Part One -- by Michael Lee
Rating: R (language, violence)
DISCLAIMER: The Characters and situations of the TV program "SPACE: Above and Beyond" are the creations of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight productions, and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Note: All characters found in this work, as well as the 513th Recon Team ("Ghostriders") are the property of the author, and may not be used without permission.
Any comments, suggestions, and constructive criticism regarding this work is welcomed. Send me an email and tell me what you think.
This is a war story, exploring some of the values, themes, and situations of our favorite show, Space: Above and Beyond, and continues the story of the Ghostriders as begun in my first S:AAB story, "We Band of Brothers". You will not find any of the Wildcards here- not even a cameo. I would like to thank everyone who expressed their support for the first Ghostriders story, and I hope that you will enjoy this one as well. In keeping with the season, it is something of a ghost story.
Task Force 12
USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
October 30, 2063
Robin Swinburne plunged deeper into the roaring, red-shot blackness, breathing heavily into her close-fitting respirator mask. The heat seared her exposed hands and neck, even though the fire itself was several compartments away. She knew, in her mind, that members of the damage control party were all around her, but she could not see them through the clouds of suffocating smoke. She knew she was in a long, narrow passageway on deck thirty, not far from Reactor Control, but her senses could not tell her how close the walls were, nor the ceiling. It gave a paradoxical illusion of being surrounded by depthless space, poised at the mouth of Hell.
The carrier's executive officer pressed ahead, gritting her teeth against the conflicting urges of emotion and reason. Suddenly her feet tangled in two fire hoses and sent her sprawling; to her right a flare of angry orange light illuminated the intersection of an adjoining passageway and the four men holding their ground against the conflagration, spraying fire-retardant foam along floor, ceiling, and walls. The damage control party she had been accompanying moved into the intersection and relieved the exhausted hose crew, and Swinburne found herself oddly relieved at the sight of the fire. It grounded her back in reality and reminded her of the job at hand. Regaining her determination, she climbed to her feet and pressed on down the passageway.
She carried on for no more than a minute, and suddenly the smoke seemed to thin. The transition was so abrupt as to be startling. One moment she was fumbling through an abyss, the next she found herself in a passage lit with hazy yellow globes of emergency lighting and crowded with tired and injured crewmen. Swinburne all but tore the tight-fitting respirator from her face and made her way to an open hatch labeled REACTOR CONTROL.
The large compartment was the nerve center for the two large fusion reactors that kept the Lexington alive, and since the battle at Hopewell it had also become the aft damage control center. Commander Blevins and his team had set up their maps and laptops on the deck in one corner of the compartment, and appeared to be in an urgent conversation with the chief engineer, Commander Lopez, a sight Swinburne did not at all want to see.
"How bad is it?" she asked without preamble, joining the two men.
Chief Lopez wiped his face with a handkerchief. He was short and broad, and looked as though he'd been fashioned out of boiler plate. "If Blevins here can't guarantee that he can keep the fire off deck twelve, I'm going to have to shut down number two reactor."
"The only way I could guarantee that would be to evacuate the oxygen out of most of deck thirteen, and we've still got a lot of sailors unaccounted for in that area," Blevins protested. His long-fingered hands moved in sharp, abrupt gestures as he spoke. "I've already got most of my teams between the reactor and the blaze, Chief. It's the best I can do."
"Not good enough!" Lopez cried. "The coolant systems for the containment grid are already maxed out. If the temps get any hotter down there, a fire will be the least of your problems!"
Swinburne held up her hands. "All right, all right! Mister Lopez, what is the status on the reactors?"
"The reactors themselves are fine, it's the heat exchange off the grid that's critical," Lopez said grimly. "The field generators have to be kept at a precise temperature, or we could get a flux in the containment bottle. All it would take was a millisecond, and the ship would be vaporized." The chief engineer stole a nervous glance at the readouts across the compartment.
Swinburne thought quickly. "Is the number one reactor in danger?"
Blevins shook his head. "Not at the moment."
"Do we need both reactors online for the transit?"
"All the manuals say yes," Lopez answered. "But the second unit is really just an emergency backup."
The executive officer nodded. "Go ahead and shut down number two, then."
"That's taking a hell of a risk," Blevins said worriedly.
"So is gambling with containment failure," Swinburne said flatly. Lopez nodded curtly and started issuing orders to his technicians. "Blevins, the Old Man needs to know what our chances are. We're going to be emerging back into real space in around fifteen minutes, and he's going to have to make some decisions before then." Do we abandon ship? The unspoken question hung in the air.
Blevins folded his arms across his narrow chest. With his long, patrician nose and sharp features, he reminded Swinburne of an aloof, angry hawk. "They got us pretty bad, Commander," he said. "Three hits forward and five aft. The fire started when one of the impacts ruptured the fuel transfer lines in hangar bay nine. The explosion overpressure forced burning fuel into adjacent compartments through the ventilation ducting, and its gone from there. We lost internal communications aft of frame 432 right after the first hit, so none of the spaces can report in, and consequently we don't know for certain how widespread the fire is. On top of that, I've got dangerous radiation levels in the compartments surrounding reactors one and three, which is hampering repair efforts."
Swinburne stared hard at the damage control chief. "Are we going to save this ship or not, Chief?"
Blevins took a deep breath. "I'm not giving up on the old lady yet," he said with weary determination. "But my men are exhausted. They've been at this for three hours now. If we can get additional damage control specialists over here from some of the escort ships, I can turn this thing around. But that still doesn't address what we're going to do once the fires are out."
"One step at a time, Chief. Keep us from blowing up or burning alive, and we'll go from there."
"From the best we can determine sir, the staging areas were empty of any valuable enemy supplies." Commander Williamson looked up from the digitally-enhanced photos. "It looks like we got the hell beaten out of us for nothing."
Commodore William Bennett clasped his hands behind his back and studied the Bomb Damage Assessment photos carefully. The captain of the Lexington was heavyset, average in height, with a round face and neatly trimmed white muttonchop sideburns. He looked much more like a Macy's Santa Claus than a Naval Space Warfare officer. Bennett reached up and pulled off a delicate-looking pair of wire-frame spectacles, polishing their lenses with a handkerchief. "That's a sweeping statement to make Commander, on a battle that is less than four hours old," the Commodore said. He had a deep, rich voice, with a faint English accent that took most strangers off guard. "These raids were never intended to bring the enemy to his knees, but to throw him off-balance. Every time we strike at bases behind his lines, we cause him to divert forces from his offensive efforts to try and stop us, and this disrupts the enemy's war effort. After our last sortie at Hopewell, the enemy has suffered no less than eight deep raids in two weeks. The effects of this pressure might take months to make itself evident. We are acting strategically here, Mister Williamson, and that requires us to take the long view with regard to our actions."
Williamson took a deep breath. "My point sir, has less to do with the psychological ramifications of the raid as it does with the fact that it looks like the Chigs knew we were coming." The Naval Intelligence analyst picked up a leather valise resting by his foot and drew out another set of photos. "These images were taken by a recon flight no less than a week ago. They were the primary reason Hopewell was chosen as our next target." He spread the photos out on the chart table before them. The large areas surrounding the hexagonal alien buildings were crowded with stacks of crates. "This looked like a supply point for a Chig division, sir. But when we got to Hopewell, all we found was an enemy task force that just happened to be in the system." Williamson shook his head bitterly. "They knew. Somehow they knew."
Bennett replaced his spectacles, carefully fitting the curved ends over his ears. "Frankly, Commander, I agree with you. From the beginning, the enemy has seemed to know far more about us than they ought. Nevertheless, we must continue to prosecute this war as best we can despite our limitations. We have no other choice. Consider what good we did manage to accomplish at Hopewell- we diverted a front-line task force to try and stop us, and they came away empty-handed."
Williamson bent to gather up his photos. "With all due respect sir, I think that remains to be seen. We managed to disengage from the enemy and withdraw towards an isolated system in the hopes of making repairs. The Chigs may have dealt us a mortal blow, and we just don't know it yet."
Bennett frowned, but before he could respond, an engineering technician shouted over the quiet conversations on the bridge. "Sir! Reactor Control reports coolant pump failure in reactor number one!"
The Commodore moved swiftly to the engineering station. His voice was calm and considered. "Is reactor two online?"
"No, sir. Reactor number two was shut down as a safety precaution, but it won't come back online because the temps in the surrounding compartments are too high and the computer is overriding a restart." The technician was pale. "Sir, the Chief reports that we could be looking at a cascading failure of the main and secondary coolant systems due to fire damage. He is awaiting orders."
"How much time remaining to complete transit?" Bennett asked.
"Two minutes, twelve seconds, sir," came the immediate reply.
Bennett considered his options quickly. "Tell the Chief to stand by for Condition Sierra, but to await my order."
The technician looked to his captain and nodded nervously. Condition Sierra was a core dump, the last resort in the event of a containment failure. The cores of the ship's reactors could be jettisoned into space to prevent them from destroying the ship, but the Lexington would then be dead in space, far behind enemy lines.
One minute later, red lights flared across the engineering board. "Primary coolant systems have failed," the technician said, "Secondaries are now fully online. We are reaching critical temps on the grid."
"Can we cut power to nonessential systems to ease the load on the reactor?" Bennett asked.
"It wouldn't make any difference, sir," the technician said fatalistically.
"Then I suspect this is going to be a very long sixty seconds," the Commodore said, watching the temperature readouts closely. No one knew what happened if a ship's reactors failed while in transit. They could re-emerge into empty space, marooned between stars, or the ship could simply be torn apart. Some fearful souls suggested that a ship might never re-emerge at all, trapped forever outside time and space; a ghost ship, eternally lost among the stars.
"Secondaries are failing!" the technician cried.
"No need to shout, son, I'm right here beside you," Bennett said calmly. Thirty seconds left.
"Evacuate the reactor room. Tell the Chief to prepare for an emergency shutdown and switch to battery power in thirty seconds."
"Sir, the Chief says he may not be able to shut the reactor down once the grid gets too hot."
"Then we will jettison it," Bennett replied. "It just has to hold out for five more seconds."
The temperatures in the coolant rooms flared like newborn suns. Alarms cried stridently shipwide. "Sir, the Chief is requesting to implement Condition Sierra!"
"Negative," Bennett said, looking over at the helm station. Moments later the helmsman raised his head.
"Transit complete! We have reached COAL SACK."
"Drop anchor!" Bennett ordered, initiating the Lexington's deceleration maneuver. "Engineering, shut down the reactor immediately. Tell the Chief to implement Condition Sierra only if absolutely necessary."
The technician didn't bother to acknowledge the order, his hands moving frantically over the engineering board. Under the circumstances, Bennett thought he could forgive the lapse.
The Commodore turned away from the engineering station and began to think quickly, establishing the battle group's priorities for the next few hours. They had reached the bolt-hole, an accessible system listed only on classified military star charts. It was intended as a place of refuge in the event of an emergency, where damaged ships could hide and attempt repairs. When the ship had begun transit, he knew that they only had a slim chance of completing the journey. Now there was real reason for hope, so long as the enemy did not find them.
"Communications, signal the Duncan," Bennett said. "Inform Captain Langford that control of the task force has been shifted to her. Tell her the Lexington is dead in space, and requesting all available assistance."
USS Duncan (SDDN-403)
October 30, 2063
"Commodore Bennett reports that Lexington has lost power on both reactors, and is unable to launch or recover planes. All available power is being reserved for life support and gravity." The communications officer turned to Captain Elizabeth Langford. "The Commodore also requests that we send over all available damage control personnel to assist in fire suppression."
"Jesus." Beth Langford wanted a cigarette, but would have settled just to pace around the destroyer's bridge, had there been any room. Duncan was one-third the size of the huge space carrier she was charged to protect. Designed for high sub-light speed and mounting powerful sensors, the Ward-class destroyers were intended specifically to patrol the area around the Navy's big carriers and protect them from enemy aircraft or small ship attacks. To Langford and many other "tin can" captains, it was like a pack of chihuahuas protecting a huge, matronly lady on a walk down a dark street. If trouble appeared, they would more than likely need her protection, not the other way around.
Langford reached up to the intership caller and keyed a switch. "CIC, this is the bridge. What does the threat board look like?" The Combat Information Center was the nerve center of a warship, taking in data from the ship's sensors and developing a coherent picture of the surrounding environment for the captain.
"Bridge, CIC- the board is clear. No passive sensor contacts. Our LIDAR is on standby." It was common practice for warships to enter a strange area with their active sensors turned off, to minimize their presence. If enemy LIDAR's were operating in the area, passive warning systems would alert the ships immediately.
"Very well," the captain said, and switched off the caller. For the moment, they seemed safe. Langford went over her options. There weren't many. There were only two other destroyers in the task force, which didn't amount to a lot of perimeter coverage. About all they could afford to do was stay in close and hope for the best.
"Communications, signal the Harmon and the Bessey to take up air-defense formation delta at 50 klicks from the Lexington. Restrict communications to direct laser link and keep LIDAR's on standby. Full EMCON procedures." Under full EMissions CONtrol, the ships would remain as silent as possible, listening for the enemy with their passive systems. "As soon as we are on station, muster our damage control teams on the flight deck and transfer them to the Lexington."
As the bridge crew acknowledged her orders, the caller suddenly squawked. "Bridge, CIC- intermittent contact, bearing two-seven-two, range unknown. Designate new contact Sierra One."
"Battle stations," Langford ordered immedately. "CIC, bridge, what have you got?"
"Radio-band emissions, boss. Very weak. Jenkins thinks it's at extreme engagement range, maybe 4000 klicks."
Langford frowned. "Radio? No other emissions?"
"Negative. No LIDAR, no significant engine heat, nothing. The signal source is moving, but very slowly, changing bearing at about point two-five MSK's an hour."
The captain chewed her lip thoughtfully. The contact was drifting very slowly past them, well out of weapons range, and transmitting a signal too weak to be understood. Whatever it was, it wasn't acting like a Chig warship, or any ship she was used to. Oddly, the idea did nothing to reassure her.
"CIC, bridge- start your track on Sierra One," Langford said. "Communications, signal the Lexington." A sudden chill raced up her spine.
"Tell them there's something out there."
USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
Squadron Ready Room 5
Janet Litchfield turned her exhaustion to her favor, letting it distance herself from the lines she drew across the notepad. She hadn't the concentration to capture every crease and fold of Marc Dieter's rumpled flight suit, or the precise pattern of his close-shaved hair. Instead she evoked him with simple, dark lines; lean and powerful, his pose was tense and controlled, his arms folded in clean, authoritative angles like a barrier between himself and the rest of the world. His hard stare and the set of his square jaw was simple and forthright. It spoke of conviction, determination, and a kind of rough innocence. Wolf in Repose, 10-63 she jotted down at the bottom of the sketch, and smiled sadly. Susan had always nagged her about putting titles to her work, leading to countless playful arguments. Janet had never seen the point. The art should speak for itself, she had doggedly maintained. Now Susan was gone, and the arguments were over, and Litchfield found herself putting a title to everything she drew. Suddenly her eyes were burning, and she was surprised to find that she could still cry about it, a year later. She rubbed at her face roughly and clamped her jaw tight. It was just the fatigue, she told herself. Just the stress and the long hours.
The Ghostriders had been in action for more than thirty-six hours, both in preparation and execution of the raid on Hopewell. They had been the first ones in and the last ones out, forced to fight the Chigs every step of the way when they found themselves in a well-laid ambush. As the squadron had formed up for landing, it was clear that the Lexington had been hit pretty badly. There were rumors that the ship's reactors had been hit, and most of the aft section had been flooded with radiation. There was hushed talk that they might have to abandon the ship, and Litchfield had never felt more relieved than when the carrier had instead entered transit. But the trip had been short, too short for the two-hour run to Groombridge. They had emerged from transit after only twenty minutes, and no one had told the Ghostriders to stand down. Something was very wrong.
Litchfield felt a small, strong hand on her shoulder. "What'cha working on?"
Janet looked back at the smiling, ethereal face of Emily Sorensen, and resisted the urge to cover the petite woman's hand with her own. Sorensen's bright smile and delicate, angular features were all at odds with the dark, olive drab flight suit that she wore. Though they were in the same training series at LeJeune, they hadn't really become friends until after their assignment to the 513th. Though Sorensen's small build and quiet manner gave an impression of shyness and vulnerability, the truth was that she had an inner strength and stability that Janet found herself drawn to, despite all her past promises.
Litchfield shifted her torso so Sorensen could get a better look at the sketchbook. "I had to do something to stay awake," she whispered.
Sorensen's smile widened. "That's amazing. It's perfect." She looked from the sketch, Dieters, and back again. "Are you going to do the whole squadron?"
"Oh. Well, I don't know," Litchfield said, suddenly self-conscious. "I mean, this is one of my old college books I brought along to mess with, just to stay in practice. But, well, I have been kind of thinking about doing sort of a visual memoir of my experiences in the war." She frowned. "Does that sound stupid?"
"Of course not!" Sorensen said eagerly. "You've got a lot of talent. Were you a professional artist, before you joined up?"
"No, I was one of the starving variety," Janet answered ruefully. "I guess my stuff is too old-fashioned. I like the textures of line drawings on real paper, but that just doesn't sell any more."
"Maybe that's because the world hasn't seen your work yet."
For the first time in a very long while, Janet Litchfield felt a warmth in her chest, spreading out from her heart and tickling the pit of her stomach. Her mind reeled in panic, but the warmth and admiration in Emily's voice held her fast- or rather, she huddled against it, like a sheltering tree in a storm.
"Attention on deck!" The rough, leathery voice cut through the weary chatter of the ready room, and Litchfield's body was jumping to attention before she was fully aware of what was happening. Into the room strode Captain Marshall, the squadron's exec, his hazel eyes surveying the assembled pilots carefully and critically. Behind him came their commander, Major Karen Wilde.
"As you were," Major Wilde said brusquely, striding to the front of the room while the Ghostriders found their seats. Like Sorensen, the major was a small woman, slim of build, but where Sorensen was graceful, Wilde was tension and energy in uneasy balance, like a tightly-coiled spring. Though she was a squadron commander, she was very young for the role, no more than twenty-seven. Some said that it was no coincidence that her father was the commanding general of their Marine Expeditionary Unit, but Litchfield had found the Major to be a hard-charging officer who put her squadron before everything else. After four weeks of nearly continuous operations, however, even Wilde's cool, confident tone was showing signs of strain.
"All right, people, we have to make this quick, so listen up. Our situation is this: the Lexington received heavy damage in our last engagement at the Hopewell system. We have fires aft of frame 430, and the ship's reactors are out. Commodore Bennett has moved the task force to a classified system code-named COAL SACK in order to make emergency repairs before we can return to Groombridge.
"This system is classified specifically because its existence is not well-known, and is difficult to reach, making it a good bolt-hole to hide in. However, moments after our arrival insystem, the Duncan detected a faint radio source at a distance of approximately 4000 klicks. The contact, whatever it is, seems to be drifting, and has shown no indication that it is aware of our presence. The Commodore wants us to go out and see what it is."
The Marines accepted the news with weary groans. A hand went up. Lieutenant Adam Fleisher straightened in his chair. His boyish features and freckled nose made him look like an apprehensive high school student. "Ma'am, why can't the destroyer just hit it with the LIDAR and see what it is?"
"Because it would be like turning on a giant neon sign that said SHOOT ME," Wilde replied sardonically. "If there are Chigs in the area, they could detect our emissions farther away than we could detect them, and the task force is in no position to put up a fight. With the reactors out, the Lady Lex can't launch fighters, so we are going to take an ISSAPC out to do a visual inspection of the contact."
Fleisher blinked. "And if it's a Chig ship?"
Captain Marshall spoke up. "Then it has my sympathies. I'm tired and sore, and if I can't get some sleep, I'll settle for an ass-kicking." The squadron broke into tired laughter, even getting a thin smile from the major. "All right, we're going to be carrying field gear for the mission, so get back to the squad bay and suit up, then report to the armory in ten mikes. Lieutenant Dieters, as of now you are officially taking Morganstern's place as unit armorer. Get with Captain Marshall and he will fill you in on keeping the paperwork. Clear?"
The InVitro shifted uncomfortably. "Yes, ma'am."
A dark-brown hand went up. "Ma'am, from what you have described, the carrier is in bad shape." Captain Robert Perry said carefully. The squadron's medic watched the Major intently from behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. "It sounds worse than what happened to Yorktown, and the Navy said that if she hadn't already been at Earth, they never could have saved her. Are we going to have to abandon the ship?"
The question hung in the air. Finally, Wilde could only shake her head. "I'll tell you the truth, Captain. I don't know. Nothing has been said to the crew or the Marines. But I think the Commodore is going to do everything he can to bring the ship home. We have to do our part to keep the Lexington secure in the meantime. So if there are no more questions, let's get to work."
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