“Are we sure that’s not some glitch?” her words as she stepped onto the bridge deck were sharp, but her Flag Captain (who I’m pretty sure was Kyle Feldman at this point) was already looking back at her and shaking his head.
“I don’t see how. It’s all passive readings… Warlock and Kodiak are confirming,” he said evenly, and Marlene nodded, stepping quickly forward to the vidscreens on the forward wall of her bridge.
Those screens were showing something that she definitely wished was a glitch. She counted twice to be sure, but the computer was indeed showing twenty-five individual ship signatures… some of them very big.
“Well, I think we’ve figured out what that DE was doing sniffing our heels,” Marlene turned back to her Flag Captain. “Still no comms with Earth?”
He shook his head and she frowned, looking back to the screen, “I would’ve expected John to have done something about the connection by now… we’ll have to carry the news ourselves.”
“Yes ma’am, but they’re making 186 kps by the look of things. We may not be able to get ahead of them.”
Marlene frowned and turned to the Sensors and Communications Officer, “They’re going that fast this close to the sun?”
The Lieutenant Commander nodded in reply, and Marlene’s brow climbed in surprise and she crossed her arms. With that sort of speed, her squadron might indeed not be able to get ahead of them. She half wondered if she shouldn’t have sent warning about the dead comms and the strange DE straight from Venus to Earth, instead of waiting out here to find out more.
But then again, as she rightly concluded, if she hadn’t been out there, no one would have known for certain that a real Martian fleet was inbound.
“Well, we can try to slow them down,” she started thinking out loud. “See if we can give them a reason to be nervous…”
Her Flag Captain cocked an eyebrow, “Ma’am?”
Sure, Marlene had a great reputation for getting into tough scrapes and beating up on foes of the Empire… but usually those foes were Venusian pirates, not a formation of twenty-five ships.
“We make them think that Earth knows they’re coming,” she looked from her Flag Captain to the screen. “We have to get in close anyway, I want lidar pings on each one of these signatures… and I want to make sure they really are Martians.”
That last point was, in fact, one that couldn’t be overlooked. They’d come out here looking for a fishy Martian plot, and so they assumed this long column of ships emitting copious amounts of radiation was in fact from the Imperium. It remained to be confirmed, however, that these were indeed Martian ships.
“So we go in close for a look,” Marlene uncrossed her arms and turned back. “Perhaps we ask them what they’re up to out here. And then we try to slow them down.”
Her Flag Captain opened his mouth, then closed it. The Sorceress had spoken, her will would be done… so he turned to his XO, “Move us into realtime range, keep a close eye on them. And bring us to battle stations. Tell Clever to get ready to run for Earth with the news if this goes south.”
The four ships of her formation turned towards the approaching column of Martian ships.
It didn’t take much time to close the range – within four minutes, the Martians clearly had Sorceress and its cohorts on their scopes, and their column had slowed and was configuring itself into a line abreast for a fight.
“Realtime range?” Marlene tapped her foot as she watched the deployment on main screen, and after a quick pause the Sensors and Communications Officer replied.
“About forty seconds. Weapons range in a eighty seconds.”
She nodded. That was fine.
Her head, she told me much later, was at this point spinning. Don’t get me wrong: the figure you see in all the movies about this – the stoic ‘sorceress’ standing with folded arms on her bridge, lock-jawed and staring down a fleet six times her number – is accurate enough. She looked calm, cool and collected, much as I did when this sort of thing happened.
But secretly she was starting to hear the little voice that said, “You’re insane.”
You probably thought the same thing when you first heard about this incident – I sure did… but then I think I’m insane a lot of the time. Anyway, as the range closed she was beginning to wonder just how she was going to handle this.
There was a good chance that the Martians would just start shooting as soon as they could, and her four ships would have to be very lucky to live through that. But perhaps she could play this another way. Courtesy was a useful tool in those days, and it might just give her an opening.
Or she’d be killed.
Battlelink had been established between the ships of her force, so as these thoughts crossed her mind she looked between the faces of her Captains on Sorceress’ bridge screens, “Everyone stand by to reverse drives in… sixty seconds. And ready your torpedoes.”
Torpedoes, remember, weren’t supposed to be particularly useful mobile weapons, and Marlene hadn’t heard about Kris, Karen and me using them at Asteroid Theta, so this was a definite out-of-the-box idea for her… just the sort of thing she needed facing odds like these.
The three Captains and Commanders on the small screens nodded and began giving orders, and behind her Marlene heard her Flag Captain repeating the same directives to his officers. Marlene took a deep breath, looked down for a second, and tapped her foot.
“Twenty seconds to comm range.”
She nodded, glancing back at the Lieutenant Commander, “Get me their commanding officer on screen five when you can.”
Nodding, the Sensors and Communications Officer moved between a couple of technicians around her, pointing and saying technical things appropriate for the moment.
It was a long twenty seconds of waiting. Marlene stood stoically as the time passed, her eyes fixing on screen five as it switched from a secondary sensor display to a loading screen, and then a buffering screen.
“Standing by to reverse drives,” the Lieutenant Commander at Helm and Navigation reported as the buffering bar hit forty percent.
Timing was going to be crucial to make this work – Marlene couldn’t get carried away…
“Alright,” she said to the Captains and Commanders on Battlelink, getting her last orders in as the buffer on screen five hit eighty percent, “Fire torpedoes just before you reverse drives on that mark… but be ready to remotely disarm them if this turns out to be something innocent.”
“You think that’s likely, ma’am?” Jake Lee, Kodiak’s skipper, asked with eyebrows up.
Marlene smiled, “No, this is going to be a mess.”
The buffer pushed through ninety, and then a hundred, and then the screen went black and then popped back to life to reveal a Martian officer – an Admiral by the look of him – with five round tabs on his rather overbearing collar.
“Good day, Admiral,” Marlene’s tone was polite, but loaded with an undercurrent of menace, “I’m Rear Admiral Marlene Stoll, Defense Command Venus Station. I must say, I’m rather surprised to see you out here.”
“Admiral Stoll, your reputation precedes you. I am Grand Fleet Admiral Garvey, of the Imperium Solar Navy. I must say, I wasn’t expecting to see you out here either.”
A smile formed on Marlene’s face, “I expect you weren’t. So, how about you tell me what you’re up to?”
“Reversing course… now…” the Lieutenant Commander at Helm and Navigation whispered loudly as Marlene’s words finished off, the twenty seconds having elapsed already. Fair enough.
“Torpedoes launching,” Sorceress’ XO, standing back at the ops consoles, reported in an equally quiet tone. Usually the microphones associated with comm screens didn’t pick up whispering – it was a convenient feature designed to allow for situations like this one, where the CO needed to hear what was going on in her ship, but didn’t want that broadcast to whoever she was speaking to.
Too convenient a feature, you ask? Hey, by this time we’d been using that handy ability to mess with pirates for about a decade, we knew what we were doing. Marlene certainly did.
And as his sensors detected the reverse in thrust from the Earth ships, Grand Admiral Garvey looked away from the screen for a moment, “Oh my dear Admiral Stoll, wouldn’t you prefer to come in closer?”
Marlene’s smile widened a little, “I’ll consider it. Just tell me, will you be asking me to surrender if I do?”
The Martian met her smile and shrugged, “Well, nominally I would have ordered you to be destroyed, but since you’ve been so very courteous, I’d gladly accept a surrender.”
Great, this wasn’t just a misunderstanding then. It was definitely war. But at least the Martian was being courteous…
“Ah, so this is war then, is it? Albeit undeclared?” Marlene unfolded her arms and stepped towards the screen, and the Martian Admiral nodded.
“It is, and don’t think you can change your Empire’s fate my dear Admiral Stoll, the Belt has already been taken by now, and no one can communicate with Earth thanks to our interdiction. Best you surrender now.”
Marlene’s smile faded – but not in the ‘shocked disbelief’ style of fading that his Grandness the fool Garvey had wanted. Her eyes were abruptly sharp lasers boring into him, “Really? Think we haven’t been waiting for this? I’m just your warmup, we’ll see how you like it when you get to Earth.”
“Yes, we will,” the Martian’s smile faded in kind. “And, forgive the cliché, but you won’t be there to see it…”
“Turn us around and boost at full speed, please,” Marlene gave the orders without removing her eyes from the screen.
“We can run you down at will. You’re better off surrendering, my dear.”
Marlene’s eyes narrowed, “I’m not your dear. Time to ballistic range, Commander?”
“Three seconds, ma’am. Drives are just firing up now.”
I should explain what this means, as it was understood by Marlene and her officers without being explicitly said. Remember how we laid our torpedoes like invisible ballistic mines at Theta? Marlene’s ships did the same thing, except her two battleships had two tubes each, in addition to Kodiak’s one.
So with the Martians rapidly advancing, the dormant torpedoes Marlene had ordered launched just before Garvey got on the comm had drifted forward undetected. As such, while their distinguished Lord Admiral had been trying to intimidate Marlene, the warheads had gotten awfully close to his ships, and now the torpedoes’ drives were firing up.
It all happened rather quickly, really; the plumes of the five torpedo drives appeared on the scope, and the Martian Admiral frowned and looked away.
“Kill the link,” Marlene turned from the screen. “All ships break for Earth, maximum velocity. Actually, Kelly, bring Warlock back to Venus, we can’t leave our station without capital ships with this going on… Jake, take Kodiak back too. The Home Fleet will be able to handle this. You two watch out for Martians poking at my base.”
The Captains of the respective ships – Kelly Monahan of Warlock and Jake Lee of Kodiak – nodded over the Battlelink.
“They’re starting counter-fire against the torpedoes,” Marlene’s Flag Captain nodded at the screen, and she frowned and turned back.
Martian EM Cannons began spraying their bolts at the five torpedoes as the weapons accelerated towards the long line of warships with a combined approach speed of over 300 kps. To the Imperium gunners’ credit, three of the torpedoes were shot down by this sudden onslaught of counter-fire, but two of the big warheads slammed in.
One battleship took both hits – hard, by the look of it. The first warhead blew its upper engine pylon off entirely. The engine pod at the end of that pylon, its thrusters still firing irregularly, spun away from its ship, and then slammed into a nearby destroyer before the smaller ship could get out of the way.
The second warhead rammed the ‘tail’ of the Martian ship – that (ridiculous, as far as I’m concerned) section of hull that extends out behind the drive pylons on a Martian ship. Up until then, and still today, I’d always told people who said our own ships should have ‘tails’ that the things were terrible liabilities. This shot proved it. The explosion tore the tail off, and sent such a surge through the powergrid that the battleship burst like a balloon.
Two ships taken out, not so bad.
Of course, the surprise that had allowed Marlene to nail those two Martians was lost, so she wouldn’t be able to pull this again, but for now her job was done.
“They’re slowing down, ma’am. Looks like they’re getting ready to deploy search and rescue, and they’re forming up to receive fire.”
Marlene nodded, “Excellent. That’ll slow them down a bit, so let’s get a move on.”
The Captains and Commander on Sorceress’ Battlelink nodded, and then Marlene turned to her Flag Captain, “Let’s get to Earth.”
Sorceress and Clever headed for Earth, with Warlock and Kodiak splitting off to make their way back to Venus shortly after they got out of the sensor range of the Martians.
Some have asked me why Marlene herself came back to Earth, instead of returning to her station as regs might normally have dictated. Well, I think the reasons for her decision are pretty obvious… but then, I also happened to be heading back to Earth myself at the time, so I may well be biased.
But look at it this way: a fleet of twenty-three ships was heading for the homeworld. As a frontier Admiral (or Commodore), your orders are to look after your station, sure, but ultimately you still have to protect the heart of the Empire. And with no communications ships left out there, and with no immediately clear threats to your station, it just seems… well… right, to take the initiative and head to Earth yourself.
Especially when you don’t know what the hell else is going on out there.
You can second guess our respective choices with 20-20 hindsight all you like… though I’m not sure why you would. Bottom line is we wanted to go home to make sure Earth was ready.
And go figure, Earth wasn’t even close to ready.