Fiction: High Orbit

This story has one purpose: to build on this entry to demonstrate how a space battle might actually play out. It has the thinnest of plots and the flattest of characters. My goal was to be as “hard” in the science as possible, at least conceptually–not that I can’t perform the necessary orbit calculations (see, e.g., this) but to show that a writer need only know some basic concepts, and could then use them for dramatic effect.

Anyway, I hope it’s entertaining.

(A hearty “thank you!” to the readers over at Gizmodo, some of whose comments on this article helped shape bits of this story.)

/ / /

Clearly, the aliens wanted Earth for their own. Their strategy made this obvious, but it also led to the mistake that brought us to this point.

We determined, much later, that one of the near-Earth asteroids cataloged several years prior was not, in fact, an asteroid, but was instead a robotic scout on a ten-year journey from the Kuiper Belt to Earth and back. The whole time, the aliens were landing robot factories on Kuiper Belt planetesimals, chopping them up into neat, organized blocks of minerals, metals, and ice. All the better for warship construction, of course. That robotic scout must have determined most of the properties of Earth, including that it was inhabited by a technological species. Crucially, its instruments must not have identified the landing sites on the Moon or Mars, and it must have swung past the Earth at exactly the right time to miss the International Space Station or any of the major launches. This led to the aliens’ main strategic error.

Twenty minutes to Echo Tango Charlie,” crackled over my headset radio. “Control out.”

They came barreling in towards Earth, undetected against the backdrop of space until their carrier vessel fired its huge Earth orbit injection motor. That got our attention – which we quickly spent watching hundreds of capsules drop from orbit towards our major population centers. That’s a pretty aggressive first move, if you ask me. Those guys must’ve been hostile from the beginning.

Now, several of the nations on Earth had the technological capability to push back against the aliens. In exchange, the mothership they left in orbit dropped a couple of big bombs on some cities. Since the aliens underestimated our space capabilities, this didn’t quite have the pacifying effect they wanted, and we fought harder. While the armies were doing that…well, I’ll say one good thing about the Cold War. Get enough of those old ICBM’s going at once, and none of the warheads needs to actually go off to shred an alien warship in mid-Earth orbit. Man, I remember that night. The meteors and fireballs came down till dawn. The UN delegates signed the Treaty of New York the next day, creating the Earth Defense Force.

On the headset: “Ten minutes – check in, please, over.” In the tactical station couch, Cooper touched his earpiece and replied, “Blue Four here; we copy estimated time to contact of ten minutes. Out.”

After the last alien aircraft crashed into the Atlantic, everybody expected a second wave attack. Humans learn and work fast when we need to – we figured out that the aliens’ insertion orbit came from somewhere out in the K.B., and we figured out that we had about five years to go on. It turned out to be a bit longer than that, so with enough of us working the problem we had plenty of time to get some orbital weapon platforms up and develop a couple kinds of space fighter. It all led up to this point: my three-man crew was less than ten minutes away from participating in Earth’s first space battle, along with several hundred more of Terra’s Finest. I started to blush and bounce my foot around just thinking about it.

Cooper started absently humming some John Williams music. I laughed nervously and he smiled, and that took some of the edge off the tension. Some.

Off to my left, Gonzales reminded us to check our pressure suit seals and Oh-Two supplies. “Combat protocol. Beginning cabin depress.” Her fingers tapped out commands on the systems board in front of her, and the cabin lights went a uniform blue. A diminishing hiss betrayed the decrease in cabin pressure as our little fighter pumped its internal atmosphere into storage.

Visual contact!” came the call from Platform Gibraltar. I craned my neck around to see. Right now, the view projected onto my active-plexiglass faceplate was of the Earth’s horizon stretching out to either side and below me, with spacecraft status icons superimposed. The view shifted naturally as I moved my eyes and head. Almost forty minutes ago, we got a good look at the enemy fleet as it coasted in towards us. Our guys did some computations, and we shifted our orbit a little so that Gibraltar and its fighter wing would pass right under the alien fleet at EOI – Earth orbit insertion. The publicity line was, the aliens have one last chance to drift on by and we’ll leave them alone; if they fire an EOI burn, we’d take them down. That was a load of hooey, and everyone knew it. The aliens were coming in. We just wanted to see which ends of their ships were the engines, so we could aim at them.

The Gibraltar CapCom called the play for us. “Blue Flight, Red Flight,” he announced, “you are GO for orbit altitude burn in five seconds. Gibraltar out.

I punched it. The pilot’s couch restraints vibrated a little under me as I gently fell into it from the acceleration, then I floated free again. I could see Gibraltar platform zipping ahead of us in its lower orbit, the rest of Blue Squadron spiraling around in a cloud, and up above….

Starbursts. Flares. Sparks. The alien fleet was executing Earth orbit insertion. Rocket plumes stretched out ahead of the alien specks. We now had an accurate count of the alien fleet, a better fix on their ships’ masses and engine sizes, and we knew they wanted to come knocking.

The orbital platforms were big sons of bitches, all covered with armor plate, carved from the detritus of the near-Earth asteroids we used to forge our combat fleet in orbit. They could barely move, but they didn’t have to. They just had gyros at all to soak up the momentum from their cannons’ recoil. And unlike our little fighter craft, they had a nuclear reactor, which could dump a lot of power into a couple big lasers.

Right after the aliens’ orbit maneuver, we saw the gimbal turrets on the receding defense platform make some minor adjustments, aiming the optical fibers, and then a couple of the alien rocket plumes got a lot bigger as propellants left their tanks a bit more catastrophically than before. A few minutes to charge the capacitors, and then – wham, another pair of laser blasts sliced into the enemy fleet.

That was it: Earth was open for business.

By now, Gibraltar Platform had orbited well ahead of the aliens’ insertion point. It started to retrofire, dropping lower so that it could more quickly spin around the Earth and get back into the scrap. As the massive platform and its turret cover dove around the horizon, the alien fleet was dropping right down toward Blue Squad’s lagging orbit. I still couldn’t see them through the camera feeds, so I had the computer overlay wideband images of the alien craft. Their now-quiescent thrust nozzles glowed in infrared with residual heat, pinpointing their engines, but the radar image was much fuzzier. As I watched, each ship seemed to wiggle around, changing shape and drifting erratically side to side.

Cooper noticed, too. “Geez,” he cursed, “our estimators can’t get a good lock on their orbit with all this jumpin’ and fuzzin’ around. They can’t lock onto the radar centroids. Might be some kind of camoflage, or sensor countermeasures.”

“Is infrared any better?” I asked him.

“Nah,” he replied. “The IR sucks. They’re pointing their engines away from us, and our detector isn’t worth squat.”

He was right. A good IR detector needs a cryostat, which means it needs power, it’s delicate, and it’s expensive. Another piece of equipment found only on the big platforms. Our simplistic detectors could barely pick out those residual engine glows.

“Well, let’s just be ready for them when they get here. Five minutes…”

Space combat isn’t what you’ve seen in the pulp movies, with fighters looping around and strafing one another, and big ships of the line slugging it out with stupidly big torpedoes. We learned that as one of the first things when the EDF started training in simulators. It’s a slow dance at first, each side jockeying for position on the eerie terrain of orbit dynamics, then punctuated by a frighteningly furious instant of pure motion and energy, before calming down again into the slow movement of pieces on the Keplerian chessboard.

Our little fighter, EDF standard, had been designed with that sequence in mind. It had a nearly spherical body, faceted in irregular polygons to try and deflect reflection scans like radar. A big main-engine bell protruded from the bottom face, sheathed in a cylinder of armor plating. Fuel tanks went inside the main body of the craft, between the engine and the crew compartment. Ideally, if they exploded, the crew cabin would be safely jettisoned. In front of the tanks, we had a small gyroscope array that let us spin the ship around on a dime. Sticking out of the sides of our craft were some thrusters, a couple antennae, a hatch, a few missile pods, and a forward-facing flak cannon.

The EDF Fighter Spacecraft

The whole outer surface was covered in crinkled gold foil – the outer layer of our passive thermal insulation. The wrinkles were to make it less likely that we would be spotted visually, from sunlight reflecting off the surface of our fighter. All the waste heat generated inside our craft from electrical resistance and body heat was insulated from the outside surface by the evacuated cabin and the gold foil, but we had to dump that heat somewhere or risk systems failure, so it went into a nifty little contraption in the rear of our craft that dates back to Apollo days. The inside of the armor cylinder around the engine contained hidden radiators and some big chunks of wax. Waste heat from our craft went into melting the wax – hiding the heat energy in a phase change. Whenever we were safe, I could point the engine away from the enemies and trigger a command that would open the armor cylinder, flower-like, and radiate away the extra heat, re-solidifying the wax.

The bottom line was that our fighters could slink around, pretty well hidden from enemy sensors, until we were right on top of them. That worked really well when we were silhouetted against the Earth. Then we could let fly with missile barrages and use our maneuverability to rapidly acquire targets and shred them with the cannon.

So far, it was working. They hadn’t spotted us yet. Even our radar blended in with background signals from the planet below.

Our flight leader came on the horn. “Blue Flight, we’re about to get into a rumble. Check your systems and get ready to go. Godspeed. Blue Leader out.”

“Here we go…” I muttered to myself. Then I bellowed, “Station reports! Systems?”

GO!” shouted Gonzales.

“Tactical?”

GO!” shouted Cooper.

“Blue Four is go,” I radioed, among a chorus of similar reports.

Missiles on my mark,” called the flight leader. “Mark!

Cooper flipped open the switches and then fired them off. I felt a dull reverberation through the fighter as pyros pushed two missiles away from their slots in our fighter’s pods. I turned my head, shifting the projected camera view just in time to see one of the missiles ignite its first-stage solid motor burn, catapulting it off towards the enemy fleet. The burn only lasted a few seconds. The missile would now cruise in dummy projectile mode until it was within its threshold distance from the target, at which point its targeting radar would activate and the second stage would drive the tiny, cylindrical object right into the alien ship.

Blue Six to Blue Flight!” crackled my headset. “I see return launches!

I have it,” replied Blue Leader in cool tones. “Weapons free. Watch your asses. Leader out.

Well, our luck couldn’t have lasted forever. The flares from our missile launches must have been the last thing the aliens needed to pinpoint our orbit.

I looked toward Cooper. “Give me a full-illumination radar cone forward. I want to know if anything is headed our way.”

“Wilco.”

“Gonz? How’s the gun look?”

“Ready to fire.”

“Okay.” My hands were shaking a little on the controls before me. I tried to shut that down; it didn’t work. “Watch for systems damage and be ready to respond.”

“Gotcha. Roger.” I could just see the glows from inside her faceplate, it looked like she already had all the schematics of Blue Four up and running. She was good, I knew I could leave her to it now.

“Got two!” Coop shouted. “Incoming straight ahead. Twenty seconds to optimal flak intercept.”

Cooper put the icons on my faceplate projection: two flashing red dots, tagged with rapidly decreasing range measures. I made some attitude adjustments to point the blunt nose of our craft right at them and started a mental countdown. Fifteen…fourteen….

“Hoo boy, there go ours,” he said, as a flurry of our own missiles fired their second stages and blew into the alien craft. I saw a couple of small flashes and puffs. Thanks to the radar cone I ordered, I could see that there had been several hits. Alien ships started tumbling out of control, venting from holes blown in their tanks, shedding fountains of debris.

Blue Flight attacks

…Two…one…now! I squeezed the trigger. The forward cannon pounded out a shell, jolting all three of us against our restraints. It darted forward, closed with the alien missiles, and then its fuse blew, bursting the shell into a shimmering cloud of cutting shrapnel. The metal cloud expanded, covering both incoming icons on my projection, thinning out as it went….

“One went dead! I’m still showing acquisition radar and propulsion from the second!”

Damn! I couldn’t take the second one out with the cannon, the fuses burned too long. It’d take a direct hit with the shell. I’d have to try and evade this one.

I spun our little craft around and fired the engine perpendicular to the course of the missile. It adjusted on the fly to keep pointing at us. Okay, at least it would be predictable. I reoriented the fighter again and punched in a burn that would send us into a highly elliptical orbit, just grazing the rarefied fringes of the atmosphere. The time to impact stretched out a bit. The game now would be to get the missile to run out of fuel before we did, or it hit us. I checked our reserves; we were in pretty good shape.

Gonzales asked Cooper, “Can we do anything to blind or confuse it?”

“I can try to calibrate a radar burst or something, maybe that’ll…”

After a few seconds in our new orbit, I fired up an inclination change, one of the most expensive orbit maneuvers in terms of delta-v consumption. The missile turned to follow, eating through its own supply of propellant.

The distance kept closing.

I punched in another plane change, a bit bigger this time. Our engine burned for a few seconds this time, and we felt a couple gees in the cabin. Our fuel level dropped. The missile was close enough now that when it turned to follow, I could see its exhaust plume pointing sideways from its trajectory.

“Anything?” I asked my crew.

“Not yet.”

The missile’s plume sputtered and went out.

Quickly, I fired up a small maneuver that took us out of the drifting missile’s path.  I let out a sigh of relief.

“Time to get back into it,” I muttered, trying to reorient myself after my distraction with the missile. We were now short on fuel and away from the main action, but…. With a glance towards higher orbits, I suddenly saw an alien fighter craft in easy visual range.

The aliens’ fighter was larger than ours, so presumably better loaded out with weapons and engines. It was also roughly ball-shaped, like ours, but struts protruded at odd angles. Some of them grasped thrusters or weapons systems. It was covered in irregular facets painted with even more irregular patches of materials with all kinds of albedos and refractive indices: a  broadband electromagnetic razzle-dazzle.

Cooper figured it out before I did. “I think that must be why their radar silhouette kept jumping around. Makes weapons lock tougher, and all grouped together, it would make it pretty difficult to differentiate ships from one another.”

“Well,” I replied, wrapping my hands around the maneuvering and firing controls, “let’s see if I can help differentiate this one a bit…”

I aimed at the tracking reticule in my heads-up display and fired the flak cannon three times. Our fighter jumped at each shot. In the seconds it took the shells to traverse the distance, the alien ship suddenly jettisoned some of its bright, faceted struts. Several of them spun out into space – a few in our direction. Must’ve been a countermeasure against the cannon—

The flak shells exploded just inside the expanding cloud of mirrors. A hail of shrapnel stormed towards the alien ship, too close for it to possibly evade. Sparks and puffs of gas erupted from the spacecraft as they struck. Metal twisted. Several of its thrusters lurched and sputtered, jammed on. The alien craft fizzled and jerked about wildly. The aliens’ main engine fired, and exploded. Hot gases and plasma poured out of the side of their engine bell for a split second, the metal on that side of the spacecraft warping outwards in a shower of debris and molten material. They were down for the count.

Some of the jettisoned mirror fragments exploded into shards from the flak barrage. They hurled towards us with all the force of enemy munitions.

“Dammit—”

Gonzales braced herself, Cooper and I sat there dumfounded. Then a series of crashes shuddered through our couch restraints and the spacecraft started tumbling, whirling us around and around. My faceplate projection cut out for a second and then restarted in a snow of transparent digital fuzz. The already dim cabin lighting flickered a few times and died into a wash of red emergency lights. Alarms whooped and buzzed in my earpiece.

“Report!” I grunted, clinging to the side of my couch, fighting with the flat spin we were getting into. Every time I turned my head to the left all cameras gave me was static. My arms, legs, and head all felt like they were getting yanked in different directions by the centrifugal force of the spin. I leaned into the controls.

“Tactical, still here!” cried Cooper, shouting over the alarms. The spin got a little better, the blood rushing into my head a little less rapidly.

Gonzales let fly. “Systems, I’m still okay – looks like we hit a couple razors. Engine and fuel lines are green. Weapons seem fine so far. I’m showing reduced gain on the communications system diagnostics and a couple of the exterior cameras aren’t responding. We’re flirting with gimbal lock, you’d better work on unwinding the gyros. I think our pressure hull has been compromised, and we lost some power to cabin systems, but as long as our suits are okay, we should be good to go.”

By now, I had the spin mostly under control and was slowly wobbling the spacecraft about its long axis, getting the internal gyros to precess away from gimbal lock. I started acknowledging the computer alarms, one by one.

“We’re lucky it was just a few pieces of a mirror,” Cooper commented. “Imagine if that porcupine had done that in the middle of Blue Fight!”

“Roger that,” I replied. “Well, if we’re okay, then I’ll set us up to get back to the rest of the flight.” I plotted the burn and fired it up. The computer predicted that we’d have to wait about twenty minutes to get back to the rest of Blue Flight, and we’d get there just in time for Interception Bravo.

From ground-based telescope observations, we knew that the alien fleet would come in three groups. We had rough mass and size estimates of the spacecraft in each group, but didn’t know their express purpose. The first group seemed to be about all the same size, the second group consisted of fewer, much larger vessels, and the third was an assortment of craft of intermediate size. The analysts thought that the first group was likely to be some kind of fighter craft, aimed to disrupt our defenses. The whole reflective-shards-flying-everywhere trick seemed to be right in line with that idea. Somewhere in the three groups, the aliens had to have a ground force, and the analysts weren’t sure whether it would be group two or three. They would try to break through our defenses and probably wanted to coordinate their landings so they could fight outward from the same spot – somewhere where they could commandeer natural resources to build more war machines. The other group was probably the orbital muscle: heavily armed craft to take down the EDF space fighters, with some nasty planetary assault weapons to toss down at us from on high.

While we waited to get to the second interception point, I decided to give our phase-change thermal management system some relief. I torqued the spacecraft around so that our rear end was pointed off into empty space, and deployed the radiator panels. A faint vibration came through my acceleration couch harness as the shielding panels around the engine bell swung apart, splitting like a flower. They would radiate the excess heat our fighter generated out into space, letting the wax blocks in the TMS re-solidify.

Between interceptions

Gonzales asked me for permission to unstrap her couch restraints. “I think I might be able to do something about those disabled cameras from the rear bus access panel,” she explained.

“Do it,” I agreed. “You have about fifteen minutes to go. Keep yourself braced, just in case.”

The interior cabin of an EDF fighter is laid out similarly to an Apollo capsule. Our three couches were side by side, Gonz, me, and Coop, with a spartan control panel in front of us. Most of our data readouts and indicators got projected into our helmet displays. The controls themselves were a cluster of joysticks, buttons, and switches arrayed in a panel in front of our chests, where our arms hung in freefall. Above the controls were some touchscreen panels to back up for the helmet projections, now inert. Gonzales disengaged her restraints, took hold of the couch frame, and wormed her way behind it to get at some of the systems behind our couches. She popped a quick-release panel open and slid it behind me and Cooper, exposing some tanks and circuit breakers.

While she worked, our navigational radar picked up a couple hazards in our orbit: probably either a chunk of metal or a cloud of debris from the battle. I warned Gonz and tweaked the thrusters a little to avoid them. This was one of the big problems with space combat: at orbital speeds, every single object is a hazard, and blowing up spacecraft creates a lot of little objects. Our flak shells, alien missiles, spent propellant, ejected rocket stages, scrap from the battle’s losers—all the detritus of our fight would stay in orbit for months, years, or decades, depending on how fast Earth’s super-thin upper atmosphere dragged them down. The strategic planners knew that our battle today would jeopardize most of the preexisting space infrastructure—communications satellites, weather observers, science instruments, GPS, the old ISS, and the like—and we’d have to deorbit the debris before we started launching stuff again. They had some schemes involving laser platforms and electrodynamic tethers, but they had decided that the survival of Earth meant that we should just treat the debris as an instantaneous hazard while the battle was joined. As long as more debris came from the alien craft than from ours!

“There!” came Gonzales’ voice in my headset. “I’m going to cycle the camera circuit breakers. Stand by.” My faceplate cameras shut off again, leaving me with a view of the blank touchscreens and some heads-up status overlays. Then the cameras booted, and I had my visible spectrum nine o’clock exterior view back.

“You’re a miracle worker,” I praised her, as she clicked panels back into place and squeezed herself back around to the front side of the acceleration couches. “Right on time, too. Get yourself back into the straps.”

“I wouldn’t go overboard on the miracles,” she qualified. I think I could see a couple spots where shrapnel pierced the cabin. We probably can’t re-pressurize, and you’d better make sure your suit heaters work okay.”

We were coming up on the rest of our flight again, so I radioed in.

Status?” asked our flight lead. “Over.

“A little banged up, but operational, over,” I replied.

Good to hear,” said Blue Leader. “You missed Gibraltar’s second pass. We’ve scattered the alien fighters and are ready for the second group. We’re down to about two-thirds strength, so take your beta formation position. Anticipate five minutes to Bravo. Over.

“Copy that,” I acknowledged. I ordered the radiator panels closed and goosed the engines a little to get us into the right orbit for beta formation, and turned my gaze toward deep space. “Blue Four out.”

Icons appeared for the incoming second alien group, from telemetry over the shared link. Ground-based observatories and relay stations contributed to the data. The best estimate was that there were three large alien ships, about as large as our platforms, probably built out of chunks of KBO’s or comets. They were just starting their EOI burn.

Here come Zion and Fuji,” someone said on the radio. I swung my head around to either side of our orbital track. The two platforms were on forty-five-degree inclined orbits and had been largely out of the action so far. The admirals and generals of the EDF had decided, on the grounds that the second and third groups of alien spacecraft were likely to be bigger and have juicier targets, that those platforms would pounce at Interception Bravo and take out some of that big stuff.

Man, these aliens are big,” crackled my earpiece.

Blue Leader to Blue Flight: cut the chatter. We’re not seeing obvious targets on this side of the alien spacecraft, so let the platforms turn the heavy fire on them and we’ll wait till they turn around to present us with something vulnerable. Leader out.

“Wilco, Blue Leader,” I acknowledged. “Blue Four, out.”

Platform Zion and Platform Fuji orbited over the horizon like cavalry charging over the crest of a hill, their rocky asteroid-shell surfaces bristling with gun turrets and missile launchers. They had some really heavy stuff—and as the alien craft came in off their orbit insertion burns, they started to open up. I had the computer zoom in my view on Zion. In the silence of space, the American platform was pounding away with a couple Howitzer-sized flak cannons. Repetitive flashes glinted off the muzzles of the guns as shells blasted outwards at terrifying velocity, small puffs of gas escaping the barrel after each shot. The shells streamed forth at such a rate I could see the gun barrels slowly turning a dull crimson. They would travel for a couple hundred kilometers and then burst into deadly, glittering fragments. Those guns were filling the space between us and the alien ships with so much jagged metal with Earth-escape velocity I began to feel much better about our odds.

I switched the camera over to the Japanese platform. Fuji had some pulse-laser turrets, which I could see making small, discrete rotation adjustments every minute or so. The actual lasers were housed well under the rocky skin of the platform, with beefy optical fibers to carry the cutting beams to the turrets on the surface. The laser optics were well-engineered enough that I couldn’t see any residual light from the turret apertures, but I knew that each little movement of the optics meant that the turret was aiming for a new target after a strike. Then, to add to the carnage, a couple missile pods blasted off from Fuji’s outer surface. Each pod carried several small submunitions that would individually home in on enemy spacecraft and throw themselves into the targets under staggering thrust, doing more damage with kinetic energy than a high-explosive round from most of Earth’s previous wars might have done. The missile pods streaked off, leaving my field of view almost instantly.

The alien spacecraft were sure taking a beating. With the cameras on full zoom, I could see bits of their surfaces glowing white-hot from laser strikes. I hoped that each flash I saw meant one less alien gun shooting at me and the rest of my flight. It would be several minutes before their orbits hit the shrapnel-storm from the flak guns.

The missiles from Platform Fuji arrived much faster. I saw the alien ships fire some kind of defensive armaments to try and knock them out or bang them off course—but they weren’t entirely successful. There was a tremendous flash from one of the alien ships, saturating my camera view. It wasn’t too bright to look at, but the pixel brightness in my helmet display pegged at maximum for several seconds. When it cleared, there was a dazzling cone of vapor and material streaming out from the enemy spacecraft, brightly reflecting the sunlight.

“Looks like these ships are made out of some iceballs the aliens found,” commented Cooper. “Wonder how well the platforms will do at chopping through that.”

“Should’ve brought some ice picks,” Gonzales said from my left. I barked a laugh, which sounded wholly inappropriate within the confines of my helmet.

Another big plume geysered up from the icy hull of the alien spacecraft. Then, the enemy ships ran into the flying minefield of debris hurled from the flak guns. Small flashes appeared briefly all over their surfaces. Then another kinetic missile hit the first enemy ship coming in.

This one actually cracked the surface. When my faceplate display could finally display meaningful images again, I saw the enemy ship had actually split into two halves, which were slowly drifting apart as they came down into Earth orbit. Between the cracked pieces of ice, some small objects were spilling out from behind the blasted hulk. I magnified the view, and saw some small, oblate objects, gently tumbling. They were pretty pixilated, but I recognized them as—

“Entry capsules,” I said aloud.

Ground Control must have come to the same conclusion I did, because the capcom came on the line moments afterward. “All units, we have an update on the best estimate of alien fleet composition. Looks like this is the ground assault bunch. Your new objective is to take out as many of those capsules as possible. Blue and Red Flights, Platforms Fuji and Zion, we’d like all of you to raise your orbits to get the most possible firing time on the capsules. Fighters, make damned sure you stay under the platforms’ firing solutions!

And, everyone, be advised that the third alien group has made a mid-course correction. Interception Charlie will be approximately thirty minutes—repeat, three-zero minutes—from now. Control out.

Blue Leader acknowledged the new orders for our flight, and relayed to us orbital elements and delta-v parameters for our burn. I punched it in, keeping half an eye on our dwindling fuel supply as I did so. Glancing down towards our engine, the camera views displayed in my helmet showed the platforms firing their big engines.

By now, all three alien ships were through the initial flak barrage, with most of it absorbed by the ice shells. As our platforms’ big cannons swiveled to take aim at the exposed capsules in between the busted halves of the first shell, all three shell-craft suddenly erupted in explosions. Once again my display saturated, but this time, when it cleared it was obvious that the blasts had come from some kind of explosive threads laced throughout each shell. They were now breaking up into small pieces—about the same size as a capsule.

“Cooper, can you differentiate the ice chunks from the capsules?” I asked.

“Dammit, no, boss, I can’t.”

“Well, see if you can tie in with some tactical data from the platforms.”

While Coop radioed in to Fuji and Zion to see if they had better luck telling alien space marines from snowballs, I saw a bunch of rocket flares from the cloud of enemies, punching their capsules down towards the Earth’s atmosphere. I toggled to an IR view—still no luck telling the capsules and ice-chaff apart.

Blue Flight, this is Blue Leader,” hissed my headset. “The capsules will be coming up fast. The platforms are about to let loose. Open fire with flak when they do; priority on fast-moving targets. Save your missiles. Leader out.

“I’ve got a data overlay,” Cooper announced. Some icons appeared on my display, littering the icefield with targeting data. He had prioritized and numbered the targets for me.

Zion’s cannons flashed.

“All right, good work—and here we go!”

I lined my reticule up on Cooper’s “Target #1” and pounded the flak cannon. The cabin shivered as the shell leapt out of the firing tube and curved away, exploding into a lethal fan of metal. Orbit dynamics were pretty funny to get used to at first, but after months in space combat simulators while the world’s aerospace agencies and corporations were building the platforms and fighters for EDF, we got used to the way maneuvers seemed counterintuitive and gunfire curved along strange-looking paths.

Once per target should do for capsules, I thought, gyroing the fighter around to face “Target #2.” Once again a thud reverberated through our couches and the control boards vibrated under our fingertips as I launched another shell. “Target #3” came up.

Flak started hailing into the enemy formation. I saw brief flashes on my display as impacts struck plumes off surfaces or punctured and ruptured tanks. A few of the targets disintegrated entirely in glittering, gassy puffs—those were probably the ice chunks.

Then the enemy capsules fired their rockets again, sending the landing craft on erratic trajectories that pulled them out of the way of our first round of munitions and accelerated them towards atmosphere. The platforms shifted their aim. I swore and lined up on “Target #1” again. Thud. “Target #2.” Thud.

This is Fuji, requesting fighter backup!” blurted the radio.

“Cooper, what the hell’s going on?” I demanded.

“I don’t—” he started, holding his hands up on either side of his control board. “Wait, uh—looks like some aliens from the first group snuck around in orbit and are coming up under the platform!”

Blue Two, Four, Eight, this is Blue Leader—you’re the only ones in striking distance of Fuji, get over there!

“How many fighters, Coop?” I asked.

“Looks like maybe five or six aliens, boss.”

Gonzales chimed in, speaking quickly. “We don’t have enough fuel to tangle it up.”

Two and Eight fired up their engines and shifted orbits. I clicked the radio. “Negative, Leader, Blue Four is down on fuel.”

I copy. Don’t do a burn, hang here and chuck some missiles. Out.

“Okay,” I muttered, then started swinging our ship around to face Fuji, which was silhouetted just inside the Earth’s limb. It had just let loose a whole load of its own missiles, which were streaking around from its topside to arrow downwards toward the threat. “Tactical, you are authorized to fire three missiles at will.”

Cooper’s hands flew over his control board, downloading targeting data to the missiles. There was a minute shimmy of the crew cabin as gas jets pushed the munitions away from our fighter, then all three first stages ignited and I saw the weapons streak away towards Fuji, expanding exhaust gases dissipating in their wakes.

The missiles’ first stages shut down, and they drifted, inert, towards the flashes of combat around Platform Fuji. Then, when they were close to their quarry, their second stages fired. Little more than shaped charges, those rockets propelled them on short collision courses towards enemy fighters. One missile was only a few hundred meters away from its target when the second solid motor ignited, and it lanced right into the heart of the alien fighter, which promptly exploded into a cloud of gases and hunks of metal, glowing around the edges where it had been ripped and torn apart. The pieces drifted harmlessly towards the Earth’s upper atmosphere, to burn up and disappear many orbits later.

Our second missile hit its target, too, but only after Blue Two managed to riddle it with so much shrapnel I thought I could see sunlight reflected off the Pacific Ocean shining through the holes. The missile delivered an energetic coup de grace.

The third missile was about twenty kilometers from its target when its lancing stage fired. That was too short for the enemy to evade, but it gave them some time to maneuver. The alien fighter used the opportunity to burn its engines like a bat out of hell—aiming straight for the platform. Our missile hit the fighter, destroying it, but its disintegrating wreckage continued on the collision trajectory.

“Oh, hell no!” I cried. Fuji didn’t have guns facing the fighter to blow it away before it—

Impacted. Explosions of gas and debris ran the length of the platform, blasting upwards from below, where the enemy fighters had struck less well-protected systems. Gas tanks along the side of the platform ruptured, spraying their contents into space and sending the platform into a slow flat spin, making it look like a giant skipping stone trailing water droplets behind it as it passed over the Pacific. The other enemy ships kept firing on the huge, dying spacecraft, harassed by our fighters. The radio hissed with sounds that were not entirely static. I screwed my eyes shut, trying not to imagine what it was like in that platform.

Blue Leader’s voice came on the loop again. “Blue Two, Eight, come back up here. The aliens are gone, you’ve done all you can. It’ll be up to the rescue crews once we quiet things down up here.

“Okay, Blue Flight, Intercept Charlie. This is probably the big stuff. Stand by for a tactical update from Control. Leader out.

I glanced around my tactical situation display. There were no more alien capsules; they were either destroyed or beyond our reach. Time for the armies of Earth to deal with them. I tried not to look in the direction of Platform Fuji as I swung the fighter to face outwards again. There was some hope: since the platform had been depressurized, as long as the explosions of hot gas and shrapnel hadn’t outright killed all the crew, they could survive for some time in their pressure suits. With enough emergency supplies, some teamwork, a whole lot of luck, and a good job by the rest of us clearing out the aliens, rescue capsules could get up and offload survivors.

All units, this is Combat Control. Intercept Charlie is only a few minutes away. We have one large alien spacecraft on our tracking systems. We expect that it’s heavily armed, but mostly space-to-ground artillery. We expect mass drivers, nuclear warheads in capsules, and the like. Their objective is likely full space superiority followed by ground attacks. Platform Gibraltar will be coming around for this encounter and there will be ground launches. Repeat, there will be ground launches—we’re uploading timing data to you now.

“Launch everything you’ve got at that dreadnaught. Try to match your fire with the ground launches to mask our attack. Take that ship down. Control out.

“Well, this is just great,” said Cooper as Ground Control signed off.

“Nice working with you guys,” Gonzales told us. I couldn’t quite tell if she was serious or not.

Blue Flight, this is Leader.” (“Great, more inspiration,” Cooper muttered a little too loudly.) “We probably can’t take this thing down ourselves—certainly the fighters don’t have the firepower. The platforms might be able to. But I think the planners have it right—we just have to give the alien ship such a hellpounding and so many targets to pay attention to that they don’t notice the nukes coming up at them from the planet. We just might stand a chance at masking their radar and IR signatures. So, boys and girls, let’s just do what the nice man says and save the planet. Spread out and hold your fire till my mark. Blue Leader out.

I took a deep breath. My hands were shaking again. I looked at Cooper, and then at Gonzales. Both of them were looking straight back at me when I did, their eyes meeting mine directly through the neon colored hazes of wireframe diagrams and status symbols splashed across the acrylic over our faces. They both had the same look on their face, and it was pretty much how I felt.

“Well, I’m not as good as our Flight Leader at giving heroic speeches,” I said, “And we all know that he sucks at it. So…come on. What do you say the three of us help save the planet?”

The radio popped. “This is Blue Six; I can see Gibraltar coming in over the horizon.

“See? I feel better already.”

I looked up, as I was lying weightless in the couch restraints; straight at the bulkhead in front of my face. This was looking towards the flak cannon mounted on the nose of our EDF fighter. The external camera view I saw pointed in the same direction. I could see the alien juggernaut burning its engine like a torch to get into Earth orbit. It was just barely entering our weapons range.

Tense minutes.

I watched the clock data from Combat Control tick down towards zero in the corner of my display.

I could see Gonz’s chest expanding and contracting her pressure suit as she breathed.

Someone in our flight clicked the radio a few times.

I test-fired our thrusters, wiggled the gyros around a little.

Tick…

Tick…

“Weapons fire!” cried Cooper. Missile plumes were erupting out of the dreadnaught, muzzle flashes from guns. Only some of it directed at the Earth below us.

Blue Leader to Blue Flight: OPEN FIRE!

The counter hit zero.

“Coop—missiles!” I shouted. “Launch all!” And then I started squeezing the trigger on the flak cannon like nobody’s business.

“Aye-aye, sir!” he shouted back.

The rest of Blue Flight and Red Flight were hurling flak shells at the dreadnaught with abandon. Missiles streaked away. I saw our left few jettison and hurtle through space with Cooper’s targeting information.

The huge cannons on Platform Zion were unleashing mighty destruction. Gibraltar came into the fray, zapping full power with its cutting lasers and letting a missile barrage go.

Then there was a scream over the radio, and Blue Eight vanished off my tactical display. The alien missiles began to hit us. A few big strikes blasted chunks out of the rocky upper surface on Platform Zion, sending boulders spinning off into space. The powerful guns kept chugging away, despite a few sites around the platform venting gas and debris.

A flash to my left: an enemy missile pulverized Blue Leader. The fighter split into so many tiny fragments it wasn’t worth counting, none of them bigger than my hand, twirling away in different directions, the whole cloud that was once a fighter orbiting along around the Earth, towards the setting Sun, trailing congealing globs of molten metal.

The alien ship came nearer, its smaller guns firing on the remaining fighters.

“Cooper, take over weapons control,” I barked, and concentrated on the flight controls. The cannon had some limited gimbals for precise aiming. I started to burn the rocket engine and then twisted the fighter ninety degrees to our trajectory, setting Cooper up for a strafing run as we swept sideways across the enemy’s path. Every now and then I hit the thrusters randomly or fired the engine for a split second, trying to make our path unpredictable.

Platform Zion’s transponder went out. I saw more boulders floating in space near its ruins.

“Here come the nukes!” shouted Gonzales—the only one of us with just about nothing to do right now but watch.

I spared a glance at the tactical display. The refurbished ICBMs showed up as tiny blinking icons with a lot of warnings attached. “Okay,” I gritted through clenched teeth, “let’s get out of here!”

I swung the fighter around and burned for clear space. We felt weight for eight or nine seconds before the engine sputtered out. I gyroed us back towards the dreadnaught so that Cooper could take some parting potshots at it.

As we lined up on the enemy ship again, he saw his big-picture tactical display again and let loose a curse.

“What?” I shouted.

“Hold—”

I, too, saw the enemy missile just a moment before it hit us. There was a sickening crunch that lasted for just a fraction of a second and I felt rattle through the fighter’s structure and up the acceleration couch straight into my bones. I was slammed back against the frame of the couch, the fighter whipped around, I accidentally stared into the Sun for a moment. A gaping hole appeared, gashed in the forward bulkhead right in front of my face. My console was gone. The faceplate projection ceased instantly. I stared straight out into space with wide eyes.

I screamed. Gonzales screamed. Cooper screamed.

Light whipped around the crew cabin like some perverse cooking implement, slicing in through the broken skin of our fighter with stomach-churning rapidity, as Sun and Earth and Moon shined in through the hole while Blue Four spun uncontrollably.

Gas filled the cabin, and vented out around us. I could see it in my view out the hole, making a little diffuse ring around us like a miniature Saturn.

Molten metal, melted from the impact, coalesced in small silvery-gray dew-droplets that froze onto bulkheads, frames, jagged edges, pressure suits.

Slowly, Gonzales and I stopped screaming, or got too hoarse to keep yelling. Cooper kept going. I saw him desperately pawing at his suit over his stomach with gloved hands, moving slowly against the pressure inside. But the air was escaping out a hole in his suit. His scream started to sound a little gurgly, and then staticky, and then his intercom cut out.

I reached over, tried to press my hands against the tear in his suit, to stop up the leak and staunch the flow of blood if there was any. I couldn’t get into a good position. I was stuck in my own restraints. No leverage. No matter how I held my hand, I could see a faint hiss of gas escaping from between my fingers. I could feel myself starting to cry a little.

Coop calmed down a little and waved me off—he pointed at some emergency supplies, with a suit-patch kit, down by his right side—then he pointed at some of the remaining flight controls to my left. I understood—this spin was terrible, we were in a miniature centrifuge. I turned to the left and started manhandling the controls. I asked Gonz if she could do anything.

Slowly we got the spin decelerated. Every few seconds the Sun and Earth would still float by, visible out the tear in our hull. It looked like the alien missile hit us a glancing blow, from fore-left to aft-right, tearing a hole in our spacecraft from in front of my face to down by Cooper’s side…

Cooper. He was holding a suit patch in his right hand, but his hand floated limply over his chest. There were a few droplets of what looked like blood floating around near an awful-looking rip in his suit. His faceplate had fogged over, and I was glad I couldn’t see inside.

Just then our fighter rotated around and the alien dreadnaught drifted into view. It was still coming, guns still blazing away—and then a spot as bright as the Sun appeared on its surface, growing and swamping my view of everything else. My eyes closed reflexively. Still, all I saw was white. Until another spot, even whiter than the first afterimage burned into my retinas, overtook it, even through my eyelids. Then another. Then another. And then, finally, the fighter rotated away.

It worked. It freaking worked.

It took a full minute for my vision to clear. I blinked, over and over. Now I was sure there were tears in my eyes, pooling up on my skin in zero gravity and smearing over my face.

“You still there?” asked Gonzales. She sounded hoarse.

“Yeah,” I croaked. “Yeah.”

We drifted around to face the dreadnaught again. Through the gash in front of me I saw it—in pieces with glowing edges, debris all around sparkling in the Sun, trailing bright streamers of gas. It was on a course into the Earth’s atmosphere. There would be one hell of a meteor shower tonight, in…we drifted a bit more…France, maybe Spain.

I looked over at Gonzales. “You okay, Gonz?”

“I…” she took a deep, shuddering breath. “I think so.”

She tried to unfasten her restraints. They wouldn’t budge. Mine wouldn’t either, when I yanked at them. So I just reached over, and she put her hand out, and I took it.

We watched the Earth spin by below us, and then our view went out over the limb of the planet towards the Moon and then the stars. The debris clouds were already thinning out. I could see a couple EDF ships moving around under control. Mars shone at us from over an AU away.

Now we were floating here, just like the people in Platform Fuji—and Platform Zion. We all had notions of space combat somehow being glamorous, or being clean, things like that. You get to flaunt high technology, and if you go, you go in a dramatic explosion with lots of sound effects and balls of flame. No, the reality is that you spend some of the time bored, some of the time edgy, some of the time so deep in action you can barely handle it, and then you float in a busted scrap bin with a hole in it, next to your dead buddy, staring out into space.

The Earth came back into our view, ever so slowly filling the crack in the hull with blue and green and brown and light and beauty. Now the tears were floating off my face and landing on the inside of my helmet.

“You know what?” whispered Gonzales. I could tell from her voice that there were tears on her face, too.

“What?” I said.

“We helped save the planet.” And she gave my hand a little squeeze.

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