Caine’s Mutiny – Snippet 17

This book should be available now so this is the last snippet.

Caine’s Mutiny – Snippet 17

Puller jolted as its railgun discharged. With almost light-speed suddenness, the northernmost mortar carrier flared brightly in the thermal imaging overlay. As Duncan shifted his aimpoint, and Puller swung slightly to port to acquire that firing vector, the stricken vehicle continued to fulminate furiously, sporadically: its ammunition hoppers were cooking off. Riordan saw a wheel — massing at least a quarter of a ton — fly off the chassis as if some child was flinging away an unwanted donut.

Duncan fired again. The result was less spectacular, but just as swift: the vehicle seemed to cave in on itself, with a bright glowing line running down its longitudinal axis.

“What’s that?” Sleeman asked.

“That,” Riordan muttered, “is where the projectile sliced through and severed the metal of the chassis along the vehicle’s centerline. The edges are probably molten.”

As Solsohn engaged the third vehicle, Sleeman glanced at her sensor panel. “The remaining vehicles are firing, sir.”

Riordan acknowledged with a nod. “Flight Officer Tsaami, take over PDF. Engage the rounds if needed.”

“Looks like they’re firing blind, sir. They’re not running active sensors, and they haven’t had enough time to range us for counter-battery fire.”

Not that it would matter if they did. A mortar round hitting the hull of Puller was like a spitball splatting against a suit of medieval armor. “Continue to monitor their fire.” For the twenty seconds that they might still be alive.

Actually, it was only another twelve seconds before Duncan Solsohn had walked the railgun projectiles down to the southernmost vehicle of the mobile battery. Not wanting to see their grim handiwork, but resolved to the necessity, Riordan nodded at Sleeman. “Those burning vehicles are giving us a lot of thermal smudge. Bring the quadrotors a little closer to the lighter vehicles. I need to see how they, and the infantry, are responding.”

Sleeman complied. The quadrotors’ cameras showed what Riordan had expected: hurried confabs between vehicle commanders and individual scouts, gesticulations, aid teams running back toward the burning vehicles in what both they and Riordan knew were futile missions of mercy.

“Radio activity, sir,” Sleeman reported. “But they are not using any of their wartime codes. This is a simple transposition cypher, I think, Commodore.”

Riordan nodded. “Homegrown, probably. After their invasion failed and we captured all their equipment, they’ll presume that all their codes are compromised.”

Duncan turned round in his seat, his face grave, his eyes unblinking. “Sir, since they are transmitting…”

Riordan sighed, waved his hand. “Lock on their signals. Fire as soon as you acquire each target.” He rubbed his eyes.

Sleeman’s voice was low, almost horrified. “Sir — is that absolutely necessary? They are no longer advancing toward us, and –”

“– And they could resume that advance any second, Doctor. Besides, we need to teach them that they cannot operate their radios without giving us a free target lock on that transmitter. If they can’t use their radios, they can’t coordinate tactically or send reports back home. Both of which slow them down and buy us time.”

“And make it all the more unlikely that they might try to talk us. Sir.”

Riordan did not look up, waved his hand at the sensor overlay while further jolts from Puller’s railgun announced the bright, sudden deaths of even more Hkh’Rkh vehicles. “I think we’re already past that point, don’t you?”

* * *

As Puller maneuvered back toward Fanny’s squad, there was one final MULTI launch from the ring-fort of rocks. The ten-by-seventy-five centimeter missile arced upward, trailing rapidly cooling exhaust, then pitched over sharply and flashed down — and straight through the glacis plate of yet another light APC which had come to support the uncertain advance against the Cold Guards’ position. In the overhead view, the vehicle sagged, and vaporous heat — smoke — started leaking out from a thermal smudge up near its bow. Several Hkh’Rkh silhouettes bailed out, but far fewer than were the typical crew and passenger complement of such vehicles.

Riordan nodded at Solsohn. “Tell Fanny to prepare for extraction in ninety seconds. Doctor Sleeman, give me a last sweep: any enemy scouts in the area?”

“The closest is three hundred meters away. The range is increasing.”

Retreating. At last. “Very good. Karam, take us in as close to those rocks as you can, and no longer than it takes to scoop up Fanny’s squad.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

As Puller began slewing around on its fans to back into the LZ and give the Guards a straight run up into the ventral bay, Sleeman looked over at Riordan. “Sir, Major Rulaine reports his people haven’t had any success approaching our extraction targets to the east. And most of the Hkh’Rkh scouts have remained in that area. It’s a total jumble.”

Riordan sighed. “Zoom out, Doctor: give me an overview of the AO.”

The bridge screen showed that the Hkh’Rkh scouts to the south had not been deterred either by Fanny’s elimination of the light vehicles supporting them, or his team’s sniping at those individuals unfortunate enough to wander within half a klick of his position. Instead, the Warriors had simply flowed further eastward, skirting the Guards’ position and coming into direct contact with a number of the southernmost human icons. Judging from the intermittent, abrupt, movements, it now appeared to be a running gunfight, with the humans getting very much the worst of the engagement.

“Damn it,” Duncan muttered. “They’re going to be slaughtered.”

Karam agreed. “Without night vision, they’ll never have a chance. They’re getting picked off at ranges over one hundred meters.” As another cluster of Hkh’Rkh icons angled to cut off the humans’ route of retreat, his head hung slightly. “Worst case scenario, all around.”

Riordan settled back. “Sadly, it may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise.”

“Sir?” Sleeman’s carefully controlled tone did not quite mask the shock beneath it.

“Doctor, we’ve not had an opportunity to make our intentions clear to anyone so far. Except for Ezzraamar, who we had to leave tranqed and locked up. But now, we have an absolutely clear means of communication.” Riordan reached for his couch straps. “Flight Officer Tsaami, as soon as we have Sergeant Fanny’s team on board, get us moving east. Best speed.”

“Sir, ‘best speed’ means no NOE, and that means maximum exposure to enemy counter-fire and detec –”

“Screw their counter-fire and detection. We need to get there five minutes ago. So boost. Now.”

 

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