Jan 9th, 2400 AD, Terra Standard
Anjasne Council Federation Space
Targara Asteroid Belt III
A light glinted.
Tevyn Marsden looked up.
A tapsheet, 8 ½ by 11 inches of wafer-thin microcircuitry mimicking paper, floated slowly across the airless operations center, alternately flashing its shiny back and a random page of some novel as it rotated on its long axis.
Tevyn watched it as it headed high over the helmets of his command crew.
A control on the arm of his chair made the transparent tactical display in front of him retract into the deck of the ship in two halves. A mental command unlocked his vac-armor from his crash chair.
After a moment of calculation he launched himself with just enough force for a zero-g intercept near the overhead.
Tapsheet in hand he engaged the thrusters on his armor and brought himself back to the deck. Smartsoles in his boots gripped as he touched down and attached him to the ship again.
With three steps he was back in his chair. As soon as he sat down the automatic harness locked onto his armor and snugged him into the cushions again.
He looked the tapsheet over. The page displayed was not from a novel, as Tevyn had first thought, but Acts 9 of the Christian Bible. Saul on the road to Damascus. He pulled up some menus to see if he could find out who owned the device, then turned it over to look for any identifying marks on the back, but both tactics failed and left him wondering who had left it unsecured.
Chaisson. It had to be Chaisson. He was always reading books when he didn’t have something important to do. Mostly classics. Tevyn vaguely recalled that he had some literary degree he was studying for.
Tevyn thumbed a button on a corner of the tapsheet to make it go soft, rolled it up and stowed it in a latched box attached to the side of his chair. He didn’t care that Chaisson had been reading during third watch. Leaving his reader lying out, however, was serious. The ship was running under stealth protocol, with no internal gravitics to compensate for acceleration. Under those conditions, an emergency acceleration of four or five gees could turn a loose object into a deadly projectile.
Obviously, Chaisson needed an extra helping of important things.
“I’ll have a talk with Sensor Tech Chaisson about keeping his station tidy as soon as he wakes up,” Commander Jody Castillo said over the vac-suit comm network.
Tevyn automatically glanced over at the tactical station where his executive officer was sitting and froze for an instant as he saw her sculpted looks through the diamond visor of her helmet. Jody had gotten reconstructive surgery done a month ago and Tevyn still wasn’t used to seeing a vid-model’s perfect face instead of the plain one she had worn for most of the three years he had known her. The new face was good work, but he privately thought her old one had suited her better.
He especially missed her quirky right eyebrow. He wasn’t quite sure why she had gotten it all changed.
He nodded to let Jody know she could handle the conversation, then looked around the operations center to make sure nothing else was out of order.
Officers and enlisted occupied six of the nine sections, with communications, astrogation and damage control currently slaved to other stations. Everyone in the room was encased in combat-grade fullerene vacuum armor marked in the green-and-white of Oksanen’s Dragon Fleet, a bonded mercenary company operating out of New Wallstreet Station in Sol.
Tevyn’s own armor had the same green-and-white color scheme, as well as the four gold bars of a lieutenant-commodore on each pauldron and the five-point star of the captain of the ship on the forehead of the helmet above the visor. A solid fifth of his first year’s pay had gone to cover the cost of the armor when he had first transferred in from the Federated Galactic Planets Space Fleet at the rank of lieutenant-commander. Back then he had considered buying his own–deluxe–armor an expense he could do without. After all, the FGP had provided a suit for him, free of charge.
Now, ten years later, he couldn’t imagine life without his custom fitted protection. Unlike ancient pressure suits the compression-style vac armor was easy to move in and a combination of smart fabrics, synthetic muscles and precision climate control almost made the hard plates feel like a second skin. It was so comfortable it wasn’t even that hard to sleep in.
Most career spacers got that way about their own suits, career spacers like the officers on his bridge.
Tevyn focused on hands and eyes where he could see them, looking to make sure people were working, but skipped a remote facecheck. While any of his people could have been goofing off with the computers built into their own suits, all of them appeared to be focused on their stations, so he relaxed. His people knew when it was okay to goof off, and the final approach to zero hour for a major operation was not that time. Chaisson’s watch had been five hours before during the buffer period built into the plan to make sure every ship would be in place. There had still been enough slack for reading a book then.
The stations his people were focused on were large diamond-encased touch-displays that allowed for a flat interface or look-in 3D as necessary. While some civilian ships had fancier free-floating holo interfaces, military ships needed displays that could operate in a vacuum when needed, something open holograms still couldn’t do. These also had the benefit of being nearly indestructible.
The displays were set into nine stations arranged in an unbroken, inward-facing two-thirds arc around the captain’s chair and a smaller, one-quarter arc located in a pit directly in front of the captain’s chair, all shaped so the captain could directly interact with the people manning each station without getting up. Each station had several associated crash chairs, large, curve backed, swiveling affairs which were attached very firmly to the deck. At battlestations the operations center held seventeen people, though there were a few additional chairs for training oversight in less critical situations.
The long, desklike affair that the outer stations were set in, smoothly curved with convenient flat places for resting arms and objects, was dull-gray fullerene, as was the floor. The bulkhead was a different matter, coated in the obsidian black of active EM scavenging material. Most of the bulkheads in the ship were coated in the same stuff, made to drink EM radiation and convert it back into useable power.
When the ship was cruising under normal conditions the plating in the crewed sections was a neutral gray, but under battle or stealth conditions the plating went black as the ship activated every system that could possibly keep it cool.
The light-drinking black bulkheads made the people and equipment of the operations center stand out, almost as if the whole deck was floating out in space. It would have been even more spectacular if the circular strategy table in the middle of the room had been on, but the table used an open holoprojector. No air, no holoprojector.
Besides, they had already reviewed the whole plan before dropping into the system. He didn’t need to pull the crew together for that again.
Although it wouldn’t hurt if he reviewed the information one more time for himself. Thinking things through had often paid off for him.
A tap of Tevyn’s index finger recalled his personal display and assembled it in front of him again. The tactical interface came up automatically. He singled out the sensor feed and called it onto the VR display in his helmet with a mental command.
The operations center vanished, replaced by a simulated view of the current system from about 7 AUs above the north pole of its star, a bright G2V that the locals called Targara. In their primary tongue that meant “Strong Glory”.
Even viewing it from 7 AUs out Tevyn had to agree. Targara was the same class as his own homestar of Sol, burning with a golden fury that he would always identify as “just right” no matter how many worlds he walked with stars of different colors. That gave it “glorious” in his book.
Strong came from the fact that it had about twice Sol’s mass, which meant it burned quite a bit brighter. A planet Earth’s size orbiting Targara at Earth’s 1 AU would have been a cinder.
Targara had no planets orbiting at 1 AU. It might have at some point, but all that remained of that possibility was a dense asteroid belt at .9 AU, probably the remains of a rocky world torn up by the modest gas giant orbiting at .5 AU.
Targara had three more gas giants in addition to the first, two of them good candidates for gas mining. It also had two more former-planet asteroid belts, each dense and unusually rich in rare metals.
All that, however, was almost nothing compared to the treasure orbiting at just a touch outside 2 AUs.
The locals had named it “Sesh”, which meant “snow”.
He zoomed in on it and stared at the blue, green and white ball swirled with clouds. So familiar.
Most of the terrestrial planets in the galaxy were not hospitable to life. It was just a sad fact.
Usually it was the star’s fault. Most stars did something or other that made them inhospitable to life, such as being highly variable. Stars that alternated between freezing and burning their planets did not make good hosts.
Among those few stars that were capable of hosting a life-bearing planet there was on average about one Terra-sized rock orbiting somewhere in the life belt.
Of those rocks, most were very dead and always would be. About one in four could, conceivably, be convinced to act like something humans could live on, but less than a tenth of those were actually worth the effort.
Mars would not have made the one-in-ten cut for worlds worth terraforming. Mars had only been terraformed because it was the closest option at the time humanity started, and three-hundred and fifty years later the job still wasn’t quite finished. Funding for another such terraforming project did not exist.
Of the tiny number of planets that were better terraforming candidates than Mars, one in twenty already had life on them. If they did, there was a lot of it. Most of the life-bearing worlds could be brought up to snuff with about a century of well-calculated effort at precise intervals.
However, of those thoroughly rare life-bearing worlds, an amazing one in five were garden worlds that were perfectly liveable as found.
With a surface gravity just a touch under 1 Terran gravity, an atmosphere with a 22/77 oxygen/nitrogen mix, an ocean-to-land ratio of 4 to 3, an axial tilt of 21 degrees, an average temperature of 2 celsius, and a surface teaming with life, Sesh was such a world. The cold was a problem, but around the equator it was shirtsleeve weather all year round and the 100,000 colonists already living there were pretty sure they could add another 6 degrees to that average temperature within the next 50 Terran years.
Besides, Sesh had trees. Real ones. Whole continents covered in them. Much could be forgiven if there were trees.
The translation software had offered another possible meaning for sesh.
Adding Sesh in with the abundant mineral resources throughout the system, Targara represented a prize without compare, a whole system ready to become another core colony for whoever owned it.
Presently that prize belonged to the Anjasne, a non-Terran humanoid race united in a federation of five core colonies plus some smaller startups, all located about 210 light years out from Sol. Four of those colonies predated the founding of the United States of America by a few decades and had been established using sublight generation ships that took forty years to travel less than ten light years.
The fifth colony had originally been the Anjasne homeworld. Apparently they had accidentally dropped a moon on it back while Terrans were still trying to figure out steam power. They had founded their four sublight colonies to escape extinction.
Once they discovered dark space FTL, 70 years after Terrans did, they had thoroughly recolonized their homeworld. Pouring all their efforts into that task had prevented any kind of serious colony push until about 2350.
By that point, most of the polities of the Terran Sphere had recovered from the AI catastrophe of 2183 and were at least fifty years into their second colony push, with the main frontiers at two-hundred light years out from Sol and expanding. The Anjasne had found themselves neighbors to the Transcendental Imperium, a small Terran polity with five core colonies of its own and a hunger for more.
The Trancendental Imperium, also known as Dragon Fleet’s current employers, had started in 2170 AD with Transcendence, a single colony founded by a group determined to become the “next step in human evolution”. When the AI Catastrophe had started and Earth had gone dark, John Crozman, the leader of Transcendence, had gathered together the four closest colonies and kept them stable in the ensuing chaos. Hydrogen from a gas mine in one of the systems had provided fuel to keep a few ships moving and trade between the colonies had filled in enough gaps that none of them had collapsed. Eventually, they had all adopted the Trancendence ideals and unified into one polity under John Crozman and the Council of Guides. By the time the rest of the Terran Sphere had put Earth back together and hammered out the Sol Alliance, the TI was already well on its way to recovery and new growth.
That was the official line.
The unofficial line in most of the other polities was much more brutal and cast John Crozman as a pirate who had moved in on the Bussard Gas Mine as soon as the United Nations Space Fleet left the sector to rescue Earth. He had then used control of the gas mine and threat of orbital bombardment to compel the four colonies to submit. By the time any of the other new polities had attention to spare for external affairs he had killed the dissenters and put his own governors firmly in place.
Two centuries of intervening development saw the TI lagging behind its closest Terran neighbors in everything but military hardware, cybernetics and biotech. Most of its military advances had been stolen, but it had earned all the cybernetic and biotech ones.
Its researchers had also earned more letters of censure from the Sol Alliance Scientific Oversight Committee than all the other researchers in the Terran Sphere combined. Most of those letters included words like “inhumane”, “unconscionable” and “evil”.
The same attitude that garnered those letters encouraged the three Terran polities that bordered the TI to keep a very vigilant stance along their borders. The fact that the smallest of them outmassed the TI by three core colonies and that all of them had mutual defense alliances specifically against the TI encouraged the TI to take its attitude and look outward.
To most of the Terran Sphere the Anjasne were a mystery. Reports about them came only through the TI and the TI had been very closed to outside contact efforts. The fragments of information that Tevyn had came from the one article that the TI had released to the Galactipedia just after first contact. Nothing else believable had been added after the TI declared war. The rest was analysis based on TI propaganda and hearsay gathered from returning TI Fleet personnel.
Officially, one year after first contact with the Anjasne, the TI had discovered the aliens preparing for an invasion and had made a successful pre-emptive strike.
Unofficially, the Anjasne had been at best ninety years behind any Terran Sphere polity in military applications of their technology. The TI had mounted an unprovoked blitzkrieg expecting to win. The Anjasne had repelled them. There was no firm information on Anjasne losses, but even the most conservative estimates were staggering. “Near total destruction of orbital infrastructure” featured in most reports.
Four years later the TI had gone back with new tech, a new fleet and a new plan.
Somehow, no one knew how, the Anjasne had acquired a fleet of warships comparable to the best in the Terran Sphere. They had again repelled the TI, with fewer losses.
Forty-something years later the two polities had a hostile stalemate.
Enter Targara and Sesh.
According to the mission briefing the Anjasne had probably discovered the system on accident while looking for a route into the Terran Sphere that bypassed the TI. The TI had solid surveillance on all the straight paths and pretty much all the other routes the Anjasne might have taken went through K sector.
Ships didn’t come back from K sector.
No one knew why.
Worse, there was no way of knowing a star was part of K sector until a ship sent there failed to come back.
That meant the Anjasne had been trying to scout a way through the areas that might be more of K sector.
That took desperation.
However, not only had their efforts turned up Sesh, but the Targara system was apparently the first step in an alternate route to the Terran sphere.
The briefing said nothing about how the TI had caught on to them so fast. It did say that securing the Targara system and cementing the blockade on the Anjasne was currently their highest priority.
Enter Admiral Oksanen and Dragon Fleet.
Basic economics dictated that a polity could support only so much fleet-mass before it started going into debt doing it. Professional military strategists had complex functions for working out exactly how much mass that was, but the standard rule of thumb was about seven superdreadnoughts of total ship mass per healthy core world. Some polities could throw a little more, some less, but seven SDN of mass was usually accurate.
The TI was not an exception. It had five core worlds that could support only so many ships in its fleet at any given moment. Debt was technically an option for getting more, but the Sol Alliance Constitution forbid member polities from holding more than one month’s revenue in foreign debt, so deficit funding didn’t flex very far.
The Anjasne Council Federation ran at about the same level as the TI. They too could only support so many ships before their economy collapsed. Unlike the TI, they had no one to borrow from but themselves, but they made up for that with desperation.
As both polities had five core worlds, that meant they both had about the same mass in ships to throw at each other, with no way to sustain more. Therefore, gathering ships together for an attack automatically left a hole somewhere that the opposition had enough local forces to take advantage of.
For the Anjasne that left no option but to play defense and hope for the TI to make a mistake.
The TI, however, could bolster its main fleet by hiring temporary ships from the rest of the Terran Sphere for a tiny fraction of what it would take to build and run those same ships themselves. As an example, by having perhaps one less cruiser in their permanent fleet, a cruiser that would normally spend most of its time on standby, the TI could afford to throw an additional battleship, plus escorts, at the Anjasne for a few months when it really mattered.
If those few months won a major victory, it was easily worth having one less cruiser day-to-day.
Dragon Fleet was the battleship-plus-escorts in that equation. Specifically, one battleship, one battlecruiser, one light carrier, two heavy cruisers, two patrol carriers, four cruisers and fourteen assorted destroyers including one almost-new Galacticorp DDB27-SN3C named the Firedrake.
Some fleets did everything, some focused on scouting, some excelled in stealth operations, some specialized in raiding. Dragon Fleet mostly just blew things up with lots of firepower, or, more often, made sure things didn’t blow up by being ready to use lots of firepower.
This time it was blowing things up, with a little stealth to make that go better.
The stealth part belonged to the destroyers because smaller ship classes were faster when sneaking around on minimal power than bigger ones. The destroyer captains also had the lowest seniority which meant that, when it came time for someone to spend two weeks in vac armor with their crew in cryo while their ships crept around on Tzu drive as airless icebergs, they got the job.
Two weeks of such creeping had brought the Firedrake and nine other destroyers from the transition limit 40 AUs out from Targara to the orbit of the third asteroid belt at 7 AUs. Of course, with the acceleration compensators off even a measly 3 gees of thrust had felt unbearably fast. He was still aching from the sensation of a giant boot crushing the air out of his chest for four hours at a time.
He imagined the other destroyer captains felt the same, but he couldn’t ask them until after the fighting started. Full stealth protocols meant no emissions, not even from the tiny laser-comms that formed a secure tactical network.
The silence was nerve wracking and the travel had been exhausting, but if it had allowed them to get into position undetected the stealth would be well worth it.
After ten hours of motionless waiting, watching, and sweating two-million kilometers from the objective, it appeared that it had.
The objective was an Anjasne mining base and tactical outpost.
Tevyn called it up and examined it.
A two kilometer black sphere, radiating twelve kilometer-long docking arms from its equator and capped on both poles by squat defensive hubs filled with plasma shield and gravity deflection projectors. It glittered in places with actual windows, many of which probably looked into aquaponics sections that supplied food for both miners and military.
Arrayed in a line at a safe twenty kilometers from the station was a series of massive ore grinders, spin refiners, and metal casters. Near the metal casters floated a field of fully refined metals, molded into pie shaped cargo modules and arranged by element. The particular grays of magnesium, iron, aluminum, nickel, chromium, titanium and cobalt featured largely, with one copper module glinting red in the middle.
The boxy shapes of tugs moved among the mammoth equipment, feeding chunks of partially refined metal into the processors at one end and carefully moving finished modules into the field at the other.
Beyond all that was the two-kilometer long skeleton of an open repair dock, currently empty. The layout of attachment points was sufficient for eight cruisers or smaller craft or one battleship.
The TI Starfleet wanted it intact if at all possible. Twelve hours of passive scans had turned up no ranged defenses on it, so that probably wouldn’t be a problem. A few shots in the right place on the frail structure could force the fusion plants into emergency shutdown, preventing the Anjasne from scuttling it.
The TI Fleet also wanted the mining base, but the tactical report noted the Anjasne rarely surrendered.
That would be a problem.
Dragon Fleet’s stellars could dig them out of the base, but no number of soldiers could stop them from blowing the central fusion core if they chose to suicide. Unlike the repair dock, the main fusion plants in the station were buried under a kilometer of other equipment. Any attempt from the outside to force them into shutdown was more likely to vaporize the station than deactivate the plants.
Captain Cardoso had suggested Dragon Fleet offer to take the Anjasne captive under the Sol Alliance Rules of War. It would make them responsible for imprisoning or repatriating any Anjasne prisoners themselves, and probably anger the TIF, but if the offer of avoiding TI custody convinced the Anjasne to surrender the station, the TIF would have to pay the hefty bonus attached to its capture or be in breach of contract.
Even with the hassle of repatriating prisoners that bonus would make it worth the effort. Admiral Oksanen had seemed open to the idea during the strategy session, which meant he would probably go with it.
However, grabbing the equipment was only a secondary objective.
The primary objective was clearing out the ranged defenses.
Thirteen of those defenses hovered about 50,000 kilometers above the ecliptic of the station elements.
Eight destroyers, six cruisers and a battlecruiser.
Their charcoal black, spearhead hulls barely reflected any light except for where their designation numbers and the five seven-point stars of the Anjasne Federation Spacefleet glinted gold on their upper armor just foreward of the A-drive rings that wrapped them two-thirds of the way aft. Sandwiched between the upper and lower shells of their armor was a thin line of weapon hatches hiding retractable sensor clusters and unknown dangers. The ships also had the retractable bow-armor characteristic of powerful spinal weapons.
The destroyers were roughly the same size as his own at around 420 meters long each. Lightly armored, highly maneuverable and chock full of hard hitting weapons, they excelled at interception, hit-and runs and wolfpack hunting. Here they would provide screening for the bigger ships, shooting down any missiles and strike craft before those could get close to the slower heavies.
The cruisers were each 430 meters long, which meant each one outmassed a standard destroyer by a factor of three. That meant stronger weapons and defenses, but less agility. Not no agility. Cruisers were generalists, so they poured enough extra into drives to remain maneuverable. In this group they would take hits in formation with the battlecruiser or back the destroyers in flanking maneuvers.
At 600 meters, the battlecruiser dwarfed a destroyer, outmassing Tevyn’s own by a factor of at least nine. It would be even more sluggish than the cruisers, but its weapons would pack a frightening punch and its armor and defenses would be able to soak up a disturbing amount of punishment from smaller craft. It’s spinal gun, whatever it mounted, could probably take out destroyers in one or two good hits. It would be the core of any action, tackling enemy ships one by one while the others ran interference.
Tevyn was very happy that Oksanen’s plan specifically ordered the Firedrake and the other destroyers to avoid an engagement with the battlecruiser. That fight belonged to Dragon Fleet’s own heavy hitters.
Instead, the destroyers had the job of spotting the much more vulnerable fixed defenses as they went active and destroying them from behind. While the Anjasne ships were fairly obvious, glowing brightly to IR sensors with temperatures of around 210 degrees kelvin from active fusion plants and life support, there would also be fixed defenses that were still hidden. Those would mostly be cored out asteroids stuffed with weapons and coated in stealth tech. With no crew the fixed defenses would have no reason to generate heat until they powered up for firing.
The missile platforms wouldn’t go hot even then as they didn’t need fusion plants to launch their arsenal. Without heat emissions, they were effectively invisible to anything but very good gravitic scanning at close range.
It was the destroyers’ job to do that scanning and identify those hidden defenses before they had the chance to fire on the rest of Dragon Fleet. Tevyn’s tactical view only listed two objects orbiting near the mining station that might be fixed defenses, but there would soon be more.
The plan was for the Dragon fleet destroyers to engage the beam platforms with their first shots, hopefully taking them out immediately. As soon as the destroyers fired they would be able to raise their tactical network and talk again. In that moment their computers would compare data and triangulate on any remaining platforms.
Those would be the missile platforms.
With ten ships scattered around the area they would probably find all the platforms before they could really unload on the main fleet or retarget.
If they didn’t, someone in Dragon Fleet would get a faceful of missiles.
Tevyn checked the readout again, hoping for a sign of another platform. Nothing.
He calmed himself and pulled both of the likely objects to fire control for targeting and flight path calculation. Both were within 500,000 kilometers, too far for a shot without closing, but near enough that they would be good opening targets.
Tevyn estimated one solid hit for each, if they were stony asteroids. If they were metallic it could take two or three. A hundred meters of solid iron made resilient armor.
For most of the destroyers it would probably take even more hits, but the Firedrake and three of the other destroyers had the advantage of spinal mounted nova cannons.
Adapted three decades before from the Kir-tenz, the nova cannon was a game changer when used right. Essentially a giant particle accelerator mated with an overpowered gravity lance, it fired a beam of fusing deuterium at a few kilometers-per-second short of lightspeed and kept it compressed to the width of a pencil out to a distance of almost half a light second.
The precise calculation from Galacticorp came out to 27.46 terajoules of energy delivered to two square centimeters of target at 0.4 lightseconds. That was short ranged compared to a spinal mounted X-ray laser, but hitting anything evasive with a beam beyond half a light-second out was difficult at best. Most laser fights took place at no more than two-thirds of a light second.
If the Firedrake could close to half that range, her nova beam could cut another destroyer in half with one shot. The unshielded asteroids just had the advantage of more mass to burn through.
Tevyn put the time for each at 120 seconds, tops.
A warning chimed and Tevyn called up the message.
T-minus 5 hours.
Tevyn dropped out of VR.
“Time to go hot, Jody.”
Jody nodded and sent some messages from her console. In response, crewmembers down in life support and main engineering began thawing frozen equipment while in the cryo section of the medbay Doctor Gladwin and his two assistants began thawing frozen crewmembers.
Tevyn sat back in his chair and waited for his ship to wake.
Within three hours the roster was back up from a skeleton crew of 40 to the full complement of 173. Getting all four multistage fusion plants back up to a protonic reaction point took longer, but injecting a little antimatter sped that up nicely. Weapons and defenses would be ready as soon as the power was. Full life support came last, because it would speed the heating of the ship significantly.
Of course, most of of the ship was already quite warm. Two weeks of waste heat from minor systems had brought the inside of the ship from an average of 20 degrees kelvin up to just under 278. The meter-thick water layer in the outer hull of the ship was still ice, but barely, and the stealthing systems in the armor were almost at their limit for keeping the ship matched to the 4 kelvin of surrounding space. Without fusion they probably had another two or three days. With fusion, less than six hours.
Which was all they needed.
For the last half-hour of preparation, Tevyn took a nap, his own prescription for calming down before a battle and keeping his mind sharp. The sound of footsteps and open air conversation woke him, telling him the operations room once again had an atmosphere.
He raised his visor, breathed in a lungful, and sat up. The full primary operations crew had filtered in and the Ops Center was filled. Jody had switched seats from tactical back to the XOs station directly to the right of his own and oversaw the room with her own visor up. The return of atmosphere also meant the return of open holograms and the main multipurpose holo display glowed in midair over the central pit of the ops center.
“Is everyone ready for action?” Tevyn asked.
Jody looked over at him. “Casey chased the last spacer out of the medbay thirty minutes ago,” she said.
Tevyn checked the timer.
T-minus 1 minute.
“Sound battle stations,” he said.
“Aye aye, Skipper.” Jody punched a command. The lights flashed red and the klaxon began to whoop general quarters.
“Asano, launch four probes. Stealth protocol. Forward spread. One-hundred-thousand kay standoff.”
The ship vibrated as Lieutenant Hiro Asano fired four pre-chilled probes out of the Firedrake’s two forward torpedo tubes. They immediately sped away on Tzu drives at 20 gees acceleration on courses that would put them in an equilateral pyramid 100,000 kilometers from the nose of the Firedrake and each other. From there they would do passive scanning and transmit data back with comm lasers.
24 minutes later the probes slowed into position and started beaming data. The two preliminary targets became certainties and one more possible showed up.
Ten minutes after that the Anjasne ships went active, spreading out and pointing their noses toward a point high above the ecliptic.
“Anjasne are raising shields,” Jody said. “Forward gravity deflection active. Probe launches from all ships. Realignment in platforms as well.”
“The fleet arrived,” Tevyn said. Normally the gravity signatures of an entire fleet heading in on A-drives at .9c would have been obvious, but stealth protocol meant no darkspace sensors, which meant no FTL detection. Dragon Fleet wouldn’t show up on any of the Firedrake’s sensors until the data crossed normal space the slow way. However, it was easy to infer their arrival from how the Anjasne were acting.
“Do a close scan on the platforms and plot a course to the first one that gets hot.”
Jody checked the data relayed from the sensor station.
“Temperature spike in target P3,” she said. “Distance 430,000 kay. Plotting course.”
“Five gees forward, 1800 seconds, on my mark.”
“Acknowledged,” Jody said. “Five gees fore, Eighteen-zero-zero ticks, on your mark.”
“Sound delta-v warning. Sixty seconds.”
Jody punched in commands and sent the warning out. Tevyn saw the warning for 5 gees of forward acceleration pop up on his helmet display in glaring red as Jody announced the warning over general comm and ordered everyone to forward facing crash alcoves.
Sixty seconds later all crewmember’s suits signaled as locked in somewhere.
Tevyn snapped his visor closed again and settled back into his chair.
The giant boot descended, trying to grind the life out of him.
450 years of spacefaring technology fought back, trying equally hard to keep him alive.
His crash chair curled forward against the pressure, bending him into the best position to keep blood flowing to his brain.
The life support in his helmet upped the oxygen mix and increased pressure to improve absorption.
Synthetic muscles in his armor contracted, squeezing blood closer to where it needed to go.
Nanomachines in his body released thinners to keep his blood flowing, carried extra oxygen, and ensured his heart kept beating.
It was still thirty minutes of hell.
1800 seconds at 5 gees of delta v would take them 80,000 kilometers toward the closest laser platform. When the acceleration stopped they would be about 350,000 kilometers away and have a relative velocity of 88 kilometers-per-second. That would be enough to bring them to maximum firing range within 43 minutes.
Admiral Oksanen’s plan called for the main fleet to have the Anjasne ships 30 minutes deep into a mid-range missile fight by that point.
As soon as the destroyers took out the first wave of fixed defenses, the rest of Dragon Fleet would pour on the fire and close in at full acceleration while the destroyers escaped on a tangent course at their full Chun-drive acceleration of around 160 gees.
The Anjasne would have no choice but to focus on the main fleet. Going after the destroyers would risk dividing their defenses when they didn’t have any power to spare. Without the fixed defenses backing them up they wouldn’t stand a chance.
Once the destroyers got to 150,000 kilometers out from the Anjasne elements they could risk a short A-drive run at .9c to get a light second of distance. At that point they would be safe from the wrath of the soon-to-be-destroyed battlecruiser.
According to the plan, a TIF force would be engaging the other Anjasne defensive depot in the second asteroid belt at the same time. By attacking both depots at once they could keep the Anjasne from concentrating their forces. The TIF force had the larger battle as the majority of the Anjasne force in the system patrolled around Sesh which was far closer to the second depot.
When the boot finally lifted the engagement between the battlecruiser group and the main body of Dragon Fleet was proceeding as planned. The Anjasne ships had moved into a double-layer wall, with the battlecruiser and cruisers presenting broadsides for missile salvos and the destroyers in front of them for screening.
Dragon Fleet was finally visible on gravitics and IR sensors, closing in a similar arrangement to the Anjasne with heavies behind and screening elements up front, only none of their ships had turned to present broadsides as they were still accelerating on Chun drives. Dragon Fleet’s screen included interceptors launched by Tiamat, Captain Perth’s light carrier.
No missiles had been fired yet as both groups were still out of range of each other, though somewhere fighters from Tiamat and gunboats from the patrol carriers Orochi and Hydra would be ghosting into position for flanking strikes.
13 minutes passed in silence as the two separate groups of Dragon Fleet closed on their targets.
Then most of the main half of Dragon Fleet swung to present broadsides. The bigger ships, covered by the forward screening elements, began slow rolls timed to bring each broadside to bear as the missile tubes fired and interpose their main armor while reloading.
The Anjasne copied.
Seconds later both sides opened fire with salvoes of FTL missiles, called Cee-rockets or crocs for short.
At that point, the view on the lightspeed sensor plot became confusing.
Crocs didn’t have sublight Tzu-Chun drives like the Firedrake. Instead, they only mounted Alcubierre space-warp drives, which they used to massively violate observed causality by charging at their targets at two to three times the speed of light.
Most ships had the same drives and could pull off the same trick of moving at three times the speed of light in realspace, but most captains considered that a last ditch effort as breaching the light barrier with an A-drive cost a massive burst of energy at the outset, almost as much each second thereafter, and kindly rewarded the transgressing ship with enough Hawking radiation to peel the outer hull plates off in ten seconds. Ships traveling faster than light also couldn’t see anything while doing it, not even on DAPS, and wouldn’t be able to steer even if they could.
Worse, thanks to DAPS, everyone else could definitely see them, and track them in real time, and all it took was one light touch from a grav lance from a light-second-and-a-half away to rip them out of their bubble, something that usually resulted in their A-drive ring trying to eat the rest of the ship.
Most captains kept the three-cee A-drive trick to half-second tactical jumps, and even those were reserved for extreme situations.
Crocs, however, were destined for destruction anyway, so getting crisped by Hawking radiation or crunched into a ball and torn into component atoms by their own A-drive wasn’t as big a problem as long as at least a few of them made it into range to fire off their warheads.
Crocs launched at angles of up to 5 degrees and were assisted into supra-light by gravity lances encircling their launch ports. They proceeded in straight lines at two to three cee for up to two seconds, at which point they ran out of energy or cooked from radiation.
At any point before that they could detonate their warhead, usually a twenty megaton shaped-charge nuke with a gamma-laser kit, and fire a spray of impossibly intense gamma beams in a 10 degree cone in any direction except directly behind the missile.
Courses and targeting were all preset. Crocs had no sensors and needed none. They were the dumb artillery of space warfare.
Watching on passive lightspeed sensors as the two sides opened up on each other with crocs it looked like each had some kind of nuclear weapon that detonated fifty to one-hundred-and-fifty thousand kilometers from the firing ship, launching a massive gravity distortion directly at another. It was, in fact, the reverse, but that was crocs.
Ten more minutes passed with local space dancing and rippling with nuclear fireworks. Then, twenty minutes from target, the plan went sideways. A red notification popped up on Tevyn’s augmented reality interface. Before Tevyn could identify it Jody cried out,
“We’ve been pinged!”
One of the Anjasne had hit them with a momentary pulse of repulsion. At this range not enough for anything but a computer to notice, but that was all that the Anjasne needed to verify that something was there. The Firedrake’s own gravity systems were currently doing a good low-power job of keeping her off passive gravity sensors, but there was only so much that could be done against active, especially this close in.
Another red notice appeared on Tevyn’s ARI.
“Second ping!” Jody said. “They know we’re here.”
“Jaks, compensators on,” Tevyn said. “Peterson, max fore on Chun, full evasion! Babic, defenses full, cancel stealth. Hyun! Get me DAPS now!”
The boot lifted in an instant as delta-v compensation returned. The drive mode switched from electromagnetic Tzu to gravitic Chun and the Firedrake’s acceleration went from just 5 gees fore to 160 fore with an extra 40 gees of dorsal, ventral, port and starboard dodging that turned her course into an erratic spiral. With the compensation active it all felt like nothing.
At the same time, multi-purpose gravity projectors worked with the giant Alcubierre drive ring to bend space in front of the Firedrake so that incoming paths tended to go around her rather than collide.
Closer in, plasma emitters combined with electromagnetic field manipulators to weave an almost self-contained bubble of semi-transparent plasma that quickly became harder than steel. Solid objects that struck it would deflect or shatter. EM radiation would refract away or diffuse.
As stealth protocol disengaged the adaptive fullerene hull dropped all EM camouflage and went from trying to keep the heat in to trying to get rid of it as fast as possible. Nanocircuitry realigned, advanced thermoelectrics switched direction and the outermost hull went from dead black to a glowing cherry red. Underlying layers shifted structure subtly, preparing to redirect, transmute or absorb anything that made it through
In short, the entire ship became harder to touch, let alone damage, than spacers in previous centuries would have believed possible.
Tevyn hoped it would be enough.
“DAPS online,” Lieutenant Hyun said.
Tevyn pulled the new sensor plot to his ARI. The operations room vanished, replaced by a real time readout of the battle up ahead. The DAPS, or Darkspace Pulse Sensor, reached into level-2 darkspace to read gravity distortions using the same principles as the Tzu-Chun drive. That level of dark space related to real space at a ratio of 1 to 100, which meant the DAPS saw gravity generating objects in real space at 100 times the speed of light.
Presently it showed him two of the Anjasne cruisers pulling back from the fight with Dragon Fleet and vectoring on the sneaking destroyers. It also showed him the other Dragon Fleet destroyers as they too raised their defenses and went to Chun drive.
“Furst, get the DACnet up. Beta fleet first, then get me the Admiral.”
Tevyn couldn’t see Furst punching commands into the comm console but he did see the other destroyer captains appear on his FTL tacnet. He also saw their targeting data and a slew of unexpected weapon platforms as the computers cross-referenced sensor data.
There were three times as many platforms as predicted.
Also, Captain Mcintyre of the Cuelebre had targeted the same platform as Tevyn. Tevyn picked another laser platform and set it as the new priority target, then pushed the data to the bridge.
“Ibarra, plot a new course for Peterson and execute. Asano, fire main when in range. Don’t stop until the target blows.”
He saw the other destroyers reprioritizing for closer targets where available. Naga and Wyvern were already pouring out liberal broadsides of crocs while Ryu, Zolmok, Bolla and Kulshedra bored into unmoving targets from over two light-seconds away with their spinal Xray lasers. The time until his own ship could open fire was less than five minutes, but he already saw several of the weapons platforms retasking to fire on elements of beta fleet.
One of those elements was the Firedrake.
Tevyn selected the barely-visible missile platform swiveling for a lock on his ship and pushed the information to the tactical station.
“Asano, launch sharks on selected target. Rock it til it breaks.”
“Aye aye, Skip,” the lieutenant replied and set his missile tech to getting the expensive smart-torpedoes ready for firing. Oksanen would complain about the cost later, but it wasn’t his ship that was about to get crocced at pointblank range.
Tevyn turned his attention to defense.
His integrity officer cut him off.
“On it, Captain. Countercrocs loaded and charging, disruption on, gravlances and point lasers ready.”
“Incoming,” Lieutenant Hyun called out.
Outside the ship, an area 70,000 kilometers toward the enemy rocket platform lit up with the bright flashes of five 20-megaton nuclear explosions as five of twenty cee-rockets made it past the Firedrake’s active defenses to their programmed strike range and sent five sprays of invisible gamma lasers at the ship.
Ninety-nine percent of the beams missed completely. They weren’t even close.
The fraction that were on target bent some as they passed through the ship’s gravity deflection field, more as they refracted and diffused through her plasma shield, and once again largely missed…
…except for the three that made it through and plunged directly into the ship itself.
The Firedrake shuddered and groaned as multiple layers of metamaterials tuned to gamma radiation struggled to channel kilotons of the most stubborn wavelength in existence around the tender core of the ship. Those layers succeeded about halfway. The energy that wouldn’t go around was absorbed by a superdense blocking layer and turned into heat. Water pockets immersing that layer flashed to steam and blew out of the ship in great clouds.
The ship rocked with the explosion, a motion that came right through the compensators and jolted all the crew members in their crash chairs. In the ops center damage symbols appeared on both the ship exterior display and the ship interior display as much of the heat that hadn’t been cleared out by vaporized water shattered armor layers and slagged ship systems around the impact sites.
Damage control responded immediately, with armored engineers and heavily armored stellars dashing to the injured locations to repair anything they could.
“Upper-port shield eighty percent,” Lieutenant Babic announced. “Full regen in sixty-four seconds. Upper shell fore-port armor integrity seventy-one percent. Repair to eighty-one percent in twenty minutes.”
“Roll ship!” Tevyn said.
Lieutenant Petersen rolled the ship 90 degrees clockwise, bringing up fresh shielding and armor to face the next salvo.
“Sharks ready,” Lieutenant Hiro Asano called out.
“Fire,” Tevyn said.
Five pairs of sharks, armored and shielded torpedos three times as massive as crocs and thirty times as expensive, launched from the Firedrake in quick succession and proceeded toward the missile platform on Chun drives at 1000 gees of acceleration.
As the last torpedo left, another salvo of crocs appeared near the Firedrake and hammered her with gamma. Four hits blew steam, shattered armor and slagged outer systems.
Tevyn ordered another roll of the ship.
Thirty seconds later, a third salvo brought two more hits.
Tevyn ordered a third roll.
Thirty seconds later, three more hits.
“We’re out of fresh armor,” Jody said.
“Just hold on,” Tevyn replied and ordered another quarter roll. At least the plasma shielding would have regenerated.
The next salvo brought five armor hits.
One found a hole and went deep.
Most of the structural material the gamma beam touched it just passed through with moderate heating. Pure carbon fullerene was not very dense.
However, wherever it passed through something dense or delicate, it deposited enough energy to cause that object to malfunction, break, or catastrophically explode.
In the case of three crewmembers working damage control on the fore-starboard ventral armor this meant instant death as proteins throughought their bodies denatured and they experienced a fatal amount of heating.
Basically they cooked.
In the case of the launching mechanisms for the starboard torpedo tube, this meant that critical circuits had major power surges that burned them out while some of the dense alloys used in the magnetic assemblies heated so fast they tore apart explosively, destroying other equipment.
In the case of fusion plant two… this meant that the plant went into emergency shutdown as the dense secondary armor surrounding its room ate most of the beam and vaporized, filling the room with plasmized carbon and iridium that tried to incinerate the engineers working there.
“Fusion two is down!” Petty Officer Perrica Curran cried out from the power systems station. “Emergency shutdown successful!”
Tevyn gripped the arms of his crash chair and squeezed. Waiting patiently wasn’t his strong suit, and waiting patiently while getting pounded to death was almost impossible.
120 seconds after launch all ten sharks were travelling toward the missile platform at over 1,100 kilometers per second. At that time they made a one second A-drive run at .99c and dropped out 70,000 kilometers from the platform in a very wide formation.
Five got hit by point-defense grav lances, but at sub-lightspeed that only meant their A-drives burned out. Emergency cutoffs saved the rest of each torpedo and all ten resumed Chun drive acceleration at 1,000 gees.
The platform then shifted its aim from the Firedrake to the incoming torpedos.
As the platform tried to fire lightspeed counter-missiles at the torpedos, the sharks countered with their forward grav lances, blowing the A-drives on the counter missiles the instant they left their firing tubes.
That futility persisted for twenty seconds, in which time the sharks closed from 70,000 kilometers to 46,000.
The platform abandoned missiles and switched to point-defense lasers.
The first shot immediately took out one of the sharks, but then the remaining nine switched their grav lances to deflection mode and became much harder to hit.
They continued to close for the next 35 seconds, losing one of their number about every five seconds.
When only two remained, they detonated less than two hundred kilometers from the platform in a pair of very bright flashes, pouring megatons of gamma radiation directly into its lightly armored face.
“Missile platform destroyed,” Lieutenant Hyun announced.
Tevyn nodded, inwardly heaving a sigh of relief.
“Good work, Hiro. Make sure our main gun still works and have it ready. Karpati, tell your damage control teams I want fusion two back ASAP.”
Tevyn checked the plot again and saw the rest of beta fleet still intact and holding their own. The two cruisers were out of beam range but closing.
“Furst. Do you have the Admiral yet?”
“Right here. Connecting now.”
An extreme closeup of Admiral Oksanen’s face appeared on Tevyn’s personal station and looked out at him with far-focused eyes. It was probably the view from his helmet comm.
“How’s beta holding up, Marsden?”.
“We’re solid and clearing out platforms, sir, but we’ll lose ships if we let those cruisers close with us.”
The Admiral grunted.
“Do what you can to keep out of their reach. If you have to leave some platforms intact to keep all of beta in one piece, do it. Priority on the beam platforms.”
“Yes, sir,” Tevyn replied.
Oksanen’s face disappeared as he minimized the channel. He would still be available now that Lieutenant Furst had the tac net reconnected but he wouldn’t hear anymore unless Tevyn requested his attention again.
Tevyn touched the icon representing all of beta fleet and opened a conference channel to all the captains.
“This is Captain Marsden. The Admiral has given us permission to minimize contact with the cruisers. Finish off what you can while bugging out as fast as you can, but don’t get caught. Priority on beam platforms where possible.”
A chorused “acknowledged” came back at him from the other captains and the destroyers closest to the cruisers changed course to avoid. Tevyn studied his own course and had Ibarra plot a route that avoided the cruisers’ beam range.
There were still thirty seconds left to firing range on the beam platform.
“New A-drive signatures on the DAPS,” Lieutenant Hyun announced. “Lots of them and very close by.”
Tevyn pulled up the signatures on the MPHD. The tactical view zoomed out, showing four different groups of ships closing on the battle at .9c.
They were all less than ten light seconds away.
That was only possible if they had already been lying in wait nearby. DAPS would have picked up their A-drives much sooner if they had come in from farther out.
“We’re surrounded,” Jody whispered.
Tevyn pulled the signature analysis for one of the groups.
“Those are dreadnoughts,” he said.
Four dreadnought task groups, each composed of a mix of ships ranging from frigates to battleships and anchored by a capital ship that massed three times as much as Admiral Oksanen’s flagship Leviathan.
The Admiral appeared on Tevyn’s interface panel again.
“This is Admiral Oksanen. All ships break off! Plot course out system through southern ecliptic. Alpha fleet maintain formation for support. Beta fleet, proceed at best individual speed. Good luck!”
Tevyn processed the command in less than a second.
“Petersen. Bring us to zero-mark-two-four-zero and go to emergency power. Ibarra. Plot a minimum-engagement path out-system through the southern ecliptic and push it to helm when you have it.”
Lieutenant Petersen pointed the nose of the Firedrake 30 degrees past perpendicular to their previous heading and pushed the acceleration an additional 10% into emergency power. The Firedrake began to accelerate away from all of the closing ships at 176 gravities, fast enough to break away with only a minute where she would be in effective beam range of one of the cruisers.
If she was pursued.
Tevyn hit the beta fleet comm circuit.
“This is Captain Marsden. Do all beta fleet ships confirm breakaway?”
The Captains all confirmed. The Anjasne had sprung the trap a moment too soon and the destroyers all had the acceleration to get away, if barely.
Another group of A-drive signatures appeared directly ahead of the Firedrake.
“Asano, launch barracudas! Petersen, find us a way out of here!”
Anti-A-drive interceptor missiles, styled barracudas for their fast solo attacks on flashy targets, snapped out of the Firedrake and dashed at ships in the oncoming group, popping drive bubbles and forcing the Anjasne ships to proceed more slowly. Other destroyers in beta fleet sent out their own missiles, adding to the effect.
It wasn’t enough.
Tevyn watched the Anjasne superdreadnought appear 170,000 kilometers from the Firedrake. A minor course correction brought it directly nose-on to his ship.
He imagined the heavy nose armor retracting to expose the barrel of its main gun.
He looked around the operations room, taking in his crew.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Captain?” Jody asked.
He turned to his XO and saw her. Really saw her. Somehow it seemed like the first time he had done so.
“You’re beautiful, Jody. You’ve always been beautiful. You didn’t need a new face to make that happen.”
She stared at him, her surgically perfect face confused.
Then she smiled, wry and honest and open. Her eyebrow quirked a little like it had in the past.
“Thanks,” she said.
A moment later the Anjasne superdreadnought fired its nova cannon.
(Continue to Chapter 2)