Flashes of energy erupted outside the viewscreen of the Excalibur, filling the bridge with dancing shadows as Captain Marek Albion watched the battle unfold ahead. His fingers tapped the armrest of his seat while his ship drifted closer to the unsuspecting scavenger horde.
“That, people, is the very definition of unfortunate.” Lieutenant Alan Choi grinned as he guided the Excalibur over the flank of the horde ships, angling toward the center mass where the largest of the crafts sat. Red proximity lights gleamed on the helm, casting a demonic glare over his features.
The horde ships were clunkers, long past their prime. True to their nature, they were cobbled together with makeshift pieces of the ships they’d scavenged over the cycles. While Albion could make out the foundational crafts buried under all the modifications, the flagship an ex-Covenant destroyer, likely decommissioned a good fifty cycles before the scavengers got their hands on it, there wasn’t much left of the original craft. Its guns hung precariously on the outside of the ship, the original destroyer armor designed to protect it, long since gone, probably ripped off for use elsewhere. Albion shook his head at the junker, realizing just how foolish the captain of the horde was, or how desperate. For a few supplies and plas-stones, they were willing to stare death in the eye.
That very death crept their way through the blackness of space.
In the distance, the other side of the horde, the CSS Indomitable, an X-class battlecruiser loomed, a giant shadow standing between the New Orion Outpost and the horde. There was no winning this fight for the scavengers, but they were making a show of it anyway, firing steadily at the cruiser and its entourage. The Indomitable’s support ships returned fire, but the battleship had yet to uncork its guns.
Albion nodded. “Steady, Choi. Get us right alongside the flagship, and don’t you dare scratch the paint.”
The helmsman only chuckled, coaxing the Excalibur into the middle of the horde.
“Are we really doing this, Captain?” Commander Lyana Till, his second in command, asked, glancing over her shoulder at Marek. Her looks might not kill, but they were sure capable of wounding. “Vice Admiral Vance has to have his finger on the trigger by now. There’s a good chance we’re going to take fire from both sides if we appear in the middle of all that.”
“Guess we’ll see, huh?” Marek winked at her in an effort to deflect her from saying anything more. She hated that. “Bring us out of phase, Commander.”
Lyana shook her head and turned back to her console. No matter her displeasure with the decision, she did as she was ordered without hesitation. The Excalibur shuddered as the Xebedon phase device spooled back with a hum, and the appropriated alien ship eased out of phase space and entered the fight.
“All guns on the flagship’s bridge,” Albion called out, and Ensign Randall Harkon went to work.
“All guns,” Randall repeated.
The Excalibur’s cannons boomed, vibrating the confines of the bridge, and bright pulses of blue energy streaked across the space between them. Caught unaware, the flagship suffered the full brunt of the attack, its defense shields angled forward. Explosions flared, then died, the bridge of the scavenger ship exposed. Wreckage and bodies spilled into space, and the flagship listed, slipping silently out of formation and dropping away.
“They know we’re here,” Choi called out.
“They’d have to be total idiots not to,” Lyana answered.
Captain Albion chuckled.
“Shields all around,” Albion said as he watched the screen pick up the cluster of drones that spewed loose of the flagship as it floundered. While hardly a threat in small numbers, the scavengers had launched their entire arsenal, the drones a black cloud on the sensors, a swarm headed their way.
“We’re being targeted.” Narrow-eyed, Randall’s focus was on his console, his fingers a blur as he deployed counter measures. Albion could see beads of sweat forming on his brow. He hung over his console, hunched, rigid.
The kid was good at his job, a savant even, but he’d barely been at his first post for six months before he was transferred to Albion’s command. He hadn’t seen a lick of combat until the battle that saw Albion lose his commission, Covenant Command drumming him out of the service. Kid hadn't seen much since, either.
“Easy, Ensign.” Albion offered him a confident grin. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. “We’re fine.”
Randall nodded, though he looked no less ready to implode than he had before. Albion sighed, but he couldn’t worry about Randall right then. The kid would do what needed to be done.
“Mosquitos on us,” Choi called out. “The scavenger to our starboard has fired.”
As Choi spoke, the swarm struck the shields. Each no bigger than a baseball, they were designed to penetrate the defenses of a ship, too small to be deemed a threat by the shields. Built like darts, they had specialized drills mounted to their frames. The mosquitos would bore into the hull at sensitive spots on the ship, and then explode, essentially tearing a craft apart from the inside.
Albion wasn’t going to let that happen. “Phase.”
This time Lyana didn’t question Albion’s order. The Excalibur shuddered and faded away. Albion felt his stomach flutter, same as it always did when they shifted into the weird energy realm that was phase space. The dimension clung to the real world like a second skin, allowing those aboard the Excalibur to peer into core space—the Xebedon’s name for reality—while pulling them completely free of it.
The effect had its advantages.
The swarm of mosquitos erupted into chaos, their target having disappeared despite the Excalibur not having moved.
“This is always so damn creepy,” Choi said, following the mosquitos’ path through the ship.
Like ghosts, insubstantial, the mosquitos swirled around them, floating through the Excalibur and everyone inside it. Albion shuddered despite not being able to feel any of it. Still, it was a strange sensation, watching real space objects glide through them like spirits.
Then the mosquitos were gone.
Uncoordinated, the scavengers were a bunch of like-minded pirates, but they had no structure to their organization, no cohesion. Ship captains were installed through violence, a knife in the back bringing about a promotion to whatever hand wielded the blade, qualifications be damned. Because of that, they would never be a real threat outside of the far-flung communities without nearby stargates to summon Covenant military ships to their rescue.
The burst of cannon fire from the nearby scavenger ship tore into the cloud of mosquitos, which hovered without direction where the Excalibur had just been. No defenses, the swarm was obliterated, going up in tiny pops of energy, which flickered on the viewscreen.
Albion acknowledged Choi with a nod. “Bring us back, Commander Till.”
Lyana grunted and did just that, the Excalibur returning to core space right where it had just been.
“Give it to that other ship, Harkon,” Albion ordered.
“Sir.” Randall tapped the firing sequence out on his console, and the rumble of the cannons responded, punching holes in the side of the horde ship. Debris erupted along its flank and, it too, began to list.
Albion’s gaze snapped to Lyana, and he felt the butterflies in his stomach as she shifted to phase space on her own. His cheeks warmed at her presumption, anger flaring, but the blare of the warning claxon cooled him in an instant.
The Indomitable had opened fire.
On instinct, he hunkered in his seat, hands strangling the armrests, as the barrage of fire tore through space, headed straight toward them.
“Take us out of the horde,” he said, jutting a thumb upward.
Randall obliged, the ship reacting without hesitation, engines engaging and pushing them out of the line of fire.
While even the Indomitable’s massive cannons couldn’t hurt them in phase space, Albion simply felt better being out of the way, just in case. He watched as the searing bolts of energy slammed into the cluster of horde ships, decimating them with cruel precision. Several of the ships simply vanished, engulfed and then obliterated, disappearing from the Excalibur’s scanners as if they’d never existed. Several others only caught glancing blows, but that was enough to break the horde. Wounded ships veered in every direction. The makeshift destroyer the Excalibur had damaged just moments before careened into its neighbor in its rush to escape, crippling both ships as they collided. Pieces of each breaking off and drifting into space, they peeled apart and limped away.
What was left of the horde followed their lead and scattered.
“Would now be an inappropriate time to say, ‘I told you so?’” Lyana asked, returning Albion’s earlier wink with exaggerated zest.
“It’s always an inappropriate time, Vice Admiral.” Albion slumped in his seat, glaring out the viewscreen as the fleeing horde ships. The Indomitable eased forward, a bully stalking its prey while its support ships fired on the remnants of the scavengers, tearing apart the slowest of the ships before they could escape.
Albion stared at the battlecruiser, wishing his eyes could pierce its hull and stab its vice admiral in the heart. The last thing he wanted to do was deal with the man in charge of the battleship. Despite being in phase space, the Covenant ships unable to see or detect him, he contemplated issuing the order to retreat, telling Choi to get them out of there. Instead, he did the opposite.
“Phase out, Commander,” he said, drawing in a deep breath. “Hail the Indomitable.”
Lyana chuckled. “As you wish, Captain.”
He didn’t even bother to glare her direction, remembering to peels his hands from the armrests and straightening his collar before the call went out and he heard the echoing response.
“Is it too late to run?” he asked.
“It sure is,” Lyana answered, the visage of Vice Admiral Altair Vance appearing on screen.