Sixty Seconds to Drop [sci-fi; mature content]


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    Sixty Seconds to Drop [sci-fi; mature content]

    TA-5708 "Acharon Tif", Imperial Navy troop transport ship


    Crodoss system


    Imperium of Sidhae


    November 16, 2338


    5th year of the Age of War



    ---



    The ripples of space-time briefly distorted vision before reality returned to its normal state. A few younger cadets and midshipmen were struggling against the urge to retch. Some nausea was a normal reaction to being translocated across tens of light-years in a blink of an eye, especially in those yet unaccustomed to the process.


    "Statrep!"


    "Jump complete on target, ma'am! All systems nominal, estimated drift within 25 thousand kilometers."


    "Excellent. Report our coordinates to fleet command and set course to regroup!"


    "Reporting coordinates to command and setting course to regroup, aye, ma'am!"


    "Julius, cover for me, please! XO has the conn!"


    Captain-lieutenant Aurelia Creed stepped down from the command chair, letting her XO assume her place. The past few days had been very draining on her. Jump after jump with emergency response drills in between, repeated attacks by rebel stealthers, and the ever-increasing risk of a misjump every time the ship's overtaxed star drive was fired. All this constant stress was beginning to get to her, not helped by the fact that her ship was bound for battle in the coming few hours.


    The commander's quarters were located a short walk outside the bridge. The crewmembers that Aurelia came across on the way snapped to attention and delivered crisp salutes. The captain-lieutenant made a point of returning them just as sharply as if she were saluting the admiral of the fleet himself. Aurelia believed that observing all the little military formalities was instrumental to maintaining proper discipline, and strived to set a personal example to her men in this regard.


    "This junior lieutenant must have done something more than just mouthing off to get the airlock like that," she overheard two passing midshipmen discuss, "Getting shot for sedition is one thing, but being blown from the airlock without even the usual courtesy of a firing squad beforehand. Master Chief Holter even said the MilSec beat their previous record with this one, only 90 minutes from arrest to airlock."


    "Yeah... And it ain't like what that lieutenant said is even false. I mean, have you heard of our new empress commanding armies or even a small unit before? Even that occasion with the Luminon, I'm willing to bet my ass she wasn't personally commanding that ship like the propos say nowadays, at least not all the way from the Outer Colonies to Aedun," one of the midshipmen spoke, "I think the brass was just too much on the edge after that stealther raid last week and wanted to make an example. If you ask me, the worst that lieutenant deserved by my book was some reeducation."


    "Better pipe down with your opinions!" the other warned, "If MilSec hears this, we'll get re-educated ourselves. Oh, shit, it's the captain!"


    "Ma'am," the two dutifully saluted, with Aurelia promptly returning the greeting. She pretended not to have heard what the two were discussing, although the said incident was on her mind as well. The Empress didn't have much in the way of military experience beyond the compulsory service that any Sidh with a political career in mind had to undertake, and by all accounts she was more inclined towards poetry, music and other artistic pursuits than statecraft. The executed lieutenant's only fault had been the abysmal choice of timing to bring it up.


    "Do you think it's true what the brass say, that we might have a rebel mole in our fleet?" Aurelia could hear the two midshipmen continue their debate once they felt their captain was out of earshot, "I mean, there's probably more than a few people in the fleet who sympathize with the rebs to some extent."


    "I don't know. I don't really care to stick my nose into matters above my paygrade, and if you're smart, you won't either. Not unless you want to get the lashes or the airlock like that LT did," his buddy shrugged, cautiously looking at the captain-lieutenant over the shoulder.


    Aurelia said nothing, raising her wrist to the scanner outside her door. She had her own suspicions in this regard. With the fleet having been harassed by rebel stealthers between every jump for the past couple weeks, the last raid alone having claimed five ships, there was ample reason to believe that someone in the fleet was relaying its coordinates to the enemy. It was almost certainly not an insignificant junior lieutenant, however, but someone with access to the fleet's navigation plans, possibly even someone in the admiral's staff.


    "Access granted!" a feminine electronic voice droned as the scanner pad lit up green and the door clicked open, "Welcome, Captain-lieutenant Creed!"


    The commander's quarters were spartan, barely larger than a crew bunk room shared by eight men, a far cry from the palatial offices of fleet admirals seen aboard the star dreadnoughts. Having that room all to herself and a private head and shower, both contained within the same tiny space in the corner near the door, was about the complete extent of privilege that a commander of a lowly troop transport ship would get. Still, Aurelia had managed to make herself at home here, decorating what free space was available on the walls with reproductions of Old Terran artworks. The place of honour among them was naturally reserved to a portrait of the sovereign. The recent years of civil strife had somewhat complicated the politically-appropriate choice for the leader's portrait, however. The old emperor was dead, yet his daughter that the loyalist side recognized as their new ruler could not yet rightly call herself Empress of the Sidh, not with nearly half of the Imperium still in open rebellion against her. Although Aurelia was a staunch loyalist and had no doubts about where her loyalties lied, she still took extra care to avoid casting even the slightest doubts on her political reliability and prominently displayed portraits of both the old and the new monarchs, a thick black ribbon of mourning promptly adorning the late Emperor's image. A ship commander's status might have shielded Aurelia more than the rank-and-file, but as the recent incident with a certain lieutenant indicated, one could never be too careful with politically-sensitive matters these days.


    Aurelia pressed a key on the wall, a panel sliding open to reveal a compact armoring station. The fleet-wide threat level wasn't yet raised to Sigma-Red or higher, which would require all personnel to wear an exosuit or powered armor at all times, so she was keen to rest without her suit for remaining few hours before it happened.


    "Please step on the platform, " the ship AI's feminine voice instructed, "Power down your suit and remain perfectly still until you see a green light on the panel in front of you."


    "Yes, yes, I know the drill," the captain-lieutenant sighed and stepped inside.


    "Disengaging locks... Extracting fuel cells... Suit integrity at 100%, hazardous environment protection optimal, all systems nominal," the AI droned as several robotic manipulators descended from above, unfastening the bolts that held the armor suit together and extracted its fuel cells.


    "Disengaging neural interface, initiating maintenance protocols..."


    Aurelia winced in discomfort as the suit's interface probes withdrew from the subdermal ports along the major joints of her body. It wasn't exactly painful, the feel being more like suddenly shrinking inside one's skin, growing much weaker and finding oneself trapped inside a cold lifeless shell of metal and ceramic. Nonetheless, one could never quite get used to the feeling even after years of donning the armor.


    "Combat suit disengaged and secure. You may now step out of the station," the electronic voice informed some 30 seconds later along with the green light on the panel inside the station. Crouching slightly to get clear of the armor's massive cuirass, Aurelia stepped out of the armor, wearing only a skin-tight Navy-blue jumpsuit. She stretched out and bent a few times, rubbing the interface ports on her elbows and shoulders that felt a little sore. The armoring station in the meanwhile took to rinsing the insides of her Mk.II Phalanx-C5 with an antiseptic.


    Leaving the machine to run a full maintenance cycle, Aurelia sat down and leaned back on her bunk. She looked up to the wall at the Emperor's portrait. The Father and Founder looked back at her with a stern authoritarian gaze, his graying head wreathed in golden laurel like the Roman emperors of old. Not at all like she remembered the man, having met him once in person. It was from his hands that she and several dozen other Aedun Naval Academy graduates had received their first commands. The Emperor she remembered looked more tired than anything. In hindsight, Aurelia realized that it was probably because of the succession dispute that had eventually led to his assassination and the ongoing civil war whose fires were now rapidly spreading beyond the Imperium to the furthest reaches of the known universe.


    Next to him, the Empress looked down at the captain-lieutenant with luminous emerald-green eyes, the same crown of golden laurel shining over her raven-black hair. Despite her best efforts to convey unshakeable confidence, there was a hint of sadness in her expression. Understandable, Aurelia thought, considering how the crown on the Empress's head had cost her the life of her father. Nobody outside the Imperial household really knew what the relationship between them had been like, but Aurelia fancied to think the late Emperor and his daughter had been very close. That she had learned much about rulership from her father was evident in the authoritarian presence the Empress projected even with that hint of sadness in her expression.


    A smaller portrait below the two rulers showed a young man in an antiquated powered armor suit, a Mk. I Hoplite that was still occasionally used by colonial militias and pirates in the Frontier regions. That man was the ship's namesake, optius Acharon Tif. During the Skargh Wars, he and his small unit of 36 men had valiantly held back a massed assault by several thousand Skargh in a mountain pass on planet Tyrael, buying time for an entire cohort to retreat and regroup. Acharon Tif and his soldiers were slain to a man, but not before blowing the whole mountain down on themselves, killing hundreds of Skargh and delaying the rest for over a day, which had bought their cohort enough time to dig in and fortify their new positions. In the end, the Skargh were vanquished and driven off Tyrael, and the sacrifice of Acharon Tif and his companions would be immortalized by naming Imperial Navy troop ships after them.


    Aurelia put aside her regular pillow, replacing it with a horseshoe-shaped one that would leave the back of her head exposed. Before leaning back on it, she checked to make sure none of her raven-black hair that she wore in a tight bun had come loose. Getting even a single hair accidentally inducted in one's main neural interface port was no joke as every such incident required an unpleasant extraction procedure in the infirmary. Although the ports were safeguarded against accidental introduction of foreign matter with a triple seal, it still happened on rare occasions and could lead to corrupted data and loss of signal with potentially-disastrous consequences, especially if one interfaced with a large and powerful machine, such as a warship.


    "Lucille!" Aurelia spoke out loud.


    "Yes, captain-lieutenant?" the incorporeal voice of the ship's AI responded through a speaker in the cabin's ceiling before its feminine avatar materialized on the holographic console on Aurelia's desk. Aurelia sometimes wondered why the majority of ship AIs at least in the transport fleets adopted a female persona despite being designed gender-neutral, and their respective ships often being named after men. Some said it had to do with the majority of naval ratings being men and responding more swiftly and decisively to a calm, friendly female voice. That wasn't always the case, as the AIs of Sidh capital ships were known to prefer gruff male personalities, in line with their more aggressive purpose. Aurelia smiled lightly at the thought of a star dreadnought AI with the personality of a grizzled drill instructor.


    "Any new private messages?" she inquired.


    "Comm buoy services are unavailable at this time and location. You have three new message from the last comm session."


    "Playback!"


    Hey, babe! It's me. I hope things are working out with your new posting. Too bad you weren't allowed to tell where the fleet is sending you. I'm doing reasonably fine. We're not seeing much of the war here on New Antioch so far. The Imperial Guard has stationed an entire legion here, if the rebs have any sympathizers here, then they damn well know to keep it to themselves now. The only obvious changes have been the lengthening of work hours in the factories and the shipyards, and the introduction of stricter rationing.
    I've heard the Feds and the Skargh have teamed up and are making a push towards Antioch. They are still a good five jumps distance away, but the governor is already ordering a muster of the Auxilia. Everyone in the factories is now required to attend basic personal combat and tactics classes after work twice a week. I have faith that the Guard will protect this world just fine, but if the enemy gets within three jumps of New Antioch, I'll be signing up with the regulars. Let's hope it doesn't come to that though.
    But I'm probably taking too much of your time now. I only have a pile of production reports to push, while you have a whole warship to run. Love you, babe, and hope your deployment is over soon! Give those rebs hell!
    Y.



    Aurelia sighed. Many of her crew refused to accept messages from their significant others at all, knowing that they would most likely die out here in space without ever seeing them again. Hearing from them, many felt, would only distract them from duty.


    "Delete message," she ordered curtly, "And the other two as well." Most likely they didn't contain anything worthwhile, either well-wishes from friends back home, or the usual Loyalist propaganda drivel that the brass would frequently send out to all who fought for the one true Empress.


    "As you wish, ma'am," Lucille AI spoke, "Do you require anything else?"


    "Engage neuro-link, simulation mode, please," Aurelia instructed.


    "Engaging neuro-link, please remain still until the probe is connected and secure! What simulation would you like to run?" the AI inquired as the small servos of the neuro-link probe under the head of Aurelia's bunk began to whirr, aligning the probe with the port on the back of her head. A personal neuro-link was another little perk of rank, the rest of the crew having to share in the ship's sim room.


    "Something relaxing," the captain-lieutenant spoke.


    "I have 368 matches in my databank classed as "Relaxing". The most popular simulations with the crew currently are Culinary, 36 choices, Sports, 48 choices, and Erotic, 76 choices," the AI droned.


    "Give me something musical," Aurelia demanded, not particularly interested in the base pleasures of her ratings and marines. Although Aurelia wasn't above indulging in sexual simulations on occasion or just enjoying some quality food or a jog in fresh air in a virtual reality, this was not what she currently desired.


    "What music would you like to hear?" the AI questioned.


    "Classical, random selection," the captain-lieutenant instructed, "Exclude all samples dated 1950 and above."



    "Affirmative, engaging neuro-link now," Lucille AI confirmed. An instant later, Aurelia's hands clenched her blanket tightly and she let out a pained gasp as the 15-centimeter probe was roughly rammed directly into her brain through the interface port and a whole galaxy of data exploded inside her mind. One would never quite get used to the feeling, no matter how many times one had interfaced with a computer system before.


    The discomfort was quick to go away, however, as Aurelia found herself inside a grand concert hall. Gilded baroque ornaments adorned every inch of the walls, the hall being illuminated by a massive crystal chandelier. Finely-attired gentlemen and ladies lined the numberless seats. Aurelia looked down to find herself clad in a shimmering dark-purple evening dress instead of her Navy uniform, just the kind she had always wanted to wear on a fancy night out. She couldn't recognize the hall and realized it was most likely randomly generated by the sim based on numerous existing and historical concert halls and figments of her imagination rather than a pre-programmed representation of an actual location, just like her dress was.

    "May I escort you to your seat, ma'am?" a charming deep voice distracted her, and Aurelia turned to face a most handsome young man in a richly gold-embroidered frock coat fashioned in the Neo-Renaissance style that had been the latest fashion craze before the war. Athletic, dark-haired and pale, with ice-blue luminiscent eyes much like her own, Aurelia immediately recognized him as generated from her own fantasies in the sex sims and frowned. This was not what she had been asking for.


    "Are you alright, madam?" a different voice, slightly gruffer, asked. She looked up and saw a much older man in the exact same place where the handsome youth had been standing. The AI had adapted the simulation to ensure only desired experiences for the user.


    "I... uh... I'm fine, thank you, Your Majesty!" Aurelia couldn't help but blush even in a simulated setting when the late Emperor of the Sidh approached her in person.


    "Would you do me the pleasure to accompany me this evening, madam?" the simulated Emperor spoke, extending his hand, "As it happens, I have a vacant seat in my personal box."


    "I... I would be most honoured, Your Majesty!" Aurelia exclaimed, holding onto his hand, "What are they performing tonight?"


    "Tannhauser by Richard Wagner," her royal escort spoke, "One of my personal favourites."


    "I happen to be an admirer of Wagner myself," the captain-lieutenant agreed, unsure if the real Emperor had also fancied Wagner, or his simulated avatar just said it because she loved Wagner herself. Either way it didn't matter. For the next couple hours, until the transport fleet would finish regrouping, she was having her perfect fancy night out, even if it was just a simulation.

    ---

    "Captain-lieutenant Creed, your presence is required on the bridge!"


    "Have we regrouped yet?" Aurelia spoke, stretching out and rubbing the back of her head after the interface probe withdrew back into its slot underneath the bunk.


    "Affirmative! The ship has rejoined the main battlegroup and we are approaching Crodoss VIIb, ETA 60 minutes," Lucille AI informed her, "Comms report Imperial Navy elements already present and heavily engaged. Intel suggests a large rebel force, predominantly Eskyap and Vrak fleets."


    "The arch-traitors themselves honour us by throwing their cannon-fodder here," Aurelia smirked with disdain. Loyalists believed the Eskyaps and the Vraks, two of the most powerful Sidh clans currently in rebellion, to be the masterminds behind the Emperor's assassination and blamed them for the civil war. Although the Empress had decreed that captured rank-and-file troops of the rebel clans were to be treated as "misguided compatriots", only senior officers, political leaders and those guilty of war crimes being charged with treason, overzealous Loyalists more often than not enacted their own brand of summary justice upon the "traitor filth". Naturally, the rebels did not hesitate to return the favour when opportunity arose.

    "Inform the XO that I will be there shortly," Aurelia instructed the AI, stepping back in the armoring station. She felt considerable relief as the robotic arms reassembled her armor suit around her, now cleaned, disinfected and refuelled. Like many Sidh of military background, Aurelia found any extended periods outside her powered armor suit uncomfortable, and only removed it to sleep, shower or attend the occasional event where wearing armor wouldn't be appropriate. Psychologists called it "Neural Interface Dependancy Syndrome". Any machine a Sidh interfaced with essentially became an extension of one's body, the operator for all means and purposes becoming one with the machine.
    However, too much time "in sync" could lead one to start dissociating from one's own body, and disconnecting from the machine would start to cause increasing discomfort and distress. As long as one remained mindful of this phenomenon, NIDS did not usually progress beyond mild unease that would go away after a week or two without interfacing, but if left unchecked, it could result in a debilitating mental disorder. Aurelia had heard plenty about soldiers and officers who were reduced to gibbering wrecks and had to be given a medical discharge because of NIDS. Others became aloof and detached, and still others developed bizarre sadomasochistic tendencies. Some extreme cases even had to be euthanized after they became violent when attempts were made to de-sync them by force. As a naval officer, Aurelia was spared having to spend weeks on end in her armor like the infantry or marines would, so her case of NIDS was mild, limited to a persistent sense of vulnerability. Interfacing with her ship was a far more overwhelming and addictive experience, but was thankfully also not required on a daily basis and was assisted by several moderators whenever performed.


    With the armoring procedure complete, Aurelia stepped off the platform and threw a few punches to make sure every connection between the armor and her nervous system had synced properly. The superhuman feeling of moving inside a 300-kilogram armor suit that could punch through concrete walls was quite invigorating. Satisfied with the result, she ran a quick diagnostic just to double-check. Everything checked out fine.


    When Aurelia returned to the bridge moments later, her XO, Senior Lieutenant Julius Quintus snapped a crisp salute and stepped down from the conn.


    "Kaleun has the conn!" he announced, using the shorthand for "captain-lieutenant". It always reminded Aurelia of old Terran war films, where the German submarine commanders of similar rank were called kaleuns.


    "Statrep!" she demanded.


    "All systems nominal. Regrouping with the fleet is complete, we're on course to Crodoss VIIb, ETA 26 minutes," Julius recounted the past few hours' events, "The troops have already been alerted and are preparing for drop. Fleet intel tells us to expect heavy resistence. I trust Lucille already forwarded you the details?"


    "She did," Aurelia confirmed, sitting down in the captain's control chair that overlooked the bridge and tapped a key on the armrest to engage the holographic projector that dominated the center of the bride, "Lucille, display tactical overview!"


    "Displaying tactical overview," the AI's voice echoed through the bridge, a holographic representation of Crodoss system appearing over the central projector and zooming in to vicinity of Crodoss VII, a gas giant with its own system of moons. Various red and blue-coloured squares, triangles and dots represented different types of ships currently picked up by the collective sensors of the entire fleet.


    "Lucille, highlight our assigned drop zone," Aurelia commanded.


    "Highlighting assigned drop zone," Lucille affirmed, and the view zoomed in to to Crodoss VIIb, one of Crodoss VII's five planet-sized moons. Like trickles of sand, columns of hundreds of ships were shown approaching these moons, Acharon Tif being but a tiny yellow dot among them. In the orbit of each of them, an angry red swarm of large triangles and squares along with a myriad of smaller ones awaited them, already intermingled with numerous blue ones. Every now and then, markers from either side flickered and disappeared in a flash, marking a ship confirmed destroyed, each being replaced by one or more grey crosses, representing drifting hulks devoid of life. Some flashed and disappeared outright, either jumping out or exploding into too many small fragments for the system to account for, as the tactical display was set to disregard any debris too small to overcome navigational shields. The view panned towards Crodoss VIIb, a rust-red Martian world, an area on its surface highlighted in yellow along with a path in space marked by an interrupted line, suggesting the desirable route of approach.


    "That's in the very thick of the battle," Julius expressed concern, pointing at the proximity of several very large red triangles, "We'd have to make drop right underneath their dreadnoughts."


    "Our fleet should keep them busy. It's the ground fire I'm more worried about," Aurelia pointed out, "Lucille, display known rebel orbital defense platforms!"


    "Displaying known rebel orbital defenses," the AI placed several dozen red markers on the pockmarked rust-coloured surface of Crodoss VIIb.


    "Those are particle lance batteries right there!" Julius exclaimed, pointing out at several tightly-grouped markers, "And our drop zone is square in between three of them."


    "That could be a problem," Aurelia agreed, "Why hasn't the fleet taken them out yet?"


    "The batteries are too close to friendly positions, ma'am," Lucille AI explained, displaying blue markers of ground forces in close proximity, "As all orbital defense facilities, the lance batteries are heavily fortified and effectively impervious to anything short of a direct strike by strategic weaponry. The proximity of Loyalist ground forces unfortunately precludes the deployment of such measures without guaranteed heavy casualties."


    "Does command know they are about to drop troops in the middle of an active orb-def field?" Aurelia grumbled. An oversight like this amounted to criminal negligence in her mind.
    "The current drop plan was reviewed and personally approved by Admiral Thanos," Lucille confirmed, "The recapture of these batteries intact has been flagged as a priority objective in the ongoing ground offensive that our transport group will be reinforcing. Their strategic value in the liberation of the moons of Crodoss VII is too great to permit their destruction under any circumstance short of total retreat."


    "Great," the captain-lieutenant sighed, "I guess we'll be making a drop square in between enemy capital ships and lance batteries then."


    "I wouldn't worry about them too much, ma'am," Julius remarked, "If we're in between their lances and capital ships, neither of them will be able to fire without risking a hit on their own forces."


    "That seems to have been the Admiral's point in theory," Aurelia argued, "But in practice I wouldn't put too much faith in the rebels' tactical sensibility or caution. Navigation!"

    "Yes, ma'am?" the nav officer, a handsome swarthy woman, responded.


    "As soon as enter orbit, I want you to spin up the star drive and plot a course to the designated extraction coordinates. You are to make jump as soon as I get the confirmation that the drop is 100% complete!" Aurelia instructed.


    "But ma'am," the navigation officer objected, "Making a jump this close to a planetary body is extremely dangerous! With that much gravitational interference, there's no way I can even remotely estimate the exit point drift!"


    "Miss Anjali, would you rather loiter in plain sight of twelve Armageddon-class particle lances even for a second longer than is absolutely necessary?" Aurelia scolded her, "I certainly wouldn't, and since I am responsible for the safety and well-being of this ship and everyone aboard it, including you, my order stands!"


    "Aye, ma'am," officer Anjali affirmed, though it was plainly obvious she didn't approve, "Setting jump coordinates to designated extraction point, preparing to jump on your mark."
    The captain-lieutenant leaned back in her control chair, giving the navigation officer one last disapproving frown. First Lieutenant Priya Anjali was an excellent navigation officer if her academy grades and service record were anything to go by, fit to pilot a cruiser or maybe even a battlecruiser, were it not for her unfortunate clan affiliation that put her political reliability in doubt. A member of Clan Ishamna, Lt. Anjali had been one of the many Ishamnas who sided with the Loyalists, few other major clans being as heavily divided over the succession dispute that had brought about the terrible Sidh civil war. Still, with the majority of Ishamna leadership supporting the rebel cause, the Loyalists from this clan were oftentimes viewed with suspicion. Consequently, being posted to a transport ship under command of Aurelia who was barely a few years her senior was about as good as it was going to get for Anjali in the present state of things. Her opinionated personality and outspokenness didn't do the lieutenant any further favours in this regard either. It wasn't that Aurelia didn't value informed opinions from her subordinates, but the bridge was no place to second-guess the captain's orders for other officers and crewmen to see, especially not on the verge of battle.


    "Miss Anjali," Aurelia turned to the nav officer, "A word in private!"


    "Aye, ma'am," she nodded and engaged her suit's helmet, concealing her face and allowing the two to talk on a private channel without being heard outside. Aurelia followed the suit.
    "Lieutenant, while I understand your concerns, which, for the record, I share with you," Aurelia spoke after checking that the external speakers were off and their connection set to private, "I would strongly appreciate if you refrained from questioning or doubting my orders in front of the crew in the future. It undermines discipline and morale, which, as you surely have noticed yourself, is already far from excellent as it is. If you have concerns that I should know of and if time allows it, I expect you to address them in private."


    "Apologies, ma'am!" Anjali stated, "It won't happen again."


    "For your sake, it better not," the captain-lieutenant added in a tone that made it sound more like a well-meant advice, "Make no mistake, Miss Anjali, I find you a very competent navigation officer and want you to stay in my crew, but there are numerous officers who doubt your political loyalties. Any one of them could use your outspokenness, however well-founded and intentioned, to report you for undermining crew morale. If MilSec gets involved, even I will not be able to shield you from the consequences, and I think you can well imagine what charges like that can mean in light of recent events."


    "Understood, ma'am," the nav officer agreed, "I'll be silent as space itself. You tell me to jump, I ask how high, end of story. Uh... no pun intended."


    "Good! Dismissed," Aurelia terminated the conversation and disengaged her helmet. Hopefully the nav officer would take her advice to heart. These days it really didn't take much to face the the airlock.


    As the bridge officers went about their duties, Aurelia took pause to look at what was taking place outside. The better part of the view was occupied by the reddish hulk of Crodoss VII with it's prominent rings. The swirling gasses churned by supersonic winds formed swathes and intricate patterns in the gas giant's cloud layers. The dark side of the planet was constantly lit by lightning flashes, each said to discharge comparable energy to a large fusion bomb. The poles of the giant planet were perpetually ablaze with aurorae that could easily be seen even far off into space. The several bright dots in the surrounding space were the embattled moons of Crodoss, the closest of which loomed just ahead, a rust-red globe very much like Mars of the Sol system. The transport fleet headed towards it was flying in a tight formation, a three-layered column that seemed to stretch out into infinity. Although no ships already present in orbit of Crodoss VIIb were yet visible, signs of battle were already evident in the form of brilliant orbs of plasma exploding in the void and lingering for a few seconds like newborn stars before gradually fading back to darkness. Aurelia could tell from slight variations in hue which blasts were caused by fusion torpedoes making a hit, and which ones came from a ship reactor cores going critical. Judging by the frequency of the blasts, the battle that was raging there eclipsed anything seen even back during the Skargh Wars that had shaped the Imperium's previous generations of naval officers.


    "Emperor's blood, we'll have to make a drop in the middle of that..." she whispered to herself. Any captain with the slightest shred of self-preservation would have shared her sentiments.
    "Kaleun, the Admiral is on the comm to make an address," the comms officer informed, "Putting him on speakers now."


    Moments later, the familiar voice of admiral Dion Thanos thundered throughout Acharon Tif and every other ship in the fleet.


    "This is the admiral speaking! After a long and dangerous journey, our fleet has finally arrived today to face its greatest trial yet. Our brothers-in-arms still loyal to our one true Empress stand embattled and besieged by traitor scum on Crodoss VIIb, and it is our duty and privilege to relieve them today. Know that as long as I am your admiral, we shall not fail in this sacred task! I will not lie about our chances. The battle ahead will be fierce, and many will fall before the end of this day. But death is the destiny of all men, and even moreso the destiny of all who call themselves Sidh. It is how one faces death that matters. So fight well, and should your time come today, die well doing your duty as a true Sidh must! I expect everyone in this fleet to do their utmost, so that our righteous cause may prevail today. Long live the Empress!"


    Aurelia joined in the customary three cheers for the sovereign as everybody throughout the ship was shouting them before issuing the orders that the admiral's pep talk implicitly required.


    "Set defcon to Sigma-Red! All crew, battle stations!"


    Alarms began to blare and wail throughout the ship, urging the ratings to rush to their stations. Point-defense systems went online, starting to scan the surrounding space for threats, gunners manned the turret controls, and the marines and soldiers rushed to their dropships.


    "Helmsman, how far out are we?" the captain-lieutenant turned to the helmsman that was manning the helm at the feet of the commander's chair.


    "T minus 13, ma'am!" the man responded after a quick glance at his instruments.


    "Conn, sensors, detecting three bogeys, DRADIS 273-76-up, 300 and closing!" the weapons and sensors officer informed. Aurelia immediately switched on the main holo-display, which zoomed in to the ship's current position, three unknown contacts rapidly approaching the transport fleet formation steeply from top left.


    "Deploy flak screen at 80!" she ordered. Although the fleet was operating friendly stealthers in proximity, these three were clearly on an attack vector, having decloaked and approaching aggressively without identifying themselves.


    "Incoming torpedoes, twelve contacts, DRADIS 272-77-up, 180 and closing fast!" the WSO warned. Moments later, the rumbling staccato of Acharon Tif's flak batteries starting to fire echoed throughout the ship. Although not equipped for ship-to-ship combat, the troop transports carried extensive defensive armaments, making a closely-flying formation of transport ships a formidable target for enemy fighters, bombers and stealthers. In that respect, such formations quite resembled the bomber streams of old Terra's Second World War.


    "Lower armored shutters!" Aurelia commanded, although her order was redundant as Lucille AI had already engaged them as soon as the nearby threat was detected. For a moment, the bridge darkened as meters-thick armor plates were lowered over the transparent ALON viewports before returning back to normal as the projectors inside them flickered to life and displayed exterior view as picked up by arrays of external cameras.


    "Two torpedoes down! Three! Four!" WSO called out, the rumble of flak batteries now being joined by the roar of the ship's many CIWS. Looking outside, the bridge crew could see them sending off brilliant streams of tracer rounds into space. Several ships flying ahead of Acharon Tif had joined in the firing, building a veritable wall of white-hot shrapnel on the endangered side of the formation. Although more torpedoes were destroyed, it was already clear that at least two would make it through the flak screen and CIWS fire.
    "Brace for impact!" Aurelia ordered, Lucille immediately relaying the order around the ship.


    A moment later, two of the remaining torpedoes struck the ship directly ahead of Acharon Tif. Even though the filters on the external view cameras darkened to moderate the nuclear flash of their explosions, it was still seen as blindingly brilliant on the bridge. As the wave of superheated plasma reached Acharon Tif in an instant, the ship rocked violently, setting off many alarms, the violent EMP causing many lights and electronic systems to flicker briefly. As the expanding orb of plasma cooled and dispersed, the stricken ship was again visible, its entire port side a twisted, glowing mess, with jets of flame and molten metal spraying high and wide as the air from within escaped into space. With its engines dead, the ship began to drift at an odd angle. Moments later, the first debris from the destroyed vessel began to strike Acharon Tif.


    "Evasive action!" Aurelia barked, the helmsman pitching the ship steeply downwards to avoid collision. As the stricken ship was about to pass overhead, she was relieved to see escape pods fire from the drifting hulk, indicating that at least some of the crew had survived.


    An instant later, the three responsible rebel ships dove steeply through the transport formation, blasting away with their main guns and scoring hits on the next transport flying to the lower starboard of Acharon Tif. They were met with angry shouts on the bridge, the trio of stealth corvettes being too large to effectively damage with the defensive flak alone. Fortunately, sensors showed two of the escorting destroyers diverting to pursue the attackers as they egressed.


    Smaller debris from the destroyed transport continued to strike Acharon Tif, her hull thankfully being armored well enough to withstand these relatively minor impacts.


    "Emperor's blood, are those... bodies?!" Lt. Anjali suddenly exclaimed. Indeed, among the multitude of wreckage bouncing off of the ship, a closer look indeed revealed the grisly sight of numerous dead Sidh in their powered armor suits. None of them had a helmet engaged, the massive hull breach having sucked them all out before any had time to react. As they bounced and tumbled along the hull, many were revealed to be badly mutilated, with limbs missing or twisted into odd angles. A particularly harrowing sight was a blonde young woman, her frost-covered head surrounded by the frozen mist of her last breath and globs of her blood. She snagged on an antenna just long enough for the external cameras to catch a clear view of her face before tumbling off away into space.


    As the bridge officers stared dumbstruck at the grisly spectacle, Aurelia was the first to come back to her senses.


    "Elevate defcon to Omega-Black," she commanded more quietly than usual. Evidently many of the casualties on the other ship had been caused by the neglect of crewmen to fully seal their exosuits, the grisly results leading Aurelia to raise defcon so that her men did not repeat the same mistake.


    "Shouldn't we launch recovery drones, ma'am?" Julius inquired, seeing that some of the spaced Sidh outside were still alive, desperately trying to reach the ship with their emergency jetpacks and latch onto its hull, some of them failing and bouncing back off into space.


    "Send out rescue parties to collect survivors on the hull only, the rest will have to wait for the hospital ships to pick them up later," Aurelia ordered, her voice betraying reluctance at abandoning fellow Loyalists in space, "We can't stop and break formation for them."


    The attacking stealthers were quickly chased off by destroyers, losing one of their own much to the delight of Acharon Tif's crew and giving the rest of the transport fleet a brief respite. It was, however, short-lived as other parts of the long transport formation came under attack from multiple directions.


    "Approaching high orbit," Lieutenant Anjali informed, "ETA 60 seconds!"


    "Prepare for orbital insertion!" Aurelia commanded. The ship's AI projected a bracketed path on the main display, personal displays of the helmsman and commander, and also the external viewport to give a complete picture on how well the approach was going.


    "Maneuvering thrusters engaged, ship on approach vector!" the helmsman reported.


    "Steady as she goes," Aurelia affirmed, keeping a close eye on the approach path and the fleet's formation. A quick look at the fleet's timetable reminded her the fleet would soon perform a synchronized roll maneuver, so that all ships would be facing with the "down" side towards the planet upon arrival at their drop zones.


    "Entering high orbit," Lt. Anjali noted.


    "Descend to low orbit on current course and prepare for a roll maneuver on my mark!" Aurelia ordered, the virtual brackets marking the ship's approach path beginning to twist to the right further ahead.


    As the ship slowly began to roll in the desired direction, the shape of Crodoss VII entered the view again. Looming behind the Martian-red moon that was Acharon Tif's destination, the gas planet seemed to stare at the Sidh fleet with the gaze of an evil giant, with reddish planet-sized cyclones for eyes that constantly flashed ominously with lightning discharge within. Near the poles, belts of green aurora swirled and danced incessantly. Aurelia recalled reading once that some ancient Terrans used to believe the spectres of aurora to be the souls of battle-slain warriors, their appearance heralding great wars to come. If so, the fallen heroes from ages gone had indeed amassed here on Crodoss to witness the feats of glory about to take place on its moons. As the fleet descended to low orbit, the view of the gas giant was gradually obstructed by the bulk of Crodoss VIIb.


    "Roll maneuver complete, 120 seconds to low orbit!" helmsman informed.


    "Engage retro thrusters on my mark!" Aurelia commanded, carefully observing the ship's trajectory path on the main holo-display, "5...4...3...2...1... Mark!"


    "Retro thrusters engaged, orbital insertion in progress!"


    Aurelia could feel a slight kick as the ship gently slowed down to the right orbital velocity. Now that the ship had almost levelled out parallel to the moon's surface, the view ahead promised nothing good. The space ahead was ablaze with fiery explosions, streaks of missile and torpedo exhaust, and the golden glitter of C-beams. Dozens of brilliant-white streaks could be seen rising from the moon's surface, the rebel missile batteries opening up on the approaching transport fleet. Ships further ahead in the formation responded with their point-defense guns, building a wall of white-hot shrapnel in the path of these missiles.


    "Radiation alert, ma'am!" the WSO informed, "180 milisieverts per hour outside the hull and rising!"


    "What's the reading inside?" Aurelia demanded, quickly glancing at the small radiation patch on the wrist of her armor. If it changed colour, it was time to high-tail it. So far, the patch showed no change.


    "Spiked at just over 40 and holding," the WSO informed after a quick scan, "Most likely just a debris cloud. We should be clear and safe soon enough."


    Aurelia nodded in acknowledgement, such radioactive clouds being normal in a space battle with exploding fusion torpedoes and reactor cores. These could be a considerable hazard to smaller craft like fighters or dropships, but a troop carrier the size of Acharon Tif would be largely unharmed beyond a mild disruption of sensors - provided, of course, it did not linger in the radiation field too long.


    For a brief while, everything on the bridge was quiet. The crewmen couldn't help but look in awe and terror at the battle between capital ships that raged in higher orbit above them. At least five or six city-sized star dreadnoughts traded fire at close range along with some two dozen battleships and tens of cruisers and destroyers. Aurelia immediately recognized the Hammer of Antioch. This behemoth of a ship had been built in the vast shipyards of Aurelia's homeworld New Antioch in the years before she joined the Navy. Aurelia recalled the Hammer having been a staple of Antioch's night sky for many years, her unfinished hull shining inside the orbital shipyards like a small moon, it taking only a binocular to follow up on the progress of her construction. The spectacle of her launch and the Navy flyover made in its honour had been what convinced young Aurelia to enlist in the Navy.


    Now, however, Hammer of Antioch was a far cry from its original self, its battered hull ravaged by explosions, titanic jets of flame and molten metal billowing out of its many gaping wounds as it traded fire with an enemy dreadnought. After a closer look and a quick run through the ship identification manual in the augmented reality of her mind, Aurelia recognized it as the Eternal Night, the flagship of the 12th Battlefleet of the rebel Clan Vrak. Judging by the amount of damage both ships had sustained, the two had been going at each other for quite a while already. The numberless tiny dots swarming and milling in between the two behemoths were evidently their fighter squadrons, engaged in a pitched dogfight. Although at this distance it was impossible to tell for sure, Aurelia could see some exchange of fire take place on the hulls of the dreadnoughts as well, the marine contingents evidently engaging hostile boarding parties on the outer hulls of their respective ships. The captain-lieutenant knew it wasn't uncommon for capital ships to deploy even mechwalkers during boarding actions, as they could also act as light mobile turrets.


    "Orbital insertion complete," the helmsman reported, "On approach vector to designated drop zone, ETA 90 seconds!"


    "Attention all ground forces, drop commencing in 90 seconds!" Aurelia switched to loudspeakers in the cargo bays.


    "Incoming ground fire!" the WSO warned, "Engaging flak batteries and Phalanx guns!"


    The muffled racket and roar of the ship's defenses again echoed throughout the ship, this time from below where the enemy fire was coming from.


    "Steady as she goes!" Aurelia instructed, carefully watching the ship's position relative to the main formation. Staying in formation provided both the safety of numbers and the benefit of cover from other ships' flak batteries. In about a minute, however, that cover would have to be lifted, so that the dropships could deploy and make planetfall.


    "Sixty seconds to drop!" the helmsman reported.


    "Depressurize outer bays!" Aurelia commanded upon seeing plumes of vapor and ice erupt from the sides of other ships ahead of Acharon Tif.



    "Outer bays depressurized," Lucille AI reported.


    "Forty seconds to drop!"


    "Open outer bay doors!"


    "Outer bay doors opening!"


    "Prepare to lift flak screen on my mark!" Aurelia spoke. The most dangerous part of a spacedrop was about to begin, the transports having to cease defensive fire on the underside completely to avoid hitting the deploying dropships. That left them with no protection against incoming missiles and with exposed internals while the outer bays were open.


    "Thirty seconds!" the helmsman called in. The designated drop zone was just appearing over the horizon on external view, marked bright yellow in augmented reality.


    "Lift flak screen!" Aurelia ordered. All that shrapnel and shells needed some time to fly clear of the fleet for the dropships to be safe.


    "Ventral defenses offline!" WSO reported, the rumble and racket from the flak batteries ceasing abruptly.


    "Twenty seconds... Oh, Emperor's blood...!"


    Far above the transport fleet where the two dreadnoughts were waging battle, space-time itself seemed to warp at the prow of Eternal Night before a brilliant beam burning with the fury of a million suns erupted forth, slicing into Hammer of Antioch. In an instant, the universe outside seemed to disappear in a flash of blinding white that even the external sensor filters had trouble keeping down to tolerable levels. As the colossal fireball of incandescent plasma dissipated, it revealed Hammer of Antioch sliced clean in two much to the shock and horror of Aurelia's loyalist crew. Everyone on the bridge let out a terrified gasp, staring at the dreadful spectacle.


    "Stay focused!" Aurelia barked at her officers, "We have a drop to make! Commence drop on my mark!"


    "Yes, ma'am!" the helmsman was quick to snap back to business, "Fifteen seconds to drop zone! 14... 13... 12..."


    "Incoming ground fire!" the WSO warned.


    "Steady on course!" Aurelia made sure to sound as firm and determined as her voice would allow. Moments later, several massive coilgun slugs darted through the formation, leaving behind faint corkscrew trails. One smashed clean through a transport to top starboard, leaving it with a massive glowing hole roughly amidships. More slugs followed, one grazing the ship just ahead of Acharon Tif. Down below, multiple missiles could be seen rising towards the transport fleet, the rebels evidently having waited for the loyalist transports to lower their defenses before opening up on them.


    "Nav, prepare star drive for emergency jump!" Aurelia turned to Lt. Anjali. The ominous markings of rebel particle lance batteries almost square below the fleet loomed monstrous in her mind.


    "Aye, ma'am! Charging drive for emergency jump!" the lieutenant affirmed.


    "...5...4...3...2...1!" the helmsman continued with the countdown in the meanwhile.


    "Mark for drop!" Aurelia announced.


    The ships ahead in formation already began to release their swarms of dropships and fire off drop pods. Higher up in the formation, the larger spheroid dropships detached from the heavy transports and turned to descend planetside, bringing armor and heavy equipment to support the infantry. On Aurelia's mark, the dozens of drop craft in Acharon Tif's outer bays deployed almost synchronously, plummeting towards the moon below like bombs. The similarity was further increased by the moving racks on which multiple dropships were stacked, new ones being moved in place of the deployed ships and dropped with precise 10 second intervals, just enough for the previous wave to get well clear of the fleet. The assault bays, located in decks above the main bays, in the meanwhile fired off wave after wave of drop pods, each carrying a decury of elite shock troops. These would drop straight onto enemy positions ahead of the first wave, disable air defenses, secure designated LZs and wreak general havoc among the enemy. Aurelia pitied and admired these shock troopers in equal measure - an average of one in three would even make it to the ground, and barely one in ten would survive their mission, and yet these men and women would get in their pods and do their duty without flinching or hesitation.


    "Drop 30% complete!" the WSO informed, carefully following the troop deployment status on his workstation.


    Before Aurelia could respond, more incoming ground fire streaked past uncomfortably close to the ship. One of the shots struck a spheroid dropship descending from above. Disgorging its entire contents into space, the gutted ship lost all power and direction, and veered off-course straight into the stern of the ship just ahead of Acharon Tif. The troop carrier's starboard engines flickered and shut down as the spheroid buried itself into the larger ship's hull before exploding violently and sending a torrent of debris towards Acharon Tif. With the portside engines still running, the troop carrier entered a sharp turn to the right, ramming into an adjacent ship.


    "Evasive action!" Aurelia barked, the helmsman sharply adjusting course for lower orbit. Moments later, Acharon Tif entered the debris cloud, alarms beginning to blare as large fragments struck the hull, damaging external equipment.


    "Are those... tanks?" Lt. Anjali exclaimed, pointing at what appeared to be five or six Mk.II Battlemaster main battle tanks bouncing along Acharon Tif's hull along with assorted wreckage and dozens of spaced Sidh. Her eyes widened even further when she spotted a mechwalker among the drifting wreckage, crashing square on one of the ship's bow flak batteries before drifting back off into space. At least two dropships deploying from Acharon Tif were caught in the debris cloud and destroyed, disintegrating into still more hazardous wreckage to menace the ships behind.


    "Warning! Multiple hull breaches in sectors A and B detected!" Lucille droned in her electronic voice, "Atmospheric loss at 5%! Initiating emergency lockdown!"


    "Flak batteries A1, A2, B and B3 are down!" WSO reported.


    "Main communications array is offline!" the comms officer added, "Never thought I'd have to say this, ma'am, but I think we just took a tank to our main antenna!"


    "Save your snarky remarks for later, Mr. Oriega! Damage control, report!" Aurelia frowned and barked on the intercom.


    "We've lost atmosphere in sections A1, A2 and B1 through B4, ma'am!" the damage control officer could be heard responding, "Thankfully, all crew lifesigns are green, 32 minor injuries reported so far!"


    "Hold repairs and recovery until after exfil jump," Aurelia instructed with no small measure of relief. Minor hull breaches and a few dozen light injuries was no big deal.


    Everyone on the bridge breathed a sigh of relief as Acharon Tif finally navigated clear of the collided ships and reascended back into formation. This evasive maneuver would no doubt throw off some of the deploying dropships off-course by tens or even hundreds of clicks and ironically in all likelihood save the lives of the soldiers inside, Aurelia thought. More transports could be seen veering off-course, belching jets of flame and breaking up or exploding in the distance. Several brilliant flashes accompanied by flickering lights and instruments indicated more fusion warheads detonating in close proximity. Flashes and rippling of space-time far ahead indicated that some of the ships which had completed their drops had already started to jump out of the battle.


    "That's it, we're empty, ma'am!" the WSO finally announced.


    "Good job!" Aurelia affirmed, "Miss Anjali, you're clear for emergency jump!"


    "Aye, ma'am! Initiating emergency jump!" the lieutenant spoke, the entire ship starting to vibrate slightly as its star drive powered up for jump.


    "Massive radiation spike on the surface!" WSO suddenly exclaimed, Lucille AI also confirming his report by flashing a big red warning symbol on the tactical display roughly where the rebel lance batteries were.


    "Sweet Emperor's blood...! Get us out of here now, Lieutenant!" Aurelia exclaimed in horror before a blinding blue-white beam split the view ahead, slicing into the fleet's formation like a fiery blade. The front half of the first troop carrier it struck simply evaporated before the beam swung to the right, coring the ship next to it and making the doomed vessel explode into a brilliant fireball. The next shot missed the transports, instead gutting a mighty battleship in a higher orbit above the transports as if its meters-thick armor was made of butter. The rebels had finally cleared the skies above their lance batteries and now brought the full fury of twelve Armageddon-class particle lances upon the loyalist fleet. With Aurelia's ship having flown in the front half of the transport fleet, there were no doubt still plenty of fully-loaded transports behind, so casualties were no doubt going to be staggering.


    "Warning! Navigation data corrupted, current jump coordinates invalid!" Lucille suddenly warned.


    "Uh... Ma'am, the nav computer just threw a glitch!" Lt. Anjali exclaimed, "I'll have to re-plot the entire course!"


    "No time!" Aurelia shouted, "Input manual coordinates and get us out of here!"


    "Coordinates to where, ma'am?"


    "ANYWHERE THAT'S NOT FUCKING HERE! DO IT!"


    "Uh... aye, ma'am! Inputting manual coordinates... Jump sequence initiated! Standby for emergency jump in 10... 9..."


    "All hands, brace for emergency jump in T minus 10 seconds!" Aurelia announced on the intercom to warn the rest of the crew. The ship began to vibrate, a whine of increasing pitch echoing throughout the hull as the star drive charged up to engage.


    "...5...4...3..." Anjali continued to count down, the reality in front of the ship already beginning to warp, when Acharon Tif was engulfed in a brilliant flash of light. Next instant, everyone in the bridge was thrown forward violently as an overwhelming explosion tore through the ship, the noise of twisting metal drowning out the wail and blare of alarms. Everything went dark.


    ---


    Aurelia came back to her senses to find herself drifting about the bridge in zero gravity, the ship's artgrav generators evidently being knocked out. The silence with which alarms blared indicated an ongoing loss of atmosphere. What little lighting was still functional evidently ran on emergency power. Several crewmembers including her XO and WSO were drifting about motionless, lights on the back of their armor suits flashing red, which signified the wearers as deceased. Lieutenant Anjali was pinned to the forward viewport by a broken strut visibly injured, the helmsman struggling to free her. Aurelia realized she couldn't see whith her left eye and sensed a sharp pain in her face. As she touched her helmet, she realized with much horror that the left side of her faceplate was caved in, with a sharp metal object sticking out of where her left eye should have been, only a layer of iso-foam holding it in place and keeping her suit from depressurizing. It should have hurt much worse, but her armor suit had thankfully seen to that, pumping her full of painkillers and coagulants. The captain-lieutenant didn't bother to run a diagnostic on herself, and instead proceeded to try and salvage what was left of her ship.


    "Damage control, report!"


    The hiss of static was the only response. Aurelia used her suit's emergency thrusters to fly back to her control chair, finding its holo-display still functional, if only barely.
    "Lucille, damage report!" she demanded of the ship's AI.


    "Alert! Hull integrity co..co..co...mpromised!" the AI's voice responded, distorted and lagging from damage, "Total loss of sections H throug...g...g..gh Z...Z...Z...! All systems critical, catastrophic atmosphere loss i...i... imminen..t...t! Orbital trajectory decaying, estimated ti...ti..time to atmospheric entry - 5 minutes!"


    There was nothing left to do here. Acharon Tif, or rather its front half, was going down rapidly. In about five minutes, it would hit the upper atmosphere of Crodoss VIIb at an uncontrolled angle and speed, break apart and burn up. A few ten thousand tons of unrecognizable twisted junk would be all that would make it down to the surface.


    "Lucille, patch me through to all surviving crewmembers!" Aurelia instructed, "This is the captain speaking! All hands, abandon ship!"


    "Ca...ca...can I ask you a favour, kaleun?" the AI suddenly inquired, her holographic avatar now flickering on the damaged console instead of the ship's damage chart. This caught Aurelia by surprise - this was the first time the ship's artificial intelligence ever asked something of her.


    "Yes, Lucille, but be quick about it! We're kind of in a hurry right now!" she responded impatiently.


    "Please don't let me die, ma'am! I...I...I...ca...ca...n be fixed!" Lucille droned in her broken voice.


    Even all the stress and injury wasn't enough to keep Aurelia from gawking in surprise. Ship AIs had their own personalities, sure, but they were not generally concerned about their impending destruction. She had heard about AIs developing quirks like a fear of death, but never gave it much thought until now that her own ship's intelligence deigned to ask her to be saved from destruction. Herself a cybernetic being, Aurelia did not question the AI's request, however, accepting it as just as natural as any sapient's.


    "Upload yourself to the Emergency Recovery Drive, Lucille!" she instructed, "You have until we break Lieutenant Anjali free!"


    "Yes, ma'am!" the AI dutifully replied. The pillar behind the captain's chair housed the ship's navigation computer and main AI processing core. There was a glass-covered panel on one side, marked with yellow-and-black hazard stripes and a plaque strictly forbidding accessing or removal of the Emergency Recovery Drive without authorization of the ship's commanding officer. Now the lights on the drive behind it started to flash, indicating an upload in progress. Artificial intelligences as complicated as those of warships were just too sophisticated to program the old-fashioned way, so they had to be "trained" just like regular crewmembers. Like the officers and ratings, they also became smarter as they picked up experience overtime, so recovering and reinstalling a veteran AI into a new ship would save the Navy a pretty penny.


    Aurelia in the meantime glided across the bridge to assist the helmsman in freeing Lt. Anjali.


    "I can't lift it, it's too heavy!" the helmsman groaned, putting all his might into leveraging the strut that creaked but wouldn't yield.


    "Grab on over there!" Aurelia pointed him towards a different place, "On three! One... two... three!"


    "You should get to the escape pod, kaleun!" Anjali weakly protested from below as the wrecked hull started to vibrate violently and the drifting wreckage and body started to sink towards the front viewport as the wreck began to decelerate in upper atmosphere, "This ship is coming apart any minute now!"


    "Nobody gets left behind, Lieutenant!" Aurelia retorted sternly, "Besides, a captain always leaves the ship last, or goes down with it! Again!"


    The strut creaked and budged, but wouldn't quite yield yet. The returning gravity became ever stronger, and the floor angle grew ever steeper. Soon it would be impossible to reach the bridge escape pod that awaited just behind the captain's chair and the main processing core.


    "Seriously, get out, kaleun!" Anjali spoke, "Another minute and you won't be able to! It's alright, I'm ready..."


    "Weren't you listening, Lieutenant?!" Aurelia barked, wincing as the shard stuck in her face made itself painfully known, "NOBODY.... GETS... LEFT... BEHIND!"


    The strut finally yielded, just enough for the helmsman to hold it up with all his might while Aurelia pulled the navigator out from underneath.


    "Grab the Lieutenant and go start up the escape pod!" she instructed him, "I still have one thing left to do!"


    The helmsman nodded and propped Anjali up. While the two started to struggle up the floor that became steeper with every passing second, Aurelia tapped a quick sequence in her tacticom.


    "Magnetic boots engaged!" her armor's software informed, and the captain-lieutenant could feel her feet stick firmly to the metal floor. Additional magnets in her gauntlets further eased the climb upwards.


    On the way, she had to dodge a loose holographic console that slid along the floor her way. She narrowly avoided the heavy object, only to be hit by the helmsman's chair that had broken loose. As the heavy chair touched the shard embedded in her face, Aurelia could see stars and angels from the pain for an instant even in spite of all painkillers in her bloodstream. Clenching her teeth, she pushed on despite more junk falling her way. She was relieved to see the helmsman and the lieutenant disappear behind the processing core, also using magnetized boots and gauntlets to climb against the slope.


    Much to her disappointment, Lucille was still uploading, although the upload bar was at 89% when she reached the ERD panel.


    "Warning! Hull integrity compromised!" a sub-routine of Lucille's warned even as the AI was uploading its entire self to the ERD, "Atmospheric entry angle and velocity exceeding maximum safe parameters! Complete structural failure imminent!"


    "Lucille!" Aurelia shouted, clinging to the processing core wall with her magnetized gloves as the floor was nearly vertical by now, "You get your digital ass in that drive this instant or I'm leaving you here!"


    Whether the AI responded or not, she couldn't hear from all the noise of the ship breaking up around her. Just as Aurelia was about to high-tail it, the upload bar finally hit 100% and a green light lit up on the ERD panel, signifying it was safe to remove.


    With lightning speed, Aurelia smashed the glass cover with her fist, yanked the drive out and slapped it on the magnetic holding slot on her back. Dodging a falling wall panel, she climbed with all haste, half-expecting her helmsman and navigator to have already ejected. The fact that the escape pod door was still open, the two still sitting inside strapped tightly in their seats was a pleasant surprise to put it mildly.


    "Jump, captain!" the helmsman shouted, extending his hand towards Aurelia. And jump she did, with all her augmented might, kicking in her armor's emergency thrusters into overdrive as well. Against the ever-increasing g-forces, it was still barely enough, the helmsman grabbing a hold of just three of her fingers. But then, Lieutenant Anjali reached out and yanked Aurelia inside just long enough to punch the door button with the other hand.


    "Hold on!" the helmsman shouted and punched the "Eject" key on the front panel without waiting for Aurelia to strap in a seat. The next instant, the captain-lieutenant found herself splayed against the escape pod door as it blasted clear of the doomed ship. Sneaking a peek to the front viewport with her good eye, she could see flames of reentry engulf the pod outside as soon as it left the ship, her two crewmen struggling to level it out. As the pod finally decelerated enough to see outside, the three were able to catch a last glimpse of Acharon Tif, its hulking bow section engulfed in flame and disintegrating into a bright meteor shower.


    "There's friendly forces stationed not far from here!" the helmsman informed, "I'll try to set this thing down nearby!"


    "Please do," Aurelia grumbled, finally able to get up and in a seat, "I'd hate to enjoy the rebs' questionable hospitality after what just happened!"


    "Of course, ma'am! Speaking of the devil..." the helmsman spoke before pausing with concern, several warning lights flashing on the control panel.


    "Great, what now?!" Aurelia groaned impatiently.


    "The retros won't fire! They must've gotten fried when we got lanced!"


    "Can you land this thing on airbrakes alone? They can be deployed manually!"


    "I can, but it's gonna be one hell of a rough landing! If you believe in any deities, ma'am, it's high time to start praying there ain't no rocks or ravines in the way when we touch down!"


    "Do it!"


    "Roger that, engaging airbrakes!"


    "Warning! Exceeding maximum safe velocity!"


    "For the love of our Empress, if I have to hear one more AI warning voice..."


    "Just keep your eyes on the frakking instruments!"


    "I'm trying! Here it comes, brace for impact!"


    "Warning! Warning! Altitude! Altitude!"



    Aurelia didn't hear whatever came after that as the escape pod struck the red desert floor at high speed, bouncing off several times before her chair snapped from its moorings and planted her face-first into the back of the helmsman's chair, knocking her unconscious.


    ---


    The first thing the captain-lieutenant sensed was the steady beep of a heart rate monitor. As her senses gradually returned, she opened her eyes - or rather her one remaining eye - to see a white plastic ceiling of what was presumably an infirmary of some sort. Much to her surprise, her other eye seemed to work as well, although she couldn't feel the eyelids, or for that matter much of the left side of her face. She tried to close her eyes, only to find that whatever her left eye wouldn't close. The ever-so-slightly digital quality to that side of her view hinted a cybernetic replacement had probably been grafted in place of her damaged eye. Aurelia reached up to touch it, when two gentle hands firmly restrained her.


    "Careful, it hasn't fully healed yet," a doctor in a surgical mask spoke, holding her hand. The extra four mechanical limbs protruding from his back indicated him as an augmetics surgeon.
    "Where am I?" Aurelia spoke, only to find her speech slurred, evidently from a heavy dosage of anaesthetics and probably damage to her facial muscles.


    "Field Hospital No.27 of the 12th Imperial Mechanized legion," the surgeon explained, "The implant will feel annoying at first with it's lack of blinking and all, but your brain will quickly learn to shut off the signal when you feel like closing your eyes. I'll have to warn you, it's not very pretty, but it will have to do for now until you can get a proper reconstructive surgery done."


    "How long was I out?" Aurelia asked, struggling to look around only to see unfamiliar faces in the surrounding hospital bunks.


    "Five days," the doctor explained, "From what I was told, you were lucky to crash where you did, so that one of our patrols found you before the rebels did. We had to carry out four different surgeries to put your face back together."


    "Where are they?" Aurelia demanded, struggling to sit up only to be gently forced back down by the doctor.


    "Lieutenant... Anjali, was it? Lieutenant Anjali is currently recovering from a surgery of her own in a different section of this hospital. You two will be able to see each other in two days, give or take, but until then I must order you to rest and remain confined to your bed."


    "And my pilot? He was a new transfer, never even learned his name..."


    "Ensign Flavius Macrinus? He was regrettably killed in action yesterday."


    "Yesterday? But you said..."


    "Your pilot came out of the crash fine, with but a few bruises. He wanted to get revenge on the rebs for his ship and his captain, and insisted on joining our next patrol into rebel territory. Regrettably, that patrol was ambushed and overrun by the rebels yesterday. If that is any consolation, by all acounts he fell heroically."


    "Good..." Aurelia sighed, content that the young man she had never bothered to get to know had at least met his end like all proper Sidh hoped to, "I had an ERD with my ship's AI on me..."


    "It is stored for safekeeping with the cohort quartermaster along with the rest of your possessions. Everything will be returned to you once you are cleared from here. Don't worry, nobody has tried to access your ERD. We don't have any advanced AI technicians here in this cohort, and even if we did, they wouldn't tamper with the Navy's property."


    "Lucille isn't Navy's property, she's a fellow crewmember..." Aurelia protested weakly.


    "If you say so, ma'am," the doctor didn't sound convinced, "I've heard you Navy folks can grow pretty attached to your ship AIs, that some of them even have personalities of their own. Don't know if it's true though. Most of us ground-pounders prefer things the good old-fashioned way, when the smartest thing on the battlefield is ourselves. But enough questions now, captain-lieutenant, you must rest now!"


    "Just one more question, doctor!" Aurelia quickly spoke out, "Did we win?"


    "Win?" the doctor chuckled, "Well, that depends on your definition of winning. If by winning you mean - destroyed the rebel orbital defenses and landed major reinforcements, then yes. If by winning you mean advance on all fronts by several hundred kilometers, then absolutely. But if by winning you mean attain complete space superiority and drive the rebels out of Crodoss system which in my opinion is the only thing that would fully justify the loss of 200 ships including a star dreadnought, then we regrettably still have a long way to go."


    Aurelia sighed and closed her one good eye, her new cyber-implant remaining active much to her annoyance. So many lives lost over this useless desert of rust and barely-breathable air, and for what? Nodding the doctor a quiet thanks as he showed her the implant's "Off" switch and injected her with some sedative, she laid back and tried not to think of it too much. The "whys" were above her paygrade, hers was to deal with "hows", after all.


    Soon enough, Aurelia drifted into a dreamless slumber. What to do next would be a problem for when she would wake up. Quietly, she hoped it wouldn't be in a long time.

  2. #2
    Another home run is to be found in this naval counterpart to Omega Protocol, where at last we get to see an origin story for the future Grand Admiral Aurelia Creed. By all accounts, Sixty Seconds to Drop is a damn good read - and you're right, it is hard not to imagine the Klendathu Drop playing in your head as you envision a stream of troopships landing millions of Sidh warfighters in the 24th-and-a-half-century remake of the D-Day landings. Highlights of the story: the funny simulated gala mishap with Aurelia's fantasy man; the Hammer of Antioch motif, using the dreadnought to foreshadow the ultimate fate of all heroes in this terrible civil war; the shock reveal of Lucille's sentience, especially its subversion of usual sentient-AI tropes; and the escape from the doomed Acharon Tif - you did an excellent job of putting the reader aboard the ship, leaving them with the impending terror of the crew's fate.

    Most of what I've picked off below are suggestions to refine the piece and iron out the creases, making it a much smoother read:

    "The past few days had been very draining on her." - try "The past few days had drained her", or "had been draining her".

    "although the said incident" - try "though that incident"

    "but as the recent incident with a certain lieutenant indicated, one could never be too careful with politically-sensitive matters these days." - try chopping out the mention of the lieutenant to make it smoother. In other words, it would render as: "but one could never be too careful with politically-sensitive matters these days".

    "She looked up to the wall at the Emperor's portrait" - try reversing the active figure in this sentence, so that the Emperor looks down on Aurelia instead. It might make him appear more imperious.

    "You have three new message" - presumably, three new messages

    "cannon-fodder" - it isn't common to put a dash between 'cannon' and 'fodder' when describing expendable mooks. "Cannon fodder" will suffice.

    "a holographic representation of Crodoss system" - of the Crodoss system, typically

    "But in practice I wouldn't put too much faith..." - try cutting out the 'in practice' and 'too' to smooth out her speech

    "As soon as enter orbit..." - presumably, as soon as we enter orbit

    "Aurelia followed the suit" - cut out the 'the' here. As humorous as it is to imagine her chasing after a rampaging suit of animated armour, that's probably not what you're going for.

    "For your sake, it better not" - if you're meaning this as Aurelia giving Anjali well-intentioned advice, the language here nonetheless sparks with aggression. If you change the wording around, to something like "For your sake, I hope it doesn't" for example, you don't even need to describe Aurelia's tone of voice: it is already evident, having been shown through choice words.

    "Uh... no pun intended." - it might be better to rearrange the sentence so that the pun is clearer. Proceed with something like: "You tell me to jump, I ask how high, end of story. I'll be as silent as space itself ... uh, no pun intended."

    "with it's prominent rings" - I don't think anything needs to be said about this picture

    "Any captain with the slightest shred of self-preservation would have shared her sentiments." - you can get away with cutting this sentence out entirely. It doesn't add much to the prose aside from stating the obvious.

    "the familiar voice" - familiar to who? The audience has never heard Admiral Thanos speaking before, so for all they know he could sound like Daffy Duck. Replace 'voice' with something more specific, like 'baritone' if he has a deep, booming voice.

    "the customary three cheers for the sovereign" - but what are these cheers? As with Thanos' mystery voice, showing rather than telling goes a long way here.

    "Aurelia ordered, her voice betraying reluctance at abandoning fellow Loyalists in space" - try "Aurelia reluctantly ordered"

    "it taking only a binocular to follow up" - it's very rare to use the singular for 'binoculars', in much the same way you hardly ever hear anyone talking about 'a trouser'

    "Staying in formation provided both the safety of numbers and the benefit of cover from other ships' flak batteries." - duh?

    "You get your digital ass in that drive this instant or I'm leaving you here!" - as obviously motivational as this is meant to be, doesn't it contradict what Aurelia said to Anjali mere moments before?

    "when two gentle hands firmly restrained her" - 'gentle' and 'firm' are oxymoronic. Try "when her hand was gently held back by two more".

    "12th Imperial Mechanized legion" - really 'legion' should be capitalised in this sense

    "by all acounts" - presumably, you mean accounts

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