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Фантастика. Фэнтези
   Зарубежная фантастика
      Уильям Форстчен. Wing Commander: Битва флотов (engl) -
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Уильям Форстчен. Wing Commander: Битва флотов (engl) --------------------------------------------------------------- © Copyright 1994 William ъ.Forstchen. Wing Commander Fleet Action --------------------------------------------------------------- PъOLOGUE "According to the final calculations projected on your holo screens, I think it is evident that over the next eighty days we run the risk of a serious reversal that could set our war effort back by years." A rumble of stunned and angry growls shook the room. Baron Jukaga settled back in his chair and waited for the storm to settle. "This is preposterous, an insult," Talmak of the Sutaghi clan snapped, looking around the room as if seeking to find someone to blame and thus sacrifice. "How did we ever get to this state? Our fleets are the finest, our warriors filled with the zeal of skabak, the will to die for the glory of Kilrah. By the blood of Sivar, we even outnumber the low born scum in nearly every class of ship. How did this happen!" and as he finished he slammed his fist down on his holo projector, shattering it, as if by so doing the grim figures would simply die. Baron Jukaga of the Ki'ra clan silently turned in his chair and looked to the end of the table where the Emperor, and his grandson and heir Prince Thrakhath, sat. "Perhaps our Emperor can enlighten us," Jukaga said silkily, lowering his head just enough to show obeisance, but doing it slowly, thus subtly revealing a disdain and defiance. The Emperor, of course, was not visible to those in the room. Sitting upon his high throne he was hidden from direct view by a silklike screen emblazoned with the three crossed red swords of the Imperial line. Sitting at the foot of the dias was Prince Thrakhath, who shifted slightly under Jukaga's gaze, a soft yet audible growl echoing from his throat as a signal of his readiness to accept challenge, and also in reaction to the insult of directly placing a question to the Emperor. Baron Jukaga struggled to conceal a flashing of teeth, a revealing of his true hatred for this Emperor whom he believed to be of lesser blood and who had attempted to place the blame for the disaster at Vukar Tag on his shoulders. He had endured over a year in exile because of that disaster. It was only due to the latest reversals that the other clans had finally pressed for his release and use of his known talents as one who better than most understood the strangeness of human behavior. The Emperor sensed the challenge and the trap. He stirred uneasily, framing his thoughts. If he answered the question directly, it would be a lowering of himself before the leaders of the eight clans of Kilrah; if he deferred the question to his grandson, the Prince, it would appear as if he were shifting responsibility Ч and ultimate blame. "You go too far, Baron," a voice rumbled from the corner of the room, breaking the impasse. Baron Jukaga looked over at the speaker, Buktag'ka, first born of the clan of Sihkag. The Sihkag were, of the eight ruling families, considered to be of the lowest blood and as such could usually be counted on to curry favor with the Emperor in a bid to elevate their status whenever possible. "Your insult to the Emperor is evident," Buktag'ka snarled, coming to his feet and leaning over the table to stare at Jukaga. "It is not the place of the Imperial blood to answer questions. We requested your release from exile for the skills you have in understanding humans and as master of spies, not for the surliness of your tongue, the haughtiness of all of your blood line, nor for the plots you are known for." Jukaga looked around the table, gauging the response which ranged from nodded lowering of heads in agreement, to rippling of manes in defiance. It was time to change approach. "I stand rebuked before the Imperial blood and intended no insult," he said, bowing low to the shaded throne. Prince Thrakhath, who sat at the foot of the throne, and was not hidden from view like his grandfather, nodded curtly in reply. "Let us not ask the hows of it," the Emperor's voice whispered from behind the screen, "there is blame enough for all. ъather let us talk of what now is, and what is to be done." Knowing he could not press the point, Baron Jukaga lowered his head in reply. You low born old bastard, Jukaga thought coldly. Everyone here knows that this reversal is your fault and that of your fool grandson. Yet if victory should come it will be you who will sweep the honors around your feet. And even as he thought a concept that was beyond the range of most Kilrathi, rage and intense hatred towards a sworn overlord, he still assumed the posture of obeisance and then slowly rose up to speak again. "Buktag'ka is right," Jukaga said, "and I accept the rebuke." He looked around the room, gauging the responses and felt it was best to simply push on with the facts and figures that needed to be presented. "We do outnumber the human confederation in total number of carriers, fighters of all classes, and heavy cruisers. However, as you can see by the charts projected, we will see no new replacement of carriers of standard design for the next three of eighty days. In the meantime it is projected by my intelligence staff that the humans will have four of their new fleet carriers coming into operations, thus enabling them to form an entire new task force and reach a rough parity with our own carrier forces for the first time in this war. "This is due to the loss of the construction bays and nearly completed ships in the raids on our construction sites over the last year. First they hit our primary bases on our moon during the Vukar Tag debacle," and he could not resist sparing a quick look at Thrakhath, "and then the two follow-up raids which destroyed three other construction yards." He paused for a moment, looking around the room, the other clan leaders stirring uneasily. The successful human raids deep within the Empire had been a source of extreme embarrassment for Thrakhath and for the clan leaders. Jukaga smiled inwardly. If anything the exile after Vukar had enabled him to wash his own talons of any responsibility. In a dispassionate sort of way, he found he could even admire the human who had conceived of the strategy of using light carriers for the strikes. Spy reports both from their plant high inside the ruling circle of the Administration, and from prisoner interrogation, indicated that it was Admiral Tolwyn who instituted the plan. "Our shortages," the Baron continued, "are made worse by the fact that within the next eighty days nearly one quarter of our carriers are due for overhauls, resupply, and refitting, with one needing an entire reactor replacement." "Can't such things wait?" Buktag'ka asked. "It has already been delayed too long," Thrakhath announced coldly. "The Ha'Tukaig's reactor is leaking so dangerously that engine room crews have to be suited up and after three duty shifts retired. We might see a total reactor failure if we push her any further. As for the other ships, a variety of minor things threaten to soon become major problems if not addressed. ъemember the standard rule is that for every day of flight a carrier needs one day of docking for a variety of reasons. We are stretching that out to almost two to one, pushing our equipment too hard." He fell silent and Jukaga made a show of nodding his thanks. "I know the argument is that we cannot afford to move carriers out of action at this time," Jukaga said, "but I believe Prince Thrakhath will tell you we can not afford not to. Unfortunately the humans, at least for the moment, have found a weak point and are exploiting it, using their new escort carriers to raid deep into our Empire, seeking not to engage in ship to ship combat, but rather to shatter our ships in their construction bays before they are completed and launched. What is even worse is their use of these strike forces to hit our transports and supply ships. Our losses there have been disastrous." "At least they have paid in turn," Thrakhath replied sharply. "That is true, my lord, but let us look at those figures. In the last standard year we can be certain that we have destroyed seven of their escort carriers, two fleet carriers and seven eights of other ships. In turn they have smashed eight carriers under construction, destroyed valuable equipment and inflicted thousands of casualties on trained personnel. And perhaps most seriously of all, just under seven eight-of-eights of transport and supply vessels." He paused and looked around the room and could see the frustration of the clan leaders as they looked to Thrakhath, who was forced to show agreement with Jukaga. "What sort of animals are these humans?" Buktag'ka asked rhetorically. "What honor, what glory is there to be possibly gained by smashing a carrier when it cannot even fly? Their gods must vomit in disgust at such craven cowardice." "I don't think their god sees it quite the same way ours do," Jukaga said dryly, realizing the irony of what he was saying was completely lost on those present That was the weak point. In his studies of humans he at least had gained some small understanding of just how alien was their logic, their beliefs, and their concept of the nature of war. To try to translate that understanding to those gathered around him, no matter how intelligent they were, was nearly impossible; the gap was simply too broad to leap. It was, as well, the weak link in their military. All their previous enemies had been totally destroyed in wars that lasted, at the longest, a little more than four years, and that was simply due to the sheer size of the Hari empire which had to be occupied and destroyed. In such a case, where victory was usually assured from within hours of the first assaults, the need to truly understand ones enemy was moot. The human war was now four eights of years old and still most of those who led the Empire into battle did not truly understand the thinking of their foes. "With honor, or without, a carrier destroyed is still dead," Jukaga said quietly, "a fact which can not be debated." He looked over at Thrakhath, and to his surprise actually saw a nod of agreement "The real crisis, however, is in our logistical support, our transport ships supplying the fleet." There were several snorts of disdain from the clan leaders. Such ships and those who served in them were considered to be beneath contempt. Any of fighting age who accepted assignment to one was disgraced within his clan, deemed not worthy to sire heirs for himself, but rather only to sit at the edge of the feasting tables, heads lowered, when boasts of war were shared and arm veins opened to pour out libations on the altars of Sivar. The quality of personnel could be readily inferred from this. "It is a simple fact that, without fuel, food, replacement parts, weapons, and even such basics as air to breathe and water to drink a fleet is useless. The humans have hit upon the strategy of avoiding direct confrontation and striking instead to our rear, cutting our supplies, destroying our transports, forcing us to detail off precious frigates and destroyers to escort them. Their escort carriers attack and against them even destroyers are outclassed, so that now heavy cruisers must escort convoys. As a result there are not enough heavy cruisers to escort our carriers and our own construction of these new light carriers has yet to come fully on line." He paused for a moment and looked at the charts projected on the holo screens. "We have lost over seven eight-of-eights of transports in the last year, along with four yards for their construction. That is our weak point. We have reached the stage where, for the moment, our carriers must leave the front and return all the way to Kilrah to resupply since there are not enough transports to bring supplies to them. As a result, in actual numbers of ships at the front, our strength has been cut in half, and so, in most sectors, Confederation ships outnumber us." He paused again for effect and saw the cold looks of disbelief, that something as mundane, as undignified as this issue, could actually affect their fighting of the war. "What I hear is impossible," Yikta of the Caxki clan snarled. "Are you truly saying we have lost the war because of such a thing?" "The humans have a saying that for want of a nail a horse-shoe was lost, for want of a horseshoe a . . ." "What is a horse?" Yikta asked. "It is a beast of war which humans once rode upon, and then he explained the rest of the statement and saw that it had its effect "No, the war is by no means lost," Prince Thrakhath finally said, stirring at last "The Baron tends, I think, to overplay his thinking and chartmaking to scare us." "But you will not deny that we are in trouble," the Baron retorted. "Temporarily," Prince Thrakhath said, "perhaps." "Prince Thrakhath," the Baron said smoothly, "more than six years ago it was you who detailed off all new transport construction to your own Project Hari. Just how many transports and other material has your own clan tied up in that project, while the main battle suffers for want of supplies?" He paused, seeing the stirring of interest in the room. "We are not here to talk of Hari," Thrakhath snapped, "we are here instead to hear your own report and ideas first." The clan leaders looked from Thrakhath to Jukaga and the Baron could sense that more than one finally wanted the truth of this secret project revealed. But first he would drive another point home. Baron Jukaga nodded to an aide standing in the far side of the room who controlled the holo screen. The image shifted to a three dimensional map of the Empire and a weaving of orange and red lines. "Intelligence has found out that the humans are aware of the opportunity that exists for them for at least the next two eight-of-eights days, and are contemplating an offensive to exploit our short term weakness. They will commit their carriers to an opening operation in what the humans call the Munro System. They know we must hold Munro for it is a direct doorway into a number of the shortest jump points into the heart of the Empire. "Meanwhile, on eight different fronts," and as he spoke orange arrows started to flash, "eight of their light escort carriers, along with raider transports will jump into the Empire, aiming to cripple us from behind and to smash our remaining transport, cruiser construction yards and light carrier conversion centers, while ravaging planetary bases and crippling our few supply convoys still in operation. "That, in short, is the plan." The room was silent as the clan leaders studied the screens. "It is a hideous plan," Thrakhath said coldly, "a stabbing in the back against defenseless positions. It lacks all honor, all meeting of steel blade against steel blade, ship against ship." "But it will cripple us even in its cowardice," Jukaga retorted and Thrakhath could only lower his head. The room was silent for a moment "And yet," Vak of the ъagitagha clan whispered, unable to speak louder due to the fact that the surgeons had experienced some difficulty in putting his mouth back together after a challenge duel, "if all goes as rumors state regarding this project in the Hari sector, within a year we will see such a growth in our strength as to overwhelm the humans and end this war." He looked straight at Thrakhath waiting for a response. "Even here, Project Hari should not be spoken of," Thrakhath said hurriedly. The clan leaders stirred. The project was nothing more than rumors, its development under the complete control of the Kiranka clan of the Emperor and the Prince. "These are our brothers," the Emperor announced from behind the screen. "Let it be spoken of." Thrakhath looked back at the screen behind him as if to protest. "Speak of it." Jukaga could see the hesitation. It was known that there were a number of security breaches coming out of the Imperial Palace and the less said about certain things the better. He could see as well that the Emperor was playing a maneuver of showing confidence in the other clan leaders, thus winning favor for acting as if those in his presence were trusted comrades. He could see the effect on Buktag'ka who puffed up visibly and leaned forward to hear. "Even before these human raids had started," Thrakhath said, "the Emperor in his wisdom had foreseen certain dangers along these lines and thus ordered a tremendous investment of wealth and material into the building of a secret construction yard. It is located in the conquered realm of the Hari on the far side of our Empire in relationship to the Terran Confederation." He took a holo cube out of his breast pocket and loaded it. Jukaga found this alone to be interesting, that Thrakhath had come to the this meeting fully prepared to reveal the extent of Project Hari. His own people had found out most of its well-kept secrets to be sure and it seemed that Thrakhath had expected Jukaga to force its full revelation at this meeting. On the main holo screen a map of the Empire appeared, the frontier with the Confederation at the top, Kilrah and the Empire in the middle, and far down at the bottom the conquered space of the now dead Hari, a collection of a thousand stars around which orbited more than a thousand blasted lifeless worlds. Thrakhath highlighted a single star on the screen deep within the former territory of the Hari. "Here, for the last five years, a new class of carriers has been tested and developed, overcoming the difficulties of translight jumping of ships above a certain size and mass. These new carriers, what we call the Hakaga class, are capable of carrying and servicing our newest Vatari-class fighters to be launched next year. With their increased size the carriers have shield generation systems capable of repulsing nearly any weapon the Confederation now has, including their Mark IV & V antimatter torpedoes." The image in the holo screen shifted and a carrier appeared. The clan leaders looked at it excitedly and then Thrakhath pushed a button on his monitor. Beside the carrier appeared a second image, that of a current fleet carrier. The room echoed with shouts of surprise. Even Jukaga could not conceal his curiosity. Though he had read the spy reports, the only images he had seen so far were grainy two dimensional shots clandestinely taken by a transport captain in his employ. The new carrier was at least twice the length of the old design, and bristled with six launch bays, three aft and three forward. As the image slowly turned inside the holo field he saw that the vulnerable engine nacelles were compl

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