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Two officers sat side by side in the cramped command couches of the RSFS Fergus as the light cruiser accelerated away from the Galway system. The younger officer, a dark-haired woman with blue eyes and pale white skin, wore the double silver bars of a first lieutenant on the collar of her green shipsuit and the embroidered antique silver wings of a junior pilot on its chest. The older officer, a green-eyed, black-haired, sharp-featured man with skin the color of aged fine oak, wore the silver leaves of a commander, with the command star, and the wings of a senior pilot. Below the wings were the faded characters of his nameVan C. Albert.
"Dust density?" asked Van.
"Point three and steady, Commander."
"What does that mean, Lieutenant Moran?" Van's implant continued to show minute fluctuations in the density readings, fluctuations that came from the ship systems, not the dust beyond the hull and shields. While the gravs could theoretically handle accelerations as high as eight while maintaining a steady one gee within the ship, Van kept the acceleration at three solid gees. Anything more created unnecessary strain on the systems for a vessel as old as the Fergus. Then, the RSFS Fergus should have been retired or rebuilt decades earlier, he reflected, not that she hadn't been a good cruiser for her time, but the newer Argenti cruisers wouldn't take that long to turn her shields to shreds, and even some of the recently commissioned Revenant cruisers were getting to that point. The Eco-Tech ships were roughly equivalent to those of the Argentis, but no one wanted to fight an Eco-Tech pilot, not the way they were modified, trained, and linked to their ships.
"We could fold nets and jump, ser. The coordinates for Leynstyr are set."
"Would you recommend that, now?"
"If we wait until the density drops below three, we can make the jump with twenty percent less power."
"How do you know it will drop that far?" pursued Van.
"It does in most systems, ser."
"How long would you wait to see?"
"That would depend, ser. If we needed to jump, I wouldn't wait. Now…the collectors are running in the green…another ten minutes."
Standing wave message for you, ser. The words burned across the shipnet to Van from the comm officer, Sub-major Parnell.
I'll take it, now. While still monitoring the Fergus's telltales, Van shifted his concentration to focus on the incoming message. It was short. Given the enormous power requirements, even with compressions, all standing wave messages were shortand urgent. Nothing short of urgency could justify their use and cost.
• • •
Proceed soonest to Gotland, Scandya system, to replace RSFS Collyns, FFA. Orders arriving Gotland via courier…
• • •
The authentication codes indicated that the message had come directly from the Chief of Space Operations at Republic Space Force headquarters on Tara. Van had no idea why the CSO was rerouting the Fergus to Gotland, right in the middle of transit from Galway to their assigned picket station off Leynstyr. The Muir had already been on station off Leynstyr for all too long.
"Lieutenant…" Van shifted his attention back to the junior pilot. "What are the accumulator reserves right now? What will they be in ten and fifteen minutes, assuming a standard density drop-off?"
"Ser…let me check."
Van waited, still trying to figure out the reasons for the change in orders, then flashing back to Parnell. Did you double-check the authentications?
Yes, ser. They were red over green priority, ser.
Van tightened his lips. Red over green meant trouble. At least, it always had. But why send the Fergus, old and creaky as she was?
"Ser…I see what you mean," offered Moran from the second pilot's couch.
"Tell me. Don't just tell me that you understand."
Moran stiffened, then spoke. "The accumulators aren't fully charged. It will take about eight minutes from now. We'd come out of jump with less than full power for shields or acceleration. In a combat situation"
"Good!" Van forced a smile. "You've got it. The way things are now, you don't ever want to come out of a jump underpowerednot if you can help it. I'd like to spend more time on that, but we've got to make some adjustments, Lieutenant. We've had a change in orders. Reconfigure for a jump transit to the Scandya system. Then, let me check the setup and coordinates."
"We just received a standing wave message from the CSO, ordering us to Gotland with all due haste."
"Yes, ser." Moran paused. "Gotland, ser? Scandya system?"
While Lieutenant Moran calculated, Van called up what background the shipnet had on Scandya, skimming through the data as quickly as he could.
• • •
Scandya system…orange five, plus six, trailing arm [011145 Rel Galactic Center]…two planets with significant population: Gotland © .93 Tellurian norm, 1.02 G at sea level…atmospherics within acceptability for nonmods…Malmot © .72 Tellurian norm, .65 G…atmospherics at limit of acceptability [basic terraforming completed 1104 N.E.]…
Government…modified rep. republic, universal adult suffrage. Nonstandard meritocracy overrides…continent-based, single-house, parliamentary assembly, planetary executive with veto power, all executive functions operated and executed at planetary level, limited bureaucracy…two principal political parties, the Liberal Commons (LC) and the Conservative Democrats (CD)…considerable unrest, with local riots, for the past half century, until the election of the present premier [Erik Gustofsen (CD)]…skilled at mediating conflicts…
• • •
What in Moll Magee was a "nonstandard meritocracy override"? Van had never seen that terminology in a background section. And what had been the sources of the past unrest? Most planetary systems were well beyond that kind of dissent.
• • •
Economic…postextractive, belt-mining, and low nanoformulation technology…also large natural food sector…
Military…universal military service [unisex]…ground and planetary defense rated superior…in-system space defense limited capability…ten corvettes [equiv. Robartes class] and two cruisers [equiv. Gregory class]. No dreadnoughts or battle cruisers. No outspace fixed emplacements…
• • •
Van paused and rescanned the military data. Effectively, the Scandyans had no real defenses against out-system attacks. The universal military service meant that Gotland and Malmot could be destroyed, or, rather life on both planets could be, but that neither could be conqueredif the Scandyans maintained their resolve.
• • •
Political…Scandya system is the closest nonaligned inhabited system to Tymuri [orange five point five, plus six, trailing arm (011157 Rel Galactic Center)]…Revenant "missionary" training base…
Van called up the multidimensional image of Orange sector, then zeroed in on Scandya system, as depicted in the shipnet representation. As he had suspected, Gotland and Malmot were the last non-aligned planets between the "outer" inspin systems affiliated with the Taran Republic and the Revenant systems. "Below" and "inward" of both lay the far larger Argenti Commonocracy, although the Argentis were really oligarchs of the old style.
• • •
…at present, during the government headed by Gustofsen, Scandyans are maintaining open trade and have requested that other systems respect their neutrality by maintaining no military presence in the Scandya system. "No military presence" has been defined as one military vessel and one courier…
• • •
The Collyns was a full battle cruiser, the first of the latest class. So why was the Fergus, antiquated by comparison, being sent to Scandya? Had something happened to the Collyns? Or had the Collyns been ordered out into some action against the Revenants, and the RSF needed a presence off Gotland?
The standing wave hadn't said, for the obvious reason that standing wave was open to anyone, and, even with encryption, there was the possibility of the message being decoded. That meant that one Commander Van Albert had to read between the words of the message.
"Calculations complete and on the net, ser," reported Lieutenant Moran.
"Thank you, Lieutenant." Van scanned, then checked her work. "Good. As soon as the accumulators are fully charged, you may begin the countdown for jump."
The Fergus replacing a full battle cruiser in a pivot system at a time of increasing interstellar tensions? Van kept his frown to himself. While a full battle cruiser carried a crew of fifteen, the Fergus carried but tenthe commander, two other pilots, the comm officer, the engineer, two system techs, the weapons officer, and two weapons techsand all were loaded down with auxiliary duties, most of which revolved around some aspect of maintenance on the aging Fergus.
"All hands, stow all loose items. Batten down all equipment. One minute to zero gee. One minute to zero gee. Three minutes to jump." Lieutenant Moran's voice filled both the shipnet and the ship's speakers.
After scanning the prejump checklist, and the shipnet reports from each station, the lieutenant glanced at the commander. "All stations secure for zero gee, ser. Ready to collapse photon nets."
"Commence zero gee. Collapse photon nets."
Eeeeeee! The piercing wail of the zero-gee alarm filled the Fergus, then cut off.
"Entering zero gee," Moran announced. "All hands remain secured. Two minutes to jump. I say again. Two minutes to jump."
Van checked the screens, extending himself into the webs that drew in all the Energy Distortion Indications from the entire Galway system, trying to see if he could detect any EDI sources. There should not have been any, except for the single orbit station around Galway three, the one conducting and monitoring the terraforming project that, in a few hundred years, might yield another habitable water world for the Taran Republic. Even with the detectors set at full gain, he could find nothing, and closed them down.
"All detectors null, Lieutenant."
"Detectors null, ser. Photon nets null."
"Proceed to countdown, Lieutenant."
"All hands. One minute to jump. I say again. One minute to jump." Moran's voice echoed through the Fergus.
Van watched as she shut down every operating system, one right after the other. Gravity had already gone. Ventilators and purifiers shut down.
At ten seconds before translation, Moran made the final announcement. "All hands. Ten seconds to jump." Then she cut off the remaining systems, including the shipnet, except for the jump generator and the accumulators.
"Ready to jump, ser."
Moran pressed the large red studthe one operation that was always manual.
Everything turned inside out. The blackness of the control area turned white. Van felt as though he'd been twisted inside out, or at least into some strange dimension, for that instant that seemed endless, yet remained unmeasurable by any device ever invented.
A searing flash of light and darkness, darkness and light, flared through the Fergus, and the jump was complete.
"Powering up, ser." Moran's fingers brought up the shipnet, and then her net commands brought all the systems back on-line, beginning with shields and nets.
The moment the detectors were back on-line, and the comparators verified that they were indeed on the fringes of Scandya system, with less than two hours of translation error, Van began to search the detector screens, wondering what he might find.
One scan and Van stiffened. Less than fifty emkayout-system and "behind" themwas the EDI track of something bearing down on the Fergus.
"I have the conn!" Van triggered the emergency siren and diverted power from all nonvital systems into the photon nets, the drives, and shields, immediately turning the Fergus into the oncoming shipa heavy cruiser of some sort with distorted EDI tracks. Or an EDI of some type he'd never seen.
Torps inbound! came from Weapons.
Van caught four on the net monitors and put full power into the shields, letting the photon nets fade. Standard shields were supposed to hold against three. Not against four, and certainly not the old shields of the Fergus.
All the screens and detectors went blank.
Even so, Van could feel the wash of energy against the shipnet. As it subsided, he opened the detectors, shifted power to the nets, and continued to build acceleration toward the unknown cruiser.
Got them! There were two.
Van shifted power to the shields, but left enough for nets and screens to keep building speed and collecting hydrogen and dustor before long he wouldn't have any mass for the fusactor at the rate of power he was using.
Again, he waited until milliseconds before the expected impact before desensitizing, then shifted full power to the nets for a long moment. What he planned was a gamble, but the Fergus couldn't stand too many more torp impacts against its weaker screenscertainly what the attacker was counting on.
The courses weren't collision-based, but close enough for Van's purposes, especially against a newer vessel, and the Fergus continued to accelerate outward, the photon nets growing and gathering hydrogen and other various bits of dust that would become reaction mass for the fusactor.
Any ID on bogey?
With less than a minute before CPA, Van watched and waited, feeling the sweat pouring from his forehead despite the chill in the cockpit.
Then, even as Weapons announced, Torps!, Van diverted full power to the nets, squeezing them forward and hurling dust and hydrogen at the oncoming cruiser. Nearly simultaneously, he released two torps, and then a second set of two, even as he slewed the Fergus across the path of the attacker, and then cut all power to everything and diverted all power to the shields, desensitizing the ship as well.
Eeeeeeee! The EMP bled in over the damped equipment, and the Fergus actually rocked for an instant.
Van smiled, coldly.
After another five hundred milliseconds, he extended the screens and detectors.
They revealed a hot and rapidly expanding ball of gas, and several irregular fragments of metal.
Comm…any indications of who that was?
No, ser. Didn't match any profile. EDI could have been off-tuned rev. Shields were close to Keltyr…
Van opened the photon nets to let them rebuild mass, then swung the Fergus back in-system, slowly and sluggishly on what power and mass remained to the Fergus.
He scanned what lay inward. The EDI traces from in-systemwell in-systemindicated a battle cruiser orbiting Gotland, next to a large orbital station, and the colors suggested strongly that the vessel was Revenant. A smaller EDI came in shortly, a Taran courier, probably the one with detailed orders from the CSO for the Fergus. There were two other light cruisers stationed where they could open fire on the Revenant cruiser, and the EDI traces suggested they were the Scandyan cruisers. The only other non-Scandyan vessel was a frigateArgenti from what Van could tellalso orbiting Gotland.
There was no sign of the Collyns.
Van blotted his forehead and turned to Moran. "You have the conn, Lieutenant. Take her for now. Maintain half shields."
"Yes, ser. I have it. Maintaining half shields."
Van cleared his throat, then began to speak, also forming the message for the shipnet, for those linked there. "All hands. This is the commander. We just fought off an attack by an unknown cruiser, and we are entering the Scandyan system. Just before jump we received urgent orders to divert here, then proceed to Gotland, the fourth planet, where we are to receive more detailed orders. We are replacing the battle cruiser Collyns. Right now, that's all I know, but we'll keep you informed as we can. That is all."
Weapons status? Van snapped across the shipnet to Lieutenant Mitchel.
Twenty-one torps left, ser.
Thanks, Weapons. Engineer?
Fusactor's close to the heat limit, ser. Port rear quadrant shield is almost amber. Starboard converter is running at eighty.
"Ser?" asked Moran. "Who…was that a Rev ship? Or Argenti? And why did they come after us? It's not like we're trying to take over anyone else's systems."
"I don't know, Lieutenant. None of the IDs match. The drive EDIs were alteredor they belong to a system we've never heard of, and the torp traces were so standard that it could have been anyone. And they didn't bother to tell us who they were."
"Ser…I'd heard of…what you did…"
"But how did I know how to do it?" Van laughed, harshly. "That's what commanders are for. You learn your shi, what she can do, what she can't. The Fergus doesn't have shields like the newer cruisers, but the photon nets and the collectors were overengineered. That was because of the inefficiency of converters when she was built. They didn't bother to change the nets when she was refitted ten years back. That's why there's an intake governor."
"I've never seen anyone squeeze the nets that way."
"Except for something like that, you don't want to. We lost close to twenty percent of one converter and nearly overheated the fusactor. I'll probably have to answer for that as well. But it was the only way…what I did was use all the matter in the nets to overload their shields. Shields don't care whether what's coming at them is gas and dust or a torp. The total mass load is what matters. Mass times velocity. I accelerated the mass in the nets, then let the torps punch through." Van paused. "It won't work in a fight against more than one, maybe two ships, because you're basically limited to the power in the accumulators and mass tanks until you can deploy the nets again, and your shields are likely to fail before you can."
Commander Van Cassius Albert leaned back in the command couch. In less than an elapsed standard hour, he and the Fergus had gone from heading to a routine picket station in the quietest part of the Taran Republic into a battle in a pivot system. They'd been attacked by an unknown heavy cruiser, almost as if they'd been expected. The Fergus was headed inward to a system that its commander didn't know for a purpose he also didn't know, and orders he could only guess at. Van studied the detectors once more, then ran a check on all the ship systems once more, although he doubted he'd find more than the engineer and weapons officer had found.
Still…he'd have to draft a battle report and dispatch it by message torp back to RSF headquarters. He could do that in the twenty-odd hours it would take them to reach Gotland.
His lips curled into an ironic smile. After all the years in service, he still found it amusing that ships could jump between systems near-instantaneously, and yet getting to the jump corridors took hours, if not days. Then, jumps avoided the light-speed limits, which even the most powerful photon drive systems could not.
He took a slow and deep breath before beginning to use the shipnet to draft his report.
Copyright © 2003 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.