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Comet 13


 
written by Tim Volkert on December 11, 2004 | forum profile | contact me
number of views: 74709 |   printable version (text) (PDF)



Ares, god of war.
Ares, god of war.
Credit: Unknown
“Comet 13 to Planet, Comet 13 to Planet, orbital confirmation complete, over.”

Even with the occasional orbital correction thrust, the cockpit was silent. Small noises ignored on the ground were picked up: breathing, heartbeat, creak of spacesuit.

“Comet 13, this is Planet, begin transfer.”

“Transferring. Requesting interception coordinates.”

Black silence. A blip on the console, a small green light. Boothe gave the thumbs up.

“Read ‘em to me,” Darrick said.

“Areosynchronous orbit at longitude two-six-two, orbital A six-five-one point two-four miles, E zero point oh-oh-seven-two, V Tan. three-seven-two point oh-nine. Check?”

Some keys pressed. “Check. Comet 13 to Planet; starting burn.”

“Comet 13, go for burn.”

Suddenly a great many stars in front of the craft seemingly vanished as a complex series of thruster burns lit up the craft for many seconds. The acceleration was light, but it was still a relief to feel a slight pull back into the seat; almost like being back in a Hornet F-18 simulator, but without the gravity.

A few minutes of drifting punctuated by a couple course correction thrusts brought the “enemy craft” into view.

Boothe exclaimed at his onscreen image, “Shit! Would you look at that? It’s torn all to hell!” The former Mars Orbital Research Station (MORS, obviously) was in poor shape indeed, many of the modules dissected, split open and salvaged for parts; some remained connected only by bundles of cords that were left behind. The saboteurs had brought barely enough equipment for the job, and had obtained the rest from the station itself, cannibalizing whatever was deemed unnecessary. The slowly spinning ring that marked a space-station-building milestone had been carved up and sent spinning into the atmosphere hours ago, burning up over Tyrhenna.

“Ok, Eye, let’s get a closer look at this thing.” Voice command AI’s were still largely an idea of science fiction, not as useful as they cost, but Darrick talked to his anyway, out of habit. He magnified his image to see more detail of the craft, down to a few inches. The actual view out the cockpit windows showed a white dot of light, with Elysium directly overhead.

Darrick studied the image while Boothe altered their trajectory with new data from KSR Port. “Planet was right, the Reds stayed close to the habitats and dumped most of the living modules, and all of the research modules.”

“What about the water tanks?” Boothe asked distractedly as he began transmission of the station’s position and appearance from the ship’s exterior cameras.

“Still there, at least the ones attached to the sections left. The rest they wrapped around the holes they cut and their own equipment, probably with nanotubes.”

KSR Port relayed a message telling them to continue present trajectory while they planned the next move.

“These guys take this a little too seriously,” Boothe said, “Makes me feel like we’re back in the turn of the century.”

“Millennium. And these aren’t religious radicals, but they are serious!” Darrick retorted. He almost sympathized with these crazy areo-freaks. “They know we’re not here to ‘capture’ them, we’re here to disable them!”

“So they know that they’re dead already, but they still go through with it? How are they any different from the terror-”

“Planet to Comet 13, Planet to Comet 13; you have go to execute.”

Darrick sighed. Execute was a very apt word for what he felt he was preparing to do. “Let’s get this over with; the longer we’re up here, the more rads we take on.”

“I hate those damn rad treatments!” Boothe muttered as he punched a few more keys. The craft accelerated towards the butchered station slowly.

After a few minutes, Boothe decelerated the ship and they hung there in space, as if from a cord over (or under) the planet.

Darrick flipped two switches on his console, arming the Short Range Space Streak Missiles (SRSSM) centered in the front of the craft to reduce reaction rotation. “Rider twenty-five, prepare for recoil compensation.”

Boothe flipped his own switches and gave Darrick the thumbs-up again. “Copy Rider twenty-six, ready for thrust, signaling countdown. Knock ‘em dead, cowboy!”

Darrick ground his teeth; that was an annoying habit of Boothe’s since their first campaign together during the third space war five years ago between America and the Southeast Asia Union.

“Signaling countdown, firing.” Now the ship’s AI took over. By coordinating the missile launch and the thrusters that would fire to keep the ship stationary, the orbital adjustments needed were minimal.

Within three seconds, the ship was rocked backward then forward and slowly stabilized as the computer tried to compensate for the momentum. As always, Darrick tried to push up in his seat harness to try and see the missiles streaking towards the target; but, as always, the hull blocked his view for several yards. Finally the surprisingly slow-moving missiles came into view against the starry background, nearly halfway to the station. They had already begun to adjust in their flight, one planet-side and the other opposite, to hit different parts of the target, hopefully blowing open the modules and disabling the microwave dish at once.

Even Boothe was quiet as they waited for contact. The small points of light drew ever closer.

A faint flare of light indicated a hit. Quickly both Comet Riders turned on their screens to view the damage. Before they could discern what had happened through the puff of escaped air and water they had confirmation of success from both KSR Port, north of Valles Marineris, and the G. W. B. Missile Defense Silo.

“Well, that’s that,” Boothe said as he prepared the ship for orbital adjustment to dock with the Hangar.

“Yeah,” Darrick sighed. He had switched off his image screen; was looking out the windows again. Ah, there it was. A tiny figure slowly revolving outside the ship. Either someone was stuck outside during the attack, or they had decided to seal their fate looking out over the planet they loved, and were perhaps born on. No movement; then a hand rose up to the helmet, followed by a barely perceptible puff of gas around the neckline The helmet floated away in a slow circle. Darrick strapped himself into his seat more tightly for the acceleration that would bring them back to the Hangar, and ultimately, home. As the thrusters nudged him back into his seat, he thought, I’m tired of this. I’m quitting.

The same day he resigned, Darrick came back to his tiny apartment (really just a small, three by four meter room) with a cardboard box to pack his things: an old jumpsuit from his days on the United States Space Force, a few books on early space flight, some civilian clothes. After he had crammed everything into the box, he sat down on the bed and got out his portable, a “laptop” as they were once called. First thing, out of habit, he checked the MarsNet headlines.

Yesterday, at 12:00 MGT (Martian Global Time), 11:00 AM local time, the Mars Orbital Research Station was hijacked by Red terrorists (also accompanied by a green, it was later discovered) from its parking orbit around the Phobos International Space Port. It was directed into an areosynchronous orbit above the Tyrhenna Massif, and a microwave dish was deployed, emitting powerful, electrically crippling microwaves that disabled research equipment and a small American military base for the duration of the ordeal. Unable to communicate to other habitats their dilemma, the stationed soldiers were in danger of having even their hardened biological support systems fail, killing all two hundred troops present. The microwaves were disabled by the “Comets” of the United American Space Force, UASF. Colonel Lewis Gidea, a former pilot or “Comet Rider,” said in a press conference earlier today that “the actions of these… so-called Reds, are… cowardly,” and “too little too late to make a difference, anyway.” The Mars Orbital Research Station has been decommissioned, a move that shocked many astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, areonauts, etc. A spokesman from UMSA was quoted in a press release, “It [MORS] was outdated and useless now, anyway. Studies of the shuttle’s passengers have been enough for our research, and any further studies will only prove what we already know.” Colonel Gidea expressed his own suspicions that the hijacking was merely part of a neo-socialist scheme to impair the already under-funded United American Mars program. “There’s just no reason for Reds to outright attack Americans!”

Darrick closed his screen and put the portable down. He closed his eyes and rested his head in his hands. Neo-socialists didn’t wave goodbye to the planet before committing suicide. And why had a small American base had two-hundred soldiers on hand? Because it was actually a surface-to-space missile silo, with a complete arsenal of armor-piercing, nuclear warheads. The microwaves Darrick had disabled had prevented those very missiles from firing on a Chinese civilian transport, the first (presumably) of many colonies that China was starting up. The colonies would be a breach in the Revised Outer Space and Solar System Treaty, prohibiting signed members from building colonies, but surely not enough to provoke the war that United America seemed ready to. Even now, the G. W. B. Missile Defense Silo was being refitted for a volley.

Suddenly feeling closed in, Darrick picked up his box and left without a backward glance. The next shuttle wasn’t leaving for two weeks, and he needed a place to stay.

Sheena.

“Good morning, little one!” Sheena said as Darrick stumped into the cafeteria. Her pet name for him had irritated him at the start of their relationship, especially since he was a bit over six feet tall, but over the months it seemed to merely enhance her charm.

“Morning,” Darrick replied as he plopped down at their usual table, one by a fairly large window overlooking Ophir Chasma. Mariner Prime was situated just ten meters under the northern cliff of Valles Marineris. Only the cafeteria and the gym had windows; it was expensive to rad-shield them in northern winter, when the sun shone down onto the north side of the canyon. After a long, dazed look out the window, Darrick shook his head to clear it and poured some coffee.

“Still having nightmares?” Sheena asked as she accepted a piece of sihkdahla Darrick passed her.

“What? Oh, I guess. I don’t remember,” Darrick answered with his eyes on his pancakes.

Sheena saw this and said, “Tell me what’s bothering you. You may not remember your dreams, but you know your nightmares.”

Darrick sighed. “I just don’t get it. We’re here to do research, to explore and learn and everything, but even here, even on Mars, people are killing people.”

“Keep your voice down, that’s not true,” Sheena said with a quick evaluative glance around the room. Most of the scientists here were areologists, with a few visiting geologists and geophysicists, and most were absorbed in their own worlds. She leaned forward and in a low voice asked, “What happened?”

“I was the one who disabled that microwave transmitter.”

“Well, that’s good then. You prevented bloodshed-”

“No, there would have been no bloodshed. Think about it; microwaves couldn’t penetrate a hardened life support if the sun’s radiation can’t! Those systems are kept farther underground than most areologists have drilled!” Even his hoarse whispers seemed to cross the room, but no one heard him anyway.

“Then why would the Reds attack the base? Did they know it was a missile silo?”

“They must have.” Suspicion pounced on him. “You didn’t tell your friends, did you?”

“Of course not, Darrick, you know me better than that.”

He sighed. “You’re right, these super-patriots and their McCarthy-ism is getting to me. Sorry.”

She smiled down on him.

“Anyway,” he continued, feeling old, “the base was preparing to knock out a Chinese passenger shuttle that was entering orbit.”

Sheena gasped. “Firing on a passenger shuttle? Why?”

“Colonists.”

“Ah.”

“They got through, but UA already declared a breach of treaty, and is now threatening the colony here and China back home- er, back on Earth,” Darrick stammered. For Earth wasn’t Sheena’s home. Even now, looking up at her, she seemed like the very picture of a Martian Darrick had envisioned in his dreams as a boy. Over seven and a half feet tall at the age of nineteen, Sheena was a pure born Martian scientist. Of course, natives weren’t required to be anything to be on Mars, since they were protected under international law from being removed, or even incarcerated. ‘Untouchable,’ Sheena would laugh, as they would stroll down the broad halls of her home, Mariner Prime.

She was the love of his life. Because of her, his own little world had opened up, and was now immense and fully populated, like Bombay or Karachi at the market (Sheena’s father was western Indian, her mother Pakistani). New ideas whizzed through his head faster than he could make sense of them. United America was no longer seen as the perfect national-alliance; Mars wasn’t just a lab, it was an conflict over terraformation methods; Earth wasn’t just an ant hill. People were no longer scenery.

“I love you, Sheena,” Darrick said abruptly, taking her giant, slender hands in his, small and thick.

“Of course you do, you’re only Terran,” she replied with a smile, “I love you, too.”

And then he was on the shuttle home. It had been hard leaving Sheena, even though they both knew it would happen. He had promised to sign up for immigration, which had made her smile through her tears. Permanent immigration was still illegal, and the average waiting list was forty years long with the current shuttles.

So they parted forever at KSR Port. And now he was on his way to Earth; no; to home.

But what a place to call home. In the mid-twenty-first century, the People’s Republic of China- the last true communist nation since Fidel Castro’s death four decades earlier- collapsed in a much more bloody and violent way than the Soviet Union had. The government that had fled to Taiwan before World War Two was reinstated, and much of the world celebrated an epoch of relative peace.

When humanity truly became a space-faring race, it brought all its baggage along with it. Almost immediately after the first men in history landed on Mars and returned- an international effort of an unprecedented scale- an underground political party in China seized control and re-instated the old communist regime in the form of “neo-socialism.” Most of the members of the United Nations renounced the new government immediately, and gave China an ultimatum to return the original, “Taiwanese” government to power or fight the world for it, the neo-socialists appeared to consider the offer. But in a surprise attack, China launched hundreds of ground-to-space missiles, downing most of the information satellites in orbit. It also launched a small fleet of manned “defense craft,” the first combat-ready space ships. The United Nations countries were suddenly in trouble.

While fighting a vicious, global battle against the countries under China’s influence, the UN countries began construction and deployment of their own war ships. The United States, Mexico, Cuba, and much of Central America (and later Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru) formed the United American Alliance, also known as United America, a permanent military and space alliance. Southeast Asia formed a similar alliance, as did Australia, New Zealand, and Indonesia; North Africa; Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkistan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. The First Space War had begun.

War in space was not like science fiction had depicted it in the late twentieth century/ early twenty-first century. There were no quick maneuvers; no explosions; no lasers; no light-speed jumps. In fact, for most of the time between take-off and re-entry (or docking with the orbiting stations), it was very dull. Confrontations, were quick, decisive, few and far in between. Missiles missed more often than not because of inadequate orbital parameters and ship backlash, but it only took one hit. And if the cockpit was blown open enough, about a foot squared, the body would be sucked into space in less than a second, whether it could properly fit through the hole with its space suit or not.

So the First Space War ended quickly, but the ground war only intensified. Eventually China surrendered, and the old regime was replaced, but it was not the same. Now almost every country had tasted the infinite reaches of space, and they wanted more.

The Outer Space Treaty was altered and picked at to allow maximum profit, and the space program in general accelerated, but now charged with a tension similar to the Cold War of the twentieth century. It was once again every nation for itself, with the feel of international accomplishment gone. United America started a scientific base on Mars to mirror the lunar one; ERSA (Euro-Russian Space Agency) built a telescope the size of a city block on the moon; Japan, China, and the Southeast Asia Union raced to Venus and then Mercury for scientific data. Australia and North Africa partitioned out Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons in heated negotiations; the Islamic Nations were sundered by political and religious tensions during the Second Space War.

As Mars grew more populated with additional research stations, children were born, despite protocol. So the treaty was amended to allow permanent, non-Earth residence to native Martians only.

And now, Earth in the early twenty-second century. Not much had changed in the past hundred or so years since the first small steps into the vastness of space. On Earth, politics and society in general had stayed much the same, experiencing the same fluctuating temperaments and values as before, despite global communications and ever-faster travel, space or otherwise. Technology and health were still largely luxuries for the middle class and higher; poverty, disease, and war still dominated the horizons of everyone’s lives; harmful industrial effects on the environment and populations pressures made everyone more and more miserable. It was going to be interesting.

The ship Darrick was on was a newer type. A squat, cylinder-shaped structure behind the helm was rotated rapidly to produce an artificial gravity effect, while the helm was rotated in the opposite direction for ease of piloting. The crew quarters, cargo holds, passenger quarters, dining and living areas were all in the gravity tube. The propulsion system was located throughout the center of the ship, making for a humming and vibrating ceiling. Their route was pretty straight forward, in the orbital shift sense- a Type II Hohmann Transfer, nothing tricky about it, just alignment of the planets, really.

The shuttle was just preparing for orbital insertion, its rotation stopped, when the entire craft shook unexpectedly, accompanied by a low rumble. Alarms began ringing throughout the entire ship, from the hallways and the rooms. Red lights flashed, and shouts were heard as crew members raced to the problem. As per protocol, all the passengers started getting into their spacesuits (which were now required, one per passenger, after the pressure leak of El Mensajero Inmortal). Darrick wasted no time asking neighbors what was happening and hurried into his emergency suit in zero-g with the practiced efficiency of a Comet Rider.

Secure and with air and heating systems on, Darrick floated out into the hallway. Many of the passengers aboard were in his line of sight, and he watched as many struggled with the unfamiliar suits. He helped as many as he could into theirs, and was securing an older woman’s helmet, when a sudden gust of wind dragged him and everyone down the hallway His vision was blurry, and he couldn’t feel anything except for the occasional bump, but he got the impression that he was still accelerating down the hallway. As he knocked into a wall, he grasped at a pipe near his head, missed, and slipped out a ragged hole through the floor, the hull of the ship.

Darrick shot out of the ship along with several other people and objects, including their air, furniture, bubbles of various liquids (mostly water from the rad shield tanks), a door, sheets, clothes, and a few suits. With the floating, ripped bags of water against the background of the stars, he recalled something he had read from Carl Sagan about the early Christians’ view of the cosmos; waters of the firmament, indeed. There Earth lay, just between a slowly rotating dining table and a small bubble of blood.

Full suits stood out everywhere; those individuals still tethered to the ship (even Darrick had forgotten to tether to his door) were trying to climb their rope to get closer to it, some were even attempting to launch back out toward other, non-tethered people, but their efforts were futile. Those like him who had been shot out of the ship were quickly falling towards the emptiness of space.

Darrick remembered that lone survivor aboard the stolen Mars Orbital Research Station. As he steeled himself to open his helmet, he tried to spin around with the small, nearly useless suit jets, to look directly at the Earth one last time. As he did, he caught sight of motion against the backdrop of stars. Turning, he saw a small but bulky refrigerator floating straight at him. As it came towards him, he positioned his legs between himself and the fridge, and pushed off of it hard. He couldn’t tell, but he seemed to have arrested his movement; no, he was actually back moving towards the ship! A miracle! Looking down between his legs, he saw the older woman he had helped into her suit getting noticeably smaller as she prepared to push the fridge back at someone one more time. People like that are a miracle, Darrick felt. Slowly he floated back towards the ship, still too stunned to register emotion.

All he could think as he helped shepherd the remaining into the emergency hold was, who are we at war with now?

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