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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 12, 2004 04:49 EDT



    “Very well, Lieutenant Hearns.” The same attack release order from Hexapuma glowed on Captain Einarsson’s com display aboard Wolverine, and the Nuncian wasn’t waiting for Abigail to formally relay it to him. Despite possible reservations about female officers, he obviously had no more interest in wasting precious time than she did. “It looks like it’s up to your people. Good luck, Einarsson clear.”

    “Thank you, Sir,” Abigail acknowledged, then glanced at Ragnhild. Abigail was an excellent pilot, but she knew she wasn’t in Ragnhild’s league when it came to natural ability, and she was perfectly prepared to let the midshipwoman have the stick.

    “Separate now,” she said quietly.

    “Aye, aye, Ma’am. Separating now,” Ragnhild replied crisply, and Abigail felt the shudder as the tractors released and the maneuvering reaction thrusters began pushing them away from Wolverine.

    She left that part of the operation to Ragnhild and punched the channel to the other pinnace.

    “Hawk-Papa-Three, this is Hawk-Papa-Two. We are cleared for attack. I repeat, we are cleared for attack. Separate now. I repeat, separate now and engage your wedge as soon as you clear your safety zone. Papa-Two has the alpha target: Papa-Three has the beta target. Confirm targeting and standby to engage.”

    “Hawk-Papa-Two, Papa-Three is separating,” Aikawa Kagiyama’s voice came back through her earbug. “Confirm targets. Papa-Two will take the alpha target; Papa-Three will take the beta target.”

    “Very well, Papa-Three,” Abigail said, and her eyes never wavered from the targeting display in front of her.

    The two pinnaces had completed separation from their host LACs even while Aikawa was speaking. Now main reaction thrusters blazed to life, slamming them forward under almost a hundred gravities of acceleration. It wasn’t much, compared to impeller drive, but it was an enormously higher acceleration than the thrusters normally generated. Their primary function was for final docking approaches or other circumstances which required the pinnaces to maneuver in close proximity to other spacecraft. A pinnace impeller wedge was minuscule compared to that of a starship, or even a LAC, but it was still lethal to any solid structure it encountered, and contact with a larger, more powerful wedge would burn out the pinnace’s nodes as catastrophically as a direct hit from a capital ship graser. Which was why Hawk-Papa-Two and Papa-Three had to be at least ten kilometers clear of any of the LACs -- or each other -- before the safety interlocks would allow their nodes to come fully on-line.

    Fortunately, the engineers who designed the RMN’s small craft had grasped the point that emergencies sometimes happened and built the Navy’s pinnaces with that in mind. The reaction thrusters were far more powerful than their normal operational envelope would ever require, although their endurance at such high power settings was relatively short. The bad news was that, without a wedge, the pinnaces had no inertial compensators, which left only the internal gravity plates. They did all they could, but on their best day, they couldn’t match the performance of a compensator, and over fifteen gravities of apparent acceleration got through to the protoplasm of their crews.

    It squeezed like the hand of an angry archangel. Abigail’s harsh grunt was driven from her lungs, but she’d known it was coming, and she ignored the physical discomfort. The pinnace vibrated like a living creature under the thrusters’ power, and she watched the time display on her console spinning downward even as the range from Wolverine raced upward. Then her eyes flicked back over to her targeting display.

    The Dromedary sat rock steady on the display. It wasn’t an actual optical image of the freighter, although it was now less than seventy thousand kilometers away. The pinnace’s imaging systems could have showed the freighter easily enough at that range, but the tactical computers had been instructed to generate a wire-drawing of the ship, instead. The skeletal schematic allowed her a far better grasp of the actual targeting parameters, and the countdown to optimal firing range spun downward in its own window in the corner of the display.

    She felt a deep, visceral urge to take the shot herself. To squeeze the stud on her control column when the countdown reached zero. But that was the primitive warrior part of her. The shot had already been locked into the computers, and the inhuman precision of emotionless cybernetics was far better suited to a maneuver like this. The window was too tight for anything else.

    The thrusters burned for seven endless seconds. Then, abruptly, between one labored breath and the next, the thunderous vibration ceased as the pinnaces moved far enough from the LACs to bring up their impellers. Even as Abigail gasped in relief, a corner of her brain pictured the sudden consternation on the freighter’s command deck as the impeller sources blazed suddenly on the big ship’s sensors at the deep-space equivalent of dagger range, rocketing towards her now at six hundred gravities’ of acceleration.

    She had another thirty-three seconds to envision it and wonder if the stunned pirates could overcome their shock quickly enough to get a signal off before her pinnaces reached their programmed attack range.

    But then again, if Hexapuma’s ID on One and Two is right, maybe “pirates” isn’t exactly the right noun after all, she thought, and then the countdown window reached zero.

    The pinnaces had moved over thirty-eight hundred kilometers closer to Bogey Three in the thirty-nine seconds they’d spent under power, but the range was still just a shade over sixty-four thousand kilometers when the lasers fired. Hexapuma was one of the first ships to receive the new Mark 30 Condor-class pinnaces, and the Condors’ sensor suites, EW, and fire control had all been improved in tandem with their upgraded compensators, while the previously standard nose-mounted two-centimeter laser had been upgraded to a five-centimeter weapon, with significantly improved gravitic lensing.

    A proper warship’s sidewalls would have brushed the best efforts of those weapons contemptuously aside, and if its sidewalls had been down, its armor would have absorbed the hits with little more than superficial damage. But warship armor was a carefully designed, multi-layered combination of ablative and kinetic armors -- complex metallic-ceramic alloys of almost inconceivable toughness -- laid over a hull framed and skinned in battle steel.

    Bogey Three was a merchantship. Her hull was unarmored, and formed not out of battle steel, but out of old-fashioned, titanium-based alloys, and when those lasers hit, the results were spectacular.

    Despite the misconceptions which civilians, accustomed only to medical and commercial laser applications, somehow still managed to cling to, weapons grade lasers were not fusing weapons. The energy transfer was too sudden, too huge, for that. Plating struck by an incoming laser shattered, and that was precisely what happened to Bogey Three.

    Atmosphere belched from the ragged wounds smashed with brutal suddenness through the freighter’s skin. Small breaches, compared to those a full-sized warship’s weapons would have torn, but the people on the other sides of those breaches had been given absolutely no warning. One instant, they were going about their normal routines in the normal, shirt-sleeve environment of a starship; the next, a shrieking demon of coherent energy exploded into their very midst. Splinters of their own ship slashed into them like buzz saws, and even as the wounded screamed, the atmosphere about them went howling into the voracious vacuum. Automated emergency systems slammed blast doors shut, sealing off the breached compartments… and denying those damned souls trapped in destruction’s path any possibility of escape.

    But the human carnage was secondary, just a side effect. Those precisely targeted stilettos of energy had other objectives, and Abigail’s fire smashed deep into Bogey Three’s hyper generator compartment. She couldn’t tell how much damage she’d actually inflicted, but the pinnace’s tactical computers estimated a seventy-two percent chance that it was sufficient to cripple the generator beyond immediate repair. In fact, the computers were pessimistic; what was left of that generator would have been useful only for raw materials.

    Hawk-Papa-Three’s shot went in effectively simultaneously, but much further aft, and its target was not Bogey Three’s ability to enter or leave hyper, but rather its ability to maneuver in normal-space.

    Commercial impeller wedges were unlike military ones. A warship generated a double stress band above and below its hull; a merchant vessel generated only a single band. The difference reflected the fact that it was theoretically possible for an enemy to analyze an impeller wedge sufficiently to adjust for the gravity differential’s distorting effect on sensors. If he could do that, then he could “see” through it, which no one thought was a good idea applied to his own navy. Using a double wedge, in which the outer protected the inner from analysis, thwarted any such effort. And, of course, naval designers, by their very nature, worshiped the concept of redundancy as the way to survive battle damage. But merchant designers had other priorities, and civilian-grade impellers were fifty to sixty percent less massive, on a node-for-node basis, than military-grade installations. The military-grade systems were commensurately more expensive, and their design lifetimes were substantially shorter, all of which was highly undesirable from the viewpoint of designing a durable, low-maintenance, low-cost freight-hauling vessel.

    But one of the consequences of the difference in design was that whereas a warship, like a pinnace, could generate a functioning impeller wedge with only one impeller ring, a freighter required both. And another consequence was that whereas warship impeller rooms were subdivided into mutiple armored, individually powered and manned compartments, a civilian impeller room was one large, open space, completely unarmored and without the multiply redundant power and control circuits -- and manpower -- of a military design.

    Which was why Hawk-Papa-Three’s shot inflicted such horrific damage.

    The laser’s entry wound itself was no more than a pinprick, a tiny puncture, against the vast dimensions of its target. Any one of the beta nodes in Bogey Three’s after impeller ring massed dozens of times more than the attacking pinnace did. But size, as size, meant nothing. The laser blasted straight through the impeller room’s thin skin and directly into Beta Twenty-Eight’s primary generator. The generator exploded, throwing bits and pieces of its housing into the surrounding jungle of superconductor capacitors and control systems, and a brutal power spike blew back from it to Beta Twenty-Seven and Twenty-Nine. Without the internal armored bulkheads and cofferdams, the separate, parallel control runs, and redundant circuit breakers of military design, there was little to stop the train wreck of induced component failures, and a chain reaction of shorting, arcing superconductor rings raced through the compartment. The trapped lightning bolts crashed back and forth with the ferocity of enraged demons, taking one node after another completely off-line with catastrophic damage, and more frantic alarms screamed on the freighter’s bridge.

    Unlike the damage to the hyper generator, the effect of Hawk-Papa-Three’s fire was immediately evident as the entire after impeller ring went from standby power to complete shutdown in less than two seconds. It had to be actual battle damage -- no human’s reaction time was fast enough to cut power that quickly. But, again, it was impossible for Abigail’s sensors to confirm the extent of the damage in the flashing seconds her pinnaces took to scud past at over 17,600 KPS.

    The fleet little vessels turned, keeping their noses aligned on Bogey Three, and went to maximum power, decelerating at six hundred gravities. Astern of them, the Nuncian LACs had also made turnover, but their deceleration rate was a hundred gravities lower than the pinnaces’, and the range between the allied components of the small attack force opened quickly.

    “Hawk-Papa-Two, this is Einarsson,” Abigail’s earbug said ninety seconds later. “Do you have a damage estimate, Lieutenant?”

    “Not a definitive one, Sir.” Part of Abigail wanted to add “of course,” to that, but she reminded herself that even her pinnace’s sensor capabilities must seem almost magical to the Nuncians. And at least Einarsson had waited until she’d had a chance to examine the available data before he asked the question.

    “From what we could see during the firing pass,” she continued, “we scored good hits on her after impeller room, at least. The ring’s down, and a commercial design doesn’t have much ability to come back from that kind of damage without outside assistance. Obviously, there’s no way we can be certain that’s the case here, but it seems likely.

    “It’s a lot more difficult to estimate what kind of damage we may have done to her hyper generator. It wasn’t on-line to begin with, so we didn’t have a standby power load to monitor or see go down. From the observed atmospheric venting, it looks like we definitely got deep enough to get a piece of the generator, and the computers estimate a seventy percent chance it was big enough. But we won’t know for certain until we’re actually aboard her.”

    She didn’t offer any estimate on personnel casualties… and Einarsson didn’t ask for one.

    “No, we won’t know until then,” the Nuncian said, instead. “But it sounds like you hit them hard enough to give us a chance to get aboard. Which, to be honest,” he admitted, “is more than I really expected. Without your pinnaces, we wouldn’t even have had a shot at pulling this off. Well done, Lieutenant Hearns. Please accept my compliments and pass them on to the rest of your people.”

    “Thank you, Sir. I will,” she said.

    “And after you do that,” Einarsson added grimly, “go back there and kick those people’s a-- butts up between their ears.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir,” Lieutenant Abigail Hearns said, without even a trace of amusement for his self-correction. “I think you can count on that one.”



    Hotel-Papa Flight continued decelerating hard. The pinnaces’ velocity fell by almost six kilometers per second every second, slowing their headlong plunge towards the Nuncio System’s Oort Cloud and the endless interstellar deeps beyond. Their sensors continued to hold Bogey Three, and Abigail’s grimly satisfied estimate that the freighter had been successfully lamed hardened into virtual certainty as the freighter’s position and emissions signature alike remained unchanged.

    “Excuse me, Ma’am.”

    She turned and looked at the midshipwoman in the pilot’s. Ragnhild’s expression was calm enough, but there was a shadow behind her blue eyes. Blue eyes which saw not merely her current mission commander or Hexapuma’s JTO when they looked at Abigail, but also her officer candidate training officer -- her teacher and mentor.

    “Yes, Ragnhild?” Abigail’s tone was calm, unruffled, and she returned her own gaze to the console before her.

    “May I ask a question?”

    “Of course.”

    “How many people do you think we just killed?” Ragnhild asked softly.

    “I don’t know,” Abigail replied, infusing just a hint of cool consideration into her tone. “If there was a standard station-keeping watch in both compartments, there would have been two or three people in the hyper generator room, and four or five in the after impeller room. Call it eight.” She turned and looked the younger woman levelly in the eye. “I don’t imagine any of them survived.”

    She held the midshipwoman’s gaze for a three-count, then returned her attention once more to her displays.

    “It’s possible the number’s higher than that,” she continued. “That estimate assumed a station-keeping watch, but they may’ve had full watches in both compartments, especially if they were at standby for a quick escape. In that case, you can double the number. At least.”

    Ragnhild said nothing more, and Abigail watched her unobtrusively from the corner of one eye. The midshipwoman looked unhappy, but not surprised. Sad, perhaps. Her expression, Abigail thought, was that of someone who had just realized that she’d come much more completely to grips with the possibility of her own death in combat then with the possibility that she might kill someone else. It was a moment Abigail herself remembered only too well, from a cold day on the planet Refuge, two T-years past. The moment she’d squeezed the trigger of a dead Marine’s pulse rifle and seen not the sanitized electronic imagery of distant destruction but the spray patterns of blood from shredded human flesh and pulverized human bone.

    But you were in command then, just like now, she reminded herself. And the people you killed were the ones who’d just killed one of your Marines… and fully intended to kill all of you. You had other responsibilities, other imperatives to concentrate on. Ragnhild doesn’t -- not right now, this instant, at least.

    “However many we’ve already killed,” she continued into the midshipwoman’s silence, “it’s less than are going to die aboard Bogey Three one way or the other before this thing’s done.” She turned her head to look at Ragnhild again. “If they’re smart, they’ll surrender and open their hatches the instant we get back. But even if they do, the odds are at least some of them -- possibly all of them -- will die anyway.”

    “But if they’re Peep raiders, they’re covered by the Deneb Accords!” Ragnhild protested.

    “If they’re Peeps operating under the legal orders of their own government, yes,” Abigail agreed. “Personally, I think that’s unlikely.”

    “You do… Ma’am?” Ragnhild was obviously surprised, and Abigail shrugged. “But the Captain’s message said we have to assume they are,” the midshipwoman protested diffidently.

    “I realize the other two bogeys have been identified as Havenite designs, and I’m not saying I have any intention of ignoring the Captain’s instructions and acting on the assumption that their crews aren’t also Havenite. But neither of those ships is new-build, and we’re an awful long way away from any star system in which the Republic would have any legitimate strategic interest.”

    Ragnhild looked as if she wanted to protest, and Abigail smiled slightly. No doubt the midshipwoman felt trapped between her Captain’s apparent certainty and the skepticism of her own OCTO. Who, she was undoubtedly remembering at this particular moment, was a very junior officer, herself.

    “I don’t know which assumption Captain Terekhov is operating under, Ragnhild,” she admitted. “He may not have come to an actual conclusion himself yet. Or he may have access to information to which I’m not privy that provides an additional reason to believe these are official Havenite commerce raiders. In either case, he’s got a responsibility to bear even unlikely possibilities in mind.

    “But I do remember the ONI reports I saw aboard Gauntlet on my own snotty cruise. One of the possibilities Captain Oversteegen had to consider was that the pirates we were looking for in Tiberian might be StateSec holdouts from the Saint-Just Regime who’d taken their ships and gone rogue when he got himself shot. Admittedly, Tiberian was a lot closer to the Republic then the Talbott Cluster is. But if I were the commander of a shipload of StateSec goons who’d refused to surrender, I’d have wanted to get as far away from Thomas Theisman and Eloise Pritchart as I possibly could. On balance, I think it’s more likely we’re looking at something like that than that Theisman would consider sending two obsolescent ships the next best thing to a thousand light-years from his main combat zone to harass us in an area the Star Kingdom hasn’t even formally annexed yet.”

    Ragnhild’s expression was suddenly much more thoughtful, and Abigail smiled again, a bit more broadly.

    “I suppose that analysis could be the result of the fact that I’m a Grayson, not a Manticoran, I’ve noticed -- no offense, Midshipwoman -- that you Manties think of the current government of the Republic, whoever it happens to be at the moment, as the fount of all evil in the known universe. Not surprising, I suppose, given your experiences with them over the last, oh, sixty or seventy T-years.

    “We Graysons, on the other hand, spent as long as your entire Star Kingdom’s existed thinking that way about Masada. We’re less fixated on governments and more fixated on ideologies, you might say -- religious ones in our own case, of course. And we’ve seen more than enough evidence of displaced Masadans turning to freelance thuggery and atrocities and popping up in the most peculiar places after being run out of Endicott by the Occupation, like those so-called ‘Defiant’ fanatics who attacked Princess Ruth and Helen’s sister in Erewhon last year. So, with all due respect, even if the Captain does think these are probably official Havenite naval units under officially sanctioned orders, I’m not so sure. And if they aren’t,” her smile disappeared, and her gray-blue eyes were suddenly very, very cold, “then the Deneb Accords don’t come into it at all, do they?”

    “No, Ma’am,” Ragnhild said, slowly. “I don’t suppose they do.”

    “In which case, and speaking as someone with more personal experience with pirates than I ever wanted to have,” Abigail continued from behind those frozen eyes, “I would be extremely surprised if quite a few of the people aboard that freighter haven’t thoroughly qualified themselves for the death penalty. In which case, that’s precisely what they’re going to receive, isn’t it?”

    “Yes, Ma’am,” Ragnhild agreed soberly, and Abigail nodded in response and returned her attention to her instruments.

    “May I ask another question, Ma’am?” Ragnhild said after a moment, and Abigail’s chuckle dispelled some of her eyes’ lingering chill.

    “Ragnhild, you’re on your middy cruise. You’re expected to ask questions.”

    “Well, in that case, Ma’am, do you think Bogey Three got off a signal to Bogey One?”

    “I don’t know,” Abigail admitted, “but the only reason I can think of for their not getting one off would be that we did enough collateral damage to take out their main communications array. That’s distinctly possible, of course. Merchies don’t have the communications redundancy of a warship, and all their command and control systems, including communications, are bunched a lot more tightly. I don’t think we should go around counting on Divine Providence to have arranged that for us, though. The Tester probably wouldn’t like it.”

    This time, her smile was actually a grin, although neither of them really found the probability that the freighter had sent a warning to her armed consorts especially amusing.

    “No, Ma’am, I imagine not,” Ragnhild replied, after a moment, with a smile of her own. She’d been a bit surprised, initially, by the fact that Lieutenant Hearns showed absolutely no inclination to proselytize for the Church of Humanity Unchained. But if the Lieutenant made no attempt to recruit active converts, she also made no effort to disguise her own religious beliefs -- which appeared, truth to tell, to be far less rigid than Ragnhild had always assumed most Graysons’ convictions must be -- even surrounded by a secular lot of Manticorans.

    “In any case,” Abigail said, indicating the time display which showed just over sixteen minutes had passed since they began their deceleration, “we should be finding out just who these people really are for ourselves in another hundred and four minutes or so.”

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