Captain Hanes was rudely awakened to the sound of war. Alert klaxons shrieked, telling the tired crew that their hopes for a peaceful night's sleep were dashed in a few stacatto blasts. Always the professional, it took only seconds before the captain had a comm link to the CIC established.
"Report, commander. And transfer it to my headset, I'm on my way." Hanes grabbed a shirt and his small communications device and rushed out of his quarters.
Commander Ed Rice was the captain's executive officer, and was probably as skilled in a fighter as he was in command of the Vanguard. He was a high flyer, and had risen through the ranks quickly, and not on the back of political influence or knowing the right people; he was a man who would surely surpass Hanes one day - and the captain knew it. This did not bother him - although he had once envied the man's natural talents, Hanes saw the right blend of confidence, and the lack of arrogance to want him to succeed.
"Sir, two enemy carriers at long range. They made their entry point as far from our patrols as possible to give them as much time as possible to launch. We count six wings so far."
"Escorts?" Surely the GTVA had not sent in two Lenaeus' in without support?
"None. No jump signatures nearby, either. Active subspace scans show nothing at all. But I wouldn't bet it'll be long before that changes." Rice sounded as confident as usual. The strategy of sending in two juicy, relatively vulnerable targets was unorthodox, but it would force the EA commander's hand one way or the other. Either the two warships were going to draw both sides' smaller craft into a meatgrinder near the EA fleet, or they were the bait for something else to take the Vanguard and its attendants. The EAD Dauntless was halfway between Nightshade and Lancet, the Vanguard's battlegroup. The Undaunted, a Lindos-class, was still under repairs, and two of her five main guns would still be offline.
Damn! Caught at the worst possible time...
Hanes considered the options. If the battlegroup moved in closer to the planet, any surprise jumps by GTVA forces would have to come out enough of a distance from them in order to react in time. But equally, it would severely delay jumping away - as they would have to move enough distance from its gravitational influence in order to open a subspace node. What to do?
"Commander, have all capital ships in the group charge their jump capacitors for a quick exit if we need one. We'll go out and meet the bastards. When's support due?" He knew that a number of smaller vessels would soon be entering the fight. The EA rotated a handful of cruisers around the sector to assist any battlegroup in immediate need. Those ships had been his ace in the hole one time already.
"Seven minutes." A long way out, then.
Hanes was now rushing through the corridors, passing a few officers and a lot of crewmen en route to their battle stations. Some of them would be rushing to engineering to keep the fusion reactors running optimally, others would readying to scramble in their fighters. A few would be heading to fire control to reinforce their designated primary gunners, a shift of whom would always be operating the ship's two dozen guns. He reached the lift to the CIC.
"I'm scrambling half our fighters. Katrina is already seeing to it. I think we should hold back the bombers for now... if anyone gets through to the carriers, they'll attack their nav or engine systems. That should get them to rethink." So, a conservative strategy. The bombers would be insurance should anything big get the jump on them. "Any amendments sir?"
"No, Ed, you're right. Keep a large reserve for now." As if he needed to second-guess his protege. "Status on the Undaunted?"
"Captain Bren is launching his fighters as we speak. He's going to keep them back for point defense while the destroyer moves forward to cover us. But I'm betting they'll break before she gets into beam range."
"Then let's break their timing. Have our interceptors and heavies target their nav systems." This was a strategy that EA commanders had used to great effect early in the war - by destroying a capital ship's navigation equipment, it would be unable to make a precise instantaneous jump based on its exact position in space relative to gravitational sources. Although the ship's main computer could redundantly perform this task based on past data, the lack of exact real-time information would mean a three-minute processing cycle for a destroyer-class vessel. And three minutes would be all the Undaunted would need to punch a few fatal holes in one of those weaker carriers - even with two of her guns offline.
It took only another minute for Hanes to reach the CIC. Embedded deep in the heart of the Auriga, it was the safest place on the ship aside from the fusion reactor core, which had additional layers of armour surrounding the section - after all, a severe core breach would leave nothing intact. Upon entering the command centre, Commander Rice instantly ceded authority to his superior and saw to the running of the ship's main sections while Hanes reviewed the strategic display.
The ship's two forward-facing railguns were the first shots the Vanguard fired. The two hyper-velocity slugs shimmered for a tiny moment on the viewscreen before they slammed into one of the two Lenaeus-class, causing a violent explosion on the frontal armour of the large ship. With a longer range than most beam weapons, the first offensive-scale railguns had been designed in the dark days of internecine warfare between the pre-Alliance factions of the Sol system. The two large turrets which housed these weapons gave the EA carrier a respectable offensive rating, and had allowed Auriga carriers to destroy convoys of smaller ships without even having to launch their bomber contingents.
The two fighter forces met shortly after those first shots. The first missiles, lasers and gattling cannon bursts could not be seen even on the CIC's huge forward viewscreen, but the explosions, small pinpricks of light, were the first casualties of this battle. The melee was about 7 klicks away from the Vanguard, and much closer to the two enemy carriers. Whoever's forces broke first would soon be swarmed with fighters, but the EA task force would have more time to react if the worst were to happen.
"Fleet control, get one of our cruisers in there. We can't let them break our momentum, and they'll have almost double our fighter capacity if those carriers are fully loaded," barked Hanes. Lieutenant Commander Danforth, currently co-ordinating the fleet action, relayed the orders to the Scythe, an Eclipse-class warship. Built around its heavy weaponry and armoured bulk, the cruiser throttled up, surging towards the melee of small craft between the two main forces. The Scythe's autocannons blazed as she dispatched a few errant fighters and bombers who managed to escape the brawl and head towards the main force along the way, before entering range of the meatgrinder, and turning to allow her broadside guns to fire.
The carnage was inevitable. With half a dozen turrets trained on them, each of them even more powerful than one of the Alliance's AAA beam turrets, the GTVA fighters scattered, trying to reduce the damage potential of the cruiser's deadly barrage. Taking advantage of this, the EA pilots took a number of easy kills like cats hunting mice.
Then the mice turned nasty.
Sixteen small jump nodes opened up in dangerously close proximtity as sixteen Hercules III heavy fighters leapt out of subspace, before turning towards the Scythe and gaining aspect lock a few seconds later. Too late to feasibly react, a few EA fighters nevertheless rushed away from their targets to defend the cruiser, firing at their maximum ranges to try and break the assault wings.
When all sixteen launched their first salvo of Hornet H missiles, their goal became clear. Destroy that cruiser at all costs. A few seconds later, another massive salvo. Then another. Blistering under the intense assault by the heavy fighters, most of the cruiser's turrets were obliterated, and the armour plating gave way to expose internal sections to cold, hard vaccuum. Breaking hard to avoid flying into the Scythe's undamaged port arc, the heavies stayed in formation, coming round for another pass.
Commander Davis was not about to let his exposed side take another beating, however. As the Hercs came round for their next attack, they met the cruiser's dorsal section, relatively unprotected but for heavy armour. Their missile salvos smashed into the armour, but this time did little damage to the internals. As the GTVA fighters broke a second time, the cruiser used its inertia to roll its port and ventral arcs into play. Carefully co-ordinating their targets, the turrets took three of the enemy fighters before they came round for their third pass. This time, the EA light and medium fighters who had broken off to defend the stricken cruiser - Claymore Is and IIIs - were able to break the formation. Stripped of some of their potence, most of the damage caused by the uncertain third lot of salvos simply hit armour. This time, they broke for good, scrambling to help their comrades in the fighter engagement.
"Scythe reports most of her systems are still operational, though her hull is at about 50% integrity, sir," said Commander Rice. The risk had apparently paid off, but then the Scythe's crew were more dependable than most. "Our fighters seem to be coming out with-" he started, but was cut off.
"Sir! I'm reading a power spike on those carriers!" shouted a junior lieutenant from one of the forward stations. Oh no. "They've.... they've got beam weapons!"
Where Hanes had been expecting plasma cannons, the two forward turrets on each Lenaeus roared to life, capacitors charging with an unearthly blue glow. A moment later, all four guns spat out sapphire lances toward the Scythe, ripping right through the centre of the furball to core into the cruiser's exposed starboard quarter. Men, equipment and entire bulkheads were boiled away to nothing in an instant as each beam exploded through the other side of the cruiser as if it were on some giant stellar pitchfork. Those that had somehow escaped death from the intervention of the beams were soon to follow, as shockwaves from compromised systems and the ship's reactor core gutted the rest of the bulky cruiser, severing what remained at the midsection.
The CIC fell almost silent to Hanes, although the crew were still managing the battle operations. He felt compelled to stand and salute his fallen comrades, but professionalism, common sense, and the words of his XO stopped him.
"Captain, we have two more large jump signatures inbound."