Chapter Two
Calista four – Trinary star system
200 light years from Byzantium
Bridge of HMS Atlas IV – Survey Ship, Imperial Royal Navy

“I think We’ve found what we are looking for Captain,” the young lieutenant said proudly.

They were in orbit over a blue water world smack in the center of the Cinderella zone around an only recently named G class star at the far periphery of explored space.

“There is no sign of barbarian activity?”

“No Sir, it looks like a virgin.”

In the six hundred plus years mankind had been exploring the galaxy no life beyond micro-organisms and lichen had ever been discovered.  Somehow, life on earth had taken a giant evolutionary leap forward after the Neogene era provided the planet with its oxygen atmosphere.  The other earthlike, similarly aged worlds, seemed stuck at a level of development where the earth had been two and a half billion years ago.

“Do you think they will send an ark-ship?”

“They haven’t seeded a new planet in fifty years.  I doubt they will this one.”

“Why do they keep sending us out looking for new worlds if they have no intention to terraform them?”

“Inertia, Lieutenant, inertia,” the captain replied disgustedly.  “For four hundred years the Navy has been sending out survey ships.  It’s in the budget and no one has ever come up with a good reason to stop.”

“It’s hard on us, Sir,” the lieutenant replied rhetorically.  “None of us will ever see our families again.”  Interstellar travel using gravity lenses seemed instantaneous to the travelers, but there was a time dilation factor.  The longer the transition, the larger the gap between “real” time and the experienced time of the travelers.  By the time the survey ship returned to the Empire, as much as a hundred years could have passed.

“It makes no sense Captain,” the lieutenant complained.  “We locate these planets and the barbarians settle them.  We are creating our own enemies.”

“Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die,” the captain replied, miss-quoting Tennyson.  “Besides, the barbarians have to foot the bill for making the places habitable.  Someday the Empire will merely return and take them over.”

“I don’t know, Sir.  They haven’t yet,” he replied skeptically.  “Besides, we are going to seed the krill like we always do.  Fifty years from now the basic food stock of the ocean will be in place.  When the barbarians come in all they have to do is bring in some fish, plant some grass, and they are good to go.”

The captain was about to upbraid the lieutenant for questioning his Emperor and the Navy when the “GONG GONG” of an alarm rang out across the bridge.

“A ship is detected coming from the far side of this planet; it’s headed directly for us and has locked onto us with sensors!” Atlas IV’s central computer informed the crew.

“Is it a barbarian ship?” the captain exclaimed as he headed for his command chair.  Before the computer could reply, he raised his voice and ordered.  “General Quarters!  All crew to G chairs, accelerating to maneuvering speed in ten seconds.”  In the corner of the bridge-wide display dominating the front quarter of the bridge a block of fifty red lights appeared.  Some were already turning color.  As the crew found their acceleration couches, the lights turned to green.  The last green light from engineering came on some twelve seconds later.

“Full right flank 25G thrust,” the captain ordered and was buried in his command chair as the ship obeyed his command, instantly pouring twenty-five megawatts of power into the fusion-ion engines.

“No captain, the ship is of not of any known type used by the barbarians, it’s of a type unlisted in our library.”

“Come up to maneuvering speed, steady on our current heading, and reduce to one g,” the captain grunted against the massive pressure shoving him into his seat.  The anti-gravity field counteracted most of the g-force, but every watt of power available had been channeled to the engines, dimming the lights on the bridge and leaving only enough anti-gravity force to preserve the crew’s lives, their comfort was secondary.

“Give me visual on the ship,” the captain squeezed out with extreme effort.

The display shifted showing the lower right quarter filled with the blue-green planet rapidly disappearing below.  There was a black cylindrical shape appearing around the edge of the liquid water world.  The view expanded as the ship zoomed in on the approaching vessel.

Lieutenant Commander Brian Leonard Carlisle was shocked.  This ship looked like no other human starship he had ever heard of.  First and foremost it was sleek and streamlined as if it was designed to operate in an atmosphere as well as space.  Secondly, and even more important, it lacked the immense donut ring that surrounded all human ships.  This ring was the power storage unit where gigantic capacitors stored the power to allow the ships to slip through the gravity lenses.

The more he examined the vessel he became convinced his initial thought was correct.  The ship actually had vestigial wings.  It was an atmospheric hybrid.

“Scale,” he grunted.

Immediately the image of a Navy battle cruiser appeared next to the oncoming mystery ship.  The unidentified ship was a third smaller, twice the size of a corvette and three times larger than the scout ship.  It was unbelievably massive for a vessel that could operate in the atmosphere of a planet.

“The ship is firing on us,” the computer announced as if describing the color of the oncoming ship’s paint.  “Energy pulse weapon, power and type undetermined,” it finished its report.  The captain felt an instant relief of pressure as twenty-four g’s of thrust was lifted and power was shifted to the aft shields, there was a slight sense of lateral pressure as the ship turned to put the looming threat directly astern.

“Are you trying to hail?” the captain asked rhetorically, he knew the AI would have been attempting to get the other vessel to talk to them.  It was standard procedure.

“All bands, all standard languages,” the ship replied.  “No response Sir.”

The display showing the incoming ship and the nasty red ball of oncoming energy acquired a blue tint as the shields came up.

“Who the hell is that? Captain?!!” the lieutenant exclaimed in shocked surprise.  “They are gaining on us! No one can catch a scout ship!”  Their diminutive ship had the same engines as a corvette.  In the human Empire, no ship was even close to as fast maneuvering in real time space.  Since they operated alone for years at a time in a potentially hostile territory, they were fleet and armed to the teeth.  They had a main battery of disrupter cannon, rail guns for close-in fire support and really wicked photon torpedoes.

“Camie, give me a three torp spread, NOW!”  The battle computer’s actual name was “Centralized Automatic Machine Integrated Defense Environment” but everyone called her by her nickname.

“On the way Captain,” a sultry ladies voice filled the cabin as the battle computer took over control of the ship.  “Incoming impact in five, four, three…”  The menacing red dot was rapidly approaching and getting larger as it streaked toward them.  The shields snapped off for five hundred milliseconds as Camie shunted power to the engines to orient the shields strongest part to the imminent threat, then came back cold black-blue as the bridge went dark and its occupants were slammed sideways in their seats.

“Shot deflected — no damage,” Camie reported as the lights came back up.  The three photon torpedoes were streaking toward the rapidly approaching enemy ship which seemed to ignore them.

That proved to be a mistake.

Two of the torpedoes missed.  They were deflected, one above and one below the oncoming vessel.  The third made a direct hit on the forward shield and exploded with over a megaton of TNT equivalent energy.  The red glowing shield snapped off as it was penetrated.

The other ship seemed to stagger and turn halfway around continuing toward them presenting an amidships orientation.  It began to drop back quickly since it evidently had lost power and the scout ship was accelerating away at one g.

“You had no authorization to engage that vessel!” the rotund figure of the ship’s political and legal officer rang across the bridge as the elevator closed behind him.  “I’ll have your stripes commander!”

“They fired on us, Leroy,” the captain told the JAG officer, using his first name in front of the staff on the bridge in a retaliatory insult.  The political officer had addressed him by his permanent rank and not as captain.  He had little use for the political officer.  The JAG lieutenant had even less use for the ship’s captain.

Leroy Templeton was a royal.  The purple braided brassard that hung from his left shoulder and under his armpit marked him as a member of the royal family.  He had little actual authority on the ship when it was underway.  When they went into battle, he had none at all.

His entire reason for existence was to represent the royal family’s interests and to make sure the Navy conformed to the law of the Empire.

“It was a warning shot!” Leroy argued.  “You should have responded in kind!”

“Camie?” the Captain asked.

“I’m sorry Sir,” the battle computer replied, ever polite.  “It was a killing shot, deflected at the last possible moment with the full power of our shields.  A second simultaneous shot would have destroyed us.”

“Hmmm, we’ll see!  I’m calling for a court-martial as soon as we return!”  The little fat man turned and walked to the elevator.  He stopped in the door and glared back across the bridge at the captain.  “You’re an insubordinate, colonial-nobody and I’ll have your ass when we get back to Byzantium!”  He announced imperiously and disappeared into the elevator.

“The only way he could be a bigger jerk would be to gain weight!” the lieutenant mumbled.  There were sniggers heard across the bridge.

“Gentlemen! As you were!” the captain barked.  “His honor is the Emperor’s representative and we all need to keep that in mind.”  His words were severe, but the smile and wink he shared with the others on the bridge left no doubt where his true feelings lie.

In fact, he had a bit of sympathy for the man.  The JAG officer was caught between the Imperial family and the Navy itself.  There was a constant and continual struggle for power between the two entities.  The last fifty years the Navy had become the senior partner in the relationship and the royal family resented this fact intensely.

In retrospect, building the Navy around the Academy was probably a mistake on the Imperial Family’s part.  For over four hundred years, the Navy formed the basis for its existence around a sense of honor and duty.  The Naval officer corps began to see themselves as knights and protectors of the downtrodden and powerless.

When the Islamic barbarians became a serious threat, the naval officer corps began to see themselves as the inheritors of the mantle of the Templars.  With this development, the stage was set for a dramatic change.  The naval emblem had been an anchor with six stars.  The stars were arranged three and three above the crossbeam of an anchor.  The six stars represented the first six planets that made up the original Imperial alliance.  Sometime in the previous century, the top half of the anchor became the red cross of the Templars.

The break came when the Emperor Demontheses ordered a fleet admiral to replace the elected governor of Torantos, one of the six original systems, with one of his lackeys.  The governor was a Colonial, a descendant of one of the original founding families of Torantos, and was popular with the citizens of his system.

Not only did the Navy refuse to do it, they basically staged a coup.  They set up their own governing council, appointed a panel of retired admirals, and installed a colonial mustang officer as admiral of the fleet.

They told the sitting Emperor to go pound sand.

This erupted into a short bitter civil war when half dozen admirals of royal blood took their fleets back to Byzantium and declared the dissenting officers’ traitors.  Outnumbered a hundred to one, with their own sailors and some of their officers in mutiny, the royals, in the end, had no choice but to back down.  They were summarily retired and their slots filled with colonial captains.

“Camie, retain control,” the captain ordered.  “Atlas IV remains at battle stations.  I want the main battery locked onto that ship.  If those sensors come back on and we get even a hint of them scanning us again, pound ’em to splinters.”  Routinely after any action, control of the ship would be passed back to the AI which managed the day to day exploration activities.  “Camie, ready a shuttle, Lieutenant Dawson will take an away team and board her.”

“Who is it Captain?” the lieutenant asked with a confused look on his face as he stood to obey the captain’s order.

“Lieutenant, I’m not entirely sure, unless the barbarians have got a technological jump on us, I think We’ve finally bumped up against another sentient race.”

“My God, Captain, I hope not!” the Lieutenant exclaimed.  “If so, we may have started an inter-species war!”

“Remember who shot first Lieutenant,” the captain reminded him.  “Now, go take a look at that ship.  Take six Marines with long guns and armor, and be careful, those bastards fired on us for no reason.  Mister Howard, you will accompany the lieutenant.”

Wilbur Howard was a chief warrant officer, marine, and engineer.  He was fifty years old and had served in the Navy for thirty-five of those years.  The warrant officer corps was the backbone of the service.  Mister Howard had been selected to go to the academy but had been washed out in his third year over “conduct unbecoming.”  The details of this career-destroying misadventure had been expunged from his record, but there were still rumors of an excess of alcohol and an admiral’s daughter.

Most of the young men who washed out of the academy returned to the fleet as warrant officers.  The Navy was unwilling to lose the experience gained through years of service even though the young men didn’t make the final cut for a myriad of reasons.

Everyone knew who would actually be running the away team, even though the young lieutenant was nominally in charge.

“Aye Sir,” the warrant officer replied.  “I think we should take a ‘willy.’”  The “willy” was a medicine ball sized AI equipped with disrupters and laser cannon.  It was autonomous and equipped with anti-gravity mobility.  Having a “willy” provided some serious firepower.

The only downside was the AI.

The “willy’s” AI was somewhat of a problem.  They tended to be insubordinate and have their own ideas of what constituted a threat.  They were overprotective of any team to which they were assigned, had little respect for any officer below the rank of captain, and were dangerous in the extreme.

Warrant officers loved them, and the “willies” reciprocated their affection.  They were strange little buggers.

“Very well Mister Howard, but keep a tight rein on him,” the captain reluctantly agreed, “Camie, have Mister Martin report to the bridge to relieve Mister Howard.”

The two officers who would command the away team walked to the elevator and waited.  When the door opened, a starched and creased, slim little man stepped onto the bridge.  He nodded to the two officers who passed him to enter the elevator and marched crisply to the captain’s chair.  He had combed black hair graying at the temples and a razor-thin mustache.  Even his creases had creases.  He looked like he was going to pose for a recruiting poster.

Garnet Rueben Martin had lied about his age and joined the Navy when he was thirteen.  He had worked his way up from able seaman to become one of the most senior warrant officers in the service.  He was sixty-eight years old and looked forty.  There were rumors that he slept in his starched khakis since no one had ever seen him out of uniform.  In a sheath at his left hip, he wore the ceremonial dagger of the Order of Templars.

If Templeton was the Emperor’s man on the ship, “Butch” Martin was the Navy’s.  Where every Navy officer considered himself a Templar knight, the exclusive little cadre of men who made up the order were a step beyond.  The Order of the Templars was an exclusive club of men whose only loyalty was to the Navy itself.  Membership was by invitation and limited to a select few whose service and dedication to the ideals of the Navy were without a doubt.

Butch answered only to the captain and was seldom away from his side.  Only when the ship went to battle stations was he in a different location.  When the ship went into combat, the chief of staff’s battle station was deep inside the vessel in the most secure spot available.  Losing the captain would be a terrible blow.  Losing the chief of the boat would be a disaster.

Trying to operate with neither was unthinkable.

“Ensign Ito is there a problem with your station?” the captain asked the tiny Japanese officer who was looking at the COB like she would like to eat him like an ice cream cone.

“What? …oh no Sir,” she whirled around blushing and studied the display in front of her.

The captain winked at the chief who shook his head in a “what are you going to do?” gesture.  If one looked in the dictionary after “lady’s man,” Garnet Martin’s name appeared next.

“You might want to take some speed off her Sir,” the COB suggested.  “We have a fairly large differential.  It will take the shuttle a long time to catch up with us on her way back.”

“Thank you COB,” the captain murmured, and then spoke up.  “Camie, let’s turn her around and get me one and a half g’s until we match the speed of the drifting ship.  I don’t want to get any closer, but let’s match her speed and keep our distance.”

“WHOOP WHOOP zero gravity in three, two…” the alarm blared throughout the ship.  Everyone not in a chair grabbed for something to anchor themselves for the three minutes it would take the ship to reverse direction.  Three minutes was the minimum transition time necessary to keep from splattering the crew against various bulkheads.

When gravity returned, it was punishing for anyone outside of a G-chair.  An extra half gravity doesn’t seem like much until one realizes a two hundred pound man suddenly weighs three hundred.

“How much extra would it have cost just to incorporate the anti-grav fields to the whole ship?” the captain asked the COB rhetorically.

“There are compromises in every design,” the COB replied, reflexively defending the Navy’s design bureau.  It was what he did.  In his eyes, the Navy did nothing without very good reason.  Unseen by the chief, the captain rolled his eyes.

“What do you think, COB?” the captain asked his chief about the action they had just been through.  He didn’t need to elaborate, he and the COB were so attuned to each other’s thinking there was no need.

“It was a closely run thing, and we got lucky,” the COB replied.  “That ship’s weapon had some serious power.  If Camie hadn’t maneuvered at the last minute to make the angle of interception as steep as she did, it would have cut through our shields like they were toilet paper.”

“It was that close?”

“We were within a few hundred milliseconds of penetration,” the COB informed him.

“From one shot?!!” the captain exclaimed in shock.  “Our shields can stand up to a broadside from a cruiser!”

“Check it out,” the COB said as he held up his wrist-omni.  A graph materialized in the air above his wrist.  It showed two lines converging, a red spike coming up to a solid blue running left to right at the top.  The red line came dangerously close to interception before it winked out.

“Wow, that is too close for comfort.”

“Templeton is going to be a problem,” the COB whispered just loud enough for the captain to hear.  In the COB’s view, the political officer was a bigger threat than the barbarians or this new alien ship could ever be.  External enemies came and went, the Emperor’s man was always there, hovering around the edges, looking for weaknesses and threatening his precious Navy.

“I’ll handle his imminence, don’t worry about him.”

“Hmmm,” the chief grunted, clearly not convinced.  If the COB had his way, the JAG officer would suffer an accident that expelled him from the ship into open space.  “The away team is under way,” the COB informed the captain pointing toward the main viewscreen.

The foreground of the display showed one side of Atlas IV.  There was an open hangar door and the shuttle could be seen accelerating away from the ship.  Inside the shuttle, the lieutenant was haranguing the warrant officer.

“You need to make sure that crazy toy of yours stays on the reservation,” he told the chief.  “If We’ve not started a war with these folks already, I don’t want it on my head.”

“Do you really think there are aliens on that ship?” the chief replied deflecting the lieutenant’s concern.  “I would say it’s much more likely the rag-heads have come up with some new technology.  It makes sense when you think they didn’t even try to talk to us, they just started shooting.”

“You may be right,” the lieutenant admitted.  “That vessel might not even be a starship.  It doesn’t have a ring and it does have wings, perhaps it’s a primarily an airship with the ability to stick its nose into space.”

“Perhaps, but it sure as hell is fast.  It was overtaking us and we were accelerating at twenty-five g’s.  If the rag-heads have made that big a technological breakthrough, we are in trouble.”

“How long until we are alongside?” the lieutenant asked the warrant officer.

“Camie said her estimate was a little over five hours at three g’s.”

“The troops will be exhausted by the time we get there.  Fighting three g’s is not fun.”

“Perhaps it may not be so long, the enemy ship had built up quite a bit of speed differential before we knocked out its engines.  I don’t think Camie was including that in her estimate.”

Silence fell across the deck of the shuttle as all the men focused their effort on breathing and staying conscious against the punishing g-force.  In the end, the WO was proven correct.  It was just four hours later when the shuttle’s computer announced in their headsets.

“Maneuvering to intercept,” docking in five minutes,” it informed them.  “The vessel shows two-thirds of the ship is open to space.  The portion that is still pressurized is one and a half times standard earth pressure at sea level.  The atmosphere is inert gasses and CO2 and oxygen.  There are wisps of chlorine so you will need to keep your masks on.  There are life signs inside the pressurized areas.  There are indications the ship had lost power but is beginning to get some measure restored.”

“Where are you putting us?  Can you give me some visuals?”  The lieutenant asked the shuttle’s AI.

“Your choice Lieutenant,” the AI responded generating a hologram in the space between the parallel rows of passengers.  “There is a building size hole in the hull, here,” the hologram circled a large ragged black rent in the side of the oncoming ship.  I can drop you there, and you can make your way to the pressurized areas, or I can attempt to breach the hull in the occupied third somewhere.”

“Let’s take the depressurized route,” the WO suggested.  “We are less likely to encounter any resistance in the damaged section.  I would suggest we come up just outside the hole and let me send Willy and his little buddies in ahead of us to scout around.”

“Sounds good, Shuttle — as he said.”

The men felt pressure left then right as the ship maneuvered to come alongside the holed hull.  The gaping wound was twice the size of the shuttle.

“Willy, you’re deployed.  Stay out here with us for the moment, send in your drones moving forward and give me a view.”  The shuttle had opened a hatch to the baggage area and Willy floated free.  Three bouncing nervous balls of light popped out of a port on Willy’s mottled surface and streaked toward the black hole in front of them.

Three 3D holograms appeared in front of the WO’s visor.  All of the men could see them as well.  It looked as if three decks had been opened to space.  The drones took the middle section and turned right toward the pressurized and active portion of the ship.

“Life signs, Lieutenant,” the WO exclaimed.  “It looks like almost a dozen of the buggers lived through the hit.  Sorry, Sir, it looks like your worst fears are confirmed.  Those bastards are big!  I’m showing close to five hundred pounds mass, and look at these ceilings; these hallways are at least ten feet in height.  They are aliens’ Sir no doubt, and damn big ones at that!”

“You damn Spartans and your archaic measurements!  What is that in real numbers?!!

“Oh sorry Sir, about 230 kilos and a tad over three meters,” he corrected himself but then went on.  “LT, I think we need to back off.  I do not like this at all.  I think we may be in way over our heads here.”

“We have our orders…”

“With all due respect Sir, the captain told us to take a look.  We looked and determined it’s an alien ship.  I think we need to back off, tell the captain what we found and ask for…”

“Wheep, Wheep, Notification!” the shrill, tinny voice of Willy’s AI filled the cabin.  “Alien operatives are moving in our direction.  Should I engage?”

The center hologram revealed three bipedal forms moving through the darkened passage coming aft.  They were suited in some flexible material whose color was indeterminate in the faint light.  They were walking steadily carrying what looked like long guns in two arms.

“Sir, their gravity field is still functioning, even in the vented areas, and it looks like they are using infrared light sources.”  Beams of red light were being emitted from two sources on each helmet of the approaching beings.  The point creature whipped up the weapon he was carrying and snapped a shot in the direction of the hologram’s source.  A spear of blue light flashed and winked out.  The creature was firing on the drone.

“That is it!  These bastards shoot first and ask questions later!  Take’em out Mister Howard,” the lieutenant exclaimed.

“Go get’em, Willy,” the WO turned his mascot loose.

“Shuttle, get us out of here!” the lieutenant ordered.  “Back us out fifty klicks dead astern of the vented area and hold.  Update Atlas IV and ask for instructions.”

“Good move LT,” the WO said agreeing with the lieutenant.  “We’ve no idea of what these things are capable of.”

A fourth and larger hologram appeared in front of the WO’s position.  Willy had added his viewpoint as he entered the ship.  He seemed to be moving cautiously.  Now that his charges had backed off he was looking after himself.  Three beams of concentrated light speared out fifteen feet in front of him.  At their apex, there was a dancing quivering football-shaped bundle of energy.

“Willy is bringing out the big guns right away,” the WO observed.  Willy had staged a mini-photon torpedo that seemed to be eager to be released.

“I didn’t even know they had such a thing!” the lieutenant exclaimed.  “How much damage will that thing cause?”

“I don’t rightly know LT, but it’s a nasty bugger.  Willy is playing for keeps.”

“Those damn things always do, that is what I was afraid of.  Maybe you should call him…”

Before the lieutenant could finish his statement, the hologram revealed the torpedo flashing forward into the darkened interior of the ship.  An immense white flash blanked all four holograms for an instant.  When the views returned, it revealed chaos.  There was nothing forward of where the torpedo impacted but charred twisted metal and raging fires.

“Get out of there Willy, home!” the WO recalled his weapon without orders.

“The remaining pressurized area is now venting to space,” the shuttle reported.  “Power has dropped to a few pockets of emergency backup.”

“In five minutes it will be a lifeless hulk,” Mister Howard observed cryptically.  “Congratulations Lieutenant, you have become historically relevant.  You have now started a war with the first alien race humans have encountered in over a thousand years.”

The lieutenant’s face drained of color and he looked like he was going to be sick.

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