Leeds Station was a free-flying facility in the CD-58
538 system at the edge of interstellar space. Not only was there nothing insystem worth building it on or in orbit around,
the station's location near the lip of the feeble star's shallow gravity well shortened the transit time for starships laying
over there. The most important natural resource CD-58 538 had to offer was the copper-colored dwarf sun whose corona supplied
the helium that was used to flush the aether vents of starships. A constant stream of automated shuttles from the station
collected the helium and brought it back. Up close, washed in the wan light of the M-class star yet resplendent with pinpoint
sources and sweeping highlights of its own, the complex resembled a Fabergé Egg.
The facility was privately owned and operated
by Leeds Ltd., a Mars-based family business that pioneered the placement and development of access stations in areas where
the Outer Service wouldn't or couldn't build them of its own accord due to politics or cost. After the Armistice with the
Greys, the Leeds Family moved quickly to secure the contract to construct a processing center for liberated Taken in transit
to the quarantine world of Outre Mer. The CD-58 538 system was one of the few within ten light-years of the Grey home systems
of Z.1 and Z.2 Reticuli that was not part of the Outer Service's containment network. The Leeds Family speculated that the
Greys would not regard its private facility as a military target, and it wrangled certain assurances from Outer Service officials
that kept warships away. It wasn't clear whether the lack of nettling by Intruders over the years was because of this policy
or because the Greys had other matters on their minds.
Three cruisers of the Outre Mer Provisional Authority Defense Forces ran
in from the heliopause of CD-58 538. The operations plan called for the group to emerge at the lip of the gravity well with
just enough relative carryover velocity to enable a transit to the station in three days. This would give them time to abort
the mission and vector off if the situation was less than ideal. The strata of sensors around Leeds Station included moving-target
indicators, passive optronics, and mass printers that were perfectly capable of detecting as well as tracking a trio of ship-sized
targets even out to the rim of the gravity well. They did so. That the stationeers in the Traffic Control Center did not pass
these reports to other authorities in and around the station was simply an aspect of a well-choreographed plan.
In the command cupola
Janni had a conference link open with the other cruiser captains of the flight. They exchanged voice, text, and data. The
senior flight engineers and senior combat information specialists on all three flight decks were monitoring the conference,
available to take active part at their captains' need. All of the decision makers were working from a common space picture
that was a fusion of data from the sensors of all three ships. And also from intelligence released to Janni by Ashelle Mor
that she had received from sources unknown, but presumably on or near the station.
In Janni's mind, only a catastrophe could
prevent him from achieving the most basic goal of denying other powers the use of Leeds Station. The question at hand was
how to proceed with the operation. The huge prime mover Centauri Conveyor had not yet arrived insystem but the Earth frigate that had was a variable
that required some consultation.
The tactical situation appeared straightforward. The large frigate Constitution attending the station in a guard position
was known to be hostile. The only other traffic on the scope consisted of automated helium scoops running sunward or returning
with full tanks. Intelligence had tagged the Constitution as an escort that Centauri Conveyor had picked up at Wright-Curtiss, an Earth-run station. Evidently some Earth factions were willing
to support the PAX Mandate to the endgame, whatever deals the iSUN was willing to make. Too bad for them.
"The Earth frigate
is a vanguard, and our intelligences sources say she has sounded the all clear," Janni said over the common link. "I
think we are agreed that the Centauri Conveyor can be expected any time now."
"Agreed," both of the other captains said.
"It is my opinion that we should take out the Earther
frigate without warning and then lay in wait for the transport," Janni said.
"I agree with some modification,"
said Jake Roberts, captain of Radiant Mirage. "I would prefer that we put a landing party aboard the station as soon as possible after taking down the frigate."
Jake was an aggressive
commander but not a foolhardy one. He had been quite happy with his reprieve from the Goodall assault drop after Twilight Fire went down. But then that would
have been suicide. Jake's desire to board Leeds Station was inspired by prudence, not a quest for glory.
Janni noted that Ashelle
shook her head but otherwise said nothing. He was learning to trust the political officer and took the cue.
"We are not authorized
to board the station," Janni said.
"What happens after we snuff the frigate?" Jake said, evenly yet persistent. "All
it would take would be an unanswered message from some guy on shore leave trying to call in. Word would get out."
"Jake makes a
good point, Janni," said Dean Joseph, captain of Endless Sky. Dean was thoughtful, almost to the point of reticence. When he committed to a line of thinking,
it was worth taking notice.
**it's under control** came a private text message from Ashelle that only Janni could see. **the
stationeers are ours**
Janni eyed the communications window with some disapproval. In addition to the flow of voice and data traffic over
the bi-directional datalinks that had been established between the three cruisers there was a private link between Broadside Electric and Leeds Station TraCon. What
bothered Janni was not the link itself so much but that he was denied access to its unfiltered content. In fact, a significant
amount of the detailed tactical situation he depended on to achieve the ultimate objective of his mission was being filtered
through Ashelle's station.
"Jake, your concerns are well taken but our people have the situation under control,"
Janni said. "In all probability Centauri Conveyor is poised at Escher preparing to aether slip. When she arrives insystem we'll pounce and end this
"Okay, Janni," he said. "If you say so."
If Jake's voice betrayed reservations he did not allow
these to sustain his argument. For his part, Dean said nothing.
"Good," Janni said. "At this point I want us to review
what we know about the Earther frigate. Ashelle, please?"
The senior combat information specialist entered the conversation.
"You all have
technical specifications of the USS Constitution," Ashelle said, highlighting these in a window on the display. "She is a large frigate,
almost a small cruiser, with a two-hop aether drive similar to ours but manufactured indigenously. She can go out and back
before requiring a flush. The main threats to us are her four outriders. She also has two twenty-four-round rotary missile
launchers and large magazines with a variety of short-range dash and cruise-type anti-space missiles. As Constitution is mainly intended for standoff
and escort engagements she does not have any railguns or spinal-mount particle accelerators. She does have four pac-4 barbette
mounts for close-in work, but they shouldn't come into play. Unfortunately, we do not have any information about Constitution's electronic warfare suite,
but it is assumed to be highly capable. If she knows we are coming, we will be in for a hard fight. However, Constitution is plugged into the station's
early warning sensor network and TraCon is filtering the data to keep us off her scopes. Questions?"
the danger as well as the opportunity," Jake said. "But what do we know about the Constitution's people? We had been told that the iSUN
Monitors would probably surrender without a fight but they ended up causing real problems."
"The USS Constitution is flagged as a warship of the
United States of America," Ashelle said. "The USA is a faded Earth entity with some autonomy and limited military
"They build nice ships," Jake said.
"Not many of them."
"Maybe they have friends," Dean
"Thanks, Ashelle," Janni said, wanting to screen his crew from direct interrogation by the other captains.
Ashelle looked up at
him, slightly forlorn, and he gave her a nod. The senior combat information specialist smiled faintly and turned back to her
"We can't risk trying to try to warn that frigate off, Jake," Janni said. "I know we discussed the
possibility in briefings but the need and the opportunity to take out the Centauri Conveyor are just too good. I can't justify risking
the big prize to warn off a frigate of a minor Earth faction. We have to hit her before she can alert Centauri Conveyor."
"Wait a minute," Dean
said. "I don't think the issue is justification. We should be more worried about fallout."
"How do you mean?"
"Righteous indignation," Dean said. "Moral outrage. There might be a counterstroke from Earth. From
the Americans, I mean."
**the earthers will telegraph their intentions** came the private text message from Ashelle. **it's
Janni again found himself in a position of relying on intelligence without knowing its source. But he needed to move
the discussion forward.
"All we have to do is watch the iSUN Security Council deliberations on AE-SPAN," Janni said. "Support
for the Outre Mer monitoring regime is already weak. After we finish here, there won't be anybody in the Treaty Area with
much enthusiasm for throwing good money after bad, let alone forcing their way back into Iota Horologii."
Jake said. "What if the Outer Service gets involved? Escher is practically next door."
"The Outer Service is not
a threat," Janni said. "The standing force at Escher exists to contain the Greys. Our actions have nothing to do
with them. Given the way Earth organizations operate, the Outer Service will just sit back and watch. We're not their problem."
Dean said. "Earth creates multiple organizations for different purposes that won't help each other. Crazy."
"It's fine with
me that there's no such thing as a common Earth policy," Janni said. "Otherwise, I'd be eating grubs in the jungle,
never having met you fine people."
That drew a tired laugh from the other captains. Even Park So turned around to grin at him. Ashelle,
however, kept her gaze fixed on her workstation. The duranni wondered about this but then dismissed it. Ashelle usually seemed
a little disconnected.
"Okay, I'll stop worrying," Jake said.
"I'll worry," Dean said.
"You can all keep worrying," Janni
said. "Just save it for later. Right now we have to take down the American frigate, preferably before she knew what hit
her. I suggest we use the longest-range arrows in the quiver: Scarecrows."
Janni half expected there to be some comment crawling
across his flatscreen from the Equinox political officer but there was nothing.
"I like," Jake said.
"Long range is the best
range," Dean said.
"Very well," Janni said. "Broadside Electric will supply the lead Scarecrow. Radiant Mirage and Endless Sky will each release two more. We'll send them on preplanned routes to make
an envelopment from different points on the celestial sphere. Use stars as approach points to cover engine burns. All of the
hunter-killers will run cold until a set time when the lead will ping the target and assign attack information to the subordinates.
CIC will coordinate. Understood?"
"Understood," the other captains said.
Janni noticed Ashelle nodding gently at her workstation.
Ashelle worked with
her combat information specialists to develop the program for the lead Scarecrow. Her counterparts on the other cruisers developed
flight profiles for their Scarecrows so that all five would converge on the target like fingertips. The teams projected the
locations of each hunter-killer in four-dimensional space-time down to a usefully fine resolution. They proofed the profiles
in simulations that ran a million iterations.
Janni gave the order. The three cruisers released the Scarecrows from recessed weapons bays. The
ships maintained bi-directional datalinks and updated the navigational data for each Scarecrow. This was important to compensate
for the vagaries that attended mechanical launches. At the moment all communications went dark, all ships and hunter-killers
were working from the same integrated space picture and celestial clock. Since there was not enough gravity to accelerate
the ships prior to weapons release, the Scarecrows lit solid-fuel rockets in complex and finely controlled sequences. The
heat and light from these burns were detected by Leeds Station's extensive sensor network, albeit many minutes after they
happened. Nevertheless it was possible for the computers employed by TraCon to track these targets and accurately assign real-time
positions to them. The stationeers who crewed TraCon's monitors became excited, although no non-stationeers observed this
as there was a strict segregation policy. All TraCon shifts had been thoroughly briefed by station management, who were stationeers
also. Special software selectively removed indications of engine burns and MTI tracks before TraCon's space picture was passed
to USS Constitution.
The American frigate was a maneuvering
target. Although she was not at heightened alert and therefore not introducing much variation into her patrol routine, there
was still enough that a long-range kinetic weapon relying purely on projected course data for targeting wouldn't pass close
enough to harm her. Moreover, the ship maintained a strict emissions discipline so that a fast-moving weapon using passive
sensors would not have enough time to develop a terminal engagement vector before it had passed the target by. A guided weapon
moving slow enough to acquire useful passive targeting data would then have to burn hotly for terminal approach: hot enough
that the Constitution's own sensors would detect the
threat in time for her to enact countermeasures.
The murder of Scarecrows circumvented these challenges by building up velocity while still too
far away for the Constitution's sensors to detect the engine burns. As the five Scarecrows traveled meticulously planned courses, the predicted
positions of all weapons were continuously updated in their mission computers. At three minutes from the target, the lead
Scarecrow took a microsecond peek with its active radar seeker. When its mission computer had updated the frigate's position,
the lead Scarecrow sent carrier beams with the data to points in space where the other hunter-killers were predicted to be.
Three of these received the updates. One Scarecrow had suffered a slight irregularity in propellant burn and was a full second
behind its predicted location. This hunter-killer remained ignorant and did noting to alter course. The other three vented
helium to modify their flight profiles to stay on target.
A radar ping woke up the Constitution's defensive-aids subsystem. Even before the first crewman
was cognizant of the potential threat, a computer had calculated the angle of approach and used this to cue passive multi-spectral
sensors. In the frigate's combat information center, a tone drew the defensive systems officer's attention down at his display
where a threat window opened. A translucent globe in the black showed the area where the ping might have come from. Spectroanalysis
of light from a distant star inside the threat zone showed signs of intervening helium consistent with the profile of an inbound
threat maneuvering by stealth. The defensive systems officer looked over at the common space picture provided by Leeds TraCon.
The window showed clear. The officer said: "Fuck me."
The DASS recommended an active scan. The officer didn't ask for permission.
He authorized the radar and laser rangefinders to sweep the area for the threat. Then he put a request for evasive maneuvers
into the pilothouse. Finally, he called Captain Severin.
The lead Scarecrow felt the searching radar and laser scans from the frigate.
It used these to update the target's position data. Realizing that its number would soon be up, the Scarecrow entered the
terminal engagement phase. It turned on its active radar seeker and burned its remaining chemical propellant at the maximum
The other Scarecrows detected the leader's radar returns off the frigate and used these to update their targeting. Unlike
the leader, the three subordinate Scarecrows remained in a stealth mode using gas venting for maneuvers. However, the Scarecrow
that had been out of position for the update calculated that it would be unable to achieve terminal engagement while remaining
in passive mode. So this hunter-killer lit up like its leader, going to active sensors and full engine burn.
When a vampire unmasked
on his scope, the defensive systems officer placed the DASS in automatic mode. Training dictated this. Captain Severin was
between decks but he had authorized the CIC to fight the ship until he arrived there. In a self-defense engagement, the defensive
systems officer was senior officer in CIC. This man designated Leeds Station as potentially hostile and instructed the pilothouse
to evade away from it. Then a second vampire unmasked, approaching from a different direction than the first. The defensive
systems officer mouthed a prayer rather than a curse.
The lead Scarecrow drew three ripple-fired Cutlass hypervelocity anti-radiation
missiles from the Constitution's forward rotary launcher. These were kinetic hit-to-kill weapons that homed on the active seeker emissions of an
inbound vampire. The Scarecrow understood that it was threatened but elected not to deploy its own countermeasures, as this
would help the enemy in identifying it. Hunter-killers tended to possess active countermeasures while missiles did not. It
was better to deny the Constitution as much information about what was attacking her as possible. The lead Scarecrow had already assumed a sacrificial
The frigate's aft missile
launcher spat three Cutlasses at the other Scarecrow that had gone active for its terminal engagement. By this time, the DASS
had analyzed the vampires' radar seekers and had developed appropriate jamming techniques to counter them. The Constitution's powerful transmitter generated
these techniques and steered jamming beams at both inbound threats. The two Scarecrows were blinded instantly and they both
sidelined programming intended to protect them. The first salvo of Cutlasses turned the lead Scarecrow into an expanding globe
of energy. Moments later, the second salvo did the same to the prodigal Scarecrow.
Captain Robert Severin put one hand on the
defensive system officer's shoulder as he used the other to secure the last button on his tunic. The younger man sighed relief
and looked up at his captain to show it. Severin grunted satisfaction, although the ramifications of the action prevented
him from feeling happy.
Both men heard the threat alarm and saw three new vampires light up on the scope. There was just enough time for
the blood to chill before three Scarecrow hunter-killers converged and smashed the frigate like fingertips snuffing a candle
The killing of USS
Constitution had required over thirty hours
from mission planning to impact. No signals had been detected from the frigate in the interim and there were no survivors.
So far as Janni knew, it was a clean kill.
The duranni had spent some of the time cruising Broadside Electric's accessways under zero-g and some of it
dozing intermittently in his quarters. He didn't sleep well in his quarters, but Ashelle and Park were working on the flight
deck and it would be unseemly for them to be doing so while the captain snoozed over them in the command cupola. Mostly, he
watched news feeds from the system Aethernet node with periods of scratchy sleep in between. Janni arrived at his station
two hours before impact to find Ashelle and Park red-eyed at theirs. After weary initial greetings not a word was spoken until
light from the impact reached the ship's sensors.
"We got her," Park said, with satisfaction rather than enthusiasm.
Janni said. "Ashelle, you especially."
"Thank you, Captain," she said.
Congratulations were exchanged between the captains of the flight. There
was some enthusiasm, but not so much.
"Now both of you, get some sleep," Janni said to Ashelle and Park. "The Centauri Conveyor could arrive at any moment and
I'll need you then."Neither of them resisted. They left gratefully, if stiffly and with a few groans. Janni wished he could find some
joy in the moment.