Read an Excerpt
“That’s what was gonna attack Alwa?” Granny Rita said. Once commodore of BatCruRon 16, she’d fought hopeless battles. Still, her voice held dismay as she surveyed the wreckage of the alien base ship.
“It was about twice that size before we took some bites out of it,” Lieutenant Commander, Her Royal Highness, Kris Longknife said. Herself no stranger to hopeless battles, she added, “And we’re still quite a ways off. It will get bigger.”
Rita Nuu Longknife Ponsa, former captain of the Battlecruiser Furious, was the recognized leader of the humans, and uniformly called Granny Rita by both the heavy ones, us humans, and the indigenous inhabitants of Alwa, who named themselves either the People, or the Light People.
Granny Rita turned to translate for the delegation of six Alwans who had come to see for all the unbelievable story Kris had told their Association of Associations.
Privately, Granny Rita called the assembly “the flock of flocks,” but she’d warned Kris never to say that where any Alwan might overhear.
Kris listened as Granny Rita and the Alwans clicked and cooed with maybe one word in five sounding familiar to Kris. It was a pigeon dialect they’d worked out over eighty years.
However, Nelly, Kris’s not-very-personable computer, was working on a translator for the two peoples. Kris wondered if the peace that had held for the last eighty years between the Alwans and the humans might have been helped along by both sides’ not fully understanding what the other side said.
When Nelly finished this effort, Kris would have to have a talk with her.
The six Alwans’ movements were quick, almost jerky, as they moved around the forward lounge. Their arms and hands waved. Kris had a feeling that a couple of million years earlier, the flock would have taken flight at this news. Now, having given up most of their feathers as well as flight, they formed and re-formed groups of two or three, talking among themselves and rarely glancing at the view screen that showed the battered alien-invasion base.
This meeting was not being held on the USS Wasp’s bridge. The Alwans had taken in the intensity of the bridge crew at their work and immediately expressed distress to Granny Rita. Kris had offered instead the Forward Lounge, with its four huge screens. Since Kris’s staff were all equipped with Nelly or one of her children, Kris was confident they could do anything that needed doing while letting the Alwans take in the familiar activities of humans eating, drinking, and, in general, enjoying themselves in the familiar surroundings of a restaurant.
And now, thanks to the magic of Katsu’s wizardry with Smart MetalTM, Kris was able to separate the restaurant from her transferred Tac Center with a transparent wall. Yep, Katsu-san could make Smart MetalTM clear as glass!
Kris missed him already, but Katsu said he had trained the Wasp’s ship maintainers as well as he could. He wanted to get back to Musashi and his job at Mitsubishi Heavy Space Industry; his head was already full of ideas for making the next class of ships even better. Thus buzzing with new ideas, he joined the IMS Sakura for the long voyage back to human space.
Kris hated the idea that the Wasp was all by itself clear on the other side of the galaxy. Still, there was no question folks back home needed to know that the sacrifice of their Fleet of Discovery had saved the world they fought for. Even more, the strange planet they laid down their lives for had provided a home to a desperate group of humans. Now, eighty years later, it sheltered a growing human colony.
That colony was led by the former wife of King Raymond of United Society (or United Societies depending on how you thought the new constitution should be interpreted). Problem was, she had buried two husbands in the last eighty years on Alwa and was now mother to seven, grandmother to thirty-four, and great-grandmother to at least 123. That number was subject to change . . . often.
Kris herself was included among the great-grandchildren and had spent a full week meeting a big chunk of half uncles, aunts, and cousins. Still, to one and all of the humans on Alwa, related or not, the former commodore was Granny Rita.
Surprises on top of surprises. Kris could only wonder how the news carried by the IMS Sakura would be received.
But for now, she had no time for Longknife family matters; a huge alien mother ship loomed larger and larger on their screens. Now the Alwans seemed mesmerized by its promise of death. They huddled before the screen, eyes locked on it, only occasionally whispering something low.
“This isn’t good,” Granny Rita whispered to Kris. “Once or twice, I’ve seen one group of them resort to confrontation to settle differences. When one side is fully intimidated by the others’ show of force, the weaker side just hunkers down and surrenders. These folks don’t fight. If you can strut yourself a good enough show, you win.”
“Can you get across to them that a couple of human ships smaller than this one chewed that monster up pretty good and only spit out this much?” Kris said.
Granny shrugged. “They’ve walked this ship. They know its measure. That . . .?”
“Maybe we should have shown them the two Hellburners we have amidships?” Jack said. He was her chief of security, skipper of a rump battalion of Marines composed of a reinforced Wardhaven Marine company and a borrowed, and equally reinforced Musashi Marine company.
For all too brief a time, they’d managed to be lovers.
At the time, they were fugitives and Jack not in Kris’s chain of command.
Now Kris was back on the new Wasp and Jack was keeping her safe and both of them were keeping doors open whenever it was just the two of them alone.
Simply put, Navy regs on fraternization sucked bilgewater . . . through a straw. But Kris and Jack wore the uniform and followed the regulations.
Kris shook her head. “The Hellfire missiles look pretty tiny.” Though the few cubic millimeters of neutron-star material weighed fifteen thousand tons, it was hard for anyone who hadn’t seen them in action to believe how destructive they were.
Again, Granny shook her head. “These folks have theater. They really enjoy a show, but their media is just for what is happening now. They do not record their history. Yes, some plays are historically based, but they really don’t have any concept of either battle, like you showed us, or of recording it for later review.”
“This isn’t going over all that well, is it?” said Penny. Kris’s chief of intelligence, she also stood double duty on the bridge at Defensive Systems. On a ship that could convert your spacious stateroom into a footlocker and send the extra Smart MetalTM to armor the ship’s hide, it was a critical battle station.
Kris’s usual battle station, Weapons, was next to Penny’s, putting the enemy in the crosshairs of the Wasp’s destructive lasers. For the new Wasp, those included four long 18-inch laser rifles, usually reserved for a battleship. The Weapons Division was still looking for a chance to show what they could do.
Everyone else on the Wasp was fervently hoping the Weapons Division would continue polishing their guns and wondering what they could do. The Wasp was as far from human space as a ship could get.
She was also very alone now that the Sakura was gone.
Being far from any repair facilities and any help was no time to go looking for a fight.
On this, Kris and her entire staff agreed.
But they did want to know what kind of damage they’d done to the alien raider’s base ship. Just how good were the Hellburners at doing bad?
Inquiring minds wanted to know.
But carefully. Very carefully.
“Nelly, how far has the hulk drifted from the jump point it was just out of when we hit it?” Kris asked her personal computer. Nelly was much upgraded from the day she’d been given to the little girl Kris before she started school. Nelly was now worth at least half the value of the USS Wasp. Nelly had condescended to give the Mitsubishi Heavy Space Industry’s Chief Engineer, Katsu, one of Nelly’s kids. This had made up for the other half of the frigate’s cost not covered by bake sales and donations from the schoolchildren of Musashi.
“She was accelerating away from the jump point,” Nelly said, “at about half a gee. Then we hit her hard in the rump, and that must have accelerated her more.”
“I agree with that,” said Captain Drago, from the bridge. Hired by the Wardhaven Intelligence Service to captain the Wasp under a contract that had more to do with King Ray wanting to somehow save Kris from making all of the worst mistakes he’d made as a junior officer, Drago hadn’t kept Kris from taking on the giant planet murderer that tumbled and rolled in front of them.
Old men’s plans for young people don’t always work out as planned.
“Captain,” Kris said, “you can call me paranoid, but I’d like to approach the hulk, keeping it between us and anything that might suddenly pop out of that jump.”
“Paranoia has kept a lot of Longknifes alive,” Granny Rita said.
“Adjusting course,” Captain Drago said.
“Nelly, how much of the Wasp’s Smart Metal do you want to use for explorer nanos?”
“As much as Penny will let me, Kris. I’ll be controlling them with all the self-organizing matrix that I haven’t yet used for my next child.” In half payment on the Wasp, Nelly had swapped one kid to Katsu, with solid overrides if he, or his father, should ever try to duplicate her child. Having lived with Kris for twenty years, Nelly came by her paranoia honestly. Nelly’s price for that one had been enough matrix to birth three more children to replace those lost on the long, dangerous flight from this battle.
She’d only granted two of the new personnel on the Wasp the honor of working with one of her children. That left one child yet unborn. Nelly was willing to divide that matrix up and share it out among the exploration drones to give them top-notch guidance and sensor suites to study the hulk.
That still left the basic question: How much Smart MetalTM would there be for her matrix to fly?
Penny took a while to talk to Mimzy, her own computer and one of Nelly’s offspring. “Kris, I’d like to shrink the Wasp down to Condition Baker.”
Under Baker, the “love boat” proportions of Condition Able became a bit constrained. Passageways got narrower. Unused spaces shrunk or vanished. The reaction-mass tanks that had given up a part of their contents on the way out here would be resized. All that spare metal would be moved to the outer hull of the Wasp to form a reflective surface and a honeycomb through which cool reaction mass flowed. This sandwich of armor should protect the Wasp from laser hits as good as, if not better than, the six-meter-thick ice armor on heavy battleships.
“I concur,” Captain Drago said. This meeting with the Alwans might not be taking place on the bridge, but clearly he was following it very closely.
He was, after all, the captain.
“Mimzy,” Penny said, “announce to all hands that we will be going to Condition Baker in one minute and that we may go to Condition Charlie without further notice.” Charlie was worse than Baker, but not as bad as Condition Zed. When Zed was ordered, people’s quarters were compressed down into a few lockers, and the entire rest of the room vanished. The same went for the scientist’s research labs.
Boffins had complained loudly about Condition Zed. The scientists had been shown the fine print in their contracts and reminded that they were all subject to activation as reserve officers, and as such, would follow the proper orders of their duly appointed superiors.
The scientists complained, but they knew it wouldn’t matter if ever Captain Drago, Kris, or Penny ordered Condition Zed.
Around Kris, the Forward Lounge began to shrink. Empty tables melted into the deck. Folks in the middle of their dinner found their table and chairs moving closer together as empty places vanished away.
All hands went through this drill once a week for Baker and once a month for Zed. Folks kept right on eating, drinking, and when a new couple came in, the lounge expanded to provide them a table.
The Alwans were still fixated on the wreck ahead; they failed to notice what was happening around them.
“Princess, my boffins have noticed something strange about the wreck,” came in the calm, aristocratic voice of Professor Joao Labao. He was on sabbatical from the University of Brazília and the senior administrator of the 250 scientists aboard the Wasp and the reason the frigate could honestly claim to be a research ship. “Have your examinations identified anything different between the right and left sides of the aft end of the hulk?”
“That’s a negative,” came from Senior Chief Beni. He’d come out of retirement to have “a shot at them that killed my kid.” “I’m getting no radio readings from that hulk. The reactors are dead. Anywhere you look on the electromagnetic spectrum or radioactive scale, she’s as dead as Caesar’s ghost.”
“I would most certainly agree with you, Chief,” the professor said. “It’s our optics that are giving us cause for second thoughts.”
“Pass them through to me in the Forward Lounge,” Kris said.
“And me on the bridge,” the skipper spoke over Kris.
The rolling, tumbling hulk had been getting closer. Now, using the powerful optical instruments usually reserved for deep-space research, the aft end of the blasted wreck jumped into clear definition.
Bits of hull and I-beams were twisted like a child’s strand of candy. Other thick hull strength members were nearly broken through. Some hung by a thread and did their own dance as the ship waddled through space.
“We hit it hard,” Kris muttered.
The Alwans had broken from their fixation on the huge ship and now were once again moving quickly among themselves, talking rapidly.
“I think,” said Granny Rita, “they are now very impressed with what you can do.”
That was good because the picture then changed.
The professor took up the narration. “What you were looking at was the left end of the aft quarter, portside aft to you Sailors. What you’re now seeing is the right side, starboard aft quarter. Notice the difference.”
There was still clear evidence of damage. But many of the beams that had looked knocked about like jackstraws on the other side, were gone. The picture zoomed in further.
“We think someone has been cutting away at that wreckage with laser welding torches. We’ll need to get in closer. Have nanos take a good look at the cuts, but that side of the ship does not look like we left it, of that I am sure.”
“All hands, battle stations,” Captain Drago’s voice announced on the 1MC. “All weapons, report when you are manned and ready.”