A Game of Chance
'Captain, they're closing!' Helm Marriat was unable to keep the slight note of panic from her voice. She was new, only three weeks aboard A Game of Chance, the UNION cruiser I captained. I let the panic rise in her, did nothing to dissuade it. She was trained, talented - now was the time for her to prove herself, not be coddled by her commander. Coddling new officers was not my job.
'Their engine is running hot' said Kalt, my Science Officer. Panic, and indeed any other emotion, was entirely absent from his voice. 'They are apparently using one of our salvaged polywell drives, sir, but without the expertise or shielding to do so safely.'
I internalised the fact, for a brief moment wondering how they had managed that one. The Centauri Alliance weren't supposed to - but I dismissed the half formed thought. That was something for the Science Officer to worry about - figuring out the specifics was not my job.
'Sir, we have confirmed a weapons lock. I'm locking their engines in return.'
Tactical Officer Bedford had not waited for an explicit command, but she knew my standing orders well - confirmed locks were returned in kind, and if she was targeting the engine rather than the weapons system that was most likely due to whatever information Kalt was feeding her. That was fine - I knew Bedford, trusted her, had her as a gunner on the frigate I piloted in the first U-CA war. Second guessing experienced officers was not my job.
The ship shook suddenly, klaxons blared, and a forgotten cup of tea spilled across my lap. I barely noticed the slight burning sensation. 'Engineering, damage report.' I barked. 'Shields took most of it sir, but that was a lot joules for her to disperse in one whack. Their science officer is no slouch, sir. I expect they have a 38% or higher lock on our shield's operational frequency. I dinna' think we can take another like that.'
'Sir' came Kalt's calm voice, cutting off Chief Engineer Spalding's worrying summation. 'They are hailing us. Captain Uri Prost of the Centauri Alliance demands our immediate surrender and A Game of Chance's encryption key protocols. In return they offer us our lives, Captain.'
The bridge went silent, save the klaxons. In such times as these, it was often assumed those in command of their fellows must be thinking of the many things which now hung upon their orders - careers, responsibilities, lives, or simply how precisely such a situation had come to be. This was untrue. A captain had no time for such thoughts, such hesitation.
'Bedford, what's the status of our...'
'Torpedo tube one and two loaded sir, and Spalding just routed everything but life support to the laser batteries.' I could practically hear her smile, grim thought it probably was.
'Helm, that means you've lost the main drive’ I began said, playing it safe and reminding the new officer that...
'I've bypassed safety limits on the maneuvering thrusters already sir. R...Ready to be brought about, but she'll be slow.' Marriat's voice wavered, but that didn't matter. She had given what I needed of her.
'Kalt, that salvaged engine. Not very stable, I'm betting?’
'Not at all sir, markedly unstable in fact.' Was that a hint of amusement in his voice? I'd have to jibe him about it later, assuming we both lived through the next five minutes.
A moment more of silence. I may have smiled, just then. There is no happier feeling in one’s life, I believe, than knowing exactly what it is one must do. This - This was my job.
'Marriat, bring us around. Spalding, try not to let us fall out of the sky. Bedford, prime all tubes, prepare for a full broadside and for the love of God maintain that engine lock.’
I stood then - better to die or win on one’s feet - and took a sip of fresh tea. The clatter and hum of Chance’s command deck faded to a comforting murmur. I wondered briefly who had brought the cup without my noticing.
‘Open fire,’ I snapped ‘and don't let up 'til she glows in the infrared.’
I took another sip, and the sky was filled with fire.