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Chapter Twenty-Four

"Update the tactical log, if you please, Ms. Zilwicki," Commander FitzGerald said.

"Aye, aye, Sir," Helen acknowledged crisply.

Her hands flicked across her panel, entering the proper commands, even though she and the Exec both knew the AuxCon computers had already updated the tac log backups automatically, just as they did every five minutes whenever the ship was at General Quarters. Despite that, The Book called for a manual doublecheck every half-hour. The tactical logs were the detailed record of every sensor datum, every helm change, every order or computer input which affected Hexapuma's tactical stance in any way. On ships like Hexapuma , which boasted an Auxilliary Control position, they were maintained by AuxCon personnel in order to free the primary bridge personnel from that distraction. On ships without an AuxCon, their maintenance was overseen by the tactical officer's senior petty officer. Their purposes were manifold, but especially included analysis by BuWeaps and Operational Research, the Navy commands charged with evaluating and updating tactical doctrine. And, in the event that any court of inquiry was ever called, the logs would form the crucial body of evidence for all concerned. Which was why The Book was just a tad paranoid about making certain those logs were properly backed up.

And, in this case, she suspected FitzGerald also saw it as a way to keep at least one of his snotties' minds occupied doing something besides fretting. Which wasn't necessarily a bad idea.

In a way, Helen found her present assignment immensely satisfying. It wasn't often a mere midshipwoman was allowed to assume the position of a heavy cruiser's tactical officer, even if only as backup. For the next few heady minutes or hours, Auxiliary Control's entire tac section was hers-all hers. Well, hers and the Exec's. And, she conceded with just a hint of sourness, Paulo d'Arezzo's, too, if she counted the electronic warfare subsection. The keypads and computer links at her fingertips controlled all the sleek, deadly firepower of an Edward Saganami -class cruiser, and for the first time it was as if she could actually feel all that power, all that potential for maneuver and combat, as if it were an extension of her own muscles and nerves.

It was odd, really, she reflected. She'd participated in-and performed well in-training simulations in which she'd been the tactical officer of everything from a Shrike- or Ferret -class LAC to a Medusa -class pod superdreadnought. Others in which she'd been not the tactical officer, but the "Captain" herself. Many of those scenarios had been intensely, even terrifyingly, lifelike, and some had been conducted right here, aboard Hexapuma , using AuxCon as a simulator. And yet not one of them had given her the same sense of fusion with a warship's power as the one she found herself experiencing now, in the hushed, cool quiet of Hexapuma's fully manned Auxiliary Control.

Probably, because this time I know it really is real.

Which, she admitted to herself, was also why her satisfaction wasn't unalloyed. Because it was real… exactly as her responsibilities would be if anything happened to the bridge. And that was more than enough, however unlikely it might be, to send icy butterflies cavorting through the stomach of even the hardiest midshipwoman.

Unless, of course, the snotty in question is a complete and utter idiot. Which I hope I'm not… Daddy's occasional observations to the contrary notwithstanding.

"Ms. Zilwicki, I have something," Sensor Tech 1/c Marshall said quietly, and Helen turned towards the tracking rating responsible for monitoring the outermost shell of Hexapuma's remote sensor arrays. All of them were reporting only via relayed, light-speed channels to prevent the bogeys from realizing they were out there, so whatever was coming in was at least thirty minutes out of date, but naval personnel got used to skewed information loop timing.

Now a data code strobed brightly on Marshall's display. It hadn't been there a moment before, and even as the sensor tech tapped it with her fingertip, the single code turned into a spilling stream of data.

Helen leaned closer, and her eyes widened.

"Good work, Marshall," she said, and turned her chair to face FitzGerald. "Commander, we've just received confirmation that Lieutenant Hearns and Captain Einarsson have executed their attack on Bogey Three. The outer shell picked up their impeller signatures right on the projected time chop and detected at least two heavy bursts of laser fire approximately thirty seconds later. According to the emissions data Marshall is pulling in from the array, the pinnaces and the Nuncian LACs are all went to maximum decel approximately thirty seconds before the attack… and Bogey Three was still sitting exactly where she was after it."

"Very good, Ms. Zilwicki," Ansten FitzGerald replied. And it was very good, he reflected, watching the com display which tied him to the bridge. Marshall and Zilwicki had spotted, evaluated, and passed on the data a good ten seconds faster than CIC's highly trained and experienced personnel had managed to get the same information to Naomi Kaplan. And, almost equally as good, Zilwicki had seen to it both that he knew Marshall had brought the information to her attention and that Marshall knew Zilwicki had made certain he did. Of course, one reason they'd been quicker off the mark than CIC was that they hadn't wasted any time double-checking their information before reporting it to him. But it was still excellent work, and he was about to say something more to them when Captain Terekhov spoke over the AuxCon-to-Bridge com link.

"CIC reports that Lieutenant Hearns has executed her attack, Ansten."

"Yes, Sir." FitzGerald nodded to the visual pickup. "Ms. Zilwicki just brought that information to my attention."

"She did, eh?" Terekhov smiled. "It sounds as if you have a fairly competent team over there, XO."

"Oh, not too shabby, I suppose, Skipper," he said, glancing up to give Helen and Marshall a quick wink. Then he returned his full attention to Terekhov. "I don't suppose we have direct confirmation from Lieutenant Hearns, Sir?"

"No, but that's not surprising," Terekhov replied, and FitzGerald nodded. The question had been worth asking, but neither Abigail's pinnaces nor Einarsson's LAC could possibly have hit Hexapuma direct with a communications laser at that range-certainly not without Bogey One knowing they had. Still, she might have tried relaying through one of the other arrays.

"The sensor data was picked up by one of the epsilon arrays and relayed around the periphery to one of the delta arrays via grav-pulse," Terekhov continued, as if he'd read at least part of his XO's thoughts. "The delta array was far enough out on the flank to have a com laser transmission path to us that cleared the bogeys by a safe margin. All of which, by the way, means it took just over forty minutes for the information to reach us."

He looked expectantly at the exec, and FitzGerald nodded again.

"Which happens to be five minutes longer than it would've taken for a transmission direct from Bogey Three to Bogey One," he said.

"Indeed it is. And Bogey One hasn't so much as blinked. So there's at least a chance Hearns managed to knock out Three's communications."

"Or just to do enough damage to knock them back temporarily , Skipper," FitzGerald pointed out. Terekhov grimaced, but he didn't disagree. Nor was his grimace aimed at FitzGerald; it was one of an executive officer's responsibilities to present every reasonable possible alternative analysis to his CO.

"At any rate," Terekhov continued, "they're continuing on, and if they keep it up for another forty minutes or so, they're ours."

"Yes, Sir." FitzGerald nodded again. Actually, the bogeys were already "theirs." Their overtake velocity was down to under sixteen thousand KPS, and the range was down to less than fifty-two light-seconds. Given that Hexapuma's maximum powered missile range from rest was over twenty-nine million kilometers and that the range was less than sixteen million, both those ships were already within her reach… and probably doomed, if Aivars Terekhov had been prepared to settle for simple outright destruction. Which, of course, he wasn't.

"I have to admit, Skipper," the exec said after a few seconds, "when you first came up with this idea, I had my doubts. Mind you, I couldn't think of anything better, given all the balls you had in the air. I was still afraid this one was tailor-made for Murphy, but it looks like you've outsmarted him this time."

"That remains to be seen," Terekhov cautioned, although an eager light flickered deep in his blue eyes. Then his expression sobered. "And whatever happens here, there's still a damned good chance we've already killed some of the good guys, if there were any left aboard Bogey Three."

"We probably have," FitzGerald agreed unflinchingly. "And if so, I'm sorry. But if I were a merchant spacer aboard that ship, Skipper, I'd damned sure want us to at least try to retake her, even if there was a chance I'd be killed!"

"I know, Ansten. I know. And I agree with you. None of which will make me feel a lot better if I have just killed some of them."

There wasn't much FitzGerald could offer in the way of comforting responses to that. Especially not when he knew he would have felt exactly the same way in the Captain's place. That he did feel exactly the same way, for that matter.

"Well, Skipper," he said instead with a grim smile, "in that case, I guess the best thing for us to do is to concentrate on taking out our frustrations on Mr. Mars and Friend."



* * * | The Shadow of Saganami | * * *







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