Brightness flared upon the face of the deep.
Alaxi Sayad, the most junior watch officer aboard the Chronologic Patrol ship Upholder, saw the dazzle of energy that appeared on her screens. She hit the alert button before she even had time to think but not before the automatics had a chance to set off the alarms themselves.
She checked the drill-indicator, the one light on her board that would tell her if this was just old man Koffield running yet another dry run, another systems test. If this was a drill, the indicator would be a steady dot of green. The drill-indicator was unlabeled, and carefully positioned in the upper-left-hand corner of the display board so that only someone actually seated in the watch officer's chair could see it. Only the watch officers and senior officers were even supposed to know it existed.
Sayad had seen that tiny secret green light come on during a thousand drills, and she expected to see it now. But instead she saw a tiny, flashing dot of red: shocking and positive confirmation that this was not a drill. It was the real thing. Some damn fool was trying to make an unauthorized run through the timeshaft wormhole. Stranger still, if her displays were to be believed, they were going for the downtime, not the uptime, end of the timeshaft wormhole. They were trying, not to head from future to past, but attempting to dive out of the past and into the future.
Sayad allowed herself the luxury of a full hundredth of a second of stunned disbelief. Such a thing had never happened, to the best of her knowledge, in all of Settled Space.
But it was happening now. She shoved feeling aside and let training take over. Seemingly without any intervention from her conscious mind, she started on step one of the standard operating procedure that had been drummed into her through all those thousand drills.
Confirm alert. Easy enough. There was no doubt this one was real.
Locate. That part was likewise quite straightforward. The blast of light had come straight from the timeshaft wormhole.
Identify. A far more difficult proposition. What in space could light up a wormhole like that? And why hadn't the Standfast, the downtime ship, sent some sort of alert through the shaftlink comm system? Even as she formed the questions, she got her answers. The comm system powered itself up and reported data streaming in from the downtime link. Seventy-nine years downtime from the Upholder, the Standfast had activated her comm system and started relaying through the shaft communications system. The signal had been flashed from the Standfast to the downtime stationkeeping laser relay. Then the stationkeeper had fired a repeater signal through the wormhole's signal portal, and to the uptime stationkeeper relay, which instantly passed it on to the Upholder.
The action-status display flashed to life, and Sayad expended five whole precious seconds studying the three-dimensional symbol-logic imagery the Standfast had sent milliseconds ago or decades before, depending on how one looked at it.
She swore silently, but vehemently, as she struggled to believe what the display was telling her. Thirty no, thirty-one incoming targets, sixteen of them bearing down on the wormhole, and the remainder diving straight for the Standfast. One of the targets bearing on the Standfast popped out of existence as the ship brought fire to bear. There was another flash of light, dimmer this time, as the blaze of the explosion lanced through the wormhole. That first light blast must have been another of the targets going up.
"Are they trying to kill the ship, or just trying to keep her busy?" asked a low, calm voice from directly behind her.
It took a major effort of will for Sayad not to jump half a meter in the air in surprise. It was Captain Koffield, of course. She glanced up at the small look-behind mirror built into her console, and there he was. Awake, alert, in a clean uniform. Sayad had been on the graveyard shift ever since coming aboard the Upholder and had rarely seen the captain. But every time she had seen him, the man had looked just as he did now steady, alert, well rested, in control.
Captain Koffield was of average height, but thin and wiry enough that he gave the impression of being smaller than he was. His face was long and lean, his thinning hair dark brown. His eyes were brown, deep-set, bright, and expressive. He was clearly used to command, and used to his commands being followed. But there was nothing harsh, or cruel, or peremptory about the man.
Only the slight but unmistakable stubble on his unshaved face hinted that he had just rolled out of bed, wakened by the alarm. It was a small but telling detail, and Sayad found it reassuring. It said Koffield took care to be alert and professional, to get there first during an emergency, but that he was not fool or egotist enough to stop for a shave on the way.
But the captain was not a man who wasted much time with rhetorical questions. "I think they're making a try for the ship, sir," Sayad replied. "With velocities that high they won't have time to break off before impact they're looking to ram her."
"Agreed. Either uncrewed missiles or remarkably well-motivated suicide crews."
Other members of the command-center crew were arriving, diving for their battle stations, getting their displays and systems on-line. Sayad paid them no mind. Let them do their jobs while she did hers. She was supposed to do more than see what was happening out there. She was expected to understand it, interpret it.
"A saturation envelopment attack," she said. "Hit the Standfast from all sides at the same time and overwhelm her defenses. They want the ship. They've invested half their forces to go after her. That's too aggressive for it to be just a diversion. At least it looks like wait a second." She put her hands on the display controls and checked the backtracks. "No. I was wrong. They want us to think it's a full-press attack and not a diversion."
"They've got me convinced," Koffield said. "But now you think otherwise."
"Yes, sir. The blips moving on the wormhole are maneuvering, seeking and zeroing in on the access nexi. That's not easy to do. But the blips moving on the Standfast are just boring right in, with no attempt to refine or correct their course."
"So they just want to keep her busy so their friends can get at and through the wormhole," Koffield said.
"Through the wormhole?" Sayad asked. "How the hell do they think they're going to do that?"
"I haven't the faintest idea how they'll do it," said Koffield. "But it's plain they think they can do it." He examined the symbol-logic screen. "Three minutes until they encounter the portal's event horizon. We'll find out then."
It was a startling thought, but why else would they be pressing home this attack? To hear Captain Koffield himself say the words made the idea seem much more part of the real world, something to consider in terms of practical detail.
"They don't have the codes to open the access nexi," she objected. "There aren't any public codes for going uptime. Just the ones we used to move the Upholder uptime."
That the wormhole portal nexi codes were unbeatable, unbreakable, was an article of faith in the Chronologic Patrol, and among spacefarers in general. Only the Patrol knew the codes, and therefore only the Patrol controlled the wormhole portal nexi.
A portal nexus was a massively powerful gravitic distorter that, in effect, pushed aside the singularity's event horizon, opening up a hole in time through the hole in space. The nexi orbited at the fringe of the wormhole's event horizon, at hellishly fast velocities. Approach a timeshaft wormhole when a Chronologic Patrol ship had sent the proper code to open a nexus, and you dropped through the nexus, down the timeshaft, into the past. If the CP ship got the code wrong, or failed to send it, when the portal nexus controllers detected your ship approaching they would leave the nexus shut. Your ship would not go through the wormhole formed by the singularity's warping of space, but instead would spiral down into the black hole itself.
Koffield flipped on the ship's intercom, and raised his voice enough so that the bridge staff could hear him as well. "This is the captain. Our sister ship, the Standfast, is under attack, as is the downtime portal. We must work on the assumption that the attacks will succeed. If they do, we will be facing an assault coming from inside the timeshaft wormhole and heading out, rather than an assault from the outside in, toward the timeshaft. In other words, the exact opposite of what we've trained for. So let us prepare to face the situation. Bring all weapons to bear on the vicinity of the wormhole, and prepare to track and destroy evasive targets as they exit the timeshaft. You have two minutes. I authorize and order weapons hot and an unrestricted free-fire zone and unlimited target list. If it moves, shoot it. Koffield out."
The disorganized, uncertain bustle all about them suddenly gained focus and direction. The news was startling, and even alarming, but the captain had spoken. He had told them what was what, and what to do.
The crew of the Upholder set to work, making use of every one of the precious seconds they had. Energizers came on-line. The trackers took in the data from the Standfast's datastream, interpolated probabilities on the egress trajectories for the attackers, and set aim at the most likely points in space. Damage-control teams went to standby. Hatches sealed. The battle lighting came on, a dim red glow that permitted one to see, but left one's eyes adapted to the dark of space and the glow of the display screens.
But none of that was the concern of Alaxi Sayad. Her job right now was to watch the Standfast and her attackers as they did battle, a fight to the death that was happening seventy-nine years in the past, and a heartbeat away, through the wormhole.
Sayad forced back the irrational wish that they could go look up what happened, and prepare for it that way. After all, the battle had happened nearly eight decades before. There ought to have been a way to know all about it, and be ready in advance to deal with the consequences.
But there wasn't, of course. The powers-that-be had quite wisely set things up to make such researches impossible. Indeed, the whole reason the Upholder was on station was to make them impossible. Her job, and the job of the entire Chronologic Patrol, was to ensure that the past knew nothing whatever about the future.
Their job was to protect causality, to prevent temporal paradox. The Chronologic Patrol went about its work with care and determination, and went to great lengths to keep the future as dark a secret as possible from the past starting with how the uptime picket ships got to their stations. The uptime ships came from downtime, and thus knew nothing of events in the future of the downtime ship.
The Upholder might be in the year 5211 A.D., but she was far more connected to the world of 5132, seventy-nine years in the past. She and the Standfast had traveled to Circum Central Waypoint in convoy, relieving the two Chrono-Patrol ships that had been on duty. The Upholder had gone uptime through the timeshaft wormhole, while the Standfast had remained at the downtime end, but it could have just as easily been the other way around.
The Upholder had only two communications systems. One was a short-range beacon-interrogator that allowed her to challenge ships that arrived at the uptime end of the timeshaft and sought passage through. The other was the shaftlink comm system that Standfast was sending on. Both systems were, by design, extremely limited. Except in the most exceptional circumstances, the Upholder could not send messages at all, aside from clearances and portal-control commands. For the most part, she could only receive communications, and send them only in carefully proscribed circumstances. Every regulation, every Artificial Intelligence watching over the comm channels, every safeguard in the hardware, was designed to ensure that the Upholder did not send any information about the future into the past.
One of the most basic precautions was to see to it that she did not receive any information about the future. By design, the Upholder carried no long-range comm system that might pick up transmitted information.
Timeshaft wormholes could only be located in the depths of interstellar space, far from the time-space distortions created by a star or even by a mid-sized planet. The Circum Central Waypoint wormhole was no exception to that rule. It was three light-years from the colony at Glister, and a good 3.5 lights from Solace, off in a different direction. Without a highly sensitive, precision-aimed receiver of exactly the sort the Upholder did not carry, there was no way to communicate with the worlds on the uptime side of the timeshaft.
A ship could in theory carry information to the Upholder, or even downtime into the wormhole. However, timeshaft-wormhole ships moved far slower than light, meaning that most information would be out-of-date by the time it reached a wormhole.
But precautions were taken nonetheless. An uptime picket ship would refuse transit rights to any ship that had been under way less time than half the chronologic distance of the timeshaft wormhole in question. Circum Central Waypoint, for example, was a seventy-nine-year timeshaft. No ship was allowed to enter the uptime end of the shaft until she had been under way for at least thirty-eight and a half years.
And, no matter what, no ship, aside from the arriving uptime picket, was ever allowed to enter the downtime end of a timeshaft.
Including this bizarre fleet of presumably uncrewed ships that had just appeared out of nowhere. Uncrewed. They would have to be, and it wasn't just their apparently small size. How the devil would anyone find crews enough to fly thirty-two ships on a secret and criminal mission that was all but suicidal? But if no one was aboard those ships, what was the point of the attack? What value in sending a machine into the future? Why not just put the ships in storage and wait seventy-nine years? Alaxi stared at the sym-log display, trying to will the answers out of the cryptic indicators of heading, speed, projected course, acceleration, and weapons discharge.
The Standfast had been holding her ground, presenting a stationary target to her attackers. Now, perhaps too late, she got under way, even as she finally blazed away with her heavy weapons, the laser cannon and her steel-shot mag accelerators, firing at the incoming attackers.
"At last," Koffield said. "What the devil kept her from maneuvering before now?"
"They were taken by surprise," Sayad replied, though she had been wondering much the same thing. It was damned easy to let things get slack on garrison duty, and it looked as if it had happened to the Standfast. Sayad wondered if the Upholder would have done any better with zero warning. Besides, the Standfast had been watching for an assault coming through the wormhole, out of the uptime end and the future, not from out of normal space.
The Standfast's heavy-weapons fire took a heavy toll. Three, four, eight of the blips diving on the ship blazed and vanished from the display. More, dimmer flares of light, flickered through the timeshaft.
But then the Standfast broke off and started maneuvering at flank acceleration toward the wormhole. The remaining ship-attacking blips did not pursue her, but instead kept on diving straight for the ship's original position. The Standfast had finally seen what Sayad had seen minutes before. The attack on the ship was a diversion, not a serious danger.
The diversion had served its purpose. The Standfast commenced firing on the blips moving toward the wormhole, but the incoming ships were already deep enough inside the wormhole's complex gravity field and moving fast enough that accurate targeting was all but impossible. Space and time were wildly warped and twisted by the wormhole's intense gravitation, sending laser fire and mass-accelerator fire skewing off in strange, unexpected directions. Even so, the Standfast scored a series of direct hits on the attackers. Whoever was in charge of those guns might have been slow to react, but he or she was a remarkably good shot.
Five, six, seven, eight of the attackers flared into nothingness as the Standfast raced toward them, all weapons firing. But that still left half the attackers coming on.
The closer the Standfast got to the wormhole, the more difficult it became to target her weapons. But she had to get closer, and closer still, if she was going to be able to bring her weapons to bear on the remaining targets. Another volley of fire, every shot a clear miss. And another volley, this time taking out two of the intruders.
"Oh, no," Koffield said. "Stars in the sky, no!"
Sayad had been concentrating so hard on the screen that she had all but forgotten Koffield was there. What had he seen that she had missed?
Then she saw. The Standfast was moving too fast, getting too close. She was going in, all guns blazing. She was redlining, headed down into the black hole's gravity well, past the point of no return. She would either have to go through the wormhole, or crash into the surface of the black hole.
And she was nowhere near any of the alignments for a safe transit through one of the approach nexi.
The Standfast made no attempt to save herself, but instead flew in closer to the intruders, setting up for one last desperate all-weapons volley, getting in under the six remaining targets, firing directly into their paths. She fired everything she had, and then, before her guns and laser even reached their targets, she fell in toward the black hole's event horizon, far, far away from any of the approach nexi.
She was too close, going too fast. The datalink died with the ship, but the suddenly blank screen told Sayad all she needed to know about what happened next.
Within a blink of an eye, the flicker of a moment, the Standfast had been destroyed, torn into a million, a trillion microscopic fragments, every man and woman aboard ripped apart with shattering speed, down to and beyond the molecular level. They had been ground up, shredded into subatomic nothingness by the gravitational vortex of the black hole before they even had time to know they were dying.
The rest was silence.
The crew of the Upholder stared at their screens in horrified, frozen shock. This wasn't supposed to happen. It made no sense. How could
"They're coming through!" Koffield shouted into the mike. "All weapons, fire at will. The Standfast died trying. Don't let her down."
It was what the crew needed to hear. They shook off their shock and their horror and refocused on their duties.
Sayad blinked, drew in breath, and tried to do the same. No more data coming from the downtime feed. All right then, work from last positions and trajectories. Factor in projected paths of the access nexi. Feed it all to the battle-projection Artificial Intelligences that weren't designed to track targets coming up out of the timeshaft, and pray they could do the projections, and that the probabilistics projections weren't completely smoke and mirrors at the moment. She massaged and routed the data, and saw projected exit trajectories appear on her display. She converted them to firing solutions, and piped them to the weapons consoles.
It was guesswork piled on guesswork, but there was no time for anything better and no way to produce it, no solid numbers to work from. It had taken precisely twelve seconds for her to go from raw data in to firing solutions out, but Sayad doubted she could have done much better work if she had taken twelve years.
"Well-done, Ensign Sayad," Koffield said. "Now we wait, if not for long."
"No, sir. Projected arrival in fifteen seconds mark."
"Here comes our turn," Koffield said.
Right on schedule, a flare of blueshift light blossomed out of the event horizon, and then another, another, another, until all six of the surviving intruders had punched through. Sayad felt a sick knot in the pit of her stomach the enemies had known the codes, and the Standfast's last volley of fire, the one she had died to make, had been for nothing at all.
But then there was no time.
Weapons section took the conn, and the Upholder came about hard, placing the cylindrical ship's long axis at right angles to the wormhole, so as to bring the most possible firepower to bear. Her main weapons opened up at once, directing laser and railgun fire at the twisting, dodging intruders. Sayad checked her instruments and got her first direct mass, size, and acceleration readings on their uninvited guests. No doubt about it those had to be uncrewed ships. They were too small and too dense to carry both crew and any sort of acceleration shielding, and they were accelerating hard enough to squash any human passenger into red paste with or without shielding, accelerating faster than any ship she had ever seen or heard of. It was precious little comfort that her tracking projections had proved accurate enough that the weapons systems were able to start targeting the moment the intruders emerged.
The Upholder's lasers locked on to the first target, and chased it relentlessly as it dived and twisted and pinwheeled through a complex evasive-action sequence. The target held together far longer than it should have under main-laser fire, but whatever its very impressive shielding was made of, it couldn't protect the intruder indefinitely not from the multigigawatt intensity of the Upholder's firepower. A second bank of the main lasers locked on the target, doubling the energy being pumped into the intruder's hull. It flashed over, blowing up in a spectacular blaze of glory that blinded half the Upholder's sensors and detectors for three very long seconds before the damper systems could recover.
The position-predictors did their best, but the surviving five targets were performing evasive escape maneuvers. Even three seconds of sensor-blinding was enough to make the old tracking projections worse than useless.
The weapons systems lost five more irreplaceable seconds as they tracked and scanned for the surviving intruders. Sayad slaved her screens to the weapons display and watched their frantic search. Koffield stayed with her, watched the battle off her screens. No sense rushing to the weapons boards. He had already given all the orders he was going to give. All he could do was sit back and watch. He could do that just as well from Sayad's stations, without distracting the gunnery teams. But the gun crews weren't finding anything. Sayad flipped back to her own tactical search algorithms and ran them against the weapons-sensor data.
And found the intruders again. Or maybe the intruders had found them. "Bloody hell!" Sayad cried out. "Bogie, coming straight at us, right through the wormhole blind spot!" She thought at first it was a variant on diving out of the sun, one of the oldest dogfight tactics there was. The intruder had the wormhole directly astern, and was barreling straight for the Upholder.
But no. No, not straight for the Upholder. But near enough, only two or three degrees up-Y from straight-line on the wormhole. And almost certainly, the intruder had no detection gear capable of finding the Upholder. If the intruder had known where the Upholder was, it either would have revectored to ram, or aimed for just about any other spot in the sky. In fact, the intruder she was tracking had ceased evasive action. Either it expected that the Upholder's detectors would not recover in time, or its automatic-sequencing system had told the intruder to do so. In either case, the intruder had not spotted them.
Chance, damned-dumb chance, and nothing else, had sent the intruder flying right across the Upholder's bow.
She checked range and rate on the new target. It was coming almost straight for them, all right, but it still had a long way to go before it reached them. It could be tough to fire on a target that was coming straight on, as opposed to traveling laterally. They had a good ninety-five seconds until it was within a prime firing solution. Sayad relayed the new tracking to weapons control, and saw by her boards that they had just located an intruder themselves.
She cleared her main board and brought up the symbol-logic displays for the destroyed intruder's trajectory, the intruder she had found, and the one the weapons team had found. She studied the three, looking for relationships and patterns that might lead her to the other three that were still unaccounted for. She added her arrival projections, and the pre sensor-blinding tracks as well. The big screen was a tangle of traces and vectors, dots and lines, color-coded sym-log gibberish.
But Sayad could read it all. The incomprehensible mishmash made perfect sense to her. The pattern was clear. Whoever had sent these probes through the wormhole had set up pseudorandom evasive patterns that ended with the surviving intruders in a radial-symmetric dispersal pattern, each craft heading off in a different direction. She frowned, and thought fast.
Thirty-two attackers to begin with, but half of them diversionary. Sixteen actually attempted to get through the wormhole, but the Standfast had taken out ten of them, and Upholder had killed one. She had good current real-time tracks on two of the survivors, and she had no doubt the weapons team would take them out in short order. That left her with three intruders for which she had no reliable current track. She had lost them in their evasive-maneuver phase, thanks to that sensor-blinding explosion of Upholder's kill. Think. Six intruders. Three accounted for. Three missing. Six out of sixteen intruders programmed to go through the wormhole and disperse. She worked her board controls, slicing up the sphere of space around the wormhole into sixteen pyramid-shaped sectors, the points of the pyramids meeting at the center, at the wormhole.
The geometry required mostly six-sided and some five-sided pyramids to allow an absolutely precise fit, but she ignored that level of nicety for the moment. She threw the tracks of the detected intruder up into her improvised radial-sector map, and was not in the least surprised to see it was easy to match them up with the centerlines of three of the sectors. Each of the known intruders was moving on a direct radial course out from the wormhole, each moving more or less precisely down the center of its assigned "slice" of space. It was so tidy, so accurate, that Sayad had not the slightest doubt that the remaining three intruders would likewise be found in the centerlines of their sectors.
That was a mistake on the part of whoever had programmed the intruders, and a big one. It meant she only had to search near the centerlines of the remaining sectors, thus eliminating about 99 percent of her search area.
Well, if the person who had programmed the intruders loved order so much as to be tempted into one mistake by it, maybe he or she had made another.
She had tracks for those three, but they were more than a minute old, closer to ninety seconds by now: far too old to be of any direct use. But they at least told her the arrival order for all six of the intruders that had gotten past the Standfast. She compared it against the known intruders' sector assignments.
And there it was. Breathtaking. Perfect. Tidy. And incredibly stupid. The intruders had been slotted into their sectors in order of their arrival, rather than at random. All she had to do was figure out where in the arrival sequence an intruder had been something she could derive easily enough by noting the moment of each arrival and she would know just about where to look along the lengths of the centerlines of three particular sectors of space, to find the missing intruders.
Her fingers danced over the controls. She focused the long-range detectors at the appropriate points in space and was rewarded with almost immediate detection returns on three bogies.
"If that's not black magic I don't know what is," Koffield said from behind her. "Brilliant work, Sayad. Later you can tell me how you did it."
Sayad smiled at her board. "Yes, sir," she agreed as she routed the detection tracks to weapons. "I'll be glad to oblige." Later. Now there was far too much to do. The three new intruder tracks were on the far side of the wormhole from the Upholder, and doing their damnedest to get still farther away with every moment that passed. The Upholder was going to have a devil of a time pursuing any one of them, let alone pursuing, intercepting, and destroying all three. They would need smart tactics, and need them fast, to have any hope of blasting them all. She set to work gathering information, coaxing more data out of the pinpricks of light that were doing their best to escape.
A flare of light lit up the main screens, and Sayad was focused enough on her own work, she did not know at first what it was. Ah, of course. Fire control had locked in and blown out their second bogie. Sayad checked her displays. It was, not surprisingly, the one the weapons team had found for themselves. That left the one she had first spotted, the one bearing straight down on them. And fire control was already redirecting fire toward intruder three. She let them do their job while she did hers, and concentrated on intruders four, five, and six.
The flare of the explosion had blinded her detection systems again, but this time it didn't matter. Bogies four to six weren't trying anything fancier than flying in a straight line.
And then, one after another, bogies one, two, and three each did something very fancy indeed. They started accelerating, putting on speed and putting it on with a vengeance.
Sayad frowned and checked her displays. The numbers they were showing were impossible. Accelerating was too mild a word for what those ships were doing. They were doing hundreds, no, thousands of gees in acceleration. Even as she watched, the acceleration displays for each of them went off-scale high. No ship, not even an unpiloted ship, could possibly survive the thrust levels those ships were putting out, no matter what kind of acceleration buffers they had aboard.
And there, as she watched, one, two, three, the three bogies just vanished. Gone. Did not show on any of her instruments. Her velocity meters showed why, and it was impossible to believe them. Light-speed. The damned intruders had accelerated all the way up to light-speed in the space of a few seconds.
And nothing, nowhere, could possibly travel at light-speed. That was an article of faith, an unalterable fact. That was the whole reason for the existence of the timeshaft wormholes to serve as a creaky, awkward, difficult substitute for true light-speed and translight-speed travel. If you could go faster than light, you didn't need the wormholes.
So why in the name of the devil's chaos had the intruders just used a wormhole? And how did they jump to light-speed? And where the hell were they going? And what the hell was the Upholder going to do to stop them?
But then her attention refocused itself on the problem still at hand, the problem Upholder could still do something about. That one remaining intruder, the one just coming into range. She flipped back through all her data, through all her guess-upon-guess-upon-guess extrapolations. If she had it right, the one coming up on them right then was not only the last of the surviving six to come through the wormhole, but was to have been the last of the sixteen in the intended schedule. Whatever the first ones out of the chute had done was what this one was about to do
She slapped a hand down on the comm key. "Weapons! Remaining target is about to commence massive acceleration and blow right past us. Advise you fire scattershot railgun rounds across its projected course! Fire now, now, now!"
If fire control was fast enough off the mark, they should at least be able to hit this one as it started its escape run. There was a faint whir-thump, whir-thump, whir-thump from somewhere belowdecks, a sound and vibration so slight she wouldn't even have noticed it if she hadn't been waiting for it. The railgun was firing. Sayad watched her screens and the projected course of the intruder, and the cloud of scattershot pellets expanding out from their dispersal point. They were no more than tiny balls of perfectly ordinary iron, but if fire control had done its job right, the intruder was going to pass through a cloud of several thousand such bits of iron at a minimum closing rate of ten or fifteen kilometers a second. And if the intruder started its acceleration run before it hit the cloud well, the faster it flew, the harder it would hit.
Koffield leaned in over her and hit the comm button himself. "Captain to conn! Attitude X-125, Y-010, Z-220, full emergency thrust! Immediate action! Fire control! Saturation fire of scattershot across intruder's projected course! All hands! Impact and hull breach alert!"
The Upholder lurched crazily about on her long axis and fired her main engines. Sayad stared wide-eyed at her screens. She hadn't seen it. Thank the stars Captain Koffield had. If the intruder hit the scattershot and blew up, it would likely do so a mere five or six hundred kilometers from the Upholder's present position. And when a target that big hit a cloud of scattershot at high velocity, it would fill all of surrounding space with shrapnel. The ship needed to get out of there, and fast.
The acceleration compensators bucked and shuddered as they struggled to correct for the sudden shifts in velocity. The whole ship creaked and moaned as her structure took up the acceleration.
"Defense systems!" the captain shouted. "Current status! How long can you hold a maximum electromag shield around the ship?" Most of the crew regarded the ship shields as more nuisance than protection. They sucked in inordinate amounts of power, jammed or degraded every detection system on board, and tended to scramble computer circuits that weren't shielded with absolute perfection. Worst of all, it was impossible to fire the engines with the shields up. But if the Upholder was going to be practically next door to a bomb that was about to go off, Sayad was ready to put up with any degree of nuisance.
"Ah, ah, estimate thirty seconds, sir," a nervous voice replied. Sheelton, it sounded like. "Twenty-five seconds with aft-enhanced deflection." Aft-enhanced shields would protect the whole ship, but focus a larger fraction of that protection across the aft section, which was going to take the brunt of the impacts with the ship in its present attitude.
"Very well." Koffield paused for something less than a heartbeat, then issued his orders. "Rig for aft-enhanced deflection, maximum power, and stand by to activate on my command. Conn, prepare for emergency engine shutdown at my command. Advise me the moment engines are safed. Once that thing blows, we'll kill the engines, light the shields, and hang on. All hands, rig now for impact, collision, and hull breach condition one. I say again rig now for impact, collision, hull breach condition one." He shut off the intercom.
Hatches slammed shut, sunshields swung shut over viewports, alarms hooted. Rigging for hull breach condition one meant all hands not in pressure suits and not standing watch were supposed to dive for their suits and get into them but everyone on the bridge was, of course, standing watch. None of them could be spared from their duties for the sixty to ninety seconds it would take to pop the suits from their lockers and get them on. No one on the bridge moved toward the suit lockers, but Sayad was far from the only one who glanced at the closest locker and did a quick mental rehearsal of the steps needed to get her suit on.
Condition one rules said the captain could suit up or not at his own discretion. And it would be easy to argue that a suited-up captain would be better able to maintain effective command during a hull breach. But of course, morale might be a problem on a bridge where the only one going for his suit was the captain.
Koffield made no move toward the suit lockers. As best Sayad could see, he did not so much as glance in their direction. She watched her screens for what she knew was going to happen and felt her heart start slamming against her chest when it did. "Sir!" she called out. "Remaining intruder commencing acceleration run! No course change or attempt at evasive action. Intruder on collision course with scattershot."
"Time to impact?"
Sayad shook her head. "Velocity ramping up too fast for solid numbers. Estimate impact on scattershot in thirty to forty seconds."
"Damn it!" Koffield slammed his fist against the console. "We're nowhere near clear."
One glance at her screens had told Sayad that much. The Upholder would be well under a thousand kilometers distance away from the point of impact.
Koffield checked her displays. "No time to figure the rates and ranges," he said, half to himself and half to her. "We're going to have to do this one by feel." He flipped the switch on the intercom again. "This is the captain. Conn, you will perform an all-engines emergency throttle-down to zero power and safing when I call Mark One. Understood?"
"Orders received and understood, sir," a voice from conn replied.
"Defense systems. Activate maximum shields, aft-enhanced deflection, five seconds after I call Mark One, or five seconds after you see all engines stop or safe, or when you hear me call Mark Two. Whichever of those happens, activate shields. Repeat and confirm."
"Um, ah, yes, sir." Definitely Sheelton. Sayad could hear him forcing himself to get calm, get professional. "Go to, ah, full-surround shields, max aft-enhanced, at first of any three events: call of Mark One plus five, or engine stop plus five, or call of Mark Two. Received and understood."
Sayad understood the point of the complicated order. The impact was going to be almost unimaginably violent. With that much energy blasting out so close by, lots of things could easily go wrong. This way, if the intercom blew, or the repeater displays went out, or Koffield was killed before he could give the order, the shields would still come up. She was glad Koffield had ordered repeat and confirm. They all needed Sheelton to get this one right.
"Very good, defense systems. All hands, stand by. Any impact estimate update, Sayad?"
"Estimate still holds. Now ten to fifteen."
"Conn, defense systems," Koffield called out. "Stand by for my commands. Let's get this one right, ladies and gentlemen."
Koffield leaned in close, his face next to hers, and stared hard at the displays, watching the numbers change, the projections adjust, the variables shift. If he called his commands too soon, they would lose priceless seconds of escape acceleration time, and the electromagnetic shields might fail before the blast wave had expanded out past the ship. Call them too late, and the radiation and blast debris could catch them with the shields not yet activated and up to power.
"Verbal time in seconds to and past first estimate," he ordered, not taking his eyes off the patch of screen that showed the visible estimate.
"Impact first possible in eleven seconds," Sayad said "Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five It'll take more than five seconds for the engines to stop and the shields to come on, she thought. He's gambling on a late impact. She kept up the count, keeping her voice steady, calm. Just say the words. "Four. Three. Two. One"
"Conn, Mark One, all engines emergency stop and safe! Now, now, now!"
But the engines were dying before he was even done speaking the word Mark, the ship's frame shuddering and vibrating anew as the stresses rearranged themselves.
"Zero. Impact now possible. Plus one second. Two. Three. Four. Five."
"Engines all stopped and safed!" came the call from the conn.
"Defense systems Mark Two! Mark Two! Shield full, max aft, now, now, now!"
And the lights dimmed and throbbed as the shields grabbed greedily at all the ship's power they could take. Sayad's screens flickered and distorted for a moment as the electromagnetic shielding pulsed up. Then her displays cleared, steadied. Sayad tried to hold herself steady as well. "Six," she intoned. Steady. Professional. "Seven. Impact detected."
But she didn't need to say that, no, not at all. A flare of light bloomed out in the darkness, blinding the Upholder's sensors once again.
"Shields at seventy percent. Eighty. Ninety. Ninety-five. Ninety-eight. Stability flicker."
"Hold at stable point!" Koffield called. The lights dimmed again, and the ship's fabric moaned and creaked as the shields took hold, wrapping a thick, clumsy wall of electromagnetic energy around her.
"Dropping to stable point. Holding at ninety-seven-point-five."
"Hang on!" someone on the bridge shouted needlessly. No one in the compartment was giving any thought at all to anything besides holding on.
The first radiation pulse had passed them with the light of the explosion, but the slower, heavier, more deadly radiation would be just a trifle behind it. The shields ought to be able to handle the heavy particles. But they would have to hold long enough to protect the ship from the larger debris, from the bits and pieces the size of molecules to dust particles to shrapnel to fist-sized chunks of metal. The debris moved slower than the radiation, but was still coming at them fast, far faster than rifle fire.
"Estimate, time until front of blast wave arrival!" Koffield called.
"Sensors blanked, sir. No current data." How hard had the intruder hit the scattershot? What was the closing rate and angle? She could have read all that off the lightblast, given time and sufficient data. But not in half a second, and not with her detectors blanked.
"Estimate and count to and past first possible moment, based on last data."
"Estimate first possible, twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen"
"Five-second interval," said Koffield, almost snappishly. "Hell of a time to go blind." He gave up staring at the displays. Old data could tell him nothing new.
"Defense systems!" he called. "Shield status, projected duration."
"Shields at stable point, drifting down to ninety-seven percent. They're taking a good peppering from the heavy particles, but holding stable. Projected remaining duration, twenty seconds."
"Fifteen seconds to first possible blast wave contact," Sayad announced.
Close. Damnably close. The shields would start to die just as the cloud of blast debris swept past them. There was not time enough to stop and restart the shields. It would be suicide to try, anyway. The heavy particles still streaming past would be enough to give them fatal doses of radiation sickness. Sayad could almost imagine that she could hear, feel, the heavy particles pinging off the electromag shields. But that was nonsense, of course.
"All emergency power to shields," Koffield ordered. Not that there would be much power not diverted to them already. Simply to function at all, the electromags needed nearly all of the Upholder's power output.
But the bridge lighting dimmed by half. The ventilators cut off. The ship's ArtInts were stealing whatever little dribs and drabs of power they could from other systems. If the trivial amounts of power the ArtInts were stealing were what made the difference, then their chances of survival were very slim indeed. But there was nothing they could do but watch their boards and make their time reports.
"Fifteen seconds shield duration remaining. Shields at ninety-five percent," Sayad reported.
"Ten seconds to first possible impact."
And the bridge went silent with waiting. Time had been dragging before, but now it seemed to have ground to a complete halt. How long since that first blast of light through the wormhole? Five minutes? Ten? An hour? A day? Any answer seemed possible. It was as if time no longer had any real relation to the clock numbers that were beating down on them.
"Ten seconds of shields. Shield decay rate increasing. Shields at ninety-two."
"First possible impact in five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One. Ze"
And it came down on them, a half heartbeat early. The ship lurched violently to one side, the shields holding, but only just, as the first wall of debris ripped past, hitting the shields a dozen times, a hundred times, in the space of a second. The ship fell into a violent tumble, pinwheeling across space. The shields weakened under the drumbeat of blast debris tearing into them, but still they held, diverting, deflecting, slowing the impacts. Something tore off a stanchion and crashed into the floor. The lights died, and alarms began to scream. Then came the horrifying, echoing bangs of impacts directly on the hull as debris penetrated.
In the darkness came the shriek of tortured metal, the sudden, terrifying first drop in pressure, the sudden cold feel of air being sucked away that told of a hull breach somewhere not far off. Death and terror seemed on all sides of Sayad in the lightless compartment. Another shriek of torn metal, another hull breach, and then
The rest was dark and silence.
It was not until hours later, until the damage-control crews had sealed the hull breaches, until power was restored, until the ship's tumble was slowed and then stopped, that Captain Anton Koffield even had time to realize that Ensign Alaxi Sayad was among the dead.
He could read the story off the gouges cut out of his ship's bridge. A ricocheting piece of debris, a wedge-shaped piece of the intruder, a full ten centimeters long, had torn through the hull and bounced around the bridge interior, caroming a half dozen times off the decks and bulkheads before zeroing in on Sayad. It had caught her in the side of the head, stabbed deep into her skull. Death had come to her in the darkness, and in an instant.
It was not until later still, until thirty hours after the attack, after the initial repairs were complete, and he was sitting in the galley, staring blankly down at a stone-cold meal he could not force himself to eat, and could not remember preparing or ordering, that he realized how close that fragment had come to him. His head had been less than half a meter from Sayad's when that fragment had torn through the hull and into the bridge compartment. It so easily could have, should have, been him who was killed.
It took scarcely any imagination at all for Captain Anton Koffield to know there would be times without number to come when he would wish, most devoutly, that it had been him.