Raising Caine – Snippet 30

Chapter Thirty

In various orbits; BD +02 4076 Two (“Disparity”)

Nezdeh stared at the holotank and the view screens and reflected how aptly the changes of the last twenty seconds illustrated the tired Progenitor axiom, Good fortune arrives in bits and pieces, but bad luck comes all at once.

Moments after the target had finally been dealt a solid blow — two of her fuel tanks destroyed and her primary rotational armature coming apart in a roiling litter of modules and debris — the last two Slaasriithi cannonballs emerged from behind the planet. As they did, the third, closer cannonball commenced a six gee counterboost, slowing it at the same moment that Sehtrek reported it was now targeting Lurker with active sensors. Nezdeh ordered Tegrese to bring the starboard laser blisters to bear upon the enemy craft. It was not yet at optimal range, but there was nothing to be lost by trying to destroy or disable it, particularly before it initiated its own attacks.

But then Sehtrek called Nezdeh’s attention to two new drive signatures that had sprung into existence near the Slaasriithi hull: smaller vessels, drawing rapidly away from her. One staggered through hail of debris, and, trailing hydrogen, dove straight into the planet’s gravity well. The other seemed to emerge straight out of the debris cloud, accelerating rapidly. Two seconds later, it illuminated active sensors and acquired target lock with extraordinary speed. The engine signatures of both craft were primitive — first generation magnetically-accelerated heavy-plasma thrusters — and the radar and lidar emissions were crude. So: these were not Slaasriithi craft, clearly. Aboriginal, therefore. But the one meant to fight and the other meant to make planetfall, both of which complicated her mission.

“Nezdeh, I await your orders,” Tegrese said urgently.

“I am waiting — for that.” Nezdeh pointed in the holotank; the orange delta signifying the human warship spat out a similarly colored flicker at Red Lurker. “The humans have launched a missile. No, correction: given its size and complexity, it is a drone.”

“It is not homing.”

“It does not need to, not yet. We have an active sensor lock on the Slaasriithi ship, so they have simply established a reciprocal lock along our emission. We are doing the drone’s work for it. And as for the Aboriginals’ other weapons –”

Red Lurker shuddered. Sehtrek looked up. “Lasers. Two hits. Low power beams, visible wavelength. Highly diffused at this range.”

Tegrese had apparently forgotten she was speaking to a Srina. “What are you waiting for, Nezdeh? They could destroy –!”

Nezdeh turned, fixed her with a stare, regretted taking the seconds to deal with Tegrese. But the loss of some additional paint and laser-ablative layering was nothing compared to losing even one iota of dominion. “The Aboriginals cannot destroy us with their laser at this range. Which you would know if you had the proper mastery of your station: we have exhaustive data on their technology. Or had you forgotten that, along with your deference?”

Tegrese’s eyes widened, then tightened and grew tense crow’s-feet at their corners, but finally, her gaze lowered. “My apologies for both transgressions, Srina Perekmeres.”

“I shall forgive them both, this one time. Now: adjust rail gun targeting to correct mean point of impact to the engines on the Slaasriithi shift cruiser.”

Sehtrek leaned closely over his read-outs. “Nezdeh, the forward sections of the Slaasriithi craft are beginning to receive power again. She has just illuminated active sensors.”

Keeping the tactical initiative was looking ever-more questionable. “Portside lasers are to target the Aboriginal corvette. Commence fire as soon as you have an eighty percent confidence solution.”

“And their drone?”

“Shift one of our starboard laser blisters to PDF mode and commence streaming interception fire immediately. Inform me when it is neutralized.”

Tegrese’s voice was careful. “I mean no disrespect, but I must confirm: do you intend to dedicate only two starboard laser blisters to the closest cannonball?”

“Yes. Regaining control of this engagement means reducing the number of opposing threats. The human corvette will be the easiest to eliminate, and in so doing, we also complete part of our mission. We will then be able to re-concentrate on the more difficult targets.”

“And the human shuttle?”

Nezdeh resisted the urge to close her eyes in frustration. “The debris, range, and other threats are too great for us to engage it now.”

“We could use our own missiles to –”

“No: we must launch a full spread of missiles at the Slaasriithi before she is able to reemploy her own lasers in the point-defense fire mode. Once her PDF systems are active, we will be as powerless to damage her as the humans are powerless to damage us.” She glanced at the lead cannonball; it still had not fired. Which bothered her. “Commence all attacks,” she ordered.

* * *

As soon as the shuttle’s rapid acceleration down toward Disparity settled into a consistent trajectory, Caine unbuckled and struggled forward against the two gees to reach the bridge’s iris valve. He triggered it, pushed into one of the two support seats, nodded to Raskolnikov and Qin, who spared one precious second to nod back at him. “I understand there was gunfire back in the rear airlock, Captain.”

“There was. And three bodies.”

“Do you have any idea what happened?

“Not yet,” Riordan admitted as he strapped into his new seat. “Except that I don’t believe the set up.”

“The set up?” Qin echoed.

“The way the bodies are set up to make it appear as if they all killed each other. It looks plausible enough forensically, but I don’t buy the scenario. It’s extremely rare that everyone in a gunfight winds up dead. But we’ll figure that out later. If we get the chance.”

Raskolnikov turned a rueful smile back at him. “So you have seen top side of our lifting surface?”

Riordan nodded. “Took some hits from that debris you dodged.”

“Not me. That was Lieutenant Qin. She got us out of that mess.”

“Not entirely,” Qin grumbled. “My apologies, Commander Raskolnikov. I am afraid I have made your job much harder.”

“This?” Raskolnikov smiled broadly as he tilted his head at the pockmarked portside “wing” of the shuttle. Caine winced: it was one of those “so we die? so what?” smiles that he had seen on the faces of too many fatalistic Russians over the past two years. “This is not so bad,” Raskolnikov asserted. “We will keep nose up and minimize atmospheric heating on damaged area. You will see: all shall be well.”

And if it isn’t, who’ll be left to call you a bullshitter? But what Caine said was: “How soon before the ride gets rough?”

“Soon, Captain. You should return to seat.”

Caine shook his head. “I need the radio for a minute.”

Both pilots shrugged, scanned their mostly-green system monitors, began checking for ground beacons or automated telemetry feeds guiding them toward approach paths: neither one was showing up on their instruments.

Caine snagged a thin-line headset, activated a secure channel to Puller, scanned the black vault above them. Well away from the Slaasriithi ship, the corvette’s twin, blue-white thrusters brightened — just as its hull seemed to flare. One engine went dark and Puller started to lose way, veering closer to the planet. “Bannor!”

A moment of paralyzing silence was supplanted by static and then an open channel. “Caine? Glad to hear you guys are okay. Heading planetside?”

“Screw the small talk. What the hell are you doing?”

“Helping our hosts, sir.”

“Damn it; you are to go dark, break contact, and run like hell.”

“Sir, with all due respect, mounting a covering attack was within my prerogatives. It ensures that they don’t shoot at you. A logical extension of Mr. Downing’s orders, sir.”

You god-damned barracks-house lawyer. “We’ll argue that some other time. For now, you’ve taken your best shot and given them something to shoot at until Yiithrii’ah’aash got his ship running again. Now, get Puller and your crew out of that battlespace. You’ve already lost one thruster –”