The Sun Tsu
«Captain,» I said, «I’ve got three incoming... fast. Looks like 0.21c.»
“Corporal, charge the laser. Wing Commander, prepare to launch. C-Deck, both tubes ready to fire. Red Alert...”
And there is was: that screeching noise. That noise that sound like blood accelerating through your veins. That noise that sounds like a shiver down your spine.
“... All hands this is the captain. We’ve got aliens. Prepare for combat.”
About twenty minutes ago we detected a distinct gravity wave, the telltale sign of alien ships dropping out of light speed. We then positioned the Sun Tsu behind Sycorax, one of the smaller moons of Uranus, and launched several relay boxes in close orbit to be our eyes. But these ships were different.
«Look at this.»
On screen, three ships filled the primary display. One in the center was a tall, thin monolith and was flanked by two stout companions.
“Not the usual customers.”
«They’re huge. Looks like maybe 500 kilotons for the Fashion Model, and about 800 for her fat friends. I can’t get a spectral analysis. Whatever they’re made of, it’s hard and dense.»
“Some kind of armor.”
“This is their revenge for the ship the Icarus destroyed,” the captain scratched his chin. “They’re moving at one-fifth the speed of light. At that clip they’re not where they appear to be. How fast can you program the laser?”
It wasn’t just their speed, but the laser bolt itself. The fatties were about 600 meters bow to stern which under normal circumstances was a huge target. Think: an entire World Cup stadium, parking lot included. But, they were also moving at about forty-million meters per second, meaning if I was off by so much as a hundreth of a second I’d miss badly. I figured the best way to do this was to decide where I wanted them to be when the laser beam struck and calculate how long it took for light to make that distance, add in the fact that they were several million meters ahead of where they appeared to be, and this would give me my lead time.
That wasn’t the only problem, though.
«Sir. We’ve got one laser that takes ten minutes to recharge against three of them, and we don’t even know what it’ll do against that armor.»
“Got it. Wing Commander!”
“Can you launch at ETA 2:30?”
“Squadron one is ready to go.”
“Make a big splash. And I want pilots on those torpedoes.”
«If they don’t slow down, our fighters will never catch them. If we can’t stop them, we’ve got only twelve hours before they reach Earth.»
“C-Deck. prepare for launch at ETA 2:30.”
“Denis. I need that targeting computer to get it right. We can’t afford to miss. Earth cannot afford for us to miss.”
“Earth command station, this is Sun Tsu. We’ve got three incoming bogies. These are huge---much bigger than the usual ones. We’re preparing to engage.”
And by the time that message reached home, this will have been all over. One way or another.
The sweat in that command module was heavy. We had a few tricks up our own sleeve, to be sure; these new starfighters were quick, nimble, and packed a 50mm rail gun glued to a powerful ionic drive. That, and they were modular; if one fighter got hit, it could slough off the broken piece and merge with another that had a different piece broken. We had about two-hundred of these nasties, each with a sophisticated AI pilot that one of our fifteen remote human pilots could take over with the press of a button. We also had two magnetic rail torpedo launchers for thermonuclear drones, and these little spider robots that clung to the alien’s hull and walked around drilling holes and stuffing them with C-4. Those can be dropped off by fighter, and of course we had the thermolaser.
As for the aliens, well, the regular ships were much smaller than the Sun Tsu and were capable of firing a stream of positrons that didn’t play nice with normal matter. One of them also had a missile launcher of some kind. But as for these three new behemoths, we were about to find out.
“Plot enemy course and put it on screen.”
And the view panned out, with three specks moving rapidly along a yellow, dotted line that passed by a big, blue, pock-marked potato next to where we were located.
And we all lined up on opposite sides of the gym while sparkling lights filled the void between us. They were bigger, more mature, all grown up. And then, so we’re we. And now, we were about to ask these girls if they would like to dance.
My heart pounded. I looked across the room; Colonel Olwage made a cross over his chest and others closed their eyes in prayer. The Captain didn’t blink, but clenched his jaw and pursed his lips as he watched the seconds go by.
“Launch in three... two... one... go!”
“First squadron is out, sir.”
“Helm, come about, five kilometers starboard, z minus six-hundred meters.”
I looked. We’d been spotted. «Sir, they’re slowing.»
“Excellent. How long before fighters are within weapons range?”
“Ten seconds. Squadron two is out.”
“Yaw fifteen degrees to port. Laser, target Fatty One. Pick any spot that looks comfortable.”
«Yes, sir.» There was a bulge in the center of the ship, like a giant pea in a huge, metal pod. Who knew what was under there, but surely it was worth shooting at.
“Helm, as soon as we discharge, get us back in hiding.”
“Pull back! Get me telemetry! Wing commander, report!”
“Sparks flying, sir!”
We kissed her. But how long before she kissed us back?
“Keep at it.”
“Coming around for another pass.”
“Sir, squadron three is out.”
“What is it?”
“Fashion model! She’s covered in gun turrets! I can’t get an attack angle...”
I watched. A formation of fighters strafed Fatty One and then went straight at Fashion Model, and the thing lit up with rays of white light coming out of everywhere and filling up the sky. Several fighters were hit and the attack was broken badly.
Дерьмо. «Sir, look at this.»
Squadron two tried to make a pass at Fatty Two. I counted about four gun turrets at the top deck, but when the fighters attacked, their weapons impacted a few meters above the hull. Nothing, absolutely nothing got through.
“What about my torpedos?”
«Torpedo one, no data. Two... I’m showing some damage to the tube, then nothing. I see a flash near Fatty One. I can’t tell from here.»
“Did that laser do anything?”
«Looks like sparks... I see ventilation; I think we punched a hole in her.»
“Launch pebbles! And get back behind that moon, dammit.”
«The pebbles stopped it, but it looks like the alien missiles wrapped around the moon and followed us.»
“I just lost a relay box!”
“Give me some good news, commander.”
“Look at Fatty One. She’s bleeding.” Love is pain.
“Just lost another one!”
Fatty One was covered in blue sheets of light that flickered on and off. One side was covered in black, and there were small, orange craters throughout the hull. I also counted three spider bots crawling around.
“Twist that knife, commander.”
«Fashion model is coming about. She’s going to block the next fighter wave.» Protecting the wounded.
“Where’s Fatty Two?”
“Squadron four is out.”
“That makes three!”
“How many more relays can we lose?”
“Two more and we’re blind back here.”
“MORE TORPEDOES COMING!”
“Launch pebbles! C-Deck, get me torpedoes and prepare to fire.”
«Боже мой what IS that?»
“Talk to me, Denis.”
«It’s Fashion Model. She’s...»
I looked. A giant, gray rectangle flying through space, covered in little spines that shot out death at anything that came close. But at the front end was a black circle that started to glow a dark purple.
Suddenly, half my body felt heavier than the other half and it was as though I was being ripped apart, only to be thrown back. There was a loud crack. Out the window I could see the surface of Sycorax, but with bright red lines spiraling out in all directions like a spider web. And just like that, huge chunks of rock seemed to collapse, only to be ejected out and thrown towards us. Massive asteroids the size of cities spread outwards and threw up a maelstrom of devastation. And we were in the middle of it. My ears rang. I could see the captain’s lips move as he frantically called out orders but I couldn’t hear anything but ringing. A thin line appeared in the window and was suddenly iced over. The main screen was nothing but static. Red and yellow lights flashed before me, casting my world in chaos. I watched as our helmsman slammed his fists upon the console and shook his head.
Slowly, my ears woke up and were drowned by the most dreadful dance music. She didn’t like our kiss so she slapped us in the face.
The window, our only connection to the world outside, was covered in cracks and frosted over.
“GET OUT!” I could barely hear the captain over the screeching alarm. We ran. All of us floated to the exit, desperate to reach before the bulkhead door sealed shut.
I was one of the lucky ones. Colonel Olwage had his foot trapped beneath a twisted console. Then the window cracked open and the bridge began to vent, and we had no choice but to close the door and leave him.
“Don’t watch,” the Captain ordered one of our men away from the window.
«Auxiliary controls. This way.» I didn’t have time to think. I didn’t have time to mourn. All I could feel was an overwhelming sense of terror---a terror of what lay ahead for us. For all of us. I didn’t think any of us were expecting this.
“What the hell was that?”
“I felt a pull before it hit. Did anybody else?”
“I felt it to. Towards the moon.”
“Like it sucked us in, right?”
«We all felt it.»
“No, but listen. It pulled us towards the moon. Think about it. What kind of explosion does that?”
«I don’t know. But if that weapon reaches Earth...» I didn’t know how to finish what I was saying. I didn’t need to though because everyone fell silent after that.
We reached the control center. There were no seats or consoles, but a few terminals we could plug into and enough battery reserves to try and bring the ship back online. There also weren’t any windows, but rather cases of loose wiring and panels ripped from the wall exposing the meat of the ship at its most crude form. Gone were the elegant shoes and slacks, this dance was going to be dirty from here on out.
“Sir, I’ve got intercom.”
“What’s left of us?”
“No word from decks four through six. Seven is breached, some survivors. Wing Commander says he’s lost all contact with the fighters. All relay antennae are down. I’ve got engineers trying to tape something together. The laser is offline. Both torpedo tubes are offline. All telemetry is offline...”
We heard a loud crunch, and another screeching alarm went off.
“Someone’s on G-deck, says there’s a window down there. Sycorax is gone. Completely obliterated. We’re in the middle of an asteroid field. He’s disoriented and can’t get a zero on the aliens but we’re sandwiched between two giant rocks and spinning out of control.”
“I need eyes. Tell that crewman whoever it is to keep talking.”
That could be a good thing. If we had giant rocks to hide behind that gave us time to dust off. With any luck, the aliens were still searching for us rather than move on towards Earth.
“Sir, this might not be difficult,” sang the young corporal. The top half of his body was buried beyond a wall panel with his legs floating about. In the narrow crack I could see a flash of light that he was using to see. Then in the next instant, the terminal screens came back. Rather than static, a panel was illuminated with the words, waiting for telemetry.”
“I’ve got fighters!” came over the intercom.
“The AI never went down. We’ve been pummeling these assholes the whole time! I’m sending you a feed; you need to see this.”
We watched. A swarm of fighters swooped in to attack Fatty One. Volley after volley impacted meters from the hull with no damage, and then with the last few, that sheet of blue light flickered again and shots suddenly landed. Two sent a volcano of sparks up but then a third shot was followed by a stream of gas ventilation.
“Wait for it...”
The squadron then made a circle route to avoid Fashion Model. It’s programmed to preserve numbers. Then it fired upon Fatty Two as she was moving towards the asteroid field. Several volleys landed, sending out chunks of metal and sparks and causing clear damage to the armor when suddenly the ship’s trajectory went static. After that, the shots impacted several meters from the hull, as before.
“Sir! The laser is back online. Fully charged.”
“Denis? Do I need to tell you where to point it?”
Fashion Model. That weapon. «Нет.»
He smiled wide. “I love when he says that. Nyet. Such conviction. Such finality.”
That made me laugh.
“Wing Commander, we need to concentrate all firepower on Fashion Model.”
“Every time I send a wave, they break us up. They’ve got too many guns...”
“We have to get through. What do you think is going to happen if that weapon reaches Earth?”
“Target those turrets and take out as many as you can. If I can get you a torpedo, can you fly it personally?”
“I’m on it.”
“Anyone on C-deck?”
“Got someone outside. Says it’s ventilated. Tube one is destroyed, looks like tube two is still loaded but the power is cut.”
“We need to fire that torpedo. Or else.”
“He says he can recouple. Give him five minutes but he’ll have to leave the comm station.”
“Why is he still talking then?”
A new voice came over the intercom. The indicator light said he was on ship-wide; he wanted all of us to hear. “Sir, are we going to die?”
A wave of silence fell over the room. My mouth was dry and I’d already exhausted all the sweat I had, and from looking around the room, I was no exception.
But our Captain rubbed his nose and sniffed. Then, he told us all the dirty truth. “Yes.”
A moment later, another voice responded. “Allahu akbar!”
I could see his eyes well up. I didn’t know how a tear might fall without the influence of gravity, but he wiped his eyes no less. Then our Captain, a Vietnamese Christian and a devout one at that, raised his fist and answered back. “Allahu akbar!”
I looked around the cramped room. There were nods. Nods of acceptance. Someone else muttered that God was great, and a level of understanding passed between us all. We were going to do everything we could to disable that weapon; our homes, our families; our whole planet depended on us. I took out the photo from my pocket. There was my mom and dad, myself a few years ago, and the three-year-old ball of sunshine, Antonina, who came from our parents’ third marriage to each other after they’d already divorced one another twice.
“Can we take one of them out with us?”
«Don’t set your expectations so low, Corporal,» I answered. I got some laughs for that.
“Helm, what do you have to work with?”
“I’ve got... looks like starboard positioning thrusters only.”
“That kinda sucks. Engineering, how long before we can restore locomotion?”
A dejected voice responded over the intercom. “The main engine is completely severed from the ship. It’s out there floating, I can see it from here. The gas line for port thrusters is broken; I had to block the line. Hypothetically, if the aliens pack up and go home now with no further damage, it’ll take a month to get us moving again. Even then, with the fuel we’ve got, it’ll be years before we get anywhere. Best case scenario we call Earth to come get us.”
“Sir,” the helmsman added, “I might be able to get us out in the open to take a shot, but I can’t bring us back. We get one shot, then we’re exposed to the worst they can give us and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The Captain spoke to the engineer again. “Helm says starboard positioning thruster is live. He’s going to send you some vectors; use whatever you got to make it happen.”
“I see it. Give me a few minutes.”
“Torpedo Two is online, sir.”
«I just lost the laser. The line isn’t stable.»
“Engineering, what’s going on with the laser?”
A voice called back after a minute of silence. “There’s a rupture in the coolant line, but it’s outside. The system shut it down programmatically.”
«Да.» That meant blowing the system, of course. Allowing the capacitor to overheat meant two things. First, we had less than a minute to discharge the weapon before the entire system would burn out, and second, we would never be able to use it again.
Then Wing Commander came over the intercom. “Sir, I’m down to one-hundred fighters; we’re getting chewed up out there. I’ve got a couple that have reassembled a dozen times, and that’s all that’s left.”
“Just get that damned torpedo through.”
We all worked as hard as we could. We were so preoccupied with our tasks there wasn’t time to reflect on the fact that in a very short period of time we would make a suicide attack against the aliens in the desperate hope of keeping them from reaching Earth with that super-weapon.
The captain chose a young cadet and gave him a special task. “I want you to get on that auxiliary antenna. Send word to Earth. Upload everything, and I mean everything. Then tell them what you’ve seen in your own words. Don’t stop talking. Keep telling them stuff. If you run out of things to say, think of some other detail you’ve seen here today and tell them that. Keep transmitting until you feel the cold vacuum of space in your lungs. Got it?”
And soon, we were ready. Helm fired the last burst of thruster we had and we began to drift away from the enormous rock we’d hid behind.
“Fire that torpedo.”
“Torpedo is away.”
«In position to fire the laser in three... two...»
I heard a loud crunch, and suddenly we started spinning. All around us, rocks erupted into showers of orange flame. The alarm screeched and the world flashed with red and yellow lights.
“We’re losing atmosphere! I can’t reach engineering!”
“Sir, we’ve lost all control!”
A fire. And then cold.