This was originally another Wendig flash fiction challenge (a ‘Wenflafillenge’? (<= trademarked)), but fitting it into the allotted 1000 words proved, shall we say ‘infeasible’, so technically, I failed the challenge. But on the other hand, a story came out of it. So I guess everyone wins. (Except in the story, where pretty much everyone loses.)
Operation Platinum Wizard
The control room aboard the US Air Force patrol spacecraft USSC Paul Linebarger was a testament to comfort sacrificed on the altar of functionality. It was not just swelteringly hot – located just above the heat sinks for the Paul Linebarger’s giant spinal laser cannon, the temperature in the control room almost doubled whenever the cannon was armed for firing, as it had been for the last thirty-six hours – but also claustrophobically small and dark, lit up only by the faint red, green and blue lights from the many computer screens, displays and readouts that covered almost every square inch of the metal bulkheads.
To the commanding officer of the Paul Linebarger, Major David Norman, and the other six Air Force officers manning the control stations, however, the heat was quickly becoming a very minor nuisance. Instead, they had their attention entirely focused on the main tactical display where a little red blip labelled ROMEO-1 was slowly moving towards a long, curved green line. If the blip, which represented an approaching space craft they had detected a few hours earlier, did not change its vector, it would cross the line in another five minutes, and the Paul Linebarger was there to make sure that did not happen.
‘There’, specifically, was a holding position near (322619) 2099 KP6, an asteroid that had been discovered a few months earlier, and which was at that moment quite possibly the most important object in the Solar system next to Earth. It contained not just a motherlode of gold, copper, cobalt and platinum, but also several million tonnes of concentrated lithium ore, easily enough to keep fusion reactors and ion drives of at least one great power running for the next couple of millennia.
Thus it was no surprise that the United States had claimed the asteroid almost immediately upon its discovery, and it was equally predictable that the other great powers had complained vigorously, pointing out that the move violated several outer space treaties and principles of international law. However, reasoning that possession was nine-tenths of the law, the White House had not backed down and had instructed the Air Force to establish a presence near the asteroid to enforce the claim. Having moved slowly down through the digestive tract of the military chain of command, that job had eventually ended up in the hands of Major Norman and the crew of the Paul Linebarger in a mission the top brass had creatively labelled ‘Operation Platinum Wizard’.
Their orders had been composed in that particular dialect of military language that somehow managed to be both completely clear and totally ambiguous at the same time:
“Following standard rules of engagement, establish space superiority around asteroid (322619) 2099 KP6 by all necessary means.”
Of course, which means were actually ‘necessary’ was a judgement call that the top brass had kindly left for Major Norman to make, and if the approaching craft continued on its current vector, he might have to make that judgement uncomfortably soon.
Unwilling to postpone the inevitable any longer, the Major turned to his communications officer. “Comms, establish a line to that craft. Let’s see what they want.”
As soon as the comms officer reported an open connection, the Major grabbed his microphone. “Unidentified craft, this is the USSC Paul Linebarger. You are approaching a military exclusion zone established by the United States Air Force. Request you alter your vector by fourteen degrees ecliptic lateral.”
It took a short while for the reply to arrive, only barely understandable above a constant, heavy static. “Paul Li…ger, …is is PRC …sel …inzhou, Senior Li…enant …ngwei commanding. We a… unarmed resear… …ssel, not …litary. We reque… free passage … treaty.”
Major Norman glanced over at the comms officer with annoyance. “Can you clean that up? I need the name of the craft.”
“We’re getting a lot of interference from solar wind,” the comms officer said. “I could try to run it through the analysis software, but that would take at least fifteen minutes.”
Norman shook his head. “Negative. We don’t have time for that. Give me your best guess.”
A breif silence followed while the comms officer listened to the radio message again. “It sounds to me like they’re saying ‘Linzhou’,” he finally said.
Major Norman nodded curtly. “Look it up. And Weapons, get me a firing solution on that tin can.”
Both the temperature and the tension in the command room rose by another couple of degrees while the comms officer silently searched through the registry database.
“Yeah, there she is,” he finally said. “The Linzhou, classified as escort frigate, Liberation Army Space Fleet. Definitely military. Well armed, too. Spinal laser, three missile bays, point defence guns.”
The sensor operator looked uncertain. ”Dimensions of the contact matches well enough, but the energy signature is all wrong. It’s emitting far less waste heat than it should with all those weapons.”
“I need a conclusion, gentlemen,” Major Norman snapped impatiently. On the tactical screen, the red blip representing the Chinese craft moved still closer to the line that marked the exclusion zone where Major Norman would have to use ‘necessary means’. Conveniently, the line also matched the distance at which the two crafts would have a reasonable chance of hitting each other with laser fire. Letting an armed and possibly hostile craft getting that close would put their own craft and everyone inside at risk.
“I guess they could be storing the waste energy in the heat sinks instead of venting it,” the sensors operator finally said. ”Useful if they want to appear unarmed… but they must be boiling in there.”
Major Norman nodded. That sounded entirely like what he would do in that situation. “‘Research vessel’, right,” he muttered under his breath. “And I guess your engines run on rainbows and fairy glitter.”
He opened the line to the Chinese again. “Linzhou, Paul Linebarger. Our registry shows you as a PLA-SF escort frigate, not a research ship. This is your final warning. Change your vector by at least thirty-six degrees ecliptic lateral immediately, or you will be fired upon.”
“Paul Line…ger, …zhou. Not unders… Check y… registry. We … …jing daxue. … are con…nuing on vector,” the answer came back after a moment.
Major Norman glanced up on the tactical display again. The Linzhou had crossed into the exclusion zone. If their weapons were armed, and he was convinced they were, they could open fire on the Linebarger at any moment. There seemed to be no alternatives.
“Firing solution acquired!” the weapons officer called out after a few seconds that felt like an eternity.
“Weapons, main cannon, fire, fire!” The stress and tension made Norman shout the order louder than necessary, his voice reverberating against the metal bulkheads.
The complete lack of sensory feedback made firing the main cannon a surreal experience. There was no loud laser-like sound, no bright energy beam – not that the Linebarger had windows, anyway – and no shudder running through the hull of the craft; just a couple of changing numbers on the weapons displays, and a red blip on the tactical screen that suddenly was not there anymore.
“Contact Romeo-1 destroyed,” the sensor operator said matter-of-factly. “Radar shows extensive debris. Radiation from probable reactor breach. Still not seeing much of a heat signature, though.”
“Right, we’ll go over the sensor data again later,” the Major said distractedly. “Pilot, set a course for the debris, and Ops, prepare for rescue operations.” It was highly unlikely that any of the Chinese crew would have survived, but they had to check regardless.
The control room had returned to an uncomfortable silence for half an hour when the comms officer spoke up. “Major?”
Major Norman had worked with the man long enough to recognise his ‘I have bad news’ tone. “Problems?”
“I just checked the registry again. There’s another Chinese craft called the Jinzhou, quite similar to the Linzhou… except it’s, er… it’s a research craft, sir, belongs to the University of Beijing.”
Major Norman fought to keep his voice steady, but a tinge of panic still crept into it. “Are you telling me we may have just destroyed an unarmed civilian Chinese craft?”
“I think so, sir.”
Several excuses immediately flashed through the Major’s thoughts. It had all seemed to fit together at the time. He had been under pressure. There had been so little time. His craft and crew might have been at risk. The solar storm had interfered with communications. His command staff had agreed with him. None of that would carry much weight in the court martial. It was his responsibility, the rules of engagement required him to verify the identity of the target, and he had failed to do that.
“I should… go report in. Weapons, you have the control,” he finally said, then set off from his seat and floated towards the exit hatch, steeling himself for the worst – and possibly last – after-action debriefing he would ever have.
MSSG PRECEDENCE: FLASH (Z)
TO: ALL UNITS
FOLLOWING INCIDENT NEAR (322619) 2099 KP6, PRC MILITARY FORCES HAVE ATTACKED US TARGETS ON EARTH, IN EARTH ORBIT AND DEEP SPACE. WARTIME RULES OF ENGAGEMENT ARE NOW IN EFFECT AGAINST ALL PRC CRAFT AND ASSETS. USE OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS IS AUTHORIZED BY NATIONAL COMMAND AUTHORITY AT DISCRETION OF LOCAL COMMANDERS. MAY GOD BE WITH US ALL.
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