The following is a free preview chapter from the upcoming fifth book in my Starships at War military science fiction series Jacks Full of Aces
This preview contains spoilers for Strike Battleship Marines and Fleet Commander Recon.
“Hearts wasn’t kidding when she said we were in for a treat on the lab deck. Look at this place!”
Zony’s astonishment existed on several levels. For one thing, she was only one deck below the main signals facilities. Everything she was seeing had been built quite literally right under her nose. Secondly, Annora had only been posted to Chief Medical Officer for a few weeks, and it seemed she had gotten her house in order, so to speak, just as fast as Sabrina Mallory acquired her ratings for force command. While Doctor Doverly wasn’t officially a Chief Sciences Officer, all of Argent’s science personnel and facilities were technically under her command, along with the enormous warship’s entire life support system.
Zony and Captain Hunter looked through the corridor-length bay window into the ship’s main spectrometry lab. The facility was easily three times the size of the executive conference, with enough precision equipment to outfit two observatories and an aircraft manufacturing plant. Spectrometry was the major deck fifteen facility on the starboard side of the ship, while stellar cartography occupied the port side main platform. The doctor had scheduled a demonstration for the senior staff, and it looked like she had the juice to make it a blockbuster.
Unlike smaller vessels, Skywatch capital ships had fully capable scientific research facilities alongside far better than average medical units. Destroyers and lighter vessels were all designed for maneuverability, and reducing tonnage had exponential benefits for ships operating in high-energy drive fields. The results were predictable. Several classes of warship ended up being designed around their weapons, with any extra capacity being discarded in favor of better acceleration, better energy envelopes and more rapid evasive turns. The most prominent example of this philosophy was none other than the refitted DSS Rhode Island, a ship included in a battle formation for subspace warfare and built around the best weapons for that role. Battleship-class vessels, on the other hand, were always bound to have excess capacity due to their much heavier engines and the manpower needed to operate them safely. Crew numbers added significantly to a ship’s bulk due to the realities of life support. Despite shipwrights’ best efforts, most of those increases produced excess capacity due to the realities of geometry.
When it came time to decide what to use the extra displacement and tonnage for, factions developed rapidly, as was the case with every ship design. The doctors and scientists who successfully persuaded their superiors that a full suite of exploratory scientific instrumentation could be pressed into service to give ships like Argent a military advantage ultimately prevailed. It wasn’t long before nearly all the ships of the line had laboratory and experimental facilities of one kind or another. Argent’s science deck and hospital deck were as spacious and as well equipped as any other ship in the fleet. Only Argent had Commander Doverly, however.
The doctor hadn’t had the time to investigate the Dunkerque before the X-Ray Tango engagement, but now she had finally gathered all the research in one place, and she wasn’t going to let her chance escape.
Unnatural light glared through the reinforced and radiation-proof observation bays along the corridor leading to Argent’s chemistry and genetics labs. The bluish color made the entire deck look as if it were experiencing electrical discharges not unlike a small lightning storm. Zony and Hunter peered around the corner and found that the glow was being caused by a video recording of the phenomenon Doctor Doverly had encountered aboard DSS Saratoga.
The hatch opened with an antiseptic hiss. Annora stepped into the corridor looking particularly pleased with herself. She was wearing her regulation white lab coat and MEDCOM badge opposite her silver commander’s rank insignia on the lapel. Hunter had to admit that despite the doctor’s talent at commanding the crew, she looked far more at home here in her three-deck scientific and medical empire.
“I knew we walked away from Saratoga too quickly,” Annora announced. “Come on in. Moo and Yili are already here.” The captain and Zony followed the doctor into the fourth spacious lab area they had seen so far and took a seat at the makeshift combination lab counter and meeting table.
“What the hell were they doing out there on the Sarn Frontier unescorted?” Moo replied. “We searched the logs and Northern Banner orders for hours and didn’t find anything except the disaster buoy, and even that didn’t have a word from the captain.”
“We know who was responsible,” Yili added. “The only thing I can think of is they were conducting some kind of experiment. But of all the places–”
“Exactly. If you’re going to pop off some weird alien contraption, why would you start at the edge of hostile space in a missile cruiser designed to operate in a battle group?” Moo replied.
In the video, the recording showed Annora aiming her modified ATMAS handheld squarely at what at least appeared to be the source of the disturbance. Hovering a few inches over one of the non-reactive metal tables in Saratoga’s main lab was an impossibly bright strobing light source. It looked as if it were not quite solid, and occasionally emitted a thin spidery bolt of electrical energy. It wasn’t moving, but it was obviously highly energetic.
“Whatever it was, it was ionizing everything in the room, including the metal,” Doverly reported.
“Was it hot?” Hunter asked.
“Negative. No temperature increase. But it was emitting high-energy ultraviolet radiation. Saratoga’s lab is shielded, of course. We were able to contain the phenomenon with an isolation screen.”
“Has it been here all this time? Ever since the rescue?” Zony asked.
“It’s a distinct possibility. This has to be the phenomenon we all experienced when Moo and the captain were on the Magellan mission. This is what caused the disturbances and the gateways we all used to communicate. Watch this.”
In the video, the camera pulled back and then was pointed around a corner. The next corridor was lit by a single fixture. The metal bulkheads were painted clean white with several warning symbols along one side indicating access to a safety airlock. The picture froze.
“Recognize that?” Annora asked.
Zony and the others looked quizzical.
“This is the same deck I saw when the scanner energy reflected back on us at Magellan,” Moo said. “Same notices. Same color and geometry. It must have created some kind of transit gateway between our paladin’s position and Saratoga’s hull.”
“What were those freighters carrying at Magellan?” Zony asked.
The colonel pulled up the library computer interface on his handheld. The device created a scrambled ultrawideband communications field that activated the security interface to Argent’s cephalon matrix. Within moments, the colonel had access to all the records of the Magellan ambush mission.
“We never got a clear reading on everything inside those freighters, but take a look at this.” Annora watched as the marine officer brought up the paladin’s scanner data and displayed it on one of the auxiliary screens. “Here. We had just activated a millisecond SRS burst. That would have given us a ping at best. Mass and position. But the instant the short range scanners activated, it caused the phenomenon.”
“You had the same experience aboard Dunkerque,” Annora mused. Zony’s eyebrows raised in recognition.
“That’s right,” Hunter said. “Zony’s short range scanner improvisation. She used the scanners to match the communications frequency harmonics being generated by my commlink.”
“Good thing we set those things up to broadcast the owner’s position and status,” Annora added. “With the help of the fleet’s most sound-sensitive signals officer, we could track Jason’s location across dimensions.”
Moo was cycling through Argent’s records of Zony’s experiment aboard Dunkerque. “Here. This is the timecode where the SRS emissions matched the automatic beacon’s communications frequency.”
“And with enough power, the captain stepped through the doorway from one dimension to another.” Zony’s voice was full of wonder. “That explains it. When the energy produced by our SRS systems is transmitted at the right harmonic frequency and it encounters this scattering field energy or whatever it is, the phenomenon creates a physical tunnel through space-time.”
“Where time passes 100 to one.” Moo added.
“Or one to 100,” Annora replied. “These frequencies are simple waveforms, not particles. They can be inverted, just like a sound canceling device. In fact, if this phenomenon got into the open air, the lower harmonics could probably create some painful results.”
“That would explain that powerful noise storm on Dunkerque. It even amplified our voices,” Hunter said.
“And this is the nexus for Saratoga’s connection to it all,” Annora said, starting the video again. One the screen, the strange light source strobed and pulsed. “What if–”
“I know exactly what you’re about to say, doctor,” Moo interrupted.
“Oh?” Annora put a hand on a hip in mock annoyance.
“Dunkerque winked out because whoever was aboard that ship didn’t know the phenomenon was affecting them until it was too late,” Moo said. “That’s why she was abandoned and those whatever they were ended up invading the decks and altering the internal life support. But once we got control of it again, Yili provided us with enough power to bring her back into normal space. I think Saratoga was subject to the same thing, and further, I think that’s how she got out into the middle of the Sarn Frontier all by herself. She flew right through that tunnel you just described. It was an experiment, just like Dunkerque.”
“And then whoever was conducting the experiment couldn’t get back because whatever they encountered–” Zony began.
“Either drove them insane or sent them somewhere else?” Hunter finished.
Annora continued examining her handheld. “What if a ship went one way and the crew went another?”
“Or even better, what if someone in control of this technology wanted to transport a crew somewhere else like they did with Argent’s?” Moo added.
The doctor shook her head. “I don’t think it’s that sophisticated, colonel. I think they try to transport the ships, and when they screw it up, it has some kind of strange effect on the crew. It either warps their minds or they don’t go where the ship goes and we end up with empty vessels.”
“You mean they tried to transport Argent somewhere else, wedged the controls and ended up sending our crew down to Bayone’s surface instead?” Hunter asked.
“Or, maybe they tried to transport Argent to the surface and missed,” Annora mused. “Whatever this thing was, it maintained a steady power level, and I had a solid lock on its electromagnetic harmonics. These phenomena must be some kind of energy sink, or perhaps a communications beacon like the repeaters on our jump gates.”
“The free-floating equivalent of our less advanced stationary alternative,” Zony concluded.
“At any rate, captain. I think we’ve found the answer to the vanishing starships.”
“Outstanding, doctor. Now the question is can you re-create that phenomenon and do it safely?” Hunter asked.
“I’ll do you one better. With all the data we got from Saratoga, and the surplus handhelds we’ve accumulated, I think we can block the scattering field and put Atwell’s forces out of business.”
Jacks Full of Aces is set to be released soon. If you’d like announcements on new book releases, be sure to sign up for the mailing list!