2952-02-21 – Tales from the Service: The Decision in the Grinder 

As the other members of Tomi Acosta’s bridge crew took turns slipping out of their crash-pad restraints to stretch their limbs and nibble on chewy, uninspiring combat-situation ration bars passed out by the skipper, Wilson Boothe bent over the displays, watching for any sign that the Grinder was about to make more trouble for them.  

He’d managed to find a temporarily quiet pocket within the whirling melee of ice and rock, but that pocket was slowly being squeezed out by a pair of counter-rotating debris clusters. A collision within either could easily hurl tons of fast-moving debris toward the old destroyer, and if that happened, Wilson would have only seconds to respond.  

The pursuing flight of Coronachs was another problem, but it wasn’t his problem, not yet. Though nimble, the pursuing Incarnation interceptors were fragile, and could not survive a collision of any magnitude; they were still a long way off, trying to work their way around the scything debris-storm Acosta had barely avoided on its way in. That they’d entered the Grinder at all was a testament to the discipline of Incarnation pilots, and probably to their overestimation of their own skills. 

A tap on Wilson’s shoulder made him jump hard enough that the restraints dug into his shoulders. Looking up, he saw Commander Popovic’s impassive face and a proffered ration bar in his hand. 

“Better have a bite, Boothe.” Popovic set the bar on the edge of Wilson’s console. “If they’re here to stay, this is going to be a long game.” 

Wilson glanced over at the foil-wrapped rectangle. “Sure, Skipper.” 

Popovic took a step back, but remained there, just behind Wilson for several silent seconds. “Any hope of getting us deeper in?” 

Wilson shook his head. “Wouldn’t count on it.” He reached out to grab the food bar, then tore the corner of the package with his teeth. This was technically indecorous, but with his other hand hovering over the execute control for the most probable escape vector in case of a fresh hazard, Popovic would forgive the breach. “The next layer in is fairly dense. I’ve seen a couple openings big enough for us to get through, but our acceleration just isn’t enough. We’d need to be moving before one opened.”  

Popovic grunted and sipped his coffee. “Can we work around this layer to put more distance between us and those Nate fighters?” 

Wilson bit off the corner of the food bar and chewed it slowly, looking at the various sensor readouts. “There would need to be another quiet pocket to go to, Skipper, and I don’t see one. We can’t really stay here either; the rocks are going to evict us in a few hours, if they don’t decide to do it sooner.” 

“The Coronachs will find us before that.” Popovic didn’t sound too dismayed by this, but then, he was infamous for having no detectable emotional responses to anything. Whether that was because he was supremely self-controlled or developmentally defective was a matter of strenuous debate among the crew. “We’ll need to leave the pocket before they get here.” 

“We’ll be shredded.” Wilson shook his head morosely. He didn’t think Popovic cared; the skipper probably saw it as death either way, so he had resolved to die in the most inconvenient way for the enemy. Wilson preferred not to die at all, but if everyone was going to die, he would have voted to take their chances fighting off the Coronachs in open space. That way, when it happened, it wouldn’t be his fault as the helmsman. 

“We can take more of that than they can.” Popovic gulped the rest of his coffee noisily. “I wonder how many of those little rigs they’ll sacrifice just to kill us.” 

The obvious answer Wilson didn’t bother to vocalize was that the Incarnation would sacrifice more than enough Coronachs, if they decided that destroying Acosta was mission critical. With at least two heavy cruisers in-system, there were probably at least a dozen squadrons available for the task. Even if the first squadron worming its way deeper into the Grinder after them failed to score the kill, the next one wouldn’t be far behind. 

A flash of motion on one of the secondary readouts caught Wilson’s attention. As he swiveled one of the visual-light cameras in that direction just in time to see a huge ice formation disintegrate into a cloud of glittering splinters under the impact of a much smaller but much denser chunk of ferrous rock. The bulk of the debris was headed into Acosta’s safe pocket, reducing its brief lifespan from hours to minutes. 

“We’re losing our quiet patch.” Wilson sent the spectacular impact visuals to the main display. “I’m not seeing any good escape routes.” 

“Then let’s dispense with escape.” As everyone else on the bridge scrambled back to their crash-pad restraints, Popovic returned to his station with maddening lack of urgency and began strapping himself in. “Take us toward that pursuing squadron. Let’s try this on our terms.” 

Though Wilson couldn’t see how any engagement in the Grinder could possibly be on Acosta’s terms, he was long past objecting. With a resigned sigh, he cancelled his previous evasive course and started to bring the ship about. 

Though Acosta’s rather harrowing experience did not end in the certain destruction that Mr. Boothe asserts he was glumly projecting at the time, it nevertheless was a high-risk tactic that should by all rights have been fatal to the ship and its entire crew. Only the fact that the alternative was even more certain destruction made taking a vessel of war into the Grinder formation the reasonable decision, and then only in hindsight. Had the destroyer been smashed to bits quickly at no loss to the enemy, we would not know of Commander Popovic’s unorthodox decision, but because it worked, there is some discussion of awarding him a Centaur Cross. 

[N.T.B. - Stupid ideas are still stupid even if they work. Though I have to admit, by all accounts this Popovic is a very interesting character who I think I would like to meet.]