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Authors: Steve White,Charles E. Gannon

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

Extremis (9 page)

BOOK: Extremis
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Yoshikuni saw a green delta at the leading edge of her forward screen flicker into amber. “I see it, Tactical. Will she be able to—?”

The amber arrowhead snapped into an inverted gold arch, arms pinched close at the bottom.


Dawntreader
is Code Omega, Admiral. Lost with all hands.”

Okay, she’d lost two more monitors and two SDs—three counting
Dawntreader
: that ought to be enough blood for the damn Baldies to believe she was ready to run. “Ops, prepare to send Fleet orders.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lead screen fall back, making best speed through our second screen. Lead screen is to reform as the new rear screen, thirty-five light-seconds back, intercept pattern Papa Romeo. Tenders are to come forward to reequip them if there is sufficient range from threat forces. The former second screen is now on point. Hold current formation, but re-center five degrees to trailing of Beaumont. Continue that heading until further orders.”

Ops looked up. “Admiral, at that rate our whole screen will be falling behind and to the trailing side of Beaumont.”

“I am aware of that, Ops.”

“Very good, Admiral.”

In the holotank, the two screens of Miharu Yoshikuni’s fleet were already showing the first signs of moving through this evolution: the lead screen was breaking apart, its constituent bits picking up speed as they shot rearward through gaps in the second screen, which was now drifting slightly behind Beaumont and its moons. The enemy swarm of red closed in, now equidistant from Yoshikuni’s new lead units and the planet.

Yoshikuni shook her head as an orderly brought her sixth cup of tea, and watched the enemy motes track over with the new green screen that faced them. The far edge of the red wave just failed to graze the near side of Beaumont.

Yoshikuni smiled for the first time in an hour. “Tactical, analysis of their line of sight.”

“To where, Admi—?”

“You know where.”

The Tactical officer cleared this throat; the question had been formally correct, but so specious that it could only have come from a jg. “Enemy units no longer have visual contact with the far side of Beaumont, sir. Or its moons.”

“Comm, get me Beaumont Brigade Command.”

“Yes, sir. Oh, and Admiral?”

“Yes?”

“Our returning DD courier—RFNS
Bucky Sherman
—has a pouch to convey, sir.”

Yoshikuni nodded: probably coded tidbits from Erica, including some special parameters for just how she needed contingency Sierra-Charley to evolve. “Bring their courier on board, and tell the master of that mouse, Lieutenant Zama—er, Lieutenant Zoma—

“Lieutenant
Zuniga
, sir.”

“Yes—Zuniga. Tell her to stay in our shadow. One good missile hit and she’s—”

“Code Omega on the
Yellow Sea
, sir.”

Another SD lost. Damn. This was getting expensive. She checked the plot. Almost time, and where the hell was—?

“Beaumont Brigade Command online, sir. Commo’s scratchy, though.”

Yoshikuni toggled the comm line into her headset. “Beaumont, this is Admiral Miharu Yoshikuni of the Further Rim Fleet, Task Force One. Patch me through to Nathan McCullough, Senior Brigadier.”

“On the line and in the flesh,” came the bluff reply. “I’ve been coordinating with your Tactical staff, Admiral. My compliments on them. Commendations, too, if I’d the time.”

“Noted and appreciated, Brigadier McCullough. Are your people ready?”

“Aye, Admiral. The Island Brigades are on full alert, although I’ve little sense what they might do.”

Me, either, but—
“And the PD Brigade?”

“Planetary Defense Brigade is tubes open, birds hot, Admiral.”

She paused. The next answer would tell her if her gamble was going to pan out or not. “And Flight?”

“The Flight Brigade—and its outsystem auxiliaries—is in full readiness. We were a wee bit shy on drop tanks, but we’ve cannibalized some shuttle emergency fuel pods to function as—”

“Brigadier, you have all our thanks. I’ve got to sign off, and will hand you back to my Tactical officer. Just assure me of this—when we call for you…”

“We’ll be there before the echo fades, Admiral. My word as a McCullough.”

She exhaled. “Thank you again, Brigadier.” She toggled the circuit over to Tactics and leaned back.
Well, maybe this might work, after all.
She luxuriated in that sense of well-being for four seconds, before she heard—

“Admiral, the Baldies are launching fighters. Lots of ’em.”

“Give me a count—” she started to order, but then fell silent.

Down in the tacplot, incandescent candy-red pinpricks were bleeding out toward the center of her weakening screen like a deathly, spreading rash.

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

(Exultation, fanatic glee.) “Excellent! Did I not tell you? Action, Narrok, action! This is what shall save the Children of Illudor!”

(Gratification.) But beneath his
selnarm
, Narrok felt anxiety. Yes, they were finally punishing the human fleet; its slower monitors were dying, at last. His immense volleys of missiles had weakened them, shattered at least one of their damnably efficient fire-coordinating datalinks. His many fighters had quickly rushed into that gap in the hyperactive thickets of defensive missiles and force beams. Even now, his small craft were doing executioner’s work.

But the shape of his forces troubled him. His fighters had punched a deep bulge into the humans’ lead screen. His van of capital ships had tucked in after them, compacting into a dense cone as the more peripheral units had asked—and been given—permission to close range expeditiously with the weakened enemy units. Yes, he had allowed an evolution which brought all his firepower to bear on this weakening spot in the human defenses—

—but the cost had been a contraction of his forces and a loss of responsiveness and theater awareness. He hadn’t been comfortable pulling so far away from the planet, behind which he could now no longer see. He had sent some shuttles there, to keep watch, but these had been blasted by a veritable sleetstorm of the planet’s short-range defense missiles. Was that part of the enemy’s plan, to deny him visibility of the far side of the planet, or just more of the overeager planetary-defense activity mounted by every human world they had conquered so far?

Urkhot actually grasped his shoulder, the main, or clasping, tentacles digging in a bit harder than seemed necessary. “Narrok, will you not celebrate the obvious? Your strategy has succeeded. See how the first enemy screen fell back, and now the second is buckling? And now their losses become as great as ours.”

(Calm, objectivity.) “Has it succeeded, Urkhot? The human commander is withdrawing, yes. But too slowly. This is no rout. See how it has reformed its first defensive line behind what had been its second. And as the
griarfeksh
admiral does so, its main body of capital ships comes closer to the other side of the Desai limit, as we grow more distant from any of that disk’s edges.”

“You are as sour as a
pt’ulul
rind, Narrok. The
griarfeksh
commander is falling back. Retreat is retreat, my…colleague.”

(Mild accord.) “Yes, they are falling back. But in order, and upon the warp point to Suwa—as would I.”

(Distaste. Resentment.) Urkhot withdrew his brief wash of fellow feeling. (Petulance) took its place. “ ‘Suwa?’ You should not use the human names if you can help it, Admiral.”

“With respect,
Holodah’kri
, we have only their charts to show us what lies in not just this system, but this whole region of space. In the rush of our advances, we have not had time to devise our own names for stars and planets before distributing navigation charts and accompanying data. This encourages the unfortunate habit of adopting the relevant human labels.”

“It is a habit which you all must endeavor to break.”

(Soothing agreement.) “It is the first, most crucial business we must attend to, after this combat is resolved.”

Urkhot was perhaps not entirely mollified, but at least he was silent.
Would that he were silent someplace other than my bridge
.

Urkhot abandoned his short-lived reticence and pointed into the holopod. “You should push the
griarfeksh
harder, Admiral. Push until they break.”

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

“They’re going to break us if we don’t give up a few more light-seconds, Admiral.”

Yoshikuni nodded, studied her data tablet: the external missile racks of her rearmost screen were eighty-seven percent reloaded. Not ready yet. She checked the relative positions of Beaumont and the two fleets: the bulk of the red swarm was about to move past the planet on the side that was closest to her lead screen. Beaumont would be behind the bulk of the Baldy fleet in the next five, maybe six minutes. She ran the numbers and then called, “Comm.”

“Sir?”

“Captain Ludovico on secure channel. Now.”

“Yes, sir…Captain Ludovico online, sir.”

“Patch it to my Line One.”

“Yes, Admiral.”

Her earplug buzzed a bit, then: “Admiral, is this a social call?”

Damn it, don’t get personal now, Roberto.
Aloud: “Unfortunately not, Captain. New orders for your carriers.”

“Ready.”

You think I’m about to ask for the kind of attack you flyboys live for, don’t you—particularly with all their fighters swarming around. But we can deal with them…
“Captain, you are to take
Torrent
and
Buran
on a long, flanking run.”

“How long, Admiral?” Ludovico’s voice was—thankfully—all business now.

“As far as you can go, Captain. You’re to turn hard out of the line, slipping behind Beaumont and—without escort—make for the nearest edge of the Desai limit. Once there, make best speed—plus ten percent—for the warp point back to Charlotte.”

“Back to—? Sir, is this some kind of—?”

“I don’t have time to joke today, Captain. Yes, I’m sending you right back through the hole they came in. Our sensors show it’s unpatrolled on this side—typical Baldy operations. They figure anything that goes back the way they came will get chewed up on the other side.”

“I think they figure right, sir. If we pop out of the warp point in Charlotte, then the only uncertainty is who wins the race to get us first—their laser mines or SDs.”

“Captain, I don’t think they’ve had the time—or inclination—to mine the far side. In the course of normal reconnaissance, we got one RD back three days ago. It showed the other six RDs we sent getting torn up by Baldy fighters and shipside batteries—but no static defenses. So you just might get through.”

“Well, I guess we’re going to find out. And I guess you won’t know.”

Yoshikuni grinned, doing her best to keep the exchange from getting both personal and poignant. She’d had a surreptitious—would one call it a fling?—with Roberto Ludovico when she was first posted out beyond Bellerophon, and she certainly didn’t need any hint of that old dalliance worming its way into this conversation—or her resolve—at this moment.

“If you make it through—
when
you make it through—don’t try to get back to us. Don’t even try to send a report. You might make it to Charlotte, but you won’t make it back here again. They’ll be right on your tail.”

“So, once in Charlotte—what?”

“Steer straight for the Demeter warp point and keep on going. Don’t let up until you are sure you’ve shaken all pursuit. And then, as the Baldies start expanding into where you’ve come to rest, you hit their supply convoys. No stand-up fights, though. Targets of opportunity, soft ones. When they try hunting you down, you’ll probably need to fall back, all the way up the arm to Treadway, eventually.
Along the way, link up with the little picket ships we’ve left out there. On their own, they’re not going to do much good, but in conjunction with you—”

Roberto let his voice become the basso croon she had always loved; but right now, she hated hated hated it. “Even so, we’re not liable to hurt them much.”

“Just making them escort every single convoy will draw off many times the weight of your hulls. That means a corresponding reduction in their frontline strength. Just don’t get caught, Captain. Stay light on your feet, and when in doubt, run like hell.”

“And when they own all the warp points and I’m out of running room?”

“You know the drill. Find the most junk-strewn, planet-choked, belt-packed system you can and play hide-and-seek in the outer system. You’ve got the Desai drive. Their rear-echelon security units probably won’t have it—meaning that you can strike anything a few light-minutes inside the Desai limit and then get back out to where you can kick in the Desai drive again. And live to fight another day.”

“A boring life, playing hide-and-seek at the edge of a system, lying doggo in an Oort cloud, and getting water from ice chunks.”

“Poor you. I’ll send you postcards from the all-too-radiant front lines. Listen—no time for fond farewells. Just stay alive, okay, Roberto?”

“As per your orders. How can I refuse?”

“That’s right, mister—follow my orders. Now Godspeed and on your way.”

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

Narrok nodded as two of the smaller human ship icons, which had been hovering between their two screens, broke quickly for the edge of the Desai limit: they trailed a thin screen of fighters as they went.

Urkhot started. (Confusion.) “What are they doing? What can those two ships possibly do?”

“Nothing to our fleet here. But unless I am mistaken, they are heading back for the warp point we came through. To Charlotte.”

“Are they mad? If they wish suicide, why not simply rush into our beams?”

Narrok sent (mild rue) and explained, “It is not suicide,
Holodah’kri
—since we left nothing back at the warp point to prevent them from using it.”

“Nothing at the warp point? What titanic incompetence is this, Admiral?”

“I find it interesting that you consider Senior Admiral Torhok’s express operational instructions to be an example of ‘titanic incompetence.’ ”

BOOK: Extremis
12.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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