Sword of Saladin
by Michael S. Roberts
House Del Sol battlecruiser Himalaya. Somewhere out there . . .
“Captain on the bridge!”
“As you were. Report.” Lady Eyla Melana dropped into Himalaya’s command chair, threw one leg casually over the armrest.
“Bogey, Skipper.” That was Commander Henderson, her executive officer. “Large metallic mass, warship outline, capitol ship.” He checked the sensor board. “No emissions, faint thermal signature. Optic profile strongly suggests. . .”Henderson showed mild surprise, “the Alliance dreadnought Sword of Saladin.”
“Has she pinged us yet?” Eyla asked. Henderson shook his head in the negative. Eyla glanced at her yeoman. “Coffee, please. New Tahitian.” Back to Henderson. “Put it on the big screen. And maintain emission control. We run silent.”
“Aye, Skipper, full emcon.”
“Comms.” Eyla looked to the communications station, chief Miller. “Signal Evans and Cossack the same. Tight-beam wave, no leakage.”
“Aye, Skipper,” Miller chuckled. “We hates leakage, we does. Ernest Evans, this is Himalaya. . .”
Eyla surveyed her bridge crew. On sensors, Henderson, taking over from a junior petty officer, probably working on her space warfare specialist pin. On weapons, master chief Simons, a lethal fire-controlman, recently back from instructor duty on Delta Pavonis. Shields, warrant officer al-Harad, already running system checks on her array. Helm, ensign Arturo, fresh from Academy but top of his class. Communications, chief Miller, now deep in meditation over his passive receivers after hailing the two escorting destroyers. Damage control, senior chief Trond, a Dobermensch, his black fur bristling as he snarled into his throatmike. Petty officers manned the secondary positions. Behind her, command master chief Tira Kaulaia, ready to fix any and all problems, a brilliant Chief-of-the-Boat.
“Very well.” Eyla relaxed, accepted the delicate porcelain cup, sipped black coffee. “We listen, we watch, and we prepare for trouble.” Sword of Saladin was House Faisal, a rival House sixty years ago, a rival House still.
Minutes earlier, Eyla had been luxuriating in a tropical shower, a privilege of rank seldom enjoyed. She’d come up from the enlisted ranks and remembered. Officers had it easy.
Eyla was indulging in pleasant reminiscences, studying her extensive tattoos in the holographic rainforest’s water-mirror: Pan-Pacifican style, most of them Tahitian or Samoan, some Mauri. One for sailing mastery, one for celestial navigation, an intricate textured pattern for mastery of the bone-breaking art kapua-lua, another for tantric adept. Then there were the modern ones: Terran shellback, for crossing Earth’s equator under sail. Centauran shellback, for the same on Alpha Centaur. Kensai-kanji, for mastery of the Japanese katana, albeit on New Tahiti. And lastly, a few that were done on a whim, but accomplishments nevertheless. Grey mortarboard, for graduating Academy at age 32, ten years older than the rest of the cadets. Stylized fist, memoir of a Tough Sheila bare-knuckle win in Australia. Grinning cartoon bull-head with rolling eyes, memento for swallowing five pounds of beef in a tramside bar-and-grille in the Barony of Texas.
The most important ones of all, though, ran from the nape of her neck to the small of her back. Six infant handprints, each ringed with fine scrollwork of six names and dates. Her children.
She had just rinsed her hair when the call piped in. “Captain. Unknown contact.”
Eyla reviewed her memory, recalling the Sword of Saladin. The greatest single loss of life in the First Elkay War, or so most presumed. She’d been surrounded and cut off from her screening vessels, savagely pounded by the alien warships. The flagship of House Faisal had fought well, crippling a dozen Elkay ships-of-the-line, but in the end she’d been severely damaged and overwhelmed. Her captain initiated hyperdrive in mid-battle, an emergency jump to get clear of the fight. Witnesses reported that the Elkay concentrated fire on her drive core just as the jump field came up; they wanted to pin her in place, prevent the jump, and kill one of the Solar Alliance’s largest and most powerful warships.
No-one knew where, or even if the jump was completed at all. Some philosopher-engineers suggested that she was trapped between hyperspace and realspace, half-jumped, a ghost. Regardless, she was lost, nearly six decades ago, when Eyla was still in diapers.
And yet here she was.
“Weapons,” Eyla addressed Simons, “I want all of her weapons targeted and locked optically. If she gets froggy, I want her slapped down hard.”
“Roger that, Skipper.” Simons grinned. “I’ve got the headwork done, just waiting for your command. Recommend we open with missiles, full particle- and plasma-battery barrage while the birds are in flight.”
“Agreed. Set it up, but optical targeting only.” Eyla returned his grin. “My command, you paint that beast with lasers and refine the targeting solutions.”
“Aye, Skipper. Paint with targeting lasers on your command only.”
“Very well.” Eyla folded her feet beneath her, lazy-lotus style, and sipped New Tahitian Gold. Taste of home.
Home. New Tahiti. Alpha Centauri. A ring of islands in an otherwise kilometer-deep sea, remnant of an ancient asteroid strike, emerald-green in an indigo sea. Home to her House and family.
Eyla skimmed the waves on the three-meter catamaran, clipping a daredevil fourteen knots. Her shoulders and backside brushed the surface of the water, a pleasant sting-slap and tingle as she balanced the tiny boat’s wind load with her body weight, its translucent sail stretched even tighter than Eyla’s tendons. She was already picturing her flashy finish to the high-speed sail run, cutting towards the white beach on a starboard reach, gauging the waves’ height and timing, running the little cat up onto the beach on a breaking wave. Relaxed stroll onto the sand wearing nothing but goggles and UV-resistant gel.
Waiting on the beach, she knew, would be an icy pina colada, a hammock stretched between a Terran royal palm and a Centauran feathertop, and a handsome young architect named Paul.
Eyla found her wave and turned toward shore, maintaining speed, finding her rhythm, spotting him on the beach holding two drinks aloft.
Eyla blinked, taste-memories of coconut-rum and architect fading. It was Henderson on the sensors. “She’s ranging us, targeting lasers and fire-control radar.”
“Al-Harad. Raise shields.” She turned her head to Simons. “Weapons. Light her up, get a solid skin-paint, hold fire. Warm up the birds. Bring main batteries, secondaries, and point-defense to full power.”
“Aye, Skipper,” the master chief sneer-snarled. “Fangs out.”
“Shields are up, Captain,” from al-Harad. “Angled for optimal deflection on the main threat vector.” Eyla relaxed; al-Harad knew more about shield work than the Spartans. The warrant officer glanced at the main display. “Ernest Evans and Cossack are shields hot as well.” A second glance. “As is the bogey. A lot of gaps, though. Her shields are in bad shape.”
“Very well. Simons. Adjust targeting solutions for shield gaps.” Eyla shifted her attention to her throatmike. “CAG. I want our Ready-one fighters out now. The rest on BARCAP ASAP.” Acronyms abound, she thought: Commander Air Group, Barrier Combat Air Patrol—anachronisms, but traditional—and of course As Soon As Possible.
“Roger, Skipper,” Commander Kisugi’s voice buzzed in her earbud. “Launching two Typhoons now-now-now, crewing the Ready-fives, scrambling all ASAP.” Eyla pictured his familiar arched eyebrow as he asked, “Elkay birds for dinner?”
“Nope.” She watched the main screen as two Typhoons appeared from the ventral catapults, powerful all-purpose space-superiority fighters. “Unknowns, used to be semi-friendlies. Do not engage unless fired upon. Primary mission is recon and forward observer.”
“Roger.” Kisugi clicked off. Eyla trusted him to run the fighter battle if it came.
Eyla loved the Typhoons. It had taken some serious wrangling to get into flight school, even with her status as a minor House noble. But her command master chief had mastered the ancient art of military bureaucracy, and the proper paperwork was flawlessly filled out. She chose the argument that as captain of a battlecruiser carrying four squadrons of Typhoons she should know their capabilities intimately, and that had sealed the deal. Not only flight school, but the flight school, the Erich Hartmann Fighter Academy in Germanaustria. The best instructors in the entire Solar Alliance.
Eyla finished fifth in her class of twenty at what used to be traditional retirement age, even managing to score a kill on Instructor Kisugi in a two-on-two dogfight. When she returned to duty as a Fleet line officer, Kisugi came with her.
“They’re firing.” Al-Harad made minute adjustments to the shield array. “She’s weak, but two main turrets are still up. Massive railguns, but I can block most of it.”
“Simons.” Eyla shifted forward, steepling fingers at her chin. “Fry ‘em. Helm, begin a six-degree-per-second roll to starboard, unmask our batteries in sequence.”
“Six per sec delta vee, aye, Skipper.” Arturo brushed the large trackball, setting the battlecruiser into a slow roll. The main screen showed Ernest Evans and Cossack moving to flank the massive hulk.
“Lettin’ the birds off the chain, Skipper,” Simons growled. “Hawks away. Copperheads away. Foxes away. Reloading caissons. Five seconds to time-on-target strike. Switching to main guns.”
“Get the range, then fire for effect.”
Lighting flickered and steadied. Holographic display showed a shield penetration and hull strike. Eyla flicked her eyes to Trond. “Damage control.”
“Damage reports, Captain.” Trond’s ears were perked forward in concentration, his muzzle thin-lipped. “Minor overloads on some shields, near burn-through on decks six and seven, frames eighty and eighty-one portside, but didn’t penetrate, no casualties. Hull is intact.”
“Hit!” Simons crowed. “First salvo very effective, her shields are down-down-down, solid hits on the two big turrets. Hawks punched six decks deep, Copperheads followed ‘em right in. Foxes cooked what shields they had. Continuing broadsides, targeting secondaries.”
Himalaya rolled, unmasking main and secondary energy weapons in sequence, pounding the massive old giant. The battlecruiser would have been no match for a modern dreadnought at full strength, but Himalaya was the latest generation of warship, and Sword of Saladin was past her prime. A grizzled, grey dragon nursing ancient, unhealed wounds.
Saladin sat immobile, firing obsolete missiles and very accurate—if weak now—beams of charged ions, plasma, and lasers. Even with six times the tonnage of Himalaya, she was outclassed. Al-Harad concentrated on her defensive displays, angling and stengthening shields to deflect or absorb the incoming fire. Shields shifted as the ship rolled, spreading the power load and preventing overheat and shutdown.
“Captain, we’re being hailed—” from Miller.
“Captain, they’re launching fighters—” from Kisugi.
“Captain, their volleys are pretty much done—” from Simons.
“Miller, open a visual channel. CAG, get high six fix on their birds and hound ‘em. Simons, hold fire.” Eyla focused on the tactical display, peripheral vision taking in the optical and laserpaint image of Sword of Saladin. “All right, my friend. You want to parley, let’s parley. Miller, you got that channel open?”
The man in Saladin’s command chair was ancient, a glowering, bearded grandfather. His youngest bridge officer looked to be at least eighty years old. He spoke sternly in a guttural tongue, showing only a hint of surprise in his weathered eyes.
“Miller,” Eyla spoke sideways, keeping her eyes on the old man. “Get someone up here that speaks Arabic. Or Farsi.”
“Beg pardon, Captain,” al-Harad said quietly. “I speak both.” The warrant officer was a dissident from Brunei who’d applied for asylum at the House Del Sol embassy in Indo-Malaya back in her mid-teens.
“Very well. Miller, belay my last. What did he just say, Warrant?”
“He sends greetings to the captain’s concubine and asks when the captain himself will be back on the bridge.”
Simons choked back a laugh, cut his eyes and a finger questioningly toward the main battery controls. Eyla gave an infinitesimal shake of her head. Simons feigned disappointment.
“Tell him this. That I am Lady Eyla Melana, captain of the House Del Sol battlecruiser Himalaya. Tell him that we see he is in dire need of rescue and that we are here to render assistance to his crew, and to salvage his disabled vessel.”
Al-Harad translated. The old man listened, then snarled out a short response.
“He says he is Prince-Admiral Falad of House Faisal, captain of the Sword of Saladin, and he does not require a woman’s assistance.”
“Tell him,” Eyla’s eyes hardened, “Saladin opened fire without warning or parley, an act of war if I wish to report it as such, and that I will claim her as a prize if necessary. Alliance Admiralty Law still applies.” She waited for the exchange.
“He answers . . .” al-Harad looked mildly uncomfortable. “He impolitely suggests that you have intercourse with yourself.”
“Tell him that when I am comfortably seated in Saladin’s command chair with a mug of fermented grape, I will be doing exactly that.” She turned to the communication console. “Miller, as soon as she’s done, cut comms. Don’t wait for a response.” Eyla snapped her fingers. “Well. The mystery of the Sword of Saladin is solved. We take her as prize.”
Saladin launched a total of seven squadrons of antiquated Saracen fighter-bombers. Outnumbered almost two to one, Kisugi’s four squadrons of state-of-the-art space-superiority Typhoons slashed through the formations, scattering and destroying the ancient warbirds and their equally ancient pilots. A few of them had kept their skills and reflexes, Kisugi noted, but Saladin might as well have pushed Japanese Zeros out of the hangar. On board Himalaya, the bridge crew watched the holo-display and listened.
“Red Queen lead to Werewolf lead—send a wing in low, gut-shoot that advance element.”
“Queen Seven, you’ve got one on your six—never mind. Good shooting, Palmer.”
“Three bandits down, gauss overheated. Switching missiles.”
“Bandit down. Debris damage, clipped my starboard autocannon.”
“Break off and assess.”
“That’s five! I’m an ace! I’m an ace!”
“Cool your jets, Cougar Eight. Break off and take barrier position. And calm down. Plenty here for everybody.”
“Cougar Eight, Cougar Eight! You’ve got five—make that six—on your tail. Accelerate and break left.”
“Cougar Eight is hit. Palmer! Eject!”
“She’s gone. No bailout pod! Repeat, no bailout!”
“This is Cougar Lead. Waste ‘em. Himalaya, we’ve lost Cougar Eight. Ensign Palmer.”
Eyla pictured Ensign Savanna Palmer, Cougar Eight. Fresh from flight school, gone from rookie to ace to corpsicle within five minutes in the rolling furball. They’d raise a glass to her tonight.
“Hammer Two here, I’m skosh for ammo, breaking off.”
“I’m hit. Main cannon’s fried, otherwise good to go.”
“Break away and provide cover as you can.”
“I have no targets! I have no targets!”
“No targets here.”
“Confirm that. Himalaya, you see any bad guys out here?”
“This is Henderson. Negative. Clear space.”
“This is the captain. Get the damaged birds home, expend remaining missiles on anything that looks like a functioning gun battery or missile rack. Do a sweep for Palmer to be very sure. Then put one squadron back out as BARCAP. They may have more fighters.”
Colonel Sholmir stood at rigid attention in the captain’s suite, muzzle held erect and tail tightly curled at the small of his back, proper procedure for a Dobermensch Marine officer. Eyla’s chief-of-the-boat and yeoman maintained military bearing behind her desk.
“We board her.” Eyla studied the Chinese porcelain coffee mug in her hands. “Take prisoners whenever possible, but we need to storm the bridge and get control. Your Marines up for that?”
“Of course, Captain,” he marfed, focusing on enunciation. The Dobermensch were fierce, loyal, and lethal, but their Canis Sapiens vocal structure had problems with AmeroEnglish. “Full battalion for the assault, second battalion in reserve.”
“Very good. Have your electronics guys hack the onboard systems ASAP, get better deck plans, personnel roster, all that. If we’re lucky, they’re still location-chipped.”
“Of course, Captain. My troops are geared and briefed already.” He maintained stiff military bearing. “Permission to speak?”
“Of course.” Eyla sipped her coffee.
“These men may be osteoarthritic relics, or they may have sixty-plus years of fanatical practice and training.”
“Assume worst-case, colonel. They’re dangerous as hell until proven otherwise.”
“My question, ma’am . . .” Sholmir looked briefly embarrassed, as if he’d chewed the captain’s sneakers. “Will you be joining us again on this one?”
“Captain on the bridge!”
“As you were. Helm. Match our ventral fighter bay with their forward dorsal.” Eyla now wore the battle-dress fatigues of flat monochrystalline-weave black, Krupp-Arisaka blaster pistol on the hip—custom trigger and fast-acquisition combat sights courtesy of Hollands Gunsmiths of London—and the katana, forged and folded on New Tahiti by master swordsmith Maria Salamanca-Hirowashi. “Match drift vectors and lock us on.”
“Roger that, Skipper.” Arturo hazarded a sly grin. “Mounting her and putting us on top.”
“Colonel Sholmir.” Eyla tapped the throatmike. “Heads-up your troopers. We breach at her hangar in five minutes.”
Captain Melana strode into the Sword of Saladin’s forward hangar deck, one hand on katana hilt, the other swinging freely. The Marines already had it secured, less than a minute after the plasma charges breached the armored bay doors. The firefight had been brief, and Sholmir’s elite Marines had rapidly overrun the token geriatric resistance. Now they swept corridor-to-corridor and compartment-to-compartment. Twenty bearded prisoners and nine corpses were lined against the empty fighter bay. Four wounded Marines were already being tended. Engineers and technicians worked to electronically intrude into the old warship’s computers and communications, hacking and data-mining.
“Report.” Eyla focused on the young Marine officer in charge, two meters and a hundred kilos at the least. “Mister Sailele?”
“Aye, ma’am.” The huge Samoan lieutenant snapped to attention. “Our casualties are light so far, but we have three dead. Theirs are heavier, at least thirty dead. We have over a thousand prisoners, most of them locked in storage bays and staterooms. The hackers just broke into the system a few minutes ago, so we’ve got control of the compartment seals. We’ve neutralized most of the resistance by locking them in.”
“At ease, Sailele.” Eyla squatted. “You’re too tall. Take a knee.” She adjusted the sword, moving it farther back on her belt.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Lieutenant Sailele removed his visored helmet, used it as a stool. When he laid his plasma carbine on the deck, Eyla noted blood on the bayonet. “We’ve got pockets of resistance in the engineering spaces and at the bridge—Corporal!” Sailele hailed a corporal holding a portable holo-unit, now wired into one of the hangar datapanels. “Bring up the latest deck plans.” The lieutenant pointed into the two-meter hologram when it appeared. “Fighting’s been heaviest here . . . and here. That’s the bridge. The colonel’s there now. About ten holdouts, including that admiral, we think.” Sailele focused on Eyla’s face. “Most of these guys are pushovers, but a few of them can fight pretty well. Hand-to-hand, blades for the most part. We’ve only run across a few with blasters and slugthrowers. Mostly bayonet and knife work. They stick to the narrow corridors and restricted spaces, too close for webguns and stun grenades. Gotta dig ‘em out.”
“So they still hold the bridge.” Eyla reached into the hologram, spreading her fingers to expand the bridge into greater detail. The corporal tapped a control stud; Arabic sigils became AmeroEnglish. “Let’s assume they can override our override from there. Or initiate self-destruct if they’re real jerks about it.”
“Aye, ma’am. They’re trying. Our guys keep changing security codes on them.” Sailele peered into the datascroll at the edge of the hologram. “Also, we’ve got access to crew roster, damage control, pretty much everything. Looks like most of the crew is dead, either battle injuries sixty years ago or old age since then. They’ve been doling out anagathics to the senior officers and chiefs, keeping them healthy. Looks like they converted two of the fighter bays into hydroponics, too.”
“You were reading the display before the translation.” Eyla studied his face. “You know Arabic?”
“Yes ma’am. Fifth and sixth form on New Tahiti before officer school.”
“Very good.” She stood. “Take me to the bridge.”
“He says he’ll detonate the onboard atomics.” Colonel Sholmir listened carefully to the gunnery sergeant translating. “Says he has a deadman switch already activated, with a hidden cut-off.” The translator, Gunny Filitov, added, “He sounds serious.”
Sholmir turned and half-bowed as Eyla approached. “Captain.”
“Colonel.” Eyla looked over the Marines covering the heavy blast door into the bridge. “Sit-rep?”
“There are ten of them in there, Captain. They claim to have a deadman switch on the ship’s remaining atomic ordinance. Our techies have eyes-on, and there’s a big red button pushed in and held down by one of the men in there.”
“Can you breach and get to it fast enough?”
“Yes ma’am,” Sholmir growled. “Gunnery sergeant Filitov here will take that task.” Eyla nodded to Filitov, an occasional sparring partner, the Himalaya’s bantamweight Sambo champion, laser-fast and insanely immune to pain. “She’ll secure the button before his thumb comes off of it.” Filitov was already removing her carbine and helmet, getting light.
“Very well.” Eyla rolled her shoulders. “Have the hackers breach it.”
The rush was expected. Two greybeards with short scimitars—cutlasses, really—charged the Marines as soon as the blast door opened. Both focused on Captain Melana as Filitov duck-rolled under them and dove into the bridge. Scimitars steady, they advanced. Eyla recognized the trained stance of expert swordsmen.
Iaijutsu. Noun. Japanese. The drawstrike: a single move to unsheathe the katana and execute a killing blow or sequence of blows.
Eyla’s upswing caught the left-hand swordsman below the chin, halving the skull from right jawbone to left temple then arcing downswing to the right-hand scimitarman at the clavicle, cutting ribs and lung, scoring hipbone, ending ten centimeters above the deck. Eyla held the kneeling position briefly, one knee brushing the deck, blade level and motionless, as the Marines stormed past her.
When she looked up, Filitov had the button-holder’s arm locked to the console, one leg hooked under the panel for leverage, the other under his chin, forcing his neck backward to the breaking point. Her wrist tendons strained as she ground the old man’s thumb solidly onto the button.
The admiral held a long scimitar. He spoke. Sailele translated.
“He says he invokes House Code. Honor duel between nobles.”
“So now the concubine is a worthy opponent, I see?” Eyla smiled grimly. “Tell him it’s bloody well on. Clear this space!”
Two Marines had already replaced Filitov and her captive. One kept a thumb pressed on the red button while Filitov studied its glowing sigils. The Marines held the remaining bridge crew in restraining holds. Colonel Sholmir scowled, ears back in disapproval, but House Code was House Code, and Lady Melana was both a noble and a captain.
Prince-Admiral Falad looked Methuselaic, but he was fast and steady. Lady Eyla kept the katana in high guard as he circled, his own blade resting just off one shoulder. He struck out fast, a shoulder-level arc. Eyla caught it on the katana hilt, launched a lightning counterstrike at Falad’s neck. Scimitar and katana resonated with the impact.
The gut-punch surprised Eyla, a left straight to the solar plexus. She doubled over as he raised the scimitar for a strike to the back of the neck. Eyla surged up on her toes, headbutt catching him under the chin. She dropped the katana, grabbing two handfuls of beard and hair, threw herself into a side-roll. Torque, technique, and leverage snapped the admiral’s neck at the second and third cervical vertebrae.
“Deadman switch is a bluff, Skipper.” Filitov shook her head. “Roughly translated, it’s the emergency auto-docking button.”
“Very well.” Eyla looked down at the dead Falad, then speculatively at Saladin’s command chair, smiling. “Tell Miller to send word to the House. We have raised the Jolly Roger and are taking home a prize. Then have a glass of wine brought and clear the bridge. I’d like a moment alone.”
The author and his wife live at anchor aboard a 33-foot sailboat. Solar panels and wind provide their energy. Isolation and eccentric interaction both feed creativity out there on the water.