This book should be appearing in the bookstores by now, so this will be the last snippet. Eric


There was a reason it had taken so long for the laser head to replace the contact nuclear warhead as the deep-space long-ranged weapon of choice. The basic concept for a laser head was actually quite simple, dating back to pre-Diaspora days on Old Terra. In its most basic terms, a cylindrical rod of some suitable material (the Royal Manticoran Navy used a Tantalum/Lithium medium) was subjected to the x-ray pulse of a nuclear detonation, causing it to lase in Gamma-rays until the thermal pulse of the detonation’s core expansion reached the rod and destroyed it. The problem had always been that the process was inherently extraordinarily inefficient. Under normal conditions, only a few percent of the billions of megajoules released by a megaton-range nuclear warhead would actually end up in any single x-ray laser beam, mostly because — under normal conditions — a nuclear detonation propagated in a sphere, and each rod represented only a ridiculously tiny portion of the total spherical area of the explosion and so could be subjected to only a tiny percentage of the total pulse of any detonation. Which meant the overwhelming majority of the destructive effect was completely lost.

Given the toughness of warship armor, even two or three T-centuries ago, that was simply too little to have any appreciable effect, especially since the resultant laser still had to blast its way through not just a warship’s sidewalls, but also its anti-radiation shielding, just to reach the armor in question. So even though the odds of achieving what was effectively a direct hit with a contact nuke were not exactly good, most navies had opted to go with a weapon which could at least hope to inflict some damage if it actually managed to hit the target. Indeed, pre-laser head missiles had been most destructive when they achieved skin-to-skin contact as purely kinetic projectiles. That, unfortunately, had been all but impossible to achieve, even with the best sidewall penetrators, so the proximity-fused nuclear missile had become primarily a sidewall-killer. It’s function was less to inflict actual hull damage than to burn out sidewall generators.
Unfortunately from the missile-firer’s perspective, active missile defenses had improved to such a degree that “not exactly good” odds of scoring a direct hit had turned into “not a chance in hell,” which was the real reason capital ships had gone to such massive energy batteries. Missiles might still be effective against lighter combatants, but they’d been for all intents and purposes completely ineffective against the active and passive defenses of a capital ship, so the only way to fight a battle out had been to close to the sort of eyeball-to-eyeball range at which shipboard energy mounts could get the job done.
But then, little more than a century ago, things had begun to change when some clever individual had figured out how to create what was in effect a shaped nuclear charge. The possibility had been discussed in several of the galaxy’s naval journals considerably longer than that, but the technology to make it work hadn’t been available. Not until improvements in the gravitic pinch effect used in modern fusion plants had been shoehorned down into something that could be fitted into the nose of a capital missile.
A ring of gravity generators, arranged in a collar behind the warhead, had been designed. When the weapon fired, the generators spun up a few milliseconds before the warhead actually detonated, which was just long enough for the layered focal points of a gravitic lens to stabilize and reshape the blast from spherical to Gaussian, directing the radiological and thermal effects forward along the warhead’s axis. The result was to capture far more of the blast’s total effect and focus it into the area occupied by the lasing rods. By modern standards, the original laser heads had been fairly anemic, despite their vast improvement over anything which had been possible previously, and capital ship designers had responded by further thickening the already massive armor dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts carried. But the ancient race between armor and the gun had resumed, and by fifty or sixty T-years ago, the laser head had become a genuine danger to even the most stoutly armored vessel.
There were other factors involved in the design of a successful laser head, of course. The length and diameter of a lasing rod determined its beam divergence, with obvious implications for the percentage of energy the laser delivered at any given range. Ship-mounted energy weapons, with their powerful grav lenses, could squeeze beam divergence in a way no laser head possibly could. There was simply no way to design those lenses into something as small as a laser head which, despite many refinements in design, remained essentially a simple, expendable rod which would have been easily recognizable by any pre-Diaspora physicist.
In the current Mark 23 warhead, the rods were roughly three meters in length and forty centimeters in diameter. They were carried in bays on either side of the weapons bus, which ejected them once the missile had steadied down on its final attack bearing. Each of the laser heads mounted its own thrust-vectoring reaction control system, which acquired the target on its own sensors, thrust to align itself with the target’s bearing, and quickly maneuvered to a position a hundred and fifty meters ahead of the missile. At which point the gravity lens came up, the warhead detonated, and the target found itself out of luck.
The critical factors were laser head rod dimensions, the yield of the detonation, and — in many ways the most critical of all — the grav lens amplification available. Which was the main reason capital missiles were so much more destructive than the smaller missiles carried aboard cruisers and destroyers. There was still a minimum mass/volume constraint on the grav lens assembly itself, and a bigger missile could simply carry both a more powerful lens and the longer — and therefore more powerful — lasing rods which gave it a longer effective standoff range from its target. That was also the reason it had been such a challenge to squeeze a laser head capable of dealing even with LACs into the new Viper anti-LAC missile. The bay for the single lasing rod was almost two thirds the length of the entire missile body, and finding a place where it could be crammed in had presented all sorts of problems.
The general Manticoran technical advantage over the Republic of Haven had made itself felt in laser head design, as well. Manticoran missile gravity generators had always been more powerful on a volume-for-volume basis, and Manticoran sensors and targeting systems had been better, as well. The Star Kingdom had been able to rely upon smaller warheads and greater lens amplification to create laser heads powerful enough for its purposes, especially since it could count on scoring more hits because of its superior fire control and seeking systems. The Republic had been forced to adopt a more brute force approach, using substantially larger warheads and heavier lasing rods, which was one of the factors that explained why Havenite missiles had always been outsized compared to their Manticoran counterparts.
But now, thanks primarily to fallout from the Star Kingdom’s ongoing emphasis on improving its grav-pulse FTL communications capability, BuWeaps had completed field testing and begun production of a new generation of substantially more powerful gravity generators for the cruiser-weight Mark 16. In fact, they’d almost doubled the grav lens amplification factor, and while they were at it, they’d increased the yield of the missile warhead, as well. With its fifteen megaton warhead, the Mark 16 had been capable of dealing with heavy cruiser or battlecruiser armor, although punching through to the interior of a battlecruiser had pushed it almost to the limit. Now, with the new Mod G’s forty megaton warhead and improved grav lensing, the Mark 16 had very nearly as much punch as an all-up capital missile from as recently as five or six T-years ago.
Producing the Mod G had required what amounted to a complete redesign of the older Mark 16 weapons buses, and BuWeaps had decided that it neither wanted to discard all of the existing weapons nor forgo the improvements, so Admiral Hemphill’s minions had come up with a kit to convert the previous Mod E to the Mod E-1. (Exactly what had become of the Mod F designation was more than Helen was prepared to guess. It was well known to every tactical officer that BuWeaps nomenclature worked in mysterious ways.) The Mod E-1 was basically the existing Mod E with its original gravity generators replaced by the new, improved model. Which meant that its effectiveness was “only” doubled, while the Mod G laser heads’ throughput had increased by a factor of over five.
And, she thought, if they apply the same approach to the Mark 23 — assuming the new grav lens scales — and then couple it with whatever it was Duchess Harrington’s fire control used at Lovat . . . .
“And what else did the Commodore discuss with you about them, Ensign Zilwicki?” Lynch’s question recalled her from her thoughts, and she gave herself a mental shake.
“Sir, it’s all on the chips there,” she said respectfully, indicating the folio she’d just delivered.
“I’m sure it is,” Lynch agreed. “On the other hand, I’ve come to know the Commodore at least a little better since he came aboard, and I’m inclined to doubt that he ‘just happened’ to discuss this with you before he sent you off to deliver his memo to me. He doesn’t strike me as the sort who ‘just happens’ to do much of anything without a specific purpose in mind. So why don’t we just consider this an opportunity for a little hands-on tactical brainstorming session for just you and me?”
Helen felt a distinct sinking sensation and suppressed a powerful urge to swallow hard. Then, as Lynch tipped his chair further back, she saw the amusement in his eyes. Not the amusement at having put her on the spot she might have seen in some superior officers’ eyes, but the amusement of watching her work through his reasoning and discover he was almost certainly right about what the Commodore had had in mind.
“All right, Sir,” she replied with a smile, settling herself more comfortably in her own chair. “Where were you thinking we should begin?”
Her tone was respectful, but almost challenging, and he smiled back at her as he heard it.
“That’s the spirit, Ensign Zilwicki! Let’s see . . . .”
He swung his chair gently back and forth for a few moments, then nodded to himself.
“You’ve already mentioned what happened at Monica,” he said. “I’ve read the tac reports from the battle, and I know you were on the bridge during the engagement. In fact, you were acting as missile defense officer, correct?”
“Yes, Sir.” Helen’s eyes darkened slightly at the memories his question brought back. Memories of her, sitting at Abigail Hearns’ side, managing the entire squadron’s missile defenses while the Monican-crewed battlecruisers stormed steadily closer.
“In that case, why don’t we start with your evaluation of how the availability of the Mod G — or, for that matter, the E-1 — would have affected Commodore Terekhov’s choice of tactics?”
Helen frowned thoughtfully, the darkness of memory fading as she concentrated on his question. She considered it carefully for several seconds, then gave her head a little toss.
“I think the main change in his tactics might have been that he’d have gone for early kills.”
“Meaning what, exactly?” Lynch’s tone was an invitation to explain her thinking, and she leaned slightly forward.
“The thing was, Sir, that I think we all knew the only way we could realistically hope to stop those battlecruisers was with massed missile fire at relatively short range. Oh, we got one of them at extreme range, but that had to have been a Golden BB. No way did we manage to get deep enough to hit anything that should have blown her up that way!”
She shook her head again, her expression grim as she recalled the spectacular destruction of MNS Typhoon and her entire crew. Then she shook herself mentally and refocused on the present.
“Anyway, we knew we sure couldn’t afford to let them into energy range of us, and because our laser heads were so much lighter, we knew we were going to have to concentrate a lot of hits, both in terms of location and time, if we were going to get through their armor. The Kitty — I mean, Hexapuma — was the only ship we had that was Mark 16-capable, and that meant we couldn’t achieve that kind of concentration outside standard missile range. So what the Captain was actually using our long-range fire for was to get the best possible feel for the Monicans’ active defenses and EW capabilities. He was using the Mark 16s to force them to defend themselves so we could get a read on their defenses and pass it to the rest of the squadron to maximize our fire’s effectiveness once they came into the range of the rest of our ships.
“But if we’d had Mod Gs, instead of the old Mod Es, we would have been able to get through battlecruiser armor even at extreme range and without the kind of concentration we had at the end of the battle. So, in that case, I think he still would have been probing for information, but at the same time –”
Helen Zilwicki leaned further forward in her chair, hands beginning to gesture enthusiastically as she forgot all about her qualms over her junior rank and lack of experience, and never even noticed the amused approval in Horace Lynch’s eyes as she gave herself up to the discussion.