Imports From the Bird: Regarding “THAT Ship”

Hello, readers mine! The following is the result of my earnest attempt to write a short–HA–Twitter thread concerning my staunch belief that we need more soft SciFi/futuristic fantasy stories centering around the inherent drama of smaller warships going toe-to-toe with a true flagship.

I hoped to convince other writers of the potential in this idea–in following a group of dedicated warships, and not spindly starfighters or obnoxious tapdancing frigates either–as they confront an enemy which is just plain superior to them. I was, in fact, so convincing that my “example” turned into more of a story in its own right.

Or at any rate, I quite ably convinced myself. Whether anyone else is convinced is for them to decide. It’s a rare thing these days that my own writing seizes control of me, though, so I hope it may be a sign that there’s something special here.

For your enjoyment in a format much better suited to it than Twitter, I’ve thus copied the entirety of that thread below. It opens in my more colloquial Twitter voice–did you know that I’m only sometimes a Gothic matron?–before lapsing further and further into my prose style as I get carried away in my own argument. Be prepared for this one-two tonal shift–otherwise, I hope you enjoy the ill-fated tale of an iron maiden, and those who crew her:

***

… I feel like half my tweets on writing can be reduced to, “Realism is not internal consistency or an objective marker of quality” Keep your realism, I want fiscally-irresponsible dreadnoughts exchanging salvos at relativistic velocity.

Was the Bismarck, by all indications, an inefficiently-designed battleship whose staggering resilience in its last stand against the Royal Navy was a direct result of their decision to close into point-blank range where its obsolescent armor scheme was actually an advantage?

Yep!

Is that a compelling story to just insert whole cloth into a SciFi setting based around large-scale fleet battles? Fuck no! You want the flagship serving as the primary antagonist of a story arc to ACTUALLY be as good as its reputation!

“URGHblehugh-b-but it’s a C-COMMENTARY on P-p-PROPAGANDA!”
Hey, dumbass, you’re working in a SciFi setting. You want that commentary? Here’s how to have it without reducing what SHOULD be an easy central tension into a joke:

1. Include actual propaganda by the makers of said uber-warship 2. Indicate through worldbuilding that the propaganda is intended to prevent the general public from realizing that the money spent on it could have paid for their healthcare 3. That’s it, you’re done.

Like, can we all just take a minute to appreciate how frequently squandered the idea of, “Oh fuck, it’s THAT SHIP” actually is? There’s always a Cunning Plan™, or a structural weakness, or some other bullshit.

I’m sure it does see proper use in some books here and there, but this is so easy it should be mainstream. Stop trying to be clever or subversive or whatever the hell you people think you’re doing. Just let me sell you on this:

(Pretend I haven’t been screaming and belligerent for a second. I mean, it’s Twitter, we’re all like this–anyway–)

Imagine a sound number of early chapters which follow a warship on patrols on the outskirts of a large interstellar nation. Could even be a superpower.

You’ll be tempted to make this a frigate or–BLECH–a carrier for a bunch of starfighters flown by the main characters.

Don’t.

Bear with me.

Let’s make our warship a heavy cruiser: few strike craft, no frills, no escorts. She’s not the pride of the fleet, not one of the grand battleships with railguns mighty enough to pierce a planet to the mantle, but she’s larger than most known warships.

Back her up with a flotilla of sister-ships–nine sounds like a good number. Nine heavy cruisers. Together, enough to mob and peel apart any one threat–yes, even a battleship. The early chapters will focus on the cruiser group’s day-to-day–their routine competence.

Let them have their glory: peel apart these pirates, fly a cushy honor-guard run as part of a diplomatic mission. Establish their power. Let the readers, or audience, see, let them FEEL the fire of the main batteries. Lure them to believe this iron maiden is invincible.

It starts, like many horror stories, with things that could be routine: Reports of lost trade convoys. A few scout frigates delayed in returning from their patrols. An outpost sending the same scanner data for months.

For a period of a few weeks, our iron maiden and her stalwart crew are not called upon–nor her sisters. These are petty matters. Errands for a frigate group, and beneath their notice. A brawl against several rogue cruisers. Battle scars and honor. Riding high.

While a stardock sutures her wounds and refits her hull, another report comes in: the frigate group investigating those strange reports, and the light cruiser anchoring their formation, have not checked in for weeks.

The station commander loses patience.

Two of her sisters go forth–another pack of rogue-state cruisers, the commander says. As the iron maiden alone humbled the last three, so will her sisters glut the vacuum with the molten blood of the would-be wolves.

A week passes. Two. Three.

And her sisters do not return.

“Most likely they took some comms damage,” she tells the commander.
“Most likely,” he agrees.

There is more chatter, meaningless. Seven heavy cruisers shed their magnetized moorings and burn out into the stars–fully loaded.

Metalloid wolves on the hunt.

Grand delusions.

They enter the silent sector–a region of sparkling constructs. Shattered frames. Ovoid spurs. Relics of a long-gone empire.

Is some of the debris more recent? The captains don’t waste sensor time on it.

“Stick to the mission”, and all.

They tell themselves they don’t know what to expect, but they expect it anyway: pings at the edge of the scanner, an ad-hoc quay of bolted metal and salvaged scraps. Sudden raking fire from a thousand clicks out.

They don’t see the flaw–the reason why they expect these things.

It’d be easy to say that led them to make mistakes. That they split up, or their formation was too tight, or that too many of their main batteries were inactive when the moment arrives.

All lies. They’re prepared better than anyone could reasonably ask. It’s war, isn’t it?

So when scanners pick up a contact dead ahead, coming straight at the loose pyramid of their formation, they’re too stunned for a moment to react.

“I’m sorry,” says the iron maiden’s captain, “and y-you said they’re red-shifted, Dav?”
“Negative, ma’am,” the AI answers, “blue.”

There are formalities, of course: blaring klaxons and pounding feet, harmonic reverberance through the iron maiden’s hull as she aligns her six main batteries–three topside, three underside, all staggered on armored slopes so at least half her guns can fire in any direction.

Three quarters can bear on a forward target as long as it’s more than a couple of miles out–the maiden was forged to do battle at ten thousand times that range, of course–or big enough.

This one’s big enough.

“Ship class is unknown,” Dav says. “Standby.” There’s a flicker of data on the bridge monitors–a courtesy from the kaleidoscopic consciousness of an AI to the mere mortals they count as comrades-in-arms.

Too much, too fast to read: lasers and scanners measuring distance.

Data pings back and forth. “Best estimate: target warship…” Dav trails off. They’re sapient. They can feel. And right now, they feel the same as everyone else. “Shared telemetry indicates approaching warship is between 16 and 18 kilometers long.”

This was the mistake. They expected to face a few ships, or perhaps just one.

But deep down, the seven sisters and their captains decided the enemy was weaker.

The iron maiden is three kilometers. Pangaea, flagship of the Federation, is thirteen–already a super-battleship.

“There’s no way…” the maiden’s XO says. “If it’s armored to its scale–”

That’s especially pathetic. No one who would build the monster storming towards them would armor it BENEATH its scale.

“We won’t get through,” the XO finishes.

“Enveloping formation!” the captain barks. Yes, that’s it: more fire, more pep, straighten that spine. “Dav, get a signal out to central–”
“I cannot,” the AI says, even as the seven sisters spread further, some accelerating, others firing their front-thrusters to drop back.

“What?” the captain slurs–as if drunk, or hit with truth serum.
“I cannot. The enemy seems to have hijacked our frequency.”

Federal communications are quantum. Sealed. Classified. The enemy would need to have captured sibling atoms from the station’s best warships to–

Oh.

“Enveloping formation,” the captain repeats. “We cannot expect reinforcements. I want a DSSR prepped in the #4 aft battery on each ship and fired the instant aux power goes.”

Deep Space Signal Round. Navy jargon dubs them Tombstones.

Seems in bad taste to use that name here.

“Range to enemy?” the captain asks.
“One-hundred megameters. Enemy is intensifying deceleration burn,” Dav reports. “Estimate they will hold steady at forty megameters.”

Within the maiden’s optimum range. There’s a mercy.

Well, a sick joke, actually.

“Enemy armament?”
Dav pauses. It’d be better if they stopped doing that. “Two main batteries only. Ten turrets top, ten bottom, triple mounts. Estimated diameter–”
“Secondaries?” the captain asks.

No one needs to hear that last part.

Dav waits again.

“Variable. Enemy’s current orientation shows four batteries of cruiser-grade, twin-mount, thirty turrets per battery. Diamond layout.”

“Enveloping formation”–a pretty gesture.

The monster has more turrets on any one side than the maiden in her entirety.

“Missile defenses?” the captain asks. It’s just protocol. She knows the answer already, but she has to pretend she doesn’t. Pretend someone would’ve made a mistake that basic in shaping the oncoming nightmare.

“I do not believe an exact count will be helpful,” Dav says.

Yep.

“Ma’am,” the XO says, “with all due respect–”
“We should turn tail and run? Turning means broadside,” the captain interrupts. “If we stay bow-in, it might be enough.” She clears her throat. “Shielding, then the bow plate… it’ll be enough.”

It won’t.

There are no distractions left. No numbers left to ask for, no messages to send, no fancy orders to give.

The seven sisters, their pyramid now inverted, close in. “Approaching fifty megameters,” Dav says. “Detecting increased thermal radiation on enemy main batteries.”

“Begin drunk-walk,” the captain says. Normally there’d be some question of accuracy–all those turns and decelerations putting the ship at risk of catching its own torps in the launch tubes, vibrations throwing the guns off.

She knows it’s not going to matter much, here.

There’s a delay at this range. The scanners are top-of-the-line, but they do have one limitation. It’s not supposed to matter much–nothing’s faster than light speed. Not in real space.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

So when the external feed shows momentary flickers, dozens of trails carved through the faint nebular haze wafting from some of the constructs in the silent sector, and a spray of asteroid shards scrapes along the maiden’s topside plate, the captain has just enough time.

Reaction time to visual stimuli. Genetic engineering, brain conditioning–she thinks fast. She sees fast. 0.089 seconds fast. At a distance of fifty thousand kilometers, it takes a little less than a fifth of a second for light to arrive.

All of which means that when there are sudden blinding flashes on the bridge’s central feed, the feed zoomed in on the brooding black mass of sloped plating and ranked circular voids and a brutish spearpoint wedge of a bow that comprise the enemy–

–it means the captain has had just enough time to understand that something just came very close to hitting them, and it’s already gone, and just as that thought has coalesced from the panicked novas of cognition in her brain, to see those flashes come and go.

And though there’s no gravity in the clusters of the silent sector, the vapor is just enough that with heat, for an instance, there can be steam. Steam from infinitesimal condensation boiling on the barrels of the enemy’s big, glaring, impossible rail guns.

The shockwave void torn by their firing soon buffets the seven sisters. “Coordinate trajectories and fire main guns at will–hold the torps!” the captain orders.

Glowing lines spring out across the external feeds, intersecting, a net of projected fire to snare the foe.

“Captain,” the XO says.
“Quiet,” she orders.

The XO’s not having it.

“Captain, that’s not a cruiser, that’s not some two-bit deep raider flotilla, that is a battleship,” he insists, eyes wide. Teeth bared. A cornered animal. “Armored to take its own fire. And we are NOT equipped to breach something that can take hyperluminal.”

“That’s why,” she answers, cold as the glimmer of distant stars, “we’re going to close to point blank. We’re going to soften that armor. Beam banks on weak areas. Burn down the shields. Hit ’em with the torps. Then we can breach what’s left.”

She must look very impressive, saying that. She times it well. Right as she finishes, the seven sisters return fire. A hundred-some guns. Most of the shells hit. They tear holes, like tatters of stained glass, in the enemy’s shields. Maybe they scrape some paint off the armor.

She must look especially impressive because the XO doesn’t notice that. He swallows his fear, and nods, and sits back down.

She makes it tempting enough to believe, so of course, he does. He wants to believe it.

Good leaders can lie well.

For a bit, it seems possible. The sisters weave around the bones of that old, dead empire. They dart behind asteroids. The AIs time their turns well, and keep them tight: never really showing broadside.

Mostly, it’s only that bow plate peeking out when the fire comes. For a bit.

The best predators pick the moment. They’re patient things. They let their prey think it has a chance.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. One of the seven sisters takes a longer turn around an asteroid. Shows something like broadside, but it’s in cover…

…well, no, actually.

The behemoth aligns her guns. Calculating. Somewhere within her black hull there must be an AI. Only the best and brightest for the dread one.

Easily able to compile all that data and project–this is the moment. The little one is there.

Angle of attack: about 90 degrees.

The other six signal their sister–a frantic AI cluster crying out when the thermal signatures return. Even hotter this time. The armored muzzle-shutters cycle open. Capacitors glow golden hot in the depths of the black barrels.

It’s already too late. Engines fire. Space tears.

The maiden’s captain understands, in the same detached way as an athlete looking at their own shattered ankle, that they’ve still been thinking in terms of pirate frigates. An asteroid might be cover against those.

Not such umbral spears as the black ship launches forth.

Frozen silicate and heavy iron shatter, superheat, and bathe the seventh sister in a molten after-blow, but the spears have already come and gone.

Simple math: Three turrets fire nine magnetic guns for seven direct hits and a gouge that peels away half the topside armor band.

The punctures, silvery-edged serrations torn through the proud cruiser’s angular hole, glow for a while. The spacing, the captain notes, with that power of intuition which is the one thing her brain can do that Dav struggles with–

It’s deliberate.

“We have your blueprints” deliberate.

The cruiser is stricken, belching fire, engines failing. But still alive, the captain starts to think, until–
“Torrential reporting,” says the seventh sister’s captain, “Breach in the #1 Reactor Bastion. We are attempting containment–“

Shrieking tide. White fire bright as a star, rays blooming out through the dust and shrapnel of the broken asteroid. Onyx shadows splinter and coil on the constructs.

In this instant the seventh sister has died. What comes after is only wailing, and a last breath.

The bridge of a heavy cruiser is an adamant cradle. Deep within its belly, behind a second armor band, a metalloid bunker-within-a-bunker. The only things with heavier armor are its reactor bastions.

Even the plasmatic blood of a dying reactor won’t punch through bridge plating.

What it will do is heat. Heat to overwhelm the secondary shields. Heat to suffuse all that dense armor. Heat enough that in seconds, even as the Torrential’s captain shouts orders, it has become an oven.

They forget to close their comms.

So the iron maiden’s captain and her subordinates listen for a few seconds. They listen while orders become screaming, warbling and runny, sound turning as molten as the flesh giving it form, until Dav closes the channel.

“I have succeeded in adjusting the reactor’s parameters.”

There’s not much to say, only to think. Flare-outs aren’t supposed to happen. Smashed armor, riven gun-turrets, circuitry so mangled that a living reactor sits, intact, beneath its battered plating in the shredded skeleton of a dead ship.

All that’s expected.

Not a flare-out.

The hull of a heavy cruiser can withstand the fire of a heavy cruiser. But its reactor bastion can withstand the fire of a battleship.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Well, the seventh sister doesn’t have to wait long for company on her voyage to oblivion.

All that radiation, visible spectrum, thermal, x-ray and ultraviolet and gamma–it plays total hell with sensors. Enough that the AIs don’t catch it when the black ship tires of her game.

“I’ve proven I can be elegant,” she seems to say. “Now for brutality.”

The maiden’s captain knows phrases like “fusillade” and “withering volley.”

The technical term is “Full Alpha.”

The other seventeen triple-mount turrets with their fifty-one guns. Hundreds of cruiser-grade. Dav only knows how many thousands of lesser rail-guns. Torpedoes, missile launchers, beam generators so enormous and channeling such insane radiance as to burn sickly coronas on swift-bleeding shields even at this range–the silent sector becomes a muffled apocalypse.

At first the six sisters return fire when they can. They spit fire of their own in between darting around exploding asteroids and dodging the jagged wreckage as the black ship’s jaws close on the last vestiges of those pretty, pretty constructs.

Some of it lands.

Six fleas could nibble on a black diamond if they got it into their heads. They’d probably do more damage.

Number six runs out of luck next. Her topside battery disappears in a microsecond when one hyperluminal shell rips through it in a line. She spins out.

Torpedoes swarm her, bathe her in the unmaking embrace of matter-antimatter warheads, and what remains is a roiling, rivulet-spinning skin of molten alloys over charnel-black interior.

Five is simply peeled apart by one cruiser-grade shell after another until the bones of her understructure peer out through the ragged gashes in her armor band.

Four gets lucky, in a way: torpedo impacts cause spin-out, a turn, and a mercy kill by main guns. She breaks up.

The iron maiden and her two surviving sisters are aglow, dull reds and orange streaks where the beams caught them during a breath of shield-failure. They drive inward. Light rail, thousands upon thousands of rounds, pings and pecks and shatters into splinters on their armor.

The maiden’s captain wants to believe they’ll do it.

“Dav, fire the DSSR,” she says.
“Yes, Ma’am.” The AI forgets to ask confirmation. Probably for the best.

The shell zips away–subluminal, but fast. Maybe it’ll be fast enough.

Maybe they should’ve fired it ten minutes ago.

They’re entering knife-fight range, somehow, some way, and the behemoth’s main guns struggle to track them. It doesn’t matter; her cruiser-grade smashes away one turret after another, crumples silo doors above forever-unused torpedoes, and mangles thrusters.

Somehow the three sisters survive long enough as they circle, as they strain failing power to avoid the gaze of those long guns, to begin boiling away at one unyielding section of plate near the black ship’s mid-section, to bring it to a starry glow.

The maiden is the last of the three to peel off, and the last with something resembling a full main battery. She will have one salvo. “Hold us steady and give full alpha on that breach!” the captain orders. Dav does not answer with words, only a straightening of the course.

All that remains of the maiden’s guns, thirteen barrels at point-blank range–irrelevant for power, because this is deep space and the only laws on use of force are Newton’s own, but everything for accuracy–they line up, they charge, they strike true.

Glowing armor shatters.

A breath of hope? Something accomplished, even as the behemoth trains her planet-gutting gaze on the defiant maiden?

Of course not. A wafer-like patch spalls out from the black ship’s hull, and underneath it is pristine black armor. The shear-lines of the breakage are geometric.

“Molecular lattice armor,” Dav observes, as the main guns bring to bear on them. “It is purely theoretical.”

The captain can manage nothing but a strangled, sobbing butchery of a laugh.

At this range there is a brief instant before the slugs reach full acceleration. A blink before they outrun the light that heralds their emergence into the vacuum. An instantaneous white flash through the feeds, and then horrific squalling, and darkness, and slow-creeping heat.

Time passes. A console chimes.

“They didn’t finish us,” the captain notes, in the darkness of the bridge.
“They may as well have done,” Dav says. “The power grid is ruined. Life support is active only for the bridge. Sensors indicate… sensors indicate that we are alone.”

“Someone will come for us,” the captain says.

No one says anything else, then.

Perhaps someone will come. Perhaps that is precisely the point.

***

As I said, this should’ve been written for WordPress in the first place, but it’s been a while since I got the bit in my teeth this way and, frankly, I was frightened to lose that momentum once I developed it.

Some addendums for the WordPress edition: you might expect that the continuation of this story would involve some kind of workaround or elaborate plan to avoid directly confronting the power of the black ship. That is precisely the opposite of what I would do. The crux of the narrative would be that there is no workaround: no nonsensical droid hacking, no special secret new weapon, no convenient disabling of the dread battleship’s main batteries. This would be a story of one failed attempt after another to bring down the predator of the silent sector–a story culminating with a knock-down, drag-out brawl of multiple dreadnought battlegroups coordinating to grind it down in a protracted, terrifying gun duel.

Of course they win eventually. Catharsis is important in a horror story. And that’s honestly the feeling if not precisely the genre I’m advocating for: the stark, nightmarish super-battleship not as a setting for the real story, not as a stage for the confrontation between actors with little story relevance in its own right. In this story the black ship is a slasher villain. Lesser warships are the survivors. And the best slasher villains are those who go down so slowly, doing so much damage, that we’re still afraid of them even after they’re gone.

That works a lot better when you have to fight them, first.

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