Over the next two weeks, Winston did his best to find a hole in the captain’s plan, or rather a hole that the captain hadn’t already recognized. It would be dependent on a fair bit of good fortune, but if it didn’t work out, it didn’t put the ships in danger, and Winston supposed that was acceptable.
He glanced at the screen on the arm of his acceleration chair, just as the officer of the deck—Senior Petty Officer Thaddeus Preble, a man always willing to help out young officers with questions about the ship—called out, “Fifteen hundred kilometers, closure nine and falling.”
Winston did the math in his head. They were decelerating at three gravities, and when they matched velocities with the contact in five minutes, they’d be about a hundred and fifty kilometers away, well inside of gunnery range against their mystery target.
“Armed merchant cruiser,” Lieutenant Rawlins had guessed, “if her acceleration is anything to go by.” Winston suspected it was a drill. It wouldn’t be the first time the senior officers had kept the rest of the crew in the dark. All the same, Weatherby had treated the whole thing very seriously. A little under an hour and a half ago, he’d called action stations, and mere minutes later Warspite had gone blazing off to meet the intruder. The intercept would happen a hundred and seventy thousand kilometers out from Resolution, closing on the base at eight or nine kilometers per second, far outside the range at which Resolution could support—
“Vampire, vampire, vampire!” Winston’s eyes locked onto the large displays above the sensor stations as Preble shouted his alarm. Three new contacts separated from the first, building up closing velocity at extraordinary speed. “Bearing six five zero by up ten.”
There was a brief clamor off to his left, and after a few moments Lieutenant Leighton reported, “Engaged with standard priority.”
Weatherby watched the screens as the missiles closed and the seconds ticked by. Masers reached out from Warspite, seeking the missiles, and eventually swept across them. Interference built in the missiles’ guidance computers until they shut down, and the missiles ceased their wild defensive maneuvering. There was a sharp staccato beat in the decking as a few of Warspite‘s point-defense guns engaged them, and then silence.
Weatherby broke it. “Bring us across her bow,” he said. “Six volleys from the main guns down her throat as we pass, arriving in pairs. Bracket her. I want some hits before the brawl starts.”
Lieutenants Rawlins and Leighton called out orders to their subordinates. Winston called up a fire control calculator on his chair’s arm display and punched in some numbers. The navigation problem was, in his opinion, boring, and until Warspite took enough hits to start cutting comms lines, he had little else to do.
Well before he’d worked out a satisfactory solution, the report of Warspite‘s ten 20-centimeter hybrid impellers rumbled through the hull, and again a moment later. Gunnery would give the target a few seconds to commit to a direction to evade, and then— right on schedule, Winston thought, as the guns fired twice more.
The final volley would have to wait. Four shells was the capacity of the ready magazines, and Winston pictured them trundling back along their tracks from the turrets on the outer hall to the gunrooms in the inner. There, the gun crews would scramble to to move ammunition into them from the magazine hoists. Thirty seconds passed while they did so, and as they fired two more volleys, Weatherby said, “All ahead flank. Match velocities. Gunnery, fire at will.”
“Ahead flank, match velocities aye.”
Acceleration alarms blared, and in a few seconds Warspite put on another gravity and a half. Winston let his arms sink into the padded chair, which reclined further as almost five times Winston’s weight pressed into it. Somehow the gun crews kept up their fire through it. After a minute or so, the acceleration eased. Warspite whirled end for end, and then was alongside the contact at a hundred and fifty kilometers, decelerating at half a gravity toward Resolution.
Her target had not answered Warspite‘s gunfire, or even launched another volley of missiles; sensors said Warspite had scored five or six hits already. Winston worried at his lip. His experience may have been limited, but he knew that enemies were supposed to fight back.
“Commander,” he ventured, “isn’t he being awfully passive?”
“He is, Mr. Hughes,” Weatherby replied, and frowned at the plotting board. “Mr. Rawlins, give me another fifty kilometers of separation toward Resolution, if you please. And I believe we’ll risk a radar pulse. Send the results to Mr. Hughes. Ensign, see if you see anything out of the ordinary.”
Winston floated against his chair restraints as Warspite‘s engines spun down. With her target still slowing, Warspite opened the distance. Winston looked down to his chair’s display to see the radar return. They were near enough so that the image had quite a bit of definition; Winston saw the characteristic cylinder-and-radiators shape immediately, but he couldn’t pick out any turrets. Another image came to his chair, this one in infrared. The ship blazed oranges and whites against the velvet of space, but there was an odd cool spot in her amidships.
Preble conferred briefly with the sensor operators. “She’s coming around, sir, bow on to us. Acceleration looks to be one gravity.”
Weatherby cast a piercing piercing look at Winston, and Winston shrugged. He hadn’t picked up anything too out-of-the-ordinary; internal temperatures in a ship did vary, after all. There was another radar image waiting for him, and he turned to it.
“One hundred twenty kilometers,” Preble announced.
“Mr. Rawlins, open the range again. Two gravities to two hundred kilometers.”
“Two gee, aye.”
For Winston it all came together at once. Their target was no converted merchant—she had the shape of a warship, and mentally he kicked himself for missing it. The second insight followed that one a moment later, as he recalled a story he’d heard. He looked over the images again, and found what he was looking for on one of the radar returns. There was a seam.
“Commander,” he said, “it’s—”
“Her acceleration is climbing,” Preble announced, voice tinged with disbelief. “Three gravities, four, five, steady at five and a half— no, six.”
“Mr. Hughes?” Weatherby said.
“It’s another Harrison, sir.”