'Round Hammer, Long Nail'
Part 1 – 'What Will Be Will Be'
The hyperspace jump was rougher than expected.
The crew braced themselves for a bumpy ride back into normal space. It wasn't a jump through a fully-operational jump gate; the vessel depended on its own jump drive to make the proper calculations and smooth out the edges. Even with the crew ready at their stations, they weren't prepared for a translation this violent. It was as if the ship was yanked from space and tossed into a violent, stormy ocean. Inertial forces rattled the ship from bow to stern, the snap-snap-pop and groan of the ship's stressed metal frame echoing throughout the ship. Electrical surges tripped the breakers, shut down the fusion reactor, and covered the crew in darkness. The emergency lights came afterwards, illuminating the ship's sections in bright red light.
The EAS Typhon passed through its generated hyperspace tunnel, adrift.
This was not how Captain Kirpisuu imagined he'd enter his first action with one of Earthforce's top-of-the-line Omega Class destroyers.
He brushed the dark hair from his once-precise side part out of his eyes and looked around. He smelled the smoke of tripped breakers and seared insulation. His eyes squinted at the red emergency lights and activated flashlights. He smelled blood. It was his, a trickle under his nose from when he fell during the hyperspace translation.
Wiping the blood from his nose, he barked at the engineer's station. "What the hell happened Okoro?!"
Lieutenant Okoro looked up from his dimly lit console. She was as frazzled as the captain, not even her soft, deep voice could hide it. "We're not sure, sir. There was a power spike in the jump drive. Next thing we know, it traveled to the gravitational system and halted the rotating section for five seconds. Fusion generator is down, emergency backups are online. Five minutes until main power is restored."
Kirpisuu cursed his luck and that of the new ship. He couldn't blame the Okoro for being caught unprepared. Nobody foresaw a rough translation, much less a shipwide shutdown. For an event this out of place, everyone was as flatfooted as the inexperienced chief engineer.
It didn't, how ever, dismiss their dire situation, and action was needed more than words. "You have three minutes. Tarrayo! How long until we get a cap established?"
The flight control screen's backlighting reactivated, bringing more illumination to the dark, smoky bridge. Behind the screen was the bald, mustachioed chief flight officer, set apart by his short stature and his flight suit. He yelled in controlled excitability. "Flight bay doors are on manual and we're re-initializing the launchers. You'll have your cap in two minutes even if we have to push them out."
"Two minutes, not a second more." Kirpisuu nodded. He knew Tarrayo since the academy, visited his family in Davao, even snatched him from the Acheron when he became the Typhon's captain. He trusted the no-nonsense Philippino's word, right down to pushing Starfury fighters out the launch bay doors. "Proxima Centauri's a dangerous neighborhood, old friend. It's the last place we want this ship to break down."
It was the danger of a new ship, crewed with whomever Earthforce could scratch together on such short notice, and sent to the front before her welds cooled down. The rebellion caught many Earthforce generals flat-footed, so in the scramble to find ships and crew Typhon was rushed out quickly.
With potentially disastrous consequences, Kirpisuu thought, but hardly surprising. They were unfortunate victims of war, it seemed, or would be once the rebels found them adrift in space with their pants around their ankles.
Russians didn't hold a monopoly on fatalistic attitudes. It was also the domain of its Baltic neighbours, like his native Estonia. Such realistic expectations did not stop him from doing his utmost in his duties. Only put them into sobering perspective.
Do your best, or be too dead to worry. What will be will be.
Quickly, the Typhon's systems returned. The lights came back, the environmental systems scrubbed the acrid smoke out of the air, the gravity returned once the crew heard the metal groaning of the rotational section. The main launch bay shuddered open, the Starfury fighters from Paladin Squadron pouring out.
"My compliments, Okoro." Kirpisuu nodded to the pleased chief engineer. His attention was turned to the sensor station. "Wheeler, I want to know what's in my sky. If you could, please."
"We're mapping of the area right now." Wheeler eyes were locked on the DX-419 tracking system display. "So far, nothing on lidar, infrared, radar, or thermals." His midwestern accent slowed. "Sir... I'm getting nothing at all in our nearby vicinity."
"So my sky's clear? No rebel ambush."
"You don't understand, Sir. There's nothing in our sky. No rebels, no civilian traffic, no Proxima Centauri."
Struck with disbelief, Captain Kirpisuu ran to the sensor officer's station. "That's impossible! Why?"
Wheeler stammered. "I don't know Sir. That is impossible, unless either the our DX-419's as buggy as our old XB7 or the navigational computer messed up the transit. It isn't my fault, honest!"
He was joined by his executive officer. Commander Mancini, an experienced navigator before his promotion, checked over the sensor readings. "The kid's right. His work's immaculate. And if our computer isn't messing with us I'd say we're not anywhere near the Proxima Centauri system."
"Then where are we, Commander?" Captain Kirpisuu demanded.
"Judging by the star's positions I'd say Zeta Reticulii, sir."
If he doubted the work of the young Lieutenant Wheeler, he held a different opinion of Commander Mancini's. In his short time aboard the Genoa native proved himself with a meticulous and professional work ethic. Arriving with a glowing review from past commanders as well, though one was the traitorous Captain Sheridan of the EAS Agamemnon.
Anyone on the Typhon would agreed the day they saw Mancini make a mistake was the day an entire earth colony disappeared.
And yet Proxima Centauri was nowhere to be found, and Zeta Reticulii, their accidental destination, was still two light years away.
What worried Kirpisuu most was missing the fight over Proxima Centauri. The Typhon's absence would be noted, most likely written off as a deserter, or worse, another ship fled to the rebel cause. There were rumors what happened to captured deserters, most involving a PPG to the back of the head, followed by an unmarked grave. It wasn't a fate Kirpisuu wanted for himself or his crew. "How soon can we arrive at our real destination?"
Okoro answered, "The jump drive's disabled, sir. This is no easy repair. A temporary fix can get us one jump in, then another to get out of hyperspace. Then we need three weeks in drydock."
"How soon can we have this temporary fix?"
"You have three."
"I'm serious, sir. Six hours minimum. And that's if we don't screw it up."
"I am serious too, Lieutenant." Kirpisuu stated. "And if not it will be our lives. Do what you can."
"Sir!" Wheeler yelled. "Bogies on a two o'clock high approach. A dozen counted, unknown configuration."
The LIDAR plot displayed twelve crimson arrows moving towards the Typhon on a nine o'clock high approach. The Identify Friend or Foe module, unable to compare the incoming vessels from its gathered information on size, speed, hull composition, and energy signatures, designated the unknown targets from Tango one through twelve.
As more data arrived from the LIDAR signatures, the Typhon's computer discerned the shape of the vessels as triangular in nature, with three wedge-shaped nacelles, a central triangular core, and a scale-patterned hull made of a dark composite material. Energy spikes indicated electromagnetic thrust, or perhaps energy weapons.
Kirpisuu knew the procedure for first encounters with alien species. It was drummed into every Earth Alliance captain since the disastrous first contact with the Minbari.
On looking at the triangular fighter on the extrapolation screen, their numbers, and their rapid approach, his instincts convinced him this was not a friendly greeting.
"All crew to battlestations!" The klaxons rang out on command. "Comms, standard first contact greeting. Let's hope they can hear us. Starfuries, move in to intercept..."
"...and do not shoot first. I repeat, do not shoot first."
"Why don't they tell us to drop our flight suits and bend over while we're at it." Came a bitter remark of Lieutenant Glen Powers, Paladin-3, Callsign 'Punk', over the Starfury Squadron's communications channel.
The squadron lead was flushed from the physical effort of scrambling their Starfuries on short notice and on manual launch bay controls. The unknowns of this encounter were giving her a cold sweat. She remembered the Battle of The Line, and she recalled the rumors of what started the war that ended in that faithful climatic battle.
Between contemplating bombing fellow human beings, a prospect causing many heated arguments in the pilot's lounge, and now facing an unknown alien threat where one false move could kill them all, it wasn't a time to lose one's head.
"They depend on you." She reminded herself. "So stay frosty and you'll get these nuggets home alive."
Flight Captain Cynthia Aimes, Callsign 'Peregrine', and Paladin Squadron's leader, cut the out-of-line pilot off before he could say more. "Cut the chatter, Punk. We're all friendly here unless proved otherwise. We're not gonna be the ones to start an intergalactic war. You fire first, and you'll wish the bogies splash you before the Captain finds out."
"Roger that, 'Grine. Looks like they're making a beeline for the Big T." Punk remarked, using the informal name for the Typhon.
"Well they'll have to get through the bouncer first, and that's us. Move to intercept. Twelve o'clock low. Herd them away."
As soon as Paladin Squadron's Starfuries moved to intercept, the unknown alien fighters turned the noses of their black, triangle-shaped fighters, drifted, then propelled forward to meet them. As the distance closed in, Peregrine could make out their shapes. Dark and slick, like rayskin, blending into the surrounding space. An eerie humming sound penetrated through the Starfury's hull and into her ears.
And that was when bright white spheres shot out from the alien fighters.
"BREAK! BREAK! BREAK!"
Peregrine banked her Starfury hard to avoid the fusillade of alien fire. It wasn't enough warning for Punk. While he pulled the same maneuver, alien plasma fire destroyed his left ventral engine and took most of the wing with it. Punk ejected the pilot module as his Starfury careened out of control.
For the rest of the squad, it was chaos. Six remaining Starfuries versus twelve of the unknown alien fighters, and the enemy had the advantage of first blood.
One of the lessons Peregrine learned in her time in as an Earth Alliance Starfury pilot was that human pilots were just as alien and surprising as alien pilots were to humans. There would still be some feeling around, some uncertainty as to how each operated.
The initiative was not yet lost.
"Cleared to engage! Give 'em hell, Paladins!" Peregrine barked the order as three of the unknown alien fighters broke off to pursue her.
She punched the main engines to full, bracing herself as G-Forces pushed her into her seat. She was gaining distance, but not to her satisfaction. The alien fighters were fast on the straightaway!
But how did they do on a turn?
She cut engines and let the momentum of her Starfury carry itself. Thrusters spun the Starfury around until it was flying in reverse. It was the signature trick of human pilots, and she hoped the aliens didn't figure it out either, as her thumb pressed down on the trigger.
Her Starfury bucked and rattled as plasma fire shot out of its cannons. One of the pursuing alien fighters took a barrage right in its triangular center and exploded into pieces. A burst of her thrusters and the nose of her Starfury moved to the left, her plasma cannons strafing the other two fighters as they attempted to bank away.
"Splash three!" She announced, now free to check on the rest of her squadron. From her open faced cockpit, she saw the dance of alien fighters with the Paladin's Starfuries, darting in and out like lancers, streaks of plasma fire in pursuit and dancing between the wildly manoeuvring fighters. Two more alien fighters went down thanks to the Starfury's signature reverse fire technique, by Paladin-3 'Porkins' and Paladin-5 'Punchy'. When Paladin-6 'Pigpen' tried the same, the alien fighters backed off instead of pushing the pursuit.
"Quick learners." thought the squadron leader as she opened comms. "Paladin-1 to Typhon, Paladin-3 ejected, we caught the enemy by surprise but they're still superior. They're regrouping now."
"Roger that, Paladin-1. Set course for Typhon..."
"...and see how they like it when we even the odds." Kirpisuu closed the communication channel to his Starfuries. "All anti-spacecraft batteries prepare to erase those bogies out of my sky."
Along the Typhon's long ventral and dorsal sides, pulse cannons and plasma turrets turned to point at the oncoming enemy fighters.
Paladin Squadron streaked past the Typhon's anti-spacecraft firing firing envelope, luring the alien fighters into the teeth of Typhon's guns.
Pulse fire and straight laser beams cut a swath through the alien fighter formation, successful hits creating bright yellow plumes and scattered wreckage. The rest of the fighters broke off, scattering from a section of space turned into a dazzling display of energy, light, and destruction.
"That's better." Kirpisuu declared. "Now we can focus on..."
"SIR! We've got another contact, dropping out of... Sir? It's faster than light."
Despite keeping his opinion to himself, Kirpisuu couldn't hide his astonishment. "How? FTL without hyperspace is impossible!"
Yet he, and his sensors officer, were seeing it with their own eyes as a new target was painted by the Typhon's LIDAR system. It held much the same composition, color, and scaled appearance of the alien fighters, only it was a slim, horizontally situated, diamond-shaped wedge.
And the gleaming black and blue edifice, mass-wise, was more comparable to Typhon.
"Keep attempting to hail the alien vessel. I don't want this to get too out of..."
Too late, the alien vessel opened fire. Masses of black missiles shed off the ship's skin and propelled themselves towards the Typhon like flung shards of obsidian. Plasma balls fired from the alien ship's forward points much like their fighters, but scaled to capital ship size.
What struck Kirpisuu as odd was how slow the oncoming fire was. The plasma balls were no faster than that of their Starfury's fire, leaving seconds to anticipate their arrival. The missiles were also slow and easy to track, despite their composite materials leaving not much metal to detect on LIDAR.
The Typhon's point defences, locked on and anticipating the missile's flight path hammered away. Plumes of explosions lit the space between the Typhon and the alien vessel, inching close to Typhon's position with each missile destroyed.
The plasma bolt, however, couldn't be stopped by point defence fire. One ball missed the Typhon's rotating section. The other struck the armored plating at front port, below the fighter launch bay. The Earth Alliance ship rumbled on impact, filled with the spark of overloaded electrical panels and the squeal and groan of buckling metal.
Okoro was already reading the damage report. "Forward port laser cannon down, reports of fires below the fighter bay. Damage control teams already dispatched."
"Good... that means we still have the starboard cannon. It is time to stop fooling around. Sustained beam, on that vessel. End this fight NOW!" Kirpisuu ordered.
The Typhon's thrusters nosed itself facing the alien vessel. From one of its stubby protrusions on the bow, beside the fighter bay, gathered a reddish glow. What little atmosphere escape from the chemical reactions involved sounded like a high pitched whine and hiss when the laser ignited, a bright red lance cutting through space and striking the alien vessel's flank. But it didn't stop right away. A sustained beam fire on an enemy's hull was like a high-powered plasma torch, cutting and melting the metal and composite away, the beam etching a jagged, glowing scar. The beam burrowed deep into the vessel's hull, slicing into its innards, and by luck cutting into the ship's powerplant.
A breaching reactor, and the ignition of its accompanying fuel, was a spectacular sight as the explosion tore the alien ship to pieces.
Cheers erupted from the bridge as the alien ship exploded. Okoro slapped Mancini on the back, Tarrayo looked more relieved than excited. Kirpisuu, from outward appearance, showed nothing but a grimace of determination, and a nod to his crew for a job well done.
For outward exclamations of victory were not on Kirpisuu's mind, but rather the strange circumstances leading to the engagement.
The strange hyperspace transition, the wrong location, and the strange alien vessels were on his mind. "If we get our hyperspace drive fixed and if we make it back to the fleet, we will have much to answer for. Nightwatch may not believe we were attacked first. They may certainly blame me for starting another galactic war while we're still busy with the Colonial Rebels and Free Mars Movement. They may even send Psi-Corp after me and my people. But one thing is for certain." He looked at his celebrating crew, "They are blameless as they've acquitted themselves well during this crisis. I will take the blame. All of it."
"SIR!" Mancini cried out, "We have more LIDAR signatures incoming! Lots of them!"
Kirpisuu ran to the LIDAR display screen as dozens of signatures popped out on the display. "More of them?"
"No Sir." Mancini said, "These signatures are different."
The computer extrapolated the shape and size of the new targets. They were certainly aesthetically different, but unlike the black composite geometric shaped they fought earlier, these vessels were flat, horizontally positioned, blocky, and metallic in appearance, festooned with towers and turrets. Flitting around the vessels were fighters in wedge formations, another familiar sight, only these fighters were graceful and curved, with downswept wings and a hammerhead nose.
The Comms officer shouted, "Incoming transmission. Sir... it's in English."
Astonished, Kirpisuu asked, "What do they want?"
The comms. Officer answered, "They say they are part of a United Nations taskforce, led by a... USS Saratoga. And they want to know what we're doing here in an active warzone."