Trial By Fire – Snippet 35

The spalling, splintering, and outgassing of that hit had imparted a small tumble to the ship. The nose of the crippled carrier began pitching down, the engine decks at its stern rising slightly. As it did, the hull spat out two small white ovals from behind the torus’s rotator coupling: escape pods. Another one came out of the engineering decks–

Almost too fast to see, a pair of stars streaked into the picture, one striking the keel just abaft the torus, the other slicing into the engine decks. Blinding light rushed outward, swallowed the ship, the pods, the whole screen–then, static.

Downing sighed and turned off the screen. “And that was the Shanghai. I received the final loss list from The Second Battle of Jupiter just minutes before you all arrived. It is not reassuring.”

“How bad?” asked Elena quickly.

“Both of the Chinese carriers and the Egalité were destroyed, as you saw. So were ninety percent of their complements. The other Euro carrier, the Tapfer, managed to cut across the primary axis of the engagement and is making for the outer system. But the fleet is effectively destroyed as a force in being. By all assessments, the strategy of closing quickly with the Arat Kur to inflict more damage was more disastrous than long-range sniping. We’d need a significant numerical superiority in hulls and drones to make such a tactic advisable.”

Opal looked up slyly. “What about the drones we haven’t shown them yet, the ones hidden in deep sites?”

Downing started. “How do you know about those?”

“I’ve been hanging around you sneaky intel types long enough now. I know how your minds work.”

“Very good–I think. At any rate, we had none in range of this engagement. Most are committed to cislunar defense, but we have no way to use them at the moment. Having established full orbital control, the Arat Kur can jam any ground-based control signals, other than tightbeam lascom. And they are not going to tolerate any of the latter. They proved that right after their exosapient ‘solidarity forces’ began landing in Indonesia at the invitation of now-President Ruap.”

Elena narrowed her eyes. “So is that why the Arat Kur made those limited orbital strikes against a few of our cities, and wiped one off the map in China?”

Downing nodded. “Yes. When the second Arat Kur fleet arrived by shifting into far cislunar space, they blasted all our orbital assets, including all our control sloops. The Chinese, who have an immense number of remote-operated interceptors, did not want to cede the high ground. So they launched a wave of antiship drones, all controlled from their large lascom ground station in Qinzhou.”

Opal’s voice was tight, angry. “And so the Arat Kur bombed it–and Qinzhou itself, for good measure. And now they’ve got how many ships floating over our heads?”

Downing aimed his palmtop at the flatscreen, pressed a button.

A brace of Arat Kur ships–all gargantuan shift-carriers–glided out of view, huge spindly gridworks crammed with an eye-gouging assortment of subordinate craft, rotating habitation modules, cargo canisters, and other objects of less determinable purpose. Arrayed around them were the less gargantuan, but still massive shift-cruisers: smooth, single-hulled oblongs, flared and flattened at the stern. Other ships of the line–each a freight-train composite of boxes, modules, engine decks, rotating hab nacelles and fuel tanks–looked drastically smaller, both because they were only a third the displacement of the shift cruisers and because they were more distant, arrayed in a protective sphere around the shift vessels.

“Those tinier guys don’t look so tough,” said Opal with a false bravado that fooled no one.

“Actually, except for when a shift cruiser uses its drive capacitors to charge its spinal beam weapon, the slower-than-light craft are far more deadly. They have no heavy, unipiece hull. No shift drive and no antimatter power plant to drag about. Far fewer fuel requirements. They are built purely for maximum speed and firepower.”

“But once the STL ships are detached from their carrier–”

“Yes, that’s the rub. Once they are deployed, they’re stuck in-system until they make rendezvous with a carrier.”

Opal looked back at the screen. “Do they have anything else up there, maybe hulls we haven’t seen?”

“Doubtful, but we can’t be sure. We haven’t wanted to risk our last orbital assets taking new pictures unless ground observatories detect additions to the blockade.”

“Wait. We still have orbital assets?” Trevor asked. “I thought they smacked down everything.”

“Everything except our old ‘disabled’ satellites,” Downing corrected.

Trevor frowned. “You mean we’re getting pictures from broken satellites?”

Downing smiled. “We call them Mousetraps. Seven years ago, we started replacing the innards of failed satellites with dormant military systems. Some contain lascom control relays, others are communications transfer hubs, some conceal weapons.”

Opal sounded indignant. “So why didn’t we use these, uh, Mousetraps to attack the Arat Kur’s orbital fleet?”

“The armed Mousetraps don’t contain weapons large enough use on the big ships. Not all of which are blockading Earth, by the way. Most of the fleet we engaged at the First Battle of Jupiter has moved to the Belt, primarily to take possession of our antimatter facility on Vesta.”

“And the remainder?”

“Still controlling Jovian space.”

Opal drummed her fingers on the table-top. “So, they left some guards at the self-serve gas station.”

“Just so.” Richard smiled at her archaism.

“So this means that right now, all told, Earth has lost–?”

“–nine of its eleven military shift carriers, Major Patrone.”

“Can civilian carriers be used to replace them?”

“Not really. While any carrier can pick up and shift a payload to another system, fleet carriers are designed to do it on the move and under fire. They have far more thrust potential, far more system redundancy, far better weaponry, and autonomous docking systems for high-speed deployment and recovery.”

Elena sighed. “So it seems like we have very few military options left. Which makes me wonder what answer First Consul Ching is going to give the Arat Kur tonight. Any guesses, Uncle Richard?”

“Elena, I’m not even sure what the invaders’ new surrender terms are. But I do know someone who’s been talking about that with the president today.” Downing looked at Trevor meaningfully.

Trevor shrugged. “The Arat Kur haven’t moderated their initial terms of surrender. In fact, they’ve put in an additional requirement.”

Downing grimaced. “So what do they want now?”

Trevor seemed to repeat the new demand from memory. “‘The World Confederation must hold a species-wide referendum to officially confirm or reject it as humanity’s legitimate government.'”

Elena made a disgusted noise. “Do they have any conception of just how long it will take to solicit a complete global vote?”

“Not just global,” Trevor corrected, “speciate. Their requirement specifically extends to offworld colonies.”

“But it would take a whole year just to get the notification to Zeta Tucanae, and another year to get the results back here.”

“That’s right–and they know it. Believe me, they know it.”

Opal was frowning. “Then what are they trying to do with a condition like that? Sabotage the peace process before it gets started?”

Downing nodded. “That’s exactly what they’re trying to do.”

“But if they push us too far–”

“Then what? At this point, how can we threaten them? Their air interdiction of Indonesia is absolute, as we learned when we tried to contest their ‘invited’ landings near the Indonesian mass-driver. One hundred seventy-eight combat aircraft and interface vehicles lost with all crews. Chinese, Australian, Japanese, a few American craft out of Guam: it didn’t make a difference. The best Arat Kur visible light lasers can reach right down to sea level with enough force to instantly take down any air vehicle in our inventory, even the armored deltas. And a maritime counterinvasion would be even worse. You’ve seen on the news what happens when an unauthorized ship crosses over the fifty-kilometer no-sail limit they imposed around Java.”

Opal nodded. “A hail of kinetic-kill devices from orbit and down she goes to Davy Jones’ locker.”

Elena looked around the room. “So that’s it? We’re just going to give up?”

And again, all eyes drifted toward Trevor. He shook his head. “No, we are not giving up.”

Downing found he was exhaling in relief. “Then what message is Ching going to send in answer to the Arat Kur and Hkh’Rkh demands?”

Trevor looked at him. “Nothing.”