Astrogator Cai and Captain Nick Steele must race against time to discover where the alien Rels are going in such numbers. Once they realize where their enemies are heading, they face the even more daunting prospect of ordering the evacuation of a well settled system.
Will the crew of the Laughing Owl stave off disaster for the Aldebaran colonies or will the Rels take their revenge for the Owls strike on their home system?
“There’s another one,” announced Juan Cortez, the executive officer of the Laughing Owl. “That makes ten in the past three days, sir. They’re up to something.”
“Acknowledged,” Captain Nick Steele replied. He touched a spot on his screen to increase the magnification of the sensor feed and studied the spherical Rel ship. It was a larger ship, nearly two klicks in diameter. It had just appeared at one of the hardpoints along the system’s heliopause and was heading into the system at a high speed.
For the past year, in the wake of their daring attack on the Rel home system, the Laughing Owl had been deployed in enemy territory with orders to observe and report. They were currently drifting in an asteroid belt between the orbital tracks of two gas giants, neither of which were nearby at the moment.
Cai had selected their position with care, placing them in an area where the Rels weren’t actively mining the asteroids and which afforded them a good view of the rest of the system. They were technically above the plane of the ecliptic, barely, but not so high that the Rels would notice them as suspicious—this asteroid belt was wracked by the gravitational forces of the two giants, both much larger than Jupiter, and there were space rocks floating near them.
They had been in this system for eight months now. They knew the routine traffic and activities of the Rels in this corner of their empire, so the increase in traffic over the past few days had been very obvious. Nick settled back in his command couch and dropped into the shipnet. “Cai?”
“Juan’s right, they’re up to something.” Cai’s shipnet voice was deeply nuanced, putting Nick in mind of a very deep pond, unruffled and serene on the surface, hiding numerous secrets and dangers below, the whole of it edged in vibrant life with a hint of icy peppermint flavoring the air. “I’m attempting to extrapolate their probable destination, but there are many variables to account for. The analysis will take some time.”
“Understood.” Nick turned his attention back to the Rel ship, which was accelerating along a now-familiar curve. “This one appears to be heading for the same exit-point as the others.”
“It will take a couple of hours to confirm their exact course, but it does appear that way.”
“Where does that hardpoint lead?”
Cai named the system immediately, but added a caveat. “That system has a dozen hardpoints that I know of. They could be using any one of those exit points. The list of possible destinations grows almost exponentially with each layer of new systems and hardpoints to consider. I’m crunching the numbers, but I’d be happier following them.”
“So would I, but we can’t risk discovery.” Right now, they were a hole in space, with an eye-skewing black hull and all sorts of emissions dampeners between their double hull. Moving with the same relative velocity as everything else in the asteroid belt, they were emitting no detectable radiation and were therefore invisible. If they applied thrust, necessary for any course adjustments, they’d leave a detectable trail of ionized particles in their wake.
“The Rel ship will pass close by this position in two point three hours,” Cai told him. “I think I can reach an interception point without emitting a detectable amount of ions.”
“For what purpose?”
“So we can hide our exhaust in their exhaust, of course.”
Nick got it. “You want to position us that close to their stern? Or whatever they have that passes for a stern?”
“We’re invisible, aren’t we? Let’s put the tech to the test. We need better entry and exit options for enemy systems anyhow.”
If it works, we’ll be able to use the trick again. If it fails…well, we’re faster and stronger and Cai doesn’t need a hardpoint to jump. Nick decided. “Okay, Cai. Do it.”
“Thank you, Nick, implementing course change now.” Several of the maneuvering thrusters fired—they used a noble gas, xenon, and since it was chemically inert, ionization was nearly impossible. At first, nothing appeared to happen. Nick hadn’t expected to see immediate results, the Laughing Owl was a good sized ship and the amount of thrust provided by the jets was tiny—but the effect was cumulative and the laws of thermodynamics did apply out here.
Laughing Owl slowly drifted into a new position and there were some tense moments as the Rel ship approached them nearly head-on. Their stealth tech had never been put to such a test as this and Nick had to remind himself to breathe as the Rel ship got closer and closer. It slid past them with barely fifty meters of separation. Cai had already positioned them so that they were pointed in the direction they wanted to go, now the Astrogator smoothly inserted Laughing Owl into the stream of ionized particles flowing from the spherical stern of the Rel ship.
Nick’s attention remained focused on the Rel throughout Cai’s maneuvers, alert for any sign of detection, of weapons powering up or of fighters being launched. None of that occurred. The Rel remained oblivious to their presence. Nick wasn’t especially happy about tailgating an alien spaceship with less than a hundred meters of separation, but Cai’s idea was working—so far. If they remained undetected all the way to the hardpoint, Nick would concede the idea was brilliant, not that he minded giving Cai such a concession in general, but in this case, he really did want it to prove out first. This could still go fubar in a pico.
“At our current speed, we’ll reach the hardpoint in six hours,” Cai told him over the shipnet. “Are you planning to glare at that Rel’s ass for the entire six hours or can I talk you into coming home long enough to eat lunch?”
“You’re leaving the Chamber?” Nick was startled, he’d assumed Cai would retain his full linkage to Laughing Owl until they were out of danger. He bit back the protest he wanted to utter, wisely as it turned out.