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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Twenty Four

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 12, 2004 05:40 EDT



    “Update the tactical log, if you please, Ms. Zilwicki,” Commander FitzGerald said.

    “Aye, aye, Sir,” Helen acknowledged crisply.

    Her hands flicked across her panel, entering the proper commands, even though she and the Exec both knew the AuxCon computers had already updated the tac log backups automatically, just as they did every five minutes whenever the ship was at General Quarters. Despite that, The Book called for a manual doublecheck every half-hour. The tactical logs were the detailed record of every sensor datum, every helm change, every order or computer input which affected Hexapuma’s tactical stance in any way. On ships like Hexapuma, which boasted an Auxilliary Control position, they were maintained by AuxCon personnel in order to free the primary bridge personnel from that distraction. On ships without an AuxCon, their maintenance was overseen by the tactical officer’s senior petty officer. Their purposes were manifold, but especially included analysis by BuWeaps and Operational Research, the Navy commands charged with evaluating and updating tactical doctrine. And, in the event that any court of inquiry was ever called, the logs would form the crucial body of evidence for all concerned. Which was why The Book was just a tad paranoid about making certain those logs were properly backed.

    And, in this case, she suspected FitzGerald also saw it as a way to keep at least one of his snotties’ minds occupied doing something besides fretting. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad idea.

    In a way, Helen found her present assignment immensely satisfying. It wasn’t often a mere midshipwoman was allowed to assume the position of a heavy cruiser’s tactical officer, even if only as backup. For the next few heady minutes or hours, Auxiliary Control’s entire tac section was hers -- all hers. Well, hers and the Exec’s. And, she conceded with just a hint of sourness, Paulo d’Arezzo’s, too, if she counted the electronic warfare subsection. The keypads and computer links at her fingertips controlled all the sleek, deadly firepower of an Edward Saganami-class cruiser, and for the first time it was as if she could actually feel all that power, all that potential for maneuver and combat, as if it were an extension of her own muscles and nerves.

    It was odd, really, she reflected. She’d participated in -- and performed well in -- training simulations in which she’d been the tactical officer of everything from a Shrike or Ferret-class LAC to a Medusa-class pod superdreadnought. Others in which she’d been not the tactical officer, but the “Captain” herself. Many of those scenarios had been intensely, even terrifyingly, lifelike, and some had been conducted right here, aboard Hexapuma, using AuxCon as a simulator. And yet not one of them had given her the same sense of fusion with a warship’s power as the one she found herself experiencing now, in the hushed, cool quiet of Hexapuma’s fully manned Auxiliary Control.

    Probably, because this time I know it really is real.

    Which, she admitted to herself, was also why her satisfaction wasn’t unalloyed. Because it was real… exactly as her responsibilities would be if anything happened to the bridge. And that was more than enough, however unlikely it might be, to send icy butterflies cavorting through the stomach of even the hardiest midshipwoman.

    Unless, of course, the snotty in question is a complete and utter idiot. Which I hope I’m not… Daddy’s occasional observations to the contrary notwithstanding.

    “Ms. Zilwicki, I have something,” Sensor Tech 1/c Marshall said quietly, and Helen turned towards the tracking rating responsible for monitoring the outermost shell of Hexapuma’s remote sensor arrays. All of them were reporting only via relayed, light-speed channels to prevent the bogeys from realizing they were out there, so whatever was coming in was at least thirty minutes out of date, but naval personnel got used to skewed information loop timing.

    Now a data code strobed brightly on Marshall’s display. It hadn’t been there a moment before, and even as the sensor tech tapped it with her fingertip, the single code turned into a spilling stream of data.

    Helen leaned closer, and her eyes widened.

    “Good work, Marshall,” she said, and turned her chair to face FitzGerald. “Commander, we’ve just received confirmation that Lieutenant Hearns and Captain Einarsson have executed their attack on Bogey Three. The outer shell picked up their impeller signatures right on the projected time chop and detected at least two heavy bursts of laser fire approximately thirty seconds later. According to the emissions data Marshall is pulling in from the array, the pinnaces and the Nuncian LACs are all went to maximum decel approximately thirty seconds before the attack… and Bogey Three was still sitting exactly where she was after it.”

    “Very good, Ms. Zilwicki,” Ansten FitzGerald replied. And it was very good, he reflected, watching the com display which tied him to the bridge. Marshall and Zilwicki had spotted, evaluated, and passed on the data a good ten seconds faster than CIC’s highly trained and experienced personnel had managed to get the same information to Naomi Kaplan. And, almost equally as good, Zilwicki had seen to it both that he knew Marshall had brought the information to her attention and that Marshall knew Zilwicki had made certain he did. Of course, one reason they’d been quicker off the mark than CIC was that they hadn’t wasted any time doublechecking their information before reporting it to him. But it was still excellent work, and he was about to say something more to them when Captain Terekhov spoke over the AuxCon-to-Bridge com link.

    “CIC reports that Lieutenant Hearns has executed her attack, Ansten.”

    “Yes, Sir.” FitzGerald nodded to the visual pickup. “Ms. Zilwicki just brought that information to my attention.”

    “She did, eh?” Terekhov smiled. “It sounds as if you have a fairly competent team over there, XO.”

    “Oh, not too shabby, I suppose, Skipper,” he said, glancing up to give Helen and Marshall a quick wink. Then he returned his full attention to Terekhov. “I don’t suppose we have direct confirmation from Lieutenant Hearns, Sir?”

    “No, but that’s not surprising,” Terekhov replied, and FitzGerald nodded. The question had been worth asking, but neither Abigail’s pinnaces nor Einarsson’s LAC could possibly have hit Hexapuma direct with a communications laser at that range -- certainly not without Bogey One knowing they had. Still, she might have tried relaying through one of the other arrays.

    “The sensor data was picked up by one of the epsilon arrays and relayed around the periphery to one of the delta arrays via grav-pulse,” Terekhov continued, as if he’d read at least part of his XO’s thoughts. “The delta array was far enough out on the flank to have a com laser transmission path to us that cleared the bogeys by a safe margin. All of which, by the way, means it took just over forty minutes for the information to reach us.”

    He looked expectantly at the exec, and FitzGerald nodded again.

    “Which happens to be five minutes longer than it would’ve taken for a transmission direct from Bogey Three to Bogey One,” he said.

    “Indeed it is. And Bogey One hasn’t so much as blinked. So there’s at least a chance Hearns managed to knock out Three’s communications.”

    “Or just to do enough damage to knock them back temporarily, Skipper,” FitzGerald pointed out. Terekhov grimaced, but he didn’t disagree. Nor was his grimace aimed at FitzGerald; it was one of an executive officer’s responsibilities to present every reasonable possible alternative analysis to his CO.

    “At any rate,” Terekhov continued, “they’re continuing on, and if they keep it up for another forty minutes or so, they’re ours.”

    “Yes, Sir.” FitzGerald nodded again. Actually, the bogeys were already “theirs.” Their overtake velocity was down to under sixteen thousand KPS, and the range was down to less than fifty-two light-seconds. Given that Hexapuma’s maximum powered missile range from rest was over twenty-nine million kilometers and that the range was less than sixteen million, both those ships were already within her reach… and probably doomed, if Aivars Terekhov had been prepared to settle for simple outright destruction. Which, of course, he wasn’t.

    “I have to admit, Skipper,” the exec said after a few seconds, “when you first came up with this idea, I had my doubts. Mind you, I couldn’t think of anything better, given all the balls you had in the air. I was still afraid this one was tailor-made for Murphy, but it looks like you’ve outsmarted him this time.”

    “That remains to be seen,” Terekhov cautioned, although an eager light flickered deep in his blue eyes. Then his expression sobered. “And whatever happens here, there’s still a damned good chance we’ve already killed some of the good guys, if there were any left aboard Bogey Three.”

    “We probably have,” FitzGerald agreed unflinchingly. “And if so, I’m sorry. But if I were a merchant spacer aboard that ship, Skipper, I’d damned sure want us to at least try to retake her, even if there was a chance I’d be killed!”

    “I know, Ansten. I know. And I agree with you. None of which will make me feel a lot better if I have just killed some of them.”

    There wasn’t much FitzGerald could offer in the way of comforting responses to that. Especially not when he knew he would have felt exactly the same way in the Captain’s place. That he did feel exactly the same way, for that matter.

    “Well, Skipper,” he said instead with a grim smile, “in that case, I guess the best thing for us to do is to concentrate on taking out our frustrations on Mr. Mars and Friend.”




    “Sir, we’re being hailed by the bogeys.”

    Terekhov turned his chair to face Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri and cocked one eyebrow.

    “It’s voice-only,” the com officer added.

    “Voice-only? That’s interesting.” Terekhov stroked the underside of his chin with a thumb. Actually, he’d expected to hear from the bogeys long before. Almost twenty minutes had passed since they’d received confirmation of Lieutenant Hearns’ initial attack. The range was down to less than four and a half million kilometers, well inside even the Peeps’ powered missile envelope, and the bogeys’ overtake velocity was down to only seventy-six hundred kilometers per second. Had Hexapuma’s pursuers deliberately waited, letting the “freighter’s” crew sweat under the knowledge that they were in missile range, as a psychological measure? Then he shrugged. “Put it on speaker, please.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.”

    “Freighter Nijmegen, this is Captain Daumier of the heavy cruiser Anhur. Cut your accel immediately and stand by for rendezvous!”

    The voice was harsh, hard-edged, with the flat accent of the slums of Nouveau Paris. There was a chill menace to it, despite the absence of any overt threats, and it was female.

    “Odd, wouldn’t you say, Ansten?” Terekhov murmured, and the executive officer nodded.

    “In a lot of ways, Skipper. That’s a Peep talking, all right. But why voice-only? And why not identify Anhur as a Havenite vessel?”

    “Maybe she’s pretending to be a ‘regular’ pirate, Skipper,” Ginger Lewis offered from her own quadrant of Terekhov’s com screen, and he made a small gesture, inviting her to amplify her thought.

    “On my first deployment to Silesia, the Peeps had organized a complicated commerce-raiding operation designed, at least in part, to look as much as possible like regular pirate attacks on our merchant traffic,” she said. “Could this be more of the same?”

    “Why bother?” Naomi Kaplan’s question wasn’t a challenge. The tac officer was simply thinking aloud, and Ginger shrugged.

    “One of their objects then was to keep ONI guessing about whether what we faced were Peeps or simply the normal scum, taking advantage of how the war was distracting us from Silesia. But another one -- and more important in their thinking -- was to keep the Andies from realizing they were operating in the Empire’s backyard. They didn’t want to drive the Andy Navy into our arms by looking as if they were threatening Imperial territory. Could they be thinking the same way about the Sollies now?”

    “Trying to avoid provoking the League by stepping on OFS’ toes in an area it’s always considered its private turf, you mean?” Terekhov said.

    “Yes, Sir.” Hexapuma’s Engineer shrugged again. “Mind you, Skipper, I can’t see any reason why they should be worried about it. We’re the ones trying to expand into the area, not them, and the Sollies must know that. So I’m not saying it makes a lot of sense, just that it’s the only explanation for their behavior that springs to my mind.”

    “Well, they’re not likely to make anyone believe they’re ‘regular pirates’ with a woman in command,” Kaplan observed sourly. “Too many real pirates are neobarbs from backwaters even less enlightened than Nuncio. Some of them remind me of those hard-line bastards on Masada, actually.” She grimaced. “The idiots are convinced no one can run a hard-assed lot like them unless he shaves and has testicles!”

    “Now, Naomi,” Nagchaudhuri said soothingly. “There are some female pirate skippers. Just not very many.”

    “And by and large, the women who’ve commanded pirates have been one hell of a lot nastier than the men,” FitzGerald agreed.

    “True.” Terekhov nodded. “Still, there’s something about this --“

    ”Excuse me, Sir,” Nagchaudhuri interrupted. “Anhur’s repeating her message.”

    “Missile launch!” one of Kaplan’s ratings announced suddenly. “I have a single missile launch from Bogey One!”

    Kaplan’s eyes flashed back to her plot. A single inbound missile showed on it as a red triangle, apex pointed directly at Hexapuma while it moved steadily across the display. The tac officer scanned the data sidebars, then relaxed and looked back up at her captain.

    “Classify this as a warning shot, Skipper,” she said. “It’s coming in under max acceleration. From their current base velocity, that gives them a maximum range of less than three-point-two million klicks before burnout. Considering the geometry, the actual effective envelope against us is only a tad over two million at launch… and the range is four-point-four-point-eight million.”

    Terekhov nodded. If Anhur had actually intended to hit an impeller-drive target -- even a clumsy, lumbering, half-lamed one like ‘Nijmegen’ -- at this range, they would have fired at a much lower acceleration to extend the missile drive’s endurance so that it could track the evading ship. This bird would be inert and harmless as it coasted ballistically past Hexapuma, which meant it was simply a pointed reminder that Captain Daumier’s ship had the range to kill the freighter at any moment, if that was what she decided to do.

    “Same message?” he asked Nagchaudhuri.

    “Yes, Sir. Almost word for word, in fact.”

    “Well,” Terekhov made himself smile as he watched the missile icon continuing to speed in Hexapuma’s general, “given that there’s no one aboard ship who could produce a believable Rembrandter accent, I think we’ll just decline to answer Captain Daumier for the moment.”

    One or two people chuckled, and he looked at Kaplan.

    “Keep an eye on them, Guns. They may get frustrated by our silence and decide to fire something with a bit more lethal intent.”

    “Aye, aye, Skipper.”

    Terekhov leaned comfortably back in his command chair and crossed his legs, his expression serene, with the confident assurance expected of the commander of one of Her Majesty’s starships. And if there was a hidden, fiery core of anticipation behind those blue eyes, that was no one’s business but his.



    Helen tried very hard to look as calm as everyone about her in AuxCon It wasn’t easy, and she wondered how difficult it was for the others. Especially, she thought with mixed resentment and reluctant admiration, for Paulo d’Arezzo. The overly handsome midshipman seemed impervious to the taut anticipation winding tighter and tighter at Helen’s own center. The only possible indication that he shared any of her own tension was a very slight narrowing of his gray eyes as he sat with the three EW ratings Lieutenant Bagwell had assigned to assist him, watching his displays with quiet, efficient competence.

    Twelve minutes had passed since Anhur’s first transmission. Despite the Captain’s high reputation as a tactician, Helen had never really believed he would succeed in drawing his enemies into pursuing him so unwaveringly for so long. The range was down to 586,000 kilometers -- less than two light-seconds, and barely eighty thousand kilometers outside theoretical energy weapon range -- and Anhur’s overtake velocity was barely two thousand KPS.

    Brilliant, she thought admiringly, yet her mouth was undeniably dry. But there’s a downside to all this. Sure, we’ve sucked the bad guys in exactly where we wanted them. Which means we’re about to enter the energy weapon envelope of two opponents simultaneously.

    The possible consequences of that made for some unhappy thoughts which, although she had no way of knowing it, were very similar to some which had crossed Ansten FitzGerald’s mind. But while she was unaware of the XO’s reservations, she suspected Captain Daumier was even less happy than she was, if not for exactly the same reasons. The Peep officer’s voice had become steadily harsher, harder, and more impatient over the last ten minutes or so. There’d also been two more missiles, and the second one had been a hot bird -- a laser head that detonated barely sixty thousand kilometers clear of the ship.

    The Captain hadn’t turned a hair as the missile came rumbling down on his command. Helen’s fingers had itched, almost quivering with the urge to bring up Hexapuma’s missile defenses, but the Captain simply sat there, watching the missile bore in, and smiled thinly.

    “Not this one,” he’d said calmly to Lieutenant Commander Kaplan. “She’s not quite pissed off enough yet to kill a golden goose, and a ship like the real Nijmegen would be worth several times any cargo she could be carrying out here in the Verge. She won’t just blow that away when she figures she can have us in energy range -- or close enough for pinnaces and boarding shuttles, for God’s sake! -- in another twenty minutes, and take us intact.”

    He’d been right, but Helen had decided she never wanted to play cards against the Captain. He was too --

    “All right, Guns,” the Captain said in an even, conversational tone that sliced the silence on both bridges like a scalpel. “Execute Abattoir in thirty seconds.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir,” Kaplan said crisply. “Execute Abattoir in three-zero seconds.” She pressed a stud on her console, and her voice sounded over every earbug aboard Hexapuma. “All hands, this is the Tac Officer. Stand by to execute Abattoir on my command.”

    Helen found her eyes suddenly glued to the time display, watching the seconds slide away.

    “Abattoir,” she thought. An ugly name, but fitting, if the Captain’s plan works out… .

    Stress did strange things to her time sense, she discovered. On the one hand, she was focused, intense, feeling each second flash past and go speeding off into eternity like a pulser dart. On the other, the time display’s numerals seemed to drag unbearably. It was as if each of them glowed slowly to life, then flowed into the next so gradually she could actually see the change. Her pulse rate seemed to have tripled, yet each breath was its own distinct inhalation and exhalation. And then, suddenly, the hyper-intensive cocoon which had enveloped her burst, expelling her into a world of frantic activity, as Naomi Kaplan pressed a red button at the center of her number one keypad.

    Only a single command sped outward from the button, but that command was the first pebble in a landslide. It activated a cascade of carefully organized secondary commands, and each of those commands, in turn, activated its own cascade, and things began to happen.

    HMS Hexapuma’s impeller wedge snapped abruptly to full power. Senior Chief Clary’s joystick went hard over, and the heavy cruiser snarled around to starboard in a six hundred-gravity, hundred-and-eighty-degree turn. Her sidewalls snapped into existence; tethered EW drones popped out to port and starboard; her energy weapons ran out, locking their gravity lenses to the edges of the sidewalls’ “gun ports”; and radar and lidar lashed the two Havenite ships like savage whips.

    It was the worst nightmare of any pirate -- a fat, defenseless merchie, transformed with brutal suddenness from terrified prey into one of the most dangerous warships in space at a range where evasion was impossible… and survival almost equally unlikely.

    It took Hexapuma fourteen seconds to go from standby to full combat readiness. The EW drones’ systems were still coming on-line, but Kaplan’s fire control computers had been running continuously updated tracks on both targets for hours. The missiles in her tubes’ firing queues had been programmed three broadsides in advance, and the firing solutions had been updated every fifteen seconds from the instant Bogey One and Bogey Two entered her maximum missile range. Now, even as she turned, a double broadside roared from her tubes, oriented itself, and drove headlong for Bogey Two.

    At such a short range, they were maximum-power shots, and current-generation Manticoran missile drives at that power setting produced an acceleration of over 900 KPS2. Worse, from the enemy’s viewpoint, the bogeys were rushing to meet them at over two thousand KPS. Flight time was under thirty-four seconds, and it took the bogeys’ tactical crews precious seconds to realize what had happened. Bogey Two’s anti-missile crews got off a single counter-missile. Just one… that missed. The Haven-built destroyer’s laser clusters managed to intercept three of the incoming laser heads. The others -- all the others -- ripped through the desperate, inner-boundary defenses and detonated in a single, cataclysmic instant that trapped the doomed vessel at the heart of a hell-born spider’s lightning web.

    The destroyer’s sidewalls didn’t even flicker. She simply vanished in the flash of a fusion plant which had taken at least a dozen direct hits.

    But Kaplan wasn’t even watching the destroyer. She’d known what was going to happen to it, and she’d assigned a single one of her petty officer assistants to the tin can. If, by some miracle, the destroyer somehow managed to survive, the noncom was authorized to continue the missile engagement on his own. Kaplan could do that, because she hadn’t assigned a single one of her missile tubes to Bogey One… also known as Anhur.

    Helen knew she was witnessing a brilliantly planned, ruthlessly executed assassination, not a battle. But she was a tactical specialist herself, however junior a practitioner she might still be. She recognized a work of art when she saw one, even if its sheer, brutal efficiency did send an icy chill of horror straight through her.

    Aivars Terekhov felt no horror. He felt only exultation and vengeful satisfaction. The Desforge-class destroyer had been no more than an irritant. A distraction. A foe which was too unimportant to worry about taking intact. The cruiser was the target he wanted -- the flagship, where the senior officers and relevant data the cold-blooded professional in him needed to capture would be found. And he was glad it was so, for it was also the cruiser -- the Mars-class -- the avenger within him needed to crush. There must be nothing to distract him from Anhur, and so he and Kaplan had planned the destroyer’s total destruction to clear the path to her.



    Hexapuma settled on her new heading, her bow directly towards Anhur. Not so many years ago it would have been a suicidal position, exposing the wide open throat of her wedge to any weapon her enemy might fire. But Hexapuma possessed a bow wall even tougher than the conventional sidewalls covering her flanks, and Anhur didn’t.

    There were ports in Hexapuma’s bow wall for the two massive grasers and three lasers she mounted as chase weapons. Like her broadside energy mounts, they were heavier than most battlecruisers had carried at the beginning of the Havenite Wars. In fact, they’d been scaled up even more than her broadside weapons, because they were no longer required to share space with missile tubes now that the RMN’s broadside tubes had acquired the ability to fire radically off-bore, and the Manticoran cruiser’s fire control had Anhur in a lock of iron. It took Hexapuma twenty-seven seconds to reverse her heading -- twenty-seven seconds in which the missiles which doomed Bogey Two were sent hurtling through space and the bogeys’ overtake velocity closed the range between them by 54,362 kilometers.

    Then Terekhov’s ship settled on her new heading at maximum military power. She decelerated towards Anhur at seven hundred and twenty gravities even as Bogey One continued to decelerate towards her at 531g, and that, too, was something Hexapuma wasn’t supposed to be able to do. The single enormous tactical drawback to the new bow wall technology was that an impeller wedge had to be open at both ends to function. When the RMN had introduced the new system, it had accepted that ships with raised bow walls would be unable to accelerate and had been happy to do it, given the fact that, for the first time in history, an impeller-drive ship would be protected against the deadly “down the throat” rake which was every tactician’s dream.

    But BuShips had felt it could do better, and it had in the Saganami-Cs. Hexapuma’s bow wall could be brought up in two stages. The second stage was the original wall that completely sealed the front of her wedge, protected against fire from any angle or weapon, and reduced her acceleration to zero. The first stage wasn’t a complete wall, however. It was a much smaller, circular shield, its diameter less than twice the ship’s extreme beam. It offered no protection against beams coming in from acute angles, and a laserhead could actually slip right past it before detonating. But against the energy weapons of a single target, Hexapuma could place that defense directly between her hull and the enemy… and continue to accelerate at full efficiency.

    The sheer stupefication of the savagely reversed trap paralyzed Anhur’s bridge crew. Most of their brains gibbered that this could not be happening, and even the parts that worked had no idea what to do about it. They knew RMN heavy cruisers had bow walls, but not about the new technology. Which meant, so far as they could know, that Hexapuma couldn’t have hers up. But without it, engaging bow-to-bow was suicide for both ships! And yet, that was precisely what the Manticoran maniac roaring down on them was doing.

    It took another thirty-one seconds -- thirty-one seconds in which the range dropped by another 108,684 kilometers and their closing velocity fell to just over fifteen hundred KPS -- for the Mars-class cruiser’s captain to reimpose her will on her own ship’s maneuvers.

    It was obvious when she did. Anhur’s bow dipped, relative to Hexapuma. Obviously, Daumier -- if that was really the other captain’s name, Terekhov thought viciously -- had elected to stand her ship on her nose, presenting only the roof of her impeller wedge to Hexapuma’s bow chasers as they closed. She probably hoped she could get far enough around to present her own broadside, then roll back up to hit Hexapuma from astern with a raking broadside as they crossed over one another.

    Unfortunately for her, the range was down to 423,522 kilometers… 50,000 kilometers inside the range at which Hexapuma’s chasers could have burned through the bow wall she didn’t have.

    “Open fire,” Aivars Terekhov said in a calm, almost conversational tone, and Naomi Kaplan stabbed the firing key just as Anhur began her maneuver.

    In their arrogant confidence that they were the hunters, Anhur’s crew hadn’t even completely cleared for action. Only her missile crews and half a dozen energy mounts were fully closed up, with the crews in skinsuits, and the outer spaces normally evacuated of atmosphere for combat were wide open and fully pressurized. Almost three-quarters of her crew had been in normal working dress, not skinsuits, when Hexapuma turned ferociously upon them, and not one of them had the time to do anything about it. They just had time to realize how hideously vulnerable they were, and then the tsunami struck.

    Both grasers and two of the three lasers scored direct hits. Even worse for Bogey One, it took the light-speed weapons 1.4 seconds to reach her… and her attitude change had begun just in time to open the angle far enough for one of the graser hits to snake past her heavily armored hammerhead and smash directly into the unarmored roof of the main section of her spindle-shaped hull.

    At that range, unopposed by any sidewall, Hexapuma’s energy weapons could have disemboweled a superdreadnought. What they did to a mere heavy cruiser was unspeakable.

    Anhur’s forward hammerhead shattered. Heavy armor, battle steel structural members, impeller nodes, power runs, chase weapons, sensor arrays -- all of them blew apart, ripped and torn like tissue paper. The energy weapons’ superconductor rings erupted in volcanic secondary explosions as they arced across. The forward impeller rooms were brutally opened to space, more superconductors gave up their stored energy, and still Hexapuma’s rage tore deeper and deeper. Through internal armored bulkheads. Through weapons compartments. Through magazines. Through berthing compartments, mess compartments, damage control points, life support rooms, and boat bays. Her fire ripped a third of the way down the full length of the central spindle before its fury was finally spent. Broadside weapons were taken from the side, unprotected by the ship’s heavy side armor as the energy fire came from the one angle the ship’s designers had assumed it simply could not. Still more uncontrolled power surges and secondary explosions lashed out, erupting along the flanks of the central vortex of destruction, and her forward fusion plant managed to go into emergency shutdown a fraction of an instant before the Goshawk-Three reactor’s unstable bottle would have failed.

    The stricken cruiser reeled aside, forward impeller ring completely down, wedge flickering, sidewalls stripped away from the forward half of her hull. In that single firing pass, in the space of less than six seconds, HMS Hexapuma and Captain Aivars Aleksovitch Terekhov killed over thirty-five percent of her ship’s company outright and wounded another nineteen percent. Thirty-one percent of Anhur’s shipboard weapons had been destroyed. Her maximum possible acceleration had been reduced by over fifty percent. She’d lost forty-seven percent of her sidewalls, all of her forward alpha and beta nodes, and her Warshawski sails. Fifty percent of her power generation was gone, her forward fire control and sensor arrays had been gutted, and almost two-thirds of her tactical computers had been thrown into uncontrolled shutdown by power spikes and secondary explosions.

    No ship in the galaxy could survive that punishment and remain in action, no matter what incentive her crew might have to avoid surrender.

    “Enemy cruiser!” The voice screaming in Terekhov’s earbug was no longer hard and harsh -- it was raw and ugly with sheer, naked terror. “Enemy cruiser, we surrender! We surrender! Cease fire! For God’s sake, cease fire!”

    For just an instant, an ugly light blazed in arctic-blue eyes that glowed now with furnace heat. The order to continue firing hovered on the tip of Terekhov’s tongue, with the salt-sweet taste of blood and the copper bitterness of his own dead, crying out for vengeance. But then those eyes closed. His jaw clenched, and silence hovered on Hexapuma’s command deck while the voice of Anhur’s captain screamed for mercy.

    And then Aivars Terekhov opened his eyes and jabbed a finger at Nagchaudhuri. The com officer pressed a button and swallowed.

    “Live mike, Sir,” he said hoarsely, and Terekhov nodded once, hard and choppy.

    “Anhur,” he said in a voice colder than the space beyond Hexapuma’s hull, “this is Captain Aivars Terekhov, commanding Her Majesty’s Starship Hexapuma. You will cut your wedge now. You will shut down all active sensors. You will stand by to receive my boarders. You will not resist them in any way, before or after they enter your vessel. And you will not purge your computers. If you deviate from these instructions in any detail whatsoever, I will destroy you. Is that clearly understood?”

    More than one person on his own bridge swallowed hard as they recognized the icy, total sincerity of his promise. Anhur’s captain couldn’t see his expression, but she didn’t need to. She’d already seen what he could do.

    “Understood! Understood, Captain Terekhov!” she said instantly, gabbling the words so quickly in her terror that they were almost incomprehensible. Almost. “We understand!”

    “Good,” Terekhov said very, very softly.

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