Chapter 6 – Exit Strategy

December 11, 2185 (New Era Calendar)/

Corval System, Federation Transport Axiom, Wormhole Aerospace

Twelve days ago, the wormhole opened and an armada of ships poured from her. General Antreya and the rest of the Twenty-Fourth Fleet did what they could. But there was no way anyone could've predicted what happened—no freaking way. What was left of the 24th hauled ass back to Destrega, but me? What did I do? I stayed behind like an idiot. 'Course those were my orders, but still.

Stick around. Gather intel. Return to Destrega. It was supposed to be simple. It was supposed to be my ticket to Admiral. What the hell were you thinking, Sheryl? Maybe the two squadrons of Guncross-D units in this boat's hangar should've tipped you off. Or maybe the advanced stealth package should have. Hell, this ship's entire crew should've tipped me off.

These people have to be crazier than I am. No, scratch that. They are; Yeager, Ray, and that other guy—the one who "took a walk". That crazy bastard stepped right out of an airlock and into that damned nightmare. But then again, he has his orders just like I have mine.

Falcon better make good on his word.

End supplemental log.

---

Commander Sheryl Pike wiped at the sweat coating her forehead, turning in her chair from the datapad on her desk to look out of the viewport. In the distance floated the remains of the once-majestic Guardian and all around it, and the Axiom, a sea of the invaders' battle ships. The entire crew remained at a state of increased readiness—had done so ever since the invaders arrived—and it was beginning to take a toll on them.

While she did her best to keep her crew rested and nourished, there was only so much she could do. Hell, she, herself felt incredibly fatigued. It had been two days since the agent Falcon placed under her command left the ship. She knew that's what contributed to the unhealthy air of tension on the bridge; any moment now, she would receive the retrieval signal from Falcon's agent and the Axiom would need to make a run for it.

In theory? Simple.

In practice? She didn't even want to think about it.

Sheryl stepped from her office and proceeded to the bridge where, as usual, the on-edge crew continued to perform as the disciplined professionals they were.

"Captain on deck!" the acting executive officer announced as she entered the bridge. She nodded to the XO, a man named Trayce Yeager—one of the three men Falcon assigned to her command.

"Anything going on out there?" she asked, facing the forward view screen arms clasped behind her back.

"Nothing of note," Trayce replied as he stepped up next to her, his demeanor less-than-military. Normally, that would've been good news. In this instance, it simply met that the invaders were continuing to fortify their foothold in Corval.

Sheryl kept her annoyance at bay, realizing it had as much to do with their situation as it did with her irritation with Yeager. But her frustration at having someone out of her normal chain of command brought in was overshadowed by her desire to make it home in one piece. She didn't even know what branch of military Trayce and the other man Falcon assigned to her, Max Ray, belonged to.

She started toward the sensor station to ask about something rather inconsequential. Inconsequential as it was when compared to what she witnessed off the ship's starboard bow. A brilliant explosion tore into the belly of one of the larger alien vessels. A smaller vessel shot from the fireball.

"Axiom crew to Battle Stations!" Sheryl shouted. Trayce raced past her and manned the weapons' station. "Tactical, bring the Guncross Drones online. Mr. Yeager, have our gunners standing by. I want targets painted out for them thirty seconds ago. Comms, scan on all frequencies. Their comm network's gotta busy as all hell. Find out what they're doing."

She surveyed the bridge, suddenly awash with activity, and leapt back to her command chair.

"This is it people. Do your jobs and we all go home."

The lieutenant at Comms shouted over his shoulder.

"Ma'am! I've got a scrambled transmission coming in over an emergency comm channel."

Sheryl pointed at him, "Put it on speaker!"

The lieutenant didn't respond for another handful of seconds.

"Lieutenant!"

"I've smoothed out the transmission. Putting it on speaker now."

Still static-laden: "Goddammit, Pike! You damn well better have the engine running on that tub or none of us is making it back."

The entire duration of the communiqué was scored with explosions and weapons discharges—tell-tale signs of battle if there were any.

"Identity confirmed as Con Rafale. He's en route to our position and has damn near their entire armada converging on him," Axiom's comm officer shouted over the commotion.

Sheryl bit down a curse.

The Guncross Drone units in the Axiom's hangar bay had been programmed with combat data from Izzy Lanceville. She doubted two squadrons of, what were essentially Izzy Lanceville replicas, would be as effective as the genuine article, but right now she'd take whatever she could get her hands on.

She couldn't possibly have known that just yesterday, Izzy Lanceville made a stand against an enemy force and nearly hadn't made it back.

"Tactical, launch the Guncross-Ds. Have them take escort positions around Con Rafale…" she squinted to see him on the view screen. All she could see were criss-crossing webs of plasma, "…where the hell is he? Dammit, someone get me his position!"

Within seconds, the two-squadrons of Guncross Drones shot from their berths aboard the Axiom into the still-brewing conflagration. Ahead, the Guncross formation split into two.

The tactical officer authorized weapons-hot and no sooner did he give the order did the Guncross units launch their attack on Rafale's pursuers. The Guncross squadron approaching from the enemy's left flank unloaded first with their salvo of well-aimed ACPs missiles. Almost simultaneously, the second squadron wheeled up and over from their original vector, and followed up the first squadron's barrage with one of their own.

From the Axiom's distance, only the flashes of missile launch and detonation were visible against the starscape. Although she couldn't confirm visually what was happening, the holographic plot on the bridge told Sheryl everything she needed to know.

The Guncross units were finishing up their first run and had taken up a single formation again. Coming around, they unloaded on the assailants hitting Con's starboard rear flank.

Con's pursuit hadn't been neutralized, but the Guncross's attack had bought him precious moments that would help him get back to the Axiom. When the attacks ceased, the Guncross units formed a defensive perimeter around Con's ship—a Federation dropship.

It was strange how her mind worked at that particular moment in time. The obvious question: "Why do they have a Federation dropship?" didn't occur to her then. She wondered if the same sacrifice would be made of human pilots—if they too would one day be ordered to act as a second layer of shields to insure the completion of the mission.

Her reverie was broken when a series of red blips appeared on the tactical plot. They were approaching from two separate vectors and would be on top of Con Rafale and his Guncross escort in less than two minutes.

Commander Pike had already issued her next order before she actively thought about it.

"Helm, give me 90 to engines. Mr. Yeager, give the command to fire on my word. Ready the Anti-matter Bombs. It looks like we're going to have to fight this one out."

Still under cloak, the Axiom roared through the emptiness of space toward the two squadrons of automated starfighters and, quite possibly, the galaxy's only hope at winning the, as yet, undeclared war.

Sheryl glanced at her crew once again, their attention so greatly focused on the task at hand. She should've been anxious, but she wasn't. Her entire career as a ship captain had been characterized by surviving long odds. No reason why this time should be any different. A smile crept on to her features as she muttered to herself, "This is it. All over again."

---

May 30, 2180 (New Era Calendar)/ - 5 years ago

Sirius System, Alliance Light-Frigate Dark Horse, Deep Space

Smoke cascaded from consoles and small fires littered the bridge of the Light-Frigate. She'd just barely survived another combat. Debris and charred hulks of the pair of Dominion carriers that ambushed them populated space nearby as the Dark Horse's fighter complement, the 74th Volunteers, returned to their berth.

Lieutenant Sheryl Pike surveyed the bridge and despite the minor damage it had sustained, there were no major injuries to her crew. Despite being only a Lieutenant, the Dark Horse was indeed her command. It wasn't when they first embarked on this detached tour through war-torn space. A Dominion ambush took the life of the Horse's skipper and left her in command.

That was on day one.

They were now on day twenty-two, and there was no telling when this tour-from-hell would end. She hadn't slept in days, and this far behind enemy lines, she couldn't afford to.

When she was satisfied that repair efforts were under control she left command of the bridge to another Lieutenant and retreated to her ready room. She plopped down into her chair and closed her bloodshot eyes for what seemed like minutes before she popped a stimulant to keep her awake and alert for another twelve hours.

What would she do when she ran out? Even Sheryl didn't know.

The door to her ready room chimed, and before she could admit the person, he was already stepping through the threshold, still in his pilot gear.

"I just came to check on you, kid. You might be in command here, and I respect the chain of command, but it's still my job to look after you," the gruff voice stated.

Lieutenant Tomer Egret, commanding officer of the Volunteers, should've been a Captain. Cut from the same cloth as Gonzo Antreya, his career characterized by strong willed insubordination and outright defiance kept him on the lower end of the ranks; that, and the fact that he was barely above-average as a pilot. But Sheryl had seen pilots without his skill and without his ability to lead at ranks higher than Tomer.

She flashed him her best smile, not realizing how exhausted she really was. The drugs hadn't kicked in yet. And perhaps that was why, at that moment she broke down.

"I just don't know if I can keep this up. I'm popping three stims a day, haven't slept in days, and one mistake and we can forget about getting home."

She looked at him, tears gathering in reservoirs, her eyes deathly bloodshot. Tomer walked over to her, and placed a hand on her shoulder.

"Cry me a river," he said—deadpan. "We're behind enemy lines on a mission that was sure to fail in the first place. It's nothing short of a goddamned miracle we've made it this far. But we did, and I'll take whatever hand fate is willing to deal. I'm gonna do what I have to to make it back. If that means taking the war to Pegasus Prime itself, I'll do it. You have to do what you have to keep this boat in one piece and accomplish the mission. And you've been doing it. You're a tough cookie, kid. You'll keep doing it. You'll get the job done. And you'll get us home."

He winked at her as he turned to leave. Just as he stepped out of the ready room he faced her again, returning to the Tomer Egret that his own pilots bordered on hating.

"Slip up, though, and I'll relieve you myself."

Sheryl managed a brief, genuine smile, "I'll keep that in mind. Thanks."

---

December 11, 2185 (New Era Calendar)/ - Now

Corval System, Federation Transport Axiom, Wormhole Aerospace

The Axiom moved steady under cloak, approaching with haste that would negate their stealth capabilities. A group of enemy fighters and the equivalent of the Federation's own frigates came in at Con Rafale's forward flanks.

The Guncross units split into two squadrons and each launched separate attacks on the enemy fighters. Although outnumbered some two-to-one, the Guncross units fearlessly smashed into the enemy fighter screens. But then again, suppression wasn't their mission objective, but merely to provide cover for Con Rafale to make it back aboard the Axiom and give the Axiom enough time to b-line for Federation Space.

Sheryl laughed at herself. Fearlessly.

Machines like the Guncross Drones didn't fear. They didn't recognize when they were being used as an additional set of shields—when they were being sacrificed—for the sake of the mission.

That defined a hero in Sheryl's estimation; the bravery to knowingly sacrifice one's self in the face of certain death for the mission. And usually death was what it took to make a hero. That's what made people like Gonzo Antreya a legend; their copious ability to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good and live to face the court marshal.

Here's to making it back.

"Mr. Yeager, you got those AM Bombs prepped?"

"Locked and cocked."

"Good. Helm, bring us about and clear Rafale for the aft hangar bay. As soon as we're around, drop our cloak and put the pedal to the metal. Mr. Yeager, on my mark, pull the Guncrosses outta there."

She felt the deck beneath her begin to shift as the large craft started to come about to port-side. The artificial gravity could only compensate so much for the maneuver that the vessel's manufacturers never took into consideration forcing Sheryl to lean against the centrifugal forces pulling her to the right.

The Axiom rumbled from within.

"Ma'am, Agent Rafale is on board more or less in one piece."

"Roger that. Yeager, pull the Guncrosses. Now! When they're out of the initial blast radius, hit them with the AM Bombs."

Yeager's hands danced on his console. Something about Yeager didn't set right with her, but she definitely appreciated his ability to micromanage the tasks at hand.

"Guncrosses have formed up in our wake and are clear for the time being. Firing one."

An audible thump rang through the Axiom's hull as one of the spherical Anti-Matter Bombs launched from the specially designed launch apparatus on the starboard side and into the force approaching from Con's right.

"Firing two!"

Another audible thump as the port side launcher fired a second AM Bomb.

"Helm, drop the cloak and give me full power to the engines. If they haven't spotted us by no—"

Before she could finish, the Axiom shook hard; rocked by a salvo of plasma. If the helmsman hadn't brought down the cloak, it was certainly deactivated by now.

"Ma'am, we've got contacts closing in on all vectors! Sensors are unable to get an accurate reading but it's not looking good."

Then, space all around the Axiom went white. Seconds later, she concussed violently, throwing officers from their stations, blowing out monitors and causing power to flicker briefly. The tactical plot regained resolution to show their entire rear scopes as clear courtesy of the pair of detonated AM Bombs.

"Damage Report!" Sheryl shouted over the klaxons.

"Rear shields are gone. Port, starboard and bow shields are holding strong at eighty percent."

"Damn. Equalize our shields and prep the Ghosts."

On the tactical plot, red blips surrounded the Axiom and closed by the second. The enemy ships flanking them didn't concern Sheryl as much as ships that were closing from directly ahead, threatening to shut down any available exit vector.

Walls of laser fire erupted from the Axiom as her gunners unloaded with everything they had, drilling into the rapidly approaching enemy ships. The artificial gravity lagged in readjusting as the Axiom nosed beneath one of the derelict alien cruisers. She took another plasma hit and spat another laser cannon fusillade in return, rumbling and shaking as if it were going to fly itself apart.

Her starboard-side shields flared as another plasma salvo blasted into her. Even with the advanced shield package, there was only so much damage the Axiom could withstand. Green lightning traced over the Axiom's hull and the enemy fighters were closing in for the killing blow. Not even the Guncross-Ds could hold off the sheer number of attacking bandits. Just as they closed to within firing range they pulled back.

Three more transports exactly like the Axiom had appeared on the tactical plot. There was no way to be sure that the aliens would react to the Axiom's Ghosts at all.

Ghosts were just what their name suggested—decoys. Nothing more than a 27 cubic foot box that, when activated, would create a holographic copy of the ship it was ghosting. An advanced CPU suite would transmit the same exact sensor data not unlike the same data that the Axiom herself would, hopefully fooling the enemy long enough to give them a chance to make the run to hyperspace.

It was a gamble at best.

And it was working.

"The enemy is converging on the Ghosts, ma'am," her communications officer shouted over his shoulder.

Sheryl exhaled not realizing she was holding her breath and pumped her fist in relief. The Ghosts might have just given them the precious seconds they'd need to make the run to lightspeed.

The Axiom was still taking a beating, however, as plasma crashed into her port-side.

"Yeager. Time till we're out of Corval's grav-mass?" Sheryl shouted over the mounting commotion.

"ETA at our current speed? Two minutes."

"Helm, give me everything you've got. Redline her. Let's kick this pig!"

"Aye, ma'am."

The Axiom's engines flared as more power coursed through her. She surged forward, widening the distance between the growing horde of alien vessels. Her shields were rapidly failing now, and no rerouting of power would give them respite this time. The Axiom rumbled and shook through the gauntlet of plasma.

The lights dimmed on the bridge and a series of explosions followed, blowing out terminals, holographic displays, and sending crew from their seats.

"We're almost home free!" one of the crew shouted. Then the ship was rocked again.

"Damage report!" Sheryl demanded.

"Shields are down below 30 percent reserves, ma'am. The Ghosts are out of commission and they're bringing everything they've got on us now."

The Axiom nosed over a derelict Battle Cruiser—a casualty from the Battle of Corval when the invaders arrived. There was a window of clear starscape on the forward viewscreen. It was now or never.

"Yeager, plot our hyperspace course and prep for lightspeed."

The response came almost a second later. "Course plotted."

"Engage!"

But it was too late.

Instead of the familiar vista of light synonymous with hyperspace, a barrier of the enemy's kilometer-long war ships already blocked their path preventing their run to lightspeed. They were in no position to fight their way through, and Sheryl felt the dread tugging at her boots—everyone on the bridge felt it. The holographic tactical plot flickered showing a series of enemy blips to their aft. At a glance, Sheryl gathered they only had a few more seconds, at most, before the attackers were upon them. She braced herself for the attack that never came.

The remaining Guncross units—nine out of the original twenty-four—streaked past at a high percentage of light speed firing their laser cannons with futile abandon.

It wasn't until the first Guncross drilled into one of the enemy behemoths blocking their exit vector that Sheryl realized what they were doing. One after another they careened into the wall of alien ships. A cascading wall of fire erupted where the Guncrosses launched their kamikaze assaults and when the pulsing inferno died, Sheryl didn't hesitate.

"Get us the hell out of here!"

Yeager had already initiated the command that hurled the Axiom through the threshold of hyperspace before Sheryl finished her sentence.

As the stars elongated to create the tunnel synonymous with faster than light travel, Sheryl leaned back in her command couch and relaxed—actually relaxed. She hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath until they were already away from Corval. She should've been relieved, instead she found herself worried with the volatile nature of the Guncross drones. They were encoded with battle data from Izzy Lanceville and she wondered if the drones' volatility were an isolated incidence or a sign of some other instability with their source code—Lanceville himself.

Sheryl chuckled at herself, marveling at the mental connections she made. Anyone else would be exalted to be away from that hell hole. Her? She was concerned with the integrity of the Axiom's saving grace.

She stepped down from the command platform, patted Yeager on the shoulder and exited the tactical salon.

"Mister Yeager, you have the conn. Wake me when we're ten minutes out from Sol."

With that directive, she was gone.