Eternity’s Foundation: Chapter 4

“Mr. Drevin, set heading and prepare for gridjump,” Captain Atranas ordered from her command chair. The Yasothon slightly rumbled as the helmsmen steered the ship towards the nearby star’s tesseract. “Officer Sargire, you have command. I will be in the captain’s conference room.” The captain stood up, leaving an imposing figure. Nalia almost forgot she came from a high gravity world. With her short but elegant hair, dark smooth skin, and graceful walk, the captain could have been mistaken for a New Bollywood actress. Except for the weight, but Nalia kept that thought to herself.

“Aye aye, captain.” The captain nodded and left through a rear passage to her quarters. Nalia took the command chair. She rubbed her fingers along its leather coating. She had almost gotten used to it. Being the XO certainly did have its perks. The command display showed the Yasothon approaching its coordinates. Circling the indicator representing the command ship, two additional ones formed up with its trajectory. Corvette-classes. The two ships contained enough firepower to glass a planet twice over. Not that the Yasothon was a slouch in warfighting. For a diplomatic ship, she could hold off two dreadnaughts for a significant period of time. No surprise, she had been converted from a warship, as trust between the Republic and the Kenzenkens was small and frail.

It would be a few minutes until the gridspace drive warm-up procedure completed. Nalia recalled the briefing the captain gave to the bridge crew earlier. Their mission was to observe a Coalition mop-up operation on a Kenzenken warlord who still fought the war. When the armistice had been signed, he refused to return to Heaven’s Forge, the Zenk’s nominal capital, and had seized an asteroid base where he conducted raids on Republic shipping. A handful of others did similar things. She imagined the captain currently discussing their particular roles with the representative from Clan Takawa, whose eldest family member was the current holder of the Prime Minister’s office. The Yasothon would be strictly an observer, to record that the Coalition government expressed sincerity in holding the peace.

“Ma’am, we’re approaching the tesseract,” the helmsman announced from his console. Nalia looked at the representation on the command display. For such a mysterious and awe-inspiring feature of the universe, the interface designers had just given it a wireframe globe. Surely something more grand was required. But then again, the Navy rarely hired artists to design its user interfaces.

“Jump authorized. You may proceed.” She tapped her chair’s console for the ship PA system.“All hands, prepare for gridjump. I repeat, all hands, prepare for gridjump.” She braced herself. An involuntary gesture, but no one really knows what happens when crossing the universe.

The low basso voice of the helmsman echoed throughout the bridge. “Preparing for jump in 3… 2… 1.” A single heartbeat passed. “Jump!” She heard the scream of the drive activate, like metal crashing against the walls of a wind-blown tunnel. In the old holovids from humanity’s pre-space era, some dramatic effect might have occurred with the transition to FTL speed. Some visual disturbance as time and space bent around the observer or a giant multicolored vortex would appear in front of them. None of that occurred. One moment in the real, then the next in the rumbling waters of the grid. In the figures from the physics texts, the pictures displayed an object in gridspace surrounded by its energies, usually depicted as unending waves of violent disturbances, like a child’s drawing of an ocean storm. These energies could be tapped by a specialized device, such as the gridspace drive, to hurtle the object unimaginable distances in mere fractions of a second. Any attempt to duplicate the effect in realspace would require massive amounts of energy. For centuries, scientists had tried to discern the nature of the grid. It was a separate universe, yet it was also part of realspace. Points where the barrier between gridspace and realspace was weakest they called tesseracts. Every star system had one. The scientists theorized these tesseracts required energy from a star to remain coherent. There were strange effects with these tesseracts also. Over time, as more and more ships traveled between two of these spacetime disturbances, the “path” in gridspace would stabilize, and the journey would shorten. It was as if they had built a lane between two star systems.

When Archim Pham demonstrated the gridspace effect by going from the Solar System to Alpha Centauri in half an hour, humanity entered a new era of technological wonder. There were the obvious advances in travel. Leaps in gravitational technology were a side benefit, as scientists found that they could use the grid to manipulate graviton particles. They could now bypass the rigors of extreme acceleration and make space vessels almost feel like Earth. Faster-than-light communication was now possible. And yet so much more needed to be known about the grid. Safer ways to jump without a tesseract. How it could be used as an energy source. It could provide enough energy to power civilization indefinitely! And in the dark corners of weapons labs, some speculated the amount of destructive power that could be obtained, if only it could be tamed.

They arrived at the Neutral Zone in less than thirty seconds. Grid energy dispersed from their arrival point, returning to their parent universe. Bright lights flashed around the Yasothon to announce its arrival. One caveat with the use of gridspace was that you became a giant light bulb to any FTL sensors for light years around. Defenders could easily use the same technology to respond to any incursion in minutes. Of course, this only worked with fully stabilized tesseracts. Somehow, borders still worked in space.

Nalia checked the command screen. The Yasothon and its escorts had arrived safely.  “Looks like they started without us,” remarked Mr. Drevin. On the command display, the asteroid base resembled an angry spinning top with its fluorescent red icon and the dozen of calculated trajectories around it. The enemy fleet prepared for the coming fight. Their ships positioned themselves in a spherical formation around the asteroid. The computer identified one cruiser, two destroyers, and a dozen frigates. A much larger group of yellow dots representing the Prime Minister’s fleet  approached them at a furious pace from the edge of the map. Nalia counted at least two dozen, with the vast majority being capital ships. She wondered which dot was the Command and Control ship

“I thought they were going to wait until we arrived?” Captain Atranas rushed quickly into the bridge with the Takawan representative in tow, a wizened old man in a black and yellow uniform adorned with a cape. Nalia stood up and moved back to her station.

“Apologies, my dear captain. Sometimes the pre-battle rituals end prematurely if the opponent proves uncooperative.” The representative held his hands up as if helpless.

The captain turned sharply. “Mr. Zhang, you and I both know that these engagements can end in the blink of an eye. We can’t afford to be late.” She sighed. “If we want to do this right, we need as much primary data as possible. My report must be accurate.” They both moved to the middle of the room.

“Of course, captain. I am here to serve.”

All eyes veered toward the tactical holo. The Coalition fleet had stopped just outside the engagement area of any long-range torpedoes. “Switch on general comms,” Atranas ordered. The comms officer duly complied and tapped a few buttons on her console.

“-as the swan flows deeply under the pond. May honor and glory follow in your wake, my brother, and may our battle sing to the heavens,” said the voice of a young man, identified by the comms officer as the commander of the Coalition fleet. Luckily or not, Nalia had not seen any combat in her brief period of service. From the stories she heard, the Zenks always began a major engagement with some poetry about glorious combat. Something about rituals instilling a sense of discipline in you. At least they were polite before turning you into space dust. Few, if any, Republican officers ever answered with poetry of their own.

A burst of static emerged from the speakers. She knew it was a transmission from the asteroid base. That electronic shriek must have meant that there was heavy ECM deployed around it. An older man’s booming voice pierced the silence.

“Alas, oh upstart. If only the cursed heavens had deigned to separate the manure from your mouth before you uttered the sacred words of our ancestors!  You profane our honorable dance with quislings and foreigners. You follow the ravings of a mad Prime Minister, one who will lead our people to doom! We will take the path of courage! Oh yes, come to me, brother, and I will show you the truth of Bushido.”

The Takawan representative stood like a rock, his hands gripping his beard.

A beep signaled the admiral’s reply: “Very well, the rabid dog bites from insanity, not from its will. Let us begin.” All this drama sounded a bit ridiculous to Nalia’s ears.

The captain leaned forward and stared intently at the asteroid icon. “Comms. Are you getting all this?”

“Yes, captain.”

“Good. It’ll be nice to not be on the receiving end of these things, for once. Sound general alert.”

A low klaxon bellowed throughout the room. At a moment’s notice, the ship could activate all weapons systems and defenses. They were well out of range of the coming battle, but general precautions had been instilled in them.

The group of yellow dots resumed trajectory. As they crossed the line indicated as the engagement zone, thousands of white dots emerged from the fleet. Long-range torpedoes. Heading at hypervelocity speed towards the enemy fleet. The red dots responded in kind, sending hundreds of their own. Each torpedo had a warhead in the high megatons, enough to instantly turn an undefended ship into its component particles. Most of these torpedoes would be useless. Already, point defense cannons and anti-missile missiles on each of the ships were sweeping through the torpedo field. The same occurred on the asteroid side. A few managed to impact some of the bigger Coalition vessels, but most were absorbed or redirected by grav shields. Eventually, the barrage ended.

On the enemy side, things were not looking too well. The vastly larger number of torpedoes appeared to overwhelm the smaller fleet. An enlarging circle represented each impact, simulating the expected amount of energy release. The enemy grav shields took care of a few of the torpedoes, but the defenses on two of the frigates eventually failed and both dots representing them vanished. One of the destroyers was also damaged, but it remained active.

A second round of torpedoes emerged from the Coalition fleet. They dashed rapidly across the tactical holo. Nalia felt some disappointment. This battle was much quicker than she thought. In a Republican-Zenkenken battle, it would end at much closer range due to the better accuracy of the Republican point defense lasers. They would certainly come to blows, lances of light streaking towards a vulnerable subsystem and high velocity railguns ripping apart armor. Apparently, Zenk versus Zenk engagements differed. Then, to her surprise, the torpedoes disappeared on the screen before reaching the group of red dots. The enemy fleet stayed intact.

“Fortshield,” remarked Representative Zhang, “neither of them will be able to engage the other. Not unless they’re able to draw each other out. This rebel is a bit more well-equipped than we thought.” Captain Atranas remained silent. The yellow fleet changed trajectory; they stayed well away from the newly projected location of the fortshield. Nalia imagined the side and front thrusters on the ships engaged at full burn. As they maneuvered about, she wondered how they would solve this conundrum. Fortshields could last for weeks.

The tactical officer pointed at a cluster of dots moving somewhat apart from the main fleet. “Siege laser. That fortshield won’t last twenty seconds.” Nalia knew of the weapon. If fired for long enough, the sustained intensity of the laser would quickly overwhelm the capacitors charging the fortshield, disabling them for the rest of the battle. One of the few beam weapon designs that the Zenks had ‘borrowed’ from the Republic. They mounted it on a ship, or, she corrected herself, it was the ship, a giant gun floating in space. The siege laser oriented itself into position, well protected by its escorts.

The red fleet scrambled towards it, passing through the invisible barrier of the shield. A foolish tactic, but they had no choice. If they waited, the siege laser would take down the shield and they’d be cut to pieces anyways. “Railgun fire detected,” the tactical officer noted.

Incredibly fast hunks of metal erupted from the yellow fleet. Powered by electromagnetic fields, these weapons weren’t quite as fast as near light-speed, but they did far more damage than the Republic’s beam weapons. In action, observers reported small ships split in half by these projectiles. The fire from the railguns impacted the red fleet. They hit four frigates and exploded outwards on impact for maximum damage. The small ships immediately turned into wreckage. The damaged destroyer stopped a few shots with its grav shield, but eventually fell also.

A flurry of railgun shots and short range missiles were returned from the enemy fleet.  Yellow fleet did not emerge unscathed. Multiple impacts shredded one of the destroyers. The computer beeped as it indicated the first casualty on the Prime Minister’s side. A number of missiles also overwhelmed the shields of three frigates. They too were lost. However, the balance of power still remained against the rebels.

“Computer, report on the enemy cruiser.” The captain’s voice came through clipped and soft. While the rest of its fleet was being decimated, the cruiser traded blows with three of its counterparts. More shots and more missiles. Nalia watched silently as the computer described its slow destruction.

“Cruiser shields down. Weapons systems down. Engines down,” reported the computer. A final combined barrage hit and penetrated the kilometer-long ship’s dorsal side. She imagined it exploding in a searing white fireball as its reactor melted. “Ship destroyed,” concluded the computer. Yellow fleet mopped up the rest of the red fleet.

“High energy spike originating from the siege laser,” reported the tactical officer. On the holo, a bright line emerged from the dot representing the siege laser, hitting the fortshield at lightspeed. Three seconds passed, four seconds, five. Then the shield dissipated, its energy spent. The siege laser powered down to save its energy reserves for a later engagement. The Coalition fleet took position around the asteroid base.

“Well, that’s it then,” said the Takawan representative.

The captain shot him a puzzled look. “No prisoners?”

“No, the rebel commander made it quite clear that they would fight to the death. You should really pay attention to those pre-battle speeches. You might learn something.” He sniffed.

Before the captain could reply, a barrage of missiles emerged from the fleet towards the asteroid base. With no defenses of its own and rocked by hundreds of multi-megaton nuclear explosions, it quickly blew apart. The holo displayed large amounts of its debris heading in opposite directions, their wake measured by fluctuations in gravity. Atranas ordered the display to switch to visual mode. The bridge crew watched the rapidly expanding cloud of dust from the former base. Nalia said a small prayer for the dead.

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