2948-03-31 – Tales from the Service: A Disheartened Hunter
The silence and darkness that surrounded Burbot in the interstellar void always unsettled Tonya Hristov. Her little ship, small enough to be mistaken for the overgrown launch of a proper warship, seemed too frail and cramped to survive in the endless abyss, but this was its natural habitat all the same – the void which so unsettled the skipper provided shelter for the craft and crew in equal measure to the distress it caused her skipper.
Burbot, a warship despite her modest size, did not shelter in the void merely to evade the prying sensor-lenses and slicing pulse-beams of Incarnation hunters. Tonya knew her little ship was the hunter, and the sharp-beaked Incarnation cruisers, each outgunning Burbot forty times over and outweighing her by almost that amount, were her prey. In the interstellar void, with no solar primary to betray her presence and no planetary-disk dust to heat her hull through miniscule impacts, the ship’s EM-swallowing hull plates were perfect camouflage, and her over-sized eyes – huge sponsions studded with every kind of passive sensor imaginable – searched all directions for the behemoths she had come to hunt.
Intelligence – she knew not from where – had given Tonya her hunting-grounds, but luck and skill would still be needed to pick up the scent. She paced back and forth on the tiny command deck, wondering whether it was time to make a jump to the next search area – Burbot was as alone in this one as a vessel could possibly be. Her command had so far struck out on all its patrols, intelligence or no – not a single enemy vessel had ever been sighted.
In the shadow of her more famous sister Mahseer, morale aboard Burbot had steadily ticked downward, and Tonya was worried that if they did sight an enemy ship, the crew would not react in time to exploit the advantage. Most of them were only too happy to miss out on the fame and mortal peril of destroying a Tyrant – what they wanted was to do their part, to contribute to the war effort at least as much as the responsibility they had been given. On a little stealth-assault cutter, that responsibility was comfortably low; even to demolish an Incarnation salvage tug or repair ship would satisfy most of the crew’s hunger to do their part and raise morale.
“Time to jump recharge?” Tonya asked idly, perhaps for the fifth time since her ship had burrowed through the cosmic fabric to its current position.
“Seven minutes, thirty-one seconds.” The reply came from the ship’s voice-assistant computer rather than her two present subordinates, who both appeared to be ignoring their skipper completely.
“Chart a jump to the next search sector.” Tonya paced back and forth a few more times, trying to focus on the morale problem as an alternative to dwelling on the perfect void just beyond the hull. At the extreme ends of her route, that emptiness was less than two meters from her – and only twenty centimeters of that distance was taken up by the pressure hull which cleanly divided her hemmed-in world from...
Tonya shook her head and squeezed the bridge of her nose with her fingers, forcing that line of thinking out of her skull. The morale of her crew would not be easy to restore without success, but chances of success were increasingly compromised by low morale. It was a problem she was sure many skippers had tackled over centuries of interstellar warfare, but she had never seen a clear solution proposed in the Naval Academy. Any attempt she made to raise spirits would seem half-hearted without results – Burbot needed to face a challenge and overcome it, but not a challenge so great that its discouraged crew cracked under the strain.
“Transition event!” Kennet MacLean nearly fell out of his crash-padded chair in alarm as he squeaked out the message. “Range is six lisec.”
Tonya leapt to the chair reserved for her and pulled the air-display pillar down from its recessed overhead position. In front of her face, Burbot appeared as a tiny green arrowhead from which dashed axes projected out in six directions. The oscillating mote of the transition signature appeared near the edge of the display area. The incoming vessel was almost exactly behind her little ship – distant, but barely close enough to make an intercept possible.
“Go to quarters.” Tonya tapped a few commands into her armrest keypad even as the lights dimmed and the general quarters alarm began buzzing. “Get me an ID on that ship. Helm, get us moving.”
“Course?” Hugo Kang, on duty at the helm station, turned around in his chair.
Tonya scowled at him, trying not to look as nervous as she felt. She hated to be brusque with the man, but he should have known what course to plot without asking. He was, after all, on the command deck of a state-of-the-art Confederated Navy stealth-assault cutter, not a pleasure yacht.
Fortunately, the helmsman got over his uncertainty upon seeing her expression. “Intercept course, aye. Maximum stealth.” He jabbed at his controls, and the pulsing mote in the display swung around the unmoving arrowhead in the display until it was almost directly ahead. A dotted arc showed Burbot’s intended path, and a fuzzy cone showed the possible courses of the unknown ship, slowly narrowing as more data filtered in through the cutter’s many sensors.
Tonya watched the mysterious mote carefully. She had been assured there would be no friendly traffic through the search area, and that it was likely Incarnation ships would pass through. Perhaps by analyzing the timing of raids, Naval Intelligence had been tight-lipped on exactly how they had learned to expect enemy ships in this specific patch of void, but for once, the tip had paid off. “What’s our best guess on Nate drive recharge time?”
“Intelligence database says at least fifty minutes for a Tyrant, a bit less for the big haulers.” MacLean caused a timer to appear on the forward display counting seconds since the vessel had appeared. “Still only one signature.”
Tonya nodded, though neither of her subordinates was looking in her direction. “We stay quiet until we know what it is.” Implied, of course, was the freedom to use the ship’s decidedly un-stealthy maximum acceleration rating to intercept a soft target. Incarnation haulers were not entirely helpless, but their defensive laser armament was only proof against strike-ship attacks. Such weapons could cause enough damage to send Burbot limping back to port, but they were no existential threat to even a cutter.
“Could it be a trap, Skipper?” Kang asked, his voice high and uncertain.
“Sure could.” Tonya replied. “But I’d bet my life it’s not.”
While this was meant to be a joke, Kang clearly did not see the humor in the quip. “The Incarnation is too smart to drop a lone ship right into our kill-box like that. It’s a trap. It’s gotta be a trap.”
Tonya keyed in a comm channel on the keypad. “Ensign Nowell to the bridge.” Nowell was one of the ship’s other helm-capable officers, junior to Kang but likely far less rattled by this sudden onset of danger. “Lieutenant Kang, you are relieved of duty immediately. I’ll take over the helm.”
“You are relieved.” With a heavy heart, Tonya keyed in a command override, disabling her subordinate’s system access. His terminal blanked, and a display-screen unfolded to Tonya’s left to let her supervise the ship’s course until the ensign arrived to take Kang’s place. She studiously avoided looking at the harried man until, head downcast, he scurried off the command deck and slid down the ladder into the rest of the ship.
MacLean kept his silence until Kang was gone. “Was that necessary, Skipper?”
“Hells, I wish it wasn’t.” She kept her tone and face calm. Kang’s fear and shame would dissipate in time – or they would boil over and he would do something incredibly stupid. Either way, the problem would keep until after the enemy ship was dealt with, and perhaps a successful attack would solve the morale problem for everyone else.
MacLean looked like he was about to stand up for his associate – Tonya knew the two were quite friendly – but the arrival of Ensign Nowell stilled any further protest. Without a word or question, the young man took Kang’s place at the third station, and Tonya ceded the helm controls. To his credit, he didn’t ask if the attack was just another simulation drill; he treated it like it was the real thing. That was good because, as MacLean and Kang had seen, it was no drill. For the first time, the target was real.
“Time to weapons range, thirty-eight minutes.” Nowell announced.
“We’re going to have one shot at this bastard.” Tonya glancing up at the displayed time since first detection, which showed barely four and a half minutes had elapsed. They could shave a little more time off at full speed, but she didn’t want to use that until she was certain the enemy couldn’t escape and couldn’t fight. “Gunnery, warm up the prow cannon.”
The message, computer-directed to the gunnery control room two decks below, received an immediate double-beep acknowledgement from the scrambling weapon crew.
“Probable ID, Incarnation hauler. Smaller than the usual model, but it’s got a similar drive signature.” MacLean seemed somewhat relieved, and Tonya didn’t blame him. Even she didn’t relish the thought of shoving a cannon up a Tyrant’s thrust-bells.
“All stations, this is not a drill. We are closing in on a lone ship, likely a Nate supply hauler.” Tonya announced. “Naval Intelligence handed us a live one for once.”
As the time to intercept ticked down, Tonya wished she could get up and roam the ship, listening quietly at every doorway and snooping on every station. Of course, her place was on the command deck, firmly strapped into the crash-padded chair. She couldn’t wander around to gauge how quickly or sluggishly her other thirteen subordinates were reacting to the alert. The lone enemy hauler’s hope for survival hinged on the proportion of Kangs to Nowells and MacLeans on Burbot.
If such an easy prize did get away after months of failure of the vessel to spot anything, Tonya knew she would lose her command, and they might all spend the rest of the war shuffling cargo as logistics officers in the fleet’s long supply chain. Perhaps that would suit Kang and a few others, but it would absolutely crush the rest, herself included. For all the unease the interstellar void caused her, Tonya knew she couldn’t go home to the comfortable open skies of the Core Worlds until she had done her duty.
“Still no additional jumps.” MacLean interrupted Tonya’s thoughts.
“Shame.” She heard herself replying. “We’re not going to beat Zappa’s record today, but this one is a good start.”
Like Mahseer, whose exploits we covered previously in this space (Tales from the Service: A Tyrant’s Downfall ), Burbot is one of the few Navy ships, most of them Stealth Assault Cutters, which have tangled one-on-one with Incarnation ships of any description and emerged victorious. Though her kill (a small cargo vessel likely ferrying parts and supplies to a raiding Tyrant squadron) was not nearly as spectacular as that described previously, the frankness with which Burbot’s skipper describes the low morale and uncertain bravery of her crew prior to their stroke of good fortune ensured that I found this story compelling from a human perspective.
It is very easy for me – and probably for most other non-spacer readers of this text feed – to identify with the unease and fear of Burbot’s skipper and crew. If they had been cornered in the void, there would have been no record of their loss or their struggle – their little vessel would have simply failed to return from patrol, and seventeen markers would have been planted in their various home-worlds' memorial gardens for those claimed by the vast void.
[N.T.B. - It takes nerves of titanium alloy to run a flimsy can like those cutters up close to a big Incarnation warship, stealth systems or no. It’s no surprise that not everyone who ends up in that service isn’t made of the right stuff. Personally, I would never do it .Give me open skies and a deadly xenopredator over that sort of tension any day.]