THAT WHICH GODS DESTROY - Act II - Erich von Shrakenberg
The EFS Stornoway appeared through the open jumpgate and shimmered as it reentered the big black. After a short resupply on Beowulf, the new girl began her tour of the frontier. Too bad their first stop wasn't that exciting.
On the charts, it was called Hrothgar system; everyone else called it nothing at all. The place was a galactic shithole and well to be avoided. A white dwarf star surrounded by three planets and an asteroid belt; one gas giant and two barren rocks. The first planet was hot enough to melt lead on one side with the other as cold as the ninth layer of hell. The second was just cold with toxic poisons filtered in the ice. The gas giant tended to have violent explosions making cloud farming impossible. The asteroid belt was steaming with so much radiation as to make it unmineable. The system was so worthless that neither the Earth Federation nor Enoch claimed it. It remained as an unofficial neutral zone, two jumpgates (one for each side), and enough listening devices floating out there to be an electronic salesman's wet dream. It wasn't much, but to Commander Erich von Shrakenberg, it was the perfect spot to practice stealth.
"Entering Hrothgar system, sir." Lt. Commander Ingolfsson reported.
"Thank you, commander. M. Lefarge, plot us a path across the system. Erratic maneuvers, thrusters only. I am initiating stealth protocol. We should have enough velocity to skate across smoothly, so don't activate the main engines unless absolutely necessary."
"Yes, sir." the bright-eyed lieutenant replied.
"Chief Mwawimbe, I want constant sensor readings on passive. If you detect a signal from one of their listening posts, that means we've got a fault in our stealth systems. Better to know it now and fix it then not know when it counts."
"Yes, sir." the dark-haired sensor chief nodded.
"Also, if you pick up any of the listening probes, relay that information to Lt. Gergenstein." Erich turned to the weapons officer. "It's your job to practice those passive locks. That ability is vital to our survival.
The older lieutenant coughed out, "Yes, sir."
"Now, if all goes well, and we cross the system undetected, I will personally buy everyone in this crew a beer!"
"Hoo-ray!" went up from the bridge crew.
Thank God he had brought some of his brother's private stock on board. The secret of Bavarian brewing had not been lost on Earth and he intended to share that joy with his successful shipmates. "You have your orders. Commander, you have the bridge."
Johanna's smile seemed painted to her face; something was on her mind and Erich had a good idea what. He had never resolved the question of what was on that asteroid and why. Although his exec was performing her duties well, he was sure it was still on her mind. "Aye, sir. I have the bridge."
Truth be told, Erich didn't have an answer for his officer staff. Why the vampires were on that hunk of rock was obviously a sensitive question; Fleet Command... no, the _commanding admiral_ told him to blow it up. So he did. If he couldn't get answers from GHQ, then he didn't know where to turn. It was better to keep the crew's mind off it and continue their mission. That's why they started their run on the frontier. This young filly of a ship needed to be shaken down.
Before the captain could get off the bridge, a loud beeping came from the ship intercom. "Bosun Campbell to the bridge!"
"Bridge here." Johanna answered.
"Is the captain there?"
Von Shrakenberg spoke up. "Yes, bosun. Go ahead."
"We've got an incoming transmission for you. Gold priority, net encrypted."
Erich looked perplexed. "We've got a net relay in this system?"
Lieutenant Lefarge quickly passed his fingers over the computer console. "Yes, sir, on the moon of Hrothgar 3."
"Great timing." the commander muttered. "ID?"
Now that wasn't SOP. Why would someone want to hide their identity on an encrypted, top priority channel? "Bosun, can we send a narrow beam transmission to the relay?"
"Captain, I can bounce a signal off the listening problems and make them hum 'Feliz Navidad!'"
"Then do it," Erich smiled, "and I expect to hear angels in the background."
"Yes, sir. Bosun out."
He pointed to his exec. "Route it to my office. I'm on my way."
"Yes, sir." Ingolfsson nodded.
When he got to his office, the decryption program ran, and the FTL connection hooked in. Instead of the angels he ordered, the devil himself appeared on the holoproj before him. The black man wore a colonel's rank, wore a dress black uniform with silver piping, and had a grin that said he could happily throw babies off cliffs. None of that was as impressive as the three huge scar gashes on his face. "Commander, I've been trying to reach you for two days."
"Whoever this guy was, no doubt he was powerful; best to be polite. "Sorry, sir. We were in hyperspace en route to this system. How can I help you?"
His grin extended like a plunging chasm. "I am Colonel Rashid King, Internal Security."
Now Erich _knew_ he was in deep shit. InSec didn't make social calls. "Yes, sir. What did you need?"
"Your orders included the destruction of Asteroid X-2673 in the Tarkin system. Were these orders carried out?"
"Yes, sir. The initial test went beautifully."
"Excellent. Then there were no problems with the Graviton Cannon?"
"No, sir. Everything is ship-shape." There wouldn't be this much concern over a hunk of rock, Erich thought. This colonel knew something about that asteroid, so the commander pushed his luck. "We weren't able to download the data from the relay receiver. Did you manage to get it?"
Pause. His face betrayed nothing, but the lack of an immediate answer confirmed that Admiral Vorheis had been lying. "No, I'm afraid the data got scrambled in the blast. I'm going to need you to transmit your sensor report, so we can confirm you new weapon's effectiveness."
"One moment, sir, I'll see if I can find them." Von Shrakenberg touched a button and another holoproj appeared. Going through the list of ship's files, he found the initial sensor report. With a flourish of keystrokes, and careful not to send him the secondary scans, he began transferring the files to the signal. "It should be transmitting now, sir."
"Excellent. No problems then?"
"We blasted it to atoms, sir."
"That's what I like to hear." King smiled. "It's obvious that you're a loyal officer of the Federation."
"Thank you, sir." the commander replied, although he wasn't sure if it was a compliment. "Data transfer complete."
"Excellent. Thank you for your assistance, commander. Discom." Then the demon disappeared.
Erich leaned back into his chair and breathed a sigh of relief. That was a call he didn't want to receive again.
The captain was picking at his soypro and vegetables, looking around the mess hall, and getting more and more annoyed at that blue light. They were in stealth mode, so regulations demanded a blue light to be activated, reminding the crew unconsciously to be quiet. Of course, since Erich helped design the ship, he knew that no sounds could escape the triple-redundant hull nor the void outside. They could hold a Volkskrieg Overdrive concert in here and those enemy listening sensors wouldn't hear a peep. Right now, though, he was glad regulations didn't say he had to eat this shit.
Then, as if an answer to his prayers, the blue light changed to a flashing red, the klaxon blaring. "Battlestations! Battlestations! Captain to the bridge!" Everybody dropped what they were doing and ran. Erich did too, hoping this wasn't a drill; Johanna had a sick sense of humor.
A minute later, he was on the bridge, but to his surprise, Lt. Commander Shih was holding this watch. "Captain on the bridge!" someone shouted out.
The chief engineer stood up from the big chair and made way for Von Shrakenberg. "Situation?" the captain asked.
"Jumpgate activated on the Enoch side, sir. We've got one presumed Black Hand ship, cruiser size, and it's headed in-system."
Erich raised his eyebrows. "We have a trace on its location?"
"Yes, sir. They're not hiding anything from us. That cruiser's running full burn for the inner system."
The commander turned to the helmsman. "M. Lefarge, estimated time to exit system?"
"Nine hours, eleven minutes at our current rate."
"And if we went to full burn?"
The lieutenant's hands flew over the console. "One hour, thirty-one minutes."
"Chief Mwawimbe, have we been detected?"
"Negative, not since we left the jumpgate. Of course, every sensor buoy went crazy when that cruiser jumped in."
Ingolfsson finally arrived on the bridge, short of breath, her normally curly blonde hair flat. The captain shot her a look; Johanna shrugged. "Caught me in the shower, sir."
"Lt. Gergenstein, patch in to that sensor field out there. Get me as much information on that cruiser as you can."
"Yes, sir." the weapons officer replied, already fiddling with the controls.
Erich looked over at Shih. "Commander, report to your battle station."
"Yes, sir." the engineer saluted and walked off.
The bridge hummed with activity as the captain sat patiently. Von Shrakenburg weighed his options carefully; for now the Stornoway would stay silent. It was better to wait.
They didn't have to wait long. Within three hours, the Black Hand ship had moved in-system and was close to the quiet little destroyer. "What do they want?" the captain thought aloud.
"Maybe they're just on a joy ride." Johanna said.
"I hope so. With any luck, we'll just pass by in the night."
"Sir," sensor chief Mwawimbe spoke up, "We've got the cruiser on our ship's short-range passive sensors. Feeding ship data into computers."
"Weapons lock achieved on enemy cruiser." Gergenstein shot out.
"We're not at war yet, lieutenant, but keep that passive lock on him. I don't like get shot in peacetime, either."
The chief reporte again. "Sir, records show that the ship is an old New Madrid-class heavy cruiser, commissioned in 2182."
"A sixty year-old starship? How's that thing still running?"
"Probably left over from before the 2nd Civil War." Ingolfsson answered. "The Fed probably gave them some old ships when they evacuated the Shadowlands. It was about when Earth was destroyed."
"Sir!" the Chief interrupted, "Communication from the Black Hand ship, wide band."
The captain smiled. "That means they don't know where we are. Let's see it."
The holoproj kicked up on the viewscreen and the image of an officer in a red uniform appeared. "Federation vessel, this is the HMS Lilith. We know that you are in this system. Since your government refuses to speak with us, we must communicate to you. Please respond."
On the bridge of the Stornoway, all eyes turned toward Von Shrakenburg. His crew was ready, their weapons primed, and an antique ship twice their size was hailing them. Maybe they could leave before the cruiser got aggressive, but Erich was sure it wouldn't take no for an answer.
END OF ACT II
Text Copyright © 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.