Pushing Up Space Daisies
September 12, 4141
Saffron Dyvora was having a pretty good day before she was almost incinerated.
The command deck of HMS Rasputin was in chaos. Captain Mustafa was dead, and every single alert was sounding off across the ship. Energy levels critical, danger close, hull breach.
Saracen was the most action Saffron had seen in months, and when it’d been assigned, she’d had no idea what she was sailing her ship into. A pickup of a classified cargo from a holding station in Mexes IV and back. It should have been run-of-the-mill, but it was proving to be anything but.
Rasputin’s Flash Engine, the system that allowed for FTL travel, needed to cool, and so they’d broken course and stopped in the Jocasta Nebula, a small interstellar cloud surrounding Jocasta Phi, a blue neutron star.
And it all went to shit from there.
Moments later, the ship was surrounded on all sides by pirate frigates and Rasputin was being raked with cannonfire from stem-to-stern. They were outnumbered, outgunned and caught by surprise: all the merits of a sitting duck.
Another meson artillery shell struck the ship’s starboard hull and Rasputin rocked with the blow. Saffron was darting back and forth across the deck, trying to keep her finger on every beating pulse at once. This was a Captain’s job, but Rasputin’s Officer Commanding, Captain Youssef Mustafa, had been in his office when the axe had come down.
The first shot to Rasputin’s port quarter had crippled a section of the ship’s Sentinel Shielding and caved in the hull right on top of him. The damaged area of the ship had been sealed off, but there was no hope for Mustafa. It wasn’t much consolation to any of the crew, but without a spacesuit, he’d freeze to death long before he suffocated.
Saffron had been crewing Rasputin for nearly a year, and Mustafa’s death hit her like a ton of bricks. The man was upbeat, and resilient, one of the strongest people that she’d ever met. A soldier’s death was no less than he deserved, but Saffron didn’t have the luxury of mourning him.
All she wanted to do was break down, to let her emotions out, but she didn’t have that luxury. And Mustafa would have chided her for it. She had a job to do. She had to Stay Frosty.
Saffron was the Warship Executive Officer, the WEXO, and with no OC, she was the last best chance that the ship and her crew had to stay alive.
And their situation wasn’t good. Rasputin had top-of-the-line Sentinel Shielding, designed to absorb and suppress artillery, but it could only take so many hits before it overloaded and failed. And Rasputin had already taken a battering from the enemy onslaught.
Beneath the shields was Rasputin‘s hull, reinforced against all manner of things, from collisions with other craft to solar storms, but without shielding, the hull would wilt under direct artillery. Not for the first time, Saffron was confronting the realization that for all their weapons and defences, they were doing nothing other than riding on a tin can hurtling through Space.
And so she’d done the only thing she could do: triggered their distress beacon. Jocasta was far outside of Earth’s effective striking distance, and the official mandate from Admiral Manning regarding ships that broke away from their fleets or convoys and were set upon was to abandon them.
But Rasputin was a special case.
Manning’s deputy, Vice Admiral Roman Veselinović, had personally given Rasputin’s crew a special assignment that involved a secret cargo. Cargo that Veselinović was adamant could not be allowed to fall into enemy hands under any circumstances.
He would send reinforcements, it was just a matter of holding out until then. Sounded simple enough on paper, but it was proving to be trickier than Saffron had expected. A ship of this size had five operational tiers, each with an officer to oversee, and it didn’t help that half of them were at each other’s throats.
Saffron knew who to blame, though. There was no smoke without fire, and by the same token, no commotion without Frank Harcourt.
Frank was an exemplary junior officer on paper. A Midshipman, which was the probationary officer rank, but was already in charge of his own tier. He was the CQ, the Company Quartermaster, and the Head of Engineering. He was also the closest thing Rasputin had to a genius aboard.
Frank was fluent in several fields of Applied Science, quantum mechanics and engineering. What his records didn’t show was that Frank never stopped talking, wouldn’t know serious if it kicked him in the head and pretty much believed that humility was a myth. And earning the Admiral’s commission at twenty years of age hadn’t exactly made him popular with his older peers.
Frank sat perched on the edge of his seat on deck, his eyes glued to a screen that displayed a dizzying array of shifting graphs and technical readouts.
The ship jolted once again as it was struck by cannonfire.
“Saff!” Frank barked at his commanding officer. “Tell me you felt that!”
“You know I did!” Saffron barked back. “Now enough with the problems, find me some solutions!”
“Tiny bit of an ask!” Frank exclaimed. “Those bad boys get any closer, and they’ll officially be in our arses!”
Somebody scoffed at this. Saffron didn’t need to look to recognize the snort of derision.
Lieutenant Logan Danvers. The supervising officer for the four artillery sectors. Each sector was run by a Master Gunner, and Logan kept to the bridge, operating the bow torpedo launchers himself. He had his hands full blasting asteroids and Space flotsam out of the ship’s path, but, as usual, he made time to criticize Frank.
“As opposed to unofficially being in our arses!” he exclaimed through gritted teeth.
Saffron hoped that Frank was too busy to retort. Indeed, Rasputin was expending power faster than the core could generate it, and Frank was already occupied re-routing precious energy around the ship. His hands flashed over his screen as he opened and closed power circuits so quickly that he appeared to be touch-typing.
It was no secret that Logan and Frank weren’t the best of friends, but right at that moment, their spitting contest was the last thing that Saffron needed. “You two better can it before I knock your heads together!”
The ship shook again, and Saffron almost lost her balance. “Hartley!” she boomed. “You heard Frank, we take another few hits like that and our goose is going to be cooked!”
Hartley Quasar supervised the piloting and navigating crew and operated as the ship’s primary pilot. Saffron had to hand it to him; all the auto-piloting and cruise control had been disabled to save power, and now Hartley was taking the ship on a manual course through Space, trying to put as much distance between them and their assailants as possible.
Not easy to do, even without dodging asteroids. Piloting a cruiser was no simple task in and of itself, a testament that any pilot worth his or her salt would be happy to back up. A cruiser was not a fighter or a shuttle. It didn’t have a centre-stick, or levers; United Earth battle cruisers were outfitted with the ultimate in top-spec bespoke mechanics.
Hartley stood at the forefront of the bridge before the colossal viewscreen, his arms outstretched akimbo. He wore a specialized headset with neural nodes to transmit information to and from the frontal lobe. Piloting a ship with thought power. It was a testament of human brainpower, and many scientists hoped it was a stepping stone to harnessing psychic abilities.
But a ship couldn’t operate on thoughts alone. The headset was wirelessly connected to an exoskeleton that Hartley wore. This was a maze of metal bands that ran down his arms and criss-crossed over his chest. The bands were equipped with sensors that tracked his motor movements and used the information to move the ship.
Hartley had trained for a year to learn and memorize the countless array of physical movements that the ship translated as lateral and longitudinal commands. His eyes were focused on the viewscreen, and they were doing their best not to break his focus as he opened and closed his fists, pushed and pulled his palms and scissored his arms to pitch, yaw and roll the ship.
On Hartley’s immediate right was his co-pilot, Sergeant Maxwell who was using his computer terminal to regulate their speed, and either side of them were the two navigators.
Just then, Rasputin was moving very fast, barreling through the asteroid belt at speeds well over VT. 1/.3, and their assailants were on their heels. The asteroid belt was running interference with enemy targeting systems fortunately, but Saffron knew that they wouldn’t last long yanking on that thread.
“Hartley!” she shouted again. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes, Commander, I heard you!” Hartley shouted back over his shoulder. His arms were stretched akimbo, hands flat, palms facing down. He gently swayed with his shoulders, pitching and yawing the ship through the belt.
“More speed!” Saffron demanded.
“We go any faster than this, I guarantee you we’ll have a collision!” Hartley’s co-pilot, Sergeant Maxwell said.
“He’s right!” Hartley confirmed. “We don’t need to go any faster, what we need is to fire back!”
“So fire back!” Saffron said. “Logan, make it happen!”
“I told you, there’s too much interference!” Logan replied. “The rear turrets work by sensory tracking, and that won’t work in this asteroid belt!”
“So switch those sensors off!” Saffron suggested. “Eyeball it.”
“We’d waste too many shots!”
“And I don’t know about you,” Frank put in. “But I know for a fact that we don’t have power to waste!”
Saffron turned on him. “Make some power if you have to! I know there’s a way.”
“There always is,” Frank agreed. “But short of bypassing the ship’s safety protocols, not one that helps us now!”
“I don’t care what you have to do!” Saffron shook her head. “Just get it done!”
“Fine, give me five minutes!” Frank confirmed. “And Logan, if I accidentally kill us all, try not to take it so personally.”
Logan frowned. “What?”
“Well, let’s not pretend we don’t all know you’re going downstairs when you kick the bucket.”
“Really?!” Saffron rounded on her junior officer. “Now?!”
True to his word, mere minutes later, Frank’s face lit up in a smile. “Open sesame!” he crowed. “I have manual control of the rear cannons. Transferring it to you now, Danvers.”
“Concentrate fire on our nearest hostile!” Saffron ordered.
There was a moment of dead silence. The chassis of the warship thrummed with power and yielded a tattoo of suppressed thuds and bangs as the rear-mounted trebuchets fired a violent barrage of meson shells. The closest enemy ship, hot on Rasputin’s tail, hadn’t been expecting the sudden offensive, and had no chance to dodge in time.
“Target hit!” Logan crowed.
Saffron’s heart leapt. Perhaps they could do this after all. Logan, meanwhile, was eager to regain face after being again outperformed by his junior officer. “Cycling to torpedoes!” he announced.
A second later, the rear torpedo launcher belched out six glowing spheres, burning hot and bright like mini-suns. The torpedoes slammed into the damaged pirate frigate one after the other, in a domino effect. The last punched through the shield, superheated the unprotected hull and seared right through it, igniting the power core. The frigate exploded, sending shrapnel and pulverized asteroids pelting in all directions.
Saffron couldn’t resist grinning, but the rest of her team weren’t all in such high spirits. Hartley, for one, had a stressed look on his face. “Where the heck is the fleet?!” he exclaimed.
“They’ll be here!” Saffron said firmly. “Just keep your eyes up and stay sharp. The last thing we need is to take extra damage. And while we’re on that, Frank, I need you to reroute every bit of power that we’re not using to the Sentinels.”
“There is no excess power,” Frank said.
“There’s always excess power, Frank,” Saffron replied. “Just turn something off.”
“Wait!” Frank exclaimed suddenly. “I see something on my screen!”
“Another ship?” Saffron asked hopefully, but Frank shook his head.
“No,” he said. “It’s energy readings. Looks kind of like electromagnetic energy-,”
Frank was cut off suddenly as Rasputin rocked with another horrible jolt. Saffron immediately knew that this one felt different. It felt as though a large section of the ship had just been torn away. “What in the world was that?” she exclaimed.
Frank was back to studying his screens and it was a few moments before he replied. “That was Negative Energy,” Frank explained. “An electromagnetic pulse stimulated with negatively-charged ions. What I don’t know is how they’re harnessing it!”
Saffron winced. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that ship is equipped with-”
“An Ion Pulsar!” Logan finished. He was the Artillery Supervisor, he lived and breathed weapons.
“A what now?” Frank asked, bewildered.
“It’s a weapon,” Logan said. “And a dangerous one!”
“Logan’s right,” Saffron nodded. Frank looked at his console in bewilderment. “We’re losing more power, and we’re losing it quickly. I don’t understand how that’s happening, and I really dislike not understanding!”
“Let me put this in Layman’s Terms for you,” Logan said with a noticeable air of superiority. “That weapon severs the energy tethers that couple the power core to the ship. Without power, they won’t have to shoot at us! No power, no life support, no oxygen.”
“How does it do that?” Frank was still nonplussed.
“Big magnet go boom,” Saffron simplified, and Frank scowled.
“We’re losing power that we don’t even have,” Frank said grimly. “And we only have three more energy tethers. If they sever those, we’re going to be Pushing Up Space Daisies!”
“Okay, so,” Saffron took a deep breath. “Plan. They have a weapon that can knock out our power source. I say we knock theirs out first.”
“No dice,” Logan said, without even looking away from his screen. “I’ve never seen an Ion Pulsar in action before, but I’ve seen blueprints and schematics. It powers itself. It takes in ion molecules from the solar wind.”
Frank frowned. “It would have to take in a lot to build up enough power, though, no?”
Logan nodded. “Affirmative. It takes a while, but it’s extremely energy-efficient.”
“I’m glad you’re impressed,” Frank snorted. “How about we blow it up instead of complimenting it?”
“I like that plan,” Saffron snapped her fingers. “Takes a while, huh, Logan? How long’s a while?”
Logan cocked his head from side to side in a very wishy-washy manner. “Can I interest you in five Earth minutes?”
The ship rocked violently again, and several mariners slid across the deck. The proximity sensors went berserk as the two remaining martian attack frigates swerved up and aimed fired four shells onto the hull from above.
Saffron had to admit, she was amazed at how well Hartley was handling the ship. Even with the huge view-screen, she could barely see where they were going. And the helm’s viewscreen boasted an excellent view of the belt. A huge screen, about twenty feet by twenty-five that took up almost one entire wall. It was designed to mimic glass, but it was actually a network of microscopic cameras that’d been woven into the hull, displaying real-time images onto the bridge.
Twenty feet of glass on a spaceship? Bad idea, that was just an accident waiting to happen. Even as Saffron stood stock-still, eyes glued to the screen, it was just a blur as the ship pelted through the asteroid belt, barely missing collisions with asteroids that were even bigger than they were.
“Commander!” the secondary navigator bellowed. “I see solar disturbance on my screen!”
“Is it what I think it is?” Saffron yelled back.
“If you think that they’re re-charging their weapon,” Logan nodded. “Then yes, I think so. We need to act, and we need to do it now, or we’re going to lose more power!”
“What’s the range on it?” Frank asked.
“Long enough to get us,” Logan simplified.
Frank hmmed softly to himself. “That gives me an idea-”
He never got the chance to finish his sentence. The enemy weapon discharged again and slammed into Rasputin’s aft hull with enough force to jolt the ship from the crow’s nest to the bilge. Just as before, the impact was different. It seemed to resonate on every single level of the ship. Power cells ruptured and exploded several floors below deck as a second master coupling was severed from the power core. Machinery erupted spectacularly in showers of sparks, mariners were thrown across the deck.
Saffron lost her balance, tumbled head over heels and landed flat on her face. Her nose snapped like a wishbone on impact. It stung. Badly. Her ears were popping, her vision had suddenly gone blurry. Saffron rolled onto her back and her hands flew to her face to cradle her injuries.
“Officer down!” Logan boomed. “Medics on deck!”
“No!” Saffron shouted, struggling to her feet. “Belay that order! Fire at will, and engage all targets!”
For a moment, nothing happened, and Saffron wondered whether anyone had actually heard her. “I said fire at will!” she repeated. “Engage all targets! Lieutenant Danvers, respond!”
“We’ve got a problem, WEXO!” Logan was shouting. “My torpedo launchers are unresponsive!”
“What?!” Saffron exclaimed. “Tell me you’re joking!”
Logan was virtually hitting his screen at this point, but the torpedoes didn’t fire. “Stoppage, stoppage!” Logan screamed. “I’m shooting blanks!”
“Frank, diagnostic!” Saffron barked. “Now!”
“Already doing it!” Frank had abandoned his aim of managing power for the ship and was now running a full diagnostic. He cut the scanning process short once he locked onto the problem. “I think that last impact knocked the firing mechanisms out of alignment!” he reported.
Saffron shook her head, ears still buzzing and popping. “Deploy the nanomites to repair it.”
“There’s nothing to repair!” Frank explained, his eyes glued to his screen. “I’m getting diagnostics in now. It’s not broken, it’s bent. Besides, we burnt through nanomite power ages ago.”
“Bent firing mechanism,” Saffron murmured. “Could someone knock it back into alignment?”
“Very possible, if they didn’t die first,” Frank nodded. Then his eyes widened. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“I am,” Saffron nodded. “I’m gonna Spacewalk the hull and knock it back into alignment.”
Frank made a noise of exclamation at this. “No, boss, you gotta let me do it. We can’t risk you.”
“No, we can’t risk you,” Saffron countered. “You’re not certified for Spacewalks, you don’t even have a damn suit aboard.”
“Then I’ll use yours,” Frank said defiantly.
“You know better than I do that you can’t,” Saffron shook her head. “It’s coded to me.”
“Boss, I’m the only one here who knows how to fix the damn thing,” Frank pointed out.
“Exactly,” Saffron nodded. “That’s why you’re going to walk me through it.”
On paper, Saffron was certified for exo-operations. But she knew that “certified” was a strong word. She’d done the training, not that she remembered a lot of it. And in any case, poncing about in a spacesuit in a cushy ZG environment was a far cry from Spacewalking a hull in the middle of a firefight. But what choice was there?
“Frank, let’s go,” Saffron said firmly. “You’re going to suit me up. I’ll walk you through that. And Logan?”
“You have Control.”
Logan gulped so loudly that Saffron heard it from several feet away. He was nervous, and for good reason. Being left in command of a ship was no small thing, and especially not in the middle of a red alert.
“I have Control, ma’am,” he confirmed.
Saffron nodded. “Keep us alive. And failing that, I’ll settle for “not dead”.”