Saturday, October 3, 2009

12. Magnesium


Under's Game

The spaceships burned brightly in the vacuum between stars. They were a hundred miles long at a minimum. The tiny ships of the Space Force darted in and out among the flaming wrecks, dodging the Invader fleet's death rays when they could and dying when they couldn't. Courage was on the side of the Space Force. Numbers were on the side of the Invaders.

"It doesn't make any sense," Under said petulantly. "How can they burn in outer space? There's no air there. It's stupid."

"The hulls are made of pure magnesium. The Invaders breathe oxygen. One direct hit, and the two combine. What's so hard to believe about that?" his instructor asked the young military genius. "Let's test your skill. Take the controls. Show me how good you are."

Under picked up the pad, shifted forces along seven vectors at once, launched plasma torpedoes, and suddenly a full quarter of the Invader fleet was in flames. Then he threw the controller aside. "It's a dumb game. Aren't there any Cheez Doodles left?" He dug a hand under the sofa cushions, searching.

"Please," the instructor begged, tears in his eyes. He was a general, and the one who had convinced the Government of Earth to put all its defenses under the control of one prepubescent boy. The Invaders were better strategists than any adult human, and better tacticians as well. It only made sense to hand over all the Space Force to one boy and then (so he wouldn't freeze up under the responsibility) keep the reality of the situation from him. "You can have ice cream if you win. With sprinkles!"

Under's eyes gleamed. He snatched up the game pad, and launched a series of commands. The Space Force twisted, turned … and fled into hyperspace.

The Invader fleet followed.

"We're doomed!" the general wailed. All the vector lines on the display converged upon one small blue-and-white planet. "You're leading the Invaders straight toward Earth."

"That's what they think too." Under bit his lip and twisted on the couch. His thumbs were a blur. "But watch this. Our ships burn every ounce of fuel they've got and—there's no way the enemy can predict this—their vectors take them right through the Sun's corona . Their hulls are plasteel—they can take the heat. That gives them a slingshot gravity assist of ten gees. Just within performance tolerance of the crews."

"But now they can't maneuver!"

"They don't have to. Watch. The last of our ships is leaving the sun's chromosphere, and the first of theirs is entering."

There was a glint of light as the first Invader ship vaporized.

"See? Magnesium hulls, just like you said. Up in flames, and bye-bye Invaders!" He tossed the controls to the general. "Here, catch!"

The general stood mesmerized as the Invader menace evanesced, one instant a threat to human existence and the next instant only a memory.

"This is a great moment for humanity," he said, tears in his eyes. His thumb moved, inputting orders for the Space Force. Then he frowned. "They're not responding. They're still headed for Earth!"

"Yeah, pretty neat, huh? I figured they're out of fuel, anyway, so they might as well go out with a bang. So I aimed them straight at Home Base."

"But this is terrible! At those speeds, they'll hit us with all the force of so many nuclear bombs!"

"Hell," Under said. "It's only a game."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.