HMS Bellerophon, in orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 18:27 Central System Time.
pushed forward, toward empty space and freedom; and the debris of the carrier Takeko
was shoved aside almost casually, scraping
down the Dreadnought's starboard side and still venting atmosphere, fire and bodies.
Aretha Pegasus laughed
, glad to be alive.
Behind her, her ships - her surviving
ships, her beautiful
ships tightened their formation, the Temeraire
putting a final railgun broadside into the foundering flagship of the enemy battlegroup. And then they were clear
, with the rest of the enemy far
"Background ether is stabilising, Ma'am," Downey called from her station, her voice as jubilant as Aretha felt. "Nav estimates...nine
minutes to safe translation.""Thank you,
Ms. Downey," the Exarch responded. "Closest pursuing enemy?"
"At near-maximum weapons range, Ma'am," Downey responded. "PD net has solid lock on all incoming torps and our Destroyers are falling back to screen our rear. They can't hurt us."
"They most certainly
can," Simmons said, softly, and Aretha's head turned sharply. She realised that her Champion had not spoken - had not uttered a word
for several minutes, even while the fighting was the thickest. And she just managed to hold a disbelieving gasp when she looked
at him, for the first time since they had ordered Fletcher to his death.
Simmons was pale, his skin glistening with sweat and his white hair matted with it. His hands were trembling, almost imperceptively - but for Simmons
, the confident, charismatic officer, they may as well have been leaves in the wind. His eyes, as he turned his own head to meet her gaze, were dark and apathetic - distant,
in a way that sent a cold shudder down Aretha's back.
"Their hand is long, and they have yet to strike at us, Your Grace," Simmons said, calmly. "They will not allow us to escape. Please
. Ignore the torpedoes pursuing us. Get the Destroyers back with the fleet. What fleet we still have. We need their point-defense, now, now, now
. Or we will die, like Fletcher did."
"Sir Fletcher's ships died defending us, Sir Champion," Aretha said, almost physically pushing her shock aside, "and I will not have them die in vain. The only thing that can hurt us now are the carriers-"
"The carriers are not important," Simmons interrupted her, his voice low, and his face spasming into a bitter wince, as he turned his eyes back to the holotank. "The carriers are only here to be big, and threatening, and die.
And to keep us looking
He shook his head, like an animal, a shudder that ran down his whole body. "No," he said, his voice a trancelike whisper, "it's their spawn
that will kill us. Long-legs, long-legs they have and they are everywhere. They can still be everywhere and anywhere."
Aretha's hair was standing on end - this was not
Simmons she knew. Not this - this broken down husk, speaking nonsense. "Get-"- a grip, Sir!
she would have said, but then Downey cried in alarm; and she looked up just in time to see the holotank's display shift the entirety of the mass
of Delest strikecraft - that cloud of angry red
that Fletcher had died keeping away from them - into dark blue
. Blue, for subspace jump
"They were there
but now they are here,"
Simmons said, his voice low and sad and resigned, amidst the bedlam that erupted on the bridge of the Bellerophon
. "Too late, too late
, Your Grace."
In orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 18:29 Central System Time.
The Delest strikecraft jumped, guided by the navigation coordinates that the three Yonsakuren cruisers had crunched in their stead. Their pilots gritted their teeth and clenched their muscles and minds during the five heartbeats it took for their ships to scrape their way into the boiling sea of subspace, make their way through the dizzying angry
caleidoscope of blue-bitter-loud-copper-soft-blood
and drop back into realspace. Some of them, very few, did not make it: either their jump drives malfunctioned, or they made a mistake when inputting the frequencies of the inhibitors, and their relatively light craft pancaked themselves against the agitated etheric barriers that the Penza
was still maintaining around the shipyards.
But the others emerged less than three kilometres from the retreating Lords
- the Lords
that were moving towards them
, their Cavalier escort behind them and unable to assist. Just outside the range of the CRF point-defense, they took a few seconds to regroup, reform their wings and picked their targets; and then they charged.
This would be no
slaughter - not like the strike on the carriers at all. The Delest pilots had received very specific
orders and, this time, their goals were much more...precise
. Not to kill
the Pegasus leviathans (for, in all honesty, no matter their vast numbers, they would be swatted out of the sky by the CRF point-defense long before they could carve them up like they had the Dukes
), but to cripple
. This time around, they would not be the butcher's cleaver, but the rogue's knife: cutting and bleeding and running
Fifteen hundred metres - and the CRF Dreadnoughts slowly came together in as close a formation as they could manage, slowing down, perhaps hoping that their escort ships might catch up in time. The first shots went out - ranging fire, as the CRF PD net came online and tried to make sense of the incominc swarm. The Delest strikecraft stayed silent, their forward shields reinforced and their drives redlining, pushing themselves to close the distance.
A thousand metres - and the Cheburashkas
leading the pack started dropping countermeasures and flares, filling the scopes of the Pegasus Dreadnoughts with false returns. Some of the interceptors died, being the first to come under the increasingly accurate point-defense fire, but their wards, the Sodesukas
were safe, for a few crucial seconds.
Five hundred metres - and HMS Avalon
turned to interpose herself between the incoming bombers and the Bellerophon
, in a desperate gamble to draw their fire away from her flagship. Her PD batteries wreathed her in a halo of white light and one- no, three- no, eight
bombers died in balls of fire as they screamed
in - and then they were there
came in first, their powerful forward shields smashing into those of the CRF capitals. They slowed down, for an instant, and several of them paid for it with their lives. But then ether warped
, shield emitters fighting against shield emitters and thrusters pushing
forward, and the Delest bombers were through
the CRF shields, and suddenly all the PD in the world was not enough.
Torpedoes were the first to be fired - what few of them still remained unused in their launch tubes, for the Delest had not had the time or opportunity to recover and rearm their bombers. The Avalon
had sought to draw fire away from the Bellerophon;
she succeeded tragically in that regard. Six torpedoes, fired at point-blank range and under
her shields smashed into her primary bridge; her sensor array; her portside batteries. Two more corkscrewed into her port engines as the Shilos
lumbered past and out
, seeking new targets; the massive CRF Dreadnought staggered to a halt, an incontrollable wreck, her reactors on emergency shutdown and her IFF transmitting the universal automated 'my-core-is-about-to-blow-I-surrender' codes.
Behind her, the Shilos
were now working on the Indefatigable
. The two sister-ships were working in tandem, covering each other with their PD batteries and they extracted the worst toll of all on the Delest strikecraft. But the pilots did not persist beyond two attack runs - and they did not have to, for on the second one, two torpedoes got through and found their mark on the Indefatigable's
main thruster. The Delest bombers pulled away, in a shower of burning debris, and the CRF pair fell out of the main formation, the Invincible
still trying to cover her crippled sister.
, meanwhile, had found a perfect target in the Menelaus
, hammering her with graviton strikes again and again and again
, stripping away her weapons and sensors, until she was utterly blind. The Dreadnought kept moving, and supporting PD fire from the nearby Temeraire
prevented her from being overwhelmed, but she did
fall behind - and she did
leave a gap in the PD formation, into which the Sodesukas
poured to reach the Bellerophon
By now, the Delest flight had been mauled. More than half of the attacking strikecraft had been downed or crippled; but there were still more than enough for one last attack run on the enemy flagship. At 18:34, with the CRF Destroyers less than thirty seconds away, and with desperate, concentrated PD fire turning the space around the Bellerophon
into a raging inferno, a Shilo
torpedo found her mark and buried her warhead deep into the Pegasus flagship's engine cluster, secondary explosions blasting two of her main thrusters clear off the hull.
And then, with their job done, the Delest strikecraft pulled out and away, in courses perpendicular to the CRF battle-line, to avoid the incoming Destroyers; and the angry red blips of the rapidly closing Grazhdanins
crept closer, ever closer.
HIDMS Michiko, in orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 18:31 Central System Time.
"Ermolai, you magnificent
bastard," Dyatlov cried into his commlink, "Emperor bless you, you saved our asses there."
"Yes, that was an excellent
redeployment, and one of my better moments," Ermolai agreed, still smiling his infernal
smile. "Although I cannot take the full credit for it. You enabled it yourself by deploying our strikecraft on-site and it was my Navigation officer, Alyona Afanasiyvna Yonsakuren, who did the necessary calculations."
"My thanks to her, she did an excellent
job," Dyatlov said, maneuvering under a collapsed steel truss to reach Michiko's
Nav station. The flagship had been hit by several long-range railgun slugs and a lucky shot had grazed the bridge; damcon crews were hard at work to get his darling back to the fight. "Ermolai, your job isn't over."
"Of course it is not," Ermolai agreed. "We have made this a good fight but we still have to win it. I am bringing my cruisers up and we can push together."
"Negative," Dyatlov said, his voice dark, as he came up to Nav and Tactical. Sebrenova was there, muttering obscenities over the tactical plot (the main holotank was out of commission for now) and juggling three comms feeds with other ship commanders in the fleet. "Not that easy, I'm afraid. They hit us hard during their breakout. I've still got Masako
following me, with her escorts, but a lot of my capital strength was smashed with Kunokin and the fleet is...unravelling. We have an active mutiny on the Anano
and the Evstafi
is being suspiciously sluggish in following orders. We've suffered too many casualties and morale is breaking."
"Is that Ermolai?" Sebrenova asked, her voice sharp as she looked up. "Please share the commlink, Sir. Petya, keep up the fire on those Destroyers, see if you can't slow them down, give our fighters some more time.
Share the commlink, Sir, he needs to hear what I have to say."
Dyatlov raised his eyebrow, but obliged her; and Sebrenova brought up the comms screen on her small headset. "Thank you, Sir. Arurior Ermolai, that was exceptional."
"It is kind of you to say so, Arurior Sebrenova," Ermolai replied, his smile shifting slightly for maximum smugness, "but I am well aware."
Sebrenova's lip twitched slightly. "Yes. Good
. That's exactly
what we need right now."
Ermolai's smile did not leave his face per se
, but it did
turn hard, in a way. Small changes in the tilt of the head, the muscles used, the crinkling of the eyes made it absolutely clear that this was now less 'expression of humour' and more 'showing off the sharp teeth, oh my'.
"You need me, Arurior?" he asked. "What is your pleasure?"
Yes, that was clearly
Sebrenova's lip twitching, and a very
slight reddening of the tips of her ears, Dyatlov noted, but this time she held her ground. The fact that the Yonsakuren was on a different ship, several kilometres away must have played a part.
"Our fleet is falling apart around us, Ermolai Yonsakuren," she said, her voice steady, "and we need you to be yourself. That bravado of yours? We need you to show
it now, not to me, but to everyone else."
"You need us to lead the charge," Ermolai said, a note of satisfaction creeping into his voice.
"We need you to lead the charge," Sebrenova confirmed, calmly, and Dyatlov nodded, next to her. "Now.
Because if you don't, if the others don't see the Yonsakuren taking point right now,
there is no way we'll be able to bring the fleet together in time to catch them before they reach the edge of the inhibitor fields. Crippled as they are, they are still more than a match for our remaining Volyas
A few heartbeats of silence, as Ermolai considered; then a sigh.
"You do realise that my cruisers are no match hull-for-hull for the Pegasus Dreadnoughts, of course," he said. "We are good, but not that
"We do," Sebrenova replied. "I
do. And we will
be right behind you, I promise you. But if Michiko
leads right now, she'll be given no support - the Praetor's authority will collapse, because he will have to give an order that will not be obeyed. Our carriers are simply too hurt
and not disciplined enough
to charge into that
again and there's not enough of the 5th Fleet left
to rally around. Their commanders or their crews will break and then the fleet will follow."
"So, you are asking me
to take point," Ermolai stated, matter-of-factly, "because you know that we would
"Yes," Sebrenova replied - and she held his gaze. "Simple as that. If you
lead - if the Yonsakuren
are seen taking the fight, that should bring morale back up. We -the rest of the fleet- will rally. And we will
magnificent," he said. "Damnation, woman, you make me physically ache
to be with you. Very well, Arurior, Praetor. We will lead. And thank you
, thank you both
- this is more glorious than we would have ever dreamed