The headphones squawked. Dale straightened, an intent look on her face.
“Lantern Red! Break! Break!”
There came a flurry of radio calls, pitched high with fear.
Half a light-year away the returning gaggle of four blue triangles, spreading now like the extended fingers of a hand, were joined by three new red markers, angling in from a trailing position to get their shots away. Technical Sergeant Dale Marston had a surge of adrenalin when one of the blue triangles expanded and dissipated sharply. Lantern Red was returning from an armed reconnaissance of what was code-named Gamma Cluster.
Her hand stabbed the heavy-duty mechanical button. Another blue ship winked out of existence onscreen.
An alarm sounded in Captain Danko’s day cubby. He came striding out, blinking what had been sweet, blessed sleep from his eyes.
“Sir. Lantern Red is under attack.”
Leaning in over Dale’s shoulder, he muttered one word, unprintable.
Bruzer was gone. Carrot was gone. The crews of the two remaining scout ships were being thoroughly debriefed.
Commander Ann ‘Screwball’ McCluskey, pilot of Lantern Red One, was haggard, still in her flight suit. She smelled of sweat and anger. She chewed furiously on the unlit stub of a thick black cigar.
She glared at Curran.
“Why don’t we know about these guys?”
The surviving crew members, the intelligence officer, and Captain Danko stared at the largest screen, mounted on the far bulkhead.
Lieutenant Curran shook his head. He was sick inside.
“This is definitely something new.”
“Those have to be unmanned.” McCluskey’s co-pilot, Ralph Bowen, hung his head in disgust.
“They’re just too small otherwise.”
Dan Smallwood, ‘Husky,’ grunted from the sidelines, his bald dome shining in the glare of the screen in the otherwise dark room. Shotgun-seater Rube Zabrilli said nothing.
“We can’t turn with them. That’s what got Bruzer.” Pete Jackson and Rene Snyder were in Lantern Red Two.
Two good people, gone.
Mick Curran went back to the tactical board’s recorded time-line and ran through it again. He zoomed in on maneuvers and resultant arcs, blue for friendlies and red for the enemy.
Taken completely by surprise in a high-speed attack. Four Imperial ships in combat spread. Three bogeys appear onscreen, coming up from behind. They didn’t get much warning before the shit hit the fan. Curran brought the shot in tighter.
The first bogey got on Bruzer’s tail. Bruzer broke right. The bogey cut across the arc on a much tighter arc, pulling down and then up through a barrel roll as it did to maintain speed. It looked very professional. Bingo. One shot, one kill. Bruzer and co-pilot Ed Muggeridge blown away.
Just like that.
“I have a question.”
Curran stopped motion and brought up the room lights as all heads turned to regard the lanky figure standing silent at the back of the room. The buzz from the overhead lighting was very loud all of a sudden.
“And what’s that, Mister Smith?” The captain, also standing, straightened up.
Smith was a nom de guerre.
Danko’s shoulders were hunched with tension as he regarded the rather tanned Mister Smith and the exotic tattoos on the backs of his hands.
There was an element of disapproval in more than one pair of eyes.
McCluskey shrugged. It was like that.
Smith was a consultant, a mercenary, fighting for pay. Fleet types didn’t see much use for them in general. This one in particular set teeth on edge, with his theatrical leather jacket, high fringed moccasins, and the pistol on the hip. The man had his own ship mothballed, which rankled some.
Smith was a figure of fascination among the younger crew, serving on short-service terms or inducted for the duration. Wars were supposed to happen very quickly and be over in seconds these days.
Unfortunately no one had told the Alliance that and it was rapidly turning into a longer war of production capacity and straightforward military attrition.
“Why did they quit?”
Smith moved in, and Varl Danzigg, co-pilot of Lantern Red Four, stepped back to let him through.
“Did they run out of fuel? This one—” He pointed at a bogey that stopped maneuvering and then went straight and true out of the combat area at a constant speed. “Did he have a systems malfunction?”
He stared, getting in close to the screen to see the telemetrics from all ships, code name and serial number, displayed down the right side of the picture. Below that, were Bogey One, Two and Three.
He touched the icons, studying the enlarged data-boxes.
“No one shot at this guy.” Not one of the Imperial ships had fired their guns, launched a missile or deployed any of their more active counter-measures. “What happened to him? That’s one good question.”
The enemy was too close and too fast, too maneuverable. It was all they could do to try and avoid being shot down.
“I’d like to know…” Ann trailed off.
They had been caught with their pants down.
Her face was grim. Four people dead, and it shouldn’t have happened. She clamped her mouth shut.
“What are you thinking, Mister Smith?” The captain wanted answers.
“What if he ran out of fuel? The others broke off after a short pursuit of One and Four. We need to go back in there. We know there must be something. What if there’s a new heavy unit we don’t know about. It’s not immediately certain that those bogeys require support, but they must have launched, they must have come from somewhere.”
The captain nodded. They might be fully autonomous, even disposable.
“Keep talking, Mister Smith.”
Smith raised his eyebrows.
“What if we found that other bogey? It must be traveling along that same vector if it ran out of fuel. That’s one potential mission. But right now the bigger problem is how to fight these guys, manned or unmanned. Right?”
“We’re listening.” The captain’s arms were across his chest.
Smith grinned briefly and nodded. Their comrades were dead, but he didn’t know them all that well.
He had a kind of objectivity and an incentive to keep it on topic.
At this stage all he had were questions.
The intelligence officer was putting fresh data into the larger-scale navigational map and estimating time, speed and distance on their runaway bogey. He tapped keys and set a program to check it and fast-forward to potential intercepts. As Mister Smith had pointed out, the other two bogeys broke pursuit after a short chase, turning in the opposite direction. With opposing flight vectors, they disappeared from surviving instruments in a heartbeat. Unless it was some elaborate deception plan, in which case why would they not break in three directions? It was possible the two active enemy ships might have returned to the very unconfirmed base the light carrier Heracles was searching for.
Smith had a point. If they were going back, they had better find a way to deal with the fighters.
Danko glanced at Lieutenant Curran, still red in the cheekbones from suppressed anger.
“I want a thorough analysis. Mister Smith will be happy to assist.”
Smith gave Curran a wink. Without another word, the captain turned and left the room.
Her Majesty’s Ship Heracles was on high alert. They had their own fighters on patrol, but the bridge was where he needed to be. Especially with all the newbies aboard.
The youngster on the communications panel looked around and caught Danko’s eye.
“Intelligence Officer, sir.”
Danko put his headphones on to keep out background noise. He would be succinct.
“We have some preliminary plans, Captain. Would you have a minute?”
All systems were on high alert and the most experienced crew members were on duty. Defense systems on automatic. Six fighters on patrol. All systems operational. There was nothing more he could do.
“I’ll be down in a minute.”
“We have several options, sir.”
Curran nodded at Smith, standing with a pointer at the side of the big screen.
Smith had the navigational map up.
“Okay. The engagement was here. My theory is that they carry limited fuel. They must engage before a certain point or they can’t return to base. It might be done on a sacrificial basis, but only under limited circumstances.”
The captain nodded in comprehension. The others had already heard it.
“They made their attack at Point A and got two kills, engaged in pursuit, and then broke off at point B. They came about and turned to a new course.” His pale, watery blue eyes regarded the captain as vectors appeared on the screen. “We’re looking for point C.”
He cleared his throat.
They said Smith was a drinker, but Danko had never seen any real signs of it.
“My suggestion is to detail the possible runaway fighter-drone or robot ship in the next Fleet packet.”
This was a reciprocal, very tight beam pulsed twice daily to keep Fleet and Heracles mutually
informed. “Let them try and find it. It would be a nice thing to have.”
“Of course.” Danko stared at the screen.
“Okay. We’re assuming a limited range for the enemy fighters, whereas our scouts are designed for long-range penetration. Otherwise the enemy really shouldn’t have broken contact. Look at Lantern Red’s search pattern. These may be point-defense interceptors.”
The captain nodded sharply.
“Going by the size of those ships, we can estimate by previous intelligence and captured enemy artifacts, roughly the mass, the size and the power. We have their arcs and at least some telemetrics. We know something about their weapons capability.”
The enemy had to close to fire…they might be turning at full power…it was a problem of fuzzy logic.
Danko’s mind worked through it.
The captain chewed his lip, taking a quick glimpse at the bridge screen, reassuring himself that he had time for this.
“Go on. Mister Smith.”
“If there is an enemy base, or some heavy units, Captain, they must be within…” He manipulated his data and a ball of space was highlighted. “…somewhere in there.”
Lantern Red’s search pattern brushed up against the near side of the pale sphere. It was a surprisingly small area. Smith showed how they could move the radius around within that sphere. all that did was to make a wider search volume.
“Lantern Red approached on this vector…and we’re here…and the assumption is that they are on the far side, so to speak.” It was either bad, or good luck that they had flushed the enemy.
With full knowledge of their own sensor systems, and some intelligence of the enemy’s sensor capability, they could extrapolate how, and most likely where or when, Lantern Red had been detected and subsequently intercepted. Smith’s logic seemed good.
Smith’s pointer arm extended. The tip wavered and then settled on a cluster of small white dots.
It all fit in.
There were known concentrations of dust and interstellar gas clouds, thin strings of vapour extending in patches, stretching a good forty degrees across the screen. Danko saw various bodies, a few inert, and a half a dozen active stars, swirling around each other over eons of gravitational ballet.
Danko looked at Mister Curran.
The Lieutenant smiled.
The captain’s cold, hard face slid back to Smith.
“Very well. So. What’s your plan?”
Smith, Curran and McCluskey exchanged glances. It was just the four of them in there.
Smith held the floor.
“Well, Captain. We have two or three options.”
Looking perfectly at home in the military suit, visor up, Mister Smith was at the controls of Lantern Red One with Ann McCluskey riding in the second seat.
They were a hundred and fifty billion kilometres off from their bait ship. They had a hot white star above them, ten light years away. Relative to their position, Red Four was below and to the left where it was naked-eye visible on its programmed path. While flyable, Lantern Red Four was moderately damaged and would require extensive repairs in a shop with better facilities than those available aboard Heracles.
Red Four had been stripped of one of its two quantum engines. The fuel system had been re-rigged to feed into number one pump. They had re-balanced it, with an extra fuel bladder aboard, an auxiliary pump and a control chip to run it through the secondary inlet ports. By making a slow, stealthy approach, they had extended the time on station by a factor of about four or four and a half to one.
Being unmanned, Red Four was expendable. All weapons, all sensitive equipment had been stripped out.
The fission-type warhead of a Mark Eighteen heavy torpedo was banded to the floor in the mid-section of the ship. It was rigged for automatic detonation based on impacts to the structure, radar proximity, and was equipped for infrared and optical detection. Red One could detonate it remotely. That signal might give them away, so it was a judgment call for Smith and McCluskey.
They were getting very close to the point of ambush. Point A.
Tension was rising.
Ann’s arm shot out, pointing at the left forward screen and Smith barely caught a glimpse of several red triangles vectoring in. Red Four exploded in a pop of blue-white light and then the shock wave was halfway there all ready.
“Coming left.” Smith’s voice was calm as Ann grabbed the metal hand-holds and locked her eyes on the expanding debris field.
Two visors lowered automatically.
The ship shuddered gently and then they were through.
Out of the corner of her limited vision she noted Smith knocking back the switches for cannon, cameras and all defensive measures. He avoided near-misses in the debris cloud with casual ease.
Right hand on the stick, left hand on the throttle.
The electronics suite merited a quick glance and she saw that all systems were working. No alarms.
“What’s that?” Smith moved the cursor ball on this right-hand stick as he cautiously approached the scene, centering the white caret on one object in particular.
Seventy-five billion kilometres.
“It’s round—” She zoomed in. “Good eye.”
“Okay. Mark it and keep your eyes peeled.” She got a lock on its vector, slaving a pickup on the top of the right fin to follow the object.
The enemy machine, if that’s what it was, appeared to have some damage. It glowed with internal heat but held steady on course and speed.
“Okay.” He glanced over. “We’re going in.”
She had the information, barely three-quarters of a second of the enemy’s approach vector.
“What do you think?”
“It looked like there were four or five of them this time.”
He glanced at her display. It wasn’t much to go on.
“We might as well, Mick.”
She knows my name, then.
With the side of his mouth curled up in concentration, Smith rolled right, bumped up the throttle, and headed to where, for all intents and purposes…based on a lot of guesswork, the enemy had to be.
“I got a bad feeling about this, Mister Smith.” He was heading straight for the largest of three great wisps of gas clouds.
She watched the distance clocking down.
“You ain’t the only one, Ann.” He looked over and grinned. “Get ready on the mines.”
He increased speed again, entered the first thin smudges of the cloud. They detected some small, hard objects, planetoids, gravel, all of it reflected energy and not generated by the bodies themselves. He still had a star behind him relatively speaking. Hopefully.
Ann clamped her wrists in the restrainers with a quick push. Smith hit the firing button on the pair of 57 mm cannons in the nose. She snapped the mine switch and then the flares, setting those for a two-second run. The vibration was considerable. It was up to Mister Smith now.
White flashes smacked and danced up and along the side of the enemy carrier, a light assault ship by the ship’s catalog, instantly displayed in a corner of their console.
Smith punched the throttle, dumping shells into her. With a wrench, he lifted the keel of Red One over the hump of the enemy ship’s midsection and then turned right to go opposing vector.
It wouldn’t buy them much time. There had to be fighters in the vicinity. They were pounded back into their seats and shaking back and forth as Smith built up their velocity. He was making some fairly big course changes, as big as he dared under high acceleration. Finally his restraints snapped down. Ann was watching their tail sensors, not reporting anything. Smith straightened it up for a second, fingertip pressure. She nodded, not looking at him. It was all she could do to keep air in her lungs and blood in her head.
She stared at the rear-view, not responding.
They were at full power, the enemy ship was on fire and they were an awful long ways from home.
Red One had taken some hits. When she went unstable, Smith shut her main motors down on the instant. He wrestled stability back, finally setting the vessel up to rotate axially at a rate that would give them a third of a gee of positive gravity if you didn’t mind leaning to the left.
Ann looked over her boards as Smith hesitated over the weapons systems. He decided to leave them on. She nodded. Stranger things had been known to happen and it would be too naked without a gun.
Mick Smith heaved a deep sigh. He looked over.
“We have an estimated one hundred seventeen and a third, approximately, hours of life support.”
He smiled into her eyes. She had to make some response.
“Don’t worry. They’ll find us.”
Smith was still grinning at her.
She flushed slightly, looking back at the boards. She’d never really thought of him as a person before, more of an A-type personality and not much else.
“Looks like you and I will have plenty of time to get to know each other.”
She laughed in spite of herself.
“You made one fine mess of that carrier, Mister Smith.” Her smile was genuine.
His eyes were warm and kind.
“Thank you. Please call me Mick.”
Looking away, she chuckled in spite of herself. She should have known better.
She liked the sound of it.
Her eyes came up again and she took a better look at him. He smiled serenely and looked away.
In spite of everything, there was that flutter in the midriff, unwelcome at the best of times.
Well, what do you know.