Honourable Mention | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | Australian Category

 

Story by Charles Groves


Mackenzie hacked through the dense Antarctic jungle as fast as her labouring lungs would allow. Each swing of her blade drained her more than the last. She sucked in more toxic air through her mask, the filters nearly obsolete from weeks of hunting her elusive prey across the South Pole Sea. She became aware of her pulse throbbing in her temple and tried to focus on her goal. All she needed was one clear shot. A glimpse of the colossal ship’s silhouette, even.

She had maybe half an hour before the next storm would cross the range. She swung harder at a particularly large branch which fell across her path – but the blade bit too hard and lodged into the wood. It would take too long and cost her precious energy to free it, so Mackenzie lowered herself under the branch and crawled, her elbows struggling to find purchase in the sodden forest floor which was steepening down toward the saddle of the mountains. As she struggled to her knees on a mound of moss, her helmet speaker broadcasted a familiar voice:

“Panther three-five this is Talon”. She cleared her throat;

“Talon, Panther three-five”.

“Panther three-five, ETA on those coordinates, we’re approaching the end of our window”.

“Talon, approaching target intercept point, ETA one-five minutes”.

“Roger, report ready”. Mackenzie clicked the push-to-talk on the side of her mask twice in acknowledgement to save her breath. She tried to calm her rasping rhythm, realising she’d already been still for too long. Leveraging her slung marksman rifle’s butt against the ground to pull herself back to her feet she started along a makeshift track between the undergrowth. Through the canopy of the huge Kapoc trees she spied the perpetually cloudy skies for the first time in hours.

Must be the coast! Can’t be more than half a kilometre.

Suddenly the air was shattered by the terrifying crack of a large-calibre rail gun. Mackenzie stopped abruptly, shuddering, and looked to the sky – it would take mere seconds for the hypersonic projectile to reach its target. A deep boom in the distance and the subtle impact tremor beneath her feet followed. She gathered up her rifle and slung it in a practised movement. She was running now – her combat boots finding place after place between rocks and roots to evade the onrush of branches and vines threatening to ensnare her in the jungle undergrowth. More rail guns fired over the horizon. Each shot echoed more violently than the last, ripping the atmosphere apart with ferocious whips of electromagnetic energy like lightning strikes.

Her prey was close now. It must have entered the former Ross Ice Shelf overnight during the storms to evade the sentry drones and coastal defence network. Mackenzie reached into her belt pouch as she rounded the trunk of a large tree into view of the cliffs and pulled the last oxygen canister from its clasp. It would afford her twenty minutes of breathing in which to calm herself, focus and make the request for the orbital strike.

 

As an Orbital Targeting Officer, she’d trained for years to coordinate strikes from low and high-orbit platforms which had been instrumental in the apocalyptic Fall of China back in 2045. With her equipment she could identify targets to crews of the Halcyon-Class Orbital Frigates, marking them for their weapons operators with her own scope and relaying the data via satellite since they couldn’t see the surface below the constant cloud and storms. Shortly after, one of two things would happen – a massive ballistic projectile with a hydrogen warhead would fall from the sky and cause a crater the size of a small city to appear on the surface, or a shower of precision-guided missiles would steadily fall onto a designated area. To wield this kind of power was something only a handful could stomach. Mackenzie had been chosen from her previous special operations team as a Combat Controller in the Australian Republic Combined Forces, and sent to Norway with other officers from across the surviving parts of Europe and Asia to learn how to coordinate their space-based weapons.

 

Then she saw it. Her prey: the USS Denali. The ship she had hunted across half the world. Bearing closer resemblance to its mountain namesake than a warship, it cast an imposing shadow over the water.

The Denali was a new generation battleship built by the United States back in the late 2040’s to dominate the rising seas after the polar ice caps melted. With the seas over sixty metres higher than the beginning of the century and air power rendered useless by the ceaseless storms ravaging the planet, maritime power was now the key to survival. Mackenzie had read intelligence reports and stolen plans from its construction to try and identify any weakness to exploit. At over fifteen-hundred feet long and a displacement in excess of a hundred-thousand tons, it was a monster unlike anything the world had ever seen before. An insatiable nuclear reactor powered its fearsome array of electromagnetic rail guns – twelve of them – the projectiles of which were large enough to punch through any armour or hard surface in existence.

Most troublesome for the Euro-Asian Alliance Forces, however, was the network of countermeasures and defence systems protecting it from attack. It had the lot – stealth coating and shaped surfaces, retractable weapon emplacements to conceal emission signatures, anti-missile lasers, even a prototype active cloaking system supposedly made up of projectors and other augmented reality sorcery. The most recent reports from Mackenzie’s commanders suggested it was now also sporting an energy shield able to absorb and deflect impacts by channelling power away from other systems to create a bubble of electromagnetic energy around the vessel. EAAF ships had failed to penetrate the shield with their surface weapons as they tried to stop the Denali entering Antarctic waters, but it was yet to be seen if an orbital round could be stopped. Space had so far been the shortfall of American technology as they sought to dominate the surface, desperate to control the precious natural resources now only found in the farthest reaches of the planet’s drowning continents.

 

Mackenzie threw her map onto the ground beside her knee and raised her rifle toward the gigantic ship lumbering toward her. Still its rail guns crackled and hissed as they fired volley after volley of shells at the other end of the mountain range, no doubt trying to expose the network of fortresses and subterranean structures they concealed. Keeping the scope levelled at the ship, she reached with her left hand to pull the face of her mask up, holding her breath, and inserted the oxygen canister into the recess beneath her chin before closing the face again. Clipping the seal back into the mask she took a huge gulp of the new air, her lungs probably unfamiliar with this strangely clean substance by now. Returning her left hand to support the rifle, she lowered herself into a prone position and rested the barrel on a rock in front of her. Already her breathing had slowed, and her mind was clearing like the sky after a storm has passed. Then calmly, she hit the push-to-talk on her helmet:

“Talon, Panther three-five, in position”.

“Panther three-five, send details”. The voice was instant, robotic and cold. Its owner had probably witnessed this kind of strike more than a few times to sound as much.

“Request orbital firing solution,” she trained the holographic green boresight of her scope on a stretch of water ahead of the battleship, trying to judge the speed of her prey and projecting where it would be in the time it took for the Frigate’s shot to strike the surface; “coordinates as scoped, target is a large surface vessel. One round H.O.P.E. Confirm visual?”

“Visual, your scope, surface vessel tracking parallel coast. Impact coordinates received, preparing firing solution – one round High Orbit Penetration Effect”. As the man spoke, Mackenzie noticed the display on her scope change, now showing her the projected point the orbital strike would land based on her indication and the ship’s speed.

Now she felt it. A familiar foreboding in her gut.

She would utter two words which would seal the fate of every soul on board. Almost two thousand. An irreversible doom of which they likely had no idea was imminent. Most would be incinerated by the intense heat and instantaneous shockwave to erupt from the shell microseconds after it punctured the ship’s upper armour. The rest would either be killed by the subsequent implosion, or by drowning in whatever sinking wreckage remained. Mackenzie thought of all the others she’d doomed throughout the war already. Over two hundred orbital strikes to her name. There was a reason she’d been chosen to hunt this ship. She was trusted to do what was necessary, no matter the risk, no matter how she felt, and no matter the cost.

This could be the last one – the needle straight through the heart of the enemy which could collapse their will to fight. It could be the turning point of the war, giving humanity enough time to find a new home, or see through the storms to endure here a while longer.

 

Then, just as she made to speak, the light around the ship flickered unnaturally. Her eyes widened. Leaning to the side of her scope it became clear the ship’s countermeasures were still active.

“Talon, Panther three-five cancel, I say again cancel request – hold fire!” She stammered, reeling at the realisation she’d nearly lost her best chance yet to catch her prey; “Target countermeasures are active, standby!”

The Frigate operator replied but Mackenzie was too busy gathering herself to hear it; she had counted on the ship’s defence systems to be suppressed or even disabled entirely – it was supposed to have been dealt with by the surface fleet protecting the Antarctic Peninsula. Either they had failed or their enemy was better prepared than anticipated, perhaps with backup systems or some other kind of source to power its sophisticated cloaking and shield.

While they were active, it was nigh impervious to attack. Intelligence was still sketchy at best as to how exactly the Americans had come up with a working shield, or how widespread the technology had become across their arsenal. So far only the Japanese had managed to disable it previously, albeit at an enormous cost in lives. A round that size falling from orbit would probably penetrate the shield but then wouldn’t have enough energy to get through the battleship’s armour, leaving it scarred but still fully operational to continue its assault on the labyrinth EAAF Antarctic Command base.

Mackenzie checked the time on her holo-visor. She’d wasted the last oxygen canister. She’d only have nine minutes to give clearance to the Frigate above before she started to suffocate again. After that, who knew how long she’d last?

“Panther three-five, respond!” She’d missed something judging by the urgency coming through her headset; “Target approaching limit of our range, we need a shot in six minutes or firing solution will be ineffective and other platforms are at least one hour from this orbit position”.

“Roger Talon”. Mackenzie replied, slowing her pace along the cliff edge.

Great, only six minutes. How the hell can I disable the shield from here? Think!

She rifled through her memory for anything useful – she’d studied her target for months, knew all about its weapon systems, the reactor, how many crew it carried, the countermeasures…there had to be a way.

How did they do it last time? Something about diverting energy?

“Lazarus this is Orbital Targeting Officer Panther three-five”. She waited anxiously for the response. It was an idea she’d need to sell in seconds, and she had a feeling the commander of the last bastion in Antarctica wasn’t going to be excited by it.

“Panther three-five, Lazarus”. Came the expectedly stern voice.

“Lazarus I need your forces on the west ridge to target the battleship with maximum firepower to create an opening in its energy shield enough for me to get orbital rounds through in the next two minutes”.

Five to go.

The pause was excruciating. Mackenzie fidgeted with the safety catch on her rifle.

“Understood Panther three-five, but doing that will expose our full network, confirm this is the only option?” She hadn’t sold it yet.

“Affirmative, I have this window right now or we lose the target in the storm. My firing solution is ready, awaiting clearance”. She set up on the edge of the cliff once more, tracking the ship and marking the predicted impact point, knowing the Frigate operator was watching on via the rifle’s satellite uplink.

Four to go.

“Panther three-five…” the commander sighed heavily; “Understood, commencing firing. Call shot when ready”.

He actually went for it. Situation must be even worse down there than I thought.

“Roger Lazarus, standby for H.O.P.E”. She triggered the sight to mark her aim point, transmitting the updated coordinates to the Frigate. As she saw it change colour to red, the far end of the mountain range began to light up the darkening skies; hidden emplacements erupted with rail guns, shore batteries and missiles all zeroed in on the colossal ship bearing down on them. Mackenzie watched on in awe as the defenders of Humanity’s last hope for survival on Earth poured their firepower into this single diversion, and clenched her jaw as all of it hit an invisible wall a few hundred feet to the near side of the ship’s hull. The ship would now be forced to direct all of its power to the shield, unable to simultaneously supply its electromagnetic rail turrets and directed energy weapons for the duration of the barrage.

Two to go.

“Talon, Panther three-five amended target details when ready”

“Panther three-five send details” He was mercifully quick this time.

“Talon request orbital firing solution, target as scoped, one round H.O.P.E, cleared immediate!” There was a longer than expected delay after Mackenzie finished speaking.

One to go.

“Panther three-five with these new coordinates I have you inside the effective radius this time, confirm still cleared to fire?”

There was no time. She looked at the ship through her scope again. The enormous rail guns on the bow turrets were traversing toward the source of incoming fire on the mountain range. On her visor the oxygen meter was beginning to flash, indicating she had only minutes more to live anyway.

“Affirmative, cleared immediate, danger close!”

She exhaled deeply into a sob, her head falling to rest on the rifle. She took off her helmet, allowing her long braid of blue-black hair to fall over her shoulder. A tear escaped the corner of her eye as she looked back up to the sky, the air stinging her eyes and throat as she waited for the end.

Everything went silent. The firefight down below was carried away on the wind heralding the storm front over the mountains.

Another second. The clouds parted in the wake of the meteoric projectile. A fraction more and it struck home. A perfectly-timed lance punctured the very heart of the massive battleship’s deck, the shockwave visibly rupturing the atmosphere and rocking the cliff face in front of Mackenzie’s vantage point. Chunks of rock broke away and fell to the sea thousands of feet below her and the tremors felt like a severe earthquake. Then the secondary implosion of the H.O.P.E shell seemed to suck everything back in, like it was draining the world around it to fuel the eviscerating fires at its heart and forming the familiar mushroom-shaped tower to signpost its successful strike.

“Panther three-five, BDA when ready”. Mackenzie spluttered into the microphone, holding her helmet beside her mouth now. Still the fires rose and started to rush towards her.

“Send BDA”.

“H.O.P.E round direct hit, enemy vessel sunk. Estimate no survivors”.