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The Epherium Chronicles Echoes Chapter 1

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Chapter 1 of The Epherium Chronicles: Echoes

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The Epherium Chronicles Echoes Chapter 1

  1. 1. The Epherium Chronicles: Echoes By T.D. Wilson Carina Press, Harlequin Ltd. Chapter 1 EDF Supply Convoy Deep Space Route to Cygni Friday, February 21 Earth Year 2155 Two sleek Stingray fighters sliced through the expansive darkness and banked cautiously around the outermost transport of the supply convoy. In the deep, cold blackness of space, the scattered lights of the convoy offered little to pierce the darkness. Not even the Cygni star, still over a light-year away, offered much illumination. The pilots of the fighters eased their crafts through the rest of the bulky and unarmed transports. Aided by the dim light offered by the ships, the veteran pilots surveyed each vessel for signs of damage from their long journey, while the convoy escorts’ scanners probed the bleak and endless expanse around them for hostiles. After completing their sweep, the two fighters approached the lead ship of the convoy, a warship bristling with weapons and emblazoned with the name Cestus. The Earth Defense Force Chimera Class cruisers, like the Cestus, weren’t as large as the new Akita Dreadnaughts, but they could hold their own in a fight. And in this convoy, the Cestus wasn’t alone. Flanking the convoy of eight transports bound for the new Cygni colony were three other cruisers, each with their full complement of fighters. Aboard the Cestus, Captain Lester Styles studied the readiness readouts from the other vessels. It had taken his small convoy almost two weeks to get this far from Earth. The Cestus, with its more advanced space-fold drive, could have cut down the time, but the transports’ jump capability was limited. The batteries on the transports were older and smaller. Since the transports were physically larger and when fully loaded consisted of more mass than the cruisers, they required a full recharge between jumps. Many of their engineers had already expressed concern over the number of consecutive jumps. Normally, the transports were expected to make one or two before reaching a station for maintenance. The transports’ situation added to the list of Captain Styles’s concerns. During the entire mission, he’d been on edge, and it was obvious to him that his crew had noticed the change in his demeanor. EDF Command had labeled the transports’ valuable cargo as essential to the growth and defense of Earth’s new colony. The captain of the Cestus knew what the transports carried. He also knew what it would mean if they didn’t reach Cygni. Despite the additional travel time, Styles was determined to deliver their cargo intact.
  2. 2. EDF Command wasn’t taking any chances with the success of this new colony. This convoy was the second fleet of ships to make the journey since Captain James Hood, Styles’s longtime friend and former academy bunkmate, had paved the way three weeks earlier with his ship, the Armstrong. Styles admired his old friend. He’d been ecstatic the day he’d heard the news of Hood’s posting on the newest Dreadnaught. When the original Dreadnaught, the Akita, was first commissioned, Styles often wondered what it would be like to sit in command of one of those powerful vessels. The sheer size of the new ships was incredible. The EDF had needed a ship like the Akita Class Dreadnaughts for years. Styles knew it took a special type of leader to grasp the reins of a ship like that. When the EDF brass came to interview him for the Armstrong’s post, Styles gave them a polite rejection. But he made sure to nominate James Hood. There wasn’t a better captain in the entire EDF fleet, even if Hood didn’t believe it. Hood always had a true sense of humbleness. He didn’t shy away from anything, but he wasn’t brash and he certainly didn’t wear his confidence on his sleeve. So many young and passionate officers had come bursting out of the academy, fighting and clawing over anyone in their way just to get a command. They’d all wanted to take on the galaxy if need be, only to see their bright lights extinguished in an instant. But Hood saw things in a different way. Perhaps that was why he’d still been alive to assume command of the Armstrong. Styles had once been a member of the young and foolish. Experience, a little luck and an old friend, who’d pulled his proverbial butt out of an impossible situation, had helped to realign his way of thinking. There were still plenty of young officers out there trying to prove themselves and maybe one day work up to one of the new Dreadnaughts, but Styles felt comfortable in command of one of the smaller Chimeras. Even before the latest tech upgrades, the Cestus was a powerful warship. In Styles’s mind, she was fast, efficient, compact and deadly. She was perfect in every aspect. He knew every inch of his ship and he knew his crew. But they were more than just a crew; they were family and trusted each other with their lives. A tall, young officer walked up beside Styles and looked at the jump status screen. “Captain, the last remaining group of our fighters has been cleared to dock. Once they’re on board, we should be ready to jump,” the officer stated. “Should I inform the other ships, sir?” With a calm finger tap on his terminal, Styles switched his station’s monitor to the external cameras near the docking bay. The last two fighters from his squadron’s patrol were already in position to dock. The bay’s gravity web ensnared the first fighter and hauled it inside with care. Styles nodded and turned to his new XO. “Very well, Mr. Turnbow, let’s get this convoy underway. Inform all commands that our final jump will commence in five minutes. Secure us for jump.” Lieutenant Commander Isaac Turnbow had only been on the job as the new XO for the Cestus for a short three weeks, but Styles was impressed with his knowledge and leadership ability. Turnbow was young, but so had Raf Sanchez been when he’d held the post aboard the Cestus. Now, Commander Raf Sanchez was the new XO aboard the Armstrong. For almost two years, Styles had taken Sanchez under his wing. He’d seen the man grow
  3. 3. into a strong and capable EDF officer. When Styles had nominated him for the XO post on the Armstrong, Hood hadn’t been surprised in the least. In fact, he’d embraced the idea with wholehearted support. After the lean, raven-haired Turnbow turned on his heel and headed to the nearby communications station to alert the other ships, Styles returned his attention to the status monitors. He accessed one of transports’ files on the screen and opened the manifest. The Tanner was a modified troop carrier, and her cargo pods were packed with Marines who undoubtedly held sour dispositions. After being cooped up in that cramped area on a dreary transport for almost two weeks, he would be too. Styles liked ill-tempered Marines. They were good in a fight, and the EDF may well need them soon. War was coming. Even in the cold nothingness of space and light-years from Earth, Styles could taste its bitter foreboding. His contacts in EDF Command’s inner circle believed the same. He’d been briefed on the latest defensive fleet deployments. Movement of that much hardware in a rapid short order wasn’t just a show of strength. The fleets were supplied for lengthy campaigns. He’d seen the horrors of war and it wasn’t an experience he was willing to endure again. The Cestus’s captain just hoped he was wrong. The troops his convoy was transporting were to be part of a permanent detachment for the new human colony. The remainder would serve as reinforcements for those assigned to the Armstrong. Hood’s ship had carried two full brigades of Marines to Cygni. Its mission was clear: make contact with the first of three colonies created by colony ships launched almost twenty-five years earlier by the Epherium Corporation—colony ships that had all but been forgotten until a few months ago. Once contact was made, Hood was to determine the colony’s viability and defend it until a lifeline from Earth could be established. But Hood’s mission and the hope for new and viable colony worlds for humanity had run afoul. Earth’s old foe, an insectoid alien race known as the Cilik’ti, had discovered the Armstrong and attacked the new colony at Cygni. The attacking Cilik’ti forces had easily outnumbered the Armstrong and the colony’s Marine defenders. Despite the odds, Earth’s forces had prevailed in the battle, but at a terrible cost. Casualties among the Cygni colonists and Marines were high, and the damage inflicted by the Cilik’ti was extensive, especially to the Armstrong. The Cilik’ti had deployed one of their mammoth mother ships to lead the assault on the colony. The huge alien vessel had seemed nearly indestructible. During the course of the battle, the powerful ship had forced Hood and the Armstrong to the brink of retreat from the colony. Styles remembered the shock he’d felt after reading the report. A Cilik’ti mother ship had shown itself only once during the war, and it was never engaged in battle. Hood had needed a fleet to take that thing down. Command was surprised the Armstrong had lasted that long during the fight, but not Styles. If anyone could tangle with a giant like that and find a way to win, it was Hood. Of that, he was sure. But Styles’s surprise wasn’t limited to the presence of the Cilik’ti mother ship alone. According to the report, moments before Hood was to order a retreat, a second Cilik’ti mother
  4. 4. ship had arrived in orbit. This new Cilik’ti force had not only intervened, but defended the colony and the Armstrong from the first assault force. In his report, Hood claimed the entire battle was an ancient Cilik’ti rite of honor, and the first group had violated it. The details of this so-called honor rite weren’t explained in the report, but now, nearly three weeks later, Hood’s saviors were acting as defenders of the colony. Talks of a new alliance with the aliens had even surfaced. Personally, Styles thought the whole idea was a load of bunk. Where were these grandiose Cilik’ti honorable ideals when they’d been annihilating whole human outposts during the war? Millions of lives lost, and no one ever knew why? The Cilik’ti invasion had taught Earth and humanity painful lessons. The Cilik’ti were relentless, and it took everything the EDF had to finally drive them off. Despite the lack of contact with the aliens until now, most of the EDF had been on constant alert for any sign of their return. Perhaps Earth’s people may have forgotten what had happened, but for warship captains like Hood and Styles, the memories were still fresh. Styles didn’t trust this new friendly group of Cilik’ti one millimeter. He was doubly certain EDF Command didn’t either. Before the battle, Admiral Tramp had strategically positioned forces to assist the colony, should Hood’s showdown with the Cilik’ti at Cygni turn into a major renewal of their previous conflict. Now that the battle was over, those resources were already working on repairing the colony and the Armstrong from the damage. The old man was smart. Styles had to give him that. Styles just needed to get these reinforcements and supplies to the colony to ensure its defense. Relying on Earth’s newfound Cilik’ti allies was wrong, plain and simple. If one group of Cilik’ti had attacked the colony, he was certain more attacks would follow. The more he thought about it, the more his mind pounded with the images of the war. He had to talk to Hood when he arrived at Cygni. Perhaps his old friend could sort it all out for him. Frankly, he needed reassurance that the whole situation wasn’t about to go to hell. “Captain,” Turnbow called from the Cestus’s communication station. The voice of his XO brought Styles back from his brief reverie. He closed the manifest display of the Tanner and turned back to his XO. “What is it?” “Sir, the Elliot has informed us they have instability in their space-fold drive. Their engineer says he has it locked down and should be ready to jump with the fleet. All other ships report ready for jump on your order, sir.” “Very well,” Styles said. “Inform the Elliot we’re the jump tail. We’ll stay with them until they’re clear. Assure them repair teams will be ready to assist if they encounter any problems.” Styles had rotated the fail-safe ship responsibility to the other escorts during their long journey, but for the final jump, he’d called his own number. With the fleet this far out from an established base and the stronger potential for a hostile encounter, it was an easy choice. The convoy jump countdown descended inside a minute, and Styles could see the other ships of the convoy begin to power up their space-fold drives. He opened a shipwide comm channel. “Everyone, this is the captain. One more jump, people. Let’s do it by the numbers. We
  5. 5. are fail-safe and will jump once everyone is clear. Styles out.” Everyone on the bridge watched the translucent blue energy encircle the other ships on their station monitors. Styles initiated the jump order, and ships began to disappear in blue flashes, starting with the other cruisers. All the transports initiated their jump and followed the cruisers to Cygni. The Elliot was the last one to disappear. Styles smiled as the bulky transport vanished in a successful jump event. “Alright, Mr. Turnbow. All our charges are clear. Let’s join them at Cygni. Initiate jump.” “Aye, sir,” Turnbow acknowledged and pressed the key on his terminal to initiate the Cestus’s space-fold drive. A translucent blue haze quickly enveloped the cruiser, and its luminesce steadily increased as the space-fold drive reached its critical jump stage. Styles braced for the jump event, but microseconds before the drive could complete its cycle and catapult the cruiser to Cygni, the jump envelope collapsed, sending a backwash of energy from the drive rippling through the ship. Waves of raw energy surged into systems on the Cestus’s bridge. Sparks erupted from overloaded systems, forcing the command crew to take cover. After the initial surge, the power to functional terminals warbled and slowly faded out. Emergency lights engaged, and the red lighting reflected Captain Styles’s mood. Angrily he rose from his command station’s chair. “Give me a SITREP!” he bellowed. “What the hell just happened, Mr. Turnbow?” Still trying to gain access to his disabled panel, Turnbow just shook his head. “Massive power feedback from the jump, sir, but I can’t access our status. Everything’s dead.” He checked another panel on his terminal. “Intraship comms are still functional.” Styles scanned the bridge to account for all the command crew, several of whom were spraying fire suppressants on the overloaded panels. Satisfied that there were no casualties, he spun his terminal to face him and opened a comm channel to Engineering. “Watkins! What happened with our power? Did we jump?” Static over the comm channel nearly drowned out the voice of Lieutenant Jerome Watkins, the Cestus’s chief engineer. “Sir, the reactor spiked just before the space-fold drive activated. The drive reverted, and the built-up energy overloaded the safeties.” “Can you restore power?” Styles asked, tone full of his concern for the safety of the ship. “I should have auxiliary power in a few moments, but main power is going to be a problem,” Watkins explained. “The spike came out of nowhere and the reactor scrammed. It’s still not stable. I’m afraid main power and the space-fold drive are out indefinitely.” Styles sighed. “Very well. Keep working on it. I want regular reports every thirty minutes. Styles out.” He closed the channel just as power returned to the undamaged consoles on the bridge. He’d seen jump failures in the past, but never so close to activation of the jump. Loss of main power and the space-fold drive were bad enough. Now he needed to know what other systems were damaged from the overload. “Helm, can you confirm our position?” The Cestus’s helmsman completed the checkout of this station and checked his terminal. “Sir, all our star patterns match. Spatial Navigation confirms that the near jump didn’t move us.” Styles took the news as a positive. At least the malfunction hadn’t slingshot them in a
  6. 6. random direction. If they needed help, the fleet would know right where to look. He looked over at his XO, who was finally able to review the status of the Cestus’s systems. “Mr. Turnbow, what do we have that’s still functional?” The grim look on the man’s face told Styles it wasn’t good. “Sir, life support and auxiliary power are the only guarantees at the time. Primary propulsion is out, along with the jump drive. With main power gone, we’re left with point defense weapons only, but many of those are still off-line. Tactical and launch bay controls for the fighters are a mess, but I’ve assigned teams to work on them.” “What about sensors and communications?” Turnbow shook his head. “All long-range sensors and comms are down. We still have the short-range sensor array, but it’s not stable. Communications reports they have a lock on the nearest hyper beacon. The team believes they can get a message to Cygni, but they can’t guarantee the link for long.” “Alright,” Styles stated with a definitive nod. “Work with Communications and get a distress call to Cygni. Keep repeating until you get a response or we lose that link.” “Aye, sir,” Turnbow replied. “I’m on it.” Styles stopped his XO before he turned away. “Keep it short, and don’t give any details on our status. We don’t know who might pick it up. Report our position only as last verified. Our other escorts can pinpoint us from that.” The last thing Styles needed was a Cilik’ti warship to come calling. Even if there were friendlies now among the aliens, there were plenty of them who still wanted to kick Earth’s forces in the teeth for good measure. There was no point giving them a free pass to do so. If a Cilik’ti ship did pick up the signal, it would take them time to track them down. Time for help to arrive, or at least he hoped. Turnbow headed to the Communications Station on the far side of the bridge. The young officer quickly conveyed the message to the communications officer, and the first distress call went out a few seconds later. Styles sat in his chair and gently stroked the armrest. “Sorry, girl,” he whispered. “I don’t know what happened, but we’ll make it right.” He’d been the captain of the Cestus for nearly ten years, her first and only captain since she was commissioned. They’d been together through the war and countless missions. Now they just had to wait. “New contact!” The warning was firm and immediate from the sensors officer to Styles’s left. The announcement brought Styles to his feet in a flash. “Can you identify?” he asked, his heart already starting to race. The blond-haired young ensign at the Sensors Station continued to adjust settings on his terminal. “Negative, sir. I can’t get a definitive sensor image, but she’s close. Definitely within ten thousand meters.” “Keep on it and get me an ID on that ship!” Turnbow’s terminal beeped, and Styles leaned over to check the status message. The Cestus’s tactical systems had come back online.
  7. 7. Styles wheeled toward his tactical officer’s station. “Talk to me, Lieutenant. What’s our new friend up to out there?” Lieutenant Carlos Abandi was one of the most experienced tactical officers in the EDF Fleet, but the baffled look on his face didn’t give Styles any confidence. “Sir, I still can’t get a lock on it, or any decent reading at all. But whatever it is, it’s fast.” Abandi hastened his effort to gain new information on the contact. After several moments, it was clear he wasn’t having much success. “I still can’t get a reading on that vessel, sir. I’m only picking up a rough bearing when she moves. The sensors have stabilized, so it has to be a new form of countermeasures.” His terminal flashed a new warning. “She’s targeting us!” Styles opened up a shipwide comm channel. “All hands, we are under attack. General Quarters, man your battle stations. I repeat, all hands to battle stations.” Styles had barely finished his call to the crew when a vicious impact amidships jolted the command crew from their station posts. Without main power, there was no inertial stabilizer, and even minor course corrections would force crew members to adjust their footing. “Damage report!” Styles yelled. Turnbow staggered back to his own station and accessed his terminal. “Explosive impact on our port side. It could have been a projectile weapon. Armor breaches on decks five and six, but no containment breach.” Styles needed to fend off their attacker and fast. “Dammit, Abandi, get me a targeting solution on that ship!” There was no answer. Styles looked back at the Tactical Station behind them and could see the unconscious body of his tactical officer on the floor of the bridge. He froze for a moment, gripped in a web of anger and fear at the sight. With a quick burst of will, he broke free of his paralysis. He tapped Turnbow’s shoulder then pointed to Abandi’s station. “Go.” Turnbow bounded around his own terminal and reached the Tactical Station in seconds. Abandi’s body was at his feet and the man still wasn’t moving. Turnbow stepped over his crewmate and accessed the terminal. Styles could hear the warning chirp from the terminal as Turnbow enabled the tracking systems. “Captain, she’s coming around for another pass!” “Can you get a lock on her?” Styles watched Turnbow strive in desperation to acquire a targeting lock, but the masked signature continued to thwart his efforts. “Negative. Whatever countermeasures she’s using, our systems still can’t overcome them.” The XO entered a new sequence of commands into the terminal. “Sir, I’m going to have our point defense cannons fire a blanket spread when she closes. It won’t be very effective at range, but maybe we can drive her off.” “Do it,” Styles commanded, his mind still searching for other options, but there weren’t any unless he could get the ship moving. “It might buy us time.” “Aye, sir,” Turnbow replied, and point defense cannons on the starboard side of the Cestus opened fire. Another impact jolted the ship. A blast of intense light bathed the bridge, forcing Styles and the members of the command crew to cover their eyes for a few moments. The impact was
  8. 8. much more intense than the first. Sparks showered from one damaged panel and power flickered again on the bridge systems, but soon stabilized. From his chair, Styles could hear sounds of metal shearing away only a few decks below. “Mr. Turnbow!” “Another explosive hit, sir. Starboard side this time.” The Tactical Station terminal screen in front of Turnbow beeped with more information. “The blast looks to have been caused by a low-yield thermonuclear warhead. Early sensor readings indicate it could’ve been pidium- enhanced.” Styles was still trying to digest the new information when a warning klaxon sounded on the bridge. He knew what that meant and it wasn’t good. “I have a containment breach on deck four, section two, near the primary weapons array!” Turnbow called out. “Emergency bulkheads have deployed, but there were at least ten crew members in that section at last report.” His brow narrowed as he continued to check the status of the damaged decks. Another warning flashed, and he gasped. “Sir, I have radiation warnings on three decks now. The levels on deck four are in the danger zone.” Styles gritted his teeth in frustration. If he didn’t act now, his ship would soon be a floating graveyard. “Turnbow, take the safeties off the missiles in the forward and aft launchers. We might not be able to lock on, but those missiles will give her something to think about.” He scanned around the bridge. His crew was scared. He could sense the fear emanating all around them and, worst of all, he could feel it creeping in on him. He turned back toward the Tactical Station and his XO. “Direct whatever repair teams we have to the fighter bay and fix that launcher. We need those fighters.” Turnbow knew what his captain was asking. Taking away the repair teams from the damaged decks now would surely doom those still trapped in those areas. It was clear he didn’t like it, but he understood the order. Even one fighter could make a difference in the ship’s survival. Styles reopened his channel to Engineering. “Watkins! Can you get me propulsion? We’ve got to maneuver.” The static threatened to squelch Watkins’s voice over the comm channel. “Still working on it. I think I might be able reroute our auxiliary power from other nondefensive systems to get us moving, but that includes the graviton generator.” A massive burst of static made his next words unintelligible. Styles didn’t wait for his chief engineer to repeat them. “Make it happen, Watkins. Gravity will be the least of our problems if we just sit here and get pounded.” Styles closed the channel and secured himself into his seat. Once his emergency harness was fastened, he triggered the Zero-G alarm for the ship. He was out of tricks and he knew it. There wasn’t any choice now. His gamble would take away the ship’s communications and dampen life support. If it worked, he might get a fighting chance, but the odds were stacked against him. If it failed, he and his crew wouldn’t be much worse off than they were now, but they’d still be sitting ducks.

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