|Episode 117: Hornet Returns|
“Forty minutes until braking maneuver.”
Russ’s voice sounded harsh and ragged, and Maccabee knew that he’d been driving him and the rest of the crew too hard for the last twenty-six hours. He himself had had just four hours of sleep, and only at the insistence of Doctor Monteux; she’d had to dose him with sedatives, too, and promise to stay by his side the whole time to wake him in case of an emergency. The probability of just such an event was growing with each passing minute.
Hornet streaked through interstellar space at close to six tenths the speed of light, something like six hundred and fifty million kilometers per hour, an insane speed for a ship to maintain for even a few minutes; she’d been there for hours. The forward shielding was torn to shreds, and micrometeor and interstellar dust impacts were riddling the armor with increasing regularity as Hornet raced on through the outer reaches of the Makassar system. Two forward sections were already open to space, and Maccabee had ordered the whole front third of the ship evacuated. Every few seconds, the ship shuddered just slightly under them, another microscopic impactor arriving with shattering force, each one tearing its way deeper into the hull
“Ashburn?” said Maccabee. The engineer had been working on keeping the ship alive, but now she’d need to guarantee that the inertial drive was still in working order, before they turned it on and started bleeding off some of this incredible speed.
“Everything looks good, captain,” she answered. She’d insisted on staying on the bridge, and was now flying high on about five different stimulants, mixed into a potent cocktail by an extremely unhappy Monteux. Ashburn claimed she’d never been more alert, but Maccabee couldn’t help but feel a little bit of Monteux’s worries rubbing off on him.
“What’s our node status?” he asked, more just to cover the bases than out of any worry. I think. . . .
“We’re at ninety-one percent, captain. Majority inactive are in the forward section.” Ashburn’s voice was sounding more and more like a computer.
“What’s the percentage in that section?”
“Eighty-three, captain.” Ashburn looked up at him with a small scowl. “Still well within operational limits.”
“By thirteen percent or so,” he agreed, nodding.
“You could run the drive with that section at fifty, sir,” she replied, the scowl deepening. “I know how to do my damn job.”
“I know, Ashburn,” Maccabee said, keeping his voice from sounding impatient, he thought. “Just covering my own ass.”
“Captain,” interrupted Sel.
“I think I have Lion Star,” said the small man, his voice tight with anticipation. “We’re still at about 500 mega-klicks, and she’s close to the planet, but I think I’ve got a lock on her reactors.”
“Will she see us?” Maccabee asked.
“I highly doubt it, sir. I’ve only found her because I know exactly what I’m looking for, and nearly exactly where it is.” Sel shook his head. “Unless their sensors beat ours by an order of magnitude, I think we’re still in the clear. Besides, we’re running silent.”
Maccabee nodded. It was not something he should have forgotten, but Hornet was running with her reactors at minimum standby; the gravity signature of those drives, as heavily shielded as they were, would probably be hard to spot at five million kilometers, much less five hundred million. He shook his head. Monteux was right, as always; now that he was going into battle against an essentially unknown foe, he wished he’d gotten more sleep earlier.
“Thirty minutes,” said Russ, interrupting Maccabee’s thoughts. “Twenty-five minutes until reactor power-up.”
Twenty-five more minutes, then, until Lion Star had even a hope of seeing them. And what then?
There was no noticeable acceleration, of course, no feeling of movement at all, except for the ever-more-frequent impact of dust and rocks, hammering the hull like particle cannon shots. Nevertheless, the slipstream drive was running at maximum, even beyond the normal safety levels, pouring on acceleration, clawing Hornet down from her reckless, headlong rush, pulling eight kilometers off her speed every second. In about five more hours, assuming they were still alive, the ship would be at rest relative to the system’s star. By then, however, the battle would be over.
Lion Star could not help but notice Hornet now, and she had powered her drives up to maximum; Maccabee was not too upset to see she was bearing towards him, coming to meet his challenge. There was no way to know what that meant, if Abslom was still alive, if she was still in control, or if she was captured or dead. Equally, there was no way to communicate with the teams on the ground, with Samara and Alger and Ming. Even if he could have tried to contact them, however, Maccabee had the sickening feeling he’d hear nothing but static. Despite his best efforts, he was still thirty minutes behind schedule, an eternity. His teams were most likely dead.
“She’s running hot, sir,” said Sel, watching his scans. “Not as high as us, but I put her at ninety-eight percent of maximum, assuming the drive information we have on her is still accurate.”
“They’re not outside the safety limits?” asked Maccabee.
“Not yet, sir,” answered Sel. “They’re pulling about six k-m-s-squared, heading right at us. No sign of any change in the last five minutes.”
“Fine.” Maccabee sighed. He’d pushed too hard, and now he was going into battle with a damaged ship. He’d turn Hornet’s ravaged bow away from Lion Star before engaging, of course, but it was still a weak point, especially if the pirate had any missiles. At these kind of intercept velocities, they’d probably be unable to hit anything, but there was always a chance, and--
“Evasive!” shouted Sel.
Maccabee reacted faster than anyone else, stabbing his finger through the emergency alert button on his holographic controls. The main holo in front of him showed the ship’s automatic systems jinking their course wildly up and to the left, relative to the system’s equatorial plane. Hornet’s computers were also desperately turning the ship’s damaged nose away from her direction of motion, but that was a much slower operation. The crash harness slammed down on Maccabee a moment before all hell broke loose.
A two-gigaton nuclear mine, lying completely silent until Hornet approached within its activation range, blew up twenty thousand kilometers off the port bow; the enormous blast fueled a gamma ray laser that lanced out at Hornet’s flank, ripping through her particle shielding and then savaging her hull. The ship bucked wildly, and Maccabee heard her scream, heard the sound of bulkheads rending, of support members shattering, of his crew dying, even through the meter-thick walls of the command deck. Damage control schematics flashed up on the main holo, a pool of red indicators spreading out across Hornet’s port side.
“Status!” shouted Maccabee as Hornet righted herself and resumed her previous course.
“Four sections open to space, forward of amidships,” said Ashburn, her voice tight. “I’ve lost another five nodes, the drive is running beyond safety limits; we should cut back by twenty percent.”
“Do it!” barked Maccabee. “Sel, activate forward mine sweepers, whatever we’ve got left.”
“Already done, captain,” said the other man, looking a bit sheepish.
“It wasn’t your call, Sel,” said Maccabee, cutting off that line of thought. “I should have had the sweeps on to begin with. What’s their status?”
“We have three laser nodes out of five active, captain, but they’re clustered on the starboard side.” Sel shrugged. “That hit took out the port nodes.”
“We’ve lost two weapon banks,” she replied, her eyes scanning back and forth as she read through the data streaming into her brain. “I estimate our port broadside is down to sixty percent of nominal.” She looked up right at Maccabee. “We lost ten people, captain.”
Maccabee was silent, staring at the damage control display, trying to master his anger. They’d known. There was no way to deny it, no other explanation. They’d known he was coming and they’d led him right into a trap. Now ten of his crew were dead, not including the people he’d sent to their deaths on the planet. Surely, Abslom and her crew had been ready for them as well. There was no doubt now that Abslom was on Lion Star, and that she was out to take him down. The only question was why, why she cared, why she wasn’t just running as fast as she could the other way, away from him.
Two more mines were destroyed by the sweeps, small nodes of multiple lasers that combed the area of space right ahead of Hornet and destroyed whatever was out there. Even a glancing hit by the lasers would usually prevent a mine from working properly, and the ship also sidestepped the mines she found on her forward scans, moving automatically and far faster than any human could have controlled her. With each second, the range between the two ships was cut down by another hundred and eighty thousand kilometers. Only a few minutes separated them, now.
“Incoming signal, captain,” said Sel. He looked up at Maccabbe. Around them, the others kept working on damage control, while teams throughout the ship tried to salvage what they could. At least none of the reactors had taken damage yet. The bomb-pumped laser had delved deep enough, but some miracle had spared the number two fusion ring a permanent end that would have put paid to Hornet as well.
“From Lion Star?” he asked. Sel just nodded. “Put it on.”
The main holo image dissolved for a moment, then was replaced by Abslom’s grinning face. “Captain!” she said; then she laughed.
“Oh, shit,” said Russ quietly. He’d only just put it together.
“I’m sorry we can’t talk in real time, Maccabee,” continued Abslom. “It might be interesting to see your face. You should know that your people on the planet fought well, before we finished them off. They were completely surprised, of course, that we knew they were coming, but they held on remarkably long. If you’d been on schedule, you might have saved some of them.” Abslom smiled again. “That mine was just the beginning, Maccabee. We’ve got lots of surprises lined up for you. I’d suggest that you beat a fast retreat from here. Surely your batteries are charged, and you can’t be that heavily damaged, with the acceleration your still managing. Think about it. There’s nothing left here, trust me.”
Abslom shrugged and turned away from the screen. Then she turned back, and added, “My boss sends her regards, Maccabee.” She laughed again, and the transmission ended.
“God damn her,” growled Ashburn.
“They might still be alive. She could be lying.” Sel sounded doubtful as he said it. “There’s no reason for her to tell the truth, especially if she wants us to turn tail.”
Maccabee said nothing. Everyone turned in silence to look at him. My boss sends her regards. The words played back with perfect clarity, over and over again, etched into his mind beyond any hope of being erased. I was right after all. She was in charge of the whole thing. Not only that, she’d lured him in, used the story of Abslom turning rogue to snare him, knowing that he would try, as desperate as the attempt might seem to someone else. He’d just made the biggest mistake of his life, and it was not a life marked by an absence of mistakes. How many more would pay for it with their lives?
“Russ, reverse acceleration,” Maccabee ordered, keeping his voice level, letting none of what he felt, of what he knew, show to his loyal crew. Perhaps it was time to find the answers to all of his questions.
“You heard me, damn it,” growled Maccabee, something like rage coloring his voice. “Maximum acceleration, all ahead. Do it.”
“Done,” said Russ a moment later. “We’re pulling six-point-two k-m-s-squared, all ahead.” He looked up at Maccabee. “Care to explain what’s going on?”
“She wants a fight? We’ll give her one.”
“Captain,” said Ashburn, speaking slowly and clearly, as though she didn’t expect him to understand otherwise. “Forward shielding is basically gone. We should be bleeding speed, not pouring it on. We’re getting into the inner system; particle density is increasing.”
“Keep the mine sweepers on,” replied Maccabee, still not looking at any of them, just staring at the main holo in front of him. “They’ll catch some of it.”
“Not all of it,” Ashburn countered. “Damn it, we’re already holed in a dozen places! We need to slow down!”
“Do as you’re told, or get off!” barked her captain, now finally turning to look at her. “Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Her tone was completely flat, but Maccabee could almost see her anger, coming off her in waves.
“Russ, spin the ship. Reverse acceleration, but put her stern ahead.” Maccabee still watched Ashburn, and saw her shake her head ever so slightly. He’d just put the only undamaged parts of the ship at risk, but at least there was also untouched shielding to absorb some of the impacts.
“Ship is turned, captain,” replied Russ. “Acceleration all astern, and in the direction of travel.”
The intercept time was lower, now. Lion Star and Hornet were streaking towards each other like two cars in a game of chicken, pouring on as much speed as they possibly could. Maccabee’s ship was already moving far faster than Abslom’s, but hers was passing through normal maneuvering speeds and approaching .1c. The computer predicted a combined approach speed at intercept of approximately .7c, or 209,000 kilometers per second, which would leave the ships an engagement time of roughly ten seconds. Long enough by any measure.
Time seemed to pass slowly; Maccabee played and replayed Abslom’s brief message in his mind’s eye, looking for any more hints. Was he wrong? Could she have meant something else? It seemed impossible; all the evidence pointed in one direction, now. The upcoming battle seemed like only an afterthought, completely unimportant in the grand designs that suddenly whirled through Maccabee’s mind. Playing above everything else was a short video clip--that was how he saw it, in his memory--of a girl smiling, smiling at the camera, or perhaps the person behind the camera. It was a beautiful smile.
Maccabee roused himself from his thoughts and stiffened inside his crash harness. Only five minutes until intercept; it was time to get to work.
“Sel, bring all weapons systems online,” he ordered.
“Systems online, sir, self-test on main screen,” replied Sel automatically. The system checklist appeared on the main holo; one by one, the different banks of cannon and lasers turned from yellow to green or red. There were quite a few red ones on the port side and in the bow sections, but the large majority of them were still green. “Check complete.”
“Russ, turn our starboard broadside into line.”
“Aye,” said Russ, and then Hornet turned across her line of forward motion, presenting her undamaged starboard side to Lion Star. “Turn complete. Acceleration still along line of motion.”
Maccabee nodded. The beauty of the inertial slipstream drive was that it allowed acceleration in any direction in three dimensions. He could keep accelerating along the line of Hornet’s motion and rotate the ship constantly through three hundred and sixty degrees, and the computer would take care of the rest, allowing continual acceleration or deceleration as desired.
“Ashburn, power down non-essential reactors to minimal standby,” continued Maccabee. “Doctor. . . .”
“I’m on my way,” said Monteux, rising from her seat on the Deck and striding for the exit. “Good luck, captain.”
Maccabee nodded. Monteux had gone briefly to the hospital bay after the mine hit, but no one had been injured, only instantly killed, by that attack. Maccabee couldn’t decide if that was a blessing or a curse. Modern medicine could save almost anyone who made it to the hospital, but the pain. . . .
“When we are in range,” began Maccabee, turning back to the others, “Sel will fire all weapons as they bear, maximum yield, maximum rate of fire; her shielding shouldn’t be that heavy, so throw in some penetration rounds and get me hull hits soonest.” Sel nodded. “Russ, you will activate evasion plan four; make sure you’re tied into fire control, so that the computer can adjust for Sel. We’re going to want to keep the port side away from her, so keep that in mind.”
“On it,” said Russ, changing some of the settings on his screens.
“Ashburn.” She looked up at him. “Sorry. You didn’t deserve that. Keep her off us as best you can. If you need to, rotate the ship however you like.” Maccabee punched in a command line on his screens. “I’m giving you override control. Your job is to keep us alive, no matter what. Once we pass, it’ll be hours, if ever, before we reengage, so let’s concentrate on this moment.”
Ashburn stared at Maccabee for a long moment, and he could not read her impassive face; then she nodded.
“Two minutes ‘til intercept, captain,” said Sel urgently.
“Sound general alarms,” Maccabee ordered with a nod to Sel. Sirens sounded throughout the ship; all her crew were long since at their stations, but this would let them know that the time was at hand.
“Missile launch!” screamed Sel a moment later. “Four incoming! Countermissiles away!”
Maccabee tried to swallow and couldn’t. How the hell did they have missiles on that ship? Hornet had automatically launched her countermissiles, and electronic systems all over the ship were frantically trying to misdirect the incoming missiles, but the intercept time was frighteningly short; the missiles were accelerating at slipstream rates, almost impossible for a ship-board missile on a frigate, but it was happening somehow anyway. One missile veered off course. Two countermissiles converged on a second, and then Hornet’s point defense lasers opened fire, sending thousands of shots into space at a range of about half a million klicks. A third missile died, and then, suddenly, Hornet was rotating on her central axis.
The last missiles blew up at normal stand-off range, three hundred thousand kilometers, and a trio of bomb-pumped lasers lanced out at Hornet. They connected with her heavily-defended underbelly, slashing into shielding and then armor, but not penetrating deep into the ship. A moment later, Hornet was back on an even keel. Maccabee looked over at Ashburn and nodded. “Good thinking.”
“Thanks.” She glanced at something no one else could see. “Thirty seconds, captain.”
“Give the word.”
Maccabee nodded and put up a count-down on the main holo. The counter ran past twenty seconds. Fifteen, and now Lion Star was close enough for Hornet’s sensors to get a good read on her open weapon banks; she was showing off a heavy load, but not nearly as heavy as Hornet’s, and there were no missile tubes--the four shots must have been one-time deals.
Ten seconds. Maccabee’s hands tightened on the arms of his chair. Then he released those and raised his hands to the holographic controls in front of him, ready to put in any necessary commands. Five seconds. Lion Star opened fire, but Russ was already moving Hornet in the first of her evasive maneuvers, and this was extreme range for any weapons. Two lasers grazed Hornet’s shields, inflicting minimal damage. Two seconds. A volley of particle cannon fire passed astern. One.
Hornet’s weapons opened fire as one. Twenty large-caliber lasers, five heavy grasers, and five hundred particle cannons of various sizes all poured death downrange at the other ship. Russ had Hornet leaping up and down, moving wildly, while the computers automatically adjusted for the acceleration by bringing Sel’s guns back to bear on Lion Star. The other ship was maneuvering herself, but obviously not under the control of a fully battle-trained A.I. suite; her evasions were slower, less random, and poorly synchronized with her weapons. Two broadsides missed Hornet completely, and Maccabee could see his guns hitting home all along Lion Star’s flank.
Two seconds of the engagement gone, and the ships were only six hundred thousand klicks apart. Hornet dodged again, but then she was outguessed. Twenty-thousand particle cannon rounds scorched into her starboard shielding, heavier shot plowing holes into the electronic grid while smaller rounds followed on in massed groups, passing on to the exposed armor underneath. The hull shuddered and more alarms sounded, but the moment passed, and now Sel was concentrating his fire, aiming at a weak spot on Lion Star’s flank, pouring thousands of rounds onto a space not more than a hundred meters square. Light flared across the other ship’s shielding, and then the spot collapsed.
Explosions rippled across Lion Star’s hull, and her fire faltered for a moment as she rolled sideways, pulling the damaged section out of range. Russ sent all of Hornet’s remaining acceleration into a vertical climb, trying to keep the damaged sector in play as Sel fired with the grasers; one shot glanced through the shield hole and plowed a furrow across Lion Star’s bow. Then the impossible happened.
“Missile launch!” shouted Sel. Point defense lasers reacted to automatic programming and swept two of the missiles from the sky, but they were too close anyway, and just needed time to arm themselves; two others blew up just a hundred thousand klicks from Hornet as she and Lion Star flashed by each other, each frantically trying to change their orientation towards the other to protect their damaged sections.
Six more heavy lasers lanced out at Hornet, and this time they found a weakness. Two came in through the bow sections, and one penetrated into the number one reactor space. The ship seemed to twist underneath Maccabee, and he was jerked hard against the crash harness. For a moment, he thought they were all dead, but number one reactor was on standby, and its automatics shut it down before it could overload.
The moment passed, and now the two ships were flying away from each other, the range growing as quickly as it had shrunk before. Sel hammered away with his particle cannons, and now another hole opened up on Lion Star’s port side; two heavy grasers followed, and a half-dozen lasers as well. For a moment, the other ship rolled wildly out of control, or so it seemed. Then she rolled onto her side, and suddenly Hornet was looking down the throat of a half-dozen gun emplacements that should not have existed.
“Russ!” roared Maccabee, but it was far too late. Hornet was already moving, already trying to evade the incoming fire, but Lion Star had the advantage of complete surprise, and the Deck shuddered and jumped as six banks of heavy grasers slammed home into Hornet’s hull. Two decks of guns were wiped away, and the ship spun wildly on its axis. Somehow, Sel kept firing, and as Lion Star rolled out of her wild maneuver, a half broadside from Hornet’s crippled port guns tore into the other ship. Explosions blossomed along Lion Star’s flank as the heavy cannons holed her hull, and then there was a bright, white flash that blanked out all of Hornet’s screens for a moment.
When the outside view returned, Lion Star was still there, out of range now and quickly receding further, a gaping wound marring her aft port quarter. It looked like a partial reactor overload, shut down just in time to keep it from destroying the ship. There was no way that she’d be able to maneuver, though, not yet. For now, Abslom was adrift, assuming she was still alive at all.
“Report,” said Maccabee, feeling very, very tired.
“It’s a mess, captain,” said Ashburn quietly. “The second missile volley took out all of Fusion One, and those grasers. . . .” She shook her head. “I don’t even know how she could power guns like that. Half of the starboard side is just gone, captain. It’s a miracle the emergency bulkheads held, not to mention that we still have enough drive nodes to slow down. We’ll be lucky if we make two k-m-s-squared, though.”
“We’re down to twenty percent of our energy weapons, captain,” said Sel. “Maybe thirty percent of cannons are still active. I’d guess we can salvage another thirty percent of each. The rest are a loss.”
Maccabee tried not to flinch, instead just nodding. The cost of repairing his ship, assuming he’d even be able to do it, was going to be staggering. At least they were still alive, and in the better position, for now. Lion Star was going to have a hell of a time repairing to come around and back to the planet, if they could manage it at all. Hornet had come out of the exchange much worse than Maccabee had expected--like everything else on this cursed mission--but he still had the advantage. For now.
“Swing us around the primary, Russ,” he ordered, releasing the shock harness.
“Sir. . . .” Ashburn looked up. “Casualty reports. Another twenty, twelve of them dead.”
Maccabee nodded. “Understood. Signal Monteux that I’m on my way to help her.” He turned back to Russ, trying not to think about the burning feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Use the star to slow us and aim for a zero-zero intercept at Makassar. Let me know if anything happens.”
He turned and walked to the exit from the command deck, ignoring Ashburn as she muttered from behind him, “What else could happen?” There was only one thought on his mind: what was he going to do if Samara was dead?