Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
SEAL, Part III: Recovered

This page Copyright 2017, Karl Leffler
Continued from the previous excerpt
173JR/2117CE
Trailing Jovian Trojans
United Nations, Sol System

Three months in hyperspace.
Two days short of three Terran months - ten days more than two Monticellan, on the calendar devised for the second planet of Tau Ceti - twenty-one-hundred-and-some hours.
Through careful alignment and timing of the Marsten Device, it was possible to send updates to Meteor in flight - which the enemy, lacking Marsten technology (so far), could not detect, but which were encrypted anyway. Thus the ship's crew and passengers knew that the UN was sending a thrown-together task force from Terra-Luna to the Jovian system, and that these ships, four of what the Terrans called "cruisers" and a pair of engineering/recovery ships, were scheduled to arrive a mere nineteen hours after Meteor would rendezvous with Patrol Ship #24, the ship who had been unable to take part in the battle.
Meteor's Space Patrol crew had been running simulations and combat exercises for nearly every waking moment of that time. Likewise, the SEALs, very much including Ternel, had been drilling, studying, maintaining fitness and readiness, learning their way around "Caroline" in virtual reality until they knew every compartment and passage blindfolded and tumbling in freefall. Brevor joined in these exercises too - a Ranger was a good as a SEAL and no one else was as good as either; they shared training grounds, and instructors, but had slightly different missions and specialties.
They learned their way around the enemy ships too, as well as they could. Defectors, deserters, double-agents, had provided plans.

P24, "Beatrice", had completed repairs to her Marsten Drive and was ready to engage the enemy. She had stayed on the scene, sending updates. "Caroline" and "Elizabeth" had destroyed most of the UN fleet used in the ambush, but three ships remained - two of which each outgunned Meteor, with conventional weapons. The other, not much bigger than the Jeffersonian patrol ships, was staying close to P27. Some of P21's wreckage had been collected and brought alongside too, but the fusion containment failure had left little of value.
Four of the nine ships in the initial ambush had been destroyed, with only a few survivors; two more had been wrecked with heavy casualties, evacuated, and abandoned to parking orbits for later salvage. The undamaged, or less-damaged, ships were overcrowded with those survivors now, many of them wounded, straining their life support and supplies. Intercepted communications suggested crew morale was low - two little Jeffersonian ships had mauled what the UN considered the pride of their fleet.
When Meteor had left Monticello, seven of P27's crew had still been alive. Since then, three had died of wounds, two more from torture. Ensign Walters, along with Spacer 2nd Class Angelo Semmes, a Gunner's Mate, were being kept aboard one of the two surviving Terran "cruisers", named Merkel, for the German chancellor who had accelerated Terra's plunge into tyranny.
The UN political officers aboard each ship were riding herd on the ratings and the regular UN Navy officers. Their commander, a UN Security Service colonel named Gillin, was aboard the other "cruiser", Holder - named for a former Attorney General of the United States, who had been instrumental in the Fascist Coup of 2012. Intercepts indicated that Gillin hopped between the ships regularly, to personally oversee the torture of the captive Jeffersonians.
The Terrans suspected there was another Republic ship in the area, and were using what they thought was unbreakable encryption. For talking with their masters on Terra, they had repurposed one of their laser cannon as a comm laser, standard UN practice and a Jeffersonian backup, not practicable to intercept - but their short-range, ship-to-ship channel was still ordinary radio. It only took a few hours for "Beatrice"'s computer to find a key - and this class of patrol ship was deliberately given less-powerful computers, to minimize the technical loss to the enemy in case of capture.
Meteor was state-of-the-art. She carried a 200-kiloton fusion bomb for a self-destruct charge right next to the main computer... and another on the Marsten Drive.
The SEALs making up the boarding parties would each carry a two-kiloton backpack fission bomb.

Meteor Transitioned to realspace within a few hundred kilometers of P24. The little patrol ship was snugged up against an asteroid a few kilometers across - big enough to hide the light from Meteor's exhaust and maneuvering jets, which were nonetheless used sparingly.
Lieutenant Kusanagi was aware of the gravity of the situation. "I was preparing," he told Admiral Ternel, "to make a strike run. Destroy P27 and run like hell." P24 carried twin Class Three Marsten Guns and a single rapid-fire mass-driver - enough to wreck the captured ship, and kill anyone in the vicinity with Marsten Radiation, but not to obliterate it past the point where the UN might find something to reverse-engineer. "We've fitted our own destruct charge-" another of the 2kt backpack nukes the SEALs were exercising with- "to our lifeboat." A field-expedient guided missile. "But...."
Ternel nodded. "Good thinking, Kusanagi, and a last resort. That leaves you without a destruct charge of your own; and there's no guarantee you'd get away clean."
"Yes sir. Leaving an obvious alternative." Kamikaze. Ramming P27 with P24 and detonating the charge to destroy both. It wasn't a simple matter to make back-to-back Transitions between realspace and hyperspace. It took minutes to charge the Initiator, with the ship's fusion plant's full output, to say nothing of the calculations. Once emerging to release their improvised missile, they would be trapped in realspace for tactically forever - like reloading a percussion revolver while being attacked by a pair of men with Kalashnikovs.
Kusanagi's Japanese heritage had nothing to do with the plan. "We know what's at stake, sir." Interstellar war with tens or hundreds of millions dead. Kusanagi was waiting for Meteor to arrive... waiting for a chance to live. If there had been any evidence that the Terrans had broken the Marsten secret, Kusanagi would have charged... and received a posthumous Medal of Honor, his crew Navy Crosses.

Ternel briefed the crews on his plan. "Lieutenant Iannoco and Commander Mardigan inform me they can Transition within fifty kilometers of the captured ship. There may be stronger than usual Transition Effects as a result."
Ternel manipulated the tactical holotank in Meteor's flag compartment, imagery of which was being transmitted by laser link to P24. "Upon our emergence from hyperspace we will immediately engage and disable the remaining enemy ships." The other half-dozen were now twelve hours away, and would arrive nearly empty of fuel. They would be planning to mine ice from one of the asteroids to process for hydrogen.
The Marsten Gun was a faster-than-light particle beam derived from the Marsten Device for FTL communication. It had been learned, during the secret experiments before the Escape, that the Gun created intense but short-lived radiation, causing instantly-fatal brain damage to anything with a brain, to a distance of hundreds or thousands of meters from the beam. Only those within an active Marsten Field, or an exceptionally strong Faraday Cage, would be protected.
"We cannot use our Marsten Guns, because we need to take prisoners and interrogate them, to learn how much of Marsten's secrets they have discovered - to say nothing of recovering our own surviving personnel." Ensign Norman Walters, P27's communications officer, was reported to still be alive - and still resisting torture.
"With enemy forces crippled, half of SEAL Team Two, accompanied by myself, will board P27 and assess the ship's condition. If practicable, the ship will be recovered and return with us." Some of the SEALs would be carrying backup navigation computers. Some of the SEALs were Navigators. Others were Engineer's Mates. At least one in three had the necessary piloting skills. "If necessary, which seems likely, Meteor will grapple the ship and carry it inside her own Marsten Field. As a fallback, nuclear demolition charges will be set. Alternately, Meteor will destroy P27 from a distance with a nuclear-armed missile.
"Meanwhile, eleven members of Team Five, plus Major Brevor, will board Merkel to recover our brethren. The rest of Five, and the remainder of Team Two, will likewise board Holder.
"In both cases, our forces will seek and recover or destroy any example of Marsten technology, and any data pertaining thereto. Prisoners would be a bonus, the higher-ranking or the more specialized, the better. Meteor will provide fire support if necessary." Ternel grew somber. "No example of, or information regarding, Marsten Technology, and no member of this mission, can be allowed to fall into enemy hands intact or alive. The acquisition of FTL capability by the UN would result in full-scale war." Which the Republic would win... with millions of innocent Terran women and children murdered by Jacob Ternel's contingency plan. "All the SEALs have suicide devices. Each will also be carrying a backpack nuke. As a final measure, in case Meteor is disabled or captured and unable to use her own destruct charges, P24 will stand off and deliver nukes by missile to destroy us as well." Meteor had carried spares and rigged them to the patrol ship - a half-dozen, at 200kt each. That would be enough for all the friendly and enemy ships, and one or two left over.
"Enemy reinforcements will arrive in less than seven hundred minutes. We begin our operation in five. All hands, to your stations."

Meteor emerged 48 kilometers from P27, the UN Navy cruisers Holder and Merkel and their own little patrol ship, Oriole, only a few kilometers apart. Some of the crew vomited or soiled themselves from Transition Effects, but Iannoco was a genius, and had tuned Meteor's Drive to perfection. With any lesser Engineer, several of the crew would have lost consciousness, and some may even have died.
It had been learned in the earliest days that a Marsten Transition, between hyperspace and realspace in either direction, generated a powerful electromagnetic pulse, strong enough to disable most electronic systems. EMP had been considered as a weapon since long before the Escape, when its effects were discovered during high-altitude nuclear weapon testing. As with the Gun's radiation, only devices within a Marsten Field, or a high-intensity Faraday Cage, would be protected.
48 kilometers was absurdly close for a Transition. The usual limit was ten light-seconds from a planet to avoid gravitational shear, or at least one, 300,000 kilometers, from any electronic device not especially hardened.
Still, the inverse-square law applied. The Terran ships did suffer some equipment failures, but these were warships, and their systems were hardened, often with mechanical backups. Also, the Transition EMP was a known phenomenon to the Terrans, who had snuck probes into proximity with departing Jeffersonian ships. Merkel and Holder were among the most advanced and capable vessels the United Nations had. They couldn't generate a Marsten Field, but data from their probes had told them how much energy to expect, and how a conventional electromagnetic field, like a Faraday Cage, might offer some protection. To generate those fields, Holder had been mining a nearby asteroid for water-ice, from which to make hydrogen fuel to share with Merkel's and Oriole's fusion reactors.
Meteor's Class Five Marsten Guns were in three twin mounts - ring-turrets, tracks around the circumference of Meteor's tapering cylindrical hull. Two were forward of the widest part, one aft. The Guns were mounted 180 degrees apart on each ring. They could be individually trained through slightly more than a full hemisphere. Except for a blind cone, very close to the ship, at least one gun from each turret could engage a target from any direction... and the next turret would cover the blind spots.
But as Admiral Ternel had explained, the Marsten Guns couldn't be used - their effects would kill their own servicemates, and enemy personnel of whom questions were to be asked. Anticipating such conditions, Meteor had been designed with alternate weapons.
She carried ten 8-megawatt pulse lasers. Six of these were on the ring-turrets, between the Marsten Guns; the remainder were paired at bow and stern. Her four missile tubes were mounted singly, one each fore and aft, and diametrically opposed at the widest part of the hull. There were also a dozen rapid-fire mass drivers, whose fifteen-millimeter slugs could be launched with a relative velocity of 3.7 kilometers per second. At that speed, they didn't need a warhead.

Meteor Transitioned at a slight angle, to bring all her main turrets to bear. The two forward turrets engaged Merkel, the nearest. Pulses of coherent light tore into the hull, but the Terran ships had something resembling armor - certainly more than Meteor carried.
The aft turret's two lasers engaged the other cruiser, Holder. The ship was badly hurt, her own sublight particle beams and laser cannons shattering and tumbling away... but this class of warship carried many, along with mass drivers and missile launchers. This "cruiser" massed less than ten kilotons - far less than some Jeffersonian cruiser designs Ternel had seen, and contributed to. None of those had been built yet. The Meteor class was the closest thing the Republic had to a real warship, and here was outmassed by nearly three and heavily outgunned.
Meteor's lasers could be used as sustained beams also, but at only 240 kilowatts each. Rapid-discharge capacitors gave them their full power, with devastating effect. Holder and Merkel bucked and tumbled as the coherent light flash-superheated hullmetal and whatever was beneath it. Meteor's Gunner directed some carefully-aimed slugs at Oriole, through where her power room and fuel storage were supposed to be.
Both cruisers shot back. Terran fusion power was not as advanced or efficient as Jeffersonian, but it could still power a 6.4Mw pulse laser conceptually the same as Meteor's - inferior in range and accuracy but this engagement was well within its envelope. The Republic ship's hull rang with hits and warning lights lit in all compartments. Fortunately those compartments had been pumped down, their atmosphere stored away in bottles which made smaller targets. All the crew were in suits. Shipwide alarms sounded in their helmets.
"Missiles inbound!" someone on the bridge announced. "Point-defense to automatic," Mardigan ordered. "Torpedoes, target Holder's bridge and propulsion and fire!"
"Torpedoes away!" Meteor had emerged 48 kilometers from the enemy ships, but at a velocity of nearly 600 meters per second. The distance was closing rapidly. Holder's own point-defense knocked out the Jeffersonian torpedoes, while her mass drivers began throwing kinetic slugs at three kilometers per second. Meteor's helmsman jinked the ship to avoid them. A few strays hit Meteor, punching through her thin armor, the compartments behind it, and out the other side. If there had been atmosphere in those compartments the damage would have been far worse.
Ternel would later learn of five crewmembers horribly smashed by the enemy weapons. One, her suit's automatic tourniquets keeping her alive, lingered until she could fumble her helmet open with her remaining hand, to end her suffering.
Ternel gave no orders - he had never commanded a ship in battle, and the few simulations he had performed were not as up to date as Mardigan's; his specialties were elsewhere. He left her alone to fight her own ship with her own crew.
If they weren't all killed in the next few minutes, he would be boarding P27 with SEAL Team Two.

Finally Holder and Merkel stopped firing - Oriole hadn't loosed a shot. Each cruiser was rolling with a bit of tumble, but what was left of their reaction control systems were putting a stop to it - even Terran computers could handle that job. Meteor's weapons kept carving away at them, disabling weapons and engines, ensuring they could not escape.
Meteor carried four Type 50 shuttles, each designed for a dozen passengers or a few tons cargo. One had been destroyed and another crippled by enemy fire. The other two, stuffed full of SEALs, launched toward the derelicts. They had ten hours to erase everything that had happened, before enemy reinforcements arrived.
While Boat Four, overloaded with all of Team Five and Brevor too, prepared to assault Merkel, Boat One's first stop was P27, carrying all of Team Two plus Ternel - whose plan had not survived contact with the enemy. He hadn't expected it to, he wasn't a moron. Oriole had been tethered alongside. The boarders were suited, with maneuvering packs, and EVA'd from the boat's depressurized main compartment to both ships - Daniels and five operators with Ternel to P27, the other six operators, counting Senior Chief Fischer, to Oriole.
Ternel kept an ear on what was happening aboard Oriole but focused most of his attention on the task before him. LT Daniels insisted that the Admiral not lead the boarding action and Ternel agreed.
A pair of Daniels' operators accessed P27's emergency airlock and cycled through. Before doing so, a tech specialist on the team had accessed P27's internal cameras and sensors. The Jeffersonian ship was mostly in vacuum; only the CIC and a pair of crew quarters still held pressure. There were a dozen UN personnel aboard, nine of what appeared to be technicians, one who might have been a scientist, and two armed guards. Corpses of two other techs and a third guard were also seen. The survivors were all in the Drive compartment. Team Two left the airlock open, overriding the lockouts of both doors.
Ternel had his suit's visor show him video feeds from the assault team. Daniels didn't go in first either, his job was to command, not just pull triggers - nonetheless he was fourth through the hatch to the Drive room. There were only two threats, and the first two Jeffersonians into the compartment neutralized them. The technicians threw their hands "up", being oriented variously in freefall.
Daniels had made a quick huddle with his men before having his own tech open the hatch. The first two, their targets dead, quickly grabbed the evident scientist. As one shook out a rescue bubble, the other forced open the Terran's helmet, then wrenched it off his suit. The man, looking very much like an ivory-tower intellectual, was too surprised to be afraid. As he lost consciousness in vacuum, the pair, with help from the next Jeffersonian through the hatch, stuffed him into the bubble. One of them jabbed the man with a sedative for good measure. Now, he was captive in the bubble without his suit's helmet. He might suicide if he woke, but he couldn't escape.
The technicians evidently understood the American language through their suit radios - of course the SEALs had the right frequencies - and obeyed commands. Hands and feet were zip-tied behind them and they were towed to Boat One for transfer to Meteor, with a single operator to guard them. While waiting for the boat to return for them, the rest of Daniels' detachment quickly assessed the Drive.
Most of the destruct charges had fired, and the dozen Marsten Devices making up the Drive had been properly wrecked, but the final two-kiloton fission charge, to scatter the pieces into smaller pieces, hadn't fired. It had been disarmed by the Terrans, and was now being rearmed by Jeffersonians. Worse, P27's computers had been torched out of the ship and hauled away. They were most likely aboard Merkel or Holder. Intercepted enemy comms mentioned only that the Jeffersonian computers had been seized and their codes were still scrambled - not which ship they were in.
Through his helmet comm, Ternel learned there were only three survivors aboard Oriole, mere ratings who surrendered immediately. Better yet, their officers had not had time to trigger their ship's self-destruct. The Terran patrol ship's computers were intact. If they could arrange things so the Terrans didn't know they'd seized them, it would be as great an intelligence coup as the British capture of Enigma from a National Socialist German submersible during the Second World War.

Now attention turned to the two enemy cruisers. Meteor's Gunner directed his Mates to send kinetic slugs through anything that showed a sign of life or resistance on either ship. They couldn't risk the Terrans fighting back now.
From Boat Four, Team Five grappled Merkel through the blown-out viewports of her bridge and pulled themselves through the wreckage. A tech with the Team easily accessed the cruiser's internal sensors. The UN kept an eye on people who came up with better software encryption, and suppressed them. The Republic offered them jobs. With a chuckle, the Jeffersonian SEAL locked the fifty-eight survivors into whatever compartments they occupied. Some were pressurized and some of the people in them were without suits. In those, he used the ship's own security system - the UN Navy had a not-unreasonable fear of mutiny - to release anesthetic gas. Soon he had a personnel list and cargo manifest. Walters and Semmes were still aboard, gassed along with their captors. Unfortunately, P27's computers were on Holder.
Ternel began cooking up another plan.

Walters, Semmes, and the Terran prisoners were towed in rescue bubbles back to Meteor, which was getting rather overcrowded.
The bodies of some of P27's other crewmen were also found. They would be brought home. Seeing what had been done to them, only the supreme discipline of the Jeffersonian Navy SEALs prevented a massacre. LCDR Black sent images to everyone's visors, saying, "If you've ever wondered if our side had the moral high ground- there's your answer."
Admiral Ternel thought of the democidal retaliation plans he had devised in case the UN attacked the Republic... and said nothing.

Holder had to be boarded. The computers taken from P27 had to be recovered, along with enemy records which might indicate how much had been learned. Prisoners had to be taken and interrogated likewise.
Holder's crew had been trying to repair weapons, or replace destroyed ones with spares. Meteor's Gunners had been carefully wrecking their work. There was a risk the enemy had concealed a weapon, behind an airlock or access panel or within wreckage.
With Merkel, Oriole and P27 secure, Boats One and Four took all the leftover SEALs toward Holder. The boats approached from the stern, the fusion torches, where spies and defectors had told them the ship class had a gunnery blind spot - and where Meteor's weapons had thoroughly wrecked anything that might be a weapon or a place to mount one.
Drones had been sent to examine Holder, and hopefully to draw enemy fire if there were any. Either the ship was sufficiently disarmed, or its crew were smart enough to not give themselves away. The drones showed hull breaches all around the torches and engine rooms, where Meteor's laser pulses and kinetic slugs had torn the ship open. With Ternel looking over his shoulder but not interrupting, Kyle Black made a plan of entry.
The Boats grappled the derelict again, and SEALs tether-crawled or free-flew across to Holder. A Tech quickly accessed the Terran's ship's internal sensors again, but this time someone on the other side had some skill, and the Jeffersonian couldn't lock down or gas compartments. "Hard way," Black quipped.
SEALs stacked up to breach a compartment. Few had pressure, and the first wasn't one of them. Linear shaped charges cut the hatch from its mounts and it tumbled away.
Terran fire poured out. They knew Holder usually carried a platoon of UN Marines; the Team Tech had learned that at least half of them had survived. 4.7mm bullets sprayed toward the SEALs - eerily silent in the airless compartment, unless they hit something a person was in contact with, to transmit vibration. Paul Greener, Petty Officer Third Class, Boatswain's Mate, was the first to be killed. Someone on the other side had good aim or good luck and poured enough of the little slugs into Greener's armored faceplace to breach it.
The Jeffersonians returned fire. Night-vision optics in their helmets and sights on their weapons picked out their targets, and SEALs practiced live fire as much as any professional competition shooter. Nine Terrans died - all Marines. The SEALs advanced and prepared to breach the next hatch.
This one blew up in their faces, hurling debris at them. Fortunately their suits were made of the best material. LCDR Black's own suit was breached at the right shoulder, but one of the Team Corpsmen hauled him to the rear and quickly slapped a patch on it. Reserve atmosphere from the backpack reinflated Black's suit before he could be affected. The underlying soft-armor layers had stopped the fragment from piercing his flesh, but the blunt trauma rendered his right arm unusable.
While that was going on, UN Navy Marines poured out, 4.7mm machinepistols blazing. Polymer cartridge cases poured out of the ejection ports and tumbled and bounced throughout the compartment. The little bullets struck the Jeffersonians, but their suits' armor stopped most of them.
The SEALs counterattacked. They were using shortened versions of the Dardell Model 11, a 6.5mm caseless rifle. These had been fitted with recoil balancers - an arrangement of mass and springs and gas ports which counteracted the weapon's recoil, to eliminate its effect on the shooter in freefall. The Terrans had to brace themselves to stay on target, even with the puny cartridges they were firing - and they didn't train as much as SEALs. Under the UN, every single round had to be accounted for, lest they fall into the hands of the peasants and threaten the UN's control. SEALs received, and used, practice ammunition by the pallet. Leftovers were sold cheap to civilians for recreation, because the line between "civilian" and "military" was thin and blurry in the Jeffersonian Republic.
Magazines were emptied. Some tried to reload, but the Jeffersonians, for all the ammunition lavished on them in training, had superior fire discipline - they rarely used the full-automatic settings on their weapons, sticking to three-round bursts or even single shots. The Terrans who paused to reload were shot dead.
The survivors charged, drawing knives or using their empty weapons as clubs. The Jeffersonians responded in kind. Terran blades drew some blood, if they struck at just the right angle and with all the force their wielders could muster. SEALs carried blades with molecular edges. What the Terrans thought were armored suits parted like cotton.
One of the UN Marines armed a grenade and prepared to throw. Jon Sommers, Petty Officer Second Class, Electrician's Mate, kicked off from a piece of equipment in the wrecked compartment, slammed into the Terran, and grabbed the hand with the grenade in it in his left hand, forcing it down between their bodies. With his right he plunged his own knife through the enemy's suit and into the Terran's chest.
The grenade exploded. The Jeffersonian suit's superior armor shielded Sommers' comrades, but the reaction threw him back toward them. The Terran's body splattered the other UN Marines. Disoriented, they quickly fell to the remaining SEALs.
Sommers had been obviously and instantly killed.

The next compartment held what they had come for. As the hatch was blasted open, there was Gillin - P24 had intercepted video signals between ships, including the UN political officer's face. He held what could only be a destruct charge, possibly nuclear. Fifteen surviving UN Marines surrounded him.
Jacob Ternel had retired from the SEALs, but kept himself in shape, and practiced marksmanship religiously. Instantly understanding what he saw, he made a snapshot at Gillin's hand, where it grasped the destruct charge. His M11 fired a three-round burst at over a thousand rounds per minute cyclic - fast enough that recoil couldn't disperse the group much, and the weapon was recoil-balanced anyway. The hand, still clutching the carry-bar, floated away. Gillin's face could be seen through his visor, screaming. A true believer in the UN's rule, he desperately reached for the charge with his other hand. Switching to semiautomatic, Ternel shot him through the other arm, then both legs.
Gillin was not wearing a real combat suit, but it still self-sealed. As the rest of the Jeffersonians neutralized the rest of the Terrans, Ternel ordered a Corpsman to "Take that one alive." The Corpsman kicked and bounced his way across the compartment, jabbed a sedative into one of the open wounds, then wrapped a tourniquet around Gillin's stump, and patches on the other suit breaches. Anticipating prisoners, he carried spare air bottles with adapters to fit Terran suits.
P27's computers were there.

Another Terran scientist had been in the compartment, and had surrendered without resistance. As Ternel had him dragged over to where the destruct charge had come to rest, Gillin's severed hand still clutching it, the scientist started spilling his guts and begging to defect. "How much information on Marsten technology has been sent to Terra?" Ternel asked.
"Only preliminary reports, and some images," the scientist - Kenneth Lormar, a physicist from the University of Calgary - answered. "We still don't know the secret! Please believe me! I'll tell you everything, just take me with you!"
"The computers?"
"Scrambled! We got nothing from them, I swear!"
"Our people?"
Lormar paled. "I... told Gillin what questions to ask. I didn't - I couldn't...! I couldn't even be in the room when they...!" The scientist looked like he might vomit.
Ternel's face was stone, his voice ice. "Was anything learned by torturing our people?"
"Nothing! Your men... they died rather than talk. None of them broke! Ensign Walters... he was defiant. Lying, making up words, trying to send us down false trails. Cursing us, Terrans, the UN, me. The recordings, they're in this ship's computers, they'll prove what I say! I swear to God, he is the bravest man I ever saw." Tears wobbled at Lormar's eyes.
Ternel stared into Lormar's eyes for a time, then said to the nearby Corpsman, "Drug him and bag him. We'll take him with us."
Lormar could hardly finish saying "Thank you!" before the sedative took effect.

The Terran reinforcements were less than six hours away now, and Ternel's new plan was ready.
The approaching task force had been trying to contact Holder since shortly after the battle - radio, microwave, laser. Meteor had shot away antennae along with weapons and engines. Now, using codes found in Holder's own computers, Ternel directed a response, text only and anonymous: "Enemy has boarded, situation in doubt. Will attempt" - he cut off the message there.
Over fifty UN personnel were still trapped in their compartments aboard Merkel, a similar number on Holder. With direct access to Holder's computers, the Jeffersonian Tech could gain control of hatches and atmosphere, trapping them as well. The SEALs, trained and practiced, quickly gathered anything that might be of value: documents, code books, computer drives, logs.
Using ancient submarine tactics, debris and spare parts were gathered. Boats One and Four were to be sacrificed along with what remained of Two and Three. Even parts of Meteor were cut away, with the ship's own weapons, to simulate the effect of enemy fire.
During the long Transit to Sol, Ternel had studied the files of all members of the mission. Jon Sommers had been Asatru, following the Old Norse religion, seeking admission to Valhalla. He had died well, slaying enemies, protecting his fellows. Ternel would give him a Viking funeral... and traces of his remains would help convince the enemy of the failure of his mission.
As the Terran reinforcements approached, they trained their telescopes on the scene. They saw a repaired mass driver aboard Merkel loose a stream of slugs at Meteor, scattering debris - carefully aimed. Meteor "returned" fire with her pulse-lasers, destroying the weapon. A missile launched from Holder and was intercepted by Meteor's point-defense. Another followed, and seemed to get through.
Then, there was a fusion detonation, and shortly, another, and a third. The place where Meteor had been was an expanding cloud of plasma and fragments. Merkel and Holder were shattered, lost with all hands.
The EMP of the fusion bombs had concealed the EMP of Meteor's Transition to hyperspace. The Terrans' own nuclear self-destruct charge was used too, to give investigators convincing elemental signatures. A handful in the UN intelligence community would suspect what had happened, but would never find proof.

174JR/2118CE
South Continent, Monticello, Jeffersonian Republic

"We interrupt this program for breaking news.
"Tragedy struck at 13:22 Monticello Standard Time yesterday, when our patrol ships
P21 and P27, conducting a routine training exercise in the cometary regions of Tau Ceti's outer system, were caught in an unexpected gas eruption from an unstable comet. P21 was lost with all hands, destroyed instantly by ice and other debris. From P27 there are only two survivors, both critically injured. They are Ensign Norman Walters, Communications Officer, and Spacer 2nd Class Angelo Semmes, Gunner's Mate. Chief of Naval Operations Edmond Dales released a statement with these details minutes ago, after the families had been notified. The following spacers were lost...."

Betty Sommers had taken the news hard. Her son had died, not bravely in battle - he would be denied admission to Valhalla. Her husband had died in an accident years before. She had no other children and was not inclined to remarry. It seemed none of her blood would take part in Ragnarok. Since it was a peacetime exercise, her son wouldn't even get a posthumous Crimson Band. She felt... cheated by the universe.
Months had passed, and her bereavement leave had ended - she had returned to her work in an insurance office in Central Terminal, the spaceport-city on South Continent. She had been working late, to distract herself from her loss.
It was dark as she walked across the parking lot to her aircar, for the short flight home. Suddenly she sensed a person behind her. Turning, she reached for her pistol-
"Your son didn't die in a training accident."
Betty Sommers gasped, and saw a man in Navy uniform - an officer - an admiral? He removed his hat and held it before him in both hands, continuing, "He was on a secret mission. Under my authority.
"If the details came out it could mean war. A very terrible war, which we are not yet capable of winning.
"...Not and still call ourselves human.
"Your son prevented that war, prevented potentially millions of deaths, at the cost of his own life. I saw with my own eyes as he slew three enemies by his own hand, saving the lives of many of his comrades... and my own.
The admiral's voice began to break. "Your son died a hero, and earned his place in Odin's Hall. You deserve to know that. Someday, he will be recognized for his sacrifice...."
The man reached out to take Betty's hand in his own. Tears fell from his eyes as he concluded: "But not today."
He put his hat back on, turned, and was gone.

Betty looked down at the object the man had placed in her hand. It was a ribbon bar, the miniature device used to signify military decorations on the "fruit salad" of the Republic's Class-A uniforms. This one was black, with a single, small, white, five-pointed star in the center:
The Medal of Honor.
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