This story is by Jonathan David Wong and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
It wasn’t called the Red Planet for nothing. Twenty years of intrastellar war between the United Nations of Earth and the Russian Federation had cost both trillions of dollars and thousands of astronauts, score upon score of ships — all for the Companion Drive, humanity’s golden ladder. And the Russians had the misfortune of being in the way of a UN with no patience for scientists to sort out FTL from scratch. Either Companion would fly, or humanity would die.
And Peter Kane had the misfortune of being directly under the authority of the UN Supreme Council. The remote-briefing, delivered via radio with four minute input delay, had consumed the last three hours in endless reiteration of empty moralism and cold realpolitik.
At last he was free. He unbuckled himself from the “chair” and drifted through the airlocks to the “bridge”, a camera-covered armored bubble in the ship’s nose, filled with so many screens and consoles a porta-potty would have been comfier.
Quickly, he checked the scanners and system logs. They were within visual range of Phobos moon-base, and neither eye nor scanners picked up anything but the Russian battleship Potemkin, still gun-scarred and dust-eaten from their last engagement, resting amidst an orbiting graveyard of gutted ships, some with corpses still clutching the controls.
Last time he was over Mars, Commodore Gagarin had them three-to-one, and still Kane had him beat until they blew Deimos moon-base, blew it with civilians aboard, and took out half his fleet. Three of NATO’s best commanders gone with seven hundred of United Earth’s finest. A year to Mars and a year back with nothing to show for it but unsalvageable hulks and dead friends; friends who wouldn’t die quietly…
He could hear them climbing through his ship, crowding the bulkheads behind the cockpit, calling his name. He shut his ears and sealed the airlock behind him as they groaned in morbid chorus, “Admiral, Admiral! Orders, orders! What are we dying for? Admiral!”
“Atlas commander, report.”
“Admiral!” Screen One lit up with the cockpit camera of the destroyer Nemesis, flag leader of Atlas group. The woman who occupied that chair saluted, young, stiff, and bleary-eyed. “Commander-”
“Amanda Archer. My wife used to babysit you. Your father was commander of Atlas-1 last time, yes?”
“Y-yes, Admiral. T-that’s right. Uh, orders—”
“If I recall, you were assigned to Orbital Defense. And I know for a fact your father ordered you to stay there. What changed?”
She squirmed in her chair. “This’s no time for sentimentality, Admiral. W-what are your orders?”
“Answer my question. There’s your order.”
She looked away at another screen. “I’m here to do my part, sir.”
Kane sighed. “Very well. Take your destroyers into Deimos’ debris field, that’ll cover you against Phobos’ guns. Challenger will screen your advance with his fighters, and I’ll take Apollo to confront Gagarin and whatever’s sitting on that moon-base. You’ll be providing fire support when the drop-ships move in. Target turrets first, then enemy fighters. Do not target the habitation center.”
“Admiral, at this range, it’s virtually—”
“That is an express order. Amanda, I don’t know what the politicians told you when they signed you up, or what they told you about your faraway father, but I beg you- don’t become me. This is about humanity, Russians included. That Companion Drive, is going to save the human race.”
The richest members in particular.
“Am I clear?”
“Atlas out,” she replied.
Kane shook his head. “Apollo, on me. Let’s try and settle this without shooting.”
He opened the comms to all channels and cleared his throat. “Commodore Gagarin! You’re outnumbered and outmaneuvered. In the name of Mankind, surrender! I’ll only ask-” he coughed, feeling his age painfully, “-once.”
The Potemkin did not respond, sitting dead-still in orbit. Phobos too was quiet; not even drones and welding rigs were seen as battle loomed.
Atlas piped up, fogged in static. “Ad-ir–, we sh—– fire. Don’t —- wait, run that scan again— what’s th–”
“This is Commodore Valentina Gagarina. My father and the brave three hundred gave their lives on Deimos to stop you. If Russia asks my life to stop you again, then she will have it. Surrender, or we will destroy you— and this time, you will not limp away, fascist.”
“You’re right – there will be no retreat this time. Earth is dying, and the barbarians are at the gates. Give us the Drive, and I promise, Russia will be evacuated as well. This ain’t about vengeance, it’s for the good of humanity, Gagarina. Please….”
His ghosts beat at the airlock and cried, “Admiral, you lie….”
“I don’t hate you, Peter Kane of Earth. But I can’t trust your leaders, and thus, I cannot trust you. The Red Planet will not be moved.”
He sighed, clenching the sticks in his hands. Red or blue, flags have always been dyed in human blood.
“Atlas, open fire on Phobos—”
“ZA RODINU MAT—!”
Archer’s channel vented static into his ear, breaking through the debris interference. “Ad—ral, tak–g h—y they’re ramming us!”
Heat signatures suddenly flared all around Challenger group as they approached Phobos, while railguns flashed inside the Deimos cloud. Kane tried to shout orders and felt his throat close up as the coffin-ships accelerated on collision courses with the fighter wing, the ‘corpses’ at the controls coming to life. The blips numbered two hundred and up, each a manned missile. The fighters broke formation to meet the kamikazes and were massacred as they lost unit coordination, and Phobos’ guns battered one troop ship after another into metal vapor.
“Admiral, can’t— comms fail—— explosive decompression in———deck, get to the lifeboats! Abandon ship, abandon—”
“Admiral, Admiral, you join us today….”
He felt hands over his mouth, choking him; he thrashed and yelled as his ghosts dragged him through the airlock.
“Gagarina, we surrender! Mercy of God, we surrender!”