Fish Out Of Water
Captain Smith bounded with 4-meter strides down the corridor, driven by the ringing klaxons to get to his ship - the Emancipator. The one-sixth normal gravity of the United Terran Moonbase made Captain Smith's mane of shocking grey hair come close to being mussed by the ceiling features in addition to making his strides exaggerated in length. He and his crew had been anticipating deployment to the belt soon, but this alarm was a surprise. Questions about what was going on would need to be answered, after the Emancipator had been freed of its launch cradle and could be ready to do its duty for God and Country.
Up ahead of the Captain the slightly scruffy and awkward form of the new Ship's Engineer half-sailed half-skittered across the corridor from a perpendicular pathway, and thumped spread-eagled against the opposite wall. The young redhead was still getting used to the lower gravity of Moonbase, and had yet to get a good feel for how much frictional force was at his disposal for locomotion. Smith did a slow-motion vault and graceful pirouette past the momentarily stunned young officer.
"Come along, Ulrich! No time for goofing around, laddie!"
"Sir! No Sir!" The Engineer seemed stressed, as well he should be. United Terran intelligence sources had been worried about the possibility of an attack from the asteroid belt for some time now, as political tensions between Earth and the belt have been rising for as long as anyone could remember.
Soon they had climbed high enough along the sloping corridor to be able to see the lunar surface through portholes, which at the United Terran Moonbase actually looked like any other dull grey industrial area awash with floodlights.
"I don't see anything that would indicate a bombardment, Sir."
"Thank God for that! Let's hope that the rest of the crew aren't too far behind us so we can get Emancipator off the surface fast." Smith also hoped the rest of the crew would arrive soon so that he could have somebody to talk to that didn't mumble so damn much. Damn engineers always mumble.
Further progress down the windowed tubeway gradually revealed the rib-like visible arcs of the magnetic launcher array, and the stubby bulk of the Emancipator looking almost alive behind those ribs. Finally, the gangplank tube ended with the double airlocks that lead into the ship. Smith and Ulrich cycled through as quickly as they could and sifted themselves into the cramped operations deck and into their emergency vacuum suits.
"Tell me that tokamak is still warm, Engineer!"
"Board shows nominal, Sir. And we show fully laden for fuel and propellant. Diagnostics are still running on the rest of the drive components."
Shortly, the ship's Pilot, Co-pilot, and Gunner burst into the Emancipator and dove directly into their stations to begin their launch preparations and to wrestle with their vacuum suits. "What's the situation, Skipper?" Simon "Slick" Edwards, the Pilot, didn't look up from his pre-flight routine as he asked, having been with Captain Smith long enough on the Emancipator and in various poker games to know that his facial expression rarely revealed anything noteworthy.
"I'm not sure, Slick. But the command codes I'm getting on the big board indicate that we're to prepare for a high delta-V launch, not just a defensive lob into lunar orbit. Everybody, double check your acceleration couches!" A chorus of aye-ayes preceded a renewed rustling of activity. Smith ran his hands over the straps and locks of his own acceleration couch with the quick ease of practiced motions, while watching the various stages of the launch checklist turn green. Moments later, the only thing remaining from all the internal and external checks, manual and automated, was his final acknowledgement that would commence the launch cycle.
"Brace for launch!" Captain Smith keyed his acknowledgement, and moments later reaffirmed his belief in god. Normally, the electromagnetic rail launch system smoothly ramped up the acceleration to settle in the crew and minimise discomfort. For this launch, however, the aim was to achieve maximum possible velocity, and so the "jerk", or rate of change of acceleration, was near the limit of human tolerance. Monstrous forces flung the blunt Emancipator towards the asteroid belt.
Moments and hundreds of kilometres later, Smith asked his crew, "Status?"
"I'm flatter, Skipper. That was a helluva launch." Slick managed to sound jocular, while the rest of the crew moaned. Engineer Ulrich managed to turn a remarkable shade of green, and hastily swallowed a couple pills and sipped from a tube.
"All right, try to get an idea of where they're throwing us while we wait to catch further instructions from Command. Stick to passive sensors until we get the all-clear for emitting."
Slick nodded to his co-pilot, who was running calculations based on inertial data and constellation positions. "Well, looks like we're going nowhere near Mars, of course at this time we'd have to transit the inner system to get to it. We appear to just be heading randomly out towards the belt, Skipper."
"There's nothing past the belt that we might be aimed at?"
A short pause, while Pilot and Co-pilot consulted the navigation systems. "Nothing that's on our charts."
"And we're still on the ecliptic?"
"Is there any visual indication of there being other launches?"
"There's no plumes visible, yet. And I'm pretty sure that we were the only United Terran ship with a mass-driver pointed this direction at the moment, Sir."
Smith was quiet for a while, with a clenched jaw and furrowed brow, contemplating why they might have been thrown into an act of war alone.
His reverie was eventually interrupted by a transmission from the United Terran security satellite system. Smith reviewed the orders and accompanying information, while the rest of the crew impatiently fiddled with their terminals. At last, he addressed his crew.
"I won't sugar-coat this, lads. We're being thrown into the fire on this one. Surveillance reports that the Floaties are developing some sort of diabolical weapon, and we're being sent in immediately to destroy it if we can, hopefully before it's fully operational. Meanwhile, the rest of the United Terran fleet will be readied for a full-scale invasion to ensure that they don't threaten Earth." Captain Smith cast a stony gaze around the Operations Deck of the Emancipator, willing his crew to be stoic. "Time is of the essence. The faster we get there, the better chance we have of not having to face the weapon itself, and the less time the floaties will have to prepare a reception for us. Engage maximum cruising thrust, and time turnover to such that we would need 10 minutes of full thrust to achieve zero relative motion."
"Aye-aye, Skipper!" Slick verified the destination coordinates and vector, and let the navigation system solve for the fastest possible route. Then he juggled the Emancipator's attitude thrusters until it was oriented how he wanted it. "Brace for max cruise!" The muted roar of the main drive rose, giving voice to the ship's implicit menace. Everyone was pushed into their acceleration couches at a full 5 metres per second-squared, which approximated about half the force of gravity on the surface of the Earth. For those who had been stationed on the Moonbase for a while, it was considerably more weight than they had grown accustomed to.
"Well, we're certainly visible now."
"Yeah, they should see us in about half an hour."
"How long is this ride going to be, Slick?"
"About one point seven days until turnover, Skipper, then another two days decelerating, depending on what maneouvering we have to do..."
"Well, lads, the segment of the belt that that floaties are constructing the weapon in is well away from their densely populated areas. Moreover, it's also not near their security force outposts, probably to help keep us from spotting the weapon being constructed because those damned Floaties know we visually track their tactically significant vessels. All this means that we might have a good chance to hit the weapon before they can respond with significant force. Since Floaties can't stand any significant accelerations, they're probably only able to send some remote ships at us at first."
Most of the crew seemed relieved at this news, especially the Gunner, because they knew that anything controlled by remote was likely to suffer from communications lag - making it a slow combatant.
Captain Smith pulled up a display on everyone's monitor, showing an image of what appeared to be a partially-formed metallic flower. "This, lads, is our target. We actually spotted this being constructed several weeks ago, but didn't understand the significance immediately. Then this was spotted..."
Another image appeared on the monitors, this time a video, with another metallic flower that was fully-formed but seemed somewhat different. Overlaid over the video was a spectral analysis of the various components being shown, and it enhanced the fact that some iron-carbon artifact was slowly drifting towards the open petals of the strange metallic flower. Then a faint sparking that might have been some sort of static discharges over the gently curved petals heralded the sudden disappearance of the artifact that was in their focus. The artifact just ceased to be.
"Notice the relative scale. The working model was only about one hundred meters across. The version we're heading towards is about three hundred kilometers across." A stunned silence gripped the crew for a few moments. With 3000 times larger diameter, the immense curving multi-layered petals of the new construction would embrace a volume 9 million times bigger.
Ulrich broke the spell with nervous disbelief. "That can't be right. There's no significant burst of emissions or any debris. That violates the Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy."
"I suppose that's why the briefing refers to this thing as a Weapon of Matter Destruction. It's just another natural law that those loathsome Floaties disregard."
"Sir, it's not that kind of law. Matter and energy really can't just be destroyed, only converted to something else."
"Ulrich, are you saying that the video is a fake?"
"No. I mean, No Sir. I'm just saying that maybe we don't really know what's going on."
"Well, regardless of the technical mechanism being employed, there's no denying the stark tactical implications of this device. It has to be stopped. Hopefully we can do it before it can be used to make us disappear, and then God knows what and who else."
Several grim hours passed before the Emancipator received a direct transmission from the asteroid belt. It was encoded as text, which read as:
EARTH VESSEL ON TRAJECTORY TO ASTEROID BELT - PLEASE ALTER COURSE TO RENDEZVOUS WITH BELT SECURITY AND TRANSMIT CARGO MANIFEST, INTENDED DESTINATIONS, AND PURPOSE OF VISIT. FAILURE TO COMPLY WILL RESULT IN YOUR VESSEL BEING INTERCEPTED AND FIRED UPON. END TRANSMISSION.
The Emancipator was unwavering, with a grim-faced Captain Smith commanding her onward without reply. A few hours later, a pair of new lights in the asteroid belt appeared and blew luminous plumes directly away from the approaching Emancipator.
"Sir, it looks like we've got two vessels accelerating to intercept us."
"Right on schedule. How hard are they pushing?"
"Doppler shift rate approximates them as driving at fifty meters per second squared, Sir."
Slick let out an appreciative whistle.
Captain Smith arched one eyebrow to signify his fascination. "How certain are you of those numbers, Ulrich?"
"Um, say a margin of error of about four meters per second squared, Sir."
"Must be some monster drives on those babies, Skipper."
"Aye, Slick, but that means they're just remotes. Any Floaties aboard those things would have broken every spindly bone in their bodies. That means we should be able to hold our own. Ulrich? How long until they intercept?"
"Working on that right now, Sir. It depends on what kind of closing rate they're hoping to achieve, and whether they can maintain five gees of continuous thrust. It looks like they could be crossing us well before we hit turnover."
Smith set his jaw and tried to peer into the future, and failed. There really wasn't any decision to make. "Steady on, Pilot. Steady on."
More hours sped by. The crew felt the psychological strain of the building tension, and no one spoke. Instead they each tried to deal with their anxiety in their own personal ways. Captain Smith found what could quite possibly be the most dignified yet dramatic pose one can assume while reclining in an acceleration couch, and silently willed keenness upon the rest of the crew. The Gunner, Rob, triple-checked the laser, the rail gun, and the missiles to reassure himself, and calmed himself by contemplating which officer's wife or daughter he might pursue next when this was all over. The Co-pilot, Karl, contemplated on the spiritual nature of flying through the heavens, and mentally compared the rest of the crew to determine who would make the best eating if they got stranded in space too long. Slick the Pilot found a way to connect his personal water supply to his secret flask of good vodka. Ulrich the Ship's Engineer nervously played a long series of losing games of solitaire on his computer, and watched the approaching pinpricks of light.
So it was that Ulrich was the first to break the tense reverie on the Emancipator. The monitoring system chirruped quietly on the Engineer's panel, and Ulrich saw one of the blue-shifted lights wobble and suddenly leap exponentially in intensity. This meant that one of the belt ships had turned around to aim its drive towards the Emancipator, in order to slow itself down relatively.
"Captain! One of the enemy vessels has turned over, Sir!"
"Say again, Mr. Ulrich."
Slick had now noticed as well. "Skipper! The enemy ships are turning over!"
"What kind of intercept does that give us, Engineer?"
"Well Sir, if all relative accelerations continue, then the ship that has turned over will slightly overshoot us before matching velocity, and the other ship still accelerating towards us will pass us in about four hours."
"They'll both turn over, lad. This isn't some Kung Fu movie where all the enemies conveniently wait to attack one at a time. They'll use their advantage of numbers."
Captain Smith was wrong. One vessel from the asteroid belt continued to accelerate towards the Emancipator. The crew watched with uneasy fascination as wondering when the ship would turn over gave way to wondering if the ship would turn over. Then, as the time for their closest approach loomed near, a question surfaced.
"Are they hoping to ram us?"
Captain Smith wrinkled his brow in an entirely new way. "At this closing rate? That's just not feasible. No, they're up to something. Something... different."
"Skipper, how do you want us to dance?"
"Give us a variable radius helix, Slick. Don't be predictable, but keep us generally on course. Rob, be ready to stuff some missiles down their throat. Ulrich, align the laser with your sight, so that while you keep a watch on them we can also flash them some burn."
A set of crisp, slightly nervous Aye-aye's were returned. Slick gave Emancipator an elusive twist, and was prepared to make the ship dance and dart. Rob readied an array of guided self-propelled death. And everyone watched, as the brightening beacon of the enemy ship's luminous fusion drive plume roaring towards them blinked out.
"Steady lads! They've just shut down their drive so that they'll be harder to spot visually. Switch over to infrared and they should be plenty obvious."
"Sir! We've got multiple launches!"
"Already? They're still way too far out to be launching missiles at us."
"There's got to be at least twenty of them!"
"Confirmed, Sir! Sixteen, repeat sixteen bogies inbound. Hang on... Looks like they're spreading out, Sir, not following intercept vectors. And there's something funny about them."
"Did you say funny, Ulrich?"
"They're accelerating pretty slowly, Sir. For missiles, that is."
"Any guesses, Engineer?"
Ulrich scratched at his hairy jaw, and regarded the expected trajectories spreading like an umbrella before them. "I'm guessing they're nukes, Sir."
"Slick, give us the maximum possible distance from those bogies."
"Aye aye, Skipper! Engaging maximum thrust!" Everyone felt a disturbingly abrupt twist in orientation, and a sudden increase in acceleration. An ensemble of whines rang through the command deck, immediately joined by a bone-jarring bass rumble. The Emancipator was pushing hard, accelerating tangentially at a full gee, then 2 gees, and finally built up to 3.4 gees at just over 33 meters per second squared and stayed there. The whole crew breathed heavily, and minimized all actions that required lifting limbs off their acceleration couches.
"Ulrich, how are we looking for projected clearance?"
"Uuuhhh... I think we should be OK. The missiles don't appear to be tracking us, so we shouldn't be caught by too much heat or radiation for the ship's hull..." Ulrich's eyes went wide. "SHUT DOWN THE DRIVE!!!"
First, part of the sky bloomed with a searing pattern of monstrous flashes. Immediately, the Emancipator bucked hard with a terrifying lurch and a bowel loosening bang. The crew were thrown brutally against their restraints, and then left nauseated as the ship entered freefall with a lazy flat spin in the dark.
"Sir, the electromagnetic pulse exceeded the tolerance of our tokamak and drive array, causing us to lose containment of the fusion torus and the drive plasma."
"In English, dammit! And Slick, stop this infernal spinning!"
"Aye-aye, Skipper!" Slick employed the maneouvering thrusters and began arresting the Emancipator's rotation.
"Sir, main power is gone and the drive isn't functional. We're running on batteries."
"Great Murphy's bastards! Get out there, Engineer, and see what you can do! We'll see about finding and blasting that damn Floatie ship."
"But Sir, without drives we're drifting prone, and both the rail gun and the laser are electrical and currently useless. I hardly think we're in a position to be antagonizing anyone..."
Smith swung a furious scowl to bear on Ulrich. "You have your orders, Engineer."
"Sir, yes Sir." The Engineer released the straps securing him to his acceleration couch and the umbilical keeping him tended, and floated free in his close-fitting emergency vacuum suit. After bumping the transparent dome of his suit on some equipment and cracking his elbow painfully on a support, he then began pulling himself off the command deck. Just outside the command deck was the location of his bulky EVA suit. Ulrich clumsily squirmed into the lower portion, attached connections from the EVA carapace to his vacuum suit, and let the upper portion automatically fold around him and seal closed. He quickly checked that the suit had power, was fully fuelled and provisioned, and that the tools were attached.
As Ulrich started the airlock cycle, he asked Slick to orient the Emancipator so that the side he would emerge from would be shielded from radiation and micrometeoroids. Inside the final stage of the airlock, the Engineer's layers of suits creaked with the shifting pressure differential as the air was evacuated from the chamber, and finally the outer door was opened.
It was as if the floor had yawned open revealing a bottomless hole, and Ulrich had to consciously reorient his perception to see himself as climbing up and out, to stave off the panic dancing behind his eyes. Manipulating hard-to-see buttons on his chest plate with the stubby numb fingers of his EVA suit, he managed to activate the magnetic pads on his boots. The reassuring sticky sensation underfoot help to calm him a little as he wobbled out onto the Emancipator's hull, and made his way carefully down its flank. He moved slowly, his breath ragged, as he walked halting through an eerily still empty world.
When Ulrich reached a good vantage on the drive section, the heart and stomach that were already quavering unpleasantly in his throat both went icy.
"Ulrich to Captain. click"
"click Smith here. Go ahead, Ulrich. click"
"Sir, the drive is toast. click" Ulrich ran a dry tongue over trembling lips while he waited for Smith to respond. He couldn't tell if his vision seemed distorted because of the curved domes of his suits or because he was hyperventilating. And he thought he might vomit, right before he actually did get a burning taste in his mouth that he re-swallowed with a grimace. "click"
"click Understood, Engineer. You might as well come back in. click"
Ulrich turned and retraced his jerking and graceless path back inside.
Captain Smith was just finishing sending his coded report back to the United Terran Command when the Engineer pulled himself back to his station. Ulrich was a bit self conscious about how pale and sweaty he felt, but soon realized that he wasn't alone in that condition.
"Well, lads, the first ship is now accelerating to stay out of range of our missiles. We may have one more chance to make a final gesture of defiance if the second Floatie ship tries to intercept us. I won't lie to you; we don't really stand a chance. But it is our solemn duty to God and our country to resist until the last."
No one needed a clarification of what would happen to them if they weren't intercepted, and all of them thought long and hard about whether being killed in combat was preferable to starvation as they hurtled through infinity or to splattering across an asteroid. So it was a grim crew that watched the second ship from the asteroid belt approach.
"Looks like they're coming to finish us off. Gunner, let's send off a missile to see how their reflexes are. At this range it'll run out of fuel before it gets there, but might be able to coast into the target on inertia."
"Aye-aye, Captain." The Gunner flicked off the safety on the launcher and the Emancipator gave a slight shrug when the missile launched. Immediately, an intense heat laser was focussed on the missile, crippling it. Then the laser swung to scorch the Emancipator's hull.
"Damn! They must have a really good automatic system on that thing."
"Sir! The missile launcher is down!"
"Double damn! They've burned away our only remaining weapon. We're helpless!" As the laser continued to play over the hull of the Emancipator, melting much of their external equipment, they were soon functionally blinded as well.
"What do we do?"
"I mean besides that."
"Shouldn't we panic and do a whole bunch of really irrational stuff because we've got nothing to lose anyway?"
An awkward silence ruled Emancipator for a long time, until finally some alien metallic sounds rang through the hull. Renewed confusion and fear were flashed in an exchange of looks between the crew.
"What the hell was that?"
"I don't know, Sir."
"Sir! The number two airlock outer door is being forced open!"
"Those godless bastards! Double-check your emergency vacuum suits, lads!"
"Sir! The airlock isn't depressurizing...!"
"They're boarding us? They must have some sort of boarding robots. Lads, find something to use as a weapon and get ready for some close quarters melee!"
An all-new assortment of emotionally-mangled Aye-aye's were returned, while people freed themselves from their couch restraints and hefted wrenches, compressed gas cylinders, and one mechanical pencil. Everyone clung to handholds, ready to drag themselves behind what meagre cover was available or to send themselves sailing towards invading foes. Reflected light danced from the short corridor that lead off the command deck to the afflicted airlock, and the sizzling sounds of some high energy cutting tool sang with portent.
An elfin face in a transparent bowl helmet briefly regarded the command crew of the Emancipator from the defeated hatchway, then disappeared from sight. Immediately two more long-limbed beings flew through the entryway and perched in odd-seeming orientations on some outcropped equipment. They wore flexible suits that glinted moistly as if damp, and had transparent helmets framing their lean deadpan faces. They appeared to be armed only with some bundles of fine, knotted chords.
"All right, Lads! Let's snap them in half!" Captain Smith dove at the Floatie intruder on what was nominally his left, with his gloved fist knotted around a socket wrench. The Floatie darted gracefully out of his path, allowing Smith to twist and land with a crouch against the far wall. Smith instantly sprang after his quarry, swinging a potential bone shattering attack, but the Floatie kept frustratingly just out of his reach. Smith swung again, closer this time, making the Floatie actually push off against the Captain's straining arm. There was a distinct ziiiip sound, and Smith was startled to find a cord tightly noosed around his wrist. The Floatie darted close and gave Smith some slight spin, and as if by magic another thin noose appeared around his ankle with another ziiiip. Smith thrashed, to swing at the Floatie, but it just used the motion to lasso another wrist and to cinch together the first wrist and ankle. Bellowing with rage while the Floatie's quick hands darted and tugged, Captain Smith was soon hog-tied and left to float helplessly.
It did manage to slightly soothe Smith's shame that none of the rest of the Emancipator's crew did even half as well as he did. In short order, everyone from Earth was bound by the agile Floatie commandos that darted around the flailing clumsy crew. They were reduced to harmless bundles.
Then they were loaded into the Floatie vessel. The fragile Floaties juggled the crew, passing them from Floatie to Floatie in a dexterous zero gravity bucket brigade. First they were sent sailing out the ruined hatch on their own ship, and then into the air lock of the Floatie ship. Then they were sent around another passage and into what seemed to be a secondary air lock, in which they were all packed in a tight bundle to all fit with a Floatie. To their momentary panic, the lock started to fill with water.
"What do you mean, Ulrich?"
"This explains how they were able to accelerate as fast as they were. Inside the water section of the ship, the acceleration just becomes pressure when you have neutral buoyancy."
They were quickly immersed in water, with their vacuum suits providing them a means to breathe. Ulrich noted to himself how the Floatie suits also seemed to include gill-like sections, and quickly checked to see how much air he had left in his own reserves. When the Emancipator's crew was secured in the main submerged compartment, the Floaties also connected everyone's suit to an air supply, thus relieving that concern.
"I thought Floaties were supposed to be all... blubbery." The crew all looked at the contingent of lithe supermodel-proportioned Floaties manning the ship around them.
"Well, I guess the first humans to survive exclusively in zero gravity didn't do so great physiologically, but it looks like they've... adapted."
"Captain? What do you think they'll do with us?"
Smith roused himself from his sullen withdrawal to cast a bleak look among his crew. "I don't know. Maybe torture us for information. Maybe hold us for political advantage."
This stifled the conversation for a while. Everyone brooded uncomfortably, for hours, while the Floatie ship disengaged from the crippled Emancipator and struck out a course for the asteroid belt. None of the Floaties ever addressed the crew, but rather just watched them.
Finally, it seemed that they had arrived. The men from Earth were once again piled into the airlock, and this time the water was replaced with air, leaving every surface slick with residual moisture. Before the cycle completed, a powerful jet of air blew much of the watery film off the Floatie that quickly spun before it. Likewise, each of the crew was mostly cleared of clinging water by the jet. Then they were juggled out, through the Floatie ship, and into the outer airlock.
There, looming before them like a giant metallic corsage of doom, was the physical incarnation of the smaller working version of the weapon of matter destruction that they had come to destroy. Its curved petals all arched out from a central cluster that was lost in the fluted details of overlaid inscrutable apparatus, and it was all pointed generally in their direction, as if beckoning them.
Then a Floatie oriented the bundle of bound Earthmen, and gave them a precise shove to carry them through empty space and into the array's embrace. The Floatie waved goodbye to those that could see it. All at once, the crew of the lost Emancipator struggled and screamed futilely as they drifted along the final leg of their journey. Ulrich found himself wishing that he had sufficient calm to simply state, "So this is it. We're going to die." But discovered that he had some very urgent full-throated yelling to do instead. They floated to the focus of the array, and the sparkle of static discharges could be seen dancing over the petals.
Then there was nothingness.
Then it felt as if they had been shocked back awake, and the universe sprang back into existence. Except that now the array was on the other side of them and it had shrunk by a factor 3000, and among the stars was one that was conspicuously large and soft blue. Many bright sparks of drive plumes could be seen.
The array moved away from the shocked Earthmen, and started to fold back into the first Floatie ship, now near Earth. It sent a text message to the Earthmen as it eased away carefully.
YOU HAVE BEEN TRANSPORTED BACK TO EARTH VIA A QUANTUM MIRROR. WE HOPE THAT THIS NEW DEVICE WILL HELP PROMOTE PEACEFUL TRADE AND COMMUNICATION BETWEEN OUR NATIONS. PEOPLE FROM YOUR COUNTRY SHOULD ARRIVE SOON TO RETRIEVE YOU.
And so began humanity's First Solar System War.