A peanut shaped planetoid came into focus on Sci-Tech Mason’s optic viewer. She compared the sensor information to her data cache and mentally engaged a comm-link, “LT, we’re there.”
“Thank you, Connie. I’ll join you soon.”
Lieutenant Jasper Gregson sat at a foldout desk in his quarter’s editing a message to his wife. He sat back and read it one more time.
It’s been six months since I took command of PC-109. I have to admit I was nervous as hell to have a command on my own, even a lowly Patrol Craft, but I’ve loved it. My crew’s great. We’ve arrested three smugglers and destroyed a pirate base without killing a soul. I’m proud of them.
The crew is cross-trained, of course. Our long distance missions require it, but some perform better than others in their secondary roles. Ensign Connie Mason, my exec, could handle the boat by herself if she had to, but she couldn’t hit Phobos with an asteroid from a hundred yards. Don’t tell her I said it, though. Pilot-Navigator Trout is green, but he shows promise.
Gunnery Sergeant Emily Rutherford, could hit a watermelon at a hundred miles and make an AU drive purr with her smile, but she couldn’t pilot the boat through a hole the size of Sol.
Medic and comm-tech, Dave Klunker, is quite a character and good for morale. He’s a trusted medic and knows the comms, but he shines as a volunteer cook and makes a mean rodent chili. In a world of Nutripaks, he’s a godsend; however, don’t let him near the engines.
Chief Machinist Mate, Stephen Duggan, has been a great resource to me. I respect his experience and counsel. He can do it all to hear him talk, and he probably could if he didn’t scare the crew with his manner. Everything he says sounds like a snarl, but he’s a puppy in wolf’s clothing. And, get this he’s a confirmed vegan—no rodent chili for him. Oh, and he’s amazing with a rail cannons. All in all, I’ve got a tight-knit crew, ready to do their jobs.
I can’t say much about our mission because Mars Confederation is paranoid about security these days. I don’t expect it to be very exciting, though. Hug the girls for me. I’ll see you soon.
Jasper sent the message and hoped it would clear MC security.
Jasper walked through the bulkhead door and said, “At ease.”
“Why do you always say at-ease when you enter the bridge LT?” Trout asked.
“Connie, is our PN as naive as his question?”
“I’m afraid so LT.” PN Rob Trout had been onboard only a month. He stared at Connie trying to figure out how he’d screwed up this time. “Trout, let me explain. If the LT joins us and doesn’t say at-ease, one of us better say captain on the bridge and come to attention.”
“But LT, you’re not a steel-neck,” Trout said.
“Your next CO might be, and it would reflect poorly on me if you’re a screw-up. What’s our status, Connie?”
“Active scans limited to five hundred miles, as ordered. The planetoid meets all expected criteria for 5152. No scan or communication signals have been detected. We’re a hundred miles away and snuggling an M-type asteroid ten times our mass.”
“Thank you, Connie. Turn off active scans but maintain passives.”
Jasper opened the boat-wide comm-link. “Klunker, Rutherford, and Chief Duggan link up and listen in.” Their acknowledgments flashed on his optic-viewer. “Mars Confederation believes that Earth Federation plans to establish a forward observation post in the Belt on planetoid 5152, a.k.a. Peanut. If they do, it will breach the Luna Treaty. It’s our mission to observe and report to Ceres by point-to-point hyper-pulse if we encounter the EF.”
“LT, we’ve only got a hand-full of kinetic torpedoes and the quad-rail cannon. What do we do if EF shows up in force?” Trout asked.
Connie spoke first, “Change your underwear.”
Connie activated the general alarm and comm-linked Jasper. “LT, it’s my best guess that a large ship is four to five hundred miles out, standby for gravimetric and optic analysis.”
Jasper had taken his command chair before Connie stopped talking. “Klunker standby for Connie’s data feed and triple check your target intersect. You may not have time to adjust the Ceres coordinates if things go sideways. And, include a no-reply-command. I don’t want EF to know we’re here.”
“Aye, aye sir.”
The gravimetric analysis proved Connie’s educated guess to be wrong. A fleet of ships was a thousand miles out and closing fast. “Connie, can you identify the individual ships?”
“Not yet, LT. They’re moving too fast for my analyzer. Give me thirty minutes. They should slow enough by then, provided Peanut is their destination.”
“This isn’t a simple observation post,” Jasper said.
“The EF has never liked Mars and the Belt being independent,” Connie responded.
“True, but Earth’s bureaucrats had accepted it because it was cheaper than war. Something has changed,” Jasper said.
Connie fought to keep her voice professional. “LT, we’re facing a reinforced Fighter-Bomber Carrier group. Eight ships in all, the carrier, plus a light cruiser, four destroyers, and two supply ships.
“Emily, how many ships can you disable?”
“I’ve got six remote torpedoes. If I have time to position the torps accurately, I should be able to take out six,” Emily said.
“That’s too risky. Reserve one of them. Target the carrier with three, and create as much confusion as you can with the other two.”
Emily smiled and answered, “Give me some time to study the threat board and I’ll soon have them turning in circles looking for their butts.”
“Chief, how close to our asteroid can we be when we engage the AU drive?”
“By the book, LT?” Chief Duggan asked.
“Hell no, Chief! MC sent us on a suicide mission, but we aren’t going to die if I can help it.”
“Give me three miles and you can engage the AU, but we might miss Ceres.”
“We’ll worry about that later. Klunker, add the following to the hyper-pulse message: ‘Sit-Rep: Lt. Gregson: EF deployment is an attempt to blockade Ceres, Vesta, and Ganymede from reinforcing Mars. Mars is the primary target.’”
“Aye, LT. Will they believe you?”
“I hope so because Mars is about to be thumped hard.”
“The point-to-point is ready LT,” Klunker reported.
“Send it.” Jasper noticed Connie’s comm-link blinking again. “Go Connie.”
“LT, there’s a second fleet appearing on the scans.”
“Connie! That’s not funny.”
Connie laughed. It relaxed her and everyone else.
Jasper opened the boat comm-link. “Alright everybody, the ballet begins. Stay calm and follow the plan until it turns to crap, then do what you all do best, improvise. Standby for H-hour minus 75, and on my mark engage the diversionary measures.” Jasper said.
“Aye, sir. H-hour, minus 75, acknowledged,” Emily said.
On his mark, two torpedoes, under nav-thrust control only, floated away from the boat at modest velocity. They were unlikely to be noticed by the EF. At least, that was the plan. Little by little, the torps would flank the left and right sides of the EF forces and reduce the range to their targets in the process.
Time crawled for the Jasper.
“Connie, update the EF position,” Jasper said twenty minutes later. He could look at his optic viewer but wanted to hear the information.
“Wait one…they’re 283.5 miles from our position. The flotilla is slowing more than expected, and the carrier should arrive at Peanut at H-hour plus 10. The lead destroyers are ahead by 15 minutes.”
“Emily, I need a new fire-solution.”
“Sorry LT. I have a new solution. I need to release the carrier torps 15 minutes early, and to increase the nav-thrust acceleration by 5%.”
“Won’t that put Peanut in the way?”
“Not if I switch to a conical launch pattern. Peanut will provide cover for a time and the torp attack angles will be difficult for their defenses.”
“Make it happen.”
“Aye, sir.” Emily released the attack torpedoes ten minutes later. They formed a cone as they neared their prey.
H-hour minus one minute, Connie called out. Trout stood by to engage his docking thrusters so that PC 109 could float away from its more massive neighbor. And Duggan took his battle station at the quad-cannon.
“On my mark,” Jasper said.
Emily exploded the left-flank torpedo with a shaped beam that sent a wall of debris from an iron rich asteroid toward a supply ship. As she hoped, it didn’t take defensive maneuvers. However it, and its sister ships slowed down. Her second shaped beam sent a small mountain toward the Cruiser on the right flank, again no defensive reaction because the explosion had been blocked from their sensors. So far so good, Jasper thought as he watched his monitor.
But it didn’t last. Twenty miles from Mr. Peanut, six EF MB-51 fighters launched and passed the planetoid at high speed, apparently on a recon mission. PC-109 was doomed if the MBs spotted them. “Emily, we’ve got bees looking for our pollen, can you initiate your attack on the carrier?”
“Not yet, LT. I need five minutes or their point defenses will block my attack.”
“Can you divert an attack torpedo to take out the bees?”
Emily studied the threat board. “No sir, but I could use our reserve torp.”
“Not yet,” Jasper said. He’d feared she’d say that. He meant the final torpedo to create a diversion so they could engage the AU drives before the carrier took them out. Timing would be tighter than a new cadet’s sphincter because the AU needed three minutes to power up.
“Emily, get ready to…wait-one. Go, Connie.”
“Four of the fighters have peeled off. It looks like they’re going to investigate Emily’s distractions. The remaining two are slowing and fanning out. They’re actively pinging and brighter than sparklers at a Mars Day party on our sensors. ”
“Do you see them Chief?”
“Aye, LT. They stand out like my wife’s nipples in a cold shower.”
“Focus Chief. Your job is to deflate those nipples before they can attack.”
Emily’s cone torpedoes were floating toward their launch points. Once ignited it would be a competition between her timing and the EF crew’s training. PC-109 cleared the three-mile point, and Jasper initiated the AU warmup.
“Trout, launch a camera drone programmed to observe Peanut for an hour and then return to Ceres.”
“Aye, sir. Drone is away.”
The ship shook as Duggan engaged an EF fighter. The attack run began when the AU started to warm up. Emily saw it and launched her final torpedo, but not at the fighters.
“Trout, get us out of here,” Jasper ordered.
“I’m not in position for Ceres.”
“I don’t care. Engage the AU as soon as possible.”
The final torpedo exploded. A brilliant sphere of red, green and violet formed as thousands of armor-piercing chunks flew from the torpedo and vaporized an ice asteroid that blinded the carrier’s sensors and took out one MB at the same time.
Chief Duggan watched the second fighter’s approach, anticipated where it would be, and fired a barrage of iridium alloy slugs. The fighter launched a missile an instant before it turned into a yellow ball of plasma. “Incoming,” he yelled. The AU engaged as he caught his breath only to lose it again under the AU’s acceleration.
“Where are we, Rob?” Jasper asked.
“Captain, you didn’t call me Trout.”
“No, I didn’t. You’re Rob on this boat from now on. You did well.”
“Thank you, sir. We’re equidistant between Mars and Ceres. What are your orders?”
“As much as I’d like to go home, Mars needs our help. Set a course for Port Phobos.”
(c) 2016 David P. Cantrell contributor and staff member of EWI