Challenge Story #1: Jewels in the Night
Jewels in the Night - A short story of the Accord
By Kevin O. McLaughlin
Almost every war comes down to resources. The side that has them, wins.
Deny key resources to the other side, and you can crush them.
Nicholas Stein is forced to stand by, helpless, while the enemy uses a new ship to destroy the US colony on Luna. The loss will devastate his nation's ability to wage war - unless Stein can find a way to balance the scales.
Jewels in the Night
By Kevin O. McLaughlin
He would never forget having a front row seat to seeing ten thousand lives extinguished in nuclear fire. No one could forget that sight. The worst was not being able to do anything about it, except avenge the fallen. For a naval captain, being unable to prevent the deaths of those he was sworn to defend was the second worst possible fate. Being forced to hang helpless in space while those people were slaughtered was the worst.
“Alea iacta est,” he said.
No one else heard his words. The only other people within radio range were his six marines, each wearing a space suit similar to his own. Pitch black, and equipped with the latest in stealth hardware, the suits were extremely hard to spot, so long as none of them used their radios. The operation was to be accomplished under radio silence until they’d made contact with the enemy.
That was still in the future. For now, Captain Nicholas Stein was for all intents alone in space with nothing but his thoughts and the destruction of the lunar colony to keep him company. He was near enough to see the detonations. He imagined that he could hear the screams.
The United States had simply gambled and lost. Since discovering there were fissionable materials on the moon for mining, the US had been able to come out well ahead in the war back on Earth. China had burned up most of its own fissionable material for energy during the early years of the war, as had the US. Access to a new energy source was essential, and the only moon base belonged to the US. In fact, the Chinese supposedly had no ships capable of reaching the moon at all. The only ship the US Navy had set to guard the lunar colony was Stein’s own largely toothless old cruiser. With an old engine, a crew of two dozen, and no external weapons at all, the ship wasn’t much of a defense.
But then, no one had thought they needed to spend on defense in space. The US-Euro supremacy there had been unchallenged for years. Until today.
Stein dialed up the resolution on his helmet camera. There she was. The Chinese ship no one had thought existed. Beautiful, really. She looked like a predator, so obviously built to bring death. Which she had done with callous ease, the huge engines carrying her swiftly to the target while Stein’s own ship was too far to be able to intercept.
He’d gone over the math himself, over and over. There simply had been no way to coax enough speed out of his older ship to intercept the aggressor. He’d have ordered his ship to ram the enemy, if he could have thought of a way to accomplish that. There simply wasn’t. The enemy had timed their attack while his ship was too far away to respond.
So instead Stein had his ship lay himself and his men in the likely course his enemy would follow back to Earth. Like a minefield, they drifted in the void, subtle accelerations calculated by suit computers bringing them into an intercept. Just seven more bits of man-made debris in an orbital that had been filled with junk by a century of spaceflight. He was confident they wouldn’t be seen.
The ship was getting closer. His suit computer was still receiving a data feed from nearby US satellites, giving him precise information about the enemy ship’s course. The suit began making small course adjustments again, bringing him directly into the path of the ship with small spurts of energy. He’d guessed their course correctly. By setting his own ship on the route he had chosen, there was only one clean path back to Earth that would take the ship in without exposing it to fire from the US hunter-killer satellites in geosynchronous orbit over North America and Europe. Ever closer it loomed, still moving fast despite his suit’s attempts to match velocity. This was going to be tight.
Then he spotted one of his men for the first time in hours. From his angle, it looked like he was falling toward the ship, and the man was falling below him. For whatever reason, the marine hadn’t managed to boost his speed enough, and was just falling to fast. A moment later, and Stein saw the marine’s dark suit break into fragments against the dull gray hull of the ship. He closed his eyes for a moment.
Accelerate too much, and he’d be spotted. Too little, and he’d splatter against their hull or miss entirely and be burned to a crisp by the ship’s thrust.
The nose of the ship was speeding toward him. He took over manual control of the suit thrusters, and eased them on, slowly boosting acceleration. Then the nose of the ship flashed past him, and he was falling down the side, still dropping too fast. But he was past their front radar now, so he cut on full thrust. The sense of falling slowed, almost stopped. He reached out, fingers questing for something, anything, to catch a hold of on the hull.
There! He had his fingers around a ladder rung. With a last burst that completely expended his thruster pack, he got enough boost that the jolt didn’t wrench his arm out of its socket. He depressed a stud on his suit and the thruster pack broke away, drifting off to be annihilated by the ship’s rockets. Then he just clung to the rail for a minute, catching his breath and slowly easing muscles cramped with tension.
Glancing around, he saw three other suited shapes moving toward him. Of the other two marines, there was no sign. Still, better than half of them had made it, which was more than he had expected. By chance, he’d landed in a good place, too – the rung to which he clung was part of a ladder to a crew hatch. He used hand signals to set two of the men on watch. Those two clamped magnetic boots to the hull and unlimbered their firearms, watching for any sign that the crew inside had noticed them and was coming out. Then he and the last marine unclipped the demo charges from the sentries’ belts. Each man on the mission had carried a pair of charges, so that even if only one man made it to the ship, he would have a chance to do some damage. With so many of his men still alive though, Stein hoped he might actually be able to take the enemy ship.
Stein carefully laid in a pair of charges on the hatch, shaping them to blow inward against the metal. Then he and the marine next to him scuttled back a bit, and he popped the charges by remote. The explosion was less showy than he’d expected – nothing but a flash and a poof of air freezing as it left the hull. The two men moved in, aiming weapons past the shattered outer hatch, and saw that the inner door had sealed automatically when it sensed vacuum.
Not much time, thought Stein. They know something's up, now. He shouldered the rifle and dove into the airlock, whipping out his pair of charges as he fell. With a smack, he laid each charge against the inner door, and pushed himself back off hard. He hit the detonator as he was tumbling away, and was rewarded by a flash and sudden rush of air that almost vented him off into space. The marine who’d stood by him snagged his arm as he sailed past.
“Easy sir, I’ve got you,” came the marine’s voice over his radio.
“Thanks. Thought I was headed for an involuntary space walk there for a minute. I guess we can forget about radio silence now,” he replied.
“They know we’re here now, for sure sir,” came the reply.
“You’re Acres, right? “
“Good man. Glad you made it. Get the others in here, we’re moving.”
“Aye, sir.” Acres gave quick orders over his radio, and the two other marines hauled ass into the airlock, muzzles of their rifles leading the way through the torn inner hatch. The hallway was clear of opponents, although riddled with bits of debris from the door blowing in. The entire corridor was in vacuum. Blast doors had sealed both ends of the shaft.
Stein linked his suit computer with the comps in the marine suits. The younger two marines were Lance Corporal Grant and Corporal Olsen, he saw from his heads-up display.
“Olsen, Grant – you two have point. Move toward the ship nose. We need to take their bridge. Acres, you have the rear. Cover that door behind us,” Stein said. He tucked himself between the three, rifle aimed forward, where he expected to find trouble.
Olsen covered Grant as he dashed up to the door and expertly laid a charge on the door. He ducked back, and a moment later another raging torrent of air beat at them from the passage ahead. He’d torn the door half out of its housing with the blast. Grant moved up again, sneaking a peek around the edge of the torn metal – and ducked back fast! Olsen slammed his body against the wall of the corridor, and Acres half tackled Stein as bullets tore overhead through the space he’d just been standing.
“Sorry about the manhandling, sir,” Acres said.
“Thanks, Gunny. Owe you a beer,” Stein replied. Both men rolled to opposite sides of the hall, still pinned to the floor by the rain of gunfire.
Grant was not pinned, though. With a snap of his wrist, he twisted the front third of his barrel ninety degrees to the left, and stuck the bent part around the corner. Instantly, the sensors placed in the tip of the barrel gave him a perfect view of the hall ahead, the barricade, and the suited gunmen tucked in behind. He flipped a selector with his thumb, and squeezed his trigger three times, shifting the barrel a bit with each shot to cover the entire barricade.
Each pull of the trigger sent an electrical impulse down the barrel into the 10mm grenade launcher mounted under the barrel. Each impulse spat out a fragmentation air-burst grenade down tiny magnetized rails. The grenades didn’t travel as fast as a bullet, but they didn’t need to in a short hallway. The air-burst grenades were programmed to speed through the air above the barricade, looking for all the world like missed shots.
Until they were past, and detonated, sending lethal shards of shrapnel in all directions. In that tight space, none of the soldiers crouching there survived with intact suits. The enemy gunfire stopped. The marines waited about thirty seconds, then Grant looked around the corner with his weapon again.
“All clear,” he said. He pushed forward cautiously through the broken door, watching for bits of metal which might catch his own suit. Olsen followed, both men moving to their side of the barricade to cover the far door with their rifles.
That door snapped open as Acres and Stein moved up to the barricade. Another hail of rounds came from inside. Stein and the Marines returned fire.
“They’re not using grenades - why?” Stein said.
“Probably don’t have any,” replied Acres. “Weren’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition!”
“I’m not Spanish,” Stein replied with a grim smile.
“This is taking too long, sir. They’ll blow the computer soon.”
“We’ll have to fire our grenades and rush ‘em. Can’t afford to get bogged down here.”
Stein thought as he carefully fired aimed shots down the hallway. He ducked as one bullet pinged close to his helmet.
“We do that, they’ll have a shooting gallery of us if the grenades miss anyone,” Stein said.
“It’s the best bet, sir.”
“No, got another idea. Pop ‘em with grenades to cover me,” Stein replied. Then he followed the order himself, firing a pair of grenades into the hall ahead. Each of the marines did likewise, the light flash from each explosion odd for its silence.
While the explosions were still bursting, Stein was on the move. He unclipped the last demo charges from Acre's belt then ducked back into the hallway they had just left, and then out the hatch.
“Going somewhere, sir?” asked Acres over the radio.
“Yeah, just keep them busy another minute,” said Stein.
He pulled himself out onto the hull of the ship, space looming deep and black all around him. Then, carefully planting each foot, he started walking up the spine of the ship toward the nose.
All about him, open space yawned wide. He moved as fast as he could while still maintaining a steady contact with the ship. The thrusters were no longer burning, so a slip might not be fatal to him, but it would likely doom his men inside.
He reached the nose of the ship. He'd noticed that the ship's design wasn't that different from an oversized shuttle. Which meant a command center in the nose. And he was counting on a peculiar human foible. Back in the early days of the space race, astronauts had insisted on windows to the outside – real transparent panels. Those weren't essential anymore, since ships were built with redundant sensor suites and a flat screen could show picture as clearly as armored glass. But having a transparent view port had become something of a tradition in spacecraft.
And this ship was no exception. Stein spotted the windows a couple of feet away. He lunged forward and slapped both charges down on them, then waved to the two suited men inside. He was rewarded with a wide-eyed expression that he only saw for a moment before pulling back from the glass and detonating his charges.
The windows shattered, blasting air out into space. He didn't wait for the rush of air to stop, but thrust the nose of his rifle into the gap and fired two short bursts of frangible ammunition. The bullets would break apart themselves if they hit anything much more solid than human flesh, but they still ripped gaping holes in suits and body alike. The interior of the control room was quickly filled with floating globules of frozen blood.
Stein slipped carefully through the shattered window and brought his magnetized boots in contact with the floor. A few quick steps and he was across the room, slapping the open button on the door to the rest of the ship. Four men where there, firing over a barricade at his Marines down the hall. He didn't give them time to recognize there was an enemy behind them, firing short bursts into the backs of each.
“It doesn't change anything,” Stein said.
“What do y'mean, sir? We nailed them good,” Acres replied.
Those last four men had been the end of the Chinese ship's crew. With the crew dead, Stein's Marines had set about trying to patch the ship up a bit. They'd sealed the broken lock and put a patch over the shattered front window. But the ship was still leaking air, so rather than bother with atmosphere in the ship they refilled their suit tanks and stayed suited. Acres and Stein were sitting in the two control post seats now, while Stein tried to figure out what to do next.
“Pyrrhic victory, Acres. They've just shut off the flow of energy sources to Earth, or pretty nearly. The US was winning, and probably still can. We hold the orbitals, so I don't think that's in question. But without a regular energy supply? There's going to be a lot of very cold, very hungry people this winter.”
“Unless we can finish the war sooner than that, sir.”
Stein let the word trail off, thinking about that. Even with the US in a clearly leading position, their opponents had still been able to hang on with incredible tenacity. It seemed doubtful that a clean victory would come before energy reserves ran down to disastrous levels.
Unless the Chinese could be forced to surrender sooner.
“Acres,” he asked, “how many munitions did you say were left aboard the ship?”
“Six more missiles, sir. I was surprised to see them. Wonder if they had in mind to hit someplace else on the way home, if they could.”
“They might have tried, but it wouldn't have mattered. The defense systems on Earth would take down anything but a close launch, and they'd never get that near.” Only on the moon had defenses been so inadequate that a nuclear attack was viable.
“What yields?” Stein asked.
Acres looked at him. “A moment, sir.” He turned to the console, and called up data on the ship's stores. “They're all 500 kiloton bombs, sir. Why?”
“Thinking about sending them home.”
“Thought you just said they wouldn't work against an Earth target, sir. Their anti-missile is almost as good as ours.”
“Yeah, it's a problem. Let me work on it. Get a tight beam on the Connie, will you? No radio, direct link only.”
His own ship, the USS Constellation, would be cruising back around to link up with them soon. The plan was to either escort them in, if they'd captured the ship, or to pick them up if they'd been unable to do so.
He turned to the ship commander's console and cracked his fingers, tapping the keys. Chinese characters came up on the screen, asking for thumbprint and retinal identification. He grimaced, then got up and went to fetch the commander's body. A few minutes later, the computer accepted his identity, but he kept the corpse velcroed to a wall nearby in case it needed reassurance again.
Mission parameters flashed up on the console. They were still on the same course the ship had been following, holding steady in a long glide toward Earth. Toward Beijing's spaceport. They'd been ordered to maintain radio silence until they were back safely on Earth, to protect the security of the mission. The Chinese had already carefully laid out approach patterns for the ship.
Which made sense. No one had ever even attempted a stunt like what Stein and his men had accomplished. Stein's own ship wasn't any better set up to repel boarders than the Chinese vessel had been. That would change, now. But for the moment the risk of being destroyed by a hunter-killer satellite that detected a radio output was foremost in the minds of every spaceship captain. Not whether some lunatic would try to board the ship in a spacesuit.
Stein took a deep breath. It might work. If it did, it might stop this war in its tracks. Maybe give humanity time to get its act together before the fuel ran out and everyone ended up in a new dark age.
There were almost thirty million people living in Beijing.
Stein closed his eyes for a moment and consigned them to oblivion. Along with his soul.
Two hours later, Stein and his men were again drifting in space, this time in a very low Earth orbit, floating over the night side of the planet. They'd waited until the last possible moment to leave the ship, which continued on its way under the control of the computer guidance systems.
This time he could see all his men, at least. They'd stayed in contact with each other, so as not to lose anyone in the dark. The man next to Stein bumped helmets with him to talk. They were using radio silence again, to avoid being seen until the Connie could get closer to pick them up.
“Should be any minute now, sir,” Acres's voice carried in a muffled manner through their helmets.
“Think it'll work?”
“If they'd smelled a rat, they'd have killed the ship already. They're trying to land it quietly, in the middle of the night under radio silence,” Stein said. He paused, then added, “No, it will work.”
Stein could feel the helmet next to his shift as Acres nodded. There wasn't much left to say. Stein was about to kill more people with one blow than anyone in history. Some were military, sure. But just as many would be noncombatants. Women. Children. Nuclear fire scorched without discrimination. He tried to feel regret for all of those lives he was about to take, but felt only hollow inside.
“It's a hard thing, sir,” Acres said. “I don't know if I could have done it. Gun in hand, shooting someone shooting back at me, sure. Don't know if I could have done this, though. Not sure many could have.”
Then he looked into Stein's eyes and held them with his own. “Which is why I am damned glad you were in command here, sir. You'll save a lot more innocent lives than you take, today.”
Stein nodded, unable to speak. He glanced at the time in his helmet display. It should be any moment now.
Acres chuckled hollowly. “You'll be the hero who ended the war, and saved the world.”
He brushed free from Acres, floating clear a little. He wanted to be alone for a moment, and where was better for that than drifting free in the void?
Below him on the deeply shadowed planet, lights flashed into sudden brilliance, visible cleanly even in space. Like jewels in the night, they shined with a brilliance that brought tears to his eyes.