly and quietly, before they send any transmissions. To the enemy, it’ll just look like the ships are disappearing. With a little luck, it’ll confuse the hell out of them… for a while at least.”
“You wanna back that one up a second? What’s this business about capturing? Hit and run raids are one thing, but boarding actions are a completely different matter. There is no way my crew is prepared for boarding missions.”
“While I think you’re underestimating your crew, we’ll be sending a small contingent with you. A squad of marines, a couple of flight techs and some engineers.”
The captain closed his eyes and began to rub the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “This ‘deal’ keeps getting better all the time, doesn’t it.”
“Look, they’ll take care of the boarding and recovery efforts, all your crew has to do is the flying. From what I understand, they’re quite good at that part. We want to take as many ships as we can intact. Every ship we take is one they don’t have and an extra one we now have. And besides, we might get lucky—find one with communications protocols intact or something. We’ll take anything we can get.”
“You must be in really bad shape.” Taking the bottle of scotch, Lawrence poured himself another glass.
The Admiral emptied his glass and sat back in his chair. “If things weren’t dire, do you think I’d come looking for you?”