The Normydia Crisis
Squire Bohemond of House Morley
24/10/53 1100 Hours
The bridge crew of the ISNV Lancer shielded their eyes from an explosion bright as a star, the blinding display filtered a second later to reveal devastation in perfect clarity. The Lancer’s sister ship the Indomitable’s fusion core had detonated, sending an immense shock wave in all directions along with debris from her shattered carcass.
“Brace for impact!” Squire Bohemond of House Morley yelled through the comms as he gripped the arm of the ship’s command chair, the Lancer’s captain sat beside him. The shock wave slammed into the vessel a second later with a sickening crack, knocking the ship and crew to the side like a godly hand slapping them aside. The ship groaned around them while the hull strained to hold together under colossal forces, consoles and the emitters going dark, sparks flying from overloading systems.
Bo gritted his teeth, his jaw almost cracking as he clung to the arm of the captain’s seat, the safety field combining with the ship’s inertial dampeners to keep him from splattering across the bridge while he clutched for dear life.
The bridge around him flashed in and out of sight, the emergency lights flickering on and off with an eerie red glow. From his position in the raised dais at the back of the bridge he had an overview of the entire chamber, similar to the captain of an old war galley, the view little more now than the holographic tactical map to his left sputtering and going offline along with half the visual relays around the bridge.
As the rocking finally stopped, and the lights stabilised Bo looked up to find the captain of the Lancer limp in his command chair, his features scarred and burnt beyond any recognition from an overload above his head. The blast had lasted only a second but had struck with enough intensity to kill the man, his features locked in a scream of pain with fragments of metal lodged in his burnt flesh, what remained of it anyway.
“Medic!” Bo called into the comms, well aware the captain was dead but needing the body removed as he dragged it to the floor. In seconds a blue uniformed medic, the corpsman symbol on his helmet, moved to the captain’s corpse and after a quick check shook his head, signalling a crewmember to help him drag the body away.
Bo was not a starship captain, but a Squire in the Order of the Knights Trinity. His master, Knight Commander Vasily of Proxima, had sent Bo and his comrade Jorric to the ship as observers while Vasily worked on the Indomitable during what was meant to be a milk run; a standard patrol of a raider hotspot near the nebula ring of the Skies of Fire system. The Indomitable had been on one last sweep to check on a damaged probe when the bugs had poured out of the cloud and swarmed them, the fusion core of the destroyer going critical shortly afterward. Now Bo was going to have to take command of the destroyer if he was going to survive this one-sided brawl, their capital ships charging their slip engines as growing clouds of bugs became visible on the flickering sensor net.
The crew watched their dead sister ship rocketing through space, envisioning their own future while the corpse of their captain was dragged away. Bo barely had time to consider that his own commanding officer had been aboard the growing dust cloud in front of them as he regained his bearings, intent on surviving this mess somehow in spite of the galaxy’s apparent designs to the contrary. He had survived enough ships dying beneath him, he would not let this scrap pile or the bugs outside finish him off while he had any strength left in him.
“Damage report!” Bohemond hollered to his friend, Special Operations Commander Jorric of the Kr’lee Refugee Fleet. A loud crash followed by a curse led Bo to swivel around, finding his Kr’lee comrade cradling a smouldering hand while he backed away from a shattered console now belching smoke.
“Jorric! Damage report, man! Burn on your own time!” The Kr’lee’s attention snapped to Bo as his ears twitched in annoyance, his fangs bared in a snarled reply.
“Oh, of course, sir, I’m so sorry I wasted crucial seconds putting my fingers out! Next time I’ll press some buttons first while they melt away, the smell of burning flesh might just help to motivate the men.” Jorric called back, regaining his composure as the fingers on his good hand flew over the remaining holo-console beside him. While he reported, his dark furred ears flicked back in stress, his accent giving elegance to his report even through the pain and anger.
“The shock wave blew some power conduits and blacked us out for a second, but on a positive the momentum means we’re being knocked out of their effective weapons range so we’ve got a few seconds to think. Weapons still online and holding the Swarmers at a distance, but we won’t repel a direct assault. She’ll hold together, just don’t expect this bucket of krrrt to win any beauty pageants this year.”
“Ensign, use that momentum to keep us out of weapons range.” Bo ordered the helms-woman. The Lancer was a destroyer, unshielded and intended to skirmish, clearing fighters and rockets, not hold off an entire enemy fleet. “Status of the fleet?”
“The Pericles is closest and retreating from the field, her bomber wings crippled and remaining fighters trying to hold off enemy waves long enough to jump. Shield frigates are out of position and the few left are heading to the Eternal with all speed. The Eternal herself is holding her ground, but her fighters are getting wiped out. Four enemy cruisers and a hive are moving to engage the Pericles, likely aiming to take us out en route; their two other hives are moving to pursue the Eternal and the remaining support ships.”
Bo watched the tactical display on what was left of the wall monitors with growing dread, the sensor web providing a real-time image of the situation upon the walls of their command centre, nestled deep within the destroyer. The data-streams confirmed what he had feared; the Triumviran Ascent Fleet’s one and only Carrier Group had been caught at half strength with no heavy gun support, and was now being completely routed. The destroyer screens were being annihilated, their starfighters overwhelmed, and the two carriers, the only carriers in the Ascent, were on the verge of total annihilation.
Bo felt a longing to flee the area, the Lancer could outrun the bugs and escape to slipstream if he gave the order, but that meant sacrificing the rest of the fleet and leaving the Ascent vulnerable. Billions of lives depended on the carriers out there, so running was not an option.
“Plot an intercept course with the Pericles pursuit swarm; put us on a line to cut them off before they get close enough to board. If we can keep them clear they might just get away before they pick up unwanted passengers.” If the Swarmers moving on the Pericles arrived at their destination they would board her and tear the engines apart whether they were in slipspace or not. “Keep firing on the ships pursuing us; make it look like we’re making a run for it.” The crew obeyed, trained to lock into their duties to the exclusion of all else, but they all knew this order would likely end in their deaths.
“Closing on enemy flight path.” Ensign Selia called out. The bugs were so intent on their prey they didn’t seem to notice the destroyer bearing down on them. Bo peered through the streaks of debris and stardust until he spotted the eerie form of twenty three Swarmers, their bodies utterly invisible in the dark of space until highlighted by the sensor web. Even with the technology to see them they appeared unsettlingly absent, their form tall and wide with their many sets of long, narrow limbs extended outward. At the end of each slender arm a slight red trail was created by energy emissions spat from their claws, each acting as a compact rocket to produce speeds terrifying to witness from living creatures.
“Flak, switch targets.” Bo called, watching the arcs of fire on the display switch to cover the enemy, leaving their rear utterly exposed. “All weapons full burst.” Bohemond commanded, rising to his feet as his heart quickened its pace.
“Fire!” The Lancer’s hull hummed beneath his feet as their six-barrelled cannons spat death into the enemy formation, constant streams of rapid firing plasma bolts streaming into the bugs with arcs of energy adding to their lethal range.
Explosives filled with super-heated pellets detonated on proximity to create a hellish firestorm of plasma and hyper-dense projectiles. Bugs darted in all directions, seeming to sense the imminent danger, but they could not get far before the middle of their formation was caught in blazing plasma fire, bodies melting on contact with nearby Swarmers caught in the arcs from the projectiles. Diamond armour melted away and their innards ignited, bodies flying apart in horrific gouts of flame. Whatever they used to propel themselves through space apparently made the bugs combustible once their armour was breached, Bo made sure to remember that.
The enemy formation broke up, the remaining few evading in all directions while the galaxy exploded around them, leaving the Pericles free to escape. Bo let out a breath as the crew cheered, they had done it; the Pericles was safely beyond attack range and would be jumping out in moments. Now he just had to focus on their escape from…
Bohemond barely had time to breathe before alarms wailed across the bridge. Silence fell among the crew as monitors displayed the ships that had been pursuing the Pericles shifting toward the Lancer, promptly followed by a series of flashes across their hulls.
“Evasive manoeuvres!” Bohemond barely finished the call when the ship careened violently to the side, consoles exploding with showers of sparks, sections of hull collapsing in bursts of shrapnel and fire all around them. The rounded hull of the ship was enveloped in flames, the atmosphere within igniting, venting, only to be swiftly extinguished in the vacuum of space, detonations leaving gaping wounds in the rear of the vessel while the ship spilled atmosphere through horrific gouges, the impacts overpowering her thrusters.
The safety field on the command chair failed almost instantly, driving Bo to the floor as though struck by a giant wrecking ball. Landing hard on his arm he covered up and tried to hold his position, the floor beneath him lurching to send the stricken man rolling across the room and into the nearby wall. Dust and smoke filled the room as the lighting flickered and died with the sensor web.
A small voice called from across the room, he could not even tell who it was. “Direct hit across the aft sections, penetration through multiple decks. We’ve lost engines, primary power, and structural stability!” The panicked voice screamed, alarms blaring out once more before another screech of metal set their ears ringing from a fresh volley striking the hull.
Bohemond tried to hold his position, clawing at the wall for purchase, but he was dragged away and slammed into the next panel, the ship pitching violently to one side and the impact jarring his ribs, the vessel seemingly intent on expelling them into space. “Hull fractures are spreading across the ship. She’s splitting in two!”
“All hands, abandon ship!” Bohemond called through gaps in the ship’s screams, the only sounds between the howl of the hull was the hiss of steam escaping from conduits, the background hum of the alarm klaxons and the low roar of fires sparking across the ship as the temperature rose around them.
The sound was almost hypnotic after the turmoil a moment before, the steady rhythm of the alarm lighting lulling him into a moment of silence, staring at the broken remains of the bridge, bodies pinned to the wall, wounded crew members desperately crawling to the escape hatchways. Even after all the battles he had endured he could not believe the ship could look like this, a death-trap smothering the life from her own crew in her death throes.
Out of sight the ship itself went dark, her engines sputtering but continuing to glow a dark red from the immense heat as they choked out blackened smoke into space, the shadow of innumerable claws approaching the hull.
“Come on, Bo!” Bohemond was shocked from his haze by Jorric’s face appearing in the dark, his purple eyes glowing vividly with reflected light as his friend slapped him across the face. “We’re not dying here, not a chance I’m falling on an ugly bulk like this, so get moving!” Bo shook his head, wincing at the pain in his ribs and shoulder, and then clasped Jorric’s hand before the two crawled toward the hatchway.
Bo stayed close behind Jorric’s lean frame as they crawled along the plating to the corridor and the escape pods beyond. The gravity plates were still functional and the vessel had stopped trying to throw them around, but the going was still painfully slow as Bo and the few remaining bridge crew fled for their lives under the cover of smoke.
“Keep moving, Jor, I’m right behind you! Get these people out of here!” Bo called, pushing a crewman through the hatchway while he awaited the other survivors.
“Come on, move! Move! Move!” He dragged three more people into the corridor before he heard the claxons on the bridge wail once more. “Oh you’ve got to be…” He had barely enough time to wonder how the threat detectors still functioned before a final enemy salvo struck the ship.
The Lancer lurched violently forward, spilling the Squire out of the hatch and cracking his back into the command chair before the ship twisted, explosions rippling through her hull. Bo went from a horrific angle on the chair to being slammed sidelong into a wall, knocking the breath out of him with only his shock absorbent under-armour saving him from a shattered spine.
Hacking out smoke and gagging as he breathed it straight back in Bo’s vision swam, his head throbbing in blinding pain. His Highborn resilience was all that kept him awake, but he was fairly sure he had cracked multiple ribs in that last landing on top of everything else trying to suffocate him with each breath of noxious fumes.
“Bo! Don’t you dare do this! Bohemond!” A voice called from somewhere, the sound a lifeline giving him something to cling to as he was dragged toward the impending abyss.
“Jor!” Bo tried, but all that emerged was a hacking cough as he got a lungful of acrid smoke. Frustration and panic set in as Bo realised he was lost; there was too much noise assaulting his senses to get a bearing. He had no way to escape!
“Not like this…” He muttered to himself, peering through the smoke, one hand moving to a metallic pendant held around his neck. It was all he could do to crawl along the wall, hoping to find a gap somewhere, a landmark; a hand would be fantastic. Heaving his lead weighted limbs one stroke at a time he seemed to make progress somewhere, but it was not long before the ship took exception, hurling him into the air with a cry of tearing metal.
Bo coughed out violently as his back struck the ceiling, reaching out blindly while his stomach twisted and he found himself hovering in the dark, his fingers scraping across the wall, his body being pulled he knew not where. His heart fell as he lost his last grip on reality, his fingers pushing the wall away to find only thin air… only for a tight grip on his wrist to pull him sharply back.
“Bo! Stop messing around and get in here already, you’re holding us up!” Jor’s voice called from beside him.
Gravity returned to normal long enough for Bo to heave himself around the hatchway, finally collapsing into the corridor beside his friend, bracing himself for the final push as Jorric patted him on the shoulder.
Bo’s stomach flipped once more as gravity betrayed them and the hallway to freedom became a lethal plummet, the ship tipping reality onto its side. A series of deafening explosions and a vast roar deafened them while the ship cracked open, splitting in two with fire enveloping the hull.
The gravity plates were now completely haywire, leaving Bo teetering at the hatchway looking down into a plunge through a smoke-filled corridor with greater force applied every second. The fingers of his left hand gripped the rim of the hatchway as his right held on to Jorric, the Kr’lee dangling precariously beneath, the escape pods unreachable as the smoke obscured their view.
“Let go!” Bo heard the Kr’lee yell over the noise, but before he could reply he felt a jab of pain as his friend swiped at his forearm. The pain forced Bo to release his grip, Jorric tumbling into the rising smoke without another sound while Bo swung helplessly from the doorway.
“Jorric!” He called out, desperate to hear something, some clue that his comrade was still alive. He thought of the corridor below and whether he would survive the drop, but the decision was taken away from him with a sharp, agonising pain in his hand above.
Crying out Bo looked up to see a long, slender spike driven through the plating and into the palm of his hand. The spike appeared to be made solely of darkness, no reflection of the flames upon it as it split into three segments and pulled back to hook him in place, a trio like demonic petals dripping with some viscous fluid. His flesh burned from the strange substance spitting onto his wrist, dissolving skin and muscle as pain exploded along his forearm.
Reaching for his pistol Bo fought off agony as a red glow outlined dark shadows, long, abyssal limbs resembling a dark spider web amid the smoke appearing for all the world as a demon sent to collect him for the Grey Hells.
The image drew closer as the light faded into shadow, claws moving toward him through smoke; then the sound of metal doors slamming shut set his ears ringing before vertigo and pain overtook his senses and he tumbled into the darkness below.