Elisabeth Hoyle had always looked old. When she oversaw her stellar maps, leaning over the cartography table with her spectacles perched atop her aquiline nose, grey hair around her temples, it was hard not to recognize her as a veteran captain, even though she did not like the title. “Madam”, not “Captain”, such was the home rule on her ship — not the only oddity aboard the Dryad.
“We still have nothing but debris, madam,” announced the radar officer. “We are right inside the cloud created by the destruction of the Hammurabi. It’s still expanding. No traces of the attackers.”
“I am afraid our pirates are gone, madam.”
“They aren’t. They’re still creeping out there, you can be sure of it.”
“Well then” commented Maria, the XO, “we’re broadcasting our infrared signature to the entire world.”
“That is the point. I want them to know that we’re here. That the USRE is watching, and that we have just found what’s left of their last victim.” Elisabeth took off her glasses to clean them up. She hated running missions like this one, especially on territory that, technically, wasn’t even under USRE responsibility. Pirates...now, that was an interesting euphemism. There were no pirates in the solar system, at least no pirates that would blow up vessels in the middle of nowhere. But the High Fleet greatly enjoyed euphemisms, and they were not to be discussed on the bridge.
“I have a ping” announced Jonesy, the tactical officer, headphones blasting old-school drone music. “Light infrared flash, one hundred thousand kilometres downrange, near the highlighted asteroid. Classified as unknown ship, presumed hostile.”
Elisabeth put her glasses back on and raised an eyebrow.
“Automated analysis classifies this ping as an old asteroid miner, type 72, Moon Communes. What makes you think otherwise, Jonesy?”
“Madam, our infrared classification system is derived from civilian space traffic control systems. It is very accurate and quite good at automated tracking, but when it is confused, it tends to come back home screaming, and in that case, it means it’s classifying things as miners by default.”
Elisabeth contemplated her tactical map for a second, then took off her glasses again, folded them in a grey anti-shock case before strapping herself to her anti-g seat. Her voice was calm, focused, incredibly mundane.
The lights on the bridge went from red to blue, and all crewmembers silently strapped themselves to their own seats before closing the helmets of their flight suits.
“IR contact is gone, madam” announced the tactical officer — and a split-second later something blinked on the medium-range sensors, an explosion of lights and cold numbers.
“Contact, contact, twenty thousand kilometres and closing, missiles in the void, missiles in the void, heading 000, vertical 300, he’s right on top of us!!”
“Translate 1-2, dogleg pattern.”
The ship rumbled as its engines fired at full thrust automatically, while its logical cores struggled to compute a succession of two close-range jumps. When the missiles arrived within defensive range, the Dryad’s laser grid triggered a hailstorm of light. Elisabeth felt her heart skip a beat as the vessel translated away, leaving a swarm of frustrated missiles in its wake. The commander blinked when the Dryad resumed existence, fifty thousand kilometres away. Jonesy commented.
“Missiles on IR. Eleven, still burning. No pursuit. They were just needles, commander.”
Elisabeth bit her lip. A trap. Needles hurled through the void at an unsuspecting vessel — instant death, vaporization and crystallization. But the Dryad was not a cargo vessel, it was a High Fleet Firebase and its captain was rightly pissed off — or the closest Elisabeth Hoyle knew to anger.
“I’m having trouble classifying our contact. Fusion drive, Luciole-sized, model unknown, probably a mark 4 considering the firepower.”
“IR ping followed by FTL wake signal, Lances inbound, Lances inbound, eight signals!!”
“Spin and evade 1-5, random pattern, load our Lances, ready to drop, engage countermeasures.”
The Dryad surged forwards again, rapidly translating across seventy thousand kilometres over seven minutes to try and lose its faster-than-light stalkers. When the Firebase had completed its fifth jump, Elisabeth blinked again.
“Two jammed enemy Lances lost and spinning. Two Lances trying to reacquire, and...contact is firing again, eight more Lances away, trying to acquire us!”
“Commander, positive ID on enemy Lancers, we’re dealing with Swarmers.”
Elisabeth glanced at a number on the tactical panels — 70%. That was the efficiency percentage of their laser grid if all Swarmers were to deploy their warheads close to the Dryad. MIRV missiles packed an incredible amount of sheer firepower.
“Spin and evade 1-5, drop decoys” she would have said if she hadn’t known better, if she hadn’t felt their attacker was way in over its head. They think they have us cornered. They don’t expect us to come back and bite.
“Offensive translation under 40,000. Switch our Lances to anti-missile mode, load decoys, deploy on my mark.”
The Dryad pulsed forwards again, this time directly towards the Luciole. The latter’s laser grid immediately resolved the USRE Firebase as a threat and started firing. The entire starboard side of the Dryad lit up as ablative armour melted to protect its mainframe.
“Mark on decoys. Engines cold.”
The Dryad cut its engines and engaged two decoys that translated a few thousand kilometres away before blasting their fusion drives at full thrust. They would not fool a good tactical officer but it wasn’t the point — their true goal was to confuse enemy missiles and force the Luciole to assume direct control of them instead of relying on their onboard computers.
“Engaging spin” announced Jonesy as the Dryad started rotating around its axis to uniformly expose its ablative armour to the Luciole’s laser fire.
“Translate away 1-3, keep at 40,000. Fire a Lance at each waypoint.”
The Dryad disappeared, leaving melted fragments of armour in its wake. During the split-second exchange, the Luciole had also suffered, losing half its radiators to focused grid bursts. Three more Lances surged away from the Firebase and locked themselves on the enemy missiles, engaging them in a dogfight spreading across thousands of kilometres.
“Fire all remaining hardpoints” ordered Elisabeth, and eight more projectiles left the Firebase. The deadly dance continued for twenty -five seconds, with both ships trying to guide its missiles towards the other, all the while coordinating laser grids and, in the case of the Dryad, dogfighting enemy missiles with its own projectiles. Logical cores on both ships were pushed to their very limits by the succession of translations and targeting orders they had to compute in a fraction of a second. On the Dryad, on-board CPUs went into full overclock eight seconds after the beginning of the knife fight, its radiators now gleaming in bright red in the void. The Firebase was a large vessel with a small crew, and it could afford to dedicate immense amounts of power — and the thermal load that came with it — to its computers. The Luciole, on the contrary, was constrained by its ancient shape. In a duel relying on CPU cycles, its only hope was to destroy the Dryad fast and reliably. Overwhelm it with firepower before melting itself to death — an option that could have worked had the Firebase remained at long range where the Luciole could have peppered it with missiles, but not in a close-range fight where its computers had to micromanage every single tactical aspect of the fight.
After seventy seconds, the Luciole gave up and relinquished direct control on all of its missiles, which allowed the Dryad’s own projectiles to lock on and destroy them. For the next three seconds, the Luciole tried to evade with a long-range jump, but it was too late. Twenty seconds exactly after the beginning of the close-range engagement, two Lances found their way through the small ship’s defence grid. At this range, the explosion was just a small blip of light.
“Target hit” confirmed Jonesy a second later. “Fuselage breaking, fusion core breach. Target out of action, no escape capsules detected, I see no black box signal.”
“All clear. We are alone.”
Elisabeth nodded. She opened her helmet, reached for her anti-shock case and put her glasses back on, then took a deep breath.
“Recall unspent missiles and set course for the debris field. Compile a damage report. Jonesy, I want a full spectral analysis of the ship we just downed. I want to know who the hell these people were.”
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