‘Approaching target from the sun side. ninety kilometers. eighty kilometers. Seventy.’
‘Fighters launched. Fifty-five… fifty kilometers.’
The question hung in the air as captain Noble eyed the new bridge recruit and then turned to the main screen again without even replying.
‘Fire front cannon.’
As the ship trembled and roared by the sheer force on the plating, Noble watched the spew of meteor fragments move towards the target. Though they were just little glints of stone and metal, the damage would be great… if he had indeed targeted the ship.
‘Front cannon missed at two kilometers. Target is veering away from the burst into projected trajectory.’
‘Twenty kilometers. Ten kilometers.’
Unwillingly Noble closed his hand as if he could catch the ship in it.
‘Passing the ship, sir.’
‘Hold fire. We want this one in one piece. Deploy the drones, target the main engine outlet, but keep them away from the core. We don’t want it to explode.’
‘Yessir,’ the drone operators replied in unison as they opened the floodgates for the hundreds of unmanned miniature ships. Though each of them had only an hours’ worth of thrust and maneuverability and did the precision laser did little to no damage, together they could effectively strip a ship bare in just under an hour as through sensors each of them kept track of what was worthwhile to keep whole and what was expendable. Having had their basic design tweaked, these upgraded ones could even be told which exact spot to focus their fire.
‘Ship main engine failed captain. Three drones lost.’
‘Perfect. Put the lost drones on the requisition list and upgrade their programming when they get in.’
‘Already done, sir.’
‘Launch fighters capture and board her. Confiscate any cargo.’
Noble knew he was micromanaging his crew, but he also knew they expected him to do so. One day he would be gone, someone would step into his place and he just wanted to make them damn sure that everyone knew what they were doing. He even took common occurrences like disabling a smuggler ship like this and played his crew through different variations. Main fire or no main fire, pass over or stop, the use of drones or fighters to disable and entrée point. If he didn’t command something he wanted his men to take steps on their own and he never disputed that. But God help them if they disobeyed any of his commands, ever. Even when the command was given to crash their fighter into the enemy he wanted his men not even to blink and do as they were told. He had once, just to test them, and the pilot who refused was now scrubbing the toilets as a result. How long had it been? Two years?
‘Put up their views and cut all communication to them. Let’s see how they do.’
It was a risky move and he knew it. Last time he had let his men go rampant in another ship it has resulted in the rape of one of the female crewmembers. With so many men on board and the women knowing better than to get pregnant and lose their position, it was always a risk, but Noble hoped that having had the rapist shot while he was actually still had been in the woman was enough of a deterrent not to let it happen again. He hated unnecessary violence, which was a hard position to keep in such an aggressive occupation.
With a decent amount of amusement he watched the crew, nine head in all, getting subdued quickly and efficiently. Even before the reply came that the ship was secure, Noble stepped up the pace.
‘Send in the flight crew.’
The ‘target clear’ came only minutes later and from the reaction of the lieutenant awaiting the appropriate reply the man had not even noticed they had been out of contact.
‘I repeat, target clear. Respond.’
‘Alright. Bring them back, after they jettison the crew.’
There was a brief moment of silence on the command deck, but it lasted only seconds. It was the first time the crew were called for to be executed without a trial.
‘Fighters, return. Airlock the crew.’
Again a moment of silence.
‘Yessir. Understood,’ came the answer and Noble turned off the main viewer not to have his bridge crew distracted by the ordeal. He would save that for another time. This time it was all about the resolve of the fighter pilots as their part of the job had been slipping ever so slightly in the last missions.
‘Turn this ship around, let’s head on home.’
The bridge crew gave a cheer though Noble noticed a few of them were not that enthusiastic, their faces a little ashen and drawn by the last command. At the start of the next run he would see who had resigned their post. It was not like they had much choice anyway, as military men were despised by the general population of Mars. They saw them as usurpers, the fist of the corporate military machine that had taken over their peaceful and productive lives. And partially, of course, they were right, but without decent self-government the outpost had become rampant and as a result the output of goods had become unstable. It was his job to put it right and get the shipments of iron and minerals flowing again.
‘How are the Seven holding up?’ Noble commented without looking at the teenage boy that had quietly sat in the corner overlooking everything.
‘Very well thank you,’ the boy replied almost mechanically and without emotion.
‘Did they enjoy the show?’
‘If you mean command then I don’t think they really care. All they care for is the result, not the execution.’
‘Quite right. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take pride in my job.’
‘Quite, sir. And that is being appreciated and, if I pay be so bold, makes you the best.’
‘Well thanks kid. That means a lot to me.’
‘No it doesn’t,’ the boy said tonelessly and Noble laughed.
‘No, I guess it doesn’t.’