DECLINATION

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Chapter 1

16 Nov 3050

The bridge seemed cold, Anastasia thought, though she distantly realized that it was probably just her nerves. The chair she sat in—the captain’s chair—felt uncomfortably new, and she could not help but fidget self-consciously. Though the memory-gel cushion had quickly adjusted to her form, it somehow lacked the comfort of her previous command chair, which had, through years of use, totally adapted to her. More importantly, she thought, she had totally adapted to it.

Anastasia fought to suppress a shiver, something in the back of her mind preventing her from getting comfortable on her new ship. The hairs at the nape of her neck tingled, thankfully hidden from view by the long black locks that trailed down her back. She made a conscious effort to push her impending mission from her thoughts, with little success.

Unconsciously, Captain Mason ran her slender fingers over the chair’s armrest controls. Just about every system aboard the magnificent ship could be controlled from there, though Anastasia certainly did not doubt the need for the vessel’s other seven crewmembers. After all, she remembered, she had been one of those crewmembers on a similar ship not so long ago.

The Captain gazed at the ship’s familiar bridge and thought how things had seemingly come full circle. Yet, though she had sat in a chair just like this one on a ship almost exactly like this one many times, this time was undeniably different. Whereas, a decade ago, she had only sat in the chair as the ship’s First Officer, now the chair was rightfully hers. And, whereas, onboard the Apocalypse, she had served under the legendary Admiral Daniel Atgard, this time, this ship—this crew—was her responsibility, and hers alone.

Anastasia inhaled deeply, her lungs not yet accustomed to the ship’s recycled air. Though oxygen, pressure, and humidity were all theoretically maintained at levels that precisely reproduced conditions on Earth, Anastasia had always felt that canned air had a funny smell. Scientists and technicians would swear that there was no noticeable difference between pure air and the manufactured variety, but Captain Mason could sense the tinny, artificial quality of shipborne air. She would soon get used to it, however. She always did, after a time.

The Captain looked around, finding that the bridge layout was just as she had remembered it, and for a fleeting moment it seemed as if it was just yesterday that Captain Mason had spent most of her waking hours on just such a bridge. She looked to the First Officer’s chair to her right, and an unconscious smile found its way to her lips.

“Captain?”

Anastasia blinked to find that she had been staring curiously at Commander Victor Zeeman. The Commander was middle-aged, his kindly face topped with a short crop of graying hair. He returned the Captain’s gaze with an inquiring look of his own.

“Sorry, Commander,” she replied, “I was just reminiscing for a moment.”

Victor smiled, chuckling lightly. “The Apocalypse, eh?”

The Captain nodded, clearing her mind and bringing her full attention back to the present. “That was some ship.”

“And some crew,” the Commander replied. “You all seemed to do pretty well for yourselves after the Apocalypse was retired.”

Lieutenant Matthews, seated at the pilot’s console in the front of the bridge, turned to the two officers and added, “I guess the least they could do was promote everyone after that Lucani Ibron thing, right, Captain?”

Anastasia’s eyebrows arched upward. That Lucani Ibron thing. “Well, if you wanted to get yourself promoted, the best way to do it was to get yourself on Admiral Atgard’s crew.”

Commander Zeeman looked to her and smiled. “If you were good enough to get on his crew,” he replied, “you were good enough to get yourself promoted anyway.”

Anastasia smiled, but said nothing. She didn’t really know which theory was right.

• • •

The transport shuddered violently, and the restraining harnesses were the only things that kept the soldiers in the back of the vehicle from being tossed around the cabin like toys. The transport was filled with its normal complement—12 soldiers—and space aboard the vessel was tight. Though he was sweating beneath his combat gear, Dex barely even noticed that the cabin temperature—not unusually—had reached 35 degrees Celsius.

There was a new force acting upon the dropshuttle now, and the jostling quickly became more intense. The retros had fired, and the vessel was slowing itself rapidly before it impacted the hard desert floor several thousand meters below.

An orange light over the exit hatch lit up, and Commander Rutcliffe braced himself for the impending impact. The dropshuttle slammed into the ground, stirring up a plume of red dirt that could be seen through the cabin’s two wide, slitted viewports. Almost instantly, the light over the door flashed green, and the restraining harnesses broke away. The hatch slammed open, and it only took a few moments for the dozen Commandos to file out of the ship.

Dropping into a combat stance beside his men, Dex reached behind him and pulled his MX-18 repeater rifle from its holster, training it on the mountains to his left. He quickly surveyed their drop zone, a barren, red expanse of dirt almost completely ringed by a short mountain range. Several outcroppings of rock dotted the plain, but, all in all, it was one of the most disadvantaged fighting positions he had ever had the pleasure of landing in.

“Team two,” he called, his gruff voice audible over the slowly fading resonance of the dropship’s spent thrusters, “get to that outcropping and watch the mountains to the east. Team three, use the dropship for cover and watch their flanks. Team one, you’re with me.”

Without waiting for a response, Dex sprang to his feet and raced to a series of rock outcroppings to his left. The heavy footfalls of three of his men followed him, and, predictably, just before they reached the safety of the rocks, the mountains opened up in a deluge of laser fire.

Dex dove to the ground, sliding along the loose upper layer of dirt and rolling into a crouch at the base of one of the rock formations. He hid his body behind the boulder, sliding his rifle into a crevice in the barrier, and opened fire on the mountain range.

The rest of his team was also returning fire, but, with the cover provided by the mountains, he knew their shots were mostly ineffectual. The enemy had entrenched themselves in the mountains, and they were firing upon his men from two separate protected positions. Dex quickly surveyed the terrain between him and the mountains and ducked back behind the rock. “Zip,” he yelled, his muscles coiled, “follow me!”

Dex tossed the smoke grenade a half-second before he sprang to his feet, and it quickly exploded into a thick ball of concealing white smoke. He waited just an instant before rushing into the cloud, watching as the attackers’ fire tracked toward the billowing gas. As soon as it had, the remaining two members of his team sprang up from behind their concealed positions, laying down a heavy pattern of covering fire. The attackers’ fire thinned out, and Dex and Zip raced through the cloud and toward the mountains, still nearly fifty meters away. The smoke cloud was beginning to dissipate, and Dex cocked the bottom barrel of his assault rifle. A concussion grenade locked into the firing chamber, and Dex fired it at the attackers’ position in the mountains before him. He and Zip ran out of the cloud just in time to see the explosion rock the mountainside.

Dex did not slow as he reached the base of the mountain, instead leaping into it and grabbing hold of a thin ledge above him. He quickly slung his rifle over his shoulder and reached up with his free hand, pulling himself even higher along the rock wall. In a few seconds, he had reached a more substantial ledge, and he hauled himself over.

Zip quickly followed him up, and from his new vantage point Dex could finally see his attackers. They were Turians, all right, and their russet hides provided near-perfect camouflage against the rock face. Dex’s keen eyes, however, scanned the area in front of him, making out several of the attackers’ hiding spots.

Switching his rifle to sniper mode, Dex lifted the weapon to his chin and fired several quick but well-aimed bursts. Each shot was accompanied by an anguished grunt as its target was hit, and several of the dead Turians tumbled all the way to the ravine floor below.

As if he could sense the imminent counterattack, Dex ducked behind the curving mountain face just as a smattering of laser fire descended on his position. Commander Rutcliffe peered back toward his men on the ground, and could see that they had taken advantage of the distraction, making a concerted attack on the remaining enemy position. Team three had used the distraction to move to an outcropping only a hundred meters from the enemies, and Dex could hear the muffled thumps of several concussion grenades.

By the time the smoke from the grenades had cleared, the enemy fire had completely abated. Dex scanned the mountainside one last time and thumbed his nanocomputer’s comlink. “Rutcliffe to Control,” he reported. “Position secure.”

• • •

It took six rings of the door chime before the door slid open, and immediately Alexis knew that when she entered, she would find Ryan hunched over his workbench, no doubt tinkering with the project that had consumed him for the better part of the last year.

Alexis walked into the room, and, predictably, Ryan was sitting in the corner, his rapt attention focused on a tiny device in his hands. While technically in his mid-forties, Ryan Taylor’s curiosity and penchant for gadgets and pranks more befit a man half his age.

“You busy?” she asked cheerfully.

“Never too busy for you, dear,” he replied, looking up at her for the first time. He flashed a smile, and then, turning back to his work, he added, “It’s almost done, you know.”

“It’s about time,” she joked, taking a few short steps toward him and craning her neck in an attempt to see just what it was Ryan had been working on so secretively for so long. As if he could sense her curiosity, the corner of Ryan’s lip curled upward as he worked.

“You’ll find out what it is soon enough, ‘Lexi,” he said, snapping a component into place and picking up a small instrument from a random pile before him. “Soon enough.”

“Like when?” she asked impatiently, fingering a strand of her flame-red hair.

Ryan passed the instrument over the device and set them both down on the table. “I’d say in about 15 seconds,” he said, clapping his hands together.

“It’s done?” asked Alexis, rushing over to him. “Can I see?”

“Sure,” he said, picking up the device and rising from his seat. “Sit over there and enjoy the show.”

Alexis obliged, sitting in a chair across from him and quickly folding her hands in her lap. Ryan took the device, which seemed to be a standard personal nanocomputer, and strapped it to his wrist. There was an almost inaudible hum, and Alexis thought she saw Ryan momentarily wince in pain just before a broad smile covered his face.

“Check this out,” he said.

Ryan extended his arm outward, and suddenly the nanocomputer’s holo-vid projector flared to life, projecting a three-dimensional image of their ship, the Brigadier, into the air between them.

“How in the—”

“You see, I’ve modified this encee to accept direct neural inputs,” Ryan explained. “I can now control it by simply—”

As he spoke, the projection wavered, flashing on and off before disappearing entirely. As it did, a bright spark shot out from the nanocomputer on Ryan’s wrist, searing a patch of his dark skin.

“Ow!”

“Are you okay?” Alexis asked, rising from her seat.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he grumbled. “I guess it still needs a bit of work.”

“Hey,” Alexis said, walking over to him and placing her hand on his shoulder, “that was pretty cool, Ryan. Really amazing, actually. And I’m sure you’ll have it perfected in no time.”

Ryan sighed disconsolately. “Yeah, I guess.”

“I have faith in you,” Alexis said, looking into his eyes. She suppressed a chuckle. “Just so long as you don’t want to test your next prototype on me.”

Ryan looked at her sternly, but he could not help but laugh.

• • •

The alert board was lit up with about two dozen different red lights, and, frankly, Zach was getting more than a little annoyed at the computer’s incessant, droning warnings.

“Starboard shields down,” it chirped. “Inertial dampeners failing. Engines exceeding recommended limits.”

With a flick of his wrist, Zach hit the mute switch and silenced the computer’s nagging.

Turning his attention back to the battle raging around him, Commander Wallace looped his fighter into a tight upward circle, and, when the stars had finished their gyrations, his targeting sights were locked on the ship that had been pursuing him. A few bursts of his wing-mounted Gatling lasers, and the fighter flashed into a ball of debris.

A laser impact rocked the side of his ship and Zach peripherally noticed that a few more warning lights had flashed to life on his console. He was glad he had muted the computer.

“Damn,” he called into the intercom, turning to look at the ship that had fired at him. It was an older model Zach had encountered several times before, and Zach remembered with a smile the vulnerable points of the aging ship. “This is getting old. Who wants to make a run at that Corvette?”

“I’m with you, Wolfpack Commander,” chimed a voice from over the intercom. “Let’s take that bastard out.”

“Alright, Raven,” Zach replied. “Form on my wing.”

Raven obliged his order, and both fighters headed toward the larger Corvette, which seemed to erupt in an even thicker hailstorm of laser fire as they approached. Jerking his ship under the Corvette’s nose, Zach flew by the larger vessel at high speed, concentrating several shots in the area of the ship’s armoured shield generators. Following close behind him, Raven poured several bright lances of her own into the area, finishing off the barrage with a well-aimed missile shot.

Another laser impact rocked Zach’s vessel, and, though the computer voice was supposedly muted, it reported nonetheless: “Warning—shields down. Hull integrity at 72%.”

Zach cursed under his breath, but checked his scanner readouts to find that the Corvette’s shields were down as well. Not a bad trade, he thought.

“You ready to do this?” asked Zach, curving his ship around for another pass. “Lay down covering fire. I’m going for the bridge.”

“Aye, Wolfpack Commander. Watch the dorsal turrets.”

Zach drove the thruster handle as far forward as it would go, and the engines responded, filling the cabin with their resonating hum and surging the ZF-575 to great speed. The inventory display showed three missiles left—plus the single Hellfire missile—and Zach keyed the weapons control for group targeting.

“Targeting control inoperative,” warned the voice of the computer.

“I thought I shut you up?” asked Zach rhetorically, keying the switch for manual fire control. Clustering all four missiles on the bridge at this speed was probably impossible.

Of course, to Zach, that only meant that it had never been done.

The two fighters approached the Corvette, and Raven’s lasers began to rake the underbelly of the vessel just before Zach opened fire on the bridge. Using his lasers to target, he fired all four missiles as soon as his shots began to impact the critical bridge area. By the time they had exploded, he and Raven had completed their run, and sped away from the dangerous vessel.

A great explosion shot forth from the bottom of the Corvette, cracking the ship’s hull in two. The broken pieces slowly began to drift apart, inert and lifeless. Zach checked his tactical display to see that the remaining pirate fighters were evacuating the area.

“Wolfpack squadron, report.”

As the voices of each of his pilots reported over the intercom, Zach looked down to the status board, almost completely covered with red and amber warning lights. “Damn, I’m good,” he said, smiling. “Score one more for the Wolfpack.”

• • •

“Can we start her up now, Captain?”

Anastasia looked to her pilot, and it took her mind a moment to fully realize that it was no longer the cocky Lieutenant Zach Wallace at the controls. Lieutenant Cody Matthews, like Zach was then, was an ex-fighter pilot, and, similarly, appeared to Anastasia far too young to be aboard a Confederation starcraft. His record, however, which included stints on both fighters and Corvettes, was unblemished, and included several commendations, not only for piloting skill, but for bravery in combat as well.

“Yes, Lieutenant Matthews,” she replied, smiling at the slender helmsman. “Go ahead.”

The bridge, which had been almost silent a moment ago, was suddenly filled with the pervasive hum of energy as the ship’s systems powered up from standby mode. Lights on status boards all around the perimeter of the bridge flickered to life, and a projection appeared in the front of the bridge, displayed by the viewscreen’s hidden holo-vid projectors.

“Welcome,” began the voice of the computer. “This is the MP-724 semi-sentient control system computer. You are on board the ZX-999 Inferno. Please prepare to complete the preflight checklist prior to—”

Anastasia flipped a switch and cut short the computer’s introduction. She did not need a computer to tell her how to captain a ship. Especially not this one.

“Okay, Lieutenant Matthews,” she said, “take her out of port. Ariyana,” she added, turning to her navigation officer, “inform flight control of our departure and chart a course for the Pacifica System.”

“Captain,” interjected Byron, her tactical officer, “shouldn’t we complete the preflight checklist before we head out?”

Byron’s reputation seemed to be well deserved, Anastasia thought. She had been told that the older man was a stickler for details, and she hoped his by-the-book approach served to keep her in line rather than to get on her nerves. She also hoped Lieutenant Commander Johnson’s reputation as a top-notch tactical officer was equally well deserved.

“It’s fine, Commander,” she explained. “They ran those same status checks half a dozen times before we even got on board, believe me.”

Ariyana turned from her navigation console to look at them, wisps of light brown hair snaking down her back. “Don’t worry, Commander—Captain Mason knows this ship like the back of her hand. After all, she was on the Apocalypse for almost ten years.”

Byron silently nodded his head, surely aware that Ariyana knew Anastasia’s history well, as she had served as her navigator and astrometric technician for the last six years. In fact, Anastasia noted with a hint of chagrin, Lieutenant Romano, now in her late thirties, was the only member of her new crew that she had served with before.

“Of course,” Byron apologized, casting his gaze downward. “I was just reminding the Captain of standard procedure.”

“You go ahead and keep quoting standard procedure,” Anastasia offered. “I could use the reminders sometimes.” She looked up and smiled. “Just don’t expect me to follow them too often.”

Byron smiled back at her, obviously relieved.

“So what was it like?” interrupted Lieutenant Matthews, spinning around in his pilot’s chair to face them. “What was it like being on board the Apocalypse and stopping the Lucani Ibron?”

Anastasia’s head tilted to one side as she thought back to that ship and that crew, so similar to this one, yet so completely different. “The best way I could describe it, Cody, is to say that it was the most exhilarating, terrifying, rewarding time in my entire life. I was proud, exhausted, relieved. Most of all, I felt fortunate. Fortunate that fate and planning and pure dumb luck had come together to put the right man in the right place at the right time.” She paused for a long moment. “I don’t know how else to describe it than that.”

“Not just the right man,” Commander Zeeman interjected. “The right crew.”

“Maybe,” Anastasia said, shaking her head, seemingly unconvinced. “But I don’t think Earth would still be here if not for Daniel Atgard. Whatever the rest of us did, we were able to do because of him.”

The bridge was silent for several seconds.

“Do you know what I think, Anastasia?” asked Ariyana softly. “I think you don’t give yourself enough credit. I think, that in a thousand years, historians will look back and point to that moment and say: ‘That was our finest hour.’”

That thought brought a deep smile to Anastasia’s lips. Our finest hour, she thought, contentedly. Our finest hour, indeed.


Chapter 2

Though Anastasia’s service to the Confederation spanned half a dozen ships and almost 40 years, the surge that slipped the Inferno from her moorings had an effect on her like few other things could. Though Captain Mason had called the inside of a starship home for over half her life, the moment when the Inferno embarked on her maiden voyage brought back memories of her first assignment as an Ensign under a man who—even then—was widely regarded as one of the most esteemed people in the Sector. A shiver ran through Anastasia’s body, and the smile that always accompanied her reveries involving Daniel Atgard spread across her lips.

For a long moment, the Inferno simply hovered just outside the massive gates of the shipyard. The viewscreen showed empty space, punctuated now and again by bright plumes of engine exhaust as small ships darted about seemingly at random. Though some were military vessels, most sported the characteristic yellow drive trails that represented civilian ships, probably transports ferrying passengers between Earth’s moon and the planet itself. Anastasia flicked a switch on her console and the viewscreen changed to show the shipyard they had just departed, visible in silhouette against the bright face of the moon below. The shipyard had taken just over a year to produce the Inferno, a feat that would have been remarkable had the ship not been based on the now-retired Apocalypse, the vessel that had, single-handedly, saved humanity from outright annihilation at the hands of the Lucani Ibron ten years ago.

Though it lacked the awful Omega Cannon of its predecessor, the Inferno was designed not to merely equal the unmatched formidability of the Apocalypse, but to exceed it. Of course, Anastasia noted, the Inferno, having just been completed, had nearly 20 years of new technology under its exquisite hull. Though it was just a tiny fraction the size of many larger warships, it was quite probably the single most dangerous vessel in the known galaxy.

The thought sent a fresh shiver down the Captain’s spine.

“Should I head for the jump point, Captain?” asked Lieutenant Matthews, jolting Anastasia back to the present. “I can’t wait to see what she can do.”

“Certainly, Cody,” she replied. “Just try to keep her at sublight speed for a while, okay?”

Cody nodded and eagerly grasped the control stick in his right hand. With his left, he gently inched the thruster handle forward, and the ship, with an effortless power that seemed to propel them from within, began to move.

The viewscreen reverted to a frontal view as the ship turned, and as the slowly-pinwheeling stars glided across the screen, the Categorical Imperative came into view.

“My God,” gasped Lieutenant Romano. “What a monster.”

And a monster was precisely what it looked like. More accurately, the skeleton of a monster—impossibly long bands of braided composite alloy, joined every so often where they converged at a nexus, hovered naked in space. Several disembodied segments floated about the beast’s massive form, tethered to the main mass by slim, unseen cables, waiting to be welded to the main body. At one end, the beginnings of a hull had begun to form, a bulbous skin that wrapped around the girders and gave the ship some semblance of a shape. That shape, when completed, would form the largest starship in existence.

Anastasia found that she had been unconsciously shaking her head, in disbelief not so much at the ship, but at the insane mind-set that had caused it to come into being.

She had disapproved of the ship from the start, back when it was conceived in 3041. Do you not remember the Indomitable? she wondered. How could you be willing to risk that again?

Anastasia, for one, would never forget the Indomitable. She could never forget what transpired in the early hours of March 15, 3040. The ghastly image from that morning was burned eternally in her mind. After all, she had been there when it happened. She was, in fact, one of the few eyewitnesses to survive.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Commander Zeeman asked, breaking into her thoughts. “It seems as if they keep making it bigger … maybe that’s why it’s taking them so long to build the damned thing.”

“Maybe,” Anastasia replied, but she suspected the real reason was that everyone did remember the Indomitable, and that the delay was caused by the desire to create a truly invincible ship.

Anastasia had served long enough to know that such a ship would never exist.

“We certainly need it,” Byron put in. “With the way things have gone for the Confederation lately, it—and its Omega Cannon—can’t be finished too soon.”

“But Commander,” Ariyana interjected, “that ship is precisely what caused most of those problems. The pirate activity, terrorist attacks, open rebellion, talk of secession in the Council—they’ve all tripled since they began building that thing.”

“That stuff had been going on before they started the ship,” Byron replied. “But I doubt much of it will continue once she’s finished.”

Anastasia slowly shook her head. “The Categorical Imperative won’t solve our problems, Byron. Look at the Indomitable. It wasn’t the end of our problems; it was just the beginning.”

Byron was silent.

“We’ve always been good at creating weapons of war,” Anastasia continued, speaking as much to herself as to her crew. “And those weapons helped humanity ascend to its place as the most powerful species in the sector. But with that ascension came a price. First the Lucani Ibron, and now the revolt, the rebellion, the war. Humanity is very good at creating weapons, but has been very poor at using them. Einstein once said that our technology had exceeded our humanity, and that was in the twentieth century. Since then, our technology has only grown. Our humanity—our morality—however, has not. And, as we see now, with every ascension, there comes a declination.”

The crew was silent for several moments as they each absorbed Anastasia’s words. They each knew that they were words that came not from an abstract philosopher or a misinformed idealist. They were words that came from a seasoned veteran, a true hero of the Confederation whose loyalty and bravery were beyond question.

Captain Mason looked to her crew, and, though she did not know most of them personally, she had studied them. Each had emerged from a rigorous selection process and had been chosen to serve on the Inferno. But, more than that, Anastasia had studied their histories, trying to glean what she could, not of their aptitudes and abilities, but of their character, of their emotion, of their humanity. The crew they had assembled was a good one, she thought. But it would take more—on a ship like this one, at a time like this one, it would take more—much more than a “good” crew. If the rising tide of resentment that accompanied the truth about the Korgian Annihilation were to be stemmed, it would take something truly extraordinary. And it would take truly extraordinary people to do it.

Anastasia silently hoped she was up to the challenge. She hoped all of them were.

© 2010 by David Derrico

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© 2010 David Derrico