Space 2315, Chapter 3

If one were to ask Lieutenant Commander Hoshi Asakura what she thought of the Mendus system she would have said that it was full of mostly barren, lifeless rocks. The Mendus system was right on the border of what was now Human Federation and ACF space. The civilians who were in-system lived in space habitats, much like those found in other star systems. Here, those space colonies were the only truly habitable places.

Eighty years ago, the system had been largely ignored by Humanity in general. Until more detailed scans were done the system appeared to contain only barren, lifeless rocks of little importance. Nobody thought to settle there. That changed when a pair of scout ships jumped into the system and performed detailed mineral scans on the planets there.

On one world they had found rich veins of mineral deposits, particularly bauxite, copper, iron, nickel, uranium, and other heavy and non-heavy metals. The other worlds and the asteroid belt near the fourth planet, a massive gas giant, turned up having similar results. A veritable gold rush began after word got back to Terra and the Inner Colonies. The mining corporations all but climbed over each other to stake claims.

The system was little more than a large mining operation for military and industrial uses. The minerals were shipped to orbital refineries and warehouses before getting shipped out to other systems or the system’s own shipyards. Most of the people who worked there were employed by the private mining companies that the Human Federation government signed business contracts with.

The system was hit a week ago by pirates and the companies howled for the Space Force to provide added protection. The local garrison which consisted at the time of no more than eight battlecruisers was caught out of position by the pirates. The ships jumped in on the far side of the system, maneuvered their way past the defense platforms’ effective firing ranges, and raided tens of thousands of tons of ore and finished metals.

Then, not too long ago, reliable intelligence suggested that the Allied Colonies for Freedom might attack the Mendus system. Fleet Command took the threat very seriously and moved Admiral Kimery’s First Fleet to reinforce the system. The Human Federation simply could not afford to lose the system and its vital mineral resources. It had a series of jump gates and many hyper points out of the system as well. Losing the system could cripple the Human Federation’s control over the remaining Outer Colonies and give the Rebels a staging point for further attacks in Human Federation space. In short, they could not let the Rebs have the system.

Hoshi looked over Richard’s shoulders at the sensor station in the bridge’s Combat Information Center as she walked to her station in Operations. She’d been off duty for the last couple of hours spending time in the ship’s entertainment section catching a movie with several other officers.

Hoshi turned to her chief petty officer, Bernard Stalman, who turned around at the sound of her boots on the deck. Now that the ship was underway all crewmembers changed out of their service dress uniform and into their SWUs. The SWU consisted of a black undershirt and blue and gray digital print pattern pants and blouse worn by both men and women. Most everyone used the uniform’s many pockets for a number of data pads, data cards, tools, wallets, and other such items.

“You are relieved Bernard,” Hoshi spoke as she approached her CPO.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Bernard replied as he saluted her.

“Anything change since I was last here?” Hoshi asked as she sat down in her chair and looked at the repeater and touchscreens that was at her side. Bernard shook his head as Hoshi looked at him. “I see,” she replied as she tapped the surface of the touchscreens and brought up a number of status reports on one of the large HD screens hanging from the wall of the operations department. “I see that Fusion Two is back online.”

“Yes,” Stalman replied as he handed a datapad to her. “Engineering reports that the fuel delivery systems are working once again.”

“Do they have any idea what happened?” she asked without looking up from the datapad in her hand. “This is practically a new ship, barely a year out of the yards and we’re already having issues. This shouldn’t be happening, right?” She asked.

“No, ma’am. I don’t think so either.” He paused. “As for what happened, it was caused by some kind of software bug which caused the reactor to shut down. Reactor Control told me that the computer systems presented errors across the board. The next thing they knew the emergency systems injected liquid nitrogen into the reactor vessel causing an instant cooldown of the reaction containment vessel. It was as if the computer systems detected a cooling system failure and performed an emergency reactor shutdown. Starting it back up required a hot fusion plasma injection from Fusion One to bring it back online. It’s a good thing this ship has three reactors, just in case something like this happens.” Bernard handed another datapad to her. “CyberSec had to step in and patch the computer systems that controlled the reactor. As you can see from the report, a number of highly specific situations had to come together to have this software bug occur.”

“Any idea why this bug wasn’t caught and fixed before?” Hoshi asked with a hint of annoyance in her voice. It took everything in her to not want to curse out the yard dogs who built the ship. She knew that heads were going to roll over this issue when Fleet Command got ahold of this information; having reactors fail was the last thing a ship needed.

Stalman shook his head. “I talked to Lieutenant Commander McFarland in CyberSec and she reports that it was something quite complicated. A series of three system failures had to happen in a very specific order for the bug to occur. I’m really not surprised that this happened due to just how complicated the specifics of this bug were; it took McFarland and her team several hours to patch the software. She also reports that the bug has been in existence for nearly two years but the chance of the bug actually occurring is…,” he consulted the datapad in his hand, “in her words, ‘an Oh-Nine Factor.’”

“An Oh-Nine Factor?” Hoshi asked, an eyebrow rising on her brow.

“Oh, sorry ma’am. She means 0.000000001%.”

Hoshi’s eyes widened very slightly after she figured out the decimal place. “A one one-billionth of a percent? How the…, I mean… that’s practically zero!”

“Ma’am, as Lieutenant Commander McFarland said when I raised the same point, ‘but it’s not zero’. Although, she might’ve been exaggerating just a bit given the small grin on her face.”

Hoshi breathed a sigh of disgust and put her head in her palm. She looked back up and turned to her CPO again. “Has this bug fix been sent back to Fleet Command for other ships to have the same patch?”

Her CPO nodded his head. “Yes, McFarland personally made sure that the people who needed to know about the situation have been informed. They have already uploaded it to Fleet Command via subspace comms; but it’ll take time for them to receive it, analyze it, vet it, and then push it out across the Fleet. In the meantime, she pushed the patch to the admiral’s code monkeys and they’ve vetted it and pushed it out to our fleet. They also appended their approval to McFarland’s submission to Fleet Command before it was sent out.” He handed another datapad to Hoshi.

“I see,” Hoshi replied as she looked at the new datapad and then back up to her CPO. “Have you checked any of the other systems to see if they’ve been affected by a similar bug?”

Stalman nodded his head. “Yes,” he handed her yet another datapad. Hoshi was getting annoyed already. She’d been on the job for barely five minutes and she was being bombarded with nearly eight reports. “As you can see, I ordered a level one diagnostic check on all key ship systems. I’ve triple-checked every system from top to bottom. Our team worked with the CyberSec division as well and I’m pleased to report that all computer program code has been authenticated and verified. If you ask me,” Hoshi nodded her head for him to give his opinion, “we’re ready. This ship is ready for whatever the ACF can throw at us, at least from a computer code perspective.”

Hoshi nodded her head and stood up from her chair. “Thank you Chief Stalman,” she took the datapad in hand. “I will return shortly; I need to file this report with the XO.”

She approached the XO who was sitting in the captain’s chair. The captain was off duty at the time and he was the commander of the watch. She saluted then spoke up, “Sir, I have those reports about the system errors that occurred. My department and CyberSec have finished weeding out the bugs and we should be good to go from now on.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant Commander Asakura,” he said as he took the report from her. He glanced over the first part of it. “Is there anything else?”

“No, sir!”

“That’s good. How is your section coming along?” he asked.

“Very well sir,” she replied, relaxing from her stiff stance. “I’ve had a few problems but my petty officers are handling the situations quite well in fact. It was nothing that a little discipline and encouragement couldn’t fix.”

“Good to hear,” he said. If that wasn’t a summary dismissal, Hoshi never heard one. She saluted again and walked back over to Rachel’s station in CyberSec. Rachel looked up from her chair when Hoshi tapped her on the shoulder, “Any trouble?”

Hoshi shook her head, “No. Thanks for your help on those issues. It would’ve taken my department twice as long to find and fix all the issues. Just tell your team I said thanks.”

“Will do,” Rachel said and affected not to notice the smiles on her crew’s faces. She even chose to not notice two of her able spacemen give each other a fist bump. Her CPO noticed it and made a note to talk to them later. Too much of that could wear on discipline and make everyone feel too lax. Not that there wasn’t anything wrong with congratulating each other on a job well done but there was a time and place and on the bridge wasn’t the time and place to do so. The two probably knew it as well, since a glance at the CPO made them get back to work very quickly.

“While you’re here,” Hoshi looked to her, “do you and Richard want to meet up with me in the Officer’s Lounge later tonight?” Rachel shrugged her shoulders. “They’re going to have a poker tournament tonight. The winner gets the pot which if I remember correctly has almost two hundred credits in it with the buy-in being only five credits.”

“Is there any actual betting going on?” Rachel asked.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Hoshi said as she damn well knew that she was lying.

“Well,” Rachel thought for a moment, “Sure. If nothing else comes up, we’ll be there. It should be fun to watch, even if I can barely play.”

“Great,” Hoshi slapped Rachel on her shoulder, “I look forward to seeing you there.”

As Hoshi left Rachel’s department, she was a little surprised by the other officer’s reaction. Then, it slowly dawned on her. As long as such things didn’t affect job performance, Rachel let most things slide. Little things like what those two ratings did were just that, little things. When such things did affect the job, oh, she came down on the offenders like a falling wall. Hoshi came to learn that Rachel was damn near a perfectionist while on the job and expected her crew to be the same. What she failed to realize, Hoshi thought, was that not everyone was as good as her. She might not realize that she wasn’t the best at what she did either. The sooner she realized those points about herself she’d make a stellar officer.

Hoshi walked back to the sensor station in CIC. She peered over the rating’s shoulders at the myriad of blue dots representing the ore haulers running raw materials to the factories. There were some ships around each of the planets in the system but none of them looked to be hostile, it was all very routine. Beyond those ore haulers was the infrastructure that kept the system alive.

She was just about to return to her own station when all hell broke loose as the sensor station lit up like a Christmas tree with crimson dots all over the board. The sensor net at the edge of the system watching over the hyper points transmitted their readings in near real-time via subspace radio. The console beeped in alarm as the computer began interpreting the incoming data and flagging multiple hostile targets. All of them were still very far away, at least eight light hours away.

Hoshi and the sensor crew stiffened up. It wasn’t just that the Rebel fleet was there, it was how large the fleet was. She stared at the computers as they updated the numbers again and again. The enemy fleet had to be over half again as large as their fleet and the computer kept counting as the sensor net spotted more ships exiting hyperspace. They were coming in front of the Human Federation fleet, with the jump gate to their backs. Clearly, they thought they could block the obvious retreat path through the gate.

Hoshi walked away from the railing that overlooked the CIC and gave Richard a smile that was hopefully encouraging and took her station at ops. A couple of minutes later the captain came onto the bridge. The captain moved to her command chair and looked at the repeaters on the chair’s arm. A raised eyebrow was her only reaction as she relayed the information to her XO. He, in turn, went to the communications station and asked the rating there to call up the admiral’s ship.

Hoshi couldn’t hear what the person on the other end said. Most likely it was one of the admiral’s many communications noncoms on the flag bridge. A minute later Justin looked up, “Helm, raise bow forty degrees at time three-zero. Maintain speed of point-three-light!”

Time crawled by as the ship and the rest of the fleet moved toward the enemy. It would still be another sixteen hours until the fleets reached their outer missile engagement ranges. Hoshi talked with her own noncoms and made sure they knew what had to be done when the time came. It wasn’t long until the captain relieved the bridge crew for some rest. Hoshi was thankful for that for she didn’t at all want to spend the next few hours staring at a sensor report that told her how screwed they were.

Hoshi spent the next hour or so tossing and turning in bed. She sometimes got nervous when going into battle. Some officers and crewmembers took battles in stride like it was just another part of their duty. They weren’t nervous; they were excited, as crazy as that sounded. She and a few others got nervous, especially with the odds they were facing. However, nerves or not, she still managed to fall asleep.

Seven hours later she woke up. She reached about on the floor in the dark and found the datapad she put on the floor just before going to bed. She picked it up and noticed the time, nine hours until intercept. She had no time to waste, she needed to get to the bridge and conduct several final system checks before the battle. She sat up in bed and tapped the light controls just beside her pillow. She got up and looked into her closet and grabbed a clean working uniform from the wall locker.

She stood up from her bed after lacing up her boots and looked at herself in the room’s mirror. “Crap,” she said as she ran her hand through her hair, “that’s a mess.” She reached down and grabbed her brush and brushed her hair until it was decent looking. “There,” she said as she brushed the back of her hair and turned her head about to look at the back of her head, “much better.” She reached down and pressed a button on her belt then walked out of her cabin and down the hallway towards the lift.

“Do you have any reports for me chief?” Hoshi asked once she was on the bridge, expecting to be bombed with reports just like she was yesterday by her CPO. Bernard looked at his side and pulled out a single datapad. A single datapad? She thought. This is very strange. She shrugged her shoulders. Her CPO looked to her. “Oh nothing,” she said as she took hold of the datapad.

Hoshi began to read and looked up at her petty officer. “All systems are working properly within regulation specifications?” The senior petty officer nodded his head. Hoshi looked to the right of her at nobody in particular and rubbed her chin. Something isn’t right here. “Have you double checked these reports?”

Stalman paused for a moment wondering why she was questioning the reports. As far as he was concerned, he’d done his job to the best of his ability. “Yes, I did; in fact, I triple checked it. All systems are green, ma’am.”

Hoshi rubbed her chin again. The fact that all systems were working within design specifications just didn’t seem right to her. No ship’s systems ever worked 100% correctly, there was always random little issues that came up. “That’ll be all. Thank you, Chief Stalman.” She paused for a second. “It’s not you or my crew that I don’t trust, it’s the reports that I don’t trust.”

“What do you mean?” Stalman asked.

“Maybe it’s nothing but when everything is going our way, I don’t like it. Call me cynical if you want but I don’t trust it.” She walked out of her department and shook her head. Turning around she spoke to her chief, “Run another diagnostic on all ship systems, one more time Stalman.” Shaking her head, she walked over to the CyberSec department and waited while the officer there, an ensign, finished speaking with one of his noncoms. “Ensign Taylor?” she inquired. “A word with you please?”

Ensign Jerome Taylor stood up from the chair and saluted her. “What can I do for you ma’am?” he asked. He had to be thinking one thing. What was a senior officer from Operations doing asking him such a pointed question? What had he done?

Hoshi alleviated his fears by saying, “If it’s not too much trouble, can you run a deep scan on all systems? I want a full network security check done by,” she checked her watch, “twelve hundred hours.” That was three hours from then. Just enough time before intercept for everyone to rotate out, get a little rack time and something to eat before the battle.

“Of course, ma’am. May I ask why?”

“Things are just… running too well for my tastes. All status reports from my crew are green. My crew, I trust them; it’s the reports that I don’t.”

“Huh?” Taylor asked; a most undignified response to her statement.

“Maybe I’m jumping at shadows; maybe I’m letting my nerves get to me. Either that or I’m letting my cynicism show.” She proceeded to explain what she meant. Taylor listened, scratched his head once and told her that he’d get right on it. It was probably nothing and he surely thought so, but when a senior officer asked, you delivered.

Hoshi walked back to her section. Her CPO approached her and asked if she wanted to command but she told him that he still had command of the section and that she had other things to do that took priority. She had several reports from the day before that she didn’t have time to go over, so she left the noncom in charge.

She walked over to one of the auxiliary stations in her department and began going over those reports. If she’d known how much paperwork there was to do as an officer, she never would’ve signed up for the Space Force Officer Candidate School after four years at Kyoto University. She, like many other graduate students, looked forward to a decent job after college. So how had she gotten herself into the military? The career there certainly looked better than anything she could get in the private sector on Terra, or any of the other colonies for that matter. It wasn’t a huge surge of patriotism that made her join, just her looking for something better. She supposed that a lot of people in history joined for just that reason.

Awhile later she felt a tap on her shoulder. She was so engrossed in reading the reports that the mere tap on her shoulder nearly sent her flying out of her seat. She spun around on her chair and looked up, “McFarland, what can I do for you?”

“First,” Rachel handed her a datapad, “mind explaining this?” Rachel wanted to know why another senior officer was asking her department to do something without consulting her first. “My department is already overtasked. What’s going on? Why did you ask my department to do this?”

Hoshi took hold of the datapad and began to read it. It was the results of the system scan that she asked Ensign Taylor in CyberSec to run for her. She read the report and once again, that report came back green.

Hoshi looked at Rachel. “Yes, that.” Hoshi paused. “I requested your department to run a scan of all networked systems just for verification of my reports.”

“Can I ask why? Don’t you have your own teams to run system checks?” Rachel asked with a hint of annoyance in her voice.

“Yes, I do have my own teams. I just wanted a second opinion on something.”

“A second opinion on what?” Rachel asked. “All systems are green. What more could you want right before a big battle?”

Hoshi looked about and watched as her crew looked at her wondering what was going on as well. A glance from her made them find something else to do. “And that doesn’t worry you?” Hoshi asked. “Don’t you think that things are going just a tad bit too well? Last time I checked nothing works 100%. I’ve been serving aboard ships for nearly four years and in all my time, even in civilian life, nothing works as advertised. Granted, it could just be the cynic in me but usually, nothing works this well.”

Rachel rubbed her chin and nodded her head slowly. “Perhaps you’re right.” She paused. “But we only have eight hours before intercept. I don’t have nearly enough time to tear down the entirety of all the ship’s systems for a complete code audit and system recompile. That would take at the at least a week minimum, two weeks tops as well as a full shipyard.” Rachel shook her head. “And we don’t have weeks, we have hours.”

Hoshi looked to Rachel, down at the deck, and then back up at Rachel after thinking for some time. “I don’t know what we should do; all I know is that I can’t shake the feeling that something just isn’t right.” Hoshi thought a moment and a brilliant idea came to mind. “Rachel, don’t we have protected backups for all critical computer systems? Couldn’t we simply reload all of the computers from the protected backup archives?”

Rachel paused for she was about to say something but what Hoshi said made her think along the same lines that Hoshi was now thinking. “Protected backups…” she nodded her head slowly. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Could we do it?” Hoshi asked.

“Yes,” Rachel said bluntly.

“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Hoshi replied as she raised her left hand and put her index finger up. “Why do I feel like it’s not going to be easy?”

“Because it’s not going to be.” Rachel looked at Hoshi. “We’re going to have to shut down each affected system and reload each by hand from the protected backup archive modules that are stored in the captain’s vault in her quarters.”

“How long will that take?”

“The better part of what time we have left.”

“Alright Rachel, we’ll bring this up with the XO. It would be better if both of us go to him.”

Rachel nodded her head in agreement. “One of us will make us sound like paranoids but two of us are going to put some weight behind the theories.” Rachel turned about and looked at Hoshi behind her. “Well, you coming?”

Hoshi shook her head. “Alright Rachel, whatever you say.” Hoshi learned very quickly that Rachel was straight-forward. Once she set her mind to something, she was going to do it and heaven help anyone who got in her way.

They walked across the bridge and approached the XO. “What’s going on?”

“Sir?” Rachel paused. “Remember when the captain told me that if there was an issue, no matter how small, I should bring it to the attention of either you or the captain?” Justin nodded his head. “Well, I believe we have something.” Rachel handed Justin the datapad.

Justin took a couple of moments to read the datapad and nodded his head slowly as he scrolled through the many reports that Rachel compiled on the datapad. He tapped his finger on the datapad a few times, pulling up several historical reports from ship system checks and compared them against the reports that Rachel gave him. He looked up and handed the datapad back to Rachel.

“I can understand why you’d want to bring this to my attention.” He shook his head. “I don’t like it at all. Something’s definitely not right.” He turned to Hoshi. “And you’ve double-checked these reports lieutenant commander?”

Hoshi nodded her head. “Double-checked it, triple-checked it, and then checked it again. Everything comes back green, sir.”

Justin turned to Rachel. “And you’ve confirmed this?” Rachel nodded her head. Justin looked about the bridge and thought for a few moments. “What are your theories on this?”

Hoshi spoke up. “My theory is that there’s a computer virus in the system and it’s feeding back improper data. Anyone else would probably look at this situation and think everything’s fine, but not me. Call me a cynic, but I don’t trust things when things are going, shall we say, too well.”

Rachel interjected. “To continue where Hoshi stopped off at, we’ve come up with a plan. Our plan is to reload each system from the protected archive backup flash memory modules that are in the captain’s vault.”

Justin thought about that. He was personally involved in a full system reload once before and he remembered that the process took about four hours. And they only had six hours to spare. Not much time at all if something went wrong.

Justin pressed his lips together in thought before he spoke again. “Okay, let me get the flash drives and the two of you will coordinate with both of your teams to get this done. With both teams working on this we should get it done sooner.” Justin came back a few minutes later from the captain’s quarters. The Marine sentry outside her quarters only paused to get authorization from the captain before following the XO inside. “Here they are,” he handed a set of USB flash memory drives to Rachel. “Get going, we need this done quickly.”

“There’s one more thing that I’d like to talk about sir,” Hoshi replied as Justin was about to walk away. “I’d like to suggest that as soon as the systems are reloaded, they’re to be cut off from the network and put into full autistic mode. I’m not just talking about putting firewalls up; I’m talking about cutting the hard lines by physically disconnecting the fiber optic links. Any and all computer links that ordinarily allow our ship systems to function as one system should be disconnected. Communications would be completely disconnected from the primary computer so we will need all the communication technicians we have because all communications will have to be done manually without the help of the computer to encode data. This includes internal and external communications. We can’t run the risk that the virus could re-infect us, especially if it’s from outside the ship. Once all of that’s done, I suggest that you and the captain change your personal command codes, just in case.”

“Commander Asakura,” Justin said in a matter of fact way. “What you’re proposing is to essentially cripple this ship. Do you have any idea just how much we rely on computer networks to keep this ship functioning as it should? Every department would have to function as separate units. Commands would have to be given audibly with no central computer systems to relay them. In general, it would be a royal pain in the ass. Everything, including weapons and navigation, would have to be done in local control. It’s possible, of course, but I don’t think it’s ever been done before.”

“I know that sir. What I proposed wasn’t taken lightly. Sir, I think we very well may be infected by a specifically crafted computer virus designed by the ACF. They use the same computer systems we do, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they were able to craft a virus to disable our ships in the few months since they broke away.”

“Alright,” Justin replied. “I don’t like it, the captain sure as hell won’t like it, and the other department heads will probably want your heads by the time this is all over. But if your theory holds true, then we need to do this.” Justin paused for a moment; he knew he was going to catch seven kinds of hell for this but with the way that Hoshi was sounding he knew he had to go through with the plan. He knew Hoshi for far too long to dismiss her theories. “Go ahead with the system reload and disconnect the hard lines. Meanwhile, I’m going to tell the captain and inform the rest of the department heads.” Justin was about to step away from them but he turned back to them. “What about the rest of the fleet? Are you going to tell them?”

“No, sir,” Hoshi replied. “We’re just going to have to hope that they found out about this like we did. If we tell someone else in the fleet, we could very well be informing an ACF spy without even knowing we did.” She shook her head. “I hate to say it, but they’re on their own.”

“Shit,” Justin whispered. “I’m going to catch hell from the Admiral too. I do have to inform the admiral though; I trust her and her staff. I’ll tell her in a private encrypted channel. She needs to know about this.”

With that Hoshi and Rachel walked away from Justin while he went to go tell the captain about the plan. Rachel looked to Hoshi and asked, “How did you know you could tell me? How did you know that I’m not siding with the enemy? Anyone of us could be siding with the enemy and you wouldn’t know it.”

“Trust me, Rachel,” she replied. “I knew it was safe to tell you, just like I know it will be safe to tell my crew.”

“How?” Rachel asked.

“Think of it as intuition. I know my crew and I know you,” Hoshi pointed to Rachel. “I know you’re not siding with the enemy and I know that Richard doesn’t either.”

Rachel stopped and put her hand on Hoshi’s shoulder and felt something like a static electric discharge. Humidity wasn’t kept very high aboard ship to help reduce condensation on the cold metal surfaces and that tended to create a lot of static discharge from person to person. Hoshi stopped and looked her in the eyes. “You’ve only known me for a couple of weeks. How can you simply trust me like that?”

“I know you,” Hoshi replied. “I’m a good judge of character, it comes naturally to me.”

“Um, okay,” Rachel answered with a shrug. “I don’t know my crew that well. Maybe I shouldn’t tell them.”

“You can tell them; I can vouch for every one of them. Remember, I’ve been on this ship since she launched. I’ve gotten to know many of the bridge crew members. There are still some new ones that I don’t know very well but they aren’t in the departments that have anything to do with this.”

Rachel thought about it for a moment and simply shrugged her shoulders again. She opened her mouth to speak but stopped. She wanted to say something but decided to keep it to herself and go back to her department. She followed Hoshi to her department just as Justin arrived with the USB flash drives containing the backup software.

“McFarland,” Justin said as Rachel came to attention, “at ease. Here are the flash drives that contain the backup software. We only have sixteen of them, one for each of the major systems aboard this ship.”

“That will be enough,” Hoshi stepped forward. “Thank you.”

“Enough?” Rachel asked as Hoshi’s crew stared at the two women. “Do you have any idea how many stations will need to be reloaded let alone all of the central computers in each department?”

“Then we’ll have to make copies,” Hoshi replied as she sat down at her terminal. She reached for the back of her terminal and disconnected the Ethernet wire. “Hand me a flash drive and I’ll reload my station here from the read-only flash drives and then we’ll make new flash drives once we know that my station has been properly secured.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Rachel replied as she sat down in an available chair in the department. “You know that we’re going to have to get some clean flash drives. Do we have any around?”

Hoshi nodded and looked to the XO and he nodded in return. A moment later Justin came forward with a box of them. He handed the box to Hoshi and she looked it over. It was a metal box with tamper-evident tape wrapped around it. She inspected it and found nothing wrong. “These will do.”

Rachel nodded her head and she handed her the flash drive to reload the computer station with. She turned her station off and then turned it back on again while plugging the USB flash drive into one of the station’s many USB ports. Once the system’s UEFI boot screen appeared she tapped a few keys on the keyboard and the system’s boot menu appeared. She selected the USB flash drive and the system booted from the drive after the UEFI system authenticated the cryptographic keys and then launched an automated operating system reload. A progress bar went across the screen and indicated that the process would take two minutes to complete. Rachel was impressed, not many people outside of the CyberSec department knew how to do this.

“How did you know how to do that?” Rachel asked.

“I’ve had to reload my own OS on my computer at home. It uses the same procedure.” Hoshi replied. “Some update trashed my Windows installation.” Rachel chuckled. “It’s a wonder how Microsoft still exists today.” The rest of the crew laughed.

Rachel looked to Hoshi. “Did you know that most of our stuff onboard ship is built upon Windows?”

“Oh, that’s a scary thought,” Hoshi said. “All we need is a BSOD in battle and we’re screwed.”

Hoshi looked to Rachel and then her crew. “Alright people, we have an emergency. There are indications that our computer systems may be infected by a computer virus of unknown origin. I can’t be sure but if my instincts are correct, it may have come from the ACF.” Her crew looked to her and then to each other. Hoshi coughed to get their attention. “I trust each of you to get the job done. We need to cut the hardlines and reload all of the software from these USB flash drives. We don’t have enough but Rachel and I are going to work on duplicating them. Once that’s complete, I’m going to send all of you out along with several members of Rachel’s crew throughout the ship to do this task. It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to take a long time. We can’t trust these computer systems until we reload them.”

Hoshi looked at Rachel. “Go to your department and tell them the same thing I’ve told my department.” Rachel nodded her head and went back to her department. Hoshi then looked to her computer terminal and the system was up and running with a clean software build. She then took out her multi-tool and opened the secured box and went to work in duplicating the USB flash drives that were going to be needed to do the task at hand.

“Do you think that this will have any kind of a change on the outcome of the battle?” Rachel asked as she returned from her department. She knew what the answer was, deep down in her stomach she hoped that it would make a change to the battle but the realist in her knew full well that these small efforts were going to have little to no change in their survivability. Those were a lot of enemy ships coming at them.

She shook her head. “Probably little,” she frowned, “but it could be that little bit that makes the difference between all, or just some of us dying. I’d rather go down fighting than to sit down and do nothing about it. Even if it saves a quarter of this crew,” she nodded her head, “it was well worth it.” The rest of her crew nodded their heads in agreement.

Rachel looked to her and pressed her lips together. She knew that Hoshi was right. “Alright,” she looked down at her datapad. “Let’s do this.”

About two hours before intercept Hoshi awoke after a very fitful nap. She got out of her bed and made her way to the bridge. When she walked onto the bridge she looked about. Her eyes were drawn to the CIC where multiple screens were showing the enemy fleet. If she was reading the sensor reports right, the ACF fleet consisted of no less than 14 assault carriers, 30 super juggernauts, 20 juggernauts, 12 aging dreadnoughts, 55 battleships, 30 battlecruisers, 70 heavy cruisers, 50 light cruisers, and 20 destroyers. In addition, was a mix of about 30 frigates and penny corvettes. Their own fleet was less than three-quarters that size but the Human Federation fleet had a larger number of battleships and had 28 super juggernauts and 25 juggernauts along with 10 of its own assault carriers.

The assault carriers were quickly becoming obsolete along with the concept of the now dead starfighter. No single man craft could ever pull the high-velocity maneuvers that were needed in modern space warfare. The Gs that the pilots would have to pull would kill them, nor could they produce the thrust needed to keep a ship at the high speeds that modern warships maintained. To make a fighter large enough to do so, it would have to almost be a ten-man craft and a lot larger. Fighters were now only part of the Air Force and wet Navy.

She heard that BuShips was considering one of two options for the obsolete assault carriers: keeping them as capital-ship sized missile boats or scrapping them altogether. Hoshi suspected they would be used until they couldn’t be repaired anymore, much like the dreadnoughts were. Assault carriers were smaller than a juggernaut, though larger than a battleship, only carried battleship-sized energy mounts.

She tore her eyes away from the sensor reports and walked across the bridge to the CyberSec Department. There she found many of her own crew members working alongside Rachel’s crew. She watched Rachel pace back and forth while she was looking at datapads. It was a wonder that she didn’t wear a groove into the floor with her pacing.

She walked up to Rachel and tapped her on the shoulder which nearly made her jump. Rachel turned around and looked at Hoshi. “Have we gotten anywhere?”

Rachel turned her head. “Yes, 98% complete on the computer system reloads. We only have six more computer stations and the main computer in Reactor Control to reload. Problem is that we will need to shut down the two reactors to do this. We’re going to have to make it quick though, we can’t bleed off too much of the internal heat inside the reactor or we’re going to have to cold restart the reactors and that takes too long.”

“Cold restart the reactors?” Hoshi thought about it for a couple of moments. She remembered that being talked about in one of her system operations management classes back when she was in OCS. “Yeah, cold start. One of those takes about five hours to complete. First, you have to form the magnetic bubble and secondly generate enough muons to catalyze the fusion reaction. Normally a reactor is cold started with the help of the dry dock’s reactor by piping in hot plasma to initiate hot fusion.”

Muons? Rachel asked herself. Alright, most of that went right over my head with light years to spare. “How do you know so much about this kind of stuff?” Rachel asked.

Oh shit, she thought, I said too much. She recomposed herself quickly. “There was a small segment of some of the classes that I ended up taking back in my OCS days that covered basic nuclear fusion theory.” Hoshi smiled on the inside; she knew full well how the fusion reactors worked but she had to hide that fact.

“Okay,” Rachel replied as she looked over the plan that she drew up. “Here,” she handed a second data pad to Hoshi, “these are my plans to reload the computer systems in Reactor Control. I talked to the guys down there and they assured me that as long as we get the job done within fifteen minutes we shouldn’t bleed off enough internal heat so as to lose the ability to restart the reactor with a hot-restart.”

Hoshi looked over the datapad. A hot restart. Interesting. As long as the plasma temperature remains in excess of 100 million Kelvin, we should be able to restart the fusion process without having to reinitialize fusion using muon catalyzation. “I see,” she said to no one in particular as she was reading. She nodded her head. “Yes, this should work just fine. The timetables are more than capable of being met. I should be able to get the main computer up and running within ten minutes.” She looked up. “But that means you would have to work on reloading the individual control stations on your own. Are you sure you can get all five stations reloaded within the allotted time?”

“No problem,” Rachel replied as she held out her hand which held five USB flash drives. “I have one for every control station.”

“That’s cheating!” Hoshi laughed. “But effective.”

“Alright,” Rachel said. “Let’s get a move on here. We don’t have that much time to go; we don’t have much time. Let’s move.”

Half an hour later, the fusion reactor control room computer systems were reloaded and the ship’s reactors were restarted without a hitch. Hoshi looked to Rachel just as she pulled out the last USB flash drive.

“All done?” Hoshi asked from across the room.

“Yeah,” Rachel replied as got up from under the computer station. “Whoa…” Rachel said as she stood up.

“What?” Hoshi asked as she came over to find out what happened. Meanwhile, Rachel was leaning on the computer terminal to steady herself. “What happened?”

“I got dizzy all of a sudden, just as I stood up.” She looked at Hoshi’s worried expression. “When was the last time you ate something?” Rachel thought about it for a few moments. “Thirty-six hours ago, I think.”

“Low blood sugar levels,” Hoshi replied quickly. “Go get to the mess and get something to eat, it doesn’t matter if it’s an MRE, just get something to eat. You won’t be of any use during the coming battle if you can’t think straight.”

The thought of having to eat an MRE didn’t sit well with Rachel. Sure, the MRE provided you with all of the nutrients you needed. She kept thinking about all the various names that were thrown about in the world. “Materials Resembling Edibles” and “Morale Reducing Elements” were her favorite names for MREs.

“MREs? Yuck!” Rachel spat that phrase out. “Do you think that the mess will still be open? How long until engagement?”

“About an hour, so my guess is that the mess is probably closed,” Hoshi replied as she stuffed the datapad into her uniform pocket.

“Crap,” Rachel replied. “MRE it is. Oh yay.”

“Come,” Hoshi replied as she walked towards the lift. “I have a few good ones left in my room. I’ll let you have one of them.” She looked at Rachel. “Get to the bridge and get those USB flash drives squared away with the XO and the captain and I’ll get that MRE for you.”

An hour later, the sound of the captain’s voice came over all of their comlinks. “All hands, prepare for battle!” Missiles roared out of their launchers as the targeting computers found solid locks. The range was still long, easily over six million kilometers, but the computers had a long time to lock their targets up.

Rachel could hear over the comlink that was still connected to operations. The captain had told her department to set up a comlink system separate from the main computer. She ended up having to scrounge up the components to make up a comlink hub at the last minute which mainly consisted of an antenna array and specialized software that she had to load from the backup memory cards. Luckily, she was able to do so five minutes before the battle started. The miniature comlink hub didn’t have nearly the same communication bandwidth capabilities of the main computer. She couldn’t blame her, what with the reports from Hoshi and herself, the captain didn’t want to take any chances with having anything connected to the main computer or any other onboard system. She wanted everything to be as isolated as it could get.

The ship rocked as several enemy missiles found their marks on the Valiant. Reports were coming in from all over the ship as hull breaches were reported. The systems responsible for sealing off damaged sections of the ship were functioning just as they were designed to do. Unfortunately, the makeshift comlink hub that she cobbled together was barely handling the load with all of the departments reporting their individual damage reports. The only thing that was truly understood was the automated damage reports that were being sent over a dedicated data sub-channel that was isolated from every other system aboard.

“Rachel,” one of her noncoms shouted over the private comlink that was set up for interdepartmental communications. “I’ve got reports from CIC that state many of our own ships are targeting us. It appears that the fleet’s IFF transponders aren’t functioning.”

“Shit,” Rachel hissed. “That means that the other ships are still infected.”

The ship rocked again as enemy missiles found their targets. Then just when everything couldn’t get any worse, an enemy graser fired at close range blew through the engineering section on the bridge. The men and women at those stations disappeared almost instantly. Rachel thanked God that her own vacsuit had radiation shielding but nothing would’ve protected her from a direct hit. She also breathed a sigh of relief that there was no air to fuel any explosions. However, that did nothing to prevent the wave of heat from hurling pieces of the hull that hadn’t completely melted throughout the bridge.

The actual engagement was only a few microseconds as the fleets had raced past each other at a combined intercept velocity of 0.4 light. At those speeds only computers had any hope of aiming, firing, and scoring hits on ships within the fractions of a second that ships were in firing range. No human brain could hope to keep up. The ACF ships kept going on, not turning around. If every ship in the Human Federation fleet was as bad off as the Valiant, they wouldn’t need to turn around. With some of their ships, it’d be a small miracle just to get out of the system; which was exactly what Admiral Kimery ordered.

The ship was still shaking from hits as Rachel looked behind her as she saw a body fly past her department and heard the splash of blood against the back of her vacsuit’s helmet. She shouted over the comlink to her crew for a department-wide check-in. Meanwhile, the captain shouted over the comlink for damage control and medics to come to the bridge to help contain the situation.

Meanwhile, Rachel could feel the ship rock once again as several more missiles found their mark and struck the ship again. Damage control reports continued to come flowing in. She looked at her computer readouts and found that the engines had been hit as the ACF passed by their fleet.

Just as Rachel was about to reach for her restraints the ship rocked once again. She read the damage control readouts from the operations department and gasped as she read that engineering took a hit and that one of the reactors went into emergency shutdown.

“Where’s damage control!?” the captain shouted over the comlinks as she looked about the bridge and for the first time got a real handle on just how much damage the bridge took in the graser hit. “And for that matter, where’s the medics? We have injured people up here!”

Rachel undid her restraints and stood up and stepped up and out of her department pit and got a firsthand look at the damage. There were computer parts, limbs, and blood everywhere. She gasped as she took the scene in and turned back to survey her own crew. She then looked up and saw deck after deck of the ship above her and the sight of open space beyond it. The graser had cut clean through the ship’s hull above the bridge.

“Is everyone alright?” she shouted over the comlink to her crew. Seconds passed, but to Rachel it felt like hours as she waited for her crew to respond. She heard the moan of James over the comlink. “I’m alright but I think my shoulder is dislocated, I can’t move it. I still have feeling in my hand but every time I try and move my arm, I can’t move it.” Meanwhile, she heard her other crew members respond as they came to realize that they were still alive.

Rachel looked about her section and walked among her crew to inspect them. She also took an inventory of the computer terminals in her department as well; almost half of them were destroyed.

Rachel took a deep breath and tapped her comlink to talk to her crew. “Congratulations are in order, you guys did well today. Thank you to all of you for your hard work, I know that it wasn’t easy during those seconds of horror but you guys pulled through.”

The captain came over the comlink. “To anyone who is on the bridge that can walk, any assistance you can provide to the wounded is requested. We need people who are able to lift to help those who are trapped under pieces of the hull.”

Rachel turned to her crew and shouted. “Alright, you heard the captain! Let’s move!” She turned to her CPO. “As for you James, you sit still. Don’t do anything.” James looked to her and gave her a thumbs-up with his good hand. Rachel turned away and walked out of her department pit. That was when she got a good look at the CIC and wished that she hadn’t.

The CIC appeared to be one of the departments that were hit the hardest by flying debris. The captain stood by as she directed people to the CIC to help out. As soon as Rachel witnessed the horror that was CIC she gasped. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. She kept saying to herself. Could Richard be dead? The more logical side of her told herself to get a grip. He’s not dead until you see a body! She tried to tell herself that multiple times but it didn’t help calm her down one bit. She couldn’t believe that anyone would have survived the mess that was CIC.

But that didn’t stop her from running over to CIC, she just had to know if Richard was alive or dead. She kept praying to God that he was still alive. She ran over to the department as fast as she could run in that clunky suit that she was wearing all the while dodging pieces of the hull that was strewn about the bridge.

She raced down the steps of the CIC and found several people already lifting pieces of the hull off people who were trapped under. She looked down at a piece of the hull and tried to lift it up but couldn’t until someone came over and assisted her. “Alright,” Rachel said as she turned to the person and immediately noticed that it was Richard. A startled gasp escaped her lips upon seeing him. Is it really him? Is it really Richard?

“Yes McFarland,” Richard said as he too noticed that it was Rachel. “I’m alright, a little shaken up but otherwise alright. Dumb luck I guess.” He laughed, though it wasn’t funny. “But yes, it’s good to see that you’re okay as well.”

A wave of relief came over her, Richard was still alive! She had to fight everything in her to stop herself from hugging him for it was definitely against the regs; no doubt about that!

“Yes, it’s good to see you alive as well.” She looked back down at the piece of the hull. “Alright Richard, on three. One… two… three!” The two grunted as they struggled to lift the piece of the hull that had to be at the very least ninety kilograms. Finally, they lifted the piece of the hull and threw it off somewhere else. There, lying unconscious on the deck of the bridge was Petty Officer Sutter. Richard knelt down beside her and got a reading from the vacsuit’s vitals monitor, she was alive but the readouts from the systems in the suit registered that she took quite a blow and that she had a nasty concussion. Richard looked about and shouted into the comlink. “Help! We need a medic; we need a medic in the CIC now!”

Just then a medic came over and immediately called for another one. “I need assistance in the CIC, man down and unconscious! I repeat, man down and unconscious!” The medic put a gurney down on the floor. “You two, I need your assistance. Carefully pick her up from the sides and I’ll slide this under her. You have to be careful; we can’t do any more damage than what she already has.” Both carefully lifted Sutter up by her sides and the medic slid her onto the gurney and prepared to move her out.

“Alright, help me with strapping her down,” the medic said as he reached for the straps and showed where they were. “Strap her down but not too tight.” Just then another medic appeared. “Amanda, I need help over here. We need to get this person to the infirmary, stat! You two,” he pointed to Rachel and Richard, “go help somebody else. The two of us got it from here.”

“You two!” Both of them heard over the comlink. “Over here in operations, we need help over here!” The two of them ran over to operations and found that a support beam had fallen on Hoshi’s CPO.

“Good,” Hoshi said as she looked to her CPO. “You’ll be alright, just hang on; we’ll get this beam off of you in no time.”

Richard knew damn well that even with three people they wouldn’t be able to lift the support beam off of the wounded crewman. Richard turned to Hoshi, “There’s no way we can lift this. That beam probably weighs half a ton. We’ll have to cut it to get it off of him.” Hoshi nodded her head and Richard ran off to find someone in damage control.

A couple of minutes later Richard came back with someone carrying a plasma torch. “Alright,” Richard looked to the both of them. “Mike here is going to cut the beam with his plasma torch but as soon as it’s cut, we’re going to have to lift it off of him. We can’t let it fall on him; even this small piece of the beam probably weighs at least two hundred kilos.” Richard looked to the two women who were standing by the downed beam. “Everyone, take hold of the beam.” He turned to Mike and nodded.

Mike fired up the torch and began to slowly cut through the beam that had to easily be over a foot in width. The beam was made from some of the strongest battle steel but nothing could withstand the heat that a pinpoint graser hit could deliver. Mike looked at the beam as the plasma was slowly cutting into the beam and he kept thinking about how slow the process was.

Several minutes later Mike looked up. “I’m almost through,” the three nodded their head. “I’ve just got about three more inches to cut. Meanwhile, the beam was starting to bend at the point where he was cutting. “Richard,” Mike said as he noticed that the beam was shifting, “make sure that it doesn’t move or I’m going to cut into Bernard instead of the beam.” Richard looked at the beam as it was shifting a bit and positioned himself so as to get a better grip on it. “Alright, one more inch…”

“Mike,” Richard grunted over the comlink as Rachel and Hoshi held the beam up to keep it from falling. “Pull Bernard out now!” As soon as Mike heard that he reached for Bernard’s ankles and pulled him out from under the beam with one quick motion. Just as Bernard’s helmet cleared the beam the beam fell out of the grip of the three officers. Rachel wondered why the beam felt so light, she knew that the beam was heavy but while she was holding it, it felt like someone else was bearing most of the weight of it. The only other person holding the beam was Hoshi and Richard. Yes, three people could have carried that beam but even with three people that beam should’ve been much heavier.

“Medic!” Richard shouted over the comlink. “We need a medic to Operations!” Richard looked down at him and noticed that he was fading into unconsciousness. Richard reached down and shook him. “Come on Bernard, stay with us! You can’t go to sleep!” Hoshi ran out of the operations crew pit and over to CIC where several medics were tending to people there. “Hey, Bernard, look at me,” Richard said to him. “Keep looking at me. Yeah, that’s it. You’re going to be alright; you hear?”

“Yes sir,” the other man said weakly, “I’m just tired, that’s all.”

“I know, but stay with me, okay? Don’t go to sleep. That’s an order.”

“Yes sir,” Bernard said with a chuckle.

Rachel knelt down beside Bernard and looked at his vacsuit. “Richard, he’s bleeding inside his suit. His suit has sealed off most of it, acting as a tourniquet, but he needs to get to surgery now.”

Richard tapped his comlink. “Captain!” he shouted over the comlink. “We have a medical emergency in Operations. We have someone down and he’s losing blood!” A couple of seconds later he heard an acknowledgment from the captain and Hoshi came running back to Operations with medics behind her.

“What’s going on here?” the medic asked as the two examined the scene.

Hoshi spoke up. “A support beam fell on my CPO.”

“He’s bleeding badly,” Richard pointed to a place on Bernard’s vacsuit where his blood was dripping slowly out of the vacsuit. What was worse was that he was losing air, even at a trickle it was going at it was bad. The beam must’ve been the thing keeping the pressure on to stop the air flow. Once they removed it the air was able to escape. Hoshi immediately reached into her belt, pulled a square of adhesive tape from it and slapped it onto the spot where the blood was coming from and then the suit showed positive pressure.

One of the medics called over the comlink. “We have a man down and he’s bleeding badly. We’ll get him up on a gurney but I need a liter of syn-blood1Synthetic blood. stat!” The three officers stood back at the suggestion of the medics as they worked to strap Bernard to the gurney. They picked him up and carried him out of the Operations crew pit leaving the three officers standing by as they helplessly watched Bernard get carried out.

“Everyone!” the captain ordered over the comlink. “I want three volunteers to go to the secondary bridge and find out what’s going on down there.” Hoshi, Richard, and Rachel stepped forward for they were the only ones that actually heard the captain say that over the chaos that consumed the bridge.

They looked about and now that they had a chance, they took in the carnage all around them. Richard looked up and gasped as he saw no ceiling above the shattered engineering section. All that Richard saw was the blackness of space and small points of light in the distance, that and some shreds of the hull and the upper decks that still existed along with lots of torn and burnt wires.

The captain returned the salutes from her three officers before they left the bridge. She looked about and sighed. God damn it, the captain thought. I’ve lost almost half of the personnel on the bridge.

Richard and the two women walked into the security foyer behind the bridge. Most of the critically injured were staged there so that medics coming up the lift could get to them faster. As the three stepped onto the lift the door closed Richard leaned against the wall of the lift as he punched in their destination. Rachel jumped at Richard and caught him in an embrace that took him completely by surprise. Meanwhile, Hoshi pretended not to notice. She knew something was going on between the two of them even before this, but now she knew for sure. On the inside she was happy they had finally realized that they were meant to be together.

“Just how the hell did you survive?”

Richard breathed as he hugged his friend, at least that’s what he thought of her as. “I don’t know. All I know is that I remember my CPO being cut in half by a piece of flying debris from the hull and he was just a meter away from me. I think the poor bastard was still alive for a few seconds after; I have no idea how though.” He shook his head again, recalling the scene, taking a ragged breath. “If it had been a half meter…,” he shuddered. “Yeah, I’m alive and he’s not. I can’t explain why. Dumb luck I guess.” Having her in his arms felt like the only thing that confirmed he was still alive.

Hoshi cleared her throat over their comlink as the lift slowed. Hoshi peered out of the lift and looked down the darkened corridor. No one was there or at least she couldn’t see anyone. “Come on you two, you two will have all the time to cuddle like teenagers when we get basket leave.”

The three of them stepped out of the elevator and continued to walk down the darkened hallway as the three of them turned on the flashlight built into their helmet. When Rachel looked up, she wished she didn’t. There were many wires now draping from the conduits and she frowned as she noticed that some of them were CAT8 and high-speed fiber optic cable. She brushed some of the wiring aside and saw a fried Cisco switch. “Lovely,” Rachel said as she pointed to the burnt-out device. “That’s a Cisco switch.”

Hoshi looked up and noticed what Rachel was pointing to. “Yep, that it is. That’s an expensive piece of equipment. Those things are expensive as hell. From the looks of it, we’re not going to be able to salvage that one; the thing’s got a hole clean through the motherboard.”

The three of them continued on through the darkened hallways of the ship. Richard himself couldn’t help but feel a sense of uneasiness. He turned to Rachel. “I don’t like this.” He shook his head.

“What’s not to like?” Rachel asked with a lot of sarcasm in her voice. “The whole ship is beat to shit and you’re saying you don’t like it. Like no shit.”

“No,” Richard shook his head. “I hate walking down dark hallways; it always gives me a sense of dread.” He shivered even though the suit that he was wearing kept the environment inside the suit at a comfortable 24 degrees Celsius275.2 degrees Fahrenheit.. “I just don’t like it.”

“Are you afraid that someone’s going to jump out at you?”

“Yes,” Richard blurted out. “I never did like the dark.” He closed his eyes and let out of haggard breath. “I don’t like the dark at all; never have, never will. Weird for someone who grew up in space, I know. Haven’t liked the dark ever since I was a child.”

“You’re afraid of the dark?” Rachel asked. “Really? A grown man is afraid of the dark?”

“Hey,” Richard shot back. “Don’t laugh at me.”

“Actually,” Hoshi spoke up, “A lot more people are afraid of the dark than you might expect. There’s even a phobia; nyctophobia, the fear of the dark. Some people never get over it. My older nephew has the same fear.”

“Can we stop talking about that?” Richard asked. “You two are making me nervous. This situation reminds me too much of that day back in my youth in which the space colony I grew up in lost reactor power for a whole day.” He looked to Rachel as he pointed at her. “And you should be more sensitive towards me. How would you like it if I made fun of one of your fears? You wouldn’t like it either.”

“He does have a point, Rachel.” Hoshi paused. “Making fun of a friend isn’t exactly a nice thing to be doing.”

“Thank you, Hoshi,” Richard looked back at her. “At least one of you two women have some understanding.” Hoshi smiled. Richard patted her on the back. “Thanks for having my back here.”

“No problem,” Hoshi replied as she stepped over a piece of the bulkhead that had fallen off the wall.

“Alright,” Rachel sighed, “I’m sorry I made fun of you.”

“Apology accepted,” Richard nodded his head. “Now let’s go and let’s stop talking about the dark.” He turned to Hoshi. “What condition do you think the ship is in? Do you think we’ll make it back to dock?”

Hoshi thought about it for a moment. “Yes, but barely.” She ran through some numbers in her head. “Our main propulsion units took a few hits and we’re down to forty percent output.”

“How much will that get us in absolute numbers?” Rachel asked.

“We’re lucky we didn’t lose the particle shielding, so at least a stray piece of space dust won’t blow a hole in the ship. But considering our engine damage we’re looking at an acceleration rate of only 0.07 light.”

“That’s well below our normal combat speed of 0.2 light, never mind our 0.3 cruising speed. What do you think they’ll do to her? Do you think she’s salvageable?”

Hoshi never understood why humans referred to inanimate objects such as ships and cars as female but she simply went along with it. The more she thought about it the more she concluded that it was because ships and cars could be just as temperamental as a woman could be. She had to laugh because from being around humans as long as she had been, she could understand why that was so.

“Well?” Richard asked. “Do you think that they’ll repair her or send her to the breakers?”

Hoshi looked down and shook her head. “More than likely,” she looked up, “they’ll send her to the breakers. If I read the damage reports correctly 65% of the ship’s systems are inoperable. We’re barely holding this ship together. Hell, we’re holding this ship together with duct tape. We’ll be lucky we get this ship back to port without it falling apart from under our feet before we get there.”

“Damn,” Rachel said as she looked about the ship, “just as I was starting to like this ship.” She nodded her head. “I may have hated my quarters but the ship itself wasn’t bad. Hell, I liked it.” She threw her hands up. “Why can’t I ever be on a ship that’s around for more than a couple of months?”

“What do you mean?” Richard asked.

“The last two ships I served on were also sent to the breakers.” She paused. “God damn, I don’t even want to think about how many ships we’ve tossed to the breakers ever since this damn war started.”

“Too damn many,” Richard replied quickly.

“That’s for sure,” Hoshi nodded her head in approval. “Last time I looked at the numbers I think it was up to at the very least 40 ships scrapped, probably more than that.”

“God damn,” Richard whistled, “Has it really been that many? By the time the war is over the Human Federation is going to be broke.”

“War of attrition,” Hoshi said as the two of them looked to her. “The ACF will simply throw everything that they have at us until we either surrender or we bankrupt ourselves in the process.”

“How strong is the ACF economy?” Rachel asked. “How long can they keep this up?”

“Their economy is nowhere near on par with ours. They’re going to have to do a lot of work just to reach parity with us. Remember, they were mostly the Fringe Worlds and a lot of the Outer Colonies. While that’s not to imply they’re all poor backwater worlds, a lot of them were just recently settled when compared to the Inner Colonies.” Just as she said that they approached the secondary bridge. They pushed the button to open the door to the security foyer, nodded to the Marines there, and stepped onto the secondary bridge. Rachel turned to Hoshi as they surveyed the mostly undamaged bridge section, “the comlink repeaters are probably out of commission.”

Hoshi shrugged her shoulders. “Name me a system that is working and I’ll give you a prize.”

Rachel chuckled as the three walked up to and saluted Commander Ashland. “Reporting as ordered sir! What’s going on here sir?”

“Nothing,” Justin replied as he looked at a datapad and watched several noncoms walked by. “Business as usual,” Justin looked at the three of them and noticed the state of their vacsuits. “What’s going on up on the bridge? I’ve been trying to get reports for the last half an hour and I can’t raise anyone up there on the comlink. What’s going on?”

Both Richard and Rachel shook their heads. Where could they start? Rachel spoke up, “the bridge got hit, we’ve got a lot of wounded up there and just as many dead. Comlink repeaters are offline. Gunnery has been switched to local control.”

“Wait. Did you say that the bridge got hit? Is the captain alright?”

“Yes,” Rachel replied as she saw a wave of relief go over Justin. “The captain is alright, a bit rattled though.”

Justin looked to a noncom as she handed him a datapad and paused to read it. He shook his head. “I see,” he looked up. “Seems that we got our asses kicked… hard.” He sighed. “Just how bad are we? Or do I even want to know?” Another noncom came up and handed him a datapad. There were reports from all over the ship, many parts of the ship were exposed to hard vacuum, the bridge the most concerning part of the ship that was exposed, and nearly all of the vital ship computer systems were offline and only a handful of systems were still working. He looked back up. “Jesus Christ,” he shook his head again, “I’m going to be surprised if the yard dogs will fix the ship. With the way that this ship got its ass kicked I won’t be surprised if they send it to the breakers.”

“Actually sir,” Hoshi spoke up, “More than likely the ship will get scrapped.” She shook her head. “If I was a betting person, I’d bet my next week’s paycheck that this ship will get sent to the breakers. 65% of the ship is inoperable. We’re down to one set of thrusters. Half the computer systems and the main computer core is gone. Life support is barely functioning. Need I go on?”

“No,” Justin replied. “That will be all, I don’t need to know any more to know that this ship is fucked.”

They nodded their heads. Rachel looked about the secondary bridge and noticed that there was some damage here and there, mainly some wires that were hanging from the ceiling but nothing major. A computer terminal across the bridge was blinking on and off but otherwise, it appeared intact. She figured that it was probably just the monitor that failed and that simply replacing it would bring the terminal back to working condition. Otherwise, the secondary bridge was in far better condition than the main bridge and for that matter, the rest of the ship.

“Why did the captain send you down here?” Justin asked as the three looked about the bridge.

“The captain sent us down to find out what happened and to try and get any help we could find,” Hoshi explained, “We need all the help we can get on the primary bridge. We really need some people to move the heavy pieces of the hull that have fallen. We have a lot of people who are unaccounted for and I’ve got a bad feeling they’re buried under debris.”

“I see,” Justin thought as he looked about the secondary bridge. He figured that with the ship would just limp along with the rest of the fleet back to safe harbor. Admiral Kimery already gave orders for the fleet to make its way for the jump gate to get back to the Sol system and to the Utopia Planitia Drive Yards. All the captains of the ships that were still functioning agreed and those ships too damaged to make the journey were in the process of being scuttled.

Just as Justin was about to say something else the door of the bridge opened and almost forty officers, noncoms, and enlisted men and women came onto the bridge. All of them stood at attention and saluted. “Reporting to the HFS Valiant from the HFS Yukon as ordered by Admiral Kimery!”

Justin nodded his head. “At ease.”

They stood at ease while Justin looked them over. “As you might’ve noticed we’re pretty damaged as well but the ship is still somewhat functioning.” The newcomers nodded their heads. “We have a lot of work ahead of us. We have a lot of people that we haven’t accounted for yet; probably a lot of them are trapped under debris or worse. Our main bridge took a major hit and we still don’t know how many people we lost up there. I want anyone who can do some heavy lifting,” he turned to Hoshi, “to follow Lieutenant Commander Asakura to the bridge. They need all the help they can get up there.”

Hoshi looked at the forty men and women stepping forward. “Alright, you heard Commander Ashland. Anyone who can help, follow me! Get moving!” Hoshi collected about fifteen of the newcomers before making her way off the secondary bridge.

“As for the rest of you,” Justin called out. “I want all of you to report to the battle stations that you were assigned on the HFS Yukon to and assist the crews that we have aboard in what little repairs we can do while we’re underway.” Justin looked to Rachel and Richard as the rest moved out. “As for you two, assume your positions as commanders of your departments here on the secondary bridge. Try and regroup as many of your men and women as you can get here in this bridge. If need be, pull from the newcomers as required.”

“Yes, sir!”

The next day, Julia was preparing for something that no captain ever looked forward to. She was to preside over a military funeral. She looked down at the keyboard just as the lights in her office turned off then back on again. She shook her head and breathed in deeply as she wiped her eyes dry. She never liked writing the letters that were sent to the families of the dead.

Just then her XO walked in the door of Julia’s private cabin and looked about. Julia looked up. “I see that the doc released you.”

Justin laughed as the door closed. “Yes ma’am, the doc released me.” He shook his head. “I tried to tell him that I’d be fine but he insisted on everyone getting at least some kind of checkup from medical personnel. I tried to tell him that nothing besides being knocked about while I was buckled into my seat happened to me. But he wouldn’t hear it. He told me to ‘humor him’ so I did. That and I got this too,” he pointed to the bandage across the back of his left hand. “It’s just a scratch really but they’re talking about a Purple Heart for me. I’d hardly rate this as worthy of one, but you know what the regs say.”

“Yeah,” Julia shook her head. “I got examined myself as well.” She reached up and rubbed her neck. “My neck is still stiff.” Justin smiled as he came across the room and stood behind her and put his hands on her shoulders and rubbed them. Julia sighed as he began to massage her shoulders and neck. She breathed a sigh of relief as the stiffness started to go away. “You always did know how to make me feel better,” she said as Justin continued to massage her neck. “Don’t stop; just keep doing that as I continue typing.”

“You know what I hate most about being captain?” she asked. Justin looked at her as she looked up. “I hate writing these damn letters.” Justin nodded his head for he knew what kind of letters she was talking about. “How can I sit here and expect a family to accept this letter?” She turned around in her chair and looked to Justin and he shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t imagine what these families are going to be going through when they receive this letter. I think by the time this war is over there will be a lot of ‘Deeply Regrets’ delivered.”

“Yeah,” Justin frowned. “At least they’re going to be compensated. Those families are going to be well taken care of for their loss.”

“A fat lot of good that will do them,” she said a little sharply. “Nothing can take that pain away.” Justin nodded his head in agreement. “That’s why I hate these letters,” Julia shook her head and looked to Justin. “They’re nothing but a formality.”

Justin again nodded his head. “Yeah, I agree with you,” he replied as he looked back at Julia. “I know, these letters suck.”

“You got that right. I’ll get to the rest later,” she said as she turned around in her chair and pressed the send button on her computer for that letter and stood up. She walked over to her bed where her Service Dress Uniform’s suit coat was and put it on. She looked down at herself and brushed her skirt down. She knelt down and reached for her black uniform dress shoes and slid them over her nylon-covered feet. She picked her cap up and placed it on her head and made sure it was straight before heading out.

They came out onto the fighter bay gallery whereas many of the crew was assembled as could be. She looked out at her crew before she began, “My fellow officers and sailors, today we lay to rest those who have fallen in battle. Let us not forget the memory of those who have fallen. They have given their lives for this ship and everyone aboard so that those of us who remain behind can remember them. Let us not dwell on their death; remember them for their duty, their sacrifice, their honor, and their bravery.”

Julia stepped forward as four Marines stepped towards her. In their hands were folded Human Federation flags, one for each of the men and women who died. There were thirty in total. She stepped forward and took hold of one.

Justin stepped forward as Julia stepped forward with the flag and raised it in the air. “The flag of the Human Federation is a symbol we all hold dear. We love our star nation. Those who have died… died for that flag and everything it stands for. And thus, it’s only right for those people who have died to be buried with that flag.”

The ship’s chaplain stepped up as Julia handed the flag back to the Marine in front of her and nodded her head. The Marines took the flags and ceremoniously draped them over the caskets as the chaplain began, “Heavenly Father, look with favor upon these men and women who have entered into your loving embrace. Grant them mercy and admittance into Your Heavenly Kingdom. Give them and their families the peace they deserve. In your most holy name, Amen.”

Those of faith returned the “Amen” before looking up when the captain announced, “I will now read the names of those who have died in the service of their star nation, ship, and crew… Lieutenant Commander Mary Sidon, Chief Petty Officer James Montgomery, Petty Officer Roger Roman…” the list went on. It seemed like the list just kept going on and on, there were too many deaths that day; way too many.

Julia stepped forward and turned to Lieutenant Jason Mikita and nodded her head. Everyone took their uniform caps off in respect. Soon the gallery was filled with the sounds of Taps being played by the lieutenant on the bugle.

“Thank you,” Julia looked out among her crew. “I could not be any prouder of you than I am today. All of you have served this ship, her crew, and each one of yourselves with honor, dignity, respect, and bravery. You have done well, better than I could ever have hope for.”

As the other members of the crew were dismissed by the captain, Richard Smith watched as they all filed out of the fighter bay’s gallery. He had something in his hand and had been hoping to catch Petty Officer Heather Sutter before she left for wherever she was going to go.

“Excuse me, Petty Officer Sutter,” he said when she passed him. As quickly as she could without sending herself into a dizzy spell, she saluted Richard. “Yes, sir, what is it?”

“At ease,” Richard replied. “It’s good to see that they released you from the infirmary.” He paused. “How are you doing? You definitely took quite a blow last time I checked.”

Heather reached up and touched the back of her head and winced a bit. “I’m alright, the doc says I’ll be fine and that I shouldn’t try to do any quick movements. He said that the dizzy spells will subside soon. He also said that I’m responding well to the nanomachine treatments.”

“Good to hear,” Richard replied. “Anyways, I was meaning to ask you something but never had the time or the opportunity to ask you. You were a very fine member of my crew but I don’t feel that you belong where you are.” Heather blinked her eyes a few times. “No, I don’t mean it that way. What I mean is that I feel that your talents are being wasted and that you could be doing something far more than what you’re doing.”

“Like what sir?” Heather asked.

“Well for one, you’re good at your job and you definitely know how to get things done. I’ve seen how you handle yourself in crisis situations. So, I have to wonder… why didn’t you try for OCS? It’s obvious that you have what it takes to make a good officer so I have to wonder why you’re still here.”

“Sir, it’s not from a lack of trying. I applied multiple times and I was turned down just as many times. Eventually, I stopped trying to apply. I also tried to apply to OCS when I was just a civilian but was turned down then as well.”

“When was the last time you applied?”

Heather thought about it for a couple of moments. “About a year ago, sir.”

“Well,” Richard handed her a datapad. “Here, these are my details; my name and my service number. Put that information on your application under the recommendations part of the application where it asks if you had anyone recommend you to OCS.”

“This will get me into OCS?”

“It’s not a free ticket but it’ll definitely make your odds a hell of a lot better.” Richard paused for a moment to think of a good way to say what he wanted to say. “Sometimes it takes knowing someone on the inside of the officer’s corps or knowing a politician. Unfair as that may sound, sometimes it is. Having my name on your application is going to go a long way in getting your application accepted. Though, I must warn you… it’s not magic. They’ll still ask you why you wanted to apply for OCS and they’ll probably ask me a few questions as well. But, knowing my reputation in the officer corps my recommendation is going to go very far.”

“I see,” Heather took the datapad from Richard and looked at it. There on the datapad was everything he told her. She looked back up. “But why sir? Why recommend me?”

“You have all of the qualifications that many in Fleet Command are looking for and God knows we need good officers more than ever. When the ACF broke away they took many of our finest officers and then the witch hunts all but gutted the rest of the officer corps. We must rebuild it. I feel that you’ll make a good officer one day.” Richard paused for a moment. “I want to see you when you graduate for, I want your first salute. I want you to find me wherever I am and show me that you have graduated and not only that but at the top of your class just like I did.”

Heather nodded quickly then quickly snapped off a salute. “Thank you, sir, thank you very much. I won’t let you down sir. I’ll come back to you when I’m finished; I promise.”

“See that you do Sutter, see that you do. Dismissed.” With that Heather Sutter walked away leaving Rachel smiling. “What?” he asked as he looked to her.

“That was an extremely nice gesture on your part. But I probably wouldn’t have put that much pressure on the girl. She’s going to run herself ragged to meet those high expectations you gave her, graduating at the top of her class and all. Just because you did doesn’t mean that everyone else can. Some people are just smarter, faster, better.”

“And where did you graduate Rachel?”

“Third but it could’ve been fourth; it’s been so long I can’t remember.” She paused. “But honestly, I don’t think it matters much.” Richard looked to her wondering what she meant by that. “How does the placement in the class determine how well you’re going to do your job? It really doesn’t. I watched a guy in my class that graduated second in his class but even to this day, he’s not made it past lieutenant, j. G He just can’t do his job very well. I also watched people who were lower in my class and they’re our rank as well. I’m not saying that having a high number is bad, don’t get me wrong. It definitely looks good to those in BuPers. But the number doesn’t prove how well you’re going to be able to conduct your duties.”

Richard shrugged his shoulders. “When you put it that way, you’re right.”

Rachel smirked. “You better get used to saying I’m right because I’m always right.” She started walking away, leaving Richard behind puzzled by what she meant. Then it dawned on him and he ran after her. “Rachel! You’re not right all the time!”

Continue to Chapter 4…

Last updated on Thursday, October 19th, 2023 at 4:06 PM by trparky.

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    Synthetic blood.
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    75.2 degrees Fahrenheit.