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The Epherium chronicles: Echoes Chapter 3


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Chapter 3 of The Epherium Chronicles: Echoes

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The Epherium chronicles: Echoes Chapter 3

  1. 1. The Epherium Chronicles: Echoes By T.D. Wilson Carina Press, Harlequin Ltd. Chapter 3 EDF Dreadnaught Armstrong Deep Space Route to Cygni Last Reported Position of the EDF Cestus Friday, February 21 Earth Year 2155 The Armstrong completed its jump and appeared less than twenty kilometers from the last reported position of the Cestus. The instant the huge ship’s jump field faded, her gunships released from their moorings, and two full squadrons of fighters burst from her launch bays. Still seated in his chair on the Command Deck next to Commander Sanchez, Hood fidgeted while he waited for the sensor feeds to display on his screen. “What do you have, Lieutenant?” he called out to Aldridge. “I have the Cestus, sir,” she answered. “I only have her. There are no hostiles in our sensor range.” The data displayed on the screens above the Command Station, but Hood’s and Sanchez’s attention was drawn to the Helm Station. Jillian Howard’s gasp had everyone looking now, but they soon realized why. She was staring out the main viewport at the Cestus, or what was left of her. Even at this distance, Hood witnessed the bright blue flames of plasma fires scattered along her aft section. The Cestus was moving, but not via her own propulsion. The fires and expulsion of atmosphere had put in her a slow, looping spin. A cloud trailed the cruiser—a thick cloud of gas, debris and the frozen bodies of the Cestus crew who’d been sucked out into space when their compartments had decompressed. Hood’s jaw went slack for a moment then he clenched his teeth. Sadness for the loss of life turned to anger. He looked around the Command Deck and could see the shock on everyone’s faces. “Back to your stations!” he ordered. The crew returned to their duties, and Hood reviewed the sensor feeds on the screen over the Command Station. The damage was extensive, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Greenish splotches covered several areas inside her superstructure. It was radiation and it was still spreading. “Aldridge, are there any life signs?” “Sporadic, sir,” she answered grimly. “Readings are strongest near the bridge and
  2. 2. Medical, but there’s a lot of interference. I can’t get you a solid count.” Hood reactivated the comm channel he’d put on hold with Major Arlen McGregor, who was near the Armstrong’s aft docking bay. “Major, I want you to organize three search-and- rescue teams reinforced with MACE units. I don’t expect hostiles on board the Cestus, but they’re the most shielded against radiation. Have them loaded up and ready to go in five. They’ll coordinate with Tactical once they’re on the move.” The Marine All-Terrain Combat Exo-suits, or MACEs, had proven their value several times on Cygni and in space, and he was certain McGregor’s people would need them to find any survivors. Hood smiled as McGregor acknowledged the order with his usual enthusiasm. It was inspiring, given the current circumstances. He’d already seen the fearless Marine prevail against horrible odds on the ground and he was glad to have the man’s stout and positive demeanor on board. He’d expected McGregor to still be coordinating the colony defense reconstruction after the battle with the Chi’tan, but McGregor had chosen to come on board for the meeting with the N’lan. He didn’t want to meet them. The burly Marine didn’t trust any Cilik’ti, potential ally or not. Hood had seen McGregor outside the docking bay, fully armored and prepared to defend the ship if even the slightest scuffle broke out. He was certain McGregor wouldn’t have started anything—well, moderately certain. If a fight had erupted, he was confident McGregor would have finished it and made it look like the Cilik’ti had started it. Hood turned to Sanchez. The mixed look of grief and shock in his XO’s eyes made him pause. Deep inside, he understood how Sanchez felt, and there was little doubt in Hood’s mind that he’d feel the same way if it was his former ship, the Orion, out there. Hood remembered the nightmarish visions that plagued him of former crewmates who’d died. Knowing he couldn’t help them often made it harder. He needed to get Sanchez’s mind back on the task at hand. “Commander, I want you to coordinate with Major McGregor. Show them key areas to start their search.” Sanchez didn’t react at first, but his captain’s steadfast words finally broke through. “Yeah…I mean, aye, sir,” he strained in reply. Hood watched his XO spin away from him, only to turn back at his next step. “Sir. Requesting permission to lead one of the search-and-rescue teams.” There was no hesitation in Hood’s reply. “Denied.” “Sir?” Sanchez response was more of a respectful challenge than a question. “You’re too close to this, Raf, and you haven’t fully recovered from your injuries,” Hood said, trying to support his junior officer. “Besides, I need you here to coordinate the search with McGregor and Aldridge.” The bruises still on Sanchez’s face had faded since the near fatal encounter he and Lieutenant Maya Greywalker had shared with the criminal, Frank Descherra, after the battle on Cygni. The beating he’d taken at Descherra’s hand had landed him in Medical for almost two weeks. It had been a long road back. Hood was sure Sanchez’s physical pain had subsided, but the emotional trauma would take time.
  3. 3. Sanchez stiffened. “Respectfully, sir, I disagree. I’ve been cleared for full duty by Dr. Patton.” He pointed to the viewport and listing Cestus, still slowly spinning. “Sir, despite our cruisers’ design similarities, many in the fleet have undergone upgrade after upgrade. They all have unique areas and special systems. I know every inch of that ship. I know Captain Styles’s protocols and I know her crew.” Sanchez glanced over at Aldridge at her station. “Lieutenant Aldridge and Major McGregor can sync on me from the cruiser. Once there, I can provide better firsthand intel of what’s happening and where to find survivors that camera feeds from our teams just can’t.” Hood considered Sanchez’s words. He didn’t like the idea of sending the man out there. The situation aboard the Cestus was bad enough, but if whatever had attacked her came back, his team would be exposed. It was a tough decision, and he went with his gut. “Alright, Commander. Take the lead on team one and head to the docking hatch closest to the bridge. Find who you can and see if you can tap into the Cestus’s systems. I want to know what happened here, but if the area isn’t stable, I want your people out of there. No crazy hero stuff, just get out.” Hood’s eyes met Sanchez’s and his voice was stern. “That’s an order, Commander.” Sanchez smiled at Hood and acknowledged, but Hood doubted he would follow it. His XO had garnered a knack for putting himself in the thick of things. Hood hoped it wasn’t going to catch up with him. His gaze followed Sanchez as he headed to the Command Deck exit. Just before Sanchez reached the elevator lift, Hood called out to him. “Raf, guard yourself. You may not like what you find.” Sanchez nodded solemnly then headed into the waiting lift car. The first of the shuttles from the Armstrong approached the Cestus’s dorsal docking hatch just forward of the bridge. Seated up front next to one of the shuttle’s small viewports, Sanchez fidgeted in his specially lined environment suit. Even from his vantage point he could see the damage to his former ship. It was up close now…and personal. Even with the debris from the Cestus’s wounds, the shuttle had a clean approach to the docking port. The pilots set down the shuttle securely on the port, while the other two shuttles continued on toward their entry points farther aft. Sanchez felt the shuttle’s ventral docking port seal with the one on the Cestus and moved to open the hatch. Standing next to the hatch clad in his MACE powered armor suit was Sergeant Alex Toronaga. Toronaga had proved himself to Sanchez during the battle on Cygni. He was glad the Marine was coming along. Toronaga’s armor looked more like a menacing mechanical grizzly bear, and Sanchez couldn’t even see the pilot inside. Sanchez smiled at the MACE and tapped it hard on its shoulder. “You ready to go, Sergeant?” Toronaga’s voice came over the MACE’s intercom. “Yes, sir! Show us the way.” Sanchez’s sweaty hands felt strange inside his environment suit. With a tight grip
  4. 4. on the handle, he opened the hatch below him then reached down to the exposed hull of the Cestus on the other side. A quick press of the exterior access panel revealed the hatch controls, and his gloved fingers keyed in the code on the touch pad to open the door. The control panel flashed red and refused to open the door. He had typed in the wrong code and had to start over. You’re too anxious! Get ahold of yourself. After another try, the control panel flashed green and the hatch popped inward a few centimeters. Smoke filtered up into the shuttle, and Toronaga’s MACE edged in closer, forcing him to step back out of the way. “It’s open. Go, go, go!” Toronaga reached down and with one push opened the hatch door wide. The smoke was light and—even from his vantage point—Sanchez could see the entry point into the Cestus was clear. In a single motion, Toronaga adeptly angled his MACE into the narrow hatch and dropped to the floor of the deck below. His two teammates in their MACE gear followed him. Thirty seconds later, Toronaga’s voice came over the comms. “Corridor access to the bridge is clear, Commander. Very little radiation here. It’s safe to bring in your people.” “Roger that, Sergeant.” Sanchez lowered the ladder from the shuttle into the Cestus and descended. He steadied the ladder for the rest of his people to enter the ship and moved to Toronaga at the end of the corridor once the last of his team made it down safely. “Any life signs?” Toronaga pointed his handheld scanner toward the access door to the bridge. “Nothing that way, sir, but I’ve got several just aft of here. Once we check the bridge, my men and I will move that way.” Sanchez nodded and allowed Toronaga to open the access door to the Cestus’s bridge. The door opened halfway, and Toronaga had to use his powered armor to finish the job. Sanchez peered inside and cringed. The bridge was a wreck. Pieces of terminals and equipment littered the room. Sanchez checked his atmosphere sensor on his suit. The oxygen levels were way down, and he soon found out why. The main viewport from the bridge was replaced with an emergency bulkhead. The hull breach of that size would have ejected the atmosphere and anyone inside the bridge who wasn’t secured. Sanchez moved farther into the room and checked each station. There weren’t any bodies. He walked over to the captain’s station. Styles’s chair lay broken on the floor, its restraints shredded. He tapped the terminal to the station, and it came to life. Sanchez turned back to Toronaga, who was still waiting outside. “Sergeant, make your way aft and take a few of my people with you. I’m going to stay and access the ship’s systems. I’ll find what’s still working and direct you from here.” “Roger.” Toronaga wheeled and headed down the corridor to the next access way. Sanchez returned his attention to the terminal and pulled up the cross section images of the Cestus. The poor lighting on the bridge made it difficult to see, and the direct lights of his suit produced annoying reflections on the screen. It was too quiet, except for the hissing of a ruptured coolant pipe above. He rotated the terminal and interfaced his scanner to the data port on the side. His team’s beacons now appeared on the sectional view. He could see the other teams entering the ship and moving through damaged areas. Sanchez keyed another set of
  5. 5. commands, and the tracker beacons of the Cestus’s crew appeared. Only a few of the crews’ trackers registered life signs, but there was a clustered group close to Toronaga. He verified the count and opened a channel on his suit’s comm band. “Sergeant, I have at least eight confirmed life readings ten meters from your position. They look to be in one of the life pods, but it’s still attached to the ship.” “On it, sir!” Toronaga exclaimed as he increased his pace. Sanchez used the terminal to tap into Toronaga’s external vid camera on his armor. His MACE reached the life pod access door first, but many of the metal panels of the deck had been dislodged throughout this section of the hall. Minding the damaged panels, Toronaga maneuvered his MACE closer and looked into the viewport at the pod. Several crew members were inside, each in a sealed environmental suit. The people inside the pod noticed the MACE on the other side and started to wave frantically in Toronaga’s direction. Toronaga examined the control panel at the side of the access door. The display flashed red and highlighted two locations on the lower edges of the life pod. “Commander, the life pod’s couplings are damaged. They’re still holding the pod inside the ship.” Another voice came over the comm channel. “Commander, this is Hood. That radiation cloud is moving closer to your location. Enable the link and get your people out of there now.” One of Sanchez’s team opened a box and removed a remote transmitter. Sanchez accepted the interface cable from his teammate and plugged into the terminal. “Connection complete, Captain. You should be able to access the Cestus’s data banks.” “Confirmed, Raf,” Hood replied. “Now get your team out of there. That’s an order.” “Aye, sir,” Sanchez acknowledged with a halfhearted tone. He ordered the rest of his team back to the shuttle and removed his scanner from the terminal. “Sergeant, how are you coming with that life pod? We’ve got to move.” “Negative on the pod, sir. The controls are unresponsive.” Sanchez heard the alarm from Toronaga’s suit over the comms and his own heart rate increased. The radiation levels were increasing fast. The MACE suits wouldn’t be able to protect them much longer. “Get out, Sergeant. I’ll try to get it released from here.” “No time, sir. Get back to the shuttle. We’re going to blast the couplings,” Toronaga said as he readied his weapon. “You need to be on the shuttle when we blow the door.” Sanchez heeded Toronaga’s warning, raced out the door and down the corridor toward the ladder to the shuttle. The last of his team was already ascending. He started up the first rungs and paused. “Sergeant, I’m almost on the shuttle. How are you going to get out?” “We’ll follow the pod. We’ll be on the hull when you swing over to get them.”
  6. 6. Sanchez climbed the rest of the way into the shuttle and secured both hatch doors. Inside, he accessed Toronaga’s camera feed on one of the shuttle’s terminals. “We’re clear, Sergeant. You’d better secure yourselves. Without the door, the atmosphere exhaust when that pod is released is going to toss your team into that debris field.” Toronaga pointed to his legs, and each of his team activated their suit’s magnetic boots. Sanchez noticed the floor beneath them. “Those deck plates aren’t secure. If they break free, you’ll go right with them.” The camera focused on Toronaga’s MACE unit’s left arm. “Negative, sir, we got it covered.” Large metal claws sprang forth on Toronaga’s armored hand and he drove them deep into the bulkhead wall. His team did the same. “See ya topside, Commander.” Toronaga chuckled and opened fire with his MACE’s rifle on the access door. Hood strode into the Armstrong’s med bay and right past the triage nurse still seated at her station. He managed a smile but didn’t stop. He didn’t like doctors, but nurses were devious and best to be avoided—especially Dr. Patton’s triage nurse. Inside the treatment center, Hood found his XO half-dressed and talking to a dark- skinned man wearing a fitted white medical jacket. He nodded to both men. “Raf, is everything okay?” “Fine, sir,” Sanchez said while he pulled on his shirt. “Just a routine decontamination. We didn’t have any exposure. The Marines have already run through the protocol and gone.” Hood looked over at the decontamination chamber, still occupied at the far side of the room. “What about the survivors? Who are they?” “Members of the bridge crew. The Cestus’s new XO is one of them, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to them yet.” Hood hadn’t seen the full list of survivors, but he needed to talk to Styles. Where is he? He turned toward the other gentleman. “How long do they have left, Doctor?” Dr. Derik Patton, the Armstrong’s chief medical officer, added information into his data pad and checked another set of readings on the terminal screen closest to him. “They should be out in a minute, Captain. Their suits weren’t lined to protect them from radiation. The levels in that part of the ship weren’t lethal, but I’ll have to keep a couple of them in med bay for extended treatment.” “Good, I want to debrief them immediately. Can we use your office?” “Certainly.” The Australian doctor led both men to his office and showed them inside. “I’ll bring them right in.” Hood and Sanchez didn’t have to wait long. Dr. Patton escorted eight people, clad in gray robes, to the small office. Despite the number of people, it wasn’t cramped. Several of them smiled when they recognized Commander Sanchez. Hood’s eyes narrowed. Styles wasn’t with them. The images of the bodies floating in space outside the Cestus clouded his mind. Styles was alive. He had to be.
  7. 7. The leader of the group stepped forward and saluted the two officers from the Armstrong. Hood and Sanchez both returned it. “I’m Captain James Hood of the Armstrong, and as many of you have guessed, this is my XO, Commander Raf Sanchez.” Hood looked at the expectant faces before him. “Who am I addressing?” “Sir, I’m Lieutenant Commander Isaac Turnbow, XO of the Cestus. I want to thank you for coming to get us. My crewmates and I are all who remain of the bridge crew.” Anguish gripped Hood’s heart. “Where’s Captain Styles?” Turnbow shook his head. “We don’t know, sir. We were in that life pod for so long.” Hood noticed the look of despair on their faces. Sanchez must have too, and he challenged them. “Why wasn’t he with you?” “Sir, whatever hit us was tearing the ship up fast,” Turnbow explained, defending his crewmates. “Captain Styles ordered all hands to evacuate. Just after he gave the order, the bridge was hit, and we lost atmosphere for a few moments. Those of us still alive made it to the environmental suit locker just outside the bridge. Three of them were damaged, and we ended up one short.” A young, dark-haired officer stepped up beside Turnbow. His face showed signs of radiation burns, but his voice was still full of zeal. “Commander Sanchez, Captain Styles ordered us into the suits then into the life pod. He told us he was headed to the fighter bay. Maybe he got out that way?” Sanchez threw Hood a concerned look. “Sir, the fastest path to that bay went right through one of the worst radiation zones on the ship. The only safe route had a major hull breach when we arrived.” Hood contemplated Sanchez’s words. If anyone could have survived, it was Styles. Unfortunately for Hood, his old friend’s safety was secondary. He returned his attention to the Cestus’s XO. “Mr. Turnbow, when we received your distress call, I figured it was jump failure, but what attacked you?” Turnbow recalled the entire encounter for Hood and Sanchez, with a few of the bridge crew filling in the gaps. After he finished, Hood escorted the group out of the office and released the ones who required more treatment back to Dr. Patton’s care. He stopped the Cestus’s XO at the door. “Don’t be hard on yourself, son,” he said with a supportive tone. “You and Captain Styles did everything you could.” “Thank you, sir. How many of the crew did you manage to rescue?” “Forty-three at last count. Repair crews are on board her now. We should have the radiation and plasma fires under control soon. They’ll do another sweep after that.” Turnbow’s eyes were still bloodshot from the decontamination process, but they were full of hope. “Can they save her?” “She’s taken a lot structural damage. I’ve been informed that the space-fold drive
  8. 8. is a wreck, but her reactor is salvageable,” Hood assured him. “The repair teams will know more once they put in a temporary drive and jump her to Cygni.” Relief washed over Turnbow’s face. “Thank you, Captain. She means a lot to us.” Hood tapped the younger officer on the shoulder. “I know, son. Dismissed.” Hood watched Turnbow join the other Cestus crew members who were still reminiscing with Sanchez. He motioned for Sanchez to join him and both walked out of the med bay. “Is the download from the Cestus complete?” “It should be close. Before I went into decontamination, Lieutenant Wells mentioned it would be another fifteen minutes.” “Good. I had Lieutenant Aldridge begin an analysis of the damage sustained and the debris field. If it’s the Cilik’ti, that’s one thing, but if our friends from the asteroid field are back, they’ve just upped their game.”