Last time, the aliens smashed the galaxy.
Humanity held on by the fingernails.
In the decades since, we’ve put worlds back together.
We’ve licked our wounds.
But Captain Husher warned us they would return.
We didn’t want to believe him. We couldn’t afford to believe him.
Doesn’t matter. The enemy has returned, with weapons beyond anything we’ve dreamed of.
Now, it falls to Husher and his troubled crew to save us.
There's just one problem. First, he must save us from himself.
Sci-fi with a bold streak. Download Capital Starship today.
Release date: December 2, 2017
Publisher: Mirth Publishing
Print pages: 387
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The Gok carrier bore down on the IGS Vesta, and Captain Vin Husher cursed under his breath. The alien warship was clearly maneuvering for tactical advantage, but until it fired the first shot, there was nothing Husher could do.
With bureaucrats scrutinizing his every move, commanding the largest warship in the Integrated Galactic Fleet counted for less than it should have. He certainly felt less effective as a captain. The voices calling for his removal from the Vesta’s command seat seemed to grow louder and more numerous with every passing day, and it took everything he had to continue presenting himself as not only fit for command, but the best man for the job.
Of course, ideas about what “the job” actually was tended to vary dramatically. The way he saw it, his job was to prepare the galaxy for the onslaught he knew was coming. He knew that in his very core, which made it especially baffling when others described his “proper” job as doing his best to render war itself obsolete.
That particular view of his job had gained widespread popularity over the last twenty years, and these days, his every action was held up to a microscope, along with its justification, which he was required to provide in the multitude of reports and statements that had come to characterize his life.
He agreed with civilian oversight of the military. But he also thought that oversight should come from a well-informed, well-reasoned place. Sadly, it rarely did, anymore.
The politicians of the Interstellar Union hadn’t seen what he’d seen. They hadn’t experienced the ruthlessness of the Ixa in battle, and they hadn’t heard the conviction of the Ixan AI named Baxa, when he’d told Husher that he was but one of many superintelligences designed for war. The AI had promised that the others would come soon to finish the job of exterminating all life in the Milky Way.
In the meantime, there was this warship from the Gok, with whom the IU had enjoyed an uneasy peace for the last seventeen years. The Union did everything they could to maintain that peace, including mandating ROEs—Rules of Engagement—that left its own warships at a disadvantage against any Gok ship that might decide to attack.
“They’re not acknowledging our transmission request, Captain.” The Coms officer almost whispered as she delivered the news. She was Ensign Amy Fry, and she sat two consoles over from Husher’s, just ahead and a foot lower. Like every other officer in the CIC, she faced the main display.
“Keep trying,” Husher said, his voice tight with strain, even though he was trying his best to seem calm. Though unlikely, the possibility that the other vessel’s coms simply weren’t functioning would be enough to sink Husher’s career if he fired first. Never mind that the Gok was the only species with whom the Interstellar Union had gone to war against during the twenty years since its inception, or that the Gok still steadfastly refused to join the federation that included every other sentient species in the galaxy.
“Sir…” muttered Commander Fesky, Husher’s XO, her twitching wings betraying her unease. Not that he needed the indication—he’d served with her since just before the Second Galactic War, and Husher could read his Winger friend like a favorite book.
But that wouldn’t stop him from observing protocol. “Easy, Commander. I’m not about to go down in history as the captain who fired the first shot in the renewed Gok Wars.” Even so… He turned to his Nav officer. “Initiate reverse thrust, Kaboh, engaging engines at sixty-five percent. Let’s start inching back toward Zakros’ orbital defense platforms.”
“Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Commander Kaboh answered in the high-pitched tones of a Kaithian—one of the few that were aboard the Vesta. Most of Kaboh’s species preferred to remain close together, where the benefits of their psychic Consensus was multiplied. But under the direction of the Interstellar Union, the Fleet had assigned Kaboh to serve in Husher’s CIC, and Husher was pretty sure he knew why.
“The Gok carrier has doubled its acceleration, Captain,” the sensor operator reported, from two consoles to Husher’s right. “Her main gun is aligned with our forward starboard engine.”
Husher’s fingers tightened around the cold steel of his chair’s armrests. Peering at the CIC’s main display, he raised his right hand to a sturdy white switch positioned on the side of his console, flicking from a tactical representation of the two warships to the view from an exterior visual sensor. It showed mostly empty space at the moment; the Gok ship nothing more than a distant gleam.
Flicking the ivory switch once again, Husher changed the display back to a tactical overview. That likely wouldn’t be what the other officers saw on the display. When his Coms officer looked at the main display, she likely saw a data readout on the warship’s communications array, or maybe reports from subordinates in her department as they worked together to hail the Gok ship. The sensor operator would likely be managing multiple streams of information provided by various sensor types—RADAR, LIDAR, visual, and so on.
Of course, Chief Benno Tremaine, his Tactical officer, probably did have the tactical display up, alongside multiple targeting calculations. Husher had long ago drilled into the man’s head that he should always be ready with multiple firing solutions whenever a nearby ship had even the slimmest chance of becoming violent. It was far more efficient to modify an existing firing solution than to whip up one from scratch.
Without Oculenses, it wouldn’t have been possible for each officer to see something different on the main display—the invention had certainly been a boon for CIC operations. The public had found plenty of other uses for Oculenses, of course, but Husher didn’t consider all of those to be quite as beneficial.
As captain, he could tap into what any of his CIC’s officers were looking at while they were on duty. He did so now, switching to his sensor operator’s overlay. “Winterton, collaborate with Nav to provide me with an estimate of when the carrier will enter an optimal range for—”
“Captain, the carrier just launched two squadrons of third-generation Slags!”
Husher’s head whipped toward his Tactical officer. Normally, his sensor operator would have delivered that information, but Winterton had been looking away from his readout, at Husher.
“Have any of them started firing?” Husher asked. Slags were the Gok’s idea of space fighters, so-named for their close resemblance to melted hunks of metal. If they’d begun to attack, then so could Husher. Scrambling Slags at all seemed like a clearly hostile act to him, but he knew the politicians would say differently.
With the Vesta’s present course locked in, Kaboh didn’t have much to do. His muscular head-tail shifted against his chair’s back as he turned toward Husher, looking totally relaxed. “Captain, I would remind you that the presiding ROEs prohibit—”
“I’m familiar with the ROEs,” Husher snapped. “Helm, punch the engines up to eighty percent.”
“The Slags will overtake us at this rate, Captain,” Winterton said.
“They’ll overtake us no matter what we do,” Husher muttered. His ship’s top speed was—well, it was superluminal, thanks to the warp tech that had come online fleet wide during the last five years. But her sheer mass meant that accelerating to any meaningful velocity took time, even if he were to have his Helm officer bring the engines up to full power.
Slowly, he shook his head, his heart pounding an increasing cadence in his ears. The Vesta truly was a wonder—much bigger and far more powerful than anything ever fielded before her. But her capabilities were nearly wasted under the limitations the interspecies government had placed on military action. Husher had been expecting a situation like the one developing right now for a long time. It was just his luck that it was happening to him—and at a time when the battle group that normally accompanied his ship was already halfway to the darkgate into the next system.
“Ready point defense systems, Tactical,” Husher growled, eyeing Kaboh as he finished. “Unless you’re going to tell me the ROEs forbid that, now?”
“No more than they forbid readying firing solutions for ships that never end up attacking us, Captain,” the Kaithian said, his tone conspicuously neutral.
Husher caught himself grinding his teeth at the implied dig, and he forced himself to stop. Modern military doctrine gave subordinates far more leeway when criticizing their superiors than was once considered proper. The thinking was that encouraging debate would reduce mistakes made by the CO and others in command positions.
Husher wasn’t so sure about that, but he did know that the freer dialog did real harm to discipline and the chain of command.
It doesn’t help that Kaboh’s real job is to spy on me for the IU, Husher reflected.
“Still no response from the Gok commander,” the Coms officer said, and the sensor operator spoke on the heels of that: “Enemy—uh, Gok Slags are drawing even with us, Captain.” Winterton blushed as Kaboh’s widened eyes fell on him. No doubt the Kaithian was outraged at the sensor operator for ‘prematurely’ classifying the aggressively maneuvering ships as enemies.
Fortunately for the young ensign—though unfortunate for the Vesta—his slip-up was vindicated almost immediately. “The carrier just fired two guided missiles!” he said.
Good enough for me. “Tactical, tell Commander Ayam to scramble Pythons, prioritizing enemy Slags as targets,” Husher rattled off, his speech as rapid and clipped as machine gun fire. “I don’t want those missiles getting anywhere near my hull—neutralize them with a pair of Gorgons.” With their advanced stealth capabilities, Gorgon missiles would likely be perfect, since the Gok missiles’ sensors weren’t sophisticated enough to detect the threat in time to adjust course. Gorgons were propelled by cold-gas thrusters, and they were covered in the darkest material ever made, which absorbed all but one-hundredth of one percent of the light it encountered.
“The carrier’s continuing to accelerate, Captain,” the sensor operator said. “I think they’re aiming to ram us.”
Husher’s gaze snapped to the tactical display. I can’t believe it. Even during the Gok Wars, only two of the Gok’s warships had ever attempted a kamikaze run. This really isn’t my day, is it? “Nav, evasive maneuvers, now!” he barked.
“Aye, Captain,” Kaboh said, tiny blue-white fingers flying across his console.
But as the Vesta listed to port, its starboard thrusters firing, the Gok warship turned as well, its main gun tracking the supercarrier’s trajectory.
It was a feint. “Helm, engines all ahead!”
“Yes, sir,” the Helm officer said, but it was too late. The Vesta had no time to overcome the inertia from her recent reverse thrust, and while her engines were powerful, the Gok’s trickery paid off. Kinetic impactors tore into the supercarrier’s starboard side near the stern, sending violent tremors through her entire frame and rocking Husher in his seat.
He tried to give another order, but his throat had closed up, and his ears began to ring shrilly. Dark spots danced before his eyes, and suddenly a memory overtook him, so vividly that he might have been watching a vid:
A white clapboard house, standing proud in the suburbs. Lights on in both the living room and the upstairs washroom, piercing the deepening dusk.
Then: a fiery gash across the night sky. A deafening explosion. Fire that blossomed until it engulfed the entire house.
“Captain?” It was Fesky, who’d risen from the XO’s Chair and was standing over him, shaking him. “Captain!”
“Hit them,” he managed to gasp. “Hit them with everything we’ve got.”
Husher and Fesky walked in silence as they neared the hatch where the crew section of the Vesta ended, their muffled footfalls the only sound other than the rustling of the Winger’s feathers.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Fesky asked, shattering the quiet. “Back in the CIC…I wasn’t sure you’d make it through the engagement. What happened?”
“I’m not sure, exactly. But we won, Fesky. That’s what matters. We took out the Gok carrier before it could do the same to us.”
“Don’t you think you should see Doctor Bancroft?”
He shrugged. “I have a checkup soon. I’ll mention what happened to her then.”
Fesky sighed, shaking her head a little. “I can come with you to this meeting, you know. You don’t have to go alone.”
A wry smile played across Husher’s lips. “No thanks, Fesky. I’m not eager to leave the CIC to Kaboh for longer than I already have. I’m worried he’ll go looking for another Gok warship, so he can offer them the Vesta on a platter. I’m fine, and at a time like this, I want you in the command seat.”
The Gok had always been close allies of the Ixa, and Husher didn’t want to give voice to his worst fear, even though it was probably on Fesky’s mind, too: that the Gok attack might have something to do with the return of the AIs who’d created the Ixa.
“Understood,” the Winger said, reaching up to straighten his uniform’s lapel using the flat of her thickest talon. “This isn’t ironed properly, by the way.”
“I’m sure it isn’t. With the number of reports I fill out every day, it’s a wonder I get a chance to eat.”
“You could easily have someone iron it for you.”
“A captain should iron his own uniform,” he said, turning toward the hatch and punching his access code into the terminal.
“But you clearly aren’t doing it properly, human!” Fesky called after him as he strode through the hatch. He didn’t turn back, not wanting her to witness the return of his smile.
Husher exited the corridor into a vast desert that stretched from horizon to horizon, dotted with cacti and rocks and not much else. Where the desert would have met the sky, it met the base of snowcapped mountains instead. By all appearances, he stood in the center of an enormous valley.
When he turned to ensure the hatch had closed automatically, he saw that it had—a disembodied metal barrier, stark against the gleaming white of the barren wilderness. An access panel hung in midair beside it. Nodding to himself, Husher turned and continued on his way.
Other than the sand, which actually did exist, the desert was an illusion conjured by his Oculenses, and it wasn’t nearly as vast as it seemed. It wasn’t anywhere as hot as a desert would be, either, though this section’s heating coils were located here, so it was warmer than elsewhere.
The Oculenses had conjured the mountains, too, as well as the lush plain he strode toward. As for the gleaming city straddling that plain…that was mostly real. Mostly. Its name was Cybele.
Not for the first time in the last thirteen years, Husher wondered how things had come to this—how he’d come to have fifty thousand civilians living on his warship.
You know how, he told himself, and that was true. Even so, he still couldn’t quite believe it.
In a time with so much talk of cutting the military, the idea of capital starships carrying actual capitals had seemed like the only way to avoid the cuts, even to Husher. They’d represented a way to expand military might that would be palatable even to the new Interstellar Union, who’d been bent on radical downsizing.
Husher himself had been among the most emphatic to make the case: when the tech underlying the micronet’s instant communication system had been found to endanger the fabric of the universe, galactic society had needed something to bind it together. And so the new supercarriers would serve more than just a defensive function as they patrolled the galaxy with their vast arsenals. Those same arsenals would also keep safe the cities aboard them, and the cities would in turn allow the giant starships to justify their own expense by turning them into roving economic engines.
The galaxy-wide exchange of news, ideas, and goods that the nomadic cities enabled had singlehandedly saved the military. But the cities’ existence also brought intense scrutiny to the actions of those commanding the warships carrying them. When engaging in battle had come to mean endangering thousands of galactic citizens, government oversight had intensified, and the ROEs became paralyzing.
A tiny figure standing in the sand up ahead caught Husher’s eye, and he neared it faster than he should have—such was the nature of the illusory desert, which had a way of distorting distance. At first he thought it was a real girl, who’d wandered out here alone. But as he drew closer, he saw that she was just as nonexistent as the desert itself.
Nevertheless, she frowned in his direction, though she remained completely motionless. He stopped for a moment, staring back. “I’m so sorry,” he said to her, before moving on. When he glanced back two minutes later, she was gone.
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