Chapter 23: From Cat to Mouse

Wing Captain Darcy rubbed his eyes and temples with nervous hands, waiting on the count.  The whole affair had gone swimmingly on the one hand; the naval base at Prometheus lay in ruin, a cruiser and four corvettes destroyed, but they had gotten bloody.

            “Seven ships lost,” Yousef finally reported from the operations consol, “four clippers, the Frisky Badger, Enkidu and the Dark Star.  About twelve-hundred crew all told.”  The captain just nodded, not as bad as he thought.  Still, Sidewinder and three other ships would need to make repairs before continuing and time grew precious.  He pulled up the navigation screen on his monitor and looked at it hard for several minutes.

Zeta Herculis was a blue-white star with two red dwarf companions just over thirteen lee from Prometheus and one of the first places that would be searched once word of the attack reached naval command.  It had a single planet, a modest jovian rich in helium-3 with a number of moons.  The eighth was large and possessed a thick methane atmosphere.  Close enough to its parent world to bathe in its powerful magnetic field, it made detecting them on the surface nearly impossible, and with a dense atmosphere it shielded them from hard radiation.  Billy’s rudder was proving invaluable.

            The four tanker craft of second wing were busy making runs between the gas world and the outer moon where the grounded ships waited.  Floyd gave strict orders that no more than a single tanker be in transit at any time in case they received unannounced visitors.  It cost time with little to spend but the safety measure proved worthwhile.  The sensor buoy orbiting the innermost moon reported a battle cruiser, two frigates and four destroyers entering the system just minutes after Aura launched on its fifth fuel run.

            “They’ve seen her,” Kaminski reported from the EW station where she monitored the telemetry.  The warships went into overdrive to chase her down as Aura turned and began to run for the edge of the system.  Even if she managed to reach a safe jump distance from the star, they would track her easily.

The ship master shouted in alarm, “She’s not making her way back to us!”

            Kaminski took a deep, slow breath.  “He knows we can’t handle them in the shape we’re in so he’s leading them off.”

            “We have to help them!”  Yousef cried.

            “We do that and we’re all dead,” Floyd told him.  “Decker charted the course.  They’ll assume she was here to scout a fueling site while we waited on station in deep space.”  He opened the fleet channel and addressed the wing.  “All ships, power down your systems.  Minimal life support only.”

            “If they catch us blind on the ground. . .” Yousef warned.

            “If they catch us at all,” Floyd said and leaned back in his chair.  “Bring down the sensor buoy.  We can’t risk their seeing it.”  The flash of Aura’s destruction at the system’s edge could not be seen from the moon’s surface.  A series of short beeps from the passive sensors were the only thing to betray the loss of sixty-seven mariners and the valuable ship.

            Floyd rose from his chair and entered the captain’s cabin just aft of the bridge.  Looking out a small porthole, peering through the swirling yellow fog of nitrogen and hydrogen cyanide, he could just barely make out the turbulent surface where an ocean of liquid ethane met the dark, basalt shore.  Just to the north of them, a vast plain of linier black sand dunes, four-hundred meters high, stretched for hundreds of kilometers, carefully sculpted by prevailing winds like a well-manicured sand garden.  To the south, tall cryo-volcanoes pumped dark, carbonated steam into the upper atmosphere and oozed slushy water lava.  The titanian moon was a surreal geologic funhouse, if not for the navy warships above them he might have considered going outside to look around.

Two more days, he decided.  Then we make a run for ISO 417.  Should be quiet there.  If the enemy vessels remained here there would be no telling until they lifted-off, but they had to get back on the move.  They could not be late for the rendezvous.


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