OR, AN ACCOUNT OF THE BATTLE BETWEEN THE USS BUSH AND THE THARG BATTLEBOAT BLOODSOAKED DEVOURER
Captain Randy of the battleship USS George W Bush was a worried man.
As commander of Task Force Liberation, the other component of which was the battlecruiser USS Richard Cheney, he had been ordered to take on and destroy the flagship of the Tharg Nation in open battle.
It would be the first time in history that Man and Alien, let alone Man and Tharg, had ever met in combat.
But why was Captain Randy worried?
After all, the George W Bush was the most potent weapon system ever created by humanity. At just over a billion tons, she was more than twice as large again as the biggest of the puny little “battleships” the Chinese or Russians could put into space. She carried no less than five hundred anti-ship thermonuclear missiles, including both single and multi-warhead versions, as well as short range lasers, moon-wrecking bombs, and enough electronic equipment to blanket a hostile planet with white noise.
She was not pretty, of course. Being a battleship, she didn’t need to be. She had been built in space, in one of the shipyards orbiting Neptune, in other words, deep in the heart of the US’ Exclusive Economic Zone. She had been built in modules and blocks and capsules, with no attempt at superfluous streamlining, and now resembled nothing so much as a collection of boxes and globes and flat cans, all merged together and painted a uniform nonreflective black.
In her corridors and capsules dwelt a crew of twelve thousand men and women. Actually, ten thousand would have sufficed, but ten thousand people worked hard, and had to be kept, of course, entertained and comforted and so on, so two thousand Filipino and Indian contract workers were also on board to clean and cook and mop and sew. These ten thousand crew members were the best trained spacefarers ever to leave the surface of the planet, and were worth every currency unit spent on their care and feeding, not to mention their pay. They were simply, in the words Admiral Exterminator (it had recently become the fashion for flag officers to take properly pugnacious names on assuming office) had used, “the best damned shootin’ crew ever to have left the goldurned planet.”
And by her side, a mere thousand kilometres away, was the Richard Cheney. Almost as large as the Bush, though older, she was so alike the other ship that, at a distance, observers could no longer tell them apart. The Cheney had had a lot of repairs to her power plant over the years, but was still combat-ready. It was said that she would be retired only when the new battlecruisers Barack Hussein Obama and Killary Klingon entered service, though it was anyone’s guess when that would be. In any case, the Bush and the Cheney should be more than sufficient to wreck some miserable Tharg battleboat.
So why was Captain Randy worried?
“Why are you worried, Captain?”
Captain Randy turned away from the visiscreen towards his second in command. Stars floated dizzyingly round and round the oblong plate, because, of course, the control module was rotating constantly to create the ship’s artificial gravity of about half a G. One got used to the visiscreen or one didn’t look at it. “Beg pardon?”
“Why are you worried, Captain?” The second-in-command, Commander “Red” State, was persistent if nothing else.
“Well...it’s not important, really.” Captain Randy shrugged and sat down at his captain’s chair, waving away an obsequious Indian steward who rushed up with a cooling drink. “It’s not important at all.”
It wasn’t really important at all, actually, but all the same it was inconvenient. It was inconvenient that they were going to be fighting the Tharg. Nobody had ever even seen a Tharg, and had no idea what on earth they were like, or how they fought. The only contact, if it could be called that, was an interchange of radio signals. All one could say was that the Tharg existed. And if they existed, they were potentially hostile. And if they were potentially hostile, they could potentially threaten the US’ prosperity, stability, and access to key markets. They might even – horrors! – send aid and assistance to the meta-Taliban and Allah-Qaeda, not to speak of mushroom clouds over Washington DC.
Yes, oh yes, the Tharg had to be beaten. Humanity couldn’t afford the risk.
“Bloodsoaked Devourer,” Captain Randy murmured. “That’s the name of the battleboat that’s coming up against us, if the translation is correct. Interesting name, don’t you think?”
“They have interesting names,” “Red” State agreed gravely. “But it doesn’t make any mite of difference. We’re gonna tear ‘em apart.”
“I hope so,” said Randy. He beckoned to the Indian steward. “I think I’ll have that drink now.”
Far across space, but hurtling closer with the passage of every khrull, Warmaster Mihirakula of the Toramana clan of the Tharg Nation floated in his harness, staring intently into the readouts flickering across his screen.
Mihirakula’s control room was tiny, and but for dim lights illuminating the banks of instruments, it was dark. When he turned his large head, he could see the access hatches beyond which the rest of his crew laboured at their work. There were only a hundred and sixteen of them all told; his was not a large ship, for all that it was the flagship of the Tharg Nation.
If Mihirakula had left his seat and stretched to his full size, he would have been able to touch the upper bulkhead with his talons while his pedal appendages were still in contact with the floor. Like all his crew, he was a creature of pure space, as alien to the Tharg of the home world as the creatures he was being sent to fight. He grunted, wondering for the nth time why the creatures had sent an obviously hostile force to fight the Tharg, who had never done them any harm. Not that their motives mattered. The Toramana clan’s duty was clear. Anyone who fought the Tharg would die.
Something glittered, a green dot at the corner of a red-lit screen. Mihirakula hunched, waiting. A few moments later, another dot appeared.
With a soft whine, Mihirakula turned towards another set of screens. After a few khrulls of searching, he found what he was looking for.
At the same approximate moment, alarm bells began ringing on the Bush’s well-lit bridge.
There are few things more boring than a battle in deep space. For one thing, the antagonists are so far apart that they can never see each other except as dots on the radar scopes, if at all. For another, almost all space warfare consists of trying to guess the moves the enemy will make, and trying to counteract them before the enemy makes them. This is not easy.
Of all the vehicles designed by man, a space battleship is probably the least manoeuvrable thing that will ever be built. Its immense mass gives it a formidable momentum and a slavish adherence to Newton’s First Law that just about has designers tearing their hair out by the roots. Stopping one is a job that in itself is gigantic, starting with shutting off the main drive, and then firing retrockets. These blaze out many tons of plasma, putting out a thrust large enough to counteract the acceleration provided by the main drive all this while. Then, when you’ve slowed enough, some of the tugs mounted like parasites on the outside of the hull must be launched to pull the gigantic mass of metal round to the new heading, while more tugs drag the ship towards the other side to prevent it from moving round too far. And after all that, you’ve got to start up the main drive again to accelerate all that weight to fighting speed...only to discover that your quarry has moved off in a completely different direction, so you have to begin all over again.
Meanwhile, the electronic war is on; radars and other sensors to seek the enemy, screens and moonlets to hide from him, jammers to block his signals and counterjammers to burn through his screens. And all of this done at relativistic distances, so that you’d never know where the enemy actually was, but only where he’d been a few hours ago. And that goes for your own fleet as well; if you spread it out, you’ll never know where your other ships are, or is they even still are; you’ll just know where they were some time ago.
And then, of course, there is the simple fact that space is really not a very nice place. There is, for instance, no air. Therefore there aren’t any of the light and sound effects or the impressive glowing exhausts that so amuse the crews of battleships when the old movies are played on their personal entertainment devices. Lasers don’t slash out across space like swords transfixing an enemy. They wouldn’t be pretty effective at it if they did, because the distances involved means their beams would be so weakened that it would take something like a mini-moon sized cannon to have a chance of scoring a lethal hit at typical battle distances. And then the narrow beam would mean you’d likely miss anyway. Instead, they use missiles, mirror-coated to defeat lasers, and pellets hurled in blizzards across space by magnetic launchers. And sometimes they drop space mines across each other’s path.
So this is what the ultimate battle, between contending space fleets, is like: a slow, lumbering game of manoeuvre, double-guessing, and licking at each other with electronic tongues. Weapons are almost never used, of course, unless one captain or the other believes he has a chance of blanketing the enemy with enough ordnance to secure a high enough probability of a hit to make it worthwhile.
And therefore seldom is it that a battle is fought to a conclusion, unless one side is so far superior technologically to the other that the battle should never have been contemplated in the first place. In which case the weaker side either gives up without a shot or runs away at top speed.
Boring, as I said.
“He’s hiding behind a cloud of dark matter,” “Red” State announced.
Captain Randy nodded. He looked round at the ship’s official Spiritual Adviser. “Well, padre?”
“We are blessed by God,” the Spiritual Adviser intoned. “Therefore, we are more fitted to survive. Therefore we will win.”
“Thanks,” Captain Randy said. He clicked a button and alerted his communications officer. “Order the Cheney to move away three light hours to port. Maybe she can see round the edge of the dark matter.”
“Yes sir...” the communications department hesitated. “Captain?”
“We just got a signal from the Tharg ship, sir.”
“What does it say? Have it translated at once.”
“We did.” The communications lieutenant swallowed unhappily. “It’s asking for peace.”
“They’re asking for us to go back home, sir.”
“The hell they are. We’ll liberate the hell out of them or know the reason why.”
Warmaster Mihirakula pushed himself through the narrow hatch into the Bloodsoaked Devourer’s engine compartment. It was arranged, like every other compartment of the battleboat, in the form of a cylinder, with banks of instruments round the walls and the duty engine room crew floating in the main axis, doing whatever had to be done. They didn’t require artificial gravity, of course; the Toramana clan were pure space creatures. Also, and equally naturally, they ignored him completely. Tending the engines was their job, and that’s what they were doing.
His personal magician joined him at the entrance to the forward weapons room. The magician turned up while the Warmaster was speaking to his chief weapons officer, so she waited while they discussed the weapons, their state of readiness, and what had already been deployed.
“Warmaster,” the magician said at last, her voice patterns warbling, “I have cast the runes.”
The magician wriggled in order to show her confusion. “It is unclear. The patterns have not fallen into a recognisable order.”
“Do they show that we will be defeated?” asked the Warmaster calmly.
“No, they do not. Nor do they show we will win. They show nothing at all.”
“So.” Mihirakula thought for a moment. “Prepare the special weapon,” he said to the weapons officer.
Tharg servicepeople are trained to instant obedience, even more so than personnel of the United States Space Navy. The weapons officer turned a doubtful yellowish-green, but inclined his head to acknowledge the order without argument.
A buzzer buzzed, urgently, and lights began to flash.
Mihirakula went back to his control room. The battle had begun.
The first shots of the battle were fired by the Bush.
In her corridors and casemates, in cabins and at catapults, her thousands of steely-eyed crew hovered efficiently over their instruments. Between them scurried the eager Filipinos and Indians, serving their masters food and drink and a little canned entertainment, mopping and cleaning and cooking. In her gigantic computer banks, every scrap of information her sensors picked up was analysed and fitted into the jigsaw. Once the puzzle was completed, the battle was won.
A big piece was meant to be found and fitted right now.
“Fire battery one,” Captain Randy intoned calmly, and twelve mirror-polished nuclear missiles left their launcher tubes on invisible jets of plasma. As they hurtled towards the cloud of dark matter, Randy began the slow and painful process of nudging his ship into a new position.
“You don’t really think one salvo will do for her, do you?” his deputy, “Red” State, had wondered.
“Of course not,” Captain Randy had replied. “But it’s likely going to spook her into changing position, and she might give herself away. Prepare batteries three to five for launching. Two in reserve.”
“Do you think they can detect the missiles and take evasive action in advance?” “Red” State asked.
Captain Randy snorted. “What do you imagine they’ll usemagic?”
The missiles sped through the dark of space. Deep in the heart of each, a computer no larger than a grain of wheat scanned input from sensors, made decisions, corrected course, and – when the time came – would arm and detonate the warhead. These computers had been modelled very, very closely on the brains of suicidal sociopaths. Blowing themselves up was the fate they craved.
As they slashed through the vacuum, through the blizzard of cosmic rays, hydrogen atoms, radio waves and hard X rays, jammers inside each missile tried to seek out and neutralise the enemy’s detectors. The problem with this, of course, was that they were intended to neutralise human-built detectors. Nobody knew what kind of detector the Tharg might have.
“We have the missiles on the screens now,” the magician said over the intercom.
Warmaster Mihirakula grunted. “Range and heading?”
A pause while the panel of psychics hunched over their scryers. Their minds detected the deformation of space itself as the missiles passed, so the jammers meant nothing to them. “They’ll miss us,” the magician reported at last. “No evasive action is necessary.”
“Do we have the enemy’s location?”
“Fixed,” the psychics reported. “Spatial deformation indicates the battleship will move into fresh co-ordinates...”
Mihirakula listened, and nodded. “Launch the special weapons,” he said.
“Missiles detonated,” “Red” State reported.
“Nothing detected,” the commander answered, after the customary long pause while the sensors fumbled across the light-minutes. “We may have done for her.”
“You really think so?” Captain Randy asked. “Well, I don’t think so. Fire batteries three to five, in a spread across the dark matter. Two on standby.”
“Batteries fir...” “Red” State began.
The first of the Tharg special weapons struck home at that moment. It was simply an arrow: a wooden pole with a solid iron tip, propelled at close to the speed of light by elastic metal bowstrings attached to curved launchers on the outer hull of the Bloodsoaked Devourer. At these velocities its density was almost infinite, and no armour could stand up to it.
The impact of the arrow was enough to punch a hole right through an armoured turret, the velocity of the impact shattering the armour like glass. The metal tip – separated from the shaft and tumbling end over end – penetrated through the turret’s inner bulkhead, punctured the other side of the corridor, and came to rest in a food store. Even as the atmosphere of the section howled into space, the surviving crew frantically dragged on oxygen masks and tried to evacuate before the emergency isolation system closed the hatches. They didn’t make it.
In a time measured in fractions of a second, the Bush was hit by eighty-five of the Tharg arrows, whose tiny size, lack of heat emission, and terrific speed meant that they weren’t even detected. Over twenty struck at angles and glanced harmlessly off the hull of the battleship, but as many as fifty-three of them hit head on and their extreme velocity meant that the armour, meant to withstand blast and molten metal, proved inadequate to the task. Section after section simply blew out. And after the first strike, came a second...and a third.
Sixteen minutes after the first wave of hits, the Bush was little more than a drifting hulk. The main drive, shut down for the tugs, couldn’t even be restarted. A reactor began to leak, and darkened sections of the ship began glowing with radiation. The chief cook’s pet cockatoo died.
And that was how Captain Randy was finally forced to order the crew to abandon ship. The Cheney came alongside and picked them all up.
The greatest battleship in the universe had been taken out by wooden arrows with iron tips.
And what of the Bloodsoaked Devourer? Quiver empty, she was speeding away at relativistic velocities, long before the missiles from the Bush could reach the dark matter patch. Her arrows were gone, and apart from a few mines she scattered in her wake as deterrence, she fired nothing else.
Warmaster Mihirakula got nothing for his victory. Victory was the duty of the Toramana clan. You don’t get commended for merely doing your job.
On the other hand, Captain Randy got a medal for his heroic battle against the treacherous and vicious alien attack on his ship, of course.
An even bigger and better battleship’s in construction as we speak, fully two billion tons in weight and carrying a thousand missiles. The next time, the Tharg won’t be able to get away with their piratical assault on an innocent battleship.
Just you wait and see.