Jerry, Chapter Seven
by Garon Whited
Jerry sat in the Captain’s chair and regarded the polished gleams of the Bridge.
The ship was silent.
Gone was the lively chatter from the little Astrogator. What else was missing? Some sort of background noise? Maybe. God knew there were a thousand things Kent had done to the ship, none of which Jerry understood.
The ship hung in the vast emptiness of interstellar space, inert, soundless, lifeless.
Almost lifeless. For light-years in any direction, he was the only living thing larger than a microbe. The thought did not disturb him overmuch. It was interesting and slightly off-putting, but to be bothered by it would require more thinking than he could spare.
The ship answered to him, now, and to him alone. The computer acknowledged his voice and obeyed him without question or hesitation. He was used to the passing of commands among his fellows and the presence of human beings in the decision and action loop. The instantaneous response of such pervasive automation was uncanny and unnerving. The ship was less of a ship, somehow. It was a robot shaped like a ship, and that felt weird.
Weird or not, when he ordered it to display a tactical plot of all known Human and Ziran forces, it acknowledged with a pleasant, female voice—“Display on main screen,”—and gave him what he asked for.
Obviously, the heuristic interface is on, he reflected. Unlike a turret computer, the primary computer clusters could afford to waste processor cycles on convenience. He was properly grateful for the mercy of the space pirate. Dealing with an overly-literal machine would have been too much to take.
Jerry didn’t like the display. Rather, he didn’t like the data. On the one hand, he was certain it was more data than Earth had. Hundreds of Navy vessels, hundreds more scout drones, and all the intelligence analysis in the world couldn’t get real-time updates on anything three hundred light-years away. So the availability of this intelligence was a pearl beyond price.
On the other hand, it told Jerry he was looking at the end of the world.
The screen showed the disposition of Ziran forces with remarkable precision, especially since almost everything was in hyperspace. Solid lines from six separate stars—staging areas all through the Hydrae cluster—trailed behind the large dots on the screen. Dotted lines extended forward from there, extrapolations of their courses. They all converged on Sol.
A few Ziran ships continued to pop out of hyperspace, arriving in the staging area systems. The computer marked almost all of them as transports rather than warships.
Jerry kept looking at the dots and labels. The word “swarm” kept running through his mind.
Clearly, the Zirans were more widespread than Earth believed. Or, being very like insects, they built a lot of themselves on general principles.
“Computer? Why are there numbers on each dot?”
“The numbers indicate which hive queen controls the ship, based on the telepathic encoding parameters.”
“We can do that?”
“Great, I guess,” Jerry replied, unenthusiastically. “Calculation of relative force strength?”
“Intelligence analysis makes relative force strength eight-point-three to one, Zirans to Earth defense forces, based on strategic, tactical, and firepower capabilities. Some ship types are not fully cataloged,” the computer went on, “so final force strength has a margin of error of approximately six percent.”
“In simple language?”
“I don’t know what every single ship is, so I don’t know how much firepower they have. This is the best estimate, give or take six percent either way.”
“Got it. Thanks.”
Jerry watched the screen for a moment, thinking. He ignored a lot of things he didn’t want to think about and focused on the problem at hand. It was a big problem.
Here I am, he thought, with a battleship capable of rolling up twenty times her tonnage in Earth ships, and I still don’t have the firepower to save my planet!
Or do I?
“Computer, how does this ship stack up compared to one of those big dots? A Ziran flotilla.”
“The smallest flotilla is approximately three times our firepower.”
“Ouch. So our firepower isn’t going to save—wait. We’re one-third the firepower of a whole Ziran flotilla?”
“How in the First Photon is that possible?”
The main screen lit up, obligingly displaying the weaponry and defensive systems of the Thunder Child. Jerry looked it over with interest. Most of it was news to him. Almost all the systems would be news to Earth. Every single bit of it was bad news for the Zirans. There were no missile launchers, presumably to avoid the problem of running out of missiles. All the primary and anti-missile laser turrets were present and accounted for, but the figures for power output were ridiculous. Who puts a half-megawatt pulse laser in a point-defense turret? And how?
But the firepower figures on the main gun looked impossible. When Jerry examined the readout in more detail, he discovered why. The main gun was no longer a laser cannon. It was a relativistic particle beam. A relativistic antiparticle beam.
The thing fired antimatter particles at near the speed of light.
Phoebe said something about antimatter. It was a stupid power source, she said, and her arguments were persuasive. So why have an antimatter particle accelerator? Because, as a power source, it was stupid. But as a weapon, it was first-rate.
Kent, on the other hand, said something specific about the main gun. What did he say? “Don’t fire it in an atmosphere.” Something like that.
“What happens if we fire the main gun in an atmosphere?”
“The question is indeterminate due to the high number of variables.”
“Okay, what happens if… uh… say we’ve landed on Earth. We shoot at something far away. What happens?”
“The antimatter particles will interact with the atmosphere immediately, causing a matter-antimatter explosion just beyond the projector’s force-field housing, resulting in an intense radiation spike and catastrophic damage to the ship’s structure.”
“Well, that sounds unpleasant. Okay, so, I know we don’t have any missiles, but can we shoot the thing from orbit to the ground?”
“The atmosphere acts as a shield against antiparticles,” the computer replied.
“What effect does it have if we do it anyway?”
“The majority of the particles are absorbed by the exosphere. Less than one percent will reach the thermosphere. Matter-antimatter collisions scatter the beam. These also cause considerable radiation, thermal shock, and atmospheric concussion.”
“Ah. So our range is effectively zero through atmosphere?”
“Duly noted.” Jerry wondered, briefly, what else was a horrible, if unintentional, booby trap. There were a thousand things that could be misused to damage the ship or kill the crew—him!—aboard any vessel. Which was the main reason it took so long to train a Space Navy recruit.
He was going to have to rely on the computer a lot more than he liked.
“Computer,” he asked, “how long do I have? Before the Zirans attack Earth, I mean.”
“Hyperspace tracking indicates simultaneous arrival of the Ziran flotillas in twelve days.”
Jerry didn’t flinch. He had practice.
Damn it, I’m not an officer! I’m a munitions expert who happens to control a lot of munitions! Not enough munitions, but the point stands. We need a real Captain and a real crew. I can get to Earth ahead of the invasion, no problem, but I’ve seen how bad a rookie can screw things up. We need weeks of practice just to figure out what everything does! Anybody would be a rookie on this tub.
Now that I think of it, getting an officer on board isn’t going to be much better. It’ll take hours to get someone else up to my level of ignorance. And then what?
I’ve got to face the fact there isn’t enough time to get someone else up to speed—close enough to speed—to make a better decision than I can. I can go back to Earth and hand everything over and watch it all burn as it goes down a gravity well, or I can do something.
Jerry stopped, his train of thought derailed.
He was the Captain.
The chain of command started with the Captain, obviously. If something happens to him, the executive officer assumes command. The chain continued from there, following rank and seniority, all the way down to the lowest spaceman pulling hydroponic waste disposal duty.
Jerry was the Captain of Thunder Child. It was his ship. It was his responsibility. And, with the only warship capable of outrunning Ziran hyperdrives, his responsibility for the human race came crashing down on him like ten thousand bricks down a well.
He licked his lips, thinking furiously—in both senses.
“Computer, how many crew are required to operate this ship?”
“Eh? What do you mean, ‘one’?”
The main screen changed, showing the schematics. There were crew spaces, accommodations, life support, and so on. But there was only crew accommodation for a hundred and fifty, not counting Marines. Then again, Marines counted as cargo, in Jerry’s opinion.
“The ship is capable of fully autonomous function,” the computer went on. “There are multiple redundancies for all systems. Quasi-autonomous robotic repair units are stationed all through the vessel. Human crew are unnecessary for routine operations. For combat operations, a human commander is required.”
Jerry thought that one over. His knowledge of artificial intelligence systems was limited, but he didn’t like the idea of telling a battleship to go kill something on its own. Then again, the computer said it needed humans for command authority…
“What do you mean by the bit about a human commander being required?”
“The presence of a human commander is required for all combat operations,” the computer told him.
“Yeah, I got that. Why?”
“Bureau of Ships, Cybersecurity Division. Subject: Autonomous Operations. No ship shall engage targets without explicit local command approval, including, but not limited to—”
“Yeah, yeah. That’ll do,” Jerry told it. He was amazed the computer still had those programs loaded. The machine never gave Kent or Phoebe any trouble, and it damn sure should have, considering.
Regardless, I’m in command. Okay. I should have got used to it by now, but I’ve been in command of a ship occupied and run by a very polite space pirate. A helpful one, I admit, but still a pain the ass.
What do I do? Where do I go? What’s the right thing?
“Computer, what did Captain Reynolds do when he was having a tough time with a decision?”
“According to the Naval Command Curriculum, commanders utilize their senior staff as advisors.”
I had a staff. Sort of. I had a Kent and a kid and I kicked them off my ship. I don’t know if I trust Kent—I don’t know what the hell he wanted, or why he was even here! I wouldn’t mind getting his ideas, though. I’d even take ten minutes of talking it over with the kid, Phoebe. She was at least as sharp as Kent!
Jerry leaned back in the Captain’s chair and stared at the display some more, as though it held some sort of secret he couldn’t quite see.
There’s another thing I have to think about. This ship is a treasure trove of new stuff. If I go back to Earth, Earth gets it all. Yay for new toys! Only for a little while, though, because everyone is going to die before we can build copies of any of them. If I fight the Zirans on my own, the ship gets blown to pieces and Earth still gets destroyed.
Is that even possible? They’re all in hyperspace! Damn it! What does that leave me with? Attacking a few straggling transports? Six supply depots?
Jerry sat up sharply as a terrible idea hit him squarely between the eyes.
“Computer?” he asked, and tried to lick his lips. His mouth had gone suddenly dry.
“Yes, Captain?” the computer answered. Jerry cleared his throat before speaking.
“Put a display of the Ziran home system on the main screen.”
Either the computer would tell him it didn’t have the information, or…
The stellar map on the main screen veered and zoomed in on Phi Hydrae, a system over two hundred and sixty light-years from Earth. It was almost three months away for an Earth vessel, two and a half for a Ziran hyperjump.
Information was sketchy. The star was a yellow, main-sequence sun, slightly larger and somewhat brighter than Sol. There was no astrographic data on the planets, aside from the fact they were there. Separate from the planetary information, six bright red symbols marked the system. Each was a red “X,” followed by a numeral.
Jerry felt his stomach drop. This might actually be doable.
“What are the red X-marks?”
“The telepathic signal trace indicates the sources of each hive of Zirans originates from this star system. The hive centers have been arbitrarily assigned numerical designations.”
“How long will it take us to get there? From Earth, I mean.”
“At maximum extension, cycling as rapidly as possible, approximately four and a half minutes.”
By First Light and all the Photons! Under five minutes!
“How many extensions is that?” he asked, trying to keep his voice steady.
Jerry shuddered. Each extension was a bit upsetting, and repeated extensions took a progressively more unpleasant toll. Still, he wouldn’t have to make all of the extensions in one go. He could save the last one until his stomach settled.
But there were other responsibilities, as well. He had twelve days. Call it eleven, to allow for motion sickness recovery.
“Computer, do you have user manuals and technical specs in your memory core?”
“I mean for the whole ship. All the systems. Armaments, drive systems, and so on.”
“What’s the fastest way to get all your stored information back to Earth for review?”
“Extend to Earth orbit. Declare an emergency and demand priority docking with any of the space docks. Data transfer cables are part of the umbilical connection.”
“Yeah… How about we do it without docking? Is there any way we can drop all the information off without actually… you know, being there?”
“An emergency flight recorder has the requisite capacity.”
“What’s an emergency flight recorder?”
“An EFR is a low-speed FTL missile with basic navigation and IFF, with extensive data storage. It is automatically launched in the event of catastrophic damage to the ship, or can be manually launched if the Captain believes his ship is in imminent danger.”
“And these things can carry all the data?”
“Data storage is the primary purpose of an EFR.”
“Perfect. Load one—how many do we have?”
“Load three of them with everything you’ve got. Can we also have them broadcast a repeating alert, along with all the information we have on the incoming Ziran forces?”
“Data update complete. Yes, the EFRs can be programmed to broadcast.”
“Good. Do it. Also, plot me a course to take us through the Sol system. We’ll do a fast run by Neptune’s orbit and fire those off, then extend out of the system.”
“Acknowledged. Course plotted. Secondary course query: Once the EFRs have been deployed, what is the destination?”
“Once we drop the message drones, get us… uh… make one extension on course for Phi Hydrae. We’ll see how I feel after those maneuvers.”
Jerry applied a motion-sickness patch. The idea of so many extensions back-to-back already made him queasy.
“Extending to Neptune orbital,” the computer announced. Jerry took another deep breath and concentrated on settling his stomach. Rapid, repeated extensions were progressively more unpleasant, medication or no medication. The extension went as before and the ship snapped into place.
“Firing emergency flight recorders,” the computer continued, and added immediately, “Flight recorders away. Prepare for deep-space extension.” There was a pause of several seconds as the systems finished cycling up and took hold of local spacetime.
Jerry felt the ship snap into place. He relaxed in the Big Chair and breathed deeply through his nose, not trusting himself to open his mouth. From Gamma Hydrae to Earth was twelve separate extensions, plus one more to get out-system again. It was difficult to concentrate on anything but the way the whole bridge seemed to swim in circles around his head.
“Program complete,” the computer announced. He gave the computer a thumbs-up sign, rather than answer verbally. The computer did not acknowledge, but maybe that was by design. After a few minutes, he no longer felt the need to keep his jaw locked in place.
“By the Light,” he muttered, running both hands back through his close-cropped hair. “Note for later: Multiple extensions should have a delay between them. For the comfort and well-being of the crew.”
“Noted. Length of delay?”
“We’ll try ten-minute intervals, to start with, and see how that goes.”
Jerry eased out of the Big Chair and ambled slowly to the infirmary, trailing one hand along the wall for balance. He lay down on a bio-bed and let it do its thing. The results were encouraging. He was healthy. Whatever the nauseating effect was, it wouldn’t kill the crew. It would make them long for the sweet release of death, but it wouldn’t actually kill them. Or, if it went on long enough, would it eventually kill someone? He decided it wasn’t his problem.
He sat up, already feeling better. At least the effects wore off fairly quickly.
Once he had his space-legs under him again, he made his way to the mess, ate a light, utterly unwanted meal out of habit, and thought about what he was about to do. He didn’t like it, but he had eleven days to come up with something better. Or come to terms with what he had.
He went to bed. He tried to sleep and failed. At last, lying in the darkened cabin, he looked at the overhead, put his hands behind his head, and made his decision.
“Computer. Time until the Ziran arrival at Sol?”
“Approximately eleven days.”
“Number of extensions to Ziran homeworld?”
“On my mark, begin extensions to Ziran homeworld. Halt on command or when we’re within one extension of our destination, whichever comes first.”
Jerry went down to Medical, lay down on a bio-bed, took his anti-nausea medication, took two deep breaths, and closed his eyes.
“Execute plotted extension schedule.”
A day later, Jerry was recovered from the ordeal. He had confirmed they were in deep space and apparently undetected. Then he took more drugs and fell into a near-comatose slumber for twelve hours. Now he was rested, fed, clean, and dressed in an armored space suit.
Why a space suit? Because you never know how bad a hull breach will be. What hull breach? There wasn’t one… yet. Having been in a leaky turret with a leaky vac suit, however, he chose to err on the side of caution.
Jerry sat in the Big Chair and leaned forward, his shoulders bent under a weight no less heavy for being invisible, nor lightened by the fact he assumed it voluntarily. He made his decision when he lay in his bunk. He made it again when they extended for Phi Hydrae. Now he made it again, here on the threshold. It was always the same.
Earth had its warning. Any ship within five or six days’ travel could be successfully recalled. Earth had the technical updates on the new equipment—much good would it do them with less than two weeks to work on it.
But there was one more thing to give Earth.
When the Zirans showed up en masse, Earth would get an ass-kicking unparalleled in human history. It would end human history. If the Zirans fought in a coordinated, intelligent fashion.
A swarm, each ship fighting on its own, fighting whoever came closest, would still be a horrible menace. The relative firepower would still be devastating. But the battle would not be a foregone conclusion. If the Zirans had no generals—no directing, unifying intelligences—it would be a mob, at best.
Yes. There was one more thing to give Earth.
Slowly, Jerry unbent his shoulders. He straightened his back. He placed his gauntleted hands on the arms of the Big Chair and pushed, forcing himself to sit up straight. He glared in silent fury at the information on the screen and his eyes narrowed.
“Computer,” he said, firmly.
“Plot and extend to the Ziran system. Put us three light-hours out and get me a tactical plot. If anything looks like it’s making a hyperspace jump toward us, extend us out again, maximum range.”
The maneuver went smoothly. Thunder Child snapped into the system and took readings on everything. Where were the planets? What were their orbits like? Which one was habitable? Were the hive queens on it? Where, exactly? Were there any ships in the system? What kinds? Were there any space stations or orbital fortresses? Where was everything? Was any of it coming this way?
Three hours later, the passive sensors had absorbed a significant amount of data. The Zirans, meanwhile, did not seem to notice the warp fluctuations of the extension drive, not even when it terminated so close—in interplanetary terms—from their homeworld. No Ziran craft entered hyperspace on an intercept course.
Jerry was as pleased as he was capable of being, which wasn’t very.
Once he had his data, he transferred it down to the CIC and began plotting. It wouldn’t be a complicated plan, not with one ship, but it pays to look for ways to take advantage.
It didn’t look good.
The Zirans had sent plenty of ships to tackle Earth. They kept at least as many at home, protecting against a Pyrrhic counterattack.
“Are you sure we don’t have any orbit-to-ground assault weapons?” Jerry asked.
“The primary laser batteries are effective on ground targets,” the computer replied.
“Yes, but I was thinking more of something like a nuke.”
“This vessel is not equipped with missile armaments.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. What would happen if we launched one of those log buoys at a planetary target? Using the FTL drive?”
“The FTL drive in an EFR is unreliable in rapidly-changing gravity gradients.”
“The closer to a massive body it gets, the more likely it is to quit.”
“Figures. Okay. And the balance of firepower between the local Ziran forces and us?”
“Including the orbital defense platforms, the ratio is approximately eighteen to one.”
“Does that factor in our defenses and maneuverability and whatnot?”
Jerry looked at the holographic representation of the system. There were a lot of little red lights.
“We can’t take them, can we?”
“The probability of successfully attacking the Ziran forces is approximately one in ten million.”
“I was afraid you’d say that. Good thing we won’t be attacking the Ziran forces. Okay.” He took a deep breath. “Prepare to execute Plan A. Bring all reactors up to emergency maximum. Extend for Phi Hydrae Five. Put us as close as you can to the Ziran hive queen nest.”
“Warning: Close approach using warp extension can cause drive failure.”
“I don’t think we should plan on using it again. The moment we get there, give me maximum warp shields. Engage gravitic deflectors. Full defensive fire on any incoming missiles.”
He sat back in the Captain’s chair, locked the restraints to his suit’s mounting points, and ran his hands along the arms of the chair.
It really was a very nice chair. Very comfortable. And, at the same time, the least comfortable chair he’d ever occupied.
“Take me to the hive queens.”
Thunder Child did as instructed, with the flawless obedience of a machine. The warp extension was calculated with mathematical exactitude, but there was no way to be certain where, precisely, the ship would appear. Thunder Child tried, and the fact she came within several thousand miles of her target was a testament to her calculations.
The ship shuddered as it arrived. Spacetime rippled angrily all around it as the warp fields and the local gravity fought each other. The extension drive, badly misused, overloaded its surge buffers and threw enormous power sparks through Engineering, leaving molten tracks along bulkhead steel.
But Thunder Child didn’t wait for anything to settle. She calculated targeting solutions, fired her main gun, and cut power to the overloaded drive nodes with the inhuman rapidity of a machine. She might not go anywhere through warp mechanics, but there were other systems that could use the energy. She flexed her gravitic systems, multiplying the local distortion in spacetime, and plummeted toward her destination on gravity drive.
Unlike the hybrid of electrical and photonic systems aboard the vessel, the Zirans relied on specialized members of their own race to do complex mathematical calculations. They did not have artificial computation systems. As a result, they had to rely on reflexes, and those were much slower to react to the sudden, impossible threat.
Thunder Child fell for several seconds under the effect of her gravity-amplifying drive system. Her velocity mounted at an incredible rate. And, while falling, she was not idle. Her main gun fired into the atmosphere of Phi Hydrae Five, causing massive spikes in electromagnetic radiation, leaving behind clouds of radiant plasma. Her laser turrets took full advantage of her surprise appearance and instantly blasted at her closest preselected targets. Could she destroy all the enemy forces? No, she could not. But her sudden ambush could reduce their numbers and volume of fire. She could destroy the closest enemies, forcing the rest to fire from longer ranges and to fire while maneuvering. She could not live through the coming storm of fire, but she could live longer. Maybe long enough.
And the Zirans, once they recovered from their surprise and shock, sent a storm to meet her. From the ground, from the ships, from the space stations, every weapon they could bring to bear launched destruction at Thunder Child. The Ziran ships shuddered as their engines drove them at emergency maximum, commanded into battle by panicking, terrified queens. Ships lumbered slowly after her in an attempt to close the range. Space fortresses pitched and rolled and yawed to put her in the sight picture of the maximum number of weapons.
Ballistic projectiles shot toward her at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. But space bent around her, reducing her profile and making her a very small target. Twisted gravity fields surrounded her, drawing projectiles off course. Although she was struck, they were always glancing blows, nothing more than scratches on her armor.
Missiles were another matter. Their guidance would let them change course through the two-layered warp fields, homing in on their target. But the main gun’s antiparticle blasts were as destructive as nuclear weapons, pulsing huge spikes of radiation and plasma interference through the atmosphere and into space. Thunder Child knew exactly when these would occur, so her own targeting was minimally affected. Not so for the Zirans.
Pulse lasers in the half-megawatt range made deep buzzing sounds as they cycled at sixty pulses per second, chewing through missile housings, destroying payloads, blinding sensors, burning out guidance. Missiles from the surface were no trouble. They all struggled upward, fighting against the planet’s gravity, and most were damaged by the plasma clouds and main-gun shockwaves. A single antimissile turret was sufficient to deal with those as they heaved themselves upward from the planetary surface. Missiles from ships and orbital fortresses, however, were another matter. Catapulted like a projectile, their engines activated after launch to increase their speed and allow them to maneuver. They were more difficult to hit, but Thunder Child had arrived with her weapons hot and ready for the challenge. The main turret lasers had already destroyed the nearest missile sources, which meant any missile coming for her had to travel much farther and be exposed to her defensive fire that much longer.
What few missiles did make it through the maelstrom of twisted space and laser light were damaged. Some struck much like a projectile and burst. A few detonated their chemical explosives, but their payloads were unable to activate their nuclear triggers. Even so, Thunder Child shivered the blasts rattled her hull plating.
Worst of all were the Zirans’ own lasers. Too large, too power-hungry to be mounted effectively on a starship, they were perfectly at home on the ground. Subterranean reactors fed their prodigious appetites. Towers of hot air vented some of their waste heat. Enormous pipes from a nearby sea flooded their heat exchangers to cool them. They blasted upward, superheating narrow columns of air into an incandescent near-vacuum. When each pulse of energy ceased, the sky thundered as outraged atmosphere collapsed inward on the rarefied, superheated columns.
It was hard to target the narrowed profile of Thunder Child. Instead of shooting at a hundred-thousand-ton battlewagon, they were shooting at an arrow—one shot directly at them. And the antiparticle weapon kept shooting back! It couldn’t reach the ground—it couldn’t even come close—but the effects on the atmosphere made it a thousand times more difficult to fire anything upward with accuracy.
The first time a planetary laser brushed Thunder Child, Jerry realized his mistake. The damage schematic showed a long rent in the outer hull. Life support was compromised in those sections, along with a warp node and a number of non-critical systems. But his turrets continued to fire without interruption.
“Do we have a firing solution on those ground-based lasers?”
“Those are a priority. Shift all main turrets to priority targets. If you need to, cease fire on the main gun.”
“Targeting planetary lasers,” the computer replied, unperturbed, as the main gun fired again. Jerry took it to mean there was some way to figure out where to aim, even if it was simply a pre-calculated map and a good guess as to their own position.
Thunder Child shuddered and rocked under the ongoing barrage. Damage codes blinked to life, here and there, and another planetary laser brushed the ship. This one eliminated two main turrets and four antimissile lasers. But it was the last hit by the ground-based batteries. Thunder Child’s own barrage was impossible to stop. Ground-mounted lasers couldn’t dodge. They didn’t even have the luxury of deep bunkers. They had to be on the surface in order to fire, which left them exposed and vulnerable. Designed to shoot anything out of the sky from beyond the aggressors’ range, they were not built for close combat. The Thunder Child appeared too close—close enough to put them in her range.
If only I could be sure of getting the queens like that! Jerry sighed. He knew he couldn’t. They could be a hundred miles underground, for all he knew. In theory, he could have swooped by Ziran ships, picking them off by tens and twelves, then swooped back through to blow up a space fortress, and so on and so on, until the planet was defenseless. Given a month, he could have whittled down everything the Zirans had… and the queens would have been loaded onto transports and be Photon-knew where by the end of it.
If even one escaped, all that happened before would be certain to happen again.
“Computer. Time to landing?”
“Forty-two seconds. Warning: Landing will exceed Bureau of Ships standards for safety for maximum speed restrictions.”
“Noted. Do not activate collision alarms. Continue on course.”
“Warning,” the computer said again, repeating the alert. “Landing will exceed—”
The computer understood the order and stopped warning him about the closing rate. This wasn’t a landing. Not in the conventional sense.
Jerry watched the main screen as they fell into the raw atmosphere, wounded again by the devastating blast of the main gun.
“Cease fire on the main gun. Charge main gun to overload and hold.”
A single damaged missile slammed into one of the gaps in the hull, detonating its payload of conventional explosives. The blast destroyed another warp node and scattered fissile precursor material, contaminating a significant fraction of the ship.
“Major breach,” the computer announced, “frame one-sixty-one to two-twelve, radius eighteen degrees through thirty-three. Emergency bulkheads closed.”
Jerry nodded, inside his helmet. He didn’t answer. There wasn’t anything to be done about it. And, in another thirty seconds, it wouldn’t matter. Already, the thin, high-altitude atmosphere made Thunder Child sing and glow like a meteor. Behind her, a trail of white light, brighter than a comet’s, marked her flight. Or her fall.
Thunder Child continued to fire her main turrets downward, blasting at the ground. Her minor turrets picked off everything they could, fighting to survive to reach her destination. The battleship rammed a fiery streak through the tortured atmosphere of Phi Hydrae V, scattering the radioactive plasma from her previous shots. Damaged sections of hull made her less than aerodynamic, but she had several layers of bulkheads between the shrieking winds and her vital systems. Panels peeled away in the torrent of fire and vanished, one after the other, enlarging the ship’s wounds and allowing whips of flame to reach inner bulkheads and decks. If they had been falling into a gas giant, there would have been plenty of time for the ship to disintegrate into burning cloud of fragments…
…but this final stage of descent was powered by every gravity system the ship had, aided by the planet, itself. Having driven down for so long, accelerating at nearly ten gravities, traveling from the edge of the mesosphere to the surface took only a few seconds.
The Birmingham was listed as lost in combat, fighting even after she was disabled. Reborn as the Thunder Child, she once again met her fate bow-on.
“In the beginning,” Jerry whispered, while the shine of the viewscreen bathed the shivering Bridge in a stark and terrible radiance, almost blotting out the expanding view of the surface, “there was the Bang, from which the Light Eternal shone. This spawned the first stars, and their light revealed the universe. When they burned to dust, the Light Eternal shone through their dust and hallowed it, bringing forth new life. We are all born of stardust and return to the Light Eternal, passing through worlds without end—”
The fusion plants were on-line, running at full emergency blast, and the power converters glowed white, throwing sparks and vaporized metal. The gauges did not merely read danger, but blazed with crimson warnings. The main gun, with its artificial antiparticles, was filled to capacity. Still more were being generated and crammed into the gravomagnetic bottle, pushing far past the safety margin of antimatter containment.
Everything came apart on impact.
—for the Light Eternal lives in all material things. By the union of proton and proton, we release that light into the universe to do our will. We pray it will take us from our sun to all the others, that we may live in the Light of distant stars.