“We're clear of the moorings, captain,” Lieutenant Hammond reported as her hands gracefully worked the controls. The Enduring Justice was like her own body. Hammond could work it with the utmost poise and even, some might say, serenity.
“Get us out of here, lieutenant,” Harden ordered calmly from his command chair. Was he nervous? Absolutely, but he would never let it show.
“Sir, they've positioned themselves exactly where we need to go,” Hammond said.
“Can you get around them?”
“No, sir, we'd have to cross into their weapons range.”
“So, there's no way to avoid a fight?”
“Damn,” Harden said under his breath. He carefully mulled over his options. “Bring us in just outside of their weapons range. Chang, load all weapons and get us firing solutions.”
“They're hailing, sir,” Edison reported.
“Put them on them on the main screen,” Harden ordered as he stood. In a few seconds, an image of an aging man in a German captain's uniform appeared. Before that captain could speak, Harden said, “This is Captain Maxus Harden of the U.S.S. Enduring Justice. Stand aside.”
The German captain and then replied with an accent, “Captain Harden, listen, you have violated German space and fired on one of our space stations. This is a most heinous offense. However, you have something that we want. You have a certain individual that we were instructed to retrieve. Hand him over and we will let you go and forget about the whole thing.”
On an instinct, Commander Halsey lied, “Captain, it seems that in our rescue operation from your station, one of your men seriously wounded our operative. He is in critical condition and if we tried to move him, he might die.”
The captain paused, “One of our men?”
“You heard her,” Harden said firmly.
“They had orders to take him alive. We need that man alive.”
“Well, that's going to be a difficult,” Halsey said. “Unless you have any ideas.”
Harden wondered what the hell she was doing, but decided to trust her.
“What if we sent our doctors over to your ship to move him?”
Halsey nodded, “We'll do that-”
“Hang on,” Harden interrupted. “Edison, can you mute the transmission?”
“Commander, just what the hell are you doing?”
“Sir, I'm sorry I couldn't bring this to you before, but if they want to send over their doctors, they'll have to dock with us,” Halsey told her captain. “We get them as close as possible and then we make a break for it. Hopefully, their targeting systems won't have time to get us before we go to translight.”
“Good thinking,” Harden said. “I'll talk to the Germans while you get this thing arranged.” Halsey nodded and then moved to another console. “Put him back on.”
“Captain,” Harden said. “My medical teams are standing by to move the patient. Our airlocks will be standing by for docking procedures.”
“I am glad that you see this my way, Captain Harden. Leave your ship in its place, we will come to you.”
“Very well, captain,” Harden lied through his teeth. “Harden out.” The transmission cut. “I really hope he's that stupid.”
Halsey said, “Captain, we'll have to time this just right. If they get too close, we'll have to maneuver to get around them, but if we move too far, their targeting computers will have enough time to get a solid lock.”
“And we will need to put some distance between us and them before we jump,” Lieutenant Hammond said.
“Enemy ship is coming right at us,” Edison said nervously.
“Captain, they're in weapons range,” Chang reported. “Firing solution is excellent; mag guns are hot.”
“There's no need for that,” Harden said with almost complete calm. “If all goes well, there won't be any shooting at all.”
“Captain,” the A.I. cut in. “I've done some calculations and if we engage full afterburner in thirty-two seconds, we'll have the best possible window for getting out of here.”
“Put that on my monitors,” Hammond ordered. This was her moment to shine and she knew it. As soon as the A.I.'s countdown appeared, Hammond made a few adjustments and then set her hand on the throttle. Twenty seconds.
“German Kaiser-class battleship,” Chang admired. “Three forward mag guns, twenty-five missile tubes... damn, I'd love to man the weapons sys-”
“Keep it to yourself,” Halsey ordered.
“Captain,” Chang started talking again. “I recommend firing a full salvo of Longbows on our way out-”
“I said, 'no,' lieutenant,” Harden said again, this time he was getting frustrated. “There's no need for that.”
“Firing thrusters!” Hammond suddenly exclaimed as she pressed down the throttle. “Engines engaged; accelerating at full speed!”
“Wilhelm is maneuvering to compensate,” Chang reported.
“Evasive maneuvers,” Halsey ordered. “Keep their guns off us!”
“Overclocking engines!” Hammond shouted. “We're at one-hundred-ten percent!”
“Are we clear?” Halsey asked.
“Not yet, we're still going past- Holy shit!”
“What is it?!”
“Sir, they just pulled a move that should be impossible for a ship of that class! They've executed an almost complete one-hundred-eighty degree turn and they're moving in for a lock!”
“Emergency evasive!” Halsey exclaimed.
“Calculating translight trajectory. I need ten more seconds.”
“They've got a lock!” Chang said.
“They've fired missiles!”
“Impact negligible, we'll be gone.”
“Oh, shi-! Enemy is firing mag guns! Brace for impact!”
Consoles overloaded as the decks rocked. Crewman were flung out of their seats and slammed into the ground. The lights flickered and died. Captain Harden was launched out of his seat on onto the floor. He picked himself back up and took a good look around. This was not the worst he had ever endured....
“Minor damage!” Chang reported. “Two shots missed, the other didn't hit anything important.”
“Get us the hell out of here!” Harden didn't bother returning to his chair.
Those were the last words Harden heard before suddenly finding himself off his feet. He slammed into a wall and fell from consciousness.
Commander Halsey found herself unusually aware of the Smith & Wesson at her side. It was not surprising that it stuck out in her mind, but she wished focusing could be a little easier. Before her was a holographic read-out of the Enduring Justice. On it, she kept track of the marines moving about the ship. Thanks to high-tech security systems, she could also observe the enemy positions as they navigated the halls. There were only twenty-nine marines going up against probably hundreds of enemy boarders. The crewman had all been given sidearms, but were told to clear the corridors and engage the enemy only if necessary.
The goal was simple: to survive until reinforcements arrived. They had sent out the distress signal and help should be on its way. There was no telling exactly how long it would take, but Halsey knew they would get in on time. She had to believe that. To believe otherwise was to accept defeat and that's just something which simply will not happen.
Edison reported, “Commander, the Wilhelm has docked.”
“Alright, open up the airlock door,” Halsey ordered. “Should confuse the hell out of them.”
Halsey watched the readout as the security systems identified individuals entering the ship. There must have been a dozen on the advance team. They took up a formation and were obviously confused by the lack of marines shooting at them. The corridor split in three directions. Straight ahead of them was the most direct route to either the bridge or sickbay. To the left was nowhere important. And if they went right, they would be headed towards engineering.
The blips finally moved. They split into two even groups, one going straight and the other going right. And then they flashed and vanished. The mines worked. Halsey asked, “A.I., can you confirm kills on their advance team?”
“Affirmative. Tangos down.”
“Sergeant Major,” Halsey said into the comm. “The first wave is down. The mines worked.”
“Oorah,” her brother replied. “We'll be ready for the second group.”
“Commander,” the A.I. said, “Second wave is boarding now.”
Halsey turned her attention back to the readout and saw more blips filling the corridor. She could not count how many, but estimated at least twenty. Again, they split into two groups. One went straight, one right. Since they insisted on not going left twice, Halsey could only assume that they knew where they were going. A second group of about the same number came in through the airlock and did the exact same as those before.
“Commander, this is SCAR team,” Mack said over the comm. His team was given the role of keeping the enemy on the airlock deck. They would have to go up one deck to get to engineering and down one to get to the bridge and sickbay. “We're ready to engage the enemy.”
“Acknowledged,” Halsey replied. “A.I., shut down all lights on deck five and seal the airlock door.” By sealing the airlock door, the enemy already aboard the Enduring Justice were effectively sealed inside. Reinforcements were also temporarily cut off.
“Hope those bastards forgot their night vision.”
Mack and his team were perfectly ready. They could already hear an enemy squad approaching as the room jumped to blackness. They could see absolutely nothing. Mack whispered to his squad, “Light filters on.” This was one advantage of the Smith & Wesson MARS. As an attachment, it featured an advanced digital holographic optic sight system, which included a zoom ability, an infrared sensor, and a low-light filter. The technology was impressive and certainly useful. By looking through their sights, the SCAR team could easily mark their targets.
Also attached to their weapons were sound suppressors, which also eliminated the muzzle flash from their rifles. In other words, SCAR was effectively invisible and almost absolutely silent. They took a defensive formation at the end of one of the main corridors and waited. Mack glared down his sight and looked at the greened hall before him. In an instant, a confused soldier rounded the corner. Then another and another. “Hold fire,” Mack whispered.
Their formation was sloppy. The darkness confused the hell out of them.
Best of all, they clearly couldn't see the SCAR team about to decimate them.
“Fire!” Mack snarled as he squeezed his trigger. A burst of three rounds roared from his barrel and into the enemy point man. All three connected straight center-mass, bringing the shocked soldier down hard. In rapid succession, the SCAR team members marked targets, opened fire, and repeated. The German marines returned fire, but they were blind. Their shots found nothing but walls.
As Mack blasted the last of them, he called, “Confirm all targets down!”
“Got nothin', boss,” Sergeant Green replied.
“Zero contacts,” Pink affirmed.
Mack hit his radio, “Commander, this is SCAR. We've eliminated our batch of targets and we're moving on to our second objective.”
“SCAR team!” Commander Halsey's voice replied. “We need you up here ASAP! The bridge team has failed and it's only a matter of time before they get to us!”
“We're on our-”
Bullets whizzed by Mack's head as the hallway roared. Green immediately shouted, “Contact! Targets left!” He returned fire.
“They can see us!” Pink exclaimed as he reloaded his rifle.
“Shit!” Mack took aim and popped a few suppressing shots. “Pull back! Pull back!”
The door pounded. They were outside. Halsey could hear the Germans outside as they worked to defeat the magnetic locks. It was inevitable that they would get in. There were not enough solid guns on the bridge to repel a German assault team. A pair of their marines were there armed with rifles and the bridge crew all had side-arms, but it there was no way they would hold.
Halsey knew this.
And then Mack radioed, “We're pinned down, commander! Can't say when we can assist!”
“Just get up here, sergeant,” Halsey half-growled as she stood up from her command chair. She looked around to see that all eyes were on her. Not a one of them were oblivious to their coming doom. They turned their attention to their commander and simply hoped she would have the answer. In truth, she did not. There was no escape, no victory. She looked into the eyes of each of her crewman and realized words would do nothing. Halsey had never been a speech maker or a motivator. She was, however, a woman of action. If the crew truly respected Commander Dana Halsey for anything, that was it. She got the damn job done and didn't make excuses for it.
From her belt, she drew her Smith & Wesson and racked the slide. Its high electronic whine echoed through the silent bridge, indicating it was ready to blast super-accelerated .386 Magnum rounds right through anything it happened to be pointing at. Halsey pushed her jet black hair out her eyes and tucked it behind her ear as she brought her pistol to bear at the door. Although Halsey was exposed, her position was not a terrible one. Between her and the door was her command chair and one of the holographic display tables in the Combat Information Center. Her posture and position both gave an edge of fearlessness and of bravado.
Her crew understood what she had done. They understood her resolve and took comfort in it. The pair of marines took what little cover they found and brought their own weapons to their shoulders. The bridge crew drew their pistols and took positions according to what they had practiced based on the hours upon hours of drills they had all endured.
The commotion at the door stopped. All Commander Halsey could hear was her own breathing. There were no real thoughts in her mind, only a solid focus on the carnage to come. She checked her grip and sight placement, ensuring perfect. Out of all that might happen, missing was not one she would allow. The double sliding door whooshed open. Nothing came through for a solid two seconds. After those elapsed, a small, black tube flew through the air and clanged onto the floor. Halsey instantly realized what it was: flashbang! Her eyes snapped shut. Why hadn't she thought of that happening bef-
It exploded and an instantaneous roar filled the room, which shifted to a ringing in her ears. Halsey opened her eyes to find German soldiers pouring into the room, shooting at anything that moved. She picked the right-most target and double-tapped shots, bringing him down cleanly. It surprised her when she could not hear her own gunshots, but this would not throw her off for long. Halsey found a second target and fired.
Sound slowly returned to her ears. He shots were muffled, but finally audible. Soon, she could make out the shouting in the room. There were no doubt screams of death and orders being cried. Halsey ignored it and kept firing. She took down her second target and then her third. In instinct, she looked to her right and saw Ensign Edison take a bullet to the abdomen. She doubled over and fell to the ground. Halsey expended the last rounds in her magazine and then rushed over to help. She got down on her knees and helped the young, quivering ensign up to a sitting position and examined her. “I can't tell how bad it looks!” Halsey exclaimed honestly.
“It hurts, commander,” Edison groaned as she clutched the bloody mess.
Halsey swiped a fresh magazine from her belt, snapped it into her Smith & Wesson, and released the slide. Still down on her knees, Halsey brought her handgun back to bear. In that moment, she saw the destruction. The bridge was tattered with bullet holes and destruction. On the floor were bodies, including Hammond and both of the marines. There were a few junior officers Halsey did not recognize, but she felt responsible for each of them. She couldn't count how many Germans had breached the bridge, but the number was doubtlessly higher than she would like.
A firm hand suddenly gripped her shoulder. As she prepared to fight back, she noticed the rifle barrel threatening to eradicate her temple. With a frustrated grunt, Halsey dropped her pistol. The shooting on the bridge died off. The commander looked around to see most of her bridge crew had surrendered. She would never admit it pride to this, but it was the right call. The Germans had completely overrun them.
As the German brought Halsey to her feet and led her to the door, she looked around and took inventory. Chang and Edison were both injured, Edison more severely of the two. Good. Halsey would need Chang. Hammond and the marines appeared to be the dead. The rest of the bridge crew seemed to be alive. Six of the Germans lay dead. Apparently, they had put up a valiant fight. Halsey had only expected two or three to fall. Unfortunately, they had lost. That was that.
Then again, Commander Halsey had just one last trick. She said aloud, “A.I. Now.”
In less than a split-second, the decks lurched as the Enduring Justice came to life. The main lights snapped off and the emergency lights ascended. The Artificial Intelligence's British voice came to life, “Transferring all available power to maneuvering thrusters and port side Magnetic-acceleration cannon.”
“I am having some difficulty clearing the Wilhem's magnetic docking clamps. Executing high energy maneuver to break free.”
Halsey replied to the marine, “Scher dich!”
With the back of his hand, the German slapped her across the cheek. “Stoppen Sie diese!“
“Executing high energy maneuver!” The A.I. exclaimed just a hair of a second before the ship rocked hard to the right, knocking everyone off their feet. Halsey, who expected it, used the momentum to roll towards her pistol. She took it in her hand and whirled around in a crawl to face her immediate attacker. With lightning precision, she put his head into her sights and pulled the trigger.
“Magnetic-acceleration cannon charge at sixty-percent,” The A.I. reported. Halsey found another target and put him in her sights. Two shots later, another kill. “Lining up a shot and preparing a firing solution. Estimating fifteen seconds.” Halsey glanced over to see Chang with one of the Germans headlocked in his arms. One-by-one, crewmen and enemies regained their footing and the firefight again resumed. Having expected this to happen definitely gave them an edge, but would it last?
“Magnetic-acceleration cannon charge at eighty-percent.”
Suddenly Halsey's skull erupted in pain as she found herself slammed to the floor. She looked up to see one of the Germans standing over her rapidly bringing his rifle to bear on her. Her head hurt like hell, he must have hit her with the stock of his weapon. It was truly amazing she was still conscious. The commander dropped her pistol and put her hands up in surrender. She knew it was coming, but if there was any fight at all....
“Optimal firing solution achieved, magnetic-acceleration cannon charge at ninety-two percent. Firing anyway,” The A.I. reported, doing exactly as 'she' had been told. Halsey faced the viewing screen as they heard the below-decks booming of the mag guns. She watched as a white streak burst and smashed through the Wilhelm. This would not kill the beast, but any mag blow to any ship could potentially be devastating. Halsey hoped the slug would destroy either their engines or weapons systems. From what she saw, the round penetrated the Wilhelm center-mass at the battleship's starboard side, just a bit to the right. With satisfaction, she noted the ship beginning to spin and its lights flickering. They must have hit their power systems. “Direct hit. Target ship is drifting. My sensor systems are damaged and I am unable to give a more thorough report. Our reactor core is completely blown and I currently running exclusively on the auxiliary batteries.”
Halsey smirked as she looked back the stunned marine standing over her. In a throb of anger, he shouted something at her in German and then kicked her side. The commander yelped in pain, but did her very best to contain the outburst. But even she couldn't help but cry, “Holy shit!” when the German's head suddenly popped. Gunfire and chaos erupted once again. She looked over to see Mack and his team bursting into the room, gunning down anyone who happened to be German. With clockwork precision, they took the bridge. “Clear!” Each one of the SCAR team announced.
Realizing her throbbing pain, Halsey put her hand to her head as she stood. She herself weak, but able to press on. “Sound off! Give me a report!”
“We've got five dead, ma'am,” Mack was first to reply. “Both marines and three junior officers.”
“Damn,” Halsey groaned as she took her seat in the command chair. “Mack, see to it that any injured get treatment and-”
“Commander,” the A.I. chimed in. “The Wilhelm appears to have recovered from her blow. They are coming around. We are completely defenseless, commander.”
“We've done some pretty serious damage,” Halsey said. “They'll be more careful this time. “
“Commander!” Mack exclaimed. “The view screen!”
Halsey looked up and watched in awe as streaks of white blew chunks out of the Wilhelm. She sighed in relief as she said, “It's the fleet. Thank God.”
“They're ripping them to shreds!” Pink beamed. “Look at that!”
Halsey counted at least five mag slugs breaking into the German behemoth, each causing more destruction than the last. Following the slugs came dozens of concussion missiles, which ultimately made the kill. The Wilhelm exploded in a fiery fury; the last wrath of the great beast. It was beautiful in the most violent of ways. “Better late than never,” Halsey again sighed in relief. “A.I., signal the lead ship.”
“Signaling the Iwo Jima,” she said. “Shall I put him on screen?”
“Yeah, do it,” Halsey pulled the hair our her eyes and winced in pain. Her head still throbbed. In a flash, a clean-cut man in a captain's uniform appeared on the screen. “Captain, I'm Commander Dana Halsey, first officer. Thank God you're here.”
“Captain Lucius Talbot,” the man on screen replied as he stood and straightened out his uniform. “Looks like you've been through hell, commander. Where is Captain Harden?”
“Sickbay,” Halsey replied. “Took a beating, but I think he'll be alright.”
“What about your ship? You must need aid.”
“Absolutely, captain. We have plenty of wounded. We'll need a marine detail to do a sweep, we suffered some boarding action.”
“Will do. Was your mission a success?”
“The operative is on board, but also in sickbay. I wouldn't call this a totally successful mission, captain, but the objectives have been completed.”
“I believe I understand what you mean. I'll have shuttles sent over on the double.”
“Thank you, captain. Halsey out,” she said and then the screen dimmed. Almost instantly, she buried her face in her hands and heaved a deep sigh. It was finally over.
“Commander, you okay?” Mack asked from beside her.
Halsey looked up at him and said, “We're alive.”
“You look like hell,” he took a knee and looked at her face. It was bleeding in two places and it would bruise badly for sure. “Someone hit you? Looks like a-”
“Rifle butt,” she finished for him. “My head is ready to bust.”
“You took a rifle stock to the head and you're still conscious?” Mack curled his lip in awe. “Damn. You're tough, commander. You proved that today.”
“Yeah?” Halsey rubbed her head. “Being tough sucks, sergeant. It means you take a lot more pain before it stops. You're still standing when your knees are broken. You want to collapse, but you can't. Your body is screaming at you to stop, but you can't. The pain haunts you, but you won't give up. You won't make it all go away. Why? Damned if you know. It doesn't matter. You just won't quit. And sergeant, for the record, being tough is the worst.”
“You're still alive though, commander,” Mack put his hand on her shoulder. He wanted to comfort her like a brother should, but that simply was not an option. No one could know. “And you did good today. Only someone as tough as you could have gotten us all through this.”
“We all didn't make it,” Halsey loosened her uniform by unzipping it a bit at the collar.
“No, but we all could have died. The burning wreck outside could be us, but it isn't. it's the bastards who put us in this mess to begin with. Sure, they gave us a couple of bruises, but they're dead. We won.”
“We did,” Halsey resigned her argument. He was right, but she didn't want to believe it. If there was anything she was sick of, it was being the survivor. Whether it was from her time on the Amber Dusk or the disaster on the Iroquois, she somehow always found herself standing in the rubble alive when she ought not to be. Was it luck? No, it wasn't. She couldn't feel lucky being alone. Perhaps there was a purpose to being left alive, a reason death let her be. The only one she could think of is duty. So, she did it, “A.I., give me a rundown. Damage report.”
“The reactor core is shut down and not likely to function without major repairs. The cooling system is damaged, but I cannot get an accurate assessment without bringing it online. This will have to be done manually. We are running on auxiliary reserve power. We have taken large amounts of structural damage, especially on our starboard side. The starboard magnetic-acceleration cannon tube is destroyed in addition to eighty-percent percent of our starboard point defense cannons. Missile systems are offline. Targeting systems are offline. Sensor systems are offline. Defensive shielding is offline. There are numerous minor systems which have taken damage, shall I list them?”
“No,” Halsey shook her head. “What about casualties? How many injured?”
“Injury reports are still forthcoming.”
“Do you know Captain Harden's condition? And the operative?”
“Captain Harden is expected to make a full recovery. The operative is still in surgery.”
“What about deaths?
“Twenty-two. Shall I list them?”
Halsey mulled over the prospect for a moment. On one hand, it would take time, but on the other, it only seemed right to know. “Do it.”
“In alphabetical order: Petty Officer Sebastian Avery, Gunnery Chief William Barrett, Master Chief Petty Officer Linda Billingsley....”