General Hereford grunted under the heavy acceleration. It drove him back into his seat and made each drawn breath a little harder than he’d like. Maybe he really was too old for this sort of thing. Maybe he ought to just retire and let younger minds and bodies take the lead. But no, not yet anyway. Recent events had shown him that now more than ever the world needed every old warrior to remain on their feet and fighting back.
The acceleration vanished, leaving Hereford floating gently for a moment before artificial gravity cut in and hauled him back into his seat. Acceleration resumed at a more gentle pace. They were in space.
“How’re you doing back there, sir?” Jorgensson asked from the pilot’s seat.
“Just fine, thanks. Takes a little getting used to.”
“Sir, is this your first time up here?”
Hereford nodded. “First time for me. Hopefully not my last.”
He chuckled a bit at the idea. There he was, the general in charge of the US Space Force, one of the men foremost in charge of defending Earth from invasion and destruction, and he’d never actually been in space. Not until this moment, anyway. He’d sent others to do the hard work while he remained safe at home. Well, relatively safe, anyway. No one would ever be completely safe again, perhaps.
“Cool, sir. Well, we’re coming up on the ship now. Want to come forward to take a look at her?”
Hereford unbuckled himself and stood carefully. He still felt unsure of himself, up there so high above any altitude he’d ever traveled, yet it felt much like flying in a regular airplane on Earth. The feeling was so familiar that he was able to quickly set aside his worries and come forward to stand next to Jorgensson’s seat.
That’s where he stopped in his tracks.
Space was even bigger in person than it had looked in videos. The stars stretched out above the shuttle, speckling as far as he could see and beyond. Earth drifted below, the slowly spinning source of life for his entire race. It swept by, so far below and yet at the same time so incredibly near. It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time. That little blue and white marble was everything to him. Hereford would die to protect it, if he had to. He was more sure of that than anything else.
“There she is, sir,” Jorgensson pointed at a fleck of light dead ahead.
Hereford could barely see it at first, but the bright point continued to grow as he came closer. It grew larger still, revealing itself as a starship. Not just any ship, mind. This vessel was enormous in scope and power, the single greatest construction humanity had ever embarked upon.
Even if humanity hadn’t entirely constructed the thing. No, this vessel was built on the framework of a Bug transport ship. Then Hereford’s people added in every scrap of Naga technology they could get their hands on. Melding the alien tech of two different species with human technology hadn’t been an elementary process at all, but they’d managed it.
The ship was bigger than the largest oceangoing vessel ever constructed. It was more powerful than any other military asset ever deployed. It was his greatest accomplishment, really. Hereford felt enormous pride, looking on the culmination of all that work. He only hoped it would be enough to save his world from what was coming.
The shuttle slipped in closer to the ship, Jorgensson giving Hereford a brief outside tour as he approached. He frowned as he got a better look at the parts of the ship that were still unfinished. Armor plating missing from spots where it should have been. Empty spots where the there should have been gun emplacements. All of it was glaring evidence that they were rushing this beast into battle long before it was actually ready for the job. If there was any other way, he would have held off, kept the ship in reserve for emergencies.
But this was a crisis. The sort of event he’d directed this vessel be built to fend off. Hereford looked outward toward deep space. He couldn’t see their attackers approaching. They were still much too far away. But they were out there. They were coming. Unseen but not unnoticed, three scores of hostile warships bore down on Earth. An unstoppable force, maybe. But he would give everything he had for the defense of his world.
The shuttle docked with barely a bump. It was a Naga design, like much of the rest of their space borne tech. Far better than anything humanity had invented so far. This was what they’d come to, then. He flashed a wry smile. Humans were borrowing and adapting tech from every place they could get it, trying to catch up to the galactic crowd of species they’d joined.
Hereford straightened his uniform as the airlock doors hissed open. It was time to take command. Direct command hadn’t been something he’d done much of in recent years, but this time he wasn’t going to leave the matter to anyone else.
Hereford turned back toward Jorgensson. The man’s face looked as grim as he felt. “Yes?”
“Good luck, sir. Godspeed.”
Hereford gave him a sharp nod in response, all he could really do. He’d need every ounce of that luck and then some. Even then it might not be enough. Last time Earth was attacked there were heroes present to defend their world, but most of those heroes were elsewhere now, and he didn’t know when they might return. That left it up to him to do what was required.
He wasn’t sure he was up to the task, but he’d do everything he could. “Thank you, Jorgensson.”
Then he turned and boarded his new home for the duration of this crisis, the USSF Warrior.
A bosun’s pipe whistled as he cleared the airlock and stepped aboard the ship for the first time. Hereford grinned at the antiquated sound, a leftover from ancient ships that had somehow made its way into space. Hereford was the head of the damned Space Force. He’d never ordered those whistles added, but Space Force had been spun up from all the other US services, a mix of all the rest. He should have expected a few bits of tradition to come along with the people. It made him wonder what the Space Force would end up looking like in the future. Assuming there was a future. Maybe given enough time it would evolve into something all its own.
“Welcome aboard, sir,” Colonel Travis said, saluting. Hereford returned the salute. Several other officers were gathered in the entry hall with the colonel, but Hereford didn’t know them by name.
There would be time to get to know them all as their mission proceeded, but it could wait. “Colonel, we need to get underway immediately. Are we prepped to depart?”
“Yes, sir. I have the ship’s status reports ready for you,” Travis said. He passed Hereford a tablet. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll escort you to the bridge.”
“Excellent,” Hereford replied.
A few minutes later he was seated in the captain’s chair. Hereford sucked in a deep breath. The massive holographic display showed their position and that of the advancing enemy armada. It was too many ships. Just seeing all those little points of light made him want to sink into a pit of despair, yet he could not. Of all people on board this vessel, or even in the entire solar system, he couldn’t afford that luxury.
“Set an intercept course. Let’s get underway,” Hereford said.
Then he tapped a control on his console that opened a ship-wide speaker channel. “This is General Hereford speaking. I am taking command as Captain of the Warrior for the duration of this battle. We are heading into conflict with a Bug invasion fleet. I’m not going to sugar-coat this for any of you. We’re outnumbered and outgunned. But we also represent the only line of defense Earth has. Our families, friends, and everything we hold dear is behind us on that big rock we call home. Their defense is up to us. I expect everyone aboard to fight with all they have. Together, we will protect our home and kick these Bugs back out into space. They will regret their decision to hit our world.”
Hereford paused, then went on. “Go about your duties. You’re the finest crew ever assembled on a human vessel, aboard the best ship we have ever built. Together, we will face this foe and send them packing. That is all.”
He tapped the link off. Colonel Travis gave him a nod and a small smile. It was the sort of pre-battle speech that sometimes made all the difference. People needed to remember why they were fighting, what they risked their lives for.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen,” Hereford said, looking about the command deck. “Let’s go show these assholes what we’re made of.”
The Warrior opened a wormhole, a rip in space-time, and jumped through it, headed directly toward the enemy fleet.