Fiction Contest Week

By Lieutenant Daniel Lee

            The harshly-lit wardroom stood nearly barren. It was hardly larger than a median-income living room and was mostly occupied by a long, rectangular table bolted to the deck and covered in a synthetic polymer mat. Empty chairs surrounded the table, affixed with spring swivels that kept them secure while allowing diners to sit and stand without interrupting the meals of those around them. A few shelves lined the wall—all securely bolted to nearby surfaces, of course—which contained a multitude of souvenirs and naval history books that hadn’t felt the touch of a human hand in years. One empty section of false bulkhead had a crest painted onto it. It was an unimaginative crest, one that probably shared many attributes with many others: a trident, a trio of stars, and a lion backed by a shield with the words “Liberty and Deliverance” written on a curling ribbon. Above the crest was “DGF-335,” and below it, in large font, “UNS ENDURING VALIANCE.”

            It was upon this crest that Sublieutenant Mark Lionel blankly stared as his mug slowly filled with the strongly aromatic black liquid that fueled sailors of the Union Navy. As an O-2, he didn’t know much, but he at least knew that the crest was designed by people who had run out of ideas after the 121st ship in class. His cynical thoughts were sharply interrupted by an intense burning sensation on his fingers as his mug overran. Although his vacuum-rated utility suit covered his hands, he still felt the intense heat from the liquid.

            A stream of curses escaped him as he put the mug down on the wardroom table and grabbed some napkins from a wall dispenser. Not a great start to the day, he thought as he mopped up what he could. Once he got most of it, he tossed the spent napkins into the vacuum tube for pulpable trash and downed his coffee as quickly as possible. Once the last drop passed his lips, he dropped the mug off in the scullery, grabbed his watch cover, and headed out.

            He maneuvered through the claustrophobic passageways with a vague familiarity. He had been on the same class of ship for his first tour, though it was of an older configuration. After dodging a number of electrical junction boxes and fire extinguishers along his path, he opened the final quick-access airtight door into control.

            “Control” was the general term assigned to the combined primary navigational and operational centers of the ship. The room was large, occupying a hefty portion of the center of the ship, and stood two decks high. The lower deck was the combat information center, or CIC, which served as the tactical heart of the ship, while the platform suspended over it was the bridge. The whole room was dimly lit by blue lights, giving everything an ethereal glow. Mark made sure his cover was on straight, located the Operations and Tactics Watch Officer, and gave him a quick and sloppy salute.

            “Permission to enter control?” he asked.

            The 32-year old lieutenant commander didn’t even bother taking his eyes off his tacscreen. “Enter,” he grumbled.

            Mark quickly clambered into the room and shut the door behind him. Looking across the vast field of holographic displays, control consoles, electrical equipment, and sleepy watchstanders, he located the ladderwell going up to the bridge. He made his way there, only waking up one operations specialist in the process, and climbed up onto the bridge.

            As soon as he stepped onto the platform, he felt as though he was transported into another realm. A large holographic dome enclosed the bridge and extended to just below the platform, blocking most of CIC from view. The dome was linked to an external network of cameras, giving the bridge a nearly uninterrupted hemispherical view of the vast starfield surrounding the vessel. It was almost as if he was standing outside in the cold vacuum of space despite being buried behind dozens of centimeters of armor within the heart of the ship.

            Amongst the vast starfield, there was a bright spot that stuck out. It was at this spot that the Deck Watch Officer, Lieutenant Hazel Arroyo-Erikson, focused her attention. She was a striking woman whose brown complexion was contrasted by a head of bright platinum hair that she swore was natural. With her mixed ancestry, Mark figured that might be true. Also, slightly to his chagrin, she stood a few centimeters taller than him.

            “Hey,” Mark spoke out as he approached.

            Hazel whipped her head around to face him, her short ponytail slapping her on the side of her face as she did so. She spat out a few hairs from the corners of her mouth before addressing him. “You’re late,” she scolded.

            “It’s a U/I watch for a requal. You give a shit?” he responded.

Hazel rolled her eyes and turned back to the console. “Tell that to the Hawk,” she muttered.

After coming to the conclusion that Hazel, in fact, did not give a shit, he announced to the watchstanders: “Attention in the bridge! This is Sublieutenant Lionel. I have the deck as under instruct.” A murmur of half-hearted acknowledgements came back.

            Now that his five-hour prison sentence on the bridge had begun, he found a nice, comfy console to lean on. The Valiance was doing what it had been doing for the past month: steaming with fellow destroyer UNS BRILLIANCE OUTSTANDING to provide advance screening for the carrier group. Currently they were investigating a thermal irregularity on a comet orbiting a black hole. It was standard operating procedure to investigate every anomaly within a three-lightyear radius of the carrier, and the admiral would be damned if a Union ship wasn’t going to follow SOP.

            It was at the black hole that Hazel directed her attention. The gravitational sinkhole was feasting on a red giant, and at the current distance the resulting accretion disc outshone all other stars in the sky. The massive amounts of ionizing radiation it spat out didn’t do sensors any favors either. As Hazel worked on a radar repeater, Mark leaned towards the conn, Ensign Tim Sietre, and murmured, “What’s she up to?”

            Tim, a bright-eyed athletic young man whose pearly teeth sharply stood out from his dark skin, chuckled. “I think she’s trying to clear up radar and lidar. I keep telling her environmentals ain’t having it, but she ain’t hearing it.”

            “Heh. Academy kids,” Mark snorted. “I used to date one on my last ship. Sometimes she would have her head so far up—” As he spoke, he spotted a short but authoritative middle-aged woman climb up the ladderwell onto the bridge. She had a gaunt face with a long, beak-like nose under a pair of sharp, ice-blue eyes. Some might compare her look to that of a hawk searching for prey. “Captain on the bridge!” Mark sharply proclaimed.

            Commander Victoria Hawkins took a seat at the captain’s chair near the center of the bridge and took a sip of what was probably unsweetened black coffee from her enclosed thermal mug. She looked up at Hazel as she approached and spared a cursory glance at Mark, who tailed close behind. “Give me an update, DWO,” she ordered Hazel in the gravelly voice of a woman who had smoked one too many cigarettes.

            “We’re about 10 minutes out from the comet, ma’am,” Hazel reported. She stated her intentions of matching velocity with the comet 1,000 kilometers from the surface.

            “Very well, Lieutenant. Carry on.” Hawkins leaned back and started browsing through holographic readouts of ship’s systems with her chair console. Sensing that his presence was no longer required, Mark returned to his duties.

            Within a few minutes, the Valiance and Brilliance cut their compression drives and slowed to match velocity with the comet as planned. Valiance launched its embarked gunboat, a G/A-17D Albatross, to aid in scouting around the comet.

            As Mark observed the ghostly plumes of melting water ice swirl off the comet’s surface like an early morning fog, he heard Lieutenant Cres Nillehn, the Albatross pilot, on the radio. “Warship 335, this is Heartburn, starting my push across the comet, over.”

            Hawkins rogered up using her suitcomm. “Keep us updated,” she advised.

            “Copy all, see ya on the other side. Heartburn out.”

            Mark leaned over to whisper into Tim’s ear. “Hey, do you know how Cres got his callsign?”

            Tim chuckled. “Heartburn? Oh, that’s a story. You see, this one time at aviator school—”

            He was interrupted by the radio. “Warship 335, Heartburn again. I just got six radar spikes coming up the horizon of the comet. Request confirmation, over.”

            Mark followed Hazel to the radar repeater. It was hard to determine against the large backwash of returns from the comet along with the increased background radiation, but he thought he could pick out a couple discrete but fuzzy dots. As Hazel called down to CIC for additional information, Mark continued scanning the screen. Maybe he was just tired, but he thought he found an additional radar return on the other side of the comet. He tapped Hazel’s shoulder. “DWO, back me up on this? I think I found something—”

            Mark was cut off by the loudest metallic bang he had heard in his life. The noise was accompanied by a violent reverberation in the deckplates that sent him tumbling forward across the repeater. His vision blackened and his ears were consumed by harsh ringing. It took him a good couple moments to regain his senses from the shock. Once he did and his surroundings came back into focus, he found it was getting harder to breathe. He soon found out why.

            A mere half meter behind where he had just been standing, he saw a melon-sized hole in the deck. The metal around the hole was mangled and curled upwards, as if something had blown through it at tremendous speed. He looked upward and saw a similarly sized hole in the holographic screen above. Pieces of debris floated around him in a bizarrely beautiful ballet of jagged shrapnel as air rushed out both holes.

            It’s floating? he thought. As his judgement returned, he realized that he, too, was floating. Why were the gravity fields off? Gradually, the ringing in his ears started to die down enough for him to make out a few muffled words around him. “Hull breach,” he heard, as well as something about “general quarters” and “counterfire.”

            “Mark!” He felt a hand grab him by the shoulder and shake him. “Mark, put this on!” He looked to the voice and saw Hazel handing him a self-contained breathing kit. Moreso out of training than any actual conscious thought, he activated his suit’s battledress function and put on the helmet and air tank in the kit. His normally loose uniform constricted around him, providing pressure on his body, while the breathing kit provided his head 0.8 atmospheres of oxygen-nitrogen gas.

            As soon as he put on the helmet, he was flooded with innumerable suit-to-suit comms and 1MC announcements aggressively talking over each other on the line. “This is the DCA from DC Central, I have assumed all duties and responsibilities—” began one announcement. It was cut off by someone in engineering: “Loss of 1 and 3 main fusion generators. Shifting the electric plant—” Even that was cut off by another in CIC. “Multiple torpedoes inbound, starboard ventral side. All hands brace for shock!”

            Mark pushed himself towards a railing and held on tightly. He saw a pair of sailors holding onto the railing next to him with one hand while holding onto the limp body of another sailor in the other. The limp sailor was surrounded by floating globules of what Mark could only presume to be blood emanating from the stump that used to be his right arm. Mark looked into the visor of the sailor and felt his breath catch in his throat. It was Tim. He looked unconscious. At least, he hoped he was only unconscious.

            “Torpedoes defeated with SIM-3, chaff, and Sentinel MIWS. All hands relax from brace.”

As soon as he heard those words, Mark rushed to Tim’s side. “Is he alive? Is he alright?” he demanded from the two sailors holding onto him. Before they could respond, he heard the captain’s voice in his helmet.

“Sublieutenant Lionel, take station as conn,” she calmly ordered from her chair.

“Y-yes, ma’am,” he stuttered, and watched as Tim was carried out of the bridge. He locked his magboots onto the deck, took a deep breath, and tried to stop his hands from shaking.

Hazel didn’t even seem fazed as she started barking out status reports. “Captain, we have six small craft coming off the comet’s horizon on our starboard bow at 2,200 kilometers as well as two small craft on the other side of the comet at 900 kilometers. Coilgun strike came from the group of two and took out two fusion generators and quantum communications. Compression drive and buffer shields are also down and we’re limited to standard acceleration.”

“Roger that DWO, maintain evasive maneuvers,” the captain answered, as calmly as ever. She keyed into the 1MC in her suit. “XO to control.” After switching circuits to CIC, she ordered, “OTWO, I want twenty halberds shot down a line of bearing at the group of six. Light up the two assholes off our starboard quarter with coils.” Once she had an acknowledgement, she opened a line to the gunboat. “Heartburn, this is the captain. We’ve lost quantum communications and our drive. Get your ass to the carrier and tell them to send help.” The pilot attempted to argue for staying to defend the ship, but to no avail. With an angry acknowledgement, the gunboat disappeared into a compression field. With that business concluded, the captain turned to Mark. “Conn, raise Brilliance and get a status report.”

Mark barked out a few more maneuvering orders to the helm then keyed into bridge-to-bridge. As he spoke, he could see multiple active-radar halberd torpedoes hot launch from Valiance’s orthogonal launch systems and shoot off towards the comet’s horizon. “Warship 297, this is Warship 335, over,” he yelled with more panic in his voice then he would’ve liked. Silence. He repeated his hail, to no avail. In frustration, he pushed himself over to the scopes and used the high magnification cameras to get visual on Brilliance. After a few moments of searching, he found it. It was completely dark and dead in space. There were multiple holes venting atmospheric gas across its surface.

“Captain, I…I don’t think Brilliance is with us,” Mark shakily reported.

“Damnit.” The captain keyed into the 1MC again. “XO to control,” she repeated, a slight frustration rising in her voice. “XO, where the hell are you?”

“OTWO to captain!” interjected an excited voice. “Intelligence indicates confirmed missile hits on tracks 0256 and 0257!”

            “Good,” the captain responded, a hint of malice lining her words. “Keep shooting until they stop shooting. You have permission to enable battleshort.”

            Mark continued giving maneuvering orders to the helm, maintaining a zigzagging pattern to prevent gun lock. Although the inertial dampers prevented him from feeling it, the ship was straining dozens of g’s with each course correction. Fortunately for Valiance, the two close contacts appeared to be using relatively low-velocity coilguns that were easier to dodge. Unfortunately for the two hostiles, Valiance’s coilguns shot at a full 0.1c.

            “Multiple hits on track 1275!” the OTWO announced. “They’re venting, dead in space.”

            A small cheer came up in the bridge. Maybe it was starting to go their way. Mark continued maneuvering and CIC continued firing. Despite several glancing blows, Valiance managed to avoid further direct hits. Within the next half hour, Valiance delivered a crippling coilgun hit to the remaining close contact and made one additional missile kill among the far contacts. Mark started thinking they might get through it.

Suddenly, half the lights and screens on the bridge went dark.

            “Fire, fire, fire, class charlie fire in 2S switchboard!” the DCA frantically announced.

            “Captain, we’ve lost power to our missile launch systems!” the OTWO bellowed. After a pause, he continued, “Hostile launch. We have twelve fisheyes, inbound!”

            Mark gulped. Fisheyes. Code name for electro-optically guided torpedoes. The only ways to defeat them were with hardkill measures. Seeing as they couldn’t launch any SIM-3 missiles and only had two Sentinels to shoot them down, the odds were set.

            They were going to die.

            Mark looked around him in the bridge. Hazel continued ordering the watchstanders as though nothing had changed. The helmsman frenetically operated his console while the navigator fought a minor electrical fire on a junction box. The captain sat in her chair, an eye of serenity in the hurricane of chaos around her. As he watched, she slowly got up off the chair.

            “Abandon—” she began.

            A crackle on the radio interrupted her. “Hey there, boys and girls! I’m back!”

            Mark watched the radar fill up with numerous signatures. On the few operating holographic screens remaining, he saw a beautiful sight. Dozens of Albatross gunboats streamed across the void like a swarm of angry hornets. He saw them release a stream of missiles that exploded with such brilliance it appeared as though several new stars had come into existence. Heartburn had come through for them.

            “Torpedoes defeated!” the OTWO yelled exuberantly. Cheering rang out in the suitcomms as the crew vocally expressed their relief.

The gunboats pushed on towards the three remaining hostiles. Mark could see on radar the hostiles’ relative velocity slow to zero, then turn in the other direction. “They’re…they’re retreating!” he yelled. Another cheer rang out.

Mark felt the weight of events push down on him as the adrenaline faded. He let go of the radar repeater and let his body just float in the zero g. It was over. Maybe they’d be back, but for now…it was over.          

Daniel Lee commissioned as a surface warfare officer, nuclear (SWO(N)) in 2016. He served on USS ASHLAND (LSD-48) out of Sasebo, Japan as first deck division officer. After qualifying in nuclear power school, he spent two years on USS GERALD R. FORD (CVN-78) in Norfolk, VA. He is currently in Newport working in the International Surface Warfare Officers school.

Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.

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