“The Admiral and The Captain”

by Matthew A DeBarth

Part One: Breakout (The Admiral)

The Admiral sat on the bridge of his flagship, smiling smugly as his ship poured three continuous streams of laser cannon fire into his enemy.

All around him was his flagship, a First-Rate, Season Six-Sixteen ship of the line of battle. Shaped like a pair of multifaceted diamonds fused together along their flat tops. Almost invisible but for an off-white fogginess. Triple-mounted laser cannons in forward fire mounts at the sharp triangular bow. Massive primary drives at her equally triangular stern, glowing white-blue with her advance. A massive ring of heatsinks all the way around her widest point amidships, themselves glowing an intense, angry red.

Behind him, the entire Season Six-Sixteen Absolution Battlefleet out in force, supported by the ships of the Reserve Fleet and even a handful of retired but not yet decommissioned ships from earlier seasons, crewed by members of the farm team.

In front of him, stitched to his own fleet by hundreds of long strands of laser cannon fire, was his enemy. The Solace Battlefleet was not out in full force. In fact, they were in complete disarray, with only about a third of the fleet holding the field of battle. Another third were in a fragmented rout across a whole hemisphere of space. The remaining third had not even managed to get underway and join the battle. There were no reinforcements from the reserves, no illegally fielded ships from other seasons.

It was a massacre, obviously.

“That Second-Rate leading them is continuing to dial down her offensive fire, Admiral” Sensors reported. “She’s white-hot and just fell below twenty percent output on her primaries.”

The Admiral smiled. Victory was at hand. “Where are we sitting?” he asked.

“Still holding at red-hot and sixty percent.” Weapons replied from the other side of the bridge. “Shall I bring us up to seventy-five percent? We can hold at that level for a while.”

“There’s really no need to,” the Admiral stated flatly.

As if to confirm this, the Solace Second-Rate finally overheated and shut down, her reactor abruptly going offline once the thermal safeties were reached and surpassed. Her twin laser cannon beams faltered and went out. Her flag–the bright blue-grey-green trio of lights along her flanks–turned off automatically, indicating that she was no longer a legal target. The dozens of incoming beams of Absolution laser fire ceased in ones and twos, until the surrendered ship was finally left in peace.

“Resume firing,” the Admiral ordered.

“Admiral?” Weapons asked, incredulous.

“Resume firing,” the Admiral said very slowly and deliberately. “Melt her.”

This really was the Rubicon, he thought.

What they had done so far was already enough to get them in serious trouble: amassing an illegally oversized fleet, burning their way out of the locker room outside of a scheduled match, firing on the referee ship that had flown out to investigate, sailing in force against the enemy locker room and the scattered defenders that had taken the field to counter their attack.

Absolution diplomats might have still been able to make those things right...in time, with concessions, eventually.

The Solace Second-Rate, once again engulfed in Absolution fire, started to change. The single massive foggy crystal that made up the bulk of her hull, still blazing white-hot, continued to be the same: radiant with the heat it was shedding outwards. No amount of Absolution fire would ever be enough to damage her hull in any way.

But there was now so much heat radiating from her hull that it completely overwhelmed the insulation and cooling that protected the parts of her that were not hull crystal. Red lights crawled about under the surface where insulation smouldered. Her belt of heatsink arrays began to melt and flow off of her into space like candle wax.

And deep inside her, her bridge would be like an oven.

And the line was crossed. Something that had not happened in six hundred and sixteen Old Earth years happened.

Crews sometimes died in matches, but no one was ever intentionally killed in them.

Flames poured out of every opening in the hull of the ship as the atmosphere inside burned.

After six hundred and sixteen Old Earth years of sportsmanship and rules and settling disputes in the arena, the two interstellar empires of Absolution and Solace were in an old fashioned war once more.

The games were over, the Admiral thought, watching the rest of the enemy fleet scatter from the funeral pyre spilling out of the otherwise indestructible shell of their former Second-Rate. And the war is off to a fantastic start.

Part Two: Advance (The Captain)

“Admiral!” Sensors shouted. “Charon radiation sphere detected! Someone has arrived in the system.”

“Report,” the Admiral said. He was only about half surprised. He had wondered what kind of response his actions might provoke. This had always been a possible one.

“Single point of origin so far.”

Interesting, the Admiral thought. Just one ship. Not a fleet.

“Still no further arrivals,” Sensors continued. “Big spike, though. Whatever it is, it’s heavy. Weird signal...never seen anything like this.”

There had never been a situation like this, either.

“Triangulating with other ships in our fleet.”

Charon radiation was created at the exit point of a hyperspace jump, and it expanded outwards in a sphere at the speed of light. With two ships comparing the exact millisecond they first detected it, you got a rough idea of where the exit point was. With a whole fleet comparing observations, you knew exactly where the arriving ship had just appeared.

“Admiral, we have an encounter,” Navigation reported. “With our current course and speed, we will run them down within the hour. They won’t be able to escape us.

Nor will we be able to avoid them, thought the Admiral. Not that he was actually worried about encountering anyone; it was just a basic fact of physics.

“Sensors, I want to know more about our interloper,” the Admiral requested.

“Working on it as the data comes in,” Sensors started stating things one after the other without much commentary. “Heavy, but small. Extremely dense. Less than half our mass, but much lower volume. Cool. Cold, even. She’s barely radiating. She’s hard to see on visible spectrum, too. Not seeing much reflection...no reflections? Even accounting for how small she is, I should be able to see her a lot better. Range is too far for targeting her with our weapons, but I should be able to see her on the telescope just fine.”

“I don’t want excuses, Sensors,” the Admiral said flatly.

“Yes, Admiral. Sorry, Admiral.” Sensors fell silent for a moment. “Uh, Admiral?”

“Yes,” he said, losing patience.

“She’s black. Matte black.”

The whole bridge was silent for a beat. Two beats. Three. It made no sense.

Weapons spoke first: “She’d take full damage from our lasers. No reflection; no refraction. Black is literally the worst colour.”

Navigation: “Why did they even come?”

Communications: “That can’t be right.”

Sensors: “No, I checked it. Again and again. It’s true.”

Weapons again: “It’s obvious she’s not here to fight. She can’t be.”

Sensors: “She’s accelerating.”

Navigation: “Solace standard gravity?”

There was a brief pause in the frantic crosstalk on the bridge while they waited for the answer.

“Accelerating...accelerating,” Sensors said. “Wow, she’s nimble for her mass. Coming up on oh eight nine three...nope, she’s still going. She’s either from a higher gravity world or she’s in a hurry.” The capital planet of Solace was a bit lighter than average, with a gravity of only 0.893 gees. Accordingly, Solace ships tended to default to a slightly slower acceleration.

“There’s no reason for her to hurry,” Weapons said. “As soon as she comes within weapons range, she is going to have a really bad day.”

“Yeah, I imagine that she–“ Sensors stopped speaking mid-sentence. “Oh, she’s picked a speed. Holding steady at...one gee.”

Navigation spoke up. “No one goes one gee.”

Sensors confirmed. “One point zero zero zero zero zero gee, exactly.”

“That’s creepy,” Navigation said. There was a tradition–almost a superstition–about using Earth standard gravity ever since the Sol System had been destroyed six centuries ago. Solace ships used Solace standard .893 G, Absolution preferred the slightly stronger 1.016 G.

No one ever went exactly one gee.

Communications broke the silence. “That ship has initiated a subspace connection with us.”

“Connect us,” the Admiral ordered with a frown. “I want to hear what they have to say.”

The communications screen came to life, and the tightly framed face of a woman dominated it. She had pale skin that had never lived under any sun and a short-cropped and unmistakably military haircut. At the bottom of the frame the stiff collar of a dark storm-grey uniform was visible.

“Admiral,” the officer began. “I am the Captain of the Darkside Fleet Light Cruiser Rima Furnerius of Luna, Sol System. I am here to force the immediate surrender of you, your ship, and your fleet.”

Part Three: Encounter (The Admiral and The Captain)

“Weapons?” the female Captain said to someone offscreen, “one across the bow, please.”

The Admiral frowned. “Did they just fire on us?”

“No, sir,” Sensors replied. “No IR spike from them, no trace of heating in our hull. They are still radiating very cool; no active—“

The collision alarm blared.

“Captain!” Navigation shouted. “Debris detected! Calculating course...near miss, it looks like. Moving fast...moving very fast.”

A subtler alarm sounded. Sensors, this time.

“Target ship is maneuvering...decelerating. No...no, wait. Target ship has ceased decelerating.”

“Tracking error?” the Admiral asked.

“No, definite change in speed. Very brief but very intense deceleration from the target. Slight course change, too.”

The collision alarm stopped. “Sir, the debris has passed by to starboard.”

The Admiral nodded, barely paying attention to Navigation. He was turned facing directly at the Sensors station instead. “Why would a ship suddenly decelerate and then almost immediately resume acceleration again?”

“Admiral,” came the Captain’s oddly accented voice across the open channel, “it’s because of Newton’s Third Law.”

The Admiral had briefly forgotten about the Captain and the open channel. He flushed with embarrassment. His bridge crew was confused and flustered, shouting out observations and corrections, and this interloper was now teasing him. Things were happening too fast, and the Admiral didn’t understand what exactly was happening, or why.

“Admiral,” the Captain continued, calm and confident and maybe even bordering on smug, “I will now accept your surrender. Failing that, I will accept the surrender of the rest of your fleet, and then begin rescue operations.”

The Admiral sat frozen. He blinked. He opened his mouth. He blinked again. He realized that his mouth was open and closed it again.

“Admiral?” The Captain asked.

“Admiral? Your response?” asked Communications.

“Admiral.” The Captain again, insistent. “I have my orders. I am not to close my range with you much more than your current distance. You are deep within my effective range, and I am not to come within two hundred percent of yours. I do not wish to decelerate, so you are out of time. Your surrender. Now, if you please.”

The Admiral’s mind spun. There was just too much coming at him and he didn’t understand any of it. This situation, this conversation, this enemy and her baffling, tiny ship. The threats, the demands. This wasn’t anything like he had ever faced in all his matches in the arena. Nothing made any sense.

Across the open channel, the Captain sighed. “Admiral, I can see that you are struggling with understanding your position. Let me be brief: your position is terrible; dire, even. I control the field of battle completely; you control only the terms upon which you surrender. I am generally opposed to the loss of life in space, but your bridge is very durable. I give you better than even odds of living through this encounter either way. But your ship, Admiral; your ship is forfeit.”

The Admiral snapped. “You arrogant junior officer! I have lasers! I have nearly pure reflective armour and ten times your thermal mass. I have heatsinks bigger than your whole puny ship! What do you have!?”

The Captain waited a few slow, tense seconds before responding. “I have a warship, Admiral, and you have a toy, built for a game.”

The Admiral’s face went soft, all the anger and violence gone from it in a flash. Too late—too late by far—he had a doubt.

The Captain turned to someone out of frame on her own bridge far away. “One, please, from the ventral turret. Centre of mass. Try not to hit their bridge, if you can help it.” She turned back to face forward again. “Admiral...” she snapped a brief salute. “I wish you luck. Maybe we can sit and chat about warship design for a bit, if you survive.”

From somewhere out of frame on the Captain’s warship, someone shouted a slightly muffled “On the way!”

The Captain made no move to close the channel. The Admiral sat frozen on his own bridge, a sense of unease slowly twisting into a sense of dread.

“Enemy decelerating again, Admiral,” Sensors reported.

The collision alarm blared again.

“Newton’s...third...” the Admiral muttered to himself. “‘An equal and opposite reaction’? Navigation?” he said more loudly.

“Admiral?” Navigation responded.

“I want a report on that collision alarm. I think they are shooting at us with mass, not lasers.”

“Debris is inbound, high speed, it’s going to be close. Really close. Oh...it’s going to hit us square on. We can’t maneuver to evade! It’s too fast; too close!”

Kinetic kill rounds are slow compared to the speed of light, but then pretty much everything is. Compared to anything other than a laser, however, kinetic kill rounds are very, very fast.

It is their speed that gives them their destructive power; they don’t need to be packed with explosives or even be bullet-shaped. Just being heavy and dense and very, very fast is enough.

The railgun turrets on a Darkside ship were artifacts of a different, more brutal age. They were powerful enough that firing them kicked the ship back hard enough to briefly slow her, and deadly accurate at ranges far in excess of what focused laser weapons could manage.

Against ships of a similar vintage, the heavy armour and rounded and sloped shapes absorbed or deflected some of that enormous force. Armour would bend, twist, flex, compress and rebound.

But with the modern reflective crystal armour that arena ships were built from, there was no chance of any of that. They were very resistant to light and heat, but also very brittle.

The kinetic kill round crossed the space between the two ships, deliberate and deadly. It hit the arena ship just slightly aft and a bit toward the dorsal edge of the giant crystal ship...and punched straight through with barely any loss of speed.

Where there had been a single vast crystal, there was now a rapidly expanding cloud of thousands of jagged shards of crystal, some glowing hot from the impact. Dust and molten droplets sprayed outwards from the point of impact.

And in the middle of the cloud that had been a ship a fraction of a second ago, a reactor. Massive heatsink arrays. Laser cannons. Thrusters and primary drives and interstellar drive. All connected by a network of struts and access corridors and thermal and power and sensor and command connections, all twisting and crumpling and bending and snapping.

And deep in the middle of all of it, surrounded by complete destruction, a tiny sealed and protected bridge, its emergency powerplant and lifeplant switching on as the rest of the ship disintegrated around it.

The Darkside ship accepted the Absolution fleet’s surrender, then carefully navigated to began a rescue of the former flagship’s bridge.