The wall computer chimed an alarm, and Winston wriggled his arm out from under his acceleration webbing to silence it. He freed himself and sat up, and from the acceleration figured that Warspite was on her final approach in toward Reprisal. The wall computer’s tactical display confirmed it. They were twenty thousand kilometers away, closing at ten kilometers per second. In half an hour they’d be alongside.
Winston grabbed his cap and headed for CIC.
As he arrived and strapped himself into his acceleration chair, the bridge talker sounded the microgravity alarm, and the rumble of Warspite‘s engines ceased. She would coast from here, the ten kilometers per second of closure she had left representing no more than five minutes at combat thrust.
Eighteen thousand kilometers. If this had been a fleet action, the space before Warspite would have been filled with volleys of missiles, timed and aimed to overwhelm a multi-ship point defense screen. As it was, odds were against the sort of volley one ship could fire sneaking past Hermes‘ and Warspite‘s combined defenses, and Weatherby was too cautious to throw away missiles of his own on such a long shot. Winston wouldn’t have been surprised to see the captains hold their fire until they were nearly in gunnery range.
Twelve thousand kilometers. Warspite‘s telescopes were showing more and more detail on Reprisal, and Winston studied the images on his acceleration chair’s armrest screen. She looked very ordinary, wrapped in a cocoon of radiators cut out for two turrets each dorsal and ventral. Doubles or triples, Winston thought, but the angle of the frame made it impossible to tell for sure. Even doubles would put her above Warspite‘s weight class, triples overwhelmingly so, but Hermes was along too and would hit nearly as hard as Warspite. Winston turned his attention to Reprisal‘s radiator rig. It was nothing extraordinary, besides what looked like rather heavy external bracing. That was a feature Warspite lacked, but Weatherby’s choice of rig was lighter than most, more efficient owing to its four radiator masts per side, but more prone to damage as well.
“Action stations,” Weatherby ordered. Alarms sounded throughout the ship.
Seventy-five hundred kilometers. Warspite was tensed for battle, and Winston realized he was drumming his fingers against his leg. Just a few more minutes, he told himself—
“Vampire, vampire, vampire!” called a sensor operator. All eyes turned to the sensor repeater screens. “I mark… fifty-eight seekers, sir.”
While Winston stared in shock, Weatherby wasted no time. “Mr. Leighton, engage at will, maneuvering as necessary,” he said, “and Godspeed.”
Recovering himself, Winston watched the missiles creep across the plotting board, two and a half minutes out. When he’d entered the service, Winston had thought very little of point defense— it was a task for the computers. Serving aboard Warspite had opened his eyes. It was an intricate dance, fought by the intuition of the officers as much as the raw response time of the computers. Reprisal‘s gunners would be watching Warspite, deactivating and reactivating missiles, redirecting them to overwhlem what Leighton could direct to stop them, and generally doing everything possible to hide the real thrust of their attack until the very last moment. It was Leighton’s task to outfox them, to discern which missiles the Exile gunners had bet on and remove them from play.
Leighton spoke in a continuous stream, rapid-fire strings of numbers as he handed out vectors to his subordinates, and added a bearing to the helm in the middle of it all. Warspite yawed to put her starboard bow to the barrage. And a barrage it was: sixty missiles was the sort of shot a battleship took, or the better part of a small task force; it was on the upper edge of what Warspite could shoot down.
Weatherby said nothing over Leighton’s litany of orders. Silence descended over CIC while the engagement clock counted down. Twenty seconds later, power indicators above the engineering consoles spiked as dozens of masers stabbed out from Warspite, slewing to lock on to missiles in twos and threes. The missiles writhed as their primary computers shut down under the electromagnetic interference and more hardened secondaries came up to replace them.
The dance began. Gunners called out missile track numbers as they ceased maneuvering or spiralled out of the barrage, and Leighton and Weatherby replied with orders to ignore or re-engage them according to some formula Winston could not puzzle out. It seemed effective enough, though; by the time the missiles reached gun range, only a handful more than thirty remained.
Warspite, fitted out for point defense as Weatherby liked her, mounted sixty-four hybrid impeller autocannon in the 3.7-centimeter caliber, firing proximity-fused fragmentation shells at velocities in the tens of kilometers per second. Even so, missiles on an evasive approach made the problem of actually shooting them down very difficult. Most warships couldn’t waste ammunition on improbable long shots. Warspite was not ‘most warships’; fleet point defense was her intended role, and she carried ammunition enough to make the notion of wasting ammunition essentially meaningless.
Winston felt an irregular chatter in the deckplates as Warspite‘s point defense guns fired a barrage. Reprisal‘s gunners spread their dwindling missile swarm out, and Leighton ordered another burst. Unbidden, the words of a lecturer in Tactics came to Winston’s mind: the point of point defense is to force the incoming missiles to run straight, whether by disabling them or forcing them to spend their fuel in maneuver. Leighton repeated his volleys every ten seconds or so, and again every time Reprisal‘s missiles fired thrusters to dodge. The swarm dwindled further each time, until ten actives remained on the plotting board.
Leighton showed signs of relaxing for the first time in one hundred thirty seconds. “Engage all actives on full-automatic mode,” he ordered. Warspite‘s gunners gave her point defense systems back to her computers, and the intermittent rattle became continuous for fifteen seconds. “All targets engaged and destroyed,” Leighton reported. Winston saw Hannah Welles’ hands shake as she moved them from her console to the arms of her acceleration chair.
“Handily done, Lieutenant,” Weatherby said. “Gentlemen, we’ve ducked her haymaker. I’m confident we can take—”
Above the plane of battle, a mechanical timer clicked to zero. The missile enclosing it powered back on, and the missile’s guidance computer checked its position. It saw the two Confederate ships in formation, the nearest one not more than fifty kilometers away, and once its two siblings verified its conclusion, all three sent a signal to the fire control computer, which was well and truly fried. Undeterred, the guidance computers tried a backup, each sending a much stronger pulse along a heavy wire—
The backup detonator was little more than a series of logic gates to guarantee that the guidance computers agreed and a solenoid to flip a heavy switch. The switch flipped—
The missile vanished in a flash of light.