The Span Of Empire – Snippet 19
The World Harvester was lying naked in space, helpless before the fleet. That didn’t stop the lasers of the three battleships from carving it into pieces, helped along by a variety of explosions from within. It wasn’t long before a last titanic explosion broke the ship into three unequal pieces that slowly spun away from each other.
“Subordinate ships, guard the remains of the World Harvester,” Dannet ordered. “Support ships and Vercingetorix, rejoin the fleet.”
Caitlin unstrapped from her seat and got to her feet. For a moment, she felt light-headed, but it passed.
“So when will we be ready to leave this system?” she asked Dannet.
The Fleet Commander turned to face her. “Not yet, Director Kralik. The fleet still has one task remaining.”
Caitlin was surprised. She’d figured that since the Ekhat ships were destroyed, they could leave. “And that is?”
Dannet waved a hand at the main view screen, where the image of a planet was on display. “To make sure there are no Ekhat left in the system.” She turned to the communications officer. “Battleships take formation Gamma Rho again, head for that planet, prepare for bombardment.”
Caitlin shook her head for a moment, as if to settle her brain. The thought that there was still fighting to do had definitely caught her off guard. She walked over to stand next to Lieutenant Vaughan’s station.
“There are Ekhat on that planet?” she asked quietly.
“Looks like it,” the Welshman replied. “Sensors show something that might be either a small city or a mid-sized military post by our standards.”
“Damn,” Caitlin muttered.
It took some time for the fleet to close on the planet, but well before they arrived in orbit Lexington’s sensors confirmed first of all that the planet was another that had been stripped almost to bedrock by Ekhat sterilizations, and second that there was some kind of Ekhat facility or post under a dome near the shore of a lifeless sea.
Dannet looked over to her aide. “Can Vercingetorix launch its bombardment weapons?” The Fleet Commander was not one to indulge in the Terran “humanization” of tools; ships were “it”, not “she” to Dannet.
Vaughan touched a pad on his console. “They report no damage to those weapons systems.”
Dannet turned to the communications officer. “Orders to Vercingetorix: launch all bombardment weapons at the Ekhat base. Orders to Arjuna: prepare to launch bombardment weapons; wait for my order.”
Caitlin leaned over to Vaughan. “Is the Fleet Commander going to order the ships to gather plasma balls from the sun?”
“No,” Vaughan hissed back.
“Because it’s a stupid weapon.”
Both Wrot and Dannet glanced over at them. Vaughan gave a quick cutting motion with his hand, and returned his full attention to his panel.
Caitlin stepped back by her bodyguards, just that little bit miffed. “If it’s so stupid a weapon,” she muttered, “why do the Ekhat use it?”
“Because they are unsane,” Tamt volunteered. “Everyone knows that.”
“But that doesn’t mean they’re stupid,” Caitlin replied. “Why would they use a stupid weapon?”
“Lieutenant Vaughan?” Dannet pronounced.
“Provide an explanation to Director Kralik, so she will cease fretting.”
Caitlin felt her face getting hot as she flushed. Vaughan beckoned to her, so he wouldn’t have to leave his console. She stalked over, trailed by Tamt and Captain Miller.
“Sorry to have my stupid question interrupting your work, Lieutenant, but I really would like to understand why the Ekhat would use a stupid weapon.”
“It’s not a stupid question,” Vaughan said, touching a couple of pads on his console before he looked up at her, “and the short answer is nobody knows. Everyone blames it on the Ekhat being crazy, but really, nobody knows for sure.”
“So why is it a stupid weapon?”
“It’s a terror weapon,” the Welshman said, “and like many terror weapons, it’s very inefficient. The plasma ball that landed on China did a lot of damage, granted. But all the post-strike analyses that’ve been done in the last couple of years indicate that the damned thing almost missed.”
“Missed its target?”
“No,” Vaughan replied, “missed the earth.”
Caitlin’s jaw dropped.
“Really,” Vaughan maintained. “Combining our records with what we can collect from the Jao, it looks like the ball was probably taken from as deep in the sun as the Ekhat can extend their shields, probably down to the level where the plasma is near the density of molten iron. Then they pulled out a ball of somewhere around ninety kilometers diameter, and they trundled that off to the planet they wanted to bombard–in this case, Earth.
“Each ball had so much mass, they could barely contain it in their shields, and they could barely move it with their ships. Ekhat ships are not inferior to the ships the Jao had at the time they attacked us. Didn’t you wonder why it took so long for the Ekhat ship to arrive at Earth, when the Jao ships could make the trip faster? As it is, one ship overstrained its systems, lost shield containment and was vaporized by its own plasma ball. If we’d had the Lexington in service back then, the second ship probably would never have made it close to earth. It was moving slow enough that the kinetic weapons should have punished it to the point where the same thing would have happened to it.”
“No one ever pointed that out to me before,” Caitlin said. “What else didn’t they tell me?”
“It gets crazier,” Flue said. “The Ekhat don’t have a way to aim a plasma ball.”
“What?” Caitlin exclaimed. “That’s crazy!”
“What I said,” Flue grinned. “They carry the ball along until they’re near the planet they’re attacking. In our case, they were just inside the stratosphere. Then they drop the shields around the ball and take their ship someplace else, leaving the ball to fall and land wherever. Our damage was bad enough, but if they had waited longer to release the ball, the destruction would have been much greater and more widespread. The plasma lost a lot of energy just spreading out and interacting with the atmosphere before it hit the ground.”
“You said they almost missed.”
“Yes.” Vaughan sobered. “They actually came in at a slight angle, and like I said, they let the ball loose higher than would have been optimum. It was almost an ocean strike because of that, and if it had been even a few more degrees off of vertical, it might well have just roared through the atmosphere and back into space. Either one of those would have really messed up the wind and weather patterns, maybe even more than the land strike actually did, but they wouldn’t have done the damage that really happened.”
“So it’s a stupid weapon because they can barely control it and they can’t aim it well,” Caitlin said.
“Correct. They could have done as much damage with a handful of hydrogen bombs or a couple of big asteroid bolides, easier and with greater precision.”
“So they’re crazy.”
Flue nodded with another grin.
“So what are we going to use instead?”
The Welshman turned and touched a couple of pads on his console. A display lit up.
“That,” he said, pointing to the display.
Caitlin looked at the picture. “A missile?”
“No,” Flue said. “That is a super-penetrator. Twenty meters long, two meters in diameter, titanium shell, a mass of depleted uranium at the head of it, followed by a tactical nuclear or sub-nuclear charge, and powered by the smallest of the Jao space drives that we’ve yet been able to build. It’s also got some rudimentary shield capability, but given its designed use, that’s not so much of a big thing.”
“Wow,” Caitlin said, as Caewithe Miller gave a low whistle beside her. “So when did we get those?”
“They’ve been under development for a long time; since right after the conquest. In secret, of course. That was all wishful thinking, naturally, but even among the techies there were some die-hard rebels. But when Aille became governor and the R&D firms got access to the Jao tech-base, the plans got pulled out, dusted off, and updated. There was one test on a sizable asteroid with a sub-nuclear charge, which created a cloud of fast moving gravel, then it went to production. They had a dozen ready for us right before the fleet began searching.” He shrugged. “It was one of those ‘just in case’ weapons, and although no one, Dannet included, expected to need them, no officer worth his paycheck is ever going to turn down an available weapon.”
Flue’s head twitched, then he touched a console control and looked up at the main view screen. “And now we get to see it in action.”
Caitlin focused on the screen, which had split to show two different pictures. “What’s this showing me?”
“One is a feed from a camera on the penetrator itself, and the other is from a camera on one of the ships,” Flue replied. Both pictures began to change as the penetrator began to move. “It’s designed to start out slowly, then kick into high gear when the on-board sensors get a good lock on the defined target and the most direct path to it.”