I glanced away from the tactical screens to the station where Nonaka, my First Officer was monitoring the movement of the rest of the fleet. He looked up.
“A few minutes more, Admiral.”
We might not have a few minutes more. The Nemesis had disabled the leading two Vrgarr battleships, but the rest of their formation was closing rapidly and the heavy cruisers of the Church Militant were angling in behind us. Once they achieved a firing position they could turn the main drives into scrap and we would be finished. We were finished anyway, but my task was to hold the combined Vrgarr and Realm warships here whilst our fleets made their escape.
The damage control boards told a sorry tale. Three of the power plants were dark and red lights flashed in far too many critical sections. There were no commands I could give that would make a difference. I had to stand at the centre of the bridge and keep completely calm whilst my ship was blown apart around me. I could feel a tremor working its way down my arm; I clasped my hands together behind my back. The bridge crew were looking to me. If I showed fear, they might panic. I needed them at their posts for a little longer.
The deck was vibrating constantly, each shivver an explosion somewhere. The bridge itself was buried at the centre of the ship and safe from almost every enemy weapon. Screens went dark as power lines and information feeds were cut, but there were no explosions here.
“The fleet is clear.” Reported Nonaka. We had diverted the enemy's attention and now they were too far behind to catch the Imperial ships.
“Orders.” I didn't need to raise my voice. The microphone on my lapel picked up every word and transmitted it to the command crew. “All weapons, cease firing. Engineering; drives to zero, emergency shut down of reactors Two to seven.” One, Three and Eight were gone. Only number nine would be left functioning, providing a small power feed to keep the life support and other vital systems going. “Comms, signal the Vrgarr that we surrender.” I had never been in this position before. Many military units considered surrender a shameful act, but my role now was to protect the lives of my surviving crew.
“Sir?” Called the communications officer. “The Vrgarr commander requires you to eject the reactor core.” This was a standard demand. Without power we were no threat to them.
“Very good. Engineering, eject power cores Two, Four and Five.” The battle was over, but I wanted to keep two reactors intact in case number Nine failed. The Nemesis was an old ship and had been refitted with nine small reactors, spread across the ship, rather than the usual main plant and smaller reserve reactor. Our design meant that enemy ships often targeted the wrong part of the ship and we could take massive amounts of damage and continue fighting. But not today, and not against another eleven capital ships. The Vrgarr would not know until they boarded the ship, but that would not help them in future. The three sister ships also had nine reactors, but they were in different positions.
“Sir!” The second engineer called urgently. “Reactor Two won't eject and the core is going to go critical.”
We wouldn't have long. I looked at Nonaka. He nodded.
“Abandon ship. All hands abandon ship.”
Nobody on the bridge left their post. They would be the last to leave. They were needed to make sure that power was available to the escape pods and hatches. That the damage control teams cleared the right corridors, that the enemy knew we were launching escape craft and not mines or missiles. For the moment we were protected within the armoured shell of the bridge, but it wouldn't protect us if reactor two exploded.
There was little I could do myself but standing in the centre of the command ring was difficult. The tremor in my arm was back, and slightly stronger this time. The chances of us getting out were slim. Getting the crew off was a mammoth task. Judging from the damage control boards many would be dead already and we would lose many more as the injured were too slow to escape and the trapped were left behind.
The status board changed as escape craft left the ship. Every second that the engineers could control the reactor meant more lives saved.
“Admiral, we've done everything we can.” Said Nonaka.
I nodded. “Clear the bridge, make for the escape pods and may the blessing of the Emperor be with you.” I said.
A slight breeze ruffled papers as the massive hatch that sealed off the bridge opened. Somewhere the ship was venting air. It was probably leaking like a sieve. The bridge crew had emergency vacuum hoods which would protect them. They evacuated the compartment in an orderly manner, as they had been trained. They were frightened, but in control. I wasn't looking in his direction but I knew Nonaka hadn't moved.
“Lead them to the escape pods, please, Hiraku.”
“Yes, Sir. He didn't argue. I knew he wanted to stay, but I had given him a direct order. He gave a smart salute and turned towards the hatch, giving a short nod to Cavendish as he passed her. She hadn't moved since we had entered into battle. In her black Ultima armour she was taller than me and much more massive. As always she was completely calm and unmoved by the disaster that had befallen us. Behind her I could see three more of the Bad Girls, my personal bodyguards. The rest would be outside the bridge, waiting.
“It's time to go.” She said.
“You go.” I had to try.
“No.” Like the first officer, she wanted to stay at her post. Unlike him, my orders would make no difference. She had sworn to protect me or die in the attempt. I hadn't asked for that, but I had to respect her choice.
“I can't leave. There's a reason captains go down with their ships, you know.”
“Is it a good reason?”
I had a strong suspicion that, if I said no, she would pick me up and carry me to the escape pod. Even when not wearing power armour she was capable of lifting me with one hand.
“Yes. Yes, there is. We know too much.” I knew the position and intentions of each of the three Imperial Banner fleets in this sector. More importantly, I knew that the twelve Imperial Destroyers that had dispersed through the system whilst we held off the enemy ships were, in fact, large merchant ships with reprogrammed transmitters. The Vrgarr believed that a Banner Fleet was at large in this strategically vital system and would have to bring in a huge number of ships to protect the port and docks that orbited the gas giant. Moving those resources would create a gap that the actual fleets would use to force their way into enemy space where they could cause massive disruption to supply lines and manufacturing orbitals. The Nemesis had been sacrificed for that goal.
“If captains go down with their ships, then they won't be looking for you. Lose the stripes, they'll never know.”
“Perhaps. If they figure it out, there are other options.”
I didn't ask if she would be able to put a bullet through my head. She would do it without hesitation if necessary.
Acre moved closer. “Are we going to stand here until the reactor blows or are we going to go? As much as I like the thought of all the posthumous medals that they'll fasten to our memorial stones, I'd rather collect them in person.” Even Cavendish smiled at that.
“Very good. Where are the others?” I asked. There were four marines on the bridge.
The smile faded from Cavendish's face. “The others are with the bridge crew.” That made sense. In their power armour they could easily clear heavy debris from the path of the escaping crew. “Except Vincent.” She said.
“What happened to Vincent?”
“Gods on bicycles.” Muttered Acre. “Can't we talk about it on the way?”
“Vincent was taking casualties to the sick bay. She was there when it got hit.”
Ross, Cavendish's second in command, picked up her helmet. “There are engineers in reactor two, keeping it from melting so everybody gets off. If you don't go, they won't go.” She sealed the helmet to the locking ring on her armour.
“Is everybody determined to commit suicide today?” I asked
“I'm not.” said Acre. “Let's just bloody well go!”
This is the first half of a chapter that will appear in the second Echo book - OK, i know i haven't published book one yet, but it's coming soon. It's a flashback to an incident that is mentioned in passing in Echo. I've just finished writing it, so there are probably mistakes and bits of it are a little clunky, but i can tidy it up later.Nobody saw a word of Book one until the first draft was completely finished so I thought it might be fun to post bits of book two as i went along. Hope you like it. If you do, buy the book :-)