YCS Pamyat Slavy, in orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 17:55 Central System Time.
Ermolai Yonsakuren prowled across the silent CIC of his flagship cruiser, looming over the backs of his bridge officers. Yonsakuren ships did not
have commanders' seats - a commanding officer was not supposed
to be comfortable in his role. Instead, all critical information was routed to the small augmented reality headsets the COs wore; and in turn they made their presence known
by bouncing between bridge stations as the situation required.
The way the bridge of a Yonsakuren vessel operated would have seemed utterly alien to any trueborn human. There were no shouted orders; no reports being called out. The entire bridge crew was wound up tighter than a coiled spring, riding a sublime cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins and emotions; any
escalation on that (even as much as a snarled order
that could be mistaken for a challenge) could result in utter
, unmanageable chaos. Therefore, orders were given subtly, calmly, with a minimum of interaction;
and both the Commanding Officers and their crews kept an iron
grip on their self-control.
They were Yonsakuren Bridge Officers
, after all: the undisputed best
of the best
. It was a matter of pride that they used
their battle-lust instead of succumbing to it. Unlike the crews and the fighter jockeys, who often reveled and danced in it.
"Open a secure channel to the Volga
and the Baikal
," Ermolai ordered his Comms Officer, casually brushing a finger across the man's nape. The officer, in turn, moved his head just so
, acknowledging the order; and a new small translucent window opened on the side of the Arurior's vision.
"Receiving you, Ermolai," the heavily scarred Ter-Iio Esfir Yonsakuren of the Baikal
said with a tooth-bearing snarl, as soon as the connection was established and her face flashed up. "What do you want?"
"Artyom, Esfir," Ermolai rumbled, "the Praetor will shortly be ready for his strikecraft attack. We will provide support."
Artyom Yonsakuren, the dark, swarthy commander of the Volga
grinned widely. The expression would have sent any non-Yonsakuren running at the sight of the not-quite-human sharp teeth. "Flyswatting?"
"Yes," Ermolai responded, his hunched walk taking him behind his Tactical officer. His hand absently extended over the woman's shoulder, pointing at a cluster of contacts that looked like a lagging squadron of CRF Destroyers on her screen; the Officer grinned ferally with a low, guttural, chuckling laugh, gently tapped his arm to acknowledge the order, and assigned a couple of grav pulsers to hammer the enemy ships. "We take point behind the cloud, swat flies and pull back again."
"This is not
a good fight," Esfir protested, her voice rising to a mewling complaint. "Too easy. Ermolai, we were promised a good fight!"
"I am aware of that, Esfir," Ermolai calmly said, gesturing in empty air to acknowledge the reports of his damcon teams and making his way back to the Pamyat's
small tactical holotank. "We will wait until the Praetor has finished making the fight. I cannot see it all
yet, but I can see it taking shape. Not long, now. You must
"Yes, Arurior," his subordinate replied and Ermolai was pleased to notice that she looked suitably chastised. As was only good and proper. "I am in error and you have corrected me."
"Good," Ermolai replied. "You have shown weakness of character, but your sense of duty and honour is impeccable. I am ending this matter here."
Esfir nodded slightly, her eyes locked on his, acknowledging both the rebuke and the compliment; and Ermolai allowed a thin smile to grace his face.
"Now-" he said, "-form up on me. The 5th-Fleet Grazhdanins
will take the left flank. We have been granted the honour of providing cover to the Praetor's squadrons."
He had spoken out loud, for his bridge crew to hear; and he felt their reaction in the air; in the smell of their sweat and the subtle way they shifted in their seats. Tighter, ever tighter did the coil wind, tension building.
"Yes!" Artyom spoke for all, his voice even (as it should be), but resonating with triumph in a way that only a Yonsakuren would understand. "We are at the centre, we are at the fulcrum. The hand of Uuni tips the scale."
The dark swarm of the Delest strikecraft screamed past the bow and stern of the Pamyat Slavy
in impeccably-ordered three- and four-ship wings, beginning their attack runs on the Pegasus fleet. From behind, their drives formed an almost solid wall of light moving away from the Delest formations. Ermolai couldn't deny that the sight was awe-inspiring: this was the largest such attack in living memory.
And then the deck of the Pamyat
rang in a frequency just beyond human hearing, as thrusters fired and his ship nimbly turned, to follow that wall of death into the fray. The Volga
and the Baikal
slotted into formation at his side; his crew was riding high on battle-lust; the unseen hand of Clan and Home was behind him, pointing the way.
It was glorious
And, as battle was joined and the weapons of his ship sang out, Ermolai allowed himself the luxury of closing his eyes for a moment, in exultation.
HMS Bellerophon, in orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 17:50 Central System Time.
"What do you mean
, you can't help?" Exarch Aretha hissed at her personal screen.
"Exactly what I said," the video thumbnail of Julius French replied, his face a mask of disdain. "It is impossible
for me to provide any effective aid at this point in time."
"You..." Aretha gripped the armrests of her seat tightly, as Bellerophon
shook under Delest fire "...what are you talking
about? Their entire bloody fleet
. You are not
being engaged. There is nothing
preventing you from helping us. All we need is for you to jump in and we can wipe them all out!"
She glanced up, hopefully, and saw Simmons looking back from the holotank. His expression was grimmer than she had ever seen before; and his eyes were dark.
"Your Grace," French said, notes of exasperation and anger in his voice, "first of all, my forces are
being engaged by skirmishers and garrisons all through the asteroid belts. And even if they weren't,
my capitals have been dispersed and are working based on a well-rehearsed plan and timeframe - a plan and timeframe that you were well aware of
. I cannot simply order my forces to jump to your location from their current positions. The result would be chaos
. I would arrive piecemeal, out of formation, and the Delest would blow me out of the sky. As you quite rightly pointed out, your sally has accomplished the one
thing I was trying to avoid: get the entirety of Dyatlov's fleet in one
location, ready to fight. And I will not
feed my ships and crews into that
one at a time. I might as well gift wrap my Dreadnoughts and mail them to Dyatlov.""Damn
you, French!" Aretha snarled. "You can't leave us here to die."
"Spare me," French spat right back. "You are in command of a well-disciplined force and you went looking
for this fight. You got exactly
what you wanted. You are an Exarch of New Britannia - bloody well act
like it. Stand firm, and you'll live. You'll only need to endure for an hour or so - and by then I'll have pulled back enough forces from the asteroid fields to do a fleet jump and assist."
Aretha looked up again - Simmons shook his head sadly, almost imperceptively. "By God, French, you craven bastard, we'll all be dead
in an hour!"
"Not by my estimates," French replied, cooly. "But if you are
, I'll have to avenge you, because I can't bloody well save
you from your own stupidity
. I warned
you, Your Grace. You have taken yourself and your people beyond my help; I sincerely hope your crews pay a lesser price than they should for your mistake. French out."
The channel died, with a burst of static; and Aretha bit her lip bloody so as not to scream
out her frustration.
Simmons approached, his brow furrowed. "One hour? We may survive, Your Grace. We'll be rightly mauled though."
"...I'm sorry, Paul," Aretha said, hoarsely. "I got us into this mess. I should have known that we shouldn't have counted on French. I should have.."
"He's right, Your Grace," Simmons said, smiling thinly as Aretha looked up in surprise. "It would
be suicidal to commit his forces here without pulling back to reorganise. But it didn't hurt to ask. We might have been lucky."
"...If you say so, Mr. Simmons," Aretha said, hopefully not looking as unconvinced as she felt. She was angry now, and her anger knitted her shattered confidence back together. "Enough of that. We need to survive for an hour and that's that. What can
"Get through this mess, one minute at a time," Simmons said. "For now, we need to deal with this upcoming strike."
Aretha looked up at the holotank and her blood froze once again at the sheer number
of contacts closing swiftly on her fleet. The incoming fighters were a wall of red contacts, much much
closer than she had realised - and rushing closer to them by the second.
"What... get Fletcher on comms!" she gasped. "Every fighter we have. Engage them near the capitals, get our gunners to provide point-defense. We need to break their formations, force them to abort their runs."
"Understood," Simmons said, approvingly. "However, it will not be as simple as that, I'm afraid. Their battle-line is flanking us, Your Grace. We need to respond."
And, indeed, Aretha noticed, the Delest capitals were fanning out from behind their strikecraft in two distinct string-of-pearl battle-lines, forcing the CRF formations to split their fire. "Suggestions?"
"Redirect our battle-line to meet their own. Let the fighters and escort carriers deal with the Delest strikecraft. Fletcher's force will be utterly mauled
, but if we allow those carriers shots at our flank unopposed, they'll drown us in torpedoes."
Aretha stared at him, aghast. Simmons was, first and foremost, a carrier man. Fletcher was his protegé; most of the crews in Aretha's escort Hangar-Dukes had learned their trade under Simmons. For him to just throw his boys and girls against the teeth of that
Delest strike without battle-line support-
"I see," she said, truly realising that the situation was considerably more desperate than Simmons wished to acknowledge out loud. For the first time, it truly registered with her that she might not make it out of there alive. "Make it so, Sir Champion. And...and inform Mr. Fletcher that our thoughts are with him. Please."
In orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 17:52 Central System Time.
The Delest squadrons bored in
: light Cheburashka
-class interceptors leading the front, in wings of three; then five-ship wings of old Zhuravlik
space superiority fighters, their engines near-overheating under max thrust, but their weapon banks still deadly and ready to receive the enemy; and, following them, the true strike element. Wing upon wing of massive Shilo
bombers, their missile banks housing several anti-capital torpedoes; and brand-spanking-new Sodesuka
gunships, hot off the shipyard assembly lines and requisitioned into Dyatlov's forces.
In response, High Knight Fletcher had at his disposal the strikecraft complement of Aretha's Lords
; and the Combat Space Patrol fighters of his own six Duke escort carriers. Hull-for-hull, his forces numbered almost two-thirds of the Delest strike wave but ton-for-ton, the Delest outmassed him almost two-to-one.
CRF strikecraft technology was simply not up to international par,
and Fletcher (and Simmons) knew
it. In the past, both Knights had lobbied hard to draw the focus of the CRF design bureaus into producing a modern, capable fighter design; but BuShips had, instead, stubbornly poured billions of Imperials into producing the new generation of battleships. And while the Earls
warships, that did not
help the Pegasus fighter crews that now had to fly tincan Fireflies
or cumbersome Tyrfings
First contact between the strike wave and the intercepting CRF fighters took place at less than three kilometres from the ragged carrier line and the retreating Lords
were the first to join the frey, wings quickly dissolving into pairs or trios of dogfighting craft. Then the Tyrfings
arrived, to brawl with the Zhuravliks
and things truly
got heated. Space boiled with the superagitated ether of the fighters' shields; weapons fire and plasma lit up a battle-zone nearly four kilometres wide.
Through this zone, the Shilos
stately waded, the former's shields supercharged for their final torpedo runs and the latter's turrets and gunports keeping their wards safe. The surviving Fireflies
tried to intercept; in some cases even ramming
the heavier bombers in desperate kamikaze runs. And, for a while, with point-defense fire coming in from the carriers, the Delest strike almost
seemed to stall.
And then Ermolai's Grazhdanins
arrived on the scene, their own point defense batteries on overcharge. Keeping to a brisk, constant speed and a parade-ground, rigid formation, they smashed into the fighter furball and out the other end with all the subtlety and effectiveness of sledgehammers hitting fine china. By the time they were through, less than one in ten of the Pegasus CSP fighters were still flying; and the path to the carriers (and the coveted target of the CRF battle-line) lay clear.
At 18:03, the Furious
sent her last broadcast to her carrier group and the rest of the fleet:
"FIGHTER COVER COMPROMISED. STRIKE INBOUND. MAKE READY AS BEST YOU CAN. GOD SAVE PEGASUS."
All across the carrier group, crewmen and -women prayed by their stations; veteran officers and NCOs did their best to encourage them, but some amongst them had faced Delest anti-capital strikes before and they knew what was coming. "Brace for graviton strike" is the order, in most cases followed by muttered expletives. Those veteran crewmembers who were not
actively manning a station curled up in their crash harnesses, making themselves as small a target as they can.
At five-hundred yards and under heavy point-defense fire the Sodesukas
silenced their particle turrets and anti-fighter weaponry and shunted power into their anti-capital batteries. Power flowed into the massive, massive
graviton emitters housed in the gunships' sleek hulls. And suddenly, gravity was granted leave of absence and decided to take a short sabbatical. Space folded
and formed passages
, marked by flaring, tortured ether; and the not-so-miniature singularities that the Sodesukas
were housing reached out in ravenous hunger.
The first graviton beam salvo hit the carriers at 18:04 and the shields only held for a few seconds. The beams were aimed at point-defense batteries, engines, gun emplacements, hangar bays, ship CICs. Metal found itself pulled
- irresistibly pulled away; and giving way with tortured shrieks, in a hundred different places all over the striken ships. Turrets were ripped off, their crews sucked into space. Hull plating buckled and deformed. Implacable
lost an entire engine pod, which then exploded a few yards from the ship. Illustrius'
bridge was literally peeled off
, armor layer by armor layer, her atmosphere venting in seconds. Three beams punched into the reactor of the Glorious
and the ship just...died
, internal explosions making parts of the hull balloon outwards grotesquely. But it was a Shilo
anti-capital torpedo that finished the Furious
, breaking her spine and snapping her weakened hull in two under her own engine thrust.
It took the Delest strikecraft time: they were meticulous and conscientious with their work and the carriers died hard and slow. It took over twenty minutes under repeated, overwhelming strikes for the last ones to fall silent and for the Delest wave to finally continue their pursuit of the Pegasus battle-line.
Out of the six thousand Pegasus sailors manning Fletcher's force, less than four hundred survivors were picked up after the battle.