Trial By Fire – Snippet 10

Trevor leaned back. “So, twenty-eight shift signatures confirmed. But they’re not all headed our way. Only the probe ship and maybe half a dozen more are coming straight for us. At three gees.”

“Three gees? That means the leading ship will make intercept in–“

“–in just under thirty-one minutes. Although I don’t think that detachment is heading for us at all. Like the rest of the local traffic, we’re just a nuisance to be brushed aside in their race to get to The Pearl. The rest of the invaders’ fleet is moving to engage our already-deployed forces. There’s gonna be one hell of a big fight about twenty light-seconds farther out.”

Caine did some rapid math concerning the detachment that was heading for them. “If their lead ship has drones, and they’re no better than ours, that means that their first weapons platforms will be zipping past us in just under nineteen minutes. That means they’ll probably be able take us under fire in no more than twelve to thirteen minutes. Less, if their drones and weapons are better.”

“Which is probably the case.” Trevor activated his collarcom again. “Lieutenant Hazawa?”

It took Hazawa about ten seconds to respond. “Yes, Captain Corcoran?”

“Have you been given orders?”

“Just came through now, sir.”


“And we are to commence stern-chasing the shift-carrier Prometheus immediately, sir. Silent running.”

Trevor checked his nav plots. “Lieutenant, have you looked at what that means?”

“I have, sir.”

“It’s going to have us paralleling the OpFor’s approach trajectory to the Pearl–and unless we move to four gee immediately, they’re going to overtake us. As it is, if they’ve got drones, their remote units will overtake us.”

“Big Lady’s direct orders, sir: to get you two gentlemen out of this system. So we need to make rendezvous with the Prometheus, and that trajectory is the only way to do it. But we’ll push the engines and burn to four gee.”

“What sort of countermeasures are loaded?”

The extended pause was not promising. “A Level Two ECM package and two point-defense fire pods.”

“Ship-to-ship ordnance?”

“None, sir. Sorry. We came to this party equipped to be a racecar, not a gunboat.”

“Then put the pedal to the metal and get us the hell out of here, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir. We’ll be informing the other passengers in a moment, and give them four minutes to get into and flood their acceleration compensation tanks. Then we’ll–“

“Son, every minute you give your passengers to get comfy makes it that much more likely that you will not outrun the OpFor and that, in consequence, we will all die. Recommend you hit the accelerator in one minute and tell the biofreight they’ve got that long to strap in, wherever they can.”

A pause. It was a nonregulation procedure suggested to a twenty-five-year-old who’d never been in a shooting war. Then, “Aye, aye, sir. Strap in.”

The shipwide blared Hazawas’ warning overhead. Caine strapped in slowly, deliberately.

“You okay?” Trevor was looking over at him.

“Yeah–yeah, I guess I am.” Caine was suddenly more aware of the perverse calm he felt than any fear of personal harm. It was either a helpful precombat reflex or a pathological level of traumatic dissociation. Or maybe those were the same thing. He couldn’t believe that he was smiling, but the stretching pain in his injured lower lip confirmed it.

Trevor was staring at him. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Well, I’m not about to start drooling or run around shrieking, if that’s what you mean.”

“Yeah, that’s what I mean. Okay, then. Any second n–“

Trevor didn’t complete the word “now” because four gees of force suddenly crushed them in their couches as irresistibly as a trash compactor. Jesus Christ. How the hell do the regular crews take it?

The force abruptly shifted to the side, like a hammer had hit the starboard side of the cutter. The lights flashed off and came back on in an environment that was once again weightless. A shuddering rumble tremored through the deck, then another two in quick succession. “What the–?”

“I think that was combustive venting of some tankage baffles.”

“And the first big slam?”

“Well, either we had one hell of a malfunction or their capital ships have a hell of a lot more range than we do. And if their main weapons can disable us at their current rang–” he checked “–which is about one hundred thirty kiloklicks, then whatever they just hit us with would tear apart our biggest cruisers at normal engagement ranges. Which means that if our fleet waits to get into optimal range–“

“–they’ll never get off a shot,” finished Caine. “They’ve got to concentrate long-range fire on a few select hulls and try to keep distance.”

“Hard if they’re already on course for direct engagement.”

“Yeah, but that’s for the admiral to decide. Either way, the whole fleet needs this information.”

Trevor nodded. “Bridge.”

Caine could hear the chaos clearly over Trevor’s collarcom. “Captain–Mr. Corcoran–please. Not now. We’ve lost the preignition torus and power to the starboard plasma thrusters. If we don’t–“

“Son, has anyone else been hit yet?”

“Erm–no; we’re the lucky first.”

“Then you have to break silence and send this tactical update out on general broadcast. Give our current range to the enemy’s capital ships and attach the damage report.”

“Sir, I don’t under–“

“Just do it, Lieutenant. The admiral and line captains will know what to make of it.”

Hazawa signed off. Trevor brought up a screen which duplicated the bridge’s engineering board. He shook his head. “Not good. The portside pulse fusion engine is completely gone. We still might get away if they fix the preignition torus for the plasma thrusters.”

“That’s a big ‘if.'”

“You bet,” agreed Trevor. “Half of everything else is fried. Countermeasures are gone. So’s one of the PDF defense pods. At this point, they could finish us off with a few thrown rocks and sharp insults.”

“Structural integrity?”

“Hard to say. No problem amidships or up at the bow, but to aft, most of the hull sensors in engineering are out.”

“Usually not a good sign.”

“No, not at all.”

“Sensors and commo?”

“Not much damage there. They’re all up front, near the bridge module.”

“One last question: how many friendlies are in scanning range, and how close are they?”

Trevor shifted to the close range plot. “Nothing big: an autonomous drone carrier deploying its complement, two tenders, a tanker, another cutter. And a missile frigate, coming up from The Pearl, probably trying to buy time for evacuation and for getting the carriers out of the slips.”

“Any pattern to the vectors of those ships?”

“They’re all over the place, although the frigate and the drone carrier are heading to engage.”

“Which means they’ll be coming right through our current position.”

“More or less. The others are maneuvering away, but every one of those ships is still going to be in the neighborhood when the party starts.”

Caine checked his chronometer. “Okay. If our first guesses about the enemy’s speed are correct, we’ve now got between five and six minutes before their drones can start pranging us. And let’s assume they’ve got better range, too.

“Okay, so that means we’ve got three or four minutes. What’s your point?”

“Right now, what do you think this ship should be doing?”

Trevor looked sideways. “Well, not standing toe to toe with drones, let alone battlewagons. We’ve got one remaining PDF system for knocking down missiles that come within five hundred klicks. It might put a few dents in a small craft, if one strays within a few kiloklicks of us. But that’s the extent of our offensive potential.”

“Do you think that’s how Hazawa is going to see it?”

Trevor looked down, considering. “Probably not. He’s young, true-blue, eager to prove he’s not scared–so he’ll have a tendency to try to fight his ship. And kill himself.”

“And us.”

Trevor nodded. “So I’ll have to talk him out of that, and also out of maneuvering. Because if Hazawa gets mobility back, his immediate reflex will be to run or hide. And they’re both suicide. Even if we get the preignition torus running, we still can’t pull ahead of their main hulls, even if we jettisoned all the modules. And their drones–at eight gee minimum–will be all over us long before then.”

Caine shrugged “So, with no place to hide, no way to fight, and not enough speed to run, we’ve got only one choice left.”

“You mean we should play dead? How’s that going to help?”

“Well…it might not. But it has this advantage over the other three alternatives: it might work.”

Caine nodded. “Remember, the Ktor categorized us and the Hkh’Rkh as warlike, but not the Arat Kur. So, given the superior tech we’ve observed, let’s assume we’re being invaded by the Arat Kur. Being busy and not innately savage, they might survey the wreckage, see no activity, no emissions, and then push straight on to their primary objectives at The Pearl.”

“And maybe we can still make the rendezvous and shift-out, if the Prometheus can slow down a little,” Caine added.

Trevor shook his head. “With an invasion under way, the Prometheus can’t slow down. Not enough, anyway. This attack, and our need to wait until the coast is clear again, are going to put us too far behind to catch her.”

“Okay, but if any of our military shift carriers make it to the outer system, we could plot an intercept course for them. They’re probably going to wait as long as they can for their combat complements to make it back to their berthing cradles, and that might give us enough time.” Caine shrugged, waited a moment. “So, what do you think?”