April 6, 2075 11:55 a.m. GST
GFN Transport Ship
Luanne floated down the access tunnel to the lower section of the ship where her crew was preparing their assault suits and checking their gear for the coming operation. When she reached the bottom, she pushed off the ladder toward the front of the ship where Sam and Jaime stood with Bravo team leader, Senior Chief Boldisar Novak (everyone called him “Bo“).
“Ryan confirms final decel pulse in ten minutes. Everyone needs to be back in their pods in nine. Is everything ready down here?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Sam replied. “We just finished re-initializing Bo’s suit. It was throwing an AI interface error, but it looks like Jaime’s just about got it fixed.”
“Good. Jaime, you keep working. Bo, can I see you and Sam over here for a minute?” Luanne pointed toward the rear of the ship where the other members of GFN Special Operations Team Epsilon 6 were organizing their kit. The three leaders floated across the ten meters of cargo space between them and the rest of the crew.
Luanne grabbed a handhold and planted her feet on the metallic deck.
“Can I have everyone’s attention?” she asked.
The seven team members stopped what they were doing and turned to face their commanding officer.
“As you are all aware, Command has authorized us to use every resource at our disposal to complete this mission. They want the fugitives apprehended if possible, killed if necessary and—most importantly—they don’t want Kutanga leaving this system.
“I was hoping for a stealth option, but we just got word from the BGSI operative on board Kutanga that Gbadamosi evacuated the ship—for what reason we do not know. Based on Kutanga’s energy output and gravity signature, she estimates that the ship will not be ready to jump for at least another five hours, possibly longer. So, that’s our window…if that ship jumps, we’ll never catch her. Questions?”
“What was the decision on fleet support?” The question came from Chief Petty Officer Shanika Yates, otherwise known as Bravo Two.
Although the Earth-Mars treaty prohibited heavily armed military vessels beyond planetary orbit, the GFN maintained a small fleet of lightly armed interceptors that patrolled the shipping lanes between the two planets.
Their job was to intercept and detain smugglers and pirates, and they were permitted to carry a small compliment of non-nuclear missiles for defense. Luanne had requested that two of those ships be assigned to her command after Captain Bachmann redirected her team to Ceres.
“It took too long for them to make up their minds,” Luanne replied with more than a hint of agitation in her voice. “Command finally approved my request but, at max speed, they are still four plus hours out. They can help with the mop-up, but we’re on point for the heavy lifting.”
“Figures. So, what do we do if they try to run? Ram ‘em?”
Luanne smirked. “This isn’t a suicide mission, Tal. Your AIs are syncing now. Review the mission plan during the deceleration cycle. You all know your jobs, and I am confident we’ll get it done. Sam…Bo…anything you’d like to add?”
Sam shook his head no as Boldisar stepped forward.
“Just that Bravo team is ready,” Bo said, “and we aren’t ending up in a cargo container this time. Right, team?”
“Hooyah!” the five members of Bravo team replied in unison.
Luanne smiled. “Hooyah. Okay, let’s wrap it up team, everyone back in their pods in five.”
Luanne grabbed a rung on the ladder and pulled herself up the shaft to the crew deck above.
“Coming, Sam?” she called down.
“Right behind you.”
The two Peacekeepers floated the short distance to their pods near the front of the ship.
“So, which option are we going with, Lu?”
“Command authorized Charlie, so that’s what we will do. I just received confirmation from agents Sewell and Govender that we’ve got access to both ships.”
“So, three four-man teams, then?” Sam asked.
“Yep. Emma is syncing now, and Zelda should confirm momentarily.”
“She’s got it,” he said.
Sam took a second to scan the mission plan. “So, I am on Kutanga and Bo is taking Endeavor while you hang out here and sweet talk the admiral…what happened to just sneaking in before they know we are here?”
“Emma didn’t like it, and neither did I. There is no way to get close enough without them detecting us, and nothing we came up with had a higher projected success rate than what Command sent us.”
“Any idea what you’ll say to him?”
“I was thinking something along the lines of ‘Come out with your hands up, we have you surrounded. Surrender now and nobody gets hurt’!”
“That should do it, I am sure he will be shaking in his boots.”
Luanne chuckled. “Like you said Sam, we play it as it comes. There are just too many unknowns, and the opposition is too far ahead of us.”
Bo floated up from the lower deck. “Gear is secure and ready to go. Crew’s coming up,” he said.
It took less than two minutes for the crew to secure themselves in their pods. Luanne did a quick headcount and then locked herself in.
“Okay, Ryan, ready when you are,” she said.
Ryan checked his holodisplay to confirm that all pods were secure, and the gravity drive was fully charged and ready to pulse.
All indicators showed green as he went through the sequence of gestures required to activate the drive control system. The display shifted to show the ship and the gravity field surrounding it.
Being a relatively small transport ship, at just thirty-eight meters long, the ship lacked the sophisticated gravity management systems of larger vessels like Endeavor and Kutanga. It also carried significantly less helium-3 fuel, which meant that it could achieve only a fraction of the speed of those much larger space vessels.
The last deceleration pulse had reduced the transport’s speed to one percent of the speed of light, and four hours of reverse-thrusting had shaved another couple of million kilometers per hour off the speedometer. But it was still going way too fast to enter orbit around Ceres. This pulse would slow it enough to achieve orbit around the small protoplanet.
Satisfied that everything was correct, he touched the area of the display labeled “Initiate”.
The Hellfire engines shut down a second later, and all noise and vibration inside the cabin ceased. After several seconds of dead quiet, a distant whining sound began to resonate throughout the cabin—seemingly from everywhere at once.
The whine increased in pitch rapidly, and after a few seconds it was beyond the range of human hearing. The cabin went eerily quiet, and Ryan felt his body go limp as his pod induced temporary paralysis to keep him from straining against the massive jolt to come. He comforted himself knowing that everyone else on board was experiencing the same sensation.
Ryan’s eyes were still open, and he could see the holodisplay projected in front him. He watched as the shape of the gravity field surrounding the ship shifted and grew.
It started as concentric rings of force that rippled away from the ship in all directions, but it quickly shifted to a pattern that reminded Ryan of waves crashing on a beach. The waves got larger and faster with each passing second, and after just a few seconds they came so fast he could no longer see individual waves—just ripples of energy pulsing around the ship, like a strobe light.
Over the next several minutes, the pattern on the display shifted as the pulsing energy surrounding the ship suddenly contracted and divided into two unevenly-sized balls of concentrated gravitational force.
The larger of the balls migrated toward the rear of the ship, pushed along by invisible magnetic fields. The smaller ball slid forward to a point in space about ninety meters in front of where he was sitting. Although the ship’s orientation didn’t matter to the gravity drive, he had pointed the rear of the ship toward Ceres so he could use the Hellfire engines to fine tune their approach speed.
He closed his eyes to prepare for what came next. Even though the transport had state-of-the-art acceleration pods and gravity compensators, there was simply no way yet discovered to shield the conscious human brain from the sensations induced by a massive burst of gravity waves.
Had Ryan been watching, he would have seen the pulsating balls at either end of the craft suddenly shrink to pinpoint dots of infinitely concentrated energy. An outside observer watching this process would have seen the ship appear to grow by several meters in length during the field generation phase, only to contract by as many meters as the gravity wells reached maximum density.
Several hundred meters of space at the front of the ship turned pitch black, with no visible star field beyond. The gravity well had collapsed into a moveable, microscopic black hole.
This area of space was referred to as the countermass field because it had the effect of hiding a large portion of the ship’s mass from the universe. The ship’s mass didn’t actually change, but the extreme gravity emanating from the micro-black hole pulled the craft toward it with considerable force, thereby increasing the ship’s total energy and simultaneously reducing its mass relative to local spacetime.
The aft gravity well also formed a micro-black hole but, unlike its twin, the surrounding space glowed with brilliant bursts of energy as it expanded and contracted in a series of rapid pulses. With each pulse, the aft black hole released its energy in a massive burst of graviphotons, which shot away from the craft at the speed of light.
The graviphotons, along with the gravity waves that accompanied them, created the thrust that acted against the fabric of space-time to change the velocity of the craft. With enough time and fuel, it was theoretically possible to achieve the speed of light with a gravity pulse drive system, but no ship yet built had managed more than a fraction of that.
The occupants inside the craft experienced all this as a strong, headache-like pressure building inside their heads, followed by a terrifying falling sensation. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Just when the falling sensation stopped, a new pulse would start the experience all over again. For this reason, acceleration and deceleration events (commonly referred to as “jumps”) were often spread out over several hours, or even days, to give the occupants enough time to recover.
Thirty agonizing minutes passed as the Peacekeepers waited for the deceleration cycle to finish.
Once he no longer felt like he was falling, Ryan opened his eyes to confirm that they were still on course and losing speed at the desired rate. He reached forward and increased the rate of deceleration by one percent more than the ship’s AI had set. He wanted a few extra minutes of travel time before entering orbit around Ceres—just in case the other side was ready with another surprise.
“Pulse complete. Speed: forty-seven thousand kilometers per hour…engaging Hellfires,” Ryan called over the comm system. “Twenty-seven minutes to orbital insertion.”
“Roger that,” Luanne called back. “Study those mission plans, everyone, it’s almost go time.”
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