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Authors: Steve White,Charles E. Gannon

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Military, #Fiction, #General, #Space Opera

Extremis (10 page)

BOOK: Extremis
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“What? What do you mean?”

“I have long wanted to secure all our warp points, from both sides, with both active and static defenses. Senior Admiral Torhok refused on the grounds that all our assets and energies must stay on the attack. ‘All claws up front’ were his words, I believe.”

Urkhot struggled to put himself safely in alignment with Torhok’s operational doctrine. “Well—yes, of course, this is prudent. For certainly, our forces back in Charlotte will make quick work of these craft.”

“Will they? Note these craft,
Holodah’kri
. They are what the
griarfeksh
label CVLs—light carriers.”

“Weak craft—which carry weaker gnats to which our hulls are all but immune.”

“Our larger hulls, yes. But consider—carriers, particularly light carriers such as these, are amongst the fastest and most maneuverable of all the
griarfeksh
hulls. I predict that just before they reach the Desai limit, the carriers will reclaim their fighters and then engage their Desai drives. They will arrive swiftly at the warp point—more swiftly than one of our courier drones, even if we sent it now. And once through the warp point in Charlotte, they will again have the immediate advantage of their Desai drive. What is waiting for them there? A few fighters, two transports, and an SD finishing repairs—none of which have Desai drives. The
griarfeksh
will be through the warp point and out of range by the time our forces in Charlotte know to respond.”

Urkhot’s torso had faintly shifted from its usual iridescent gold to a rather pasty yellow. “But once there, what could these…light carriers…hope to do against us?”

“Their options are many,
Holodah’kri
. They could attempt to hunt down our supply ships and auxiliaries in that system. They could exit through the Demeter warp point to warn and rally the systems farther along that arm. Or they could hide in the Charlotte system itself and lurk, waiting to strike at small, unsuspecting craft.”

“Then you must interdict them. Now.”

(Regret.) “To do so, I would have to dispatch several of our heavy superdreadnoughts—they are the only craft fast enough to catch them.”

(Impatience.) “And is doing this a problem for our great fleet?”

“Only insofar as it weakens our efforts to secure a prompt victory here,
Holodah’kri
. The SDHs are our best ships, the ones that can keep up with the humans’ capital ships and match their firepower. With fewer SDHs here, I cannot press the
griarfeksh
quite so hard. If I cannot press them so hard, they have more time for an orderly, fighting withdrawal through the warp point into Suwa.”

Urkhot’s grinders rasped against each other. (Indecision.) “I must remain in contact with Torhok, and if the humans cut off our access to Charlotte, and perhaps even Andromeda, then the path of communication back to the Council at New Ardu is severed.”

“Yes. Although it would be quite easy to restore it, once we have driven off these—”

(Fear) then (resolution, relief). “My reports and—through me—the wisdom of Illudor must remain accessible to Torhok. At all times.”

And Narrok wondered, easing back from his
selnarm
link,
What has happened to my fellow Destoshaz who once held themselves so proudly self-reliant? It almost sounds as though Urkhot needs to know he has an unobstructed means of access to his Supreme Leader. It is as though we are emulating the Pre-Enlightenment warrior cults of—

“Well?” Urkhot had emitted the
selnarmic
equivalent of a nervous shout. “Have you dispatched the pursuit craft?”

“I was merely considering which SDHs to pull back from the line,
Holodah’kri
. I am issuing the orders now.”

And as he issued the orders, Narrok also did the political math of how Urkhot’s interference in fleet operations would play in the Council of Twenty. With the Fleet reduced in its ability to exert offensive pressure in Beaumont, the humans would probably extricate more of their ships. A pity, but this was only a marginal setback: the main objective—driving the humans back from Raiden and Beaumont—seemed well under way. The most desirable version of that outcome—the one in which the besieged human commander in Raiden would have obligingly drawn forces from, and thus weakened, the defenders in Beaumont—had not been realized. Well, Narrok had not held much hope for the success of that ruse, anyway. Both human commanders would have had to have been at least marginally stupid to fall for such an obvious trick, and he had seen very few human commanders that could be fairly labeled as “stupid.”

On the other hand, complying with Urkhot’s request to keep the pathway back to Bellerophon clear at all times would be a useful bargaining chip in Narrok’s future dealings with the Council of Twenty. Torhok and his True Destoshaz militants would be sure to find fault with Narrok’s handling of the Beaumont assault: nothing ever happened quickly enough for the Senior Admiral and his supporters. However, this delay—and more—could now be ascribed to Urkhot’s demand that capital ships be diverted from combat operations to run down the two human carriers. If Torhok was critical that the Battle of Beaumont had been conducted in too slow and cautious a manner, Urkhot’s neuroses could now be implicated in that outcome. Meaning Torhok could not seek to undermine Narrok’s position without also undermining that of his ally, Urkhot.

The
Holodah’kri
’s
selnarm
tugged at Narrok’s. “Will the SDHs catch the carriers?”

Narrok looked at the tactical plot. “Possibly.” He felt Urkhot’s rising panic. “Probably.” The panic subsided. Narrok sent (reassurance), turned away, glanced covertly at the unpromising intercept vectors and concealed his growing (contempt).

RFNS
Jellicoe
, Task Force One, Further Rim Fleet, Beaumont System

“Admiral, they’ve sent three SDH hounds after our two CVL foxes.”

Yoshikuni nodded and glanced at the plot. Roberto might even make it—by the skin of his teeth. “Ops.”

“Yes, Admiral?”

“How are our datanets?”

“Took some repatching after we lost the
Jena
, sir, but we’ve rerouted and they are running strong.”

“Damage?”

“We’re okay—but we won’t be in another thirty minutes.”

“The Baldy fighters?”

“I’d say they’ve lost about half, and they don’t seem to have any external ordnance left, just lasers. Not much good against us.”

The hatchway to the secondary bridge access tube dilated: a youthful man with a worn black pouch entered. She waved off his salute. “Are you Lieutenant Wethermere, from the
Bucky Sherman
?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Take a seat—and start your own recording of the tacplot. This could get interesting.”

“Yes, sir.”

Yoshikuni stood. “Fleet signal. Front and rear screens, maintain heading and slow advance. Two light-seconds per minute, average rate.”

“It’s going to get real close, sir.”

“It’s going to get closer still. Rear screen, ready CBMs to fire in sprint mode—and prepare to flush racks.”

“Flush racks, Admir—?”

“Tactics, do you need your hearing checked?”

“Rear screen ready to flush racks, aye, Admiral.”

“Now, Comm—put me through to Brigadier McCullough on Beaumont.”

“He’s already standing by, sir.”

Yoshikuni raised her voice so the pickups would catch it. “Brigadier McCullough, is the Flight Brigade ready?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then launch all. Stick close in the planet’s sensor shadow until you’re ready.”

“Just as we discussed it, Admiral. Spaceside ETA, seventeen minutes.”

“We’ll keep them busy until then. And Brigadier—”

“Yes, Admiral?”

“Don’t be late.”

Arduan SDH
Shem’pter’ai
, First Fleet of the
Anaht’doh Kainat
, Beaumont System

Urkhot was delighted; Narrok was unsettled; Fleet Second Metrak was openly fidgeting.

Urkhot’s
selnarm
reeked of (exultation, bloodlust). “At last, they maneuver to engage us. Now our victory is finally at hand.”

This time, Narrok did not try to conceal (wariness, misgiving). “Yes—they engage us. And they should not. They have no reason to. Indeed, they have every reason not to.”

(Annoyance.) “What do you mean, Admiral?”

Narrok swept a lesser tentacle through the shimmering silver-white circle that marked the Desai limit: the part of this arc that was closest to the Suwa warp point was also close behind the two human screens. But those screens were now advancing toward the Arduans like a pair of slightly separated but in-line disks. “Look at how close the
griarfeksh
were—and still are—to the Desai limit. They could run from us, and we might not catch them at all. Since they cannot hold this system, such a retreat would be the logical evolution of their battle plan.”

“So? Perhaps they reason that they must damage us as much as they can before attempting to flee.”

“Perhaps—but with our current advantage in numbers, they cannot hope to destroy many more of our ships than we can of theirs. And that is a much poorer ship-exchange ratio than they have been willing to accept to date. But this is what worries me the most.” Narrok moved his cluster over, and then extended all his tentacles into, the compacted mass of Arduan ship icons burgeoning just beyond the holo-image of Beaumont.

(Incredulousness, facetiousness.) “You are worried by our immense advantage in warships?”

“No, I am worried about what the enemy’s sudden advance upon us has caused. Yes, more of our ships are in range, but at the expense of our keeping a good formation. First, we reduced the diameter of our screen, which brought more of our hulls into range. Now we are turning into a densely packed mass. With our front slowed by direct engagement with the
griarfeksh
, the rearward units are catching up—but pushing into the very same volume of space.”

“Surely you cannot be worried about collisions. You know far better than I that each of those ships is separated by at least fifty thousand kilometers.”

“True. I have no fear of collisions. I fear a loss of tactical mobility and data-net optimization.”

(Annoyance, incomprehension.) “You fear what?”


Holodah’kri
, space is indeed vast—but relative angles and headings still matter and may be compromised when units are too close to deploy a sufficiently wide field of fire. Our ships are too tightly packed here. Their defensive fire systems and their ability to maneuver would be severely limited if they were to be attacked by—”

(Impatience, fury.) “—by what?” seethed Urkhot. “Where are these new, phantom threats that can appear from nowhere and take advantage of this momentary—”

Metlak emitted (URGENCY URGENCY URGENCY). “Admiral!”

(Calm.) “Yes, Fleet Second?”

“Sir, from the planet—fighters!”

“Of course. In fact, they are overdue. We have seen this at every human planet we have approached. How many fighters, Second? A dozen, two dozen?”

“Not dozens, Admiral. Hundreds!”

The phantom threat had appeared. And, having used Beaumont to cover its approach, Nathan McCullough’s Flight Brigade had appeared directly on Narrok’s rear flank, and at a range of less than fifteen light-seconds.

RFNS
Jellicoe
, Task Force One, Further Rim Fleet, Beaumont System

Ossian Wethermere was hardly conscious that he had stood up and almost failed to notice the strange shuddering quake that marked his first discernible moment in combat: a near miss by a Baldy missile.

“Where did all those fighters come from?” He failed to add “sir,” because his query was not directed at any one individual: it was a general voicing of astonishment.

Yoshikuni cut a sharp glance at him. “From reserve formations and mothballs up and down both mainlines of the Bellerophon Arm. We drained every hangar and holding yard from here up to Samson and Treadway. Now sit down and strap in or you’re sure to be the first casualty. It’s likely to get a lot rougher, real soon.” As if to punctuate the admiral’s exhortation, a bone-jarring convulsion rippled through the hull.

Wethermere complied. “But, sir, some of those birds—”

“—date back to before the Insurrection. Their on-board weapons are at least two marks behind current systems, and I’d wager that some of those airframes don’t have more than a hundred good hours left in them.” Then she smiled like a tiger seeing a steak. “But their
external
ordnance is all brand-new. Now record your recording and let me work.”

“Yes, sir.”

She smiled before looking away and barking, “Ops: update.”

“Shields good, net secure.”

“Relay of targeting data?”

“Brigadier McCullough confirms he received it five-by-five. He concurs with Tactical’s assessment as to which SDHs are their datalink hubs.”

“Let’s hope all this mutual admiration on the tactical intel side is warranted. Missile batteries, prepare to cease fire as soon as the fighters have launched their ordnance. Then give me all beams, sustained fire.”

“Admiral, that might burn out the capacitors.…”

“Then let them burn. After McCullough has shot his bolt, I want the Baldies to focus their defensive fire on him. And yes, I know what that means for the Flight Brigade.” There was silence on the bridge. Even Wethermere, new to combat, had an inkling of what the concentrated defensive fire of the Baldy SDs and SDHs would do to fighters with obsolete ECM packages and outdated evasion characteristics.

In the tacplot, the cloud of green gnats that had swarmed out from behind Beaumont now merged into the outermost red membranes of the enemy fleet.

“McCullough’s launching.”

“How many survived to make the run?”

Tactics checked his board. “Two hundred eighty-three out of four hundred, sir.”

In the plot, the blood-red mass of the enemy fleet did not seem to move so much as churn, like a bloated organ bulging and flexing in distress. And in fact, that was what was occurring: the Baldy fleet was trying to wheel about and keep their aft-drive decks—and therefore, defensive blind spot—faced away from a mass attack by fighters. And clearly, not all of the enemy battlewagons were succeeding: omega icons started sprouting inside the organ.

BOOK: Extremis
6.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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