Raising Caine – Snippet 32

Chapter Thirty-One

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

In the portside extremity of Lurker’s holosphere, Nezdeh watched her spread of missiles draw within twenty thousand kilometers of the Slaasriithi ship — and then flare like a string of firecrackers. As she feared, her opponent’s PDF systems had repowered before she could strike her most decisive blow. But, with any luck, the Slaasriithi defenses had been so riveted upon that primary threat that they would be unable to quickly retarget and achieve the more concentrated, intensive fire that was required to spall, and thereby deflect, the rail gun projectiles that Nezdeh had sent racing in behind her missiles.

At the starboard extreme of the plot, the three enemy cannonballs approached Lurker in an elongated triangle, the first cannonball leading from the point, the other two back at the base. The first had been lightly damaged by a single laser hit. Its immediate return fire had been surprisingly powerful for such a small craft. However, whether it was the limitations of fitting adequate focusing equipment into such a compact hull, or a consequence of the damage that the cannonball had received from Red Lurker, the enemy beam had been highly diffuse when it struck. A mild shock had trembled through the patrol hunter, and some lower ablative layers had fumed off the hull, but fortunately, that was the extent of the damage.

“She means to bring her laser into more effective range,” Tegrese commented.

“Or to ram us,” Idrem commented over the intercom from his position in engineering.

Nezdeh started. “Explain?”

“Consider the first cannonball’s vector in light of its prior operation, and the changing course of the other two cannonballs. Their delta formation is beginning to spread out. I suspect the two rear ones mean to bracket and ultimately move behind us, to force us to evade and so, curtail our rate of closure with our primary target. Ultimately, retargeting our rail gun will require that we do not merely change our current heading but tumble the ship.”

“Yes — but ramming?”

“I do not suggest it is the lead cannonball’s primary or preferred attack option, but consider the way it has eschewed evasion since we hit it. Having the measure of us, and of our superior beam weapon, it is now rushing in for the kill. And disabling it will not be enough: if we do not destroy its drives soon, we will have to reduce it to junk to be sure of avoiding a collision that would be catastrophic.”

Nezdeh nodded to no one but herself. That is why their tactical maneuver is so odd. Despite their size, they are not ships; they are drones. And the Slaasriithi are willing to spend them freely in order to destroy us. “I believe you are correct, Idrem. And if you are, we must consider –”

“Nezdeh!” interrupted Sehtrek. “The enemy corvette is under full power again. It is coming about.”

“To resume attacking?”

“No: it is tumbling. Facing to the rear. It’s new course would take it behind the planet.”

“Well, that is one less problem,” Tegrese muttered.

Yes, you would see it that way. “No, it has become a larger problem. There are now three ships which can report this attack and we cannot track down all of them. However, we must destroy the human warcraft first.” And we must strike before it swings behind the world’s far, night-cloaked horizon and makes good its escape. “Tegrese, bring all weapons to bear on the Aboriginal corvette. Given her current course and rate of acceleration, we will have one last firing opportunity before the curve of the atmosphere comes between us.”

At well under a light second, the Lurker’s lasers accessed the new target almost instantly. The rail gun’s firing solution lagged significantly behind, given the Aboriginal vessel’s smaller size and greater agility.

“Laser lock on the enemy corvette has been reacquired,” reported Tegrese.

“Confidence of rail gun solution?” Nezdeh demanded.

“If we use a maximum dispersion submunition, just over fifty percent.”

“Estimate: will longer aim time increase or decrease confidence?”

“Impossible to calculate; the corvette is undertaking evasive maneuvers.”

Nezdeh frowned: shoot now? Or wait to improve the rail gun’s targeting? The time had come to choose between a bad option — I can probably cripple the craft now — or a worse option: to wait for a slightly better shot might mean missing it entirely. It was no choice at all. “Fire all, immediately.”

At this range, the results were quick in coming. The lasers achieved two hits, one of which was fleeting, at best. Moments later, the viewscreen showed that one, maybe two of the rail gun’s flurry of thirty-by-ten centimeter penetrator rods struck the corvette along her ventral surface; small bits of debris fluttered outward from the hull and her drives went dark. She began to tumble slowly as she disappeared over the planetary horizon: a lightless spot disappearing behind an ink-black crescent.

Lying further out from the planet, the Slaasriithi ship was also showing the effect of the penetrator rounds that had followed closely in the wake of the Ktoran missiles. Guttering, oxygen-starved flames flickered about one of the shift-carrier’s main power plants. Gashes in her long, hexagonal cargo sections bled trails of ruin and debris, and several of her combination thermionic-radiator arrays looked like broken windows that opened unto deep space.

Nezdeh leaned back, considered the holosphere. “Tegrese, reacquire laser lock on the lead cannonball. Sehtrek, damage assessment on Slaasriithi ship.”

Sehtrek almost sounded apologetic. “Her power generation has dropped by twenty-five percent, but she is maintaining full thrust.” He paused, looked back at her. “She is tumbling.”

“She is running,” amended Nezdeh with a grim nod. “And why would the Slaasriithi do otherwise? If they can flee and make shift –”

“We must not let them!” Tegrese cried from her station. “They must still break out of orbit. If we resume full acceleration, we can –”

“We can ensure our own destruction at the slim possibility of hers. Look at the plot, Tegrese, and improve your insight. If we resume full acceleration, the cannonballs will have our rear flank. So if we must then constantly tumble — first to attack the shift carrier before us, and then the cannonballs behind us — we will do both jobs poorly. And to what effect? The cannonballs are much faster and nimbler than we are. The shift carrier has the use of her PDF batteries once again. Even if we launched all our missiles in one immense salvo, preceded and followed by as many rail gun submunitions as we might launch, we are unlikely to inflict any damage that would prevent her from making shift. And to launch such an attack, we would need to get closer and concentrate fire on her for several minutes, ignoring the cannonballs. Which will be breathing down our necks. We, not the shift carrier, are much more likely to be destroyed by such a strategy.” Nezdeh moved her stern gaze away from Tegrese before it could become a look of contempt. “Do you have a lock on the lead cannonball, yet?”

“Just this moment, Nezdeh.”

“Fire all lasers.”

“Shall I reacquire rail gun lock on the enemy shift carrier?”

Nezdeh weighed reflex — to strike at her enemy however, whenever, she might — against reason: not many of this salvo of rail gun munitions would avoid the PDF beams that, spalling a fraction of their dense matter upon contact, would thus impart the nudge that would cause the warheads to miss the Slaasriithi by dozens of kilometers. And those few that might get through were increasingly unlikely to inflict decisive damage. “No,” she decided with a sigh. “If we do not have a reasonable chance of rendering the Slaasriithi ship incapable of shift, then we are wasting ammunition. Of which we might have urgent want, later on.”

Ulpreln turned. His voice was careful, respectful. “Can we be so sure that the Slaasriithi ship is still capable of shift? Or that it even has enough anti-matter aboard? Or enough fuel for preacceleration after we destroyed two of their tanks?”

“We may be nearly certain of all those things,” Nezdeh answered. “We have no evidence that we inflicted any damage upon their shift drive, so it would be irresponsible to base any plans on such a hope. Next, they have made only one shift since taking on supplies at the meridiate world they last visited. It is inconceivable that they would not have replenished their antimatter stocks then. Lastly, even with the loss of two fuel tanks –”

“Nezdeh,” Tegrese interrupted. “All lasers have struck the closest cannonball. But –”

Nezdeh looked in the plot, glanced at the sensors and then the viewscreen: although trailing debris, and no longer firing, the cannonball was still boring in on them.

Sehtrek was hoarse. “Range closing, bearing constant.”

“Ulpreln, evasive maneuvers! Time until impact?”

Sehtrek had trouble finding his voice. “Ninety seconds.”