Bear with me.
Back when I was a teenager, I saved my money and bought an old EV.
Didn't matter that it was hopelessly uncool and out of date.
It was mine.
Cass and I spent most of the spring bringing it back up to specs. We (she) replaced most of the old, worn-out parts, while I did the cosmetics: polishing, sanding, painting. It was truly a labor of love.
We had it perfect, better than new.
Then I sort of scraped it against a tree. Totally the tree's fault, of course. It should have gotten out of the way, but it didn't.
The thing I dreaded most?
Telling Mama that I'd bruised my car.
So I had sympathy for Kiri, I really did.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
“They’re fucking nuts!”
“Lock it down, Ensign!” snapped Ashlyn. “If they had a better option, they’d tell us.”
“That’s a load of shit,” replied Rube angrily. “They don’t care about us. How in the fuck are we supposed to hit a target at 100 KPS?”
“The XO told you to lock it down, Ensign Vancel,” said the utterly calm voice of Double Dip. “I need every one of you for this mission. Twelve bombs, twelve Direwolves. Even you can do the math.”
“Why can’t they use their laser? It’s way more powerful than ours!”
“And they can’t aim it any more precisely than we can, and there are a couple hundred people on that starship, and one of two – two – warp drives in the universe. You want any more reasons?” She glared around the cockpit as if she were in the briefing room. “If you wanted a safe job, you shouldn’t have volunteered for Direwolves. And if you want to resign, if you want to turn in your wings? Fine. After we do the mission. Because if we don’t, there’s going to be a lot more people dead than maybe a few pilots.”
Her admission that some of them might not come back seemed, paradoxically, to silence the complaints.
“I’m taking the first run,” she said. “Watch and learn.”
Switching to the command channel, she said, more quietly, “Ash.”
“You’re tail end Charlie. If something goes sideways, I’ll need you to keep them on mission.”
“It’s not going to go sideways.” She could hear the sniffle that Ashlyn couldn’t quite muffle.
“From your lips…” She switched back to the squadron frequency.
“Starting my run.”
Her fighter accelerated smoothly, as always, and she smiled at the joy she always felt when pushing her bird just a little bit faster, a little bit harder.
“Okay, Boomer. Weapons check.”
The AI’s normally-serious voice was even more so. “Full capacitor charge. Sensors slaved to firing mechanism. Ready as we’re going to be.”
“Roger that, Boomer. Coming about for our run.” Still piling on the g’s she aligned her fighter with the tiny, distant target. “Five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One.”
Somewhere between one and zero, in a slice of time too tiny for her to determine, Boomer gauged the range, the aim, and fired. Two lasers lanced invisibly from the sides of her ship. One sailed off into the void. The other managed to gouge a trench in the underside of the bomb’s casing, deep enough to disrupt the magnetic field that held the antimatter in check. As if sensing the rupture the mass of positrons surged towards the weakened field, pushing through and contacting the first atoms of the shell. Then more. The field collapsed further, and the positrons expanded further, unevenly, contacting more of the shell and causing a cascading failure.
All this happened in nanoseconds, then there was a terrible blazing eruption of energy, first in the direction of the initial damage, then everywhere. Ravening, hungry, destructive radiation across the breadth of the spectrum reached out for the Direwolf as it flashed past, but were ever so slightly too far behind to ever catch it.
By the time she finished saying “Zero”, they were past.
“Yeeeeeee-hah!” Boomer’s joyful exclamation was echoed by Daniela’s inarticulate yelp.
“Holy fucking hell,” said Rube. “She did it. She goddam well did it!”
“All systems functioning within normal parameters,” said Boomer. “Though I think our tail’s a bit singed.”
“I’ll buff it out personally,” laughed Double Dip, adrenalin fighting the relief she felt at surviving.
“Okay, Nymeria,” she commed when she felt a little more under control. “Did you all take notes?”
Twenty minutes later, the last of the bombs was destroyed. Even Bun-bun managed to knock his down, though it did take him eight passes before his AI could make the shot. Not all of the explosions were the same magnitude, either, ranging from massive conflagrations like the one that nearly caught Double Dip to pitiful firecracker-like spits. They didn’t trouble themselves with the ‘why’; if Endeavour told them they got it, they got it.
“Nice work, Nymeria. Endeavour, if we’re clear, we’d like to come home now please.”
“Nymeria, hold position. We’re going to retrieve the engine, and then you’re clear for landing.”
“Roger, Endeavour. You heard the lady, people. Time to let the big girl do some work.”
On the bridge, Kiri looked to Zihal. “You’re sure this will work?”
“The tractor should be able to pull the other half of the bomber in without any trouble.”
“And you’re sure it’s safe?”
“Fairly certain. We haven’t picked up any antimatter signatures aboard, the power source we’re reading isn’t much more than a battery, and the thrusters use compressed nitrogen. Safe? In my opinion, yes, Captain.”
“Then let’s bring it in.”
The discarded half of the bomber had continued on its ballistic path, knocked slightly off-course by the ejection of the antimatter bombs. Endeavour had kept close track of it and now was moving in. Sanzari had made the point that it would be valuable for tactical analysis, while Zihal hoped to extract information about the seemingly-unlimited production of antimatter that Titan and the Union seemed to have unlocked.
“Activating beam. We’ve got a good lock,” announced Leard.
“Start closing the gap. Zihal, I want to know if that thing so much as twitches.”
“All over it, Captain.”
Slowly, slowly, the device was pulled closer to the ship. Kiri could feel the tension ratcheting up with each meter.
“Two hundred meters,” said Leard.
“No activity,” Zihal added.
“Hold it at a hundred,” ordered Kiri.
“Aye, Captain. Holding at one hundred meters.”
“A thought just occurred to me. Captain to Engineering.”
“Engineering, Stewart here.”
“Lorelei, can we drag something with us while we move?”
“Sure, as long as it’s not too massive.”
“What about in warp?”
There was a brief pause, then the chief engineer responded. “From how I understand it, the field extends beyond the hull of the ship. As long as whatever we’re pulling is within that field, then it should come along with us. I think.”
“How close would it have to be?”
“The closer the better, Captain.”
“Thanks.” Kiri closed the channel. “Well, no. Not going to get that any closer to us than I have to. We’re going to have to take the slow road home. Ensign Jadwinski, tell Nymeria they can land.”
The landings were wholly without drama, and in less than a quarter-hour they were secured.
“Captain, all decks –”
Suddenly the ship lurched, alarms wailing.
“Damage report!” shouted Kiri over the din.
“We have an explosion on the port nacelle!” answered Sanzari, taking information as fast as she could.
“Working the problem, Captain!”
The gravity wobbled. That wasn’t supposed to happen, thought Kiri.
“Engineering to Bridge!”
“We’ve lost the mains, Captain! Running on fusion reactors only!”
Kiri blanched. The main power supply for the ship was an advanced antimatter reactor.
“What do you mean, lost the mains?”
“They went into emergency shutdown when we lost the reactant flow,” said Stewart. “Magnetic bottles are stable, and the fusion plants didn’t even bobble the transfer.”
Kiri breathed a sigh of relief. In the background, Sanzari was still trying to pull the situation under control, starting with muting the audible alarms. The red emergency lights remained lit, though, giving the bridge a gothic look that Kiri found unsettling.
“Keep me informed,” she said to Stewart, wishing she could say something more emotional to her wife. But they were both too professional to let their relationships overlap.
“Number One? What have you got for me?”
“Dawn? You want to repeat what you just said?”
“We bumped into some antimatter,” said the science officer.
“Antimatter? How? I thought our fighters got all the bombs?”
“They did, Captain. This was just a few grams, maybe the size of a marble. Probably, no, almost certainly a piece that floated loose in one of the explosions and didn’t have a chance to react.”
“Oh, fuck me running,” said Kiri. “A marble?”
“Roughly. Based on the damage to the nacelle.”
“Are there liable to be more of these? And why didn’t we pick it up on sensors?”
“Yes, Captain, I’m afraid there are. Antimatter is challenging to detect if it’s not interacting with matter; picking it out from background radiation is a very particular type of scan, which we haven’t been doing.”
“Already integrating that scan, Captain.”
“What exactly is our damage? Casualties?”
“No deaths, Captain. Injuries; Dr. Quinn is treating them as they come in.” Kiri took another deep breath at that. “The rear third of the nacelle is gone. The explosion ripped right through it. We’re lucky that the volatile gases we have stored didn’t react.”
“Not lucky, Commander,” corrected Zihal. “There’s nothing for them to react with. Hydrogen gas is perfectly safe, even in presence of a spark, as long as there’s no oxygen.”
Sanzari waved a hand. “What Dawn said, then. When the nacelle ruptured, the flow to the reactor stopped, and that caused the annie to shut down. Engineer Stewart’s trying to restart the annie using the port nacelle’s tanks.”
“Then until she does, we’re stuck here?”
“More or less, Captain. The fusion plants can power the sublight drive, but only at about 25% max thrust. And to do that, we’d lose shields.”
“And we really don’t want to lose shields, Captain,” Zihal added.
“Because, properly tuned, they can repel the antimatter.”
“I thought you said it was a marble-sized clump?”
“Correct, Captain, but if there’s one, it’s almost certain there are more drifting out there.”
“Commander Zihal is correct, Captain,” added Castor. “Given the disparities in effectiveness in the destruction of the bombs, the probability of additional quantities of antimatter approaches unity.”
Zihal continued. “In terms of size, we’re looking at range from a few clustered positrons to, oh, maybe a half a kilo. Any larger than that will have already started breaking up in the absence of containment fields.”
Kiri took half a breath to think, then started issuing orders. “Laynie, get the shields calibrated to repel the antimatter. We can’t take another strike, next time we might not be so lucky. Dawn, we need to have those sensors picking it up. I want some warning before we bump into another chunk. Number One, priority to getting the annie back online. Until it does, we’re going nowhere. And Castor, get me a channel to Njord. I want to get Diana in on this, and I have to tell Commodore Knott that we broke her bird.”