Trial By Fire – Snippet 11

Chapter Six

Outbound from Barnard’s Star 2 C

Trevor resisted the impulse to roll his eyes. What do I think? I think you’re a civilian who’s been turned into a toy soldier. I think that sometimes you’re too damned smart for your own good–but thank God we’ve got you on our side. I think it pisses me off that the woman I’m always thinking about is in love with you, not me. “I think your idea is just crazy enough that it might work.”

Caine nodded slowly. “Can you talk Hazawa into it?”

Hazawa: another contestant in today’s Amateur Hour Follies. “Probably, but it’ll be faster if I just take command–“

Trevor had not expected Caine to interrupt, but he did. “Which means you’d have to self-activate out of reserve and take the conn.”


“So, you might want to retain your current civilian status and stay here in Auxiliary Command. Just in case this craziness doesn’t work out.”

“You mean, in case we’re captured? Well, yeah,” he admitted, “you’ve got a point. So”–he checked his watch–“we’ve got about a minute before things get lively. Get on your collarcom with Hazawa. Explain your idea quickly and convey my recommendation that he follows it.”

I should call?”

“Yes, you. If something happens to me, he’s got to know to listen to you, too. He’s too green to know that you don’t know half of what you’re talking about.”

“Thanks for the pep talk, Trevor.”

“Don’t mention it. Get going. I’ve got some real work to do.”

As Caine started explaining his idea–and rank–to Hazawa, Trevor reconsidered the cutter’s own passive scan plot, and the composite data being relayed from the CINCBARCOMCEN radio shack on Barney Deucy. Half of the Pearl’s deep space battle group was now retroboosting to maintain distance. The other half–all lighter ships–had adjusted course and piled on the plasma, evidently trying to three-dimensionally cross the T ahead of the enemy’s main body, albeit at a rather steep angle. Perduro had adopted a reasonable two-tier strategy. She would hold one of her groups back to duel with the enemy heavies as long as possible, perhaps showing their heels if the shift carriers got far enough away that the Arat Kur couldn’t catch them anymore. The other part of Perduro’s force was probably going to seed mines and sleeper drones–maybe even a few of the nuke-pumped, X-ray-laser ship-killers–in the path of the enemy. Which would present the invaders with Hobson’s choice. Slow down to optimize scans and minimize damage from the autonomous and remote-controlled munitions deployed by the closer, lighter battle group; or rush through that kill zone in an attempt to close quickly with the heavier, but more distant, main fleet elements. Either way, there was a chance that significant parts of Perduro’s flotilla would survive to fight again another day.

Or maybe not. As Trevor started reading the transponder tail numbers on the fleet plot, he wondered if there was a computer malfunction. Half of the missile frigates, including the one drawing near their crippled cutter, were of the “Spear” class, the last of the fission-drive buckets. Now officially reserve vessels, they had been shipped to The Pearl for training purposes. What the hell were they doing on the line? In fact, only Perduro’s flagship–the President-class cruiser Jefferson–was a truly modern ship. Goddamnit, where are all the–?

The cutter shuddered slightly.

Caine, just finishing with Hazawa, looked over. “Were we hit, or–?”

Trevor checked the plot. The blue triangle that denoted the tanker Baton Rouge faded away. “No, Caine; that was the farewell song of a nearby ship. From the look of it, hit by another shot from their lead ship. Did Hazawa go for the plan?”

“Yep, he’s got the distress signals on now. And it looks like he’ll have the preignition toroid repaired in a few minutes. He’s taken the plant offline, so we’re on battery backup and looking pretty dead. Just for good measure, he vented a little coolant from the starboard ignition chamber.”

“So it looks like we’ve got a radiation leak, too. Nice touch. Hazawa’s idea?”

Caine was silent, staring at the sensor plots.

Trevor smiled. Of course it wasn’t Hazawa’s idea.

Caine leaned closer to the plots. “Where are their drones?”

“I’ve been wondering the same thing. They should have opened up by now.”

“Hell, if they’re traveling under their own power, we should have seen some thermal signatures on our own passive sensors, right?”

Trevor frowned. “Well, if they were our drones, yes. But the invaders could have some stealth capabilities that–” Caine looked like he wanted to say something, but suppressed it. Trevor sighed. “Okay, spill it.”

“Trevor, do you know of any way to conceal high-temperature exhaust in space?”


“I don’t either. I can’t even think of how you’d do that. But instead, what they could have done was–” And then Caine was on his feet. “The ships near us. Send them a warning. They’re going to get hit point blank–in minutes, maybe seconds.”

“What? How the–?”

“If the invaders’ technology is both better and more compact, they’ve got more uncommitted hull volume to play with.”


“So, they could build in big mass drivers to launch their drones. So if they shifted in and the drones were launched immediately, we wouldn’t see them because they’re just inert metal traveling towards us at god-knows-how-many gees. But when they get close enough–“

Trevor completed the sentence as he put his hand on the open comms. “They go active at point blank range, firing and evading while they’re in among us. And then they continue right on through us to serve as the advance strike force against the Pearl. Where they’ll cause just enough havoc to further delay any evacuation.” Trevor’s finger was poised above the “send” relays, ready to broadcast in the clear–but he took his hand back. Slowly. And felt like a murderer as he did it.

“Trevor, what are you–?”

“You said it yourself, Caine. We’ve got to follow orders. We’ve got to get out of here and report. If those drones are close by, and if we go active–if we even juice up the tight beam laser relays–we’re likely to be vaporized before we can send.”

And then it didn’t matter. Without having to listen to Hazawa’s nervous sitreps, it became quite evident that their theory was horribly correct. The nearby ships started taking crippling damage from drones that popped up on their sensors at only two and three thousand kilometers range, making targeted strikes on engineering sections, missile bays, sensor arrays. Secondary explosions of munitions and fuel were reported on every hull.

Trevor had only heard one thing like it before: when he had been coordinating the ROV oversight for a combined Spetznaz-SEAL operation that ran into an ambush in Uzbekistan. The casualties came so thick and fast that there was no time to think, to reconfigure the mission, to plan an extraction. It was like listening to an announcer doing play-by-play for a demolition derby. He had only been able to hope that, at the end of that litany of destruction and death, someone–anyone–would be left alive. That hope had been forlorn.

So it was here, too. The missile frigate was the first hit–naturally–and her skipper evidently knew he didn’t have much time left; he salvoed his bays in the direction of the enemy’s lead ship. He unloaded sixty percent of his ordnance before Trevor’s passive sensors registered a split-second, white-hot thermal bloom where the frigate had been a moment before. Then the invaders’ drones picked off the much slower human drones and their control sloop. Finally, the remaining enemy craft tumbled so they could keep firing at the human auxiliaries which were now aft of them as they kept arrowing toward The Pearl.

Hazawa’s somber voice broke the extended silence “We have the toroid back online, sirs.”

Trevor rubbed his brow. “Which, ironically, makes us the most intact and capable ship in this entire sector.”

Caine frowned. “How long do you think we should wait?”

“Before trying to make a getaway? Depends on what I see here in the next fifteen minutes.” Trevor tapped the proximity passive sensor sweep.

“What do we want to see?”