In space, math reigned supreme. And the mathematics of war was not with Task Force 136.
In SEL-5, every object not under thrust maintained a stationary position relative to the sun and Earth. Too used to watching constellations in constant motion over planetary bodies, a sense of unreality washed over Silva as he studied the tactical display. Every installation was completely still. The only moving objects were ships in transit, riding on thick clouds of expended propellant.
Parked at the outermost edge of the area of operations, the Enterprise and her ships dominated the volume around Minas Station. The laser star’s gigawatt laser could obliterate any threat within ten thousand kilometers in the space of heartbeats. The kinetic bus could launch an alpha strike at any convoy or faction foolish enough to challenge the blockade. The Enterprise’s remaining drones granted her persistent long-range combat projection power.
But annihilation was not the mission. It was the threat, the promised consequences of failing to comply with Terra’s will. To manifest her will, the destroyers had to get in close.
They had to. They were limited by the shuttles nestled within their flight decks. The shuttles were designed for short, quick hops from point A to point B. With their anemic chemical rockets, cramped passenger compartment and minuscule life support system, that was all they were good for.
The destroyers couldn’t stand off at long range and deploy the shuttles. Either the shuttles burned fuel on a high-speed intercept, or oxygen on a slow trip. No matter which way they cut it, if the shuttles were deployed at standoff range, there would only be enough supplies for a single VBSS mission per launch. Millions of kilometers from Earth, with only a single CLS ship for resupply, surrounded by hostile factions unwilling to resupply the task force, minimizing consumption was critical.
That forced the destroyers and their robot ships to take up positions three hundred and fifty kilometers from Minas. Close enough that the Marines could inspect several ships in a single deployment, not so close that the Minas space patrol could overwhelm a destroyer through weight of numbers.
The swarm. It was the tactic every self-respecting spacer feared the most in crowded orbitals. And the destroyers were deep in unfriendly space. Surrounded by ships and stations from every angle, all of whom had every reason to distrust Earth, they were at constant risk of being overwhelmed.
The area of operations could transition from a frigid peace to red-hot war in five minutes or less. Once the missiles started flying, at this range, there would be precious little time to manouvre, even less time to fight.
Enterprise’s job was to buy every second she could for the destroyers. The intelligence department worked overtime, feverishly identifying and categorizing every contact in the area of operations. They marked and analyzed every ship with visible armament. They studied the nuclear ships for signs of weapons. They tracked vectors and bearings and cargo pods, looking for burns that would line up a Q-ship for a kinetic barrage. Even with the assistance of the carrier’s powerful onboard AI, it took a human to divine intentions from actions.
The rest of the ship worked to pre-empt possible threats. The drone department juggled the Stingers and the robot ships. The weapons department plotted solutions for attack patterns. Engineering and Navigation worked out safe vectors for evasive manouvres. Maxine Waters coordinated the crew, the brain and heart and soul of the ship, freeing Silva to handle high-level strategic decisions.
“Captain, we have a ship attempting to run the blockade,” the duty officer reported.
The announcement snapped Silva out of a duty-induced haze. It had barely been a full day since the task force arrived on station. He’d spent that time reading through intelligence reports, war-gaming responses to different permutations of opposition forces, updating the brass back on Earth, and other such operational duties. He had been looking forward to retreating to his stateroom, if only so he could relieve the pressure gathering in his temples and scratch the itch between his shoulders.
No such luck.
An electric current charged the Combat Information Center. The spacers tensed over their consoles, poised for immediate action. Waters pasted her coffee bulb against the nearest hook-and-loop pad on her table, then replied.
“Sensors, analysis of the runner?” she asked.
“Modular heavy cargo freighter with NTR propulsion bus, massing about two thousand tons. Plume spectroscopy indicates liquid oxygen-hydrogen mix. Payload section comprises twelve one-thousand-ton cargo pods. Transponder indicates she’s the Orion, registered to Minas Station. She is currently pivoting away from Minas Station,” the sensor officer replied.
As the young man spoke, Silva zoomed in on the Orion in his tactical display, seeing sensor feeds on multiple windows. Through the lens of the Enterprise’s ultra-long range telescope, she looked vaguely like a mace, spouting atomic fire from her crown. The massive bulge was a spherical propellant tank, the nuclear thermal rocket a short stub on one end, the payload section a long spine at the other. She was turning and burning, slowly orienting herself towards empty space.
“Any signs of weapons?” Waters asked.
“Negative, ma’am. No external weapons. Those pods, however, are large enough to hold a weapons package each.”
Waters clenched her jaw, absent-mindedly rubbing her chin. The tension was evident in her shoulders. He fought the urge to take command. This was her job now. He had to trust in her.
Instead, Silva said, “It’s not likely to be an attack.”
“I don’t think so too,” Waters said.
“Comms from the Lexington,” an officer called out. “Commodore, their captain wants to speak to you.”
Silva shook his head.
Like Waters, the captain of the Lexington was on his first tour as commanding officer, but at least Waters had the excuse of being bumped up into the big chair with little prep. In the few times he’d spoken with Captain Hamilton on the way here, the man seemed terminally incapable of initiative in the presence of his superiors.
“Go ahead,” Silva said.
Hamilton’s voice piped into the speaker.
“Commodore, a cargo freighter is attempting to run the blockade,” Hamilton begun.
“I see her,” Silva interjected.
“What are your orders?”
“Our standing orders have not changed. Neither have our rules of engagement.”
“Do I have permission to engage?”
Silva sighed, even more loudly than before.
“Captain, you do not need my permission to carry out your orders. Just do it.”
Fatigue sharpened Silva’s voice to a cutting edge. Silva heard the hurt in Hamilton’s voice.
“Roger, sir. Proceeding to hail the vessel.”
Silva tuned his console radio to the guard channel. A few seconds later, Hamilton’s voice filled the airwaves.
“Cargo ship Orion, this is the TSF Lexington. You are attempting to violate a blockaded zone. Cut thrust immediately and stand by to be boarded.”
By way of response, Orion fired her engine in the opposite direction, killing her momentum. For a long moment, Silva wanted to believe that the Orion had chosen to comply.
Then her nuclear thermal rocket burned at full power.
Hamilton repeated his order twice more. The Orion continued her burn. The Enterprise’s AI projected her trajectory on Silva’s console. At this rate, she would exit SEL-5 and embark on a long cruise to nowhere.
“Commodore, the Orion is attempting to flee,” Hamilton said.
“I can follow the action on my screen,” Silva said testily.
“Permission to escalate?”
In that request, Silva heard: Please cover my ass?
“Proceed,” Silva grunted.
White light speckled off the command module of the Orion. A warning shot from the Lexington’s main lasers, just powerful enough to get the crew’s attention.
“Orion, this is the Lexington. You are violating a blockade. Cut thrust immediately and stand by to be boarded.”
“Lexington, this is the Orion,” a weaselly voice replied. “We are declaring a medical emergency and we need to evacuate the area.”
“Bullshit,” Silva muttered under his breath.
To his credit, Hamilton caught on to it too.
“Orion, you are burning on an escape trajectory. You’re not headed towards any inhabited installation in the system. You’re not experiencing an emergency. Cut thrust immediately and stand by to be boarded.”
Orion cut her rocket. Now she drifted through space, still on an escape trajectory. Lexington flashed her again with her laser.
“Orion, you will assume a stationkeeping orbit immediately and stand by to be boarded.”
“Lexington, Orion here. Allow us to clarify. Sedna Station declared a medical emergency. We are carrying medical supplies for the station. We cannot be delayed.”
Silva looked at Waters. Waters shook her head.
“We didn’t hear anything out of Sedna,” Waters said.
“Orion, Lexington. You are still on an escape trajectory. Your vector will not take you anywhere near Sedna Station. You will assume a stationkeeping orbit immediately and stand by to be boarded. This is your final warning.”
“Lexington, Sedna here,” a fresh voice interjected. “We are declaring a medical emergency. Orion is carrying vital medicines for us. We need that ship.”
Silva closed his eyes and counted down. Three… two… one…
“Enterprise, Lexington here. Sedna Station has claimed a medical emergency, and Orion claims she is carrying medical supplies for Sedna. Please advise.”
“Lexington, Enterprise,” Silva said. “Stop and inspect the Orion. Do not allow her to violate the blockade.”
“Permission to engage?”
Silva rolled his eyes.
“Pro… No. Belay that.”
“Prepare a boarding crew.” Silva turned to Waters. “Warm up the laser star. Have it stop the Orion.”
Waters rattled off a series of orders. Spacers called out status updates and vital information. The laser star fired its RCS, bringing its massive laser to bear. On his screen, the Orion continued to coast through space.
The atomic rocket erupted in a cloud of white flame. Shrapnel spewed in a thousand directions. Thin streamers of boiling propellant gushed out into the void.
“Lexington, Orion! What the hell are you doing?! We are unarmed!”
Silva interjected into the radio.
“Orion, this is the Enterprise. Our orders were clear. No space traffic is allowed without our express permission within the blockaded zone. Violations will be met with force.”
Everyone in SEL-5 could see the laser strike. Everyone would know that the laser star could erase anything within the system. With that shot, everything changed.
The independent stations of SEL-5 have hated Earth for generations. Now they would learn to fear.
As Silva spoke, the laser star continued its deadly work. Ultraviolet laser pulses drilled into the Orion’s RCS thrusters with unerring precision. Even attenuated over thousands of kilometers, every pulse arrived with enough force to blow the delicate thrusters into smithereens. Every blast imparted momentum to the ship, sending her into a death spiral.
The command module separated from the stricken ship. Roughly the size of an apartment back on Earth, the CMOD was the nerve center of the ship, where the crew lived and worked.
“You just killed our ship!” The captain of the Orion wailed over the guard net.
“You chose to violate the blockade. We presented the consequences,” Silva said coldly. “Assume a stationkeeping orbit now.”
“You can’t kill us! The entire solar system is watching!”
“We’re not going to. On the other hand, your present trajectory will take you on a thousand-year orbit around the Sun. We can rescue you and take you back to Minas Station—”
“Fuck you and your ‘rescue’!”
“—or we can knock out the engines on your CMOD and leave you be.”
“You son of a bitch!”
“The choice is yours.”
Long, long minutes past.
Then the CMOD fired its tiny chemical engines, bringing itself into a stationary orbit relative to the Sun and Earth.
Silva released a breath he hadn’t known he was holding.
“Lexington, Enterprise. Pick up the stranded spacers. Figure out what the hell they were really doing, trying to run the blockade,” Silva ordered.
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Enterprise, Minas Station. You fired on an innocent, unarmed spacer. This will not be tolerated!”
The speaker was the same gravelly-voiced man from yesterday. The boss of Minas Space Traffic Control, or maybe even the entire station.
“Release our ships, our people and our goods, hand over the terrorists who hijacked the Louisiana, and we will return to Earth,” Silva said. “Until then, we are staying.”
“Hah! Everyone knows it’s just an excuse! You came here to colonize our system!”
“If we came here to do that, we wouldn’t send a mere ten ships,” Silva replied. “Again, our only demand is—”
“Save your breath. We know what you are. We will take action.”
Silva shut off the radio and turned his attention to the wider tactical situation.
The Orion CMOD drifted helplessly through space. The Lexington deployed a shuttle. Civilian traffic burned well clear of the situation. The remaining ships around Minas Station remained on lockdown, unable to move for fear of attracting another long-range laser strike.
“Talk is cheap,” Waters said. “As long as we have the laser star, they know they can’t touch us.”
“They also know that as long as they hold on to the hostages, we can’t leave. Our supplies won’t last forever, and we’re a long way from home,” Silva said.
“You think they’ll try to outwait us?”
“They can grow their own food. We can’t. All we can do is cut off their economic lifeblood, keep goods and money from flowing in and out of the station, and hope that when the cost of resistance grows too high, they will comply.”
Waters pursed her lips. “We’re in this for the long haul.”
“Better get comfortable.”
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