Even before she finished speaking, information presented itself in Sarett's head; data that she hadn't reached for but that Ava had furnished on her own. The pair had practiced this, but the sensation was still one that Sarett hadn't gotten used to yet. Very little of what Ava wrote into her mind actually presented itself across the floating ambient data visualizations in her field of view; rather, the data simply appeared in her awareness, ready to be retrieved or acted on. For now, much of what Ava presented was spatial awareness, giving Sarett an intuitive understanding of the local volume without having to completely rely on the huge holotank in the center of the Bridge. She took a few moments to adjust her thoughts, then considered what Ava had given her.
The Empire's ships were, of course, networked and every ship was, to one degree or another, in continuous contact. Even the smaller ships, those without space even for limited synthetic intelligence, kept up to date with automated telemetry data and voice-update transmission. In the holotank, the other ships were nothing but points of light with finely-drawn labels, but in Sarett's mind they were each a brilliant, bristling, pulsing cloud of data.
For now, though, that information had a hole in it. The Terracotta, the flagship of the fleet, should have been a coruscating nova of communications, a hub for the rest of the fleet. Instead, the ship was dark, a blank spot in Ava's data feed.
"Ava," Sarett said, "Get the fla-"
"Captain, I'm detecting an exchange of weapons fire" Ava cut in over the ship's speaker system, "It appears a single Coalition suit fired on a member of the 12th. Damage is minimal, no casualties. The 12th is pulling back to Artemis and the Coalition is redeploying further away. One of the Coalition suits seems to be shedding debris, but I'm not reading atmosphere leakage."
Sarett resisted the urge to clench her jaw, "Retransmit orders to not engage, Ava. All frequencies, all channels. Be very clear."
"Aye, ma'am," Ava said. Sarett felt Ava's awareness shift slightly - was that just subconscious expectation?
"No response from Fleet Command," Myles said, scrolling through information on her screen, "Actually, no data of any kind from the flagship, and...what the hell? I'm reading...some kind of debris departing the Terracotta"
Sarett yanked her attention away from her inner eye, "Ava, I need local volume information, detailed, in the holotank, please."
Without a verbal confirmation, the huge holographic display in the center of the Bridge came alive, closer to what Sarett could feel in her own mind. True to Myles' words, something was drifting away from the flagship in even, regular lines.
"I believe we're seeing lifeboat launches, Captain," Ava said over the intercom, "I can see the rescue ID numbers on the ships through the hull cameras."
Sarett walked to the holotank, "Why are we not receiving information from the flagship?"
"I think I know why, Captain," Tanner said, looking up from his console, "Wide-band jamming, massive amplitude. The ship isn't dark, we just can't hear it."
"Captain, I have communications with Rear Admiral Holtzer aboard the Tàiyángshén," came Ava's voice, "They're instructing the other UEE ships to form up in a combat group with the other battleship, but are also issuing orders to hold fire. However, since we're closest to the station and Terracotta, we're to remain on station here and investigate."
Privately, to Sarett, Ava said, "I've established a connection with Tàiyángshén's AI, Zhao. I'll port his telemetry to you if it becomes relevant - what I'm giving you now looks like enough stress on your brain."
"I appreciate that," Sarett thought, and turned her attention back to the Bridge.
"Captain, we're getting a signal through the jamming," Tanner said, "At least a partial signal, audio only and badly distorted. It's coming from the station."
Sarett's voice came quick, "Helm, distance to Attica Station?"
An immediate response, "More or less exactly 25 kilometers, ma'am,"
"Broadside starboard to the station," Sarett said, "Keep our center of mass 25 kilometers from the station, get the high-gain comms on the lateral superstructure taking in every decibel they can. Cook the amplifier if we have to," Ava displayed an inventory list on Sarett's vision, "We have spares."
A chorus of 'Aye, ma'am,' and though she couldn't feel the ship rotating about its axis, her awareness of local space shifted in perspective, following the ship's movements. The same shift was represented in the holotank, spinning about to maintain its perspective relative to the other ships. To her immense surprise, Sarett saw the other Coalition ships moving with deliberate speed into a more organized group - she had expected someone to order a Jump out of overeagerness to start a fight. Good order, that's what everyone needed to be showing right now. Of her own accord, Ava displayed a view from one of her hull cameras into the holotank, zoomed in tight on the station.
"Signal's coming in clearer," Tanner said.
"Let's hear it," Sarett said.
The whoosh and crackle of static immediately pummeled Sarett's ears, but an instant later there was the unmistakable sound of a human voice, someone panicked and desperate for anyone to hear them.
"This is Attica Station," the voice said, probably a man, thin with terror, "General distress call, oh god. Oh, god. Anyone who can hear me, they're gone. They shot everyone and they're gone, and they said they were going to the hangar, but I don't know where they're going. They shot the guards and I saw them break down the doors, and I'm bleeding and..." The voice trailed off, "The negotiators, they dragged them away and nobody's answering the comms, and I can't get Station Control, please, is anyone hearing me?"
There was a loud thump, audible even over the static, then a screaming, tearing sound, "Hull breach," the voice screamed, "There's a hull breach, we're losing atmo-"
Another explosion tore through space, this time bursting from the side of Attica station, midway down the spire. Superstructure fragments showered out in an expanding debris cloud, tearing a hole in the station for tens of meters above and below. White wisps of venting atmosphere blasted into the void, shutting off after a couple of seconds, automatic air-doors sealing around the now-massive breach.
"Maintain distance from the station," Sarett said, keeping her voice steady and clear despite the fact her heart rate had just jumped into the triple digits, "Ava, tell Commander Tolliver to arrange a boarding party, that their orders are to approach and make entry to the Terracotta's interior and determine why the lifeboats launched. Cut a hole in the hull if they have to, but try the hangar bay first. Maintain continuous communication, and assume there may be hostiles aboard the flagship."
"Jamming signal is clear," Tanner said from his station, "It must have been on board the station when it blew. We're getting telemetry from the flagship, but nobody's answering hails."
"I want members of the 12th ahead of the boarding party," Sarett said, "Have them redeploy to the Terracotta and start looking at those lifeboats, see if there's anyone alive in them and if there's obvious signs of tampering or forced launch. Make sure all the lifeboats are accounted for, and that there aren't any extras. Something strange is going on."
She turned to Myles, "Lieutenant, I want all the data from the Perseus explosion and whatever just happened on the station packaged inside of five minutes, I don't care how rough or sensitive it might be, we're going to need it for a goodwill offering in a moment. Myles looked alarmed, but moved after only a moment, calling up data.
Sarett took a deep breath, blew it out. The admiral did say to investigate. Whatever was happening on the flagship might be a distraction, but at least that was something she could put orders to immediately. The Empire and the Coalition had agreed to an exclusion zone around the station, and even though her fingers itched to launch another boarding party, violating that unilaterally would be exactly the kind of thing that whoever was orchestrating this disaster would be counting on. Unilateral action, no matter the intention, would only lead to one side shooting at the other. She was not going to play into that game.
"Okay," Sarett said, "Okay. Transmit to the Coalition fleet, wide-channel, standard hail preamble." A moment later, she could feel that the ship's comm arrays were energized, even before anyone indicated the channel being open. There was something strange going on with her connection to Ava, but now was not the time to worry about it.
"Coalition Fleet," Sarret said, "This is Captain Ashley Sarett aboard the INS carrier Artemis. We've detected an explosion aboard Attica Station, and I'm sure you've seen it too. We've received an audio transmissio indicating this may have been a coordinated attack, and that both our negotiator and yours have been abducted from the station. I need to talk to someone with command authority in order to investigate, because I'm not breaching the exclusion zone without your agreement. We're both being played by someone here, and I think it's reasonable to believe that they may be responsible for the destruction of the Perseus. I'm sending our sensor data to you now as a gesture of goodwill but please, we need to start moving on this now." She paused, "Don't let them win. We have to be better than they think we are."
Sarett gestured, and the comms system shut down. Her mind raced down fractal paths, plans forking like lightning through her thoughts. If they fired, it would all be over. For that matter, she might have just ended her career, sending data to the Coalition like this. But none of that mattered. If she was a piece on a board for someone, she'd damn well be the most troublesome piece she could be. She'd find a way to kick the damn board over if she had to.
Hopefully, someone on the Coalition felt the same.