2952-02-21 – Tales from the Service: The Flight through the Grinder 

I had to get this confirmed from three credible sources before I believed it myself: apparently The Incarnation sent a naval task force to raid the Tkachenko system, best known for being the location of the most inhospitable world of Botched Ravi.  

Of all the targets, military and civilian, for them to choose, this has to be the worst. Even Ravi’s own natives – and I have interacted with quite a few in my role in editing this text feed – would agree with me in calling the place worthless in the grand scheme of the Confederated economy, and militarily pointless. We’ve had a few stories sent in by the stubborn hardcases who make that barely-habitable rock their home, and I’ve published at least two of them. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the low habitability and general unpleasantness of the planet is the main draw for most of its colonists. 

Fortunately for the Ravi colonists, there’s little there worthy of a proper raid. The Incarnation’s forces damaged a few orbital facilities, sent a flight of Coronachs down to shoot up the main groundside spaceport, and chased the few starships in the system around, and it is from a spacer aboard one of these vessels that we get today’s entry. 

[N.T.B. - Botched Ravi is one of those places I’ve always wanted to go for a ramble, but I never got a proper chance. Strange that Nate would think the place worthy of an attack, though.] 

“For the record, this is a bad idea, Skipper.” Wilson Boothe, helmsman of the old destroyer Tomi Acosta, turned around as far as his crash-pad chair and restraints would allow, just enough to see the skipper’s station out of the corner of his eye. “It’s called the Grinder for good reason.” 

“Your objection is noted, Mr. Boothe. Take us in.” Commander Popovic’s breezy, dismissive tone was quite at odds with the dim, red-tinted battle-stations lighting and the distressing number of red pips in the main holo-plot at the front of the bridge. That plot was one of the old style fishtank displays, which projected their three-dimensional images onto a carefully managed medium of ionized gas. Acosta was an old ship that had been parked in a reserve flotilla parking orbit until the previous year, hastily refitted for rear-area service. 

Wilson had little choice, partly because Popovic was his skipper, and partly because if he tried to delay things much longer, Acosta would be fending off swarms of nimble Incarnation Coronach interceptors with a fire control system older than anyone on its crew. The Grinder would probably smash the old tin-can to bits, but those chip-headed strike pilots and the heavy cruiser following behind them certainly would. With the flick of a finger, he switched the helm controls over to fully manual mode and called up maximum thrust toward the anomalously dust, ice, and rock-choked region called the Grinder. 

“Maximum power to forward screens.” Commander Popovic cracked his knuckles one by one, to the annoyance of Wilson and everyone else on the bridge. “Comms, give me wide-band jamming. Damage control, stand by.” 

As the rest of the bridge crew busied themselves preparing for the inevitable wear and tear that Acosta was about to suffer, Wilson bent over his controls, peering at the array of visual feeds and radar readouts displayed on his console. Unlike on a smaller ship, there was no yoke or joystick setup to control the old destroyer’s helm; the vessel would not respond to such input fast enough to make its use meaningful. To pass through the Grinder intact, Wilson would have to anticipate threats even before the collision-detection system did, and have the helm controls updated several seconds before impact. 

“Debris strikes on the forward screens.” From the tone of his voice, MacGuire knew how pointless this call-out was, but it was standard procedure all the same. “Small-diameter particulate.” 

The small stuff was, of course, unavoidable. According to the few astrophysicists who had ever bothered to investigate the Tkachenko system, the Grinder was the remains of a cosmologically-recent collision between two planetoids that gravity was still trying to pull into a single solid body. Tens of millions of debris objects with about point-eight Earth-masses together whirled madly around a half-molten core smaller than Earth’s moon with orbital dynamics so complex that the best computers in the Reach would fail to model even a hundredth of its disorder. This was no place to take a ship of any size, but with Incarnation forces on its heels, Acosta was going in. 

“Coronachs are reducing acceleration. New intercept time: three minutes, thirty seconds.” 

“They’ll decelerate more if they’ve got half a brain.” Popovic still didn’t sound concerned. “Gun crews, you are free to engage them at maximum range whenever you have a clear shot.” 

Wilson gulped as two pieces of debris almost half as big as the ship collided off the starboard bow, with the smaller shattering to bits and the larger shedding quite a few splinters itself. A moment later, the hull reverberated with the ping and clatter of a few ejected fragments getting thtough the screens and striking home. He adjusted Acosta’s course toward the spot where the collision had just occurred, hoping that the smash-up had temporarily made that a low-energy portion of the debris storm.  

Fortunately, whether there was anything to that idea or not, Acosta made it through the collision site without injury deeper than her reflective hull coating. Wilson scanned the confused plot, looking for an opening in the mad whirl of rock and ice beyond. When he spotted one, it was already closing – and he didn’t fancy waiting around to see if another would open before the destroyer’s current position itself became untenable. Calling up emergency power on the gravitic drive, he set in a new heading and sent the ship charging for the narrowing gap between one huge chunk of ice and a cluster of jagged rocks moving the opposite direction. The rocks and ice would not collide, but they would pass each other closely enough as to leave no safety between them for a vessel as big as Acosta. 

“Boothe, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Popovic, it seemed, had noticed the closing jaws ahead from the wavering debris indicators on the main plot. 

“Only way through.” Wilson muttered. “Can’t stay still in here.” He wished his controls did have a yoke, if only because that would give him something to grip. Pushing one’s fingers harder onto the smooth touch-pad control surfaces just wasn’t the same. 

“Coronachs are entering the outer debris field. Again, they are slowing. Five minutes to intercept.”  

“Aft gunners, give them a volley.” Popovic, apparently, had accepted Wilson’s muttered explanation, and had returned to his usual detachment. "Even at this range it should make their lives interesting.” 

As railguns seventy meters aft spat thousands of high-velocity slugs into the path of the pursuing strike squadrons, Wilson cut forward thrust and touched the maneuvering-thruster controls to rotate Acosta slightly to port, so that its boosted forward screens faced the onrushing cluster of rocks. The ship slid between them and the ice mass with only a single significant impact, and this, the forward screens absorbed with dignity if not exactly with grace; flickering bridge lights indicated the amount of power that the screens were consuming to break up and divert the debris. 

A moment later, Acosta was drifting in a pocket of relative emptiness. The aft gunners, with their firing arcs blocked, ceased firing, and an eerie calm descended upon the ship. 

“Did... Did we do it?” MacGuire turned around in his chair to look at Wilson, who could only shrug. 

“That depends on how long those bastards plan to stay in Tkachenko.” Popovic rolled his shoulders, then unfastened his restraints and stood up. “Good work, Mr. Boothe. Since we’ve got a few minutes at least before we find out if we’re going to die, I’m going to get some coffee.”