troll n. 1. Obsolete. A creature of Scandinavian myth, sometimes portrayed as a mischievous or friendly dwarf, sometimes as a destructive giant, living in caves in the hills. 2. A cyborg fighting machine of the Shirmaksu Empire. [Norwegian, from Old Norse tröll, monster.]
—Webster-Wangchi Unabridged Dictionary of Standard English Tomas y Hijos, Publishers
2465, Terran Standard Reckoning
TNS Defender, flagship of BatDiv Ninety-Two, was forty light-months from anywhere in particular, loafing along under half drive and no more than four or five translations into alpha-space, when the atonal shriek of General Quarters howled through her iron bones.
Her crew froze for one incredulous moment. Ridiculous! They were headed for the barn, and the Kangas were penned up in a miserable three star systems, the nearest of them almost exactly one hundred light-years away. What kind of nit-picking silliness could have possessed the Old Lady to call a drill now?
Then wonder was forgotten as they thundered to their stations.
Colonel Ludmilla Leonovna, commander of BatDiv Ninety-Two's strike group, was immersed in the new history text on her book-viewer when the alarm's high-pitched shriek jerked her away. She was into the passageway outside her quarters before she realized she'd moved, and halfway to the hangar deck before she remembered she'd left the viewer on.
She made a sliding turn around the final bend, ricocheted from a bulkhead in an experienced rebound trajectory, and emerged into the cavernous hangar to find her flight crews already assembling.
"Make a hole!"
Personnel scattered as they recognized her voice, and she went through the sudden opening and into the ready room like a more-or-less guided projectile, then came to a rocking halt beside the duty intelligence officer bent over the battle plot repeater. His face was intent, and her own lips pursed in a silent whistle as her eyes joined his on the crawling light dots on the screen. Her left hand rose to touch the ribbons on her tunic as if in memory, but she caught herself and lowered it deliberately, concentrating on the plot.
There was something odd about this, she thought. Very odd. . . .
Commodore Josephine Santander's stern, composed face appeared on Captain Steven Onslow's com screen almost before the echoes of the alarm had died, though he knew she'd been in her quarters when it sounded.
"Talk to me, Steve," she said without preamble.
"Scan reports a Kanga force closing slowly from about sixty light-hours, Ma'am. Azimuth one-four-niner, elevation two-niner-three. I don't have a firm track yet, but it looks like they'll cross our wake about twenty light-hours behind us. Preliminary IDs look like an Ogre with escorts."
"An Ogre?" Commodore Santander allowed herself a raised eyebrow.
"Yes, Ma'am. It— Just a moment, Ma'am." He glanced at a side screen connecting him directly to Central Scanning, and his black face tightened.
"We're getting better data now, Ma'am. Scan confirms the Ogre. It's a full battle squadron—so far we've picked up three Trollheims siding her."
"I see. Put it on Battle One, please."
Onslow touched a button, and the big holo tank on the flag bridge lit with a three-dee duplicate of his own display. Commodore Santander studied it for a moment.
"We've got their course, Ma'am," Onslow said, and a thin red line appeared on the plot, predicting the hostile force's movements. "They're pulling about four lights relative and translating steadily."
"Gradient?" the commodore asked sharply.
"Steep, Ma'am. They're eight or nine translations out already. The computer estimates they'll break the beta wall in—" he glanced at his readouts "—about five hours."
Commodore Santander frowned and swung her command chair slowly from side to side. It was unlike the Kangas to pile on that sort of gradient. They must be in one hell of a hurry to run that big a risk of acoherency.
She wished there were someone she could turn this over to, but Admiral Wierhaus had detached only half of Battle Squadron Ninety for a badly needed overhaul, and she—for her sins—was the senior officer present. They were just over three light-years out of 36 Ophiuchi, and no one closer than the fleet base there could have taken the responsibility for her. She sighed silently. What she wished didn't change what she had.
"All right, Steve. Get Commander Tho to work on a pursuit course. Maximum drive and optimum translation curve."
"Optimum, Ma'am?" Onslow asked carefully.
"You heard me. Toss out the safety interlocks. They wouldn't be translating that fast if they weren't in a hurry, and there wouldn't be three Trollheims riding herd on them if it wasn't important. So get that course worked out soonest, then put the squadron on it."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Captain Onslow said just a bit too expressionlessly, and Santander turned back to her plot, forcing herself to project an aura of confidence. She understood his unhappiness at pushing the multi-dimensional drive that hard and only wished she had another choice.
Unfortunately, she didn't. The multi-dee could be dangerous, but the old Einsteinian limit held true, more or less, in normal-space. As it happened, the most recent hypotheses suggested that there were ways around that after all—in theory, at least—but the relativity aspects still turned theoretical physicists' hair white. Until they worked the bugs out (if they worked the bugs out) practical spacers would stick with something which at least let them predict the decade of their arrival.
Theoretically, the multi-dee was an elegant solution. If light-speed was inescapable, simply find yourself another dimension in which space was "folded" more tightly, bringing equivalent points "closer" together. That was a horribly crude description, but the commodore had yet to meet anyone who could describe it any better without resorting to pure math models. For her purposes, it worked well enough to visualize the galaxy of the FTL-traveler as consisting of concentric rings of dimensions; by moving "higher" in multi-dimensional space, a ship translated itself into rings with shorter and shorter radii, which meant that the same absolute velocity seemed higher in relation to normal-space. The physicists assured her she wasn't really moving at more than light-speed, but the practical result was FTL travel.
Still, there were limitations. The multi-dee was unusable inside the "Frankel Limit," a flexible point in stellar gravity wells which varied widely depending on spectral class and vessel mass, and though one theoretically could simply translate directly from normal-space into whatever other dimension one chose to use and vice versa, it was far wiser to translate gradually from one to another.
Dimensional energy flux could be vicious, and many things could happen to people who took liberties with the multi-dee. Few were pleasant. The alpha band—the "lowest" of all—was only about twenty dimensions across. At its upper limit, the maximum effective velocity of a ship (relative to normal-space) was about five times light-speed. Higher bands offered greater effective speeds, but at the cost of increasingly unstable energy states and consequently increasing risk to the ship. And there were barriers, still imperfectly understood, between the bands that meant cracking the wall was always risky. If a ship hit the wall just wrong or with the slightest harmonic in her translation field, she simply disappeared. She went acoherent, spread over a multitude of dimensions and forever unable to reconstitute herself, a thought which broke a cold sweat on the most hardened spacehound, for no one knew what happened inside the ship. Did the crew die? Did they go into some sort of stasis? Or did they gradually discover what had happened . . . and that they had become a galactic Flying Dutchman for all eternity?
Not that there was too much danger in the lower bands. Humans routinely used the beta band, or even the gamma and delta bands, though Kanga vessels ventured as high as the delta band only when speed was of over-riding importance. But no one in his right mind hit the wall as fast and as hard as BatDiv Ninety-Two would have to in order to overhaul these Kangas. Not if they had a choice.
"Course laid in, Ma'am," Captain Onslow said tonelessly.
"Then execute, Captain," she said.
"Aye, aye, Ma'am."
Defender shuddered as her normal-space drive went suddenly to full power. It felt smooth enough, but Santander knew how dreadfully overdue for overhaul Defender was, and she spared the time for a silent prayer against drive flutter as Defender's three million tons wrapped themselves in the n-drive's space-twisting web and swung in a radical course change.
The drive surge was disorienting despite the grav compensators, and the light dots of Defender's two sister ships and their escorts followed her on the plot as the under-strength battle division swerved to pursue humanity's mortal enemies across the trackless depths of more than a single space. Mangled ions streamed astern as their massive drives wailed up to max, and the high-pitched whine of the multi-dee generators sang in their bones.
"Time to the wall?" Santander let no awareness of the state of Defender's drive color her question, and Onslow hid a wry, mental grimace of appreciation for her projected sangfroid.
"Fourteen hours, Ma'am," he replied.
"Rate of closure?"
"We should make up the absolute speed differential in about ten hours, Ma'am. If they were to maintain their present gradient, we'd need over eighty standard hours to match bands. I can't give you a realistic estimate without knowing when they're going to level out."
"I don't think they're going to," Santander said softly.
"But they'll break the gamma wall in fifty hours at this rate!"
"That's a heavy force, Captain, a long way from home and in a hell of a hurry. I think they're headed for the delta band—maybe even higher."
"But, Ma'am—they're Kangas!" Onslow protested.
"True. But they know they're losing, too. They wouldn't pull this big a force off the Line unless its mission was critical, and their current gradient is a pretty good indication of the risks they're willing to run."
"Yes, Ma'am," Onslow said finally, clearly taken aback by the whole idea.
"Run a track projection," Santander said abruptly. "I know you can't nail it down, but define a general volume for me. As soon as you can, please join Commander Miyagi, Colonel Leonovna and me in the flag briefing room. I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Captain Onslow said. He watched his gray-haired commodore's screen blank, and his heart was cold as the vacuum beyond Defender's hull. He had served with Commodore Santander off and on for ten subjective years. He'd seen her in the screaming heart of battle and listened to her voice snapping orders while her ship bucked and jerked under the enemy's pounding, and this was the first time she had ever admitted the least uncertainty. . . .
Commodore Santander's eyes narrowed as Captain Onslow stepped through the briefing room hatch. He looked shaken, and she braced herself for bad news as she waved him to a chair between the two officers already at the table.
Plump, fair Commander Nicolas Miyagi was physically unprepossessing, but his deadly quick mind and a flood of nervous energy poorly suited to his appearance made him an excellent planning officer. Colonel Leonovna, however, was much more than that. Indeed, she was something of a legend in the fleet, and, at a moment like this, Santander was profoundly grateful for her presence.
Commodore Santander had never resented the colonel, but she understood why some did. Leonovna was twenty bio-years older than the commodore, but she looked a quarter of her age in her impeccable Marine uniform. The colonel would never be accused of classic beauty, but her wedge-shaped, high-cheekboned face was striking, and her bright chestnut hair and blue eyes might have been designed expressly to contrast with her space-black tunic.
Yet for all her undeniable attractiveness, Santander reminded herself, Leonovna was lethal. Her golden pilot's wings bore three tiny stars, each representing ten fighter kills, but the ribbons under those wings told the true story. They were headed by one the commodore had seen on precisely three officers during her entire career: the Solarian Grand Cross. Among other things, it entitled Colonel Leonovna to a salute from any officer who hadn't won it, regardless of rank—and, as far as Josephine Santander was concerned, that was an honor to which she was more than welcome.
But that wasn't why so many people resented—and feared—the colonel. Oh, no. Those reactions stemmed from something else entirely, for Ludmilla Leonovna was descended from the Sigma Draconis First Wave.
The commodore shook herself free of her thoughts and cocked an eyebrow at Onslow. "May I assume you have more information now, Steve?"
"Yes, Ma'am. There's still room for error, but the computers make it an Ogre, three Trollheims, and one Grendel, plus escorts. There may be a Harpy out there, too."
She nodded calmly, but her mind was anything but calm. A single Ogre was bad—almost five million tons, with the firepower to sterilize a planet—but the Trollheims were worse. Far less massive (they were actually slightly smaller than Defender), they were even more heavily armed, for they were "crewed" by servomechanisms slaved to the cyborgs humans called "Trolls." A Grendel assault transport was bad news for any planet, for it carried an entire planetary assault force of Trolls and their combat mechs, but it meant little in a deep space battle. By the same token, the possibility of a Harpy-class interceptor carrier made a bad situation very little worse, for she could be only a spectator until and unless the action translated down into the alpha or lower beta band.
But any way Santander looked at it, BatDiv Ninety-Two was out-gunned and out-massed—badly—and she was far from certain the traditional human technical advantage could balance these odds. Yet suspicion stuck in her mind like a sliver of glass. The Kangas would never have wandered this far from the desperate defense of their three remaining systems unless they were engaged in something of supreme importance to their ultracautious race.
"That's a heavy weight of metal," was all she said softly.
"Agreed," Onslow said grimly, "but there's more. Commander Tho ran that track projection for you, Ma'am; they're headed for Sol."
"Sol?" Miyagi sat straighter, his blue eyes sharp. "That's insane! Home Fleet will blow them to plasma a light-month out!"
"Will they?" Leonovna spoke for the first time, looking like a teenager in her mother's uniform as she raked chestnut hair back from her forehead. "What about their gradient, Captain? Is it holding steady?"
"No," Onslow said, "it's still rising. I've never heard of anything like it. I wouldn't have believed a Kanga multi-dee could crank out that much power if I wasn't seeing it. We're wound up to max ourselves, and we're only reducing the differential slowly."
"That's what I was afraid of." Leonovna turned back to the commodore. "Could they be looking for a Takeshita Translation, Ma'am?"
There was a moment of dead silence. Trust the colonel to say it first, Commodore Santander reflected wryly.
"The thought had crossed my mind," she admitted, and touched her com button. "Navigation," she told the computer, and Commander Tho appeared on her screen. Santander was normally a stickler for courtesy and proper military procedure, but this time she didn't even give Tho time to acknowledge her call.
"Assuming present power levels remain constant, Commander," she said without preamble, "where will our Kangas break the theta wall?"
"The theta wall?" Commander Tho sounded surprised. "Just a moment, Ma'am." He looked down at his terminal to make calculations, then looked back up. "Assuming they do break it, Ma'am, they'll be two-point-one light-months from Sol with a normal-space velocity just over twelve hundred lights. But—"
"Thank you, Commander." Santander stopped him with a courteous nod, then switched off and looked around the briefing room. There was tension in every face, and she noted tiny beads of sweat at Onslow's temples as she nodded slowly.
"It would seem, Colonel, that you're onto something," she said. "And that, people, leaves us with a little problem."
Silence answered her, and she turned back to Onslow.
"You say we're closing the differential on them, Captain. How long before we can bring them into MDM range?"
"Normally, we'd have the range in about—" he glanced at his memo comp "—thirty-two hours, but their gradient's a bitch. Their translation curve is flattening, but so is ours. We've never seen a Kanga multi-dee run at this output, so I can't predict when their gradient will max out. It looks like we still have the edge, but we're into emergency over-boost now."
He did not add that no one ever used emergency over-boost, even on acceptance trials, and certainly not with drives in need of overhaul. Such demands on the multi-dee generators tremendously multiplied the chance of setting up a disastrous harmonic between them and the normal-space drive which actually moved the ship.
"Assuming we stay coherent," he went on, "I'd guesstimate that we should be able to range on them dimensionally in about two hundred hours."
"And at that time we'll be where, dimensionally speaking?"
"Well up into the eta band, Ma'am. And—" he frowned "—as far as I know, no one's ever used MDMs above the delta band. Gunnery isn't sure what effect that will have on the weapons."
"It looks like we're going to find out." Santander forced herself to speak calmly. "If Colonel Leonovna is right—and I think she is—they're headed for a Takeshita Translation. I know no one's ever tested the theory, but we have to assume that's what they're doing. If so, we know where they're headed. The question is when. Comments?"
"I'm no dimensional physicist, Ma'am," Colonel Leonovna said after a moment, "but as I understand it, that's a function of too many variables for us to predict. The mass of the vessel, the gradient curve and subjective velocity during translation, the deformation of the multi-dee . . ." She raised her hands, palms up. "All we can say is that if Takeshita's First Hypothesis is right, they'll flip backward in time when they hit the wall and go on translating backward until they hit Sol's Frankel Limit."
"You're overlooking a few points, Milla," Miyagi said. "Like his Second Hypothesis, whether or not time is mutable, or whether or not anyone can survive a Takeshita Translation in the first place." His tone was argumentative, but he was punching keys on his console as he spoke.
"True," Commodore Santander said, "but we have to assume they can do it unless we stop them. We can't afford to be wrong—not about this one."
"Agreed, Ma'am." Miyagi nodded. "And Colonel Leonovna's pretty much right about the problems, but we can make a few approximations. We know the mass of an Ogre, and they'll have to balance their multi-dee deformation to match the mass-power curve of the Trollheims' multi-dees and n-drives. . . ." He tapped keys quickly, and the others sat silent to let him work undisturbed. It took several minutes, but he finally looked up with a grim expression.
"Commodore, it's approximate as hell, but it looks like they'll hit the Frankel Limit something on the order of 40,000 years in the past. Could be closer to 90,000 if they lose the Trollheims."
"They won't." Colonel Leonovna shook her head. "Kangas are sure-thing players," she said softly. "They'll want to be sure Homo sapiens is around."
"Of course," Commodore Santander murmured. She sat wrapped in her thoughts for a few moments, then shook herself.
"Captain Onslow, pass the word to the other skippers, please. If Defender goes acoherent, whoever's left has to know this is for all the marbles. Breaking off the pursuit is not an option."
"Yes, Ma'am," Onslow said quietly.
"Very well. I think you can stand the crews down from action stations until we reach effective MDM range, but keep your scanner sections closed up in case they try a surprise launch down-gradient."
"Nick—" she turned to Miyagi "—warm up the simulator. As soon as the Captain has everybody tucked in, we'll start working on tactics." She smiled without a trace of humor. "We're not exactly the War College, but we're all humanity has at the moment.
"Colonel." She met Leonovna's blue eyes levelly. "I hope we won't have anything for you to do, but if we do, it'll be one hell of a dogfight. Inform the squadron commanders on the other ships, then get with your planning officers. Work out the best balance you can between antishipping and antifighter ordnance loads. Then make sure every interceptor is one hundred percent. We can't afford any hangar queens."
"All right, people," Santander sighed, rising from her chair. "Carry on. And if you find yourself with any spare time—" she managed a wan smile "—spend it reminding God whose side He's on."