Brothers in Valor
A Novel of Interstellar War
Being the Third Volume of the “Man of War Series”
[This is a preliminary draft of the first chapter of an upcoming novel, subject to editorial revision by the author and by the publisher before appearing in print.]
02:27 Z Hours, 9 May 2315
“New contact!” Lieutenant Kasparov announced from the Sensors Station. “Infrared and mass detection, bearing three-five-seven mark zero-six-eight. Designating as Hotel eleven. Classified as definite hostile. No effort at stealth.” Then, under his breath, he added, “Arrogant bastards.”
“Very well.” Lieutenant Commander Max Robichaux, Union Space Navy, Captain of the Khyber class destroyer USS Cumberland, acknowledged the contact report but let the comment pass, not because it was appropriate–which it was not–but because he heartily concurred. Judging by the quiet murmurs of agreement from the dozens of men at their General Quarters stations in the Cumberland’s Combat Information Center, he wasn’t the only one.
The destroyer’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant Eduardo DeCosta, leaned toward Max and said in a low voice, “No stealth. Looks like disdain. We’re not a threat to them, so they don’t need to waste effort making themselves hard to detect.”
Max shook his head and answered at the same volume—his voice would not carry beyond the Command Island, the platform in the center of CIC where the Commander’s and Executive Officer’s Stations, as well as an additional console known as the Commodore’s Station, were located. “That’s not it, XO. Krag disdain for us ‘blaspheming monkeys’ is a given. Their goal is intimidation. They want to make sure we know they’re here and how many of them are hunting us. They want us cowed. Too scared to think. Believing we’re already dead so we’ll stop fighting to survive.”
DeCosta nodded his understanding. “It may be working,” he said softly.
“Now getting a firm track on Hotel eleven,” said Lieutenant Bartoli, the tactical officer, after a few minutes. “Course is one-six-eight mark two-eight-five, under moderate acceleration. Preliminary classification is destroyer, probably Dervish Class. It appears that he is joining the search group with Hotels one, two, four, six, seven, eight, and nine. That makes eight mixed types in the search group plus the three medium cruisers in the interdiction group, one covering each of the three jump points. The other seven vessels of the search group are shifting positions from the Krag’s standard seven ship containment formation into their standard formation for eight.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bartoli.” Along with everyone else in CIC, Max grimly watched the tactical display over the next half hour as the ships of the search group arranged themselves, roughly three AU apart from one another, forming the vertices of a giant cube with the Cumberland near the center. The gloom and pessimism in CIC had already reached epic proportions, but Max could feel them ratcheting up as the new formation took shape. He didn’t know what it was about that one additional ship, but—somehow—there was something about being surrounded by eight ships that made a man feel much more hopeless than being surrounded by only seven.
Of course, viewed from a rational perspective, the situation really was hopeless. Mentally chiding himself for being pessimistic, Max estimated the odds against him and the Cumberland to be about 50,000 to 1.
Max’s estimate was, in fact, insanely optimistic.
Unknown to the Skipper, someone had submitted the situation to the Tactical Scenario Evaluation Algorithm, a sophisticated computer routine that predicted battle outcomes with 93.78% accuracy. T-SEA had dutifully calculated that the Cumberland’s odds of surviving the encounter were one in 981,966. Rounded off to “one in a million,” this estimate circulated within minutes to every corner of the ship by means of the Cumberland’s breathtakingly efficient jungle telegraph, made so much speedier because the duties of many crew members required that they be tied into at least one of the ship’s 36 voice communication channels or “loops” and were already exchanging information in real time with men in other parts of the ship.
As this news permeated the ship, so did a feeling of resolute fatalism: a sense that, although the USS Cumberland would fight bravely to the last, the 215 boys and men on board were, at that very moment, living the last minutes of their lives. And, while they were certainly afraid, that knowledge also filled them with a grim determination. If they were going to die, the crew was determined to die well and in the best traditions of the Union Space Navy. The USS Cumberland would go down fighting.
“Have you always been this popular with the Krag, sir?” asked DeCosta.
“From the very beginning, XO. They have been earnestly seeking my company since I was 10 years old. But I try to keep all this popularity from going to my head.” Then, in a confidential tone, “As flattered as I am by all of this attention, I’d very much like to leave this little party. I’m open to any brilliant ideas you might have. Hell, I’ll even listen to stupid ones if you’ve got ‘em.”
“Well, sir, the only thing that is coming to mind right now is what Commodore Middleton said in his Handbook for New Warship Commanders. Remember the section on techniques for evading an enemy of greatly superior force?”
“I remember it well.” Commodore Charles L. Middleton, now Fleet Admiral Middleton, famous both as a tactical genius and as an authority on effective leadership, had been Max’s mentor for much of his career. In addition to having the benefit of learning from Commodore Middleton personally, Max had practically memorized his book, notwithstanding its near-infamous prolixity. “The ‘Three M’s’ of evading an enemy of superior force,” Max recited, “are minutes–meaning time, maneuvering room, and misdirection. Unfortunately, XO, we’re running out of the first two pretty quickly.”
“But sir,” DeCosta replied, smiling, “you always seem to have an inexhaustible supply of the third.”
Misdirection. The third “M.” My favorite. If Max was going to misdirect the enemy, he was going to have to do it soon, because minutes, the first “M,” were in short supply. The Cumberland’s heat sink, essential to concealing its infrared signature during stealth operations, was nearing capacity. Max was running out of time.
He was also running out of maneuvering room. As the enemy, rat-like aliens known to humans as the Krag, systematically and indefatigably executed their search, they were deriving an ever more precise idea of the Cumberland’s location. With each improved estimate, the searching vessels closed in from all directions, boxing in the humans and reducing the volume of space in which they could run and hide. Max’s options for continuing to elude his pursuers, not to mention getting away from them and escaping from this star system, were dwindling. For once, he did not know how he was going to get out of this one.
And, to make life even more interesting, the Krag periodically acted on their best guess as to the Cumberland’s location by taking pot shots at it. With thermonuclear weapons.
In fact, Max was expecting the next pair of missile launches to be right about . . . .
“Vampire! Vampire! Enemy missile seeker scans detected, Ridgeback type, designating as Vampire Nine and Vampire Ten. Bearing one-seven-three mark two-four-two. Range 1.875 AU. Velocity is settling in at 1.5 c.” The Tactical Officer’s excited announcement, the fifth of its kind in the last hour or so, caused Max to hold his breath. No one noticed. Every other man in CIC was doing the same thing. Together, they endured four breathless, endless, seconds, like four consecutive, aching eternities.
“Bearing to Vampires changing rapidly,” reported Mr. Bartoli. Born in Mobile, Alabama, on Earth, Bartoli pronounced “Vampire,” not with two syllables as “VAM pire,” but with three, “VAM pye uh,” but no one noticed that either, because a rapid bearing change meant that the Vampire 9 and Vampire 10, fusion warhead missiles launched by the enemy, would miss the ship by a large margin. The men of the Cumberland were not going to die.
Not, at least, in the next thirty seconds.
“Very well,” Max said, hoping that relief was not too evident in his voice. It was, but everyone else was too relieved along with him to notice.
Maybe there’s time for a little misdirection after all. “Tactical, give me your best estimate of the enemy’s firing solution and feed it to Maneuvering. Mister LeBlanc, when those warheads detonate and the effects front reaches the enemy ships, their sensors will be scrambled for about three minutes. Let’s use that to cover a sprint right into the middle of Mister Rat Face’s firing solution.” Missiles that didn’t acquire targets continued their search patterns and then detonated at the end of their runs. Accordingly, Bartoli would have to make an educated guess as to exactly where the Krag were aiming. It would not be where the warheads exploded; rather, the enemy’s target solution would be somewhere along the missiles’ base trajectory, probably just after they activated their homing/seeker systems.
“Once he finds out we’re not there,” Max said, “we need to be exactly where he knows we aren’t.” There were a few smiles at the odd phrasing, but everyone understood what the skipper meant. “Stealth, let’s buy ourselves a few more minutes of heat sink capacity. When we’re making our run, let’s take advantage of the Krag sensors being blinded by extending the radiator fins for a short heat dump.”
The men at Tactical, Maneuvering, and Stealth acknowledged Max’s orders and all of CIC knew what he was up to. The enemy was searching for Cumberland in two ways. First, the Krag could defeat the humans’ stealth technologies by using several ships at once to bombard small areas of space with high powered sensor beams from multiple directions, overwhelming her stealth systems with brute force. Second, they were firing missiles that detonated in locations where the humans might be hiding, which would destroy the ship if the missile hit, reveal it by flooding the area with light and radiation in the case of a near miss, or flush it out of its hiding place if the humans’ nerves gave out. The Krag were eliminating one grid “square” (in space they were actually cubes, but the old term endured) after the other as being a possible hiding place for the ever-elusive destroyer, like the near-ancient game of “Battleship.” Max was an old hand at that game, so while the Krag thought they were searching for a stationary target, the Cumberland’s exceptional stealth and speed allowed her to skip from square to square without being detected. Once the other player finds out that G-4 is a “miss,” then G-4 becomes an exceptionally good place to be.
At least, it would be a good place until the Krag battle group commander figured out Max wasn’t playing “Battleship.” And he will figure that out. Max had carefully observed this commander’s handling of his forces. He’s not stupid. Not even slightly. But it will take a little time. Based on the skill with which his adversary had managed his forces, Max estimated that the Krag commander would likely see through his ploy before the heat sink reached capacity. When that happened, the enemy leader would have all of his ships quickly fire missiles at all of the former firing solutions and all of the previously scanned grid squares, Max would have to run away at top speed to avoid being nuked and, because a sublight drive at Flank or Emergency can’t be stealthed, the Krag would spot him. When they did that, every one of the eight ships in the search group would launch a full missile salvo at the Cumberland and it would all be over. Max knew he had until then to come up with something.
“Probable Krag firing solution computed, skipper,” Bartoli said. “Feeding it to Maneuvering.”
“Firing solution received,” LeBlanc said a few seconds later. “Course computed.”
Less than a minute later, both Kaparov and Bartoli stiffened.
“Detonation! Detonation! Warheads on Vampire Nine and Ten just detonated,” said Kasparov.
Kasparov rattled off the ranges and bearings to the two explosions and started a countdown clock which, after several more slow minutes had crawled by, finally reached zero. The radiation, thermal, and electromagnetic effects from the two 51.4 kiloton thermonuclear explosions–traveling at the speed of light–had reached the sensors of all the Krag ships in the search group, overwhelming them.
“Go, Leblanc, go,” said Max.
At that moment, the Cumberland firewalled her drive in a rapid acceleration/deceleration and course change maneuver that, two minutes and forty-seven seconds later, placed her in the middle of what everyone hoped was a reasonably accurate calculation of the enemy’s firing solution for its last salvo. Meanwhile, Nelson at the Stealth station had entered the commands that extended thermal radiator fins around the ship that shed as much of the Cumberland’s stored heat as could be dumped while the Krag sensors were blinded and then retracted them before the Krag sensors could recover.
After this flurry of activity, the Cumberland was at rest and nearly indistinguishable from the cold vastness in which she drifted: viewports shuttered, running lights extinguished, hull the same temperature as the space surrounding her, mass signature suppressed, EM emissions nil–“a hole in space.” Fully stealthed, the ship was as difficult to detect as any space vehicle ever constructed by humankind. Max and his men were steering a black ship with black sails, crossing a black sea in the dark of the moon. The Cumberland was a shadow of a shade, silent and virtually invisible in the eternal night.
“All right people, let’s settle down and watch carefully. Keep your eyes open for a pattern, a mistake, anything we can exploit,” Max said soothingly.
“And what if they don’t make a mistake?” asked DeCosta, quietly.
“Then, we’ll have to make one for them,” Max said answered. That didn’t come out exactly right. “You know what I mean.”
DeCosta smiled. “Yes, sir. I do.”
“Bearing change on all contacts,” Bartoli announced. “Looks like a range closure, too.” Pause. “Confirmed, range decreasing on all eight.” He spent a few moments talking with the specialists in his back room, then turned to his right and said a few words to Mr. Kasparov, the Sensors Officer. Although Max couldn’t hear the words, from the tone of their voices and his own experience, he surmised Bartoli and Kasparov were having their respective back rooms coordinate to produce a more complete picture of what the enemy was doing and why. Those departments were scarcely able to engage any coordination at all when Max took command of the Cumberland back in January. Now it was almost routine. It took only about a minute for the two departments to produce a consensus from the fragmentary sensor data.
“Ships from the search group are all taking up new positions.” Eight blinking red dots appeared in the tactical display. Bartoli continued, “Decelerating now. From their D/C curves it looks like they are going to wind up at these points which are roughly equidistant from our present position and about point three-seven AU closer than their previous stations. Now that they’ve got eight ships, they are forming the vertices of a cube, the center of which is only point one-five AU from our present position, so their best guess as to where we are is much closer than before.”
“And, sir,” Kasparov added, “I’m getting tiny Cherenkov-Heaviside flickers that look like a LeLo Hex.”
“That’s the fourth time. A smaller enclosure, more accurately centered on our position,” DeCosta said, almost in a whisper. “Two or three more rounds of this and we won’t have anywhere to go.”
“Tightening the noose.” This statement, loud enough to be heard throughout CIC, came from the Commodore’s Station, located on the Command Island to Max’s left, a console equipped with an exceptionally comfortable chair but only a rudimentary set of controls and displays. It was uttered by Lieutenant Doctor Ibrahim Sahin, the Cumberland’s Chief Medical Officer, whose non-medical talents included proficiency as a naturalist, linguist, trader, and budding diplomat. The doctor’s observations were often extremely useful and had, on at least one occasion, saved the ship, which explained his presence in CIC. This remark, however, made Max wish to supplement the doctor’s less than perfectly turned out uniform with a strip of duct tape over his mouth. It was just what that the men in CIC didn’t need to hear.
Even if it was true.
Max met the doctor’s eye and received an embarrassed shrug, acknowledged with an almost imperceptible nod—apology offered and accepted. Both men knew that Dr. Sahin had a bad habit of speaking the truth bluntly, and a particular tendency to speak those truths at times when blunt truths were best left unspoken. Sahin’s normally weak judgment on in this area was even worse than normal right now. For that matter, so was anyone else’s.
It had been a hard week. The Krag Hegemony had offered to refrain from carrying out its war aim of exterminating the human race if mankind surrendered and submitted to Krag rule, total disarmament, and abandonment of all “false religions” in favor of worshipping the Krag creator-god. The Union’s answer was simple enough that nothing would be lost in translation: “NEVER.” Since delivering this message at a rendezvous far outside of Union space, the Cumberland had been aggressively hunted by the Krag who, when they didn’t like the message, showed no compunctions about killing the messenger. Max had managed to elude their previous efforts, most of which were single ship or small group ambushes.
This time, it was no single ship or small group. The enemy had staked out this particular system with a Barbell Class Battlecruiser, a Crucible Class light Cruiser, and six Destroyers of various classes, not to mention three Crawler Class medium cruisers covering the jump points. The commander of this battle group was a good as any Max had ever seen—he hadn’t made a mistake yet and was using his forces with skill and assurance. Max knew he was against the varsity this time. All the Krag commander had to do was continue his heretofore mathematically perfect search and containment strategy and he would eventually pin down the Cumberland and destroy it.
As if that were not bad enough, the ship had received no acknowledgement of its request for assistance before Krag jamming cut off long range communications. Because of the extreme range, the message had not gotten through. Cumberland was on her own.
Max caught the eye of the Midshipman Oliver R. Hewlett, assigned to CIC for this watch to render whatever assistance a nine year old boy could give, from fetching coffee to using an M-72 shotgun to blow off a Krag’s head. By tilting his head in the direction of the coffeepot, Max indicated that he needed the boy in his coffee-fetching rather than the Krag decapitating capacity. Max noticed that, as the young man carried over the steaming, fragrant, black brain fuel, his eyes kept straying to the tactical display.
Max knew that look. The born teacher inside Max could tell that Hewlett saw something that he didn’t understand and that today—this very moment, in fact–was the perfect time for Hewlett to learn it. Every bone in Max’s body wanted to seize that moment to further the Midshipman’s naval education.
Not the best time. With eight enemy ships trying to generate a valid firing solution on his ship, Max could certainly find something of more obvious importance to do with his energy. If he was going to be dead in a matter of hours, why waste the time giving a tactical lesson to Midshipman Hewlett?
Why, indeed? Because he was Max Robichaux, a skipper who could no more stop teaching the men and boys around him how to wage interstellar war than he could stop breathing. Besides, we’re not dead yet.
“Thank you, Mr. Hewlett,” Max said. “Oh, Mr. Hewlett, take a look here, if you would.” Max gestured to the tactical display. “Tell me what you see.”
The almost impossibly fair-skinned boy, who needed only a dirty face and patched clothes to be able to pass for Oliver Twist, blushed with the attention, his ears turning bright red. He gulped and gazed into the shimmering column of light containing a three-dimensional plot of the ongoing engagement. “Well, sir, the blue dot is us. The eight red dots forming the corners of a cube around us are the Krag warships. The display is projecting a transparent pink sphere around each Krag ship—that’s the PDR—the Probable Detection Range. Even with our stealth systems engaged, we have to stay outside of those spheres or the Krag will pick us up on their sensors . . . stealth makes us difficult to detect, not impossible. The little orange squares are the areas that the Krag have scanned and eliminated as places we might be hiding, and the yellow circles are where their warheads have blown up and the area around the explosions in which we would have been blown up ourselves or where the explosions would have let the Krag detect us. So, the Krag think that they know we aren’t in the orange squares or the yellow circles. But, we’re right in the middle of a yellow circle, so we’re safe for now.”
“Very good, Hewlett.” From all indications, the boy was something of a budding genius—from all reports he fit in on a warship far better than he did in primary school back on Archopin. “You looked as though you had a question.”
“Yes, sir. The spheres don’t touch each other. There are gaps between them.”
“That’s right, son.”
“Then why don’t we just scoot out through one of those gaps and make a run for it?”
“I was wondering the same thing,” added Dr. Sahin.
Max shot Sahin a reproachful “I can’t believe you don’t know that” look. He turned to the Stealth station. “Mister Nelson, would you enlighten the doctor and the Midshipman?”
“Gladly, sir. The Krag ships have generated a LeLo Hex.”
“Which is?” asked Sahin.
“A Lehrer-Lobachevsky Hexahedron.”
“Which is?” The doctor shook his head with frustration. “Why is getting useful information from the personnel on this vessel like pulling teeth? How many times do I have to ask a question before I get an answer that doesn’t assume I’ve been on warships since I was Hewlett’s age?”
“I’m doing my best, sir, but it is hard,” Nelson said patiently. Dr. Sahin tilted his head, inviting further explanation. “It’s a difficult assumption for me to avoid because I have been on warships since I was Hewlett’s age, and that means that since I was Hewlett’s age, almost every person I’ve ever talked to has been another man who has been on warships since he was Hewlett’s age. I lack experience communicating with people who don’t share that background.”
“I see what you mean, Mr. Nelson,” Dr. Sahin said, nodding amiably. “I can see how that might foster misunderstandings. My sincere apologies. Please continue.”
“Thank you, sir. Anyway, four ships that are in precisely the same plane in space and less than about ten AU apart can produce a Lehrer-Lobachevsky Discontinuity. That’s a microscopically thin, artificially generated disruption in the space-time continuum. It is so thin that any vessel can cross it easily, but as an object passes through the discontinuity, it generates a powerful flux of Cherenkov-Heaviside radiation where the field intersects its surface. With eight ships, they can create six contiguous planes which, if the planes are the same size, form a cube. If you’re inside the LeLo Hex, you can’t leave without giving away your position.”
Nelson continued, warming up to the unaccustomed role of teacher. “Although the detection is just a single datum point, we can still use that datum to close in on him. If I was directing the hunt, I would have the four ships closest to the datum stay in the same plane and close in to shrink their face of the enclosure and sprint the other four ahead to enclose the probability cone in a new, smaller cube. The sprinting ships can get ahead of the target ship because the target has to maintain stealth to keep from being located and the enclosing ships don’t. Even if the target ship is faster than the others, like we are, it negates the speed advantage.”
Hewlett turned to Max, his elfin face creased with almost teary concern, “But, sir, against more powerful ships speed is the only advantage we have!”
Max smiled warmly. “Everything you’ve said in the last few minutes, Midshipman, has been correct. Except for that.”
“We’ve got one other advantage.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“Motivation. As far as the Krag are concerned, this battle is about whether they get the kill. For us is about whether we are the kill. Survival is a more powerful motivator than duty or glory or hatred or the thrill of the hunt or whatever it is that drives the Krag.” He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and looked him in the eyes. “Do you want to live, Hewlett?”
“Absofuckinglutely!” Into the sudden dead silence that followed this breach of protocol, the boy almost whispered, “Sir. I mean, yes. Sir. Very sorry, sir. But, yes, sir. I do want to live.”
“So do I, son. So. Do. I. Thank you, Mr. Hewlett. That will be all.”
Max sipped his coffee, his practiced ear taking in and interpreting without conscious attention the resumed chatter from the stations around CIC as he stared at the tactical display for a few moments. Then he squinted. Then he squinted harder. Then he pulled up a few data files on his console. Followed by some even harder squinting. Finally, at long last, a smile—one seen by several men in CIC.
Knowing what the smile meant, they smiled, too, and elbowed other men to be sure they saw it. The smiles spread. Maybe, just maybe, they would live to see another day.
Max quickly swiveled his chair to his right about 120 degrees to face the Computers console recently relocated and now behind him and to his left. Cumberland had gotten a few quick upgrades between returning to the fleet with the Krag ultimatum and setting back out with the Union’s answer: including improved and more efficiently arranged CIC consoles (they were purely modular and, therefore, easily rearranged and swapped out) plus one truly lovely weapons enhancement of which Max was particularly fond and which he couldn’t wait to try out in combat.
“When we had our little present from the Vaaach plugged in down in Captured Hardware, I know that you copied as much of the Krag data into your quarantined servers as you had room for. I also know when he took the Vaaach data module with him, Admiral Hornmeyer told you he wanted those files purged for security reasons. But,” Max continued innocently, “knowing how new you are to actual combat service, I was wondering if in all the excitement, and with the stress of being in the presence of an actual Vice Admiral, especially one as intimidating as ‘Hit ‘em Hard’ Hornmeyer, some of that data might have, well, been missed.”
The Cumberland had damaged a Krag vessel and chased it into Vaaach space and, in tandem with a Vaaach scout ship, destroyed it. Under the Vaaach’s strict rules of Hunter’s Honor, they were required to share the “meat” of the kill with Max. But, as the Cumberland had vaporized the Krag vessel with a pair of thermonuclear weapons, the Vaaach found themselves without any physical “meat” to share. The Vaaach scout ship had, however, used that race’s staggeringly advanced technology to copy all the data from the Krag computer core immediately upon encountering it; accordingly, the Vaaach were able to fulfill their obligation in the form of a Vaaach data storage device containing all of the data from a the Krag vessel’s computer, accompanied by a Vaaach module allowing Union computers to interface with the storage device. It was, quite literally, the greatest intelligence haul of all time.
Bales stared at his feet for a moment in mock shame. “Now that you mention it, sir, it was a rather confusing time and I really didn’t have a clear protocol to follow when it comes to having an alien data core plugged into my processors down there. So, sir, it is, I think, entirely possible that some mistakes may have been made.”
“Shameful, Mr. Bales, truly shameful,” Max scolded. “And, is it possible that, in the gravely negligent performance of your duties, some of the Krag sensor protocol data may have—quite accidentally, mind you—escaped being purged?”
“Skipper, I’m quite embarrassed to report that I think it’s conceivable that all of that data may still be stored somewhere.”
“I see,” Max said, smiling broadly.” There was no way that the storage capacity of the computers in Captured Hardware would hold more than a twentieth of the Krag data. Leave it to Bales to know what would be useful and to keep copies. Max forced a serious expression. “I’m sure some sort of appropriate discipline will be forthcoming. Eventually. And, while we’re on the subject, I don’t suppose that the same kind of deplorable dereliction of duty extends to the files on the Krag point defense systems.”
“You’ve got me there, sir. It’s very possible that I missed those, too. Not only that, but the sloppiness of my department may go so far as to cover most of the data for their combat systems as well as engineering and navigation.”
“You are an enormous embarrassment to the USS Cumberland, young man. I suppose, though, since we do have the data, we might as well put it to good use. So, until I get around to the matter of your punishment, which I assure you will be quite appropriately severe, I need you to make those files available to the Special Attack Tiger Team.”
“I’ve never heard of that team, sir.”
“That’s because I haven’t created it yet. Officer of the Deck?”
“Here, sir,” answered Sauvé from Countermeasures.
“Log this order. The Special Attack Tiger Team is hereby constituted. It consists of the XO, plus the Department Heads from Computers, Tactical, Countermeasures, Weapons, and Stealth. Gentlemen, summon your reliefs. I need a detailed operations plan in one hour. You can work in the Fighter Control Back Room. It’s empty right now. XO, you know what I want?”
“Cagle’s Corner Cutout?”
“Exactly.” Either a stunningly lucky guess or a brilliant deduction.
“But sir,” DeCosta said quietly, “you know . . . .”
“Yes, XO, I know,” Max replied just as quietly. “Cagle’s Corner Cutout resulted in the death of Commodore Cagle and the destruction of his flagship, the Impala. The only reason we even know about the maneuver is that it also functioned as a diversion that allowed a more conventional breakout maneuver by the other ships in his attack group to succeed. But, we’ve got one thing on our side that old ‘Big Chief’ Cagle didn’t have back then.”
“The data from the Krag computer core?”
“Exactly. Get back to me in an hour. We’ve got a few hours before the Krag figure out that we jumped back in a spot they thought they cleared.” He turned in the direction of the coffee pot and drinks chiller. “Oh, Hewlett?”
“Summon your relief. I want you go with them. Anything they need, you get it for them. Any help they ask for, you give it. Got that?”
“Aye, aye, Captain.” The Midshipman could scarcely contain his glee.
“All stations report ready to execute,” DeCosta reported.
“Very well. Execute at 04:07 hours. Outstanding job, XO.” He took a sip of his coffee. “You know, that idea from Bales about shifting their nav systems’ REFSEMMAT was very intriguing. But, for the life of me, I can’t see any way to use it in combat–their star scanners would pick up any change instantly, though,”
“We drew a blank, too. But since Bales worked it out, we thought it was important to put it in your bag of tricks.”
“Thanks.” The chrono slowly ground out the seconds. Max could feel the stress level in the compartment ratcheting higher and higher by the minute. Just as he was trying to think of a way to relieve the tension a little, he heard the vault door-like CIC hatch cycle and glanced over his left shoulder to see who was coming in. No one. At least, no one tall enough for his head to be visible above the Emergency Control Stations between the Command Island and the hatch. Max was about to open a voice channel to the Marine sentry outside to ask why he opened the hatch when he saw the reason. Clouseau, the larger-by-the-day ship’s cat, made a studiously nonchalant entrance, ambled across the compartment, and—notwithstanding his considerable girth–leapt easily into the seat at the Commodore’s Station seat beside the doctor. By tradition, ships’ cats have the run of the vessel (except for dangerous spaces where they might be injured) and when the cat had pawed the CIC hatch, the Marine had let him in. Clouseau promptly curled up with his head resting on the doctor’s leg, purring loudly, a model of feline repose. The doctor absently stroked the animal’s glossy, jet black fur.
Max was amused to notice that Clouseau’s entrance seemed to release some of the emotional strain on the men. Spacers were notoriously superstitious and had a great deal of lore about cats—lore which said that Clouseau was not just good luck, but extremely good luck. First, he was a cat and all ship’s cats are lucky–something about having nine lives. Second, he was black and black cats are particularly lucky, perhaps due to their comparative rarity or maybe because of their legendary association with the supernatural. Third, and of the greatest importance, Clouseau “joined the ship of his own accord” by fleeing a freighter carrying contraband Krag cargo and coming on board the Cumberland by running across a docking tube joining the two ships. This fact was vital to Clouseau’s status as a good luck charm because, since cats are “lucky,” they are reputed to “know” better than to come on board a ship that is about to meet a bad end.
Clouseau’s mystique got an enormous boost when news reached the crew that, after being sold at auction to a small transport line, Clouseau’s former home ship was missing and presumed lost with all hands. The fortunate feline’s appearance in CIC just as the ship was about to engage the enemy could, in the minds of the crew, be viewed as nothing other than an exceptionally favorable omen.
Of course, as an experienced combat officer, Max was immune to that kind of unscientific hooey.
The ship’s chrono turned over to 04:07. Max knew that there were times for words of inspiration to be delivered by captain to crew. This was not one of them. He simply said, “OK, men, it’s time. Let’s get this done. Phase One: Execute.”
According to plan, several things happened at once. First, under Chief LeBlanc’s direction, the men at the Maneuvering station gradually put the ship into steadily-accelerating motion, steering it through a series of bizarre, often reversing, corkscrew-like maneuvers following a convoluted path laid out on one of LeBlanc’s displays. The course looked insane, but there was method in the Cumberland’s madness. Most of the Krag active sensors functioned by emitting a tight beam that swept the target area in a pattern controlled by the ship’s computer. The pattern was designed to be unpredictable by an enemy, but was not random. Armed with the sensor protocols from the captured data core, the Cumberland’s computer could now recognize which of several hundred patterns each ship was using and could compute a path around the scans, at least for a while.
Second, the Stealth Section, under the direction of Mr. Nelson, likewise made good use of the captured Krag data. While most of the enemy’s active sensors used narrowly focused energy beams, a few systems—less sensitive but much harder to dodge—projected wide cones of energy blanketing large swaths of the search area. These pulses also followed time, frequency, phase, amplitude, and polarization patterns governed by the Krag computers. Armed with the detailed specifications for those patterns, Nelson could set the ship’s own stealth and emulation emitters to emit pulses precisely synchronized with those of the Krag canceling out the enemy scans, preventing them from being reflected back or weakening them so that the returns were below the detection threshold.
After a few moments, Dr. Sahin, who had been tending to a crewman who dropped a toolbox on his foot when the plan had been discussed and, as a result, did not know what Max had in mind, leaned toward Max and said quietly, “With all these course changes, it is difficult to tell, but aren’t we getting closer to the Probable Detection Range for that Destroyer . . . what are we calling it . . . ah, yes, ‘Hotel Two’?”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“As long as you are sure,” Sahin answered, not entirely convinced. “But we’re not going to get close enough to be detected, correct?”
“But, we are going to be detected. Absolutely. No question.”
“But . . . isn’t that a bad idea? At your repeated and, I might add, repetitious-far-beyond-the-point-of-being-annoying insistence, I have devoted extensive hours to the study of the tactical primer in the ship’s database. Those same hours, I might add, could have been spent far more productively on tasks more directly correlated with success in my primary area of responsibility on board this vessel which, I remind you, is the health of its crew, not the obliteration of its enemies. At any rate, according to my admittedly limited understanding of such things, when we get within the Destroyer’s Probable Detection Range, that ship generates a firing solution and, not only does it fire on us, it transmits the solution to the other seven ships.” The pitch of his voice started to rise as he started to get wound up. “And, since those murderous rodents are now armed with that truly, truly wicked new faster than light, long range ‘Ridgeback’ missile of theirs, every one of those ships will open fire on us, meaning that we will be dodging superluminal missiles fired by eight ships and not just one. And, I know they fired one of those damn new drive-type selective egg scramblers, the kind that disrupts the metaspacial boundary layer at specific polarization planes only, keeping us from using our compression drive without affecting the compression drives on their missiles.”
He stopped to take a breath, then continued. “So, at least from my simplistic tactical perspective, you might forgive me for saying that this plan of yours looks to be a wonderfully superlative way to set us on the short road to Jinnah. Correct?”
“Correct on both counts,” Max said.
“Both counts?” Sahin croaked.
“Both counts. Correct, I forgive you for saying so and, correct, it looks like the short road to Heaven. Don’t worry. It’s not. I assure you, my friend, I have no plans to stand before the Pearly Gates today. Notre cher amis out there, on the other hand,” he gestured toward the enemy ships displayed in the tactical projection, “at least some of them, should be having to explain themselves to Sainte-Pierre very shortly.”
“Skipper, our range to Hotel Two is just under two million kills. It’s starting to get a little tight” announced Chief LeBlanc. Because the sensor beams emitted by the Destroyer designated as Hotel Two converged on that vessel like the spokes of a wheel, the space between the beams became ever narrower as the Cumberland closed the range. Soon, the beams would be so close together that even LeBlanc’s splendid ship handling could not keep the ship from being caught directly in one of them. If struck directly at such close range by one of these focused sensor emissions, no stealth technology possessed by the Union could thwart detection.
“Very well. Maneuvering, maintain stealthy approach. All stations prepare to execute Phase Two. Mr. Kasparov, notify me as soon as we’re scanned with anything strong enough to generate a detectable return.” Thanks to the Krag data, Mr. Kasparov now knew to a very high level of precision what that threshold was.
“Aye, sir. You’ll know that very second.”
“Better make it that half second.”
“Understood. Half second it is.”
Max could feel the tension in CIC rising again. He could hear it in the tone of the watch standers’ voices as they spoke to each other and to their back rooms. He could see it in the nervous shuffling of their feet, their anxious squirming in their seats, and the covert wiping of sweaty palms on the legs of their uniforms. He could smell its acrid scent in the air.
He couldn’t blame them. Max had been in command of the Cumberland only since 21 January. Before then, since its commissioning, the ship had been under the command of the inept—perhaps even mentally ill—Commander Allen K. Oscar and had experienced nothing but defeat and humiliation in fleet exercises and in battle. Since the change in command, they had met the enemy several times under Captain Robichaux and had been victorious on each occasion, but the crew had gotten only a few forkfuls of good food to chase away the taste of years of slop.
And now, once again, they were going into battle together.
“We were just painted, skipper,” announced Kasparov from the Sensors console. “High frequency tachyon radar, synthetic aperture, 5 centimeter band. Signal strength is one hundred thirty-six Dusangs per square meter. That’s at least twice the Krag detection threshold.”
Max came to his feet without any conscious decision to do so. “Phase Two: Execute.”
As with Phase One, the script was already written. The actors merely had to follow their cues and carry out their parts. Mr. Nelson disengaged most of the ship’s stealth systems and extended the thermal radiator fins, allowing the Cumberland’s electronic and thermal signatures to make her presence plainly visible to Krag sensors. At that same moment, Mr. Sauvé at Countermeasures activated a program—hurriedly written by himself and Mr. Levy at Weapons—loaded a highly unusual response code into the ship’s IFF transponder. Meanwhile, the men around CIC quickly and efficiently armed weapons, engaged deflectors, enabled point defense systems, ran the main sublight drive to Emergency, and pointed the ship’s bow right at Hotel Two. In a few seconds, the Cumberland was accelerating hard on a collision course with the enemy destroyer.
Both the Krag and every man on the Cumberland knew that the orthodox tactical solution in this situation was for the destroyer to stay on the run, use its superior speed and stealth to elude, evade, and escape the enemy, and wait for the Krag to make a mistake that would allow it to get away. It was certainly what the Krag were expecting.
Max, however, had other ideas. Alone, outnumbered 8 to 1, and facing at least a 25 to 1 disadvantage in firepower, the comparatively tiny ship wasn’t running; nor was it hiding, eluding, evading, or escaping.
The USS Cumberland was attacking.
“Hotel Two is reacting as anticipated,” Bartoli narrated the action, much as would a sports announcer: a sports announcer who would die if the home team lost—which tended to lend an edge to the commentary. “She’s engaging deflectors, enabling point defense systems, energizing missile targeting scanners, and reorienting to unmask her missile tubes and most powerful pulse cannon batteries. She is not, repeat not, under acceleration at this time. She should have a firing solution in about thirty seconds. The other ships are remaining stationary.”
Generating a firing solution required thirty seconds so that the enemy could compute the humans’ course and speed. While the Krag vessel knew immediately and exactly where the Cumberland was located, a firing solution required that the target’s course, speed, and rate of acceleration also be tracked because one aimed missiles, not at where the target was, but at where it was going to be when the missiles arrived.
“Thank you, Mr. Bartoli,” said Max.
“Why isn’t the Krag ship moving?” asked Sahin. “I thought you told me one time that ‘mobility is the essence of naval warfare,’ or something like that: one of your typical military aphorisms that has the benefit of being both quotably pithy and entirely uninformative.”
“Her skipper doesn’t think he needs to,” Max responded. “He just wants to get a firing solution and blow us to flaming atoms ASAP, without any fancy footwork. That new Ridgeback missile of theirs gives them such an enormous range advantage that he doesn’t think he has anything to worry about.”
“Does he?” Sahin asked.
Clouseau picked that moment to emit a loud, rumbling purr, after which he rolled over and draped himself over the doctor’s leg like an impossibly rotund yet almost perfectly limp black fox stole, the very picture of feline relaxation.
Max simply looked at the cat and smiled.
“We are well within Hotel Two’s weapons range. He should have a firing solution in the next few seconds,” Bartoli announced, unable to eradicate the “oh shit” tone from his voice completely. “At that time, Hotel Two will still be more that half a million kills beyond our weapons range.”
“Very well. ‘Steady, boys, steady.’” Max quoted the age-old naval song.
“Missile launch detection,” Bartoli sang out. “Two seeker heads, Ridgeback type, designating as Vampire Eleven and Vampire Twelve. Bearing zero-four-seven mark two-one-two. Speed zero point two c. My opinion is that the missile is at reduced velocity to allow more time for target acquisition. Estimating run time at this speed at 35 seconds.” Pause. Four beats. “Bearing to Vampires is constant and the seekers have locked on and gone to terminal acquisition mode. Missiles are now accelerating to defeat countermeasures. Revised projected impact: 12 seconds.”
The doctor made a choked sound. “Aren’t you going to evade?”
“Nope. Friendly ships don’t evade.”
“But, we’re not . . . .”
“Vampires now sending IFF interrogation. Response transmitted.” Although the crew of the Krag ship knew the Cumberland was an enemy vessel and didn’t bother to send an Identification Friend or Foe signal to make sure she wasn’t friendly, the missiles on the other hand, were programmed to prevent accidental attacks on other Krag vessels vessels by independently verifying the identity of their targets with an IFF pulse. The Krag were confident that the Union could never duplicate their complex and constantly shifting IFF codes.
But, with the aid of the captured data, the Cumberland was able to identify itself to the missiles as a Krag vessel–and not just any Krag vessel, but the Personal Yacht and Royal Space Barge of the Her Magnificent and Imperious Luminescence, the Dowager Matriarch and Birth Mother of the High Hegemon. In other words, the IFF return signal told the missiles that the Krag Queen Mother was on board, causing the missiles to abort their attack and veer off.
Unfortunately for Hotel Two, the Krag were not only a treacherous race, but a vengeful one as well, with a history of political and dynastic assassination that made the Borgias look like the Von Trapp Family Singers. Programmed to exact retribution on the attacker if fired at a member of the royal family, the missiles turned back on the vessel that their computers remembered had fired them, locked on their seekers, ran their drives up to maximum, easily blew past countermeasures and defensive systems designed for subluminal Union missiles, and blotted Hotel Two from space in a flare of fusing hydrogen.
“Hotel Two destroyed!” Bartoli announced with the mandatory obviousness associated with his post.
“The three nearest Lehrer-Lobachevsky planes are also gone,” came the follow up announcement from Kasparov. With Hotel Two now a rapidly dissipating cloud of disassociated atoms, three faces of the Krag detection enclosure winked out of existence. The door to escape was now open.
“Phase Three: Execute,” said Max.
The Cumberland slightly altered its course so that it went straight into the rapidly dissipating fireball that had just engulfed the Krag ship, now attenuated enough that it did not overwhelm the deflectors but still the locus of enough heat, hard radiation, and electromagnetic energy to screen the destroyer from enemy sensors. Once there, Maneuvering executed a radical course change.
“On new course two-three-five mark zero-two-one,” announced LeBlanc. “Speed zero point one-five c.”
“All stealth modes re-engaged,” said Nelson.
“I still think we should have kept going right through that vertex and made a run for it. We’d have a better chance,” DeCosta said confidentially.
“I know you do, and that was my first impulse,” Max replied. “But, they’ve got cruisers at all the jump points. That means before we could jump out, we’d have to engage and defeat a ship of greatly superior firepower. While we were doing that, the remaining ships from this battle group would catch up with us. And, with one of them being a Barbell class Battlecruiser with easily a dozen times our firepower, maybe more, that would not be a winnable fight. No, XO, we’ve got to whittle down the odds some before we can try to jump out of here.”
“So, we’re heading right back into the enclosure we just blew up a Destroyer to escape from. That’s . . . um . . . well . . . unorthodox, sir.”
“It’s also not what they are expecting.” He turned to DeCosta and met his eyes. “XO, you don’t have to handle my ego like it’s a fragile, little crystal figurine. You can come right out and say that what I’m doing looks crazy. I promise it won’t kill me.”
“OK, sir.” Pause. “You said it.”
“Yep. I suppose I did. It does look crazy.” He raised his voice so that it could be heard throughout CIC. “Tactical, I need a report on activity of the enemy vessels.”
“Sir,” Bartoli responded, “they’ve taken the bait. Vessels have adopted pursuit courses apparently based on the assumption that our course is approximately zero-five-zero mark two-one-zero. I’m projecting our assumed course in blue. Their courses are coming up on the tactical display now in orange.” Orange arrows appeared showing the current courses of each of the red dots, all angled to intercept the blue line.
“Very well. And what’s the Barbell up to?”
“That would be Hotel Six.” He entered a command on his console and the red dot that had been in the “upper left” corner of the cube started to blink. “He’s fallen into the same course as the others, but he’s on a slower acceleration profile, following the standard Krag pattern where the command ship of any formation of four or more ships hangs back to coordinate rather than participate in the battle unless needed.”
“Outstanding. That will open up some range between him and the other ships. Maneuvering put us directly in Hotel Six’s path. Let’s intercept his projected course at the point halfway between Hotel Six and the hindmost of the other ships. That would be . . . Hotel Three?”
“Yes, sir, Hotel Three,” said Bartoli.
Maneuvering acknowledged the order and the ship changed course while decelerating slightly to arrive at the right point in space at the right time. “ETA at the intercept point is eight minutes and nineteen seconds,” said LeBlanc.
Max regarded the Countermeasures console, almost straight ahead of him. He could see that Sauvé was frantically busy, as were three other people from his Back Room and Bales, whose relief was at the Computers station while he assisted Sauvé. Max could do nothing to help these men. Either these specialists would solve the problem before them, or everyone on board the Cumberland would die less than eight minutes from now. Staring at them wouldn’t help so Max pulled up a set of status displays on his console and checked the readiness of weapons, engines, and other systems for what was to come. He did his best to immerse himself in that review, checking for anything that his still under-trained and largely unseasoned crew might have missed. He caught a few minor mistakes that he corrected with a few carefully chosen words over the voice loops. Just as his concentration was starting to fray under the friction inflicted by the ever-increasing tension, he heard a strange popping noise.
Max looked up and he saw the men at Countermeasures slapping each other on the backs and, in some cases, somewhat lower. “We did it, sir. Command transmitted and acknowledged.”
“Outstanding, gentlemen. Simply outstanding. Officer of the Deck, log my order for an extra spirits ration for every man presently standing at the Countermeasures console, now in the Countermeasures Back Room, or in the Computers Back Room, effective the next time we are on Condition 3 or lower.”
“Aye, aye, sir!” answered Sauvé, both the Officer of the Deck and the most conspicuous beneficiary of the order. Mr. Sauvé was rather fond of a particular dark gold spirit known as tequila, which was enjoying a surge of popularity throughout the union as it was derived from the blue agave plant, which grew quite well on several dozen of the Union’s drier worlds.
Max looked at his coffee mug and noticed that Hewlett had refilled it unnoticed. Max met the boy’s eyes, pointed at the mug, and nodded his thanks. Hewlett mouthed, “Anything else, sir?”
Max shook his head gently.
“Intercepting Hotel Six’s course . . . now,” announced LeBlanc. “Altering course to approach Hotel Six head on.”
Dr. Sahin’s head snapped around at that announcement. “Head on? You’re attacking that huge Battlecruiser head on? We won’t last a minute!”
“Doctor,” Max said, “we’ll last considerably longer than that.” He turned to the Stealth Console. “Mr. Nelson, I think it’s time for you to unleash your inner thespian.”
“Aye, sir,” he answered, actually grinning with enthusiasm rather than grimacing in fear as most of the CIC crew was doing not too long ago. “The show begins now.” He keyed in a command that started a sequence of events designed for viewing and consumption by Hotel Six’s command crew.
First, the Cumberland’s emulation emitters gave off a burst of electromagnetic energy of the kind associated with a catastrophic computer core failure caused by the failure of the limited metaspacial inversion field that makes possible FTL signal transmission in system’s three redundant processor cores. Then came a cascade of other emissions, simulating the failure of numerous other systems throughout the ship, followed by a burst of incoherent gravitons indicative of an emergency shutdown of the ship’s fusion reactor. Another emission showed that the ship was switching over to the auxiliary Rickover-type fission reactor to supply its basic power needs. When that was done, the emitters began to transmit a gamut of signals by which the Cumberland essentially emulated itself, in a crippled condition, while its stealth systems kept the true condition of the ship hidden from view.
At a nod from Nelson, LeBlanc signaled Fleishman, his man on Drives, to cut the power to the Main Sublight Drive, leaving the ship to coast.
“There, sir,” Nelson said. “As far as the Krag are concerned, we’re practically dead in the water. Mobility limited to maneuvering thrusters only, weapons offline, point defense and deflectors dead, main computer cooked, vessel subsisting on auxiliary power for life support.”
“Outstanding. Tactical, what’s Hotel Six up to.”
“Skipper, he’s reducing speed,” said Bartoli. “Deceleration profile shows he’ll stop about 425,000 kills off our bow.”
“Picking up active scans, Oscar and Victor band,” said Kasparov. “Nothing too powerful. He’s not probing us. It’s like he knows we’re here and what’s going on with us and he’s just pinning down an exact position for a firing solution.”
“Hotel Six is now stationary, station-keeping 424,853 kills off our bow, dead ahead,” said Bartoli. “I’m expecting her to fire her missiles momentarily.”
“Very well,” said Max. “Everybody hold what you’ve got.”
Not the most orthodox order, but everyone understood it.
“Romeo band target acquisition radar. Locking on. They have a lock. They should commence missile firing in less than five seconds.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bartoli.”
“Max,” the Dr. Sahin said in a strangled voice. “Aren’t you going to do something?”
“No, Bram,” he answered. “We already did it.”
“Hotel Six is opening missile doors on all fourteen forward missile tubes. He is apparently preparing to fire a fourteen missile salvo. They must really, really want us dead. Warheads armed. Missile tubes are energized. Missile drives powering up. Explosion! Explosion! Explosion! Again! Again! Still more! All fourteen missile tubes have ruptured with missiles still in their tubes. Dozens of bulkhead breaches. Reading secondary explosions throughout the ship. There’s some more! Hull breach! Multiple hull breaches! Her fusion reactor just shut down, she’s on auxiliary now. She just lost maneuvering thrusters, too.”
The Krag equipped their vessels with so many safeguards and lockouts, especially biometric systems that required critical commands to come from a live Krag on board the ship, that—even armed with the Krag data–it was impossible for Sauvé and his team to hack the any of the Battlecruiser’s combat systems and sabotage them directly. But, they were able to hack into some of what the Krag considered the less important subroutines in the control software of the Ridgeback missiles in their tubes and issue one, apparently minor, instruction. The Ridgeback had two launch settings, one for firing from a missile tube on a rated warship and one for being fired by a fighter from a wing pylon. The setting for missile tube launch programed the missile to run its drive at only 2% power until it clears the launch tube. The setting for fighter launch, on the other hand, instructed the missile to fire a set of tiny maneuvering thrusters to push it three meters straight “down” from the fighter’s wing and then to ignite its powerful fusion drive at full power.
The men from the Cumberland had simply informed the missiles that they were being fired from a fighter rather than a Battlecruiser, and disabled the circuit that reported the change to the Battlecruiser’s systems. Accordingly, when the Battlecruiser fired the missiles, the weapons drive systems went to full power inside the launch tubes, exploding the launchers, filling dozens of the huge ship’s compartments with drive plasma, incinerating much of the ship, and causing an emergency reactor shutdown.
“Status on the Hotel Six, Mr. Bartoli.”
“Heavy internal damage throughout the forward quarter of the ship. She’s not going anywhere for at least ten or fifteen minutes,sir. Her main reactor is definitely off line. We don’t know the exact restart time for the fusion reaction on this class. It’s possible that she is damaged beyond capability for restart. All forward missile tubes out of commission indefinitely. No pulse cannon until she has the fusion reactor online to supply plasma. Maneuvering thrusters are out because the explosions blew the hydrazine tanks. There are several fires: secondary combustion started by missile drive plasma, as well as primary from the hydrazine. Other missile tubes appear to be operational but she can’t turn to unmask them, so she can’t fire on us for now. Her comms and computers all seem to work, plus life support, artificial grav, and most other systems, including deflectors and blast suppression fields. She’s also leaking nitrogen tetroxide from some of her hull breaches, which leads me to believe that some of those tanks are blown, too. Not only is that stuff hypergolic with the hydrazine, which is why they have it on board in the first place, it’s extremely toxic, so they may have several compartments that are now a toxic atmosphere hazard.”
“Why don’t we blast it to pieces, then?” asked Dr. Sahin.
“You heard the man,” said Max. “He’s still got deflectors and blast suppression. Not to mention a three meter thick armored hull. We would have to fire every missile we have just to inflict some real damage. No, I have better plans for our friend.”
“And would you condescend to let me in . . . .”
Chin broke in. “Sir, intercepting comm traffic between Hotel Six and the other Krag ships. He says he’s heavily damaged and drifting. He’s transmitting our position and ordering them to close the range and to fire their missiles—coordinated fire, time on target, as soon as possible. He’s ordering Hotel Seven to do the fire control calculations, time the launches, and to program the missiles for a flank attack to be sure that, from the perspective of the missile seeker heads, there is a safe angular separation between their ship and us.” Pause. “Hotel Seven acknowledges.” Pause. “Hotel Seven is telling the other ships to stand by for firing instructions.” Pause. “Transmitting firing instructions. I’m relaying those to CO, XO, and all combat consoles.”
“Very good, Mr. Chin.”
“Hotel One, Three through Five, Seven and Eight are all changing course,” announced Bartoli. “Heading directly toward us. Not in any hurry though. They’re all accelerating at the standard for their various classes.”
“They’re plan to let their missiles do the work,” said Max.
“An excellent tactic,” said DeCosta, smiling.
“I highly recommend it,” answered Max.
“Hotels One, Three, Four, Five, Seven, and Eight all firing,” said Bartoli. “Total number of incoming missiles . . . thirty. Repeat, three zero incoming Vampires.” He read off a series of bearings. “Missiles are dialed in at different velocities. Speeds are synchronized for a time on target arrival. ETA, one minute, forty-three seconds. Bearings changing slowly on all missiles—they appear to be programmed to fly to a waypoint on our port beam where they will turn and go to terminal attack mode—that way the missiles’ seeker heads will see at least an eighteen degree separation between Hotel Six and us. They appear to be on course.”
The missiles were travelling at different speeds to cause them to arrive at the Cumberland’s location at the same instant so that they could more easily overwhelm her defenses. The Krag thought her defenses were off line, meaning that, as far as they knew, a single missile would easily do the job. Thirty missiles was way beyond overkill.
“Things are about to get a little hairy, gentlemen,” Max said to the compartment at large. “Mr. LeBlanc, are you and your men ready for some skin of your teeth maneuvering?”
“Sir,” LeBlanc said as a warm grin spread across his friendly features, “if you’ve got the balls to order it, we’ve got the skill to fly it.”
“Well said, LeBlanc,” Max said smiling. “Well said, indeed.”
A few tense seconds ticked by. No one spoke. There was only the ship and its unique subliminal symphony, the innumerable and nearly indescribable sounds Cumberland made as a result of doing the things that kept her and the tiny, fragile humans inside her alive in the hostile void of space. The men heard it every waking moment, but seldom noticed it. They noticed it now. Together.
Bartoli broke the spell. “Missiles have reached the waypoint, turned toward us, and gone subluminal, range 750,000 kilometers. Approaching the range at which they will activate their seeker heads and go to terminal attack mode. In five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One. NOW.”
“Missile targeting scanner detections, same bearings as Vampires,” said Kasparov.
“Phase FOUR,” said Max, adrenalin making his voice louder than he intended.
LeBlanc patted Fleishman on the shoulder. The Drives man shoved the controller all the way to the stop and then turned a ring around the controller stalk, illuminating a purple light in Engineering. As a result, the Cumberland’s drive went to Emergency and Chief Engineer Brown—responding to the light–disabled the safeties and governors on the main sublight drive, giving the Cumberland an enhancement to her already extraordinary acceleration. The ship sprang forward, like a cheetah darting out from behind a clump of grass in pursuit of a particularly tasty gazelle. The Cumberland bored in straight at the Krag Battlecruiser. The rapidly closing Krag missiles, launched by beings who thought that the Cumberland was dead in space fell back on their default programming and tracked the destroyer as it closed on the crippled Battlecruiser.
Meanwhile, Nelson abruptly ceased his sophisticated theatrics. He shut down the emulation emitters, ending the Cumberland’s masquerade as a heavily damaged version of itself. Further, since the redlined main sublight drive’s exhaust was bright enough to be seen by the Mark One Eyeball for at least a million kilometers in every direction, he abandoned all efforts at stealth, even to the extent of extending all of the ship’s thermal radiator fins, allowing thermal energy from the heavily stressed heat sink to bleed heat bright red into space.
Violating half a dozen regulations regarding safe combat maneuvers (an oxymoron if there ever was one), Cumberland closed on the battlecruiser on what looked to be a collision course, but veered off at the last microsecond to skim along the hull of the much larger vessel, at times coming within two meters of the other ship. The more experienced crew could feel the almost imperceptible bumps and jolts through their feet as the ship actually collided with and clipped off various small antennae, emitters, sensor masts, and other non-structural objects protruding from the Krag vessel’s hull. It took no special experience, however, to hear the rapid “WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP” of the nimble enemy point defense cannon hitting the hull, the impacts so rapid that the individual blows were almost indistinguishable from one another and came close to blurring together into a kind of deep bass hum. Designed to shoot down missiles rather than heavily shielded warships, the cannon did no damage. In a blur of relative motion, the gigantic Krag Battlecruiser seemed to flash past the rapidly accelerating Cumberland, the destroyer traversing the battlecruiser’s defensive firing arcs too fast for its degraded anti-ship point defense systems to be able to lock on. There was only the tooth-rattling WHAM! WHAM! as two rail gun projectiles slammed into the aft hull as the smaller ship pulled away, the high-tech bullets robbed of most of their punch by the Cumberland’s rapid acceleration along their line of travel. In an instant, she was astern of the giant ship, accelerating away as hard as her engines could push her.
In the destroyer’s wake, the Krag missiles had arranged themselves in a roughly cylindrical pack rapidly closing from her seven o’clock position. Unfortunately for the battlecruiser, as soon as destroyer got within about four meters of the larger ship and then got between it and the missiles, the missiles could not longer resolve the destroyer and the Battlecruiser into two separate targets, a fact now known to the Cumberland’s crew by virtue of the captured data. Accordingly, the weapons’ targeting logic assumed the huge object in front of them to be a single enemy target, calculated the center of the target cross section, and altered course to strike that cross section dead center–the middle of the battlecruiser’s bow—at which point the missiles ceased all efforts to track the fleeing destroyer.
Ordinarily, the missiles’ IFF systems would have saved the Battlecruiser from attack. But, because the Cumberland had earlier used the IFF system against its makers, the Krag attack group commander on board the Battlecruiser had ordered that the weapons’ IFF systems be disabled. The Krag warships, he assured them, need only make certain of their targets before firing.
The Battlecruiser didn’t stand a chance. Before the battlecruiser’s command crew even knew it was threatened by the missiles, all thirty superluminal weapons delivered their warheads within microseconds of each other. They exploded as one, instantly consuming the enormous and powerful Krag vessel—and, with it, the attack group commander–in an irregular, roiling cataclysm of brilliant, swirling plasma.
There was no time for jubilation. There were still six Krag ships out there–six Krag ships to which doomed Battlecruiser had just sent the Cumberland’s exact location as of only a few moments before. As the battlecruiser’s funeral pyre slowly dimmed behind them, Max called out, “Phase five: EXECUTE!” Under LeBlanc’s guidance, the three men at Maneuvering steered the ship through a maneuver known as a “flapjack,” in which the ship flipped itself over bow for stern. Fleishman at Drives reduced the engine setting from Emergency to Flank, the still powerful-thrust of the main sublight engines pushing against the ship’s forward momentum, gradually slowing it, then pushing it back in the direction from which it came. Within a few moments, LeBlanc had Fleishman rapidly reduce the thrust and, under his skilled guidance, the Cumberland glided back into center of the still dissipating fireball created by the battlecruiser’s destruction, which had screened the course reversal maneuver from the other Krag ships and which now helped shield them from enemy sensors. The thirty warheads created a zone of space more than 2,000 kilometers in diameter full of plasma and powerful electromagnetic disruption that, even as the immense nuclear fireball cooled and dissipated, would be opaque to most sensor scans for more than half an hour.
Following the minutely developed plan formulated by the Special Attack Tiger Team, Kasparov signaled the men in his back room to launch two highly stealthy Mark XLVIII sensor drones which popped out on opposite sides of the fireball to provide the destroyer with sensor information unobstructed by superheated plasma, electromagnetic fields, and bomb residue.
“All deflectors at maximum,” announced Schwartzwalder from Deflector Control. Even as it spread and cooled, the fireball left by the detonation of 30 thermonuclear warheads is still a dangerous place.
“Very well,” answered Max.
Two minutes passed. “Beginning to get sensor returns from the drones,” said Kasparov. “Target motion analysis in progress.”
“Mr. Nelson, how much longer can we safely radiate?” Max asked.
“The fireball is attenuating and cooling rapidly, sir. To be on the safe side, I would like to retract the radiator fins in about a minute and a half,” the Stealth officer replied.
“Very well, Mr. Nelson. Retract radiator fins at your discretion.” Max reflexively checked the heat sink status, which his console was programmed to display at all times. It showed that the ship’s heat storage capacity had gone from 94% of maximum to 18%. By the time Nelson retracted the fins, it would be 15 or 16%. He would have liked to get it down to 2% or so, but it would have to do.
“TMA coming in now,” said Kasparov. “Enemy vessel positions plotted in the tactical display.” He then rattled off the bearings and ranges to all six targets as the red dots representing the computer’s best calculation of their positions appeared in the 3D tactical display and on the 2D tactical overview displays on several consoles around the compartment.
“Hotels One, Three, Five, Seven, and Eight are arrayed in a ring or pentagon and will pass our position with the fireball remnant in the center of the ring,” Bartoli said, offering the tactical assessment. “They are actively scanning the area beyond the fireball along our former course, apparently assuming we are still on the run. Hotel Four is hanging back outside of the formation, approximately 27,000 kills. Based on standard Krag tactical doctrine, that would make Hotel Four the new apparent Attack Group Leader. Just as a reminder, Hotel Four is a Crucible class light cruiser. He is on a course tangential to the fireball—he’ll just graze the outside edge.”
Max regarded the six red dots slowly moving toward the blue “you are here” dot. “Mr. Kasparov, can you refine the distance from the Hotel Four to the nearest Krag ship in the formation. I want it to the kilometer if you can get it.”
“I believe so, sir,” he answered. “I just need to instruct the probes to upload their high frequency tachyo-photon interferometer data at high resolution. I’ve been getting a low res take because I didn’t think we needed the higher level of precision yet.”
“Very well,” said Max. “And when you get it, I’m betting it’s going to turn out to be 27,253 kilometers.”
“Retracting radiator fins,” Nelson announced.
“Very well,” responded Max.
About thirty seconds passed. “Skipper,” Kasparov said, “you’re right. Exactly 27,253 kilometers.”
Max looked at DeCosta and raised an inquiring eyebrow. The XO nodded. “A nice round number in Krag units, sir.”
“So, at least we know something about the new combat group commander,” said Max.
“We do?” DeCosta asked.
“Sure we do, XO. Have you ever seen me position this ship a nice round number of units away from anything? When you studied their campaigns, did you ever see Hornmeyer or Litvinoff or Middleton or Barber or Lo do it?” The XO shook his head. “Damn straight you didn’t. And you never will, unless it’s part of some deeply complex head game. But, unlike the fellow on that battlecruiser we just killed, our friend out there is failing to take the same kind of pains to avoid being predictable. In all likelihood, not only is his thinking formulaic but he’s probably also lazy. We are going to take advantage of that.
“Mr. Bartoli, get with Mr. Nelson. I want a joint opinion from the Tactical and Stealth sections as to the point in the fireball zone that is closest to the path of Hotel Four that will still provide adequate concealment. Weapons, load Ravens in tubes one and two.” As the Stealth console was directly behind the Tactical one, this particular bit of coordination didn’t prove difficult. Less than a minute later, Bartoli had transferred the coordinates and Mr. LeBlanc was guiding the Cumberland into position, just over a thousand kilometers inside the edge of the fireball area.
“Gentlemen,” he said to CIC at large, “my intention is to take Hotel Four with a Raven, Waypoint Bow attack. Minimum range. I’ll hold tube two in reserve in case the first missile misses or malfunctions. When that warhead detonates, we will attack the remainder of the Krag formation with the Equalizer. Attack pattern Sierra-5. As soon as all weapons are discharged, begin standard reload cycle and make for the Bravo jump point at maximum stealthy speed. You think you can manage those weapons orders Mr. Levy.”
“With pleasure, sir.” He said. The man was practically salivating as he repeated the order and went to work. A few seconds later, he said, “Skipper, the timings on these weapons firings are very critical. I recommend Autofire Mode on both the Raven and the Equalizer.”
“I concur in your recommendation, Mr. Levy.” Then, in an official tone, “Officer of the Deck, this is a Nuclear Weapons Automatic Firing Order. Commanding Officer authorizes weapons free and automatic launch on the following nuclear launch systems: 1. Raven missile loaded in Tube One, targeted on Krag ship identified as Hotel Four; 2. HSRLMS, all loaded ordinance, targeted on remainder of Krag formation.”
“Nuclear Weapons free and automatic launch, Raven in Tube One and HSRLMS, acknowledged and logged,” said Sauvé. “Executive officer?”
“Executive officer concurs,” said DeCosta. While the firing and detonation of nuclear weapons had become almost routine in the course of the more than thirty-year war with the Krag, allowing those weapons to be fired by automatic systems without a human being’s “finger on the button” did not. Accordingly, an order to do so required the concurrence of the Executive Officer.
“Officer of the Deck acknowledges and logs Commanding Officer’s order and Executive Officer’s concurrence,” Sauvé said. “Weapons officer may proceed to program automatic launch.”
“Weapons officer acknowledges. Programming as ordered.” Levy input the instructions and checked them. Seven times. Maybe eight.
“Krag vessels are reducing velocity to 0.05 c,” Bartoli said. “No change in course. Their main formation will pass our position in just over two minutes”
“The enemy is engaging in very intense active scanning of the space along our former course,” Kasparov added. “Their scans appear to be optimized to pick up a stealthed ship and to detect a drive trail.”
Max turned to DeCosta, “XO, what do you think they’re up to?”
“Sir, my opinion is that they are reducing speed to increase the efficacy of their sensors. We’ve managed to fool them a few times and they’re getting wary. From where and how they’re scanning, it looks as though their main worry is that we will go stealthy and lie right in their path. Which, by the way, would be a pretty stupid thing for us to do. No matter how highly stealthed we were, five ships engaged in a coordinated scan of the same area would pick us up before they were within range of our missiles. They’d take us out with that damned new Ridgeback missile before we’d ever get a chance to shoot.”
“It would be pretty dumb,” agreed Max. “You’ll learn, however, that all but the top 20 or 30 percent of Krag commanders have no problem believing that our next move is going to be something incredibly stupid because their propaganda says that we’re stupid. But, yes, I agree. That is what it looks like they’re doing. What’s the impact on what we are planning to do?”
“None, really. Unless they start trying to scan inside the warhead blast zone from the inside, which they aren’t showing any inclination to do.”
“They wouldn’t. Their Navy has a standing order to stay out of these zones until a ship can enter them safely with deflectors at 10%–that way they can experience a 90% deflector failure and not suffer any damage. These guys are just automatically assuming that we operate under a similar limitation.
“Tube One will auto fire in five seconds,” said Levy. “Four. Three. Two. One. Firing.”
Just as the pentagon-shaped Krag destroyer formation was about to pass the perimeter of the blast zone, the Cumberland fired one Raven anti-ship missile. The weapon, obeying its programmed course instructions, headed at slow speed directly for the perimeter of the blast area and, just as the destroyers passed, emerged directly behind one of them into the space disrupted by its deflector wake and drive exhaust. There, it turned hard toward Mr. Levy’s estimate of the oncoming Krag light cruiser’s position, activated its seeker head, and, as soon as the seeker acquired the target, ran its drive up to maximum and steered itself straight at the cruiser’s bow.
The cruiser was traveling at 5 percent of the speed of light and the missile was accelerating as fast as its drive could propel it, so the crew of the cruiser had less than a half second’s warning. Behind a screen of five destroyers and with the humans predicted to be somewhere ahead of the screen, running for their lives, the cruiser was not prepared to repel a missile attack. The Raven easily penetrated the dormant Krag defensive systems and detonated its 1.5 megaton fusion warhead. The cruiser simply ceased to exist, its ionized atoms merging with those from the warhead and missile in a blinding globe of incandescent death.
Now to deal with the destroyer formation, which was now roughly 30,000 kilometers past the original blast area. Immediately upon launching the missile, the Cumberland had run its sublight drive up to full and, stealth systems engaged, emerged from the edge of the blast area nearest the destroyers. There, it drew passive scan information from the drones it had deployed earlier and from its own passive sensors, processed it through the fire control computers, and transferred the firing solutions to the “truly lovely weapons enhancement” that Max, Mr. Levy, and half the crew had been itching to use in combat since its installation when the ship was being fitted out to convey the response to the Krag surrender demand.
It took a full eleven seconds for the enemy destroyers’ sensors to process the explosion, determine that it was a Union warhead, calculate that the cruiser had been attacked and destroyed, and compute the area from which the weapon that destroyed the cruiser had likely been fired. During that interval, Mr. Levy said, “Equalizer targeting data loaded. Firing in three seconds. Two. One. Firing.”
In Cumberland’s bow, tucked underneath the main sensor fairing and behind a new 80 centimeter opening in the hull, was the High Speed Rotary Launch Missile System, known among the crew as the “Equalizer.” It was a rotating drum with ten pre-loaded missile launch chambers that rapidly rotated into place to line up with the launch tube, like the chambers of a revolver. The system allowed the ship to launch ten of the new Kestrel mini-missiles in less than two seconds. Unfortunately, the system required nearly an hour to reload all ten cylinders and the missiles themselves, because they did not have the benefit of being launched from a long electromagnetic launch tube, were slower than other designs.
The Equalizer fired the ten missile salvo in 1.94 seconds, just as four of the five Krag destroyers began to execute their turns to close the datum point. The missiles, only a third the size of Ravens, split into groups of two, with each pair homing on one of the destroyers and adjusting the speed so that both would reach their target at the same time despite the nearly two tenths of a second that separated them at launch. The missiles reached their targets only a few seconds after the Krag ships had become aware of the cruiser’s demise and while they were still executing their turns toward the datum. Their scanners and defenses were still directed forward, where the humans were supposed to be, not behind, where their presence had supposedly been ruled out.
Therefore, the Krag did not even detect the small, nimble, stealthy missiles as they streaked through their unprepared defenses and struck their flanks as they turned. Even then, previous Union warheads small enough to fit into the compact Kestrel missile would not have had the power to punch through the deflectors and do any substantial damage. These warheads, however, were the new Mark LXIV design incorporating a principle borrowed from the Pfelung.
The Mark LXIV contained two nuclear weapons, which the men called the “Penetrator” a 1 kiloton enhanced radiation “neutron bomb” warhead whose neutron flux pushed aside the polarized gravitons produced by the enemy deflectors, and the “Executioner,” a 13.6 kiloton conventional fusion warhead that passed through the opening created by the Penetrator and detonated right next to the enemy hull. Because there was no deflector field between the Executioner and the enemy vessel, the comparatively small Executioner inflicted as much damage as a far more powerful weapon.
Two of the destroyers, struck by two missiles each, instantly vanished in the blinding glare of thermonuclear fire. Another two, the point defense systems of which managed to defeat one of the brace of missiles targeted on it, were each struck by only a single missile. These were not vaporized in toto, but consumed in part by the warheads’ nuclear fireballs and partly blasted to tiny, molten bits by the force of the explosion.
The fifth destroyer, Hotel Eight, stubbornly refused to dance to Max’s tune. That vessel did not blindly turn to engage the humans where fleet doctrine said they must be located. Instead, apparently recognizing the dangers of acting predictably, the enemy captain sprinted on a course perpendicular to those of its comrades increasing the range to the attacker and allowing him obtain a cross bearing the next time the humans fired or otherwise revealed themselves. By doing so, the remaining Krag ship dashed out of the Kestrels’ firing solution, escaped being acquired by the missiles’ targeting systems, and emerged unscathed.
“All remaining enemy targets destroyed, sir, with the exception of Hotel Eight,” said Bartoli. He gave the range and bearing. “We’re passing through the field of debris and radiation created by our missile explosions and, when we emerge, it will still be screening us from him, at least for the next few minutes before dissipation of the fusion plasma and the angle change allow his sensor beams to penetrate.”
“Very well,” said Max.
DeCosta leaned toward Max. “But, Skipper, isn’t there a chance that he’ll deduce our location and what we’re doing anyway?”
“More than a chance, XO. I’d rate it is a virtual certainty. This guy was smart enough to see through our play back there, so he’ll see the most straightforward concealment and evasion play here. He’ll come off his sprint, figure out what we just did to his buddies, and guess that we’re using the debris field to screen ourselves while we run for the jump point. He knows that’s what I’m doing because it’s exactly what he would do. Unless we want to double back, he’s got to know that we are headed for the Bravo jump point, not the Alfa or the Charlie. We can’t run at high speed if we want to stay stealthy, so he just goes to Flank or Emergency, joins up with his buddy guarding the jump point, and has us outgunned two to one when we get there. I don’t like those odds.”
“What if we don’t sneak to the jump point, but sprint instead? Can we get there far enough ahead of him to beat the cruiser at the jump point and be lying in wait when he gets there?” asked DeCosta.
“Let’s find out,” Max said. He turned to Bartoli and repeated DeCosta’s idea.
“Not likely, Skipper,” answered the Tactical officer after only a few seconds consideration. “Setting aside for the moment the issue of whether we could defeat the cruiser given that–with our drive at Emergency–we’re not exactly going to be sneaking up on him, we’re not significantly faster than he is. Intel is a little fuzzy on the top speed of the Dervish class, since they’re so new, but we know that they are definitely in the same speed class as we are. If we beat him to the jump point it won’t be by much.”
DeCosta was watching Max when Bartoli was speaking. It was clear that nothing Bartoli said was a surprise to Max. DeCosta knew that Max had solicited the information for the benefit of his green XO.
The explanation also bought Max a little time. His crew was expecting Max to give the orders that would extricate the ship from its current predicament, and Max had no such orders to give. He turned to his console and regarded the Tactical Overview Display. He changed the scale and rotated the view to help him create a three-dimensional mental picture of the Cumberland, the star at the center of that particular system (or, the primary), and the jump point. The primary was just over three AU away and about nine AU off the straight line between the Cumberland and the jump point. He pulled up a few data screens and reviewed them quickly.
One moment, he had no idea what he was going to do and then, suddenly, he saw it. Max knew that there was one way, and only one, for him to get his crew out of this system alive.
Almost imperceptibly, he shook his head. It’s highly unorthodox. No one had ever tried it in a warship. And, because it involved contact with a hazard that spacers were taught from their first days as a squeaker to give a wide berth, it was viscerally terrifying. He took a breath and set his jaw. Damn the torpedoes.
“Maneuvering, main sublight drive to Emergency. Shape course for this system’s primary. Continue to keep the debris field between us and Hotel Eight as much as possible but make sure to point the drive right at him every now and then so that he can detect us anyway. Make it look like it’s unintentional. I want him to get a good clear detection and to follow us without it looking like we are trying to get him to follow us.” LeBlanc acknowledged the order and within a few seconds, Max heard the ship responding. He pulled up a NAV display that told him that the ship would reach the primary’s outer atmosphere in just over 43 minutes. Having made the decision and implemented it, Max found himself both strangely relaxed and filled with a sudden exhilaration.
DeCosta leaned toward him, trying to conceal his mystified expression. “Skipper? May I ask . . . .”
Max’s comm panel beeped. He didn’t need to look at the source ID to know who it was. “Just a minute, XO. The British are finding themselves in need of starch for their upper lip.” He keyed the circuit. “Hello, Wernher. What a surprise to hear from you at this juncture! How may I be of assistance?”
Chief Engineer Lieutenant Vaughn Brown, whom Max insisted on referring to as “Wernher” because of the accidental similarity of his first and last name—Vaughn Brown—to the surname of the great German/American rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, sounded as though he was having some difficulty maintaining his customary British reserve. “Captain! Sir! I looked at the course projection. With all due respect, you can’t be thinking of doing what I think you’re thinking of doing.”
“Well, Wernher, I think that if you’re talking about the tactic you and I discussed in my quarters three nights ago, then, yes, that’s exactly what I’m thinking.”
“But, sir, our discussion of that issue was preceded by our having imbibed substantial quantities of that insidious Bourbon Whiskey you Yanks distill in Kentucky. Even then, it seemed a crazy idea.”
“Wernher, one word of advice. Never call someone from Kentucky a “Yank.” I’ll explain it to you later. As for the idea, of course it’s crazy. But, Wernher, we’re going to be in serious trouble if the only ideas we consider are the sane ones. As Commodore Middleton used to say, the general consensus of considered tactical opinion is that crazy is better than dead. Besides, I think that this ship has already been saved by my crazy ideas at least two or three times. ”
“Actually, skipper, depending on what you call ‘crazy’ it’s somewhere between six and ten by my count,” DeCosta chimed in.
“Twelve by my reckoning,” said Brown. “If we include today’s events.”
“True,” DeCosta admitted. “I hadn’t tallied up the past few hours. There are at least two seriously crazy ones in there, for sure.”
“Gentlemen,” interrupted Max, “this is an exercise in engineering and tactics, not one in accounting. When you told me that it could be done, Wernher, was it the Bourbon talking, or was it your engineering expertise?”
“A little of both, I venture,” said the engineer. “Actually, sir, I checked it thoroughly and had a few of my lads go over it as well, and it all checks out. Theoretically.”
“It looks like Hotel Eight has spotted us. He’s executing a high delta-v maneuver,” Bartoli interrupted and then listened briefly to his back room. “All right. He’s now on course two-four-four mark zero-five-three and is accelerating hard. I can’t tell at this range whether it’s Flank or Emergency for him but he’s definitely in a hurry. And, yes, it’s very close to an intercept course.”
“Either he’s detected us or he’s deduced what we’re doing,” DeCosta said.
“He’s a smart one, XO. And remember, that cross range maneuver he pulled when we were nuking his buddies is lousy for retreat but great for setting up a missile attack, so chances are, he’s pretty aggressive, too.” Max said. “Tactical, is he overtaking us?”
“Affirmative, sir,” Bartoli said. “Just barely. When we reach the primary he’ll still be a few minutes behind us. But, by the time he gets in range, he won’t be able to shoot at us. We’ll be so close to the primary that the radiation from the stellar corona and plus the solar wind will be too strong for a missile seeker head to track. Pulse cannon doesn’t work very well, either. The star’s magnetic flux tends rupture the plasma containment field unexpectedly. Sometimes immediately upon firing.”
“That’ll ruin your whole day,” muttered Levy from Weapons.
“So, back to the matter at hand, Wernher,” said Max. “I’m going to need you to pull this off for me in just over forty minutes. Can it be done?”
“Well, sir, Professor Nekton did it about eighty years ago. Of course, he had a specialized research vessel, with specially configured deflectors and hull optimized for heat rejection. On the other hand, he stayed inside for several hours, whereas you’re talking about only about six or seven tenths of a second, so our task is considerably easier.”
“Nekton?” Doctor Sahin broke in, incredulously. “Auguste P. Nekton, the Astrophysicist?”
“That’s the man,” Max said warily.
DeCosta reached for his console to query the database. The doctor gestured that the query was unnecessary, stood up, walked over to the XO’s station, grasped DeCosta’s forearm urgently. “Lieutenant, Nekton was one of the leading astrophysicists of the mid 23rd Century. He was a fabulously brilliant man and authored some of the most important research ever published in the field but he was widely referred to as ‘Nutcase Nekton’ because he took his research ship inside a star and nearly roasted his whole crew. They barely escaped with their lives.” He turned to Max, genuinely frightened. “You’re not thinking of taking this ship inside that star, are you?” He pointed forward in the general direction of the system’s primary, which the Cumberland was now approaching at over half the speed of light.
“Sir,” Max prompted, his voice a pond of cold water coated with a thin crust of ice. “You’re not thinking of taking this ship inside that star, are you, sir.” Very softly, he added, “we’re not in my quarters, doctor.”
“Sir. My apologies, Captain.” Sahin said, loud enough to be heard by everyone in the compartment.
“Apology accepted, doctor,” Max said at the same volume.
“It’s just a shocking idea,” Sahin said quietly.
“It really is,” murmured DeCosta. “It never occurred to me that we could survive in there.”
“It’s actually not so shocking when you break it down intellectually, doctor, XO. I’m always looking for new ways to hide from, evade, or sneak up on the enemy so I’ve been toying with this idea for months. What got Nekton into trouble was that he let himself get too close to the core: super dense plasma at ten or fifteen million degrees Kelvin–we’re not getting anywhere near it. We wouldn’t last a microsecond there. This star is about a million and a half kilometers across and I mean to slice across at a shallow angle, a chord less than 100,000 kilometers long, never going below the upper layers of the convective zone. The temperature there is in the neighborhood of 6000 degrees Kelvin. A thermonuke warhead is 10,000 degrees and the shields are made to withstand that, at least briefly. At that depth, the internal pressure is about one six thousandth of sea level air pressure. The hull won’t know the difference between that pressure and a vacuum. Given that we’ll be through in about two thirds of a second, those conditions won’t prove too much for us.”
“But, Captain, why?” Brown asked over the still-open comm circuit. “What good does it do us to go through that star? Hotel Eight will just follow us through or go around.”
“He’ll follow us in, and that’s just what we want him to do. XO, remember that technique Bales came up with for spoofing the Krag nav system? The one that you guys said there was no way to use in combat?”
“Sure, Skipper,” said the XO.
“I just came up with one.”
“We’ll encounter the photosphere of the primary in just over a minute, skipper,” Bartoli said. “Hotel eight is 10.28 seconds behind us now and will be 10.25 behind us when we reach the outer boundary of the photosphere.”
“Very well,” Max said. “Mr. Bales, have you finished wrapping the little gift for our friends?”
“It’s ready to go sir,” he answered. “Complete with a nice pink bow.”
“I can always count on you to make things festive, Mr. Bales.” Max keyed the comm circuit to Engineering. “Wernher, you ready to keep us from getting cooked?”
“Aye, skipper. We won’t get more than lightly browned. Deflectors are tuned for maximum thermal rejection and to keep the stellar plasma off of us. We may lose some of the sensor and comm arrays on the hull, but we’ll make it.”
“Thank you, Wernher.” He closed the circuit, sat back, and tried to look relaxed. The seconds passed. Glacially. Max tried and failed to ignore his damp palms.
“Five seconds,” said Bartoli with an audible wince. “Four. Three. Two. One. Now.” Almost before men in CIC had time to frame in their minds the idea that they were actually traveling through the interior of a star, Bartoli said, “We’re clear.”
Every man let out the breath he didn’t know he was holding.
As carefully planned minutes before, Kasparov launched a stealthed sensor probe and LeBlanc said, “now, boys,” to his men at the Maneuvering stations. The Cumberland immediately bent its course, following the curvature of the star back toward the path of Hotel Eight, firing its breaking thrusters hard. Three seconds before the Krag ship entered the star, the Cumberland cleared the rim of the star as viewed from the Krag ship, bringing the two ships into line of sight of one another. Because the humans knew where to look and, indeed, that they should be looking at all, they quickly spotted the Krag. The Krag, however, did not detect the humans through the star’s radiation, solar wind, and its rarefied but highly ionized and searingly hot corona.
Just over two seconds before the Krag ship entered the star’s photosphere, the Cumberland transmitted a metaspacially tunneled, coded burst of data that, because it had all the proper passwords and authentications, threaded its way through the Krag computer firewalls and altered three innocent-looking values in Hotel Eight’s navigational computer.
“Package transmitted,” Bales said.
“Hotel Eight has entered the star,” Kasparov said. A few seconds passed. The Sensors Officer studied his screens and shook his head. “No sign of Hotel Eight, sir. It doesn’t look as though she came out the other side.”
Max slowly smiled. “She didn’t. And she won’t. Now, there’s only one more Krag ship to deal with—the one at the jump point.”
When it was meeting to develop a plan for breaking out of the eight-ship Krag enclosure, Ensign Bales had made a point of showing the Special Attack Tiger Team every way he knew of remotely hacking into the Krag systems. There were seven, of which he could find a use for only one—the one that caused the Krag missiles to explode in their launch tubes. One of the others would remotely instruct the Krag navigation computer to shift its primary navigational reference point (the point from which it measured all distances and angles—what humans since the beginning days of NASA had called the REFerence to Stable Member MATrix or REFSMMAT). This instruction would cause the enemy vessel to veer off course, except that the computer also checked itself every 0.3 seconds by taking star fixes and comparing them with the stellar positions predicted by the computer. A shift in the reference point would fool the computer for only a third of a second before it would use the star fixes to correct itself.
That is, unless the optical scanners couldn’t see any stars.
Bales instructed the Krag computer to wait until it entered the star’s interior from which no stars were visible, at which point it was to move the navigational reference 34 degrees in Y, 12 degrees in x, and 8 degrees in Z. It obediently did so, causing the ship’s navigation systems to turn the ship so that it maintained the same course relative to the reference point. In this way, without any indication to the crew of a course change, the Krag ship veered directly toward the primary’s core. Traveling at half the speed of light, the Krag crew would not even have seen death coming. At most, they might have had half a second’s warning between the first pressure-temperature warning and the destruction of their vessel. Not even time for the Krag equivalent of “oh, shit.”
“Mr. Kasparov, is there any possibility that our friends guarding the jump points know what just happened?”
“Not a chance, skipper,” he answered. “Those jump points are more than 30 AU from the primary. That far away, they can’t read anything this deep in the corona. They probably couldn’t pick up a thermonuclear warhead detonation at that distance, much less something happening inside the star.”
“Outstanding,” Max responded. “Then, I know just what to do.”
“How are we going to do it this time, skipper?” DeCosta asked, eagerness in his eyes. “What’s the plan for taking that cruiser at the jump point?”
“We don’t.” Max replied.
“We don’t?” His disappointment was evident.
“No. We don’t. We use the captured Krag codes and comms protocols to identify ourselves as Hotel Eight, tell the cruisers that we just killed the Union destroyer, and advise them that we are lingering near the primary to repair some battle damage. We wait for them to leave, and then we just quietly slip away.”
“But, sir,” asked DeCosta, “don’t you want to get that cruiser? Wouldn’t that be a nice trophy to hang on your wall?”
“XO,” Max said, shaking his head gently, “Don’t forget, our mission right now is to return to the fleet so that this ship can be sent on further missions. We have not been tasked with the destruction of that cruiser. Besides, Lady Luck has been very generous with us today, so let’s not ask more of her than she is willing to give. I intend to convince the enemy that we’re dead and then leave.” He sighed heavily. The adrenalin was wearing off. “It’s one thing to take on ships of superior force when necessary to save the ship. It’s quite another to go looking for trouble once the ship is saved. But, don’t be too disappointed, XO. This is the USS Cumberland. Admiral Hornmeyer generally writes our orders personally, and looking for trouble is generally part of the mix.”