photoFall of the Terran Empire (Traci Ganner Series, Book #1)

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“So, where do you think they’ll hit next, skipper?” Lt. Stafford Swanson sat across the desk from Commander Traci Ganner in the commander’s day cabin, sipping a piping hot cup of coffee. It was just after ship’s dawn, and Swanson had brought in the day’s duty roster for a quick meeting with his CO. Ganner had called up the local star systems on the desk display and was twittering a stylus between her fingers, thinking.

She closed her eyes for just a moment. Her head leaned against the chair back and she could feel the braids of her hair touching the cloth of the chair. That was always the dilemma for women in the navy--wear your hair so short you look like the men, or wear it longer and have to do something with it. Traci Ganner was a practical woman, but she refused to wear her hair so short she couldn’t be herself after she got off the clock.

“I’m not entirely certain, Stafford,” she said, opening her eyes. “They’ve already hit two merchant ships and a local yacht, here and here,” she said, pointing to the display. “So they must think they have a pretty good getaway plan. Or maybe they think the Empire is just going to overlook pirate activity in this quadrant. With all the merchant ships transporting water and ore here in Antares, I, for one, hope they show up in our sector.”

“I guess we’ll just have to show them the error of their ways,” Swanson replied. “If they show themselves in this backwater star system, we’ll catch them.”

Lt. Swanson was also a practical man. He fidgeted with a thread that had caught his eye on his tunic jacket. It was a small defect on his otherwise spotless uniform. The lieutenant had always prided himself on his spotless appearance. His black trousers carried a single hunter green stripe down the length of each leg, which trimmed his black and green tunic nicely. His boots came up almost to his knees and had soft tops to keep from wrinkling his pants. His vest was riveted along its edges, setting off the waist-length military tunic made from sturdy broadcloth. There was an epaulette on each shoulder bearing an escutcheon device to match the one over his breast pocket, but his lieutenant's rank was displayed in white herringbone tape on his cuffs. Alas, that was where a thread had decided to fray. He picked at it absently.

The navy had adopted the more martial uniforms many generations ago. They imbued their wearers with a sense of power, the kind of power that could save lives--or take them. It was that sense of power that every member of the Imperial Navy understood. It gave them the focus to take their tasks very seriously, so that they understood the amount of power that came with a starship.

“Yes, and Captain McKenzie is in the next star system, just a few hours away in the event they attack there,” the commander said, laying down her stylus. She took a moment to scan the current merchant traffic roster once more and then leaned back in her chair. “Go check with Chief Toler and make sure we keep our emissions to a minimum. We’ve got to keep the impulse drive in standby in case we get the call, of course, but otherwise--” she continued, but was cut off by the vicious howl of the general quarters alarm.

Ganner sat straight up in her chair and hit the comm switch on the desk as Swanson changed the display to show the master tactical plot. “Talk to me, Simon,” Ganner said urgently as she took in the data scrolling onto her plot.

“Ma’am, we have a priority-one signal from the Harpy, a merchant vessel outbound for Deneb III. It states it is under attack and requests assistance,” said the ensign.

“We’re on our way. Have Toler light up the engines and get us underway, best possible speed.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am,” replied the ensign as he sent the necessary instructions. Swanson was already out the cabin door at a run.

Commander Ganner slid into the command chair and reviewed the master plot for any changes. She studied the locations and relative velocities of the fat merchant ship, Harpy, and her own light cruiser, Corsair, before speaking to the helmsman.

“Helm, estimated time to intercept?” she asked without taking her eyes off the plot.

“Forty-two minutes, ma’am. We should reach maximum headway in another eight minutes,” the ensign responded. He remained busily working his board while the other bridge officers settled in for the chase. Commander Ganner turned her head and saw Lt. Swanson crossing the bridge to come over to his command chair, which was next to hers. His expression was a mix of adrenaline-fueled excitement and concern for what they were about to find. Pirates had a way of planning nasty surprises for unsuspecting patrol ships.

“Pass on my compliments to engineering, Stafford. They got the engines lit before I was on the bridge,” she said with a slight smile.

“Of course, skipper” the lieutenant replied. “It’s the only fun the engineering section gets during patrol duty.”

Ganner gazed intently at her plot, not looking up at him. He craned his neck to look over the plot.

“There you are,” Swanson said as the plot registered a small vessel speedily running away from the wallowing merchant vessel. “It looks like a destroyer, from the maneuvering,” he said with satisfaction.

“Not necessarily, Stafford,” she responded. “It could be one of the older light cruisers. They had less mass than our newer ships, and a bit of drag in their acceleration curves as well.”

“Still, it’s our boy, skip,” he said matter-of-factly. “We should be closing on him in just under forty-one minutes.” Swanson scratched some imaginary spot behind his ear in the way he always did when he was about to ask a tough question. “So, what’s the plan?”

“Notify Captain McKenzie,” the commander said. “I want to make sure he is on standby if this pirate has friends. Give him our location and vectors and ask him to advise soonest.”

“Aye, ma’am” Swanson said and crossed to the comm station to give the order.

Ganner punched in some numbers on her plot and frowned as the answers scrolled into view. If the pirate kept up his present course, he would be heading out into deep space, not into one of the hyperspace lanes. That didn’t make any sense. The only way to evade a pursuing ship was to hightail it to another star system and get lost before the pursuing ship could overtake you. Either this was the dumbest pirate ever, or there was something he was trying to get to. Or someone.

Swanson walked back to the side of the commander’s chair and pointed to the indicator dot on her smaller plot that represented the pirate vessel. “Where do you think he’s going?” he asked mildly. “You don’t suppose he has a cloaking device, do you?”

“I was just thinking the same thing. It’s also possible that he may not have one, but has friends that do.”

“That’s a nasty thought,” said Swanson. “We won’t see them until we’re right on top of them if that’s the case.”

“I don’t think it is, but it’s my job to be the optimist.” Ganner flashed him with one of her shark smiles, leaving no doubt that she was ready to take on anyone who might be waiting.

“Ma’am, incoming call from Captain McKenzie,” the communications officer interrupted.

“Put it on audio, Ensign” the Commander answered. She turned to Lt. Swanson. “That was quick.”

“Commander Ganner, this is Captain McKenzie,” he stated as the channel opened. There was a momentary communication lag as the transmission was routed through the system ansible.

“Sir, we are underway at best speed to intercept a possible pirate DD or CL,” Ganner stated.

“Traci, what is your feeling on this guy? I am surprised they didn’t lay low for a while after their last attack,” the captain said with no humor at all in his voice.

“I’m not sure, sir, but he is headed for something in a hurry. He can’t possibly hide from us now that we have him on sensors, and he is headed away from the system at best speed. We’ll intercept in just under forty minutes.”

“Alright, Traci, but be careful. We are en route to assist if you run into anything you can’t handle,” he said.

“Thank you, sir,” Ganner said. A Royal Knight class heavy cruiser massed almost one and a half times as much as her Lancer class light cruiser. And McKenzie’s heavy cruiser also had the latest beam weapon refits as well--a powerful friend indeed. “I’ll be careful, but I think we may have the jump on him. He may be relying more on guts than brains for this particular operation.”

“Keep me informed. McKenzie out,” the captain said as he cut the circuit.

“Entering missile range in two minutes, ma’am,” Tactical Action Officer Simon Westerly said. He was updating his missile rack readiness board and double-checking the computer solutions that were part of his targeting package. A light cruiser did not mount many missile racks, but the Corsair should have had enough to let the pirate know who he was dealing with.

“Understood, Guns. Charlie, send a message to the pirate and instruct him to heave to.”

Swanson shook his head and smiled. “Do you really think they’ll respond, ma’am?”

“No,” Ganner said, matching his grin, “but we have to play by the book. Besides, he may have some goodies in his database that will tell us more about any friends he might have in the neighborhood. Like who he’s fencing the goods to, for instance. And if he understands just how far into the deep end he’s gotten himself, he may decide to try to save his own skin,” she finished.

“No response to our hail, ma’am,” the comm officer responded.

“Alright, Simon. Send them our second message,” she said as she leaned back into her command chair and crossed her legs. Westerly didn’t need any clarification of the order. The TAC officer knew the protocol when dealing with pirates. First, give them a chance to state their case over the communication channel. Then disable or destroy their ship. He swiveled his chair around to check the targeting solution once more and pressed the firing stud.

The captain’s chair was designed to remain affixed in the center of the bridge under extreme conditions, such as impacts from enemy weapons, which is why it was very securely fastened to the bridge supports and contained various shock resistant features. These included a display plot that reflected the same data as the master bridge plot. But it also included shock mounts and an emergency breather apparatus in case of a hull breach. This fact was some comfort to Commander Ganner as she watched the two missile separations appear as twin light dots on her plot. It was unlikely this would be a protracted battle, but pirates were slippery customers that tended to hand you surprises that you didn’t train for back at the academy. She watched her own plot as both dots approached the fleeing pirate vessel faster than her own ship, but winked out before making contact, the nearest detonating only seventeen thousand kilometers from the pirate vessel.

Missiles are fast, intercept weapons, designed to damage the target’s shields and smash them flat while the pursuing ship closes in for the kill with beam weapons. A light cruiser like the Corsair carried a complement of four missile racks, all of them internal launchers. She could put four missiles into play every thirty seconds and had enough magazine space to carry ten reloads for each rack. Imperial cruisers also carried a mix of weapons loads that included standard nuclear missiles for overloading shield generators and the heavier Mark II antimatter warheads, designed to tear a ship to pieces. In this case, Traci Ganner had sent two of her Mark II Janner missiles out to the fleeing destroyer with a very clear message. As they detonated, they fried his aft shielding on the port side and tore into his hull, electrifying the control circuits for his waist-mounted weapons in a violent display of authority.

“He’s still running, ma’am,” Swanson said after a few seconds had passed with no communications reply. “He must think we’re going to hang him when he’s caught.”

“He must also know we can board his little tin boat once we’ve shot up his engines,” Ganner said aloud, more to herself then to her exec. “He either thinks he can escape, or he’s buying time for some help to arrive.”

“Maybe,” Swanson replied. “Shall I have Major Bressler ready his boarding party, ma’am?”

“Have the major stand by, but we’re not going to board until I am sure this vessel has no teeth left,” Commander Ganner said coldly, staring into her plot.

Just then, the pirate vessel vanished.

For just a heartbeat, no one spoke. The mind can play terrible tricks during the heat of battle, and everyone on the bridge took just a moment to verify that what they were seeing matched with some anchor in reality.

“Get me plotting--what happened to my target?!” Ganner’s voice sawed across the bridge like a laser cutter as she shouted to her executive officer. “Slow to one-half impulse speed. I want to know what just happened.”

One moment, the ship was identified on the master plot on the bridge viewer--mass, velocity, weapons, energy emissions--and in the next, it wasn’t. Scanners showed only empty space; there was no debris beyond the first missile hits. Sensors swept the area for two light minutes and found nothing.

“Alright people, look alive. If this guy has a cloaking device, it’s a darned good one. No fade, no residual ion trail, nothing. Find him!” the commander said with flinty steel in her voice. “Chief, deploy a pattern of sensor drones to extend our search density. He has probably gone to silent running, so he’s here, trying to be invisible.”

At that moment, everyone on the bridge found something to do. Swanson moved among several stations, looking for malfunctioning equipment, helping to tighten search patterns, and checking sensor outputs. Unfortunately, none of these efforts made the missing ship reappear on the plot. Ganner made herself sit back in her chair and radiate a calm that she was not feeling.

The Corsair carefully glided against the unmoving starfield with every active system scanning, looking for her elusive prey. He was out there, somewhere, possibly gone to ground with his systems emitting minimal power, hiding in the vastness outside the star system. She slowly continued on the last known course of the pirate vessel, and then it happened.

“Skipper!” exclaimed the navigator. “Navcomp is going crazy, ma’am. It doesn’t register the star patterns anymore. Something has happened to them.”

The commander had snapped her head around to see the navigation charts for herself, when the TAC officer interjected, “Incoming missiles! Bearing thirty-one degrees, negative seven off the plane. Range fifty-five hundred kilometers and closing--velocity eighteen KPS. CIC makes it Type IA hybrids, skip!”

Ganner’s mind quickly filed the astrological anomaly away in the back of her mind, letting her subconscious work on that in the background. Her first priority was the incoming threat to her emperor’s ship and crew. Fortunately, cruiser captains are specifically trained to handle a variety of combat scenarios, many of which contain several unknown parameters. But Commander Ganner was not one to let confusion get in the way of running her ship.

“Helm, hard over. Give me some room,” she said to the helmsman with a tone of urgency encased in the practiced calm of a ship’s commanding officer. The crew was expected to do their duty in the face of danger, but the ship’s captain was expected to be not just on top of the situation, but clairvoyant as well. There could be no room for doubt. “Guns, who is shooting at us, and what is their range?”

The weapons officer replied, “It’s our pirate, ma’am. He’s off of our starboard side, coming up on your plot now.”

So, you haven’t gone to hiding, per se, thought Ganner. You just brought us into hiding with you, hoping we would be confused enough to let you shoot us up while we were still in shock.

“Guns, lock up those missiles and take them out,” the captain said. Westerly was already targeting the missiles with the port facing beam weapons and other defensive measures, only waiting for the commander’s order to respond with fire. The ship spat twin beams of high-energy particle beams as the incoming missiles bore down on them with lethal accuracy. There was no sound in the vacuum of space as two missiles disappeared from the plot. One port side aft beam, its firing arc coming into play, lanced another missile out of space. Four missile-seekers left the ship’s defensive racks in rapid succession, but only one was able to intercept the three incoming missiles before they detonated.

The helmsman fought hard to evade the incoming missiles, but he simply didn’t have enough time to maneuver the ship in response to the surprise. The most he could do was try to time the impacts on two different shield facets, maximizing the ship’s ability to absorb the blows. But missiles carry powerful nuclear warheads to exact an enormous amount of punishment on the shield generator’s ability to absorb and dissipate the energy. As the first missile exploded eight thousand kilometers away, the port side aft shield took the blow and buckled, but fortunately, there was no hull damage. The second missile exploded ten thousand kilometers away and wiped away armor plating and bit deeply into the ship’s hull. Atmosphere belched out where the missile had hit, and eight crewmen died as the ship bucked in the explosion and radiation.

“It looks like a pretty little ambush,” said Swanson, reading his captain’s mind. Both of them were now harnessed in their shock-absorbing bridge chairs. “He put six missiles in play, but he can’t have enough hull space for that many launchers.” Swanson did his best to match Ganner’s calm exterior, as though they were merely commenting on the weather.

“Snap launchers,” Ganner said levelly. “They’re loaded externally while the ship is at rest and give them a one-shot capability for their opening salvo.”

Lt. Swanson commed the bosun. “Damage report!” he said.

The bosun’s voice responded after a moment’s hesitation, “We lost fire control to the aft weapons ring and our port-aft shield is down. We need another two minutes to switch the auxiliary shield generator to cover the hole.” The bosun’s voice was calm but forceful as he struggled to listen to the damage control team’s latest comments.

“Alright,” the executive officer replied. “Get on it; we’re expecting more of the same.” The unspoken Yes sir, I know that, sir came across the channel in the moment of silence that followed, but the bosun audibly spoke the words “Aye, sir,” and killed the circuit.

Ganner looked at the damage control readouts on her plot. She still had maneuvering and shields as the ship completed its turn to face the attacker. It was time to regain the initiative. But there was another dot on the plot, farther away, near the pirate vessel. That one worried her as the Combat Information Center worked the analysis to identify its size and class.

“Guns, launch two Janners and two Mark I’s at the nearest bogie,” she said, not taking her eyes off of her plot. Janner missiles were the faster, more destructive antimatter missiles, while the Mark I variant was slower and contained only nuclear warheads. Over sixty percent of a typical light cruiser load-out consisted of the slower missiles, which took up less magazine space. The remaining load-out consisted of Mark II Janner missiles, and only two of the extended-range Mark IIA variants, which she had already used to warn the pirate to stand down. She would have to carefully spend her remaining Mark II Janners if this turned out to be a long term engagement, but for the moment, it was time to rock the pirate back on his heels.

“Skipper, we have class on the second bogie. CIC makes it a destroyer class, most likely a friend of the pirate,” the exec reported. This changed the tactical picture somewhat, because while one pirate destroyer was clearly outmatched by her Lancer class CL, two of them were a threat.

Corsair continued her turn and spat four missiles out into space in pursuit of the first pirate vessel. Even if he wanted to continue the fight, he would be hard-pressed to respond to that much fire, unless his friend decided to add his own defensive fire to the mix. Unfortunately, his friend had timed it poorly and was over one hundred thousand kilometers out, too far to provide any effective defense.

As the seconds ticked down, Traci Ganner instructed the helmsman to turn the Corsair onto a course that would put the first pirate between her ship and the new bogie. She didn’t yet know his intentions, but it paid to treat him as a hostile until proven otherwise. Her first two missile launchers showed green on her plot as their automated loaders put two more Mark I missiles into readiness.

“Simon,” Ganner said, “target missiles two and three on bogie one and launch now. Load the remaining tubes with Janners.” Ganner considered for a moment what to do about the second vessel. Should she try to hail it in the event it was not an enemy craft? But suddenly plotting simplified her decision.

“Missile separation from bogie two, skipper,” Ensign Westerly interjected. The plot automatically indicated the missiles and marked them as enemy seekers. “Plotting makes them Mark II, based on their acceleration curve. Impact in twelve seconds, ma’am.”

As the first pirate vessel swung his ship violently away from the incoming wall of death, Corsair’s first two missiles impacted the ship. His starboard shielding was contemptuously wiped aside and the entire aft hull section disappeared in a blinding boil of light. His impulse engines immediately shut down, and he was lamed, drifting carelessly away on his last trajectory. The remaining four missiles bearing down on him were merely insurance that the pirate was not going to be firing any more weapons. Two seconds later, the fifty-thousand-ton pirate vessel was gone.

Simon worked furiously with his controls. The computer provided intercept solutions for the four incoming missiles. This time, he was able to assign two missile seekers per missile and target the others with the forward beam cannons. Although the missiles were still too far to guarantee a kill, not firing on them would waste an opportunity for a possible kill. He targeted the cannons on the nearest missiles and awaited orders from the captain.

“Guns, fire forward cannons on the lead missiles. Helm, evasive action,” Traci Ganner spat as she studied the second intruder very carefully. She was very glad she faced only four missiles instead of six, and that she had more precious seconds for her crew to prepare to meet them. Unfortunately, Mark II missiles were a lot faster and far more deadly than what they had just faced. As her ship lashed out at the lead missiles, one beam scored a clean hit, and the missile died harmlessly. The second shot missed completely. Anti-missile seekers scorched out after the remaining missiles. Two of the seekers had no target and wandered off helplessly into the vacuum of space, never to be recovered. They would simply exhaust their engines and wander through the eternity of the void.

Two of the seekers found their targets and spent themselves as they detonated close enough to the incoming projectiles to sear their targeting systems into so much useless junk. The first missile was destroyed outright; the second simply wandered past the Corsair blind and impotent.

One missile evaded all of the defensive fire and impacted the forward shields. The starboard shield was smashed flat, and damage alarms sounded as the missile exploded with the rending force of the mutual annihilation of matter and antimatter.

“We’ve lost the starboard beam cannons and environmental controls on decks twenty through twenty-five,” Swanson stated. “Also, radiation damage on the outer decks and minor damage in engine room three.”


© Brian Jeffreys.