Burning Bridges - Chapter 2

TNS Galahad 
Ross 154 System
29 September 2142

"Ma'am, I'm detecting a trans-D threshold," Crewman Fayola Mbeki said. Heading one-zero-two by plus-one-zero, distance ... 500 kilometers."

"Birds," Kim Masterson said. "Sound general quarters." As an alarm klaxon began blaring, she continued, "Helm, make our course two-six-zero by minus-one-six, distance two kilomters. Put the asteroid between us and them."

"Aye aye. Setting course," the helmsman said.

"Crewman Mbeki, disable active sensors, but keep our passive sensors trained on the threshold. As soon as you read ships, let me know what we've got."

The klaxon ceased. "Aye, ma'am. How many are we expecting?" she asked.

"No idea," Kim said. "But it's probably the same number that hit the outpost the first time."

"Ma'am, we're in position behind the asteroid," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Amiyah Khan, who sat at helm.

"Acknowledged, Khan. Rig us for low emissions." 

"Aye aye, rigging for low emissions," Khan said. The ship's lights dimmed, several uncrewed consoles on the bridge powered down, and Kim floated into her chair's harnesses as the ship's artificial gravity systems shut down. "We'll have about two hours before we have to vent the ship's heat sinks."

"I have a reading for you, ma'am," Mbeki said. "Five ships. I can't make them out in more detail without an active scan."

"No need," Kim said. "I think we know who these Birds are."

The bridge doors opened behind her, and Commander Mackenzie announced, "Captain on deck!" He and Captain Darien floated onto the bridge. 

"As you were," the captain said. "Ensign Masterson, I see we're rigged for silent running. Report."

"Five ships on passive sensors, sir," Kim said. "They're about 500 klicks out. We're concealed behind the asteroid and, as you noticed, running low-emissions."

Alex frowned at the captain. "We still have a search and recovery team on the outpost," he said. "We need to let them know what's going on before they open comms and broadcast their location."

Darien nodded. "Ensign Masterson, I have the conn. Take over at commo."

Kim acknowledged, unfastened herself and pushed off toward the communications station. Darien maneuvered into the captain's chair, and Commander Mackenzie took his seat at the captain's right hand.

"Khan, give me power for communications and the secondary antenna," Kim said. She did so, and Kim's control panels flickered to life. She set the system up for an encrypted tightbeam transmission at 24 gigaHertz, a frequency the Terran Navy used for covert operations because casual observers would mistake it as emissions from a nebula. "SAR Team One, this is TNS Galahad. Respond with status on this frequency. I say again, respond with status on this frequency."

"Team One here, Galahad," the SAR team lead responded. "We're about three meters from the data recorder. Give us about thirty minutes and we should have it. There a problem?"

"Birds," Kim said.

"Better make it fifteen minutes, then. We'll pick up the pace and let you know when we're done, ma'am."

"Copy," Kim said. "Galahad out." She turned around. "Captain, SAR team reports they're fifteen minutes from recovering the data recorder."

"Thank you, ensign." Darien faced the forward section of the bridge. "We need a distraction, and we need an escape plan for our people on the outpost. Give me options."

"Individual EVA might be our best bet," Mackenzie said. "We'd have to leave their landing vehicle behind, but there's less risk the Birds would pick up the individual team members."

"One bad maneuver and we lose a team member and possibly the data recorder with it," Darien said. "Plus if the Birds are looking for signs of activity near the outpost, they're going to spot any EVA."

"An electromagnetic pulse could blind their sensors for a minute or two," Mbeki said. "If the SAR teams are ready to go when we detonate it, that would be enough time for them to get out."

"But the Birds would have to be within 50 kilometers or so for an EMP to overpower their systems. There's no way they wouldn't detect us at that range," Mackenzie said. "We'd need to lure them in."

"Use an escape pod," Kim said. "We're running silent right now, which means the ship is a hot box. Normally, we'd pump liquid coolant through the ship's heat sinks and flush it into space after a couple of hours. But we can manually flush that coolant into an escape pod instead, and then eject the escape pod. It'll shine bright enough to get the Birds' attention."

Mackenzie nodded. "We could control the pod's trajectory remotely and track the Birds via its telemetry."

"We'd just need to send a signal to the EMP device to trigger it when they got close enough," Kim said.

"I'm with you so far," Darien said. "But our people have to get from the outpost to us in the short time the Birds will be blind."

"If we open a trans-D gate just after we detonate the device," Khan said, "they can head for it without having to dock with us."

"Makes sense," Darien said. "Any number of things could go wrong, but if we do this right, we'll make it out of here without the Birds firing a single shot. Ensign Masterson, pull three people from Deck One's firefighting team and prepare an escape pod. Crewman Mbeki, have the weapons bay prepare an EMP device and bring it to Masterson's location. Alex, take over comms and sensors. We have fifteen minutes, people, so make it happen."

Kim arrived on Deck Two to see a firefighting team, dressed in heavy uniforms with thick gloves, holding a hose that they had attached to the ship's coolant pipes. Lieutenant Kalis Vilneaux — who as far as Kim knew was still nursing some severe injuries — was with them, similarly equipped.

"Ma'am, pardon me for asking, but should you be here?" Kim asked.

"The docs told me not to put any weight on my leg," Kalis said as she gestured at the crew, noting the lack of gravity. "I called the CIC to ask if they needed another body for a general quarters post, and they put me here."

Some of the other crew members laughed. One quipped, "Marines." 

"Have you heard the plan?" Kim asked.

"Yes," Kalis said. "Do you think one escape pod's going to be enough?"

Kim gazed at Kalis. "We only have enough time to rig this one. What'd you have in mind?"

"You only need one to be booby trapped," Kalis said, "but if you just launch one pod, the Birds may just shoot it at range, or they might not pay it any attention at all. But launch a dozen and make it look like only one has survivors ..."

"They'd more likely send one or more ships to investigate," Kim finished. 

"It's more believable," Kalis said. "And if shit hits the fan, would the escape pods do us any good?"

"I'll take the idea with me when I get back to the bridge," Kim said. "Is this pod armed?"

"It's about to be," Crewman Mbeki called out as he pulled himself toward the escape pod with a cylindrical device about the size of his body in tow. One of the crew members pushed the escape pod's door open, while the others helped Mbeki maneuver it so they could place it inside. They backed away after placing the device. Kalis wedged the hose's nozzle into the door as another crewman pulled it most of the way shut.

"Ma'am," he said to Kim. "I had to change the plan when I remembered that the escape pod's ejection sequence blasts away the part of the outer hull that covers it."

"I should have known better anyway," Kim said. "Good thinking."

"That coolant runs 220 degrees Celsius," Kalis said. "So be careful with the hose, because it's going to get very hot to the touch! Fayola, can you control the flow?" As Mbeki nodded, she said, "Good. Give me two liters per second and see if we can keep it from spraying all over the place."

Mbeki pushed himself toward a valve on the wall near the hose's opposite end and adjusted it. The hose spasmed as liquid flowed through it. It oozed into the capsule, with heat radiating from it and distorting the air around it in every direction. Kalis kept a hand on the hose near the nozzle and felt the heat through her glove.

After about a minute, Kalis noticed beads forming near the nozzle's seam. "Shut it down!" she barked.

Mbeki turned off the coolant flow. With no more pressure at the valve, the rest of the fluid stayed inside the hose. "Don't squeeze the hose, just unfasten it and try not to spill any of the coolant." Mbeki curved the hose's valve end toward the nozzle after disconnecting it and handed it to the next person holding the hose. That person did the same, as did the third, until Kalis had both ends. She pulled the escape pod door open and eased the hose inside, valve end first. She herded one loose glob of coolant into the pod after the nozzle cleared the doorway, then sealed the hatch. "Okay, we're ready here," she said to Kim.

"I'll let the captain know," Kim said and headed for a ladder back to Deck One.

 "Mister Mackenzie," Captain Darien said, "open a tight beam channel to the outpost at 24.8 gigaHertz and put it on speaker."

"Aye, sir," Alex said. "You're on."

"EOD Team One, this is Galahad actual," Darien said. "What's your status?"

"Mendes here," came the response over the bridge speakers. "The Birds' attack messed this reactor up pretty good, sir. It'll never provide sustained fusion again."

"You're not there to set up a sustained reaction," the captain said. He grinned, revealing canines that matched the rest of his felinoid face. "Not that I need to remind you. Are you ready, or do you need more time?"

"All packed up and ready to go, sir," Mendes said. "Waiting for your signal."

"Stand by," Darien said, motioning to Alex to close the channel. Behind him, Kim floated back onto the bridge. "Ensign Masterson, is our escape pod ready?"

"Yes, sir," Kim said. "But Lieutenant Vilneaux suggested we launch multiple escape pods. It would draw more attention and look more realistic than a single pod. We wouldn't have to do anything with the others because only one of them needs to look it's inhabited."

"Wait," Alex said. "Kalis was there?"

"Yes, sir. She said the doctors told her to keep weight off her legs," Kim said. "And with the gravity turned off ..."

"Okay, I get it," Darien said. "Alex, put me on Deck Two speakers."

Alex flipped a switch and nodded at the captain.

"Deck Two, this is the captain. Any smartass jarheads who are not medically cleared for duty are to return immediately to their quarters. Captain out."

Alex turned off the speaker. "You're such a party pooper sometimes, captain," he said with a grin as he unfastened himself and gave the console back to Kim. Crewman Mbeki climbed onto the bridge and floated toward his station.

"She'll thank me when we turn the gravity back on," Darien said. "But her plan and reasoning are sound. Crewman Mbeki, welcome back. Once you've settled in, prepare the port escape pods on Deck Two and Deck Three for launch, and launch on my mark."

"Aye, sir," Mbeki said. A moment later, "Ready."

"Crewman Khan, prepare a two-second, one-gee burn of the main thruster along our present heading. Execute on my mark."

"Aye sir. Maneuver ready," Khan said.


Galahad's massive main thruster flared to life, glowing red as escape pods popped away from the ship. The thruster's glow died two seconds later. Five hundred kilometers starward, five starships turned to face the sudden activity. The central ship hung back while the smaller ships on its flanks nudged ahead, so that the formation looked like a V aimed at Ross 154. A dozen smaller craft launched in pairs from the central ship and flew toward the new objects that had caught their attention.

 "Clearing the asteroid," Khan said.

"I have a visual on the Birds," Mbeki said. "I read five ships: one carrier, two cruisers, and two destroyers. The carrier is launching fighters, but their large ships are holding position."

"They're sending the fighters to investigate the blip they just saw on their sensors," Kim said. "Now we find out if we're running silently enough for them to notice the escape pods first."

"Range to the fighters?" Darien asked.

"Two hundred kilometers and closing," Mbeki said. "One hundred kilometers. Seventy-five. They're slowing to investigate the pods."

"Much closer and they'll see us," Alex said. "Their visual acuity is ridiculous."

"Range from the fighters to the pods?" Darien asked.

"Twenty ... 10 kilometers," Mbeki said.

"Detonate the EMP."

Several things happened within a few thousandths of a second within the electromagnetic pulse device.

First, small tanks of liquid hydrogen flooded a series of superconducting coils. Once the coils were sufficiently chilled, graphene capacitors discharged into the coils, creating a magnetic field so powerful that the coils themselves began to disintegrate under the magnetic pressure. Finally, explosive charges at the center of the device detonated. The explosion destroyed the escape pod and compressed the magnetic field.

Every circuit inside the other escape pods fused from the induced electrical current. So did every circuit inside the Birds' starfighters, which went dark. 

"That got their attention!" Mbeki shouted. "All five Bird starships are making for our position!"

"Secure from silent running," Darien said. "Khan, bring gravity back online and give me 500 kps along our current heading. Masterson, signal our teams to evacuate the outpost."

Alex felt weight in his seat again as the gravity systems came back on, and felt the ship rumble as it accelerated to 500 kilometers per second. 

"Teams on the outpost are away, making for our position," Kim said.

"Khan, spool up the trans-D drive. Set our destination as New Earth," Darien said.

Crewman Khan frowned. "Unable to comply, sir," she said. "The Birds are ... jamming trans-dimensional space somehow!"

"Mbeki, active sensor scan of their ships. Try to record how they're doing that. Range of their ships to the outpost?"

"Closing fast," Mbeki said. "They'll be on top of the outpost in a few seconds."

"Masterson, signal our teams to make best possible speed away from the asteroid, and tell our EOD team to detonate their device. Khan, give me point-five-cee, now!"

Though the Birds' attack on the outpost had crippled its reactor, five of the heavily protected fuel tanks, each containing 10 million tons of liquid hydrogen, had remained intact. It took one second for the EOD team to execute Captain Loren Darien's command.

At that moment, fusion torpedo charges situated in rings outside each of the tanks detonated. Their own ten-megaton explosions compressed the hydrogen within the tanks, turning it into plasma. One billionth of a second later, the hydrogen, compressed to nearly 100 million atmospheres of pressure, reached a temperature over 150 million degrees -- the kind of pressure and temperature found in the galaxy's hottest, brightest stars.

At one ten-millionth of a second, fifty million tons of liquid hydrogen was fusing in a reaction that no amount of iron or rock would contain.

At one millionth of a second, a tenth of the iron inside the asteroid had been fused into uranium and other heavy elements as the explosion tore through the asteroid's outer layers.

At one hundred-thousandth of a second, the fusion blast reached the Birds' starships. Gamma radiation pulverized their outer hulls and tore through bulkheads. As the ships broke apart, their own fusion reactors lost containment and joined the conflagration.

At one second, the light from the explosion reached the Galahad, which along with its two shuttlecraft had reached a safe distance of 300,000 kilometers.

"Jamming is clear," Khan said. "Trans-D generator standing by."

"Create a jump point to New Earth," Darien said. "Let's find out what was on that data recorder and brief Admiral Tanaka on what happened to the outpost."