Days of Burning, Days of Wrath – Snippet 28
Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain.”
–Karl von Clausewitz
UEPF Spirit of Peace
The door to the intelligence shop opened automatically. Esma, always polite, half leaned in and rapped her knuckles on the inside of the bulkhead. Inside, she saw at least half a dozen men and women hard at work, scanning intently or calculating the unknown. Otherwise, the shop was an antiseptic gray.
Looking up from his monitor, Commander Khan, husband, smiled brilliantly – it was always a thing of joy to see the most beautiful ensign on two worlds and one fleet – and said, “Come in, Esma, please. Have a seat? Coffee?”
“Thank you, sir, but no. The High Admiral sent me to tell you she would like to be briefed on security down below at your ‘earliest convenience’.”
“It actually isn’t very convenient,” Khan said. Which is likely why she sent you, rather than use the intercom, so I wouldn’t have to make public excuses. “Right now I am…well, see for yourself.”
Khan gestured at the monitor embedded in the work station. Esma stepped over and looked down. There seemed to be, faint through the clouds, a large ship, turning hard to its right and leaving behind a churned sea.
“What is it?” she asked. “I mean, yes, I know it’s a ship but…”
Khan explained, “It’s a freighter, a good sized one though they use some much bigger down below. We noticed it a little less than an hour and a half ago – as soon as it looked like it would breach the forty kilometer exclusion zone – and have been tracking it ever since. Waste of time and effort, though, as it turned out, since it’s veering away from Atlantic base at something like full speed.”
“Why forty kilometers?” Esma asked.
“Funny,” Khan chuckled. “I wondered about that, too, when I first was posted here. Turns out it was the limit of naval cannon gunfire when we dropped nukes on the Federated States, toward the end of the Great Global War they had down below. The dozen or so lasers we mounted to defend the base from aerial attack were sufficient, but no laser in the inventory could stop a thirty or forty centimeter spinning steel shell, so we concentrated on bluffing the barbarian states that had battleships and heavy cruisers. We declared the zone then, except for the regular freighter service from Valparaiso, and it was never updated, especially since naval cannon fire, down below, was mostly dispensed with. Anyway, you can stay here, young ensign, if you like. You may learn something useful to you. Meanwhile, I’m going to my day office to get ready for my chat with the High Admiral.”
Esma nodded, saying, “Yes, I’d like that. Thank you, sir.”
Khan turned to go and had actually taken several steps past the hatch when Esma turned and shouted to him. “There’s something wrong with that ship! It looks like it’s blowing up and burning!”
“Holy shit,” Ham said, shocked from the shaking, the roar, the fire, and the smoke. Alarms, too, were going off on the bridge as, apparently, there were some uncontrolled fires raging on the starboard side of the missile deck. Ham looked up and, mesmerized, saw a massive cloud of smoke rising ahead.
“Fire now, Ham,” the gunnery officer repeated.
“But the…yes, sir.” Again, the boy looked down and mashed his thumb onto the firing button. Again, the ship recommenced spewing the heavy long range rockets at a rate of a dozen per second. The color of the flames shooting out to starboard changed slightly.
“They’re carrying melted steel and maybe even some burning ferric oxide with them,” Gunnery shouted over the incredible roar. “Pay it no mind.”
He gave the dial another partial twist, to “3,” and then said, “Fire, Ham.”
“What if there’s a misfired missile with an unexploded warhead?” the boy asked.
“Worst case? Probably the flames torch off the rocket and it at least goes somewhere besides here. There are baffles and barriers, too, to keep it from doing much damage if it explodes on the ship.”
“Okay.” Again, Ham mashed the button. It all seemed fine until, maybe ten seconds into the salvo, there was an explosion, a very large explosion, in the middle of the port-side array of missiles. That one was quickly followed by two more, and then one more, and a number of smaller ones.
The first blast cracked the glass of the bridge. Alena cried out then moved like lightening, sideways, to put her body between Ham and the blast. The glass of the bridge shattered a fraction of a second later. She cried out again, this time in pain, as one piece sliced her scalp and another embedded itself in her abdomen. She clutched herself and sank to the deck, a long, low moan of agony escaping her lips.
The captain of the ship shrieked as a storm of thin slivers lanced into his face and eyes. He clawed at those, while continuing to scream.
Johnson was more fortunate; whatever any of the smaller fragments might have done, one large piece of glass sliced through his neck, cleaving his jugular. He fell as a kind of blood fountain, spraying a crimson spiral across the bridge as he twisted to the deck. He was either dead or soon to be.
Ham had heard ships alarms before, but nothing like this. There seemed to be half a dozen, all of different quality and frequency, all demanding attention from somebody who knew what he was doing. He heard through a loudspeaker the call for damage control parties to control flooding on one of the lower decks, and an equally insistent call for fire fighters for the deck below the missile deck. The missiles – those that had not exploded in their launch racks, continued spewing forth at the same rate of a dozen per second.
There was also an insistent searing pain over Ham’s right ear. He ignored that, running around the gunnery station to his “mother in all but womb,” Alena.
She looked pale and ghastly but was still awake and alert. He gasped at the blood flowing down her face, coloring her emerald green eyes red, and seeping through the fingers clasped over her abdomen.
He forced tears from his eyes. No sense in letting her see how bad it looks.
“Iskandr,” she said, “Do not worry for me. This ship must survive and the attack must go in. Legate Johnson?”
“Dead,” said Ham, after glancing at the still corpse in a pool of blood.
“No one else can do this, then, but you, my lord. Use my husband as your executive, but you must command the attack. It was written.”
Two of the ship’s corpsmen, along with a not terribly senior naval officer, a lower grade, and correspondingly short, tribune by the name of Campos, suddenly appeared on the bridge. Already smoke from the successful launches, the resulting fires, and the unplanned explosion was drifting in through the shattered windows.
Gingerly, Ham bent over to kiss Alena’s forehead. Before he stood he had to use a sleeve to wipe blood from his lips.
Ham gave an order he had no legal right to give. “Take command of the bridge and the ship until relieved. Keep her afloat. Move us in closer to shore with whatever speed you can get consistent with the damage control effort. I am going to go below and take command of the landing force.”
Whether it was the blood dripping down the right side of his face or not, Ham never knew, but whatever it was, the Tribune saluted, said, “Yes, sir,” and took over the captain’s station. As he did, the corpsmen split up, one going to the captain and the other to Alena.