Deploying the taskforce within the Carmella system was vital to the operational plan; otherwise Reen would not have ordered such a dangerous maneuver. Even though they were dropping out of ex-space in the shadow of a planet, there was still a heavy concentration of light particles. Also, the precision it took to exit ex-space in an exact spot meant the fleet would have to slow down dramatically before shifting over.
The Alliance carriers then launched a vast number of jamming probes to blackout that side of the system. With the populated planet and most of the industrial posts on the opposite side of the star there were only a few patrols to be eluded. If they were lucky, the Krix would remain ignorant of their presence until the Excalibur was in position.
“All hands, all hands, it is now two mayda (thirty minutes) until deployment, stand at first alert. All flight personnel report to your ships.”
The alert klaxon sounded in three repetitions of three and red lights illuminated throughout the ship. Pilots and crews began to file into the launch-bays at a leisurely pace. The ships of the 663rd stood ready, with the remaining slots in the bays filled by fighters from the 204th.
With a set time for the battle to begin, Sands could take his time getting to his ship. He stopped along the way to wish people luck and shake a few hands. The one person he felt he should say something to was one of the new members of his flight. He hadn’t spoken to Hammann since they had words in the terminal.
“How ya doin’, man? Ya all right?” Sands asked.
“Yeah, fine,” Hammann responded coldly as he started pulling on his lucky gloves.
“Good.” Sands couldn’t think of anything else to say. He certainly wasn’t going to bring up their last encounter, although it was clearly on both of their minds.
“Good huntin’” Sands said as he turned to leave.
“You too,” Hammann replied out of simple politeness. He snatched his helmet from a crewman, climbed the ladder into his fighter. He was greeted by a photo of his wife and children. A shiver ran up his spine. The memory of the squadron commander yelling at him jumped into his head. Once he was alone in the cockpit he folded his hands and prayed, not for himself, for them.
Aurora sat on the forward canard wing of her ship speaking with other members of the squadron. She was in unusually good spirits that morning. Somehow the anxiety wasn’t bothering her. It was as if she simply didn’t care, she was already too jaded. It was just another launch. She wouldn’t let the importance of the campaign cloud her.
Lazell had small ribbons placed randomly throughout her hair and the line across her nose was red for bravery.
“I’ll see you when we get back?” she said to Aurora, sounding as if she were looking for reassurance.
“Yeah,” Aurora answered in a matter of fact tone. “Don’t worry about it.”
Bogan shook his head as the girl headed off. “Poor fool,” he scoffed.
“She’s not the one I’m worried about.” Aurora had a sinister grin.
“Don’t hex me you bitch!” Bogan blurted out, shaking his finger at her. “Just don’t hex me!” Then he too stormed away.
Aurora chuckled and put her helmet on as she strode alone the long nose of her ship to her cockpit. Only her chin and that smile were visible as she looked over to the next ship. There, Sands returned her nod as he made his ship ready. He wasn’t sure how to respond when she mouthed the words, “You ready for this?”
He wasn’t. He didn’t want to think about the long-term potential of the battle. Instead, he also prayed. He prayed they wouldn’t leave the tubes. That way he’d have no bearing whatsoever on the outcome.
Unlike people like Talya and Bogan who resented the idea of not playing an active role in a battle that could be a major turning point in a hopeless war. Talya took some comfort in the thought that these things hardly ever went according to plan. She of course wanted it to work, but some action would be nice.
The controller called for auto-launch held at three. That meant the ships were readied then moved forward into the launch tubes. With both ends of the tubes sealed, they awaited the final order to go. An agonizing wait staring at the metal walls that stretched out in front of them.
“All hands,” the Communication Liaison Officer said into her miniature headset, “five teda (7-1/2 half minutes) until deployment. Internal bulkheads secured in ten deda.”
She listened a moment to a message from the Communication Sub-Section. The words, “Command Station,” changed the channel she was speaking on so she could pass on the report. “Sir, Cauldare reports a contingency of Krix carriers advancing on their diversion fleet.”
“How many?” Yanex inquired.
“Unclear, but they state the bulk of the fleet is taking up a defensive posture around Carmella Prime.”
“Seems they’re a little more cautious this time,” remarked Marcone. He had made it a point to be in the COC during the historic battle. Standing by the General, he was able to access the incoming transmission for himself. The Cauldare’s sensor data was included. It showed an immeasurable wall of fighters closing on what the Krix perceived to be the Alliance Fleet. They would soon have a visual lock on the two carriers and start looking for the rest of the human force. It was an old trick, one the Krix was finally catching on to.
After listening to the chatter between the various sections in the COC for a moment, Yanex casually strolled out to the center of the room. He broke into the channel with, “Status reports.”
All other conversations were suspended or moved to other channels. Yanex walked a slow circle around the sunken floor as he listened and took stock of his ship. He knew his ship, its strengths, and its weaknesses. Most important of all, he knew his crew. He was not afraid to step on toes to get the people he wanted in the places he wanted them. His choices were not always understood, but it was his ship, his dominion.
With the final seconds being counted down, Yanex calmly ordered “Standby shields, arm and deploy all batteries.”
The defensive shields of the Alliance warships gave off a massive energy signature, one that the Krix would certainly detect. As they closed on the myriad of Carmella’s inner planets it would soon be impossible to hide the massive ships from even the most rudimentary detection systems.
The four ships appeared in the shadow of what was more a large rock than a planet. Even at what they considered a crawling speed the taskforce had to swerve to avoid slamming into it. Carmella’s sun blazed ahead of them at less than fifty million miles.
“My God,” Tellious breathed. “Is it warm in here or is it just me?”
“It’s just you,” Yanex responded absently.
The three heavy carriers formed a triangle while Excalibur advanced ahead of them. Excalibur had a strange patchwork of panels on her outer hull, which signified the urgency of her repairs. Also, a small reconnaissance ship was docked on her lower side. This vessel was the smallest ship available with phase drive.
“Now entering attack range,” Lorran reported. “Bringing scanners back on-line.”
Yanex leaned over Lorran’s shoulder, “Anything?”
Lorran read her monitor. “Visual scans show a number of patrols and sentry posts. Some of them are pretty far out beyond our jamming. They must know we’re here.”
The field of jamming expanded as the second launch of probes traveled out. The Krix had the capability to pick up the field, but it prevented them from pin pointing their enemy within the area. With this in mind, jamming probes could be used to set up fake fields to draw fire. The source of the jamming didn’t have to be the center of the field either. However, transmitting scanners would instantly divulge the fleet’s position. The only scanners that didn’t transmit were computer assisted visual devices. These worked like telescopes, spotting objects by their neutron signatures instead of light particles, and then zooming in to identify them. Only one narrow frequency was left clear in the jamming for the fleet to communicate, and this was rotated to prevent eavesdropping.
There was no need for the Excalibur to build up her discharge banks. With the conversion chamber running at full, she wasted no time in initiating the power streams. The intensity of the beams was lower than previously, but they flowed at a steady pace. There was an immediate reaction upon contact with the star. A circle of distortion spread outward across the fiery surface as well as into the depths of the burning sphere.
It was more than Cromwell could’ve hoped for. With the conversion chamber’s venting ducts closed, an efficient ninety-nine percent of the power was being projected. A slight drop didn’t concern him. All his doubts were gone. This was going to make him a God. He leaned back and listened to the technicians around him in smug confidence. It was going good, too good. Why was the reaction spreading so quickly? The answer was on one of his monitors. The range to target was decreasing, rapidly. Panic gripped the man. The closer they were, the less time they had to escape.
Cromwell leaped from his seat and went to face the ship’s new commander. He’d gotten rid of the last one; he’d do the same to this fool. Vice-General Token stood firm on the Command Station overlooking the center. His orders had been clearly spelled out to him in a private meeting with the Marshal. The ranting of the man he had been warned about wasn’t going to change anything.
“What are you doing?” shouted Cromwell. “We’re getting too close to the star. We won’t be able to escape!”
“Relax Professor,” the man said without looking at him. “This ship isn’t meant to escape.”
“Suicide? I’m not going on a suicide mission! Turn this ship around, at once!”
“Relax Professor. We’ll be leaving on the recon’ ship, once the objective is obtained.”
The hard-faced general turned to one of his officers, “Commence first stage evacuation.”
“This is the only working prototype I have,” Cromwell hysterically shouted, “I’m not letting you destroy it!”
Token looked him in the eye for the first time. His hand came to rest on his sidearm. “Professor, you had best attend to your instruments. We would not want a malfunction to necessitate your being left behind.”
Cromwell was stunned by the coldness in the man’s eyes. To his horror, he suddenly realized that he was now expendable. The aliens had what they wanted from him and they no longer needed him. He assumed that was why Reen had blackmailed him into going by threatening to expose the earlier project, which he had stolen.
The calling of his name caught Cromwell’s attention.
“The output is dropping,” one of the technicians told him. “It’s eighty percent and dropping.”
Cromwell was visibly shaken. He had to be told the problem twice before he reacted.
“Where’s it going?” he finally inquired.
“I don’t know. The venting ducts are closed.”
“Are the inputs down?”
“No, the reactors are running at full power.”
Cromwell worked desperately on his computer. His hands were shaking uncontrollably and panic clogged his mind. The chamber readings were fluctuating wildly. Overheat warnings were going off all over the ship. Then the information from the chamber suddenly cut out as the monitoring sensors burned out.
With the power dropping, the energy streams faded. There could only be one answer. The one that Cromwell feared the most, the conversion chamber was feeding back on itself. The reaction that was to be projected out in front of the ship was taking place internally.
“Shut down the reactors!” Cromwell demanded. “Full venting!”
“The controls are fused. I can’t get the vents open,” stated the terror stricken technician.
“Belay that, keep the system running.” A heavy hand pulled the Professor aside. Token checked the situation for himself, then turned to the panicked man.
“You have failed, Professor,” he said with composure.
Token then stood and shouted, “Clear the Command Center! All hands, abandon ship!”
“No!” Cromwell screamed as his crew made a vain attempt to escape. He threw himself between Token and the exit.
“I didn’t fail! My theory works! It’s the application that broke down!”
The expanding ball of power, which had originated in the chamber, vaporized the rear wall. With their time at an end, Token once more looked the hysterical professor in the eye.
“Are you really that arrogant, Professor?”
The form of the Excalibur was consumed as the ball of energy took on a life of its own. It continued to grow fueled by the explosions of its life giving reactors.
“Shields!” Yanex demanded as he watched the other two carriers react to the threat on the main view screen. The Ittala had her shields up and was starting a turn in front of them. Rhyolite didn’t act as fast.
“Shields at full power,” reported Hellor.
“Get us out of here, Ratoe,” Yanex bellowed as he bounded down the forward steps.
“The drive is at full power,” Ratoe worked frantically, “but I can’t get a field. There’s too much interference.”
Yanex glanced up at the screen. The energy mass had already start its flashing. “Standby maneuvering, hold on course,” he ordered in a determined voice.
Ratoe couldn’t believe the order, but didn’t question it. He didn’t have time. The ball erupted in an explosion that would be seen from other star systems. There was little time before the shock wave was on them.
The Rhyolite was hit first. Headed straight into the blast, without her shields, her outer hull was shattered and peeled away. Her landing-bays and wings were obliterated and a path of debris trailed out behind her. The exposed skeleton of the ship was thrown back by the wave as large sections burst out with internal explosions.
The Ittala didn’t fare much better. With her shields up she was swept back and sent careening toward the Oronos, tumbling out of control.
Lorran’s eyes grew wide as she watched the rotating form of the Ittala fill the view screen. She ignored Hellor’s strangely calm statement of, “Well, we’re dead.”
“All hands,” she shrieked into her microphone, “rig for impact! Impending im’...”
People were thrown about all over the ship despite the warning. The ship’s inertial compensation systems just couldn’t handle the sudden jolt. Actually the shock wave saved them from a devastating collision with the Ittala. The Oronos would’ve plowed directly into the back of the other ship, at the mid-section. Instead the Oronos was moving backwards when one of Ittala’s landing-bays struck the starboard side of the forward hull. A large chunk of the Ittala was torn off and struck the leading edge of Oronos’ wing, as the Ittala went spinning off. Her surviving crewmembers were helplessly pinned to walls, floors, and ceilings by the centrifugal force.
“What the hell was that?” was yelled over the intercom. “COC, this is Damage Control! We have a major hull breach. Levels seven through thirteen, stations fifteen to twenty-six, levels nine and ten have vacuum in the third hull! Do you read me COC?”
Marcone cradled his badly broken arm as he leaned over to shout into a console speaker, trying to be heard over the noise around him, “Hold on damage report! Deal with it as best you can. And prepare to abandon ship.”
He was one of very few people on their feet. The floor was littered with bodies and debris. Cables and other equipment swung from the ceiling as the ship shook violently. The overhead lighting flickered along with the red emergency lights. Sparks flew as control panels blew out.
He was almost knocked over when someone grabbed hold of him. Marcone turned to see Hellor’s blood streaked face.
“Where’s the Commander?” Hellor asked.
“I don’t know,” he shouted back. “What about Tellious?”
“He was airborne last time I saw him.”
Marcone tried to collect himself as he viewed the devastation around him.
“You’re senior,” Hellor told him. He was now in charge.
Marcone thought a moment. “We need to find out what’s happening with the vortex!”
He pushed Hellor in the direction of the sensor station. Hellor staggered across the floor. Lorran was nowhere in sight and he wondered what had become of her. It was not the time to worry about that though.
Marcone made his way forward. He stopped briefly by a man who was attempting to help a woman trapped under a beam.
“Get back to your station!” Marcone ordered.
“She’s hurt!” the man pleaded.
Marcone pushed him away. “Get back to your station, now!”
In the cordoned off station in front of his own, Hellor found that most of the instruments were still working, however there was no information coming from Tri-S. Not knowing if anyone had survived down there, he accessed the ship’s scanning grid with the controls that were left. The long-range systems were off line, but standard and proximity were still available.
The ship was drifting in the direction in which it had been blown, outward. The Ittala and what was left of Rhyolite were floating well ahead of them. Behind, a vast cloud of dust left by the explosion was starting to rotate. A dark spot formed where the gases converged. Blackening and growing the spot quickly consumed everything around it. The massive gravitational force soon pulled at the helpless ships. The dynamics of the vortex had been changed by its unusual formation. The event wasn’t an instant flash, rather a slow growing permanent black hole.
“A vortex is forming at the focal point,” Hellor shouted. “It’s drawing us in.”
Marcone helped Ratoe back into his seat as a hand appeared on the backside of the propulsion console. General Yanex propped himself up on the surface.
“What’s our status?” he demanded.
Marcone just waved a hand at the rest of the COC.
“Get us out of here,” Yanex ordered. He came around to where the two men were working frantically on the drive system. The odds of forming a field around the ship to allow them to shift that close to the star were astronomical.
Marcone had found a headset on the floor and was listening to a report. “There’s a series of explosions in the hanger-bay,” he stated. “Fire suppression is responding.”
“What about the Krix?” Yanex yelled back at Hellor.
After working on the computer a moment, Hellor reported, “Enemy fighters rounding the star on three sides. Make that four sides.”
Hellor leaned over to check his own station. “Main batteries are available.”
Yanex shook his head. “We’re leaving.”
He pointed Marcone to the nearby station that accessed the ship’s power grid and ordered, “Everything to the phase drive.”
Marcone found a number of flashing messages and warnings on the screen. The most ominous was, “Reactor two critical. Starting auto-ejection sequence.”
A hatch blew out on the lower forward hull and a glowing cylinder, propelled by a rocket pack, flew out into space and violently exploded in the darkness.
Ratoe worked alone with the General standing over him. He had to jump from one seat to another on the long console.
“I need more power!” he shouted. The charge he had built up had been dumped. One of the emergency programs had vented the entire power grid. He had to start from scratch.
“I’m working on it!” Marcone responded. He had never worked that station before. He was a pilot, not a technician. It occurred to him that one of the bodies at his feet should have been doing that job.
The ship’s main engines burned white hot at full power. Even their massive thrust couldn’t fight the expanding might of the vortex they’d created. The Carmellian sun itself was unable to resist its pull. A path of fiery matter started streaming into the whirling storm.
“Impact in thirty-five deda!” Hellor called out, then changed the overhead monitor’s view to face the rear. Burning plasma from the sun lit a swirling track into the expanding vortex. The tumbling form of the Ittala rolled past them and soon disappeared. Their only hope of escape was the phase drive.
“Any time would be good, Captain,” Yanex urged.
Ratoe ignored or didn’t hear him. While his power indicator slowly crept upward, he worked intently on setting up a force field that would allow them to shift to ex-space.
“It’s been good serving with you all,” Hellor shouted to anyone who was listening. “See you on the other side.”
Blackness filled the monitor.
“We’re going in!” Marcone had taken up position next to the General.
A minimum charge was finally present. To Ratoe’s astonishment the force field encompassed the floundering ship. “Going to ex-space!” he cried.
Only he was too late, the vortex had indeed torn across the dimensional barrier. The phase shift didn’t make any difference. The vortex was also in ex-space. The Oronos entered the black hole.
Yanex turned to say something to his old friend next to him, but the words came out slow and distorted. Then stopped altogether. Reality, as they understood it, became twisted and bent. Faces, walls, and lights smeared as the very molecules that made them up were spread across time and space. The only thing that was comprehensible to the mere human mind was the sensation of flying down a great tunnel of light. It seemed to last an eternity.
Their reality was gone.