Brooklyn Sector (U-18)
Normally, Flight Lieutenant Grace Caparelli hated hot standby. Stuck in a sealed flight suit in a cramped gunship with two other human beings, all three of them whiling away the hours of alert status with increasingly-terrible jokes. Plus-ten was comfortable enough; sure, she’d still be stuck in a hot flight suit, but her helmet would be off and she’d be in a ready room, not the tiny crew compartment. Flight crews were stood up for deployment alerts more than most anyone on a line-ship even realized, and nine times out of ten they were just stood down again after some uncomfortable waiting.
This time was different. Tension and eagerness displaced boredom and discomfort. Word from Group command was that this was for real, no shit, absolute 100% chance of a full multi-carrier strike. Launched from
hyperspace, in the first full operational deployment of the new SLAM2 system. This was, to put it succinctly, the Real Deal, and that put an entirely different face on the waiting.
Finally, endless, eternal minutes later, the command channel went live again, Group Commander Enrico Chavez’s voice coming though more clearly than it ever would after launch, “All wings, SLAM2 launch in one minute. SLAM2 launch in one minute.”
Preflight had been done some time ago. System checks were already complete; Grace’s eyes flicked over the status indicators anyway out of pure reflex. Rows of steady green lights stared unblinkingly back at her. Beside them, ghostly numbers bloomed into existence on her helmet HUD. 00:48
She swallowed once, quietly, last-minute tension fluttering in her stomach at the realization that her wing was going to be in the first launch wave and probably the vanguard of the strike itself. She shook her head slightly to clear it, careful to keep the movement subtle enough that her suit helmet wouldn’t reflect it. It wouldn’t do for the two other members of her flight crew to realize how nervous she was. She was an experienced pilot, but the sheer scale of the launch and scope of the mission put everything she’d done prior to shame.
“Alright, you two know what to do. Get ready for a bumpy ride, the transition from Direwolf’s
hyper field to our own is always rough. Terrence, set up the hyperdrive generator under computer control, no funny business trying to be ‘more efficient’ this time, not in the middle of a launch like this.”
The cockpit hummed and throbbed as the small gunship’s overpowered drives and reactor came to full power, the rumbling snarl muted by the noise-canceling gear built into the helmet comm gear. Still, it rippled and buzzed through the bodies of each and every crewman aboard the ready gunships. The numerals continued to tick down--and then froze.
The glowing blue numbers suddenly turned red at the same time as they stopped counting down. At the same time, Chavez’s voice snapped sharply through Grace’s earpieces, “Abort launch, abort launch, all wings power down to standby loads.” After a brief pause filled with as many curses as there were gunship crew, he added, “We’ve got a failure in one of the SLAM2 booms. Can’t launch in hyper, don’t have the time to slow down and do it in n-space. You’re all being retasked as reserve elements and close cover when the carriers drop sublight with the capital ships.”
“Son of a bitch.”
The SLAM2 systems on the other eleven fleet carriers of First and Second fleets, Royal Navy, worked as designed. Watching sensors saw the hyper field strength of eleven contacts suddenly begin to rise with no attendant increase in speed, spiking up to preposterous levels indicative of much larger ships. Barely a minute later, hundreds, then thousands of contacts began to hash superluminal sensors, disgorging from the abnormally-large signatures and streaking away towards the nearby Empire Star fleet. At the same time, the whole fleet altered course and formation, swinging around onto the same course line but in a formation that left a wide gap for the significantly-faster gunships to steam through.
was a lonely place with the entire carrier’s decks’s empty. All but the experimental Hermes
wing. Wing Commander Francis Jackman’s pilots and crews hadn’t even been stood up at all, their craft were technically in maintenance storage. Once the string wings were clear, though, Jackman had pulled the craft from storage onto the decks, gotten the ground crews to prep them, and was now in one of the ready rooms along with some of his flight crews. With the other nine wings launched, there were more than enough vacant ready-rooms to go around.
“Dammit Jackman, you made this game up.”
Jackman replied with a grin as he threw down a hand carefully devoid of any aces, “Could be. Could not be. You lot still agreed to play it, so who’s looking more foolish now?” As he spoke, he slid a small pile of plastic chips across the table to join an already-impressive mound there. While making a show of counting them, he asked, “So, another hand?”
One by one, his opponents, pilots, crew, one ground crew chief, all threw in a few chips to the center of the table. The man in the worn coveralls of a crew chief remarked, “Shit-all else to do until the strike comes back, even with your birds on-deck.” After a brief pause, he tilted his head aside, “Why are
they on-deck, anyway?”
Jackman answered with a shrug as he started to deal, “In case. Sure, Warlow might not want us around. Sure, the damned birds are first-gen testbeds, nothing I’d really want to take into a fight. But wouldn’t we all just look like assholes if we were needed and they were all still in storage?
New Colossus-class dreadnought ESNS Mauler
Flagship, ESR First Fleet
Y Plus 3 Hours
Admiral Jack Ellis suppressed an urge to run a hand over his shaven scalp. He wasn’t soft or careless- border patrol on the edge of the Red-Blue Remilitarized Zone wasn’t a job for weaklings. He’d lost count of the number of times his ships had shooed Scarlet and Confederate patrol groups away from the border, how many reconnaissance flights and monitoring operations First Fleet had done over the years. He knew the Reds, and the Blues, and he’d been expecting the Scarlet fleets to move for weeks.
But he’d been as surprised as anyone else in the Republic a few hours ago, when the combined Scarlet battlefleet broke to coreward
from their base around Argosy, instead of moving to roll up the Confederate positions opened up by their victory and the MCN’s strategic withdrawal. What the hell was going on over on Mystryl? With the Karlacks howling in the Outback, now
of all times they decided to come charging through the border?
That charging rhinoceros of a fleet had already barged past the hyperspace beacons and perimeter stations at the surface of ESR-claimed space. And they were coming in loaded for Bragulan: something like fifty capital ships- a lot of them light, but still fifty
- nearly a hundred cruiserweights, and an enormous ball of fog that might be a mob of gunboats or might be a figment of his computers’ imagination. Something like five or six times the Republic frontier fleet’s tonnage, headed not quite
straight for him, but only about half a radian off.
His orders were thankfully clear- get the hell out of the way
. Reinforcements from Hudson sector, drawn away from the Karlack threat to spinward, were on the way. If they could form up in enough mass and push in behind the speedy Reds, catch them against the forces mustering for the defense of Brooklyn sector, they might just be able to put the whole mob into the nutcracker.
They just might.
Admiral Ellis’ main plot showed dozens of light-years of space, distances that fleets would take hours to cross. Nothing that happened on that screen could take immediate effect, there was no urgent danger to life and limb when the shimmering thread of the Scarlet battlefleet’s course projection began to shift. Nothing urgent about the death sentence passed on so many of his spacers as the invading armada twisted about, slowed a fraction, then picked up speed, a rippling mist of uncountable gunboat contacts spraying ahead of it... all headed directly for his outnumbered frontier command.
The hazy smear on Flight Commander Edison Cramer’s C3 display vanished suddenly, replaced by a rapidly-populating scatter of individual contact IDs. A few seconds later, his wing leader’s voice crackled in his helmet comm system, utterly redundant, “Tracking updates incoming. Strike targets as previously assigned. Anyone without a target, you’re on CAP and opportunity.”
“Thank you, mother,” Edison’s systems operator muttered across the little gunship’s internal comm net. Edison turned a snorting laugh into a cough until he could check that he wasn’t transmitted, after which he just snorted and shook his head. Then characters began to salt the C3 pane. His trained eyes flicked through the formation, seeking out the proper code...which then flashed white just before his eyes landed on it. CV2. Carrier Two. Without precise knowledge of the target fleet’s makeup, and with very limited pre-strike planning time, the Royal Navy strike had been divided up into preplanned groups, so that all that was needed was a set of last-minute target designations. If there hadn’t been any carriers, CV2 would have been turned loose as cover. As it was, it had a target.
A different voice came through his earpiece, this one a more familiar one. “CV2, we have our target. Assume we’ll be under heavy fighter attack for this one. With any luck, they’ll have bombers on-deck, but we can’t count on it. Winston, Pendergast, your wings are on fighter cover. Take snapshots at CV2 if you can, but that’s not your primary. Hendricks, Kamarov, go for disabling shots if you can. Hyperdrives primary, sublights and bay doors or hangar retaining fields secondary.” Strike Commander Allison Fetter’s voice was cool, calm, almost detatched in even through the interference of hyperspace as she delivered last-minute instructions. And then the numbers were flashing down towards zero and Edison’s gunship flashed down into realspace along with four wings of Royal Navy gunships in close proximity to an Empire Star carrier.
Had they been alone, that would have been a death sentence. They were not.
Edison’s plot went wild at first as not hundreds but thousands of RKS gunships exploded forth from hyperspace. The signatures of hostile fighters already in space and waiting hashed it even more until he cursed and scrambled across a few controls. Abruptly, the thousands of friendly gunship contacts were replaced by a few dozen icons representing each strike and a percentage beside each. At a flash of light on another, much tighter-focused sensor display, he wrenched the gunship through a punishing corkscrew that the inertial compensators couldn’t entirely damp out, his own body straining at the restraint harness as a flight of Yorkie fighters swept past with guns blazing. The gunship’s hull shuddered and twitched as the close-defense railguns opened fire, sending rapid-fire bursts of high-speed projectiles chasing after the attackers even as Edison pulled out of the spin and back on course for an attack run.
He grunted in satisfaction at the sight of a flight of five covering gunships looping in to pick off the Empire Star fighters that’d just taken a shot at him, but the main focus of his attention was on the increasingly-detailed threat profile the strike’s assorted sensors were assembling on the carrier rapidly growing in his forward view. With a gentle touch, Edison altered course to swing beneath the field of fire of one point-defense battery, only to snarl a quick curse and reverse the correction as another battery positioned to cover the gap he’d slipped into opened fire and was dutifully tagged by the tactical network. Unable to position his craft out of the field of fire of the strange, pulsing energy weapons, he instead began swinging in a tight, erratic spiral, swinging in and out of curves without warning while retaining the same rough course. The four veteran pilots that made up the rest of Cramer’s flight followed him in, each dancing through a hail of fire in a fluid, sinuous evasive pattern.
And then there were three.
A hail of fire slashed laterally across CV2’s line of attack, a number of striking gunships vanishing in clouds of vapor or tumbling out of formation and shedding debris. The carefully-coordinated attack began to unravel into frantic evasive maneuvers as fire from an unengaged ESR cruiser sliced across the carrier’s own defensive fire, making it nearly impossible to set up an attack run on one ship without the other cutting the strike to ribbons. No order to abort had been given, though...and then Edison’s eyes widened as he realized that one of the suddenly-missing gunships was Alexei Kamarov’s, the commander of Edison’s own strike wing. His mouth began to open, a finger keying up the wing-wide channel, when his trained eyes plucked a crucial bit of data from the chaos of evading gunships.
An icon labelled ‘L5’ that had just dropped from hyperspace on top of the cruiser that was giving his own strike so much grief. The cruiser that was also
tagged as ‘L5.’
Light Five. Their strike was late, and that delay had cost CV2 a number of good crews and birds, but they were there at last. Edison keyed up the channel again, this time snapping out orders with greater confidence, “Cramer here, Kamarov’s down, I’m assuming wing command. Free evasion until my mark. L5’s on-station, give them a few seconds and that cruiser will be busy.”
Freed of the constraint of an attack run for the moment, the gunships of CV2 leapt into a series of frantic evasive maneuvers, diving and swirling in a pattern of Gordian complexity on his plot. As soon as he took command, that display had shifted from showing only his own truncated wing to a more zoomed-out view of the entire wing’s survivors. The overall C3 plot showed that the rest of the wing was following suit...and within the space of ten or fifteen second-shaped eternities, the crossfire spraying from the Yorkie cruiser vanished, the embattled ship too busy dealing with its own problems to attempt to shield the carrier.
“Cramer to wing, resume strike.”
Suiting action to words, Edison’s reefed his own gunship out of a tight turn and onto a more restrained pattern similar to his earlier erratic spiral. A light began blinking amber on the outskirts of his peripheral vision; the wing’s gunnery specialists were working together on a firing solution. When it went green, it would be his responsibility as wing commander to take the shot.
As the gap between CV2 and its prey fell towards effective lance range, another gunship vanished from his plot, then a second, defensive fire taking advantage of the relatively sedate pace of the attackers’ evasive maneuvers in the run-up to a massed strike. Cramer’s jaw clenched; he’d always hated losing crews, and even this new to the job of wing commander he still felt them as the vanished from what had so recently been a plot that only showed the four other craft of his flight. Ahead of him, Hendricks’ wing took their shots, blazing cobalt lance-fire stabbing deep into the carrier from the thirty-odd remaining gunships in that wing. The carrier’s shields burned with a strobing blue corona as they fought to ward off the needle-thin beams flickering in and out of existence like flashbulbs. By and large they succeeded; only a few beams kissed the hull, and those were attenuated to the point that all they could achieve was superficial damage.
That paved the way for Edison’s wing. The fire-control light flashed green at last, Edison’s grip tightening on the controls. He glanced at the range counter, an unseen grimace tracing his face from inside the helmet. Still outside optimal range, but the localized shield disruptions opened by Hendricks’ wing wouldn’t last long. A third gunship blew apart, this time slowly enough that the crew compartment’s escape charges blasted it free of the disintegrating wreckage. The numbers flashed downwards. Edison wrenched his own craft through a tight half-roll, just enough to avoid an Empire Star fighter that never even realized he was there. The thumping chatter of the close-defense railguns juddered the hull again; the fighter’s trace winked out. He glanced over again. Outside of optimal range, but close enough, and the shields wouldn’t remain degraded long.
His thumb flipped up a transparent shield and stabbed down on the controls that triggered not his own craft’s weapons, but every weapon slaved to central fire control across the wing. The actual firing of the weapon was silent, just capacitor banks discharging through an energy mount heavier than any craft the size of a simple gunship could power. Waste heat seeped through the spaceframe as the pulse-lance fired, followed by a rise in pitch of the thrumming sound and sensation coming from the fusion generator as it began to refill the capacitors.
The effect on the carrier was a good deal more dramatic. Thirty-three beams stabbed from the surviving members of the strike, and the vast majority of those blew clean through shields left vague, hazy, and porous in the wake of the first attack run. Beneath, they stabbed deep into the aft quarter of the Empire Star carrier, armour vaporizing and spraying into space amidst a spray of atmosphere. Flames sprayed into the void for several seconds before emergency systems came online to contain the air leaks, but that was secondary. As Edison pulled up and away to set for another pass and give the wing’s lances time to rebuild a charge, the carrier staggered in space, engine rooms on fire or wrecked from deep, penetrating strikes. A more heavily-armored ship might have shrugged it off, and the ship was far from disabled, but the sudden strike had left her limping.
The strike commander’s voice cracked across CV2’s network suddenly, snapping a quick order, “Pendergast, retask to strike, Winston, you’re alone on cover. Cramer’s opened up a hole, get in there and kick it in before they can compensate.” Edison’s first thought as she began to speak was at least
she’s still alive,
followed by a flush of pride. A quick glance at the target’s status confirmed it; something in his strike had knocked out one of the aft shield generators, leaving a small but noticeable gap where the carrier’s shields weren’t destabilized, they were missing.
He glanced over at the charge indicator for his own lance, biting back a curse as the glowing red 13%
failed to suddenly jump upwards. A moment’s further thought brought his finger down on the wing channel, quickly ordering, “Wing, Cramer. Run cover for Pendergast; with any luck we’ll be in position to tail in on his strike if it takes long enough for our lances to charge; if not, we’ll get him through.”
HMS King Ulysses
Crown-class Command Ship
Admiral Freya’s flag lieutenant, Stephanie Winters, gave a quick summary as she handed over a pad containing the raw numbers, “Strike leaders are reporting heavier-than-expected defensive fire, although their fighters aren’t as effective defensively as we’d feared, so it roughly balances out. No major surprises yet, although if our strikes are in there for too long unsupported the butcher’s bill isn’t going to be fun.”
Freya frowned as she paged through the highlights, her mind working furiously behind a trouble face. Finally, she set it down on the railing around the flag bridge’s main holoplot, refocusing her attention on Winters, “Tell Sandiego to remain in hyper on arrival, have our own carriers drop sublight. Direwolf
can launch then. Once the battle-line has things under control, Sandiego’s wings hyper out and recover in hyper, at which point we’ll rotate her sublight and Cressida into hyper to recover hers, then finish off with Ballmer. Let’s not do recovery ops where we’ll be under fire if we don’t have to; SLAM2’s going to save us some lives today.”
Winters gave a curt nod and split off to relay Freya’s orders while the older admiral turned to face the plot with a frown. Before the younger woman could get too far away, Freya called out again, “And signal Evans with the PTFs, we’re definitely going to need at least his deck-loads after this. Tell him to launch now and signal for a replenishment, we’ll have the deck-space by the time they can get here.”
Damn, she’s cold...she’s right, but so cold.
Winters thought privately, outwardly just giving a curt nod and a “Yes ma’am.”
Crown-class Command Ship
The gunships launched by First and Second Fleets were transmitted back a wealth of data, something that the specialized command and control facilities of a Crown-
class fleet command ship was well-equipped to make use of. Admiral Marianne Tern watched it closely, intently, particularly the flags that blinked into existence alongside more and more of the Empire Star warships as gunships raked and stabbed at their flanks. Their formation was ragged and splintering, each ship under siege by a gunship strike group, no vessels left unengaged to come to anyone’s rescue. Even more important, however, was the growing number of ships that were tagged for heavy engine damage and, in only a few cases given the difficulty of determining such, disabled hyperdrives. She began laying target points, relative positions tied to different target vessels.
Midway through muttering something about ‘need more dreadnoughts,’ one of the Empire Star heavy dreadnoughts pinged for attention, a new code sprouting from its icon with a tag that drew a grin to the admiral’s face. Total Engineering Casualty
. That could only mean a serious reactor shutdown, given that the ship the tag was applied to was still in existence. With that ship no longer in danger of fleeing the field, Tern reassigned the target points she’d anchored to it to other targets nodding to herself as she finished tagging all the still-hyper-capable heavies with multiple Royal Navy dreadnoughts.
“It won’t be this easy at Brooklyn, but I’m sure as hell going to enjoy it while it is...”
Shaking her head slightly to banish the idle musing, she tapped a few controls and keyed up a channel to Rear Admiral Gearhart, in command of the remaining heavy warships attached to First Fleet in the absence of the detatched Task Force 12. A few moments later, a gruff, aged voice that Tern knew quite well was at odds with the youthful-looking, blonde-haired officer responded into her earpiece, “Gearhart. Go.”
“This is Admiral Tern. I’ve got enough heavy capital firepower to free your divisions up for a different mission,” she spoke quietly, the lightweight headset easily picking up her words. Now if only it were so easy to ensure that no one’s feathers were ruffled...Gearhart was notoriously touchy.
“Another mission? Admiral, I’ve got twelve front-line battleships under my command, what else do you want us to do but engage the enemy?” A low growl almost seemed to thread around the words, even though Marianne knew it was her imagination.
“And I intend for you to. Your battleships have a speed edge in hyper, ever since they were refitted with the hyper generators from the Claymore
project. Not a wide one, but enough. I want your divisions hovering in hyperspace as part ready reserve if we run into any nasty surprises, but mainly to catch and drag back to realspace anyone who tries to make a run for it.” Tern gave a nasty grin, unseen on the audio-only channel, and continued, “A dozen battleships should be able to hold them down quite nicely if they object to taking their medicine.”
A pause drew out mid-conversation, long enough for her to start questioning whether the link was still active. Finally, Gearhart’s voice rumbled in her ear, “Agreed. If they try to get away from your dreadnoughts, we’ll be ready and waiting to do the real work. Gearthart clear.”
As the channel broke, Tern’s lips quirked in a wry smile, murmuring to herself, “If he wasn’t such a damned effective line commander, someone would have spaced him years ago.”
CV2’s original target was little better than a hulk by now; most of her engines were shattered, her hyperdrive had been cored, a lucky hit had burst a control run and slammed one of the flight bay doors shut hard enough to buckle the damaged plating and tangle it shut in a mass of splintered framing. Edison, however, had other worries. The remainder of the four-wing strike had joined up with one of the larger wolfpacks harrying one of the massive, heavily-armed Empire Star dreadnoughts; the difference in active and passive defenses between it and the carrier they’d originally been tasked to strike was enormous.
He couldn’t even tell how badly damaged it was, what the gunners were trying to target, even optimal firing points were all growing vague. Almost his entire attention was focused on keeping himself and his mangled wing intact. He’d already run through most of the Book; by now he was writing new pages, tearing them out, folding them into paper airplanes, and throwing them out the window as decoys. Every so often, when the green fire-control light and the green lance charge lights agreed with one another, he’d hammer the master firing trigger and send a fresh volley of needles stabbing in at the beast.
And they were
hurting it. The dreadnought’s shields were a memory by now, a faded wisp that only occasionally wafted together in enough force to give the strike any trouble. Tiny molten craters pockmarked the hull, legacies of where the massed pulse-lances had chewed into -- and sometimes through -- the heavy armour beneath. It was slow to turn by now, maneuvering thrusters and main engines alike serving as easy targets given the need to scale them up to power a ship that large. A few areas even had degraded point-defense coverage. But there was so much
fire spraying from defense batteries that it was difficult to credit any serious impairment to the dreadnought’s capabilities, at least from the cockpit of a gunship.
A threat indicator blared for Edison’s attention and his face went white; the onboard tactical systems had recognized that one of the ponderously-heavy main batteries was angled just ahead of his current flight path. The entire wing’s path. He threw the gunship into a sudden hairpin turn, yelling into his headset as he did, “Wing, scatter!”
For some of them, it was going to be enough. For himself, Edison could tell, it wasn’t. He saw, as if in slow motion, the projected path of his frantic evasion, saw the sudden glow building in the barrels of the heavy energy mount, saw the projected firing path, saw it all intersect...
Saw the flank of a Royal Navy dreadnought exploding out of hyperspace and soaking up the cone of nuclear force on its shields without a twitch. He swept past the blocky, bright red letters that spelled out, ‘HMS Halberd’ across the broadside. Impulsively, he spun through a quick barrel-roll and flashed running-lights in salute while relieved shouts cluttered the comm net.
The one thing Acting Wing Commander Edison Cramer never saw was the orphaned flight of Yorkie fighters that took advantage of his distraction to shatter his gunship like an egg with a spray of meson bolts. Point-defense fire from Halberd
cut them to shreds seconds later.
Unlike a gunship’s cramped, ‘dumb’ tactical plot, Captain Julian Intaki’s holotank was both large enough to comfortably display the entire battle and constantly monitored by expert systems and tactical staff alike to ensure that it didn’t succumb to information overload. At the moment, it was projecting two different displays at once, most of the real-estate given over to an overview of the battle as a whole while a smaller section was focused on a zoomed-in view containing Halberd
, her cousins Zweihander
, their screens, and their prey. The three dreadnoughts had stormed out of hyperspace on top of the heavier Empire Star capital ship, relieving the gunships which were even now breaking for safety now that their task was complete.
“Weapons, disabling shots. Target engines and heavy weapons.” Intaki gave a cruel little chuckle as he gestured at the zoomed-in plot, “The carriers have been kind enough to strip off their shields, after all. It would be down--”
The sound of air hissing through bared teeth coincided with the sudden flickering lnes of hostile heavy-weapons fire, tracing between the cornered Empire Star ship -- the tactical plot helpfully tagged it as ‘DN - New Colossus’ -- and all three of the surrounding Royal Navy heavies. They were without their normal screen, simply because nothing cruiserweight had any business being as close to a hostile dreadnought as the engagement plan demanded Halberd
and her sisters themselves be. The captain’s head snapped around to look at the pale-faced sensor specialist who’d made the sound, calling out in a tight, controlled voice, “Status, Mister Horston.”
“Still gathering data, sir,” the reply began, his fingers still flying across the holograms that wreathed his station, “But they’ve got some hellacious weapons on that thing. Easily better than ours, sir.”
tactical officer spoke up as well with a notably calmer voice, “She’s fighting dumb, though, the gunships must have done a number on some of their fire-control interlinks. It looks like most of their mounts are knocked back to local control and they’re splitting fire. Good thing, too; Horston’s right. Their heavy mounts have an unpleasant edge over ours.”
Even as the unpalatable revelation played out, the trio of Royal Navy dreadnoughts opened fire, tightly-coordinated beams kindling to life and raking molten furrows across the unshielded hull of the damaged ESR ship. The blue-white beams tracked across the hull, probing for weak points in armour, converging on heavy energy mounts and holding steady to blot them away forever. One undamaged New Colossus
might well have been able to put up a fight, even against three Claymores
. Half-crippled and shieldless, it wasn’t even a contest.
The same was true elsewhere. Intaki’s eyes narrowed as first a battlecruiser- battlecruiser? Not with that firepower-
and then a pair of cruisers vanished in the flares of hyperspace transitions. They weren’t gone long.
Their wild, flaring re-entry was a good deal less controlled than their exit had been. Each was ripped back out of hyperspace, having had its hyper field overwhelmed by sheer brute force, the battlecruiser dragged back out between a pair of flanking battleships, the cruisers forced sublight by one each. And now that the prey was aware of the trap... Right on time
“The flag is transmitting in the clear, addressed to the ESR force, Captain.”
“Put it on. I want to hear this.”
The familiar, deep voice of the commanding officer of First Fleet -- and, as Force Admiral, the entire combined attack group -- emerged from the bridge’s intercom systems, mixing iron with a touch of conciliation, “Force Admiral Gregory Atlas, to all Empire Star ships. By now you know that you’re trapped and overmatched. Any ship that discontinues combat will not be fired upon. Your crews will be allowed to abandon ship on the condition that your ships subsequently be scuttled. Any ship incapable of scuttling herself will be taken under fire and destroyed. Any individuals evacuating from ships that have ceased combat will not be harmed. My forces will be instructed to leave your crews unmolested and not seize any as prisoners. If your own beacon systems are unable to signal for recovery, we will relay the appropriate signal at our earliest opportunity.”
His voice took on a harder note as he continued; it was easy enough to visualize the man’s face tightening, that familiar clenched jaw. Intaki had served as helmsman years past, and the man’s mannerisms hadn’t changed much since then, “I have no wish to kill anyone more than I have to, but I will not hesitate to do so if necessary. Any attempts to take advantage of my offer in an attempt to either escape intact or ambush any forces under my command will be met with the harshest possible response. Atlas clear.”
The only immediate response was a carrier under heavy fire from a division of Royal Navy heavy cruisers. The ship and the tattered remnants of her fighter complement immediately ceased fire and began transmitting both their intent to discontinue combat and a request for recovery of lifepods before a possible reactor failure. The captain frowned; he was far enough away and out of the chain of command in any case, it wasn’t his business. Still, this would be the test case. He watched the plot tensely, only half paying attention to the increasingly-ineffective fire of the Empire Star dreadnought floating nearby. Lifepods and shuttlecraft began to spill from the carrier in very short order, prompting a slight nod and a reduction in Intaki’s tension. “That turnaround was too fast to be a ploy. She must have been prepping to abandon already,” he murmured, only half realizing that he’d spoken at all.
The heavy cruiser division’s commander seemed to agree, all four ships closing in around the carrier and tractoring escape pods into yawning boat bays.
Scimitar-class Heavy Cruiser
The tension was palpable. The captain had taken the step of assuming the distress call was genuine, extending the hand of peace. Now...would it be met with a hand, or a fist? Trantor’s
marine contingent was still hastily redeploying from counterboarding and damage control stations across the ship to the boat bay itself, excepting a skeleton crew that was more a tripwire than anything else. For the moment, though, the single armored platoon that was normally tasked with boat bay security was the only backup available for the painfully young-looking lieutenant standing in front of them -- and to the side.
Corporal Vanessa Boehr barked a laugh in the privacy of her own helmet at that thought. The Navy boy had set up right in front of the marines until the sarge had ever-so-respectfully suggested that ‘Sir, the Lieutenant may wish to move out of our field of fire in case this is a ruse.’
No so privately. She flinched as the sergeant’s dry, sarcastic voice sounded throughout the platoon communications network on a private channel, “Something funny you’d like to share, Corporal Boehr?”
Ah hell, I must have been keyed up. I hate this new comm gear.
Outwardly, she only said, “Just saw the Lieutenant standing well
off to the side, sergeant.”
Before it squelched, the corporal heard something that sounded like it wanted to grow up to be a snort. After a few seconds of silence, the sergeant’s voice came back over the network, “Carry on, then.”
At that point, the first Empire Star escape pods and shuttles began to drift into the boat bay in the tractor beams’ grip. Vanessa’s grip tightened around her rifle, sweat slicking the palms of her hands before wicking away into her armour’s liner. Is it a trap? Are we being boarded?
The Lieutenant was walking forwards, extending a hand towards the senior officer off the first escape pod. Vanessa wasn’t paying attention; she was trying to watch everyone
, waiting for the first glimpse of a weapon, a suit of combat armour, any sign of a backstab. The Empire Star Republic officer pointed to a shuttle just passing the atmosphere shields, still talking to the Royal Navy lieutenant, who then pressed two fingers to his comm earpiece. When the sergeant’s voice crackled over her helmet comms again, it was addressed to the entire platoon, “Alright, Yorkie marines coming out in the next shuttle. Keep your eyes open, but they were nice enough to tell us first, and they’re supposed to be leaving weapons behind. They’re still in armour, though, nobody get twitchy.”
Vanessa reflexively checked the charge status of her rifle -- good, full charge. It had been five minutes ago, but you never knew. There were enough shuttles and escape pods in the bay to carry enough troops to give her platoon a nightmare, and if this wasn’t played straight...
The shuttle’s rear hatch dropped to the deck with a hiss of pneumatics and a clank of impact, followed by the heavy tread of combat armour. The first figure passed into view, Vanessa’s gut clenching at the sight of hostile battle-armour...but its hands were empty, and no suit-mounted weapons were in evidence. Still, she stayed tense; there was always the chance that the first one or two troopers would be sent out unarmed to put people off-guard. But as more and more disembarked empty-handed, she finally started to unwind, smiling a bit maniacally in relief.
“Reports coming in...either they’re playing a seriously deep game, or we’re not actually being boarded.”
“That’s always a plus. Next thing, you’ll be telling me I should buy a lottery number,” Trantor’s
captain answered with an absolutely deadpan voice and a neutral expression.
His XO matched it perfectly, “Seven, sixteen, eight, twenty-two, twenty-four, iota.”
“I’ll take it under advisement, thank you. Meanwhile, please signal the flag that we are not up to our necks in Yorkie marines and that counterboarding operations may be premature.”
“Of course, sir. Shall I cancel the self-destruct as well?” came the reply, again delivered totally deadpan.
And Commander Jason Graves lost the game. He and his executive officer played it every so often. The first person who had to ask lost. And something like that...he had to ask. “I do hope you’re not serious.”
With a sudden flash of a grin to dispel the carefully-schooled neutral expression, the other man responded, “Of course not, but thank you for the point.”
HMS Queen Eleanor
Crown-class Command Ship
As the drama played out aboard Trantor
and her division-mates, the battle around them began to wind down. Damaged, lamed, surrounded, often crippled, Empire Star ships ceased fire one by one. First only a couple, typically the most damaged. After a point, though, it became endemic. No one was going to escape, and many of them were going to die if they pressed the battle to its limits; that much was painfully clear. Not only die, but die in vain
given the force arrayed against them. Not an easy thing for a proud military to admit... but easier than pointless suicide. The only tense moment came when the now-empty carrier that’d been first to disengage simply blew in half, splinters of wreckage racing outwards behind a pulse of radiation. The still-shielded Royal Navy ships rode it out unscathed, but one nearby Empire Star cruiser took a relatively minor slap.
“We’re on a timetable,” Atlas reminded his staff, “I want that entire Yorkie fleet scuttled and their crews seen to as quickly as possible. No prisoners, no passengers, but make sure they’re all properly supplied to float for a while. We have neither the time nor the capacity for dealing with distractions right now.”
With that, he turned back to the flag bridge’s expansive plot, frowning into its depths and murmuring, “No...it won’t be this easy again.”