“Engineering reports SRS banks now at 96% functionality.”
“Very well. I want multiple passes on the most recent heat signatures we have readings for. Anything that tops 90% confidence I want to know about it.”
Lieutenant Commander Rebecca Islington was in no mood for nonsense. The surprise attack on Minstrel and Sai Kee almost cost two starship crews their lives. What happened to their attackers in the meantime was a deepening mystery. Neither Islington nor Hunter were known for their tolerance of guessing games. They were answers people, just like Jayce’s brother.
The crew of DSS Minstrel was accustomed to their captain’s single-minded pursuit of facts by now. It was one of the things that made the relatively light starship so dangerous. Minstrel even had a reputation among non-human commanders, and now that she was operating as the escort equivalent of a Delaware class ghost killer, nobody wanted to tangle with her absent an overwhelming tonnage advantage or a well-marked escape route.
On their approach to the Raleo system, the two starships were targeted by enemy weapons of some kind. It remained unclear why the Sarn were working so hard to keep Skywatch ships away from the Raleo system, but one thing was clear: The man known as the Denominator was responsible for the unusual events on the planet’s surface, and now he was in possession of an alien artifact. Nobody could even guess at its capabilities. While Commander Hunter and the Sai Kee investigated, it was up to Islington and Minstrel to guard the door.
“Let’s go over it again,” Islington said, turning back to the tactical display on Minstrel’s bridge. “What clear readings can you give me on the anomaly over Raleo II?”
Pilot Finn McCampbell brought up the combat tracking display. “We had three unidents in a high-speed parabolic approach to Raleo at one five one. It was pretty clear they were going to use the planet’s magnetic field to try and throw off our electronic warfare systems. We had a three by six lock on the trailing vessel’s fusion signature at one five four. Then everything went haywire.”
“Describe haywire. Was it the magnetic field?”
“Negative, ma’am. All three ships registered at exponentially higher mass for a few seconds, then they reached estimated velocities of four and five times the speed of light before we lost contact.”
“All three vessels had functioning drive fields until 0.7 seconds before loss of contact. Contact Kilo X-Ray two dropped her drive field for some reason.”
“Is there any chance they entered Raleo II’s atmosphere?”
“If they did, we didn’t get any of the standard readings. There would have been heat signatures, radiation, particle collisions on their velocity fields, magnetic disruptions. There would have been a ton of noise.” McCampbell wasn’t in any better a mood than his captain. None of what they were seeing made any sense.
Islington got up and moved to the helm. She contemplated the tactical display. Recorded on the screen were the final readings from the three-ship formation Minstrel had been tracking before it disappeared. “They just winked out. Like someone turned off a switch.”
“That’s one way to describe it,” Finn replied. I suppose they might have engaged cloaks, but that doesn’t explain the sudden acceleration or the mass readings.”
“Hunter didn’t get anything either,” Rebecca said absently. “She wasn’t tracking the formation before it vanished, and since Sai Kee is on the other side of the planet they only got a glimpse.” The commander tapped her nails on the helm console. It was clear she was not in a very good mood. “What is it about this planet?”
“We knew we were in for a freak show, ma’am. This might just be the first act.”
“I hope you’re wrong, pilot,” Islington said. “Report EWS status.”
“Our cloak is operational in all flight modes. Minstrel is at station keeping. All scanners are set for passive readings only per your orders. Unidentified contact designate Everest One Eight bearing zero seven zero mark ten. Range 200 megaclicks. Slow velocity. High gravimetrics. Possible cruiser-class vessel or heavier.”
“If they’re Sarn, I hope Raleo eats them too,” Islington muttered. “Finn, veer us off. Get me the hell away from that planet. Cal, narrow beam flash alert to Sai Kee. Transmit the position and LRS profile of unident Everest One Eight. Notify Commander Hunter Minstrel is heading for open space.”
“Affirmative, commander. Coding your message.”
“Open a channel to Black Nine.”
“You’re on, ma’am.”
“Black Nine, this is Lieutenant Commander Rebecca Islington aboard the Minstrel. Match voice print and identify.”
“Affirmative, Minstrel. Voice print matches.” The autonomous gunship’s AI was gradually taking on a more and more pleasant personality. “I presume you are aware of the Sarn Acheron-class war cruiser bearing zero seven two?”
Islington swiveled to face her signals officer. “Yes, we are, Black Nine. How do you know it is an Acheron cruiser?”
“I have compared its gravimetric signature to all 1458 Sarn vessel configurations in the Skywatch database. If it is still using the outdated fusion reactor design common to Sarn vessels at the outset of the First Praetorian War, the ship has a fatal flaw at high acceleration in certain flight modes. It is also unable to mask its engine emissions when switching from low to high power utilization in its weapons matrix.”
The scene on Minstrel’s bridge was very much like a family at Thanksgiving dinner hearing wolves howling in the front yard. Nobody spoke. They just stared at each other as if they were all experiencing the last six minutes of a “Twilight Zone” episode together.
“Affirmative, Black Nine.”
“Shall I engage the enemy?”
“Negative, Black Nine. I’d like you to go passive and shadow Minstrel’s position. I’d like you to engage your electronic warfare systems and put maximum power into jamming enemy weapons targeting sensors.”
“A fine strategy, commander. You are making use of a standard positioning pattern for cloaked starships.”
“That is correct, Black Nine. Can you carry out my instructions?”
“Yes, commander. May I make a suggestion?”
“It would be prudent if I were to maneuver with an anti-neutron drive field envelope. This will make it possible for me to mask my engine signature if I am forced to make high energy course adjustments.”
“By all means, Black Nine. Report any unusual contacts or readings to my signals officer. Minstrel out.”
Escort frigate and gunship settled into formation and turned to intercept the inbound contact.
Join the battle with Destroy All Starships Book One!
Read The Praetorian Imperative instantly on any web-enabled device with Bitbook!