“Engineering. All systems operational.”
“Medical. Ready to receive casualties.”
“Bad Girls. Bulkheads sealed. Passenger status nominal.” In the cargo bay twenty cold sleep cells held a mix of starship engineers, naval architects, historians and various miscellaneous scientists. Skills that we may need to explore the Clarke and understand the stories it would tell us. Presuming we could find it before we got blown to debris and frozen organic matter. The cold sleep equipment was robust and had a good chance of surviving anything other than a catastrophic explosion, but I’d rather be on the bridge, master of my own destiny.
“Firing range in twenty seconds.” Called Hemingray. We were now closing with the interceptor at high speed and both ships were still accelerating.
“Mr Ash, stand by on the vulcan cannons.” I’d seen small ships in this position before, neither commander willing to give way until it was too late to avoid a collision. The Vulcan cannons would put a wall of high velocity metal in front of the ship that would show up on the opposition’s screens and encourage them to change course and turn their flank towards us.
“Drives to zero, fire vulcan cannons, hold on laser batteries.” It wouldn’t take the interceptor’s fire control system long to recalibrate to our new velocity, but I had to cut the drives otherwise we would run into our own cloud of tungsten alloy rods. Ash let loose a two second burst from the four forward cannons, releasing eight hundred projectiles. The enemy captain would be preparing to fire his laser batteries but would now be faced with something unexpected. I didn’t like to rely on luck but, the interceptor was on the back foot and, with a little of it, they would be forced into a mistake.
“Ten seconds. Target manoeuvring.” And there it was
Timing was everything. At this velocity I could afford four or five seconds of acceleration without colliding with the tungsten rods. The enemy commander would have a firing solution and waiting for us to enter effective combat range. Dryden was watching me, his fingers over the drive controls.
“Drives on…drives off
A few more seconds passed. “Target firing.” By the time Pearce had said it, it was over. The enemy commander had fired too soon. We were on the limit of effective range but several hundred metres further away than anticipated.
“How many turrets?”
“Three.” Everything they had. The fourth turret couldn’t be brought to bear.
“No damage.” The enemy’s manoeuvre in response to the cloud of tungsten alloy had increased the angle of approach slightly and, combined with our stuttering velocity changes, it was enough to mis-direct their fire control systems and they had missed. It would take several minutes for their weapons to recharge. Before they could fire again we would be close enough for Ash to target their critical systems.
The next few minutes were uneventful. The command crew worked their instruments but I had little to do; our course was set and we were committed to exchanging fire with the interceptor. Hemingray was monitoring the target ship, Pearce was analysing signals from the other ships she had detected and Ash was refining his firing solutions. I glanced at the repeater screen and could see that he was intending to use five of the laser batteries, focussing on the target’s own weapons and sensor arrays. That would substantially reduce the threat to us without endangering the crew. Although non of the ships in the area had identified themselves and weren’t acting like Navy units, I didn’t want to fire indiscriminately on what could turn out to be Imperial forces.
I looked at the combat situation display which was on the main screen. “Where are the other ships?” I enquired of Pearce. She zoomed out and new icons appeared. If we had turned, as we were expected to do, we would have run straight in to them. At first glance it did look like a Curtis trap, but now the predictive tracks of the other ships suggested they hadn’t set intercept courses, but were fanning out behind us, almost herding us towards the gas giant. Something was wrong.
“Miss Pearce, I need to know if there are more ships between us and the gas giant.”
“Sir.” The tactical position remained on the main screen but her panel displays changed as she activated long range sensors. At this distance we would be lucky to pick up much, but I wanted as much notice as possible of any further opponents.
“What’s wrong?” Asked Echo. She entered into the ring of command stations and stood next to me, touching shoulder to shoulder.
“Everything. The Naval Index says that there should only be a couple of small gunboats.” I picked this system because of the big gap between here and the systems on the other side of the border; too far for almost all starships to cross so there’s not going to be any smuggling activity and thin pickings for pirates. I expected we’d slip across the border unnoticed, not attract the attention of a colonial cruiser and four other ships. If they were escorts and interceptors we would hold our own. If they were all colonial cruisers, we were in trouble.
“We checked all the intelligence reports and indexes.” She said.
“We missed something. These ships weren’t waiting for us. If they’re firing on everybody, there should have been something in the reports.”
“Franklin is dead.”
“Yes…but I suspect she would be able to predict where you’d cross the border. Or at least narrowed down the likely possibilities.”
“Franklin is dead.” I repeated. I didn’t doubt this for a moment. Not just because Echo had killed her, but Cavendish had been there to confirm it.
“The target has fired missile again.” Reported Ash. I nodded. He knew what to do.
“Humour me?” Asked Echo. “If you were in Franklin’s position and you’ve just had to do a deal with somebody because you’ve just failed to kill them.”
“Would you, perhaps, send out a message to the blockade? Unless these orders are countermanded, destroy or detain any citadel class starships. And if there are gaps in the blockade where very few ships have the range to cross, station a couple of colonial cruisers to bolster the line?”
“Missiles destroyed.” Called Ash. “Standing by to fire main weapons at the target. Firing solutions locked in.”
“Weapons released.” I replied. Ash counted down from five and there was a flurry of data crossed his screen as he assessed the results. After a few seconds he looked up.
“Three turrets destroyed.”
“She’s turning away.” Said Hemingray. The interceptor was out of the fight. I glanced at Pearce. She was frowning. The headphones indicated that she was listening to a transmission. I turned to look at her repeater screens, mounted on the bulkhead above head height where they could easily be seen. There was a lot of communications activity, all of it on standard naval frequencies.
“Captain! I’m picking up transmissions from six ships. The interceptor we’ve just trashed is making a lot of noise, the colonial cruiser behind us is the lead ship in the trap and is sending orders that the other ships have acknowledged.” That was five ships. The names and designation numbers appeared on the screen. Nothing I recognised but they appeared to be bona fide Imperial Navy vessels.
Pearce continued. “There’s a lag in transmissions from the sixth ship. It’s about four seconds. And I’m also picking up interference. I think it’s in orbit around the gas giant, but it’s not appearing on the scans so I’d guess it’s somewhere round the back at the moment.”
“Are the transmissions encrypted?” asked Echo. She was looking at the communications display.
“Standard basic encoding. It’s loaded into the computer so we know what they’re saying.” Pearce could probably interpret it without the need to run it through the computer.
“Naval frequencies, naval encoding. But nothing in the Index and they’re not transmitting identification or collision avoidance signals.” Echo looked at me. “This is just wrong. York, get us out of here!”
The Naval Index had been incorrect before. Admiral Franklin had manipulated it to hide the movements of the battle fleets as she prepared to go to war with the Realm of the Returning Son. There was every chance that this was some hangover from that. A small squadron that never received the recall order. This trap wasn’t specially for us, just some administrative oversight. We didn’t have the fuel to jump back out of the system. We needed to skim hydrogen from the atmosphere of the gas giant and that meant fighting our way in and out, or talking.
“Miss Pearce, hail the colonial cruiser.”
As I waited, I glanced at the display screens and caught a shift of pattern on the tactical board. Ash had just fired the aft Vulcan cannons.
“Just a short burst to dissuade them from turning to bring their remaining weapons turret to bear.”
“Very good.” In the navy, firing weapons without a direct order was a court martial offence. I had selected the best officers I could find for my crew and gave them the leeway to act as they saw fit, but I was still uncomfortable about firing without an order or pre-defined combat plan. “Miss Pearce?”
“No response, Sir. “
In a situation like this the captain would be on the bridge with his command crew around him. I had no doubt they had received the transmission and made a deliberate decision not to answer.
“York, can we take all these ships at once?”
“I think we could probably handle two cruisers and a handful of interceptors if we can separate them.” Any more than that and we would probably suffer two much damage to the ship to continue the mission.
“They’ll be all over us if we try to refuel.”
I didn’t need the advice but, right now, I didn’t want an argument so I refrained from commenting. I glanced at the tactical screen and a plan formulated.
“Miss Hemingray, plot a course for the gas giant, close orbit, standard by four. Mr Ash, activate the rear Vulcan cannons and fire disruptive patterns at the chase ships; slow them down as much as possible.” We would accelerate down the gravity well and do as much damage to whatever was hiding in the shadow of the planet. Colonial cruisers were configured for atmospheric manoeuvring, but only at a low speed that would make it difficult for them to pursue us if we could swing all the way around and exit the atmosphere at a sharp angle.
“Sir?” Pearce. “I’ve identified the ship that we can’t pick up on the scanners from its transmission code. It’s the Mistral, a warden class frigate.”
What the hell was a frigate doing in a backwater like this? It was ten times the size of our ship, outgunned us by three to one and had almost the same acceleration. Head to head we were going to lose.