Join Date: Apr 2010
Location: Australia, Western Australia
Opening of SF novel
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UNCOMMON PURPOSE by P J Strebor
Nathan's eyes widened as they tracked the salvo of incoming torpedoes. In a detached way he found it odd that such a clear image remained on the holo screen considering the beating the ship had taken. Bellinda’s few remaining DPT's fired their feeble pulsars at the incoming wave of destruction but managed to stop only two of them. He averted his eyes from the screen as the rest ploughed into Bellinda's dying shields. His small hands gripped the edge of the work-station as the old freighter shuddered under the impact.
It would not be long now.
The thought crossed Nathan’s mind that his father would be less than pleased to know that he had once again disobeyed his orders. Although, strictly speaking, he had followed the exact letter of his instructions. After all, he had said, 'Stay in our quarters and keep out of trouble.' Well, he sat at his workstation in his family's quarters. The fact that he had tied into the external scanners without permission might be enough to call his actions into question. It seemed to Nathan that all too often the definition of trouble could be difficult to tell with his father. Adults could be so hard to understand. They never seemed to say what they meant. Whenever he raised such a curious point it invariably resulted with an insistence that he not talk back. Or something along those lines.
Nathan checked the screen's chronometer and felt a stirring of wonderment. Only thirteen minutes had passed since the initial attack. With methodical professionalism they were killing Bellinda in increments. The ship shuddered so violently that he almost lost his grip on the workstation.
Yes, it would not be long now.
“They’ve matched speed on all sides,” Lucas Telford reported.
The First Officer's console provided him with the best overall view of the unfolding disaster. The Imperial Navy ships did not want to destroy Bellinda. Her cargo of high tech appliances would fetch a pretty penny for the E Boat's crew. Not to mention capturing a four hundred thousand tonne freighter together with her entire crew. Yes, the bastards must be salivating over that prospect.
"I don't suppose they've closed to pulsar range?" Captain Celia Telford asked.
"Negative Captain," Mary Telford said from the tactical station. "They're sitting well outside of our defense envelope.”
The Romans learned very quickly that Bellinda was not as innocuous as her outward appearance would suggest. Beneath her lady-like façade dwelt a whore with an attitude problem. Bellinda carried military grade Defensive Pulsar Turrets, heavy amour cladding and a high capacity cluster of shield blisters which were complimented by fore and aft pulsar cannons. More than a match for the usual Headhunter menace but almost useless against the fast, agile E boats. Still, the attackers were taking no chances.
“They’re using a capture ordnance package,” Lucas said. “Low yield nukes to overload the shield blisters and pulsar heads to knock out the DPT’s.” He chose not to voice what they were all feeling. The Romans would continue to pound away at their weakening the shields until they failed. And there was nothing they could do about it.
Lucas' mother often talked about Telford's luck. Her words echoed in his mind as the ship shook under a fresh volley of torpedo strikes. "Telford's luck is rarely ambivalent." On a scale between good and bad luck, stumbling onto a squadron of Imperial Navy E boats certainly qualified in the latter category. They were caught too far from the hyper ingression point to escape. To attempt to match harmonics this far inside the system would be a death warrant for everyone aboard.
“Multiple warheads incoming,” Mary said.
Seconds later Bellinda bucked so violently that two crewmembers were thrown from their seats.
“That’s it,” Lucas whispered under his breath.
"Captain, our shields are down," Amy Telford reported from the Damage Control Station. "Shield blisters twenty eight through fifty two have been destroyed. All chase DPT's are gone. Stern pulsars gone. Grav plating down to twenty three percent. We have an imminent hull breach running along sections port twenty eight through to thirty five."
“Seal off those sections,” the captain snapped.
Mary Telford glanced up from her readouts to stare into her husband’s eyes. A short despairing gesture. Lucas managed to force a tight smile before turning his attention to his mother.
The captain's shoulders sagged under the weight of her next decision. They had held out for as long as humanly possible in the forlorn hope that the Francs would come to their rescue. That faint possibility was now all but gone. The captain's next decision would be mortally significant.
They all knew what was coming next.
He could hear the words to the ancient saying in his mind. 'Better to die on your feet than live on your knees'. Good words. Noble, brave, self-sacrificing words. Now that the time had come to make such a decision, family obligation took on a profoundly more serious aspect.
"We are being hailed Captain," Jackson Telford said from the communications station.
The captain pulled herself upright and straightened her shoulders. "Put it through Jack." Her voice barely rose above a whisper.
The Holographic Display Screen firmed up to show the face of a middle aged Roman Naval officer. His unblinking eyes were a perfect match to the hard, unyielding line of his jaw.
"This is Captain Hartman of the Imperial Naval vessel E516." The deep tone of his voice left no question as to his resolve. "I order you to come about and prepare to be boarded. You are now a prize of the Roman Empire. Do you comply?"
The Athenian captain answered in an unhurried manner, seemingly unfazed by the disaster that awaited the family. "I am Captain Celia Telford of the Athenian Independent Trading vessel Bellinda.” She kept eye contact with her opposite number examining the face of her enemy in fine detail. The captain had proved many times in the past to have nerves of solid battle armor. Even so, there seemed to be no ploy that could possibly get them out of this mess. "Captain Hartman can you guarantee the safety of my family if I comply with your order?" she said at last.
The Roman captain's chin rose minutely. "We are regular navy Captain not the Auxiliary. I can guarantee you safe passage into Roman space free of interference from…that element. After that, your fate is in the hands of the good Lord."
Celia Telford's craggy face looked unaltered but a dark shadow had fallen over her eyes. Slavery. The very word conjured up the most vile of images to any free thinking Athenian.
The captain looked about the bridge gauging the feel of her senior officers, her family. Would they consider death to be a preferable option to slavery? Not only their deaths but that of their families. Lucas hoped that he would never have to make such an agonizingly crucial decision. Let alone on behalf of an extended family of one hundred and sixty two men, women and children. Three generations of Telfords gone in a white flash. Who could make such a decision?
The main hatch opened and Nathan stepped onto the bridge.
"Return to your quarters Nathan," Lucas barked.
Displaying the trademark Telford stubbornness Nathan dug his heels in and shook his head. Lucas glanced at Mary who shrugged. He did not want him here. Not now, not with the end so near. Then he reminded himself that this was no ordinary five year old. Nathan knew perfectly well what was going on. Lucas would bet a month's pay that he had been following the battle from the moment he had ordered him not to do so. In the same breath he wanted to shout at his son to return to their quarters and also to hug him to his chest one last time. In his moment of indecision Nathan's grandmother gestured him forward. She stared into his eyes seeing a reflection of her own. Nathan held her gaze for a long moment before he finally found his voice.
"If we're going to die, Captain, I choose to die here." Nathan's voice was tiny and the words barely reach his father.
"Captain Telford," Hartman said, "I need your answer."
"Keep your shirt on," the captain snapped over her shoulder.
That brought a smile to the bridge crew. The old girl didn't take trash from anyone. Lucas suspected that the Roman captain would not fire on a prize as great as Bellinda unless he had absolutely no other choice. Captain Celia Telford scooped up her grandson and rested him on her knee as she turned to face the enemy.
The dullness returned to her eyes. "I accept your conditions Captain Hartman. We are coming about now and will open our main boat bay for your marines once we have reach zero excel."
She looked to where Sally Telford sat at the Helm Station. "Did you hear that Helm?"
"Aye-aye Captain," she said.
A relieved aspect crossed the enemy captain's face. Without further instruction Sally Telford rolled the ship over, the armored nacelle carapace opened and her main engines engaged at full power. Bellinda had not managed to gain much in the way of forward speed before the E boats were upon her so the exercise of bringing her to zero excel would not take long.
"Captain Hartman may I be excused for a few minutes to inform my crew?"
"Of course Captain Telford."
"Thank you," Celia Telford said, all of the fight seeming to leave her. Yet, as the holo image disappeared Celia Telford reemerged. "Jack, put me through to the Chief Engineer."
"Aye Captain," the comm. officer said uncertainly.
A moment later the Chief Engineer "Yes Captain?"
"John, we are expecting guests shortly. Are you ready?"
"Just waiting for you to give the word Skipper." John Telford's voice sounded remarkably light considering the circumstances. Then again, he had never won an argument with his older sister.
"Good John, stay on line. With any luck some of their ships will get cocky and come into range. At least I hope so." She grinned at the surrounding family. "It would be nice to take at least one of the bastards with us."
"We are at zero excel Captain," Sally Telford reported.
"Very well," the captain said. "Stay icy Sal."
Sally turned her head slightly in the direction of the captain and nodded once. Her eyes remained on her readouts. She, like the rest of the crew, was ex Athenian navy.
"Boat bay doors are fully open." Lucas said. "Are you going to wait until the marines are onboard?"
"I'll play it by ear."
"Why don't you close the gap to the leading ship?" Nathan asked.
Celia smiled at her grandson and brushed the strand of hair from over his right eyebrow. All too often the five-year-old acted like an obstinate middle aged man. Yet it could not be denied that his acceptance of the current circumstances and his determination to never compromise were true Telford characteristics. He knew what family obligation demanded of him.
"I might just do that grandson," Celia said. "We'll see how things pan out once the marines are onboard."
"E615 calling Captain," Jack said.
"Put her through." The image of the Imperial captain took form on the forward HDS. His forehead furrowed. "Yes Captain Hartman?"
"Captain Telford our scans show that you have one active pulsar canon remaining on your ship. Please disengage it immediately."
"My apologies Captain Hartman," Celia said with an awkward smile. "I assumed that with the shellacking you gave us that all of our weapons were gone. I will attend to it immediately." She drew her hand across her throat and the image disappeared. A wry smirk crossed her face as she turned to her first officer. "Nice try son, but you better close it down."
"Aye Captain", Lucas said returning the gesture.
"Jack, pipe me through the ship please."
"Open channel Captain."
"Good evening family. Well, it would seem that the old Bellinda has finally run aground. We have talked of this possibility on many occasions and so, now the time has come. Take a few minutes with your loved ones to say your farewells, make peace with the universe and remember that death is only a new awakening."
It took only a few minutes for the Imperial landing boat to cover the distance from the E516 to the enormous number one freight boat bay. The crafty E boat skippers were not taking any chances and kept well out of blast range. This left the Athenian captain with only one option.
"Sally, prepare to go to maximum thrust. E516 is nearest so we will try ramming her. If you can get us close enough I will hit the self-destruct. "
"I'll do my best grandmother," Sally said as she began making calculations.
"Captain to family, stand by. John, are you ready?" The protracted silence tore at Lucas’ nerves. "Chief Engineer respond."
"I can't let you do this." The voice quavered with such fear that for a moment no one recognized it.
"Jasper? Is that you?" Celia asked.
"I don't want to die grandmother. I can't die. Please don't make me die."
"Jasper put the Chief Engineer on."
"I won't let you kill me grandmother, I won't I won't." Jasper Telford's pathetic whining ended as the channel went dead. Seconds later the chief engineer's voice came on the line, dripping with unabashed loathing.
"Celia, that gutless piece of dung has sabotaged the self destruct. And he's locked himself in the core room. I can't get to it. We can’t self destruct."
An odd feeling swept over Lucas. The relief that he felt collided with a tragic sense of loss. He suspected that the rest of the family battled with such contradictory emotions. Would they ever see Beachport again?
A cold chill settled on his skin as the sound of armored feet vibrated through the deck plates.