Center of Gravity
    Cis-Lunar Space, Sol System
    1536 hours, TFT
    Captain Harry Vanderkamp, commanding the Symmons , watched the tactical display unfolding around him as the ship plunged toward the interloper. The alien ship was accelerating fast, pulling at least seven hundred gravities, and would slip beyond range soon.
    Symmons was a member of CBG–18, a fleet destroyer 576 meters long, massing just under thirty thousand tons, and armed with a variety of weapons, including thirty-six launch tubes for VG–24 Mamba smart missiles, variable-yield ship killers ranging between twenty and forty-five kilotons apiece. The H’rulka vessel was 327,000 kilometers ahead now, out of range for most guided weapons, but still within reach of the Mambas.
    The problem, though, was that Symmons did not yet have clearance to fire. The ship ahead had clearly been identified as H’rulka, an enemy combatant… but it had been twelve years since the single known encounter between them and Confederation vessels, and Vanderkamp knew he would need clearance from Fleet HQ. There might be diplomatic issues of which he was unaware, or an attempt under way to communicate with the alien.
    Symmons had burned repeated laser and radio messages to Fleet Base, only a few light seconds away, but so far with no response.
    His gut instinct was to fire. That H’rulka monster might be a recon probe in advance of a larger force.
    The enemy ship was accelerating harder now. In seconds, it would be out of range completely. Hell, it might already be too late… .
    “Sir!” Vanderkamp’s tactical officer cried over the bridge link. “ Kaufman has been hit!”
    “Show me!”
    The tactical display switched to a view from one of the other destroyer’s external cameras, looking forward up the spine toward the underside of the ship’s massive shield cap. The shield, backlit by a hard blue glare, was deforming, crumpling with shocking suddenness, as though it were collapsing into…
    “ Milton is hit!” A second battlegroup destroyer was folding around her own shield cap. “Target is now breaking up.”
    “Breaking up? Breaking up how?”
    “It’s just… just dividing sir. Twelve sections, moving apart from—”
    “Incoming mass!” his exec shouted. “Singularity effect! Impact in seven… in six…”
    Vanderkamp saw it, a pinpoint source of X-rays and hard gamma on the forward scanner display, a tiny, brilliant star sweeping directly toward Symmons’ prow.
    There was no time for thought or measured decision, no time for anything but immediate reaction.
    “VG–24 weapon system, all tubes, fire !” he yelled, overriding the exec’s countdown. They were under attack, and that decisively ended any need for weapons-free orders from base. “Maneuvering, hard right! Shields up full! Brace for—”
    And the H’rulka weapon struck the Symmons .
    It hit slightly off center on the destroyer’s bullet-shaped forward shield cap, causing the starboard side to pucker and collapse in a fiercely radiating instant. Water stored inside the tank burst through the rupture, freezing instantly in a cloud of frozen mist that burst into space like a miniature galaxy. The port side of the cap twisted around, collapsing into the oncoming gravitic weapon effect. Vanderkamp felt a single hard, brain-numbing jolt… and then the five-hundred meter spine of the ship whipped around the object, orbiting it with savage velocity as the entire 29,000-ton-plus mass of the Symmons tried to cram itself into a fast-moving volume of twisted space half a centimeter across. Pieces of the ship flew off in all directions as the spine continued to snap around the tiny volume of warped space; the strain severed the ship’s spine one hundred meters from her aft venturis, and the broken segment tumbled wildly away into darkness. Abruptly, the remaining hull shattered, the complex plastic-ceralum composite fragmenting into a cloud of sparkling shards, continuing to circle the fierce-glowing core

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