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By the Horns (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 90 - By the Horns[]

Ash Ridge Special Weapons Facility #4
Ash Ridge, Zeta Continent, Taurus
Taurian Concordat
March 20th, 3026

Helena Vickers was ushered into a small, but well-furnished conference room and the three men seated there rose as she entered. Jack Fletcher followed her, and the door closed behind the two of them.

"Fleet Marshal," said the oldest of the three. "I am Peter Wilkens—I run Ash Ridge for the Protector's government. This is my senior design engineer, Hamilton Serrano," the second man nodded his head at the pair of Taurian Naval officers, "and the head of our Weapons Research Division, Olin Burke," the youngest of the three nodded in turn and he grinned at Helena and Jack. "Please, feel free to sit," Wilkens said with a gesture towards one side of the conference table.

"Do either of you care for refreshments?" he asked as the two of them took their seats, followed by Burke and Serrano, and then Wilkens himself.

"No, thank you," answered Helena. "When the Protector told me that you wished to see me—to see if what your young man has come up with is—in fact—feasible, let alone practical, I told him I am not an engineer. Which is why Commander Fletcher is here with us. So, now that we are all here, following six hours of travel time to the other side of Taurus, why are we here?"

Wilkens sighed and he ran the fingers of one hand through his thinning hair . . . Helena cracked a slight smile as she looked at Jack. He shrugged in recognition of the irony, but Helena supposed it must be relatively common to all middle-aged engineers—the good ones, at any rate.

"You do know what we produce here, correct?" he asked.

"The fusion warheads for the Taurian Defense Force and Taurian Concordat Navy—I believe that another facility is responsible for the more commonly deployed fission weapons in service," Helena answered.

"Yes. We received your schematics for the warheads emplaced on the Killer Whale and White Shark missiles and are pleased to announce that these can be produced by our facilities at a fairly decent rate of production. We have not yet begun to produce any of those warheads, because at the moment we do not have any factories able to build the missiles."

"It will be six months—possibly a year," added Jack, "before those facilities are ready to start production."

Wilkens nodded his understanding. "But we also received the schematics for your Barracuda missiles. Are either of you familiar with the Asset Management Weapon?" he asked.

Both Jack and Helena shook their heads answering no to the question, and Wilkens sighed again.

"It is—it was—a terror weapon designed by the Free Worlds League and used with abandon during the First Succession War. And the other Great Houses copied it and built their own stockpiles . . . at least until they lost all of their WarShips and the ability to build Barracudas. Olin?"

The young man leaned forward. "What the Free World engineers did was remove the conventional warhead of the Barracuda, along with all tracking and targeting systems in order to fit a three megaton warhead to the chassis."

Helena blinked as Jack sat up straight in his chair beside her. "Did I hear you correctly? A three-megaton warhead? On a Barracuda?"

"Yes, ma'am," Burke answered. "It was useless against any target that could evade, but as purely ballistic orbit-to-surface weapon. It worked and it worked very well. Strategic targets—military facilities, factories, cities or anything that couldn't move could be hit with overwhelming force."

"My god," whispered Jack. "if Forlough had those during the War . . ." and his voice trailed off.

"Now," continued Burke, "we don't want to duplicate the AMW that the Free Worlds League used. We Taurians aren't planning on glassing entire planets and their populations, after all!" he barked in a bite of laughter that Helena guessed was to hide his nervousness. Because she was aware—and if she was aware, so were the men from this time—that there were some who would welcome the chance to use such weapons on Davion targets.

"Besides, 3-MT is a bit of overkill for what we need. No, Fleet Marshal, Commander," Burke continued, "the AMW got me thinking. An Alamo warhead—with a nominal yield of 5 kilotons—is only a bit larger than the conventional warhead that the Barracudas pack. Why can't we mate an Alamo bus to a Barracuda chassis?"

Helena thought for a moment and then she turned her head to Jack, but the engineer was already scribbling on a note-pad he always carried in his pocket and then he nodded. "We'd have to lose some of the tracking and targeting systems, but it would be doable." Then he frowned. "But it has one-tenth the punch of a Santa Ana, the nuclear warhead that can be fitted to a White Shark."

"Still more than enough to make any DropShip ever made go bye-bye," answered Burke with a shrug. "I've run the numbers, and I think that just stripping out the advanced TTA systems that make the Barracuda so accurate—along the standard warhead—should give us enough space to squeeze in an Alamo. And we might be able to boost the yield to 10-KT as well. In a missile package with the range of a Barracuda and the same accuracy as a White Shark or Killer Whale."

He paused for a moment. "If you think the government might be interested in Ash Ridge pursuing this line of development, that is."

"Jack?" Helena asked and her chief engineer nodded.

"There's nothing radical about the idea—we just never thought about putting such a small yield nuke on a missile bus. We've got Alamos for our aerospace fighters, but I never even thought about pulling out the conventional warhead and fitting one to a 'Cudda body."

"The devil lies in the details," added Burke. "Getting it to work will need people who know the Barracuda and are familiar with its systems. This is which is why we need you, Fleet Marshal, and you, Commander."

Helena sat back and then she smiled. "It certainly would surprise the hell out of an incoming fighter strike, wouldn't it? I'll recommend to the Protector that Ash Ridge be allowed to work on the design and development of the . . .," he voice trailed off and she turned her head to look at Jack. "What the hell are we going to call it?"

But before Jack could answer, Wilkens cleared his throat. "We have—temporarily—designated the concept as Project Hellfire."

Helena chuckled. "Hellfire. I like it." she spoke in a low and husky voice, and beside her Jack started laughing.

"If we can get the yield up to 10-KT, Fleet Marshal," he said, "Hellfire would be a good name for the warhead itself." He paused and then he grinned. "And think about what it would mean after we get Vandenberg operational, what with how we are planning to arm her!"

Helena laughed, and seeing the confusion on the other three faces, she smiled broadly. "Jack here has already got plans in the works to rebuild Vandenberg as an Anti-Aerospace Destroyer . . . packing forty-eight Barracuda launchers!"

Wilkens blinked and then he smiled. Serrano smiled. Burke just laughed. "My god, if we can Hellfire to work . . .," he began, and then he laughed again, along with Helena and she nodded her head.

"All right, Mister Wilkens, I'll take it to the Protector and recommend approval. What do you need from me?"

And the five people in the conference room began to hash out details

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