TNS Defender, flagship of BatDiv Ninety-Two, was forty light-months from anywhere in particular, loafing along under half drive and no more than four or five translations into alpha-space, when the atonal shriek of General Quarters howled through her iron bones.
Her crew froze for one incredulous moment. Ridiculous! They were headed for the barn, and the Kangas were penned up in a miserable three star systems, the nearest of them almost exactly one hundred light-years away. What kind of nit-picking silliness could have possessed the Old Lady to call a drill now?
Then wonder was forgotten as they thundered to their stations.
Colonel Ludmilla Leonovna, commander of BatDiv Ninety-Twos strike group, was immersed in the new history text on her book-viewer when the alarms high-pitched shriek jerked her away. She was into the passageway outside her quarters before she realized shed moved, and halfway to the hangar deck before she remembered shed left the viewer on.
She made a sliding turn around the final bend, ricocheted from a bulkhead in an experienced rebound trajectory, and emerged into the cavernous hangar to find her flight crews already assembling.
"Make a hole!"
Personnel scattered as they recognized her voice, and she went through the sudden opening and into the ready room like a more-or-less guided projectile, then came to a rocking halt beside the duty intelligence officer bent over the battle plot repeater. His face was intent, and her own lips pursed in a silent whistle as her eyes joined his on the crawling light dots on the screen. Her left hand rose to touch the ribbons on her tunic as if in memory, but she caught herself and lowered it deliberately, concentrating on the plot.
There was something odd about this, she thought. Very odd. . . .
Commodore Josephine Santanders stern, composed face appeared on Captain Steven Onslows com screen almost before the echoes of the alarm had died, though he knew shed been in her quarters when it sounded.
"Talk to me, Steve," she said without preamble.
"Scan reports a Kanga force closing slowly from about sixty light-hours, Maam. Azimuth one-four-niner, elevation two-niner-three. I dont have a firm track yet, but it looks like they'll cross our wake about twenty light-hours behind us. Preliminary IDs look like an Ogre with escorts."
"An Ogre?" Commodore Santander allowed herself a raised eyebrow.
"Yes, Maam. It Just a moment, Maam." He glanced at a side screen connecting him directly to Central Scanning, and his black face tightened.
"Were getting better data now, Maam. Scan confirms the Ogre. Its a full battle squadronso far weve picked up three Trollheims siding her."
"I see. Put it on Battle One, please."
Onslow touched a button, and the big holo tank on the flag bridge lit with a three-dee duplicate of his own display. Commodore Santander studied it for a moment.
"Weve got their course, Maam," Onslow said, and a thin red line appeared on the plot, predicting the hostile forces movements. "Theyre pulling about four lights relative and translating steadily."
"Gradient?" the commodore asked sharply.
"Steep, Maam. Theyre eight or nine translations out already. The computer estimates theyll break the beta wall in" he glanced at his readouts "about five hours."
Commodore Santander frowned and swung her command chair slowly from side to side. It was unlike the Kangas to pile on that sort of gradient. They must be in one hell of a hurry to run that big a risk of acoherency.
She wished there were someone she could turn this over to, but Admiral Wierhaus had detached only half of Battle Squadron Ninety for a badly needed overhaul, and shefor her sinswas the senior officer present. They were just over three light-years out of 36 Ophiuchi, and no one closer than the fleet base there could have taken the responsibility for her. She sighed silently. What she wished didnt change what she had.
"All right, Steve. Get Commander Tho to work on a pursuit course. Maximum drive and optimum translation curve."
"Optimum, Maam?" Onslow asked carefully.
"You heard me. Toss out the safety interlocks. They wouldnt be translating that fast if they werent in a hurry, and there wouldnt be three Trollheims riding herd on them if it wasnt important. So get that course worked out soonest, then put the squadron on it."
"Aye, aye, Maam," Captain Onslow said just a bit too expressionlessly, and Santander turned back to her plot, forcing herself to project an aura of confidence. She understood his unhappiness at pushing the multi-dimensional drive that hard and only wished she had another choice.
Unfortunately, she didnt. The multi-dee could be dangerous, but the old Einsteinian limit held true, more or less, in normal-space. As it happened, the most recent hypotheses suggested that there were ways around that after allin theory, at leastbut the relativity aspects still turned theoretical physicists hair white. Until they worked the bugs out (if they worked the bugs out) practical spacers would stick with something which at least let them predict the decade of their arrival.
Theoretically, the multi-dee was an elegant solution. If light-speed was inescapable, simply find yourself another dimension in which space was "folded" more tightly, bringing equivalent points "closer" together. That was a horribly crude description, but the commodore had yet to meet anyone who could describe it any better without resorting to pure math models. For her purposes, it worked well enough to visualize the galaxy of the FTL-traveler as consisting of concentric rings of dimensions; by moving "higher" in multi-dimensional space, a ship translated itself into rings with shorter and shorter radii, which meant that the same absolute velocity seemed higher in relation to normal-space. The physicists assured her she wasnt really moving at more than light-speed, but the practical result was FTL travel.
Still, there were limitations. The multi-dee was unusable inside the "Frankel Limit," a flexible point in stellar gravity wells which varied widely depending on spectral class and vessel mass, and though one theoretically could simply translate directly from normal-space into whatever other dimension one chose to use and vice versa, it was far wiser to translate gradually from one to another.
Dimensional energy flux could be vicious, and many things could happen to people who took liberties with the multi-dee. Few were pleasant. The alpha bandthe "lowest" of allwas only about twenty dimensions across. At its upper limit, the maximum effective velocity of a ship (relative to normal-space) was about five times light-speed. Higher bands offered greater effective speeds, but at the cost of increasingly unstable energy states and consequently increasing risk to the ship. And there were barriers, still imperfectly understood, between the bands that meant cracking the wall was always risky. If a ship hit the wall just wrong or with the slightest harmonic in her translation field, she simply disappeared. She went acoherent, spread over a multitude of dimensions and forever unable to reconstitute herself, a thought which broke a cold sweat on the most hardened spacehound, for no one knew what happened inside the ship. Did the crew die? Did they go into some sort of stasis? Or did they gradually discover what had happened . . . and that they had become a galactic Flying Dutchman for all eternity?
Not that there was too much danger in the lower bands. Humans routinely used the beta band, or even the gamma and delta bands, though Kanga vessels ventured as high as the delta band only when speed was of over-riding importance. But no one in his right mind hit the wall as fast and as hard as BatDiv Ninety-Two would have to in order to overhaul these Kangas. Not if they had a choice.
"Course laid in, Maam," Captain Onslow said tonelessly.
"Then execute, Captain," she said.
"Aye, aye, Maam."
Defender shuddered as her normal-space drive went suddenly to full power. It felt smooth enough, but Santander knew how dreadfully overdue for overhaul Defender was, and she spared the time for a silent prayer against drive flutter as Defenders three million tons wrapped themselves in the n-drives space-twisting web and swung in a radical course change.
The drive surge was disorienting despite the grav compensators, and the light dots of Defenders two sister ships and their escorts followed her on the plot as the under-strength battle division swerved to pursue humanitys mortal enemies across the trackless depths of more than a single space. Mangled ions streamed astern as their massive drives wailed up to max, and the high-pitched whine of the multi-dee generators sang in their bones.
"Time to the wall?" Santander let no awareness of the state of Defenders drive color her question, and Onslow hid a wry, mental grimace of appreciation for her projected sangfroid.
"Fourteen hours, Maam," he replied.
"Rate of closure?"
"We should make up the absolute speed differential in about ten hours, Maam. If they were to maintain their present gradient, wed need over eighty standard hours to match bands. I cant give you a realistic estimate without knowing when theyre going to level out."
"I dont think theyre going to," Santander said softly.
"But theyll break the gamma wall in fifty hours at this rate!"
"Thats a heavy force, Captain, a long way from home and in a hell of a hurry. I think theyre headed for the delta bandmaybe even higher."
"But, Maamtheyre Kangas!" Onslow protested.
"True. But they know theyre losing, too. They wouldnt pull this big a force off the Line unless its mission was critical, and their current gradient is a pretty good indication of the risks theyre willing to run."
"Yes, Maam," Onslow said finally, clearly taken aback by the whole idea.
"Run a track projection," Santander said abruptly. "I know you cant nail it down, but define a general volume for me. As soon as you can, please join Commander Miyagi, Colonel Leonovna and me in the flag briefing room. Ive got a bad feeling about this."
"Aye, aye, Maam," Captain Onslow said. He watched his gray-haired commodores screen blank, and his heart was cold as the vacuum beyond Defenders hull. He had served with Commodore Santander off and on for ten subjective years. Hed seen her in the screaming heart of battle and listened to her voice snapping orders while her ship bucked and jerked under the enemys pounding, and this was the first time she had ever admitted the least uncertainty. . . .
Commodore Santanders eyes narrowed as Captain Onslow stepped through the briefing room hatch. He looked shaken, and she braced herself for bad news as she waved him to a chair between the two officers already at the table.
Plump, fair Commander Nicolas Miyagi was physically unprepossessing, but his deadly quick mind and a flood of nervous energy poorly suited to his appearance made him an excellent planning officer. Colonel Leonovna, however, was much more than that. Indeed, she was something of a legend in the fleet, and, at a moment like this, Santander was profoundly grateful for her presence.
Commodore Santander had never resented the colonel, but she understood why some did. Leonovna was twenty bio-years older than the commodore, but she looked a quarter of her age in her impeccable Marine uniform. The colonel would never be accused of classic beauty, but her wedge-shaped, high-cheekboned face was striking, and her bright chestnut hair and blue eyes might have been designed expressly to contrast with her space-black tunic.
Yet for all her undeniable attractiveness, Santander reminded herself, Leonovna was lethal. Her golden pilots wings bore three tiny stars, each representing ten fighter kills, but the ribbons under those wings told the true story. They were headed by one the commodore had seen on precisely three officers during her entire career: the Solarian Grand Cross. Among other things, it entitled Colonel Leonovna to a salute from any officer who hadnt won it, regardless of rankand, as far as Josephine Santander was concerned, that was an honor to which she was more than welcome.
But that wasnt why so many people resentedand fearedthe colonel. Oh, no. Those reactions stemmed from something else entirely, for Ludmilla Leonovna was descended from the Sigma Draconis First Wave.
The commodore shook herself free of her thoughts and cocked an eyebrow at Onslow. "May I assume you have more information now, Steve?"
"Yes, Maam. Theres still room for error, but the computers make it an Ogre, three Trollheims, and one Grendel, plus escorts. There may be a Harpy out there, too."
She nodded calmly, but her mind was anything but calm. A single Ogre was badalmost five million tons, with the firepower to sterilize a planetbut the Trollheims were worse. Far less massive (they were actually slightly smaller than Defender), they were even more heavily armed, for they were "crewed" by servomechanisms slaved to the cyborgs humans called "Trolls." A Grendel assault transport was bad news for any planet, for it carried an entire planetary assault force of Trolls and their combat mechs, but it meant little in a deep space battle. By the same token, the possibility of a Harpy-class interceptor carrier made a bad situation very little worse, for she could be only a spectator until and unless the action translated down into the alpha or lower beta band.
But any way Santander looked at it, BatDiv Ninety-Two was out-gunned and out-massedbadlyand she was far from certain the traditional human technical advantage could balance these odds. Yet suspicion stuck in her mind like a sliver of glass. The Kangas would never have wandered this far from the desperate defense of their three remaining systems unless they were engaged in something of supreme importance to their ultracautious race.
"Thats a heavy weight of metal," was all she said softly.
"Agreed," Onslow said grimly, "but theres more. Commander Tho ran that track projection for you, Maam; theyre headed for Sol."
"Sol?" Miyagi sat straighter, his blue eyes sharp. "Thats insane! Home Fleet will blow them to plasma a light-month out!"
"Will they?" Leonovna spoke for the first time, looking like a teenager in her mothers uniform as she raked chestnut hair back from her forehead. "What about their gradient, Captain? Is it holding steady?"
"No," Onslow said, "its still rising. Ive never heard of anything like it. I wouldnt have believed a Kanga multi-dee could crank out that much power if I wasnt seeing it. Were wound up to max ourselves, and were only reducing the differential slowly."
"Thats what I was afraid of." Leonovna turned back to the commodore. "Could they be looking for a Takeshita Translation, Maam?"
There was a moment of dead silence. Trust the colonel to say it first, Commodore Santander reflected wryly.
"The thought had crossed my mind," she admitted, and touched her com button. "Navigation," she told the computer, and Commander Tho appeared on her screen. Santander was normally a stickler for courtesy and proper military procedure, but this time she didnt even give Tho time to acknowledge her call.
"Assuming present power levels remain constant, Commander," she said without preamble, "where will our Kangas break the theta wall?"
"The theta wall?" Commander Tho sounded surprised. "Just a moment, Maam." He looked down at his terminal to make calculations, then looked back up. "Assuming they do break it, Maam, theyll be two-point-one light-months from Sol with a normal-space velocity just over four-fifty lights. But"
"Thank you, Commander." Santander stopped him with a courteous nod, then switched off and looked around the briefing room. There was tension in every face, and she noted tiny beads of sweat at Onslows temples as she nodded slowly.
"It would seem, Colonel, that youre onto something," she said. "And that, people, leaves us with a little problem."
Silence answered her, and she turned back to Onslow.
"You say were closing the differential on them, Captain. How long before we can bring them into MDM range?"
"Normally, wed have the range in about" he glanced at his memo comp "thirty-two hours, but their gradients a bitch. Their translation curve is flattening, but so is ours. Weve never seen a Kanga multi-dee run at this output, so I cant predict when their gradient will max out. It looks like we still have the edge, but were into emergency over-boost now."
He did not add that no one ever used emergency over-boost, even on acceptance trials, and certainly not with drives in need of overhaul. Such demands on the multi-dee generators tremendously multiplied the chance of setting up a disastrous harmonic between them and the normal-space drive which actually moved the ship.
"Assuming we stay coherent," he went on, "Id guesstimate that we should be able to range on them dimensionally in about two hundred hours."
"And at that time well be where, dimensionally speaking?"
"Well up into the eta band, Maam. And" he frowned "as far as I know, no ones ever used MDMs above the delta band. Gunnery isnt sure what effect that will have on the weapons."
"It looks like were going to find out." Santander forced herself to speak calmly. "If Colonel Leonovna is rightand I think she istheyre headed for a Takeshita Translation. I know no ones ever tested the theory, but we have to assume thats what theyre doing. If so, we know where theyre headed. The question is when. Comments?"
"Im no dimensional physicist, Maam," Colonel Leonovna said after a moment, "but as I understand it, thats a function of too many variables for us to predict. The mass of the vessel, the gradient curve and subjective velocity during translation, the deformation of the multi-dee . . ." She raised her hands, palms up. "All we can say is that if Takeshitas First Hypothesis is right, theyll flip backward in time when they hit the wall and go on translating backward until they hit Sols Frankel Limit."
"Youre overlooking a few points, Milla," Miyagi said. "Like his Second Hypothesis, whether or not time is mutable, or whether or not anyone can survive a Takeshita Translation in the first place." His tone was argumentative, but he was punching keys on his console as he spoke.
"True," Commodore Santander said, "but we have to assume they can do it unless we stop them. We cant afford to be wrongnot about this one."
"Agreed, Maam." Miyagi nodded. "And Colonel Leonovnas pretty much right about the problems, but we can make a few approximations. We know the mass of an Ogre, and theyll have to balance their multi-dee deformation to match the mass-power curve of the Trollheims multi-dees and n-drives. . . ." He tapped keys quickly, and the others sat silent to let him work undisturbed. It took several minutes, but he finally looked up with a grim expression.
"Commodore, its approximate as hell, but it looks like theyll hit the Frankel Limit something on the order of 40,000 years in the past. Could be closer to 90,000 if they lose the Trollheims."
"They wont." Colonel Leonovna shook her head. "Kangas are sure-thing players," she said softly. "Theyll want to be sure Homo sapiens is around."
"Of course," Commodore Santander murmured. She sat wrapped in her thoughts for a few moments, then shook herself.
"Captain Onslow, pass the word to the other skippers, please. If Defender goes acoherent, whoevers left has to know this is for all the marbles. Breaking off the pursuit is not an option."
"Yes, Maam," Onslow said quietly.
"Very well. I think you can stand the crews down from action stations until we reach effective MDM range, but keep your scanner sections closed up in case they try a surprise launch down-gradient."
"Nick" she turned to Miyagi "warm up the simulator. As soon as the Captain has everybody tucked in, well start working on tactics." She smiled without a trace of humor. "Were not exactly the War College, but were all humanity has at the moment.
"Colonel." She met Leonovnas blue eyes levelly. "I hope we wont have anything for you to do, but if we do, itll be one hell of a dogfight. Inform the squadron commanders on the other ships, then get with your planning officers. Work out the best balance you can between antishipping and antifighter ordnance loads. Then make sure every interceptor is one hundred percent. We cant afford any hangar queens."
"All right, people," Santander sighed, rising from her chair. "Carry on. And if you find yourself with any spare time" she managed a wan smile "spend it reminding God whose side Hes on."