Vice Commodore Arthur Perry looked up at a knock at the door.
The earnest, freshly-scrubbed face of Lieutenant Cassidy was troubled.
“Sir. We have a problem.”
“It’s Scimitar, sir. She appears to be missing.” Scimitar was the heaviest enemy vessel in fifty or a hundred light-years.
She outgunned pretty much anything they could throw at her—
“Missing? What do you mean, missing?”
“She’s gone, sir.”
They were in the Communications and Information Centre, more informally The War Room among the junior service people.
“Right. Scimitar has been holed up for the last nineteen standard months. She put in for major repairs following the skirmish at Gliese. And she’s not there now, sir.”
“Damn. How in the hell—” They’d been watching her like a hawk.
“That’s a good question, sir. We simply don’t know. But there have been persistent rumours of enhanced stealth capabilities. Some of the incidental information would tend to confirm this—there is a significant industrial base on Kepler 442b, and it’s certainly possible she’s been fitted with something new.”
The Commodore studied the data. He’d been briefed on it some time ago. Radar-absorbent materials. Plastics, fibres, carbon nano-tube laminates in resin matrix. Then there was the whole range of electronics fit. With a ship of that size, they might have just had time to do it. Intel, some of it was based on fact, and a lot of it was pure spec.
“I see. The question is now, what to do about it.”
In this sector, there were very few vessels available. Some of their units were on convoy duty.
They probably couldn’t be spared. Then there was the base itself. It wouldn’t do to leave Prosper completely undefended.
“We need to locate that ship, first and foremost.”
“Sir.” Senior intelligence officer, Commander Maude Padorcek, touched her display and a new page opened.
The map before him displayed the tactical situation in a wide swath of space.
The Commodore already knew where all of his ships were, but it was an aid to thinking…
Typically for him, the decision was quick and yet probably correct.
“Okay. We’ll send Dragon, Wolf and Tiger.” The first was an armed replenishment ship.
Dragon had all the same weapons-systems, but with substantially more bulk she was nowhere near as nimble. She had a disturbing number of crewmembers, and this was risky game.
The last two were destroyers, and even with all three put together, they would be no match for Scimitar.
“We have other units, sir.”
They had the light cruiser Splendid, in port for minor maintenance, as well as leave and replenishment. Their only real hope with a target like Scimitar was to swamp it. They had a couple of aging destroyers, mostly useful as sacrificial picket ships and maintaining security.
Their duties involved conducting civilian policing patrols as much as anything else. The sector was well enough known to smugglers, willing to take the risk with such a barren presence on the part of the authorities.
That included authorities on the other side as well.
“Hmn. We’ll get them into fighting trim within twenty-four hours.” The Commodore looked at Captain Johanssen, deputy base commander. “We’ll cut these orders in a minute. But I’m thinking Scimitar could be here in three days if they follow the shortest course—and if they have any sort of stealth capability, then that is exactly what I would do. If I were them.”
It was by no means certain.
He turned to Commander Padorcek.
“We need to find out what their fleet units are doing in other areas. If there are any signs of concentration, that’s bad news for us.” Any new offensive would try to achieve tactical and strategic surprise, more especially so as the Dominium was the stronger power.
That didn’t mean much out here sometimes—his units were spread very thin these days.
“More specifically, what are our current orders for Dragon, Wolf and Tiger?”
Wolf was on patrol, luckily not far from Kepler. Her major duty was surveillance of the enemy port and Scimitar in particular.
Tiger was thirty light years from her, and Dragon was docked. It would take time to round up crewmembers, some of whom would be enjoying a much-anticipated rest. It took a certain amount of time to fuel and provision a ship. Her repairs would have to be completed.
It was a pretty tall order.
“First. Tiger will rendezvous with Wolf and conduct a thorough search between here and there. Dragon will rendezvous with them ASAP.” Getting out of port might take a day or so, with crew and civilian contractors doubling up on work parties and going around the clock.
The odds of borrowing units from adjoining sectors were slim, but he would also give that a try.
“Everyone else is on high alert. In the meantime, hold their positions until we get more information.”
Captain Jamie Maszco read the message quickly. Wolf had reported being unable to locate Scimitar at her berth, an always-uncertain process at long range and with her present equipment.
Being on patrol meant they couldn’t be watching one hundred percent of the time. Otherwise they might have had an exact time of departure, which would be helpful. On one relatively-near pass, Scimitar was there. One day later, and she was gone.
Finally. They were getting some direction from higher authority. The information from Prosper had been fully shared with the crew.
“Theories.” Second in command, Commander Aleisha Reynaert, was terse, fuming at the delay.
“Yes.” It was better than nothing, in his opinion.
Theory held that a ship under stealth mode couldn’t use full power. Ship’s thrusters generated a lot of heat. That heat alone, would, or should be a dead giveaway. Then there was infrared, ultraviolet, the whole EM spectrum. In a universe filled with billions of blazing stars in the background; that meant searching a lot of space. In order to maximize beam power, instruments had limited fields of view, although with rapid scanning that meant only so much.
The naval analogy was a limited one…modern warships were extremely lightly-built by ancient standards, designed for speed, acceleration and maneuverability at sub and FTL.
While the Dominium was said to have their own stealth program in place, information on it was not widely disseminated. There was a certain amount of glitzy, feel-good propaganda on the subject, and that was about it. There were military groupies who would watch such materials, but he needed real information. His own ship had stealth features, but she was also a hundred years old.
He had a lot of questions.
That was for sure.
“They’re not the only ones that can theorize.”
The pair conferred on the bridge in quiet tones. The whole crew knew about Scimitar by now, but they needed informed input.
Word got around. It would be surprising if they didn’t have something to say.
“Okay, sir. The best way for them to get out of the inner system, based on planetary movements…and our own, is this trajectory here.” She laid it all out for him, based on calculations and observations made. “Assuming they’re headed for Prosper.”
This was the code name of their own home base, an assembly of man-made objects orbiting an obscure brown dwarf on the other side of the line.
“And assuming they’re making a more or less straight run for it.”
“Yes. They also know we’re watching, so at some point they have to expect a reaction.” This was one reason for their intermittent, unpredictable schedule of popping up in close proximity to the enemy port and having a quick look from time to time.
Their quick departures would have also been noted.
Scimitar would have watched them. Scimitar would have watched them leave, done a cold-engine start and then taken off in the opposite direction…maybe. They would have had everything all lined up and ready to go.
“We have to figure out what to do, right now, sir.”
“Half the crew at action stations. The other half will have to rest and eat and be alert. I want them ready to strap in at a moment’s notice. Suits on for the duty watch. Visors up, that’s fine. They can take them off to sleep, shower, or for medical reasons.” At any given time half the crew would be ready for an engagement—or a surprise attack and total disaster.
“Sir.” This would be an unpopular move, but not as unpopular as dying.
“We’ll begin our search immediately. If we get lucky we’ll trip over her—” And shortly thereafter, be blown to kingdom come.
At least then, Fleet would have some more information.
“If we detect anything, anything at all, call me.”
The captain stood.
“I want you to take over.” He gave a sigh. “It’s time I read up on stealth again…I have to admit, it’s been a while.”
“Let me know when you’re done. I might want to have a look at that myself.” This was said with a half-smile, as there was all kinds of materials on file.
She could read it just as easily as him, sitting there on the bridge.
“Yeah.” He gave a sober nod. “It also gives me a minute to think. Carry on, Commander.”
He spent some time interrogating the database, transferring files to his hand-held device.
There was a big difference between passive and active defense. This was going to be a real cat-and-mouse game.
He lay on his bed reading, a bit of music down low in the background, studying the four pyramidal projections roughly amidships, one for each major direction. Like a submarine with four conning towers, she had vision in all directions, ahead and behind, above and below, left, right and centre with multiple redundancy due to careful design. The key to this was all calculated angles and sensor placement. It was all about body-shaping. In many ways, Scimitar was similar to his own ship, merely heavier, much better protected and more heavily-armed.
She wasn’t quite as fast as Wolf, but she would have longer cruise duration and much greater stores provision.
There was some pretty heavy science behind stealth technology. It had originally been used on Earth on ancient military aircraft. The big trick was adapting it to space. Early space vessels weren’t exactly known for clean lines. They were all bits and pieces, ad hoc modules bolted to a simple cantilever framework. An envelope hull, containing all within it, was a comparatively recent development.
That alone had been an exponential leap forward.
There was very little cover in space. Most of the early ships were little more than big radar mirrors. Brilliantly polished, manufacturers eager to please and impress, ensured that the early ships and stations had been visible…highly visible.
Modern civil and private ships were still the same way—ship-owners were mostly interested in carrying cargo or passengers, parcels and luxury goods. They were big, slab-sided boxes or only slightly less easily detectable cylinders. If one of their ships went missing, they wanted to be able to find it again. Even more so, the insurance companies.
Making the darned thing invisible was not their highest priority.
Military ships had been headed towards stealth technology, pretty much since the dawn of space-based military operations. Early designers had all that aircraft and naval, even land-based experience in stealth. The basics had been incorporated into virtually every major vessel built in the last fifty or a hundred years.
The biggest challenge had always been the power unit and the flare of the thrust. This was composed of hot gasses, light, heat, radiation, and plasma. Even with the best shielding, some radiation inevitably leaked out.
Ship’s signatures were carefully studied, catalogued and available along with the intelligence notes on virtually all known vessels of war or peace.
Attempts had been made to cool the exhaust from the thrust nozzles. As far as the rest of Scimitar went, there was nothing really startling in their best pictures. Some of these had been obtained by spies presumably, judging by proximity and clarity. There were diplomatic and journalistic sources as well. There were a lot of pictures, three-views and cutaways. Scimitar seemed well-suited to begin with…it was a fairly modern heavy cruiser.
There were the minimum of protuberances. Her faceted sides were angled to reflect and redirect as much of a radar signal as possible. Every line had a subtle curve to it, and under the skin were presumably the usual radar-absorbing materials. Structure played a role as well. A radar wave or pulse would bounce in predictable directions, and would be reflected back and forth in a radar-absorbent structure. For example, into anything V-shaped, at just the right angles depending on expected signal ranges. If that V-shape consisted of radar-absorbing materials, the signal would be attenuated with each bounce between the sides. It could be absorbed along the way. Previous Intelligence accounts did not credit her with this kind of framing. As originally built, she was more of an angular dirigible. What they might have done with her since then was a very good question.
Large parts of the ship would be plastic, or coated with radar-absorbing materials according to Intelligence. Much of the information had been gathered in more peaceful times. There were paints, with microscopic ferrite beads, which had an effect. All the elements contributed to the end result. Mere hull-shape had a lot to do with it—beat that and you were halfway there.
Ships were notoriously hard to detect from the front end. That killed ninety percent (or more) of detection range for most known optical, radar and laser detection systems. The big problem was heat and radiation coming out of the back end. The rear of a ship presented a much larger and more complex detection target.
His instincts were aroused, that was for sure. He wondered if this was their big breakthrough.
But how would it have been done?
The thoughts of pouring super-cooled liquids into the tail-pipes, seemed, on the face of it, ludicrous.
Maybe we’re making too much of it. We were away for a full day—maybe they just lit the motors and went off while we weren’t paying attention.
And yet the Wolf had buoys in place. None of their little surveillance drones had registered anything. There was no big flare of radiation, and unfortunately, the button-sized plastic lenses on the little machines weren’t particularly good. They couldn’t photograph Scimitar, at rest, without penetrating the enemy’s defense perimeter, where they would have been quickly destroyed by patrolling enemy drones. It was easy enough to figure. She’d simply turned on her countermeasures before light-up.
One minute she was there, and the next minute she was gone.
The whole thing was a pickle.
He was the man on the spot.
At some point, he must have dozed off with the idea of some sort of chemical detection in his thoughts.
How in the hell were they doing it…???
…and England expects that every man shall do his duty.
He sipped his coffee.
“Okay. Let’s say Scimitar sees us making our usual check-in. They wait for us to leave. Which way would they go then?”
Their young navigation officer, Murphy, nodded.
“Most likely in the opposite direction, sir. The station is orbiting the planet. In order to see them, we have to take the risk of them seeing us. But about this heat-masking…in my opinion that can only be so effective for so long. Our theory is that they’re baffling the engines behind a grid or diffuser…maybe dumping something super cold into the thrust stream. At maybe ten percent of power, they’re only going to get so far so fast.” They would have limited storage space.
They could carry only so much liquid nitrogen…or helium, or so the young man thought.
Water was just too heavy and water vapour took too long to dissipate.
His stylus touched an icon and a new pane opened up.
It showed a swirling, corkscrew trajectory. First they had to get out of the system, more often as not using the plane of the ecliptic and then the vector changing, up and around and then over this way…galactic north meant nothing on a star-by-star basis. System and planetary poles all went their own way, all cock-eyed all over the place.
It was all guesswork, but it showed Scimitar departing its parking orbit and then using the two largest bodies in the system for a gravitational assist. This made sense in the light of the low power setting used…maybe. The star itself would have been of some assistance in a low-power profile.
Drawing a line from a presumed point outside the system, where space was clean, hard and relatively dust-free, there was a long, curving trajectory heading straight to Prosper. This was admittedly a contradiction in terms.
“Yes, sir. We’re looking in the wrong place.”
The captain nodded, touching the button and addressing the ship.
“All hands. All hands. Prepare for heavy course changes and extreme acceleration.”
The commander spoke.
“I’ll get a message off to Prosper and Tiger.”
Again the stylus pointed.
“I would say that we should rendezvous with Tiger right about here, sir.”
“Very well. Good work.”
An alarm sounded through the ship. Thirty seconds was the rule, after that it was up to the helm.
They were belting in.
Scimitar was a cruiser of approximately twenty-two hundred metric tonnes mass. She was equipped with a pair of missile launchers, rapid-fire recoilless guns, close-in weapons for defense and all the detection and communications gear that could be jammed aboard. Depending on her mission, some of that might have been removed in the hope for greater speed. Yet the enemy obviously had something in mind and the ship would need some kind of capability—offensive and defensive. The Confederates were not known for suicidal tendencies.
They weren’t exactly cowards, either.
While Intelligence sources would be doing their own calculations, adding a quick overcoat of stealth materials on the outside of the ship might have added five to ten percent in terms of mass.
More engine shielding would almost certainly be a significant proportion that new mass.
It was difficult to see how it might have been done any other way, considering the original structure of the ship and the relatively short time allotted. At the extremes of detection range, Wolf had been going almost entirely on vessel signatures, radio traffic from all the other little ships around her. The signals were encrypted but familiar from long surveillance. Hopefully someday, somebody somewhere would eventually crack the codes. Wolf’s cameras could actually see Scimitar, whose small but distinctive profile could be made out in their best shots.
Whenever they looked, she had always been there, with plenty of radio and small-boat traffic to indicate ongoing repairs. Individual repairmen had radios in their suits, all adding up to a complete picture upon thorough signals analysis.
Now that signature was gone. There were only so many places she could reasonably go, out there on the edge of Empire—or Confederacy. Targets and friendly ports were few and far between. If she was fully repaired, the Confederates would definitely have need of her…it was quite possible they were concentrating for a major attack. That was completely unknown to him, a job for Intelligence.
So far, there had been no indications in terms of other ship movements. The daily Intel Bulletins had made no mention of it, and it was extremely difficult to read between lines that were not there.
It was time for another quick and dirty little briefing.
So much for the summing up.
Maszco had some real good minds aboard his ship.
He had their full attention, the crew monitoring their stations, with him standing at the front of the bridge facing them.
“Okay. We need ideas. How are we going to find them?”
“That’s one idea, and we should be watching that carefully. Here’s the thing. We’re actively scanning. They know we’re out here, as it has almost certainly been reported to them that we checked in—and checked out again in a big hurry. When we’re within their detection range, they will know. I’m convinced of that, but in order to achieve such stealth, I’m wondering if they’ve made some sacrifices in terms of capability.”
“Sir?” This was Murphy.
A pretty good kid so far—
“Yes. They can’t actively scan without giving themselves away. That much seems true. The modern frigate is festooned with aerials. Cruisers, the same way. Antennas, dishes, sensors, detectors of all kinds. The best stealth comes from flush surfaces. We’ve never had any trouble finding her before, and it’s possible they’ve buried some of that. All of it, probably. The best plan would be to do a real thorough job. What if this is a one-off mission? That ship might be sacrificial—but just think of it. Even without Prosper, in a very short time, they’ll have the three of us out here. That’s a pretty darned juicy target, in and of itself. Let’s say they take two or three of us out—” They could be back at base, under the protection of their own guns, in a very short time.
“Then Prosper is wide open, sir. And if the sector is open—the whole damned quadrant is at risk.”
“That’s right. So put on your thinking caps. We have all the same equipment, more or less, and in some cases better than theirs. I want to think in terms of heat, radiation, unusual disturbances in the gravimetrics. I want you guys to think. Scimitar is a very small object and it’s probably painted a soft, matte black. However, I would like a few volunteers from the off-duty watch for visual search.”
There were nods and long looks. Looking for a ship out here with the human eye was the proverbial needle in a haystack. Especially if they didn’t want to be found.
“Keep pinging, and if you get even the slightest indication, don’t hesitate to report it. Hopefully we’ve established a direction of travel. We have to start somewhere. As for their velocity, that’s difficult. We are either ahead of them or behind them. That’s one interpretation. In the meantime, we have reinforcements on the way. And hopefully—the enemy won’t reveal themselves in an attack scenario a second before they have to.” Scimitar, according to the scenario, had bigger fish to fry.
“Anything else, sir?” It was the commander.
“Yeah. I want you to take a few hours. Get some sleep. We’re going to be needing you. The rest of you guys carry on, four on and four off. Make sure your reliefs are properly briefed. These notes are available to all crew and should be disseminated. Carry on, people. Jonesy—get me a coffee, please. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.”
Now was the time to take his seat, to look confident and think like hell…
Think like fucking crazy.
Relying on tight-beam transmission, Wolf conferred with her sister ship.
Tiger was still half a trillion kilometres away and Wolf, on scene, had the ball.
“Okay. I want you to stay between us and Prosper. Begin a proper search pattern. Make sure you’re sniffing space for anything out of the known, anything unusual, or anything out of the ordinary.”
Jamie noted the terse word and the tense looks of the bridge crew.
“Hold on, Ursula. I’ll get back to you.” The captain nodded.
“So. Alison. What’s up?”
“Nice.” As if there wasn’t enough tension, his chest tightened and his pulse picked up a bit.
Space was getting a bit warm around here, a full half a degree Celsius hotter than it really should be—with their extensive patrolling, always mapping, always observing and recording, it was hotter than it had been about the same time last week.
“What do we do, sir?”
“Mark it. Proceed with our pattern. Notify Tiger.”
Alison stared at her readouts.
“What do you want us to do?”
“Give us a minute here, but prepare to initiate a search pattern from right where you are now—”
That would be to stay between Scimitar—maybe, and Prosper. It was the good old squeeze play—and two heads were better than one.
It didn’t matter what the game was, there would never be perfect intelligence. Decisions always involved the fog of war.
There were countermeasures for everything these days. Radar signals could be mimicked or spoofed by digital radio frequency memory. The device would send a signal back to the scanning radar set, but giving a wrong echo, a false location for the target. There were infrared countermeasures that did somewhat the same thing, although the use of flares for example would be relegated to close-in combat. Scimitar wouldn’t use those unless she was fired upon—or thought she was facing imminent attack. Once she was sure she was discovered, Scimitar would also go to full power as quickly as possible, either for attack or escape and evasion.
They analyzed the data.
The Vice-Commodore was pleased, and it wasn’t his ass out here on the line.
“How do we know that it’s not a decoy, sir?” It was, after all, in the right place at the right time.
“Good question. But here’s the problem, Captain. If it is a decoy, why send it this way? There’s nowhere else for them to go anyways.”
The bugger had a point, a good mind, and Jamie had some sense of floundering.
That made a bit of sense. According to Intel, there were no signs of a concentration of enemy units as if for a major offensive. If anything, there was dispersal—indicating the enemy was hoarding assets and trying to stay out of any sort of trouble that might ultimately be decisive.
They were still thinking long term. This was wise enough for the weaker power. There had even been rumours of negotiation or at least the possibility. They batted the ideas back and forth.
“I don’t know, sir. Scimitar is a valuable target. Maybe they really are taking her somewhere else, concentrating for an attack. The use of a decoy still makes a lot of sense…”
The vice commodore held up a hand, light-years away.
“Well. Let’s hope you and Tiger can cut her sign, now that we know—or hope that we can do it. And let’s not make any sudden moves. Remember, they have to be a hundred percent sure, before they will abort the Prosper mission—which is, after all, the biggest target out here.”
In other words, keep on pretending that they didn’t have a clue. Which wasn’t going to be all that hard because they still didn’t.
Or something like that.
“Sir.” Murphy had the conn.
“Yes?” The captain was still yawning, with a distinct aroma of toothpaste coming off of him, but it was a small ship and it had always been pretty informal in the Fleet anyways.
This was especially true on patrol, away from people with gold on their hats and deskbound administrator-warriors.
“Messages, just came in.”
He sat and had a look at the first one.
Dragon, six hours out from her new proposed rendezvous point. This was approximately halfway between Tiger and Prosper, on what was the most likely track of their assumed target—bearing in mind they had exactly two pieces of information, one, that Scimitar was missing and their little sniff of a few hours ago.
The strategy was two-fold. The three vessels were far enough apart that Scimitar couldn’t attack all three at once and they could search three different sectors, all along the enemy’s projected track.
The second message was from Tiger.
Still sweeping, results negative.
“Ah, yes, Mister Murphy?” Somebody thoughtfully placed a coffee, just the way the captain liked it, into his drink holder.
“It’s just that I’ve got an idea.”
“Prosper has all the latest star maps.” Their own needed constant updating, which was just as often done in port to keep radio communication minimal. “But as Scimitar approaches Prosper, her apparent magnitude will get larger and larger.”
“Yeah. So. She’s painted black—most likely. And she’s all sharp end from their perspective.”
There was nothing around to light her up visually, what with Prosper orbiting a brown dwarf.
She would probably use the asteroid belts and other bodies in the system for cover. This was part of their own logic, with Scimitar presumably hoping to pop out from behind the largest planet in the system, a ringed gas giant twice as large as Saturn. There were a couple of smaller planets as well, but this would give her the biggest margin in terms of angle of approach. She would be able to get in nice and close and no one would see a thing.
“Yes, sir, but she only has limited instrumentation on the rear of the ship and that’s mostly for tail-chase in combat.” They had to watch their six, just like any other combat ship. Rear-view, limited by exhaust plumes, was always a sore spot. Designers did the best they could.
There were cameras and sensors, of course.
When in regular traffic lanes, it was good to see if another ship was coming up too fast from behind, the crew perhaps not paying attention or in a case of a computer glitch—which did happen from time to time.
“Sooner or later, from the point of view of the defense, they have to block out a star, however briefly, no matter how faint and far away. It’s what our own lookouts are trying to see, after all.It’s the only way we’re going to see her, right?”
His mouth opened. Of course—of course.
“All right. Send off a signal, explaining as best you can. Hopefully, they can get enough cameras and sensors up in time—let’s hope they’ve got the computing power.”
The thing with stealth and weapons deployment was that you had to open up. Hatches would open, turrets and launchers would pop up. Radar and laser beams would attempt to acquire targets. Scimitar would give herself away. By that time, it would be almost too late.
It was close to the end of his watch.
Jamie sat up at the tone.
“Heat, sir. Heat.” The technician, a girl named Rose, sent it to his station and an icon appeared on his screen.
Opening it up, he could see exactly what was on her display.
“Well, well, well.”
Now they had three points of information. It appeared that Scimitar had gotten well ahead of where they were searching, mindlessly going back and forth in a scaled grid-pattern.
“Carry on with our search pattern. I will send this to Tiger, Dragon, and Prosper immediately.”
“Is it them, sir? Is it Scimitar?”
“I don’t know. But judging by that flare…there’s something hot, and invisible out there. It’s right on our projected track…basically, we just don’t know.”
Her face was pale, but she just nodded.
“It’s okay. We’re out of range—theoretically, and they’re still out of range of Tiger.”
Range meant something entirely new these days, referring more to missile transit and defensive response times than actual distance. Wolf was actively scanning and her defensive systems were hot and ready.
The enemy would know or guess that.
Scimitar was closing in on their sister ship, who according to schedule, was just coming to the end of their leg and would be about ready to turn around...
The cabin temperature seemed to be climbing as well, but that was probably just stress.
Hours had passed.
Jamie was in communication with Ursula Bainbridge, captain of Tiger. There were slight bags under her eyes, probably no worse than his…
She’d kicked his ass in war games at the academy, and he’d thought of her more than once—since then.
Ursula was distinctly unhappy.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to say—but what other targets are out here, besides Prosper—and us.”
Her face was bleak and hard, and his probably not much better. The trouble was that people had to eat and sleep and the sheer tension would inevitably take its toll.
“So how come we haven’t spotted her?”
There were many problems with the box search, not the least of which was finite sensor range and the three-dimensional nature of the search. It took too much time to fill in each square.
Scimitar could have simply slipped past, enough time had gone by and the Tiger might have simply been at the other end of a run.
Scimitar could at least see them. The implications of their search pattern could not have escaped the enemy commander.
“Hmn. Murphy says they’re zigzagging. He’s assuming a turn to starboard, possibly down, or away from you, us, and their presumed target. Prosper. The problem is exactly what pattern they’re using.” Merely changing course two or three degrees, up and down, left and right, either way wouldn’t do much for them, and therefore it might be pretty extreme—something on the order of forty-five degrees right and left, for example.
The Scimitar’s captain, Rolf Schmitt, was thoroughly competent and a bit of a wild card in Intel’s analysis.
He was known for his tactical innovations. He’d written some textbooks and taught at their academy in the earlier, peacetime part of his career. At forty-two, he was young to be in command of a cruiser.
“Also, assuming our hits were indeed Scimitar. Based upon her estimated mass, which is total guesswork, and the distance traveled. Murphy says they’re not making more than five to ten percent of full power.”
“That makes sense. How do we find them now?”
“Since we’ve definitely lost whatever it was that was detected, I’m suggesting that you guys continue your search. We’ll head to Dragon for our regular replenishment.” It was actually due in a week or so, but she was in the neighbourhood. “After that, perhaps taking slightly longer than usual, hopefully even making them think we have mechanical problems, we’ll head back to base.”
“And then what?”
“We’ve got the kids in the electronics department retuning our buoys. We’re going to establish as much coverage as we can and drop every damned one of them. Scimitar, assuming such a course change, is still two days out at a minimum.” The buoys would be looking for heat—and gasses.
“Very well. We can do that. Send over the specs on those mods before you go.”
“Roger that—and good luck.”
And good hunting.
An old cliché.
Jamie came pelting out to the bridge as the call came over the speakers.
It was Dragon.
“What’s going on?”
“She’s been hit.”
“Hold our position. Get me a link.”
Captain Ben Rourke appeared onscreen.
“Be advised, hostile action. Be advised, hostile action.” There was something in the air aboard Dragon—smoke.
“What happened, Captain?” Rourke outranked him.
“We’ve been holed. Small-caliber laser. They’re probably waiting for you to assist us—hold off until called, please.”
Judging by the combat display, Tiger was maneuvering to intercept as well. They were hours away at this point.
Wolf was presently to starboard and abeam of Dragon, on the way back to Prosper after dropping a pattern of buoys along their trajectory. The little machines would maneuver to the extent that their fuel lasted.
“Roger that. What is your status?”
“We have several compartments compromised. We might have lost a few people there. It’s only just happened. We didn’t see a thing. We are maneuvering to evade further fire…”
“Captain Rourke. I want to drop a boat. We’re well out of range and I think you need it more than us.”
“Negative. Proceed with your plan, Captain.”
“Er. Roger that.”
And now they had four, or was that five, data points.
And Scimitar was still probably going after Prosper—it would be wise not to lose sight of that.
Jamie sat up, half dozing as he sat his watch. They were all getting like that and he would have to watch them, and himself, closely.
“It’s Buoy Eighteen, sir. It’s got something.”
There was an edgy pause as the view from Eighteen came up on the big forward screen.
“What, in the hell…are we looking at?” It was nothing but a field of stars and a pretty ordinary one at that.
The tech shook his head, chewing on his lip and searching.
His arm shot out.
“Down…lower left corner.”
It was them—or it was definitely something.
Stars winked out, and stars winked into existence as some unseen, moving object blocked them from view momentarily. His heart seemed to have stopped, only starting again as the picture slewed.
“Buoy Eighteen is successfully tracking.”
A sudden laugh rippled through the bridge staff, holding their collective breath until now.
“Report this to Tiger, Dragon, Prosper and all units in the vicinity. Slave the feed and lock that up for them if you will.”
“Sir, yes sir.”
The kid’s fingers flew across the pad and Jamie confirmed the message sent on his own board.
“Anything else, sir?”
“I don’t know. Let me think on that a minute—” More nervous laughs, but considering what Scimitar had done to Dragon—and what she was ultimately capable of, there was no sense in an immediate attack. “No. We will proceed with our own plan. And pray that thing’s power supply holds up. Okay. She’s going to keep zigzagging, and we need to get all of our buoys out there.”
He sat back in his seat, unable to take his eyes off of that forbidding black silhouette. If you watched it long enough, you could almost fancy the proper shapes were there, the basic structure revealed by how long each particular feature of the ship obscured any given star…
He gave a sharp nod.
They all looked and listened.
“Make no mistake—that thing really is Scimitar, ladies and gentlemen.”
I am convinced of that.
Dragon had her damage under control. Under distant escort by Tiger, she was heading back to port.
Both ships were zigzagging in their own pattern. So far they were still out of range of the target being tracked by their buoys, Eighteen having fortunately handed off to another device when its small tank of reaction mass had run out.
Prosper had all units out of port, dispersed by doctrine and the necessity of getting as many surveillance devices in place as possible. It wasn’t exactly simple. If Scimitar, still zigzagging randomly, broke their tail, they might have a great deal of difficulty in acquiring her again. A pure frontal attack on Prosper didn’t seem very likely either, now that she had revealed her presence and had had time to prepare a proper defense…maybe.
No, the Confederates had something else in mind…
The big question now was what.
Scimitar had moved up her schedule—
“Attack alert. Attack alert.”
Jamie was on the bridge, closing in on her last known position when battle joined.
“All ahead full. All weapons to green. Full auto.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
Messages and queries flew back and forth.
“All ships converge. All ships converge.” It was Prosper, committing all resources.
Prosper had just been hit with directed-energy weapons, lasers and four rockets, one of which had made it through the defenses.
“Prosper, what is your status. Repeat, what is your status?” It was Dragon.
Her captain was inbound, damaged herself, and flying into the middle of a battle.
“Damaged but not extensive. Proceed on course, Dragon.”
The radio was crackling with traffic on a hundred channels as they hunted Scimitar.
Again, Scimitar revealed herself, hot beams of energy flashing from her turrets.
Wolf turned into the lasers, relying on her sharp nose and oblique angles to deflect most of the blast.
Tiger had her dead to rights and launched a full salvo of missiles.
He could have sworn there was at least one impact…
Splendid was inbound, less than five minutes out. Scimitar disappeared off screen again, but not before firing a spread of heavy, long-range missiles.
They were inbound.
The thin buzz of the chain-drive of the close-in anti-missile system came right through the seat of the pants as targets blossomed into flame and debris…much of it still headed this way.
“Hard a port, down ten degrees. Half power, please.”
They groaned in their seats.
Everything seemed to have passed over their heads…
“Where is she?”
Scimitar was gone again as small chemical torpedoes sped through the intervening space, launched in a rather forlorn hope by the aging Dominium escorts, Corgi and Exeter.
“Ideas. Mister Murphy?”
“She’s turned away, sir.”
They sat there in their seats, not knowing which way to turn, waiting for the next shot to come out of nowhere as the radio babbled and there was distinct panic in people’s voices.
The next shot never came.
With no further signs of Scimitar and all ships in need of replenishment, refueling and rearming, Prosper had recalled them.
They were now deployed in a bubble defense about the station itself, where they could sweep the largest volume of space with their instruments and where they were in a position to support each other in an attack.
Three days had gone by.
Nothing had happened.
They were consulting with Vice Commodore Perry.
His concerns were many, the worst part was that they were stationary and reacting when they would normally have been the ones setting the agenda.
“We must admit, Scimitar has done a real number on us. We’re sitting here doing nothing. We have reinforcements on the way, necessitating shuffles and redeployments across all sectors. And Scimitar is out there somewhere…” With a bit of bad luck, Scimitar would be in the right place at the right time and possibly take out some heavy Fleet units on their way to Prosper—there was simply no way to know.
“Suggestion. Wolf goes out on patrol. The first thing we do is check Kepler. I’m convinced Scimitar was damaged sir—not destroyed, but unable to defend herself against superior numbers. Otherwise, she still should have had the advantage of us. I doubt if they can effect proper repairs after such an encounter without portside assistance. We’re fairly convinced of several directed-energy hits and at least one missile impact.”
“Yes. I’m inclined to agree.” The man on the screen heaved a deep sigh. “Very well. And report back here soonest. When can you leave?”
“Six hours, maybe less.” Wolf had lost a bit of paint and one or two laser hits had come damned close to burn-through. “I’d like to do a quick sweep of this system and then head on over there.”
It was a trade-off, risking Wolf for the safety of Prosper and the other units.
“Hmn. That makes sense.” Scimitar could very well still be out there, relatively undamaged.
It had been a very near thing, considering just how thin those hull plates actually were.
“Good luck. And be careful out there—your ship is irreplaceable right about now and that’s likely to continue for the very near future.”
Perry didn’t have too many questions, and that was a good thing.
Jamie had just had the sickest idea, and the odds were he’d never get clearance.
For the time being, he’d keep it to himself.
He’d been thinking of stealth quite a lot.
There was more than one way to skin a cat.
His crew had recovered an ancient torpedo, one fired and forgotten by Corgi. Having run out of fuel, it coasted along on a trajectory that would, in a trillion years, have seen the end of the universe.
Topping up its tanks, they’d kept it aboard, with the people in the machine shop making up an extensible launcher arm. The thing had been fused for time of flight. This required a precise launch trajectory and perfect timing in the release.
The front end of Wolf was the pointy end—and he’d taken the precaution of spending some time, checking out Prosper system. This had taken them, of necessity, behind gas giants, the star itself, and then out the far side.
The thing with Kepler base was to approach from the least expected direction. He was calling it the fish-hook maneuver.
The thing to do was to go in at high speed, launch their torpedo at a Scimitar immobilized by docking and repairs…dozens of other vessels in close proximity.
And then light up all burners and get the hell out of there.
Approaching a target at faster than light speed was very difficult, but it had the advantage over the more conventional sub-light combat maneuvering. The enemy did not see them until Wolf was right upon them, and by the then the missile, capable of a significant portion of light-speed in its own right, was already on the way.
They held their breaths, watching the dots on the screen as Wolf plowed on, already past the hope of pursuit.
“What’s that? Shit.” The commander sighed.
The warhead detonated long after it should have, striking some unlucky service vessel, unprotected by jammers or rotary wire guns or any of a hundred similar defensive systems. As for the Confederate base itself, it didn’t seem to have much in the way of defenses. This was certainly interesting information…there will always be a next time.
A groan went through the bridge crew and no doubt the rest of the ship.
It didn’t feel right, somehow, to think of it in terms of revenge. Even though eleven people had lost their lives aboard Dragon, with another handful seriously maimed and injured.
“Proceed with our present course and acceleration. We will proceed to point P and continue our patrol until relieved.”
“Yes. Let Prosper have that last bit and our logs for the mission so far. Do that soonest, Mister
And that, would appear to be that, although it would take a little time for the lessons to be absorbed.
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