Act I, Scene 15 of 2100 CE.
“Anything more on that squadron tailing us?”
On the bridge of the carrier Leopard, the unexpected voice of Captain Braddox brought heads swiveling in time to see the captain settling into the command chair. That there had been no call to attention was rare, but given their current circumstances…
“No change, sir,” the duty officer responded, hesitating before continuing, “They’re still gaining on us.”
“Same number as before?”
“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant said. He tapped at his station and the screens above the forward view changed to show images of a warship and relevant information in a column alongside. “We have confirmed them as four Polemarch-class destroyers. Entanglement made it difficult to confirm, but their IFF signatures display Europan colors.”
Braddox tapped the communications application on his screen and opened a line to the Operations Center. “Command to Ops.”
“Go for Ops,” Cseltor’s voice came back.
“What’s the status on the Cisco?”
“Repairs onboard Cisco are complete, but they were forced to shut down their engines,” Cseltor replied. “Coasting, those Polemarchs out-power us.”
“Any word on the cause?” Braddox said, clicking at his console.
There was a noticeable pause before his executive officer responded, “Nothing official.”
There was the sound of a headset being connected, and Braddox took the hint at once and connected his own, rendering one end of the conversation mute to observers on either end. “What is going on?”
“Hirano is checking now,” Cseltor started, “but preliminary findings seem to indicate sabotage.”
Braddox held back the impulse to growl. “Explain.”
“There appears to have been a programming overwrite to reactor output, most likely while in dock at al-Basra. I have ordered checks to Leopard and Stratus for similar programming, but nothing has come up.” On the other end, hidden from the view of those on the bridge, Cseltor rubbed blood-shot eyes. “Hirano is running down all possible lines of inquiry, but I suspect he feels too much shame to report to you directly.”
Braddox stared into the middle distance a long while, turning over in his mind various scenarios and options—all of which involved him opening a direct line to the Cisco’s command officer and giving the commander a considerable piece of his mind.
“Sir,” the duty officer said at his side.
Braddox turned his glare on the younger officer, who physically retracted at his superior’s look.
“Sir, at the rate they’re gaining, we will be in range of their weapons in thirteen minutes.”
The captain nodded, a slow and mechanical movement which was followed by an unhappy, “Thank you, lieutenant.” He clicked back to his line with Cseltor. “Those power conduits are inside the bulkheads, armored against these sorts of attack.”
“Yes, sir,” Cseltor confirmed. “It may have been time-released.”
“You are dismissing the idea that it might be internal?”
Cseltor cleared his throat. “I believe it seems unlikely that it would happen now, were the saboteur a member of the crew. Sabotaging the Cisco now will leave Suffolk waiting for our return, whereas sabotage committed en route to al-Basra would only render us delayed in the eyes of those at Suffolk. This was planned for a different reason.”
“They’re after the cargo.”
“If the separatists knew about our cargo before now, the entirety of the human population would know,” Cseltor returned. “Exposing the weapons program is an unparalleled political weapon, one which is likely to drive many of the colonies into the separatist camp. If they were after the cargo, they would have attacked al-Basra directly a long time ago, or while we were docked. It seems more likely that they are tracking us and merely waiting until we leave neutral space before engaging us.”
Braddox thought back to the two destroyers they had caught glimpses of stalking them among asteroids in the Transmartial. If those destroyers happened to have a way to contact al-Basra, the sabotage might itself be a part of a larger operation, the endgame of which perhaps now they were now encountering.
“Ten minutes until contact,” the duty officer called.
“Are the flight crews to their spacecraft?” he asked, though he already knew the answer.
“Yes, sir!” came the response. “Lead spacecraft are loaded on the catapults.”
Braddox nodded, trying to quickly work out the various ways the situation might play out—none inspired confidence.
“Cisco and Stratus have begun firing,” a crewmember called.
Trailing behind the Leopard in guard positions, the two frigates were living up to their duties as escorts. Although smaller than the four destroyers they were facing, the Cisco and Stratus were outfitted with the latest interceptor defense systems, allowing the ship’s main computer to calculate firing solutions at extreme distances. Braddox had himself seen a demonstration of the technology before the war and had been impressed by it. But with the effects of the enemy’s entanglement weapon in this part of space, the system could only score hits at just about fifteen percent.
And then something else occurred to him. He tapped the connection with his executive officer. “Those weapons,” he said, “how long do you suppose they would take to prep?”
“They are designed for close-quarter engagements, precisely for situations and distances affected by entanglement. We have pilots on standby aboard recovery craft. Those machines are almost identical to our Hammerheads…”
“Captain, I don’t think—”
“Just do it,” Braddox bit out, feeling his temper rise with frustration. “Order the flight deck to open the containers and begin prepping the spacecraft.”
There was a pause from the other end. The mechanized weapons presently in the Leopard’s storage hangar were a blatant violation of international law. Deploying them into battle would announce to the world that the Confederation had been operating in violation of its own treaty for years. No amount of excuses or clever explanations could undo the damage that such a revelation would bring to the international body’s reputation, and to the threat of near-certain escalation.
“Five minutes until contact.”
“Prepare to launch first-wave spacecraft,” Braddox ordered. “They are to form up to our stern. Hammerheads to follow.” He paused, tapping the line with Cseltor in the Operations Center, “Increase electron jamming—I don’t want one of their snoop drones getting in close and listening in.”
“First-wave craft, launching!” the duty officer reported.
On the forward displays, a livestream from the ship’s exterior showed the red and gray figures of Swordfish fighters dispatching, launching from the flight deck below the feed’s field of view. In succession the sleek fighter spacecraft banked around to return in the direction of the Leopard. In a flash of blue ion thrusters, the fighters flashed past the bridge’s camera, to then be displayed in the smaller, upper tier of displays showing the ship’s rear.
On one of those upper displays, Braddox could see the advancing silhouettes of the enemy destroyers closing with the Cisco and Stratus. Already the red beams of directed-energy laser weapons filled the space between the groups as the ships exchanged fire. A geyser of white gas erupted on the side of the Stratus, driving the frigate from its course.
“Commander,” Braddox said, tearing through the silence on the other end of the line, “go to the flight deck.”
“Hoplomachus is reporting hits on the target. Hull breaches reported—they’re bleeding atmosphere.”
Lieutenant Commander Maloc cringed as he watched the enemy frigate break apart amid a flurry of smaller explosions. Four hundred souls aboard, and this far out in space it was unlikely even one would live. They would certainly not be stopping to look for survivors.
“Damn these pesky flies!” the captain barked as he waved at the enemy’s fighter screen. Captain Doren might not be the most clever officer in the fleet, but she was one of the very few who had true experience in the direction of multiple warships and the duties of a commodore. “Intensify all point-defense fire! Direct Secutor to break off and target the fighters directly.”
The crew responded to the order accordingly and did so, to Maloc’s personal satisfaction, quickly. They took as much pleasure in the chase as the officers on the bridge, and likely more given the bounty on enemy capital shipping. There was not a hand aboard whose eyes and intentions were not trained on that carrier.
To port the enemy frigate flared one last time a brilliant blue-white which caused the external cameras’ filters to automatically dim the livestream to the bridge, though only a second too late, causing those aboard to squint in response. When he could see clearly again, Maloc saw that where the enemy destroyer had been only seconds before, there were presently charred pieces of hull and the contrails of debris ejecta spiraling in all directions. The point-defense arrays on the Myrmillo’s hull flared to life, as though in response, annihilating those pieces most likely to strike the lead destroyer. Unlike the enemy’s point-defense emplacements, which were permanently set into the warship’s hull, the Galilean League had invested in maglev batteries capable of traveling across the ship’s hull along an invisible cushion of electromagnetic current. Practice showed that it only took a second for the ship’s A.I. to respond to a dynamic battlespace like the one they now found themselves in.
Maloc saw at the corner of his eye the damage report from the Hoplomachus arrive at the command station. The station was customarily the watch officer’s realm, one with which he was especially familiar, but when the captain came on the bridge, the watch officer was be made to stand. He did not need to see the report to know that their sister ship was hurt. There was not a single ship on either side which could more than limp away from the sort of broadsides Hoplomachus had had exchanged with the enemy frigate.
“Direct Holopmachus to take Secutor’s place. Secutor is to resume engagement with the carrier’s escort,” Doren ordered. “We shall remain here until the second escort is neutralized.”
There were the customary echoes of acknowledgement, an unnecessary formality for which Maloc found little use but which tradition mandated. He reached out and steadied himself against the command station as the ship shuddered around them.
“Hit to starboard stern, ventral turret,” came the report.
Here Maloc remained the officer responsible for the ship’s more routine concerns. “Damage control, confirm status. Seal surrounding bulkheads,” Maloc ordered, though he knew anything he ordered was mere formality for a ship’s company as well trained as his. As he called out, he curled his toes and thereby deactivated the magnets embedded in the bottom of his boots which secured him to the deck. He fixed his stance to better steady himself before planting his feet and reactivating his boots. On the forward view, the thrusters on the Secutor flared to life as it began its rapid ascent over the Myrmillo in its pursuit of the other frigate. “Fire control, give me two torpedoes in that connie frigate.”
“Captain, the carrier’s turning!”
“Bring us about!” Braddox called down to the ship’s operations center. “Move to support the Cisco.”
“Belay that order!” came an unexpected response, causing more than a few heads on the bridge to turn in the direction of the captain’s station.
Eyes wide with no less rage than desperation, Braddox stabbed at his console and tapped Cseltor’s line. “Explain yourself.”
“Captain, the Stratus is gone, we are at fifty percent fighter strength. Cisco is doing their job so we can do ours.” Cseltor’s words came quick and precise, but inexplicably calm. “We are no match for those destroyers.”
“Captain!” the duty officer shrieked.
On the bridge screens before them, the blue/gray figure of the Cisco abruptly shifted course to its port side, driving itself on an intercept course with the enemy destroyer burning in pursuit. A split second later, the two warships collided, disappearing behind an incandescent ball of light which expanded seemingly unmitigated by the void to envelope the red streaks of their own fighter-craft.
“Cisco,” Braddox breathed.
“Jesus,” the duty officer was babbling. “Jesus. Jesus.”
“Captain,” Cseltor insisted, “the Cisco has sacrificed itself so that we may escape. We must run, sir.”
Braddox was transfixed by the glowing ball of light as it seemed to crest and then slowly dissipate to a fluttering of iridescent wreckage, most of it smaller than a human. What was Hirano thinking? Had it truly been a sacrifice to save them, or a way for its commander to save himself the humility of an official inquiry.
To use a ship as a missile…
He flicked back to the general command channel. “As you were—return us to our original course and all ahead full.” To punctuate the order, a missile came streaking past the Leopard, its proximity fuse detonating its warhead just ahead of their prow.
It seemed like everyone on the command channel was cursing.
“Quiet that!” Maloc yelled into the din, though no amount of training could save him the slight tremor in his voice. With a single fanatical act, the connies had taken the Secutor, and all two hundred fifty souls aboard. Four hundred of the enemy for two hundred fifty of their own. “Point defense, concentrate fire on the remaining fighters—don’t worry about the debris!”
“Full forward!” Doren ordered. “All ships, pursue that carrier!”
Outside the destroyer, the blue streaks of ion thrusters and the white plumes of gases slid away as the Myrmillo throttled up its primary thrusters. Positioned behind them in a vaguely pyramidal formation with the flagship, the damaged Hoplomachus and Retiarius filled the sky between with a latticework of red beams from lasers and the white trails of conventional missiles, doing their damnedest to stave off any connie pilots asinine enough to attempt a version of their friends immoderate demise.
“Jesus Christ,” the junior watch officer was mumbling still. “The Secutor. Jesus Christ.”
“Keep it together, ensign,” Maloc said in a low voice. “They will get their due.”
“Sir, I had friends among her crew,” the ensign went on, his eyes welling with tears.
Maloc nodded solemnly. He had known every one of the other ship’s officers. Their second lieutenant had been a suitemate at the Academy.
“There will be time for that later,” Doren rumbled, the first indication she had noticed the young officer’s state. “For now, attend to your duties. When you’re relieved, report to the chaplain.”
The young ensign’s face was momentarily illuminated by the explosion of an enemy fighter caught up in the Myrmillo’s own point-defense screen. It cast strange shadows across his childish features, a reminder of just how desperate the League had been to fill its cadre of officers. All the same, he managed a dignified, “Yes, ma’am.”