Author: Beck Dacus

Captain Whilford sat in the command chair, glowering. As he drank coffee with a blanket around his shoulders, he wondered what could’ve possibly warranted unfreezing him a year before arriving in the enemy system.

Everyone on his ship ranking higher than a sergeant had gathered before him for this “presentation.” After they had sat silent for nearly a minute, he realized they were waiting for him to give them permission to speak.

“Out with it,” he growled.

“Uh, yessir,” the XO, Kent Bradley, said. He fumbled with the remote, turning on the viewscreen to show his captain a picture of the star they were headed toward. “This is the enemy system, sir. That’s Eiparei.”

“Okay. And?”

“That’s the entire system, sir. There’s nothing else. No planets. Not even an asteroid. Certainly no enemy forces.”

One of Whilford’s eyebrows went up. “You jokin’ with me, son? We know there are planets in this system. Not grand ones, but still. They can’t’ve just disappeared. It’s more likely that we made a wrong turn or something zany like that.”

“Well, it looks like they’re gone, sir. There’s no trace of them. And that’s Eiparei, no doubt. The spectrum’s a little strange, but we’d know that star anywhere.”

“For Christ’s sake, we took a wrong turn, didn’t we?”

“No, sir. We think that the enemy may have left the system due to increased flare activity that we observed on our way here, but we don’t know where the planets have gone.”

Just then, a scientist burst into the bridge room, waving a tablet above his head. “They didn’t run from the flares! They caused them!”

“Wh-what the hell are you saying, Kyle?” Bradley demanded from the newcomer.

“They threw their planets into the star! It couldn’t have been easy, but they did it. That’s why the spectrum of the star looked so strange! Its higher metallicity was caused by all the planets that fell in!”

The bewildered captain asked, “How the hell could they even do that?”

“Well, sir, I think they used the asteroids to get rid of the planets. Let me explain. You know what a gravitational slingshot is, right? You fall towards a planet, gaining speed, then fly away, losing the same amount of speed, but in that time the planet’s dragged you along in its orbit, giving you some of its momentum. And I mean “giving”; the planet loses an equal amount of momentum, slowing down a little. Now, with ships, the planet loses very little speed. But if asteroid after asteroid whips by, it can lose a lot. Enough to fall into the very star it orbits. Meanwhile, the asteroids have been slingshot out of the system, leaving nothing behind.”

Instead of questioning Kyle’s sanity, the captain just asked, “Why?”

“To keep us from getting resources. Anything they left behind could be used by us, so they destroyed it all. Which was a pretty good idea, because I also came to tell you that we’re screwed, Captain. We can’t get home without mining fuel from those asteroids. We’re stuck here.”

After a moment of silence, everyone within earshot despairing, Bradley said, “Not if we don’t stop. We could save our deceleration fuel and swing around to the Dzerlion system, six lightyears from here.”

“I’ll take any excuse to go back into cryo,” the captain said. “Set a course.”

Four years later, headed for Dzerlion to resupply, the ship’s telescopes noticed something odd about the asteroids in the system. They seemed to be swinging past the planets, one after another, on their way to interstellar space….