Complete 5-minute story from Trevor Watts' New-Classic Sci-Fi series - Zero 9-4, Terminal Space, Orbital Spam and The Fractus Project
We’ve been lining up and manoeuvring round, edging and guessing where the Nemica might be placing themselves. You’d think in a place the size of a solar system, and with all our ranging-and-search gear, we could each locate the enemy without much effort. However, with baffles and vad interference… misinfo… altered imagery and data, we could be anywhere, and so could they.
But, one way or another, one of us is always going to find the other eventually, and let loose. Then both sides’ll know where everybody else is. And there won’t be anyone left – not Nemica or humans.
I’m coordination officer board the ESS Valiant. Coordination? That’s the last thing I know anything about – no-one tells me anything. All the stuff coming down the waves is intercepted and filtered by our own officers and auto-systems. Not that Valiant is a massive WarVessel: we’re a small run-and-hit craft. Very fast; extremely agile; lethal weaponry audit; and effall defence capability – except speed and agility.
We lodge in a bay that bulges out the skin of a Battlegroup Topweight, making it look as though the ship has picked up a nasty little ganglion. In an active situation, the idea is that the brass find out where the enemy is, and we’re loosened from our bay – there are four of us, the fleet’s total – they lost faith in the idea soon after they fitted us up. But, money spent has to be justified, so we’re still deployed.
When we’re loose, we stick close to the hull, like a little swarm of ariidae fish, held steady in the field grippers, poised outside as an option. If needed, we can be let off the leash, and sent in with half a dozen weapons systems programmed to turn on them. We like to think of ourselves as terriers with fangs, claws, whiptail, poison spit, fire-breath and spurs – all at great speed and torque. Not that the brass ever expresses much faith in us, ‘Midgies like you? Y’ like a cotton tripwire to catch a tank.’ Commander Ridl told us at the boarding briefing. ‘We won’t be needing you, but you’ll be deployed anyway.’
He has a great line in sneers.
So basically – Oh, I say “we” and “us”. It’s actually just me and my little ship, the ESS Valiant. It’s like President Prachtig calling himself “we” in the sense of him and the Federation. Here, it’s me and the Valiant. That equals “we”. I’m the only person aboard, and my only job is to keep an eye on whatever’s happening. Sure, I’m called the Coordination officer, but I only coordinate anything when we’re cut loose, which has only happened three times, and we didn’t do anything. The rest of the time, when we’re lodged inside, the big ship coordinates directly with my little ship, and nobody knows what the fuck they talk about.
I suppose, with there being four Single-Use ships in the fleet, it’s also “we” in the sense of me and the other three – a tiny clique all on our own.
Anyway, basically, if I’m launched, I’m in Amber Mode, and if I’m freed, I’m automatically in Attack Mode. Originally, there were three other crew aboard, operating the main consoles, sort of manually. But every time they were used, they jammed up and were mashed. So the Powers-that-be by-passed crew, and channelled everything through in-board systems, or the Topweight’s systems. But that didn’t pan out too well if the mother ship was damaged. So they kept one person aboard as a sort of backup, wired in to everything that goes on – coordinating the engines, navigation, all weapons systems. – everything. It all channels through here, through me. As a backup.
So I’m the fail-safe. Locked in here, wired in for direct access. I’m never included in on anything to do with decisions: they filter and divert what comes to me all the time. ‘We’re letting you rest,’ they say. ‘Don’t want your mind getting cluttered and stale.’
‘Fear-filled and froze up, you mean?’
‘If we need you in action, we want you fresh and alert and diving straight in. No need for knowledge other than your task.’ I presume the principle is that if we’ve been all but wiped out, then I get in there and do the same thing to them. Then, like I said, there’ll be nobody left. In theory, I know nothing about the overall situation, nor about the immediate local situation. If I’m let of the hooks, I’m autonomous, and I go do my job. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, I can log into my back-circuits down in my little module, and get a fair idea what’s going on. Illicit Info Bypass, they’d call it if they knew.
This battle started some time ago – almost two days since the first attack commands came through. And three hours twenty-point-three-six since the last update. Lot of wondering between times, and since.
I know we’ve lost contact with two of our huge G-Size craft, and quite possibly several C-Size. They wouldn’t even bother to register how many of us single-use ships have been lost – or used, as they phrase it. We’re the smallest, A-Size; suicide, as they say.
‘Yike!’ Jolted. Hard.
I’m in instant Action Mode. ‘Whooooaah.’ Lurched. Bit sickening. I’ve mental-jabbed the Go!
Lurching again. Sliding away from the BG Master. My headset’s live! I’m patched in! All-round action. Shuggs! It’s happening. Calm. Soak in the situation – full-flood messaging filling me through – we’ve hit three of their Battleweights now. Complete destruction. Shit – the lives lost – thousands. Two of our biggies confirmed lost. Probably just as many dead on our side. Shit shit – don’t bear thinking about – fifteen hundred on each. The only reason I’m suddenly linked in is that we’re being sent in on a mission. Ha – mission? Death Run, more like. and we’re going in.
I don’t know if I want to spew up, piss myself, or do a long-lasting “Yesssssss” as I’m cut free and hurl off in a huge independent parabolic tangent.
And we really are set free. I’m following all the movement on the screens, mimicking it. I’m tapped in. Shit! It’s not supposed to involve me actively. Just use my brain as a back-up facility without my awareness.
I’m live with it! It’s going through me – I’m in the systems now. I log the navvy beams… locate the target. Full thrust on the instant. If we’d had peripheral crew, they’d be splushed and splattered by now – it always happened before. From the first second of the Off, I weave and twist, veer off… Seeking, seeking, searching the radar, vads, las-systems, infilyans… in blue light, UV, PD and vacuo beams. Pigalone knows where any enemy might be, I sure as Sh’ hama have no idea and I’m twisting and spiralling, long long minins… eyes and seekers everywhere.
Some massive reading on the screens. Pigalone knows what. Something enormous and hostile
Systems lock in automatically. It’s targeted. But I have volitional control – me guiding, not auto-mack. I’m taking a different angle of approach… violent side-swerve. Barrel-rolling, spiralling in… No plan to it. No rules. No book. No prog. I do what I do.
It’s looming fast. Massive great G or even H-Weight. Awesome. Ten thousand times the Valiant’s size. The whole thing’s like an ultra-modern building on Dighm, plus a complex tangle of massed antennae and weapons ports and pigalone knows what else. And he’s gonna zap shit out of us – me – any sec now. I weave. Double-twist. I’m close in. I spin and whirl in random turns – like me and Valiant can do – they can’t track us. Too fast. Nimble as fuck. Can’t focus at this speed, especially so close.
A corner of my mind hopes it’ll be instant – I’ll be vapped. But I’m totally immersed in perathine semi-liquid in a para-electro-magnetic field. The strains of a hundred gee shouldn’t get me – I’m gel-bathed by now – it was the time when previous crew members became smears on the walls. There’s light beams and zap-bolts flashing through the vac. So close! Hard to tell how close – so fast I’m going – by the time a bolt’s come through, I’m three turns down the aisle.
I’m in very close and fast. Too close for their guns and fields now… I hurtle round it, quarter speed, looking for a weak spot where a single bolt will zap the damn thing. That way, Valiant might stand a chance of surviving its total detonation. Fat chance – that thing goes up, I’m instant vapour.
God this thing is so vast.
There! I lock into a vortex-engine spot – where the power units are located. Lock in all weapons systems – open-blast and deep-penetration weapons. Set them all for go in a fraction… And fi—
Zeep bleep! Zeep. Zeep. Zeep. I never ever heard one before. Couldn’t miss it now. Piercing.
There’s no two ways about that. It had given in. Knew it was on the brink of being a disintegrating fire-mass. Must have lost too many others. My weapon systems froze up, then stood down when I jabbed acceptance. I could have rejected, and Valiant would have auto-fired. The Nemica ship would have gone up, and most likely us with it. Single Use, we are – me and Valiant. They emphasised that. I don’t recall volunteering for this duty in the first place; I certainly wouldn’t have done if they’d told us that before.
But – all interstellar rules said – Surrender means exactly that. They gave up. Shuggs – I was sweating down. Tension I didn’t know I could get.
It kept up the zeep bleep… incessant. It meant it. It had to mean it. That bleep disables its own weapons systems. It would detonate them if any attempt was made to use them again.
All our big guys have it, too. Not us littlies, we’re expendable, and there’s no communication once we’re turned loose. But the biggies – too much pointless loss of life when they brewed up – had to be a way to forestall total destruction – a last-second total surrender and self-disablement.
And this time – it had worked. Shuggs! It worked! They saved themselves with under one sec to spare.
Valiant was safe then. They couldn’t attack; and I’d stood my weaponry down.
I slowed and peeled in behind it – as much as there is a “behind” – but in its blank spot, anyway. Just plain trusting that it couldn’t fire anything. It should have totally disabled itself. It must have. It was Interstell Law.
My instructions? What the Triple F do I do next?
Thinking… thinking… My task now is to log back to Mother, keep them informed but not involved. I racked my internal memory-embed tracks for procedures on what to do now.
How deeply buried the instructions were. How simple – “Escort Surrendee to Base for Dee”.
Which meant De-brief… De-commission… De-weaponise… De-bark officers… Whatever.
So basically, what was expected was that ESS Valiant – all ninety-eight vac-mass tonnes of her – would guide them back to our Forward Base… or perhaps Home Base. This struck me as being a mite risky if they’d found some way to override the zeep bleep and disable links. But, the Interstellar Monitors guaranteed it wasn’t possible. I heard some of our teams had looked into by-passing the systems and scratched their balls. And I bet the opposition had been doing the same – scratching their egg sacs.
But. Orders is orders. So I’m expected to guide this NSC Volatility H-Weight right into Forward Base. Where, if they’re better than the InterMons who set it up, they’ll let loose with everything they’ve got. Starting with Valiant, I expect, to eliminate any possible pre-emption or retaliation. Maybe they’re the same sort of suicide ship as us – not the same kind, same purpose. Maybe they’re stripped down to minimum volunteer crew and packed with MT-85. That’d take half the solar system out, with the amount that thing could hold. Or at least the instant vaporisation of an average-sized moon. Or Forward Base.
I brain-fed what I knew to Mother. For information only. They had no say because the Topweight was in a close-down situation to prevent them being got at.
So here I am, float-strapped in here, basically with no choice, yet again. Rules said to guide them to Base. The zeep bleep gained me automatic control of their guidance system, and I slaved their engines to Valiant’s.
Off we went. Me at left-centre-tail position. Nervous as a bag of quaker chicks on market day. And this uffing great monstrosity going first. Supposedly, this was so that Base could blast the bast, as the saying goes, if it looked like trying anything.
I had brief – minimal – contact with two of our other vessels – my own Mother Topweight, and some other that looped in. Almost entirely automatic systems. To keep them informed. I had to confirm a couple of keys so I could plan and set a course.
Set course, yes… For Forward Base. But, actually, the Regs said “Base”, not specifically which one. There’s a base back on Herith – Leisure Base. And the one on Spiro for ship repairs. So, “Base” is within my definition, not the ship’s or the rules’. There’s the Astro-tech Base between Gamma and Delta. That’s forward. Forward enough, anyway. Or it was, a half-century back – storage and exchange now – usually unmanned these days.
So, if NSC Volatility has by-passed the safeties, and intends to eradicate our base… and Valiant with it. Hi ho – so be it – they’ll get the wrong base.
The Brass did make it clear we’re single-use, though. I don’t think an A Class ever survived an actual outing before. Maybe I’ll be a first. That’ll bugger up their records.
Anyway, survive or not, I’m not too sure that I’m ever getting out of here. I’m not one hundred percent certain, but I think I’m either a wired-up brain in this module; or an ultra-connection to a living person’s brain back at some Base somewhere. Be interesting to find out which, at the termination of this foray. Or not.
I’m kinda hoping it’s the latter, and I can go on leave, have a few drinks, find a girl, maybe…
But I’m not holding my breath.