I really felt for Flashdance.
In the past few years, I won’t say I had gotten used to people dying under me, but it was less traumatic for me. There was a time where I’d be in the same condition she was, an ugly combination of angry and guilty. I’m glad I was able to be there to support her.
I don’t want you to think she was falling apart. She wasn’t; after all, she was a survivor of the battle with the Brahe, one of two Wolves. She’d already gone through grief and loss when Mia and the rest of the original Wolfpack was destroyed.
It was, though, her first time as the commander.
I mean this in the best possible way: Shannon Fowler is one tough bitch. She didn’t fold, she didn’t rant. She got angry, yes, but she also got constructive.
I’ve said enough.
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Flashdance, in her battered bird, decided landing on Enterprise was wiser than trying to fly back to Njord. Al-Walid and Cyrus had been deposited in the bay as well. The combined squadrons, under Wrangler’s command, continued to clear the scattered and spreading wreckage, searching.
It took a couple hours for medical to clear them, but as soon as they did Flashdance made her way up to conference room behind the bridge, trailed by Menace.
“What the hell happened?” she demanded, ignoring the rank in the room.
“Cass?” said Alley.
“We were monitoring your progress. Between our sensors, what Diana picked up, and the records from your Wolf, I think I have a pretty good idea.”
“Then tell me! I lost seven people today.”
Cass didn’t try to sugarcoat it. “Martel screwed up.”
“That’s going to go over well!” snapped Flashdance.
“’Dear Mrs. McClymond, your husband died because he fucked up.’ That’s a letter I always wanted to write.” Behind her, Menace went stiff.
“Stow the attitude!” snapped Kendra. “I don’t like losing people either, but if we know what happened then we can prevent anyone else from dying!”
That brought Flashdance back. “Yes, Ma’am. Sorry.”
Kendra waved it off. “Later, we’ll give them a proper wake. Now is for the living. Cass? You want to explain?”
Cass passed it off. “Minerva?”
The ship’s AI said, “Lieutenant, Diana’s troubleshooting analysis indicated two circuits fused.”
“I remember. That was just before it all went in the crapper.”
“Those two circuits don’t connect; they shouldn’t have fused,” continued Minerva.
“Then how did they?”
Menace jolted to alertness. “Commander?”
“Can you think of a reason that Delta 12 slash B and Beta 12 slash C would have a connection? Beyond them being on the same board, they service different systems, don’t they?”
“Yes, Commander. Delta is part of the tractor beam, and Beta is part of the internal grav system. Um. No, Ma’am. There’s no reason that they should be in contact.”
“And yet they were, Lieutenant.”
Flashdance interrupted. “Commander, with all due respect, are you trying to blame Menace for what happened to Martel?”
“No.” Cass’s denial was flat and left no room for contradiction. “But I think he knows why those circuits may have been fused together.”
Now Flashdance turned to her Eng. “Dennis?”
He returned her gaze guiltily. “It’s a trick that some of the EM’s do, to boost the power to the inertial dampers. If you cross-connect those two circuits, you can draw extra power from the tractor beam into the dampers; that lets the bird pull a few more g’s.”
“Which is normally harmless,” said Minerva now.
“Unfortunately, it can introduce instability into the tractor beam’s power supply, causing fluctuations. These are not usually an issue, as they are minimal compared to the usual power required, but in this case the power draw was, relatively speaking, tiny.”
“Which meant that the fluctuations had a much greater impact,” said Cass.
“But why did the bomb explode? Okay, so Bantha Fodder shouldn’t have tinkered with it, but that’s internal, not external,” protested Menace.
“I theorize the variations in the tractor beam power set up a harmonic within the casing of the bomb. Antimatter still reacts to gravity and inertia in the same manner as regular matter; when the casing was being pulled at different intensities, the antimatter inside would bump the side. The inertia would overcome the repulsion of the magnetic field.”
“And that’s what caused the gamma spike,” said Cass. “The first annihilation of matter and antimatter. After that, there wasn’t anything anyone could have done to stop it.”
With a horrified fascination, Flashdance saw it all. “And then the bomb exploded, which triggered the nearest bombs, and on until they all blew.”
“Precisely, Lieutenant,” Minerva added.
“I’m glad that we’d backed off,” Flashdance said. “We could have lost both squadrons.”
“Yes,” agreed Kendra. “But we heard the record of your conversation with Wrangler. This would have been minimized if he had obeyed your orders and gotten his people to safety.”
“Yes, Admiral. I’ll deal with Wrangler.”
Alley said, “Menace, we’re going to have a chat about unauthorized modifications. Lieutenant Burg will sit in with us; she was on the Direwolf project and has more familiarity with the Wolves than anyone else aboard. I know better than to try to get your EM’s to stop, but let’s get them educated.”
“And in the meantime,” Kendra said. “There’s one more bomb on the way to a rendezvous with Artemis. How long, Minna?”
“Impact in eight minutes, Admiral. There was some variability in the trajectory; it is now on course for impact in Grimaldi Crater.”
“I hate to say it, and it may make me a horrible person, but I don’t want to miss this, not least for the price we’ve paid,” said Kendra with a nod to Flashdance. “If this helps end the conflict with Artemis sooner, then it will be worth it.”
“Not from where I stand, Admiral,” said Flashdance.
“No,” Kendra agreed. “If I was in your suit, I wouldn’t think so either.”
She stood and left the room, followed by Cass. Alley paused long enough to clasp Flashdance’s shoulder in passing before joining them on the bridge.
“Flashdance, I swear –”
“Not now, Tresca,” growled Fowler. “Not now. Come on.”
“We’re going to see what Bantha Fodder bought us.”
On the bridge, most eyes were on the screen, where Minerva was projecting an enhanced image of Luna. A yellow line showed the projected course of the remaining bomb.
“Six minutes to impact.”
“What is this going to do?” said Kendra.
When eyes turned to her, she continued. “I know, I know, it’s a little late to ask, but Leda wept! I didn’t know what these things could do until today, not really.”
“The impact will release at least 1.8 times ten to the eighteenth joules of energy.”
“One point eight gigatons of TNT,” said Cass.
“That’s a lot,” said Kendra, unnecessarily. She leaned forward in her borrowed chair.
“Are we going to crack the moon open or anything?”
“No, Admiral,” said Minerva. “An impact of this size is too small by many orders of magnitude. The impact will be felt throughout Luna, however, and there may be some collateral damage in the least stable structures, but the overall effect will be minimal on the populated areas.”
Kendra settled back. “That’s a relief.”
“Four minutes to impact.”
“Alley, Cass, opinion. Should we warn them?”
“Warn them? Why?” said Alley.
“I don’t know if there’s any point. There’s not enough time left,” added Cass.
“So they don’t think we did this to them.”
“We did, Admiral.”
“Well, yes, but not like that. We took their own weapon and turned it against them.”
Cass was nodding slowly. “I see what you’re trying for. Tell them we tried to stop them but missed one?”
Alley shook her head. “Won’t work. They know what this ship can do. They’re never going to believe we missed one, one we knew about.”
“So we’re too capable?” Kendra said. “No, it’s a valid point. We won’t be sending a warning, then, but I want you to be ready to transmit an offer of assistance as soon as we confirm impact.”
“Follow my logic. If we don’t know about it, but we’ve stopped the others, then we’d feel guilty, right?”
“And if we feel guilty we’d ask to help.”
“Ah, gotcha. That, I agree with.”
“And you make the contact,” added Kendra. “They hate me and would as soon drown as take my hand. You, they might trust.”
“Or at least listen to.”
The viewscreen, which had been zooming in with the path of the bomb, stabilized and held.
“Fifteen. Ten. Five, four, three, two, one.”
Zero was unnecessary. An intensely bright pinprick appeared in the center of Grimaldi Crater, spreading outward quickly.
“There’s a huge increase in gamma radiation,” said Seabolt.
“Shouldn’t it have faded by now?” asked Alley as the seconds ticked on and the explosion remained visible. Explosions in vacuum dissipated quickly, there being no atmosphere to superheat.
“Antimatter explosions are different,” explained Seabolt. “As the antimatter spreads at the wavefront, it keeps interacting with matter and propagates the explosion further. It should be fading from view shortly.”
As if on cue, the explosion started dimming.
“Minerva, reach out to Artemis,” said Alley. “Let’s offer our services. And get Harpo in on this; I want him plotting their network and throwing in any backdoors he can.”
“Yes, Captain. Opening a channel. I have made contact with Senior Technician Midori Gillaspy-Chang.”
“Who? Never mind. Put me through.”
“This is Captain Jennifer Martinez of the TFS Enterprise. We have monitored a large explosion in the Grimaldi Crater. Do you require assistance?”
“I – I don’t know,” said a voice, presumably Gillaspy-Chang. The sounds of chaos and confusion could be heard in the background. “That’s not really my area of responsibility.”
“Can you connect me with someone who might be able to accept our offer?”
“I’ll try, Captain.”
The signal went silent, and Alley asked Minerva, “Are we still connected?”
“Yes, Captain. I am following the connections. It seems we are being shunted into the Ministry of Security.”
“Paranoid pricks,” muttered Kendra.
“This is Underminister Phalkon,” a new voice said.
“Underminister, Captain Jennifer Martinez. Can we offer you any assistance?”
“Assistance? For what?”
“We detected an explosion in Grimaldi Crater, a rather large one.”
“There was no explosion, Captain. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Alley raised an eyebrow in question to Kendra, who shrugged back, mouthing, Keep pushing.
“Approximately two minutes ago, there was an explosive discharge in the range of two gigatons of TNT in the vicinity of Grimaldi Crater. I can send you a video record of the incident if you would like.”
“Captain, I repeat, there was no explosion. Anything you may have seen, or you may claim to see, is purely a fabrication on the part of your Federation.”
“I see,” said Alley. Now what?
Another shrug. Push a bluff?
“Underminister, it is our responsibility to render aid to anyone, even Artemis. We are en route and will be in position to provide assistance in ten minutes.”
“No!” barked Phalkon. “Any violation of the territorial sovereignty of Artemis will be seen as an act of war!”
Alley was amused. “I don’t know if you missed it, but we’ve been at war for over a year. I can send you –”
“What I meant, Captain, is violation will be cause for an immediate and overwhelming retaliatory strike.”
“Very well, Undersecretary, at your request we will not violate your territory to render aid.”
“Good.” The connection closed.
“No signal on their end, though we can get in any time we want,” said Harpo’s slightly raspy voice. “A very productive discussion.”
“I’m glad you think so,” said Alley. “I thought we hit a wall there. Total denial.”
“Captain!” Phaedra’s voice pulled her attention back to her.
“The impact site!” Everyone’s attention turned back to the screen as Seabolt increased the magnification.
“What the goddess is that?” said Alley. At the center of the crater was a sullen red glow. As they watched, they could see rubble around the edges tumbling and disappearing into the center.
“Analyzing,” said Seabolt. Cass took up position next to her, and added her expertise.
“Compare these images to anything already in your files. If there aren’t any matches, expand parameters.”
“Comparing. Closest match is an active volcano.”
“Volcano?” Kendra’s voice was filled with disbelief. “Luna’s a dead world. It’s geologically inactive, completely!”
“That’s not actually accurate, Admiral,” corrected the AI. “It is currently undergoing ‘thermal contraction’, which is caused by the radiation of residual heat into space.”
“That doesn’t look like ‘residual heat’ to me,” Kendra replied, pointing to the screen. “And ‘volcano’ kinda denies the concept of that being residual anything.”
“I agree, Admiral; I am merely stating the best current knowledge. The presence of an expanding lava field would certainly imply active vulcanology.”
Cass asked, “Are we sure it’s expanding? Could that be an optical illusion?”
“It is confirmed. The patch is expanding. I have not been able to calculate the rate; the distance is too great and there are too many variable factors.”
“If that’s volcanic lava, then Artemis has bigger problems than a piddly antimatter explosion,” said Cass. “What the hell have they been working at?”
“I think we’re going to be finding out,” said Alley. “I just hope we can handle whatever it is.”
“Captain,” Seabolt said. “I think I have an answer.”
“Answers are good.”
“I’m reading a bucket of radiation coming from that, that, pit.”
“It just got hit by antimatter,” argued Cass. “Gamma radiation all over the place.”
Seabolt shook her head. “No, gamma is a very specific part of the spectrum. I’m picking up signatures of Polonium, Nobelium, Lawrencium, and a whole host of high-density elements. Except Polonium, none of them are found naturally, and none should be anywhere on Luna in any quantity.”
“Are you saying we dropped twenty kilos of antimatter on top of an Artemis weapons lab?” said Kendra.
“Or a production site for a weapons lab, yes.”
Kendra turned to Flashdance, standing as unobtrusively as possible with Menace at the back of the bridge.
“I think our dead will be satisfied. Don’t you?”