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CHAPTER TWO Storm Wind Rising

Alex Cheltwyn sat stiff and still as his display's lurid damage codes confirmed Commodore Braun's worst suspicions. His shell of recon drones had still been racing outward when the first salvos roared in, and only the extreme range and command datalink had saved his ships from destruction. His RDs had gotten one good look at the enemy vessels, despite their cloak, before Bremerton fell back to Alpha One. No wonder the initial salvos had been so heavy . . . and thank God they'd concentrated on his escorting warships!

Survey ships were intended to evade enemies, but Battle Fleet units were designed to survive the crucible of combat, and Bremerton's battlegroup command net fused all the escorts into a single, multiship entity. Their offensive fire functioned in fine-meshed coordination . . . and so did their active defenses. The Huns were forced to rely solely on their own on-board point defense, but the escorts were able to bring the antimissile firepower of every ship in the net to bear on fire directed against any of them. The Survey ships had taken heavy damage, despite the relatively light fire targeted on them, but his escorts had survived virtually unscathed. Not, he reflected bitterly, that there hadn't been enough wrack and ruin to go around this bloody day.

The gunslingers had covered the Survey ships' retreat, waiting until all the Huns had made transit back into Alpha One before they followed. All Cheltwyn had been able to do was grit his teeth and take it while he ran, for none of his shipboard weapons, could even engage the enemy. His only long-range offensive power was his light carriers' strikegroups, but thirty-six fighters couldn't possibly have taken out six SDs, and he dared not linger in missile-range of capital ships to recover them, anyway. Launching them would have sentenced all of their flight crews to death, and so he'd done nothing but run, and he'd never felt so useless in his entire life.

TFNS Ute, the last Survey ship through, had taken a dreadful pounding before she could transit, but worse was waiting when Cheltwyn returned to Alpha One and discovered what had happened to the other Survey ships he was "protecting." Cheyenne had led the retreat . . . and run straight into the totally unexpected fire of two light cruisers. The effects of warp transit had put her defenses far below par, and the cloaked CLs' first salvos had come scorching in before she even knew they were there. Their fire had smashed her into an air-streaming hulk and killed two-thirds of her crew, and her sister Sudanese had taken almost as many hits before anyone else could assist her. Myrmidon and Tutu had at least managed to find the attackers, and, in combination with Callahan, their broadsides had been enough to destroy them, but not before Callahan had been pounded even harder than Sudanese.

Now he sat waiting, hands clenched in ivory-knuckled fists, while his com section worked frantically to sort out the bad news, and the bile of failure burned in his throat. Argive and all her people were gone. If they weren't dead already, they would be soon, and his soul would never forgive him for abandoning her. Now he had four more savagely wounded ships-ships he was supposed to protect-and it had been left to the exploration specialists, not their Battle Fleet escorts, to engage the enemy. He knew it wasn't his fault. Neither he nor Commodore Braun had been given any reason to suspect what was coming, and, under the circumstances, the survival of any of SF 27's units was near miraculous. He knew that . . . and none of it did a thing to reduce his crushing sense of guilt.

"Sir?" He looked up as Commander Nauhan appeared beside him. "Cheyenne's a write-off, Skipper," she said. "She's lost all power-can't even blow her fusion plant to scuttle. We think we've gotten everyone off who's still alive, but-"

She shrugged helplessly, and Cheltwyn nodded in bitter understanding. With the cruiser's power down, dozens of people could be trapped in her ruined compartments, and there was no time for systematic rescue efforts.

"Tutu and Ute?" he asked harshly.

"Yard jobs, both of them." Nauhan met his gaze unflinchingly, and he saw the echo of his own pain in her brown eyes. "Tutu's lost her ECM, and Callahan's drive damage is even worse than theirs is. None of them can make more than half speed, Sir."

"Damn," Cheltwyn whispered. Then he shook himself. Those SDs had to be coming in pursuit, and he had no time for the luxury of grief. "All right, Isis. Tell Chirac, Sergetov, and Ellis to set their scuttling charges and abandon. We'll take them aboard Bremerton and the carriers for now and redistribute later."

"Commander Sergetov is dead, Sir," Nauhan said quietly. "Lieutenant Hashimoto's assumed command."

"Hashimoto?" Cheltwyn stared at her. Arthur Hashimoto was Tutu's assistant engineer, ninth in the chain of command. Dear God in heaven, how heavy had her casualties been?

"I don't care who's in command!" he snapped, and knew his harsh voice gave him the lie even as he spoke. "Just get them aboard!"

"Yes, Sir." Nauhan's reply was carefully expressionless, and he clenched his jaw.

"Bremerton will stand by Cheyenne. As soon as we've got all the survivors transferred, we'll destroy the wreck by fire."

"Yes, Sir. Understood."

"All right." Cheltwyn shoved back in his chair and made himself think. With Argive, Tutu, Cheyenne, and Ute gone, there were only two survey ships left: Myrmidon and Sudanese. They were thirty percent slower than the escorts, but if the murderous bastards beyond that warp point did, indeed, mount commercial drives, they were still a third again faster than the pursuing superdreadnoughts. Adding them to the battlegroup net would slow his warships, but he could still stay away from the enemy if he could get out of range in the first place, and neither of them could hope to survive on their own if they didn't get out of range. Besides, he thought bleakly, with Kersaint detached and Callahan abandoned, he had two nice, empty slots to put them in.

"Get Sudanese and Myrmidon plugged into the net," he said heavily, and Nauhan nodded.

"Yes, Sir."

Cheltwyn nodded back, then turned to his tactical officer. "What do we know, Fritz?" he demanded.

"Not much, Skipper," Lieutenant Commander Szno admitted. "From the little data I have, it looked like the Commodore was right. They do seem to mount commercial engines, thank God. That's about all I can say with any assurance. I can make a few guesses based on the pattern of the engagement, but guesses are all they'll be."

"Call 'em any damned thing you like, but trot them out fast." Cheltwyn's mouth twitched in a bleak parody of a smile, and Szno tugged on an earlobe.

"I'd say we've got the tech edge, Skip. They were firing in three-ship groups, which probably means they don't have command datalink, and that should give us the advantage in any missile engagement. Or-" his smile was as bleak as his CO's "-it would if three superdreadnoughts didn't mount more internal launchers than our entire battlegroup."

"Understood. Is that the only reason you think we've got better tech?"

"No, Sir. This is more speculative, but sensors confirm they used only standard nukes and first-generation antimatter warheads."

Cheltwyn cocked his head with a frown, then nodded. "All right," he said. "I think you're onto something there. Anything else?"

"Not really, Sir, and I'm afraid to assume a bigger edge. Just because we developed systems in a given pattern doesn't mean they've done the same thing. Remember the X-ray laser. The Thebans' general tech base was well behind ours, but we'd never even thought of that one. These people may have surprises of their own."

"Point taken," Cheltwyn grunted, and turned his head as Nauhan reappeared.

"We've gotten everyone we could find off Cheyenne, Sir, and Myrmidon and Sudanese are tied into the net. We should have the last personnel off Callahan, Tutu and Ute in another ten minutes; the small craft are docking with them now."

"Then get us underway. The boats are fast enough to overtake us, and I want as much distance as possible between us and this warp point before the bad guys come through."

"Aye, aye, Sir." Nauhan nodded to Bremerton's astrogator and the tattered survivors of Survey Flotilla 27 and its escorts began to move.

"Do you have lock on Cheyenne, Fritz?"

"Aye, Skipper." Szno sounded unhappy, and Cheltwyn didn't blame him. No one liked to destroy one of his own, but they couldn't let that hulk's data or technology fall into enemy hands.

"Destroy her," he said harshly, and the tac officer pressed the firing key. There was no drive field to interdict, and the Survey cruiser's shattered wreck vanished in a sun-bright boil as a single warhead took her dead amidships. Cheltwyn watched the visual display as Cheyenne died, and his bitter eyes matched the hellish glare of her pyre. Then he made himself look away as Nauhan finished passing his orders to the small craft evacuating the other three ships. He beckoned to her and rose from his own chair to glower into the main plot.

"We'll try to run without engaging them, Isis. Fritz thinks we've got a tech advantage, but it's not enough to let us go toe-to-toe with capital ships."

"Yes, Sir."

"Have Mangkudilaga rearm his birds. Shipping strikes against that much firepower would be suicide, and we'll need them for a combat space patrol if they bring up carriers of their own."

"Yes, Sir. Should we launch Sha's group now? They're already configured for intercepts."

Cheltwyn shook his head. "No. We should have enough warning to get the CSP off from standby before anyone can hit us, and I want maximum endurance on their life support when we do launch."

"Understood, Sir."

"All right. Once you've passed those instructions, get a fresh RD shell deployed. We don't have enough of them, so use them to sweep a sixty-degree cone along our line of advance. We'll just have to take our chances on the flanks."

"We could cover that with the recon fighters-" Nauhan began, then shook her head. "No. We'll need every bird we've got for self-defense."

"Exactly," Cheltwyn agreed. "Besides-" he gave another bleak smile "-I want to keep the fact that we've got them our little secret for as long as possible. It's unlikely these people don't have fighters of their own, but if they think we don't, they may come in fat and happy, and we need every edge we can get."

"Yes, Sir."

"As soon as we've gotten all that done," the captain went on, "run everything we got from Commodore Braun's drone and every sensor reading Tactical and Plotting got on the actual engagement through the computers. Add Callahan's download from what happened here and put Battle Comp on it. See if they can improve on Fritz's guesstimate of their capabilities, then download the results and all the raw data to two courier drones. Send one to Kersaint so Hausman knows what's going on, and send the other straight to Sarasota."

"Yes, Sir." Nauhan gazed into the plot for a moment, then raised her eyes to her CO's.

"What does Sarasota have available, Sir?" she asked softly, and Cheltwyn sighed.

"Not enough," he admitted in an even lower voice. "Admiral Villiers is on maneuvers in K-45, but he's only got a light task group. The next closest force is Admiral Murakuma's, and she's clear up beyond Romulus. She'll need time to get here . . . and her heaviest unit's a battleship." He turned to face his exec squarely. "These people have one hell of an industrial base just in this one system. If they come after us, we're going to lose a lot of systems before we can get enough Fleet units in here to stop them, Isis."

Nauhan opened her mouth, then closed it, nodded, and walked towards the com section. Cheltwyn watched her go, and his thoughts were grimmer even than his face, for he knew what she hadn't said. There were only five thousand colonists in the Golan System, but there were eight million in Merriweather, another thirty million in Justin, over a hundred million in Sarasota, and more than a billion in the five inhabited systems of the Remus Cluster, and Alex Cheltwyn and the Terran Federation Navy were oath bound to protect them all.

He knew that. It was the highest calling he could imagine-the reason he'd first put on Navy black and silver and sworn himself to the Federation's service-and he knew the men and women of the Fleet would honor that oath or die trying.

But he also knew that unless the TFN had one hell of a technological advantage, this time it was a promise they couldn't keep.


* * * | In Death Ground | CHAPTER THREE The Stuff of Dreams



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