September 12, 4233
Hyperion Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord
“How bad is it?”
Sensors made an unhappy face. “It’s bad, ma’am. Tracking over fifty enemy capital ships with a core of six SDs. Looks like there’s a quartet of their carriers in the main body as well. They may have a reserve force in hyperspace as well, but if they decelerated at the same time and just never completed emergence…” the officer shrugged helplessly. Not even the most advanced HTBs could locate a ship or squadron holding position in hyperspace.
“Understood.” Natalya swallowed; that was more than OMI had predicted. The Lefu weren’t taking any risks this time. “How are they moving?”
“Standard screen – cruisers riding on the battleships, who are attached to the boomers. Their escorts are dispersed into a shell around their formation, still within their defensive envelope. It looks like we’ve got a light cruiser variant here as well. Command’s bobbing it with Nakir.”
“Understood. Any SLIP launches from the boomers?”
“Negative, but they may be waiting until they get closer. No sign that they’ve detected us, either.”
“Maintain approach and stealth operations, then.”
Admiral Alicia Hunt stood on the command deck of UTCNS Warlord, a Kali-class dreadnaught. Imperator was of the same class, but Invictus was an Ares. Thunderer and Conqueror were Camulus-class; missile variants, outfitted with fortress tubes and the warheads that went with them.
“Status of April Fools?”
“All ECM systems read green, admiral. We know what to look for and even our sensors are having trouble sorting them out; the Lefu should be in for a bit of surprise when they open fire.”
“Let’s hope so. Status of their advance?”
“They’re ignoring the outer-system colonies, coming right for us.”
“Their scouts must have reported in, then. I doubt they would have done so otherwise.” The Lefu targeted military ships and facilities first, then took out any spaceborne civilian vessels or installations. If they didn’t know that Hyperion Hive’s outer-system sites were harmless, they’d have started culling them. As it was, they were planning on dealing with BG 97 first.
Alicia smiled. She had fought in the League war, and she took a perverse pleasure in using a stratagem the Empties had perfected whenever they were confronted by a superior Concordat task force. Divide and conquer. You’ve had an easy time of things so far, haven’t you? Not any more, you bug-eyed freaks. I hope you’ve had fun running over piss-ant little system defences and random flailings. Now you get to fight the Concord.
“Three hours until we enter their missile range, admiral.”
“Steady as she goes, helm. Our Camuluses will continue to hold fire as long as possible.”
The Fleet slid towards the Enemy forces. Something was wrong. They had not released their Fire Knives yet, when they had done so much earlier in their other engagements. Had Command made a mistake and their hiveships were rarer than believed?
That did not seem likely.
It was hard to tell behind the jamming; they could have already deployed their Fire Knives, but then where were they? If the Enemy would not offer them, then the Fleet would simply force them out. The outer shell of Enemy battleships were accelerating a bit too fast, pulling them slowly out of the core Enemy Fleet’s defensive range.
They would do.
Carrier pods opened and dark seraphim poured out, sensors quivering like whiskers as they slid towards their prey.
“They’ve launched their fighters on the main body, commodore.”
Natalya rubbed a hand over her chin, trying to keep from pacing. “They’re wondering about our HAVOCs, trying to draw them out.”
“If they get close enough, they’ll discover April Fools,” Prevarian observed.
“I know, but one of its goals was to pull their screen away.” The young commodore checked the holo tank. “We’re still too far out, anyways. If we launch against them now, they’ll…” she paused, her eyes drifting over to the brooding, fuzzy icons of the best-guess positions of the Lefu superdreadnaughts. “Tactical!” she barked. “Did the Azazel launch? Did it launch its fighters?”
“Negative, commodore. As far as we can tell, it hasn’t.”
Damn, damn, damn. “They’re holding those ones back, just in case we’ve got a surprise up our sleeves.”
“Which we do.”
“As soon as they pick up our BCVs, they’ll respond with that carrier squadron. It’s going to be messier then we thought. James, if I ever meet the… person who plans their operations, I’m going to shake his hand. Her hand. Tentacle, whatever. And then I am going to kill them. At two hundred million kilometers, release our HAVOCs to engage.”
There was still no response from the Enemy’s Fire Knives. That was almost… disappointing. Either they had more nerve then Command credited them with, or the stakes were not yet high enough. There was a way to fix that, however.
She grinned beneath her helmet as the data trickled through her mind, heeling her Fire Knife over in a languid arc, her brothers and sisters following suit as they received new orders. This dance was what she lived for. Exultant, she reached out towards her foe and sang to them. Blind though they were, they must have felt it nonetheless, the light gliding along the razor’s edge as it slid towards them…
“The lead battleship squadron has opened fire on April Fools; their fighters are hanging back, probably to escort the salvos in. They’re still assuming that the main body is holding their HAVOCs in reserve, expecting to pounce on them once Admiral Hunt sets them loose.”
“They’re going to learn otherwise,” Natalya replied coldly, a wolf’s grin on her lips as her squadron crept closer and closer to the alien armada. With the Azazel holding back, it would be a very messy business for her pilots, but it would be far better than asking them to throw themselves into the massed fire of that oncoming colossus. Unicorn Set and Priorii had proven that; committing the battlegroup’s HAVOCs against a foe that was prepared and expecting a frontal fighter attack would be tantamount to lining those crews up along the bulkhead and shooting them. So, she had decided to be a touch more… creative.
“Carriers to station-keeping. The rest of us – as she sails, Helm.”
The twenty-one battlecruisers of TF 111 came around the orbit of Hyperion Meta, sliding above and beneath its vast rings as they closed, creeping towards an avalanche of alien battle steel. Behind them, the BCVs settled into the quiet places of those same rings and unleashed their swarms of HAVOCs. They were Perseus, swooping down upon the monster as it prepared to devour the helpless Andromeda, chained as a sacrifice to the beast’s hunger. The predator’s grin widened on Natalya’s lips. But our own ‘Andromeda’ is far from helpless. Are you ready, you bastards? I’m coming for you.
The lead missiles screamed down the throats of the Enemy battleships, the paltry defensive fire scoring only a tithe of hits and more warheads rushed to fill the gaps. Point defences went into a frenzy, trying to swat them from the sky, but there were so many and they homed in on their enemy’s energy signatures, ignoring the lures of decoys and the fluttering deceptions of ECM, boring through the maze of defensive fire.
She cried out in orgiastic joy as one of the Enemy’s battleships flared brighter than a star’s fury and died, as she felt it die, felt it boil and burn, break and shatter through the Merge. Another. Another! They were dying in droves, so quickly.
…too quickly. Something was wrong. The Enemy had better defences then that. She queried her Strike Commander and received confirmation of her suspicions. The Fire Knives accelerated, their Command units relaying slow-down orders to the missiles that still survived. The fighters swept in towards the Enemy capital ships; the fire was far lighter than it should have been, but the data still sang and whispered to them, promising that what they closed with were the Enemy’s heavy fleet units.
It was a lie.
April Fools had been the brainstorm of Admiral Foraker – to beg, borrow or steal as many large-scale freighters as possible and re-tool them to carry military-grade engines and ECM, particularly deception systems. At range, each freighter would read as a single battleship-sized warship – to which the Lefu would assign a proportionate number of missiles, tricking them into expending their ranging shots onto the worthless freighters. April Fools had other benefits, not the least of which was it provided a completely expendable screening element for the more valuable battlecruisers and dreadnaughts of BG 97 until they could get into their own missile envelopes.
And, since just over two dozen transports had been modified, it would conceal the disappearance of Commodore Archer’s task force from the main order of battle from any Lefu scouts that were still present. That had been the hope and it appeared to have achieved all three objectives. Perhaps not to the extent that the planners would have hoped for, but it had suckered the Lefu into committing themselves to engaging worthless husks.
They were not pleased.
She snarled in anger, visual imagery bouncing into her mind from one of her brothers; that was no battleship. It was a hauler, puffed up to look like an Enemy Vessel, designed to lure their missiles, give them targets to shoot at, to waste their missiles and throw away their superior range.
Strike Command flickered the update back to the Fleet, overriding the nearest missiles’ fire controls. Fire Knife command systems were a poor substitute for a sigil vessel’s, but it was not possible for a host ship to coordinate its salvos in real-time over such distances; some Fire Knives were modified to carry instrumentation packages to assist in that manner.
The remaining missiles switched their targeting to the leading edge of the Enemy fleet, as the Fleet shifted their own attentions.
“I’d hoped we’d suck more of them in then we did,” Hunt mused.
“At least we bought ourselves some breathing room with April Fools,” Asija Singh, Hunt’s flag captain commented.
“I suppose so. Status of the Lefu fleet?”
“Their SDs are dropping SLIPs now, admiral. We’re reading forty, forty-five per. We still can’t tell if any are missile pods until they open fire. They’re cutting to starboard now, opening their broadsides. Plotting puts them moving inside Meta’s orbit, towards Commodore Archer’s position.”
“About what we expected; match the maneuver, a shallow curve to take us inside them. We want to get into our range, but not commit to a missile duel with their boomers.” I suppose they want their backs to the planet, to keep us from popping anything out of hyperspace behind them. Well, I can oblige them there.
“Missiles loose – the Lefu have fired. Seven minutes to intercept. Reading seven, eight, nine – possibly nine thousand incoming missile tracks. Jamming’s increasing; it’s hard to get a firm count.”
“Do your best, Sensors. EW: try to get our drones up their skirts. Operations: April Fools has completed its first stage; initiate the second. Guns: disengage our own SLIPs. All dreadnaughts: return fire. Targets as assigned.”
“Launching Red squadron. Launching Blue squadron. Launching Green Squadron….”
“Launching Amber Squadron. Launching Autumn Squadron. Launching Avenger Squadron….”
“Launching Dirkslayer. Launching Dreamslayer. Launching Deathslayer…”
“All carriers report successful separations, commodore.”
“Excellent,” Natalya smiled. “A three-day pass to the first HAVOC team that bags a carrier.”
The hiveship began deploying its Fire Knives as soon as the threat became apparent, the escorts tightening around their larger wards, interposing themselves into the path of this unexpected threat, but some would get through. Cold anger rippled through the Fleet; the Enemy had pincered them and done it well, but in doing so, they had left one particular target naked and vulnerable.
In her cockpit, she smiled viciously beneath her helm. If the Enemy wanted to play games, then they would learn who was better at it.
“Boldheart is down to 37% combat capability.”
“We’ve just lost Tiger, Lion and Kodiak.”
“Two Lefu cruisers knocked out in that last salvo and one of their battleships is venting air. Her acceleration’s dropping.”
“Understood. How long until their HAVOCs are on top of us?”
“I don’t- admiral, the fighters…! They’re breaking off and-”
“I see it. What the hell are they doing?”
“Half the enemy HAVOCs are vectoring straight for the shipyard. The other half are… Admiral, they’re heading for Hyperion Secundus.”