Shipmind Chapter 18

Pepper excused themself from the bridge with a minimum of ceremony. Quicker than I would have liked, but they’d been clear that, even now, they felt that the medical bay, not the bridge, was their proper place. Pepper was the commanding officer by rule, but had de facto ceded the position to me, given my experience with the role.

“Captain’s off the bridge,” Crow announced. Well, at least someone still cared about protocol. “I have the watch.”

In truth, I’d be the one doing most of the watching, but it was a tradition so old that no one even knew how old it was that a ship underway must have someone responsible for keeping watch, even if that just meant making sure someone else eas keeping a lookout. It had stuck around as a tradition because it was a good idea. A ship’s forward gravitics could tear anything that passed through their field to shreds, so you’d have to be reckless beyond words to not at least watch where you were going.

As it was, I was keeping the watch by slowly spinning the King’s Ransom along its axis as we fell forwards, scanning the working sensor arrays across the space around us. There really wasn’t a whole lot to see.

The hyperspace inversion bomb had done awful things to this volume of space. As we left the wrecks that had once been the CNV Hurricane and the CNV I Told You Not To Touch That behind us, I could see that they were by far the most intact of the ships that had been here. Almost nothing else was even identifiable, though the odd, uneven lensing effect the hyperbomb had left behind was distorting everything on the far side of the debris field.

I took some comfort in how little debris there was. Based on the amount of material, I estimated that somewhere between fifteen and twenty five ships had met their ends here, but there wasn’t enough junk to have once been a habitat.

Then it occurred to me that I could check that, couldn’t I? I passed a mental query to the ship’s records, as much data now restored by the automatic systems as there would ever be, and got some sensor readings from before the bomb went off.

Much of the detailed sensor data was lost, but the high-level analyses were completely intact. Twelve Commonwealth ships, which made three four-ship task groups. Ten in normal space, two hyperspace pickets. We’d come here in force.

The flagship had been the CNHV Blazing Sunlight Undimmed By Cloud, one of the big hiveships the Corack used for everything, under Speaker-Admiral Shifting Point Where The River Meets The Sea. Corack names lost something in translation.

Just five Imperial ships, but one of them had been big. The fleetnet had classified it as a mobile shipyard, but with only a 56% certainty. There was something weird about it, but fleetnet hadn’t been able to work out what before it had died.

I played the record forward. The Imperials had launched the first drones, not even bothering to try communicating. I supposed that wasn’t unreasonable. The arrival of three Commonwealth task groups sends a message all their own.

We’d responded in kind, and in much greater numbers. Whatever that big ship was for, it wasn’t a dedicated drone carrier. Their drones stood off, ours pressed. As the outer shell of Imperial drones collapsed, the Blazing Sunlight broadcast a demand to withdraw.

The Imperial ships launched more drones. Our gravitics picked up their hyperdrives pulsing, launching something into hyperspace. The pickets were in position to intercept, but one of the two ships dropped into normal space long enough to declare their intention not to do so.

They were life pods. They’d travel a short distance in hyperspace, then drop into normal space well away from the action – nothing could stay in hyperspace long without its own hyperdrive. The Imperials were abandoning ship.

It wasn’t hard to put two and two together after the fact. The Imperial fleet, such as it was, had realized they couldn’t hold this volume of space, whatever their reasons had been for wanting to in the first place. So they flung their people out as far as possible and…

The hyperbomb detonated, still aboard one of the escort ships, and the sensor records ended.

They’d done that far too quickly. Most of those life pods were still in hyperspace. They’d never have survived the inversion. Even the few that had already popped back into normal space were too close. They’d doomed themselves just as surely as they had the Commonwealth fleet.

Why had they done that? They’d been ordered to withdraw. We’d have let them go. They could have left in their ships, alive and intact.

What could possibly have made them so desperate that they felt they had to destroy themselves just to take us with them? Flinging out lifepods they had to know only had a tiny chance of getting clear?

I put the record back to just before the inversion started. I had a sinking feeling that I knew what was happening.

The Imperials’ actions seemed senseless, but there was a certain cold logic to them if you added one supposition to the known facts: they didn’t want any witnesses. No one could report back that they had even been here.

I could imagine the scene on their command deck. Whatever secret mission they were on, the Commonwealth had just shown up with overwhelming force. Something had leaked, but there was no way to know how much the Commonwealth knew.

So, they had to make sure no more information got out. Destroy their big, secret ship, and anything on the Commonwealth side that could have had a record of its existence.

So they had decided to use the hyperbomb. Set the timer for as long as they could get away with, launch screening drones, get everyone to lifepods and hope against the impossible odds that maybe a few of their people might survive.

That commander had been a fanatic. No other kind of person could have so coldly set off a hyperbomb on their own ship, pay such a terrible cost, just to keep a secret.

Whatever that big ship was, it wasn’t just a mobile shipyard. I wasn’t exactly a ship design expert, but elements of its design looked unsettlingly familiar. I consulted the sensor data that had survived – low-resolution high-EM spectroscopy, gravitic feedback, visual records – and was left with the very definite impression that this thing had multiple hyperdrive cores. It had been designed to do something very specific with hyperspace, probably involving whatever was in those large, conspicuously empty bays on its hull.

I couldn’t have pointed to any single thing that led me to think this, but I had a feeling I was looking at a launch platform for some sort of hyperspace-based weapon. The sort of galaxy-shattering weapon that toppled civilizations. And this couldn’t be the only one the Empire had built, not all the way out here in unclaimed space.

It had just become critically important to get these records back to the Commonwealth.

Tags: shipmind, writing