Authors: Eric Thomson
"Guns, at my mark..."
Siobhan Dunmoore woke, bathed in sweat, her heart beating a loud, disjointed tattoo that filled her ears with the dull roar of rushing blood. She knew she'd yelled out the order. Again. Her left arm hurt like crazy, though the multiple fractures had been healed by the
's skilful surgeon weeks earlier. It still looked like hell and the cellular memory of pain remained all too vivid.
The cabin was quiet. Only the hint of a hum disturbed the monastic silence. The absence of sound was shocking after the deafening pressure of her nightmare, the same nightmare she had most nights. But she was no longer on the
. She was on Starbase 31, in the transient officers' quarters, and the old battleship was nothing more than orbiting scrap, awaiting final disposal in a star system many light-years away, her bell already in a Navy museum, awaiting the birth of a new ship with the same name. The way this war was going, the bell might not wait too long.
As for the Grim Reaper...
The nightmares were slowly sapping Dunmoore's sanity. The
was the fourth ship she'd had shot out from under her in less than five years. Two of them had been her own commands. What made this one worse was Adnan's death. He had been one of the few people in the Fleet whom she could truly call her friend, and whom she would trust with her life. Now she felt utterly alone again, vulnerable and open to the petty politics that had pursued her for years. Or maybe it was all paranoia. She no longer knew.
They say even paranoids have enemies.
She rose and ran a long, slender hand through short hair the colour of burnished copper. The timepiece by her bed showed it was nearly three bells in the morning watch. There was no point in trying to sleep again, though her body and her soul craved rest, but it wasn't the kind of rest she could get during an interstellar war. She'd seen more than her share of action and bore the scars to prove it. Yet the Fleet would give her no respite. Experienced officers were a precious commodity, even officers like Siobhan, who teetered on the edge of a burn-out.
With the last tendrils of her all too vivid dream slowly dissipating, she stepped into the shower and washed off the restless night. Standing under the warm air jets, Siobhan glanced at herself in the mirror and sighed. She looked thinner than ever, drawn and pale, with sunken, dark-rimmed eyes.
Though Dunmoore's handsome, angular face was but a pale shadow of itself, where even the smattering of freckles had faded with fatigue, her large brown eyes still radiated an intensity that could silence the most insubordinate spacer. Now though, they had that strange spark people usually associated with nut cases. They were the eyes of someone who heard voices and had an irresistible urge to obey them.
And what are my voices saying today?
Those eyes had stared down Captain Brakal of the Imperial Shrehari Deep Space Fleet moments before he broke off a fight that had suddenly become uneven. No sane commander risked a good ship against a madwoman with nothing left to lose and the full bulk of a dying battleship at her command. Brakal had been outmatched by despair, and he had known it. Yet in his parting call, he had honored the humans in the ritual Shrehari way. No wonder the Imperial commander was fast becoming a legend among his Commonwealth opponents. The kind of legend to make human commanders envious. Especially commanders like Siobhan Dunmoore. With her record, the only thing she was fast becoming was a three-striped jinx. Which made the new assignment all too fitting. And if Fate continued to fuck Siobhan Dunmoore with her fickle finger, this could just as well become her final assignment, let alone her final command.
Shaking off the early morning blue-devils, Siobhan finished washing and pulled on a clean, well-pressed service uniform. The dark blue, high-collared tunic with the three gold stripes of her rank on the cuffs of both sleeves, hung loosely on her her tall, slender, almost rangy frame. She bore a long pale scar running from behind her right ear along her jaw line and down the side of her neck, disappearing under the tunic's collar, a souvenir of the battle of Antae Carina, where she had lost the corvette
. It was only one of many such marks of a hard career etched on a tough body.
As a final touch, she slipped on thin, black, leather gloves, to hide the ugly scarring on her left hand, burned by reactor coolant on the cruiser
as the crew fought to keep it from exploding. At least the hand still worked, mostly. When this war was over, maybe she would be able to get reconstructive plastic surgery.
Maybe by then she wouldn't care anymore. Or she would be dead, like so many of the Academy class of '53.
At thirty-four, Siobhan Dunmoore looked like a woman ten years older. Crows feet at the corner of the eyes from too much squinting, lines around the mouth from too much worrying and a dusting of grey hair at the temples from too many sleepless nights. But she did look every inch the veteran starship Captain she would be again in a few hours, right down to the impressive rows of ribbons on her left breast. Veteran, at thirty-four. She shook her head in a mixture of amusement and despair. She had reached the rank of Commander in just under twelve years, as fast, if not faster than her youthful ambition had once desired. But nobody had told her it would be this hard, this wrenching, this utterly draining. No wonder so many starship captains either burned-out or went mad. Right now it was an even bet which way she would go. Maybe she should get herself a pair of steel marbles to play with, just in case.
A few minutes before six in the morning, Commander Dunmoore left her temporary accommodations and made her way to the officer's mess for breakfast. The rest of her meagre personal belongings were already on board. Or should be. Shifting from ship to ship, a few times in nothing more than a lifeboat, had whittled down her luggage considerably. But she had long ago learned to save sentimentality for human beings, not objects, and her spare personal life reflected her spare turn of mind. Unattached, unburdened and, she thought with a wry grin, unhinged. Fortunately, no one was around to see the sudden, manic twist on her thin lips.
The spartan mess hall was empty save for a Navy steward who promptly seated her by the huge bay windows and poured her a large mug of coffee. While she sipped the scalding liquid and waited for her meal, Siobhan Dunmoore let her eyes roam the cavernous inner space dock Five of the 31st Battle-Group's ships were docked for repairs and refit after a brutal tour on the line. But only one ship interested her, an old missile frigate close to retirement, the last of her class afloat. Whether that retirement would be honorable or not would depend on one Commander Siobhan Dunmoore, soon to be the Captain of the missile frigate
An unlucky Captain for an unlucky ship.
From a distance, the frigate retained her graceful beauty, with the elongated sweep of her main hull, the low slant of her two-tier superstructure and the powerful length of her jump drive nacelles. She had the elegance of a by-gone age, when the slow pace of peacetime naval construction gave shipwrights and architects the time and desire to create not merely functional ships, but beautiful, efficient designs. The
was all that, and much more. But she was also worn out, one of a dying breed, surpassed by the quickly designed and built war-time products of thirty shipyards working around the clock.
was supposed to be in refit after her last cruise, but Dunmoore couldn't see any activity around her. A frown creased her forehead. The 31st, like any other Battle-Group, was hard pressed and couldn't afford to keep its ships in dock for any length of time. Starship engineers worked watch after watch to keep them in space. Why could she see no evidence of that on her new command?
It was a question that could have many reasonable answers, yet her mind found only one. And that answer did not bode well for the crew. Admiral Nagira had warned her, and he was a fair man, able to stay above all the petty intrigues that had followed Dunmoore for most of her career. She replayed the interview with the commander of the 3rd Fleet again in her mind.
"The investigation into the loss of the
has determined that a Court of Inquiry will be unnecessary. Captain Prighte and you acted with the highest professionalism and competence. I have recommended Captain Prighte for a posthumous Navy Cross, which means he shall probably get a Distinguished Service Medal," Nagira shrugged at the Fleet's idiosyncrasies. Personally, he would have given Prighte the Commonwealth Medal of Honor for his leadership, but the politics of the Service had long ago placed the dead Captain among the outsiders. Insisting on Dunmoore as First Officer had made him no friends among the privileged and incompetent of what Nagira privately thought of as the officer caste, the wealthy, indolent drones who advanced through patronage, not ability. Fortunately, the war was weeding them out through courts martial and deaths. Not fast enough, in his opinion, but in a few more years, the officer corps as a whole should be a lot healthier, provided the Empire did not win.
"We have lost a good Captain, and a strong ship. The
is to be scrapped. She is beyond repair."
This time, it was Dunmoore's turn to shrug. She found it difficult to care for much. The seven days it had taken her to bring the dying battleship home, and the aftermath, writing to the families of the two hundred and thirteen killed crewmembers, answering the investigators' questions, visiting the injured in the base hospital, and all the other tasks that came with decommissioning a ship, had left her with no energy. And no time to regenerate her depleted reserves. The nightmares also gave her little rest when she did have some down time. Most of the
's senior officers were either dead or in sickbay, and she had to apportion the work among young, mostly shell-shocked lieutenants and ensigns, as well as bitter old Chiefs. The
had died hard, but it had been a lingering, painful death.
Vice-Admiral Nagira's comfortable office made an eerie contrast to the
's ruined compartments. Her eyes took in the richly tinted mahogany furniture, the leather-covered chairs, the low cabinets with their intricate scrollwork, the Japanese silk prints on the walls, the sound-dampening wall-to-wall carpet and the magnificent view of the planet below. But she didn't really
any of it. Just as she couldn't bring herself to care much for the Admiral's words.
"For what it's worth," Nagira continued, all too conscious of Dunmoore's state of mind, and worried for her more that he cared to admit, "the crew will all get commendations for their performance. Losing the
might hurt us, but losing three escort cruisers will hurt the Shreharis more, as will the blow to Captain Brakal's prestige in the eyes of the Imperial High Command."
Dunmoore didn't comment and Vice-Admiral Nagira resumed his monologue after a quick sip of coffee. Siobhan too, had a mug of the Admiral's excellent brew in her hand, yet she hadn't given it any attention. Nagira's black eyes studied her weary face with concern.
"Your own actions after Captain Prighte's death will go far in removing any official doubts about your ability," he continued, "and I have directed that a special citation be included in your file. I know it will not do much in the short run." Dunmoore shrugged again, too tired to care about Nagira's sympathy. "But coupled with your actions at the Sigma Noctae Depot last year, it will go some way in protecting your career. You know I have always believed you to be a superior commander, and my faith remains unshaken."
Even though I wonder whether you didn't lose too much of yourself on the
Siobhan Dunmoore acknowledged the compliment with a nod, but her face remained set in its weary lines.
"Thank you, sir." It came out strangled and hoarse. Nagira examined her face, wondering whether it was emotion or remaining damage to her vocal cords. He needed her strength and her clear mind.
"I have been looking for a suitable command for you ever since the
limped in, held together only by the force of your will and the strength of your crew. I will not hide the fact that your name still brings up considerable opposition from certain quarters, but I was insistent, and ultimately successful. However, I fear your new command will be a double-edged sword." This time, Admiral Nagira was rewarded with a slight raising of Dunmoore's eyebrows.
"I suspect I obtained that command for you because no one else wanted it, which probably commended it to the enemies of Siobhan Dunmoore." Nagira shook his head minutely. That wasn't exactly the whole truth, but close enough. The same could be said for his next words. "I need every ship I can put on the border, and I don't believe in superstition. As far as I am concerned, you are getting that command because you are probably the one officer in the 3rd Fleet who stands a good chance of rehabilitating her. My other option is to disperse her ship's company and start from scratch. Which would be a waste of a potentially decent crew."