Trapped in a pocket universe…
After barely surviving the Brood’s first vicious assault, the battered human battle group must now take the fight to the enemy’s home systems.
Defeat is not an option. If Captain Husher and Admiral Iver can’t lead their people to victory, not only will those in the battle group perish – so will all of humanity.
A desperate counterstrike is their only hope.
Release date: September 13, 2020
Publisher: Mirth Publishing
Print pages: 300
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Rapid Repair Team
Aft hull plating, UHC Relentless
“Heave, damn it, heave!” Jake shouted over the wide channel, sweat pouring down his face. He strained to force his mech to pull harder on a seemingly immovable railgun. Slowly, it began to shift upward.
He stood on the Relentless’ aft with four other mechs, trying desperately to lift the base of the railgun away from the hull, where it was affixed. In zero-g, it should have been a snap. But it wasn’t gravity holding the massive weapon in place. There were a trio of high-tension cables attached to its base, at least until the mechs could stretch them to the point where engineers inside the ship could unlock them.
The railgun wasn’t meant to be moved by mechs. There were specialized platform machines designed to orbit around the destroyer, using a set of magnets and support tools to shift the railgun out of the mounting easily and release it to the zero-g environment of space around the ship.
But those kinds of machines were a universe away from the Relentless and the rest of the battle group. Like everything else that would come with space dock and repairs after a major engagement, the tools for repair weren’t around, and they weren’t going to be around. If it was disheartening to know that there was no backup on the way to the pocket universe, it was a lack of experienced space dockers that left them in desperate straits now.
“This is ridiculous,” Tucker said over the wide channel. “We can’t move this thing.”
Jake couldn’t decide what bothered him more: the blatant dissent over an open channel, or the fact that it didn’t sound like Tucker was straining at all. “We can move it,” he said, making sure that the strain was obvious in his voice. He doubted Tucker cared, but he wanted the rest of the team to know the kind of effort he wanted from them. “We just have to work together.”
Zeph chimed in. “Tucker’s right. Even if we get it off, we aren’t going to have the tools to shift and replace it.”
Great, Jake thought. The open dissent continues. But he couldn’t blame them. None of them had slept for more than a couple of hours in days. “We didn’t win that fight with the Brood to give up now.”
“If this is what victory feels like,” Moe said, “I don’t want to know what losing feels like.”
“It feels like nothing.” Ash’s voice sounded even more strained than Jake’s. “Because we’d be dead.”
At least Ash sounded like she was pulling her own weight. She was opposite Jake across the breach, working the finger of her mech farther between the base of the weapon and its mounting. Their side was rising up, pulling free of the locking mechanism.
“Just a little further.” Sweat stung Jake’s eyes. “Make sure you keep it level at the other end. Otherwise, we’re just going to slip off this thing.”
The moment the words left his lips, the railgun shifted and his mech’s fingers began to slide off the base of the railgun. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a thick cable connecting the nose of the ruined railgun to the ship’s electrical system.
The small tension cables were one thing, but the energy-transfer cable was as thick around as the torso of Jake’s MIMAS. And it wasn’t supposed to be there.
“Hold up!” he screamed. “We’re still connected to the mains.”
“What?” Tucker shouted. “How?”
“Look out!” Zeph cried. Two of the tension cables had been unlocked, but the pressure only shifted to the huge central cable. The unexpected force pulled Zeph’s mech off its feet as Ash and Jake lost their grip. The rear of the railgun’s base slammed down as the powerful electrical cable snapped back.
Zeph managed to pull her mech’s fingers clear before they were sheared off, but now there were only Tucker and Moe on the front. They had no chance of holding the rest of the assembly up by themselves.
“Release it!” Tucker shouted. He and Moe both let go at the same time. If one or the other hadn’t done so, the railgun would have crashed down onto their mechs—and onto who knew how many of the human engineers buzzing around the base of the giant gun.
A pair of grappling hooks exploded, crushed by the railgun. Two more hooks caved in. The base had been badly damaged on the end where the cable was still attached, and it collapsed, sending the railgun through the metal mounting—then through the hull itself. Two engineers scrambled out of the way.
Jake felt his heart sink as he heard a blood-curdling scream. “My legs, oh God, oh God, my legs!”
“Shit,” shouted the engineer foreman, with whom Jake had been communicating throughout this whole process. He had about a dozen men out here, standing around the railgun, waiting for the mechs to raise it so they could go in and manually assess the damage the Brood had done. So far, the mechs had done a half-dozen of these jobs, and they’d yet to find a weapon they could actually salvage. They just didn’t have the parts or the manpower. The hull could be patched, but the weapons were much harder to fix.
Just now, none of that mattered.
“What happened?” Jake shouted.
“I’ve got a man pinned down here,” the foreman said. His name was Benny West, but everyone just called him Best.
“Where?” Tucker snapped.
“Between the hull plating and the bulkhead of the main maintenance corridor. It collapsed when that thing came down.”
Tucker’s mech tossed its head. “Why was he still at the corridor bulkhead?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jake said. They were cutting corners everywhere for these repairs. Hell, he’d used his own plasma lance yesterday to do exterior welding on the hull. He’d never done anything even remotely like this in his life. Next thing, he figured they’d want him using his bayonet to tighten loose screws.
“I see him,” Ash said, her black mech maneuvering around the railgun.
“Cut him out,” Jake ordered, no doubt unnecessarily. Ash already had her plasma lance active.
“I’m going to have to cut through the plate here.”
“Do it,” Jake said, without a moment of hesitation. “Tucker, help her. Zeph and Moe can help me twist the gun free.”
Tucker jumped over to join Ash, starting his own cut along the opposite side of the hull, moving in an arc to meet Ash’s cut.
Jake tried not to think about how much damage they were doing to the hull. Damage they’d have to fix. They were out here because they were desperately and hopelessly behind schedule, working with no sleep, and now they were about to do even more damage.
He gave a frustrated yell as he pulled upward on the railgun with all his might. Together with Zeph and Moe, he was able to heave it off the crushed mount and broken hull plate behind it, though the thing was still attached to the tension cables they’d never managed to release.
For one precarious moment, the railgun teetered on its side. The last cut was made, and the hull plating around the trapped man at the bulkhead tore free.
In that same moment, the last of the mounting gave way.
Oh no, Jake thought.
The railgun ripped free completely. The pair of retracting cables now had nothing stopping them from retracting, punched downward, right through what was left of the hull, which they’d just weakened by cutting out a chunk.
The weapon broke through the outer pressure seal as air burst outward. Jake felt the pressure ever so slightly on his skin where the lucid tech transferred the sensation from outside the MIMAS.
“Hull breach!” screamed Best. “Decompression breach on the outer hull!” He started to rattle off specific location markers for the CIC team to close off valves around the breach.
Jake could only hope that everyone aboard the Relentless had been following protocol, and had their suits on during the sudden decompression.
But he didn’t have time to worry about that now. He watched as a trio of tiny flecks slid sideways across his HUD.
“I see them!”
Three of the engineers who’d been on the hull had been tossed off by the decompression wave, their magnetic boots no match for the power of the escaping air.
Jake released his MIMAS from the hull and fired his leg thrusters, carefully matching the speed of the men tumbling away. He went for the farthest one, and saw that the man had balled himself up into a fetal position.
“If you can hear me, spread your arms and legs wide. Open up wide!” Jake held his hand out, hoping against hope the man hadn’t lost consciousness. Thankfully, the engineer responded, spreading out just as Jake caught up with him. Jake held out his arm. After a couple of revolutions, the man got his bearings and reached out for the large mechanical limb.
“Your boots. Use your boots.”
The man waited until his legs spun around, then slammed his boots into the side of Jake’s arm firmly. But he misjudged the difficult landing, and only one of the boots stuck. The other bounced away, and the man twisted violently around the lone boot that was locked in. He screamed, and Jake winced as he watched the man’s leg kink painfully.
But the boot held, and after an excruciating moment, his other boot came down onto the mech, locking into place.
“I’m okay,” the man said. “I think I just screwed up my knee.”
Jake was about to say more when he felt a thump along the back of his mech. He flipped the view in his HUD around and found that a second engineer was standing there, boots engaged against his back.
“You don’t mind, right?” asked a female voice. The woman gave him a thumbs up.
The third engineer was sticking to Moe’s side as she slid up beside Jake. Between the two of them, they had three engineers walking around on their exoskeletons with magnetized boots.
“That’s everybody,” Moe said. Her voice sounded hoarse.
“Let’s get them back to the Relentless.” Jake fired his thrusters at the lowest power setting.
Medics were already standing by in the hangar to grab the engineers attached like barnacles to Jake and Moe. Zeph and Tucker were waiting for them, too.
“Where’s Ash?” Jake asked.
“I’m here.” She entered the hangar behind him. “I stayed back to help our friend.”
“Other than getting crushed by a bulkhead that was under a 60-ton railgun? Yeah, he’s fine.” Ash shook her head as her mech landed, and the bottom gangway lowered down to let her exit the mech.
“He’s okay. The chamber he was in was already depressurized, so he was wearing a pressure suit. It was slow-leaking air, but it held, and he didn’t bleed out before the medics got to him.”
Jake watched as the man who’d landed awkwardly on his leg was helped off by a pair of medics. It was clear he’d been underplaying his injury over the wide channel. That leg was broken, badly. A compound fracture, for sure.
“What a Charlie Foxtrot,” Jake said as he climbed out.
“You got that right,” Tucker said. He was waiting for Jake when he got out of his mech. “What the hell are we doing out there, Clutch? We aren’t trained for this shit. You can’t let the team keep doing this.”
“We’re desperate, Tucker.” Jake’s voice came out with an edge to match Tucker’s. They were almost nose-to-nose now. Tucker was blocking Jake’s path, but Jake wasn’t about to change his course. “Or maybe you missed that.”
“Well, now we’re a hell of a lot more desperate. We breached the hull. That gun went through two levels. It’s going to take a week to repair that.”
“Maybe longer,” Zeph put in. She was standing with her back to her mech, slowly unbraiding her brown hair.
“Probably longer,” Tucker agreed.
Jake stepped even closer to Tucker. “Why the hell wasn’t that cable detached, Tucker? Whose job was it to communicate that to the engineering team? And why the hell wasn’t the compartment underneath cleared?”
“Don’t put this on me. You’re the one putting way too much on the team. We can’t keep track of a thousand things when we actually get sleep, let alone this CF we have on our hands.”
“Guys,” Ash said. “Dick measuring isn’t helping.”
Tucker put a finger on Jake’s chest. “This is on you.”
“That’s right. Everything this team does is on me. That’s because I’m its commander. Maybe you need to remember that.”
Tucker pulled back at that, allowing Jake an opening to disengage and turn to the others. “Let’s take a half-hour before we regroup for debrief. Dismissed.”
He walked past Tucker without waiting for a response. He was sure if he had to stand there any longer, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from decking the guy. He felt his fists balled up at his sides. He didn’t even remember balling them up, but there it was.
“You’re gonna get us killed,” Tucker yelled after him. “You let them keep working us to the bone and we’ll be the next thing that needs repairing.”
Jake spun around. “You’re relieved for the day.”
Tucker turned to Zeph. She shook her head and frowned. He glanced around at the others, but they didn’t meet his eyes. “Fine,” he said at last. “But the rest of you be careful.” He stormed out of the hangar.
“So how was he wrong again?” Zeph asked.
“Because he was questioning the team leader,” Ash said.
“But was he really wrong—“
“He was wrong enough.”
Jake watched an urgent order appear on the work docket screen in his HUD. He sighed, hating what he had to say next. “After debriefing, we go back out. Priority repair.”
The others exchanged looks, then started to head toward the hangar doorway. Ash lingered nearby until the others were out of earshot. “How long are you going to keep Tucker away? We need all the help we can get.”
“He ain’t coming back.”
“What? I don’t want that loose cannon on the team. I’d rather get a pilot from one of the other MIMAS teams assigned to come help us. Maybe from the Idaho. Somebody who isn’t going to endanger lives.”
Ash shook her head, then started walking away from him. “We’re way past endangering lives. We’re just trying to survive out here.”
Jake looked up at the ceiling of the hangar. In his mind’s eye, he could see the railgun base as it disappeared into the destroyed assembly, ripping a massive hole in the side of the Relentless as it did. There almost certainly wasn’t enough time to complete that repair before they’d have to fight the Brood again.
“Just survive,” he repeated under his breath. “Good luck to us with that.”
Tactical War Room
“The situation is bleak,” chief supply officer Hal Odrick said. He fidgeted from one foot to the other and cracked his knuckles loudly. Odrick seemed to try his best to make eye contact with the senior officers in the room. He failed miserably when he got to Admiral Iver. “Ah, not that any of you don’t know that.”
“Indeed,” Iver said. “We were hoping for you to elaborate. With details.”
Odrick flinched at the admiral’s words. He cracked the knuckles on his other hand, then turned to activate the viewscreen behind him. He wasn’t used to the Providence war room; he’d been newly promoted to the role of supply officer for the overall battle group. He’d had almost no sleep in the last three days as he ran from one ship to the next, verifying information with fellow supply officers. They’d all wanted to know how he’d gotten the job, and who they should sleep with to take it from him.
Odrick cleared his throat. “Of course, Admiral.” He finally got the viewscreen to activate properly and show the information to the rest of the officers gathered.
They’d probably had as little sleep as Odrick, if not less. Captain Husher, in particular, looked rough. Iver was putting a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, but after leaning forward to look at the data on the screen, he was the first to comment.
“Bleak might be underselling it, if these numbers are correct,” Husher said. “We can’t sustain a campaign at any scale if those ordnance figures are accurate.”
“They’re accurate,” Odrick said a little too quickly. “I verified them myself, Captain. Every single one of them.”
“Where does that leave us?” Commander Shota asked. Husher’s second-in-command made Odrick even more nervous than the admiral. At least the admiral didn’t seem intent on doing his job for him. Shota had come down to the docks to inspect ordnance right alongside Odrick and his men.
“I recommend we redistribute missiles, fuel, reserve power cells, and any other gear that’s imbalanced among the battle group.”
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