Space battles suck.
I've been in more than I want to think about.
Shit happens which nobody has ever seen before, because microgravity does funky things to Newtonian physics. Tumbles can go in directions you never expected them to go.
And death can come from any of a million directions.
Not only do you have to worry about being fried by a laser and blown up by a missile, but if the inertial compensator goes while under acceleration? You're paste. Or the bulkhead is penetrated, opening the compartment to vacuum? Better have your suit on, if you don't get sucked through the hole.
Lots of ways to die, in other words. And they are all horrible.
Chapter Twenty Three
“Sir,” Lieutenant Brian Hinnenkamp, tactical officer on the ANS Armstrong, addressed Captain Richards.
“Eleven small vessels in our path, sir. Range is eighteen thousand kilometers.”
“Their shuttles. Order the frigates to use their spinal lasers only, no missiles. Skew turn so we and the Conrad are broadside-on. Let’s try to take them out with a single volley.”
“Yes, Captain.” Hinnenkamp turned to set up the attack.
“Emitters to full,” Mia radioed to her Wolfpack. She, and Galileo, were at the center of a rough circle, with two kilometers between the closest Wolves. It was elbow-rubbing distance for space, but she wanted to concentrate her fire.
“Emitters full, aye,” repeated multiple EM’s, including her own. The approaching ships were nowhere near their effective range, but she wanted to deliver the maximum punch when they did arrive.
“Wolfpack, remember, the big bastards mount spinal and broadside lasers, as well as carrying missiles. Unless a missile has lock on you, ignore it; Diana will handle it. Start evasive program Omega.” Each Wolf would start a series of seemingly-random maneuvers to change their positions by a few critical meters; what limited intelligence they had didn’t include how aimable, if at all, the lasers mounted on the Artemis ships were. The frigates only had a single spinal laser, a little less powerful than a single Wolf emitter; the cruisers had two spinal lasers at two megawatts. A Wolf might survive one hit from one of those, but not two. Then there were broadsides from the cruisers: five five-hundred kilowatt lasers.
The only slight advantage the Wolves held was in the firing ability of the lasers. Unlike their emitters, which ran off a continuous feed from the fusion reactor, the Artemis ships relied on capacitors to fire their lasers. Each shot had a duration, 200 milliseconds, and then the capacitor was exhausted and needed to recharge. Recharging was rapid, less than a minute, but that was a minute in which a Wolf would not be under fire and could use their superior acceleration and maneuverability to close with their larger foes.
Mia’s Wolf was jinking, most of which was absorbed by the inertial dampers, but enough was getting through to make her feel like she was flying an old-fashioned atmospheric craft through heavy turbulence.
“Got a change of aspect on the cruisers, CM!” said Kitchen.
“Looks like they’re going for a broadside!” she broadcast. “As soon as they are full-on, break according to plan at max accel!”
Twenty two Wolf CM’s and EM’s braced.
“Broadside aligned,” reported Hinnenkamp. “Capacitors charged.”
“Fire as you bear.”
Ten invisible beams of coherent light raced across the fifteen thousand kilometer gap in a fifth of a second.
A human blink takes twice that.
Three Wolves were hit, Copernicus, Aristotle, and Cousteau. Copernicus and Cousteau were aligned so the laser hit their CeeSea armor at a sufficiently shallow angle and was mostly reflected back to space, leaving only a warmed spot on the hull.
The Aristotle was hit squarely on the cockpit.
The CeeSea reflected some, but 500 kW turned into thermal energy too quickly and the superdense material failed. The starboard EM station simply disintegrated, along with EM Jimmy LeMaire’s skinsuit helmet. He didn’t live long enough to notice the sudden lack of air.
“Mayday, mayday!” screamed CM Bob Head as systems failed all around him. He didn’t even know if the Wolf was able to transmit, but he was close enough to the other ships that his suit radio would reach them.
“Go ahead, Bobble,” said CM Joe Musso from the Curie. “Status.”
“I’ve got a bloody great hole in the cockpit and Wrench is dead! Avionics are trashed. I don’t know what systems are still up!”
“Okay, Bobble, hang in there. Do you still have lights? Gravity?”
“Lights, check. Gravity, check.” Hearing the other CM’s voice was calming him. “Mouse, I’m flying blind. All the displays are out.”
“Reset main breaker, see what comes back.”
“Reset main breaker.” Bobble reached over and down, below the wreckage of the EM station, and flipped an old-fashioned physical breaker to Off, then to On. “Got something going on.”
“Take your time…”
As the Aristotle struggled to regain some degree of control, and the Curie moved cautiously to support, Mia was directing the rest of the Wolfpack. “Wolfpack, here’s our chance! Full accel at those big boys!”
Each Wolf was capable of acceleration of 200 g, or just less than two thousand meters per second squared. In a heartbeat they had leapt forward, still adjusting their vectors around a course which would take them below both cruisers at less than five kilometers distance. In ten seconds, they were covering twenty kilometers per second; in twenty, their speed had doubled; in thirty, with the Armstrong and Conrad still recharging their capacitors, they were covering sixty kilometers per second. By the time the lasers were ready to fire, the Wolves had covered 3600 kilometers of the diminishing distance and were still accelerating, adding 2 KPS per second.
“Evasive!” yelled Mia as the timer hit 60. These broadsides were a little more ragged, as merely human reactions triggered their lasers. It turned out that they did have an aiming capability, if rather limited. It didn’t matter, as nine Wolves screamed toward them at impossible speeds. No shipboard computer could handle the equations to predict where a Wolf would be in the 1/5 of a second the laser would exist.
This time, no Wolves were hit.
“That’s it!” she exulted. “Forty-five seconds, Wolves. Make every shot count because we’re going to blow past them!”
“Captain, we can’t get a lock on them,” said Hinnenkamp. “Their courses are too erratic.”
“Engage with missiles.”
The Apollo-class cruisers each carried fifteen Tycho missiles: smart, fast, agile. They had two launchers, which could empty their magazine in thirty-five seconds.
Thirty missiles tore across the diminishing gap toward the Wolves.
“Vampire! Multiple incoming!” EM Kitchen not-quite yelled as the first missiles erupted from the cruisers.
“Ignore them. They’ll never catch us, once we’re past.” Mia was absolutely calm. “Targeting slaved to computer.”
At the speed they’d be going, they’d be in their firing range for less than a quarter-second, far too quick for humans to select and fire. Mia’s plan was to start firing two seconds out, despite being out of range. The particle beam only started to lose effectiveness by dispersing at fifty kilometers, after all; at five hundred kilometers, it would be weakened and spread out, but as long as she stayed on target all the damage would be concentrated on one area. That’s what the targeting computer was for, after all.
“Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Firing.”
Unlike a laser, a phased particle beam was faintly visible due to the interactions between the protons. Two ghostly beams lanced out from each Wolf, five for Armstrong, four for Conrad, and impacted at various places along the bottom and sides of the ships. Four thousand megajoules, equivalent to a ton of old-fashioned TNT, pounded from each Wolf onto the titanium hulls of the cruisers.
Apollo cruisers were designed for landing on Luna or a similarly-sized body, and thus were more robust than a purely orbital vessel. They weren’t designed for atmospheric work, nor were they intended for drastically differing stressors across the hull. Four tons of TNT, applied to four widely-spaced points along the body of the Conrad, split it like an eggshell.
Five tons of TNT applied to the Armstrong didn’t quite shatter it like its consort, as two pairs of Wolves each targeted proximate areas of the hull. It was enough to shear the rear third of the ship completely off and utterly ruin the spinal lasers. The discharge from the main capacitors ran through the ship, cascading through the other storage banks and causing a rippling chain of destruction. In seconds, the remains of the cruiser was adrift, spewing air and tumbling through space.
As Mia had predicted, none of the missiles had been able to lock onto the dipping and weaving Wolves, flashing past them at a combined speed over two hundred KPS. Their onboard computers calculated the delta V needed to reacquire and realized they couldn’t, forcing their original programming to the fore. This had been Diana, or any other nearby target of opportunity.
Nineteen detected and locked onto Diana. Three locked onto Curie, four onto Aristotle. The other four cycled between targeting Diana per their original programming, targeting one or the other Wolf, and resolved the impasse by targeting neither, flying into deep space.
“Bobble, we need to go,” Mouse commed. “We’ve got incoming.”
“Ah, shit,” muttered Bobble. Most of the primary systems were down, but he’d managed to bring the secondaries up and was just getting control of his bird. “Gimme a minute and I’ll be ready.”
“We don’t have a minute,” said Mouse’s EM, Mike Prior. “Forty seconds, tops.”
“Digger, lock onto Aristotle with our tractor. We’ll pull him until he can get his ass in gear.”
“That’ll hold us to 50g accel,” but he was already working the problem.
“Bobble, we’re going to tow you until you can get control. Don’t fight it and we might just live. That’s an order.”
“You have all of two days’ seniority,” muttered Bobble, but he complied, feeling the tractors bite and take his battered Wolf under tow.
“Got him,” said Digger. “Reactor hot.”
“And we’re outta here,” said Mouse, orienting the Curie perpendicular to the course of the oncoming missiles. As predicted, the best acceleration they could manage was 50g while still maintaining a lock on the other Wolf. Within seconds, both crews knew the run would be futile.
“Disengage the tractor, Mouse,” commed Bobble, finally bringing his Wolf as fully on-line as it could manage. “I’ve got power.”
Digger confirmed it with a nod.
“Disengaging now. Digger, go full accel.”
Wolf drives were rated for up to 200 g acceleration, which resulted in 4 g being felt within the shuttle. A clever EM could partially disengage the inertial dampers and redirect the power back to the engine.
Digger was a clever EM. Curie could hit, and maintain, 240 g, at a cost of the crew being subjected to 6 g. But that gave them longer legs, and they used them now. In ten seconds they had opened up an additional hundred kilometers on the missiles and were starting to pull away.
Mouse checked the display and saw that Aristotle wasn’t following them; or, rather, wasn’t accelerating.
“Bobble, what the hell?”
“I’m going to lower the odds,” said Bobble. He had swung his Wolf around, facing the missiles, and had armed his emitters. “These stupid things are bearing right down on me. I figure I can take them out. I sure has hell can’t run away at 10 g accel.” He let the targeting computer get a good look, then fired. First one missile, then the next, and the next, suddenly encountered a nearly light speed column of protons. As Einstein pointed out over two centuries earlier, as the velocity of an object approached the speed of light, the mass increased geometrically. A proton might have very little mass indeed, but a great number of them at nearly light speed delivered enough kinetic energy to the missiles to obliterate them.
Mouse watched in incredulity as all seven missiles vanished, one after the other.
“Balls of steel,” he said to Digger, throttling back. Without warning, the Wolf lurched, the cabin plunging into darkness.
“Digger! What the fu –”
“Target destroyed, Commander,” said Ensign Scott Saxton, tactical officer of the frigate ANS Gordon. “Recharging capacitors.”
“Collins and Scott reporting same,” said Ensign Eric Tank from communications. “Orders, sir?”
Lieutenant Robert Huff, commander of the Gordon, hadn’t been prepared to suddenly find himself in command of a three-frigate squadron. That was one reason that frigates existed, to give junior officers experience in command on a small enough scale that they could learn without being completely intimidated. Huff was somewhat atypical of the breed, though. Yes, he was a lieutenant, and therefore by definition a junior officer. But he was a very senior lieutenant, having served the Artemis Navy for almost twenty years, seventeen at his current rank.
The problem was, he loved his ship. The Gordon was only a frigate, mounting one spinal laser and a single missile tube, and barely a hundred twenty meters long, but he knew every centimeter of the ship. It was his home. He knew that he didn’t have the personality, the charisma, needed to rise far in the Navy. But he’d be damned if he were going to give the Gordon to someone who wouldn’t take care of her. So he used every favor, every distant family connection, to keep himself in the commander’s seat.
And now he was the senior officer of the surviving ships. Ye gods, what had done that to the Apollos? Whatever it was, he wanted none of it. He also knew that, if he were to return to Artemis without at least attempting to fulfill the mission, his career would be the least of the things he would lose.
“Tell the Scott to close on the remaining shuttle. Try to capture it, if possible. Wait,” he added, a thought suddenly occurring to him. “First, order – no, you can’t. Dammit, think!” He fell silent.
“Hold on.” He knew what he had to do, it just wouldn’t come out in a way that made sense.
“Huff to Scott. Target the habitat and fire four missiles, then intercept the remaining shuttle and attempt to capture.”
“Capture? Bob, we don’t have orders to capture shuttles.” Lieutenant Ty Hendershot was one of Huff’s friends, so he let the use of his name slide.
“Those are your orders, commander. Acknowledge.”
“Target habitat with four missiles, aye. Attempt to capture shuttle, aye.”
“Out. Gordon to Collins, target habitat and volley all missiles.”
Lieutenant Michael Diamond, commander of the Collins, was a very junior officer and replied crisply, “Target habitat, aye. Volley missiles, aye.”
“Capacitors charged!” reported Saxton.
“Collins, fire as you are able until target destroyed.”
As it turned out, only one additional burst of laser fire from each ship was needed.
“Curie’s gone,” Kitchen said flatly.
“I see that, Special K,” replied Mia.
The nine Wolves had skewed around and were now closing on the frigates from the rear. They easily out-accelerated the larger, slower vessels, but their closing speed on the cruisers had been so great they had overshot by thousands of kilometers before being able to turn about.
“We have missile separation, target appears to be Diana.”
“Pass it along to the habitat. Designating frigates as Sierra Three, Four, Five,” said Mia, moving the targeting caret over each in turn and transmitting the information to the other Wolves. “All divisions, Wolf Actual. Division One, Sierra Three.” That was the Copernicus, Bohr, and Brahmagupta.
“Division Two, Sierra Five.” The Faraday, Carver, and Cousteau would concentrate on the right-most frigate.
“Division Three, we’ve got Sierra Four.” The Newton and Bell tightened their formation on Galileo and plunged toward the center of the small squadron.
“Division One, aspect change in Sierra Three. Looks like they’re going to visit Aristotle.”
“Roger, Wolf Actual. We’re on it.” CM Pete Haendler of the Copernicus radioed back, being the senior CM and thus the leader of Division One. “Division One, time to get some of our own!”
“Roger, Handles,” said CM Charlie Rodriguez. “Bohr’s taking starboard.”
“Guess that means we’re on the left,” radioed Flashdance Fowler, the Brahmagupta sliding into position.
In the Galileo, Mia was giving instructions to her flight.
“Newton, I want you to come in from above.”
“Approach vector above target, aye,” Ratman repeated.
“Bell, you’ve got the belly.”
“Approach vector below target, aye,” Max ‘Loose Wire’ Loosli responded.
“Reduce overtake speed. I want us at no more than plus point one KPS relative when we open fire.”
Both Wolves echoed her instructions.
“Firing range is twenty kilometers, that is two-zero. They don’t have any rear-facing weapons, so we can take it in nice and close. I don’t want you to miss.”
“Two minutes to range,” Special K.
Division Two, led by CM Matt Kinstle, did all their checks virtually. Madman liked his boat quiet, and as the division leader, what he said, or didn’t say, went.
“Commander, we have three of their shuttles on course to intercept.”
“Damn.” He’d seen what those shuttles did to the Armstrong and Conrad; his Gordon wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Scott and Collins are also under threat.”
“Double damn,” said Huff, fervently. “Comm, open a channel to the shuttles. Let’s see if we can bluff our way out of this.”
“Yes, Commander. Channel open,” said Ensign Tank.
“Attention habitat shuttles. This is Lieutenant Robert Huff, commander of the ANS Gordon. Break off your attack. Further hostile action will be met with lethal force.”
The reply was instantaneous. “If you think we’re afraid of your tin cans, you have another think coming. Break off your approach to our damaged unit and shut down your drives or you will be destroyed. You are in violation of Terran Federation space, and this is your only warning. You have thirty seconds to stand down. Wolfpack, out.”
“Sir, what do we do?”
Huff turned to the helmsman. “Reduce the drive to one-quarter – it doesn’t matter at this point, we know they can overtake – and give us random vectors on all three axes.”
“Yes, commander,” said the youngster.
“Execute on my command. All hands, prepare for unpredictable attitude shifts!” Huff ordered over the intercom, strapping himself into his seat.
“Sir! The Scott has powered down their drive!” shouted Tank.
“Open comms! Hendershot! What are you doing?”
“Surrendering, Bob. I suggest you do so as well before they blast you out of the sky.”
“This is treason, Ty! The Navy will never forgive you!”
“The Navy? Bob, you might not have noticed, but those shuttles just turned two Apollos into scrap. I’ll take my chances with the Federation.”
“Ty – Tank, is the comm still open?”
“No, sir, it’s been cut at the Scott.”
“Five seconds to their deadline.”
“That’s actually impressive,” admitted Mia. “I would not have expected a ship that size to manage it.”
On their screens they could see the frigate start rotating in three dimensions.
“Do you think they suffered a compensator failure?”
“No, Special K.” She pointed at the display. “Their OMS is working just fine, and those bursts aren’t a computer trying to compensate for a spin; those are a human, trying to induce a spin.”
“To ruin our aim.”
“Which is would have done if we weren’t at a relative crawl,” agreed Mia.
“But how are we going to hit them?”
“Division Three, Wolf Actual. Do not attempt to target the frigate directly; target a point slightly off their center point and maintain continuous fire. Let them run through your beams.”
“Slice and dice, aye,” answered Ratman.
“Filet of frigate, aye,” said Loose Wire.
“On my mark.” Mia watched as the range to the wildly lurching ship dropped toward twenty kilometers. “And mark.”
As the frigate passed through the particle beams, its hull was slammed, then its motion would take it out of range, preventing immediate ruptures. But then it would intersect another beam, and another section would feel the rough touch of protons. And again. And again. And again. In seconds, the kinetic energy imparted by the beams, added to the already considerable stresses of the tumble, was causing the fabric of the ship to unravel. As the damage spread, the tumble got more erratic, increasing the stress, which caused more damage, which…
The Gordon simply shredded itself.
The Collins had opted to keep running, despite the evidence that they couldn’t outrun the Wolves. Unlike Mia’s division, DivTwo didn’t attempt anything fancy in their approach and attack; they simply bored straight up the frigate’s six and opened fire into the exposed aft end. Their combined fire destroyed the engines, then walked forward through bulkheads, conduits, tanks, compartments, personnel, control runs, until Madman ordered a cease fire. He figured if he could see stars through the body of the frigate then his job was done.
“Commander, I’m picking up distress beacons. Suit beacons, it looks like,” said Special K.
“Division Three, break attack. Initiate SAR operations.”
“SAR? We don’t have anyone to keep anyone we rescue from getting frisky,” commed Ratman.
“Check your suit, pump down the compartment, and shut off the gravity. I don’t think anyone pulled out of the black is going to be trying anything tricky. After you remove any weapons, which I find unlikely, you can latch them into seats.” Mia switched frequencies. “Madman, any beacons from your target?”
“Negative, no beacons.”
“Help Division One with the other frigate.”
“Assist DivOne, aye.”