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Raising Caine: Chapter Thirty One

       Last updated: Saturday, October 3, 2015 20:42 EDT



In orbit; BD +02 4076 Two (“Disparity”)

    In the portside extremity of Lurker’s holosphere, Nezdeh watched her spread of missiles draw within twenty thousand kilometers of the Slaasriithi ship — and then flare like a string of firecrackers. As she feared, her opponent’s PDF systems had repowered before she could strike her most decisive blow. But, with any luck, the Slaasriithi defenses had been so riveted upon that primary threat that they would be unable to quickly retarget and achieve the more concentrated, intensive fire that was required to spall, and thereby deflect, the rail gun projectiles that Nezdeh had sent racing in behind her missiles.

    At the starboard extreme of the plot, the three enemy cannonballs approached Lurker in an elongated triangle, the first cannonball leading from the point, the other two back at the base. The first had been lightly damaged by a single laser hit. Its immediate return fire had been surprisingly powerful for such a small craft. However, whether it was the limitations of fitting adequate focusing equipment into such a compact hull, or a consequence of the damage that the cannonball had received from Red Lurker, the enemy beam had been highly diffuse when it struck. A mild shock had trembled through the patrol hunter, and some lower ablative layers had fumed off the hull, but fortunately, that was the extent of the damage.

    “She means to bring her laser into more effective range,” Tegrese commented.

    “Or to ram us,” Idrem commented over the intercom from his position in engineering.

    Nezdeh started. “Explain?”

    “Consider the first cannonball’s vector in light of its prior operation, and the changing course of the other two cannonballs. Their delta formation is beginning to spread out. I suspect the two rear ones mean to bracket and ultimately move behind us, to force us to evade and so, curtail our rate of closure with our primary target. Ultimately, retargeting our rail gun will require that we do not merely change our current heading but tumble the ship.”

    “Yes — but ramming?”

    “I do not suggest it is the lead cannonball’s primary or preferred attack option, but consider the way it has eschewed evasion since we hit it. Having the measure of us, and of our superior beam weapon, it is now rushing in for the kill. And disabling it will not be enough: if we do not destroy its drives soon, we will have to reduce it to junk to be sure of avoiding a collision that would be catastrophic.”

    Nezdeh nodded to no one but herself. That is why their tactical maneuver is so odd. Despite their size, they are not ships; they are drones. And the Slaasriithi are willing to spend them freely in order to destroy us. “I believe you are correct, Idrem. And if you are, we must consider –”

    “Nezdeh!” interrupted Sehtrek. “The enemy corvette is under full power again. It is coming about.”

    “To resume attacking?”

    “No: it is tumbling. Facing to the rear. It’s new course would take it behind the planet.”

    “Well, that is one less problem,” Tegrese muttered.

    Yes, you would see it that way. “No, it has become a larger problem. There are now three ships which can report this attack and we cannot track down all of them. However, we must destroy the human warcraft first.” And we must strike before it swings behind the world’s far, night-cloaked horizon and makes good its escape. “Tegrese, bring all weapons to bear on the Aboriginal corvette. Given her current course and rate of acceleration, we will have one last firing opportunity before the curve of the atmosphere comes between us.”

    At well under a light second, the Lurker’s lasers accessed the new target almost instantly. The rail gun’s firing solution lagged significantly behind, given the Aboriginal vessel’s smaller size and greater agility.

    “Laser lock on the enemy corvette has been reacquired,” reported Tegrese.

    “Confidence of rail gun solution?” Nezdeh demanded.

    “If we use a maximum dispersion submunition, just over fifty percent.”

    “Estimate: will longer aim time increase or decrease confidence?”

    “Impossible to calculate; the corvette is undertaking evasive maneuvers.”

    Nezdeh frowned: shoot now? Or wait to improve the rail gun’s targeting? The time had come to choose between a bad option — I can probably cripple the craft now — or a worse option: to wait for a slightly better shot might mean missing it entirely. It was no choice at all. “Fire all, immediately.”

    At this range, the results were quick in coming. The lasers achieved two hits, one of which was fleeting, at best. Moments later, the viewscreen showed that one, maybe two of the rail gun’s flurry of thirty-by-ten centimeter penetrator rods struck the corvette along her ventral surface; small bits of debris fluttered outward from the hull and her drives went dark. She began to tumble slowly as she disappeared over the planetary horizon: a lightless spot disappearing behind an ink-black crescent.

    Lying further out from the planet, the Slaasriithi ship was also showing the effect of the penetrator rounds that had followed closely in the wake of the Ktoran missiles. Guttering, oxygen-starved flames flickered about one of the shift-carrier’s main power plants. Gashes in her long, hexagonal cargo sections bled trails of ruin and debris, and several of her combination thermionic-radiator arrays looked like broken windows that opened unto deep space.

    Nezdeh leaned back, considered the holosphere. “Tegrese, reacquire laser lock on the lead cannonball. Sehtrek, damage assessment on Slaasriithi ship.”

    Sehtrek almost sounded apologetic. “Her power generation has dropped by twenty-five percent, but she is maintaining full thrust.” He paused, looked back at her. “She is tumbling.”

    “She is running,” amended Nezdeh with a grim nod. “And why would the Slaasriithi do otherwise? If they can flee and make shift –”

    “We must not let them!” Tegrese cried from her station. “They must still break out of orbit. If we resume full acceleration, we can –”

    “We can ensure our own destruction at the slim possibility of hers. Look at the plot, Tegrese, and improve your insight. If we resume full acceleration, the cannonballs will have our rear flank. So if we must then constantly tumble — first to attack the shift carrier before us, and then the cannonballs behind us — we will do both jobs poorly. And to what effect? The cannonballs are much faster and nimbler than we are. The shift carrier has the use of her PDF batteries once again. Even if we launched all our missiles in one immense salvo, preceded and followed by as many rail gun submunitions as we might launch, we are unlikely to inflict any damage that would prevent her from making shift. And to launch such an attack, we would need to get closer and concentrate fire on her for several minutes, ignoring the cannonballs. Which will be breathing down our necks. We, not the shift carrier, are much more likely to be destroyed by such a strategy.” Nezdeh moved her stern gaze away from Tegrese before it could become a look of contempt. “Do you have a lock on the lead cannonball, yet?”

    “Just this moment, Nezdeh.”

    “Fire all lasers.”

    “Shall I reacquire rail gun lock on the enemy shift carrier?”

    Nezdeh weighed reflex — to strike at her enemy however, whenever, she might — against reason: not many of this salvo of rail gun munitions would avoid the PDF beams that, spalling a fraction of their dense matter upon contact, would thus impart the nudge that would cause the warheads to miss the Slaasriithi by dozens of kilometers. And those few that might get through were increasingly unlikely to inflict decisive damage. “No,” she decided with a sigh. “If we do not have a reasonable chance of rendering the Slaasriithi ship incapable of shift, then we are wasting ammunition. Of which we might have urgent want, later on.”

    Ulpreln turned. His voice was careful, respectful. “Can we be so sure that the Slaasriithi ship is still capable of shift? Or that it even has enough anti-matter aboard? Or enough fuel for preacceleration after we destroyed two of their tanks?”

    “We may be nearly certain of all those things,” Nezdeh answered. “We have no evidence that we inflicted any damage upon their shift drive, so it would be irresponsible to base any plans on such a hope. Next, they have made only one shift since taking on supplies at the meridiate world they last visited. It is inconceivable that they would not have replenished their antimatter stocks then. Lastly, even with the loss of two fuel tanks –”

    “Nezdeh,” Tegrese interrupted. “All lasers have struck the closest cannonball. But –”

    Nezdeh looked in the plot, glanced at the sensors and then the viewscreen: although trailing debris, and no longer firing, the cannonball was still boring in on them.

    Sehtrek was hoarse. “Range closing, bearing constant.”

    “Ulpreln, evasive maneuvers! Time until impact?”

    Sehtrek had trouble finding his voice. “Ninety seconds.”



    Nezdeh wondered at the cannonball’s design, that it could absorb that kind of punishment and still function. “Tegrese, maintain firing.”

    “I am. Continuing to degrade target.”

    But not fast enough. “Ulpreln, discontinue evasive. Release bearing control to gunnery station. Tegrese –”

    She was already yawing the ship hard to starboard to face the oncoming cannonball; they leaned with the maneuver. “Target telemetry constant. Acquiring lock. Seventy percent confidence, seventy-five –”

    Nezdeh interrupted. “At eighty-five percent, commence firing. Single penetrator rods, one every three seconds, maximum power.”

    “And — firing!”

    The tremendous energies being discharged pulsed the deck under their feet like the slow heart of a great beast. In the plot, thin tines of green jetted toward the onrushing orange globe —

    The fifth rod struck the cannonball dead center. Nezdeh almost sighed out her relief — then remembered to look in the plot:

    Orange specks tumbled toward the green delta that marked the position of Red Lurker. “Brace for impact!” Nezdeh shouted at the same moment that Sehtrek yelled, “Debris still on intercept vector. Secure for –”

    Red Lurker shuddered, pitched, then was righted to her prior orientation by her automatic attitude control system.

    Nezdeh had managed to stay in her acceleration couch, glanced at the holosphere. “Sehtrek: damage?”

    “Not critical. Report follows: –”

    “No time.” Nezdeh jabbed a finger at the plot: the two remaining cannonballs were now speeding directly toward Red Lurker at a separation of over one-hundred and forty degrees and widening quickly. She remembered her war tutor’s wisdom: Evading flanking pursuers is a difficult task that often ends in disaster. “Ulpreln, reverse course, full thrust. Tegrese, acquire aft-facing lock as possible. If you have a shot, take it.”

    “I cannot promise hits, Nezdeh.”

    “I just want them to take evasive maneuvers and give us more time.”

    “They will catch us.” Sehtrek commented. It was not a criticism, just a statement of fact.

    “If they are so instructed,” Nezdeh replied, and settled in to watch the pursuit.

    At precisely four light seconds from the planet, the two surviving cannonballs began counter-boosting at the same blistering six-gee acceleration they had maintained during their pursuit.

    “They’re breaking off?” Tegrese wondered.

    “Given the distance, I suspect it is an automated protocol,” Nezdeh observed, hearing the iris valve open behind her. “It is consistent with what we know of the Slaasriithi. They intrinsically focus on defense. Beyond a certain limit, and probably influenced by whether or not they are still taking fire, the intelligence or expert system controlling these cannonballs informs them that the fleeing target is no longer a credible threat. And so the cannonballs break off to resume their orbital defense duties. Otherwise, feints could easily pull them too far off their patrol circuits and leave the planet unprotected.”

    The voice from the iris valve was Idrem’s. “And I suspect there is another reason for their constant proximity to the world they defend.”

    Nezdeh turned. “What do you conjecture, Idrem?” She had come to love hearing her own voice say his name. It was not a sign of which the Progenitors — or her own Breedmothers — would have approved. But she did not care.

    “There is the problem of control range,” Idrem answered. He nodded toward the holosphere. “At four light seconds, it is reasonable to suspect that the cannonballs’ reaction time to new events is ten seconds. Four seconds to communicate the event to the planetary defense planner, two seconds for that planner to decide upon and transmit a response, and four more seconds for the response to reach the cannonball. All too often,” he concluded, “that would result in a destroyed cannonball. Even assuming they have excellent on-board expert systems, a battlefield is Fate’s laboratory for crafting novel challenges and unexpected conditions. The Slaasriithi will not be sanguine sending these drone-ships beyond the limit of optimal control.”

    “Yes, they must be centrally controlled.” Nezdeh called up a holosphere image from earlier in the battle. “Notice how the two cannonballs were held back while our advance upon the Slaasriithi shift carrier increasingly put us on a predictable trajectory. They did not attack until we were as firmly set on our course as a fly is affixed to flypaper.”

    Sehtrek leaned back from his console, frowning. “Srina Perekhmeres, I must point out the dire situation in which we now find ourselves.”

    “Speak,” she said.

    “Arbitrage and the tug did not have time to fully refuel, and have been unable to produce antimatter for want of that fuel, as well as the need to avoid generating high energy emissions. If the Slaasriithi ship can still effect shift, then they will have carried news of this attack to their homeworld at Beta Aquilae within nine days. Logically, we must assume that within three to four weeks, they will return here with a force over which we shall have — excuse me — no hope of achieving dominion.”

    “This is well spoken, and true besides,” Nezdeh acknowledged with a nod. “What do you recommend?”

    Sehtrek folded his hands. “We must send Arbitrage and the tug to the gas giant to commence fueling and anti-matter production immediately. If we are very lucky, that will have furnished us with enough antimatter to shift before the enemy relief forces arrive. We must then refuel and produce more antimatter in the next system as quickly as possible and shift again. Otherwise, the enemy ships shall surely expand their search radius faster than we may escape it. And they will have access to various prepositioned caches of fuel and antimatter.” He sighed. “At the best, I consider our chances of survival uncertain.”

    Nezdeh nodded. “Your reasoning and your plan are both sound. But they are uninformed by one crucial datum.” Nezdeh activated one of the bridge’s hardware screens; it showed a bright red dot mixed into the sparse Trojan point debris preceding the first planet.

    “What is that?” Tegrese’s curiosity was childlike, unguarded.

    In every regard, she has poor control. “That is an automated base,” Nezdeh said with a disarming smile. “It was identified by sensor operators on board the Arbitrage, shortly before we commenced our attack. Judging from the thermal and radioactive output, it is also an anti-matter manufactory. Its stores of fuel and anti-matter will not only allow us to expend energy lavishly in resuming our attacks upon the cannonballs and any humans who survived this combat, but will ensure our escape from Slaasriithi space. Within thirty hours, we should have fully loaded –”

    Sehtrek’s panel flashed: a prominent new source of emissions — thermal, radioactive, photonic — had just been detected. He glanced at the coordinates, and then at the viewscreen.

    In the spinward trojan point of the first orbit, exactly where the small red marker was placed, a tiny white star winked briefly into existence, just off the orange-yellow shoulder of BD +02 4076. The pinprick sized star was gone as quickly as it had flared.

    In the holosphere, the marker designating the Slaasriithi’s automated fuel base faded away.

    It was Sehtrek’s duty to report the obvious to the suddenly still bridge. “The Slaasriithi base is gone.”

    Idrem nodded, no emotion in his face or voice: “Of course.”

    “How?” Tegrese asked.

    Nezdeh suppressed a sigh. “The Slaasriithi no doubt had remote system commands that allowed them to terminate the flow of power to the magnetic bottles in which the stocks of antimatter were stored. The resulting annihilation would be absolute.”

    Idrem checked the mission clock over the central viewscreen. “Judging from the time delay, if the shift carrier sent such a command when she started withdrawing, it would have arrived at the station just in time for us to see its results now.”

    Tegrese’s voice was gruff, grim. “This makes things much more difficult.”

    “Which was the enemy’s intent, obviously.” Nezdeh turned back to Sehtrek. “We must now follow your plan. However uncertain it is, however close a pursuit it may entail, it is our only remaining option. Arbitrage and the tug will return to the gas giant, and as they go, they will commence converting their current fuel load into antimatter.”

    Sehtrek’s shrug looked more like a wince. “It is a slow process, Srina.”

    “All the more important that we commence now, even as we shape our new plan.”

    “Our new plan?” echoed Tegrese.

    “Of course. Before the Arbitrage departs for the gas giant, she must furnish us with sufficient assets to complete the elimination of the Aboriginals. This will mean fighting past the cannonballs, then locating and exterminating our targets on the surface of the planet. Happily, we have an agent in place among the survivors.”

    “How do you know?”

    “I know,” Nezdeh answered, accepting that it was now essential that she reveal herself to be Awakened. To make sure of her claim, she extended her awareness — and immediately sensed the saboteurs’ sole remaining Devolysite dwindling along with the insignificant thickening of time and space that was the planet behind them.

    She nodded slowly at the faces ringing her. “Yes. I know.”

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