Air traffic was heavy as reconnaissance craft Piranha emerged into the asteroid belt from the first in-service test of the heavy-duty photon particle accelerator, and headed toward Mars. Seventh colony mining ships, drilling platforms, and drones moved like ants in a terrarium. Other craft circulated like busy insects, constantly moving toward their destinations. All in the way.
“Report,” Commander Clarke said. His voice croaked. His body wracked with spasms after the shift from one space point to another by departiculation.
Thirty loading platforms floated on the bow side, each accompanied by two fully automated drilling stations. A large asteroid crossed Piranha’s path. Commander Clarke clenched his jaw, maneuvered around the debris that spilled from the rapid shifts of the ore-freight carrier. Rocks bounced from the Piranha’s bow and windshield. Clarke scowled at Lieutenant Blake, on duty at the navigation and communication station.
“Fine, sir. Fine.” Blake’s voice sounded worse than Clarke felt, but they had a job to do, and no time to waste on niceties.
“Switch navigation centered to Mars. Second point, Asimov space station, stationary orbit: four hundred kilometers from the Martian surface. Third point, Martian true north, Seventh colony headquarters.” Clarke ordered.
The lieutenant nodded and manipulated the craft into position. “Switching navigation: Red, one, one, Asimov: two, negative four, and two. Seventh colony HQ location, calculated. Red triangle locked.” Blake confirmed.
“Hail SFS J. Barry. Sec: Classified urgent message.” Clarke spread his feet as the Piranha settled into the tractor beam of the tug drone.
Blake pulled his seat closer to the console. The laser head rotated next to the forward screen as he typed in the coordinates. The slot opened, and the emergency message inserted for transmission. “Laser locked.” Blake pressed the keyboard. The screen flashed red, the alarm pinged.
“Insufficient photon particles. Unable to transmit message, sir,” Blake reported.
“Await orders.” Clarke switched navigation to his command control, ignited the forward thruster, and disconnected the Piranha from the tug. Double-thrusts of controlled jet bursts maneuvered the ship around the space junk. He steered portside to avoid dust clouds from the transport vessels. The green-lit buoy indicated the Piranha had entered the Martian limits.
“Try again, lieutenant.”
“Sir. Yes, sir.” Blake aimed the laser, pinged transmission tests at the Deimos and Phobos satellites.
The screen flashed red, and the warning alarm sounded.
“Insufficient photon particles. Unable to transmit, sir.” Blake tapped the screen and the alarm stopped.
Commander Clarke reset the thrusters, guided the Piranha deep into the Mars shadow until it sat level with the Martian equator. Radar imaging lag time shrank as the spacecraft approached the communication perimeter, reserved for drone navigation, and emergencies.
The Asimov space station gleamed at the top of the radar image. The portside blips were shaped like a bunch of green grapes hanging from the southern half of Mars. The fleet of docked freight ships looked like they were going to drop from the vine of gravitational pull.
The map icon had two other blips. He manipulated it until Deimos lit up like a beacon, which it was, because that was where the Sigma battle group led by SFS J. Barry waited. A cluster of ten warships appeared on screen, huddled around the asteroid ring with Deimos in the center. An outlier from the fleet, the frigate SFS Swordfish moved up and attached to a skyhook on asteroid Red 4 D near Deimos. Lag time distorted the radar feed. It showed an outdated image of locations for the warships, but as the Piranha dashed for Mars, the images recalibrated closer to accurate placements.
“Sigma battle group is moving into catapult position. SFS Swordfish is on a skyhook. Fifteen Earth minutes to a slingshot,” Blake said.
“Report pho-comm diagnostics.” Clarke shaded his eyes from the sun rising over Mars.
“Photon capacity at sixty percent, sir, not adequate for direct contact with SFS J. Barry.”
“Whatever attacked the Magellan cruiser near Saturn destroyed a mining outpost in the Prosperity quadrant,” Clarke jabbed his hand at the distant stars. “We can’t wait.”
The lag shortened, now at one-hour image delay, and still too far from visual contact with the SFS J. Barry. Clarke diverted all available energy to comms, and the lights in the cockpit dimmed. Only the main screens and command modules lit the cabin. Piranha drifted in complete darkness, a useless piece of metal until they got closer. Commander Clarke slammed his fist into the armrest.
“Use the pho-comm as a beacon. CQ, distress.”
Lieutenant Blake nodded and turned the comms dial to cannon mode. He entered the settings and dropped the message into the designated slot. The lens next to the windshield flashed. Long, short, long, short, a pause followed by two long, a short, another long. CQ. Followed by the SOS code, three short, three long, three short.
The lights from the cannon broadcast the message into the black and dreadful silence around the spacecraft—their last option until…
“Not fast enough.” Clarke’s mind raged at the inadequacies of solar panels as he followed the path of Deimos as it entered the shadow of Mars. Phobos wasn’t visible on screen or on radar.
“Sir, no ping. Not from fleet, or any mining platforms in Perseverance quadrant. Mars shadow, sir.” Blake reset the laser, waited for instructions.
Commander Clarke’s thoughts raced through the options. He couldn’t let the enemy destroy everything here. Not again. His memory of the Magellan wreckage came with each laser flash. Scattered metal lit by white explosions as the cruiser split in half. So many mangled bodies. A bitter spit coated his mouth walls as the images of uniforms of people he knew, people he’d trained, people he’d never see again danced in the dark, so close he’d felt as if he could touch them. Thousand lives lost to an unknown enemy. Not this time.
“Sir, movement in the radar, sir.”
Blake’s voice brought Clarke back to reality.
“Where?” Clarke asked.
“SFS Swordfish has left the skyhook. Calculating trajectory.” Blake swiped the image and magnified the lower section of Deimos. “SFS Barracuda portside, heading for the skyhook on Red 5 D.” Blake said.
“Send a ping.”
“Nil. No acknowledgment.”
“Find a tug drone close to Piranha. Use its solar panels to bounce the message.” Clarke gripped the armrests as if the chair was his anchor.
“Sir, that will diffuse the laser beam.” Blake turned in his seat, one hand on the console.
“Do it, lieutenant. We need wide.” Clarke tapped his control panel, stared at Blake. For a moment, both of them sat silent.
Lieutenant Blake swung back, tapped the radar to specify contacts, called them out as he found them.
Two were close to the Perseverance border, one visible from the cockpit. Clarke connected to the drone, reset the solar panels, and directed the tilt at Deimos.
“Now.” Clarke blinked, dropped his hand, waited.
He heard Blake tap the command and held his breath, waited for the bell-like ping, a sound that would calm his overwrought tension. The screen next to Blake flashed green, and a ping echoed around the dark cabin.
“Sir, un-crewed mining platform in second third of the Perseverance parcel confirmed receipt of message,” Blake said, his voice thrilled.
“Is it close to Asimov?” Clarke leapt his chair.
“Negative. Sunny side of Mars, closer to Piranha.” Blake’s voice dropped while he scanned the monitors.
Another platform pinged, followed by a third, and soon, dozens of pings jingled in the cockpit. Blake set the calculations to run, ran his hand down the output data, and turned toward the Commander.
“Sir, platforms report secure connection. I’ve invoked instructions to forward platform to a platform until in range with SFS J. Barry. Drone interlink steady.” Blake smiled and turned back to his console.
The dark side of Mars grew larger before Clarke as he straightened in the seat and considered the next part of their job.
“Good job, lieutenant.” He tapped the armrest. Watched the radar as it recalibrated every fifteen seconds.
Piranha cruised deeper into shadow. Radar lag time dropped to fifteen Earth minutes, enough for Clarke to spot tiny lights in the dark, indicating SFS J. Barry’s location. Relief washed through his body. It looked peaceful floating in the darkness, the skeleton constructions of mining platforms on the portside, drone repair center on the starboard. Mars was still the size of a penny from the Piranha’s front deck. Phobos and Deimos drifted, the observatory satellites displaying random flashes of red and white as they circumnavigated around Big Red. Asimov glowed in the lower sector. The screen flashed and painted the cockpit livid green.
“Sir, SFS J. Barry confirms receipt of message.” Blake smiled. A yellow light flashed on the dashboard. He frowned. “Um, sir…” Blake stared at the radar.
Clarke enlarged the monitor, frowned and cursed under his breath.
In the lower corner of Deimos, close to Mars, SFS J. Barry leaned to the portside, main battery hatches open and ready to fire, protective panels buckled. Its quadratic golden solar sail in the fore of the SFS J. Barry flashed a bright flare of blue-white light, followed by an electric blue laser rod that fled thousand miles into space. The end of the rod materialized in the center of the quadrant and split the flagship in half.
Shards flew from the battleship’s hull, cylindrical compartments burst the black with exorbitant flames, the bow tipped down, the stern protruded upward and disconnected. The flagship twisted like escaped intestines. The ship shredded by the beam of foreign power. The same weapon Clarke had witnessed too recently. The ship spilled its guts in two directions in a steady stream. Clarke’s neck cramped in horror, his eyes captured the destruction while his finger tapped the record function.
The second beam skewered SFS Barracuda in a split from the stern to bow. The frigate bloated, the carved hull melting and distending. Sparks of dust exploded as the chaotic energy-stream met the high-tech engine. The ship shuddered, lifted in the belly, then combusted. The explosion sent a shock wave warping through space, along with fragments of razor-sharp pieces of shrapnel that hit every vessel close, including the remaining destroyers.
“Oh, God!” Blake flung the chair back and leapt upright. “What’s that?” He pointed to the flagship.
“Not now, Lieutenant.” Clarke glared at the younger man. “Take a deep breath. This is just beginning.” Clarke scanned the blackness of space, watched the stars form in every section. Except one. The shot came from an empty unlit section of space.
He zoomed out the radar map but found no enemy blips.
“That’s twenty thousand lives gone,” Blake stared at the SFS J. Barry as it fell apart.
“Give me a battle grid on Red One. Convert measurements to standard perimeter parcel coding.”
“Sir. Yes, sir. Switching to battle grid red, white and blue. Length to numeric mapping. Height split by three colors. Upper level, red. Mid level, white. Low level, blue.” Blake reported.
The radar image flickered and recalibrated as it reset to the new algorithm. “Width by alpha. Three divisions, A, B, C, from Mars to space. No enemy inbound. Kill box secure. Asimov space station in A5 Blue, low grid. Sigma battle group holds steady in B2 Red, top center grid.” Blake’s voice trembled.
“Easy, Blake. Just like drill.” Clarke grabbed the control stick.
He squared the trajectory to get out of the Mars shadow, occasionally glancing at the lieutenant. Hold your nerve.
Five dots appeared in the empty section of an asteroid belt. Clarke worked to center those dots as the Piranha peeled away from standard trajectory. The enemy ships became clear as they emerged from the blankness. The main vessel surpassed the Asimov for size, and had a long, rippled tail section. On the radar, the dreadnought propelled from its stern with propulsion from or through side fins. The opposite end, the head, resembled a disc with slender tentacles that torpedoed out and around, searching or feeling. Like a squid. A gelatinous ooze poured from the sides. It formed a cocoon, an egg-shaped protective barrier. The dreadnought was followed by four other ships, ten times smaller, but faster, darting around like annoying flies.
In two Earth minutes, the enemy ships were over the Piranha, which sat still in the dark, floating without lights. Clarke gazed in awe at the alien vessel. It appeared polished, yet not reflecting any light.
The dreadnought fired a third shot. The beam slid from a non-spherical obtrusion below the forward section, slit the black background like a sharp blade through skin. It hit SFS Davis to the rear of the midsection, expelled the ship’s engine core. The battle cruiser lay dead in the water. As did everyone who sailed on her. Sparks lit everything with bile green.
“Sir, enemy moving toward Asimov. Currently in C5 Red, descending to B5 White. Destination on current trajectory, A5 Blue,” Blake said.
“The enemy hasn’t seen us, or it would have attacked. They target lights, and I turned off ours. We’re dark.” Clarke hoped the solar panels weren’t reflecting any of the explosions.
The Asimov space station spun on its axis, as if waiting for the intruders. The enemy moved closer, but didn’t shoot. Did it need time to repower the weapon? The smaller enemy vessels slowed. They came in behind the ore-freights, released a flow of ooze, and the clear amber matter created a cocoon around the docked freighters, subsumed them in a gelatinous mass, and yanked them from the dock like picking ripe apples from the tree.
“Pirates!” Clarke said.
“Sir?” Blake shifted in his seat.
“They’re killing the battleships, stealing the cargo ships.” Clarke indicated two smaller enemy ships changing direction and firing at destroyers that emerged from the far side of the Asimov space station. The destroyers were too slow, too vulnerable, and too late to aid Asimov.
Sunlight hit Clarke’s face as Piranha emerged from shadow.
“Establish connection with Earth. Assign names to enemy as Pirate, one to the dreadnought, then two through five. Request open space battle, code black, red, black,” Clarke ordered.
Blake’s hands jumped as he adjusted the laser head, corrected the solar panels, and sent five messages, hoping one would reach Earth to advise of events.
The raiding pirate fleet deflected the attacks to its turrets from the destroyers. It anchored above the extended decks of Asimov. Destroyers SFS Kaluga and SFS Cod circled the space station. The dreadnought retained position to ensure the destroyers were unable to sight. Two destroyers shot at the ooze, but nothing penetrated.
Two more destroyers shot rockets, which slammed into the protective barrier and sent ripples along the outer skin of the cocoon, but failed to inflict damage.
A railed projectile fired from an unseen ship, slid through the ooze, slowed until it looked like a splinter in the amber-colored mass.
Pirate 2 was hit! The warship, SFS Cod, snuck from behind the space station and fired standard cannon rounds. Success. The ammunition connected with the smallest section of ooze, forced its way through, and snapped a rear fin. The enemy ship wobbled, floated, then settled under the SFS Cod’s keel. It extended tentacles over the Cod’s hull, ripped out the ship’s core and thrust the Cod at ram speed toward the space station.
Pirate 3 swung its tail to port, slid sideways. It aimed its weapons at SFS Kaluga, steadied momentum with the tentacles and sent a surge of energy to the bowsprit. Fired. Two more destroyers behind Kaluga went down in an expulsion of flame and warped metals. Pieces of shrapnel whizzed through space, and a red mist formed around the wreckage.
“Our Mandibula class destroyers aren’t enough. Notify Earth — no carriers.” Clarke looked at the commotion in the distance. “We have another option.” He sucked in his gut, rolled his shoulders. “Let’s go kinetic.” He nodded at Lieutenant Blake. “If nothing can break the outer shell, attack them from the soft spot.”
The pho-comms pinged with a new message. Blake signaled it was from Earth. He read it aloud, while the commander calculated the positions of the pirate ships. Four smaller enemy ships formed a wedge formation, their trajectory a direct line toward the Sun. Clarke swallowed bitter taste when he calculated the pirate’s flight speed. With the observed capabilities and projected speed, they’d reach Earth before Clarke could create a passage home. If Earth was their next target, the last option was the only choice.
“Request an emergency transport mission.” Clarke tapped the dashboard while monitoring the pirate’s movement.
“What are we sending, sir?” Blake’s eyes grew wide.
Clarke expanded the radar image and selected a sizable asteroid from the un-mined section of the asteroid belt.
“Tell Earth we need all available photon particle accelerators in Earth orbit to teleport an asteroid from a Temerity quadrant.” Clarke called out the coordinates for delivery.
Lieutenant Blake armed the laser head and sent the request. Code black, black, black.
The enemy ships set sail for Earth, a thin line glistening at the edge of their shields, the hulls bending like cobras with squid heads. The cavalcade advanced through black space.
The satellite solar panels around Mars moved to a new angle, flickered, and a weak beam of white light followed the pirate flotilla. He smiled as the photon reflection from the solar panels converged to one point on the dreadnought’s hull. A barely visible aura formed on the dreadnought’s plating and Clarke raised his hand.
“Target locked. Pirate 1 bearing secured.” Blake’s voice roared into the cabin.
“Fire, fire, fire,” Clarke yelled.
The dreadnought stopped moving, as if held by an unseen force. The aura on the ship’s hull flashed and the external edges blurred. An asteroid burst through from inside the enemy vessel. The dreadnought flipped, twisted, rolled. Fires shook the length of the ship, the bow bloated and cracked. Sections of the tail ripped as the emerging rock forced its way toward the fin at the end. The rough surface of the asteroid extruded through the cracks on the dreadnought’s phallic head, the broken pieces curled up, tore, and detached. It took only one Earth minute for the full-size asteroid to be where Pirate 1 had been. This new rock joined the thousands of specks of beige plating, aimlessly floating in space.
“Sir, Pirate 1 down, Pirate 1 is down.” Blake selected another asteroid, nodded to the Commander.
The Commander smiled. “Target?”
“Satellites locked on Pirate 2. Tracking. Kill box five degrees in fore-space of enemy craft.”
“Hold for drop,” Clarke said, his hands flew from console to console, eyes flicking from monitor to monitor. “Enemy in crosshairs?”
“Drop, drop, drop,” Clarke yelled.
Blake executed the command.
The second asteroid materialized in front of Pirate 2. It peeled off from the formation, dipped and slid to avoid the obstacle.
Not fast enough. The impact compressed the bow so far back that the ore-freighter stuck for enemy vessel exploded. Nothing remained but space junk. Pirate 3 and 4 surged forward with renewed thrust from the stern.
“They are trying to make a run for deep space,” Clarke said. He noted the directions for each breakaway and adjusted the solar panels to the new coordinates.
Drones funneled photons at Pirate 3, and the ship vanished.
“Was that us?” Clarke asked.
“Sir, the drone is in auto-mode. Not us. But our code.”
Pirate 4 stopped a few hundred kilometers from Asimov, raised the phallic fore-section until it pointed toward the Piranha.
Even with the lights off, Piranha‘s hull glistened — the only bright thing on a dark canvas. Clarke stared back at the enemy vessel. His hands fell gently onto the armrests, and he swallowed. Not enough saliva to spit, and a cold sweat coated his forehead. Pirate 4 dashed forward, Piranha in direct line of fire. The bow tentacles joined to form a point and locked on their position.
Clarke read out the coordinates with a croak.
Pirate 4 rapidly twisted and rolled, changed directions, swung back. A green light glowed from the non-spherical obtrusion.
“Faster, Lieutenant! We have half a minute, at most.” Clarke glared at the incoming pirate, daring it.
Blake swore and stabbed as he frantically battled the red error flashing on screen.
“Obstruction to pho-comms, sir! Interference.”
Clarke scanned the environment outside. Dust and debris dimmed the image of the Sun.
“Fuck,” Blake said.
All the destruction from Deimos and Asimov floated around the Piranha in thick clouds. The cockpit rang like a bell each time a chunk of junk hit the hull. A rain of rough stone and razor-sharp metal rattled across the spacecraft’s wings, threatening to excise the unprotected extrusions. Each bit of debris changed direction after it hit. Bits bounced through space like waves in a storm.
Pirate 4 increased speed and stretched its slim tentacles toward the smaller Piranha. “Prepare for impact!” Clarke leaned into the crash position and saw Blake cover his head as he hunched forward. The impact wouldn’t be long in coming.
Thirty seconds passed. A minute passed, then another minute. Clarke opened his eyes.
“Are we in tow?” he asked and searched the screen for a pirate ship. He looked at the radar image.
The destroyed Sigma group was there, severely damaged, and alongside the even more damaged Asimov. Nothing else remained in the quadrant. Blake exhaled a huge huff of air. Clarke slumped into his seat.
A ping echoed around the cabin.
“Message?” Clarke asked.
“Sir, the Pirate 4 was teleported into the Sun’s core.” Blake’s frown changed into a smile as he reread the message.
“Pirate 3?” Clarke gripped the armrest to stop the shaking in his hands. He scanned all the screens, looked outside while Blake tapped out a message.
“That means it’s salvaged for research.” Clarke retracted the solar panels. “Just like a game of battleships,” Clarke spoke into a profound silence that sank into the cockpit for a minute. His throat choked. He snorted. Laughed. Swore. Laughed.
The laugh echoed through the craft. Blake joined in. Piranha slid through the vacuum of space, lights off, the Piranha’s trajectory uncharted.
Outside were wreckages that disappeared behind clusters of space junk and a new asteroid belt. A new space station materialized in the Perseverance quadrant, followed by an armada of drones and hospital ships. One of the vessels with a red cross painted on it docked on the Asimov. Two battle groups emerged between Deimos and Mars. The hulls glistened. Clarke clamped his jaw while his body shook from the surge of post-battle adrenalin. When he looked at the sunlight, he realized what was lost. The depth of the destruction made clear. He’d have to report this. His hand swung to the record function, hovered above the switch. He let it run. Better to see it through to the end, with the successful test of the accelerators demonstrated. The memories in his head would remain, as would the first battle.
“Call in for help, Blake, and let’s get out of here.”
It took a few hours, but they found a rescue ship that was looking to collect the remains of the lost.
The rescue ship hooked the Piranha with a crane. The line pulled it inside, and the hatch closed. The cruiser ignited the thrusters, set to sail for Earth.
It took seven days to travel through space in the usual, light-speed craft. Clarke stood next to Blake by the window and looked at the deep space. Sunlight blinded him, and the blue planet expanded in front of them. They would round the moon soon, and see the whole globe. This side of the moon shone bright on a company of research space stations in a ring of rocky elements. All the rescue ships passed the protective asteroid belt that shaped a sphere around Earth’s perimeter.
“How many, do you think?” Clarke pointed at one of the battleships hidden within the cover, on survey duty for any further risk.
Seven flower-like contraptions waited hung in space around the edges of the protective measure. Each had three rectangular golden wings with photon harvesting solar panels to convert particles into energy. Two more convertors sat in the machining docks on the planet’s dark side. There would be more.
“Sir, may I ask a question?” Blake saluted the commander and came to attention.
“I was wondering…” Blake pulled his shoulders back, swallowed noisily. “How did you get the idea to use asteroids?”
“Always remember what we fight for.” Clarke returned Blake’s salute, and turned his gaze to the blue planet in the screen.