Captain Benson finished the last of her supper and smiled as Chung regaled her with stories of the crew.
He said, “They have a game where they toss credit tokens against the wall. The one who comes closest to the wall without touching gets to keep the tokens.”
“Isn’t that gambling?” she said.
“Ha! They will swear up and down to anyone catching them in the act that it’s not gambling. If pressed, they might say it’s a contest, or simply a game of skill. But they’ll say, ‘No ma’am, it is not gambling, absolutely not.’”
She smiled as she downed the last bite on her plate. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes were a welcome respite from the bland fare they normally had for meals. And that, she thought, was sad to say. But true.
Chung wiped his lips with a napkin and sat back, his own plate nearly clean.
He said, “Any word from StarCen if we’re going to be late to the party?”
Benson nodded and said, “We made up some time by not hanging around at the rendezvous point. She’s extending our jumps a bit, and that helps. Finally, the fleet is pausing for an hour while she positions everybody. If we don’t hang around there, we should show up pretty close to when the action starts.”
“Good, good. I’ll pass the word and get everybody ready for the morning.”
He stood up to go, although it seemed to Benson he moved toward the door somewhat reluctantly. She smiled and stood up, too. She had sensed Chung’s affections before. They would, however, both remain professional.
Well, mostly professional.
She said, “You know if I wasn’t married to the Navy, Chung, I’d ask you to marry me.”
He broke into a wide grin.
“If you ever proposed, ma’am, I’d say yes.”
With that, he walked out the door and it swished shut behind him.
She sighed, wondering if he knew how close to the mark her comments were. Chung once told her in confidence his first name, Jun, meant “truthful.” How she hated having to dance around the truth with him. Her comment about marriage, although delivered in jest, was true. If it were not for their roles in the Navy, she would have been very much interested in a relationship with Jun Chung. He was the kind of man she admired. Honest, earnest, a good head on his shoulders. She liked his looks, too. Tall, dark, and handsome.
But right now, they had a ship to run, a battle to fight and a war to win. All romantic notions must perforce be suppressed.
Maybe someday, she thought. Maybe someday, after this war is over . . . Maybe she’d stop in a café somewhere on Epsilon Prime and there, at a table, Chung would be sitting alone and nursing a cappuccino. She would see him, walk over and join him. They could interact as real people instead of Captain and XO of the SLS Excelsior.
They could have a life.
But not today.
She climbed into bed and called it a night early so she could be fresh for whatever lay in store in the morning.
“Battle stations. Battle stations. Battle stations.”
StarCen’s high-pitched, emotionless voice sounded throughout the ship. The clock floating at the front of the bridge signaled 05:59, and the Excelsior quickly approached Seychar, gaining distance with every second. They had caught up overnight, and StarCen would bring them through the final point without pausing.
“Listen up, everybody,” Benson said, her words bouncing out of the ship’s public address system. “We’re showing up a little late as usual . . .”
She paused as everyone on the bridge laughed.
“But not that late. StarCen tells me we’re less than a minute behind the others. So when we show up, it’ll be in the thick of battle.
“Now, if predictions for what lies ahead bear out, there won’t be much of a battle. Supposedly the Republicans only have a dozen or so ships in this system. But, you know how the best laid plans of mice and men go. So, I want you all to be ready for anything.
“Keep an eye on the clock. We’re almost there. That is all.”
Everyone on the bridge watched the jump clock as it ticked down, and the icon of the Excelsior on the holographic space map as it crawled closer to Seychar and Gotha Mu.
Finally, the clock reached zero, and they stopped. The ships remaining drones shot out the landing deck portal.
Before them on the holoscreen, Gotha Mu floated in all its celestial glory. Around it, a debris field the likes of which no one had ever seen floated in messy disarray.
Chung said, “Holy cow . . . what happened?”
A wave of metal parts and chunks of ships floated near them, bumping into their shields, along with other things tumbling through space.
Benson said, “Is that . . . is that a body?"
Severs stood in dim light on the Paine’s bridge, silent. Captain Strand maintained authority on the ship, and Severs would not interfere. There was little for the Commodore to do at the moment.
Strand, meanwhile, shouted at his engineers. The holoscreen showed the five Wu Drives, swarming with technicians.
“Get us back online, Smith!”
The lead engineer looked into the camera and said, “Captain, the Wu Drives appear mostly intact. It’s our power core that’s suffering. This is the first time the weapon has been used extensively. It’s never been shot this many times in a row, even in trial runs. It takes a lot of power to teleport the sun. Or, pieces of one anyway. And we just did it repeatedly.”
“Okay, fine. How much time?”
“We’re operating on reserves at the moment. We’ll have to open up the core and take a look at it. I can’t give you an estimate at the moment, sir. If I had to guess, the core will need replacing. We may have to rethink power supplies on the Condors if we’re going to be using this weapon a lot.”
Strand and Severs both looked at the ensign manning the system map. She pointed to a flashing light circling Gotha Mu.
“A new League ship has appeared, sir!”
Strand focused back on the engineer. “Smith, can you get us one more fireball?”
Smith said, “Yes, sir, I think I can. It will likely deplete our reserves, though. Completely. We may even do more damage to the core, I can’t say without looking. But if you’re prepared to sit in the dark and maybe go without gravity . . .”
“Do it. Let’s take this last one out.”
The Commodore said nothing. Technically, he could intervene and suggest the other ships around Seychar jump over to engage the latecomer. But . . .
A lone ship could still damage half a dozen sent against it. And, this was the first real test of their new weapon, in combat. If it would have problems taking out a fleet, they needed to know. Better to find out now than later. So, he felt it was a good idea to stretch the ship out and see how far they could push her.
Severs nodded when Strand raised his eyebrows at him, the question and answer passing unspoken between them.
The lights dimmed again . . .
“How did this . . . StarCen, what happened?”
“I am still processing the data, Captain Benson. I believe I can state with certainty the Republic has a new type of weapon.”
“What did they do, set off a bunch of nuclear bombs?”
“No, Captain Benson. This is not nuclear . . .”
Chung said, “Something’s coming in—”
A flash of bright white light burst onto the holoscreen and time seemed to stop. Raw energy from the heart of Seychar’s sun exploded near the ship, sending a massive amount of fire rushing toward Excelsior. All of her drones incinerated instantly.
Within microseconds, the energy washed over the ship’s shields, obliterating them, bursting against her outer hull, perforating, burning and ripping through the metal . . .
StarCen popped Excelsior away as the rest of the star’s energy rushed into the empty space where the ship had been.
Benson said, “Damage report!”
Chung said, “Outer hull breach!”
“Everywhere! The entire skin of the ship has been burned away.”
“Too many to count at the moment. Corridors are sealed. We’ve got no shields, Captain. And we’re losing pieces of the ship with every jump!”
“StarCen! Stop porting us!”
The stars stopped moving in the main holoscreen.
“Status report! StarCen, what’s our status?”
StarCen said, “Captain your hull is critically damaged. You are losing too much oxygen. I am going to bring you to the nearest planet where you will evacuate all survivors and await rescue.”
The stars began shifting again.
Benson looked over at Chung, eyes wide with shock and horror.
Chung took a deep, shuddering breath.
He said, “I guess we weren’t so lucky this time, Captain.”
Benson shook her head. She said, “No, you’re wrong. We were the lucky ones. At least we managed to port away before total destruction. The others . . . the others weren’t so lucky.”