Tristan watched with awe from the controls of his SLUFF as the Heisenberg slid elegantly through the degaussing ring. That the former liner retained her fine classical exterior was a piece of camouflage, and belied the fact that internally she had been gutted. Cabins, restaurants, swimming pools, all had been removed, leaving cavernous open decks, from which the rebels could operate the fighter craft which they had and those which they anticipated capturing from the Dynasty. The Heisenberg had become, in effect, an enormous mobile base of operations.
None of the surplus material that had been removed from the liner had gone to waste. Indeed, a portion of it had gone into the construction of the degaussing ring through which she was now passing. The ring served the function of enormously reducing the vessel’s magnetic signature, rerouting current, smoothing out magnetic peaks and troughs, and ultimately bringing the overall signature down to a few nanoteslas, rendering it almost impossible to spot from any appreciable distance. It also served to mask the trail left by the ship through the stellar current, so that it would also be difficult to follow.
When the Heisenberg had passed completely through the ring, Tristan called for permission to come aboard. On receiving the okay, he gunned the snub-nosed fighter’s engine and made for a large access hatch that had been cut into the liner’s midships. He entered a huge reverberating hangar in which the handful of craft that the rebels already possessed appeared pitifully small. He wondered if they had all gone insane, thinking they could take on the Dynasty with just this.
He parked his SLUFF next to the others. The access hatch was in the cockpit floor, opening into the forward landing gear well. A short ladder was attached to the landing strut, and it took him down onto the deck. He looked around and saw lights in one of the briefing rooms adjoining the hangar and stamped across to it, his boots ringing against the deck plates as he walked.
As he began to walk across the cavernous enclosure, it intrigued him that there was not a square metre of the deck that did not have some recessed light or shackle or nozzle or power jack or hatch or track. Even when empty and deserted, the hangar had an amazing sense of busyness about it.
As he passed the parked ships, he saw that several of them were being treated to the traditional artwork on the nose which gave individuality to each one. One or two of the pictures were representations of ancient mythical beasts. Scantily clad women adorned a couple of the ships with male pilots, and the female jockeys had gone for images of similarly undressed men. But the painting session had clearly been interrupted by the call to a meeting.
As he stepped through the door, heads turned, and Arianne smiled warmly in welcome. He did a quick head count: all were present except Dennis, who was obviously on watch. Bannon appeared to be holding court.
“Tris,” he beamed, “welcome back.” For a brief moment, Tristan felt as if he were back at the Dynastic Defence Force Academy, late for class, as always. “As I was saying,” Bannon continued, “being based on the Heisenberg gives us a tremendous tactical advantage. A static home base is tremendously vulnerable. A single raid can put an end to your entire campaign. Furthermore, I will shortly be sending you out on recruiting missions, and like the best communications networks, I plan to have resistance groups forming small individual cells which are self-sufficient, and know as little about each other as possible. That minimises our vulnerability and severely limits the information that the Nasty can extract from prisoners.”
Tristan shuddered. He remembered his father, and the needles piercing his flesh. The thought of interrogation by the Dynasty sent a chill up his spine. Who could say what exquisite tortures they had in store for deserters and rebels? The whole business suddenly became that much more real.
From the grim looks of those around him, Bannon could see that he had made his point. “Furthermore...”
“Bannon? Are you there?” It was Dennis on the bridge, calling over the intercom. There was a note of agitation in his voice.
“Sure Dennis,” Bannon said calmly. “What’s up?”
“We’ve got something from one of the probes. You’d better come and take a look. All of you.”
They trooped out of the briefing room and clattered up a companionway leading to the bridge. They had sent out probes in all directions a week previously to alert them to Dynasty vessels, and also to spot any likely sources of recruits.
When they got to the bridge, they saw at once on the viewing screen the image being relayed from a probe. A large ship, bulbous in the middle, with the forward crew section and the engine unit aft both separated from the mid section by long gantries was proceeding at steady speed between the stars, flanked by half a dozen escort fighters. All the ships bore Dynasty insignia.
“Yes!” Bannon exulted. “A deuterium tanker! Our first target! We need deuterium urgently.”
“Bannon,” said Harvey, “are you proposing to capture that?”
Bannon returned to his didactic manner of a few minutes before. “Ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important than the first strike in a war, as it serves to demoralise the enemy. That in itself is almost as important as the fuel that ship contains. And please take note, people. A mere six escort fighters means the Dynasty does not consider us to be a serious threat. Yet. That will soon change. Let us make hay while the sun shines. You all have the co-ordinates and bearing of that ship? Then let’s go and get it!”
The troopers hurried to their ships, leaving Richie and Ellen in command of the Heisenberg.
An asteroid, a piece of random space debris, on a course roughly parallel to their own, gave the crews of the deuterium tanker and its escorts no cause for concern. It was too distant for them to pick up the signature of a tiny robotic probe lurking in its shadow, which permitted the small fleet of fighters in the lee of the rock to “peep round corners” at the convoy.
“Are we all here?” said Bannon. Receiving affirmatives from three other ships beside his own, he said, “Right. Let’s do it.”
Bannon’s SLUFF, with himself at the controls and Siobhann on weapons led the assault, followed by Howard in the second SLUFF, with Harvey on gunnery, Tristan and Arianne in their ship, and the BLUFF, with Dennis flying and Cy, Jacob and Lester manning weaponry, bringing up the rear.
As soon as the escorts spotted the small approaching fleet, they peeled away from the mother ship and adopted attack positions. Already the rebels were sweeping in with guns blazing, seeking with electromagnetic pulses to disable the nanocomputers governing the enemy ships’ self-repair mechanisms, while the Dynasty pilots sought with equal resolve to do the same to them.
As a fighter loomed large ahead, Arianne hit the firing button. Sparks flew from the Dynasty ship and it sped past, out of control.
“A hit!” Tristan whooped beside her. “Ari, you hit it!”
A second fighter was coming up from behind, weapons pulsing furiously at them. Skilfully, Tristan jinked aside, while Arianne struggled to lock the aft guns on the target. A signal light announced when she was successful, and she fired again.
The pulse was from the wrong angle, and glanced off the Dynasty fighter’s shielding. Tristan dropped his ship into a sickening barrel roll, then looped up again sharply towards the belly of the fighter. Arianne fired. The Dynasty ship shuddered, effectively disabled.
“Another kill for Arianne!” her lover trumpeted, sweeping upwards past the enfeebled fighter and turning towards the lumbering bulk of the tanker. As he had hoped, his comrades were drawing the remaining four fighters further away, and were picking them off one by one.
But the tanker was not without weapons, and pulses of light swept thick and fast by the rebel ship.
Tristan swept in, raking fire across the bows of the bulky tanker, hoping to disable her control systems and give him a chance to board her. But his weapons had no impact, and he had to weave sharply to evade her answering salvos.
“Her shielding is too strong!” he gasped. “I don’t know what to do!”
“Tris, look out!” Arianne yelled. One of the fighters had managed to slip away from the battle being waged behind them, and was racing to the rescue of the mother ship. Arianne engaged the enemy with her rear guns as Tristan adopted desperate evasive manoeuvres.
Then, to their relief, Howard’s SLUFF came racing to the rescue, and it was the Dynasty fighter’s turn for evasion, changing course this way and that as he sought to dodge Howard’s ferocious assaults.
’Whew!” said Tristan. “I’m glad we got that monkey off our backs. But it doesn’t help us to figure a way through the tanker’s shielding.” He adopted a new course, shadowing the big ship once more while he tried to think of a new tactic.
“My father told me,” said Arianne quietly, “that back in the bad old days on Sim-sim Simoon, when he was a boy, they used to hunt the breeg for its fantastic skin, and in order not to damage the precious pelt, they would first trap the animal, and then fire a laser pulse up its anus. Barbaric, but true.”
Arianne waited patiently for the relevance of this piece of information to sink in. Tristan digested it for a moment. Then he snapped his fingers. “Of course! The one part of that ship that can’t be shielded! But we’re only going to be able to get one shot in before they disable us, that’s certain.”
“Then let’s do it!” said Arianne excitedly.
Tristan put the ship into a steep dive that would cross the tanker’s wake tangentially, hoping that by adopting such a course he would throw the enemy crew off the scent with regard to his real intentions. As he approached the vector of the heavy transporter, Arianne began a continuous burst of fire that initially flew off into empty space. Tristan jerked the controls up at the last moment and they were staring into the tanker’s exhaust nozzle. A flash indicated that they had hit home, an instant before they themselves were hit and lost all power. Both ships coasted, one behind the other.
A few minutes more saw the raiders clean up the last of the escort fighters.
Dennis brought the BLUFF in parallel with Tristan’s ship and took her in tow, while Bannon landed his fighter atop the cabin of the tanker and swiftly took control. Channelling data from the nanocomputers on the SLUFF, the self-repair modules on the tanker swiftly booted themselves up and went to work. Within a couple of hours, the tanker was operational again.
The crew of the tanker was set adrift in a life pod, with a delay set into their homing beacon, just as the raiders had done with the passengers and crew of the Heisenberg. And Bannon and his team took their prize and vanished into the night.