The overhaul finished sixteen hours early, which was good, because the bad news was getting worse. The fleet had begun to regroup and prepare a new defensive perimeter, but only three quarters of the expected ships had made it back to friendly lines. Given how long it had been since the initial retreat, it was unlikely that any of those missing ships were going to make it home again.
Though it was only thirty hours away by hyperspace, the trip behind enemy lines took nearly six days in order to avoid enemy patrols. While the extra maneuvering felt like a waste of time, it allowed the crew some much needed time to find and eliminate any final bugs in their new systems. It also didn’t help matters that in order to avoid detection, they were forced to run at a third of full power to minimize their energy signature on enemy sensors. Despite the crew’s impatience, Absolution finally made it to their designated hunting ground and began looking for targets.
“Captain, I think we’ve got a good one!” Gerald called out from his monitoring station.
“Let’s see it,” Lawrence said, rising from his seat.
Gerald responded by activating the newly installed holo-projector. A large cargo freighter began to rapidly materialize within the projector’s display radius. The freighter was reminiscent of a fish. A small command area, shaped like a smoothed over river rock, expanded into the cargo area, which rose only slight above the bridge, but expanded out and downward considerably. The aft portion of the ship rose once again to the two primary engines, which were contained in a thin, horizontal, fin-like region. The whole ship was a sickly golden color. Below the ship, additional sensor data was beginning to appear.
The captain stared at it intently. “What do you think, Lieutenant? Looks like a pretty choice target.”
Lieutenant Ramirez peered at the image floating in the middle of the bridge and grinned. “Yes, Captain, it looks perfect. Time to saddle up.” He turned quickly towards the nearest comm panel. Flicking the activation switch, he called out, “All squads prep for boarding action; deployment in one-five minutes.” Turning back he looked at the captain and asked pointedly, “Are you ready for this?”
Captain Lawrence grinned slightly, “Are you? Better get yourself geared up, Lieutenant.”
Five minutes later, Lt. Ramirez finished strapping on the last of his combat armor. The slate colored plates were made of a high impact ceramic coated with a classified form of plastic with light absorbing properties. Each plate was fitted onto a black combat suit. There were additional plates that fit over portions of the trooper’s boots and neck. In the event that a plate was damaged, it could be removed and replaced rapidly, even under fire, thus helping to maintain the integrity of the armor. The suit itself provided padding beneath the plates, and in the areas they didn’t cover, reinforced ballistics material provided additional protection while still allowing for ease of movement. Beneath this, each trooper wore a light base layer to aid in maintaining body temperature. Finally, each trooper had a standard issue helmet, modified with an upgraded heads-up display.
Once suited up, Ramirez turned to SSgt. Ellsworth. “Everyone ready?”
The staff sergeant replied immediately, “Yes, sir. All we’re waiting for is your order to take station.”
“Alright, listen up!” Ramirez called out, turning back to address his men. “Squads Alpha and Charlie will make up the boarding team. Bravo, you’re staying on board in case any of these morons gets brave and decides to try boarding us. As soon as we are in, Alpha will head forward and secure the bridge, while Charlie heads aft and down. Sweep all decks clean. Given the nature of the mission, we are not authorized to take prisoners, so don’t hold your fire. We don’t expect heavy resistance, but don’t get sloppy. We aren’t exactly close to a civilized medical facility, so if you get a bunch of holes blasted through you, your only hope is Doc’s tender ministrations.” This elicited several chuckles.
“Alright, fun’s over. Squads Alpha and Charlie, standby for docking. Standard boarding protocols. Squad Bravo take position and repel boarders. All squad leaders report immediately when your squad is in position. Dismissed.”
With that all three squads began to move toward their respective positions in preparation for the upcoming skirmish. Each man moved with a sense of purpose and intent, though never urgency. They had rehearsed their roles so many times that it was now all but instinct. Everyone had a job to do, but if it became necessary, they could do the job of every other man in their squad, and each squad in return could take over for any other squad, if the worst was to happen.
While all of this activity was going on, Ramirez walked over to a wall mounted comm panel, selected the bridge’s channel and tapped the activation switch. “Bridge, Ramirez. Captain, recommend you shift to communications channel Eight-Golf. As soon as all squads report in, proceed to docking.”
“Ramirez, Bridge. Understood,” Captain Lawrence said in acknowledgement, and nodded to his pilot. Reaching to the panel on his right Hunter shifted to the specified comm channel and activated the bridge speakers. Moments later all three squads reported they were in position and ready to go.
Lawrence walked up behind the pilot and peered out the viewport. “Alright, Hunter, just like we talked about. Ease us out of here and then move in to engage the freighter. Gerald, standby weapons on the forward weapons, but don’t energize them until we’re within range. I don’t want to give ourselves away until it’s too late for them to escape.”
For the last eight hours, Absolution had been hiding in a high energy gas cloud, using it to mask their own energy output from passing ships. Slowly, the ship began to ease forward, crawling out of the stellar soup in which it had been sitting. It took a full ten minutes to clear the cloud. If they attempted to go any faster, they ran the risk of coating the ship’s external heat sinks, resulting in an engine overload and shutdown.
Moving slowly so as to minimize their energy signature, Absolution crept up on the unsuspecting freighter from above and behind. It was nearly another ten minutes before they were within weapons range. The nervousness and anticipation was palpable. Junior members of the boarding parties fidgeted nervously, checking and rechecking their equipment to ensure they hadn’t forgotten anything. The more senior enlisted alternated between chastising and reassuring the younger men, reminding them to trust in their training and more importantly, the man in front of and behind them.
“Now within primary weapons range,” Gerald announced. Any trace of joviality was absent from his voice as he focused on the task at hand. “Request permission to energize weapons.”
The captain tapped the comm control on his wrist. “Lieutenant, we are within range. Are your men ready?”
The bridge speakers crackled to life. “Yes, sir. Standing by.”
“Alright, Gerald, energize forward weapons and target their engines. Disable them, but minimize any other damage you do. We need to get out of here as quickly as possible and that means we don’t have time to dick around with extra repairs. Fire when ready.”
“Understood, sir. Energizing weapons, acquiring target,” Gerald said as his hands danced across the weapons panel. Masterfully, he designated the exact location he wanted each blast of energy to go so as to render the ship incapable of running, while still preserving as much of the vessel as possible. Despite his outward appearance, Gerald was a consummate professional when the moment called for it. “Targets assigned, weapons at seventy-five percent power. Firing.”
From the bow of the Absolution, several bolts of superheated plasma streaked towards the freighter, leaving trails of blue gasses in their wake. The bolts found their marks easily, landing near the cowls of both primary engines as well as several other places along the aft end of the hull. Moments later the engines began to stutter and then abruptly died completely, leaving the ship helpless and adrift.
As soon as the engines died, Hunter accelerated towards the dorsal docking port. “All hands brace for hard contact in 5…4…3…2…1.” As soon as he finished his countdown, the Absolution came crashing down on to the stricken freighter, the new docking collar connecting with the freighter’s corresponding port. Immediately, the docking collar began to automatically cut open the docking port hatch in preparation for the boarding party’s entry.
“Alpha and Charlie squads, prepare for entry. All weapons hot,” called out Ssgt. Ellsworth. In near unison, each trooper reached around to a box on the small of their back and pulled off a handle assembly connected to high tensile wire. They each reached up and inserted the handle into a port located above their heads and locked it in place with a twist. Now all that was left was for the docking collar to finish its work.
The wait’s end was announced by hiss of gasses escaping, the thud that accompanied the docking port’s hatch crashing to the deck below, and the rush of the pungent odor that always seemed to infest enemy ships. A few of the youngest troopers coughed and gagged at the smell. Lt. Ramirez’s voice echoed through their helmet mounted comm units, “Squads Alpha and Charlie advance. Squad Bravo, repel boarders.”
The first trooper in each line stepped forward and dropped into the hole before them, as though it were the most natural thing to do. A sensor built into the overhead directly above the docking collar measured the distance to the deck below and relayed that information to the wire payout system on the trooper’s back. As the trooper approached the deck, the payout system would arrest the wire and slow his decent, ensuring a safe landing. As soon as the payout system sensed that the trooper was safely down, it automatically disconnected the handle, returning it to its point of origin.
Once down, the troopers began taking up defensive positions, allowing the next troopers in line to drop down, until the whole squad was onboard. It took just under twenty seconds for both squads to deploy. “Advance and secure objectives,” Ssgt. Ellsworth calmly ordered.
Alpha squad had it easy this time. The bridge was located twenty meters forward of the docking port and there were no enemy between there and the port. The hatch was shut, though not sealed, making for an easy entrance. The four crew members on the bridge were taken completely by surprise and cleanly taken down. The fact that they had managed to secure the objective in under a minute set a new platoon record.
Things were not quite so rosy for Charlie however. Upon receiving the order to advance, Charlie broke into fire teams and began moving aft and down through the decks, sweeping for anyone not on the bridge or in Alpha’s path. Two decks and about one hundred meters down, one of Charlie’s fire teams came across the ships mess deck, where most of the crew had apparently been dining at the time of the attack, and where they were now organizing to fight off their attackers. A count after the engagement placed the number of enemy bodies in the mess at thirty-two, though at the time it was just described as “a fuck-ton.” Several grenades made fast work of ten of those assembled, though that still made the odds six to one, not in the fire team’s favor. Thankfully, a second team was able to arrive on scene about a minute later, entering from the other side of the mess and catching them in a bloody crossfire. The other teams found their sweeps far less interesting, and quickly reached the engine room. Another six enemy men were found through the engine room, though they were preoccupied with attempting to restore the engines and thus were easily eliminated. The ship was cleared in less than five minutes.
Throughout the entire process, Captain Lawrence sat uncomfortably in his chair on the bridge, listening to the comm chatter as it came across the bridge speakers. “Bridge, Ramirez. Sweep complete. Send down the techs for evaluation,” the lieutenant said, calling in the all clear.
“Understood. Gerald, gather up Larson and head down there. I need to know exactly how long we’ll be sitting here before this freighter can move again. Let’s hope your targeting is as good as we think it is.” Gerald snapped up and quickly retrieved Larson from the engine room before heading down to the freighter.
Gerald was, in fact, every bit as good a shot as they had hoped and the damage was minimal. The plasma bolts had destroyed control relays and caused a power spike resulting in a shutdown of the reactor. “The techs report it’ll be about three hours to bypass the required relays and get the engine started back up. Not bad, all things considered. In addition they are going to start the computer conversion,” Lt. Ramirez remarked. Lawrence had joined him on the freighter to see the full extent of their handy work and was following the lieutenant towards the engine room. “I’m sorry, computer conversion?”
“The Admiral didn’t tell you? Must have had his reasons, I suppose. At any rate, since most of our people can’t read the gibberish these poor bastards call a language, let alone speak it, we convert their computers into something we can understand. Essentially it’s a computer virus that we dump into core memory and slowly it will convert their computer systems into Standard. It’s designed to go after navigational and engine controls first so that we can get the ship going as soon as possible, but eventually it will get to everything. The whole process takes about two weeks from what I understand, but that’s absolutely everything. Full flight and engine control takes about six hours. Though, the pilots we brought with us read enough of the language to at least start limping along almost immediately.”
The Captain looked suitably impressed. “Then what? How do they plan on getting this crate back to our lines?”
“That’s not as hard as you might think. There aren’t any checkpoints between here and the front lines, so it’s not all that hard to get up there. Once there, the pilots simply avoid any enemy fleets and cross the line. We’ve designed a special IFF signal they can broadcast on a DSF channel to keep from getting blown away by any overzealous captain who thinks he just got lucky.”
“Looks like you boys have thought of just about everything.” The sarcasm in Lawrence’s voice was less than subtle.
“Don’t sound so surprised, Captain,” the Lieutenant remarked, obviously annoyed by the remark “This mission went off without a hitch. My men didn’t even get so much as a scratch. Reality is, the enemy has no idea what we’re doing and they’ll have no clue how to respond even if they do figure it out. Admit it, sir, you were wrong about this campaign,” Ramirez said, confidence oozing off of him.
The Captain gave Ramirez a hard look. “We’ll see, Lieutenant… We’ll see.”