Trial By Fire – Snippet 17

Caine expanded his scan field, found the right blip, noticed that the thermal signature of the shift-carrier’s pulse-fusion engines had grown much fainter due to rapidly increasing distance. “They’re crowding three gee constant. And it looks like they’ve also added a slight delta vector. Meaning what? A change of shift destination?”

“Sure sounds like it.”

Caine nodded. “Then they’re heading to Ross 154.”

“What? Instead of warning Earth?”

“Oh, Earth is being warned–silently. Downing will have set up a no-show code as part of a contingency plan. That way, if Barnard’s Star is hit, the Prometheus can warn Ross 154 instead.”

Trevor’s voice was suddenly in the room with him. “And Earth interprets the no-show of the Prometheus as a warning flag. Sure. Two messages for the price of one shift.” Caine turned. Pressure helmet off, Trevor was already clambering out of the suit. “You’d better pause the salvage survey. Their initial attack group will have refueled by now and they won’t waste any time commencing preacceleration for their next shift. But before they do, they’ll run an advance patrol through this area.”

“Why here?”

“Because it’s the only debris field with metallic elements anywhere within two hundred planetary diameters. If our side managed to sneak in any dormant killer drones while the invaders were wrecking The Pearl or hunting down our shift carriers, this is where they’d expect them to be, mixed in among other objects with very similar sensor returns.”

“You’re sure they got all six carriers?”

“Yeah, it looked like it. Now, jack your commlink into the intercom. We’re not even going to risk using our collarcoms. When you’re done with that, seal your suit.”

Caine did as he was told, and looked over at Trevor–just as the lights went out. “Cutting power?”

Trevor nodded, started tapping commands into the computer’s one manual keyboard. “Everything except the visual sensor arrays and the required computer element is blacked out. We’re running on batteries.”

Caine glanced at the REM level indicator. “What about the EM grids?”

Trevor did not look over. “We have to cut them for now. The meter of water lining the outer hull will take care of a lot of it, but we’ve got to wait until their advance force has swept the area before we energize the grids again. Then we can bring them back up. Slowly.”

“And in the meantime?”

“We take the rads, or get taken by exosapients.”

The smell of old sweat in Caine’s suit was suddenly overpowering. Or was it simply new sweat that had the same tang of mortal fear? He felt a saline drop land on his swollen lip, winced as the salt burrowed into the tender tissue with microfine tines of pain. He wondered how much large particle radiation was similarly digging into and through him.…

*   *   *

“Motion on visual array seventeen-F.” Trevor’s voice betrayed no anxiety. Caine looked over at the zoomed-in image. The streamlined Arat Kur hull appeared against the gas giant’s milky-amber whorls, heading in their general direction at a leisurely pace. They had noticed its emergence from the uppermost layer of the atmosphere half an hour ago, at which point the enemy ship had been retracting some kind of refueling drogue.

Caine turned to his sensors, ran the drill Trevor had taught him. “Establishing range and bearing.” He ran a quick superimposition of the ship’s progressive positional changes over the star field backdrop. The computer chewed through the data, correcting for the module’s rotation and orbital movement. Numbers striped across his screen. Caine read them off. “Range: ninety-six thousand km. Ecliptic relative bearing: 283 by 75. Current vector suggests she’s looking to break orbit and make for our debris field. ETA, thirty-eight minutes.”

“Are they running active sensors?”

“Nothing radiant, but I can’t tell about lazar.” Caine paused, considered the lack of active sensors. “So, will they conduct broad sweeps as they approach the debris, or wait until they’re in the field before lighting up their active arrays?”

“I think they’ll wait until they’re on top of us, and I mean that literally. They’re worried about our drones, so they’ll want to stay dark until the last second, and want to stay out of the field itself. They’ll probably make their run ‘above’ and against the flow of the wreckage. That way, the vector difference between themselves and any doggo drone is going to make them pretty hard to catch. And the enemy is sure to have a few drones of their own out front, trying to lure ours out of hiding.”

“If only there were some to be lured.”

Trevor shrugged. “It would be a waste of equipment. We’ve lost this round.”

Caine sighed. “What a godawful first combat assignment, watching the enemy go through the stately rituals of invasion.”

“Actually, this is a pretty darned good first combat assignment.”

“How do you figure that?”

Trevor’s smile was mirthless. “We’re alive.” He turned back to the sensor readouts. “So far.”

Well, thought Caine, Trevor called it to the letter.Riordan watched as the cursor denoting the enemy hull spawned a growing swarm of smaller signatures, like a fish giving birth to a cloud of almost microscopic fry. “They’ve deployed a screen of small, fast drones.”

Trevor nodded, watched them begin to bore through the heart of the debris cloud, the two foremost lighting up powerful active arrays. Immediately behind them, other drones–presumably hunter-killers–waited for the first sign of hostile response. As this menacing contingent approached within ten thousand kilometers, Trevor shut down even the battery-powered systems.

And so, sitting in the darkness, they waited. Caine closed his eyes, imagined what he had come to call the enemy “shift-cruiser” looming large and shooting past, drones preceding and trailing, like a whale attended by a retinue of hyperactive minnows.

Trevor let a minute pass, in which time Caine’s radiation exposure indicator came on. The classic orange icon blinked urgently at the top center of his visor’s heads-up display. He checked the dosimeter: thirty rem. Well within the limits that a healthy body could repair without sickness.

The red cursor that marked the enemy hull was now well past them. Trevor turned the battery-powered systems back on, then leaned toward the passive sensors, frowning. “That heavy–let’s call it a ‘shift-cruiser’–just deployed a number of retroboosted packages. Dormant drones, probably. But I can’t keep track of them without active sensors. So they’re going to get mixed into the trash with us and we won’t be able to sort them out later. That means we’re not going to be able to undertake sudden vector changes. The drones will be keyed to respond to any new movement other than that explicable by debris collisions.”

“That eliminates at least seventy percent of our salvage opportunities.” Caine envisioned the fruits of his tedious visual sensor labors being flushed down the toilet.

“Probably more like eighty percent.”

Caine sighed and brought the now-familiar passive sensors back online. He glanced at the environmental countdown clock Trevor had started: sixty-eight hours left.

Give or take a few last breaths.