Children of Heaven, Chapter 3

Chapter 3:

June 14th, 4233
Unicorn Set
Twilight Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord

UTCNS Alfred Thayer Mahan

It was a longstanding tradition for the Concord to name its carriers after great military leaders from Earth’s past. There were certainly enough of both of them to go around. Currently, Alfred Thayer Mahan and the George Dewey were assigned to Rear Admiral Hernandez and TF 93. Unfortunately, Dewey was out on patrol; a long, circuitous loop through the Outer Reaches and Hernandez felt a pang of regret for the carrier’s absence.

As his pinnace approached the gargantuan double-ended hammerhead of Mahan, Hernandez stifled a snort. Had he both of them, his battle carriers would have massed more than any other squadron of ships he had at his disposal. At five kilometers length, each of them was nearly dreadnought sized, though their firepower was roughly equivalent to that of a cruiser. Their firepower; their offensive capabilities were much, much higher thanks to the scores of ‘fighters’ that were clamped to their middle section.

Fighters in name and function, if not size. Each of the dagger-shaped Heavy Assault Vehicle, Onboard Carried was nearly a hundred meters long, with capital ship-grade weaponry. HAVOCs had been ruthlessly stripped of all non-essential systems to pack that in. They were far more agile and quick to accelerate than almost any other vessel, but that had come with a price. Armour, long-term life-support and hyperspace capabilities had all been stripped to make them what they were, but if they were thin-skinned, their teeth and claws were all the sharper for it.

The pinnace swooped towards Mahan’s starboard prow hangar, located on the rear facing of the hammerhead. Virtually all of the BCVs weapons were mounted on the forward section, with its crew quarters spread through the main hull; Engineering and power systems lay in the aft hammerhead. The HAVOCs had their own crew quarters, but the smaller craft needed to parasitize from their mothership’s life support and power systems when not in combat. BCVs were not well-suited to system defence; they were designed for force projection, providing their HAVOCs with transport to battlefields that the overgunned little vessels couldn’t reach on their own. Still, Hernandez would have traded just about anything to have George Dewey here at the moment.

The first set of blast doors leading into the hangar yawned open as Mahan’s command crew cleared the rear admiral’s pinnace for landing. Mahan was an older class, not yet outfitted with atmospheric containment fields on its hangar airlocks and instead relied on a double-door system to keep the vacuum at bay.

After the pinnace finished its landing approach and settled down the BCV’s deck, Hernandez stepped out onto the deck, returning the salute of the officer in the silver-on-blue of the Concordat Navy. “Captain Keyes.”

Captain Veronica Keyes nodded. “Welcome aboard Alfred Thayer Mahan, Rear Admiral. We’ve already set up quarters for you and your staff.” She smiled a little. “I suspect that you’d prefer to join me on the bridge though.”

“You suspect correctly, captain. Lead the way.”

~

Darkspace emergence would occur in less than five minutes. The crews were all prepared, the Strike Fleet was as ready as it would ever be. This Enemy Base and all its personnel must be destroyed for the safety of those who would follow. There was no more time for doubt or worry.

Victory or death.

In the end, that was what it was all about, wasn’t it?

The Strike Fleet element continued their deceleration, the ships dispersing into their assigned formations.

~

“Here they come,” someone whispered as the data resolved itself onto Mahan’s holo tank. Hernadez rubbed the five o’clock shadow on his chin. Twenty-one capital ships; two squadrons of seven… cruisers? light cruisers? each and one final group of battlecruisers. At least, he assumed that they were battlecruisers; they were larger than Concordat BCs, but too small to be dreadnoughts. Battleships, then?

As he watched, the aliens shifted formation fluidly, assembling into a wedge-shaped formation wall that pointed straight at Unicorn Alpha. Hopefully they’re thinking right now that they’ve bitten off just a bit more than they expected. Aside from Mahan, he had thirty-one additional vessels; two eight-ship destroyer units, eight more battlecruisers, four CLs and a trio of cruisers. He’d pulled a half dozen of those ships from yard hands; they were only undergoing minor repairs and upkeep and he needed firepower more than anything right now.

As Captain al-Imad had before him, Rear Admiral Hernadez tried repeatedly to establish communication with the visitors. If they heard him, they gave no sign of it.

“Deploy HAVOCs,” Lucian ordered through gritted teeth and a hundred and sixty attack craft disengaged from their mothership and accelerated forwards.

~

That was… unexpected.

The largest Enemy ship was not a battleship at all, but a hiveship. The Enemy’s Fire Knives were accelerating towards the Strike Fleet element, although their course remained hesitant. They were not fully committed to making this a battle. They still wanted to ascertain the identity of the Strike Fleet element.

New orders flickered out on whispering laser links and the cruisers riding on the battlecruisers’ flanks accelerated outwards, shifting position into a wall. The two forces drew closer; already the Enemy had come within the Strike Fleet’s grasp, but they continued to hold their fire, prying and pulling and tugging at the Enemy’s jamming systems while the plaintive entreaties and lies of the Enemy Commander continued to fall on deaf ears.

They should understand what was about to happen. And if they didn’t, they would very, very soon.

Now.

~

“God Almi-” The last words that Captain Donahue Alfinch ever got to say died with his ship as Alfred Mahan’s CHAVOC shattered into a thousand flaming pieces.

Lieutenant Saidah Fletcher clutched to her seat as Gattersley threw Flamberge into a hard dive, or at least as much of a hard dive as a hundred-meter ‘fighter’ was capable of performing, as the enemy’s missile storm seared through the 506th. The comm was alive with death cries as HAVOCs burst and burned in that incredible holocaust.

God, those fucking warheads of theirs! They were big, and nastier than anything Saidah had seen. Gigaton-range, definitely. And with no business being thrown out by ships smaller than a battlecruiser. HAVOCs had never been meant to wade through that kind of fire. That wasn’t even half the problem, though; some of them were omnidirectional, which meant that you had a chance of surviving a grazing hit. Others were focused blasts, and they fired those when they had you locked in.

Nothing smaller than a cruiser could absorb damage like that. Not for long, anyways.

A chime sounded; they’d reached their own missile range and Saidah’s hate was acid on her tongue as she and the hundred and four surviving HAVOCs of the 506th belched forth their fury.

~

The cruisers staggered under the Enemy Fire Knives’ assault. They were killing so many of them, but there were more to take their place. Counter-missiles vomited from their racks and turrets, malicious onboard tracking systems seeking their targets and unleashing multi-megaton explosions when they found them. But their EW systems were not magic and could only do so much; for every missile that was shredded into splinters, a counter-missile locked onto a sensor phantom. For every two warheads veering off to chase a decoy or blinded by a cruiser’s own ECM, there was another that never wavered.

Point defences went into a frenzy, trying to stop each missile, but lasers could only recharge so fast, turrets could only turn so quickly and there just wasn’t time to stop them all. Shields walls flared into existence under the apocalyptic hell of antimatter detonations and plasma streamers curled and writhed about their sparking peripheries. Some walls held the fury back, others did not. Of those that failed, the cruisers began rolling to interpose a fresh barrier between themselves and the enemy onslaught. Some succeeded. Others did not.

A stab of anguish rolled through the Strike Fleet element as four of their ships and the thousands of brothers and sisters upon them were swept away, another three so badly damaged that it was doubtful that they would fight ever again.

And the Enemy Fire Knives were still coming.

~

There was more fight in the 506th yet and, scenting blood in the water, they threw themselves through the hurricane of fire, diving down on their tormentors. As energy fire smashed out from the surviving alien cruisers at an impossible range and blew through the smaller vessels like paper, the valiant crews of TF 93s HAVOCs realized that their enemy wasn’t finished with them yet.

~

Lasers and particle beams ripped through shield walls as if they didn’t exist and HAVOCs were blown apart by the power of the aliens’ weapons, but they refused to go quietly. Their own lasers shrieked back, their crimson streams only visible as they passed through the clouds of atmosphere bleeding from the enemy ships. No single wound was mortal to those black leviathans, but enough of them would drag those monsters howling into the abyss. Three more cruisers were shredded or blasted into worthless hulks before the HAVOCs spent their load, circling away from their victims as quickly as they could.

Right into the battlecruisers’ range.

Flamberge flipped end-for-end as a warhead even bigger than the ones the cruisers had fired detonated astern, blowing the fighter’s engines into molecular gas. Lieutenant Fletcher was hurled from her chair, into the bulkhead. She was afforded one flaring instant of pain before the snap of bone brought her welcome blackness.

~

Their cruiser strength halved in one pass. Shock rippled through the Strike Fleet element, but it was replaced with cold fury. The Enemy were going to pay for this.

The battlecruisers, massive and unafraid, slid towards their prey and the stars’ light glittered on their obsidian hulls as if it were a reflection of the icy hate within.

~

“They’re still coming,” Captain Keyes observed with surprise.

“It would appear that they are,” Hernandez commented dryly.

“Begging your pardon sir, but even if we did lose our entire fighter complement, we just beat the hell out of their screen! They’d have to be idiots to go up against us without any support now.”

“I think you’re right, Veronica. I also think that they don’t agree with us.”

“Multiple missile separations! I repeat, we have multiple missile sources incoming!”

Hernandez closed his eyes. They were still over sixty million kilometers away; Concord powered capital missile range was forty. And as they’d already shown, these bastards had some very big, very unpleasant warheads. He had eight ships capable of firing CASKs, but none were in their own range. “Order the destroyers and the cruisers to tighten the screen,” he ordered, calmly sending thousands of men and women to their deaths. “Mahan will join the ships covering for our capital launchers as well.”

“Sir-”

“No argument, captain. Mahan was never outfitted with capital-grade launchers and without HAVOCs to tend, we are superfluous. The least we can do now is provide protection for our battlecruiser contingent.”

Keyes gritted her teeth, trying to hold back in an argument that would keep her superior from putting himself in the path of over a thousand missiles. But he was right. The BCV was too slow to escape on its own and if its armour and defences were lacking, it still possessed formidable shield walls. “Very good, sir. Helm – give us a screening position over Adamant.” She looked up at Hernandez in askance, a silent plea for him to get to an escape pod.

“Fight your ship, captain.” He ordered, crossing his legs in the command chair.

~

At the ranges the ships were dueling at, it took near to eight minutes for the missiles from the alien fleet to arrive. In those few minutes there was a lifetime of waiting. The rear admiral folded his hands in his lap, the picture of composure. Both he and Captain Keyes were unnecessary now; EW crew struggled to distort the sensor locks the enemy missiles had, to lure them away with siren’s cry of decoys, to prep counter-missiles for their own use.

Fast bastards, too. They weren’t making Tracking’s job any easier.

The range began dropping further and TF 93’s screen opened fire, filling space with hundreds of counter-missiles. The alien warheads shattered in rippling waves, but the defences were not deep or capable enough to get all of them.

Ridgeback died first; the destroyer’s defensive systems went into an electronic seizure as it registered the sheer number of the missiles targeting it and flatly refused to engage any of them. Before a cursing midshipman could reset the system, four separate warheads slipped through its kill zone.

Next was the cruiser Enterprise; its entire forward structure was blown open by a missile that slipped through a fluctuating bow shield wall. Architeuthis simply snapped in half. Shamsher was beaten into an irradiated, half-molten ruin of a ship.

Dolphin and Porpoise, built at the same yard and launched together, continued their sisterhood in their final throes, the destroyers murdered within moments of one another. Lionfish followed shortly thereafter; one of the enemy missiles malfunctioned and failed to detonate at range, slipping another two thousand kilometers closer before auto-repair systems kicked in and the warhead finally ignited, directing a tight cone of plasma straight down the destroyer’s throat.

Despite its size, Mahan bucked like a tortured horse as blast after blast slammed through its shield walls, shredding the vast ship like confetti. Secondary explosions rippled through the battle carrier as magazines and fuel lines detonated one after the other, the jaws of Hell itself seeming to shake the vast ship. Then, it was quiet. The klaxons and the cries of damage control teams were all that was left. But they’d survived. They’d survived. Captain Keyes managed a graveyard smile to Hernandez as she opened her mouth to speak.

She never got even the first syllable out as the second wave of missiles blew Alfred Thayer Mahan, Rear Admiral Lucian Hernandez, Captain Veronica Keyes and the rest of their twenty thousand personnel into pieces of shrapnel no bigger than a thumbnail.

~

Odd.

The Enemy Fleet really should have expected that. Stacking missiles like that was a common enough tactic; slip a recon drone in with the first salvo and it downlinked its information to the follow-up salvo that was blinded by the first’s engine ‘wake’.

Maybe they didn’t have that capability?

Well. Not that it mattered, really. Now, they had a choice. They could continue to close and eventually enter the Enemy’s range and accept that punishment – after the vivisection that the Strike Fleet element’s cruiser screen had received at the hands of the Enemy’s Fire Knives, they didn’t care for that at all. The Enemy’s warheads might be smaller and shorter-ranged, but in sufficient numbers, they could kill just fine.

The second option was to fall back and retreat, flaying the Enemy Vessels with fire from outside their range. However, performing that trick right now would not only give away that they possessed that ability, but it was not a sure thing; it if failed, the battlecruisers would have put their vulnerable sterns towards the Enemy Vessels and they didn’t care for that any more than getting into a missile duel with capital-grade weapons.

There was… a third option, though.

The Strike Fleet element fired again.

~

“Jesus Christ!”

Resolute’s captain zeroed in on the unprofessional cry. True, seeing Mahan and nearly thirty ships blotted away in an instant was enough to shake the nerve of most anyone, but he needed reports, not exclamations. “Report!” he snarled to the sensor officer.

The man looked up at him. “Sir… the enemy ships. They’ve fired again. P-plotting puts that salvo on course for Unicorn Alpha.”

The captain gritted his teeth. You whoresons. He knew what they were doing. They were trying to force him to turn to intercept the missiles, to slow his squadron’s approach to them and give them more firing time on Resolute and her companions. And every missile he fired at them was one less spent trying to intercept theirs.

Unicorn Alpha had its own defences – two aging, nearly obsolete battle stations. Another part of the wisdom of the Zion Armistice, demanding a build-down in all military forces near the Orion-Pegasus corridor. They wouldn’t be able to stop all of those monsters and if even one got through, thousands of innocent people would die. “Engage the missiles headed for the planet!” he snapped, only tangently aware of the report of a second salvo being launched, this time against him.

He slumped back in his chair and thought about a woman with dark red hair and blue-green eyes.

~

The Enemy Fleet had died well, fighting for the protection of their world. In a controversial gesture, the Commander of the Strike Fleet element ordered the surviving missiles aimed for their world to be suicided. It had bought the Enemy there a little more time to evacuate, nothing more. The destruction of the fortresses had not been the clinical affair that Command had hoped; they carried capital missiles much larger and with greater range than the battlecruisers and two of the Strike Fleet element’s own ships were mauled before the Enemy fortresses could be neutralized.

Several Enemy Vessels were caught on the ground and destroyed along with the major settlements. It was… perhaps regrettable, but the Fleet needed forward bases, not to be bogged down in guerilla combat. Once the scope of the war broadened, then there would be time for that.

Unless it was decided that extermination was the only viable option, of course.

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