In times of peace, the Wyvern comet debris field was a beehive of mining traffic, extraction operations and ore shipping. As the Hierarchy Juggernaut had pushed the desperate defenders back to the neighboring systems, the field had been abandoned, left to continue its highly eccentric orbit around Draco.
It was currently at aphelion, almost twenty Astronomical Units to the Galactic North of the system plane; and for the first time in months, it was seeing activity.
One would need to know
what to look for, because the Delest ships were operating at maximum stealth, their power emissions kept to a minimum and their heat dispersal systems blasting the excess heat away in tightly focused beams, aimed away from the known locations of enemy forces. But, if one could somehow visualize the complicated network of tightbeam communications, short-range traffic and stealthed fighter patrols, the whole Wyvern belt would light up like a dew-covered spider’s web at dawn.
“There, you see?” Admiral Kalazonitov leaned back on his chair and nursed his glass of vodka like a firstborn. “I told
you you’d get to use your shiny new fighters.”
“They weren’t Rays, though,” Captain Grishenko grinned like a schoolboy that had been offered a new bike. “How, in the name of the Empress, did you get Spirt-Voz
, sir? I thought they were only issued to Home Fleets.”
“As much as I would like to thank the good Governor Di Xin for this as well, I must render unto Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar,” the Admiral smiled and swirled the vodka around before taking a sip. “We have our contacts in the Ministry to thank for that. After Vice Admiral Ralwood and I notified HQ about our plans to hit the Hertak, they were kind enough to review some of our long-standing doctrines and authorized the wider distribution of home-produced strikecraft.”
Grishenko nodded, but his smile faltered. “On that, subject, sir, I must express my concerns regarding the pilots we picked up from the 1st Fleet. I know the reasons for which we must keep a total communications blackout outside the field, but I must ask: is there no
way we can find out what happened to the Fist of Silva
? Our own men and women are in high spirits after our victory, but the stragglers we picked up are understandably worried about their shipmates.”
Kalazonitov sighed, downed the vodka and poured himself another glass. “No, Captain, no news I’m afraid. We know it wasn’t good. We haven’t picked up any
emissions from the 1st, so they are either hiding, or have retreated, or they are ... gone. However, this doesn’t change anything. We had contingencies for such a case. The 1st and 4th CRF are standing by to relieve us and, while I am not happy about having to work with the damned limeys, I grant you this: they fight like they’ve got hydrochloric acid splashed on their asses.”
Both officers looked up, as the door to the Admiral’s quarters opened and Lieutenant Commander Skivlana entered with a parade-ground salute.
“May I, Admiral?”
“Stop that, Tanya,” Kalazonitov rubbed his forehead in exasperation. “There is nobody to impress with our military pomp here. Come in, have a drink, and tell me what is going on.”
“Sir, our patrols ran across the wreck of the Aurora
There was silence for a few seconds.
“We are doing our best at keeping the information from reaching the rest of the crew. The pilots who discovered the hulk are held incommunicado and I think we can keep a lid on it for the time being. But I thought you had to know as soon as possible.”
Kalazonitov leaned back into his chair and, once again, the low lighting and his lanky limbs extending from inside the shadow of his seat made him look like a gaunt spider.
“Good work, Tanya,” he said, finally. “Dmitri, go and check on them, reassure them, and let them know why we are doing this. This must be nerve-wracking for them. Let them know that they have done their job admirably
, that I am personally
grateful to them for their diligence and the information they have provided us and that they will receive glowing
reports and recommendation for advancement, but they need to wait
for a bit before we let them talk to anybody. Tell them we trust them with the secret, but they might let something slip and we cannot afford the news to get out or morale will skydive. Got all that?”
“Yes, sir.” Grishenko rose, emptied his vodka glass in one shot, saluted with a grim look and left. Kalazonitov waited until the door closed and called up a map of the system in his desk’s holoprojector. The tactical display cast a dull red glow around the room.
“This narrows our options,” the Admiral mused, motioning Lieutenant Commander Skivlana to the same chair Grishenko had vacated. “I had originally planned to smash through any resistance the Hierarchy would throw our way and retreat to Vega under the cover of the 1st Fleet, but now the situation has changed. We must avoid
action, if we are to give our allies time to reinforce us. Damn that 2nd Hertak! I never thought they’d leave such a gaping hole in the southern front to neutralize one of our fleets.”
“They sacrificed their strategic advantage for a tactical one, sir,” Skivlana said, her voice cold. “Hopefully, they will come to regret it
“Yes, it was, probably, a long-term error,” Kalazonitov said, softly. “But we are here
, nonetheless, and they have some awfully big guns
staring us in the face, and they are not as damaged as the 1st Hertak was and the fleet that was supposed to cover us is gone and, honestly, Tanya, right now
, I am not particularly concerned about us winning the war in a year, I am concerned getting my fleet out of this
mess, in which the enemy enjoys a tactical advantage.”
There was a crooked grin in Kalazonitov’s face. “Do I detect a hint of reproach, Lieutenant Commander?”
“Sorry for that outburst, nonetheless.”
The Admiral rubbed his jaw in thought. “Is the fleet resupplied, Tanya?”
“Fully, sir,” Skivlana nodded. “Some of our capital ships cannot repair the damage they sustained, but we have a full fighter complement, including the fighters we picked up from the first, and we have more than enough heavy ordnance for our weapons. Re-arming is almost complete as we speak.”
“Good,” Kalazonitov said. “Do we have any manufacturing capability? I’m thinking small, simple metal things. Lots of them. Can we churn out something like this in short notice?”
“Of course, sir,” Skivlana said, raising an inquiring eyebrow. “We can get the hydraulic presses onboard the fleet tenders to stamp out something.”
“Very well. Here’s what I have in mind…”
Senior Gunner Olga Ilieva was quite happy, in a dazed and non-believing kind of way.
She had experienced combat and the adrenaline rush had been something she would remember for the rest of her life. The frantic activity onboard Katyusha
as the flagship had led her sister-ship, Anastasia
and the cruiser Volga
in the hunt for straggling Armageddon battleships, the cold sweat that had run down her back as they had emerged from subspace directly behind a crippled giant, escorted by another, fully functioning Hertak ship, the thrill of her wielding the massive beam battery like a sword against the enemy.
The Admiral (and Ilieva had to exert an effort of will in order to think of him as ‘the Admiral’ and not ‘the Old Man’) had pounced on the chance and the ships had attacked immediately. Ilieva still vividly remembered the almost balletic maneuvers Captain Urumov had coaxed the ship into performing, straining the inertial compensators to the limit, pinning his sailors against their safety harnesses with overwhelming g’s and allowing Ilieva and her shipmates clear shots at the Hertak engines.
Antimatter warheads Katyusha
had sent up the enemies’ tailpipes had given Draco two more suns, short-lived, but brilliant.
And after the cleanup was done, after the fighter jocks and the Volga's
point-defense crews had contemptuously swatted the last enemy fightercraft from the sky, there was work to be done. There were repairs to be made, and guns to be recalibrated, and casualties to be ejected in ballistic trajectories toward the sun (thankfully fewer than Olga had feared there would be and none from her station).
And after lugging warheads to the missile batteries and repairing an overloaded power relay and re-charging the power gel packs of the battery terminals and doing a thousand and one other chores, Ilieva was standing in one of Katyusha’s cavernous hangars and doing her best not to grin, as the Captain himself – the Captain! – pinned shining metal insignia on her collar and saluted her.
She staggered back to the ranks, as another sailor took her place and fingered the new addition to her uniform. It was a small thing, not bigger than her thumb and without the ribbons and frills she always thought medals came with; but it was a medal nonetheless and it was her
medal. A small depiction of a Hertak Arageddon, with a snarling dragon curled around it. The Admiral had given a speech, about how they were heroes, about how they’d all earned it and how it wasn’t official to anybody but him and them, but it was still something they could take pride in and Olga had liked what she’d heard.
The Knights of Draco
She had liked that. A lot.