“Track her, Poppy!” I ordered after I saw the PTO’s couch light go red. “Joss, obey every takehold! That is an order!”
I couldn’t do it myself. I was busy texting warnings to the Fleet sky boss at A[hika concerning what I was about to do to him. Things were about to happen real fast.
“Two missiles down!” Letour grated under the strain of acceleration. “Three still oncoming!”
“Try not to hit us!” Martins radioed. Two of the Road Kings were on intercept for the oncoming missiles. The other two were nowhere to be seen… until I realized they were on a high gee burn to merge with the interceptors, who were on an intercept merge with us.
Kirkwood’s PDs fell silent as Martins and “Cutthroat” began crossing into her field of fire. I kept firing.
“She said ‘try not to hit us’, not ‘don’t shoot’. Keep firing,” I ordered. Because the missiles were getting close, I added, to the whole ship, “Take hold!”
I could see Joss on a corridor monitor. She was on the ladder to the floor where her soldier lay. To my amazement, rather than grabbing on to the straps there, she jumped the remaining steps, bounded to the opposite wall and pulled herself flat against it with her hands gripping two takehold straps.
That is not a move humans can do in five gees. It could have killed any of us. Not that there are many moves a human can do in five gees. She wasn’t kidding about her mannequin’s strength.
I spun the ship and ramped the topside secondary to one hundred percent to alter the course again. A hard push on attitude jets increased the effect. The hyperlight pressure was beginning to transmit back as vibrations and shakes, and rattling sounds began adding to the noise of weapons and engines.
The interceptors were getting close to neutron projector range, and the hyperlight friction already had loaded my shields with thirty percent of the energy they could hold back. Double that, and the possibility of burn-throughs would begin. I desperately needed to out-maneuver weapons that could fly circles around me. If they weren’t programmed to hit me instead, that is.
At last the oncoming weapons began dying, but too late. One of them made it through and detonated against my shield. I had managed a hard maneuver that caused Joss to lose her grip on one hand, but turned the hit into a glancing blow. Most of the shockwave went elsewhere than my shield. It had been a really high yield. I couldn’t let one of those hit me head-on.
Worse, I was now at forty three percent of the energy my shield could hold back, and at these speeds, it wasn’t bleeding off.
On the monitor, I could see Joss sprint to her crewman.
I’ll repeat that. She sprinted. At five gees.
I have heard that a very select few Zindavoor soldiers had training to handle special bodies called ‘Class I Combat Mannequins’. I realized in that moment that I was watching one.
“Joss, you can assist your crewman but do not attempt to move him in this acceleration!”
She surely knew, but I felt a panicked need to remind her that humans were a lot more fragile than her. In this acceleration, she could accidentally do all kinds of damage.
Her lips were moving. She was using her actual voice. Or her mannequin’s actual voice. She sounded normal. In five gees. Good gawd.
Letour texted the tracking on another incoming missile volley, and updated on the interceptors. They were getting close to ion projector range, and range for kinetics as well. I didn’t know which one Rednoses carried; this was my first direct encounter with them.
I was beginning to get the flatter trajectory I wanted, heading more antispinward. Mind you, it was still mostly at the star, but I was now pointed straight at A[hika’s lee– the hyperlight ‘shadow’ cast by the bulk of the gas giant– which would decrease the friction against my shields briefly.
That wasn’t the reason I was doing it though. It was the gas giant itself I was interested in.
“Red, do the numbers and set it up if I’m right or tell me if I’m wrong. You know what I’m planning!”
Fifty three percent capacity remaining. My ship was still shaking like an old truck on a gravel road. I rapidly texted my intentions to Martins. She couldn’t follow where I was going.
“Aye aye, Captain. Shutting down feed to main ion projector mounts and diverting to meta-space prechargers. Taking over main jet converter output to divert during thrust decrease.”
That’s my girl. I knew she’d see it. She’d already run the analysis before I spoke.
I heard the strained protests from all three weapon operators on the crew channel as their guns fell silent, but Letour yelled, “Can it! Captain knows what he’s doing!”
She sounds awful at five gees.
“Time it yourself!” I told Red. “I won’t have time to give the command!”
Flipped to external channel, “Road Kings, break off!”
Flipped to PA. “Take Hold!”
Back to crew channel. “Red has control of the mass converter output! Lastunen, drop the thrust as the sails come up. Daz! Set full sails for weather dead astern on my mark!”
A round of aye-aye’s came back from the three.
“Three… two… one… hoist!”
As the sails ballooned like immense parachutes, Mo groaned under the strain of the rapidly changing accelerations, ramping up to seven gees, down to three, then stable again at five. The jetman was adding exactly enough to make up for the bit the sails weren’t producing.
The velocity was dropping through fifty cee, but Mo was still going far too fast for the neighborhood. A[hika A had been on my main monitor under magnification as a pinprick. It expanded rapidly into a disc in the last couple seconds.
It all happened together. The Jupiter-like giant, off-center to starboard on my monitor, grew huge. The Meta-space generators howled with the extra energy Red was dumping into them so that they could cling to Meta-space in the rapidly increasing gravity well. The shields flared with extra energy flooding into them as we left the lee and hit the dense hyperlight stream once more… and the missiles about to reach us couldn’t maintain their fields and crashed out of Meta-space, followed in the next fraction of a second by the interceptors that fired them.
The Road Kings, forewarned, had been farther away from the gravity well that had caused the crash-out, the massive gas giant A[hika A. They were still with me, flying eighty kilometers off my port.
I had aimed perfectly at the spot where my larger generators, amped up on the extra energy Red was throwing at them, could hang on by their nails to Meta-space, while the Rednoses could not. The Road Kings had been farther out of the gravity well, at a point where they could just barely maintain their grip on Meta-space. So we were still outside Normal Space. Meanwhile, in Normal Space, the Fleet at A[hika was busy mopping up our former pursuers, whom I had just delivered into their laps.
Over the next two minutes, Daz and I warped the sails into a configuration that would leave us arcing starward, then spinward, intersecting Sebka A at a speed that would convert into Normal Space velocity near Sebika’s orbit around the star. Meanwhile Lastunen had brought the main jet down to idle. He would keep it hot until we were in bed with the fleet, but we didn’t need the output now. The thrust dropped to below a gee, and Joss at last could begin helping her subordinate.
“Joss, take him to the sick bay. I’ll meet you,” I ordered, then finally turned off the PA. I looked back at Kirkwood. “Poppy, you have the conn.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” she responded. She looked like hell– we probably all did– but her voice was brisk. Adrenalin does that to you.
Our speed was still frightening in reality, but it sounded far better, having dropped at last well below 1 cee. The fields still glowed with hyperlight friction, since we were now plunging through a much denser region. Our energy accumulation, the energy our shields had absorbed, was at seventy percent of maximum.
I’ll be honest, I thought we would be at eighty percent. I expected the Rednoses to get more hits in once they got into dogfighting range during the last moments. In retrospect, I think our pursuers crashed out earlier than I thought they would.
As I hurried below, Martins called. “Tapper to Mo. You guys in one piece?”
“Let me count my toes real quick, Tapper,” I responded.
She laughed, then said, “You have a nice scorch mark on your hull. You had burn-through.”
I had seen the spike, while we passed out of A[hika’s shadow but no red lights ever showed, and I had good hull sensors all around. “It just singed us a little. Cut it close, I guess.”
After a long pause, she asked, “What’s your call sign, Captain?”
I blinked. “My call sign?”
“Don’t play coy, young man. I heard the story. Double ace Banshee pilot when you were still a flying cadet? You have a call sign. What is it?”
After clearing my throat and briefly pressing my lips together, I admitted, “Psycho.”
A quick bark of laughter, then she answered, “Sounds appropriate.”
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