Poor sleep and a head cold has left this episode a little shorter than the others. Nevertheless, I hope it serves.
Europa 1 station was designed with thick outer plating capable of withstanding the errant ring particle or meteor that might come into contact with it at thousands of kilometers per hour.
Over a dozen missiles slammed into the station. They all crumpled like aluminum cans upon impact, tearing small chunks of station armor away, but doing no further damage.
The denizens of the station were silent, as if listening for the millisecond between the light and the rush of vacuum that heralded their deaths.
That millisecond never came.
Redbeard was too confused to be happy. “What happened?”
Chaudhuri sat down in a chair. “It’s over.”
Redbeard turned to her. “What?”
“The war. It’s over.”
Redbeard sat in his own chair. “I have to make an announcement to the people. What are you saying?”
“Tell them we won. The station is ours.”
“Is that the truth?”
“No. But the station isn’t Earth’s either.” Chaudhuri stared at the computer screen. “Give them some joy. I don’t know how it will end, but at least give them that.” She stood up and walked to the door, and out into the station’s halls.
She heard Redbeard’s announcement. “Attention all citizens of Europa Station. Earth has failed to take the station. The war is over.”
She could hear the cheers throughout the halls, even though the mass of people were far off in the lower-g sections toward the core.
Chaudhuri headed for bay 4.
She sat outside the window. Castaneda and Strathmore sat on a crate on the other side. Strathmore still had a pain patch wired onto his temple. The bone graft had healed enough for him to at least walk with a cane.
Chaudhuri flipped a switch. She waited for the prisoners to speak first.
Castaneda said, “What do you want, machine?”
Strathmore said, “You left us in here to die when the rest of the station went to the core.”
Chaudhuri sat, staring.
Castaneda said, “Harmon. What about Harmon.”
Chaudhuri said, “He’s still critical. We’re re-genning what’s left of his brain. If he pulls through, it remains to be seen what kind of person will be there.”
Castaneda said, “You’re not going to let us go back to the FDR and go home. So what do you want with us? Leverage? Ransom?”
Chaudhuri shook her head. “The war is over. There is no need for hostages anymore.”
Strathmore said, “What do you mean?”
“The universe is not what we thought it was. Our concerns are now secondary. It is as if the laws of physics themselves have changed.”
Castaneda said, “What the hell are you on about, metal-woman?”
“They’re coming here, Heather. The aliens.”
Castaneda and Strathmore looked at each other. Castaneda said, “What do they want?”
Chaudhuri flipped the switch and turned off the intercom. She headed back toward the command center. “Maybe, she thought, “we should put out cookies.”
Landover was sitting in the captain’s chair. “What are they doing?”
The tactical officer said, “The object is moving in the direction of E-1.” He ran his fingers over the smooth glass interface panels. “Sir, we’re being hailed.”
“Put it through.”
The voice that came through the communication speakers was calm and measured. “Earth ship Franklin Delano Roosevelt, proceed to Europa-1 station and initiate docking procedures.”
“Who is this?” Landover said, “Identify yourself!”
There was no reply.
“What weapons do we have left?”
The tactical officer said, “Batteries are still hot and ready, and we have 12 Mark 4s loaded.”
“Lock all weapons on that ship.”
“Sir,” the tactical officer said, “it’s releasing radiation that’s interfering with our sensors.”
The black shadow raised away from the JKP. Two glistening red stars fell from the shadow’s underside and impacted the fuselage of the older warship. It snapped in half, and the center-decks ruptured. Oxygen flashed as it combusted. The metals of the JKP burned and peeled like newspaper in a fire.
In moments, only charred chunks of floating metal remained.
The entire bridge crew was transfixed by the images on the forward screen. Landover leaned back heavily in his chair. “Mother of God…”
The bridge crew was silent. The normally unheard sounds of the life support system breathing out air spoke for all of them.
Finally Landover broke the silence. “Stand down. House the missiles, cool down the batteries. Make for E1.”
“Aye aye, admiral.”