Also, this story contains language and violence. If it were a movie, we'd call it PG-13.
May I have your attention, please? This is Captain Harden speaking.
We've been assigned a very dangerous, but very important mission. A few years ago, the Central Intelligence Agency sent out a number of operatives into enemy territory. Their mission was to gather information about enemy plans, enemy ship specifications, enemy formations, enemy deployments; basically whatever they could get their hands on. Before yesterday, none of those men have reported anything back. But that's changed. Yesterday morning, command received a partial transmission from one of these operatives. Apparently, this man has recovered crucial intelligence, but has been found out. He's on the run. He's desperate and he has nowhere to turn.
Our mission is to slip into enemy space, meet with this operative at a specified rendezvous point, and escape. The Enduring Justice is the only ship for the job. Not only is she the most advanced ship in the American fleet, she is also the only ship outfitted with sensor camouflaging technology. Technology, however, is not why I believe we can and will succeed. We will succeed because the Enduring Justice has the best crew a captain could possibly ask for. We will succeed because we are determined, resolute, and above all, unbeatable.
We leave port in an hour. That is all.
Captain Maxus Harden awoke to the unmistakable taste of blood in his mouth and the smell of burning chemicals filling his nostrils. It took effort to snap his eyes open, but when he did, he failed to enjoy what he saw. And his lungs burned. He was in the area between the combat information center and the bridge of his ship, the U.S.S. Enduring Justice. There were crewman all around putting out fires and trying their hardest to keep things in order. The lights flickered on and off. He then realized that he could not hear anything. His ears rang.
Suddenly, a bright light flashed before him. It darted left to right, right to left. It disappeared and then the face of one of the medics was before him. Harden did not know his name; the man's name badge was missing. The medic was saying things, but Harden could not hear. The captain struggled as he tapped his ears and shook his head. The medic nodded.
The medic continued his examination. When he got to Harden's leg, the captain grunted in pain. It hurt like all hell. The medic mouthed to him, “Broken.” Harden nodded. The ringing in his ears slowly turned to a roar. The examination moved to Harden's arms, where they found the same pain. Again, the medic mouthed, “Broken.” Harden shook his head as he winced.
Captain Harden's first officer, Commander Dana Halsey, tapped the medic on the shoulder and they started talking. Harden was not sure what they were saying, but he picked out bits and pieces from reading their lips and body language. Halsey asked about Harden's condition.
The medic responded by shaking his head and saying things Harden could not make out.
Halsey then began arguing with the man. And, although heavily muffled, Harden could make out every word, “...we need him here on the bridge, petty officer.”
“Ma'am, I'm sorry, he's suffered a concussion, possible internal bleeding, and he's broken multiple bones. He can't stay here.”
“Could you give him something for the pain?”
“It ain't that simple,” the medic sharply exhaled. “I've already signaled a stretcher team to come down and get him.”
“It's alright, commander,” Harden muttered. “He's right, I'm in no condition to command this ship.”
“Commander,” Harden forced himself to speak louder. “For the record, I am officially granting you temporary command of the U.S.S. Enduring Justice. Command is yours.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Now, give me a rundown. How bad are we hit?”
“We've suffered major hull damage across multiple decks, the starboard mag gun is destroyed, engines are operating below seventy-percent efficiency, and we're still getting casualty reports.”
“What about the Wilhelm?”
“We're in translight, but they've matched our speed. I'm not sure how long we can hold it. Commander Esteban tells me that we'll need emergency repairs soon.”
“Tell him to do it-”
“We'll need to drop from translight to make these repairs.”
“Too hard to tell.”
“Can we make it to the rendezvous in time?”
“Esteban wasn't very optimistic, sir.”
“Dammit,” Harden sighed. Another pair of medics carrying a stretcher stepped through the turbolift. “You're in command now. What happens next is up to you.”
The medics gently put Harden on the stretcher. Halsey watched him off. Only uncertainty and fear danced her mind, but her will stopped the music. She sat down in the command chair and did her very best to focus....
“Now entering German space,” helmsman Lieutenant Jenna Hammond said uneasily. “Nothing to report as of yet.”
“And there won't be,” Captain Harden stood from his command chair and straightened out his uniform. His entire crew was nervous about doing a mission behind enemy lines, especially with a relatively untested starship. The Enduring Justice had been active less than a year and had never seen proper combat. “At translight speeds, we're undetectable. As soon as we drop, we've got the stealth tech to keep us under cloak and dagger. This should be nothing more than a go in, get out mission. Simple as that.”
“Wish I had your confidence,” Lieutenant Commander Jonathon Chang, the tactical officer, said. “Weapons and defensive systems are on full alert.”
“As they should be, commander,” Captain Harden told him. “Keep your head in the game.”
“How long until we reach the operative?” Halsey asked from the CIC as she came back to the bridge. Even after having been on Enduring Justice for many months, she still felt slightly disoriented by the bridge location. Most ships had the bridge placed on either the front of top of the ship. The problem with this configuration was that one of the most important parts of the ship was completely exposed and vulnerable. It was also inefficient as far as placement and layout went. The Enduring Justice and her sister ships were the very first to have their bridges placed deep inside the hull. The design was based on around simulating the bridge being at the front of the ship, but knowing that it was not really there proved to be disorienting.
“About an hour, ma'am,” Hammond answered.
“Ensign Edison,” Halsey to the operations officer. “Systems check.”
Ensign Mary Edison, the operations officer, a woman of small stature, checked her console and replied, “All systems are operating at one-hundred percent.”
“Bring us to condition orange,” Halsey ordered. “Have all stations standing by for imminent combat action. We have entered hostile territory and should be prepared for the unexpected.”
“Very good, commander,” Harden paced the bridge. “Doesn't hurt to be prepared.”
“No, sir,” Halsey nodded. She took her spot near the command chair and stood with her hands folded behind her back. Halsey did her job very well. She kept Harden's ship and crew at their very best. Some, however, found her to be somewhat prickly in nature. One of the duties of a first officer to was to represent the crew, to be one of them. This aspect was Halsey's weakness. “No matter what, sir, we'll be ready.”
As Commander Halsey sat down in the command chair, she wiped blood from her brow. A panel had overloaded next to her and the resulting shrapnel cut her right at the hairline. It was just another scar. Halsey had plenty of them. The biggest was hidden under her uniform. About two years ago, Halsey was given command of the Iroquois, a frigate. Just a few weeks into this command, the ship was destroyed by a French battlecruiser. It left Halsey both physically and emotionally scarred. The physical scar was a large gash across the bottom of her ribcage.
After the Iroquois incident, Halsey roamed for a while. She eventually found herself the member of a ragtag crew of a private vessel, the Amber Dusk. No one ever believed the stories she told about her time on the Amber Dusk, but she told that they stopped a dangerous space monster that many private sailors referred to as Cthulhu, the Kraken, or the Leviathan. Which name was used depended on who was asked. Halsey's adventure supposedly took her to the charred remains of earth, where they discovered that the Leviathan was actually an ancient starship from a species long extinct. The final conflict left everyone except Halsey and two others dead. This was where Halsey gained her most obvious scar: a cut across her right cheek.
The lights on the bridge still flickered. The fires had been put out, but things were still in general disarray. A great deal of the panels were offline and repair teams scrambled to keep things operational. Halsey stood, unzipped part of her uniform, pushed her hair out of her eyes and said, “A.I., are you operational?”
A female voice with a British accept replied, “Yes, commander.”
“Can you stabilize the lighting in here?”
“One moment, commander. I am operating at less than fifty-percent efficiency and relegating all of my tasks-”
“Just do it.”
“Achieving lighting stability will mean disabling some of the lights. Is this acceptable?”
“Yes, do it.”
“Deactivating all sub-functional primary lighting, activating emergency lights to compensate,” everything happened just as she had said. The lighting was finally a constant. “Anything else?”
“Perform a diagnostic and get your operating system back to as fully functional as possible. We'll need you if we get into another fight.”
“Yes, ma'am. Logging out.”
“Ensign Edison,” Halsey called. She was not sure where the operations officer might be.
“What's the status on the Wilhelm?”
“Still in pursuit, commander. They haven't gained or lost any ground.”
“So, if we lose translight, then we'll be forced to engage.”
Chang cut in, “Commander, with the starboard mag gun offline and the amount of damage we've sustained, we're definitely no match.”
“Not like we were any match before,” Lieutenant Hammond scoffed.
“Hey! There's no need for that,” Halsey said. “We're gonna make it out of this, lieutenant. How much longer until we reach the rendezvous?”
“Dropping from translight,” Lieutenant Hammond reported. There was a brief, gentle lurch as the ship shifted from going faster than light to a bare-minimum velocity. The crew shared a queezy feeling as the possibility of being detected shot way upwards.
On the main viewer was a smaller space station surrounded by several freighters. To everyone's relief, there were no military vessels in sight. Nevertheless, Harden gave the order, “Do a detailed scan. Make sure there's no military presence.”
Chang told him, “The freighters are scrambling, sir.”
“I'm not detecting any military vessels, captain,” Edison reported as she very carefully worked her controls. “Looks like we're good.”
“Any one of those freighters could send out distress signal,” Hammond's voice shook.
“Then we work quickly,” Halsey said firmly. “We can slip in and out before they can scramble a response.”
“Send out a wide transmission to everyone here: the freighters and the station,” Harden ordered. “Let's get this little heist underway.”
“Aye, captain,” Chang pressed in the appropriate commands. “You're on.”
“This Captain Maxus Harden of the U.S.S. Enduring Justice to Koblentz Platz and all ships in the vicinity. We are here to do nothing more than retrieve a package from the station. Anyone who interferes will be fired upon. Anyone who wishes to leave the area is permitted to do so. We have no intention of harming anyone, so let's keep things friendly. Harden out.”
“Koblentz just sent out a distress signal, sir,” Edison said as she wiped sweat from her brow.
“Then we're on the clock,” Halsey said. “Signal Koblentz and request a dock and a berth.”
“They're not responding.”
“Still no response.”
Harden sat back down and clenched his fists, “If they want to do this the hard way, we do it the hard. Lieutenant Chang, target a non-habited portion of that station and blow it away with the starboard mag cannon.”
“Yes, sir,” Chang said with a very much unhidden degree of pleasure. “Target locked and firing.” They all heard the hushed boom of the magnetically-accelerated ferrous slug firing from the starboard tube. The mag guns were the most powerful weapon on any starship. All of the interstellar navies used them. They worked by launching large rounds at around three percent of light speed, resulting in unparalleled brute firepower. “Direct hit, captain!”
“Station is signaling,” Edison happily reported. “They've assigned us a dock.”
“Take us in,” Harden ordered. “Have the SCAR team stand by.”
“Yes, sir,” Halsey took one of the auxiliary stations and got to work making sure the rest of the ship was ready for docking procedures.
“Commander, you have combat training, don't you?”
“Aye, sir,” she answered, hoping he was not about say what she thought he was going to say.
“Good. I'd like you to go in with the SCAR teams.”
He said what she thought he was going to say. “But sir, I-”
“Just do it, commander. SCAR teams aren't exactly known for their friendliness and I'd like someone a bit... nicer to greet our operative. You'll do fine.”
“Yes, sir,” Halsey knew it was best never to argue with one's superior. Besides, Halsey respected Captain Harden. He had proven himself to be a good captain and seemed to do so without any real stick up his ass. Halsey had served under many captains during her career and Harden was easily among the better ones. It was still too soon to tell if he was the best. Halsey liked his chances though.
As Captain Harden came to, the first thing he realized was that his head absolutely throbbed. The pain was bad enough that it almost had him forgetting just how much the rest of his body ached. He fought for every breath. His lungs felt like they were on fire. Harden did his best to push the pain aside. He focused. The pain was a great beast. It would not die. There was nothing he could do.
Harden looked around and realized he was in the ship's medical bay. He tried to sit up but a firm hand stopped him. It was Lieutenant Commander Martin Fitzpatrick, the ship's Irish doctor. “Easy captain, I can't have you moving around. You're not in great shape.”
“What's the damage?”
“Your calf bone is broken, your wrist is fractured, you've got three broken ribs, and you've got shrapnel lodged in your abdomen and left lung. We need to operate immediately.”
“Doctor, you need to get to the rest of the-”
“Captain,” Fitzpatrick interrupted. “We need to get that shrapnel out now. You're the captain and, like it or not, you get priority.”
“How is he, doctor?” Commander Halsey asked she approached Harden's hospital bed.
“Not good,” Fitzpatrick replied. “We have to operate im-”
“What are you doing here?” Harden asked. “You should be on the bridge.”
“We're ninety minutes from rendezvous, captain,” Halsey told him. “I'm making rounds through the ship.”
Harden nodded in approval, “It's what I would do. How are things?”
“Wilhelm is still right on our tail, Esteban is doing what he can to keep the engines going but things don't look good. There are casualties all over the ship... about a dozen dead.”
“My God,” Harden winced. “What about you, commander? How are you holding up?”
“Could be better, captain,” Halsey did not want to lie, but also wanted to put it diplomatically. “I haven't commanded a starship since-”
“I know,” Harden knew she referred to the Iroquois incident. “You're doing fine, commander.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Alright,” Fitzpatrick cut in. “I need to put him under. We need to operate now.”
“It's alright, commander,” Harden told his first officer. “You'll do fine.”
SCAR stood for Strategic Covert Assault and Reconnaissance. A detachment was assigned to the Enduring Justice specifically for this mission. They were attached to the Marine Corps, but technically answered to the CIA. They specialized in missions of high secrecy and sensitivity. Recovering a spy certainly qualified.
It was entirely coincidence that the leader of the SCAR team aboard Enduring Justice was a man named Sergeant Major Mackenzie Halsey, Commander Halsey's older brother. The two had not seen one another in years. The worst part was that Dana could not identify her brother by name, nor give any indication of their relation. SCAR team members operated in complete anonymity. Mack, as he was called, wore nothing that gave away his name; only black fatigues with a rank indicator just the same as all of the other members.
Commander Halsey walked into their locker room to find all five members of the team wearing civilian clothing. They all instantly snapped to attention and saluted. “As you were,” the commander ordered. “The captain's ordered me to go in with you.”
Mack looked her over and then said, “We'll need to change your clothes. It'd be open season for ya if you're in uniform.”
“We don't have much time,” Halsey told him. “We're docking in five minutes.”
Mack took a good look around in the clothing inventory and found a smaller sized brown leather jacket, “Hey, take off your uniform jacket and put this on.”
“Alright,” Dana unzipped her navy blue commander's uniform and set it aside. She took the brown jacket from Mack and slid it on. “It's a bit big.”
“It'll have to do,” Mack said. “Take it off real quick.”
Halsey did as she was told.
“Alright, now put this on,” he handed her a light ballistic tactical vest. “The jacket should conceal it. You know how to use a firearm, right?”
“Yeah, you're right,” Mack stopped her. She almost gave away their relationship. “Everyone in the military has firearms training. Tanner, get her a sidearm.”
“Hey, this will do, won't it?” Halsey reached down to her belt and drew her nickel-plated Smith & Wesson 8908 .386 Magnum electronic magnetic-acceleration pistol. It was a truly magnificent handgun, one Halsey had carried for many years. The grips were tailored exactly to Halsey's hands.
Mack took the pistol and look it over, “Damn straight that'll do.” He handed it back as Halsey put her uniform belt back on. “When'd you get that?”
“I've had that since I was an ensign.”
As soon as he knew the commander was ready, Mack decided to kill the elephant in the room, “Let's get this straight now... who's in charge?”
“I am,” Dana told him. “I outrank you. But I'll let you call the shots on the ground. It should be like I'm not even there. Unless you do something stupid.”
“Fair enough,” Mack nodded. “Alright people, to the docking port! Move, move, move!”