Welcome to launch day!
Not quite the kind of launch day I’m used to, but hey, it’s what passes here in the 21st Century. As a special bonus, Adam decided you could have two chapters, so enjoy them!
A couple notes on the events of the chapter(s). First, I still believe we made the right decisions in the heat of the moment, and I would make them the same way again. Second, although I never told Flashdance, these events were the reason the Wolves were never deployed as the first-line defenders again. Capable ships? Absolutely! There’s a reason we still use them, or their grandchildren, two centuries on. But for all their versatility, that same ability is what made them less than ideal for defense.
I would give almost anything to have spared Flashdance the events, though. She’d gone through it once as crew and then again as a commander; that’s plenty enough.
In any case, on with the chapters! You can click on any image to purchase the book and have it delivered INSTANTLY to your Kindle!
“We’ve got multiple incoming targets,” announced Horst Pipher just before noon.
“Number? Course?” asked Whitmore.
“Working on it, Colonel.”
Kyran stepped in. “Spurgeon, scramble the reserve squadrons.”
“Right away, Commodore.” Glen Spurgeon wasn’t in the Command, Control, and Intelligence Center (CCIC), of course. He practically lived in the massive dome at the top of Njord, overseeing the mobile units, along with Hecate. But he was instantly on call, and Kyran could see the status lights on the Wolves and Direwolves changing as he spoke.They came to stand behind their primary threat analyst, next to Whitmore. Pipher was running through his analysis to her.
“They’re right at the edge of our detection threshold. Very small.”
“Perhaps a meter across. And they are not producing any active emissions signatures. No power generation. They’re coming in on a ballistic course. Very tricky.”
“Very probably. The readings we are getting are similar to those recorded by Endeavour on the bomber drone.”
“My analysis suggests a probability in excess of 95% that these are devices of a similar type,” added Diana. “Commodore, the Admiral is trying to reach you.”
“Put her through.”
“What’s going on, Kyran?”
“We’ve detected a number of incoming objects, count is unsure at this point. Diana and Horst believe them to be unpowered versions of the antimatter bombs that Endeavour encountered. We’re launching all MOVs and Direwolves to intercept.”
Kyran assumed she meant how long until the objects intercepted Njord, and looked to Pipher for the answer.
“They are approaching at a relative speed of 152 KPS; the closest is at nearly a million kilometers.” He did the calculations. “One hour, fifty minutes.”
“Nearly two hours, Admiral,” she reported. “Are you aboard Njord?”
“No; we’re aboard Enterprise. Let’s talk this through. Virtual conference in two minutes.”
“Aye, Admiral.” Kyran turned. “Whitmore, run the problem. Firm up that data. Colona, I want all of our defensive measures online.”
“Already warming,” said the defensive specialist.
“Flashdance, Double Dip,” Kyran said to the air, heading for their office off the CCIC.
“Yes, Commodore?” both replied.
“As soon as your squadrons are all in flight, get a course from Pipher and prepare for intercept. Don’t go max accel, we have time for a coordinated response.” After getting confirmation, they closed the channel. In a short moment they had reached their office and were speaking again.
“Diana, open it up.”
Kendra’s holographic avatar appeared, along with Alley and Cass. She’d obviously already gotten onto Enterprise’s bridge and was in Alley’s ready room. Diana appeared there as well in her usual ‘Gal Godot’ avatar.
“Commodore, one question before we start.”
“Of course, Admiral.”
“How close is Endeavour to return? It’s this week?”
“Can we shave off a day or two? Can she function as backup?”
Diana answered. “She could conceivably function as backup. All the external repairs are complete, and only minimal internal repairs are still underway.”
“Then Captain Stewart should be in on this too,” said Kendra, and Kyran nodded.
“I’ll get her in.”
The first thing Kiri said as her avatar took shape was, “I’ve been watching the situation. How can we help?”
“We’re trying to figure that out. Commodore, can you summarize?”
It only took Kyran a minute to bring them up to speed. “We’re now tracking twenty-three objects.”
“Options?” offered Kendra.
“This is going to sound insane,” said Cass. “But what if we try to capture them?”
“You’re right,” Kiri snapped. “It’s insane. A piece of one of those things crippled my ship!”
“Hold on! The Wolves have tractor beams and can easily keep pace with these slower bombs; they could latch on and bring them to a standstill.”
“And then we have a cluster of antimatter bombs sitting in space, waiting for someone to run into them,” said Kiri. “That’s not acceptable.”
“No, no, that’s not the whole plan. Hear me out.”
She waited until she regained everyone’s attention. “I’ve been playing with an idea so we can use the teleport without a portal at the other end; the sensors on the starships are precise enough to get the quantum-level scan we need to do the teleportation. What if we retrieved the antimatter from the bomb casings? We have the technology, the capacity, to contain antimatter safely aboard the Enterprise.”
“Whoa. Stop right there. No way are you bringing uncontained antimatter aboard my ship, Commander!” snapped Alley.
“Not uncontained, Alley. And it’s only temporary!”
“No. Way. Not happening, Commander. That’s final.”
“Then plan B is to use Enterprise’s tractors to drag it back to Njord, and contain it here.”
“You want to bring kilos of antimatter aboard my station?” said Kyran, aghast. “Do I get a say in this?”
Cass waved them off. “We don’t need to store it in Njord if we can create a self-contained system. Keep it stored a thousand kilometers away with all sorts of warning signals. Diana? Can you create a holding tank for antimatter?” asked Cass.
“I can create a containment field that will be sufficient, yes.”
Kyran considered that. “That ought to be far enough, if it loses containment.”
“You are correct, Commodore,” said Diana. “The benefit to Commander Cassidy’s plan is enormous. Assuming each of these objects contains the same quantity of antimatter, and also assuming they are of similar dimension to the ones which Endeavour encountered, then we would power the habitat and the fleet, even the expanded fleet, for approximately ten years with the antimatter captured.”
Kendra whistled. “Okay, so capture is an option. What else? I want everything on the table.”
“Could the Wolves redirect them?” asked Kiri. “Blowing them up is a really poor option.”
“Redirect them where?” said Kendra.
“I’d say dropping them into the sun would be a good idea,” said Kiri with feeling. She still didn’t appreciate the damage done to her Endeavour.
“I’m in favor of that,” agreed Alley. “What if one misses us and impacts Luna? It might get their attention.”
Kendra looked at her Flag Captain thoughtfully. “You know, Alley, that’s not a terrible idea.”
“Kendra!” Cass’s voice was shocked.
“No, no, nothing like what you’re thinking! Not Artemis City, or any of the other pressures. But what if it seems they were attacked by one of their allies?”
Kendra could see the thought jump from mind to mind.
“Find an isolated area and make a big boom. Maybe they’ll start thinking. Doubting. It’s got to be somewhere uninhabited. There’s got to be places like that, right? Diana?”
“Yes, Admiral. There are large areas in the northern hemisphere, as seen from Earth, which are not officially inhabited.”
“Officially. Artemis does not maintain a strict census of its population outside the pressures. It is likely there are individuals, or small groups, scattered across much of the uninhabited areas. In addition, there is a statistical certainty the Artemis government maintains ‘black list’ operations and projects in these same areas. Exact locations, however, are unknown.”
“We can’t do anything about the individuals; the best we can do is aim somewhere that’s uninhabited, as far as anyone can know. Is there a place like that? Not so far away from a pressure that it won’t be seen, but far enough it won’t do damage?”
The answer was nearly instantaneous. “Ocean of Storms.”
“Any other ideas?” She caught every pair of eyes in turn. “No? Blow them up, capture them, or redirect them?”
“That is an eloquent summary of the options, Admiral.”
“Diana, your sarcasm is coming along nicely. Cass, we’re going to give your idea a try, with a tweak. Bring their velocity relative to Njord down to zero, rather than zero absolute velocity. They’ll keep their distance from Njord while we figure out what to do with them.”
There were general sounds of agreement between the commanders.
“All but one. I want Alexander and Flashdance working with Diana to set one on track for the Ocean of Storms. With any kind of luck, it might sow a little distrust between that bitch and the rest of the Union, and we can exploit that.”
“A sound strategic move,” said Diana.
“Once the remaining ones are zeroed relative to Njord, Cass will have all the time she wants to play with her idea, and Diana the time to build the containment system.”
Again there was general agreement.
“Alley, I think Enterprise should be in position to back up our squadrons, but Endeavour can sit this one out. Thanks for the offer, Kiri.”
The meeting broke, and Kyran returned to their CCIC.
“We have confirmed trajectory and count, Commodore,” said Whitmore immediately.
“Defensive systems online,” added Colona. “Shields on standby.” The shields were the most energy-intensive, so were activated last to reduce demand on the habitat’s power grid.
“All craft launched,” answered the bay manager.
“Njord to Squadron Leaders.”
Double Dip checked in first.
“Nymeria Actual. Squadron en route to coordinates in support role.” Two dozen of the lightning-quick and deadly Direwolf fighters, formed into four divisions, were under her command.
“Wolf Actual,” said Flashdance next. “Underway.”
The Wolfpack, as Wolf Squadron was usually called, had a dozen Wolf-class MOVs.
“Tiger Actual,” came the final check-in, from Wrangler. “We’re down a boat; the EM on Leonidas gave them a down-check for a faulty flux capacitor. Six Pack thinks he can replace it and make the mission.”
“Here’s the plan.” Kyran laid out the details quickly but thoroughly, answering the few questions.
“Go get ‘em,” they finished.
“Why do we get the fun jobs?” bitched Menace.
“Because we’re the best,” Flashdance answered right back. “Range.”
“Two hundred k klicks.”
“Time to intercept?”
“Ten minutes minus.”
“Nymeria Actual, Wolf Actual.”
“Go ahead Flashdance,” said Double Dip. She was flying backup for Alexander, trailing the MOV by fifty klicks.
“Menace says we’re ten minutes minus. You want to go over this one more time?”
“Nope. What’s to go over? You close to five klicks from a bomb that could obliterate you in a heartbeat, and if anything goes wrong I get to tell your boyfriend that you died a hero.”
“Funny, Double Dip.”
“I thought so. Seriously, why aren’t we just blowing these stupid things up? It’s not like my squadron hasn’t been training for weeks or anything.”
“Ours not to reason why. Well, if we screw it up, then your squadron will get the chance to clean up the mess.”
“Yeah, I’d rather not. Who’s going to keep me from puking on the Admiral at my next promotion if you’re not around? And I really don’t want to be CAG yet.”
That got a grin from Flashdance, remembering the promotion ceremony. Was it just last year?
“Five minutes,” said Menace.
“Time to get our game faces on. Talk to you on the other side.”
“Throttling back,” replied Double Dip, opening the distance a bit further. She knew, up close and personal, what one of the antimatter bombs could do and had no desire to get anywhere near one again.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“That’s your job, Double Dip.” Shannon switched to the squadron channel.
“Wolf Squadron, prepare to engage. Match speed but do not, repeat, do not do anything until after our run. Either we’ll have pointers for you, or we’re going to be a bad example for you. Out.”
“Times like this I wish we mounted shields,” muttered Menace.
“Times like this I wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young,” replied Flashdance.
“Oh? What did she tell you?”
“I don’t know; I didn’t listen.”
“Great. Two minutes. Warming up tractor beams. Closing speed two KPS and dropping.” The field of approaching bombs showed on the sensors like glitter scattered across construction paper. The distance between targets ranged from a low of eight klicks to a high of fifteen; there’d been some spread in their billion-plus kilometer journey.
“Target locked in. Putting it on the screens.”
Their target popped up on the screens built into their cockpit’s optical sapphire windows. From this distance it was little more than a glittering point. Only when they were ten kilometers distant did they began to resolve any detail.
Menace was bent over his instruments, calling off the information as Flashdance handled the final navigation. “Confirming composition. Neodymium, 1.2 meters across, 1.4 meters long. Slight rotation, less than two RPM.”
“Njord, Nymeria Actual. Target is rotating around longitudinal axis. Will this make a difference?”
“Hold one,” Kyran answered immediately. “Diana?”
“Calculating. Negative. Rotation should increase stability on imparted trajectory but should not interfere with course modification.”
“Flashdance, Diana says you’re good to go.”
“That isn’t precisely what I said, Commodore.”
Kyran waved off the AI’s complaint.
“Thank you, Commodore.”
Flashdance inhaled deeply, held it. “Ready?”
“Fuck no. But hey, I always wanted to make it big. Let’s do this thing.”
“Call it, Eng.”
“Range, five point one klicks. Speed is matched at 152.4 KPS. Activating tractor beam.” He made a couple adjustments. “Power at two percent. We have a lock.”
The Wolf began to be pulled off-course by the target.
“Compensating for drift,” Flashdance said, applying gentle pressure to her controls. “Maintaining separation.”
“Increasing power. Ten percent. Fifteen. We’ve got it hooked.”
“Beginning course adjustment.”
Another breath. This was the trickiest part. If there was a mechanism to detect the change, then who knew what would happen next. A massive boom was the most likely scenario.
It was really a minor adjustment, she thought. Only a few degrees, a slight boost to the speed, and the shiny ball of instant death would speed past Njord to a rendezvous with the Ocean of Storms. She giggled.
“Shiny ball of instant death,” she said around another giggle. “On new course. New speed 155.9 KPS.”
“And cutting tractor beam. How about you back us away from your shiny ball of death?”
She looked at the sensors.
“Instant death. Get it right, Menace. Proximity check. Clear.” It wouldn’t do to bump into another shiny ball. Or a Wolf.
“Clear,” he agreed.
“Applying delta-v.” Slowly at first, then more quickly, they put distance between themselves and the bomb.
“Ten klicks. Twenty. Thirty. Fifty. Out of blast radius and getting happier by the second,” said a relieved Menace.
“Njord, package has been redirected. Alexander is clear.” She could vaguely hear cheering behind Kyran’s voice as they replied.
“We show good separation. Well done, Alexander.”
“Thank you. Twenty-two to go.” They kept moving until they reached 200 klicks, then slowed to observe.
Subutai, Wrangler’s MOV, had been chosen as the lead for the next phase. He made his approach as gradually as Flashdance had, coming to a zero relative velocity six klicks from his target. Then the rest of both his Flying Tiger squadron, minus the Leonidas, and Wolf Squadron moved in on theirs. In a few minutes all twenty-two of the remaining bombs had an accompanying MOV station-keeping nearby.
“On my count,” Wrangler said. “Activate tractor beams, two percent power, and get a good lock. Three, two, one, activate.”
“Dammit!” came over the channel. Flashdance’s display ID’d the Martel.
“What’s wrong, Big Mac?” she commed.
“We’ve got lock, but the tractor’s not holding power level and we can’t disengage.”
“All units, break lock and back off!” she radioed instantly before returning to the troubled Tiger. “Okay, Big Mac. You’ve got this. What does Bantha Fodder say?”
McClymond’s EM spoke up. “I’ve got a power fluctuation in the main transfer bus,” he said. “It’s cycling up and down between one and three percent power.”
“Fodder, this is Menace. Did you try resetting the circuit?”
Flashdance stole a look at her display. The Wolf Squadron MOVs had fled, pulling the max accel their CMs felt comfortable with, and were now an expanding sphere forty klicks back from the Martel. The signals from the Flying Tigers, though, were clumped around the Martel.
“Wrangler, move your people!”
“Flashdance, I can’t exactly push them away. They want to help.”
“And if that bomb cooks off they’re all toast. Matt, if you can’t control your squadron…” She let the threat remain unspoken.
“I’ll get them to back off,” he said.
“A couple hundred klicks,” she said.
“Wolf Squadron, I want you no closer than five hundred klicks.” After her squadron all acknowledged she checked on the Tigers. Some of the Tigers started to back off, but not all of them. She fumed for a moment before returning her attention to Menace and his efforts with Martel.
“…bypass B, then reset fourteen.”
“Bypass B, reset fourteen. No joy.”
Menace made sure his mic was off before he spoke.
“Something’s really fucked with that bird. Their tractor should have disengaged.” Opening the mic, he said, “You’ve got it cross-circuited somehow. It’s drawing power from another system.”
Menace shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. You’re going to have to do a hard pull on the avionics, shut them all down, and do a manual reboot.”
Flashdance focused back on her sensors, trying to pull as much detail from their systems as she could. There was something going on with Martel’s target, but she couldn’t pin it down. When in doubt, ask.
“Njord, Flashdance. Diana, I’m getting odd readings from one of the bombs.”
“Tapping your feed. Your readings are increases in gamma radiation.”
“Gamma radiation? Okay, I see that now. Why?”
“Gamma radiation is produced by – Flashdance, get them out of there.” Diana’s normally calm voice was suddenly urgent.
“No can do,” she answered. “Their tractor won’t disengage.”
“Analyzing telemetry. The relay at Delta 12 slash B is fused to the relay at Beta 12 slash C.” Diana broke into Martel’s comms. “Pull board 6 Sigma, Fodder!”
“Huh?” said the confused EM.
“Gamma spike!” yelped Flashdance as the world turned white. Her helmet opacified instantly; that and the optical sapphire saved her from blindness. Moving on automatic, she pivoted Alexander away and red-lined the drive, but even that could only add 2 KPS per second.
“Move, move, move!” she heard over her comms, not recognizing Double Dip’s voice.
“Wave front impact imminent,” she heard. Diana.
“Executing emergency shut-down!” shouted Menace, immediately throttling the fusion reaction and powering down every system except comms and life support.
“Six seconds. Five.”
“Crew secure!” shouted Flashdance, taking her hands from the controls and wrapping them about her helmeted head.
Then the hand of God reached out and shook them.
The inertial dampers didn’t fail, but they were stressed to the limits. Her Wolf tumbled uncontrollably and both Flashdance and Menace were pulled against their restraints. Alarms shrilled, and Menace was suddenly a blur of motion as he tried to respond to all the damage the computer was reporting.
“We’re through the worst of it,” Flashdance said, reading her sensors.
“Wolf Actual, Njord. Report!”
She didn’t have time for this. “Njord, hold on. We’ve got problems to deal with.”
“Nymeria Two, check in.”
“Shaken but not stirred,” came the familiar voice of Hopalong Ginsberg, her XO. “Still checking in on the rest of the squadron.”
“Keep me informed. Tiger Actual, report.”
“Flashdance, Wrangler. We got hammered. I’ve got eight birds down; I think two lost comms, but the other six, including Martel, are gone. No signals, nothing.”
That hit her hard. She and Wrangler were the only surviving Coxswains from the original Wolf Squadron; they’d been a tight-knit group, as were the new squadrons. She knew what the losses would feel like.
“Initiate SAR, Wrangler. They could have cascading failures. I know we’re not in great shape. Hopalong?”
“On it, Flashdance. Wrangler, give me last known coordinates for the missing shuttles, and I’ll get our Wolves looking for them as well. If anyone’s out there, we’ll find them.”
Confident in her second to do all he could, she turned to Menace.
“Where are we?”
“Well, that’s a good question,” he said. “Engines are still off-line, but the fusion reactor’s cycling back up. Once we have power, I can start getting the tumble under control.”
“Great. How can I help?”
The next few minutes were busy, as Menace put her to work as an extra pair of hands.
“Not bad, for a Cox,” he said as the lights came back on, the last system to be restored.
She ignored the jibe. “Wrangler, check in.”
“Zhukov and Patton are in good shape, and we’re in pretty good condition as well. Al-Walid and Cyrus are deadlined, but the crews are alive. We got through to them on the suit comms. Hopalong is tracking three shuttles, but hasn’t picked up any signals. That might just be technical issues.”
Flashdance didn’t contradict him. She knew that he was grasping at straws, but until all hope was gone she’d let him grasp.
“Which ones?” she asked.
“No ID yet. Going to have to wait and see.”
“Okay. Out.” Now she had time, and she opened the channel back to Njord. “Wolf Actual.”
“What happened?” Kyran asked.
“Don’t know. Later. Is Enterprise still on standby?”
“Yes, do you want her?”
“She’s got the best sensors available, and we need them for SAR.”
“She’ll be there in a minute.” Kyran wasn’t exaggerating, and within that minute the starship had arrived on station.
“Flashdance, how can we assist?” Cass commed.
“I need a sweep for life signs. The damn bombs went off and knocked the hell out of Flying Tiger.”
“Scanning.” Phaedra Seabolt, the Enterprise’s science officer, turned to her sensors.
“Two signals, faint. ID coming up and Miners and Langhals, from the Hindenburg. They’re in vacuum, but the suits are holding.”
She sent the coordinates to Hopalong, who passed them to a pair of Wolves. “Five more in shuttles.” Again she transmitted coordinates.