03 June 2013

Bank Shot

Aboard FCS Contract Tactical Vessel "Billiard," November 1963

     Kwa-FWOPP!  The sound hits with a shock that shakes the whole ship, or at least it feels that way.  That's not the worst part.  Set on auto, the EMP-gun fires any time there's a load ready to go and the targeting crew has lined up on a "valid target," any large-enough radar return lacking IFF. The rising thrumm of the Marx high-voltage generator recharging underpins the ratcheting clank and slam of the "gun" cycling a fouled barrel out and a freshly-loaded one in — the Marx's output driving the exploding-helix first step, helix pumping the stacked-disc EMP generator, ready for their one-and-only line-dance of death — isn't the worst part, either.

     No, what he's come to hate are the moments each side of firing: the dull "clack" of grounding relays ticking over, shutting down or isolating in every system but the trigger, the tiny hiss of the pneumatic-delay briefly audible in the silence left with life-support offline, Kwa-FWOPP! and an instant of shocked silence, waiting for the first few isolating relays to un-isolate and release the rest.  That's the part he can't stand: it always takes just long enough that he starts to wonder if it's not going to happen this time, leaving ship and crew — him — adrift in their primitive "tin suit" space suits, trusting to passive IFF and the clumsy navs systems for protection from pitiless, automated friendly fire.

     Airflow, cooling and commo comes back on okay this time, with an insectile buzz and a pair of warning telltales on the alarm board beside him: the long dielectric wedge in the barrel just cycled out has to be replaced and is, of course, jammed.  As he unstraps and unplugs, the second telltale — "TEMPERATURE ALARM" — blinks and goes out and the buzzing changes pitch.  Already cooled enough to work on, at least in his suit.  The wedge is a weak point but without it, eddy current would melt the barrel to unusability after a single shot.  The system that's supposed to slide the old wedge out and a new one in every five firing cycles is notoriously balky; there's a tradeoff between available replacements and cumulative damage at about four and a half shots — or five, if there's a tech on hand to fix foul-ups.

     In theory, the EMP-gun is locked out as soon as he cracks his tiny pod.  Despite the barrels and "shells," it doesn't send anything solid downrange, just a blast of electronic death that turns most spacecraft into useless junk.  The other side, NATO's Combined Space Forces — primarily the USSF, augmented by the Commonwealth's (Yes, HRH Elizabeth R's very own UK, Colonies, Possessions and ex-Colonials) Space Arm and an increasingly-reluctant French Navy (!) contingent — still hasn't come up with entirely effective shielding and thus, here he is, shooting zaps at them.  Outside the layered mu-metal, ceramic and gold-screen of the pod, the gun he services would stop him even faster and better than it stops NATO spacecraft.  So when he's unshielded, the gun is locked out, mostly.  Mostly: his pressure suit incorporates a lighter version of the same shielding and its standalone life-support is non-electric; the Bridge can override the lockout and he's supposedly protected from at least a single shot.  It's a last-ditch gambit; he worries more that the gun will cycle without firing while he's working on the jammed barrel.

     It doesn't happen this time.  The stuck wedge gives way to pure brute force, three clumsy free-fall hammer swings, thud-thud-thud and it sldes free.  He can feel the heat though his gloves — and to a lesser extent through bootsoles and his legs when he was bracing in place. It adds up but if you're used to it, sweating's not a big problem, natural cooling with the moisture recovered in the rebreather whirring on his back as long as the power's on. He steps through the rest of wedge-replacement manually, not trusting the machinery to pick up where he left off.  Back in the pod once more and — hey, presto! — he's no more than snapped the final latch before there's a multiple clack, an instant's quiet and Kwa-FWOPP!  There's a heart-stopping pause before dim, red pod lights and a reassuring rush of air come back on again, just fine.

*  *  *

     He hadn't set out to be a soldier — who had?  He'd been working maintenance at a station in a small but metal-rich asteroid belt in Peace-and-Prosperity's system when NATO had come in with little warning.  As the "Federation of Concerned Spacemen" fleet scattered and and some planet-bound Far Edgers had managed skip out to meet it, a pair of NATO/USSF Jump-drive carriers were dropping fast armed scouts and steam/fission "teakettle" troop transports near every off-planet source of RF. Reaching his station, they'd taken the still-incomplete "big wheel" that held living quarters, command/control/communications and other activities requiring a definite up and and down, but misjudged the physical size and population of the remainder of the operation.

     The area where he worked, "backside" of a large rock without line-of-sight to the Wheel, had been overlooked.  The last flyable vehicles had skipped out in the confusion, leaving one pilot, four techs and a "Heron" with a bum #2 realspace engine.  The Heron was an awkward little general-purpose spacecraft, modified for up-close use in the relatively-dense asteroid belt.  Originally an underpowered Jump drive had given it limited capability; modified with copies of FCS-recovered WW II German "Glocke" Drive field generators, it could span a solar system in a few hours subjective time.

     Working with desperate haste, power all but shut down, he and his peers had managed to repair a similar but less-damaged engine from the shop's boneyard, wrestle it into place, and ready the tubby little craft for travel.

     Normal crew was three: pilot and navigator/copilot at the nominal top, peering out through windowed turrets, radio/radar/Drive operator at their foot level and room a little cargo or one passenger below and forward of the radio position.  One passenger if he wasn't planning to move around much.  Life support for four days, longer with an added pod.  Fuel for six days.  Four people, max.

     They got five in, awkwardly, depressurized the hanger bay and set Jumped out, interpolating and extrapolating from out-of-date course cards on a best-guess vector, and got lucky: much closer to the FCS fleet than NATO's ships, the electrical racket of their emergence from Jump prompted a tight-beamed challenge on the Edger traffic-control frequency.  Bona fides established, they were given coordinates and met an FCS ship with hours to spare on life support, last spacecraft out of the the system.

     ...And out of friends, home and a job.  Sure, there was always work for a spaceship tech, but the rough-and-ready skills of mining-ship mechanic weren't so good a fit with the huge ships of the FCS Fleet.  For that matter, neither was he.

     When he heard a minor ship-Captain named Filiaggi was setting up a "military contractor" to meet USSF/NATO's aggression with force, he made contact as soon as he could get through, joining a large number of mostly young, mostly displaced Edgers who favored fight over flight.  When the shadowy leadership of what was still more conspiracy than government put out a Notice For Bids to run "reconnaissance and intelligence" missions in Earth-held systems including the Solar System itself, Filiaggi's organization won the bulk of the contracts — and put him to work.

     And now here he was, babysitting an improvised "Pulse Cannon" all of Mark II — or possibly this one was a Mk. III, the changes were slight — shooting and being shot at, all because his father (and several hundred others) hadn't wanted to set up an atom-bomb missile base on Earth's Moon.  He thought the irony of fighting even a defensive war for peaceniks was a little muted when you were wearing a pressure suit, taking fire in an already-hostile environment, living on short rations and at the present moment trying to shake sweat from your eyes; all he wanted, personally, was for the shooting to stop.

     It didn't seem likely to happen any time soon.