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The Adventures of Beer Keg of Science! (Cover)

Chapter 9

The Adventures of the Beer Keg of Science!

Bridge, NMDS Enceladus
On Intercept, Niops System, March 14, 3158

Lieutenant Senior Grade Christopher Zheng sat in the command seat of the tiny bridge of his ship, one of the new Saturn class patrol ships. In truth, it was closer to an oversized cockpit than a real bridge, with room for a pilot, navigator/sensor operator, main gunner and him. Not including the marines he’d left at Ix Shipyards, there were only 13 of them crammed into this dinky excuse for a DropShip.

Which, today, was probably for the best. Speaking of which…”How are we doing, Skank?”

Spaceman Angelo “Skank” David shrugged. “Feeling like an little worm on a big ****** hook, Skipper.”

Chief Petty Officer Guy Rochefort groaned. “Boy, your momma must be real proud of you.”

Inwardly sighing, Christopher snapped, “That's enough, both of you. You know what they say, ‘You are under no obligation to like your job...’”

“’…only to do it,’” the rest of the bridge crew chimed in, groaning.

“Yes, we got the short end of the stick on this one, and, yes, it sucks, and, yes, it means our leave aboard station got cut short, but the good news is there's no good reason to expect that we're going to get shot at, mystery stealth ship or not. This is Mickey Mouse spy-versus-spy crap, not ‘Jihad 2: The Jihadening’. We're either not going to find anything at all out here, and it's a false alarm, or we're going to run into some Bug-Eye, which we’ll trade a couple pot-shots with one another, and scare them off.”

“Uh, Skipper,” Skank interrupted, “I think I’ve got something. And I don't think it's a Bug-Eye…”

“General Quarters!” Zhang barked, grabbing his helmet and snapping it into place – the standard shipboard uniform in the Niops Association Militia Navy, like the technician’s uniform of the old Star League Navy, doubled as a spacesuit. “Signal the Keg, keep sending them our sensor data and telemetry. What do we have?”

“Something big, Skipper,” Skank replied. “Twenty-five thousand klicks out, somehow suppressing its thermals, dark as a singularity on optics. Got lucky and it occluded a star, or it’d have been even closer when we saw it. What I am getting looks way too big to be a Bug-Eye, though. Might even be bigger than the Keg.”

“Intercept time?” Zheng asked?

“We’ll be crossing it in three minutes, Skipper.”

“Skipper,” Rochefort interjected, “I know it’s sketchy, but does that silhouette look familiar to you?”

“It does,” he agreed. “Looks like a mutant Lola, but that might just be our shitty returns. Any sign it knows we’ve seen it?”

“Drive plume!” Skank suddenly announced. “Bearing change from target. We’ve been painted. Warbook is saying Lola III radar. It’s moving to intercept, Skipper!”

“Go active, paint that bogey,” Zheng ordered.

“Aye, sir,” Skank replied. “Skipper, I’m painting it with radar, which should’ve lit it up like a Christmas tree, but it’s coming back more like a Festivus pole. That’s way stealthier than anything that big has any right to be.”

“Evasive maneuvers, Mister Kelly,” he said, looking at the grizzled spacer at the helm. “Jink us at your discretion. I don’t want our track to be predictable. Start putting some distance between us and our visitor out there.”

“Aye, Skipper,” Petty Officer Kelly replied. “Hope you’re right about that spy-vs-spy crap, sir.”

“We’ll know soon enough,” Zheng replied. “Weaps,” he said to Rochefort, “get me a firing solution. We’re not going to have long on target, so if we do trade shots, I want it to count. Where can we hit that thing to give the Keg the best chance of getting a solid return off it?”

Rochefort pondered as his hands busied themselves at his console, “Spread it around. Get as much of that stealth coating off as we can, then maybe its engine baffles as we’re going by. One minute and they’ll be in firing distance.” He didn’t bother mentioning the ship could’ve already been firing missiles on bearings-only launches that, if similarly stealthed, their Saturn’s sensors may have missed.

“That’s the plan, then. Open hailing frequencies,” Zheng ordered, watching the bridge chronometer closely.

“Open,” Skank acknowledged.

“Unidentified spacecraft, this is the NMDS Enceladus. You’re intruding on sovereign Niops territory. You are ordered to cut your thrust, drop your stealth field, begin deceleration, and to identify yourself and state your intentions. You have 30 seconds to comply. Over.”

For several seconds, the only sounds on the bridge were the air recyclers, the hum of the cooling units for the electronics, and the sound of each crewmember’s breathing inside their sealed helmets. There was no response from the stealthy destroyer bearing down on them.

“Skipper,” Skank said, cutting through the silence, “acknowledgement from the Keg they’re receiving our data.”

“Good. Weaps, relay the fire plan to all gunners.” In the event the bridge crew of the Enceladus was incapacitated, the individual gunners located near their weapons mounts would ensure the fire plan was carried out. “Engineering, you been listening?”

{“We have,”} Lieutenant Junior Grade Myca Yuelin, chief engineer and executive officer of the ship replied over the intercom. On a ship as small as the Saturn class, engineering also doubled as auxiliary control. {We’re ready. See you on the flip side.”}

“Entering capital weapons range,” Skank said.

Moments later, titanic beams of coherent light burned their way through the small DropShip’s hull, penetrating the bow armor, tearing through the ship’s bridge, and out the side of the hull, as it struck the wildly maneuvering Enceladus, killing Spaceman Angelo David and Chief Petty Officer Guy Rochefort instantly. Petty Officer Luther Kelly took seconds longer to die, incinerated by a wave of plasma from the incinerated debris that used to be the bridge consoles, bulkheads, frame members and armor plating in the path of the capital-grade laser beams.

Lieutenant Christopher Zheng, meanwhile, would take a bit longer to die. Legs pinned by debris, suit leaking out despite the air still flowing from the ship’s systems, he’d live longer, but not long enough. Keying his own mike on the ship’s intercom, he croaked out, “Engineering. Damage report.”

{“We’re humped,”} came the reply. {“Air’s streaming out, we’ve got a fuel bunker leak, one of the reactors has taken a hit, and we’re down 25% on thrust. We’ve taken control, but helm’s responding sluggish. Ship’s barely holding together.”}

“Set fire to automatic, program the ship to ram, then abandon ship.”

{“Aye, sir,”} she said, and Zheng heard the abandon ship alarm sound in his helmet. He suppressed the alert.

{“Will we see any of you there, Skipper?”}

“Afraid not. I’m it, I’m pinned, and my suit’s going to leak out. I’ll do what I can from up here. Keep our people alive, Myca.”

{“I will, Skipper. It’s been real, and it’s been fun…”}

“…But it hasn’t been real fun. Bye, Myca.”

{“Bye, Chris.”}

Seconds more ticked by, and Zheng could feel the vibration of the hull as the Enceladus’ autocannons went to rapid-fire as programmed, and the ship’s escape pods ejected from their dying mothership. From what was left of his command station, he tried to track his ship’s fire, but couldn’t. His suit’s air pressure had continued to drop, and he was beginning to feel light-headed.

He’d blacked out before the capital-grade particle cannons hammered what was left of the Enceladus apart, close enough for the patrol ship’s debris to rain upon the vastly larger destroyer, stripping off more of the stealth coating than its primitive autocannons and lasers did.

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