This is How the Gods Wage War

"This is how the gods wage war – not with the might of a thousand suns, but with the merest touch."

-Unknown

*****

Before him lay the infinite and undying playground of God. Utterly empty to the human mind and eye, space was fascinating, terrifying, and beautiful all at once: to even glimpse its true majesty was to allow those three words to engulf you, fill you. To know space so intimately would inevitably invite an army of feelings into oneself, and spawn a convulsing mass of human emotion. Some are fortunate enough to be gifted with titanic proportions of inspiration. Most are left awestruck, overwhelmed by the incomprehensible scale and alien physical stimuli that such a setting provides. Still others allow fear to balloon within their stomachs, and as a result they receive considerable, traumatic backlash - effects that only time can settle. This is what the great, unending blackness is capable of. This is what nothing can do to a man's soul.

A familiar buzz sounded and abruptly tore Lakshman Lokhande from his musings. Technology had, once again, shattered the unity he desired to have with outer space. Damn it all.

The Indian born, American-educated, Indian-employed antariksha yaatri (literally, space traveler) gently pushed himself away from his favorite viewing port. He skillfully nudged one foot against the same wall, initiating a slow, deliberate spin in the zero-gravity environment. To an onlooker, Lokhande's movements would appear graceful, and if one were to watch him move about the Sitara-6 for any length of time, it would be clear that each and every movement was deliberately calculated. Such was Lokhande's expertise at zero-g maneuvering that exactly four seconds into the eight second journey across the cockpit, he had turned exactly ninety degrees from his original facing.

All very natural, Lokhande knew, and it came from the thousands of flight hours he had accumulated as an Indian astronaut. From his very first spaceflight on the Vikram Sarabhai, to the three-year mission he was on at this very moment, Lokhande had grown quite accustomed to space. Sometimes, when he returned home, he felt as though the earth was the alien landscape, and he belonged back in the sky. Of course, that was his body doing the thinking for him, as he always readjusted to normal gravity.

Yet despite the proficiency he showed in working aboard a spacecraft, such skill was necessary and expected by the Indian Space Research Organization. Many 'gaganauts', as popular Indian culture had dubbed them, could boast the same physical abilities as Lokhande, and some had even tallied comparable flight hours. Lokhande had been chosen for one simple reason: he was smart. Not merely smart, but highly intelligent. Graduating at the top of his class from MIT with a degree in aerospace engineering was hardly a feat many could boast. Personally, Lokhande believed that he had secured the right to man the Sitara-6 when he defeated the head of the ISRO in a friendly chess match, a game in which Lokhande's superior could easily qualify for the title of Grandmaster, if he so wished. To the head of the ISRO, that contest was much more impressive than any resume.

And so, here he was, tens of millions of kilometers from another living being, experiencing his dream.

Well, sort of.

Lokhande finished his elegant flight across the cramped cockpit – so full of white and gray machinery, dials, screens, and monitors that it almost felt as if he were still attending MIT – and slowly extended one arm forward, catching a metal bar that ran alongside the main terminal. His feet settled on the floor (or wall, whichever he desired it to be at the moment) and he came to a stop. The buzz sounded again. Not loud, but irritating nonetheless. However, Lokhande could not ignore it, for that buzz was the very reason his ship was stationed in the asteroid belt.

Large block letters were listed, unmoving, at the top of the visual display unit.

B: TWELVE THOUSAND METERS

This technical language was quite understandable to Lokhande. The second asteroid fragment today, and it was twelve thousand meters from the Sitara-6. Nothing unusual, considering this was the reason for his mission. Normally, asteroid collisions did not take place very often, at least by human standards. The largest of them only collided once every several million years, and the small fragments, those a few dozen meters across like the one that the Sitara-6's onboard computer had identified, only slightly more often. Usually, this occurred when large asteroids passed within kilometers of one another, and the chips of rock that had been pulled into their weak gravity wells were smashed and broken. Even then, such events only took place every few hundred thousand years or so. No, the reason for this sudden spike in asteroid collisions was man-made.

Ever since asteroid mining became a reality, international tensions followed in its wake. The ability of any space-faring nation to simply reach out and take the resources it required quickly shifted the geopolitical situation on Earth. Alliances reformed, old hatreds were quenched in the life-giving rivers of necessity, and trade agreements that had been lucrative for decades were abruptly severed. The age-old, love-hate relationship between China and the United States began to slide towards the darker side of international politics. No longer content to collaborate with a power that it viewed as its adversary, the formidable Chinese economy and workforce was suddenly and absolutely denied to America. Yes, it was inevitable that both nations would suffer economic losses as a result, but the Chinese Communist Party viewed such a disconnection as the lesser of two evils.

But where China lost, India gained. As the most populous nation on Earth and another rival of China, India began to court the United States. In exchange for assistance in reinforcing its space program, India would offer its own economy to America, just as China had done in the late 20th century. Of course, the CCP was not entirely fond of this notion, and in veiled defiance of the International Space Abundance Treaty, the Chinese government constructed a harvesting facility on one of the few bodies that orbited very closely to IA-22, India's first and only resource-harvest asteroid.

There was a logical reason why the ISAT agreement prohibited the close construction of two asteroid mining facilities. The debris from one could easily pass near the structure of another, dramatically increasing the likelihood of a collision. This was exactly why the Chinese had conducted their own operation where they did: to disrupt India's attempts to establish itself as a first-rate power and keep the United States isolated in the international community. In turn, this was the reason why the Sitara-6 had been launched.

The Sitara-6 was not a research craft. It contained all the necessities for comfortable living, but it did not measure the composition of heavenly bodies, nor did it scan for new planets and systems. The entire purpose of the Indian spacecraft was to conduct facility defense against asteroid debris, and send a clear message to China – that India would not be bullied so easily.

And so, here was Lakshman Lokhande, accompanying and protecting the misshapen ball of rock known as IA-22, and at the same time, protecting the future of the Republic of India.

Lokhande disregarded the incoming asteroid for the moment – it was still twelve kilometers from the Sitara-6, a range that was too far to accurately deflect with the spacecraft's "armament" of KRPs – kinetic redirectional pods. Judging from the incoming speed of previous threatening objects, the IA-22 automated mining station had a good fifteen minutes before the Sitara-6 would be forced to protect it. Instead, Lokhande turned towards the starboard-side window situated on the wall next to the terminal. Through it, he could discern the outline of IA-22, the metallic rock that India hoped would prove to be a solid stepping stone on the road away from resource deprivation. The notion that China wished to prevent his homeland from feeding its own hungry industry had been, at one point, so utterly maddening and presumptuous to Lokhande that he would mentally and verbally rail against it for days on end. But time and increasing familiarity with the politics of India's space program slowly cooled his nationalistic rage. Now, he focused on enjoying the challenge of his job, and the unparalleled freedom that it provided. The physical distance between Earth and the Sitara provided Lokhande a sort of serenity that no other occupation could achieve. Even the power of technology could only crunch communication time between headquarters and his position to a few hours.

Lokhande once again maneuvered himself, facing away from the terminal and towards the stern of his personal vessel. Of course, there was no single, straight path to the other end of the 76-meter ship, but in his mind's eye he could picture the entire craft. Partitioned into four sections, the Sitara-6 consisted of the command module, the living module, the defense module, and the engine module, in that order from bow to stern. It was by no means aesthetically pleasing. Each module was so very different from the others that the Sitara-6 looked as if a child had pieced together four unrelated toys and rolled the finished product in a wet mass of pine needles and dirt. The command module, which held the cockpit, was an octagonal cylinder tapered at the front end, and it bore two heavy solar panels. The living module had the appearance of a fat, angled wall socket splitter arrayed with various protrusions and a communications dish. Following this was the defense module, which, of course, held the Sitara-6's supply of KRPs; it resembled a flattened printer plug. By far the largest of the four sections was the engine module – a massive chemical drum outfitted with external tanks and main engines. Sprinkled quite liberally along the hull was an assortment of antennae, small dishes, solar panels, and maneuvering thrusters. No, the Sitara-6 was never meant to win a beauty contest.

Still, Lokhande admired the fine piece of machinery. What did beauty and aerodynamics matter in the emptiness of space? When he'd been granted the mission, it almost felt as though his country was offering the spacecraft to him as a gift. It was his, his own. Sitara-6 took care of him in an otherwise inhospitable environment, and he would do the same for it, and for IA-22.

Lokhande arrived at the opposite end of the command module, and effortlessly guided his hand to grasp the wall-mounted ladder that ran along the inter-module connection tube. He intended to carry out at least part of the necessary exercise routine for the day. Muscle atrophy wasn't going to simply wait to set in until he returned to Earth.

The buzz sounded again, and Lokhande halted in mid-transit between the two modules. How odd. "B" asteroid wouldn't have traveled far enough to cross the next warning threshold. He craned his neck and squinted at the monitor. Perhaps another-

B: NINE THOUSAND METERS

Lokhande's brow furrowed. Impossible. Debris from the Chinese asteroid station should not be traveling so quickly, at least not relative to the position of the Sitara. Nor was it even remotely probable that a rogue rock was traveling from some outer reaches of the belt. Such close flybys did not occur more often than every few thousand years.

B: EIGHT THOUSAND METERS

The gaganaut spun in place and kicked the rungs of the wall-ladder, propelling himself once again towards the main terminal. In swift, unthinking succession, Lokhande grabbed the terminal's metal bar and placed his boots against the floor, all while immediately punching a series of keys on the well-used QWERTY keyboard. His eyes shifted among the various bits of data that flowed across the screen. The block letters changed, ever-accompanied by the buzz.

B: SEVEN THOUSAND METERS

The incoming target was moving at a speed of one kilometer every ten seconds, in relation to IA-22 and the Sitara. Lokhande slipped both of his boots through a set of floor rungs in order to free both hands for typing. He readied the KRPs, and directed the computer to calculate the projected path of the "bogey". The Sitara's KRPs were not capable of tracking asteroids on their own, but the spacecraft's computer system was very much able to determine their paths down to a few inches. KRPs were little more than quasi-missiles filled with minute amounts of chemical propellant for minor adjustments. Most of the thrust behind them was generated upon launch. The spacecraft itself compensated for drift with each KRP release, using its own maneuvering thrusters.

He would solve the mystery of the object's identity later. One more command and…

In unintentionally dramatic fashion, Lokhande balled his fist and jammed the ENTER key with his extended index finger. An instant later, two very minute tremors reached the cockpit. He knew the first was the launch of a single KRP, and the second was the Sitara's maneuvering thrusters compensating for drift.

There was no need to look out a window, for all the flight data was being fed from the KRP right to Lokhande's monitor. In fact, the numbers provided by the KRP's tiny onboard computer were more informative than any visual medium could hope to be. The KRP's little thrusters fired in a predetermined sequence and set the chemically-propelled guided slug to impact with the bogey. That was all that was necessary, and indeed, all that the KRP could do. It only carried so much fuel.

Lokhande licked his lips, more out of habit than of nerves. He would inspect the bogey when it passed near the Sitara on its new, altered course, and determine if it originated from the Chinese station. For now, there was little he could do but observe his data. He glanced out the nearby porthole once again, at IA-22. Safe, for another day.

When he looked back, the numbers had changed. That in and of itself was to be expected, but Lokhande could tell that something was not right. In searching for the most logical solution, he missed the real answer for several seconds, even as it stared him in the face.

Then he understood. The wrong numbers had changed. The flight path of the bogey was different, even before the KRP had blunted itself against its surface.

"Shit." English. This was the first word Lokhande had spoken in many days. A small, half-conscious part of his brain apparently found time to reflect on that revelation. In response, the fully conscious Lokhande cursed a second time, to himself. He needed full control of his mental capabilities if he was going to determine what the hell was going on.

Focus.

B: 5,500 METERS.

The block letters had shifted to digits in order to better represent more precise numbers, just as another revelation dawned upon Indian astronaut. Previously, the bogey's route led it to IA-22 itself. IA-22 was positioned to the port side of the Sitara's cockpit. Now, the bogey was set to pass along the starboard side of the Sitara, from the bow.

The KRP had traveled fifteen hundred meters, not that it mattered. It was as useless as a dead fish, depleted of propellant and unable to rectify its course. Maybe that was why they called it a KRP. Sounded a lot like "carp" if you had a halfway decent imagin-

Focus!

B: 4,000 METERS

Lokhande's fingers dashed across the keyboard, and he once again pounded ENTER. Two more shudders reverberated throughout the hull. With nothing else to do, he waited.

A few moments later, the bogey asteroid amended itself again. This KRP would be just as unsuccessful as its predecessor.

Lokhande's lip curled out of frustration. This time, he entered a series of commands to scan his target with radar. The computer regurgitated the results instantly.

"Shit," he repeated. The radar signature indicated that Lokhande's bogey was not an asteroid, but another spacecraft.

Suddenly, the old, nationalistic feelings that Lokhande had buried long ago bubbled to the surface of his psyche. There were no other possibilities: this new spacecraft was Chinese, and it was sent to ensure the destruction of IA-22, and perhaps the Sitara-6 as well. The arrogance and insolence of such an action caused his toes to curl and shake within their boots – not his fingers; he'd been trained to retain complete motor control over those during his astronaut preparation. China fully intended to cripple India, his beloved India, and all those who lived within its borders. The magnitude of the situation felt like a body-crushing vice to Lokhande as the importance of his mission was abruptly and unwelcomingly multiplied.

And then, Lokhande smiled to himself. The dogs probably hadn't counted on the pilot of the Sitara possessing the tactical genius that he did. Chess, after all, was not merely a game. He set to work.

If the enemy's objective was to demolish IA-22's facilities, then Lokhande could direct his efforts towards foiling that plan. Fingers continued their quick, rhythmic dance across the industrial stage. Deep within the bowels of the Sitara's defense module, machinery swing and motors whined. The outer doors of the module opened, exposing a third KRP to the coldness of space. More tremors betrayed the launch of yet another rocket-turned-weapon.

Lokhande watched as, in response, the enemy shifted and projected itself back towards IA-22. Now its path would move across the facing of the Sitara. Predictable. The Indian knew that his adversary did not wish to stray too far from his targets. The only considerable variability in his flight pattern would be confined to the vertical "Z" axis (in relation to the Sitara's orientation, of course).

Still 4,000 meters, more or less. The various course corrections made by the target had delayed it, which had allowed Lokhande to gather some information. It was quick, and maneuverable, probably more so than the Sitara, but it did not seem to possess KRPs of its own.

If Lokhande had been speaking, he would have been forced to eat his own words. The target split into two; B-1 maintained its original course, while the new target "B-2" was aimed directly for the Sitara.

Lokhande's eyes widened even as he struck his keyboard with renewed ferocity. He ordered the maneuvering thrusters to adjust the ship so that B-2 would impact at the vessel's front. At the same time, additional thrusters angled the entire craft downwards twenty degrees, in a pitch motion. If the enemy's "weapon" was intended to pierce hulls, or if it were explosive, then Lokhande's fate was already sealed. If, however, it was armed with counterparts to the Sitara's own KRPs, then…

Three thousand meters became two thousand, and two thousand became one. Lokhande dared not fire one of his own KRPs, lest the nudge alter the Sitara's carefully prepared position. At this moment, he could only pray.

Five hundred, two fifty, one hundred.

Whump.

There was no depressurization, no loss of atmosphere. The Sitara was not compromised. Lokhande's plan had worked. The bogey's weapon had struck one of the ship's two forward solar panels, which Lokhande had improvised as shielding. Whatever the weapons were, they were evidently not explosive. True, it was almost certain that the panel had been ruined, but the Sitara herself remained unscathed.

Now, to counter. White Bishop to C4.

The pilot gave the electronic order to reverse his earlier twenty degree pitch. The bogey had reached within 3,000 meters of IA-22. Lokhande needed to buy time. He quickly released two more KRPs within a few seconds of each other, one directly towards the enemy's projected course and the other straight forward, with the intention of forcing it to move away from both IA-22 and the Sitara-6. These launches nudged the Sitara more than Lokhande wished, but there was little he could do other than take precious seconds to manually realign himself.

As predicted earlier, Lokhande's opponent made a pitch movement of his own along the Z-axis, and apparently wanted to change his course to pass "over" the asteroid. However, his pitch was far larger than Lokhande had anticipated. The enemy's speed increased as well.

Two additional targets emerged from B-1 a few moments later. They made a few adjustments before settling on their respective courses for the Sitara. Lokhande could easily discern that whoever controlled the enemy was no fool. The ungainly Sitara could not hope to avoid or deflect both "incomings". Lokhande frowned. His enemy's weapons were not explosive, but they could still pierce his hull, if designed to. He would find out in a few seconds.

Black Rook to H2…

Two distinct impacts made their presence known in sequence. The Sitara did not lose atmosphere, but as Lokhande suspected, the vessel began to drift considerably, and for a craft as large as the Sitara, quite wildly. Lokhande guessed that these weapons were functionally identical to his own KRPs. They had most likely had latched onto the ship and were emptying their fuel stores now, in an effort to drive the Sitara violently off course.

Soon enough the foreign KRPs had drained themselves, but the Sitara was now a few hundred meters farther from IA-22 and angled away.

Lokhande queued a series of commands to realign his ship before determining the location of his opponent. B-1 had reverted to its original course, straight for IA-22. 2,000 meters.

Thoughts raced through Lokhande's mind as he formulated a hypothesis concerning the nature of the enemy's plan. Given that neither ship could do anything more than push the other, the battle would inevitably become one of fuel attrition. The Sitara, because of its size, had greater chemical propellant stores for its maneuvering thrusters, and in all likelihood was armed with a greater quantity of KRPs. The enemy's advantage lay with its speed and agility. Neither ship had explosive or destructive weapons.

Thus, the logical conclusion was that the Chinese spacecraft was attempting to temporarily destabilize the Sitara and crash itself into IA-22. The Indian also assumed that the enemy assumed that Lokhande would not wish to jeopardize the Sitara, as without it, any stray asteroid could potentially harm IA-22. Therefore, in order to throw the Chinese off, Lokhande made his decision.

The previously queued commands were cancelled, and he issued a new set of computerized instructions. The Sitara-6 yawed and pointed its nose between IA-22 and target B-1. Thrusters initiated a downward pitch of six degrees. Lokhande brought up another window on his monitor, and the familiar clatter of keys reverberated within the cockpit. ENTER.

White Queen to D8.

There was no soft nudge. Instead, a low growl emerged to Lokhande's rear, as if some terrible monster was stowed aboard the Sitara and had suddenly been awakened. In a sense, Lokhande mused, a monster had been awakened. The Chinese upstarts who wished harm upon his country would feel what wrath India could mete out, if so roused.

Sitara-6's main engines began to glow colorlessly. The spacecraft rumbled forward, slowly. There was no doubt in Lokhande's mind that this scheme was a twofold gamble: if he used too much energy on this thrust, he may doom himself to live his last days in the cold reaches of the asteroid belt. However, if he was unable to prevent the Chinese from destroying IA-22, he would have failed himself and his country, a shame Lokhande knew he would never be able to live with. His name would be reviled, disgraced, repeated as the name of the man who had aided in condemning India to eternal poverty. That would not, and indeed could not, be permitted.

Sitara picked up speed. At three thousand meters to its destination, the main engine's power would have to be enough to allow Lokhande to reach his desired location before the enemy ship closed within 1,000 meters of IA-22.

It became obvious to Lokhande that the Chinese craft had become aware of the Sitara's movement. Heat blossomed behind the ship; a clear indication that it was dumping fuel and making a final, desperate charge for IA-22. It did not attempt to fire upon the Sitara with its own KRPs, for the Indian vessel had accumulated far too much momentum to be diverted now.

Perfect.

The distance between the Sitara and its objective closed to two thousand meters within fifteen seconds, and to one thousand meters a mere five seconds after that. Lokhande would have one, maybe two opportunities in a very short window to fire his KRPs in the appropriate manner. If he could react quickly enough and roll the Sitara, he might be able to prospect for a third chance.

Five hundred meters. One hundred. Fifty-

ENTER.

The Chinese spacecraft was eight hundred meters away from IA-22. Crossing perpendicular to its path, the Sitara-6 passed directly under it, and at precisely the right moment, three KRPs burst forth, traveled a mere one hundred fifty meters, and slammed into Lokhande's rival. On cue, the trio of KRPs voided their fuel, heaving the Chinese ship in a violent manner.

Lokhande's eyes never left the main terminal monitor, but all the data told him what he needed to know. He let out a yelp and clapped the terminal's metal bar. As planned, the KRPs' power was sufficient to alter the enemy ship's course, causing it to soar over IA-22 in a harmless manner. There would be no return trip for the Chinese craft. Such a small ship could not possibly carry enough fuel to slow itself and rendezvous with its own asteroid facility.

Lokhande emptied a considerable portion of his chemical propellant to right the Sitara, and was forced to unload significant amounts of energy into the main engines to prevent his spacecraft from sharing the fate of his opponent. After several minutes of negotiation, the Sitara-6 was on the proper course. He queued additional commands to have the Sitara settle next to IA-22 within a short time frame.

Lakshman Lokhande removed his boots from the floor rungs. For the first time, he noticed that his entire body was shaking – with the exception of his fingers. The sweat that had coated his skin made it difficult to tell if he had soiled himself or not. What an experience! What a rush! The adrenaline slowly removed itself from Lokhande's system, but in his mind's eye he relived every single maneuver, every event, every shift and command and moment of anticipation. The terminal's clock indicated that only ten minutes had passed since the beginning of the ordeal, but his lesser judgment screamed that he'd been fighting in the titanic clash for hours on end.

The unexpected nature of what had just occurred temporarily crippled Lokhande's ability to think rationally. His mind required several minutes to register that he'd drifted to the other side of the command module. When his senses returned, he considered his options.

First, he'd shower. If he was not mentally and physically exhausted, then he would force himself to perform the exercise he had originally intended to endure. Then… what? Make notes of the remaining chemical propellant and energy surplus. Contact headquarters, send and review the videos. Determine if his ship even had the capability to return home.

And even if the Sitara was utterly drained, what did it matter? India was safe. He had cradled his country through treacherous waters and into a safe haven; the most glorious haven, a haven of self-sufficiency and international ability.

He, Lakshman Lokhande, antariksha yaatri of the Republic of India, had won the first space battle in the history of the human race.

*****

Author's Note: This is my first submission to Fictionpress, and one of the first stories I've written in several years. I may or may not use this as a launching point for longer stories. As of now, it is stand-alone.

I am not an aerospace engineer, despite the fact that this submission is intended to be of the hard science-fiction genre. I welcome any technical corrections, and of course all comments, criticisms, and reviews!