While not much of a fiction reader, I really enjoyed this book and can’t wait for the next one. To keep me captivated, any fiction has to be engaging and fast paced with a plausible enough story line that I don’t check out due to absurdities. This book has what it takes for me. While the origins and development of the human race in this story challenge my beliefs, this is science fiction. The tale was engaging and well written to keep me reading past that. Mr. Waugh, whom I’ve had the good fortune to meet, coincidentally, on a Holland America cruise (no wonder the reference to the new Princendam in the book!) uses his scientific knowledge in weaving a reasonably plausible and demonstrably creative sci-fi story that I could hardly put down. Bring on NU 2!
For today’s Daily Post, I want to give you a taste of Nu Book 2 – The Esss Retreat. Asteroid Mining Company (AMC) has developed a new fighter for the United Space Navy and Sted Richardson is in the process of testing the main lasers on each of the new ships.
The Featured Image is a publicly available wallpaper from the site www.thesurge.com and can be accessed by following the link.
This work has not been through professional editing, so any corrections or thoughts would be appreciated.
Chapter 12 – Coordinated Testing Begins
Sted was afraid to be too optimistic about their first coordinated test. They were using the shuttle Endeavour as their mock target. The shuttle had finally arrived in lunar orbit three weeks after Sted and Jessica and, after being emptied of all unnecessary personnel, it was placed in an orbit that allowed the training attack runs to be hidden from anywhere on Earth.
The initial testing was strictly to see how well hidden the Scorpions could remain, so two naval destroyers were placed in orbit with the Endeavour. Once everything was in place, the group of five fighters streamed up from the lunar surface toward the flotilla in orbit so that they could establish baseline radar and visible and infrared spectrum readings as they approached.
With the fighters under power, they were easy to detect from the output of their engines. Once the engines were cut, however, they were undetectable. Their exterior panels successfully absorbed almost all wavelengths of radiation, or at least failed to reflect that radiation back to any active sensors. The Scorpions were, in effect, the stealthiest ships ever constructed by humanity.
Sted had been anticipating the laser targeting tests for the last couple of weeks. He had worked with Captain Evans on finding the quickest way to test all the new equipment and crews and they had settled on doing individual ship tests for this phase.
“Scorpion One, this is Scorpion Leader,” said Sted over the command channel. “Commence your initial laser test run. I will light up the Endeavor on my mark.”
“Commencing first pass,” replied Captain Evans from Scorpion One. “Awaiting your mark.”
Sted held back for a few more seconds to allow Scorpion One to achieve an optimal position for their first test laser shot, then looked over at Lieutenant Wessel and gave her a slight head nod telling her to activate the spotting laser. He then opened the command channel once more and called out “Mark!”
The spotting laser painted a small target in the center of the number “2” on the tail of the Endeavor. Since Scorpion One was not aware where the spot would be painted on the hull of the target, Sted figured it would take several seconds to acquire the target point and get the main laser properly aligned. He was pleasantly surprised when Scorpion One’s main laser got off their initial shot in under three seconds. Accuracy, however, did not match quickness of the delivery.
“Scorpion One, you were eight meters wide of the target at 290 degrees. Adjust your targeting optics for the next pass. Scorpion Two, commence your first pass and fire on my mark,” commanded Sted.
“Scorpion Two commencing first pass,” replied Captain Elizabeth Bell.
“Lieutenant Wessel, adjust the initial target to the center of the airlock door at loading bay three on Endeavour,” said Sted. He wanted to adjust the initial target for each ship so there could be no anticipation by that crew.”
“Ready at the door to loading bay three,” replied his weapons specialist.
“Mark!” barked Sted over the command channel.
Nothing happened. Sted waited patiently for all of 30 seconds before commanding “Report, Captain Bell!”
“Scorpion Leader, this is Scorpion Two,” replied Captain Bell. “We have a main laser malfunction. I repeat, we have a main laser malfunction. We have no clue what is causing the problem.”
“Scorpion Two,” said Sted. “Report back to the AMC factory. We need that laser fixed as quickly as possible.”
“Damn,” whispered Sted to himself. He was really feeling the time pressure for getting these ships up to speed, and this setback would be costly in lost time. Well, there was nothing he could do about that right now. He had to complete the testing of Scorpions Three and Four.
Pushing this problem back into a compartment of his mind for later consideration, Sted ordered the next pass
“Scorpion Three, commence your first pass and fire on my mark,” commanded Sted.
“Lieutenant Wessel, move your target 100 meters toward the bow of Endeavor.”
“Target moved 100 meters toward the bow,” replied Lieutenant Wessel.
“Mark!” said Sted when Scorpion Three was in position.
Testing went on for the next twenty minutes as Scorpion One, Three, and Four each made several more passes.
After five complete passes, two of the Scorpion targeting systems had been tuned to strike the laser spot on every attempt. Scorpion Two and Four were returning to the factory. Scorpion Four required hardware changes in the targeting system and Scorpion Two had to have the main laser completely replaced. Both crews would miss the next set of drills while the factory worked on the fixes. Sted split up those crews so that they could be observers in the remaining Scorpions while the drills continued. As far as Sted was concerned, the test was a real disaster.
Nu Book 1 – The Esss Advance
The people of New York City were blissfully unaware of the approaching alien ship. News suppression from the mainstream media outlets was complete. The North American Union was afraid the masses would react hysterically with a mixture of fear, euphoria, mass suicides, hoarding of food, economic collapse, runs on banks, or any number of other negative reactions.
“The Insider” had prepared Richard and the New York Rag specifically for this moment. Since the electronic media could not be trusted to get this extremely important story out to the people, he would make sure the real story was published on paper that could be handed from person to person with the government completely out of the picture.
The story was short, because there were not many facts to be reported:
Lunar astronomers have discovered evidence of an alien spacecraft inbound to the solar system. The light from the decelerating craft appeared suddenly in the constellation Orion. Analysis of the spectrum of light indicates that the spacecraft uses a combination of hydrogen and methane for fuel and that the deceleration far exceeds what could be tolerated by a human body.
Preliminary calculations give a rough estimate of two months before the craft arrives in the inner part of the solar system near the planet Jupiter.
There have been no detectable transmissions from the inbound craft from which we might gather additional information. The intentions of the visitors are unknown at this time, and speculation would be just that, speculation.
When this news article arrived on the iBlog server, Richard was skeptical. How could the media suppress such a big story, and how could he verify the few facts being presented?
Richard decided to request specific coordinates from “The Insider.” When they were received, he passed them to his boyhood friend Ken, who was an amateur astronomer with his own half-meter telescope. Because of the weather, the viewing up in the Catskill Mountains wasn’t always the best, but it was definitely clear enough over the next few days that Ken would be able to locate this new light source.
Ken contacted Richard in the early hours of the next morning, and the excitement in his voice was unmistakable. “There is definitely a new and bright light source at those coordinates! Did you say your source identifies this as an inbound alien ship?”
“Definitely,” Richard replied. “Can you verify that the source comes from methane and hydrogen combustion?”
“Sorry, Richard, I don’t have that kind of spectrographic equipment. Given a few days, I could tell you if the light source is moving with respect to the background stars, but I have no reason to doubt the story you received. Light sources like this do not appear overnight.”
“Thanks, Ken. I really appreciate your input. I’m going to go with the story today in a special addition of the Rag, and I would like to mention your confirmation, if you don’t mind.”
“No problem. I hate when the government suppresses stories like this, and they won’t be able to deny the story when anyone like me can just point their telescope in the right direction and see the damn thing. What are they going to do to me? You’re the one who has to worry. They’ll be coming at you looking for your source.”
There was no way Richard was going back to sleep after that video chat, so he got dressed and headed upstairs to the office to begin the work on this very special edition of the Rag.
Two days later, most of the people of New York City were too busy to notice or react to the announcement running around the news ticker at One Times Square that said, “THE ALIENS ARE COMING!” Their lives were too hectic, or too important, or too overwhelming. But that was the majority. Several pockets of activity were related directly to this momentous news. Already, several groups had gotten permits to set up forums throughout the city to espouse their beliefs on what was coming.
At the corner of Broadway and 42nd street, just below the ticker, a group of saffron-robed monks was handing out pamphlets announcing the arrival of God Incarnate and warning people to get their lives in order for the final hour of judgment.
In Central Park, an evangelical church group had set up a stage where gospel singers were raising their voices in praise to the Lord. Just to the left of the stage was a large tent where a long line of people was working its way into a temporary sanctuary to be baptized in an above ground pool that had been set up for that purpose.
The few newsstands around the city were doing a brisk business for a change. Most had been driven out of business in the past few decades as the majority of people got their news and entertainment from a multitude of online venues. The few that had survived tended to sell only tabloids that appealed to the lowest members of society with stories that seemed too fantastic to be true but always had a thread of verifiable truth to make you wonder. Now, the tabloids could not print enough copies to keep up with demand. Today’s edition of The Flash declared, “Aliens to Harvest Humans” with the accompanying speculative story by Hannibal Burns that “The Overseers of the Universe” had recognized that the ever-growing population of Earth was ruining the planet, and something had to be done to save Earth from the “human infestation.”
Of course, the government-run television news channels gave the news only a few brief minutes of coverage with warnings to ignore all of the crazy stories going around. The government had everything well in hand and would give out regular reports on developments as they happened. This would suffice for the moment, because nobody knew anything at this point. All that was really known was that a spacecraft of unknown origin with unknown intentions was entering the solar system.
Meanwhile, Richard and the New York Rag were strangely silent on the subject of the aliens. The big splash caused by their special edition had started the ball rolling, and Richard wanted more information to enhance his increased circulation numbers.
When he questioned “The Insider,” he received a short note back telling him to hang on until the Navy had more facts. It was much too early to speculate on the nature or intentions of the aliens and their ship heading in from the outer part of the galaxy, but he promised a story about the Navy shutting down facilities in the belt to hide them from detection by the visitors.
Nu Book 1 – The Esss Advance
Artistic representation showing the Trojan asteroid Hektor and its tiny moon. Credit: H. Marchis & F. Marchis
Note: AMC stands for Asteroid Mining Company and AMC Scorpion is the first of a new class of mining assay ship with added defensive capabilities.
From Chapter 33 – Scorpion Encounter
As the crew was winding up the analysis of the three drilling sites and preparing to depart for their last target, Julie picked up the signature of an inbound ship drifting toward them from the direction of their last claim.
“We have visitors approaching stealthily from the sunward direction,” she announced to everyone on the bridge.
“Well, that’s never a good sign,” Sted replied. “That usually indicates foul intentions. Bundy, I want you prepared for immediate missile defense. Bill, spin the laser capacitor back up. I want it at full charge in the next three minutes. Once that’s done, I need both of you to get into your vacuum suits while monitoring your consoles.”
With that, Sted switched to the all-ship channel. “All hands prepare for enemy engagement. This is not a drill.”
As soon as Sted donned his vacuum suit, he strapped himself into the command chair and turned to Julie. “Give me the latest on your contact.”
“Contact is at fifty kilometers and drifting toward us at one hundred kilometers per hour. I can’t get a good visual because of the sun, so I cannot identify the vessel’s class. They are, however, already in missile range for the type that destroyed the AMC Pride.”
“Okay, Julie. Prepare to come about. I want the prow facing the visitors as I hail them.”
“Bill, I need the main laser trained on their ship and dialed up to its highest setting. Be prepared to fire on my order.”
With that, Sted switched to the universal hailing frequency. As soon as Julie had the Scorpion facing their enemy, he activated the microphone in his helmet. “This is AMC Scorpion. Please identify yourself immediately.”
Five seconds after the transmission, Bundy Meacham looked up. “We have two inbound missiles. I am engaging laser defenses.” He paused for a moment. “We have two direct hits on the missiles and both have been destroyed.”
“Fire the main laser,” Sted to Bill Overton. “I want multiple holes in that ship immediately!”
With that, Bill sent three fifteen-second pulses through the drilling laser with only two seconds between each pulse. He began analysis of the laser hits immediately, but the sun made any confirmation difficult. “I can’t get a reading on the result of the drilling bursts,” Bill said. “I know we hit them hard, but the sun is masking any readings.”
“Julie, spin up the engines to half power and move us away from the asteroid to get a better angle for Bill’s analysis. Bill, prepare for another three pulses if necessary.”
Once again, Sted hailed the enemy ship. “This is the AMC Scorpion. This is your last chance to identify yourself. Please advise if you have casualties or need assistance.”
“AMC Scorpion, this is Powell Madigan aboard the Falcon. We have sustained significant damage and multiple casualties. We surrender and request immediate assistance. I repeat. We surrender and request immediate assistance.”
“Standby, Falcon.” Sted turned to Bill. “Can you get any better readings?”
“We definitely breached the hull, sir,” Bill replied. “I detect a significant plume of atmosphere streaming out of the ship.”
“Falcon, this is AMC Scorpion. We will be coming around and approaching from the stern of your ship. Any sign of resistance, and we will put more holes in your hull than you can count. Please let me know the number of personnel aboard and the number of casualties. We are only a mining assay ship and do not have the facilities to afford any relief. We can, however, contact our closest mining platform for assistance. They will contact the Space Navy to schedule a rescue mission. That assistance will be at least a week getting here. Monitor the emergency channel for updates on the rescue party.”
“AMC Scorpion, this is the Falcon. We have a crew of fifteen. We have seven dead from decompression when you ripped open our crew quarters. The remaining eight crew members should be able to survive at least three weeks on our remaining air, water, and food supplies.”
“Falcon, this is AMC Scorpion. We are now one kilometer to your stern. We have recorded all of your transmissions and will send these along with our request for assistance. We will advise the rescue party of your current state. Scorpion out.”
Sted turned to Julie. “Please contact the mining platform. Send along the contact recordings along with the coordinates of this asteroid and the condition of the Falcon. We also want to register our claim immediately. That asteroid is our biggest find to date. The platform may want to follow the Navy back here to begin their mining operations.”
AMC stands for Asteroid Mining Company and Cam is Cam Dunston, the CEO of AMC.
Jessica turned back to Sted with such a mischievous grin on her face that Sted could not help but smile. They had just gotten off the transport cab at the shuttle docking facility with their transport bags for the trip back to Luna. Jessica had been gloating for the past two days since the orders had been received for the two of them to board the shuttle for this return trip. Apparently, her suggestion to Cam that Sted was anxious to get back to AMC to work on the new Epsilon fighters had struck a chord with not only Cam but also with the Admiralty.
“Will you stop gloating?” Sted asked, smiling. “Yes, it was probably your suggestion to Cam that got the Admiralty to lift the lockdown of the shuttle. I’m sure they were considering it anyway though, because there are several dozen people here that are needed urgently on Luna and Earth. The shuttle will also be able to bring back some additional specialists for altering the Voyager III design to turn it into a fighter-carrying ship instead of a peaceful interstellar explorer.”
Jessica grinned. “You look so good eating crow! I promise to stop serving it to you now that we’re boarding the shuttle. I think I’ll let the cooks on board prepare our meals for the long trip back, and I’m sure they don’t have any crow in the larder!”
“That’s it! You’re definitely going to have to be punished once we get onboard.”
“Well, you get almost three months to figure out the best way to administer your punishment,” she said. “If you need some suggestions, I’m sure I can think of a few!”
They moved across the large shuttle receiving area and took the lift down into the shuttle. With the shuttle docking facility on the opposite arm from the interstellar development platform, and with both rotating around the central core, the shuttle had been designed with its main entrance on the top of the craft, where it locked onto the docking facility.
With so few returning on the shuttle, and with Lockheed still trying to lure Sted into their service, they had been assigned a luxury suite for the trip back. The suite was almost as big as Sted’s apartment back at the shipyard. The only difference was the presence of a real office facility right in the suite and the lack of a kitchen/dining space. All dining on the shuttle took place in the main dining room, similar to a cruise ship on Earth’s ocean liners.
As Jessica unpacked their few belongings, Sted palmed the desktop communication screen to find out the details of his orders. He knew the Navy would not let him be idle during the long trip, so he was not surprised with the number of emails with attachments waiting for him. Only one of the emails was highlighted in red, so he touched the screen to open it. A video recording from Cam popped up on the desktop.
“Hello, Sted,” said Cam’s recorded voice. “There is a locked drawer in the desk that will only open to your right thumbprint. Inside is a chip containing the latest design specs for the Epsilon class fighters we are starting to put together here on Luna. As soon as you get settled, I want you to review the designs and draft any suggestions you might have beyond what you’ve already communicated to us through Rear Admiral Cunningham and directly to me when you disagreed with her assessments.
“By the way, your suggestion for interchangeable skins for the Epsilons created quite a stir among the engineers here. We have already redesigned the mounting of the outer shell layer, and one of our youngest and brightest engineers has come up with a way to change the surface of a single outer layer to switch to matte black from mirrored by running a current through the transparent surface layer. When current is applied, the layer changes from transparent to a dusty charcoal black. When the current is turned off, the layer switches back to being completely transparent, and underneath is the mirrored surface. We just got the frequencies of the alien laser used to destroy a camera-carrying missile out in Jupiter orbit, so we will be adapting the mirrored surface for those specific frequencies.
“What we are looking for from you is a set of fighting tactics to be used by the Epsilons against one of those smaller craft that came to visit us so recently. Based on those tactics, we need to know what changes need to be made to the fighters.
“We have arranged for your communications to have top priority from the shuttle, so if you have specific questions or need additional information to continue your research, just store your requests on this console in the High Priority Request folder, and they will be routed to us automatically on the next transmission. Likewise, we will have our responses and any requests that we might have in the High Priority Response folder on your desktop. When any response is posted in this folder, you will get both a visual and auditory signal from the desktop. Also, if you are not in your quarters at the time, your personal communicator will be notified.
“I look forward to hearing from you in the very near future. By the way, Vice Admiral Bunting sends his personal regards to both you and Jessica. Her suggestion to bring you back to Luna came at just the right time based upon the intelligence the Navy has been gathering about the aliens. We can’t get you here any faster than the shuttle can fly undetected back from the shipyard, but at least we can take advantage of your expertise while you’re in transit.”
As the message went dark, Jessica tapped Sted on the shoulder and then put her arms around him from behind. She knew how valuable Sted was to the Navy right now, but did they know just how valuable he was to her? She sincerely doubted that.
“Well, honey,” she said. “I know they’re going to keep you busy most of the way back. Just remember, you promised some punishment for me on this trip, and I expect you to deliver.”
With that she kissed him on the top of his head, swiveled his chair around, and then sat in his lap for a hug of reassurance that she needed desperately.
Chapter 15 – The Newsies
Two months of smoldering panic had gripped the human population of the world. The special edition of the New York Rag had sold out three successive printings over a two-day period. The television news media in the North American Union had no choice but to break with their government handlers and release pictures of the devastation caused by the alien retaliatory strikes in the Peoples Republic of China. Once the cat was out of the bag, what was the point of the government trying to control the news?
Just one week after the strike on China, Richard Collins, with the help of ‘The Insider’, had once more scooped the competition by breaking the story of the replacement of the Babuyan Islands pyramid. Along with this story, the blogger also provided naval intelligence estimates of the impact of the six active pyramids on the world’s oceans. The outlook was grim. The fouling slick was killing plankton, fish, and bird life in an ever-spreading path of destruction.
So, what was humanity doing to fight these alien oppressors? That was the big question being asked by all the political pundits on the 24-hour news channels. So far, it was a question without answers, and the heat was being turned up by governments all around the world on the Council of Eight to provide guidance or hope or both.
Today’s headline read ‘Japanese Food Panic’. The fishing industry in Japan was pulling in less than sixty percent of their normal supply of seafood. That seafood made up a considerable part of the diet of the Japanese population, and this kind of reduction in the supply had many people going hungry. This was the first step in the breakdown of civilized society, because hungry people became angry and lawless people. Those with food stockpiled were being raided by mobs of hungry adults trying to find food for their children, and who could blame them? The natural law of survival of the fittest was rearing its ugly head and people around the world were scared.
As Sted took a seat in front of Cam’s desk, he couldn’t help but be awestruck by the lunar landscape spread out before him. Cam’s office took up a full third of the top floor of the circular tower, and the entire outside wall was made of some kind of transparent material.
“What a view!” Sted exclaimed.
“I thought you might be impressed,” Cam said as he entered. “The two-inch thick transparent sapphire windows cost a small fortune, but I think the result is worth the price. My only reservation was the exposure to meteorite impact, and I’m sure you can understand why.”
“Well, you can’t live your life in fear,” Sted replied. “I’m not completely over the trauma from the meteorite that killed my friends and took my legs, but to go back into space as the captain of my own ship again far outweighs any of my fears. I would bet that the chance of being killed by a high speed impact in the belt is more than a thousand times greater than here on the moon.”
“Statistically, you’re being a little conservative. My insurance carrier tells me they didn’t even consider the risk of impact from a meteorite, because the chances of it happening were so infinitesimal. Just look at the rim of this crater, which has been here for over two billion years, and you can actually count the number of small impacts per square kilometer. It averages out to less than one impact per square kilometer every three thousand years.”
Sted nodded. “That desk top looks almost identical to the windows. Is that transparent sapphire as well?”
Cam thumped it with his knuckles. “Exactly. We ordered four extra glass panels in case of breakage during installation, and we got lucky. The construction crew only damaged one. The crane operator misjudged the momentum of the window panel as he was moving it into place, and it banged against the side of the tower. One corner of one panel was slightly damaged, so I decided to use it for my desktop. We just had the crew cut off thirty centimeters from the damaged end and then build a pedestal of nickel from the deposits left by the asteroid that formed this crater. Then our chief engineer designed my workstation to fit into the panel as seamlessly as possible.
“Speaking of our chief engineer,” Cam continued, “I would like to introduce him to you as soon as possible. His name is Aidan McBride, and he is currently on the factory floor working on the Delta class prototype. I can’t think of a better way to get you up to speed on the project than to get your two heads together. I just need you to palm these two employment forms on my workstation, and then we can head down to the factory floor. Later this evening, the three of us can get together in my apartment for some dinner and talk some shop about where we want to go with this project. Do you have any questions or objections?”
Sted shook his head. “I’m ready when you are.”
He stood up and took one last look at the spectacular lunar landscape before palming the forms.
Here is chapter 20 from Nu Book 1 – The Esss Advance. UAMC stands for United Asteroid Mining Company and USpN stands for United Space Navy. C8 stands for the Council of Eight, the defacto government of all things above the Earth’s surface.
This is one of the longer chapters in my book, but it contains a complete background story.
As Sted headed over to the Lockheed Lunar compound, his mind went back to the incident with the pirates hired by the Chinese to steal UAMC’s ore barges. Based upon the trajectory of the barges when they were discovered, Captain Landsted surmised that their destination was the L4 Lagrange point in Earth’s solar orbit. Since the Chinese had established a major colony at L4 to bleed off population pressure on Earth, it was a good bet that the mined ore was headed directly into Chinese hands.
Because the ore being hijacked was from the platinum group, it was obvious to everyone aboard the USpN Charger that the Chinese were back up to their old tricks of flaunting the C8 and building warships at a shipyard hidden amongst the many peaceful population platforms at L4. There was probably no better place to hide a shipyard and all the personnel required to operate it than right within a high-density space colony.
When Captain Landsted submitted his preliminary report to Space Navy headquarters on the C8 platform orbiting Earth, he was directed to continue the investigation at the L4 source. The Admiralty promised a backup force would be dispatched directly in support of this mission in case trouble arose with the Chinese colony. Meanwhile, naval intelligence was tasked with uncovering anomalies in the delivery of all materiel to the colony over the past twenty-four months. What they found was eye-opening. Their intelligence report back to the USpN Charger set the stage for the upcoming encounter.
Sted remembered the day of inspection like it was yesterday.
“Northern Song, this is USpN Charger inbound for an unscheduled inspection of your facilities. Please acknowledge and prepare for a shuttle inspection party to dock at cargo bay three in fifteen minutes,” Captain Mark Landsted said. “Lieutenant Adams, open a line to Shuttle I.”
“USpN Charger, this is Northern Song acknowledging receipt of your request for docking in cargo bay three. Please note that cargo bay three is not available. The bay doors are currently inoperable and under reconstruction after failing maintenance check. Please have your shuttle routed to passenger bay seven, where we will have a team waiting to assist you in your inspection.”
“Commander Richardson, that intelligence report was very specific that the last shipment of control components arrived at cargo bay three. How would you suggest we gain access to that area?” Landsted asked.
“Sir, we should send the shuttle to passenger bay seven but drop a squad of marines over cargo bay three as we transit the colony,” Sted replied. “Their full battle gear won’t show up on the Chinese radar, so the first indication we have arrived will be when we knock ever so gently on their door with a thermite breaching ring. We can have the squad into the bay and contain the breach in less than three minutes, according to Lieutenant Gomez.”
“Very good, Commander. Shuttle I, you are cleared for docking at passenger bay seven. Keep your squad of marines on board until the general alarm sounds aboard the colony. That will mean we have breached the cargo bay. At that point, deploy the marines to protect the inspection party and to keep the passenger bay clear for your departure.”
He pressed another button on his console. “Northern Song, this is Captain Mark Landsted. We acknowledge cargo bay three is unavailable. Our shuttle will be directed to passenger bay seven. Commander Kim Cho will be leading the six-man inspection team.”
He turned to Sted and motioned him over for a private conference. Sted pushed off from his station and caught hold of the back of the captain’s chair with practiced precision. He hooked his belt tie-down to the tie-down ring on the chair and looked at Captain Landsted in anticipation of further orders.
“Sted, I want you to suit up and follow Gomez’s squad down to the cargo bay. Coordinate with Gomez so you arrive just after the breach. I want you wearing a full recording package. I’m sure our surprise will catch them moving that equipment out of the cargo bay prior to our inspection, so everything will more than likely be out in the open. Once you record what they have on board, order Gomez to destroy every piece of equipment in the bay. Then open every storage room in the bay and drop a thermal charge in each. The lesson has to be very painful to the Chinese, and I don’t care if we destroy a few storage rooms of non-essential equipment or supplies. I only want you and that squad in the cargo bay for twenty minutes. After that, get out and back to the ship. I don’t want a firefight with the Chinese while you’re on board if at all possible. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Sted replied. “No firefight while on board if it can be avoided.”
“Good. Keep open command channel two during the entire operation,” Captain Landsted continued. “I will have your video feeds live on my console as well. As you are entering the breach, remember to plant the laser relay beacon on the hull of the colony so we don’t lose communication.”
“Permission to speak, sir?”
“Of course, Commander. What’s on your mind?”
“Sir, as you know, everything usually goes south in the middle of any combat operation. What are my rules of engagement? Is it more important to take out every piece of equipment in the bay or to protect the squad should the Chinese prove more recalcitrant than we are anticipating?”
“We must send a clear message to the Chinese,” Landsted replied. “You can destroy everything in sight if that’s what it takes. The team is important, but the intelligence you gather is primary. My feeling is that this colony is only a shell surrounding a shipyard in the making. Why else would they have so many passenger bays except to ferry workers from the other colonies here on a regular basis? Your live feeds are the critical part of this operation. It will give us the evidence we need to launch a full-scale attack on this colony to destroy that shipyard.”
“Thank you, sir,” Sted replied. “That clarifies the mission objective. You will have your intelligence regardless of the cost.”
While suiting up to join the assault team, Sted went over his objectives with Lieutenant Gomez so that there would be no confusion once the action started. Sted had specific instructions from the captain, and Gomez needed a full briefing in case something happened to Sted during the operation.
Gomez and his team deployed first, with Sted deploying just three minutes later. Sted had a bird’s eye view of the action as the team landed outside of the cargo bay, set up a defensive perimeter, and attached the breaching charges.
“Lieutenant, you are cleared to breach the hull,” Sted ordered from 1,000 meters out. “I will be at the breach in two minutes. Once you’re inside and have cleared any threats, let me know.”
“Yes sir,” Gomez relied as he activated the thermite switch.
Sted’s face shield went dark as the light from the thermite ring flared brighter than the sun for almost ten seconds. When his face shield cleared again, Sted saw the last of the marines entering the breach. That meant that the cargo bay was already in vacuum and not under pressure. Otherwise, they would have been waiting for the outward flow of air to subside before trying to enter.
As Sted’s battle gear absorbed the impact of landing next to the breach, he jammed the base of the laser relay beacon against the hull, releasing the Insta-weld arcing charge and bringing the relay online.
“Charger, this is Commander Richardson confirming beacon plant. Please confirm receipt of the beacon feed.”
“Confirmed,” came the immediate reply.
“I’m waiting for Lieutenant Gomez with the ‘all clear’ before entering the breach.”
Sted lowered his camera into the breach to get a sit-rep without exposing himself to enemy fire. As he looked at the camera display on his helmet video feed, he saw the occasional burst of laser fire from the far interior. In the vacuum of space, no sound accompanied the light, but every few seconds, Sted felt shudders through his magnetic boots.
“Charger, Gomez is running into more resistance than anticipated,” Sted reported. “The immediate area of breach appears to be clear. I’m going in without confirmation from Gomez. I’m leaving camera one at the breach to continue recording. I’m designating my shoulder camera as camera two. Once I’m secure inside the hull, I’ll activate my high-definition hand camera on feed number three.”
With that, Sted released his boots and activated his back and side thrusters. From three meters above the breach, he oriented himself for a headfirst dive and then squeezed the thruster in his left hand just enough to get his whole body through the breach with minimal exposure.
“Gomez report!” Sted ordered as soon as he was clear of the breach and had a good view of the entire cargo bay.
“This is Gomez. We have an internal security force pinned down behind the cargo shuttle in the bay, sir. Chandler and Singleton are not responding and assumed down. The remainder of the cargo bay has been cleared.”
“Keep their heads down, Gomez, while I start recording the cargo. If they get out of hand, blow up the damned shuttle as long as you give me a few seconds of warning to take cover.”
“Yes, sir. I’m sending Corporal Allen to assist you with opening those crates tied down to the interior bulkhead. I have two corpsmen sealing the hatches from the ship’s interior. We don’t want to be surprised by unexpected company.”
Sted accelerated over to the crates Gomez mentioned and considered which to open first. Their time would be limited, so his selection was critical. What he was looking for were control console-sized crates or anything that might hold military grade laser components. As he was considering his selection, Corporal Allen arrived. Sted directed him to open one of fourteen identical crates located halfway between the two hatches, which were now sealed.
The Corpsman dialed down his hand laser and directed it at the closest crates, peeling back the outer packing material. Then he reached in and pulled out exactly what their intelligence report had specified. The writing on the console was in Chinese, but the function was obvious. The battle screens surrounded by missile and laser deployment controls had a universal look. There was no mistaking what this was.
“Corporal Allen, set a charge in the center of these crates while I record as much detail as I can about the one you opened. Then we should move to the next set of crates. We only have five minutes left in our twenty-minute window, so be quick about it.
“Gomez, get ready to blow the shuttle as we withdraw. We don’t need any live fire at our backs. Have the remainder of your squad prepare charges to take out whatever remains in the cargo bay as we head back to the breach. Every charge should be set on a ten-minute timer and then launched as we exit. I want the squad well clear of the colony when they blow.”
With his orders clearly spelled out, Sted headed over to Allen, who was dismantling another crate. This time what he pulled out was completely foreign to Sted. All he could do was record everything and hope the intelligence team could identify its purpose.
“Take cover. We’re blowing the shuttle in five, four, three, two, one, Now!”
Three bright flashes bathed the cargo bay interior, and then pieces of the shuttle began flying everywhere. Sted and Allen just had time to hunker down behind the crate they were inspecting. That’s when the shuttle’s fuel tanks blew in a huge secondary explosion.
As the lights died down, Sted gave the withdrawal orders, and everyone jetted for the breech, raining down explosive charges to every corner of the bay as they retreated.
Gomez had one of the downed marines over his shoulder, and his sergeant had the other. They were the first out of the breach, with the remainder of the squad spraying cover fire around the bay just in case someone popped their head up to fire at the retreating marines. Sted was second to last out, followed by Allen, who was covering his back.
“Commander Richardson, we have Shuttle II inbound to your location. ETA forty seconds,” Captain Landsted said over the command circuit. “We got every second of your recordings through the relay. Based on your ten-minute timer orders, you have four minutes to get the squad into the shuttle and away from the cargo bay before it blows.”
“Gomez,” Sted called, “Shuttle II is at your nine o’clock approaching with the shuttle bay doors open. Get everyone aboard ASAP. We have less than four minutes until those charges blow.”
Sted moved alongside of Gomez to add his suit’s thrust to that of Gomez to make up for the extra mass of Chandler’s body and armor. Even with the extra push, they were the last to make it into the shuttle bay. As the shuttle doors closed, the outer hull of the colony erupted with a series of explosions. When Sted moved to the cockpit to get a better view of the damage, he saw that the interior of cargo bay three must have given way. Atmosphere was pouring out of the breach, along with melted and twisted pieces of cargo. He also saw suited and unsuited bodies floating listlessly among the detritus of what looked like a pitched battle.
“Charger, this is Commander Richardson. The squad is back aboard the shuttle. We have two casualties. The entire area around cargo bay three on the colony has been destroyed with multiple casualties. I recommend you coordinate a rescue mission with the colony. There may be a few suited survivors outside of the cargo bay.”
“Charger copies,” Captain Landsted replied. “Make your best time back. I don’t want you exposed to any retaliatory strikes. We have five destroyers inbound to either finish off this hidden shipyard or board and secure the facility if they surrender. We won’t be dealing with survivors from those explosions until the action is over.”
Commander Kim Cho’s voice sounded over Shuttle II’s speakers, “Shuttle I is clear of passenger bay seven.” Sted and the shuttle pilot could see the other shuttle pulling away from the Northern Song colony as it accelerated in a wide arc back toward the USpN Charger.
“Northern Song, this is Captain Landsted aboard USpN Charger. You are ordered to stand down all forces aboard. We will give you one hour to accept full surrender of your facility to the United Space Navy. If you do not acknowledge surrender, your facility will be destroyed. No ships will be allowed to depart from your colony. Please observe the five additional destroyers inbound from Earth. Their ETA coincides with your one-hour window. Acknowledge receipt of these orders.”
“Charger, this is Northern Song acknowledging receipt of your orders.”
With that settled for the moment, Sted returned to the shuttle bay from the cockpit to check on the status of Chandler and Singleton. When he got there, both had been stripped of their battle armor and were strapped to medical gurneys with IVs running into their arms. That meant both men were still alive.
Sted turned to Gomez. “What’s their status?”
“Singleton took a hit to the back of his helmet that knocked him unconscious. We’ve stabilized him for now, but the docs onboard will have to check him out, because he hasn’t regained consciousness. Chandler lost his left arm below the elbow. The suit saved his life, but he’s still in shock. We’re keeping him warm and hydrated for now. There’s nothing else we can do until we get him back to the Charger.”
“Thanks, Lieutenant,” Sted replied. “We should be back aboard in the next ten minutes. I’ll go forward again and report their condition to the doc so he can be ready in the shuttle bay.”
With that, Sted turned back to the cockpit to make his report, hoping the doctor would be able to patch up the two marines. He didn’t want to lose anyone under his command. He thought of little David Barns being carried away in the ambulance, never to be seen again.
Sted had moved his few belongings into a small apartment in the personnel housing ring. After reporting to the Space Navy’s Research and Development section, Sted had been assigned housing space and an office. The Navy had even pulled up his records and prepared a complete set of both regular and formal naval dress uniforms and had them delivered to his apartment. The first time he walked into the unit with Jessica and his travel bag in tow, he was more than a little surprised to find the place completely laid out. The furniture was all in place, the pantry was stocked, and the refrigerator and freezer were filled with several weeks’ worth of supplies. He even had a small office with current naval issue communication equipment.
As a ship’s captain, Sted was not used to having so much space. On a destroyer class ship, the captain’s quarters were about a quarter the size of this apartment.
“What do you want to do first?” Jessica asked. Both of them had worked the “day” shift (a holdover from planet-bound way of thinking), so they were free for the next sixteen hours. The twenty-four hour/three-shift mode of operating was still standard, even though they were far out from Earth and its twenty-four hour rotational cycle. Some human habits just seemed to have a life of their own.
“I had planned on spending time setting up the apartment, going to the commissary to stock up on supplies, and then getting some shuteye, hopefully with you by my side,” Sted replied. “Now it appears we have a little more free time. How about I put together a quick dinner for the two of us while you go out to the commissary and pick up some wine? After that, I want to spend some time with you. If it’s not too forward of me, I think we should discuss possibly moving in together.”
“Wow! You don’t mess around, Captain Richardson,” Jessica teased. “I’ll take a little extra time getting the wine while I think about your generous offer. Give me about thirty minutes. I’ll get a fresh set of clothes for tomorrow morning, too. I think we may be ‘discussing’ this offer for most of the night, and I want to appear at least somewhat fresh at the office in the morning.” She chuckled on her way out the door.
As Sted opened the pantry again to see what he might prepare on short notice, he could not keep the grin off of his face. Yes, this night had a lot of potential.