The lights coming on in the launch-bay revealed a bizarre sight. Bodies, heavy equipment, even a ship were floating in midair. All drifted downward and settled on the deck as the artificial gravity gradually powered up. The pilots, who had been relatively protected in their ships, emerged from small access hatches to view the devastation. With no communications, even hand held, they were cut off from the rest of the ship. They had no idea what was happening or how bad the damage was.
“Where’s Sterett?” Sands asked as the flight leaders gathered.
“Here!” called Bogan as he stood on one of the launch platforms peering through a porthole into the tube.
Sands and Talya rushed over and climbed onto the platform.
“This was Sterett’s slot,” Bogan said after being pushed aside by Talya. “He was two over from me. I was in number four, this is two.”
“What?” Sands said, seeing the dazed look on Talya’s face as she slowly stepped back from the porthole. He looked for himself and saw only stars.
“His ship’s gone,” said Sands, “he launched.”
“The whole damn tube’s gone!” Bogan exclaimed.
A closer look made Sands realize what they were talking about. The walls of the launch tube were gone and twisted metal lay where the floor had been.
Bogan rushed over to the number one tube at the end of the line. “This one’s the same way!”
“There’s debris in number three,” called a crewman. “I doubt anyone survived.”
“Mayith,” Sands said slowly. Then an odd metal groaning sound caught his attention. He looked up at the wall behind the damaged tubes and saw how warped it was.
“Clear this section?” he asked Talya.
“Yup,” Talya responded. They started shouting for everyone to move into the next segment of the launch bay. A manual release dropped a wall length hatch as the last of the wounded were dragged through. The outer seven tubes of the starboard bay were sealed off.
“Where’s Sterett?” Aurora called as she ran up to Sands and Talya. Major Ecar was close on her heals.
“Dead,” Talya said coldly.
The four of them stood in an impromptu moment of silence for their three fallen comrades. One needed to only glance around to see that there were many more people to be honored as well.
“Who’s in charge?” Aurora asked.
Without hesitation Talya stated, “I am.”
“Doesn’t he out rank you by time in grade?” Aurora pointed at Ecar.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt as to who Sterett’s second was,” Talya looked over at Sands, “do you?”
“Um,” Sands said reluctantly, “no.”
“Ecar?” Talya said.
“I don’t think we need to be arguing right now,” said Ecar. “Take it.”
“Good,” Talya smiled. It was a smile that angered Aurora.
“That’s not official,” she snapped. “The Commander will designate a squadron commander.”
“That’s assuming he’s still alive,” said Talya.
“Oh, you’re taking over the whole ship now?”
“What’s left of it,” responded Talya. “At least until we meet someone higher than me.”
Lieutenant Lazell marched up to the group and snapped to attention. “Sir,” she announced, “report from the deck control station.”
“Let’s have it,” said Talya.
“Madame, the computer and internal communications are off line. Also, launch systems and the transport system are without power.”
“Very good, Lieutenant. Ah, assist with the wounded.”
“Yes, Madame.” Lazell snapped a salute.
“Who the hell was that?” Sands muttered.
Aurora smirked, she held off on telling the girl how proud she was of her. Few handled the situation as well.
“All right,” Talya declared, “we need to be combat ready.”
“With what?” responded Aurora, “The ships are dead and the outer hatches are locked down. We’re not going anywhere.”
“We could be under a launch order right now,” Talya said. “The rest of the fleet could be fighting for their lives while we sit here.”
“She’s right,” said Major Russell as he joined them. “They could be boarding us right now!”
Aurora quipped, “Krix robot troops haven’t boarded one of our ships in over twenty cycles.”
“Isn’t this a good time to start again?” Russell fired back. “We have a new secret weapon. They could be looking for information on it.”
“We still need to take stock of our equipment.” Talya patted her useless side arm. “We’re completely unarmed. We need to be combat ready.”
Talya pointed at Ecar. “Take your flight and see to combat readiness. Find some chargers and get some magazines recharged. If you can find any grenades or anything else, pass ’em out, just in case we run into any of the metal bastards. Russell, you tend to the wounded.”
“I want you,” she pointed at Aurora, “to take someone and head for medical. See if it’s still there and what the situation is. Clear a path along the way for our wounded.” Aurora nodded, grabbed nearby Marcus and headed off.
“Sands, I want you to try to make it to COC. Find out what’s going on. And take someone as a runner if you learn anything.”
Sands looked about and found the only person who seemed to not be doing anything. “I’ll take Hammann.”
The journey to the COC proved longer and more difficult than expected. Every corridor and stairwell was sectioned off with sealed bulkheads, which had to be manually cranked open. A short ride in the transport tube had become a hike through long, sometimes debris blocked, corridors. The Central Operations Center was located in the middle of the forward hull on level eight, six down from where they were. Moving downward was just as difficult. Stairwells purposely didn’t line up. It was open a floor hatch, go down the stairs, open a hatch to get out of the stairwell, then go through at least one hatch to get to the next stairwell.
It didn’t take long for Hammann to get frustrated.
“This is ridiculous. Ya think they could’ve maybe put a few more doors in this pig?” he complained while pushing aside a floor hatch.
Sands stepped past him to start down the spiral stairs. “If this ‘pig’ wasn’t so well built, we could all be dead now.”
“Why’d you pick me for this anyway?”
“You’d rather play nurse? Besides, I might need a runner. You didn’t look too busy.”
At the bottom of the stairs, Sands pulled open yet another access panel. He pushed a button inside which released air from the other side of the wall. A screeching hiss meant there was a vacuum. The door tested safe and he pulled a handle that cracked open the hatch. From there it could be pushed open.
As they walked down that corridor Hammann begrudgingly asked, “How bad do you think it is?”
“It’s hard to say, looks bad.”
Seeing the look on the man’s face he added, “But that doesn’t mean the worst. The mission still could’ve been successful. We might’ve been left behind.”
“I’m worried about home,” Hammann admitted. “If they blew this attack, Earth is history.”
“We’re all worried about Earth.”
“We are,” Hammann said bitterly, “they’re not.”
Before Sands could think up a response, a sudden tone from wall mounted control panels grabbed their attention.
“What was that?” Hammann exclaimed as he pulled his weapon.
“The speaker system, they’re trying to get the address system back on.”
Hammann was slow to put away his gun. Its weight in his hand gave him some comfort, even if it was useless.
“Whatcha gonna do with that?” Sands asked.
Hammann looked at it then put it away. He wanted to say, “I’m gonna beat somebody over the head with it,” but thought better of it.
“Come on,” ordered Sands. “The command center is just up ahead.” Just through four more hatches.
“Sir,” reported Lieutenant Nather, the new Communication Liaison Officer. “Internal communication is back on line.”
Yanex walked back to his Command Station. “Patch me through ship wide.”
“This is the Commander,” Yanex’s voice echoed throughout the ship. “Although we have sustained heavy damage, our situation is secure. We appear to have been thrown some distance from our last position. It is unclear at this time what the outcome of the battle was.
“All available section heads are to report to the operations room for briefing. At which time we will decide on our next course of action. That is all.”
People who had been left in the dark immediately filled all working channels. The Commander’s less than forth-coming message didn’t satisfy too many, including Hammann.
“What’d he mean, ‘decide on our next course of action’? We’re going back to Earth, aren’t we?” He asked as they entered the rear of the hectic command center. Sands just told him to wait as he headed down to the main floor.
“Medical reports we have a lot of dead. They’re swamped with wounded,” stated Marcone as he and others gathered around the Command Station.
Yanex glanced about and spotted Sands waiting patiently to be heard. “What’s your status, Major?”
Despite being caught by surprise, Sands gave a quick response. “Our fighters are out of commission, sir. We think Colonel Sterett,” he hesitated, “is dead. There’s dead and wounded among the ground crew, but most of the rest of the pilots are in good shape.”
Nather shouted over, “Multiple casualties amid the 204th from the hanger-bay explosion.”
Yanex brushed over the report, there were too many other things running through his mind. He couldn’t help the dead. “We don’t need fighters now, Major. Have some of your people get down to cargo bays eight and nine. Take whatever medical supplies you need.”
“Yes sir, I’m on it.”
“Not you, Major. You stay here.” Then he turned to face other business.
A feeling of dread washed over Sands as he went to dismiss Hammann with the message. He tried to think of what he’d done wrong. It must have been something for him to feel so guilty. He didn’t salute, that was it. He didn’t salute and he was going to get reamed for it. Or, maybe it was something worse.
Sands let his imagination run wild as he walked down to the propulsion section to speak with Hellor. He’d grown to like Hellor and found his dry sense of humor comforting sometimes.
“Hey, how bad is it?” Sands asked in a hushed voice.
“It’s bad,” Hellor answered without stopping what he was doing.
“We’re clear of the system?”
“You might say that.”
Ratoe leaned over. “We’re out there, way out there.”
“Keep that to yourself,” Hellor warned.
The steady stream of problems bombarding the General let up for only a moment and he used the precious time to drop into his chair and try to get a handle on what had happened. Yanex couldn’t stop his eyes from locking on the bodies that lined the upper side walkway.
“We’re setting up a morgue in the starboard landing-bay,” Marcone said when he saw the pained look in his eyes. “I’ll have them moved down there right away.”
“There’s more important things to be done right now,” Yanex said with a sigh. “They’re not going anywhere.”
“Tellious is among them,” Yanex said slowly. “As soon as you get back from Medical, I’m going to need you to fill in for him for the time being.”
“I can start now,” said Marcone. He patted his broken arm. “This can wait.”
“You need attention for that, get going.”
“There are people far worse off than me down there,” said Marcone, “all I’m going to do is sit and wait to be seen. I can sit in Medical, or get something done up here.”
Yanex nodded after a moment. “Alright.”
“We’re going to get through this.” Marcone tried to sound reassuring.
Yanex leaned into a monitor to scan the rest of the casualty list. As the names scrolled by one grabbed him, “Colonel Sterett, 45821” The man of stone allowed himself an instant of emotion, he cursed under his breath. That wasn’t enough, so he did it again. He’d served with Sterett for some time, even requested his squadron when he took command of the Oronos. How could he have died so uselessly, in a launch tube? Emotions had to be checked. Back under control, Yanex’s cold judgment returned.
“Crazy bastard probably never knew what hit him,” he said.
“Must have been part of the Ittala,” Marcone said. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose the entire bay, let alone the whole ship. Major Ecar is senior flight leader.”
“Ecar,” Yanex scoffed. His mind was already made up as to who would replace Sterett. As a good commander he kept track of his officers. He knew whom he wanted where and why.
“Sands,” he called out, “get over here.”
“Sands?” Marcone said with a note of surprise. “That’s William Sands.”
The General looked up at him with disapproval. “I know where he is from.”
Dread fell upon the Sands as he made his way over to the Command Station and stood before the raised platform. He clicked his heels as he came to attention and snapped an Aultrian salute.
“Sir,” he barked, “Major Sands reporting as ordered, sir.”
Yanex seemed to barely take notice of him at first. He continued rummaging through a drawer in the rear desk, looking for the other piece of a set. After a moment he gave up and went with the one he could find. Snatching it off the console, Yanex returned the salute, stood and approached him.
Sands had a fear of the man who towered over him. The same fear he had for his elementary school principal. Neither had actually done anything to him, but he couldn’t help the feeling of apprehension, an ingrained uneasiness around people in authority. It didn’t help when Yanex reached down and pulled the three-pointed star, major insignia, from his collar. He dropped the shiny pins on the console then showed Sands what was in his other hand. One of the same insignia only the three points touched a ring around them. It looked old and a bit tarnished. Sands looked up to meet the steely eyes of his commander, he was a bit stunned.
“You are hereby granted a field promotion to vice-colonel,” Yanex stated loud enough for all to hear. “And granted command of the 663rd Tactical Interceptor Squadron.” He held out his hand to Sands. “Congratulations, Colonel.”
Sands’ dread jumped to excitement, then to his bewilderment, changed back to fear. A great responsibility had just been heaped upon his shoulders. He knew what came with leadership. He wanted to hand the insignia back to the man; explain that he didn’t feel ready for it.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I only have the one. You can pick up a set from the ship’s stores when you get a chance.”
“Yes sir. I’ll get this back to you.”
“Keep it.” Yanex returned to what he was doing while saying, “It’ll be awhile before I can make it official.”
“Yes sir.” Sands started to leave, but turned back, self-doubt filled him. “I won’t disappoint you, Commander.”
“You won’t.” The General’s tone sounded threatening to him. He fumbled with his new symbol of rank as he walked towards the exit. Halfway up the stairs, Colonel Marcone stopped him with an offer of assistance.
“A word of advice,” Marcone said when he finished.
“There are two people in this world you can’t be true friends with, ex-lovers and people you command.”
Marcone stepped back and shook hands with him. “Congratulations, Colonel.”
Sands thanked him and headed for the exit. He had too much on his mind to think about what he had just been told.