RIGHT ASCENSION

Excerpt

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Chapter 1

1 Mar 3040

   All was quiet as a pair of sleek fightercraft coasted through the dark velvet backdrop of space. Chad’s fingers anxiously played over the control stick in his hand. Through his excitement, he tried to concentrate on what he had learned at the Academy. He went through his in-flight checklist, ensuring that all combat systems were engaged in standby mode and operating properly. He eased his fighter even closer to the identical ship beside him, nearly touching the other fighter’s hull as he mirrored its trajectory. I should be getting extra points for this, he mused.
   Up ahead, a large, slow-moving asteroid loomed. On the far side of the rock lay the object of their mission—a pilot in a disabled fighter that they were to rescue. Maintaining radio silence, Chad followed the subtle course corrections of his wingmate, carving out a flight path that nearly skimmed the asteroid’s surface, an attempt to avoid detection should anyone be watching. Chad smiled as the disabled fighter came into view. A quick burst over to the ship, and Chad would attach a tow cable to the fighter and be gone before anyone detected their presence—likely in record time. Chad eased the control stick forward—
   The instrument panel of his fighter exploded in warning as a half-dozen enemy ships launched from a deep crater in the asteroid behind him. Bright red lances of laser light flashed past his cockpit, and Chad quickly raised his shields. “Figure Eight!” barked Krystal’s voice over the intercom. “Break now!”
   Chad jerked his ship hard to the left, pulling away from Krystal as she shot in the opposite direction, quickly putting distance between the two fighters. Chad continued his arc, pulling hard on the control stick and adding speed to his turn. As he came around, he saw Krystal’s ship, which had performed a mirror image of his own maneuver. The two ships rejoined behind their attackers, and Chad quickly observed that they had split into groups of four and two in a confused effort to track the faster fighters.
   “On my wing,” barked Krystal, banking hard toward the smaller group of enemy ships. They were Arrows, medium-sized fighters used mainly by pirates—a big step up from the slow Vagabonds Chad was used to facing. Chad hesitated just for a moment before falling in behind Krystal. Any other pilot, and Chad would have demanded the lead.
   Krystal closed on the enemy ships at breakneck speed, no doubt aware that the larger group would be on them soon. She angled her ship slightly upward, targeting the topmost of the two ships, and Chad slid his ship underneath, locking onto the other enemy fighter. Both pilots thumbed their firing sticks at once, and two pairs of lasers tracked toward the fleeing Arrows. The barrages hit, and the exhaust from both ships abated, leaving them coasting helplessly in space.
   A smattering of laser fire raked the rear of Chad’s ship—these Arrows are quicker than I thought! His shields held, though, and Chad again separated from Krystal’s ship, providing more difficult targets for their attackers. Their initial success had evened the odds somewhat, but Chad realized they were still outnumbered two to one, and being pursued by ships more powerful, and nearly as fast, as his own SF-233 fighter. He concentrated on defensive maneuvers as two of the Arrows chased after his ship. He hoped Krystal would be able to handle the other two—right now, there was no way for Chad to get to her.
   Chad checked his display to see that he was speeding toward an asteroid field, and that he had barely put any distance on the pursuing fighters. A warning chime sounded as he approached the field and a thick red line on his tactical display, but Chad ignored it, pushing the control stick even farther forward. He kept an eye on the display as he closed on the dense array of asteroids at great speed. This better work, he mused, or all this has been for nothing.
   A flicker of doubt entered Chad’s mind, but the pursuing fighters finally broke off and arced away from their paths. Chad fired his retro thrusters and pulled his ship straight up in as tight an arc as he could muster. He strained against the inertial forces, trying to hold on to consciousness for just another second longer. When he could bear no more, he pulled out of his turn and struggled to re-focus.
   The two Arrows were visible through his front cockpit window now, and were already turning back toward him. Chad seized the moment and sped toward the closer Arrow, peppering it with laser fire. Its shields held, but Chad matched its maneuvers and continued to fire. No way this guy gets away from me. The Arrow dinked right and Chad instinctively dismissed the bait, instead angling to the left and catching the Arrow with a full laser burst as it came back into Chad’s field of fire. I’ve seen that textbook maneuver in the flight sims too many times—
   Pleased with his victory, Chad had forgotten about the other fighter, which raked the side of Chad’s ship with a powerful burst from its quad cannons. Sirens blared in the cockpit as Chad’s shields failed. He cursed himself under his breath and pulled the control stick to angle toward the attacking Arrow. The ships closed at great speed before the Arrow veered off course, and Chad pulled in behind him, pouring laser fire into his engines. A few well-placed bursts, and the enemy fighter was finished. Chad sped back toward the remaining ships, and Krystal.
   Chad’s shields were off-line, so another shot would disable his fighter and mean certain failure. But he saw that both remaining Arrows were still after Krystal, and he nudged the throttle forward as far as it could go.
   He needn’t have worried. Before he could reach them, Krystal had literally flown circles around her pursuers, finishing both off with her ship seemingly unscathed. Chad settled in beside her and gave her a grin through the cockpit plasticite. She gave him a thumbs-up sign, and they coasted toward the disabled fighter to finish their mission.
   Chad’s adrenaline was starting to subside, but he was still eager to finish the mission and get back to base. He pushed his ship forward and readied the tow cable, thinking of the accolades he would receive upon his return—
   “Chad!” Krystal’s voice blared over the headset. He looked up to see the disabled fighter shed off an outer layer of concealing metal plates, and in its place, a fully-functional Arrow leveled its quad cannon at him. All for nothing …
   The rest happened in slow motion. The enemy Arrow fired—and Krystal’s ship surged in front of Chad, taking the brunt of the attack. Her shields held, and she returned fire, quickly disabling the stationary ship. In an instant, it was truly over.
   “Krystal—you–you saved me,” Chad stammered, considering the ramifications. “But your perfect score …”
   There was no hesitation from the other end. “We passed, Chad, both of us, and with honors—although you damn near flew out of bounds.” He could almost hear her smirk. “Our perfect score will have to wait for the real thing.”
   Chad’s combat systems disengaged and a voice broke over their headsets, “Congratulations, cadets. This concludes your final exam. Excellent work, both of you. Return to base.”
   Chad exhaled and looked over at Krystal. The seven disabled Arrows powered back up, piloted by instructors wielding only simulated lasers, just like his own training fighter. All nine ships angled back toward the Confederation Academy shipyards.
   The final hurdle was over. Chad had passed, and at the top of his class. He would need to hear his final score at the debriefing, of course, but his scores would surely be high enough for him to earn his commission and begin active duty.
   A broad smile lit his face. There was one call Chad could not wait until landing to make. He thumbed his wrist-worn nano-computer.
   “Dad?” he said. “I did it. I passed. I’m going to be a Confederation officer.” He paused, and his eyes began to water. “Just like you.”

* * * * *

   Lieutenant Atgard flinched as the shuttlecraft emerged from the upper atmosphere and the dull pink glow that had surrounded the ship abruptly gave way to the inky blackness of space. He was not yet accustomed to the sudden jolt that accompanied a spacecraft as it entered a vacuum, just one of a hundred new experiences he would surely be getting used to over the next several years.
   Fresh out of the Yeager Fighter School of the Confederation Academy, and only 21 years old, Chad Steven Atgard had undergone thorough training and simulated combat exercises, but there was much he had yet to experience first-hand. His quivering legs attested to his almost palpable excitement—he had waited his entire life for a day like this one, yet even in his most optimistic moments he had not actually dared to believe what was happening to him now.
   The minutes ticked by as the shuttle traveled from Earth at a seemingly leisurely pace, though when Chad fingered a key on his wrist nanocomputer, it showed their actual speed accelerating past 100 kilometers per second. While such speed was hardly slow, it paled in comparison to some of the fighters, scouts, and even heavier Corvettes that cruised at speeds many times as fast as the utilitarian shuttlecraft. Even the behemoth Indomitable cruised several times faster.
   With that thought, Chad came out of his reverie. He blinked twice and looked around the interior of the small shuttlecraft. Dull gray padded benches on each side of the austere transport ship held three people each, four of whom he knew only superficially, but he knew them all to be recent top graduates like himself. Seated directly across from him, in fact, was Jonathan Cole, valedictorian of the Yeager Fighter School and grandson of Fleet Admiral Tiberius Cole, the aging captain of the Indomitable. Jonathan, his head turned to gaze out the front viewport, carried an unmistakable air of cold perfectionism about him as he sat with the stiff, perfect posture gleaned from years of growing up in the company of military officers. It must be difficult, Chad remarked silently, following in the footsteps of a living legend, but Jonathan certainly was making an admirable attempt.
   He knew the credentials of the other graduates were not much different from Cole’s. He also knew the woman seated next to him, Krystal Rolari, was undoubtedly the best fighter pilot he had served with at the Academy. Although he had never admitted it to her, he knew that she was better than even he himself was, having proven it in simulations many times. It was a singular point of pride for him, in fact, that he was the only pilot in the entire class to have ever bested her in one-on-one combat in the flight sims.
   He studied the contours of her face as he remembered their days at the Academy, not so far behind him as they now seemed. The long, jet-black tresses of her hair framed her angular face, and her innocent beauty belied her inner fortitude. Her strength, however, was apparent from her high, strong cheekbones and a granite chin that spoke of hard-fought battles won not in the void of space, but rather in the corporeal world of men.
   Her mouth dropped open as he gazed at her. Staring out the front viewport to her left, she silently mouthed the words, “My God.” Turning to look, Chad’s own mouth dropped in amazement and his heart momentarily ceased to function.
   In front of them loomed the Indomitable. Though the vessel was indeed shaped like a ship and was capable of faster-than-light travel, to call what appeared before them a “ship” was almost unthinkable. The magnificent, gleaming vessel was nearly the size of Earth’s moon, its impossible mass dwarfing the puny shuttlecraft whose insignificant shadow fell on the mighty colossus as they approached. Two sets of enormous, sweeping wings converged in great arcs into the plump fuselage of the behemoth spacecraft. Jutting out from the beast’s cavernous torso was a long, rounded nose section, the far end of which could not be seen through the shuttle’s front viewport. The surface of the vessel had a perfectly resplendent, almost angelic white luster that reflected light from the nearby sun and bathed the entire area in a vivid, divine luminescence. The brilliant glow forced Chad to cover his eyes as they approached, but once they had adjusted, he could make out the lettering on the vessel’s curved white flank, which read “U. C. S. Indomitable.” Each letter was several times the size of the shuttle.
   It was, quite simply, the most awe-inspiring thing Chad had ever seen.
   Unable to control his reverence, one of the cadets let out an involuntary gasp of amazement as they approached one of the myriad landing bays of the vessel. Approaching the opening doors of the bay looked for all the world like the tiny shuttlecraft was being sucked into the cavernous, daunting maw of some immense metallic beast.
   “Wow,” murmured Chad softly, unable to find words properly befitting the humbling experience. A sudden lightheadedness finally reminded him to inhale.
   The Captain, seated next to the pilot in the front of the shuttle, turned back to the cadets and said, “Wow? When I first saw her this close, the only thing I could think to say was holy shit.” The cadets all grinned at the Captain’s remark, and all silently agreed that his expression was far more apt than their own.
   Entering the massive landing bay, the shuttle slowed and finally halted on the docking platform. Almost unable to move, Chad rose from his seat and anxiously looked toward the opening hatchway. As the cadets silently filed off the shuttle and onto the ship, each wore the uniform expression of awe spawned by actually being aboard the legendary Juggernaut. Chad stepped with trepidation down the short exit stairway, feeling an intense surge of adrenaline as his boot made contact with the polished metal deck, knowing his life was forever changed.
   “You all must be overwhelmed,” said the Captain, eyeing the cadets with a knowing smirk. “To be perfectly honest, I still get a chill when I set foot on her.” The shuttle pilot next to him nodded his agreement. “But there will be plenty of time for awe. Now, you are all to follow me to the orientation room.”
   Following the Captain into one of the broad hallways of the ship, Chad looked back at the hangar bay portal and at Earth, no longer nearly so magnificent nor awe-inspiring as the ship he would be stationed on for the next six years.

* * * * *

   “Can you believe it, Krystal?” asked Chad once the orientations had ended and they had been taken to their barracks. “Can you believe this thing?”
   “No,” she said pointedly. “It’s like a dream.”
   “The Indomitable. Think of it! I mean, I’ve read all about it since I was a kid, but—”
   “To actually be aboard it is another thing entirely,” Krystal finished for him.
   “Man! Do you know this ship can hold half a billion people? That it’s almost half the mass of the moon? That it …”
   “Knowing all that and seeing it are entirely different things, aren’t they?”
   “Wow. I mean, holy shit was right.”
   Smiling, Krystal embraced him. He held her, and thought of how everything had come together almost perfectly for him. Here he was, graduated at the top of his class from flight school, on board the Indomitable, and with Krystal. Though she didn’t know it, the last thing was what made him most happy. At least he didn’t think she really knew. If she did, it never got in the way of their friendship, which started almost as soon as they joined the Academy together, six years ago.
   “Do you think we’ll ever know our way around this place?” Krystal asked as Chad reluctantly released her and watched her survey their new home. “I hear even Fleet Admiral Cole doesn’t know where everything is.”
   “How could he?” asked Chad incredulously. “That would be like knowing every street, house, and building in North America. How many square kilometers of space are there aboard this ship?”
   “Who knows?” replied Krystal with an absent shrug. “Isn’t that a trivia question or something?”
   “I wonder if anyone really knows,” said Chad, beginning to call up the ship’s schematics on his nanocomputer.
   “What I do know,” replied Krystal, turning to him seriously, “is that every square inch on this ship is the safest place in the galaxy to be.”
   Chad nodded and looked up at her. “Yeah … they say the armour is impenetrable.”
   “Or as close as it can theoretically be, anyway. Quantum mechanics was never my thing, though.”
   Krystal was referring to the super-dense construction of the atomic armour plating that protected the ship, Chad knew. Though he admitted he was not an expert on such things either, he did know that the basic principle was that subatomic particles were somehow packed together so densely that they were all but impenetrable. Add to that the Indomitable’s impregnable shields, which were more powerful than those of any planet, and he could see no way how anything could be more than a nuisance to the mighty Juggernaut-class starship. In fact, after the Indomitable’s construction, symbolically finished on January 1, 3000, no other species had even attempted to make anything rivaling the monstrous ship. After all, what was the point? Chad doubted that anything larger than it could ever be made, and if any hostile species tried, there would be no way to hide it and no way to stop the Juggernaut from obliterating it before it came anywhere near completion. None of the neighboring species, however, even felt a need for so powerful a weapon for their navies, as the commission of the Indomitable marked the beginning of a peaceful era. The ultimate Doomsday Weapon, the Indomitable solidified the peaceful, democratic authority of the United Confederation of Planets and aligned nearly all the worlds in the Alpha Sector. Though it was used only as a symbolic show of force in most of the ensuing minor skirmishes, its effectiveness, once proven beyond any reasonable doubt, deterred any serious invasion. Any hostile species that were out there were staying the hell out there.
   Of course, what made the Indomitable so frightful a specter was not her armour, nor her shields, nor even her powerful energy weapons. What made the Indomitable legendary was the Omega Cannon.
   “Chad?”
   Chad blinked twice and looked over at Krystal, flashing her a feeble grin. “I wonder, Krystal …” he began.
   “Wonder what?” she asked, walking over to him and sitting with him on one of the bunk beds arranged in neat rows throughout the large room. “What is it?”
   “It’s just that … I don’t know. Doesn’t it kind of bother you in a way?”
   “It?” she asked, momentarily confused. “You mean the Omega Cannon.” It was not a question.
   “Yeah,” he admitted, looking up into her face, a face that once again reminded him not of a rookie cadet, but of a seasoned veteran with decades of experience behind its beautiful facade. “I mean, it has kept the peace for over 30 years.”
   Krystal took his hand in hers. “I had to come to terms with that dilemma before I could ever set foot aboard this ship, Chad. And I think you need to come to terms with it as well.”
   Chad sighed heavily.
   “And I think you need to arrive at your conclusion on your own,” she finished. Kissing him on the forehead, she rose to leave. “But right now, let’s get some sleep. We’ll probably have a big day tomorrow.”
   Forcing a smile, Chad nodded and watched her walk out of the room. But he knew sleep would be the last thing on his mind.

* * * * *

   The barracks were quiet—eerily quiet, Chad noted uncomfortably. And when it was quiet at night, Chad had time to think. And on this night in particular, he had a lot on his mind. Predictably, his thoughts turned to the Omega Cannon.
   The size of a small moon all by itself, but encased in the oblong nose of the Indomitable, the Omega Cannon was the final word in naval power. Larger and infinitely more powerful than any conceivable conventional, nuclear, or energy weapon, the Cannon was what scared aggressive species from coming anywhere near the Confederation. Though there were powerful hostile armadas out there, they were all rendered meaningless by the Cannon.
   Of course, the details were not revealed to anyone but the most trusted, high-ranking members of the Confederation Navy, but how exactly the weapon did what it did was irrelevant. What mattered was what it did to the attacking armies of the Korg Empire on June 6, 3007.
   Though it happened many years before his birth in 3019, Chad and every other sentient being in the sector knew very well about the events that took place at the Korgia Prime System that day. It was after the Korgians had attacked and inflicted heavy casualties on a few outlying Confederation outposts, and appeared to be readying for a more serious assault on the Core Systems. Dispatched from Earth, the Indomitable arrived unescorted at Korgia Prime, where the entire Korgian Armada had massed for their upcoming assault. As the Korgian ships started swinging into position and firing harmless energy beams at the Indomitable, she powered up the Omega Cannon.
   Though the entire incident was classified, and certainly none of the Korgians lived to tell about it, what happened next was legendary. While accounts of exactly what happened vary, and thus the details are not commonly agreed upon, what Chad and everyone else did know was that the immense Omega Cannon fired, and, as the Indomitable spun away and departed through hyperspace, the entire Korgian Star System, including its twelve planets, nine billion people, and hundreds of warships, was completely obliterated. Not surprisingly, to this day, no one has since dared launch a major offensive on any Confederation planet.
   It was not always so safe and peaceful, Chad noted. Back in his grandfather’s time, during the days when Fleet Admiral Cole became a living legend, there were constant wars and threats of extermination from evil alien species. Even his distinguished father’s period had seen its share of war. Many, like his grandfather, had died defending Earth and other Confederation worlds from invaders.
   But those days are far behind us now, thanks to the Cannon, Chad thought quickly. After all, the Omega Cannon had, almost single-handedly, kept the peace for over thirty years. Eventually, with that notion to comfort him, Chad was able to fall into a weary sleep.

* * * * *

   During the night, his first aboard the Indomitable, Chad was awakened by the familiar ringing of alarm klaxons. It took him a while to realize that he was no longer at flight school, and that this must be the real thing.
   Sensing his thoughts, Krystal arose from her bed and, as she donned her flight gear, calmly said, “Probably just a drill. They probably do this to all incoming pilots on their first night.”
   “Kind of a ‘welcome aboard’ type of thing, perhaps?” Chad agreed as he rubbed his eyes, quickly growing alert. “Well, let’s make it look good.”
   With that, they finished getting ready and stepped into the hall and raced down to the briefing room. It was chaos as they entered and found a chair.
   “Take a seat!” barked the normally relaxed Captain, heavy furrows evident on his brow. “This is not a drill.”
   Krystal and Chad looked at each other in surprise as they sat in one of the many rows of chairs in the back of the room. Not a drill? What could be so threatening as to warrant all this activity? A rogue pirate in a 200-series fighter, perhaps? Chad stifled a chuckle.
   “Pilots,” began the Captain, “an unidentified bogey has just arrived in the Sol System. We are maneuvering to intercept.” He fingered a button on a remote, calling up a three-dimensional representation from the holo-vid projector showing the nose of the Indomitable and a tiny silver speck floating before it.
   A pilot near the front raised a hand. “Didn’t we track them on long-range radar?”
   “No,” replied the Captain. “That’s what has us so intrigued. We had no contact from any sensor or radar scans until three minutes ago when it arrived. The ship is small, not quite Capital-class, but sensor scans are unable to penetrate its shielding. We’ve never seen anything like it before. We are assuming they are a new species.”
   “Wow,” whispered Krystal enthusiastically. “How exciting!” Though far from common, encountering a new species was not extraordinary considering that the vast stretches of space spawned scores of sentient creatures. Chad had certainly never been present for a First Contact, however.
   “They’re probably friendly,” the Captain continued, “but of course, we are not to let our guards down. We are to be on full combat status. Alpha through Delta Wings will launch immediately and take up escort positions. You are to remain Weapons Hot but are not to fire under any circumstances until ordered otherwise, is that clear?”
   “Yes, sir!” was the unanimous reply from the assembled pilots. With a nod from the Captain, they began moving quickly to their ships. Chad rushed to keep up with Krystal as they raced from the briefing room into the corridor.
   “It should be fun taking out the new SF-357’s,” he remarked as they hurried down the corridor, pulsating lights overhead directing them to the fighter bays. “They didn’t have any ships this advanced at the academy.”
   “Stay focused,” Krystal warned uncharacteristically. “Don’t do anything stupid, okay? The Indomitable may be invincible, but we’re not.”
   “But it’s a First Contact! You really think they sent one sub-Capital ship to start a ruckus with the Indomitable? Don’t be—”
   “Just be careful, okay, Chad? I have a funny feeling about this.”
   Chad had learned to trust Krystal’s intuition. “Krystal,” he asked, slowing slightly. “At the Academy—our final exam. If those had been real lasers …?”
   “We’re a team, right?” Krystal nodded to him. “Just stay close to me—and stay alert this time.”
   Chad smiled. “You worry too much,” he teased, grinning. “You’re just scared ‘cause you’re not as good a pilot as me.”
   Krystal couldn’t help but smile, and some of her seriousness faded. “I’ll fly circles around you any day, space slug. Just try to keep up.” With that, she sprinted ahead.
   Chad laughed to himself and the pair raced to their respective fighters.

* * * * *

   Launching out of the hangar bay, Chad was once again reminded of just how immense the vessel he was leaving truly was. Pushing those thoughts aside, however, he concentrated on the task at hand, following Beta Leader around on a hard left turn, the stars pinwheeling violently in front of him. Decelerating quickly, he eased into formation, guiding his ship behind and to the right of Krystal, who in turn was on the right wing of Beta Leader. Chad double-checked his readouts, making sure his shields were up and his weapons were fully powered, and glanced to his left at the massive Indomitable, the mighty Juggernaut completely eclipsing his view of Earth.
   “Beta Leader to Beta Wing,” barked Jonathan Cole’s voice through the comm speaker, “hold position and retain attack formation.”
   Chad slowed his ship and stopped, surrounded by the other eleven members of Beta Wing, who were likewise aligned in perfect formation. He stared through the cockpit plasticite at the speck of an alien ship that had caused all this commotion. He could make out few details of the small ship; it appeared to be ovoid in shape, and composed of some reflective, swirling metal. “I guess we just wait while they try to talk to it now, huh?” Chad asked over the comlink.
   “That’s right,” replied Cole stiffly. “Those are the orders. But stay alert.”
   Fine, thought Chad, running his fingers wistfully over the fighter’s controls. I’ll stay alert, all right. But can’t I just go take this baby for a spin for a while?? He looked over into Krystal’s cockpit to find her smiling back at him. He knew she could tell exactly what he was thinking, and, what’s more, that she was thinking exactly the same thing.


Chapter 2

   Admiral Daniel Atgard surveyed the scene before him on the expansive viewscreen. Straight ahead, and clearly visible though many millions of kilometers away, was the Indomitable. His view was of the stately profile of the mammoth ship, of which Earth, hanging behind her against the mottled background of stars, seemed to be no more than a satellite. Surrounding the Juggernaut, he knew from his tactical display, were hundreds of small but potent fighters, one of which was piloted by his son, Chad. The Admiral watched with fervent interest, as not only was he witnessing his son’s first mission, but also the discovery of a new species. Although, to be more accurate, Daniel remarked silently, the other species had technically discovered us.
   The alien vessel, visible exclusively on the tactical screen, was of unknown origin. Strangely, his sensors had been unable to garner any data on the exotic vessel. He hoped the Indomitable’s sensors, being at much closer range, were enjoying more success. In addition, he reminded himself, his sensors were set to passive scanning, as they were unable to actively transmit radar signals while cloaked. Though just a precaution, he had elected to keep his ship, the Apocalypse, fully cloaked, which—theoretically—rendered it undetectable.
   Daniel turned once again to the tactical display and zoomed in on his son’s SF-357 fighter, which hovered in perfect formation on the near side of the Indomitable’s right flank. Daniel longed to hail his son over the comlink, but knew he was unable to transmit while cloaked, a precaution that may have seemed paranoid and unnecessary to some. However, though the alien ship seemed benign, Admiral Atgard had not survived to rise to his current rank by underestimating unknown adversaries.
   Admiral Atgard had, at age 35, become the youngest man to ever hold that rank when he was awarded it in 3011. Still one of the younger men to currently hold the title, Daniel Atgard earned the respect and notice of the Confederation Navy at an early age. Originally a fighter pilot, Daniel proved his courage defending Earth from invaders before the days of the Indomitable. After his bravery and skill had caught the eye of Admiral Cole, he was commissioned to a covert branch of the military and given command of a swift Corvette. He was sent on many dangerous and clandestine missions, ranging from exploration to espionage, all of which were of critical importance to the Confederation. Repeatedly establishing his mettle as a pilot, a captain, and a tactician, Atgard was made an Admiral after his pivotal role in the discovery of the aggregation of the Korgian Armada.
   A man of wisdom, valor, and, above all, integrity, Daniel Atgard was ferociously respected by his friends and crewmates alike. Daniel’s reputation as one of the most fiercely innovative and cunning men in the sector was well known, and he had pulled his ship and crew through insurmountable odds on regular occasion. A heroic, noble warrior-philosopher, Daniel often found himself outgunned or outnumbered, but never outwitted. Resolute and indefatigable, his august visage was born of years of hard-earned experience and invaluable knowledge. Slender wisps of stately gray hair mingled with his ebony locks, but the intensity with which he bore himself suggested a man half his age. Perceptive and inquisitive, the Admiral firmly believed that if he outthought his enemy, the battle was already won.
   Silently surveying the scene, the Admiral looked around the bridge and regarded his assembled officers. Seated in front of him and to his left at the pilot’s station was helmsman Zach Wallace, a cocky young ex-fighter pilot chosen expressly for his unparalleled piloting skills. His bravery and ability were matched only by his recklessness and bravado. He looked the part, too—dark, unkempt hair, evidently just this side of regulations, and an ever-present smirk that hinted of confidence fostered by genius. Daniel could tell by the gleam in his eyes that the young Lieutenant currently wanted nothing more than the thrill of the opportunity to chase after the unfamiliar ship through some dense asteroid field.
   Seated to Zach’s right was Lieutenant Nathan Latimer. Nathan was a Fedoran, and hailed from the Cygnus System. Fedorans were unusually similar to humans—they were bipedal and breathed oxygen. Unlike humans, however, Fedorans had but one arm, which jutted from the center of their roughly cylindrical bodies and ended in eight, half-meter-long tentacles. Their skin was a dull brown in color, and they lived several times longer than the average 135-year life span of humans. Ironically, Daniel thought their wrinkled skin and faces made even the youngest of them look rather aged.
   The presence of aliens aboard human Confederation ships, while rare, was not unheard of. Most alien species were so different from humans that they would not only be unable to survive on human ships without protective suits, but they would be completely unable to operate the same controls or read the same viewscreens as humans. Even relatively similar species would usually experience adverse effects in human environments over an extended period of time due to subtle changes in air composition and pressure, gravity, ambient light, and many other environmental factors. For this reason, nearly all aliens in the Navy were assigned to ships specially designed for their species. Luckily, Fedorans were able to survive comfortably in human environments, and their acute vision was sensitive to visual and ultraviolet light. Admiral Atgard had hand-picked Nathan to join the Apocalypse’s crew not only for his loyalty and knowledge, but also for his abilities, exceptional even by Fedoran standards.
   Serving as the navigator and astrometric technician, Nathan’s memory was photographic: he was able to recall detailed star charts from systems he had visited years before with startling precision. He also possessed phenomenal mathematical abilities that allowed him to calculate jump points and course headings nearly as well as any computer. Only marginally older than Daniel’s 64 years, Nathan appeared much older. His bald, leathery head was spotted and furrowed, and deep-set wrinkles framed his perceptive brown eyes. Solemn and quiet, Lieutenant Latimer gave no outward impression of his thoughts as his gaze shifted between the viewscreen and his navigation panel. Daniel surmised that he was probably trying to ascertain the origin of the newcomers’ vessel.
   Shifting his gaze to the stalwart, dark-skinned man to his left, Daniel studied his Tactical Officer, Lieutenant Commander Dex Rutcliffe. A serious and impassioned warrior, Dex was a master of military strategy and a tactician of eminence and renown within the Confederation. A former elite Marine Commando, Dex had been promoted and made a Naval officer when it was realized that his keen tactical mind could not be wasted in the role of an infantryman. Though merely a young Lieutenant at the time, Dex Rutcliffe’s innovative ideas, now taught at Academies throughout the Confederation, were responsible for routing the Vr’amil’een Armada in a skirmish some 15 years ago. Lieutenant Commander Rutcliffe was a robust, well-built man in his early forties whose stern countenance befit a warrior of his stature. His eyes never moved from the tactical display panel in front of him, and Daniel felt relieved that if this encounter were to turn hostile, Dex already would have run through a score of mental simulations and come up with a dozen viable strategies for every possible contingency.
   Seated to Daniel’s right was his First Officer, Commander Anastasia Mason. Daniel had known Anastasia since their days together aboard his Corvette, the Excalibur. She was his First Officer then, and he requested—rather, demanded—that she be allowed to accompany him when he took command of the Apocalypse upon its commission in 3033. Daniel found her empathetic perspective to be an invaluable counterpoint to his methodical and analytical approach. Though brilliant, Commander Mason relied more on intuition and gut feeling than facts or numbers when formulating strategies or opinions. The Admiral was wise enough to realize that her input was often beneficial, and that their two styles complemented each other perfectly.
   Daniel had first met Anastasia when she joined him aboard the Excalibur at age 24. Only a few years out of the Academy then, Daniel could already sense that the young Ensign possessed the qualities of a great leader. She moved up the ranks quickly, and was his First Officer by age 35. Now, at 49, Commander Mason had an air of regality about her. Tall and slender, with porcelain-clear skin and long, full, jet-black hair cascading down her back, Anastasia could, in another setting, have easily passed for a Queen or ruler of some aristocratic society. She bore herself with a stately charm, but her genuine warmth and empathy kept her from ever seeming distant, aloof, or elitist. As Daniel studied her, she turned to meet his discerning gaze and silently conveyed her anxiety. Daniel knew from years of experience that situations such as this one made her uneasy—she knew nothing about the aliens except the data flicking across the screen from the inconclusive sensor scans. She had no inkling of their motivations, their feelings, or their culture. Always adroitly adept at interpersonal communication, psychology, and empathy, Commander Mason must have felt as if she were entering this situation bound and blindfolded. She stared at Daniel helplessly, unable to offer counsel, nor even venture a guess as to the next move of the aliens aboard the strange silver ship that floated silently before them in the void.
   “They’re transmitting the welcome message, Admiral,” reported Dex.
   Daniel stared at the viewscreen and wondered if the aliens would be able to receive it. Though the Indomitable was broadcasting at every known wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum, it was still nothing more than a shot in the dark to presume that the aliens’ instruments would be able to decode the transmission. And although the message was, theoretically, universal, consisting of prime numbers, pi, and other such mathematical encodings, there was no guarantee the aliens could comprehend it. Even if they could decipher it, Daniel wondered, who was to say that the number three didn’t mean “go to hell” in their language?
   “How long do you think it will take them to respond?” asked Zach, spinning in his seat to look at the Admiral. “And how will they let us know if they understand or not?”
   “They will find a way,” replied Anastasia. “Simple ideas—understanding, curiosity, love—are shared by all sentient species. They might not be able to ask for a cup of coffee, but we’ll be able to communicate somehow. It just might take a little time to get the details ironed out.”
   Nodding, Daniel added, “Remember when we—accidentally—made first contact with the Slarthi? We were just on our way through the Sirius System when we literally almost bumped right into them.”
   “Of course,” replied the Commander. “How could I forget? We, of course, weren’t equipped to deal with meeting a new species. We didn’t have the people or the equipment that we were supposed to …”
   “But in the end,” continued Admiral Atgard, “we were able to communicate enough to not only convey our mutual peaceful intentions, but also to start learning a little about each other. The breakthrough in communication,” Daniel added, looking around the bridge, “came when we—accidentally—sent them Anastasia’s recipe for chicken soup from the food synthesizers!”
   Everyone chuckled as Anastasia finished, “It turned out, with the information we had already sent them, they were able to synthesize it themselves. Once again, my cooking skills saved the galaxy from certain annihilation!” She flashed a wry smile at Daniel.
   “That’s why I made sure you were transferred here,” Daniel joked. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of exploring the fringes of the known galaxy for years on end without your chicken soup around.”
   Once again, the crew laughed lightheartedly at their banter. “So that’s why you keep her around, eh, Admiral?” Zach asked facetiously. “I thought it was for her stunning good looks.” He beamed a cocky smirk in her direction.
   “You’re lucky you’re a good pilot,” retorted Anastasia, smiling subtly. “Because if looks were a requirement, you would have been reassigned to a cargo frigate to haul fertilizer to Lethe Minor a long time ago.”
   “Oooooh … crashed and burned, eh, Zach?” laughed Dex. “Still having trouble with the ladies, I see.”
   Slightly pink from embarrassment, but still sporting his ever-present smirk, Zach turned back to the viewscreen. Quickly changing the subject, he began, “So … how long has it been since—”
   He stopped there as everyone’s eyes became focused on the viewscreen. There was activity from the alien ship.
   Peering ahead, the Admiral’s face quickly grew serious once again. “Dex, magnify the viewscreen. Center between the aliens and the nose of the Indomitable.”
   As the viewscreen snapped into focus to show a closer view of the area, they could see that a bright lance of light had shot from the nose of the alien ship and remained suspended in space, reaching out to rest upon the nose of the Indomitable.
   “Dex, what is that?” asked the Admiral.
   “I don’t know, sir,” replied Dex. “But it appears to be of low intensity … it’s certainly not damaging the Indomitable. Perhaps some sort of sensor beam, or maybe just a spotlight of some sort?” he ventured.
   “Well—which is it?” asked Daniel.
   “I … I don’t know. It’s not … light, per se … . Sir, I don’t know what in the hell it is.” His gruff voice carried with it just a hint of concern.
   “Daniel, you had better take a look at this,” interjected Anastasia. She hit a button on her control panel and the viewscreen switched to a less-magnified view, showing the Indomitable in its entirety. The narrow beam of light was still visible. The Admiral followed it from the alien ship to the nose of the Indomitable and …
   He could see it clearly emerging from the tail end of the Indomitable.
   Before the Admiral could respond, a large white ball of light shot from the nose of the alien ship. Traveling quickly, and riding the narrow beam of light, it sped toward the nose of the Indomitable. As it reached the front of the ship, it disappeared, but moments later, a series of explosions began to ripple from deep within the Indomitable’s hull. Beginning at the nose and convulsing down the length of the ship, small arcs of incandescent fire and plasma shot out from within the interior of the massive vessel. Within an instant, the ball of light had passed out the rear of the Juggernaut and the explosions had reached the tail of the mighty colossus. For a long second, nothing stirred, and then, all at once, the Indomitable, the invulnerable symbol of human Naval superiority, flashed into an immense ball of blinding white plasma and was completely destroyed.

* * * * *

   Mouth agape, stunned, and unable to move, the Admiral and his crew watched helplessly as the alien vessel turned and shot away back in the direction from which it had come. Where, moments ago, a ship the size of a planet, hundreds of fighters, and a sleek alien vessel had resided, the viewscreen now showed nothing but Earth, small and vulnerable, nestled amongst the stars that were helpless to protect her from this new enemy.
   The words came out slowly, laboriously. “Life signs … ?” The Admiral’s voice cracked uncharacteristically.
   There was a momentary silence, which hung like a leaden blanket over the bridge crew. “N–None, sir,” stammered Dex. “None at all.”

© 2010 by David Derrico

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© 2010 David Derrico