July's Story - Outset by J. M. R. Gaines
At the time of the Zetan incursion in 2235 Earth’s defenses were rudimentary. The corporations had mainly developed weapons to fight each other, while the vestigial planetary governments aimed their attack devices downward against terrestrial rivals instead of outward against invaders. Only a half-dozen vessels had been suitable to be fitted with the projectors the Thil delegation had brought when they came to alert humans about what they could expect from Zetans re-entering the Sol system. Better this token resistance than slavery and surrender. There was always hope that the mysterious Blynthians whom the Thil described as allies would appear to save the day.
The Thil – grim, taciturn creatures: even from the translators, their voices had a hissing, disquieting quality; closer to things that hadn’t breathed on Earth since before the Triassic. Still, they were at least shaped more or less like humans – they claimed the mysterious Blynthians had sent them to Earth for that reason.
Good God, what must the Blynthians themselves look like?
The Paramount joined a motley human squadron that deployed with three Thil battle cruisers just a month before the second wave of Zetan ships approached Earth’s system. Captain Seb Forestier tried to make the best of his slim chances in the looming battle.
“Li, have we arrived at the defense coordinates?”
The Exec looked grim. “Yes, sir. Just passed thirty thousand kilometers off Ganymede.”
“Weapons systems all functional?”
“Projector units and missiles all read Go. Do you think we’ll actually get a chance to use them? It feels … weird to just be waiting here for the Thil squadron to lure the Zetans into our little trap.”
“Best we can do. Hard enough getting trained to use the projectors without also having to learn the battle manoeuvres the Thil use. As it is, we’re essentially a masked battery poised for the battle to come to us.”
Despite constant efforts to appear imperturbable, Li’s face betrayed concern. “They say the Zetans are genetic tinkerers.”
Ever since the raid on Munich that had been obvious. According to survivors, they came in various forms, sizes, and configurations to abduct the engineers from the Siemens-Bayer Research Complex, wanting the best and the brightest to experiment on. Seb knew … had known some of those people. What had become of them now? Seb could think of nothing to say in response that was true, necessary and kind, so he pretended not to have heard Li’s remark. Sometimes it was best not to respond at all.
“Alert, sir!” the comm interrupted. “Thil c&c reports condition red. Targets heading toward weapons range.”
“Understood. Li, arm missiles and prepare to implement plan Delta on my command.”
As the still unseen Zetans approached, Paramount slid elliptically around Ganymede. The five other Earth ships arched on parallel courses until four Zetan targets, chased by the Thil cruisers, closed to the prearranged point.
Paramount followed plan Delta by changing the order of the line, like a pulling guard, to form a cluster with Absolute and Dauntless. They fired their missiles just before the Zetan barrage met them head on.
“Damage control report!” Forestier barked to the comm.
“Section four breached and sealed, captain,” Damage central responded. “Propulsion inactive.”
Damn! Adrift near Jupiter. “What about our weapons systems?”
“Round two missiles ready to go from waist stations. Projectors still 100%.”
That meant at least six hours. Not enough time to repair propulsion.
Forestier turned toward his Exec. “We may still be useful, but not for long. Order partial evac. All non essentials to the pods.”
Li hurried to send the order to the affected areas of the ship as her superior worked on a projector strategy with Tactical. On the scope, a Zetan ship that seemed unharmed by the missiles was swinging around to launch another attack.
“Captain, all crew request permission to stay on board.”
“What?” Forestier quickly overcame an instant of rage at their insubordination – a feeling that turned to admiration as he realized his crew were choosing to stay under his leadership till the end. And considering what the Zetans did to their captives. …
“All right, Li. So what do we do other than blast away with the projector units? Might as well try to board. How do we stand for rangers, other than casualties from Section Four?”
“Full complement for two limpets, sir.”
The limpet boarding modules looked like the animals they were named for, truncated cones with a telescoping bottom that could adjust to a variety of shapes to match target hulls. Each carried a detachment of sixteen rangers in combat suits to provide survival in various atmospheric conditions – a happy coincidence that would allow Paramount’s party to be effective in the Zetans’ alien collection of gases.
“Well, launch them ASAP. We’ll fire one projector volley at maximum range and then give them ninety seconds to attach and secure. If they’re not successfully aboard then, we fire at will. Inform Tactical.”
In scarcely a minute Paramount shuddered slightly as the limpets detached and accelerated toward the oncoming Zetan. There had been just enough time for the chaff to spread out to obscure their movement from the enemy. As the projector volley unleashed, its massive power made surprisingly little effect inside the Paramount. Forestier felt nothing until the Zetan response crackled through every electronic circuit on his ship, sparking and blowing panels all over the bridge.
But they were still alive.
His indicator showed environmental was nominal in all remaining sections. As he turned to the scope he saw why. The Zetan had diverted some weapons to engage the limpets. One had disappeared from the screen and as he feverishly searched for the other, he saw with a start that it had managed to attach to the enemy vessel.
Li turned anxiously. “Projectors ready, sir.”
“Hold our fire! Boarding status?”
It was Comm that replied, “Party aboard and engaging target crew. Some casualties. It’s a firefight, sir.”
Nothing was certain. Forestier swallowed and ordered.
“Prepare to fire projectors on my mark.”
The rangers knew when they left what they were risking. Their ninety seconds were almost up.
“Wait, sir,” Li shouted. “Boarding party reports multiple hull breaches and target envirosystems disabled. Zetans are cacking all around them and several pods have ejected.
Her enthusiasm and slang marked a rare but welcome change from her usual formality.
Thank God, thought the captain. Then: Instead of incinerating those rangers, we need to think of saving them. “Set scuttling charge and back to the limpet immediately!”
It seemed an age before the Zetan vessel exploded in a nuclear flash and the limpet thumped back onto Paramount’s hull.
The onboard crew welcomed the disembarking rangers with cheers as they emerged from decontamination, naked as jaybirds.
Seven of the team had survived the firefight, though the captain could not afford to rejoice and bask in their victory – this engagement was only part of a much bigger battle.
“Long range sensors! What’s going on out there?”
Comm quickly answered. “Mobile Zetan targets have left the eccliptic and are being engaged by the Thil. They’re corkscrewing all over the place, but it looks like the Thil have the upper hand. One Thil cruiser appears to have some major damage but is still in action. There are Zetan hulls scattered around and several debris fields. Some kind of craft is approaching rapidly from far outside the system. Doesn’t look either Thil or Zetan …”
Maybe this was one of the Blynthians. No wonder the Zetans were breaking off. The Thil had done a good job but even an entire fleet was no match for a Blynthian warship.
Forestier and Li exchanged a look of surprised relief. It seemed Earth would be spared further bombardment and there would be no further hostage-taking by the aliens.
The elation was short-lived, however.
“What about our ships?”
“Sorry to say, sir, we lost Absolute and Dawntreader. Our sister ship Paragon is coming to pick up evacuees or restore environmentals. EVA thirty-five minutes. Admiral Blake is gone and Commodore Surajee has assumed the flag.”
Seb turned to Li. “You have the bridge. I’m going down to medical to see the boarding party, then look at the seal on Section Four. Notify me when Paragon closes in.”
The Exec glanced back at her board. Nominal environment suddenly didn’t seem so bad. With the projectors powered down to half, they might not even need a full evac to the sister ship.
There were a couple of tugs standing off the asteroid belt. Li prepared to summon one and stopped to smile as she realized that humankind’s first space battle, even if it went down as a local skirmish within system, was over.
Seb continued to peer at the sensor screens. For only a second did he permit himself to wonder if among that ship debris out in the system were parts of any of his friends from Munich, or what was left of them.
James F. Gaines and John M. Gaines have been writing science fiction stories for several years as a father and son team under the collective name J. M. R. Gaines. This story takes place in the Forlani Saga universe and the action serves as a prelude to the Life Sentence and Spy Station novels. The Blynthians and Thil play important roles in the latter book. You can connect with J. M. R. Gaines via their blog here (gainesscifi.blogspot.com).