Chapter 19 - Treachery
The observation lounge fell silent when the simulated Sesseem rained fire upon their own allies. Ferrar watched the main screen, waiting for the overload flare to clear. The Sesseem projectors had concentrated on the lead Banshee. Their combined fire would have added up to over 300 gigajoules. That was enough to disrupt Meta space for kilometers around their target. True to the simulation, the flare effect obscured the displays shown to the audience in Farside.
The next event should have been the flare fading into a cloud of debris. Twelve Sesseem patrol craft that size had firepower equal to an ESDF strike cruiser.
Instead, a glowing dot corkscrewed out of the flare. The plot could only be a Banshee with loaded shields 'knuckle-balling' to avoid taking any more fire. For the moment the pilot was still in the game, having jinked in time to take only a glancing blow.
"Yeah! Alright Ana!" Amanda crowed. The rest of the crowd joined the cheer a heart-beat later, which then dissolved into excited jabber.
From the look of things, those shields wouldn't stand up to another hit, even if only one of the Sesseem connected. One salvo from the neutron projectors of a single ship that size delivered enough energy to power New York City for half a minute. It was also roughly equaled the energy that Banshee shields could hold back. Assuming they weren't already loaded up with a charge from a previous hit.
"Ana?" Ferrar frowned. "I thought that was Tony."
"Your eyesight must be going, old man," his XO teased. "They switched right after launch. Ana took point before they reached two hundred meters."
Ana's voice came over the comm as if to confirm Cougar's words. "Shield capacity is just under ten percent from max. Negative critical damage."
Her dot jinked again just before another salvo and then accelerated in high-gee mode to get clear. Three Sesseem took off after her, while the rest angled toward the also fleeing Kahuna.
Carter exploded, "What are those idiot Gr'ts'ck thinking? They're supposed to make sure competition scenarios are winnable!"
The older commander shook his head, "I don't know how, but it's winnable."
"It's a target-rich environment with a snowball's chance!"
Cougar touched Carter's arm, advising him with the same patient tones she'd used on Ferrar many times. "Sir, he's right. Think about it. The Air Boss approves all competition scenarios. Pucelli would never approve an impossible one. He just doesn't roll that way."
"There's a key that unlocks this one," Ferrar reinforced. "Let's see if the Kahuna can find it."
Kahuna had an easier time with a 'cool' shield, but with triple the opponents, he wouldn't last. And Ana wouldn't be able to outrun the Sesseem ships. They had similar ships, but with her shields 'hot' she couldn't use full acceleration for long. She would fry herself by overloading her own shields with waste energy from her jets. Worse, if she ran away in a straight line, they could just line up on her and fire.
Somehow, she changed direction each time just before they fired. They continued to close the gap on her, but she stayed alive. Then at the exact moment the gap became too short for her evasions to work, she flipped end-over-end. She jetted in high-gee mode straight at her pursuers, firing just as she broke to one side to flit past them.
# # #
Tony kept working the controls, trying to find a solution. He also had to devote enough attention to evading the swarm behind him while continuing the blocking exercises. He was running out of brain cells to delegate tasks to.
They got me to hold my fire and let them in too close by using a Trojan Horse gambit, the analyst in the back seat of his mind critiqued. What was I supposed to do, open fire on Allies? Run away from them?
Never mind! he fumed back at himself. We're busy here! Do the post-mortem when we're mortem!
"How many are after me?" Ana called. "I thought it was two! It looks like three now!"
"It's been three all along!"
"Huh? But..." Her voice chopped off as she jinked with another high-gee jet burn.
Is she having trouble counting now? Why does she sound so confused?
He'd led nine Sesseem away from her earlier, but her last jink left her headed back his direction. The Sesseem behind him spread out now, three triangles, each at points of a bigger triangle. They expected him to split off and were preparing to catch him no matter which way he turned.
The Sesseem only carried projectors. That's why their ships had three instead of two. Banshees used the third bay for missiles. If Sesseem fighters used missiles like Humans, they would have had him by now. As long as he could keep them from lining up on him, he had a chance.
It wouldn't last though. He would run out of luck any moment now with the aliens herding Ana and him back together.
She does have only two on her! he realized with a jolt. Where'd the other one go?
He yawed his craft for another jink and a white orb rolled into view. His thoughts crumpled into confusion. We're in deep space! Where did that rock come from?!
His gravitic sensors pegged the airless planet at only a quarter million kilometers away. How could we get that close to some rock and not know it?
Then understanding hit him like projector fire. He screamed into the mike.
"Stop messing with my head!!!"
Zindavoor mandalas worked, but rage worked too. Psychic fog melted away, and puzzle pieces fell into place with an almost audible click. He spun the craft, lining up on the missing third ship in the Sesseem triangle following Ana. That blank was out of character for the race that thought in threes. He snapped two missiles at it, and they found something to lock onto in the empty spot. They merged and delivered it a devastating blow.
His shield alarms shrieked and kill buzzers went off. One declared him dead and the other eulogized an invisible enemy. The projectors of the pursuing Sesseem had finally caught up, but he'd killed the alien that fogged his mind as they shot him. The two survivors behind Ana broke off a moment later and the nine ships following him veered away rather than closing on her.
Long-absent Farside Base Comm came on to declare the scenario over.
He would hear the details later, but he already knew that the Sesseem he had killed was either a Wraith or some other Enemy mind weapon. Perhaps the other Sesseem were Slaves flying captured ships. From the way they broke off after he killed the mystery ship though, they could have been 'real' Sesseem under the control of the Enemy.
He wouldn't have worked it out if the 'Wraith' hadn't cloaked itself once it came within range of Banshee weapons. But that part of the simulation was accurate. Wraiths were notorious cowards. A real Wraith would have hidden itself rather than risk being an available target.
Had this scenario come out of the records of real battles? The thought of meeting up with such an opponent chilled him. Or worse, of the Enemy capturing and using him in that way.
Neither of them spoke at all, other than acknowledgments to Base Comm, all the way in. It would take him a while to shake this one off.
The combat had pulled them off 'direct outbound'. Earth was visible from their position, a blue eye to the left side of the Moon. They would all be heading back there in another day. The thought lifted his spirits a bit.
It's time. I've had enough of this place.