NPAS Warspite and NPAS Hermes drifted along in what any halfway competent astrogator would have refused to call orbit above Jason, the largest moon of Threshold VI, locally known as Argo. Both ships showed signs of battle.
They’d got the better end of it, though, thought Ship Commander Charles Weatherby of Warspite. Their opponent, the Exile Fleet heavy cruiser Vengeance, wouldn’t last in Jason’s orbit for more than one or two more revolutions; after that, she’d most likely fall into argo, and if Weatherby or Lassiter over in Hermes couldn’t get a prize crew to her and get her maneuvering before then, they’d have to deal with lifeboats, too.
Weatherby had more pressing issues. Warspite was in a bad way. She was a point-defense cruiser, built to support fleet actions, and hardly a match for another vessel of her size. Vengeance was bigger, and in any case, only a handful of Confederate cruisers were capable of engaging an Exile heavy cruiser on equal terms. It was a good thing Hermes had been nearby when Weatherby’s deck officer called out the contact; her centerline kinetic had been the deciding factor, even if the rest of her armament had been as ineffective as Warspite‘s.
Weatherby kicked off a bulkhead and floated into the patrol bridge near the ship’s bow. Miraculously, it hadn’t taken many hits—CIC, amidships and centerline, hadn’t been so lucky—and most of the screens still worked. They were on, but almost all blinked with no signal messages. A pair of engineering warrants were splicing test gear into the cabling leading to the dead screens. Four other officers waited on Weatherby. They were Ship Subcommander Athelney Jones, who’d been running damage control during the battle, and Warspite‘s senior lieutenants, Callamy from engineering, Leighton from gunnery, and Rawlins from navigation.
“Well, gentlemen,” Weatherby said, “Where are we?”
“Nowhere good, sir,” Jones replied. “Seventy-one men dead or dying, and another hundred and twenty-four wounded.” He shook his head. “We’ll not be fighting until we can come up with more than two-thirds a crew.”
“Engineering? When will I have my ship back?” Weatherby asked.
“Not fully until we refit,” Callamy said, in his particular soft Highland brogue. “You’ve maneuvering control in all axes right now, but it’s not fast. I haven’t had time to see what I can put together from the rest of the thrusters. On the mains, one, three, and four are complete losses. In another half hour, we may be able to answer a slow bell.”
Weatherby looked to Leighton. “Better news,” the lieutenant said. “The primary point defense computer survived. We have twenty-eight operational masers, thirty-one point-defense guns, one missile tube, and two of the autocannon.”
It was something less than half of Warspite‘s normal armament, but enough to protect Hermes on the way back to the nearest Naval Arm installation, supposing they were able to avoid any foes of Vengeance‘s caliber.
That left Rawlins. “We still have a working radar set. We’ll have to see about the infrared, but Callamy’s boys have more important things on their hands. We’ll be able to use the message laser in an hour. We’ve been signaling Hermes, but we’ve not had a response.”
“What about the flight deck? Could we get a boat over to Lassiter?” asked Weatherby.
“No, sir, unless we cut the doors away.”
“Is there a reason not to?”
“We haven’t yet pressure-tested the adjacent compartments, sir.” Callamy grimaced at the captain’s look. “We lost containment on the Number Three engine, sir, and she melted a hole through the pressure hull. I’m working with half a crew. You canna expect miracles.”
“We’ll need some,” Weatherby declared. “Lieutenant Rawlins, is Vengeance responding to signals? Good. Tell them to launch lifeboats while they still have the delta-v to match courses. Callamy, I want those flight deck doors open as soon as possible, and my engines back soon after. Leighton, which magazine did they hit?”
“Number Three, sir.”
“Round up as many men as you can find and get that hole sealed. If you run out of patches, cut from the interior bulkheads. Gentlemen, I want Warspite and Hermes under way toward safety in two hours. The enemy knows we’re here, and we’re in no shape for another fight. To your tasks.”