Shiva’s Whisper, Snippet Three

My just released novel


 

$2.99 on Kindle, $15.99 in Trade Paperback.  As always free to read on Kindle Unlimited


 

CHAPTER THREE

Ten minutes later, Li sat at the con on the bridge. The icon for their remaining opponent floated in the main holotank. Numeric values floated next to the icon indicating estimates of mass, acceleration, and bearing. A red fog filled a roughly spherical area indicating likely future positions of their opponent. A yellow fog filled the area indicating where it could possibly reach, given what they knew about the ship.

At Li’s left, the nav repeater was set for holocom and showed Coll, down in Nav, overseeing Small’s work on the navigation and tactical system. The Jin Long was only armed as an anti-piracy measure and did not have a dedicated tactical station. Navigation would have to serve that purpose.

At Li’s right, the engineering repeater displayed a schematic of the ship in green. Battle damage that they had not had time or facilities to completely repair glowed in yellow, as did the starboard wormhole trap with its fuel-eating flutter.

“Brenda,” Li said, “Tell me again about these second claws.”

“They’re similar to our own pirate chaser craft. Very long-legged, but they trade armament for that. If they’re the generation I think they are, they’ve got three phased tunnel cannon turrets to our one, but we outrange them, maybe ten percent.” Coll tapped on her keyboard and in the main holotank in front of Li, two spheres appeared around the opposing ship’s icon, one representing the Second Fang’s expected tunnel cannon range, another representing the Jin Long’s.

“So, we can hit them from beyond their range?”

“We can, but they’ve got missiles which we don’t have. Probably a quad- or an oct- fixed mount. The missiles outrange our tunnel cannon by about two to one.” A third sphere appeared around the Second Fang.”

“Who’s on our cannon?”

“Ephraimsen. He’s done the best on sims.”

“Sims?  Great.”

“I know, but that’s the best we’ve got.”

“Remind me when we get back to port to hire at least one former gunner’s mate for the crew.”

“Yes, sir,” Coll grinned. “I’ll remind you…again.” She looked down at Small’s display, then looked back up. “We’re closing to his missile range. Two minutes.”

Li nodded then thumbed the communicator switch. “Engineering, Li.”

“Engineering, Skipper. Orders?”

“We’re about to start maneuvering. Keep the limiter on our top pseudo-speed from down there. I don’t want to have to think about it while I’m trying to maneuver so keep the lid on until I give orders otherwise.”

“Aye, Skipper.”

Li switched back to Coll.

“What do you think, Linda,” Coll was saying as the holo came back to life. “Single shots or will they flush the tubes?”

“Single…missile inbound. Single round.”

Coll turned, her hand reaching out for her own communicator. She stopped when she saw that it was already active. “Incoming, Skipper.”

“Tunnel cannon on defensive fire,” Li said. “Your discretion, Brenda.”

“On it.”

Li gestured, drawing with his fingers in the holotank. While he tapped commands into a keyboard with his right hand, his left sketched out a course that would keep the Jin Long outside the Second Claw’s tunnel cannon range, remaining just inside missile range. If he could encourage them to fire off their missiles at extreme range…

A second missile icon erupted, then a third.

A fourth appeared just as the first winked out.

“Good shooting, Guns!” Coll said from navigation. “Now if we can just.. ”

The starboard wormhole trap in the engineering schematic flashed red. The holo tank blurred then redrew dizzily as the Jin Long’s pseudo-speed dropped.

“Oh, shit,” Li whispered.

Li noted with satisfaction another icon on the engineering schematic. Engineering had responded to the failure of the starboard wormhole by dropping the limits he had ordered placed on the drive. Initiative. And the right call despite his earlier orders. He had available all the pseudospeed the remaining wormhole trap could provide. The ship was almost as fast with a single trap as with both. Almost. She just burned through fuel to do it.

“Guns, drop those missiles now,” Coll said, anticipating Li’s order. “Skipper, I think I’d better get to damage control.”

“Agreed.” Li’s right hand beat a staccato pattern on the controls while his left drew a new course into the holo tank, trying to delay the now inevitable moment when they would enter the Second Claw’s tunnel cannon range.

“Small,” Coll said, “Tac is yours.”

Two more of the missile traces vanished from the display. “Ephraimsen,” Li whispered, “if you keep shooting like that, I’ll restore every centicred of your pay, and throw in half of mine.”

Two more missile traces appeared, replacing the two Ephraimsen had shot down, just as the Jin Long crossed the line indicating that the oncoming Second Claw was within the Jin Long’s tunnel cannon range.

Li reached for the communicator to remind Ephraimsen to stay on the missiles, leave the second claw alone for now, but saw there was no need. One missile icon winked out, then another. A moment later and they were within the other ship’s tunnel cannon range.

A terajoule of energy burst past the Jin Long, close, but not close enough to damage her. The ship trembled as it passed through the tunnel cannon’s wake in wormhole space. One of the oncoming missiles in passing through that wake veered off course while Ephraimsen’s gunnery accounted for another. The sixth arrowed in and Li overrode the computer-generated course, pivoting the Jin Long through a sharp angle and driving the Jin Long at the fastest pseudospeed her damaged drives could achieve.

The maneuver was not enough. The missile detonated, the detuned particle generator in its warhead erupting in more power than should be possible in so small a package. The Jin Long’s realspace intersection clipped the effect zone of the missile’s warhead, dragging superhot plasma with it into wormhole space. Yellow and red spattered over the engineering schematic at Li’s right.

“Coll,” Li said into the communicator, “status?”

“Multiple hull breaches,” Coll said. “External comms down. Fuel seven streaming to space. Remaining wormhole trap good. Tunnel cannon good. We can still fight and maneuver, Skipper.”

“All right,” Li said. The holo display showed no more missiles. “Ephraimsen. Hit that ship with everything you’ve got.”

“On it, Skipper.”

Li pivoted the ship again, trying to keep the already damaged fuel tankage turned toward the oncoming Second Claw while still giving Ephraimsen a field of fire.

More red blossomed on the ship schematic. An angry red boil marked navigation and the holo display winked out.

“Coll!”

“Dammit,” Coll said. “Johnson, get the secondary nav up now!”

“Captain,” Ephraimsen’s voice broke into the comm. “If you can hold her steady, I’ve still got the gun’s sensors. I’ve got a shot.”

“Do it,” Li said and locked pseudospeed and bearing. The ship trembled under the outgoing wake of Ephraimsen’s fire.

More red blemishes appeared in the display. Fuel three. Crew quarters. Officer’s Mess. But the remaining wormhole trap, and the tunnel cannon, remained green.

The holo flickered to life, resolution down from normal but functional.

“Captain, we’ve got secondary nav up. You should have a display.”

“Got it, Brenda,” Li said. “Any word on primary nav?”

“Not yet. I’ve got a crew cutting through now. The shot to crew quarters got Hitchens and Blake. Small’s status is unknown.”

“Understood,” Li said, “Ephraimsen. You good?”

“Still here, Skipper. I read increasing range to target.”

Li read the icons in the holo tank. The Second Claw was falling behind. “Confirmed, Ephraimsen. I’m going to try to keep us at extreme range. Keep shooting.”

“You’ve got it, Skipper.”

Somehow, Ephraimsen had managed to do enough damage that the Second Claw could not keep pace with the Jin Long. Even with the Second Claw’s greater weight of gunnery, the accuracy Ephraimsen and the Jin Long’s computers had shown gave the Jin Long the edge in a long-range duel. So long as Li could keep it at long range, it was just a matter of time.

Li set the parameters he wanted into the computer and sat back to observe.

“Coll, status.”

“Just breaking into Nav now, Skipper and…damn.”

“Coll?”

“We lost Small. Looks like debris from the hit tore open her suit.”

“Any other casualties?” Li asked softly.

“Hitchins, Blake, and now Small dead. Aside from that, minor bumps and bruises.”

Li pressed his lips into a thin line and shook his head. Space combat was like that. Wounds were rare. A hit either killed you outright or left you with no worse than a shaking.

Behind them the Second Claw continued to limp after them, slowing perceptibly as Ephraimsen hammered at it with the tunnel cannon.

Form follows function, Tanaka thought as he watched the giant bulldozer crushing trees in the Jakakalat game preserve. The control cabin fit Eres rather than human shapes and a free-radical fuel cell rather than burning hydrocarbons powered the engines but the basic design would not have been out of place five centuries before on Earth.

The heat and the rising humidity, had passed uncomfortable and were racing toward oppressive. To the west, clouds loomed, heralding the approach of a storm that meteorology claimed would not arrive for several hours yet.

Standing on the top of his floatcar, Tanaka winced as another stand of timber fell to the dozer’s twenty-meter wide blade. In another part of the former park, construction crews were erecting blocks of temporary housing. The Eres were converting this park, which had been wild lands since before Humans had tamed fire, into a giant refugee camp. Considering the religious reverence with which Eres treated hunting, and hunting spaces, they must be feeling a great deal of pressure.

The other explanation, proposed by bureaucrats back on Earth, was that the Eres were preparing another Great Hunt against which this park was a small price indeed. That explanation did not feel right to Tanaka.

He turned at the sound of another floatcar’s approach.

Sheshak stepped out of the floatcar. “I greet you, Tanaka Captain,”

“I greet you, Lesser Stalker,” Tanaka replied in return. “You picked a strange place to meet.”

“I know.” Sheshak gazed at the destruction of the park for a moment. “I wanted one last look at this place before it was completely gone. Many siril fell to my claws here when I was young.”

“It’s a sad day,” Tanaka said.

“Sad indeed. But the times are the times.”

Tanaka hopped off the floatcar, landing lightly on the forest loam that released a scent reminiscent of roses of all things as his feet struck the soil. “I asked to meet because I got an answer from my government.”

“They have answered our proposal?”

Tanaka nodded. “There was great concern. You offered too much, too fast, leading a lot of people to look for the trap.”

Sheshak touched his tongue to the upper teeth. “’When the tunok reveals himself to your blade, look for the mate to lie hidden.’”

“Exactly. In the end though, they agreed.”

“I am glad. It is past time we ended the conflict between our people. As I come to know you I see the attraction of the Jekat, the ‘not-prey’ sect.” He swept one arm outward, taking in the park and its destroyers. “Would you watch with me a while, and weep for the loss of this place?”

“Of course, Lesser Stalker,” Tanaka said. “And I’m honored that you ask.”

“I fear that many more such places will soon be lost.” Even the vocoder conveyed sadness in the tone. “And there will be no one to properly mourn them.”

President of the Terran Confederation, Hukmi Bhatti looked across his desktop screen to his visitor. “What do you make of this latest report, Tom?”

Thomas Little Bear, Terran Minister of Defense leaned forward in his chair. “Sixty percent drop in contacts along the border; Evidence of extensive ship repairs at Chakentak. No report yet on what those repairs might be but about the only thing that can put that many ships into the docks without prior warning is battle damage. Add in that the Eres are tearing up major game preserves to build low cost housing for thousands of refugees. I think we’re looking at a civil war.”

“That’s not supposed to be possible. The Eres pack structure…”

“Lots of things aren’t supposed to be possible. Eres weren’t supposed to be able to see other species as anything other than competing predators or prey. But here we are.”

“Civil war, huh.” Bhatti leaned back and chewed on his index finger—a nervous habit he had never been able to break. “I’m glad you brought this to me privately. I can’t say I’m unhappy about anything weakening the Eres, not after the last war, but…” He stood up and walked to the balcony. A plassteel dome provided security but the balcony provided the illusion of openness as he looked out over the city.

“Mr. President?”

Bhatti leaned against the railing. Only a few floatcars were visible in the streets below at this time of night. The various offices of government, such as there were, had closed hours ago but the business of government continued behind closed doors. “Too many politicians would welcome an Eres civil war for exactly the wrong reasons.” He sighed and turned back toward the office, leaning against the railing, his shoulders just brushing the plassteel dome. “You fought them in the war. What do you think?”

“About what, Mr. President?”

“Civil war. Are they really capable of it?”

Little Bear drew a deep breath and blew it out, puffing his cheeks. “Last war they finally stopped having ‘honor hunts’ with prisoners…mostly. And as best we can tell, they’ve stopped such hunts of sophonts within their borders…mostly. If they can amend such a deeply seated imperative, what else can they amend?  Hell, maybe the two are connected.”

“How so?”

“They are driven to hunt in a way humans are not. If they’re suppressing that hunting instinct when it comes to us, maybe they’re turning it on each other.”

“So, we could be looking at a breakdown of Eres society, all caused because we got them to stop hunting us?”

“Could be. Or maybe not. We’re speculating in the dark here.”

Bhatti nodded. “How long can you keep this private?”

“Not long. A couple of weeks at most.”

Bhatti nodded. “Keep it private as long as you can. In the meantime…”

The silence dragged for several seconds before Little Bear said, “In the meantime?”

“We need more information. Have some deep recon ships tasked with penetrating Eres space.”

“Hukmi?  That’s a blatant treaty violation.”

“Yes. Yes, it is. But we have to know what’s going on before we go public with this.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“That will be all, Tom.”

Little Bear nodded, stood, and turned to the office door. “You sure about this, Mr. President?”

“We’ve had three Eres wars so far,” Bhatti said. “I don’t want to be the president that led us into another one. Some folk would use this as an excuse to do just that. While they’re fighting among themselves…”

“Understood, Mr. President.”

“I need to know what’s really going on over there.”

“We’ll find out for you, sir.” He nodded and left.

Bhatti turned back to the view from the balcony. The Eres had been opponents for much of the past three centuries but they had always been constant. If they were fighting a civil war, if they could fight a civil war, then that constancy was gone. He did not know what that meant for the future, but it was unlikely to be good.


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