– – = = ( Chapter One, 36 Hours from Chessboard ) = = – –
New Ore-Transport Commander, Mei-Jhen Wu, was anxious for information about the approaching enemy warship. After carefully timing each step of a complex and dangerous plan, she knew full well that it was too early to nag her pilot, Ray Reorden, for a status on how this next step was unfolding. Hopefully this was about to change. Not being the patient type, this waiting for information which could not travel faster than the speed of light was aging her as she sat in her command chair unable to do anything but wait.
She settled back to review how the imagined chessboard of the coming battle was progressing. In her mind, it could be reduced to a chessboard with certain pieces and rules that both sides had to follow. How fast either ship could go, how quick either could change speed or trajectory, the speed of light and how it equaled the speed at which information about the battle could travel, the laws of inertia, thrust and trajectory all confined both players. From this, months ago when it was looking like China would take aggression action against Canopy, she offered a defense that China was unlikely to anticipate and therefore might fall prey to. An inner circle of Canopy leadership wrestled with, but ultimately decided that her plan was the best so she determined to setup a virtual chunk of space just before the halfway point between Earth and Canopy so it would be ready when China arrived. She code named this chunk of space, ‘Chessboard’ and began arranging the chess pieces to fight and win at that location.
All their intelligence strongly indicated that China had sent the only space warship any country had produced to take control of her home but hard details about the ship were scarce. The newly-sovereign Canopy Mining space station, located in the middle of the asteroid belt within easy reach of Jupiter, had no warships or military to oppose the Chinese.
Her pawns were a number of redundant, reprogrammed probes, code named Spy-1 through Spy-12, set along the expected path that the Chinese would take, to stealthily track and follow the ship at a safe distance. Spy-1 & 2 were special in that they stayed far away from the enemy, at a location where it would remain quiet and undetectable except for tight-radio-beams that would be used to communicate with Canopy or their spy probes or perhaps the enemy ship. This would hide the actual location of their ship.
Spy 3 and 4 were quietly dropped where they could follow the launch of the Chinese warship and verify it’s lunar departure and trajectory despite that the only course that made any sense was to travel via a whip around Mars to boost their speed for free.
Because of fuel limitations, the lunar probes would pass the task of post-Mars tracking to Spy 5 and 6. Their sole job was to track and report on the Chinese exact trajectory and speed. Because of their physical size, engine size and not being manned, they could race into the exhaust area behind the Chinese where they would be almost impossible to detect. The much heavier warship could not accelerate or decelerate as quickly without injuring her crew. But being this nimble carried the price not being able to carry fuel enough to stay in the race for very long. This was acceptable because the Chinese were expected to maintain an aggressive acceleration along a single trajectory from the moon to Mars and then continue hard acceleration to some mid-point between Mars and Canopy where they would stop accelerating, give the crew time to recover some before flipping the ship and begin to decelerate the rest of the way to arrive at Canopy as quickly as possible.,
Spies 5 and 6 would watch and report for as long as they could harvest any useful data through the communication probes 1 and 2. But when they could no longer keep up Wu expected that the Chinese would have settled into a predictable trajectory that could easily be picked up by two other specially placed probes, Spy-7 and 8 where her attack would begin.
Knowing the Chinese’s speed and trajectory with this degree of accuracy, enabled her to launch a surprise for the warship that would set a tone for how the battle would be waged and do some peremptory looting that would enable the rest of her attack plan.
Canopy also had Earth-bound business agents who paid attention to China’s public statements and news coverage of the unfolding drama between them and Canopy Station. They were proudly public about their construction of a warship and, even though specifications were not made public, there was intelligence for sale that gave some idea of what the Chinese were building and when it finally launched, anyone with a telescope had been able to see the engine plume as it began its long journey to the orbit of Jupiter where Canopy had settled.
Mei-Jhen was gratified that the Chinese had done exactly what she predicted so far by increasing their speed for almost the first half of the trip and just two days ago, they cut their main engines, stopping their acceleration and eliminating the stress of the heavy G-forces the crew had lived with since leaving Mars orbit.
Her plan to when they had just shut down their main engine, had played out as expected. Up to the moment when her surprise met the ship, they was no evidence that the Chinese were aware of her spy probes or that she was meeting them at all which was almost certainly not true.
Trying not to sound anxious, she again asked Ray, “How’s our tight beam to the Spies 7 and 8? It’s almost time for some results from our surprise.”
“The beam looks good Commander. I show a healthy heartbeat and you already have the acknowledgement that our first attack arrived on target. We don’t have any detailed results . . . no – check that. We have incoming data. It’s unpacking – and — and – it’s – done! We have it.”
She leaned forward as Ray looked to the main screen and the summary report. Finally, Ray continued, “It worked as planned. There were lots of service bots out on their hull and our probe was able to inject a query into two of them resulting in successful hacks from both. We also have a short video clip still arriving and . . . Oh damn! The transmission just died. It . . . “
“Quick Ray! Evasive maneuvers immediately. Docking thrusters only! Get us off that beam vector!”
Ray spun and pushed a few buttons causing the ship to pivot and press them down into their seats. As the ship powered into its new vector he answered, “Done Commander. But by changing our trajectory, we’ll have to reacquire the beam with Spy-7.”
“Trust me. We’ve heard the last from that probe. It is floating debris by now.”
Ray looked confused. “How could you know that Ma’am?”
“To start with, they know they were hit by something unusual so when their service bots deployed to patch things up, so they had to be suspicious. Then, when two of their own bots suddenly began to transmit replies to queries they’d not issued the on-board AI would have sent an alarm to their comm officer’s station. That alarm would have screamed that they’d been hacked. Then they had to reason that the transmission was not meant for them so someone else or at least something else was nearby to receive that answer. That would have sent them scanning for something near enough to receive a low power bot transmission. They easily would have found Spy-7 after knowing where to look. Those probes don’t carry high powered communications gear, so they would know that a ship (us) must be in range. So you can count on it. They now know for certain that we’re out here somewhere and they’re now trying to recreate our tight-beam vector from their sensor logs so they can blow us out of the sky.
“Fortunately they won’t use active sensors, like radar, which would advertise their exact position. Now that the probe is destroyed, that captain is both looking for us and planning to change his trajectory as quietly as he can.
They are also still about a quarter of a light-minute away which means anything we see from that ship happened about 13 seconds ago. You can bet that that captain has been looking for us ever since. Thirteen light-seconds distance is plenty far enough that it’s unlikely they’ll find us, but if they do, their lasers would reach us in thirteen seconds. I prefer that we avoid being shot at so we need to be both very quiet and somewhere other than riding that beam vector.”
Ray grinned and answered, “Got it. We’re coming about on thrusters only, but we’re still so heavy that it’s going to be sluggish.”
“We should be good. Any trajectory change will exponentially improve with time and even if they immediately were able to isolate and target us, it would take those same thirteen seconds to reach our previous position. Lasers do spread some, but they don’t explode by themselves, so there’s no blast radius to worry about. We need them to only miss us by a few inches. They might not have had any weapons-grade lasers charged and ready for use anyway and deflector lasers don’t have anything like a six-light-minute range.”
“You’ve thought this through Captain. I’ll bet they were even surprised to find out that their repair bots are hackable.”
“Well, you can thanks our Earth based intelligence for that trick and bet they’ve shut down that path. We can’t use that trick again”
Ray turned back to the stolen report. “According to this, whatever you threw at them worked really well. They are listing four small hull breaches with both water shielding and atmosphere venting, antenna and thruster damage. They had their forward rail gun ports open and those too were damaged. They had at least thirteen bots on the hull so we certainly damaged lots of things. Can you tell me yet, what did we throw at them?”
Wu smiled before answering “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you much about the plan ahead of time. I was firmly instructed to keep as much classified as possible for as long as possible. It was a cloud of over three thousand 6mm steal ball bearings. I used our speed plus their speed to make a combined speed that turned all those bearings into highly polished kinetic projectiles. No explosives needed, just physics.
Spies 7 and 8 told us they were making 21 kilometers per second which itself may be a record for manned space flight. Add to that our speed of almost 9 km/sec gives us a total of 30 km/sec equivalent at the time of impact. I could tell you the formula for the energy released at each impact”
“Please don’t Commander. I’m a pretty good pilot partially because I’m willing to trust the computer to do all the heavy math.”
“Fine, but so you know the final answer, 30km/sec is roughly 1/10,000 of the speed of light and . . .”
“You really can’t help yourself can you Ma’am?”
Wu smiled, “Okay, but it’s a huge amount of kinetic energy from each bearing. Their ship would certainly have a fortified armor hull, but that kind of energy being released at impact would still cause material damage especially if two or more bearing hit the same spot.
“We still don’t know what kind of ship we’re dealing with, but I’m betting that they started with a basic submarine hull shape and added a water shield outer hull and rocket engines. But we’ve already learned a few valuable things. For example, the fact that they listed rail gun damage tells us that they have rail guns.” She paused to think to herself, which we have no real defense against. They have weapons designed for war while we have an ore transport ship with robotic drills, refined rare metals and home-made ball bearings. If Canopy has to go nose-to-nose with this crowd, we lose.
“Did that video unpack?”
“Yes, bringing it up now.”
“Good, I’m hoping to learn a lot from it. Their deflector system would have certainly detected our incoming cloud, but that system is designed for normal small floating rocks and, like us, they use an array of lower wattage lasers on fast targeting gimbals to destroy that kind of stuff, but three thousand at such fast speeds all at once would have easily overwhelmed the system. Second, those stainless steel bearing are tough, much tougher than their deflector lasers are designed for. They’re heat resistant and highly reflective so would scatter much the laser’s power. I’ve not seen the deflector system that was designed for shiny heat resistant stainless steel bearings.”
Ray looked up at the main screen, “Here’s the video. It’s not long, but it’s what the probe was able to transmit.”
Wu, settled back in her chair to watch. Their primary stealth hacker probes, Spies 7 and 8 had been quietly paralleling the warship for the past 2 weeks, easily keeping up due to weighing so little compared to the power of its quiet thruster style engine, had been about 4 kilometers off their port side. Even with the camera fully zoomed, it could barely make out the ship due to distance and the darkness of space.
She checked her hand-held timer as Ray started the video and tried to make it as clear as possible. . She’d started a countdown from the bearing impact at 36 hours. One point five days until checkmate, she thought. Thus it begins.
“Um, hard to see Commander, but we’ll see impact in 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – and . . .” As they watched, all leading edges of the warship lit up like sparklers from the small explosions caused by anything the bearings touched. Most of what they hit was fortified hull plating which was incinerated and cratered at each contact, but any exposed external equipment was flashed out of service as from a hail storm from hell.
As fast as it started, the cloud of bearings passed, leaving the ship chewed up with some venting hull breaches and smoldering mounts from lost external equipment.
Mei-Jhen considered and had Ray play that part back in slow motion a few times, “This is good Ray. That’s a warship alright, designed to fight but I bet their hull damage alone would qualify them for a few weeks of hull plate replacements.” To herself she thought, so it’s time to hunker down and finish this. “Pause the video. Now backup about 2 seconds and forward a couple of frames – there.”
She unbuckled from her chair and drifted forward to put her finger on the screen before them. “Ray, help me determine what this was. It’s destroyed now and if it’s what I think, we may have a much easier time the rest of the day.
“Look in the damage report for anything with the word ‘triangulation’. They may well have lost one of at least three triangulation sensors for the deflectors. They would certainly have redundant units but any loss of those could be crippling.”
“You are going to love this then, Commander. This says they lost five of seven. Three units are labeled ‘Non-Repairable’ and two others show ‘Out of Service due to damaged antennae’s so they won’t be able target correctly on just two until they get at least one more repaired.”
“Sweet news – yes. Only two is not enough to protect the ship through a debris field. I could not have hoped for better news at this point. You can’t pull deflector sensors behind a fortified hulls. They will certainly prioritize repairing at least one so they have a minimum of three operational. This is excellent. If we had a kill shot to hit them with now, we’d be done because they can’t defend themselves.” She signed, knowing she could not have planned for this to happen. “We’re still going to have to do this the hard way. After that hit, they might be trying to dodge. Where are they now?”
She spun and returned to her command chair and thought. We would have seen any main engine plume so, thus far they have not made a major change in course so they remain on our calculated vector – unless they’ve tweaked with docking thrusters. We wouldn’t be able see those from this distance.
“How’s our new course and speed doing? I need us right in line with their calculated course vector and making our best speed.” Trying to guess what was in the mind of the warship’s captain, she thought, He has to realize that we knew his location so why would he not change course and protect his ship. He can’t know that we don’t have another wave of stuff coming his way. I would have used thrusters and changed course – unless, I couldn’t.
“Ray, I need an absolute update on their location. We could miss them changing course with maneuvering thrusters so suck any information you can about them from passive sensors.”
“I’ve got nothing on passives Commander and the other Spies are too far away to confirm.”
“How long until their next expected transit?”
“We’ll be in position and at speed in – um, one hour and 21 minutes. Unless one of us change course, there won’t be much change to their background star pattern. And our course is changing, but so slowly that it doesn’t make much difference.”
Mei-Jhen knew this was true. A glance at her timer told her that roughly 35 hours remained to find that ship for certain and launch against for her checkmate impact just 10 minutes later. Her Spy probes 9 through 12, were closing as a prescribed rate on the warship, but they could not risk being too close too soon, so they would not help solve this part of the problem. The warship commander was all but certain to adjust his trajectory, so she had left room in her plan for the final chessboard location to shift but she needed to know his absolute trajectory and speed to be sure where.
The warship itself was too small to see even under full magnification, but they could not hide whenever they eclipsed a star from the background causing it to blink from their perspective. To do this, she needed to know exactly where the warship should be and carefully watch for either an expected star to blink to confirm. Anything else, a delayed or premature blink or a missing expected blink would alert her that they had changed course.
She reminded herself that this commander could also use star transits to isolate and target her ship, but he would need to know a sure location for them at one point in time along with her trajectory and speed. These should all still be unknowns to him – so we’re safe for now.
“Ray, one hour and 21 minutes is too damn long without an update. If they were thrusting to a new vector now, we’d have a hard time reestablishing their location. If we have to wait until we’re within visual range, it’s too late for us to align ourselves with them. If we lose their location, we lose this battle.”
“Ray, do we have any options for an earlier transit check? Can we thrust to a new heading to create an earlier option?”
He worked his console for a few moments before turning to say, “Nothing Ma’am. The one we are heading for is our earliest opportunity.”
Mei Jhen sighed and settled back in her chair. “Okay, keep us dark and quiet, but I need to know immediately if you see any sign of them changing course.” I hope they have thruster damage. Wouldn’t that be a gift!
With little else to do for the moment, she recalled that with his 3 years of shuttle experience in the still young US Space Force, Ray was one of the best pilots Canopy had. She was fortunate to have him.
Mei Jhen had no similar experience. She was an engineer who dealt death only from across a chess board. Canopy didn’t have a military as none was needed until only eight months ago. But now, the young colony was under attack. Mei Jhen and Ray had no real choice even in what kind of ship to use. They were stuck with an ore-transport with its large, multi-bin cargo capacity and powerful heavy-duty engines for moving heavy ore.
– – = = ( Chapter Two, Canopy Station, Eight Months Earlier ) = = – –
Governor Richard Beachwood stood on the balcony of the top floor of the single government building for all of Canopy Station. This view always amazed and inspired him but today he wanted to chat with a friend with this view before them.
The building was at the hub-end of the original drum, the first of two now counter-rotating drums, looking out with the giant, bright green, ivy covered axle, apparently floating up in the zero gravity region almost 500 meters above him at the center of the drum, directly overhead and running almost out of sight down to the far end of the drum, ten full kilometers away.
He grinned to think how some disliked naming the station after what was a giant pipe covered with ivy but it quickly became the first object noticed by visitors who commented how no description or photograph could have prepared them for the scale and majesty of that huge bolt of green foliage in the center of their equivalent of the sky.
The drums of Canopy Station provided no lateral horizon, which disoriented all newcomers for a couple of weeks. The ground to either side simply bent up and only a kilometer away, one could see down on homes as if flying over them from a low altitude on Earth.
The designers of Canopy went with an easy piece of geometry to scale each drum. The full diameter from ground level to ground level was one kilometer, thus the circumference of the inner drum floor was pi x 1 kilometer or 3.14 kilometers, an easy walk with the canopy of the ivy covered axle always directly overhead.
From any point inside the drum looking back to the hub end showed this building and other offices nestled in the man-made mountains with the mist colored wall and the transit tubes coming down from where the axel met the Hub wall. The other direction revealed the fresh water ocean end for a full 10 kilometer distance from hub end to ocean end.
From this balcony, Beachwood could see most of the cities, towns, farms and ranches as they wrapped up and around the high center cluster of bright green foliage that covered the giant axle. The optical illusion of the three man-made rivers from the man-made mountains flowing away from him while clinging to what looked like upward sloping walls of the inside of the giant drum, was always breath-taking. A beautiful and surreal view, he thought not possible anywhere on Earth.
“Good morning Richard,” Mei-Jhen said as she wheeled herself out to join him at the edge of the balcony.
He stepped over to meet her with an outstretched hand. She slowed to a stop within reach and offered her hand, which he shook warmly and then covered hers with his other hand and held it while he said, “It’s so good to see you. How long has it been this time, almost a year?”
“You are losing track of time Richard. It will be 14 months next week, right after . . .”
“Right after the Chinese delegation turned down our most recent repayment plan. I do recall that at least. I want to talk about your plan. You know how controversial this is going to be. Several ministers are still pressing for more details and others for more negotiation.”
“Do they not believe their own intelligence reports about China sending a warship out to enforce their claim on us? Can one of them tell us the last time China backed away from such a claim?”
“They hope to turn it around with diplomacy or with a favorable ruling in the world court.”
“Richard; they are fools trying to appease a dragon that will never compromise. China is not interested in any settlement. They want Canopy for themselves and this far out, would have no problem enduring any public or legal outrage that might arise from Earth. When we declared independence, part of the price was that no court on Earth could claim to have jurisdiction. China has guns for their diplomacy and a silent or muzzled media who won’t challenge them. If the Chinese make it to Canopy, many will die. History is clear, their intentions are clear, our choices are very limited and diplomacy is just a waste of time.”
The Governor shrugged, “We agree. I just wanted you to know what we’re up against. Some will never be a vote for us to defend ourselves with any form of violence and most who might agree that we should are not convinced that we stand any chance of succeeding. For your plan has any chance of success, we can’t go public with it or it will leak back to Earth and China who will act to defeat it. We can’t stand up an imposing wall of force so your subtle, non-obvious idea has to stay confidential which makes it much harder to pass in full council.
“I think I can swing enough votes without reveling all the details, which makes many ministers nervous, and part of my plan to make this all work includes some layers of deception including one I need you to know about.”
Mei-Jhen set her jaw and turned her head just a bit, “I’m listening.”
“You’ve kept your plan details secret as we discussed correct?”
“Perfect, but how many people know the details of your disability?”
Mei-Jhen, settled back in her wheel chair, with a look of confusion on her face. “Okay, I’ll admit. I did not see that question coming but let me think. You know I’ve worked at not making it an issue of it and have not entertained any conversation of how it happened.
Missy Russel and Javier Cortez were in the same class as I was when the accident happened but they both died in the reactor fire when we were spinning up drum 2. I doubt anyone other than you and your family know the details. A few have asked and I’ve said it was an accident, but haven’t explained it to anyone that I can recall.”
“Very good. Next, I know you have family in Taiwan.”
“Distant family, but yes. Why?
“Because your name is fairly common there. I used it to create a bit of distorted history as a test. Mei-Jhen, we have a mole on the council, one we’ve been unable to isolate. I worked with our intelligence team at our embassy in Washington to expose this false history as little known fact. Do you recall the news of our embassy being hacked four months ago?”
“Yes, it wasn’t big, but it was embarrassing.”
“True, but it was also a fake. We were hacked, but we only allowed the hack to get to a system we’d seeded with non-critical and false information.”
“Okay, but why?”
“It was made to look like a database of potential agents and informants who might, through Taiwan help Canopy with our claim of independence and specifically to help us fight off any Chinese attempt to take us by force. In short, they now think that Mei-Jhen Wu was one of the Three Sisters of Tainan City during the attack from China there six years ago. You’ll recall that three young girls were taken because of their part of the university resistance group, they were tortured for a few days until they were rescued by Taiwanese commandos. It is well known that one died in custody, another died before they could get her home for treatment but one survived and disappeared with the help of Taiwan. Their real names were never public, but China knows that the one survivor was wounded enough that she was unlikely to ever walk again.”
“I recall that story. I’ve never been to Taiwan but I’m beginning to see where this is going.”
“Yes, we let them ‘discover’ that you are that surviving girl. You’re still angry and looking for revenge. You turned out to be a brilliant materials and structural engineer, played a big part in designing Canopy’s hull and know your way around a space ship, because in space, you don’t need to walk. Your real history was cast as the elaborate cover story for helping you disappear”.
“What did you do with the fact that my father lost his livelihood in Hong Kong when the Chinese stole his inventions?”
“We used it but spun it how you grew up angry and indignant for your father’s honor and name. With these assaults you became politically active and have been quietly fighting China ever since.
“So most of the story is true, except for my being one of the Tainan City sisters. I also knew the moment I signed up for this job that I’d not make any friends in the Chinese Communist Party, so this doesn’t really change anything for me.”
“Correct, and whether you were or were not one of the three sisters would not change anything politically or strategically. But I’m going to leak this disinformation to my main suspect and if you get the commander of that warship on the radio and he knows this bogus history, then we have our mole. He alone will have the poison information.
“If you do have the chance to talk with him, I’ll give you some ideas how to bait him into revealing what the mole passed back to his handlers, but if not, I still want you to prosecute this battle per your plan. My suspect mole does not and will not know that level of detail so neither will the Chinese commander.”
“It’s too bad we don’t have a military or a spy network for this sort of thing.”
“If we did, China would know it almost as well as we would. A big part of why your plan is going to work is that they know we don’t have a very mature intelligence network or a military, but in our favor, we have some control over what they know about you and they won’t be afraid to throw it in your face to embarrass or anger you. Just don’t play with them too much. We both need them to reveal if they know the disinformation and then we need them destroyed.”
“Very good Richard. I already know how I can use this. I was looking for some reason to talk to them as we approach the Chessboard. This will actually help. I need to run. We’ll talk again later.”
Governor Beachwood reached down to shake her hand. Mei-Jhen nodded before turning her chair and wheeling away.
Next, he had to pull in one final vote for the plan to go forward. Today, the council had to commit one way or another.
He allowed himself the time to do a final mental review of the history of how Canopy Station came to be and what they could have or should have done differently.
The market for raw metals from the asteroids was exploding. Raw materials needed for space craft and station construction was too expensive to both mine and transport out of the Earth’s or Mars’ gravity wells and so was constricting the mankind’s reach into space. Mining the moon, while cheaper, had been declared illegal by the United Nations who decided that the moon was too fragile to mine in earnest. Over time it was thought that a lightened moon might alter the balance of its orbit with catastrophic impact on terrestrial tides and with it, the earth’s ocean ecology. That whole argument was inconclusive but the vote from many nations who could not afford to put anything into space easily swung against those who would benefit from lunar mining so that option was now closed. It had to be the asteroids and comets where the only downside was the distance between the mining effort and the markets back on Earth and Mars. This finalized the idea of building a mining station out among them and the engineers and financiers queued up to make it happen.
His thoughts of their history always came back to how Canopy’s designers settled on a drum size of 1 km in diameter spinning fast enough to simulate normal earth gravity against the inside wall. Each drum would be 10 km long with a complex axle through the middle to conduct fresh water for managed rain, air freshened by being blown across the huge branches of ivy anchored to the axle.
Light for the whole drum came from the array of full spectrum LEDs mounted on thousands of ground based poles with wide angle, low wattage lights pointing down and narrow angle and high wattage lights pointing up toward the axel and ivy. Constructed, sealed and spun to create Earth-like gravity inside, against the inner walls of the drum, Canopy station came to life as the first self-sustaining, inhabited world in space.
He smiled as he recalled, Those days of mixing lunar dust with affordable light-weight, nutrient-rich peat moss from earth to seed the varieties of soils inside the drum were crazy and exciting once we got the air and light systems running. Those first harvested asteroids paid off in spades both in terms of added soil but to help seed our own mining and refining technologies. And how we celebrated the day when we captured a small comet which provided enough water to create the small freshwater ocean at the far side of the drum.
To build Canopy, they started with a large cubic, zero-G refinery structure to use as an anchor for the first two spinning drums on one side and the receiving docks for the raw materials on the opposite side. The refinery would be adjacent to the receiving dock so moving material through to refined metals and other materials could all be done in zero-G.
Traveling from the hub into a spinning drum would place one first in the man-made mountains which received most of the managed rain from the axel. That rain fell and flowed down to the rivers that crawled past all the farms and ranches eventually to the ocean at the far end. Plants, sprouted trees, garden vegetables and bio-rich soil with worms and hundreds of types of bacteria were purchased on Earth and lifted into that first dome. Ground water that seeped straight down through the soil, dropped into a subterranean water shed that had just enough slant to allow the spin of the drum to push the water down towards the ocean. This water, along the inside skin of the drum became part of the protection from cosmic radiation for those living up on ground level and as the water flowed down, it passed through various stages of cleaning and filtering. Useful bacteria was harvested and moved up to the surface to treat and produce better soils for farming and food production.
It all worked so well that we were perhaps too hasty in starting construction of the second drum because that took even more investment and few could play as big a part as China. We allowed them to own too much of our debt. If only we could have waited the 20 months recommended by our investor management team, but by that time we were almost unstoppable in our enthusiasm to expand and speed up our program. The mine was working, but we simply did not have the raw materials close by to generate our own capital. Leaving for the asteroid belt was our only real option.
We knew the first spinning drum and non-spinning hub module would be difficult to stabilize and we had to accept it because the first settlers needed gravity to avoid losing bone mass and body strength. We were stuck with the instability for at least as long as it took to get the second drum spinning. We then spun the second drum in the opposite direction as soon as we had enough soil and water, the weight of soil and water approached matching the first, and stability was finally accomplished.
I wish that we young bucks from that original team had listened more carefully to those who warned us about accepting China’s money. They were right and now we’re cornered with few options. We were warned that there would be no way to take their investment without setting ourselves up for being nationalized.
Beachwood put both hands on the railing, looked down and the platform edge and sighed. We can’t change history but we can learn from it. He raised his eyes back to the view of Canopy. The peace and freedom being enjoyed by Canopy citizens cannot be lost as other nations lost theirs to Chinese aggression.
– – = = ( Chapter Three, Thirty Minutes From Chessboard ) = = – –
Mei-Jhen Wu looked up from her study of the stolen damage report from the Warship. “Ray, what’s our status on getting into position?”
He glanced at his own watch and, yep, it was fast approaching the final 30 minutes of the battle. For the past 35 hours, there had been no surprises by the few transits they captured by the warship. Having seen no change by the warship, he and Mei-Jhen were lining up for what they hoped would be their final course. “Our final course correction will be done in — 128 seconds Ma’am.”
She smiled. “Am I driving you to excruciating precision?”
“You’re keeping us alive Ma’am. I’m good.”
“And what’s our degree of trust that they are where we think they are?”
“I’m glad you didn’t ask 20 seconds ago because we had nothing solid on their current location since their last transit, three and a half hours ago. We just caught a new one, now 16 seconds ago and see no sign of them changing course.”
“I bet they can’t. I bet we damaged their maneuvering thrusters and they’ve been trying to repair them. If it were me, the fact that someone knew my course well enough to put a wave of ball bearings on me would have been enough to make me alter course as quickly and quietly as possible but I’d also want to avoid being the next Melba Grace.”
“Do you think that’s even possible?”
“I see thruster damage in their damage report but not enough details to know for sure how bad it is, and it’s been only 18 months since the Melba disaster.” Both Mei-Jhen and Ray mentally recalled the viral video captured by her sister ship as they traveled home from Canopy Station with full cargos of rare metals. Both ships had sustained micrometeorite damage and Melba had reported maneuvering thruster damage but her captain rolled the dice when he tried to adjust course anyway only to have one damaged thruster blow back into the ship and killing all hands before they could even try to shut it down. “You must have seen that video Ray. Horrible! This captain, must be carefully considering if his thruster damage could cause a repeat of the Melba. But why are you more comfortable saying they’ve not moved?”
“As you predicted Ma’am, they’re not burning their main engines and are running ballistic. It’s too soon to get any kind of visual, we can’t paint them with radar without giving our position away and they’re not emitting any kind of EM energy. Passive visual sensors are quiet but we knew where they were and we know the shifting pattern of stars behind them. I have a well-defined transit perimeter around them and our transit detection program predicted they would block a star at a certain time. I was watching for it and the right star blinked, right on time, about 45 seconds ago. Transit Detection system was predicting 86.4% certainty before that last transit but now reads just shy of 98% that the ship is where we think it is.”
Mei-Jhen settled back into her chair, not having realized she was leaning into Ray’s answer as if it would pull an answer sooner. She took a deep breath and thought about what this meant. “Good for us, but you can bet that captain is anxious to take some kind of action to change their trajectory. I was almost hoping he would have done it by now and gave us enough time to correct the location of Chessboard. Eyes wide open Ray. Keep checking those transits. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t make some kind of move – but he better do it quickly. We’re at 28 minutes and 24 seconds and don’t have much time to correct if we need to.”
– – = = ( Chapter Four, A Suspect Mole ) = = – –
Beachwood didn’t like any of their options. Economically, China could ruin Canopy Station. All the impressive work done to create the giant axle with its pumped air and water, its mature foliage in drum one and a healthy growing one in drum two, the newly opened refinery systems on the opposite side of the Hub, all made them ready and in need of the raw materials represented by the asteroids.
If only we had a small number of harvestable rocks near Earth, we could have stayed put for a while. Moving captured rocks from the belt to near Earth would have been too expensive. Canopy would have been bankrupt if we’d stayed and China would have used it to just walk in and repossess the whole station. We had to break orbit and head out when we did. Every mile we moved put us closer to our raw materials and further from the fist of China.
Two and a half years later, tensions have only increased and only our declaration of Independence gave us coverage from the court battles that China tried to bring. All those questions of which court had jurisdiction alone gave us some protection. Even the press thought that trying the case in a Chinese court was laughable and would carry no credibility.
It makes perfect sense that they would come for us with their military, but we still had our own detractors who slowed down all our defense plans. Now we stand pretty much alone without a military defense and a Chinese warship of some kind coming for us.
Surrender would be a disaster. Standing up a traditional defense is such short time would be suicide. Going dark and hiding was attractive, but we need more time to move and deploy some stealth technologies and to figure out how would a hidden Canopy could do business?
“Excuse me governor.” It was Lia Olsen, his aid. “Minister Tremalone is here for your 10am.”
“Thank you Lia. Question; was Lester in the entry when Mei-Jhen left?”
“Yes. He got up to open the door for her and her wheel chair.”
“He is a politician. Of course he did. Tell him I’ll be right there.”
Beachwood, slapped the handrail, thankful that he had a decision but regretted what it was going to cost. He rolled his wrist to check his watch. Okay then, it’s time to activate our suspect mole and then sell the final plan to the council.
He turned and walked decisively through the double glass doors and across the atrium to his office.
“Minister Tremalone. Good to see you. Let’s talk about our defense against this Chinese warship. What do you need to join our side?”
“Hello Governor. Thanks for seeing me. Since we have to be in chambers in about 90 minutes, I’ll be short. This engineer who put the plan together. . .”
“Mei-Jhen Wu, yes.”
“Correct. I don’t know her but understand you’ve given her a rank of commander in your paper Canopy Defense Force. I know a lot of details are classified, but as you know well, the CDF does not yet exist other than in your plan. I’m not questioning her capabilities as an engineer, her engineering resume is impressive, but as a military commander, what about this woman inspires your trust? She has no military background and is stuck in a wheelchair. How can she possibly succeed with this effort? Surely we have someone with some military background who would be better suited to the job. Why not use the plan you have so much confidence in but let someone more combat capable. . .”
“Commander Wu is our best play. She’ll be in command of the ship meeting the Chinese warship. You know that none of our ships have artificial gravity, and if the engagement somehow turns into a boarding exercise, we’ve already lost both the battle and all of Canopy Station, so her wheelchair is not germane.”
“I understand, but her lack of combat experience and military judgement; how does she qualify for this role?”
“Lester, you know I can’t reveal many details but much of her combat experience is not well known. I am privy to some of her history. She has both excellent tactical instincts and motivation that has driven her to this moment. Look; I know you want something to validate her credentials. You have just over an hour to go back to your office and lookup the history of China attacking the Taiwan city of Tainan 27 some odd years ago. It became known as the Tainan City Three Sisters incident. Young miss Wu was the unnamed survivor. You’ll read about what was done to her put her in that wheelchair and she’s been planning some kind of payback ever since. Her plan has been baking for over 23 years. Add to that, she’s a Grandmaster in the world of chess. Trust me, you and I are fortunate that she has no interest in politics.”
“Okay Governor, this background would help me understand and support your faith in her.”
“It’s all classified so don’t have your staff try to look it up. Only your higher security clearance should get you enough. With that, I think I’m entitled to your vote in council. It was horrible what was done to her and her sisters but China effectively created, loaded and cocked the weapon we are now using against them. You might not find her name but it was her. You will certainly find notes of her never walking again.”
“Okay, I’ll go see what I can find, but this bit of intelligence is enough for me. If this is true, you have my vote.”
Beachwood extended his hand. “Thanks Lester. See you in an hour.”
He watched as Minister Lester Tremalone left the office and smiled thinking, He has plenty of time to find the disinformation and report back to his Chinese handlers. He won’t find all the poisoned Intel, but his handlers will. If he is our mole, the stain will be obvious.
With the warship almost ready to depart for the multi-month trip out to Canopy, there was plenty of time for China to receive, consume and inform the ship commander of who they’d be meeting. It was time to send Wu on her way. It would take her and her pilot over three months of hard acceleration to arrive at ‘Chessboard’.
– – = = ( Chapter Five, Aboard the PLA Warship ) = = – –
Commander Chi Xiaofeng knocked at the cabin door of his political commissar, Peng Wanchun, and entered only after hearing an invitation to do so.
“Come in Commander. How are repairs proceeding?”
“Our thrusters are still off line Commissar. Thruster control uses them as a group and the housings for five of them were damaged beyond repair, while 2 others can be repaired and realigned. But Commissar, this wiring them all together prevents them from being used manually. This is a fundamental design flaw. Our enemy knew our exact location and despite our knowing this, we can’t move. Using our main engines as means of changing course is useless because it would announce our move to the enemy. Manual thrusters is what we need so I’ve ordered that, in parallel to general repairs, that six thruster banks be wired for temporary manual use. The risk is that manual use would almost certainly put us into a spin along some new vector. It would be difficult to correct from but we will be on a new heading and thus hidden. This will buy us the time needed to complete normal repairs without being so easy to hit again. We may have manual thruster ability in less than an hour.”
“Of course you are correct. It is a wise decision that I support, but Commander, in the future, as prescribe by our standard protocols, I insist on being informed before such orders are given. Such a change could come back as embarrassing to the party and must be carefully messaged. I suggest we log this decision as if you had followed the protocol, and I’ll do the same.”
“Agreed Commissar. It will be so logged.”
“Thank you Commander. You are dismissed to see to the quick restoration of our great warship.”
– – = = ( Chapter six, Seventeen Minutes from Chessboard ) = = – –
What is he thinking? Wu wondered. He has to know we have a pretty solid location on him and yet he’s not moved. He knows he’s exposed. A ballistic trajectory is nice and quiet, but it’s too predictable. He has to insert some uncertainty somehow or remain a target.
He can’t yet know yet where or what we are, but knows well that we don’t have a warship. He’s likely angry that we embarrassed him with simple ball bearings so his pride and military training must be driving him do something to change his trajectory, but until he can get his thrusters functional what options does he have?
He would love to blow us out of the sky, but has no target intel – yet but he could have in, she rolled her wrist to check her watch, about seven minutes.
“Ray, I need you to know when their next transit of a background star is coming.”
“Our course change has given us many more transit opportunities because we’re moving laterally across the landscape. We are four and a half minutes from our next transit.”
“Four and a half of our remaining 17. . . It’s too long. Can we nudge our trajectory to get be in position for one sooner?
“Computing. . . If we move now we can catch one in 94 seconds.”
“Aye-aye, and. . .” The ship lurched slowly to one side and the nose lifted as they vectored towards the new observation point. “It’s done. 36 seconds to transit”
Wu bit her lip, willing the pieces of this puzzle into place as the seconds counted down.
“10 seconds to transit Ma’am.” The digital clock on the wall, dropped to slow motion.
“5 seconds; 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 and. . .”
Wu could feel her blood pressure building and they watched the screen, but no transit was detected. “Ray are we in the right place?”
“Absolutely. I just verified it. We should have seen . . . There it is. 8.8 seconds late. What does that mean?
“It means they changed their trajectory. They must have repaired the thruster damage or. . .”
“Not possible Commander. I’ve worked on those systems and they might be fixed that fast but they can’t be calibrated that quickly.”
“…or, they isolated, a few working thrusters and fired them manually to change their vector just enough to transit that star a tad late.”
“Yes – they could have done that but not with full control over the result.”
“Correct. But — but they don’t need to be exact, they only need to be different. That’s his play! Okay, rerun the numbers and give me what has to be their new vector based on that last transit. I also need two more transits to verify where they finally land. When’s their next transit assuming they’re stable in their new vector?”
“I show two in 62 and 78 seconds.”
Mei-Jhen was suddenly sweating as she realized that she had lost the warship with less than 13 minutes to Chessboard. Unless she could reacquire them, the battle was already over and lost.
She fidgeted as she watched her timer tick down. Two that close together won’t be as accurate so we may need more. God – this waiting sucks!
The timer excruciatingly clicked down the seconds.
“Here we go Commander, transit in 3 – 2 – 1; and there it is.”
Wu did not realize she was holding her breath until the star blinked and she exhaled – relieved that they were again sure of the warship’s new vector.
“Next transit coming in; 4 – 3 . . . What the ?. . . There it is, but it was 2.6 seconds too early. They must have used their thrusters again and are now on a different heading – damn!”
“Ray, we’re fast running out of time. Calculate their soonest available next three transits.”
“They’re coming up now. Got them. The next transit is in 43 seconds, then another in 12. We can adjust our own trajectory to catch the third at 52 seconds later.”
“Almost 2 more minutes. Do it. This is more excruciating than any chess timer I’ve ever dealt with.”
Wu struggled to stay cool and mechanical about her moves, collecting the data and driving towards their final line up. The next transit was late. They’re burning thrusters, she thought. And they’re doing it uncalibrated so their first burn moved them and put them into a spin. He had to know this would happen because they could not have repaired their thruster array so quickly. What we’re seeing is them trying to stabilize their trajectory. Gutsy guy — this captain.
This meant they had to keep watching and waiting to get three transits that were on time before they could say they knew their enemy’s new trajectory. Her margin of safety for establishing the battleship’s location was gone and now she’d have to close enough to be visible before she could launch her weapon. Damn it! She used her sleeve to whip the sweat from around her eyes.
Finally, they watched the next two arrive on-time to become the three needed for a straight line indicating that the ship had stopped thrusting.
“Okay Ray. We have them and 12 minutes, 20+ seconds to get to our new heading for new Chessboard. Can we be lined up in time?”
Ray’s fingers flew across his board. “Not to the original plan with the safety margin. If we can accept a non-head-on hit, we could target her mid-ship and not be visible for as long. We would need a quick main engine burn to speed up or thruster to an even wider vector. Both would take us in closer than we want to be.”
Her heart sunk. The warship adjustments wiped out her safety margin, but not her full plan. She bit down and thought through her analysis quickly.
We need a kill shot. Any solution that leaves that ship alive is a catastrophic loss for Canopy.
A parallel, bow to stern hit is the best chance for a kill, but is also the hardest target to hit and now it’s also now the most dangerous. We’d be a visible target and visible means shot and destroyed without shooting.
A hit with a small angle off of heads-on, would increase our chance for a hit because we might hit anywhere along their length. It would increase our safety margin by not being visible for as long, but it would decrease the chance of a kill shot while increasing the chance of cripple shot.
We have no means of rescuing survivors so if we only cripple the ship and then left them to die slowly, politically, we would be viewed as heartless monsters. No, we have to have a kill-hit and be invisible long enough to launch it. After we launch, our survival no longer matters. We are expendable. Canopy is not. I need a compromise solution.
Wu clenched her teeth and collected her resolve, then a new idea occurred to her. She closed her eyes as she reviewed once again this new option. It could make all the difference, she thought.
“Ray, I’m making a small change. Prepare to crack open the loading doors to bin 2, just about 20%. We’re going to spill a small batch of bearings.
Ray brought up the needed screen as he spoke, “Can do Commander, but if we launch them from our current vector, we’ll certainly miss the warship.” We might get close, but it’s almost impossible that we’ll hit it.”
“Exactly. More than anything, that commander right now wants either a target or evidence that we don’t know his location for certain. I’m planning on giving him both. Ready?”
“Open the doors to 20%, roll the ship clockwise to nudge out some of our load but close the doors after 20 seconds.”
“The doors will jam on stray bearings. . .”
“Yes, and we can tolerate that. Do it!”
A moment later Ray reported, “The doors are partially open. Rolling the ship.” They both leaned as the docking thrusters began the rotation. They watched a loading camera view as a wave of bearing spilled out of the cargo bin. Ray quietly counted down 20 seconds and closed the doors which indeed did jam with several bearings getting caught in the door seating. Several door alerts rang and error messages appeared on their main screen.
“Shall I attempt to clear . . .?”
“No, set the decoy timers for 7.5 minutes and launch them all. Then slow us down with a 30 second reverse thruster burn only to give those bearings plenty of free space to be on their way and give me a final approach vector that will put us 10 degrees off of zero.”
Through the hull they could hear and feel the ejectors pushing the decoys out.
“Decoys are away.”
Wu settled back into her seat. “We are going to compromise, Ray, but just a bit.”
Ray shook his head with regret as he understood her most of her logic. “Starting course correction to our new vector.” Both of them leaned in the same direction as the thrusters continued to slow the transport and change their trajectory to slide over to their new attack pattern.
“We have about 6 minutes to breath commander. I understand the compromise of accepting a small angle off of a full alignment with their trajectory, but why throw away part of our next salvo of bearings. We know they can’t hit the warship.”
“Do you think they’ll come within, say 500 meters?”
“Easily. Our angle on them was that close as we measured their final trajectory.”
“And will the warship easily sense within that distance?”
Ray’s eyes, narrowed and then widened as a grin appeared to confirm that he understood. “Their deflector system will easily pick them up but – will not act on because they won’t be a threat but such an unexpected wave of debris will certainly be reported. Their bridge crew will know of a near miss. I see now.”
“You have part 1 of 2 Ray. What will their commander do with that report? What would you do in his place?”
“If it were me – I’d ask if – ah, I’d ask if we had enough information to chart a vector back to where they were launched and look for a target. There would certainly be enough information from the deflector system logs and so they will be looking for us back where we used to be. Well done Commander – very well played!”
“In chess, it would be a simple distraction when I need them distracted.”
“And since we’ll be visible, along with the decoys, you’ve increased our safety margin.” Ray settled back to wait, appreciating that Commander Wu was willing to take this huge risk to win this battle but was clever enough to find a means that might keep them alive to tell the story.
“Our small wave of bearings are pulling ahead as we drop speed and move to our final approach.”
“Thank you Ray.” Wu settled back for the few minutes of waiting to complete the maneuver into each their new vector where they would try to deploy their final assault before they become visible to the warship’s passive visual sensors. The decoys would go live about the same time and after that, they could not change trajectory while being visible. They needed to look just like one of 38 passive decoys all on pure ballistic trajectories.
Wu glance up at a nearby monitor and noted the count down from 5 minutes had begun. Now, let’s hope I did not wait too long for the decoys, she thought.
They both leaned as Ray stopped the ship from spinning. “What’s our new ETA to line up?”
“Just 1 minute, 24 seconds to our new trajectory,” he answered as he finished their course correction with a quiet burn of several thrusters. “And 4 minutes, 43 until estimated time of becoming visible.”
Damn! She thought. I really did not want to get this close or have so little time to deploy. Being visible is too easily being shot out of the sky. Somehow getting the weapon deployed but not seeing if it works sounds so unattractive. Maybe the combination of all that black paint on our hull and our little distraction will buy us enough time.
After a short time, Ray announced, “Final burn Commander in 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 and – we’re burning to slide into our final approach.” The both felt the ship pivot from the rear, aligning them for their final assault. If no one moved now, their transport would collide with the warship about 10 degrees off of a full head on collision. Wu had no interest in colliding but in dropping her final weapon. To do so, she and Ray had to quietly do the drop and then as quietly get well out of the way before becoming visible.
“Commander, we’re on our final vector and are ready to deploy your kill shot.”
“Thanks Ray. First, how are our tight beams with our spy probes? I’m counting on them to have a much better viewing angle that we will. I want to acquire a visual A-SAP and that probe will be hard to spot and while being able to record whatever is about to happen.
“And it’s time to dust off any prayers you know because we’re only going to get one shot at this. At the speeds we’re both making, we’ll sail past each other so fast that neither of us will get a second chance to hit the other, if either of us are even still alive.”
– – = = ( Chapter Seven, The Cost of Canopy ) = = – –
Beachwood, walked out of council room immediately after dismissing the meeting. Some representatives were still yelling about losing the vote to send Commander, Mei-Jhen Wu as their best shot at stopping the Chinese warship. Fortunately, they were a minority. The vote carried and he had immediately sent Wu the orders to depart Canopy and execute her plan.
They had taken either a profound step in defending themselves from China or, they may well have sealed their own demise. Canopy Station stood no chance against a Chinese warship. Wu’s plan had to work.
Mie-Jhen is both smart and motivated and her plan is sound. Still, I still would have liked to have had an inventory of stealth missiles and a standing army.
All I can do now is work at keeping her plan secret. I hope all the Chinese spies have been neutralized but there’s no way of knowing for sure. Her secret weapon has to surprise everyone.
He stepped back out onto the balcony to take in the view. The axle still made everything else seem insignificant. They designed it to receive air and water pumped up from the far ocean wall of the drum and from there pump both out to the vents and rain-makers that created streams of moving clouds of moisture into the zero-G area around the axle.
Those first workers, miners, ranchers and farmers, engineers and technicians, planners and government knew the plan in advance, but marveled when all the pieces began to work together and Canopy Station, suddenly became a sustainable artificial human habitat. A day was chosen close to when all the pieces seemed to be very close to balanced and invited all the residents of both Canopy and Earth to celebrate this huge first human accomplishment of creating homes in space. Beachwood was there as a much younger and energetic man, part of the engineering team for the water system in the axle.
All this came at a cost from terrestrial countries and companies, but soon, on the other side of the Hub, ore transport ship berths appeared with huge areas to capture and process the ore mined from nearby asteroids. Mining was much easier in zero-G, but everyone needed to be careful about spending too much time in it. No one worked in the refinery for more than 4 hours a day, but low cost of metal production at the station quickly allowed us to start paying off our construction loans and investors.
And then, the heavy metals were found, he thought and recalled how many rare heavy metals were found in unexpected proportions and the value of these metals to the growing number of in-orbit manufacturers caused a nice positive spike in Canopy’s financial ledger. If they could keep this up, they’d be able to accelerate paying off the huge outstanding loans, and with each new load of ore, the numbers continued to look very promising and increased payments began.
At this thought, Richard Beachwood frowned because one group was refusing to cooperate with being paid back. They wanted possession of the station and tensions began to rise as Canopy Station slowly moved further from Earth’s orbit towards the asteroid belt where production costs could drop even further.
They all but forced us to declare independence to sever us from the non-communist block of nations and companies. Allies chose sides and here we find ourselves, with a warship coming for us.
Godspeed commander Wu. Godspeed and a successful mission.
– – = = ( Chapter Eight, Approaching Chessboard ) = = – –
Checking her timer Mei-Jhen saw that Checkmate was now just 10 minutes away. “Ray – it’s time to earn our keep and make this tub famous.”
He had gotten up to stretch before the next task but now floated back to and buckled into his seat. “Ready when you are Commander.”
Commander Wu, cleared away the screen windows she’d been studying while Ray set up his screens for the deployment.
“Is our deployment pattern loaded and ready for instant activation?”
“Triple checked and all systems are green Ma’am.”
“Is everyone where we need them to be?”
“The final spy is right where we want it with a strong heartbeat. We are dead on with the new plan and our computer shows a 97.8% certainty on our tango’s location and trajectory. We’ve had one more on-time transit verification and there’s no sign of them adjusting trajectory.”
“Such arrogance!” Wu answered. I’d be adjusting speed or vector at random times just on principal. They really think us to be powerless. And visibility?”
“In approximately 3 minutes.”
That sent a chill down the back of her neck. Being seen by this warship was not a place she wanted to be. Her plan had been to stay completely out of visual range, but their course changes tanked that idea. We’re stuck with being visible now and that means a hot laser is waiting unless we can dodge or distract with the few light seconds we’ll have between being close enough to be seen and the time it takes for the speed of light reaching the warship, them noticing, targeting firing their lasers and the short few seconds for the beams to reach and destroy us. This is going to be tight and our risk of failure just got higher. The decoys are our only real chance.
“The decoys go live in 40 seconds and we’ll all be visible in 2 minutes, 23 seconds.”
Mie-Jhen clinched her jaw and collected herself into a calm and thoughtful resolution to stay focused and in the battle. We still have a significant margin for success. “Thanks Ray. I think we can work with this and you may get your chance to do some fancy flying after all. Is your first escape program loaded up?
“I have 4 hot-keyed and ready. And you’re going to let us lose some weight so we can actually maneuver, right?”
“I promise. Sorry you had to be out of the loop on what we’re toting. You put a lot of faith in me and my plan. Thanks for that.”
“Decoys lighting up in 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 and we’re live.” Each of the decoys were nothing more than a control package tided to a Mylar balloon and small compressed air tank. They had all reached the spot relative to the ship from the perspective of the Chinese ship so when their passive sensors saw the balloons inflate, they would each look like a small vessel moving at an expected speed. They would obviously be decoys, but with so many of them, the warship would not know which was their transport versus the decoys and would likely paint them with radar for weapons targeting.
“We could have their undivided attention in about 180 seconds Commander.”
“Launch the weapon now!”
Ray pressed one button which took over the remaining cargo bins, thrusters and navigation. He knew that “The Weapon” had 3 components that would launched in stages that put them on 3 parallel vectors that would impact the target within 10 seconds of each other.
“Component 1 is away without incident.” They both watched the screen as the payload drifted away from their ship on a collision course for the Chinese vessel. It was the remaining cloud of bearings from their earlier distraction.
The program took over and used reverse thrusters to slow the transport slightly so the bearing cloud appeared now to pull away from the transport.
The program rotated the ship to empty out the bearings. The hatch was closed and a second opened.. “Component 2 is away,” Ray announced as the ship rotated again. This load scraped and squealed its way out into space. It sounded terrible through the whole hull and Ray turned to look at Wu.
“It’s expected Ray. No worries.” He turned back to his screens and noted that whatever component 2 was, it was big — lots of big. “His eyes got wide as he saw and realized what they were. “Boulders Ma’am? You threw a load of boulder at them?”
But right then, they both leaned forward as the thrusters again slowed them down slightly allowing the cloud of boulders to drift ahead of them, faster and faster until the program shut down the thrusters.
“Component 3 is ready,” Ray announced and braced himself for another noise from the cargo deck, but nothing was heard and he looked closely at his screen, fearing a malfunction.
“Also as expected Ray,” Wu said without taking her eyes off of her own screen. “We’re good.”
Mei Jhen had crunched the numbers. From this distance and at their combined velocities and trajectories, there was no option now that would take them out of visual range and therefore leaving them in harm’s way. Her only option now was to proactively dodge often or trust the decoys to look like more attractive targets for long enough for the weapon to reach the warship. She had just a few seconds before they might be visible and detected, so she chose to use her last maneuver to get away from the weapons trajectory vector”
“Ray, engage the first program for evasive action now.”
Ray did so and as the transport jerked them sideways, he responded, “Wow – such performance without all that weight. It feels like a sports car now.”
“Rotate us and jettison the cargo bins.” Another button was pushed and another sound echoed through the hull.
“They are away and — we’re a lot smaller target.”
“Forward thrusters, now before we’re seen. Speed up to match the speed of the decoys. We can’t be going slower. If they can see us at all through the black radar absorption paint we can’t be changing speed. It will make us stand out.”
As Ray complied, Wu thought, this has to be work. The board is set to our advantage, but if this captain is any kind of strategist, he may yet turn everything to his advantage. I’ve well positioned our pawns, rooks, bishops and knights, but he has the only queen on the board. Then she grinned as she thought, but I’ve won plenty of games without a queen. It’s been a handy distraction at times.
“Done Commander, with almost half a minute to spare.”
Wu watched the screen timer fall into slow motion, each second feeling like a full minute. Now that things were rolling, she just wanted it over with. Come on already.
Her timer finally 8 minutes and Mei-Jhen announced. “We could now be visible Ray. Make us look like a decoy.”
All of their ammo was spent and in-flight, this has to work, she thought almost out loud. If this captain gets the idea to move now, we may fully miss and lose everything.
“Ray, does our probe have a visual?”
“I show a fuzzy something that might be our tango, but it could also be a large ice cream truck.”
Wu snorted and laughed out loud, almost unable to believe he could joke at such a time. She noted how far apart both ships were now and how much time remained to her weapon reaching the warship
“So since we could be shot out of the sky any time now, can you tell me yet what we just threw at them?”
“You already know the first component is the last of the ball bearings. They might think they are ready for this but these are different. The first ones they saw were 6mm standard stainless steel. These are 9mm, 50% larger, made of Canopy carbonized, extra-hard steel and I expect them to do a lot more damage.
“They may detect the incoming bearings, but if they do, they won’t get too excited as they think they know what limited damage they can do. But they’ll be surprised. They won’t be expecting the holes we’re about to punch in their hull.
“The second, noisy component were simple iron rich boulders from recent mining. This wave is designed to tie-up their deflector array, damaging them further while distracting them. After the ball bearings and boulders soften them up. The main weapon will arrive.
“I hope there will be too much chaos on their bridge to pay attention to the boulders, which will knock them around but won’t present much of a threat.
“But component three, as the last to arrive, is the most complex item we threw at them.
“First imagine one more boulder, but mounted on a large photography gimbal, so it can rotate over two dimensions like right to left and top to bottom at the same time. So I can make it look like it’s tumbling like any of the other boulders ahead of it.
“The gimbal is mounted to one end of a length of Canopy Rebar, the same thing we used to build our drum superstructures. Are you familiar with it?”
“I’ve seen those lengths of course, but I’m a fly-guy and helped put them in place when we built drum two. I just thought they were big steel pipes.”
“Not even close Ray. The normal length is 20 meters of highly carbonized steel that weighs roughly 1/3 of a pound per cubic inch. It’s much harder than normal steel and more heat and impact resistant. Because these lengths are part of the permanent infrastructure of each drum, we wrapped them in Kevlar 149 which is the most ballistic grade available to help make our rebar much more resistant to micrometeorite impacts.
“At Canopy, we fill the inner tube with critical cables and circuitry, but we don’t need any of that here. What we do need is mass – lots of mass. Steel is pretty heavy but some metals are much heavier for the same amount of space they take up. Gold and Tungsten are both about twice as heavy per square inch as iron but gold is kind of rare and costs a bundle. Tungsten is much less rare and costs a lot less while also having one of the highest melting temperatures. Given, this piece of rebar is going to get very hot, I filled the entire core with tungsten rods. That’s what made us so heavy and hard to navigate.
“Finally, I all but cut the full rebar length into five segments of four meters each and strapped small thrusters and navigation units to each segment. The deflector won’t see the rebar because it will be hidden by the realistically rotating boulder. Right after launching component three I programmed it to adjust course to barely miss approaches the warship.”
“Wait – you want it to miss?”
“In a sense, yes, the warship deflector array will see this boulder and, like all the others, will prioritize it based on the threat it presents. It should recognize this rock as no threat because tumbling rocks don’t change course and if it’s going to miss, the deflector logic won’t target it. But as it gets closer, this boulder will separate from the rebar, the rebar will finish cutting itself into five segments and at the last possible second adjust their trajectories to collide with the warship.
“The deflector will not have a chance to react and the humans on their bridge shouldn’t have time to recognize the threat, let alone defeat it.
“The kinetic energy of each of these super-heavy segments striking the ship at this speed will be unprecedented so I’m not sure what will happen but if we impact, it should be spectacular. They may just hold together long enough to punch clean holes straight through all the hulls and keep flying leaving the ship with perfect holes through it. I think it’s more likely that each segment will be instantly reduced to atomic plasma that transfers all that kinetic energy to whatever they touch which will atomize it and the energy will diffuse through the ship like a wave of destruction.
“That is my proposed kill shot.”
– – = = ( Chapter Nine, A Conversation with the Enemy ) = = – –
A beep called their attention to the monitor from the observation probe. “We have a visual from Spy-11.” Ray hit a button to send it to the main screen.
“Ready your evasive maneuvering program. If we can see them, they can see us. We might be very busy any moment. Can you confirm? Are they where we think they are?”
“Yes, they are right where we want them. They must not know that we have them located. Those star transits. . .”
“Open a radio channel to that ship through Spy-12.”
Ray, had this step hot-keyed and pressed one button to open the channel and gave her a thumb-up sign so Mei-Jhen knew she was broadcasting. She pulled out her pocket chess move timer and started it.
“This is Canopy Commander Mei-Jhen Wu calling the commander of the Chinese vessel. Please respond.”
Ray had passed control to Mei-Jhen and she muted her microphone. The air in their cabin felt dead as they waited for a reply through the light static on the standard communication frequency.
“This is Commander Chi Xiaofeng of the People’s Liberation Army Space Force vessel Hangzhou,” came the reply finally in perfect English. “What can I do for you Commander Wu?”
She stopped and looked at the timer, subtracted 10 seconds for his surprise and thoughts about being contacted so openly and divided the remainder by 2 for the transmission to go first from her to him, then for his answer to return. This puts them about 5 light seconds away, exactly as expected, she thought. She then let the timer count down an additional 30 seconds before replying.
“I’m following up on my earlier message Commander. I apologize for any damage our message may have caused but I needed to demonstrate to you that we’re out here. Canopy is not going to stand passively by while you attack us. I have more weapons and will destroy your nice new Peoples Liberation Army Space Force vessel unless I see a clear and immediate demonstration of your decision to turn about and go home. Let someone else lead their forces into defeat. You and your crew need not die today. Save them and your ship. This is the only warning you will get. Over.”
Ray had watched her as she inserted that extra delay in responding but wondered why? “Commander?”
“The speed of light again Ray. I want that commander to think we are further out than we are and thus he needed to experience a longer delay.”
After a real delay, the Chinese Commander had quickly answered. “You are thinking wishfully Commander Wu. You ask me to disgrace this crew and myself by running from someone who throws ball bearing at us? Excuse me for one moment please.
“Tactical! Activate all laser weapons and find me a target. XO, call the crew to battle stations.
Ray and Mei-Jhen could hear the battle stations alert in the background as Chii returned to their conversation. “Commander Wu, I’m not sorry to reject your ridiculous offer. It is. . .”
There was a disturbance on the Chinese bridge and a new voice broken in. “Commander Wu. I’m very pleased to meet you again. I am Commissar Peng Wanchun. I doubt you will recall me, but I have no doubt you would recall our meeting. It was many years ago aboard a small PLA ship just off the coast of Tainan City with your two sisters.” His voice paused, then changed to a sarcastic seductive tone. “We took you, Mei-Jhen. I was the young office who interrogated, beat and raped you before breaking your legs. Do you recall the good time we had together? Perhaps after the unpleasantness of taking control of Canopy is over — you and I can find time to um; refresh; our relationship.” The man paused and finished with loud and decisive, “Over!”
At this, Ray looked up to the screen as if trying to see the man even though the audio-only broadcast. Then he turned to look at Mei-Jhen and said, “Commander, I had no id–”
But she was smiling, even delighted, and held her hand up to stop him from finishing. “Relax Ray, It’s not true. He has been deliberately misinformed. That was almost too easy but you can usually count on such a man to be anxious to try and humiliate someone into making a rash response. I won’t be satisfying him and doubt Wanchun even is who he claimed to be, but it doesn’t matter. He did, however, give us the proof we need to arrest and punish a spy at Canopy. Excellent, but too short. I wanted to distract them a bit longer.
She looked at her timer and continued, “It’s time to respond.”
She reactivated her mic and began, “Commissar Peng. I am surprised to hear that you are still employed, let alone elevated in rank. Even within the PLA, we normally encounter more professional leadership. But no matter, your position tells me all I need to know about you in this engagement and I’ll not waste any precious time on a failed political hack who’s words are dirty air and makes his living beating up real men’s daughters.
“Commander Chi, it is much more likely you and I can have a useful conversation and I’ll only ask that you reconsider putting your ship and crew at risk. I know this is a hard choice for you. You can disgrace yourself by abandoning your mission but allow yourself and your crew to live or I can make you famous for losing your ship and crew after being warned. I’ll listen for 15 minutes for your decision; but Commander, if I hear the voice of your sub-human Commissar again, I’ll close this channel and we’ll be done talking. Over.”
Commander Chi, spun to his communications officer. “How far away is this Mei-Jhen Wu Lieutenant?”
“Her signal was very strong, Sir, but the delay suggests that she is 30-40 light-seconds away; estimating 10 to 12,000 kilometers. Wait, I have a fix on where that transmission came from. It’s a small object about 630 klicks away. Sir, she’s using some kind of transmission relay.
Chi rubbed his chin and said aloud, “She is likely that full 10,000 Klicks out, well out of gun range. I might make use of her being 30 seconds behind real life. But let’s be polite enough to answer her question. Tactical, roll out a rail gun and destroy that relay.”
Wu smiled as she imagined how both the leaders of the warship might be laughing at her response, while their crew remained totally silent and even motionless, afraid of making any kind of response to her insulting words. Of course the Commissar would be venting his political read on the situation he created. The Commander would be trying to both look like he was listening while actually reviewing his tactical options to: stay the course, adjust or if cutting and running possibly had any merit. He had to be wondering what more she could throw at him. But both of them would be burning down the last few seconds of her last move while doing nothing material to defend against it.
“Ray, verify that we’re recording this. Success or failure — this could be a spectacular.
“We’re recording Ma’am. We now have solid video from Spies 8 through 12. As requested, Spy-10 is following the projectile.”
“Okay; give me the view from 10. — Yes, that’s it. And, here we go.”
As they watched from the probe’s view, the 20 meter rod, suddenly lit up and broke itself into five segments and each piece spread out from behind the large boulder, then all changed trajectory, heading for a point in space soon to be occupied by the Chinese vessel.
“They’re actively scanning,” Ray reported, almost unable to take his eyes off the monitor. Oh! Commander, Spy-12 just dropped offline. It was acting as our comm relay.”
“Ha! I guess that’s our answer. I’m not surprised. Where’s our tango Ray?”
“Right where we want them. They’ve not budged.”
“Switch to Spy-10’s enhanced view on the main monitor.” The view changed to one from a side angle with computer markers showing where both the weapon segments and Chinese ship were located, closing fast, not head-on but with an obvious slight angle between both.
“And Ray, open up an un-relayed channel to that ship but do not broadcast anything yet.”
– – = = ( Chapter Ten, Chessboard ) = = – –
“Commander, we have new multiple contacts that just came into range. I’m putting an enhanced view up on the main screen.” The screen filled with a star-filled field followed by computer-enhanced markers with automated designations U-1 through U-32.
“They’re much closer than Commander Wu’s ship,” said the XO. “Distance is 13.4 thousand Klicks and 8 minutes out.”
“What are they? Anyone have anything?”
“Nothing more on passives.”
“Sir, shall I paint them with targeting radar? That would tell us a bit more.”
“Do it lieutenant.”
The screen updated with additional information.
“Do they appear to be under guidance or are they ballistic?”
“No engine activity noted Sir. Trajectories are similar. They appear to be ballistic.”
“How big are they?”
“I’m seeing sizes from 1 to 4 meters with metallic shells.”
“What do you think XO. Are we looking as home-made mines?”
“They are about the size I’d expect mining explosives to be.”
“Weapons control, calculate where our trajectory will take us through that cloud of objects and destroy any that are near our path. Let’s move people. They are 8 minutes out and I want a path cleared in 5.”
Chi sat down to watch as his laser cannons tore into the objects. One by one, sometimes two at a time the objects blinked out with an odd flash.
“Not the explosions I would have expected XO.”
“Sir, perhaps they were not yet armed to prevent premature detonation.”
“Yes, perhaps. Hmm. Are any of them adjusting courses?”
“Negative Sir! None of them are reacting.”
“I’m not seeing any sign of munitions in these objects. Commander.”
“Agreed, but I still don’t like them. Who knows what other space junk Commander Wu has packaged up for us. Go ahead and destroy the lot of them. At worse it’s good practice for our laser gunners.”
“Sir! We have a new contact!” announced one of the bridge officers from behind his monitor. “Deflector control just spotted a wave of what is most likely more bearings roughly around 420 meters off our starboard side. No danger of collision Sir.”
Chi smiled as he thought the scene through. So, she mines a large field that we are likely to pass through but launches another wave of her blasted bearings at her best guess of our location and misses. They no longer know where we are. Very good. I could further confuse them by thrusting again, but it would certainly put us into another spin. No, he thought to himself, we’ll stay quiet and remain hidden.
He had just settled back into his chair when the sound of explosions sent small shocks through the hull triggering multiple alarms. His bridge crew scrambled through the chaos to respond, shouting out the biggest news of various hull breaches. Someone identified the new objects, “More ball bearings, Sir, but these are bigger and or harder. They are blasting holes through our hull like it was cardboard and the deflectors are almost useless against them.”
Chi reached for an alarm kill button on his console. His command deck was a blur of crew scrambling to respond to the multiple hull breaches along the forward starboard side of the ship.
As the alarm went silent, Political Officer, Commissar Peng returned from his quarters and yelled to the whole room, demanding to know was happening.
Chi, swung his chair to face him. “It was another wave of their damned ball bearings but these were larger. We have sustained multiple hull breaches.”
A crewman yelled out, “Commander – automated damage systems are reporting over 85, make that over 110 different breaches. The deflector was able to destroy at least 250 prior to impact.”
The damage management team began calling out their findings and updates. “Repair bots are deploying. 23 sectors on 5 decks are venting both the water shield and atmosphere.”
“Impacted sectors have auto-sealed Commander. The damage has been isolated and limited.”
“We have more incoming Commander!”
“More damned bearings?”
Multiple larger explosions were heard and felt through the hull. One large blast dimed the bridge lights for a moment as power auto-switched to auxiliary
“No! Something much bigger. Deflectors are engaging and – rocks, Commander. They’re just big rocks, roughly one meter wide. So far, the deflectors are mostly keeping up. We’re able to isolate just those that pose an impact risk of impact and have destroyed 28 threats. Many are passing by without harm.” At that moment, three more large collisions echoed through the hull.”
“This Mei-Jhen Wu is beginning to annoy me. Damage control report!”
“Two deflector sensors are down. We’re online with only three operational. All starboard thrusters are off-line. Main antennae is off-line. Auxiliary antennae, has deployed and is online. Final count breech count is 132. 14 have been sealed by the bots. Venting water has been shut off. O2 venting is fully sealed and isolated. 8 confirmed casualties, 3 unconfirmed are thought to be in unpressured sectors.”
“Commander Sir! We have something strange out there. I’m taking the main screen.”
Chi stood up from his chair to look more closely at the screen. “What are those?”
“Commander, they just appeared from behind that rock to our left. The deflector raised an alert after that boulder was flagged as no-threat. They had to be hiding behind it.”
Suddenly new voice arrived via the communications console, “This is Commander Mei-Jhen Wu of the Canopy transport calling Commander Chi. No need to respond but my protocols mandate that I announce to you, Checkmate. Over.”
“This Commander Wu yet has some childish surprise for us in about 30 seconds. All weapons, bring to bear against those new targets. Destroy them immediately!
The bridge officer who announced the new objects, went white as he sat back in his seat. He whispered his response “There’s no time. They’re on us.”
“Ray switch the large main screen to our rear view camera and lock it on that ship as we pass by. Put the forward camera on small docking screen.”
Ray’s fingers flew over his console and both screens switched just in time for both of them to watch as all the months and power spent accelerating both ships and their weapons met like two fully charged kinetic batteries and the law of physics took over, reducing all lighter atoms within reach to agitated plasma and forcing heavier atoms into exotic fusion events which released even more free energy looking for something to burn. They both held their hands up to shield their eyes against the burst of light as their projectiles and the Chinese warship exploded in a huge, churning white and orange blossom of atomic plasma. The light of the explosion quickly dispersed leaving shards of glowing fragments that burned down to a dirty cloud of dust and dark red embers before finally going dark. The Chinese ship was gone – fully, almost fragment-free – gone.
“Holy mother . . .” Ray whispered just loud enough for Wu to hear as their transport zipped past the site, barely ahead of the plasma plume and left the Chessboard site far behind.
“Ray – I need anything from our full active scans. Is there anything left?”
“Commander, I’m only seeing a fast cooling cloud of hot dust at the impact site. Could the shock wave of those rods travel so fast through the ship that it vaporized everything? Wait. Our ore sensors are picking up some very heavy metals in that cloud, and, oh, this is interesting. One of our rod segments missed and is still sailing off on its way to nowhere.”
Unable to think of any further threat, Mei-Jhen Wu could only close her eyes and force herself to accept that it had worked and now she only had to worry about any loose wreckage, and the trajectory of that stray Canopy rebar segment.
“Only one?” she finally answered. “Great shooting Ray. Congrats except your award is that now we really should chase it down and bring it home. Each one contained a small fortune in tungsten alone. We’re still at roughly the same speed so it would be easy for us to swing over and grab it, but anyone else would have to spend a lot of money just getting close. Adjust our course and speed to intercept.”
Instead, Ray spun his chair to face Mei-Jhen. “Commander; about that explosion. We are sensing several very heavy rare metals in all that cloud. None of those metals should be there. We didn’t use any and it makes no sense that the Chinese ship had any but trace amounts of them. This looks like a big find of lots of very heavy metals”
“Radioactive hot spots?”
“Some, yes. But worse is the map of the growing plume. The explosion looks like a fluid dynamics nightmare. Some masses combined the speeds of both ships to cancel out velocities while others burned and shot off in different but reasonable directions. Those unexpected heavy metals seem to have mostly stopped around the Chessboard site. How is all this possible?”
Wu looked at the screen and said thoughtfully, “It is possible that we just caused a very large fusion reaction and created those metals from lighter isotopes. It was one possibility I thought likely but had no time to model. We’ll have to come back to check it out. There’s no help for it, but at our speed, we can’t just stop and monitor things.
“Okay then. Ray, please open a channel to Canopy Station; a secure line please, and then do adjust our course to pick up that segment.”
“The channel is open Commander.”
“This is Commander Mei-Jhen Wu calling Canopy Station. We successfully engaged the Chinese warship and destroyed her. There were no survivors and no fragments of the ship remaining after the collision with our Canopy Rebar weapon. The Canopy crew and transport sustained no injury or damage other than some strained nerves.
“We are still at speed and need to recover one segment of Canopy Rebar which missed the target. It will take us several weeks to catch and retrieve it, then slow down and return to the Chessboard site to do a more thorough survey to follow up on any debris fields we can find. We have detected an unexpected quantity of heavy metals at the Chessboard site that we cannot account for but I do have a compelling theory we should rule in or out of consideration.
“We were able to confirm the identity of the person associated with Sisters of Tainan City.
“The battle was staggeringly decisive So far, we have no indication of any communication being attempted back to Earth that might advise them of this result and I doubt any could have been attempted from the warship. However, it will not take them long to figure out how this battle turned out. We should be able to control what details get back to Earth in the short term.
“We also should expect a much stronger attack force next time.
“This is Commander Mei-Jhen Wu and my pilot Ray Reorden, Over!”