SEPTEMBER 13, 2060
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN MARS AND JUPITER
Spinning, tumbling, rolling against a lightless backdrop, the Torie ships approached. Bare sunlight struck the fresh paint on their hulls and begat a million angry colors, arranged into shapes and slogans to savage the human eye. In the vast darkness of interplanetary space, the ships would be invisible until they reached their target.
It had begun a week ago. Seven days, one hundred and sixty-eight hours, over six hundred thousand individual seconds for vaporous thoughts to condense into irrevocable resolve. It takes the human brain only a fraction of a second to react to intense stimuli -- fear, hatred, pain -- and once a motivation, no matter how irrational, has been jolted into being, the rest follows easily.
Samuel-Rosenthal Swebedlus Gregory had not been the most beloved President in the history of the new United Nations, but his assassination had shocked the world. For forty-three years, the UN Security Council had said that the crime was unsolvable. It was the greatest lie in human history.
Seven days ago, the Chief Investigator of UNIA Open Section -- code name "Gandalf" -- had allowed Kyle-Bartelt Blue Jemison to destroy that lie. The UN would never be able to offer proof that a conspiracy against the Torus did not exist, but Gandalf believed he could show that if such proof did exist, it would already have been found. He thought he could change the course of a river with a handful of pebbles.
The magnitude of his failure would now become clear.
Ghostly images faded in and out of Europa Station's radar perimeter, sometimes one ship, sometimes many. The attacking Tories included the engineering team who had designed and built the station's main sensor array. They knew what wasn't in the operations manuals.
The UNSF monitoring officers at Europa had only spent four weeks working with the new radar system. They wrestled with software band pass filters, pushing luminous graph lines back and forth on their monitors, for twenty minutes before realizing there was a trap door into the computer.
Ten minutes later, Europa Station's sysadmin, dripping wet and wearing a garish purple bathrobe, had secured the computer and reset the sensor hardware. An irregular sphere of yellow blobs -- the color indicated unidentified objects -- solidified inside the radar hollow, centered around Europa, shrinking rapidly. Every person in the control center knew what the computer did not: this mob was hostile.
As a tide of red light flooded the room, the station commander ordered the communications officer to send out a general distress call. A synthetic fog of electromagnetic radiation strangled the transmission before anyone heard it.
The mob had planned well. Nearly half of the attacking ships were unmanned, and continued accelerating until they obliterated themselves against the station in filigreed showers of sparks and metal. The communications tower disappeared first, sheared off by a robot loneboat moving at nearly ten percent of lightspeed. Next to vanish was the radar dome, followed by the defense satellites, then the rotation thrusters. Half of Europa Station had been torn away before the manned Torie ships decelerated to maneuvering speeds.
The five UNSF corvettes in dock moved to intercept the war-painted Torie fleet, knowing the battle to be hopeless. Even when joined by twelve private vessels, the attackers outnumbered the defenders by twenty to one. With the control center blind, deaf, and mute, a dogfight would be no contest. But UNSF had to try.
Colors exploded all around Europa Station. Loneboats displaying false corporate logos and scurrilous slogans danced around the gray-and-white UNSF vessels, pounding them with matte black projectiles. Against the darkness of space, the missiles became practically invisible, making it look like ships were exploding from mere proximity to each other. Lasers winked blue, green, and white, burning through bodies and equipment -- sometimes the wrong ones, thanks to the reflective chaff littering the battlespace and scattering all useful radiation. Tactical navigation became nearly impossible, and ships began crashing into each other, adding to the mist of flotsam.
The Torie landing parties didn't need to see. Their courses had been plotted days ago, and those flight paths were now cleared by hordes of robot minesweepers. The surviving UNSF personnel on Europa Station saw the Tories approaching, and began to signal surrender by blinking the station's running lights: red, dark, long red, dark, long red, long dark, red, long dark... Most of the Tories could read Morse code, but they all ignored it. They had decided to kill long before they reached Europa.
The station's defenders, on the other hand, did respond to the surrender signal. They ran. One UNSF corvette ran fifty kilometers before a pitch-black kinetic slug pierced her scorched and crumbling hull. She fell for eight seconds, bleeding air and coolant in pale blue streamers, before her main engines overheated and turned everything within four kilometers into white fire. The blast did kill a Torie vessel, one of only eleven lost in the battle.
When the last of the ships defending Europa had been destroyed, black-and-orange striped Torie freighters smashed through the station's main hangar doors and towed out six water tankers. An equal number of tugboats helped push the tankers into space as Torie astronauts planted explosives inside the hangar, among the four other cargo freighters and two dozen loneboats.
The Technicolor sphere of ships expanded again, neither as dense nor as regular as before. Some deliberately lagged behind to kill escape pods. The slowest Torie was two hundred kilometers from the station when the explosives detonated. Three UNSF patroller captains, who had changed course toward Europa as soon as its telemetry went dead, cursed when the green blip flickered and faded from their radar displays.
Spiraling, turning, falling away as freely as they had come, the Torie fleet disappeared into the void, like stars winking out before daybreak. Nobody would ever be able to track them all down.
Copyright © 1997 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.