Chapter One (cont.)
“Admiral on the deck!” sang out one of the two armed petty officers flanking the hatchway as Jason and his wife entered the Flag Bridge, trailed by four of the Praetorians assigned to Julia by her father. Caesar Nicolas had insisted that it was routine security, but all of the involved parties knew the real reason: many in the Empire of Humanity continued to discriminate against women involved in politics, business, or the military. Anything but being a living, breathing incubator for future generations, actually. It was a legacy of humanities first encounter with an alien race. We won that one, Jason thought, though it took us almost fifty years and over five billion lives to do so. The victory had turned even more pyrrhic afterwards; in a final spasm of fury at their loss, the Ordan-Kraal had managed to dust Old Earth and her five extra-solar colonies with a biological agent. That agent had rendered sterile over ninety percent of all living women and girls. What was worse, it altered the DNA of the survivors, making it far more difficult for the few fertile women left to conceive. Needless to say, the human race had not appreciated the parting gift and within the space of only a few decades no Ordan-Kraal remained alive anywhere in the known universe. And it had not taken any fancy biological tinkering; no, old fashioned nuclear and kinetic bombardment worked just as well, at least in making an entire race of beings extinct.
That had been four hundred years ago, at the dawn of the 22nd Century. Mankind, with an emphasis on man, had not handled the situation well. Women, fertile women, at any rate, became a commodity too precious to risk, and within a generation the need to shelter females from danger had resulted in them losing nearly all of their rights, becoming little more than property. Until the DNA virus had been finally eradicated ninety-seven years ago, women had lacked citizenship, could not own property, could not vote; they could not serve except by bearing the next generation of humanity. Thanks to the vaccine, though, more and more women were regaining their full fertility. Since wide-spread introduction of the vaccine began, the population of the Empire had nearly tripled, and with the vast increase in numbers of men and women both, the Caesars had slowly, ever so slowly, begun to restore women’s rights. It was only in the past decade they had at last regained the right to serve in the military or the government and to earn their citizenship, and with it the opportunity to cast their ballot.
Many men, even with the human population growing by leaps and bounds, still refused to treat women as equals, however. The practice had become ingrained in the social customs of humanity, this branch, at least, and some elements of society had responded badly to the change. Rape, a crime once considered so heinous it warranted the death penalty, was rapidly on the rise. Many officials in the government turned a blind eye to harassment, to persecution, even to vile criminal acts. The entire social compact of the Empire was changing, and some people hated that change with a mortal vengeance, refusing to accept it. At least, they refused until someone forced them to do so. And in Julia’s case, it would be the Praetorians her father had assigned to her that would do that forcing. Even the most misogynist of men would behave themselves when those killers fixed their icy glare upon them.
Jason shook his head, as he waved for the staff to resume their duty stations, even as they were all rising to their feet at the petty officer’s booming announcement. “As you were,” he snapped, and then lowered his voice to a whisper as leaned over towards the young spacer. “There is really no need for that every single time I step foot on this deck, Mister Roberts.”
The man blushed and mumbled, “Aye, aye, Sir.”
Jason smiled wryly, and patted the man on the upper arm as he stepped past him into the compartment. “Just don’t let it happen again.”
Scores of high-resolution screens lined the walls of the Flag Bridge, each sub-divided into dozens of individual readouts showing everything from the fuel status of each of his ships to images of the surrounding space, while spaced around the rim of the chamber were dozens of work stations, each manned with either an officer or staff NCO hand-picked for the job of keeping Jason informed with the minutiae involved in the command of an Imperial Battle Squadron.
In the very center of the compartment, a massive holo-tank projected a slowly rotating image of the Cavanaugh system with a tiny blinking dot representing the fourteen vessels under his command looking lonely and lost in its vast reaches. Cavanaugh, with its red dwarf primary, was a desolate and isolated portion of the Empire of Humanity. There were no permanent settlements; just a handful of automated mining stations among the rings of debris that served the dying cinder instead of proper planets. Above the red dwarf in the holo-projection, a second projection replaced the mostly empty space of stellar north with an expanded view of his Task Group; the ten warships of his own 342nd Battle Squadron and the four assault transports assigned to ferry the 501st. Of course, even in the expanded view, each ship was only an icon, but he could read the icons easily enough after many long years of practice.
The secondary projection centered on four Leviathan class battleships—Renown, Reprisal, Leviathan, and Vanguard. Massing thirteen point eight million tons and measuring nearly twenty-nine hundred meters in overall length; heavily armored and shielded and carrying immense batteries of plasma cannons, torpedoes, mass drivers, and orbital bombardment tubes, these heavy ships were the physical representation of the will of Caesar, serving as his voice and his fist here in the outer provinces of the Empire. Among all branches of Humanity, only the new Victory class vessels were larger, with greater mass; and few alien races could field any ships their equal. The battle-line had been forged during the Ordan-Kraal Wars when a resurgent humanity found that none of their existing ships-of-war could survive against the planetary defenses of their foe’s core worlds. Hastily built and thrown into the conflict, the pioneering Warrior class had smashed their way through a hail of tungsten penetrators, beams of coherent light, plasma bolts, and fusion warheads to break the defense shields and shatter the homeworlds of the Crabs into silent and lifeless wastelands filled with radiation and ash. More battleships (each larger and more powerful than the last) were built after the victory—because Humanity vowed to never again to stand under the threat of extinction. The Dreadnoughts, the Prinz Eugens, the Kongos, and the Washingtons had all reigned in succession, until the HIMS Leviathan (the same Leviathan that served today in Jason's squadron) was commissioned eighty-nine years ago. The Leviathans (and the new Victory class introduced just four years past) carried on the tradition established above a burning Ordan, giving pause to all the enemies of mankind about what their own fate might one day entail.
Icons representing Centurion and Crusader, each a Gladiator class Cruiser, blinked in the tank as well; one ranging ahead of the four heavy ships, the second trailing behind the vulnerable transports. Faster and more maneuverable than his battle-line, the cruisers provided the crucial inner perimeter of his escorts. Massing just under 1.8 million tons in displacement and spanning nearly 1,200 meters in overall length, the cruisers were far more vulnerable than the dreadnoughts with only 38% the armor plating, weaker shields, and a correspondingly lighter battery of weaponry to boot. But despite that vulnerability against true capital ships, the cruisers could overpower any lesser vessel in existence and their heavy secondary and point-defense batteries provided vital support in protecting the battleline from hostile fighters and torpedoes. Combined with their greater maneuverability and thrust, plus the added sensor reach that their lighter armor plating allowed, the cruisers were vital for defense—just as the battlewagons were necessary for offense. The Fleet had begun life as a cruiser navy, with the half-million ton Boxer class that fought the Ordan-Kraal to a standstill. Even today, cruisers (and cruiser squadrons) outnumbered the battle-line by a factor of four, and the Gladiators were simply the last in a long line of tried, tested, and trusted cruisers. Many in the Fleet and the Senate wanted to replace the battle-line with the smaller, less capable, but also far less expensive ships. They argued that while the Gladiators were individually less powerful, the Fleet could afford to build more of them; allowing the Empire to provide a more complete defensive coverage of the systems that they claimed. And, after all they reasoned, most situations did not require the firepower of four ships of the line to resolve. Luckily, Jason thought, Caesar did not agree. Nor, in fact, did Jason himself. Not while the Empire and the Confederation were at war, or while predatory races like the Rakizinski or the Jokar stood poised upon the borders. Cruisers were excellent ships as escorts, or for long duration missions that required one to cruise through real-space on patrol. Enough of them acting in concert could even do considerable damage to battleships, in theory anyway. But they were simply too fragile to stand in battle against enemy capital warships, or fixed planetary defenses, for that matter, even the late-generation Gladiators.
Four Alexander class destroyers rounded out the 342nd; Belisarius, Gustav Adolphus, Scipio Africanus, and Wallenstein. The workhorses of the Fleet, the Alexanders were also the smallest warships in his squadron at just over 540 meters and 215,000 tons. Unlike the massive cruisers and battlewagons, the destroyers mounted none of the extremely large caliber plasma cannons that those ships used as their main weapons. Instead, the tin-cans made do with an array of light and mid-weight plasma cannons, plus an extensive battery of secondaries and point-defense guns, augmented by a formidable array of torpedo launchers. The Alexanders were capable of operating within a planetary atmosphere to deliver pin-point accurate fire against planetary fortifications and other ground targets. But it was their speed, agility, and—most of all—their sensor reach and resolution that made the Greyhounds of the Fleet (as they were so often fondly called) such vital units. Having thinner armor and lighter shielding than battleships or cruisers, the destroyers suffered less from those systems interference with sensors, giving them greater range and resolution than any other capital ship. Modern armor was a wonderful thing, but it also blocked virtually all radiated energy—even that employed in radars and other sensors. Computer compensation adjusted for that interference somewhat, but it still rendered the sensor arrays of heavier ships less effective than those of lighter ones. The fragile destroyers were very much Jason’s eyes and ears.
And if their plasma cannons were less than impressive, their speed and maneuverability gave the destroyers the best opportunity to use torpedoes of any of his ships of war. Massed banks of one-shot torpedo launchers, loaded with twenty-meter long missiles mounting 220-kiloton gravitic fusion warheads, were standard armament aboard all Imperial ships, but torpedoes were slow compared to plasma bolts and possessed an extremely short-range. Still, at point-blank range, a torpedo salvo could gut any ship, collapsing its shields and tearing through its armor—no matter how thick—with nuclear fire. The trick was to get into range to launch the weapons in the first place, and to do that it helped to have speed and agility on your side. As part of a coordinated squadron effort, it also presented an opponent with a quandary: exchange fire with the enemy cruisers and battleships (the long-term threat) or attempt to kill the destroyers before they closed enough to salvo a few hundred torps in your direction. Point defense could stop some, but not all, torpedoes launched, and even a handful of direct hits might well prove devastating.
All of these ships—from the smallest destroyers to the his own flagship Reprisal—also carried varying numbers of interceptors, strike fighters, and light bombers, eliminating the need for dedicated aerospace fighter carriers such as Humanity had used against the Ordan-Kraal. Together, the ten ships of his battle squadron could put four hundred and eighty fighters into space, giving his command yet another weapon to use against the enemies of the Empire. They carried Marines as well—a Fleet Marine Force of nearly four thousand battle-armored Marines to conduct boarding actions and lead surface assaults in the name of Caesar.
Cape Town, Moscow, Perth, and Sofia, the Dresden class assault troop transports, were troop carriers, measuring some 700-meters in length and capable of embarking thousands of Legionnaires, their armored vehicles, and supporting elements. The transports were among the largest ships capable of entering atmosphere and making planet-fall, but they lacked any credible offensive weaponry. Their sole armament consisted of a light array of secondary batteries and point-defense guns, with even weaker armor and shielding than the Alexanders. But the job of these ships was not to engage enemy vessels in fierce fire-fights; no, it was to land a full-strength Shock Legion in the face of enemy fire. Each of the Dresdens could lift a full combat brigade of the legion, plus a portion of the service and support brigade; four of these ships together were able to ferry an entire Legion of almost twenty-three thousand personnel (of which some nine thousand were combat troopers), fifteen hundred armored combat vehicles, three thousand support vehicles, forty-eight ground attack fighters, and more than three hundred and eighty thousand tons of general supplies, munitions, provisions, and spare parts.
Designed from the core out as dedicated assault ships, the Dresdens also carried nano-forges aboard that could construct nearly any component or weapon, provided the forges were supplied with the correct raw elements in the proper proportions. A Legion supported by four Dresden class ships could remain in combat indefinitely, as long as the ships had power and supplies for the forges, that is. These particular assault ships were carrying the 501st Shock Legion, Caesar’s Black Panzers. Bound for Cyralis to serve on the front, the 501st was a heavy formation, with tanks, artillery, and battle-armored infantry, along with their entire support and service brigade. An elite unit normally deployed on Terra, General Miles Tuturola had personally requested the assignment from his Imperial Majesty. After all, the boys were getting rusty, he had bluntly told Caesar, over the objections of other, higher-ranking, officers. Caesar had been amused, however, and had released the Black Panzers with orders to hone their edge. I really pity the people of Cyralis if peace has been declared by the time we arrive, Jason thought.
Jason finished considering all this as he took his seat at the head of the conference table to one side of the holo-tank. “Captain Serrano, what is our current status?”
“Admiral, we will complete our course change in thirteen minutes. Following that it will require another six to accelerate to the proper velocity for trans-light entry. All ships have reported in at Condition Two, and General Tuturola has alerted the 501st for possible ground assault.”
“Commander Hedges?” he turned to his astrogator. “Is there anything of special interest about Tammoran?”
The tall, sandy-haired officer pursed his lips before answering. “Yes, sir, Tammoran was included in our nav briefs. The single star is approaching the end of its life span. Right now, it is in full-blown Red Giant stage. Only the outermost planets remain intact, though debris fields range throughout the system. Radiation output is high, but our armor and shields should counteract virtually all of the detrimental effects. Commander Scott aboard the Seydlitz reports that the base is on Tammoran VII in the outer system—far enough out that the solar activity will not adversely affect our shields, and both his ship and her sister Charlemagne are bottling up the Confeds on the surface. I feel, however, Admiral, that I must advise against entering the Tammoran system.”
Jason leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table. “Why is that, Henry?”
“Sir, there is a red flag on the system in the nav data banks from the last research team to visit the system. That star is going to explode any time now and we won’t have much of a warning if it does.”
“A supernova?” asked Captain Aleksey Danislov from one of the video screens to the side. The commanding officer of the Reprisal, Danislov was Jason’s Flag Captain, his senior ship commander.
“No sir; the star is not quite massive enough for that. However, it will go nova and if it does than no amount of armor or shielding will prevent the total destruction of our ships.”
Another officer, Commander Leslie Drake, the flag communications officer, spoke up. “How much warning will we have if it decides to blow?”
“None, if it has already popped before we arrive. If it hasn’t, then we should have forty or so minutes from the first tachyon flash to the arrival of the leading edge of the expansion shell at Tammoran VII. It will take us thirty-three minutes to accelerate to minimum safe velocities for trans-light insertion from orbit, Sir. That is not a lot of spare time.”
Jason frowned as he sat back and ran through the options. He shook his head, “Not a lot, no, but it is enough of a margin of error. Miles,” he continued as he turned to speak to the image of General Tuturola on one of the wall-mounted view screens, “I doubt we are going to want to unload your troops, but keep them updated just in case. Gentlemen, there is an enemy base in our territory. If we knew that star was going today or tomorrow, then I would say to hell with it, and let them burn. But we do not know. It could be next year; it could be a decade. And it is our job to travel in harm’s way.”
“Nathan,” he continued, “We know Charlemagne and Seydlitz are in system, so have astrogation plot our T-space exit half a light-year outside Tammoran’s Oort cloud. We will contact Commander Scott via phase-com when we reenter real-space and find out the status of the star. If it hasn’t exploded by the time we arrive at that point, then we will jump into the system itself; that should give us only fifteen-or-so minutes of uncertainty and if it pops in the intervening time, we will retain enough velocity to renter T-space without delay. Leslie, inform Sector HQ on Jouett that our arrival at Cyralis may be slightly delayed—and advise them that we will deal with Seydlitz’s discovery. Append Seydlitz’s original transmission to ours, just in case they never received it. Understood?”
“Aye, aye, Sir. Shall I request confirmation of our intentions from the governor?”
“No. Jouett won’t receive our message until we have already been in Tammoran local space for six hours, and I think that would be a little late to order the barn doors closed, don’t you Commander?”
Leslie Drake sheepishly smiled as the rest of Jason’s staff joined the Admiral in chuckling at the young man’s blushes over forgetting the time-lag involved in interstellar transmissions.
“Then the word is given, gentlemen. Next stop Tammoran; assume your stations for trans-light insertion,” he finished as he stood. For a moment he stood there, looking down on his wife; her face pale, drawn and ashen as she realized for the first time, perhaps truly and deeply understood for the first time, just what dangers her husband’s chosen life might bring. And then he made himself turn away and continue with his duties.