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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Friday, May 7, 2004 22:59 EDT



    “We’re coming up on your specified mark, Ma’am,” Midshipwoman Pavletic said politely.

    Abigail Hearns looked up from the letter she’d been keyboarding into her memo pad and glanced at the time display. Ragnhild was right, and she saved and closed the letter and put the pad away.

    She hit the button and her chair slid smoothly back into position.

    “I have control,” she announced.

    “You have control, aye, Ma’am,” Ragnhild acknowledged, surrendering the flight deck to her. Not that it made a great deal of difference with the pinnace still tractored to Wolverine’s hull, Abigail thought as she punched in the command to reconfigure the plot to tactical.

    So far, it appeared the Captain’s plan was working. Or, to be more accurate, nothing had gone actively wrong . . . yet. At the moment, Wolverine, her consorts, and the two piggybacking pinnaces, were over thirty-three light-minutes from Pontifex and a bit over two and a half light-minutes from Bogey Three. From the cockpit, Nuncio-B was little more than an especially brilliant star to the naked eye, and the planet wasn’t visible at all. The pinnace’s onboard sensors were much better than that, of course. In fact, they were as good as anything the far larger Nuncian LACs carried. Which didn’t mean either the pinnaces or the LACs could see much of anything smaller than a star or a planet -- well, perhaps a moon -- at this range. Nor could they see much about a powered-down freighter at a hundred and fifty-one light-seconds.

    Fortunately, Captain Terekhov had taken steps to provide Abigail with sharper, clearer eyes. One of Hexapuma’s sensor drones was tractored to Wolverine’s spine beside the pinnace. With the LAC’s impeller wedge down, the drone’s exquisitely sensitive passive sensors had the sort of reach most navies’ all-up starships could only envy. Abigail still couldn’t make out any details about the volume of space around the planet, but she had a perfect lock on the freighter, and the array was close enough to pick up even the minute emissions from things like hyper generators at standby.

    The big ship -- vast compared to a pinnace or a LAC, but actually on the small side for an interstellar freighter -- was clearly IDed now as a four million-ton, Solarian-built Dromedary-class, and Abigail queried the pinnace’s computers for information. As she’d hoped, there was quite a bit of it.

    The storage capacity of computers wasn’t unlimited, but when Hexapuma’s databases had been updated for her current deployment, they’d been loaded (among other deployment-specific information) with the specs and design schematics for the most common Solarian merchantship classes, since she was far more likely to be meeting Sollies than Manticoran vessels here in the Verge. She, in turn, had downloaded that information to her pinnaces, which would be conducting any examinations or searches of suspect merchantmen she might encounter. Now data scrolled across Abigail’s display, cross-referenced to the full spectrum of Bogey Three’s emissions.

    The Dromedary-class had been designed almost a hundred and fifty T-years ago, she noted, and aside from occasional updates in its electronics, it was virtually unchanged today. That was an eloquent testimonial to its suitability for the sort of general utility required of a smallish (relatively speaking) freighter working around the fringes of the League’s merchant marine. It might be a bit much to call the Dromedaries “tramps,” but it wouldn’t be far off the mark, either.

    Abigail watched the data come up and rubbed the tip of her nose thoughtfully. Normal complement was fourty-two -- large for a Manticoran ship of her tonnage, but manpower was at less of a premium in the League, and their merchant designs tended to use less comprehensive automation. Maximum theoretical acceleration for the class was two hundred and ten gravities, but that was with a zero safety margin on their compensators, and no sane merchant skipper was going to operate his ship at those levels. The standard ships of the class were designed for a hardwired five percent compensator safety margin, limiting them to a maximum of two hundred gees, although it was possible this ship’s legitimate owners -- or the pirates who’d captured it -- might have removed the safety interlocks to give them a bit more acceleration. A dozen gravities either way wasn’t going to make much difference, however.

    The class’s electronic profile followed, and her eyes narrowed as she compared it minutely to the sensor drone’s readings. According to the drone data, the ship’s single powerplant was operating at minimal levels, and the emissions signature of her impellers suggested the beta nodes were also at standby. It didn’t look as if the alpha nodes were up at all, and there was no sign of the subtle gravitic stressing of a hyper generator at standby. That was good. Without the alpha nodes, her maximum acceleration would be reduced by well over thirty percent -- call it a hundred and thirty gravities, barely a quarter of what a Nuncian LAC could turn out, and only about twenty percent of what the newest generation of Manticoran pinnaces could produce.

    More importantly right now, however, it was going to take her at least a half hour to put her generator on-line and duck into hyper.

    The class’s hull schematic appeared next, and Abigail studied it carefully. Like almost any commercial freighter, a Dromedary consisted of a thin skin wrapped around the minimum necessary power plant, life-support, and impeller rooms and as much empty cargo space as possible. In the Dromedaries’ case, the designers had placed the essential systems along the spine of the hull to provide the maximum possible unobstructed hold space. The holds themselves were designed to be quickly and easily reconfigured to make the best possible use of the available space, but tucking the power systems and life-support up out of the way provided the optimum degree of flexibility.

    Yet that design philosophy had certain drawbacks. By pulling those systems up out of the core of the ship, the designers exposed them to potential damage. Manticoran civilian designers had a tendency to sacrifice some cargo-handling flexibility by moving things like fusion plants and hyper generators closer to the center of a ship, rather than leaving them exposed, but Solarian designers were less concerned, by and large, about such design features. A smaller percentage of the Solly merchant marine worked in high-risk environments like Silesia or deep into the Verge, and the Solarian philosophy was that any merchantship which found itself under fire should surrender and stop pretending it was a warship before it got hurt.

    Which could be a bit rough on the occasional crewman, but there were always more where he came from.

    She pressed the com button on her chair arm.

    “Wolverine, Einarsson,” an accented voice said in her earbug.

    “Sir,” she said in her most formal tones, “this is Lieutenant Hearns. Our sensor data confirms identification as a Dromedary-class. I’m downloading the hull schematic to you. As you’ll see, Sir, she’s a spinal design, and I’ve highlighted her hyper generator room’s location. According to her emissions, her generator is off-line, and it looks like only her beta nodes are live at standby levels.”

    There was silence from the far end of the com link, and she pictured Einarsson running through the same calculations she had.

    “It looks as if we’ll be going with one of the variants of the alpha plan after all,” the Nuncian captain said after a moment.

    “Yes, Sir,” she replied respectfully, managing to sound as if she were accepting his direction rather than acknowledging a conclusion she’d already reached.

    “Of course,” Einarsson continued rather wryly, “whether or not we’ll be able to use any variant of it depends upon what we hear from Captain Terekhov, doesn’t it, Lieutenant?”

    “Yes, Sir, it does.”

    “Very well. Let me know the moment you do hear something.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.”

    “Einarsson, clear.”



    Abigail leaned back, eyes closed, and pondered the parameters of the tactical problem and Captain Terekhov’s solution to it.

    The small force of Nuncian vessels and their Manticoran parasites were moving towards the freighter at a relative velocity of just a hair over 17,650 KPS, and the LACs’ maximum deceleration rate was five hundred gravities. It had taken them an hour of steady acceleration to reach their current velocity before shutting down their wedges to avoid detection, and it would take them another hour to kill their velocity, during which time they would cover another 31,771,000-plus kilometers. At the moment, they were about forty-two million klicks from the freighter, so to decelerate for a zero/zero intercept, they’d have to begin decelerating in no more than four minutes. The pinnaces, with their higher acceleration rate, had a bit more time to play with -- they could achieve a zero/zero intercept if they began decelerating any time in the next fifteen minutes. If they didn’t begin decelerating, they’d blow past Bogey Three at a range of about 67,500 kilometers and a velocity of over seventeen thousand KPS, in a shade over forty minutes.

    But the instant any of them began decelerating, even a half-blind freighter with civilian-grade sensors was bound to spot them, and they would still be far out of energy weapon range. The small lasers mounted by Hexapuma’s pinnaces, without the more powerful gravitic lensing of their mothership’s main battery weapons, would do well to inflict damage at any range over eighty thousand kilometers. The Nuncian LACs’ lasers, although bigger, with more brute power, had far poorer fire control. They had the range to hit the freighter from a half million kilometers, but they’d have no effective control of where they hit it, and the sheer power of their weapons made any hit far more likely to inflict damage which might prove lethal instead of merely crippling.

    So they’d have to overfly the freighter, disable her hyper generator in passing with the pinnaces’ lasers, and then decelerate and come back. The fact that the Dromedaries were a spinal design would help -- Abigail had been afraid they’d have to penetrate deeply into their target’s hull to reach her generator, and Captain Terekhov had been forced to face the same possibility. That was the real reason Wolverine and the other LACs were along, because in the end, Terekhov was willing to risk destroying the freighter if that was the only way to stop it, and the Nuncian weapons were powerful enough to blast through to a deeply buried target.

    Tester only knew how many things could have gone wrong if they’d had to do that, and Abigail would be just as happy if He never told her. As it was, they could probably disable the freighter’s generator without tearing the ship apart outright. The problem would be that they couldn’t be positive how much damage they’d done. It was possible they might do enough purely cosmetic damage to the ship’s hull for it to look to their sensors as if they’d blown the generator completely apart, when they’d actually done only minor damage, or even -- unlikely, but possible -- missed it completely. In which case, as soon as the pinnaces and LACs had passed far enough by to lose the energy range, the pirates could simply bring the generator up and disappear into hyper.

    By the same token, they might actually damage the generator, but not beyond the possibility of quick, jury-rigged repairs. In that case, the pirates might still be able to put the generator back on-line before anyone could decelerate and return to intercept them. So, ideally, Captain Einarsson’s little force wanted to fire the instant they were certain of scoring the proper hit without blowing the ship apart, then decelerate at their maximum possible rate, so as to cut the pirates’ available response time to a minimum. Since they were going to have to rely on the pinnaces for the shot, that meant closing to under a hundred thousand kilometers before even beginning to decelerate. Which meant, in turn, that even the pinnaces would be fifty minutes flight time and almost twenty-six and a half-million kilometers down range from the freighter before they could decelerate to rest relative to its current position. And even then, it would take them another seventy minutes to actually return to it.

    Two hours was a long time for the pirates to make repairs. Abigail was convinced the odds would be in their favor, not the pirates’, but she even if everything went perfectly from a timing perspective, Captain Terekhov was still running a grave risk. Even a pinnace’s laser could fatally disembowel a merchantship if it hit just wrong. Even if it hit only the precisely desired target, there was still an excellent chance at least some of the freighter’s original crew -- assuming any were still live aboard her -- would be working in her impeller and hyper generator rooms under duress. In a worst-case scenario, they might do damage enough to kill a dozen innocent civilian spacers and still not enough to let them retake the ship before she vanished over the hyper wall.

    Even in a best-case scenario, there was going to be bitter criticism of the Captain’s plan from some quarters, because it didn’t include any attempt to demand Bogey Three’s surrender. Under the strict letter of interstellar law, a warship was always obligated to demand compliance with its instructions before firing into a merchantship, and a naval officer ignored that obligation at her peril. In this instance, however, there was no point making the effort. No doubt Bogey Three would happily have promised to stay exactly where it was if Abigal demanded that it do so. And it would have obeyed faithfully… just long enough for Abigail’s velocity to take her safely out of weapons range.

    No. In this case, the only real options were to cripple the target without warning, so that it couldn’t hyper out whenever it wanted to, or else not even to attempt to retake it. The Captain had accepted that unflinchingly, and the fact that Abigail agreed with him a hundred percent didn’t make her any happier about knowing that even under the best possible outcome, she was about to kill people.

    But worse, in many ways, was the possibility that she might never have the chance to kill them. The Captain had made it clear that, badly as he wanted Bogey Three taken, and despite the grave risks he was prepared to run to accomplish that, taking out the armed vessels took precedence over retaking the freighter. So Abigail and Einarsson were specifically prohibited from firing on the Dromedary at all unless Terekhov was confident of engaging the armed vessels before any light-speed warning from the freighter could reach them.

    The good news was that Hexapuma had the latest generation of FTL grav-pulse communicator. The pinnaces didn’t have proper receivers, but the recon drone did. Its datalink channels to its mothership were perfectly capable of receiving messages and relaying them to Abigail’s pinnace via com laser or -- in this case -- optical cable.

    The bad news was that even people who couldn’t read grav-pulses could detect them, and it was general knowledge by now that the RMN had that technology. So Captain Terekhov couldn’t risk transmitting the release to attack until -- or if -- he’d sucked his own intended victims in close enough to be sure of engaging them.

    All of which meant it was entirely possible the pinnaces and LACs wouldn’t be allowed to fire on the freighter as they went speeding past. Unless, of course, the freighter spotted them and began maneuvering to avoid them. In that case, there was no point in not firing, since her prize crew would certainly go ahead and warn its comrades. On the other hand, at their current velocity, the pinnaces would cross their engagement range of the freighter less than twelve seconds after entering it, so it would probably be impossible to tell whether or not the freighter had detected them until it was too late to act.

    Well, she thought, Father Church always says the Test can take many forms. I suppose I should be grateful that at least I don’t have to make the decisions facing the Captain.

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