“Commencing combat deceleration burn.”
Commodore Peter Silva braced himself. Belted into his chair, he squeezed his gut and clenched his armrests. This was the part he hated the most.
A soft clunk reverberated through the airtight compartment. Deep in the bowels of the spaceship, an electromagnetic catapult hurtled a pulse unit down a linear track. At the end of the propulsion bus, heavy-duty blast doors opened into hard vacuum. Reaching maximum acceleration, the catapult hurled the pulse unit into the infinite expanse of deep space.
Enclosed within the envelope of the ship’s superconducting magnetic nozzle, the large gray cylinder passed through an invisible magnetic field. Protective shutters irised open in the hull, exposing a pair of small lenses. Servomotors molded the smart glass, making a dozen tiny corrections.
The lenses winked.
The pulse unit exploded.
Its innocent nomenclature hid its true nature. It was a thermonuclear fusion bomb.
In the heart of the pulse unit, deuterium fused with tritium, releasing helium, neutrons, and the fury of a miniature star. A reservoir of liquid hydrogen absorbed the released energy, transforming into hot, bright plasma. A thin boron shell surrounding the reservoir captured the stray neutrons and flashed into ionised gas.
The magnetic nozzle caught the rapidly-expanding plasma cloud, shaping it into a kilometer-long plume of sun-hot flame. A tiny portion of the released energies flowed up the nozzle, to be harnessed and converted into electricity to recharge the lasers and the catapult. The rest of the blast became pure thrust, accelerating fifteen thousand tons of mass in the opposite direction.
Silva shuddered with the sudden impulse. Force flowed up his feet and spine and out through his head, shaking up his nerves and viscera. The second pulse arrived an eye blink after the first. Then the next pulse, the next, the next, each detonation hot on the heels of its predecessor.
Nuclear pulse propulsion was the last word in deep space travel. High thrust married to high specific impulse, it was the only choice when the mission called for conveying huge cargoes halfway across the Solar System as quickly as possible. Just point the nose of your ship at your destination, figure out how much time and delta-v you were willing to burn, then punch in the release codes, sit back, and sail across the vasty deep on strings of nuclear flame.
But nobody said it had to be a comfortable voyage.
It was like being jackhammered through the feet, the legs and the butt. Silva’s eyes bulged. His teeth gnashed. His fingers clenched into a death grip. The ship was pulling a mere 1.5G burn, easily tolerable even by untrained civilians, but the chain of sharp pulses wore away at him, grinding down his nerves and bones with every blast. Even after twenty years in the Terran Space Force, the best he could say was that he could tolerate the burn as long as he had to, and not one second more.
But that was nothing compared to what was happening downrange of the blasts.
Every nuclear detonation generated a death zone of hard radiation. Anything within a hundred kilometers of the blast would be irradiated with X-rays, gamma rays, stray neutrons. The ship’s thick radiation shield protected everything forward of the reactor within an exceedingly narrow cone. Everything not behind rad shielding would take a hit of hard rads. Over and over and over again, until the burn was complete.
Which would piss off everyone in the immediate vicinity.
And there were nine more NPP ships like his making a hard burn into the system.
A young voice floated across the Combat Information Center.
“Commodore, incoming transmission from Minas Station. They want to speak with you.”
“Patch them into my console,” Silva replied.
A harsh, gravelly voice crackled from the speakers.
“Unidentified nuclear pulse warships, you are entering our system without authorization on a hazardous trajectory. Identify yourself and state your purpose.”
It was a little earlier than Silva had expected. He’d hoped to bring his constellation on station before being challenged. But things never went according to plan.
“Minas Station, this is the Enterprise, Terran Space Force,” Silva replied. “Our trajectories are clear for three hundred klicks around us. There is no radiation hazard to ships or stations in the vicinity. We are here in hot pursuit of the passenger ship Louisiana.”
“There is no such ship registered in our station,” the voice said, a little too quickly.
“Minas Station, may I know who I am speaking to?”
A long pause.
“This is Space Traffic Control of Minas Station,” the voice replied at last.
“We wish to speak to your leader.”
The voice brayed a laugh.
“This is Minas Station! All men are free, all men are equal! We have no leaders!”
Bullshit. Someone still had to call the shots, even in the self-proclaimed anarchist paradise of Minas Station. The space port, the organization that controlled traffic in and out of the station, was as close to a government as many independent stations had.
“Very well, Minas Station. Be advised that last month, the passenger ship Louisiana was hijacked in High Earth Orbit. Terrorists posing as passengers seized control of the ship and diverted her to Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 5. My constellation departed in hot pursuit.
“Three days ago, the Louisiana arrived in your system. Our sensors tracked a group of tugs hauling her into the Minas Station shipyard, where she was rapidly dissembled into her constituent modules. We also tracked multiple orbital transfer vehicles shuttling between the shipyard and your station. We have reason to believe that your station now holds the terrorists and their hostages.”
“We deny these claims!”
Silva knew otherwise. Space piracy was endemic in Earth orbit. Too many ships to track, too few patrol ships to cover them all. Most pirates simply robbed merchants, forcing a transfer of cargo pods at gunpoint. A few, however, hijacked entire vessels, holding them and their crews for ransom. Hijacked interplanetary ships capable of long cruises inevitably made their way to SEL-5, to Minas Station.
For a century, Earth had tolerated the existence of Minas Station, more focused on internal security and domestic troubles than space piracy. Now, with a consolidated government, a clear mandate from the united peoples of Earth, and other interplanetary powers seeking to challenge the primacy of the homeworld, Minas Station had to be dealt with. One way or another.
Silva hoped words were enough. His constellation had nowhere near the combat power he needed to guarantee victory. But he had his orders.
“We have prepared our sensor data for your inspection,” Silva replied, completely unruffled. “We trust that you will find the evidence irrefutable. We are also prepared to share that data with any independent third party you may choose to bring aboard to mediate this situation.”
“We have no need for inspections. We know you are here to impose Earth’s will on our system. We demand you depart immediately.”
Silva pretended Minas Station hadn’t said anything, and continued his speech.
“Our demands are simple. The safe return of the Louisiana, her crew, passengers and cargo, as well as all ships, crews, passengers and cargoes unlawfully transported to your system. Failing that, we demand a complete accounting of their movements, so that we can bring them home. We also demand the arrest and extradition of the terrorists responsible for the hijacking, as well as all other terrorists and pirates within your system.”
“This is an act of Terran imperialism. We denounce your attempt to seize control of the system.”
“We are not interested in taking over Minas Station, or any free station in SEL-5. We simply want to bring our people home, and to bring those responsible for harming them to justice.”
“You have no claims here.”
“All pirates and terrorists in space are hostis humani generis.They are the enemies of mankind, and beyond legal protection. Any state may deal with them by their laws and customs. We have every right to pursue pirates and terrorists anywhere they go, especially when they are holding our people hostage.”
“Do you have any proof that these alleged hostages and terrorists are in the station?”
That was the challenging part. The Louisiana had gone dark after being hijacked. The crew managed to activate the hijacking alarm before they were overpowered. After that, there had been no communications from the ship, even though the Enterprise had hailed her multiple times during their long, long flight to Minas.
“We have the sensor data, as mentioned, and we will share—”
You have no proof!” Minas Station crowed.
Tens of thousands of kilometers out, even the ultra-long-range telescopes mounted on the Terran warships could only pick up drive flares and radiator signatures. Radar could track the movement of ships to and fro. But there was no proof that there was anyone aboard the many OTVs shuttling from the shipyard to Minas Station. Minas Station could easily claim that those OTVs simply held innocent workers.
“We have proof that the Louisiana was disassembled in your shipyard. Our sensors clearly recorded the activity. We have tracked the movement of the modules to various holding areas in your shipyard, mixed with other modules. We know our people are in Minas Station. We know you have the power to return them to us.”
“We have no knowledge of a hijacking. We know only this: a constellation of Terran nuclear warships is burning into our system and making demands of us. We protest this intrusion into a free system and demand your departure.”
“Return our ships, our people and our goods, and we will leave.”
“Your very presence threatens the peace and freedom of our system. You leave. Then we will investigate your claims.”
Silva sighed. It had to come to this.
As if on cue, the intervals between the nuclear blasts widened. Now an invisible force pulled him forward into his safety harness. The Enterprise was turning herself back around, presenting her heavily-armored nose towards potential threats. The turn was blessedly slow, giving him time to recover between blasts, and more importantly, preserving delta-v.
Silva worked his keyboard, switching the radio to the guard channel.
“Attention, all ships and stations within the SEL-5 system. This is the TSS Enterprise, flagship of Task Force 136. We are here in hot pursuit of a hijacked passenger ship, the Louisiana. Our sensors have tracked the Louisiana to Minas Station. Minas Station has refused to return our ship and people to us.
“Effective immediately, we hereby impose a blockade on Minas Station.
“All traffic in and out of Minas Station shall cease immediately. All ships presently en route to Minas Station shall make a burn for the nearest station. All ships within three hundred kilometers of Minas Station shall cut power to their engines, extend radiators and prepare for boarding and inspection.
“Only emergency medical, resupply and evacuation flights to and from ships in distress shall be allowed within the blockaded zone. Foreign ships that have passed inspection shall depart Minas Station. Minas-flagged ships shall be arrested indefinitely, but will be allowed to transfer their crew and cargo to Minas Station after passing inspection. No other burns are allowed within the blockaded zone.
“Failure to comply shall be treated as a hostile act. Likewise, any resistance shall also be treated as a hostile act. This blockade shall continue until Minas Station complies with our lawful demands.”
Chatter filled the frequency. Anger, surprise, disgust. Obscenities flew freely, all aimed at the Terrans. It was all an act, Silva knew. There was no way to conceal the movements of a constellation of space warships. The locals had weeks to prepare for their arrival.
Which made the mission that much more dangerous.
“You’re making a big mistake, Terran,” Minas Station promised.
“Return the Louisiana to us and hand over the terrorists, or you’ll be the one making the big mistake,” Silva said.
The net degenerated into blasphemy-laden tirades. Silva transferred the burden of monitoring the frequency to the ship’s communications officer, then called up the tactical display on his screen.
Task Force 136 was a hodgepodge of ships thrown together at the last second. When Space Command finally received the order to respond to the hijacking, the brass pulled the ships they could spare off regular duties and sent them after the Louisiana. Though the Space Force was a tightly-knit fraternity, Silva didn’t think he’d worked with half of the commanding officers of the other ships before. Those ships that needed human crews.
The ten ships of TF 136 were split into four elements across four different orbits. Three of them were destroyers paired with kinetic buses. Each kinetic bus was an arsenal of self-propelled kinetic munitions mated to a nuclear propulsion bus. Shaped like a fat, ugly diamond, its outer form reflected an equally ugly purpose: delivering massive overkill on target.
The kinetic buses were also entirely unmanned. The logic of space war demanded masses of missiles, not men. Normally carriers like the Enterprise would control the buses. For this mission, the kinetic buses were all slaved to their partnered destroyers. Designed to operate at the forward edge of battle, the destroyers were sleek cylinders crammed with as many weapons as could fit within the hull. Plus a complement of Marines, just enough to make VBSS across the area of operations a strenuous high-tempo operation instead of a pipe dream.
The Enterprise element was the heaviest, by necessity. None of the ships here were designed for close range fights; they had to obliterate threats from a distance. The Enterprise’s armaments were modest, four small lasers and a bank of missiles, sufficient for point defense and not much else. A kinetic bus made up for her lack of kinetic munitions. A laser star provided long-range firepower.
Also unmanned, the laser star was a gigantic multi-gigawatt free electron laser fitted to a nuclear propulsion bus and titanic radiators the size of football fields, like a finely-tipped stylus feathered with metallic plumes glowing a vivid shade of orange.
When set to ultraviolet, the laser star could reach out and touch anything in the local system. Far, far behind the constellation, technically part of the Enterprise’s element, was a lone combat logistics ship, carrying all the supplies the task force needed to operate this far from Terra.
Task Force 136 maneuvered to englobe Minas Station from just over ten thousand kilometers out. In space, nine combatant ships were barely enough to cover all trajectories and approaches to a station. Having prodigiously spent pulse units to chase the Louisiana, the constellation’s delta-v stores were down to just over fifty percent. Though the hastily-assembled task force had spent the journey to SLM-5 practicing maneuvers and scenarios in virtual reality, there was no working around the fact that this was the first time many of the ships would be working together, especially for a live operation.
Despite their apparent disadvantages, they had the edge over Minas Station. Intelligence reported that Minas Station owned a mere six ships. Orbital patrol ships, running on methane nuclear thermal rockets.
Though ancient technology by now, NTRs had opened the Sol System to mankind, and were still the favored workhorses of the outer systems. The right NTR design could match, even overmatch, an NPP ship within certain parameters.
The Minas OPS was a formidable combatant, but only at close range. Purpose-designed for securing the volume of space immediately around Minas Station, open source intelligence indicated it had over six kilometers of delta-v and an acceleration of one and a half gravities, the perfect blend of endurance and thrust. In exchange, it sacrificed firepower.
Its four 60mm autocannons were for close-range scraps and point defense only. Its megawatt laser had an estimated effective range of just fifteen kilometers. The weapons could overawe unarmed civilian ships and clean up orbital debris, but that was all. The ship’s true long-range punch came in the form of its missile banks.
What was in the missiles was a mystery. Kinetic munitions were cheap and common out in the dark, but Intelligence did not rule out nuclear warheads. No one wanted to take risks. No one would know what the missiles carried until they were launched.
If it came to blows, it would come down to kinetics, Silva knew. How much mass one side could throw at the other, how much mass one side could evade or destroy. The Terrans had the absolute advantage in mass and lasers.
But only against Minas Station.
Equidistant from the Sun and Earth, a Lagrange Point was a region of space where the gravitational and centrifugal forces of the two mismatched bodies balanced each other out. Anything parked at the L4 or L5 points could maintain a stable orbit indefinitely, making it a priority colonisation target during the Second Space Age.
The early pioneers had found little but dust, rocks and captured comets. Today, SEL-5 teemed with life, carved from the raw materials harvested from the void. Space stations and habitats, shipyards and propellant depots, factories and laboratories, mines and radio stations, scores of settlements and facilities sprawled across the once-empty volume, a civilisation born from ingenuity, iron will, and decades of backbreaking labor.
Thousands of ships roamed SEL-5. The Enterprise was presently tracking 3298 distinct craft. Most of them ran on chemical thrusters, sufficient to transfer from one inhabited orbit to another and little else. But a fraction of them, 576 to be exact, were atomic rockets.
328 hundred ran on nuclear thermal rocket engines. Enterprise’s onboard AI estimated that 164 of the NTRs were heavy cargo haulers, designed to move huge payloads from one station to another within SEL-5. The rest were configured for long-endurance flights, fitted with enormous propellant tanks and reduced cargo holds, waiting for the next Hohmann transfer orbit launch window to open.
The remainder were torch ships. Low-mass ships whose enormous radiators betrayed the nuclear fusion reactors nestled in their bowels. Reactors powerful enough to run gigawatt lasers and mass drivers capable of threatening the constellation even from thousands of kilometers out, of operating magnetic nozzles and NPP microbombs capable of delivering thrust measured in multiple gravities.
Priority one of the task force’s intelligence officers and analysts was to separate the wolves from the sheep, starting with the torch ships, the massive NTRs, and then the Minas-flagged patrol ships.
The patrol ships were known quantities. The other ships were not. It was all too easy to hide Q-ships among civilian convoys, drones and missiles within cargo pods, weapons concealed behind low-visibility panels. Pirates and space forces all over the Sol System did it all the time.
If the balloon went up… Silva did not relish fighting a swarm of three thousand ships with just ten. All they had to do was to launch a single missile bus each and they could overwhelm the task force. And that wasn’t even counting the other surprises the system had in store.
There were hundreds of thousands of small objects scattered across SEL-5. Most of it was innocent space dust, picked up over countless aeons. The rest was manmade, debris and junk from countless little accidents, each of them a navigational hazard. A collision could produce a host of fragments, each of which could produce more fragments, and then even more fragments. Without a convenient planetary atmosphere to deorbit and burn up space junk, without a central government that ensured the safety of the region, navigating this mess would be tricky. Worst case scenario, the constellation would have to burn a path through occupied orbits with their lasers… while under fire… and fending off a swarm of incoming kinetics.
And in all that junk, it was too easy to hide space mines.
Yellow streaks slashed across Silva’s tactical display, tracking the movement of space junk. Clouds of red fog indicated no-go zones of deadly radiation spewing from nuclear rockets. Swarms of white dots and arrows revealed the relative positions and vectors of the thousands upon thousands of objects in motion around SEL-5. Only the orbits of Earth were more cluttered than this.
In this complex, congested, contested space, ten strange ships from Earth had to win safe passage and lay down the law. It wasn’t a job Silva would wish on anyone, least of all himself. But he had his orders, and he would carry them out.
“Burn complete,” the officer of the deck reported.
A warm voice off to Silva’s left floated into his ear.
“Very good. Pilot, thank you for bringing us safely into the AO.”
A little over a month ago, Regina Waters was Silva’s Executive Officer. Back then, Silva was also merely the captain of the Enterprise. The formation of Task Force 136 came with it a brevet promotion to Commodore, meaning Silva now had all the responsibilities of a flag officer and none of the pay and privileges for as long as the mission lasted. The bump up the hierarchy meant that Waters was now the captain of the Enterprise, again only as long as the mission lasted.
She was a fine officer, but she was also barely halfway through her first tour as XO. At least she only had to fight one ship. Silva had ten to worry about.
“Commodore, we are ready to begin drone operations,” Waters said.
“Carry on, Captain,” Silva said.
Waters cleared her throat and spoke into the mic.
“Attention all hands, attention all hands. General quarters, general quarters. All hands man your battle stations. This is not a drill.”
The ship was already at enhanced alert in preparation for the combat decel burn. Every astronaut was strapped into place, clad in a spacesuit, his helmet within easy reach. As Waters repeated the announcement, Silva reached under his chair, grabbed his own helmet, and fitted it into place. He opened a compartment in the wall behind him, where an interface to the ship’s life support system awaited. He connected a waiting hose to the helmet, filling the toughed glass bubble with life-giving oxygen.
“Ship is at general quarters,” the officer of the deck announced.
“Very well. All hands, prepare for drone launch operations.”
Though no shots would be fired, the constellation would treat this evolution as a prelude to war. As indeed it could be, if Minas Station chose to interpret it as an imminent attack. Or any of the scores of stations around SEL-5.
The history of SEL-5 was split into two waves of colonisation, easily distinguishable by their architecture. The first generation of settlers hollowed out an asteroid, fired up a fusion reactor, added a spin for gravity, and called it good. The next wave of settlers built habitats from scratch. Minas Station was the oldest of the second-gen habitats, a gigantic torus with an attached solar mirror. While a more refined place to live in than a repurposed rock, it was also far more fragile. A single drone could easily wreck Minas Station beyond repair, never mind the eighty that slept in Enterprise’s hold.
Waters issued a series of orders. Junior officers rattled off a stream of status updates. A familiar litany to Silva, who had spent nearly a third of his career aboard carriers of one kind or another. He was pleased that the crew, his crew, was in top form. Even more pleased that Waters was handling her first command so well.
Halfway down the Enterprise, four armored doors slid open, revealing the launch bays. Four electromagnetic catapults accelerated down their tracks in perfect sync. Each catapult carried a single Stinger drone. Cheap, compact, and completely disposable, it was a weapon with a frame wrapped around it, armored just enough to force the enemy to waste a missile or a burst of slugs or a laser duty cycle to kill it, just lethal enough that the enemy could not ignore it.
Half of the Stingers were armed with compact lasers. The other half carried tiny high-velocity railguns. Until their weapon ports opened and their radiators blazed, no one but the Terrans would know what lurked in their bellies.
The catapults disgorged their Stingers parallel to the hull of the Enterprise. Loaded like giant bullets inside rotary racks, more Stingers rolled out into the flight bays. In the space of minutes, the Enterprise launched sixty Stingers.
Divided into three groups of twenty, the Stingers fluttered their liquid oxygen-methane engines. Short, quick puffs, burning just enough delta-v to arrange for a rendezvous with their assigned element. Every meter per second counted. They were a powerful force multiplier, if used correctly, but they only had enough fuel and ammo for a single attack run.
The remaining twenty drones would be kept in reserve. Just in case.
Accusations and condemnations filled the guard channel. Silva tuned it all out, gluing his eyes to the tactical display. Actions spoke much, much louder than words, and now, for all the big talk, the stations and ships of SEL-5 were doing little to resist.
Ships caught in the blockaded zone evacuated the area, either burning for new ports or hustling to the shipyard, trying to outrace the Terran warships before they could cover all of Minas orbit with their lasers. Surrounding ships burned for neutral orbits, unwilling to get mixed up in the coming fracas. Orbital patrol ships belonging to every station in the system lit up their fire control systems, more as a gesture of defiance than preparation for combat. The warships easily outranged them all. Not a single ship retracted their vulnerable radiators, which meant none of them were preparing for combat.
“All hands, secure from launch operations,” Waters ordered.
“Good work,” Silva said.
“Thank you, sir.”
The assets were in play, or readied for play. The players were moving into position in a delicate dance of quick burns covered by tons of armor and guns. Laser and radio traffic crossed the gap between ships and stations, most of them encrypted. The analysts stared at their screens, watching for the slightest hint of malign purpose.
The easy part was over.
Now came the true challenge.
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