August 10, 4233
Twilight Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord
In shipboard time, it was just past midnight, which meant that a new day had finally arrived. Natalya took another swig of her coffee; it was decaf. She hated the taste of the caffeinated stuff. Luckily, she didn’t need it to stay awake; she’d taken a stim shot a few minutes ago.
There was still no response to her hail, not that she had expected one. The Lefu were still advancing on the planet, not even bothering to react to Red Team’s arrival in their collective blind zones.
That worried her; there was no way they could have missed her and no officer worth their stripes would allow a hostile squadron to come up their tailpipes this way. Red Team’s drone shell was already sweeping ahead, looking for mines but they’d come up empty so far. The Lefu weren’t acting like they had a reason to care about her ships. That was either unprecedented arrogance or… unprecedented confidence.
“Thicken the rear drone shell by 20%,” Archer ordered, a sickening feeling rising in her stomach. She’d popped out on this vanguard… but who was to say that they hadn’t planned the same thing she had? She remembered the burst of information Li had sent her, how the Lefu scout cruiser had stayed undetected for so long. They didn’t even need to do that, either. They could have-
“Commodore,” James looked up. “We’ve got a hyperspace echo; something’s coming in.”
An excellent stroke. Neither Enemy Fleet element was strong enough to challenge the Strike Fleet element on its own, or even together. But forcing them to divide their attention this way was more likely to net the Enemy some victories of their own. Had the Strike Fleet element been at its previous strength levels, then it was conceivable that such a gambit might have worked.
Not so, now.
Reality buckled and writhed as it was rent open. Warships vast beyond imagining emerged, armour plates sliding apart to unsheathe batteries and missile tubes larger than some ships. Anticipation shimmered throughout the lengths of those obsidian colossi as Onslaught Fleet’s crew urged their vessels onwards. The Enemy had come in further in-system then they had believed possible and they needed to close the gap quickly.
“Oh, this is goddamn ridiculous!”
Archer cast a sharp look at Prevarian, the captain flushing a little. “Sorry, commodore.”
“It’s all right, James. I share your sentiments. What exactly do we have?”
“We’ve got two… superdreadnoughts, I guess you’d call them. They’re 50% longer than our dreads and look to be a lot more massive.”
“That’s not a surprise. These people like them big.” That was putting it mildly; those monsters were huge and from what Natalya’s drones caught in the few seconds before the enemy ECM snapped up, they were armed just as heavily as she feared.
“The good news is that they’re slower than our boomers,” James observed. “Preliminary acceleration curve is looking 13% shallower than those of our DNs, so we can leg it out of their range… whatever it is. One of our drones got imagery before it went off-line and I really don’t like the looks of them. There’s something else you should see, too.”
Prevarian nodded as a rating dutifully fed a slideshow of images. “Computer’s still cleaning up and extrapolating, but we managed to get a peek inside their battleship formation….”
“I see it.” Natalya took a few steps towards the front of the command deck. The enemy’s SDs looked much as their cruisers and battleships did, except on a larger scale. Their prows were three-jawed pincers, their bodies baroquely armoured, triple rows of turrets ornamenting their spines. Just as their smaller ships had been, the Lefu had turned cold battle steel and soulless armour into something predatory and vicious. I hate you. And I’m going to kill every last one of you fuckers.
The second image, the one taken of the battleship squadron, looked a bit lighter in build; its armour didn’t appear as thick and there were fewer weapons visible, even from the distance the drone had taken its picture. The most notable characteristic of that vessel were the three viper-headed pods – each the size of a ship themselves – attached to its primary hull, 120 degrees from each other. There was a sinking feeling in Natalya’s gut as she realized just what those things were. She’d never seen them before, but she knew.
“What do you think those are?” James wondered aloud. “Parasite craft? Some sort of over-sized SLIP?”
Natalya’s mouth dried and she shook her head. “No. Those are hangars. It’s a carrier.”
Blast doors unfurled, catapults readied themselves, craft engines came on-line. She sealed herself into her cockpit, adjusting her helmet, then shuddered as she Merged.
It was brief, excruciating and orgiastic all at once, as it was every time. Space opened before her and she sagged back into the acceleration chair as her Fire Knife and its hundreds of brothers and sisters were unleashed.
The Enemy ships called to her and she fell towards them, baring her teeth in a predator’s grin.[
“Yes, I’m simply overjoyed by being right,” Natalya commented dryly. She started to pace – stalk, really – around the holo tank, hands clasped behind her back.
“The enemy… fighters are closing at high speed,” Tactical noted. “Their ECM is giving our scanners fits, but at last count we’re reading over a hundred fifty distinct drive signatures in that swarm, possibly more.” He checked another readout. “The superdreadnoughts aren’t slowing, ma’am. In fact it looks like their acceleration curves are changing.” A beat. “New projections put them 5% over our boomers.” And that was only a preliminary estimate. Still, they were big ships. First the scout cruiser that had destroyed Ghostly Hallows and now these things – Lefu ships were faster than they had any right to be, but those monsters were still heavy capitals.
Natalya shook her head, frowning. “That’s not what we want to see, but we’re still battlecruisers being chased by boomers. We won’t have any trouble keeping away from them. It’s their HAVOCs that worry me.” They’re less than half the size of ours, but there are a lot more of them. “Even if they don’t carry the same firepower that ours do, there’s enough of them to make up for that. They’ll be going for our engines to hobble us and let the heavies catch up. I suspect that some of them will be headed towards the 211th as well.”
“William Wallace has already passed the word to Wing-Captain Drake, ma’am.”
“Good.” She bit her lip, considering her options. “Order Wallace to break off immediately. They don’t have a thick enough skin, and we can’t afford to lose them to a fighter strike. They’re also slower than us, so if we cut them loose, we can make sure the enemy SDs won’t catch up.” The woman continued to prowl around the edges of the holo tank, eyes glinting from the shifting gleam of reds, greens and blues. “The HAVOCs will make one pass, then join the carrier for immediate withdrawal to Hyperion Hive. We’ve still got some time before their fighters catch up to us. Let’s put it to productive use and get as close to the people they’re trying so hard to protect as we can. Pass the word to Captain Fung that he is to begin preparations to escort the final refugee convoy out to the hyper limit.”
“We’ve lost this one, James. We were never going to get all of their battleships and now with those dreads and their fighter support incoming, they can batter down Priorii’s OWPs. We’ll do what we can, but if we stand… we’ll be destroyed.” She felt sick. We’re supposed to give our lives for the safety of the civilians, not the other way around. “Continue the advance to the enemy’s formation. We’ll force them to keep their attention on us rather than Wallace. I’m betting that they’ll choose us.”
Dammit, dammit damn it! Li ground his teeth over one another. The situation had just gone from bad to worse. Once those boomers got into range, they’d chew TF 111 up and spit it out and from the way they were building up their KPS2, that was going to be far too soon indeed. The OWPs might be able to hold them back, but there was the rest of the armada to consider. “Give the order,” he grated. “We’ve still got some time.” Not much, but some. “Can we get our cruisers and escorts groundside and back before the enemy get here?”
“It’ll be very close, sir.”
“Then it’ll be close. Drop them on every open port, take as many people as life support will allow. Comm Concordat Building. Get the governor and tell him that things have gone pear-shaped and he is to be on the next transport lifting off.”
“The Lefu HAVOCs aren’t going after our carrier; still after us and our HAVOCs. They’ll intercept us in less than an hour and the HAVOCs in under twenty minutes.”
“Before they hit the battleships?”
“I don’t know, Commodore. I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault, lieutenant.”
“I see it,” Senior Captain Goldstein replied, thumbing open a channel to the Concords’ flag. “Liberty to Implacable; are you reading this?”
“You mean the Lefu’s escort screen doubling back in a maneuver that would have blown out every inertial dampener on one of our ships and smashed the crew across the bulkheads into a bloody abstract painting? Yes, we noticed that, thank you.”
“I recommend we switch to Case Alpha to keep them from giving your HAVOCs their undivided attention.”
“Denied. We are ordered to protect the last convoy out of Prior, not throw away our ships on quixotic bravery.”
“Yes, well, there’s just one problem with that.”
“And that is?”
“We are not Concordat citizens, Captain. Nor are we under your command. Tend to your duties. Liberty will buy your pilots what additional time we can.”
“What are you-”
Goldstein closed the channel with a click. “Helm; full combat thrust. Take us to them. Let’s show these alien bastards what the League can do.”
“Liberty’s breaking formation, sir! Omaha Beach and the militia forces are going with her.”
Li’s jaw was beginning to hurt. Stupid, stupid Empties and borderworlders! “Order them back into formation now.”
“They’re not responding. Wait… a transmission from Omaha Beach.” Communications frowned. “‘Lo, there do I see my brothers….’”
Implacable’s captain blinked. “What does that mean?”
Shania looked up. “I think that they’re refusing to abandon their people, sir. Should we go after them? If we splash a targeting map off their hulls, that might get their attention.”
Li pressed a hand to his temple. “No. We fulfill our mission.”
The Lefu destroyer to port exploded as one of Liberty’s PPCs battered down its shield walls and burned through its armour. Another enemy escort went dark and dead as the frigate Primus Lake finally managed to score crippling hits on it, the sole survivor of a five-ship squadron that had gone after the enemy DD and its cohort.
Goldstein bared his teeth in a grimace; the aliens took a lot of killing before they went down and the range advantage they had was literally murder on the human warships. Only he and Omaha Beach[ could reliably get solid hits in, coordinating their fire to break through the hellish web of countermeasures the aliens wove around their fleet. The Lefu were down to five escorts, all of which had already slipped back to intercept the HAVOCs, and two cruisers. By contrast, the Terran force had lost half of their escorts and their entire cruiser strength. By any measure conceivable, it was not a fair rate of exchange. But it kept the silent bastards reacting, rather than breaking for the planet, or massing against Archer’s force.
Bloated with survivors, another of Li’s cruisers surged skyward, moving faster than any ship its size was normally allowed to, stirring the air beneath it into gale-force winds and superheating that above as it clawed for the safety of space and the speed its primary drives would give it.
“Omaha Beach has taken another three hits,” Sensors reported as, seven million kilometers away, an aged soldier began her final battle. “Her bow shield wall is gone and all but her aft wall are fluctuating; Lefu cruisers are massing their fire on her.”
By the Book, cruisers had no business engaging a battleship, but the Book had never envisioned cruisers this tough and they were taking the older Concord ship apart a piece at a time. Evidently they’d decided she was the greatest threat. A pity that Liberty hadn’t been able to change their minds.
Maybe he still could. “That one,” Goldstein pointed to one of the dark-hulled killers. “Her port wall is unstable. Can we get a torpedo through?”
“Do my best, sir,” Guns replied.
“Senior Captain; the enemy battleships are turning to port… half of them just opened fire on our escort screen. The others have targeted Omaha Beach. Also reading multiple launches on their far sides; they’re firing on the HAVOCs.”
“Cruisers are switching fire to us.”
“Target well hit, Senior Captain! Enemy cruiser is venting atmo and showing power fluctuations. We got a piece of her all right.”
“Excellent Guns. Now keep doing it.”
Liberty kept fighting, kept dying with each volley of her battles, the hounds around her tearing away a mouthful of flesh each time, diving in to pepper her with their missiles and banking out again to tax her warheads’ drives. There was a bright. enduring flash, a burst of static and debris. Omaha Beach was gone, obliterated in the births of the raging sun that hundreds of warheads had unleashed upon her.
Alarms howled as the Lefu’s targeting locks shifted to Liberty and the vessel’s dance became all the more desperate as the aliens fired into her again and again. Shield walls collapsed under the barrage, batteries swept away, her metal skin bubbling and running like water as coruscating waves of fire rolled over her. Young men and women cried out in fear as four kilometers of ship bucked like a mad thing, tortured and burning from stem to stern, dying for a people that weren’t their own.
“Evade, evade, all craft evade! Open ranks… and engage!”
“It’s on me, it’s on me!”
“They’re burning through our ECM faster than we can adapt.”
“Gold Twelve is gone, I repeat gone.”
“You are mine, you pig-eating son of a whore.”
The incredible missile storm coming from the Lefu battleships beggared belief; each of them carried just over a hundred and fifty tubes per broadside, and in one salvo they could put over eighteen hundred missiles into space. Two things saved the 211th from being wiped from the face of the universe; the fact that these were shipkillers, designed to intercept far larger, far less maneuverable vessels than HAVOCs and that whoever else the Lefu were, they couldn’t afford to chuck shipkillers around like spilled salt. They were rationing them, but as the range closed, they could start ramming shorter-ranged hunter-killers and counter-missiles into their tubes and those they had no qualms about expending in droves.
There were also the Lefu’s HAVOCs and they were fast bastards, tearing through the Concord’s lines, jinking and bobbing like spastic dragonflies. They were clearly intended both fight in space and in atmosphere, unlike the reverse-teardop HAVOCs. The Lefu’s fighters had a long, sword-shaped main fuselage bracketed by a pair of triple engine clusters, which flared out into delta-shaped wings. Each engine segment had a tailfin, dorsal and ventral. Underslung beneath the fuselage, running from a point just past amidships and extending to just beyond the tip of the fighter’s nose was what Rebecca Eloi could only call a big fucking gun. They had smaller weapons, too; two wing-mounted cannon and two mounted on either side of the cockpit. They used those to fire on incoming missiles or against the other HAVOCs; the BFG had to be for antiship purposes.
A few dozen of the fighters were heading after the battlecruisers. The rest were making themselves at home on the 211ths ass. HAVOCs could be used to shoot each other down, but they weren’t designed for that! They were supposed to kill capital ships, not each other. They were making kills, but not enough, not with the Lefu were putting their fighters through maneuvers that should have killed human pilots a dozen times over. Eloi gritted her teeth as an enemy fighter whipped past Glaive, in and out of the HAVOC’s weapons range so fast that even the Concordat craft’s computers couldn’t get a lock on it in time. They were fast, dancing and spinning at c-fractional speeds, killing all the while.
She sang softly as the Fire Knife twisted and curved through the maelstrom. One of the Enemy’s Fire Knives fell into her targeting bracket and she whispered to it, her cannon lashing it over and over, bleeding it. Finally, it could take no more and belched fire from a ruptured flank, heaving away as its death throes consumed it.
Warning sigils burned brightly in her mind and with a thought she threw her craft into a spiral, the Enemy attacker losing track of her, though it tried to cling to her stern.
Another strobe caught her attention and she banked hard, avoiding entering a destroyer’s defensive envelope, the Enemy Fire Knives throwing themselves through it, towards the Strike Fleet element. Her duty was complete for this battle; her hive awaited.
The 211th returned fire with everything they had, but it wasn’t enough. The Lefu escorts that had made it through final charge of the Liberty and the Priorii militia were intercepting too many of the missiles, even at the cost of their own lives; whatever remained of the Terran assault faced down the combined point defences of a dozen battleships.
Shield walls flashed and flared, hulls bent and buckled, but not one of those monsters died. Wing-Captain Drake’s stomach churned with acid and part of her wanted to hurl what remained of her command at the alien lines, but entering energy range with them would only complete the slaughter. Throwing decorum to the winds, she beat her fists against the arms of her chair and, with a a wordless snarl of frustration, she gave the order to break contact and flee back to William Wallace, chased all the way by the enemy’s missiles and fighters.
Thirty-seven of her HAVOCs survived. Thirty-seven out of one hundred and sixty. Over seven hundred people gone, people it had been her duty to protect, to get home safely. As her CHAVOC was pulled onto the BCV’s racks, Wing-Captain Drake stepped off Red Leader’s bridge for a moment, away from the eyes of her crew and choked back her anguish.
When the data came in, Natalya’s face paled. She’d expected the fighters to take losses, but not on this level. The Lefu ships were maneuverable enough to throw standard engagement protocols to the wind, which boded ill for the future… but thank God they’d found that out sooner rather then later.
She hated that little voice in her head, all the more so because it was right. “All ships bank to starboard; prepare broadsides for continuous salvo fire.”
“Enemy battleships have targeted our cruiser screen. Reading four dozen plus enemy HAVOCs moving in behind the missiles.”
“Point defences to group protection; Shield-Seven,” Natalya ordered. “Give our screen as much cover as we can.” They’re going to die anyways, but the longer they live, the closer we get.
“Missiles entering outer engagement envelope now, commodore.”
Natalya’s mouth was dry. “All ships: fire at will.”