Adrenalin and fear. Two of the greatest naturally occurring elements in the known universe. The first barrage of enemy fire that hit the ship had knocked Communications Officer Ranix out of his seat and onto the floor of the bridge. His heart was racing, his throat was dry, and he had a dazed look on his face. After the first enemy missiles had hit the ship, his communications instrument panel was lit up from left to right, mainly in red, indicating the vessel no longer could communicate with friendly forces in the galaxy.
Shaking his head to regain his composure, Ranix wondered why the ship wasn’t firing back. He didn’t know the level of damage that the corvette had taken. Her front batteries, consisting of 2 twin 88-millimeter ballistic cannons, had fallen silent 30 seconds ago. The hull of the ship, going by the call-sign Epsilon, was peppered from two years of solid combat, but the last sixty seconds of action had been the worst yet.
Bringing up his finger, Ranix rubbed his eyes, trying to get his senses under control before standing up in the narrow aisle that ran down the centre of the bridge. Moving forward to the navigator's position, he checked the stations' screen before glancing at Navigator Second Class Yuli, a steady stream of blood slowly oozing from a gash on her forehead.
“Ship Master,” she checked her board. “I’m reading massive systems failures. Navigation systems are failing, manoeuvring thrusters losing power.” She looked to her right, the Ship Master’s seat was empty.
“Ship Master’s dead!” Yelled Master Star Pilot Rais. “Who’s in command?”
“I am!” Ranix replied. The ship’s alarms were making it nearly impossible to communicate on the bridge without shouting. A loud scream pierced the bridge from behind Ranix's position. He whipped his head around just in time to see the dying breath of the ships gunner, whose console had overloaded and exploded, showering the front of his body with hot glass and plastics.
Bringing his attention back to the front of the bridge, Ranix noticed Ship Master Vankens was lying on his back in the forward corner of the bridge. His right leg severed at the knee, blood gushing from the wound, forming a wet red puddle in the middle of the tiny bridge.
Ranix, a recent transfer from Fleet Headquarters, crawled as fast as he could along the floor forward. He knelt over the Ship Master’s dead body, which had fallen forward from his command chair. Sweat pouring from his brow, his light grey tunic covered in blood, some his, some of his shipmates. With Ship Master Vankens incapacitated, the command was his.
Ranix looked up at the ships primary monitor and tried to get a grasp of the tactical situation. A minute ago the screen had just shown the major celestial bodies of the Aries System, now it showed various hostile Coalition vessels, and zero friendly forces in the system. As he squinted to make sense of the jumbled mess of ships that were in pursuit of the small corvette, another blast of plasma hit the vessel, forcing the nose of the ship down, and Ranix into the ceiling of the bridge, knocking the wind out of him. When the nose pitched back up, he slammed into the floor, breaking his right arm and shattering his hip.
Coughing up blood, Ranix pushed himself into a sitting position with his left arm and looked at Rais, who was flying the ship with desperation.
"We need to get the fuck out of here!" The veteran pilot yelled.
“Two more missiles inbound!” Detection Technician 4th Class Jonas shouted from his position towards the rear of the narrow, rectangular-shaped bridge. A small fire was burning away just a meter to his left along the bulkhead of the compartment. “Impact in twenty seconds.”
Ranix wiped the blood from his chin and blinked twice. Smoke was starting to build up in the compartment. Ranix knew that the Epsilon couldn't take much more of this beating. He looked over his shoulder at Yuli and just as he shouted out a command, another barrage of fire hit the ship, throwing Ranix away from Ship Master Vankens’s body, slamming him heavily into the bulkhead at the front of the compartment. Ranix’s body, not being light, gave off a loud bang as it slammed into the aluminium siding. “Shit!” He hit the floor, dazed, feeling a warm sensation on the back of his neck. He lifted his hand and found he had a deep cut along the rear of his skull; blood was now soaking his tunic.
“Yuli!” He yelled. His vision was starting to go blurry.
The bridge was filling with smoke. Ranix gazed around the deck. Of the original crew of nine, he could tell that three were dead and at least two were injured. The scene was horrific. Blood had covered half the display console in front of Yuli. To her right and rear sat dead Gunner Second Class Demu, whose body was impaled by a section of panelling from the ceiling of the compartment that had given way.
Epsilon, like any standard corvette of the Alliance Fleet, had an integrated defence network melded into the control systems. Anytime the ship came under attack; the network would automatically respond with the appropriate weapon system unless given more specific instructions from the bridge crew. With the enemy ships appearing so rapidly and then engaging before the organic crew could react, the network had fired its entire catalogue of weapons as soon as it could in an attempt to buy them some breathing room.
Unfortunately for the Epsilon and her crew, when the network fired off a barrage of the light ship to ship missiles, light energy weapons and 88mm rounds at a light cruiser and four frigates, it was like stirring up a hornet's nest. In response to the light ship to ship missiles and ballistic rounds, it felt like the enemy forces had responded with everything they had including high energy plasma batteries, heavy calibre guns, and nuclear-tipped anti-ship missiles.
Ranix staggered to his feet before slipping on the wet floor and landing hard on his back, knocking the wind out of his lungs. Fleet headquarters had not prepared him for this. After three years of monitoring Fleet communications from a large office on Mella II, he had expected his first assignment as an executive officer would be an easy way to integrate into the forward-facing elements of the fleet. Before joining the crew, Ranix had gone through an intensive five-month train-up on interstellar combat tactics and necessary light ship manoeuvring. What the course had not done was prepare him for a full-on battle with one enemy capital ship and four support ships. Getting out of the sector was the only answer.
“Yuli!” He stood again. “Jump the ship!”
Staggering to the Ship Master’s seat, Ranix could see Yuli was furiously pounding keys next to the jump control board. At the same time, the claxon that had been ringing over the intercom since the engagement had started sixty seconds ago changed its tone, and not for the best.
“Warning! Warning!” The flashing lights that accompanied the claxon suddenly turned from red to a combination of red and blue. “Nuclear ordinance inbound! Nuclear ordinance inbound!”
Ranix knew that the ship was not capable of sustaining a hit from a nuke round. “Yuli!” Ranix mind was racing, he forgot something, but it was too late for anything but escape.
“Jump the ship!”
“The system won’t lock in coordinates, Sir!” Her voice was high-pitched, filled with fear and anger, her fingers danced over the control panel, trying to plug into the network the appropriate jump destination.
“I don’t give a damn!” He moved forward to her position just as another burst of enemy fire hit the ship. The impact sent debris flying through the narrow bridge. A large piece of metal hit Yuli on her right shoulder, knocking her against the bulkhead to her left. Ranix watched her eyes slowly close after her head slammed into the wall. She was out of the fight.
Ranix moved towards the control panel. The jump computer was randomly rotating ten-digit codes through the display screen. “Fuck!” Ranix knew he was in trouble. Fleet Command had hundreds of safe ten-digit emergency jump coordinates for ships in distress to use. If the system were unable to lock in a set of coordinates, then they would have no idea of where the Epsilon would end up. Shoving Yuli's unconscious body out of the way, Ranix checked the Nav station. With the display grid in front of him, he knew his options were gone. The nukes were seconds away, and the ship's power was fluctuating. Jumping was the only way out.
“Nuclear impact in five, four . . .” the claxon yelled the impending destruction of the ship “ . . . three . . .” Ranix brought his left arm up and then slammed it down on the purple handle that sat next to the jump board. With the grip he had, he pressed the handle down, initiating the jump.
When Ranix activated the ship’s jump system, the Epsilon’s 7th Generation Quantum computer immediately took the vessel out of Real Space into Sub-Space; a region of the Universe where the laws of physics could be bent and manipulated. A fraction of a second after the jump was initiated; the ships external field generators formed an ion field around the vessel, allowing it to slip into Sub-Space.
Half a second later, the ships ten-digit destination code and its current position code were synced into the jump drive. This enabled the ship to bend space to create a singularity where the ship existed at both locations for 1/100th of a second in Sub-Space before returning to Real Space at the destination coordinates.
The process was like opening a door in one room, closing the door behind you, then opening another door to the adjacent room, all the time being in the same room at the same time for the briefest moment, before stepping through to the next room and having travelled hundreds of light-years.
Ranix used the reprieve from the enemy attack to get his bearings. He looked at Yuli, her exposed red skin covered in sweat with her long red hair covering her face.
The bridge was awash in red lights, smoke, and the screams of the wounded. Ranix knew the jump had bought the crew a respite, but for how long? Without knowing where they were heading, Ranix knew that the likely hood of a positive outcome was slim. He looked to the front of the bridge, the Helmsman, Master Star Pilot Rais, was still locked in his position towards the front of the bridge, controls at his fingertips.
“Rais,” Ranix got to his feet and limped towards the Ship Master’s chair. “What is the status of manoeuvring thrusters, fuel, and other guidance systems?” His voice was dry, and his throat was cracking from the brief, but intense yelling during the battle.
“Sir,” a quick left-to-right glance of his control panel and display boards gave Rais all the data he required. “We have limited manoeuvring thrusters, several of them seem to be damaged or destroyed. We are very low on fuel. The jump took our reserves down to ten per cent, and we are venting, slowly, that ten per cent into space. Guidance systems are off-line. I have no data to get a Star Plot.” He looked over his shoulder from the front of the bridge at the acting Ship Master. “We’re blind, and when we materialise from this jump, we’ll be dead in space as soon as we run out of our remaining fuel supplies, which won’t take long.”
Ranix did not have time to take all this in; the ship’s computer reminded him of his predicament. “Ship will arrive in three seconds.” The automated tone of reason, never letting the crew forget what was going on.
“Look sharp, Rais!” Ranix stared at the view screen for what seemed like an eternity. Wherever they jumped, they were going to stay there until rescued or killed.
From nothing but the empty blackness of hyperspace, the view screen jumped to life the second the ship rematerialised in normal space, and the screen was quickly filled up by a giant blue planet. Instantly, the Epsilon began to shake violently; loose pieces of the bulkhead, already hanging on by a thread from the fierce battle, gave way and started to peel off.
“We’re caught in the planet's gravity!” Rais was fighting with the controls.
Ranix sat up, gripping the Ship Master’s chair for support while grasping his injured hip. Between the ship, which was still travelling at a high rate, and the planet was a large object orbiting the globe.
“What is that?” He whispered under his breath. It looked like a space station, but of a design Ranix had never seen before, and it was directly between the Epsilon and the planet, and closing rapidly at a range of 1000 meters.
Doctor Susan Ivanova of the Russian Space Agency had enjoyed her first month aboard the International Space Station. In recent weeks things had settled into a monotonous regime of tests and calculations, very similar to her work in Russia, only in space, she was left without her favourite duvet.
With her jet black hair neatly tied in a bun, she glided her way from the animal research laboratory to the command centre. She was eager to finish her conversation with the mission commander, Captain Scott Bader, about the virtues of using Russian rockets to get to and from the ISS, over the defunct American shuttles, which Scott seemed to prefer.
When she reached the command centre, it was humming like a finely tuned watch. But at that hour, roughly 2 pm Greenwich Mean Time, most of the crew were getting their daily reports ready to be sent back to their respective institutions, which left the centre sparsely manned.
“Scott,” Susan beamed a big smile at the American. He was handsome, even if his hair was thinning out. He had that wise university professor look that Susan loved. “How has your day been?”
The command centre was not the largest room on the station, and it was filled with a variety of instruments designed to monitor the conditions inside and outside of the ship, giving it a cramped feel. Scott had been bending over a computer terminal which controlled the station’s ability to receive video and radio broadcasts from Earth.
With a look of calm reassurance and confidence, he glanced up from the monitor and took a long look at Susan. “Everything is going very well, thank you, young lady.” With a gentle push, Scott propelled himself towards the main television in the room. “I’ve figured out how we can watch the opening game.” Touching the power switch, the large TV flickered alive. “Soccer. Great game.” He fiddled with the controls, searching for the proper channel.
“It’s football, Scott.” Susan corrected him.
Scott shrugged his shoulders, “Either way, it’s a great game.” Kick-off for the tournament was about six hours away. Scott had been watching nothing but analysis and news in his free time leading up to the first game, which just happened to feature the United States playing the Brazilian team in Oslo. “I don’t think my boys are going to be able to pull this one out of the fire.” He conceded.
“Neither does anyone else. Should be an exciting match. Pity your team is in the Group of Death.” Susan was referring to the unpleasant reality for any American football fan that their team had been grouped with Brazil, Spain, and Nigeria. All teams that could beat the US squad. Looking at a spreadsheet that Scott had put on the wall of the seven groups, she found Group C, which held her nation's team. She couldn’t complain about Russia’s draw: Honduras, North Korea, and Australia. Most pundits thought that Russia should be able to make it to the second round without too much trouble.
The smile was quickly wiped off Susan’s face when a loud alarm sounded.
“What the hell is that!”
“Collision alarm!” Scott swung himself into position in front of the stations scanning unit. “We’ve got a large, fast-moving object about one thousand meters away on an impact course. Probably a meteor, asteroid.” He shook his head as he continued to examine the screen. “How could it get so close?”
Susan’s gaze drifted away from Scott to the nearest portal. “Where’s it coming from?”
“What in the name of hell is going on!” asked Burke, the senior astrophysicist on board the station, as he floated in the zero-gravity environment into the command room with a worried look on his face.
“We’ve got an incoming meteor,” Susan replied, trying to disguise her discomfort.
Burke moved towards the viewscreen and looked over Scott’s shoulder. “You’re right.” His hand quickly found the alarm switch and killed it. “Nine hundred meters and closing fast. Why wasn’t this detected earlier?”
Susan’s grip on the nearest support was getting tighter, her knuckles turning white. “What can we do?” She looked at Burke and Scott.
Burke and Scott exchanged a fatalistic glance. “Very little at this point,” Burke said.
Scott nodded his head in agreement. “At this distance, and at the rate this object is moving, we’ll be hit in about thirty seconds. And this thing is big.” Scott re-checked the monitor. “Ringside seats from window three in the next section!” and he was off, gliding quickly through the air to the open hatch to the adjacent part of the space station. Burke and Susan didn’t need an invitation; they were right behind him.
Entering the next compartment, Scott was met by Doctors Smith and Francis, “What the hell was that, and where are you going?” Francis demanded.
“Window three!” Scott didn’t slow down as he slammed into the bulkhead just next to the portal. “We’ve got incoming.” He said with a bit of a smirk on his face.
The windows on the ISS were some of the most advanced components on the station. Made from three-inch-thick tempered glass, they were designed to give the astronauts crystal clear views, and at the same time, protect them from solar radiation. They were also strong enough to be able to handle the pressure discrepancies between the station and the outside vacuum and sufficiently large so that the entire five-member crew could get a decent view of the exterior.
Scott centred himself on the window, holding onto a support above his head. It didn’t take him long to take notice of what was racing towards them. “Fuck.” Was all he could manage, followed by his jaw-dropping.
“What?” Burke slid next to him, followed by Susan.
Susan couldn't believe what she was seeing. With her eyes wide open, she stared out the window. 800 meters away and racing towards them was a giant ship, flames erupting from various points on the hull, lit up along the body by a series of red and blue lights, very similar to aircraft recognition lights.
Susan noticed Doctor Francis, staring, wide-mouthed shaking his head. He looked down and removed his glasses, and removed a cotton cloth from his pocket and cleaned the lenses before putting them back on. With his gaze still averted, he ran his hands through his thick black hair, and then slowly brought his gaze to bear on the ship that was racing towards them. “Ladies and gentlemen.” He cracked a smile, ear to ear. “There is life out there.”
Smith was less impressed. “Congratulations, doctor. The greatest discovery since fire is about to kill us.” He put his nose to the glass and stared at the ship. “Looks damaged.” Everyone nodded in agreement. “I need a drink.”
Burke was all too happy to oblige and shoved his already opened flask into Smith’s left hand. “Way ahead of you.”
Smith looked down and noticed that the flask was specially fitted with a nozzle that required the user to suck the contents out so that in zero gravity, the liquid would not float out.
Smith raised the sterling silver flask to his mouth and took a long swig.
Scott looked at Burke with a bit of a grin on his face, “You know that alcohol isn’t authorised onboard.” He turned his attention to Smith and yanked the flask from his hand, and immediately took a large drink. “But thank God you did.” He looked down at the flask, “What is this?”
“Old Pulteney.” Burke was still grinning like a Cheshire cat. “Best in the world.”
Susan, while not participating in the boys’ last-minute male bonding session, was paying attention to the object that was racing towards them. “Will you shut up!” Her nose was pinned against the window staring at the ship. “Its course is changing.”
She was right. The ship had started to rotate clockwise slowly.
At a distance of 700 meters, the ship began a barrel roll to the right, but it was still on a collision course that would, at the very minimum, clip the station.
"If they're going to miss us, they need to do something about it now." Scott, the veteran aviator, said. “But they’re not doing it fast enough.” He noted quietly.
"I always wondered about the first contact with an alien species," Burke said with a smile on his face. "I just didn’t think that the contact would be a collision at several thousand miles an hour."
“Well, that’s it then,” Susan said dryly, looking at Scott. Their eyes met just as she was starting to tear up.
Before Ranix could shout orders to Rais, the ship’s onboard computer illuminated everyone still conscious of the impending threat. “Collision in ten seconds!” A wailing alarm cut in.
Without waiting for instructions, Rais initiated a 360-degree barrel roll to the right.
Ranix’s eyes hadn’t left the view screen since the ship had finished the jump. The space station was filling up more and more of the view screen with each passing second. At their current speed and heading, an impact was just moments away.
“Fly this fucking thing!” he screamed at Rais.
Rais’s weathered hands danced across the control panel. With his many years in the service, he was more than capable of the task at hand. Shards of glass and broken metal protruded from his station, which had once been the epitome of elegance in design and function, even if it was six years old. “Sir!” there was no more time for a longer response.
Rais looked to his right. A large monitor showed him predictive telemetry, allowing him a clear projection of where the ship would end up based on its current speed and trajectory.
With his right hand wrapped firmly around the flight control stick, Rais slammed his left hand through a pane of glass to his left and onto the emergency burn lever. Without notice, the ship lurched forward at a much faster rate and cut quickly to the right. By using all available functioning thrusters to manoeuvre the vessel, Rais had guided the ship past the station with just meters to spare.
With the increased speed and jostling, the ship began to rattle even more violently. Just as the Epsilon cleared the space station, and the collision alarm ceased, another warning klaxon began to sound. “Warning! Fuel level at five per cent! Fusion reactor is failing!”
As soon as the space station was no longer taking up the centre of the view screen, it was replaced by the massive planetoid that the ship was now racing towards. Ranix dropped his gaze to his side for a moment’s respite. Rais had got them out of one sticky situation, and into another. If the fusion reactor went offline, the ship would no longer be able to produce energy, and the ship’s systems would only function as long as its remaining fuel and emergency power cells lasted. At five per cent, Ranix had very few options.
“Yuli!” Ranix glanced over his shoulder and noticed that she had regained consciousness. Her face was covered in blood, and she wasn't looking at Ranix straight, but he had to figure out his options and fast. Another had replaced one obstacle. The looming planet in the ship’s path had already captured the Epsilon in its gravity, narrowing any opportunities that might still exist. “With that much fuel, what are our options?”
Ranix watched as her fingers flew across the still operational keys and pads to her front. She looked up at her monitor that was supposed to show the ships current galactic position, Star Plot and operational ranges, but the screen was blank. “Sir,” she didn’t have time to give a first response that was wrong. She only had one shot. She had to be right, now. Looking back down at her panel, she made the best guess possible, just as her top monitor flickered to life. “Based on fuel loss and hull integrity.” She looked at a digital readout of the system they were in, then double-checked her monitor: eight planets, dozens of moons. The only world that could sustain life was directly in front of them. “And available options. I recommend landing at once on the celestial body to our front.”
Since the ship was already caught in the planet’s gravity field, Ranix knew they didn’t even have enough fuel to try to break orbit; they had no option but to go in.
“Right,” Ranix had been dealt a lousy hand. “I need a Star Plot as soon as possible. I want to know where we are in relation to Alliance and Coalition territory.” It was evident to Ranix that they were not in a mapped system. There were several benefits to that, the most prominent being that there was little chance of encountering the Coalition. The downside was that they were about to land on a populated world, and had no means to contact Alliance Fleet. "Start a track for any ships within scanning range, friendly or otherwise."
By the time the ship hit the planets Karman line, the ship was shaking violently, and now only 100 kilometres from the globe’s surface, options were becoming more limited exponentially.
Ranix scanned the bridge, checking to see who was still at their stations, and who was out of the mix. The station at the front of the bridge was occupied by the ship's pilot, who was still in the fight. The rest of the bridge crew sat at stations two-by-two, and four deep, running along a single walkway towards the rear of the deck. Looking behind him, he knew that Demu was dead. His old station, which was opposite Demu's, was vacant. Behind his Comms position was the Detection station, where Dec Tec Jonas was situated. Next to him sat a dead crew member at one of the science stations.
On the last row were two science stations. The seats were empty, with one team member giving medical aid to another, but Ranix couldn’t tell who the injured party was. The bridges primary lights were out of operation, and the smoke-filled compartment made it difficult to see clearly. Lights flickered from the consuls at each station—a flurry of different images and the occasional sound emanating from each one.
A violent jolt hit the ship as it started to enter the planet's upper atmosphere, forcing Ranix’s attention back to the viewscreen. The impact was followed quickly by a screech over the ship’s intercom system.
“Ship Master!” It was the ship’s chief engineer. One deck below and to the rear of the bridge, in the heart of the Epsilon, was engineering. “We need to land immediately. We’re losing hull integrity. We need to set down at once.”
Ranix quickly thumbed the communications switch on the Ship Masters’ chair. “This is Communications Officer Ranix. Ship Master’s dead.” As the ship punched through the upper atmosphere, the screen became filled with a giant landmass, 90 kilometres away and closing rapidly. “How much power and fuel do we have left?”
The engineer responded immediately. He had apparently run the calculations after the hyperspace jump. “After that last manoeuvre," There was a short pause before the intercom chirped again. "We’re at ten per cent on the power cells, and almost entirely out of fuel.” His eyes scanned the instruments in from of him. “There is enough in the tanks for one thirty-second full burn from the thrusters.”
Ranix was a bridge officer, not an engineer, nor a math expert, he had to trust the engineer’s calculations were accurate. “Rais! Did you hear that last transmission?”Ranix was at the edge of his seat. Hands gripping the sides of the chair as the ship bounced wildly as it continued to fall, staring past Rais, eyes locked on the approaching surface of the planet, grimacing in pain.
Rais was obviously in his element. One hand never left the flight stick, while the other danced over the control panel, flicking switch after switch, knob after knob, trying in vain to optimise the ship’s descent. “With that much burn time, even using manoeuvring thrusts, we’re going to crash. The only question is how hard and, maybe, where.”
“What do you mean where?” Ranix locked his eyes on the back of his pilot’s head.
“Based on this planet's gravity levels, we’ve already reached terminal velocity. At our rate of descent, I need twenty seconds full burn from the underbody thrusters to do a hard landing. With the remaining ten, depending on when we use them, we can increase our options for a landing zone.”
Ranix looked back at Yuli. "Options?"
“Sir, we are approaching a large landmass on the lower half of the planet. Directly below our position is a coastal region with significant developments. The most desolate area is west of our current projected impact zone.”
A voice shouted out from the rear of the bridge “Sir, I have a target grid for a landing site!”
Ranix lowered his head to the left and angled his head so he could hear better. “Where?”
“Seventeen hundred kilometres to the west of the large city below our position. There appears to be an area that is unpopulated, very isolated.” The tech responded.
Rais was scanning a large display screen on the bulkhead just to his left. “I can make that.” His attention snapped back to his control panel. Elevation, speed, the rate of descent, fuel levels, every piece of data that was available to him would help in his calculations. All the information that he would need to manoeuvre the ship were on a variety of colourful dials and readouts. “At ten thousand meters, I’ll need to run a five-second burn with manoeuvring thrusters to orient the nose of the ship to the target area; then fifteen-second main thrusters burn to get us there.”
The ship was passing through 50,000 meters and dropping fast.
With her eyes transfixed on her panel and display screens, Yuli realised that the ship was falling into busy airspace. “Sir, we have a significant amount of air-traffic under us. And Sir, we must be on their scanning devices by now.”
Rais looked down to his right to a small display screen that showed a little dot that was below the ship getting closer by the second. It must be some form of flying vehicle he thought to himself. Looking at the altimeter, Rais knew that if he turned the nose of the ship too early or late, then their final destination could be somewhere they didn't want to land. If he initiated the burn at too high an altitude, then the ship would fall short of its target.
Rechecking his instruments, he knew it was going to be close. Luckily the ship was falling level, and with a gentle flick of his wrist, he snapped the nose of the Epsilon hard left with just the slightest burn of fuel from the side-mounted thrusters and readied to fire the main engines.
“Final burn initiated!” shouted Rais. His eyes fixed on the data being fed to him from the console to his front. His hand steady on the control stick, fighting against the ships desire to fall out of the sky in a ball of flames.
The warship was cutting through the air like a rusty blade. The ship jolted up, down, left, right every time a damaged panel on the exterior of the vessel was ripped off by the force of the wind.
Ranix was sitting in the Ship Master's chair, hunched over slightly, propping himself up with his left arm. The shaking and vibrations were causing him to feel nauseous, or maybe it was the internal bleeding, he wasn't sure.
“We’ll be reaching the landing zone in five minutes!” Rais was checking and re-checking the screens in front of him. “We have just enough fuel in reserve to slow the ship to within acceptable limits for an emergency landing.”
Yuli was checking her panels. Based on the damage sustained in the initial attack, and breaching the planet’s atmosphere, hull integrity was thoroughly compromised. “Sir, we have fractures all along the hull, we are venting air. We need to be ready to go to individual emergency life support systems at a moment’s notice.”
Ranix nodded in agreement. He quickly toggled the ship’s communications broadcast system. “This is Ranix. Ready for the use of emergency life support, and brace for a hard landing!”
Ranix turned his head and yelled from his chair to the engineer station at the rear of the compartment. “How long will our systems run after we land?”
The engineer sitting to the rear of the compartment responded. “Based on the ships regular energy consumption while grounded, one rotation of this planet is all we’ll have power for. Our power cells are heavily damaged. We will have to cut all but the minimal systems to last any longer, Sir!”
Ranix knew they were in trouble. No fuel, minimal power, and on a populated, unknown planet. Not the best situation to be in. “When we land, shut down all but the minimal systems.” The engineer nodded in silent acknowledgement and quickly typed a message to the engineering department at the rear of the ship.
Ranix looked down at the command chair, scanning for a very obvious key. Just where the Ship Master’s right elbow would rest was a small black button covered by a safety lid. Ranix flipped the top and pushed the button. The ship’s claxon gave off a sharp wail, followed by a notice.
“Attention, attention! The Sentinel Commander has been activated! Attention!”
Ranix fixed his attention back on the main view screen. He could tell that the ship was slowing and losing altitude gradually as it raced towards its landing zone.
“Time until impact!” He shouted towards Rais.
“Ninety seconds, sir!”
Rais was cut off from any further communications when a dry, metallic voice came over the intercom. “Ship Master Vankens.” It was the Sentinel Commander. “SC online. Orders?”
“The Ship Master is dead. This is Communications Officer Ranix. I have taken command.” Ranix paused to consider his plan. “Download mission logs and prepare to secure the ship upon landing!”
The Sentinel Commander was a hulking ten-foot-tall robot that was responsible for external ship security. This entirely autonomous robot carried the Advanced Sinus Six Tactical Command Computer and could make its decisions when necessary. The mere thought of the machines made Ranix's blood run cold because once activated, the Sentinel's did not require command guidance from the crew. The Sentinels were built to make life easier for the organic crew members and to protect them when needed, or guard a destroyed ship until the ship was either recovered by friendly forces or until all the Sentinels defending it were incapacitated. Epsilon carried a total of four Sentinels plus two Heavy Crawler combat platforms.
It didn’t take long for the Sentinel Commander to respond with its acknowledgement. “Understood. SC out!”
The quick sprint away from the coastline sent the ship flying into the heart of the continent, and with Epsilon running out of momentum, it was about to reach its landing zone.
Communications Officer Ranix’s level of anxiety was increasing quickly. He had just jumped the ship into an unmapped system and was about to crash on a planet populated by an alien species. Shaking his head twice to regain his focus, Ranix turned in the command chair and yelled towards the rear of the bridge. “Where are we?” he demanded.
In addition to an engineering specialist, one of the science stations could interface with and translate, any communications systems that were unsecured. On Earth, the Internet was one such resource, and the officer at the station had been accessing information from it since the ship had jumped into orbit.
“Sir, this planet is called Terra, or Earth. We are in the southern hemisphere. Most likely going to set down in a land called Paraguay. Our destination is a large wilderness reserve called the Defensores del Chaco.” he reported.
“Good. I need detailed information about the level of technology and weapons that exist on this planet. I need to know what threats we could face. Search their database for any information about the region we are in and their military capabilities, and what possible resources might be at our disposal.” Ranix knew that the first contact with an alien species could go two very different ways. The last time an Imperial ship had made contact with a newly discovered intelligence, a firefight broke out, resulting in the death of many on both sides.
Luckily all Alliance ships were fitted with electronics packages that were advanced enough to decipher, translate and read any known language, and were capable of converting a new language, given enough references, to Imperial Standard in only one hour. This system had been a holdover from before the War of Succession, but Ranix was glad the ship was still equipped with it.
“Communications Officer!” The ship had dived below the clouds, and now the terrain below them was easily visible. “We’re going to be down in sixty seconds.” Rais continued to work the controls to his front. He was waiting for the last possible moment to use the remaining fuel for an emergency stop.
One of the science stations from behind Ranix shouted out to the acting Ship Master. “Sir, we are most likely going to go down in a forest. It should provide some visual concealment.”
Ranix waved his hand in the air. The only piece of information he heard that made a difference was the forest part. He knew that if the Epsilon was unlucky, it could be torn to bits on impact.
At five hundred feet, the ship had broken through the clouds, and Ranix watched as Rais scanned the main view screen, then back down at his instruments. They were racing above a lush landscape, and it became apparent that the ship was landing in a wilderness, which was ideal for the crew since it would provide the ship with some anonymity in the vast forests. Ranix noticed a smile creep across the pilot's face; perhaps he was enjoying the challenge of crashing the Epsilon without getting everyone onboard killed.
The first indication that impact was near was when Rais hit the collision alarm pad at his control station. “This is it!” He shouted as the ship clipped the first tree travelling at several hundred miles an hour, tearing away at sections of the already damaged undercarriage of the vessel.
As the ship started to bulldoze the trees, there was a violent jolt as the nose of the vessel tipped forward, sending Ranix sprawling out of his command chair onto the deck next to the dead body of the Ship Master. Shaking his head, he looked up at Rais.
"What was that?"
"Probably the jump coil," Rais replied. Moving his left hand to a communications switch, he toggled a ship-wide broadcast. "Hold on to something." And before most members of the crew could react, he initiated the arresting burn.
Starting an emergency burn to stop the ship dead in its tracks in a zero-gravity environment was all right since the vessel would just float, but on a planet with a strong gravity field, the results were quite different. As the Epsilon slammed to a halt, its internal dampeners, which prevented the external effects of gravity and pressure, kicked into action, meaning that the crew was only slightly jolted forward.
The Epsilon hung over the trees for just a brief second, before crashing through the thick vegetation towards the grassy forest floor. At ten feet, Rais used the remainder of fuel to slow the ship’s descent, but it was too little to prevent the massive ship from hitting the ground with great force, buckling the hull in several places, burrowing into the soft Paraguayan earth.
Yuli quickly took notice of this on her screens. “Sir, we have additional hull breaches. We are venting more air!”
Toggling the communications controls, Ranix addressed the ship, “Environmental suits, now!”
The surviving members of the bridge crew quickly moved to access their suits. Rais hit a panel on the side of his flight seat to drop down his environmental suit. The suits were self-sealing units that were made of various durable materials, with an ergonomic helmet that was built specifically for each crew member. The environmental suits themselves were unique and designed to provide life support depending on the specific needs of the wearer’s species.
Ranix watched as Yuli opened her bag and placed the helmet on, followed by gloves, and then stood and secured two ankle clasps just above her boots. The suit sealed itself in just seconds.
With the ship finally resting, Ranix gingerly pushed himself out of the Ship Master’s chair and donned the survival suit located below the seat of the command chair. Once Ranix was sure that the suit was sealed correctly, he walked over to the Ship Master’s body, which was still lying on the floor of the bridge and knelt beside his predecessor. The Ship Master’s tunic was severely torn and soaked in blood. His leg had been severed above the knee; resulting in traumatic amounts of blood loss.
Ship Master Vankens had requested Ranix by name from a long list of candidates to be his Executive Officer. Ranix liked to think it was because he was a good officer, but his gut told him it was because he and the Ship Master were both from the same city on Floxis, and had even attended the same schools. Vankens’s father had also played sports with Ranix’s uncle. Now that Vankens was dead, Ranix was without a friend on the ship. They were all strangers to him, and they had just lost their Ship Master of several years. It would take serious effort to gain their trust, something he needed to go about doing right away.
Shaking his head to gather himself, Ranix looked around the bridge. A thin layer of smoke was floating through the red lighting that illuminated the compartment. Crew members were moving about in good order in the cramped space. A medic had arrived and was treating the wounded. This was a well-disciplined bunch, no doubt Vankens had trained them well, and he was lucky to have an experienced bridge crew, which was a significant reason for them still being alive.
An engineer approached Ranix and gave him a status report. “Sir, we have several hull breaches, but we should be able to adapt to the current atmospheric conditions in a few hours if we take moulding tablets which will need to be secured from the medical bay.” The engineer looked at his portable datapad and ran his finger over the screen to shift pages. “Our emergency suit filters will continue to make this atmosphere breathable for approximately two rotations of this planet. Those are the only updates I can give you at the moment, Sir.”
Ranix looked at Yuli. "How many species are represented on this ship?"
Shaking her head, she looked up at Ranix. "I think about ten."
Ranix tried to scratch his head, only to have his hand bump into the hard alloy of the helmet. “Great.” He said under his breath. Looking back at Yuli, Ranix took two deep breaths, closed his eyes, and passed out.
Blinking his eyes twice, Ranix shook his head and took a deep breath. Looking up, he saw the face of one of the ship's medics, head covered by an environmental helmet, smiling back at him. "I think you'll make it, Comms-Off."
Ranix blinked again. Medics and their familiar tone. "What happened?"
"You passed out. Multiple injuries will do that."
"Not too long. I gave you an injection of nanos. They've done most of the work."
Ranix nodded slowly. He knew that the ship carried only a few vials of nano-bot med units. There was an excellent chance that his life had been spared at the cost of another's.
With the help of the medic, Ranix got to his feet and looked around the battered bridge; it was a mess. Blood, damaged bulkheads and stations, and a tinge of smoke hanging in the air gave the deck an eerie feel. It was not a place anyone would want to be. The fire had scorched the walls. It was a place death had visited.
Ranix turned to his command chair and toggled the ship-wide broadcast system. “Ship’s Master Doctor, Master Engineer and Sentinel Commander, please meet me in the hangar bay in five minutes.” Ranix released the communications switch and looked at the few crew members who were still on the bridge. “Let me have your attention.” The bridge crew looked at Ranix. “The priority is to take care of the wounded and the dead. All casualties should be taken to the medical bay. Second, I want everyone at their damage control stations to see what can be done. I 'd like you gathering as much information about where we are as possible.” Ranix looked around the bridge. Various emotions covered the faces of his crew, ranging from fear to excitement. What he needed now was for them to pull together. “Got me?”
“Yes, Sir!” was the response. He nodded his head and slowly walked towards the bridge door, which was partially opened. Ranix toggled the opening switch panel on the wall next to the door, but nothing happened. Either the door was inoperable, or there was a lack of power to run the automatic doors. Without too much difficulty, Ranix pushed the left half of the door open and walked into the adjoining compartment.
The hangar bay was the biggest chamber on the ship. It was able to hold three shuttlecraft, but the Epsilon only came equipped with one. The hangar was also the only place on the vessel, outside the Sentinel holding area, where the giant robots could fit, hence its selection as the venue.
Master Doctor Prure, the chief medical officer, was having a quiet conversation with the Sentinel Commander, while Master Engineer Sulvan was looking over a portable datapad when Ranix walked into the compartment. “How are we?” he inquired.
“Communications Officer Ranix,” it was the Master Engineer, who, at the rank of Master Engineer, though not a bridge officer, did outrank Ranix. “Well done on getting us down in one piece.” A broad smile was visible behind the protective glass of Master Engineer Sulvan’s mask.
Ranix was taken aback. He always thought that Sulvan had despised him, mainly due to Ranix’s fantastic card playing ability which had resulted in a few embarrassing moments for the Master Engineer at the last mid-week card game the Ship Master had hosted.
“Before we begin polishing our laurels,” Master Doctor Prure, always the cynic interjected. “I have been speaking with the Sentinel Commander, who is less than enthusiastic with our current predicament.” Prure looked at the hulking robot and nodded his head towards Ranix.
“Communications Officer Ranix.” Even though the SC was standing a few meters from Ranix, he could sense the heat being generated by the fusion reactor that fuelled the powerful machine. He was slightly intimidated, knowing that since he was only a Communications Officer and only the acting Ship Master; the SC could relieve him of command to protect the ship. “Our situation is precarious. I have already initiated standard defensive procedures for the ship.” The Sentinel Commander was a fantastic piece of machinery. With its grey exterior, and a green line running down the centre of its head to donate its Commander status, it amazed Ranix that whoever had built these war machines had given them such an exceptional vocabulary. The SC leaned in towards Ranix as if to intimidate the young Floxian, but this was merely the way the SC postured itself, ready to receive orders from the acting Ship Master.
Ranix cast his eyes to the floor, clasped his hands behind his back and walked over to the large command console in the hangar. The rest of the party followed. “Gentlemen.” Ranix wanted to make sure there was no doubt that he had the ship's affairs firmly in his grasp. “Here is our situation.” The command console was still operational. He pulled up an image of the terrain they found themselves in. It was an image that a member of the bridge team had found while accessing the planet’s global information network. “We are here.” He pointed to the map that was displayed on the screen. “We are not moving. I intend to hold this position and await fleet rescue. If that relief does not come, I propose a First Contact with the intelligent beings on this planet.” He turned his back to the console. “Master Doctor. What is our current medical status?”
The Master Doctor toggled a switch on his survival suit which brought up a holographic display which hovered above his right forearm. “Looking at the current medical data, of our crew of 40, we have 25 dead, including the Ship Master."
"Impossible!" Exclaimed Ranix
The Master Doctor continued, "We got walloped in engineering and a few other sections of the ship. In addition to the dead have four major injuries, and three minor injuries. At the moment, my two medics are moving throughout the ship to assist those in need.” The Master Doctor deactivated the hologram. “My primary concern is our automated repair baths. We have four onboard that are all functional, but they require a vast amount of energy to operate. Looking around me, I assume we have a slight power situation.” He glanced over to the engineer.
“The Master Doctor is right. Our fusion reactor is offline. We are on reserve power only, which could last us several days if we are conservative. If we can get solar absorption units online, we should be able to charge the ship's batteries. Fuel? Well, we’re out of fuel, and without it, we can’t move.” The engineer looked at the deck. “The hull breaches can be repaired given enough time except for the bottom side of the hull. We'll need heavy lift equipment to move the ship even to access those damaged sections.”
Ranix nodded. He looked back to the Master Doctor. “Do we have enough moulding tablets in sickbay for the crew?”
“Absolutely. My medical teams are passing them out now. Depending on what species the crew member is, the tablets will take effect in a few hours, or up to one day.”
“Side effects?” Ranix felt mildly concerned at the notion of the tablet, which was understandable since he had never taken them before.
“None. The tablet simply helps the body take in the 100,000 nanobots that will assist the crew member temporarily convert their breathing apparatus to function in this planet’s atmosphere. I’ve already received mine.” The Master Doctor looked at the engineer who was shaking his head. “I’ll be ready to take off the emergency suit in about two hours.” The Master Doctor was clearly proud of himself.
“What about the repair baths? If they are offline due to power limits, where does that leave us?” Ranix asked
“Without the baths, I’ll have to operate on all patients by hand. Unfortunately, I am only so good. We have seven different species of crew on this ship. I won’t be able to save the most injured if they are from a race with complex medical needs. It’s that simple.” The Master Doctor knew he was up against a tough challenge. “With that in mind, I must return to the medical centre at once.” He nodded to the engineer and the SC, “Excuse me Communications Officer.” The Master Doctor made his way out of the hangar without saying another word.
As the Master Doctor stepped out of the hangar, Ranix turned his attention to the Sentinel Commander who had remained silent for the last few minutes. “SC, what is your analysis of the tactical situation?”
“Having examined the information downloaded so far from this planet’s global information system, and considering our current position and condition, I would say we have very few options. I already have Sentinel Two on the ground erecting a masking net, which should allow the ship to be concealed from any imagery device this planet has in orbit. It would take a visual inspection at close range for the creatures on this world to identify our location. There are, however, two issues that might nullify the net.
“First, we most likely did damage to the foliage around the crash site, and this will be visible to any observation. More critically, we were probably tracked via the satellites that orbit this world to this position. They could know our current location right now.” The SC paused and waited for Communications Officer Ranix to absorb the briefing so far.
“Have you scanned the planet’s databases for weapons?” Ranix asked
The SC nodded. “Yes. The most powerful weapon is a thermonuclear bomb. One of these devices would destroy the ship without question. In the end, our position will be discovered. The question is whether the people that find us are hostile or not.” The SC looked across the hangar bay to the shuttlecraft that was strapped down to the deck. “If the shuttle is operational, that will give us more options to conduct a defence of this position, but if a determined force attacks us, my Sentinels could hold this position for only a finite amount of time. A decision must be made regarding First Contact, and how to respond to any entity that approaches this vessel.”
The engineer had heard enough. “Ranix, it sounds like you and the SC have plenty to talk about. I’m heading back to engineering. Call me if something comes up. I need to try to save as much power as possible.” He looked at the SC. “How many in your team have the fusion reactors?”
“Just myself and my second-in-command.”
“You two will be the only Sentinels that will be able to function indefinitely. The other Sentinels that aren’t equipped with fusion reactors will only run for about 72 hours on their internal energy supplies before needing to be refuelled, and we cannot refuel them at the moment. It would be best to have them conserve power whenever possible. What about the Heavy Crawlers, what are they running on?" The Master Engineer asked, which surprised Ranix since he assumed that Sulvan would know that information.
"The Gosen Series Five Turbo Fusion." The robot replied.
The Master Engineer shook his head and looked at the deck. "Just don't let them get blown up."He departed the hangar, still shaking his head.
Ranix turned to the SC. "What did he mean by that?"
"The Gosen Series Five TF has a very unreliable safety record with the Heavy Crawler. An HC's destruction can often detonate the fusion reactor, resulting in a fusion explosion."
"What would the blast range be?"
"Two kilometres. At least."
Ranix took a moment to consider that piece of information before moving on with his brief to his head of security. “The Master Engineer is right about your operators.” Ranix looked at the SC. “We can’t afford to have all your Sentinels running around. Limit the usage to your forces who have fusion reactors. Unless we come under attack, keep the remaining Sentinels powered down.” Ranix looked around the hangar. No bodies were lying on the deck, but there was the blood of various colours splattered against several of the bulkheads, and on the ground. “Right. Your orders are to secure the ship as you deem fit. At this moment, unless we are attacked, no lethal action is to be taken against organisms approaching this ship.” He gave the SC a long stare. “Understood?”
“Yes, Sir!” The Sentinel Commander straightened up and quickly spun around and starting moving off towards the hangar bay doors which were slowly opening. Ranix could hear the towering machine giving orders as he walked away.
Ranix coughed gently, a little blood coming up onto his chin. "Damn." He whispered under his breath, and without further thought, slowly limped his way back to the bridge.
Major Joe Hunt had been strolling across the runway of the tiny airport in Mariscal Estigarribia when he heard a sonic boom and looked up to the sky spotted a bright light racing across the heavens to the north. He wasn't sure if it were a meteorite or some aircraft, but he started jogging to the hangar where the Paraguayan Special Forces team he was mentoring was located
Reaching the hangar, Joe looked around for his local counterpart, who was on his satellite phone. Walking over, Joe made eye contact with Lieutenant Colonel Martin Almada and raised his eyebrows, giving him an inquisitive look.
When Martin ended the call, Joe was eager to find out any news. "Well?" He asked.
"That was SF Command from Cerrito. They said a satellite or something like that been reported to have been seen going down somewhere north of our position."
Joe nodded. "And they want us to do something about it."
Martin shook his head and put down the sat phone. "Correct. We're to go north and secure the crash site."
Joe shook his head. "Combat load?"
"Yes." The Paraguayan replied.
"Groovy," Joe replied. He looked over to a corner of the room they were in where soldiers were already lining up to collect their ammunition from a large set of large crates.
Joe looked down at the Heckler and Koch 416 that was slung over his shoulder and pulled the weapons charging handle to the rear, and locked the bolt in place and put some oil on the rifles working parts.
Joe looked up to see another crate being opened, and small arm protective inserts, SAPI plates, being removed. The ceramic body armour was only used in combat, and that was what this situation looked like it was turning into.