Corsair-C Type Pursuit Cutter CG-81634 “Greyhound”,
Docked to USS Guernsey
Preparing for Escort Mission
1852 Hours Fleet Standard Time
Tom called from the copilot's seat. "All pre-flight checks complete, we are ready to launch!"
Audrey switched to her link with the mothership's bridge. "Guernsey
, space group is ready for launch."
The captain answered. "Periclam Three is having some last-minute hardware difficulties; stand by."
Periclam Group was a loosely associated formation of recon boats flying off three of the new guys'- ITF Two's- ships. They weren't a real squadron as far as she was concerned; the ELINT cutters always tended to think alone even when they didn't fight alone. But then, Piranha Group was if anything even more of an improvisation now. Half the cutters she'd commanded at Hawk's Nest had died with their mothership when Nantucket
got hit three weeks back, and not a damn
thing she could...
CG-81634 “Greyhound”,No, stop, snap out of it, concentrate on... something? Anything?
Docked to USS Guernsey
June 21, 3400
Commander Gowon's smooth baritone answered her. "Copy that, Piranha Leader. We'll undock you as soon as we get the order; hold tight until then."
They were waiting on starship support for launch; otherwise, even the combined cutter wing of Nantucket and Guernsey wouldn't be able to do much against a pair of starships, especially not without greencaps. They still didn't have replacements for the ones expended at Hawk's Nest; reloads were due soon, but hadn't come in the mail yet, and for now they were making do with standard nukes.
Come on... There was a lot about the situation she didn't know, but she hoped to hell the starships would get moving...
"I think we might have missed a sub-para in the pilot console checks. Read me through again, will you?"
"Ah, you sure about that, ma'am?" The copilot's tone was dubious.
"...Better safe than sorry."
"Gotcha. All right." He took a deep breath, then dug up the checklist. "Step one, run all-range display adjustment diagnostic..."
*The periclam is a type of marine life native to the planet Alta Vista, a bottom-feeding sea turtle-analog known for its extensible eyestalks, which can be raised like periscopes to identify safe places to scuttle next, then withdrawn under the creature's armored shell if a predator threatens.
Disruptor-class Battleship Black Hole
Flagship Task Corps 8
Stranded in Deep Space
Vice Admiral Prots Verio frowned as he contemplated the results of Navigation's analysis. His own ships were stranded well inside the interdiction zone by sublight drive standards; it would take several hours to work their way clear- unacceptable, but those were the figures. The Tianguo contingent was much closer to the edge, having run into the field after it fully formed. Their battlecruiser-sized fleet carriers, slower on the helm than the cruisers that made up the bulk of the Taikongjun force, had taken significant drive damage, but they could at least make it out of the zone on sublight in short order. The other fleets, outside the area of absolute hyperspace denial, could cover the light-days separating them more easily, using short hyperspace hops: very short, very slow, very careful
Realism dictated that the fleet assembly point be between the Tianguo and Centralist positions- with the Tianguo and other allied fleets covering most of the distance. His own ships were still at low power, while engineers scrambled to replace damaged power trunks and switching systems; no one wanted to accept the delays in repairs to the FTL drive that would be imposed by running the sublight drive at full power.
But even if he concentrated his forces, it would do him no good until this damned interdictor was shut down. The whisker lane was extremely narrow, and local shoal conditions were abysmal; he didn't want to risk being caught in the overlap between a field projected by the Zebesians' station and the chaotic effects of being pulled out of hyper in shoal space. His ships had been lucky to survive the attack in
the lane, let alone out of it.
In effect, the road to Zebes was mined. And nothing he'd heard from the Prussians made him optimistic about their ability to survive more than a few more hours of action against the newly reinforced Zebesian fleet...
At least he had good people working on identifying the interdictor's position. His own ships were having little luck; the distribution of detectable field loci was ambiguous. He needed to triangulate, and that meant pushing sensor platforms out into the shoals: hyper-capable ones, if he was to do it in any reasonable timeframe. With his own Fireball scout variants and the Tianguo 'Sparkies' pinned by the interdiction zone itself, he supposed he'd need to hand the job off to the Umerians...
"Com-Scan, get me a channel to Layla Daniels
; I need to speak to Vice Admiral Yang."
"Yes, sir." It took the communications officers a moment to patch through a two-way circuit; the interdiction wasn't helping hyperwave reception a bit, but the range was short and the job was done in a decent number of seconds. The Umerian was dressed in his service's utilities, but hadn't sealed the helmet, making his facial expression apparent without computer interpolation. Yang looked... slack and inattentive, frowning slightly and staring into space. Then his eyebrow quirked up as he braced to a rough approximation of attention, as he appeared to truly notice Verio for the first time.
Verio couldn't bring himself to like Yang. The man wasn't particularly obnoxious in any way, and he didn't make trouble, but in all Verio's years, he had never seen anyone less committed to proper military discipline. Not outside the brig, in any case. Even the other Umerians seemed to think of him as informal and lax almost to the point of comedy... which was roughly how he'd have described the Umerians themselves.
"Admiral, I want you to put out a reconnaissance shell with your cutters; I need the location of that interdictor array."
Yang looked diffident, embarrassed, even, as he looked away and rubbed the back of his head with one hand. Is he going to say no? Inconceiv-
but it was
inconceivable... Just before Verio barked a demand that Yang spit out whatever he was going to say, the Umerian apparently made up his own mind.
"I, ah, already gave the launch order. About... eight minutes ago."
"...I see. Carry on, then. Keep me updated on the scouts' progress."
Verio still didn't like Yang, but he had to admit that the man was reacting well to the situation. Indeed, reacting far better than he'd have expected, almost too well; it was unnerving having a subordinate who anticipated his orders that quickly. Verio was beginning to wonder if the Umerians had perfected some sort of mind reading technique that could work over interstellar distances, absurd as that might sound. Still, if it got him the information he needed five or ten minutes sooner, it was all to the good of the service, he supposed.
Corsair-C Type Pursuit Cutter CG-81634 “Greyhound”,
Docked to USS Guernsey
"Step Nineteen, run backup laser targeting diagnostics."
Audrey was more or less calmed down now; the familiar tasks weren't ideal for anchoring her to the here-and-now, but they were as close as she could come without walking out of the cutter in the middle of the battle. She flipped a switch on the pilot console and a transparent mask appeared over her helmet HUD; targeting crosshairs for the laser, in case something went wrong at the weapons officer's station. The computer did a few trial designation pulses, bouncing them off one of Guernsey's
"Backup laser targeting diagnostics functional."
"Step Twenty-" and the captain cut Tom off again, overriding the intercom.
"Piranha Leader, this is Guernsey
; Periclam is shaken out and launching. You are clear to launch."
It was like a lead boot crashing down into her mind. It's starting again.
No, no, this was a pure reconnaissance flight. Worst case, today would be like Hawk's Nest, not like... no
Over the past two weeks, Audrey had realized she needed help, but there was no time
, no one else to step up... and she'd be damned before she'd let this crap
stop her from doing the job. She was Type Four, she was stronger than this... for a while anyway.
How long had she been woolgathering? The captain hadn't said anything- couldn't be long. "Copy that, starting launch sequence." She relayed the orders smoothly enough; she'd put in enough thousands of hours to be able to go through a standard launch procedure in her sleep. Hell, she had; there'd been dreams like that even back... before.
A month ago, "Piranha Group" had been the combined combat cutter wing of Guernsey
: twenty-four boats. Now she was back to twelve; the reinforcement task force had their own command structure, over two hundred cutters of their own, and they stuck to it rather than push another squadron under her to replace the one that had gone down with their mothership, with her -no.
As always since back in '97 there were her own flight of four pursuit boats, two of them having received a patchup job after Hawk's Nest; the real striking arm of the group was the eight fleet melee boats, reloaded with greencaps that had arrived on ITF Two's missile collier.
Audrey liked greencaps. She wasn't cleared on how they worked exactly; from the effect she guessed that someone had finally managed to reverse-engineer the Sheppo's tylium-based enhanced warheads. But if there was one thing in Audrey's world she appreciated, it was hardware she could count on, and you could count on greencaps to do the job they were supposed to do. A greencap antiship missile would by God hurt a ship, a greencap "general purpose" missile would by God work for general purposes, not just splash off the shields of some ancient relic of a recon destroyer like at- no.
The melee boats had their full load of Galia-greencaps in the boxes, but for this run her brain didn't expect to need them. In her belly she knew better, but... well, her gut had been wrong about that a lot lately. Their job was to keep an eye on Periclam's recon cutters as they pushed out a few light-hours into the shoals, trying to get another angle on that damn interdictor platform.
At least they had decent search and rescue if anyone wound up stranded; the Eoghans had enough Heim-drive spacelift for a small star system.
Audrey led her boats out more or less on autopilot, letting the tractors push the craft away from Guernsey
and then firing up the magnetogravitics to gain some real distance. Once Jack had the course nailed down, she took Piranha Group into hyper, the Periclam cutters following close behind.Think...
"Periclam Leader, this is Piranha Leader, any deviations from the default deployment?" Damn recon types wouldn't think to warn her till they started scattering out of formation...
"Ah, actually, we were planning to hybridize between Alpha and Gamma-type arcs for optimum resolution in the three light-day range; that's our best guess on the target. Can you cover us from a central location?"Hmmm...
"That's a yes, Periclam Leader. Thanks for the heads-up."
It was a short, cautious hyperspace jump, one that turned rocky almost immediately. That familiar whiff of ozone was a bit too
strong; Audrey buttoned up her helmet and let the filters take care of it. Then came the downward transition, almost as bad as the unplanned crash dive Guernsey
had dragged them on as the task force scrambled to get out of hyper before they plowed into the interdictor like the Tianguo ships had.
As emergence ended, Audrey's eyes flared as she felt a sudden urge to check the plot for hostiles, but there was nothing on scope except some random clumps of garbage off in the mid-field, probably part of the Oort cloud of the nearest star. She took a few deep breaths, the respirator hissing but keeping up, and checked again, this time trying to make sure the friendlies
were in the right place...
"Piranha Leader, this is Piranha One-Two; I've got a drive component failure. Pretty bad one, too- spalling all over the compartment. Yorgi's working on it, but it doesn't look good; we may have to button up and call for SAR."Crap.
Well, you couldn't win the lottery every time; sometimes a drive just flat out failed
during transition, especially when you were immersed in high-energy shoals at the time. Hopefully they could get the mongoosoids to take Full Nelson
under tow for repair, at least; the hop wouldn't be all that far under Heim drive.
"Keep at it, Artie; get me a full report in ten."
A few minutes ticked by with nothing much happening; Audrey stayed patched in to the task force net, concentrating on the chatter. There didn't seem much else going on, and she was trying to conserve her nerves- they frayed fast when she didn't have anything to listen to, these days. Thus, she caught Periclam's report back to the flagship.
, this is Periclam Leader. We've got some funny traces in subspace, looks like a bow shock. Could be a Heim-drive mover with some sort of suppression field up- over near the Centralists. Sending you the data now; recommend you give them a heads-up. Not sure they'd be able to see it from their angle..."
Kavoolite Missile Harrier Toranox
On Expeditionary Mission in Sector H-12
1910 Hours Coalition Fleet Standard Time
This kind of strafing run was extremely
difficult to set up; the equipment didn't come cheap, nor did the training and fire control rigs to make it work. The crews of the Imperial Warfleet's missile harriers were among the few in the galaxy able to do it at all.
Their first wave of scout ships fired nothing, nor could they have hoped to acquire their targets- not under what humans would have called Heim Drive. They had all they could do to figure out where
the target was, when milliseconds counted and they flashed by the Centralist capital ships at several million kilometers per second.
The harriers behind them, on the other hand... they took full advantage of the targeting data supplied by the lead echelon.
"Data from pathfinders coming in... got it!"
The captain turned the key interlock on his command chair- the last of three needed to clear the special munitions for action. "Disengage cloaking device. Stand by to fire quantum torpedoes."CNS Black Hole
The alarms hadn't started screaming until the first wave of dual-drive ships was almost on top of them- signature masking, good
masking. But the enemy vanguard had already shot by before Task Corps Eight had time to react; gunnery computers were too smart to waste plasma bolts on a target retreating at twenty times lightspeed.
The next wave was detected farther out; several of the Centralist ships sprayed plasma fire in the general direction of the new contacts, with little success- targets hopelessly far away, moving too fast for anyone to localize. The coilguns were utterly useless for the purpose, and even plasma bolts moved so slowly compared to the Kavool ships that engaging them was like trying to shoot down a fighter jet with a thrown rock. Making the shot against an oblique-moving target was theoretically possible, but beyond the standards the Centrality designed its target acquisition and fire control to.
None of the ships Zokolova had enlisted from the worlds of the remote, deep-hidden Kavool were in any real danger as they unleashed their torpedoes.
The missile harriers' quantum torpedos were specialized weapons optimized for the warp-strafing role: high-mass, high-capability missiles broadly similar in concept to the Eoghan aether torpedo. Unlike aether torpedoes, the Kavoolite design lacked a full-up FTL drive, relying on Heim sustainer coils that bled power from the launching ship- the Empire lacked the EUC's technical base, and made the design compromises that went with that. But launched from a ship already underway on Heim drive, the harriers' shots struck just as fast, and just as hard, as a spread of the more expensive Eoghan torpedoes would.
Even so, most of the torpedo spread the Kavoolites fired went wild: the pathfinders' targeting data wasn't perfect, and there was no time for last-minute corrections- Heim weapons were practically direct fire, and their target seekers were meant more to confirm the enemy's position before
launch than to home in on it afterwards. Even so, the missile harriers had concentrated their fire on the temporarily lamed Centralist capital ships, and they did
score hits- but not multiple hits.
They'd have needed multiple hits, if they wanted to accomplish anything lasting. Centrality ships, especially above the destroyer weight class, were heavily built and heavily shielded- Loyalist
had stood up to uncounted multimegaton impacts in the last minutes at Hawk's Nest, and that wasn't an anomaly. The Disruptor
-class superheavies were built harder still, and shielded to match the raw durability of their hulls. Today was a good illustration of why- built to survive direct hits from aether torpedoes in fleet actions against the Commons, Black Hole
took the hit this time, too.
The battleship's defense screens rippled, flickered, and torqued under the blow; Verio winced inside as he watched the ship status plot show a flare of yellow forward, one of the shield generators directly under the blast wrenched on its moorings and out of tune while the engineers tried to bring it back online. At the point of impact, that indescribable region of space where for a few hellish picoseconds collapsing Heim field faced off against the vengeful special theory of relativity, exotic particle storms sleeted through
the shields, flooding past it via the higher dimensions and scarring nearly a hundred meters of the flagship's flank. Scars only, though- where force fields failed, the integral metamaterial layers of the main armor belt held.
On the command bridge, Verio noticed the impact as a quiver in the deck, a brief sense of being tilted a few degrees from the vertical as the ship slid sideways from the impact. Nothing all that impressive until you realized that something had just hit hundreds of millions of tons of warship hard enough to make it jump.
From the Com-Scan monitoring pit, someone shouted without thinking: "The bastards! They're warp strafing us!"
The origin of the technical term for attacks launched from a craft under Heim drive was lost in history, but its acceptance was universal.
"Silence in the ranks!" He'd forgive it, this once, but a combat bridge was no
place for such a breakdown!
The good news- they could
take those missiles, for now, and the mysterious dual-drive raiders wouldn't be back for some minutes. Heim drive was fast, but not maneuverable, and turning around was tricky.
The bad news- how are we going to repair the power distribution banks, if we have to keep full power to shields just to survive those hits?
The warp strafers weren't a critical threat to his fleet, unless they got inordinately lucky. But even so, their harassment was... troublesome. A delay, at a time when he could not afford delays.