"Squadron 3 reports enemy contact, Sir!" Comms Officer Guillen screamed (considerably louder than was warranted, Aretha Pegasus noted) and Champion Simmons near-teleported from his Flag seat to the main holographic 'tank' in the middle of Bellerophon's
"Red Alert. Confirm battle-stations on all ships," he ordered curtly. "Weapons free on all fighters and all point-defense batteries. And, Ms. Downey, for God's sake,
update the display, I need to see what in the hell
is going on."
"Right away, Sir," the sensors station Lieutenant responded, her voice sheepish. "We've had some interference from leftover mine radiation; sensor feeds from the fighters coming up...now?"
The holographic display flickered; and then three glaring red dots blinked into existence next to that suspicious ball of dirt and ice
that Simmons had just known
the Delest would have used as a listening post or an ambush point. Squadron 3 was maneuvering wildly near the rock in question; bright yellow blinking lines connected the enemy ships with the CRF fighters, indicating incoming fire.
"ID on those ships?" Simmons barked.
"Tentative at best, Sir," Downey replied. "They're in the asteroid's shadow; all we're getting is garbled sensor feeds from the fighters. Solid confirmation on outgoing point-defense fire, though."
"Sir, Squadron leader Fallow reports two point-defense vessels, Frigates or Destroyers," Guillen called out. "And, I quote, something bigger, that I haven't seen before
. Designating targets."
The holodisplay updated again. The two flanking ships were now marked as 'DDFg1' and 'DFg2'; the central ship acquired a distinct halo and the designation 'DDCap1'. Simmons, bent over the railing next to the holotank, squinting at the display, grumbled under his breath for a few seconds and then straightened up.
"Vector in Squadron 3 and 4 now
and order Furious
to scramble a heavy strike wing," he ordered. "All other flights are to stay in tight fleet formation. My compliments to Ms. Fallow and she's to keep her distance
until reinforcements arrive. Mr Guillen, contact the Nelson
and provide Arc Champion French with a sitrep. Inform him that we are engaging the enemy with smallcraft and standing by for incoming fire."
Simmons turned sharply and vaulted up the stairs with the agility of a man half his age. As he settled back into his seat, to her immediate right, Aretha couldn't help but notice how her Champion was wound up taut, like a coiled spring.
"Come on, you bastard," she heard him mutter, his eyes fixed in the distance. "Come on. Make your move."
Ter-Iio Aimi Dimitrievna Akiyama was sweating
in both a figurative and literal sense, despite Orakul's
excellent climate control. Her sensor technicians and analysts had given her a very good idea of what was waiting for her ship on the other side of this cold, Emperor-forsaken space rock and she wanted to hug it real tight and never leave its protective shadow. On the other hand, this situation was something they had planned for and she had clear instructions on what to do.
"Ma'am, tightbeam from Strela
," her Comms officer said, his voice slightly distorted by the enclosed VR helmet he was wearing. "Iio Popov is on channel 2."
Ter-Iio Akiyama fiddled with her own earpiece, her eyes never leaving the sensor plot in front of her. "Orakul
Command, listening," she said.
"Aimi!" Gregori's voice was tenser than she felt, which, in a way, was comforting. "Please
tell me you eggheads have all the info you need."
"Yes, we've got what we came for and more," Akiyama replied. "I have the distinct impression we've outstayed our welcome."
"You said it," Gregori's voice was filled with relief and Akiyama couldn't fault him. "Waiting for your go-ahead to start our cycle."
"Roger that, stand by."
Akiyama turned to her Nav and Tactical officers, reclining on their crash couches. Their fingers danced on holographic keyboards extending from the armrests and their headsets were directly linked to each other. "Dasha, Akihiro, I need a subspace plot out of here yesterday
. Transmit to escorts and execute when ready."
"...five minutes ago..."
"...Skipper," came the response. "Charging Drives..."
"...T minus five thirty-five..."
"Good," Akiyama leaned down from her raised bridge into the Pit; a long corridor of sensor consoles, databanks and analysts' stations, running the length of the ship's habitable portion. Two rows of seated engineers and technicians still pored over the data flowing in from the ships' sensor arrays. Her Chief Intel officer immediately looked up, awaiting orders. "Leytenant Aksyonov, five minutes to translation. Switch to active lattice and send out the handshakes."
"Aye aye, ma'am," the Leytenant responded; and immediately
rushed down the corridor, calling out orders. Akiyama returned to her commander's chair and strapped herself in for what promised to be the five longest minutes of her life so far.
And for the first time since her arrival in this corner of nothingness, Orakul
stopped listening and called out
In the dark empty space around the Starlance, a considerable distance away from the main minefield and farther away than the CRF fighter patrols had reached, Orakul's
call reached a dark, sleeping shape. And another. And then many, many more. Some (a very few) of them continued to sleep. Something had gone wrong with their simple electronic brains; or perhaps they had been killed in their sleep by the shrapnel and radiation that had been the inferno of the minefield's annihilation. No-one would ever know.
Still, sixty-five torpedo buoys woke up.
It took three seconds to boot and run through their self-diagnostics. Two more to run through the avionics package of the four DD12TR birds each of them was carrying and confirm that everything was running smoothly. And another two seconds to establish a handshake with Orakul's
signal and download her latest sensor data on the CRF formations clustering around the Starlance.
If the rudimentary AIs of the buoys were any less
rudimentary, they might have licked their proverbial lips at the quality of the targeting information they received. As it were, they just logged that downloading the relevant information took twice as long as the average expected time; popped their launch hatches and flushed the tubes, before triggering their own self-destruct sequences.
Two hundred and sixty birds streaked towards the enemy, in wings of bright fire.
it is, you little bugger," Simmons growled, as the tactical plot updated again
. "Played your card, did you?"
The three enemy ships were still maneuvering to keep the asteroid between them and the fleet but, for now, they weren't his primary concern, Aretha noted. The hundreds of torpedoes converging on their fleet from all directions, like an ever-constricting sphere, occupied her Champion's sole
attention. Aretha pondered for a moment whether it would be best to ask him whether the fleet was truly
in any danger and, perhaps, remind him of the enemy ships that were surely
planning to make their escape; but she decided that distracting him at such a time might not
be the best of ideas.
Also, the incoming wall of missiles had a certain...ponderousness
in it that made Aretha nervous. She didn't really mind him focusing on that
, not at all.
"Tracking two hundred plus
signatures, Sir!" came Downey's call and Aretha noted that the woman appeared quite calm. A promising officer, then and one that might warrant more attention. "Contact in thirty seconds...mark
"Signal fleet: tight formation. Cut drives, all power to shields." Simmond's voice was, likewise, calm and professional and Aretha felt a considerable degree of satisfaction for how her officers comported themselves. This was the first time she commanded a Pegasus fleet from the front and, in all honestly, she had expected being under fire to be more...chaotic. The degree of professionalism shown by her crew was a very pleasant surprise. "Fighter patrols are clear for missile intercepts. Establish point defense links with the cruisers and open fire."
"Twenty seconds, Sir."
"Mr. Guillen, my compliments to the 2nd Group and I want the Gorgon
and the Indefatigable
to tighten up their formation. Now
, Mr. Guillen."
"Missiles in range," came the call from Tactical. "All laser and ion batteries engaging...scoring good kills, Sir.""Ten seconds!"
Ter-Iio Akiyama called; and Orakul
sceamed like a banshee, sweeping through all CRF frequencies with a pulse of jamming, deafening noise.
And then she ran like hell.
On board the Bellerophon
, the holotank flickered, as sensors were scrambled and returns were lost in static. The not-inconsiderable ECM suites of the Lord
-class kicked in immediately, but the initial lock on the incoming torpedoes was lost and had to be reacquired
, something that cost the point-defense gunners precious
More importantly, Orakul's
jamming interfered with the point defense network that effectively co-ordinated the CRF ships' firepower. As the network links collapsed and came back online, inefficient targeting solutions were identified and targeting had to be re-shuffled again
, with more time lost. All in all, when the CRF point defense got its act back together and with the torpedoes less than five seconds from impact, no more than fifty birds had been shot down.
It didn't really
Simmons and French had clustered their fleets together in two massive groups, behind an impenetrable wall of overlapping shields, overwhelming point-defense firepower and iron discipline; all of these came to bear in a near-instant. In those last five seconds, the space surrounding the CRF Dreadnoughts and their point-defense escorts became a near-solid wall of coherent light and hyperaccelerated ions that chewed up the Delest torpedoes in droves. More than half of the incoming missiles died in those furious five seconds; and then the rest slammed into the energised ether of the CRF shields, delivering their payload in blinding gouts of plasma.
Among Aretha's ships, Indefatigable
took the worst beating. The shields of the first two barely held under the merciless battering; both had several of their secondary shield emitters overload quite spectacularly (although the timely opening of the relevant compartments to hard vacuum promptly extinguised the ensuing fires). The latter's shields collapsed utterly
and a final torpedo was barely intercepted by point-defense mere yards
off the portside engines; the ensuing explosion knocked out a major thruster and left the ship limping but, thankfully, field-repairable.
French, on the other hand, had adopted a more mobile defense, with ships rotating between the inside and the outside of the cluster formation. As a result, more of his Dreadnoughts had been on the receiving end of torpedo fire; but the damage was more evenly spread out and none of his capitals had been crippled. Nelson
herself, leading from the front, was one of the most heavily damaged ships, with only a failing primary shield emitter.
As one, the CRF ships ponderously turned toward their fleeing tormentor. Neither French nor Simmons were willing to take their ships into pursuit or break formation, in fear of more mines lying in wait; but they had more aces up their sleeves. All through the CRF fleets, pilots scrambled to their fighters and those that were already
flying started up their jump cycles.
" Akiyama cursed, as the radiation died down and her sensors told her the tale. "I was
hoping for at least a mission-kill on something. Oh well, it is what it is. Time to translation?"
"...Mark." came the chorus from the Tac and Nav stations. "Also, Skipper...?"
"Three light fighter..."
"...and one heavy fighter..."
"Understood." Akiyama tapped her headset. "Leytenant Aksyonov, you are clear for full Pythia
protocols; prioritise the pursuing fighters."
had neither the speed nor the maneuverability to evade the incoming strikecraft; and she certainly
did not have the weaponry to swat them out of the sky. For her defence, she was almost completely dependent on her two Frigate escorts; and Drotik
were very much aware of the importance of their ward.
As Flight Lieutenant Fallow's strike group closed the range to the Fleeing Delest ships, the two Frigates interposed their slender hulls between the incoming fighters and the sensor cruiser. And opened fire, with every particle cannon they could bring to bear.
The CRF Fireflies
were more than maneuverable enough to dodge out of the escorts' protective envelope, but they had heavy fighter backup and, after the Delest torpedo attack on their fleet, they were seeing red. Fallow had her strikecraft ripple-fire missiles against the escorts and bored in
with a bloodthirsty "Deus Vult!"
It was unfortunate that Orakul's
EW suite chose that moment to give the pursuing fighters her full attention. Missile locks just vanished
and the missiles themselves just corkscrewed off-target. Comms were blanketed with crackling static. Sensors and Nav systems went completely haywire. Fallow's squadron disintegrated
into a confused semi-furball and pulled back in disarray, under the constant fire of the escort Frigates. The Fireflies
staggered back, their shields crumbling, and, ironically, found cover behind the same rock they had chased the Orakul
Flight Lieutenant Fallow would bitterly curse that moment of perceived humiliation for years to come. But she had, in a way, scored some success. For Orakul's
EW suite had focused on her
the rapidly inbound Tyrfings
, which now unloaded their entire missile banks into Strela
at a range of under a kilometre.
These weren't capital-grade torpedoes but, on the other hand, the Delest Frigate did not
have the benefit of Dreadnought-level shields either. Her point-defense could only do so much against the fighters themselves and
their ordnance. Her defenses crumpled after a few seconds of concentrated fire; and, as the Tyrfings
peeled off to disengage, Strela's
portside thruster went up in spectacular flames, with secondary explosions ripping her thin armor apart. She fell out of formation, trailing burning gas and debris, her engineering crews cutting power to her starboard engine as well, to prevent off-centre thrust.
It was probably the worst possible time for two more wings of Tyrfings
to emerge from Subspace just a few thousand metres from Orakul's
aft. The CRF fighters spent a couple of seconds re-orienting themselves after the rapid jump; and then they accelerated
on full afterburners toward the retreating cruiser.
"...brace for crash..."
The portals that formed in front of Orakul
and the Frigates were tiny, hastily constructed, pathetic
sufficient to admit them to Subspace; but they were
sufficient. Ter-Iio Akiyama gritted her teeth and clenched every muscle in her body, as her ship sccccrrrrrrraped
itself against the torn edges of realspace. For an infinite ten seconds, she felt truly nauseous. She tasted blue
blood in her mouth and heard sweet
steel all along the left side of her body and then the confusion was past and she was the commanding officer of the Delest sensor cruiser Orakul
again, safe in the shimmering corridors of Subspace.
'Behind' her, in the direction-that-was-not-a-direction, her portal winked out with a flash of displaced ether. Two full wings' worth of missiles screamed past the space her ships had occupied only moments ago, to the howling frustration of the CRF pilots.
"Comms! Sensors! Are the Frigates still with us?" she cried into the Pit, unclasping her combat harness and staggering forward.
"Wait one, Ma'am," the Comms officer replied, and no mechanical distortion could hide the shakiness in his voice. "Drotik
is checking in, still in formation. Strela
is checking in, ma'am! They are piggybacking in our tunnel and their reactor is down to 30 percent output, but they're stable. They are reporting heavy casualties, but their bridge and jump drive are fine."
"Cut our speed and divert power to the jump drive," Akiyama ordered. "Take up as much stress on the tunnel as we can, to support them. Make for Hōseki
best speed. And open a wide-broadband tightbeam channel to Drotik
- I want you to download our scans and analyses to their databanks and I want them to go on ahead. The Praetor needs to see this and I don't want to risk a long-range subspace transmission, not even an encrypted one."
She returned to her holodisplay and called up one of the last scans of the CRF fleet. Two massive point-defense formations, weathering the storm of the Delest torpedo salvo.Two
"The Praetor needs
to see this," Akiyama repeated, her voice tinged with confusion and wonder.