Well, sorry about that. Nothing especially terrible happened, unless a bout of 24-hour flu counts, but I set myself an overambitious target to begin with. The battle's likely to be a multi parter.
A Squelch of Empires ch 7
The map of the local area was fleshing out nicely, Lennart and Brenn both thought; watching the image assemble itself in one of the holotanks that wasn’t actually supposed to be on a destroyer’s bridge, stars flashing into place as they were triangulated and classified by the probe droid web.
As the light came in, they classified the stars by type- a little white dot turning yellow-white, orange-red, blue-white as appropriate, showing spectral class, planets with a high degree of confidence; the detailed data that would have been there in a proper military nav map was missing, the system travelogue nonexistent.
Each system’s file could be brought up with the laser pointer- there were more ergonomic ways, but Lennart thought he looked silly with a pupil-scanner monocle.
The individual ships they were aware of, too, showed up; not surprising considering how ridiculously bright the drive plumes they gave off were, and that they were being scanned for by a synthetic aperture two hundred light years across.
Years out of date, but they gave some idea of the traffic, a rolling estimate, not the single snapshot they had had of this system.
It was, indeed, a naval base with large numbers of high power flares coming and going frequently. It was obvious now, dammit. There were a couple of other systems- three, actually, within the initial radius that the probes were working through- that showed some of the same flares; forward stations? Probably.
‘Data’s coming in faster than I can think about it.’ Lennart admitted. ‘Can we track one drive flare, across time and between systems- get some idea of how fast and how often they move?’
‘Minimum ten years out of date, but possible.’ Brenn said, pointing at one of his programmers, telling him to get on it. ‘The rough numbers are bad, for us that is. There’s so much merchant traffic I have to wonder how cheap ships are to these people, and how poorly set up some of their planets are that they need this kind of trade traffic to survive.’
‘Either that or their drive to payload ratio is very high, and what they would call a tramp freighter is half a kilometre long.’ Lennart pointed out, hoping that it was true. ‘Lots of traffic means lots of yard space, lots of need for escorts- what sort of military presence are we looking at on a permanent basis?’
‘Assuming the military drive flares are the bright blue-white ones- skipper, you can read this just as well as I can.’ Brenn said.
‘I hope not, because I want you to tell me that I’m wrong.’ Lennart said. ‘Within this million star, hundred inhabited world patch, I read eighty military drives, eight of them comparable to Venator class or better.’
‘Freeoow.’ Brenn whistled. ‘A comparable slice out of an Imperial sector would have a Carrack and a couple of corvettes at most- and just by eyeball I can tell that the presence doesn’t vary much over time. Sorry, Skipper.’
‘Well, on the bright side, I think we’ve just redefined ‘target rich environment’.’ Lennart said. ‘We are going to have to trade as far as possible on individual superiority- and bluff like absolute bastards.’
‘We’re in the inferior position, then?’ Brenn asked, for confirmation.
‘You know my opinion on most of the captains and half the admirals in the Starfleet; they couldn’t find their arse with both hands and a scanner globe.’ Lennart said, bluntly.
‘If they could all push their ships and crews to the limit of the technology, or at least as far as we can, the Empire could win, but we’d be in for a long, long string of highly mobile running battles, and the potential to screw up is just too high. With the men and the commanders we actually have, and the force here to tempt them…
A military solution is going to be the last solution, particularly as I’m not absolutely certain what the problem is. At least if there’s this much trade traffic, they ought to know somewhat about making deals.’ Lennart said.
‘Which also could cut against us.’ Brenn pointed out.
‘Yaahh.’ Lennart agreed, reluctantly. ‘Well, we’re hardly short of sharp businessmen ourselves. I’ll need to, no, it’s obvious. Who would you say our best scrounger is, Danvin Vilbord?’
‘Actually, I’d have said Chief Mirannon.’ Brenn said. ‘Vilbord’s probably the next best, and I can never remember her name, Mrs Aldrem.’
‘Right. Who else do you think on first contact team? Also, where? Talking to them under the shroud of their orbital defences, I think not. I don’t expect they’d be any readier to come on board us than we would go over there, into the noose. I want somewhere nicely, hideously inhospitable, deter both sides from playing silly buggers. Find me a rock.’
‘Shouldn’t be a problem, planetary formation doesn’t seem to have been affected by the physics changes, which is in itself slightly inexplicable…how about that moon there? That looks interestingly awful.’ Brenn suggested, bringing up the image of a dirty lump of ice in orbit around the outer gas giant.
‘Also interestingly far away from their mainworld and it’s orbital defences. That may or may not be a good thing, eavesdropping and espionage have their uses, but- no, I don’t think they could make it there in any reasonable amount of time. Give me somewhere they can get to within the day.’
Lennart was carefully unspecific, letting Brenn use his own judgement as to precisely where and precisely what; making him do all the work, he might say, but it was nav’s job, so the captain could concentrate on other things.
Chiefly, the reaction of the insystem force, the parts of Task Force wormhole that had been sent back to deal with the bioswarm. Parts? Where had that come from, and why would they be only a part?
Another alien whisper, or simply good tactical sense?
‘Skipper, message from the probe- ships at the mouth of the wormhole. Stronger force than here- three, four times as many.’
Not a good thing. What to do, hold the rest of Deep Field there and let them reinforce the covering party? They would add some firepower, but- yes, let them do that and then bring them through.
This is also, Lennart thought, a strategic target. Burning the skin off that planet and smashing the orbitals would be an essential first step to gaining a foothold on this side of the wormhole. In theory, we’re cut off. In practise- so are they.
‘Contact, blip in a probe droid and broadcast, the fleet. I want to brazen this out.’ Lennart said, and had to stop, sit down, hold on to the arms of the command chair to stop his head from reeling.
Brazen. That had been the keyword. A momentary glimpse of an impossible, shattered landscape, a river of blood and a mountain of skulls, battle and glory, proof and validation of his life and meaning through triumph as a warrior. A sense of the divine reaching out to embrace him, the arms of a fiery, angry god.
An open invitation to glory, to carve an empire for himself, to stamp his name and his face on the alien stars.
It would have been emotionally effective if it hadn’t been so…cartoonish. The bile and adrenalin and the look them in the eye, smell their fear, lick their blood, so ridiculously animalistic, brutality as the only form of violence; that made no gut connection with a man who commanded a starship.
The sheer power of it, though, the feral energy- in itself to him, that was self defeating; but how many would have fallen, been overwhelmed before their common sense could come to their rescue? How many ambitious Starfleet captains, underexperienced and glory-hungry, frustrated with the shortage of targets in their own universe, would have accepted?
‘And get me a bucket of ice cubes. I may need to stick my head in it from time to time.’ Was all that he said. What do we need to defeat this? Men of sense, or fanatics? People who already have something in that place, devotees of the Emperor, of the new Order; or balanced, rational professionals who reject emotionalism and extremism?
How many balanced, rational professionals do we have to go round? How many wielders of the Dark Side, come to think of it- and how corruptible are they, how liable to transfer their allegiance? Do I want to be involved in any experiment that could provide an answer to that question?
‘Headaches getting worse, Skipper?’ Brenn asked. ‘That one, by the way.’ Picking a large rock- a conglomerate object on the inner edge of the asteroid field.
‘You have no idea.’ Lennart said, socially- but then realising that, indeed, the nav did seem unaffected. ‘Your vulnerability index is fairly high- low 400s. Nothing getting to you?’
‘Having a head full of numbers seems to help.’ Brenn reported. ‘Movement at the wormhole.’
Tantadem and other units of Task Force Quaestio Obscura
Speed, Lake was thinking, get them through and moving before the other side has time to react. That includes the inquisition as well as the enemy.
Nine capital ships, twenty cruisers, sixteen light cruisers- most of those Astartes and hardly answerable to him- ninety-four escorts, just under half of those Astartes also.
Sending a bomber out, loaded with the usual gunnery-exercise target beacons to mark the mouth of the wormhole, had been a calculated risk. The risk being that the time that would take, someone might countermand him.
The only exception to the rule of fastest and lightest last was supposed to be his own flagship. He half meant to pass through last, but- that wouldn’t work, it wouldn’t be leadership.
In practise, he meant to do whatever worked, but in theory it would be grounds for a charge of cowardice.
Ideally, one of the Battle Barges would make the most effective and survivable tail end charlie- but they were barely under his command, and unlikely to accept going last. He needed a heavy navy unit there anyway, to herd the rogue traders. Gloria Draconis? Too slow, and anyway he wanted the big Retribution battleship’s firepower up front.
The shock and disorientation of passing into that calm, eerie space meant that they would not win a battle with anything like an equal force; that much was terrifyingly obvious. To run the gauntlet- the formation was wrong. A line wouldn’t work.
‘Globe formation around the mouth of the wormhole. Flag will direct you to proceed individually, once you have achieved transit proceed to warp as soon as feasible.’
‘In case of contact with the enemy?’ the inevitable query came- from a source he wasn’t expecting, Rhodryk Ney, Fleet-Admiral and Lake’s nominal second in command.
No, of course; Rod was getting in with the question first to let him field it more easily. Throne, how paranoid a man can get through dealing with the Inquisition. Suspecting old friends and colleagues. Well, Rod always had been a prickly bastard.
‘If your people can see and think straight enough to shoot, return their fire- return only.’ Lake said, with what he knew to be unwarranted optimism. Even if there was the potential of peaceful contact, somebody would be bound to start shooting. ‘The object is to break past them, punch deep into their space, get them chasing and reacting to us.’
‘Absolutely not, no, I forbid it with the authority of the Inquisition.’ voice on the command circuit- originating from the Sebastocrator, so that would be Iaeialeia’a. ‘How dare you suggest that the glorious forces of the Imperium behave like skulking Eldar or irradiant Orks, or worse yet draw inspiration from the blasphemous tactics of Chaos.’
‘While I respect your authority,’ Lake said after taking a deep breath and commending his soul to the Emperor, ‘I have to wonder if your colleagues concur in your declaring subtlety to be illegal?’
There was a moment’s silence on the command circuit, then a howl of laughter from the Remuneration- Shuvalov, a similar minded but more extremist man, far from averse to sowing dissention among his colleagues; and he sounded like a hyaena. ‘Well said, Admiral. Why can the mind of Man not be at least as devious as our enemies?’
‘Devious is only one syllable, one twist of thought away from deviant.’ Iaeialaia’a retorted, deliberately acting against type to see how many of the puritans he could get agreeing with him.
The argument went back and forth for a few more moments, Lake trying to ignore it and think about what to do with the purely military side, when the sensorium became aware of a turbulence in the wormhole.
He barely had time to say ‘Ident-‘ when the scanner picture dissolved in a flood of dissonance. Over there, space seemed to have caught fire; the radiation of a sun had been formed into a hula hoop and was gyrating about his ship, and a set of gravitational anomalies comparable to neutron stars were dancing a slow and stately foxtrot past the bridge windows.
Emperor’s bones, the wormhole’s snapped and whiplashed us all into the eye of terror, was Lake’s first thought.
‘According to my auspex materialis, we seem to have been encased in a block of ununpentium-dysprosium-protactinium alloy. As this would constitute a miracle of the highest order, I think we must conclude that either we are far more blessed than I had previously suspected,’ the chief techpriest said dryly, ‘or our auspicea are being affected by the enemy.’
Of course, techpriests could do irony; it was carbony they had a problem with.
‘Flag, this is Limitanei. The machine spirit of our auspices has become deranged, we have plain sight of from ten to fifteen of the enemy, they are moving away from the mouth of the wormhole, almost on top of us, opening fire.’ It was scratchy, crackly, voice unrecognisable and words difficult to pick out.
Plain sight. Hah. The Mk VIII eyeball, his crew had no chance of matching that- did they?
‘Ground force units, get your forward observers up to the obs dome, use your instruments, tell me what you see.’ Lake barked into internal comms, got crackles back. That was obviously affected too.
There was a flare of light, Limitanei’s lasers and plasmas firing, the faint traces of magma-bomb warheads streaking from the marines’ heavy cannon- and marks in the sky, flashes of impact; not the ripple of void shielding, smaller whiter bursts. War, then.
The other side seemed to agree as red and blue bolts of light poured into Limitanei; a short, whirlwind bombardment from a dozen sources- evidently they were not affected by their own harrowing of the machine spirits. Then a constellation of small blue-white spiralling flashes and they were gone.
Bastards, Lake thought, although mentally nodding to his opposite number. That was what I had planned to do to them, but they got their move in first. Now we have to chase them down, through our space.
‘Tech, the auspices? And who was nearest- can we send a signal?’ Lake asked.
‘Only by blinking the navigation lights, Admiral. Our sensoria and casters are…no longer being affected, but most are in shock. It will take some time to console them and bring them back to their proper selves.’
‘Obs dome, what do you see of Limitanei?’
The voice that came back was unfamiliar, probably Army. ‘Looks dead, your navalness. No lights, no movement. Circling slowly.’
Drifting, in other words. ‘Contact- blinker to- Greenfoot and Mangala Vallis, tell them to assist Limitanei.’ Lake ordered.
And what the frak do we do now? Falling back- abandoning the transit plan entirely? Doing that would be accepting strategic defeat. More than ever we need to know about these people.
Divide. Again. Part of the task force on hunter duty, part on blockading this side of the wormhole, part on passing through and probing them. First order of business, find out who came through that in good order, make the best use of what derangement- resistant spirits that they had.
Second order, send the resistant through, and if anybody was still crazy enough to pick a standup fight with entities who could do that, good luck to them. Split the rest between a wider englobement of the wormhole and a pursuit squadron.
‘Comms first. I need to be able to coordinate.’ I’m not going to like a lot of what I’m about to hear, Lake thought. Hopefully, hopefully, what they did will cause an end to complacency and infighting. And grox might fly.
“They” were the rest of Deep Field Recon- Strike Group One, moving to join their flagship over Port Alcaris. The force included the Spoliator-III Fleet EW ship Glacier, the Imperator-I Disenfranchiser, the Imperator-II Pragmatist, the LRE Venator conversions Visitant and Venturer, the four Meridian class heavy frigates Silverblue, Ntah, Danieri, and Rainberg, and two fleet tankers.
They had a lot to report about the enemy, including an extremely low resistance to jamming, a high ability to operate on manual, and significant damage to one of the two fleet tankers accompanying the force.
‘Admiral.’ The mechanicus Technomancer in charge of the auspex pit reported. ‘We have achieved function, you can communicate.’
‘Good.’ That meant they would no longer have to rely on the slow, ancient blinker code. ‘Who is reporting in?’
‘Of the capital ships…Gloria Draconis and Pilgrim Militant are still responding by blinker only. Sinus Iridium reports full function, Kastaghan is unresponsive, no statement of condition from Limitanei.
Sebastocrator’s techpriests are reporting that their captain believed it to be some form of power leeching attack, and ordered weapon power transferred to sensorium; their auspices are destroyed. Coruscani Praeteritans and Destined Necessity are reporting full function restored.’
Sebastocrator. Iaeialeia’a. Typical. An Avenger, one of the later grand cruisers, unsophisticated but with row upon row of massive plasma and laser cannon, a superb close quarters brawler- and almost undeployable because of that maniac’s presence.
‘Technomancer, do you sense a pattern in this?’
‘Including the cruisers, yes.’ The techpriest reported. ‘The ships with relic or alien sensoria and targetators recover more quickly. The only ships claiming to have been unaffected are the Buccaneer, with dark age relic auspex, the Lions of Caledon’s escorts, and’- with slight smugness- ‘Mangala Vallis.’
From one problem to another. Relic or alien- or very new, very high quality. To send the most resistant ships would mean loosing the Astartes and Mechanicus on an unsuspecting universe. Essentially guaranteed to start a war, not that they needed any help.
‘Admiral. A message.’ An astropathic transmission- from one mind’s eye to another; astonishingly quick, dated only twenty minutes before, from the Lord Ravensburg.
Apparently, they had found the ship that had sent the pod back through the wormhole and summoned the others.
He watched the amazingly small- barely a destroyer- alien ship go through it’s dance of death, wave of green after wave of green burn into and shatter the Tyranids.
‘Transmit this to every ship in the fleet capable of receiving it, and tell them-‘ what? For a moment the terrible temptation to say ‘act accordingly’ hovered on his tongue.
That would result in a starburst of separate behaviours, an uncoordinated, incoherent response. Against a threat of this magnitude that would be suicide. The alternative was trying to retain control of this zoo of viewpoints- and how could he work for the Imperium, if those who considered themselves the voice of the Imperium were pulling in so many different directions?
Continue with the plan? What else was there that would work? Their defensive wall had been ruptured easily, and the intruders hadn’t even bothered to pick a fight. It was obvious that Limitanei had been hit with mech-anima destroying weapons, not the heavy cannon that had been used on the ‘nids.
Couldn’t keep them out. Driving those already here out…a possibility. The idea of trying to take the offensive in these circumstances seemed insane, but with the leadership he had to deal with, that sounded like a plus point.
Here, the intruders were ready and prepared. Had they sent their best, or was this an ordinary line outfit? Was there better waiting for them, or worse? If there was a soft underbelly, an unprepared side to them, it would be deep in their space.
To meet them here, to fight at the wormhole and chase down the intruders, would be to meet them at their strongest. Even when you had enough raw power that it was still a winning option, it was never a smart one.
“To fight is futile; the enemy is behind us, our supply lines are cut, what lies ahead of us is madness and confusion. There is no choice, we attack.” Well, it would look good in the history books, if any of them survived to contribute.
‘Tell them we carry on.’ Lake said, heavily. Looking down the fleet list, sectioning them off into the units that could withstand or recover quickly from the harrowing of the machine spirits, who would go, the units that performed moderately well, who would hold the mouth of the wormhole- hopefully- and the units who could not, who would return to Alcaris.
‘The ships on this list are to return to reinforce Port Alcaris, the ships on this list are to form a distant blockade around the mouth of the wormhole, the ships on this list are to proceed into alien space, make one random passage in warp, attempt to make astropathic contact, and coordinate from there, or if that fails operate independently for a period of one month before making for the fleet rendezvous.’ He handed the lists to the chief techpriest.
There would probably be a battle on the other side. Certainly. Still had to go through expecting trouble. ‘Rod, take command of this side of the wormhole. We-’
‘We will face the enemy,’ the silkily menacing voice behind him said, ‘with the full strength of the Imperium.’
Of course. Kuroda, the change- allergic witch hunter. Lake hadn’t dared give orders to have him kept off the bridge, because that in itself would have been a highly suspicious act.
‘You would overrule my judgement, and commit the blinded and the lamed?’ he said, turning to face the inquisitor. ‘You think this,’ pointing to the now restored scanner image of the tumbling, scarred Limitanei, ‘is strength?’
Leiji Kuroda’s character was evident in his face; thin and sharp, downturned mouth, dark, severely drawn back hair- the pinched, narrow face of a pinched, narrow mind, someone who had spent his life eating lemons.
However sharp his judgement, and to be an Inquisitor it had to be excellent, Lake didn’t trust him. His intolerance for the weak extended to not understanding or refusing to admit he understood the concepts of rest, repair and maintenance, and he had no faith that what Kuroda wanted and liked to see happen would be good for the Imperium.
He was willing to push men and machines to and beyond their limit, for no better reason than that otherwise, they might have to think about how to do things differently. ‘They exist. They will do their part. You-‘
‘I object to the senseless waste of a battle barge and a grand cruiser.’ Lake did not want to have to do this, could barely believe that he was doing it- but the alternative was to throw away two ships, at least, and also any chance of fighting this as it needed to be fought. Submit to this unprofessional fool and they were doomed.
‘Limitanei needs to refit. Sebastocrator needs her auspices replaced. Do you really think you can get the battle group through the wormhole, in one stream, without collisions, without delays, in good order with a fighting chance on the other side? Do you think the enemy, whoever they are, have any respect for your ideological decisions?’
How long had it been since someone openly challenged Kuroda’s authority, since he had had to do anything other than club people into submission with his rank and rosette?
His information had been wrong, Lake realised. That was beyond the margin of error, the sources must have been played false. Kuroda was not the best-of-all-possible-worlds Pollyanna he had been told.
When naked inquisitorial authority didn’t work, he preferred to shoot them instead. The last thing Lake knew was a searing pain in his throat as he was shot with a digital needler.
‘Move.’ Kuroda barked at the flag-captain. ‘Through the wormhole. Everyone.’
Covering Force, Research Station Bifrost
Thank kriff they’re gone, the admiral thought. It was only a handful of destroyers and frigates, but some handful. The pick of the Imperial fleet, in theory, some of the finest individual ship handlers they had.
Insufferable prima donnas, the lot of them, and the worst was the commodore- Lennart- in charge of that frankenship he had the nerve to still call an Imperator.
Unfair, really, he recognised, but the fortunes of war seemed to cling to some people and avoid others.
Admiral Mariot Themion was not a fortunate man, as far as combat went; he had been a junior officer during the Clone Wars, had seen which way the wind was blowing, and signed up with the New Order Party as soon as may be.
The party had delivered him rank, and responsibility, and authority, but not the supreme test. Oh, there were the biannual major exercises, and he was a full Admiral- he had found his rank in politics, but justified it in the war games. Still, it was theoretical prowess, no more.
He had been entrusted with military- territorial commands, easily come by in the organisational chaos of Oversector Outer, the huge arc along the rim of the galaxy; but not active ones, never a major campaign. A little rebel and pirate hunting, nothing that was a real test- he hoped, a validation- of his talent.
Now, this. Babysitting a project that had every prospect of causing a major crisis. Well, if it did perhaps he would finally feel as if his rank meant something; that he was more than a glorified personnel manager in a funny suit.
Part of his objection to the project was that so many of the individuals involved had better war records than he had. Somewhere between guilt and envy; Jorian Lennart in particular- the man had two battle cruiser kills, a medium and a light cruiser, two heavy destroyers and two line destroyers. Themion had shot at a frigate once.
He was in charge of operations on the far side of the wormhole, and the overspill from his mess would land on Themion’s desk. Or on his targeting team, more likely.
‘Admiral, message pod- from Glacier. Forces on the far side of the wormhole, the strike group ran the gauntlet, shots were exchanged.’ The flag bridge’s fleet com/scan coordinator reported. Slightly edgy. The bridge deck seemed to get colder. They had done this a hundred times, but those were only simulations.
Simulations can teach you everything about the job, they said at Carida, Raithal and a hundred other places, except how to cope with the stress and the fear that you feel when you know that this time, it’s real. Everything you came from and stood for, everything you are or could hope to be, is at stake.
Not the easiest thought in the universe to live with. ‘Take the group to blockade stations ten light seconds off the wormhole, call for backup from the 401st, assume general quarters.’ He ordered.
Calling for help as the first thing he did. Not impressive.
The project was under the auspices of Sub-Oversector Rishi, which was part of Oversector Outer, which was a bloated, unwieldy behemoth of an organisation that according to most observers was engineered to fail.
Territorially immense, poor, ethnically diverse- it was a ludicrously, impossibly large area to shove under one organisational heading, and desperately needed to be broken up into manageable pieces.
On the other hand, that lack of clear boundaries meant that he could call for organic support from half a galaxy away. The 401st Battlecruiser Squadron of the Ninth Star Fleet were an old formation, recently re-equipped with Bellator class fleet-wing heavies.
For all the sheer possibility of it, and the far less limited money, material and political will, the age of Empire had not proved to be the age of the supercapital. Behemoths like the Mandator had remained in service, beached and laid up examples refitted and commissioned, but there was a very good reason why the Imperator class were the mainstay of the fleet.
To put it simply, the best of the new breed, Executor, threw almost a hundred and twenty times the firepower of an Imperator- and was five hundred times the size and mass, four hundred times the cost, and nowhere near a hundred times the survivability.
For their size, weight and operating budget, a group of sixteen hundred metre Imperators moved faster, threw more fire, could collectively absorb more punishment, and cover far more territory than any large ship.
Time and again on major exercises, the battleships and battlecruisers of the fleet were carved apart by fast destroyer wolfpacks. They were, in many ways, the natural instrument of decision.
The Tectors and Allegiances had been one attempt at a solution, but they had often proved more useful as part of the hunting packs, not sheepdogs at all.
Bellator was the first real attempt to change that; the first true capital ship class with a better power to weight than the line destroyer, and in many ways an overgrown destroyer design themselves.
The manual was still being written, and it looked as if it was about to acquire another chapter. Themion just hoped they had enough time to assemble a sufficiently heavy blocking force before whatever was on the other side came through the wormhole.
In the event, they didn’t. Kuroda had shot the man with the plan; he had simply ordered ‘go’. That produced chaos. It was not the phased, reasoned deployment Lake had intended, but a mad shuffle as ships jockeyed to fit, cut each other out, brushed shields and torched each other with drive plumes- rush hour traffic with an Imperium battlefleet.
Some resorted to overthrust to pass through quickly, some waited to let others pass, some wanted to let squadron formations form- order, counter-order, all the Inquisitors screaming at each other.
Discipline broke down. To be first through was to meet the enemy’s fire at it’s strongest and most accurate; to be last through was cowardly, and also, if the enemy were winning, nothing more than lining up at a shooting gallery. Everyone was trying to squeeze into the middle.
The situation was not helped by Tantadem’s captain and technomancer murdering, with a hand cannon and a dendrite mounted lascutter, Inquisitor Kuroda- it would have been, but they were ten minutes too late.
The first heavy ship through the wormhole, behind the initial diamond of Falchions, was the Vengeance class grand cruiser Sinus Iridium. Much of her electronics fit had been retrieved from a dark age relic; the molecutronics passed modern understanding, but even if the servitors didn’t know a deceptive jamming pattern when they saw it, the hardware did.
The blizzard of subspace ripples, tachyonic deceleration scatter, plain gravitic-electromagnetic distortion washed over the Imperium cruiser; was analysed by logis engines a hundred times the age of her crew; was, largely, rejected. Sinus Iridium saw, plainly enough to report, what was ahead of them.
Around, actually; ships could emerge from the wormhole facing in any direction, the way to blockade it was to englobe it. To one side of the nearest star- and far away, they were out in deep space and among unfamiliar stars- there was a large ship, about the length of an Emperor, but wider, flatter, and it was in the process of breaking up- no, sortieing fighters. Tiny things, but in their thousands. Three other ships- the whole making the four corners of a tetrahedron- smaller, similar shape, cruisers to the large one’s battleship. Clusters of escorts around each, and covering the widest of the gaps between them. In tonnage a fraction of what was about to come through.
Themion looked at the unfamiliar behemoth; nine kilometres- and solid, easily the volume equivalent of a Mandator. The force he had here, his own command ship Conductor class, a Defensor fast battleship and pair of fleet-wing Procurator battlecruisers, and their escorts, should be able to deal with a Mandator. In theory.
Didn’t the recon report that had come with the first pod suggest a very low power to weight- huge ships but without the powerplant to match, low offensive potential? He hoped so, because the report in the second pod indicated there was a lot more than this to come. If the rectangle-with-embellishments decided to make a fight of it- and, ah, it had.
Sinus Iridium actually had no choice; the last order Kuroda had been able to give, before having his head removed, was to engage. Fight or be shot for cowardice; defend the glorious Imperium, or be shot like a dog.
The least they could do was to make a proper job of it. The grand cruiser hauled herself into beginning a sequence of S-turns, sweeping the arc of her broadside heavy batteries across the sky, and opening fire first of all on the Conductor- class Torchbearer.
An awesome sight, and most of the bridge team flinched, but scan was perfectly calm. Much of it was a fireworks show; flash and glitter, without lethal substance. Enormous variety; sub- infrared arc masers, pulse-wave, jacketed and open plasma weapons, electrothermal, electromagnetic and electrogravtic mass drivers, thrust-and-drift chemical burning rockets, conversion beamers, short-pulse, long pulse, beam lasers in every colour of the spectrum- an absurd zoo of death.
What the kriff kind of situation produces that random grab-bag of weaponry? Themion couldn’t understand it. He was a wargamer, the one thing he was absolutely certain of was that victory lay in efficiency.
Turn off conscience and human concern, play the numbers ruthlessly, figure out what worked, and do it to the greatest possible extent. The eclectic barrage pouring out of the Sinus Iridium made no sense. An entire civilisation couldn’t possibly all fail to do that; somebody had to have the sense to do the figuring. What sort of physical or ideological deficiency spawned this- were they such novices to space combat that they did not know what worked, and were using a little of everything?
Or- more likely- they faced a variety of enemies, what worked best on one wouldn’t work as well on the next, and now in the face of something new and unfamiliar, they were trying everything at once. When they figured out what worked, they would shut down everything else and route power preferentially.
That explained the situation. He would have to see how this played out.
‘My compliments to the captain, and he may manoeuvre and return fire.’ Themion ordered graciously.
Sinus Iridium had not paused, overdriving her engines at a fearful rate, endangering her manoeuvre thrusters swinging the heavy ship around; but she did have to run straight and level to get a good clear shot with the lance batteries.
The heavy ordnance hammered into the shields of the Torchbearer, an astonishingly accurate grouped salvo that lashed into the after end of the heavy command carrier-battleship’s hangar bay, the shielding there a complex, erratic surface being flickered and gapped continually to release the fighter complement.
It was not in the best condition to resist, and in fact it failed to do so, one panel locally overloading.
The flower of molten, vapourised material expanding out of the belly of the ship was clearly visible to even the naked eye from the Sinus Iridium; accompanied by the little glittering dots of burning TIE fighters caught in the blast.
The flag-captain had the sense to roll Torchbearer so the upper surface bore, allowing him to drop the shielding and vent the bay, flush the broken, burning craft out into space where it no longer mattered if their onboard bombs cooked off; and also expose his own primary batteries.
Vengeance, it seemed, was going to be green. The wall of light- what, all one type? The Sinus Iridium’s captain wondered- burnt through space around the grand cruiser- inaccurately.
The gun crews and predictors were finding it difficult to believe something that size could move that slowly. The majority of Torchbearer’s fire passed across Sinus Iridium’s bow, and too much of the rest arrived together.
Void shields were a powerful but brittle defence. The older type Sinus Iridium mounted would fall easily, but they would swallow up the hit with them, blink it away into the Warp.
A slow, sequential barrage would put them down and keep them down much more efficiently than a single time on target salvo- which was what hit Sinus Iridium. Half the generators burnt out, some permanently, but the ship more or less rode it out.
More was coming through the wormhole; finally the second large ship, the Coruscani Praeteritans- the Glittering Past- was emerging, and immediately exchanging fire with the Defensor-class Judicious.
Good, the Sinus Iridium’s command crew all thought, we might not be completely doomed.
Then the second salvo- more ragged this time- hit. Torchbearer carried an older model of 70 teraton turbolaser; longer-barrelled, heavier, slower tracking, designed for a longer maximum range and a longer barrel life than the new 827’s. Unfortunately for the Sinus Iridium, she carried twelve hundred of them.
This time, a broad oval of a fire pattern, and the grand cruiser was caught in it. There were clumps of hits that arrived too close together to do more than collapse a single shield, but there weren’t enough courses of shielding to stop it all.
Only a tiny proportion of Torchbearer’s fire actually landed, passed through the shielding and did damage; five solid hits. Enough to cripple the grand cruiser, leave it half molten and burning- mercifully the lance turrets had survived, they could still fight. Just not necessarily survive. Time for plan B.
‘Immaterium! Now!’ the captain screamed at the navigator.
The warp drives kicked in, the grand cruiser fading out as another cluster of shot passed through them; and as the adrenalin that had sustained them drained away, the shock started to sink in.
They were maimed, in an alien universe beyond the reach and the word of the Emperor, with part of their being left behind; friendless, in this strange clarity, with native blood on their hands.
Their drives found little purchase in this calm xeno- Immaterium; surge and struggle as they might, it was like walking on illuminated ice- trivially easy to find a path, difficult to move along it.
Illuminated- the quiescence lent a terrifying clarity. The metaphor extended itself well- it was exactly like being on ice, exposed, under floodlights in an immense flat frozen plain- the navigator and astropaths were all cringing, certain that half the galaxy could see them writhe, struggle, flail and slip.
Coordination between those who survived the waiting warships at the wormhole’s mouth would be unexpectedly easy, if it could be done at all. The lack of power here, the lack of pressure on the soul, moving from sea level to a mountain top in an instant.
It was a weakening and a disorienting thing- we might still be there yet, dithering and writhing, without the needs of battle to alert us, the captain’s thoughts ran.
Discipline might easily break down in such circumstances- if there had ever been ‘such circumstances’ before. Faith and works? Well, His Majesty was a universe away, but there was definitely work to do, repairs to be made.
That might save them; sweat was unlikely to be as effective as adrenalin, but it would have to do.
If the enemy had known them, if they had their tactics set to begin with instead of improvising, there was more than enough raw firepower there to ripple down void shields and take a ship apart in seconds.
They learned fast, too, the captain of the Sinus Iridium thought. What do we do, he thought, if we are the only large ship who makes it through the gauntlet?
"I beseech thee, In the bowels of God, think it possible that you might be wrong."
-Oliver Cromwell to Parliament, 1647
"It is good to keep an open mind; but not so open that your brains fall out." Attributed to James Oberg