“Principia reports Condition Two. Orbital flight, commence acceleration. Starstream squadron you are cleared to depart, you may commence your descent at your convenience.”
Captain Thomas Bourne, Newtonian Flight Command, flicked his left thumb. The motion command was relayed to his helmet microphone, toggling it on, and he replied, “Principia NavCom, this is Starstream Leader, we are Earthbound.” Another couple of finger flicks fired his OF-28’s forward thrusters, killing some of his momentum and pushing its nose down towards Earth’s surface a couple of degrees. The snubby, bullet shaped silhouettes of the other fighters in his squadron briefly pulled up even with him as they adjusted their speeds to match his. Once they were firmly committed to the first leg of their breaking orbit Bourne spoke again. “Lander 42, your escort is in position.”
“Acknowledged, Starstream Leader.” The Newtonian Space Command’s landing craft were built along far less aggressive lines than the fleet’s fighters. Their pilots affectionately called them ‘tubs’ for their very blocky shape and terrible maneuvering characteristics. Fighter pilots assigned to escort them preferred the term ‘albatross.’ “Let us know if you’re expecting any trouble.”
“I don’t know if you’ve been reading the reports from Earth, 42, but trouble isn’t really something they believe in down there anymore.” That voice belonged to Lieutenant Billy Zane, callsign Krampus, in the fighter furthest to port. “Sounds like the whole planet has given up on applied violence as a problem solving approach.”
“Sounds good to us,” the lander’s pilot replied.
“Sounds boring to me,” Krampus replied.
“Too much talk,” Bourne said. “Clear this channel. Lander 42, maintain your position in formation.”
About twenty seconds of flying passed in relative silence before Earth’s upper atmosphere started to tug on the hull of Bourne’s fighter. “Starstream,” he said, “prepare to deploy airfoils. Check mechanisms and report in.”
The diagnostics on an OF-28’s wing system took only a couple of seconds and Bourne had barely finished his own when his squadron started calling in their readiness. Once they all reported readiness he said, “Deploy airfoils.”
All around him the bullet-like profile of the ships shifted. The fighters went from eight meter long, three meter high cylinders to vaguely boomerang shaped. Motorized struts expanded outward and the hull material was disassembled in segments by internal nanolathe vats and then reassembled in their new configuration. The drag on his fighter lessened. “Fire up your jet engines,” Bourne said. “Save that reaction mass.”
Acknowledgments rolled in again. His fighter slowed down again, the thin atmosphere available to its jets too sparse to equal the thrust from its rockets. Bourne toggled his AI’s nav program and double checked his course. Their target landing zone was in a place called Anaheim, one of the cities the Earth government had abandoned and the Colonial Fleet had decided to strip for raw materials. It was an eerie place, full of empty buildings and silent, concrete canyons. As a Newtonian native, Bourne had seen plenty of empty cities in the past, both those under construction on the frontiers of the planet and those bombed out by war. There was something uniquely unnerving about flying over an entirely intact city empty of all life.
Some days he expected the entire place to magically spring to life again, as if the ghosts of the Homeworld were waiting for just the right moment to prank him.
The AI told him that, whether he liked it or not, he was on target to arrive there in forty minutes. “Alright, people, spread out into escort formation and keep your eyes sharp. 42, you’re free to maneuver as needed to compensate for atmospheric drag.”
“What are we looking out for, Leader?” The question came from Bubbles, who’s position at the top of the formation left him with the least flying to do at the moment. “UNIGOV seems to be doing its best to just ignore us. If intel from planetside is correct they don’t even maintain a modern military down there.”
“Then watch the weather,” Bourne replied. “We don’t have a satellite network to tap so we’re going to need to monitor that ourselves. You could do your job and ring up the landing group.”
“Sure thing, Leader,” Bubbles said with a laid-back laugh. “But you know what the scuttlebut about the situation on the ground is, don’t you?”
“We don’t spend half our off hours trying to get in the pants of the Comms division,” Krampus shot back. “We’re not going to pick up all the fucking rumors you do.”
“There are no secret vaults full of state of the art space ships down there, people,” Bourne said, letting an edge into his voice. “I saw the specs on the ship the survivors brought back, same as you. It was over a century old. That’s not the kind of space hardware you keep if you’ve built something better last Tuesday. Just stay sharp, the Homeworld has a population equivalent to the whole of the Triad Worlds, someone down there could’ve dreamed up a nasty surprise for us.”
“Leader, Peepers.” The low, growling voice could easily come off as irritated but that was typical for Peepers. “I’m picking up an EM field just north of the Anaheim approach corridor. Never seen anything like it on our previous runs.”
Bourne’s AI displayed the relevant sensor readings on his board and sure enough, Peepers was right. “Control, are you getting this?”
There was a couple of seconds delay, just long enough for a quick discussion in the Battle Space Information Center. “Affirmative, Leader. We’re picking it up as well and we don’t have anything like it from any of our previous scans of the area. Fly careful.”
“See?” Bourne couldn’t keep a hint of satisfaction out of his tone. “We didn’t even have to look that hard to find something new.”
“Doesn’t look strong enough to be any known countermeasures,” Krampus said. “But the signal strength is ramping up. Could be a new weapons emplacement.”
“Leader, Bubbles. I’m not getting any response from the Anaheim team on the usual or backup frequencies.”
Bourne frowned. “They made the T-minus 30 check-in, didn’t they?”
“That’s affirmative,” Control answered. “They didn’t report any comm trouble at the time.”
“Bubbles, this is Hangnail.” Her voice came high and clear across the radio. “Any chance the new EM field is some kind of comms blocking?”
“Wrong kind of radiation, Hangnail,” Bubbles answered. “It could scramble the transmitter if it was about a thousand times stronger than now but as things are there’s no way its directly causing a comms blackout.”
“Well the field’s doubled in strength in the last ten seconds,” Bourne said. “Whatever it is, it’s growing fast. 42, if I were you I’d drop back a couple of klicks until we get a better idea of what’s going on down there.”
“Copy that, Leader.”
“You’re on the bottom, Hangnail.” Bubbles left a deliberate pause.
Hangnail didn’t miss it. “Don’t go getting ideas.”
“Can you get a visual on the landing site? Maybe they left us a note.”
“I’ll give it a shot.”
Hangnail went quiet for a moment and Bubbles filled the time by making the bizarre mouth sounds his callsign was derived from. Bourne filled the time by watching the strength of their anomalous EM field quickly ramp higher. Finally Hangnail got back on the comm, apologetic. “No signs of anything out of the ordinary, so far as I can tell.”
“Starstream squadron, this is Control.” The operator up in Principia BASIC was starting to sound a little strained. “We’re monitoring the area but right now there’s no sign of anything out of place beyond that EM field. A little magnetism never hurt anyone, much less full fledged Newtonian fighter craft. The General says to go ahead and continue with the landing.”
Apparently General Ollinger had taken an interest in the situation. That explained the change in attitude up in BASIC – nothing kept a soldier on his toes like having the ranking officer in theater personally looking over your shoulder. “Control, Starstream Leader. Copy that. I recommend going to Condition One.”
“We’ll pass that on, Leader.”
This time the silence on Control’s end lasted a lot longer than the handful of seconds a quick consultation took. Then, almost ninety seconds later, a new voice came over the comm. “Attention, all ships in the Unified Colonial Fleet. This is the Sea of Tranquility. Admiral Carrington has ordered all ships to General Quarters. Stand by for potential hostile action. I repeat, stand by for potential hostile action.”
Bourne winced. He hadn’t expected that response. He certainly hadn’t expected the fleet’s flag officer to be roped into the decision, he’d assumed the Principia would elevate it’s alert status and that would be the end of it. And Tranquility control wasn’t done yet. “Orbital flight to combat velocity, Remus is to move to the quadrant opposite Principia and stand by to support the landing group as needed.”
“Wonderful,” Bourne muttered after twitching off his mic. “Just what I wanted, support from the space pirates.”
Given the layout of the fleet sending the Minervan destroyer to support them did make the most sense so he couldn’t really begrudge the admiral his decision. After all, Copernicus wasn’t the planet that had Galilean pirates camped in their cities for two years. The orbital flight, on the other hand, was upwell of the moon, so far from Earth’s gravity that it barely even registered. Bourne wasn’t sure what good sending them to combat speed was going to do. Even at that pace they wouldn’t be able to make it inside Lunar orbit for twenty minutes, Earth’s atmosphere was almost a day away.
He twitched his mic back on. “Alright, Starstream. Look sharp, guess everyone is looking over our shoulder on this one.”
“Great.” Krampus didn’t sound that enthused at the idea.
The boundary of the anomalous field was fast approaching. “Be ready for anything,” Bourne said. “Reports say Earth is way ahead of us in several fields so this could be the opening move for just about anything.”
Another round of replies. By the time they were done the squadron was already in the depths of the magnetic field, diving towards their landing zone. They’d been their for exactly seventy six seconds when Peepers said, “Leader, my jet engine just failed on me. Diagnostics are trouble shooting but I’m going to have to switch to thrusters.”
“Copy that, Peepers. Don’t want to spook the natives so go ahead level off. We’ll bring you in last after the ground team has a chance to prep for you.”
“Sounds good, Leader. Igniting thrusters n-”
The transmission cut off as Peeper’s fighter blew itself to pieces.
“Holy shit!” Instinct drove Bourne to swing his fighter around the expanding cloud of debris long before conscious acknowledgment of the disaster. A second later they were past it. “Control, what the fuck was that?”
“Don’t know.” The controller’s voice was strained with surprise and panic. “Looking over the telemetry now. The start up process on his main thrusters was going fine so it doesn’t look like a programming error.”
“Lander, this is Leader, abort landing, I repeat abort landing. All fighters make for space.”
“Leader, Control.” The operator was regaining control of himself. “There’s no signs of ground based weapons fire. This has to be some kind of operational failure; it can’t be enemy action.”
“I’m not taking chances, Control,” Bourn snapped. “The ground team can wait an hour or two while we figure out what just killed Peepers.”
“Leader, this is Franco.” The squadron’s newest pilot, Frank Oregon, came over the radio as the squadron turned towards space. “My jet engine just cut out. Diagnostics say it’s the bearings.”
“Control, does that match Peepers’ telemetry?” Bourne asked.
“Pulling it now.” The two seconds it took for them to come back after that were the longest in his life. “That’s affirmative, Leader.”
That may mean he was having the same problem Peepers was. “Franco, do not, I repeat do not attempt to switch over to thrusters. Try to glide over the target landing zone and punch out there.” Bourne consulted his HUD. “We’re coming up on the upper atmosphere, folks. Avoid switching to thrusters until we get out of this mag field.”
“Leader, Krampus. I just checked my airfoils in preparation for the change over to space flight. All, I repeat all my actuators are out, wing movements are a no-go. Visual inspection shows a large hole in my port wing and it’s growing. I’m guessing we’re in a disassembler field.”
Bourne’s stomach did a flipflop. Disassembler fields were the ultimate in point defense weaponry, a magnetic field full of nanotech that ripped apart incoming missiles or fighters on a molecular level when they tried to pass through. At least in theory. No one in the Triad Worlds had ever made a practical one for a host of reasons. “All right, let’s operate with that as our working hypothesis. Franco, you’re not making it to the ground in one piece if you stay in the field. Recommend you maneuver out of it, if you can.”
“I have no propulsion, Leader, and the field is still growing,” Franco replied. “Don’t think I’m outrunning the edge like this. Is it possible to triangulate the source of the field? I might have better luck hitting it from the air at this point.”
Bourne seriously doubted a fighter could descend quickly enough to do that, given how fast the disassembler field was working, certainly not without engines. Given the options available, however, he wasn’t going to judge how Franco chose to spend his last minutes. “Control, look in to that, please?”
“Acknowledged, Leader.” Control didn’t sound any happier about it. “Remus, are you in position to assist?”
“Control, this is Commander Gryner on the Remus.” The Minervan skipper had the rough, gravelly voice of someone who had inhaled a lot of smoke in his career. Or possibly vacuum. “We’ll arrive at our designated orbit point in eighty seconds but we can maneuver to assist-”
“Holy shit!” Krampus spun out of formation, his fighter striking his wingmate as the wing on the opposite side spun away into the distance. Drag forces and the constant work of the disassembler field must have torn it off. Both fighters crumpled and spun off in opposite directions. Nord – Krampus’ wingmate – died instantly as something in the ship exploded and touched off its thruster fuel or missile warheads. Krampus managed to eject, his fighter tumbling off through the formation as he sailed upwards.
“42,” Bourne snapped, “can you get down here and retrieve Krampus?”
“Negative, Leader. He’s still in the field and we’re barely outrunning the boundary as it is. If we come back for him I don’t think we’re ever getting out of it.”
“Shit. Shit.” Krampus was starting to panic over the mic. “That burns.”
Or maybe not panic, Bourne realized with a sinking feeling. Maybe he was starting to get pulled apart. “Krampus, this is Leader. We’re going to figure-”
Krampus started to scream and Bourne suspected he wasn’t getting through.
“Control.” Gryner’s voice rose over the noise. “Please remove Krampus from this channel.”
“What the fuck, Gryner,” Bourne snapped even as Krampus’ voice cut off. He did a quick visual check of the air outside, trying to pick Krampus out of the blue seas below and the black, star spattered skies around. He managed to spot the man’s body after only a few seconds looking and immediately wished he hadn’t found it.
“I need you to hear me, Leader,” Gryner said, blissfully unaware of what Bourne had just seen. “I’ve read up a lot on D-field research. One of their biggest weaknesses is that the field itself is unstable over large distances. Our researchers can’t keep one in place for more than a few minutes over the volume of a singe vessel. Earth is deploying one over thousands of cubic miles.”
“Good for them,” Bourne snapped. “We knew they were a couple of generations ahead of us in nanotech.”
“True. But their field is unstable, we’re reading it from here. That means it will collapse if you can disrupt it with, say, a coordinated plasma barrage.” The smugness is Gryner’s voice could almost be forgiven since it brought a chance at salvation with it. Almost. “There’s too much atmo between us and the field for our point defenses to reach. Are your plasma launchers operable?”
“Check ’em, Starstream,” Bourne snapped.
“Principia,” Gryner continued, “adding your guns to the mix gives them better odds of success. Do you have an angle?”
“Not as of yet,” Control replied. “But the captain knows and is angling for position.”
“Fuck.” Bourne pounded his controls in frustration when they told him his main weapon wouldn’t initialize. The forward part of his hull was starting to look more like Swiss cheese than a spaceship but at least he hadn’t lost propulsion yet.
Others weren’t so lucky. Bubbles announced, “I’ve got the main gun booting up.” Two seconds later he followed that up with, “Nope. Circuits overloaded and the whole thing fried. I think it took my engine, too. I’m ballistic.”
“Stay in your cockpit,” Bourne said. “If we can down this field we’ll have the lander come in and pick you up after.”
“Roger that, Leader.”
“Leader, this is Tranquility BASIC. Please stand by for the arrival of orbital flight.”
It took real effort for Bourne to get past his astonishment and crank his gaping mouth closed again. “Stand by? We don’t have thirty hours to wait on ’em, Tranquility.”
“You won’t need it,” Control said. “You’re not doing anything good for yourselves right now so just hang on.”
Bourne switched off his headset and threw his hands in the air. It was true, the disassembler field was playing havoc with the whole squadron but it wasn’t like they had the option of just ignoring it. He was deciding if he should try firing up his plasma launcher again or keep spitting plasma of his own at Control when the orbital flight showed up.
They snapped out of superluminal with no notice, just the brief pop of extra bright light that always accompanied objects dropping below the luminal barrier. Twelve starfighters of Copernican design that, at a glance, had the basic diamond shape of the TX-49. They were long pointed trapezoids with a squat base and a forward taper that made up sixty percent of the total length. However Bourne quickly picked out differences. A much broader middle that made the craft as much as six meters wide, rather than the 49’s standard four meters. A heavy protrusion just under the rear centerline, like a barrel was laid sideways through the bottom of the hull sticking out from under the pilot’s seat.
The fact that they’d come via superluminal drives, which the TX-49 wasn’t equipped with.
In fact, not even Bourne’s top of the line OF-28 had one. Only the Copernicus Spacer Corps’ experimental TX-55 had the space and power plant for a superluminal drive. Admiral Carrington had just committed a fortune in valuable starfighter prototypes to pull their fat out of the fire.
“Starstream Leader, this is Point Break Leader. Stand by for plasma barrage.”
Like their older counterparts, the 55 had dual plasma launchers tucked away under the side corners of the diamond and all twelve fighters cut loose with them at once, sending twenty four packets of ionized plasma screaming into the disassembler field at once. The magnetic field that kept the nanotech powered and suspended in the atmosphere began to fluctuate wildly. Two seconds after the first barrage Point Break squadron fired again. The magnetic field dissolved entirely.
“All right, Starstream,” Point Break leader called. “That’s us. Looks like that field is rebuilding itself down on the surface and will be back in this section of airspace in another ten minutes so I’d get a move on if I were you.”
“You heard the man,” Bourne said, feeling as is a massive weight on his chest was suddenly gone. “All pilots prepare to bail out. Check your flight suits to make sure they’re spaceworthy and punch out. Lander 42, we’d be much obliged for a pick up. Let’s try and get this done without anyone else buying it.”
He busied himself suiting actions to words and five minutes later, it was all done.