Antares Victory — An Excerpt
Lieutenant Elizabeth Esperanza was concerned, but not frightened. Whatever Bogey Seven Delta was, it maneuvered like a warship. That just made their task more interesting. She would be frightened later, after she had done her job.
Diablo was well ahead Mercury Force, the result of rushing headlong for hours while they decelerated for the foldpoint. The speeders and destroyers were a diminishing formation of glowing drive flares in the rear viewscreen as Diablo continued its breakneck race across the system. Ahead, and closing fast, was the blip that was their quarry. It had held its course far longer than originally projected, and had just begun decelerating for the foldpoint at six gravities.
Engines with that capability didn't usually power ore freighters or grain barges. Those kind of legs generally meant that the vessel possessing them was a warship.
“What do you suppose it is, Cas?”
She could almost hear her sensor operator shrugging inside his tank. “Could be anything from a message boat to a blastship, although from its flare spectrum, I would doubt we are up against anything larger than a destroyer.”
“Great. They are only four times our size instead of forty! At least, we’ll have a fighting chance when we get there.”
“If we get there, Liz. Watch the time.”
“You worry about your sensors and I’ll handle the piloting, Stinky.”
On her screen, a chronometer display was clicking off the seconds to the moment when it would be their turn to begin deceleration. She was not looking forward to that. In order to cut off the bogey, they would be going in at twenty gravities, and even then, would not slow down to system escape velocity before they reached the foldpoint. It was going to be one quick shot and then a long ride to infinity unless a tanker caught up with them.
The fluid in which she floated would theoretically protect her up to hundreds of gravities. Technology had not yet caught up with science. In truth, the twenty gravity capability of the engines was also the physiological limit of the crew, and possibly a little above the limit. Twenty gees would cause damage and would prematurely age her — how much, she couldn’t guess. Elizabeth didn’t fear dying. Her nightmares came when she saw herself as a broken down old lady of 28.
However, as an ancient philosopher once said, “No guts, no glory.” So, Elizabeth willed the acceleration alarms to sound in each of the tanks and said, “Okay, pull up your socks, people. Here we go!”
With that, she ordered engines to full power. In seconds, her whole body was being squeezed as though in a vise. Her vision went gray and then cleared, as the pumps increased the internal pressure in her tank to compensate. However, there was blurriness to her peripheral vision that told her this condition was not good for her.
On the screen, the velocity display began to change with alarming rapidity and the range to target indicator slowed perceptibly. They were slowing at the last possible second. Already, the fuzzy red oval that marked the perimeter of the foldpoint was coming into view at the edge of the screen. On another edge was the icon that represented their enemy. It was closing on the foldpoint as well.
It was going to be close.
“Damn it, he just fired missiles!”
“Defensive weapons online and free,” she responded instinctively. Their quarry had been identified. They were facing a warship. “Any guesses, Cas?”
“A destroyer for sure, Liz. Has to be. We have six vampires inbound. Anything smaller and they would have been hard pressed to fire half that at us in the first salvo.”
“What about a cruiser that just decided to swat the gnat?”
“Don’t think so. Not when you consider the stakes we are playing for here. Whoever he is, he just spit out a maximum salvo.”
She considered it and had to agree with him. This was no time for half measures. The fate of two sentient species depended on the outcome of this particular space race.
“Return fire. Maximum salvo. Let’s give him something to worry about.”
Diablo bucked six times as long-range missiles spit forth from her magazines, demonstrating the truly awesome ratio of armament to size that was standard for the specially built ships of Mercury Force.
The symbols on the screen showed the two clusters of missiles as they raced between ships. At the current range, it would take a minute for them to cross the gulf between combatants. When half that time had passed, Elizabeth ordered another volley, and was not surprised when the Ryall returned the fire. The second group of missiles would significantly complicate the job of the defensive computers. They would learn lessons from the destruction of the first volley and would adjust defenses accordingly. Modern space war is primarily a battle between computers, and a race to see which learns the quickest.
Mercury Diablo began to accelerate erratically as the computer took over defense of the ship. Lasers flashed out invisibly in the vacuum, seeking out incoming missiles. Lasers are instantaneous weapons. If they can see a target, they can destroy it. Unfortunately, their effective range against armored missiles is damnably short.
“Ready third volley,” she ordered when the missiles of both sides disappeared before they could reach their targets. The distance between the two ships was now down to 45 seconds travel time.
“Liz! We’ve got a ship appearing in the foldpoint!”
“Belay that last order! Target the new arrival with the third volley. Fire.”
Again, the ship bucked as the missile ejectors expelled heavy spheres into space where their matter converter engines could safely drive them toward the enemy. When the third volley was away, she ordered, “Ripple fire. Send everything we have at Bogey Seven Delta. Let’s try to swamp him before he swamps us.”
This time the speeder shuddered for a long time as they emptied their magazines. The Ryall ship also began continuous firing. It quickly became obvious that the destroyer’s magazines were larger than Diablo’s.
“Evasive action. How long to the other target?”
“They should be getting there any sec…” On the screen, the newly arrived Ryall ship in the foldpoint exploded. Having jumped blind into a battle, they had not known what hit them.
Elizabeth turned her attention back to the problem at hand. The space between them and the bogey filled with ordnance and Diablo’s defensive computer fired lasers as quickly as they recharged. The target was jinking and firing lasers. The good news was that they were slower at it than Diablo. The bad news was that they had more lasers with which to work.
Suddenly, a million suns burst forth in the space between the two ships, effectively blinding them.
“Premature burst, probably intentional,” Lubo Casimir reported. “They’re trying to blind us.”
“They’re doing a damn good job,” Elizabeth responded. “How much radiation exposure?”
“We’ll live,” Bill Ames, the engineer reported, “if we get help quickly enough.”
“Ten seconds to regain sensors. All right, I can see through the fireball again. Enemy ship is destroyed. I repeat, enemy is destroyed!”
“Apparently, one of our missiles got through. All I can see is an expanding cloud of plasma.”
“Then let’s get out of here! Engines to power. Run the tanks dry if you have …”
Elizabeth Esperanza’s order was cut off in mid-sentence when the nuclear-tipped Ryall missile that had been shielded by the mid-space detonation impacted Diablo’s engine module. In a dozen nanoseconds, far too quickly for human senses to detect, the speeder and four human souls ceased to exist. The Ryall had just drawn first blood.
However, by any measure, the battle had to be judged a decisive human victory.