Authors: Linda Andrews
Tags: #Science Fiction
The dart-shaped ships appeared on the screen by the commander’s head.
Age carved deep grooves around the captain’s mouth. Although kneeling by Bei’s side, Penig remained tethered to the telemetry hub a yard away. A red close proximity warning flashed on the screen and was quickly extinguished. “Fifty ships are hanging back. I’ve ordered the Chief to oversee the evacuation of non-essentials from the
Tingles erupted across Bei’s skull. His fingers jerked, then slowly curled and uncurled in response to his command. The captain would soon fix Bei’s paralysis. In the background, he heard the click and whirl as his neural software performed diagnostics and scanned for errors. For the next six minutes while his systems rebooted, he would have to fly his ship the way human captain’s did-relying on his eyes, ears and instincts instead of his technology. That did not change his duty to the Syn-En, it only made it harder to fulfill.
has enough surface area for forty-five ships. Have the rest double-up near the stern. Our hull is Nickel-titanium Memory Alloy. It will self-repair
“It will take four minutes for the ships to attach.” Shang’hai stepped back and clutched her head. Images flashed in quick succession across the navigation screen. “Evacuating outer rings and sealing bulkheads on levels one through three of
. Bow vents at one hundred percent. Estimated stopping distance one billion kilometers.”
Not fast enough
. Bei’s limbs went numb and hung from his torso like rotten hams. Damned if he’d meet his end paralyzed on the floor of his bridge. He willed time to speed up to hurry his healing but perversely he wanted to slow it down, give himself time to find a way out of this other than imminent death.
“Even with the extra weight?” Commander Keyes squeaked, resting a hip against the bare metal wall next to the communications hub. “And all engines firing toward the bow?”
Nodding, Shang’hai wiped her hands on her pants. “The barnacle crafts won’t be able to use their engines without frying the ships attached near them. They’re attaching using thrusters.”
. Bei glared at the growing black disc at the end of the tunnel. There may be a chance, just one. And like everything else on this blasted journey, it would come at a price. His men would pay it, he just wished there was another way. Bei opened the WA to all the ships in the fleet. His people had a right to choose their fate.
Which ships have the fastest engines
“Aside from us?” The captain opened the repair terminal under the armor covering Bei’s forearm. He pulled out three red biometric strands. “The Oppenheims, but they’re the ones with the best chance of stopping and the last ones that will attach.”
Pain blazed through Bei’s synapses as the recycled filaments replaced the burned out ones in his motor nodule.
They also carry enough Helium-three to create an impressive explosion. At a dead end, it might blow the entire wad in our direction
Dread thickened the air as the ramifications drifted around the
bridge officers. With Bei’s cerebral software rebooting, the ships would have to be piloted to the end and the engines manually overloaded.
Time counted down. Six minutes remained until their mission would come to a rather dramatic end. The knowledge filtered through the WA. The wireless com system crackled with fear and turmoil before quieting into steely resolve. The Syn-En knew their duty.
Maybe a little too well
. Bei allowed the traitorous thought for a moment before banishing it.
“Seven ships attached, next wave moving into position.” Shang’hai picked at her thumbnail, lifting and shutting the access port underneath. “Recalculating stopping distance.”
Commander Keyes’s breath came in short bursts as she slid the stowed metal seat in and out of its slot next to the com station. “Oppenheims report all non-essential personnel aboard pods, command staff awaiting orders and mission status of Operation Blowback.”
“Pods ejecting.” Shang’hai inset the
aft visual sensors on her LCD.
The tiny capsules scattered in their wake like spilled pills on luminescent paper.
The commander shook out her hands before setting them on the LCD. “Orion, Beagel and Nebula ships launching life pods… now. Captains report all hands away. They’re moving into position on the
Bei’s heart drummed inside his chest. Syn-En captains wouldn’t abandon ship, neither would their command staff. Over three hundred soldiers would be stuck to his ship like flies in ointment and he literally couldn’t lift a finger to help. Yet. His internal clock hit the five minute mark.
Where are those damn calculations
Captain Penig placed a hand on Bei’s chest. “Rebooting motor nodule in three… two… one.”
Despite the restraining hand, Bei slid out of the chair as his armor unlocked. His head bobbed uncontrollably down the seat back and cushion. The captain thrust his knee between Bei’s legs preventing the momentum from cracking open the admiral’s skull against the floor’s metal plating. The maneuver might have hurt if Bei could feel anything.
Shang’hai straightened, her pink hair seemed to bristle in agitation. “Calculations coming in now. Operation Blowback has a five percent chance of success with damage to barnacle ships projected at sixty-three percent.”
The commander set her tan hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “How many ships will it take?”
“Ten.” Both women turned toward Bei. Hope, resignation and sadness hummed along the WA. Shang’hai squeezed her eyes closed for a moment. “They’ll all have to reach critical mass within zero point five nanoseconds of each other while allowing for not more than one degree deviation in their formation.”
Side by side, Bei’s entire complement of Oppenheims would meet their deaths. The spacecraft were the only means the Syn-Ens had to reach the surface of Terra Dos. Yet without their sacrifice no one would arrive at their destination. If they could still reach it. Bei shook off his doubts. They would reach it. There had to be a way out of the wormhole. Earth had shown the world pictures of the planet sent back from their probes.
Send the call for volunteers
Captain Penig looked Bei in the eye, nodded once then cleared his throat. The older man seemed to have aged a decade in the last few minutes. “All Oppenheims willing to ride the chariot. Ramping engine output and accelerating. Two are midship. The others are pulling abaft of the
Shang’hai cleared the inset from the screen. “Oppenheims have cleared hull. Lead ships have punched through magnetic shielding. Lagging ships pulling abreast.”
Flying in perfect, tight formation, the rocket-shaped Oppenheims raced toward the end of their suicide mission. Four minutes left.
Bei arched his back as one by one the systems of his motor nodule came online. His limbs jerked twice as control was restored.
Status of the Oppenheim command staff
The commander blinked in rapid succession, before wiping her nose on her sleeve. “Riding with their captain.”
Fifty more deaths. By the time they reached Terra Dos, Bei would be neck deep in the blood of his comrades, all because he’d volunteered the Syn-Ens on this mission. His internal systems flashed green. How ironic to have his body back under control just as his world ended. Nodding to the captain, Bei held out his hand. The two clasped forearms and Bei struggled to his feet. His legs trembled beneath him, but held. “How— How long until they reach their mark?”
At the moment, he didn’t care if his bridge crew thought the stammer was because of his systems’ reboot or the impending loss of some of his closest friends.
Staring at the navigation screen, Shang’hai clasped her hands behind her back. “T minus two minutes. Engineering is transferring maximum magnetic shielding to the bow.”
Two minutes, if the mission went as planned. That left his ship a minute and a half to stop. Bei walked the two steps to stand between the two women. “Count it down.”
In an androgynous voice, the
computer marked the time until the Oppenheims exploded.
Knowing his ports were too fried to connect with Shang’hai and Commander Keyes’s interfaces, he clasped one of their hands in his. The touch lacked the intimacy he’d grown accustomed to with his crew.
The commander’s cold fingers slipped between his. “I always knew we would finish our term of service together.”
“I thought you always said you’d finish me before I completed my term of service.” Bei smiled. As wards of the government, these two as well as half of the Oppenheims’ command staff had been conscripted into the Syn-En Fleet together. They’d been his lovers, friends, and rivals. If he could not lead them to Terra Dos, perhaps it was best to board the chariot with them as company.
One minute remained.
Shang’hai glanced over her shoulder at the captain then held out her free hand to him.
Accepting it, Captain Penig strode to her side. “Delta probes in place.”
The knots in Bei’s stomach folded in upon themselves. How could he have forgotten to monitor the wormhole’s integrity? Of course, if it collapsed because of the explosion, they’d be dead before the probes reported in. He focused on the navigation LCD. The Oppenheims’ white bodies freckled the blackness.
Bei cleared the tightness from his throat. “All hands disconnect from
. I repeat, all hands disconnect. Inertial dampeners to maximum.”
The commander’s shoulder brushed his as she stooped to remove all her interfaces from the navigation and weapons ports before verifying her attachment to the com system. “Communications ready, Admiral.”
Still clasping Shang’hai’s hand, Captain Penig freed her from the weapons hub but left one fiber optic cable in the navigation station. Using the nail of his index finger he secured his connection to Telemetry. “All ports secure. Telemetry ready, Admiral.”
Shang’hai leaned against Bei. “Navigation ready.”
Her silky hair brushed his jaw. Bei inhaled the sharp scent of soap wafting from her head. “All hands brace for full stop. Kill the visuals.”
A ripple traveled through Shang’hai into him. “Visuals off.”
Black panels yawned in the silver walls of the command deck.
Bei glanced at the soldiers beside him. If his connector hadn’t been overloaded when the Perseus exploded, he would be up here alone bearing the risks.
Five seconds to the Oppenheims’ self-destruction.
“Take all non-essential systems offline.” His heart kept time with the countdown. Three. Two. Detonation. Death.
Commander Keyes shifted closer to him. “All non-essentials offline. Grounding wires deployed. First, EMP wave rendered harmless.”
Shang’hai inhaled sharply. “Sensors register three explosions. Zero point six-one percent apart.”
Three explosions. Not one. All because of a hundredth of a nanosecond delay. Would it be enough to stop them from reaching the dead end?
Captain Penig’s fist slammed into the telemetry hub. “First blast wave in six seconds.”
High pitched alarms blasted the bridge as blood red lights bathed the deck and the ship’s computer calmly announced, “Collision alert. Collision alert. Impact with wormhole in twenty-five seconds.”
“Shut it down, Captain.” Bei clenched his jaw. His men didn’t need the reminder of their journey’s end.
“Alarm off. Aye.” The captain spoke into the deafening silence. “Second wave in six point eight seconds. The third in six point twelve. Fourth wave in ten seconds.”
Fourth wave? The deck bucked underneath Bei’s boots. In unison, the soldiers beside him adjusted to the motion. All around him, metal groaned. His gut clenched. And he only heard the damage; the others would feel it like a blow to their body. Yet to break the connection would drastically increase response time. They couldn’t afford to lose even a nanosecond. One down. Could his ship survive three more?
Commander Keyes licked the perspiration forming above her top lip. “Two ships reporting damage to steering. Power surges on piggybacked ships.”
Shang-hai squeezed her eyes closed for a moment. “Recalculating full stop range on new data.”
“Magnetic shields down to sixty percent. Bow damage reported.” Light crackled around Penig’s fingernail. The command deck filled with the acrid scent of burning armor. “Venting atmosphere on outer rings.”
The second and third blasts slammed into them. Even with the metal in his uniform, boots and bones attracted to the magnetic floor, the jolt knocked Bei across the room and the women from his grasp. Landing on his backside, he skidded over the metal deck before crashing into the elevator doors and denting them. His right shoulder dislocated with a loud pop. Pain suppressors flooded in, clearing his thoughts but the room spun, keeping him pinned to the wall.
High pitched shrieks pummeled his auditory enhancements as the hull was peeled away from its bulkheads. Could his ship take another hit? And what of the others attached to her?
“Report.” Bei pushed his body along the curved wall until he reached the recently repaired tactical bay. Baring his finger ports, he jacked into the system. Red lights blinded his visual centers. Every system had been damaged. Gritting his teeth, he fought against the
uncontrolled spin. Starboard thrusters were offline. He glanced at the rest of his crew.
Shang’hai lay at an odd angle across the command chair. Red blood made furrows into her pink hair. Her optic cable had been ripped from her skull and now snaked across the metal grating.
Still attached to the telemetry hub a foot away from Bei, the captain twitched. Sparks shot out of Penig’s mouth and his severed finger remained inserted in the port in the hub.
Bei would have them attached at disposal. Syn-Ens deserved to ride the chariot whole.
Clinging to the side of the com hub, the commander moaned. She pushed her hair out of her eyes and let the tangled lengths slide over her shoulder. Slowly, she pulled herself to a sitting position. Her fiber optic cable glowed orange. “Magnetic shields offline. Full stop calculations… incomplete.”