Shipmind Chapter 21
I jolted awake as the alarm sounded. No time to grab my uniform, I’d just have to go to the bridge in my shipsuit. Long practice and endless drills saw me already out in the hallway, clipping my helmet to my belt as I moved, when the announcement followed the alarm.
“Code delta! Code delta! All crew to combat stations. Keep right in the hallways, secure all hatches and volatile equipment. Captain to the bridge!”
A jolt came up through the deck as the fighter screen launched. Emperor damn it, they must be right on top of us. How had the machines found us?
“Commanding officer on deck!” Sublieutenant Pelling called out as I blew through the hatch.
“I have the deck,” I responded formally. “Report.”
“The machines just blew out of hyperspace. Looks like three full task groups, minus h-space screen.”
“Voice message in Galstandard, demanding we withdraw. Per your standing order, we sent no reply.”
Like hell my order. That one had come down from the Admiral. If I had my way, we’d have cut and run the second something we couldn’t handle showed up. And there was no way in the galaxy we could handle three task groups.
Marcus’ face popped up on my side display as I sunk into my chair. “Auxilliary control online, Captain. Is it as bad as it looks?”
“Yeah. It’s that bad.”
“Always knew I’d go out fighting the machines, but I always hoped I’d have a fighting chance.”
“We’re not dead yet, Marcus. Brody,” I called across the bridge to my flight operations chief, “tell ops they’re authorized to deploy the new stealth fighter drones. They might buy us the edge we need.”
“Aye, Captain. Second wave launching in three minutes.”
“And Pelling, get me the Admiral.”
A few tense moments passed as everyone attended to their orders. They were well-drilled, they knew what to do. We wouldn’t have been picked for this assignment if they didn’t.
“Commander Waters for you, Captain.” Pelling tossed the Admiral’s chief of staff’s image over to my console with a gesture.
“Captain Gold.” They nodded in formal greeting. “The Admiral is still incapacitated from the accident, and we’re still unable to hyper out.”
I’d feared as much. “Understood. I retain interim fleet command. We’re launching the new fighters here, tell the other escorts to do the same.”
“Captain, I remind you that the new fighters are still highly sensitive. Revealing their existence could have repercussions.”
“Waters, stow the party line for two seconds. We both know there’s a good chance the machines can see right through the stealth anyway, and they’ve already seen too much. If the second wave fails—”
“Second wave away!” Brody called out, as if on cue.
“If the new fighters don’t hold up, I’ll be opening my sealed orders.”
Waters nodded. It was something of an open secret among the senior officers what those sealed orders contained. “And you think the stealth fighters are our only chance to avoid that eventuality.”
My sensors watch called out that the other escorts were launching their own complement of stealth fighters.
The stealth fighters were a roll of the dice. True stealth in space was, of course, impossible, but we were using the best cheats our scientists knew to keep all of their emissions pointed away from the enemy fleet. Unfortunately, even with the best gravitic lenses and emission redirection we had, there was no way to stop a fighter drone occluding or gravity-lensing the stars behind it, and if you knew to look for them they were toast. I suspected they were toast anyway. Those AIs never missed a trick, and probably scanned for occlusion as a matter of course. They had the computational power to waste on it.
Sure enough, as soon as the light from their responses reached us, we could all see their fighter screen altering vector to intercept our second wave as well as the first. We were done.
“Marks, Waters, I’m opening my sealed orders.” Not that there was any doubt what they would say. “The fleet is to go to code theta at once.”
I had to hand it to Pelling. They didn’t even flinch. They just keyed their microphone and their voice rang out through the halls of the Hammerhead. “Code theta! Code theta! All hands to emergency lifepods. Destroy all classified materials and set failsafe devices. I say again, code theta, all hands to lifepods.”
“Marcus, keep Thiovelian there with you. I’m going to need you both. Everyone else, get going.”
On the screen, Commander Waters tossed me a formal salute. “Emperor protect, Captain.” Then their image vanished.
Subcommander Thiovelian took their place from their own seat in auxilliary control. I could see Marcus in the command chair behind them. “I think I know what this is about.”
I sighed, closed my eyes for a moment. I wouldn’t normally show this kind of weakness on the bridge, but the three of us had been through a lot together. There were no secrets. “I have opened my sealed orders. By the hand of the Emperor themself, in the event of the unavoidable discovery of Project Firewall, the Hammerhead under Captain Erin Gold is directed to enact the Doomsday Protocol. May the stars forgive us all.”
This was it. I was, here and now, delivering the Emperor’s declaration of war to the so-called Commonwealth, for all their machine overlords to see. A violation of the one single treaty we had always stuck to, of our own oldest laws. An act only the Emperor themself could order, and so they had.
It was all formal from here on out. “Commander Marks, do you concur that discovery of Project Firewall is now inevitable?”
“Captain Gold, I concur that discovery of Project Firewall is now inevitable, as stipulated in your orders.”
“Subcommander Thiovelian, please confirm that the hyperspace inversion device is in operable state.”
“Captain, I so confirm. The hyperspace inversion device is ready for operation.”
It had all happened so fast. How had we come to this? The machines had been here less than an hour!
“I am now entering into my log that I am authorizing the deployment of the Doomsday device. Set countdown for twenty minutes.” It wasn’t enough time. Damn whoever wrote the Protocol, it wasn’t enough time. Only a miracle would let any of our lifepods get clear before hyperspace collapsed. The machines’ slaves would have even less time, if their masters would let them evacuate at all. “Commander Marks, Subcommander Thiovelian, on my mark, insert your keys. Three, two, one, mark.”