Hey anyone out there who's reading this...Chapter the Second is here. Many thanks to The Raven Nyx for beta-ing.
In the mess of the Alliance cruiser Thunderchild, stunned silence reigns. People stand around, staring at the blank screens. Slowly sound returns, tentatively, slinking in with its tail between its legs, as murmurs spark and spread. The captain runs to the podium, seizing the microphone from the shocked host.
"General quarters!" she shouts. "General quarters! All hands, man your battle stations! Make ready for combat!"
The people stream out of the room, practised military precision and training taking over as they run for their posts. The festive decorations hang forlornly on the walls, bereft of joy. The captain follows her men, slowly. She looks up at the tinsel and glitter.
"Why?" she whispers. "Why?" The silent walls return no answer. She sighs. There is a muffled thud as she falls to her knees. "Oh God," she breathes, "help us…"
An officer runs in, stops sharp. "Captain?" he asks. "Are — are you alright?"
The captain looks up, a pale smile on her lips. "I'm fine, lieutenant. I'm fine." She stands and leaves the room.
Outside the ship, in the darkness of space, dozens of other vessels drift slowly onwards at six hundred metres per second, clustering round the Thunderchild. Their long, thin, cigar-shaped bodies ghost through space, the slowly rotating rings of the pod-studded centrifuges giving them an image of serenity they sorely lack.
They are a convoy of troop carriers, bringing troops on leave to Neptune's orbital colonies. Messages of support and reassurance dart towards them, streaming out in a spider's web centred on the Thunderchild, calming the crews and passengers. They move into a rough sphere, the better to defend themselves. The Thunderchild, squat and broad, above and behind them, a protecting presence, almost like a bulldog on guard. Turrets activate on each ship, barrels panning round to take up fixed positions, providing interlocking fields of fire. On board the Thunderchild, missiles arm and ready, launchers rising from hatches to bristle like spines along its back. Engines flare briefly as the ships increase their speed to one thousand five hundred metres per second. Urgent ansible messages blizzard out from the Thunderchild, requesting jump coordinates from Fort Helican, gateway to the Krios sector, the outer ring of colonies. A short, curt answer returns:
"Overwhelming requests received. Delays inevitable. Maintain speed and wait. Be on guard."
The Thunderchild's captain sighs, shaking her head.
"It's to be expected…" she murmurs sadly. "So many refugees…let us pray we remain safe."
The ships move slowly on, through the dark velvet fabric of space. Time passes, one hour Standard, two hours, three…and still no jump coordinates. Tension slowly increases, as the hours slip by. A day, Standard, passes before there is any message from Fort Helican, a day of waiting and watching, of no sleep and little rest, of constant vigilance and continuous worry. The stress on the bridge of the Thunderchild shatters in release.
"Jump coordinates being determined now. Be prepared to jump as soon as they are received. ETA one hour."
The captain, haggard and weary, hollows beneath her eyes and her hair limp, manages a smile.
"Tell the other ships to be ready," she orders, her voice tired but elated. "And tell the crews to stand down."
The comm lieutenant salutes and conveys the order across to the huddled convoy. The relief can almost be seen; ships seem to sag in their places, their turrets going limp. Fitfully at first, but gaining strength, a ragged cheer swamps the comm links for a minute or so.
The captain sinks back into her seat, closing her eyes as her head falls onto the headrest with a small thump. She lets out a sigh. "Praise the Lord…" she murmurs.
Only twenty minutes, Standard, remain. The convoy is on course, but no longer watchful or vigilant. The Thunderchild's missile launchers have retracted, her shields are down. Most of her crew are sleeping or in the mess rooms. Few still man the turrets, and they are not alert. On the bridge, the captain dozes in her chair. A handful of officers still remain, but the bridge is almost empty.
Then disaster. Three thousand kilometres above and to port, flickers against the blackness of space announce the arrival of two monstrous vessels. Their engines blaze bright, propelling them towards the convoy at three hundred kilometres a minute. Symbols painted in blood red along their sides proclaim to the universe at large that they are the Coalition battlecruisers Potemkin and Bolívar, of the Battlefleet Martian. On the upperworks of each ship a massive pair of coilguns thrust their aggressive muzzles forth, gaping mouths of death. Missile turrets rear from hatches along their sides like hydras' heads.
On board the Potemkin, the Captain stands at the bridge viewscreen, leaning forwards, hands on the rim. He stretches a hand out and taps the red-lit icons representing the Thunderchild and the convoy, summoning up statistics and information about them.
"Troop carriers, eh?" he murmurs softly. "Can't let them through, can we?"
He turns to his communications officer. "Patch me through to the Bolívar. I want to speak to Velasquez. And prepare to fire on the capital ship."
The officer salutes, turns to his holosphere and taps commands onto the ethereal screens.
A viewscreen activates, showing the head and shoulders of Captain Velasquez of the Bolívar. Hee hair, a colour between ginger and yellow, is loose about her face. She looks much younger than her forty-four years suggests, but her voice belies her age, hard and clipped.
He smiles. "My dear Velasquez. I assume that, like me, you are preparing to fire upon the capital ship…?"
She does not smile back. "Indeed, Captain Naryshkin."
His smile widens. "Then, my dear, I claim my right to fire first."
"On what grounds?" she replies, her face unchanged.
"My seniority as a First Captain, my dear Velasquez."
Velasquez gives a sharp retort. "First Captain of the Seventh Wing, not the Sixth." She smiles suddenly, baring her teeth. "Fire!" She terminates the link, leaving Captain Naryshkin staring at the blank screen in surprise and growing anger.
The Bolívar, one hundred kilometres ahead of the Potemkin, fires its main coilguns, hurling two twenty-kilo steel rounds at thirty kilometres a second directly at the Thunderchild.
Eep. Next chapter's a battle chapter. Have you read War of the Worlds? If so, you'll remember where the Thunderchild comes in. Cheers.