Trial By Fire – Snippet 34
“That sounds very impressive. What does it mean?”
Richard unfolded his hands. “The sloops stay close to the drones–the fleet’s various unmanned attack and sensor platforms–and relay commands to them and coordinate their actions. Their crews get the closest to the enemy, which is why, comparatively speaking, they are built for speed.”
“So they’re like fighter aircraft,” Opal summarized.
“No, not really. They carry armament, but only as a last resort. Their role is to direct attacks made by remote-operated and semiautonomous systems. They ensure that human judgment continues to guide all our units, even those operating many light-seconds away from the cruisers and other ships.”
The Bolton-class cruiser ignited its plasma thrusters in addition to its pulse-fusion main engine and began angling off from the EgalitÃ©. The two Gordons split off to either side of the Bolton.
The scene changed to a view of space, upon which a collection of blue guidons were arrayed. Each was capped by a slightly different symbol with a short data string attached.
Opal nodded. “So, that’s our fleet, right? Ship types and tail numbers on the guidons?”
“Yes,” affirmed Downing.
Elena frowned. “How are we getting this view? Why is there a camera just waiting in the middle of deep space?”
“It’s mounted on a microdrone,” Trevor supplied. “We launch dozens of them before and during combat. They not only give us pictures like this, but relay damage-assessment views of our hulls, and help during salvage and rescue ops. And they’re so small that they blend in with the rubbish and then work like spy-eyes after an engagement.”
Opal was frowning. “I count four carriers: EgalitÃ©, Beijing and Shanghai close to each other, and Tapfer way off to the left. Why is it out there?”
Downing shook his head. “After the first engagement, the Tapfer was forced to show her heels. She only got half of her complement back in the cradles and was too far out of position to regroup with the rest of the fleet elements. It took them this long to get close enough to add their limited weight to the engagement.”
The scene changed again, this time to a camera mounted on one of the Gordon class hunter/seeker sloops. Superimposed on the view were hordes of small blue and red triangles attempting to swarm around each other, the red ones being notably faster and more agile. At the points where the swarms intersected, there were occasional flashes, like fireflies seen at great distance on a lightless night.
“Those,” explained Downing quietly. “are drones destroying each other. Mostly ours on the receiving end. And as you watch, the rate of our force erosion will increase. The Arat Kur capital ships are picking them off with their UV lasers.”
Trevor uttered a dismayed grunt. Opal leaned into his field of view. “Why’s that so bad?”
Trevor sighed. “If Richard is right, it means the Arat Kur lasers retain decisive hitting power at much greater ranges than ours.”
“But I thought we had some pretty dangerous UV lasers, ourselves.”
“We do, but only on the biggest cruisers. Even then, there’s ongoing debate whether they’re really worth all the expense, the space, and the special engineering they require in a hull.”
“They’re energy pigs, and they have much more complicated and expensive focusing requirements. Morgan Lymbery, the guy who designed the Andrew Bolton class, said it best: ‘you don’t really build the UV laser into a ship; you build a ship around the UV laser.'”
The screen changed to the viewpoint of another minidrone, riding close alongside what looked like a Chinese light cruiser. The ship’s counterbalanced habitation-modules had stopped spinning and were being retracted toward the hull, a sure sign that it was going to general quarters. Downing sat up a bit straighter. “A little context about what you’ll be seeing. We fought the first engagement against the Arat Kur using the same tactics we employ against human opponents. In short, not knowing the enemy’s specific capabilities, it wasn’t prudent to close too quickly, but to maintain range and take them under fire, closing in only if and when we perceived a decisive advantage.”
“Or to run like hell if it turned out that they had all the advantages,” Trevor added.
“Yes, and that is just what happened at the First Battle of Jupiter. The Arat Kur demonstrated superior speed, superior long-range accuracy, and superior destructive power. Consequently, the notion of standing off at what we had believed to be long range was a mistake; we were overmatched in every meaningful performance metric. So the logic of this second battle was to force a meeting engagement.”
Opal frowned. “Which means what, in space?”
Trevor took over. “Well, it’s kind of like a joust in that you run at each other head-to-head, if possible. If you’re confident you’re going to win, you do it at low speed, so you can retroboost and catch the other guy–sometimes weeks later–to pound on him some more in an extended stern chase.”
“And if you’re not so confident, then you approach at high speed, so that the other guy can’t catch you, later on.” Opal deduced.
Trevor nodded. “That, and you minimize the engagement time, thereby minimizing damage to your fleet.”
“Those have always been fairly reasonable tactical alternatives,” Downing concluded. “Against human opponents, that is.”
Onscreen, there were light puffs of what looked like dust jetting out from the rounded nose of the light cruiser. “The Chinese ship is firing its primary armament–a rail gun–now,” mentioned Trevor. “The puffs are buffering granules, doped on the rails to prevent wear and to ensure uniform conductivity.”
“That ship seems to be putting a lot of lead–or steel or depleted uranium or whatever–downrange,” commented Opal.
“Yes, it is,” agreed Downing.
There were two more puffs, and then the ship shuddered as hull fragments came flying off just behind the nose. Two sensor masts went spinning backward, one almost smacking the camera, just before the drone carrying it swung around to survey other damage farther aft.
Halfway down the long tail boom, a sparking thruster bell was hanging on by a single strut. Intermittent flames were curling out of a blackened hole in a hydrogen tank, which meant that a nearby oxygen feed line had also been clipped. Two cargo modules–hexagonal tubes–were tumbling behind.
“What hit it?” Elena said in a small voice.
“Laser, probably pulsed UV, given the range, the power, and the multiple hits,” said Downing in a tightly controlled voice.
As the camera began rotating to show the stern of the ship, a flurry of smaller explosions pocked its smooth midship flanks. Then a larger blast ripped one of the rotational gee-modules out of its hull-flushed housing recess. “Rail gun submunitions,” Trevor murmured, apparently for Opal’s benefit. “A long-range space shotgun.”
The viewpoint drone was evidently struck by some of the debris that had spalled off the hull. It shook a bit, righted itself, and refocused–just in time to show what looked like a flame-trailing star arc suddenly out of the velvet blackness and strike the cruiser amidships. The screen went blank.
–And changed to a more distant space shot. But in this one, a small blue-white sphere burgeoned into existence at the lower right hand corner.
“Was that the cruiser, exploding in the distance?” Opal asked quietly. “And was that a missile which got it?”
Downing nodded as the viewpoint changed to the bow camera of a Gordon-class FOCAL. It was apparently engaging in emergency maneuvers. The camera had to gimbal a bit to maintain the same perspective.
A bright yellow-white smear flashed in the center of the screen, then two more in quick succession far to the left: the death-blooms of smaller ships, probably human. Firefly flickers of dying drones and missiles stretched across the view, some very near. One was surprisingly close.
“That was a near miss,” Trevor said confidently. “I’m guessing our viewpoint ship’s own Point Defense Fire system got an Arat Kur missile?”
Downing nodded tightly, never taking his eyes off the screen. After a lull in the flashes that signified the deaths of smaller human ships and drones, a much larger blue-white sphere expanded to dominate the center of the screen. “That’s the EgalitÃ©.” murmured Downing. “Destroyed when we thought she was still safely out of range.”
Another sphere bloomed in the upper left.
“And the Beijing.” he added.
The picture shifted to a distant side shot of a third naval shift-carrier. Its forward-mounted hab ring was already missing two sections and spewing bright orange flame. A moment later, the bridge section at the bow blasted outward into an expanding hemisphere of debris. Pointing toward the epicenter of the cone of destruction, Downing commented, “Definitely a laser–and a bloody powerful one. Only a focused beam could inflict so much damage to such a small area.”