Christmas Carriers' Convoy 3 - part 16, showdown at IU-X a32-0
Some subconscious instinct jerks me awake; I turn off silent running and power into supercruise. How could I have known that Kurt Vile was on the move? It's the sort of coincidence that makes people say, "That always happens", when in fact it's quite rare.
Again I have to race to reach the Corvette's wake before it fades, but the scan is successful and I follow.
After a few jumps it's clear that Vile is wasting no time. As soon as I arrive in a new system, his next wake is already there. I only have time to scoop some fuel and it's on to the next target. There's no question of looking around, admiring, or exploring.
And so it goes on, hour after hour, his jumping like someone possessed and my doggedly tracking him. Eventually we enter the Eol Prou sector and I know we'll soon arrive in the region of Colonia. I hope Tay and her friends are ready; theirs is the more important role in what's we're hoping to do.
Fleet carrier Wolfpack has also been making steady progress towards Colonia from its Festival Ground rendezvous. The six suicide pilots are now all in the medical bay, their condition continuing to deteriorate.
Meanwhile, Eldrin Dood is working with Engineer Brett Beddoe to manufacture the ordnance for the antimatter cannon. Aud Strang joins them.
"I won't pretend to understand the physics," she says, "but I would like to know the broad principles of what you're doing."
"It all hinges on these new nanoscale containment units," Dood says, enthusiastically. "Amaryllis thinks we're only at the design stage, but we're much further on than that. We've had working prototypes for half a year and Etienne Dorn has weaponised them."
"How does that work?"
"Well, we surround the containment unit with a sphere that stores hydrogen as nanoscale hydrides, and that's the basic cannonball. When the ordnance hits its target, the impact generates enough heat to exceed the release temperature for both components; hydrogen and antihydrogen come into contact and – kaboom!"
"Sounds rather dangerous to me," she says. "For instance, what happens if you accidentally drop one of these things?"
No, you don't want to do that," Dood grins. "That would be very bad for you health."
Aud Strang tightens her lips and sets her jaw.
"Sorry," Dood says, "bad joke, in light of Michael. But to answer your question, we won't usually keep the cannonballs armed – this is exceptional, only for today. Normally we'll have only the hydrogen component installed. There's another antimatter containment unit linked to the cannon – which is empty just now. We'll use that to charge the cannonballs with antimatter only at the time of firing."
Ethan Strang enters the workshop. "We've heard from Kurt. He's given us a target system in Eol Prou; it's IU-X a32-0, an unpopulated brown dwarf with no points of interest."
"How long to get there?" Aud asks.
"About fifteen jumps."
"We should have three or four cannonballs by then," Eldrin Dood says, "plenty for our little demonstration."
"We haven't jumped for a while," Jaquelyn says, "which means Vile's either taking another break or we've arrived."
"I'll take a look," Tay says and she unlocks the Imperial Slave cage that has been their home during the journey.
The cargo hold is dark and almost empty now that's Dood's collection of rare goods has gone, yet Tay's knee manages to find the corner of a crate. She can't help but cry out with the pain and the echoes seem to take forever to fade. Will Vile have heard? She doesn't know.
Edging forwards more carefully, she finds the exit and follows the same route as before to the bridge. She hears Vile talking to someone, a friendly, relaxed exchange. She crouches low and looks cautiously round the door jamb.
Vile is leaning back in his seat with his feet up on the console. Through the canopy, Tay sees the relatively dull glow of a brown dwarf star…
…and just off to one side, there's a huge fleet carrier.
"Yeah, she's a dream to fly, Eldrin, but has a pig of a range."
Tay can't hear the other side of the conversation but it soon starts to get serious.
"Okay, how do you want to do this?" Vile asks and then listens to the instructions. "Aha…you'll release the ordnance into space and you want me to scoop it up. What next?...Take them out of their canister – carefully – yes, I got that. Then put them into the hopper that feeds the cannon."
A minute later, Tay feels the surge of the thrusters and hears the cargo hatch opening. She knows that Mai and Jaquelyn will be safe in the slave compartment and not exposed to the vacuum of space.
She, however, must find somewhere to hide because Vile will be heading for the cargo hold shortly. Immediately behind the bridge is the escape pod bay. Tay climbs into the nearest pod, keeping the door open slightly by resting the barrel of her gun on the edge. She waits, listening intently.
The cargo hatch clunks closed and Tay hears, and then smells, as Vile goes past, no more than a few metres away. She gives him ten seconds to move out of earshot and then eases open the escape pod lid. Climbing out, she holds her weapon ready and makes her way back to the cargo hold.
I arrive in Eol Prou IU-X a32-0 and space seems pretty crowded all of a sudden. Centre of the scene is a huge fleet carrier with Kurt Vile's Corvette close by. Around it is a fleet of fighter ships: Fer-de-Lance, Krait, Viper, Anaconda.
It's too much to hope that I won't be noticed. My best choice is to jump to the nearest system and pretend I was just passing through. A wing of fighters are heading towards me as I do this.
I have a dilemma. I'd planned to call up the Colonia Militia at this point, thinking some extra muscle might be useful. Problem is, if I use a wide-area distress call, Eldrin Dood's people will hear it and they'll know there's trouble coming. But if I leave it too late I jeopardise our plan and put my companions' lives at risk.
I'm also worried that one of the Strang ships will follow me, so I'm disconcerted when the HUD flashes up the message:
I turn towards the contact to scan it; it's a Diamondback Explorer and its elite commander is Aliera Gold. She hails me.
She doesn't seem to be in any pirate faction so I lock onto her wake and drop out of supercruise. It's an attractive ship and, if I were an explorer rather than a private detective, I'd consider buying one. I hear, though, that you can't fit a very big fuel scoop.
We open a voice comms channel.
"Who are you, and what do you want?" I say. "I'm in the middle of something here."
"I've been following you since Gandharvi," she says. "Chief Velazquez became concerned for you and your mission. She wants to help and she despatched a rapid-reaction platoon for your support. They're only a few jumps behind me."
Mightily relieved, I tell Gold where the rebel rendezvous is happening.
"I know," she says. "I was there just now and jumped out to follow you."
"When your team gets here – and I owe Chief Velazquez for that – I'll go back to see what's happening."
Tay drops silently to the floor of the cargo bay, unseen by Kurt Vile. He's working at the lid of the canister he recently scooped, cursing its obstinacy.
With a clatter the lid falls to the floor and Vile lifts out a sphere about thirty centimetres in diameter. He carries it gingerly to a container linked to some transparent pipework that Tay hasn't noticed until now. An electric motor starts up and the cannonball is sucked upwards, out of the hold and towards the cannon mounts at the top of the ship.
Vile repeats this process with two more cannonballs and is heading back to the bridge when he notices the slave compartment. The door doesn't look secure. He goes over to check it out and finds the door unlocked. He pulls it wide open.
"Well, well, what's all this?" he says seeing Mai and Jaquelyn. "Two indentured imperial ladies. We could have had some fun…but…hold on…weren't there supposed to be three of you?"
"That's right," Tay says. "Now hands where I can see them and turn around slowly."
Tay is in a combat stance and points the weapon at Vile's head. She won't miss at this range – that's what all the practice was for – and isn't risking that Vile has a bulletproof vest.
Vile does as he's told, then an evil smirk spreads across his face. "Know how to use that, do you, little lady?"
In reply, Tay lowers the weapon to aim at his thigh and calmly squeezes the trigger. She's prepared for this for over a year, the only difference is she wanted it to be Eldrin Dood writhing in agony on the floor.
"Quick," she says to the others, "get him into the slave compartment; lock it, and meet me on the bridge."
She hurries out of the cargo hold.
Three wings of fighters line up in close formation, all targeting the brown dwarf system where the revolutionaries are bringing their terrorist plan to fruition. We are ready for the mass jump. Aliera Gold is co-ordinating.
"One minute…throttle to zero…charge your frameshifts…thirty seconds…twenty seconds…boost on my mark…ten seconds…mark."
My poorly shielded Orca is shaken and buffeted by the exhaust trails of more than a dozen combat ships as we surge forwards. I get a feeling for the apprehension – no, the downright fear – that a combat fighter feels before joining a battle, but I also sense the comradeship and the confidence that comes from being part of a team.
One by one we jump to IU-X a32-0.
The Orca creates the usual thunderclap as it insinuates itself into normal space-time, albeit in supercruise. I wait, in close orbit around the primary star, until we're all present.
"Either target the fleet carrier or my low wake," I say to Gold. "I'm going in."
Tay takes up her position at the controls of the Corvette. She flashes back to the last time she sat here; it was the time she worked on rotation at Dood Corporation's battery business and Eldrin Dood had asked her to join him on a business trip. He'd let her fly the ship and he seemed friendly and interested in her. She was flattered, given her humble beginnings. Then came the spiked drink, the sexual assault, and everything changed.
Calmly, Tay deploys hardpoints and checks that the antimatter cannon has a ball in the breech.
Suddenly the sky is full of ships; authority vessels dropping out of supercruise and rebel fighters quickly launching from the fleet carrier create a spontaneous combat zone. It's fairly evenly matched in terms of numbers, firepower, and skill level, and the battle ranges far and wide.
Tay sees the incoming voice comms request and opens the channel. It's Eldrin Dood.
"Kurt, you need to get involved; we need your skills."
"Not Kurt, I'm afraid," Tay says with satisfaction.
"What? Who is that?" Dood says, taken completely by surprise. "Tay Getty, is that you?"
"Right on, Commander," Tay replies. "It's payback time."
"What…oh, that…that was completely consensual. Now I need you to step aside and let me do my thing."
"The thing where you destroy half of Colonia and hold the bubble to ransom with your weapon of mass destruction? Not going to happen."
"You never got me, did you Tay, not really? You couldn't see the hurt I was feeling. The Doods killed my parents; that makes them a fair target. The Strangs are with me on this; don't forget my father was a Strang."
"Is that why you hate women so much, because the Dood Corporation is all female?" Tay says, realising this for the first time. "But, like I said, I'm not going to let that happen."
There's silence, and Tay waits to see what Dood does next.
Meanwhile the battle rages around her. Swirling, curving ships bathed in laser light, and cannon fire. It's beginning to turn against the rapid-reaction force from Gandharvi; the Strang pilots have the advantage of being able to dock quickly on the fleet carrier for repair, rearm, and restock. The Wolfpack also has weapons firing at any enemy ship that dares come close enough.
A distress call goes out from the Orca.
"Mayday, mayday, mayday. Urgent assistance required in Eol Prou IU-X a32-0. All independent pilots and Colonia Militia ships are urged to help stem the threat of Colonia's imminent destruction."
The message is repeated many times and, gradually, in ones and twos, more ships arrive to help. Some are standard issue Vipers and Adders flown by barely competent pilots; there's a Python with a dangerous pilot, and an Anaconda that's essentially a mining ship with hardpoints for defence and deterrence.
When the Colonia Militia arrive in force the battle begins to swing against the rebels.
Tay still waits for Dood's next move. Then it comes.
A Type-9 is lifted out of its hangar onto the launch pad. It's a battered, tired ship, but Tay can guess what it carries – an unknown quantity of antimatter.
She gets a hail from the Orca. It's Andrew Linton.
"Tay," he says, "can you see what's happening? Dood intends to send off the fleet of T9s and detonate them at that list of targets we heard about. You must stop them."
Already, Tay sees an escort forming close to the Type-9. Their aim will be to help the ship make a jump to hyperspace.
"But I have only three antimatter cannonballs," she pleads, not wanting to hear what she knows will come next.
"You have to stop them all. You know what that means," Linton says.
Mai and Jaquelyn have been on the bridge for some time and they too grasp the situation.
"Tay," Jaquelyn says, "as your therapist, I can tell you that the course of action that Andrew is proposing will have serious repercussions for your mental health. But also I will tell you that I will do everything in my power to help you through whatever trauma comes. Many people have had to do what you're being asked to do and they have come through it."
Tay bites her lip until it bleeds. She's undecided. Then the Type-9 launches and a second one appears on the adjacent large pad. That's enough for her; it has to stop here.
"Tell our people to clear the area! High wake! High wake! High wake!" she shouts to whomever is listening, and to Mai and Jaquelyn: "Strap yourselves in tight."
She brings the Corvette about until it faces the centre of the fleet carrier. Her finger hovers over the primary fire trigger. She tries not to think of the hundreds of lives on board and the wider circle of family and friends whose lives will be devastated.
"All our ships have gone," Linton reports. "It's just us now, Tay. Please, save the many hundreds of thousands of lives of the colonists who came here to start afresh."
Tay sets the throttle to full reverse and squeezes the trigger. The antimatter cannonball erupts from the muzzle of the cannon and makes its short flight through space. Tay turns away and pushes the throttle forwards; she doesn't want to watch.
"You should fire the remaining munitions into space – get rid of them," Linton says from his distant observation point. Tay fires the weapon twice more, facing away from the star.
There are still a dozen Strang combat ships flying around the fleet carrier. Their pilots are puzzled by the sudden retreat of the authority ships and the independents, and none has seen the Corvette fire on the Wolfpack.
The energy of the explosion is everything that Eldrin Dood could have hoped for. So recently a man, he briefly becomes a ball of plasma, and finally a burst of energy and a mess of subatomic particles. Fleet carrier Wolfpack is melted in an instant and the blast when it comes is tremendous. Ships and shrapnel fragments are impelled through space at high speed. Secondary explosions follow in quick succession as each Type-9 has its own meltdown.
The Corvette is tossed end over end like a feather in a tornado. The shields are penetrated by white hot metal and the hull is badly damaged. Several of the ship's thrusters are disabled, the canopy is cracked, and the antimatter cannon is ripped from its mount.
On the bridge, the three women are unconscious but unharmed; further away, Andrew Linton in his Orca is dazed and disorientated by the buffeting of the shock wave.
Meanwhile, a Type-9 arrives in the Centralis system.