Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Crimson Worlds IV - The First Imperium (ch 3)

Here is the third chapter of The First Imperium.  The book will be out the very end of March or the first week of April.  I will announce that here and on the mailing list.  Meanwhile, here's another preview:


Chapter 3

 

Colony One

Newton - HP 56548 III



Ian Tremaine walked slowly back toward the small cluster of modular shelters, the warm afternoon sun beating down on his sweat-soaked back.  It was another kilometer and a half back to the village, and he could already feel the burning exhaustion in his legs.  “No one ever told me colonizing a new world was such hard work.”  Tremaine was alone and speaking to himself, and he laughed at his own joke.  Someone should, he thought with a smile.

Newton was the most remote planet yet colonized by man.  The system was 28 transits from Sol, a solid year’s journey for all but the fastest ships.  The colonization party wasn’t even from Earth…Newton had been settled by colonists from Columbia.  The expedition was comprised of religious pacifists who chose to tackle a newly-discovered world when it became clear that war and revolution would soon engulf Columbia.

Now the rebellion was over, and Columbia and the other Alliance colonies had won at least partial independence.  That news had been joyously received on Newton, but the celebration had been tempered by the horrific losses suffered, the awful cost of that taste of freedom.  Tremaine could hardly believe what he saw in the dispatches.  By all accounts, Weston was in ruins, and at least a quarter of the planet’s population had perished.  He wept for those lost, and he prayed for their families.  He had many friends on Columbia, and he didn’t know who among them was alive or dead.  We were right to leave, he thought sadly.  The Columbians had certainly had legitimate grievances against Alliance Gov…he agreed with that wholeheartedly.  But was it worth all the suffering and death and destruction?  Was war and killing always the only way?

It all felt very far away on Newton.  His people had come to the edge of explored space seeking a peaceful home.  They were almost 200 lightyears from man’s birthplace on Earth - when he looked through the colony’s telescope at Sol, he was seeing light that began its journey two centuries prior.  Before the Alliance existed.  Before the Unification Wars.  Of course, geometric distances in space were largely irrelevant.  The important calculation was the number of warp gate jumps required to reach a planet, and by that measure as well, Newton was on the extreme frontier.

The settlement was small, just 120 families.  The houses were prefab units manufactured on Columbia, clustered around a few scratch-built common buildings.  There was a wall around the village, with several watch towers and half a dozen sonic pulse cannons.  The planet was far from any potentially hostile worlds, but the local fauna was large and aggressive.  The most threatening animals tended to stay in the jungle areas, but occasionally a serious predator wandered out into the savannah.  It was better to be safe than sorry.

Tremaine walked through the open gate and into the bustling little community.  The colonists had begun calling their town Haven, though officially it was still Colony One.  There was an identical village on the second of the planet’s two continents.  As far as he knew, Colony Two’s residents hadn’t come up with a name for their settlement, informal or otherwise.

“Good morning, Ian!”  Hampton Charles was walking over from the dining hall when he saw Tremaine coming through the gate.  “Back from calibrating the pulse scanners already?”  Charles glanced at the chronometer on his wrist.  “You must have left before sunup.”

“Indeed I did, my friend.”  Tremaine grasped Charles’ arm in a warm greeting.  “It promises to be a scorcher today, and I thought it best done early.”  He looked up at the cloudless sky, running his hand through his sweat-soaked mop of long brown hair.  “It was hot enough already at dawn; I can tell you that much.”

“With any luck we’ll find the best spot for Colony Three soon.”  Charles looked up at the sky.  “We should be hearing from the convoy any day now.”  The second wave of colony ships was scheduled to enter the system within the week.  It had originally been expected two years before, but the rebellion had put everything on hold.  Now they were finally coming, and they were bringing a load of badly needed equipment in addition to 900 new settlers.  Things had gotten a little rough on Newton when the supply ships stopped coming, and Tremaine would be relieved to replace some of the jury-rigged repairs with proper spare parts.  They were self-sufficient on food, but without imported equipment, their mining and resource recovery operations were way behind schedule.  Colonizing a new world was expensive, and they were expected to produce enough to pay their way.  So far they hadn’t come close.

“Yes, soon we shall welcome our new neighbors.”  Tremaine stepped to the side as he spoke, moving into a spot of shade.  “And we shall finally have the supplies we need to get our production levels where they should be.”  He pulled a small cloth from his pocket and wiped his face.  “It will feel good to pay our own way.”

“That it shall.”  Charles shifted to move into the shade as well.  “I think you were right to go so early.  This heat is brutal.”

Tremaine laughed. “You should feel it on the open plain, my friend.”  He motioned toward the dining hall.  “I’m heading to grab some breakfast.  Care to join me?”

Charles smiled.  “I ate already, but I wouldn’t say no to a cool drink.  Let’s be on…”

“They’re here!  They’re here!”  It was Ellen Forsten, and she was running across the center of the village from the communications hut.  She saw Tremaine and ran over and hugged him.  “Ian, we just got the transmission.  The convoy is here.”  Newton was almost ten light hours from the warp gate, so the convoy had actually been in the system for almost half a day.  The cross-system journey would take a little over a week.

Tremaine smiled and returned the hug.  “It is a great day.”  He stepped back and looked at Forsten and then Charles.  “Come friends, let us contact Colony Two.  We must prepare for our new arrivals.”

 

“I’ve run a complete diagnostic, captain.”  Lieutenant Walsh was Northstar’s chief engineer.  “Everything shows normal.  I’ve monitored reactor operations myself, and the rhythms seem normal.”  She paused for an instant, still a little distracted by her focus on the task at hand.  “I think we’re fully operational again, sir.”

“Thank you, lieutenant.”  The captain’s voice was deep and scratchy, sometimes difficult to hear over the comlink.  He had a tendency to whisper, and he had to remind himself to speak loudly.  “Do you feel comfortable going to 100% power?  I’d like to try to catch up with the convoy if possible.”

Northstar’s power core had scragged itself two days before.  There’d been no sign of trouble, but fusion reactors were finicky mechanisms, and they were designed to shut down immediately at any sign of abnormal operation.  A containment breach on an operating reactor would make a ship cease to exist in a microsecond, so caution was essential.  But it also meant reactors sometimes shut down when nothing was seriously wrong.

“Yes, sir.”  Walsh sounded reasonably confident, though she was still disturbed by her inability to identify the cause of the initial malfunction.  “I’d feel better if we’d had more luck finding the original problem, but everything reads a go now.”  She sighed gently.  “The safeties are on full, sir, so it’ll just scrag again if we missed something.”

Captain Jahn sat silently for an instant, considering his options.  He would have preferred a more definitive answer on what had flatlined the system to begin with.  But if Northstar had any chance to catch the rest of the fleet before they reached Newton, they had to start now.  “Prepare for 100% power.”  With her reactor down the ship had been unable to make vector changes with the convoy, and she’d zipped right past the warp gate when the other ships transited.  Now they had to decelerate and loop back around to position for insertion.  At least the convoy is moving slowly, he thought.  If we strap in and go full bore we can catch up in two days.

Jahns flipped his comlink to the ship-wide circuit.  “Attention, all personnel, prepare for high thrust maneuvers.”  He could almost hear the groaning going on throughout the ship.  The crew had to be secured in their acceleration couches before he could fire up the engines, and that meant an uncomfortable ride for everyone.  “We will be applying maximum thrust in thirty minutes…that’s three-zero minutes.  I want everyone buttoned up in twenty.”  He switched his com back to Walsh.  “OK, Adele.  I want the reactor up and running at 100% in fifteen minutes…and I want you in your couch in twenty-five.”

“Yes, sir.”  Walsh’s voice was a little tense.  Fifteen minutes was a tight schedule to get the reactor fired up and operating.  Captain Jahn was a navy vet, and sometimes he forgot he had a civilian crew now.  The Northstar had a good team, but their experience and training was not up to military standards.  “I’m on it.”  She wiped her forehead on her sleeve and stared at the monitor as she punched in the reactor startup sequence.

 

“Captain, we have incoming transmissions.”  Lieutenant Cannon turned to face Captain Jahn.  Her face was pale.  “Code Delta-Z, sir.”

Jahn had been listening half-heartedly as he reviewed the final course plot, but his head snapped up abruptly.  Code Delta-Z was used by ships that were under attack and did not expect to survive.  “Transmit directly to my com, lieutenant.”  His mind raced – who could be attacking the convoy all the way out here?  “Scanners on full power.  Launch a spread of probes.”

“Yes, sir.”  Cannon was a good officer, but she wasn’t military, and the tension was obvious in her voice.  “Sending you the transmissions now.”

Jahn listened to the distress calls as they were piped into his comlink.  They formed a timeline, beginning with reports of incoming missiles coming in from well beyond normal launch ranges.  Jahn’s frown grew with each transmission.  It was a nightmare unfolding before him.  A missile barrage, the weapons thrusting at over 200g.  Jahn had never heard of a weapon with that level of acceleration.  Then detonations…massive explosions unlike anything he’d ever seen.  Ships vaporized by the stunningly accurate warheads, one after another until the transmissions ended.  Then only silence.

“Lieutenant, estimate the yield of those warheads.”  Jahn served throughout the Third Frontier War before mustering out, and he’d seen plenty of fusion warheads detonate…but these were like nothing he’d ever witnessed.

“Sir…”  Cannon stared at the captain, her face betraying shock.  “The computer estimates each detonation at 3.5 to 6 gigatons.”

Jahn was silent for a moment, his mind processing all he had just seen and heard.  His hesitation was brief, however, and his combat instincts took over.  “I want full reverse thrust in five minutes.”  He clicked on the shipwide com.  “This is the captain.  All personnel are to immediately secure for maximum thrust.  We will be thrusting in five minutes…I repeat, five minutes.”  He switched to a direct link with Walsh.  “Lieutenant, I want 110% on the reactor, and I want it in four minutes, and I want you in your couch a minute later.”  His voice was sharp and decisive, but the stress was evident as well.

“Captain, that’s not…”

“Now, lieutenant!”  He cut her off before she finished.  “I need that power.  No arguments…just do it.”

“Yes, sir.”  He reply was immediate, but her tone was shaky.

Jahn repositioned himself in his chair, holding his arm straight as the medical AI initiated the injections.  Five and a half minutes later, Northstar’s reactor was running full out, producing energy at 110% of its rated capacity, and every bit of it was being poured through the ship’s straining engines.

The crew was ensconced in their acceleration couches, protected from the worst effects of the 20g deceleration.  It was hard to think clearly under maximum thrust.  Between the drugs and the discomfort, concentration was difficult, but Jahn’s mind was still functioning.  We have to make it out of here, he thought grimly.  We have to report this.

Part of Jahn felt guilty about fleeing this way, but if the Caliphate or the CAC had found a new route into Alliance space he had to report it as soon as possible.  This could be war, he thought.  It was possible that the Fourth Frontier War had just begun.  And those weapons, he thought.  If any of the other Powers had seen such a leap in weapons technology, it was going to be trouble…big trouble.  They had to make it out of here.  They had to.

“Lieutenant Walsh.”  It was hard to even force the words out under the crushing g forces.  “Instruct the computer to go to 120% on the reactor.”  That was dangerous, approaching a 10% chance of catastrophic failure.  But if they didn’t get back through that warp gate before they were attacked, they’d never leave the HP 56548 system.  He anticipated Walsh’s argument, and before she could object he repeated himself.  “No debate, lieutenant.  Just go to 120% now.”  I just hope it’s enough, he thought.