Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 20
“Orphan, we’re being followed.”
The tall alien was beside her almost instantly. “Are you certain, Ariane Austin?”
“Pretty sure. See these returns? And using the rear telescopes I thought I saw a couple glints where that cloudbank thinned out.”
Orphan straightened, stroking his headcrest in the way he often did when thinking. “This is an excellent place for an ambush. We are actually heading for another of the Sky Gates that — as far as I am aware — only I know of. But we will be passing quite near the usual gateway used by traffic in this region of the Arena.”
“Prep the weapons, then?”
“Best to do so, yes. I would rather not fight anyone, but please, ready us. I will take the main board, Ariane. If you would be so kind as to take the secondary, there? Yes. I will give control of the vessel to you, so that in the event of emergency you can use your superlative piloting instincts to our benefit.”
She grinned, feeling a surprisingly welcome tension spreading through her. Good Lord, am I so bored that potentially being in another Arenaspace battle sounds fun to me? I guess I am. That’s pretty pathetic, Ariane. “On it, Orphan.”
Wu Kung bounced up. “I will take one of the turrets, DuQuesne! These are not as fun as a real fight, but at least I can do something.”
“You have indeed learned how to operate them,” Orphan agreed. “However, I must impress upon you the need to minimize your impulsiveness. As I said, I wish to avoid conflict if possible.”
“I understand,” Wu answered. “I will not touch the weapons unless you say it is time. I promise.”
“Good enough,” DuQuesne said. “You take this panel, I’ll take the other.”
For a few minutes, they continued cruising through Arenaspace, now in a skyscape of red-and-purple clouds dimly visible in the wan light of whatever luminaires might be hidden in the far distance. A massive accretion of sky-rubble, accumulated from the castoff materials of who knew how many Upper Spheres, drifted in the middle distance, a jagged, irregular silhouette of black against the magenta and crimson background. A layer of white cloud lay below, streaming slowly across their course. Ariane thought she could see faint, darting movements in the distance — perhaps zikki or one of their smarter relatives.
Then the faint shapes on the radar display began to close in, their outlines to become sharper. Even as she turned to notify Orphan, she saw another set appear on the forward radar. They’re jetting out from behind that accretion! “Ambush, Orphan! Forward and aft, spreading laterally.” Another set of returns. “Crap. Some coming out of the cloud layers above and below, relative to our own orientation.”
“Well-organized pirates, indeed,” Orphan said. “If so, however, they will contact us shortly. Pirates, after all, prefer to take their prizes intact. How many do we have, and estimates on size or class?”
“Let me take a look,” DuQuesne said. At her glance, he winked. “I’ve got a little more experience in this than you, Ariane.”
Orphan gave him a puzzled look. “A single prior battle, impressive though it was, is not a tremendous amount of experience, Doctor.”
“Who said it was my only prior experience?”
Orphan began to reply, stopped, studied him, then did the expansive wing-shrug. “Carry on, then.”
“Lessee… total count is… eight vessels. Judging by size, maneuvers they’re making, I’d put five of them in something like a swift attack boat class; they’re not very big, but they’re fast and maneuverable and probably pack a punch. One of the ones coming out ahead is hanging back quite a bit, she’s a lot bigger than the others, probably the mothership or at least a mobile HQ; not maneuvering fast so a carrier-type, probably a converted cargo ship, looks about half to three-quarters the size that we are, or that our disguise looks to be anyway. Other two aren’t small and they’re in between in acceleration, so I’m guessing they’re frigate or destroyer class — hope that’s translating well for you.”
“Eminently well, Doctor. Two powerful but smaller military vessels, several much smaller attack craft, and the main vessel. Ranges?”
“The main ship’s about fourteen hundred kilometers away,” Ariane answered. “The destroyer-types, about five hundred kilometers — one above and below. The fast-attack boats started farther away but they’ve accelerated, they’ll be within four hundred kilometers very soon.”
“Very good.” Orphan’s head tilted, then he gave his assenting handtap. “Exactly as expected, I see a transmission. Now, all of you, remain silent. The onboard transmitters will focus on me, and make the rest of you look like members of my species, but do not strain this rather stupid automation any more than necessary.”
“Got it,” said DuQuesne, and Ariane nodded. Wu Kung acknowledged the command by miming a zipped-lip motion and grinning silently.
Without a pause, the display area of the forward port lit up, showing a powerfully-built creature with a head reminiscent of a monitor lizard, but with eyes on the sides of the head and a horizontally-opening jaw. “This is Shipmaster Bos Arbsa, on the Jewel of Night. If you are uncertain, that would be the large ship nearly directly ahead of you on your current course. My fleet has you completely boxed in. Please reduce your current vector until you are at rest with respect to Jewel of Night.”
It was startling the transformation that came over Orphan in that instant. With scarcely a movement, somehow the fluid, dramatic Leader of the Liberated was suddenly rigid, cold, expressionless. His wingcases showed neither tension nor excitement. “This is Dranlu, a Madon-class freighter of the Blessed to Serve. You will stand aside. You will not attempt to board or approach this vessel. The Minds of the Blessed will not tolerate piracy upon our vessels.”
Ariane had gained enough cross-species experience to recognize the momentary discomfiture of the Shipmaster; as one of the Great Factions, the Blessed were not to be crossed lightly. However, it was, indeed, only momentary. “We recognize the power of the Blessed. But I put it to you that even the Minds themselves cannot seek revenge when they know nothing of the crime.” The jaws parted in what somehow looked to Ariane like a cruel grin. “Which — to your great misfortune — means that I can make no offer to spare your lives. I am completely familiar with the capabilities of the Madon-class freighters, and their armed variants. Formidable, but insufficient. Make your farewells to your crippled computational masters.” The transmission cut off.
“So much for talking,” Ariane said. “They’re closing in to weapons range. Orders, Orphan?”
Orphan sighed. “Alas, we do wish our presence here secret. Yet I cannot see any way to defeat these pirates without revealing that this ship is far more than it is.”
DuQuesne nodded. “So we take ’em apart as fast as we can.”
“Not immediately,” Orphan said. “If by poor fortune any of these escape, I would rather they not also carry news of our new weapons.” Ariane saw his pose shift and knew that Orphan was, in his own way, smiling with a sharp and deadly certainty. “And it is they who do not realize what they have ambushed.”
“Activate point-defense cannon emplacements… seven and twelve,” Orphan said. “These would fit with a Madon military transport variant, and should protect us sufficiently for the first salvo or two, before the remainder of their fleet gets in range.”
“You want to sucker them in,” DuQuesne said in an approving tone. “Get them close so that when our disguise comes apart they’re way too close to get away.”
“Perfectly correct. For now, return fire with main turret four, Wu Kung, and DuQuesne, missile batteries three and five. That accords with the expected armament, and if you use them well, our adversaries may already be significantly damaged by the time they realize that their trap has become ours. When I give this sign,” Orphan gestured widely with both arms and wings, “you may open fire with every weapon at our disposal except the ‘primary beams’, as you call them.”
Ariane was already maneuvering to avoid the incoming fire, to confuse enemy targeting. In keeping with their assumed identity, she was throttling the acceleration and maneuverability of Zounin-Ginjou down drastically. This wasn’t easy; it was like trying to make one of Grandfather’s old classic sportscars behave like a broken-down clunker when the steering, engine, and transmission were all tuned for high performance. She concentrated, imagining that she was steering not a ship but a whale, a slow, majestic creature that would respond to her commands only with the same ponderous, considered movement.
The fast-attack vessels closed the distance, but even her comparatively slow maneuvers were enough to force them to adjust their courses; this was not like space, where vacuum would allow nigh-infinite range and where stealth was impossible; Zounin-Ginjou under Ariane’s guidance found drifting haze ahead that blurred her outline, made the smartest missiles that could work in the Arena confused, forced them to go to infra-red tracking that could in turn be confused with tailored flare signals.
Point-defense cannon whined and spat their own shotgun-defense of destruction at incoming missiles, shredding or vaporizing the weapons. Two passed the point defense but were thrown off-course, exploding some distance from Zounin-Ginjou; even so, Ariane heard the detonations faintly, felt the vibration in the hull. “They’re getting the range, Orphan!”
“Understood, Ariane Austin. But their vessels are nearly in position!”
She could not restrain her own fierce grin as she saw Orphan was right. As the fast-attack craft began their next attack run, the destroyer-sized vessels launched a large salvo of missiles, far larger than their two embattled point-defense assemblies could manage; but they were now less than two hundred kilometers away.
Spears of energy cut through the thin armored shell that formed the disguise around Zounin-Ginjou, and hypersonic cannon shells stitched a line of holes along the false engine housing. “Surrender,” came the voice of Bos Arbsa. “Your main engine is damaged, and you are — Voidbuilders’ Curse!”
Orphan had given the signal, and DuQuesne and Wu Kung’s fingers flew across their boards, then gripped and tightened on firing handles.
A fury of incandescent destruction lashed across the heavens, a full battery of main guns targeting each of the seven luckless vessels that had reached close-combat distance even as the multiple secondaries and point-defense emplacements raked the sky with fire and screaming hypersonic metal to erase incoming salvos without a trace.
The five fast-attack vessels stood no chance at all; Ariane, no longer needing to maneuver for the moment, sat open-mouthed as the gunships were literally erased, firepower sufficient to put holes through full-sized battleships focused on vessels not even a tenth the length or a thousandth the mass of Zounin-Ginjou. The destroyers did not disappear, but the combination of triple beams of main energy cannon and a salvo of missiles shattered them to useless, lifeless hulks in mere seconds.
Shattered, too, was the fragile disguise covering Orphan’s flagship, now falling away in tattered fragments. “Bring all three primary turrets to bear on Jewel of Night, Doctor DuQuesne, Son Wu Kung.”
“Who are you? The Blessed do not send stealth vessels against pirates!” The pirate captain sounded outraged, his translated voice practically screaming this isn’t fair!
“Alas, Captain Bos Arbsa, you have had the most terrible misfortune to fall afoul of Zounin-Ginjou and the Survivor,” Orphan said, and his light words were spoken in a cold tone that sent a tiny shiver down Ariane’s spine.
Bos Arbsa froze. “Oh no,” he said, a completely human reaction from such a monstrous face. “My apologies, Survivor! We will withdraw!” Even through the blurring of everything but the creature’s face, Ariane could see he was making quick, desperate gestures to his unseen crew.
“I was attempting a quiet, unmarked transit through this area of space,” Orphan continued, not even directly acknowledging the other’s words. “Now you have forced me to destroy my — you will admit — most convincing camouflage.”
Ariane saw that Jewel of Night was moving away — but not directly away, diverting to the side. “Orphanâ€¦”
“I see, Ariane Austin. Very interesting.” He looked back to the screen, and his voice was still light, empty, and cold. “I am afraid, Captain, that — like yourself — I can afford no witnesses to this conflict.” DuQuesne’s face was set in stone, as was Wu Kung’s; she saw that they had directed another salvo of fire at the remains of the two destroyers, which disintegrated to nothing but clouds of debris, no fragment large enough to show individually on the radar.
Ariane suddenly guessed what Orphan obviously already had; the reason Jewel of Night was maneuvering in the direction it was had to be that its captain knew of an uncharted Sky Gate, one close enough to afford a chance of escape if Jewel of Night could stay far enough from Zounin Ginjou. With concealment no longer an issue, she swung the battleship around with such acceleration she could hear faint creaking noises transmitted through the hull, and let the engines roar to full power, Zounin-Ginjou now thundering through the air of the Arena at an ever-increasing pace.
The other captain’s voice was still shaken, but regaining some of its bravado. “A good disguise, and a costly one, but you won’t get my own flagship, Survivor. You are faster, but you will not close the range fast enough.”
“I must, regretfully, disagree. Goodbye, Captain.” Orphan nodded to DuQuesne.
A triple salvo of intolerable brilliance annihilated the darkness of the Deeps, blazed its way in a fraction of a second to, and completely through, Jewel of Night. For an instant the stricken pirate mothership shuddered, faltering, and then with an eye-searing detonation vanished as damage reached its main superconducting storage coils.
Orphan stood still, watching the explosion and fire fade away, blazing pieces of wreckage careening through the endless deeps. He hesitated, then sighed, a sound amplified by his spiracles into a mournful hoot. “Gentlemen, if you would… complete the job.”
DuQuesne and Wu nodded and the unstoppable fire of the primaries eradicated all traces of Jewel of Night.
“You seem… bothered by this, Orphan,” Ariane said finally.
“Hm? And you are not, Captain Austin?”
“Well… yes. You know that from our last engagement. Fighting back is fine, but wiping out every trace, even possible survivorsâ€¦”
“Your feelings are commendable, Captain. And not unexpected, given the outcome of our last battle together. But in this case… I dare not let this secret out, neither the secret of my possible destination, nor that of our weapons. I can take no chance on even a single survivor.”
“You’ve been at war with the Blessed — and sometimes others — for thousands of years, Orphan,” she said. “I’m not asking why you’re doing this — though I’d have a hard time giving that order — but why you are bothered by it. They did attack us, and after they thought you were Blessed, were going to wipe us all out; you had little reluctance before about vaporizing all the Blessed survivors.”
“Ah. Yes, I see the dissonance.” He looked out the forward port. “Continue on Jewel of Night‘s prior course. I would like to mark the location of its Sky Gate for later investigation. It is, of course, theoretically possible that its last maneuvers were meant to distract us from a more distant observer craft, but I would lay immense odds against that for many reasons.”
Orphan turned back to her. “In answer to your question… In that long struggle you have referred to, Captain, I have done many things. That included being a pirate, to be perfectly honest with you, a pirate who targeted Blessed vessels. I know exactly the fears and hopes that drive such beings, and the horror they must have felt to know that they had so terribly underestimated their prey. And even more, the despair of knowing that this time, their quarry would not be satisfied with anything other than their complete annihilation.” He looked out the port again, but Ariane had the impression he was not seeing anything. “But more… we cannot stay here and quarter space for days, examining every trace of these vessels for any sign of life. It is thus possible, though unlikely, that there are a few survivors, ejected or otherwise escaping the annihilation sent against their vessels.
“In that case, Captain, they will be drifting alone in the endless Deeps, with scarcely a hope in a trillion that there will be rescue or anything but slow death or sudden awaiting them behind the next deceptive veil of mist.” His eyes shifted back to her, and they were dark wells of pain. “And that fear and despair I have lived, once, and would not wish upon even the Minds themselves.”