Strike Battleship Engineers Chapter Fifty Eight

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my Starships at War military science fiction series Strike Battleship Engineers

Captain Darragh Walsh silently regarded the main viewer on the bridge of DSS Rhode Island. Two watches had been dismissed by now, and his XO was becoming more and more concerned. She stood near him, pretending to be looking at the same thing he was.

“Sir, with all due respect, you need rest. If we go into hard action, the fatigue–”

“Give me that D-rad reading again, signals,” Walsh interrupted.

A pause. “Zero Zero Six. No detectable delta from baseline since the last synch, sir.”

Nessa saw her captain curse under his breath. “What is it?”

“He’s modulating his engine emissions. I thought we were going to catch him at the edge of the atmosphere and at least get a course track,” Walsh growled. “But every bloody time he shifts his emissions and disappears before our navicomp can get a waveform. Keep driving him, helm. Get us in closer.”

Lieutenant Boyle moved to the tactical station and had the duty officer pull up the orbital track. “How accurate is our position map?”

“There’s five thousand miles of play along every vector,” Walsh replied without moving. “I could flush him out of there, but it will take all our birds.”

“What are our chances with energy only?”

“Too risky. Energy targeting is a toss-up as long as his cloak is operational. The Mantids, on the other hand–”

“D-rad spike. Zero One Four. Right on schedule.”

“You keep playing me, you bastard,” Walsh muttered. “One way or another, you’re going to make a mistake, and I’m going to be there when you do. Helm, steer four degrees starboard. Maintain your velocity.”

“Aye, captain. Helm answering. Course now four one mark one. Clock cycling two zero zero. Back to our original track.”

The malevolent shape of Walsh’s destroyer banked quietly and then resumed her course along the extreme outer edge of Bayone Seven’s magnetic field. The dark side of the planet’s atmosphere was peaceful, which only made things more difficult for the Rhode Island. As long as the chemical composition of the atmosphere was predictable, a cloaked ship could remain practically invisible indefinitely. The alternative was the “stock market” of tactical officers. They needed conditions to change in much the same way stockbrokers needed prices to change. Up or down didn’t matter. All that mattered was what they could buy or sell while conditions were in flux. It was when the readings changed that the slight difference between the new and old would reveal clues as to the position of a cloaked ship. If Rhode Island caught a solid waveform, her enemy would be reduced to background radiation and a debris field so fast they wouldn’t have time to realize they were dead.

“Steady as she goes, helm.”

Walsh stood resolute. Aside from his words, it was hard to tell if he was even breathing. Boyle cycled and re-cycled the tactical map, applying every overlay she could think of. Nothing brought up more than the edge of the planet and the same spectrographic analysis pattern for the atmosphere. Now she was cursing under her breath.

“Tactical. Identify readings at planet’s edge. Analysis, quickly,” Walsh ordered.

Boyle relinquished the controls and the tactical officer focused the ship’s short-range sensors on the darker patch at the edge of the planet’s terminator. “Low pressure zone in the atmosphere, sir. Could be a high-altitude storm of some kind.”

“Latitude?”

“Forty-one degrees north approx–”

“Helm! Hard-a-larboard! All ahead emergency flank speed!”

The Rhode Island’s pilot narrowly avoided an embarrassing accident at the sudden shout from her captain. She shoved the controls and rammed the throttle forward. The destroyer dove back to port and exploded towards the planet surface.

“Missile warning! Threat board! Vampire! Vampire!”

“Countermeasures! Now!” Walsh grabbed an overhead handhold to steady himself as the deck pitched under his feet. Lieutenant Boyle was thrown against a bank of sensor readouts. She grabbed the shock harness on the second sensor officer’s crash couch to keep from slamming to the deck.

High-speed breakaway transmitters rocketed into space as Rhode Island rolled away. A deadly anti-matter torpedo screamed through the deflection zone only a few hundred yards from where Walsh’s ship had been a moment before. The warhead impacted one of the countermeasures and detonated at a range of 65 miles. The shock knocked out every light on the bridge. For several chilling moments, the only illumination was the glowing red threat indicators. The captain’s voice shouted in the darkness.

“Tactical! Bring us up fast!”

When she could see again, Boyle noticed Walsh was still forward of the pilot’s station, watching the display like a hungry vulture.

“Forward launchers two and three! Target the trailing edge of the storm at zero six!”

“Affirmative! Warhead ready indicators missiles two! three–!”

“Fire blind! Push him, tactical! Push him!”

The lethal warship banked back to starboard and accelerated towards her fading target. A pair of agile Mantid-class birds screamed from Rhode Island’s forward launchers and tore through the orbital track like demons with rocket engines. A moment later concussion warheads detonated, causing devastating spherical explosions each of which tore a million tons of gas and debris out of Bayone Seven’s exosphere and then vaporized it in a twelve-million-degree hypernova. Waves of feedback plasma energy shook the angry Skywatch ship like an avalanche.

“Weapons detonation! Range zero point two!”

“Readings! Quickly!”

“D-rad indicator zero one five! No change!”

Boyle was back at tactical. Watching. Reading. Looking for anything that she could use to suss out even a hint of the enemy ship’s course. But it was like looking at a calm ocean from the beach. There just wasn’t anything there for the Rhode Island’s sensitive tracking instruments to get hold of. She moved quickly back to her captain’s side.

“We didn’t even get a firing position.”

“He’s got a scorch mark in the seat of his pants now, lieutenant,” Walsh said with a sinister tone in his voice. “He takes another shot at us and I’m going to give him a set of bite marks to go with it. Helm, resume orbital track. Back to our original course. Ahead one-half. Reload forward launchers two and three and arm warheads for short-range engagement.”

Rhode Island maneuvered back to her pursuit course and went back to watching and waiting with a full spread of concussion missiles armed.

A chill crawled up Lieutenant Boyle’s neck. No matter how high the rank of the person asking, she knew she would never be able to explain how the captain knew. The ship’s automatic threat avoidance systems never activated. Not one instrument on the ship had registered a thing until the enemy missile was right on top of them.

Captain Walsh folded his hands behind his back, then took a deep breath and exhaled, eyes fixed on the forward viewer.

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