The Epherium Chronicles: Echoes
By T.D. Wilson
Carina Press, Harlequin Ltd.
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
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
“Sporadic, sir,” she answered grimly. “Readings are strongest near the bridge and
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 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
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
“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
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
“We’ll follow the pod. We’ll be on the hull when you swing over to get them.”
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
“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
“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.
The leader of the group stepped forward and saluted the two officers from the
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
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
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
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.”