HMS Bellerophon, in orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 17:30 Central System Time.
Simmons was bent like a vulture over the holotank, his hands gripping the railing in a white-knuckle grip as he took stock of the situation. Aretha could not help but notice the way his shoulders tightened at the urgent call from the sensor station. She did not begrudge him the response - it was his job to worry, after all.
And he had reason to be worried, she had to admit. The accursed Delest were proving to be formidable opponents indeed. That carrier of theirs...
She could not join her Champion near the holotank, she could not show her own temper, frayed and ready to snap. She had to sit in her Commander's chair, back straight, face impassive - the picture of the stoic Knight of Britannia, her upper lip stiff and her spine forged in steel. Her fleet took their cues from her - and their discipline was an extension of her own. So, she had to limit herself to the smaller displays integrated into her seat's systems. And they did not paint as pretty a picture as she would have hoped.
Three of the four Delest capitals had formed line of battle in response to her forces' arrival; and they had steadfastly refused to allow her forces through to the shipyards. Even as her own Dreadnoughts had taken the enemy ships under fire, even as Temeraire
had pummelled their shields with their spinal beams and Fletcher had drowned them in waves of fightercraft, the Delest ships had hammered the Royal Oak
, the Cyclops
and the Atreus
with devastating torpedo broadsides and grav pulse fire, knocking out weapon emplacements, ripping through shields and armor and leaving the Atreus
puttering along at half-thrust. They had paid the price, of course: one of the older Delest capitals was now a rapidly expanding cloud of plasma, the second was limping away toward the shipyards in very bad shape but that goddamn
Its point-defense had reaped a bloody toll on the CRF strikecraft that had dared to close in; her shields had taken a battering but were still up; and she was now retreating in good order toward the shipyards, lobbing accurate, long-range torpedoes back at the pursuing CRF battle-line. In the few minutes (had it been just minutes
?) that had passed, Aretha had come to hate
that thing. She wanted to scream
And that thrice-be-damned piece of scrap
that the Delest had detached to guard the shipyards, that crippled ancient monitor still
taunted the CRF ships. She sat in front of the half-completed starbases, like a
monolithic slab of iron, her weapons at minimal power, all of her antique reactor's yield channeled into the inhibitor fields
that she had raised as soon as the CRF battle-line had jumped in. For several dozen kilometres in each direction, the sea of subspace now resonated angrily. If the CRF ships wished to tranlate, they would have to divert all power to their subspace drives, to punch
through the etheric barrier and tunnel their way out. Doing so would mean drawing power from weapons and shields - and that
, with that infernal
carrier still shooting at them, would be suicide
had the gall
of presuming to hold her fleet here
And now, Aretha saw on her display, there were traces of subspace tunneling coming in
, as Delest forces converged on-site, to assist their beleaguered fellows. Bright red lines, creeping toward the cluster of CRF and DD ships from several
different angles. The Delest knew the frequencies of their own inhibitors; and what would be a sea of near-impassable, boiling energy for the CRF forces, they
could still navigate through unhindered. They were coming for her.
This did not
"Ms Downey," Simmons called from the holotank. "Any signature returns?"
"Nothing concrete, Sir," came the response. The Bellerophon
shuddered softly, as a Delest torpedo impacted on the fore shields. "But these are definitely
capital-grade tunnels. We have a minimum of four task forces converging in on us."
"Four it is," Simmons mused; and turned to Aretha. "Ma'am, this is both a very dangerous situation and
an excellent opportunity. If we break formation and order full pursuit, we can focus fire those two ships down and, perhaps,
disable them quickly enough to take down the inhibitor fields in time to disengage. But if we fail, our formation will be broken when the Delest reinforcements arrive, with all that this would entail. Our other option is to reform here, and prepare to receive them. With a tight enough formation, I believe we can smash their attack; and if French reinforces us in time, the day will be ours.
"Ma'am, I need a command decision, now
. Do we attempt to disengage, or do we stand and fight?"
Exarch Aretha Pegasus locked eyes with her Champion, noting his confident stance; and then glanced around the bridge of her flagship, taking in expressions of her officers, where apprehension and eagerness clashed.
In truth, there was no choice involved here.
"Champion Simmons," she said, her voice ringing with every ounce of authority she could squeeze into it and her eyes cold, "abandon pursuit. Form tight battle-line on the flagship. Stand by to receive enemy assault."
In orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 17:35 Central System Time.
Four separate Delest squadrons (the near-entirety of the Delest in-system force) dropped out of subspace near-simultaneously, Volyas
leading the charge. Within the space of a few seconds, the Pegasus fleet was outnumbered near three-to-one in capital tonnage; and Aretha's forces found themselves under fire from multiple directions.
However, numbers, while not insignificant, did not fully reflect the tactical situation. The CRF forces were in formation, and had had sufficient forewarning to prepare themselves for the attack. They now stood ready, in an ordered battle-line.
The Delest forces, on the other hand, did not
. Dyatlov had made sure that his entire force would be ready to respond in an emergency by assigning capable commanders and 5th-Fleet ships to lead each of his separate squadrons. This had paid off from a strategic perspective: his squadrons had responded in time and his entire force was now at his disposal against a numerically inferior enemy. However, to achieve this, Dyatlov had sacrificed any hope of tactical superiority at a fleet formation level. His single most coherent force -the ships of the 5th Fleet- had been broken up, to assure no cock-ups at a strategic level. He had no ordered battle-line to match the CRF forces: just four separate clusters of capital ships, with different capabilities and with no particular experience in working together, ponderously manoeuvering into firing positions and closing the range to the waiting CRF wall.
The first, long-range torpedo salvo of the Delest forces reached the CRF fleet in a staggered, ragged mess. The already-wounded Cyclops
took a hit that gutted its starboard railgun emplacements, but the rest of the CRF battle-line emerged outscathed - and really, really
angry. Active sensors pinged the Delest formations; targets were designated; and the CRF returned fire in a massed, co-ordinated salvo of railgun slugs and coherent light, which ripped through the shields of the Volya
and the Vernost
in seconds. Arkhangelsk
took the enemy fire first on her buckling shields and then on her old, heavy armor. Some got through both; and her starboard missile silos went up in smoke. Thankfully, her magazines remained intact; and she staggered back into cover behind the shields of her task force flagship, the 5th-Fleet carrier Oku
was crippled, as a CRF beam stabbed through her port nacelle, and fell behind, out of formation, her off-centre thrust taking her on a wide, uncontrolled spiral. And Gangut
literally ceased to exist
- her reactor explosion hurling shrapnel and debris against the shields of her nearby sisters.
HIDMS Michiko, in orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 17:45 Central System Time.
Dyatlov had known that his plan would place his ships in danger; and he had thought he was prepared to accept any losses that might incur. The loss of the Gangut
was not a surprise and certainly not due to any mishandling
on behalf of her crew - the situation was, actually, still better than his worst-case scenario. But the explosive brutality
of the loss; the fact that twelve million
tons of fleet carrier and crew had been blown out of existence in an instant
shook him to the core. He couldn't hold back his hissed exclamation. Next to him, Arurior Sebrenova gaped at the central holodisplay for a few heartbeats, eyes wide. Then she took a deep breath; and Dyatlov saw her draw herself up again.
"All right, people, that's enough gawking!
" she cried, and her glare swept around the bridge. "Comms, Nav, get me a battle-line going
, for the Emperor's sake! Masako, Anastasia
form up on us; Task Forces Gamma and Delta form up on Oku
screen and prepare to receive enemy strike."
Frantic "Ayes" called back to her from the various bridge stations, as Michiko
shuddered, shrugging off the blow of a CRF spinal beam. The flagship reached out to her côterie of Volyas
, slowly herding them together under fire. Slowly, torturously
slowly, the Delest forces formed up, in two separate battle-lines, flanking the Pegasus fleet. It was a gruelling manoeuver, which exacted its own bloody toll on the Delest: the monitors Rotislav
, responding sluggishly to their helms, found themselves drawing much more attention than their old shields could take. They barely staggered away, in auxiliary power, streaming burning debris, atmosphere and charred bodies from where the CRF lances had carved huge gashes into their armor.
But finally, finally
the Delest ships were in formation and their return fire grew in intensity - and effectiveness. Grav pulses, superheavy torpedos and hyperaccellerated particles clawed and chipped and ripped at the Pegasus shields. And CRF sensor readouts blossomed with returns, as the Delest fleet carriers finally did what they were designed
to do: shift their launch rails from ordance to strikecraft functionality and disgorge wave, upon wave, upon wave upon wave
of strikecraft. Fighters, bombers and heavy Sodesuka
gunships swarmed around their motherships in an ominous cloud.
HMS Nelson, near Asteroid Refinery R-16 - 17:40 Central System Time.
"Sir, the station has been evacuated," Royal Marine Lieutenant Faulton reported, her voice clipped. "We have secured all control centres and have not encountered a single Delest; my Marines are now conducting a thorough search of the refinery. We have discovered several scuttling charges, on timers; my BD teams are disarming them as we speak, but I would strongly advise that we refrain from disembarking any further troops until we're certain we've found and dealt with all of them. Some of them were quite high-yield devices."
"Understood, Lieutenant," French said, "As you were. We will remain on-station to provide support."
The Arc Champion minimised his comms holoscreen and frowned, in thought. So then, the Delest were not planning to defend their asteroid industry - their intention was, instead, to scorch the belts clear, leaving nothing for the CRF to annex. This was simply unacceptable
"Sir," his Comms officer reported, jolting him out of his increasingly brooding mood, "we have an incoming message from the Warspite
. Their Marine detachments have engaged Delest ground forces in Belt Delta."
"Put it through," French ordered, bringing up his personal screen yet again.
"Sir," the calm monotone of Commodore Kendall said, as her face filled the holographic window, "be advised that I have dispatched two Marine platoons to each of the mining platforms M-03 and M-05, after driving off Delest evacuation ships. There were still Delest troops on board the stations in question that are now offering severe resistance. My Marines are currently under heavy fire, but they should have the platforms' Engineering and Control Stations secured within the hour."Oh no.
French gripped the armrests of his Admiral's chair, until his knuckles turned white. "Pull out your forces, right now
, Commodore. The Delest are planting scuttling charges on their asteroid bases. If you push them-"
Several astronomic units away, Nakayama Industries Ore Extractor M-03 disappeared in a blinding flash of apocalyptic light. Commodore Kendal looked up, her expression alarmed; but before she had time to say anything, the shockwave and building-sized debris reached the Warspite
, hammering into the two-kilometre ship and flipping her end-over-end like a tin can.
The communication link with Nelson
went dead, in a burst of static.
French muttered, his face ashen. "Comms, get them back.
And if you can't reach them
, try any
ship of their taskforce."
"A-Aye, Sir," the Comms officer stammered, shaken as well. "I'll- Sir, I got a hail from the Firebolt!
A Destroyer of Warspite's
task force, that. It would have
to do. "Put them through, now
The young Lieutenant in command of the Destroyer was a picture of horrified dismay - and the bridge of his ship, behind him, was a mess of smoke and frizzed electronics, damcon teams and medics hurrying around. "Sir? - oh thank God, it's still working. Sir, we've lost the Anson
and three Destroyers. The station just blew. Some sort of warhead or scuttling charge - I don't know what it was, but it was big
. The debris smashed the Anson
into an asteroid like a hammer. She's gone, Sir. The Warspite
is hit and she's lost FTL Comms, but she's alive."
French leaned back into his chair, his right hand trembling slightly and his face a mask. "Well done, Lieutenant. I'm overjoyed to see you safe. Please forward my compliments to Commodore Kendall and inform her that my orders are for you to provide any assistance you can to Warspite
and for both ships to pull back to the Starlance if and when you can. Understood?"
"Excellent. French out."
The connection went dead and French leaned back in his chair. This had become a very
dangerous game now. Allowing the mining facilities to be destroyed was inconceivable
. Only through the preservation of the system infrastructure could this war be in any
way profitable to New Britannia. But risking his ships...
"Full broadcast, to all task forces," he finally ordered. "Capital ships are to pull a safe distance away from enemy asteroid installations. Boarding operations are to be conducted by Destroyers alone
. Should the station be abandonned, Marine platoons are to prioritise locating and disabling the scuttling charges that will, inevitably, have been placed in concealed locations. If the stations are still defended
, and if the Marines encounter any
resistance, they are to pull out; following that, the control and engineering stations of the installations are to be destroyed by energy bombardment from maximum range. Also, open a channel to Penelope
- my compliments to Knight Sawyer and he's to jump to the Warspite's
location and offer any assistance he can."
"Good. Helm, reverse thrust - pull us out to two thousand yards from the station."
As the Dreadnought slowly
coasted away from the Delest facility on reaction thrusters, French couldn't help but question his own decision. There was great risk here - and there were so
many things that could go wrong now. Dyatlov had played his card, and it was a stunningly
good one, if completely and utterly insane
from a strategic and political standpoint. If Dyatlov had any backers among the Delest higher-ups, this stunt must have enraged
of Delest Hez, down the drain in an instant.
Oh, how they would howl
for his head. But that didn't help French out now
the man and damn
those vat-grown suicidal lunatics! French would have to keep a close eye to each of his individual forces to prevent anything-
"Sir?" the Comms Officer's voice once again tore him from his musings. "Sir, incoming message from Exarch Aretha. She's engaged...well, she's been
engaged by the entire enemy fleet,
Sir. She's...asking for support."