Part 4: Calm before the storm
“What the hell is going on now?” Van den Berg exclaimed.
“I don’t know, but we’d better get back to the hangar,” Osondu replied as he got up.
His navigator and gunner followed suit and the trio headed back towards the vertical access shaft that would allow them to leave the habitat ring and make their way towards the bow hangar.
There was quite the commotion in the corridor, as the freighter’s crew vacated the area and made for their respective combat stations. As of yet, no one outside the bridge knew about the reason for the alarm call, and many aboard worried that they would be no match for whomever their attacker was.
Bar a handful of automated point-defence lasers and a couple of rail-guns for impact prevention, the Jupiter-Class freighter was completely defenceless and offered a juicy target for anyone who somehow made it past the fleet’s combat vessels.
Osondu waited by the ladder and gestured Figueroa and Van den Berg to climb towards the centre of the ship before him. After both had disappeared in the narrow tube, the Pilot followed them and climbed up the ladder.
As he got closer to the centre, the notion of up and down disappeared until he was finally weightless again. Emerging from the access shaft, he found the rest of his crew waiting for him, holding on to the handrails by the coil-train station.
“What are you waiting for? Get on that damned thing!” he told them as he let go of the ladder and entrusted his body to the microgravity that dominated the ship’s backbone. Figueroa held out her hand for him and pulled him onto the empty seat next to her. As soon as they were all strapped in, the coil-train departed and rushed them towards the ship’s bow.
All along the freighter, red emergency lighting had replaced the usual bright white working lights, creating an eerie and sombre atmosphere that accompanied them all the way to the coil-train’s bow station.
As they got off the train, they were suddenly surrounded by other flight crews, running towards the hangar. The freighter carried a handful of armed scoutships as well as a few orbital tugs to handle the loading and unloading of the cargo containers.
The trio were on their way to the hangar itself when they were stopped by the ODO, a distressed-looking young First Lieutenant who had just pushed off the wall next to his office and was floating towards them, calling out, “Wait, we need your help!”
Osondu tried to stop mid-float and turned around too fast, causing him to spin rapidly. After getting hold of one of the hand-rails that adorned the walls and ceiling of the corridor, he steadied himself and replied, “What’s going on? How can we help?”
“Observatory picked up three bogeys closing in fast and decelerating to match our orbit. They’re out of radar range but their drive flares are pretty hard to miss,” the officer explained in a taut voice.
“What are they? How long till they’re here?” Osondu asked, his eyes widening.
“Not sure, but at least a couple of hours. As for what they are, our best guess is some sort of long-range fighter or patrol ship. Nothing big, but we have fairly little to defend ourselves with.”
“What do you need us to do?”
“Your dropship is armed, right?” the ODO asked desperately.
“Yes, but we don’t carry much in the way of fire-power. Most of it is defensive,” First Lieutenant Osondu explained.
“We’re scrambling everything we got that can fly and fight, but it isn’t much,” the officer continued, “if you help us it would increase our chances of not getting blown to pieces.”
“I honestly don’t think we’ll make much of a difference,” Osondu said quietly, while his navigator and gunner waited silently behind him.
“If you try and make it back to your troop carrier, you’ll come in too close to them and will likely be engaged,” the ODO explained, “so whether you stay or flee, you’ll be in danger.”
Osondu looked back to the rest of his flight-crew. Seeing the determination on their faces, he told the First Lieutenant, “Alright, we’ll do it.”
The officer in charge of docking operations sighed audibly and said, “Wonderful, we can’t thank you enough. Your dropship has been refuelled and checked. Get on board asap, we’re about to open her up!”
Osondu, Figueroa and Van den Berg pulled themselves along the hand-rails, making their way towards their craft. Once there, Osondu expertly swung himself through the open hatch, reaching the pilot’s seat in a matter of seconds. The other two felt less at ease with moving about in microgravity and therefore took a little longer before they were strapped in safely to the pilot’s left and right.
They rushed through the dropship’s power-up sequence and reported ready to head out via comm, as the first of the freighter’s scoutships carefully manoeuvred towards the now open door of the bow hangar.
It looked as if it was being swallowed by the vast darkness of interplanetary space. It was not long before the last of the five armed scouts had left the hangar and the dropship was released from its docking clamps and lined up with the open door by docking control.
As soon as they were in position, a light on Osondu’s instrument panel turned from yellow to green, indicating that he now had full control over his craft’s manoeuvring thrusters. He let out a few puffs of inert propellant, making them gently float towards the opening.
Once they cleared the hangar door, the dropship started moving faster, turned around and joined up with the Atlas′ scouts that had formed a defensive ring around the huge interstellar freighter.
Osondu did all this on manoeuvring thrusters alone, his craft’s main ion drive remaining on standby. “Atlas, Papa-Alpha-Bravo-Three-Delta, locked in formation,” Figueroa announced over the comm while Osondu surveyed the screens in front of him.
“Copy that, Bravo-Three-Delta,” came the freighter’s reply via comm, “power down non-essential systems and minimise electronic signature.”
“Bravo-Three-Delta confirms,” Figueroa replied while Osondu and Van den Berg made sure that their dropship did not give off any unnecessary signal.
With the Atlas′ improvised fighter screen as ready as they could be, the freighter powered up its impressive array of main engines. Even on one percent power, the resulting drive flare and energy signature of the massive ship was sure to blind the enemy’s sensors and cover up the presence of the small vessels surrounding it.
The plan was to let the bogeys close in and focus on the freighter until they were within effective range of the scouts and dropship’s armament. It was a risky move, as the three enemy ships were likely to be able to open fire long before that.
They were now playing the waiting game. After endless-seeming minutes spent in silence, Osondu remembered something his gunner had mentioned earlier. He said, “So Van, I guess things aren’t as boring as you thought they would be?”
“Ha!” Sergeant Van den Berg laughed, “you can say that again. Remind me to shut my dumb mouth next time and just enjoy the boredom.”
“Oh you know we will,” Lieutenant Figueroa tuned in from the navigator’s seat.
“How long do you think before they turn to face us?” Van den Berg asked.
The three of them stared into the void that expanded outside their viewport. The Jupiter-Class freighter had barely moved, despite its powerful main engines. The sheer mass of the interstellar transport meant that it would take hours at one percent thrust for its relative velocity to increase significantly.
Even with the glare of the Atlas′ main drive, the three drive flares pointed at them were clearly visible. As long as the bogeys were pointed this way, there was no imminent risk of them opening fire. Only when they adapted their velocity and turned their business-end towards the freighter would there be actual danger.
“They sure are burning a lot of H2,” Lieutenant Figueroa observed calmly.
The two others nodded in silence. All three of them had put on their vacuum suits to be prepared for the eventuality of a hull breach. They were about to enter combat and, despite the Atlas′ efforts to draw the enemy’s attention, they would eventually engage the three ships headed towards them.
“I wonder what their plan is,” Osondu said to no one in particular.
“How do you mean?” his navigator asked.
“If they just wanted to blow the Atlas out of the sky, they could have done so without slowing down,” he explained his thoughts, “a few well-placed projectiles at this kind of speed would tear right through the freighter’s hull.”
“True, I hadn’t thought of that,” Figueroa agreed, “so what are they after? Will they try to board?”
“A fully loaded freighter would make for a nice trophy, that’s for sure.”
“We can only hope that they’re not counting on this trophy having a fighter escort.”
They did not have to wait much longer. A half hour of uneventful waiting later, the three drive flares faded and disappeared completely, the dark background taking back the spots that had been occupied by the blinding brightness of the enemy’s propulsion system.
They knew that their attackers would now be aligning their ships with the freighter and powering up their weapons. They would definitely be firing the first shot as their armament’s range most certainly by far exceeded that of the defenders.
“Be ready,” Osondu advised his crew. He knew that the comment was unnecessary as both his navigator and gunner were trained professionals. He had simply felt that the situation called for some sort of comment.
All three of them were nervous. Not because combat was new to them, but because they were not exactly equipped for this kind of situation. The pilot gripped his controls tighter in anticipation of the order to engage that would come sooner rather than later.
Suddenly, a bright beam illuminated the darkness, reflecting off of every ship’s hull. The space around the freighter was far from being a perfect vacuum, as clouds of propellant from its fighter screen were scattered around the massive ship.
Without these, the impulse laser fired by the Tarhinans would have remained undetected. The shot had not been aimed perfectly and missed the freighter completely, without doing any damage. The fight for the freighter had now officially begun and it would not be long before someone landed the first hit.