Chapter 07: Fire
The first 2400 kilometers of Arendelle's Space Elevator were forty meters thick, suitable to hauling the heavy lift elevator to low orbit. Once clear of atmosphere fusion drives could quickly give any ship orbital velocity and the materials platform there had accelerators to do just that. The rest of it, all 34000 kilometers, was only four meters across. It didn't have to be heavy, just strong enough to hold up the rest of the Elevator and make access to space possible. At the very end of that cable lay Anchor, the furthest reach of Elsa's domain, a lonely maintenance outpost that looked out to the rest of the universe.
Kristoff thought it was still a pretty nice place.
Sven definitely enjoyed the lack of gravity. He didn't enjoy the skinsuit, at least not with its "plumbing" adapter, but he loved zero-g, especially since he had complete control of the reaction thrusters that let him zip around the station with ease. He made that delighted weird honking sound he emitted when he was happy. Kristoff watched him go with a wave. "Don't get lost, Sven. Stick to the party."
Anchor was a marvel of engineering the likes of which Manticore had long ago abandoned. Arendelle had gone their own way, working with zero-g materials sciences to create perfect femtotech boron-fullerene hybrids with tensile strengths that bordered on miraculous, and Kristoff had said so.
"Thank you," Commander Crosby had said with complete sincerity. "If we begin trading with Manticore, might I assume that you have had your own progress in the materials department?"
That was a common theme of every conversation. "If-or-when we begin trading with Manticore..." These people were anxious to be trade partners, to get to know the greater universe. This was no hidden colony put away to avoid the rest of humanity, as Grayson had been. Arendelle had meant to be a part of human space. It had just gotten lost somewhere along the way.
Anna and Kristoff had actually found Arendelle's founding in Winterkiss's library. The Arendelle TransEuro Colonial Corporation had sponsored one of the very earliest slower-than-light sleeper convoys, a luxurious high-automation effort mostly for upper-class Terrans who had the prescience to foresee the coming economic catastrophe. Their leader had been Doctor Josef Arendelle, a multinational financier who had invested heavily in Earth's first successful space elevator. Four ships had broken out of Mars orbit in 241PD and disappeared into the void, headed for the general direction of Lynx. How they had accidentally stumbled upon a wormhole, much less navigated it safely without a modern starship's instrumentation, still remained a great mystery.
Kristoff had made reassuring noises at all the inquiries. At least he hoped so. He'd watched Elsa out of the corner of his eye, and he liked what he saw, at least professionally. She made a good enough Queen when she wasn't being so twitchy, and maybe he could see what was making Anna act so twitterpated around her. It wasn't a healthy state of mind; she had a boyfriend back home, apparently getting serious. Kristoff had met Hans and didn't understand the attraction. He thought Hans was a bit of an arrogant ass himself, but then Kristoff wasn't a noble and didn't share the nobility's odd ideas about effective marriages.
Kristoff snorted. "Effective" wasn't what Anna wanted. She was romantic to her core. Kristoff had always been more than content to have Sven at his side. He didn't want, or need, romantic entanglements. If he had to choose, he'd have said he was interested in women, but he just didn't have that drive that so many of his peers seemed to have. It just didn't seem to matter to him, much to the eternal regret of his parents.
So what was it about Elsa that made Anna get so flustered and talky? She'd always been talky, rambling on and on when her mind got going, almost as if she were afraid the air might feel uncomfortable being empty and naked of words, but whenever the topic of Arendelle's Queen came around, Anna spoke even faster and more circuitously, trying hard to address the subject and avoid it at the same time.
Sven chittered at him, snarling slightly. Kristoff scowled. "Stop it, Sven. You know I can't understand you when you talk like that."
Sven signed something, and Kristoff nodded. "She needs friends, Sven." Sven gave him a look. "All right, she needs more. This is the wrong place--"
"Is something wrong, Commander?" Captain Calhoun asked.
"No. Me and my buddy here are having a... discussion."
Sven's look deepened. "We'll talk about this later, okay?" Sven's honking reply was almost an obscenity before he jetted down the hallway.
"He is a creature of few words, which like snowflakes the wind carries away. Come on, Commander. Dawdling time is over."
"Uh, yes. Ma'am."
He floated down a main corridor, spotting one of the Queen's other security guards. He was guided into the first truly luxurious room he had seen on the otherwise spartan Anchor. Even with a travel time measured in days, Anchor was that furthest outpost of Arendelle and it did get the odd, adventuresome tourist. The officer in charge had even boasted of a waiting list. There was a tiny bed-and-breakfast penthouse garden with a domed view of half the universe, the half that faced away from Arendelle. The last couple to visit were currently on their way down, so Elsa's party had the garden to themselves. The plants were all bedded down with a fine mesh netting that also kept the moisture in with the soil. It actually looked like a garden with gravity, flowers and shrubs reaching up to Arendelle's sun, clearly visible through the LCD-darkened glass of half the dome. The illusion lasted only as long as he didn't glance at the other visitors floating around the hexagonal arrangement of guide ropes, or examine the stars of the greater universe clear and untwinkling in the other half of the dome. The air of the garden smelled a heady mix of recycled air perfumed with roses and gardenias. "Wow," Kristoff breathed.
Calhoun slammed past him, flying into the room. "Code Nine!" she shouted.
The other guard stiffened. "Your majesty-- " He stopped, and so did Calhoun. Commander Buzz said, "We have nowhere to go."
"The shuttle?" Calhoun asked. "We can make it to the shuttle."
Buzz shook his head. "Not from here. Not in time."
"What is it, Captain?" Elsa demanded, appearing in the hatchway.
Calhoun looked stricken. "Your majesty, I'm sorry. We... ASTC is reporting that we've lost control of the solar laser platforms. They're turning toward us."
"They what?" Anna said.
"All communication with Anchor just stopped, Captain!"
"Captain DuVar!" A new voice broke through her comm channels.
Anna looked down at the civilian feed on her tactical display. "Not now, Flynn. I'm busy."
"Then you'll want to know this, Captain!" His image split. "The laser platforms in solar orbit are turning toward Arendelle. They're preparing to fire."
"What?" Anna stared at the display. "Is there any way to stop them? Could they be taking hostages?"
"Captain, these aren't FTL transmissions. Those lasers could have fired as long ago as eight minutes and there isn't a thing we could do about it. Well, not eight minutes, the beams would be here already. But you can't take hostages in situations like this. The timing doesn't work. If those things are being aimed, they are going to be fired. They may have already been fired."
Anna stared at the screen, trying to find a way around Flynn's reasoning. He wasn't trained as a sailor, but he understood the physics all right. A beam of light couldn't be recalled like a missile. Kristoff and Sven were on Anchor. Elsa was on Anchor. That settled it. "Lieutenant Ibanez, make like an eclipse. Plot a course that'll put the belly wedge between the sun and Anchor, and execute when you have it."
"Aye, Ma'am!" Carmen Ibanez grinned. She treated Winterkiss the way VonSchweets treated small craft: a hot-shot with a toy. Anna had seen her maneuvering skills and trusted her to get it right the first time. Without hesitation or permission, Winterkiss shot out of its orbit and streaked downward toward Anchor at almost 250Gs, turning over only eleven seconds later, coming to a halt twelve seconds after that.
"Raise Anchor, if you can," Anna said. "Let them know we're here." She punched a button on the arm of her chair. "Engineering."
"Felix, we might be about to take the worst laserhead in history. Can they hit us? Can we take it?"
She heard Felix audibly swallow. "Can they hit us? Ma'am, they routinely hit a 3 kilometer-wide target at a distance of a light year. They'll hit anything they want at eight light-minutes. But I think we could survive it on the belly," he said. "Doctor Fitzhubert showed me the numbers. It'll be a near thing, but by golly I think we can take it. Once."
"The capacitors will have to take some of the bleed, Ma'am, and there's no guarantee they'll all survive. We'll probably have to take time to repair them all between blasts. Arendelle told me all about how they work, they're very proud of their achievements. They take time to recharge and they have limited aim rate capability. Arendelle's starships don't have independent maneuvering, after all, so it's not like they need to be quick on the helm. If we have to take a second hit, Ma'am, I suggest we think of something else."
"Got it. Thanks, Felix."
"I'll do what I can."
"What is God's name is that?" Captain Calhoun said, looking at the place where the sun had been. Now it was a deep, black hole, and long lines of light like frozen meteor streaks colored the universe all around it.
"Anna, no!" Kristoff said. He raised his wristcomm to his lips. "Winterkiss, come in, Winterkiss."
"Commander!" Anna's voice sounded relieved.
"Captain, what are you doing?"
"Saving your life."
"You could die!"
The tinny chuckle told him he shouldn't even bother. "Felix says we probably won't. And Felix knows his ship. You know this ship. You know we'll probably take it."
Anna was more nervous that she was willing to admit. "Probably isn't great odds, Captain."
"Then consider this some kind of crazy trust exercise in BuShips."
Kristoff started to reply, but the universe interrupted him.
Tactical alarms with nowhere to direct their fury screamed uselessly aboard Winterkiss's bridge before Lieutenant Rekkit shut them down with one bulky finger to his controls. "Sorry," he muttered.
Nobody heard him. They were staring at the engineering displays already needling into the red. There were hundreds of load-bearing capacitors all up and down the reinforced spine of Winterkiss reporting heavy strains. The firing time for a single laser was barely three minutes. The belly bands of a hyper-capable warship were supposed to be impenetrable to even the worst laser fire; it was supposed to bleed off the sides in a spray of photons whipped to even higher energies by the fusion-powered gravitic skew of a ship's wedge. Belly bands shrugged off nuclear-pumped laser heads. But this wasn't a weapon of war, this was a laser of an entirely different caliber. Violet beams slammed into Winterkiss and sprayed across her. For two kilometers to either side of Winterkiss, four trapezoidal sheets of immense gravitational gradient sheered the power of the laser up and away like some strange cosmic mirror.
Anna heard the voice of damage control as reports of fires and explosions echoed through her ship. Those were merely secondary damage from components of the ship doing too much, taking too much. It was her ship, and those were her crew. The beam hadn't gotten though, and Felix had warned people to stay away from the buffering components, but there would be wounded. There might even be dead. Anna's teeth hurt, and she forced her clenched jaw to relax. "Hold steady, Carmen," she said.
"Aye, Ma'am. Holding steady."
Even Winterkiss's gravitic nodes weren't enough to track everything. The beam cut diagonally across the upper wedge in less than fifteen seconds in a fast, linear streak for the bulk of its passage, and when it reached the bottom of the wedge it was free to space once more. Anna had saved Anchor, but now the beam cut down and traversed the Elevator directly, deliberately targeting a spot two-thirds of its length. One-third of the Elevator started to float away. The rest began an agonizingly slow collapse.
"Beam clear. Ma'am, it's Anchor!"
On Anchor, Captain Calhoun was hovering near Elsa, who had curled up into a fetal position. "Your majesty, we have radio." Elsa looked up, her eyes hollow. "You have to do something."
Calhoun eased closer to Elsa and said softly, "Your majesty. The gloves."
Elsa looked down at her hands. "I can't." Calhoun only stared at her. "I can't!"
"Your Majesty, you have to. Or they will fire again. It only takes a few hours. And I don't know if Captain DuVar's ship can take a second hit. I don't know if they survived the first one."
Elsa's head whipped up to where she thought she'd seen Anna's ship. "Anna?" Something was still there, but it was no longer just a black hole in space. It was glowing, as if it had absorbed all the light thrown at it and was bleeding it off in controlled amounts. Maybe that's exactly what it was doing.
The Manticorans had risked their lives to save her. Anna had risked her life, and the lives of everyone aboard Winterkiss, to save her. Captain DuVar, beautiful, lovely Anna, who had only yesterday become the one friend Elsa had who... who could leave. Trembling, she reached down and pulled off her gloves.
Her hands looked normal, but suddenly the world became brighter, took on a sheen of meaning and purpose as a second suite of data poured into her mind. Tenuously, trembling, she reached through Anchor's communications systems, communicated with the world. Everything on Arendelle greeted her touch with greedy eagerness. Everything bent to her will. Everything said they had missed her touch, would give her power, give her pleasure, if only she would give them meaning in return. She could rule all of Arendelle with the power restrained within her hands. Her power, her father's power, her family power.
Stop. I'm doing this for Anna. No, I'm doing this for Arendelle. There was more than one cache, more than one base station, more than one satellite. There had to be redundancies. With a simple thought, she sent a command. Forgive me, Corona. Protocol demands this.
She pulled the gloves back on hurriedly. That world, the one where her power spoke to her, disappeared into the background again, and Elsa curled up gratefully as it did.
"My Queen!" Hands were touching her person. Tamora's hands. Tamora turned her over. In times of crisis, medical and security personnel were allowed. They were the only ones who were allowed. "Are you all right?"
Elsa shook her head, and tears coursed over her temples and into her hair. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Anna looked up an the main display to watch in horror as the space station, now cut loose from its mooring, began floating away. "Metzinger, get me the XO, now!"
She was relieved when she heard Kristoff's voice over the radio. "Captain?"
"Kristoff! What's your situation? How's Elsa?"
"We're alive. I wouldn't say we're fine, but we're, uh, we have power, food and water. There's a very slow tumble. Did they... did they cut it?"
"Damn." His voice receded into the distance as he shouted to someone else. "Commander Crosby! Winterkiss is confirming that the Elevator is cut."
A distant voice shouted, "Shit. Understood."
Anna said, "Kristoff, we're coming for you."
Lieutenant Rekkit said, "Uh, ma'am. You want to see this." She nodded, and he touched a button on his console. The screen came to life.
The Elevator was disintegrating. Self-destruct charges were going off all along its length, blowing it into pieces sufficiently small to disintegrate in the atmosphere. Anna cringed inside. The Elevator was a monumental achievement, an engineering masterpiece and Arendelle's only access into space. Without it, they were at the mercy of chemical rockets. Their space-based personnel couldn't go home; their groundside personnel couldn't go up.
That first two hundred kilometers of the Elevator couldn't self-destruct; it was the thickest part, the base that reached above the atmosphere, the segment that led to Low Orbit One, where it was safe to light off fusion drives and avoid falling back into the atmosphere, and nuking it would have done more damage than letting it fall. It was falling toward Arendelle. Each kilometer was several kilotons of densely-woven borocarbon fiber strong enough to survive re-entry.
The base fell with a mighty crash, devastating everything in its path and kicking up a dust storm that would linger for years. Every farm town, every agricultural center, every maintenance outpost within a blast zone eight hundred kilometers long and five hundred kilometers on a side was destroyed. Almost a quarter of Arendelle's wheat and corn production was wiped out in less than an hour. Thousands were killed.
Anna could only watch the devastation unfold. She turned to her tractor tactical station. "Vanellope, once we've put Anchor into a safe orbit I want you to take the pinnace and evacuate all non-essential personnel. We'll ferry everyone we can groundside as soon as possible." She punched a familiar button. "Felix, what's our status?"
"We won't be able to do that again, Ma'am. That beam overloaded several major breakers and capacitors. We have casualties, Ma'am, but I don't think any of them are fatal." Felix sounded worried. Anna waited for the worst. "We've lost our Warsharski sails, Ma'am."
"I think so, Ma'am. The capacitors for forward Alpha Ring number two were right next to the Warsharski coil, and they blew hard enough to destroy the containment vessel."
"Great. Just great." Without her sails, Anna would be forced to wait until Manticore sent a second expedition out to find her. She could theoretically go into hyper but without the sails she couldn't detect the dangerous gravity waves that might shred a ship in seconds, and in the absolutely uncharted and probably dangerous space between two binary stars and an anomalous brown dwarf, the last thing she wanted was to risk it. She couldn't go through a wormhole junction at all.
"Thanks, Felix. You kept us alive. Do what you can. I'll call you back." She toggled another station. "DC, tell me about our wounded."
"Six injured, no deaths, Captain," came the damage control officer's report. "Lieutenant Keane is going to lose his leg, but Doctor Whelan says he's on the regen list."
"And the others?" Anna said softly.
"Burns, mostly. Lt. Commander Dutta took it to the back of the head, and she's on the no-regen list. Some concussion but nothing major. Doc reports she'll live, but there'll be reconstructive surgery, and external transplantation therapy to grow her hair back."
"Understood." She looked up, and Olaf was staring back at her. She gathered him in her arms and held him, still eschewing the command chair she almost never sat in. "But Arendelle...." In Rekkit's tactical display, the Elevator was still crashing to the ground with such agonizing slowness Anna felt surely, surely there was something she could do. But there wasn't. It would take hours to complete its devastation, and there was nothing Anna or anyone else could do to stop fourteen megatons of destruction from scarring the equator of Arendelle forever. "All those people."
Anna listened as the toll rolled in. Groundside reports of wreck and ruin tugged at her, and she tried to steady herself. Olaf hopped up onto the chair and looked at her. She gave him a nod. "Captain," Lieutenant Metzinger said, "Boat Bay One reports Queen Elsa and party on board."
"Good," Anna said. "Is the XO among them?" He nodded. "Get him up here."
"Talk to me, Mr. Rekkit."
"Incoming fire, Ma'am! Large slugs. They look unguided. They're headed for the solettas!"
Anna gulped. Arendelle's solettas were vast, often 20 kilometers across, but they were nothing more than a strong, light framework across which stretched vast circular sheets of reflective mylar. They doubled the sunlight that reached each duchy. Without that sunlight, the city-states of Arendelle would be frozen wastelands. They were another marvel of colonial engineering, and she couldn't allow them to be destroyed. "Point of origin? ETA?"
"Arendelle's moon. ETA, six minutes."
Anna did some numbers in her head. Those slugs weren't moving very fast, not for a Queen's vessel. "Carmen, do we need to do anything to intercept?"
"We could be someplace further out, for ASTC's comfort."
"Do it." Although no one on the ship felt a thing, on the big screen the stars turned as the Winterkiss rolled to meet the new fire. "Ralph, get on a solution. Not one of those slugs hits home, you got me?"
"Aye aye, Captain." Anna shot him a look but chose not to interrupt. Ralph's tendency to descend to an almost piratical San Martino accent at moments of stress bordered on the unprofessional, but the man had been a member of the resistance during San Martin's occupation by the People's Republic of Haven. For a rebel, insubordination was just a game to be played. "Ready."
Coherent laser light flickered out from Winterkiss. Anna's ship wasn't meant to go into combat, but the anti-missile systems onboard were surely the equal of unguided rocks. Each slug, little more than a machined barrel of ore that in better days would have been destined for one of Arendelle's orbital refineries, disappeared under the withering fire.
The door to the bridge opened as Anna took in the battle reports. She saw Kristoff take up his station. Behind him, Elsa and Calhoun tumbled onto the bridge. Elsa looked wrecked, but Anna was glad to see her. So much she almost ran to the other woman before she remembered her place. "Your Majesty, you shouldn't..."
"I invited them," Kristoff said. "There's no place safer in the galaxy right now than this bridge."
"Oh." Anna stood upright, straightening the top of her uniform. "Good point. Welcome, then, your Majesty, Captain Calhoun." Elsa nodded. "Did Buzz come with you?"
Calhoun growled, "Yeah, he went and found Doctor Flynn."
"Oh, good. Comm, get me Flynn." He nodded. "Flynn, you and Buzz need to put your heads together. Is there any way anyone other than Vesselton could have fired those slugs from Arendelle's moon?"
"Not that I can think of," said the now familiar voice of Adolph Buzz. "Someone would have to break through two cryptosystems to make that possible."
This wasn't her war, but she had an enemy. The rules of engagement in peacetime defined a box around a starship, and any aggressive fire within that box gave the captain licence to return fire and neutralize the threat to her vessel. That box was far larger than anyone on Arendelle would have thought reasonable, but no ship on Arendelle remotely pulled tens, much less hundreds, of Gs of acceleration. A Queen's ship did. "Carmen. Direct course for Vesselton. Eighty-percent power with a zero-zero intercept. Time?"
Lieutenant Ibanez didn't hesitate. She had those numbers ready. "Eighteen minutes."
"Execute!" She turned to Calhoun. "One way or another, we're going to get to the bottom of this."