They were there, all right, exactly where the tachyon wake-trail pickup on Dorcas had projected they would be: four ships, glittering faintly in the starlight of deep space, blazing with infrared as they dumped the heat that zero-point energy friction had generated during their trip. They were small ships, probably no bigger than Procyon-class; milky white in color, shaped like thick hexagonal slabs of random sizes attached to each other at random edges.
Alien as hell.
“Scan complete, Commodore,” the man at the Jutland’s sensor station reported briskly. “No other ships registering.”
“Acknowledged,” Commodore Trev Dyami said, flexing his shoulders beneath his stiffly starched uniform tunic and permitting himself a slight smile as he gazed at the main display. Alien ships. The first contact with a new self-starfaring race in a quarter of a century.
And it was his. All his. Trev Dyami and the Jutland would be the names listed in the Commonwealth’s news reports and, eventually, in its history books.
Warrior’s luck, indeed.
He turned to the tactics station, fully aware that everything he said and did from this point on would be part of that history-book listing. “What’s the threat assessment?” he asked.
“I estimate point one to point four, sir,” the tactics officer reported. “I don’t find any evidence of fighter ejection tubes or missile ports.”
“They’ve got lasers, though, Commodore,” the tactics second put in. “There are clusters of optical-discharge lenses on the leading edges of each ship.”
“Big enough to be weapons?” the exec asked from Dyami’s side.
“Hard to tell, sir,” the other said. “The lenses themselves are pretty small, but that by itself doesn’t mean much.”
“What about power output?” Dyami asked.
“I don’t know, sir,” the sensor officer said slowly. “I’m not getting any leakage.”
“None that I can pick up.”
Dyami exchanged glances with the exec. “Superconducting cables,” the exec hazarded. “Or else just very well shielded.”
“One or the other,” Dyami agreed, looking back at the silent shapes floating in the middle of the main display. Not only a self-starfaring race, but one with a technology possibly beyond even humanity’s. That history-book listing was getting longer and more impressive by the minute.
The exec cleared his throat. “Are we going to open communications, sir?” he prodded.
“It’s that or just sit here staring at each other,” Dyami said dryly, throwing a quick look at the tactical board. The rest of the Jutland’s eight-ship task force was deployed in his designated combat formation, their crews at full battle stations. The two skitter-sized watchships were also in position, hanging well back where they would be out of danger if this meeting stopped being peaceful. The Jutland’s own Dragonfly defense fighters were primed in their launch tubes, ready to be catapulted into battle at an instant’s notice.
Everything was by-the-book ready…and it was time to make history. “Lieutenant Adigun, pull up the first-contact comm package,” Dyami ordered the comm officer. “Get it ready to run. And alert all ships to stand by.”
“Signal from the Jutland, Captain,” Ensign Hauver reported from the Kinshasa’s bridge comm station. “They’re getting ready to transmit the first-contact package across to our bogies.”
Commander Pheylan Cavanagh nodded, his eyes on the linked-hexagon ships in the bridge display. “How long will it take?”
“Oh, they can run the first chunk through in anywhere from five to twenty minutes,” Hauver said. “The whole package can take up to a week to transmit. Not counting breaks for the other side to try to figure out what we’re talking about.”
Pheylan nodded. “Let’s hope they’re not too alien to understand it.”
“Mathematics are supposed to be universal,” Hauver pointed out.
“It’s that ‘supposed to be’ I always wonder about,” Pheylan said. “Meyers, you got anything more on the ships themselves?”
“No, sir.” The sensor officer shook his head. “And to be honest, sir, I really don’t like this. I’ve run the infrared spectrum six ways from April, and it just won’t resolve. Either those hulls are made of something the computer and I have never heard of before, or else they’re deliberately skewing the emissions somehow.”
“Maybe they’re just shy,” Rico said. “What about those optical-discharge lenses?”
“I can’t get anything on those, either,” Meyers said. “They could be half-kilowatt comm lasers, half-gigawatt missile frosters, or anything in between. Without power-flux readings, there’s no way to tell.”
“That part bothers me more than the hull,” Rico said to Pheylan, his dark face troubled as he stared at the display. “Putting that kind of massive shielding on their power lines tells me that they’re trying to hide something.”
“Maybe they’re just very efficient,” Meyers suggested.
“Yeah,” Rico growled. “Maybe.”
“There it goes,” Hauver spoke up. “Jutland’s running the pilot search signal. They’ve got a resonance—fuzzy, but it’s there.” He peered at his board. “Odd frequency, too. Must be using some really weird equipment.”
“We’ll get you a tour of their comm room when this is all over,” Pheylan said.
“I hope so. Okay; there goes the first part of the package.”
“Lead bogie’s moving,” Meyers added. “Yawing a few degrees to port—”
And without warning a brilliant double flash of light lanced out from the lead alien ship, cutting across the Jutland’s bow. There was a burst of more diffuse secondary light as hull metal vaporized under the assault—
And the Kinshasa’s Klaxons blared with an all-force combat alert. “All ships!” Commodore Dyami’s voice snapped over the radio scrambler. “We’re under attack. Kinshasa, Badger, pull out to sideline flanking positions. All other ships, hold station. Fire pattern gamma-six.”
“Acknowledge, Hauver,” Pheylan ordered, staring at the display in disbelief. The aliens had opened fire. Unprovoked, unthreatened, they’d simply opened fire. “Chen Ki, pull us out to sideline position. Ready starboard missile tubes for firing.”
“How do we key them?” Rico asked, his fingers skating across his tactical setup board. “Proximity or radar?”
“Heat-seeking,” Pheylan told him, acceleration pressing him back into his chair as the Kinshasa began to move forward to its prescribed flanking position.
“We’re too close to the other ships,” Rico objected. “We might hit one of them instead of the bogies.”
“We can pull far enough out to avoid that,” Pheylan told him, throwing a quick look at the tactical board. “Point is, we know the bogies are hot. With those strange hulls of theirs, the other settings might not even work.”
“Missile spread from the Jutland,” Meyers announced, peering at his displays. “They’re going with radar keyed—”
And suddenly all four alien ships opened up with a dazzling display of multiple-laser fire. “All bogies firing,” Meyers shouted as the warble of the damage alarm filled the bridge. “We’re taking hits—hull damage in all starboard sections—”
“What about the Jutland’s missiles?” Rico called.
“No impacts,” Meyers shouted back. The image on the main display flared and died, reappearing a second later as the backup sensors took over from the vaporized main cluster. “Bogies must have gotten ‘em.”
“Or else they just didn’t trigger,” Pheylan said, fighting down the surge of panic simmering in his throat. The Kinshasa was crackling with heat stress now as those impossible lasers out there systematically bubbled off layers of the hull…and from the barely controlled voices shouting from the audio-net speaker it sounded as if the rest of the Peacekeeper ships were equally up to their necks in it. In the wink of an eye the task force had gone from complete control of the situation to a battle for survival. And were losing. “Key missiles for heat-seeking, Rico, and fire the damn things.”
“Yes, sir. Salvo one away—”
And an instant later there was a sound like a muffled thunderclap, and the Kinshasa lurched beneath Pheylan’s chair. “Premature detonation!” Meyers shouted; and even over the crackling of overstressed metal Pheylan could hear the fear in his voice. “Hull integrity gone: forward starboard two, three, and four and aft starboard two.”
“Ruptures aren’t sealing,” Rico called. “Too hot for the sealant to work. Starboard two and four are honeycombing. Starboard three…honeycombing has failed.”
Pheylan clenched his teeth. There were ten duty stations in that section. Ten people who were now dead. “Chen Ki, give us some motion—any direction,” he ordered the helm. If they didn’t draw the aliens’ lasers away from the ejected honeycombs, those ten casualties were going to have lots of company. “All starboard deck officers are to pull their crews back to central.”
“The ship can’t handle much more of this, Captain,” Rico said grimly from beside him.
Pheylan nodded silently, his eyes flicking between the tactical and ship-status boards. Rico was, if anything, vastly understating the case. With half the Kinshasa’s systems failing or vaporized and nothing but the internal collision bulkheads holding it together, the ship had bare minutes of life left to it. But before it died, there might be enough time to get off one final shot at the enemy who was ripping them apart. “Rico, give me a second missile salvo,” he ordered. “Fire into our shadow, then curve them over and under to pincer into the middle of the bogie formation. No fusing—just a straight timed detonation.”
“I’ll try,” Rico said, his forehead shiny with sweat as he worked his board. “No guarantees with the ship like this.”
“I’ll take whatever I can get,” Pheylan said. “Fire when ready.”
“Yes, sir.” Rico finished his programming and jabbed the firing keys, and through the crackling and jolting of the Kinshasa writhing beneath him, Pheylan felt the lurch as the missiles launched. “Salvo away,” Rico said. “Sir, I recommend we abandon ship while the honeycombs are still functional.”
Pheylan looked again at the status board, his stomach twisting with the death-pain of his ship. The Kinshasa was effectively dead; and with its destruction he had only one responsibility left. “Agreed,” he said heavily. “Hauver, signal all hands: we’re abandoning. All sections to honeycomb and eject when ready.”
Copyright © 2015 by Timothy Zahn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.