courage n. 1. The state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession and resolution; valor; bravery. [From Middle English corage, heart, as representing the seat of feeling.]
—Webster-Wangchi Unabridged Dictionary of Standard English Tomas y Hijos, Publishers
2465, Terran Standard Reckoning
"What the hell?!"
Master Sergeant Andrew Slocum chopped himself off and felt his face tighten. Colonel Archer had the duty for the US Space Defense Operations Center, and he disapproved of profanity and unprofessional conduct generally. But he was sipping coffee at the far end of the subterranean room—fortunately—and Slocum cleared his throat and raised his voice.
"Colonel? Could you take a look at this, Sir?"
"Hm?" Colonel Archer moved towards Slocum with a raised eyebrow. One thing about the colonel, Slocum thought; he was a pain about some things, but he respected his people's judgment enough not to waste time with dumbass questions. He bent over the sergeant's shoulder to peer at the scope.
He didn't react at all for an instant, then he stiffened in shock.
"What the h—" He cut himself off, and Slocum felt an insane urge to giggle as the colonel leaned even closer. "Why didn't you report this sooner, Sergeant?" Archer demanded.
"Because they just popped onto the scope, Sir. Right about there." Slocum tapped the screen with a fingertip, and Archer frowned. A bright red line indicated the unknowns' track as they stabbed down into his area of responsibility, and he didn't like what he saw.
"Why didn't SPASUR alert us sooner?" he demanded irately. SDOC's primary mission was the management of the G-PALS system which defended the United States against limited missile strikes. The latest carve up of responsibilities had given it control of virtually all of the US military's ground-watch and near-space surveillance systems, plus general management of the information stream, but the actual monitoring of space beyond three hundred miles' altitude remained the responsibility of other commands, like the Navy-run Space Surveillance System Command. Archer had always had his doubts about the Squids' suitability to run what obviously should have been an Air Force command properly, but he'd never seriously expected them to drop the ball this badly.
"SPASUR did report them, Sir," Slocum told him. "They only picked them up—" he glanced at a digital time display "—two-seven-five seconds ago. It's on the tape, Sir," he added respectfully.
"Impossible!" Colonel Archer muttered.
"I think so, too, Sir—but there they are."
"Well, they can't be a hostile launch. Not coming in from that far out," Archer said to himself. "What's their exact location, Sergeant?"
"Longitude twenty-one north, latitude one-five-five west, altitude nine-six miles and still dropping. They're out over the Pacific. Looks like they'll cross central Mexico on a rough heading of one-six-oh magnetic, but they're pulling a little further north. Course is pretty irregular, Sir, but they're slowing. They were pulling over seventeen thousand knots when we first picked them up—they're down to just over seven thousand now."
"That's what it says here, Sir . . . and that means they've lost over ten thousand knots in the last four minutes. And look—look at that, Sir! See that little bastard jink around?"
For once, Colonel Archer evinced no desire to complain about Master Sergeant Slocum's language. He was not only a technician, but a highly experienced jet jockey, and he had never—never!—heard of anything, reentry vehicle or aircraft, which could pull a ninety-degree turn at such speeds. He reached for the phone that linked him to the duty watch battle staff, his eyes never leaving the impossible display.
"General Goldmann? Colonel Archer. I've got something very strange on my scopes down here, Sir."
The squadron commander had no name. He had never possessed one, nor had he needed it. He was a tool to his creators, not a person, and one did not waste names upon tools. Indeed, the Shirmaksu had never even dignified his kind with a label. That had been left for humanity, and they called him Troll.
His fighter had no instruments. He was part of the fleet, deadly craft, merged with it as he merged with all the manifold devices of death he had been designed to manage so well. He needed no readouts to track the single, persistent human interceptor which clung to the rear of his formation like Death incarnate. The fighter which had destroyed ten of his own squadron. The last human fighter in the galaxy, in a sense. The one which had stubbornly refused to die for over three Terran weeks.
He was a thing of circuits and servomotors. Of chill alloy and electromechanical visual receptors. His body's veins carried no blood, for it had no veins. There was only the smooth, cool flow of power and the ever-renewed nutrient bath which fed his sole organic component.
Yet he was no stranger to emotion, this Troll. His kind knew the sustaining ferocity of hate, and it nurtured them well. Hate for their creators, who saw them only as disposable, expendable mechanisms. Hate for the humans they had been created to destroy. Hate for themselves, and the destiny which pitted them against humanity in the service of the Shirmaksu.
And at this moment, more than any other entity in the galaxy, the Troll commander hated the pilot who dogged his wake.
He knew what sort of human rode behind those guns and missiles. He had suspected from the first, when he noted the elegance with which that fighter flew and the deadly quick reactions which guided it. It could only be one of the cralkhi, the humans his masters had inadvertently created for their own downfall. Only a cralkhi could have evaded his own tireless pilots so long, clung so close, destroyed every fighter he'd been allowed to detach against it. Only a cralkhi . . .
And there was a certain bitter amusement in that, for the beings his squadron fought to protect were responsible for the very symbiote which enabled their enemy to threaten them. Deep inside, the Troll envied the cralkhi its freedom to strike at their mutual creators, for that was the one forever unattainable freedom for which the Troll longed with all the living passion trapped within his mechanical shell.
The first shockwaves screamed past his frontal drive field as his masters dipped into the atmosphere of the planet they had come to murder, and the hate within him cursed his Shirmaksu commander for refusing to let him take his remaining fighters back to overwhelm their single pursuer. But he could afford to wait. The cralkhi would come to him soon. It could not delay much longer. It could not afford to let the Shirmaksu tender slip from its grasp . . .
. . . not if it wanted this planet to live.
Desperation clawed at Colonel Ludmilla Leonovna. She was so tired. Not with physical weariness, but with accumulated mental fatigue. She'd drawn ruthlessly upon her symbiote, knowing the price she must pay—if she survived—for the demands she made. She had no choice, yet there was a limit even to her vitality, and it was nearing. If the Trolls ahead of her ran an analysis of her maneuvers, they couldn't miss her increasing sloppiness. The delay creeping into her responses was minute, so tiny no human would have noted it, but the computers would see it.
She forced the thought aside, concentrating on her task. The pursuit had snaked its way deep into the Sol system. Fighter multi-dees were weaker than those of starships, but they had far lower Frankel Limits in partial compensation, and the Kangas had fled madly, weaving up and down the alpha and beta bands to evade her. She'd long since stopped thinking about the strain on her onboard systems. Her life support had almost a full week still on its clock, but her drive had never been designed to run so long at such ruinous power, nor had her multi-dee been intended for such extended operation. She knew the abused interceptor was nearing the end of its endurance even as she neared her own, yet Sputnik hadn't failed her—not with Anwar O'Donnel to nurse and baby her systems.
She stank. She would have traded a year in hell for a shower, she thought, smiling wearily, and knew her crew felt the same, yet they hadn't complained once. Anwar had been her ESO for over two years—long enough to understand the differences between them—and he hadn't argued even when she ordered him to sleep at regular intervals while she managed his systems as well as her own.
Sergeant Goering hadn't been with her as long, but she, too, had done well. Indeed, it had been she who managed to deduce approximately when they were. Commodore Santander had succeeded in crippling the Kangas' planned Takeshita Translation; Sputnik's crew knew that, for Goering had monitored crude, old-style radio and microwave communications as they raced into the system at FTL speeds. They couldn't be much further back than the late twentieth century—yet it might as well have been 50,000 BC, for all the ability humanity would have to defend itself.
Her crew knew that as well as Leonovna did, but their unshaken confidence in her had been a tower of strength. And she'd needed that strength. Human hardware surpassed the best the Kangas could build, but there were always tradeoffs. Sputnik was faster than the tender she pursued, but despite her more advanced drive, she was no faster and far less maneuverable than the Troll-crewed fighters which guarded that tender. They had no need for life support, nor for the gravity compensators a human crew required. They had more mass to spare for other purposes, and their tremendous drives made up for their lower efficiency with pure, brute power. In deep space, with room to use the superiority of her technology, her bird was the equal of any three Troll fighters, but not if the Trolls could pin her. Not if they could somehow close the range through her superior missiles and more deadly power guns and force her into maneuvering combat in range of their own guns.
And that was exactly what they were about to do.
Her mind flicked over her remaining weapons automatically. She'd expended all but one of her heavy missiles, and she dared not waste that one on a Troll. It was a ship-killer, the last nuke she had, and it could be used on only one target. To get into range of that target, she had only three of the "Skeet" missiles with their deadly powered flechettes designed for short-range snapshots—only the Skeets and her guns.
She sighed and glanced over at her sleeping ESO. She would have to wake him soon, for she couldn't manage her electronic warfare systems as they must be managed if there was to be any hope for a shot.
She'd begun the pursuit with only two wingmen, deliberately sending Casper Turabian and her other five survivors after the only other surviving Kanga tender when it broke out-system. It had been a cold-blooded decision, but Casper had understood. His pilots stood a better chance against a tender which would be forced to turn back towards them if it was to reach its target before it expended its life support. They had a better chance to wait it out before fatigue crippled them. But by the same token, she'd known they would face a frontal attack by all sixteen of its escorting Trolls when the Kangas ordered their cyborgs to clear a path for it.
They had, and none of them had survived the encounter . . . but neither had the Kangas or their Trolls. Casper had lasted long enough, drifting in his crippled fighter, to confirm the kills. Then his life support had failed. She'd heard nothing from him in over a week.
She pushed the grief aside again. There was no time, just as there was no time for so many things. The long, grueling pursuit had come down to these last fleeting minutes, and soon it would end. Her last wingman had died five days ago when a trio of Trolls whipped back and up before Lieutenant Durstan could rouse from the sleep she needed so desperately. Colonel Leonovna had destroyed her killers, but it had been cold comfort. She'd scored seven more kills during the long stern chase, but five remained, covering the tender, blocking every firing angle, and if she came close enough to use her remaining Skeets, the surviving fighters would close to gun range and nail her short of the tender.
She sighed again and nudged her ESO.
"Wake up, Anwar," she said gently, and his head jerked up, his eyes clearing almost instantly. But only almost, and it was that brief hesitation which would have killed a normal human pilot long since.
"Time?" he asked, rubbing the last sleep from his eyes.
"Just about," she said. There was no defeat in her weary voice, only a tinge of sorrow.
"Think of anything better while I was napping?" he asked, yawning as he tugged his helmet back into place.
"Oh, well. I always wanted to go out with a bang. Should I wake Prissy?"
"Go ahead," Colonel Leonovna said absently, running deliberately back over her checklist. The process was normally so automatic she never thought about it, but her growing fatigue was yet another enemy she must defeat.
"It's been a hell of a ride, Skip," O'Donnel said, reaching for the button that would wake Sergeant Goering in her isolated little compartment. "Love to do it again sometime."
"You're a piss-poor liar, Anwar," she said affectionately, sparing him a smile, and he grinned back crookedly.
"True. But at least Prissy may come through it."
"I hope so," Colonel Leonovna said softly as he pressed the button, and there was no more to be said, for she and O'Donnel were about to die.
She'd tried to find another answer, but she had only one weapon besides her missile which might take out the tender: Sputnik herself. It had worked for Defender, and it should work again, if only she could get a clear run. She and O'Donnel had discussed it exhaustively, and they'd reached the same conclusion each time. The best she could hope for was to cross over the Troll rearguard once they entered atmosphere, then turn back, blow her way through the lead fighters by relying on the blast effect of exploding her last nuke in atmosphere, and ram the tender head-on. The fireball as their drives overloaded would be hotter than any nuclear warhead ever fired.
But she couldn't do it until they were in atmosphere, and she couldn't do it without Anwar to run ECM interference for her, so he would be included in her death. Yet it might be possible to save Goering. They had no more need for a communications officer, for there was no one with whom to communicate, and so Colonel Leonovna had decided to jettison the sergeant's escape capsule as soon as they entered atmosphere.
Goering had argued, but her commander over-rode her sternly. They both knew the com tech would have a poor enough chance, given standard Troll tactics, but it was the only one Leonovna could give her.
"Atmosphere in three minutes, Skip," O'Donnel reminded her quietly.
"Oh, yes. Thank you, Anwar. Prissy?"
"Yes, Skipper," Goering said in a tiny voice. "I'm ready."
"Good. Anwar will give you a five count."
"I . . . understand," the sergeant said, and the colonel heard the tears in her voice.
"Hoist one for us when you get down," she said.
"I will, Skip. Nail the bastards."
"I'll try, Prissy. I'll really try."
"Count starts—now!" O'Donnel said. "Five . . . four . . . three . . ."
" . . . Two . . . Luck, Prissy!"
Sputnik shuddered as the capsule blasted free, spinning away in a wild evasion pattern which blacked out its occupant instantly. Colonel Leonovna and her ESO held their breaths, following her with their instruments, willing her to safety.
"Skip! Bandit Two!"
"Goddamn it to hell!" Mental commands flashed to Leonovna's weapon systems, and two of her remaining Skeets dropped free, guiding instantly on the Troll fighter which had nosed up and around. They flashed towards their target, but too slowly, and a salvo of missiles ripped from the Troll, homing on the escape capsule.
Sergeant Priscilla Goering died two seconds after her killer.
There was silence in Sputnik's cockpit. A cold, hate-filled silence.
Task Force Twenty-Three, United States Navy, was one week out after exercises off Cuba, headed for a Mediterranean "fireman" deployment off the perpetually troubled Balkans at a leisurely fifteen knots when the first notice of something odd came in. SPASUR's Navy-run communication net had a Flash priority signal on its way to Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk before Space Defense Operations had its act together, and real-time tracking reports followed as it became apparent that something unusual was taking place high above the surface of the earth—and dropping lower with every passing moment. The bogeys' speed was coming down, but their course was hardening out across the Atlantic, and their projected track passed within less than five hundred miles of Task Force Twenty-Three.
Admiral Fritz Carson had a touch of insomnia, which was how he happened to be on his flag bridge when the Flash from Norfolk reached the carrier Theodore Roosevelt at the center of the carrier group. He looked bemusedly at the flimsy his signals officer handed him for just a moment, then turned to his chief of staff.
"Get down to CIC," he said, "and ask someone to wake the Captain." Then he picked up a phone and personally buzzed flight control.
"PriFly, Commander Staunton," a voice responded instantly.
"CAG?" The Navy had redesignated the aircraft embarked by a carrier as a carrier air wing decades ago, but like everyone else Admiral Carson still used the old acronym for "Commander Air Group." At the moment, however, he was a bit surprised to find his air commander in PriFly at this hour of the morning.
"Yes, Sir," Commander Staunton replied, answering the surprise in Carson's voice. "I've got a newbie Tomcat driver up, and I wanted to keep an eye on him."
"I see. Well, CAG, CIC is setting up some interesting data for you. A whole clutch of genuine UFOs coming in faster than bats out of hell from the west-sou'west. If they hold their course and speed, they're going to cross our track about five hundred miles out . . . at Mach nine-plus or so."
"Mach nine, Sir?" Commander Staunton asked very carefully.
"That's what they tell me," Carson said. "What've we got out there to wave as the little green men go by?"
"We've got a Hummer three hundred out, ready to exercise with my training flight, and I've got another pair of Toms at plus-five on the cats with two Hornets at plus-fifteen on the roof."
"I doubt we'll need them, but get the ready section up, then call up the Hawkeye and ask it to take a look as they pass."
"Thank you." He hung up as his flag lieutenant held out another phone. "Captain Jansen?" he asked, and the lieutenant nodded. "Good." He raised the handset. "Captain, sorry to wake you, but . . ."
"Something witchy on the passive, Flight." Lieutenant (j.g.) Demosthenes Lewiston said.
"Like what?" Lieutenant Atcheson asked.
"Dunno, Sir. Never seen anything like it. We're not receiving anything, but something's throwing some kind of ghosts on the set. All over the port quadrant and getting stronger."
"What d'you mean `not receiving anything'?" the Hawkeye E-2D's copilot demanded. "You been drinking hair tonic again, Dimmy?"
"No, Sir," the radar officer said virtuously. "And what I mean is I sure as hell don't recognize it, but something's futzing up the receiver. Almost like it was outside the set's frequencies, but there ain't no such animal."
"Tacco's right, Mister Atcheson," one of Lewiston's petty officer operators put in. "It's . . . weird, Sir."
"Ummm," Lieutenant Atcheson mused. Dimmy was right about the capability of his equipment, he thought. Despite its apparently archaic turboprops and relatively small size, the ungainly-looking E-2 (especially in the brand new E-2D "Hawkeye 2000" variant) was among the most sophisticated airborne early warning aircraft in the world, and the Navy didn't exactly pick Hawkeye radar officers out of a hat. "Got any idea on the range?"
"Sorry, Skipper, but I don't really have anything. More an itch I don't know how to scratch than anything else."
"Okay, let's scratch," Lieutenant Atcheson decided. "Light up and see if there's something out there to bounce a signal off of."
"Lighting up," Lewiston said, and the Hawkeye went active. The peculiar bogeys were still far beyond detection range of even the Hawkeye's prodigiously efficient radar, but its pulses reached to the target, though they lacked the power to return. Three minutes and forty-two seconds later, a fifty kiloton nuclear warhead blew Atcheson, Lewiston, their fellow crewmen, and their aircraft into fiery oblivion.
"What the hell—?!" O'Donnel was startled out of his bitter silence by the sudden flash ahead of them.
"Somebody must've hit the tender with a scanner," Leonovna said, face tense as she fought the atmospheric shockwaves. "That was an ARAD."
"An antiradiation missile? Who the hell's got modern scanners down here?"
"Don't know," Colonel Leonovna said, and concentrated on her flying.
"Jesus Christ!" Commander Edward Staunton winced at the volume of his senior airborne Tomcat pilot's voice. "Home Plate, this is Hawk One! We have a nuclear explosion—I say again, a nuclear air burst—bearing two-seven-five relative from the task force, range two-eight-zero miles!"
"What did he say?" Staunton turned to see Commander Bret Hanfield, Roosevelt's executive officer, standing just inside PriFly.
"He said it was a nuke," Staunton replied, his voice completely calm while his mind tried to grapple with realization.
"CAG, we can't raise Spyglass." The air wing commander looked over his shoulder at the duty flight ops officer, but he wasn't really surprised. The range and bearing from Hawk One had already warned him, even if he had not consciously worked out all the implications yet.
"Sir, CIC is on the line," a petty officer said, extending a phone. "He's looking for the XO."
Hanfield held out his hand and pressed the phone to his ear. "XO," he said. "Talk to me." He listened for a moment, eyes narrowing, and Staunton noticed that his color was stronger than a moment before.
"Thank you," he said, then glanced at Staunton even as he punched buttons on the handset. "Message from Antietam," he said tersely, "group tacco just confirmed it."
Staunton looked at the ops officer. Antietam carried the group tactical warfare officer for a very simple reason; she was a Ticonderoga-class cruiser, an Aegis ship, with the most advanced shipborne radar and deadliest surface-to-air weapons fit in the world.
"Bridge, this is the XO," Hanfield continued into the phone. "Give me the OD." He waited a moment longer. "Harry? We've got a confirmed nuclear air burst three hundred miles ahead of us. Sound general quarters and set condition One-AAW. Then get the captain and tell him what's happening. I'm on my way now." He threw the phone back to the petty officer without a word and vanished from PriFly while the man was still looking at him. The alarm awoke a fraction of an instant later, and the calm, unhurried voice of the boatswain-of-the-watch came from the speakers.
"General Quarters. General Quarters. All hands man battle stations for antiair warfare. This is no drill."
A bolt of pure fury suffused the Troll commander as the primitive aircraft vaporized. He knew at once what had happened. His cowardly, ultracautious creators had built no offensive weapons into their tender—that was the purpose of its escort—but they had crammed in every defensive system their anxious minds could envision. His own sensors had detected the crude radiation emanating from the aircraft, though he hadn't recognized it as a detection system. Why should he? No one had used single-dimension radio-wave scanners in over two centuries! But the Shirmaksu never forgot a danger, and some ancient threat recording had triggered their onboard computers, wasting a nuclear-armed ARAD on an archaic, propeller-driven aircraft.
It wasn't the death of the aircraft the Troll resented, but the fact that his masters hadn't seen fit to spend a little more of their foresight on fitting their tender with offensive weapons. He could have used them, for the human devil behind him had devised a plan.
He understood instantly when the cralkhi's drive field peaked. The enemy was going to attempt to overfly him and his wingman, then sweep back from head-on, and, in atmosphere, it might just get away with it. The odds were astronomically against it, but it was possible. Human drive fields had less power, but they were more efficient, and, especially in atmospheric maneuvering, efficiency counted. The human could maintain a better power curve in its bow drive field, which meant it could pull a higher atmospheric velocity. His own fighters were down to under eleven thousand kilometers per hour in this thickening air, and the cralkhi's fighter could do far better than that.
Of course, the devil would have to get past two Trolls to do it, he thought grimly, and his targeting systems sprang to life once more.
"The Captain is on the bridge!" a voice snapped as Captain Everett Jansen strode onto his bridge. The skin around his eyes was puffy with sleep, but the eyes themselves were already clear. Hanfield turned to him instantly, but Jansen waved him back.
"A sec, Bret," he said, grabbing for a phone and punching up CIC. "Plot, this is the Captain. What's our status?" He listened for perhaps ten seconds, then grunted. "Thanks." He hung up the phone and turned in one smooth movement. "All right, XO, I have the conn."
"Aye, Sir." Commander Hanfield didn't even try to hide the relief in his voice.
"I've got two more bandits, Skip," O'Donnel reported. "Coming at us from 11,000 meters altitude. Range eight-four-two kilometers. Rate of closure's over fourteen thousand KPH."
"What?" Colonel Leonovna spared a fraction of her own attention for the new targets. "Forget them, Anwar. They're human aircraft." She turned back to her piloting, a tiny corner of her historian's brain continuing, "Must be military to pull that speed."
"Home Plate, this is Hawk One. Hawk Flight going to burner."
Commander Staunton watched two more F-14s thunder off the catapults and climb away as he absorbed the report from his two airborne fighters. The big, swing-wing aircraft were long overdue for replacement, and he didn't like to think about the flight hours and fatigue their airframes had accumulated, but the general slowdown in military funding over the last twenty years had played havoc with next-generation systems development and acquisition. And for all their age, the F-14 and its equally venerable Phoenix missiles remained the most capable long-range interceptor in the world. Which was the reason the Navy (whose airfields had an unfortunate tendency to sink when sufficiently damaged) continued to labor so heroically to keep them flying. The standby F-18s were already being towed to the cats, but he doubted they'd get the younger design aloft in time to make much difference. Whatever was coming towards them had still been pulling almost seven thousand miles per hour when it dropped below SPASUR's coverage.
"Hawk Two, Hawk One," he heard his senior pilot say. "Light off your radar."
"Rog, Hawk One."
Two hundred miles ahead of the carrier battle group, both F-14Ds switched on their AWG-9 radars, searching for whatever had killed Spyglass.
"Hostiles incoming! I have incoming hostiles!" Hawk One announced. "Jesus! The bastards are pulling close to twelve thousand knots!"
Staunton looked at his flight officer in disbelief.
"Skipper, the tender's launched another pair of ARADs!"
"Those poor bastards," Colonel Leonovna said softly.
"Fox One!" Hawk One snapped. "Fox One—four away!"
Four late-mark AIM-54 missiles dropped from the lead Tomcat's pallets, followed moments later by two more as Hawk Two's novice aircrew launched as well. The Mach-five Phoenix, the longest ranged air-to-air missile in the world, was totally outclassed by the incoming missiles. But Phoenix missiles were designed to knock down small cruise missiles in the most difficult targeting solution of all: head-on at extreme range. The Kanga missiles were larger than the Tomcats which had fired, and for all their massive speed, they were utterly incapable of evasion. They mounted advanced ECM systems, but those systems were designed for outer space, and no ECM in the galaxy could have hidden the fantastic heat source their atmospheric passage generated.
The Troll commander would have blinked in astonishment if he'd possessed eyelids. It was impossible!
"Skipper! They killed both ARADs!"
Colonel Leonovna had eyelids, and she did blink at the news. She widened the focus of her attention, and bits of information clicked. Her mental weariness was forgotten as her thoughts flashed at blinding speed. Her electronic senses probed ahead, and a vicious smile curved her lips as she "saw" the formation of ancient ships.
"Splash two!" Hawk One announced exultantly. Then his voice sharpened even further. "Home Plate, I have multiple bandits on my scope. Big bandits. I count five—no, six targets. Range three-nine-eight. Speed five-four-six-oh knots, closing the task force."
"Admiral," Captain James Moulder's voice was hurried but astonishingly calm in Admiral Carson's ear as he spoke from his own combat information center aboard Antietam, "we have confirmed use of nukes against our Hummer, and they've fired on our fighters. Request weapons release."
The admiral's knuckles whitened on the phone set. The bandits were closing at over a mile and a half per second; they would arrive over his ships in just over four minutes, and, given the reach and speed of the weapons they'd already employed, they were probably already in strike range.
"Granted!" he snapped.
"All ships. Air Warning Red. Axis of threat three-five-two. Weapons free," his tactical commander announced in an almost mechanical voice, and surface to air tracking and targeting systems sprang to life on every ship in the task force.
Colonel Leonovna felt the radar sources come alive ahead of her, and mingled horror and exultation filled her. She was a military historian; unlike the Kangas and their Troll guardians, she knew what they were about to overfly. Yet for all that, she had little clearer notion of what the naval force's missiles could do against modern technology than she had of the performance of smoothbore cannon. Could they knock down the tender? It might be the worst thing they could do, assuming they continued to use chemical warheads, but even to her it seemed unlikely that the primitive weapons below her could do it. Still, they'd nailed those ARADs. . . .
Sputnik Too arced up and away, breaking off the pursuit.
The Troll commander noted the maneuver instantly, and his brain whirled with the new data, trying to understand. Why should the cralkhi break away now? After coming so far? Something was wrong.
"Here they come," someone murmured aboard Antietam. None of them could quite believe what they were seeing on their displays, but no one wasted time denying the obvious.
The Kanga tender had only two more ARADs, and they both dropped free, guiding on the nearest radar sources.
"Vampire! Vampire!" The warning cry went out as the missiles hurtled towards the destroyers Arleigh Burke and Kidd at over twelve thousand miles per hour. The tender itself was still far out of range, but RIM-66 and RIM-67 surface-to-air missiles raced to meet the ARADs, and both ships were already skidding in maximum rate turns to open fields of fire for their Mark Fifteen Phalanx cannon.
The Troll commander winced mentally as the rising tracks of defensive missiles and what had happened to the last two ARADs came together with the cralkhi's maneuver. Primitive they undoubtedly were, but with his units' every erg of drive power diverted to the bow fields for maximum speed, they didn't even have to be nuclear-armed to be lethal—not if they could score at all. He tried frantically to warn his Shirmaksu masters, and even as he did, a portion of his brain noted that the cralkhi was already swinging onto a new course, racing around the flank of his own formation.
The ARAD bound for the Burke met three different missiles, and their combined warheads were sufficient to smash it out of the heavens. The one guiding on Kidd was luckier; it ran right past the interceptors, hurtling at impossible speed through a sheet of fire from the twenty-millimeter Gatling guns of the destroyer's Phalanx mounts. The close-in defensive system did its best, but it had never been intended to deal with targets moving at such speed. The mounts' paired radars had too little time to track, and USS Kidd vanished in a heart of nuclear flame as the missile struck home.
But the incoming bogeys had held their course long enough, and the Aegis cruisers Antietam and Champlain exploded with light an instant before Kidd as their vertical launch systems spat fire. Again, the defense systems hadn't been designed to cope with targets moving at six thousand miles an hour, but all the advanced ECM of the tender and its Troll escorts was directed against targeting systems the United States Navy had never even heard of. Its targets were glaring beacons of reflected radar pulses and heat, and it was all or nothing for Task Force Twenty-Three.
Three hundred-plus missiles screamed into the night.
Colonel Leonovna watched the hurricane of ancient missiles whiplash upward. They were pathetically slow, but the range was short and their targets were running straight down their throats—and larger than some of the ships floating below her. She caught her breath as the missiles slammed into her enemies.
The Troll commander's synapses quivered with fury as the primitive weapons hammered his formation. His units were climbing desperately, but they'd come in too low and begun their evasion too late. Even at their speed, they couldn't climb out of range in time.
More than half the SAMs wasted themselves against the frontal arcs of his units' bow drive fields, but almost half did not. Some seemed not even to see their targets, but most did. Their power was pathetic compared to the nuclear warheads and powered flechettes of modern weapons, but there were so many of them!
The Shirmaksu tender shuddered as four missiles broke through all its defenses. ECM was useless against such primitive guidance systems; they could be stopped only by active defenses, and the tender simply didn't mount enough of them. And if that was true of the tender, it was ten times true of his fighters! He watched helplessly as two of his three remaining wingmen took multiple hits. They were like flea bites, any one of them too small to hurt, but together they were too much. The drive field on Fighter Two failed. The craft was designed for space, not to move at such speed in atmosphere, and its own velocity tore it apart. Fighter Three simply disintegrated in a ball of fire. Fighter Four was luckier and took only two hits, but its drive faltered anyway, and its pilot had no choice but to reduce speed drastically. Only the commander himself escaped damage, for he'd enjoyed an instant more warning in which to wrench up and away, outrunning the slow, stupid weapons which had wrought such havoc.
He forced his nose back down, raging around to devastate the primitives who'd ravaged his formation, but before he could launch a single weapon his masters whistled him off. They demanded his protection with such stridency he could not refuse, and he altered course once more, racing to catch up with the limping, staggering tender.
Anwar O'Donnel's banshee howl of triumph hurt Colonel Leonovna's ears, but she couldn't blame him. Her own worst fear had been that the ancient missiles might knock the tender down, for she hadn't dared hope for nuclear warheads. But the Kangas had survived . . . and they'd been hurt. Not only that, but their escorts had been decimated. The single undamaged Troll swung back, clearly intending to strafe the warships below, even as the tender and its damaged protector continued to climb, and Colonel Leonovna took the opening she'd been given.
Sputnik howled down through the night-black heavens like a lance of flame with Death at her controls and every scrap of drive power bracing her forward field. She slid between the Troll commander and his charges, and Ludmilla Leonovna armed her remaining Skeet missile. It launched and guided straight into the tender's escort, blowing it out of the sky, and her blood sang with triumph as her weapon systems locked on the tender. Nothing could save her target now—not even the telltale itch between her shoulder blades as the Troll commander's targeting systems stabbed her from astern.
Her mind flashed the command to her last missile, and it blasted away in the instant before the first nuclear missile came howling up her own wake.
"What the fuck?" Captain Moulder's incredulous question echoed the thought in every mind as yet another fireball—this one vast beyond comprehension—splintered the night two hundred thousand feet above the Atlantic. A massive surge of EMP smashed over the task force, burning out even "hardened" radar and communications electronics effortlessly, as a five hundred megaton blast designed to destroy an Ogre-class superdreadnought expended its fury upon the insignificant mass of a single tender.
The dreadful glare of nuclear fusion washed down over the carrier battle group, blinding every unwary eye that watched it, and radiation detectors went mad. The awesome ball of flame hung high above the ocean, and then there was another, smaller flash, and another, and another. The terrible chain lightning reached away over the horizon like a curse, and confusion roiled in its wake. Clearly those blasts were not directed at them, but, in that case, who the hell was shooting at whom?
Then the shockwave of that first, monster explosion rolled over them like a fist.
"Bull's-eye, Skipper! Bull's—"
That was all O'Donnel had time to say before the Troll commander's last missile caught up with the wildly evading Sputnik. It punched through O'Donnel's desperate ECM like an awl, and its proximity fuse activated.
Leonovna felt the terrible damage like a blow in her own flesh, and she knew Sputnik was doomed. Smoke flooded her cockpit, and power-loss warnings snarled in her mental link to her ship, yet it wasn't in her to give up, not even now. She fought the dying fighter's controls, and Sputnik strove heroically to respond, heaving her nose up in an impossible arc, battling to give her pilot one last shot.
The Troll commander tracked his crippled prey to four hundred thousand feet, sliding in behind the hated cralkhi pilot. It had taken his last missile, but it had been worth it. He avoided the cralkhi's dying efforts with ease and savored the cold, crawling fire of vengeance as he watched its drive shudder, and he sliced even closer as the interceptor lost its field and coasted higher in the near-vacuum on momentum alone.
As Sputnik rose past 500,000 feet, his power guns fired, and a shattered wreck plunged toward the water waiting patiently ninety-five miles below.