Authors: Timothy Zahn
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Air Pilots; Military
Timothy Zahn - Conquerors 01 - Conquerors' Pride
Conquerors Saga, book 1
They were there, all right, exactly where the tachyon wake-trail pickup on Dorcas had projected they would be: four ships, glittering faintly in the starlight of deep space, blazing with infrared as they dumped the heat that zero-point energy friction had generated during their trip. They were small ships, probably no bigger than Procyon-class; milky white in color, shaped like thick hexagonal slabs of random sizes attached to each other at random edges.
Alien as hell.
"Scan complete, Commodore," the man at the Jutland's sensor station reported briskly. "No other ships registering."
"Acknowledged," Commodore Trev Dyami said, flexing his shoulders beneath his stiffly starched uniform tunic and permitting himself a slight smile as he gazed at the main display. Alien ships. The first contact with a new self-starfaring race in a quarter of a century.
And it was his. All his. Trev Dyami and theJutland would be the names listed in the Commonwealth's news reports and, eventually, in its history books.
Warrior's luck, indeed.
He turned to the tactics station, fully aware that everything he said and did from this point on would be part of that history-book listing. "What's the threat assessment?" he asked.
"I estimate point one to point four, sir," the tactics officer reported. "I don't find any evidence of fighter ejection tubes or missile ports."
"They've got lasers, though, Commodore," the tactics second put in. "There are clusters of optical-discharge lenses on the leading edges of each ship."
"Big enough to be weapons?" the exec asked from Dyami's side.
"Hard to tell, sir," the other said. "The lenses themselves are pretty small, but that by itself doesn't mean much."
"What about power output?" Dyami asked.
"I don't know, sir," the sensor officer said slowly. "I'm not getting any leakage."
"None that I can pick up."
Dyami exchanged glances with the exec. "Superconducting cables," the exec hazarded. "Or else just very well shielded."
"One or the other," Dyami agreed, looking back at the silent shapes floating in the middle of the main display. Not only a self-starfaring race, but one with a technology possibly beyond even humanity's. That history-book listing was getting longer and more impressive by the minute.
The exec cleared his throat. "Are we going to open communications, sir?" he prodded.
"It's that or just sit here staring at each other," Dyami said dryly, throwing a quick look at the tactical board. The rest of theJutland's, eight-ship task force was deployed in his designated combat formation, their crews at full battle stations. The two skitter-sized watchships were also in position, hanging well back where they would be out of danger if this meeting stopped being peaceful. TheJutland's own Dragonfly defense fighters were primed in their launch tubes, ready to be catapulted into battle at an instant's notice.
Everything was by-the-book ready... and it was time to make history. "Lieutenant Adigun, pull up the first-contact comm package," Dyami ordered the comm officer. "Get it ready to run. And alert all ships to stand by."
"Signal from theJutland, Captain," Ensign Hauver reported from theKinshasa's bridge comm station. "They're getting ready to transmit the first-contact package across to our bogies."
Commander Pheylan Cavanagh nodded, his eyes on the linked-hexagon ships in the bridge display. "How long will it take?"
"Oh, they can run the first chunk through in anywhere from five to twenty minutes," Hauver said. "The whole package can take up to a week to transmit. Not counting breaks for the other side to try to figure out what we're talking about."
Pheylan nodded. "Let's hope they're not too alien to understand it."
"Mathematics are supposed to be universal," Hauver pointed out.
"It's that 'supposed to be' I always wonder about," Pheylan said. "Meyers, you got anything more on the ships themselves?"
"No, sir." The sensor officer shook his head. "And to be honest, sir, I really don't like this. I've run the infrared spectrum six ways from April, and it just won't resolve. Either those hulls are made of something the computer and I have never heard of before, or else they're deliberately skewing the emissions somehow."
"Maybe they're just shy," Rico said. "What about those optical-discharge lenses?"
"I can't get anything on those, either," Meyers said. "They could be half-kilowatt comm lasers, half-gigawatt missile frosters, or anything in between. Without power-flux readings, there's no way to tell."
"That part bothers me more than the hull," Rico said to Pheylan, his dark face troubled as he stared at the display. "Putting that kind of massive shielding on their power lines tells me that they're trying to hide something."
"Maybe they're just very efficient," Meyers suggested.
"Yeah," Rico growled. "Maybe."
"There it goes," Hauver spoke up."Jutland's running the pilot search signal. They've got a resonance-fuzzy, but it's there." He peered at his board. "Odd frequency, too. Must be using some really weird equipment."
"We'll get you a tour of their comm room when this is all over," Pheylan said.
"I hope so. Okay; there goes the first part of the package."
"Lead bogie's moving," Meyers added. "Yawing a few degrees to port-"
And without warning a brilliant double flash of light lanced out from the lead alien ship, cutting across theJutland's bow. There was a burst of more diffuse secondary light as hull metal vaporized under the assault-
And theKinshasa's Klaxons blared with an all-force combat alert. "All ships!" Commodore Dyami's voice snapped over the radio scrambler. "We're under attack.Kinshasa, Badger, pull out to sideline flanking positions. All other ships, hold station. Fire pattern gamma-six."
"Acknowledge, Hauver," Pheylan ordered, staring at the display in disbelief. The aliens had opened fire. Unprovoked, unthreatened, they'd simply opened fire. "Chen Ki, pull us out to sideline position. Ready starboard missile tubes for firing."
"How do we key them?" Rico asked, his fingers skating across his tactical setup board. "Proximity or radar?"
"Heat-seeking," Pheylan told him, acceleration pressing him back into his chair as theKinshasa began to move forward to its prescribed flanking position.
"We're too close to the other ships," Rico objected. "We might hit one of them instead of the bogies."
"We can pull far enough out to avoid that," Pheylan told him, throwing a quick look at the tactical board. "Point is, we know the bogies are hot. With those strange hulls of theirs, the other settings might not even work."
"Missile spread from theJutland," Meyers announced, peering at his displays. "They're going with radar keyed-"
And suddenly all four alien ships opened up with a dazzling display of multiple-laser fire. "All bogies firing," Meyers shouted as the warble of the damage alarm filled the bridge. "We're taking hits-hull damage in all starboard sections-"
"What about theJutland's missiles?" Rico called.
"No impacts," Meyers shouted back. The image on the main display flared and died, reappearing a second later as the backup sensors took over from the vaporized main cluster. "Bogies must have gotten 'em."
"Or else they just didn't trigger," Pheylan said, fighting down the surge of panic simmering in his throat. TheKinshasa was crackling with heat stress now as those impossible lasers out there systematically bubbled off layers of the hull... and from the barely controlled voices shouting from the audio-net speaker it sounded as if the rest of the Peacekeeper ships were equally up to their necks in it. In the wink of an eye the task force had gone from complete control of the situation to a battle for survival. And were losing. "Key missiles for heat-seeking, Rico, and fire the damn things."
"Yes, sir. Salvo one away-"
And an instant later there was a sound like a muffled thunderclap, and theKinshasa lurched beneath Pheylan's chair. "Premature detonation!" Meyers shouted; and even over the crackling of overstressed metal Pheylan could hear the fear in his voice. "Hull integrity gone: forward starboard two, three, and four and aft starboard two."
"Ruptures aren't sealing," Rico called. "Too hot for the sealant to work. Starboard two and four are honeycombing. Starboard three... honeycombing has failed."
Pheylan clenched his teeth. There were ten duty stations in that section. Ten people who were now dead. "Chen Ki, give us some motion-any direction," he ordered the helm. If they didn't draw the aliens' lasers away from the ejected honeycombs, those ten casualties were going to have lots of company. "All starboard deck officers are to pull their crews back to central."
"The ship can't handle much more of this, Captain," Rico said grimly from beside him.
Pheylan nodded silently, his eyes flicking between the tactical and ship-status boards. Rico was, if anything, vastly understating the case. With half theKinshasa's systems failing or vaporized and nothing but the internal collision bulkheads holding it together, the ship had bare minutes of life left to it. But before it died, there might be enough time to get off one final shot at the enemy who was ripping them apart. "Rico, give me a second missile salvo," he ordered. "Fire into our shadow, then curve them over and under to pincer into the middle of the bogie formation. No fusing-just a straight timed detonation."
"I'll try," Rico said, his forehead shiny with sweat as he worked his board. "No guarantees with the ship like this."
"I'll take whatever I can get," Pheylan said. "Fire when ready."
"Yes, sir." Rico finished his programming and jabbed the firing keys, and through the crackling and jolting of theKinshasa writhing beneath him, Pheylan felt the lurch as the missiles launched. "Salvo away," Rico said. "Sir, I recommend we abandon ship while the honeycombs are still functional."
Pheylan looked again at the status board, his stomach twisting with the death-pain of his ship. TheKinshasa was effectively dead; and with its destruction he had only one responsibility left. "Agreed," he said heavily. "Hauver, signal all hands: we're abandoning. All sections to honeycomb and eject when ready."
The damage alarm changed pitch and cadence to the ship-abandon signal. Across the bridge, board lights flickered and went dark as the bridge crew hurriedly disconnected their stations from the ship and checked their individual life-support systems.
Pheylan himself, however, still had one task left to perform: to ensure that those alien butchers out there would learn nothing about the Commonwealth from the wreckage of his ship. Getting a grip on the underside of his command board, he broke it open and began throwing the row of switches there. Nav computer destruct, backup nav computer destruct, records computer destruct, library computer destruct-
"Bridge crew reports ready, Captain," Rico said, a note of urgency in his voice. "Shall we honeycomb?"
Pheylan threw the last switch. "Go," he said, pulling his hands back inside the arms of his chair and bracing himself.
And with a thudding ripple that jerked Pheylan against his restraints, the sections of memory metal whipped out from the deck and ceiling, wrapping around his chair and sealing him in an airtight cocoon. A heartbeat later he was jammed into his seat cushion as the bridge disintegrated around him, throwing each of the individual honeycomb escape pods away from the dying hulk that had once been theKinshasa.
"Good-bye," Pheylan murmured to the remains of his ship, fumbling for the viewport shutter-release control. Later, he supposed vaguely, the full emotional impact would hit him. For now, though, survival was uppermost in his mind. Survival for himself, and for his crew.
The shutters retracted, and he pressed his face up to the viewport that looked back on theKinshasa. The other escape pods were dim flickers of light drifting outward from the twisted and blackened hull still being hammered by the aliens' lasers. There was no way to tell how many of the honeycomb pods were intact, but those that were should keep their occupants alive until they could be picked up. Moving carefully in the cramped confines of the pod, he got to the viewport facing the main part of the battle and looked out.
The battle was over. The Peacekeeper task force had lost.
He floated there, his breath leaving patches of fog on the viewport, too stunned to move. ThePiazzi was blazing brightly, some fluke of leaking oxygen tanks allowing fire even in the vacuum of space. TheGhana andLeekpai were blackened and silent, as were theBombay andSeagull. He couldn't find any trace of theBadger at all.
And theJutland -the powerful, Rigel-class defense carrierJutland -was twisting slowly in space. Dead.
And the four alien starships were still there. Showing no damage at all.
"No," Pheylan heard himself murmur. It was impossible. Utterly impossible. For a Rigel-class task force to have been defeated in six minutes-six minutes-was unheard of.
There was a flicker of laser fire from one of the aliens; then another, and another. Pheylan frowned, wondering what they were shooting at. Some of theJutland's Dragonfly fighters, perhaps, that were still flying around? The aliens fired again, and again-
And with a jolt of horror Pheylan understood. The aliens were firing on the honeycomb pods. Systematically and painstakingly destroying the survivors of the battle.
He swore viciously under his breath. The pods were no threat to the aliens-they weren't armed, armored, or even equipped with drives. To destroy them like this was to turn a military victory into a cold-blooded slaughter.
And there was nothing that he could do about it except sit here and watch it happen. The pod was little more than a minuscule cone with a power supply, a dioxide/oxygen converter, a backup oxygen tank, an emergency radio beacon, a short-range comm laser, two weeks' worth of rations, a waste-reclaimant system-
He was clawing the equipment access panel open almost before the thought had completely formed in his mind. The aliens out there weren't just blasting every chunk of rubble in sight; they were specifically and deliberately hunting down the pods. And suddenly it was blindingly obvious how they were doing that.
The emergency beacon was a deliberately simple gadget, as unbreakable and foolproof as anything in the Peacekeepers' inventory. But foolproof didn't necessarily mean sabotage proof. A minute later, every wire and circuit line to it cut and the blade of his multitool jabbed into its internal power backup, it had finally been silenced.
Pheylan took a deep breath, feeling the coolness of sweat on his forehead as he turned back to the viewport. The flashes of laser fire were still flickering through the battle debris as the aliens went about their grisly business. One of the ships was working its way his direction, and he wondered tensely whether any of his crew had figured out what was going on and had knocked out their own beacons.