Trial By Fire – Snippet 09

Trevor was already activating various systems, bringing up monitors, screens, relays. “From here we can tap into bridge comms, sensor data and–“

“–and run the ship if something happens to the bridge crew.”

Trevor glanced at Caine, who was watching his actions closely. “I guess you were paying attention in some of those classes.”

“Well, yeah.” Caine dogged the hatch, which doubled as an outer-airlock door when the module was in free space. “But I wasn’t thinking about access to auxiliary’s redundant controls.”

Trevor spun open the inner airlock hatchway. “No? So what were you thinking about?”

“Er…I was thinking that it’s the only module really capable of autonomous operations.”

Trevor stopped in the hatchway. His look of surprise quickly became one of grim affirmation. “You’re right. Auxiliary command is the best lifeboat on this barge. Certainly the only one with any sustained maneuver capabilities.” Trevor moved to the command console, powered it up, moved his hand toward the fusion plant’s initiation switch.

Caine caught Trevor’s hand before he could light it up. “Not a good idea.”

Trevor looked at Caine’s hand restraining his own, then up into his face. “Have a good reason.”


“What do you mean?”

“Trevor, if we’re at general quarters because some of our interstellar neighbors have decided to come calling with their equivalent of shotguns and machetes, then I think we might not want to be sending out radiant emissions–of any kind–from this module.”

Trevor’s frown subsided slowly. “Christ, you’re probably right. But let’s not guess, let’s find out.” Trevor tapped his collarcom. “Bridge.”

A delay, then a babble of background voices–too many of which were rapid and high-pitched–before they got a direct response: “Clear this channel and stay off–“

“Son, this is Mr. Corcoran. Status?”

A pause. “Oh–Captain. Sorry, sir. I–“

“No need to be sorry. I’m just asking for a courtesy sitrep.”

“Yes, sir. We don’t have all the info, sir. We’re pretty far down the intel food chain from CINCBARCOMCENT. But it looks like something shifted into system. Not running a transponder signal.”

“You mean, not running an Earth transponder signal?”

“No, sir. I mean whatever it is, is dark. Completely dark, except for neutrino emissions.”

“You mean, its shift signature?”

“No sir, I mean its pumping out neutrinos and–well, subparticulate garbage.”

“In a beam?”

Caine got Trevor’s attention, shook his head.

“Stand by.” He turned toward Caine. “What?”

“Trevor, that doesn’t sound like a weapon signature. Sounds more like a field effect of some sort.”

“Yeah, like a shift signature.”

“But since it’s done shifting, and the signature is never more than a brief pulse, it’s got to be something else.”

“Like what?”

“Some kind of engine or power plant. What else would create neutrinos?”

“I don’t know; let’s find out.” Trevor called up the feed from the bridge sensors. Nothing except a red blinking cursor which marked the mystery ship’s real-time location within the star field.

“What’s its range?” Caine asked.

“Tell you in a second.” Trevor reconfigured the screens slightly. “Lying out at one hundred kiloklicks, doing nothing.”

“Yeah, sure. Ten to one it’s running passive sensors and making a list of the active systems we’ve lit up to assess it: what kind of emissions, where from, phased or single arrays.”

Trevor nodded. “Essentially, they’re building a target list. And testing our response, maybe hoping to draw some fire.”

“Which would also be invaluable intel.”

“But it’s too goddamned small to be a shift-carrier.”

“Trevor, who says the Arat Kur–if that’s who’s come calling–have to work on our scale of shift carriers? You saw how small the Dornaani hull was that carried us to the Convocation. What if the Arat Kur can make something that’s only two or three times larger?”

“And so they send it ahead to gather intel. But how do they go home to report? Say ‘pretty please’ and then go tank up at one of the outer gas giants?”

“No. They’re not going back home.”

“What do you mean?”

“Trevor, this is not a ‘scout and withdraw’ mission. This is a probing force that’s also playing Judas goat. It has to be, because in the next few minutes, they must either use, or lose, their tactical surprise.”

“Which means that a follow-up force–“

“Can’t be far behind, particularly if they want to make good use out of the target list they’re compiling. And since their first ship might get a powerfully unfriendly reception–“

“–they had to assume that it might not survive too long if left on its own. And that means–” Trevor tapped his collarcom again. “Bridge.”

A different voice. “Sir, this is Lieutenant Hazawa. I don’t mean to be rude, but–“

“Lieutenant, shoot this message up the chain using my name and reserve rank, marked for Admiral Perduro. Message begins: urgent that we presume enemy fleet inbound–“

And then it was bedlam on the other end of the channel: contact klaxons; shouted orders; a loud, steady recitation of a long string of bearing and range marks. Sensor ops cut in. “Skipper, we’re getting direct feed from The Pearl’s arrays and remote platforms. Major gravitic distortions above the ecliptic, registering at regular intervals, accompanied by bursts of cosmic and gamma rays. High confidence these are multiple shift signatures. Estimating fourteen and still counting–“

Caine felt a fast flush of panic. Fourteen? Good god–

“Mass scanners and high-end EM emission sensors confirm presence of large spacecraft, apparently in two groups. Range to first group is approximately two hundred kiloklicks. Range to second group is approximately four hundred kiloklicks. Awaiting definitive range estimates from active arrays.”

Trevor frowned. “Two waves.”

“Or the fleet’s direct engagement elements are out in front, screening its supporting auxiliaries and landing forces. How are we responding?”

Trevor spent a moment more listening to the comm chatter. “Sounds like we’re moving seventy to eighty percent of our heaviest and fastest hulls to a direct intercept. Probably most of our drones and control sloops as well.”

“The others? In reserve?”

“I don’t think so. The chatter makes me think that they’re a trailing escort for the shift carriers.”

“Which are where?”

“Well, four were in far orbit after refit and upgrades. My guess is that they’re moving at best possible speed toward the shift points and have activated the automated tankers for rendezvous during preacceleration.”

“Do you think they can make it?”

“They’ve got a better chance than the two older carriers that were in the slips. They’ll be lucky to cast off before the hammer comes down.”

“If they can cast off at all; I heard some scuttlebutt that the work crews hadn’t even received the new drives, yet.”

Trevor nodded sourly. “It figures, if it’s true. The repair and retrofitting work has been so extensive that it’s been getting backlogged–and you never want to have that many ships tied up in one place at the same time.”

“So, given The Pearl’s current traffic jam, a worst-case scenario today means–“

“It means we lose six military shift carriers and most of their fighting-ship complements: the majority of the Commonwealth and Federation fleets, combined.”

Caine looked at the nav screen, followed the pencil-thin orbit plots of the various human vessels against the black circular backdrop of the gas giant, saw them all spiraling out from the now golf-ball-sized orb that was The Pearl. The name had been a bad omen, after all–except this promised to be even worse than Pearl Harbor. There, the most important ships, the fleet carriers, had been out of port when the Japanese Zeros and Kates came out of the sky and put the rest of the Pacific Fleet at the bottom of the stretch of water known as Battleship Row.

And at least there had been something to do, in those days. You saw your enemy. You could pick up a rifle or a submachine gun and fire your own small counterattack–and expression of rage and retribution–into the sky, trying to gouge the red, rising-sun eyes that stared down from the bottom of each aircraft’s wings. But here, in space, the enemy appeared at a distance of almost one full light-second. And you waited and listened and did nothing. You sat in relative comfort, with access to reams of data that might means one’s own–or one’s species’–death and were absolutely unable to do anything about it except watch, reassess, and watch some more. And whereas Caine had been frustrated by that “sit on your hands” aspect of how events proceeded in space, Opal Patrone had been nearly driven to distraction by it.

Caine smiled. Opal was just about the most direct person he knew, often bordering on the impetuous. A trait she proved not only in the staff room but the bedroom. And yet, despite her forthright manner, her innermost feelings remained a mystery to him. Perhaps because they were still a mystery to her as well; Opal was all about action rather than reflection.

Caine’s felt his brow wrinkle, his smile sadden. His feelings for Elena notwithstanding, by the end of the Convocation he had already begun to realize that he and Opal were simply not the same kind of people, did not speak the same kind of language. Perhaps, by the time he saw her again on Earth, she would have realized it herself. But even if she hadn’t, and even if Elena had not reemerged into Caine’s memory and life, it was far better to let things end things now. The alternative was to have his and Opal’s fledgling relationship slowly erode into mutual misperception and the desperate approach-avoidance sine wave of two people whose genuine attachment and intimacy nonetheless refused to coalesce into a sustainable love.

Oddly, that was the moment that Trevor tapped the sine-wave dominated screens showing the long-range sensor results. “The energy signatures are starting to settle into discrete point sources. We’ll have final results soon.” Caine stared at the screens over Trevor’s shoulder, wished he had had more time to become familiar with the various crew stations and control systems of a modern spacecraft. But he was just a pretend-officer, given a rank so that he could give orders to people who had more training and skill than he did. It was no longer just a farce; it was a black comedy.