Authors: Eric Thomson
No Honor in Death
copyright 2014 Eric Thomson
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Published in Canada
This book is published without digital rights management (DRM) and can be freely shared and formatted
Tortured metal screeched as the ship shook under the pounding of another broadside. "Commander Dunmoore!"
Not just a shout but a plea, a panicked entreaty. The voice drilled through pain and wormed its way into Siobhan Dunmoore's concussed brain, driving back the blessed darkness that had cocooned her momentarily. A strong arm shook her right shoulder and she gradually, unwillingly, reacquainted herself with of her surroundings. The acrid stench of burnt polymers and superheated metal assailed her nostrils. She grunted in distaste, reflexively, almost instinctively. The universe shook and her body shifted abruptly. Something hard bit into her lower back and sent fresh waves of agony through her body.
She opened her eyes and closed them immediately, stung by the grey fumes filling the ship's bridge. Dunmoore's mind took a few seconds to reconnect with reality, and she immediately wished it hadn't. The worst nightmare was hundred times preferable to the pulsing horror around her. But this was war, and she was a commissioned officer of the Commonwealth Navy. Had been since - since too long.
"Commander, please wake-up." The young ensign's voice tugged at her, fighting the part of her soul that craved darkness. Her memory of the last moments before the plunge into unconsciousness came back mercilessly nonetheless.
Blinding salvoes had hit the crippled ship's remaining shields, collapsing them with a spectacular bloom of warring energies. In another place and another time, it would have been a beautiful, surreal sight: distorted auroras of green and blue, beacons in the night. But beneath the shimmering curtain of light, the backlash from competing waves of radiation had burned through the hull, eating metal, plastic and flesh indiscriminately, cutting a wide swath of death through the already damaged battleship. The Captain...
"Commander Dunmoore, please, you've got to wake up. The Captain's dead. The CIC was destroyed by the last hit." Siobhan bit back a yelp of pain as the ship shuddered again. "You're in command."
The ensign was close to tears, his words half-smothered by the insistent scream of the sirens. "They're coming back for another run. Please!" His naked, heart-rending plea finally broke through. Something within her knew that hiding from reality meant imminent death, unless she did something. Though it might not make an iota of a difference. Her eyes focussed on the smudged face hovering a few inches above hers.
Ye gods, he can't be old enough to shave yet. Are we so desperate that we take children into battle?
The sudden weight of responsibility threatened to crush the air out of her struggling lungs and full consciousness returned, unmercifully.
The ship - the crew - mine now, by default.
Her eyes met Ensign Hernett's and she saw the terror fighting for dominance within them. He
a child, his gold rank stripe still shiny and new. Academy Class of '65, his commission a few weeks old and this, his first battle. Most likely his last, too.
With an effort of will Commander Siobhan Dunmoore, First Officer of the battleship
pulled herself up on the twisted command chair, gasping at the surge of pain flaring through her battered body. She took the Ensign's proffered hand, blinking away tears. Her eyes met Hernett's again and she saw his need for reassurance, for someone to tell him what to do. It steadied her.
Dunmoore's head throbbed from the blow that had knocked her out. Nausea rose in her throat and she barely suppressed a retch as the acid taste of bile filled her mouth. She grimaced, turning her bruised, soot-smeared face into a mask of death. For a second or so, the image of another ruined bridge superimposed itself on her vision and she made the mistake of shaking her head to clear away the mirage. Dunmoore nearly passed out again at the incredible pain.
Unsteadily, she braced herself on the jagged remains of the chair and glanced around at the damaged, smoking consoles, the shattered screens and dislocated bodies. Red battle lights, diffused by smoke, gave the ship's nerve centre a hellish cast. Conduits had broken free and hung in tatters over the helm. The main viewscreen flickered and sparks flew as overloaded damage control systems gave up the fight. Dante's Inferno had nothing on the
's bridge. Satan and all his demons could be capering around and not look out of place. An automatic extinguisher hissed dully behind her, dampening an electric fire, one of many. Too many. She recognized a starship's death throes only too well.
Ashes to ashes...
"Status," Dunmoore croaked, still dizzy. She tried to raise her left hand to grasp the Ensign by the shoulder, to steady herself, but found her arm would not respond. A glance down told her why. It hung at an unnatural angle, the bones broken. Somehow, the injury didn't register on her overloaded nervous system, though whatever had broken it had also torn open the tough, vacuum-resistant material of her tunic. The flesh between the tattered strips of black material had more in common with raw liver than human skin.
Unreal. Like I'm not connected to that arm anymore. Severe nerve damage?
A blackened face appeared in front of her eyes, like some jinn from an ancient eastern fairy tale, complete with beard and turban.
No, that was a bandage. Too bad. A jinn would be damned useful right now.
"Number Two and Three shields have collapsed, sir." The apparition said, spitting out every word in a raspy, tortured voice, but Gunnery Chief Sen was steadier than Hernett, though his eyes had the same wild, frightened spark. Nobody ever got used to the carnage of a losing battle, not even after years of war. Some just learned how to ignore it for short while. Others vanished into a permanent fugue. "The lower forward battery is out of commission, as are all the starboard guns."
Starboard... The word connected the last of the shaken synapses in Dunmoore's brain. The Imperial Shrehari cruiser
. Captain Brakal. He had ambushed the
with a small task force five light-years from enemy-occupied Cimmeria. A glance at the flickering tactical display confirmed what her memory dredged-up: the old lady was selling her life dearly. Of Brakal's four-vessel force, only his ship remained, the smaller escorts now nothing more than debris. But the
was no longer in any condition to stop the
. The Shrehari had struck her hard on the starboard side. Not quite a killing blow, but her lifeblood was draining away just as inexorably.
The human battleship hung in space like a punch-drunk boxer waiting for the knock-out blow. Only there wouldn't be a referee to stop the match or a manager to pick up the loser and nurse him back to health. The Imperial Deep Space Fleet bred killers and it was the
's misfortune to fall victim to one of the best.
Dunmoore's churning guts clenched into a tight knot, threatening another bout of nausea. Her brain didn't want to believe what he eyes saw only too clearly. Brakal was coming about to finish off the
and kill what remained of her seven hundred and fifty -strong crew. His attack had been masterful, unexpected and totally un-Shrehari, almost human in its unconventional daring and reckless disregard of Imperial doctrine. It had worked. So far. But the fight wasn't quite over yet. The thought of all those lives hanging on her next order steadied Siobhan. A final, desperate gambit slowly formed in her mind.
Commander Dunmoore, acting Captain of the
would have her say, and give Brakal a final lesson in human tactics. Even wrecked, the battleship remained a dangerous weapon. In the right hands.
A sudden wave of coughing racked Dunmoore's abused body, and she felt, for the first time, the full agony of her broken arm, bruised back and the hundreds of hot stabs where minuscule metal pieces had sliced through her battledress.
Damn! No nerve damage after all.
She clamped down on the pain, forcing herself to ignore everything but the Shrehari cruiser. Her eyes found the ship’s status board, with a gaping black hole on the schematic where the Combat Information Centre used to be. Gone, her friend and mentor, the Captain of the ship, incinerated by a plasma bolt that had punched through armour and layers of decking. Dunmoore cleared her throat, blinking away the tears in her eyes. Bile rose again, burning like fire and added to the rage building within. Adnan had taught her well. His ship would go down fighting, as he would have wanted it. With an astonishing coldness, Siobhan Dunmoore knew what to do.
"Helm, bring her about - ninety degrees starboard - increase speed to one half and stand-by for further course changes." Siobhan's voice was uncharacteristically hoarse, deep, unfeminine, damaged by the toxic fumes and the stress of battle, but it carried a firmness that steadied the helmsman, though his fear was still very real and all too visible in his wide-eyed stare. Another kid caught in the implacable meat-grinder of war.
"Ninety degrees to starboard, increase to one half and stand-by for further course changes, aye, sir." At least his voice remained steady. Navy training prevailed. Siobhan felt a sudden flash of pride in her crew. There would be commendations all around when this was over.
Provided the after life has a sub-space link to 3rd Fleet.
"Engage. Guns, bring all remaining firepower to bear forward, ready at my command."
"Aye," the Chief growled from his console, visibly relieved that Dunmoore had taken command and was giving orders, any orders. "You've got the upper forward battery, the port guns and the secondary forward guns. And one missile launcher."
He could have added, 'less than half of the
's full armament,' but Dunmoore knew that. As First Officer, she knew the battleship intimately, and experienced the pain of her death throes. The
had been -
- a good ship.
The huge vessel slowly came about and accelerated, her abused hull creaking ominously. All eyes remained fixed on the flickering screen, the dazed and shocked survivors oblivious to the ship's death rattle. A small bright speck grew steadily against the backdrop of stars: the
on a collision course.
Learn, you Shrehari bastard, that unpredictability and surprise are mine to use at will.
A surge of viciousness, driven by pain and despair, filled her. "Helm, come to mark sixty, rotate on main axis one hundred and eighty. Now!"
To his credit, the terrorized young Petty Officer at the starship's controls reacted promptly. The
rose above the
's course, her hull groaning so loudly that several of the bridge crew exchanged worried looks, as if fear of the ship breaking up added anything more to the general terror of fighting a losing battle, light-years from home. The Empress-class battleship turned in a manoeuvre that owed more to pre-spaceflight barnstormers than wet navy tactics.
Dunmoore steadied herself and gave the crew a final glance. The old Gunnery Chief met her eyes. He had figured out what she was about to do, and nodded minutely in approval before turning his attention back to his weapons. None of the others had an inkling of her intentions. But then, Chief Petty Officer Second Class Sen and she were the only veterans left alive on the bridge. The rest were mere kids. Kids about to join the millions of other kids already ground up by the Shrehari war machine. The Empire had a lot to answer for. So did her own government.
"Helm, zee minus one hundred at my mark, prepare to increase to full."
"Zee minus one hundred -"
With a sound of rending metal, the battleship
, almost a kilometre long and a third wide, plunged downwards to spear the
in a last, desperate attempt to salvage at least a pyrrhic victory from this disastrous encounter. A panel tore loose as the internal gravity wavered, the generators stressed beyond specs. No one paid the falling debris any attention.
Somehow, as if she had a window into Brakal's mind, Dunmoore could sense his surprise, his sudden hesitation at the unexpected manoeuvre. Battleships weren't designed to move like fighters, and battleship captains weren't known for kamikaze attacks. The
filled the centre of the screen, looking like a butterfly about to be pinned down by a collector's needle. Part of Dunmoore's mind screamed at her to change course, avoid the collision, but she, like the others, stared at the screen with sick fascination, hypnotized by the onrush of death. Theirs and the hated Imperials'. Lord Tennyson's words, dimly remembered, came back to her.
...Into the valley of death...
"Optimum range, sir," Chief Sen called out.
"Wait for it," Siobhan replied, her voice riding above the noise of the straining ship. "At point blank."
shook under the thrust of her sub light drive, beginning to disintegrate on her own, well before she struck her opponent. Ensign Hernett turned to stare at her, a pleading, puppy-like look in his eyes. He didn't want to die. None of them wanted to die. Siobhan gave him a tight, brief smile. For a shavetail, the kid had held up splendidly. He would have made a good line officer with a bit more experience. Too bad.