Raising Caine – Snippet 28

“Correct both, but the stern is the most critical. If we can cripple its main power plant before our saboteur’s work is undone, we can easily destroy the target, despite the size difference.” Which was why Lurker had a self-guiding tactical nuclear missile in its recessed bay; once targeting was assured and either the Slaasriithi’s PDF batteries were inert or the flight time was brief, that single hammer blow would finish the job. But the Slaasriithi’s present power loss would not be permanent, and the range was still too great. And since we have but one sure way to kill our foe…”Ulpreln, both fusion and plasma drives to full on my mark. Zurur, send word to the rest of the crew to secure themselves for sustained four gee thrust.” She saw Ulpreln’s head start to turn. “When we activated our own dispersed array of microsensors, they had an indefinite warning, at best. But when we fired, we revealed our precise coordinates. There is no longer any advantage to hiding among the debris from the asteroid collision we caused. Tegrese, illuminate all active sensors. Ulpreln, plot the most direct course toward the target and accelerate to full.”

Ulpreln nodded, turned to his console — and the universe slammed Nezdeh back into her acceleration couch.

In the viewscreen, the last few widely spaced rocks drifting between Red Lurker and her target rushed past them. Nezdeh was sorry to see them disappear astern. The asteroids had been helpful, obscuring companions ever since the Arbitrage and her Ktoran tug had edged in toward the Spinward Trojan point after finishing a hasty and incomplete refueling. They had counter-boosted into the midst of the drifting rocks using a retrograde approach effected solely by the Aboriginal ship’s magnetically-accelerated plasma thrusters, thereby minimizing all chances of detection.

Once hidden, Brenlor had exhibited admirable patience as they determined their best ambush point and observed what little they could from that extreme distance. He even accepted that his role in the coming attack would be to remain hidden with the Arbitrage and the tug. This had happily obviated any need to underscore that Brenlor’s personal mastery was in personal, not ship-to-ship combat. As one of the least patient of the young Evolved in his House, he had not possessed the precision and cool calculation that made for excellent ship captains. Fortunately, other matters had precluded his participation in the strike. Preserving his geneline, the closest to the progenitorial core of House Perekmeres, was first among these, followed closely by maintaining the reign of terror he had established over the Aboriginals aboard the Arbitrage. Given its size, the human ship had to remain hidden and distant from the engagement since, along with the tug, it was their only means of exiting the system, whatever might transpire.

Nezdeh’s more difficult, and tedious, problem had been to make a sufficiently stealthy and close approach to the target zone. Coasting, running off minimum batteries, and often tarrying in the shadow of one or more of the rocky fragments of the asteroid collision they had caused, Nezdeh approached their ambush point on a retrograde vector, sending a cluster of disposable microsensors on ahead. Functioning as a passive phased array, they immediately detected the orbiting, sphere-like vehicles the Ktor had observed upon arriving in the system. The larger ones, which they dubbed cannonballs due to their occasional bursts of astounding five point five gee acceleration, were evidently the most sophisticated of the objects and also the most likely to be defense systems. They changed their telemetry without any regular period: in short, no firing solution calculated from their orbital path remained viable for more than seven or eight hours.

The planet’s scores of smaller spheres were, presumably communications and sensor platforms. Although the cannonballs were the greatest direct threat, these smaller spheres, as well as any undetectable devices comprising a phased array, commanded Nezdeh’s attention: would they scan the new, slowly diffusing spray of gargantuan boulders behind which Lurker was approaching?

But the orbital array’s passive sensor results apparently did not alarm either its live or expert system controllers: no active scan was initiated. The collision Red Lurker had engineered resembled the sequelae of a natural event, and since none of the ejecta was heading directly toward the planet, its denizens had evidently concluded that it was unnecessary to inspect the debris more closely. Besides, in order to do so, they would have had to illuminate and thereby reveal the active sensors kept in the region for detecting enemy craft. Reassured by the Slaasriithis’ complacency, Red Lurker concluded her approach, drifting along behind the largest rock chunk that would pass within sixty thousand kilometers of the planet.

Tegrese’s voice roused Nezdeh out of the momentary reverie that had arisen even as she continued to assess the data streams floating next to the holographic navplot. “New firing solutions are ready, Nezdeh. Using both phased array and on-board sensors, confidence of laser solution is absolute. Rail gun targeting confidence is ninety-five percent, with mean point of impact variance of up to ten meters.”

“Continue to refine rail gun targeting. Sehtrek, how long before the cannonballs are in range, presuming they are capable of six gee?”

“Uncertain. At their current rate of acceleration, the first one will be in our laser’s effective range in four minutes. Our railgun –”

“The rail gun is useless against the cannonballs under these conditions. The flight time of our projectiles make hits improbable until the enemy craft are much closer. Any sign of the other cannonballs?”

“None have appeared above the planetary horizon yet, although we conjectured that they would be profiling themselves against open space by now.”

Nezdeh looked in the holotank, read the data. “And the one approaching us is only accelerating at four gees.” She shook her head. “Unpromising. If they were all closing at six gees, we would know they are not taking the time to measure our actions. Instead, the lead cannonball has slowed itself so that the others can accelerate and catch up while it observes us.” She drew in breath against the push of Lurker’s acceleration. “We must expect that the last two targets will come over the horizon together.” So much for defeating an amateurish enemy in detail. The lead cannonball is their sacrifice: they will use it to see how we fight, our capabilities, and our limits. And the latter two will rush in to take advantage of that knowledge by attempting to overwhelm our defenses. Ruthlessly efficient, for an ostensibly nonviolent species.

Tegrese’s voice was tight with resisting the four-gee compression. “First flight of rail gun munitions are about to hit their shift-carrier. Targeting update: laser mean point of impact certain to the limits of sensor accuracy. Confidence of new rail gun firing solution: ninety-eight percent with seven meter MPI variance. Am I to keep all lasers on the primary target?”

Nezdeh nodded. “We have several minutes before the first cannonball can threaten us.” I think. “We must keep the Slaasriithi vessel powerless. To do that, we must concentrate our fire upon her.” Unfortunately, at this range, our lasers lack the coherence to inflict maximum damage, and if she manages to change course, our rail gun may miss. “We shall cripple her now so that we may kill her later.”

“While hoping that the cannonballs don’t kill us in the meantime,” Tegrese murmured.

“True,” replied Nezdeh. “Now: fire all.”