Battle Stations
A Starships and Spacemen Tale

Joel Callahan

The Merchanter's Luck kicked out of the Tramline in a G0 solar system. The Nav Computer claimed to know exactly where we were, but I sure didn’t see signs of civilisation anywhere.

There was a blue planet deep in the system’s second orbit, and the Luck was beginning to plot a hard burn course for her. The computer guessed about 20 hours until we dropped into orbit around it. Captain Stone reviewed the recommended course and grunted.

"It’ll be easy the first 17 hours -- one gee all the way. But we turn over and do a hard burn for the last 3 hours -- something close to 4 gees -- for the final orbital insertion."

He harshly closed the protective cover on his chair’s mini-Console. It had been a tiring journey for everyone.

"Those damn computers have no feelings for us..."

The Navigator didn’t know what to do. We had picked him up on the last world as a replacement for ‘Ace’ -- Ace was good, never missed a way to save fuel, never missed the Tramline Jump Points that hang God-awful close to stars. We’d see how this new kid would do.

"Orders, Sir?"

Captain Stone stopped what he was doing and turn to face the new Navigator.

"We will have a rough ride towards the end, but this course saves at least 5 hours off any other plots."

The Captain nodded and then stood up.

"I’ll be in the lounge eating before my stomach explodes in a few hours. You have the Bridge, Mr. Smith." With that, he left through the heavy hatch and went down the corridor to the common lounge.

I helped the young Mr. Ryals lay the course into the NavComp, and gave a courtesy call down to Engineering to let them know the drastic nature of our course in a few hours. They appreciated the heads up.

"Always look after yourself, and take care of others," I advised him, breaking my promise to myself of never doing that. But Ryals looked easy-going enough, and I wanted him to do well. Besides, he sits next to me and if he stuffs up, I could get caught up in the fallout.

I began the post-Jump checklist, and explained what I was doing to Ryals. I only got to the 3rd item -- Passive Sensor Scan -- when I got an irregular reading.

"Huh, that’s odd." My eyebrows furrowed as I repeated my scan.

"What’s wrong, Smith?" Ryals inquired.

"Passive sensors show no EM activity from what should be the main world. There should be a colony full of farmers anxious to sell us their vegetables."

Ryals smiled.

"Only thing is, I don’t read any electronic signals of any sort." My hands fell useless to the console.

Ryals looked at my board. "Would a farming colony have a lot of electronic signals?"

I cocked an eyebrow -- at least he was trying to use his head.

"Not a lot, but every Colony has to have some sort of system-wide transponder so merchant ships like us know where to land. Otherwise, we’d toast a lot of farmlands with our drive."

I switched to active sensors and focused them on the main world. Nothing. No signs of humans. Just a medium-sized moon orbiting the world, and a stray comet heading inward to the inner system.

"And that's really odd..." Sensors were picking up a pretty high background level of radiation. I crosschecked against the database and confirmed the reading was much high than historical levels -- the world would never have been cleared for colonization if they'd been that high before. That’s when I called the Captain.

"Bridge to Captain Stone. Request your presence on the Bridge, Sir."

"We run a pretty tight ship -- for a non-military vessel," Ryals observed.

I nodded. "The Captain is retired Navy. He’s all rules and regs, but he always makes a profit." I smiled. "Plus he has some contacts inside the Naval Department -- we sometimes get wind of a new contract before it filters down to the Merchants' Guild."

Ryals nodded, then frowned. He pressed a few controls on his board as the Captain entered the Bridge.

"Report," Stone said as he sat down in his Command Chair.

"I was running my post-Jump when --"

"Captain," Ryals interrupted me.

"Yes Mister Ryals?" The Captain shifted in his chair, switching his gaze from me over to the new Navigator.

"Sir, I’m picking up a strong neutrino signal -- bearing 348 degrees relative. Checking against a Doppler shift from the past 60 seconds of observation, it would appear to be a fusion reactor in the 2000 megawatt range, at a distance of…" He double checked his board. "At a distance of fifteen thousand kilometres."

The Captain raised an eyebrow and cut me a sideways glance. "Confirm that" was the implied command. I turned quickly to my board. I waited a full minute to get multiple readings on it.

"Confirmed, Sir. Target is labelled ‘Bogey-01’ and has some serious power to spare."

The Captain nodded, and then hit the ship-wide intercom. "Attention all hands -- we’ve come across a possible hostile ship. The power signature is consistent with a Privateer or a small Mercenary ship. We may be performing some erratic manoeuvring. Engineering, standby to goose the power plant; if we get into a firefight we could use every extra watt of power. Gunnery Officer, please report to the Weapons Control Centre. More reports as we get them. Bridge out."

The lighting dimmed to a lower frequency, allowing our eyes to adjust to a dimmer light in case we lost main power. A few minutes later, the ship’s Security Officer slash Weapons Officer entered the Bridge and assumed the seldom-used console station. His fingers danced over the console as his eyes digested the information.

"Sir, I’m conservatively predicting that ‘Bogey-01’ is spending 50% of his power output to his internal systems; engines, life support, electronics. This would leave him enough energy for a decent laser and a small rail gun. Not to mention the missiles that he could launch without expending much power."

Silence took over the Bridge. Big or small, if a rail gun hit us we’d be dead. I knew what the next order would be. I began plotting different velocities and acceleration curves. The best way to not get hit was to make our speed as random as possible.

"Helm, prepare variable thrust plots."

I smiled a tight smile, glad that I was able to predict the Captain’s order. Hopefully it meant I’d make a good Captain myself one day. If we survived this engagement.

"Aye aye, Sir."

On a hunch, I re-scanned the Main World. If there was a hostile ship in the system, and elevated radiation levels on the planet…

A few minutes later I had my answer.

"Sir…" My stomach tightened itself into a knot. "Sir, sensors detect multiple concentrations of hard radiation on the main world. Amplified views of the world show craters consistent with 50 kiloton nuclear explosives…"

An alarm sounded, echoing throughout the ship. Multiple signatures originating from Bogey-01, all vectoring towards us at speeds far exceeding what humans could tolerate. Bogey-01 had fired missiles at us. Strategically they had fired farther out than what is considered ‘optimum range’. However, his missiles would keep us occupied, leaving him free to manoeuvre. Hell, if we spent too much of our electronic resources tracking the missiles, we could lose track of his ship. Then, with his engines cold, he could coast in to firing range and open up with everything he had.

The Weapons Officer immediately cut all non-essential emissions from the ship, and launched a ‘wild weasel’ in hopes of distracting some of the missiles from us.

"Helm, what’s near us?"

I quickly scanned the area of space around the ship. It looked pretty hopeless…until I picked up the passing comet we had spotted earlier.

"Sir, not a whole lot …save a comet. Bearing 305 degrees relative, range -- 7000 kilometres."

The Captain leaned forward in his chair. "Helm, bring us about. Plot an intercept course for the comet. Full speed and don’t spare the fuel. Bring us around the backside of her. Put it between us and Bogey-01."

I plotted the course and signalled Engineering that we need the reaction mass tubes wide open. A few seconds later, a green light on my board showed Engineering acknowledged my request. I hit the execute button on my console and I felt myself pushed deep into my chair. The Merchanter's Luck could accelerate at 2 gees normally and almost 4 gees in an emergency. Anytime there were nuclear-tipped missiles heading towards us, I considered an emergency.

"Sir, course plotted and engines responding," I groaned out through peeled-back lips.

I saw the Captain nod in silent acknowledgement -- no one liked to talk above 2 gees.

Four and a half minutes at this horrible level of acceleration and then we’d flip 180 degrees, do another four and a half minutes of hard burn and we’d be alongside the comet.

Halfway through the manoeuvre, the Captain opened his mini-Console. "What was our cargo again?" He pulled up the cargo manifest and then smiled.

He hit the intercom. "Engineering, send someone to the cargo hold with a welder. Have them break open the crates and heat ‘em up. When they’re nice and hot, they should get out of there and open the cargo hatch. Tell 'em they have less than five minutes, and we'll be turning ship in about half that time." He banged his fist on the comm button.

Sending anyone to do anything above 3 gees is a very serious order. People break legs, arms, and necks on a regular basis in a high-gee environment. The best thing to do is to lie down and strap in -- not walk around in vac suits carrying welders.

We reached turnaround and had a few seconds of normal weight while the ship flipped end for end. Then we were in the 2nd half of the comet-closing game and the engines throttled up again -- another four and a half minutes with a giant sitting on my chest.

Bogey-01 -- and its missiles -- continued to accelerate towards us. Fortunately the terrific speed of the missiles was working in our favour. They had built up a significant velocity while they had been accelerating towards us, and they had lost a lot of their agility. They were arcing through a 60-degree turn -- both of them -- and the weapons board estimated they’d hit us in less than 5 minutes.

My board showed green, indicating the course plot had been executed -- we were even with the comet.

"Sir, we’ve pulled alongside the comet. She’s less than 500 meters from us, and we’ve matched its heading and speed."

The Captain nodded a tight nod again. He flipped open a mini-console on his Command Chair -- it tied him directly to any console he wanted. He tapped quick instructions into it and studied the results.

"Helm, nudge the attitude thrusters 5 degrees starboard and then cut all thrust."

I quickly acknowledged his orders and the board showed the ship responding. The ship continued pacing the comet, but was slowly moving closer to it. It looks like we’d brush against it in a few minutes. It was made of icy slush, which shouldn’t hurt us.

He hit the intercom. "Engineering, what’s your status?" A long pause, then "Any second now, Sir." He banged his fist on the comm button again.

"Mr. Stanley, please make ready our laser. Get a targeting solution on Bogey-01. I’m guessing she’ll come very close to us."

A minute later and my board showed rapid decompression in the starboard midsection of the hull -- Cargo Hold. "Sir, it looks like they’ve jettisoned the cargo."

"Is the cargo drifting away from us?"

I ran a passive scan for magnetic objects near the hull. I found the jettisoned cargo and calculated its plot.

"Sir, it’s stolen some momentum from us. It’s got a vector of 2 kilometres per minute at 208 degrees relative."

The Captain nodded, his mind racing with a million different variables, lost in thought. He quickly hit the comm button. "All Hands, this is the Captain. Prepare for collision -- repeat -- prepare for collision. Dog down all handles of all airtight doors and hatches. Move like you’ve got a purpose, we’re seconds away from all Hell breaking loose. Then secure yourself with tight straps and padding. That is all."

He looked around the Bridge, an unusual look in his eyes. Silence. Complete silence permeated the Bridge. We were waiting for something. "Hang on…"

There was an almost gentle thud against the hull and we stopped moving. A check of my board showed we had drifted into the comet’s head.

"It’s just the comet, sir. We’ve crossed course with it and --"

There was a double-explosion that felt as though huge hammers were pounding on the hull. The ship skewed sideways, its orientation lost in energies beyond our ability to compensate for. We lost power and main lights for a few seconds, but the emergency batteries kept the computers and the consoles powered up.

"Sir! Multiple detonations!"

A heartbeat. "Damage Report."

I checked my board, expecting to see half the ship missing. I only had two red lights, and they were minor systems.

"All but two systems report green and ready, Sir."

"Good job!"

I spent a few seconds analysing what happened. I liked to think it would help when I became a Captain of my own ship, if I could think like Captain Stone.

The comet’s bulk hid us. It was nice and cold, too, from spending all of its life in interplanetary space. We were carrying machinery parts for the farming colony. When they were heated up, they looked enough like a hot Starship to fool the missiles. And water is a good absorber of radiation. Thank God for the stray comet!

I quickly ran a passive scan of nearby space.

"Sir… The comet was vaporised in the explosion. It won’t be able to hide us any more."

The Captain nodded. "It won’t have to. Those nukes will blanket our EM signature for quite a while."

He turned to face the Weapons Station. "Mr. Stanley, how’s the radiation?"

Stanley checked his board. "The outer shielding kept most of the hard stuff out."

The Captain nodded, satisfied. Then: "Do you still have a weapons lock on Bogey-01?"

Stanley checked his board, and then nodded an affirmative.

"Good. Range to target?"

"5000 meters and closing, Sir." A pause. "They’ve slowed down. I don’t think they see us."

The Captain smiled. He quickly accessed the Weapons Console via his chair.

"When the target gets to 1 kilometre, you are weapons free and have permission to fire as long as there is power."

"Aye aye, Sir."

I was able to track the energy signature of Bogey-01, and mentally counted off the closing distance. I could feel the sweat dripping off my forehead.

"2000 metres and closing…"


"1100 metres, Sir, and closing…"

"Now, Mister Stanley. Fire."

I could feel the power conduits built into the hull sing with power, as the main laser reached out with its razor-thin blade of death. We are only a merchant ship, but the Captain had pulled a few strings and seems a Destroyer was being decommissioned at the same shipyard that was building the Luck. A Destroyer’s laser cannon is a fair match for anything in our class or bigger.

The range was so close that the beam was barely 2 centimetres across. Our laser was boiling away their hull shielding. Spectroscopic analysis showed the shielding to be composed of carbon -- a material favoured by the military and Mercenaries alike for its high-temperature specific heat rating. Carbon shielding can take laser heat for minutes from tens of thousands of kilometres away.

However, our laser was very close to their shielding and was quickly drilling a hole through it. Firing every 15 seconds, Stanley was able to compensate for our two ship’s drifts and hit the same 2-centimetre spot every time. He deserves a medal…or a raise. Stanley smiled when the first sign showed itself -- a puff of smoky gas pouring out of her hull. She had been breached! Shooting through the same hole, Stanley cut through her reaction drive first, and then continued penetrating her hull in as many sensitive places as possible. The hull lost integrity in some sections and blowouts were beginning to happen.

Ryals saw something whoosh out of a newly made opening. "What was that, Stanley?"

Stanley pulled his console up, tapped a few controls. "I think it was his Helmsman…"

The Captain then led a Boarding Party onto the wounded privateer to look for -- and capture, if necessary -- any survivors. But her hull had been too compromised too quickly. We found eight dead, leaving four of the twelve-man crew for a ship of this class unaccounted for. Presumably they had been blown out through the hull when we perforated it. The ones that were left had died in various ways, none pleasant. The ship’s laser had pierced the few that had been wearing vac suits; their ‘goldfish bowl’ helmets were filled with blood and brain matter. A few of the others had been partially sucked into holes in the hull walls, with arms, legs or heads forced out the opening and the rest of their body acting like a cork. It was pretty gruesome -- but they'd nuked the farming colony out of existence. They deserved everything that happened to them.

When we dumped the privateer's computer we learned that she was named Flaming Star and had in a former life been a Mercenary ship. Her comm log showed that there was plenty of traffic related to the suspension of the Merc license, and then from the bank about the ‘late payments’.

We’d end up collecting a reward for capturing the ship, and whatever we sold the cargo for would just be gravy.

We took lots of holos, buried the dead, and blew the ship -- she was a navigation hazard. We then orbited the colony planet to confirm what our sensors told us remotely. The Flaming Star had destroyed the entire settlement. The Navy would get a copy of our records and conduct a proper investigation. Our ‘Atlas’ showed that it was a relatively new colony and had a lot of automation assistance. Total population: 20 families, about a hundred souls.

Not a lot for a whole world, but enough to get to know everything about each other…

"Set a course for the jump point -- 1 gee."

The Merchanter's Luck headed back towards civilisation.


© 2005 by Joel Callahan

Bio: Joel Callahan is another writer from Oz- 'Oz'tralia, that is. 'Battle Stations' is one of a number of stories set in the 'Starships and Spacemen' universe (visit for a broader view of things.

E-mail: Joel Callahan

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