Tenth Chapter WIP for 'Invisible Enemy'

Continuation from Chapter 9.

Everything written is subject to change, even the names. Also may be some continuity or plot changes from the previous chapter. Feel free to comment here or on Facebook.

Chapter 10

HFSS Sword of Damocles

    Reed strapped into his crash couch and pulled up the command display. He went through the motions to shift command controls to his system, but a handful required the CO’s authorization, which was confusing. As Executive Officer, he had full privileges in the event of the CO’s incapacitation. Kenga had passed out in the central passage and was being tended by the Damocles’ corpsman in her stateroom. She remained unconscious, comatose, so Reed assumed command.

    He considered the segregated systems. The captain’s personal message log, the forward escape hatch, forward torpedo tubes, and the forward torpedo room storage compartment. He had Hegemony override as the highest ranking aristocrat on the ship. He also considered the possibilities that those locked systems meant. After a moment, he used his Hegemony credentials to override the torpedo room. He'd need that in the immediate term.

    The crewmen of the bridge eyed him as if he had something to do with Kenga’s illness. Master Chief Wagoner, the ship’s Chief of the Boat (or Cob) and copilot during battle stations, watched. His deep-set eyes judged and dismissed Reed all at once. He didn't need the Cob’s approval - he was the damn second in command. He was in command now, with Kenga out of the picture. The pilot, a young but experienced Ensign, only awaited orders. That's what he intended to do all along.

    He switched on the ship’s PA and paused for a moment: who should be his second? Engineer Ito would be next in line, but neither he nor Tan were aligned with him. Should he buck the chain of command? Best to not bother in the interim. “This is the Executive Officer. Captain Kenga has taken ill and is unable to command. I am taking command of the Damocles and completing our mission. That is all.” He turned back to Wagoner, but the man had returned to his console, unperturbed. He punched up sensors and got a spectrum feed of the corvette. She was just out of torpedo distance. He could use lasers, but the weapons ring was out of operation. They'd need to close the distance.

    “Maneuvering, conn, status of gravitic?”

    “Conn, maneuvering, resetting system. ETA twenty minutes for control, thirty minutes for thrust.”

    Reed snapped off the comm panel. He'd spoken to Tan, and they’d need a hull walk to clear the debris from the outer hull. Reed recommended bots, but Tan reminded him the bots were not stealth nor shielded from the energy shed from the hull post-shift. He looked at the shed counter. They maybe had an hour, so it had to be close range and orient the ship to get the weapons ring to bear.

    As if reading his mind, floated down into the bridge, his mag boot clicking as he hit the deck. “Request to clear debris from weapon ring, hull. It will take forty minutes work for two men. Ten to get outboard, twenty to clear debris and ten to return. After debris is clear, the weapon ring will be ready and we’ll get back inside.”

    Reed mulled this over. He didn't like Tan. He was too tight with the captain. “If one of the crew is you, make it quick.”

    Lieutenant Tan gave a wry grin. “I wouldn't ask someone to do something I wouldn't do myself. Sir.” He gave a long pause after the last word as if he expected Reed to volunteer to do it himself. After he departed, Reed was left wondering what was wrong with the Damocles crew. Didn't they know the Hegemony had a grand scheme and depended on every cog to function? He couldn't wait to get thrust back to the ship and into the fight.

 

    Tan attached the line to the ship’s inner lock seal. Chief Dale did likewise. Tan wanted to take a hull tech with him to assess damage, But Dale would have none of it. He was a competent subspacer with decades of experience; Tan couldn't say no. The air evacuated, and they pulled themselves out into space, leaving the lock open and a hole in the ship. For Tan the whirling stars gave him vertigo as the ship spun like a dead asteroid. It didn't seem to be other Dale, but Tan couldn't tell through his dark helmet. Damocles’ hull was smooth and free of most of the protrusions you'd see aboard a real space warship. It wasn't just for a low spectrum profile; it also served as the most expedient design to shed the amount of dark matter that accumulated on the hull. Tan didn't understand the physics of it himself, but knew the smoother the surface, the better. They floated over the hull, adhering to it with gripping large feelers and oversized boots. Damocles’ hull was scarred and pitted from countless micro-abrasions and glancing blasts that scorched, but didn't damage the material. Tan liked it that way. It gave Damocles character and history. She was the second in her line of Hellbringers. He hoped for a chance to command one like her. The gradual seeding of the Fleet with people like Reed made that seem somewhat less likely. Tan was all for unity, but not for submission to a class of people with less knowledge and experience. Only he didn't like Confederation more—entire systems of people with no focus, no central authority other than their fleet and shipping authorities. That, to Tan, seemed rife with the possibility of abuse. At least the Hegemony Fleet was accountable to its home worlds. The Confederation Fleet was not.

    He saw the damage to the hull. Where the micro-abrasions gave the hull a time worn look, the damage from the torpedo was like a burned scar along the hull’s length, trailing away at an angle. It was aft of the bridge, which was confusing why the ring was damaged. Torpedoes should punch through ablative hulls and rip apart the insides, crippling a vessel. When close in weapon systems were involved, they caused the torpedo to explode, throwing a punch of hot metal and a burst of rending debris, most of which would be absorbed the hull. Nothing could be done about it now. The gravitic could be restored after the engine went through the routine reset and restart sequence. 

    He listened to the sound of his own steady breath, trained to slow to a slow steady pace, prolonging his air supply. It was the first thing they were trained at the Academy, having given injections that increased their lungs ability to absorb and process oxygen. By the time he was an Ensign, it was habitual. Dale was chatting on the suit to suit, but Tan, less experienced, was focused on using the grippers to stay attached to the hull and not drift into space. The two men were cabled together, much like mountain climbers of old. It made Tan think about the mountains of his home. It made the job easier. He looked up, his heads up display showing corvette's position as a blinking reticle. He hoped they stay out of range, but time seemed to fly by. They made it to the ring, a belt that ran around the hull of the ship, packed with recessed holes where lasers, plasma, and hard ammunition turrets lived. Once they'd gotten to the ring, they saw the damage: shrapnel from the torpedo was wedged into the groove of the weapon ring.

    “Looks wedged in tighter than a—”

    “Do we have to cut it out?”

    Dale pulled a tool from his suit and grabbed onto a flung piece. He braced his feet on the hull and hauled. Tan could hear him grunt in exertion. “Christ almighty!” He said after a few moments. 

    “Want me to try, old man?” Tan said with a grin.

    “Fine. Imagine it's an asshole. Might help you, sir,” Dale said with a chuckle.

    “Did it have any give?” Tan asked, floating over to grip the tool.

    “It's wedged good.”

    “Maybe we can work it out.”

    “Do we have that kind of time?”

    “Get the cutter ready while I give it a go.”

    “Fine. Big Mountain Gorilla like you should be able to do something. Just don't fuck up the ring.”

    “I know, Chief, I know,” Tan said as he braced himself against the hull. He gave the shrapnel a tentative tug, unsure of how it was wedged and how the tool held on. Then he gave a mighty heave. He could feel his bones crack as his muscles knotted. Scraping sounds made it through his suit. He tried to give it some motion, but it was awkward to do in zero gravity. Something gave, and he lost his balance. He looked down and was still holding onto the tool and shrapnel. “It moved.”

    “No, dummy, sir. The ship did,” Dale motioned to the stars. They slowed. The corvette's dot was steady in view now. “Is it getting closer?”

    Tan gave a negative hand signal. “I'm not getting tactical updates outside the hull and it's too far to tell. We could get closer, but I only have historical data.” He worked on the shrapnel. His grippers and gloves were tough and the jagged metal was easy to work without damaging his suit. Physics was a fickle, if predictable bitch, he thought. He wrenched it and felt it give. He felt a vibration through the hull and glints sparkled in his vision.

    “Sir—” Dale began. Light sparkled around Tan and something struck his helmet. He lost balance again, losing his footing on the hull. Targeting lasers were leaving around. “Shit!” He moved away from the weapon blisters that fired around him. Something was pulling behind him. He looked for Dale, who was behind him. “Chief?” He kept his head and moved down to grip the hull. He had the shrapnel in his hand! “I got it!” He said as the weapon ring moved. He dodged and turned, releasing the shrapnel on the tool and stowing it. He ran into Dale.

    “Dale?” Tan asked, putting a hand on the man’s arm to pull him down. He'd been floating free of the hull that was what was dragging at him. Debris glittered around the man and Tan knew he'd been hit. He touched his comm pad to the man’s chest plate. He saw the man’s helmet had been holed as the vitals came back red. Tan let go of Dale and wrapped his arm around the cable so his hands were free. He crouched low, his mind a cloud of anger and fear. He knew where the weapons blisters were and he moved to avoid them, their targeting lasers giving only a fraction of time before emitting a deadly, often invisible blast. The ship moved, but she was not under thrust. If Tan could stay adhered to the hull, not get holed and make it to the lock, he'd make it. His suit buzzed in his ear and he pulled himself close to the hull as the ship shook under him from a glancing blow. He didn't see the object but knew it had to be a rail gun bullet. He focused on the lock, taking strides toward it while the ship under him fought for its life. Parts of him felt detached. One part of him observed things from a tiny point. He heard only his breathing, muted sounds through vibrations in the hull, and suit alarms. Another part of him was angry at Reed for giving them no heads up. He couldn't let himself think about that now. He had to get to the lock. His head was down and he focused on not having over one gripper off Damocles hull. Another part of him wanted to fist pump and cheer his weapons team on, but that part was even smaller. And smaller, more remote, was the sense that Damocles would leave him, like a mother shunning her unwanted child. It was irrational, but Tan moved on instinct, gripping, sometimes hanging, sometimes climbing toward the airlock. How long had it been? He should still have time before the gravitic came online, right?

    The ship swung, and he lost his grip. He grabbed for his cable and held on. The open lock was just a few feet away. Lights inside pulsed red and violet. Violet? N-Space. The ship would shift. He pulled hard, fighting the swing and slammed into the ship, knocking the wind out of time and losing his grip. His foot caught hold, and he pulled himself to the edge of the lock. He was there! The ship changed trajectory again and threw him into the lock, then dragged him back to the lip as he saw Dale’s body hanging in space, arms akimbo and pleading. Tan grunted against the force, but he could let go to grab his suit tool and cut himself free. He had to chance the lock. Letting go with one hand, he grabbed the closing mechanism, and it shut, thin mating blades severing the cord and he slammed against the door, breathing hard. He was back in Damocles. The G forces shifted, and his suit responded, squeezing and keeping him awake. He couldn't move his body, but only watch the display on his helmet as it was pressed against the door.

    “I'm sorry, Chief,” he said between hard pulls and the ship flung itself back into N-Space and into the depth of the unknown.

Kenneth BritzComment