“Captain, we are T-minus 90 seconds to superluminal deceleration.”
Captain Craig Gyle nodded an acknowledgement to Ensign Cates at Communications then pressed one finger down against his armrest, the motion more than pressure informing his AI to patch his voice through to the rest of the ship. “Attention all hands, set condition two, secure all stations and remain at readiness. We are about to enter Earth orbit.”
A cheer erupted across the bridge of the RSN Stewart as a dozen officers and enlisted spacers, plus one embedded reporter, all reveled together in the knowledge that they were some of the first spaceborn humans to return to the Homeworld in two centuries. There were three bottles of alcohol hidden in watch stations on the bridge alone, Craig suspected the contents would be gone before the day was over and somehow that fact would get omitted from the duty logs. Not that he could blame them. No living colonist in the Triad Worlds or Rodenberry had ever seen Earth.
In a very real sense, they’d arrived at a place of legends.
“T-minus 60 seconds to superluminal deceleration.”
Craig levered himself up, out of his chair. Shipboard gravity had been adjusted up from Rodenberry’s 0.93 G to the full Terran Standard a month ago but he still found it a bit difficult to work against at times. Hopefully if he was asked planetside by Admiral Carrington he’d be able to maneuver there without embarrassing himself. “Communications?”
Down at the forward most console, Lieutenant Hoyle answered without missing a beat. “We are prepped to receive on all standard Earth frequencies of the Departure era and our transponders are now broadcasting the standard Colonial callsign, Captain. We’re also prepped to dial in on the Roberts and the Spiner as soon as we hit real space.”
“Stand by to route communication from Earth through to the rest of the ship.” Craig smiled slightly. “We’ve come all this way, might as well let everyone hear what they have to say to the prodigals.”
“T-minus 30 seconds to superluminal deceleration.”
Craig wrapped his hand around the brace bar on the side of the holotank that dominated the center of the bridge. He wasn’t interested in the overwhelming mass of data there, he just wanted a better view out the forward port, a sweeping expanse of transparent plastic that gave a breathtaking view of the upper decks. Like bridges of old, the Stewart‘s bridge was on the structural “top” of the ship and afforded a look down the vessel’s centerline towards whatever was out there. At the moment, it was the pinprick of relativistic light dead ahead that was the only thing visible at superluminal speeds. In less than thirty seconds, it would be a window to the cradle of humanity.
“Superluminal deceleration in 5… 4… 3…”
Another finger twitch piped his voice back through ship wide.
“2… 1… Decelerating.”
The universe exploded out of the pinprick and swept across the viewport, welcoming the Stewart back from the world beyond light. Down in the lower left hand corner of the port was a brilliant blue ball. A mixture of emotions he couldn’t quantify surged through Craig’s chest and expressed themselves in words. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome home.”
This time there was no cheer on the bridge. For one magical moment they watched the planet below in silent awe.
In the silence they all heard the loud ping from the watch station closest to the rear of the bridge. A sliver of dissonance shot through Craig, for a split second he wasn’t at the peak of his career but rather in high Newtonian orbit three years prior – but he quashed that feeling immediately. “Tactical?”
“Radiation spike, Captain.” Lieutenant Commander Barton Rand was frantically working his board. “Explosion of some kind, but too big to be a weapons discharge.”
That was worse than he’d hoped. He’d been expecting just an active scan or weapon signature. Admiral Carrington had repeatedly emphasized it was possible they’d be viewed as a threat when they entered orbit, and that no ship should respond to sensor pings or weapons powering in defensive emplacements. What they should do if fired on was less clear – Carrington insisted he would make the decision personally, in the way most likely to deescalate the situation. Everyone had assumed there would be a few moment’s grace once they decelerated to at least establish communications among the fleet.
“Source of the explosion?”
“Approximately 8,000 km distant, at an orbital separation of -”
“Captain, general distress call received from CSV Johnston!”
Craig pushed away from the holotank and bolted back to his chair. “Tactical, is the position of that explosion consistent with the Johnston’s position in the fleet formation?”
“It’s within 200 km of their project arrival point.”
Well within the margin of error for superluminal travel. “Communications, scrap all outgoing transmissions, get me the Spiner and the Sea of Tranquility immediately.”
“Captain, EMG readings show no, repeat no active powerplant in the vicinity of the Johnston’s position. If the ship’s actually there she’s dead in space.”
Craig stared at the holotank, his AI sorting through the information and enlarging the electromagnetic/gravitic scanning reports before the EMG officer’s report was even finished. While the Stewart and its sister ship, the Spiner, and the Copernican frigate Roberts were clearly marked by the distortions of shipboard gravity there was no similar distortion from the next ship towards the formation’s center. Beyond where the Johnston should be was another distortion marking the MSS Remus. In fact, based on the EMG readout the whole fleet was more or less in position, except for the Johnston.
“The Spiner is responding, Captain,” Hoyle called, her voice pitched higher than normal to cut through the sudden noise on the bridge. “Establishing tight beam communications.”
“Tactical, set condition one.” Craig tasked his AI with marking the relevant reports in one corner of the holotank and dismissed the EMG display, pulling up a wider map of Earth space. “Navigation, bring us downwell of the Johnston, half degree offset, for standard rescue operations. Communications, ask the Spiner to counter us upwell.”
The low, rumbling pulse of the condition one alarm was added to the background noise. “Captain,” Hoyle said, “we have communication with the Remus. They report that the Johnston is fragmentary and ballistic.”
In other words, the Johnston was in multiple pieces falling towards Earth rather than proceeding under their own power. They’d decelerated below lightspeed less than sixty seconds ago and already a ship in the fleet was lost. They’d been broadcasting as friendlies, damn it.
What was happening out there?
Alyssa Pracht was in the middle of a drink break when the alarm on the Sun Bottle went off. She was too old and seasoned to drop her glass and scramble when the harsh, ringing tone started but the other bottlekeeper on break with her was less disciplined, fumbling his drink and creating a sticky, purple mess all over the break room table. Alyssa squashed the urge to give Doug an annoyed look or long scolding. The Bottle was more important. So she just set her own glass down primly and bolted out the door, Doug only half a step behind her, his right shoe squeaking wetly as they scrambled through the door into board room.
“What’s red, Eldest?” She asked, skidding to a stop next to Naomi, the older woman who had main watch that day.
“Injector five, again,” Naomi answered, her words clipped and curt, even for a famously terse woman. “Not red yet, but climbing yellow hard. I’d take an early Closing if it’s not those conduits again.”
“Oyarsa,” Alyssa muttered. “What are those fishers sending us?”
“Not our problem,” Naomi replied. “Focus on finding and clipping those conduits.”
“Right, right.” Alyssa was already trying to run down the errors but it was harder to pin down which conduits might need work when the injector was only trending yellow. The temperature variances were much narrower. “Doug, feather wing seven please?”
Doug turned to reach the right board, pivoting on his squeaky boot with a creaking, clicking noise she felt in her teeth. Alyssa slammed her hand down next to her board. “Doug!”
With a snap of her fingers, Naomi instantly refocused Alyssa’s attention, the older woman giving her younger peer a concerned look. “Alyssa. Focus.”
Warmth crept up into her cheeks and Alyssa nodded. “Sorry, Eldest.”
“Wing seven feathered, Alyssa.” Doug kept his eyes on his hands, avoiding eye contact with her as he reported and carefully picking up his wet foot as he pivoted back to his main board.
With the changes in the wing fields inside the Sun Bottle she could back off the overheating injector and take a little more time to pin down the problem. “Conduits 5, 7 and 12 are the problem children. I’ll grab a crawler crew and we’ll take care of it.”
Naomi leaned over the railing of the board room, down into the depths of the supply room. “Ramone! On watch please!” Then she straightened and waved her hand for Alyssa to come stand next to her. “I’ll go with you.”
But Alyssa’s protest died unspoken when Naomi raised a single eyebrow in rebuke.
Once Ramone got up the stairs to the board room the two women took off at a fast clip. It was only two doors down to the crawler’s waiting room where a single clap of Naomi’s hands set a crawl team scrambling to their feet. “Three conduits, prep for immediate replacement. Let’s go!”
The eight man team scattered in all directions, assembling equipment in the seemingly random yet shockingly efficient manner only the most coordinated and experienced of crews could accomplish. Although even at peak performance it would still take them about five minutes to pull everything together for a three conduit job. She leaned over until one cheek almost brushed against Naomi’s shoulder and murmured, “I can supervise this kind of replacement, you know.”
“It’s not the replacement that worries me.” Naomi leaned in towards Alyssa and the two woman adjusted until their huddle was symmetrical, rather than lopsided. “I know Closing is hard and the changes make us irritable, but if you keep taking it out on the younger we’re going to have problems on our hands. You’ve only been one of the Elder for three weeks but that doesn’t mean they don’t look up to you. The words of an Elder mean more than those of the Youth.”
Alyssa hunched her shoulders and looked down and away. “I know. I remember when… you know.”
“I know. I was harder on you than I should have been at first and I was hoping you’d remember that; but I guess it’s harder to judge your own attitude than those of others.” Naomi gave her a comforting smile and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, rubbing her arm. “Something for you to remember in a couple of cents.”
“Yeah.” The word was barely a whisper. Alyssa straightened back up and did her best to smile. “I hear you, Eldest,” she added, her voice coming back. “And I can handle this, if you want to go back.”
“No.” Naomi’s smile turned sad. “I want to tag along on this one. Since it’s probably the last time.”
The statement hung between the two of them for a moment then Alyssa nodded and the women broke apart. A minute later the crawl team joined them and they were on their way to the conduits.
“Admiral Carrington is ordering the Spiner forward to fill the Johnston’s place in the fleet’s scanning formation,” Hoyle reported. “The Remus is moving to backstop us and take the Spiner’s place in the rear formation. We’re to continue rescue operations.”
“Request the Spiner be allowed to deploy its survey and launch craft to assist ours,” Craig said, keeping his eyes on the holotank as new data continued to pour in, his AI shifting the priority order of various datafeeds on a second by second basis. “Commander Rand, do we know what the Spiner is helping them scan for?”
“Breaking down the latest update from the Tranquility’s BASIC now,” Rand replied. “No specifics on why the Admiral ordered the change in formation but I’d guess its related to the satellites.”
The holotank shifted again, the new display a hazy and indistinct image of something that looked like a simple automated defense satellite, little more than a missile tube and ammo supply on thrusters. Shockingly unsophisticated, clearly very effective. “The Roberts reports it shot one down about forty kilometers from the Johnston’s arrival point,” Rand continued. “It was already firing on them as well but their point defense systems were able to intercept the missiles and they suffered no damage. The NSC Principia is also under fire from at least two of these things and the Admiral has ordered the fleet to clear a 60 degree orbital arc of the things and see if that buys us breathing room.”
And, based on the estimations from the Sea of Tranquility‘s Battle Space Information Center, these satellites were small and had some kind of stealth tech built into their hulls to make them harder to pin down. Rodenberry scanners were more sensitive than anything on a Triad Worlds ship, outside of perhaps the Principia, the heavy cruiser fresh off the Newtonian shipyards. At the same time, with their unusually large onboard compliment of launches and survey craft Stewart-class deep space exploration ships were also ideally suited to rescue operations. There was a logic to how Carrington had arranged his ships but Craig didn’t like having the Stewart’s safety in the hands of the crew from the trigger happy Minervan Spacer Corps. He didn’t know the Remus’ captain very well but that was really the problem, wasn’t it? The Unified Colonial Fleet was unified in name only, most of the captains and crews had never worked together before. Some of them had been actively at war with each other less than five years ago. Six months spent mostly in the isolation of superluminal travel had done little to foster a sense of solidarity among them.
“The Spiner is deploying survey and launch craft,” Hoyle reported.
One good decision for the win column. Craig looked through the holotank towards Navigation. “Adjust our position to give them optimum access to the rescue zone, Ensign Cates.”
“Adjusting position spinward, sir.”
Craig was already back to musing through his datafeeds. After the harrowing first minute post deceleration things had slowed to a pace more in line with typical fleet actions. The Stewart had reached condition one 97 seconds after the order had been given, a record for the ship on this cruise, and Commander Hiroyuki Oda, Craig’s first officer, had moved from his alert station in Engineering to Spacelock Four to supervise the rescue operations. After that they’d continued by rote procedure for a full six minutes, establishing lines of communication, beginning rescue operations and watching for danger, before Carrington started giving orders to the fleet. And for a twelve – well, eleven ship fleet scattered over an area of space more than 100,000 km in diameter even that was working pretty damn fast.
Less than ten minutes since deceleration. Enough time to lose a ship, find himself depending on unreliable allies and responsible for the lives of men and women in dire straits. More than enough time, one would think, for an entire planet full of people to look up and wonder who had come to visit them. “Lieutenant Hoyle, any -” Craig caught himself and adjusted his voice down to normal levels. The alarms and emergency chatter had died away, he didn’t need to shout make himself heard anymore. “Have you picked up any transmissions from Earth?”
The silence stretched just long enough for Gyle to go back through the records of the last few minutes and check for himself. So when he was prepared when the answer came. “No, sir. Not to us, not to any other ships in the fleet. We’re not getting any transmissions from Earth at all.”