Raising Caine – Snippet 33

Nezdeh wondered at the cannonball’s design, that it could absorb that kind of punishment and still function. “Tegrese, maintain firing.”

“I am. Continuing to degrade target.”

But not fast enough. “Ulpreln, discontinue evasive. Release bearing control to gunnery station. Tegrese –”

She was already yawing the ship hard to starboard to face the oncoming cannonball; they leaned with the maneuver. “Target telemetry constant. Acquiring lock. Seventy percent confidence, seventy-five –”

Nezdeh interrupted. “At eighty-five percent, commence firing. Single penetrator rods, one every three seconds, maximum power.”

“And — firing!”

The tremendous energies being discharged pulsed the deck under their feet like the slow heart of a great beast. In the plot, thin tines of green jetted toward the onrushing orange globe —

The fifth rod struck the cannonball dead center. Nezdeh almost sighed out her relief — then remembered to look in the plot:

Orange specks tumbled toward the green delta that marked the position of Red Lurker. “Brace for impact!” Nezdeh shouted at the same moment that Sehtrek yelled, “Debris still on intercept vector. Secure for –”

Red Lurker shuddered, pitched, then was righted to her prior orientation by her automatic attitude control system.

Nezdeh had managed to stay in her acceleration couch, glanced at the holosphere. “Sehtrek: damage?”

“Not critical. Report follows: –”

“No time.” Nezdeh jabbed a finger at the plot: the two remaining cannonballs were now speeding directly toward Red Lurker at a separation of over one-hundred and forty degrees and widening quickly. She remembered her war tutor’s wisdom: Evading flanking pursuers is a difficult task that often ends in disaster. “Ulpreln, reverse course, full thrust. Tegrese, acquire aft-facing lock as possible. If you have a shot, take it.”

“I cannot promise hits, Nezdeh.”

“I just want them to take evasive maneuvers and give us more time.”

“They will catch us.” Sehtrek commented. It was not a criticism, just a statement of fact.

“If they are so instructed,” Nezdeh replied, and settled in to watch the pursuit.

At precisely four light seconds from the planet, the two surviving cannonballs began counter-boosting at the same blistering six-gee acceleration they had maintained during their pursuit.

“They’re breaking off?” Tegrese wondered.

“Given the distance, I suspect it is an automated protocol,” Nezdeh observed, hearing the iris valve open behind her. “It is consistent with what we know of the Slaasriithi. They intrinsically focus on defense. Beyond a certain limit, and probably influenced by whether or not they are still taking fire, the intelligence or expert system controlling these cannonballs informs them that the fleeing target is no longer a credible threat. And so the cannonballs break off to resume their orbital defense duties. Otherwise, feints could easily pull them too far off their patrol circuits and leave the planet unprotected.”

The voice from the iris valve was Idrem’s. “And I suspect there is another reason for their constant proximity to the world they defend.”

Nezdeh turned. “What do you conjecture, Idrem?” She had come to love hearing her own voice say his name. It was not a sign of which the Progenitors — or her own Breedmothers — would have approved. But she did not care.

“There is the problem of control range,” Idrem answered. He nodded toward the holosphere. “At four light seconds, it is reasonable to suspect that the cannonballs’ reaction time to new events is ten seconds. Four seconds to communicate the event to the planetary defense planner, two seconds for that planner to decide upon and transmit a response, and four more seconds for the response to reach the cannonball. All too often,” he concluded, “that would result in a destroyed cannonball. Even assuming they have excellent on-board expert systems, a battlefield is Fate’s laboratory for crafting novel challenges and unexpected conditions. The Slaasriithi will not be sanguine sending these drone-ships beyond the limit of optimal control.”

“Yes, they must be centrally controlled.” Nezdeh called up a holosphere image from earlier in the battle. “Notice how the two cannonballs were held back while our advance upon the Slaasriithi shift carrier increasingly put us on a predictable trajectory. They did not attack until we were as firmly set on our course as a fly is affixed to flypaper.”

Sehtrek leaned back from his console, frowning. “Srina Perekhmeres, I must point out the dire situation in which we now find ourselves.”

“Speak,” she said.

“Arbitrage and the tug did not have time to fully refuel, and have been unable to produce antimatter for want of that fuel, as well as the need to avoid generating high energy emissions. If the Slaasriithi ship can still effect shift, then they will have carried news of this attack to their homeworld at Beta Aquilae within nine days. Logically, we must assume that within three to four weeks, they will return here with a force over which we shall have — excuse me — no hope of achieving dominion.”

“This is well spoken, and true besides,” Nezdeh acknowledged with a nod. “What do you recommend?”

Sehtrek folded his hands. “We must send Arbitrage and the tug to the gas giant to commence fueling and anti-matter production immediately. If we are very lucky, that will have furnished us with enough antimatter to shift before the enemy relief forces arrive. We must then refuel and produce more antimatter in the next system as quickly as possible and shift again. Otherwise, the enemy ships shall surely expand their search radius faster than we may escape it. And they will have access to various prepositioned caches of fuel and antimatter.” He sighed. “At the best, I consider our chances of survival uncertain.”

Nezdeh nodded. “Your reasoning and your plan are both sound. But they are uninformed by one crucial datum.” Nezdeh activated one of the bridge’s hardware screens; it showed a bright red dot mixed into the sparse Trojan point debris preceding the first planet.

“What is that?” Tegrese’s curiosity was childlike, unguarded.

In every regard, she has poor control. “That is an automated base,” Nezdeh said with a disarming smile. “It was identified by sensor operators on board the Arbitrage, shortly before we commenced our attack. Judging from the thermal and radioactive output, it is also an anti-matter manufactory. Its stores of fuel and anti-matter will not only allow us to expend energy lavishly in resuming our attacks upon the cannonballs and any humans who survived this combat, but will ensure our escape from Slaasriithi space. Within thirty hours, we should have fully loaded –”

Sehtrek’s panel flashed: a prominent new source of emissions — thermal, radioactive, photonic — had just been detected. He glanced at the coordinates, and then at the viewscreen.

In the spinward trojan point of the first orbit, exactly where the small red marker was placed, a tiny white star winked briefly into existence, just off the orange-yellow shoulder of BD +02 4076. The pinprick sized star was gone as quickly as it had flared.

In the holosphere, the marker designating the Slaasriithi’s automated fuel base faded away.

It was Sehtrek’s duty to report the obvious to the suddenly still bridge. “The Slaasriithi base is gone.”

Idrem nodded, no emotion in his face or voice: “Of course.”

“How?” Tegrese asked.

Nezdeh suppressed a sigh. “The Slaasriithi no doubt had remote system commands that allowed them to terminate the flow of power to the magnetic bottles in which the stocks of antimatter were stored. The resulting annihilation would be absolute.”

Idrem checked the mission clock over the central viewscreen. “Judging from the time delay, if the shift carrier sent such a command when she started withdrawing, it would have arrived at the station just in time for us to see its results now.”

Tegrese’s voice was gruff, grim. “This makes things much more difficult.”

“Which was the enemy’s intent, obviously.” Nezdeh turned back to Sehtrek. “We must now follow your plan. However uncertain it is, however close a pursuit it may entail, it is our only remaining option. Arbitrage and the tug will return to the gas giant, and as they go, they will commence converting their current fuel load into antimatter.”

Sehtrek’s shrug looked more like a wince. “It is a slow process, Srina.”

“All the more important that we commence now, even as we shape our new plan.”

“Our new plan?” echoed Tegrese.

“Of course. Before the Arbitrage departs for the gas giant, she must furnish us with sufficient assets to complete the elimination of the Aboriginals. This will mean fighting past the cannonballs, then locating and exterminating our targets on the surface of the planet. Happily, we have an agent in place among the survivors.”

“How do you know?”

“I know,” Nezdeh answered, accepting that it was now essential that she reveal herself to be Awakened. To make sure of her claim, she extended her awareness — and immediately sensed the saboteurs’ sole remaining Devolysite dwindling along with the insignificant thickening of time and space that was the planet behind them.

She nodded slowly at the faces ringing her. “Yes. I know.”