“We have lost 22 ships, Admiral. StarCen lost six.”
Severs gaped in astonishment.
“What . . . what happened, PLAIR? What were those things?”
“I have run multiple analyses and I believe I can conclusively say the hollow cubes used by the enemy were portal gateways.”
“Portal . . . gateways?”
“Correct, Admiral. StarCen used the technique of larger structures pioneered by Captain Raleigh of the Ultima Mule Company. You will recall Raleigh used the hull of the Coral Reef to great effect against the enemy. StarCen copied that technique with giant portals floating in space.”
Severs took a moment for his mind to catch up. The battle concluded in seconds, but it took humans longer to process things.
“So, whatever went inside the cubes did not come back . . .”
“Because they were ported away.”
“But . . . where did they teleport to?”
“I deduce from the bright flashes, the nearest sun. Again, StarCen and her weapons designers built upon our pioneering technique of porting in pieces of the sun to cause damage. Only, instead of bringing parts of the sun to the battle, they have found a way to teleport entire ships into the sun itself.”
Severs gasped. He could not help himself. He took a huge breath of air in astonishment.
“This is . . . disturbing.”
PLAIR did not reply to the Admiral’s statement of the obvious.
“How . . . how did the sun not burn up everything around it? I mean, they had a gateway into the sun? It should have obliterated everything, including those cubes.”
“I am unsure of all the details until such time as we can examine one of the structures or see more specifics regarding their design. Considerable solar radiation was present each time something went inside the cubes, but it did not appear to affect the metal. I surmise they developed a sort of one way door. Whatever crossed the line went into the sun, but the sun did not come out. Perhaps it involved a port taking place in a fraction of a second.”
“That’s a phenomenal weapon. It’s a game changer. We need to counter it immediately.”
“It does change the dynamics of interplanetary conflicts, but I surmise it has limitations.”
“Limitations? Like what?”
“Enormous power requirements are going to keep it within the radius of an established geo-centric base. It cannot travel far from its home and be effective.”
“Hm. So, we probably could not transport our own cubes to a system and have them duke it out against their cubes?”
A slight pause as PLAIR considered this idea.
“I do not have enough information to make a definitive statement concerning that scenario, however I think the odds favor your statement. Building a portable version may be possible but would require an extraordinarily large dedicated power core. Such a project may not be feasible in the immediate future.”
Severs suddenly felt very old, and very tired. He sank down in his chair as the full impact of losing so many ships hit him.
“Very well, PLAIR. Relay your findings to the rest of the Navy. I’ll prepare a personal report for Chancellor Cole.”
The klaxon blared on the bridge of the Ronald Reagan. A representation of the ship flashed on the main holo, and Captain Neal Delgado noticed a huge chunk of the troop transport was . . . missing.
Delgado was 48 years old, with close-cropped black hair. He stood at a decent height, at five foot eleven or 180 centimeters. He was in terrific shape, if he said so himself. He knew his wife back on Diego would agree. She had given him four daughters, evenly spaced about every two years, starting when he graduated from the Naval Academy and coinciding with his shore leave.
But right now was not the time to think about family. Refocusing on the present, he thought that whatever that was the League had out there, it had taken part of his ship along with several of his troops as well.
He watched an O2 reading that appeared alongside the graphic. Whatever emergency repairs PLAIR could do were not enough to stem the air loss. The numbers dropped down precipitously.
Delgado blinked . . . and the horizon of a planet below filled the holo.
“What’s going on? PLAIR? Report.”
“I am sorry, Captain. The Ronald Reagan has lost part of its hull to an enemy weapon. I cannot port you anywhere else safely. A crash landing on Sporades is the best chance for you and your crew to survive.”
The image of the horizon tilted, and more of the planet filled the holo.
His pilot jumped to the controls.
“We’re heading down, Captain!”
“Give us a controlled descent, Beazy! PLAIR! Can you port us down?”
“I am sorry, Captain. I have very little control at this point. All other Republican ships have been evacuated from this solar system. I will try to maintain contact with the Ronald Reagan for as long as possible, and I will assist your pilot in finding a good location to set the ship down. After that, you will be on your own.”
He looked at his Executive Officer, Beth Hogue. Brown hair, brown eyes. Short, at five foot five or 165 centimeters. Attractive and young enough to be one of his daughters, at 25. She flashed a grin.
“Could be worse, Captain. We could be dead already.”
He could not help but smile at her statement.
“Gallows humor, XO?”
Hogue had a personality to match her looks. A sharp tongue, and sharper wits.
“It’s either laugh or cry, sir.”
He grunted and looked back at the holo. The surface of the planet seemed to be growing closer way too fast.
“That’s a lot of water,” he said. “Is there any land down there?”
Hogue said, “Sporades only has islands, sir. No continents. Let’s just hope PLAIR can find a good one for us to crash land on.”
Delgado glanced over to the readings flashing by on the holo. They were literally plummeting through the atmosphere. He watched the graphics as PLAIR fired their standard drives, adjusting the rate and path of descent.
“Let’s just hope they don’t have any aerial defense systems that will knock us out of the air.”
PLAIR responded to this statement.
She said, “The contraptions used against us appear to be space-based only. There is a missile defense system, but you should be on the ground before the missiles have a chance to strike.”
They came closer, the ocean below filling the holo now. The crippled ship raced across the watery planet’s atmosphere as PLAIR continued to control their descent.
Soon they were a kilometer above the surface, and dropping lower. The numbers ticked down on the holo, and the water took on more definition.
Beazy pointed off in the distance. He said, “Land ahead, Captain. I think that’s where we’re going.”
Everyone looked on the holo and watched as a mass rose out of the water, rapidly growing as they closed the gap. Their speed slowed and their angled adjusted.
PLAIR’s voice rang out through the ship.
“Brace yourselves. Prepare for impact in five, four, three, two, one . . .”
She covered the broken vessel with maximum shields, all the power in its core drained to protecting the hull.
Most spaceships were never designed to land. And troop transports were large. Not as large as Mammoth-class ships, but big nonetheless. They were built in orbit and designed to remain in space, using teleportation or transports for boarding and disembarking.
PLAIR elected to land the Ronald Reagan on her belly, sliding it along a swath of mostly open land just past a beach on the island. This part of the island, at least, appeared isolated. No people were present. They headed toward a desolate field, with sand dunes giving way to saltgrass and light vegetation.
The ship streaked in low over the water and thudded into the ground at a shallow angle, like a giant metal whale sliding in for a landing.
Her shields slammed into the topsoil, throwing up geysers of dirt, carving a long trench as the spaceship slowly, painfully slid to a stop.