THE BATTLE FOR CALLISTO by Gregory KH Bryant
Laser blasts followed hard on Illara’s tail as she sent ‘Izzy’ into a tight spin to avoid the two ships that pursued her. Scroungers.
One ship carrying a complement of six crewmen. It was a small ship, built for long trips and swift attacks. It was armed with half a dozen laser cannons and but only one of the far more expensive plasma cannons. Ammunition for the plasma cannons was costly, but a well-aimed shot was deadly. The laser cannons were plentiful and cheap, but required a constant barrage to do any real damage.
The second ship was larger. It carried a crew of twelve, and an array of cannons. These cannons included both the laser and plasma cannons that the first ship bragged, but also a small quantum cannon, a most deadly device which disentangled the subatomic particles of the atoms composing the target.
‘Izzy’ carried all these weapons and a bit more.
Electromagnetic pulses proved, after much fruitless fussing, to be the preferred weapon in space combat.
Explosive devices, when they hit their target, only sent out furious shards of unstoppable burning metal, spinning out in every direction at supersonic speeds.
Like meteors, those shards cut everything without distinction—fabric and metal and flesh, foe and friend alike and indiscriminately. Explosive weapons only made a battlefield in space an absurdly unliveable place.
But electromagnetic pulses did not create such debris. They simply killed all the electronics of the target—a ship, a base, a colony. In seconds, the crew of the ship is battling sub-zero temperatures working in complete darkness. Such a crew is almost always quick to surrender without trouble.
And because electromagnetic pulses were the first weapon chosen for resolving conflicts in deep space, defences against EMPs were common. Illara had loaded ‘Izzy’s’ systems with a dozen.
And it was because the defences were so common that the other weapons, the laser cannon, the various plasma guns, and the quantum weapons were so often brought into play.
As they were now.
Illara dove toward the rapidly approaching surface of Io. She spun her ship is a tight but random corkscrew path that made drawing a good aim on her nearly impossible. Surrounding Io was the vast globe of Jupiter, roiling and churning, sending vast waves of radiation, further confounding her trail.
Illara had made the most of her patrols of the inner moons. As she flew past Io, she had often asked herself what she would do, if she were attacked by this or that many ships. For one ship, she had a plan. For two ships attacking her, she had another plan. And so on.
And she rehearsed her responses to those attacks in her mind many times, as she flew past Europa, Ganymede and Io.
So now she knew to keep her ship between her attackers and Jupiter. Jupiter emits huge waves of radiation. Their monitors would lose her in those waves.
And they almost did. Their visiscreens were washed with static this close to Jupiter.
But they did have a visual. The gunners and the pilot could make out a persistent point against the background of Io, sulphuric volcanoes and plumes of pink and red gases shooting two hundred miles above the golden, frozen deserts of Io.
‘Izzy’s’ smart paint and configuration were just good enough to confound, but not erase, any trace of ‘Izzy’s’ presence. These Scroungers were good at their game. That there was any question at all was good enough reason to attack. Both ships fired their plasma cannons.
The plasma cannons have wide spread. When concentrated upon a single spot, the plasma charge is most powerful. As the spread is widened, the power decreases. The effect of the plasma gun varies widely, depending upon the type of plasma charge.
The plasmas fired by the Scroungers at Illara were charged with a highly electrified pulse which caused solid materials to sublimate to gas. Should any of these bursts strike Illara’s ship, ‘Izzy’, or Illara, it, and she would cease to exist.
“Whoah, doggies!” Illara shouted, startled, when she recognized the purplish blast of light that shot past her canopy.
“Let’s get outta here, Izzie!”
She ceased her tight, corkscrewing course. It had forced her to decrease her speed. She accelerated. The two ships pursuing her, more certain of their target, also accelerated.
Io loomed huge before Illara, a brilliant, burning golden yellow sphere. Beyond Io, the fury of Jupiter, its ancient storms boiling larger than many whole planets. Another purple blast from a plasma cannon surges past her canopy.
On the left, coming up over the horizon, was the volcano Tvashtar. It was still erupting, as it had been doing now for the past Jovian year. The volcano spewed a vast cone of sulphur that towered two hundred miles above the frozen yellow plains, and showered constantly down upon them.
A dozen observation posts, mostly of machines, had been built, surrounding the volcano and its vast plume.
Illara had one advantage her pursuers did not. She was familiar with the neighbourhood. She knew the landscape. She knew the region. So she plunged directly on, straight downward toward Io at a nerve-wracking speed. The mouths of dozens of volcanoes opened up before her, blackened pits crusted with vermillion and white. And between the volcanoes, active, dormant and dead, vast icy plains unscarred the craters.
Illara aimed ‘Izzy’ at Tvashtar. If she could only avoid those plasma blasts for another four seconds.
Emily and Jeffrey both happened to be at their school—their ‘Education Centre’ as it was called—when the sirens starting wailing. They and their educators all knew, in theory, what those sirens meant. But now, hearing them without any preliminaries—no announcements declaring ‘This is a Test’—everyone who heard them responded with bewilderment and uncertainty.
Emily was shocked to see her educators wallowing in a sea of babbling confusion. Even frightened a bit, for a moment. Then her fright gave way to annoyance. She was annoyed with these adults for letting themselves be so confused.
The sirens kept howling and the discipline of the Education Centre broke down. Students and educators left their classes and wandered in the halls, asking of everyone who passed, ‘What’s going on?’
Emily kept her head and sought out her brother, Jeffrey who was taking an engineering course two halls over. Jeffrey had also kept his head, and the two quickly found each other.
“Where should we go?” Emily asked her brother.
“They’re gonna do a count on us here,” Jeffrey answered. “So we should maybe stay here for that.”
“I dunno,” Emily said, with a dubious glance at the Education Centre’s Assistant Administrator. He had come out of his office, looking every bit as confused as everyone else.
Moments later, three men wearing the uniforms of Jovian Security came into the offices housing the Education Centre and other such municipal services.
They sought out the Administrator, who had not yet come out of his office. After they knocked loud and hard at his door, they admitted themselves, after a hurried introduction, and conferred with him for several moments.
“Educators, students, may I have your attention?” he said, after his quick conference with the three men.
Many of the older students had already taken advantage of the confusion and left on their own, leaving perhaps two-thirds of the original number left. Those who did remain stared at the Administrator and the three men wearing the uniform of Jovian Security.
“These men will direct us to the sub-levels where we will remain during the turbulence...”
“What is happening?”
“Are we attacked?”
“Is it a war?”
“Uh...” the Administrator looked helplessly toward the three men in uniform.
One of them stepped forward from the other two. He was a corporal. The others were privates.
“Yes, we are the subject of a hostile aggression. My orders are to escort you all to a place of safety.
A long, rolling sound slowly approached, growing louder as it drew near. Emily felt the ground shifting under her feet. Several children screeched.
“Please follow us,” the corporal said.
Several of the educators made a futile attempt to organize their charges for this retreat to safety, but they quickly realized that already a third of their students had gone.
Another slow-rolling swelling of the ground, followed by a distant tumbling.
The corporal led the pack of some one hundred and twenty students, educators and administrators, with the two privates following from the rear. The administrators kept pace with the corporal, while the educators followed up behind, to ensure that no one got lost on the way.
“I don’t like this,” Emily said as they made their way down the halls and stairways with the others.
“What?” asked Jeffrey. “What don’t you like?”
“We should be with mom and dad.”
“Yeah, but we’re here.”
“Well, we’re all in the same building. We just got to go over doors, and we’ll be in the Living Pods.”
“That’s easy to say. Do you know how far that is?”
“I dunno,” she said.
“But all we have to do is go out through the main door, and walk down the street, and there’s our door at the end of the block.”
“No,” Jeffrey said. “We’re going to stay with these guys.”
In the brief time they had been attending classes on Callisto, Jeffrey and Emily had drawn close to no one. They could not talk about themselves or their past, for their father was wanted by Secretary Benson, of Earth, who would put him to death. Their names were Talbot now, not Sherman, and they must be perfectly practiced in thinking of themselves as Talbot. They could not afford to make even a single mistake.
They could speak of themselves only in the vaguest terms... they were from Mars... their father was working on a paper... he came here to do research... might stay on for a year... after that, they didn’t know...
Jeffrey managed the stress of their new situation better than Emily did, but the adjustments were not easy. He was of a mind to stay with his classmates, simply to avoid bringing unwanted attention to his family.
Emily, though, wanted only to be with her mother, and her father. When Jeffrey grabbed her wrist to drag her along, she relinquished, and trotted alongside him. But her apparently easy acquiescence to Jeffrey’s command to stay with the group was only a sham. The instant Jeffrey’s attention lapsed, when he let go of her wrist, she slipped silently away, through the huddled crowd, to a hallway that would lead her back to the main entrance of the Education Centre.
Once she found that, she knew should be able to find her way back home, to her parents.
Jeffrey’s loss of attention to his sister was only momentary. Realizing he had let go of her wrist, he immediately reached for her again, only to realize that she was gone.
“Emily!” he called, his voice rising. “Emily!”
He stepped away from the group, only to be accosted by one of his educators.
“Stay with the group, young man,” the educator said, blocking Jeffrey.
“My sister,” Jeffrey began to explain.
“She’s probably with the group,” the educator said, in that tone that made it clear he was not about to listen to anything Jeffrey might say. “Now get on with you. Stay with the group.” He put his hands on his hips in what he might have intended to be an intimidating posture, but which only annoyed Jeffrey.
Jeffrey was, after all, the boy who not long ago had stared down Turhan Mot himself, as the space pirate aimed a laser pistol at Jeffrey’s head. The sight of this officious educator thrusting out his chest and placing his hands upon his narrow hips in an attempt at bravado may have impressed another boy, but not Jeffrey.
His sister was missing, and that was all Jeffrey was concerned about. He simply ducked past the educator, and ran back the way he had come, against the press of the crowd hurrying down the confined hallway as the sirens continued to blare and the floors swelled with the reverberations of a distant conflict.
The educator, already nearly overwhelmed with chaotic responsibilities raining hard down upon him, let the instance of Jeffrey’s insubordination go. He had far too many other matters pressing on him from every direction to worry about one boy.
Jeffrey came to the long hall Emily had fled into, just in time to see her darting around the corner at the far end of it. He left the hallway crowded with students and educators, and followed Emily. By the time he had run to the end of the hall, Emily had vanished down another.
But Jeffrey knew his sister, knew how she thought, and he made no trouble guessing which way she had run. Knowing that she was trying to make her way back to their apartment where she would find her parents, Jeffrey took the route that would bring him toward her path.
So they both came to the main entrance of the Education Centre at almost the same time. The lobby was empty. The reception desk, abandoned. There was Emily, next to the doorway, leaning against the wide windows that composed the exterior walls of the Education Centre. Hanging plants were strung from the ceiling and walls.
Outside, the street was vacant, with the exceptions of a few furtive shadows running under the platforms of the Skycabs, seeking shelter. Almost everyone, of the crowds that that congregated to celebrate the arrival and the offloading of the “Bellerophon” had already disappeared into the basements below Callisto Base 1.
Jeffrey walked up to Emily.
“You shouldn’t have run away,” he said.
Emily said nothing. She was staring up into the sky, plainly visible through the geodesic dome that covered the colony.
There was the shining beacon that was the “Bellerophon”. At this distance, it appeared tiny, only as long as Emily’s little finger. The “Bellerophon” was just beginning to move slowly from its docking orbit above Callisto Base 1. It was surrounded by dozens of pinpoints of light. These were the ships of the fleet of fighter craft that accompanied the “Bellerophon”, commanded by Colonel Westland and Lieutenant Hardy. The points of light flew about the “Bellerophon” in tight ellipses, creating a vast defensive web.
That sight gave Jeffrey some comfort, and he began to explain what they were seeing to Emily. Emily said nothing as he spoke. Then when he finished, she pointed off toward Jupiter, which lay hard upon the horizon of Callisto.
From that direction, there came a vast emanation of lights, which Jeffrey instantly recognized to be a fleet of ships. How many there were, he could not tell, but it seemed to him that the approaching fleet was larger than the fleet defending the “Bellerophon”.
These were the fighter craft of Turhan Mot, a fleet of eighty small, fleet and deadly ships, which the pirate had launched, and was still launching against Callisto and the “Bellerophon”.
Among them Jeffrey and Emily saw two larger ships, the “Grand Marquis” and the “Reliant”. One of them was shaped rather like the “Bellerophon” and every bit as big. From this ship, visible in black silhouette against the raging red storms of Jupiter, came the mass of lights which were the fighter ships Turhan Mot was deploying against the “Bellerophon”.
The other ship, too distant for Jeffrey or Emily to make out its shape, was also large—not nearly as large or long as the “Bellerophon”, but there was something in its presence that was ominous, filling Jeffrey with dread.
“What are they?” Emily asked.
“I... don’t know,” Jeffrey said. “Maybe they’re Scroungers... Turhan Mot...”
“We should go,” Emily said, grasping her brother’s hand in her own and pulling him toward the door.
Jeffrey gave the matter a moment’s thought. He glanced backward toward the empty and darkened halls. Finally, he gave in.
“Okay,” he said.
Emily pushed open the glass door, and they stepped into the empty street outside.
“Whadda we got, Dimara?” Ward asked her. She stood on the bridge of the O8-111A, next to Ward, observing the gathering forces through the visiscreens. Jupiter, its moons, the “Grand Marquis”, the “Reliant”, shown clearly while dozens of pinpricks of light, each of them a ship, moved swiftly across the screens.
“Dimara confirms the presence of numerous hostile ships,” she said with her always calm and unemotional voice.
“In number, they are two large transport ships...”
“That ‘Grand Marquis’ of Turhan Mot?”
“Quite so,” Dimara replied. “And a second transport. This is new to Dimara.”
“Me, too, babe. So Turhan Mot brought some friends to the party.”
“As it would appear.”
“And the others?”
“Dimara has observed several small independent ships, forty in number. These ships have made courses toward Io, Ganymede and Europa. It would appear they intend a large-scale attack on all these bases.
“In addition to these, the transport ship, presumably the “Grand Marquis”, is now deploying a large battery of small fighter ships. Dimara counts sixty currently in flight, with another two ships launched every minute.”
“Hell,” Ward cursed.
He gave himself several quick moments to calculate. Then he gave Lieutenant Hardy a quick subspace call.
“Hey, Lieutenant,” Ward said.
“Yeah?’ Hardy replied. “Over.”
“You guys got their numbers, yet? Over.”
“We see two large transports, then a lot of... looks like fighter ships and...”
Ward cut him off.
“Whatcha got is two transports, one of them the “Grand Marquis”, we’re thinkin’. Then you got forty small deep space ships. Looks like they’re goin’ for the colonies. Io, Ganymede, Europa. Then you got at least sixty...”
“Seventy,” Dimara interjected.
“Seventy. You got at least seventy small fighter craft, deployed from the “Grand Marquis”. Those guys are coming right at us. Over.”
“Thanks,” Hardy answered. “Over.”
“Catch ya when it all shakes out. Over,” Ward finished.
“Okay, babe,” Ward said to Dimara. “We’re gonna pay a visit to an old buddy.”
Dimara turned her gaze to Ward and raised an eyebrow in a silent question.
“Mokem Bet,” Ward said. “If that’s the “Grand Marquis”, Mokem Bet is prob’ly on it. And Turhan Mot, too.”
Ward turned the nose of the O8-111A toward the oncoming fleet. He accelerated.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, space monkey?”
It was Mud, speaking through subspace.
“Just gonna see some old friends,” Ward replied. “And cut their throats for ‘em.”
“Well, you selfish fuck. You were just gonna go and leave me out of the fun?”
“Come on, then,” Ward answered, grinning. “I don’t have time to waste on you lazy shits, sittin’ around waiting for the party to come to you.”
“Right behind you, bucko. Now let’s get this party goin’!”
And the O8-111A and Mud’s ship, the “Charon” (of roughly the same build as the O8-111A, but slightly larger) broke away from the armada of ships protecting Callisto Base 1.
With engines roaring, they sailed directly at the oncoming fleet.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK