Trial By Fire – Snippet 12

“Wrong question. The right question is, what do we not want to see? Answer: we absolutely do not want to see a second wave of drones that are moving more slowly, because those could retroboost and come back for us. We don’t want their main hulls to retroboost either, or even slow down, because that means they’re willing to make sure that they’ve finished business out here, even if that delays them in their push to The Pearl. And no small craft. They’d be the worst, because whereas a big hull usually can’t loiter because it’s been tasked with key strategic objectives, smaller craft are more likely to be sent on more generalized patrol or picket missions. And that’s my biggest worry: that they leave behind a sloop or a frigate to sift through the junk that used to be our ships, trying to gather technical intelligence.”

“How’s the rest of our side doing?”

“I can’t tell. When Hazawa shut down power, our tight-beam gimballing servos went offline. But that’s not a big loss. I think the niceties of lascom are about to become a thing of the past.”

“Because they’re going to be hitting The Pearl soon?”

“Yes, which will whack the snot out of precision communications. Not that The Pearl wants to talk with us anymore, anyway. They’ll have cleared their tracking and comm arrays to maintain redundant C4I with our effective fleet elements. And we no longer qualify as such. We’re on our own, for now.”

Caine was oddly silent. Trevor looked up, discovered that he was staring intently at the passive scan plot. “Trevor, what do you think that might be?”

Trevor followed Caine’s extended index finger to the thermal bloom that marked the drive of the approaching alien main hull–except now it was trailed by two small pinpricks, one of which was dropping behind very rapidly.

“That?” Trevor rubbed his eyes but could still see the decelerating pinprick. “That’s trouble.”

*   *   *

And, thirty minutes later, it still was. Caine was looking at the shining mote that was now plainly visible at the center of their view screen. “Still coming toward us?”

“Yep. It’s ignored the wreckage of the frigate.” Something’s wrong here. Trevor tapped his collarcom. “Lieutenant, are you sure our power plant is cold?”

Hazawa sounded more collected than he had when, twenty minutes earlier, the main attacking vessel had virtually grazed their hull at two hundred kilometers range. “Fusion is offline sir.”

“And we’re not the only transponder in the water?”

“No, sir. Four others in our area alone.” Hazawa’s voice rose slightly. “Sir, this small enemy craft–it’s getting awful close, two hundred klicks and still retroboosting. Now maneuvering to match vectors with us.” Hazawa’s voice tightened. “Sir, if they close to within fifty klicks, my orders clearly stipulate that I must take them under fire. And if they attempt to board, I must–“

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Trevor turned to Caine, who hadn’t taken his eyes off the craft’s now visible outline. “How long?” he asked.

“That they’ll be alongside us in three or four minutes, tops. But how did they come straight to us?”

Caine looked out at the debris-field, most of it just winking bits of distant, rolling scrap metal, a few close enough that their tattered outlines were visible. He shook his head. “It doesn’t make any sense. We are in slightly better shape than the remains of the closest fleet auxiliary, the San Marin, but she’s a bigger hull, and so should be more interesting to them. I think they’d be eager to get a look at the contents of a tender with half of her lading intact.”

Hazawa’s voice was slightly tremulous over the shipwide. “All personnel, all sections: watch personnel to the weapons lockers to distribute sidearms. Stand by to repel boarders. Enemy craft at one hundred kilometers.”

Repel boarders? In space? It was too ludicrous to imagine, but it was about to happen. The enemy craft, a rounded body bloated by a large number of fuel tanks and furnished with a sharp, inquisitive prow, kept approaching. The proximity alarm triggered automatically, set up a shipwide ululation which underscored Hazawa’s order: “PDF battery: acquire target.”

Trevor rose. “Okay, so no one has any idea how they found us. Any thoughts about–?”

Caine turned quickly. “Trevor, our distress signal: will it be the same as the type emitted by, let’s say, the frigate?”

“Yeah, except it’ll be a lot longer. The frigate is a single hull: one registry code. But this ship carries modules, each of which has its own registry.”

“So all the registries of all the carried modules are transmitted along with that of the carrier?”

“Yeah, they’re appended to the end of the basic transponder signal. That way, if there’s a wreck, rescue teams can figure out if any of the modules are missing, or–“

“And how does the cutter’s transponder know the registry of all the modules?”

“Well, as long as they’re attached, it polls their individual registry chips, and–“

Caine shook his head and interrupted. “Trevor, you changed our habmod’s registry, right before the attack, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. Since we’re just civvie diplomats again, I had to change the module’s designation from military to–” Trevor stopped. “Oh, Christ.”

Caine nodded. “You changed it to a diplomatic code.”

Hazawa’s voice announced, “Enemy craft closing through fifty kilometers. Stand by to–” Static surged over his last order.

Trevor felt a flash of hot moisture rise on his brow. He slapped his collarcom, noticed that the cutter’s PDF pod had powered up. “So the attackers think–“

“–that we’re flying a diplomatic pennon: a white flag. One of their commo officers must know how to read our data streams and noticed it embedded in either the transponder code, the distress signal, or both.”

Trevor nodded. “Lieutenant Hazawa, please respond.” Nothing. Where the hell–?

And just as Hazawa responded–sounding both more confident, relieved, and excited–the bridge back-chatter confirmed what Trevor saw happening on his subsystem activity monitor. Behind Hazawa’s energetic, “Yes, Captain?” was a whoop that almost drowned out the background report that Trevor dreaded hearing. “Direct hit on the enemy ship, sir. The bogey is venting atmosphere and angling away erratically. Reacquiring–“

“No, Lieutenant!” Trevor shouted into his static-ridden collarcom. “Stand down, stand–!”

Hazawa’s “Say again?” vied with another excited report. “Multiple hits in her stern, sir. She’s corkscrewing badly. I think we hit her engines–“

“Cease fire, cease–!” Trevor was shouting, when Caine’s hand came down hard on his shoulder. Trevor yanked away. “What?”

Caine’s voice was eerily calm. “We’ve got to detach.”

“What the hell are you–?”

“We’ve got only seconds now. What’s the procedure?”

Detach? What the hell was Caine talking abou–?

And then Trevor saw two new bogeys light up, one only one hundred twenty klicks away.

Caine nodded toward the two red triangles. “The enemy left drones laying doggo out here. And we’ve just made ourselves a target.”

The EM emission sensor shrilled throughout the cutter.

“They’ve acquired and locked. Trevor–“

Not even the time to say goodbye to Hazawa. What a shitty business this is–Trevor pulled open a red cover to his lower left, grabbed the recessed handle, turned it sharply to the left so that he could pull it straight up. And did so.

The blast of the emergency jettisoning charges–only twelve feet behind them–was deafening as the hab mod blew itself away from the cutter’s keel. Caine lost the grip on his seat, spiraled off at an angle, slammed into a bulkhead, and floated free: stunned, unconscious, or dead.

The external viewing screen showed a slowly somersaulting image of the crippled cutter, now bookended by two explosions in rapid succession, one at the bow and one in the stern. Modules and pieces of her went cartwheeling in all directions. Trevor saw another flash back in the engine decks: a small secondary, back near the containment rings. Meaning that any second now–

Trevor scooped his feet under him so that they were on the seat, twisted and kicked off toward Caine. He cinched him around the waist as he passed, bumped to an awkward but fast stop, reverse kicked. He regained the acceleration couch, pulled Caine on top of him, pulled a strap across them both–

–just as the cutter’s engine decks erupted outwards into a sudden, angry, blue-white star.

The screen blanked the same instant that the shock wave hit.