Hi guys. Recommended listening for this post is Mars, Bringer of War
by Gustav Holst, and extra thanks are owed to Stuart Slade of Salvation War
fame for introducing the piece in the context of blasting the crud out of things with a beam weapon.Advanced Beamline Concept Facility, Asteroid Belt B, Hemings' Star system, Sector X-7
July 21, 3391
The director clapped his hands as he entered the control room. Half a dozen operators spun round in their chairs at the sound; they saw Dr. Christofilos striding through the door, followed by several of the project's division leads and a dark-skinned woman in a suit, presumably from the Ministry of Research. Behind them came a group of dignitaries from the Union of Four Stars- all moxli, of course; the massive allosaur-like kipaktli representatives from the Union's military had their own viewing gallery. Christofilos gave the seated men a beaming grin.
"Are we ready for the test, Lin?"
A man in the uniform of a chief warrant officer of the Space Security Force rose to his feet. "Yes, sir. All systems are warmed up; we just walked through the last set of diagnostics." Christofilos nodded. They'd poached some of the best capital ship gunners in the fleet to offer their experience and recommendations to the design project. Much of that experience had gone into the diagnostic checklist.
One of the other operators cocked his head to listen to an earbud, then spoke. "The pickets report that the targets are ready to be moved into position. Astrometrics has double-checked our planned firing vectors; they're clear."
The director smiled again. "Glad to hear it. Wouldn't want any of the neighbors coming by in ten or twenty years to file a complaint about an uptick in cosmic rays." There had been a few high profile cases where bureaucrats from the Ministry of Welfare stormed into weapons labs demanding that they file for permits, citing the potential for serious radiation safety hazards in nearby star systems. Being able to prove that they were firing on a clear line out to intergalactic space would save on paperwork.
With exaggerated formality, Christofilos turned to the woman who had come into the control room with him. "With your permission, Madame Secretary, shall we begin?"
She snorted, then smiled. "Go ahead, Nick."
Christofilos walked over to a panel on the wall, inserted a key in a lockout on the panel, and turned it. He then nodded to the operators, and said "Chief Zhang, you have operational control of the test." The gun control crew turned back to their control boards and went to work, tapping touchscreens and monitoring the output from holographic and liquid-crystal displays. The chief, serving as gunner for the test, turned a second key on his control board, then announced in a stiff formal tone, "Report beamline status."
"First stage statics ready."
"Second stage synchrotrons live."
"Third stage synchrotrons live."
"Multiplexer array live."
"All linac elements green."
The master checklist completed, the chief gave an order whose origins were lost in the mists of history, the standard command for opening fire with Umerian capital ship artillery.
"Commence primary ignition."
The deck plating hummed underfoot as the station-keeping drive fought against the recoil of the ion beam. The control room itself was part of a small facility piggybacked on the massive multi-kilometer ion cannon; it was dwarfed by the power plants feeding the gun.
"We have beam."
"Test steering dipoles." Spikes of electromagnetic activity appeared on the sensor displays as the magnets at the cannon's mouth swept through their full range of power settings, panning the beam back and forth across the sky.
"Steering dipoles are green."
The atmosphere in the control room was cool and tightly focused. Everything was going according to script, but the Umerian technicians were ready to meet any unexpected problems with hair-trigger speed. The chief passed another order. "Comms, tell DesRon Twenty-Six that we are ready for the first series of targets."
"DesRon Twenty-Six copies. First drone launch in… thirty seconds." The spectators watched a plot of subspace sensor data showing the station's field of fire; conventional radar was nearly useless in the EM hash generated by the beam while in operation. On the edge of the plot, a wedge of small contacts appeared. Several small contacts detached from the wedge, accelerating across the field of fire.
"Fire control, Gaussian bursts, sigma fifty, one millisecond per incoming."
"Engaging." The blips vanished as they entered the cone the ion cannon could traverse to strike. They disappeared almost simultaneously, blasted to vapor by a stream of high-density ion bolts. The station rocked slightly in response to the torque generated by the traversing beam, before the station-keeping thrusters compensated.
"Confirmed kill on all targets. Second wave in fifteen seconds."
This time, four blips streaked across the screen at far greater speed- from the numbers beside the group of contacts, at the maximum acceleration of a hypervelocity antiship missile. The drones crossed the conical volume of fire within the station's reach, then vanished once again.
"Confirmed kill on all targets. Third wave in forty seconds."
"Go to sigma one hundred."
The third wave of drones came in fast and smart, whipsawing back and forth across their base trajectory in blurring evasive maneuvers. This time, each drone vanished separately, over a span that the eye could actually discern.
"Confirmed kill on all targets. First series complete." There was a spatter of applause. Dr. Christofilos leaned over to the woman from the Ministry of Research. "Dr. Wu's team did some very good work on the fire control software; make sure to toss a memo over to the Ministry of Simulations."
"Comms, check with Tug Squadron One."
"Tug Team One confirms that the target will be in position in eighty seconds. Final braking maneuvers are underway." The focus of the subspace sensor display widened, and the viewers could see a squadron of tugs wrangling a small asteroid into position. The sensor readout indicated a mass of nickel-iron roughly the size of a cruiser.
"Increase power to twenty percent, switch to point targeting."
The humming of the deck plates picked up, and was now perceptible through the soles of the watchers' feet as the asteroid drifted to a stop under the station's gun. One of the viewscreens shifted to show a visual image of the asteroid.
A streak of light tracked across the surface of the asteroid as the beam scoring a trench across its surface. The trench was dim, though, compared to the blazing crater in the center of the picture. Atoms struck by relativistic lead ions literally disintegrated, dissolved into their component particles, which flew on from the point of impact like shrapnel and carved a deep damage track through the great mass of metal. The surface of the asteroid near the beam bulged outward from vapor building beneath the surface, then burst in a cloud of white-hot sparks. Many of the spectators let out breaths they hadn't realized they were holding.
"Step down to one percent power and disengage. Comms, can you get us a damage assessment?" The omnipresent hum faded to inaudibility.
"Frigates are feeding us the data now, Chief."
The screen zoomed in on the asteroid. Near the point of impact, there was a deep white-hot crater; beyond the crater rim the metal surface faded to dull red. In the center of the crater, though, was a hollow- the pure black of space.
The comm operator broke in. "Frigates confirm burnthrough with major overpenetration."
"Copy. Go to conical fire, radius one hundred. Reacquire target." This time, the entire surface of the asteroid glowed as overlapping fireballs from individual bolts spread across its surface.
"Step up to fifty percent power." The hum returned, accompanied by vibrations in the floor and walls. The asteroid burned with light, far brighter than before; the monitors dimmed for several seconds, then returned to normal. Nothing was visible on screen but a cloud of luminous fog.
"Cease fire and do a sensor sweep." The floor stopped shaking, though the ringing of harmonics persisted for a few seconds. The display panels settled down as the operators cut off the ion beam.
"Target confirmed vaporized, sir."
"Diagnostics, any problems?"
"Quadrupole misalignment detected at frames 4893 through 4936. Well within operating parameters; already adjusting to compensate."
"Good. We're clear to move to the final target, then. Comms, update?"
"The tugs are moving Atlatonan
This one was larger than the asteroid; the viewscreen refocused on it. The director turned and nodded gravely to the alien dignitaries. "Noblest moxli, we thank you for providing the target ship for this exercise."
The nearest saurian, wearing the jeweled harness of a senior military officer, nodded in the human style. She swiveled her eyes to focus on the screen, then saluted the image. She spoke in the English-variant that served Umeria as an official language, with a hissing, hollow accent. "It is never easy to use an obsolete ship for weapons testing, but it is necessary. Rest well, honored vessel, and know that in death you perform a final, essential service to the NenAltKik."
The old Union battleship had served in that alien civilization’s starfleet for many decades. The beginning of the end had come when a defense review marked it as unsuitable for the latest round of electronics upgrades. Some years later, it was pulled from the active duty fleet. Five years ago, Atlatonan
had been removed even from the training unit that had adopted it. Now it was at the end of its life as a warship, too small, slow, and myopic to function on a modern battlefield.Atlatonan
’s defenses had been reinforced for this last test, in an attempt to restore it to the durability of a modern vessel. Old hull frames were replaced by modern alloys. The great majority of its armament and sensors had been scavenged to equip defense platforms, leaving room for extra modular power plants and shield generators of the latest type. The automated target ship was now at least as difficult to kill as most modern battleships- at the cost of all its ability to fight back against one.
The moxli flag officer gestured to the gun control crew. “You may open fire when ready, master gunner.”
Courteously, the chief replied. “Copy that, ma’am,” then gave the order again.
“Commence primary ignition.”
The floor began to hum again. “We have beam.”
“Target acquired, Chief.”
“Point target, five percent firepower.”
There was a flash from the target ship’s shields, but they stood firm against the jet of ionized lead, yielding only a modest glow from side-scatter.
“We have impact on target. Target shields holding. No erosion detected.”
“Step up to twenty percent power.”
The deck plates vibrated once more; the glow from Atlatonan
’s reinforced defensive screen grew to a crimson splash across a third of its length.
“Target shields still holding. Shield erosion detected.” Figures flickered across the displays- side-scatter intensity, estimated time to burnthrough, estimated leakage through the wall shields.
“Go to fifty percent power.”
As before, the vibration grew; the red patch on the target ship’s defensive screen flared to coruscating orange, and expanded to cover practically the entire hull.
“Target shields eroding rapidly. Significant leakage; telemetry reports minor surface damage, growing slowly.”
“Hold for sixty seconds for telemetry purposes, then go to full power.”
A minute ticked by. Suddenly, the shuddering of the deck grew; the audience grimaced in discomfort. An empty coffee cup left unsecured slid across a tabletop; one of the researchers shot out a hand and grabbed it before it could fall to the floor.
’s shields blazed brilliant white on the monitor, the ship completely invisible behind the glow.
“Rapid shield erosion... we have burnthrough!” An image from one of the escorting frigates showed a gout of plasma blew out the opposite side of the old battleship- once the beam overwhelmed the shield panel locally, the hull immediately under fire offered little resistance.
“Gaussian fire, sigma fifty, pan along target centerline.” The hail of ions swept along the ship; secondary explosions blasted chunks out of its flanks as fusion bottles let go and superconducting storage rings quenched, releasing their stored energy in massive surges.
After the second pass of the beam, Atlatonan
’s hull broke apart entirely, the pieces glowing at the edges and drifting apart in space.
“Target confirmed destroyed.”
The gunnery chief ended the exercise. “Cease fire, weapons safe. Begin power-down sequence.” He then spun his chair away from the board to face the spectators, rose and saluted. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a successful test!” Grinning broadly, he relaxed the salute.
There was a moment of silence. There were cases on record of capital-class ships being destroyed in such a short span of time- by the combined fire of enemy capital squadrons, by direct hits from a salvo of Byzantine nova shells, and dozens of cases during the Chamarran War, naturally. But for a single beam weapon to blot out a battleship, even a small and aging one, that quickly and violently, was nearly unprecedented in this corner of known space.
Then the first of the division chiefs began to clap. The applause spread throughout the human element of the audience, the moxli representatives joining in politely- all were now familiar with human body language and social conventions by years of close collaboration on the program.
In the excited conversation that followed, Dr. Cristofilos found himself speaking to one of the senior Union military officers, in the echoing, sibilant tone produced by the syrinx the aliens used in place of a human larnyx.
“I compliment you on the ssuccess of the program.”
“Thank you, noble moxli. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my team, especially Dr. Bowdoin’s engineering skills.” He gestured in the direction of a quiet, dark-haired man who was discussing the control room layout with a Union engineer. They’d given up trying to design a control room that could be used effectively by both three-fingered saurians and five-fingered simians years ago; the control room was a modular design made to be removed during disassembly of the cannon. It would not be transferred to the Union of Four Stars’ shipyard facilties along with the rest of the weapon.”
After diverting the moxli’s attention, Christofilos caught the eye of the representative from the Ministry of Research, and gestured towards the door. They detached from the group and walked a few meters down the hall to a side room.
“Yes, Nick? What’s the trouble?”
“Lara, it’s been a great experience. The NenAltKik team really pushed; it was a pleasure working with them. We got to try a lot of things we should have done years ago.”
“I know. The force field beamline jacket? Brilliant. Cuts maintenance costs by half.”
Christofilos’s easy smile returned to the surface, but soon vanished. “Thanks, but... when are we ever going to build another one like this? I can’t see the Navy wanting to put together an eight kilometer long, ah, dinosaur to carry a gun this size. I’m half amazed the NenAltKik decided to.”
She responded immediately. “Nick, stop and think for a minute. Drop a few klicks of acceleration chambers off the front end of this thing, cut the beam current down by about three quarters so you don’t need so much containment, and what do you get?”
“Aside from losing about 85% of the beam power, you mean?”
“Compare what you’d have, in terms of basic engineering parameters- size, power consumption, power on target, that sort of thing- to the Mark Fourteen proton cannon.”
The scientist stroked his chin for a moment, then slapped himself on the forehead. “Aaah. Why didn’t I think of that?”
She smiled sweetly. “Must be the blinkers. Really, if you can get a concept study outlined by the end of the fiscal year, the Space Security Force will be thrilled
to make up in funding what you lose from the Union.”
“So, all this time you’ve had us building the prototype for the next generation of battleship guns?”
“The very big
prototype, and there were other reasons, yes, but that’s about two thirds of why the First Technarch cleared the program. The other third is, of course, that this cements the alliance with the Union. And, of course puts a fair chunk of their military budget for the next several years into a ship that that needs our spare parts to keep shooting straight, which is... call it the gravel in the concrete, if I may stretch a metaphor?”
“Anything you like, Lara, anything you like. This means I get to keep the team together. Finance won’t be any trouble?”
“Oh, no. Your group has priority, even over most of the state projects. You know the drill- reward success.”
“Thanks. I’ll get the physics team on it; we’ll need most of the engineers to oversee the transport.