Episode 9 -- N-Body Problem
The Internationale translates to Kollontai, the capital planet of the Five Suns with Isaac/Isabeau and the Postmistress on board, unaware of the kill order issued on the courier ship by mysterious mercenaries. The Algorab gunship Al-Awaidh, manned by Talasea and Qasmuna, mounts a counter-intercept. The improvised warship re-emerges into real space as the Internationale detects several missiles inbound...
They are the final arguments of sovereigns.
On Earth or on the Moon, they are called "torpedoes", in reference to the weapons used by industrial-era fleets to relentlessly kill each other under the waves. In the Traverse they are called "missiles" because why bother inventing new words or recycling old ones when perfectly adequate terms already exist. The Irenians name them "lances" because they remember that humankind has yet to invent a cheaper weapon than high-velocity sharp sticks. Of course, at the heart of Human Space, under the Earth's shadow, warships are equipped with much more powerful weapons. If wars still happened there, they'd be led with laser artillery and ultra-relativistic particle beams. But even then, missiles would remain as persistent extras, in swarms of thousand of hungry wolves heading for their targets. But on the rims of human space, far from the old megalopolises, where even communications lasers are hard to manufacture, missiles still reign supreme.
The two projectiles darting towards the Internationale at ten kilometres per second are exceedingly simple weapons. Yet, they are among the most complex tools of war one can make at the edges of the known world. They don't look like much of anything, truth be told. Thick cylinders equipped with oversized liquid fuel engines. Garage WMDs. Their targeting suite is a basic infrared guidance camera bought in some probe graveyard, trained on the Internationale's thermal profile. The weaponry is outright pathetic: a small explosive, spiting shrapnel on the target right before impact. Navigators call this "the trashcan of death". It makes up for its pitiful power by sheer velocity. At ten kilometres per second, even a handful of dirt could pulverise a ship.
There is one minute left before impact. Entangled in the interdiction bubble of the cargo vessel, the Internationale cannot translate away. It is trapped.
Bubbles is acutely aware of the problem and in no small part because the Distant Shores was also destroyed by a missile. Endless simulations told her everything there is to know about such weapons. Antimissile defence, remember Bubbles, is a bit like an onion. First layer: don't get spotted. Second layer: don't get fired at. Third and fourth layer: don't get hit and don't get killed. Bubbles is ready to act somewhere between these two layers. She knows that despite their professionalism, neither Isaac/Isabeau nor the Postmistress have the time to act. It's her job to save the ship. The plan is very simple. Three steps: disappear, divert, destroy.
Bubbles kills the Internationale's engines and retracts the radiators. She knows that she's probably going to fry some circuits doing so -- doesn't matter. She needs to reduce the Internationale's thermal signature at all costs. It is crucial for the second step.
The Internationale carries two miniature probes used to send distress signals in case the vessel would find itself unable to move. They are simplistic devices, with a hard drive disk as their only payload, but they're fast. And in space, speed -- which means delta-v -- means thrust, thus visibility. When she throws her two drone companions in space, Bubbles has no hope of them leaving the theatre of operations and alerting someone. But that is not their goal. Their function, as short-lived as it should be, is to trick the enemy. By igniting their drives a few kilometres away from the Internationale, the two sacrificial drones suddenly create a larger heat signature than that of Courier 7. It is a ridiculously simple idea and military missiles would easily foil Bubbles' plan, but the projectiles sent against the Internationale have the intelligence of a toaster. They take the bait. Bubbles is sad when she sees the drones disappear in a silent explosion. She'd almost want to salute them. Good job, little creatures. Now, on to the third step.
The problem of the missiles is solved, but the shrapnel remains. High-velocity debris now travel on the same vector as the Internationale and will soon catch up with it but Bubbles foresaw this. Courier 7's laser grid is too weak to intercept missiles but it can handle superheated shrapnel with a mean diameter of two millimetres. It was built for this. One millisecond: the close perimeter of the Internationale turns into a constellation of crimson dots. The ship enters the storm head-first. The eyes painted on its flanks lit up, reflecting the light diffracted from the lasers.
For a handful of seconds -- seven, maybe eight -- Bubbles feels something that looks like joy. She just survived a missile salvo aboard a courier ship!
And then one last cloud of fragments, faster than the others, cuts through the laser grid, impacts the hull and --
A thump. Dry. Metallic.
The lights go out.
A blue wave rippled through Talasea when the Al-Awaidh reintegrated the real world, two hundred kilometres away from the Internationale. The Irenian's screens filled with myriads of infrared spikes. It took the flight computer two seconds to filter them all out. The haptic tattoos on the back of her hand activated, covering her palms in red-hot needles, a tactile transcription of the world outside. The Internationale was surrounded by the shrapnel cloud of a dead missile.
"The Internationale is still here," whispered Qasmuna, "what happened?"
"It can't intercept a missile with its grid. Bubbles may have sacrificed a drone to bait the projectile into a trap."
Talasea realized she wasn't really thinking. She merely reacted. She could not afford to dwell on the fate that awaited both the Internationale and the Al-Awaidh. On the other side of the cockpit, Qasmuna was but a frozen ghost; and yet, even her stillness was reassuring. Lost in half-light her face was a pair of green circles, the outline of her eyes drawn by the VR displays on her helmet. Her voice was eerily steady. A buoy in the waves.
"This is Algorab gunship Al-Awaidh to cargo ship identified as EM-YT-67, we have a target solution on you. Please drop all your weaponry and ammunition, kill your drives and prepare to be boarded."
Talasea held her breath. Qasmuna was bluffing -- the cargo ship was only eight hundred kilometres away but she had yet to get a viable target solution on it. It was credible, however. The cargo ship could see them and if two ships could see each other, they could target each other. The Algorab pilot watched the LIDAR feedback on the Internationale. The messenger ship had been spared by the missiles but its behaviour was not nominal. Courier 7 was spiralling to the side. Its RCS thrusters looked inoperative and the main drive was offline. Talasea hadn't noticed. Either she was entirely captivated by the cargo ship, or she refused to think about the Internationale. In both cases, Qasmuna didn't see a point in alarming the Irenian. As long as EM-YT-67 was in the vicinity, the Al-Awaidh couldn't assist. The Yazidi reiterated her message.
"This is Algorab gunship Al-Awaidh to cargo ship identified as EM-YT-67, we have a target solution on you. Please drop all your weaponry and ammunition, kill your drives and prepare to be boarded."
This time, there was an answer.
Isaac/Isabeau punched an emergency switch. Reddish lights filled the cockpit. Electric twilight. The pilot deactivated the master alarm, finally bringing an end to the industrial drill that had been bouncing in their head for the past minute. Isaac/Isabeau checked to see if they were intact. Nothing had come through the pilot, but the cockpit had not been as lucky. Three pairs of symmetrical holes, barely larger than a thumb, now adorned the prow of the ship. Thin pillars of dust and microscopic debris linked them together in a bronze grid criss-crossing the cockpit. Two of the pillars had punched through the hull and towards the floor. The Internationale's atmosphere escaped with a gentle, moist whisper. They had ten to eleven minutes before full depressurisation.
The third pillar spawned from the Postmistress.
Shrapnel had traversed her like bullets through a ragdoll. She turned towards Isa. The hole in her chest was large enough to fit a hand. Liquid poured through the exit wound: coolant fluid for an android frame.
"Don't worry, Isa. I'm fine. At least for the next twenty minutes. Bubbles?"
The avatar on the post-it was blurry.
"We suffered multiple hull punctures. Most shrapnel overpenetrated, which spared our superstructure, but I am purging the batteries to avoid mass quenching of our SMES units. We are also leaking metastable nitrogen all around. Three cockpit impacts. Everything alright?"
The Postmistress signalled Isa not to say anything. The pilot shut their helmet tight before answering.
"Don't bother with us. Can we restart the main drives? We need to escape the interdiction bubble."
The Postmistress grabbed Isaac/Isabeau's hand.
"No. We need to remain as cold as possible. It's the only thing that can save us. You've seen that cargo ship's thermal signature. It's a nuclear vessel, probably liquid core fission. We don't have enough delta-v to outrun this thing, but if we reignite the drive, we'll be a perfect target. The Internationale is not a warship, it's a messenger, and when a messenger is attacked, they drop dead and wait for danger to pass."
"I refuse to lose another ship."
"I understand. But the best we can do is to stand still and silent."
Yet another alarm.
The Internationale's radar screen lit up like a celebration tree. There were seventy thermal spikes incoming.
The VR displays on the Al-Awaidh now showed a variety of shades of orange and red. Talasea blinked.
"Cargo ship is firing again. I count ten...correction, twenty, no, thirty missiles and they keep firing. Forty-eight. Fifty-six. Sixty-seven. Seventy-two. Seventy-two missiles incoming!"
Under normal circumstances, her mind would have been stuck trying to guess how such a small ship could contain so many missiles. Missile drums bolted to the hull? Sliding bay doors? Some other kind of engineering aberration? No matter.
"Can we survive this?"
Qasmuna's answer was disarmingly sincere.
"I don't know. Talasea, do you trust me?"
"Yes. Do you?"
"You're a Starmoth Initiative navigator. That's all I need."
Talasea nodded and sealed her helmet. Qasmuna took a deep breath and whispered a prayer.
"Very well. I will keep the Al-Awaidh on the same vector as the Internationale, but far enough to avoid collateral damage. We will engage the missiles at short range with our interceptors. Our lasers are useless against sheer mass. I will fly the ship myself. The interceptors and their mass drivers will be on autopilot. I'll manually correct if need be. Calculating so many interception solutions will push our CPU to its limits. I want you to handle counterbattery fire. Our torpedoes can track their target independently but I need a gunner to oversee their guidance and filter out decoys."
Qasmuna opened the Al-Awaidh's missile guidance window on Talasea's console. The Irenian only needed a glance to understand that the guidance system was a carbon copy of the ones used by the Starmoth Initiative on its rocketsondes. It wasn't a mere coincidence. Without access to military resources, the local Algorab syndicate had repurposed science software for its torpedoes.
"Alright. I have four torpedoes under power."
"Hey. Talasea. The goal is first and foremost to force the cargo ship to think about something else. Destruction is optional."
The Irenian approved and gazed upon her screen. Her hands found the haptic controls on their own. Her heart calmed down. Everything felt familiar. Qasmuna crossed her arms, looking at the ceiling. Her eyes were open but blind. Smooth mirrors, detached from reality.
"Tell me, Talasea. Do you love them?"
"I have told them things even the stars wouldn't hear from me."
A sweet smile curved Qasmuna's lips. Impact in two minutes, said the flight computer. Four missiles had exploded upon engine ignition. There were sixty-eight left, all inbound for the Al-Awaidh. Qasmuna gave the flight computer an order.
"Deploy interceptors. Maximal rate of fire. Auto-aim with additional manual input. Priority goes to the closest projectile."
Four utility bays opened on the flanks of the gunship, revealing the electromagnetic tracks of its mass drivers. They started pumping out antimissile ammunition at the rate of ten cannisters per second.
Six clusters of thermal flares and radar beacons spiralled in the wake of the Al-Awaidh. A ring of confusion spread around the vessel.
"Hardpoints one to four, fire."
Four torpedoes were ejected through the sliding bays of the Al-Awaidh. They ignited their first stage, darting towards the cargo ship. Talasea overtook them on her console.
Six seconds later, the Al-Awaidh entered the storm.
Missiles are the final arguments of sovereigns. Interceptors are the antithesis.
They are as simple as their targets. A plate of reactive armour that propels a cloud of high velocity shrapnel. Six RCS thrusters for all-aspect manoeuvres. A single infrared sensor aligned on the thermal signature of the incoming projectiles. The caricature of a missile, made to kill its own kind. The power of a swarm of kinetic plates lies in sheer numbers. A drone plate weighs about three kilograms, against several hundred for the lightest missiles. Space to space projectiles have to find their targets across hundreds of kilometres of vacuum and keep enough delta-v to keep up with a manoeuvring ship, all the while carrying enough shrapnel to ensure a kill on impact. A kinetic plate fired through a mass driver only has to match the lateral velocity of its target. A one thousand tonnes wave of missiles can be dealt with by sixty tons of interceptors.
If the target solutions are good enough.
At this stage, the ride is on and Qasmuna can't do anything but basic corrections. The survival of the Al-Awaidh relies on the five hundred reactive plates that fly alongside the gunship. Their RCS thrusters fill the void with cold gas streams. Kinetic plates attempt to target the missiles. In return, the projectiles try to evade while keeping enough delta-v to catch up with the gunship. The missiles have it harder than the plates, as they need to consider every single angle of attack. In fact, they cannot do this. They do not have the computing power for active evasion. Instead, they have to resort to random manoeuvres, hoping that their swarm will be enough to get through. Many plates miss their targets. Some of them end up on a vector to nowhere after a failed intercept. Sometimes, an RCS thruster breaks up and the kinetic plate spirals away from the battlefield. Once or twice per second, sensor confusion leads to a friendly kill. There are many losses but numbers still favour the defender.
Sixty tons against a thousand.
A tempest of steel and fire rages around the Al-Awaidh. Every second a flurry of luminous impacts punctuates the void. Shrapnel grids the sheer blackness of space, missile debris and reactive plate buckshot blending in the same continuous stream of metal. The Al-Awaidh's laser grid operates at full power, disintegrating debris as they close in. The smallest ones get through unmolested. They aren't fast enough to puncture the outer armour, but they pepper it like a million needles.
Qasmuna watches her remaining plates, then the missile swarm. She estimates their chances at around fifty percent.
Away from the chaos, Talasea's torpedoes cruise in perfect silence, the Irenian focused on their trajectory. Two hundred kilometres until impact. Talasea orders the torpedoes to drop their main propulsion stage, following the computer's instructions. Suddenly, the screen lights up. The cargo ship just dropped a formation of flares. The computer should be able to sort them out from the target, but it is entirely focused on the kinetic plates. Talasea tenses up. She has about ten seconds to discriminate. The navigator spent weeks gazing at telescopes and identification screens -- in her former life as an explorer, and in another one as an air controller. She knows exactly what a liquid core fission drive looks like on infrared. The Irenian eliminates two signatures right away. The third one follows a second later. The sensor returns on the radiators were incorrect. Two signatures left and one of them is the cargo ship. Five seconds. There. The closest thermal spike. It peaks too early on the sine wave display. Decoy. Talasea removes it from the screens and directs the four torpedoes towards the last thermal ping. One hundred kilometres left.
"Torpedoes on final approach. Ready for early detonation."
Talasea adds this because she is not a soldier and she things that she can't bring herself to destroy a ship. Implicitly, she's asking Qasmuna to take back control. But another answer comes.
"Right side mass driver jammed. Twenty-six missiles incoming. I'm putting us into a spin to equalize coverage."
Something snaps in Talasea's mind. So that is Qasmuna's state of mind, she thinks: death has a work hazard.
"Torpedoes entering active kinetic defence perimeter."
The screens fill with gold. The cargo ship opens fire with short-range electromagnetic machine guns. Tracers outshine the stars. Two torpedoes fall victim to the tungsten shells.
A thump goes through the Al-Awaidh.
"Fifteen missiles. Left side mass driver jammed."
"Fifty kilometres before torpedo impact. Missile decoys away."
She doesn't even consider cancelling the shot, now. Talasea has chosen her side. If she has to die right now -- a thought she is strangely at ease with -- then the cargo ship will go with her. The machine guns keep raking the void but to no avail. They're made for ship to ship combat at exceedingly close range. Not torpedo interception.
"Eight missiles incoming. Five per cent of interceptors left."
A torpedo explodes -- RCS failure. Talasea arms the last one.
"Five missiles. Out of interceptors."
"All power to laser grid."
The consoles switch off. The Al-Awaidh erupts and creaks like a rowboat in a tsunami. The master alarm comes to life and Qasmuna punches a button to shut it up. Her voice is unfazed.
"We are hit. Losing atmospheric pressure in cockpit. Losing reaction mass in reactor section. Losing coolant in the main loop. Scramming reactor. We'll survive. Ablative armor got the brunt of the impact."
"I just hit myself. That's all. Watch out for loss of thrust gravity, I'm taking the reactor down. Switching to battery power."
Thrust disappeared. Microgravity came back.
"My screens are dead."
"Switch to auxiliary displays. Second row above you, the old-looking switch. The one with duct tape."
Talasea's hand shook like leaves in the wind. Qasmuna had to flick the switch herself. It took the Irenian half a minute to undersrand what she was seeing through the orange grids of the auxiliary CRT displays. The rapidly expanding, radioactive crown of a heavy debris cloud. Algorab torpedoes were equipped with low-yield nuclear warheads instead of shrapnel charges. The impact had pulverized the target, leaving nothing behind.
Qasmuna blinked for the first time since the beginning of the engagement. The radio lit up. Emergency channel.
"Al-Awaidh, Al-Awaidh, this is the Internationale. We are alive, but damaged. Requesting assistance, if you can still move."
"Al-Awaidh, solid copy. We are bringing you home."
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