We had just returned to space sector patrol in our ship, the Taft, having been refurbished with a special plastic casing to nullify the effects of the Espers latest weapon modification. The Espers amplified their MOM, or Mind Over Matter, waves so they could tear up our ships with their minds. To tell the truth, I felt more comfortable, as I'm sure most of the crew did. None of us wanted to have our ship suddenly fall to pieces around us, leaving us to learn how to breathe vacuum in one hard lesson, a course that no one has ever passed yet.
So far, most of the engagements with the enemy had been single ship encounters for both sides. Actually, only two major battles had occurred in which there were squadron size forces on both sides. We won the second one handily. The first one was mostly a draw. That was the battle that started the war. We had tried to meet them as friendly neighbors and they opened fire. Our force withdrew only to have them pursue, so our side had to fight once more then to survive. Both sides lost a couple of ships before the Espers decided that pursuit wasn't in their best interests. Anyway, since those two battles, the Espers had only fought us in single ship engagements. From what I knew in official briefings, we weren't doing too hot that way. However, there was simply too much open space to patrol while formed up as squadrons. In order to protect civilian traffic, we had to patrol open space in single ships.
The Taft, itself, was one of the very newest of all the ships. My crew and I felt lucky just to be assigned to it. Still, other ships of the same class and just as new as the Taft had already succumbed to the Espers and their bag of tricks. We were just as determined that we wouldn't become one of the statistics listed in the wrong column on the tote board.
It was the fourth day of the patrol when we spotted an Esper scout ship with our long- range scanning sensors. It was readily apparent from the fact that the Esper didn't change course that he hadn't spotted us. For me, I saw it as a ready made opportunity to learn a bit more about our enemy while we were in scanning range but not each other's weapon range. For that reason, I informed the crew to make as little electronic noise as possible while the Taft took up a course matching that of the Esper. We would tag along as its shadow for awhile. The bridge crew began accumulating data to send out as a report in one high-speed burst transmission when we were discovered or I decided to move in for the kill. Until that time, nothing would be sent out in order to keep ourselves as electronically silent as possible.
We managed to shadow the Esper scout for over a day without being noticed or attacked, if he had noticed us. That was when we suffered a meteor hit to the ship that required repair. It was my fault for not putting the shields on, even though my reasons were known to the entire crew. I didn't want to forewarn the Esper by operating anything that gave off a strong electronic signature. Regardless, the repair needed to be made. Though it wasn't critical, it was important. Even then, I didn't want to give away my position, so I had the crew do everything manually. The crew member who went outside had to enter the airlock while the crew inside manually operated the inner door to close it. Then he had to manually empty the air inside the lock and open the outside hatch. Only then could he go about doing the work on the outside of the ship.
Anyway, the moment that he opened the hatch to step outside, that was the precise moment when the Esper suddenly came alive and practically zeroed in on our position. It was the first time any of us had seen an Esper spot one of our ships from that far away. In fact, almost all the single ship encounters had been initiated by our ships, usually catching the Espers off guard at long range. The moment that happened, I wondered if they had known all along before about where our ships were. Anyway, I had no choice but to order the crew member to stay inside and for the shields to be put on.
"Battle stations!" I ordered over the intercom.
"Shields up, Captain!"
"Outer hatch secured!"
"Crew member processing in through the airlock!"
"Repair crew standing by!"
I commanded, "Open fire when he gets in range."
Moments later, the battle was on. The Esper must have tried to use his amplified MOM waves to no avail. I think that was so because there seemed to be some hesitation in his movement. Finally, he then straightened out so he presented as small a target as possible. It wasn't too small for my crew. The Esper was barely into effective range for his own weapons when our lasers chewed him up and spit him out in smaller and smaller chunks. Knowing one of their tricks, we continued to fire at the debris to make sure that he wasn't deliberately disassembling his ship to appear like debris to fool us. After all, they have such powerful minds, they actually assemble their ships without permanent fasteners as we do. It's no big deal for them to disassemble their ships while remaining within their space suits.
After several minutes of firing, I finally called general quarters, thus ending the battle, our third successful engagement. Ours was the best record of success in the entire fleet.
I was concerned about how the Esper had spotted us at such a critical moment. Actually, had our crew member had a second more, he would have been floating in space while the Taft fought the battle. Not a comforting thought for him, I'm sure. I mean, after all, if we had lost, he would have soon joined us in death when his oxygen gave out. Even if we had won, we still would have faced the enormous task of trying to find him. Talk about finding the proverbial needle in the haystack, no one ever had a haystack that large. But it was a moot point. He didn't have the time to step out. We didn't have to find him.
However, we still had repairs to attend to. There was no way in hell we were going to later land if we didn't fix the meteor damage. Also, it was impressed into me at the Academy that such matters should never be left to be performed later. There was no telling what might be happening later. We might become engaged and be forced to seek refuge on a planet or in its atmosphere, especially if we were getting the worst of it. For that reason, I instructed the crew to go about resuming the repair operation. The only difference was that they didn't have to operate the hatches and airlock manually. That would save a little time and effort.
One crewman was outside while others worked on the inside to repair the damage to our atmospheric steering. He had been outside almost a half-hour when alarms began to chime suddenly.
"Enemy ship approaching! Starboard side!"
"Battle stations!" I ordered quickly, knowing that we were going to have to face the problem I dreaded earlier of finding our crew member later, provided we won the battle. There just wasn't enough time to bring him on board, not if we were all going to have a chance of survival. His survival rested on our survival. Ours rested on jettisoning him temporarily so we could defend ourselves.
"Crew member detached!"
"Repair crew minus one standing by!"
I really didn't need to be reminded that we were leaving a man behind. Still, it was proper protocol for the department head to say what she had. I couldn't allow myself to get upset over that.
"Lasers, engage target when in range. Helm, move us away from our man so he won't be fried in the crossfire," I ordered. "Evasive maneuvers when clear."
The ship responded quickly and efficiently. I had a well-trained and coordinated crew. They were experienced now, having successfully met the enemy more than any other ship in the fleet. I just hoped that we were fully up to the task again considering the unusual circumstances.
"Captain, enemy is slowing down and still on course for our earlier position."
Quickly, I looked at the sensor panels with their monitors. Even to me, it appeared as if the Esper was slowing down. There was no doubt, either, that it was going to where we had been.
"Gunners, hold your fire. Fire only on my command. Helm, bring us around to the rear of the Esper," I ordered.
It took very little time for the ship to be brought around. In what seemed like no time at all, we were behind the Esper and creeping up on him at a range I would have been shocked to see happen before. We were so close, I could almost spit at him and be guaranteed of a hit. Of course, in space spit goes a lot farther since there's no real gravity to slow it down.
"Attention crew, this is the Captain. I don't believe that the enemy ship hasn't spotted us even though it doesn't seem possible. However, the enemy appears more interested in our crew member out there whom he has spotted than in us. Gunners, be ready to fire if the enemy should suddenly react. Otherwise, hold your fire. We're going to pull a quick test and learn something. Shields down."
The shields went down and there was no reaction from the Esper.
"Shields up," I ordered.
Again, there was no reaction from the still slowing enemy ship approaching our crew member. It felt eerie to be so close and not be fighting.
"Repair crew, open the inner airlock hatch," I commanded.
Moments later, I heard, "Inner airlock hatch open."
"Close the hatch," I ordered.
"Inner hatch secured!"
It seemed impossible, but the Esper didn't seem to hear us at all. We began operating everything we could on board, except the lasers. Nothing got the enemy's attention.
After close to half an hour of testing, I finally concluded that the Esper simply didn't know where we were. Had I not been concerned about my crew member still outside waiting for us to recover him, I could have tested the Esper some more. Instead, I ordered, "Gunners, I want him disabled. Take out his engines and his weapon systems only. We're going to capture an Esper today. Fire!"
We were so close, it was like taking target practice on a stationary target. One laser concentrated on the engines. Another concentrated on the enemy weapons. In less time than we knew possible, we had disabled the enemy ship. It was ours to take back in. We had captured the first prisoner of the war from the other side as far as we knew.
We quickly recovered our crew member, helped somewhat by the enemy's curiosity in locating him. Our repairs were completed and then the repair crew went to work on rigging up a sling to tow the enemy ship back with us. It had to be done right since the Esper might try disassembling his ship in order to escape.
While that went on, I notified Headquarters of our latest engagement. Admittedly, it was highly unusual for any ship on patrol to have two engagements in such a short period, let alone call in to report capturing one of the enemy ships with its crew inside. As I expected, we were ordered to return with our prize immediately. Another ship would take over our sector.
I left the bridge with my Exec in charge and went to see the repair work. It was also a good opportunity for me to check on the one crew member I left behind temporarily. Thankfully, he was in good shape and just as surprised as any of us at how the battle went.
"Yes sir, it sure was something. There you all were in the Taft slipping up behind the Esper. I don't know how come he couldn't detect you. Then the Taft suddenly whipped out her laser beams and it was all over. It was awesome! Slash, slash, slash! He was out!"
I replied, "Okay, crewman. I'd like you to make a report to be included in the log. Make sure you put down in your report anything you were doing at the time while waiting for us to end the battle and retrieve you."
"That's easy, sir. I was just thinking," he said.
"You weren't doing anything else?" I asked.
"Nope, there just wasn't anything else to do. That's why I was just thinking about how long I'd have to be out there and how slow time seemed to be going by as you all lined up for your shots. Was there something I should have been doing, sir?" he replied.
I answered, "I don't think so. I'm sure, though, that Headquarters will want to talk with you as well when we get back. In the meantime, you get some rest."
We learned rather quickly, considering that Headquarters is a military bureaucracy, how it happened that we got the drop on the Esper so easily. Experts in every field went over the one enemy crew member found inside the enemy ship and the ship, itself. Their experts were at first astounded when they didn't find any instruments like ours for sensing other vessels. On the other hand, they did learn that our new hull coating was protecting us even better than before, without our knowing it, from being located by the Espers.
The Espers, it turned out, were finding us by tracking our very thoughts. It wasn't until I sent a crewman outside the ship, or had the outer hatch open with someone in the air lock, that either of the Espers even knew that we were in the area. Then it was as if they had a beacon giving away our position. We were quite invisible to them because of the new hull coating that was meant to protect us from the other Esper weapon.
The experts, after talking with our crewman, even suggested that the Esper had picked up on his thoughts about time being so slow and then responded to those thoughts in a like manner by slowing his ship. In other words, what the experts said was that the Espers as a race didn't have a hard time getting airborne and then space borne in their technical history. They didn't have to invent instruments to warn them of certain things since they possessed extra senses. Who needs a radio when you can talk over distances with your thoughts? The Espers were flying by the seats of their minds. In effect, our crewman had almost hypnotised the enemy into letting us shoot him simply by thinking about time passing so slowly. Of course, I already suspected exactly what the experts had to say. However, I'm merely a ship's captain.
Atk. Butterfly has been published in several dozen print and electronic publications. As well, he has four science fiction novels published and another scheduled for publication. When he's not writing, he can be found disguised as a mild-mannered computer programmer. He also publishes Preditors and Editors, a writer's resource.
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