In orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 18:35 Central System Time.
The Delest cruisers thundered toward their targets, crossing Dyatlov's battle-line so close to the foundering Volyas
that Ermolai managed to send the message "FORM UP ON MY TAIL" by flashing the Pamyat's
running lights, in addition to broadcasting it on every Delest frequency. They were six, with the Yonsakuren trio on the point of the formation, and they covered the distance quickly
. The Grazhdanins
were multi-purpose ships, jacks-of-all-trades but masters of none. Ton-for-ton, they had shields to rival a Volya
and more armor, but no fighterbay. They were heavy, rugged ships, but they had powerful
drives. And, while they were no match for a Lord
hull-on-hull (a single Lord
was more than twice their tonnage), they were probably the only asset that the Delest still had capable of going toe-to-toe with the remains of Aretha's fleet.
Behind them -considerably
behind them- the Volyas
drew together, under the whip of Arurior Sebrenova's and Dyatlov's rage. The captains of the Anano
were summarily relieved of command, the former having been shot on the spot for incompetence by the ship's First Officer, under direct orders from Dyatlov. Now in command of the Anano
, Ter-Iio Tetsutaro proceeded to crack down on the mutineers like a Fury out of Hell, deploying her most trusted people in critical stations and threatening decimation protocols against any crew party that did not fall in line.
Slowly but surely, the Volyas
swung around to follow Ermolai's example, slotting into pursuit formation. Their launch tubes running dry, they lobbed a final salvo of anti-capital torpedoes against their fleeing enemies - and then they redlined their engines and surged forward, to battle.
But they were too slow to keep up with the charging cruisers, who had, by now, left them far
behind - for Ermolai could see his quarry crawling towards safety and was determined to deny them that option. Like a hound without a leash and with singular, focused determination, he went for the throat.
HMS Bellerophon, in orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 18:35 Central System Time.
Exarch Aretha Pegasus crawled forward, blood dripping down her forehead and pooling on the cold floor below her. She heaved
, and, with the help of two damcon crewmembers, managed to drag her waist and mangled left leg from under the steel beam that had collapsed across the Bellerophon's
bridge. She glanced to the side, as a medic worried at her wounds, and saw Simmons still faintly smiling, his dead eyes blankly staring at the crumpled cealing. His upper torso had been crushed completely by the falling beam - he had died almost instantly."Down-
" she croaked, her voice just above a cough, "Ms. Downey!"
"Here, Ma'am," came the shaky response; her sensor officer was still alive. Aretha shoo'd away the medic, who had just finished anesthetising and putting her leg in a field cast and turned.
Downey was not looking at her - she was looking at the bodies of two of her people, buried under the debris of the collapsed consoles. The falling beam had come to rest less than a yard from the position of Downey herself - the young officer was pale as death. In al, honesty, Aretha knew exactly how she was feeling; but there was no time for this, no time at all.
"Ms. Downey, I need a sitrep, now," she said, trying (and failing, in her own ears), to imbue her voice with what little authority she could still bring to bear.
"Y-yes, Ma'am," Downey said, almost jerking awake and turning back to what was left of her console. "We're- we're still mobile, but crippled. Engines at one third power. Enemy strike group outbound, in full retreat. And- Ma'am, I'm getting several closing signatures. Mid- to capital-grade, their cruisers most likely."Cruisers?
For a few heartbeats, she considered ordering her ships around. No cruiser could hope to brawl with a Lord
and live, whether the Lord
was crippled or not. For a few heartbeats, Aretha considered
turning her ships around and facing her pursuers, those same ships that had killed Fletcher and were now coming for her. Her frustration, her fear, her rage at the death of her officers and crews, those brave men and women who had died covering her retreat, rose from within her like a dark, evil ball of mind-numbing anger
and she almost, almost
surrendered to it. It would be so easy
to turn around, take the Delest cruisers under fire, smash them out of the sky, avenge her dead.
But no - her duty was to the living. Those ships that could still move and fight - those crewmen who had survived everything that crazy, crazy
Delest bastard had thrown at them: she had
to get them out. French would be here, shortly, to face the mauled Delest and avenge her people. Her job was to safeguard what she had left; and if she turned around now, then she would have to fight again, risking that one
unlucky shot that could cripple or kill one or more of her ships.
"Comms," she ordered, clawing herself back into the ruin of her command chair, "Signal the fleet to tighten up formation. Helm, slow us to the best speed Indefatigable
can make. Point us away from that damned inhibitor ship and commence cycling on the jump drive; as soon as we are out of the inhibition field, jump us to the starlance base.
"Aye, Ma'am," came the responses, and Aretha leaned back on her chair, closing her eyes and gritting her teeth against the throbbing pain of her leg.
YCS Pamyat Slavy, in orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 18:36 Central System Time.
Ermolai loomed over the seat of his navigation officer like a vulture, his lips pulled back in a snarling grin. "Contact time?"
"Three minutes long range, one minute mid range, less than fourty-five seconds point-blank," she responded, her voice clipped and professional. Her earlier adrenaline high had somewhat eased back down and she was focused
again, something that Ermolai appreciated profoundly. "Then they'll be out of the inhibition field."
Ermolai nodded thoughtfully, knowing that his face would be just on the limits of her peripheral vision. It would not be enough
Against enemy cruisers, his Grazhdanins
would have fared quite well in the four-to-five minutes of contact time he would have before the enemy jumped away. He would have had more than enough time to cripple or outright destroy his targets. But against Lords
, his chances were slim; and his losses would be very high.
He backed off the consoles, absent-mindedly marking the slowest CRF Dreadnoughts (those crippled by his strike wings) as targets for the long-range graviton batteries of his ships. Whatever his final plan, it would help him to break up the enemy formation by further hurting their slowest ships. He paced the bridge behind his officers, for a dozen slow Yonsakuren heartbeats, weighing options and discarding them one by one as he went.
And then he came to the only conclusion he could - the only way he could guarantee the death of the Dynasty's and the Clan's (and Dyatlov's
, a small part of him acknowledged, with a mental nod of respect to his Praetor
) enemies. He took a deep breath and let it go, seeing the path clearly and accepting it for what it had to be, with a mix of pride and regret.
"Attention, crew," he said, calmly, his headset linking to the ship's intercom. "This is Ermolai. The Clan and I thank you for your service. Now hear this. I declare, here and before witnesses that, today, I am a perfect Yonsakuren warrior. There is nothing I can do that can add more glory to my name, or that of this ship. Will anyone contest that statement?"
Some of his bridge officers turned around in their seats, staring back in shock; others bent over their consoles, but their stiffening shoulders told Ermolai that he had their full attention. Yet no-one spoke and no-one challenged his declaration for the five-ten-fifteen seconds tradition demanded. In fact, some of them nodded, thoughtfully, seeing through his plan and accepting
"Thank you, all," he finally said. "If that is the case, then those of you who believe they may still improve themselves and bring glory to the Clan elsewhere may leave. You have two minutes from this moment to reach the escape pods."
Four of his bridge officers stood at that, all of them quite young. Ermolai clasped hands with them, one by one, smiling as they left the bridge. He knew that, all over the ship, station officers would be doing the same with other crewmembers.
"Helm," he finally said, as the blast doors of the bridge closed behind the last retreating officer, "We have an appointment with the enemy flagship. Burn our drives out if you have to, but do not let us be late. Comms, record a message to the Michiko
. This has been a glorious fight, Praetor. We all thank you for giving us this opportunity."
HMS Bellerophon, in orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 18:38 Central System Time.
The first shots were exchanged at extreme range - railgun slugs against miniature singularities. Shields flared and held, as the CRF ships retreated and Aretha smiled grimly as Tactical reported confirmed hits on the rapidly closing cruisers. Less than five minutes to the edge of that infernal inhibitor field...
"Ma'am," Downey called, "I've got multiple signatures pulling out of the cruisers."
Aretha blanched. "Torpedo strike?" At that range and against the crippled PD net of the Lords
, that could prove disaastrous.
"Negative, Ma'am," Downey responded. "No active weapon signatures on them. They're spilling out of the first three cruisers. Frankly, Ma'am, they look like escape pods."
Aretha frowned. "Are they abandoning ship? We can't have hurt them that badly already?"
"No, Ma'am," Downey replied, looking as puzzled as Aretha felt. "The cruisers seem in relatively good condition and we certainly haven't scored enough hits to warrant this. Admittedly, we don't know how much Commodore Fletcher hurt them before. I think that this is a desperation move and a morale breakdown - their captain wants to try and duel us at short range, and his crew is abandoning ship on him."
Aretha asked incredulously. "Abandon their precious chain of command? Disobey orders? Hardly
. There's something else going on here and it certainly won't be good for us. Tactical, focus our fire on those three ships."
In orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 18:40 Central System Time.
If Aretha had turned her ships to engage the Grazhdanins
, she may have had a chance to kill them before they closed the range. As it happened, the Lords
could only bring their rear batteries to bear; and the shields of the cruisers held out long enough -just long enough- for them to catch up with the trailing Menelaus
. The CRF Dreadnought had a total of twenty seconds to bring her broadsides to bear at the Delest ships screaming past, and she did so with the typical CRF precision, carving a huge chunk off Volga's
port engine cluster.
The Yonsakuren ship staggered, for an instant -
-and then Ter-Iio Artyom Yonsakuren, having taken over the helm of his ship himself, after his young helm officer had chosen to abandon ship, drove his crippled darling straight into the side of the CRF giant. The shields of the two ships clashed for an instant - and then the Delest cruiser was through, her thrusters still boosting hard-
The force of the impact drove the bow of the Volga
deep into the Menelaus'
side armor and cracked her spine. Plasma from her reactor flooded her central compartments. And then the Delest cruiser's core blew, in an apocalyptic fireball that killed both ships in a bright, silent instant.
HMS Bellerophon, in orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 18:40 Central System Time.
"Great merciful God," Aretha gasped at the destruction of her rear guard, at the other two cruisers still closing in, almost on top of her now,
and at her own ships, who were also drawing away from the inferno of the Menelaus'
death. "Good God!
What are they-"
And then the other two charging cruisers were among them,
, they were among them!)
one of them boosting straight for the Bellerophon
, and Aretha whirled to the Comms station.
"Bring the fleet together!" she screamed. "Concentrate fire on the closing cruisers! That's the last
card they have left to play, do you understand? Survive this and we live. Fire! Fight them!
For Pegasus, by God! Focus fi-"
YCS Pamyat Slavy, in orbit near the Sodesuka Shipyards - 18:40 Central System Time.
Almost gently, tenderly
the Pamyat Slavy's
helmsman brought Ermolai's flagship down on the Bellerophon
. The Delest cruiser was trailing flame and plasma, from where accurate shots had punctured her shields and armor; she waded into a near-solid wall of railgun and coherent light as she descended.
Deep in the Pamyat's
engineering section, her Chief Engineer disengaged the core safeties, and then stood back, laughing in delight. The men and women under his command joined him. In gunnery stations all across the cruiser's hull, Yonsakuren crewmen and -women howled and whooped, as the looming hulk of the Bellerophon
drew closer, tears of joy and battle-lust streaming down their faces.
shields touched the Bellerophon's
, and arcs of electricity and agitated ether crackled away into space. Her straining thrusters pushed her through
On her darkened bridge, Ermolai grinned, his teeth almost glowing white in the gloom.
"It is my
hand that tips the scale," he murmured, as if to himself, his voice holding the triumphant note of deepest satisfaction.
The fireball of the Pamyat's
core going up only reached him as a distant sigh; and a heartbeat later, there was nothing.