Major Jane Randall had been watching that battleship for days. Ever since she had gotten close enough to the alien fleet to distinguish individual ships, her gaze had been attracted to the big hull always surrounded by auxiliary craft. There were three more 'battleships' - the term used for the Tau Cetians biggest warships - in the fleet, but Jane knew that this was the one worth keeping an eye on. This ship was about to take part in critical maneuver.
She had already alerted Mission Control of her suspicion. They were also monitoring this particular battleship full time. They would never doubt her hunch.
Jane was among of a select group of inter-service military personnel who had well developed ESP- extra-sensorial perception abilities. It was all hush-hush and cutting edge, of course. But, especially for a military pilot, where split-second decisions might mean the difference between life and death, the ability to choose the former course of action without any logical input was a very valuable commodity. And more so now, faced with a threat of which little was known.
If only it weren't so hot, Jane thought. She was wearing her pressure suit - mandatory during combat maneuvers- unzipped from the waist up, and rolled down with the sleeves artfully velcroed to her legs. This left her arms free to move around and reach for switches fast. She felt like she was sweating like a pig down there, but she needed the suit within fast reach.
She could have done away with the thick, itchy regulation sport bra. Not like anyone was around for at least 100 kilometers in any direction, including down.
But her breasts would get in the way, without gravity holding them down - not yet too far down though.
Her ship was the best thing Darpa, DOD, USAF, NASA and a few other alphabet soup government agencies had been able to build in the three years since the approaching fleet was first spotted. It was a prototype, but at over a hundred billion a piece, she doubted there will ever be a production line. There were two more approaching completion in two different locations in the
She had been shadowing the cluster of enemy starships for a couple of weeks now, and so far she had been undetected. She communicated with Earth via a large estate of satellites in various orbits. When one came into view, she would send messages via microwave beams, which could not be detected unless the enemy happened to be in the path of the beam.
The satellite would then radio her message to Earth, and send messages to her via microwave beams as well. She was always within line of sight of at least three satellites, just in case some malfunctioned or were taken out by the enemy.
During the first skirmish in space, which lasted over a day as groups of ships came time and again within range of the tightly cluster alien formation over half of the interceptors launched from Earth had been taken out with inconclusive results.
The invaders had used powerful lasers as their sole defensive weapon so far. The main disadvantage of such system was that the beam needed to stay on target for more than ten seconds to destroy a vital component by melting through the skin. Erratic maneuvering had saved more than one Terran interceptor after the laser beams were 'felt' by outside temperature sensors.
Jane didn't have to worry about laser beams. The hull of her spacecraft was steel over an inch thick, evenly coated with a heat resistant ceramic shield. Besides that, a modulated electromagnetic field around the ship allowed light and any form of radiation to go around and continue on the other side. The efficiency of the system, which as little as ten years before had would have been considered science-fiction by all but a few privy scientists, was about 75%. That hardly made her ship invisible to radar, infrared and MK1 Eyeball, but since she always stayed between the enemy and the planet, her signature was lost in the background.
And, even more importantly, laser beams tended to do little damage.
The power requirements of the system were huge in the realm of conventional aerospace vehicles. But Jane's Stalker 1 carried a nuclear reactor which provided plenty of power. The nuclear reactor was also used to propel the craft by ionizing and heating gases from the tanks until they spurted out the rear nozzles with enormous speeds. Although technically a rocket engine, this system, descended from the venerable but abandoned NERVAs of the 60s and 80s was ten times more efficient than a chemical rocket engine in vacuum.
It was so powerful that it had been used for liftoff. The Orbiter portion of the Stalker was a prismatic shape with tiny windows and retractable control surfaces. Jane's interceptor was about ten times heavier than the fighters from the first wave of attacks, which had been launched twenty a piece on Orion boosters.
But with its powerful nuclear rocket engines, it could take off under its own power, albeit aided by two Solid Rocket Boosters like those used on the old Space Shuttles and a propellant tank which held compressed air.
It had gained speed under that configuration, then dropped the boosters and the tank and switched to a scramjet mode, then again to rocket using air from the internal tanks as it exited the atmosphere and slowly established itself on an orbit matching that of the bulk of the alien fleet, but slightly lower.
And for thirteen days Jane had been stewing in her own sweat, studying the alien vessels under 10x magnification through a telescope set up outside of the hull. It automatically compensated for the shimmer induced by the radiation deflection field which made her almost invisible to all wavelengths.
She was so close that she could see objects the size of human beings in bulky suits. She noticed some flitting around hulls, through a forest of antennas, turrets and other protrusions whose function she could only guess.
There were small craft shuttling between starships. Farther away numerous small drones orbited the fleet, generating intense radio and infrared signatures to deflect potential incoming missiles from the manned ships.
Jane had read about naval convoys transporting war material from
The space fleet was a three dimensional version of such a formation, but with warships far outnumbering the transports. After days of peering through the lens - there wasn't much else she had to do, even in her spare time - she could tell the role of each ship.
The smaller armed vessels were continuously moving around, circling the fleet, just like fast destroyers used to patrol the waters around convoys, looking for enemy submarines.
In fact, everybody was already calling these ships destroyers. There were slightly larger versions, consequently called cruisers, patrolling at a slower pace.
Bulbous ships, probably tankers, would sometimes pull up alongside the escorts and flexible tubes would be drawn between them to exchange consumables.
Jane wondered how much fuel they still had after the interstellar journey, and if they could somehow replenish their stock.
In the middle of all this were the transports, carrying settlers and, Jane guessed, soldiers. These huge, needle shaped vessels were tethered in pairs and spinning slowly around a point halfway between them to create artificial gravity for their inhabitants.
Finally, arranged like the tips of a pyramid that enclosed the transports and other auxiliary craft, but inside the protective screen of cruisers and destroyers, were the four 'battleships'.
They were the biggest vessels in the fleet and were bristling with laser turrets. Each had its own escort of small, fast, spacecraft, dubbed corvettes.
The fleet arrangement was extremely conventional. Jane knew the attackers had broadcasted themselves as human-like, when they first made their demands via radio.
Yet, she, and other military personnel, was surprised by the classical military doctrine they used. It did not seem well suited for space combat. After expending less than a hundred lives, the attack from the
The damages done were far disproportionate to the casualties. Unfortunately, it was a one shot deal. There were no more Orion boosters, and, save for Stalker 1, no other Terran ships in orbit. When the next Stalkers were completed and launched, the entire Terran space fleet would number three vessels.
Sure, there were a large number of nuclear missiles ready to strike at alien spaceships that tried to land or fly in the atmosphere, but the aliens definitely held the high ground.
The fleet's formation had remained unchanged since the attack. Something was bound to happen, soon. Soon became 'now' less than half an hour later.
Jane watched as ships that had previously been stationary in respect to her started moving, slowly. Two transports dropped outside of the screen of destroyers and drones, which altered its circling
pattern just enough to make an opening.
Jane quickly sent a message to base alerting them of the start of the landing operations. She trusted her intuition. Sure enough, as soon as they were out of the protective sphere, the transports disgorged aerodynamic shapes clearly designed for atmospheric flight. For the people below, war was coming home.
She focused her telescope on the battleship that had been like a bright light in her mind all this time.
Unsurprisingly to her, it too was moving. It exited the formation and pushed away and up. She was surprised at the rapid rate at which this big spacecraft changed its orbit.
A bright cloud of ionized particles streamed from its rear nozzles, and through the self-calibrating telescope she could actually detect the structure shaking under the relentless acceleration. Wherever it was going, it seemed like it intended to get there fast.
She knew she had to follow this battleship, so she sent a message to base asking for permission to do so. There was nothing she could do here, since one vessel with four missiles was like
a pinprick against this space armada.
The response came promptly. She was to refuel and the match orbits with the battleship. She had an inkling of where it was going, and she knew she needed full tanks for this encounter.
Jane was glad to leave the alien fleet. For the past two weeks she had to always be on her toes, alert that somebody might spot her spacecraft visually or on infrared.
It was time to move, but first she had to replenish her supply of propellant. The nuclear engine on the Stalker took air from the tanks and heated it to temperatures approaching those of in the sun. The superheated gas, actually plasma. was contained by magnetic fields inside the engine such that it wouldn't damage the structure. It could only escape aft through the nozzles, where it reached near relativistic speeds. Huge amounts of thrust were generated by even a few ejected of particles.
While in the atmosphere, the engine could feed itself with air directly through two forward inlets, functioning like a scramjet although little combustion actually occurred.
At the same time, some of the flow of air could be diverted to the tanks. Pumps and refrigerators, using both mechanical systems and magnetic fields, liquefied the inflow and stored it inside the
constantly cooled propellant tanks.
The refueling maneuver would take time. Jane had to de-orbit carefully, using only cold thrusters and only when there was no chance that the sun's rays could create a glitter in the frozen water molecules in the exhaust.
As her orbit changed, she would lose contact with the microwave satellites and had to rely on radio signals, but within the atmosphere and wherever the planet was between her and the fleet that was a non-issue.
Before she reached that safe distance, she had a few hours of blackout when it was too risky to send any signals by radio. That was OK, she had permission to pursue the battleship, and that was all it mattered. She had enjoyed the solitude of the past two weeks after the hectic training she had to endure for almost a year before she launched.
Jane, because of her extraordinary intuition, had often been regarded as aloof, arrogant and a know it all. It had made her life painful ever since early childhood.
She had learned to dumb herself down in the company of others, but because of this constraint she had always preferred to be alone.
Her scheduled sleep cycle came while the ship was de-orbiting. By now the alien fleet was far away and there was no need to mask the emissions. The computer would handle the maneuvers. She made sure to take advantage of this down time, full eight hours, as she had a feeling it would be a while before she could afford another 'night' of rest.
Jane woke up a little before the clock’s alarm rang. A slight buffeting could be felt as the Stalker was floating over the outer fringes of the atmosphere at 7.9km/s.
Time to dip in for a little juice. Her trajectory would mirror a flat stone skipping on a pond. A glide, then a hop, then another glide, until the tanks were full.
She could only refuel in small gulps because it took time for the pumps to compress and liquefy the air, thus only small volumes could be processed at one time.
Also, the heating from atmospheric friction made the refrigerators work extra hard. During the hops, heat was radiated away from the spacecraft through 'wings' deployed just for this purpose. Jane hoped the wings worked better than the life support coolers so that she could enjoy some brief periods of not feeling stuffy.
After two weeks the air recyclers were overloaded processing all her perspiration, and small globes of liquid had formed around the air vents. She supposed it must smell really bad in the cramped confines of the spacecraft. For two weeks she had washed with a sponge, urinated in jars and defecated in plastic bags. Jane couldn’t smell anything because she had slowly grown accustomed to her emanations. Plus her nose was stuffy from the liquids inside her body that, no longer pulled by gravity, somehow floated towards her head.
The hours droned. The ship plunged in the soup, shuddered for half an hour at a time, then came out and everything became still again, save for the landscape of continents parading down below. During these periods she looked through the window intently, trying to spot invasion craft descending from space and the missiles sent to intercept them. The IR pod was tucked in behind the heatshield and only her eyes could tell if she was heading straight into an area peppered with nuclear blasts.
But save for some flashes far away, not anywhere near her orbital path, she didn't spot anything.
Being inside the Van Allen belt prevented radio communications. She got no messages during this time. But as soon as she finished refueling and started on her way to a higher orbit, the radio panel gave a warning tone which indicated it had received an encoded message. She knew before the message started playing that it was a bearer of bad news...
"Battleship in stationary orbit over US attacking our troop concentrations with lasers. Set for intercept at max rate. Trajectory uploaded."
She checked the data. Just as she’d thought...bad news. She'd be heading there at full throttle, setting up on a highly eccentric orbit with the battleship at its apogee. No subtleties either. For sure they'd be spotting her exhaust signature and know she was coming. And when she reached the enemy, she'd be barely moving in relation to them. They'd have a leisure time taking aim at her.
She would be almost out of fuel by the time the single burn was finished. She couldn't change her orbit appreciably. However, the perigee would be at a very low altitude, where there was enough atmosphere to run the scramjets and refuel.
Till then, she planned to use the gas left in her tanks for some attitude adjustments - and crazy jockeying once she got close to her target. Fortunately the thick hull and the radiation deflectors would keep those pesky lasers at bay.
Speaking of lasers, it must be really hot down there - literally - to risk her on this almost suicide mission.
From this far away, and partly blocked by the atmosphere, the lasers potency should be greatly diminished on the ground, but for sure they were setting wide areas afire. And what they would do to an exposed human being....She shuddered. No wonder they wanted her to get that battleship fast.
She spotted the corvettes as tiny stars moving away from the brighter dot which was the battleship. They were coming for her. She would wait till the last minute and then fire her missiles. She was actually inside a laser beam if the hull temperature readouts were correct. The indices were slowly increasing, but they were nowhere near critical. She wanted to save fuel and would only break away from the beam when she was about to launch the nuclear missiles. She had set them to detonate on impact such that even if one, two, three of the four were taken out, the remaining would cripple the starship.
Multiple objects were coming straight at her. Three of them, the biggest with the most active IR signatures were corvettes, and the rest must be drones.
The battleship was now so close that it could see its shape with the unaided eye.
She fired the lateral thrusters at full power and the ship yanked itself out of the laser beams which had been steadily tracking it.
Right away she fired all four missiles in a fanning pattern. She watched them speed away, accelerated at hundreds of Gees by their powerful solid rocket motors.
And then she put her out of her mind and concentrated on her own defense. The holographic display showed the incoming vessels as dots with velocity vectors attached to them. The drones vectors were slowly decreasing, which meant they were matching velocities with her. They were going to box her in, and then probably detonate together.
She saw the corvettes change direction to chase her missiles. They were out of the equation now. A series of random maneuvers scattered the drones. Their artificial brains were slow in trying to catch up with her.
She spared a few moments to catch a glimpse of the battleship as it was hit by two missiles simultaneously. The other two must have been taken out. She saw huge explosions rip through the hull but the ship had stayed in one piece. Disappointed, she kept watching the battleship and was rewarded with glimpses of secondary explosions in other areas. These guys won't be frying our soldiers anymore, she grinned triumphantly.
She hear a tiny noise, then another and another...until they became a rapping. Sensors on the hull recorded impacts, but the objects were too small to be detected by radar and they had no infrared signatures whatsoever.
Space buckshot, she thought wryly. She fired the main engine at full power, hoping to get away from the hail before it damaged her ship.
Instead of smoothly accelerating, her craft lurched violently sideways. She watched a array of red lights lit up her panel. The tank had been penetrated and all fuel was now gone. The hail stopped and a look through the forward window revealed the twisted hulk of the crippled battleship heading straight for her.