OR, AN ACCOUNT OF THE BATTLE BETWEEN THE USS BUSH AND THE THARG BATTLEBOAT BLOODSOAKED DEVOURER
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.
oh yes, the Tharg had to be beaten. Humanity couldn’t afford the risk.
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
“I hope so,” said Randy. He beckoned to the
Indian steward. “I think I’ll have that drink now.”
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
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.
same approximate moment, alarm bells began ringing on the Bush’s well-lit bridge.
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
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
“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
“We just got a signal from the Tharg ship,
“What does it say? Have it translated at
“We did.” The communications lieutenant
swallowed unhappily. “It’s asking for peace.”
“They’re asking for us to go back home,
“The hell they are. We’ll liberate the hell
out of them or know the reason why.”
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
“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
“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
Mihirakula went back to his control room.
The battle had begun.
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
“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
“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
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
“We have the missiles on the screens now,” the magician said over the
Warmaster Mihirakula grunted. “Range and
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
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.