High in the stratosphere, the Raven drop ship's cockpit was a sounding box of dull vibrations. The hull sung as the transport's engines accelerated the passengers through the atmospheric exit vector.
Lieutenant Hastings and Ein Roskva manned the navigation and weapons controls on either side of Captain Wilkes. In their lines of duty, they usually operated a starship, and therefore were still reacquainting themselves with the Raven's slightly different controls.
Captain Wilkes was on the central seat. She was the closest to a drop ship pilot; she flew a Raven when she abandoned the Solstice. The craft yawed and pitched, but she managed to keep it on course.
The harness bit into her grey and black flight suit. Interweaved with bulletproof fabric and vital statistics monitors, it provided ample protection against small arms fire.
The flight suit also made diagnosing patients on the scene a lot easier, as any worthwhile field medic would attest, but if things went to hell, Captain Wilkes knew she wasn't going in hard vacuum with that uniform, and neither were the medics in the troop bay.
Unit 03 sat propped up against the hull in the troop bay, unconscious, still in lockdown. The medics peeled the molten slag that was once her armor; they cut the smoking bulletproof under suit beneath with surgical saws and dressed extensive burns with skin-regenerative ointments.
Unit 03 regained consciousness along the way. Though she was still in shock that would've instantly killed any normal human, Captain Wilkes still kept her in lockdown.
The armor was gone, and there was no margin of error left. Wilkes had to disable all of Unit 03's muscles save the vital autonomics to the heart and lungs, at least until there were adequate restraints available.
Naval Code 5-8-92 was enacted twenty years ago, when the incomplete Unit 02 Sword of Mercy awoke in its embryonic stage. The destruction of the Sirius colony made it clear: loss of control on Class 12 weapons, intentional or otherwise, was considered a crime against humanity.
Captain Wilkes knew she couldn't protect Unit 03 from her fate. Unit 03 was an instrument of war and inevitably suffered, but she still did everything in her power to make the young woman comfortable.
A proximity alarm bleeped on the Raven's navigation panel. She angled a glance at the nav officer's screen and saw the rest of the Ravens had arrived at the Vidar.
She'd burned a lot of fuel breaking orbit, so she let the Raven coast on forward momentum and made minor course corrections. At that speed, they would reach the Vidar in one hour.
Lieutenant Hastings silenced the proximity alarm, but it immediately sounded again. Captain Wilkes looked at his screen and saw they were now only eight seconds away. Odd.
"What's going on?"
There was no time to hear his response; black space before the Raven rippled like the surface of a pond, and white pinholes of light appeared across the distorted field. The fabric of space itself appeared to be tearing apart, like a thin veil giving away to something great beneath it.
"Brace for maneuvering!"
The subspace rupture tore open a hundred kilometers before the Raven, and Captain Wilkes angled the transport upwards relative to the plane of the system.
A massive starship flew from the subspace rupture below: forged in steel-grey Therrite battle plating, propulsors baffled and streamlined against its long hull. The vessel bled white-hot reactor coolant along its aft decks while acid near the rear propulsors spewed chemical smoke into the void, dissolving through the hull like hot water through salt.
Captain Wilkes heard a grave male voice from the starship's communication channel, calm despite his vessel's dire state: "Alpha-five-two, Alpha-five-two, reactor redlined. Safeties removed. I'll circle back—"
A burst of static cut off the transmission. Ablaze in a plasma inferno, the Coalition vessel blurred toward Earth and banked to a wide turn. Thirty-five more subspace ruptures appeared in its fiery trail, and the rest of the home fleet brazenly rocketed beneath the drop ship.
Another transmission from the burning vessel: "Raven drop ship call sign Valkyrie, this is Rear Admiral Yohannes aboard the flagship UESC Taharqa. Alpha-five-two maneuver imminent. Vacate the immediate area."
"Acknowledged," Captain Wilkes said. She gunned the transport to its maximum speed toward the Vidar. She dedicated half of the cockpit's heads-up display to the aft camera.
The thirty-five cruisers followed the blazing flagship into its turn, and behind them, two dozen Locrix bioships materialized, so much larger and faster than any starship.
The Locrix resembled a swarm of titan jelly fish, iron cast in vacuum-hardened exoskeletons. They accelerated toward the home fleet by blasting pressurized gas through orifices that pockmarked their chitinous hulls.
The home fleet followed the flagship, came about and faced the Locrix swarm. Their plasma turrets projected a roiling cloud of liquid sun at the bioships, as bright as a solar flare.
The Locri answered by spitting acid streams at the Coalition vessels. At first the streams bubbled in zero gravity, but focused to needle-thin pinpoints that propelled through space like lasers.
The starships' plasma cloud splashed across the Locrix swarm. Their exoskeletons warped in the heat. Cracks erupted through their hulls, expelling jets of boiling blood—but the chitinous hulls regenerated.
The starships, however, were another story.
The acid caught the wounded Taharqa. Without force shields, the laser thin streams shot through the flagship like red-hot needles through a candle stem. The vessel's decks exploded, venting atmosphere and spewing dissolved metal.
All of the starships continued on a collision course, however. Weighing millions of tons each, their forward momentum was so immense that a sudden change in course would break their hulls in half.
Most of the Locri, however, explosively vented gas through their ventral orifices. They dove upwards from the collision course, then turned and angled after the starships. They literally swam through space.
One Locrix, severely burned by the initial plasma, was too slow to dodge while it regenerated its hull. TheTaharqa collided with the bioship like an arrow, crashing through the exoskeleton and bedding deep inside the living organism.
The rest of the starships flashed past the stricken Locrix, thirty-thousand kilometers per second. The Taharqadetonated two seconds later, and blinding white heat rushed through space in a wavering torus.
The nuclear blast scalded a nearby Locrix, but the rest had already swam clear of their doomed pack mate. They reeled in space with scorched hulls, disoriented, their senses disrupted by the electromagnetic pulse.
A twenty thousand kilometers distant, the Raven's engines screamed in full overload. The Vidar was within range for a marker to appear on the instrument panel. Farther beyond it, Mars could be seen as a red dot.
"Ma'am, " the nav officer said. "We might crash—"
"I'm well aware of that," Captain Wilkes cut him off. Rear Admiral Yohannes' suicidal maneuver had brought the home fleet some valuable time, but the battle might be over in as little as twenty minutes. She had to make herself useful—get to the starship and join the fight.
"We're getting to the Vidar fast, or we're not getting there at all. Establish a com link to the ship. Tell Lieutenant Commander Harding I want every hand at battle stations and non-essential personnel stowed away."
Captain Wilkes had another good reason to hurry. A single Raven could barely put up a fight against a Lotas. If one Locrix gave chase, it would destroy them and the Vidar before they reached it.
She wished Lieutenant Commander Harding would take the helm in her place, but the Vidar wouldn't accept him. Starships were Class 11 weapons, and to circumvent mutiny, only persons in the fleet wide database ranked Captain or higher could commandeer them.
The marker rapidly counted down the distance to a single open launch bay. She cut off the main engines at five thousand kilometers and pulsed the maneuvering thrusters to guide the craft.
Captain Wilkes began to black out from the acceleration. At the drop ship's speed, it was like trying to steer an arrow in flight to hit a bull's-eye. She punched the retrorockets at a thousand kilometers.
The crew lurched forward from the bone-crunching deceleration, and her vision swam. On screen she saw the launch bay's small opening grow alarmingly fast. The retro rockets weren't going to be enough.
The Raven shot into the Vidar's launch bay at over two hundred kilometers an hour. Polymer arresting cables, specifically designed for these situations, caught the transport before it disintegrated against the bulkhead.
Captain Wilkes tasted blood in her mouth. Pain gripped her spine as she rose. In the troop bay, a detail of emergency personnel and doctors were already transporting Unit 03 to a gurney. A medic approached her, eyes frantic, but she pushed him away.
"Ma'am, you're hurt—"
"Take me to the bridge."
The medic's assessment of her injuries was superficial; with a sprained leg, the limp to the elevator felt like it took an eternity. The blood in her mouth mingled with saliva. Something deep was hurt and bleeding.
Injured as she was, she marched onwards and boarded the elevator. Restoring Earth as a major military stronghold was the only chance they had at slowing down the plague, but that wasn't her only reason.
For seven long years she sent Unit 03 through living hell, forced the young woman to fight until her broken arms and legs went numb, again and again. Captain Wilkes felt she owed Unit 03 to persevere through her own discomfort and win this critical battle.
A moment later the lift's doors slid open. Fighting to maintain an even gait, she stepped onto the Vidar'sbridge. A dozen weapons and navigation officers approached their consoles.
Lieutenant Commander Harding stepped in and followed her. The bridge officers settled before two curved desks set on either side of the central command seat. Their screens warmed to life, displaying the Vidar'sreactor and overall status—dead, for the moment.
"Captain," Lieutenant Commander Harding said, "With respect, ma'am, I don't believe you're in any condition to take this vessel into an engagement. Authorize me to take your place."
"No," Captain Wilkes wiped the blood smeared at the corner of her torn lip. "I need you to go into the medical bay and supervise Unit 03 while the doctors fit the restraints."
Captain Wilkes ignored him. "Bring the reactor into its activation cycle, voice authorization code: 'hundred thousand years' war.' And page security up here. I want this man escorted to the medical bay."