He still couldn't believe it was real. As a child, Carl had been told the story of the « Blue Unicorn » a hundred times. It had been his favourite bedtime story, the tale of an Imperial Fleet battleship that disappeared during the first liberation wars together with her escort of cruisers and fighters. The « Blue Unicorn » was missing for a hundred years and became the stuff that legends are made of when it reappeared from Warp space to rescue the people of planet Millenia. They were being attacked by a corvette flotilla sent by the evil Mesner Cartel. The MIA fleet stopped the enemy from raiding and pillaging the distant colony. The Unicorn and her fleet then disappeared again into thin air and, in the pair of centuries that had since passed, was reported to have resurfaced more than a dozen times to wreak havoc in the enemy's lines and avoid the loss of countless lives and facilities in the outer worlds of the Empire. Then, on one occasion, the « Blue Unicorn » destroyed a Cartel fleet sixty light years away from the point where it had destroyed another just moments before. The « Blue Unicorn » exited warp space as the second fleet was still getting the distress call from the first. Seemingly able to travel at tachyonic speed, defying all laws of physics, the fleet was henceforth labelled as a ghostly entity. In the Cartel's eyes, it was officially out of this world and a line of work for paranormal investigators of all branches.
Ironically, the Mesner Cartel created and funded an institute that, while researching a way to communicate with the dead and materialize their own ghost ships, accidentally cloaked an entire university campus and discovered the quantic telekinetic theorem that was now being put to use in the development of cloaking devices small enough to be installed on their military vehicles.
It was largely due to the legend of the « Blue Unicorn » that the will to join the Imperial Navy had remained a burning flame through all of Carl's adolescence. He came to know all about this ghost ship and the rumours that the fleet's untimely disappearance had been a masterful plan conceived by Admiral Toetuss, who was registered as MIA at the time of the Liberation Wars but was said to actually be in command of the missing ships. Two hundred years of precisely planned and utterly ruthless operations had turned the very mention of the Unicorn's name into an inductor of terror in enemy sailors and commanders. The cabinet for Psychological Warfare Operations, known in the fleet as Psy-Ops used this as its main deterrent against enemies entering Imperial space, for it was as sure as an alien ship approached the Imperial Security Zone, as rumours of sightings of the Unicorn were being broadcasted between Fleet ships and Merchants and passenger Ferries and back, and eventually, the bogies intercepted the transmissions and turned around, fearing that the ghost fleet dewarped somewhere near and erased them from history.
Carl Brimmer grew up and joined the Navy where he completed a brilliant first tour of duty that began as a scout pilot when he graduated from the Academy and ended as a Scout Group Commander. Ranking Captain, he applied for his second tour of duty requesting to be assigned to the Imperial Navy Heavy Cruiser Group, where he expected to be given the command of one of the new HC's or, at least, being appointed as XO to one of the fleet's Admirals in that battle group.
As it turned out, he was accepted in the NHCG and given orders to present himself to Commander Brett Benson in the INS Abacus. He was to take his scout ship and meet the Abacus as it orbited the moon Alpha 5 in P43:89:36:10, some twenty seven light years away. Carl had never heard of the Abacus, so he assumed it was one of the new HC's that have been under construction in the Reecadore Shipyards. It was rumoured that they had christened some two thousand of them during the past month. He wasn't high enough in the food chain to be privy to the exact information but figured the number would be about right for the Imperial fleet's dimension and the usual number of ships that constituted battle groups. He had dreamed that among those couple of thousand ships there was one for him to command. Following his orders, Carl launched from base Omaha in sector 67 and activated hypersleep for the duration of the voyage. Seconds after the autopilot achieved Warp 11.2 and systems check returned ok, he went into deep cryosleep. What would seem only a few moments to him, would be, in reality, almost two years of travel.
He opened his eyes just before exiting warp space. Twenty seconds to go. He checked the scanner for the INS Abacus but it wasn't there. Three bleeping icons gave away something the size of corvettes, just as he dewarped, the icons turned green. Friendlies, he thought, as he took a deep breath. He heard his ribcage crack as bones and muscles returned to work after almost a hundred weeks of rest. He hated that part of exiting cryosleep, the feeling of rust in all the joints and the various painful moments as he gave movement back to the parts of him that were idle during sleep. And he hated the vacuum tubes that removed all the liquid and mucus from his throat and lungs, and the pain in the chest that lasted for weeks in the spot where the robotic sleep assistant stabbed him with an adrenaline shot.
- Here is ISS Davy Crocket, Captain Brimmer speaking, please identify yourself, over.- He broadcasted to the other ships, staring to worry about the absence of the Abacus, after all, two years is a long time and something coul have happened. - I repeat, here is ISS Davy...
- This is IGT Harlot, Commodore Whitley speaking, authorization code three bravo victor niner niner echo, – Carl punched it in, and it returned Level 1 authority status, the one revealing that a given ship is part of the escort of a member of cabinet or one of the joint chiefs, would only be higher if she carried the Emperor inside, - get in formation with us and follow me, Captain. And maintain radio silence, repeat, maintain radio silence.
Now in visual range, he could see the Corvettes. They were beautiful machines, both elegant and deadly. Latest model out of Sincraft Shipyards, Carl observed, and they weren't standard fleet issue either. These corvettes were painted in beautiful metalized ivory and had an expanded warp drive bay, two mobile turrets capable of discharging plasma ordinance, a level five shield generator and three combat drones attached to each side of the ship. And they were tagged IGT, Imperial Government Transport, which made these three birds part of the Chancellery Guard . These beefed up corvettes could easily beat a cruiser in battle and were certainly faster than anything Carl had ever seen in his life. With the engine expansion, these corvettes would be three times faster than his scout ship, which was presently the fastest model at the disposal of the Imperial Navy, their remarkable speed being the reason of the Birdyon shipyards having been commissioned to build five thousand units for military use.
Carl aligned his scout ship with the Guard's corvettes and stuck with them. Twenty minutes later he realised they were approaching an asteroid field. It was uncharted. Now that he thought of it, the whole area was uncharted. The system was supposed to have two planets surrounding a red sun, and he was to travel to the moon on the second planet, now that he was on site, his ship's instruments gathered that the system had not two but eleven planets and between the sixth and seventh planet was the biggest asteroid belt he had ever come across, with some of the objects in it reading the mass of big moons or even maybe small planetoids. Their destination was now apparent. They seemed to be flying head on into one of the bigger asteroids in the horizon. Carl estimated the object to have a diameter of some fifty thousand miles. As they flew head on to it, Carl began smoothly diverting upwards, so he would avoid to crash into it.
- Correct your course, – he heard – you are to follow our exact route. Do not deviate from course. - Carl got his ship back in the third corvette's wing wondering what kind of madness this was, and got ready to go full thrust on the forward reactors. It was then that he saw it. The asteroid was planted with an incredible array of photon and disruptor turrets and, what seemed to be an enormous hangar door began to open in a crater in front of them. - Get ready to deliver your ship to automatic parking control.- Carl pressed the button, relaxed and sat back to enjoy the view.
The titanic blast doors opened to reveal the interior of the hollow asteroid, lights were dimmed to red alert lighting so, from the outside, Carl could only see the reddish glow that flowed from the opening. He could make out the silhouettes of hundreds of ships of all shapes and sizes. The whole moon sized asteroid was really a gigantic space dock with the benefit of a brilliant camouflage and atmospheric containment. He was baffled, never having imagined that the Empire possessed such incredible facilities. And they were secret too, and a very well kept secret, for he had been in the navy for nine full years and never even heard a whisper about such a place existing.
As soon as the four ships crossed the door, it began closing and the Red Alert lights went of, with all the millions of lamps that lit the place coming back to life as soon as the blast doors were in position to prevent them from revealing the position of this base to casual lookers. His ship came to a halt as the tractor beam stopped exerting it's action and Carl was there for a while, waiting for the parking tug to come and get him. He looked to the left and it was then that he saw it. Surrounded by repair crafts and a big number of drones that were sealing hull breaches and doing little repairs was an enormous battleship, model 2500J, written in the bow, he could make out the letters: INS BLUE UNICORN. Of all the things in the world that he was unable to believe, that one ranked near the top, he was standing next to the stuff of legends and it was clear to him now that the Abacus never existed. He was there to be stationed in one of the ships in the Unicorn's fleet. He went open mouthed in awe as he realised the implications of all that.
He felt the tug gently bumping his ship and then his communications central announced an incoming call from an internal base line. The logo on it was from the Command Center. He pressed receive and on cam the image of a fleet secret service officer. Their uniforms usually didn't carry any rank signs and it was usually a nightmare to distinguish a Lieutenant from a Major, so, Carl went cautiously :
- Captain Carl Brimmer here, what can I do for you, Sir?
-Hello Captain, welcome to Atlantis III, I am Lieutenant-Coronel Hogg Voss and I am the XO in this secret service facility. I am giving you a small briefing now, because you won't be able to get out of you ship for a while.
-I won't be able to get out? Why is that, Sir?
-Well... We have Chancellor Wigg on board. It seems that the Foreign Secretary went bezerk and shot one of his clones dead and he has been hiding here while the secret police is looking for Arraki's accomplices and we get him a new clone ready for public appearances. He will be here for a while still and, as all security is being handled by the Chancellery Guard, we have orders not to let any new arrivals out of the ships until Lord Wigg is out of here.
- Ok, I was supposed to report to Commander Benson, aboard the Abacus, does he happen to be around ?
- Oh, that. I'm really sorry, Commander Benson was just a cover story, but I imagine you have already guessed that by now... What happens is you were selected to be the new XO of the Unicorn, so, the person you will really have to report is...
- Admiral Toetuss...
- Yes, the one but not only. You will see he his quite an impressive figure. Just another thing. We have three more of these facilities scattered through Empire space and all ships and personnel in them are exactly alike, including ships coded tags and sailors DNA's. You will realise this represents a great tactical advantage and the only way to achieve the purpose of having the Unicorn being in two places at the exact same time.
Carl took some time to absorb this information. - You mean ?...
-I mean that, as soon as you are cleared out of that scout ship, you are to report yourself to the cloning facilities in Bay 9 and then go straight to the Admiral's cabinet aboard the Unicorn. He'll be waiting for you. That is all Captain. Once again, welcome to Atlantis III. I'll be in touch when you are clear to leave the ship. Dismissed.
The Comm unit went off and Carl stood there, more baffled than before, considering if this was a blessing or a nightmare. The image of the « Blue Unicorn » in front of him, telling the story of the greatest military stunt of all times and proving that reality is sometimes more incredible than any kindergarten story.
This story was submitted by [SOAK] for the AE Stories Event. Find Details on sending your own Story here.