The gangways of Deck Fourteen were ankle deep in fire retardant foam, the ship’s automatic emergency procedures having evidently activated in the moments following the Kalaz’an torpedo’s impact. The Valiant was not adequately prepared for phase-shift technology. None of the old Vanguard-class cruisers were. Shiftshields and harmonic scramblers were for the newer ships of the line in the Galactic Defence Fleet, those that had been designed and constructed years after that first and disastrous contact with the Kalaz’an at Tau Ceti.
As she sloshed her way through the dirty residue of chemical slush, Marris scowled. Even in the uncertain light cast by the recessed emergency beacons, it was clear that there was very little evidence of fire damage; the ship’s response to the foreign object lodged in its bowels had, as had been the case at every stage of this encounter with the Kalaz’an battle cruiser, been almost laughably ineffective.
“They’ve made a mess of the hydroponic floors.” Even muffled in her ear, Garrison’s voice exuded bitterness. “It’s going to take weeks to sort them out.”
Do you think we’re going to have weeks?
Marris refrained from expressing the thought. Instead, she glanced over her shoulder. Six security officers followed her in a loose formation, keeping close to the walls, plasma and phase rifles at the ready, the weak lighting turning their polished black armour the colour of old blood.
“Reconnaissance pattern five,” she said, her voice sounding hollow in the confines of her helmet. “Slow and methodical.”
She didn’t feel slow and methodical. As she watched the guardsmen move past her, it took an immense amount of effort not to sprint past them, towards The Incubation Suite, the lab within a lab, the heart of the ship. Its very raison d’etre.
A series of shudders shook the ship and she almost slipped on the slick flooring. This was not the ghostly unreal touch of an out of phase missile bypassing the Valiant’s shielding. This was something else.
“Report.” The guardsmen ahead of her had halted their advance towards the Genetics lab, their leader turning to look at her. She urged them forward with a sharp jerk of her head. And then promptly forgot about them as Gordon’s voice crackled in her helm.
“Not entirely sure, but it would seem that the Kalaz’an had launched some sort of bio-munition prior to the phase torpedo strike. They’re small. Perhaps two or three millimetres across. Our shields have been calibrated to keep all matter out, but a few of them must have passed through in the torpedo’s wake. Not impossible if the phase field was extended widely enough.” Gordon paused. “When they came into contact with our polyferrocrete hull, they started expanding, apparently. Quite dramatically.” She could hear chatter in the background. Schofield perhaps. Or van der Vyne. “Er… apparently, it’s also highly reactive.” She could hear Gordon swallow. “It’s a metal-eater. Outer hull integrity is already down to 73% in the affected areas. Decks 11 and 12, rear to mid sections. What we felt just now was ShipMind trying to shield the affected area from further attack. And failing.”
Marris absorbed the new information for a moment. She had fought the Kalaz’an before, but this was new. She felt a horrible, desperate uncertainty twist in her gut.
“All right,” she said finally. “Damage control to the affected hull. Use the ceramic-plated drones…”
“They’ll need to be repurposed. They’re currently set up for…”
“I know. Just make it happen. Quickly. In the meantime, keep the affected areas clear of personnel. Have we started firing?”
“Affirmative. Their shields are holding, but the tachyon cannon is disrupting their offensive capabilities. We’re still in this.”
Marris bit her lip. Whether they were ‘still in this’ or not depended on a number of things of which Gordon was not fully aware. She watched as, ahead of her, the first of the guardsmen ducked into the laboratory complex. She spoke as she briskly walked towards them, Garrison behind her.
“I want our laser and plasma batteries primed for instant salvo if and when their phase shields fail.”
“They’re out of effective plasma range and…”
“I don’t care at this point, Sam. Do it anyway.”
Clicking off the intercom, she followed her guardsmen into the Genetics Lab.