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Authors: Steve White,Charles E. Gannon

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

Extremis (6 page)

BOOK: Extremis
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“Because their targeting is mostly optical. A missile flies home to its target, particularly in its terminal intercept phase, by aiming at the approximate center of that target’s most powerful energy emissions. However, the pseudo-velocity field created by the reactionless drive—what engineers call the ‘field-effect envelope’—provides some modest protection against missiles. Its alteration of
space around the targeted ship also disrupts its various EM emissions. The larger the ship, the greater the distortion, and thus the harder to achieve the lock necessary for a contact hit.”

(Bafflement.) “Then how do the missiles destroy the ships at all?”

Narrok sent a mix of (irony, satisfaction). “The antimatter warheads more than compensate for the inability to score a direct hit. They are so powerful that they can severely, even fatally, damage the most heavily armored ships just by getting relatively close.”

“How close?”

“Warhead detonation at a range of dozens, even hundreds, of kilometers may be sufficient to not only cripple but vaporize ships.”

Urkhot breathed in and out audibly. “Our missiles are so powerful?”

“Yes—and so are theirs,
Holodah’kri
. Actually, a little more powerful than ours.”

Urkhot cast a quick worried glance at Narrok, feigning intense interest in the tactical plot, but his
selnarm
and thoughts lingered elsewhere. “At least our anti-cloaking system allows us to see all the enemies that might fire such missiles.”

“We can see them—with certainty—only out to this point,” amended Narrok, flicking a least tentacle of his left cluster through the hologram: it whipped through the space between the two rough lines of the human fleet.

Urkhot’s
selnarm
quickly refocused (concern). “And why no farther than that?”

“Because that is the limit of our anti-cloaking system. Beyond that range, it cannot reach.”

“So out there…”

“Out there could be more ships. And we do not know how many, or of what kind.” (Patience, serenity, surety.) “Is it still your opinion that we should accelerate the rate of our advance beyond the speed of our fighter screen and reconnaissance drones,
Holodah’kri
?”

Urkhot’s
selnarm
shut off with what felt like an almost audible snap. He was long in opening it again. “I trust in your military judgment, Admiral.”

Narrok shared (gladness, fellow-feeling). But unshared, thought:
I’m sure you do, you sanctimonious hypocrite.

RFNS
Gallipoli
, Main Body, Further Rim Fleet, Raiden System

For the fourth time in as many hours, Krishmahnta came bounding out of her bed as soon as the klaxon pealed. She was half into her regulation pants when Mackintosh’s voice emerged from the speaker. “Five new SBMHAWKs, Admiral. Could be the prelude to a wave.”

“Coming,” Krishmahnta grumbled as she buttoned her jacket and stomped her left foot firmly into her shoe.
Yes, it could be an attack wave. Or another Two-o’clock Charlie. Well, I’ll soon find out.

She toggled the door to the bridge. Witeski snapped up from the helm. “Admiral on the bri—”

“Keep your seat, Mr. Witeski, and don’t take your hand off the wheel of this ship.
She’s
the grand lady around here. Now: report, Commander La Mar?”

La Mar’s grin was very faint and very rueful. “Five SBMHAWKs. And six recon drones were right on their tails. One got back through the warp point. No damage to us, but do we shift to another formation?”

Krishmahnta paused, then rubbed her eyes and nodded. “But sometime soon, it’s going to be the real thing. Not just another Two-o’clock Charlie.” After a brief silence, she heard Witeski whispering a question toward La Mar. She intervened. “A Two-o’clock Charlie, Mr. Witeski, was a tactic used during the air wars just before the era of space truly began. It was a small, usually nimble aircraft carrying a single bomb. Its purpose—to fly over the enemy positions at night and drop that single bomb into their rear area. Usually between 0100 and 0300 hours.”

Witeski frowned. “The target?”

Krishmahnta smiled. “The target was the readiness of the troops in that area. It didn’t matter what the bomb hit, Mr. Witeski. What mattered was that none of those soldiers ever got a long, solid block of refreshing sleep. They caught one-hour and, if lucky, two-hour catnaps.” She looked around the bridge. “I suspect you can empathize.”

From beyond the slouching ring of red-rimmed eyes and gray-fleshed brows and cheeks, a chorus of grunts, and a few annoyed snarls, answered in a bitter affirmative. She stared down into the holotank. “Any sign of follow-up?”

“Not a bit, Admiral,” answered La Mar. “All calm.”

Calm out there, but not in here,
thought Krishmahnta.
With just a little ordnance expenditure, they keep us on edge, keep us shifting our line, keep us on pills. On pills that play havoc with our moods, give us a tendency toward tunnel vision and task fixation in exchange for extended wakefulness.
She rubbed her eyes.
They know what they’re doing, all right. They finally read our playbook.

Well, it wasn’t quite “by the book,” she conceded, but it achieved the same results. There had been twelve hours of SBMHAWKs. Then a tentative push with a few superdreadnoughts, probably the last of the class the Baldies had arrived with. Sluggish handling suggested that the ships were largely automated. Those SDs had lasted long enough to send back a flurry of courier drones—which, Krishmahnta had speculated, was all this handful of outmatched dreadnoughts had been meant to achieve: engage and measure the dispersal of her defensive line, confirm the removal of the mines, and send the human fleet a clear message that more hulls—many, many more hulls—would soon be on the way.

Except they didn’t come. Instead, a long-range variant of the RFN’s own SBMHAWK—an automated ship-killing missile that could transit warp points independently—had made a most unwelcome debut. Hundreds of the missiles had come sleeting through the warp point. Those that survived chased after ships which were, in some cases, as far away as fourteen light-seconds. It was only modestly reassuring that none of those lone wolves survived the concentrated defensive fire to score a hit, because, as Krishmahnta had realized, the Baldies had not intended these weapons to kill ships but merely to send a message: “Even fifteen light-seconds back from the warp point, you are not completely safe. We have SBMHAWKs that can range that far—and what if we launch twenty, two hundred, two thousand? At what point does the density of the attack wave overcome your point-defense systems? At what point do your ships and your people start to die?” And with a question like that hovering overhead, like a ghostly sword of Damocles, sleep came less easily. And the closer to the warp point a ship was stationed, the less easily its off-duty crews found the solace of sleep, listening instead for the klaxons that indicated an inbound enemy weapon.

After that first tsunami of long-reaching Baldy SBMHAWKs, there was a pause, and then the alien missiles resumed their intrusions, but this time as an irregular trickle. It was the tactical equivalent of Chinese water torture.

And that torture had to stop, decided Krishmahnta. The time had come to counteract her enemy’s campaign of psychological warfare via sleep deprivation. “Commander Mackintosh, please pass these orders to the fleet. We are shifting to intercept formation Deep Serry Two. Have all ships confirm their way points and final plots before commencing that evolution. As ships rotate into the second rank, they are to reload all external-ordnance racks from tenders.”

Sam raised an eyebrow but only said, “Aye, aye, sir.”

Captain Watanabe leaned over as if to inspect the first small repositionings in the tacplot, but it also allowed him to lean close to Krishmahnta’s ear, in which he murmured, “If the Baldies were to come through, right now—”

“I know, I know.” Erica resisted—sagely—the impulse to bite her now-thoroughly swollen lower lip. Deep Serry Two was a calculated risk: it would ultimately reconfigure the fleet by breaking her engagement forces into two separate lines—which, in the three-dimensional battleground of deep space, would appear as two separate screens. The forward screen would remain on full alert. The rear screen—into which each ship would ultimately be rotated for four hours—would stand down. Instead of running a full watch on full alert, the rear screen would stand down to full bunks and minimal duty shifts—except for double-staffed galleys. In the corridors and the ’tween-deck companionways of the second line, catnaps and hot chow were to be the watchword of the hour. Of course, only the real veterans would actually manage to get real sleep, but the mere ability to close one’s eyes, drowse, and recover from watch burnout was rest enough.

“Admiral?”

Erica swayed straight again. “Hmm…yes? Yes, Captain?”

There was a wry crinkle at the left corner of Yoshi Watanabe’s thin lips. “Are you ready to stand down yourself?”

Krishmahnta breathed in deeply and exhaled through a forcibly bright smile. “Not just yet. I want to watch the evolution. If they stumble on us while we’re making the change—”

“—that would be the worst moment,” agreed Watanabe “So, you’re going to see all your birds safely to their nests?”

Krishmahnta let her smile relax. “Something like that. Just half an hour more, and then I’ll catch some sack time myself.”

* * *

Two and a half hours later, in her bridge-conjoined ready room, lying in full uniform atop her unfolded bunk, Erica Krishmahnta stared at the gray bulkhead above her and attempted to achieve the transcendental state in the fashion her great-grandfather had labored to teach her. But Erica had been a child who, like most of her generation, gave first heed to the culture-leveling call of an increasingly blended humanity. By comparison, her
paradada
’s ways and stories were anachronistic remnants from a time and world that seemed far more distant than Mother Earth.

But there was a greater challenge to Krishmahnta’s current serenity than her inexpert efforts at meditation. Lying on her bunk, she was repeatedly haunted by the terrible and growing conviction that—if she stepped wrong now—the combined fleets of the Further Bellerophon Arm, and the many millions of civilians sheltered behind them, might be forfeit.

The losses she had taken in defending Raiden against this renewed attack were minimal:
heavy damage to a few of the older, slower monitors was the worst of it. Several of her workhorse picket ships—DD’s recently sprung from mothballs—had been unfortunate enough to attract the attention of a few stray force beams and HET-lasers during the recon sortie made by the older Baldy SDs: unable to stand up to that kind of ordnance, the small, gutted hulls had been evacuated and scuttled.

But where was the Great Alien Attack that these preliminaries had surely heralded, and which had been the hallmark of the Baldy campaign thus far? A shift in their first, suicidal tactics had been foreseeable, even inevitable—but this mincing, distant fencing match was a complete and utter reversal of their fleet doctrine. Unless…

And thus reblossomed the thought that had repeatedly kept Krishmahnta from sinking into the mauve of a delta-wave mental state: What if this was not a doctrine change, but a trap? With an attack looming large at the Jason warp point here in Raiden, she felt a correspondingly greater temptation to send a courier to Admiral Miharu Yoshikuni in Beaumont and retrieve the capital ships with which she had bolstered that task force’s rattled defenses. It was clear—from the unprecedented appearance of the stickhives, the Baldies’ meticulous reconnaissance, and their attempts to exhaust her crews—that A Great Attack was coming into Raiden from Jason. Logically, Krishmahnta should meet that force with greater force—as much force as she could muster, in order to smash the invaders back from Raiden yet again.

But the ease with which she came to that conclusion, and the almost primal impulse to respond by taking more forces from Beaumont, was precisely what made Krishmahnta reject that option. As a seasoned flag officer, she had learned—sometimes the hard way—that any action that felt inevitable or compulsory often felt that way because it was a well-laid trap. The Baldies were trying to make her increasingly nervous about her ability to hold Raiden so that she would draw reserves from—and weaken—Yoshikuni’s fleet in Beaumont. The Baldies would then smash and roll up Yoshikuni’s diminished forces and cut straight through to Suwa. And so they would catch Krishmahnta’s swollen fleet in a bottle, plugged at one end by the forces in Jason and sealed at the other by the enemy armada in Suwa.

Of course, the opposite temptation was to fall back on Suwa now and signal Yoshikuni to do the same. But then they’d find themselves in the position of trying to defend two warp points in one system—and as it was, their combined fleets barely had enough strength to permanently secure any one warp point.

So the invaders had to be met in both systems. The strategy was simply one of attrition: to inflict as much damage upon them as possible as they emerged from the single warp point in each system—rather like intercepting the ships of an old-fashioned water fleet as they passed, one by one, through a narrow strait. And when the time came to fall back, Krishmahnta and Miharu Yoshikuni would have to fall back together. First to Suwa, and then, without delay, farther rearward to Achilles, where, combined, they would dig in behind the single warp point through which the aliens might enter that system.

Such maneuvers all sounded so simple, especially when explained by journalists to lay audiences, Erica thought, smiling as a dim mauve haze rimmed her field of vision. She, the all-powerful and all-seeing Vice Admiral Krishmahnta, need only resist as long as practical. Then both fleets would fall back in good order and at the same time. This would occur with flawless ease, even though the fleets were two systems apart and had no way of communicating except through couriers that took at least half a day each way. What could be simpler? she mused, letting the black irony blend into the rising mauve that was the harbinger of that state of mind in which—

BOOK: Extremis
12.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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