Beyond Odyssey by Robert Corrado
* * *
The Bordering Worlds Region, 2301 A.D.
The 174 violent minutes of the battle near Odyssey had left a semi-dense cloud of ship wreckage and expended munitions over a five square-light-week area. Converging Commonwealth and Federal fleets had engaged one another at what would have been considered point-blank range for star ships of the modern age, with fast-firing kinetic weapons designed to tear their targets to scrap.
They had no choice really; fate had struck both combatants a cruel blow and by blind chance they had terminated their voyages at roughly the same time and within effective range of the brutal weaponry they employed. The ships were too hot to engage with alternative weaponry, their bend drives having just exerted immense energy to create naked singularities. Events that bent the space-time between two points of travel by inflicting massive forces of artificial gravity were no light task, but they made crossing vast distances in space possible. They called such a singularity the spark for one reason. It generated an intense and brilliant light, and additionally, an intense level of heat. Ship crews referred to it colloquially as the nickel.
The battle near Odyssey would be mulled over and questioned for many years by military experts, analysts, and historians. ‘Impossibility’ they would say. ‘What are the chances?’ they would ask. The sheer improbability of two opposing fleets engaging their bend drives within a compatible time window to arrive at a near-similar destination in the vastness of space was undreamed of. Conspiracy theories would be offered by both sides in the conflict of course as well as uninvolved observers. Was there collusion between the two commanding officers prior to the battle? Could a malicious third party have rigged the outcome through clandestine manipulation? In the end though, the theory that would trump the others seemed the most plausible; the universe was cruel and reminded mankind of Murphy’s Law occasionally.
The carnage was unprecedented. The ships were so hot that they couldn’t be missed by their opponents’ sensors, packed densely into formations designed to enhance communications efficiency, and all within the range of one each others kinetics. With dread the commanders gave the orders to fire, knowing full well they were destined for mutually assured destruction. Evasive action wasn’t possible and launching countermeasures would be a pointless gesture given the range between and sensor profiles of the ships. Modern space war craft were not designed for this engagement. The waging of interstellar warfare had taken a five century leap into the past, to the age of wooden ships trading cannon broadsides. Fleets that were built to fight in cat-and-mouse, highly-advanced electronic warfare over weeks and months had annihilated one another in just less than three hours. A military catastrophe to be sure, but not all the combatants had met their predicted grisly end in the melee. During the chaos of the battle some had held their weapons in reserve, and allowed their hulls to cool sufficiently to avoid thermal and infrared detection. They now drifted through the wreckage of their enemies and comrades, using that wreckage to mask even their magnetic signatures from detection. As they drifted they prepared, silently deploying weapons and countermeasures into the void for future use. These survivors had witnessed the most ghastly engagement of modern space warfare, but that had been under unimaginable circumstances. In the twilight of that horror, those that endured were now in their element, and they were hungry for revenge.
The FSS Dire Wolf drifted silently through a cold, dark miasma of scattered ship wreckage and frozen bodies, like a shark swimming through a cloud of chum. She was 100 meters long, with clean smooth lines, and black skin that blended seamlessly into the star field. It stalked through the debris for prey, and as it drifted small remote platforms were being released from exterior mounts on the hull. It carried a crew of seven men and women, still in shock from the most terrifying and violent space battle in man’s short history in the stars. In shock yes, but determined none the less not to become additional casualties in the aftermath of that battle. The compartment they occupied was tightly packed with instrumentation and monitors and devoid of gravity. Each of them was locked by their booted feet, thighs, chest and head into contoured couches, their arms free to move over the various consoles surrounding them. The couches were laid out in a circular pattern like the spokes of a wheel, feet at the edge, and heads toward the center. They wore form-fitting grey vacuum suits. The chamber was dimly lit with indicator lights and data feeds, and it was designed to orient the crew with the main thrusters below them, as if the crew were lying on their backs on a bed in which the mattress was those thrusters. This was to insure that when the ship accelerated the g-forces would push their bodies into their couches, which were built to compensate for such forces. The chamber bleated with klaxons and instrument alarms but beyond that, the crew lay silent in the gloom. The captain of the Dire Wolf’s voice cut confidently and in stark contrast through the metered hum of ship processes.
“Update me on the remote deployment Mr. Talbot.”
“Out of four deployed I’ve got three of the remotes giving me a clear signal even through the wreckage Captain. The RKV, 2-Terawatt Particle beam, and the Spoofer are good and can engage on your command sir.”
An RKV, or ‘Relativistic Kill Vehicle’, was a long range weapon which could only be fired once after deployment. It operated by accelerating an explosive warhead to near-light-speed, and once within the target zone, detonating that warhead. This showered the area in all directions with hyper-velocity shrapnel particles. Some crews referred to them as ‘space shotguns’. A particle beam operated on a different principle entirely, charging atomic particles and directing them in a stream into a target at near-light-speed. It was the scalpel to the RKV’s sledgehammer, and it could be fired as many times as there was available energy to do so and sufficient means to cool the weapon between shots. The spoofer was not a weapon at all but a defensive device; the spoofer was a decoy. When activated it would simulate the bright luminescence of a ship’s bend drive engaging, creating the illusion of two ships engaging their bend drives instead of just one and giving the actual ship engaging their drive even odds that an enemy would target the spoofer instead of them.
“And the shifter?”
“Disabled by a high speed particle. Visual scan just shows the transmitter out though. She’s drifting farther out but after minor repair we should be able to redeploy.”
Another defensive device, the shifter employed an intense gravity field to bend light. It could be deployed near a ship to mask their true location from the enemy, bending the light seen by a visual observer and causing that observer to see the ship in an alternate location. In this instance, its remote platform drifts helplessly, unable to securely communicate with the Dire Wolf.
“Can it still receive tight beam laser transmission?”
“Yes sir, but that would give away our positio…”
“I’m well aware of that Mr. Talbot; I don’t plan on sending it from the Dire Wolf. We aren’t going back for the shifter but we can’t just leave it out here either so have one of the other remotes send a tight beam self-destruct command to the shifter after it fires. In fact, go ahead and make it the RKV since I’m positive we’ll use that one early. If anything it will make the RKV platform look more like a ship.”
Mr. Talbot’s hands seemed to ceaselessly hover over his controls as he addressed the captain, quietly tapping keys and dragging his fingers over sensory pads.
“Unfortunate to lose one, but good work overall Mr. Talbot. Ms. Santos, are the sensors giving us anything to shoot at yet?”
“I’ve got nothing in the infrared or thermal. There is too much other radiation coming off the wreckage to use anything else. Shall I devote more processing to visual scanners?”
“Not yet. It will just pick up more wreckage if anything. Stay sharp on the other spectrums.”
Suddenly the crew chamber is alive with activity. Beeps and whines, blinking lights and monitors coming to life with new data flood the chamber with information. From the exterior of the Dire Wolf it could never be predicted the furious level of activity occurring within, her dark-skinned hull continued to slice through space, lethality humming in anticipation just below her surface.
“I’ve got nickels blossoming within the wreckage field. Processing tells me they’re 47 light-seconds out.”
The captain grins to himself beneath his vacuum helmet and visual read outs.
“It appears someone’s making a run for it.”
The ships were larger than the Dire Wolf, and older. Their bend drives were not as advanced, working twice as hard to generate the singularity they needed to bend reality and get as far from the Dire Wolf as possible. These were not sharks in the oceans of the void, but rather prey fish, and their instinct was flight.
“Inefficient bend drives captain, they are taking forever to heat up but thermal is kicking back signatures. They look like transports. Commonwealth, Mule class I’d guess, processing tells me two but that much heat could be masking others.”
“Let’s not wait to find out. Mr. Talbot you may fire the remote RKV on those nickels when ready.”
The RKV’s remote platform was a sleek black cylinder. Panels ejected from its walls and then the RKV itself, looking like nothing more than a small black sphere burst from the end of the cylinder in a puff of white vapor. A brilliant burst of atomic light snapped into life and then immediately died and in its wake the RKV was gone. The RKV would continue to ignite nuclear pulses in a continuous stream, each pulse pushing the bullet closer and closer to the speed of light.
“Standby. Primary nuclear pulse engaged. RKV is in cycle. Targets are still at 47 light-seconds out. RKV will accelerate to 94% of light speed in three seconds. Total ship-time to target stands at 51 seconds from primary pulse.”
“Is my damaged shifter platform self-destructing yet Mr. Talbot?”
“Tight beam was just sent from the RKV. Shifter destruction is imminent, best estimate at 30 seconds.”
A lance of crimson light speared out from the darkness into the heart of the spent RKV platform as it sent its tight-beam communications laser to the damaged shifter platform. It never got the chance to finish its transmission before the heat of that lance fused its control surfaces and mangled its form. Internal coolant fluids expanded into superheated vapor and jetted from the dying platform in a myriad of directions.
“We’ve got a problem Captain. Processing is telling me that a laser just vaporized the RKV remote platform.”
The captain’s voice never wavered. It was as calm and severe as the open ocean moments before a roiling storm front.
“They took the first piece of bait. Do we have a locus on that beams’ point of origin yet Ms. Santos?”
The sensor officer’s hands moved with fluid precision.
“I’m routing it through to the guns just now.”
“Good work. Update me Mr. Talbot.”
“RKV is moving at 98% to light speed and is 30 seconds from splash on the target zone. I’ve got the locus on that beam but it’s only a visual, shall I fire?”
The gunner’s voice nearly cracked with anticipation in asking the final question. The captain didn’t pause.
“Engage with the particle beam only Mr. Talbot. Fire.”
At just under the speed of light, a stream of excited neutrons penetrated the dark blanket of space, deployed from its own remote platform and emptying its capacitors of an entire nuclear power plant’s worth of energy to do so.
The sensor operator’s brow furrowed in the aftermath of the stream’s flight.
“Nothing’s there sir. Complete miss.”
The captain nodded and his mouth curled in a wry gesture.
“A shifter no doubt. I believe we are about to lose the remote particle beam. They should be radiating a lot of heat very shortly Ms. Santos.”
The deadly crimson lance arced out of the darkness once more, this time ending the operational life of the Dire Wolf’s remote particle beam. In the instant of impact, nuclear reactant cooked off in a dazzling lightshow before imploding on itself.
“You were right Captain, the same frequency laser just knocked out the particle beam platform.”
“Get me that heat source Ms. Santos, I don’t want any more visuals. Mr. Talbot, give me the status on the RKV.”
The destruction that the detonated RKV bullet had wrought could not be seen by the naked eye even if the crew were floating outside the ship in their vacuum suits. The targets were almost a full light minute away, but the Dire Wolf was equipped with a number of sensor systems that could be employed to paint the grisly image visually to her crew. Magnetic readings showed the crew on their visors three targets awash in the magnetic field created by the RKV bullet’s final nuclear detonation; an electromagnetic pulse. They did not look like ships anymore but fragments of ships. Singly, one was able to maintain its whale-like figure, but chunks of it were breaking off and its cooling system was bleeding magnetically charged ferrofluids into the void. The bright sparks that represented their flight to safety had been blown out as micro-particle shrapnel from the RKV tore mercilessly through their bend drives.
“ Direct hit captain! Two transports are completely destroyed and a third has sustained heavy damage! She’s bleeding ferro heavily.”
“Good work Mr. Talbot. Ms. Sant…”
“I’ve got it! It’s routed!”
The captain grinned at her interruption of his question, taking no offense.
“Mr. Talbot, prepare the spoofer for activation, then engage that heat source with the Dire Wolf’s own particle beam. “
Internal readouts and warning lights dimmed, and then flickered, and the ship briefly shuddered before invoking a second lethal stream of particles, this time from the Dire Wolf herself. The hit was only glancing, but it was enough to heat the target to critical levels. The target was smaller than the Dire Wolf, a true escort ship, an 80 meter long Commonwealth frigate. A massive burst of ferrofluid expanded outward from the ship like a dust cloud and her drive and thrusters had fused, leaving her a drifting hulk. Amazingly, crew areas were still sealed from vacuum and had maintained some semblance of life support, but this ship would do no more fighting anytime soon.
“Direct hit! They are firing chemical flares sir! They’ve struck their colors!”
The captain did not seem to share the elation of his crew. He massaged the front of his stubbly chin with his thumb and an apprehensive silence settled over the ship. There was a pause in the silence and then he spoke cold, and methodical, as if reading directions to someone from a manual to no particular listener.
“Cold launch two V7’s from the tubes and have them maintain a lock on that ship. Prepare to burn on my command.”
Two black cylinders fired from tubes in the underside of the Dire Wolf. They were missiles. There were no bright drive flames to mark their passing. They were launched “cold” so to speak, and would drift until needed later. Their microprocessor brains locked in on the crippled commonwealth frigate and could spend eons of time in that state before being given the call to launch and travel to their planned destination. The captain acknowledged the launch and paid it no further mind, his thoughts turned to his next course of action.
“Now give us a short bend and burn to put the Dire Wolf on the point I’ve marked in navigator as Alpha. I want our nickel to pop in perfect sync with that remote spoofer.”
After having compromised its position by firing its own particle beam, the Dire Wolf needed to move. Its bend drive was highly efficient, able to create bends in space-time at a rapid pace. Once the nickel was at full blossom and the bend was stable, the Dire Wolf could engage its nuclear drives and hop the bend. Then it would disengage the bend drive and space-time would spring back, righting itself, and placing the Dire Wolf far from its location of origin. This obviously would draw the attention of any additional hostile forces in the area, and so the captain had cleverly deployed a spoofer some distance from his ship that would completely mimic the bright burst of the Dire Wolf’s spark. This was by no means a failsafe countermeasure, but two targets instead of one gave any aggressor even odds of firing on the wrong spark, and with the high efficiency of her bend drive, the Dire Wolf could be long gone before a second shot.
“Drive is warmed up to 3000 Kelvin. Remote spoofer is following suit. Processing is displaying the bend to me now. Two nickels at full blossom sir. Initiating burn on the thrusters. Standby.”
Klaxons howled as new information made its way from the sensors to the crew; dangerous information.
“There is another ship sir! Picking up what looks like hyper-velocity slugs on the magnetics! The spoofer platform is gone!”
Kinetic slugs tore the spoofer platform to shreds, extinguishing its spark and leaving the solitary spark of the Dire Wolf fully exposed and vulnerable. The captain’s voice remained calm and even throughout despite the realization that his enemy had just rolled the dice on a 50% chance and lost, and that it could of gone as easily the other way.
“He’s got to be close to that platform to be using kinetics. Ms. Santos, find him for us.”
“I’ve already got him sir. Not hard to find. He’s heating up his bend drive. Routing the data to gunnery sir.”
“Does the damn fool think he got us? Mr. Talbot?”
“Our bend and burn is complete. We are on a drift trajectory from point alpha sir.”
“Calculate a firing solution on our new friend. We can’t let him leave the party without a parting gift, can we?”
“No sir. We are a little hot though from the bend. We have to bleed some temperature first. Give me a moment captain.”
Magnetically charged ferrofluid struggled to quickly bleed off heat from the Dire Wolf. It would be far too dangerous to attempt to fire the particle beam while this hot.
She shook her head in disbelief at what her visor was telling her.
“His bend drive is still getting hotter. Has he not bothered to check his sensors and notice our heat signature?”
The captain dissected the enemy ship’s dubious behavior with the acumen of a skilled surgeon.
“Or, more likely, he knows he’s now out of range and is trying to make a run for it before we cool off enough to fire. He would not have engaged the spoofer platform with kinetics if he’d had anything with a longer range. Probably a utility or repair ship with minimal weapons trying to get in a lucky shot. What’s the status on the other ships?”
“The transport ship is still bleeding ferro and now oxygen as well. She’s done for sir. The combat ship appears to be an Adder-Class frigate. She’s bleeding a lot of ferro as well and has sustained critical damage to her bend drive by the looks of it.”
The ship’s gunner chimed in, his demeanor now more stoic after digesting the fact they were all almost killed by the ship that was now desperately trying to escape retribution.
“I’ve got that firing solution sir.”
“Fire at will Mr. Talbot”
The particle beam licked out of the Dire Wolf once more, invisible to the naked eye. The only way you knew when it had fired was if the nature of your target had changed and told you so. In nervous anticipation, the captain indulged himself a slight grit of teeth behind shut lips, perfectly alright to him as long as none of his crew saw him the least bit shaken. The anticipation did not last long as the infrared sensors delivered an image to the crew of a small utility craft being torn in two by a charged-particle juggernaut. Its still-growing spark died but was immediately replaced by the rippling secondary blasts of stored ammunition and reactor mass. Unblinking, the images left fading tracers of color in the captain’s eyes.
“The Adder appears to have seen what we did to her comrade. She’s firing another round of chemical flares sir. Shall we break silence and hail her?”
The captain stared at the after-image of the utility ship’s death for some time before answering.
“I don’t think so Mr. Talbot. Engage her with the drifting V7’s.”
The gunner’s jaw dropped, speechless, but the sensor operator had no trouble finding words.
“But sir they’ve struck their colors!”
The captain was unflappable.
“I’m aware of that Ms. Santos but they only did so to give their little friend a chance at a kill. Fool me once Ms. Santos… Mr. Talbot?”
“V7’s just went hot sir. Time to target is nine minutes, six seconds ship time.”
The captain finally allowed the muscles that had been tensed beneath his vacuum seat the opportunity to relax. He hoped his crew had not noticed them, and his voice rang as calm through the cabin as it ever had.
“Good work Mr. Talbot, and good work to everyone. We’ve come through another hairy one it seems.”
The sensor image revealed the stricken frigate in full detail; it laid in a cloud of its own ferrofluids, its drive and thrusters a mangled tragedy. Another salvo of bright purple chemical flares signaled once more in futility that it had surrendered. Two red dots slid across the image towards it, closing faster and faster as the missiles they represented accelerated under heavy thrust.
“They’re firing another round of flares. It’s pitiful sir. Only nine minutes left to live.”
The captain knew what his crew felt, but the universe was a cold place, and to survive in the cold, men had to be cold.
“They knew full well the risks and they accepted them when they set foot on that ship, and in nine minutes they will have died valiantly for their country. Save your pity, and grant them your respect.”
Shortly, the V7 missiles gave the frigate’s crew a magnificent cremation, and the Dire Wolf drifted for some time before its spark abruptly lit brightly anew, like a flipped light switch waking them all from a bad dream.