Attack on Hephaestus - Short Story - Part 1
Attack on Hephaestus
by Tim Barton
“The spread of civilization may be likened to a fire; first, a feeble spark,
next a flickering flame, then a mighty blaze, ever increasing in speed and power.”
In a remote corner of the universe, a swirl of freshly baked minerals condensed over the eons into rocky bodies of varying sizes. One of these bodies, though outwardly insignificant, carried a bio-chemical treasure of profound interest. The 40 km wide rock competed with other larger bodies for mass, using its gravitational power to seduce mineral rich dust to converge. The rocky world yearned to grow in size, but it had unwittingly attracted a different type of matter--the kind of matter that arranges itself in bags of mostly water and highly peculiar symmetrical shapes. These sapiens began transferring precious minerals from the subsurface into a new flower shaped orbiting body of rivaling size. The newly constructed station was used daily to melt the other rocks. Then the sapiens mined them for minerals as well. They seemed to multiply.
Aboard the mining colony starship, The Hephaestus, Captain Jeato’s eyes gently alternated between the super-massive red giant star, commonly called Pyre, and the accretion disc of reddish dust that surrounded it. The disc was at a steep angle but it still filled the captain’s panoramic view. Perhaps it was just a trick of the mind but he felt as though he could perceive the rotating mass gently swirling, like a whirlpool of glittering storm clouds reflecting the pale blue starlight of a billion distant suns. His thoughts bounced back and forth from burning fear to the appreciation of one of the universe's most awe-invoking sights.
The responsibility over hundreds of lives required him to be a master of his own emotions. He had learned through years of mental practice to control his feelings by controlling what thoughts he allowed himself to dwell on. Jeato knew that he himself was responsible for maintaining his own optimism, rather than being at the mercy of his environment. He swallowed a cerebral stimulant and he focused on letting the troubling thoughts pass away.
“Fear is Illogical and useless to me” he thought, as he relaxed his abdominal muscles, and took in a deep breath.
“I am in command of this ship, this mission, and myself. I am in control.” He took charge of his mind and prepared himself for mission day 145.
He raised his cup of coffee and felt the warm steam on his face. Then he felt a very different kind of warmth on his hand. As he lowered the cup, he saw a bright light in the disc below. Then the light became exponentially brighter and he involuntarily moved to the side of the window.
“What the hell?” Now the light surpassed the brightness of his birth-world’s sun. Then a torrent of white-violet light flooded the room. He stood to the side of the porthole and he could clearly see the sizzling beam that turned every hovering dust particle into a small glowing orb of fire. The heat intensified. Then in half a second, the carbon that reinforced the window suddenly turned as black as graphite. The furious heat had burnt the window’s material and triggered the safety mechanism. His eyes struggled to adjust to the more reasonable lighting.
An alarm sounded in the hallway and Captain Jeato rushed out of his quarters. He ran down the short corridor toward the bridge. Then, losing his balance he half-tripped and briefly stumbled to the left. The ship was accelerating, and the inertial dampener was only calibrated for forward and backward acceleration.
The Captain entered the bridge. A gentle violet glow bled through the blackened glass windows at the front of room. He saw his first mate Trent sitting at the station closest to the window, both of his hands pulled the docking thruster stick to the left. He was intensely concentrating through squinted, and painfully seared eyes.
The bridge, roughly the same size as the captain’s quarters, was cool at the entrance but as Jeato took two steps in, he felt the temperature rise dramatically. A cadet named Amos was desperately reading a monitor on Jeato’s right and noticed the Captain’s presence. Amos spoke without looking up from his monitor.
“Captain Jeato, we’re being hit with a laser weapon. The heat is reaching critical levels but the hull is holding for now.” Amos had been monitoring the sensors and performing mental calculations to determine the level of danger since the moment that the carbon nano-tube glass had burnt enough to block the vast electromagnetic energy beam.
The violet hue was beginning to fade from the window.
“We’re coming out now. Trent, cut thrusters!” Captain Jeato commanded. Trent relented on the docking thrusters he was using to desperately propel the ship out of the beam radius. Captain Jeato looked at a white cylinder hanging from the roof at the center of the room and spoke to it:
“Computer, analyze hull integrity.”
“Hull pressure stable on all personnel decks.” The soft male Oxford voice replied. The only thing that revealed the inhumanity of its originator was the sudden quickness of its response. The violet hue was now completely gone signaling that the beam had stopped, for now.
Cadet Amos Sanders said “Temperatures are critical but falling rapidly. We have lost half our external sensors. The hull is burned to hell, but our systems are still online. The extra reinforcing saved us. We’re good.”
The scorched pilot Trent had bent down with elbows on knees. His eyes were closed and he was holding his fingers on his eyelids as he whispered an expletive.
“Damn good work Trent, are your eyes ok?” The Captain said, in an undignified voice of gratitude. Trent had just saved the lives of everyone aboard the ship.
“They feel like they were rubbed with sandpaper for an hour,” Trent groaned. “What the hell is going on? Who did this?”
Amos interjected: “Here’s what I know: the beam originated from a point in Pyre’s accretion disc where we charted a small planetesimal rocky body. It is approximately 0.85 AUs away, or 7 light-minutes. So we have 7 minutes before they can see us evade, and 7 more before a second blast comes.”
“We weren’t aware of any factions inhabiting this system. Did we get any transmissions before the attack?” Asked Captain Jeato, but they had received no warning or explanation from their attackers.
“Cadet, send a message that we are a civilian vessel and are of no threat.”
An ensign entered the bridge and informed the Captain of the state of the vessel. The engineering crew reported two small fires in the living quarters. Apparently, some of the crew had brought flammable materials on board. Something as seemingly harmless as a wooden picture frame, had turned into firewood for the raging death ray coming through their windows. The Captain opened a video screen to engineering and ordered the head engineer, Khana Lamarr, to get her best electrical engineer and physicist for a conference call immediately.
All of the bridge crew was now moving in and out as they checked for damage to equipment, ran computer simulations of the vessel's new trajectory, and conversed with the two crew members who were on duty at the time of the blast. Trent, who kept his eyes mostly closed and only opened them in strained squinting, was relieved and escorted to medical to be treated first, before all the other burn victims. As Trent was exiting, Jeato saw that his skin was reddened and carried the unique odor of singed hair. “He probably got a lethal dose of gamma radiation.” The captain thought to himself.
It had been four chaotic minutes since they escaped the beam. The laser fired for 40 seconds with a spread of 2 kilometers. The captain made a ship-wide announcement stating that an unknown enemy in the Pyre system had fired a laser weapon in an attempt to destroy the Hephaestus.
“Captain! We are almost out of fuel for the maneuvering thrusters. Trent did a full burn continuously until we were out of the beam, he could have used way less and still made it out.” An ensign said, proud that he had discovered this important information and feeling confident in his abilities since he was chosen to replaced Trent at the control seat which would now become known as “the grill”.
The Captain looked at him with a glare “He had no way of knowing the radius of the beam and he was half blind as well, Trent did exactly what he should have done. If we’re hit again though we’ll be ready.” The injustice of being attacked without warning or preparation frustrated Jeato. He was going to do everything in his power to make sure the barbarous bastards who attacked them would not succeed.
The Captain pressed a few keys on his console and opened a voice communication link with the ship’s Head Steward, a psychologist who was in charge of coordinating the ship’s personnel.
“I need you to evacuate all the forward facing modules plus habitation module 5, and it needs to be done in nine minutes. Can you do it?” The captain said to her.
She hesitated. “… Yes sir, will there be a second attack?”
“Yes, the earliest it can arrive is 14 minutes from the end of the first attack, we might get more time, but we can’t risk it, so hurry!” He replied quickly and sternly. Jeato heard her begin shouting orders to her staff before he shut down the voice link.
“Lamarr, I have some modifications that need to be made, and they must be done fast.” He said to the cautious and experienced engineer.
“What kind of modifications?” She replied with a suspiciously raised eyebrow.
“The kind that could blow up the ship.”
The laser battery had been fired seven minutes ago by orders from prison warden Emanuel Koch who commanded the operation in the Pyre system. The images of the mining ship using its thrusters to evade the laser’s cone were coming through as snapshots. The cruel mogul suspected that the first attack would not likely succeed.
“They are still in operation, it looks like they used thrusters to dodge it. We should have waited until they were closer.” Said the laser battery station commander via an encrypted private com-link.
The warden replied: “The specimen is emitting electromagnetic signals asking for help. It’s whimpering is really quite pathetic but if that ship gets the signal they might report it. We need to keep this a secret until we can secure this system. Track the ship and fire again. We have virtually unlimited power here, but they’re stuck in the open for days. Report to me when you can confirm the ship’s destruction.”
The station glowed with immense energy, and a violet beam of light shone brightly through the dust that permeated the system. The station orbited an enormous asteroid that now fit the classification of “planetesimal”. On its surface, a group of prisoners was exiting an elevator from deep underground. When they saw the pink light, they turned their whole bodies to face the laser and watched the grand display of power above them. The laser was a symbol of their master’s superiority over them. It was mostly used to shoot down troublesome asteroids that approached the outpost too boldly. Smaller asteroids could easily be deflected by the Azure class blue energy shields that were typically used in particle rich environments such as this newly formed star system. This time, however, the deadly device was being used to murder hundreds of innocent lives.
Above the heads of the laborers a speaker blasted with a deep emotionless voice.
“Attention prisoners P-191, P-324, P-084: delay noted on record, demerits issued, report to decontamination cell 3 immediately.”
The prisoners did not look at each other. They complied to the voice with the solemn defeated countenance of weary, broken men. The youngest of the three had a debtor's repayment term of 470 standard days remaining. Any additional demerits would be punished by adding even more time to his lengthy stay on this miserable rock. Those that had little education often fell into the predatory lending schemes of the profit alliances. What made the situation even more fearful was that if he gained more than three more days of penalty time he would not be permitted to depart on the transport ship that would arrive to replace the prison slave labor, but instead he would have to wait an additional 200 days for the next available ride. This was all because he fell behind on credit payments after losing his job as a helicopter mechanic due to the phasing out of helicopters in favor of the more elegant grav-ships. He did not expect to be alive in 470 days. He was already taking stock of the various tools he could use to end his pointless servitude. A servo-drill or welding torch to his own forehead would be the only counter-attack he could make to the emissaries of greed that profited from his continued existence.
“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
End Part 1