Chuck Wendig kindly offered us this flash fiction prompt. 1000 words, entitled “The Fire Of the Gods.” I could easily have written twice this, but here we go.
“Kind of macabre.”
“Huh?” He had only been giving half his attention to Ensign Edmond Blais, who sat at the console beside him.
“The name. Kind of macabre, don’t you think?” Edmond said. His friend motioned with his cleft chin towards the nameplate on the wall of the gunnery bay.
“How do you mean?” Jerome turned back to the holographic display. They’d only just arrived on board the The God’s Fire, and was on their first shift. He was familiar with the controls, but he couldn’t find the data from the last missile tube calibration test.
“The name. You don’t think it’s kind of ominous?”
Jerome swiped into another menu. The data he needed appeared and his eyes scanned it. All four of the tubes in his battery were ready. Reassured, he turned to his friend.“Edmond, we’re an orbital weapons station. You don’t think we’re trying to send a message with the name?”
“Exactly. Orbital weapons station. With all the damage we’ve done to the Shanghai Seventeen’s ground to space capabilities, they could have called the station The Fluffy Rabbit, and it would still be threatening. You know what this station can do.” They both wore formal dress, and his midnight blue buttons gleamed on his black tunic, in stark contrast to Edmond’s sun-bleached hair.
Jerome just shook his head at his friend, and turned back to his console. They had spent the last six months in Jamaica at St. Andrew Space Force base, working on their tans and training for the then-unrevealed task of crewing this station. In doing so they’d missed the bloody final assault against the Shanghai Seventeen’s space and air superiority infrastructure, a grinding campaign that had cost the lives of a million of the American-European Treaty Organization’s brave men and women.
“We’re about to end twelve years of war.” He said after a minute. “It’s the only way. A ground campaign is impossible.” The Shanghai Treaty Organization simply had too many men, too many weapons, and too much strategic depth.
Boots echoed on steel grating. Edmond had been about to reply, but he shut up while wiry Lieutenant Wilkins paced behind them. The dark-haired little man seemed a viper in wolf’s clothing. The gunnery bay was quiet, though, and he passed them by in search of other prey.
When the pressure doors had slid closed behind Wilkins, Edmond looked up from his console. “Assuming the Seventeen surrender.”
“They have no choice, now.” Jerome protested. ”With the weapons on this station, we can annihilate them. Hasn’t the war already been bloody enough? They have to surrender.” The memory of the aftermath of the chemical attack on Winnipeg flashed unbidden to his mind. He focused on his console and banished the visions of withered corpses at his sister’s home.
“What if they don’t? What if they call our bluff?” Edmond asked, and he leaned closer to Jerome. “We’ve spent this entire war saying that we fight for democracy, and freedom, and that we won’t use the same tactics, the chemicals, the biological weapons. But didn’t we create something worse? You remember what they said the main gun on this station could do.”
Jerome did remember. The weapon needed solar panels six hundred kilometres across to power it… a full-power shot would be hot enough to turn a mid-sized city into glass. In fact, the ultimatum to start doing just that had gone down to the Seventeen almost an hour ago.
“I don’t know” he said. “I just assumed they would see reason.” He pulled his cap off and ran a hand through his clipped brown hair, aware that he was sweating despite the cool station air. He’d never heard Edmond talk like this before. “What’s gotten in to you?”
“I saw Tampa. I saw what they did at Dresden. But, for the sake of military targets, we killed five and a half million people in Hangzhou. And then, there was Manilla. That was “retaliatory.” His fingers made quote marks in the air. “Suppose it was the other way around, and they had this station. With our way of life and our pride threatened, and the ghosts of our dead screaming in our ears, would we surrender?”
Before Jerome could reply, the holographic controls in front of him flickered. The man who appeared at a tenth normal size, and seemed cut from granite with a laser. “Crew of the Fire of the Gods.” his voice was as proper as his appearance was. “The Shanghai Seventeen alliance has rejected our peace overtures. The Combined Parliament has given me authority to carry out our threatened strike. As you know our target is Moscow. You have your orders. We will all do our duty. Admiral Lawrence out.” There was a half second delay, in which Jerome saw the admiral’s throat tighten, and then he vanished.
Immediately lights flashed on his console. Non-essential systems were powering down to supply the main gun. As a missile gunnery officer, he had no direct part in the firing process. His job was to scan for the missiles that the Shanghai Seventeen no longer had.
“Sixteen million people in Moscow, pre-war. More, when you account for refugees.” Jerome kept waiting for Edmond to say something else, but he didn’t. He knew that his friend was thinking, though. With a press of a button, Jerome could direct power towards the missile tubes, away from the firing. It was an emergency measure, designed to re-power his defences in case of attack, but it would delay the firing, maybe by hours. Would it give the Shanghai Seventeen enough time to decide to surrender?
For a long moment, Jerome’s finger hovered over the button. Then his hand settled back on the console, where it remained as the station shook around him with a force that made his teeth rattle. He waited for another half-minute or so, before the room stopped shaking and a computerized voice announced. “Target destroyed.”